Diversionary Tactics

“Where’s Goldbug?”  The two year-old was sitting on the edge of the step with the cardboard book open in her hands.  I smiled at the little blonde cutie with the intense look of concentration on her face.  For a moment, my mind went backwards about twenty-five years when the little blonde cutie holding that same book and uttering those very same words was her mother, or just as often, her uncle.  The book is by Richard Scarry, who has written many children’s books, each of them a joy to the eye for the child in each of us.  The particular book I refer to, though, has what I call a hook, meaning that there is one certain thing which captures the children and keeps them coming back again and again.

The artist has depicted all sorts of automobiles and trucks, both fanciful and real, and drawn them into a fun story wherein one reckless driver, Dingo Dog, is chased through the pages by the police officer, Officer Flossie.  I’m not sure if any of the children in my family (even the grown-up ones) could tell you what the plot is.  Each and every time they open up the book, the search is on.  You see, in every scene in the book there is a little character hidden, always in a different vehicle.  He is introduced simply as Goldbug and he is just that…a tiny gold bug.  On one page, he might be hiding in a car being towed away, eyes and whiskers barely visible in the side window.  Flip over the page and he is in his own tiny car, dwarfed by the big fire engines and buses, racing along so close to the ground that he is hardly to be found at all.  Goldbug is by far the tiniest character in the book, actually not playing a part in the plot at all.  He is mentioned a time or two, to remind the kids to keep looking for him.  They don’t need the reminder.

As I said, I’m not sure the kids in my life could tell you much of the plot.  I can’t either.  Whenever the book is in my hands, I’m surrounded by children, all of them vying to be the first to find the insignificant and imaginary little bug.  As soon as he is located and his whereabouts shouted out with excessive pointing and laughter, it is time to be on our way to the next page immediately.  We don’t read the text, don’t take time to examine the interesting-looking vehicles, like the Pickle Truck (a huge pickle-shaped thing) or the Alligator Car (yep, looks just like one); we must instantly flip forward to the following page, once more scanning the windows, the truck beds, or the convertibles for the by-now familiar shape and color.  “There’s Goldbug!”  I’m as anxious as they are to find him and claim the glory of yelling out the phrase.

I consider the experience I’ve had historically with this book and I can’t help but think that Goldbug is actually a “red herring”.  What’s a red herring, you ask?  The red herring myth was begun way back in the early eighteen-hundreds by a political journalist who related, in print, the story of using a red herring, which was actually just a smoked kipper, to draw hunting dogs off the scent they were following.  He used the term derisively about some fellow reporters who had mistakenly reported the defeat of Napoleon in a battle.  The problem is that the story of using the smoked kipper, the red herring, to train hunting dogs is itself false.  No such training method has ever been practiced.  It would seem then, that the red herring is itself a red herring.  Go figure.

The search for Goldbug seems to me to be exactly like the proverbial red herring which draws the juvenile reader (and occasionally, a more mature one) away from the plot of the story, keeping all of us from learning the lesson the author intended and frequently preventing us from even admiring the artist’s craft.  I wonder if that’s not just a little more like real life than we care to admit.  We are so easily drawn away from the pursuit of our goals and dreams, to follow shadows and imaginary prizes.  We have a destination, a purpose, and a plan to get there, but along the way the billboards point to exciting side shows and distractions.  “Stop and see the caves!”  “Visit the prehistoric ruins!”  “Eat our huge steak dinner in an hour, and it’s FREE!”  Enough distractions and stops, and we have forgotten why we started the journey in the first place.  We begin to believe that the side shows are the actual destination, the ultimate goal.  I’m confident that the Author has loftier plans and goals for us, if we’ll just read the rest of the book and keep moving.

The Goldbug search will continue in the years to come for the kids in our house.  I will encourage it.  In real life however, it is to be hoped that Officer Flossie will catch that reckless driver, Dingo Dog, and bring him to justice.  There are places we need to go!

I’ve got my Pickle truck polished up and ready to get me there.  Let’s see if we can keep on the right track together, moving on up the road. 

“Then Hopeful groaned in himself, saying, “Oh, that I had kept on my way!”
Christian:  “Who could have thought that this path should have led us out of the way?”
(In the castle of the Giant Despair from “The Pilgrim’s Progress” by John Bunyan~1628-1688)

“Even if you’re on the right track, you’ll get run over if you just sit there.”
(Will Rogers ~American humorist~1879-1935)

Non Cents

“Mister Whitmore, that piano you sold me won’t play.  You’re going to fix it, aren’t you?”  The exasperated voice at the other end of the phone line proved to belong to a youngish mom who had purchased the used piano from me just months prior to her terse call.  I didn’t bother to correct her use of the wrong name, since I’ve long ago learned to overlook that all too common mistake.  I’ve also found that pointing out errors doesn’t help to smooth ruffled feathers, either.  I asked her a few questions to try and ascertain the problem, but her answers led to more confusion than before.  She told me that the piano had worked fine at first, but that one by one, the keys had stopped working.  When they were depressed, there was a clicking noise and then they wouldn’t go on down to activate the notes.  I knew that sometimes the key bed of a piano could shift because of changes in humidity, but it didn’t make sense that it would happen one or two keys at a time, until most of them were unusable.  It was certainly a poser.  “This is not my problem, it’s your problem!  You sold us a piano that doesn’t work right!”  I assured the out-of-sorts customer that we would indeed rectify the situation for her and told her to expect our technician soon.

I gave the real Mister Whitmore a call and asked him to go out and look at the piano for me.  The Lovely Lady’s father had tuned and regulated pianos for almost fifty years by then.  I was sure that he could find the source of the problem quickly for me.  He chuckled as he heard my description of the issue and told me that he didn’t want to speculate, but he was pretty confident he knew what was going on.  A time was set up to visit the ailing instrument and I awaited his verdict.  The afternoon of his appointment, I was anxious to hear his report.  It was frustrating when he came into the music store, still chuckling.  I hoped that he hadn’t annoyed my customer by making light of her problem, but my fears were for naught.

“Well, all it took to solve the mystery was a little sense,” the old joker quipped.  I didn’t get the joke, so he explained.  It seems that, when the piano keys were removed, between each key was at least one penny…two or more between some of them.  There were a couple of young boys who lived in the house and they had found that the pennies from their piggy bank fit nicely between the ivory keys on the new piece of furniture. They egged each other on until they had no more pennies left in their banks.  Then, every time they were handed another penny or two, they made a deposit.  That explained the clicking sound, as well as what was keeping the keys from being depressed.  Pennies!  Worthless little discs of copper clad zinc were keeping that thousand dollar piano from working at all! 

I hadn’t thought about the episode for awhile.  Then today, I received an email from my amplifier technician.  He informed me that he couldn’t make a repair on a particular guitar amplifier.  The customer would need to pick it up and either replace the unit or get a new power supply and integrated circuit board.  I asked what had caused such extensive damage to the amplifier.  His answer?  A penny had been dropped down through the top of the amplifier case and had fallen across the high voltage circuit, shorting it out, along with several other components.  A four hundred dollar amplifier – ruined because of one single penny!

As I think about the incongruity of the situation, I’m reminded that most of our lives are like that.  The tiny, insignificant events that occur almost daily seem to control and direct the majority of our actions and feelings.  Oh, I’m aware that many of us have huge events which also affect our existence, but somehow, we seem to understand the magnitude of these episodes and do our best to cope effectively with them.  The little things now…those, we don’t attach nearly as much importance to and consequently, we are derailed by the most minor of occurrences.

I remember how, as kids, we used to put pennies on the railroad tracks, the common belief being that if a train were stopped, it couldn’t roll again if the penny were right under its wheels.  Failing that, we would get a wonderful smashed penny anyway, so it was a win-win for us.  The myth has proved to be wrong, but we liked the idea of a great big locomotive being stymied by a tiny, thin penny.  It would seem that what has been shown to be untrue for those inanimate machines, is actually accurate for the living, breathing human beings.

I’ve seen marriages which have fallen apart, piece by piece; destroyed by tiny issues piled, one upon another, until the two parties involved could see no way to resolve the problems.  Just as with the pennies in the keyboard of that piano, they waited until the music stopped completely to look for answers and by then, it was too late.  Churches can (and have) split apart over the most idiotic things (carpet color springs to mind);  businesses fail most often because of a preponderance of small blunders and not any one large event.  You see, a sense of urgency drives us to deal with the large problems immediately.  The small issues seem to present no real danger and are left to fester and eat away at the foundations, eventually leading to complete disaster.

I’ve said before that you shouldn’t sweat the small stuff.  I think maybe we should at least address it.  As it turns out, over time, pennies can actually cause more problems than dollars.

I may think twice before offering my “two cents’ worth” the next time.  How about you?  A penny for your thoughts?

“For want of a nail, the horse was lost;
for want of the horse, the rider was lost; 
for want of the rider the battle was lost; 
for want of the battle, the kingdom was lost.  
And, all for the want of a horseshoe nail.”

“If you are faithful in little things, you will be faithful in large ones. But if you are dishonest in little things, you won’t be honest with greater responsibilities.”
(Luke 16:10 NLT)

The Main Thing

She meant it as a compliment, but twenty-some years later, I can still get a little annoyed when I think about it.  Why is that?  What is it about words that makes us carry them around in a niche at the back of our minds and take them out sporadically, only to founder in the bad feelings they evoke?  I’ve decided in my adult years that I disagree vehemently with the old children’s doggerel that we heckled each other with, years ago…“Sticks and Stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me.”  Since I know there are human beings in atrocious physical conditions that I could never comprehend, I don’t want to this to be too sweeping of a statement, but it seems to me that bones will heal. Conversely, I’m also convinced that the pain of hurtful words may linger for a lifetime.  If hers had actually been intended as hurtful, I might be writing this article from a completely different perspective.

When I tell you what she said, you’ll laugh at how thin-skinned I was.  I really never was angry at her, but it just irked me to hear it.  As I contemplate more, I think that the reason the comment comes back to me now is more about the truth (or potential for truth), than it is about the hurt. As I age, I find that I am examining the things I do more and more to be sure that I am leaving a legacy.  No, not the same kind of legacy that Presidents and public figures seem to be so obsessed with.  This is not about fame or public honor, but about the knowledge that I’ve fulfilled my purpose in life.  I really don’t want to get to a point where I look back and decide that I’ve wasted all the opportunities that I’ve been blessed with, especially after it’s too late to redeem the time.

What did she say?  Well, over the years, I have had the privilege of preaching at a number of services at my church. On the occasion I’m reminiscing about today, this elderly saint heard me preach for the first time.  I’m sure it was just that she hadn’t pictured me as a preacher, or even a public speaker, but as I greeted individuals at the end of the service, she gripped my hand, smiled sweetly, and blurted, “What are you doing wasting your time in that dinky little music store?”  I stuttered out a reply, which must have been satisfactory, since the dear lady remained my friend until she passed away some years later.

She meant it as a compliment!  She wanted me to know how excited she was to have heard me preach!  I think she was even saying that I had done a good job.  But all I heard was, “You’ve wasted your whole life doing something completely worthless!”  How was I to deal with that? 

The Lord knew I needed an answer to that question because a short time later (a few weeks, perhaps), I was speaking with my Dad on the telephone and he asked if we could pray before we said goodbye.  As he prayed, I heard the words, “…and bless Paul in the ministry you’ve given him there in the music store.” 

Photo by Alex Brollo

Wow!  How’s that for a contrast?  On the one hand, the thought that preaching would be so much more worthwhile than the profession I was in, and on the other hand, the statement that we are ministers wherever we find ourselves in life.  I’ve got to tell you, the light bulb went on!  I was put in this very spot for a purpose!  I don’t have to reproach myself for missed educational opportunities, or for my past lack of achievement in professional endeavors.  I can make a difference right here, right now.

My dad used to love this hokey little song that our choir sang many years ago.  I can’t remember the whole tune.  I don’t even have all the words at the tip of my tongue, but the main thought was, “Bloom, Bloom, Bloom where you’re planted!” (Told you it was hokey!)  And, that’s what I’m doing. You may think that I’m really just a bloomin’ idiot, but I’m pretty sure that the Good Lord wants us to buckle down and work right where we are.  He may move us somewhere else, but we do the same thing wherever we land…Settle in and bless those around us!

Oh!  And, maybe we should be a little careful in how we compliment others.  A backdoor compliment doesn’t bless anyone.  It’s more like the sting of nettles than it is like the sweet aroma of a beautiful flower.  And it’s a sting that might be felt for a long, long time.

For he shall be like a tree planted by the rivers of waters,
which brings forth fruit in its season,
and whose leaf also shall not wither.
Everything he does shall prosper.
(Psalm 1:3)

“The main thing is to keep the main thing the main thing.”
(Stephen R Covey~American author and motivational speaker)

(Originally posted 10-20-2010)

Dis Concerted

Come!  Listen to the pipe organ – the invitation was made.
Innocently, one would imagine, but in the words was laid
More meaning than could be expressed. 
Pain.  Annoyance.  Boredom.  Distress. 

I’ll go.  I’ll listen to the pipe organ.  I uttered the words. 
And reckoned that the sentence could be endured. 
It must be possible; Yes, it must be so. 
I’ve seen it done and…I can’t say no. 

At the back of the room!  That should be my locus. 
From there, on my snores, there can be no focus. 
But upon entering, I was without choice. 
Front row seats!  I had, clearly, no voice. 

We sat and waited.  Our arrival was premature. 
Perusing the program, one could only infer
That all hope indeed was gone. 
And the early mindset, completely spot on. 

Page after page mentioned organ and choir,
Enough for a week. I’d hoped for an hour. 
If those weren’t enough a grimace to bring,
In between each, the crowd had to sing. 

When dread was worst, the program commenced. 
My confusion did too.  A shift in spirit, I sensed. 
With every note, the heart seemed to take flight. 
Moments passed, darkest mood turned to light! 

Prelude and Fugue by Bach, led the charge. 
Up to the heights we stormed, but soon tears too large
To be hidden, coursed down from my eyes. 
I repent.  My words were all lies. 

No pain, but rapture.  Nothing there to annoy. 
No boredom was found.  No distress, but more joy
Was present than I ever had guessed. 
I don’t think I err when I say we were blessed.

In surprising places His joy can be found. 
It surely will be in the next place I’m bound. 
I borrow trouble. It ties me in knots
And keeps me from seeing the blessings I’ve got. 
Beauty lies around us.  It requires that we stop
And listen and feel.  And, sometimes shut up. 
The heart, when unfettered may actually soar
To heaven, or perhaps at least, to its shore. 

I’m back on the ground at last, for the night. 
If invited again, I think I just might
Stay home.  I’m not sure that I’m made
To soar to the heights, more than once a decade.

“…But now bring me a musician.” And when the musician played, the hand of the Lord came upon him.
(2 Kings 3:15 ESV)

“Music hath charms to sooth the savage beast, to soften rocks, or bend a knotted oak.”
(William Congreve~English playwright and poet~1670-1729)

A Momentary Lapse

The scrawny kid in the goofy cowboy boots was confused.  That in itself was not an unusual situation, but this was different.  He had gotten home without the horn coming along with him!  How was that possible?  He was sure he had carried it out to the portico where all the bus riders waited for the big yellow transport vehicles.  He definitely remembered picking it up at the band room and lugging the ugly gray case all the way through the halls.  He had a vivid picture in his mind of setting it down at the end of the concrete bench.  After that, the memory got a little fuzzy.  Maybe it was because he had spent the rest of his waiting time trying to impress Liz.  Today was record day in English class and he had brought his Three Dog Night LP (or maybe it was his brother’s…the memory fails on some points).  The pretty young thing was a little impressed with that and wanted to know what other albums he had at home.  Sadly, it turned out that The Carpenters and Neil Diamond didn’t help him at all with her. He was attempting to recover from that little set back when Bus #23 arrived.  Grabbing his books, the skinny boy ran to catch his ride.  It stopped quite a ways down the lane from where the failed conquest had taken place.  The race to the bus felt just like the retreat from defeat that it was.

That all seemed irrelevant now, since he was standing in his living room at home, forlorn and wondering where his horn was.  Well, technically it wasn’t his.  The band loaned horns such as this, due to the high cost of purchasing the expensive instruments, which would have cost something around fifteen hundred dollars when new.  The one whose location he was desperately casting about to recall wasn’t anything close to new, but that wouldn’t make any difference to Mr. Zook, his band director.  He had been assigned that horn and would be expected to have it in band class tomorrow!  The worried young man could just envision sitting on the bench outside the band room waiting….Hold on!  That was it!  He had left it sitting at the end of the concrete bench under the bus portico at school when he ran for the bus at the last minute! 

“Mom….”  A quick ride to the school was no help.  The horn wasn’t there.  Gone.  Someone had picked it up.  It was either stolen or in the possession of someone who would get it back to the band room.  Unfortunately, time would reveal that the former was the case.  The horn had disappeared…for good, it seemed.

Calls were made.  Reports were filed.  On-duty teachers were asked if they had observed anything.  Day after interminable day, for over a week, the lanky kid sat in band class without an instrument, feeling the glare of the band director.  Mr. Zook had a mean glare, too!  No one wanted to be in his bad graces.  This episode was the second time this school year the kid had seen that glare from his band director; the first time being when he had opted to attend an ROTC event rather than an important band marching practice.  The lost horn was strike two.  There might not be an opportunity for the third strike.

Finally one afternoon, after a week and a half of stewing, Mr. Zook called the boy into his office.  The teen was resigned to his fate.  He would be ejected from band and would spend the rest of his school days paying for the missing horn.  The woebegone kid stumbled into the office and stood there, unbelieving.  Right in front of him, under the desk, was his horn case!  Mr. Zook sat, fiddling with a pencil.  “I’m not sure that I can trust you with the horn again,” he began, sternly.  The boy almost didn’t hear his words, he was so ecstatic.  It took a moment for the import of the words to sink in.  Even though the horn was back, he might not be (back, that is).  This wasn’t possible!  He had assumed that his fate was tied to the horn.  If it was gone forever, so was he.  It was back where it belonged, so, surely he would be also…right?  He stuttered out an objection, but Mr. Zook went on.  “You haven’t lived up to my expectations so far.  How do I know you’ll do any better?”  At that moment, nothing seemed more important in the young man’s thoughts than the idea that he had to be in band!  He still had no real answer, but he blurted out, “I’ll try my best,” and then waited for the pronouncement of his doom.   The only reply came as Mr. Zook hooked the horn case with his foot and shoved it across the concrete floor to him.  “Oh, go home and practice!”  was all the gruff director said.  And, with that, the ordeal was over.

But, was it?  As with many memories which time cannot erase, this one keeps being replayed periodically.  You see, there is a bigger lesson, as there frequently is in these little disasters we encounter throughout our lives.  One begins to realize that, as with the missing horn, the tools we use to function throughout life are not ours, but are simply on loan.  You only have to look at those who once were gifted, but have lost those assets for one reason or another, to understand.  Cheerleaders are stricken with illness and confined to wheelchairs; brilliant intellectuals are reduced to babbling confusion when consumed by dementia; talented artists contract Parkinson’s disease and are unable to control their hands, much less their brushes; beauty deserts the aging beauty queen, with many discovering the futility of its subsequent pursuit.  Everything we have in this life is fleeting; here one day and gone the next, often to our dismay.  Carelessness frequently speeds its decay and loss.

The older we grow, the more precious become these giftings, and the less we take them for granted.  I recall with amusement the answer my late father-in-law often gave when asked how he was.  Instead of going into a depressing recital of all his aches and pains, he would often reply with a twinkle in his eye, “Well, I’m able to be up and around, and take nourishment.”  We need to appreciate what is in our hands and use that to the best of our abilities while we are able to wield it.  We guard it, yes.  We hone our skills, certainly.  But, we also understand that there are seasons in life for everything, and many talents are ours only for that season.

Don’t be distracted by the pretty things, as the skinny boy was; don’t take your eye off of the goal.  Keep that gift near at hand and learn to excel at your craft.  It has been loaned to you and will be required of you.  Eventually, we all have to settle our accounts.  Sooner or later, we’ll hear the Director say, “You haven’t lived up to my expectations.”  Or, he’ll say, “Well done!”  

I know which one I want to hear.  Now, it’s time to go home and practice!

“Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights, with whom can be no variation, neither shadow that is cast by turning.”
(James 1:17 ASV)

“Sometimes we stare so long at a door that is closing, that we see too late the one that is open.”
(Alexander Graham Bell~American inventor~1847-1922)

Weapons of Math Destruction

“Hey Kenny!  Look over here!”  The little tow-headed boy who, a few seconds ago, had left the group of grasping, pushing candy seekers to see if there was anything else of interest in the music store, is looking for confederates.  I’ve mentioned these young fellows a time or two before — the walkers, headed home or to the Boys and Girls Club after school.  Every day, they stop in for the free suckers we happily supply.  It’s an inexpensive public relations campaign.  I expect to get a return on my investment in the future, when the little imps are old enough to purchase guitars and ukuleles, to say nothing of the trumpets and clarinets they’ll need when they join the band.  But today, Kenny and his fair-haired friend need supervision.  I’ve seen the gambit before…No, I’ve worked this particular con myself, many years ago.  More about that in a minute…

It’s called “Divide and Conquer”; patterned after the war maneuver which sends combatants into the line of the enemy at several points to split the adversary into a number of small, ineffective groups of fighters, rather than one large, intimidating war machine. I normally don’t care to discuss arithmetic, but this quasi-mathematical  formula works in many different situations.  In this case, it means that a small group of boys will split off from the herd and while my attention is either on them or the herd, the group which is out of my field of vision is free to purloin any concealable items they happen to want.  A quick call and jerk of the head in the Lovely Lady’s direction, prompting her presence near the stray fellows is all it takes to restore a semblance of control, and they are out the door shortly, to try their hi-jinks another day.  It makes a lot more sense to head off any wrongdoing, keeping the boys as allies instead of antagonists.  Calls to parents and the local constabulary won’t help my long term plan for these young men any at all…

I smile as they head out the door, but my mind is drawn unbidden to the past, back forty-five years to an episode which I would rather forget forever.  On that summer day, so many years ago, the “Divide and Conquer” con was attempted and worked without a hitch.  I find myself wishing that it had not.

A bunch of the neighborhood boys were bored.  We had played “kick the can” until the can was unrecognizable from being kicked so often.  Before that, we had been up at dawn to fish for perch in the local storm drainage ditch, chasing the dragonflies and swallowtails along the banks until we tired of that.  The battle with slingshots and china berries had ended badly and we were anxious to put that behind us.  Finally, one of us piped up with what seemed a wonderful idea.  “Let’s go get a ‘raspa’!”  A raspa was nothing more than a snow-cone, but in the Rio Grande Valley, the Tex-Mex language had given us “raspa stands”, and there was one down the road three or four blocks, in front of a little mom-and-pop convenience store.  We had the price of two or three between the group of six or seven boys, so we headed down the blazing hot pavement toward the unfortunate business.

Along the way, someone had a bright idea.  “If she’s there by herself, we could get a five-finger discount on some cigarettes, while the rest of us get our raspa.”  We didn’t really smoke, but it seemed that this would be the right thing to steal, if one were going to steal.  David was designated as the operative, since he had on a long sleeve shirt.  He walked up to the store before us and sat on the bench out front.  The other guys all went inside and asked if we could get some raspas.  The aging lady behind the counter agreed and we headed out, making sure to arrange ourselves around the windows of the stand, so that all she could see clearly were the sun-bleached heads of a few boys and the dark complexions of several others.  As we exited the store, David slipped in and began stuffing his shirt full of cigarette packages.  Within a few moments, we had the fruit-flavored crushed ice desserts in hand and David had walked past, considerably larger around the mid-section than when he had gone in.  The smoke rose in clouds from our hiding places for days to come.  We thought we were the coolest gang of boys ever.

The shop owners are long since dead and the convenience store is no longer standing.  I still want someone to apologize to, some way to make amends.  The shame of that caper is still as fresh, still as odious as was the smoke that rose from our loot.  Oh, I have confessed the sin long ago to God and in His book, it will never be counted against me because of His grace.  Even so, the embarrassment remains, to be periodically dug up like old bones, in situations such as we encountered with the young lads recently.  I have actually argued with myself on any number of occasions about writing of it here.  I don’t want you to see the ugly things in my past.  It is not a pretty piece of history to dredge up.  What must you think about the real me, buried down deep?  Well, it’s on the table tonight.   Perhaps though, there’s something to be learned (besides the obvious).

I can’t help thinking that this “divide and conquer” game is played a lot more often than we imagine.  I’ve seen it in children, playing one parent against the other.  “Daddy, can we?  Mama says…”  They also play one social group against another.  “Why won’t you let me?  All the other kid’s parents are letting them…”  We see it in world politics.  Countries are splintered, with one tribal faction, one religious faction pitted against at least one, and sometimes many, others.  In country after country where this is the situation, there is no unity, no resolve to accomplish great things, and there is hunger, and poverty, and disease as a result.  The nations have been conquered from within, their divisions guaranteeing calamitous conditions beyond repair.  Around us in every direction, we see the same con game paying its disastrous dividends for the participants…our churches, our schools, our neighborhoods, our families.  “Divide and conquer” works!

The patriot Patrick Henry is credited with popularizing the phrase “United we stand, divided we fall” soon after the American Revolution, although actually the phrase appears in Aesop’s fables much earlier.  We realize the dangers of isolation, the need to stand together.  Yet again and again, we allow common things to drive wedges…pride, greed, arrogance, dogmas, the list is without end.  Division leads to defeat.

In my music store, it takes constant vigilance to keep from having what is innocuously described by the accountants as “shrinkage”.  We watch, we move items which are likely to be targets, we talk with each other about potential situations we have noticed.  When we let down our guard, we find empty packages behind equipment, and torn wrappers left among the merchandise in the display cases.  Just so, in our own lives, we cannot let down our vigilance for one moment.  We have to be aware of the changing landscape, and understand the danger to our souls when we allow even a single wedge to be driven.  If we stay ahead of the game, it doesn’t often take drastic action to effect the necessary reform.

Sometimes, all it takes for victory to be assured is the invitation for an extra pair of eyes to help sweep the field of battle.  Our brave Captain is on guard and I think I could be ready to help a little.  How about you?

“…so that there should be no division in the body, but that its parts should have equal concern for each other.  If one part suffers, every parts suffers with it.  If one part is honored, every part rejoices with it.”
(I Corinthians 12:25,26 NIV) 

“Then join hand in hand, brave Americans all,
By uniting we stand, by dividing we fall;
In so righteous a cause let us hope to succeed,
For heaven approves of each generous deed.”

(excerpt from “The Liberty Song”~John Dickinson~American patriot~1732-1808)

Danger Lurks Within

“Kids, let me show you something.”  Dad was moving a stack of old boards and, just seconds before he spoke, had jumped back momentarily, then recovered.  He was now standing, holding up the board, gazing intently at the underside of the rotted wood.  We weren’t sure what to expect, but we crowded over en masse to inspect whatever it was that had frightened him.  Imagine our surprise when all that met our eyes was a black spider in a messy, almost funnel-shaped, web.  Dad wasn’t afraid of spiders.  He protected them.  There were webs outside the door of the house, right where you would run into them when you walked out in the darkness.  You know the feeling…I won’t use any names, but even recently, I’ve heard screams of “Get it off!  Get it off!” as the arms are flailing wildly and fingers are frantically scraping the sticky web from the contorted face.  Apparently the anticipation of an over-reaching and aggressive spider in the center of the web is enough to trigger this unseemly performance.  At times like these, panic outweighs logic for a second or two until the adrenalin rush subsides and cooler heads prevail.

Dad loved having those webs around.  More spiders meant less flies and mosquitoes, to say nothing of the pesky gnats that were always attracted by the fresh fruits and vegetables which we thrived on in those days.  The spiders were a protected species in the Phillips’ Wildlife Refuge, much like every other wild creature which was smart enough to stay away from the restricted areas.  Basically, that meant that the interior of the house was off limits for snakes and rats, or creepy crawlies of any other sort.  That’s not to say that we didn’t sneak in a garter snake or two in our day…

Still peering steadily at the spider in its web, Dad spoke.  “I want you to look carefully at this one.  This spider, you stay away from.  Always check before you stick your hand under anything that has been lying on the ground for awhile.  If you see one of these ladies, give her a wide berth.”  Ladies?  How could he tell the sex of a spider?  Why would he make such a designation?  As he went on, we began to understand his statement.  It seems that this was a black widow.  Anticipating the questions, he explained that the male of the species is much smaller and that as soon as he has taken care of his marital duties (yeah, I think he used those words…), the female kills him and usually eats him.  We were intrigued, but also a little disgusted by the thought.  Most of the species with which we were familiar had habits similar to humans – mating and then either mothering, or protecting and providing.  All the human families we knew had mothers and fathers who shared the responsibilities of, not only procreation, but rearing and nurturing their offspring.  We weren’t sure that we liked this murderous black spider, but we were glad that she was so clearly identified by the bright orange hourglass-shaped marking on her abdomen.  It would give us an easy way to identify her and avoid contact in the future.

Would that the males of the species were so forewarned to avoid contact with the deadly lady.  It springs to mind that the hapless male spider actually does mate for life!  It is a short life, but he sticks to his responsibility, right to the grisly end.  The male is a small and unimpressive fellow, brown instead of black and with none of the bright coloration his mate demonstrates.  He is roughly one half the size of his female counterpart.  The nature guidebooks inform us that the black widow herself often lives to the advanced age of five years old, potentially bearing four to nine egg sacs in each of those years.  We are also cryptically informed that “…a male’s lifespan is much shorter.”  Talk about a transitory relationship!

 I am slightly amused as I consider that another creature we are familiar with, the praying mantis, also has such a relationship.  The larger female of that species often consumes her diminutive mate, frequently without protest from the little fellow.  For some reason, we don’t tend to assign quite the stigma to the mantis that we do to the black widow, yet the end result is the same.  Granted, the mantis is not as dangerous to humans as is the spider in question, but the danger to the mate is identical.  He will not survive the relationship.

Applications to the human condition spring to mind and I don’t mean of the “Fatal Attraction” ilk.  Those realistic parallels are (thankfully) almost nonexistent, but I do see other similarities daily.  While the black widow is actually created to function exactly the way she does, no human being is.  Still, wives dismiss and disrespect their husbands, relegating them to nothing more than a footnote in the family hierarchy; husbands dominate their wives, demeaning or disparaging them in front of their own children.  Both situations effectively remove the damaged mate from participation in the process of nurturing and loving their offspring.  This is not a situation which depends on the sex of either the aggressor or the damaged party; it clearly works both ways.  I have also observed the, by now, common situation where one of the parents is completely missing from the picture, often by choice, sometimes because of incredible pressure from the other parent.  In humans, the effect is disastrous.  The black widow and mantis act as they do because of design and the result is the continuation of their species; the human family acts against the created order of things and the result is chaos, both physical and spiritual, especially for the children, but also for their parents, and extended family, and even for society at large.

I know that it was not in character for my brothers and me, but we were mighty careful to follow my Dad’s instructions regarding the venomous female spider.  She always had plenty of room when we were around.  We knew her bite couldn’t kill us, but we sure didn’t want to suffer the same wrath her hapless mates encountered.

Sometimes, a healthy respect for things that can injure and destroy is the next step along the path of wisdom.

It’s too bad that not all such dangers are so clearly marked…   

“See, I am sending you out like sheep among wolves.  So, be as cunning as snakes and as innocent as doves.” 
(Matthew 10:16 ISV)

“For many men that stumble at the threshold are well foretold that danger lurks within.”
(William Shakespeare~English dramatist~1564-1616)

Gone Fishing

Being self-employed has its advantages.  This particular week in April isn’t one of them.  The due date for filing tax returns and paying unpaid taxes from the former year has always been one of those days which I approach with apprehension and disdain.  Oh, I know for most of you reading this, that statement makes no sense.  You’ve worked another year; your employer withheld the amount of taxes you requested, and you probably already received a refund from your wealthy Uncle Sam.  I’ll try to go easy on this point, but the reason he has all that money is that you gave him an interest free loan for the past 12 months.  That said, I have dreamed about receiving a refund from the Treasury some April, but it will probably never happen.  At least, it is to be hoped not.  As a businessman, it’s not to my advantage to allow any capital to leave my control except for investment in merchandise which will net a profit.  If I’m giving interest-free loans to my Uncle in Washington, I can’t be buying guitars in my hometown.

There was one April, twenty-five years ago, when I wished I had given the IRS a fair amount more money, because when the time came to pay up for the year, all the capital was tied up in assets.  They didn’t appear to be liquid assets either.  I was devastated to learn the week before the fifteenth of the month, that we owed almost $4000 dollars in taxes on the previous year’s income.  I argued with the accountant, to no avail.  “The numbers don’t lie, Paul,” he explained as he showed me the facts in black and white.  We had purchased too much inventory and the government was treating that increased stock as profit.  Cash or no cash, we needed four thousand dollars within the next week or the penalties and interest would begin to stack up.

It was a little ironic.  Just the year before, when the accountant handed me the packet of forms to mail in, he asked delicately, “Paul, do you need anything?  We’re about the same size.  I’d be happy to give you some clothes…”  I thanked him, but gently brushed aside his offer.  We didn’t know we were financially embarrassed.  Our two children had nice clothes, we were making our payments on our house and business, and the old cars were paid for and running (most of the time).  The Lovely Lady and I giggled about someone thinking we needed to be helped and then kept plugging away at the business we had just acquired and were struggling to keep afloat.  Now, barely a year later, we owed almost twenty percent of a year’s profit in taxes because of poor planning on our part!

Where were we going to get that kind of money in a week?  We didn’t believe in borrowing money to pay taxes; it just didn’t make any sense.  But, we never had that kind of cash come in in such a short period of time, at least not funds that weren’t already designated for rent and other overhead, or inventory purchases.  I nearly panicked.  What to do?  Aha!  I had it!  I would call my Dad.  Obviously, I wouldn’t ask for a loan, but after hearing our predicament, he couldn’t do anything but offer to help, right?  I made the call that night.  After making small talk for awhile, I mentioned my problem.  He listened and then offered advice.  Not money, advice!  Evidently, he hadn’t gotten the memo that when his son, who never asked for money, called talking about money problems, it meant that he was expected to pony up.  That’s what Dads do, isn’t it?  Well not my Dad, at least not this time.

“Hmmm.  You know, the disciples in the Bible had a similar problem.  What did Jesus tell them to do?”  Well I knew the answer from Sunday School days, just as most of you do.  I was disgusted with him, but I responded anyway, “He told them to go fishing and they caught a fish, with the money for their taxes in its mouth.”  I couldn’t resist a little jab though, “How does that help me?”  His laconic reply came, “I really don’t know.  I was just remembering that’s what He told them to do.”  With nothing else to be said, we ended the conversation.

“Great!”  I groused at the Lovely Lady.  “No help at all, just some stupid line about what the disciples did in the Bible.”  I still had no plan, no visible means to take care of my obligation.  I went to bed, only to toss and turn as I lay there.  “What does it mean?  What does it mean?”  Sleepless, I got up and went downstairs to sit and read the passage in the Bible.  No help there.  I knew what they had done.  They went fishing.  They were fishermen, and they went fishing.  The light in my head came on with a brilliant flare!  They went fishing!  They did their jobs; nothing more, nothing less.  Their profession was catching fish from the sea, so that’s what they did.  I still wasn’t completely sure what it meant to me, nor how the money would come, but for now, all I was sure of was that I needed to go to work and do what I was trained to do, what I had been gifted at.  And, that’s just what we did.

For the next week, we opened the music store at the regular time in the morning and then, at the regular time in the afternoon, we closed it and went home.  In between, we did a bunch of praying.  I kept expecting some moneybags buyer to walk in and purchase half of our stock, paying cash for it, but it never happened.  We rang up sales on the cash register, day after day; some were significant amounts, some were small, but there was no spectacular, miraculous event.  We paid our rent and our electric bill, as well as the invoices for merchandise which we received during that time.  And, on April fifteenth, we placed our tax forms in the stamped envelope, along with a check for nearly four thousand dollars, completely covered by cash in the bank!  There was no hoopla, no extraordinarily large sale, no borrowing; we just did our jobs.  I will affirm that we never had that much extra in a week’s time before or after, without a large sale.  I still cannot explain it.  We paid our bills, did our regular tasks, and were provided for.

“How anticlimactic!”  I hear you say.  “No huge miracle?  No wealthy benefactor?  No mysterious check in the mailbox?  Just, go to work?”  That’s it.  And, you know…my years on this earth tell me that this is how most miracles happen.  No genies, no lamp to rub, no magic wand; just simply doing what we were made to do.  God rewards faithfulness.  In the quiet, plain paths, His miracles are inconspicuously bestowed.  Not with the commotion of a dog-and-pony show, not in the glare of the spot-lights and television cameras, but in factories, and shops, and homes, He cares for His own.

“Going fishing!”  That’s how I answered the question from my young children about how we were going to take care of our need, that April so long ago. I’ve thought of it often at other times too, but without fail, the events of that week in early spring twenty-five years ago are called to mind every time April rolls around again.  I’m still amazed today.

“…go down to the lake and throw in a line. Open the mouth of the first fish you catch, and you will find a large silver coin. Take it and pay the tax for both of us.”
(Matthew 17:27~New Living Translation)

“When we do the best that we can, we never know what miracle is wrought in our life, or in the life of another.”
(Helen Keller~blind and deaf American author and educator~1880-1968)

Originally published April 13, 2011

Cover Story

Jack could sing!  The thirty-something year-old man just showed up in my hometown one day.  No one knew who he was or where he was from; he had no family around that anyone was aware of.  He was a handsome man, of Native American descent.  In those less politically correct days, we called him an Indian.  He seemed proud of that.  The quiet fellow came to my church one Sunday and decided to stay.  The pianist in the church found him a job working in the school cafeteria, where she was the supervisor.  Jack got along with everybody there and always had a smile on his face.  He was a good worker too, so it seemed that he would be sticking around for awhile.  Everybody liked him.

When we sang the old hymns in church every Sunday, you couldn’t miss his rich baritone voice among the other folks.  He didn’t try to sing loud, but he was just enthusiastic.  The choir director recruited him for the church’s choral group, which was always short of men in the back row.  There were never more than three of us who came regularly.  Since the other two sang tenor and weren’t likely to be able to sing a lower part, I sang bass alone.  Badly.  Well, I wasn’t bad at it, my voice just wasn’t low enough. When he finally agreed to join us, Jack was wonderful to have in the section.  He didn’t read music, but he had a good ear and could follow my lead competently.  Pretty soon, he was singing the parts better than I did, his resonant voice booming out, while his face beamed out his joy at the music.  I loved having him there.  He was the perfect addition to the church and the choir.

Then one day, he didn’t show up for choir practice.  We asked his boss if she knew where he was and she shocked us by informing the group that he was in jail.  It seems that the FBI agents showed up in the school kitchen one day and took Jack into custody without too much trouble.  No, it wasn’t “Jack” they took into custody.  That wasn’t even his real name, but an alias.  He was one of the Bureau’s “most wanted” criminals and they had been looking for him for quite some time.  She just couldn’t figure it out.  He was just so nice.  How could he be a violent criminal?  I was more than a little shaken, also.  He had, after all, sat by me week after week, joking and teasing as we learned the bass parts of the anthems together.  I had been sitting beside a criminal, and a most-wanted one on top of that!  The idea was terrifying!

The church is full of hypocrites.  I have heard it all my life from my non-believing friends (and even a few who believe, but won’t attend).  It is the truth.  Jack is perhaps an extreme example.  He led us to believe that nothing was wrong in his world; led us to accept that he was what he appeared to us to be, a believer who wanted to worship with us.  His intent was to deceive.  He succeeded.  We looked at the cover of that book and declared the story trustworthy.  Nothing could have been further from the truth.

The church is full of hypocrites.  Jack was taken out of the church and to prison, and the church was still full of hypocrites.  There’s me for a start!  For some reason, I feel the need to build a facade, a false impression of well-being, being careful to disguise any cracks in the armor, paying special attention to areas which might draw the sharp condemnation of others.  It’s not only me, though.  When I said full, I meant that it was just that…full…of folks hiding things from each other.  Truth be told, we’re not good at confessing our faults to each other at all.  We’re a lot better at hiding them and deceiving any who are casual observers.

So…the church is full of hypocrites.  Many use that as an excuse to stay away.  “I wouldn’t go there.  There are so many hypocrites.”  But, those same people have no issues with shopping at the grocery store with the hypocrites who are there.  I see them every time I go shopping (…not a regular occurrence).  That fellow thumping the cantaloupe in fruits and vegetables – he’s having an affair and hiding it from his family; the lady pushing her cart full of canned goods through the cereal aisle – she gossips with every friend she meets while there; the young couple checking out with just five or six items –  they used drugs just before they came to buy food for their baby.  The list goes on…they’re all there in that meeting place too, rubbing shoulders almost as closely as we do in church.

You see, the real problem is that our nature, our sinful nature, leads us to be deceitful, no matter where we are.  We want people to think the best of us and we imagine that the way to do that is to pretend.  Integrity is not in plentiful supply, no matter if we’re in the church or in the marketplace.  We are, all of us, hiding something we don’t want others to know about.  That fact alone should make us more understanding, more forgiving when a fellow traveler is exposed for being the sinner that we all are, but we seem to think that we’re superior because we’ve been more successful in hiding our weakness.

I watched a conversation unfold in a public forum today (and held my tongue, believe it or not!).  I saw the phrases “judge not” and “let him without sin cast the first stone” bandied about a good bit.  I couldn’t help remembering the incident in which the Teacher used that second phrase.  His obvious intent was to help folks realize that we all suffer from the same ailments…sin and hypocrisy.  The accusers soon got the point and slunk away.  But here’s the other, perhaps more important, point: When they were alone, He assured the guilty party that He was not going to pronounce a sentence, but He also gave her some crystal clear instructions.  Go.  Sin no more.  Hypocrisy in others does not excuse the error in my heart.  The exposure of another person’s sin does not exempt me from dealing with mine.

Had enough preaching for one session?  I won’t be long now.  When Jack was arrested, years ago, I’m pretty sure those of us in the church missed the point.  Despite the fact that the deception of his cover story was laid clear and that the entire book no longer appeared quite as attractive, it seems that we learned nothing but the lesson about Jack (or whatever his name was).  We neglected to make any personal application.  I’ve spent most of my life since then working on my own cover story.  Most of us do.  The cover is what people see of us and we want, if nothing else, to be accepted and admired by our peers.  If we would spend the same amount of time getting the story inside in order and edited, the result would be very different.

I think that I’m going to attend to the grammar and punctuation on the inside of the book for awhile.  The storyline and details could stand to be put in order, too.  What I’m hoping is that the cover art will soon actually match what is to be read on the pages of the book.

The Author will have to see to that, but I’m confident I can trust Him to get it right.  Who knows, the resulting volume might even be a bestseller! 

“Then He said to them (the Pharisees), “You try to justify yourselves in front of people, but God knows your hearts.  What is highly valuable to people is detestable to God.”
(Luke 16:15)

“The best measure of a man’s honesty isn’t his income tax return.  It’s the zero adjust on his bathroom scale.”
(Arthur C Clarke~British Science Fiction author~1917-2008)

A Friend Request

I made a new friend tonight!  Well, I think I did.  The message I received said, “So & So has accepted your friend request.”  That means I’ve got a new crony, a new sidekick, right?  I’m still struggling with this.  Is this really the way friendship works?  I find the name of someone I knew years ago and click on the link which invites me to “add as friend”.  And, then I wait.  Not exactly on pins and needles, but I just gave someone the opportunity to reject me.  Can I tolerate it if they don’t want me in their friends list?  Do I really want to give them that power over me?  As time passes and no response is received, is this cause to be saddened or depressed?  Have I really been rejected, or could this just be someone who never checks their account?  It’s a release of emotion when the message finally arrives.  I breathe a sigh of relief and send a message thanking them for their magnanimity.  After all, they’ve just given me access to a part of their life and I to them.  We’re Friends!

Again, I ask.  Is this the way it works?  Wouldn’t it be better if we could just be Facebook Acquaintances?  Honestly, many of the folks in my “friend” list could more accurately be placed in that category.  I want to keep a relationship with them, but we’re never going to be best buds.  We’ll do the online equivalent of the nod and a wave to acknowledge each other’s existence, just as I would if I met someone on the street, commenting on happy occasions and also on sad ones, but we’ll not be close.  We’ll not actually be “friends”.

Don’t get me wrong.  I really enjoy Facebook.  It has given me a chance to make contact with many people who had dropped out of my life, people whom I enjoy knowing.  I count it a privilege to have grown up with many of them, but even as children, we weren’t bosom buddies.  We shared common experiences in school or church and we have a history in each other’s lives.  I wouldn’t trade my past with them for anything and I’m grateful for the means to reconnect.  That said, true friendship normally runs a little deeper.  And, you don’t become friends with the click of a computer key on one end of the Internet and a reply on the other end.

The gift of true friendship is a rare one.  It is a gift and not something you request, as you would with a shopping list or a Christmas list.  Friends gravitate to each other for various reasons, but we stay friends because we share a bond, a love for each other that won’t be broken by time, or distance, or age.  There is a Proverb in the Bible that warns us that a man with many friends often comes to ruin.  Then it tells of the kind of friend that I want, one who sticks closer than a brother.  But, don’t think this is about someone who never leaves your side physically.

When I talk about true friends, it doesn’t have to mean people who are geographically close.  I don’t even intend to say that we have to have frequent communication.  I have one friend, with whom I grew up, who comes to visit from his home eight hundred miles away once every four or five years and I visit him just about that often too.  We don’t talk on the phone constantly or send emails even frequently, but when we get together, our friendship is unchanged from 10, 20, even 30 years ago.  We laugh, talk, even cry together, with no sense of discomfort, no reticence to speak openly about the things that close friends talk about.  We didn’t find this relationship by clicking on an icon (we’re not even Facebook friends), and our sense of closeness isn’t compromised by absence or lack of constant contact.  True friendships last.  They transcend the miles and the years, and they overlook the changes that inevitably come in our lives.

I’m not advocating for boycotting social media, not even wanting to slander it.  I am suggesting that we need to be sure we understand the important, even essential relationships in our lives and not cheapen them by an imitation, blowing-kisses kind of connection.  I’ll continue to click on the “request friend” button, but I’ll not be fooled into thinking that a friendship can be achieved as cavalierly as  that.

I kind of like the way the singer, Michael W Smith, expressed it a few years ago when he sang, “Friends are friends forever”.  Give me a hand-shake and a bear-hug from an old friend and I’ll be content.

Or, you could try sending that friend request.  You never know… 

“Pooh, promise you won’t forget about me, ever. Not even when I’m a hundred.”
Pooh thought for a little. “How old shall I be then?”
Pooh nodded. “I promise,” he said.

(A. A. Milne~The House at Pooh Corner)

(originally posted 1/7/11)