September 2, 2018
Practice makes perfect
"A genius! For thirty-seven years I have practiced fourteen hours a day, and now they call me a genius!" these words are attributed to violinist and composer Pablo Sarasate after being called a genius by a critic. In his book, Outliers, author Malcolm Gladwell sets the mark of 10,000 hours of practice to be proficient in any one area. Among others, he points to the hours and hours the Beatles spent on stage in Germany and the endless coding done by Bill Gates in high school. In the year 600 BCE, Greek sage Periander is noted to have written "practice is everything." Publilius Syrus, Pliny the Younger and yet others have extolled the virtues of practice. I am not sure that we can consider this to a universally agreed upon premise. For one, we can practice bad habits instead of good ones. And in some situations, a degree of spontaneity might be required. I think of a colleague who was very well known and therefore led between 90 and 100 funerals and memorial services every year. I could never imagine that made him better than others, let alone perfect, at the task of presiding over such a service. Fans of basketball would be familiar with Allen Iverson's well known press conference in which he takes issue with this point and suggest games are much more important than practice.
Do not merely listen to the word, and so deceive yourselves. Do what it says.
Anyone who listens to the word but does not do what it says
is like a man who looks at his face in a mirror and, after looking at himself,
goes away and immediately forgets what he looks like.
This verse can be read in a number of ways. It could be about integrity. It could simply say that your actions should match your words. Or it could be making a pedagogical point. It could be saying you do not learn unless you put your learning into action. It could be saying the Word of God must be practiced to be known. In reality, it is likely best to read these two understandings as being woven together. Reading and doing God's Word are inextricably connected.
September 9, 2018
Nothing ventured, nothing gained
One finds this thinking in a manner of varieties in ancient Greek writing. Some of the similar phrases are "no mistakes equals no risk", "live and learn", and "experience is the best teacher." While there might be subtle differences between each of these phrases, their essence is the same. Billy Hill's 1936 song, The Glory of Love also makes the same point. “You've got to win a little, lose a little; Yes, and always have the blues a little; That's the story of, that's the glory of love.” The implication is that love will only be a gain if it given in risk.
But she answered him, "Sir, even the dogs under the table eat the children's crumbs."
Both Mark and Matthew tell the story of the Syrophoenician (Mark), or Canaanite (Matthew), woman. She confronts Jesus unlike any other person in the scriptures. She demands his attention and a response to her request for her daughter's healing. Jesus responds with an abundance of appreciation and with healing. This woman had no business speaking to a man. This gentile had no business speaking to a Jew. She ventured much and gained much. It is expecting to gain much without venturing where many of our problems arise.
September 16, 2018
The pen is mightier than the sword
Edward George Bulwer-Lytton gets credit, not only for this phrase but also for “the great unwashed”, “pursuit of the almighty dollar”, and “It was a dark and stormy night.” In his play about Cardinal Richilieu, the Cardinal utters these words as the power available to us all. Some pens are better than others are, and some writers are certainly better than others are but compared to swords or tanks, pens are more democratic.
So also the tongue is a small member, yet it boasts of great exploits.
How great a forest is set ablaze by a small fire! And the tongue is a fire.
The tongue is placed among our members as a world of iniquity;
it stains the whole body, sets on fire the cycle of nature, and is itself set on fire by hell.
James uses strong and colorful language to make his point that, with our words, we can create great havoc. Both swords and words can be used forcefully. It appears that James is saying the force of the word is underrated, understated and misunderstood. The word (pen) is mightier than thought.
September 23, 2018
Appearances may be deceiving
Aesop's fable, The Cat, The Rooster and the Mouse tells of a young mouse's first venture into the world. The young mouse sees a soft, fluffy and beautiful cat which makes nice noises and is very drawn to it. In contrast the rooster is ugly and noisy and horrifies the young mouse. When the mouse returns home and shares the day of experience, the mouse’s mother explains that the rooster is harmless but the cat is a potential killer. The moral is that appearances can be deceptive. In this case, the appearance is just natural and not contrived. The cat isn't trying to look gentle nor is the rooter masquerading as scary. [Darwinist’s might beg to differ on this last point and I would likely join them but that complicates my purpose.] Thinking of the imprisoned population, brings forth the classic example of a large unkempt person covered with tattoos. They may look angry, scary and violent but may not be. The phrase is also used when somebody or something looks "too good" with fancy clothes or ostentatious jewelry. The advice is to look at substance more than form. Similar phrases include "all that glitters (actually Shakespeare wrote "glisters") is not gold." The bottom line is that we humans like shiny things. And that quality clouds our opinions from time to time.
Charm is deceitful, and beauty is vain, but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
This verse, which comes in a larger section depicting the ideal wife and mother, speaks of the temptation to judge too quickly on appearance. The quality of the woman, arising from her “fear of the Lord”, is valued more than mere appearance which make you respond with either too much praise or too little. The appearance of a woman, says Solomon, can be deceptive.
September 30, 2018
Whoever is not with me is against me
Both Matthew (12:30) and Luke (11:23) record these words of Jesus. In both of the Gospels the verse is part of his response to the challenge that his ability to cast out demons is demonic in itself.
Whoever is not against us is for us.
Note the difference between Mark 9:40 and the phrase on top, which can be found in Matthew chapter 12 and Luke chapter 11, Mark places this altered version of the words in an entirely different context. Rather than a plain contradiction, this supports the case for flexible or situational ethics based on context rather than universal principles. Put in tidier language, sometimes "whoever is not with me is against me" and at other times "whoever is not against me is with me." And yet other times, both apply. In Mark 9, Jesus is talking about people perceived as outsiders doing good works. Jesus wishes to include them. In Matthew 12 and Luke 11 Jesus is defending charges that he is healing by demonic powers. He uses these two phrases, that on the surface appear to be at odds with each other, simply because each unique occasion requires a unique response. In every case Jesus is calling people to truth and honesty and the acceptance of truth and honesty.
October 7, 2018
Don't sell yourself short or down the river
These phrases are not often conflated into one, and they are similar but not repetitive. They are bound by the common idea to "not sell yourself” out in any way. Selling short is a common term in the stock market when you sell a stock that you do not yet own, trusting it will go down in price and you make money by buying back your "short" position. The general use of the phrase, to undervalue someone or something, is in harmony with that use. Selling down the river is often something done to us but we are capable of bringing it upon ourselves. The phrase refers to betrayal and arises from selling slaves on the Mississippi River during the slave trade. I know a man who says these words as his "standard advice." He had arisen from very humble beginnings, prospecting for gold with his father as child. He eventually received his PhD in geology where he made significant contributions to the understanding of the theory of continental drift. After graduation he ended up managing a number of asbestos mines. I have to wonder if the advice is advice he regrets not taking himself. By working in industry, a problematic one at that, rather than pursuing science with an open heart and mind where it would lead, I can’t but believe he thinks he sold himself both short and down the river.
Vindicate me, O Lord, for I have walked in my integrity,
and I have trusted in the Lord without wavering.
Prove me, O Lord, and try me; test my heart and mind.
The vindication asked for by the Psalmist shows a confidence that his life is admirable. Calls to integrity are constant in the scriptures. Integrity is the very core of ethics. Both selling oneself short, undervaluing oneself, and selling oneself down the river, cheating your own heart's desires are compromises. And both can compromise our integrity and undermine our vindication.
October 14, 2018
You can't make a silk purse out of a sow's ear
I recently heard a defense lawyer use this phrase in a sentencing hearing. He was acknowledging that his client had a bad record and there was no way to hide that. He used the image to say that you must acknowledge some things for what they are. A related phrase comes from computing science: "Garbage in, garbage out" says that the quality of the coding and the data put into a computer will have the greatest effect on the results that come out of a computer. A sow's ear cannot be dressed up to look like a fancy silk purse, any more than a computer itself can correct faulty programs. Since technology has pretty much caught up to and passed this reality, garbage in, garbage out may well become a relic of the past.
Jesus looked at them and said, "For mortals it is impossible, but not for God;
for God all things are possible."
I want to look at this proverb and this verse through the lens of time. It is one thing to revisit and reframe the past. It is a different thing to re-imagine the future. If we live in the present and cast our eyes, minds and hearts to the future, we have to be open to taking down the barriers and removing the blinders that prevent us from seeing alternative futures. It is right for a lawyer to say that, barring a legal pardon, a criminal record will remain what it is. It is contradictory to biblical wisdom, however, to extend this to the future and say that the past is a perfect predictor of the future. While we cannot go back in time and change a sow's ear into a silk purse, with God, all things are possible and a repeat criminal offender can change into a person of complete productivity. As much to say, a sow's ear can be made into a silk purse.
October 21, 2018
Suffering is optional.
Often these words appear in a longer form: pain is inevitable; suffering is optional. Often as not, writers cite Buddha but I could find no translations that yielded these words. It has great resonances with Victor Frankl, who wrote Man's Search for Meaning made the same point by stating that, “between stimulus and response, there is a space. In that space is our power to choose our response. In our response we find our growth and our freedom.” By connecting Frankl's words to the quote, I suggest that suffering is a choice, and what is more, a choice one might not want to make.
Yet it was the will of the Lord to crush him with pain.
When you make his life an offering for sin, he shall see his offspring, and shall prolong his days;
through him the will of the Lord shall prosper.
Out of his anguish he shall see light;
he shall find satisfaction through his knowledge.
The righteous one, my servant, shall make many righteous, and he shall bear their iniquities.
Isaiah appears to contradict our quote. In the former, suffering is an unattractive option; in the latter, it is a requirement for prosperity. However, I think we can do better than simply naming them as opposites. This is precisely the problem with pithy quotes. The quote lacks the qualifiers that would bring the words closer to the truth. This makes the quote more compact and more easily remembered. I don't imagine the choice between “pain” and “pain and suffering” would make much difference to an accident victim lying in a hospital bed for six months. Whether one calls this “pain and suffering” or simply “pain” the individual has still had the same experience. In order to make the quote reflect that subtlety, one would have to re-write the original quote. The problem is that it is no longer memorable or quotable. “As suffering is optional, you should choose to suffer in such a way, that it produces new vision and understanding, but if suffering is only its own end then it should not be chosen” is not going to appear on a T-shirt.
October 28, 2018
It is up to me
My Auntie Marion summarized her life using her five fingers to count off the words. At this point, she was pushing ninety with greatly compromised health and trying to care for my uncle. They had been together for sixty years. Life was not rosy but this phrase put things in perspective for her. If she wanted to do something and could do it was up to her to do it or get help if that was possible. That applied to everything in her life and looking at her challenges through the lens of this simple phrase helped make her predicament manageable. One could say that the idea we have to initiate our lives applies to all people in all places; it was just that her situation led her to greater clarity.
So throwing off his cloak, he sprang up and came to Jesus.
This verse comes from the story of the healing of the blind beggar, Bartimaeus. Bartimaeus is described as throwing away his rone as he followed. For the beggar, the robe was their tool. They would spread their robe out in front of them to collect money much as a busker puts out a guitar case or a hat. By throwing away his cloak, in the very instant Bartimaeus knew his days as a beggar were over. And while one would be happy to receive their sight, he likely had no work experience other than begging. What was he to do? It was up to him.
November 4, 2018
The American Way
The full phrase, "Dynamiting is not the American Way" is used in an 1885 edition of American Century. The short essay speaks of cowardly acts, such as assassination and the use of dynamite in combat, as not being American. The article attributes this to Union Civil War General William Hawley. One could extrapolate and say cruise missiles, smart bombs, drones, or any other distanced forms of aggression are not The American Way either.
You shall love your neighbor as yourself.' There is no other commandment
Hard to make an argument that dynamiting yourself or another like yourself is an act of love. It would seem that Jesus agrees that dynamiting should not be the American way.
November 11, 2018
Trust everybody, but cut the cards
Identified as a Russian proverb, this aphorism implies that trust has its limits. Or, at least, trust should not be tempted. One of the most common things I ever heard as a chaplain was: “I didn’t come to jail to make friends.” There are also a lot of cards played in jail to pass the time. I think those who have experienced incarceration likely have a great intuitive sense of the meaning of this phrase.
Do not put your trust in princes,
in mortals, in whom there is no help.
When their breath departs, they return to the earth;
on that very day their plans perish.
Verses such as these speak of the trustworthiness of God, and use humanity as a benchmark. The teaching is not to put your ultimate trust in others, but only in God. With whom, one would infer, you don't need to hedge your bets by “cutting the cards.” Such thoughts present challenges to theists and atheists seeking common ground.
November 18, 2018
Bloom where you are planted
The quote above has been variously attributed to Gandhi, Einstein and Churchill and they could have all said it. This adage implies another, which is: “You are exactly where you are supposed to be.”Our experience in life will likely determine whether we believe this adage. If one has bloomed where they were planted or if someone has experienced comfort and fit throughout their life, then they might wellagree with phrases like “Bloom where you are planted.”If one has met a lot of failure in life or always felt out of place, they would likely question the value of this phrase, no matter who first said it. If we push the metaphor of a plant, we know that sometimes plants are replanted and they grow better in the new conditions. In the same way, sometimes people move and make other changes, such as in their careers, and do well. The AA movement asserts that “geographic cures do not work,” and uses other words to make the same point not to move from where you are.
I keep the Lord always before me;
because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.
Therefore my heart is glad, and my soul rejoices;
my body also rests secure.
These words come from a joyous psalm of thankfulness. A celebration of the writer’s trust in God to provide at all times and places. While certainly consistent with the idea that you can “bloom where you are planted” because of God’s presence and direction which produces safety and security, it does not follow that at some point you may need to be replanted somewhere else.
Reign of Christ
November 25, 2018
No one has ever become poor by giving
Anne Frank, at age 15, wrote a short piece entitled “give.” Here is how it ends:
Give and give again. Keep hoping, keep trying, keep giving! People who give will never be poor! If you follow this advice, within a few generations, people will never have to feel sorry for poor little beggar children again, because there won't be any! The world has plenty of room, riches, money and beauty. God has created enough for each and every one of us. Let us begin by dividing it more fairly.
I will abundantly bless its provisions;
I will satisfy its poor with bread.
Both the Hebrew and the Greek scriptures make constant reference to meeting the needs of the poor. It is both a promise of God that it will happen, and a teaching to God’s followers to do it. Anne Frank seems to get it. God will provide for the poor, through the work of those who follow in God’s ways.