Tuesday, May 31, 2011

Want To Be Really Happy?

Someone gave me this little piece on how to be happy recently, written by Harrisonburg resident Daniel Anderson, who gave me permission to share it with others. He is scheduled to undergo major brain surgery for a seizure condition in June.

If you want to be happy for an hour, take a nap.
If you want to be happy for a day, go fishing.
If you want to be happy for a week, take a vacation.
If you want to be happy for a month, get married. **
If you want to be happy for a year, win the lottery.
If you want to be happy for a lifetime, devote yourself to making other people happy. 

** Associating marriage with a mere month of happiness is the writer's attempt at humor, though he thinks it's all too often true!

All of this got me to thinking that if one were to add the line "If you want be truly happy forever," I would suggest heeding the words of Jesus,  who said:

How happy are the humble, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.
How happy are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
How happy are those who work for justice and righteousness, for they will be completely satisfied.
How happy are the kind and merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
How happy are those whose hearts are pure, for they will see God.
How happy are those who strive for peace, for they will be called the children of God.
And supremely happy are those who are persecuted for doing right, for the kingdom of heaven is theirs.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

Simple Sure-Fire Bug Killer

An amusing story I heard years ago involves someone creating an ad for a $5 bug exterminator kit with an absolute 100% guarantee.

Turns out that those who fell for this “too good to be true” claim were sent two wooden blocks with these instructions: "Place bug on block A, then press block B firmly on block A."

End of bug.

I’ve been thinking lately about a similarly simple approach to problems that may be bugging our relationships, annoyances that get in the way of friends, couples or family members enjoying the kind of good times they would like. Rather than complaining, or wasting time and energy blaming the other person, what if we could just get together and respectfully identify and name the specific problem, then place it on the table where we work out ways of extinguishing whatever “bug” is causing our distress.

In other words, to learn to attack problem behaviors rather than attacking each other. And to start with each of us first examining our own bad behavior habits and ridding ourselves of whatever we are doing to add to the stress. Thus we make sure we keep focusing on the problems, not the marriage, not the spouse, not the persons, per se.

I believe persons are always precious in spite of their behaviors,. And problems are, well, just normal, everyday and quite fixable things, not necessarily crises, unless we make them so by turning mole hills into mountains. But thank God even mountains can be moved, and there really are many more solutions than there are problems.

So identify bug, place on block A. Then press block B firmly on block A. End of bug.

Until the next one shows up.

Monday, May 23, 2011

Putting Christ Back Into Xian

In what must have been my first stage performance, I recited a four-line poem about putting Christ back into Xmas. This felt important to me as a first grader in my one-room school in rural Kansas, both because I got to take part in my first real Christmas program and because growing up the way I did I couldn’t imagine leaving Jesus out of anything.

Today I'm even more concerned about how little of Christ or of his teachings are typically associated with concepts like a “Christian world view,” “Christian values” or our “Judeo-Christian heritage.” We may cite leaders like Moses, Joshua, Ezra, Nehemiah, Esther or Daniel to support a kind of Christian nationalism, for example, but fail to even mention Jesus in the process.

I recently had an email conversation with a friend of mine in which I contrasted Jesus’ teachings about wealth with the views held by the late philosopher and novelist Ayn Rand. My friend had read “Atlas Shrugged” and knew Rand was adamantly anti-religious and believed that altruism, not the love of money, was actually the root of all evil (she was fond of wearing a pin in the form a of a dollar sign). Nevertheless he defended many of her positions as consistent with a Christian world view, based on the following:

1. The Bible teaches that those who will not work should not eat.

2. Likewise, the Bible states that those who will not support their families are “worse than infidels.” 

3. Also, the tenth commandment clearly states that we are not to covet what belongs to others, a mindset that leads to “a sense of ‘entitlement’ to what others have earned.

 4. Above all, a Christian world view teaches that charity should be totally voluntary – and only for widows, orphans, and others who are “poor through no fault of their own.”

There is much here one can agree with, but none of these particular points happens to be based on the actual teachings of Christ. This in spite of the fact that Jesus had more to say about wealth and about giving generously to the poor than almost any other single topic.

I’m not one of those "red-letter-Christians" who pays little attention to anything but the actual sayings of Jesus in the Bible. But dare we opt for a "white-out-Christian" perspective, in which many of his teachings are seemingly blanked out or ignored?

For example:

Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth.

You cannot serve both God and money.

If you want to be perfect, sell your possessions and give to the poor, and you wil have treasure in heaven.

It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter the kingdom of God.

Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me...'

Of course many of us may find these teachings hard to accept and even harder to follow. But I don’t believe Jesus intended them to be "hard sayings." One of the gospel writers notes that when Jesus confronted the “rich young ruler” he loved him. He knew he would be liberated and blessed by  obeying his command to share his wealth with the poor, and then to enjoy vast holdings in the “treasury of heaven.”

This is the real “prosperity gospel” Jesus wants celebrated and shouted from the housetops.

Friday, May 20, 2011

Interview With a Galilean Financial Adviser

It may feel strange thinking of going to a first century Jewish rabbi for financial advice. But in these uncertain economic times, anything seems worth a try.

So let's imagine meeting one Jesus of Nazareth along a lake where some of his closest followers are partners in a family owned fishing business, and in view of a hilltop area where he once taught extensively on good money management

Our conversation with Jesus starts with questions about his credentials.

“Most people have a lot of respect for you, but aren’t you a little out of your league when it comes to economics? On spiritual issues you’re great, of course, but finances are so complicated these days that even experienced investors don’t seem to know what to tell us to do.”

“Fair question, but being involved in the creation of the entire universe, and then having been officially put in charge of it, should count for something.”

"A valid point. But with all due respect, do you really expect us to take seriously talk like ‘Take no thought for tomorrow,’ or ‘Live like the birds of the air and the lilies of the field’? That just seems irresponsible.” 

“Notice that when I teach people not to worry about the future, I don’t mean they shouldn’t work. Think about it, most birds actually work a lot harder and put in longer days than we humans do, and even the wild flowers aren’t like dead bouquets in a vase. They are constantly drawing nutrients and moisture from the soil, sometimes under harsh conditions, actively turning sunlight into color and growth. It’s the 'don’t be anxious' part, the trusting part, I want my followers to learn more about. But to work, as the very first humans were instructed to do from the beginning, has always been a part of the plan, just as in the later instruction 'six days you shall labor.' And remember, the Creator’s very first command was for people to tend the earth and to take good care of it--which, by the way, most of you haven’t been doing very well.”

“I know, I know. But back to finances, I’ve never understood the part about investing in ‘the kingdom of heaven,’ instead of in enterprises here on earth. How can you ever do that, practically?”

“First of all, this is about the wisdom of not investing in more and more earthly stuff, consumer-based perishables that don’t really satisfy, or in self-enhancing status symbols that inevitably depreciate, rust out, wear out, or get moldy and moth-eaten. Instead, invest in what's more lasting, that truly helps meet the basic needs of people--including yourself and your family, of course--and that demonstrates your concern that everyone should have enough to eat, decent clothes to wear and adequate health care. Such gifts just keep on giving. Even in the next life you’ll be experiencing lasting returns, since the folks you’ve helped, along with your Father, will forever thank, welcome and bless you for having made truly wise financial investments. It’s part of my fail-proof eternal retirement program.”

“Yes, but we do have to first make it through this life, don’t we?”

“Of course. For starters, my plan represents the most effective stimulus package possible for ailing economies. The rising tide of improved standards of living from the bottom up lifts all boats, quickly and efficiently. And contrary to what some people think, I’m not naive about the need for prudent capital investments that provide the means of earning money. For example, my human parents had to invest money in tools and supplies for their carpenter business in order to provide for all of us. My friends in the fishing trade have had to invest in, and maintain, boats and nets to keep their enterprise going. And remember my illustrations about the ‘talents’ and the ‘pounds’? That’s all about people making capital investments for the purpose of increased profits in the 'Company of Heaven.' That worldwide enterprise is headquartered with my Father, but operates very much in this world. So that’s what I advise you to invest in, rather than your speculating in stocks in companies that are mostly about promoting consumer wealth.”

“OK. So you are saying it makes the most sense to invest heavily in enterprises that directly meet human needs and promote the worldwide Kingdom-of-God Movement, thus having more of God’s will being accomplished here on earth as it is in heaven.”

“Exactly. And don't assume that just because you manage large sums of capital wealth, even if dedicated to a God-blessed enterprises, that you are automatically entitled to more consumer wealth as a result. My business model is based on every man, woman and child on earth becoming wiser and more just stewards of wealth that's meant to bless everyone on the planet. God has no favorites, some who deserve a larger share of the consumer pie than others.”

“But I can’t help being concerned about providing for my family's future needs. Someday I'll no longer be able to earn, and I may even need some long term nursing care.”

"Well, remember all of my teaching on money is in the context of people belonging to covenant communities that are so committed to each other that no one will starve unless they all do. That represents the one and only real assurance of lifelong security.”  

End of interview.

See also

Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Conditions for Living

I’ll always remember the distinction one of my seminary profs, David Augsburger, made between conditions for loving and conditions for living. As followers of Jesus we are commanded to respect, love and care for everyone unconditionally, even our enemies, he said, but there may be many conditions for living that define our relationships with others, whether in a friendship, as parents, as spouses or in any other partnership.

I may need to set reasonable and clear limits, for example, as to the amount of time or money I have to give to others. Or to make clear that I am willing to tolerate certain kinds of behaviors but not others. Then if these conditions are not respected, the deal is off. It is their choice as to whether they will value our relationship enough to observe necessary agreements and agreed on boundaries.

As an example, if I am to engage in some business transaction, I can reasonably insist that each party operate according to our contract, and not to make up arbitrary rules as we go along. I also have a right to expect that others engage in appropriate and respectful behaviors in the course of doing business. If those things don’t happen, I must still demonstrate agape love toward them (sometimes tough love), but am not obligated to continue doing business with them.

Bottom line: While there are no conditions for unselfish loving, there may be many conditions for everyday living.

Sunday, May 15, 2011

To Alma Jean: Feliz Cumpleaños!

For the first time ever, I selected a card written in Español for Alma Jean’s birthday (today!). Neither of us actually knows the language, but I explained that I had run out of English words to tell her how much I loved her, so I felt a need to speak in another tongue, as follows; 

Las palabra no pueden expresar
mi felicidad y amore
que tengo para ti,
Y las palabras no pueden decirte
el goso que siento
porque se que tu me amas tambien.

Feliz Cumpleaños!

I thought this looked pretty cool in Spanish, and the translation in English, on the back of the card, said so much of what I truly feel:

Words cannot express
my happiness and the love
I have for you.
And words cannot tell you
the joy I feel
because you love me, too!

Happy Birthday! 

Saturday, May 14, 2011

A Royal Flush

“Water is the new oil,” is a sobering phrase we’ve been hearing more often recently.  Future world conflicts, we’re told, may not be over scarce mineral or fossil fuels as much as over access to enough of this precious liquid, a priceless gift most of us take for granted. Already countries like Yeman are facing rapidly worsening water shortages, and for centuries millions of people around the world have had to walk miles every day to carry the bare minimum of water they need for their survival.

Steven Solomon, author of the book "Water: The Epic Struggle for Wealth, Power, and Civilization," describes an experience in which he walked alongside a young child carrying several gallons of water on her head to provide for her family’s needs, a tiring and repetitious task that prevented her from doing other things like furthering her education or helping out with some of her family’s other pressing needs. He reflected on the fact that the precious cargo she was carrying on her head was roughly equal to the amount of good drinkable water Americans use to get rid of a bit of human waste and some toilet paper with a single flush of their commode. That water is thus rendered unfit to use, of course, and is routed to a waste water cleaning facility where it is processed, usually with heavy chemicals like chlorine, then processed once more to remove the chemicals that were used to decontaminate it. Then it is dumped into our rivers from which some of it is drawn to be re-purified and made available as our tap water, used in part to flush even more toilets.

So we take perfectly good drinking water, make it toxic and then doubly toxic, clean it and then dump it into the environment. Does this make sense?

In a January 2009 Washington Post article,  Imam Johari cites none other than the prophet Mohammed as saying, “Do not waste water even if you are beside a river.”

Or, in today's world, especially if you are beside a river.

Monday, May 9, 2011

The Power of Good

During the official "Days of Remembrance" this year, members of our local Interfaith Association viewed the film “The Power of Good,” a 2002 International Emmy Award winning documentary on the Holocaust. It is the moving story of Nicholas George Winton, who in 1939 was instrumental in helping save the lives of 669 Czech children, almost all Jewish, by bringing them across Hitler's Germany to his native Britain.

Between December 1938 and May 1940, almost 10,000 children and teens were being rescued through an international effort called Kindertransport and given shelter at farms, hostels, camps, and private homes in Britain. However, this did not include children of Czechoslovakia, which is why the work of Nicholas Winton was so vital.

For nearly 50 years Winton told no one about his tireless rescue mission - not even his wife, who found out about her husband's work as a young adult after finding a scrapbook of his in the couple's attic. In 1988, BBC Television broadcast a show in which over 100 of these rescued children, now very grateful adults, were reunited with their rescuer to express their gratitude.

Today, there are more than 5,000 descendants of the Winton children - all of whom owe their very lives to this quiet unassuming hero. And what impressed me most was the joy everyone experienced as a result of his sacrificial effort.

It made me wonder, what kind of reward might Winton have experienced from investing that same amount of time and money in a larger retirement, a pricier home, or in more travel for his personal pleasure? In the end, the sheer happiness this man experienced was far, far beyond priceless.

Friday, May 6, 2011

Her Children Call her Blessed

"She speaks with wisdom,
   and faithful instruction is on her tongue.
She watches over the affairs of her household
   and does not eat the bread of idleness.
Her children arise and call her blessed;
   her husband also, and he praises her:

'Many women do noble things,
   but you surpass them all.'

Charm is deceptive, and beauty is fleeting;
   but a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised.
Honor her for all that her hands have done..."

The above words describing the "virtuous woman" of Proverbs 31 could have been written of my Amish mother, Mary Nisly Yoder. She died of cancer nearly forty years ago at 68 years of age, which now seems so young to have to say good bye to everyone and everything you’ve loved here on earth. And she was truly in love with life and with her nine children and dozens of grandchildren and great-grandchildren.

On my mother’s tombstone are the words of a gospel song she loved and lived by, “I need no mansion here below.” My mother had only a sixth grade education, was born poor and always lived very frugally, but she knew how to make her life truly rich in a multitude of ways, by her love of flowers and of vegetable gardening, by her enjoyment of nature and of raising canaries, by her love of singing and reading, and by her gracious hospitality and her many friendships.

As a child I was nurtured by her warm hugs and her stories and by her example of a quiet faith and unselfish life. She was well known in our community for the generous help and encouragement she gave her family, her neighbors, and her many church friends. Our house was a always a haven of hospitality.

But it was certainly no mansion. My parents lived in a nicely kept mobile home in their retirement, and that is where she died. She was happy living as one who believed there was a better life waiting for her after this one was over. Hers was the melody of a truly rich, active woman who could sing with conviction, “I need no mansion here below...”

A lump-in-the-throat thanks to you, mom. In your honor, I hope I can pass on that some of that same spirit and legacy.

Monday, May 2, 2011

Killing Goliath

This morning's paper headlined the killing of Osama bin Laden somewhere in Pakistan, the work of operatives who have been stalking him for years. It also highlighted the death of Seif al-Arab Muammar el-Qaddafi, son of Muammar Qaddafi, in a bombing raid on Qaddafi’s headquarters in Libya.

The violent death of the former is being hailed as a long sought victory in the war on terror. The death of the latter, at age 29, along with his three children, all under the age of three, is seen as unavoidable collateral damage.

Humanity’s efforts at solving problems by slaughtering enemies reminds me of a time many years ago when I was reading our very young daughter the story of David slaying the evil giant Goliath. At the dramatic point in the story when Goliath falls, I didn’t get the expected approving response from our three-year-old. Instead, I noticed tears in her eyes.

Taken by surprise, I asked, “What about the story makes you sad?”

“Well, because Goliath was still a person,” she insisted.

Out of the mouths of babes, I thought to myself. No matter how despicable our enemy, no matter how indefensible and inexcusable their behavior, each one is still someone’s son or daughter, or may be someone’s father or mother, someone's sibling or friend. And each human being is still one of God’s loved creations, no matter how awful their deeds.

We tend to forget that. In our desire for justice, we all too often pursue only vengeance.