Category: Character

I no longer have the capacity for boredom

I got the title of this blog from a quote I heard on WJR radio several months ago.  I can’t remember the person who said it; but, after thinking about it, I felt comfortable adopting it as my own motto.  Poet and essayist Criss Jami once said: “The writer’s curse is that even in solitude, no matter its duration, he never grows lonely or bored.”   Actually, I consider it the writer’s blessing.

 Anyway, as I was out riding my bike this beautiful sunny Monday morning – something I do nearly every weekday, except when precluded by spring showers or winter ice and snow – God began speaking to me about the vast contrasts in life that keep it from ever becoming boring.  One moment we’re feasting on the wonders of nature, the next we’re fighting a cultural battle, in writing or before a local governing body.  Every day, even every moment is unique and ordained by God – both for our good pleasure and for our involvement in His plan.

 So many people who mourn that they’re bored, seem to believe it’s life’s responsibility, or their family’s and friends’ duty to make their personal world interesting.  That’s a sure formula for becoming even more bored.  The sooner they learn that it’s their own responsibility to make life exciting, the better off they’ll be.

 Even secular comedians’, Hal Sparks and Louis C.K. tongue-in-cheek quotes express this wisdom: “Boredom is your mind and body’s way of telling you you’re not living up to your potential.” (Hal Sparks)   “‘I’m bored’ is a useless thing to say. I mean, you live in a great, big, vast world that you’ve seen none percent of.  Even the inside of your own mind is endless; it goes on forever, inwardly, do you understand?  The fact that you’re alive is amazing, so you don’t get to say ‘I’m bored.’ ” (Louis Szekely)

 I personally have too much to do and too little time to do it – in ministry, in private life, and in exercising all the talents and opportunities I’ve been afforded by my Creator.  I long for quiet moments, tedious moments, when I can just slow down and be at peace before God and with my wife.  But I’ve come to anticipate that even those moments will be interrupted by a call to watch and entertain the grandkids, or to counsel some man who is hurting, or even by a brilliant thought that I just have to write out before I lose it.

 I can’t remember ever being bored, even as a kid.  Though I did a lot of things I shouldn’t have done – but I wasn’t bored.  Young author and blogger, Amit Kalantri explains this as, “People fear nothing as much as boredom and they will do unimaginable things to make it go away.”  I’d rephrase that to, “Creative people will stretch themselves to make even the humdrum exciting.”   And twenty-six year-old Amit fits that profile exactly.  An electronics and telecommunications engineer from India, his interests spread wide and far into writing and film-making.  He is by no means bored with life.

 We’ve all been given tremendous gifts and talents by God.  If you don’t know what else to do, come by my local church (or one in your neighborhood.)  Share those gifts with others.  You’ll be amazed at how exciting it is working in God’s Kingdom with His people.  I’m having a ball, and developing new skills at the same time.  I don’t have the capacity to be bored.


For we are God’s masterpiece. He has created us anew in Christ Jesus, so we can do the good things he planned for us long ago.  Ephesians 2:10 (NLT)

 In 1980 Sandy and I went on a Marriage Encounter weekend, and followed up with an ME group for several months.  ME seemed to have two main goals: first, to improve communication skills of both marriage partners; and second, to improve individual self-images as well as the image we each had of our mates.  When it came to the first goal, I think we benefitted more out of the fact that we were both willing to do whatever was necessary to better our relationship, than from the actual “tools” that ME gave us to help us to improve our communication skills.  However, with regard to the second of these goals, during the initial weekend marriage enrichment experience we must have heard the slogan “God doesn’t make junk” at least two dozen times; and I think it sunk in.  In fact, if you asked me today what my purpose in life is, I’d have a list; but near the top I’d have the encouragement of others, to see themselves as God sees them – as His Masterpiece.

 The primary thing ME lacked in this area was the recognition that a strong image of self is primarily dependent on an understanding that each of us is a special creation of God Almighty, crafted in His own image, and for a specific important purpose.  Not only did God Himself breathe life into each one of us; at the moment of our conception, the God of the entire universe began crafting a masterpiece.   Each unique person is intended to perform a significant role in His kingdom.

Bitter childhood memories will blind a person to God’s goodness

Unfortunately, we have an enemy that does everything in his power to keep human beings like you and I blinded to this wonderful truth.  Over the years I’ve provided spiritual advice to many people, men mostly, who have had some pretty difficult childhoods.  Some endured years of physical and verbal abuse.  Some whom their mothers tried to abort using drugs or throwing themselves down stairs, but who only hurt themselves.  When their sons survived, they blamed them for all their problems – making sure they knew it was “their fault” for their screwed up lives after that.  Still others were abandoned by one or both parents – and other relatives made sure they knew they weren’t wanted. 

 I’m sure there are some reading this blog who have had very tough childhoods.  Maybe you had one or both parents that you weren’t real proud of, because of the life they chose to live.  Or maybe they ignored you and just went about thinking only of themselves.  And you had to grow up by yourself and learned things the hard way – and often the wrong way.  You may “get older” and think you’ve put that all behind when you become an adult (even a Christian) – but if God doesn’t intervene, it’s going to affect everything you do in the future.  It’s going to continue to affect your self-esteem.

 God stands waiting to change your situation

 Only God can change that – and He stands waiting to step in and free every person from this burden.  Regardless of your personal background – no human being is immune from the temptation to compare self with another – and there’s always someone who can do something better or faster than you, or more to the crowd’s satisfaction.  You were not created to compare.  You were created to please an audience of One and make a significant difference with your life.  You are God’s special treasure, selected by Him and for Him. You are created in the image of Almighty God.

 Whenever you feel “not good enough” or whenever the devil tries to put condemnation on you for past, forgiven sins, just read what God has to say about you and what He’s already done for you.  You are the apple of His eye (Psalm 17:18); you were worth dying for (John 15:13); He gave His best for you, His only begotten Son (Romans 8:32); He thinks of you all the time, even when you’re asleep (Psalm 40:5); He takes it personal when anyone offends you (Matthew 25:40); He’s assigned personal body guards (angels) to watch over you (Psalm 34:7).  And the list goes on and on.  Then repeat the words of Psalm 139:14-16, making it your personal prayer:

 “Thank You for making me so wonderfully complex! Your workmanship is marvelous – and how well I know it. You watched me as I was being formed in utter seclusion, as I was woven together in the dark of the womb. You saw me before I was born. Every day of my life was recorded in Your book. Every moment was laid out before a single day had passed.”

 And remember: He made you exactly the way He intended, and He equipped you with everything you need. You have the strength (through His Holy Spirit) to stand strong in the midst of difficult situations, and the wisdom it takes to make good decisions.  Understanding exactly Whose you are, and how you fit-in God’s plan.

 You are a person of destiny. You have an assignment and you are full of gifts, talents, encouragement and love. You have rich treasure inside you that people need. You have more in you that you realize, and you can accomplish more than you ever thought possible.  You are a person of destiny, because you can leave your mark on this generation.  Understand you are important, and out of your importance, know that you are called to add value to the world around you. No matter where you are in life today, you have potential to increase, grow, to be strengthened, and to move forward.  God created you for His good purpose, and know that beyond a shadow of a doubt, you are His masterpiece.

True Diversity

My barber is the product of a mid-20th century hard-working, conservative, Christian family.  I think John would have preferred being born a hundred years earlier.  His character seems to fit what I’ve heard about the people of that era.  He’s rarely ventured outside the twenty-five mile radius of his current home in Fraser, Michigan.  He and his wife did drive down to Florida twice, once to visit his dad, the second time to bury him.  He takes a week off each year for vacation – which they almost always spend at a family campground in Ohio.  Originally it was with their kids, now it’s with whichever grandkids they can convince to join them.  His rationale for the short vacation time: “My overhead is a hundred dollars a day – whether I’m here working or not.”  John’s been on an airplane once in his life; a flight he earned as a twelve year-old signing up 500 new customers to his paper route.  He describes the hour flight around the metro-Detroit area as if it took place a month ago.  He explores the world through the Discovery channel and the numerous books and magazines he reads and shares with his customers.

 In contrast, I have a number of friends who literally trace the steps of Indiana Jones, as they spend their kids’ inheritance on far-flung vacation trips and cruises.  One of them, let me call him Barry, last year went on a safari in Kenya, four months later took a European river cruise down the Rhine, and is currently exploring Mayan Ruins somewhere in Central America or Mexico.

Economically, I fall somewhere between John and Barry.  Over the years I’ve been blessed with opportunities to see parts of the world.  Now I choose to use my “re-fired” years writing for, ministering to, and sharing the resources and talents God has showered upon my wife and I, with His human creation.

Do I pity John?  Do I envy Barry?  I can honestly say “no” to both questions.  I’m happy for each man.  And I’m happy that God has allowed me to continue to use my mind productively.  Each of us is enjoying the fruit of our labor in the way we deem best.  This is true diversity of opinion and lifestyle as the word was intended to be used; not the synonym for “weird” as our culture has perverted its definition.  I could go on with this discussion, but that’s for another day.

It’s so important that each person be the person God created him or her to be, using the talents they’ve been given – not comparing themselves to anyone else or trying to mimic them.  In my Book, Soaring above the Storm, I quoted excerpts from a Don Franklin prophecy, which is worth sharing, because it is from the heart of God.

“Say not: That because I am doing something that is seemingly unimportant, that I am not important.  Look at this one who is doing so much for the Kingdom of God and I am doing so little.  I’m a failure.  I’m a loser.  I am so worthless in the eyes of God.  What do I have to offer? …

When I came to bring the Messiah out of the earth, I brought him out of the lowliest place…  I did not go for the great and glorious spots that were available, but to teach you humility – to teach you the importance and the glory of insignificant things… Study the Scriptures.  Even the men and women who were used mightily of God spent many years doing insignificant things.  I caused even the great prophets to sit by the brook and have a raven feed them. … I’ve taught much on little things in the Bible,… the widow’s mite, the small things.  Even the man, who went to work at the last minute and received the same wage, have you not understood this parable that it doesn’t matter what you do.  It doesn’t matter if you shake continents.  You carry no more weight in my eyes than the one who goes to the widow next-door and gives her the subsidence to live the next day.

….  I will reward each one according to their faithfulness and their obedience to that which they are doing.….  I hand out the giftings.  I hand out the callings.  And I hand each one something that I want them to have and then I judge them according to how they take care of that which I give them. You are not required to even begin to measure up to anyone else around you.

You will always find those who think they cannot even do what you think you can do, even if what you think you do is small.  Look around you. You’ll find those who cannot even do what you do.  So then you’ll feel superior to them because, Look at what I can do. And then you will look back the other way and you will say, Oh, look at how great they are. I could never do that, and then you will feel inferior.  What nonsense.  Get out of that rat race, saith the Lord.  It is carnality.  It is an avenue that the enemy uses to drive wedges between ministries, wedges between brothers and sisters.  … What a trap, what a horrible state to live in – constantly feeling better than others and constantly feeling not as good as others, tormented on both ends of the spectrum.

Put your blinders on, Children.  The Devil is driving you crazy comparing yourselves one with another. …   Watch your thinking patterns.  If they begin to promote you, if they begin to show you that you are greater than others, then reverse them, …  This is not an accurate picture of what you are. You can go forth and talk about God. You can go forth and pray for people. You can lay hands. You can attend church. You can give into the Kingdom of God, even if it is a widow’s mite.

….   So, walk in your walk.   Rejoice in God, because someone who is more gifted is not going to get rewarded greater than you. And someone, who is less gifted in your eyes, may receive more reward than you, if they are faithful with what I put in them…. I’ve said it over and over again, if you will humble yourself, if you’ll go to the back of the feast and sit down and wait on God, and not exalt yourself in your own mind, and not compare yourself, you’ll be O.K. You won’t have to worry.  I’ll come, I’ll get you, and I’ll give you a task you can handle.

….   If I have you do some small things for a season, what is that to you? Prophets have to sit by rivers and eat bread. It’s hard on the ego after they have ministered to the whole nation, hard on the ego after they’ve had the praise of the people. Hard on the ego – but very good for the soul.  Wait on God. …  I love the humble and the contrite.… start lifting people up around you.  Encourage them.  Put an arm around them. Tell them, You’re doing good.  You’re trying.  I’m praying for you.  I love you.….  Be kind one to another, forbearing one another, forgiving one another in love. This is what I’m looking for.  This is the Church that pleases the heart of God.  Don’t feel inferior; don’t go for superiority, but find an equal balance one with another as brothers and sisters, humbling yourself.”

Make 2014 a New Day

If you’ve been following my blog for any length of time you’ve discovered that I don’t have a lot of totally original thoughts.  Something I come across in a book or article that I’m reading, or something I hear another person say or some topic the media is focusing on that week usually triggers the subject for the week.  This week it was my pastor’s message that caused me to delve deeper into a passage of scripture that I must have read a few dozen times before.  A couple years ago I even recall giving a sermon on Philippians 3:12-14 during a Sunday service at a nursing home that Sandy and I ministered at – but it took a much different direction.  I guess that’s why the Bible is referred to as a living document – you can read the same passage on successive days and God can bring different aspects of the Word to life each time.

 Excuse my paraphrasing, but here’s my understanding of the Apostle Paul’s declaration to the Philippian Christians, after hearing yesterday’s message:

I’ve got a long way to go before I’ll even come close to becoming the exact person that God wants me to be. That’s my goal, but I haven’t got there yet.  Nevertheless, I continue pressing on, against all resistance, to reach it and make it mine.  That’s what Jesus Christ wants me to do.  He sees much more in me than I see in myself.  That’s the reason He chose me in the first place.  Brothers and sisters, I know that I still have a long way to go. But there is one thing I intend to do: I purpose in my heart to forget what is in my past and focus on those things in my life which are ahead.  I intend to keep running hard toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God, in this present life and eventually in Heaven, through Christ Jesus. Philippians 3:12-14 [My paraphrase]

St. Paul is one person I really want to meet some day in eternity.  I think we’d hit it off!  He seems like he’s a real sports fan – as I am.  He’s always using sports metaphors in his teachings.  He uses archery terms, for example, when he defines sin – as in “missing the target.”  And he often talks about strategy and execution toward winning long distance races.  He does this clearly in his letters to his friend, the young pastor Timothy, and in his lengthy discourses to the Galatians and Corinthians.  So when he refers to attaining the prize in the Philippians quote above, you know he’s referring back to that “running the race” metaphor.  Starting strong is important in any competition, but finishing strong is even more important.

It’s interesting that so many college and professional football teams learned this lesson this past season.  My own beloved Detroit Lions started strong.  When they were leading their division with a 6 and 3 won/loss record, the local papers wrote articles on their chances of getting to the Super Bowl this year.  Then they lost six of their last seven games.  When the University of Alabama’s record stood at 11 and 0, ranked number one in the country, all the sports gurus expected them to once again waltz unimpeded into the NCAA championship game.  Then they lost a last-second heart-breaker to Auburn in the SEC championship game, and got buried a few weeks later in their bowl game.  Many other highly-ranked college teams lost to teams from weaker conferences this past New Year’s bowl season.  Not only did these teams fail to finish strong – they began the New Year weak.

As I mentioned in last week’s blog, I think I finished 2013 strong.  I had a pretty good year – from a creative stand-point, perhaps my best year ever, with books and other articles written, with graphics software learned and applied to create artistic works, and with my entry into the world of social media, etc.  There’s always a temptation to rest on one’s laurels.  But I’m expecting 2014 to be even better.  With God’s help I expect to accomplish even greater works than these.

This is the message of Paul’s exhortation to his “brothers and sisters” in Philippi.  There are four critical recommendations that we can draw from Paul’s declaration that will help each one of us enter the New Year strong: (1) focus on the right things; (2) forget the past; (3) look ahead and plan for the future; (4) press on – in the face of adversity.

(1)  It’s so easy to focus on the wrong things – and even to be a success in the eyes of others in the process.  But, if it’s not what we are called to do, we’ll never be happy or satisfied, in spite of the outward signs of worldly success.  A couple weeks ago, I mentioned a friend of mine who recently resigned from a prominent civilian leadership position in the Army.  Mike commanded the respect of one, two, three and four-star generals and Pentagon department secretaries, as well as soldiers on the ground and of his civilian peers and subordinates.  With everyone’s blessing, he had every intention of continuing and advancing in this career field another four or five years.  But for God!  Mike felt led to go a different direction: one that would take him out of the limelight of public service and into outreach centers and soup kitchens; one that would take him back to school for five years – and prepare him to be a deacon; one that would take him into the unfamiliar soil of writing a book about the miracles in his life – subjecting him to the harsh world of artistic and theological critics.  But he began the walk down that new path with a joy unspeakable.  He adjusted the road he was on, so that he was headed toward his destiny.

(2)  There are some things each one of us needs to forget.  If you’ve read my book, Soaring above the Storm, you know that we have an enemy that doesn’t want us to forget anything in our past that had a negative impact on our lives.  He keeps trying to remind us of every mistake we’ve ever made – and if we’re honest – that list is pretty long for most of us.  Don’t fall into his trap.  Don’t listen to the enemy’s words of condemnation.  If you’ve asked God for His forgiveness, and truly repented of your mistakes and failures – trust that you’re clean.  Forget the past and move on.  To explain how God sees forgiven sins, the Bible paints the picture that His remembrance of them are “as far as the east is from the west.”  In other words, God will never again recount them – so neither should you.  My pastor says it a little more colorfully: “Correct stinking thinking!”  In other words, live for an audience of One – God.  Don’t listen to the devil or anyone else that echoes your past mistakes and failures.

(3)  So what are we to think about, if not the past?  Look ahead and plan for the future that you are destined for.  Only you and God know what that is – though good counseling may be helpful.  Wise King Solomon said it this way: “Where there is no counsel, the people fall; but in the multitude of counselors there is safety.”

(4)  When you change directions in life – whether that’s a change in career, a lifestyle change, or a behavioral change – not everyone is going to pat you on the back and say, “Good for you, John!”  Regardless, if you’re confident you’re heading toward your destiny – press on.  There are bound to be obstacles: some obstacles will look like well-meaning friends and family; others will look like financial burdens or societal interferences.  Turn those obstacles into stepping stones: learning experiences and opportunities to mature.  Again quoting my pastor: “Don’t rehearse them or nurse them; traverse them!”  Gosh, I wish I had come up with that phrase!

My focus has changed so much in the past twelve months.  I look forward to the year of 2014 with renewed interest and excitement – to see what new opportunities and blessings God has planned for me, and what doors He intends to open.  I suggest you approach the new year with the same sense of adventure.

The importance of finishing the year strong

This time of year is awash with sporting events – primarily football games.  There are no less than four of them today alone.  Quite frankly, it’s been overwhelming, and I’ve really wasted a lot of time this weekend laying around and lazily staring at the boob-tube.  I was even tempted to forego this week’s blog – which would have been a first since I began writing it this Summer.  I found myself rationalizing that it’s already been one of my most productive twelve-month periods ever: writing and publishing two books and starting three additional ones; downloading and learning some graphics art software so that I could produce my own book covers; writing a weekly blog; getting involved in social media with a goal to submit only uplifting, encouraging and informative messages; and praying for and counseling dozens of hurting people.

 But my Pastor’s message yesterday reminded me of the importance of finishing the year strong; because how one leaves any period in life determines how they will enter the next period.  And I want 2014 to be leaps and bounds more productive than this wonderful year.  I don’t know how many people actually read and get some benefit from my simple messages – it would be great to know that I have hundreds, or even thousands of followers who find them occasionally of some value – but it’s more important that I just be obedient to do what I’ve been given the ability to do.

It’s not like I’m the only person out here to share my thoughts on the innumerable problems and issues that people face in life or that they’ve created for themselves.  There are literally thousands of products on the market – aimed at providing advice and quick fixes, while coveting a share of the amount people are willing to pay for them.  In the first decade of the 21st century, the self-improvement industry, inclusive of books, seminars, audio and video products, and personal coaching, was said to constitute an annual market worth between $9 and $12 billion.

In the midst of all this, you’ll find dozens upon dozens of institutions and so-called experts who have researched these products and who have developed their own lists of the best ones – to give the seeker a shortcut to his fix.  If we focus on the self-help book industry alone, the USA Today has their Top Ten list, as does the UK Guardian, the Christian Science Monitor and every other major newspaper in the free world.  Then there are individual gurus who have developed their personal lists and have blessed us all by publishing them on-line.

Consider for example the freelance writer and editor from Philadelphia who compiled “The 20 Classic Self-Help Books to Get You Through the New Year.”  Strangely, at the top of her list is ‘The Art of War’ by Sun Tzu, a 2,000 year old ancient Chinese military manual.

Then there’s the young lady who came up with “The 20 Best Self Growth Books That Will Change Your Life.”  She describes herself as a resident of tropical South India, who rides a scooter, meditates, does yoga and helps people create fulfilling and unique lives.  She promises that the books on her list are sure to improve your life and give you a better understanding of wealth, success principles and health.  One book she announces fully explains how to get into the proper thought vibration to attract your desires; another explains the process of visualization and how to acquire the sixth sense; and still another teaches how to use universal laws and metaphysical studies to attain wealth and success; while one of her favorites came into being after the author “started channeling Jesus.”  She summarizes her findings as: “I’m not sure which particular book impacted my life most, because I read so many of them!”

One of my favorite list titles is “The 10 Best Self Help Books You Have to Read Before You Die.”  The gentleman who compiled it is described as the creator of “The Top-Down System,” a holistic personal development training course.  He assures his followers that “I personally read hundreds of self-help books in the past and this is my list of 10 books I would recommend to everybody without a second thought.”  His list of authors runs the gamut from Dale Carnegie to the Dalai Lama.  His number one is described as “a spiritual book.  It can connect you with yourself beyond your name, character, roles or body. You will learn to feel and trust your deeper sense of self again. Most importantly it helps you to be more alive and to center your consciousness in the present moment – The Now. The first chapter teaches you that ‘You Are Not Your Mind.’  And this is also the credo in order to really understand the book, which contains not just intellectual knowledge but also real transformational power: the ‘felt oneness with being’.”

A sub-genre of self-help book series also exists: such as the For Dummies guides and The Complete Idiot’s Guide to books.  How did we get to this point of relying on the dribble of foolish people rather than the wisdom of the Author of Creation?

Self-help advice provided from secular sources is really nothing new.  We even have evidence of such in ancient times.  For example, around 700 BC, the Greek poet Hesiod wrote Works and Days, which is a poem instructing his brother in the agricultural arts, but also offering him extensive moralizing advice on how he should live his life.  Then in the 3rd Century BC we know that the Stoics taught that destructive emotions resulted from errors in judgment, and that a person of moral and intellectual perfection would not suffer such emotions.  They also offered ethical advice on the notion of well-being, welfare, and flourishing.   Political and literary works during the Middle Ages and the Renaissance directly instructed rulers on certain aspects of rule and behavior, and created images of kings for imitation or avoidance, particularly for the benefit of a young and inexperienced ruler who was about to come to power.  These essentially represented a secular view of Biblical wisdom.  And Proverbs from many periods embody traditional moral and practical advice of diverse cultures.

The specific phrase “self-help” seems to have first appeared in the 1800s, most often in a legal context, referring to the doctrine that a party in a dispute has the right to use lawful means on their own initiative to remedy a wrong.  For some, George Combe’s Constitution (1828) inaugurated the self-help movement in the way that it advocated personal responsibility and the possibility of naturally sanctioned self-improvement through education or proper self-control.   The Oxford English Dictionary claims that “self-help” was regarded as a moral virtue as early as 1836, as evidenced in Thomas Carlyle’s novel Sartor Resartus.  In 1841, an essay by Ralph Waldo Emerson, entitled Compensation, was published suggesting “every man in his lifetime needs to thank his faults” and “acquire habits of self-help” as “our strength grows out of our weakness.”  In 1859, Samuel Smiles actually published the first self-consciously personal-development Self Help book — under that exact title.  Its opening sentence is: “Heaven helps those who help themselves.”   This was just a variation of a phrase used by Benjamin Franklin a century earlier in his Poor Richard’s Almanac: “God helps them that help themselves.”

“Self-help” really came into its own in the 20th century.  James Allen published As a Man Thinketh (1902), which proceeds from the conviction that a man’s character is the complete sum of all his thoughts.  The book maintains that noble thoughts make for a noble person, while lowly thoughts make for a miserable person.  And Carnegie’s success as a self-help author further developed the field with How to Win Friends and Influence People in 1936.  Having failed in several careers, Carnegie became fascinated with success and its link to self-confidence, and his books have since sold over 50 million copies.  Napoleon Hill’s Think and Grow Rich (1937) described the use of repeated positive thoughts to attract happiness and wealth by tapping into an “Infinite Intelligence.”  And Neville Yeomans, an Australian psychiatrist, clinical sociologist, psychologist and lawyer pioneered self-help and mutual help at Australia’s first therapeutic community in Sydney; and former inmates of this unit started many self-help groups around the metropolitan area.

In the final third of the 20th century, not only was there tremendous growth in self-help publishing, but the self-improvement culture really took off in other ways.  Some attribute this to the reduction in political activism, and the increase in social isolation.  Twelve-Step recovery groups popped up in which individuals sought a sense of community.   Then group and corporate attempts to aid the “seeker” moved into the marketplace, with Large Group Awareness Training (LGAT) and psychotherapy systems represented.  These offered prepackaged solutions to instruct people seeking their own individual betterment.  Some support groups are now even Internet based, with people in similar situations joining together on-line.  Of the many different self-help groupings, each has its own focus, techniques, associated beliefs, proponents and in some cases, leaders.  They delve into every nook and cranny of life — economically, intellectually, or emotionally.  And the culture has provided some of our most robust new language: recovery, dysfunctional families, and codependency.

From early examples in self-driven legal practice and home-spun advice, the connotations of the word have spread and often apply to education, business, psychology and psychotherapy.  Even the American Psychological Association (APA) has accepted that there are many potential benefits that self-help groups can provide that professionals may not be as equipped to satisfy.  These include friendship, emotional support, experiential knowledge, identity, meaningful roles, and a sense of belonging.  In A Layman’s Guide to Psychiatry and Psychoanalysis, Eric Berne says “there is something about ‘groupishness’ itself which is curative.”   And Daniel Goleman, in Emotional Intelligence claims that social isolation increases mortality by a factor of two, suggesting an added value to self-help groups such as Alcoholics Anonymous as surrogate communities.

While some psychologists have embraced an empirical self-help philosophy, aiming to refine the field by increasing scientifically sound research and well-engineered models, there’s also much criticism.  Scholars have targeted self-help claims as misleading and incorrect.  In 2005 Steve Salerno portrayed the American self-help movement not only as ineffective in achieving its goals, but also as socially harmful.  He uses the acronym SHAM: the Self-Help and Actualization Movement.  Salerno suggests that 80 percent of self-help and motivational customers are repeat customers and they keep coming back ‘whether the program worked for them or not’.  R. J. McAllister in Emotion: Mystery or Madness? and others point out that with self-help books “supply increases the demand… The more people read them, the more they think they need them… more like an addiction than an alliance.”  Lennard J. Davis, author of Obsession: A History, describes self-help writers as working “in the area of the ideological, the imagined, the narrativized…. although a veneer of scientism permeates their work, there is also an underlying armature of moralizing.”  Christopher Buckley, American political satirist and the author, in his book God is My Broker asserts: “The only way to get rich from a self-help book is to write one.”  Kathryn Schulz, freelance journalist and author suggests that “the underlying theory of the self-help industry is contradicted by the self-help industry’s existence.”

So here I stand, a “lone reed,” giving my own advice.  The “lone reed” term was coined by the Frank Navasky character in the 1998 movie, You’ve Got Mail, as he tells his girlfriend, Kathleen Kelly: “You are a lone reed standing tall–waving boldly–in the corrupt sands of commerce.”  But though you can get my advice for free, it only has value to the extent that it is reflective of God’s advice from the Bible.

I asked earlier, how did we get to this point of relying on the dribble of foolish people rather than the wisdom of the Author of Creation?  I believe the magnetism of the self-help industry comes down to mankind’s innate but misdirected pursuit of acceptance, success, and power.  Christian author Philip Yancey addresses this briefly in the following excerpt from his 1977 book, Where Is God When It Hurts?

Jesus captured succinctly the paradoxical nature of life in his one statement most repeated in the Gospels: “Whoever finds his life will lose it, and whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.”  Such a statement goes against the search for “self-fulfillment” in advanced psychology — which turns out not to be advanced enough. Christianity offers the further insight that true fulfillment comes, not through ego satisfaction, but through service to others. And that brings me to the last illustration of the pain/pleasure principle: the Christian concept of service.

 In my career as a journalist, I have interviewed diverse people. Looking back, I can roughly divide them into two types: stars and servants. The stars included NFL football greats, movie actors, music performers, famous authors, TV personalities, and the like. These are the people who dominate our magazines and our television programs. We fawn over them, pouring over the minutiae of their lives: the clothes they wear, the food they eat, the aerobic routines they follow, the people they love, the toothpaste they use.

 Yet I must tell you that, in my limited experience, these “idols” are as miserable a group of people as I have ever met. Most have troubled or broken marriages. Nearly all are hopelessly dependent on psychotherapy. In a heavy irony, these larger-than-life heroes seemed tormented by an incurable self-doubt.

 I also spent time with servants. People like Dr. Paul Brand, who worked for twenty years among the poorest of the poor, leprosy patients in rural India. Or health workers who left high-paying jobs to serve with Mendenhall Ministries in a backwater town of Mississippi. Or relief workers in Somalia, Sudan, Ethiopia, Bangladesh, or other such repositories of world-class human suffering. Or the Ph.D.’s scattered throughout the jungles of South America translating the Bible into obscure languages.

 I was prepared to honor and admire these servants, to hold them up as inspiring examples. I was not, however, prepared to envy them. But as I now reflect on the two groups side-by-side, stars and servants, the servants clearly emerge as the favored ones, the graced ones. They work for low pay, long hours, and no applause, “wasting” their talents and skills among the poor and uneducated. But somehow in the process of living their lives they have found them. They have received the “peace that is not of this world.”

 When I think of the great churches I have visited, what comes to mind is not an image of a cathedral in Europe. These are mere museums now. Instead, I think of the chapel at Carville, of an inner-city church in Newark with crumbling plaster and a leaky roof, of a mission church in Santiago, Chile, made of concrete block and corrugated iron. In these places, set amidst human misery, I have seen Christian love abound.

 The leprosarium in Carville, Louisiana, offers a wonderful example of this principle in action. A government agency bought the property and promised to develop it, but could find no one to clear the roads, repair the plantation’s slave cabins, or drain the swamps. The stigma of leprosy kept everyone away.

 Finally an order of nuns, the Sisters of Charity, moved to Carville to nurse the leprosy patients. Getting up two hours before daybreak, wearing starched white uniforms in bayou heat, these nuns lived under a more disciplined rule that any Marine boot camp. But they alone proved willing to do the work. They dug ditches, laid foundations for buildings, and made Carville livable, all the while glorifying God and bringing joy to the patients. They learned perhaps the deepest level of pain/pleasure association in life, that of sacrificial service.

 If I spend my life searching for happiness through drugs, comfort, and luxury, it will elude me. “Happiness recedes from those who pursue her.” Happiness will come upon me unexpectedly as a by-product, a surprising bonus for something I have invested myself in. And, most likely, that investment will include pain. It is hard to imagine pleasure without it.

Greatness defined in a simple life

Over the years I’ve been fortunate to have “rubbed shoulders” with several influential men and women – from general officers to their civilian counterparts and department secretaries, from local and national politicians to captains of industry.  Most of these I admired for their people skills as well as the ingenuity, the energy, the courage, the perseverance and the sheer determination that it took for them to reach the pinnacle of their careers.  Yet, as I look back at the interaction I had with each, few could I firmly point to and say that he or she was without doubt a follower of Christ.

The worldly of course would take comfort in this and proclaim a victory in their effort to secularize every American institution, in the name of “freedom from religion,” which incidentally has no place in the U.S. Constitution.  But God says:  “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven.”  So it comes down to the weak and lowly among us (in the eyes of the world – not of God), and the faithful, to put our lamps on the lampstand and proclaim the love of our Lord through our good works and our voices.

This was the life of our dear brother, Ronnie Smith, who was gunned down December 5th in Benghazi, Libya at the same age as Jesus, when He went to the cross.  Ronnie and my youngest son were class mates for a short time and my wife and I were privileged to minister together with Ronnie’s parents at that time in our local church.  As Ronnie’s dad explained at this past Friday’s memorial, Ronnie didn’t die on December 5th; for he gave up his life completely to Christ his last years of high school.  He also shared that Ronnie’s iPad was retrieved after the shooting, and he was listening to a message given by Rev John Piper at the instant of his death.

Ronnie prepared for his future by attending Wayne State University, graduating with honors in Chemistry.  He married his lovely wife Anita, and they moved to Austin, Texas so he could work on his post-graduate degree at UT.  Throughout this period he kept feeling the pull of God toward the ministry – and he finally announced to his graduate director that he was leaving to work for God.  His director’s response: “What a waste!”  It took several years and his eventual martyrdom for the university to recognize and announce that his life was valuable and honorable.

Ronnie and his family moved to Benghazi a year and a half ago to teach high school chemistry at the International School and to be a blessing to the Libyan people.  Ronnie and Anita turned down a safe job to pastor a church in Texas, to enter the dangerous realm of the Middle East, with their new-born son, Hosea.  But Ronnie loved Libya and was dedicated to his students to help them aspire to their dreams.  Ronnie’s greatest desire was for peace and prosperity in Libya and for the people of Libya to have the joy of knowing God through Christ.  Every one of his students wrote letters to Ronnie’s family acknowledging his care for them and how much he had inspired them.

Before moving to Benghazi, Ronnie and Anita were members of the Austin Stone Community Church and on their staff.  They were planning to spend time before Christmas in Austin.  Anita and their son Hosea had returned to the U.S. and are safe with family in Michigan.  Ronnie, out of a sense of dedication, had stayed in Libya to be with his students through their midterm exams.

Ronnie was a brother in Christ and a faithful servant for many years.  Although we grieve because we have lost a friend, a husband, and a father, we know beyond a shadow of a doubt that God has a greater purpose than we can imagine right now.  Though we don’t fully understand right now, we place our full trust in the one who does until we see our friend again.

It was truly an honor to attend our brother’s memorial – for it was a celebration of a true soldier of God’s Army.  Ronnie’s former youth pastor and his parent’s current pastor used Ronnie’s personal journal to frame their messages; and it was like listening to an Epistle written by a close friend who had walked with Jesus – which, in fact, was the case.  Like the apostle Paul, Ronnie had dealt with his own shortcomings, talked with the Holy Spirit about them, and resolved them to the glory of the Father.  The following scriptures are two of Ronnie’s favorites:

There are many who say, “Who will show us any good?”  Lord, lift up the light of Your countenance upon us.  You have put gladness in my heart, more than in the season that their grain and wine increased.  I will both lie down in peace, and sleep; for You alone, O Lord, make me dwell in safety.  Psalm 4:6-8

I now rejoice in my sufferings for you, and fill up in my flesh what is lacking in the afflictions of Christ, for the sake of His body, which is the church,…   Colossians 1:24

I am honored to join with the Austin Stone community in praying for Anita, their son Hosea, and the rest of Anita and Ronnie’s family and invite other Christians to do the same.  We grieve for the loss of our brother with the hope of Christ and we trust that God’s will is perfect and His purposes are good.  His memory will live on and be an inspiration for many others.  As long as the Church is on earth, there will be faithful brothers and sisters willing to fill the shoes of great saints such as Ronnie Smith.

The Austin Stone Church will be assisting Ronnie’s wife, Anita, financially.  If you would like to make a gift in memory of Ronnie Smith, please follow this link to the Austin Stone site.

Proceeds from the sale of The History of Redemption, an illustrated collection of scriptures edited by Ronnie Smith, will support the Smith family. You can purchase a copy of the book here.

Kick the “t” out of can’t

Several years ago I heard a message with this same title.  Unfortunately, the title is all that remains lodged in my memory.  But I like the phrase, so I decided to write my own message.

Can’t is one of those unique words in the English language that both reveals the attitude of the speaker and triggers an emotional response from the hearer.  Ask a four-year-old to tie his shoes, or a seventeen-year-old to do his calculus homework, or a thirty-three-old husband to fix a clogged garbage disposal, you’re likely to get a common “I can’t.”   Of course, what each means is, “I don’t feel like it”, or “Why don’t you do it instead”, or “It’s not convenient for me to do at this time.”  On the other hand, if a person in authority, (a parent, a teacher, a pastor or a policeman) tells the four-year-old, “You can’t go outside and play,” or the seventeen-year-old, “You can’t associate with that boy,” or the thirty-three-year-old male, “You can’t drive over the speed limit,” watch their reaction and see if their behavior doesn’t try to prove the authority figure wrong.

I think I stand on pretty firm ground when I say that the Bible doesn’t like the word “can’t,” either in a directive or in a response.

So how does a parent avoid using the word can’t and still keep order in the household?  In his letter to the church at Colossae, the Apostle Paul put it this way: “Fathers, do not exasperate your children, that they may not lose heart.” And when he wrote to the Ephesians he said it a little differently: “Fathers, do not provoke your children to anger; but bring them up in the discipline and instruction of the Lord.”   If I were interpreting Paul, I’d say, “Guide your kids, but don’t nag them.”  I really believe most parents sincerely desire to create a positive, constructive environment in the home; one where they’re involved in their children’s lives.  Parents need to learn to balance discipline and trust, protection but not over-protection, helping them set and meet realistic goals, all the while communicating love both verbally and physically. No one said it’s going to be easy. 

And what about the rest of us?  We’re told to encourage one another to be the best we can be.   And that’s exactly what the Bible does for us.  It encourages us by telling us: You can do all things through Christ, Who strengthens you; or when it says: you are the head and not the tail – you are above only and never beneath – when you are obedient to your Creator.  Even if you think you’re the one exception to the rule and you believe you are physically and intellectually challenged, the Bible has a word of encouragement for you, “God has chosen the foolish things of the world to put to shame the wise, and God has chosen the weak things of the world to put to shame the things which are mighty; and the base things of the world and the things which are despised God has chosen, and the things which are not, to bring to nothing the things that are, that no flesh should glory in His presence.”

History is filled with people who overcame physical and emotional handicaps.  T.D. Jakes was told as a young boy he’d never be able to preach because of a bad lisp.  Now he has a vast ministry that reaches millions.  Smith Wigglesworth lacked self-confidence and couldn’t speak from the pulpit for more than 2 or 3 minutes before breaking down in tears and asking someone else to finish for him.  But God gave him the ability to preach and travel all over the world.  And nearly everyone has heard of Helen Keller, who contracted a disease at nineteen months of age that made her both deaf and blind – still she became a prolific author, political activist, and lecturer.

So the next time you’re tempted to say “I can’t do that!”, just hold your tongue.  And the next time some tries to discourage you by telling you, you can’t attain one of your dreams, ignore them.  Believe in yourself – the highly valuable person God sees when He looks at you – and trust in Him to draw that out of you.

Every man dies – Not every man really lives


I never thought I’d be quoting the Scottish folk hero, William Wallace, as portrayed in the film Braveheart.  But I was blessed to know such a man who “really lived” on this earth, but who passed over to his eternal reward this past week.  There has been so much already said about Pastor James Lee Beall, that my words seem so trivial. 

 Pastor James was a rock star in Christian circles, invited to travel the nation and much of the world to speak to hundreds of thousands and to teach other leaders; yet I was honored to proclaim that he was my pastor for seventeen years.  And in spite of his notoriety, (he had many legitimate titles and could have been called Doctor Beall or Bishop Beall) he preferred simply to be addressed as brother Jim.

The man who gave the farewell address at his home-going spoke of a number of times he was able to glean wisdom from brother Jim over a cup of coffee at the Waffle House.  I only had a couple one-on-ones with the Pastor.  That was my fault, not his.  Because I just knew he could read my soul, and I was terrified of what he might reveal to me.

The first one-on-one was a couple years after we had started to attend Bethesda Christian Church.  I had been assisting the Dean of the Bible College and substitute teaching her Old Testament class whenever she took vacation or had to go out of town.  At the end of the year she recommended that I take over that instructor’s position full time, since she was over-loaded in other areas of ministry.

Brother Jim called me down to his office.  He graciously thanked me for all my service.  He told me how wonderful it was to have my family as a part of the congregation.  He talked about my kids – since he really did know a lot about each one and how they were doing in the school.  Then he explained to me why I wasn’t ready to take over full time teaching of the Old Testament class.  And he was absolutely right.  I had all the head knowledge necessary – but it hadn’t yet moved down that eighteen inches to my heart.

My second meeting with him was at my request.  Three years had passed, and a personal issue surfaced between another family member and ourselves.  In the midst of Sandy and I trying to resolve the issue, the other person said they had called Pastor Beall to complain about us.  Begrudgingly I scheduled a meeting with my pastor that I thought was now necessary.  Dreading the event, and contemplating for hours how I would handle it and what I would say, I showed up at his office.  Once again, brother Jim welcomed me with his magnetic smile.  He graciously thanked us for all our service and asked how the kids were doing – since by now my daughter had graduated from high school and my oldest boy was attending De La Salle.  At some point I began to explain the reason for requesting the meeting.  I had barely begun when my pastor stopped me and said, “John – let me tell you the same thing I told the person who called last week.”  Then he began to relate in clear English, the guidance Jesus gave His disciples for resolving differences between acquaintances.  He shook my hand firmly, smiled and I left – knowing I had the Pastor’s love and support.

Brother Jim couldn’t read your mind, but he could read your spirit – because he was so close to the One who created that spirit.  I didn’t always agree with his position, but I always respected it, as he respected the positions of others who were willing to discuss those differing positions in a mature fashion.  It bugged a lot of people that he was such a stickler for decent dress and appearance.  [He once told a group of young people that they couldn’t attend the Wednesday night youth meeting with purple hair, and that upset several who refused to return to the church.]  This was one area that I didn’t agree with his approach; yet I understood where he was coming from.  For he saw people as God intended them to become, not as they were – and he was doing everything he could to encourage them to reach that pinnacle of success.  He knew that purple hair and certain bad behaviors would hinder that.

At twenty years his junior, I hope that someday I will merit some semblance of the welcome I know he received upon his approach to the Lord’s throne: “Well done, good and faithful servant.”