The Saving Grace of Beauty

As much as I am a curmudgeon when it comes to resisting the commercialization of Christmas, I do have my own traditions to follow, costing me little but still held by me as dearly precious because of this lack in marketable value. One of these is my annual reading of Charles Dickens’ A Christmas Carol. I came by this story as a child the way most of us do, watching one of the many adaptations of the novella available to us on television – and that once again coming to me at no cost.

It wasn’t until I was in my twenties that I took up a softcover copy of the book and worked my way through its circuitous route to redemption; a change you could say was mine as much as Ebenezer’s.  I was amazed at how much of the text for such a short work still had to be excised in order to fit the many characters and scenes into a celluloid time capsule. Discovering the true scope of the work was a transcendent experience, marking me with a sense of loyalty to Dickens’ original vision and purpose in creating his marvelous composition.

Last week I posted a lament about one of the failings of the film versions of this story, the loss – intended or otherwise – of the Christian message inherent in a miser’s transformation from a one-dimensional impersonation of a human being into a multi-faceted participant in society with a humbled, compassionate and generous spirit. Without quoting chapter and verse, Dickens gave Scrooge the soul of a disciple, whose actions befit the description offered by Jesus of those who will inherit the kingdom of heaven: “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, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” (Matthew 25:35-36)

We credit Scrooge’s going through the change of life to the visitations and administrations of the three spirits foretold by Jacob Marley’s ghost. But the role of these three apparitions is little more than that of supernaturally endowed tour guides, expertly revealing the necessary scenes to induce an internal sense of shock and awe in the old fellow’s crusty and thoroughly calcified heart. It is the people who inhabit these scenes, who induce the feelings of remorse and repentance which lead to Scrooge’s reformation.

For my part I find three of these characters essential to the story’s success, though you may have ample cause to disagree with me on this point. All three are female and all three exhibit the one external quality that makes the internal virtues they possess (which we are supposed to prize above all) perfectly appealing. And that is the quality of beauty; gentleness, compassion, joy, perseverance and affection follow.

The first of my three beauties is Fan, Scrooge’s younger sister. We see her only when she arrives at her brother’s school with the glad tidings that their father is so much nicer now and has consented to her pleas of allowing Ebenezer to come home. She brings color to the otherwise drab appearance of the school before she departs with her prize. We see in this contrast a clear distinction between living and merely existing. And it is here that Scrooge takes his first tentative step towards redemption.

My second choice is Belle, Scrooge’s fiancée. We have no basis for believing that this is an affectionate shortening of a longer proper name like Maybelle, Clarabelle, or Lulabelle. Therefore we can take her literally at face value (pun intended) and understand that Dickens was relying on our knowledge of French to understand that her name represented her captivating features, for Belle means beauty when conversing a La Francaise.

She makes a sudden appearance during which she terminates her engagement to Scrooge because he treasures money more than he does her. We see her a second time in an episode many years after the fateful denouement of her romance with Scrooge, only this time she is the centerpiece of a happy home; married with exuberant children and a supportive husband about her. Check out the illustrations of A Christmas Carol by Arthur Rackham and you will see that my assessment of her was shared by this impeccable illustrator and why seeing her in her happy estate she is the cause for Scrooge’s extinguishing the light of the Ghost of Christmas Past. A step back, perhaps, from the two steps he had taken forward.

My third and final choice is the one you may find easy to refute due to its tenuous hold on reality, even for an examination of a work of fiction. It is Fan reborn in the persons of her son Fred and his charming, anonymous wife. Fred has all the virtues of the persistent and loving person his mother was with regard to her older brother Ebenezer. Fred’s wife has Fan’s physical frailties, which make her exquisitely delicate as she serves as an overseer but non-participant in all of the Christmas Day festivities. It is her approval Scrooge seeks to secure when he appears at their home following his total reclamation as a responsive and responsible human being.

This fantasy merge of personalities may be overreach on my part, but it allows me to press home my personal interpretation of Dickens’ masterpiece as a means to express an opinion about the meaning of life as I see it.

Without beauty life would have no meaning. In a world devoid of the delectable décor of landscapes, habitations and the human heart, we would forebear the pursuit of living as there would be no inspiration for attaining possessions, prestige, lovers and the offspring who perpetuate our self-image. Love may be a many-splendored thing, seemingly capable of making the world go round. But without a beautiful, transformative object on which to bestow our affection, love would simply be another four-letter word and hardly worth the effort to make in any way, shape or form. We would all be as stubbornly selfish and intransigently tightfisted as misers, simply marking time until our meager lights are extinguished as the only benefit to bless an otherwise benighted world.

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Resurrecting Marley’s Ghost

It’s a given. It’s December and the ghosts of Christmas spectacles have come to life in their lavish and extravagantly brilliant manifestations. Crass commercialism is an obvious specter, haunting every advertising avenue imaginable in order to convince us that purgatory awaits those who fail to spend excessively on everyone we know; the magnitude of our spending proffering a materialistic view of salvation. Carols, having been played since the end of October, are already wheezing from exhaustion and will be the first to drop dead again with the stroke of midnight on the 25th. No mourners will be in evidence at that late and sated hour.

Christmas themed movies abound. The Hallmark Channel alone can elicit the coming of all ye faithful to a redundant feast of characters and plots in these tailor made for TV addiction stories. Their sameness includes a cast of impossibly young and beautiful people caught up in seasonally appropriate romantic confusion. The similarities amongst the scripts offer up a series of one-dimensional characters, who must first hate or distrust each other in order for the magic of  Christmas to transform them into happily-ever-after couples, radiating joy to the world, while defining White Christmas as an affluent, ethnic luxury. Pardon my own Scrooge-like cynicism here.

Speaking of Scrooge, his own story has gone through many interpretations and tis the season to see them all. My own introduction to this woeful character, who  – like his Hallmark counterparts – also undergoes a magnificent transformation but without the benefit of a beauty queen paramour to aid his transition, was through one of the televised accounts being played on a Christmas morning. The first actor I can recall in the role of this forcefully redeemed misfit is Reginald Owens in a credible 1938 adaptation of the book by Charles Dickens. Apparently on another local station, one that I did not watch out of loyalty to some other brand, you could find Alastair Sim’s portrayal of Scrooge in the 1951 classic, which is often regarded as the best telling (or retelling or is it retailing?) ever made.

Such movies comprise the ghosts of my own Christmases past, but I have laid them to rest in preference for the real deal. It is only in the pages of the written word that you can get the complete Dickens logos, pathos and ethos – with even a mild touch of eros added in for good measure – which no live action or animated feature has ever willingly captured.

Part of the reason may be due to the inexplicable complexities of his story. For instance watch how the various versions try to cope with his convoluted accountability for time. The ghostly visits are foretold to take place over three early morning encounters and yet transpire in just one. For another look at the vast array of sites visited however briefly by Scrooge and his spectral tour guides in order for Dickens to effect the old man’s rehabilitation in a rational (for a fantasy work) way. Then you can get a sense of why the respective producers made cuts to the fabric of the story in order to maintain a rational, if not sufficient, budget; storyline, in most cases, be damned.

My own conspiracy theory about exclusion of scenes, characters and sentiments is due to the heavy dose of religious (aka Christian) influence in the Dickens text needing to be eradicated in order to make the production marketable and thereby profitable. And to justify my perspective I must here resurrect the image of Jacob Marley, the character whose name will be forever stamped with the ignominy of being deader than a doornail.

Marley admits that he does not know how it is he has been allowed to be seen and heard by his former partner, Ebenezer Scrooge. But he makes the best use of it by terrifying the poor rascal first with loud wails and the clashing of the debilitating chain he forged in life and then lamenting about his own flagrant disregard for the needs of others. When told that he was always a good man of business, Marley delivers his best remembered line that “Mankind was my business.” This statement is universally included in every live action and animated version of A Christmas Carol but without ever telling anyone the reason why this charitable obligation was so. Profit is the only motive for doing business, not benevolence, but this point is blithely ignored in every retelling (retailing) of the story in the belief that the audience will not question Marley’s logic.

One must read the book to find out why his dispirited proclamation and his perpetual travail make sense. It stems from the fact that in Dickens’ world the Sermon on the Mount not only makes sense, it and other admonitions by a young, itinerant rabbi were mandates for one’s behavior; profitability being displaced by faith, hope and charity. Marley’s most anguished speech is subsequently excised from the adaptations as his lament over his lack of spiritual knowledge is too firmly rooted in the Christian worldview to be palatable even in a Hollywood paean to seasonal tidings of humanistic comfort and joy. But I will give Dickens, in the person of Marley, his due by closing this paean to dissent with these unexpurgated words:

“Oh! captive, bound, and doubled-ironed, not to know that ages of incessant labor, by immortal creatures, for this earth must pass into eternity before the good of which it is susceptible is all developed! Not to know that any Christian spirit working kindly in its little sphere, whatever it may be, will find its mortal life too short for its vast means of usefulness! Not to know that no space of regret can make amends for one life’s opportunities misused! Yet such was I! Oh, such was I!”

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A Gettysburg Moment Lost

Cemeteries have their own form of celebrity. They are gardens planted with a peculiar type of seed, producing a forest of stone, metal and wooden markers in various configurations, but all with the same solemn message: Sorrow resides here. No matter how green the landscape, how well tended its attempt at grandeur, the beauty of a cemetery is merely a distraction from the bleak truth of its existence – death and our confrontation with an unyielding separation.

Such permanence ends dreams for those bound deep beneath the earth’s grasp as well as for those still upright yet clutched by grief’s unrelenting hand on the heart, relinquishing one’s desire only as the cruel ethereal dross of despair. In a world devoid of sin we still regard it as sin to deface, defame or denounce the sanctity of an exactitude we can only revere.

Beware, then, the fool who trespasses on its forlorn supremacy as an exemplar of our fate, ignoring the collective anguish of all survivors, for only hate ensues. It is best to consider the routine rituals of respect – laying wreaths, somber dress, bowing deep, bare-headed and contrite – if one cannot aspire to the heights of a Gettysburg moment.

President Lincoln set the benchmark for solemn commemoration of both a cause (a government of, by and for the people) and the individuals who gave “the last full measure of devotion” to that cause. His words are enshrined in marble halls, on bronze plaques and within the most humane of hearts, his own tomb a place of pilgrimage for those who know honor as a virtue and a debt.

One does not need to be president in order to express an honorable sentiment about the dead. And a president does not need to be as eloquent as Lincoln to attain a favorable comparison with his display of practiced character. But a president must be willing to go through the motions, even when it is raining, in order to avoid something far worse from descending upon him with the benighted grace of a raven instead of a dove.

The chosen emblem of respect, a plastic poppy for a boutonniere, can shield even the falsest heart over which it is placed. But absence can become an unforgiving presence in the hearts of others, who prey on such omissions as carrion for a scavenging beast. Sadly, in their desire to gorge, honor from any source is neglected in preference for other tantalizing morsels.

In Flanders fields the poppies blow between the crosses, row on row.  So wrote John McCrae, who made a dire warning about those who break faith with the dead. His sentiment concerned those who exemplified the truth of Lincoln’s words about devotion, but the obligation to keep faith with the dead applies to us all. Yet another Gettysburg moment was lost on an anniversary made all the more preeminent in our awareness for its centenary attainment. Maybe in 2045 we will see a rebirth of sacred duty to those who lay buried in other fields but for the same cause that governments pledged to freedom will not perish beneath the burden of human greed and the lust for power.

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The Profits of Personality

During the writing of this series of messages about our political disorder and my own preference for developing an independent mindset versus being lost to a pathological lockstep with any political party, I was introduced to two books that have helped to shape my further thinking on the subject of character. The first of these was written by James Davison Hunter entitled The Death of Character, which was published in 2000. In it he made a passing reference to the second book, published in 1985, and written by Warren I Susman, entitled Culture as History.

Susman’s contribution to the discussion is the premise that America went through a transformation during the 20th Century, moving from a culture of character to one of personality. The old Puritan-producer order, with its emphasis on the development of the moral qualities we call character, was displaced by the new, custom made for a consumer society dynamic of personality, with its emphasis on being “liked and admired.”  He quotes a line from French writer Henry Laurent’s 1916 book Personality: How to Build It as being truly representative of that new age of self-aggrandizement, who stated, “Personality is the quality of being Somebody.”

Ironically Laurent’s title informs us that personality, like character, must be formed in keeping with the accepted social order of the moment. Self-help books like Laurent’s abounded with their emphasis on developing the most appealing face, voice, poise, clothes and attitude. The ultimate sign of one’s success in becoming Somebody could be found in having followers or, in 21st Century terms, a posse.

If I understand Hunter’s thesis correctly – and by the way neither book is an easy read – then I would say he is in agreement with Susman’s claim about the transition from a character culture to one of personality. But despite his book’s title, Hunter does hold to the belief that character is not dead. It is still present in our society, just confined to the small enclaves where creeds still exist, which help members of these isolated communities form convictions, which in turn help shape one’s character. The overwhelming problem, in his view, is that our institutions have succumbed to the cult of personality, making it hard, if not impossible, for the role of character to resume its once dominate place in the American way of life.

My reason for writing this lengthy preamble to my intended message is not to go intellectual on anyone. That would, after all, put a dent in my acceptability, which would work against any attempt at enhancing my personality. But this Hunter-Susman collaboration in my reading formed a perfectly timed example of just what their academic acclamations look like in real time. My example is the reporting via Yahoo (that wonderful source of non-news) of Justin Bieber and Hailey Baldwin foregoing the usual strikingly costumed celebrity celebrations of Halloween in order to attend a church service.

First of all, that I was looking at a Yahoo headline was not my fault. I still have a Yahoo e-mail account and as any user knows, when you sign out from your account you exit through Yahoo news. This is the internet equivalent of exiting a ride at Disneyland, where one must pass through a gift shop in order to breathe fresh air. And this is where I learned about the escapist attempt at holiness promulgated by this famous pair of media darlings.

What I know about the Biebs, besides this affectionately shortening of his name by his fans, is that he is the male counterpart of Taylor Swift, both being musical juggernauts in terms of popularity and sales. But being a father of two adult children, one who favored heavy metal and the other country music, neither Swift nor Bieber ever laid claim to the hearts and minds of my children, leaving me deprived of hearing their songs emanating from the juvenile confines of my household. This means I am clueless about their musical catalogue as well as the sound of their voices. I am definitely not a camp follower, but that does not diminish their popularity and therefore the evidence of their personalities in any way. With regards to Hailey Baldwin, I had to do some further research to discover which Baldwin brother she was descended from. It’s Stephen, the youngest, if you are as culturally deficient as me.

But this deficiency in my own awareness of today’s pop culture only heightened my interest in the story behind the headline about their church attendance. So I did what any curious soul wielding today’s technology would do. I clicked on the link, which took me to a website boasting of a couple of photos with captions and a description of what the Biebs and the Babe wore on their outing. There was no mention by name of the church they attended, what the message was – if any – that held more appeal for Bieber and Baldwin than a Halloween-themed outing, or an insightful quote from the couple about the meaning of their faith in their life as recently weds. But you could follow another link that would tell you how you too could get Ms. Baldwin’s “look” by purchasing the right style of clothes; affirmation of Susman’s claim that personality is the perfect expression of a consumer society.

The kids deserve better, but this is the price of personality. The qualities of face, voice, poise, clothes and attitude touted as essential in the early 1900s has proven to be paramount more than a hundred years later. And if Susman were still alive, he could feel justly vindicated in his academic assessment of what was taking place with this paradigm shift from character to personality development and its apparent permanence. What is important now is what’s on the surface. It is – to borrow a now popular phrase –  “flipping the script” between character and personality. What you get is what you see and that through the long-distance lens of the digital age, proving that the current cult of personality is no longer personal.

All of this puts me in mind of a rather prophetic song made popular by Lloyd Price during my own youthful development.  In 1959 he sang about his foolish enslavement to the girl of his dreams who had – you guessed it – personality. Its allure was evident in her walk, talk, smile and charm. But at least there was still some aspect of character present as he crooned about her great big heart; a symbol of substance beneath the veneer of what another song of that era touted as poetry in motion.

Rave on, Lloyd Price; you were a prophet without intention, the depth of your insight inversely proportional to the shallowness of our values.

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A Candidate Checklist

Sometimes one of my messages prompts a response, usually in the form of a query and usually made in private. It has been my experience that people prefer to stay out of the line of fire and therefore avoid making their quest for knowledge public for fear of drawing a rebuke from some unknown outlier. And the internet has proven to be excellent camouflage for multiple outliers, helping them to maintain their physical as well as their emotional distance when taking aim at the unsuspecting.

The solution to placing one’s self in such a vulnerable position is to seek a private audience, just as Nicodemus did when he confronted Jesus with his deep felt need to resolve some troubling issues. Their encounter took place at night in an isolated garden, where this representative of Israel’s ruling elite received an answer from an itinerant rabbi that has subsequently ignited the passions of Christians in every century since. Central to our faith is the declaration Jesus made that night that God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. This quote is from the Apostle John’s good news book, catalogued as Chapter 3, verse 16 as stated in the New International Version of the Bible (NIV).

I have no such seminal statement to make. But my own Nicodemus sat across from me at lunch, troubled by my comment that we should appraise each candidate on their individual merits and not because of their party affiliation. On the surface this sounds like a lot of work and frankly it can be, especially in light of how many office seekers there are across the political spectrum. But when you consider that we typically vote for only three federal offices (president, senator, and house member) in any one election, plus a variable number of state offices (governor, state senator, state rep and in some cases judges) the number of candidates to consider in any one election is manageable. Of course I have discounting local offices, whose candidates often run unopposed.

Here is an immediate plug to pull. Anyone who uses fear tactics in their speeches or who relies on the shaming and bullying techniques of campaign advertising does not merit your support and should not get your vote. A simple survey of the campaigns being waged across party lines makes it seem impossible to vote for anyone, then, as such tactics are fairly common these days. Not everyone, however, stoops to this level of making their opponent look like so much trash in order to make their own selves appear to smell better. The folks who campaign solely on policy and perspective are few and thereby easy to identify. We must, however, go deeper in our assessment process if we are to seek and find the best among us to serve in these various governance positions.

For the Christian faithful the criteria for leadership has been clearly delineated, rooted in Hebrew Scriptures and amplified by the ethos of the new covenant born of the life-giving essentials of love and sacrifice that Jesus shared with Nicodemus. The most explicit statement about these qualities was penned by the Apostle Paul in a letter to his young disciple, Timothy. His purpose was to help the younger man know what qualities to look for in choosing good leaders for the newly forming communities committed to the principles espoused by Jesus in those open-air seminars held by the lake shore and on the hillsides of Galilee.

Here is a trustworthy saying, Paul wrote in his first known letter to Timothy. If anyone sets his heart on being an overseer, he desires a noble task. This quote can be found in Chapter 3, verse 1 of that letter. And again I am using the NIV.

The Greek word for overseer is episkopos, meaning a guardian. It was a concept popularly used by Plato in describing the need for reputable men to serve as guardians of the Republic. It was a concept easily adaptable to the development of those mini-republics we call churches, which were in need of finding leaders who could foster the growth and security of these newly forming communities, which lacked a natural elder-based form of selection. They also co-opted the Greek term ekklesia, when referring to these local congregations. This was the Greek word for the free citizens of any community, who were literally “called out” to a democratic assembly, to discuss and vote on issues concerning their community. This was not an accidental or serendipitous choice of terms but a deliberate attempt at capturing another aspect of the Spirit filled life and that is freedom. Ekklesia came closest to representing the inherent nature of the Christian community as Jesus promised each individual that you will know the truth and the truth will set you free. This promise can be found in John’s book, Chapter 8, verse 32 in the NIV.

Paul’s hint at the character of any individual qualified to be an overseer can be found in his modifier about the task being morally noble in itself. An overseer or guardian, therefore, must be equally noble in character in order to fulfill the role. Then, when we add the external factors of living in the multi-ethnic, multi-cultural dynamics of the Roman Empire, we get a better appreciation for the nature of the extensive list of qualities he looked for in the guardians of these Christian assemblies, where the members were free and equal in spirit if not in the class structure of their day.

To be an overseer or guardian, Paul’s first and perhaps foremost qualification was that a person must be above reproach. This really is a summation of a person’s reputation based on the consistent manifestation of all the other facets of character, which comprise the balance of his list. And it should be regarded as an assessment by one’s peers, those who know us best, for Paul added an item at the last that an overseer must also have a good reputation with outsiders. This second scenario applies to people who lack an awareness of us based on intimacy yet still retain a favorable opinion of us as servant leaders based on what they do see and hear in the more open settings of our work, our neighborhoods or even in those pesky campaign ads that become overly ubiquitous in the months preceding each election.

Paul’s second item on his list is significant for two reasons. He said of an overseer that he must be the husband of but one wife. To appreciate the concern expressed here is to understand that in the culture of his day a woman’s safety and security was totally dependent upon a man and that preferably being her husband. It was an ancient custom, especially among the Hebrew people, that a man could simply write out a certificate of divorce to rid himself of a less desirable wife. There was no property dispute or custody battle as the woman had no legal rights with which to sue for an equitable share of family and home. Jesus had shocked his own closest followers by teaching that for them divorce was not an option. A wife’s vulnerability was to be given the highest priority in their ministry, subsequently serving as an example of the care and concern they had for others. A husband of but one wife was giving visible evidence of his willingness to put another’s needs first, when providing the protective care required for survival in that culture.

The second point is easily discerned in the fact that we all make pledges when we marry. Wedding vows are common place and in Paul’s day the type of vow a man made to a woman can be seen in the words Jesus recited to his disciples the night before he was arrested, tried an executed. In a private room, where he celebrated the Passover Feast with these men, he used the words of a groom’s vow to his prospective bride to prepare them for the consequences that were about to befall them all. He said Do not let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God; trust also in me. In my Father’s house are many rooms; if it were not so, I would have told you. I am going there to prepare a place for you. And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come back and take you to be with me that you also may be where I am. This scene, portrayed in John’s account as Chapter 14, verses 1-3 in the NIV, helps us understand that the integrity, honor and trustworthiness of a husband of but one wife is clearly on display by his faithfulness in keeping, for a lifetime, the vow he made to the young and dependent girl betrothed to him in marriage.

The balance of Paul’s list, found in his letter to Timothy, is comprised of internal character traits and external acts revealing a person’s commitment to those traits. An overseer must be temperate, self-controlled, respectable, hospitable, able to teach, not given to drunkenness, not violent but gentle, not quarrelsome, not a lover of money. He must manage his own family well and see that his children obey him with proper respect. (If anyone does not know how to manage his own family, how can he take care of God’s church?) He must not be a recent convert, or he may become conceited and fall under the same judgment as the devil. (I Timothy, Chapter 3, verses 2-7 NIV)

When Paul described the attributes of an overseer, he was building on a foundation of Christian symbolism fostered by the Apostle Peter, who regarded Jesus as the Shepherd and Overseer of our souls. This was a very personal representation for Peter to make as he was the one given the direct command by the Good Shepherd to feed and care for “my sheep” and “my lambs”. Peter personified the twin roles of shepherd and overseer, while Paul gave them a more uniform, institutional clout with his focus on the role of the overseer as a governor with a heart. And like the guardians of Plato’s Republic, those who ascended to this position were to be the type of people who best exhibited the character traits codified by Paul; people who did not shun their responsibility to seek the greatest good for the entire community as opposed to those who pander to a much smaller segment we now refer to as “the base.”

We say a lot about ourselves in the way in which we cast our votes. But in the privacy of the voting booth that message can remain merely internal, a conversation with our own conscience about the quality of leadership we desire for our nation. And while we cannot control the caliber of those who seek an elected office, we can control the quality of our own selection process, even if that sometimes means refraining from voting for an office due to the confining presence of candidates who fall well short of the candidate checklist supplied for us in Scripture.

Are we limited, then, to voting for only Christian candidates? No; people, whose source of convictions coincides with our own, are worthy of our support as guardians of a republic as rich in its diversity as is the current version of the American republic. This alleviates us from the burden of voting for those who lay claim to the evangelical mantel but live in opposition to its principles. Hypocrisy is not to be rewarded. We can also dismiss the idea that we are limited to voting for men only. We are free in this day and in our culture to vote for the person of either gender we deem to be the most qualified for the role of overseer. So enjoy your freedom and give voice to your conscience. Vote!

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The Value(s) of Character

I did not intend to start a new series of messages, but it is shaping up to be that way. And the politicians, those surrogates of a proselytizing devil, made me do it. Their infiltration into my thinking began when I heard my first political ad of the campaign season. It was negative in its content and made blatant use of the technique of shaming in order to cast the opposition in a bad light with the voters. So message number one from me began with an attempt to resist evil by expressing my disdain for such a campaign tactic.

However, I did not get very far in sculpting a finely worded message before thoughts about an even greater political issue distracted me from stating my righteous indignation about campaign commercials. What troubles me even more than the demons of campaign purgatory is the propensity for my fellow evangelicals to blindly align themselves with the Blues and the Reds of American political life. Message one, then, first took its shot at what I honestly believe to be bigoted commercials (bigotry not being limited to racial attitudes) and then spent time applying the principal that we cannot serve both God and Mammon to the evangelical community’s politicking missteps.

Before I could wrap up my bifurcated rant, however, my need to lead, to offer a vision as a requisite part of repentance, forced me to conclude that first message with the promise of a second, designed to present an alternative to our complicity in our political submission. Message two subsequently advocated for a five point plan for engaging in a society defined by its cultural polygamy without making any concessions to Big M Mammon, the biblical euphemism for fame, fortune and power.

Extracted from a letter written to Hebrew Christians of the first century, that period of time formerly linked with the initials AD, the unknown author prompted these spiritual sojourners to make five key decisions regarding how to best survive peacefully, while maintaining their own advocacy for the virtues that were meant to characterize all of us who would eventually follow in their path. The five points were presented in my message with the wording found in the New International Version of the Bible, stated as follows:

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith….

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.

Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.

Let us not give up meeting together….

Let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

This call to action was brilliant in its simplicity, providing the means for anyone to influence those around them at a truly fundamental, grass roots level. But the wording hints at something essential to these acts of doing, which underscore their validity, and that is the quality of being. The plan contains in its wording aspects of the kind of character required to fulfill the mission so that we do not appear to be hollow adherents to a blind faith or motivated by guilt in an attempt to appease an angry God. And that is the real topic of message number three, character.

Our word is a transliteration of the Greek karakter indicating a stamping tool. We trace its etymological lineage through the Romans, the French and down to us with the resultant understanding that our character marks us and shapes our behavior as evidenced by our speech/discretion, our actions/restraint. If we are to be people of good or noble character, we must therefore choose to develop those traits which comprise an admirable persona since they are not naturally imparted to us at birth as with Thomas Jefferson’s optimistic declaration of legal equality and inalienable rights.

The values of character, the positive traits we admire in those we esteem and therefore hopefully aspire to cultivate within ourselves, are present in the Hebrew plan and inform us as to the manner in which we are to perform each task. Our integrity is evidenced by the sincere heart with which we draw near to God. The scope of our dependability is measured by how we hold unswervingly to the hope we profess. Compassion and the ability to inspire others are made plain in the way we spur one another on towards [unconditional] love and [morally] good deeds. Our loyalty and devotion is seen in the fact that we do not give up meeting together. Our optimism is apparent as we encourage one another. And discernment is present as we prioritize our actions based on our awareness as we see the Day [of the Lord’s return] approaching.

This necessary coupling of character and action is succinctly emphasized by the Apostle Paul, who wrote to the fledgling church in Corinth that If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. (I Corinthians 13:1) He gives further clues about the importance of our character development as he expounds on the nature of love saying that Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It is not rude, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (I Corinthians 13:4-7).

For the Christian, the scope of good character traits is ever expansive and intended to be an inherent part of the spirit filled life. Again we can rely on the Apostle Paul for this critical insight. In his letter to the believers in Galatea he wrote that the fruit of the Holy Spirit dwelling within them would produce love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. (Galatians 5:22) In truth, if we are true believers, these traits will be unavoidably present and make their indelible mark, their karakter, on how we live our lives.

The value of character in the individual is ultimately seen in its benefit for the community. There is no place here for the nihilism of negativity, only the positive traits in which we can find rest for our souls. So let us take heart in character’s efficacious abilities, for – as the blessed apostle stated in his succinctly worded promise to us – Love never fails. (I Corinthians 13:8).

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The Five Point Plan of the Hebrews

Last week I expressed my frustrations about the American political process with reference to the dubious art of negative campaigning. This was my way of venting my feelings on a far more important topic about people of faith aligning themselves with any political party. The basic premise applied to my reasoning was the well-known counsel that no one can serve two masters. And in the case of our participation in the electoral process as citizens of a democratic country, my personal opinion is that we must stay involved while we maintain our independence from the lockstep behavior of party line thinking.

Mine is not the first voice to proclaim that the current system is tainted. But what I want to avoid is the tendency of some, both past and present, to advocate for a complete withdrawal from society as a means to avoid being stained by its less than pure activities of any kind. Such an exclusionary, non-participatory attitude can only serve to make us appear holier-than-thou to those whose adherence to the prevailing systems subsequently casts them under a sinister shadow of corrupt morals by comparison. This invisible barrier of conflicting perceptions can only weaken our ability to influence spiritually those from whom we are semi-detached temporally.

There is, I believe, a stated biblical strategy for how we are to live in an increasingly multi-cultural nation with its attending divisive subplot. This division is often referred to as identity politics and the identity of the Christian community is by nature in direct contrast to such a mindset as we are called to be one body of believers with one Lord and one motivating spirit. For us it is not about being either Blue or Red, with their internally competing factions, but about being transparent. We are light, a fascinating phenomenon, which casts no shadows with which to induce a sense of fear and separation or to obscure another’s perception of faith, hope and sacrificial love.

The strategy I suggest each follower of Jesus implement in place of subscribing to the prevailing dictates of the political parties can be found in a lengthy letter written to a faceless group of believers who lived under the double ignominy of being Jews with regards to their ethnic identity and Christians with regards to their refined religious beliefs as adherents to a new covenant. The encouragement they received can be found in the New Testament section of the Bible under the subtitle of Hebrews. They were adjured to implement a five-point plan in order to peacefully co-exist in their respective communities, while being living advocates for the teachings of the reviled young rabbi, who had been crucified in Jerusalem by the Roman authorities.

The plan had five tenets, presented in the New International Version of the Bible as a conscientious series of choices to allow certain conditions to prevail in their lives. Each tenet begins with the phrase “Let us” followed by a call to action in providing the framework for how to maintain one’s spiritual integrity in a volatile and sometimes hostile world. The essential elements for a non-threatening advocacy of their new faith is thereby seen in these five statements:

Let us draw near to God with a sincere heart in full assurance of faith….

Let us hold unswervingly to the hope we profess, for he who promised is faithful.

Let us consider how we may spur one another on toward love and good deeds.

Let us not give up meeting together….

Let us encourage one another – and all the more as you see the Day approaching.

Each point can be and should be fully expanded upon in terms of how they were exemplified in the life of the one these Jewish Christians believed to be their Messiah. And in their day itinerant preachers, called apostles or ones sent, did just that as the means to enhance each fledgling congregation’s understanding of their place in society as they anticipated “the Day” of their Messiah’s return to the earth.

For the strategy to work it is critical that we start with point one, drawing near to God with a sincere motivation and complete assurance of his being the One, who sacrificed his most precious possession for the benefit of all. The rest of the program involving faith, hope, love, and good deeds propounded by an unrelenting encouragement will subsequently fall into place as natural expressions of our primary relationship with Him. Seconding ourselves to any other group, including political parties, factions and action committees can only diminish the light we are to be for others, bringing warmth, illumination and rest for their souls.

God has first dibs on our hearts, minds and souls and he is exclusionary in his prior claim to our loyalties. “Purchased with a price” is another common phrase used by that first generation of believers to concisely express their new found status as possessions of the One who gave all to save all. And that concept cannot be contained in any political party’s platform.

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‘Tis the Season – Politically Speaking

Political campaign ads have hit the airwaves of our television and radio sets, if you are still old school like me and find these archaic forms of communication a viable source of information and entertainment. We of an analogue mindset make ourselves vulnerable, then, to the onslaught of messages, where politicians of every political stripe show that they will shamelessly approve “this message”, which relies on shaming and bullying to denigrate the opposition.

My concern, however, is not with the hypocritical machinations of the professional merchants of campaign vengeance. It is more with those of us who follow in their wake and accept behavior we tell our children not to emulate and silently find deplorable in those we associate with in the workplace, our neighborhoods and – most disconsolately – in our places of worship. The Golden Rule has become as anachronistic as a vacuum tube and lost its luster as a social grace in the American way of life.

I have had occasions to speak from a pulpit of evangelical sensibilities, but have never used such occasions to speak about politics. Partly it is in deference to the IRS rules, which deny free speech to the faithful when it comes to campaigns and legislation. But it is more a matter of my own sense of Christian ethics. I believe it is inappropriate for anyone, minister or lay person, to tell others how to vote. Our provenance is about personal behavior rooted in the command to love one another as our Lord continually loves us and not to judge the merits of their opinions. I do, though, have my own strongly held opinion about the followers of Jesus and the politics of any nation in which we reside.

We can only serve one master. The biblical illustration of the principal directly applies to God versus money. It can and should be applied to all aspects of our lives and in the context of this message I would say that you cannot serve God and any political party.When we read about or hear that a congressional vote followed strict party lines, we can be assured that the minions of the nation’s capital are heeding the voice of their political master and not the inner voice of a well conceived conscience. This type of slavery is demeaning and not an appropriate standard of behavior for those who know the truth and have been set free indeed.

If I had the influence to call people out of a relationship this world in its wisdom has to offer it would be for those who identify as followers of Jesus to shed themselves of any identity with every political party. We should approach each candidate of each office on an individual basis and only vote for those who exemplify the best of what we believe to be true about life, love, compassion, mercy and sanctity.

We sing songs about this world not being our home but live otherwise. Our own hypocrisy can be easily seen in how we succumb to the political schemes of others. It is a blemish on our collective identity as representatives of the Good Shepherd, who laid down his life for the benefit of all, regardless of any of the earthly markers whereby we are generally judged and found to either be acceptable to our own kind or wanting by those who are not.

The Apostle Peter called us a chosen people and a holy nation. Holiness is not to be confused with perfection of any kind. Rather it is simply a designation that we have been set aside for a dedicated purpose, chosen to be a nation without geopolitical boundaries of any kind.

We, the chosen people, need to be and must be involved with our communities. We are tasked with giving a cup of water to the least of our Savior’s brothers and sisters, which for us means without reservation.There is a way to do that without having to cover ourselves with the mantel of a corrupt political system, perpetuated by those whose primary goal is to get elected and whose secondary goal is to get re-elected. Such a person has self-confessed that Mammon is their god, leaving morality and ethics to be determined by whatever message is most expedient for  effecting the next successful campaign. We have a better message to offer and a better way to live.

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Concerning Missed Field Goals

Normally I am a Packer fan when it comes to who wins on Sunday afternoon, or Sunday night, or Monday night and now even Thursday night. Even though football has lost its appeal for me, losing its grip on my attention and my prior youthful obsession about watching every second of every televised game, I like to hear that the Packers have won and have attained another title for their storied history. Last Sunday’s Packers-Vikings game, however, holds a caveat for me. I heard that the Viking’s rookie kicker missed three field goals. The game ended in a tie, the unsatisfactory result often described as kissing your sister. It also ended the young man’s place on the Minnesota team and seemingly his career.

This is the kind of story that troubles me. I would even go so far as to say it grieves me. Anyone who has dedicated themselves in pursuit of a dream, only to find that circumstances have conspired against them to the point of total loss, touches me in a melancholy way despite the color of the jersey they wear. The death of dreams is an emotionally disastrous consequence for anyone and that is when my teacher/coach/minister persona kicks in [pun intended].

I imagine myself being in a position to counsel the defeated and fashion a consoling talk about the person’s future determined by their response to an extreme disappointment. And while this message has been inspired by the young man from Minnesota, it can be applied to any of us who have missed our own metaphorical field goals and must own up to the ignominy of an ego crunching hit that in football terms can appropriately be called a de-cleeter!

My first piece of sage wisdom is to Never give up. We tend to focus only on one another’s successes, but this distorts the rather common reality that most of us experience losses along the way to attaining our best achievements. We are prone to call these losses failures, but the only failure is in quitting. We are human and we make mistakes. Fortunately, we are also prone to loving a comeback story and we admire those who continue to strive for their goals despite setbacks of any size and multiplicity. It is an incredibly admirable trait in our human psyche that we can learn from every situation and press on in our endeavors. This type of mindset is the oft quoted optimistic mantra of keeping our eyes on the prize and never allowing the negative outcomes of our actions to dictate our next steps. We must accept the fact that mistakes can presage success as they are so common to our experiences. And therefore we need to repeat what should suffice as a cardinal rule of life; never give up.

My second point in this guide to recovery is Stay involved. I don’t know much about professional football, but I do know that there are other leagues, where one’s skills can continue to be applied. And for someone who has initially made the cut in such a vaunted league as the NFL, they may find a role to play in a seemingly less competitive arena, where the game is played by the same rules and requires the same level of dedication. And if that is not an immediate option, then I would suggest becoming a coach or teacher or some kind of instructor in your field of expertise, even if this role must be done on a volunteer basis. The point is to prevent a hole from appearing in your resume, while you continue to refine your own knowledge and abilities. It’s amazing what you can learn when helping others. And you never know what opportunities may come your way simply by staying prepared and available to respond to a new opening on another team’s roster. I attribute this bit of insight to a Frenchman, whose accomplishments were literally lifesaving, Louis Pasteur. His advice to us all is that “Chance favors the prepared man,” so stay involved.

Finally, and maybe even more important than points one and two, Keep it all in perspective. Pro football, like most of life’s professional ambitions, is a short-term reality. It is great to have a dream and to pursue a place in the pantheon of overachievers. But the transitory nature of its promise of fame and fortune can be equally applied to its inability for providing a lasting sense of fulfillment. There is life beyond the game and there are other Halls of Fame besides Canton. There are more important places to be, such as the loving caress of the hearts of family members. And you don’t have to go pro to earn the esteem of others for demonstrating one’s own integrity. In truth life is now and always will be about character. So pursue those short-term goals with the greatest of determination, but keep it part of a long-game strategy and aspire to find “the more” in life that doesn’t take place amidst the cheers of fans who will subsequently jeer you when you fail to please them. In life character is supreme, a point we can only appreciate if we keep it all in perspective.

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Starter

One of my long anticipated goals has been the restoration of my father’s 1963 Chevy pickup truck. Left idle following his death, the truck has not known any highway except as a piece of freight on a flatbed trailer. So I brought it here to Wisconsin from California a few years ago believing I would eventually find the time and money to do it justice for its long years of service to our family. But good intentions are free and take no time at all. They simply sit on our mental premises just as idle as the truck has been, first at my brother’s place and then at mine.

All of that is about to change, however. I am selling my place, which means the truck has to be moved once again. But that inconvenience is a cause for hope since the proceeds from the disposition of my real estate can now fund the resurrection of a personal piece of property, a family heirloom; the one in which I learned to drive a stick, dated, drove to the beach with surf boards in the back, and made many a road trip exploring California’s scenic beauty.

The new challenge to fulfilling my restoration aspirations is that without a place of my own in which to do the work, I am dependent on finding, renting covered space where the truck can reside while being made over. And this is where having good friends is the equivalent of having money in the bank. It cost me $27.60 to move my precious Chevy to a new home. That was the price of lunch for me and a couple of friends. One provided the means of transportation and the other the location where the work can be done, rent free.

The prospect of now being able to begin the truck’s disassembly as the starting point for a glorious return to highway heaven is extremely pleasing. Anytime a good intention becomes a reality is a reason to pause and give thanks for everyone and everything contributing to such a long awaited transformation. Just how long it will take is inconsequential. When you are retired you have no deadlines to meet. The point is to do your best for both the truck and yourself by doing the best possible job and to enjoy the process for the duration.

And while the truck will never bear the type of burdens it once endured when it carried my folk’s camper on a long vacation or was loaded to the max when we or our friends needed to move to a new apartment, it will partake in new road trips. Speed will not be a factor as those roads less travelled will hold the greatest appeal to my wayfaring imagination. Nor will miles per gallon enter into the equation, nor miles per day. A fifty-plus year old voyager deserves to ramble at its leisure, staying in rhythm with the meandering wishes of its driver; the true starter sitting behind the wheel, not the one under the hood.

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