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Getting it Straight from the Source

We live in a world where new and improved is always better than old and decrepit. Of course. New has the benefit of advanced methods, complete research, and dedicated study applied liberally over all that has come before it. Old, well that was just a starting point. Those were the blocks we stood in to give us leverage when the race began.

One of the things that new has ushered in is statistical…accuracy. We can fact check, provide proof, cite our sources, justify our positions. We can qualify, and oh boy, can we quantify! We know exactly how many people would vote thus and so, believe this and that, trust him or her. We know. We are new and improved people. We are reasonable.

So, it’s a bit alarming to read in the morning paper that “Recent polls show that 29 percent of Americans and nearly 45 percent of Republicans say he (President Obama) is a Muslim.”

How do we say this? We tell a pollster who reports it, I guess. Do we know this when we say it? Have we asked Mr. Obama about his faith? Have we read deeply concerning his opinions, positions, actions and responses? This would seem reasonable before we say anything.

What we report in the media is, perhaps, what we believe to be true. Given what we think we know, this is what we conclude. Perhaps those numbers reflect what people believe about President Obama, but that doesn’t make it so. (The article actually goes on to debunk this belief.) Just because we think it, doesn’t make it so. Any more than thinking I am President makes that so.

If we think we can do make something true, right, happen, reasonable, or real, just because we think it, we are mistaken. That isn’t ours; that’s God’s. God thinking something actually does make it so. When we think something, we move in its direction, but we’d do well not to presume that our thinking it actuates it. That would presume we are God, which has very grave consequences, indeed.

Fleming Rutledge, an Episcopal preacher that a friend has me reading, writes concerning what she calls the battle of the billboards. “Upon entering the Lincoln Tunnel you stare at a billboard showing a Nativity scene and the words ‘You know it’s a myth.’ When you come out of the tunnel you see a billboard with a Nativity scene and the words ‘You know it’s real.'”

She goes on, “The atheist billboard says, “This season, celebrate reason.” I revere reason as much as the atheists do—up to a point. But what faith knows is that although reason is a gift, it is not a god. Reason cannot explain everything. Certainly it cannot explain the purposes and promises of God.”

Our believing, remembering, repeating or tallying does not make something so. But setting our minds on the things of God may bring them nearer.

“Whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things.” (Phil 4:8)

When God remembers His mercy, He is not calling it again to mind. He is taking action on our behalf. As Rutledge puts it, “God’s mercy is not static. It goes forth from God as a promise already becoming a reality.”

We can pray to be like-minded. That’s as old and original as it gets.


Gratitude isn’t a habit it’s a practice

imageI was surprisingly at ease,” former President Jimmy Carter said at his press conference, recalling his emotions when his doctors told him they had found melanoma on his brain after doing surgery on his liver.

“Call it clear thinking or mind over matter. Or simply: grace,” writes Sarah Kaufman in the August 21st issue of the Washington Post. “Grace – meaning elegance, calm equanimity,” she goes on, “is the only strategy that makes any sense, really… a text book coping strategy, what any therapist would advise,… but how difficult, unless you’re in the habit of feeling grateful.”

This grace, she concludes, is Carter’s habit. She’s got the wrong grace.

Kaufman was awarded a Pulitzer Prize for her work in “criticism,” as it applies to contemporary dance. Now that’s grace of the elegant kind. But it’s not the grace going on with Mr. Carter. That grace, while it is elegant and engenders calm, is of a different ilk because it comes from a whole different source.

What Mr. Carter has spent a lifetime pursuing isn’t a “habit” of gratitude, it’s the practice of gratitude.

So what’s the difference?

Habits compel us. They are automatic and patterned responses which are out of our conscious control. Practices, on the other hand, are intentional. They are things we choose to do again and again, but they require an effort of own will – a turning toward and choosing.

Over time, both habits and practices can become very much a part of us. Their effects “show” in us, even if we don’t see them ourselves. Habits are rarely, if ever, healthy things: fingernail-biting, smoking, and addictions of all kinds lead to dis-health and tend to enslave us. What we think of as “good” habits like exercising, eating well, and getting enough sleep are not really habits at all. They are practices, chosen each time, consciously and without compulsion.

The “habit” of gratitude Ms. Kaufman calls grace in Mr. Carter’s behavior is not a habit at all, and it’s certainly not a “coping strategy” initiated strategically to “deal” with the circumstance. It’s the fruit of a lifetime of practicing the posture of gratitude before a loving God.

Day after day, we can choose again and again to enter the presence of the One who deals gracefully with us, in spite of our faults and failings, yet shines the light of redemption on our lives and offers the gift of forgiveness. That’s the grace Mr. Carter has known, and, in the hardship of a very difficult diagnosis, it surprises even him! After a lifetime practicing the presence of God he falls naturally into the calming arms of the One who has for nearly 90 years said to him, “All will be well.” He has come to trust that voice.

Habits will fail us. Oh, they can be comfortably familiar, offering distraction or temporary satisfaction, but they don’t satisfy or quench. Habits can steal our freedom; practices can grant it. Ironically, habits, which we seem to control, take it from us, and practices, where we release control, offer it to us.

Gratitude isn’t habit-forming but it is gratifying. Gradually, as we make it a practice, it shapes our outlook in the best and worst of times, a familiar destination along a well trod path.

Clear thinking and mind over matter get us only so far. When life’s circumstances tax us beyond our own resources, grace is more than a strategy. But it takes practice.

Where There’s a Will There’s a Way!

Have you seen this?!! Paul Pierce’s buzzer-beating 3-pointer wins it for the Wizards.

But who is that fan who runs out into the celebratory huddle? OMG -I know him! That’s Will Smith. He even made the Washington Post.

Will is the son of upstanding members of our church community. I know because I had Will in a Confirmation small group I facilitated a few years back. He’s a good boy. Well-mannered, always participated, never gave me any trouble, except what you’d expect when you get a dozen 13 year old boys together in church class and a bit of youthful energy gets the best of them.

Now he’s a college freshman, newly home from school, and he was lucky enough to get floor seats for that post season game. But what in the world was he thinking running out onto the court like that?

“Well, we (he and two buddies from high school) had floor seats on the baseline,” he told me by phone. “When I saw the shot go in, I didn’t hesitate. Five seconds later, I’m in the pile…”

Until he got shoved out of the way by the ESPN photographer. That seems to have brought Will to his senses. He suddenly realizes where he is and what he’s done and slinks off, security guard in tow, hoping no one else has noticed. Except thousands of people did, and now have contacted him about his fifteen seconds of fame.

“Seeing the replay,” he tells me, “I realized the audacity of what I did.”

What made him do it? He’s not sure. Will calls himself ‘outgoing’ and ‘maybe a bit impulsive’. Well, I’ll say! The kid’s got spunk. Let’s call it passion. He’s been a Wizard’s fan “forever,” his mom tells me. They’re his team. It’s only natural; the moment Will saw that shot go in, he was on his feet and celebrating with his teammates.

You just have to love that about youth. They don’t always consult their brain before they act on their emotions, and sometimes it lands them in some pretty crazy places…like center court at the Verizon center.

Honestly, I love it! It reminds me of Peter, yeah that Peter. Not when he refused a foot washing, or when he denied Jesus three times, but when, seeing the Lord on the shore, he “wrapped his outer garment around him (for he had taken it off) and jumped into the water.” ( John 21:7) Heart over head moment: swim for it!!

The Lord was not mistaken when he named Simon Peter and declared, “On this rock I will build my church.” That Peter was an outspoken and ardent disciple of Christ. But that’s how love and devotion act. How impulsive!

I confess a bit of envy at the nerve of my young friend Will. As I get older I find myself thinking long and hard before taking action. I consider the consequences, weigh the costs and benefits, and am too often guilty of staying put and applauding politely for my team in victory. Deep down, I wish I had a bit more Will, or a bit more Peter, in me: more teammate, less spectator.

Unfortunately for the Wizards, Pierce’s 3-pointer didn’t beat the buzzer in game 6. They needed you, Will Smith. We all need you. Every team needs a passion like that.

St. Peter would be bursting his buttons, if he had any…

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