Message Bearing Marching Bands

High school marching band shows reflect our priorities and our insanities. How can they help make us better?

Ours is a marching band family – three of our five children have been in marching bands at the high school and/our college level. Of the other two, one was in orchestra and one will be in marching band when she gets to high school. Our kids have been at Hayfield and Thomas Jefferson (TJ) High Schools in northern Virginia, Collierville High School in Tennessee, Shady Spring High School in West Virginia, and the University of Tennessee in Knoxville. We have enjoyed parades, pep bands, and shows at football halftimes and band competitions. Dance teams, color guards, drum majors, and lines of marching and playing students entertain us every week in every autumn.   

High school marching band shows have themes, ranging from the musical (the Music of Queen), the cinematic (Illusion, including Pure Imagination from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory), and the historical (the Transcontinental Railway). Bands compete before judges, who score them on such measures as musicality, marching/dance, visuals, guard, pit, and drumline. At the end of every competition, the band with the highest score in their division wins a trophy.

Since our family began watching marching bands in 2011, we have attended dozens of competitions and seen hundreds of shows. The band at Thomas Jefferson (TJ) numbered near 100, while the band at Hayfield had fewer than 50 students. Quality differed, as did venue. One band competition was in the stadium at the Naval Academy at Annapolis.

The theme of TJ’s Marching Colonials in the first year was Twisted, and its songs included Sweeney Todd and Danse Macabre. By design, the tone of Twisted was dark and bizarre. Sensitized by Twisted, I noticed many other band shows in northern Virginia (NOVA) that year with themes of death, the victory of evil over good, or mental illness. From 2012 to 2016 when we left NOVA, many high school marching bands varied these themes, and no matter their musical or technical excellence, I was left feeling low.

Yesterday we enjoyed the Black Walnut Festival in Spencer, WV, including a parade and another band competition. The Lincoln County High School marching band saluted The Greatest Generation, opening with Glenn Miller’s In the Mood and closing with God Bless America. Girls in 40s dresses danced and waved guard flags, while band members in uniform and boys in fatigues marched to honor their forebears. At a competition in Princeton a week before, one band presented a show highlighting the victory of good over evil, rather than the other way around. I left with a smile.

Shady’s show this year, named American Heroes, began with America the Beautiful. Dance team girls in red tops and blue skirts accompanied boys in World War II Army uniforms marching off towards a large American flag. Cantina from Star Wars symbolized the good times on the home front, and the Pacific symbolized the fighting. An air raid siren disrupted the music, and the dance team girls lined up to await the return of their beloved soldiers. The first three came home physically unscathed, the fourth in a sling, and each couple, boy and girl, walked away arm in arm. The last man was not there. Instead, another uniformed soldier carried his folded American flag. The girl ran around the field looking desperately for her beloved as the flag bearing soldier approached. Unable to escape the horrible truth, that her beloved was dead, the forlorn girl collapsed in tears. The marching band concluded their show with Lee Greenwood’s God Bless the USA. The boys who had played the soldiers ran across the field and set up a flag like that at Iwo Jima. Many spectators clapped and leapt to their feet. I smiled.

What accounts for the difference in show themes? Could it be that high school band leaders liked angsty and depressing shows in the early and middle 2010s but not later? Perhaps wealthy and urban northern Virginia is more focused on death and disorder than poor and rural southern West Virginia, although death rates from substance use would not support that conclusion. Perhaps depressing themes are chic among band competition judges, and directors play to judges, not to crowds. Perhaps those with the most advantages toy with the idea of disadvantage in their entertainment, while those stuck in real poverty, sickness, and pain need encouragement from their entertainment. Perhaps something else is at play. Perhaps a systematic review, rather than my convenience sample, would show no difference in the mood of the themes of high school marching bands.

Followers of Christ must be light in a dark world. We are to acknowledge the brokenness we see around us…indeed, it is so pervasive that we can’t avoid it. However, we are not to dwell on this brokenness. Channeling the love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, beauty, and glory of God, we must reflect His light to those around us. Paul writes

“Whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, let your mind dwell on these things.”

Do high school marching band directors and the judges let their minds dwell on what is true, noble, right, and pure? If not, how does that influence their students. If they did, would their influence on their students change? How would their influence on the future change? How would their own lives change?

Calendars of the Ancient Near East

Access ancient Jewish, Babylonian, Assyrian, and Roman calendars to better understand the Bible

The two primary parameters that shape human thinking, regardless of culture, antiquity, or language, are space and time…spacetime for the physicists among us. It is difficult to understand any communication without a common understanding of these parameters. Such simple phrases as “See you tomorrow” require both parties to have a similar understanding of “tomorrow”.

The Bible records over 4,000 of history, from the earliest human settlements from Mesopotamia to Arabia to the cosmopolitan Roman Empire. It thus covers dozens of cultures, nations, and tribes, each with their own understanding of space and time. The Quran doesn’t do this, and neither do the Vedas, the Tripitaka, or any Sutra. The Bible stands alone – no other book is like it.

However, the vastly different understandings of key concepts in Bible, such as space and time, make it tough to understand. Christians are baffled, and skeptics ridicule us and our Scriptures, calling both “incoherent” or worse. Moderns reading the Bible have to cross a gap of at least 2000 years, multiple languages, and many cultures. Further, the Bible is not written as typical modern history, although its historical accounts are reliable. It hits the highlights. As a result, readers tend to “telescope” events, believing that they occurred over days or weeks when in fact they happened over months or years.

We read about Moses’ law, David’s wars, and Elijah’s miracles, and think that Moses was legislating, David fighting, and Elijah working wonders all of the time. They weren’t. Each man was living life, including the slow, discouraging parts, just like we do. Nehemiah, for example, received the report of Jerusalem’s broken down walls in November but didn’t leave for Judah until the following spring. In the meantime, he prayed to ask God for guidance and prepared. Nehemiah’s trip from Susa to Jerusalem (over 900 miles) took up to two months by caravan. The walls of Jerusalem were begun in July and completed in early September. Ezra’s festivals followed soon after.

The calendars below, taken from AmazingBibleTimeline.com, can help modern Bible readers understand when events occurred in Scripture. Please also see Timeline of Events in the Iron Age and Calendars, Cultures, and Politics.

How to Do No Harm

How leaders can minimize harm in health care, in other industries, and in all areas of life.

“How can we change this process to prevent this error from happening again?” the senior ward nurse asked the group. It is a common question, one that I have heard thousands of times from experienced and dedicated health care professionals of all stripes.

I have worked in health care for many years, serving in positions from volunteer to emergency medical technician to senior attending physician to chief of staff at a hospital to chief medical officer of a large network. In every position, “do no harm” is a fundamental theme. This famous statement from the writings of Hippocrates encapsulates quality improvement, patient safety, access to care, and many other goals in modern medicine.

“Do no harm” can be thought of as eliminating risks that could lead to a bad outcome, such as injury or death. Occupational and Environmental Medicine physicians learn that there are four ways to decrease risk in the workplace and in the environment:

  1. Eliminate the risk entirely. We have two inverter generators to use at home and church rather than traditional ones. They are quieter and generate less carbon monoxide, thus eliminating two risks. Taking the lead out of gasoline and paint decreases the chance of lead poisoning, and using nitrile rather than latex gloves helps avoid latex allergies.
  2. Separate the risk from the people. Modern automotive engineers have designed and built cars which nearly the whole car can be destroyed in a crash, but the passenger compartment can stay nearly intact, thus saving the people inside. Hospitals sometimes use devices that automatically retract used needles to avoid needlestick injuries.
  3. Develop administrative controls; processes to minimize risk. “Tickets to ride” ensure the patients are protected before patient transport and “time outs” before procedures minimize the chance of operating on the wrong site, or even on the wrong patient.  
  4. Use personal protective equipment (PPE). Lead aprons in radiology protect patients and staff from radiation exposure. Gloves and mask decrease the chance of infections. In the fire fighting world, bunker gear enables humans to survive and even work in otherwise fatal environments.

The surest way to “do not harm” is to engineer the risk out, and second is to separate people from risk. Neither of these methods require people to do anything, and therefore remove the single biggest point of failure in many safety processes…human error. Techniques 3 and 4 are less reliable precisely because people have to be trained to follow administrative controls and use PPE. Further, people have to follow these controls and use these practices every time and under every condition.

Manufacturing is far more amenable to engineering controls than health care. Producing tires or peanut butter can be broken down into a discrete series of steps which must be done in sequence and in which the production machinery, the rubber, the peanuts, and the other parts of the process can be trusted to behave in reliable ways. In health care, neither the staff nor the treatments nor the patients are equally predictable. That is why health care relies on administrative controls and personal protective equipment, and why we have so many failures…so much risk to patients and staff.

There is, however, another way to minimize the risk of harm, and that is to improve the people. If hazard is thought of as having three components – danger (what can do the damage, like a hepatitis A virus), person (who is at risk), and vector (food and water contaminated with hepatitis A), those who wish to minimize the risk of hepatitis A can attack at any of these points. The Smallpox Eradication Program of the World Health Organization in the 1960s and 1970s, and the modern polio eradication program are examples of attacking the pathogen directly. Purifying the food and water, which commonly transmit hepatitis A, eliminates the vector. Immunization strengthens the person, making them immune to the disease. Simple interventions such as improving diet, exercise, sleep, and mental health improve the person and make disease and injury less likely. Education helps leaders and workers know why they are doing something, and training helps them do it right again and again. Cognitive aids such as checklists minimize reliance on human memory and other sources of failure.

In summary, “do no harm” applies to medicine, but also applies to every other area of life. We can and should engineer harm away, for it is the most effective way to minimize risk to life and health. Vaccines may be considered as a means of engineering harm away. We will attack dangers, block vectors, and strengthen individuals. To “do no harm”, health care professionals will use every tool in the shed, and will use them in a comprehensive and coordinated system. Our patients and our staff depend on it.  

The Christian Community in Society

“Glory is fleeting, but obscurity is forever” opined the famous French general and emperor Napoleon Bonaparte. American society today seems to have taken him at his word. We are told to dream big, take chances, and make our mark on the world. To be remembered in posterity, “write something worth reading or do something worth writing about” wrote Benjamin Franklin. We are even told to misbehave, “Well behaved women seldom make history (Laurel Thatcher Urich).” It is as if 100,000 of us were standing in a stadium screaming to be heard, and spending our lives trying to be distinctive enough to feel important.

Sometimes the Christian community looks little different. In his book You Are Special, Max Lucado writes of a village of little wooden people called wemmicks who spend their days putting stars or dots on each other, stars for doing something that they like and dots for doing something that they don’t. The best had special awards (a sequel, Best of All) and perhaps even monuments to be widely known and remembered. These fictional children’s stories describe an all too common trap into which even followers of Jesus fall.

In the time of Paul, the Christian community was a small part of a large and powerful pagan Roman society. Some Christians were prominent, but to be a Christian sometimes meant to be persecuted – a big downside to seeking the limelight. Paul himself did not seek personal glory. The miraculous powers that he sometimes wielded were not his own, and he could not even use them to heal himself (2 Corinthians 12:7-9). He traveled from community to community preaching Christ resurrected in the synagogues and later in the churches. He taught in prominent places such as the Areopagus (Acts 17:16-34) in Athens, but anyone with something to say could enter the discussion. Paul never wrote about how he wished to be remembered, and it is not clear that he expected to find his name in history.

Paul did, however, have an expectation for how Christians would live in society as individuals and as a group.

  1. Christians would live a quiet life, mind their own business, and work with their own hands (1 Thessalonians 4:11).
  2. The believing community would require work from their members, and those who were able to work but refused to do so would not be supported by the community (2 Thessalonians 3:10).
  3. Males and females would treat each other well, as would people of different ages (1 Timothy 5:1-3).
  4. Families would consist of multiple generations caring for each other in every way they could (1 Timothy 5:8).
  5. Younger men and women would marry, have children, and raise them in the nurture and admonition of the Lord (Ephesians 6:1-4).
  6. Everyone would contribute what efforts they could to the group. Even older and infirm widows would serve the community (1 Timothy 5:10). There was no period of life in which a person did not work.
  7. Families would take care of their aged and infirm members first, only receiving help from the community when needed (1 Timothy 5:16).
  8. The community of Christians would honor their Christian leaders. This includes paying them a fair wage (1 Corinthians 9:9-14).      
  9. Believers would pray for their leaders and government, and that they live quiet and peaceful lives in the greater society (1 Timothy 2:1-3). We are not to speak evil of others (Titus 3:1-2).
  10. Men and women would have different roles in the church (1 Timothy 2:8-15). Different age groups would also have differing, but equally important, roles and tasks (Titus 2:1-7).
  11. Christian leaders and their wives would be subject to high standards of conduct and appearance (1 Timothy 3:1-13).
  12. Every follower of Jesus would be godly, contented, and not greedy (1 Timothy 6:6-10).
  13. As individuals and as a community, Christians would constantly live in such a way as to avoid just accusation from those outside the community (Titus 2:8). The Apostle Peter agrees with Paul in that we glory God in our lives so that outsiders may be saved (1 Peter 2:12-15).

Paul says far more about the Christian community, and about the structure and government of the local church, in his letters. He says little about how people outside the church should behave or should live in their communities. The Apostle’s instructions to Christian men and women in different contexts (families and churches) do not necessarily apply to those outside the family of believers. Also, Paul says nothing about the structure of government outside the church. Paul was not a political activist.

Much of Paul’s vision for the early church is anathema to non-believers, and even some believers, today. Some of it, such people argue, was specific to that place and does not apply in the 21st century. These arguments are beyond the scope of this article. They are also beside the point.

Conclusion

Napoleon believed that glory was fleeting, but obscurity was forever. He lived his life, killing hundreds of thousands of people and destroying nations to gain earthly, mortal glory. The Emperor of France spent his years doing what logically followed his beliefs. If we believe as Napoleon as a society and as a church, we will live like Napoleon.

Paul knew that while mortal glory is fleeting, immortal glory lasts forever. He lived his life not to be in some history book, but to be raised from death with Christ (Philippians 3:8-10). Paul killed no one and destroyed nothing. After coming to know Christ, he gave each moment of his earthly sojourn so that everyone might know Him.  If we believe like Paul as a society, and especially as a church, we will live like Paul.

Rethinking Parties

Americans in 2019 seem to “just want to have fun.” Americans in 1819 wanted fun too, but perhaps had a different idea of how to get there.

My family and I do not watch television. A couple of times per week, however, we break out the old DVDs and watch an episode of Hogan’s Heroes, F Troop, Andy Griffith, or some other old and silly sitcom. My mother bought us two seasons of The Beverly Hillbillies last Christmas and they are a special favorite with the kids. Watching the old shows, and the old advertisements, reveals many of the ways that we have changed as a nation, a culture, and a people.

In the episode entitled The Garden Party, Jed and Granny discover that their next-door neighbor, Margaret Drysdale, is hosting a garden party for her high society friends. “What’s a garden party?” Granny asks Jed. He replies that at a barn raising, neighbors get together and build a barn for the host. At a quilting bee, ladies get together and make a quilt. So a garden party must be to build a garden. Pleased with his reasoning, Jed tells his nephew Jethro to get the tools.

Last Friday night, Nancy and I had a family from church over for dinner. On Saturday my family and I attended a birthday party for the two-year-old son of a neighbor. Dozens of families and friends attended. Yesterday Nancy, David, Stephen, Sarah, and I spent the afternoon at Grandview attending the annual picnic for the Volunteer Fire Department in Beaver, WV. There were about 30 firefighters, family members, and friends present.

Why do we go to parties?

The first reason people go to parties is to have fun. Eating, drinking, and talking with close friends is one of the great joys of life. Birthday parties typically feature cake, ice cream, games, party favors, and possibly even a venue like a museum, garden, beach, pool, or amusement park. Wedding receptions often include these but add a meal and substitute dancing for games. Parties for holidays like Christmas, Halloween, and Independence Day have their own special flair, with trees and gifts, costumes, or fireworks.

A second reason for parties is to build relationships. Though we barely knew the other guests at the birthday party, we went specifically to get to know our neighbors. I had gone on calls and done training with most of the other firefighters at the picnic, but Nancy and the kids were strangers to these people. I went to deepen relationships, and they went to start them. They also went for me – to strengthen our family ties. Our Friday night dinner party was the only party last weekend in which everyone knew and enjoyed everyone else.

A third reason to attend parties is to accomplish something worthwhile. The barn raisings and quilting bees of yesteryear built community, but they also built barns and crafted quilts. In the days and regions before professional builders, modular homes, quilting companies, and the internet, neighbors had to help each other. If they did not, villages and individuals would die; member by member and family by family. I have been to a few such parties, which usually involved moving friends or family from one place to another. When we moved in Alexandria VA in 2013, more than twenty-five people from church showed up to help. Likewise, I have gone to pack and unpack boxes, load and unload boxes, take down and install furniture and appliances, and load and unload storage crates and conexes (steel storage and transportation containers). Work parties can also be a venue where real work gets done.

A fourth reason for parties is to promote yourself. The host of a fabulous party can impress people with their elegance or extravagance. Invitees at such parties can boast that they were invited, can try to impress the people who are there, can name drop, and can network for new opportunities or promotions. Socialite and courtesan Pamela Harriman threw parties in Washington DC that could launch a political career… or end one.   

A fifth reason to host and attend parties is to fulfill expectations. How many of us have gone to a work party that we dreaded, stayed a respectable amount of time, and slipped out hoping that no one would notice? How many people have attended parties that they dread to meet the expectations of others? Captain Georg Von Trapp certainly felt that way when he said in the Sound of Music “More at home here than in Vienna in all your glittering salons. . . gossiping gaily with bores I detest, soaking myself in champagne. . .stumbling about to waltzes by Strauss I can’t even remember?”

A sixth reason to host and attend parties is to glorify God. Christians are told that “whatever you do, do heartily, as unto the Lord (Colossians 3:23).” Parties are no exception. The Bible has one story of Jesus attending a party; the wedding at Cana. We can assume that Jesus enjoyed Himself; it was a festive occasion and He was human, after all. Knowing Jesus’ character, He certainly went to build relationships.  Christ knew that He would accomplish something useful – changing water into wine for the glory of the Father. He probably went to fulfill His mother Mary’s expectations. The only thing that Jesus didn’t do was promote Himself. He promoted the Father instead.

Conclusion

The parties that I remember best are those that combine fun, relationships, accomplishments, and the glory of God. The purpose of these “best parties” was to do work worth doing. The fun, relationships, and glory of God followed. Perhaps Jed Clampett was right – Mrs. Drysdale’s garden party should have been to build her a garden. Perhaps for my next party, we’ll work on my yard. I wonder if anyone would come.  

Communion on the Moon

The first food and drink ever consumed on the moon was bread and wine in a Christian communion

No matter the opposition, the testimony of the Lord will not be denied. Astronaut Buzz Aldrin was with Neil Armstrong and Michael Collins on Apollo 11 on 20 July 1969. He was the second human to walk on the surface of the moon. The following recounts the personal communion he took on the moon:

Forty-nine years ago (July 20, 1969), two human beings changed history by walking on the surface of the moon.

But what happened before Buzz Aldrin and Neil Armstrong exited the Lunar Module is perhaps even more amazing, if only because so few people know about it. I’m talking about the fact that Buzz Aldrin took communion on the surface of the moon. Some months after his return, he wrote about it in Guideposts magazine.

The background to the story is that Aldrin was an elder at his Presbyterian Church in Texas during this period in his life; and, knowing that he would soon be doing something unprecedented in human history, he felt that he should mark the occasion somehow. He asked his minister to help him and so the minister consecrated a communion wafer and a small vial of communion wine. Buzz Aldrin took them with him out of the Earth’s orbit and onto the surface of the moon. He and Armstrong had only been on the lunar surface for a few minutes when Aldrin made the following public statement:

“This is the LM (Lunar Module) pilot. I’d like to take this opportunity to ask every person listening in, whoever and wherever they may be, to pause for a moment and contemplate the events of the past few hours and to give thanks in his or her own way.” He then ended radio communication, and there, on the silent surface of the moon, 250,000 miles from home, he read a verse from the Gospel of John, and he took communion.

Here is his account of what happened:

“In the radio blackout, I opened the little plastic packages which contained the bread and the wine. I poured the wine into the chalice our church had given me. In the one-sixth gravity of the moon, the wine slowly curled and gracefully came up the side of the cup. Then I read the scripture: ‘I am the vine, you are the branches. Whosoever abides in me will bring forth much fruit … Apart from me you can do nothing.’

“I had intended to read my communion passage back to Earth, but at the last minute they had requested that I not do this. NASA was already embroiled in a legal battle with Madelyn Murray O’Hare, the celebrated opponent of religion, over the Apollo 8 crew’s reading from Genesis while orbiting the moon at Christmas. I agreed reluctantly.”

“I ate the tiny toast and swallowed the wine. I gave thanks for the intelligence and spirit that had brought two young pilots to the Sea of Tranquility. It was interesting for me to think that the very first liquid ever poured on the moon and the very first food eaten there were the communion elements.”[1]

“And, of course, it’s interesting to think that some of the first words spoken on the moon were the words of Jesus Christ, who made the Earth and the moon – and who, in the immortal words of Dante, is Himself the “Love that moves the Sun and other stars.”

Such a message would be unwelcome in many places in America and the West today, not to mention Asia and the Muslim world. This is not new – the message of God has always met fierce, even desperate resistance. The people of God have always suffered. Nonetheless, “if the people keep silent, the stones will cry out (Luke 19:37-40).” As it says it Psalms 2 (KJV),

2 Why do the heathen rage, and the people imagine a vain thing?

2 The kings of the earth set themselves, and the rulers take counsel together, against the Lord, and against his anointed, saying,

3 Let us break their bands asunder, and cast away their cords from us.

4 He that sitteth in the heavens shall laugh: the Lord shall have them in derision.

5 Then shall he speak unto them in his wrath, and vex them in his sore displeasure.

6 Yet have I set my king upon my holy hill of Zion.

7 I will declare the decree: the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son; this day have I begotten thee.

8 Ask of me, and I shall give thee the heathen for thine inheritance, and the uttermost parts of the earth for thy possession.

9 Thou shalt break them with a rod of iron; thou shalt dash them in pieces like a potter’s vessel.

10 Be wise now therefore, O ye kings: be instructed, ye judges of the earth.

11 Serve the Lord with fear, and rejoice with trembling.

12 Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and ye perish from the way, when his wrath is kindled but a little. Blessed are all they that put their trust in him.


[1] https://www.guideposts.org/better-living/life-advice/finding-life-purpose/guideposts-classics-buzz-aldrin-on-communion-in-space, accessed 3 May 2019

Never Enough

Why is nothing in this life ever enough?

James Bond tells us that the world is not enough. Billionaire John D. Rockefeller is reputed to have said “Just a little bit more” when asked how much money was enough. While King of England, Henry VIII created a new church, the Anglicans, and made himself the supreme religious leader. Gibbons’ Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire chronicles an endless line of men and women from Europe, Africa, and Asia who stopped at nothing to grab the Imperial purple.

The past is no different from the present. Bashar al Assad in Syria has butchered thousands of his own people to retain the reins of power. Chief executives from Beijing to Ankara deceive and destroy in the name of virtue but ultimately to exalt themselves. The world of work can resemble gladiators in the Forum, with managers and employees at every level whispering, gossiping, flattering, threatening, shaming, and accusing subordinates, peers, and superiors to try to look good and get ahead.

This is not to say that all people and organizations are equally prone to such behavior. Some Roman emperors were crowned against their will and ruled with as much virtue as they could muster.  Some politicians energetically pursue the public good. Some billionaires, including John D. Rockefeller, are generous philanthropists. Some work teams and companies are honestly united around a common mission, truly get along, and generally treat each other well. Some leaders are genuinely inspirational and self-sacrificing, placing the needs of others before themselves.

Why does this conflict rage within us? As usual, the Bible has the answer. Proverbs 27:20 tells us that “Hell and destruction are never full, so the eyes of man are never satisfied.” Even the best of us, in our best moments, can think of something that we want. The innocent thoughts “I would like a little more…money, fame, power, good looks, or time off” or “I wish my spouse…” or “I wish my kids…” or “I wish…” can quickly turn into “I am dissatisfied.”

Dissatisfaction itself is not necessarily wrong. We should be dissatisfied with injustice and cruelty and do what we can to correct them. To oppose real evils done to others is the mandate of a follower of Christ.

But dissatisfaction is like a weed that soon grows out of control. Our dissatisfaction with morally wrongs quickly becomes dissatisfaction with things that we simply don’t like. Our indignation with genuine injustice rapidly morphs into anger at “people not giving us our due.” We spend time resenting our bosses for “unfair pay” or “lack of a promotion” and our coworkers for “trying to look good in front of the boss” and “making me look bad.” No matter what good things we receive – pay, promotions, people, and opportunities – they are overshadowed by our resentment at what we didn’t.

The root problem is that God has put eternity in our hearts (Ecclesiastes 3:11), but we think in terms of time. Since He is God, our Creator, our Sustainer, and the source of all that is good in the universe, we cannot be joyful outside Him. Innately prideful and unwilling to follow His moral laws, we want to be joyful in ourselves. God is eternal, but our focus is temporal. He is infinite, but our desires are finite. He wants to give us life forever and joy unbounded, but we want a bigger house, a shinier car, and a more important job. God offers the chance to praise Him, but we want to praise ourselves. He has set us a little lower than Himself, but we crave being higher than the guy or gal next door.

No matter what we get, it is never enough. Man tries to fill his soul, the part that craves the infinite, with the finite. We try to build bridges across the chasm separating us from God with money, power, fame, human relationships, and achievements. It never works, because only the infinite can fill the infinite, and only the eternal can fill the eternal.

As We Think

Directing our emotions, our thoughts, our words, and our actions…to be who we were created to be.

The Economist is no fan of Donald Trump. The October 27 to November 2, 2018 issue featured a column by the editor Lexington describing the foreign policy failures and successes of the President. It was accompanied by the picture noted here, which shows Trump as an archer rejoicing over a single bulls-eye while quivers of arrows are far off the mark. He seems to be ignoring his many failures and raising his arms in triumph over one, perhaps random, success. Maybe Lexington sees Trump as an incompetent egomaniac who sometimes gets lucky. Certainly, other people do. While catchy, this illustration is a snowflake in an avalanche of political cartoons criticizing the US leader.

In my primary care medical practice, I encounter dozens of patients every week who, if they were featured in the same picture, would be sad. The context wouldn’t be foreign policy, but might be success at work, a loving family, new hobbies, losing weight, quitting smoking, or any of a hundred other things.  Rather than looking out of the illustration at the reader with upraised arms and a self-satisfied smile, their eyes would be downcast. Their brows would be furrowed and the corners of their mouths drooping. Instead of more than 30 arrows there may only be 10, or 5, or 1, because the person would have given up. He or she might tell a bystander “this is a stupid sport anyway. I have better things to do.” Just below their level of consciousness, they might get a queasy feeling – “why show my failures to the public, and to myself? How much better would it be to stay home alone with my screens, my games, and my programs? That way I cannot fail.”

There is danger in an excessive focus on our successes, but likewise danger in an excessive focus on our failings. The best focus is outside ourselves – at the problem to be solved or the grace to be enjoyed.

A focus on failures is not only a problem for patients, but for all of us. How do we regard each moment of our lives? Do we ruminate on our regrets? Do we marinate in our missteps? Do we refuse to forgive those who hurt us? Do we choose to take offense at the clumsy words and actions of others? Do we reject others for what they are, and reject ourselves for what we are? Do we put ourselves and others in the worst possible light? Do we cut others out of our lives when they don’t consistently meet our expectations and fulfill our wishes? Do we withdraw into a cave of confusion, sit down in den of darkness, and finally lie in a coffin of loneliness?

Conversely, do we bounce back after our blunders? Do we stand up after we fall? When faced with a seemingly impossible task, do we act as the inventors did in The Roses of Success, from Ian Fleming’s children’s musical Chitty Chitty Bang Bang:

Every bursted bubble has a glory!
Each abysmal failure makes a point!
Every glowing path that goes astray,
Shows you how to find a better way.
So every time you stumble never grumble.
Next time you’ll bumble even less!
For up from the ashes, up from the ashes, grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses of success!
Oh yes!
Grow the roses!
Those rosy roses!
From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success!
(spoken) Yes I know but he wants it to float. It will!
For every big mistake you make be grateful!
Here, here!
That mistake you’ll never make again!
No sir!
Every shiny dream that fades and dies,
Generates the steam for two more tries!
(Oh) There’s magic in the wake of a fiasco!
Correct!
It gives you that chance to second guess!
Oh yes!
Then up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses!
Grow the roses of success!
Grow the roses!
Those rosy roses!
From the ashes of disaster grow the roses of success!
Disaster didn’t stymie Louis Pasteur!
No sir!
Edison took years to see the light!
Right!
Alexander Graham knew failure well; he took a lot of knocks to ring that
bell!
So when it gets distressing it’s a blessing!
Onward and upward you must press!
Yes, Yes!
Till up from the ashes, up from the ashes grow the roses of success.
Grow the ro… (continue)

To succeed after failure, we must control our emotions. Years ago a young woman told me of a time when she felt awkward. I replied, “Awkwardness is a choice. If you chose to not feel awkward, you will not feel it.” She paused, a look of realization crept over her face, and she smiled.

Offense, discouragement, and every other emotion is also a choice. We cannot control the initial flush of feeling that we get from any situation, but we can control what we do with that flush of feelings. Emotions roll over us like a wave for the first few seconds, but then we must decide whether and how to redirect the waters.  We can nurture resentment over an injury or to forgive it. We can see any circumstance as a defeat or a victory. We can dwell in the prison of our fears or dance in the pastures of our joys. We can consider that both compliments and criticisms say more about the giver than the receiver.

The Bible tells us again and again to control our thoughts and our emotions and channel them toward success. We are to “Fear not!” (Isaiah 41:10) and “Not let our hearts be troubled (John 14:1).” Day by day success is performing the tasks which He has given to us with all our might (Ecclesiastes 9:10, Colossians 3:23). Ultimately, success for the Christian is loving, glorifying, and enjoying God.

The Economist probably did not mean to make Donald Trump look good in this illustration. I do not know Trump’s thoughts or his character. However, insofar as the Trump in the picture is rejoicing despite many, many failures, the British newsmagazine may be revealing a secret of his success.  

Normal Times in Life?

An examination of the dangers of trying to identify the “normal”, which often means “the best”, time in life

Imagine a conversation between a middle-aged husband and wife:

“Our family hasn’t been normal since our oldest daughter left for college in the fall of 2012.”

“No, things stopped being normal when our son developed epilepsy in November 2011.”

“That’s not right. What about when my father died in June 2009?”

“Or when mine died in August 2008?”

“I guess you’re right…things haven’t been normal for nearly 11 years.”

“But they certainly weren’t normal before our youngest child was born in September 2006.”

“Yes, except we thought that they were normal because we didn’t know that she was coming, and then we didn’t know how life would be with her.”

“But things weren’t really normal when I worked in DC and we lived in that rental house.”

“Nothing about DC is normal.”

“Perhaps the only normal time in our lives was from the fall of 2007 to the spring of 2008, about six months.”

Too strange to be true? No. Nearly everyone has some variation of this conversation, some when they are young and almost all as they grow old. In our reminiscent moments, we evaluate the times, people, and events in our lives. We pine to relive some days past and thrill that others are behind us. Calling a time “normal” really ends up meaning that it was “the best”. If the past is the best, nothing that follows can be as good.

Orson Welles captured this part of human nature in his classic Citizen Kane. The movie opens with the death of its subject, billionaire media mogul Charles Foster Kane. His last word is “Rosebud”. The story recounts Kane’s life through the efforts of reporter Jerry Thompson to discover the meaning of “Rosebud.” Thompson fails, but in the last scene a faceless worker holds up a sled that Kane used as a boy of eight, before tossing the sled into the fire. The name on the sled is “Rosebud”. The message seems to be that after a life of glamorous women, undreamed wealth, glaring fame, and exceptional accomplishment, Kane’s fondest time of life was as a child, riding on “Rosebud”. Perhaps that was his “normal” time.

The first problem with setting a “normal” time in our lives is that it is idealized. In the 1940 Christmas film Beyond Tomorrow, three elderly engineers are killed when their plane crashes into a mountain in a snow storm. One of the men, a former British major with service in India whose son was killed in World War I, was allowed to go to his version of heaven, which looked a lot like his happiest times in life, serving King Edward in antebellum India with his wife and son. The past is never the same as we remember it. Usually, the pain recedes and the glory grows. Only rarely do our sufferings look larger through the lens of time.

The second problem with setting a “normal” time in our lives is that it is impossible. In the 2008 movie Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull, Dean Charles Stanforth tells Indy “We seem to have reached the age where life stops giving us things and starts taking them away.” On a geriatrics rotation during my family medicine residency, a geriatrician told me that old age is a series of losses – strength, capabilities, job, friends, spouse, etc. – and then you die. But these melancholy thoughts are only partly true. Good things – grandchildren, relationships, adventures, new tasks, and wonderful experiences – also come to the old.

The couple in the dialogue above could have gone back much farther. How could our family have been normal after our grandmothers had died in the early 2000s, or our grandfathers in the 1980s? Were our greatest moments in our newly wed years, traveling around Europe as a pair? Other people could identify job gain or loss, and marriage or divorce, as their best or worst times.  

Mitch Waldman, a friend at church, served as a Deputy Assistant Secretary of the Navy under George W. Bush. I asked him if that was his best job. He cautioned, “I always tell the young people who work for me not to think in terms of ‘best job’ or ‘best time’. Each is different, and ‘best’ in its own way and at its time. To think otherwise is to be always dissatisfied and striving for something else.”

The Bible tells Christians that the best is still to come. This life lasts but a moment, and then those who know and love Jesus Christ will taste eternal glory. Nothing in this life is “the best”, and nothing in this life is even “normal”. Whether in days or decades, I will step off the stage of life; I will cross the Dark River. Only then will I find “normal”, and even “the best”. Long lost family members and friends will be there, as will brothers and sisters in the Lord that I don’t know, or perhaps don’t even like, now. And our bonds of love and unity will be greater than I can possibly imagine.

Lastly, He will be there – Jesus, lover of my soul. Then and only then, life will be normal, and will be best. �

Bible Lessons

This post is to provide a place for students to find lessons we have had in Sunday School/Bible Fellowship, Worship, or other studies.