Avoiding Clay Feet

When I decide to retire from my job, I wonder if some of my coworkers will hear the news and say, “It’s about time!” Who knows, some of them might think that I already checked out.

What brings this to mind is something that happened at my church recently. The pastor, near the beginning of his sermon, announced that a new addition was being made to the staff. What makes this hire different from pretty much any that we’ve ever had is that the lucky guy, Clay, has already worked at the church in the past, having departed about six years back. In fact, Clay grew up in our church

When the pastor made the announcement, there was an audible and very positive gasp. Obviously, a large number of people in the room remembered Clay and welcomed his return to the fold. Having been privy to the announcement ahead of time–because I’m just super important, you know–it gave me great pleasure to hear that positive response. I’m sure there’s somebody in the membership who thinks that Clay’s return is a disaster, but they did not make themselves known that Sunday.

This got me to thinking about the legacy that we leave behind. What will people think about me when I hang up my teaching hat for the last time? Will they be relieved or will they think that I should have done it earlier? When I shuttle off this mortal coil, will my children and grandchildren be relieved not to have to mess with me anymore or will they legitimately grieve?

In Ecclesiastes 7:1, Solomon speaks to these questions, offering one proverb that seems obvious and another that causes confusion:

A good name is better than a good ointment, And the day of one’s death is better than the day of one’s birth.

It’s obvious that Clay has a good name. He left a good taste in the mouths of the people who knew him at our church on his previous stop. But what about this idea of the day of death being better than the day of birth? I think what this verse is trying to say is that on the day we die, we don’t have any more chances to mess things up, while on the day we’re born, our opportunities for foul-ups are virtually limitless.

To put this in the context of Clay, he, like many ministers, probably started well. People typically give the new guy the benefit of the doubt. They want him to succeed. The day of one’s occupational birth should be good, but if you’ve held things together until the day you leave, the day you retire, then you’ve really accomplished something. We don’t have to hang around churches very long to see people who did great things, sometimes for years, only to fail spectacularly at the end of their run.

I’d like to think that people will feel about me the way that they feel about Clay at the end of my course on this earth. I don’t really need their approval. I don’t need that audible response, but that sort of response would indicate that I’ve probably done something good along the way.

So when I choose to retire from Johnson County Community College, I pray people won’t respond by saying, “Finally!”

Let Me Tell You How Awesome I Am

I can do all things through the strength that is within me! I’m awesome! I’m the master of my own destiny! The captain of my soul!

When I catch myself feeling stupid thoughts like the ones above the video, I recognize that God is like number 50. He makes all my accomplishments possible. And then I go running down the court as if I’ve actually done something on my own.

Don’t Worry about Me!

You’ve been there. Somebody is doling out the praise, sharing the credit for some accomplishment. They thank everyone under the sun–except you. How do you feel? You’re ready to scream, right?

Throughout the scriptures, we hear God referred to as the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.” Why does Joseph never find a mention in that list? His story—the dreams, the fancy coat, his brothers selling him into slavery, dealings in Potiphar’s house, prison, more dreams, and then his redemption before Pharaoh—dominates Genesis 37-50. That’s nearly one-third of the Patriarchal History, yet still we read about the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

Many Bible commentators have noted that Joseph stands as a Christ figure in Genesis. First, and we could argue this, he is the only significant character in the Old Testament about whom nothing bad is said. Unless you want to blame him for cluelessly sharing his dreams with the family, Joseph is pretty much perfect.

Second, and less arguable, Joseph provides an unexpected means of salvation for this family. “Despised and rejected” by his brothers, Joseph finds himself consigned first to death and then to the living death of slavery. The brothers never expect to see Joseph again.

They said, “Joseph is still alive, and he is ruler over all the land of Egypt!” Jacob was stunned, for he did not believe them.–Genesis 45:26

Substitute the name Jesus for Joseph, “the whole world” for “the land of Egypt,” and Thomas for Jacob, and this verse could fit into the gospels pretty readily.

But through the power that God had placed within him, Joseph not only survived but thrived. He not only found his way out of a difficult situation but used first his foresight and then his superb planning abilities to prevent massive starvation both for the people of Egypt and also for his own family.

Without Joseph, we assume, the twelve tribes would never have developed beyond a handful of related shepherds. So didn’t he deserve a mention in the list of the patriarchs? We can imagine him going into a rant.

Where would you be if it hadn’t been for me? You’d be dead! You’d have starved to death. Your sheep would be dead. Your children would be dead. You’d be a forgotten smudge on the pavement of history! My kids would have been okay in Egypt, but you would have been long gone and utterly forgotten! But that’s okay. Don’t bother mentioning me.

Recognition is a good thing. Like anybody else, I enjoy being giving credit when I do something good. Joseph didn’t live long enough to hear people refer to the “God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob,” so we can’t say whether it would have bothered him or not. However, I can be fairly sure that being miffed at an omission like that is not worthwhile.

What Will Stop Harriete? What Will Stop You?

Late last month, Harriete Thompson earned the inestimable right to plaster a 26.2 sticker on the back of her car. She finished a marathon. Finishing a marathon is no small feat for anyone. I’ve never done it. I do plan to give it a go in October, but I haven’t done it yet. I know I can, but I know it won’t be a simple thing.

Harriete Thompson has now done it 16 times, all of them in the San Diego Rock ‘n Roll Marathon. How do you finish a marathon? Harriete might (or might not) give this two-step process to finishing.

  1. Cross the starting line. That means sign up and begin the race.
  2. Don’t stop until you cross the finish line.

Easy, right? You have to start and then not stop until you’re done. Harriete has followed that prescription 16 times. She never let anything stop her. Her time, 7:24:36, won’t impress most people, but there are some details about this lady.

  • Harriete is 92 years old, the oldest woman ever to complete a marathon. She could have let her advanced age stop her, but she didn’t.
  • Her husband of 67 years died last years. She could have let the grief and disruption put an end to her racing, but she didn’t.
  • Harriete is a two-time cancer survivor, having battled skin and jaw cancers. She could have let that legacy stop her, but she didn’t.
  • She didn’t even start this activity until she was in her mid-70s, an age when most people are looking for the best place to park their recliners. She could have let that stop her before she started, but she didn’t.

Someday Harriete Thompson will stop running/walking marathons. Someday she’ll pass from this life, but until those days come, if past experience is any indication, she’ll keep pushing forward.

You and I will someday be unable to do the things that we want to do, eventually succumbing to death. That’s the nature of life. Harriete Thompson seems to see life as something to be lived as fully as possible for as long as the body allows.

Why should any of the rest of us do any less?

Doctors, Dribblers, and Dreamers

Muddy kidThis morning, I went to my grandkids’ school to take part in a sort of career fair, meeting with 5th through 7th graders in small groups. One of the things that we did as we met each group was to ask them what they wanted to be professionally. If their answers are to be any guide, the world will soon have an overabundance of doctors and professional athletes.

Reality will almost certainly set in over the coming years for these kids. Let’s look at what the NCAA predicts for high school soccer players. According to their figures, 417,000 high school boys are playing soccer. Of those 5.7% will play in college. That’s 23,769 college players. And of those, the NCAA predicts that 1.4%  or 332 will be drafted by the MLS. If those numbers are correct, then the average high school soccer player has a .08% chance of being drafted by MLS. That’s not quite 1 in 10,000 or 1 out of every 500 high school teams. The odds are even worse when it comes to basketball.

So what did we say when these 5th through 7th graders–all of them boys, by the way–indicated a desire to play professional sports? Did we say, “You’re an idiot! You’re not going to be good enough to do that. Even if your body does hold up through college, it’s probably not strong enough to do what you want to do”? Of course not. We asked them, politely, if they had a back-up plan in case that didn’t work out.

But then there’s the whole doctor thing. Just as some kids will simply not have the physical ability to play professional sports–forget about the mental habits–some kids won’t have the mental powers to make medical school happen. These kids will need good grades in reasonably demanding classes, plus they’ll need to do a decent job on the MCAT. I don’t have exact numbers like those provided by the NCAA for athletes, but I do know that in 2013, only about 40% of the 48,000 students who applied to medical school got in. We have to remember that not too many students who are clearly not med school material will be applying. Of those who do get in, perhaps 85% will graduate, but some of these middle-school would-be-doctors will simply not have what it takes.

Whether we are talking about our body or of our mind, the reality for most of us is that we typically ask too little of it rather than too much. What if those two 5th graders who proclaimed their intention to play professional soccer don’t make it? What if they only play on a high school team and have fun? Would that be terrible? What if they get some college scholarship money and get to play a game they enjoy at the same time? Wouldn’t that be awful?

Or what if the med school wannabes wash out and “only” become nurses or physical therapists? Terrible, right? What if their push to become doctors simply helps them to get better grades? I can think of many worse outcomes.

The problem that most of these kids will face, if they are typical, is that they’ll probably never know whether they were strong enough or smart enough to make those dreams a reality. They’ll probably quit on themselves at some point along the way, deciding that playing soccer or practicing medicine just isn’t worth the effort each day.

They might make that decision, but I’m not ever going to be the one to help them quit on themselves.

The Secrets of Longevity

happy old guyDo you want to live to be really old? Here’s a hint: Don’t die young.

A recent story out of the U.K. shares some actual long-life advice from the ultimate experts: the long lived. Amazingly, none of them had the benefit of CT scans or the latest pharmaceutical wonders for most of their decades.

My favorite bit of advice came from Gertrude Weaver, who died in 2015, less than 100 days shy of her 117th birthday.

She focused less on diet and more on outlook.

“Trusting in the Lord, hard work and loving everybody”

“Kindness. Treat people right and be nice to other people the way you want them to be nice to you.”

Those who did mention diet, didn’t spout off nutritional dogma. Nobody said, “I attempted to avoid saturated fats” or “I shunned triglycerides.” These women–and the long-lived are almost always women–seemed to eat what they liked. A Japanese lady enjoyed not just plentiful carbs from ramen noodles but also plentiful animal fats from red meats in the form of beef stew and hashed beef. A 119-year-old American extolled the benefits of milk chocolate turtles and potato chips. I’m sure both of those were organic.

One of the things I noticed in most of the examples was that these women had activities that they enjoyed. They indulged in needlepoint, painting, and pottery. In other words, they had something more worthwhile than reruns of Bewitched on TV to greet them when they rose in the morning.

Today, many people will outstrip the “three score and ten” years that the Bible speaks of as the lifespan of a human. The testimony of these who lived well past 110 is that there’s no magic diet. What would be truly sad, though, would be living such a long life and not having anything to show for it.

The Hollowness of Victory and the Agony of Da Feet

Rene PetersonA couple of weeks back, I wrote about coming in second in my age group in a 5K. The guy who beat me by enough time to eat a banana and drink a bottle of water and then make a pit stop before seeing me straggle up to the finish line was Rene Peterson, a man who, it turns out, lives less than a mile from me. If you’ll recall this fellow “runs” with his arms, propelling a hand bike through the course. We’d been in at least three races together over the last year or so.

On the Saturday before Memorial Day, I actually got to meet Rene and his constant companion, a tiny service dog named Lady, as we ran in a 5K around the Independence Square. With only 100 people running, this was a lot more friendly race than the huge one we’d shared in early May.

Right out of the start, Rene took advantage of a long hill headed north toward the Harry S. Truman Library. By the time I could see the library, Rene had already turned around and was headed up Delaware toward Harry’s home. He was flying. Of course, every downhill must be matched with an uphill. I didn’t see him, but I know he felt the grade as we headed back to the south.

Passing over the ridge on which the Independence Square is built, we had another long, gradual downhill, which promised another long, gradual uphill. It was on that uphill that I caught up with Rene and passed him. I realized that he very much prospers on a flatter course.

The race took us back to the square, in the shadow of the old courthouse, before turning west on Maple toward the finish. I could see the finish just a block away when Rene pushed past me. I probably could have sprinted it out harder and at least made him struggle to beat me, but, honestly, I was pretty well gassed by this point.

When the final results were tallied, he had beaten me by one-tenth of a second. One-tenth! In an odd quirk, I came in tenth overall in this race (out of 106) but only fourth in my age group. Once again–for the third time this spring–I failed to achieve the time goal I had set for myself, although I had a better time than in the previous race.

If there is a point to all of this, it lies in the vanity of all human desires. Does my fourth-place finish in a small race mean more or less than my second-place finish in a huge race?  Do either of those matter more than the overall time that I had? In the end, none of this means much at all.

What matters, what means something, is that we run the race at all, that we give our best efforts and that we offer them to Jesus. Next time, provided the course has some hills, I’ll take Rene and I’ll cross the finish line in 23:30, my elusive goal. Or maybe I won’t. In this pursuit like all of life’s pursuits, it’s all too easy to become consumed by our vain desires. I reminded myself of that fact as I drove home that morning.

But one-tenth of a second? That’s hard to take.

Enduring Vanity

Vanitas PaintingRecently, I shared a few thoughts about the fleeting nature of human beauty, looking at 17th century Vanitas paintings and everyone’s favorite retired body builder, Arnold Schwarzenegger. Rather than thinking further about Arnold, I’d like to revisit that painting for a moment, looking a bit more closely.

Take a look at the painting. Go ahead and click on it to get a bigger version. I’ll wait.

Remember that the idea of the vanitas painting was to play out the ideas of Ecclesiastes on the vanity of human endeavors. We all die, after all–which is the big, unsubtle message of the skull–and most anything we do is just vanity, just meaningless.

But is that the whole story? I suggested in the previous post that the purpose of the violin in this painting was to evoke the strains of music that are played and then fade away. Look, though, at what lies under the violin and the skull. That appears to be printed music. A song played today will fade away quickly, but a piece of music preserved in musical notation can be preserved for generations. Some of the hymns of the church have been sung for generations. Isn’t that a slight taste of cheating mortality?

Then look over to the left of the painting and the shiny ball. What is that? It looks like a giant pinball, but is, I believe, a convex mirror. A mirror can certainly be a symbol of vanity and the fleeting nature of things, but look at this particular mirror. What do you see? That’s apparently the image of the artist captured in the midst of creating the canvas. Although dead for more than 300 years, Pieter Claesz achieved a tiny bit of immortality by painting himself into that mirror and a bigger one through the enduring value of his paintings.

Besides reminding us of the folly of things that perish, the Vanitas paintings also underscore the value of those things that last. As I write this, I just finished watching the Kansas City Royals play a baseball game. Time well spent? I’d have to chalk that one up in the “meaningless” column, along with the overripe fruit and soon-to-wilt flowers. It is my hope that most of my time is passed on things that will have more enduring value than that.

We have each been allotted a certain number of days on this earth. We can pass them in pursuits that are meaningless or those that are meaningful. More than likely, we’ll have some in each category. But how is your day to be spent today? Which of the Vanitas painting’s messages will your day tell? That’s a question we should ask ourselves each time we roll out of or into bed.

The Endless Hunger

woman-praying-silhoutte-168fe02ec159dbda85f31317c4972b91I’m writing this just before lunch at the office. A container of kung pao chicken is waiting in the fridge. I need to take a couple of steps behind me, loosen the lid, and then start the microwave. Or I could step to my right and open the file drawer that holds raisins (including yogurt-covered ones) and a few other morsels of non-perishable goodness. I am hungry.

Or am I? My guess is that when I say, “I am hungry,” I only mean that my body truly needs food about one time in twenty. Instead, I’m really saying, “I want to cram food in my mouth” for a variety of possible reasons. Right now, it’s probably to avoid actual work.

Esther Crain catalogs eleven reasons why you might be hungry. These include factors such as eating the wrong things (as opposed to not enough) as well as matters that have nothing to do with eating. One that caught my eye was eating because of stress.

Who hasn’t dealt with a high-pressure workday or relationship rough spot by giving into cravings for a pint of Rocky Road? But stress has a sneakier way of making you voracious. When you’re tense, your system ramps up production of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol, says Rumsey. Elevated levels of these hormones trick your system into thinking it’s under attack and needs energy, so your appetite starts raging. Stress also reduces levels of the brain chemical serotonin, and that can make you feel hungry when you aren’t, says Moon. Consider it a case for making it to yoga class more often, or cranking up a soothing playlist on your commute home.

I mention this because as pervasive as stress is in our culture, the Christian has tools at his or her disposal that can greatly diminish the weight that stress places on us. As therapeutic as yoga might be, prayer and meditation in God’s Word can certainly bring more power than twisting yourself into a pretzel and chanting “Om.” The problem is that too often we fail to make use of the spiritual disciplines.

Whether it is to grow closer to God or to eliminate stress from your life–and I’d argue that doing the first will inevitably lead to the second–you should not ignore the power that getting close to the Creator can provide.

Shortcuts and Hacks

easyHow many times have you seen these sorts of teaser headlines on the covers of magazines:

  • Get a six-pack belly fast!
  • Six weeks to your best swimsuit body!
  • Lose 40 pounds in just three weeks!
  • Five secret foods to turbocharge your metabolism!

These headlines and the invariably disappointing articles behind them promise a shortcut to the accomplishment of something that normally takes a lot of time and effort. In the web-world these shortcuts are often called hacks.

A hack can be anything from a clever idea that can actually change your life to a ridiculous gimmick that only succeeds in getting the web browser to click on a link. These sorts of hacks are good for advertisers but bad for you and me.

In a guest post on The Art of Manliness, Kyle Eschenroeder argues that the endless quest for the hack, the search for the perfectest, most efficient, most clever approach to some task prevents a lot of people from accomplishing anything

The hacking mindset flatters the part of us who’s lazy, who always wants to take the path of least resistance, who loves feeling superior to the “chumps” who are taking the hard way. But, despite all our new technological advancements, life itself remains stubbornly impervious to hacking. You do not get to cheat death. You do not get to escape being human. You cannot circumvent the universal law which dictates that all goals require work, time, pain, and suffering to attain.

It seems to me that this author could have probably read the Proverbs and reached the same conclusion.