The Needle Detector

Confession Time: I fled my house today in order to avoid a visit from the mother of my former son-in-law. Actually, I wasn’t exactly fleeing. I just didn’t want to be there when she arrived. (Wait–that’s pretty much the same thing, isn’t it?)

Not to waste the time after vacating the house, I headed to one of my favorite haunts, the Midwest Genealogy Center, a top-flight genealogy library that just happens to be about two miles from my house. My current research is not so much tracking down the various ancestors who explain my presence on this earth as to learn the history of my new home and the land on which it stands. Today’s quarry was obituaries for the people who, I’m pretty sure, built the barn that now houses us: Fred and Bessie.

Having done some poking around, I knew death dates for both of these people. With that information in hand and given that they were Independence locals, finding the obituary shouldn’t be tough. I went to Fred’s death date, 27 November 1958, in the Independence Examiner and began scrolling forward through the microfilm. I gave up around 4 December with empty hands. Trying the same thing with Bessie’s death date, I had similarly crummy results.

Eventually, following this same process in the Kansas City Star, I located entries for both of these people, but I couldn’t help but think there might have been a fuller account in the hometown paper. On my way out of the library, I asked one of the expert staff. “We don’t have anything like an index for the Examiner do we?”

It turns out that we do. Punching in the appropriate surname, I received a quick 81 hits. That’s not to say that there were 81 articles since Bessie, for example, appeared in Fred’s obituary as well as her own. Still, by clicking on a link, I could see the date, page, and column on which the item appeared.

So here’s my choice. Spend an hour or more scrolling through a bunch a random pages and discovering the price of grapes at Milgrim’s in 1957, or talk to a librarian for two minutes and get easy and efficient access. You’d think that with all the years of research I’ve put in, I’d know better.

In Proverbs 11:14, we realize that my folly isn’t a new issue:

Without guidance, a people will fall,
but with many counselors there is deliverance.

The same idea is picked up a few chapters later in 15:22.

Plans fail when there is no counsel,
but with many advisers they succeed.

Our culture encourages self reliance and rugged individualism. My maleness and introversion combine to make me even less inclined to seek out help. But with some outside help, my needle is suddenly located in a considerably smaller haystack.

The Rumpelstiltskin Effect

If it is possible to spin gold out of straw, a la Rumpelstiltskin, we are well equipped, with fifty square bales of wheat straw piled up next to our garden area. Penny is determined to plant the bulk of the garden in these bales. The process might be something that I’ll take up at a later date, but today, I would like to consider the idea of turning straw into gold, or, as Dire Straits sang, “Money for nothin’ and your chicks for free.”

After we took delivery of the bales, Penny felt some concern. We dropped $350 on these things. Straw bales, it turns out, are not cheap. At some point, we have to think about spending more time and money on the growing of vegetables than on what those things would have cost at the grocery store or farmer’s market. Have we reached that point?

You can’t plant your artichokes in the middle of the grass, so we have to do something to prepare a bed for planting. We could spade it up by hand, which is a titanic undertaking and sure to leave our backs aching for days. We could buy a rototiller, which is probably not the best way to prepare a bed and would run us about as much as the straw bales if not more. We could build raised beds, which would involve a good deal of lumber plus some trucked-in soil, plus a lot of work. The bottom line is that there is no free lunch–or at least no free bed to plant your lunch veggies into.

We can’t magically turn those straw bales into a side of beef. We can’t even get an unreasonable amount of vegetables from our seeds. But we can get plenty, even after investing a fair bit. Proverbs warns us about trying to turn straw into gold.

Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty. A faithful man will abound with blessings, but whoever hastens to be rich will not go unpunished.–Proverbs 28:19-20

Similarly, when we’re in too big a hurry, when we’re looking to get rich quick–whether those riches be in gold or in asparagus–we’re behaving foolishly.

Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.–Proverbs 13:11

If we’ve been wise with this approach to planting, then the harvest will be plentiful. It won’t make us rich, but it will yield a profit. And when the season is done, the straw will have composted, leaving our soil richer and better prepared for next year.

We’ll keep you updated.Square Hay Bales.

Working the Plan

You may not know it, but Wile E. Coyote is in the Bible. He has a different name there, but it pretty much has to be the same guy. You read the text in question and you’ll see.

Wile-E-Coyote-movieIn case you lived a deprived childhood and did not get to watch Roadrunner cartoons, then you might not know about Wile E. Coyote. Generally our man–or rather our coyote–Wile E. does not speak, although in some examples, mostly when he is chasing Bugs Bunny rather the the Roadrunner, he does speak, in a voice that might have served as the model for Jeremy Irons’ Scar in The Lion King. In those cases, he typically declares himself a “Super Genius.”

The main modus operandi for Wile E. is to employ ever more elaborate schemes to outpace the ferociously quick bird. As often as not, he purchases some marvelous item from Acme Company, who seem to specialize in mail-order of large rockets, cannons, and other improbable speed-enhancing items. While each scheme looks sure to succeed, it most often ends with Wile E. falling over the edge of a ridiculously high desert mesa, several hundred feet according to standard physics equations.

Recently, I shared some thoughts on the folly of Saul and his jealousy toward David. This begins in 1 Samuel 18. In the course of just that single chapter, Saul tries to pin David to the wall with a spear not once but twice. (Honestly, would you still be in the room after the first spear came your way?) Saul then sent David out as a military leader, probably hoping David would be killed. Instead, he simply becomes more famous and popular. Then Saul offered David a marriage to one of his daughters, only to renege on the offer.

Finally, when another daughter falls in love with David–and who wouldn’t?–Saul tries to use this to get David killed again. He asks only for a particularly grisly bride price, 100 Philistine foreskins, sure that certainly at least one of the highly motivated Philistines will get the upper hand. Instead David comes back with double the order.

Like the Super Genius Coyote, Saul keeps leaning on his own understanding. In his defense, Solomon wouldn’t pen Proverbs 3:5 for another two generations, but you have think that Saul could have figured this thing out.

What can we learn from this? It’s not that coyotes should try to eat slower prey. Instead, it’s something more about envy. Jealousy and envy are bad enough, but they’re things that most humans cannot completely escape. What we can escape is to follow up on those emotions with foolish plot after foolish plot designed to get what we want rather than to trust in the Lord with all our heart.

Unless the Lord Builds–or Buys–the House

barn-frontIt was 11 years ago that Penny and I decided that a certain 60-acre tract between Oak Grove and Bates City, Missouri was the place for us to put down roots for the long term. We bought the place despite a few red flags that might have (or should have) warned us away. Somehow Proverbs 3:5 and not leaning on our own understanding comes into play here, at least in hindsight. Declaring discretion the better part of valor, around five years back, we moved back into town in a house just a couple of blocks from where I was raised.

Have we done it again? A few months ago, a unique house was advertised to be sold by auction. A re-purposed barn, this structure has stood in place for over 110 years. Penny went to the open house–I was otherwise engaged–and fell in love with it. We liked the place immensely, but the projected price tag was too much for us. Eventually, we simply prayed: “If this is to be, then let it be.”

So then what happened?

  • We put in a low-ball bid just to show that we were interested. Although we were outbid, the auction didn’t meet reserve. The auction company called, suggesting that the owners were open to offers. We offered considerably less than what they had wanted, and they accepted.
  • But wait, we still own a house and cannot afford to support two houses at once. Our old house was listed on December 29, although the preparatory work had been done before Christmas. At 9:30 on the morning of December 29, people came to see it. They made an offer that evening. We countered and reached agreement during the afternoon of December 30.
  • Did I mention that our old house desperately needed paint? Have you ever tried to get an exterior painter in January? Our agreement with our buyers involved them accepting the house as-is and us giving a slight financial concession. Just not having to struggle with getting a painter was easily worth that price!
  • Although the winter of 2018-19 has been fairly challenging, the days on which we moved were, although cold, quite workable. A few days before or after would have been considerably more challenging.
  • Good friends and reliable family provided plenty of help and several invaluable vehicles. Who can expect to have a friend who owns a huge box truck?
  • We owned both houses for 11 days. Those days made me nervous. We’d already committed a huge chunk of money (and pretty much all our cash) to the new house. We had no guarantee that the sale of the old house wouldn’t flip at the last minute. On Sunday, one day before that second closing, I confessed to Penny that I felt anxious. But why worry? It went off without a hitch.

In short, everything seems to have progressed as flawlessly as we could hope. Even when we had obstacles, they were overcome in ways that suggested that God was in this process. Now our calling is to redeem the grace that has been showered on us.

Yesterday, our grandkids woke up in that house and went to church with us. I think there might have been some nerf gun wars in our huge attic before we left. In the afternoon, our daughter-in-law hosted a dozen women from her church.  Thomas and I went out to the unheated and very rough “West Wing” of the structure to consider how it could be transformed into livable space for his family. Soon, the winter weather will pass and we’ll lay out our garden, planting those seeds of potential. But then I suppose we already have begun to sprout some seeds.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. –Psalm 127:1


The Shocking Truth about Atheism

Hang out with electricians and you might think that a padlock is their favorite tool. Any protocol-following electrician, when shutting off a breaker to safely work on a circuit, will slap a padlock on the box to ensure that some bozo doesn’t come along behind and turn the breaker back on.

The scene might look something like this: “Hey, why doesn’t my bagel toaster work in the office? No worries, I know where the breaker box is. Well there it is–number 13 is tripped. I’ll just turn it back on. (Click.) Who was that screaming?”

While Proverbs 9:10 tells us that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, an electrician might amend that to say, at least while at work, that the fear of the current is the beginning of wisdom.

That well known verse is the flipside of Psalm 14:1:

The fool says in his heart, “There’s no God.”

Our electrician friend would adapt that easily enough. The fool says, “There’s no way that this circuit is hot.”  The electrician switched the power off himself and then placed the padlock on to ensure that it stays that way. Only then is he not a fool.

But here’s the deal. Anybody who has worked around electricity for a while knows that you can get away without locking circuits most of the time. You don’t really have to treat every connection as if it were live. That’s just a safety guideline that takes care of matters in the worst case. It’s just like you can ride around in your car without a seatbelt most of the time without a problem.

That’s how it is with ignoring God. People can go through their lives for decades ignoring God and apparently prospering. Read through Psalm 14 for its dismal view of humanity. Not until Psalm 14:5 do we read the key word: “Then.”

Eventually, the fool who says there’s no God will discover the error of that assumption. Eventually. But in the intervening years, that fool can do a lot of damage.

What’s a God-follower to do? We can learn something from electricians. We can start by trying to live every moment of every day as if there truly is a God, as if the wires are hot. Do you already do that? If so, you’re ahead of me. We can also protect ourselves by trying to put locks on situations to avoid danger.

You see, that electrician can avoid danger in two ways. First, he can simply stay away from the system. That’s not his calling. Second, he can practice safe methods, including locking circuits, to keep some bagel-toasting yahoo from shocking him.

The reality is that electricians and Christians sometimes get hurt when they deal with these dangerous things. But the electrician is paid to deal with that danger. The Christian is expected to engage a dangerous world in an effort to set its current right.


Rule #4: Set specific intentions

torah-scrollI have been exploring the individual rules listed in an article called “Ten Rules Fit People Live By,” evaluating each of them in the light of Biblical teaching. You can check out Rule #1, Rule #2, or Rule #3. Today, we get to examine rule #3: Set specific intentions. Here’s how the author explains this rule.

The more detailed your daily goals and plans, the better. In his book, Harper cites an English study on women enrolled in a weight loss program: The researchers asked about half of their subjects to write down their strategies for managing temptation (for example, When sugar cravings strike, I will make a cup of tea). After two months, those women had lost twice as much weight as women in a control group.

On the surface, this rule seems like a great idea. I’m a goal-oriented person. I set goals (or objectives or plans) for the day, the week, the month, and the year. For example, I have a goal for calorie intake for today. My goal is simple. I’m going to eat no more than 1,750 calories plus one half of the calories I burn through exercise. When I exercised this morning, I burned about 980 calories, so I will allow myself 490 extra calories to be eaten. At the end of the day, my calorie count should be less than 2,240. Good goal, right? It’s specific, measurable, attainable, relevant, and timed. It’s S.M.A.R.T.! Yesterday, I didn’t meet that goal, going a bit bananas as I watched recorded episodes of NCIS before heading to bed. Still, the goal was good and serves me almost every day.

Similarly, I never go out to run without a distance and/or a pace in mind. I don’t lift weights without knowing what exercises I’ll do at what weights and what reps. Goals are good, especially when they help us with things that could get lost in imprecision. For example, it’s a lot easier to say I’ll eat no more than 2,240 calories than to say, I’ll “eat right” or “cut back a bit.”

Goals are biblical. In Proverbs 21:5, we are admonished, “The plans of the diligent lead surely to abundance, but everyone who is hasty comes only to poverty,” while Jesus shared the peculiar little parable about building  tower in Luke 14:28: “For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it?”

But goals can become an end in themselves. I think that’s why James 4:13-15 warns us about getting too involved in our goals and plans:

Come now, you who say, “Today or tomorrow we will go into such and such a town and spend a year there and trade and make a profit”— yet you do not know what tomorrow will bring. What is your life? For you are a mist that appears for a little time and then vanishes. Instead you ought to say, “If the Lord wills, we will live and do this or that.”

I think the same basic message lies behind the parable of the Rich Fool in Luke 12. We set goals. We try to achieve our goals. Sometimes we make it; sometimes we don’t, but trying is a good thing. When, however, those goals become our god, when our goals replace the goals God would establish for us, then we’re just as guilty of idolatry as those who bow down to Baal.

So in the end, rule #4 is a good one but one that can be misapplied. Remember that the fear of God is the beginning of wisdom. Absent that, there are no wise goals.

Reconsidering My Reconsideration

Diet SodaA while back, I shared with you my determination to ween myself off of my beverage of choice: Diet Dr. Pepper. Since I spent a couple of summers working on the grounds crew at Mt. Washington Cemetery, I’ve been a determined drinker of diet soda. At first it was Tab. Then came Diet Coke. For the last several years it has been Diet Dr. Pepper, sometimes splashed with a bit of vanilla when I get it at QuikTrip.

I’m pretty sure that drinking this stuff is better for me than swilling a bunch of high-fructose corn syrup, but I, as I shared earlier, know that I could do better drinking something exotic–like water. That’s why I set my eye on cutting back and then eliminating this drink from my life.

So how am I doing? I’m glad you asked. My progress has been–well, it’s complicated. Right after I wrote that original post, I cut myself back to my first-thing-in-the-morning super tanker from QuikTrip. Then, instead of refilling it on the way home, I’d opt for tea. This process worked for me for a few days. Then I planned to downsize the early-morning cup and eventually cut it out.

But this was when I was building up to run my half marathon. I didn’t want to mess my body up, did I? Surely that wasn’t the right time. And then we were moving toward the end of the spring semester. Why put extra stress on myself then? I could always cut back during the summer, right? Right?

You hear it, don’t you? I’m a veritable fount of excuses. I know what I need to do, but my mind comes up with a succession of rationalizations to keep me from having to do it. Deep down, I know that I’m just avoiding a change to a habit that I find comforting, but if I don’t look deep down, I can convince myself that this is really a good choice.

Excuses are a human specialty. Since Adam blamed Eve and Eve blamed the serpent for their sin, we’ve been artists working in the medium of excuse. In Proverbs 22:13 we read, “The slacker says, ‘There’s a lion outside! I’ll be killed in the streets!'” Today, I suppose the slacker thinks it will rain or that there’s something good on TV.

I’d love to say that my excuse making with regards to diet soda is at an end, but it isn’t. Perhaps I’ll revisit that reconsideration eventually, but not today.

Love That Body, Men

Muscle BoyOne of my new favorite online voices, Paul Maxwell, grabbed my attention last fall with a post about male body image. Actually, Paul referred to it as an “Epidemic of Male Body Hatred.” We usually think about this with women, but guys are probably just as bad. We just tend less to eating disorders in response.

At the heart of this piece, he seems to ask, “Who are you trying to impress?” He goes on to run through five different potential answers–ourselves, women, peers, fathers, God–and explains the folly of that self-loathing. Instead, he argues, we can find all of our answers through the unconditional love of Jesus.

Maxwell does not speak against your efforts to lose weight or lift it:

You don’t have to stop lifting or dieting or supplementing. And maybe you should start dieting and exercising. This isn’t a rebuke in either direction. It’s an invitation to perspective and intimacy — with ourselves, the opposite sex, the same sex, authorities, and God. Love is better than protein (Proverbs 15:17). In his abundant love, God delights in everything about you, including your body.

Instead, he calls Christians to keep that weighty action in perspective.

Nothing but Fear Itself? (Psalm 19:9)

The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever.
The decrees of the LORD are firm,
and all of them are righteous. (Psalm 19:9)

Franklin Roosevelt famously warned America that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Spoken during the worst of the Great Depression, these words, uttered by a powerful politician, were amazingly silly. Did the people of Oklahoma not have to fear all of their topsoil blowing away to the east? Did people not have fear crime? Was starvation not a genuine object of fear? While Roosevelt’s line might have sounded good coming through the radio, it really didn’t have much substance to it, at least not as he intended it.

Fearer of Fear?What student of the Bible has not encountered Proverbs 9:10, which admonishes us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Apparently, FDR never read that. Let’s consider the fear of fear versus the fear of God for a moment.

That long-ago president urged us to essentially fear nothing. We didn’t need to fear death, disease, war, starvation, crime, poverty, ignorance, violence, racism, unemployment, or any of a hundred other significant things. Proverbs tells us essentially the same thing, except that we are to fear God.

FDR replaced the fear of fear with a can-do attitude and clever government programs. Proverbs replaces the fear of God with nothing. Nothing can replace it. FDR sought to banish fear; Proverbs seeks to embrace a particular fear.

The fear of the Lord endures forever, our verse today asserts. What other fear lasts forever? Pain is temporary. Unemployment ends. The Great Depression and the Dustbowl ended. World War II, not even on Roosevelt’s radar at this point, ended. Even death, through our hope in Christ, ends. Of all the objects of fear, only God remains as such forever.

The only thing we have to fear is God Himself. What if Roosevelt had spoken those words? What difference would it have made? A proper fear of God looks to God for all of its answers, all of its protection and provision. The absurd fear of fear looks to human efforts for all of its answers.

Those other fears, temporary as they are, can be considered impure, while the fear of God is pure. We don’t have fear fear itself. We should fear the lack of fear in the God who created us.