Chasing Sticks

snoopyOne day Snoopy and Charlie Brown were out playing fetch. Charlie threw the stick. Snoopy chased it and brought it back. Charlie threw it again. Snoopy chased it again. Suddenly Snoopy stopped. And the comic strip pictured him thinking to himself, “I wonder what people will say about me after I’m gone … He was a nice guy … He chased sticks.”

There’s not much point in chasing sticks, nor in living a life that “chases the wind” as Solomon put it (Ecclesiastes 1:14). And what are the sticks we chase? The stick of success? The stick of wealth? The stick of health? And WHO decides the sticks we chase, the goals we pursue? And, more importantly, WHO is throwing your stick?

He was a nice guy, he chased sticks. He was a nice guy, he died wealthy. He was an interesting person, when he died they made a museum out of his house. She was a famous person, when she died, they used a whole column in the obituary section of the paper. He was one of the greats. When he died, it made the front page. He was a nice guy. And he died. And she died. But what for? For what reason? What did they do that gave both their life and their death meaning? What can I do in life that will survive my death?

George McDonald wrote, “In whatever man does without God, he must fail miserably, or succeed more miserably.” Or as Jesus put it, “What good is it … to gain the world, but lose your soul?”  … to lose your essence … to lose who you are … who you are designed to be.  Chasing sticks?

Avoiding a Success that Fails

From a poster on a student’s door:

God has given me so much to do,success-from-failure
And I’m so far behind,
I’ll never die.

I remember Landon Saunders asking the question, “What are you doing that will survive your death?”  It made a tremendous impact on my life, and I think Jesus is asking the same question in a story he told about a “rich fool” (Luke 12).  It’s a story about a man who was so successful that he had to upgrade, update, and expand his entire physical plant. He had collected and accumulated a massive amount of materials. But he had not made the kind of investment that would survive his death. I guess that’s why he’s called a “rich fool.”

At one point in the story the question is raised, “This very night your life will be demanded from you. Then who will get what you have prepared for yourself?” You see, everything that I ask to give my life purpose, to be my reason for living, must also be able to tell me what it will do for me then.

Then is the real test of a life purpose.

What is a life purpose today? What does it mean to have a life goal? For some it means to win a medal, or chair a department, or author a best seller, or rank high in their field of work. For others it simply means to make it, to put food on the table, to get out of debt, to survive. But what ever I’m going after, what happens when my life purpose has taken me as far as it can, and it’s not far enough? Just how far can the very best of temporary goals take a person?

I guess I’m asking if it’s really fair to ask something temporary to do something it’s not designed to do. You know what I mean — to ask my position to give me integrity, to ask my schedule to give me self-worth, to ask my checkbook to take away my worry, to ask my heritage to give me character, to ask my accomplishments to erase my failures — to ask something temporary to give me something permanent.

And so, how do I avoid a success that fails? I know it might sound crazy to even talk about successes that fail.  But they do, all the time.  Success fails when it takes me away from my children, when it makes my spouse a stranger, or when it teaches me to be selfish and arrogant.  Business may be a booming success, but what about life and relationships?

And so, what does Jesus’ story teach us about avoiding a success that fails?

Talk To The Right Person (vs. 17-18) “What shall I do? This is what I’ll do.” There are fourteen personal pronouns in this man’s speech to himself — my crops, my barns, my grain, my goods. Who is he talking to? Himself. And what does the story say is the real source of his success? It’s easy to miss.  Verse 16 says, “the ground of a certain rich man produced a good crop.” You see, when we break success down into it’s parts, we are left with a series of important questions. Who gives us the raw materials, who brings to us the opportunities, who builds into us our skill and talent, and who grants us the time to put it all together? Answer — The one who made the ground. Talk to the right person, and it’s not you.

Follow The Right Plan (vs.17) “I have no place to store my crops.” Here’s my question — What plan is this man following? You can see it in the word “store.” That’s it. This is his life plan — to produce and store. All of his time and energy is given to keeping, accumulating, stockpiling, hoarding. And for whom? Well, no one else is mentioned in the story. This man is given great gifts, which he plans to share with no one. He’s not following the right plan.

Pursue The Right Goal (vs. 19 “Take life easy; eat, drink and be merry.” Of course, there is nothing wrong with enjoyment, but there is a huge difference between making a living and making a life. This man was really concerned with storage, but you can’t store your life in a barn. Just imagine what this farmer could have done with his success. He could have called his family together for a time of worship, thanking God for his rich harvest. He could have invested his wealth in his community, making it a better place for everyone. He could have shared his wealth with the poor, the widow, the orphan, the destitute. He could have pursued a hundred different goals that would impact the lives of people.  And all of his goals would survive his death.

You see, relationship is the only success that doesn’t fail. Only people will last forever. Investing in people is the only work that will survive my death.

As a missionary to Ecuador, Jim Elliot was killed at age 29 by the very tribe he was trying to teach. He once said:

“He is no fool
who gives what he cannot keep
to gain that which he cannot lose.”

I Was Just Joking

“People who shrug off deliberate deceptions
saying, ‘I didn’t mean it, I was only joking,’
are worse than careless campers
who walk away from smoldering campfires”
Proverbs 26:18-19 (The Message)

sarcasmbrainSarcasm is a popular form of humor. As a noun it is defined as “a mocking remark,” but it’s a far more complicated word encompassing several levels. There are a number of helpful studies available, but perhaps the clearest story is told with a simple thesaurus.

One level of sarcasm exists among friends and includes such synonyms as banter, wordplay, comeback, irony, rejoinder, retort, satire and wit. All in the name of humor.

On a sharper level, sarcasm becomes much more pointed and less playful. The synonyms change to include criticism, cut, cynicism, dig, lampooning, wisecrack, rebuff, put-down, swipe, affront, sneer, taunt, scoffing and spite.

Further down the literary ladder, a more extreme form of sarcasm turns into verbal abuse. Once again, the synonyms tell the story — berating, castigation, denunciation, tongue-lashing, humiliation, causticness, derision, disparagement, mockery, ridicule, belligerence, harshness, malevolence, malice, rudeness, tartness, unkindness and insult.

And of course, there will be some disagreement as to where the lines are actually drawn. But there are several conclusions that we can all agree upon. One is how sarcasm feels — painful, especially if you’re a child. Children begin their life accepting our words at face value. In their fresh minds, they think we mean exactly what we are saying. They must learn, painfully, that we do not.

In addition, we can all probably agree upon the antonyms of sarcasm. The ones usually listed include, courtesy, diplomacy, flattery, compliment, commendation, civility, kindness, politeness, sweetness and praise. To see their power, just imagine the impact of any of these words upon a child.

In their book, What All Children Want Their Parents to Know, Diana Loomans and Julia Godoy differentiate between humor that heals and humor that hurts (48-49).

Humor that heals …

  • takes delight in another
  • affirms and builds up others up
  • puts no one down.
  • exercises creativity
  • brings joy and happiness to others
  • takes a lighthearted view
  • evokes smiles, laughter, confidence, and well-being

Humor that hurts …

  • makes fun of another
  • tears someone or something down
  • uses put-downs, either indirect or direct
  • uses cynicism and sarcasm
  • brings negativity or discouragement to others
  • takes a biting or bitter view

This reminds me that the origin of the Greek term for “sarcasm” meant “to strip off the flesh.” This can be done humorously or viciously. But, however it’s done, we become more proficient with our verbal swordplay as we slice people into pieces.

I realize, as I said at the beginning, that there are levels of sarcasm, ranging from the verbal play of friends to the verbal abuse of enemies. But the lines are not always clear, and without great care, it’s easy to slide from “banter” to “ridicule.”

In his book, Talk is cheap: Sarcasm, Alienation and the Evolution of Language, linguistics professor John Haiman writes (106):

There is an extremely close connection between sarcasm and irony, and literary theorists in particular often treat sarcasm as simply the crudest and least interesting form of irony. … [There are] important distinctions between the two. First, situations may be ironic, but only people can be sarcastic. Second, people may be unintentionally ironic, but sarcasm requires intention.”

And so, what are my verbal intentions? Do my friends walk away from a conversation with me thinking, “What a clever comeback” “What a sharp wit?” Or do they leave thinking “What an understanding friend?”

“The tongue has the power of life and death?”
Proverbs 18:21

Bailey Island

I guess I should explain where this wonderful scene (my header) comes from.  I took the picture this summer during a walk on the Atlantic side of Bailey Island.  It lies at the end of a string of islands just off the coast of Maine.

IMG_0180Several years ago I found a very small cabin at the tip of Bailey.  It’s a two-burner hot-plate cabin.  One room, 25 feet from the ocean.  There is no beach, only a raging 9 foot tide crashing on the steep rocks.  Perfect for a couple needing to get away from the city.  And so, we do get away, each summer, for a week of reading, walking, talking, listening, star gazing, eating lobster and being awestruck by the constantly changing, but ever consistent creation of God.  The only human activities that we can see or hear from our little spot on the coast are the lobster boats leaving in the morning and returning in the evening.

And yes, we’ve already reserved the cabin for next year.

The History of the Future

back to the futureIf you saw a university class with the title, “The History of the Future,” what would you think it would be about?  How could someone teach the history of the future?  How can history help us move into the future?

Think about yourself for a minute.  When you were a child, what did you dream of becoming?  By your senior year in high school, how had your plans changed?  Looking at your life now, how many of your plans actually occurred just as you thought they would?  What changed?  Why did it change?

Now think about an example from scripture.  As boy, the Peter probably dreamed of following in the family business even though fishing was a hard life and required both determination and leadership.  Later, as a young man, Peter’s plans changed.  He left his fishing business and followed Jesus, but his reasons had not yet found clarity.  At first, his motives were political and his is agenda eclipsed Jesus’ agenda.  There were arguments (Mark 8:32).  Later still, after Jesus’ death and resurrection, Peter’s plans changed again as he became an early spokesman for the Christian movement (Acts 2:14).

Looking back over his entire life, what changed and what remained the same in Peter’s life?  What did his history reveal about his future?

Sometimes this is called “Faith in Process” and the steps are often as difficult as they are predictable as a person moves from one level of commitment to another.  What steps did Peter go through as he changed from the proud Peter who argued with Jesus to the humble Peter who represented Jesus?

Step 1 – Pride – he didn’t listen or learn.
Step 2 – Failure – surprised @ failure.
Step 3 – Bewilderment – wandering in shock.
Step 4 – Listening – facing his own neediness.
Step 5 – Learning – with an open heart.
Step 6 – Change – God brings transformation.

In his classic, The Sacred Journey, Frederick Buechner writes:

“… to grit your teeth and clench your fists in order to survive the world at its harshest and worst – is, by that very act, to be unable to let something be done for you and in you that is more wonderful still … the one thing a clenched fist cannot do is accept … a helping hand.” (pg 46).

Peter eventually unclenched his fists, and while God completely changed Peter’s heart, He left his personality intact.  In fact, God dramatically brought Peter’s history in the future as He used Peter’s determination, drive, and leadership to launch the Christian movement.

And so, let’s go back to where we started – the history of the future.  What have you tried?  Where have you failed?  How have you learned?  What have you changed?

It’s the history of your future.