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

Paradise Is Not a Place

Imagine that you are having your routine physical. The doctor checks your blood pressure, your heart rate, and your cholesterol.  In fact, she runs a whole range of blood tests.  She listens to your breathing, asks about your medical history, and checks for any allergies.   And then, she checks … your attitude, your outlook on life.  She wants to know how optimistic you are.  Are you hostile?  Do you carry anger or worry around with you?  And before you conclude that these last questions are too personal, let me correct myself.  I said, “imagine” a routine physical.  You don’t really have to imagine.  Paul Costa Jr., former head of The National Institute on Aging said, “personality has to be assessed as a standard part of health work-ups.”  Not only good food, but also good thoughts are important for physical, mental, and spiritual health.

And so, what kind of food do we serve our minds?  Criticism, complaining, bitterness, blame?  With this kind of nourishment, what will grow inside?  Probably not hope or joy or patience or optimism.  Carefully and thoughtfully read Philippians 4:8-9.

Finally, brothers, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Isn’t it true that Paul is not just telling us to do the right thing; he is telling us to do what is right for us?

Ilene Siegler, of Duke University Medical School says that that “hostility is the most health damaging type-A quality.”  Carol Franz, of Boston University did a ten-year study of optimistic people and found that, “regardless of how much stress they had to cope with, people high in this kind of motivation had better health.”  Or, there is the twenty year Duke University study of more than four hundred men and women that found that the most suspicious and hostile people in the group stood the smallest chance of even surviving that twenty year span.

I always find it interesting when the “experts” of humanity reach a conclusion that God has been saying all along.  “Think on these things.”  “Put it into practice.”  “And the peace of God will be with you.”

Contemplation“think” Mull it over, repeat it to yourself, write it down, talk about it, sing about it.  It was Alexander Pope who wrote; “Some people will never learn anything because they understand everything too soon.”
Selection“on these things” Not on “those things” but on “these things.”  Fix your attention on what is good and change the channel on what is bad. Yes, there is evil in the world, and no, you can’t turn away and pretend it’s not there.  But, when you choose your focus, your center of attention; when you select the kind of thinking that you will serve to your mind, choose carefully.
Action“put it into practice” Because it’s not meant for my head, but for my heart.  Complete life change is the goal.  And if my diet is consistent and constant, then the outcome will be unavoidable.  My heart will change and my life (practice) will show the transformation.

I remember when my friend Rick, on a whim, applied for a teaching job on one of the Hawaiian Islands, and got it.  He was excited and amazed.  But after living there for a while and experiencing real life, even in “vacationland,” he wrote me and said, “I’ve learned that ‘Paradise’ is not a place, it’s a state of mind.”  Thankfully, Rick knew the Father and he knew what to serve his mind.

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.

His Name Was “Mentor”

In his book, You Can Make A Difference, Dr. Gary Collins tells of a team of analysts from Yale University who spent years researching and analyzing the very difficult move from youth, through middle-age, into old age. One major idea emerged that made the movement successful — mentoring.

imagesA mentor is someone who guides, challenges, corrects and serves as a model for someone younger.  Stories of mentoring go back to Homer’s ancient epic tale Odysseus, who as a father, simply asked his good friend Mentor to counsel his young son while he was away.

The criterion hasn’t changed much since.  Mentors guide, encourage and support.  They challenge their protégés to go beyond their comfort zone and explore their potential.  Probably most important, mentors listen, observe and reproduce themselves.

Timothy had his Paul
Paul had his Barnabas
Joshua had his Moses
The Twelve had their Jesus
Elisha had his Elijah
Daughters have their mothers
Sons have their fathers
Every person has the image of God

images-1The design of mentoring is a strategy straight from the heart of God.  His intent is to reproduce His own character in the human race, and He does it through one person to another.

Last year I lost a great mentor and a personal friend.  Prentice Meador has returned to the Mentor of the universe.  But his guiding influence lives on in the ministries, marriages, families, and lives of those in his multiplying ministry chain.  I am grateful to be in that chain, but it will only remain a chain if I continue to add links.

Do you want to honor the mentors in your life?  Do what they did.