Tuesday, November 27, 2012

I Must Decrease

In his book The Four Loves, C.S.Lewis talks about the various ways affection can turn bad.  I expanded on his ideas about love in my book, A Final Word on Love.  But here, I'm interested in Lewis' discussion of how some families react when a member excels beyond the confines of what has been the established boundaries of the family. I'm not talking about a black sheep in the negative sense, but one who goes beyond his kin in experience, ideas, education, or interests.  The reaction--better said, the reactionary response--flows from a jealousy that is justified in the minds of the jealous by a belief the so-called errant member has somehow betrayed the family.  The disgruntled members see the black sheep's outside interests as symptomatic of an unrequited love.  In the minds of those who remained unchanged within the family circle, there is only one history, and that history must establish the future, so the history for each new generation remains identical to the last.  If dad was a plumber, all his sons must be plumbers.  If grandma gave red socks to the grandchildren at Christmas time, then the new grandmother must do the same for the new grandchildren, and so on.

Affection kept in its proper place is a good thing.  But the affection that galvanized this family had turned into a demon imprisoning the family in a narrow confinement of a stagnant, fearful existence.  When the black sheep returned, excited to share his discoveries, he met with a cold reception.  With the fires of enthusiasm quickly quenched by the tepid suspicious looks from his loved ones, the black sheep would soon find himself being conveyed to a freezer well stocked with passive aggression, snide remarks, criticisms of anything he experienced, and comparisons to prove how much better it has always been within the family.  All of which done in an attempt to shame the confused black sheep into capitulating and returning to the fold--even to dumb down to the level of denying he ever had a thought not thought by the rest.  Some people it seems are threatened by relatives--especially children--who advance themselves.  And they retaliate by accusing the hapless members of failing to love them.  They might not explicitly say so, but they don't have to.

This pathology is all rather foreign to me because my family of origin always wanted to learn something new.  My octogenarian father once asked if he could borrow my book on nanoparticles because he didn't know anything about them.  So when I witness families terrified of their child's expanding universe--and yes, I do think it is a fear--I'm dumbfounded and saddened.

I have always wanted my children to be better than me, and to pursue their own dreams.  I expressed this desire to some friends once over dinner, and they vilified me for it.  They accused me of burdening my children with an impossible expectation.   They weren't complimenting me, either.  No, they were quite put off by my idea.  Apparently, they saw no way for anyone to exceed beyond the PhD I had obtained.  All I can say is, "I didn't expect a sort of Spanish Inquisition."  After all, how far a person progresses academically is really only a small part of what defines him or her.  Besides, there are all sorts of equally valuable skills and knowledge to be earned outside the Ivy walls.  In any event, my friends were quite mistaken.  My son--who has a master's degree--at thirty years is far more knowledgeable, experienced, and talented than I was at his age with my doctorate.  He may not as yet Piled it higher and Deeper, but he has moved light-years beyond me, for which I am very proud.  And he's gotten there through his own hard work.

What got me to thinking about all this is John the Baptist.  God had called John to prepare the way for the Messiah, Jesus the Christ.  John untiringly did his assigned task, bringing little attention to himself.  Indeed, when given the third degree to find out whom he claimed to be, John said he was nothing more than a mere voice in the wilderness.  People joined John as his disciples, but many would eventually abandon him to follow Jesus.  And John encouraged it because all that mattered to John was exalting Jesus.  In all that John did he communicated, "He must increase and I must decrease."

John loved with God's Love.  Such love is never threatened, never jealous, never competitive, never haughty, never condescending, never shaming, never self-serving, but always striving to see the next person's life shine like a star in the firmament.  And what's really fascinating about this love is, when it's allowed to flow, everyone comes away shining brightly in the sky.

What a better world it would be if everyone lived by the creed, "He must increase and I must decrease."

Tuesday, November 20, 2012

All the World's a Sandbox

It seems more and more of my friends and acquaintances are feeling bummed these days.  Everyone seems to be hunkering down in self-protection against some unseen, ill-defined, menace.  I am hearing a lot of mumbling about a coming zombie apocalypse in the same breath of fiscal cliffs, lost freedoms, and declining incentives.  A friend recently told me to watch and see if there won't be a glut of people leaving their jobs because it's more lucrative to stay room and sponge off the government.

I found myself praying about all of this fear and pending doom, lamenting about how the world is getting worse.  But I' m not so sure about that.  A more accurate statement is probably America is catching up with the rest of the world.  Until recently, we've had it pretty darn good in this country--at least in my life time.  We've remained largely insulated from the horrors and insecurities common in other parts of the world.  What I have been sensing is not so much the world getting worse, but a slow collapse of the American firewall between me and the rest of the world.  I'm feeling the heat, man.

So what?

Well, first of all, don't feel bad about feeling bad.  We are human beings, not Vulcans (thank the Lord for that).  Secondly, know your limitations, which for all of us are dangerously close to being limitless. Thirdly, know that we are all playing in the same sandbox.  And regardless of whether we might own a truck or a tractor, a bucket and shovel, or nothing, we all deep down want only one thing: to be told by the person digging in the sand next to us that they are glad we are there with them.

Yes, some who perhaps possess more toys than you, or even own a part of the sandbox, might appear oblivious to such a basic need, but trust me, they aren't.  I'm telling you, everyone wants to be able to play in the sandbox and be recognized and appreciated for it--everyone.

The sandbox has perhaps grown a bit more crowded; there's less sand to go around, and the toys have become smaller, more expensive, and more scarce.  It seems like it's no fun to play anymore.  Well, such a perspective is bound to depress anyone, even enough to make them want to give up.  But the perspective is misguided.  The problem is we are focused on the toys and the sandbox instead on what matters the most.

I'm proposing whether we live on Long Island or in a cardboard box in some remote jungle, which is to say we either own a piece of the sandbox and some toys or we dream about them, our contentment will ultimately only rest on one thing: being welcomed as a participant in the play.  In short, we all simply want to love and be loved.  I don't give a rip who we might be or what we might control, none of it matters except to love and be loved.

Bruce, Bruce, Bruce, you're such an idealist--such a hopeless romantic--such a naivete.

If we continue to view life from the perspective of the sandbox and toys within it, we will throw up our hands in despair.  Of course we will!  Because at the end of the day there isn't much any of us on an individual basis can do about the current status of the sandbox or its toys.  We might deny this, but deep down we all know it's true.  Consequently, some of us--perhaps most of us--give up, and the rest of us retaliate.  But these solutions only make matters worse for everybody.

Even though few of us can influence the sandbox or the toys, we can all most definitely affect everyone's basic human need.  On an individual by individual basis, regardless of our estate, disposition, health, or what have you, each of us has it in his or her individual prerogative to help another see his or her value.  All of us, regardless of the resources at hand, can exult another person.  All of us can love another human being.

What would happen if we all did what we all are capable of doing, instead of complaining about what is actually beyond our influence?

By the third century AD, the Roman Empire had become a very nasty place.  Infanticide and abortion were rampant.  Plagues were taking thousands of lives.  Money was so devalued, people resorted to bartering in order to survive.  Wars and violence escalated as people tried to capitalize on the growing destabilization of the empire.  The mighty Roman Dreadnought was listing and rapidly taking on water.

Sound familiar?

Yet in the midst of all that gloom and doom--yes, in spite of it--Christians, who were poor and persecuted, themselves--many to the point of painful death--sought to love their neighbor.  Within the maelstrom of carnage and fear, Christians trusted their true king, Jesus the Christ, and did what He requires, and many people came to see their lives changed.  The Empire around them went from rack to ruin, but many began to feel welcomed and honored again in the sandbox.  To be sure, it was a fleeting phenomenon--fleeting because before long even the church would shift its attention away from the Christ to the sandbox and the toys.

If Jesus is our Lord, Master, King, only turning away from Him will limit us from making a difference, not any other limitation.  Jesus equips us to love those in our home, our neighborhood, our jobs, our schools, or wherever we might be.  Each of us can make a difference in the lives of those next to us.  And if everyone were to love their neighbor, the sandbox would again become a wonderful place to play; there would be the sound of laughter instead of mourning--the fulfillment of dreams instead of bitter hopelessness.

The world will never be a utopia until Jesus returns to consummate His kingdom.  But we would all do better to attend to the matters within our control than to abdicate responsibility or continue to grab all we can for ourselves.  Jesus died on the cross that we might have the power to shine a light in the darkness.  Apprehend His power, and lead that person next to you back to the sandbox.

Tuesday, November 13, 2012

Keep Those Glasses On

As you may have noticed, I'm having an absolute heyday sifting through the archives of Chemical and Engineering News.  The latter is the official general interest news magazine of the American Chemical Society. C&E News goes back to 1923.  Perusing those back issues, as when reading old newspapers or watching old newsreels, is about as close as one can get to stepping into a time machine.  It's spellbinding to listen to ghosts from the past discuss their world.  The listener never knows what gems he might unearth in the process.

One such gem was written by the famous, prolific writer and scientist, the late Dr. Isaac Asimov.  His paper entitled, "The By-Product of Science Fiction," appeared on page 3882 of the August 13, 1956 edition of C&E News (I was only a little shy of two months old, then).  Dr. Asimov was troubling over the anti-intellectualism rampant in American culture, and how good science fiction served as a stronghold for a much needed respect of intelligence, and a possible model for jump-starting education towards producing the scientists and engineers woefully underrepresented in the general population, yet thoroughly needed to keep America technologically competitive in the world.

Dr. Asimov observed that intellectual pursuits were severely stigmatized, and how the entertainment industry used eyeglasses as a devise in its assault against thinking men and women.  Asimov wrote,

"Glasses in the popular visual arts of today are the symbol of developed intellect (presumably because of the belief on the part of the average man that educated men ruin their eyes through over-indulgence in the pernicious and unhealthy habit of reading). Ordinarily, the hero and heroine in a movie or television play do not wear glasses."

He was right, of course.  I immediately thought of the scene in The Big Sleep where Marlowe goes into a bookshop to get out of the rain and to possibly acquire some information.  He questions the female proprietor, and upon discovering she has a refined sophistication, quickly moves to know her better on a more personal basis, only to insist she first take off her glasses.  She does, lets her hair down, too, and closes up shop for the afternoon.  What transpires next is left to our imagination (an artifice the movie industry would do well to resurrect).

Dr. Asimov provided his own examples of how intelligence, as symbolized by the donning of eye-glasses, was synonymous with being unattractive, boring, and socially suicidal.  He summed up his point this way:

"No, glasses are not literally glasses.  They are merely a symbol, a symbol of intelligence.  The audience is taught two things: a) Evidence of extensive education is a social hindrance and causes unhappiness; b) formal education is unnecessary, can be minimized at will, and the resulting limited intellectual development leads to happiness."

All of which sounds a bit like "ignorance is bliss."  Perhaps it is.  Thinking too much can be depressing; the famous mathematician, Kurt Godel, was found dead, laying in the fetal position.

The stigma of intelligence has, unfortunately, persisted into the present day.  However, it isn't portrayed using eye-glasses so much any more; instead, the media have reincarnated the idea in the stereotypical geek.

Our society has put geeks on display.  Like the freak shows of old, we exhibit our geniuses in cages to gawk at, ridicule, and tease.  At best, we pity their malady; at worst, we despise them for it.  And this happens for the same reason it happened a half-century ago: the belief that intelligence equals dull, uninteresting, and ugly.

I don't know why this is so.  I suspect it is rooted in fear, somehow.  Knowledge and the use of knowledge is power, and people tend to fear power they can't wield themselves.  Alternatively, people might be afraid of what they might discover if they think about anything too intensely, so they avoid it--like turning up the volume on the car radio to drown out the sinister noise coming from the engine compartment.

Sadly, many Christians have bought into anti-intellectualism.  This is a colossal tragedy because our Lord, Master, King, Jesus the Christ is God dwelling with us.  We see God when we see Jesus.  This means we can finally know and understand Truth.  Jesus assures us that He is the only way, the truth and the life.  And He tells us this truth--the Truth--shall set us free.  Among many things, this means we can boldly engage in the myriad thoughts and ideas of this world to reveal truth and dismiss the lies; in short, we can fearlessly be lights shining in a dark world; indeed, that is why we are here.

Therefore, Christians should champion intelligence and the pursuit of knowledge.  Because Jesus the Christ lives and we confess uncompromised allegiance to Him as dwellers in His kingdom, we can confidently and proudly keep those glasses on.

Tuesday, November 6, 2012

There's Still a Remnant

A powerful, heartwarming, and true redemption story recently passed my desk.  It is actually fairly well known.  In fact, the Christian song writer, Matthew West, wrote a song called, Forgiveness, in honor of the remarkable woman whose story it is (check it out on YouTube).  It just goes to show I need to get out of my library more often.

If you already know the story, stay with me as I briefly review what happened for the rest of my readers who, as I, have been out of the loop.

Renee, a mother of twin daughters lost one of them in a car crash in Florida.  A twenty four year old man named, Eric, was drunk and rammed into the girl's car killing both the girl and her friend. Grimly, it is an all too common fate in this world.  I can't possibly know what it must be like to lose a child.  I try to think of the worst thing that ever happened to me and multiply it by a thousand, but I fear the pain I manage to conjure up falls way short of what Renee must have felt, and still feels.

Eric was arrested, tried, and sentenced to twenty two years.  It would seem all that was left for Renee to do was to pick up the pieces as best she could, and attempt to cope with unfathomable grief she was sure to carry the rest of her life.

But the story didn't end there.  Renee kept the mangled car, put it on a trailer, and carted it around to high schools as a prop for her to use as she lectured on the evils of drinking and driving.

Renee soon realized, though, she was harboring an unforgiving heart; so she began visiting Eric in prison.  She forgave him, and Eric, overwhelmed by such mercy when he couldn't even forgive himself, turned to Christ.  After gaining permission from the authorities, Eric began accompanying Renee on her lecture tours.  No longer was the message only about drunk driving, but a powerful witness to the healing impact of forgiveness.  Eric has since become like a son to Renee and her husband, and a brother to their two other children.  As a final gesture of restoration, Renee petitioned the court to have Eric's sentence reduced to eleven years so he can start his life anew.  I understand Eric is due to be released this month.

Wow!  Renee certainly knows who her King is, and knows what it means to dwell in His kingdom. If you listen to her, you will discover she is quick to deflect the story away from herself to God.  Renee gives God all the glory for this amazing redemption story.

Much can be said, and has been said about forgiveness using Renee's story.  But it is also an excellent illustration of true justice.

Renee could have, as many mothers have done in identical situations, demanded Eric's head on a platter.  And she could have easily validated her request on the basis of justice: an eye for an eye.... And most people would have supported her.  But Renee didn't pursue this natural reaction.  Instead, she clearly stepped back from her emotions long enough to listen to the voice of the Holy Spirit within her teach her something about true justice--that is, the justice of the Kingdom of God.

Think about it.  Eye for an eye, what we call distributive justice--everyone gets their due--doesn't lead to a just state--the right order of things.  If Eric's life had been taken in retribution for the loss of Renee's daughter's life, we would all end up where we started: the chaos--disorder--of death, where guilt and bitterness rule.

However, by extending mercy to Eric as Renee so lovingly did out of loving obedience to Jesus her Lord, King, Master, both her daughter's life and Eric's were redeemed. Renee's mercy snatched life from death, with the result of a movement from injustice to justice.  Placing her grief, anger, hurt, and bitterness at the feet of Jesus the Christ, restored the relationships between the players and God and between the players and players, all to the glory of God.

Of course, Eric might have chosen to reject Renee's outreach of mercy, or exploit it, but such actions would have been his responsibility, alone.  I cannot say if Renee considered this possibility when she first reached out to Eric.  The fact she did reach out to him in mercy, tells me she fully trusted God to bring true and final justice to the situation--regardless of the outcome.  And such trust on her part is not mindless, because true justice can only be administered in a given matter by someone who knows everything--past, present, future--of the circumstances, contexts, and lives involved.  Only God has such perfect insight, so only God can be perfectly just.

I rejoice, and praise God upon hearing accounts of Christians such as Renee; because it is the still, small voice of God telling us in a murky, dark, and noisy world what He told the prophet Elijah in similar circumstances: "I still have a remnant who hasn't bowed to Baal."