Chaplain’s Corner: LXII

“The Human Race has a Lying Problem”

George Washington and the Cherry Tree is one of the most signature stories from America’s earliest days. It’s most familiar rendering is found in a book by Mason Locke Weems that has this title: Life of George Washington: With Curious Anecdotes Equally Honourable to Himself and Exemplary to His Young Countrymen.

Six year old George is caught red-handed which is to say axe-in-hand by his father Augustine, who has noticed that a mortal slice has been taken out of one of his prize cherry trees. Does George happen to know anything about it?

Weems writes: “Looking at his father, with the sweet face of youth brightened with the inexpressible charm of all-conquering truth” he bravely called out: “I cannot tell a lie. I did cut it with my hatchet.”

Weems book which was published in 1806, became a national bestseller, going through 20 editions. It’s one of the chief reasons that cherry concoctions became associated with February 22, Washington’s birthday. Likewise, the story became a powerful mandate for generations of children: Tell The Truth. Always Tell The Truth.

The only problem with that story is that it almost certainly did not happen. Weems appears to have made it up.

Social Historian Bill Bryson comments that Weems, who called himself Parson Weems, was “not just a fictionalizer of rare gifts but a consummate liar.” Even the page was misleading. Weems identified himself as the “Rector of Mount Vernon Parish.” But no such parish has ever existed. Weems apparently felt it would be a good idea to make up stories to teach children not to lie.

The human race has a lying problem. According to a study overseen by University of Massachusetts professor Robert Feldman, people tell 3.3 lies during an average 10 minute conversation. Some 59% of parents admit to lying to their children on a regular basis. (i.e. McDonald’s is closed today)

According to author James Bryan Smith, HR experts estimate that approximately 25% of information that appears on resumes is not just padding but gross misinformation. Investigators estimate that lies told by auto mechanics compel American consumers to cough up some $40 billion annually for unnecessary repairs.

Why do we do it? No one can claim it’s ok to shade the truth because the Bible’s ethical standards are ambiguous. Proverbs is uncompromising in its truth telling: “Lying lips are an abomination to the Lord.” (Proverbs 12:22) “A truthful witness saves lives, but one who breathes out lies is deceitful.” (Proverbs 14:25)

Almost all lying comes down to impression management. We don’t like the way things are so we propose alternate realities.

Church people are tempted to do for Jesus what Parson Weems tried to do for George Washington. But the reputation of our first President didn’t need to be enhanced by made-up stories. And the cause of the One who called himself the Way, the Truth and the Life won’t be advanced by our dressing up our own spiritual experiences. St. Paul says in Ephesians 4:15 that we are to” speak the truth in love.” We must abandon lies.

But Love is what should lead us with wisdom and discernment to speak with caution. With humility. With grace.

And frankly-if we’re really wise-to stop speaking altogether when silence would be clearly an improvement.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: LXI

“Go Fly a Kite”

In 1848, a young engineer from Philadelphia by the name of Charles Ellett Jr. was contemplating a difficult task. He hoped to build a bridge across the gorge of the Niagara River just below the famous falls.

Local politicians-both Canadians and Americans, representing opposite sides of the river-believed that a bridge linking their two countries would revolutionize the economic prospects of the area. But dozens of engineers surveyed the setting and agreed it couldn’t be done.

The Niagara Gorge is 800 feet across. The jagged limestone cliffs on both sides are 225 feet high. The water, churned by its 300 plus foot drop over the falls, is so turbulent that it’s barely navigable.

Who in their right mind would attempt to overcome such physical obstacles?

But Ellett was fascinated with suspension bridges. Although they look fragile, suspension bridges are capable of bearing enormous weights-including the simultaneous passage of carriages, pedestrians and fully loaded trains. More important, Ellett knew the secret of how suspension bridges are constructed.

To get started all you need is one cable. Or one wire. Or even one sturdy piece of string. If you can anchor just one strand on each side of the gap, everything else can be added gradually, building upon that single cord.

But how would Ellett get that first strand across the Niagara Gorge? He hosted a brainstorm of ideas. Using a boat (with mid-19th century technology) was unthinkable. What about attaching a cable to a rocket or cannonball and shooting it across? Not very realistic.

Then someone came up with a truly novel suggestion. Fly a kite over the canyon trailing a long string. Bring the kite down on the opposite shore and voila- the construction is made.

On January 31, 1848, an American boy named Homan Walsh successfully landed his kite on the Canadian side of the gorge. Just six months later, on August 1, the bridge was completed and open to the public. Actually, the real task turned out to be surprisingly humble and attainable.

Today you may be facing a responsibility so big and so complicated that you can hardly breathe. You lie awake at night and it feels like an unbridgeable canyon.

So go fly a kite.

Do the one small thing you know you have to do to get started.

The Book of Proverbs is based toward action. The overall thrust of the book is to do something—to take the next step however humble.

Ask yourself today, “What is the next simple thing I need to do?” Take that step.
And then another. And then another.

And before you know it, as soon as you’ve put enough of those steps together, the bridge will be built.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor

Chaplain’s Corner: LX

“Wisdom”

A lot of smart people do really dumb things. A fairly large slice of today’s headlines-what we call news-turns out to be a recitation of the missteps, miscalculations, and mistakes of people who probably should have known better.

In 2005, Robert McCormick-CEO of the internet technology company Savvis- was forced to resign because he rang up a $241,000 tab at a New York “gentleman’s club.” This might have gone unnoticed but for the fact he put all the charges on his corporate credit card.

Stephen Glass was universally admired as a 25 year old wonderkind reporter for The New Republic-that is until 1998, when it was discovered he had invented many of the “facts” supporting his latest feature. Follow-up research revealed that 27 out of 41 pieces for the magazine were fabrications in part or whole, including phone numbers and websites made up out of thin air.

Senator Gary Hart was the frontrunner to become the 1988 Democratic Party nominee for President until reporters asked him to respond to accusations of infidelity. Within 24 hours reporters had uncovered a hidden relationship and Hart’s political career was over.

Why do educated, knowledgeable people routinely make decisions that shipwreck their lives and reputations?

“Westerners live in a culture that has separated knowledge from ethics”-writes author Terry Muck. Standardized methods for identifying “smart people”- whether IQ tests, SAT’s, or routinely winning your family’s annual Trivial Pursuit competition- are not to be confused with measurements of spiritual and emotional health. It’s quite possible to know a great deal about a lot of stuff, yet not know how to live.

So what’s the need of the hour?

It’s wisdom. And searching for wisdom always leads to an Old Testament destination like no other. Proverbs is arguably the most down-to-earth of the Bible’s 66 books.

The first two chapters have the feel of a series of lectures or pep talks. Then comes a 20-chapter patchwork quilt of “sentence proverbs.” Pouring over them is a bit like opening hundreds of fortune cookies at a single sitting. Some make us laugh while others help us see old problems in a new light.

Above all, this unusual book-essentially a collection of collections-has one aim: “Wisdom is supreme; therefore get wisdom. Though it cost all you have, get understanding.”

Wisdom isn’t about becoming a more intelligent person. It’s a practical guide to becoming a “spiritual-street smart” person-someone who knows how to thrive in a culture where listening to God’s voice has become something of a lost art.

There’s an old saying that “it is hard to fly with the eagles if you have to live with the turkeys”. Proverbs has the unique power to remind us that we, too, are card-carrying turkeys. But the God who invites us to his family is able to teach us how to soar.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain

 

Chaplain’s Corner: LIX

“Avoiding Jesus”

Church is one of the best places in the world to hide. No, not from vampires, werewolves and the walking dead. That’s Hollywood stuff. Church is where people can avoid faith and avoid God by becoming religious.

Churches are often filled with respectable people, or people who are doing their utmost to look respectable. And it was the respectable people of Jesus’ time–the Bible scholars, legal experts, theologians- who made sure that Jesus ended up on a cross. Ironically, it was the socially disrespectable people-the lepers, prostitutes, embezzlers, and heretics-who loved him.

In his 1983 book The People of the Lie, Psychiatrist, M. Scott Peck suggested that people who are afraid to face their own failures and frailties often find faith communities to be great hideouts. Such individuals can hate while pretending to love- and often find spiritual language (and Scripture verses) to back up their actions.

So why did the respectable people murder Jesus? He threatened to blow their cover.

The Way of Jesus compels us to take a long, hard, fearless look at our own lives. We will be shocked by a lot of what we discover. We can either throw ourselves on God’s mercy (an option that terrifies or offends respectable people) or re-double our efforts to look amazingly religious.

Why were the “worst” people of Jesus’ time drawn to him like iron filings to a magnet?
They had no illusions about the condition of their lives. They knew from the start their only hope was God’s mercy, and that’s what Jesus was offering.

How, then, should you feel when you come face to face with your own brokenness?

Be glad. Be very glad. God has you right where he wants you.

Faithfully,

Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain's Corner

Chaplain’s Corner: LVIII

“Nothing Takes God by Surprise”

“The Lrod is near to the broknhreated and svaes the crsuhd in sipit”. If you copy the words I quoted as written, your spell-checker will throw a hissy fit.

What’s interesting is that our brains have no problem making sense of them. Researchers at Cambridge have confirmed that as long as the first letter is first and the last letter is last in a particular word, our minds know how to take the scrambled letters and make them say the right thing.

That’s an appropriate way to describe God’s relationship to the flow of history, and to our own personal histories. God sees the beginning and God sees the ending of everything. It doesn’t matter how seriously we have fractured everything in between God’s purposes will always stand.

This is important to know. It transforms the way we interpret events.

Something horrible happens. We lose a ton of money. A disease takes root in our bodies. Or we miss an important meeting because traffic is backed up on Highway 69 for some dumb reason. A child we weren’t expecting is born into the family. Or the child we WERE expecting doesn’t arrive. Or we wrestle, year after year with the effects of abuse or addiction.

But the God of Heaven and Earth assures us that nothing is meaningless. Nothing takes God by surprise. No one can foil God’s purposes.

The late Dr. John Gerstner routinely pointed out that there are four categories of activity in the world. First, there is what we might call GOOD GOOD-good activities that arise from entirely good motives. This is an appropriate description of every activity God undertakes.

The best that human beings can muster however is BAD GOOD-good works that no matter how hard we try, are always tainted with impure motives. Somewhere in the back of my mind, I inevitably find myself wondering if you realize how humble I am today, or if that gift to the food bank is deductible on my taxes.

It’s easy to understand BAD BAD-human activities that dishonor God from start to finish. Robbing a bank is BAD BAD. But then, so is deciding to gossip or taking somebody down a notch.

Then there is the most mysterious category of all: GOOD BAD. God is able to take the raw material of bad events and create good outcomes. What Judas and Pilate and the Religious Establishment did to Jesus was genuinely bad. But God worked through those choices to bring about the greatest good the world has ever known. Which is why that patently unfair trial and the lynching that followed happened on what we call Good Friday.

How can everything be all right when everything seems all wrong? God knows the beginning and the ending of every story, and is working toward outcomes we cannot presently imagine. And along the way, “He is near to the brokenhearted and saves the crushed in spirit”.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: LVII

“A Question to Ponder this Week”

 

How many of these questions can you get right?

Who are the five wealthiest people in the world today?
Who are the last five winners of the Nobel Prize?
Who are the last five winners of the Oscars for Best Actor and Best Actress?
Who are the last five winners of the Super Bowl MVP?
Who are the last five winners of the Miss Universe Pageant?

Cartoonist Charles Schultz of Peanuts fame routinely asked people to take a shot at such questions.

The results were predictable. It is almost impossible to come up with the names of yesterday’s headliners. Hollywood alone has at least 300 annual award shows, one for almost every day of the year. But such honors, along with their accompanying applause quickly come and go.

The names and faces of the rich, famous, and talented speedily fade from memory.

Schultz would typically ask a second set of questions. Try this quiz:

Who are the five teachers who made an impact on your life?
Who are the five friends who have helped you through a difficult time?
Who are the five people who have given you a compliment you have never forgotten?
Who are the five people who have taught you something worthwhile?
Who are the five people you could call at 3am if you needed to talk to someone?

Most of us find the second set of questions considerably easier.

Who are the people God uses to change our lives? They usually aren’t Presidents or Pulitzer Prize winners. Our minds are shaped and formed by those who love us even when we screw up-who mentor us and walk with us, especially when we have lost courage or lost our way.

Before the end of summer take time to say thank you to at least one of those heroes in your life. The odds are good they will cherish your word of appreciation even more than a trophy with their name engraved on it.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: LVI

“The Power of Nice”

Rachel Pine was flying from Los Angeles to New York City.  She noticed that the flight
attendant crew looked unusually tired.  When the flight attendant came by to see if she had
fastened her seat belt, Rachel reached into her package of Fig Newtons.  Would you like
one?” she asked. The flight attendant gratefully received the snack.  Rachel recalls that she almost seemed on the verge of tears.

A few minutes later the attendant returned.  She said to Rachel, “You have no idea what our
last flight was like.  If one passenger had been like you, it would have been bearable.”
“And by the way,” she mentioned to Rachel, “there’s a seat in first class.  Would you like to
have it?”  Such is the power of one Fig Newton.  Actually, such is the power of kindness-of
choosing to be nice.

In their slim volume The Power of Nice, Linda Kaplan Thaler and Robin Koval acknowledge
that “nice has an image problem.  Nice gets no respect.  To be labeled “nice” usually means
the other person has little else positive to say about you…Let us be clear: Nice is not
naïve…in fact, we would argue that nice is the toughest four letter word you’ll ever hear.”

Thaler and Koval cite statistics that nice people enjoy longer and stronger relationships.
Studies confirm that for every 2% positive uptick in a company’s service climate, there is a
1% increase in revenue.  Research demonstrates that nice people live longer (despite their
apparent fondness for Fig Newtons).

And author Malcom Gladwell cites a study that correlates the niceness of physicians with a
lowered likelihood of being sued.  Doctors who have never been sued turn out to be those
who spend an average of three minutes longer with each person compared to doctors who
have been sued twice or more.  People don’t want to drag into court people who have been
nice to them.

The apostle Paul writes:  “Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone”. (Colossians 4:6)

In other words, choose to be kind.  Choose to be gracious.

For goodness sake and God’s sake, be nice.

Faithfully,

Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: LV

“Mortal Lessons”

Bible commentator Dale Bruner, trying to describe “the deep grace of God for a flawed human race” says there is one illustration that has helped him more than any other. It comes from Dr. Richard Selzer’s experience as a surgeon, as reported in his book Mortal Lessons.

Selzer writes: “I stand by the bed where a young woman lies, her face postoperative, her mouth twisted by palsy, clownish.” A tiny twig of the facial nerve, the one to the muscles of her mouth, has been severed. She will be this from now on. The surgeon had followed with religious fervor the curve of her flesh, I promise you that. Nevertheless, to remove the tumor in her cheek, he had to cut the nerve. Her young husband is in the room. He stands on the opposite side of the bed and together they seem to dwell in the evening lamplight, isolated from me, private. “Who are they, I ask myself, he and this wry-mouth I have made, who gaze and touch each other so generously, greedily.”

The young woman speaks, “Will my mouth always be like this?” she asks “Yes”, I say. “It will because the nerve was cut.” She nods and is silent. But the young man smiles. “I like it, “It is kind of cute” he says.

All at once I know who he is. I understand, and lower my gaze. One is not bold in an encounter with a God. Unmindful of me, he bends to kiss her crooked mouth, and I am so close I can see how he twists his own lips to accommodate to hers, to show her that their kiss still works.

What does John the gospel writer mean when he declares that God himself took on flesh and became one of us (John 1:14)? He means at least this:

Whatever our condition-whatever we may have lost while making our way through this fallen world-nothing will be able to extinguish God’s passion to come alongside us.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: LIV

“Kick Away”

It’s the biggest moment of your life. It’s just you and the goal keeper, who is standing in the middle of the net.

The soccer goal he or she is guarding is 24 feet wide and you can hit the penalty shot that will win the World Cup and forever ensure your place in the hearts of your fellow country men and women. You will live the rest of your days in either glory or abject humiliation.

As Steven Levitt and Stephen Dubner point out in their book, “Think Like a Freak”, it really comes down to where you decide to kick the ball.

Conventional wisdom says you can aim for the left or right corner. As soon as you approach the ball, the goalie is hurling his or her body, hands outstretched, in order to stop your goal.

In the elite level of soccer competition, about 75% of corner shots are successful. If the goalie guesses wrong, the odds are in your favor into the corner but it is not a gimme. Even an All-Star can miss the mark.

If you’re right-footed and most soccer players are, the left side of the net is your strong side and goalies know this as well. They fling themselves towards the ball most of the time and to the right side only 41%.

The whole world is watching. Your future is at stake. What will you do? Levitt and Dubner propose a third option. A middle kick that goes straight ahead. Statistics show that players only kick for the middle 2% of the time-which means the odds of a goal might be infinitely easier to hit than a shot to the corner. Interestingly, kicks in international competition go toward the corner. Why?

Dubner and Levitt have a theory. It’s fear. Fear of appearing to avoid the harder kick when the goalie stands their ground and easily deflects.

The clash of motivations here is huge. You want to go with the higher odds and aim for the center. But you don’t want to look stupid either which prompts most people to protect their own reputation and take the corner kick.

So what can we do? We can bet our lives on the words of St. Paul: “Brothers and Sisters, not that I have already been made perfect but I press on toward the goal, straining for what is ahead. I press toward the goal which God has called me heavenward in Christ. (Philippians 3:12-13)

What would you do if you were afraid?

Forget the past. Set your mind on the work God has set before you, however humble, knowing that underneath is God’s goal of healing this broken world.

Then kick away.

Faithfully,

Ron Naylor, Chaplain

Chaplain’s Corner: LIII

“Pain”

In 1898 a German scientist believed he had discovered the Holy Grail of pain relief. Heinrich Dresser, who worked as a chemist for Bayer—the corporation that had created a remarkable new drug called aspirin—was hoping to synthesize a painkiller that wouldn’t lead to addiction.

The world had long known about morphine, the powerful, naturally-occurring opioid. But morphine users inevitably discover the grim side effect to its amazing painkilling powers: the near certainty of an ongoing dependence that empties the bank account and ruins one’s health.

Dresser cooked up a synthetic opioid called diacetylmorphine. He declared it to be five times more powerful than morphine. The leadership team at Bayer called it a miracle. That’s actually what they wanted to call this new drug, but it came to be known as heroin.

Bayer immediately began peddling it over the counter. Sales skyrocketed. By 1900 Eli Lilly had claimed the American market. But by 1905, it was clear something was terribly wrong. Dresser had patient-tested this drug for only four weeks, not nearly enough to realize it was one of the most addictive substances on the planet.

The quest for an ideal painkiller continued to dominate the 20th century. By the 1990’s the American Pain Society and several large pharmaceutical companies were committed to the idea that no one should have to feel pain.

But as Harry Wiland points out in his book “Do No Harm”, pain is highly subjective. Seemingly identical injuries can produce widely varying responses. Our pain can be impacted by a variety of emotional factors, including sadness, depression, worry, fear and childhood trauma. How can such circumstances ever be quantified?

The quandary continues. It’s still widely felt that no one should feel pain. After all, we have such fabulous painkillers.

For as long as scientists and doctors have been seeking the Holy Grail of pain relief, there have been members of the Christian community who think they have the answer. Are you hurting and sick? Crippled or broken? Preachers spotlight verses like Exodus 15:26 where God says to His people: “I am the Lord your God, who heals you.” God will take away your pain! It’s such a wonderful blanket promise. But as the old saying goes “a text out of context is a pretext.”

The Holy Spirit gently opens our eyes to all 66 books that make up the biblical library. What we discover is that God’s people routinely suffer pain, hurt and disappointment. Followers of Jesus get cancer, ALS and Diabetes. Sometimes God provides miraculous healings. Often He does not.

So what is the point of abandoning ourselves to such a God?

First, our pain matters to God. Jesus shared it on the cross what it feels like to be cut off from his Father in Heaven: “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me”. (Matt. 27:46)

Second, God never wastes pain. The Apostle Paul asserts that “suffering produces endurance and endurance produces character and character produces hope and hope does not disappoint us.” (Romans 5:3-6)

In a broken world, there’s no such thing as a pain-free life. But we weren’t made just for life in this world. And the God who became one of us, and whose nerve endings have registered hurts just like ours, has promised never to leave our side.

Faithfully,
Ron Naylor, Chaplain