Minimizing risk…in all of life

“Also, keep back Thy servant from presumptuous sins” (Psalm 19:13).

There are no guarantees in this life.

I can eat whole grain foods, take my vitamins and supplements, stay with organic and get plenty of exercise, and still get hit by a Volvo while crossing the road.

Almost every magazine that comes to my house will have the occasional article telling how to cut down on life-shortening factors.  After reading several of these, you learn to predict their advice: cut out tobacco and sweets, eat more fruits and veggies, walk some every day, and laugh a lot.  Take vitamins, especially this one or that one.

I’m for all that, incidentally.  I do all those things. Well, except for avoiding the sweets.

Soldiers in combat discuss whether there’s a bullet “out there” with one’s name on it.  If such a thing exists, some will say, there’s nothing you can do, so take risks and live life to the fullest.  On the other hand, many soldiers have survived their terms of combat and reported they they took steps to minimize the risks.  They kept their helmet on, kept their armor on, looked before they jumped, maintained their guns in great shape, stayed close to their buddies, and a thousand other things.

On the highway, minimizing risk is a big deal for me.

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Be careful about the little things

“A little leaven leavens the whole lump of dough” (Galatians 5:9).

Take care of the little things.

In art, the difference between mediocre and masterful is often attention to details.

In wartime, attention to the little things can mean surviving.

I wonder if Goliath thought something like this in that millisecond before he expired: “This cannot be happening.  A giant like me, a champion of warriors, massive and mighty, undaunted and undefeated–taken down by a kid with a rock in a sling.”  He must have thought, “I hope my brothers never hear about this.”

Up in your state penitentiary you will find quite a number of good guys, people with impressive credentials and strong convictions and good records of achievement.  But mixed in with their outstanding accomplishments was the leaven: a single habit they could not control, a friendship out of bounds, a secret vice, a weakness.

At this moment, the Christian community is discussing a prominent pastor for whom the world was his oyster, as the saying goes. He was a star among the ministerial heavens.  He built a great church, wrote popular books, was in demand for every program and conference.  And now, look at him.  Felled by such a little thing.  No one is more shocked than he.  “How could this be?” he’s wondering at this moment.

Who am I talking about? Which preacher with what problem? Take your pick.  There are so many to choose from.

I’ve been reading “In Your Face: Cartoonist at Work” by Doug Marlette, the Pulitzer-Prize winning artist for newspapers such as the Charlotte Observer, the Atlanta Constitution-Journal, and Newsday.  At the time he did editorial cartoons for these papers, he was also turning out “Kudzu,” a syndicated daily strip with wide distribution.  He published many books and received all the awards and accolades a cartoonist could hope for.

Doug Marlette was younger than me and should still be around doing what he did so well, satirizing our foibles and turning out books about Will B. Dunn, the cartoon preacher. His clippings adorned refrigerators and professors’ doors far and wide.   Marlette, who would have turned 65 later this year, would probably still be with us except for one little thing.

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The wimp in me hates to be criticized.

“Behold, my son who came out from me seeks my life; how much more now this Benjamite?  Let him alone and let him curse, for the Lord has told him” (2 Samuel 16:11).

There’s something about us preachers that loves compliments and runs from criticism.

We preachers can be the biggest wimps on the planet.

Maybe it’s that way with everyone, I don’t know.

Let a preacher receive an anonymous note outlining what he’s doing wrong or a phone call dissecting last Sunday’s sermon and he is done for the week. He will be needing the attention of a good therapist.

We could learn a lot from politicians and others in the public arena. I’ve read that President Eisenhower enjoyed something like a 65 percent approval rating all eight years of his presidency, the highest of anyone since.  This means 35 percent of the America public thought he was a failure.  And yet, he is lauded as a winner.

Let 35 percent of the typical church give their preacher a vote of no-confidence and he’s enduring sleepless nights, unable to focus on anything, and scheduling himself for career counseling at his denominational headquarters.

All of this was prompted by two things.

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Perhaps the most profound thing our Lord ever said

“Except you are converted and become like children, you shall not enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 18:3).

What’s lacking in the great majority of religious experts–of all tribes, all beliefs, all everything!–is a childlike humility.

I’ve sat across from the salespeople hawking Jehovah’s Witness and Mormon doctrine door to door and been amazed at the sheer gall and arrogance of these know-it-alls.

I’ve sat in the auditoriums and classrooms when prophecy teachers were spreading out their charts and telling far more than they could ever know, pronouncing their anathema upon anyone daring to believe otherwise and taking no prisoners in the process.

I’ve sat in massive conferences among thousands of my peers and heard ignorance spouted as truth but camouflaged with alliteration and pious phrases and encouraged and affirmed by thundering echoes of “amens” and “hallelujahs”.

In every case, I longed to hear someone say, “We see through a glass darkly….”  (I Corinthians 13:12).

To hear someone say, “I have not arrived. I press toward the mark….” (Philippians 3:12-13).

To hear someone say, “We do not know how to pray as we should….” (Romans 8:26)

To hear someone say, “That which I am doing, I do not understand.  I am not practicing what I would like to do, but I am doing the very thing I hate” (Romans 7:15).

Where is the childlike spirit we hear so much of in the Word?

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Why preachers bang their heads against the wall and some counselors quit

Michelle Singletary writes a financial advice column for the Washington Post.  Our New Orleans Advocate runs it a day or two later.

Ten years ago, a fellow wrote Ms. Singletary for advice. He was planning to marry his fiancee of 18 months as soon as they dealt with her spending habits which were clearly out of control. Her closet contained 400 pairs of shoes, many still new, and was overflowing with clothing. She justified her spendthrift ways by saying she works two jobs and looks for bargains.

The man asked Michelle Singletary, “What can I do to help her curb her spending habits without making her feel bad or as though I am putting her down?”

Ms. Singletary urged him to postpone this marriage. They were not close to being ready until this was solved. She suggested pulling credit reports, seeing what that revealed and then finding a credit counselor.

That was ten years ago.

The other day, Michelle Singletary received an email from that guy telling her what happened.  The news is not good.

He did none of the things Ms. Singletary had suggested.

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Burned biscuits always go well with a little grace

“Let your speech always be with grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how you should respond to each person” (Colossians 4:6).

My friend Chet Griffin passed this on to me. My notes do not indicate whether he was the speaker, or this was something he was forwarding.

“When I was a kid, my mom liked to make breakfast for dinner every now and then. I remember one night in particular when she had had a long hard day at work, then did the breakfast thing for us.  Dad and I were seated at the table when she brought in plates of scrambled eggs, sausage patties, and some extremely burnt biscuits.”

“This was so unlike my mom.”

“I sat there waiting to see if Dad noticed or would say anything.  Yet, all he did was to reach for his biscuits, smile at my mom, and ask how my day went at school.  I don’t recall what I told him, but I do remember watching him smear butter and jelly on that biscuit and eat every bite!

“Later, I heard Mom apologize to Dad for burning the biscuits.  I’ll never forget what he said.

“‘Honey, I love burned biscuits.’

“That night when I went in to kiss Daddy good night, I asked him if he really liked his biscuits burned.  He wrapped me in his arms and said, ‘Your mama put in a hard day at work today and she’s real tired.’

“‘Besides,’ he said, ‘a little burnt biscuit never hurt anyone.’”

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Some things we don’t do any more

Consider this a tribute to the game-changers among us.

Not all the changes we call “political correctness” or “conventional wisdom” are bad. Some are lifesaving and possible evidence that we may be gaining some sense.

Smoking is good for you? Give me a break.

This week someone posted on Facebook an old cigarette ad in which Ronald Reagan, “film star,” is touting the advantages and pleasures of Chesterfield cigarettes.  Many an ad from the 1940s brags about the medical advantages of their brand of tobacco over their competition.

After burying millions of smokers, we no longer allow those advertisements with their false claims.

Any day now, the New Orleans City Council will pass a resolution outlawing smoking in bars and taverns in our city. That’s the final straw, and about the last place smokers can puff away other than in their home, their car, or their yard.

As a cancer survivor, I say “Good riddance.”  And don’t come in here with protestations that “well, non-smokers have the freedom not to breathe the toxic air.”  How ridiculous.

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How to get more from a sermon

“And there was a certain young man named Eutychus sitting on the window sill, sinking into a deep sleep; and as Paul kept on talking, he was overcome by sleep and fell down from the third floor, and was picked up dead” (Acts 20:9). 

Principle number one: Stay awake.

Okay, that’s all I have to say about Eutychus.  But we can use him as a poster child for people who get very little or nothing from a sermon, agreed?

If you live a long time and go to church regularly, you will hear thousands of sermons.  It seems therefore that at least one message should be devoted to the subject of how to get the most out of them.

Let’s let this be the one.

Tagamet and Pepcid A/C, Prilosec and Omeprazole, are popular acid blockers.  Take one before eating a pizza or other spicy foods in order to avoid heartburn.  The pills shut down the flow of stomach acid.  This is all right once in a while, yet it’s not recommended regularly for the simple reason that the digestive system counts on bile (stomach acid) to help in the digestion.  A few years back, doctors put me on a seven-day regimen of pills designed to destroy the H. Pylori bacteria in my stomach.  Two of the pills were antibiotics and the other shut off the flow of acid into my digestive system.  For one solid week, in order to heal my system, I was not getting full value from my food.

Let’s talk about people who do not get full value from the sermons they hear.

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The one question we ask all the time not found in the Bible

“How are you feeling?”

That may be the most asked question in our culture today. If so, it’s also the most irrelevant one.

It’s never the first thing said. That’s always a greeting, something akin to “Good morning” or “Hey, how’s it going?”  Then, as soon as that is accomplished, out comes the “feeling” question.

Whether the questioner really wants or is expecting an answer is debatable. But we ask it all the time.

I was speaking to an important gathering in the state capital and had been invited to bring a few family members. My 90-year-old dad had traveled nearly 200 miles with my brother Ron that morning. They walked into our hotel room around 10:30.  My wife greeted my dad and hugged him.

“How are you feeling, Pop?” she asked.

Dad smiled and said, “Well, when I got up this morning I decided not to ask myself that question because I might not like the answer.”

Ah, wisdom.

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Living for God without reading your Bible? Don’t even try it!

“Man shall not live by bread alone, but by every word that proceeds out of the mouth of God” (Matthew 4:4; quoted from Deuteronomy 8:3).

You cannot do this on your own.

Don’t try this by yourself.

The Christian life should come with a warning label.

“Try this without the Scriptures as your constant guide and you will fail.”

Many a well-intentioned child of God has gotten off on a detour in life by denying themselves the guidance of a daily time with an open Bible. Some have strayed into wickedness because they lost their spiritual compass. Millions have lapsed into a religion of feelings and opinions and hunches due to their ignorance of God’s Word.

–I met some women who told me they no longer worship with other Christians. One said, “God showed me that I am the church.”  Because they did not know their Bible (or had rejected what they did know), they turned their backs on the Lord Jesus Christ Himself.

We cannot say this too strongly: he who rejects the Lord’s people is rejecting the Lord Himself.  See Luke 10:16.

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