The Substance of Faith

The Substance of Faith

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Sports and Character

See: Sports and Character – part 2.

“Playing sports builds character.”  Ever heard that statement?  It may be true, but not necessarily so.

Together, Rachel and Jordan played 30 seasons of organized sports when they were growing up.    From 5-year old softball to varsity sports, I’ve seen it all.  I have seen that sports can produce any number of sterling qualities like teamwork, commitment, sportsmanship, and resilience.  But, it also can produce self-centeredness and it often provides the fertile soil for denial.

rachel 1base

During a long-ago softball season, I remember the mother of one of the better players telling her daughter that the reason she didn’t play well was because she didn’t have anyone helping her.  “You can’t win all by yourself.  Some of the others will have to step up.”  Hearing this comment, the young girl grew resentful and condescending toward her teammates.  By the end of the game she sat at one end of the bench, away from all the rest who felt the sting of her disdain.  Where’s the character?  What sort of “team player” will she be in the work force?  She may do well, but what I saw that day was an attitude problem she would have to overcome on the way.

Another young softball player refused to pay attention to the coach or do what he asked.  She played right field and the coach wanted her to back up throws to second base from the left side of the infield.  She crossed her arms in front of her and wouldn’t budge.  She refused to move unless the ball was hit to straight to her.  The next game when the coach filled out the line up, he listed her as a substitute instead of a starter.  When she complained, he told her she would not start a game until she cooperated.  Instead of backing up the coach by telling her daughter to do what the coach asked, the mother browbeat the coach until he relented and allowed her daughter to be a starter.  Did she learn teamwork?  Did she learn anything good or admirable?  No, she learned that her parents support bad behavior and disrespect. How will that pay off in the workforce or marriage?

There are also situations where parents want to shield their children from the disappointment of making mistakes or losing.   To make children feel better, parents say: it was the umpire’s fault; the other side cheated; the coach plays favorites.  In 30 seasons of organized sports, I heard families tell their children these things over and over.  Sometimes facts supported these comments, but, as often as not, parents taught children to lie to themselves in order to avoid responsibility for mistakes.    Making their children feel better in the moment was more important than building a life of character.

Face it – umpires do blow calls, but learning to protect the plate with two strikes will do more for the child in the long run than learning to look for others to blame for every disappointment.  Teach your child to blame others in a game, and they will apply the lesson to work, marriage, and other critical relationships.

If your child pays sports, make sure they learn the right lessons.  Make sure they learn that they have to work hard to be a part of the team.  Make sure they learn to work hard, no matter what their star status.  Make sure they learn that each team member has a role to fill, and all roles are important, not just theirs.  And make sure they learn to respect the coaches.  If the coaches aren’t worthy of their respect, find a new team instead of encouraging your child’s insolence.

Most of all, teach your child to tell themselves the truth.   No one likes to admit they watched the third strike go by without swinging.   But sometimes the third out or the losing touchdown is your child’s responsibility.  Learning to deal with it will build more character than denial ever will.

And make sure the adults in your family have learned the right lessons.  It is your child’s life, not yours.  Don’t try to live through them just because you wish your all-star days had lasted longer.   Don’t coach during a game.  A child can process only a limited amount of advice at a time.  If you must add your advice, do it before the game, but not through the fence or from the sidelines (I once heard a female soccer player say she loved the sport because her father didn’t know anything about it and couldn’t tell her what to do).   Control yourself during the game.  Berating your child, the coach, or the officials does not make you a better parent because you speak your mind.  It embarrasses your kid.  A lot.    If you don’t care about that fact, you need to reconsider who the game is for.

I close with a quote from former Olympic athlete, John Naber:

People often talk about how sports “build character.”  Certainly, sports can foster habits of discipline that can be applied in other areas of our lives and thereby make us more reliable or responsible individuals.  But good character is not developed through mere participation in sports.  Sports provide challenges.  Challenges provoke tough decisions.  And it’s the tough decisions that really test our character, for character is revealed when the price of doing the right thing is more than we want to pay.

Playing sports does not necessarily build character.  But sports can build character.  Not only a child’s, but also the parents’.

jord trophey

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Bucket Book – The Technique of Clear Writing

Robert Gunning’s book will not pull the strings of your heart like Les Miserables, but for more than three decades I’ve used  it as a reference work and guide for clear communication.  Whether writing or speaking, I constantly hear Gunning’s advice in my ear, challenging me to be as clear and concise as possible.  People often comment on the brevity of my sermons.  One  major influence in that characteristic of my preaching is The Technique of Clear Writing.

One of Gunning’s chief points is to “take the fog” out of communication.  When the fog is eliminated, clarity remains.  Some of the ways to take out the “fog” is to remove extra words, weak words, and complicated words.  Use active instead of passive verbs.

To help  in this process, Gunning developed a “fog index” that helps communicators measure how simple – or complicated – their communication is.

The Fog Index works this way:

1.  Choose a representative portion of what you’ve written.  In this section count the number of words in successive sentences, ending with the sentence that gives you as close as possible to 100 words.  Divide the number of words by the number of sentences to get your average sentence length.

2.  Count the number of words in this section which have 3 or more syllables.  Don’t count proper names, compound words made from simple words (“bookkeeper” or “paperclip”), or verbs with -es or -ed.  This number represents the percentage of hard words.

3.  Now add your two numbers together and multiply the result by .4

The result is your “Fog Index,” which corresponds to the grade level which can readily read and understand your writing.  Gunning thinks of it as a “readability” index; I apply the same principle in sermons and think of it as “listenability.” The lower your fog index, the clearer your communication.

To make best use of this index, you cannot overestimate your reader or listener.   Many best-selling novels are written at an 8th grade or below index.  Few newspapers print anything above a 10th grade level.  I ran two random tests – one on Coramc McCarthy’s The Road and the other on Ernest Hemingway’s Old Man and the Sea.    The sections I tested showed a reading level less than sixth grade in both books.  No one ever accused either man of insulting the reader’s intelligence.

The key is not “What CAN someone read?”  The question is: how hard will a person work to comprehend?  Once we are out of school and no longer tested on our reading comprehension, few of us will work as hard as we are capable of doing simply to read a magazine or book.  Why else do we pick the books we do for beach reading?

As a reminder, I substitute “listener” for “reader” and “listenability” for readability.”  The same principles apply: how much work will someone put into comprehending a sermon?

Taking all this into account, members of our congregation will, hopefully, recognize that I make a constant effort to be clear in my preaching.  It all goes back to Gunning’s book, which has “Bucket”status for me.

If you find the conversation about the Fog Index interesting, you will want to know that Microsoft Word has a similar tool built in to it.  Rudolph Flesch was a contemporary of Gunning’s who developed his own readability scale and it is a standard tool in MS-Word.  To utilize it:

Click the Microsoft Office ButtonButton image, and then click Word Options.

  1. Click Proofing.
  2. Make sure Check grammar with spelling is selected.
  3. Under When correcting grammar in Word, select the Show readability statistics check box.

Flesch calculates scores a bit differently, but the resulting grade level of readability is very similar.   Check out your own fog.  If your score is above 10, rewrite and simplify.

P.S. This article scores 6.1, more than a grade level higher than McCarthy or Hemmingway.


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Amazing Photos

I love the way these photos reveal the ability of the artist to conceptualize the image.

Best Photos of 2012

Photos #87 and #88 are two of my favorites.

Which ones stand out to you?


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The Joy of Parenting

Beware the easy laugh.   We all know how to elicit them from our friends – simply criticize the things we believe in most.  People make snide comments about marriage or church,  even though they have a great marriage or love their church — and people laugh.  Try it and see.  The next time you are in a setting where someone is getting married, be the first to predict gloom, loss of freedom, or the consequences of sharing a bathroom with the opposite sex.  People will laugh and you will enjoy your own wit.  In fact, you will enjoy it enough to try it again the next time the opportunity presents itself.  But remember to beware the easy laugh because it usually comes at the expense of someone else – or something you really believe in.  Your friends will think you are funny, but you will help tear down a cherished part of your life for the sake of showing off your sense of humor.

Not long before the wedding of Jordan, our younger daughter, I mentioned this temptation to her in a moment of fatherly advice about marriage. I encouraged her not to fall victim to it; rather, to say good things about marriage and family life.  I reminded her that if we  rob others of the joy we find in marriage for the sake of being the group’s comedian, we participate in weakening an institution already on shaky ground in our society.

I don’t think Jordan or I mentioned it again until late last week when she emailed me a link to an article she had found on the internet.  It is about how parents rob each other of today’s joy by looking at their future relationship with their children with cynicism.   In a moment when a preschooler has won your heart, people will say, “Just wait.”   The joy can’t last forever.  After all, the child will grow up to be an obnoxious teenager.

I don’t know if these people are after a laugh, or whether they are simply cynical, but I hear similar comments.  The writer goes on to report, “I felt trapped in a swirl of know-it-alls who were warning me that the worst was yet to come.”  To predict the pending doom of the teenage years may get a laugh, or it may get a lot of agreeing nods from other skeptics, but it also robs everyone of the joy of parenting in the present.   With that kind of attitude, I doubt today’s lost joy will be found later during the teenage years.  It is just stolen, never to be recovered.  What a high price to pay for a laugh or an agreeing roll of the eyes.

Read the whole article: Joy or “Just Wait”?

Jordan said the article reminded her of what I had said about marriage.  She said it also reminded her of the kind of parent she wants to be: the kind that builds up family life for herself and for others.  The kind that encourages all families.  The kind that has joy now with a toddler and celebrates the possibilities of the future at any age.  With that desire, she’s found the joy of parenting, hasn’t she?

The fact she wants these things has added to mine.


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I Don’t Pray Enough

I took a few days off from posting on this blog.  The internet never sleeps, so I was feeling the pressure to create new content.  I had been working on an observation about sports and character.  After the bombing in Boston, I have no enthusiasm for the subject.  Maybe it will resurface later.

I’ve decided after Monday’s events I don’t pray enough.  With a daughter and son-in-law in the military,  I don’t pray enough.  My other son-in-law is in law enforcement and over the weekend had to investigate the shooting of one of his colleagues. I don’t pray enough.  My other daughter drives many miles each week in her job and my granddaughter has to grow up in a world where events like Monday’s may be normative.  You know my conclusion: I don’t pray enough.

Let’s get one thing straight up front – I DO NOT believe prayer is magic.  I don’t subscribe to the theology that God counts my prayers and when I’ve offered the required number of prayers my family gets protection.  If prayer works that way, I may have prayed enough.  I cannot conceive that God decides to answer prayers based upon how many friends are praying, or how many churches have my concern on their prayer lists.  Nor do I think God is counting the number of states or countries where people are praying for my particular concern.  Prayer is not a math game, with God waiting for me to hit the mandatory minimum number of prayers in order to place a protective shield around the people, or nation, I love.  Once we go down the road of that belief, prayer becomes just another “work,” with success going to the person with the most Facebook friends.

In Mark 2:1-12, Jesus heals the man lowered through the roof based upon the faith of his friends.  In Mark 5:25-34, Jesus heals based on the faith of one woman alone.  But in John 5:1-8, Jesus approaches a man who never expresses any faith, offering a miracle.  If you can figure out the math in those stories, let me know.

I just know that when I love someone, or believe in something, I cannot help but to offer that person or that conviction up to God’s care in prayer.  I hope that by praying I will join my heart to what God wants done.  If other individuals of faith will pray to join, rather than to cajole God, then surely God’s purposes in the world will be furthered.  So I need to pray more to join God in peace, reconciliation, forgiveness, and kindness.  Maybe if I pray more, God will finally be able to break through my rationalizations and my excuses for the times I justify anger, prejudice, greed, manipulation, bitterness, fear, and hardness of heart.  I don’t know if such prayers result in protection for my loved ones, but may it result in my usefulness for the Kingdom.  The more people who pray in this way, the less divine protection we need, for we become protection for one another in doing God’s will.

So, believing these things, if I need to pray more, what do I need to pray for.

After Monday, I start with “Thy kingdom come; Thy will be done, on earth…” Do I really need to explain this request?  God’s will is not always done.  We need not look at Boston to know this fact.  I thwart God’s will daily, don’t you?  Let’s mean what we say when we offer the words from the model prayer and let the kingdom grow from where we are.

And, from the end of Scripture, “Come quickly, Lord Jesus.”  Be certain of this: I am not preoccupied with the Second Coming or “Last Things.”  I’ve never read a single volume in the Left Behind series and I am as mainstream as a Christian gets.  But – if Dr. King was right when he said, “The moral arm of the universe is a vast arc, but it bends toward justice,” do I not want the completion of that arc to happen today?  No more children going to bed in fear or hunger. No more African boys impressed as soldiers by brutal men.  No more women trafficked as sex slaves.  The demons of addiction destroyed.  If anything on my Google calendar seems more important than these, perhaps I have lost my empathy for the world, my awareness of my own sin, and any sense of the good things waiting in God.

Today I shall pray more.  For friends, for family, for nation, and the world because I cannot help but lift up whom I love to God.  But also for Christ’s Kingdom to come and grow in me and my sphere of infleunce until he brings all things to a conclusion in favor of his will.




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Bucket Book – Les Miserables

The fourth Bucket Book – those I consider “must reads” is Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables.

I am prejudiced.  I’ve never read a book where I thought the movie was better.   That prejudice is still true after reading Les Mis.   This book has two strengths, only one of which shows up in the play or the movie.  That strength is the plot.  It is just a great story with intrigue, love, and suspense, set against a background of war and revolution.  Who is not drawn to Jean Valjean’s journey of redemption?

Frank Murphy Art

Frank Murphy’s 2013 original 16×20 oil painting of Jean Valjean.  Notice the tatooed number.  Copyright by Frank Murphy and used by permission.

Movies and plays, however, have a difficult time capturing the thoughts and inner struggles of characters, which is this book’s other strength.  The internal conflicts and motives of the characters find their power from Hugo’s ability to observe life and know the human heart.

The life Hugo observed occurred in a period of grinding, inescapable poverty.  At points the reader feels the hopelessness of Jean Valjean’s early life, or of Fantine, or Cosette as a child.  The very title of the book describes the plight of the wretched poor in a time of want.  Not only did they find themselves void of life’s basic needs, but the deprivation often robbed them of their humanity.  Some individuals think the poor are naturally corrupt; Hugo, however, understands poverty tends to rob them of character, when he observes, “…(P)eople rarely fall without becoming degraded….Besides there is a point where the unfortunate and the infamous are associated and confused in a word, a mortal word, les miserables…”   still, Hugo remains compassionate, “…when the fall is the furthest, is that not when charity should be the greatest?”  No play or movie can communicate all of these observations or convictions.

I thought the book would be a challenge to read, based on its size.  I’ve failed at War and Peace three times and I feared the same fate with Les Mis.  Instead, I found it a page turner.  Hugo’s window into the souls of his characters wouldn’t let me put it down.  It only took two bottles of sunscreen an a full week of beach reading to take it all in.

Here are some of the Hugo’s typical observations that make for compelling reading:

Mothers’ arms are made of tenderness, and sweet sleep blesses the child who lies within. (p. 147)

…success is a hideous thing.  Its false similarity to merit deceives men. (p. 51)

Every Sunday he (M. Geborand) gave a penny to the old beggar woman at the door of the cathedral.  There were six of them to share it.  One day the bishop, seeing him perform this act of charity, said to his sister with a smile, “There’s M. Geborand, buying a pennyworth of paradise.  (p. 12)

 As a pastor, I have found one of the keys to effective preaching is a deep understanding of people.  We look, not at what they say, but what they are thinking.  I can’t preach effectively without identifying with the congregation and I can’t identify unless I know their hearts.  Hugo’s novel teaches me about timeless and genuine fears, motives, and aspirations.  Les Mis is a single volume course in human psychology, history, and spiritual formation all in one.

les-miserables-by-victor-hugo (1)

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A follow-up to Hobart and Manners

be a hobart

Okay, I confess that I am not on Facebook.  Call me a Luddite.

So, I appreciate Vern sending the above entry to me via email.

Hobart would be embarrassed that his name was associated with doing a good deed, but that was what gave his acts of kindness the power which they had.  He never wanted credit.  Ever.  But if somewhere children now think of others first, he would have to be pleased.

This is something we all need.  Thanks to Renee for the inspired leadership to encourage her children this way.




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Hobart and Manners

(Note: Hobart passed away at 10:00 pm on April 3, 13 hours after I posted these observations)

My friend Hobart has been dying for two months.  He has a coronary problem that can’t be corrected or treated, so the decline has been slow and steady.  Today marks 14 days without water and he has been nearly five weeks without food. Like his family members, who have been by his side, I’ve had a while to think about his character and qualities.

I became his pastor in 1995. What first stuck me was his genteel Southern accent. People in other parts of the country often group all Southern accents into one category, but true Southerners can distinguish a Texan from an East Tennessean after a single spoken sentence.  Hobart’s particular accent comes from a region below a line that runs from Atlanta to Birmingham to Jackson.  It’s warm and sounds like education and charm at the same time.  You might even call it aristocratic.

A 1997 article   by Peggy Noonan caused me to think about Hobart’s manners.  Noonan wrote about teaching her son to be a gentleman, including instructions to hold the door for others.  He complained bitterly that being a gentleman would mean he had to go last for the rest of his life.  Yes, Noonan told her son, unless he met another gentleman who held the door for him.  Not long after reading the article I realized I had never gone through a door behind Hobart.  Though my senior by more than 30 years, he always held the door for me.  In fact, he always held the door for everyone.  I realized then how manners reflected the core of his personality.  He had been holding doors for others all his life. With this realization I set out on a mission: to hold the door for Hobart so he didn’t have to go last.    In the sixteen years that followed, I held the door for him once.  That moment resulted in a friendly wrestling match which I won. Clearly, however, he had not been waiting for another gentleman. He did not want the door held for him.  Going last was a decision he had made long ago.  The incident must have steeled his resolve because he never let me hold the door for him again.  I tried, I promise I did.  I use the example of holding the door, but it is only one way he demonstrated his chosen path of personal deference to others.

In a world that prizes a high grade in assertiveness training, many people misjudge manners. They mistake politeness for subservience – graciousness for weakness.  The impolite assume the mannerly are acknowledging the superiority and the inalienable right of the impolite to go first, no matter how long others have been in line.  They are wrong and Eric Hoffer is correct when he observes: “Rudeness is the weak man’s imitation of strength.”  Anyone can be rude by accident, but manners only happen on purpose.  It takes patience to be polite, especially when your efforts are misinterpreted and others treat you as inferior because of a choice you made.  St. Paul reminds us patience is in the hierarchy that includes self-control, and there is no self-control without strength of character.  Rudeness is weakness.  It is insecurity at its worst. Manners, on the other hand, take focus and genuine perseverance.

The next time you watch a news clip of Black Friday shoppers knocking each other down over a doll, ask yourself if the world would be a better place with more rudeness or with more manners. Many people would say manners, but they are afraid to take the first step for fear they will come in second or look weak.  What was that Eric Hoffer quotation?  If your happiness depends on knocking someone out of the way to get a discount on a present, you have more issues than the present will solve.

Josh Billings observed, “One of the greatest victories you can gain over someone is to beat him at politeness.” A better way to understand his logic is this – politeness can change your attitude about life to one where manners define the outcome.  For instance, if you are polite on the interstate, other drivers don’t cut you off because you already made the decision to let them into your lane.  Your actions are not defined by how others act; rather by how you want to act.

Manners are one expression of what Jesus taught when he said, “You have heard that it was said, ‘Love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’ But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you, that you may be children of your Father in heaven. He causes his sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous. If you love those who love you, what reward will you get? Are not even the tax collectors doing that? And if you greet only your own people, what are you doing more than others? Do not even pagans do that? Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Matthew 5:43-48).

It is pagan only to treat well those who treat us well.  The sun rising means God gives life and opportunity to both the evil and the good.  Rain is a blessing in the arid Middle East and  God gives it to the just and the unjust.  God chooses to bestow good things on everyone, even the undeserving.  That choice is what makes God’s love unconditional.  If we want to be like God, we will do good to everyone simply because it is the way we choose to be.

If St. Peter really serves as the doorkeeper of heaven, he may have met his match.  Hobart is coming – manners and all.   My advice, give it up, Peter.  You are about to get schooled in a job you’ve had for 2000 years.  For the rest of eternity Hobart will be going last.  Because he chooses to.


Also read: A Follow-up to Hobart and Manners

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