Redefining Beauty

Yesterday, León the Shih Tzu and I were taking his morning walk. There is a row of trees between between my neighbors’ fields. Most of the trees are still winter brown, but some of them (redbuds?) have started their spring bloom. There are a few of those in that line and those pinkish/purple blossoms really stood out among the brown. It was strikingly beautiful.

Then another thought struck me, causing me to question how I define “beauty.” I had been, like so much of the world, defining beauty to be what is appealing to the eye, what stands out, what is noticeable. I’d like to propose instead to define beauty as “fulfilling God’s purpose in my life.” Given that definition, the trees that are still dressed in brown are every bit as beautiful as those that have put on the colorful blossoms, and the the ankle high weeds that are fodder for the neighbor’s chickens are every bit as wonderful as the tall pecan tree near the street that is still dropping nuts when the wind gets high.

Knowing what I know of God’s nature, and of His word (1 Corinthians 12:22-26) I think this definition of beauty is much more His style than the popular world view, and it certainly applies as much or more to His children than it does to his plant life.

The Best Defense May Be: Be Still

This morning as León the Shih Tzu and I were on his morning walk we came upon a rabbit by the side of the road. We must have surprised it, because we don’t normally see them except at a distance. I expected the creature to bolt – to run away as quickly as possible, since rabbits are especially good at that. Instead, it sat there on all fours, perfectly still, literally not even moving a whisker. The foliage is still fairly winter-brown around here so the rabbit blended in well with the background. It’s strategy was to hope that neither I nor León would spot him.  (Little did the rabbit know that while León might sniff or lick it, it would certainly not be in danger of being eaten by either of us!)

The rabbit’s strategy is frequently a good one for us humans when threatened, or especially when only potentially threatened. Often if we just wait things out, they will resolve themselves without our having to do anything. Jesus modeled this behavior during his “trial”.  He chose not to answer most of the questions and accusations thrown His way, remaining silent instead. I’ve recently used this technique successfully in some meetings with potentially combative 3rd parties.

Be on the lookout today for chances to do – nothing!

Be Still My Soul

Psalm 46:10 Be still, and know that I am God.

This morning as León the Shih Tzu and I were on our morning walk, I noticed that there was absolutely no wind. There was a bit of frost on the ground and it was absolutely still.  It was wonderful. This verse came to mind.

In today’s hurry-up-and-wait world, there are few, if any, times in a day when we could legitimately call ourselves “still.” I’ve discovered about myself that if I will intentionally quiet myself, on the inside, then I am much more ready to hear from God than if I’m running my mind 110 MPH. I make it a point not to listen to music, even Christian music, on my morning walk, so that I can be ready to hear what He has to say. For me, being still in my soul is easier to attain if my body is moving. My morning walks are precious to me for just that reason.

Today’s challenge: quiet your soul, completely, for at least 5 minutes. Allow God to speak to you. You’ll be amazed at how refreshing it is.

A God in Pain

A third angel followed them and said in a loud voice: “If anyone worships the beast and his image and receives his mark on the forehead or on the hand, he, too, will drink of the wine of God’s fury, which has been poured full strength into the cup of his wrath. He will be tormented with burning sulfur in the presence of the holy angels and of the Lamb.” Revelation 14:9-10 NIV1984

I’ve read through the Bible a number of times, so I’ve certainly read this verse several times. In those previous readings, my thoughts have been something like, “Those people are getting what they deserve. Good riddance to bad rubbish.”

Today I saw this scenario from a completely different viewpoint: “How does/will God feel about this?”

I’m not claiming to know everything about God, or to have the ability to see how He sees and feel what He feels, but I do know this: God is love. (1 John 4:8) How will God, whose very nature is love, view this punishment given to those who worship the beast?

Will God stop loving these people? Absolutely not. Love is not just something God does, it is who He is.  For God to stop loving these people would be to deny or change His very nature.

How do you and I feel when someone we love is in pain, regardless of whether or not that pain is deserved or self-inflicted. It hurts us – it hurts a lot. More than a few times I’ve wished that I could take the place of a loved one that is hurting.

The love that we humans possess is but the merest shadow of God’s love. Were we to multiple our feelings of pain by one million, that might approach the level of God’s pain – for a single person. Now multiply that pain by the millions or billions of people who will be living at that time who will reject God and follow the beast. In is beyond comprehension.

In the same way that I can’t comprehend God’s love for me, I can’t even come close to understanding the pain that this does/will cause Him.

Why would God allow such pain and torment to take place? Because He loves humanity and hopes that punishment will turn those wayward hearts back to Him.

Never Good Enough – A Christmas Story 2017

I try to write a Christmas story to share with my family every year. Here is 2017’s effort.


This story is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual squirrels is merely a coincidence. No squirrels were harmed in the creation of this story.

As an aid to better understanding of this story, please note that a group of squirrels is call a scurry.

Like the rest of the scurry, Alexander Manning Squirrel watched in undisguised awe as the Tree Guards marched by, their paws moving in silent unison, as if it were a single multi-legged animal passing by rather than a troop of 20 individuals. This aura was no accident. The Tree Guards practiced for hours each day to hone and refine their separate skills and abilities into a cohesive unit that functioned flawlessly as one. The Guard was always comprised of exactly 20 squirrels.

Also like the other yearling squirrels, Alexander’s deepest desire was to join the Tree Guards. In the few spare moments in the day, when he was not working at one of the multitude of endless chores around the scurry that never seemed to end, Alexander would daydream about marching as part of the guard in precision time, taking up defensive positions around the base of the tree, shouting out the alert when an enemy was spotted, fighting fearlessly to defend the scurry against that enemy, even keeping lonely night vigil while the rest of the scurry slept. Alexander thought about little else but the Guard. This suited him just fine, but did not go over so well with his teacher or his parents. As a result, Alexander was frequently assigned to Mess Control, which was just a fancy name for “cleaning up the shells after all the other squirrels have eaten.” As unpleasant has Mess Control was, it didn’t bother Alexander all that much because he could continue to fantasize about joining the Guard while scooping and carrying broken pieces of shell, which occasionally included a slightly chewed piece of the fruit of the nut, which had been spewed out because it was bitter.

Day after day, Alexander carried out his duties, pretended to listen in class and carried out his punishments, all the while hoping and praying that he would someday be allowed to join the Guards. Today, Alexander thought to himself, today is my chance. And he was correct. Today was the Summer Solstice, the longest day of the year. Every year on the Solstice, one, or sometimes more than one, of the oldest members of the Tree Guard would retire and a replacement for his position in the Guard would be chosen from among the yearlings. This year only a single older Guard was retiring, so only a single yearling candidate would be chosen to replace the retiree. For reasons which had long since been forgotten, there were always exactly 20 members, no more and no less. If a Guard was maimed or killed, a yearling would immediately be chosen to replace him. Other than that, the only way to gain membership in the Guard was at the Solstice.

The selection process was shrouded in mystery, which no one seemed to understand, yet it happened the same way every year. The yearlings would be put through a series of tests, each of which demonstrated the candidate’s skill, or lack thereof, in an important aspect of the Guard’s duties. Each test was monitored and scored by current and/or retired Guards. At the end of the day, those monitors would get together and discuss the results. The scores were never published, but after their conference a new member was chosen. It was all very cloak and dagger, and the mystery of it all only served to pique Alexander’s curiosity and desire to join.

Today Alexander had woken early, which was rare for him, but it did gain him the prized position of being first in the line of yearling candidates. Along with the others, Alexander stretched and jumped to warm up in preparation for the first test – gliding. This is going to be great, Alexander thought. I am by far the best glider in my class. I’ve got this one in the bag. He continued to stretch and jump long after the rest of the group had stopped, more from nervous energy than any actual physical benefit. The head proctor for this test, a grizzled old veteran with only one working eye and three working feet approached slowly, even stately thought Alexander. Alexander prepared his response, certain that as first in line he would be the first candidate to glide. The old squirrel reached the group and Alexander was about to speak even before the retired Guard spoke (which would have been a serious breach of etiquette) but the veteran did not even pause, but hobbled directly to the very last squirrel in the line and tapped him gently on the head – the signal that he was to begin the test.

Alexander was flabbergasted. He had risen very early and even skipped breakfast, for the sole purpose of being in line. And it was all for naught. Instead of being first, it looked like Alexander might actually test last. Alexander was furious and was barely able to hold his tongue. The only thing worse than being last in the group to test was to challenge the test proctors or display a disrespectful attitude. Alexander dug his toes into the bark of the branch, hoping to divert his anger into the tree rather than his face and lips.

Peter happened to be at the end of the line and was chosen to test first. Peter lived just a couple of branches down from Alexander. Peter and Alexander were not exactly friends, but they knew each other and would frequently scamper back to their home tree together after a day of instruction on the ground, or in one of the school trees. Alexander knew Peter well enough to know that he was not a good glider. Peter tried hard, he really did, but he could never get more than 20 or 30 rods from the launch branch before he landed, if one could call such an action “landing.” Alexander thought it more like falling, with the good luck of landing on one’s feet. (A “rod” was the scurry’s unit of measurement, and was simply the length of an old stick that had been used by the scurry for glide measurement longer than any living squirrel could remember.)

As Peter made his way to the launch branch, Alexander muttered out an encouraging word or two, not because he really meant them, but because everyone else was doing so and he didn’t want to be out of place. Peter took his place on the launch branch, and after a nod from the proctor, launched himself into the air and quickly spread his front legs as far as they would go, catching as much wind as possible in the membranes that stretched from leg to torso. It was immediately apparent that Peter had put forth an excellent leap and he soared for what seemed like hours before touching down into a neat little forward somersault. Even before the ground crew finished measuring the distance, Alexander knew that Peter had just produced the longest glide of his life. “47 rods,” the measurement squirrel shouted. “An epic glide, Peter. Well done.” The other yearlings chirped aloud, the squirrel’s equivalent of the ridiculous sounding human applause. Alexander joined in, not because he was happy for Peter, but because he didn’t want to be singled out for his failure to chirp.

Stanley went next and earned a respectable 38 rods. He was followed by Richard, Jonathan, and Thomas. Bernard followed them, and was himself followed by Gustavo, whose nickname by those who like him was “Gus” and “Tavo” by those who did not. Alexander was so angry for not being first that he didn’t pay attention to any of the other scores. (He later regretted this of course, because this was the only test where the candidates were able to know the scores.) As soon as Tavo touched down Alexander began the short climb to the launching branch. It was a breach of protocol to start without being tapped out by the proctor, but Alexander didn’t really care. He was angry and wanted to make sure that everyone else noticed. Once he reached the launch point, Alexander took an inordinately long time getting ready, deliberately and slowing stretching every leg, flexing every toe and even grooming his short whiskers, even though they were really still too short to need it.

Finally “ready”, Alexander took his place and prepared to launch. He narrowed his eyes to barely open, so that the wind in his face would not cause him to tear up and go wind blind. He crouched into the proper position and waited perhaps a little longer than absolutely necessary, for effect of course, and sprang. Alexander loved gliding. It was freeing. It gave him a sense of freedom and power that no other activity could give. He loved the wind in his face, but of course not his eyes. He loved to watch the ground speed by. He loved the anticipation as he approached the ground – the combination of fear and delight that coursed through him. This glide was going to be perfect!

Except that it wasn’t. Just as he began to uncoil his legs, the horned owl who was watching from the top of the next tree gave a loud call. Every pair of squirrel eyes in the forest snapped immediately up to the owl. Every pair of squirrel ears within range turned to the owl’s tree and tuned into her voice, hoping that this was just a friendly call and not a warning signal. It was just a greeting – the female owl in the tree calling to her mate that all was safe and he could land beside her. Even though the call was benign, the damage had already been done. Alexander mistimed his jump and pushed with his hind legs after he had already cleared the branch, and so entered the glide with no additional thrust whatsoever. Instead of the best glide of his life, as he had been hoping for, Alexander had the worst jump of his life, and more importantly, the worst glide of the day, a mere 22 rods. What a disaster! A guard has to be ready for anything. There were no second chances as a guard, and Alexander knew that there would be no second chance for a better glide. He would just have to be even better at the other events.

The candidates were allowed a few minutes rest before the next event – a tree climb. The yearlings would gather around a tree, and at the signal would scamper up as quickly as possible. Whoever reached the top first was the winner – there was no second place. As the group rested and waited, Alexander began to cheer up. He was a shew in for the tree climb. No one could beat him at climbing, including most of the current Tree Guard members. Not only was Alexander naturally gifted as as climber, he had spent the last month or more studying every tree that was even remotely likely to be chosen as their climbing tree. He knew every branch and every nook of every sizable tree in a 75 rod radius from the master tree. This was going to be a piece of cake!

Alexander’s preparation paid off. The group was lead to a sizable oak about 30 rods out. Alexander had to work to suppress his joy. He had practiced extensively on this particular tree. In fact, this particular tree had become a sort of refuge for Alexander when he needed some time away from the other squirrels. Come to think of it, that had happened more and more recently. As he had worked with feverish determination to prepare for this day, his friends and even his family had begun to treat Alexander strangely. No one seemed to understand the importance of this day. Alexander had become convinced that the scurry as a whole was ganging up against him. At first this had hurt Alexander’s feelings, but then he realized that their attitude must surely mean that he was the one to beat in the trials, and he redoubled his efforts to be more ready than any squirrel had ever been, or would ever be. He, Alexander Manning Squirrel would be a legend in his own day, and for generations to come. He was going to be so awesome that they would name a master tree after him.

Alexander eyed the tree carefully, planing his route up. This would be a wonderful triumph! The proctor counted down from 5 to 1 then shouted, “Go!” At the last moment, Alexander decided to skip the first branch on his chosen route and jump directly from the ground to the second branch, saving himself a precious couple of seconds. He not only wanted to win, to redeem himself from the abysmal showing on the glide, he wanted to utterly crush every other candidate. He wanted complete, total, undeniable victory. Although the distance to the second branch was long, Alexander had jumped that far before, and was supremely confident that he would make it, and he was right. Except that he wasn’t. He cleared the first branch easily, and also the second. In fact, Alexander jumped too far, missing the second branch by more than half a rod. He twisted desperately in the air, hoping beyond hope to perhaps catch one of the thinner branches that came into view near the apex of his trajectory. He did catch one, but it was way too thin to hold his weight and Alexander felt himself falling back to earth.

Falling? Falling? Squirrels do not fall out of trees. It was unthinkable for a squirrel to fall out of a tree. It just did not happen. A squirrel falling out of a tree, any tree, was akin to a bird falling from the sky, or a fish falling out of the water. It just did not happen. Except that it did, and Alexander was the first squirrel to fall from a tree in the last three generations. He felt every eye on him, frowning, jeering, laughing, but he didn’t care.

By the time Alexander hit the ground he had righted himself and turned the fall into a forward roll and immediately jump again, back to the first branch that he should have made for initially. He climbed and scurried and jumped as hard and as fast as he could and reached the goal near the top of the tree with a very respectable time, but still later than 4 of the other candidates, besting only Tavo and Jonathan. He had been so focused on his own climbing that he did not even see who had gained the top first, but Alexander did not even care. He should have been first – nothing else mattered.

The rest of the day was a nightmare for Alexander, as he struggled through, and lost, every single event in the trials. Jonathan won the jumping contest. Richard, with his long legs and extra folds of membrane easily won the acorn carry, depositing a record 27 acorns at the feet of the proctor of that contest. Even though no one was supposed to know the exact scores of each contestant, everyone knew anyway, and knew that Richard had broken the previous record of 25 acorns, which had been set may years back by Alexander’s own father.

His humiliation continued through the Alert challenge, where the candidates give a warning chatter as loudly as they can, and the one who chatters the loudest is the winner. Alexander did well for the first few rounds, and in the final round the only competitor remaining was Bernard. This one was in the bag, Alexander thought. I can certainly best Bernard. As the signal came Alexander took a great gulp of air and prepared to give a chatter so loud that it would dislodge the owl who had ruined him in the gliding contest, shaking her loose without warning and without pity. As he drew in the air, Alexander’s draw was so powerful that it carried with it a butterfly, a small little orange and black one. (Funny how one remembers every detail of utter humiliation but can recall only hazy memories of a victory.) Alexander choked, literally choked, on the winged demon and managed only a squeak that could not even be heard by the spectators a few rods away.

Alexander was heart broken. He, Alexander Manning Squirrel, had been beaten by a bug no bigger than a spring nut. Beauty had indeed bested the beast, which is how Alexander now viewed himself. He wasn’t Guard material. He had failed to win in every single contest so far, and there was one more to go. Alexander clung to the smallest sliver of hope, hoping beyond hope that he could win the final contest – Sentry Duty. This challenge was the most unique, and arguably the most important, contest of them all. A Sentry’s job was simple – stay awake all night and watch for signs of danger. If danger arose, the Sentry had to make an instant decision on how to deal with the threat and then put that plan into action. The Sentry might decide that the best action was to lead the danger away from the scurry. He might drop to the ground, making enough noise to be noticed then scamper off, drawing the predator after him. The Sentry might decide that the entire scurry needed to be on alert, and if so would give a loud chatter, at which Alexander had miserable failed, so as to wake the whole group. The Sentry might even decide that the best action was no action at all, and would remain motionless, allowing the threat to simply pass by, not suspecting or detecting the Sentry.

Above all, more important than gliding, jumping, climbing or yelling, the most important job for a Sentry was to stay awake – all night long. The Sentry was trusted to be awake and alert, so that the rest of the scurry could sleep soundly, knowing that they would receive ample warning of any danger. A Sentry had to be completely trustworthy, because the life of the entire scurry was literally in his paws.

Well at least I will win this challenge, Alexander thought to himself. I’m so angry that I probably won’t sleep for a week anyway. At least I won’t be totally humiliated. For several hours, Alexander’s anger keep him going. He thought back to every failure, not just today, but as far back as he could remember. His disappointment in himself rankled within him, festering like a thorn in the paw. He deserved to be in the Guard, he thought and muttered to himself. No one had worked harder than he had to prepare. He had frequently skipped the evening meal, which was as much about socialization as it was sustenance, so that he could study yet another climbing tree or work on his acorn carry or practice his warning chatter. He was certain that Richard, the winner of the acorn carry, had never missed a meal in his life! He, Alexander, however, had missed many in his quest for the Guard.

Alexander would have loved to be able to pace back and forth, but a Sentry had to remain totally motionless. In the forest, motion is an invitation for predators of every kind. The squirrel’s natural coloring blended very well with tree trunks, and a motionless squirrel was almost impossible to distinguish for the tree itself. And so Alexandr sat, and fumed, and hated himself and everyone else. He was the best of them all! Why couldn’t anyone see that??!! Why was there even a contest? Everyone knew that Alexander was the best. Why even bother? What was the point? All his work, his preparations, his sacrifices would be in vain if he didn’t make it into the Guard.

Alexander hated every thing and every one. He hated the sun that had long since set. He hated the moon, which cast a few shadows on the forest floor, some 10 rods below. He hated life. He hated squirrels. He especially hated owls. Alexander hated everything.

Squirrels don’t cry. It’s not that they can’t cry – they have tear glands and ducts similar to many mammals, they just don’t cry. A squirrel that cried was like a caterpillar that failed to transform into a butterfly – like the one that had cost him the win in the Alert challenge. Squirrels simply don’t cry. Except when they do, and Alexander began to cry. Tears formed a track from the corners of his eyes, down to his nose, where they either dripped on the branch or followed the curve down around his chin. Squirrels don’t cry, except when they do, and Alexander cried.

Without thinking Alexander raised his left paw so that he could clear out his right eye. A Sentry had to be able to see, in order to warn the scurry if or when it was necessary. The moment his paw touched his face, Alexander knew that he had messed up – again. You see, besides staying awake, a Sentry’s most important task was to remain motionless. Motion drew attention. Motion turned scavengers into meals, mice into dessert and Sentries into losers, and that is exactly what happened to Alexander. One of the current Guard, who had been assigned to watch the Sentry challenge, on the lookout for movement, chattered loudly and pointed directly at Alexander. He had moved, and thus had failed this most important of challenges.

Alexander did not even bother waiting for an official dismissal. He climbed slowly down the tree until he was low enough then launched into a perfect glide, out of sight of the master tree and away from prying eyes and ears. Now I get the perfect glide he thought to himself. Now, when it matters no more than a raindrop in a thunderstorm, now, when no one is watching and no one cares. Now I get the perfect glide. For the second time in as many minutes, Alexander cried. This time he didn’t even bother raising a paw to wipe away the tears. Alexander spent the night wandering from tree to tree, jumping from branch to branch. It was a clear violation of the squirrel code, but he didn’t care. Maybe some owl would spot him and eat him and spare him the humiliation that awaited him in the morning, when one of the other six candidates would take his place with the guard. His place, Alexander thought. It should be my place.

Morning came as it usually did, the forest slowly coming to back to life. Birds began to chirp, welcoming the sun. Deer began to forage, looking for the tender, lower branches of their favorite trees, or failing that grass from the meadow. Squirrels began to emerge from their sleeping holes. On most days the squirrels would immediately head out to collect nuts and acorns, but today, this one day only, the entire scurry gathered at the master tree to see who had been chosen to fill the one position that was available in the Guard.

Alexander had planned to skip the gathering, not really caring who would be chosen, quite certain that it was not him. He tried to stay away, but his curiosity final triumphed over his anger and self loathing and he found a perch in a nearby tree to watch and listen. But he was late, and when he arrived it was clear that whatever ceremony was to be held was already complete. Peter, the closest thing that Alexander had to a friend, was standing with the Guards and was being congratulated by the other yearlings. They seemed genuinely proud of Peter, even happy for him. Alexander scoffed to himself. He was a thousand times better than Peter, but it no longer mattered. Next year he would be too old for the trials and some other unworthy, undeserving yearling would take their place, Alexander’s place, in the Guard.

He was about to turn away, but just as he did the Guard’s leader, the grizzled old veteran who had proctored the gliding challenge, look up, staring directly at Alexander. He had thought himself well concealed, but there was no doubt that the old squirrel was looking directly at him. With a small nod of the head, the leader beckoned Alexander to join him. There are a few rules that one might possibly break and get away with it, but disobedience to the Leader of the Guard was not one of those things. With a sarcastic sigh, Alexander made his way to the ground, another perfect glide he said to himself. He scoffed again.

By the time he reached the Leader, the rest of the crowd had dispersed, leaving only the Guard, including the newest member Peter. The Guard sat in a semicircle around the Leader who followed Alexander’s progress with his eyes, remaining otherwise motionless. Alexander sat directly in front of him, not knowing exactly what was expected of him, wondering why the Leader would even care about him in the least.

The entire group sat in silence, waiting for… what? What was the purpose of this, Alexander wondered. The leader was watching Alexander closely – not quite staring, but certainly not looking anywhere else. He glanced behind him and found that the other members of the Guard were also watching him, with that same intense, non-staring look. What was going on here? Was he supposed to do something? Was he supposed to say something? He found no answers in the Guard members’ looks either and turned again to face the Leader. The silence continued until it became uncomfortable, then downright distressing.

Alexander was certain that he had been summoned here to be further humiliated. They weren’t going to ignore his failures in the testing yesterday. Alexander had never heard of anyone being ejected from the scurry, but he had performed so badly that it was about to happen to him. With difficulty he held his emotions in check, and was successful except for his eyes. For the third time in less than a day, Alexander Manning Squirrel found himself crying. It was a motionless, soundless cry, so silent that the sound of his tears on the dried leaves of the forest floor sounded as loud as the crack of a broken branch in the dead of night.

Still no one moved. No one spoke. What do they want from me? What?

Finally, Alexander could stand the silence and the tears no longer. “Sir,” he said to the Leader, “I know that I messed up badly yesterday. I can’t glide far enough, or climb fast enough. I can’t jump very far, I can’t carry very many acorns. I didn’t chatter loud enough to disturb a butterfly and I couldn’t stand still for more than a few minutes.”

The Leader said nothing, but his attention was riveted to Alexander’s face. He seemed to be boring a hole right through Alexander, looking into the depths of his soul, and surprisingly, not turning away from how it had withered until it was shrunken and brown, like an overripe apple on the forest floor.

Now that he had started, Alexander found that he could not stop himself. “I don’t deserve a spot in the Guard. I failed every single test. I’m not worthy to be a part of you, to be in the Guard. But could I at least help in some small way? I can fetch things and carry messages. Please sir, is there some way that I can help?” The tears were flowing freely now and Alexander didn’t even bother to try and wipe them away. It wouldn’t have helped anyway, as they were falling more rapidly than did the river as it spun into space at the falls, just a couple of hundred rods away to the East.

Alexander had been staring at the ground as he spoke, not willing to even glance at the Leader, for fear that he would find in the Leader’s gaze a reflection of his own disappointment in himself. When he did finally raise his eyes, he was shocked to see tears in the Leader’s eyes, not flowing as much as his own, but definitely present nonetheless. The Leader of the Tree Guards was crying! Could this day, this week, get any stranger?

There was a long silence, but it was no longer uncomfortable as it had been, but soothing instead, like the feeling you get right after a spring rain. In the Leader’s gaze Alexander did not see disappointment or sadness, but hope. Alexander was confused, yet it didn’t seem to matter as much as it had just a few moments earlier.

Finally the Leader spoke. “Alexander, why do you think that Peter was allowed to become a part of the Guard?”

Finally, Alexander thought. Something I can get right! He answered immediately. “Because he was the best glider, and scored well in the other challenges.” Some of his anger was fading, so he was able to continue without deception. “Peter is a good squirrel, he’ll be an asset to the Guard.”

The Leader answered. “Peter will be an asset to the Guard, but not because he is a good glider, or scored well on the other challenges.”

What? What did he say, Alexander wondered to himself. “I don’t understand,” he blurted.

The Leader smiled, now. A genuine, friendly, loving smile. “I know you don’t understand, Alexander, but that is just fine. The Guard isn’t made up of squirrels that are great at gliding, climbing, jumping, carrying or standing on Sentry duty. The Guard is made up entirely of squirrels that know that they aren’t good enough. The squirrel that thinks he has earned his way into the Guard is too proud, is too good in his own sight, to learn anything else. The squirrel who might be the best climber or glider is usually the worst at being a Guard. We are a team of imperfect squirrels, who together are able to do what needs to be done to protect the scurry.”

Alexander felt his anger and disgust with himself beginning to fade. There was truth in the Leader’s eyes, and sincere affection in his gaze. In spite of his failures, the Leader really did like him. No, he thought to himself, the Leader loves me. He loves me!

The Leader’s explanation was clear enough, but there was one question remaining. One thing that Alexander simply had to know. “But sir, how did these Guards,” he gestured behind him at the troop, “How did they get into the Guard, if they didn’t earn their way in? How did they get in?”

The Leader smile even more broadly then, a smile that rivaled that of the daisy blooming in the meadow. “They asked, Alexander, just like you just did. They simply asked how they could help.”
There was the briefest of pauses, then he continue. “Welcome to the Tree Guard Alexander.”

The Guard was always comprised of exactly 20 squirrels, except when it wasn’t.

Prime?

Yesterday was “Amazon Prime” day. There was a lot of media buzz, and many people were very excited – looking forward to thousands of unbeatable deals. I had, and have, a slightly less jubilant view.

Don’t get me wrong, I like Amazon and am a Prime member. Amazon occasionally saves me some money, and frequently saves me time. The amount of free shipping I use each year more than pays for the annual membership.

What irks me about Prime day, and Black Friday, and “Christmas in July” is the excessive media coverage and interest these special shopping days generate. The only reason that these days are important is that the retail industry tells us that they are. I’m convinced that the root of this issue is the inappropriately large role that retail plays in today’s society, particularly the U.S.

Before retail shopping existed, the primary method of obtaining things that one needed but could not themselves produce was the barter system. “I’ll trade you 3 chickens for a bushel of corn.” The barter system was based on need – I’m happy to trade something I have for something I need. I have a few more chickens than I can use, and I really need some corn.

The barter system slowly morphed into the retail system, where instead of goods, I trade money for what I need. This was an improvement over the barter system, because it allowed more flexibility. I could trade my chickens for money, then trade that money for things I need. This is particularly useful if I need corn but there is no corn grower close by. The early retail system was still based on need, but it planted the seeds for Prime day.

Flash forward a couple of hundred years and we now have today’s retail-focused society. The operation of the system has changed slightly: instead of producing my own goods, I work in exchange for money which I then exchange for goods. The huge, monstrous, very large difference between today’s retail society and the barter system and early retail, is that it is no longer based on need. Instead, today’s retail society is based on marketing – what the retailers can convince us to buy, regardless of whether or not we need it. “Need” has taken a back seat to “desire”. The beautiful people on TV tell us that we “need” the latest cell phone, and we believe them!

We’ve allowed retail and media to totally distort the true meaning of “need.” Ask any teenager today if they need a smart phone, and 99.5 out of 100 will answer “duh”, which is teenager language for “of course I need a smart phone, you are an idiot for even asking.” The stark truth is that most teenagers do not need a mobile phone at all, much less a smart phone, to survive or even to thrive. I propose that most would be way better off without one.

This isn’t an anti-phone post, nor even an anti-retail post. It is more of a dirge mourning the level at which we allow retailers and marketers to define “need” – the minimum acceptable amount of possessed stuff for a member of society.

I wonder what would happen if society at large stopped buying what the TV told us we should buy, and purchased instead only what we need. I’m no economist, and I’m sure that those learned folk would predict utter disaster if society were to “revert” to a needs-based model. Most certainly there would be widespread impact, but in the long run, might we be better off?

Speaking just for myself, I do my best to avoid even looking at most advertising unless it pertains to something that I have been looking for. Amazon was kind enough to send me a number of email announcements for Prime day. I probably opened all of them, but chose not to click through. (My weakness is the periodic mailer from Tractor Supply Company.  I always look through that from cover to cover.)

Call it a minor rebellion on my part – a rage against the retail machine.

 

A Christmas Parable – 2015

Milton, Matt and MJ were classmates at the New Horizons School for Boys, in Nottingham, NJ. To say that they were friends would be somewhat of a stretch, for they didn’t really spend much time together outside of class. But they knew each other, and knew each other’s overall background.

Milton was from a very wealthy family that owned several wineries in California. Milton always wore very nice clothes, an expensive watch, and never lacked for anything. While most of the boys at New Horizons made do with cafeteria food, Milton’s meals were provided by a private chef, who was shared by Milton’s family and a few others that could afford it. Milton always had a brand new smart phone, and his convertible tablet / laptop computer was cutting edge. Milton didn’t work very hard at school. It was common knowledge among the other students that he frequently paid others to do his homework.

Matt was from a typical middle class family in Ohio. His father worked a blue collar job and his mother made and sold custom jewelry, but there wasn’t much of a market for custom jewelry in that part of the country. Matt’s clothes were neat, but he only had a few sets of clothing, and so was seen wearing the same thing fairly often. Matt ate breakfast in the cafeteria, but usually sold his lunch and dinner tickets to some other boy so that he could eat fast food off campus. He tried to hide it, but his cell phone was 2 generations old, and his laptop was on its last leg. Matt was fair at math and science, and got good grades in those classes, but didn’t fare so well in language and social studies, and was barely passing those classes. Like Milton, he didn’t really work very hard at school. Matt excelled at sports, and put most of his energy into those.

MJ was from Nottingham, and didn’t really have a family – he never knew his father. MJ’s mother was a drug addict, and paid for their little one-room apartment with the occasional odd job and by late night visits to that apartment from a never ending stream of anonymous men. MJ couldn’t afford New Horizons – he was only able to attend because of a work program the school had. MJ worked in the school cafeteria. He would help prepare the food – peeling potatoes, and the like, and then clean the entire kitchen. On days when one of the paid employees was gone, MJ would have to help serve also. He dreaded these days, because the other students would look down on him, making him feel really bad. MJ had only two sets of clothes, both given to him by the Salvation Army a number of years ago, so he had to stay up late every other night doing laundry.

MJ was not exceptionally smart, but he was a very hard worker. He stayed up late most nights reading and studying his class material, usually only getting a few hours of sleep. He didn’t own a cell phone or a computer, so any computer work had to be done at the library. He was on many of the sports teams, but was not particularly gifted, so only played in the games where victory was already certain. As he did in academics, MJ worked really hard at sports too, sometimes staying after a game to clean the locker room without being asked.

Milton, Matt and MJ had very little in common. They didn’t run in the same social circles and had very different class schedules. They might glimpse each other occasionally around campus, but that was the extent of their interaction.

In spite of their differences, there was one thing that all three boys had in common: they each had exactly the same birthday. Each December 23rd, Milton would receive a huge bundle of gifts from his family, Matt would get a card with a few dollars from his mother and nothing from his father, and MJ would just get depressed. This particular December 23rd was a special one – all three boys would be turning 16. Milton was fully expecting to get a brand new car, Matt was hoping for some new shoes and a call from his father, MJ was just glad that it was Saturday and that he could hide in his room and not have to talk to anyone.

The headmaster of New Horizons was Professor Joshua Davidson. Professor Davidson was a capable administrator and was completely devoted to his students. He was always dressed neatly, but not fancily. When he drove, which was rarely, it was always one of the school’s vehicles, as he did not own a car himself. Although he didn’t talk about it, it was common knowledge that the Professor did not earn a salary, but was only paid for living expenses, which were very low, since he lived and ate on campus.

Promptly at 7:47 AM on Saturday, December 23, 2015, the phone in each of the three boys’ room rang, and each was requested to present himself at Professor Davidson’s office promptly at 8:30 AM.

MJ arrived at 8:25 AM. He was showered and clean, but his clothes were dirty as he usually saved laundry for Sunday evening. There was no receptionist or secretary working on Saturday, so he sat in the reception area to wait. Matt stumbled through the doors at precisely 8:30. His hair was disheveled and he smelled strongly of mouthwash and cologne. It wasn’t hard to guess that he hadn’t yet been to bed. True to form, Milton didn’t arrive until 8:37, strolling through the door as if he hadn’t a care in the world – and in truth he did not.

No sooner had Milton seated himself than the inner door to Professor Davidson’s office opened and the professor stepped into the outer office. “Thank you for coming in on a Saturday, gentlemen. Would you all please come in?”

Milton, Matt and MJ were understandably a bit worried. Milton and MJ had both only been in Professor D’s office once – toward the end of their admissions process for a final interview with the headmaster. Matt had been a few times since, for the occasional disciplinary chat with the headmaster. In this instance, none of them had committed any serious offense and wondered exactly what might be going on. They walked tentatively into the room, expecting to sit in front of the headmaster’s desk facing him behind it. Instead, the Professor veered off to the left and sat in one of 4 rather comfortable looking chairs surrounding the fireplace, gesturing the young men to occupy the others, which they did with no small amount of trepidation.

The headmaster spoke again. “Relax gentlemen, nothing is amiss. None of you are here today for any type of discipline. I understand that today is your birthday – each of you turns 16 today. What a happy occasion! Happy Birthday to you all! I have gifts for each of you.”

The Professor withdrew 2 small boxes, one black and very shiny, and the other wrapped in rather plain red paper, from a larger container at the side of his chair.

“Milton, these two are for you. Now before I give them to you, let me explain something very important. Both of these gifts are for you, but you must choose between them and may only keep and open one of them. The other gift must be returned immediately to me, unopened. Inside the black box is a gift that you deserve. Inside the red box is a gift that I got for you myself. It is something I think you’ll find useful.” He handed both boxes to Milton, who took the black box in his right hand and the red in his left. “Consider carefully, young man. Return to me one of the boxes and then open then one you wish to keep.”

Milton pondered, but not for very long. “My family is rich, so I deserve something very nice. The black box is small, but it probably has some money in it, or a new watch, or maybe even the keys to a car. The headmaster is quite poor. He couldn’t afford to buy me anything worthy. The red box is not for me.” Having made his decision, he handed the red box back to Professor Davidson and began to open the black box.

As he always did when opening gifts, Milton was very methodical. He carefully peeled back each piece of tape and each flap of the black paper. There was no rushed ripping, but a carefully planned dissection of the package. The whole process lasted a few minutes. Finally the wrapping paper was gone, revealing inside a thin cardboard box, the kind that you might get at a department store to contain some gift purchased there.

Milton carefully opened the top of the box and peered inside. A look of puzzlement came on his face, and he tilted the box toward the light to get a better look. He reached inside and twisted his hand back and forth, looking more bewildered by the moment. Finally he looked up at the headmaster and stated the obvious, “It’s empty. There’s nothing in here.”

Professor Davidson nodded in acknowledgement, then turned to his desk and picked up two identical black and red boxes and approached Matt. He said essentially the same thing to Matt as he had to Milton. “These two gifts are both for you, but you may choose and open only one of them, returning the other to me. The black box contains a gift that you deserve. The red box contains a gift from me. Choose carefully.”

As was typical, Matt had not really been paying attention to Milton and his gift. He had the vague impression that something was amiss there, but couldn’t tell you the details if questioned. Still, he took a few seconds to consider his choice. “The professor is an old man, so the red box probably has some kind of practical or useful gift, like a pair of socks or a bar of soap. I did really well during the football season this year, so I deserve something nice. I’ll take the black box.” With his usual carelessness, he tossed the red box in the general direction of the headmaster, who caught it without expression.

Matt’s approach to opening his black box was as much different from Milton’s as their clothing and bank balance. Matt tore into the wrapping and box with the same ferocity he showed as a linebacker on the football field. The box was open in 7.2 seconds and he flipped it over on his palm to shake out whatever was inside. When nothing immediately dropped, he shook harder, not caring whether what was inside might be fragile or not. Finally he turned over the box and peered inside, looking up at the professor when he, too, discovered that the box contained nothing but air. “Professor D, there is nothing in here. I don’t get it, is this a joke?”

As he had before, the headmaster simply nodded in acknowledgement and moved around behind his desk for two more boxes. The black and red boxes that he presented to MJ were easily 5 times larger than those he had handed to Milton and Matt. He repeated to MJ the rules and left him to consider his choice.

To his credit, MJ took quite a while making his decision. He had been paying close attention to both Milton and Matt, their gifts and the result of their choices. Milton, he decided, had not deserved anything because he already had everything he needed. Matt on the other hand, didn’t have everything, but didn’t deserve anything because, although he worked hard at sports, was not very good at academics and was not, in general very nice to others. “I, on the other hand,” MJ thought, “really do deserve something nice. I work hard at everything I do, my job and my studies. I’m polite and considerate to everyone. I mind my own business and don’t cause trouble. Besides, I have very little. Matt has a comfortable life and Milton is rich. They both have families and I don’t. Yep – I do deserve something nice.”

Having decided, he spoke out loud. “I’ll take the black box sir.”

Without expression, Professor Davidson handed him the black box and set the red one on his desk next to the two other of the same hue. MJ opened the black box as quickly as possible without making a complete mess, but certainly without the frenzy Matt had displayed or the overly methodical process Milton used. Once it was open, he had to rise from his chair to look inside and he stayed in that position for several seconds. He straightened slowly and looked at the professor with glistening eyes. “It’s empty. Just like the others.”

He sat heavily, struggling to keep back tears. He had thought that just once in his life he would finally get a break. For a few moments there had been a break in the monotony of life, a glimmer of faint hope, like the first lightening of the sky at dawn, that there might be more to life than work and study and tests and more work. But, just like his parents and the rest of his dumb luck life, fate had treated him cruelly – again.

There was a long silence, while each of the young men, to varying degrees, thought over what had just happened. Finally Matt became impatient and blurted out, “Is that it? Can we go now?”

Professor Davidson nodded his assent and the boys filed out of the room, from richest to poorest, and also, interestingly enough, from those least concerned about the empty box to the most. The headmaster trailed them to the door of his office, watching as the trio passed through the reception area to exit the building. MJ stopped with his hand on the handle and stayed in that position for several long moments. Finally he turned, to see that the professor was watching intently. What was that look on the professor’s face? Was it sadness, pity, hopefulness?

“Professor, I’ve got to know. What was in the red box? What did I miss by choosing the black box?”

“I was hoping you would ask,” Professor Davidson replied. “Inside the red box was a piece of paper with my cell phone number on it, with permission to call me anytime day or night. And – a key to my office door, allowing you to come see me anytime you like.”

There was a long, awkward silence. MJ waited for the the professor to continue, but he seemed to be done speaking. The professor appeared to be waiting, or hoping, for MJ to speak, but he didn’t know what to say. Finally he turned to the door to leave, speaking over his shoulder as he departed. “Merry Christmas Professor.”

“Merry Christmas MJ,” the headmaster answered to the already closed door. He stood for many minutes, watching and hoping for one of the three to return. Finally he turned and walked slowly back to his desk, leaving the door open.

——————————

Many of us approach Christmas and God the same way, hoping that we will get as a gift the good things that we “know” that we deserve. As did Milton, Matt and MJ, we quickly discover that what we receive and what we think we deserve are frequently quite different.

Milton thought that his status made him deserving of a nice gift. Matt decided that his hard work had earned him something good. MJ thought that he deserved nice things because he didn’t have any. The truth is that each had broken the school rules in some way, whether it was cheating, or failing classes or breaking curfew. What each really deserved was to be expelled from school. Professor D’s secretary had actually typed up the forms and put them in the black boxes as a kind of cruel Christmas joke. The professor had removed the dismissal forms and repapered the boxes.

Forgive the mixed metaphors, but the black boxes represent both the boys’ inaccuracy at what they deserved, but also the headmaster’s mercy. Each deserved punishment that they didn’t receive.

The red boxes represent the best gift any teacher can ever give – unrestrained access to the teacher. Imagine the benefit to a student to be able to call or visit at any time. Any student who worked diligently would be almost assured of good grades.

Sadly, many people approach their relationship with God the same way that these three boys did. We feel deserving of good things, and when we don’t receive what we think we deserve, we turn away in frustration, or even anger.

The truth is that we, like the boys, deserve punishment. We have all broken God’s rules and deserve eternity in hell because of it. Yet God offers mercy. He will gladly expunge our record, deleting any record of our wrongdoings.

But God’s love doesn’t stop there. He also offers grace (the red box) to anyone who will take it. He offers not religion, but a relationship with Himself. We can have direct access to the Headmaster of Life at any time, day or night, and can enter His office anytime we like – no invitation required.

The real tragedy of this story is that any or all of the boys could have gone back and asked, and the professor would have gladly given them the red box too, with all the blessings that came with it. Each boy was so disappointed by not receiving what they “deserved,” or by apathy, that they missed out on the available gifts.

If you were an actor in this story, what would you choose? What WILL you choose? Will you turn away, or will you accept His gifts of Mercy, Grace, Love and Eternal Life?

The Hidden Miracle

Mark 5:2-4 When Jesus got out of the boat, a man with an evil spirit came from the tombs to meet him. This man lived in the tombs, and no one could bind him any more, not even with a chain. For he had often been chained hand and foot, but he tore the chains apart and broke the irons on his feet. No one was strong enough to subdue him.

Later on in this chapter, Jesus frees this man from the evil (or unclean) spirit that was controlling him – that is the obvious miracle.  The not-so-obvious miracle is that this man came to meet Jesus.  He was controlled by the evil spirit within him, yet he made his way to Jesus.  He was physically powerful – strong enough to break chains, so no one could have forced him to meet Jesus at the lake, yet he was there.  What a wonderful, powerful 2 part miracle!

What things do I take for granted that are really hidden miracles?

Preparation: Learn to Pray

Part of the “What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do” series.

Preparation is vital in the ability to face a crisis.  The most important aspect of preparation is prayer.  Jesus set the example.  He often withdrew to a solitary place to pray.   See as examples  Mark 1:35, Luke 5:16, Luke 6:12, Luke 9:18.

Notice that Jesus prayed regularly, and it is important for Christians to have a lifestyle of prayer, not just a prayer list.  (Note: I have nothing against prayer lists – I myself use one.  The prayer list should be a tool and a reminder, not the focus.)

The early church was also focused on prayer.  See Acts 1:14, 1 Thessalonians 5:17, Romans 12:12 for some examples.

It is important to develop a lifestyle of prayer before you face times of crisis.  If the only time you pray is when you are in trouble, you will find that prayer is unusual and uncomfortable for you – it will turn into a kind of desperate, I-don’t-know-what-else-to-do action.  If you’ve established a rich prayer life before crisis hits, when it does prayer becomes a refuge and a comfort rather than a ritual.

Next: Preparation – Know the Word

What to Do When You Don’t Know What to Do

This is the beginning of a new series of posts that together form a single lesson.  If you want to read ahead, the main text will be the story of Jehoshaphat in 2 Chronicles 20:1-30.

Introduction

If you are human, and I’m guessing that most of my readers are, you will at some point or other in your life face a situation where you simply have no idea what to do.  You may face a crisis in a relationship, your finances, job situation, family, ________________.  The forms of crisis we face are as varied as the people who face them.

If you are a Believer in Christ, you will face trouble.  Jesus said so.

John 16:33  “I have told you these things, so that in me you may have peace. In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

Sometimes we slip into the mindset that the Christian life is simple and care free.  This leads us to the false conclusion that the fact that we are facing trouble means that we have done something wrong.  There are countless examples in the Bible that demonstrate the fallacy of that logic: John the Baptist, Paul, John the apostle, Jesus.  Each of these, and countless others, faced trouble, hardship and crisis precisely because they were obedient to God.

Christians will have trouble, but we need not face that trouble alone.  With discipline and practice, we can be prepared to face those situations.

Next: Preparation Steps