Don’t Look

September 30, 2009

By: Dennis Bates

Annual pay raises for federal employees, when I still got such things,  used to show up on the first pay check for the first full pay period of the new fiscal year. That wasn’t the first of the year, as in January. The federal government employees new year started sometime after September 1, and that’s about as specific as I can get.

Never an employer to do anything that would be normal by most employer standards, those who decide such things have determined that federal employees get  paid through an elaborate, almost logarithmic formula.

The amount for a two-week paycheck is calculated roughly as follows: annual salaries for the different pay grades are set; they are divided by 2087, which is the number of hours in a federal government year. Never mind the fact that every other business has determined that there are 2080 hours in a work year. (52 weeks times 40 hours a week.) The hourly number is then multiplied by 80, which is the number of hours in a two-week pay period, and that’s the employee’s gross pay.

Logic would tell a person of normal intelligence that the government is having its own way twice with this system. The hourly rate is effectively lowered by dividing annual pay by 2087, but the employee is paid by multiplying that number by 80. (Guess what: 80 times 26 pay periods in a year is 2080.)

The government is not content to stop at this point. Tax rates change, life insurance payments change and health insurance changes, none at the same time of the year. Therefore, the federal employee’s pay check is constantly adjusted and readjusted to reflect those changes until everything settles out sometime in February.

Just think of how much money could be saved if the government programmed its computers to make all the changes just once. Of course, that would mean that the programmers would have to be changed too, and the fiscal minds that actually run our government might find that to be too mundane. After all the government thrives on continual chaos, so where would the sport in that be? Look how well our current system has worked. Oh, wait a minute…we are having  this temporary down turn, deficit thing, aren’t we.

The creative lunacy of the pay system has different effects on different employees, all of whom are taxpayers themselves, I might add. I used to work with one woman who refused to look at the information that told her how much her “raise” was. (They weren’t always raises, just in case you wondered.)  Her reasoning was that that government always cheated us and no matter how much the pay adjustment ended up being, it was always $50 a week less than she needed.

As the diatribe above reflects, there’s some small truth in her position, even if it’s very small.

The whole process always made me think about the passage from Matthew 6:19. Jesus told the multitude on the hillside not to bother itself with storing treasures on earth because moth and rust ultimately consumed those treasures.

Instead, Jesus told the crowd to store its treasures in heaven where neither moth nor rust could touch them. Perhaps Federal fiscal policies, including those that set federal employee pay should be added to moth and rust as destructive agents, or, maybe my coworker had the right idea after all. Don’t be so concerned about money and other treasures you can store up on earth. You can’t store enough here anyway.


Greath Truths

September 29, 2009

By: Dennis Bates

If you’re like me, one of the more interesting facets of the Internet is the endless string of emails you receive from friends and relatives who mean well, but really ought to think seriously about getting a life. You know:  the jokes, the websites to videos that are the “funniest thing I have ever seen,” and the always popular chain letters that promise wealth and happiness within 10 minutes of sending the letter on to your ten best friends.

Think about that one for a minute. Do you think they will still be your best friends if you keep filling their inboxes with chain letters? And, if those chain letters really do bring health and wealth, why do the same people keep sending them? If they really worked, wouldn’t those people be on some private island somewhere enjoying their health and spending their wealth?

Let me be crystal clear about this; with the exception of an occasional joke or two, I NEVER pass those things on. Read that as not at all, even if I find some inspirational value in them. I have too few friends as it is. I don’t need to irritate those I have left. It’s an arbitrary rule I have made up that acts as my own personalized spam filter, and it applies to both outgoing and incoming emails. Trust me. It’s better this way for both of us.

Still…and you had to know something like this was coming…occasionally I get something that is just too good to keep entirely to myself, especially when I can add my own cute little comments to it. Forgive me if you have already received this list, but I have pared it down some and added my own observations.

The list is called “Great Truths” and it is broken down into age groups.

Great Truths Little Children Have Learned.

When your Mom is mad at your Dad, don’t let her brush your hair.  My daughters taught me that one early when I asked them why they screamed so much when their mother fixed their hair as they were growing up.

Never ask your three-year-old brother to hold a tomato for you. Those of you who don’t get that one never had a younger brother or had to clean the tomato off the walls after you unwisely asked him to hold it for you.

You can’t hide a piece of broccoli in a glass of milk. I know about this one personally. I tried it. My mother found the broccoli I was supposed to eat immediately. I still had to eat it, and, trust me, the left over green milk isn’t all that good to drink.

Great Truths Adults Have Learned.

Wrinkles don’t hurt. I should add, if you don’t look in the mirror.

Middle age is when you choose your cereal for the fiber in it, not for the free toy in it. I miss those toys. They were much more fun to play with than fiber is.

Great Truths Older People Have Learned

Growing old is mandatory; growing up is optional. Kind of self explanatory. I’m still considering my options.

When you fall down, you wonder what else you can do while you’re down there. After all, if you’re like me, it’s going to be a while before you find a way to get back up. There’s no sense in wasting all that time. Oh yeah, those communication things you can wear are for wimps!

Wisdom comes with age, but sometimes age comes alone. Have you ever noticed that at one instant you can have these profound insights that seem so wise and then the next minute…wait, what was I talking about again?

Have a great week full of great truths, no matter what stage you’re in!


Let God Be God

September 28, 2009

By:  Staci Stallings

The reading from the Old Testament this weekend featured Moses and his 72 elect who received the Holy Spirit.  The only problem was two of those elect leaders were back at camp.  When the others who were with Moses found out these two had also received the Holy Spirit, as you can probably imagine, there was trouble.  “They weren’t where they were supposed to be.  They weren’t with us.  They weren’t here.  How could God do that if they weren’t here?  Doesn’t He know they weren’t here?  Doesn’t He care that they weren’t following Moses to be where they were supposed to be?”

Funny how we, like the Israelites, are so quick to judge.  We are so quick to see why someone got something we think they shouldn’t have, and we rail against God for giving them something we don’t think they deserve.

However, over and over again in the Bible, man’s ways are pushed aside for God’s ways.  Like in the vineyard when the Master pays everyone the same amount although some worked a full day and others only part of a day.  We are told in essence, “It’s God’s money, He can do with it as He chooses.”  Or better yet, “It’s God’s Grace, He can do with it as He chooses.”

The rest of the homily was good, but the line this weekend that smacked me upside the head was simply this:  “Let God be God.”  If He chooses to pour His Spirit out on someone you don’t think is worthy, let God be God.  He doesn’t have to bow to your standards.  He doesn’t have to give a test or make anyone earn anything.  It’s HIS Spirit.  He can give it as He sees fit.  The incredibly simple fact is:  you don’t KNOW why someone else wasn’t there.  Maybe the two leaders were tending to a sick or dying man and couldn’t make the meeting.  Maybe they were detained by a God-Appointment of some other kind.  God’s saying, “You don’t know everything so quit acting like you do.”

But oh, do we fight against this!  “It’s not fair.”  “I didn’t even get a thank you, and look what they got.”  “Did you hear that such-and-such got that promotion.  They didn’t deserve that…”

As true as that sad fact of our arguing is, we fight even harder when it’s about spiritual matters.  “Look at how she’s dressed.  She doesn’t need to be coming to church like that.”  “How much did they give?  I bet it wasn’t as much as us.”  “Why did she get chosen to lead that committee?  She’s only been in the church for six months.”  “They want to baptize that baby?  Well, they only come to church once in a blue moon.”

Oh, we can be so petty metting out God’s Grace on others.  Petty.  Petty. Petty.  A dribble here.  A drop there… as if it’s even ours to give.

The truth is we are the ones who think they should have to earn it.  God never said that.  God gives His Grace and His Spirit freely… as HE chooses.  And it’s a good thing He does because honestly, sometimes I’m the one back at camp.  I know I should have gone to the meeting on the mountain, but for some reason, I didn’t (and maybe the reason I didn’t had everything to do with me being exactly where I really WAS supposed to be in God’s Plan!).  The truth is, we’ve all been the ones back at camp at one time or another.  This is not about being those 70.  It’s about being one of those two!

It’s not bad news that God is free to give His Spirit to anyone He chooses.  It’s good news because it means He can give it to us!

Let God be God.  Let Him bless who He wishes to bless, and you bless them too.  (This gets MUCH easier when you finally realize how very generous our God is–and when you finally realize just how generous He’s been with you!)  Be HAPPY that God is a generous God even with those who don’t deserve it.  That’s GREAT news when you think about it!

We are all sinners and have all fallen short of the glory of God.  That means none of us deserves it.

Thank God He doesn’t hold that against us!  So why are we so intent on holding it against others?

Let God be God!


Of Violins and Suffering

September 24, 2009

By:  Staci Stallings

Sunday turned out kind of strange.  The Holy Spirit had me go to Mass twice.  Now this is very unusual, but that’s how it happened.  By the end of the homily I knew why.

The beginning of the homily was great… note to self, start taking notes!  But then end knocked it out of the park.

Midway through the priest left the podium and came down in the midst of the parishoners.  He told about an old violin maker.  The violin maker was known for the beauty of the music his instruments produced.  So violin making students came to him to learn.  At the beginning of the process, the violin maker would take a paint brush into the forest and mark trees.  “Yes, this one.  No that one.  Yes.  Yes. Yes.  No.”  Then he would instruct the woodcutters to bring him the trees he had marked.

One step at a time the students learned to hone the instruments and glue them so that their music was exquisite.

Then a new student came to the school.  This student was stubborn.  He believed he knew more than the old violin maker, and no one could tell him differently.  Worse, he complained about every lesson–that they were too hard, that making violins that way just took too much time.  Everyone was annoyed with this student, and they wanted him thrown out of the program.  The old violin maker decided to give it one more try.  He took the student with him to the forest and began marking trees.  “Yes, this one.  No that one.  This one, this one, this one, not those three.”  When he had marked several trees, the violin maker turned to the student and handed him the paint bucket.  “You.  Mark the trees.”

The student was confused.  “But I do not understand.  I don’t know why you mark some trees but not others.”

“Were you not watching?”

“Yes,” the young man said.  “I was watching, but I do not know why you mark some trees and not others.”

“Look.”  The old violin maker pointed to the top of the trees.  “The trees I have marked are those that are facing north.  They lean north.  They do not shirk from suffering and difficulty.  They meet the rain and the hail and the wind head-on.  A tree that has faced adversity grows strong.  It’s wood is the finest anywhere, and ultimately, it will make the very best music anywhere as well.”

Do you face suffering or do you bend the other direction away from it?  How’s the music of your life?

I think I know why the Holy Spirit sent me to church twice… I needed both sermons!


The Rat Race

September 23, 2009

By: Dennis Bates

The trouble with the rat race is that even if you win, you are still a rat.

Several people have been given credit for that statement; among them is comedian Lily Tomlin and an Ivy League professor in the Fifties. I suggest something very similar to that was suggested in Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians, but I’ll get to that a few paragraphs down.

The term rat race refers to the daily grind most of us go through getting up every morning, going to work at the same job, doing a lot of the same things, and coming home at the same time to the same house and the same set of duties there. Who hasn’t wondered at least once what the point of all that is? I have. Call it the rat race, call it a rut, call it burn out: it doesn’t matter.

Thinking of life in those terms has the same soul killing effect. Laboratory rats in a maze. Nothing more. Scientists may be able to train the rats to find their way through the labyrinth faster and faster, but in the end the rat ends up in the same place every time and the reward is the same morsel of self gratification in the form of a food pellet.

At the end of the day, even the fastest rat is still a rat. It has no hope, no variety, no joy, no future. Its training is like the training for some runners Paul describes In 1 Corinthians 9: 24-27. It is designed to teach the rat how to get the prize, but it is an aimless beating of the air because the prize it seeks is a crown that will not last.

Paul has nothing against training or running. In fact, he says we should train strictly and run in a way to get the prize. He just suggests that many of us might have the wrong goal and be running for the wrong prize. Paul’s prize is a crown that will last forever. Eternal Life.

But I think Paul is talking about more than the ultimate goal in this analogy. I think he is also talking about the process of getting to that goal. He says he trains not only to set an example for others, but also so he himself can win the race and win the eternal crown.

That process should change us. It should make us see that God looks at our motives and intentions, not just the results of our activities. What does it profit a man to gain the world and lose his own soul? The process should make us concentrate on improving our motives so that our results mean something.

Jesus spoke time and time again about the need to change our hearts first. He said hatred in our hearts for our brothers is no better than murder. Lust is the same thing as adultery. The person with the most wealth in the world still dies at some point, and if he or she dies without Christ, the worldly wealthy person dies penniless. Their wealth does them no good.

No matter how well we do something, or how fast we get at finding our way through the maze we call the rat race, if we only run that race to get the food pellet at the end, we miss the point. We may be the best, but we are still a rat; the best rat maybe, but a rat. Nothing more.

Life is so much more than learning how to become the fastest rat in the cage. Don’t settle for that. Don’t make it your goal. It doesn’t last.


Swish

September 22, 2009

By: Dennis Bates

I gave up playing basketball on an organized team fairly young. For one thing, I grew rapidly to five feet eight inches and then stopped. For good I might add. That’s still my height today, and even in the Sixties that just wasn’t tall enough to play basketball competitively.

I also shot in streaks, sometimes hitting six or more shots in a row, only to miss the next twenty in a row. Not a good thing for the most part.

But one incident convinced me to try a different sport more than any other, and I can still remember it almost fifty years later. It’s strange the things that stick with you sometimes.

I took a tip off in a junior high school game and raced the length of the floor before laying the ball in perfectly to score. Swish, nothing but net.

 The crowd went wild and I was so proud…until I realized that  in all my excitement, I had streaked to the wrong end of the floor and made two points for the opposing team. Talk about looking for the trap door so I could disappear. Of course, there was none, and even though my teammates tried to console me, I never got over that wrong way basket.

The fact that I made a perfect layup didn’t matter since it was for the wrong team. What mattered more was the fact that I went the wrong direction. And even though I looked good making the basket, I still felt the embarrassment of that moment.

To some degree, that’s what happens to all of us when we lose focus. It should have occurred to me that something was wrong when  no defender jumped in front of me to block my path. I should have stopped to gather my wits when the floor opened up so clearly. But all I could think about was scoring and looking good personally. I was just a kid. Looking good then was important.

What’s the excuse we use now that we’re not kids anymore? Why is looking good so important even if it means going the wrong direction to look that way?

How much time do you have? The list is no doubt endless, but to some degree it comes back to the same thing. We lose focus and are easily misdirected. We forget that to be first we must be last, or we just don’t care about that principle anymore.

It’s a shame really because there is no sound any more satisfying to a basketball player than the sound of the ball cleanly ripping through the bottom of the net. However, as sweet as that swishing sound is, the results are still less than satisfying if it’s the wrong net.

Life is the same way. You have to keep your eye on the prize so you don’t get misdirected.


House, Home or Pigsty

September 21, 2009

By:  Staci Stallings

A year or so ago my friend was having issues with her mother.  By “issues,” I mean that her mother would repeatedly call to “dump” on my friend.  The dump was either about family or friends who had done her wrong or it was about the current state of something bad in the world.  My friend called saying she was about at the end of her rope.  No matter what she said or did, her mother just wouldn’t get the message.  Worse, my friend is one who takes bad things to heart, and so this constant barrage of bad was doing very bad things to my friend’s mood and outlook.

Yesterday at Mass our young priest talked about how you build a house.  You use brick and wood and glass.  You fashion and attach.  Finally the house is standing.  But there is a big difference between a house and a home.  A home starts with a house, but if you stay at just the brick and wood and glass, you will never have a home.  A home is built when the people living in the house care about one another and work together toward common goals.  They treat each other with respect and kindness.

Similarly, we each have a “house” that is our bodies.  It is a physical shell inside of which is a twining of our experiences.  Inside our body-house, we can build a home, or we can simply have a pigsty.

With my friend, I likened what her mother was doing to coming into her home and dumping vats of garbage on the living room floor.  Each time they talked, more garbage was dumped–leaving my friend to try to clean up the emotional mess her mother had made.  Once I explained it this way, my friend could clearly see how and why her mother’s dumping left her feeling so rotten.

In the same way, we all choose for the most part what comes into our body-house.  Do we consciously invite in good stuff that cleans and nourishes us?  Or do we regularly allow junk in?  Do we invite people to dump all over our spiritual living room?  Do we clog our emotional bedrooms with whatever happens to come in–or worse actively choose garbage?

I contend that you have a house.  You get to choose if that house is a home or a pigsty.  One way to determine if your current house is a home or a pigsty is to ask yourself, “Is this somewhere that I want to spend time?  Do I like myself?  Do others like me and want to be around me?  Am I a safe place to fall?  Or am is my life filled with garbage only waiting for the next dump to take place?”

Consider this as you choose the things that come into your life, and even if you’ve had a pigsty in the past, you can now work to fork out some of that garbage, clean the place up, and start making a home.


Computer Problems?

September 16, 2009

By: Dennis Bates

My brother is a Presbyterian pastor of a little country church in north central Iowa. And when I say country, I mean it is literally out in the country. His closest neighbor is a pig farmer, and several of the days I have been at his house, that neighbor is a little too close as far as I’m concerned. He says he and his wife are used to it. I say their nasal bodies must be dead.

Nevertheless, through the wonder of the Internet, he sends me his weekly devotional. I missed a couple of his messages recently, and I always look forward to them, so I had to wonder what was going on. This past week I found out. Computer trouble. Been there, done that and have all the sizes of the T shirt. Those of you who know about computer problems can probably relate to my brother’s tale of woe, so I am going to reprint it here. I particularly like the way he tied it to a hymn at the end.

  As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago I’m working at a new computer.  Writing that devotion was the first time I had sent out an email.  After I had finished writing, I did a spell check on it and an error message came up, something like, “The language you are using is not supported by spell check.”  What?!  I was typing in English not Bulgarian!  The document I was writing was in English, the command buttons were in English, and the error message was in English.  But spell check thought I was typing in another language?  I checked the on-line message boards and got a suggestion.  When that didn’t work I found another idea: go to the tools button, select options, find language and make sure English is checked.  I did and, of course, English was selected, but I “selected” it again and, presto!  Spell check recognized English was English.  It realized I wasn’t trying to use another language.   

    According to one hymn, no matter what language we use none is adequate to describe what Jesus Christ has done for us. 

    What language shall I borrow to thank thee, dearest friend,

    for this thy dying sorrow, thy pity without end? 

    O make me thine forever; and should I fainting be,

    Lord, let me never, never outlive my love to thee. 

                                    ["O Sacred Head, Now Wounded" v. 3] 

All I can add to that is Amen!

 

                           


Heal Thy Self

September 15, 2009

By: Dennis Bates

The phrase “Physician, heal thyself,” is so widely used that sometimes we forget that it is recorded in Luke 4:23 as a proverb quoted by Jesus. Loosely interpreted, it means get your own house in order before you tell others how to live.

It applies to writers too.

When I started writing novels three years ago I was fulfilling a lifelong dream. My undergraduate degree was in journalism. I wrote for more than four years on a midsized newspaper and for a news service before I got sucked into the black hole of “having a career.” I always loved writing and have finally gone back to it.

Fortunately, now I don’t have to sustain myself from my earnings. To put it succinctly, they range from meager to nonexistent. Writing professionally is a tough gig, and like any other profession, there are tradeoffs. If you want to make money, you have to be willing to write what agents and editors can sell.

Some writers can do that better than others. I’m one of the others. I have always said that I want to write what I feel I am led to write, the way I am led to write it. That’s one of the reasons I self publish. Most non writers  don’t realize that writing the great American novel is less than half the job. You have to market yourself and your stories, first to agents, then to publishers, then to editors and finally to the public.

And you have to be willing to wait your turn and be patient. I’ve never been good at that. Even if you sell your book to a publisher, it may be a year or more until it is actually published. Then if the bookstores don’t get the buzz going, all your work goes for naught. Frankly it is not a job that lends itself well to those of us who took it up at a more mature age. Read that an old age.

But none of that should matter if we are doing this for God and His purposes, right? Of course that’s right, but that doesn’t make it easy to accept all the time. Nor does it make it easy to put it into practice. Down deep, whether we admit it or not, doing what God wants us to do would be even better if it were wildly acclaimed by the masses. I want the Psalm Sunday masses cheering for me; I just don’t want the next weekend when those same people screamed “Crucify him!”

It doesn’t work like that.

My second book, “Sharon’s Story,” hasn’t taken off like I wanted it too. Of course, I haven’t marketed it as I should have, but that’s another essay. Yet, I have always believed in that story and always felt God had a purpose for it. I just wanted His purpose to land it on a best seller list somewhere.

I guess that wasn’t what He had in mind, at least not yet. Still, last week my former pastor called me and asked me if he could buy ten books from me for a church group to use. I was thrilled because the purchase inluded an invitation to me to meet with the group and discuss my book. That is exactly the kind of thing I enjoy doing the most.

As an aside, my wife likes that kind of thing too because it means she doesn’t have to listen to me drone on for hours about my stories or writing in general. She likes to talk about my stories but not as endlessly as I do.

Yesterday my former pastor called and said he needed more books. He said the first ten were gone in an instant and he could use ten more. He is coming to get them in a few minutes. To be sure,  twenty books in less than a week won’t get me on the best seller list, but it convinces me that God does have a plan. His plan. After all, that’s what I signed up for.

I need to believe that, not just talk about it. What is God’s plan for you? Do you believe in it, because He does.


Baby Boomers

September 9, 2009

By: Dennis Bates

Much has been made of the fact that this is the 40thanniversary of the Woodstock music festival in upstate New York. A movie has come out suggesting the event  was the turning point in the generation of the Sixties and maybe it was, but perhaps the aging eyes of the generation and the fading memories have been overly kind. Only time will really tell.

I am one of the Baby Boomers. I remember Woodstock and even saw the documentary made of the actual concert. Woodstock was only one of the events that shaped my generation, and my next novel, which is tentatively entitled “Except for the Eagles,” takes a look at what happened to my generation. Hopefully it will be released this fall.

The following is a small excerpt from that book, which like all my books is copyrighted. I hope it peaks your curiosity. The characters speaking at this point are Jack and Sara, and they are taking one last look at San Francisco before they move back to Iowa where they were born.           

            “We were the Chosen Generation…the generation of peace and love that was supposed to change the world and make it a better place. What happened to us, Sara? What happened to all of us, not just you and me?”

            I put my arms around her waist as she stood silently in front of me, and I waited for her response. For a moment there was none, but I knew there would be, so I tightened my embrace and waited for it. Finally, with a deep sigh, Sara turned slightly and looked at me.

            “Maybe we quit believing that there was a God, who was in control; maybe we just didn’t listen to Him and did our own thing. Maybe we just heard the things we wanted to hear and ignored the rest, or maybe we just failed, even though we tried. On the other hand, maybe we were just full of crap from the very beginning.”

            Sara’s always had a way of mixing the sacred and the profane like that so that each part worked with the other bringing an interesting balance. Baby Boomers all did that at first, but somewhere we lost it…all of it…the balance, the unique attitude that made it all work, and finally the will to care if we ever found it again. And several other generations caught up with us and dubbed themselves as the Chosen Generations.

            “So where does that leave us?” I asked.

            “I think a better question at this point is where does it take us?” Sara responded. “If we stay where we are, we might as well be dead. Sooner or later some politically correct person with a smiley face will fill us full of medication, restrain us in a chair at a facility that smells like old people who need to have their diapers changed, and whisper sweetly into our ear that they are only doing that for our own good…oh, by the way, would you sign these papers giving everything you have left to us? Thank you very much.

            “It’s more than a little bit ironic that the generation that advocated recreational drug use now has to worry about getting too many pills from too many people for too many reasons, most of which are fabricated illnesses made up by the drug companies so they can make bigger profits.

            “Somehow, I don’t think Timothy Leary had that in mind when he proposed that we ‘tune in, turn on and drop out,’ and that’s one reason I can’t stay here anymore. It’s never been what I had in mind either. I have too much life left in me.”

            “That’s a little cynical, don’t you think, Sara?”

            “Maybe,” Sara said shrugging, “but cynicism is one of the few things our generation has left that it can count on. If things turn out better than we expected, we can say we’re glad that they weren’t as bad as they could have been. On the other hand, if they turn out worse, we can say, ‘see, I told you so.’ We can’t lose with cynicism.”

             “We can’t win either,” I said.

              “Perhaps we were never supposed to win,” Sara said. “Maybe that the was the biggest illusion of them all…that we could make a difference and win on our own…definitely that was a total lie.”


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