A New Year’s Focus

December 30, 2009

By: Dennis Bates

Last year at this time I resolved not to resolve, explaining that I don’t believe in or make New Year’s Resolutions. I was surprised by the number of people who told me that they don’t make resolutions either. Okay, so there were two or three of them. That’s a significant percentage of my reader base, and the specific number isn’t the point anyway.

This year I’m going to go one better. I’m resolving not to write a blog about not resolving. Triple negative notwithstanding, I’m more than half serious so that makes it a negative and a half, unless you view my non resolving as technically only a double negative. In that case, half of two is, of course, one, but I digress.

Besides, I’ve already broken what I resolved not to not do by writing this much. So here’s one of my major problems with New Year’s Resolutions, and it’s not that nobody keeps them. That’s almost a given going in. Nobody ever intends to keep them, really. A New Year’s Resolution is, almost by definition, something we say we are going to do, but never actually plan to do.

Even the negative ones are. I resolve not to eat so much. I resolve not to be so crabby in the morning. I resolve to quit smoking. I resolve not to…fill in the blank. My problem with resolutions like this is that they assume two things that simply aren’t true.

First, they all focus on undesirable things and assume that if we just eliminate them, somehow we’ll be a better person. Take over eating, for example because I am acutely aware of this one. I assume if I eat less and eat more nutritiously it will make me a better person. Wrong. It may make me a thinner person, even a healthier person, but it won’t necessarily make me a better person. You can’t create good merely by eliminating the bad. All you create doing that is a world devoid of both bad and good.

And that brings me to my second concern. Resolving is not doing. You can make a fancy list of resolutions and even proclaim all the resolutions from the roof tops, but if you don’t do them, they mean very little and you’ll find yourself standing on the same roof top next New Year’s Eve proclaiming the same things with the same results. None.

If all you want is a tradition to observe before you count down the seconds to the New Year as the ball drops down in Times Square, then have at it. Make your list. Save it for next year like you do your favorite tree ornament and bring it out again to recite again. Just remember that as harmless as that may be, it is equally meaningless.

On the other hand, if you really want to do something new next year, make your resolutions by focusing on positive things, like the list in Philippians Chapter 4, verse 8.

            “…whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is praiseworthy—think about such things.”

And then do something totally radical next year. The next verse tells us how to do that.

             “…put it into practice. And the God of peace with be with you.”

Focus on the good and then do the good, and with God’s grace you will finally become a new and better person.


Six Cents

December 29, 2009

By: Dennis Bates

I don’t know for sure how much it costs to process a check these days, but I’m guessing it’s way more than six cents. Still, I received a totally negotiable check  before Christmas for exactly that amount because I closed out a small investment account.

When I used to get involved in such things, processing a check used to cost $20 to $30. It may be more now. Whatever the costs, they are more substantial than six cents which makes my check almost laughable  until you realize that businesses don’t ever do anything for free. All costs are usually born by the customer one way or another.

In this case the costs of processing a six cent check may at least partially explain why my returns on that account have been about the same amount as the check for the last year. That’s one of the reasons I closed it.

 Not more than a week after I closed the account, I got a letter from the nice people who had been holding my money virtually interest free for the last year or so. I say virtually because there was a modest fee involved for their willingness to hold my money and for two years in a row it exceeded the amount of interest I received for the money in that account. The net result was that my annual balance kept dropping.

The letter I received acknowledged that my account had, in fact, been closed, and the check that accompanied the letter represented the balance left in the account. The $000.06 check. I looked at it several times to make sure.

I called a customer service number that I finally found by reading the fine print on my account statements. It’s not that there weren’t phone numbers on the statement. There were lots of them. One  for opening a new account, another for transferring balances from one fund to another, or adding to an existing fund. There just wasn’t a conspicuous number for how to close an account, but  it was there, and I  found it.

I finally got a real person after being shuffled from one computer message to another and asked for the same information three times so they could provide me better service.. The first question the real person asked for was  my full account number. I had already provided the number twice just to discuss a six-cent check.

Maybe it’s just me, but I’m thinking at least one of those requests, and probably two, weren’t really necessary. For six cents, my service didn’t need to be that much better. What was the point of giving the computer the account information, if the person was going to ask me the same things. Why not just skip to the person from the beginning?

The representative explained to me in his best professional manner that the check was computer generated and had to be issued so that the company could balance its books. I suggested that perhaps there should be some sort of  de minimis rule waiving refunds below a certain point.

The representative responded by saying the whole process was computer generated and therefore out of their control. I asked him if the computer program that generated the check was designed by other computers or was it perhaps something that involved human input.

 That comment missed him entirely. He fired back almost immediately that perhaps I didn’t understand that  there was no human input. Everything was handled by computers. I suggested that some human had programmed the computer to issue checks, so the same human being could reprogram the computer not to issue them.

Again, the response was almost immediate. He insisted that no human beings were involved and that nothing could be done to reprogram the computer because…”they have a mind of their own, you know.”

At that point I decided I would not pursue the matter. For similar reasons,  i decided it was probably not a good day to engage the representative in a thoughtful discussion about God’s grace or the Second Coming. Although if he had told to me that no human beings were involved with either of them, I would have been forced to agree.

Some days are just like that.

P.S. I’m framing the check. It will mean that somebody’s books won’t balance, but how often do you get tangible proof that it takes God to create something that makes sense, even if it’s just a check for six of the them?

Are You a Star?

December 28, 2009

By:  Staci Stallings

Our world today is obsessed with stars–celebrities who make a lot of money, gain a lot of fame, or otherwise dominate the chitter-chatter of masses.  Many of us wish, even if fleetingly, that we could be a star, but most will never attain that “level” of “success.”

I found, however, a different and probably more important way to be a star this weekend.  So if you’re interested or have ever thought it would be nice to be a star, here’s your chance!

Not sure where this thought came from other than “up there,” but I was thinking about how a year or so ago, my sister compared me to the Magi.  I believe I wrote about that at the time–how she said I was a Magi because I was always looking for signs that would point me to God.  I thought that was really cool at the time.  This weekend, I had cause while thinking about that, to look just a little higher into the story.

I happened to be at my hometown church, which is always good for a few hundred incredible insights into life, and at my hometown, they have this HUGE creche inside the church.  The trees are as tall as live trees, decked out in white lights with this star above it.  Of course, Mary and Joseph have the Baby Jesus lying in a manger underneath.  This year I had cause to think about that star.  The one so long ago.  The one that was there, shining in the night, guiding the Wisemen to the place where Jesus was.

You may have heard the saying, “Wisemen still search for Him.”  Wise men still look for stars, just as I was those years ago when my sister dubbed me a Magi.  But what about that star?  Maybe it had a story too.

Now, I know, stars don’t have feelings and thoughts.  They are put in the sky for a time by God, and for their time, they shine, then they burn out and disappear.  (A bit like us, don’t you think?) But consider what if… what if… that little star so long ago DID have feelings and thoughts.  What would they have been, since that little star was SO far away from the action and burned for much longer than most of us celebrate Christmas (at least a year by most accounts)?

It might have gone something like this, “This is pointless.  I mean, when I first got here, it was fun, dancing around and everything.  But now, all I do is shine and shine and shine in the middle of all of this darkness, and what has it gotten me?  Burned fingertips that’s all.  I’m not even making a difference.  Look at all this darkness.  It’s still here.  I look out there, and there are other stars.  Sure most aren’t as bright as me, but they aren’t doing much good either.  I mean, look at ALL of this darkness.  We can never hope to overcome it.  What’s the point?  Maybe I should just tell God I’m a failure and go home.  I mean, how long can He expect me to keep this shining thing up?  I’ve been out here night after night after night, and nothing.  Sure, I heard the choirs of angels singing a couple times at first, but they haven’t done that in months.  Now I’m just out here, all alone, shining for no one to even see.  In fact, I bet those people down there on the earth don’t even know I’m here anymore…”

That’s the way we get, isn’t it?

Discouraged.  Tired.  Thinking whatever we’re doing is so meaningless as to be pointless.

We don’t often see and understand the real difference we are making… or could be making in the lives of others.

We don’t see those three Kings looking at our light and following our light to the Presence of Jesus in the world.  So sometimes we’re tempted to give up, to go home, to tell God it’s too hard.  But maybe we should take a few lessons from that little star about how to be a real star in this world.

First, the star recognized the Presence of Jesus, and the Presence of Jesus lit up the star’s life.  Do we recognize the Presence of Jesus in our lives, or do we slog through the day with our head down and our bodies on auto-pilot, trying to just get to the end of the day or the end of the week?  There is a better way.  FIND the Presence of Jesus all around you and inside of you.  Be a Magi.  Look for it.  The star found it and wanted to tell the world.

Second, let His light shine through you.  That little star had the first burst of excitement, but after that, it needed God’s power to stay lit.  Let God’s power light your life as well.

Next, remember that you never know who your light is leading.  I guarantee you, no matter who you are or where you are, someone is paying attention to your light and your life.  They are watching how you live and taking their cue from that.  It may be someone you don’t even know.  When people walk into your office, do you smile and greet them happily?  Or do you grumble and wish they would go away and let you get some work done?  There are wisemen and women out there, looking for someone to point them the right direction.  Is that person you?

Are you a star?

You can be, but you have to recognize the possibility and then act on it.  And when you get discouraged, always remember, just like that little star, God put you here for a reason.  You may not know what that reason is, but I challenge you to shine as best you can and let God work out the details you can’t even see.  The star did, and because of that, we still sing about that little star today.  To me, that’s worth remembering!


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Have a Cookie

December 23, 2009

By: Dennis Bates

One thing you can count on about Iowa weather is that you can’t count on it.

Our lights have been flickering all morning and right now the cable is totally gone. Wind, freezing rain, snow and drivers who will not slow down, or better yet, stay home on days like this, ensure winter here is always a challenge. You don’t see reports about it on the nightly news all that much because, frankly, it isn’t news here. It’s pretty much the norm.

With the forecast portending a mixture of snow, wind, sleet and icy, cold rain from now until the weekend, it looks like we will be hunkered down for Christmas. Hopefully our younger daughter will be able to get out here to our housing development in the country. She works retail and is scheduled to work through tomorrow afternoon. Getting to work is not difficult for her; she lives right across the street. Driving the 12 miles out to us is problematic. It depends upon how the roads are, and right now everybody is being told to stay in if they live where we do.

I don’t remember that my parents were as concerned about the weather when we were growing up. We seldom stayed in because of it and just got into our car and went wherever we had to go. We just went slower. There were no cell phones back then, so once you headed somewhere, you pretty much had to get there because you couldn’t call somebody for help. Most people got where they were going just fine.

I blame a lot of our weather phobias on the media these days.

Weather forecasters have all these whiz bang, high tech toys that show snowflakes from three different directions in four or five different colors, all in 3D and all supposedly having some mystical significance that only the college trained meteorologists can decipher. I have nothing against higher education having indulged in my fair share of it myself, but when it comes down to accurately forecasting the weather, my grandfather’s rheumatism and lumbago were a lot more accurate. And they took no special training.

My personal opinion is that the money spent on all those fancy radars and storm indicators would be better invested in a study of what made my grandfather’s aches and pains a more accurate harbinger of the weather than anything that has been invented to date. And all it used to cost was the time it took you to grab a cup of coffee, pull up a chair and listen to him tell you about it.

I guess the weather forecasters need to make a living somehow, but maybe they could learn how to bake some cookies to go with the coffee. My personal favorites this time of year are plain, sugar cookies and gingerbread men, in case any of them are reading this. I’ll even make the coffee myself.

Weather doesn’t have to be all that complicated. Neither does Christmas. Grab a cup of  coffee or hot apple cider with a cinnamon stick or two. Read the Christmas story out loud from the second chapter of Luke, and talk about all the great memories of the Christmases you had when life was so much simpler. Next year you will have added one more great moment to your list.

Leave the weather channel off. If you really have to know what the weather may do, ask the oldest person in the group to tell you about their aches and pains. That will be as accurate as anything is, trust me.

And have it all with a cookie…better make it a plate full if you’re coming to my house. I love cookies.

Come to the Manger

December 22, 2009

By: Dennis Bates

My wife often says she is glad she never became anybody famous because she wouldn’t want all the scrutiny famous people get when they mess up. And they will mess up in somebody’s eyes at some time. It’s just the way we’re wired.

The more important we are the more our foibles are magnified, especially by the media. My wife’s theory is that she’s not famous so nobody cares what she does or doesn’t do. There seems to be some truth in that. Politicians, evangelists, late night television personalities and some of the world’s greatest athletes have been featured in highly unfavorable lights this year.

If an ordinary person would have done what many of them did, it might have merited media attention for a few seconds or even minutes, but certainly not for weeks on end.

Would hundreds of free lance photographers be camping out a few days before Christmas watching a yacht in southern Florida, if the yacht owner’s last name was Schwartz or Simmons instead of Woods? In another jobI did divorce work and believe me infidelity was not invented by the rich and famous. Still some of my clients never got so much as a mention on the nightly news, not that they would necessarily want it, but you get my point.

It seems there is an insatiable appetite to bring down the high and mighty and then kick them while we have them down. Hardly a commendable attribute for those doing the kicking, but more and more people seem to feel they have some sort of Constitutional right to kick and an almost spiritual duty to use steel toed shoes while they are asserting that right. Nothing could be further from the truth, of course.

Sin is sin, no matter who the sinner is. To some it may be more newsworthy if the sinner’s last name is Letterman or Woods, or even Clinton, but it is not more wrong. God does not distinguish between the famous and the unknown. He condemns all sin, and, more importantly, He forgives it all if the sinner asks Him to.

We have to look no further than the Babe in the manger at this time of year to understand that. God didn’t sent His only son as a king or to the royals of the day. He didn’t send Him to the rich and famous. The Baby in the manger was sent to the entire world and the fact that He was sent to the average people or even the poor and lowly, doesn’t mean God favored the poor and hated the rich. That misses the whole point.

Jesus, as he grew up, said time and time again that His kingdom was not of this world. In other words, he came so people would understand that nothing that this world has to offer matters, one way or the other. What matters is what is in our hearts. Do we love one another? Do we help each other? Do we forgive each other? What are our motives and intentions? Those are the things that are important.

The flip side is equally true. Our sins are  no less significant than the rich and famous just because we don’t have a media entourage following us. Likewise, the sins of Tiger Woods, David Letterman, or any of the multitude of others are not more significant because they are notable. They’re the same as ours. We all need to rush to the manger and see the Baby who is Christ the Lord and ask for His forgiveness. He was born for all of us.

So the next time you’re tempted to pass on the latest Tiger Woods joke, for example, perhaps you should kneel at the manger instead and pray that Tiger, or Bill, or Jimmy or your neighbor Ben kneels beside you. That is what Christmas is really all about.

No Room?

December 21, 2009

By:  Staci Stallings

Many Christians lament the “taking over of Christmas” by retailers and the world in general.  They rail about the commercialization of Christmas, how harried and over-hyped it’s gotten to be, how secularized.  They love to tell stories about how their local chain store had Christmas stuff up before Halloween.  Maybe they always have.  I suspect they always will.  But I want to take one small moment and point something out to you.

The “world” has ALWAYS sought to co-opt God.  They have always sought to relegate Him to the corner, to push Him aside, and convince everyone that “there’s nothing to see here… oh, look at this shiny thing over THERE!”

I have been thinking of writing this post for about a week now, but last night I got a stark reminder of it once again.  My hometown of Nazareth (yes, you read that right) used to produce an entire pageant depicting the Christmas story.  You know, the original one from the Bible.  The pageant was written many years ago and has, after 15 years in mothballs, made a comeback this year.  Because they use literally the townspeople, who number about 400 total, and about 125 are required for the play, they have some who read the lines, others who act it out, some who sing, and some who do the technical backstage stuff.  This is no small undertaking.  One cool thing is that they don’t stay with only one Gospel.  They mix them all so you get the full story rather than bits and pieces here and there.  We went to see this awesome production last night, and WOW!  I had forgotten how powerful it is.

Seeing your friends and neighbors as the shepherds in the fields, the angels from on high, the three wisemen, Mary, Joseph, and even Baby Jesus.  It’s just… WOW!

However, the scene that struck me most (because I’ve been thinking about this post) was the scene with the innkeeper.  The song they sing is called, “There was no room for Him… no room.”  It tells the story of that moment, when the Savior of the world was to be born, and no one welcomed Him.  The moment He was sent to be born in a stable because there was no room for Him the world.  Few even knew He had arrived.  In fact, the world said, “I’m sorry.  There’s no room for You here.”  So, you see, this whole, “We’re losing the meaning of Christmas” thing is not new.  It’s as old as the very night Jesus came to this earth.

But the end of that song asks a simple question about if there is room for Him in YOUR heart.

That brings me to this post.

Sure, you can rail about no one saying Merry Christmas anymore.  That’s easy.  But what are YOU doing to keep Christ in Christmas?  What traditions do YOU have that remind you and yours what the season is really all about?  Are you about the business of passing on a legacy of the real meaning of Christmas?  If not, why not?

I love my sister and her husband for a lot of reasons.  One of the reasons is because the are both fanatical (in a good way) about establishing GOOD traditions for their kids, and by extension, us.  Interestingly, the traditions change over the years, but as one falls away, it is replaced with something equally wonderful.

They were the instigators who got us to go to “Christmas in the Canyon” years ago.  That was the cowboy Christmas celebration at the beginning of December.  It was celebrated at a local children’s camp.  We would go down, have supper, go on a nighttime hayride to the edge of the Palo Duro Canyon, sing Christmas carols, make sugar cookies, then come back up and go to this OLD church and sing more songs.  The end of the night was capped off with a sing along around a roaring fire.  It was awesome.

Well, a few years after we started going, they quit doing “Christmas in the Canyon” because the main couple that ran it had a wreck.  So the next year, unwilling to let a good tradition die, my sister and her husband invited us all over to their house for chili, decorating sugar cookies, and a sing-a-long.  That’s our new tradition, and it has stuck.

Some of the traditions I’ve started include singing the old carols with my Sunday School class and explaining the symbols of Christmas to them.  In my family, we always have our Christmas meal.  It’s the only night of the year when we eat on a tablecloth covered table, by candlelight, in the living room.  The kids look forward to it.  After that meal, we open our family’s presents.  The kids always get pajamas so the have something new and fluffy to wake up in the next morning.

We have certain songs we break out every year at this time… some that are traditional, some that are funky, but all are unique to our family.  We have a tradition of going to sit on Santa’s lap and getting a picture taken.  We have a tradition of nice dresses for the girls (the only time of the year they get to go to a “real” store–JC Penney’s for clothes).  We have a tradition of sending out a Christmas letter as my husband and I both have family in far-flung places.

We have a tradition of it being extra-special to put the angel on the top of the tree (this year it was a three person job up high and a two person job to take the picture down low).  We always decorate our tree on December 12.  Why?  Because the year my husband and I got married, I had a student teaching assignment two hours away.  The 12th was the first day I got to be HOME for real.  We have decorated the tree that day ever since.  We have a tradition of celebrating Christmas with both of our families as well as extended “friend” families.

Last night we got to add going to see the Christmas pageant to our list of traditions.

Each tradition, for us, is another little reminder not just that it’s Christmas but why we celebrate Christmas and passing down to our children how important Christmas is, so they will pass it on long after we’re gone.

So, it seems to me that although the world will always try to push Christ out of Christmas, the real question is:  What are you doing in your family and beyond to welcome Christ into YOUR heart?  Or will Jesus find a “No room” sign on your heart too?

To me, that’s a choice only you can make.  And if you don’t have a tradition, start one.  Sit in your living room and read the Christmas story out loud.  Sing a few songs.  Go to church.  Have a special quiet meal.  Whatever it is, find a special way to celebrate.  You will be glad you did!

Half Full

December 16, 2009

By:Dennis Bates

I have been having technical problems both with my computer and the high speed Internet connection all day, so I will try to squeeze just a full words in before everything disappears again.

Normally, I’m a half full kind of guy. You can thank or blame my mother for that. As the coun try song said a few years back, you could call her Cleopatra because she was the Queen of Denial. I guess that makes me the crown prince. I don’t see the half empty part of the glass, and even if I do, I deny it.

The temperature dipped to one degree below zero last night and that didn’t include the wind chill factor. This morning my computer crashed, Word locked up and the high-speed Internet went down. It’s all good. I needed to spend some quality time with my wife anyway. This is God’s way of telling me that. So I plan to do that for the rest of the day. After all, I need to save my strength for Christmas shopping next week. I always set aside the 24th for that.

See you soon.