One of the pleasures of writing this holy handbill is that readers send me lots of stories. All are amusing. Some have been around the block many times and are bent over with age. Some are knee-slapping funny. Many are timely, as is the story I’m passing along to you this week. It is a story about a preacher, a son of a preacher and the boy’s vocational possibilities. Here’s the tale:
A good old, Southern country preacher had a teenage son who was reaching the age when he ought to begin thinking about preparing for his eventual profession. Like many his age, the boy didn’t know what he wanted to do with his life. And he didn’t seem very concerned about it. Of course, the father was quite concerned as any parent would be. One day while the boy was away at school, the father decided to put the boy to the test. He went into the boy’s room and placed four items on his desk: a Bible, a silver dollar, a bottle of liquor and a racy magazine. Your guess is as good as mine about where he got three of those objects.
“I’ll hide out here in the closet until he gets home from school,” thought the sneaky parson, “and watch to see which object he picks up first when he comes into the room. If he picks up the Bible, he’s going to be a preacher like me. What a blessing that would be. If he picks up the dollar, that means he is going to be a businessman. That will be okay, too. But, if he picks up the bottle, that means he will be a no-good drunkard and that would be an awful shame. Worst of all, if he picks up that magazine, he’s going to be a faithless, skirt-chasing bum.”
So, the reverend dad waited anxiously for his son’s arrival. Soon he heard whistling and footsteps in the hallway. The knob of the door turned and in stepped the son. He tossed his books on the bed and spotted the items on his desk. He picked up the Bible and tucked it under his arm. He picked up the silver dollar and dropped it into his pocket. He uncorked the bottle and took a big swig while he admired the centerfold in the magazine.
“Oh Lord, have mercy,” the dismayed preacher whispered as he slumped to the closet floor. “He’s going to become a politician!”
Now, before you think it, I’m going to admit it. If that father had been a politician instead of a minister, he might have exclaimed, “Oh Lord, have mercy. He’s going to become a preacher!”
Preachers’ and politicians’ kids have a hard time. They are always on public display. There are lots of jokes about preachers’ kids, in which it is implied that the most mischievous children in the community are the pastor’s. Of course, pastors and their families are like everyone else — vulnerable to temptation.
Jesus recognized the power of temptation. In his lesson about how to pray, he said his followers should ask God: “Lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”
There are lots of temptations into which good people are vulnerable to falling. To name a few, here are some to be carefully avoided: spiritual pride, prejudice, coveting other people’s stuff, judgmentalism. These kinds of things can turn into evil. Most folk can resist everything but temptation, so be alert! Oh, and be careful about hard liquor, easy money and magazine centerfolds. There may be someone bigger than you peeping out of your closet door!
Texans boast lots about lots. They boast about their sports teams such as the Dallas Cowboys who haven’t won any championships in many years. They also boast about the San Antonio Spurs basketball team that has often won championships. Texans boast about their oil wells. They also boast about their big churches. I once preached at a Texas church that was built around an oil well. The well was in a courtyard beside a sanctuary with a wall of windows. While the preacher droned on with his sermon, the congregation could watch the arm of the pump moving rhythmically up and down, pumping away. Everyone seemed content with the arrangement.
Here I am in New Hampshire, a beautiful state. I’m up here to perform a wedding ceremony for my niece, Bridget, and her groom, Jeremy. I love New Hampshire. It has lots of distinctions. For example, of the states that have some ocean shoreline, New Hampshire has the least — 18 miles. But it also has four small, offshore islands and is rumored to be a site where the pirate Blackbeard buried some treasure. I don’t plan to go treasure hunting while here. The islands are seven miles from shore, and I get seasick if I get more than seven feet from shore.
I love New Orleans and Louisiana for lots of reasons. Give me a meal of Cajun or Creole food and my eyes roll back in their sockets and I can pass out from pure, culinary pleasure. I am not going to even mention any particular dishes because it would make me so hungry I would not be able to stay focused on writing. I would stop and eat. And then by the time I finish my nap, it would be bedtime. Please pass me a beignet and a café au lait. I’ve got to meet a deadline here!
In a few days, Judy and I are heading north to New Hampshire. Southern New Hampshire, of course. No, I’m not trying to escape our brutal heat here. Although it seems like only the day before yesterday they had seven-foot snowdrifts up there, it’s about as hot there now as it is down here in North Carolina. I’m going north to perform the marriage ceremony for my niece, Bridget Griffin-Bales, and Jeremy Mower. This is a very happy thing for an old minister like me — weddings for kids I love to people they love. Families joining families and making wonderful futures together.
June 18, 2015. I awoke this morning and said, “Thank you God.” The sun was shining and the temperature was already approaching 90 degrees. It was a beautiful way to start the day. I punched the brew button on the coffeemaker and clicked on the TV morning news. Then I walked onto the patio, sat down and wept. Through the open door back into the house I could hear the details of the overnight murder of nine people in a church in Charleston, South Carolina.
I was saying last week that I wonder how we ever got the idea that every argument needs to be won? Games are for winning. Arguments between people who respect each other ought to be something else. Why should we not think of an argument as a “thinkfest” in which the reward is that we learn something together?
Who would have guessed it? According to news reports there’s a rising crime rate in recent years among senior citizens! It’s happening all over the world. England, Scotland, the Netherlands, South Korea, Japan. What gives?
In Japan they are called “Silver Shoplifters,” according to Bloomberg News. Shoplifters older than 65 far outnumber those between 14 and 19 years of age. And the number of senior stealers is growing rapidly. Many of the items being stolen are food. So if you jostle a granny or grandpa in a supermarket aisle, don’t be surprised if a rice ball, eel and bottle of sake fall out of a sleeve.
I love this time of year. It's a season in which all kinds of special events liven up our small towns and villages. They attract teeming crowds of big-city folks back to the roots of Americana. I regret that I neglected to remind you of the Pickle Festival, recently held in Mt. Olive, N.C. There are about 5,000 puckered-up people living in Mt. Olive. That's the home of the Mt. Olive Pickle Co., America's second largest pickle producer.
The festival was a big success. Of course, the usual ingredients of a good festival were featured. Music, food, helicopter rides. And competitions. There was a poetry contest. Sophie Gonzalez, a fourth-grader at Carver Elementary School, took a prize for her poem:
Have you ever had someone try to insult you by calling you "fish face?" Maybe you were receiving an inadvertent compliment instead. How could that be, you ask? Well, the buzz in the news is that, according to a Microsoft study, a goldfish has a longer attention span than a human being. And the gap is widening! The ability of average humans to focus their attention before becoming distracted is now eight seconds. For a goldfish it is nine seconds.
I don't want to get into the tall weeds of the science of this report, but I would like to raise this question: Is that not some shocking weirdness? In the Bible, we read the familiar words of the the eighth Psalm. The writer is praising God for the wonders of creation and especially for having made humans so wonderfully well. The psalmist says we are made a little lower than the angels and that we rule over all creatures that God has made. Yep, the word used in the Bible is "rule." He even says we humans are superior to the fish of the sea and all that swims in the sea.
Well now, this raises some interesting questions. If our goldfish can focus their brains better than we, how can we rule over them? Maybe the psalmist did not regard goldfish as fish of the sea? Maybe he thought of them as fish of the bowl. All the goldfish I've seen are in goldfish bowls. Or in a pond. I've seen some big old, orange-colored, carp fish in ponds. And ponds are not oceans. Maybe it is simply a case of semantics. But how can we humans rule over every creation and still be inferior to goldfish? Even in something so simple as the ability to pay attention?
This eight-second attention span is a serious thing. How can a friendship or marriage flourish if we only focus on what others are saying for eight seconds? We can get more than that from a fish? Does your beloved ever complain that you do not listen to what he or she is saying? It is probably true!
Are preachers going to need to begin giving eight-second sermons? The ideal sermon might become: "Repent! Go and sin no more." That takes about four seconds, which leaves four seconds to collect the offering. That seems like just about the right ratio to me. Or the pastor could, instead of giving a 20-minute sermon, offer 150 eight-second sermons. Did I do my arithmetic correctly? The calculations take me more than eight seconds. This is making my hair hurt.
I don't even know why I'm ranting on about this. It takes me eight seconds to read the first three lines of this epistle. You probably got distracted even before I did and have gone on back to using your smart phone long before now. By the way, the explanation of why our attention span is shrinking is partly because of cell phones, social media and the Internet.
Ah well, I am going to work at being less long-winded. It's harder than you might think. I found a website that promised "10 Short Jokes Anyone Can Remember." I was going to close this column with one. They were short. But none of them were funny, and I don't want you to remember any of them. I will, instead, leave you with this eight-second exhortation: Do all you can to close the attention gap between yourself and your goldfish. You don't want your fish treating you with ridicule and scorn. After all, he still needs you to change the water in his bowl!
We love "how to" books and TV shows and gurus who tell us how to do things. Whether it is Dr. Phil, or "(Fill in the Blank) for Dummies," or counsel by Judge Judy, we soak up self-help messages and messengers. The greatest how to of them all is the Bible. Oh, I know some would argue this point, and I know this is just my opinion, but I'm sticking to it. Take the Ten Commandments in the Hebrew Bible. It is quite the document to help people make it through life and get along well with their neighbors. You can find the Commandments in Exodus, Chapter 20. Those rules for life have lent structure for living for a very long time, and people feel very strongly about them.