Thursday, December 03, 2009

Can Tiger Be a Better Person?

Tiger Woods
Dad loved Tiger Woods. I'm not sure why, exactly. It wasn't like Dad was that into sports heroes. Sure, he enjoyed golf, but there are a lot of golf superstars around. Tiger, of course, is one of the brightest, a supernova in the heavens of the golfing universe. Even years after Dad's Alzheimer's had begun its slow march toward oblivion, he frequently looked for Tiger on the TV and brightened when he saw him or heard news of him. "That Tiger!" he would exclaim. His admiration was palpable.

So, in a way I'm grateful Dad didn't live to see the fall of that bright star into dark clouds of infidelity and betrayal. He probably wouldn't have believed it. It would have become another confusing battle front in the war between imagination and reality which waged itself constantly amongst the swiss cheese corridors of his deteriorating brain lobes.

My purpose here is not to condemn Tiger. As usual, but for the grace of God, there go I. Each of us struggles with a nature full of human frailties and failings which put us in a state of constant sinfulness, either by commission or omission.

Knowing this, it is sad indeed to read on Tiger's Web site his brief statement vaguely admitting his failures and concluding: "I will try to be a better person."

When an alcoholic says, "I will try not to be an alcoholic," we all shake our heads sadly. We all know that simply trying, an expressed effort of the will, is not enough. An alcoholic is an alcoholic. He or she needs more than to simply try, in order to achieve victory over the alcoholism that has wedged itself into their very nature. He needs intervention. She needs the help of others ... some who are alcoholics and themselves in the process of healing, and some who most definitely are not alcoholics. Fundamental changes must occur, painful changes, which go far beyond simply striving.

Whatever sins we struggle with, what we don't often acknowledge is that those sins are in our nature. In a scientific sense, it's almost as if we are born with those things coded into our DNA. Sometimes that is literally true. In the case of many families, including my own, there is a genetic disposition toward alcoholism, for instance. Other times, various circumstances beyond our control -- the way we were raised, an erroneous system of belief we have adopted, events that have impacted our lives, physical infirmities, etc. -- create within us the weakness or tendency toward a certain category of sin.

Does that mean we are freed from personal responsibility for what we do? Absolutely not. God holds us responsible, those who love us hold us responsible, society should hold us responsible. The law is the law. Even the person judged "innocent by reason of insanity" (the ultimate excuse, I guess) still must experience at least some of the consequences of his choices and his actions (speaking of loss of freedom, at the very least), even though we do not consider him "guilty" per se.

It is precisely because we are so weak and frail and born with this tendency toward sin that God, while he loves us dearly, hates what this sinful nature does to us and others around us, and demands that we be different. "Be ye holy, even as I am holy," He says. Without this holiness, we can't be his friends, exist in his presence. Yet none of us, obviously, are holy. Or can be, simply by trying our best. The solution that is required is more radical and all-encompassing. We need intervention!

Earlier I said that alcoholics, in order to heal, need the help of both other alcoholics who are healing, and of some who are definitely not alcoholics. Likewise we sinners first of all need help from He who has no sin. Scripture tells us that Jesus, who knew no sin, became sin (experienced the consequences and penalty of sin) on our behalf in order that we could be made acceptable to God. The ultimate Helper Himself is holy.

Does anyone really understand how this works? No. All we know is that it does. Ultimately, Christ's forgiveness is the only thing that truly does work. The Bible says, "There is no other name under Heaven by which we may be saved."

Likewise, we need the help of other sinners. In my life, this help comes from gathering together with a body of believers who are all acknowledging their failures and seeking together to allow God to change us into his likeness. It is a painful and difficult process -- but the reality is that it's slowly working. I don't believe anyone can be an effective Christian, can hope to make gains in this battle against our inherent sinfulness, without being a vital part of a local church. Scripture says, "Don't forsake the assembling of yourselves together." And I believe that there is a reason for everything Scripture says.

Is there hope for Tiger Woods? Yes. But he doesn't stand a chance until he is willing to give up simply "trying to be a better person" and turns instead to the One who gave His life to make us all better people.

Wednesday, October 14, 2009

Twitter, Please Don't Suck

Okay, if you are anywhere near me (in the sense of being in my gravitational field) you understand that I love Twitter and think it has huge potential. I operate four different Twitter streams (@LarryShort, @lshort, @WorldVisionUSA and one I'm not allowed to publicly identify). When it comes to making publishing available to the masses, and getting the word out (assuming you have a word that needs to be gotten out, in 140 characters or less), Twitter is the cat's meow. Or at least the starling's song. So to speak.

But now that I have used Twitter for the past three years or so, there are a couple of things that really annoy me. And they mostly involve people -- not technology.

So, I thought I'd dedicate a blog post to getting these things (or people) off my chest.

Here are three things that really annoy me about my experience with Twitter thus far:

1) Mechanisms that exist purely for inflating your follower count. Or, perhaps I should say, the people who use those mechanisms. At its core, in my mind, Twitter as a social networking phenomenon should be about content and affinity. If you have great content, you want to publish that content for the sake of people who are interested in the things you are interested in.

I am interested in specific things. Social networking and related technologies, for instance. Writing. Acoustic music, in particular worship music. (I enjoy playing acoustic guitar and mandolin.) Various forms of cycling -- cyclocross, road biking, and mountain biking, pretty much in that order. Young adults (college/career) ministries, and social/cultural phenomena that affect young adults. Church and ministry leadership. Poverty and humanitarian work.

And most of all, I am interested in Jesus. I feel a strong affinity to other people who have committed their lives to Christ and worship Him, regardless of denominational affiliation or the flavor of the month.

So, these are the kinds of people I enjoy mixing it up with, on Twitter and on other platforms (such as Facebook). Twitter gives me one more great way to create new relationships with people who are interested in these things, for me to publish for their benefit my thoughts, commentaries, questions, observations; and for me to learn from others who are doing the same.

2) Now, let me tell you what (or who) I am NOT interested in:
  • Women "looking to establish a serious relationship" and posting provocative photos of themselves online. I have a woman I am perfectly happy with and I am offended by anyone (other than her) showing me their dainties. Knock it off. Go get a real life. I'm not interested. If you contact me, be prepared for the fact that I am going to tell you how much God loves you and wants to change your life ... then I am going to block you from contacting me again. So if you don't want to be witnessed to, please don't bother.
  • Self-proclaimed social networking/marketing guru types. Nothing against used car salesmen, they have to make a living too, but if I feel the need to buy something I'll come looking for it, and when I do I'll give you an opportunity to earn your commission. In the meantime I think most marketing types are bloodsucking leeches. No offense intended.
  • People who think I am stupid enough to believe that I would be interested in paying them money to learn a new way to "make $30,000 a month" without selling my soul in the process. I've got news for you. You are a bloodsucking leech.
  • Personal injury lawyers, or people trying to tell me that if I have driven myself into a world of hurt by buying too many things I can't pay for, don't worry, I'm really okay and it's not my fault and they can help me make it all better if only I will let them "consolidate my debt." Go away and get a life. Some of you may think you are helping people. But most of you probably know the truth deep down that you are in reality bloodsucking leeches.
  • Thank God union organizers haven't been following me on Twitter or else I'd be talking about them too.
This is not a comprehensive list ... but my point is, there are a lot of people I am simply NOT interested in having a relationship with on Twitter. But unfortunately these are the kind of people who seem to follow me most frequently. They either want to suck my blood or else just inflate their own follower numbers so they can look good in front of some poor unsuspecting sap.

I think the world would be a better place if (rather than using an automated tool to blast potential followers) Twitter users would do two things: 1) Broadcast great content so that kindred spirits found them and followed them because of that content and what it says about who they are. This is what I try to do. Then 2) When one of those persons follows me, I check them out to see if they are a kindred spirit. If so, I follow them back. Unfortunately a lot of the bloodsuckers waste a lot of my time. I try not to follow them back.

Otherwise, of course, a great way to use Twitter is as a research tool to find other people you have things in common with, then follow them (and hope they follow you back). But it shouldn't be all about getting followed back. It really annoys me when someone follows me, then I follow them back because they look interesting; then they unfollow me (apparently so they can try to lure some other poor sap into their web and make their follow ratio look good). Hello? It should be about the content and the affinity. So why in the heck did you follow me in the first place? Just to get me to follow you back then hope I wouldn't notice when you went away? Give me a break.

3) Ppl who spk whut appears 2 B an alien language just Bcuz they're trying 2 cram sumthing profound N2 140 chars. Holy smoke, don't slaughter the language just because there's a new and exciting channel in which to use it. Do you want your children talking like that?

Although I still have no idea how they are going to monetize it (and when they finally figure it out, unless they are as incredibly smart as the folks at Google or Facebook, I'm sure we'll all be sorry), I really appreciate the great tool that the people at Twitter have created.

But, lest that tool go to the wayside like e-mail itself is in danger of doing, let's all try and work real hard to keep from making it suck. Okay?

By the way, there are two kinds of people I would really love to hear from, in response to this blog: 1) Bloodsucking leeches. Thanks to social networking and the democratization of the Web, you have the right and capacity to respond. But please identify yourself as a bloodsucking leech when you do. 2) People who are not bloodsucking leeches and have good ideas about how to identify and squash them. - Larry

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Disappointed in Jimmy Carter

I don't think I've ever been so frustrated by something happening in the political realm, as I've been these past few days, ever since former President Jimmy Carter went on record as stating his belief that current opposition to President Barack Obama's policies is rooted in racism.

I have a lot of respect for Jimmy Carter. Believe it or not, I even voted for him (way back in my college days). But I was disappointed in him as President. He then redeemed himself somewhat by his philanthropic activities in Africa and elsewhere since he held the office.

But his current statement is the pinnacle of irresponsibility. He may believe it to be true, but logically he cannot know it to be true. And even if it were true (which I sincerely doubt), pulling such a race card can't be good for anyone -- especially Barack Obama. It is divisive and inflammatory. And patently unfair to those who oppose Obama on grounds that have nothing to do with racism. Which I believe is the majority of those who have criticized him.

I've tried to give Obama the benefit of the doubt, but I certainly don't agree with much of what he is doing from a policy standpoint. Moreover, there at least four possible reasons I can think of why people might criticize any president, including Obama. (They are the same four reasons people criticized George Bush.)

1) They are racist or discriminatory.
2) They have a political philosophy in opposition to his.
3) He is doing a poor job as president.
4) He has committed some obscene or immoral act -- then lied about it to the American people. (Thanks for that legacy, President Clinton!)

President Carter asserted (without citing any kind of proof or evidence) that the "overwhelming" majority of the criticism coming Obama's way is due to reason #1 above. But what's his support for this? Polls? Research? What?

More likely, it seems to me, is the fact that Obama's liberal political policies are causing discomfort among conservative Americans. His crusade for socialized medicine, his support for abortion rights, his defense posture, all earn him the ire of conservatives.

For me, I would happily support a black president (or any other color) whose political philosophy I felt was right. I would applaud a black female president if we had one who stood up for the types of things I believe are right. (I'm still sore that Condoleeza didn't run.)

Are there racists who criticize Obama? No doubt. Just like there were sexists who criticized Bush.

But I believe they are in the minority. But here is Jimmy Carter, writing me off as a racist, writing us all off, simply because we are criticizing Obama's policies. Wow. Is it too late to withdraw my vote?

Monday, May 18, 2009

A Heart-Wrenching Decision, Indeed

Obama is right on target in what he recently told students observing his speech at the Catholic flagship school Notre Dame:

Pro-life or pro-choice, or somewhere in between, we certainly can all agree "that this heart-wrenching decision for any woman is not made casually."

So, don't unplug your brain just yet. Because this statement which sounds so all-embracing on its surface, also begs the question, Why? WHY is abortion a "heart-wrenching decision for any woman" and one that "is not made casually?"

Is it because it is a difficult and painful medical procedure?

Not really. Lots of people make the decision to undergo far more painful and difficult medical procedures, and that decision is not "heart-wrenching."

No, to the contrary, I think everyone intuitively knows that the reason this decision is heart-wrenching is that any woman making that decision is going against the most basic instinct God has implanted within her heart: the instinct to protect her child. Admitting that abortion is a universally heart-wrenching decision is admitting that it is killing a human being, for whatever reason that morally problematic act is being undertaken. Let's call a spade a spade.

Only the truly, unreachably, evil person does not find their heart wrenched when faced with the prospect of willfully having to make a choice that causes the death of another human being.

If there is any other reason that abortion could possibly be a "heart-wrenching decision for any woman," would someone please point it out to me?

Wednesday, April 08, 2009

Christians Abandoned and Killed in Iraq

I have a close friend in Baghdad who has alerted me to a situation which really is both a tragedy, and a travesty of justice.

And no, it's not the situation you're thinking of!

This is related to a people group who are indigenous to Iraq, even before it was Iraq ... the Assyrian Christians. As you can imagine, a Christian minority in Iraq has been persecuted in recent years, under Saddam, and is now being persecuted further under the Muslim majority in Iraq.

Many have fled. My friend has been advocating for the creation of a province in Iraq, where the Assyrian Christians could be allowed to return, and live in relative peace and security.

Doesn't sound like too much to ask for, does it?

But here's the problem. For several years that he has been advocating this, with U.S. politicians and those who are in power in Iraq, they have at least paid lip service to the need to help the Assyrian Christians. But suddenly now, under Barack Obama's administration, he is finding doors slammed in his face.

And, simultaneously, Muslim extremists in the very heart of Iraq are being emboldened to mercilessly attack the impoverished Assyrian Christians who remain.

My friend tells me that during the last week alone, five innocent Assyrian Christians have been murdered in cold blood. He sent me the attached photo of two elderly Assyrian Christian women who were gunned down, in cold blood, in their home in the Dora area of Baghdad.

This photo is one member of a set taken by Baghdad security forces investigating the crimes. (He says it was the least grisly of the entire set, which he saw.)

My friend tells me he has submitted approximately 30 proposals for assistance for Assyrian Christians in Baghdad, to organizations which routinely make grants to assist groups in Iraq. But because the people who would be assisted are Christians, and it is not "politically correct" in our government to be seen as helping Christians right now, these proposals are being routinely dismissed.

Last week U.S. President Barack Obama, who himself is supposedly a Christian, touted the "contributions" to the world made by the Muslim faith -- without giving any specifics about what these supposed contributions are.

The contributions to the world brought by Christianity, on the other hand, are very specific and historic. One I can attest to personally is the contribution made by the world's largest faith-based relief and development organization, World Vision, which helps save millions of lives annually through its programs ... funded primarily by mom-and-pop Christians throughout the world who are donating their hard-earned dollars (in the face of a global recession) to help the poor.

And that is just one of many very specific contributions being made to our world by Christians and their organizations. So, why isn't our president out there touting the benefits added by the Christian faith? And why is it so politically incorrect to try and help Christians in the context of a country like Iraq who are suffering in poverty and being killed for their beliefs?

Someone please explain this to me. Thanks.

Sunday, March 08, 2009

A Pervasive Sadness

Okay, I think I need to be a little bit transparent and confess. I've been struggling the past few weeks.

It's been a whirlwind. I think that most of the people reading this are aware of my dad's 9-year struggle with Alzheimers, and the fact that he died on December 30. His death capped a two-year marathon of caring for him. Then two weeks ago I took his ashes to Alabama, and along with my two brothers and my aunt (my mom's sister, who was a missionary to northern Africa for 45 years), and with some of my dad's friends back in his hometown where he had laid my mom to rest, we buried his ashes next to her plot in Birmingham's Elmwood Cemetery.

We had an enjoyable time of fellowship that week. I put 1600 miles on a rental car and drove Aunt Dorothy back to her home in Sebring, Florida, then up to Atlanta for a four-day business conference. Then home again, and immediately back to work.

It felt nonstop and I had this weird pervasive sense of numbness and tiredness when I got home. It didn't help that I'd had the flu for an entire two weeks before I left for Alabama. But as I began to try and get readjusted I couldn't shake this pervading sense of what seemed like sadness. I wondered if it was just the physical effects of the workload, the flu, the stress of a busy few weeks.

Last Monday night I had a speaking engagement in Bothell, about 90 minutes north of where I live. I had received an e-mail 8 or 9 months earlier from a woman representing the Northwest Christian Writer's Association asking me to speak about "writing opportunities for nonprofits" at one of their meetings. My sense was that it was a smallish group, a fairly informal meeting, perhaps speaking for 20 or 30 minutes in general terms then sitting and just chatting. We e-mailed back and forth a few times during the summer then I didn't hear any more.

Of course, in the intervening 8 months the economic landscape has changed dramatically. Now I could answer the question, "What are opportunities for Christian writers at nonprofits right now?" in about one minute. (Or however long it takes to say, "Sorry, there really are no opportunities right now.") So I was having a hard time thinking about what to speak on for 20 or 30 minutes. I began to feel a little nervous about the event. The week after I returned from Alabama I e-mailed my contact and asked for more information. What kind of people (and how many) were attending the meeting? What were their expectations and how best could I help? How long did she want me to speak, and what was the format like? How should I dress? Etc.

The Monday of the event rolled in and I hadn't heard back from her, and hadn't done any real preparation yet. I half suspected perhaps the event had been cancelled and they had just forgotten to tell me. I spent most of Monday fiddling with my thoughts, trying to put together an outline for various types of formats and lengths of time. But I had a really hard time coming up with anything substantive. I threw together a very small and informal PowerPoint presentation. Put pictures of my family on it, and stuff like that. I felt like I had the equivalent of "writer's block" (speakers block?), mostly because I wasn't sure what to expect.

Thus, the time arrived for me to make the 90 minute drive north. I tried to eat a small dinner but I just wasn't hungry. I started out two hours before my scheduled arrival time just because I wasn't sure about traffic. And as I began to drive north, my stress level began to climb. My stomach ached and my throat felt weird. I felt suddenly feverish and thought I must be getting sick again. At one point I pulled off the freeway and stopped at a gas station, not because I really needed fuel, but mainly because I thought I might throw up and wanted to be near a bathroom. I felt a growing sense of dread as I approached Bothell.

I arrived at an enormous church 20 minutes before the meeting was scheduled to start. I saw some lights on in some classrooms, but they were vacant and I couldn't find anyone there. Finally I found a janitor who told me I was on the wrong side of the very large church complex.

As I approached the right side of the church, I realized how wrong I had been. I walked into an enormous meeting room, filled with what looked like 150-200 people sitting at tables. At the entrance to the room, people were lined up, checkbooks out, paying to get in. As I walked up, people turned and looked at me. They recognized me. I recalled that I had e-mailed them my picture for their newsletter. I glanced up at the enormous stage, and the screen behind it that gave my name as the keynote speaker.

I tried not to swoon as they greeted me and pinned a namebadge on me. "How long am I speaking for?" I croaked. They told me I was on at 8:05 and would be speaking until 8:45, then I should leave 15 minutes for questions. I excused myself to go "wash up."

By the time I got back to the car tears were streaming down my face and I was gasping for breath. I felt like I was having a panic attack. The urge to start the engine and just drive off into the night was powerful. I was thankful I had left my laptop back in the room, so I couldn't really leave. So instead I dialed Darlene. When she answered she said, "What's wrong?"

"I just walked into a room full of at least a hundred writers. They are paying to get in. I found out I'm the keynote speaker and I have 40 minutes to give a formal presentation. And I really have no idea what I'm going to say."

Darlene was her usual, calm self. "Forty minutes should be no problem for you," she chuckled. "You're a good storyteller. Just tell stories and tie them to your main point. Smile. Laugh at yourself. You'll do fine." She assured me she would call some of our friends and ask them to pray. After we were done, I prayed a desperate man's prayer for help, crying out to Jesus in that car in a dark parking lot with its steamed up windows for 10 or 15 minutes, then mopped my face, plucked up my courage as best I could, and returned to the meeting room.

I had 15 minutes before I was on. I noticed the PowerPoint presentations that everyone was using were about 10 times more elegant than mine. So I wasted 14 of those 15 minutes polishing mine up a bit, then handed it on a jump drive to the technician. "I'm sorry," he told me honestly, "I don't think I have time to put this in now. You're on in one minute."

"That's okay," I assured him. "The Lord is in control. Do what you can." He put the jump drive in his pocket. He was dealing with another problem.

I was being introduced. A minute later, I walked up and wired myself into the wireless mike. I still had no idea what I was going to say for 40 minutes. "Lord," I prayed silently. "I don't care as much about looking like a fool as I care about wasting these good people's time. Please help me. Speak through me."

I remembered my wife's advice. I started by sharing stories of how the Lord developed me as a writer, some of my writing experiences, coming to World Vision, and what a great organization World Vision is, and why. I spoke about how we used freelance and contract writers. I had chatted with Jim, a very nice fellow who is a communications vice president for Crista Ministries, earlier in the day, and shared some of his thoughts with the group. I talked a bit about my recent experience with the radio team and working on World Vision's social networking technologies, and how much promise those held for the way we as writers communicate. I just talked.

It felt discombobulated, but people seemed interested enough. When I started question and answers, I was relieved that there were a few questions I could sink my teeth into.

Afterward, there was a line of people waiting to talk with me. I chatted with folks for an hour. I was so blessed by the people I talked with, they were so kind and gracious and genuine. But best of all, there was this beautiful, sweet, small elderly woman who had been sitting next to me. She now held my hand unashamedly. She was disabled to some extent, and shared how she had struggled for years with bouts of brain cancer and treatment for it. She showed me a notebook full of beautiful illustrations which she had done. They took my breath away.

Yes, my struggles were real, and painful, and challenging. But sitting next to this woman, this saint, this hand of Jesus who reached and and took mine and wouldn't let it go, somehow put it all into perspective. Her challenges were enormous, way too large for her small frame, but not too large for God. Her attitude, her sense of joy, spilled over from her onto me.

She reminded me of that hero of heaven in C.S. Lewis' Great Divorce -- Sarah, a woman who nobody knew on earth but who was celebrated by a procession of bright spirits due to the way she allowed God's love to spill over from her onto all she came in contact with. I found myself not wanting to leave that room when a scant two hours before it had been all I could do not to bolt for the door.

I don't know whether she or anyone else was really blessed by what I had to say that night. They probably thought, "Oh brother, he didn't prepare, did he?" But no matter. I am trusting that the God who wanted me to be there spoke through me, somehow, despite my weakness, my pervasive sadness and tiredness and numbness.

I know that he could do so, because he used others who had refused to succumb to the battle, to speak to me.

Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Why Downward Spirals are Vicious

AIG Tower in Hong Kong.Today's headline from the New York Times reads: "U.S. Is Pressed To Add Billions To Bailouts."

Doubletake. Wait just a minute. I thought the U.S. government has already handed out billions in bailout money ... to banks and finance institutions, to auto manufacturers, even to hard-pressed homeowners. So who is it that is asking for billions more?

The article says: "The government faced mounting pressure on Monday to put billions more in some of the nation’s biggest banks, two of the biggest automakers and the biggest insurance company, despite the billions it has already committed to rescuing them."

Tripletake. "Billions more?"

I'm trying to imagine running a business, like the insurance giant AIG, and running it so badly that I have to come to the government asking for a $150 billion (with a B) bailout in order to keep it afloat. Then, a few short months later, I come back and ask for billions more?

There is only one thing that could possibly be going on here. The entitlement mentality that has been slowly creeping into mom and pop America these past few years, the sense that life owes me something and if I fail it can't possibly be my own fault,  has apparently infected even America's largest institutions now.

What has made the entitlement mentality possible in the past is a codependent government which is there to bail us out. Hence welfare has become not merely a safety net for the truly poor who cannot work; it has become a substitute for having to work which is abused daily by millions of people who would apparently rather sit and home in their trashed up trailers and drink booze and take drugs and abuse their kids.

As parents we see the same thing in raising our families. One of the toughest parts to being a parent is overcoming the conviction that you need to be your kids' best friend. You need to step in and protect them from the consequences of their bad decisions (rather than letting them suffer the consequences themselves and hence learn from them).

So at some point the government is going to have to learn to do what all parents who are being the kind of parents God wants them to be have to learn to do: To just say "no." Sorry, AIG, if your business model and business decisions have been that bad, you are going to have to suffer the consequences for it.

The rub of course is that it isn't just AIG execs who will suffer, it is the thousands of employees and all the others who have paid in money into the bad system and now are looking to AIG for help. The consequences of our failures always affect others, and at this level the net is cast exceedingly wide.

But the cycle of codependence has to stop somewhere. Government may have the deep pockets, but ultimately they are going to turn back to the governed and victimize them with higher taxes in order to pay for their bailouts of AIG, and the banks (selling junk mortgages to those who can't afford them), and the car manufacturers (who, by the way, should have learned a lesson about making more fuel efficient and trustworthy vehicles long ago from the experts like Toyota).

Downward spirals are vicious because they gather momentum as they spiral downward. They become harder and harder to stop. Better to stop it now and deal with the pain.