Thursday, January 31, 2013

Day 31: My Favourite Thing

Okay, here we are, the last day of January, and January Blog-a-Day, and I'm clicking my heels! Yippee! I made it. Almost. I may not blog again until next January, so enjoy this one while it lasts.

Thankfully, the topic for the final day is "Favourite." Note the English spelling. I'm assuming that means it must be slightly uppity. But I've been watching Downton Abbey with my homeys so I should be able to swing that.

I have lots of "favourite" things, but the one I am going to talk about is writing. I love writing, but not for the reason(s) I originally thought I would love it. Please allow me to explain. (There, didn't that sound uppity?)

When I was in high school, I DIDN'T love writing. Well, I didn't hate it; I guess I was just indifferent to it. I have my mom to thank for turning me toward a lifelong love affair with the written word. I've been a reader since I was very young, voraciously devouring book after book. I loved all kinds of books, but my favorite genre by the time I got to high school was science fiction. I think sci fi transported me to a place beyond imagination, a future where pretty much anything goes. The idea that we aren't alone in the universe, that it is stocked with other creatures (some of them perhaps sentient) in a manner supportive of the great diversity and creativity that I believe to be true of our magnificent Creator God, filled me with hope and inspiration.

Nevermind that the majority of science fiction writers were atheists. (Which I still don't understand to this day ... how can a brilliant mind like Carl Sagan look out upon the universe in wonder and so adamantly and arrogantly claim that it all came about by happenstance? Absurd.) The best sci fi writers, the TRULY GREAT sci fi writers (like C.S. Lewis and others), understood the importance of giving God His rightful place in the picture of the future. He gives the universe its true sense of purpose.

So, in high school I was eating up every sci fi author I could lay hands on ... Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Silverberg, David Brin, Frank Herbert, Ben Bova, you name it. And, I'm talking classical, hard-core sci fi; not so much the populist stuff like Star Wars and Star Trek (not that I mind watching the shows).

Until college I never really considered myself a writer, even though I did a lot of my own writing for pleasure, mostly poetry. (I've already shared the story of how my English teacher in the 11th grade shared my poetry with other classes, which was my wife's first introduction to my weird and wonderful brain.)

But my mom, God bless her soul, recognized some sort of latent writing ability in me and so began a campaign to get me to write something for the annual youth writing contest hosted by one of her favorite inspirational pulp magazines, Guideposts. My initial response was an adamant "Never!" I'm not sure why, I think I just had too many other pressing things going on, and didn't see the value. But, like the persistent widow of Luke 18 who daily presented her case to the uncaring judge, she finally wore me down and I wrote and submitted an article, mostly to get her off my back.

And, lo and behold, that article won a Guideposts Youth Writing Award in 1975, the year I graduated from high school. The scholarship grant which accompanied that article, $500 — which may be small by scholarship standards but was a lot of money to a 17-year-old — and the fan mail I received from predominantly female readers who swooned at my prose, combined forces to convince me that writing was cool. So, for entirely the wrong reasons (love and money and fame), I began to pursue a possible career in writing.

My story since that time is speckled with both successes and failures. Mostly failures, but some successes. I was in the advanced placement English class my senior year of high school, studied hard, and received a "5" (the highest score possible and the highest score in the history of my high school) on the CLEP test. This allowed me to bypass dum-dum English in college and I enrolled instead in a senior-level literature course. This was my first introduction to the fact that college English was entirely unlike high school English. The course professor gave me a D for my efforts, and that was generous.

So I scaled back my ambitions a bit, and became a Journalism/Creative Writing major (with a magazine editing emphasis, and a minor in Bible). I edited Biola's student newspaper, The Chimes, and thoroughly enjoyed that experience. I worked for a year, full-time, for Biola's PR department as a writer. One of the articles I prepared as part of my job, I later modified and submitted to Campus Crusade's "Athletes in Action" magazine. About the time I graduated from college, that article won the "Best Personality Feature of the Year" award from the Evangelical Press Association in 1981.

Now I really was full of myself, and while working odd jobs after college, set out to become the next great American novelist. I spent five years on a historical fantasy novel, and on the (ultimately unsuccessful) effort to see it published, and also wrote many other magazine articles as well as hired-gun pieces.

In the early 90s, after building then selling a marginally successful technology business, I focused my efforts full-time on writing. I wrote and published two nonfiction books, the first as a ghostwriter and the second as a co-author. I also got credit as a book editor for a third published book with the same co-author. For a few years I enjoyed my writing and editing career, but was not making much money at it, certainly not enough to support a family. Fortunately my wife had a well-paying job in nursing administration. But early in 1994, after a minor health crisis, she decided she needed a break and that I should get a real job.

The Lord used this situation to direct my steps back to World Vision (where I had worked part-time in 1992-93), into a full-time writing and editing position that seemed tailor-made for what I wanted to do. In late 1995 we made the corporate relocation with World Vision up to the state of Washington, and I helped my manager hire other writings into our growing department.

Most of my writing supported our efforts to report back to World Vision's major donors on what their donations were accomplishing, but I also did some ghost writing to support our president, Bob Seiple. But my writing career suddenly took a turn onto a dead-end street when a difficult piece I had written on his behalf (and on a topic for which I was woefully ill-prepared to write) created some embarrassing problems for him with other international partners in the World Vision family. That was my last ghostwriting assignment for the president (who himself was shortly to transition out of his role with World Vision); and to complicate matters further, after three years of writing major donor reports, I was feeling burned-out.

But God knew what He was doing, and had a plan to transition me into a role where I would be able to use my interest in and experience with new technologies to put World Vision on the World Wide Web in 1997. With minimal assistance and lots of opposition I was able to build many of the foundational features that in the 16 years since that day have proven to be so successful for World Vision — features like online child sponsorship, World Vision's first online Gift Catalog, etc. I also built World Vision's first intranet, its first emergency relief partnership extranet, and assisted our international office with its web site.

Naturally these efforts became quickly larger than any single person, and I was privileged to be able to hire and manage many of the staff who worked alongside me to build World Vision's internet business during its early days. Eventually the program became bigger than my natural abilities to lead it (today there are something like 70 staff involved in the internet business unit and related efforts) and so I transitioned into specialty areas that were closer to what I really felt called and gifted to do — writing and content. I edited World Vision's e-zine (monthly email newsletter), provided content for the homepage, and eventually managed a team of writers that was supporting these efforts. I did some work on usability and architecture, and eventually moved off into a peripheral web effort, supporting World Vision's public radio program until its cancellation in 2011.

When the radio program was cancelled, I received a pink slip and knew I was at another crossroads. There were two positions at World Vision I was interested in ... the first was a writing position supporting World Vision's president, Rich Stearns, who had succeeded Bob Seiple back about the time the internet program was spinning up. The second was a new media strategist position with World Vision's Media Relations division. I applied for both, and was told I had the second position if I wanted it. But the lure of writing kept calling to me, so I also poured my heart and soul into applying for the writer position.

Out of more than a hundred applicants, I was one of two internal (and two external) finalists. But ultimately the job went to the most qualified applicant, a proven author and editor with the world's largest Christian magazine. (And, a very cool and creative guy, to boot. I have no doubt the right choice was made.) And of course this left me at the old, familiar crossroads: Had God really called me to be a writer? Why had I so frequently experienced that "death of a dream?"

I don't know what's in store for the future, as far as writing goes. I have some 20 years' worth of writing projects outlined, but no time to work on them. (Perhaps I will retire some day and be able to focus on these projects, without any of the silly pressures related to money, fame, etc.) I still love writing, but not for the reasons I loved it back when I was 17; I have no illusions now about getting rich or famous. I love it because it is an outlet for imagination and creative expression. I love it for the craft. I love it just because I feel God made me to do it.

And I also love it because it has the unique power to connect people to the things that really matter. I look at C. S. Lewis, a very "ordinary" guy (in every way other than his brilliance, his imagination, his writing ability, and his humble love and passion for Truth), who has made this incredibly remarkable dent on the world through his gifts as a communicator. I've read that Lewis has touched far more people for Christ than Billy Graham ever did or could. Combine that potential with the new media that are changing the world even as we speak ... for instance, Global Media Outreach (GMO), which I volunteer with, sometimes reaches a million people a day with the message of the Gospel! Such a thing exceeds even Billy Graham's wildest dreams. As a medium for communication of the good, for sharing the Truth, the internet and social media have enormous, previously unimagined, potential.

So, there's my favourite thing ... combine the written word with the potential of new media to multiply its powerful impact in the lives of millions ... THAT pushes my buttons!

What's your favourite thing?

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

My Biggest Flaw

My biggest flaw? Clearly, it's my humility.

Sorry, I just had the sudden impulse to say that. Okay, starting over, getting serious ...

First, I guess there's the obvious. SIN! If it weren't for sin, I'd be a pretty great guy. But I guess that sort of goes without saying. So let me shift gears for a bit.

My biggest physical flaw is probably my eyesight. I inherited extreme nearsightedness from both parents and had to wear coke-bottle-bottom glasses by the time I was in second grade. My glasses grew progressively heavier and by the time I was in high school I had a permanent dent in the bridge of my nose from where the glasses had rested there, the nose-pieces breaking off constantly. (The scar is still there to this day, you can see it if you look closely enough.)

Anyway, technically I'm legally blind. Most people don't know this because I wear contact lenses now (I have ever since I decided, in my junior year of high school, attracting pretty girls was worth sacrificing a little bit of comfort). But without my lenses I walk into walls. They do a pretty good job correcting my vision, but can't do anything about the hundreds of floaters that come with the territory when you have extreme nearsightedness. (Which results from an elongation of the eyeballs, which also results in fibers detaching from the sides of the eye and floating around in your aqueous fluid.) It can be pretty distracting at times. Imagine seeing a swarm of gnats in front of your face constantly! But after 38 years I guess you just learn to deal with stuff like that.

But I suppose what this blog topic is intended for is something more like a character flaw, right? And if I had to name a character flaw, it would have to be that, like Jacob of the Old Testament, I'm pretty sneaky. I have a hard time being honest about what I am feeling, about what I am going through, about my motivations. The desire for people to think well of me is a powerful drive in my life, and as a result I struggle with these things. I really would like to give that one to the Lord and be rid of it, once and for all, but it doesn't actually seem to work like that, unfortunately.

There are other flaws, of different stripes. Working style flaws (I'm pretty ADD, have a hard time focusing on something other than the project at hand), mental flaws (I have pretty weak powers of observation for someone with a 7-year degree in journalism), social flaws (I know I talk way too much, when I should be listening). And the list goes on.

I could be rather easily overwhelmed and discouraged by my many flaws. The physical flaws, not so bad; the mental flaws are worse; and the character flaws worst of all. Those you feel like you should somehow be able to control, to do something about.

I guess what keeps me going is the knowledge that God has given me the privilege and responsibility for laying it all down at the Cross. Think about it: Someday we will cast our crowns at His feet. If we can lay down those things which are good, why can't we also lay down the bad things?

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

Home: A Destination, not an Origination

Shortsinwoods ... in snow.
I've been looking forward to the 29th edition of "January Blog-a-Day," because the assigned topic is "home." Home has a special meaning to us.

Darlene and I met in Upland, California, in 1973 when by the "coincidence of God" we attended the same church and high school. My family was moving to a new home. She had lived in her home all her life, and her family had helped begin the church when she was very young. So, it was all she had ever known.

We married during the summer after my first junior year at Biola, and we started life together in a nice home in La Mirada, on a hillside overlooking the Orange County basin (where you could see fireworks from both Disneyland and Knott's Berry Farm each evening). Nonetheless we were eager to move back to our "home" community of Upland after we graduated. We purchased a small condo there, where our first child, Nathan, was born. (Well, not in the condo; but you know what I mean.) A few years later we sold the condo and moved to a larger home in nearby Rancho Cucamonga.

Actually, Nathan and Mandy both were born in the same hospital where Darlene was born. She worked there when they were both born; just as her mom and worked there before her. Darlene had deep roots in the community.

That's why it seemed shocking to me that she was willing to pick up and move away from everything she knew, her parents and sibling included, when World Vision asked us to relocate to the Pacific Northwest. I had moved frequently, all around Southern California, so for me a move meant an exciting new chance to meet new people and discover new places. But for her, it was more like a faith step into the unknown.

And it was a big step. We moved to a new home in Puyallup, Washington, which we quickly discovered was subject to frequent flooding (something unknown to us as Southern California natives). Every time it rained (as it does frequently here in Western Washington, we spent our days and our hours, whether in gray daylight or black of night, pumping water from our yard and trying desperately to keep it out of our home.

While our purchase decision had not been sufficiently deliberated, we did make another decision which proved to be much wiser. The first weekend we were here we asked that God would lead us to a church that we could call home. The first church we attended, Elim Evangelical Free, welcomed us with open arms and we never looked back.

It also provided us with a solution to our dilemma. One of the elders, Larry Nelson, was an outstanding real estate attorney who helped us negotiate a way out of the legal maze of freedom from our purchase decision. He discovered proof that the builder who sold us our home knew of its problems, but failed to disclose these during the course of the sale. We sought to negotiate; he at first refused. We filed suit and then, the day before the jury trial was to begin (the jury had literally been seated), he showed up on our doorstep, willing to talk.

We negotiated an arrangement whereby he paid to move us from the flooded home, into another house of our choosing. The new house was slightly larger and nicer so we kicked in a little cash for that.

Meanwhile, the couple who had so warmly welcomed us to Elim became close friends of ours throughout this process. J.C. and Di Williams lived in a custom-built home in the forest, just a mile or two from where we had first moved. Each time we visited them, we left saying to each other, "Didn't that just feel like home?" It was uncanny. It seemed to both of us like a destination, somewhere we longed to be.

Because of this intense longing which neither of us could explain, on the day that J.C. approached me privately and said, "Larry, we're moving. Are you interested in buying our house?" I immediately said, "Yes, of course!" without even the need to consult Darlene about it. No price was even discussed. I went home and told Darlene. We were both ecstatic.

We sold our existing home then moved into the home which we later dubbed "Shortsinwoods" in February 2002. Nathan had turned 18 and moved out shortly before we did so; Mandy was still living at home at that point. Later that summer, we held the first meeting of Elim's young adults group, which is now called "Pulse," in our living room.

Our home is such a blessing to us it's difficult to describe. A long gravel driveway winds through the woods so that you can't even see it from a public street. (There's one way in and one way out, and everyone who comes down our driveway is on security camera, which is just one of the reasons we feel very secure here and have never had any problems with theft.)

In the summertime, when the woods are thickest, you really can't even see another house from our yard. And in the winter, when the deciduous trees drop their leaves, our neighbors are revealed. Our neighbors are gracious and kind and for the most part know how to pull together. We have a little under an acre of property, with much of it in the woods, so the grass only takes about 45 minutes to mow.

The house itself is custom built, two stories and covered in all cedar shake, with a country-style porch in the front and a large deck in the back. When the weather is nice we can sit on both and toss apples to the deer who wander in and out of our yard, or be entertained by the antics of gray squirrels or jays who swoop in to fetch peanuts arranged for this purpose on the railing.

During the past 10 years, Pulse has grown dramatically and many times barely fits into a very comfortably sized house. We meet here for Bible study and prayer each Friday evening, and young adults are here for various reasons throughout the week. Nathan and I, with the help of my dad when he was alive, built a self-contained studio apartment above our garage, which is often rented to young adults in temporary need of housing. So, we have been blessed to have been spared any sort of "empty nest" syndrome. Our home is always a full and a happy place.

But is it "home?" Does it have the feel of a final destination? Darlene and I have often thought we would thoroughly enjoy retiring here, and even plotted how we could move all our living arrangements downstairs when we are no longer of an age where we can safely negotiate the stairs. Neither of us know for sure whether the Lord will keep us here (where we would of course be entirely happy) or move us somewhere else (where we would be excited to see what new thing was in store). We do realize the reason He so obviously arranged for us to live here, at least temporarily, was because of the ministry assignment that He wanted us to fulfill. So, perhaps more is in store than we can yet know.

And I think that has become my perspective on what "home" means. "Home" is not something you return to -- a point of origin. It is, rather, a destination -- a place you are heading toward. There is a saying, "Home is where the heart is," which is in one sense true. I also often think of Christ's words in Matthew 6:21 -- "For where your treasure is, there will your heart be also."

For now, our home is here in Shortsinwoods, because we have invested our treasure (our time, our energy, our obedience, even our money) in the ministry that God has for us here. Our hearts are here, as a result. But in a broader sense, that treasure is invested in God's Kingdom ... and our hearts are ever leading us onward and upward to a final destination that we can truly call "home." As Hebrews 11 recounts of saints of old:
13All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. 14People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. 15If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. 16Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.
When I was a kid, we used to sing an old hymn: "This world is not my home, I'm just a-passin' thru ... my treasures are laid up, somewhere beyond the blue." My mom and dad are both there now ... HOME. I look forward to the day when I will be there too, a destination "beyond the blue." Things have been promised me, which I have received a down payment on, but have not yet fully been fulfilled. A mansion has been prepared for me there, the Master Carpenter Himself has said.

Much better than this old cedar-shake country home in the woods, I'm sure!

Monday, January 28, 2013

A Surprise: Love in the Winter of our Regret

If you were reading yesterday, you'll know already that I got stalled in this "January Blog-a-Day" project when I hit Jan. 21 and the topic was "Mood Boards." I floundered about for nearly a week then finally posted the first of two catch-up blogs yesterday.

Today's blog is the second of those two catch-up blogs, and I'll be discussing four more topics:

Day 25 - el-oh-vee-ee 

Okay, I'm going to assume today's topic is "LOVE" and not some secret incantation or Hebrew name for God. So, all lightheartedness aside, how do you talk about such an important subject that so deeply impacts all of our lives?

I think people make two mistakes about love. The most elemental is that love is merely a feeling ... an infatuation, a desire, a state you find yourself in, i.e. "in love." The second error is one I probably have been more prone to, and that's to hold that love is not something that happens to you, but rather: a decision that you make, a choice of the will, and demonstrated by action. You make your wedding vows, say "I do," choose to always do the best thing for the other person.

In Pulse's Sunday morning book study (Pulse is our church young adults group, in case you're not aware), we've been reading together a wonderful book by John Piper called Desiring God. He demonstrates the error of both extremes, for true love is both emotion/fire/ passion/desire, AND choice/will/action. First and foremost, Scripture commands us throughout to "love God" above all else. And the language of this love is often presented in the language of desire: we are to "delight" in the Lord, to "thirst" after him as the deer pants after water. If you are convinced that love is all choice, all will, all mental exercise, then obviously you haven't spent too much time in Solomon's "Song of Songs!"

And of course when we marry the person we love, we intuitively realize the truth of this holism. Emotion alone isn't enough to sustain a successful marriage; and neither is simple mental commitment.

I see in this truth — the fact that God has given us the capacity to love as He loves, holistically — an important reflection of the reality that we are created in His image. Jesus said, "Greater love has no one than this: To lay down one's life for one's friends" ... which is exactly what He did. (And what we, also, are challenged to do for those we love.) And the amazing thing is that He considered us friends while we considered Him an enemy. "But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us." We love Him because He first loved us! We were created to follow in His footsteps. Challenging but hopefully encouraging!

Day 26 - Winter/Summer

Growing up in California, there really wasn't a significant difference between winter and summer, like there is here in the Northwest. As a result, our schedule was more or less the same from week to week. I spent a lot of time with yardwork or outdoors recreation on the weekends, and quite a bit less outdoor time during the workweek.

The effect on our lives of moving to the Northwest, in terms of weekly schedule, has been fairly dramatic. When the weather is nice and the days are long, I feel like I need to squeeze every minute of time I can outdoors, doing yardwork or cycling, hunting mushrooms, etc. But during the long cold and rainy season, when the days are short so that it's dark when you drive to work and dark when you drive home, you focus your time indoors and pray for spring, planning all the things you are going to do outdoors and around the yard once you are able! A seasonal lifestyle is much more ruled by what month it is than what I would have expected before moving here.

And I'm sure it's even worse in places like Minnesota where (in some places right now) if the daily high rises above 0 degrees Fahrenheit it feels practically balmy!

But I do really have to say my favorite seasons are the transitions between the extremes of winter and summer: spring and fall!

Day 27 - Regret

I must say there's not a lot in my life I regret. Almost all of it relates to my own character development (or lack thereof!). I regret the self-centeredness of my youth (that I didn't even recognize until our first year of marriage). I regret the temper I had (and too often expressed toward my kids when they were younger). I regret all of the dumb and selfish things I've said to people I love.

And of course, hindsight is 20/20. I regret not buying gold when it was a fifth the price it is now, or not selling my house in California until AFTER the real estate bubble burst!

I also (somewhat) regret not starting my cycling habit earlier in my life. And, I regret not taking piano lessons from my mom (a master piano teacher)!

Seriously, I guess most of all, I regret not being a more faithful and sold-out disciple of Jesus, earlier in my life. In many ways I feel like I have dallied away the years. Thankfully, His mercies are new every morning ... and tomorrow morning will once again dawn a new day and a new opportunity to move into all the blessing that He has coming my way!

Day 28 - A Surprise

I was trying to think of something that would surprise people who know me, about me. (And if you don't know me, I guess you wouldn't really be surprised by anything, would you?) I think I've told stories (many on this blog) already of many of the things people would be surprised about. My many transportation accidents (including being in a train wreck, and nearly in a plane crash). My spending a night in the same L.A. jail cell where O.J. Simpson languished after allegedly murdering his wife. (But, that was before he got there ... I guess I should have scribbled a graffiti message to him.) The time Eleanor Roosevelt told my mom I was the most adorable baby she had ever seen. (Well, this was my mom's version of the story, at any rate.)

But then I realized the surprise doesn't have to be about me. It can be someone else's surprise. Perhaps, the biggest surprise of all!

So, what do you think is the biggest surprise each of us has in store for us? For me, I think the answer to that question lies buried somewhere in Revelation 2:17 ...
Whoever has ears, let them hear what the Spirit says to the churches. To the one who is victorious, I will give some of the hidden manna. I will also give that person a white stone with a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it.
The context of this verse is Christ's message to the church at Pergamum, which had experienced difficult persecution but endured. Now, our church hasn't (yet) experienced persecution of this nature; but we are still seeking to be faithful and victorious, and so I think the verse applies.

And you will see there really are two surprises here. First: What in the world is the "hidden manna?" Manna, of course, was the sustenance in the desert miraculously provided to the sojourning children of Israel. But it was not hidden; when the travelers awoke in the morning, six days each week, it was there for the taking, visible to all. I am VERY curious about the nature of that "hidden" divine sustenance which is coming! (Or, perhaps is already here? Is this a picture of the role of the Holy Spirit in our lives?)

And secondly, what about our white stone? Why a white stone? White symbolizes purity, of course; and a stone is reminiscent of Christ's words to Peter: Upon this rock (the confession of Peter's faith) I will build My Church. But I am most intrigued by the statement that this white stone contains "a new name written on it, known only to the one who receives it." Wow. Whatever that is, I have a feeling it will be an enormous surprise. (Or perhaps not? It does say, "Known only to the one who receives it" ... does this mean I already know the name that is on the stone.) One way or the other, I can hardly wait.

Don't you just love surprises? (Well, the good ones, anyway!)

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Wonky Kids, Chocolate Teachers

Well, I don't know if anyone noticed or not, but I think I was doing pretty good at January-blog-a-day'ing until Day 21. Two lame excuses:
  1. The topic for the day ("Create a mood board") really threw me. I think this was a Pinterest reference? I'm not sure. But I confess I have no idea what a mood board is, or how to create one. I was stumped for days.
  2. This week really kicked my butt ... extremely busy, big projects at work, I was on point to lead a major Bible study for Pulse, and to top it all off I had major computer issues. Today's the first day I've had any real time to think.
I thought about just giving up. But rather than do that, I think I'll just take my lumps ... address days 21 through 24 here, in a single post, and then do the remaining three days tomorrow ... then pick up on Monday as if nothing happened. (Perhaps no one will notice? :) ) So, here goes ...

Day 21 - Create a Mood Board

Well, as stated above, I have no idea how to do a mood board. But, I have something almost as good (at work), and that's a mood calendar. Each day when I arrive at my desk, I thumb through it's pages and try to pick a mood that is closest to my true mood. Perhaps as a warning to those who might come lurking around my desk.

And, the one that I seem to pick most frequently is "copascetic." I'm not entirely sure what it means, but I think it's sort of a cross between "just chillin'" and "no complaints, at peace with the world, but can't wait until it's quitting time."

Most of the time my moods are fairly industrious in nature. I'm pretty type A and like to move fast while I can. (Which is why a malfunctioning computer is so frustrating!)

There's one that I will probably use sometime but I haven't used yet: "Wonky." Seems to mean a little askew, off-kilter, twisted, perhaps goofy. I have days like that, I just haven't been able to admit them yet. Soon.

Day 22 - Kids

Psalm 127:3-5a says:

3 Children are a heritage from the Lord,
    offspring a reward from him.
Like arrows in the hands of a warrior
    are children born in one’s youth.
Blessed is the man
    whose quiver is full of them.

I used to wonder in what twisted alternate reality that verse could possibly be true. But, while teaching a class in the Psalms with a friend at church a few years back, I think the way in which that verse is God's truth suddenly came to me: Because having children is most adults' cue to stop thinking just about themselves. When you have a child, suddenly, it's no longer about you. You start to learn how to really love. And that means, you become just a little bit more like God is (unselfish!).

The fact is, having kids is both the greatest joy and reward, and also the greatest pain and humiliation, sometimes simultaneously. I have two awesome kids: My son Nathan just turned 30, and my daughter Mandy is now a mom herself and approaching 28. I love them both dearly (and equally). I fret and worry about them a lot, and pray for them a lot, probably more than I fret, worry, or pray for anyone. The greatest fear and pain I've known is being helpless while watching Nathan (as a one-year-old) get a spinal tap because the doctors didn't know why he was so sick and wondered if he might have meningitis. (Thankfully, he did not. They never found out what it was ... God just healed him up, as He so often does.)

And, we had lots of similar scares with Amanda (as all parents inevitably do), though none quite that serious.

There are also the "spiritual scares" ... when your kids make a bad choice, get in trouble, push God away. You wish you could help them avoid the pain of the lessons you yourself learned the hard way.

And now, thank God, I'm a grandpa. My sweet little granddaughter Annabelle just turned two. So I'll probably go through a lot of this all over again, though now I think (I hope) I trust in God just a little more profoundly, having been through it all already with my own two kids. Plus, the grandkids have their parents to be there at night and clean vomit out of their ears with a Q-tip. As a grandparent I can stay home, pray, and sleep.

But I am truly thankful for my kids. I can clearly see how they have driven me closer to the heart of God. And I am praying that they too will someday experience all that God has to bless them with, through their own children.

Day 23 - Dessert

Well, yeah, this one's super easy. Almost anything made out of chocolate will do.

And I'm talking about REAL chocolate ... heavy on the cacao ... not sickly "white chocolate" (which doesn't deserve the name at all), or "German chocolate" (which is waxy and has weird bits of coconut in it to try and distract you from its waxiness). Milk chocolate will do in a pinch.

But Real Chocolate is dark, and semisweet, and pairs well with all kinds of things (especially nuts and fruit, and coffee!). If you really want to impress me with dessert, make me a "Death by Chocolate" cake!

Day 24 - Teachers

We all have our favorite teachers. In elementary school, it was Mrs. Chapman, my third grade teacher. She was one of those who, even while being strict, really knew how to communicate that she loved and cared about each student. My most vivid memory in her class was the day when some evil fellow students put a bag of maggots in her desk. I think she had a weak stomach. She discovered it, took it out, held it high and to the light. Then suddenly, with a look of horror on her face, she fled the classroom. We heard her puking out in the bushes in front.

I looked at those students whom I knew did the dastardly deed. They look incredibly ashamed of themselves at that moment.

Then Mrs. Chapman came back into the classroom, the bag gone, dabbing at her mouth with a hanky. Somehow she managed to pick back up again like nothing ever happened. She never said a word about the incident to anyone ... and didn't need to. It never happened again.

In high school my favorite teacher was an English teacher in the 11th grade. For the life of me, I can't remember her name at the moment ... but the reason I liked her was because, as I mentioned in an earlier post, behind my back she was reading my poetry to the other classes. And that's what first reached out and caught a grip on the heart of the beautiful young woman who later became my wife. I think we might have gotten together anyway ... but that initial push in my direction certainly didn't hurt.

Then in college, at Biola University, I can't pick between three favorite professors. One was Dr. Gordon Kirk, who taught theology classes and was the most authentic, dynamic, amazing communicator I ever sat under. No one doubted that Dr. Kirk was utterly and deeply in love with the Word of God, and the God of the Word.

The second was the professor who was in charge of my major (print media communication), Dr. Lowell Saunders. He wasn't the most dynamic communicator in the world, but he was a very hands-on mentor and I learned so much from him. One class I'll never forget was his amazing "Writing for Personal Enrichment" class. The principles I learned there I still use to this day.

And last but not least, Dr. Clyde Cook. You may be aware that Dr. Cook became president of Biola, but this wasn't until the year after I graduated. During my tenure he was the head of the missions department. I considered him a close personal friend and advocate. He calmly defended me when (as editor of the student newspaper) the school's board of directors, deans, and president were all calling for my scalp. Dr. Cook knew how to invest in a young man's life. After he became president, and I visited the campus, he invited me up to his office for lunch. It was an amazing moment, not least of which because I had never before been in the president's office when I wasn't in trouble!

After a very noteworthy tenure as Biola's president, Dr. Cook passed away in April 2008. I miss him and will always be grateful for his contribution to so many lives, including mine.

Tomorrow: el-oh-vee-ee, winter/summer, and regret!

Monday, January 21, 2013

Day 20 - What is Beauty?

There are some things that most of us innately understand or recognize, but would have a hard time defining. Beauty is one of those things.

The dictionary definition for "beauty" is therefore understandably complex: "Beauty is the quality present in a thing or person that gives intense pleasure or deep satisfaction to the mind, whether arising from sensory manifestations (as shape, color, sound, etc.), a meaningful design or pattern, or something else (as a personality in which high spiritual qualities are manifest).

I think there are several key words we can associate with beauty. Several of them are found in the above definition: quality, intense pleasure, deep satisfaction, meaning. Other key words might include fervent desire, passionate longing, profound admiration (these are all stimulated in "the eyes of the beholder" when something of beauty is beheld).

For most guys, mention the word "beautiful" and the image of a very attractive woman comes to mind. (My wife, for instance!) But even we guys know that this kind of beauty is "skin-deep"; you can see a woman who arouses longing because of her physical attributes, then discover that in reality she is a blithering idiot (or at least a person of very poor character), and the flower fades, as it were. (NOT my wife, for instance!)

Such beauty, says Scripture is "fleeting" ... whilst "a woman who fears the Lord is to be praised" (Prov. 31:30).

One of the things that has always intrigued me about God is the liberality with which Scripture describes Him as beautiful. For instance:
Psalm 27:4
One thing I ask from the Lord, this only do I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the Lord all the days of my life, to gaze on the beauty of the Lord and to seek him in his temple.
Psalm 50:2
From Zion, perfect in beauty, God shines forth.
Psalm 90:17
Let the beauty of the Lord our God be upon us ...
Scripture shares the truth that our God is perfect in beauty. All the key words the dictionary uses apply: quality, pleasure, satisfaction, meaning. And, I am discovering that my other key words — desire, longing, admiration — also apply perfectly. As the King James translation (itself hauntingly beautiful at times) puts it:
Psalm 42:1
As the hart panteth after the water brooks, so panteth my soul after thee, O God.
A "hart," of course, we know as a deer. The image is of a deer being chased through the forest by the hunter's foxes. It is desperately thirsty, and finally eluding its tormentors, comes upon a crystal-clear, cool, pure stream. The intense desire of that thirsty animal for refreshment is an image of the Psalmist's intense desire and longing for his perfectly beautiful God.

When you are so incredibly thirsty, such a drink is both an embrace of the powerful longing, and an ecstatic fulfillment of that longing, achieved all in the same moment of time. Perfect beauty!

Too often I find my spiritual life becoming perfunctory or dutiful. God, source of all true beauty, restore unto me the joy of my salvation, the intensity of my passion and longing for Your living water!

Day 19: Would I Really Want This Superpower?

In my last post I talked about creating (and promised to post some tips on remembering) secure passwords, and in previous posts I've discussed my desire to have a better memory. So, I think in light of today's assigned topic, "Superpowers," I will confess that if I were to be given a "superpower," it would be the power of a perfect memory.

I've heard about people who have so-called "Photographic memories." When I was a kid I attended a Baptist church in West Los Angeles, and the pastor there could remember with seeming ease the names and details of every person he had ever met ... and he had met thousands. This makes me very jealous!

Recently I thought, okay, I'm going to try and do something about my poor memory. So I started listening to an audiobook by Dominic O'Brien titled, "How to Develop a Perfect Memory." O'Brien is considered the world champion in competitive memorization events. He can, for instance, recall perfectly the sequence of cards randomly shuffled from 36 consecutive decks of cards.

O'Brien teaches mnemonic memory techniques that have their roots in techniques practiced and taught by ancient philosophers, related to how oral history was communicated from one generation to the next. Basically he combines three key skills: association, location, and imagination.

I've been putting what I learn into practice. Here is an example of how it works: I enjoy the teaching of my friend and the pastor of our church, Martin Schlomer, and frequently wish I were better at recalling key points of his teaching, long after the sermon is over; but I always struggle to remember what I hear. (I seem better at remembering things that I type ... I think this is called "tactile memory" ... so when I really want to remember something I type it out, but I don't always have the opportunity to do this.)

So Sunday I decided to put into practice what I have been learning. Pastor Martin preached about the tragic failure of God's anointed King, Saul, as recorded in 1 Samuel 16:14ff (see? I remember that! Not bad, eh?) Verse 16 says that the Spirit of God departed from Saul, after Saul long resisted what God was trying to do through him. (In biblical terminology, this is called "grieving the Spirit.") As good preachers do, Pastor Martin laid out three key points of unfortunate things that happened in Saul's life, as a result: First, he was abandoned by God. Next, he was oppressed by evil spirits sent from God. Finally, he was clueless as to what was happening to him. (Verse 17 records that even his servants saw what he did not.)

So the key words in the outline I wished to remember were: abandoned, oppressed, and clueless. Using association, location, and imagination, I proceeded to build a little story in my brain, in order to illustrate vividly and remember these three words.

For association, I decided to associate each of these three words with a fruit or a vegetable which started with the same first letter. I associated "abandon" with "apple," "oppressed" with "orange," and "clueless" with "cauliflower."

For location, I picked the location I was looking at whilst listening to the sermon -- the stage of our church. The important thing about location is to be able to assign places in a sequence, as if you are going from point A to point B to point C ... so, moving from left to right, I picked the far left side of the stage (beneath a potted plant) as the location for the apple, and the center of the stage (in front of the podium) for the orange; and the right side of the stage, in front of the piano, for the cauliflower.

Next, imagination. I built a story in my head, using these three objects of association, and their location on the stage. In my head, I imagined a man bringing an apple up to the stage, and abandoning it under the plant, running away furtively. Another man places the orange in front of the podium, then proceeds to smash it (oppress it) with his fist. And finally, I see that the cauliflower has been placed in front of the piano; but in my mind's eye I can't see who has placed it there ... I'm clueless!

So, as this story unfolds in my brain, it becomes easy to recall the three key words in the sermon: abandoned, oppressed, and clueless!

But I receive another challenge toward the end of the sermon, when Pastor Martin announces that next week he is going to discuss the three-step process for reconnecting with God: repentance, surrender, and redemption. I think: Can I weave these three key words into my existing story, using the same location, the same objects (but a slightly different association) ... and a little more imagination? And I discovered that I could. Here's how I augmented the story:

At World Vision we have what we call "major donor reps," or representatives. One of these is a friend of mine, Cory Trenda, whom I happened to chat on the phone with on Friday. So I envisioned Cory as the man who abandoned the apple. He was a rep. The association: repentance. (I also envisioned Cory as looking very sorry for what he had done in abandoning that poor apple!)

Next, I envisioned a knight clad in armor ... Sir Galahad ... as the one who was smashing the orange with the broad side of his sword. "Sir" sounds a lot like my second association: "Surrender." (And while he was whacking it, Sir Galahad was shouting at the orange:  "Surrender!")

Finally, the third one was hard, because I knew that clueless me never actually saw who left the cauliflower in front of the piano. But I did now imagine that I saw a flash of red, disappearing behind the piano. Whoever abandoned it was wearing bright red! The association: Redemption. And redemption means "to buy back," so I then envisioned myself walking up to the stage, taking the cauliflower, and leaving a dollar bill in its place.

"Okay," I can hear you objecting, "I can see how you now remember your six key words. But that sounds like a lot of effort ... figuring out the association, visualizing the location, and imagining such an elaborate and crazy story." I admit it was. My brain feels a little tired out by the effort, even now!

So, I'm sure that perfect memory doesn't come without a lot of work and practice. O'Brien says he does NOT have a photographic memory, so he works a very specific mnemonic system/technique (using association, location, and imagination) to achieve his feats of memory. And that as you exercise your brain (just like exercising a muscle), the more you practice, the easier it becomes.

On the other hand, some people, very few people, are born with the "superpower" of a perfect, photographic memory. But interestingly enough, I've read that for many such people this is actually considered a curse. In a "Science Blog" titled "Hell is a Perfect Memory," blogger Jonah Lehrer quotes an article by Samiha Shafy in the German magazine Spiegel Online about a woman named Jill Price who inexplicably developed the superpower of a perfect memory at a specific moment on a specific day in 1985 when she was eating dinner at a restaurant with her father, and suddenly began to remember with absolute clarity everything that has ever happened to her since that moment. Says she:
“People say to me: Oh, how fascinating, it must be a treat to have a perfect memory." Her lips twist into a thin smile. “But it’s also agonizing.”
In addition to good memories, every angry word, every mistake, every disappointment, every shock and every moment of pain goes unforgotten. Time heals no wounds for Price. “I don’t look back at the past with any distance. It’s more like experiencing everything over and over again, and those memories trigger exactly the same emotions in me. It’s like an endless, chaotic film that can completely overpower me. And there’s no stop button.”
She’s constantly bombarded with fragments of memories, exposed to an automatic and uncontrollable process that behaves like an infinite loop in a computer. Sometimes there are external triggers, like a certain smell, song or word. But often her memories return by themselves. Beautiful, horrific, important or banal scenes rush across her wildly chaotic “internal monitor,” sometimes displacing the present. “All of this is incredibly exhausting,” says Price.

We know as a result of advances in neurological sciences that whether or not we have what we consider a "good memory," everything that we experience is stored somewhere in our gray cells. It's just not (normally) readily available for recall, at least by normal means; but using tools like hypnosis, we can usually get at these memories.

So, why is so much of what we experience hidden from our conscious minds? I think people like Jill Price give us a clue to the answer: Our brains actually organize and store away memories, the way they do, for our protection. In 2006 I had a serious cycling accident, which I don't remember hardly any details of. The back of my helmet was crushed and I experienced a severe concussion. People say, "That must have been awful!" I'm sure it was; I just don't remember any of it@ I suspect the memories are irretrievably lost as a result of the brain bruising, I'm not sure. But, while the experience of one or two other very painful bike accidents leads me to believe I probably did experience some pain, I don't remember any of it.

I think for our mortal and fallible brains, to remember everything might indeed be a hell of sorts.

In his blog, Lehrer goes on to quote another case of perfect memory, and its tragic result:
In the masterful The Mind of A Mnemonist, the Soviet neurologist A.R. Luria documented the story of a Russian newspaper reporter, D.C. Shereshevskii, who was incapable of forgetting. For example, D.C. would be bound by his brain to memorize the entire Divine Comedy of Dante after a single reading. Audiences would scream out random numbers 100 digits long and he would effortlessly recount them. The only requirement of this man’s insatiable memory was that he be given 3 or 4 seconds to visualize each item during the learning process. These images came to D.C. automatically.
Eventually, D.C.’s memory overwhelmed him. He. struggled with mental tasks normal people find easy. When he read a novel, he would instantly memorize every word by heart, but miss the entire plot. Metaphors and poetry – though they clung to his brain like Velcro – were incomprehensible. He couldn’t even use the phone because he found it hard to recognize a person’s voice “when it changes its intonation … and it does that 20 or 30 times a day."
So perhaps I should be thankful for my imperfect memory. (As I am thankful for the tools to help me remember things I really want to remember!)

One more thought before I close: What about God? God's memory is surely perfect, isn't it?

And ... the surprising and interesting answer to this question, according to Jeremiah 31:34, is "No, it is not" ...
No longer will they teach their neighbor, or say to one another, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest,” declares the Lord. “For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more.”

When it comes to my sins, my memory is better than God's! Scripture says my sins were nailed to the Cross when Jesus died -- buried in the deepest sea. "As far as the east is from the west," says the psalmist in 103:12, "so far has he removed our transgressions from us."

I am thankful that, in ages to come, God's selective memory will be mine, and that I will be able to rejoice forever with a joy everlasting for what He has done for me!

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Day 18: Advice - Creating Secure Passwords

This one is much easier for me! I'm full of advice for other people. And they love it, I know.

Seriously, if I had one very specific piece of advice for people, it would be how to create and remember secure passwords. It really annoys me when people use way-too-easy-to-guess passwords, putting their personal and company data at risk. I'm sure there are people at Microsoft who use the password "windows" or "computer." And too many people I know use the name of a child or pet. Or worst of all, simply "password."

I've heard lots of password advice, and I think most of it is good, but over the years I've developed my own system, and it is that which I am going to share with you now. Note that I am NOT going to give you ANY of my own passwords ... just a system for creating them and recalling them easily.

First, a couple of caveats. Password requirements vary from site to site. Some give you 6-12 characters, others 10-16. Some allow, some require some a mix of lowe rand uppercase letters, numbers, or special characters. Different sites have different length and complexity requirements.

That said, here's the system I use for creating (and retaining) secure passwords:

First off, remember that many sites require you to change passwords every so often. (As frequently as every 90 days.) Also, it's not a good idea to use the same password for different sites.

This means the first thing you should do is create a password SERIES that makes sense to you. And I'm referring to a series of similar words. For instance, your series might be the names of cities in your county. Or baseball teams in the national league. Or names of relatives. Whatever. For sake of example, let's take a series of names associated with prominent actors.

Second, decide on a series of numbers that you can use that makes sense to you. I recommend three to five numbers. It might be something like: the last 5 numbers of your social security number. (The more secure, the better.) Or four numbers representing a close friend's birthdate. I have a friend who was born 0519, so for sake of example we'll use that set of numbers.

So I take my series of words, in this case the last names of prominent male actors:



Now, I divide each name in half, in a logical place. (Whole words aren't good for password use.) Like this:

Jack | man
Wash | ington
Nichol | son
Bald | win
Kil | mer

In insert my string of numbers in the break, like this:


Next I denote a text position to capitalize, on each side of the divide. If you want an easy way to remember this, pick the first number in your sequence of numbers, 1 or higher. So in this case, it would be the number 1. So, capitalize the letter in the first position on either side of the divide, like this:


Finally, if you want a really secure password, pick an allowable "extracurricular" character (like an exclamation point), and insert it somewhere in your password, at a logical position. Since (in this case) the number 1 is our key number, we might wish to insert it after the first letter, like this:


So now you have a logically derived set of passwords. You can use them for different sites. If you want to remember which site you are using which password for, think about assigning a key letter position to represent which site you are using which password for. For instance, you might assign the very first letter in your password sequence to represent which site. For instance, "B" might represent your primary banking site; so you would use B!ald0519Win for your banking password.

So, even if you don't remember your password, you should be able to recall key facts, and the rules for creating your passwords. When it comes time to access your banking site, you'll think, What actor's name starts with "B"? Hopefully "Alec Baldwin" will come to mind. Then you'll think, how do I divide the word "Baldwin?" ...

Bald | win

Then, "What number sequence am I using to insert in the middle? Ah yes, my friend's birthday, 05/19." So the password is close to:


Then, "Which number in the number sequence first arrives after 0? Obviously, the number one. So my capital letter must be in the first position of each half, like this:


And finally, if the bank site allows or requires a special character, what is my special character? (Hopefully you'll remember it is an exclamation point.) And where should it be inserted? Since "1" is my key letter in my sequence, it will be inserted after the first letter, like this:


Wa-la! You have a very secure password protecting your banking site, and you've also figured out (using the logic of the system) what it is ... even if you can't remember it outright.

TIP: Change all passwords easily every 90 days, by changing the sequence of 3 or 4 or 5 numbers which you use. Move to another friend's birthday, for instance.

TIP: Create a "master password" that you will always remember, and use it only to password protect an encrypted file containing all your other passwords. There are plenty of password-keeper apps designed for this purpose, or if all else fails, you can always encrypt a Word file of your passwords.

Next, I am going to show you a foolproof system for remembering even the most random and obscure passwords!

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Day 17: Things That Rhyme

Okay, here we go.This one I was dreading. In fact, I wrote this post three days ago, when it would have been on time, but ended up dragging it out til now.

Why? I guess I used to be something of a poet. That was 30-some-odd years ago, of course. In fact, my wife says her first real notice of me was when our high school English teacher (whom I had in one period, and she in another) used to read my poetry to her class (unbeknownst to me ... I don't think she named me, or else it would have been the end of life as a teenage boy knew it; so I'm not sure how Darlene figured it out exactly).

I think learning to write poetry is a little like learning to ski (which I also last did almost 30 years ago). If I tried to ski again today, would I remember how to get up on the skis and head downhill? Probably. But I can guarantee I'd really get hurt (or hurt someone) in the process.

So, the safest thing to do is to chicken out. And I won't do that completely, but maybe I'll do the second-safest-thing ... post some poetry that I wrote more than 30 years ago. This one I wrote to Darlene in 1979, and it actually made the front of our wedding program:

The Lord has given many a thing --
A heart to love, a tongue to sing
Eyes to lift to worship Him
Whose ears dull not, nor sight grows dim;
Hands with which, His love to show
Feet to follow where He would go
Yet if He took all these away
And gave just one, but for a day,
Grateful I would always be
That God has given you, to me.
OK, I can hear tongues clucking, and the objections which will surely follow. "Wait! Poetry doesn't have to rhyme," you will say. And I agree. Lately we have been enjoying several magnetic "refrigerator haiku" sets that we received as gifts two Christmases ago. Our refrigerator is now covered with numerous haiku, many on the topic of cats, and in various stages of construction by various people (either us or the young adults in the "Pulse" ministry who hang out around our house).

I hesitate to show off some of the haiku posted by the young adults, for reasons I can share privately if you're really interested. But, here is my favorite, which Darlene created using the "cats" haiku set, in honor of our former kitty, Felicity:
Come here, crazy mice
Make beautiful dream perfect
Come, wonderful food
Way better than any of my best "rhyming" poetry, I know!

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Day 16: Anything for Love

I'm still puzzling over today's assigned topic: "I would do anything for love ... but I won't do that."

This actually makes no logical sense to me. Doesn't the word "that," no matter what "that" is, fall under the category of "anything?"

Also, there are many things you could "do" that would not be loving acts ... and therefore you could not do them "for love." For example, I love my wife dearly and feel that I would do anything for her. I would certainly take a bullet for her. But would I rob a bank? No. Why not? Because robbing a bank would be a sin against God. A sin against God would not be a loving act toward God (or toward others, such as the bank and its investors).

And I'm convinced I can't claim to truly love my wife unless I can love God first.

John Piper illustrates this reality in a wonderful book that my wife and are reading together, called Desiring God. His point is that human beings are fundamentally incapable of initiating true love, because we are fallen. We cannot love God until we realize that He loved us first.

Then as we learn to respond to, love, and desire God, it's this vertical relationship that then makes it possible for us to truly love others (horizontally speaking).

There therefore is no such thing as an act that is unloving toward God, but loving toward another person. All true love is founded in the vertical.

So, you see my conundrum. It simply is a logical fallacy to say that you would "do anything for love." For if you would do anything, it's not true love. True love constrains us to act in the best interest of the person we love, rooted in and motivated by the love which God has nurtured in our hearts.

I'm sure right now some folks are clucking and saying, "That's ridiculous. Of course I love my wife, my kids, etc. ... and I don't even believe God exists."

I guess I have two questions for you: 1) You can define love a lot of different ways. How do you know that what you feel and express is true love? Perhaps it's merely an imperfect shadow of the real thing? And 2) How do you know that the love you are capable of expressing isn't part of what God placed in you when He created you (and may therefore be an imperfect shadow of His true goal for you)?

Of course, after all this deep philosophical reflection, I suppose what Lindsey and Katrina really intended for this topic was something more along the lines of, "Hey, I love you ... but there's no way I'm clipping your toenails for you. You're on your own, you slob."

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Day 15: Most and Least Dangerous Forms of Transportation

This post is back (from April 2012) by popular demand ... plus, it's six minutes 'til midnight and I desperately need something for "January Blog-a-Day" on the topic of "Transportation."


What is the most dangerous form of transportation? And what is the safest?

The answers may surprise you.

Also, it depends on how you look at the data. This page on Wikipedia looks at it in three different ways: 1) Deaths per journey traveled. 2) Deaths per hour spent traveling. Or 3) Deaths per kilometer traveled.

It seems to me like the most logical way to look at this data would be the second choice, deaths per hour spent traveling. If you looked at the first, too much depends on the length of the journey, weighting it (I assume) against longer journeys. If you look at the second, too much depends on the speed of travel, weighting it unfairly toward air travel.

So, here are the stats for deaths per million hours of travel by each of the following methods, starting with the safest and ending with the most dangerous:

BUS TRAVEL: .011 deaths per million hours of travel. In other words, there are 11.1 deaths per billion hours of travel. (Or just over 1 death per 100 million hours of bus travel.)

An average lifetime (72 years) is 630,720 hours in length (72x365x24). There are therefore nearly 159 average lifetimes in 100 million hours.

So, in order for there to be a statistical likelihood of you being killed by traveling on a bus, you would have to ride for nearly 159 lifetimes. So I don't think the average person needs to worry much about taking a bus trip.

RAIL TRAVEL: .030 deaths per million hours of travel. In other words, more than 50 lifetimes' worth of travel by train would give you a good statistical chance of being killed on a train. I'm one of the few (well, truthfully, the only) person I know who has actually been in a train accident. A few years ago I was riding the Amtrak from Chicago to Pittsburgh when we struck a car trying to cheat a railway crossing. We were doing about 80 mph at the time. Actually, the accident didn't even wake me up; no one in my car (at the very end of the short, 7-car train) even felt the impact. You've got a lot of momentum on a train going that fast! What woke me up was the engineer abruptly standing on the brakes (for about a half mile, until the train finally rocked to a stop). Of course, by then we were a good quarter mile past the intersection where the accident occurred. The car we hit wasn't quite so lucky.

AIR TRAVEL: .038 deaths per million hours of travel. Still almost 50 lifetimes' worth of flying, 100% of the time. I find that oddly comforting. Like most people, in the air is (for some reason) where I feel most afraid of dying. Statistically speaking, at least, this makes little sense, at least when compared with other forms of transportation.

However, I have also come closer to actually crashing in an airplane than anyone I know. (In a storm in Alaska in 1979. That story for another time.)

WATER TRAVEL: .050 deaths per million hours of travel. (By boat, I assume. I'm guessing they don't include swimming in this, or the number would probably be far higher. But most people don't consider swimming "travel," I suppose.) So, statistically, 1 death per 20 million hours of boat travel ... that means you could travel by boat for nearly 32 average human lifetimes before you stood a statistically even chance of dying.

I have been in one boating accident, in a speedboat that hit a wake wrong and was flipped 360 degrees so that it landed (backwards, but rightside-up). We all got very wet, and a little bruised, but fortunately no one was ejected from the boat or otherwise hurt.

VAN TRAVEL: .060 deaths per million hours of travel make this the second-safest (behind buses) method of travel on our roads. You could ride in a van for about 26 lifetimes before you stood a statistically even chance of dying. (But of course, who would want to?)

I've never been in a van accident. (Knock on wood.)

CAR TRAVEL: .130 deaths per million hours of travel. Here's where the odds suddenly and rather dramatically decrease for you. You are more than twice as likely to die from a car accident as from a van accident (and nearly twice as likely to die from a van accident as from an air accident). But still, your odds aren't near as bad as I might have otherwise thought, considering how many auto fatalities you hear about. Thirteen deaths per 100 million hours of car travel means you could ride in a car for about 12 lifetimes before you stood a statistically-even chance of death. (Of course, many people spend much of their lives in a car.)

Like most people, I have been in a few car accidents over the years. Only one I consider had significant potential for killing me, and even that one I (thankfully) escaped with just a bad bump on my head. (I told that story recently in this blog.)

FOOT TRAVEL: Think you're safer walking? Think again. There are .220 deaths per million hours of foot travel. So you are nearly twice as vulnerable as a pedestrian, as you are a passenger in a car. And, if you live in the big city, I'm sure your odds are even worse. Still, with 22 deaths per 100 million hours of walking, you could walk for about 7 lifetimes without a serious problem.

I have been struck by a car (as a pedestrian) only once, in the parking lot of my high school, by a female teenage driver who was apparently distracted by a letterman. But fortunately she was only going about 10 mph and I rolled off her hood without injury.

BICYCLE TRAVEL: Here's where it gets personal for me. You are more than twice as likely to be killed during an hour of cycling as you are during an hour of walking: .550 deaths per million hours of bicycling. That translates to 55 deaths per 100 million hours of cycling, or 1 death for every 2.9 complete lifetimes spent on a bike.

I probably spend about an hour a day (on average) on a bike. That means my chances of dying (sometime in my life, assuming that statistic held up) on a bicycle would be a little better than 1 in 69. Actually, since I've only been cycling that seriously for the past 10 years, my chances of survival are probably much better than that. (Let's say I keep cycling for another 30 years, 'til I'm 85, which I hope to do. That means less than half my life investing an hour a day on a bike, so my chances of death about 1 in 130. Much better odds, even for a person who spends a lot of time cycling.)

Strangely enough, and this may be just general bad luck or klutziness, I've already had three life-threatening accidents on a bicycle. The first was being hit from behind by a VW bus (doing 50 mph) while riding home from junior high school. I lost a lot of skin on that one and was pretty sore for a long time, but no broken bones. The second was a bad spill mountainbiking in a remote area, in which I broke a cheekbone, and lacerated my face and kneecap pretty badly. And the third was being hit from behind in a crowded urban area during rush hour, the most damage from that being a serious concussion. In accidents #2 and 3, my helmet (which was crushed both times) probably saved my life. In #1 I wasn't wearing a helmet, and fortunately didn't hit my head at all.

So, as I see it, there are two ways to look at it, given how many incidents I've experienced using various forms of transportation. I'm either extremely unlucky and should stay home, or especially stay away from bicycles. Or else, I've already weighted the odds way in my favor (having beat death three times already) and should therefore cycle with abandon. I choose the second option (as I know cycling is, in general, good for my heart health, and I enjoy it so much besides).

However, note here that there is one more form of transportation even more dangerous than cycling (and it is actually nine times more dangerous even than that):

TRAVEL BY MOTORCYCLE: 4.840 deaths per million hours of motorcycling. Breaking it down into "lifetimes spent on a motorcycle" you are therefore looking at one death per every 206,612 hours spent on a motorcycle. Since the "average life" (as we have been defining it) has 630,720 hours, that means you could spend less than a third of your life on a motorcycle before you would have a statistically even chance of being killed.

Not good odds at all, in my book. I've only been on motorcycles a few times (when I was young), and they scared me to death. Never again. Especially given my experience on bicycles, I will stay off motorcycles, okay?

And I am also sending this blog to my friends and loved ones (you know who you are) who are motorcycle people. Be warned!

Monday, January 14, 2013

Day 14: Food (and how I'm trying NOT to love it so much!)

Wow, today's topic is "food." That ought to be a really easy one for me. As I mentioned in my last post, food is one of the top 10 things that brings me joy!

Hard to know where to start, though. I am acutely aware that any love affair with food is inherently dangerous. So I do this balancing act, walk this tightrope, where I enjoy food as much as possible, but when I get a little too far over the line, I have to reel it back in, do some dieting or fasting, get out and ride a few more miles on the bike or work out at the gym, etc.

So I'm always doing this balancing act where I'm always just a little (and sometime more than a little) over my ideal weight.

So, before I talk about food, here's what I've found that helps me NOT to go off the deep end in my love affair with food:
  1. Listen to my wife and eat what she cooks. She's good at doing healthy. And focus on the things I enjoy but I know are good for me ... fortunately I really enjoy vegetables, and lean meats like fish. (Unfortunately, I also really enjoy cheeses, beer, and chocolate!)
  2. Don't eat or drink after dinnertime. That's easy to do but it's a surefire way to lose control.
  3. Make certain bad foods off-limits (like soda pop, potato chips and french fries)! Then let yourself eat them (in a limited quantity) maybe once a year, just as a special treat. You'll enjoy them more.
  4. Eat a hearty breakfast and make each meal of the day progressively smaller, if you can. This is one my wife doesn't really seem to agree with me on (she just eats oatmeal — yuk) ... but I know I'm right. Even though she's a health professional.
  5. Weigh myself every day so I know when I'm getting close to (or too far over) my established "line in the sand." (Also, ultimately I hope to move my line in the sand closer to my healthy weight!). Record your weight in a daily food and exercise diary, along with every calorie of income and outgo. (I use one that offers a free version that works well for my purposes: That way you can establish a specific program where you know you are burning more calories than you are taking in, and at what rate.
  6. Observe structured times of fasting. I have learned to enjoy a Lenten discipline which has always helped me. (Here's a link to a March 9, 2012 blog I wrote about that, for our church.) When I'm really serious about this discipline, I also try to observe a "sabbath" principle, fasting one day a week, sundown to sundown, while focusing on spiritual goals. And finally:
  7. Partner with someone who has a similar goal, and hold one another accountable.
Okay, wow, now I really don't feel like talking about food! Well, suffice it to say that I've put a few of my favorite recipes (which I've either invented by trial and error, or adapted from others') on my site. Enjoy!

Sunday, January 13, 2013

Day 13: Top 10 (Things That Bring Me Joy)

First, on the topic of numbers, let me start by reassuring you. If you are nervous today because it is the 13th day of 2013, you may be suffering from triskaidekaphobia. Which is, fear of the number 13.

For me, the number 13 doesn't hold any particular significance. There are quite a few numbers in the Bible which hold significance, but there is a fairly large gap in these significant numbers, between 12 and 40. So, 13 really shouldn't be any worse than 14 or 15.

But I digress ... because I'm here to talk about the number 10. Here are the top 10 things that bring me joy, done Letterman style:

10. The natural beauty that God has created around us here in the Pacific Northwest. I love to get out in the forest and hunt exotic mushrooms, or just hike (or bike) the ridges and paths of local mountains. Those rare times (like now) when it's too wet or cold to do much outdoors, are the times I realize how much I am missing by not being "out there."

9. Great food and drink ... I have been blessed by so many really good cooks among my friends and family, and enjoy cooking myself, discovering new recipes, winemaking, etc. ...

8. Being physically fit, getting out on the bike and eating up the miles and enjoying the wind on your face, and that feeling of exhilaration by achieving a physically demanding goal, that surge of adrenalin when you are working your hardest, and ending up your ride without any serious injury ... that's a rush.

7. Having wonderful books to read, movies to watch, music to listen to. We so take for granted the wealth of incredible investment in what has been written for our growth and performed for our enjoyment and inspiration. I spend so much of my time expanding my horizons by exploring all the various worlds that are afforded to my by a good book, movie, or song.

6. Making a decent living at a profession I feel I am good at, working for a company that is doing good in the world and creating meaning and purpose behind the contribution I make with the sweat of my brow. (Well, since my job is more cerebral than physical, I don't mean that literally, but figuratively!) I still can't believe I'm paid to work on social media / communication. That's just plain fun.

5. Brothers and sisters in Christ ... our lives are very full with the fellowship of the saints. Many are young adults who spend a lot of time in our home each week as a part of the young adults group my wife and I pastor. They are a great group of brothers and sisters and make us both feel young again. Hanging out with the saints is one of my favorite things.

4. Giving ... knowing something that I've given up, either time or money or convenience or something else, has been a blessing to another person.

3. Family ... I love being a dad and husband. Now that my kids are grown and have flown the coop, while I still enjoy spending time with them, I recently have discovered anew what a thrill it is to have a granddaughter who adores me. You're never too old to play and giggle and experience together the wonder of being new to the world.

2. The love of my wife. We set aside time (usually on Saturday mornings) just to be together and to talk and to enjoy each other's company. After 33 years of marriage, she still knows how to make my heart go pitter-pat.

1. Experiencing the wonder and beauty of the Lord in a new way. This often happens (as it did today) during a worship song being sung at church, or just strummed on the guitar in the privacy of my home, or sitting in the jacuzzi and listening to a worship channel I've built on Pandora. Or reading His Word and having that sudden, dawning realization that something I just read was directed straight to my heart by the Holy Spirit. The best and truest kind of joy is the kind that we will experience for all of eternity as we gather around the throne and worship the Lamb who is worthy!

Saturday, January 12, 2013

Day 12: Recovery

I have been very, very sick (in-the-hospital, in-an-oxygen-tent sick) only once in my life -- when I was in the seventh grade.

My family lived in the Southern California town of Norco, a town whose motto was "urban living in a rural atmosphere," or maybe "rural living in an urban environment" ... I don't remember which. "Norco" was short for "North Corona." The town's claim to fame was that even though it was within commuting distance of Los Angeles, you could have horses there, and goats, and all sort of countryfied things. There were more horses than people in Norco (literally). There were no sidewalks, just dirt riding paths. And no streetlights. When the Santa Ana winds blew, that fine green film that coated your window sills wasn't dust.

As a kid, of course I loved it. I had an early morning paper route, and delivered paper on horseback -- jumping willy nilly over hedges and fences like Paul Revere warning of British invasion.

But, because we had horses and cows and goats and chickens and a huge garden and more in our acre plot, that also meant as a kid I had chores galore. Feeding animals before going to school was a regular assignment.

I distinctly remember one morning, walking into the tack barn for grain for my horse, when I stopped short, thinking, "Man, I really don't feel well." I had this impending, indefinable sense of doom. I think I returned to the house after chores and told my mom, "I need to stay home. I think I'm getting sick." She was skeptical, but I wasn't usually one to fake it, so she said okay.

My feeling of unwell developed into a fever later that day. I had a cough, congestion, which just got worse and worse. I felt terrible.

A day or two later, she was taking me to the doctor, thinking it was just the usual case of flu. The doctor listened to my chest, then ordered x-rays. After the x-rays came back, there was a hushed, worried conference between the doctor and my mom. "Gosh," I thought, "this can't be good." And, when I saw my mom's face, I knew it wasn't good news.

"Larry," she said, unable to mask her worry. "I am taking you straight to the hospital. You have pneumonia."
I was in the hospital for about two weeks. I spent most of my time in an oxygen tent, hating the cold spray of medication that accompanied the hissing oxygen, and feeling constantly miserable.

Finally, the antibiotics did their work and I was allowed to go home. I spent another week or two at home, recovering.

Recovery. One dictionary definition is "the regaining of or possibility of regaining something lost or taken away." What I had lost was lung capacity, the ability to breathe unimpeded of fluid that robbed me of oxygen.

Ever since that day in the seventh grade when I knew something was desperately wrong, I have felt vulnerable to issues with my lungs. I've had bronchitis or pneumonia numerous times since then (though never requiring hospitalization). I've struggled with reactive airway disease (which is basically short-term asthma), and other issues of lung capacity.

But I am "recovering." I think of the term much like an alcoholic would think of it. A "recovering" alcoholic is still very vulnerable to the ravages of alcohol. I feel vulnerable to the possible ravages of lung infection. Am I fully "recovered?" Probably not ... things have never quite gotten back to normal. Am I "recovering?" Yes.

Likewise, I am (and I think this goes for many of us) a "recovering sinner." The Great Physician has done His magic to save my life from this fatal disease. But, I still feel vulnerable to its effects. Life is a struggle with my tendency to sin. Until the day I die, I probably will feel the struggle. My death will be a result of sin. But, there will be a further, ultimate, recovery. Death will not be the end!

I find great hope in Isaiah 25:7-8 ...
On this mountain he will destroy the shroud that enfolds all peoples, the sheet that covers all nations; he will swallow up death forever.

The Sovereign Lord will wipe away the tears from all faces; he will remove his people’s disgrace from all the earth.

The Lord has spoken.
We are all "recovering sinners." We had a fatal disease and were fundamentally cured ... but are yet vulnerable to the effects of sin.

But, the good news is that the sting of death has been removed. The grave is not the end. Soon our recovery will be complete ... and this is only the beginning of the story!