Archive for January 2021

Hidden Behind the Headlines

January 23, 2021

When I log onto Yahoo (to check college basketball scores) the first screen that appears for me is the screen with the headlines. These days the headlines mostly focus on the downside of life, whether it be the pandemic, riots, or major storm fronts.

Our culture is fixated on the headlines, the drama of the stories, the status of the unrest. We’re influenced by the influencers– sometimes simply because of their beauty or handsomeness– and begin to take on their views and opinions as if they are rational.

Followers of Jesus get sucked into this just as much as anyone else. Our attention so often is diverted to the immediate instead of the eternal. We battle over who’s in charge…Republicans or Democrats…as opposed to Who is in charge?

The Almighty rarely makes the headlines these days, and He undoubtedly is not concerned about it. It says much more about who we are than who He is. When I feel myself sliding off a crumbling cliff created by the heaviness of depressing headline news I turn to the middle of my Bible and reacquaint myself with the One Who gets hidden behind the headlines. I read words that open up the veil of current newsprint.

Like Psalm 98:1-4

Sing to God a brand-new song.
He’s made a world of wonders!

He rolled up his sleeves,
He set things right.

God made history with salvation,
He showed the world what he could do.

He remembered to love us, a bonus
To his dear family, Israel—indefatigable love.

The whole earth comes to attention.
Look—God’s work of salvation!

Shout your praises to God, everybody!
Let loose and sing! Strike up the band!

The Almighty doesn’t need to be on the front page, the op-ed page, or even the back page. He’s made His statements to the hearts of His created. As Jesus said to His followers, “If anyone has ears to hear, let them hear!” (Mark 4:23) God may be hidden in today’s headlines, but He still speaks to our hearts, and His spirit lives within us!

Preventing Punctuation Problem People

January 20, 2021

It’s a ripple effect of texting and other forms of social media, like that bloated feeling a person has after his fourth trip to the Chinese buffet food bar. I wouldn’t call it a catastrophe, but I might put the label of “famine” on it– punctuation famine, that is!

Grading seventh-grade language arts assignments for the past five months has made me realize it isn’t a slip, like when I think I’m typing an exclamation point and I realize I typed the number 1! (In fact, I just typed that three times to get the punctuation point111!) No, the punctuation shortage has become an epidemic. Commas are no longer common, capital letters have fled to the South, and semi-colons are less understood than the 70-year-old hoarder getting counseling on Dr. Phil’s show.

Pretty soon punctuation marks may disappear from our keyboard as if they were carryovers from the Greek alphabet. I have some students who understand the meaning of a comma in the midst of a sentence, but there are other seventh-graders who shave more often than they have one of those squiggly marks appear in their assignment.

So I’ve had to start taking on the role of the mean teacher and taking off points for not capitalizing the first word in a sentence. I need to take the next step toward being defined as cranky and chop off some points for writing a one sentence paragraph that includes sixty words and no separating signs that would allow the reader to take a breath.

I’ve had “martin luther king”, “denver”, “december”, but no one uses lower case letters when they write “The Nuggets” or “Broncos”. Quotation marks are seen simply as being an unnecessary nuisance, like a speed bump on a drag strip! Question marks are questionable, and a colon is believed to just be a body part.

So I’m leading these enlistees through a punctuation boot camp. They are going to get down-and-dirty in the new jungles of strange species of punctuation. When they see their parents they’ll begin to think of parentheses. When they pass a fire hydrant they’ll recall the use of a hyphen. When they watch a hockey game they’ll think of “periods”. I’ll be like a drill sergeant making them view an apostrophe as being an extended hand to keep an ‘s’ from falling off the cliff!

My hope is that come May they may remember to capitalize the month and then say “I did it!” (exclamation point).

Center Wisdom

January 16, 2021

Rubber bands have always made me a bit nervous. When I use one to hold a stack of notecards together or to keep a box-top from flying open, I proceed with caution. You may be doubting my manhood at about this point, but, you see, I hate it when a rubber band suddenly snaps. The snap often results in my fingers getting hit in the recoil. And then I have to do the same thing all over again with another rubber band. It’s like having your mom shovel a second helping of hominy grits onto your plate right after you had survived the last bite of the first helping!

Rubber bands have their limit. They are only so flexible, and then they snap into a worm-like piece of useless rubber.

It’s a visual example of the extremism that is stretching our nation. Both progressive and conservative extremists are bringing us to the snapping point, and the flexibility of our nation is being sorely tested. Those of us in the middle, or leaning some either way can see it, but the ends of the tug-of-war keep pulling like it’s a taffy pull.

As I’ve grown older, I hope I’ve grown wiser in some ways. That wisdom has caused me to see the foolishness and selfishness of political extremists. Their agenda is usually short-sighted and prone to displaying various versions of bullying. Wisdom, more often than not, makes a home in the middle or close to it.

Not to be left out of the equation (And I’m not using the word ‘left’ there to hint at anything!), many churches have also stretched the elastic band of their member bodies. There’s been the pulling on Jesus’ arm to reposition him in one camp or another. Interestingly, this week I was reading some words that were written by Philip Yancey all the way back in 1996. He wrote these words in an article in Christianity Today magazine, entitled “Unwrapping Jesus” (June 17, 1996): “Each time an election rolls around Christians debate whether this or that candidate is “God’s person” for the White House. I had difficulty imagining Jesus pondering whether Tiberius, Octavious, or Julius Caesar was “God’s man” for the empire.”

Jesus was “God’s man” and God’s Son! He was always aware of the pulls to get Him to support this or that agenda. His wisdom, given to us in the Gospels, is void of any agendas but His Heavenly Father’s. He had a social conscience that sought to care for the widows, orphans, the poor, and outcasts; and He displayed a passion for the spiritually lost. He ate with a tax collector who was perhaps the most despised person in his town, and probably the richest; and he walked with fishermen who were about as common as anyone of their time, and struggling to make ends meet.

In the end, the Jesus I follow, knew what His purpose was and where it would lead Him. The factions that He listened to but would not join turned on Him and snapped back.

That’s what happens quite often with the wisdom in the center. The pulling ends won’t give up. The call for unity in the views of the extremists is not a priority, but rather a nuisance. Like the rubber band about to snap, their focus is more on getting a bigger piece of the rubber, regardless of the pain.

My Life in Hair

January 11, 2021

It’s interesting to think of how my hair started out, light and fair, and to consider that in my later years of life it’s gradually been returning to a lighter tint. The grey has begun to force out the brown, like the weeds taking over an uncared for lawn. Of course, I don’t really have a say in the accumulating grey population, unless I want to use one of those products that try to fool people about your hair color.

My life could easily be separated into several hair chapters that tell my story. In going through old family photo albums I can see the progression, or regression in some cases. It begins with a little boy who has been a barber’s dream cut. The electric razor has simply mowed down the hair like our lawnmower at home going back and forth, one row at a time. Five minutes tops and I took a seat beside my older brother who sported the same style, no comb necessary.

Short defined me in my early years: short in height, shorted in prized possessions because, being the youngest, I always received the hand-me-downs, and my short hair. A picture I discovered recently of my South Zanesville Junior High 8th Grade basketball team has me sitting on the end of the front row, noticeably shorter than everyone else, wearing unfashionable geeky glasses and…with short hair. Growing my hair out like 95% of my classmates was not a choice. Mom and Dad had decided the matter, and besides, it saved a lot of unnecessary time being wasted at the barbershop getting all “handsomed-up”!

The hair was permitted to be grown out some– but nothing wild– about the time I hit sixteen. When I say “grown out”, I mean it became necessary to carry a comb with me. It was as close as I came to living on the wild side back in my high school days. It wasn’t necessary for my dad to wait on me at the barber anymore, which may have opened the gates to freedom just a crack. Morris Barber Shop in Ironton, Ohio was right across the street from J.C. Penney’s where my mom worked as the bookkeeper. That meant I could spend as much time as I wanted over there.

My brother had joined the Army just about the time his hair was getting long and been roughly reunited with the buzz. Some other boys in my class were beginning to walk on the wild hair side, growing it out long and parting it in the middle. Vietnam was still going on and the unrest over our country’s involvement was filtering down into sit-ins, protest marches, and long out-of-control hair kept in place with headbands. Not me, though. I was Baptist and clean-cut, like the friends I hung around with.

And then I went to college. I remember coming home on Christmas break during my last year at Judson College. Our basketball team had played in a tournament at Spring Arbor College in Michigan, and then I had taken a bus to Columbus from somewhere close to Spring Arbor. I had grown my hair long, parted it in the middle, and felt like it made my 5’8″ frame look more muscular and imposing. My mom was not impressed. In fact, she was more depressed. Her first words upon seeing me at the Columbus Bus Depot were “Lord, have mercy!” The next day Morris Barber Shop was open I had the “hair nonsense” cut away and was quickly brought back to normal-looking. I’m pretty sure Mom used the word “hippie” in describing me.

A couple of years after that tightrope hair-style walking over a chasm of foolishness, I grew it out to an acceptable length that wouldn’t cause the elderly crowd in any church I worked in to shudder and call a special deacon’s meeting. I tried to find a length with a side part that made me look like I could still relate to young people, while “pastorally” enough for those in the church who paid my salary.

Carol had entered the picture by then. We both wore eyeglass frames that were so big they could have doubled as windshields for our car. Her hair was long, down to her waist when we said our “I do’s”, so mine just needed to be long enough for her to be able to run her fingers through…or, at least, that’s what I hope I’m remembering.

On three different occasions since those years I’ve gotten buzzed for a cause or as a result of a lost bet. The first time was to show my support for a man named Dave Buffmack, who had a brain tumor. Dave was a great guy. I can still hear his laugh, which resembled a sly snicker. The next time I got buzzed was as a result of our VBS kids raising $1,800 for missions. The stipulation was that I would get a mohawk, but if they raised over a thousand dollars I’d get a blue mohawk. I believe one mom wrote a check for $1,000 to make help create the final vivid picture. I went to my barber right after the close of that VBS to get the blue mohawk shaved off. Like my mom’s words from years before, I can still remember Phil Hanson’s words when I walked into his shop: “What bet did you lose?”

The last time I got buzzed was at the end of a basketball season when I lost a bet with one of my players– perhaps the worst free throw shooter of all time. He couldn’t make a free throw in practice so I told him that if he shot 90% for the season I’d shave my head. In the 14th game of the season he shot two free throws and made them both. Those free throws ended up being the only two he shot the whole season in our games. In fact, I’m pretty sure he tried to stay away as far away from the basketball as possible in our final five games. At the conclusion of our team banquet, I was buzzed clean.

It was almost like coming full-circle back to my childhood days. Five-minute haircuts, Morris Barber Shop, no comb necessary. In some ways, those were golden days.

Now I’m into the silver and grey days, signs of wisdom and experience. One of my students recently asked me how old I was. I turned the question back to him. “How old do you think I am?” He put a hand on his chin and considered what the answer could be. “Well, I know that wrinkles and grey hair can be signs of stress and age…so…I think you’re probably somewhere between…30 and 45!”

Sold! The “A” he received for the quarter, however, was earned, not a payoff! I’d bet my hair on it!

What’s My “Jesus Word”?

January 7, 2021

Cary Nieuwhof wrote a blog recently as a result of the Washington protest/unrest. Although written with church leaders and pastors in mind, it had several great points to make about the power of our words. I love it when I read something or hear someone speak that results in causing me to think and ponder the words of the author/speaker.

Cary makes this statement: As Jesus so clearly said, out of the overflow of the heart your mouth speaks.

Word issues are heart issues. The only way to really fix your words is to fix your heart. Sometimes we get so tired of the words we’re hearing that we retreat to silence or irrelevance. Last night, for example, my wife and I got so tired of the reports of what was happening in Washington that we switched channels and started watching the Tennessee-Arkansas basketball game. For someone who grew up as a Kentucky Wildcats’ basketball fan, watching Tennessee play was almost sacrilegious, but we needed a break from the “words”!

Words carry power and influence. They are impactful expressions of our mindset. However, they can be used to lead folks to a place of greater understanding deeper peace, and broadened hope; or they can be used to lead the herd to the edge of the cliff.

The question that came to me, being a Christ-follower, is what’s my Jesus-word for this time? What communication of Christ will inspire me, instead of causing me to change the channels? What word will emerge from my mouth that will be an reflection of my heart?

I think of Jesus sayings at the beginning of the fifth chapter in the Gospel of Matthew. We refer to them as His Sermon on the Mount. He talks about people of mercy and peace, people whose life-priorities are God-glorifying, people who are caring and loving, and people who may be poor in the world’s views but rich in spirit. There are Jesus’ words about grace and forgiveness, servant-minded, and giving. He teaches about inner beauty as being delightful in the eyes of God versus outward piety.

I must do self-inspection of what word my heart is echoing before inspecting the lives of others. We live in a time where criticism has dominated the tapestry. The darkness that shades our hearts affects our vision of our surroundings. For me, I must ask myself why I react with bitterness to a person whose perspective is different than mine? Why am I apathetic toward someone’s passion for a just cause? On the other side, why do I get emotional when I see a child who is seeking to befriend a lonely elderly person?

What Jesus-word will be a guiding force for me in these coming weeks?

Billie Dean Wolfe

January 4, 2021

I was born in Kentucky, close to J. D. Vance’s roots of Hillbilly Elegy fame. Everyone I knew went by two names, first and middle. If someone was referred to only by their first name– aunts and uncles excluded– they were viewed as an outsider or highfalutin. My sister went by Rena Lou, my brother Charles Dewey, and I was Billy Dean.

Except to my aunts! To my Aunts Cynthia and Irene I was Billie Dean. The only other Billies that I knew were all of the opposite gender: Billie Johnson in my high school class, Billie Holiday, Billie Jean King. I never got an explanation as to why my aunts thought I needed an extra vowel to spell my first name, but it appeared on every birthday card they sent me or Christmas present they blessed me with. It may have even been on our wedding present: Mr. and Mrs. Billie Dean Wolfe. I was such a deer-in-headlights during that event that I didn’t notice.

My grandmother, MaMaw Helton, pronounced my first name in such a way that it seemed to warrant more than one letter at the end of it. And then she would roll right into the middle bridge that held the first and last together.

Names were important to us. It connected us to the past and rooted us in the present. I bore the nameplates of a great uncle and an uncle. I was almost a Silas Dean, but, for some reason, my parents yielded to what they stamped on me. Perhaps because Billie Dean flowed better than Silas Dean. Too many “s’es” can cause a lot of spitting. My Uncle Millard (Vance, mind you) chewed Mail Pouch. “S’es” were risky. He even steered away from saying his last name very much!

Still, Billie Dean! It didn’t infuse much manliness into me. I was relieved when I arrived in Ironton, Ohio my sophomore year of high school that some of my classmates connected the closeness of Beowulf, that we happened to be reading, with “Bill Wolfe.” Quickly the new kid was christened with the name of the Scandinavian hero of literature. I became Beowolfe, which was soon shortened to “Beo”!

In a way I had finally shed my aunt-bestowed name, Billie Dean, for a simple three letter replacement. It wasn’t me, but it sounded slightly more heroic. Since I was 5’2″ in 10th grade, I needed all the help I could get.

The Hint of Entitled Assurance

January 2, 2021

I’ve debated back and forth for years with a close friend of mine about the assurance of eternal salvation. I’ve continued to lobby for my belief in the security of my salvation, and therefore eternal life, when a person accepts Jesus as their personal savior. My friend has a hard time accepting that because of the simplicity of it. That is, that someone can say he believes in Jesus and then live a life of leisure, luxury, and looseness.

He has a point that is a bit problematic for one of the foundational beliefs of my theology. In our culture of entitlement, there are people who identify themselves as Christians, but lead lives where God always seems, so to speak, to be invited to the wedding but not the reception.

On my friend’s theological side, however, there always seems to be the risk of seeing salvation as being like a privilege that is in danger of being taken away. My Baptist upbringing at times came at the problem by injecting some guilt into the spiritual illness, similar to a vaccine shot. There wasn’t a list of forbidden behaviors, but there were looks of consternation and grunts of disapproval that were meant to keep us on the golden way. Church attendance (Sunday morning, Sunday evening, and Wednesday night) was one way that our faithfulness was measured. Too often we weren’t thinking about our personal relationship with Jesus because we were focused on how long we had before we needed to be back at church. I always missed Walt Disney on Sunday nights because we were at church. We’d be home in time for Ed Sullivan, but that didn’t have the same zing for a kid who loved Old Yeller and Hayley Mills.

I’ve digressed, however, into a paragraph of “writing whine”.

This morning I was reading something that writer Philip Yancey wrote. He says, “I learn to trust God with my doubts and struggles by getting to know Jesus. If that sounds evasive, I suggest it accurately reflects the centrality of jesus in the New Testament. We start with him as the focal point and let our eyes wander with care into the margins.” (Reaching for the Invisible God, pages 139-140)

If I focus my eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of my faith journey, all the other stuff will work itself out. My discomfort is with those who focus on the other stuff and then insert Jesus in at the end like an uncomfortable punctuation mark. That is what also causes my friend to break into a special kind of rash– people who can cause themselves Christians but not identify with Jesus.

My friend and I may never come to an agreeing point in our debate about “one saved, always saved!”, but it isn’t imperative that we travel the same path to get to the desired destination. We’re like Jesus’ disciples, following the same Teacher, but very different in who we are.