A Cat Stuck in a Bathroom

This morning I was awakened a few minutes after 4:00 by a knocking/banging noise. It took me only a moment to know what the noise was–it was our cat, Raindrop, trying to open the door of the half bath attached to our bedroom. This half bath has a pocket door that connects to the laundry area, which then connects to the landing of the stairs that go down to the basement. Since the pocket door does not close tightly and has some “wiggle room” on its track, Raindrop can push on it with her paws and create a knocking/banging noise, but she cannot open it. She is typically known to do this on Saturday mornings when she thinks we have stayed in bed too late for her liking (and thus delayed her breakfast). We close all of the bedroom doors at night so that Raindrop cannot get into the rooms, but she has free reign of the house otherwise. But I had never known her to do it in the middle of the night.

So, once I realized what the noise was I also sensed that my wife was awake. I said, “Is that the cat?” And she replied, “Yes, and she’s been at it for a while.” Now, my wife is usually a lighter sleeper than I am. I think God gives mothers the ability to hear little noises in the night so that they can hear their children. So she had obviously heard this noise before I had, and I could tell by the sound of her voice that she was irritated by it, but apparently she had not been irritated enough to wake me up to deal with it or to get out of bed and tell the cat to knock it off. But, when snapping my fingers was not enough to make the cat stopped I decided to get up and shoo her on her way. From my side of the bed it is a matter of two steps into the bathroom. So I stepped in and turned the light on. Imagine my surprise when I then saw that the cat was in the bathroom, and she was banging on the door to try to get out. She must have been under our bed (one of her favorite hideouts) when we closed the bedroom door.

I quickly slid the door open, and she promptly ran out. I then decided to use the bathroom myself. I suddenly found myself laughing out loud at the irony of a cat trying her best to get out of a bathroom…so that, in all likelihood, she could go to the bathroom! Here she was inches away from a toilet putting all of her effort into getting out so she could go use a litter box. Now, our cat is not trained to use a toilet, so that obviously was not really an option for her, but it got me to thinking. How often do we try and try and try to get to something we think we want when a much better option is right there? (Seriously, this is how my mind works at four in the morning). Allow me a bit of literary license here and think about this with me: haven’t you ever put all of your effort into trying to open a door–which you have no hope of opening–just to get to an inferior goal to one that may well be much closer at hand but “off of your radar”? I wonder how many times God looks down at us and laughs, thinking (figuratively, of course), “There’s a toilet right there! Forget the litter box!”

There is another application, too. The cat, based on my wife’s report, had been trying for quite some time to get that door to open, even though considerable past experience should have taught her that she would not be able to get it open no matter how hard or long she tried. Yet the person who could open the door–in this case, me–was only a few feet away. The door from the bathroom into the bedroom was not closed–and the cat had to have known that, since she had to have gone through it to get into the bathroom (because I know she was not in the bathroom when I brushed my teeth before going to bed). Had she simply gone back through the door and jumped on the bed she likely would have woken me up. Or she could have meowed. Either way, once I had known she was in the bedroom I would promptly have gotten out of bed to put her out the door. But no, she persisted in trying to do it on her own, stopping only once I entered the bathroom after the noise she was making woke me up. And I think we are often like that, too. We continue to try to solve things on our own or do things our way, even when past experience should have taught us that it was not likely to work, when the One who could open all the doors and knows the answer to all of the problems is close by, just waiting for us to ask Him for help and direction.

So, next time you have a problem that needs solving, just remember my cat stuck in the bathroom…and maybe laugh to yourself before stopping to ask God for help.

Athletes Are Role Models

Unless you ignore professional sports and all major news outlets you have likely heard about Ndamukong Suh’s ejection from the NFL game between the Lions and Packers on Thanksgiving Day. Suh, a defensive tackle for the Lions, was tangled up with Packer’s guard Evan Dietrich-Smith. Nothing unusual about that. As he was getting up, however, Suh pushed Dietrich-Smith’s helmet into the ground a couple of times and then stomped on his arm. This is not the first time that Suh has been in trouble with the NFL; according to the league, Suh has violated their on-field rules five times since joining the league last year. It is the first time that he will be suspended, though–NFL Commissioner Roger Goodell has suspended Suh for two games. This behavior, by the way, comes after a recent meeting between Suh and Goodell, held at Suh’s request after receiving several penalties, and after which Suh said he had a better understanding of NFL rules.

After the game, Suh spoke to reporters and, in my opinion, was not apologetic for his actions. Here’s what he had to say: “I’m first and foremost only going to apologize to my teammates, my coaches and my true fans for allowing the refs to have an opportunity to take me out of this game. What I did was remove myself from the situation in the best way I felt, me being held down in the situation I was in. And further, my intentions were not to kick anybody, as I did not, removing myself as you see, I’m walking away from the situation and with that I apologize to my teammates and my fans and my coaches for putting myself in the position to be misinterpreted and taken out of the game.”

My problems with Suh’s statement are several. He said that he was apologizing only to his teammates, coaches and “true fans.” In other words, he was not apologizing to Mr. Dietrich-Smith, or to the NFL for violating its rules, or to anyone who is not one of his “true fans.” Furthermore, even then he was only apologizing for putting himself in a situation to “allow the refs…to take [him] out of the game.” That sounds an awful lot like avoiding responsibility at worst or saying he is sorry he got caught, at best. The implication is that the officials were looking for an excuse to eject him. And that, quite frankly, is incredibly self-centered. In response to a question specifically asking whether or not he intentionally stepped on Dietrich-Smith, Suh said, “Not by any means.”

Suh is an outstanding football player–he was the 2010 Defensive Rookie of the Year–and he is being well compensated for his play–his rookie contract included $40 million guaranteed. But the bottom line is that he has to follow the rules like everyone else, and he has to accept the consequences if and when he does not. And Ndamukong Suh is responsible for Ndamukong Suh, no one else is.

I have a great deal of respect for Tony Dungy, former head coach of the Buccaneers and the Colts, and I agree with him when he said that the Detroit Lions and their coach, Jim Schwartz, should have taken it upon themselves to address Suh’s overly-aggressive play and thus possibly prevented this from happening. Any good coach should address inappropriate actions by any player. I respectfully disagree with Mr. Dungy, however, when he says that he “has to fault the Detroit organization.” While the team in general and the coach in particular should have addressed Suh’s behavior, the fact that they did not–if, in fact, they did not–does not excuse Suh for what he did. And I specify if they did not because, frankly, I don’t know if they did or not. Maybe Tony Dungy knows they didn’t. But I would like to think that perhaps Him Schwartz has addressed Suh and told him to play within the rules–and that he did it appropriately and without drawing attention to it. But like I said, either way, it is a side issue, not the issue.

All of this, by the way, got me thinking about Charles Barkley’s famous statement in the 1990’s that he was not a role model. He was a basketball player–and a good one–but he did not want the responsibility of being a role model, of having to consider that kids look at his actions on the court (or off) and emulate him. The reality, though, is that being a role model isn’t a choice–for athletes or for anyone else. Everyone of us, if we are alive, are role models for those we are in contact with. People watch what we do and listen to what we say. We are role models–of what to do or what not to do. Charles Barkley was, and Ndamukong Suh is. None of us has the privilege of living, speaking or acting on a (figurative) island or in a vaccuum; none of us can opt to have others ignore our actions.

Please don’t think I am singling out Mr. Suh. He is not the first athlete to behave in a manner than violates the rules, and he will not be the last. His actions are more egregious than some and less egregious than others. And I am certainly not judging him from a position of on-field perfection myself. I have been known to get a bit too competitive on the softball field and, to my chagrin, I also have to confess to being ejected from a baseball game when I was in the eighth grade for throwing my bat and helmet in response to what I was convinced was a poor call by the umpire on a second consecutive at-bat. So I’m not judging Suh, I’m simply using his recent behavior to highlight the fact that what professional athletes do does influence those who are watching–especially those who are young and impressionable. But I am also highlighting the fact that you don’t have to make millions of dollars or be on TV in front of millions of people to have your behavior be influential. Athletes are role models. We all are.

In ALL Circumstances

Over the last few days I have found myself feeling convicted about the importance of giving thanks in all circumstances, not just those that seem easy to be thankful for. I am familiar with the biblical instruction to give thanks even in times when it does not seem like the situation is one for which I should be thankful, as I am sure you are. In 1 Thessalonians 5:18, for example, Paul writes that we should, “give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (ESV). James writes, immediately after his introduction, that we should “count it all joy” when we “meet trials of various kinds” (James 1:2, ESV).

When I am healthy, the weather is nice, all the bills are paid (and there is still money in the bank), and my children are behaving it is easy to give thanks. Not so easy is giving thanks when there is a health issue, it pouring down rain again, there is too much month left and not enough money, or the kids are driving me crazy. I’m simplifying, of course, but I think you get the idea: I tend to be far more thankful when my life seems to be on cruise control.

Paul, of course, had plenty of occasions to be less than thankful, yet he was able to write, “I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content” (Philippians 4:11, ESV). I am sure that I could not honestly write that. I can get irritable if the temperature in the house is warmer than I like it. Pretty pathetic, huh? I know. I am not proud of it, either.

Last week I was almost bursting with excitement and thanksgiving because Sunshine Bible Academy received a very large and unexpected gift for our building fund. I could not wait to tell everyone and to lead a prayer of thanksgiving to the Lord. Why don’t I have the same attitude of thankfulness when money is tight and I am not sure whether or not there will be enough to cover all the bills? Today my brother-in-law begins chemotherapy for esophageal cancer. It is a lot easier to wonder why God allowed that to happen to him a year after he got married than it is to give thanks that the doctors were able to catch it before it spread, and that with today’s medical advancements the doctors feel confident that it can be treated and, eventually, removed. My step-nephew is about to be redeployed to Afghanistan. It is easier to worry about his safety than it is to give thanks for bringing him home safely from his first deployment and for allowing him to be home for the birth of his daughter.

These are just a few examples. I could probably go on and on, and I imagine you could, too. Because we live in world full of fallen people there will be sickness, disease, war and famine. There will be unemployment, debt and decay. There will be murder, drugs, rape and abuse. I am not making light of it or excusing it, simply acknowledging that it exists, and will continue to do so. And I am not suggesting that we have to be thankful for those things, nor do I think Paul and James would suggest that we should. But they would both agree that even in the midst of such circumstances we should still be giving thanks.

Happy Thanksgiving

Thanksgiving is one of my favorite times of the year. I think it just may be my favorite holiday, though Christmas is a close second. I love autumn, anyway (though living in South Dakota now I don’t get to enjoy the changing colors of the trees!), but Thanksgiving is such a special time with loved ones, and is accompanied by such yummy food (some of which we get at no other time of the year!) that it is hard to bear. Of course, more than anything else, Thanksgiving is a time that we are basically forced to stop whatever else we have going on and take time to reflect on the many blessings that the Lord has given us.

Thanksgiving is also an important part of national history, from the first Thanksgiving with the Pilgrims and Indians, to the many presidential proclamations for days of Thanksgiving and prayer. When it comes to the latter, most of us have seen the more notable proclamations of George Washington and Abraham Lincoln, but there are some wonderful proclamations by other U.S. presidents, too. I am particularly fond of the one issued by President Grover Cleveland in 1887, which reads, in part…

The goodness and the mercy of God, which have followed the American people during all the days of the past year claim our grateful recognition and humble acknowledgment. …

On the day let all secular work and employment be suspended; and let our people assemble in their accustomed places of worship and with prayer and songs of praise, give thanks to our Heavenly Father for all that He has done for us while we implore the forgiveness of our sins and a continuance of His mercy.

Let families and kindred be reunited on that day and let their hearts, filled with kindly cheer and affectionate reminiscence, be turned to the source of all their pleasures and to the Giver of all that makes the day bright and joyous.

And in the midst of our worship and enjoyments let us remember the poor, the needy, and the unfortunate; and by our gifts of charity and ready benevolence let us increase the number of those who with grateful hearts shall join in our Thanksgiving.

I won’t get into what would likely happen if the president (regardless of his name or party) were to issue such a proclamation today. I think we can agree that the response would likely include some legal threat and endless tongue wagging by the ADL, ACLU and Americans United for the Separation of Church and State. Sad, but true.

Nevertheless, I choose to be challenged by Cleveland’s words…to remember to give thanks to God for His many blessings on me and my family, and to remember that I am so much more blessed than so many others who are “poor, needs and unfortunate.” It is also an excellent reminder that no small part of what I have to be thankful for is something that God took away from me–my sins–and that I need to continue to “implore” Him for the forgiveness of the sins I still commit.

As you gather with your friends and family tomorrow, I trust that you will pause to give thanks for God’s blessings on you, and on our nation. There are many verses of Scripture that remind us of the importance of giving thanks. Perhaps none of them are more poignant than Psalm 107:1, “Oh give thanks to the Lord, for He is good, for His steadfast love endures forever!”


“Please Leave”

At Sunshine Bible Academy each student participates in a “gratis” program. Gratis, of course, means “free,” but through this program students have areas which they are responsible for helping to keep the school neat and clean. Some students clean classrooms, some take out trash, some help in the kitchen and the scullery, others clean staff offices. One of the juniors is responsible for cleaning several staff offices, including mine.

Initially, I’ll admit, this took me some getting used to. I have never had someone regularly clean my office for me before. Once in a while someone might take the trash out for me if all of the trash was being emptied, but as often as not I would do that myself. I usually vacuumed my own floor, and (eventually) did my own dusting. (Actually, my wife has been known to dust my office for me on occasion, too). But now, at least twice a week, Shanna comes into my office to clean. Some days she just takes the trash out, but sometimes she will dust, sweep or mop, too.

When the day came that she was ready to mop for the first time Shanna asked me, as politely as possible, “Can you please leave so that I can mop?” If I stayed at my desk she could not clean everything properly–she would not have been able to get under my desk, for example, and even behind my desk it would have been inconvenient to work around me. I have joked with Shanna that she is the only person in the whole school who can kick the superintendent out of his own office. Of course, I could have said no, and refused to leave, but by doing so I would have prevented a thorough cleaning–meaning there would still have been some “mess” in my office. In fact, that mess probably would have been even more noticeable because everything else would have been so clean.

I recently realized that this is a perfect metaphor for what Christ wants to do in my life–and yours. Through the Holy Spirit, He wants to clean out the dirt and dust and trash in my life and make me clean. In order to do that completely, though, He asks me to get out of the way. To give up my claim to my life and let Him do what need to be done. Quietly, He asks me to “please leave.” Just like with my office, I could choose to stay. As amazing as it is, I have the power–as do you–to tell Almighty God, “No, I’m not budging. You can clean over there if you want to, and it’s fine to take the trash out, but I’m keeping this drawer and this area here just the way it is. Don’t touch it.”

When Shanna asks me to leave my office it is so that she can clean completely. If I refuse to go, she will still clean, but her job will be incomplete. Truth be told, though, most of what she will not be able to clean will not be visible to anyone else, because it will be behind and underneath my desk. Similarly, I often allow the Holy Spirit free access to those parts of my life that everyone else will see because I don’t want them to see my dirt and dust. I want them to see me shiny and polished. I kinda like to keep the area under my desk to myself, though. After all, no one is going to see it, and I’m just not sure I’m ready to yield that part of my life to the Lord yet.

Just as Shanna would not physically evict me from my office, the Holy Spirit will probably let me keep that dirt and dust in my life for a while. If I am in a right relationship with the Lord, though, I won’t have peace about it. I will want to get out of the way and let Him do a thorough cleaning.

Also like my office, though, the dirt, dust and trash of life will accumulate again after a while. It isn’t a one-time cleaning. It needs to be done regularly in order to keep it clean. And just like I could agree to leave sometimes when Shanna asks me to, and say no other times, I might yield to the Spirit one time, and hold my ground the next. It’s a day by day, moment by moment decision. What is guaranteed is that the Spirit will be back soon, saying “please leave.” The question is how I will respond.

The Easy Way Out

Having spent my entire professional career working with children–and more than half of it to date in a residential setting–the fact that medication is the quick and easy solution pursued by many parents and physicians for misbehaving children is not news to me. When I started teaching in 1998 the letters ADD (attention deficit disorder) were just starting to be widely used (at least in a context other than math class!) Since then, we have added a letter, and now there is also a diagnosis of ADHD…attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. There are a variety of drugs that have been developed for the treatment of ADD/ADHD, and sadly I think I have probably encountered children on all of them (and some children on more than one!) What really shocked me, though, was a report I recently read stating that the American Academy of Pediatrics is now recommending that doctors should begin treating ADHD in children at age 4 if behavior therapy fails to be effective.

According to the U.S. National Library of Medicine, ADHD “is a problem with inattentiveness, over-activity, impulsivity, or a combination.” As the father of a 4 year old and as someone with fifteen years of experience working with children (I worked in summer day camps before I started teaching) I would submit to you that inattentiveness, over-activity and/or impulsivity are normal traits of childhood development! Are there times that I wish my son did not have quite so much energy or was a wee bit more attentive to my instructions? Ummm, yeah. Most days, in fact. Do I think he needs to be medicated? Nope. It has never even crossed my mind. And if it crossed someone else’s mind and they suggested it to me I would (politely, I hope) invite them to mind their own business.

The National Library of Medicine, by the way, states that in order for a diagnosis of ADD/ADHD to be made the symptoms described above must fall outside the “normal range for a child’s age and development.” NLM goes on to state that ADHD affects 3-5% of school aged children. Now, there is considerable debate among the medical and mental health communities as to what really qualifies as ADHD behavior, or even, in some cases, whether or not ADHD is a legitimate disorder since the precise causes of it are not known. That is a discussion for another day and time. For the sake of this argument, let’s assume that ADHD is real and that it is caused by a variety of things including genetics, diet and environment. (Incidentally, that is the position to which I hold. Since this is my blog, it works nicely that way). Even assuming that, though, it is startling to see that, according to the Center for Disease Control and Prevention’s 2007 National Survey of Children’s Health, many more children have been diagnosed with ADHD than should have it.

The NLM, remember, indicates that ADHD affects 3-5% of school aged children. The CDC survey, which reported by state the percentage of youth 4-17 who have ever been diagnosed with ADHD, had 5.6-7.9% as it’s lowest reporting threshold, and even then only eleven states fell within that range. Put another way, only 22% of U.S. states have a reported percentage of children diagnosed with ADHD that falls within a range that begins higher than the stated highest percentage of children who should be affected. Another twelve states reported 8.0-9.5% of children 4-17 having been diagnosed, and twelve more reported 9.6-10.9%. That leaves fifteen states reporting between 11.0 and 15.9% of their 4-17 year old children having been diagnosed with ADHD. Yes, thirty percent of U.S. states have had two to three times more children diagnosed with ADHD than likely have it (even assuming the high-end “normal” percentage of 5%)!

I want to stress two points. First, I am not suggesting that ADHD is bogus or that children should never be medicated. I have worked with enough children, and seen the benefits of medication in enough cases, to know that medication is sometimes a necessary part of helping individuals to behave and focus. God has blessed humans with the ability to think and to develop scientific solutions to problems that years ago had no known treatment, and for that I am thankful. Furthermore, medication can sometimes bring a person to the point where other interventions can enable additional progress that could never be made without medication. Just a few days ago I spent forty-five minutes on the phone with a young mother with a six year old son who has been diagnosed with ADHD, adjustment disorder and pervasive development disorder (NOS). Her son had also sustained a serious head trauma at age two, resulting in a subgaleal hematoma. I do not doubt that that young man requires not only some medication but some intensive treatment to help him be able to function in a normal and healthy manner. What I appreciate about his mother is that she wants to get him the help that he needs but also wants to make sure that he is not just arbitrarily prescribed the latest ADHD drug or sent to the most convenient treatment facility. She called me, despite the fact that I am 1500 miles away, because she knows me and knows I would do anything I could to help her make the best possible decision for her and for her son. Other times the diagnosis is not nearly as serious as that but there is a legitimate need for medication in order to overcome a chemical imbalance. There is no shame in utilizing or even seeking medication when it is genuinely necessary.

The second point I want to make, though, is that medication is not the answer most of the time. As a society we have allowed ourselves to digress to the point where we are too often unwilling to put concerted time and effort into solving problems, preferring instead to have a quick and painless solution. After all, we can watch hundreds of channels with the movement of our index finger, we can heat our food with the push of a couple of buttons, we can communicate around the world via text, voice and/or image with a few key strokes…so why not get our children to behave by giving them a pill?

The sad truth is that most of the medications prescribed for ADHD, and especially in the earlier years of such treatment, were never tested on children. Translation: we have no idea what the long-term ramifications of years of taking this medication will be on today’s children. An equally sad truth is that we are allowing parents to abandon their God-given responsibility to raise their children. Raising children, by the way, requires time, effort, patience, perseverance and discipline. Some years ago I had the opportunity to listen to Dr. Malcolm Smith talk about working with youth, and I also had the opportunity to sit beside him at a dinner and talk about this issue. Dr. Smith has spent the majority of his career working with the most violent children in the United States–those you have heard about on the news for killing their parents, teachers and classmates. He has also maintained a private counseling practice. He is squarely in the realm of those academics and practicioners who might be expected to tout the benefits of prescription medication to help children behave. But he is not. In fact, what Dr. Smith said, more than once, is that the most effective method of working with children who are inattentive, overactive and impulsive, is “consistent, loving discipline over time.”

It’s no coincidence that is also what the Bible says….

Eligibility Requirements

This morning I met the recruiter for our area for the U.S. Army, and her boss who covers a much larger area (including some 360 high schools, I believe he said). In the course of our conversation he told me something that surprised me a bit: he said that only two or three out of every ten high school students right now meet the eligibility requirements for the Army. Interestingly, though, he said that most of those who are ineligible are ineligible not for academic reasons but for moral and ethical reasons. He mentioned marijuana use and alcohol use, which I might have expected. He also, however, mentioned something I don’t think I had ever thought of in terms of the Army–the incredibly foolish things people post on their Facebook and MySpace pages, and the blatantly stupid if not obscene handles some people select for their e-mail addresses (the preceding terminology is mine, not his).

This conversation left me with two thoughts about the U.S. Army, and one about the Lord’s Army. Regarding the U.S. Army, my first thought was that there must be a very ideal correlation between the number of new recruits the Army needs these days and the number of well-qualified applicants, since at various times in our history the Army never would have been so picky. That the Army is so much more selective now, by the way, is a good thing, in my opinion. Not only does modern warfare and defense require much more technologically advanced knowledge than it has in the past, but I think I would find plenty of company when I say that the threshold for qualifying for military service should be considerably higher than having a pulse and a desire to blow things up.

The second thing this made me think of was how long-lasting and consequential ill-advised decisions made in the heat of the moment or in youthful ignorance can be. The background checks mentioned by this recruiter are things I have done. As someone in a position to make hiring decisions, I have Googled applicants and checked to see if they have Facebook content that is available to the public. (I avoid MySpace like the plague). I have looked at e-mail handles, too. And I know you know the ones we’re talking about. The ones that might be funny when you’re in high school or college, but when included on a professional resume or application demonstrate an incredible lack of tact and professionalism at best and intelligence at worst.

Regarding the Lord’s Army, though, this conversation reminded me again of how glad I am that the eligibility requirements there are much less exacting. In fact, if I did everything perfectly when it came to earning good grades, keeping my Facebook page clean, and never getting in any trouble with the law, all while sending all of my e-mails from an e-mail handle dripping with Christian-ese, the Lord would tell me I had not been accepted. Only by admitting that I could do nothing on my own to earn my way in and that in and of myself I am completely unworthy to join His Army can I even hope to become eligible. And only by accepting that Jesus Christ came to earth as a man, lived a perfect life, died upon the cross and rose three days later, winning the battle over sin and death, can I get in.

As we approach Thanksgiving, this is the thing I am more thankful for than any other: I am in the Lord’s Army, and only because “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that whoever believes in Him will have everlasting life.”

An Open Letter to the ADL

In today’s mail I received a letter from Jennifer Nielsen, the Project Director for A World of Difference Institute and Director for the Training and Education Curriculum Division of the Anti-Defamation League. Her letter begins thus: “As the December holidays approach, we at the Anti-Defamation League–one of the nation’s premier organizations defending religious liberty–know that many school districts are faced with difficult questions about how to appropriately acknowledge the December holidays.” The letter goes on to explain how a school can celebrate diversity, respect different views on religion, and “comply with the United States Constitution.”

How might we do that? According to the ADL we would do it by never endorsing any religious faith over another. We may teach about a holiday only if it furthers a “genuine secular program of education.” Furthermore, religious symbols are “not appropriate seasonal decorations” because “symbols of religious holidays make some students feel uncomfortable and unwelcome.”

The letter’s accompanying Quick Guide includes instruction that a creche (i.e., a nativity scene or even simply a manger) is never acceptable at a public school, whether alone or as part of a mixed religious display with multiple religions represented. (The guide states that the same holds true for any government property). Furthermore, “mixed religious and non-religious decorations” are never acceptable, and “non-religious seasonal displays” such as white lights, reindeer and snowmen are acceptable so long as “more than one holiday or religion is represented by the ‘non-religious’ images chosen.” Oh, and the Supreme Court has ruled that Christmas trees are “non-religious.”

Am I the only one struck by the incredible stupidity of guidelines proclaiming that religious decorations are never acceptable, and that non-religious ones are, so long as those non-religious decorations represent more than one religion?

I could delve into a very lengthy discourse on the absurdity of most of the contents of the letter and guide, but I will spare you. I could also engage in a discussion about whether or not a public school should acknowledge or celebrate any “religious holidays,” but I will skip that for now, too. Of course, there is a wonderful and very simple solution to this issue: Don’t enroll your student in a government school! And since Ms. Nielsen either doesn’t realize that Sunshine Bible Academy is not a government school, or feels that we are in need of her ridiculous guidelines anyway, I am sending her the following letter by U.S. Mail:

Ms. Nielsen,

I am in receipt of your recent letter regarding “the December holidays” and the ADL’s suggestions on how to “appropriately acknowledge” said holidays. I submit that I respectfully disagree with the vast majority of the contents of your letter and the accompanying Quick Guide.

I consider most of the guidance that your mailing includes for public schools to be in error. However, since our school is a non-public school, I will refrain from going into a detailed examination of those errors and simply ask that you remove our school from your mailing list.

As we celebrate Christmas next month we will be focusing on one “religion” and one religious observance—the birth of Jesus Christ, who came to earth in the form of a man to live a perfect life, die a sacrificial death, rise again three days later, and in so doing make possible the forgiveness of our sins. I trust you will know and celebrate the true meaning of Christmas this year, too. That will be our prayer for you and your organization as we celebrate next month.

On behalf of Sunshine Bible Academy, may I be the first to wish you a Merry Christmas!

Jason B. Watson

Servant Leadership

Today I accompanied a group of eighth graders on another service project. This time we went to help an area rancher whose wife recently suffered serious injuries to her left arm after getting it caught in a combine. The work that we did was pretty simple, really. First, we went around to the various hay fields to pick up twine that had snapped off of last year’s round bales when they were moved from the fields to the house. Apparently this twine would get all wrapped up in the rake when the field is harvested next year if it was not picked up. After lunch we helped clean “the shop,” which included putting things away and sweeping the floor.

As I was sweeping the shop floor, pushing piles of dirt and trash into larger piles, I was reminded of a story my friend Mark Snodgrass likes to tell about the time he and I “met.” Truth be told we had met a few days earlier in terms of formal introductions, as we were both new on staff at a children’s home in Virginia. But the first time we spent any time together was mopping the floor of the gymnasium in preparation for the organization’s 40th anniversary celebration coming up fast. Mark likes the story because it illustrates perfectly the fact that there should be no job that is beneath anyone. Mark came to the children’s home with an impressive resume that included a couple of graduate degrees and considerable experience in the U.S. Army, as a city manager, and as an executive for the Boy Scouts. My resume was much less impressive, but I was Mark’s “boss,” in that he and his wife were hired to be houseparents and I was hired to be the Assistant Program Director. Just over a year later I would be the Program Director and Mark would become the Assistant Program Director.

Fast forward a few more years and I was now the Executive Director of that organization. Mark had left and was serving about 45 minutes away as a pastor of a small church. One day as I was sitting in my office my friend Carl Etheridge came in. When Mark left to pastor the church, Carl became the Program Director. Carl told me that someone on our staff (who shall remain nameless in order to protect the guilty) had balked at a task he had been asked to do, saying that he was too highly educated to do something so menial. Carl and I shared our mutual disgust for this kind of attitude, but I also thought immediately of Mark–who was a mutual friend of Carl and me. I told Carl that Mark would get a kick out of the incident, and told him that Mark would immediately recall the story of our experience mopping the gym floor. So I put Mark on speaker phone and called him. I got the reaction I expected.

That incident, however, led to what I think may be the only time I can recall in what has now been ten years of holding the top executive position at a few Christian ministries where I told an entire staff of people in no uncertain terms that as long as I was in the position I was in there would be no room on our staff for that kind of attitude and that should something like that ever again come to my attention the guilty party would be dismissed immediately.

Mark and Carl were both promoted from within at the children’s home. Both of them are older than me (Mark could be my father, Carl could almost be my grandfather) and both of them had considerably more life experience than I did, but I did not promote them for those reasons. I promoted them primarily because I knew that they would lead by example–that they would never ask anyone else to do something that they had not done or would not be willing to do themselves. Mark and I mopping the gym floor is one of many examples I could give. I could tell a similar story about Carl and I stripping and waxing the dining hall floor over spring break one year.

I don’t recall anyone ever point-blank telling me that I needed to be a servant leader, someone who leads others by my example. I don’t recall ever making a conscious decision that that is the kind of leader I would be. But I do know that the people in my life who have had the strongest influence on me have been those kinds of people. I can remember, for example, the two government/economics teachers in my high school. Every other teacher who got food from the line in the cafeteria would go to the front of the line, get their food and disappear into the teacher’s lounge. Mr. Giga and Mr. Kolbe, though, would stand in line with the students and talk to those in line around them. Something that simple made an incredible impression on me, and on many other students at OHS too, I am sure.

Now, I would be less than honest if I did not admit that it I did wonder today while sweeping that shop floor if I was really making the best use of my time. After all, like Mark when we were mopping the gym, I have several graduate degrees now, and I have “important responsibilities.” I mean, I have more letters that come after my last name than I have in my last name if I want to list my degrees. But, thankfully, that thought did not last long. I realized that what I was doing was important, because I was helping someone who had a need, I was doing it alongside some really cool kids, and I was leading by example.

My point here is not to pat myself on the back. I’m not big on tooting my own horn, quite frankly. But I am troubled by the fact that servant leadership is so unusual. The rancher we were helping today made a comment as we were preparing to leave that he never knew superintendents were normal people. He said he couldn’t get over the fact that, “the Superintendent of Sunshine Bible Academy is sweeping the dirt on my floor.” Did that make me feel good? Sure. But please believe me when I tell you that more than anything else it makes me sad. I know the gentleman who held this position before me, and I am confident that this rancher did not mean to disparage him in any way. The truth is, though, this idea has come to my attention before. At the last school I was at I received all manner of astonished looks and comments when I helped take out the garbage or sweep the cafeteria floor. At the children’s home it was, at least initially, considered unheard of that the Executive Director would be helping to weed eat or trim hedges or paint walls.

The Gospels are full of examples of Jesus leading by example and serving others. I suspect He would have no qualms about sweeping dirt, taking out trash, mowing grass, washing dishes…whatever needs to be done. Here’s my challenge to you and me…why is it so unusual for someone in a position of leadership to do such things now?

Teachable Moments

Today I accompanied a number of students from Sunshine Bible Academy to a local ranch. The 9th through 11th graders are scattered around the state right now for SBA’s annual Servant Days, so some of the younger students and their teachers thought that it would be a good idea for them to get involved in some kind of service project, too. The rancher we went to help had already harvested his corn, but there was–as I assume there always is–corn left behind after the harvest, and this rancher wanted to collect that corn to feed to his livestock. (Disclaimer: I am not a farmer, have no experience with farming, and may use some terminology incorrectly in the process of this entry. Your understanding is appreciated).

So, each older student had a five gallon bucket and was accompanied by a younger student as they walked through rows of harvested corn looking for corn that had been left behind. They would pick up the corn, shuck it, drop it in the bucket and eventually, when the bucket got full, empty it into the bed of one of the 4-wheel farm vehicles in the field. (I got to drive a John Deere Gator. And that, believe it or not, I had done before. But this one was completely enclosed–a huge benefit with the South Dakota wind!)

As I was helping one set of students collect corn I could not help but think of the biblical account of Ruth gleaning in Boaz’s field. I asked the younger student if she remembered that biblical story, and, when she said she did, told her that Ruth did something very much like what were doing. After Boaz’s workers had harvested the wheat, Ruth went behind them and gathered wheat that had been left behind. She would then take it home so that she and Naomi would have something to eat. The student seemed to catch the similarity, and also added, “But I don’t think we are taking the corn home.” You have to love the literal mindedness of so many elementary students (especially when the student in question happens to be your daughter!)

Now, I am not sharing this to pat myself on the back, but to point out how we are called to take advantage of teachable moments when they arise. We read in Deuteronomy that parents have the responsibility to teach their children about the Lord “when you sit in your house, and when you walk by the way, and when you lie down, and when you rise” (Deuteronomy 6:7, ESV). Not that we will be gleaning corn every day, or find ourselves in situations that so clearly correlate to Bible stories–but that is not the point, nor is it necessary. It should be possible to identify teachable moments every day. Of course, before we can identify them and use them to teach biblical truth, something else has to happen. Before we can teach about the Lord when we sit in our house, walk by the way, lie down or rise, we must be thinking about the Lord when we sit in our house, walk by the way, lie down or rise.

Even when we are not consciously and intentionally thinking about the Lord as we go about our daily activities, if we are in a right relationship with Him we will find that He will teach us things, reinforce biblical truths and call to mind lessons we have learned and things He has done as we go along our merry way. Sharing the story of Ruth with my daughter today is but one example of the things that I thought about while I was in that corn field. After a while, I was not right with my daughter and Staci (the 8th grader she had buddied with) any longer. I found myself walking through a harvested row by myself looking for stray ears of corn. As I did so, another biblical story came to mind–that of the prodigal son.

I am sure you are familiar with the story. After wasting his inheritance on “riotous living” the young man found himself employed to feed pigs. He was in such dire straits that he found himself longing after the pig slop he was dishing out to the hogs. This came to mind because I was thinking about the fact that I was collecting corn that would be fed to livestock. In the state that corn was in, I would not eat it. Yet, how often have I been guilty of wasting my time, talents and treasure on the things the world has to offer–and even found myself longing after the slop that the world has in abundance–when my Father has the very best and He would love for me to come back to Him to partake of it.

One other thing came to mind as I was gleaning corn today. As I would pick up ears of corn I would remove the shucks and drop it to the ground. Only, thanks to the strong South Dakota wind, it rarely fell straight to the ground. It would blow away. The corn shucks are thin, light and weak, and when confronted with a gusting wind they no choice but to go wherever the wind blew it. And quite frankly, I didn’t care where it went, because it has no value. It was worthless to me, and to the rancher I was helping. That reminded me to the fact that my works on this earth will someday be separated like wheat from the chaff. I know that wheat and chaff and corn and shucks are not exactly the same thing (give me some credit!), but I think the point is the same. I have seen threshing floors and even learned about the various ways that wheat and chaff was separated during colonial times. One way that I saw demonstrated at George Washington’s Mount Vernon was to lay the harvested wheat on a blanket, beat it with an implement designed for the purpose, and then, with people at each corner, lift the blanket, and toss the contents into the air. The wheat is heavy enough that it would fall back down to the blanket (just like the corn would fall to the ground if I dropped it). The chaff, however, is light, and it would be blown away by the wind–just like the corn shucks. Someday all of the worthless things that I do will be blown away too. Or burned in the fire.

The Bible is full of agricultural metaphors for spiritual lessons. As a new resident of a state with lots of agriculture, I suspect I may find myself picking up on many more reminders of Bible lessons. But working on a ranch or living in the country is not a requirement for finding opportunities to be reminded of biblical truth in our everyday lives. Wherever you are, whatever you are doing, be open to the still, small voice of God. You will find plenty of teachable moments–when He will teach you something, and when you can teach others.