Most Admired

I suppose the results are a month old now, but I just came across USA Today’s 2011 Most-Admired People list. USA Today and Gallop Poll has been around quite a while–according to the article in USA Today Gallup first asked the question in 1946.

Before I make any comment on the lists, I suppose I should share the results…

Most-Admired Men
1. Barack Obama
2. George W. Bush
3. Bill Clinton
4. Billy Graham
5. Warren Buffett
6. (tie) Newt Gingrich
6. (tie) Donald Trump
8. Pope Benedict XVI
9. Bill Gates
10. Thomas Monson

Most-Admired Women
1. Hillary Clinton
2. Oprah Winfrey
3. Michelle Obama
4. Sarah Palin
5. Condoleezza Rice
6. Laura Bush
7. (tie) Margaret Thatcher
7. (tie) Ellen DeGeneres
9. (tie) Queen Elizabeth
9. (tie) Michele Bachmann

Several things come to my mind immediately when I look at these lists. First, the majority of the individuals on the combined lists are politicians (or wives of politicians), but there are more on the list of most-admired women (8) than most-admired men (4; 5 if you count Donald Trump as a politician, but I don’t). Second, the other most-admired individuals are all wealthy and successful in business or are religious leaders in the case of the men, or are successful in the field of entertainment, for the women. One might convincingly argue that Oprah is successful in business and entertainment, of course. Three, two of America’s ten most-admired women are not American, but British.

I suppose it stands to reason that politicians would be among the most admired individuals, because they are in positions of authority and leadership and they are often in the news, so they have substantial name recognition. I don’t have the numbers to support this assertion, but I would venture a guess that the sitting president makes the list most every year, and the same probably goes for the first lady. In fact, the USA Today article reports that Hillary Clinton has topped the list 16 times, more than any other woman, while Eleanor Roosevelt led it 13 times. Former first lady Barbara Bush has made the list 18 times. Adlai Stevenson, Jesse Jackson, George W. Bush and Hubert Humphrey have each made the list 7 times.

That there are three religious leaders on the list is not surprising to me, either. Billy Graham has made the list every year the poll has been taken, and has made the top ten on the list 55 times. The Pope is also a well-known and widely respected and admired individual. I did find it surprising, in all honesty, that Thomas Monson made the top ten because, quite frankly, I did not recognize his name. He is a Prophet in the Mormon church. Given that Mormonism has received considerably more attention of late, due in no small part to the fact that two of the GOP presidential candidates are Mormon, this is somewhat more understandable,but I find it interesting that Monson is the one making the list and not Mitt Romney. I looked at results going back to 2008 and Monson did not make any of those lists, though the Dalai Lama did appear several times in the past. For Monson to make the list indicates either than more people are looking into Mormonism and thereby know who he is, or that a disproportionate number of the survey participants are Mormon.

I think it is interesting that Warren Buffett and Bill Gates made the list, and that Steve Jobs didn’t. But Gates has made the list in every year that I checked (2008-2011) and Jobs never did. 2011 was the first appearance for Buffett, too. I also find it interesting that no athletes made the list in 2011. Michael Jordan has made the list seven times, but in 2011 no athletes made the cut. Apparently Tim Tebow finished just out of the Top 10, but he did finish ahead of the Dalai Lama. Actually no athlete has made the list from 2008-2011.

What does all this really mean, though? Well it does not mean much, of course, but there are probably some things that can be deduced from the lists. But lets ask first, what does it mean to admire someone? defines “admire” as “to regard with wonder, pleasure, or approval.” Looking up “admiration” does not add anything new to the definition, but it does provide these synonyms: “approval; esteem, regard; affection.” I guess esteem and regard are the two that come closest to what I imagine most people are thinking of as they answer the questions. After all, I cannot imagine anyone looks at any of the twenty individuals with wonder. I think the individuals are respected and appreciated for what they have done and what they stand for. Even when entertainers make the list I don’t think it is for their entertainment value. After all, Oprah is extremely influential and she is respected for her shows and media empire, not really because she entertains people. Ellen DeGeneres is entertaining, I suppose, but I cannot imagine that is why she made this list. More likely than not she is admired for her stand on homosexual issues. If she made the list purely for being funny or for hosting a talk show, she would have a lot of company on the list that she doesn’t have. Angelina Jolie has made the list a few times in recent years, too, but probably more for her humanitarian work and involvement in global issues that for her acting skills.

Ultimately what all of the individuals have in common, I think, is that they are willing to take a stand and be a voice for what they believe. Some of them do it more politely than others, some are probably taken more seriously than others, and some are more enduring than others, but all of the individuals on the list of most admired individuals are well known for what they believe and/or represent. Even Bill Gates and Warren Buffett are likely on the list more for their philanthropic efforts than for just having a lot of money.

If I were asked to name the people I admire most, I am not sure who I would name–especially if the list is supposed to include recognizable names. I suspect some of the individuals already on the list might make it. Some wouldn’t. But it is a question worth asking, both because it challenges me to think about, and the answer I would give will likely reflect more about me than about the people I choose to name. And what it reflects about me will likely indicate what kind of example I am to those around me–my wife, my children, my relatives, my colleagues, the students I work with…. The people I admire, the hobbies I have, the ways in which I choose to spend my time–they tell me, and others, who I am, and they do so much more meaningfully than anything I might say in response to being asked who I am.

Protecting the Minds of Impressionable Youth

In recent weeks there has been a flurry of activity in New York City over the efforts on the part of the Board of Education to no longer allow churches or other religious organizations to meet in school facilities when school is not in session. Originally the Board of Education and the New York Housing Authorities announced that they would no longer allow churches to meet in schools or community centers. After protests, the Housing Authorities announced on January 6 that it would reverse its position, but the Board of Education has not changed its mind and, unless something changes, as of February 12 the ban will take effect. According to a report in WORLD, “If the ban prevails, more than 150 congregations will have to move to other meeting space starting next month–and that’s hard to find in New York City.”

So what exactly is the problem? After all, churches without their own meeting space have met in schools and other community buildings for decades. I can remember being part of a church start up as a child, and we met in a bank and then in a public school auditorium until the church was able to purchase land and put up its own building. Not only is the school space typically sitting vacant when many churches meet (Sundays), the churches rent the space, providing income for the school system, the city or the county. The problem, apparently, is the damage that allowing churches to meet in school facilities may do to the minds of young people. Tiffany Owens’ article in WORLD cites the Board of Education as saying that the ban will “protect the minds of ‘impressionable youth.'”

The Bronx Household of Faith took the New York Board of Education to court over the ban. I would have expected the courts to rule in favor of the churches. After all, it is established precedent that if a public facility it going to allow outside groups to rent its space (or use it for free, whatever its guidelines may be) it cannot discriminate as to what kinds of groups may use the space. Much to my surprise, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit ruled that a church has no right to use a school for its place of worship. Then last December the United States Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal, thereby upholding the lower court’s ruling.

Let’s dig into this matter a bit more, shall we? Marci Hamilton is an attorney and a columnist for According to her bio on the site she is “one of the leading church/state scholars in the United States and the Paul R. Verkuil Chair in Public Law, Benjamin N. Cardozo School of Law, Yeshiva University.” In her article for the site today she analyzes the issue in order to support her position that the courts got it right. As she states them, the facts of the case include a New Your City Department of Education rule barring the use of school facilities for religious worship services, but allowing “religious clubs and groups to use public schools, just as the Boy Scouts and other extracurricular clubs did, as long as the clubs’ and groups’ activities were open to the general public.” The Bronx Household of Faith uses a middle school for its weekly worship service and a fellowship meal that follows the service. Hamilton says the church was not charged rent (though other sources, including FOX News, have reported that the church did pay rent), and commented that the church “dominates the building with its religious use of the premises on Sundays.” Here is the apparent rub, though: the church “excludes from its services and post-service meals anyone who is not baptized, is excommunicated, and/or advocates the Islamic religion,” according to Hamilton. According to Judge Pierre Leval of the 2nd Circuit, however, the church excludes such individuals from “full participation” in its services.

Now I don’t know about you, but that doesn’t bother me one bit. In fact I would expect that. Almost ANY group has requirements for full participation or membership. Even, by the way, public schools! A public school will not allow a student who has only taken 5th grade math to enroll for a Trigonometry class, for example. And, believe it or not, a public school will not allow a student to participate in graduation exercises or receive a diploma until he or she has met all of the requirements/standards for graduation. Kinda sounds like requiring baptism for full participation, doesn’t it? And a public school will not allow a student who has been suspended or expelled from school to be on school property, let alone participate in school activities. Sound anything like excluding individuals who have been excommunicated from the church? And a public school will also exclude students who advocate dangerous or threatening activities. A church should have a right to consider Islam dangerous or threatening if it so desires.

Hamilton goes on to note that, “the intensity of the religious worship use undoubtedly leads students to believe that the church and its views are being endorsed by the school, and thus leads to likely confusion regarding the connection between the religious group and the public school.” Hogwash, I say. By the time they are in middle school most students are plenty smart enough to understand that a group using the school outside of school hours is not necessarily connected with or endorsed by the school at all. Hamilton claims that the issue is akin to that in the case of Christian Legal Society v. Martinez in which it was ruled that Hastings Law School could exclude the Christian Legal Society from receiving school funds–even though other student groups receive such funds–because the group had a policy that violated the school’s “all-comers policy” by refusing to allow homosexuals in the group.

Hamilton’s position is that allowing churches to have services in schools will “open the door for white supremacist, misogynist, and anti-homosexual religious organizations to take up weekly residence in the public schools.” Her language is extreme, and intentionally so I am sure, but again I say, “So what?” If other community groups have positions that I disagree with I do not automatically assume that those positions are held or endorsed by the person, organization or entity who owns the space in which the group is meeting. According to Jordan Lorence of the Alliance Defense Fund, “of the top 50 school districts in the nation, New York City is the only school district that has a policy banning worship services.” In other words, this statement by Leval is ridiculous: “In the end, we think the board could have reasonably concluded that what the public would see, were the Board not to exclude religious worship services, is public schools, which serve on Sundays as state-sponsored Christian churches.” Do we have a nation full of state-sponsored churches? Nope. And I don’t know one single person who thinks we do, either.

So here’s what I think: if we really want to protect the minds of impressionable youth, lets not worry about letting churches meet in school facilities on Sundays. Lets worry about the filth “we the people” are paying teachers to pour into the minds of our public school students every day.

The Most Important Quality

Last time there was a presidential election I was asked to answer this question: “What is the most important quality for a president?” Since we are in the midst of presidential election season again I have been thinking about my answer. Turns out, I still think the answer is “candor.”

I believe that there are so many qualities that are important for someone to be a good president that it is difficult to choose just one as the most important. But, if forced to choose, I would say that the most important quality for a president is candor. Candor has three possible definitions, according to Webster. All three of them are applicable to the qualities necessary to be a good president. The first definition is “brilliance,” and is often used in reference to a candle. Just as the United States should be an example to the rest of the world just like a shining city upon a hill, the president should be an example to the people of the United States. His light should shine brightly for all of the people to see. That does not mean that everyone will necessarily agree with him or even like him, but it does mean that he should lead in such a way that he is a shining example to the people of someone who has accepted the responsibility with which he has been entrusted and is doing his best to carry out those responsibilities to the best of his ability.

The second definition of candor is “freedom from prejudice or malice.” The president certainly should satisfy this definition as he must completely put aside any prejudice or malice he may have and seek to make every decision by reviewing the facts, the information that is available, and the input of his advisers and then acting in the best interest of the country and in accordance with its laws. By no means does this mean that the president cannot disagree with a law, if he feels that the law is not in the best interest of the people, and it does not prohibit him from working to change such laws. But unless and until such laws have been changed the presidents must act in accordance with the law without prejudice or malice.

Thirdly, candor means “unreserved or honest.” The president should always be honest and forthright in word and in deed. The president should make his positions known and he should stand by them; they should not change with the polls or with the audience. A president who has candor respects the citizens, speaks to them honestly and stands by his convictions. He is open, honest and real.

If I could choose only one quality for the president, it would have to be candor. What do you think…what’s the most important quality in a president (or someone who would like to be president)?

A Daily Wrestling Match

I can say with certainty that I have watched more wrestling in the past two months than I had in my entire life. Neither of the schools I have served in before coming to SBA had wrestling programs, and the only time I had ever been to a wrestling match was when I was in high school and the pep band was playing (I was in the pep band). I can say with confidence, though, that I spent more time talking to my friends while we were not playing than I did watching the wrestling. I have nothing against wrestling–it’s just not my thing.

However, as I have watched wrestling in recent weeks I cannot help but think of Paul’s letter to the Ephesians when he discusses the spiritual wrestling match that believers are engaged in every day:

“For we do not wrestle against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers over this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places” (Ephesians 6:12, ESV).

I have learned a few things about human vs human wrestling: there are definite rules about what the wrestlers can and cannot do, and the wrestlers are usually completely exhausted by the time their match is over, regardless of whether they won or lost. The wrestlers are also required to be properly attired, including their headgear.

Spiritual wrestling isn’t quite like that. Satan doesn’t have many rules he has to follow. In fact, short of any limits God may place on what he can do–such as when He told Satan not to touch Job but to do whatever else he pleased, and then told him he could do whatever so long as Job was not killed–Satan pretty much has free reign. He doesn’t have a mat he has to stay on, he doesn’t have guidelines about the kind of holds that he can use, the methods or approaches of attack, and the only clock he has to concern himself with is the one that expires when our lives are over. Until then, he can keep coming at us as often, as long and as hard as he wants.

Another clear difference between human and spiritual wrestling: we cannot see our opponent in spiritual wrestling! The wrestlers I have watched keep their eyes fixed on their opponent as long as they are both on their feet, watching for when the opponent may make a move. While I suppose there could be one, I have never seen a blind wrestler, and I cannot imagine trying to wrestle an opponent I could not see. And yet Paul makes it clear that that is exactly what we must do, because we cannot see Satan. We cannot see the rulers, authorities and cosmic powers; we cannot see the spiritual forces of evil. We can see their influence around us, and we can feel it when we get taken down, though.

Thankfully, we do not wrestle alone! Immediately before and immediately after verse 12 Paul reminds the church at Ephesus–and believers today–that we must “put on the whole armor of God” in order to be able to “stand against the schemes of the devil” (v 11) and “to stand firm” (v 13). When I was in the classroom regularly I would tell my students early in each school year, “If I repeat something, that is a pretty good indication that it is something you need to know!” The same is true for Paul; that he repeated the instruction to clothe ourselves in the “whole armor of God” in order that we may not be taken down in the spiritual wrestling match is an excellent indicator of the importance of what he is saying!

Just like the wrestling matches I have watched on the mat, spiritual wrestling can be exhausting–especially if we are not adequately prepared, attired and focused on the issue at hand. I must be prepared for the daily wrestling match by equipping myself through prayer and Bible reading. I must dress myself in the armor of God, every day. The wrestlers at SBA don’t put on their wrestling suits once; they put them on every time they are going to step onto the mat. We must do the same thing spiritually. Satan doesn’t care if I am properly attired or not; he will come after me regardless.

I must also focus–I must be on the lookout for the attacks of Satan. Even when I do all of this, though, I may get exhausted by the fight. Thankfully, the same God who provides us with our armor for battle also provides us with nourishment and refreshment and strength when we need it–and ask Him for it.

Tomorrow when I wake up I’m going to think about the alarm clock not as just a buzzer to wake me up; rather, it is the whistle indicating the start of another wrestling match. And as soon as my feet hit the floor, I’m on the mat.

Developing a Mindset

Since I started blogging regularly a few months ago I have noticed that I often find myself “seeing” lessons in the every day activities of life. Knowing that if I want to blog regularly I will need to continue to need new things to blog about has caused me to approach life with a different perspective. Not that I never saw lessons in life before, or never saw how God was at work around me, but the act of blogging has caused me to develop a mindset whereby I am on the lookout for them. I have never had any lasting success when I have tried journaling, so I cannot say if it is the same thing or not, but I suspect it is similar.

In fact, I have found that blogging has had an impact on me similar to what Ann Voskamp describes in her book One Thousand Gifts. The book grows out of a list that resulted from an e-mail Voskamp received from a friend asking her if she could name one thousand things for which she was grateful. So Voskamp started keeping a list, and as she did so she found that her outlook changed. She began to recognize and appreciate things that she perhaps had not before, to realize how many things for which she was grateful she had previously taken for granted, and to realize how the attitude of thankfulness could completely transform her life. Voskamp’s list was wide ranging; for some of the items it seems one would certainly express gratitude, others it is easy to see how they might be unrecognized when the heart and mind are not tuned to seek out reasons to be thankful. “Morning shadows across the old floors” are pretty neat, if you think about it, but how many of us do–stop to think about it, I mean? Number 22 on her list is “Mail in the mailbox.” I can remember in college how important it was to me to get mail, and how thankful I was when I did receive a letter from a family member or friend, but I can’t really remember the last time I expressed thankfulness for mail. How many of us would think to record our thankfulness for “new toothbrushes” (number 526 on Voskamp’s list)? In the grand scheme of things I am sure we are much more likely to give thanks for the “forgiveness of a sister” than for “nylons without runs” (Voskamp’s 783 and 664 respectively). And one may indeed be more important than the other–but should we only be thankful for the important things?

In the same way, I am not certain that I would have recognized the lessons I found in gleaning corn or being awakened in the middle of the night by a cat stuck in the bathroom were my mind not already being transformed and refocused by the act of regularly taking time to express thoughts and life lessons through this blog.

Romans 12:2 tells us, “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind….” I have known this verse for years. I have, I trust, a mind that is more transformed than conformed, and yet recent months have revealed to me just how far I still have to go. The dust jacket of Voskamp’s book includes the statement that, “[I]n giving thanks for the life she already had, she found the life she’s always wanted.” In developing the mindset of looking for lessons and biblical truths in the everyday experiences of life I have found just how many of them there really are. I have not done anything out of the ordinary or changed my habits any since I started blogging, yet the impact of the events of my life is now far greater. My life didn’t change…my mindset did.

A Very Slippery Slope


Republican presidential candidate and former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum has received considerable grief and accusations of bigotry for asserting–and standing by his assertion–that expanding the definition of marriage could serve as the beginning of a pathway that could lead to further expansions of marriage to include any number of possible combinations. If marriage between a man and a man or a woman and a woman is okay, why not between one man and two women? Or one woman and three men? Why not between a human and an animal? Or between an adult and a child? Many who support homosexual marriage have blasted Senator Santorum for his position, and have also accused him of both using such statements in an attempt to scare people and of being ignorant and disconnected from reality. However, I am not ashamed to say that I agree with Senator Santorum, and I think that there is ample evidence to support his position.

Until 1973 homosexuality was considered a mental illness by the American Psychiatric Association. Look out how far America has moved in the ensuring 39 years: homosexuality is regularly depicted on television and in movies, homosexual marriage is now legal in several states and the District of Columbia, and homosexuality is widely portrayed to be a biological predisposition. In other words, homosexuals are “born that way” the argument goes. Furthermore, those who most adamantly support homosexual marriage have called it the Civil Rights Issue of Our Day! Please do not misunderstand me when I say, in response, “That’s ridiculous.” The color of someone’s skin is, without a doubt, something that person is born with, and it is not anything that a person can change (with the possible exception of through expensive and dangerous surgical procedures or drugs). Alan Keyes once said, referring to the old habit of calling African-Americans people of “the colored persuasion,” that “persuasion has nothing to do with it.” Even if one were to grant that homosexuality is an innate, even a genetic, characteristic (which I do not), someone can choose not to engage in homosexual behavior. A person cannot choose to change the color of his or her skin. Accordingly, to suggest that people who choose to engage in homosexual behavior should receive the same legal rights and protections as people who do not choose to do so, and that not allowing them these rights is tantamount to denying equal rights and equal protection to African-Americans or others on the basis of their skin color is absurd.

But the issue for which Senator Santorum has received the strongest attacks is not his opposition to gay marriage (after all, that position hardly makes him unique) but his insistence that granting homosexual marriage could lead to a further expansion of what marriage includes. I must ask, with the Senator, why would it not? Once homosexuality is widely accepted (if it isn’t already), why would we not think that polygamy will be next? Or pedophilia? Or bestiality? After all, it has been only 39 years since homosexuality was considered a mental disorder, let alone morally wrong. It has not been all that long ago that homosexuality began to be portrayed on TV and film, and no it is difficult to find a show on network or cable television that does not include a gay or lesbian character. Remember, it was only 15 years ago that Ellen DeGeneres “came out of the closet.” Remember the uproar that caused?

The groundwork is already being laid for the polygamy. There are at least two “hit shows” that are centered around the very idea: HBO’s Big Love is a drama about a polygamist and his three wives. TLC’s Sister Wives is a reality show about a polygamist, his four wives and their sixteen combined children. (They get around laws banning polygamy by only one of the four marriages being a legal marriage). Why would we not think that as soon as homosexuals are allowed to marry that polygamists would not demand the same right? (And quite frankly, if we buy into the arguments used by the homosexual side of the argument, how could we justifiably refuse to grant the same right to polygamists?)

Sadly, polygamy is perhaps the least scary of the possible expansions of marriage that we find along the slippery slope. Pedophilia is defined as “sexual desire in an adult for a child.” Think that approval of that wouldn’t happen? Don’t be so fast. There is a non-profit organization in Maryland called B4U-ACT that has been speaking out on behalf of pedophiles since 2003. The group uses the less-offensive term “minor-attracted people.” They claim there are as many as 8 million men in the U.S. who are attracted to minors. (The December 17, 2011 issue of World discusses the groups efforts to revise the DSM-IV and remove any stigma associated with pedophilia). Homosexuality is now considered just another sexual orientation. Rarely now is it even referred to as an alternative lifestyle; it is just one lifestyle on the menu of options. So why would pedophilia not become just one more option? There have been scholarly articles suggesting that adult-minor sexual activity is not only not necessarily wrong, but is even healthy, provided that both parties are consenting participants.

If homosexuality is okay, then polygamy becomes okay, and even pedophilia eventually becomes okay, why wouldn’t bestiality be okay too? If one person is genetically predisposed to sexual attraction to members of the same sex, another needs multiple partners, and still others are naturally attracted to minors, who could tell someone that they cannot be sexually attracted to animals? I am not going to explore this argument in any further detail because I am sure you get the idea: once we cross the line, where do we draw the new line? Better yet, how can we draw a new line?

John MacArthur has written this: “If we teach our children not to walk where it is slippery, we will minimize their opportunity to fall.” Good advice for parents (and others working with children). Good advice for our nation, too–if we don’t want to fall, lets not walk where it’s slippery!

Checking My Gig Line

A few years ago my father, brother and I traveled from the mid-Atlantic to upstate New York to visit my paternal grandmother. Her health had not been well, and we thought it important that we go to see her. We arrived within a half hour or so of her home late on a Friday night and checked into a hotel. The following morning, I had showered and dressed and my brother looked at me and said, “Your gig line’s not straight.” Turns out he was telling the truth, but was also just giving me a hard time. However, I had no idea what he was talking about; to my knowledge, I had never heard the term. So, he explained it to me. “Gig line” is a military term that refers to the alignment of the shirt, belt buckle and trouser fly, and when properly attired those three items should form a straight line. (My brother was never in the military, but he had been a stand out in high school in the JROTC program, and quite possibly would have pursued the military if his colorblindness had not disqualified him for his preferred area of service). So basically he was giving me a hard time, saying the buttons of my shirt and my trouser fly were not properly aligned. Maybe it is my fondness for trivial information or the fact that I have always tried to dress neatly that I have remembered what for most people would likely be a quickly-forgotten conversation. In fact, I have not only remembered it, but rarely does a day go by when I do not consciously check my gig line in the mirror!

In the grand scheme of things, of course, the alignment of my gig line matters little. And yet I habitually check it to make sure it lines up. As I said, I look in the mirror to check it. If it is crooked, I fix it. It would be foolish for me to look in the mirror, see that my gig line was not aligned, and then walk away without fixing it. What would be the point of that? After all, checking it is only of any value if I make any necessary corrections revealed by the checking. If next time my brother saw me he happened to say, “Your gig line is crooked” and I replied with, “I know,” he would justifiably think it a bit odd that I knew there was a need for correction but I did not bother to do it.

Spiritually speaking, though, I am afraid I am sometimes guilty of just that. James writes about this very idea when he writes, “But be doers of the word, and not hearers only, deceiving yourselves. For if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like” (James 1:22-24). How often do I look into the Word of God–either in personal Bible reading or by hearing the Word taught–and then go on my way, ignoring the necessary corrections that the mirror revealed? James makes it clear that just hearing the Word is not enough; we must be doers. If my outward appearance is important enough to me to pause in front of the glass mirror to check my gig line each day, how much more important should by spiritual development be? How much more important is it to look into the spiritual mirror of the Word of God and then to do what it says, to straighten my spiritual gig line? James says that anyone who fails to do so is deceiving themselves.

What about you…how’s your gig line?

Greatly Blessed

Most mornings I eat breakfast alone. My wife is awake, and usually makes the coffee, but because I head out shortly after 7:00 my children are usually either just getting up or are not up yet. But as I am getting my breakfast ready I almost always pour my coffee into a mug that says “Greatly Blessed.” It is a tremendous way for me to start my day…a much needed reminder that I am, in fact, greatly blessed.

The words on the mug come from a song written by Bill Gaither and Larry Gatlin. It is a simple song, a bit repetitious actually, but the words are valuable reminders of who I am and what I have to be thankful for.

The chorus, for example, goes like this:

Greatly blessed, highly favored
Imperfect but forgiven child of God

It repeats that line twice. But the truth in those two simple lines is powerful. I am imperfect (believe me!) but I am also forgiven. That in an of itself is an incredible blessing and would be worth getting excited about all by itself.

But look at these words from the verse:

Standing upright, on God’s good earth
I’m counting my blessings, great things He has done
I’m fighting the good fight
With the blessed assurance
That the battle is already won

The second line always reminds me of one of the great hymns we sung often in the churches I grew up in: Count Your Blessings. That song includes the line, “Count your many blessings/name them one by one/and it will surprise you what the Lord has done.” I don’t think the hymn writer means that we will be surprised by what God has done in the sense that we did not expect He could do it so much as we will be surprised, when we really stop and think about it, how much God has done. In other words, when we slow down enough to pay attention to all the ways in which we have been blessed, and continue to receive God’s blessing every day, we will be surprised. Surprised primarily because we will likely have to say, “Wow! I hadn’t even realized/thought about that!”

But the Gaither/Gatlin song continues wit the reference to fighting the good fight. We are, of course, fighting a spiritual battle here on earth, and Paul himself references having fought the good fight. What a blessing it is to know that the battle has already been won! There is an old Southern Gospel song written by Roger Bennett that says, “I’ve read the back of the book, and we win!” Praise God! The battle, and more importantly, the war has been won! Christ died, but He rose again, and in so doing He conquered death, hell and Satan. We will continue to struggle and battle in this life until the Lord returns or calls us home, but, to quote another Gaither song, “we can face uncertain days because He lives.”

I am greatly blessed!

The Value of Teachers

In yesterday’s New York Times Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist Nicholas Kristof wrote an op-ed with the same title as this blog entry. In the column he examined the results of a recently-released new research study by economists at Harvard and Columbia universities that identifies the value of good teachers. The study highlights test performance but also the actual long-term economic value of good teachers in terms of students’ future earnings. According to the study a student with a good teacher in fourth grade will go on to earn, on average, $25,000 more in his or her lifetime than a fourth grader with a teacher that is no so good. According to Kristof, that translates into approximately $700,000 in additional earnings per class. Furthermore, that fourth grader with a good teacher is 1.25% more likely to go to college and 1.25% less likely to get pregnant as a teenager.

Perhaps even more shocking than that is this assertion: “Conversely, a very poor teacher has the same effect as a pupil missing 40 percent of the school year.” Whoa! No school anywhere would allow a student to miss 40% of the school year and still move on to the next grade. Yet, based on these findings, students with ineffective teachers may attend school every day of the year and still end up just as far behind as if they had done exactly that. Kristof highlights the importance of the study’s findings by pointing out that if a good teacher announces his or retirement or plans not to return to the school the following year, the parents whose students would have had that teacher should hold fundraisers, pool their resources, or do whatever is necessary to offer that teacher a bonus of up to $100,000 to stay on for another year. That is how important it is for students to have a good teacher. On the flip side, Kristof says that poor teachers have such an adverse impact on students that parents of students who will have an ineffective teacher should offer that teacher $100,000 to retire or otherwise leave the school, assuming he or she will be replaced by a teacher of at least average quality. Now, neither of these things will happen, of course, and probably should not happen, but it is a powerful means of conveying the importance of quality teachers.

Kristof goes on to write that, “Our faltering education system may be the most important long-term threat to America’s economy and national well-being….” He laments that, given that level of importance, education is receiving so little attention in the current presidential race. In fact, he goes on to say that, “Candidates are bloviating about all kinds of imaginary or exaggerated threats, while ignoring the most crucial one.” (That word bloviating may be new to you. It was to me. It means “to speak pompously”). I agree with Kristof that it is imperative that students have, to use the phrase made popular in No Child Left Behind legislation, teachers who are highly qualified. There is no excuse for students in the United States to have inferior, incapable or just plain apathetic teachers. Of course, overcoming that is easier said than done, as Michelle Rhee and others have learned. Why teacher’s unions seem so intent on saving teacher jobs and seem to care so little about actual student success is beyond me.

But I think that it is important to take this a step further. Kristof, and the authors of the study he is writing about, are focused on public education. And given the number of students in this country who are in public schools I think it is important to look at those. As a Christian educator, however, and someone who is committed to the value and importance of education from a biblical worldview, this research highlights for me the fact that students receiving instruction lacking in biblical worldview, regardless of their age, will have long-lasting consequences of that education. If having an ineffective teacher will impact a student’s academic progress and ability for years afterwards, how much more does the worldview of a teacher impact a student’s development? If the consequences of worldview are even remotely close to the consequences of academics, a student–even as young as elementary school–who has a teacher that is at best “neutral” in their worldview (though that isn’t really possible) and at worst actively opposed to a biblical worldview could experience influence on his or her own worldview for years to come.

When there is that much at stake, does it really make sense to risk a child’s future by exposing him or her to a worldview that isn’t grounded in Scripture?

Prayers Like Incense

In our house there is a bottle of hand lotion that sits just outside of the half bathroom attached to the master bedroom. Sometimes when the weather is particularly cold my hands get chapped, so I will use this lotion. Usually I use it before going to bed, but sometimes will use it at other times, as well. A couple of weeks ago I put some on just before heading to the office. I think it may have registered in passing that it was a new bottle, but I paid no attention to it. I honestly could not tell you what kind of lotion had been there before; I never really paid any attention to the kind. So I rubbed the lotion in and went off to work. Not too long thereafter I was sitting at my desk working on something and one of my hands was up around my face. I may have been adjusting my glasses, I don’t know, but suddenly and instantaneously my mind jumped to being at the beach.

Now, thinking about the beach during a South Dakota winter is not a bad idea, actually, but (1) the winter has been quite mild, and (2) the beach had not crossed my mind at all before that moment in recent memory. So what happened? Well, it turns out that that new bottle of lotion outside my bathroom has SPF 15 sunblock in it. Quite helpful, I suppose, for those whose hands have a tendency to get sunburned! But the fragrance of sun block reminded me immediately of the beach. Why? Because for my entire life I have vacationed with my family on the Outer Banks of North Carolina, and before heading from the hotel room or the beach house across the sand to the ocean we would put on sun block. So years of having the fragrance of sunblock so closely associated with the sun, sand and waves has built that memory groove into my mind. The concept is the same as Pavlov’s dog salivating upon hearing the bell after the food had followed the bell for so long. Odds are pretty good that the smell of sun block will cause me to think about the beach for the rest of my life.

The sense of smell is incredibly powerful, isn’t it? I imagine we can all think of favorite smells…smells that are likely associated with a place or a food that we particularly enjoy. We can probably all name some very unpleasant smells, too. And the same smell can create a different reaction among different people, some positive, some negative (or even revolting).

The Old Testament refers often to the use of incense in the worship of the Lord. There was a place in the temple for incense to be burned, and the there are several accounts where there were serious consequences for the improper burning of incense. There is also a psalm of David, though, in which David prays to the Lord, “Let my prayer be counted as incense before you.” David was pleading with God to hear his prayer but also expressing his desire that his prayers would be like a pleasing aroma to God.

My encounter with the sun block-infused hand lotion got me to wondering. I wonder, to continue David’s analogy, if each person’s prayers have a unique aroma before the Lord? And if so, I wonder if my prayers are like incense…like a pleasing aroma that causes the Lord to think fondly and favorably of my petitions and praises, just like the scent of the sun block caused me to think fondly of the beach? On the other hand, I wonder if my prayers are ever like an unpleasant aroma before the Lord? When I am so focused on self, forgetting to praise Him or to seek His will and instead treating Him like a cosmic bellhop, I wonder if my prayers are more like a horrendous and stomach-turning stench?

My hope, like David’s, is that my prayers would be like incense before the Lord.