Ignore Words–Watch What They Do

4 07 2014

Watch What They DoA number of years ago I happened to be listening to an internet talk-show where the host had an expert on Russia as his guest. This Russian geopolitical expert—Jeff Nyquist, for those interested—told his host that Russia continues to produce thermonuclear weapons in the post-Soviet era even though its public position is one of disarmament. Nyquist then added one of the wisest maxims that I have ever heard. “When you look at Russia and its leaders,” he said, “don’t listen to what they say; watch what they do.”

“Don’t listen to what they say; watch what they do.”

This has become a principle and continuous reality check for my wife and I when evaluating all the stuff we hear as we live our lives among six billion other people as well as evaluating where we’re at ourselves.

Talk is cheap. Politicians and those trying to achieve political ends are known for making great promises that folks with even modest intelligence know will never be acted on in any sincere way. And no cynicism here. When you evaluate the current state of our economy and the deficit and then hear the promises of financial improvement and stimulus programs by our leaders, you can see that the promises are simply air. I appreciated our stimulus check. But where did the money come from?

This precept of not listening to what people say but rather watching what they’re doing can be either encouraging or demoralizing. Here are two of the most powerful and life-giving statements a person can utter:

“I love you.”

“I am a Christian (or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Sikh)”

Conversely, here two of the most useless and demoralizing things a human being can say with their mouth:

“I love you.”

“I am a Christian (or a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Sikh)”

Oh the power of paradox. All the difference in the world based on one simple, observable, quantifiable factor: Is the utterance backed up with action?

Or is it just idle talk?

This is a great inventory tool for looking over your life as well as evaluating reality as you mix with the human race.

For example:

If I say I believe in being a public voice for change but never write to a congressman, senator, the President or some other civic or governmental leader, my actions betray what I really believe. I may be enamored with the idea of being involved, but I don’t really believe in being involved. If I did, I’d act on it.

If I say I believe in helping the poor and then look over my checkbook, my possessions and my time and find I have spent all my discretionary income on videos, sports, and other forms of entertainment, expensive food, toys and other things, then I might believe in helping the poor in theory, as an article of faith in my creed (a necessary and useless thing, a creed), but I don’t really believe in helping the poor.

If I say I’m a Christian (a “little Christ”) and believe in Jesus Christ and then practice a lifestyle contrary to the way and teachings of Jesus and am really no different than the unregenerate world that hates Jesus (John 7:7 – the world hates the real Jesus because he reproves it of its evil), then I really don’t believe in Jesus. I may believe in the concept of following Jesus, but I really don’t believe in Jesus. One of my earliest Bible teachers called that “practical atheism.” James tells us that such faith will not save anyone (James 2:17-26).

You can use this evaluative tool in any area and it works just great. And if you are sincere, you will come away humbled. The bottom line is this (if you don’t get it now, you’ll surely see it is true when you stand at the Judgment Seat before God): What you do is what you really believe.

A.W. Tozer once wrote an editorial entitled “Words Without Deeds: The Vice of Religion.” In another place, he wrote this: “The deadening effect of religious make-believe upon the human mind is beyond all describing.” We have numerous scriptures that tell us that God will judge us according to our works , not our aspirations (e.g. Revelation 20:12-13). But we will also be held accountable for every idle word we say (Matthew 12:36-37 – the word idle here means “non-working”). If our deeds don’t match our creeds, we will suffer condemnation. Jesus promised.

So what then?

Don’t say something you’re not sincerely prepared to back with action.
Better yet, say little or nothing and let your works speak for themselves. God says, in effect, “Show me the money!”
When you back up your words with deeds, it creates credibility, which is priceless.
Inventory your own life, not just others lives who happen to intersect with yours. It’s humbling and tough at times, but it is reality.

So, remember: What you do is what you really believe. And with people, as well as with ourselves, don’t listen to what they say; watch what they do.

“So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17)

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Praise and Criticism: Valuable, But Limited

18 02 2014

Fear of ManOne receives inspirations at the oddest times.  Months ago, while listening to some a moving film score, I had a moment of understanding.  It had to do with desire for praise and fear of disapproval.

We tend to desire the approval of people we look up to and to fear the disapproval of the same.  Some of this is normal and healthy, a matter of common sense.  Most every child desires to please his parents.  Spouses yearn for the approbation of their spouses.  Employees want their bosses to be pleased with them and fear falling into disfavor due to poor performance.

All well and good.

There are many of us, however, who have an inordinate and unhealthy desire to please everybody.  We fear being “on the outs” with people–the more significant, the deeper the fear.  Corollary, we yield to the corresponding urge to bend over backwards to please.

We do this because of the valuation we’ve given to human applause or criticism.  And it trips us up.  One Proverb from the Bible sums it up: It brings a snare (Proverbs 29:25).  This fear of disapproval has been called, from ancient times,  the fear of man.

If I had Confederate currency lying around or piles of Monopoly money in my home, I would not be too upset if someone took it.  Why?  Because these things have little or no value.  Their gain or loss is of little moment.  It’s a different story when someone picks my pocket.  You get the idea.

Someone once wrote, “If you desire the praise of man, you will fear man.  If you fear man, you will serve him–for you will serve what you fear.”

What to do?

Remember, if you don’t get in the habit of drinking the Kool-Aid of praise and applause, you’re less likely to dread their loss.  You will ultimately answer to One, not seven billion.

It’s the sense of perspective that makes all the difference in the world.  Go and do the right thing and don’t fear man.  As my wife reminds me over and over again:

“We’re just people.  We poop.  We pee.  We die.”

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The Book of Lights and Tough Ethical Questions

13 10 2013

The Book of LightsI’m currently reading a book by Chaim Potok, author of my favorite novel, The Chosen.  This particular book, written in 1981, The Book of Lights, is set in Korean War-era New York City near historic Riverside Church and Grant’s Tomb, Korea, and Japan.

The main protagonist, Gershon Loran, has been ordained into the rabbinate and conscripted into the service after the armistice has been signed.  He is a somewhat melancholy and, at the same time, brilliant and reflective man who is particularly enamored with the study of Kabbalah–the books of Jewish mysticism.  He is haunted by visions.

His roommate, Arthur Leiden–also a rabbinical student and future rabbi, is a curious figure.  He is a conflicted man, often drinking too much and coming to class unprepared (and drawing upon himself the kind of ire that was standard for teachers towards lazy students a generation ago.)

Arthur is conflicted as well because his father, a physicist, was involved in the creation of the atomic bomb.  Albert Einstein, Harry S Truman, Leo Szilard and Enrico Fermi are all colleagues of Arthur’s father and figure into the story.

The book, a predictably thoughtful story, forces the reader to examine the moral import and consequence of developing weapons of mass destruction and its consequences for those who bear the weight of such a dark legacy.

I am about half the way through this novel.  Potok is a masterful writer.  He understands the human psyche and Jewishness (in which he was both raised and trained).  Read this and his other works.

And reflect.

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Gandhi on First Things

8 10 2013

95e39/huch/1887/3“Let the first act of every morning be to make the following resolve for the day:

– I shall not fear anyone on Earth.
– I shall fear only God.
– I shall not bear ill will toward anyone.
– I shall not submit to injustice from anyone.
– I shall conquer untruth by truth. And in resisting untruth, I shall put up with all suffering.” (Mahatma Gandhi, 1869-1948)

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The Hidden Costs of Shortcuts

30 09 2013

The Hidden Costs of Shortcuts

“I do not deny that many appear to have succeeded in a material way by cutting corners and by manipulating associates, both in their professional and in their personal lives. But material success is possible in this world and far more satisfying when it comes without exploiting others.” (Alan Greenspan)

Bernie Madoff.  Michael Milken.  Ivan Boesky.  Charles Ponzi.  Jack Abramoff.   Enron.

The aforementioned are cataloged in the annals of infamy for cutting corners financially, hurting a lot of people and ending up in jail.  Greed and hubris motivated them all.  Plus the fatal narcotic of self-deception, thinking they could get away with their crimes.

There is no shortcut to the building of a large and stable estate.  Wealth grows in the soil of patience, competence and hard work.  There are no substitutes.

A good deal of the writings in the book of Proverbs came from Solomon, son of David, Israel’s wisest and wealthiest king.  Here is what he had to say about the acquisition of wealth:

  • Pro 28:8  Whoever multiplies his wealth by interest and profit gathers it for him who is generous to the poor.
  • Pro 28:19  Whoever works his land will have plenty of bread, but he who follows worthless pursuits will have plenty of poverty.
  • Pro 28:22  A stingy man hastens after wealth and does not know that poverty will come upon him.
  • Pro 10:4  A slack hand causes poverty, but the hand of the diligent makes rich.
  • Pro 21:17  Whoever loves pleasure will be a poor man; he who loves wine and oil will not be rich.
  • Pro 22:16  Whoever oppresses the poor to increase his own wealth, or gives to the rich, will only come to poverty.
  • Pro 13:11  Wealth gained hastily will dwindle, but whoever gathers little by little will increase it.

Avoid like the plague the get-rich-quick mentality.  Build your estate, your wealth, day by day, dollar by dollar on a foundation of hard work, thrift, competence and compassion.  You are not Gordon Gecko.  You’re better than that.  Avoid the siren song of cutting corners and coloring outside of the lines to get ahead.

“Rather fail with honor than succeed by fraud.” (Sophocles)

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The Price of Expertise…Worth Paying

23 08 2013

97302_Torah-ManuscriptNear Eastern scholar Cyrus Gordon (1908-2001) related a story in his book Forgotten Scripts which illustrates the importance of really knowing your particular vocation, without recourse to helps.

Gordon himself was something of a prodigy.  He began reading Hebrew—he was Jewish—at age five.  He went on to study and learn over twenty languages, ancient and modern.

In college, he studied under revered philologist, Rabbi Max Margolis.  He had this to say about his apprenticeship under Margolis:

“My most effective teacher was a martinet—Max Margolis.  He was a thorough craftsman and a master of his subject.  He was a biblical philologian, working on the Septuagint.  His knowledge of the Old Testament text was phenomenal.  He expected all his students to recognize any oral quotation from Scripture and identify it by book and chapter.  If he fired a three- or four-word Hebrew quotation at a student and the student failed to identify it, he promptly told the student, “Go to hell!” and went around the room telling each student that failed to recognize the source the same thing, sometimes varying it with “There is room for you, too.”

I began to study with Margolis when I was only eighteen and was more inclined to emulate his erudition than to resent his abusive language.  After being reviled before the class a number of times for not spotting his Hebrew citations, I asked him after class one day how I might improve my familiarity with the Hebrew text.  He told me to read as much of the Hebrew Bible as I could make time for each day, starting with Genesis 1:1 and reading straight through to the end of the Old Testament.  I did this and noticed how many more citations I was progressively able to locate in class.

When I finished the final chapter of Chronicles [last book in the Hebrew Bible], I reported to Professor Margolis to tell him the good news.  He replied with a faint smile, “Now begin over again.”  I never forgot the moral; mastery comes only through familiarity with the subject matter.  He scorned the kind of scholarship that depends on dictionaries, concordances, and other reference books.  There is a place for such books (and his library contained them), but a master has to have the basic knowledge of his field in his head [emphasis added].  He used to say, “When you buy a loaf of bread in the grocery store, you do not tell the clerk that you have money in the bank; you have got to lay a coin on the counter.  In the same way, no scholar should think that he does not have to know his basic material by heart because he can look it up in concordances and indices.  Money in the bank does not take the place of ready cash in the pocket.”

Points to ponder:

  • In your field, do you have the basics in your head or do you have to consult reference materials?
  • What kinds of practices can you implement in your discipline to help you master the craft?
  • Are you willing to endure tough teachers and mentors to get the benefit of a superior apprenticeship?

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The Genius of Keaggy

12 08 2013

Keaggy-Phil1I’ve been playing the guitar for thirty-seven years now.  I started as a twelve year old in 1976, pulled into the music world by the incredible coolness of watching friends play “Smoke On The Water,” “Dream On” and “Time In A Bottle.”

I started studying under a fine guitarist named Don.  Don had the good sense to teach me how to read music.  He had a fine ear as well.  And so, along with learning the rudiments of guitar and music, he taught me the music of my heroes.  Led Zeppelin.  Jimi Hendrix. Yes.  The Allman Brothers.  It was an exciting time to learn.

Very early on, Don kept telling me about an amazing guitarist named Phil Keaggy.  I didn’t know who Phil Keaggy was.  I knew that, like Don, he was a Christian and I had not been exposed to the Jesus Music of the 1970’s.  Was I in for a surprise.

I left my lessons in the late 1970’s carrying home records of all my favorites and recordings of Phil Keaggy as well.  I was stunned.  This gifted guitarist could play lead guitar and fingerstyle equally well.  He played incredibly fast, something that got my attention in the days where Eddie Van Halen was breaking in and breaking speed records on six strings.

Like Phil and Don, I became a Christian.  And Phil’s music occupied a big part of my life and repertoire, not simply because of his genius and technical prowess.  He had something to say, something with everlasting value.  My favorite album of Phil’s, to this very day, is The Master and the Musician.  It is an instrumental album trading in all different genres for the guitar.  Classical.  Folk.  Jazz.  Rock.  Fingerstyle.  It has it all.

Phil has made a career of uniquely overdubbing multiple guitar parts when recording, creating rich textures of sound.  It opened a new world for me and taught me to listen more carefully to music.  Not just the melodies and tunes, but to the architecture.  In that way, he carries on very much in the tradition of Jimmy Page, who also specialized in multi-layering of guitar parts.

Here are some other unique Phil facts:

  • Phil is missing the middle finger of his right hand.  He lost it in an accident at his family farm when just a wee lad of four.  This makes his fingerstyle work all the more stunning.
  • Phil is highly in demand as a studio musician but does not read a note of music.
  • Phil is about five feet, five inches tall.  And yet he casts a large shadow in the world of the guitar.
  • For acoustic guitars, Phil favors custom instruments hand-made by luthiers like James Olson and Del Langejans.  In his earlier years, he played a handmade Mark Evan Whitebook.  The sounds of these instruments are stunningly rich and full.
  • For his electric work, he favors his sunburst Gibson Les Paul.  His 1971 flame top Gibson Les Paul Deluxe, which he used in his band Glass Harp, now rests in the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame.
  • Phil lives in Nashville TN but is a native of Ohio.  For about five years in the 1970’s, he lived near Ithaca NY—close to my home—and friends of mine were instrumental in bringing him to upstate New York.

Buy Phil’s albums.  The Master and the Musician is a fine place to get acquainted with this remarkable musician.  You’ll be glad you made the effort.

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