Saturday, September 24, 2011


It is said that toward the end of the nineteenth century, Swedish chemist Alfred Nobel awoke one morning to read his own obituary in the local newspaper: “The merchant of death is dead. Alfred Nobel, the inventor of dynamite, who died yesterday, devised a way for more people to be killed in a war than ever before, and he died a very rich man.”

Apparently, it was Alfred's older brother who had died; somebody on the paper had bungled the epitaph. Needless to say, Nobel was quite taken aback. But the account had a profound effect on the man. It is believed that the emotion of reading his own obituary led him to set aside the bulk of his estate to establish the Nobel Foundation that bestows annual awards for cultural and scientific advances, as well as for the Nobel Peace Prize, presented to those who foster peace.

“Every man,” Nobel said, “ought to have the chance to correct his epitaph in midstream and write a new one.”

What a grand idea!

Something like that happened to Kelsey Grammer, playing Dr. Frasier Crane in the TV show Frasier. He had to go to the ER one day, but after a long wait, returned home.

Soon after, his name was called in the ER, and someone else in line answered, just to get ahead. But then this guy suddenly died of a heart attack in the ER and the evening news reported that Frasier Crane had passed way. The newspaper published his obituary the next day.

Frasier, reading the report, is understandably shocked. But then he suddenly realizes that he is actually not dead yet, decides that this misreporting is a wake-up call. So he goes ahead and writes his own obituary, as an impetus to do what he had hitherto left undone in life.

“Dr. Crane came late to athletics, he became a fixture in the Seattle marathon, the America’s Cup yacht race, as well as the Kentucky Derby [as a stable owner].” He also added that he had taught psychiatry to children online, traveled to South America, taken up rafting, and that he had been fluent in Russian.


But you know, while the concept of correcting one’s own epitaph in midstream and writing a new one is exhilarating, it can get out of hand, like it did with Frasier.

Some kind of focus and concentration is essential. One just cannot do everything. Write books, play the cello, find the cure for melanoma, be the best preacher ever, play for a national cricket team, be an authority on Bach, ride a Harley across the country, eat a cheesecake every day, …. Oh, well.

Life is short. Obituaries need to be written. What will yours and mine say?

One thing I do:
forgetting what lies behind and
reaching forward to what lies ahead …
Philippians 3:13

No point fretting over lost time and years. No point agonizing over missed opportunities and foolish actions. Past sins and follies are just that—past. For the believer in Christ those are forgiven and forgotten.

Paul exhorts us to look ahead for the rewards in heaven. Prepare for those prizes.

… I press on toward the goal
for the prize of the upward call
of God in Christ Jesus.
Philippians 3:14

Focus on a few things. Or even one thing. And let’s do it the best we can, for the glory of God, in the power of the Spirit, for the sake of Jesus Christ.

… whatever you do,
do all to the glory of God.
1 Corinthians 10:31

R.I.P. @

Saturday, September 17, 2011


A recent study reported in Psychology Today provided some surprising findings.

In 2004 researchers at Carnegie Mellon University tested the effects of two letters asking for a donation (no more than $5) to Save the Children. The first letter contained statistics about the suffering of children in Africa: food shortages in Malawi affecting more than 3 million children; 11 million in Ethiopia needing food assistance; etc. The second letter had information about one specific young girl.

“Any money that you donate will go to Rokia, a 7-year-old girl in Mali. She is desperately poor and in near starvation. With your help, Save the Children will work with Rokia’s family to help feed and educate her, and provide her with necessary medical care.”

There were three groups in the study: Group 1 got the statistical letter; Group 2 got Rokia’s sad story; Group 3 got both.

Here are the results:

Group 1 (statistical letter) gave, on average, $1.15
Group 2 (Rokia’s story) gave, on average, $2.40, over twice what those who read the numbers gave.
The smaller donations for the statistical letter is what is called the “drop in the bucket effect.” Overwhelmed by the scale of the problem—the starvation of millions—donors feel their small amounts are meaningless.

But here’s the strange finding.

Group 3 (statistical letter and Rokia’s story) gave, on average, $1.40, almost a dollar less than what those who got just the story gave.

For some strange reason, the statistics actually made donors less willing to give, less likely to be turned on emotionally—the “statistical numbing effect.”

While it seems heartless to care only for one and not for many, it actually makes perfect sense. “You are a person, not a number. You don't see digits in the mirror, you see a face. And you don't see a crowd. You see an individual. So you and I relate more powerfully to the reality of a single person than to the numbing faceless nameless lifeless abstraction of numbers.” As one psychologist put it, “Statistics are human beings with the tears dried off.”

Mother Teresa was right: “If I look at the mass, I will never act. If I look at the one, I will.”

Perhaps it is because we tend to identify with a concrete face, a specific name, a particular suffering, than with the pathos of a faceless and nameless crowd.

All this to say, it is very easy to become numb. How quickly we lose compassion. Hearts tend to harden almost by default.

“I feel compassion for the people
because they have remained with Me
now three days and have nothing to eat.
If I send them away hungry to their homes,
they will faint on the way.”
Mark 8:2–3

And Jesus proceeded to feed 4,000! A large crowd, but they were not faceless or nameless to him. Compassionate, not numb.

So must we be.

He who oppresses the poor
taunts his Maker,
But he who is gracious to the needy
honors Him.
Proverbs 14:31

One who is gracious to a poor man
lends to the LORD,
And He will repay him
for his good deed.
Proverbs 19:17

He who shuts his ear
to the cry of the poor
Will also cry himself
and not be answered.
Proverbs 21:13

He who is generous
will be blessed,
For he gives some of his food
to the poor.
Proverbs 22:9

He who gives to the poor
will never want,
But he who shuts his eyes
will have many curses.
Proverbs 28:27

May we never be numb to the plight of others. Compassionate, not numb!

Saturday, September 10, 2011


Jacques Lowe was an internationally renowned photographer and photojournalist best known for his portraits of the big names in politics, business, and entertainment. He contributed to TIME, LIFE, Saturday Evening Post, etc. He got to know the Kennedys and subsequently went on to document JFK’s campaign, the Kennedy White House, and the life of the first family. All of this resulted in six books, numerous international exhibitions, television shows, and magazine covers. Reviewers credited Lowe's “natural, warm, and intimate images of the president and his family and the workings of the presidency with keeping alive the Kennedy flame for generations yet to come.” Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., (“court historian” for the Kennedys) said that “Jacques Lowe was monumentally self-effacing. This, I believe, is why his camera caught so much human truth. There are no orchestrated photo-opportunities here.”

Lowe's work—and this includes much more than his work with the Kennedys—is in the permanent collection of the Museum of Modern Art in New York, the Elysée Museum in Lausanne, the European Center of Photography in Paris, the Kennedy Library Museum in Boston, the Sixth Floor Museum in Dallas, as well as in hundreds of private and institutional collections. Before he died in 2001, he was honored with the Crystal Eagle Award for Impact on Photo Journalism, a lifetime achievement award granted by the School of Journalism, University of Missouri and the Eastman Kodak Company. It was only the fourth time the award has been granted.

Mr. Lowe’s daughter, Thomasina, recalls how attached her father was to his Kennedy negatives. When he moved to Europe in the late 60s, these negatives had a plane seat for themselves, next to their creator. He was denied insurance on those pictures, because insurance companies deemed them priceless. She writes: “I went with him on countless occasions to the J.P. Morgan Chase Bank vault to retrieve or return negatives. There was always an air of solemnity in the room when he reached for one of the many manila envelopes as though what we were about to see and touch would bring us closer to something historic. Back out on the street, walking up West Broadway, he clutched his treasure trove until it was safe and sound in his studio.”

You might be interested to know that this J. P. Morgan Chase vault was located in the World Trade Center. And, yes, the negatives—all 40,000 of them—perished ten years ago today.

I close my eyes,
Only for a moment and the moment's gone;
All my dreams
Pass before my eyes a curiosity;
Dust in the wind,
All they are is dust in the wind!

Same old song,
Just a drop of water in an endless sea;
All we do
Crumbles to the ground though we refuse to see;
Dust in the wind,
All we are is dust in the wind!
Kansas, 1977

“Naked I came from my mother's womb,
And naked I shall return there.”
Job 1:21

Indeed! We came without anything, we go without anything.

But we can send things across … while we are still alive.

Do not store up for yourselves
treasures on earth,
where moth and rust destroy, and
where thieves break in and steal.
But store up for yourselves
treasures in heaven,
where neither moth nor rust destroys, and
where thieves do not break in or steal.
Matthew 6:19–20

For children of God this means …

… to do good, to be rich in good works …,
storing up for themselves
the treasure of a good foundation
for the future ….
1 Timothy 6:18–19

Everything else is “dust in the wind.”

Saturday, September 03, 2011


While in Ketchikan, Alaska, my Dad and I did a short jaunt on a seaplane. Such water aircraft are often used in the Alaskan and Canadian wilderness, blessed as they are by a large number of lakes. This was my first flight on one of these machines and, surprisingly enough, even on a rather rough day on the sea, even given the small size of the aircraft, its takeoff, flight, and landing were quite smooth. Nonetheless, it never ceases to make me wonder how these heavy contraptions can float on, lift off from, and return to, water!

Of course, it would be even more fascinating to walk on water, but only one Person could do that successfully.

There’s an episode in Mark 6 that recounts Jesus’ maritime perambulations! Mark is subtly comparing that event with Exodus 14, the overthrow of the Egyptian army in the Red Sea. Both stories manifest the visible presence of God in a dramatic and miraculous mid-sea rescue. The parallels are so remarkable that there are very few words (in the Greek versions) found in one that are not found in the other! The power of God, which had once delivered God’s people, was now working though Jesus and available to God’s people again.

Unfortunately, this unique thrust of the encounter in Mark 6:45–52 is completely lost on the disciples—their reaction is sheer terror, the opposite of what was intended.

But when they saw Him
walking on the sea,
they supposed that it was a ghost,
and cried out; for they all saw Him
and were terrified.
But immediately He spoke with them
and said to them,
“Take courage; it is I, do not be afraid.”
Mark 6:49–50

What is interesting is that Jesus had earlier sent his disciples on this journey alone, ahead of him, in a boat on a stormy sea. The verb is a strong one—he is compelling them to go on.

Immediately Jesus compelled His disciples
to get into the boat and go ahead.
Mark 6:45

This has all the signs of being a test. He sends them on, removing himself from the scene. One might remember that in the feeding of the 5000 that just precedes this story, Jesus had actually expected them to provide the multitudes with food.

They had failed the test there; they fail it again here, and panic in the storm. So Jesus does his gravity-defying thing, walking on water.

But the disciples still don’t get it: they think Jesus is a phantasm, a spooky specter.

The connection between the feeding miracle and the one of walking on water clearly link these two miracles, in turn, to the wonders of the Exodus period—the provision of manna and the crossing of the sea. The disciples, just having observed Jesus reenact the former (5000 fed), should have been prepared for the latter. But their hearts, Mark informs us, had been hardened.

... their heart was hardened.
Mark 6:52

Anyhow, Jesus walks over (on water!), gets into the boat, and the storm is stilled. They arrive on shore.

When they got out of the boat,
immediately the people recognized Him.
Mark 6:54

The irony is unmistakable. The ones close to Jesus didn’t know who he was. The nameless, faceless crowd—they immediately recognize him. The crowd’s response to Jesus is vigorous and enthusiastic: they run, they carry the afflicted here and there, to wherever Jesus is, acknowledging the power of this one, whom the disciples had failed even to recognize.

The walking-on-water Man is God himself, powerful to save. Do we recognize him in our lives?