Thursday, December 1, 2016

The Value of the Non-Practical

In the short story, Luke Baldwin’s Vow, Luke lives with his uncle, who is a very practical and highly successful business man. Luke’s best friend is an old collie that belongs to his uncle. Since the dog is too old to earn his keep, Luke’s practical uncle decides to have him euthanized while Luke is gone. By following the advice of a wise old neighbor, however, Luke manages to work out an agreement with his uncle whereby Luke would pay for the dog’s keep by fetching the neighbor’s cows every day. The story ends with the dog safe and with Luke promising himself that “he would always have some money on hand, no matter what became of him, so that he would be able to protect all that was truly valuable from the practical people in the world.”

The purpose of this little essay is not to degrade the value of being practical. Nor is it to promote that our schools should stop teaching practical skills and start promoting abstract art, or other such-like modern interests. However, I fear at times that we value the practical side of life a little too highly for our own spiritual good. Or perhaps I should say that we tend to deprecate the non-practical side of life a little too much. In this essay, we will try to find a balance which will keep us from falling into this trap.

Some Definitions

 First, let’s decide what we are talking about. I could argue at length for the practicality of some subjects—like algebra, or history—which some of our people consider impractical. But let’s stick to commonly accepted designations for the moment. I have divided these into three categories.

What subjects are practical? The so-called three R’s—reading, “riting,” and “rithmetic”—usually head the list. Or, in more common terms, subjects such as mathematics, literature, spelling, and English. These subjects all teach basic skills necessary for facing life and making a living.

The second category consists of what we could call the semi-practical subjects—subjects that are not quite as important, yet are still part of a basic education. This list would include history and geography, since these help us to understand those around us, and in other lands, who need the Lord. We would include some art, since we need artists for Christian publications. We would also include science, since this teaches us about God’s creation, and helps us appreciate Him, as well as teaching practical knowledge and skills in areas such as physics. And finally, we would include music because singing is an important part of our worship and witnessing activities.

In the third category, we have the non-practical subjects or interests. There are several groups of these. First, there are those subjects that are not immediately or directly useful for most people, but which are mind stimulating or mind stretching. This category would include mathematical disciplines such as geometry, trigonometry, and algebra—all of which are excellent for teaching logical thinking skills. Literature, history, and parts of science could be included here as well, if they are taught properly.

Second, there are those subjects that teach appreciation, understanding, and sympathy for life, nature, and people. We could include teaching literature in this one again—especially poetry—as well as art, music, science, history, geography, and composition.

You will notice that I have included some overlap between practical and non-practical. Subjects such as literature, science, history, geography, art, and music can be—and should be—taught from both perspectives.

Why Would We Bother?

 Is it important for our children to learn to think logically, to appreciate beauty, and to sympathize or empathize with others? Most of us think more in terms of giving our children an education that will help them to serve the Lord, feed their families, and witness to the lost. Will the non-practical subjects benefit them in these areas? Will these subjects make them better Christians, and more useful church members?

It might depend a little on what you consider to be a good Christian, or a useful church member. A few churches seem to have a growing appreciation for members who are “yes-men.” It is considered a virtue by some to simply and almost blindly accept and defend every decision of a group, or its leaders, without further thought. Leaders and congregations who prefer this perspective will naturally prefer to bypass the non-practical subjects, because these subjects teach our children how to think, reason, evaluate, and analyze.

It is true that rebellion is condemned by the Scriptures and that at times we need to submit to the ideas of others. It is also true, however, that the Scriptures honored the people of Berea because they took time to evaluate Paul’s message, and verify it from the Scriptures, rather then just blindly submitting to it. A congregation is strongest when it is filled with people who have studied the issues facing them, and who are following the church’s practice because they have seen from their own evaluation that the church and its leaders are following truth.

The mind stretching non-practical subjects taught by a mature teacher will help to prepare our children for such a life of usefulness. Subjects like algebra and geometry, force the student to apply mathematical laws in a logical fashion, and teach him that there are consequences for not being orderly and logical. Science teaches him that the natural world has similar laws, and shows him the premium that God placed on order. Literature illustrates for him Biblical principles such as sowing and reaping (called cause and effect in literary terms), and teaches him to analyze situations and arguments to see how they fit into true to life scenarios, and Biblical principles.

Most people will see through the value of teaching mind stretching concepts, if they stop to think about it. We want our children to be able to reason and apply logic to everyday life. We do not want a church full of robots, or young people who cannot make decisions that glorify God when they face a situation not mentioned in the standards booklet.

However, what about the subjects that merely teach appreciation?

It seems to me that God loves beauty. If this is a new thought to you, think of the marvelous beauty that God placed in nature. Why did He bother designing the leafs of broadleaf trees to turn into brilliant colors every autumn? Why did He create beautiful flowers, towering mountains, and brilliantly colored birds? Why is snow white instead of gray?

The person who can find and appreciate the beauty that God has surrounded him with will be a better person. The person who blindly forges through life, never thinking of anything but dollar bills and work from early in the morning until late at night loses something very precious.

The same thing is true of the person who cannot enjoy a good book, a beautiful painting, or the harmony of a beautiful song. Some people call these things sensual, and they can become that if we live for them. But God did give us the ability to appreciate beauty in many forms. A good teacher can cultivate this sense of beauty in his students and help the student to see God in many ways that people often overlook.

Certainly, we need to make a living. Dirty dishes must be washed. Laundry needs to be looked after. Hay needs to baled before it gets rained on. But happy the housewife who can pause to enjoy the song of a meadow lark while she is hanging out laundry, and share it with her four-year-old daughter tagging at her heels. And happy the father who can stop for a moment and enjoy the beauty of a rainbow with his ten-year-old son. Happy also, the family who can enjoy a good book together, or take an evening for a picnic beside the river. Happy the students who have a teacher who can teach them the beauty of a butterfly hatching from a cocoon, a bird building a nest, or a mountain silhouetted against a sunset.

Jesus said, “Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these” (Luke 12:27). He saw the beauty of the flowers. You will be a better person if you learn to appreciate the beauties that God has placed around us and inside us. Your children will be better people if you can teach them to do the same.

It is true that we must teach the practical subjects to our children. There are many things they need to learn. But don’t grumble the next time that your teacher takes his students from their work to admire a rainbow, or to watch the dark clouds of an approaching storm, or even to take a spontaneous walk in the woods. He might be teaching them a lesson more important than the math class they missed. They can do math tomorrow (and should), but the opportunity to learn to appreciate some beauty around them might not repeat itself.


 [Originally published in The School Builder]

Wednesday, November 30, 2016

Mary Christians and Martha Christians

Once upon a time a woman called Mary lived with her sister Martha and her brother Lazarus in a small town close to Jerusalem called Bethany.

A famous and very gifted rabbi became one of their close friends, and stopped in to see them whenever his travels took him past Bethany. 

During one of these visits, Martha became upset with Mary. She came to the Rabbi, and told him, "I'm busy making supper and getting everything ready for the company that will surely come since you are here. But Mary won't help me. She just sits in here and listens to you and Lazarus talking!"

The rabbi listened to Martha's outburst patiently, and smile sympathetically. "Martha," he replied gently, "You are a very busy person. You want everything to be just so so when I come. And that is an honor that I appreciate."

He paused. "But Mary has honored me even more. She has actually listened to what I am teaching. She wants to learn from me how to be like me."

"What I have to offer you is more important than what you have to offer me. A simple supper would be fine. You could join Mary and learn what she is learning."

This was hard for Martha to understand because she had been raised to believe that what she was doing was very important. Only when the work was done, if it ever was, was it proper to relax. She had been sure that the rabbi would rebuke Mary for shirking her duty. 

I was thinking of this little account recently and the parallels that it has for many areas in our lives. We are surrounded with Martha Christians. These Christians are driven with the need to be active, to be working, to be doing many things for God and for their fellow man. They are so busy with their activities that they have no time, or little time for prayer meeting, or for studying their Bibles. 

They are very useful people. Surely the church bills would never be paid but for them.

Similarly, there are others who are very busy in keeping the church pure. They search out clothing that might be immodest. They remind people to paint their cars if the color seems to worldly. They notice if their brother's hair becomes a bit too long, or if his trousers are too light colored. They see every tight fitting dress, or bright colored dress worn to church. They calculate whether the flowers on those same dresses are an eighth of an inch wider than they should be. 

They too are very useful people. Surely the church would soon apostatize but for their tireless efforts. 

But most churches have a few people - often a very few - who are Mary Christians. They are often belittled by the Martha Christians, because they seem to get so little accomplished that is of any worth. Often they don't get paid well. They aren't in the forefront of the fundraising efforts, or even the evangelistic efforts. Often you will see them in the background, quietly talking with someone who is discouraged or needs encouragement. You may see them sitting with a far away look in their eyes, or reading a book. 

These people, though many of us do not realize it, are more useful than all the others put together. They are the ones who sit at Jesus' feet. They learn of Him who to have and live the mind of Jesus. It is their prayers that hold the church together. 

They probably don't notice the little deviations in their brother's life. They will be the first there to help to restore a brother who falls into sin, but they don't criticize and belittle those who need to grow. They just encourage them. 

Much more could be said, but I think you understand. However, I have a question for you. Are you a Mary Christian, or a Martha Christian? 

I think the distinction is very important. It is the Martha's that divide churches. The Mary's hold them together. 

Be a Mary.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Wisdom and its Counterfeits

I’ve been thinking about Solomon a lot over the last few months. He asked God for wisdom, and God gave him not only wisdom, but prosperity and popularity. Possibly the last two were as much of a test of his character as they were a reward for his desire for God’s wisdom. At any rate, they were what took Solomon under. The book of Ecclesiastes gives us a rare glimpse into this process.

In this post, I would to explore some of this a little.

First of all, we don’t have to look at Solomon and envy his gift of wisdom. God has made us the same offer.  “If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him” (James 1:5, ESV). But he also gives us a warning along with this offer, in the next verses. “But let him ask in faith, with no doubting, for the one who doubts is like a wave of the sea that is driven and tossed by the wind. For that person must not suppose that he will receive anything from the Lord; he is a double-minded man, unstable in all his ways” (James 1:6-8, ESV).

There is lots of evidence in the Bible that God answered Solomon’s prayer for wisdom. For instance, study Solomon’s prayer at the dedication of the temple, in 2 Chronicles 6. However, later in his life, Solomon gave in to a series of counterfeits that led to his downfall.

As I look at individuals like Ben Carson, and churches like the Conservative Anabaptists, I see some of the same processes at work. That is the burden of my thoughts in these posts. Will we trade the true wisdom that comes from above, for the counterfeits offered by this world? The temptation is great sometimes, both for individuals and for groups.

Counterfeit 1: Knowledge


Trading wisdom for knowledge is a great temptation, especially for people with brilliant minds. Solomon definitely had a lot of knowledge. In the first chapter of Ecclesiastes he talks about the water cycle, and wind patterns. Where he got this knowledge, I’m not sure. It may have been from his own observations. But he became intrigued by knowledge. In Ecclesiastes 1:13, he said, “I applied my heart to seek and to search out by wisdom all that is done under heaven.” If you read this entire chapter, you will see that he sought this knowledge as an antidote for the seeming meaningless that he saw in life. He felt that nature and man were caught in a mindless spiral of uselessness and vanity.

The antidote didn’t cure the poison, however. In verse 18 of the same chapter, he stated, “In much wisdom is much vexation, and he who increases knowledge increases sorrow.” Seeking knowledge simply highlights the vexations of life, and Solomon soon saw right through that.

This thirst for knowledge is often evident in talented individuals. They gather books together, they learn the language and intricacies of various intellectual disciplines, and they immerse themselves in learning. But at the end of it all, they will look back at life like Solomon did and realize that knowledge doesn’t have the ability to bring satisfaction.

John Howard Yoder is an unfortunate example of someone who sought fulfillment in the study of theology and history. His immoral conduct showed clearly that his vast knowledge of history and the Bible, and thoughts about God and the Bible didn’t satisfy him. He excused his immorality as a part of his intellectual pursuits, but it seems likely that, like Solomon, he died a frustrated and unfulfilled person.

The contrary side of this can be a similar trap. In too many of the plainer groups today, ignorance is viewed as an answer to this problem. We take out children out of school after tenth grade, and get them to work learning “useful trades.” While this isn’t all wrong, the assumption too often is that “book learning” is a necessary evil but that working with our hands is somehow more “godly”.

The results of this response to the worship of knowledge has led to a dearth of people who can take the Bible and really study it and teach it. So many of the topics given by our people and the Bible studies taught by our people are simply shallow regurgitations of things that they have heard someone else say, and which they don’t really understand themselves.

Both the worship of knowledge and the worship of ignorance are definite counterfeits to the wisdom that is from above. Read 1 Corinthians 1:17 – 31 for Paul’s input into this.

Counterfeit 2: Materialism and Pleasure


In Ecclesiastes 2:1 Solomon made a momentous decision. He said to himself "Come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself." He tried wine first. He also built houses and planted vineyards for himself. He made gardens and parks, and planted orchards. He set up irrigation systems to water his horticultural masterpieces.

Along with all of this, he bought slaves and herds and flocks of animals – more than any other king in Jerusalem ever had. He hoarded together silver and gold, and other treasures. He even collected singers and concubines. He concludes his list like this: “And whatever my eyes desired I did not keep from them. I kept my heart from no pleasure…” (Ecclesiastes 2:10a, ESV)

But even though Solomon was experimenting with pleasure and materialism in his search for meaning in life, his earlier wisdom hadn’t totally left him yet (see 2:9). He stepped back from all of this and took a look at the results of his experiment. Verse 11 of this same chapter is very enlightening: “Then I considered all that my hands had done and the toil I had expended in doing it, and behold, all was vanity and a striving after wind, and there was nothing to be gained under the sun.”

Have you ever felt that way? I have. I can remember various times that I wanted something that I really didn’t need. I struggled with it and struggled with it until finally I found a “good” reason for buying what I wanted. The joy of my new possession seldom lasted more than a day or two, and often I wished I had my money back. We do well to heed Paul’s teaching: “But godliness with contentment is great gain, for we brought nothing into the world, and we cannot take anything out of the world. But if we have food and clothing, with these we will be content” (1 Timothy 6:6 – 8, ESV). (Read the context as well).

I don’t think it is wrong to be frugal, and save for a rainy day. But too many Mennonite people (and other Christians) seem to have followed Solomon’s example of gathering possessions in order to find fulfillment in life. Many have even made it a pious occupation – insisting that their success is God’s blessing on them for being good Christians. Or if they don’t come out and say that, they feel that way inside.

Solomon’s example should show us the fallacy of that feeling.

Counterfeit 3: Work


Solomon seems to have been a real workaholic. But even his work drove him to despair because he realized that he was growing older and would die someday. Then what would become of the possessions and improvements that he had labored for? Why someone who hadn’t done any work for them would inherit them and use them in whatever way he wanted to. This frustrated Solomon, since he seemed sure that the next king would probably abuse this privilege. In Ecclesiastes 2:18 and 19, he makes this interesting observation: “I hated all my toil in which I toil under the sun, seeing that I must leave it to the man who will come after me, and who knows whether he will be wise or a fool? Yet he will be master of all for which I toiled and used my wisdom under the sun. This also is vanity.” (ESV)

This is mine, Solomon is saying. Why should my son enjoy the benefits of what I have worked for? I want the joy myself! This seems like a selfish attitude, but in reality what bothered Solomon was the unfairness of it all. He had worked a lifetime, and now all the benefits were being snatched from him. So what fulfillment did work offer, if he couldn’t benefit from it? This seems to be the thrust of verses 20 – 22: “Sometimes a person who has toiled with wisdom and knowledge and skill must leave everything to be enjoyed by someone who did not toil for it. This also is vanity and a great evil.”

This frustrated Solomon so much that he actually insinuated that you might as well eat, drink, and be merry with the fruit of your labor because if you don’t some else will. It would be better for you to enjoy what you have, than to leave it to someone who won’t appreciate it anyway.

This kind of philosophy is shocking to God-honoring, hard-working Mennonites. In many churches, it is a point of honor for you to take the material things you have and increase them. You might give them to the church when you die, or use them to start your children off in life – either is usually acceptable. What isn’t acceptable is if you are a parasite and can’t pay your own way in life, and need to depend on the church or the government to live.

Yet there is a sense in which Solomon is right. You will not find fulfillment in life by working, even if you are successful. He was the most successful “worker” of all time, yet in the end he reaped only vanity and frustration. If we could boil the message of Ecclesiastes down to one central complaint it would be this one, because Solomon keeps returning to it, over and over again.

“There is an evil that I have seen under the sun, and it lies heavy on mankind: a man to whom God gives wealth, possessions, and honor, so that he lacks nothing of all that he desires, yet God does not give him power to enjoy them, but a stranger enjoys them. This is vanity; it is a grievous evil” (Ecc 6:1-2, ESV).

Counterfeit 4: Popularity


The Queen of Sheba summarized the world’s opinion of Solomon in 1 Kings 10:1 – 10 and 2 Chronicles 9:1 – 9. The Bible says that “When the queen of Sheba had seen the wisdom of Solomon…, there was no more breath in her” (2 Chronicles 9:3 – 4, ESV). The entire passages that cover her visit and their context are worth reading, just to get the complete impression. It would be very interesting to read the rest of the life story of Solomon, which was apparently recorded in books written by Nathan the prophet, Ahijah the Shilonite, and Iddo the seer. However, these writings have been lost, so we can only guess at the rest of the story.

Yet Solomon summarized his own popularity by giving the account of a poor wise man who was very popular for a little bit. “There was a little city with few men in it, and a great king came against it and besieged it, building great siegeworks against it.   But there was found in it a poor, wise man, and he by his wisdom delivered the city. Yet no one remembered that poor man” (Ecclesiastes 9:14 – 15, ESV).

Popularity is one of the most fleeting of life’s pleasures. Jesus said, "Woe to you, when all people speak well of you” (Luke 6:26). Unfortunately, plain people have gotten used to being highly thought of in today’s world. This is on the verge of becoming a trap for them, I fear. Normally the people who flatter you the most are the first to turn against you.

Popularity becomes a great trap for us if we depend on it for our fulfillment in life. There are times in life when we need to take a stand against the crowd in order to remain faithful to God. This becomes very hard to do, if we are accustomed to being popular and have grown to enjoy it. In fact, Jesus warned his apostles, “If you were of the world, the world would love you as its own; but because you are not of the world, but I chose you out of the world, therefore the world hates you” (Joh 15:19, ESV). Sooner or later this hatred surfaces if we are following Christ.

Popularity is perhaps the most treacherous of the counterfeits that we are looking at here. Solomon lost his popularity at the end of his life, in spite of his efforts to maintain it by marrying the daughters of the rulers of the worldly kingdoms around him. While God didn’t remove him from the throne, because of his promise to David, He took most of the kingdom from Solomon’s son, however, and Israel never regained the glory it had once possessed under Solomon.

Counterfeit 5: Knowing about God rather than knowing God


This last counterfeit is one that probably traps more “Christians” than any other. The Bible speaks of those “having the appearance of godliness, but denying its power. Avoid such people” (2 Timothy 3:5, ESV).

Many people know about God and think that this means that they are Christians. Solomon knew what God expected and was able to give good advice. The last verses in Ecclesiastes 11, and most of Ecclesiastes 12 are good teaching for all of us. However, there is really no indication that Solomon understood that pleasing God required more than a blind obedience to God’s law, and an intellectual assent to His plan.

When Solomon was young and saw his need of God, God came to him. God blessed him and offered his lifelong friendship. But Solomon’s eyes wandered away from God and his desire for intellectual and physical fulfillment in life led him away from the spiritual fulfillment that God offered him. In essence, you can’t really have both, and Solomon lost sight of that.

What is my passion in life? I think this is an indicator of whether we are finding fulfillment in genuine wisdom from above. Is my service to God because of my duty – something I need to do to avoid hell fire? Or do I serve Him because I love him? Does His spirit bear witness with my spirit that I am His child (see Romans 8:16)?

I’m afraid that too many plain people, and others are satisfied with an intellectual knowledge of God, rather than a relationship with Him. Most of the church’s problems stem from this fact.

So, will you be satisfied with the counterfeits? Or will you seek the true wisdom which is from above? It’s the most important decision we will ever face.

“Who is wise and understanding among you? By his good conduct let him show his works in the meekness of wisdom. (14)  But if you have bitter jealousy and selfish ambition in your hearts, do not boast and be false to the truth. (15)  This is not the wisdom that comes down from above, but is earthly, unspiritual, demonic. (16)  For where jealousy and selfish ambition exist, there will be disorder and every vile practice. (17)  But the wisdom from above is first pure, then peaceable, gentle, open to reason, full of mercy and good fruits, impartial and sincere. (18)  And a harvest of righteousness is sown in peace by those who make peace” (James 3:13-18, ESV).

Comments and discussion are welcome…


Tuesday, February 23, 2016

The Buzz Machine


Oscar woke up one morning to find that everybody from church that he spoke with that day acted strange around him. They threw little remarks his way that seemed aimed at “fixing” him; fixing some problem that they all knew that he had, and that they knew that he knew that he had.

Only thing is that Oscar had no idea about this thing that was supposed to be wrong with him. You know, the “need” that the buzz machine had, only last week, been cranking out info about.

Why, just last year, the buzz machine had informed all subscribers to its yellow press that Oscar was a trophy; a “real church builder,” the buzz machine had branded him last year.

Last year, after that broadcast by the buzz machine, Oscar woke up one morning to find that everybody from church acted like he was a hero; like he had just rescued the church from horrible peril. Some buzz machine subscribers called Oscar “God’s man for the occasion.”

What occasion? Oscar had no clue. But everybody he met at church in those days threw little remarks his way that seemed aimed at praising him for some heroic deed he had done. They all took for granted that Oscar knew what they meant. He didn’t. And his modesty about the praise the buzz machine subscribers’ gave him only increased their estimation of him. Oscar was “highly appreciated” in the church in those days.

But all that was last year. This year, the buzz machine knew different things about Oscar.

Buzz machines. They have them in most communities where there are large, happy tongues; small, draggy brains; and slow to no internet service.

If you are Oscar, enjoy surfing the waves of gossip that the buzz machine washes up on your beach. Beyond that, do nothing about, or to, or at, the buzz machine.

Lest you attribute credibility to something that has none, and never can.

Daniel R. Huber


Saturday, January 16, 2016

What Are You Communicating?


Introduction

 How long should it take you to make three points to an audience that is more or less acquainted with your subject matter? Three minutes? Fifteen minutes? How about 45 minutes, or maybe 60 minutes?

I’m thinking of a particular talk that I listened to, once. The speaker told us that he would be giving us three basic points to think about, then dived into his subject with as much zest as a small boy eating his first chocolate bar. He gave us background and foreground, and buttressed his argument with various quotes and evidence of all sorts. After going over his time limit by about 20 minutes, he eventually sat down. The moderator, of course, lauded his efforts properly with appropriate figurative pats on the back.

I was curious, however, as to how many people actually understood what had been said, so I discreetly asked some people what the speakers three main points had been. Interestingly, half of the people I asked apparently didn’t remember a single point. The other half remembered one, but only in a general way. Incidentally, I couldn’t remember all three of them myself, since they had become so buried in the speaker’s brilliant verbosity, that they had vanished from my memory.

I am forced to conclude that the speaker’s preparation time had been mostly wasted, as had the time the audience spent listening to him.

So how do we avoid this? The following points mostly apply equally to writing and public speaking, though they may need to be applied differently. But for the sake of clarity, I will refer to speaking.

Create an Outline

 Creating an outline should be close to the beginning of your preparation. You may want to jot down a bunch of ideas first, but then sort them into a sensible sequence. Choose three or four main ideas, then use the rest of your points as sub points. If they don’t fit, drop them. Most people won’t remember more than three or four main ideas from a presentation.

Creating an outline forces you to be systematic in your presentation. It also forces you to evaluate each point to see if it even belongs in your outline.

You should consider handing out copies of your outline if it is important that people remember what you said. Not everyone takes good notes.

Be Brief…

 The oft repeated advice to public speakers is: Stand up, speak up, then shut up. In other words, avoid the bunny trails, the clich├ęs, and the unnecessary clutter – if it doesn’t further the purpose of your presentation, don’t say it. Unnecessary clutter only drowns out your message.

Going overtime is rude, counterproductive, and unnecessary. If your talk is scheduled to close down at 2:45, you will start to lose the attention of your audience at about 2:46. By 2:50 people will be squirming. By 3:00 they will need to go to the bathroom. By 3:15 they will be utterly antagonistic to anything you have said all afternoon.

One way to avoid going overtime is to schedule yourself. If you have three points to give and a half hour to give them in, each point can be ten minutes long. Jot down the approximate beginning and ending time for every point in your notes, and check your time at the end of every point. This will keep you from talking for twenty minutes on the first point and then only having five minutes available for each of your next two points. Remember to schedule time for closing remarks and your final summarization.

…and Concise

 Your choice of vocabulary counts as part of being concise. Rudolph Flesch said that you should always chose the simplest word that will say what you want to communicate. That’s a bit hard on the ego, because vocabulary is one way of proving to your crowd that you are an expert. But in reality, your purpose for being there is to communicate those three points, not to promote your ego. So either use simple words, or define your words with simple and concise words. If it takes more than a sentence or so to define a word, find a way to avoid using it, unless you know for sure that your audience will understand it.

Be Relevant

 Who are you talking to? First graders? University graduates? It will make a difference!

If your subject is assigned, hopefully it is relevant. But if you are coming up with your own subject, be sure that is of either general interest, or general use, to your audience. There is little use in speaking to an operations crowd about theoretical subjects or abstract ones, even if the subject is your pet one. If you don’t have the expertise or personal interest in subjects relevant to your audience, refuse the assignment.

Ask Questions

 Questions are a good way to get your audience thinking, or to get their attention. Just make sure that your questions relate to the subject at hand. I asked a group one time how many of them were taking my class because they had to. Every hand went up. It was a depressing start to what could have been a good time.

It is a good idea to introduce every main point with a question, if possible. The question can be rhetorical, or if the setting is informal, you can go for an actual answer from the audience. Just be sure not to lose control of your presentation, if you ask for audience input.  Questions are a great way to keep everyone with you and thinking.

Use Visual Aids

 Visual aids are one good way to gain and maintain an audience’s attention. People will remember points they both see and hear for much longer than points that they just hear. One of the simplest ways of doing this for a small crowd is to use a white board or chalk board and write down every main point as you introduce it. Leave them on the board until the end of your talk so that they have a chance to soak in.

White boards have become pretty old fashioned however, and you should become acquainted with power point presentations and their use. This allows you to use charts and diagrams, illustrations, and bullet points to get your points across. The days of ad lib presentations are pretty well over, and people expect you as a speaker to do your homework if they are to listen to you.

 Summarize

 Can you tell me in one sentence, or short paragraph, what are trying to tell me in your speech or essay? That is what you want me to learn, and what I should carry away from your presentation. If you can’t tell me what that is, I probably won’t figure it out either. In fact, it’s a good idea to introduce your presentation, and end it, with a brief summary of what you are saying. Give the three main points you are trying to make, at the beginning, and at the end, as well as emphasizing them during your presentation.


After all, what is the use of spending half an hour telling a group something they won’t remember?

Sunday, December 20, 2015

Unsung Heroes...

Actually there are lots of unsung heroes in the world today. But I’m thinking especially of the doctors and nurses of our medical system. I’ve just spent two weeks in the hospital, a new experience for me, and I was impressed at what I found. Decent food, caring nurses, helpful doctors – the only sour note that I can remember was a cleaner who grumped because someone had peed on the floor of the washroom.

Hmm. I wonder who would have done that?

One Night

One night stands out to me as I look back. I was in a four-man ward – actually a transition ward intended for overnight patients or patients almost well enough to go home. On this particular day, everyone moved out but me, and three new people moved in. Two had just had operations, and the third one needed help for everything. Between the three of them they kept our poor nurse hopping. One fellow roamed the floors at all hours, and even tried to help the older man out of bed to go to the washroom (he needed professional help, usually two nurses). Fortunately, the nurse came running in time to avoid a catastrophe. Another man wanted fresh socks because he soaked his feet on the wet washroom floor (the nurse said it was just water, but it was awful sticky water, I must say…). I didn’t count how many times they pushed their “nurse” button between them, but for a while she almost wore a path from the nurse’s station to our room.

Through it all our nurse remained cheerful (mostly). But I suspect she was glad when her shift was over.

Another Night

Another night stands out to me, in the same room. Two older men were moved into my room after minor operations, so that they could be evaluated overnight before they went home. They were friendly, but one became confused during the night. I don’t know how often he tried to jump ship during the night – catheter, IV, and all. But it seemed like about every time I drifted off into a deep sleep, I woke up to hear nurses running into our room, trying to avert a calamity. Finally, they packed him into a wheel chair and moved him down the hall to where they could keep their eye on him.

And One More Night

Hospitals are not noted to be places to get a good night’s sleep. Another night, I was all alone in my room and enjoying my privacy. But soon after midnight I woke with a start because someone crashed into my bed with a stretcher. What? Oh, a new roommate. Back to sleep after they got him settled in. Beep, beep. The nurse call woke me up – as did his gasping. He couldn’t breathe, and they came running. They called in a technician. Then an emergency room doctor. And the nurse kept talking, trying to keep the patient from panicking. Lots of interesting events, but not really conducive to sleeping. Finally, they hauled him back out and took him to the ICU. Blissful sleep – it felt so good, until about six o’clock when, crash, you guessed it, ANOTHER stretcher ran into my bed. The nurses on this floor were great but apparently the orderlies had all, flunked drivers ed.

It’s All About People

I could keep on telling stories, because as I look back my stay was actually fairly eventful and full of human interest. But what really impressed me, was the staff at the hospital. A nurse needs to be ready do almost anything comes their way. On the one hand, they have to be able to install catheters and IV needles. On the other, they might need to change a diaper for someone with fecal incontinence. Plus, they need to understand symptoms, and be ready for emergencies at any time.

Nurses need a lot of patience. My veins apparently vanish when I see a nurse coming in the door with the IV kit, so I really tried their patience at times. When I arrived at the hospital, I needed a blood transfusion. Badly. And the emergency room nurse could not, for the life of her, get my IV needle into a vein. I was too sick to really care, but I think she actually had sweat drops on her forehead. It took another nurse to finally get it. That wasn’t so bad; one time it took four nurses about three hours to get me hooked up.

Nurses are constantly working with people, and some of them could try the patience of a Mother Teresa. I don’t recall a nurse getting really upset with a patient during the time I was in the hospital. Probably the night nurse in the second illustration above came the closest, but she actually handled it quite well.

It also helps if nurses have a sense of psychology. I listened in on a nurse trying to settle down a man who was sure that someone had tricked him into coming to the hospital. He kept insisting on going home and the nurse kept telling him he couldn’t. He was sure that there had to be a back door he could sneak out of, if only she would tell him where it was. She kept the conversation going. Unfortunately, I didn’t hear the end of it, because I fell asleep, but I’m sure she came out on top.

I had a terrific medical team looking after me while I was in the hospital. One morning I was eating breakfast and saw a gathering outside my door. After the discussion was over, all five came in and it turned out that they were the surgical team and they were concerned about my future after I went home.

It turned out I didn’t get to go home right away. They told me almost every day for a week that I could probably go the next day, but it didn’t happen. The problem was that I had surgery one day, then landed serious blood clots in my one leg, the next. So, the specialist looking after the blood clot was playing ping pong with the surgeons. My blood clots required blood thinners to dissolve them. But when they gave me blood thinners I had internal bleeding. They had quite a time striking a balance that finally worked and I could go home.

I can’t imagine being a doctor, playing Russian roulette with people’s lives. I don’t think I’d ever sleep. But they stayed calm through it all.

Anyone in the medical field probably will become either calloused or unselfish. Mostly they seem to become unselfish, though I met one person who I think was calloused. Or pretended to be – I’m still not sure which. But I needed a filter put in my vein to stop any blood clot pieces from sneaking through to my lungs. The only problem was that the local hospital only had two doctors who could install them, and one was on vacation and the other was off for the weekend. The closest hospital that could do it was three hours away. Have you ever had a six-hour trip in an ambulance? Well, I haven’t either, because that doctor who was off for the weekend came in extra to do the procedure for me. When I thanked him for coming in, he just smiled and shrugged, remarking, “This made a lot more sense than sending you all the way to [the other hospital].”

I learned a lot of lessons during my hospital stay. I learned some things about praying (that’s another story, for another time), and I learned a lot about getting along with people by watching a group of professionals at work. I’ve heard and read a lot of horror stories by people who apparently have had bad experiences. But I can’t relate to those and I hope I never can. It seems to me that dealing with doctors and nurses is similar to dealing with most other people. If you are nice to them and appreciate what they are doing for you, they will normally return the favor.


I’m afraid I wouldn’t make a very good doctor or nurse. But I’m sure glad that there are people who do.

Saturday, January 18, 2014

A Book Sale


Today I was at the largest personal book sale I ever saw. It was an estate sale, and had a large variety of books, especially for a person collection.

There was a time that I roamed used book stores all the time and always bought books. But I found over the years that so many I never actually used that I don't buy very many any more.

I was trying to work my way into this man's mind today. He had a lot of religious books, especially study or philosophical ones. But he obviously had wide interests. He was interested in writing, because he had various books dealing with markets for writers. He had reference books - I bought a fairly new Chicago Manual of Style. He had books on Islam and Baha'i faiths. But on the other hand he also had a vast selection on anthropology and ancient history. I bought a book on the Mayan Prophecies, for instance. But he was also interested in plants and in modern history. For instance he had the official biography of Ronald Regan, which I already have, and various books by Pierre Burton, most of which I already have.

So what kind of a person are we looking at here? He could have been a minister, or priest, but he didn't have any books on counselling. I doubt he was married, because he had no books dealing with marriage or family. I think he was a man who dreamed (like I do at times) of being a writer. I think he had a lot of ideas that he would have liked to share, but it never happened. I left the place feeling sad, because I felt that had trodden on the shattered dreams of an unfulfilled person. My wife, on the other hand, thinks he was a seeker looking for spiritual fulfillment. Like Solomon, trying to find answers that were always just a step out of his reach.
Really, I think both could be right. In either case, it's a sad legacy. His house was a run down rental. Very uncomfortable. Half full of books and a few cheap possessions that no one really wanted.

He was 8 years older than I am, when he died. So I wondered a bit about what others would think of my prized possessions when I was gone? I even thought a bit about what they are - and I decided that mine were mostly books, and a couple of computers. Doesn't seem like much. And I wondered how many of the dreams that I still have left will be just that when I die. All my life I have felt that something was around the corner, but I've never found it. I suspect that this was what this man was like - somehow I could really identify with him.


Sort of depressing....