Thursday, June 30, 2011

The Hidden Ego in Giving

A year or so ago I read an online article about a home built by the crew of the TV show Extreme Makeover: Home Edition.  The family was going to sell the new home, for reasons that I can’t remember now but made sense when I read the article. (Don't quote me but I think they couldn't keep up with utilities for the enormous house, because their original challenges, which had necessitated the show's intervention, were still difficult.) What interested me was that people were frustrated by the family’s decision. Community members had helped the family in different ways during the makeover, and the sale of the house felt like ingratitude.  (And yet the sale of the house would've helped the family, too.) 

I thought about that.  Did those local folks volunteer to help the family so that they would get praise and gratitude?  Perhaps not explicitly (but perhaps some folks did). When the family couldn’t stay at the house forever, the people felt betrayed, in a way.  Their generosity and caring carried hidden expectations. 

I'm sure this analogous situations happen to many of us. Years ago I gave a gift to a friend, which I thought the friend would love; then the friend later told me he gave it to his grandson. Now, I would've been less sensitive; at the time, I didn’t say anything but felt grumpy and foolish. 
These situations raise the question of why do we do good for others.  We may not be motivated outright by a desire for praise and gratitude.  But there are situations when we might feel chagrined when others didn’t respond to a good deed as we assumed they would. 

You might send a gift to a friend but you never receive a thank-you or acknowledgment.  (I’ve a friend who humorously says that if you give someone a wedding gift you need to include an SASE if you want a thank-you.) If you’re the adult child of elderly parents, you encounter this dynamic: your parents sacrificed to raise you, now they expect you to meet their needs as they wish. (My dad thought I should be grateful for the chance to make a 500-mile round trip to mow his lawn for free so he could save $10 or $15 a week for some kid to mow it.)  Or, you might reach out to a person in friendship, but the person didn't "click" with you in the same way or otherwise didn't respond.    

Churches can be hotbeds for this kind of situation.  We contribute (both time and money) to a church—but then we’re not pleased with recent developments at the church, or our input on a certain issue was not followed.  But why do we feel displeased?  Do we think the church should answer to all our expectations just because we contribute time and money? Had we contributed only because we had happy feelings about the church? [1]

This issue points us to a very good potential spiritual discipline.  How much happiness can we derive just from going something good, regardless of the outcome? 

This is one of those teachings common to many religious traditions; it is among the "dharma" themes of the Bhagavad Gita, the Muslim value of selflessness, as well as the Buddhist theme of non-attachment, plus biblical passages like Romans 12 and others. I especially like the Jewish conception of tzedakah, which means “righteousness” or “charity.” The following is a quote from the site describing Talmudic levels of tzedakah, from the least to the most meritorious.   

·    Giving begrudgingly
·    Giving less that you should, but giving it cheerfully.
·    Giving after being asked
·    Giving before being asked
·    Giving when you do not know the recipient's identity, but the recipient knows your identity
·    Giving when you know the recipient's identity, but the recipient doesn't know your identity
·    Giving when neither party knows the other's identity
·    Enabling the recipient to become self-reliant

Let’s try this in the weeks and months ahead.  Find helpful things to do for people, but try not to involve your ego in it; find joy simply in the giving... If you’re displeased with something at your church, try increasing rather than decreasing your contribution; find joy in focusing on God rather than your feelings... Give to someone and don't even assume you'll hear back: then if you do, it'll be a nice "extra." ... Reach out to someone, either in friendship or in helpfulness; if he or she doesn't respond positively, know that you did a good thing to try.  You may still feel disappointment, but you're (potentially) stronger for the next time you reach out.    


1.  I like this quote from ethicist Stanley Hauerwas, who writes that love is not “some affection for another that contributes to my own sense of well-being” but ”the steady gaze on another that does not withdraw regard simply because they fail to please.” That love “is first learned through being required to love our brothers and sisters who, like us, are pledged to be disciples in Christ.”  From Stanley Hauerwas, “The Family as a School for Character,” in Gabriel Palmer-Fernandez, Moral Issues: Philosophical and Religious Persepctives (Upper Saddle River, NJ: Pretence-Hall, 1996), pp. 239-246 (quote from page 244).

Friday, June 17, 2011

Highway 51 Revisited

"Where two great highways cross!" declared a Vandalia brochure from the 1940s, referring to U.S. 40 and U.S. 51. The latter road is a north-south highway through the center of Illinois. When Illinois began to create a system of automobile roads in 1918, the road was State Bond Issue route 2. In northern Illinois, portions of the oldest alignment of 51 is still called IL 2. When federal highways began in 1926, highway 51 was one of the series of 1-ending north-south roads with U.S. 1 on the east coast and U.S. 101 on the west coast. Highway 51 itself begins at U.S. 2 at Hurley, Wisconsin, near Lake Superior, and ends at U.S. 61 at LaPlace, Louisiana, 1286 miles south. Originally, the road continued another 73 miles, concurrent with U.S. 61, into New Orleans.

Here are some interesting sites. This one features pictures of the highway as it crosses Illinois: This site has shots of the old pavement before U.S. 51 was rerouted concurrently with Interstate 39: Finally this one shows the southern end of 51 in Louisiana:

My childhood acquaintance with U.S. 51 included only about 95 miles: 65 miles to the north to Decatur, Illinois, and 30 miles to the south to Centralia, Illinois. Centralia has about 14,000 population in 2000, Decatur about 82,000, and my hometown Vandalia, 7000. Both communities were places my parents and I went to shop on occasion.  I also got my teeth straightened by a Centralia orthodontist, so our drives down 51 to that office were frequent during my early teenage years.  Naturally, the scenery in both directions became significant personal memories. 

In fact, two of my very earliest memories relate to U.S. 51. One is a childhood visit to see a railroad engine on display at Centralia's Fairview Park. (See The visit must've been fairly soon after the engine was moved to the location in 1962, when I was five, but I'd never seen anything so massive and amazing!

The other early memory is a childhood visit to Kitchell Park in Pana, IL, thirty miles north of Vandalia. I think the occasion was a family reunion of some sort, but I don't remember which reunion. Our yearly Crawford family reunions happened in late August in Vandalia. I remember being upset when two bigger boys wouldn't let me play on a seesaw. To console me, my mother walked me over to a foot bridge, pictured in this very old postcard.

The bridge is still there. On a recent return trip, I was surprised to see how small it is compared to my childhood memories. When you grow up, things seem to shrink. The bridge, dated 1910, was about fifty years old at the time of our family reunion and now it's over 100. Sometimes, when I'm at the edge of a lake or stream, this old bridge appears in my memory. We used to live along a small lake and, as I mowed the lawn, the scene came to mind.  The same thing happens when I see a Monet painting of water and water lilies.

I've lots of other childhood memories of U.S. 51. Ghost signs are advertisements painted on the side of buildings and other structures, but the signs are fading and not always legible. One of my favorites is gone: a Miller High Life logo painted on a silo beside the road, a few miles north of Vandalia. I went to high school with the girl who lived on that farm in the 1970s. I didn't pass by the place for several years but the last time I did, the logo had pretty much vanished.

Barns with advertisements painted on their roofs or sides are particularly interesting. A favorite book, Rock City Barns, has pictures of two barns along U.S. 51 near Vandalia. The one I saw most often was several miles south of town. I say "was" because although the barn is still there (last time I passed by, anyway), the once-white letters on the roof had completely oxidized and were no longer recognizable.

Original U.S. highway signs (1920s and 1930) were cut-out shields with embossed letters and numbers, then after World War II, cut-out shields with flat letters were more common. In the 1960s and after, the cut-out shields were replaced by square, black signs with white shields and black numbers. During the late 1990s, when I took my father on a visit to Ramsey, IL so he could visit his grandparents' graves, I noticed one of those post-war shields on a side street, where (I assume) it was unnoticed when signs were replaced.   It's gone now, sadly, but how fun to chance upon a relic of highway history.

Two-lane highways followed existing streets and roads. As we traveled to Decatur, I liked the zigzag but still northbound way that 51 passed through Pana: north on Poplar St., then east on First Street for five blocks, north on Cedar Street across the railroad tracks, east on Jackson Street for a mile or so, and then north toward Decatur. Read any guidebook for driving old Route 66 and you'll find similar, zigzag alignments through towns. (Before the widening of U.S. 51 reaches Pana, I need to give a shout-out to a highway curve north of that town, which I always loved.
It's just a gentle curve through the landscape, with a sign pointing east toward a place called Dollville.)

Driving south from Vandalia, I liked those river bottom lands which often flooded in rainy seasons... a little hill called Pole Cat Mound...a lumber mill near the road where a great-aunt and uncle of mine lived...the barn roof that advertised Rock City...the small slope with a bath tub (apparently a trough for
farm animals) nearby...a sign for a Lutheran Church located down the county road... a small and junky, crossroads antique store where I only visited once because the proprietor was so profane....a line of trees that indicated a much earlier alignment of the highway....a roadside picnic area, between the main road and another, earlier alignment.... Rural sight after rural sight along a gray two-lane road, accompanied by telephone poles and the tracks of the Illinois Central Railroad. The large petroleum storage tanks near the village of Patoka intrigued me as a little kid because there were so many of them, huge cylinders that had landed from the sky. A few once had the red Pegasus logo for Mobil.

Old fabric shop in Vernon
Among those villages I mentioned earlier, I liked Vernon (population 178 in 2000), paradoxically, because of involuntary time spent there. My mother was at one point an interested sewer, and she loved the remnant and fabric shop in Vernon. I was a little boy and waited and waited and waited in the car for her to finish shopping; I read nearly all of A Christmas Carol as I sat in the back seat. But I liked the town because it is so small, the houses are not close together, and you have the (to me) peaceful experience of seeing the farm fields and bordering timber beyond the village as you look from highway through three or four blocks the
village's yards. I also liked the simply little playground and the G.A.R. monument, an inauspicious park but, I'm sure, sufficient for a little kid living in the tiny place.

Driving to Centralia, you arrive in Central City, Illinois, which is continuous with Centralia, and you feel a little relieved to be in a town again as you pass florists, gas stations, small churches, and motels. There was once a discount store along northbound 51 where my mom liked to shop for picture frames, and where I liked to browse the bins of LPs. I remember purchasing the Moody Blues' Question of Balance album there, and perhaps others.

(Speaking of music: what songs or pieces remind you of favorite roads?  I've another blog post about that,, but Route 51 certainly brings to mind particular songs from high school years: Moody Blues' "Question" (with its epic opening), Mason Williams' "Classical Gas," The Hollies' "Long Cool Woman," Nilsson's "Without You," The Who's "Overture" [see below], ELO's "Fire on High" [with its backward lyric, "The music is reversible, but time is not. Turn back! Turn back! Turn back! Turn back!"], and others.)

Driving from the north, Central City soon merges into Centralia, and you arrive at Centralia's business district. My parents enjoyed shopping there, though less frequently than our monthly or bimonthly trips to St. Louis. Along Broadway, there were nice clothing stores (at one, I purchased some Cub Scout paraphernalia), a very cool newspaper office designed in Egyptian style, the store Centralia Stationary, which my mom particularly liked (it still operates), and a music store where I bought sheet music. I was thrilled to find the music for "The Overture from Tommy," which I'd heard on the radio in the Assembled Multitude version rather than The Who's. Compared to my hometown's, Centralia's business district was not appreciably larger or more cosmopolitan (compared to Decatur's, for instance), but it seemed so to me, a little kid, as we strolled from the stores near the Illinois Central tracks on the west and the grand trees and stately library in Library Park to the east. Perhaps that pre-kindergarten visit to the railroad engine gave to me an extra bit of appreciation for the small town.

Another Centralia/U.S.51 memory: a childhood visit to the synagogue there, as a Vacation Bible School field trip. But I've acknowledged that shul's influence on my life in another blog post, concerning the Exodus and Christian Faith (

A few years ago I discovered a German word, fernweh, which means “far sickness.” It’s the opposite of “home sickness” but is a similar kind of longing: longing for a place that’s not home, a nostalgia for some place distant. I’ve experienced this feeling for places more exotic than our drives on U.S. 51, but the sights were enough like–and close enough to–my own home places that home- and far-sickness mingled. The sights along U.S. 51---the houses, churches, small industry, and business districts--were other people’s landscapes. In a childish way I wondered what people’s lives were like in these “distant” areas, creating in me the feelings described well by that word.

But there is also good old nostalgia, the pleasure of driving a two-lane road you've known your whole life.  Wherever I drive, I like to play music---much of Ralph Vaughan Williams' music, some of Elgar's and Holst's, and others---that my brain has "placed" into home scenes like those along U.S. 51.

Wednesday, June 15, 2011

Growing in Faith

The New Testament book of Hebrews contains an interesting metaphor: milk vs. solid food as "nutrients" (my word) for one's religious faith. The whole passage is 5:11-14.

About this we have much to say that is hard to explain, since you have become dull in understanding. For though by this time you ought to be teachers, you need someone to teach you again the basic elements of the oracles of God. You need milk, not solid food; for everyone who lives on milk, being still an infant, is unskilled in the word of righteousness. But solid food is for the mature, for those whose faculties have been trained by practice to distinguish good from evil.

I hate being talked down to and scolded, so I might have shamefully thought (if not said) "Screw you!" if someone told me this. But the passage is interesting and difficult because it follows some very sophisticated and nuanced theology in the previous 4-1/2 chapters!

We don't know the author of Hebrews nor the location of the congregation, although the latter were probably Jewish converts to Christianity (hence the title, added by later tradition), perhaps in Italy in the 60s AD. The congregation could've grasped and followed the writer's several arguments concerning the primacy of Christ, based on Old Testament scriptures (the only scriptures they had, of course). Yet, the author expresses concern that the people are still "babies." Interestingly, in 6:1-3, the author tells them to "leave [behind] the elementary teachings about Christ... not laying again the foundation of repentance... instruction about baptism," etc. (NIV). They know all that stuff! And yet the basic knowledge, as well as the more sophisticated teachings of the author (which you could consider "solid food"), are not leading the members to maturity (NIV: the NRSV has "perfection").

The author of Hebrews does alternate harsh warnings, reassurances and encouragement throughout the letter: for instance, the section coming up, 6:4-12. Why weren't the people mature? Their problem seemed to be apathy or sluggishness (6:12: cf. the "dullness" referred to in 5:11 above), weakness that implies weariness (12:12-13), and a tendency to "drift" (as an unanchored boat would drift: 2:1). They also seem to be facing a certain amount of persecution, though apparently not yet life-threatening (12:4). So the epistle's author felt the need to startle them: to talk louder, if you will, to get their attention.

This is interesting to me, partly because I want to be mature in Christ, too, and partly because this biblical advice is different from the way some of us preachers and churchgoers approach this subject. A denominational official visited our church several years ago and, I swear, he preached an evangelistic, "come to Jesus" sermon--for an established congregation. We pastors want people to grow in their faith but I think some of us try to do so by reiterating and reenforcing the "elementary teachings"---the "milk." Perhaps we should, instead, remind them of what they know (or should know) and push them toward deeper and more confident understanding.

What might jolt and lead people toward maturity? Discussing this Hebrews passage, the commentator in The New Interpreter's Bible (vol. 11, p. 72) notes that the problem with the congregation was essentially a social failure! "The [original] readers [of the epistle] have apparently pulled back from bold witness to outsiders and from exhorting and encouraging one another. The loss of a congregational conversation means a loss of hearing. Through lack of use faculties grow dull and the members regress to a former condition of immaturity."

But their failure was also a failure to sharing the blessings of Christ's own life. We can follow Christian teachings and have correct beliefs and yet fall short of a full relationship with the living person and living presence of Christ himself---no historically distant teacher known only through a book. Thus the Hebrews author gives his readers so many glorious passages about the sufficiency of Christ for people's needs, about Christ's tender, real and present care for struggling sinful people. The failure (but not an irreversible one) of the congregation is a two-sided coin: an apathy toward the living Christ and an apathy toward mutual encouragement and social involvement and witness.

All this dovetails with one of my favorite Bible passages, Ephesians 4:11-16.

The gifts he gave were that some would be apostles, some prophets, some evangelists, some pastors and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until all of us come to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to maturity, to the measure of the full stature of Christ. We must no longer be children, tossed to and fro and blown about by every wind of doctrine, by people’s trickery, by their craftiness in deceitful scheming. But speaking the truth in love, we must grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and knitted together by every ligament with which it is equipped, as each part is working properly, promotes the body’s growth in building itself up in love.

Paul (or, some scholars argue, the author writing in Paul's name) similarly links Christian maturity to mutual support and encouragement and Christ's living power. Christian maturity can't take place apart from a loving (a genuinely loving) fellowship wherein people can build one another up.

Similarly, 1 Corinthians 3:1-9:

And so, brothers and sisters, I could not speak to you as spiritual people, but rather as people of the flesh, as infants in Christ. I fed you with milk, not solid food, for you were not ready for solid food. Even now you are still not ready, for you are still of the flesh. For as long as there is jealousy and quarrelling among you, are you not of the flesh, and behaving according to human inclinations? For when one says, ‘I belong to Paul’, and another, ‘I belong to Apollos’, are you not merely human?
What then is Apollos? What is Paul? Servants through whom you came to believe, as the Lord assigned to each. I planted, Apollos watered, but God gave the growth. So neither the one who plants nor the one who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. The one who plants and the one who waters have a common purpose, and each will receive wages according to the labor of each. For we are God’s servants, working together; you are God’s field, God’s building.

In the previous chapter, Paul depicts Christian maturity in a lovely way, and then in this section, he lowers the boom on the Corinthians, who think they're mature (and possibly would've thought Paul was describing them in chapter 2), but they actually are "infants"! Their "infancy" is, once again, a basic social failure combined with a failure to appreciate the living, working presence of Christ among them. Instead of being pleased at God's grace, the Corinthians were jealous, quarrelsome, prone to divine themselves among factions, and to glorify the work of particular people (in this case, Apollos and Paul) in a possessive, self-important way.

I never liked the expression, "There is no limit to what can be accomplished if it doesn't matter who gets the credit," which has been attributed to both Emerson and Harry S. Truman, among others. Half-humorously, I think the saying could be used by people to take all the credit and not acknowledge and thank the efforts of others! But if we apply the saying to Paul, we could paraphrase: God can accomplish amazing things as we avoid playing favorites with one another, dividing ourselves into factions, and work humbly together for one another's benefit! But those things imply a deep trust and mutual affection among believers in a congregation---goals that a church might set prior to other, more programmatic goals.

Back to Hebrews: we grow and become mature believers in Christ in so far as we encourage and support one another---every day, in fact (Heb. 3:13, 10:23-24). I don't seek such encouragement every day, and would feel needy if I did.  Biblically, though, I should be seeking and giving daily encouragement for my faith (including periodic course-corrections)!  

So should we all--but, as I say, it would require a high level of love, trust, and sincere concern within our circles of fellowship.

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Summer Camp!

A commercial came on TV recently about a certain organization's programs for children. My wife and I looked at each other and said, "Summer camps!" What a bunch of memories we have, surrounding our daughter's childhood camps! Starting in the springtime, we'd watch for camp announcements, get calendars out, compare available weeks, make payments, and schedule all kinds of 9-to-noon or 9-to-3 adventures to bring variety to Emily's summer weekdays. I call them "camps" but only a few were overnight: week-long events when she was a teenager (unlike the dreaded, long and far-away camps in the Peanuts comic strip).

Her very first camp, when she was five, was a morning class at a historic site in Kentucky. After the sessions, she brought home her crafts and also a mint plant, which we planted in the back yard. Other camps blur in memory as to which summer was which, but I remember classes in soccer at the local Y ("our teacher said the girls hustled better than the boys," she proudly reported), various art classes, and I think a swimming camp. I don't remember any "duds," just a class wherein one little girl was a bully, and a music-related camp that turned out to be a week-long intensive rather than a class which combined recreation.

Zoo camp was an annual favorite. Our community had an excellent zoo, and we often enrolled Emily in two half- or full-day classes there. We even had the zoo host her end-of-summer birthday. The zoo's gift shop was a favorite stop after camp was over. Who knows how many animal-themed toys and books we purchased there? 

A momentous camp was a Humane Society camp, wherein the kids learned about pets, cared for animals, and cleaned cages. My wife and I agreed: what a great idea on the society's part, extra help around the center and the likely chance the kids would want to adopt a pet! Sure enough, Emily fell in love with a two-year-old female tabby named Oddball, a sweet, pretty favorite among the kids. Emily thought another girl was going to adopt the cat, but that wasn't the case: by the end of the week Oddball was still available. We adopted her, and she became an integral part of our family for twelve years. (See my 6/15/10 post.)

When we moved to Akron, OH (Emily was 10), she enjoyed camps at the Akron Zoo, a more modest facility (prior to its expansion a few years ago) but with a nice aviary and adorable red pandas, among other critters. For several years we displayed photos on our refrigerator of Emily handling a snake and a turtle. Another, science camp happened the high school she'd eventually attend. We were sad when an excellent camp at a local park had been scheduled during the first week of school in August; what were they thinking? Other summers, we packed her bags for the annual weeklong camp in the nearby Cuyahoga National Forest.

I don't want to leave out Vacation Bible Schools, always a significant summertime week. When Emily was in grade school, our church had a very nice program. After we moved to Ohio, she attended VBS at our own church and a Lutheran friend's church. At the latter, a motorcycle-riding pastor was a highlight one year.  Something that always amazes me about VBS is how the curriculum designers dream up enjoyable and different themes year after year. 

An enduring memory of any summer event is heat (and its partner humidity). The camper received ample sunscreen, and she had two or three little plastic fans to carry on hot days (multiple ones because misplaced fans were replaced and then rediscovered). Her chauffeur seized the day and sometimes went barefooted. 

Emily's "era" of camping merged into volunteer service as a VBS assistant, and also summer marching band practice. Marching band was a several-week commitment, more boot camp than summer camp.  Instead of "driving Miss Emily" around to different locations, we had only destination: the band room in the rear of the high school, and church during VBS week.

Camps were not part of my own childhood experience. My hometown was too small for such programs, and I've no idea if our denomination offered camps in Illinois, but I did love and was influenced by a series of VBSs. Our local library featured summer programs. Not until the summer between my junior and senior years of high school did I have an out of town class, a week-long training program for students working on yearbooks. The program happened an hour away at Eastern Illinois University, where we kids stayed in the dorms and attended classes (my interest was photography). The Steely Dan song "Reelin in the Years" reminds me of that summer. What a great time! I bitterly regretted not having similar opportunities earlier.

Fortunately, the many hours I've spent with Emily over the years means that I won't have the regrets of some parents who worked hard but neglected their kids.  I think my own dad was one, although he never said so explicitly.  I appreciate this article,, which calls dads to spend more time with their kids. 

When we moved to Akron, the mint plant came with us. We planted it near the lake at the edge of our backyard, where it lasted nearly nine years (or nearly fourteen years after Emily brought it home) until heavy rains flooded the area. I saved a toy giraffe, though, from a garage sale pile, when I recalled its purchase on a cheerful afternoon in the zoo gift shop.