Abundant Living Vol. XV, Issue 44

“I will make you a community of peoples . . .” – Genesis 48:4 

Now don’t laugh, those of you who know me – or even if you don’t know me but have taken a glance at the mug shot posted on my website – because what I want to talk about is barbershops. I love barbershops, the old-fashioned kind. I know! I know! You’re probably holding your sides with laughter already asking yourselves why Dan would ever need to darken the door of a barbershop with nothing but a little gray fuzz around the fringe. Well, believe it or not folks, once upon a time I had hair, a full head of it. Back in those days I really enjoyed going to the barbershop. Nowadays I just go to one of those places that’s like a fast food restaurant, put my name on the list, and inform the nameless “stylist” who happens to be available that I want a “number three, blocked in the back.” Wham-bam, in less than four minutes (I’ve timed it) I’m out of there.

That’s not the kind of experience I’m talking about. I liked the barbershop I went to when I was a kid growing up. My barber’s name was G. F. Givens, a man about my dad’s age or maybe a little older. Back then the barbershop was a gathering place for all sorts of characters, a place where there was a lot of chatter about local politics, the high school football team, weather, and some sort of combination of arguing and joking. My favorite trick was walking out of the barbershop without paying for my haircut complaining it wasn’t worth it. It was a trick to get old G. F. to chase me down the street, but he never did. He just stood there knowing I would come back with the $1.50 I owed clinched in my fist which he grabbed while handing me a piece of Double-Bubble Gum.

In his once popular book All I Really Need to Know I Learned in Kindergarten, Robert Fulghum wrote a clever little essay about his relationship with his barber. “Once a month we reviewed the world and our lives and explored our positions,” he said. “We became mirrors, confidants, confessors, therapists, and companions in an odd sort of way. We went through being thirty years old and then forty. We discussed and argued and joked, but always with a certain thoughtful deference.” That’s the kind of barbershop I’m talking about. We could use more of those kinds of gathering places today; for God said, “I will make you a community of peoples.” And old fashioned barbershops were great places for that to happen.

Abundant Living Vol. XV, Issue 43

“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.” – Matthew 22:37-39 

It was during a get-to-know-each other small group exercise at an event I attended a few years ago when I met Brenda. In the course of that exercise she shared with us that her father had played baseball for the Brooklyn Dodgers.   Immediately someone in the group popped off, “So, was your daddy famous?” With that a soft, tender smile appeared on her face. “He was to me,” she replied sweetly, almost in a whisper. (Her father was Charlie Neal if you want to look him up.)

Those four softly-spoken reverent words revealed more about Brenda’s father’s character than I imagine any well-crafted biography ever could. He was “famous” in her eyes, you see, far beyond being a great athlete and a loving father; to her he was an extraordinary human being. But what is it that makes an extraordinary human being? I have observed three things. First of all, extraordinary people seem to have a purpose in life, a purpose much larger than themselves. Second, they know themselves well, their gifts, talents, and strengths, as well as their weaknesses and how to compensate for them. In other words, they know who they are as well as who they are not. Finally, they have a keen understanding of others and a deep compassion and concern for their fellow human beings.

Scripture provides a clear formula for an extraordinary life and the ideal model we should strive for. First is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, and mind. That should be our ultimate purpose in life. Second is “like it”, to love our neighbor as ourselves. This requires that we must first understand and respect ourselves, not in an egocentric way, but so we are able to develop and use our unique gifts and talents to their highest potential. Then we can understand other people in the same way we understand ourselves and begin to model God’s love in the way we treat our neighbors. It is a perfect model we are given. Look around and you’ll see these characteristics in all extraordinary human beings – parents, teachers, leaders, all sorts of great people. It’s what makes them extraordinary. It’s what made Brenda’s daddy “famous” in her eyes.

Abundant Living Vol. XV, Issue 42

 “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind your own business and to work with your hands.”  –  1 Thessalonians 4:11

For many years we enjoyed the luxury of employing a housekeeper who came to our home each week to give it a thorough cleaning, as well as a lawn service to maintain our yard.  However, when we moved into our new home in the suburbs, we decided we should try doing that work ourselves.  Surprisingly, what we soon discovered was the pleasure we found in those rather mundane chores, not to mention the benefits it has had on our health and wellbeing, even our marriage partnership.  “It’s my turn to mow!”  “No, it’s my turn,” we teasingly argue each week.

As I began to consider an exit strategy for myself from the corporate world after a long career there, of major concern was finding other meaningful work. In giving up those big paychecks, even temporarily, would my life still have purpose as I assumed it had before? It was an adult version of the question “what are you going to do when you grow up?”

Indeed, it is a question that applies to adults as well as children, according William J. Bennett in his book The Book of Virtues. For, as he claims, it is a question about work. “What is your work in the world going to be? What will be your works?” He goes on to explain, “These are not fundamentally questions about jobs and pay, but questions about life. Work is applied effort; it is whatever we put ourselves into, whatever we expend our energy on for the sake of accomplishing or achieving something. Work in this fundamental sense is not what we do for a living but what we do with our living.”

That may explain our re-discovered joy, value and meaning in doing common household chores together, quiet works done with our own hands, yet without pay or fanfare. The rewards they do provide, though, can be far richer than any paycheck, starting with the simple rewards of accomplishment and achievement. Less obvious is the influence we may be having on others – neighbors or grandchildren for example. Maybe that was the Apostle Paul’s intention when he wrote to the Thessalonians. “Make it your ambition to lead a quiet life, to mind you own business and to work with your hands . . . so that your daily life may win the respect of outsiders and so that you will not be dependent on anybody.” It may be the best work any of us ever do.

Abundant Living Vol. XV, Issue 41

“I press on toward the goal to win the prize . . .” – Philippians 3:14 

Put first things first. That’s how Stephen Covey describes Habit number 3 in his book, The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People. In other words, highly effective people are those who identify what is most important in their lives and make it top priority, above everything else. They focus on opportunities rather than problems, centered on their mission rather than being seduced by outside forces. “The key,” as Covey puts it, “is not to prioritize what’s on your schedule, but to schedule your priorities.”

In my former career I was responsible for a bond trading operation for a major Wall Street investment firm. On any given day it was a beehive of activity, phones ringing constantly, squawk boxes blaring, people shouting across the room, a chaotic atmosphere, a perpetual fire drill. There was an urgency about everything we did; the ringing phones demanded our immediate attention, impatient investors who needed someone to help them “right now!” Yet in the heat of battle decisions had to be made, often times big decisions involving substantial sums of money. It was those big decisions that were of utmost importance; for from them our profitability was derived, our life blood, our reason for being, the purpose of our existence, our mission. If we were not careful, though, the urgency of the ringing phones and blaring squawk boxes could become seductive, distracting us from the importance of the big decisions that had to be made. In other words, we had to manage in the midst of that perpetual fire drill to put first things first.

In a sense, the experience of working on a bond trading desk was an imitation of real life, for in real life we constantly encounter urgent demands on our time and energy, problems to be solved, projects to complete, impatient people who need us to help them “right now!” And it is not as if we can or should ignore those urgent demands, for indeed they must be responded to. Rather it is a matter of prioritizing because if we are not careful the demands of life’s urgent matters can become seductive, distracting us from what is most important, our reason for being, the purpose of our existence, our life mission. But as Covey reminds us so well in his Habit number 3, in order to be most effective we must put first things first. Only then are we able to “. . . press on toward the goal to win the prize . . .”

Abundant Living Vol. XV, Issue 40

“Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”

  • John 15:13 

Someone once gave me a wonderful book, the title of which escapes me, about a grandfather teaching his young grandson lessons in life. As with the book’s title I have long since forgotten most of the vignettes about the grandfather’s wisdom – except one. It seems the grandfather had taken the boy, who was maybe six or seven years old, down to the river’s edge to teach one of his lessons, unaware that danger was nearby from a large rattlesnake lurking in the weeds. Suddenly the grandfather saw the serpent’s head rise up out of the grass, and instinctively he threw up his hand in front of the boy just in time to intercept the snake’s venomous strike, thus saving the young lad. . . Afterwards, of course, the grandfather became deathly ill, but thankfully did survive.

Perhaps I remember that story because it sent a chill up my spine. (Rattlesnakes do that to me, you know.) But I also remember thinking to myself, “would I do that for someone, even my own grandchild?” Hmm . . . well maybe now that I’m a protective grandfather myself I can imagine it, at least more than I could back years ago when I read that book. It still makes me shudder, though

Through the years, no passage of scripture has haunted me more than the one about laying down one’s life for his friends. Like the rattlesnake story, could I do that? When I was in the military I often wondered if I’d be willing to fall on a grenade to save my comrades had I ever been called into combat (which I never was). Would I jump in front of a bus on a busy street to save a stranger from being run over, or run inside a burning house to save a neighbor? Thankfully for me – so far at least – none of those questions have ever been put to the test, to literally lay down my life for someone else.

But aren’t we all challenged every day in almost every circumstance not to put our own desires and wellbeing ahead of someone else’s? Is my time, for example, more valuable than another driver’s that I should cut him off on the freeway? Is my selfish greed more important than helping someone in need? Whether it’s literal life and death, or the simple day-to-day ordinary experiences of life, isn’t the application still the same? “Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends.”