Flim Flam

April 29, 2015

Back in 1967 actor George C. Scott starred in a movie entitled “The Flim Flam Man.” “Flim flam” is a euphemism for “con man.” It’s one of my all time favorite movies. He played the role of a con man with integrity… sort of. He only cheated people who were themselves looking to make a quick, maybe even illegal, buck.

In the past two weeks Ellen and I have personally heard from two different places looking to make some money off of naïve, and in some cases greedy individuals. The first was from “a friend I’m sure” in a third world country. I had to laugh because the email began “Dear.” Not “Dear Bill,” or “Dear Mr. Little.” Just “Dear.” Anyway, they went on to tell me that there was a giant sum of money waiting to be claimed and they needed my help. Imagine of the 7 billion people in the world they asked me! I feel so… honored. All I had to do was… you know how this goes right? I had to send a check for some amount to a particular place and the information for claiming my “prize” would be forthcoming. I don’t want to tell you the specifics lest you claim it before I do. Oh yeah, I have some property to sell you in the Everglades.

The second communiqué came via Ellen’s cell phone. The recorded message went something like this: “This is the IRS calling. We have been trying to get in touch with you. We are bringing a law suit against you and you need to call this number _________ immediately.” This same con is being circulated via the internet. As it turns out there is no claim to any benefit to this con for us outside of getting bilked out of personal information for the purpose of stealing identities.

Like all of us, I could go on listing the things I have had stolen over the years and the “quick buck” opportunities I have been privy to. But we all have our tales to tell. The moral of the story is this: There are people in this world whose singular desire is to create schemes to maliciously, illegally and immorally hurt you, those you love, and to bring about your demise. I know… hard to believe right? And what’s even more distressing? Some of them are in the Church!

Years ago, Ellen and my son David (who was 3 at the time) used to visit a nursing home each Sunday afternoon and spend time with one woman in particular who had virtually no family. One week she showed Ellen a letter she had received from a well known television preacher (charlatan?). The letter explained that his ministry was going to fold if he he did not get financial help from her immediately. It was the advent of word processors and information merging so the letter was addressed to her “personally.” She didn’t know anything about technology so she assumed the letter had been written by him to her! She was upset that she had only a small amount of money to live on and she could only send him what remained and it wasn’t much. Since the letter was “personal”, at least in her mind, she thought he might be disappointed in her and that his ministry would cease to exist because of her. Even now all these years later the memory of that letter just blisters me. Wolves in sheep’s clothing!

Is it any wonder that scripture warns us about these people? Why is it that many of the NewTestament letters are written fully or partly to warn against false prophets and teachers? BECAUSE WE ARE NAÏVE! I know we don’t like to think that… but we are! I can’t imagine one person reading this who, if honest with themselves, can’t think of several occasions where they have been sucked into something that they later realized was bogus. Or at least not what it was cracked up to be. WE ARE NAÏVE! If you think you cannot be deceived, you already are.

A few of the MANY verses that deal with this subject.

Matthew 7:15 “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.”

Acts 20:28-30 28 Keep watch over yourselves and all the flock of which the Holy Spirit has made you overseers. Be shepherds of the church of God, which he bought with his own blood. 29 I know that after I leave, savage wolves will come in among you and will not spare the flock. 30 Even from your own number men will arise and distort the truth in order to draw away disciples after them.

2 Peter 2:1 But there were also false prophets among the people, just as there will be false teachers among you. They will secretly introduce destructive heresies, even denying the sovereign Lord who bought them—bringing swift destruction on themselves.

Don’t get me wrong… I have my own issues… but be on the lookout for these wolves in sheep’s clothing. Below I’ve listed just a few things to be wary of.

Signs of a false prophet (not everyone in these categories is false):

  • They are independent of any larger organization.
  • They do not have a legitimate, independent auditing system. If you support a Christian ministry ask them who audits their books. Then look that organization up. If it’s their own organization, then stop supporting them.
  • They have a “new idea” that no one else in Christendom has.
  • They surround themselves with “yes men.” Or they have no one to whom to be accountable.
  • They have a theology that raises red flags for you.
  • They encourage you to send resources to them but they never tell you to support your local church or other Christian organizations.

No doubt there are many more. I don’t want to discourage Christians from giving. But giving NEEDS to be well thought out, and frankly… GENEROUS.

We have an obligation in the church to:

  • Be informed by knowing the truth.
  • Use our resources wisely.
  • Protect those who cannot protect themselves.

Don’t get sucked in by charlatans. You know the saying: “If it sounds too good to be true… it probably is.”



Crying over you

April 14, 2015

Last week I wrote about laughter… this week… well… read on.

For those who know me you know it doesn’t take much for me to get “emotional”.   That’s a code word for “tears,” or “crying.” Talking about my kids does it, along with thinking about the woman who loves me. (That would be Ellen if you were wondering.) Honestly, I really don’t like the inability to control my emotions. More honestly… I despise that about myself. It’s embarrassing. And on occasion it’s a distraction from what I am trying to do or say. Now I say I “despise” while at the same time I recognize the importance. I can’t easily reconcile my feelings about the whole thing but I can tell you a story.

I was in my early teens when my mother died. There are many things about that event that I remember but one of the most significant recollections is the fact that I didn’t cry. I may have shed a tear… or not, but I have no memory of overt crying. From that moment on, I dreamt of my mother, at least weekly, for years. Each dream was the same. She would come back and tell me that she had never really died. She just needed to get away from my sisters and I for a while. I would get extremely angry and say, “Don’t you know what you have put us through!” Then the dream would end. I dreamt that scenario every week for 14 years. Now jump forward. Ellen and I are now married and our son David is 5. She was well aware of the “weekly visitations” by my mother. The three of us were driving near Hampton cemetery in Allison Park, PA and I said to Ellen, “I have never shown you where my mom is buried.” The truth is I had not been back to the cemetery since we laid her to rest 14 years before. I’m not a therapist but I suspect I was rather angry about her dying. Duh! The three of us walked up to the grave and I pointed to the headstone. Then totally… unexpectedly… a wave of grief overcame me. I had no control. I began to sob… loud, gut wrenching, “unmanly” sobs. David was confused and maybe a little frightened and kept pulling on Ellen’s skirt saying “Mommy, what’s wrong with Daddy?” She’s so smart. She gently held his hand and said, “Wait, just wait.” I don’t really know how long that all lasted but I can tell you this… I have never had one of those dreams since that day. Not one. Holding deep, painful emotion inside is simply not good for us.

I have heard too many people over the years say something like this, “My father never cried a day in his life.” And they say it as if it’s some sort of virtue?! With all due respect to those people’s fathers, those dads were broken; emotionally broken. I’m going to guess that for many of those men, they didn’t have any problem showing some emotions like anger, bitterness or total, quiet detachment, but love, sadness, grief… well, those things got pushed way down inside their psyches. Feelings that get stuffed eventually come out in other forms – cancer, heart problems, high blood pressure, ulcers, or uncontrolled emotions that erupt like a volcano. These things are not virtues! These are not what we should be modeling to our children and loved ones. They are tragic and honestly don’t make for good family relations, i.e., children raised by these fathers struggle to be healthy emotionally. (Though not always, of course.)

I don’t know how many times Jesus cried but we know of one occasion with which many are familiar. You may know it as the answer to the trivia question, “What’s the shortest verse in the Bible?” * John 11:35 “Jesus wept.” Do you know what he was weeping about? He had just learned that his friend Lazarus was dead.  But his weeping was not just because he learned of that tragedy. In verse 33 John records, 33 When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.” The last few words deeply moved in spirit and troubled actually come from a word for “snorting” like the sound a horse makes. Or in this case to “snort with anger.” Jesus wasn’t as much sad over the death of a friend as he was angry over the reality that death exists at all! None the less, he was moved to tears. Some translations say he “burst into tears.” I can only say this, “If it’s good enough for Jesus… well…”

Listen, you don’t have to be a “weeper” like me. But I tell you this. If you have nothing in your life that causes you to cry, or you deliberately fight back tears, you do yourself and those you claim to love no favors. If you have no tears, that’s a tragedy beyond words. I believe we are designed by God to be people of deep emotion. Get with the program and let the tears roll. And from last week… let them be mixed with laughter.


*Just for your amusement: http://www.thegoodbookblog.com/2012/oct/30/the-shortest-verse-in-the-new-testament/

What is the shortest verse in the New Testament?  Did you respond “Jesus wept”?  (Buzzer sound)  No, that is the third shortest verse in the New Testament.

Granted, “Jesus wept” (John 11:35) is the shortest verse in English.  In English it is 9 letters long.  But in Greek it is 16 letters long (Ἐδάκρυσεν ὁ Ἰησοῦς).

For a long time I have known that there is a shorter verse in Greek.  That is 1 Thessalonians 5:16, “rejoice always,” which is only 14 letters in Greek (Πάντοτε χαίρετε).

But a few years ago, one of my Greek students, Steven Malan, pointed out to me that there is a verse that is even shorter in Greek.  That verse is Luke 20:30 “and the second,” which in Greek has only 12 letters (καὶ ὁ δεύτερος).  This ridiculously short verse is found in the section where Jesus is being verbally challenged by the Sadducees (Luke 20:29-32):  “Now there were seven brothers; and the first took a wife and died childless;  30and the second  31and the third married her; and in the same way all seven died, leaving no children.  32Finally the woman died also.”

So “Jesus wept” comes in third.  “And the second” comes in first.


April 8, 2015

Okay, so I guess it’s time to get back in the saddle. It’s been a while since I wrote one of these. I’m not sure why. Distracted and tired I guess. Anyway…

Years ago at my first church, we had a special Sunday where 12 of the younger children dressed up as “saints of the church.” One little boy was the Apostle Paul, a little girl was Mother Theresa, and so on. The costumes they wore were appropriate for the eras of the individuals they were representing and parents were responsible for putting them together. The children came into the sanctuary one at a time while two high school students read a one page biography of each “saint.” It was really fun and it helped us to understand our Christian heritage a little better.

The chaplain at the local county nursing facility heard about what we had done and he asked if we could “take it on the road.” He explained that the senior citizens love to see kids and this would be a great chapel service for them.

On the day we were to take the children to the nursing home, we met at the church first and had lunch together. I figured the kids would be a bit nervous about what we were about to do so I sat them down and tried to allay their fears. I told them that they would be surrounded by older people most of who would be in wheelchairs but not to be afraid because myself and other adults would be with them. I also mentioned that some of the folks might make noises or say things. And then I said this, “Whatever you do… DON’T LAUGH. That would be very disrespectful.” Honestly I was a little concerned about that.

The event didn’t start very smoothly because the chaplain wasn’t there and the folks from the church were responsible for transporting the residents to the service. We had a list that the had been prepared for us with all of the room numbers. What we didn’t know, however, were which residents to put near the exit so they could easily be wheeled out if they got out of control vs. those who were a little more cooperative. So we naively stuffed everyone randomly into the small chapel, shoulder to shoulder, wheel to wheel.

The children nervously began one at a time to come into the room, squeeze past wheelchairs, and I would then lift them onto a table for everyone to see as our high school students read. One man in the middle of the room (and therefore impossible to get out) began to get anxious after the 2nd or 3rd student. His protestations progressively rose as each youngster was lifted for all to see. Finally somewhere between Mother Theresa and Billy Graham he blurted out a four letter expletive for everyone in the room and beyond to hear. My fears of the children laughing were quickly quelled. Frankly, they were too frightened. Their eyes were like saucers and they each had a panicked look on their face. I wish I could say the story ended there but not quite. Guess who did laugh? Yeah, you got it… THE MINSTER! I had to cover my face to try and stifle the laughter. The truth is, sometimes we just have to find the humor in things lest we grow cynical, sad and negative.

We have all been around 3 and 4 year olds who blurt out an inappropriate phrase they heard dad or grandpa say. As much as we want to tell them or show them in no uncertain terms that that kind of language isn’t tolerated, we often have to stop our hidden laughter first.

You can’t spend much time with brain damaged people or Alzheimer patients without laughing. Not out of disrespect… but to maintain our sanity. We laugh because if we don’t, we’ll cry.

My grandfather lived for 7 years after a debilitating stroke. His speech didn’t fully come back and his brain never worked right again. I remember laughing with him as he himself would hear some of the things he said. He tried to tell Ellen and me that he liked the music of “Liberace.” He kept saying, “Booberlitchy, Booberlitchy!” How we figured it out I don’t know but we all had a good laugh. It’s one of my better memories of his last years. All this time later and still a tear rolls down my cheek as I recall the pain… but mostly the laughter.

One doesn’t have to read very far through the Psalms to find people in pain. Psalm 13 is a good place to start. Someone is in serious emotional trouble and they cry out to God.

Psalm 13

For the director of music. A psalm of David.

1How long, Lord? Will you forget me forever?

How long will you hide your face from me?

2How long must I wrestle with my thoughts

and day after day have sorrow in my heart?

How long will my enemy triumph over me?

3Look on me and answer, Lord my God.

Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,

4and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”

and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

But I trust in your unfailing love;

my heart rejoices in your salvation.

6I will sing the Lord’s praise,

for he has been good to me.

Like all of us I have had my share of “troubled times:” those times when laughter is not “in the cards.” So I’m thankful for those moments when laughter is healing; when humor brings me closer to those who love me; when “the giggles” allow me to put things into proper perspective.

The truth is, things are not usually as bad as I think they are. Thank God for the gift of laughter.