The “Losada Line” is the name of a principle of human interaction that has generated a huge amount of controversy in recent years. Also known as the “Positivity Ratio,” this idea says that all of us have many encounters with other people throughout our day, and that in order to maintain good mental and emotional health, we need at least 2.9013 positive, uplifting or encouraging interactions, to balance against one negative encounter.

In other words, most people need to be praised, patted on the back and encouraged three times as much as they need to hear bad news, criticism or condemnation. One application might be that bosses should spend three times as much time praising their people as they do criticizing them, in order to have a company that runs more smoothly and employees that are more productive. At least, that’s the theory.

Now, this so-called “Losada Line” is VERY controversial. A large number of researchers and social scientists have criticized the study that produced that report, and raised serious questions about the validity of its research and conclusions. And some of those criticisms seem to be well-founded.

Which, in my opinion, does not take away from the basic truth that people need encouragement and a kind word.

All of us have friends who can always make us feel better, even during difficult situations. We have probably had the experience of going to the hospital to visit a sick friend, and that person ends up cheering US up. The ability to inspire, to motivate, and to encourage others is a precious gift.

Now granted, too much positivity can lead to some distortions. Sometimes we need a kick in the butt, rather than a pat on the back. If you’re at the doctor’s office, you want your physician to give you truthful answers and not just “happy talk” that ignores serious problems. But the truth is, most of us have more than enough bad news in our lives, so sometimes we need to be intentional about seeking out words of encouragement.

It’s not ignoring the truth to want to surround ourselves with companions who can offer words of hope and joy. It’s not sticking our heads in the sand to choose to focus on the good around us, to see a glass as half-full rather than half-empty. It is not weakness to want to hear from friends who can offer encouragement and inspiration when we are down.

And it’s not foolish or naive to try and be more positive and encouraging in our dealings with others. It sounds cliched and even out of date to say, but we can start by counting – and giving thanks for – our blessings.

Those of us who are Christians should have even more reason to remain optimistic. Psalm 30:5 says, “Weeping lasts through the night, but joy comes in the morning.” So let us hold on to our hope.

My prayer is that we can all learn to be the kind of neighbor, the kind of family member, the kind of friend, who can offer a word of encouragement and hope to those around us. We may discover that in blessing others, we ourselves are blessed.

At least 2.9013 times more often.

Hail and High Water

2014-06-12 18.08.52Our neighborhood was among those that got pounded by the hail last week. As you probably know, there were dozens of homes and hundred of cars that received significant damage, and even a number of people who were seriously injured.

But it wasn’t all bad.

The storm itself was rather freakish. This wasn’t one of those clouds where the TV weather guys are tracking it for hours and monitoring its progress; it blew up over Haskell County, intensified as it headed south over Jones County, and then arrived. I was watching Sam, and the first warnings I heard came about 30 minutes before it got here. Enough time to take cover, certainly, but still, there were a LOT of people caught by surprise.

T2014-06-12 18.08.39he size was the hail was stunning. Tennis ball and baseball was common; a lot of what fell was the size of softballs, grapefruit, and even CDs. You can look at the holes it punched through car windows and tell it was monstrous. And the duration was even scarier – this wasn’t a typical thunderstorm where it hails for a minute and a half. This went on. And on. Fifteen minutes or more at my house. The hail pounding the house sounded like gunfire.

One of our cars was under the carport, and it wasn’t damaged. But another one will likely be totaled. Our son Travis’ car had the back window shattered; our other son, Drew, was at work downtown and had several windows on his pickup smashed. We also had several windows here at the house broken, and we received significant roof damage.

It wasn’t just us. Nearly all of our neighbors received as much, or more damage, than we did. In addition, the North Park Friendship House was hit harder than us, with holes actually punched through the roof. The Valley View Friendship House had some damage, and their community garden was beaten back into the ground.

And yet, I’m thankful.

Right after the storm, we were going through the neighborhood, checking on folks, and we found lots of neighbors out doing the same thing. Neighbors looking after neighbors. “Are you okay?” “Was anyone hurt?” We found one neighbor with a bruised face and a black eye at another neighbor’s house; she had been out walking when the storm hit, and was struck in the face by a hailstone. The neighbor brought her into his house; he and his wife helped her and they waited out the storm together.

Other neighbors were sharing lumber, tools, tarps, plastic. Folks were digging out bungee cords to strap down tarps over cars. There was a run on duct tape. People were out in their yards, talking with each other, thankful to have made it through, and looking for ways to help.

Something about going through the storm as neighbors – the shared experience of surviving huge chunks of ice pummeling your house at 125 mph – actually brought people together. Even as the sun came out and a giant rainbow appeared, people were already beginning to clean up, visiting with each other and helping one another. Family members and friends from other parts of town began showing up, bringing food, supplies and helping hands.

2014-06-13 09.52.32As you drive through the neighborhood today, there’s still plenty of visible damage. My yard still has holes punched all in it, two and three inches wide and a couple of inches deep. The streets are covered in white speckles, evidence of the amount and intensity of the hail strikes. There are still lots of tarps and plastic covering broken windows, and you can see cars all over town with shattered windshields. I’m concerned for the friends who don’t have insurance, and don’t know how they will get the economic resources to get back on their feet. It will be months before most of the damage is repaired, and the economic toll will certainly run into the millions.

But it’s good to see neighbors working together, talking with one another and helping others. It’s good to see people sharing concern as they share duct tape. The bond of going through this storm together is real, and I hope it lasts.

I’m just sorry we had to get hit over the head to make it happen.

Reflections on the Fruit of the Spirit

(I realize I’ve already posted another blog for this week, but I had something I wanted to get off my chest. Hope you don’t mind! And fair warning – this is a rant regarding preparing a Bible lesson, so it won’t hurt my feelings if you want to stop reading right now.)

In our Sunday morning Bible class at Beltway, we’re getting ready to start a new series for the summer on the Fruit of the Spirit, Gal. 5:22-23. In preparation for that, I’ve been doing a lot of reading about that well known text, but I’m not finding much that’s terribly helpful for the questions I have.

grapes1_0Oh, don’t get me wrong – there’s no shortage of devotional material on the Fruit of the Spirit. One well-known writer interprets the passage based on Jesus’ parable from Matt. 13 on the Sower & the Four Soils. Another wants to turn the Fruit of the Spirit into a commentary on Jesus’ words from John 15 about the vine and the branches and being fruitful. Other guys write about it from a strongly Calvinistic point of view, turning it into nothing more than a sermon against legalism. Now, all of that is fine, but before we look into comparing other scriptures to this text from Galatians, how about if we compare it to the rest of Galatians?

On the other hand, there are some excellent commentaries out there on each of the nine character traits that are listed, complete with excellent word studies on each. These studies describe the attribute being discussed, its background in secular Greek literature, other Biblical references, and so forth. Again, all of that is fine, and will be helpful in understanding the Spiritual characteristics involved, but the question remains, What is this list doing here, and what was Paul’s purpose in writing it?

Even bringing up the subject of Galatians gets people off topic. Mention Galatians, and a lot of NT scholars want to jump to Romans, where Paul supposedly gives a more thorough discussion of the points he raises in Galatians, OR they want to jump to Acts, and examine the alleged discrepancies between the historical timeline Paul presents in Galatians, versus the events as recorded by Luke in Acts. All of which gives me a headache, and none of which helps me answer the basic question: What was Paul’s original purpose in making this list?

I’m pretty sure he wasn’t looking to generate material for us to stick on coffee mugs and bumper stickers.

Here’s what I’ve figured out so far. Paul starts off in this letter by reminding them of his background, and how that his commission as an apostle did NOT come through any human agency, nor was his message and preaching beholden to the other apostles. Rather, in both cases, his authority to act as well as the content of his preaching and teaching, came directly from God. But then, with bluntness that the people of Galatia would have appreciated, he calls them “foolish and stupid” for abandoning the good news that he had brought, and instead, allowing themselves to be hoodwinked into accepting a false gospel that preached that faith in Jesus was not enough for salvation, and that we had to obey works of the law in order to earn God’s approval. In unmistakeable terms, he rebukes them for rejecting the beauty and simplicity of salvation by grace, in favor of the treadmill of a works-based legalism.

Throughout the book, he describes this by listing a number of contrasts – law vs. faith/grace; children of Hagar vs. children of Sarah; human divisiveness vs. the oneness of God; slavery vs. freedom. And the contrast he makes most frequently – and most eloquently – is flesh vs. Spirit. And in this specific case, it is the works of the flesh – uncleanness of all sorts – vs. the Fruit of the Spirit.

In that picture, you have the organic nature of growing fruit contrasted against the ceaseless striving of works; the produce of God’s Spirit, vs. the products of our own efforts; the life-giving and life-affirming qualities that bless others, compared to the selfish and destructive practices of a me-centered existence.

And, not for nothing, we should note that it’s the WORKS – plural – of the flesh versus the FRUIT – singular – of the Spirit. There is only one fruit. We should not speak of the “fruits” of the Spirit. There is one fruit, and it manifests itself in various ways, depending on the specific needs and situation. This is not a buffet, and we mustn’t think we can say, “Well, I’ll have some love and joy, but I don’t want any self-control right now.” If the Spirit is present in our lives – if God is moving within us – then HE will be growing these things within us at the same time. Certainly, our spirits can and should cooperate with His Spirit, and we must be intentional about looking for ways to demonstrate these characteristics, but we don’t become more loving, or more patient, or whatever, simply by trying to counterfeit that quality.

Anyway, that’s a little insight into some of what I’ve been thinking about Galatians and the Fruit of the Spirit. If you’re still with me, thanks for reading. And if my rant hasn’t scared you off, I hope you can join us as we explore each of these aspects of spiritual fruit, and discover how God’s fruit blesses us and those around us.

(The class will meet Sunday mornings at 10:50, during the second service. We meet at Beltway Park Baptist Church, Room A-110, and visitors are always welcome.)

The Train to Yesterday

I am just back from taking a couple of weeks off. During that time, I was able to visit some family, help my dad with some chores, get some reading done, ride a train, and eat some Cajun food. I was gone for a few days, and came home broke and tired.

That’s how you know it was a good trip, right?

No, I’m just kidding about that part – but it WAS a good trip. The main reason I went was to go down to the Beaumont / Orange area to see my 85-year-old dad and spend some time with him. And we did have a really nice visit, and I was able to help him with some things around the house. But I also enjoyed spending some time with my brother David. He’s a pastor in Spring, Texas, and was also on vacation.

AmtrakHe and I had often talked about trains and taking a trip together on Amtrak, so we did just that – not so much to go anywhere, but more just for the experience of riding a passenger train together. We boarded the eastbound “Sunset Limited” in Houston, and toot toot, we were gone, headed for Lake Charles, Louisiana.

Now as my friends can tell you, I love trains, but as great as that part of it was, an even better part was getting to spend time with my youngest brother. We grew up in a family of four boys – he and I are the bookends, with me as the oldest and him as the youngest. Our mom’s parents lived in the small Hardin County town of Grayburg, between Beaumont and Houston.

MoPac buzzsawThe old Missouri Pacific RR main line runs right through there, and when we were kids visiting our grandparents, we used to spend hours down by the tracks at a small railroad side track where they used to load freshly-cut pine logs onto flatcars, destined to be turned into paper at one of the mills in East Texas.

(Yes, I know we shouldn’t have been playing there, and that it probably wasn’t safe. Get over it. We never wore bicycle helmets, either.)

How we loved to see freight trains coming through! The big blue and white MP engines, the long trains, and the red caboose at the end. The box cars with names of faraway places – Bangor and Aroostook, Atlantic Coast Line, and the New York Central, Great Northern, Santa Fe, Denver & Rio Grande, and the Illinois Central, just to name a few. And when they came roaring through, it was all noise and power, sound and fury, speed and excitement. We knew to get well off the tracks and wave from a safe distance. And as Johnny Cash once observed, it was always very important that the conductor in the caboose waved back.

Somewhere I still have some flattened pennies that we made.

And the smells on those hot afternoons – the oily odor of the creosote from the ties, and the zingy smell of hot steel in the Texas sun. We would walk along the rails and practice our balancing skills and watch the distant signal lights, hoping they would turn red, heralding the approach of another train.

Anyway, our grandparents have long since passed away, but the little town is still there, and so are the freight trains, now operated by Union Pacific. And when you take Amtrak heading east towards Beaumont, you go roaring right through there.

Grayburg 2011So we climbed aboard in downtown Houston, checked in with the conductor, and headed for the dining car and lunch. We both had a pretty good Angus beef hamburger, and enjoyed a nice visit with an older lady and her niece who were returning to Florida after a trip to California. After lunch, we walked to the observation car as the train rolled through the countryside and past the little towns.

The old siding at Grayburg is still there, and it doesn’t take long to go past it. I looked over, and my brother was wiping away a tear. I asked him what he was thinking. He said he thought he saw four little boys run over to the tracks after the train went by, looking for flattened pennies.