Too complex to succeed

A new article reiterates what I’ve seen for awhile: Many Americans aren’t making enough money to make ends meet, much less save for retirement.

 

“Our research has shown that 78 percent of people are living paycheck to paycheck,” financial expert Chris Hogan said on Yahoo Finance’s On the Move. “That means if one check doesn’t show up, they don’t have enough to really make basic needs met month in and month out. So we need a wake-up call all the way around, and people need to engage in this and get more serious.”

Hogan added that he doesn’t think “people understand that it’s really important for us to make sure that we’re putting money away and saving because if we don’t save some money, we won’t have any to spend later.”

https://finance.yahoo.com/news/personal-finance-us-debt-wakeup-call-180504062.html

Survival mode

While that second paragraph is true, I’m not sure Hogan understands how deep this crisis really is. I’ve worked two jobs in the past 10 years where I’ve earned between $9 and $10 an hour. The first job was in a call center, with mostly college-age kids earning spending money. The second was at a company serving adults with developmental disabilities. Many of the people I worked with there had second jobs or took overtime whenever they could because they had a family to provide for.

No one can live on $10 an hour, which is above Ohio’s minimum wage of $8.55 an hour (but not by much). Saving money for a rainy day isn’t an option. It’s already raining.

The unemployment rate is 3.6 percent, the lowest rate in five decades. Yet hourly income rose only 3.2 percent over the last year, less than earlier projections.

https://www.nytimes.com/2019/05/03/upshot/unemployment-inflation-changing-economic-fundamentals.html

Debt inevitable?

The Yahoo article further states that according to a recent survey conducted by Freedom Debt Relief, 41 percent of Americans have not set aside any money at all for retirement. The main reason indicated was due to the cost of everyday expenses.

Debt was another impediment to saving adequately. About 79 percent of those surveyed said they have debt: Credit card debt accounted for 46 percent, mortgage debt 41 percent, and auto loan debt 28 percent.

“Having fallen into that trap myself and taken a few years to get out of it, I really want to encourage college students to avoid this trap,” Hogan said. “Credit card debt is something that once they get their hooks into you, this can take you 12 to 15 years if you’re not aware of it to attack it and get it out of your life. So, I want people to understand credit.”

 

Hogan works for daveramsey.com, which abhors debt of any kind – including mortgage and credit card debt.

Hogan and Ramsey have a point, but I won’t go that far. I will say this: Don’t spend more than you can pay off every month. We have a major credit card; debt is not an issue for us, because we write a check for the balance before each month’s due date. We have a mortgage, but again we make the monthly payments on time.

We can afford the payments. That kind of debt is acceptable, in my opinion.

When I worked for the call center, we dipped into our savings to pay the bills. When I had the second $10 an hour job, my wife also was (and still is) working, so between us we covered our expenses.

While unemployment is low and the economy appears to be booming, wages have not kept up. If you work in the tech industry or in a few other sectors, you’re making good money. But many folks aren’t sharing in the wealth. If the best you can do is $10 an hour – or if that’s all the company or industry is willing to pay – then you will struggle to make ends meet.

A complex economy

But the economy is not that simple. According to inequality.org:

 

The higher the U.S. income group, the larger the share of that income is derived from investment profits. By contrast, Americans who are not among the ultra-rich get the vast majority of their income from wages and salaries. This disparity has contributed significantly to increasing inequality because of the preferential tax treatment of long-term capital gains. Currently, the top marginal tax rate for the richest Americans is 37 percent, while the top rate for long-term capital gains is just 20 percent.

 

I had one job for 24 years that offered a generous 401(k) plan. I don’t consider myself “ultra-rich,” but that investment plan will soon pay dividends as I near the time when I can begin withdrawing from it. The money I put into the 401(k) during my working years was pre-tax money that we never saw. We learned to live without it.

Oh, for simpler times when we could spend less than we brought home, and when we could afford to invest part of our paychecks into a retirement fund.

This is why we need education beyond high school, whether college or a trade school, to learn skills so that we can make a living wage.

Simplicity outdated?

In the June/July 2019 issue of AARP The Magazine which came in the mail this week, Jeff Daniels describes his role as Atticus Finch in the Broadway version of To Kill a Mockingbird. AARP compares Daniels’ version with the 1962 movie, which has never been remade, in which Gregory Peck portrayed Atticus.

AARP compares the two men’s versions of Atticus with these words:

 

While Peck’s Atticus represents virtues that are timeless, he is perhaps too simplistic to be a modern figure, just as “I Want to Hold Your Hand” is too simple to be a modern love song. His Atticus is modest, fierce, brilliant, austere and self-contained. Though people need him, he doesn’t need other people. Daniels’ version has a broader range of feeling and a decided warmth …

Peck’s portrayal is, in addition, from the era when American movie heroes … met danger courageously and hoped to persuade by their example … Daniels’ Atticus, by contrast, seems to be shadowed by the awareness that doing all he can might not be enough. Along with the rest of us, he seems to share the modern awareness that life is possibly too complex, and too many interests are at stake, for a single moral stance to answer all situations. (emphasis mine)

 

Is our modern life so complex that we can’t determine what financial and social values would benefit society as a whole? Do we not even care about that anymore?

Are we so caught up in our own individual pursuits that we have lost the big picture of life?

I’ve met many wonderful people making less than a living wage. Many hop from job to job, trying to get ahead. We too often are leaving these folks behind, in the pursuit of our own goals.

Can we work together to improve all of our lives? Is that even possible today?

I wonder.

Around the bend, a waterfall

Power. Beauty. Change, often slowly. Calm, eventually.

A meandering stream, gentle and pure. Strength and sound as the river transforms into a waterfall. Then, a peaceful near silence as the river continues on.

Each waterfall is different. Some are wider, some taller, some roar, some are gentle.

As different as we are as people.

A river follows the path of least resistance, heading downhill, away from its source. Sometimes over an unexpected waterfall.

It never remains in the same place.

A big splash

The river of my life flowed smooth for many years. A great job, a healthy family with three growing boys, purpose in life, community involvement, some recreation and exercise … it seemed too good to be true. It was easy, too easy, to just coast through life, engaging but only to a point, then pulling back before wounds were exposed.

cascade park 2

Until a huge waterfall changed the course of my river.

Losing a job I’d had for 24 years will do that.

I’ve written about that before, several times. We’re coming up on the 10-year anniversary of that event this spring. It feels like a lifetime ago, with the river of my life twisting and turning repeatedly. Many of you experienced this as well, in varying degrees.

My life sometimes feels out of control, emotionally anyway, heading downstream to an eternal destination that features “the river of the water of life” (Rev. 22:1). It’s easy to get caught up in the struggles of this world and lose sight of what it’s all about.

Shortly before we left Rockford, Ill., I visited the Anderson Japanese Gardens there. It was peaceful, with meandering streams and soothing water formations that the Japanese love. It provided a momentary calm in the months before we moved to Elyria, Ohio, during the last polar vortex five years ago.

In Elyria the stream of my life has taken a couple more abrupt turns. After my 24-year job ended, I never held a job more than 2.5 years (twice). One job lasted eight weeks. I’m now retired, although it still seems funny to say that because I’m “only” 58 years old. (My dad retired younger than that, actually, so maybe it’s not so unusual.)

Hard to see the future

days dam 2

I took one waterfall photo through trees.  I should have known the camera would focus on the branches and leave the waterfall blurry. I thought about going back there and re-taking the photo, but decided not to.

Sometimes the storms of life are blurry, aren’t they? We don’t see them coming. We don’t know why. We feel the fall, then the hard splash of the river as it crashes into the pool at the base of the waterfall.

We submerge, and wonder if we will ever resurface.

We eventually do, don’t we?

But we resurface in a new place, a different place. We are changed.

We didn’t ask for change, but it came anyway.

Some changes are exciting. Some are not. Some are big and powerful. Others are more languid.

Each of us experiences the wide range of powerful and calm, the river always moving, always going somewhere, never static, never staying in the same place.

Some of us travel farther than others do, but all of us travel.

That’s what rivers do.

Can any of us see where we are going? Really see?

I don’t think so.

The greatest adventure

mill stream run 1

Yes, we see heaven, for those of us headed that way. (It’s a destination worth pursuing for everyone.)

But on Earth, the journey to get there … we often can’t see around the next bend.

I hear sermons and speeches sometimes that say the Christian journey should be the most exciting path to travel.

It should be. Jesus offers adventure like no one else does. Serve orphans and widows. Take our faith to different lands, or to the next-door neighbor. Meet the needs of others. Pray. Worship. Don’t accumulate worldly possessions for their own sake, but to share with others. And so on.

So often the waterfalls in our lives aren’t those types of adventures. We tend to fall over them, rather than willingly jump into them. If we would jump into a waterfall of our own volition, perhaps it wouldn’t be such a tall one, with such a painful landing.

How prepared are we for life’s falls, twists and turns? They’re inevitable, so why does no one help us navigate them?

O but the Bible does. It’s all in there, really.

I still fall hard because my faith isn’t what it should be. Just because I read the Bible doesn’t mean I’m prepared for life’s waterfalls, big or small, clear or blurry. What do I do with the information I learn? In the words of a preacher, how do I apply it?

During this week’s polar vortex here in Ohio, a friend who has school-age children collected food for dozens of children who might otherwise go hungry because they get their best meal of the day in school. She organized that food collection in her kitchen spur-of-the-moment, and gave groceries to more than a dozen families as well. Not for her own self-satisfaction, but because she saw a need and decided to fill it.

That’s adventure. That’s faith in action.

If the world saw more Christians doing stuff like that, perhaps we’d be more likable, more believable, more like a river worth jumping into.

Even in the middle of winter.

A new chapter in the book of life

We recently revisited a chapter in our lives that closed six years ago – at the same time as new chapters are being written.

Our youngest son started graduate school this week at Central Michigan University in Mount Pleasant, Mich. In a whirlwind weekend, we helped him move from Ypsilanti to Mount Pleasant, about a two-hour drive, to help him start a new chapter.

We drove up to Michigan Friday night to stay with our oldest son, who also helped with the move. Saturday morning in a drizzle, we loaded up our son’s belongings, then under overcast skies helped him get settled in his new apartment.

On the way, we drove past Michigan State University, where my wife and I met in the early 1980s. The sun came out during that part of our trip. Of course. The sun always shines in East Lansing, right? (Even though we had to take two detours to get from I-96 to U.S. 127.)

Saturday evening, we left our sons in Mount Pleasant (the oldest graduated from CMU earlier and planned to introduce his brother to a few friends to help him get settled). We drove to Saginaw, where our family wrote the longest chapter in our lives.

Reminiscing

We lived in Saginaw for 27 years, by far the longest I’ve lived anywhere. We raised our three sons there. We connected with a church family, our sons’ friends, people we met at their schools, volunteers we met in the community. I had a wonderful job there.

Sunday morning, we attended the church where we served while we lived there. While some people have moved on and new folks attend now, we saw many friends from that chapter in our lives.

We met several of them as soon as we arrived. “We’re having church in the parking lot,” I told the 11 a.m. worship leader, who arrived shortly after we did.

The worship leader and his wife were married the same day we were, the same year. We each raised three children alongside each other. Those kind of friendships last a lifetime.

We reconnected with friends we hadn’t seen in a couple of years, since the last time we visited. We exchanged many hugs and handshakes and smiles.

We didn’t drive past the old house this time, or visit other places where memories were made. The weekend was already full. We drove 600 miles in 48 hours.

As we reminisced with old friends about good times and how life has changed for us all, we focused on the good memories. We do that, don’t we? The good old days. We overlook the hard times and remember the good times. Or, we try to.

Turning the page quickly

My job there was eliminated in 2009, and we left Saginaw in 2012. The chapters in our lives – especially mine – since then became shorter and more numerous.

A little over a year in Rockford, Illinois. A new job in Elyria, Ohio, which lasted 13 months. We’d had enough of out-of-state moves by then, so we’ve stayed here. After an 11-month search, I landed another job – the first non-office job I’d had since I graduated from college. I worked directly with adults with developmental disabilities.

That chapter in my life lasted 2.5 years, ending just a couple of weeks ago. It ended suddenly, but it was time.

I’ve always had a passion for serving my community. Even when I was working full-time and raising three children, I found time to volunteer with several organizations, mostly dealing with children or hunger issues.

In retirement, I dream of becoming a full-time volunteer, doing various things. Here in Elyria, I’ve continued one or two volunteer activities I’ve been involved with for many years. But as with any chapter in life, some doors have closed, and a few new ones have opened.

A new chapter

Now that I don’t answer to a supervisor anymore, a new chapter has just begun.

Our church is opening its third satellite campus in a nearby city. When the recently-hired pastor shared his vision for the campus with those of us who attended an informational meeting, I got excited. His vision is similar to the vision of the church in Saginaw where we raised our sons.

Is this where God wants us now? We haven’t made that formal decision yet. We’re still praying, still considering.

The pastor has organized a weekly morning prayer group at the new location – which isn’t scheduled to open for worship services until next spring, but which is launching other programs even now – to begin connecting with each other and seeing where we each may fit in. Since I’m not working now and I have the time, I showed up on a recent morning.

About a dozen of us prayed. We were done in a half-hour, so we could get on with our day. It was beautiful.

Our church has been trying to open this campus for several years, but the timing wasn’t right. Plans kept falling through. Until now.

I enjoy being a small part of something big, whether it’s a company, a volunteer agency or a church. What’s my niche?

During this transition time for me, I likely will seek new roles, as well as expand current roles.

In the past I liked structure. My primary job was newspaper copy editor. While the news changed every day, the deadlines I faced did not. I knew my role, and tried to do it well. Reporters love the variety in their job – new experiences, new people to meet, not knowing what they were going to write about that day. My job, in the office, was to take those written experiences and help transform them into a newspaper.

News happens 24/7 but a copy editor’s job occurs on a regular schedule, so the paper reaches your doorstep at roughly the same time every day. Everyone at the paper plays a part in making that happen. Everyone – reporters, editors and many others – is needed.

Until newspaper executives started eliminating copy desks, including the one where I worked, to save money. But that’s a different story.

Bottom line: When that job ended, the structure in my life ended too.

I haven’t always handled it well.

An open book

I do have a creative streak in me. Will it come out now? Can I be flexible? Can I be happy doing different things each day?

These decisions don’t have to be made immediately. We will see how God leads me, and us.

The next chapter of my life begins with a blank page. It’s not entirely blank, of course; I’m not starting over completely.

But I am changing direction.

Has God been preparing me for this moment?

Perhaps I’ll have an answer for that question soon; possibly, it will take some time before I know.

Either way, it’s time to start writing.

Finding passion in the midst of constant change

Nothing lasts on Earth. Nothing at all.

Is that a good thing?

Depends on your outlook.

If you are adventurous, you like doing new things all the time. You create change. Things that last probably bore you.

If you prefer security, commitment and long-term involvement, then change gets in the way. You might even fear it.

What if change comes, and you wish it wouldn’t?

I’m finding it hard to remain committed to much of anything these days. Maybe I have some secret anger, a restlessness, an insecurity, an impatience with something that keeps me from things that last.

Perhaps it’s none of those things. Perhaps this is just the way life is.

Short-term volunteering

For example, I enjoy mentoring elementary-age students through local schools. Many children these days need a good male role model. If I can help, I enjoy doing that.

Our church in Saginaw, Mich., partnered with the elementary school across the street, and that’s where I first got involved. I showed up at lunchtime and played games with the student, ate lunch with him, and gave him encouragement. Sometimes I helped him with homework that he didn’t finish in the morning.

That lasted a couple of years, until we moved to Rockford, Ill. A month or two after we moved there, I found a reading program through Rockford Public Schools. That winter/spring and the following fall, I spent an hour in a classroom, reading with four students whom the teacher sent to me in 15-minute segments. I assisted them with words they had trouble pronouncing, and I helped with their comprehension – do you understand what you are reading?

We moved away after a year to Elyria, Ohio. I found a lunchtime mentoring program at Midview Schools in nearby Grafton. After a year, that program disappeared and I never heard from the school district again.

So I connected with Greater Cleveland Volunteers, which introduced me to My Mentor My Friend, a lunchtime mentoring program at four elementaries in the Cleveland Metropolitan School District.  I picked the school on the west side of Cleveland (the other three schools all were on the east side), and mentored three students there in a little more than a year.

Trying to make a difference

My first student there moved away in the summer. My second student, probably a loner like me, seemed uncomfortable with the one-on-one attention and dropped out of the program. My third student also moved away this summer.

That’s the lifestyle of the typical low-income inner-city student. Many live with one parent, or in the case of one of my students, with Grandpa. The parent often rents and moves across town frequently. My last student told me his dad got a job in Arizona, and he was planning to move out there to be with him. Dad said Cleveland was too violent. The student had anger management issues and it wasn’t unusual for him to be on suspension when I showed up to mentor.

Did I make a difference? Only God knows. I will never see the long-term results of any student I have mentored thus far, in any district in any state.

That’s just the way it is.

And now, My Mentor My Friend lost its United Way funding and has ended.

The Cleveland school district might keep the mentoring program going on its own. We’ll see. I’m also looking into another mentoring program in Lorain, which is nearer to my home. Either way, it’s another new start.

Elyria City Schools doesn’t have a mentoring program, a teacher there told me recently, because of the work involved to set up and administer such a program. I get that. When a man wants to work with children, red flags go up, don’t they?

At each school district, I had to pass a background check. In Cleveland, I also faced two interviews, fingerprinting and had to provide references – as intensive as any job interview I’ve had.

A year and a half later, is it all for naught?

Where’s the passion?

I’ve had trouble keeping jobs long-term as well. I had one job that lasted eight weeks. The job in Rockford lasted 14 months. My first job here in Elyria lasted 13 months. My next job lasted 2.5 years, but I got burned out. Without going into details, that job is over too.

I enjoy volunteering in the community. Mentoring, yes, but doing other things as well.

It’s me and God now. I no longer answer to a supervisor.

Will I find work again? Perhaps, but perhaps not. Financially, we are doing well.

And, as I said, I’m burned out. Impatient. Perhaps angry.

I have no home on Earth. I’ve felt that way for a long time.

The Rev. Doug Mater, who is the current pastor of a former church where we worshipped and served, wrote the following in a church newsletter earlier this year:

 

How often do we let our God-given strengths go to waste? We spend so much time trying to overcome our limitations by doing things we are not equipped to do. On the contrary, we should consider our special talents for ministry and focus on doing these things better, asking ourselves if we are trying to do something that we are not equipped to do, just for the sake of thinking I need to be different. …

We must continue to be the best we can at these talents so that others will see us as Christians who care about others and want them to share in the joy that we have in Jesus Christ. So, I ask you to look at your talents and keep practicing them. … Let us excel for God with the talents He has given us for his glory.

 

That’s a great message. Often we focus on our weaknesses and try to get better. Or take a job, any job, just to meet the budget.

Instead, we should emphasize our strengths and do them with passion.

What am I “equipped to do?” Do I have any “special talents?” How can I “excel for God?”

As I face yet another transition in my life, this is a good time to ponder such questions.

The journey continues.

Prepare before the battle comes

O Lord, there is no difference for you between helping the mighty and the weak. Help us, O Lord our God, for we rely on you.

2 Chronicles 14:11

 

This verse caught my attention this morning during my quiet time. Judah’s king, Asa, was facing a major battle with Zerah of Ethiopia, who had an army of 1 million men. Asa’s army was about half that size.

Asa had several options:

  1. He could have relied on his own wit to try to out-maneuver the stronger Ethiopian army.
  2. He could have raised a white flag and quit before he started.
  3. He could have asked God to fight the battle for him.

Asa chose option 3.

It worked. “… the Lord defeated the Ethiopians before Asa and before Judah, and the Ethiopians fled.” (verse 12)

Asa didn’t ask God to play a genie’s role – come save me from my crisis, then I’ll go on my merry way. I know some people who treat God like that.

I wonder if that offends God.

Instead, Asa rallied Judah to follow God – all the time.

Getting ready

Previous kings had set up worship centers to foreign gods. God’s chosen people had rejected Him and worshiped gods that didn’t exist, or a golden calf or wooden idols that couldn’t do anything.

Asa destroyed all of those.

Then, he built fortified cities that included protective walls around them that enemy armies couldn’t penetrate.

He prepared for battle before the battle came.

When the Ethiopians attacked, Asa was ready. He didn’t know ahead of time that the battle was coming from that particular army, but he knew he would face a battle from somewhere. So, he prepared for it.

He built fortified cities and talked with the true God who actually answers prayers.

If we want to defeat the temptations and sins that threaten to overtake us, we have to prepare ahead of time and be ready for battle, as Asa did. This isn’t an easy lesson to learn.

Missing the message

In 2000, I had a great job, a wife and three growing children, and vibrant church and community involvement. I could not ask for anything better than the life God had given me at that point.

My job as a copy editor at The Saginaw (Mich.) News was wonderful. Great co-workers, great bosses even, a salary that paid for the lifestyle our family of five enjoyed, and a job pledge.

Yes, a job pledge.

The pledge – which the company mailed to us every year in January, in writing – said that as long as The News published seven days a week, we had a job for life. The company retained the right to change our job descriptions, of course, as needs changed, but they promised us jobs until we reached retirement age.

Talk about blessed. I’m sure many of you, even if you have a great job, don’t have a pledge like that.

But in 2000. I received a surprise. God put a bug in my ear.

At the height of our prosperity, He told me that I was trusting that job pledge more than I was trusting Him. I was too comfortable, and my faith wasn’t as passionate as it should have been.

That startled me.

Really, God? You’ve given me so many blessings, so many ways I can serve You … so what’s up with this?

God persisted, so eventually I prayed this prayer:
“Okay God, I give the job pledge to You. I trust you more than I trust the job pledge.”

God knew something I didn’t.

The battle arrives

The newspaper industry, which had thrived for decades, was going to crash in the near future.

God was trying to prepare me for that moment.

When The News cut back to three days a week in 2009, the job pledge went out the window. I got downsized, as did many of my co-workers.

Even though God gave me a heads-up years earlier, I still didn’t handle it well. I sat around home for nearly a year and didn’t do much of anything. My wife didn’t appreciate that. I made no effort to re-train for a different career or to seek any job.

The News offered a nice buyout that continued my salary for a time. I should have taken advantage of that by preparing for my future, but I didn’t.

Unlike Asa, I hadn’t built my defenses up and prepared for battle.

When the battle came, I didn’t know how to handle it.

I didn’t prepare my family, either. I internalize things, which means I don’t talk things out with other people. Including my wife.

Learning the lesson

We attended a marriage retreat a few months ago – in 2018, nine years after the buyout – and talked about some things we should have begun talking about 10 years ago.

We worship a God of second chances, so the Ethiopians in my life don’t have to defeat me, even if I don’t prepare well for them. I’m sure I made it harder on us than it should have been.

Sometimes we bring pain on ourselves. That is not God’s will, nor is it His fault.

Unlike Asa, I tried option 1: to figure out my career plans on my own. That didn’t work out too well.

My newspaper career is done now, for several reasons. We’re here in Elyria, Ohio, doing other things. My wife has a very good job that she enjoys, and I have meaningful work where I can build relationships with people who need that.

My job has its frustrations, but I try not to focus on those (too much). I’m trying to rely on the living God for my job and for our future, like Asa did.

Temptations are much easier to defeat with this mindset, with this way of living.

Thanks, Asa, for reminding me to rely on God.

It makes no difference whether I’m strong or weak. If God fights the battle for me, I’ll win.

Majoring in minor issues

My outlook on life is changing a little bit these days.

I’m much more detached when reading or watching the news. Politics, especially at the national level, doesn’t interest me much anymore.

I’d rather deal in real life.

Politics

For those of you who live and die by what the Democrats and/or Republicans do, I’m sure you won’t understand.

As a newspaper journalist for about three decades, I followed politics closely, because it sold papers.

Does it still?

Perhaps that’s one reason why what newspapers print isn’t the talk of the town anymore. Their editorial pages, as they have always done, focus on politics and not much else.

Not even government. Politics.

There’s a difference.

I rarely read any editorial page columns. They are so predictable. They say the same thing every day, using the issue of the day to promote their agenda.

Most of them these days slam President Trump. I get that.

But how many times do you have to say it?

Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un seemed to have an actual discourse leading to a summit, where they would talk about nuclear weapons, among other things.

The summit apparently fell through.

That was interesting, though.

But decades of mistrust can’t end in a few short weeks.

Maybe someday.

For the most part, the national discourse majors in minor issues.

Is kneeling during the National Anthem before NFL games really an issue worth dividing the country over?

Are school shootings really about gun control, or is something deeper at work there?

Do thoughts and prayers actually work? Do they change our outlook on life?

Sex

What’s the point of the #metoo movement, actually? Is it women’s rights, or is there something bigger at work there as well?

We are a sex-crazed society. We are massively messed up, and we all know it.

Exhibit A: #metoo.

Exhibit B: The divorce rate.

Exhibit C: Sex outside of marriage, including among teens, is not only normal, it is expected.

Exhibit D: Pornography is out of control in this country.

Exhibit E: Rape, sexual bondage, date rape …

Exhibit F: Clothing choices. How much cleavage is too much? Only for women, of course.

Exhibit G: Gender identity. Just the fact that we’re talking about this means we don’t know who we are anymore.

I don’t even have to quote statistics. You understand all of this because you experience it, or you know people who do.

But we won’t talk about it.

Not in a way that actually solves anything.

How do we expect to resolve the #metoo movement without talking about the role of sex in society? If sex outside of marriage is normal, why are we surprised when many men (and women) push the limits?

Nearly every song on the radio is about sex, some more blatantly than others. That’s been true for decades. I frequently listen to an oldies’ station that plays songs from my teen years. Talk about politically incorrect …

And yet we still play them. And listen.

Escape

Why are video games so popular? And illegal drugs? And porn?

Those are escapes from real life.

Real life is full of anxiety and stress. We don’t know how to solve real issues. Relationships. School. Jobs.

I’ve done the whole job search thing, and it’s not designed to bring out the best in anyone. It’s not even designed to connect passions with talent with careers. It’s all about being in the right place at the right time.

Some people say there’s no jobs out there. I see “now hiring” and “drivers wanted” and “positions available, all shifts” signs all over the place.

On the other end of the spectrum, highly technical jobs go unfilled because not enough of us are trained for them.

Most of us would prefer a job/career somewhere in the middle, something more than minimum wage and something that doesn’t require an advanced degree that we don’t have time for or can’t afford to get.

Are most of us left behind?

Dreams

I mentored a fourth-grade student in inner-city Cleveland this spring. He has no concept of a long-term future. All he thinks about is getting dissed by a classmate, for which he gets in trouble. He lives with his grandfather. His mother and two older sisters also are in Cleveland, but he doesn’t see them often. His dad is in Arizona, and my student hopes to move out there with him this summer. Cleveland is too violent, he says.

People are people wherever you go, I told him.

If he leaves Cleveland, will his life magically get better?

I doubt it.

How does arguing about President Trump’s tweets solve my fourth-grader’s lack of focus and maturity? How can he learn not to respond in anger when things don’t go his way?
His family is broken. His school is trying, but isn’t reaching him. His teacher can do only so much.

He got suspended recently for cussing out the school principal. Seriously.

Seriously?

A good friend of mine is a Big Brother to a teenager in another nearby city. That teen also lives in a broken home. Some days, he doesn’t feel like going to school, so he doesn’t.

Is there no big picture in this life?

No goals to aspire to?

No dreams?

Respect

In the mentoring program I’m involved in, we’re not allowed to talk about politics or religion. Too divisive. Yes, they are.

But is that how we solve problems, by saying that certain subjects are off-limits?

I thought democracy meant all issues are on the table. By discussing, even debating, issues, we understand what’s too radical and what actually works.

We don’t know how to talk issues without talking personality. How can we talk about sex without condemning those who practice sex differently than we do? Can we disagree and still respect each other?

That’s what we’ve lost in this country. Respect.

For teachers. For parents. For the boss. For the mayor. For the police.

For ourselves.

I’m right. You’re wrong. The world revolves around me. I can set whatever rules for my life that I want.

And we wonder why we’re so messed up.

A motorcyclist passed me the other day in a right-turn lane. Another vehicle and I were stopped, waiting for traffic to clear before proceeding on to state Route 57, a 45 mph highway at that point. The motorcyclist passed us in the turn lane and roared onto Route 57 before the other driver and I could move.

So much for “look out for motorcycles.” It goes both ways, you know.

Or, I wish you knew.

Faith

So, what is the big picture? How is my outlook changing?

While I can’t talk about my faith in school (unless my student brings it up first, of course), that’s where the answer lies. Not in your perception of faith, or mine, but in real faith.

In a God who wrote the big picture. Who wants the best for us.

Discipline is good, sometimes. My student doesn’t understand that. Most adults don’t either.

Good parents do understand that. Children need boundaries. If you’ve had children, you know this.

So, why do we think that we don’t need boundaries as adults?

Political boundaries change all the time. You and I think differently, so the boundaries I set may not work for you, and vice versa.

If we don’t like them, we can change them.

Why will we not look up? Put the video games down, look away from the porn, turn off the music. LeBron James and Steven Spielberg make far more money than you and I will ever see, but are they the best role models? Do they have all the answers?

When I talk about faith, I don’t even mean in a pastor or the Pope. Their interpretations of faith aren’t always right, either.

The best role model? Jesus Himself. And we killed Him.

If Jesus walked the Earth in the flesh today, we’d kill Him again. I’m sure of it.

We still don’t get it.

We’re searching for love in all the wrong places.

Haven’t heard that song in awhile.

A few things I’ve learned over the years

‘If I tell you what I need …’

I spent one summer in northern New Jersey during my college years, when my parents lived there. I volunteered for a week at a summer camp for disabled people, taking care of a man in his 50s with cerebral palsy. I brushed his teeth and shaved him, cut his food into bite-size pieces and helped him get around in his wheelchair. I don’t remember his name.

http://christian-overcomers.com/

During our first evening together, we had a get-to-know-you chat. “If I don’t tell you what I need you to do, my needs won’t be met,” he told me in his slurred speech. “If I tell you what I need and you don’t do it, my needs won’t be met.

“But if I tell you what I need and you do what I say, we’ll get along just fine.”

I’ve never forgotten that. We had a wonderful week together.

(Little did I realize that 35 years later, I’d be getting paid to do very similar things. That advice still applies.)

The right type

typewriter

In 11th grade I took a typing class. I was the second-fastest typist in the class, and the fastest guy. A few years ago I applied for a job that required a typing test. I reached 63 words per minute.

I’ll never be a stenographer, but that skill has served me well over the years.

First love

In fifth grade, I had a friend named Jeff. I don’t remember the context, but one day he blurted out, “I love all people.”

Light bulbs popped inside my heart. He was on to something.

It didn’t work out

One job I had lasted eight weeks, with a business-to-business marketing firm. Early on I was assigned a project for our biggest client. I wanted to know how the client planned to use the piece I would design; I figured I could do a better job with the project if I understood its purpose.

conference-room

My boss called me into the conference room and told me never to ask that question again. What the client did with the piece is none of our business. Since we billed by the hour, if the client wanted us to revise it later, use it as is or throw it away, we would bill accordingly, and that’s all that mattered.

I was done. Two weeks into the job, my creative spirit was crushed. I lasted six more weeks on insignificant projects, then was let go.

A year or two later the company, more than 30 years old, folded.

I did not celebrate when the company closed. Good people lost jobs, people I still occasionally keep in contact with. We all moved on.

That job wasn’t the right fit for me. It happens. Not their fault, not my fault. I learned some things about myself there.

Finding loyalty and affection

Growing up, we had a dog. In married life, we’ve had cats. We have two now, a brother and sister.

Cats on blue chair

Butterscotch and Punkin greet me when I wake up in the morning, and when I come home from work. They like attention. They like being petted, and Butterscotch rolls onto his back and likes me to scratch his belly, like a dog would.

Dogs and cats are loyal, affectionate and loving. Their love is simple and uncomplicated, unlike human love – in every way. Perhaps that’s why so many of us enjoy pets. They don’t judge. They respond to affection with affection (most of the time). If only we humans did that …

Quiet times

Silence is a gift.

My first car after college had only an AM radio that died when the car was less than two years old, and I never got it fixed. I kept that car 18 years, which means I drove in silence for more than 16 years. My prayer life was never better.

Also, my whole adult life I set the alarm early and have been the first one up. I value that “quiet time” before the routine and non-routine of life begins. I focus on what’s most important and start the day with a calm spirit, which (most of the time) I carry until my head hits the pillow at night. This helps me get through the ups and downs that life throws my way. (Including but not limited to crazy drivers.)

The dollar isn’t almighty

paid in full

Living debt-free also is a gift, one we can give ourselves.

We paid off our mortgage early when our sons were middle school-age, so throughout their high school and college years we lived debt free. We still do. The peace of mind that comes with that is priceless.

We’ve always lived within our means and pay off our credit card every month.

Before our boys were born, we both had good-paying full-time jobs. We could have taken trips to Hawaii every year and bought fancy cars and houses, but we chose not to pursue that lifestyle. We chose the “family life” instead and never looked back. To this day we have no regrets about that.

Good call

I worked in a call center for 2.5 years. (I wasn’t one of those pesky telemarketers; I received calls from customers and answered their questions. Or, I offered a survey to customers after they bought a certain brand of car.)

call center

After working as a professional journalist for more than 25 years, a call center may seem like a big letdown, and financially it was. But because we lived within our means (see the previous entry), we could afford this.

I met people there I never otherwise would have met, some who I still keep in contact with today. I learned skills I otherwise would not have learned. Because I was one of the oldest workers there, I was a de-facto leader, so I had to set a good work-ethic example. Which was not hard for me to do.

No job is beneath me. I’m grateful for every experience I’ve had.

And yet … retirement is around the corner. I think I’ll be ready.

When real life gets tough …

Job/career. Family. Church/volunteer activities. The foundation underneath all three of those pillars is my faith in Christ.

Thank you, Stephen R. Covey, for helping me discover that about myself.

A long time ago, I read Covey’s book “The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People.” One of the seven habits includes writing a personal mission statement. He offers guidelines on how to do that (habit 2: Begin with the end in mind).

http://www.bookrags.com/studyguide-the-7-habits-of-highly-effective-people/?gclid=CPPh5OWPz9MCFQMcaQodpsAP4g#gsc.tab=0

I discovered that my life has those three pillars, with my faith as the bedrock of each. Over time, I’ve seen cracks in all three pillars, some cracks bigger than others. My faith has kept the pillars from crashing down.

Covey’s first habit is “Be Proactive.” One of the subheads in that chapter is “Act or be acted upon.”

It’s so easy to reject that advice, to say it takes too much effort, or the results may not turn out the way we want them to.

But the alternative is even worse. I know people who choose not to engage life at all, unless absolutely necessary. We spend so much of our energy trying to escape real life, because real life is hard. It often doesn’t go the way we’d like it to.

So, we set up alternative worlds:

  • Pokémon.
  • Movies and TV shows, sometimes.
  • The casino. (Do you really expect something for nothing, a big jackpot for an output of a few dollars? The American Dream has never been about that.)
  • Social media. Many of us interact only with people who have views similar to ours. Hey there: Look up from your device to see the world around you.

Not all “escapes” are bad things. Sometimes we need to refresh ourselves for the real life we find ourselves in.

But even in our own fantasy worlds, we should follow the values we’ve decided are worth keeping.

I can’t say I’ve always done this. I know the theory, but putting it into practice is hard.

My job/career pillar was the first to take a hit. A big hit. I had a great job that allowed my wife to be a stay-at-home mom for our three sons. After 24 years with the same company, my job was eliminated as the company downsized.

Over the past eight years, I’ve had six jobs in three states, and twice was out of work for 11 months. When stuff like that happens, you find out whether your personal mission statement is written well or not. Was I prepared to handle such a major shake-up in my life?

Yes and no. It’s been a major struggle, since as a man I feel the need to provide for my family, and I’m convinced I’ll never have a “secure” job again. Any company, any career, any job can disappear. When Jesus said build your treasures in heaven (Matthew 6:19-21), he wasn’t kidding. Treasures on this earth can be taken away very quickly.

That’s real life.

Because I’m married, my wife has taken this roller coaster ride with me. When I get an out-of-state job, she comes to the new town not knowing a soul, and with no connections. It takes time to find a niche, to make a house a home, to begin to feel settled in a new community. We’re still working all that out. It hasn’t been easy, and still isn’t.

In a new place, we have to find new social opportunities as well. These also take time.

Our faith is a huge help in these situations. We can find brothers and sisters in Christ, who read the same Bible and follow it, no matter where we go. Instant connection. It takes time to develop friendships, but having faith in God can ease that transition.

I like to put my faith into practice, to get involved in the community where I live. I was a leader in the Saginaw County (Mich.) CROP Hunger Walk for many years, an annual 10-kilometer event that raises money and awareness for hunger issues locally and around the world. Here in Elyria, Ohio, there is a CROP walk, but the leaders here aren’t passionate about it. In Saginaw, it was a nearly year-round event as we sought new ways to reach people and connect with the community. Here, the committee meets once, the same people show up, the same people walk, they raise some money and they’re done.

They don’t need me.

I’m not one to force myself on people. Perhaps I should have tried to light a fire under them, but I didn’t feel the passion myself to do that. So I let it go.

I also enjoy mentoring elementary school students. I did that for a year here, then the program disappeared. I recently started mentoring a fourth-grader at a school in Cleveland, a half-hour down the highway.

Why do that? Because volunteering is one of the pillars of my life. I need to do things like that to feel fulfilled.

Covey says we should tweak our personal mission statements every so often, even though the main points remain the same. I haven’t tweaked mine in years. My statement has become a part of me, guiding me through uncertain times.

I’d encourage you to write a mission statement of your own, if you haven’t already done so. It will be different than mine is, for sure, possibly very different. That’s a good thing.

What gets you up in the morning? Where do you find meaning in life? You won’t find it in any fantasy world.

Time to get real.