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Monday, February 29, 2016

True Confessions of the Candidates

Over the last week, Americans were dealt an inexcusably bad few days of insulting presidential politics. Despite how competitive the business world is, you rarely (if ever) hear the kind of belittling assault against another respected leader. Usually, trash talking is reserved for sports personalities whose mouths need more sensitivity training.

Before the intensity of this political season was so ramped up, I made several appeals on my talk show to the concept of civility.

Dr. Samuel Johnson lived in the 1700s and was a devout Anglican. He has been described as “arguably the most distinguished man of letters in English history.” His words: “When once the forms of civility are violated, there remains little hope of return to kindness or decency.”

Singer Emmy Lou Harris once said, “As citizens we have to be more thoughtful and more educated and more informed. I turn on the TV and I see these grown people screaming at each other, and I think, well, if we don't get our civility back we’re in trouble.” And she was not commenting on the debates!

Pier Massimo Forni is a professor of Italian literature. Well over a decade ago, he helped create the Johns Hopkins University Civility Project. Its purpose was to learn what influence such character qualities as politeness and respect have on society—especially in the workplace. And then, what happens when these relational enhancers disappear.

Here’s what Professor Forni observed: “Civility means a great deal more than just being nice to one another. It is complex and encompasses learning how to connect successfully and live well with others, developing thoughtfulness, and fostering effective self-expression and communication. Civility includes courtesy, politeness, mutual respect, fairness, good manners, as well as a matter of good health.”

The recent political debates lack most of that description. Instead, led by the new “Don Rickles of Politics”—Donald Trump—opponents and their ideas are held up to ridicule. The recent exchange in the debate with Marco Rubio, and Trump’s followup press conference with Chris Christie, provide ample evidence.

The New York Times headline this week states it bluntly: “To Fight Critics, Donald Trump Aims to Instill Fear in 140-Character Doses.”

An example the Times used mentioned a Republican strategist who made a negative comment about Trump skipping a debate. She was then labeled by The Donald as “a dummy” who only acted out of revenge. Marco Rubio is now carrying the “Choker” label. Ted Cruz is “nothing but a liar.” A fellow talk show host from our company was made fun of by Trump for not having a bigger audience.

From the Times, “With his enormous online platform, Mr. Trump has badgered and humiliated those who have dared to cross him during the presidential race. He has latched onto their vulnerabilities, mocking their physical characteristics, personality quirks and, sometimes, their professional setbacks.”

It puts his opponents in a terribly awkward position. They can choose to challenge a Trump position—and face his backlash. They can return insults, and demonstrate the same lack of civility that he does. Or they can be aggressive on their perception of his weaknesses as a candidate and wait for the onslaught of insults.

It’s certainly not limited to Republican candidates. Mrs. Clinton brings her own arsenal of meanness to the campaign by often portraying all Republican leadership as racist, uncaring, and against women. And she claims to be ABOVE the fray.

Here’s what is most unnerving about this to me. Trump claims he’s been audited so much because he is a “good Christian.” He’s proud to be a Presbyterian. Cruz, Rubio, Carson, and several Republican dropouts claim Christian commitments as well. Chris Christie embraces his Catholic faith. John Kasich grew up Catholic, but is now part of a conservative Anglican church. He’s actually written two books about faith, values, and politics! Mrs.Clinton readily identifies herself as a “lifelong Methodist.”

Get the picture? These candidates are on a primetime stage not only representing a political party, but showing to the world how “Christians in politics” act. And it’s not pretty.

I would love to see a one hour television special called, “True Confessions of the Candidates.” Oh, it wouldn’t be a bunch of sordid stuff. It would be a series of admissions as to where civility has been lost in this political season. It would include humble apologies and a perceptible sense of authentic repentance for bad behavior to not only other candidates, but to the electorate!

Matching the confessions would be offerings of forgiveness by fellow candidates. At minimum there would be handshakes to agree to stop the nonsense. There might even be rich, brotherly hugs! Or with Hillary, a fine sideways Christian hug.

Wouldn’t THAT be something!

Offending a brother is not new. In Jesus’s day, one of His followers wanted to know how much to forgive. “At that point Peter got up the nerve to ask, ‘Master, how many times do I forgive a brother or sister who hurts me? Seven?’ Jesus replied, ‘Seven! Hardly. Try seventy times seven.” (Matthew 18:21-22, MSG)

Humility. Admitting our wrongs. Granting forgiveness. Civility and faith in action.

As the English aristocrat Mary Wortley Montagu stated, “Civility costs nothing, and buys everything.”

Three cheers for civility!

That’s The Way WE Work. Click on the link to the right to connect via Facebook.

Catch “Let’s Talk with Mark Elfstrand" weekday afternoons from 4-6pm on AM 1160 Hope for Your Life. To listen to the live broadcast or a podcast of previous shows click here

Monday, February 22, 2016

A Champion Losing Friends

It’s February. As in Feb-BREW-ary. Football fans are now in withdrawal. Baseball players are reporting to spring training. The NBA and NHL seasons are getting more serious. The NCAA Basketball Tournament is just weeks away. NASCAR is ramping up. Oh, did I forget golf?

Didn’t mean to. Golf is my Sunday “go to” sport, especially during the winter months when scenes from Hawaii, Arizona, and California make me wonder why any of us live in cold climates. Yesterday was no exception.

Watching the final round of PGA tournament at the Riviera Country Club in the gorgeous southern California sunshine was almost too much to take. Just saying “Pacific Palisades” oozed with warmth. It’s the country club of many Hollywood stars.

However temperamental the reports of those who work on stage or screen, few could top the reputation of yesterday’s champion at the Northern Trust Open. Bubba Watson. And I was cheering for him all the way until the final winning putt dropped.

It seems like Mr. Watson is gaining on a nagging problem. His oft-out-of-control temper. It has cost him in more than one way.

A most telling report on the complexity of this man came out last summer. It was an excerpt from the book Slaying the Tiger by Shane Ryan. Even the title of the piece made me wince, “How Bubba Watson’s Temper, Religion, and Exquisite Game Made Him the Most Divisive Player in Golf.”

The opening sentences set the stage: “Anti-Bubba sentiment has been around as long as Bubba Watson himself, but until 2014, it had largely simmered below the surface. There are very few outlaws in golf, and the players enjoy certain protections from the media, especially on the television side.” But an incident in 2014 drew the most criticism in the golf star’s young career.

It happened at the 2014 PGA Championship. In a practice round, the PGA of America held a long-drive contest. Most golfers enjoyed the moment and even goofed off a bit for the crowd. Not Bubba. When Watson showed up at the 10th tee, he cursed the event as “ridiculous” not just to himself, but to the PGA staff assembled around the hole. And in his anger, he impishly avoided trying to hit a long drive—something he is very good at.

Those who follow golf may not know the details of that story, but they are certainly aware that Bubba has a temper. He is not above caustic words to his caddy. Or criticisms about a golf course. His foul mouth has gotten the best of him while in these moods.

So why do people like him? For a number of reasons. He’s been a very generous man. In his moments of victory, sensing what he has overcome in life, he weeps—genuinely. He treasures his family, including a wife who, while dating, told hm she could not bear children. He offered to adopt—which they have.

Additionally, with a name like “Bubba” and an unorthodox golf method derived from NO lessons, he’s a champion to those of us who golf with all of our imperfections. He’s passionate. And, at times, quite personable.

What admittedly makes him difficult to embrace in the faith community is his stated Christian beliefs. At the same PGA Championship event, Bubba was asked if he cared what people thought about him. He retorted, “Truthfully, no. Because the way I’m trying to live my life, read the Bible, follow the Bible…no matter what I do, no matter if I win every single tournament, half the world is going to love me and half the world is going to hate me no matter what. You can’t impress everybody and you can’t make everybody happy.”

Shane Ryan wrote in response in his book, “It was classic Bubba—reverting to religion, scolding anyone who questioned him, and placing himself above those with the temerity to criticize a man of God. All of which leads to a familiar question: Does he practice what he preaches?”

Does he practice what he preaches? Isn’t that the question by which all Christ-followers seem to get measured? It’s one of the most biting descriptors we fear: hypocrite!

You should read the article I referenced if you want a much clearer sense of how our “walk” impacts our “talk.” And vice versa. Bubba, like many of us, uses Scripture to admonish others. But Jesus said, “You hypocrite, first take the log out of your own eye, and then you will see clearly to take the speck out of your brother’s eye.” (Matthew 7:5, ESV)

Christ followers, like golfers, should take this message to heart.

We all need to work harder on our game.

That’s The Way WE Work. Click on the link to the right to connect via Facebook.

Catch “Let’s Talk with Mark Elfstrand" weekday afternoons from 4-6pm on AM 1160 Hope for Your Life. To listen to the live broadcast or a podcast of previous shows click here

Monday, February 15, 2016

A Presidential Faith

It’s Presidents Day. Another federally determined Monday holiday. A day to pay homage to those who chose to run for the highest office in our land. And win. Our presidents.

The History Channel sets us straight on how this American holiday came to be celebrated on the third Monday in February. “Originally established in 1885 in recognition of President George Washington, it is still officially called “Washington’s Birthday” by the federal government. Traditionally celebrated on February 22—Washington’s actual day of birth—the holiday became popularly known as Presidents Day after it was moved as part of 1971’s Uniform Monday Holiday Act, an attempt to create more three-day weekends for the nation’s workers…Presidents Day is now popularly viewed as a day to celebrate all U.S. presidents past and present.”

Currently, we have several souls vying for the title. One woman among them…Hillary Clinton. A man seeking to become the first Jewish president, Bernie Sanders. The list of Republicans wanting the job is steadily reducing in number. Lack of interested voters means you lack money. The aberration in this year’s election is the possibility of having three finalists who, in truth, don’t NEED money. That would be Donald Trump, Hillary “The Speech Maker” Clinton, and possibly the “Independently Wealthy Independent” Michael Bloomberg.

A candidate’s religious faith is definitely being brought into play whether we value that as a society or not. Several of those in the running have openly stated their allegiance to Christianity. Marco Rubio has gone so far as to create a commercial about his beliefs. Ted Cruz considers himself an evangelical. Jeb Bush, Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton align themselves with the Christian name. And then there’s Bernie Sanders.

The Washington Post covered his personal beliefs in their recent article, “Why Bernie Sanders doesn’t participate in organized religion.” Sanders grew up in the Jewish faith, attended Hebrew school and was bar mitzvahed. He actually worked on a kibbutz in Israel. Later we learn he drifted from Jewish customs. And today? He says “I am not actively involved with organized religion.”

As the Post reports, “Sanders said he believes in God, though not necessarily in a traditional manner. ‘I think everyone believes in God in their own ways. To me, it means that all of us are connected, all of life is connected, and that we are all tied together.’” Later from the story, it notes that Jimmy Kimmel questioned Sanders a few months ago whether he believes in God and if that is an important issue to the American people. To which Sanders replied, “I am what I am. And what I believe in, and what my spirituality is about, is that we’re all in this together.” That last line, repeated, seems to be his mantra.

It’s interesting that the senator finds connection to the Christian faith the same way he finds a connection to other faiths. While speaking at Liberty University, an evangelical Christian school to be sure, he stated, “I am motivated by a vision which exists in all of the great religions — in Christianity, in Judaism, in Islam, Buddhism and other religions — and which is so beautifully and clearly stated in Matthew 7:12. And it states: ‘So in everything, do to others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the law and the prophets.’”

When you hold the highest office in our land, you’d better have something to hold on to. According to the Pew Research Center for Religion and Public life, only three presidents, (Jefferson, Lincoln and Andrew Johnson) have been unaffiliated with a specific religious group. This certainly does not connote or deny any level of commitment. Just affiliation.

I was recently reading about the debate of whether Abraham Lincoln truly embraced a faith in a personal God. Conclusions from multiple sources say he also (like Sanders) had a season of spiritual drift. But his later years brought clear evidence that he saw the need for a power beyond himself for strength and to heal our nation.

It’s my conviction that most Americans agree with another Jewish man who write political commentary, Dr. Michael Brown. In a recent editorial he wrote, “I am honestly not looking to elect a perfect saint as president nor am I asking the candidates how well they know the Bible or how many hours a day they pray. But I am looking for someone who, along with dealing with our budget and immigration and national security, will stand for righteousness and lead with integrity.”

Given the state of disunity in our country, perhaps these words of King David from the Old Testament give perspective, “The God of Israel spoke; the Rock of Israel said to me, ‘The one who rules the people with justice, who rules in the fear of God, is like the morning light when the sun rises on a cloudless morning, the glisten of rain on sprouting grass.’” (2 Samuel 23:2-4, HCSB)

A president who lacks a healthy fear of God will lead a nation with a lack of wisdom.

Happy Presidents Day.

That’s The Way WE Work. Click on the link to the right to connect via Facebook.

Catch “Let’s Talk with Mark Elfstrand" weekday afternoons from 4-6pm on AM 1160 Hope for Your Life. To listen to the live broadcast or a podcast of previous shows click here

Monday, February 8, 2016

Risky Business

In advance of this year’s Super Bowl, USA Today readers were challenged in an editorial about the morality of the decision to watch the game. It had nothing to do with questionable advertising. Or skipping the Sunday evening service at your church. It was based on the violence of the sport.

In his article titled, “Is It Immoral to Watch the Super Bowl?,” columnist Tom Krattenmaker questions how good thinking people can continue to support a game that hurts people. Tom is the communications director at Yale Divinity School and a writer described as “specializing in religion in public life.” Apparently, he has a book soon to be released titled, Confessions of a Secular Jesus Follower. Interesting…

The recent film Concussion has intensified the awareness of a problem in sports that is garnering much attention these days. Football seems to be the principal violator. Thus, Krattenmaker makes much about the growing number of parents pulling their kids from football programs around the country.

Also highlighted is how incredibly popular football games are to watch. In short, television ratings for last year’s Super Bowl set a record for any TV program of any type. Now it must be said that apart from the game itself, a good number of people watch for the commercials. Go figure.

What is the conclusion here? It’s obvious. By you and I watching a sport where people can and do get seriously injured—and raising those ratings sky high—we are complicit in keeping this violence in place. Big money stakes mean many football players choose to play even if it’s a bad choice. Or so the argument goes.

I’m not sold on this. Watching football games at any level is not like watching Christians being fed to lions. I’m not a spectator for the purpose of seeing crippling injury. My interest is to watch outstanding athletes play a competitive team game and display excellence. And in the midst of this competition, there is risk.

You want to see risk? Go back and watch the 60 Minutes segment on Alex Honnold. Alex is a “professional rock climber.” When he scales cliffs, there is no net. Nothing will save him if he falls. One of his personal challenges a while back was to attempt something no one had done before. Alex was to climb the three biggest rock faces in Yosemite in succession, alone, and in less than 24 hours.

As the New York Times described it, “This meant scaling the sheer walls of Mount Watkins, El Capitan, and Half Dome for a total of about 7,000 vertical feet of rock. For all but about 500 feet of it, Honnold planned to climb with no ropes or safety equipment at all. One mistake and he could die.” My friend, that is risk! And plenty of people showed up to watch.

Most people do not know that another man and his friend scaled down Half Dome over a century ago in another remarkable climb. His name was Henry Crowell. He was 22 at the time. Crowell and his friend George Worthington Stout used clotheslines, a bag of rugged spikes, and two short-shafted sledges apiece as scaling aids. They descended the 3,000 feet and bragged about it at dinner that night. Mountaineers overhearing that conversation would not believe it—until they saw the evidence the following morning on the side of Half Dome.

Crowell went on to take risks of another kind. Business risks. He started a ranch raising Percheron horses where no one else was doing this. He succeeded. After selling that business and successfully building another, he received a tip from a relative to look into a “Quaker mill” in Ohio. That business venture became what we know as Quaker Oats. Crowell’s life was amazing. (You can read about him in the book Cereal Tycoon from Moody Publishers.)

Whether it’s sports that can cause injuries, rock climbing that could lead to death, or business adventures than can mean financial ruin, all of these require risk taking. The men and women who serve our nation every day in the military in dangerous parts of this world take risks. And sometimes, tragically, they lose.

We must accept that all of life comes with risks. We must also learn to overcome the crippling fear that keeps us from living the life we are called to live.

Jesus’s greatest time of struggle was in the Garden of Gethsemane—just before His arrest and crucifixion. It’s recorded this way: ‘He prayed more fervently, and he was in such agony of spirit that his sweat fell to the ground like great drops of blood.” (Luke 22:44 / NLT) Jesus knew what was coming. And thus, he prayed. Fervently.

What is your crisis? Where are you sensing risk? Where do you need relief from anguish?

Try this remedy: fervent, persistent prayer.

And keep a good set of kneepads handy.

That’s The Way WE Work. Click on the link to the right to connect via Facebook.

Catch “Let’s Talk with Mark Elfstrand" weekday afternoons from 4-6pm on AM 1160 Hope for Your Life. To listen to the live broadcast or a podcast of previous shows click here

Monday, February 1, 2016

The Bully Pulpit

So here we are. Caucus day in Iowa. It is an odd kickoff to determining the persons most likely to change furniture in the White House next year.

The parties do their caucuses differently. Republicans start with the Pledge of Allegiance at 7 p.m. central. The activists begin selecting their presidential candidates in a binding vote. According to CNN, “Each campaign gets the chance to have a representative make a final pitch to any wavering voters before a secret ballot. Some caucus sites might use a printed paper ballot. Others just go with a candidate's name on a scrap of paper. Raw totals of votes are tallied by local party officials and sent to Iowa GOP headquarters, where a running count is kept.”

The Orlando Sentinel provided a layman’s explanation for what happens in the Democratic caucus. “They excitedly gather in school gymnasiums where each candidate gets a designated corner. Supporters for that candidate then beg, plead, and chant at everyone else who's begging, pleading, and chanting to join another candidate in another corner.

After 30 minutes, if your candidate doesn't have 15 percent of the beggars, pleaders and chanters, you're no longer “viable.” You then have 30 minutes to choose another campaign corner. So the begging, pleading and chanting starts again.”

Iowans do not necessarily get it right. Especially for Republicans. Mike Huckabee was their choice in 2008. Rick Santorum in 2012—although the early published results had Romney as the winner. The vote was incorrect and changed later.

In recent weeks, Ted Cruz was the Republican leader. But that changed in the latest poll with Donald Trump pulling ahead. Barely. Statistically, a dead heat, with Marco Rubio not far behind.

Among Democrats, Bernie Sanders has been steadily gaining on Hillary Clinton. He claims that a large voter turnout for the caucus gives him a win. Lower turnout goes to Hillary. Martin O’Malley is nowhere to be found.

The election of a US President is a major event. That’s because the role is described as the “leader of the free world.” One would hope that would be true. But it may be a misnomer. Or at least an incomplete descriptor.

Certainly our nation holds preeminence worldwide as a free society. But when it comes to “leader” and “leadership” we owe it to ourselves to select a person who earns the most stars for inspiring character and behavior. And that brings me to Donald Trump.

Most of America is aware that “The Donald” (his majestic nickname) pulled out of the last Republican debate. His family feud with Megyn Kelly and the Fox News Channel got too deep under his skin. So he bailed. (Megyn once worked as a lawyer in Chicago.)

Incredibly, in describing his rationale, The Donald said, “It’s time that somebody plays grown up.” And as I noted on my talk show, he was right. Only it wasn’t him. Grown ups don’t play this way. Playground teams know a true loser will “take his ball and go home” — thus ending the game for everyone when things don’t go the way Mr. Ball Hog wants.

Trump couldn’t go quite that far. The “ball game” debate still aired without him. But he knew his withdrawal would take significant television ratings with him.

The Donald was demanding Fox pull Kelly from the panel of questioners. And that Fox apologize for a disparaging tweet. Or he would pull a Frank Sinatra and do it, “My Way.” Which he did.

Welcome to the circus. The most powerful elephant just left the room.

Odd, isn’t it? In an era of so much publicity on anti-bullying tactics, we find a bully running for president. With a fan club.

Who wants to play with a kid like that? Unfortunately, too many desperate kids. People who don’t mind being bullied as they take their conservative convictions and cower behind Mighty Mouth. His aggressive, rude, and intolerable-of-others style might make him a ballot king.

And this is why I challenge the notion that the term “leader of the free world” gives us an accurate picture. True leadership embodies so much more than a title. I have tons of books on leadership. Good leadership. Great leadership. Not one of them has anything close to encouraging the leadership style of The Donald. Well, maybe one. The Leadership Secrets of Attila The Hun.

Most material these days has ample encouragement to become servant leaders. Ironically, I see very few of these books from the so called “public servants” of our land. Most of this class wants to be served.

Jesus warned His disciples about this power greedy mentality. Again and again. His words: “You’ve observed how godless rulers throw their weight around,” He said, “and when people get a little power how quickly it goes to their heads. It’s not going to be that way with you. Whoever wants to be great must become a servant.” (Mark 10:42-44, MSG)

I hope Iowans—and all Americans—call bad behavior to account.

With a bully pulpit, the last thing we need…is a bully.

That’s The Way WE Work. Click on the link to the right to connect via Facebook.

Catch “Let’s Talk with Mark Elfstrand" weekday afternoons from 4-6pm on AM 1160 Hope for Your Life. To listen to the live broadcast or a podcast of previous shows click here