The Speck-Plank Conundrum

(A four minute read)

It sounds like a physics problem: The Speck-Plank Conundrum. It’s not – it’s a moral one. That’s the bad news. The good news is that although a conundrum is a knotty problem, it is one that does have a solution.

It’s an oldie but a goodie and the classic line about hypocrisy. You know it either from Luke 6 or Matthew 7. Jesus asks, ‘Why do you see the speck that is in your brother’s eye, but do not see the beam that is in your own eye? How can you say to your brother, “Brother, let me remove the speck that is in your eye” when you yourself do not see the beam that is in your own eye? You hypocrite! First remove the beam from your own eye, and then you will see clearly to remove the speck that is in your brother’s eye.”’ 1

First, definitions.

Speck, mote – two translations of the Greek κάρφος (karphos) which means ‘straw’.

Plank, beam, log – all these images are used by the gospel translators for the Greek δοκός (dokos) which means ‘a stick of timber.’

Actually Jesus walks us through several examples of our hypocrisy in this passage – I think he wants to make sure we can’t possibly miss the point.

Considering other parts of this passage, If I am blind about something, can I lead anyone anywhere? Yes, but nowhere good.

If I’m a student of Christ, can I possibly know better than he does? No, but having the mind of Christ, I can grow in his likeness.

When I judge others, don’t I do this to feel superior? Yes, always. Isn’t this why Jesus tells us to love our enemies? He wants humility from us.

Finally, since Holy Spirit lives in me – will I not exhibit his good fruit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control?

Well – yes and no. At least not always.

That’s because I’m a work in progress. Look at Luke 6:45.

A good man brings good things out of the good stored up in his heart, and an evil man brings evil things out of the evil stored up in his heart. For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of.

My mouth speaks (and leads me to act) based on what’s in my heart. Knowing that, I know I have a ways to go.

Before I was saved, I spent a lot more time judging people than I do now. In fact, it was an occupation at times – like when I was employed to write editorials, and again, when I was employed to write comedy. Being un-saved I thought of this quality as ‘discernment.’

Well no, it wasn’t. Now that I have a relationship with Jesus, I know what discernment is. And yet, growing in discernment doesn’t release me from the speck-plank conundrum. That’s because some evil bits still remain in my heart, and work subtly on my behavior.

Here’s an example. About a year ago, going to my local cash point, I passed a homeless man sitting on the pavement staring at the floor. As I passed him, my so-called discernment showed me he was angry, possibly violent, and had a chip on his shoulder. I often will stop and spend time with the floor-squatters and perhaps even give them a gift, but not this guy. I marched right past.

After inserting my debit card and entering my pin I glanced back at him. Suddenly I saw him very differently. It was as though Jesus was there, saying ‘Here’s how I see him.’ And no longer was there an angry disaffected man sitting there, but a lost, frightened boy.

He called himself Frankie. He’d been in and out of prison since he was 18 and tired of it. He wants to make changes in his life. He needed encouragement. He needed a friend. He needed someone to take the plank out of his own eye and just sit with him.

Funny that. When I removed the plank from my own eye, I no longer saw any speck in his eye. His eye was clear. All I saw was someone created in God’s image, in his likeness.

I am sometimes blind. I all too often put myself ahead of Jesus. I do suffer from the speck-plank conundrum. But the fruit I bear is often good – thanks to Holy Spirit and the things he helps me store in my heart. May I continue to be planted next to his living water.

Heavenly Father, in your mercy, forgive us where we have been blind. Remove that blindness. Holy Spirit, write your words on our hearts, so that we only bear good fruit. Lord Jesus, give us the wisdom to follow you, and not get ahead of you. Make us good carpenters – who know the difference between a speck of sawdust and a plank of wood. In your mighty name we pray. Amen.

Luke 6:41-42

Photo: Victor Freitas via Pexels

Isaiah 35

A Promise From 700 B.C.

(A five minute read)

Some encouragement is eternal, just like some truth.

When I faced a medical crisis three years ago, Isaiah 35 was my cane when I felt weak, and a steadying hand to the elbow when I couldn’t move forward. It brought life when it seemed there could be death, and completed a picture for me of how God answers prayer.

In June of 2019 I had surgery to remove a tumour from inside my bladder, and spent the rest of the year receiving chemotherapy and chemo-radiotherapy. My wife Melanie and I had already struck the match of faith even before the surgery, and His heat came, as we knew it would. And then God showed me the riches of this passage.

Isaiah 35 is superficially about the future glory of Zion, God’s permanent capital. But at my personal level, it became a byword about hope for restoration and revival.

The prophet offers a picture of how God promises to answer when we cry for help. Then, when He comes in response to prayer, miracles happen. Jesus promised the same when He taught, ‘Your kingdom come; Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.’ *

I cried out to God repeatedly. He answered through this scripture.

1 The wilderness and the solitary place shall be glad, and the desert shall rejoice and blossom as the rose;

2 it shall blossom abundantly and rejoice even with joy and singing. The glory of Lebanon shall be given to it, the excellency of Carmel and Sharon. They shall see the glory of the Lord and the excellency of our God.

The overwhelming nature of God’s promises are shown in the superlatives in the first two verses: glad, rejoice, blossom abundantly, joy and singing, glory, excellency. These are reliable even in our greatest times of spiritual barrenness.

3 Strengthen the weak hands, and support the feeble knees.

4 Say to those who are of a fearful heart, “Be strong, fear not. Your God will come with vengeance, even God with a recompense; He will come and save you.”

God comes to those who are obedient and faithful, and who cry out to Him, even from a place of desperation or fear.

5 Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened, and the ears of the deaf shall be unstopped.

6 Then the lame man shall leap as a deer, and the tongue of the mute sing for joy. For in the wilderness waters shall break out and streams in the desert.

Then’ shows that the healing that happens next is a result of our obedience and faithful prayer. After He comes, then the eyes of the blind and the ears of the deaf are opened, then the lame walk and the mute speak.

These verses also show that God is not just a Healer, but also heals us beyond what we ask for. The mute may wish to speak, but He also has them sing! The lame may wish to walk – He also has them leap!

In my spiritual wilderness, when I needed a drink, He brought an oasis, He came to me and said, ‘You will spring to new life.’ He always thinks bigger than I do.

7 The parched ground shall become a pool, and the thirsty land springs of water; in the habitation of jackals where each lay, there shall be grass with reeds and rushes.

The word translated ‘jackals’ is the Hebrew word tannîym, which is doubled in the text for emphasis. It’s often translated as ‘dragon’, which of course is symbolically the devil. In this passage, God transforms a place where only hideous creatures will dwell to one full of gentility and life.

8 A highway shall be there, a roadway, and it shall be called the Highway of Holiness. The unclean shall not pass on it, but it shall be for the wayfaring men, and fools shall not wander on it.

Highway’ here does means a thoroughfare for travel, but the word translated as ‘roadway’ is the Hebrew derek, which means a course of action, or what we might today call a lifestyle. The wayfaring men are those who choose this path to salvation that God has offered and set out on it in obedience, not knowing their destination, but trusting that it is good.

9 No lion shall be there, nor any ravenous beast shall go up on it; these shall not be found there, but the redeemed shall walk there,

10 and the ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with songs and everlasting joy upon their heads. They shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.

I’m one of those ‘ransomed of the Lord.’ When Jesus died on the cross and paid the price for my sin, He bought the rights to my life (and yours). The passage ends with the greatest news of all, that in the end I’ll return to God, meaning I’ll repent of my wrongdoing and turn back (Hebrew shoob) to God, who will be waiting with open arms to restore (Hebrew shoob) me.

Hebrews chapter 12 offers a wonderful New Testament parallel to this. It reads:

‘Now all discipline seems to be more pain than pleasure at the time, yet later it will produce a transformation of character, bringing a harvest of righteousness and peace to those who yield to it.

‘So be made strong even in your weakness by lifting up your tired hands in prayer and worship. And strengthen your weak knees, for as you keep walking forward on God’s paths all your stumbling ways will be divinely healed!’ **

To which I say, ‘So be it!’

Adapted from my memoir The Lie Called Cancer. Read more here.

* Matthew 6:10
** Hebrews 12:11-13

Newspaper clipping

What It’s Not

(A seven-minute read)

What is journalism? Like so many things in 2022, it’s not what we thought it was. But then, the world isn’t the same either. The classical, stable Christian underpinnings of Western society are being knocked about and we live in a world where the mob rules the roost. The loudest groups of fanatics drive the conversation, not rational, solid, considered thinkers, Christian or no.

Mainstream journalism has been ruined by these phenomena and also now encourages them. It’s no longer an echo chamber; it’s a copy machine. The craft itself hasn’t died. Rather, it’s only being practiced in a few select corners and must be sought out (more about this in an upcoming essay).

What’s being called ‘journalism’ today actually isn’t journalism at all. It’s myth-weaving for a post-Christian generation.

In 2020 I offered a sad timeline entitled ‘An Obituary’, bemoaning the fact that journalism was dead at last. The obituary nature of this is because the West now lives in a Narrative Culture, not a journalistic one. We still tell one another stories. But these now are only to reinforce our prejudices, rather than to learn what our beliefs might best be.

We are copying the East in this, most notably Communist China, where the official narrative is all. The official narrative is a god. The official narrative is the only acceptable truth. Truth itself has been slain there in the public square; it is dying by degrees here. But it’s not dead yet.

Here’s the distinction between narrative and journalism. In Narrative Culture, facts are chosen to fit a conclusion. In a journalistic culture, facts are gathered to develop a conclusion, independent of anyone’s motive.

A narrative is an ideological construct telling a story. It makes actual journalism impossible, because facts in a narrative are always subordinate to opinion. Hence, ‘myth-weaving.’ Elite thinkers, trapped in their own copy machines, now create an idealized version of real-time events as they wish them to be and they repeat.

Slap the story on the glass and press ‘copy.’ Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat Repeat.

Another major change is the media-maker’s love of money, whether news anchor, blogger, YouTube Influencer or TikTok star.

If you were born since 1980 this seems normal; you know nothing different.

In 1976, when I got my first gig in journalism, it was considered a ‘craft’ rather than a profession. Many of us were union members. I never expected to see more than a solid middle-class life, but that was okay. I was working for other purposes – not working to get rich.

In those days, the highest paid person at a national level was making well less than a million dollars a year. Cable TV stars today routinely command eight figure contracts, even those (perhaps especially those) who can’t write their way out of a simple declarative sentence.

My lifetime earnings in 35 years in and around broadcasting and journalism total less than $1.5 million. And I was one of the fortunate ones, one who was usually employed. No sour grapes here.

The Joy Reids and the Tucker Carlsons are not paid for being journalists, although they like to arrogate the title to themselves. They aren’t worthy of it. They are little more than water-carriers for the rich and the socially elite of their respective tribes. They carry no moral authority, only a narrative.

The main requirements for their success don’t lie in non-partisan fact collection and conclusion-making, that is, journalism. Rather, they are wildly successful because they can set inconvenient facts aside and view everything through an ideological lens. Having an ability to forget what one claimed the previous week also helps.

It’s critical for today’s self-proclaimed journalists to know what to think, never how to think critically, as a true journalist would.

In October 1928 my grandfather, William A Searle, became President and General Manager of the Camden Publishing Company. Radio was rare and television a generation in the future. Newspapers were the public conversation.

Granddad was like many publishers of the day, engaging in his craft with a view of public service. He believed that providing information was a sacred trust. He knew that honesty and integrity were his only products, and must be protected at all costs. He lived out his Christian faith in the workplace. He lived by the same values I was taught to respect in university seminars fifty years later. Those values have since fled university campuses, replaced by the pliable truths of moral relativism.

Today’s media, with very few exceptions, fail to adhere to a standard of moral integrity. The idea of public trust is mostly gone. The dollar is king – personal values have fallen into serfdom. Today’s media mavens don’t respect the public, revealing they don’t trust it. Their audience returns the favor, perhaps recognizing that media narratives are built on sand. Trust in the media is at an all-time low and sinking.

Media ownership itself is a small group and has been getting smaller. That concentrates the power of this Narrative Culture. This is not unique to the United States.

In the first edition under his leadership, Granddad told his readers he believed that publishing the Camden Post-Telegram meant ‘assuming a great public trust’.

What does that mean? It means that the only thing of value in the marketplace was his integrity and trustworthiness. That doesn’t mean integrity is for sale, rather that it is a commodity that people will pay to engage with.

In other words, if the public doesn’t trust you, you are out of business – but only in a business model that values fact-finding and conclusion-making.

The Narrative Culture business model values myth-making and selling ideology. It succeeds because people are starving for the truth and want something even if it’s not good for them. After all, the starving impoverished will even eat from a garbage can if they are hungry enough.

In 1928 (just as today) there were many publications that chose not to trade on their integrity. The practice was called ‘yellow journalism’, where sensationalism ruled over fact. The more lurid these tabloids the better. Selling copies was the only aim. Today these lurid stories are still around. You know them as ‘clickbait,’ designed to ‘deliver eyeballs.’

Some of the promises Granddad made to Post-Telegram readers stand in stark contrast:

  • Print the news promptly, completely and impartially;
  • Confine expressions of our opinions to the editorial columns;
  • Hold the Post-Telegram to such a standard of cleanliness that it will not offend nor embarrass to have the youngest child read it aloud to the family;
  • Follow our convictions in what we believe to be right rather than let this newspaper’s attitude be dictated by whim, or prejudice, by expediency or popularity, or influenced by any outside power or force;
  • Keep faith with our readers;
  • Be sincere and truthful, yet fair.

Am I naive to think that these values can still drive our public conversations, and reporting of same? Perhaps. But these values will always remain worth fighting for. I get to live them out in my own small corner of the world as best I can. And I have to let it be enough, at least for now.

However, as we look to (and hope for) a more honest future, let’s remember there are good lessons to be found peering back through time. The main one is the importance of questioning my own assumptions. Another is to remember there are bedrock values that bring hope and change. Yet another is to let the truth be the truth.

The truth is not what we may think it is, according to our narrative. No, that’s an opinion, and it’s a relative, subjective thing. Truth is unchanging. Truth is eternal. Truth will out. Truth provides those immutable values Granddad put in print. Truth is a Person.

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