September 2009

Renault:  And what in heaven’s name brought you to Casablanca?

Rick:       My health. I came to Casablanca for the waters.

Renault:  Waters? What waters? We’re in the desert.

Rick:       I was misinformed.

                                                                   —Casablanca, 1942

Whoever speaks the truth gives honest evidence, but a false witness speaks deceitfully. Rash words are like sword thrusts, but the tongue of the wise brings healing. Truthful lips endure forever, but a lying tongue lasts only a moment. Deceit is in the mind of those who plan evil, but those who counsel peace have joy (Proverbs 12:17-20).


Earlier this month I came out of the Sanderson Center, the large recreational facility at MSU, and was confronted in the parking lot by a couple of young women in a golf cart who had stopped their vehicle in back on my SUV so that I couldn’t leave. “Do you have a parking pass?” the driver asked. I told her I didn’t know I had to have one, since I never did before, and no one had told me otherwise. And what’s more, the whole requirement that I had to have a pass to come work out twice a week was outrageous. None of that mattered to her; I guess she was of the “ignorance of the law is no excuse” mindset. I had to have a parking permit if I came over at least twice a week or five times a year. I knew where to get one, so the only question was how much it would cost me. “I don’t know,” she said, “but I think they’re about $100 a year.”

You can imagine that I was none too happy to hear that. I fumed most of the way back home, then got on the phone as soon as I could to the Sanderson Center membership office, to which I had already paid over $100 for a semester’s worth of visits. I happened to talk to the young man who sold me my renewal, and he confirmed that indeed I had to have a pass. When I confronted him with his failure to tell me that in the first place, he was apologetic, then let me know that the passes were only $1.00 a month. I subsequently got in touch with Parking Services, found out the guy was right, and bought a pass. Problem solved.

The whole incident and sequence of events got me thinking about how important it is to have and give accurate information. The girl in the parking cart could have and should have been briefed on what had to be a FAQ. I would have been OK with her ignorance if she had simply said “I don’t know, but Parking Services will be happy to help you.” Instead she bluffed and gave me misinformation, which brought me distress at the thought of having to spend more money.

How much customer anger, confusion, and lost business could be avoided if the people answering the phone or responding to email inquiries committed either to having ready-at-hand accurate, up-to-date information or else finding out the facts before answering a question? How much teenage fear and foolishness could be avoided if young women and men only had the facts about everything from acne to drugs to puberty to sexuality? How often could church conflicts be cooled if all sides at least agreed to a common set of facts about some hot button issue? How many reputations could have been saved if someone had refused to repeat gossip?

Of course, sometimes people intentionally spread disinformation and misinformation to promote their agendas. Pundits and bloggers do it all the time these days to fan the flames of distrust and suspicion in our society. The lies spread virally over the Internet and pretty soon, the truth is silenced. That’s not just irresponsible; it’s wrong and unethical. It’s bearing false witness. The sad thing is that it is sometimes those who shout loudly about their faith and make a show of it that are the worst offenders.

Giving a wrong answer to someone unintentionally out of ignorance isn’t sinful. But such action can nevertheless have consequences, even hurtful ones, made all the worse when the error is compounded as it is repeated over and over in conversations far removed from the original. So all of us need to make sure we commit to best practices like checking our facts with reliable sources, being cautious when we speak about subjects with which we are unfamiliar, and being willing to admit we don’t know.

As the old saying goes, it’s better to remain silent and be thought a fool than to speak and remove all doubt.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham



Thirty-seven years ago, in the fall of 1972, the skinny nineteen year-old kid you see at right—me—stepped onto the campus of the University of Georgia for the first time.  I had taken no tour, asked few questions. Up to that time, I had never been awayTAC UGA pic 001 from home, not even to summer camp. I would have gone to a school only 35 miles away, instead of four hours, had not my community college advisor convinced me that maybe I needed to get out and experience the world a little.

And over the next two years I did meet a few people who were different from me. There was Charles, my assigned roommate my first year in Reed (AKA “Weed”) Hall; he was the first gay person I ever met. Then the guy who roomed with me in the basement of Reed one quarter, whose name I can’t remember, but who loved to skateboard, and had done so in Switzerland. (“Il skie sans neige!”  [“He skis without snow!”] he reported the Swiss saying of him.) He had also read Paul Tillich, of whom I had never heard. There was Katie, with whom I managed to have two dates (I was usually a one-date wonder), and who had traveled abroad also, with a symphony orchestra. She was surprised when she found out I was a Presbyterian, given my ultra-conversative theo-babble. “Presbyterian!” she exclaimed. “They’re some of the most liberal people I know.” Uh, not me, honey.

But mostly I hung out with the familiar crowd, namely conservative evangelicals, even as I felt a stirring within me to push those boundaries a bit. (Typical young adult stuff, but I considered my pushing to be sinful, given my upbringing in a fundamentalist church.) I got “strokes” from the Campus Crusade ministry I became part of, like playing guitar for worship or being part of a Peter, Paul, and Mary-ish singing group; meeting and listening to Mark Heard and Pat Terry, soon-to-be-famous “Jesus music” singers who were my classmates; and being complimented on my “boldness” against professors whom we all considered pagans who were distorting God’s Truth. Most importantly, I found friends.

What has occasioned all this nostalgia? On a recent vacation, Susan and I took a side trip to the university, only 30 miles off our route. I got to show her my old dorm (excuse me, residence hall), which had been vastly improved with a new lounge and access for students in wheelchairs. It looked so small. Reed was and is in the shadow of the stadium, which had had a good many gates and fences added. We saw Memorial Hall, where I remembered going to some Crusade events. It had been repurposed for offices. The old Union had been renovated and also augmented by a new plaza and bookstore. I became disoriented for a moment, because the shopping plaza had been built on the hill I used to walk down to get to the cafeteria, and there was nothing of the former landscape to be seen.

The memories were nice, but in the end, I was ready to come back to the present. I didn’t mind that the old landscape had changed, because that’s the nature of universities and of life, and the change seemed for the better. It was OK that buildings were repurposed, expanded or even torn down and replaced. And I was really glad not to be that skinny, shy, clueless, sheltered kid anymore.

For some, change is an enemy, if not the enemy. They try to look younger, sometimes going to great expense. They keep reliving the past, remembering those halcyon college years. They refuse to consider new ideas that challenge their established way of thinking.

I don’t like change for the sake of change, but I have been by and large glad for the changes life has brought me since college. Sometimes the lessons have been hard-learned. But if I am wiser, mellower, more tolerant, and a little more sensible, I thank God for whatever and whoever have made me that way. I like being a grown-up.

© 2009 Tom Cheatham


Lanning:  Good to see you again, son.

Spooner: Hello, doctor.

Lanning:  Everything that follows is a result of what you see here.

Spooner: Is there something you want to tell me?

Lanning:  I’m sorry. My responses are limited. You must ask the right questions….

Spooner: Why would you kill yourself?

Lanning:  That, detective, is the right question. Program terminated.

                                                                                  –from the film I, Robot


Sometime ago I decided, on a whim, I guess, to uppgrade to IE 8 from version 7. Of course, I created a restore point first. But then I uninstalled the latest incarnation of Internet Explorer, having seen that its new features lacked a certain “wow” factor. Big mistake! Things started going wrong, like the failure of Windows Live Writer (the program on which I edit this blog) even to load. Having the restore point didn’t help me.

After trying to figure things out myself, I emailed my friend the IT guy, and he guided me through some steps to try to recover the program’s function. Unfortunately, and through no fault of my friend’s, none of them worked. But his guidance emboldened me to try again on my own. So, I Googled various possibilities for finding what I needed, like “reinstall Windows Live Writer,” “fix Windows Live Writer,” and others I don’t remember right now. Finally, the one that produced the answer for me was “Windows Live Writer crashes.” I followed the instructions I found on the site I chose, and voila, my program was up and running once more!

The experience led me to begin thinking about the questions we ask in life. Like the Dr. Lanning hologram from the movie dialogue above or like the search engine, life seems to require us to ask the right questions if we are to find the answers that will help us regain our emotional health, discover what God is calling us to do or be open to new possibilities.

For example, a man I know lost his wife of many years to illness. He insists on continuing to ask “Why did this happen to me?” with the result that he routinely ignores the pain of his children and his late wife’s parents. The widower is asking the wrong question. Instead, if he is to move through the dark tunnel of grief, he needs to wonder how he can help his loved ones with their pain. Move out of himself, asking “How can I help others?” I am sure he will discover in such service that his own hurt is transformed and even diminished.

Or how about the comments of the Stated Clerk of the PC(USA) General Assembly, the Rev. Gradye Parsons? When faced with dismal statistics about more losses in the denomination (a little over 69K in 2008), Parsons insisted that Presbyterians can be evangelists. He went on: “But we often stumble over the words. Can we not challenge one another to be able to answer these basic questions… ‘Why do I believe in God? Why do I go to church? Why do I go to that particular church?’”  For the whole story, visit

But on the blog of the Presbyterian Global Fellowship, a writer observes that Parsons asks the wrong questions for the postmodern age. “Of course Presbyterians can be evangelists, but how eloquent we are (or are not) is not the issue….To be be effective witnesses of the Gospel, it is not what we can posit or defend theologically (although that remains important.) Rather, to be effective witnesses of the Gospel in today’s culture requires authenticity, deep relationships, and sacrificial action for the sake of others…. In short, I don’t think the question is getting the words right. I think we have to recover the ability to be Christlike in the world for the sake of our communities.”

The writer comments then on the specific questions Parsons invites us to ask: “I don’t think the question is helping people communicate WHY we believe in God but rather WHO Jesus is and how we desire (and try!) to be more like him…. ‘Why do I go to church?’ is indicative of the institutional and attractional model of church that is…shrinking as an institution and failing to attract people to it. The question missionally minded people would ask is, ‘How can we be the church for the sake of the community?’”

There’s more, but for the sake of space and your patience, I’ll stop there. If you’re interested, the whole piece, with comments, may be found here: I accessed it through Dr. Steve Hayner’s blog,, which I also recommend to you.

The similiarity between the grieving man’s question and the shrinking church’s question is striking to me. Both focus on survival; both turn inward. In the former case, on the widower’s hurt; in the latter, on the denomination’s dwindling resources and influence. But as the PGF blog pointed out, the right questions are those that focus on getting out of ourselves in personal, involved ways.

Ironically, the PC(USA)’s own standards say that very thing. After outlining various kinds of Christlike service, the Book of Order has this memorable and profound statement: “The Church is called to undertake this mission even at the risk of losing its life, trusting in God alone as the author and giver of life, sharing the gospel, and doing those deeds in the world that point beyond themselves to the new reality in Christ (G-3.0400; emphasis mine).

Maybe this is the right question: what would happen if we really lived what we say we believe?

© 2009 Tom Cheatham

Note: The next post will be September 18.