Sunday, August 31, 2008


I grew up in the suburbs outside New Orleans. I lived slightly below sea level. I went to Mardi Gras every year. I weathered several large hurricanes. I was in Junior High School when it was announced that the public schools would be racially integrated. I did not perceive all that as some sort of "special" childhood. It makes good stories now. When I was a child, it was simply the way my life was.

Now I have a grandson, Daniel. He is growing up in Tanzania. He lives on high plains near majestic mountains. There are Hippos in the lake near his home. He is learning four languages at once: English, Norwegian, Swahili, and Mbugwe. He sometimes sees lions and elephants when his parents take him for a long car ride. He is one little blond, blue eyed boy surrounded by many, many children with black hair and dark skins. I don't think it will feel like a "special" childhood to him. It is simply the way his life is. It certainly will make good stories for folks who grow up differently.

Friday, August 29, 2008

On Being An Example

I am cautious about giving advice. I avoid doing so if I can. There is another thing I do that may seem similar to giving advice at first glance: sharing my experiences, including examples of times I dealt with or failed to deal with problems in my life.

The difference between giving advice and being an example can be profound. Advice implies that I have the answers, and my listener just needs to do what I say if they want to prosper. However, as an example, I am free to be a good example or a bad example. In fact, I may not be sure which I am. consequently, I seldom claim to have many answers. I hope that examples from my life will help others to find the answers they need.

Ironically, it seems that people most easily relate to the times when I am a bad example. I remember a two day software class I took a few months back. I struggled and felt lost much of the time. Then, during a pretty intense portion of our class, the instructor lost his way. He just could not seem to solve a problem that presented itself. He called in another instructor as backup, but then they were both baffled. I suddenly felt my spirits lift. If those guys could get lost, then it was perfectly understandable that I, the student, might expect some problems. I was greatly encouraged.

So when I share my experiences, both successes and failures. I try very hard to avoid taking a lot of credit for the successes and to avoid making excuses for my failures. I don't think others are nearly as interested in why I succeeded or failed as they are in the simple fact that I too struggle. Some times things work out o.k. Sometimes not so o.k.

Next month I travel to Latvia on a short term missions trip. I am part of a small group who will be teaching pastors about mental illness. At its simplest, mental illness is when people are troubled by emotions or delusions that cause great difficulties in simply living their lives. One of our group is a psychologist and can give many example of folks she has served as a clinician. Another of the group is a former pastor who has a son with serious mental health problems. I believe my primary job is to stand in front of the pastors as an example of a person who has struggled with mental health problems for decades. I can share things that did not work for me. I can share some successes I have had in finding means for maintaining a fruitful Christian life.

If I were an example of someone who is fighting cancer, I could show x-rays. CAT scans, or lab tests that would clearly indicate the extent of the problem. I don't have those resources as a person fighting mental illness. The diagnosis of my illness is largely determined from my own descriptions of how I feel and what I think. Part of my road to improved health has been changing how I think about many things. However, other important parts include changing my situation at times and changing my brain chemistry with psychoactive drugs. There are no simple answers about what works for me. I certainly am not qualified to tell others what will work for them.

Perhaps a reader may be wondering what contribution there is in simpling sharing my experiences as an example. Wouldn't the time be better spent offering more information about the causes of and treatments for mental illness? I too would have thought so some years ago. But I have been given the opportunity to share my story many times. I see faces light up as folks realize that my struggles have been difficult. They are not sadists, they are simply relieved to know that they or someone they love is not alone in their struggle. Examples of times when I failed to deal well with my problems seemed to be cherished as much or more than examples of how I was able to have some success. The more honest and transparent I can be, the more impact I can have. All I really need to do to encourage others is to be honest about who I am and what I have experienced. At times I slip into thinking that I am there as a great success story to be emulated. Fortunately, reality has ways of asserting itself and restoring the humility I need to do a good job of being an example. I thank God for any humility that I have been able to develop with his help. I pray that God will use me to encourage others.

Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Trust Must Be Earned

As the decades have clicked past, I have become more and more sceptical. Sure things, immanent disasters, obvious trends, common knowledge, conventional wisdom and host of other predictions have disappointed time after time. This is a sin cursed world full of fallen people who are generally in furious pursuit of all the wrong things: fame, wealth, sex, drugs, rock and roll, and a host of others. I am guilty, just like everyone else. I suppose we humans vary in just how guilty we are, but I am in no position to place anyone on a scale of 1 to 10.

I start with the presumption that I have got it wrong and so do most of the people who are trying to convince me of something. You can talk low fat, high protein, junk bonds, savings and loans, mortgage problems, oil prices, stock indexes, safe medicines, toxic foods, mercury in fish, gas mileage, offshore drilling, and on and on. What I am watching for is simple: Who has earned my trust? Who gets it right more often than not? Who really has my best interests in mind?

Trust must be earned. The only complete trust I hope to have in this life is trust in God. And I mean trust in God, not trust in what people tell me about God.

Today I had a great example I of why I should continue to be cautious. I received a letter from a major insurance company. It read in part:

" Dear Mr. Schnake, Now you've got the opportunity to get up to $10 million graded benefit whole life insurance protection at an affordable cost. Your acceptance is guaranteed regardless of the condition of your health. Your premium will never increase.... For a long time we wanted to do something really important for a too-long neglected group of Americans... The solid, decent, dependable Americans who had raised their families...paid their taxes...fought our wars...without asking or getting anything for themselves. So we are happy to offer you a second chance..."

In fact, the company wants to impress me so much with their message, that they wrote on the front of the envelope in a big, bold font:


Oops, I've been reading my Dad's mail again. Of course, it is understandable, my Dad has been dead for more than seven years. Nonetheless, Mutual of Omaha is offering him a "second chance". The number of terrific offers that Dad gets has been tapering off each year since his death. But it is good to know that someone still cares so deeply about his insurance needs. It is great to realize how deeply touched they are by how he lived his life. They are so intent on helping him, that they wrote "You can't be turned down for this life insurance" at the bottom of the letter. Maybe I should try to get word to him.

Monday, August 18, 2008

Pictures... I Just Feel Like It

When Reality Exceeds One's Capacity to Fantasize

I'm a geezer. When someone asks me a question, I probably give them a longer answer than they were really wanting. Nonetheless, all I have to do is give a brief recount of what my four children are up to and I feel a bit like I am bragging or telling tall tales. Julia? Oh yes, she's in Tanzania with our son-in-law Viggo and our grandson Daniel. How long? Perhaps twenty plus years. Pamela? Anthropology major at Wheaton College. Six months in Nicaragua. Sending wonderful journals of what she is observing, learning, doing, feeling. Did I mention she plans to marry Michael in June 09? Charles, janitor - dry cleaning clerk - and well on his way to learning to being a rocket scientist at a leading Aerospace engineering University. Sam? Deeply moved by what God has shown him about how he may serve others. Following God with all his heart and managing to be extremely funny and talented as he goes about it.

My wife, Barbara, oh yes, beautiful and getting more beautiful, more kind, and more Christ like as each year passes. What a joy to have her as my spouse for now and forever. And she finds and follows so many paths towards serving so many people to the glory of God.

Me? A sinner saved by grace and blessed with talents given by God and strength supplied by God to endure some difficult times and provide for my family, serve others, and learn more and more of God's love for me.

I could never have dreamed such a life as I started out many years ago. Four full decades since I graduated from High School and set out to see what I might do in this world. I didn't even understand that God truly is and that he loves me until I was more than thirty years old.

Yes, I write many ponderous ponderings in this blog, but always in the context or matrix of being loved by God, family, and friends. How grateful I am for what I have been given.

Thank you, Lord!

Friday, August 15, 2008

Is There Any Chance That Chance Is Real?

I have often written about choice. I have also thought a lot about chance. The idea that something happens "randomly" without cause strikes me as unlikely.

Simple example: Consider coin tosses. There are only two possible outcomes, heads or tails. If heads comes up four times in a row it is a little weird, but we generally are confident that over time the tosses will average out to half heads and half tails. If heads comes up four thousand times in a row, and the toss is actually random, we are astonished, but there was always a small but finite probability that we would get that result, just as there is a larger but finite probability that we would get heads four times in a row. However, another possibility is that the toss is not random. Perhaps the coin is cleverly weighted or perhaps it is being impacted by a control system involving a high speed camera, image recognition, and a variable magnetic field. In other words, there may be causes we are not aware of. Perhaps someone has made the choice to bias the system and create non-random results. How many heads in a row does it take for us to differentiate between behavior that is random, but very unusual, and behavior that is a result of intentional bias?

A statistician cannot tell you how many coin tosses are needed to establish, unequivocally, that the coin toss is truly random. They must equivocate, because their mathematics always tells them that there is a very small chance of four thousand or even four million heads in a row. Very, very small. Inconceivably small. But extant, nonetheless.

Frankly, I find true choice to be inconceivable as well. Take away coercion, misinformation, group think, and all other sorts of influences. How then is it that I choose blue as my favorite color? What led me to choose engineering as a college major. How did I choose to create this post?

Whether we speak of chances or choices, either is mysterious.

I am completely convinced that I can make choices. I have grave doubts about the idea that things happen by chance. I always suspect that any system (including coin tossing) will have a bit of bias in it. I just can't tell how much bias there is without an infinite number of tosses.

Infinite tosses might assure that there is complete randomness. But we are finite beings in the sense that the tosses will come to an end in this life, and we will still be left wondering whether something improbable happened or whether someone biased the system.

Everything that happens, happens because of choices that persons make, nothing is random. If anything at all were truly random, all choices would be irrelevant. Any choice might be negated by a random event. Randomness would prevail.

What we call random or chance is simply that of which we have no complete understanding.

Sunday, August 03, 2008


There was a time, decades ago, when I liked to camp out. The more primitive the better. The ideal was a back pack into an area so remote that I would be unlikely to see another human being.

Time passed and my situation changed. My family grew and included little kids that were about as smart as a stump when it came to staying out of campfires, but who also wanted complete meal service, medical assistance, and turn down service regardless of how much time I had spent that day doing other stuff for them. In addition, my body began to complain seriously about being left laying on the ground all night. Walking through complete darkness to find a spot to pee became a much bigger issue than it had been in my 20's. I developed into a genuine curmudgeon with regard to camping, just as I have in so many other areas.

However, this weekend I was persuaded to participate in our church's family camp out. This meant clustering tents close enough to hear each other snore. Even when I liked to camp, I abhorred tent cities. I wanted pristine wilderness and I wanted it all to myself. Consequently I was prepared to endure the discomfort, keep my mouth shut about it if possible, and then gratefully drive home to my shower, my easy chair, and my privacy.

However, I discovered something. I actually really enjoy sitting at a picnic table or around a campfire with a bunch of friends and talking. Just talk. Some laughs. There was a pleasant sense of having nothing else to do (especially since I am really bad about things like helping to cook.)

We also had an outdoor church service. Really outdoors, with trees all around and a huge blue sky above us. No amplifiers or mikes. Nothing but acoustic guitars, singing, and listening to one of us share how dramatically Jesus had changed her life.

As we packed up later that day, I found myself actually thinking, "Wow, I hope we do this again next year!". So to all those who shamed me into going, and especially to my long suffering wife, Barbara: Thank you. Thank you very much.