These devotions were written in the fall of 2004. Click on a chapter number to jump to the first devotion for that chapter.
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Alyson is home from college for Labor Day weekend. While she’s in town, she decided to get some homework done, a decision I heartily endorse. Her mission this time is to interview someone of a different faith. She chose her grandmother, a member of the Community of Christ (aka RLDS). Although I didn’t witness this interview, I had it related to me in considerable detail by both Aly and Penny, who witnessed it but was forbidden to speak. They’d have had to stick a cork in my mouth to keep me quiet, I’m afraid. Apparently, the conversation went something like this:
Alyson: Who do you believe will go to heaven?
Grandma: I believe that everybody will go to heaven. Except murderers. I mean, if the murderers confess their murder and change their lives, then they will go to heaven, too.
Alyson: So you’re sure that you’re going to heaven.
Grandma: Well, you can’t be sure until you die. You have to do the best that you can and hope that it’s enough. [I know this sounds like the guy in the FAITH video series, but that’s what she said.]
Alyson: But I thought that you said that everybody would go to heaven.
Grandma: Yes, everybody will eventually go to heaven. First, they’ll go to a holding place where they’ll have the chance to learn about God and choose for him.
Alyson: And will they be able to choose against him?
Grandma: Yes, of course, because otherwise they wouldn’t have free will.
Alyson: So what will happen to the people who choose for
Grandma: They’ll go to heaven, of course.
Alyson: And the ones who choose against him?
Grandma: I don’t think they will choose against him, because everybody’s going to go to heaven.
Alyson: Why do you think that’s so?
Grandma: Because God loves us and he wouldn’t let any of us go to hell!
Wrong! If I’d have been there I’d have been yelling “wrong” at that point. Yes, God loves us, but that doesn’t mean that God will just ignore our sins. How do I know this? If we haven’t figured it out by reading Hosea and Joel, then maybe we can find it from Amos. Sandwiched in history between Joel’s day and that of Hosea, Amos brought a sharp word of warning to the nations around Israel.
“For three sins of Damascus, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.” Time after time, Amos speaks for God predicting the doom of the various nations surrounding Israel. Why were they doomed? For three sins, even for four. He doesn’t name their sins, but presumably they know about them.
Whoever taught my mother-in-law that sin doesn’t really matter did her a grave disservice. Yes, God loves us, and yes, he gives us every opportunity to escape the penalties of our sins, but God will punish sin in the end.
This lady’s theology is confused to a dangerous degree. But we have no excuse to live in that sort of confusion. Those who trivialize sin do so at their own peril and sometimes at the peril of others.
This summer, the annual Shakespeare festival at Southmoreland Park was Julius Caesar. Although it comes at the end of act two, the murder of Caesar is one of the high points of the play (which might explain why this isn’t considered one of the bard’s greatest works). Caesar, although shocked, is not completely surprised at the daggers that plunge into his body, one after the next. From Casca and Cinna and Cassius, he expected this sort of thing. But then Marcus Brutus, a man who is practically a son to Caesar, steps up and thrusts his blade into the great man. “Et tu, Brute?” Caesar says with this final breath. “You too, Brutus?” Julius Caesar couldn’t imagine the sort of betrayal that would be necessary for Brutus to join with these assassins.
In these opening chapters of Amos’ prophecies, we see a sort of inverse Brutus action going on. As Amos brings down the curses of God upon the various nations, we can imagine Israel, the apples of God’s eye, standing back and nodding their approval to the words that this shepherd-prophet utters.
Amos attacks Damascus, and the people of Israel approve. He brings down imprecations onto Gaza, and the people shout, “Amen!” He complains about the sins of Tyre, leading the Israelites to yell, “Preach it, brother!” Then he assails Edom. The people of the land perhaps squirm, thinking that these attacks are coming rather close to home. Still, they nod nervously. Next, Amos attacks another neighbor, another relative, Moab. The people smile and nod, but they’re not at peace. “For three sins of Judah,” Amos says. Now, he’s come as close as he can come. The people of the North might have their differences with the Southern Kingdom, but blood is thicker than water. And besides, they think they know where this is leading.
And then, the final dagger plunges in. “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.” Just as Caesar never imagined that the blade of Brutus would be turned against him, Israel didn’t expect that this rant against their neighboring nations would turn against God’s chosen people.
We are foolish and short-sighted when we believe that God will punish the sins of others and not notice ours. It’s all too easy to identify certain sins as the truly bad ones. Those are always the ones that we don’t struggle against. Take gambling for example. I have absolutely no problem with gambling. I’m never tempted when I drive past the various casinos along the river. That just isn’t an issue for me. It’s easy for me to point a finger at the weakness and self-indulgence of those who gamble away their mortgage payments and spend time they might have invested profitably somewhere else. Those people are sinners. But when I sit at this very computer and play hours of Madden Football, that’s simply a pastime. It’s an innocent diversion. Sure, I could be writing or exercising or reading or playing with my kids or any of a hundred more useful things, but still, playing a video game isn’t a sin. I mean, it’s not like I’m gambling, after all.
We should worry most about our sins when we don’t notice any. That’s when, like the people of Israel, we’re likely to incur God’s chastisement and never see it coming.
A couple of years ago, Alyson, my number-two daughter, enrolled in my Composition I online class. One of the nice perks of teaching at JCCC is that we get free tuition for ourselves and our dependents. I say free, but the tuition isn’t precisely free. Instead, we enroll in the classes and pay for them up front. We turn in a simple form indicating what classes are being taken. Then, when the student completes the course with a grade of C or better, the tuition is reimbursed. That’s as close to free as a person could really hope.
In order to take advantage of my free tuition for Alyson’s class, I had to not only fill out the appropriate form but ask my department head, John, to sign it. John, a retired Air Force officer who never married (or had kids) doesn’t always understand family issues.
When I took the form into his office and requested his signature, we fell into a conversation regarding teachers having their own children as students. After a couple of minutes of such talk, he observed, “It is sort of a conflict of interest, isn’t it?”
I wasn’t entirely sure of his point, since the chance for a teacher to inflate a single student’s grade-point average seemed awfully minimal. I guess my mystified look communicated my lack of understanding.
“I mean, the parent will want to get the tuition reimbursed, so there’s an incentive to ensure that the student receives at least a C.”
Knowing John for the past four years, I’m pretty certain that he meant this in the abstract and not as a suggestion that I’d do anything improper. But his lack of understanding struck me as amazing.
“John,” I objected. “Don’t you see that for me or any parent, the desire to get our kids a good education will far outweigh any desire to get a couple of hundred bucks in reimbursement?” By the time I left his office, I think he did understand.
In the end, of course, he had no call for concern. Alyson, as a Comp I student, got far more attention from her professor than any of that professor’s other students. She ultimately made an A in the course, but I am fairly certain that I put her through more to get that A than anybody else. I required revisions that I’d have never asked from others. I made notations on minor defects that I’d have let slide from other students. Alyson got the best of me as a teacher, but at times that probably seemed like she got the worst of me. It served her well when she breezed through Comp II with my colleague.
Just as Alyson was my chosen student who got not only the best of my instruction but the harshest of my correction, Israel was God’s chosen people who received the greatest of his bounty along with the most demanding of his commandments. Things that the Lord would have allowed to pass uncriticized from the Philistines or the Assyrians were not ignored when they came from the Israelites. They were his chosen people. “Therefore, I will punish you for all your sins.”
You and I are God’s chosen people. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when God asks more of us than he asks from unbelievers. He chastises those he loves. It’s hard sometimes being a chosen person. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.
There’s an old tale about a man in a flood, sitting on top of his house. He prays that God will rescue him. Shortly after that, a raft floats by and his neighbor offers to take him aboard. “No, I have faith that God will save me.” A few minutes later, a motorboat comes past. Again, the man refuses the offer of help. Finally as the water laps at his feet, a helicopter appears overhead. Once more he refuses to accept their assistance. “God will save me!” he cries out. A few minutes later, the man drowns. When he finds himself before God, the man, indignant, asks why God didn’t save him. God replies calmly, “I sent you a raft, a motorboat, and a helicopter. What did you expect?”
As the Labor Day weekend gives way to a new work week, most of America is heading to their jobs, but for millions of Floridians, Tuesday morning brings the first clear view of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Frances.
If you’ve had your television tuned to any of the various cable news channels over the weekend, however, you’ve already seen some of the devastation. Mostly you’ve watched foolhardy reporters standing out on a beach or alongside a roadway while all around them the rain fell sideways. Today, the insurance adjusters picked up where the reporters left off. The early estimates on the damages left in the path of the storm range from $2 billion to $10 billion. Even the low side of that estimate is an immense amount of money.
But what I find most intriguing about this hurricane is not the staggering amount of property damage but the fairly small number of storm-related deaths. At present, officials are blaming six deaths on the storm. Now six deaths is a lot if one of the dead happens to be close to you, but you have to admit that for a storm that blanketed the entire peninsula for thirty hours and destroyed a huge number of buildings and vehicles, six isn’t a bad number. We could easily see six people die in a bad auto accident during tomorrow’s rush hour. Why was the death toll so low? It’s simple. People heard the warnings, which began several days ahead of the storms, and most of them heeded those warnings. They headed inland and for more substantial structures. Unlike the man on top of his house, these folks took the warning signs seriously.
In today’s reading, Amos uses seven analogies to point out that God always gives warning signs for what he’s about to do. And then, in case you didn’t get it, he states his point very clearly: “Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” The message is simple. Listen to the prophets and live!
Today, we don’t live in a day of prophets, but God still provides warning signs for us. He provides us the means to save ourselves from a great deal of the trouble that we get ourselves into. Sometimes, however, we don’t listen. Other times we hear, but don’t like the message. It’s tempting to ignore the warning signs, but the people of Florida can offer a testimony to importance of listening to them today.
If I remember correctly, I mentioned my father’s reasoning for owning General Motors stock in this space a couple of weeks back. That information came back to me Sunday evening as I watched Sixty Minutes and a report about pornography. As the reporter shook his head in disbelief and disgust, he traced the ownership of a company that creates “adult” movies. This company, let’s call it XYZ Films, is owned by BCD Entertainment group, a subsidiary of EFG Media, which is a division of none other than General Motors. Where you might have thought that GM simply made money by selling cars and auto parts and loans and such, it turns out that they’re into all manner of other things including pornography. So if my family still owned that GM common stock, a small portion of the earnings on that investment would be coming from making and selling smutty movies. It gives a whole new meaning to “blue chip stocks,” doesn’t it?
Lest you think I’m just picking on General Motors here, it turns out that a large array of major corporations are making similar profits on similar products. Just about every hotel chain rakes in big bucks by offering pay-per-view porn on their TVs. The big telecommunications companies are making a big chunk of their profits from this off-color market as well. Most of the entertainment giants have diversified into “mature” offerings as well.
This sort of business and various other troubling trends have led to a surge in “socially conscious” investing. Significant slices of the investing public have decided to avoid investing in any company that supports animal testing or apartheid or alcohol or tobacco or whatever else the investor might find troubling. The problem is that you just can’t get completely away from this sort of stuff. Let’s say that you wanted to avoid any association with or profiting from pornography. Could you do it? You could avoid buying that GM stock, but can you also avoid all mutual funds that own GM? Can you make sure that your retirement plan doesn’t invest in GM? Can you avoid buying all products that GM produces? You couldn’t do that unless you’re ready to take up an existence that looks more like the Unabomber than a normal human being. Happily, I don’t think we have to go that far.
While we probably don’t have to investigate the origin of every box of Post Toasties that we buy at Price Chopper in order to live with a clear conscience, we can’t ignore the injustices and oppressions that do come to our attention. I don’t think that Amos’ warning about those in fortresses and their oppression is reserved just for those who live in castles.
Don’t take these words as a call to socialism or a rejection of private property. But it is hard to imagine that our Lord, who so often criticized the rich and powerful, wouldn’t want us to be very careful not to “hoard plunder and loot” in our fortresses. In a complex, modern economy, you can’t avoid all entanglements with those who do evil, but you can invest some effort to avoid giving comfort to them. This is one investment that will undoubtedly pay eternal dividends.
Several years ago, the JCCC basketball team generated a fair amount of interest and attention on campus when they went through their season with a stellar record. When they reached the regional tourney, they breezed through, hardly breaking a sweat. This qualified them for a trip to the national tournament. The campus email gave us breakdowns of games as they were played. The team won their first couple of games and found themselves in the big one, the championship contest, which they won.
Although I didn’t really follow this team—opting instead for the exploits of my beloved Jayhawks—I did have a couple of students who were playing. I therefore gained some vicarious pleasure watching as they advanced through their various stages of success. But something struck me odd in the week before the guys went to the national tournament. I talked with, Joel, one of those students, about the excitement of getting to go to the national tournament.
“Yeah,” Joel replied. “That’s pretty great.” He said this with all the enthusiasm of a grade school kid told that he’d be served liver at lunchtime. I couldn’t figure it out. Eventually, however, I did. In doing so, I learned a bit about junior college athletics.
Like their four-year counterparts, two-year schools are grouped by size and athletic intensity into groups. The NCAA has various levels for colleges, including Division I, II, and III, and some letter designations that break at least some of those divisions down further. That keeps Southwest Baptist University from having to play football against Mizzou every year as if they had a chance. It doesn’t do anything for poor KU, when they have to play Nebraska, but that’s a whole different matter. Essentially, though, when a team is in Division I or Division II, they stay in that division unless something very significant changes.
In the NJCAA (the J standing for Junior), they opt for a system that resembles the English soccer leagues. At the end of a season, one or more really great teams are moved up to the higher division. At the same time, one or more really miserable teams are moved down into the lower division. JCCC, it seems, had just been moved down into the lower division that year. And then they won the championship. Rather a hollow victory, eh? It’d be like winning the math contest in second grade after getting held back from third grade.
As Amos continues his words of warning, he explains that while there will be a remnant of Israel, it’ll be like the parts of an animal taken from the mouth of a lion. That’s hardly something for the shepherd to take pride in. But even more ridiculous is for the piece of an ear to think itself a fine specimen of livestock.
As I write these things, I can look at the wall above my desk and see an array of diplomas and awards, all suggesting my accomplishment. But I’m just a piece of an ear that Jesus rescued from the mouth of a ravening lion. Every point of pride I could boast could have and should have been better, less tainted by sin.
It’s rare when I find a college athlete demonstrating true wisdom, but Joel did that. He realized that, even winning the tournament, they were just the pieces left over. All he could do was play his best and try not to think about the lion.
In what has to rank as one of my favorite epithets in the entire Bible, Amos takes a shot not at the men of Israel but their women. “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan.” Have you ever noticed that when men are described using the names of animals, it’s a generally positive description, while when women are given the same treatment, it’s always a negative association. When Rocky Balboa was called “The Italian Stallion,” that was perfectly okay, but “the old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.” I could give other examples, but most of the others aren’t really appropriate for polite society. Hopefully you can employ your imagination to get my drift.
Let’s explore that metaphor for a moment. When Amos tags these women as “cows of Bashan,” what is he suggesting? Think about the cows you’ve known. First of all, cows are not particularly intelligent creatures. If there were an animal IQ scale, they’d score well above sheep, but all in all they’re pretty feeble-minded. Have you ever seen a cowboy movie featuring a trained cow? I don’t think so. Roy Rogers could train Trigger to do everything from playing dead to fixing biscuits in a Dutch oven, but he apparently didn’t have similar success with Elsie the Cow.
Besides their lack of intelligence, cows tend to do only about three things. First, they eat. They’re not terribly discriminating when they eat, but what they lack in discretion they make up for in quantity. Second, they stand around chewing their cud. Is there anything in this world that looks more stupid than a cow chewing its cud? Finally, they—how shall we say?—complete the digestive process.
Cows aren’t useful as transportation. They’re not bright enough to become a companion. No, a cow is only tolerated because it is meat on the hoof. It’ll also tend to produce calves and milk along the path to the butcher’s shop. But it’s really kind of pitiful to think of a cow as a creature whose highest ambition can be to turn into a nice prime rib someday.
Of course a cow is simply being a cow, right? There’s nothing wrong with a cow embracing its cow-ness and being the best cow it can be. What is a problem is when a person—certain women in this case—behave like cows. Cows we can excuse, but when people are simply eating and eliminating, oblivious to the fate in store for them, that’s a sad state of affairs.
This passage puts an accent on the dumbness of dumb animals. In verse three, Amos changes his metaphor from cows to fish, apparently, as he prophecies that these women will be taken out of the city with fish hooks. A trout with a hook in its mouth is one thing, but a person? That’s rather sad.
As I read these words, I don’t assume that Amos is a sexist. He has plenty of criticism for men as well. Instead, he’s lashing out at those who are oblivious to the harm they inflict on others and content living for themselves. I’m afraid that’s a role I inhabit now and again. You and I aren’t cows of Bashan, but we must be sure not to carelessly graze in that pasture. God still has a good supply of fish-hooks, I’m sure.
This summer, as I graded papers for my online course, and during the opening weeks of this fall semester, I’ve noticed a difference in my comments. Sarcasm seems to come much more easily than it used to. Let me give you an example. In the past, when a student turned in a “research” paper that demonstrated no evidence of research, I might have said something like, “Where did you get this information?” Today, however, I might be more inclined to write, “Did you know that 42.3% of statistics are made up on the spot?” When a student presents a 500-word essay in which the issue of capital punishment or abortion is summarily “solved,” I now skip my normal, serious comment about the complexity of the issue and the varying facts and viewpoints that must be considered. No, today I’ll write something like, “Highly educated people have been arguing constantly over this topic for more than fifty years, but you put it to bed in a page and a half. Why don’t you fix world hunger next?”
Irony, and its sub-category sarcasm, can be useful tools. Irony is, essentially, the art of saying the exact opposite of what you mean, assuming that your audience will understand why you’re saying these words. In a famous example, Jonathan Swift, a seventeenth-century British writer penned “A Modest Proposal.” In this essay, Swift suggested that the best way to deal with the crushing poverty in Ireland was to sell Irish babies in the meat-markets of London. Nobody with any sense believed that Swift truly wanted to make cannibals of the English. They understood that he truly meant to demonstrate that his people were treating the Irish no better than livestock.
In verse four of today’s reading, when Amos tells the people of Israel to go and sin, he is using irony. When I read this entire passage, I can just hear the biting tone of voice that he must have used. Then, after verses four and five, he returns to a non-ironic speech. In essence, he says, “I have tried everything to get you to turn back to me.” He has tried playing with the weather and interrupting their food supply. He’s tried sending a string of prophets. He’s tried speaking literally and speaking ironically. In fact, he’s tried or will try using just about every figure of speech or object lesson that you can imagine. And still the people don’t return to their God.
I’ve recently begun to understand just how magnificently God arranges the experiences of my life in order to communicate his message to me. He’ll use a finicky car or a crashed hard drive, a song in choir rehearsal or a comment from a friend. He’ll use, most frequently, words like these from Amos. Unlike these Israelites, nearly three thousand years ago, I have the indwelling Holy Spirit. You’d think that I’d get the message loud and clear, obeying every time. But that’s not how it turns out at all. Might God, in an effort to get his point across, resort to a sarcastic tone with me or with you? No, he’d never do that!
I’m an unabashed Kansas City Chiefs fans. Cut me and I bleed red. Okay, that’s not the most impressive example I could use, but you get the idea. As I write these words, I’m watching the third quarter of the Chief’s opener against the Broncos—the dreaded Broncos—in the reflection on a picture above my computer. At present, the Chiefs are trailing by a touchdown after a fairly dreadful first half.
If you listen to the TV announcers during a football game, which isn’t always a pleasant experience, then you know that one of the things that they like to talk about is “adjustments.” When the teams go into the locker room at half-time, the coaches, who the announcers love to proclaim as “geniuses,” are supposed to make adjustments. Having never been in a professional football locker room, I can only imagine what the conversations sound like, but I think I’ve listened to John Madden for long enough to have a good idea. Today, the Chief’s coaches probably said something like this:
“Okay, you guys on defense, that little running back is eating you up. He’s running past you and you’re just watching him. Stop it! Tackle him.” Then the offensive coach tells his guys. “You’ve been dropping those passes. Instead of that, catch them!” That’s almost certainly what they say.
Or, in the reflection on the wall, I just saw a better example. The right-handed Denver quarterback, about to be sacked, decided to throw a pass with his left hand. It was intercepted by the Chiefs, who then tied the game. When that quarterback trotted to the sideline, I’m pretty sure that the Broncos coach calmly took him aside and said, “Jake, that wasn’t the smartest thing you’ve ever done. Don’t do that again.”
Learning from bad things that happen is a key for success in just about any field of endeavor, but in football, the adjustments, the learning from mistakes, takes center stage. All through a game, coaches and players work together to make sure that they learn from their mistakes, so that when bad things happen once, they don’t happen again. For example, after the Chiefs gave up a long run for a touchdown to this midget runner from the Broncos, they made adjustments to make sure that wouldn’t happen again. Except that the guy just ran through the Chief’s line for a forty-seven-yard touchdown and a new Broncos lead. It looked like an impressive run in the reflection. You see, you just have to learn from your mistakes, but the Chiefs didn’t, I guess.
Amos points out a much higher stakes situation where people didn’t learn from bad mistakes. Read the awful things that happened in these verses and then see the Lord’s head shake when he says “yet you have not returned to me, declares the Lord,” three times. (And he said it twice in yesterday’s readings.)
Silly people, these Israelites, yet they’re not alone. How must God feel about my continued failures, about my repeated trips into the same areas of sin? I’m no better than those Israelites. My only claim to righteousness lies in Christ, who covers over my mistakes. I have not returned to God, so he sent Christ to bring me home. That’s what I call a home-field advantage.
Unfortunately, I finished writing my Monday entry before the end of the Chiefs game and watched the remainder of it, not in the reflection on my antique map of Italy, but face-to-screen from a comfy perch on my bed. As you’re probably aware if you’re a fan or have been within earshot of our whining, the Chiefs lost that game, another disappointment in Denver.
But at least this loss wasn’t like the old days. In the old days, when John Elway roamed the earth, no lead over a Broncos team was safe. If you were ahead 900 to nothing at halftime, that didn’t matter. Somehow, John Elway would manage to eke out the victory, 901 to 900, with three seconds left. The guy worked magic. He could run better than most quarterbacks. Just when you thought your super pass rusher had the guy in his jaws of death, Elway would take a step forward, evade the tackle, and then scamper downfield for an easy twenty yards. If your defense chased him all the way to the right side of the field and had him wedged between a three hundred pound lineman and the Gatorade cooler, he’d manage to fling the ball all the way across the field to hit a wide open receiver standing on the left sideline. They should have put a red cape and a big “S” on John Elway.
On Sunday night, the Chiefs simply played a solid Denver Broncos team on their home turf, but in the old days, you didn’t just play the Broncos. You played John Elway and the Broncos. Anybody who forgot that they were playing against John Elway did so at their own peril. It would be like forgetting that your business rival was Al Capone. That sort of forgetfulness is bound to come back to hurt you.
It’s important to remember who you’re dealing with in a lot of situations. In today’s reading, Amos reminds his audience, the people of Israel, who they’re dealing with: God. It’s really easy to say “God.” In fact, it’s so easy that the word has become a staple of casual swearing. Beyond that, we frequently say “God bless you” or “God bless America” or “God willing,” but do we typically remember just who is meant when we utter that little, one-syllable word?
“He who forms the mountains, creates the wind, and reveals his thoughts to man, he who turns dawn to darkness, and treads the high places of the earth—the Lord God Almighty is his name.”
God is not “the man upstairs” or “a higher power.” He’s not “the big guy” or “the goodness within us.” No, God made all things, whether they be as solid as a mountain or as transitory as a thought. He controls all things, from the smallest to the largest. Only a fool forgets who God is. I think that’s why the Proverbs tell us that the “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Go ahead and forget that you’re dealing with John Elway, but never forget who our God is!
Recently I found myself in a conversation with a college administrator (not from my school). As we caught up on old times, our attention ranged across a variety of people whom we’d both known for years. This one had gotten a job in Florida while that one took a position in Texas. But time and again, we found people who remained working as adjunct faculty at the school where we’d known them.
In case you’re not up on the college labor structure, you’re depriving yourself of a system of haves and have-nots. Full-time, tenure-track faculty members make a decent living, receive benefits, and enjoy marvelous job security. At present, I believe that I’d probably have to join Al Qaeda to lose my job. But a large number of classes are taught by adjunct or part-time faculty. These people are paid poorly—often less than half what full-timers get for the same class. They receive no benefits, and they have no assurance that they’ll have a job next semester. A large number of these people are newbies, sort of paying their dues as they get started in the profession. Many of these folks are still completing their education. They couldn’t land a full-time job yet, so they really don’t have room to complain. Another large segment is comprised of retirees and others who have no desire to teach a full load. These people enjoy teaching one or two classes each semester. Their pay is limited, but they never have to attend faculty meetings. The setup seems fair to all parties.
But a third, and significant, cadre of the adjunct ranks are the lifers. These are people who, for whatever reason, can’t get a full-time job. They’ve sold their academic birthright for a mess of pottage and find themselves teaching year after year in the same place, hoping against hope that they’ll eventually get a break and reach the majors. That’s what they hope, but the hope is almost never a realistic one. After a few years, these people become identified as lifelong adjuncts. There must be something wrong with them, the reasoning goes, if they haven’t gotten a full-time position yet. Since they couldn’t get it five years ago, we probably shouldn’t give it to them now.
One guy at JCCC, started teaching adjunct a year after I did. He got an interview a year before I did. He’s gotten one since. But by now it’s been a good ten years since he’s had a crack at the full-time ranks, and he’s put in a total of fifteen years as a part-timer. That’s nearly half a career! And the sad thing is that there’s really no hope. Once you’ve moved from the hopeful new guy status to the hopeless long-timer, you’re never going to make the jump.
Life can be like that. Regardless of the people who claim that we can achieve marvelous things if we just want it badly enough, many things have passed us by. I’m not going to get that job at Harvard. That possibility is gone. The professional baseball career is gone. The hope to be a men’s swimwear model is pretty well faded. I can’t bring those things back, despite all the good vibes I can generate.
Our sinfulness is the same way. “Fallen is Virgin Israel,” Amos says, but he might as well have substituted my name or yours. “Never to rise again . . . with no one to lift her up.” We’re hopeless, just as Israel was. We’re hopeless, except that we have someone to lift us up just as Israel discovered that she had someone to lift her up. My modeling career may be down for the count, but I have a hope. And that hope has a name.
Allow me to tell you about one of my former students, Rick. In reality, Rick isn’t one student but rather a composite of several types. Aside from that little detail, he’s completely real.
When he first walked into my composition class at the beginning of the semester, he meant well. He intended to do his best and earn a good grade. For the first week or so, he did all of the reading. When I required some brief writings, he finished them on time. All was going well in the realm of Rick. But then his old habits came out. He began to procrastinate. The temptation to go party with his friends rather than reading about the nine methods of development got the better of him. He wrote his first rough draft in about ten minutes, sitting outside the classroom. Rick’s ship was sinking.
His first ploy came about a third of the way through the semester. His first paper wound up as a C rather than an A. “Do you have anything we could do for extra credit?” he asked one day toward the end of the class period. Students are funny about extra credit. People who will resist spending a half hour studying for an announced quiz worth fifty points won’t bat an eye at spending two hours getting ten extra credit points. I don’t understand it.
Next, Rick became a bit belligerent. When his second paper wound up as a C-, he came to my office loaded for bear. “My girlfriend’s brother has this friend who is an English major, and he said that he didn’t think there was any way that this paper was a C-.”
“An English major, eh?” I noted. As I talked with him, I stood and sat on my desk so that my head was lined up perfectly with my diploma, the big one reading “Doctor of Philosophy—English.” I continued. “I’m sure this friend is a great guy, but that’s not really important today. Would you like me to explain why he’s wrong and I’m right?”
Failing in that bid, Rick resorted to the oldest scam a student can play. He turned in his research paper, an absolutely brilliant effort sporting a host of sources he couldn’t possibly have found. This clearly wasn’t his work. “Rick,” I asked. “Are you sure that you gave me the right paper?” He picked up my meaning and reclaimed the plagiarized paper, replacing it with something of his own a couple of days later.
Finally, after a good deal of work, Rick finished the course, earning a C for his efforts. On the day of the final, he asked me about his final grade. When I told him the mediocre news, he glanced around and said, “If I give you a hundred bucks will you change it to a B?” I hope I don’t need to say that I didn’t take him up on that.
What’s wrong with students that they’ll look for help anywhere except where they can find it, in themselves and their work? What’s wrong with people that they’ll look for help anywhere but in God? That’s Amos’ question of the day. Lest we cluck too much at the Israelites, let’s remember that there’s a bit of Rick in all of us.
As a student of literature, I have reached a number of conclusions about the classics of history. One work that I feel is terribly overrated is Voltaire’s short novel, Candide. Rather than truly being a novella in the normal sense, Candide is more a running joke, one that runs far longer than I’m willing to follow. The basic gist is this: Candide, the hero of the story, a rather feeble-minded fellow, believes that everything happens for the best in this best of all possible worlds. And then, as catastrophe after disaster afflicts him, he continues to proclaim that “this must be for the best, because everything turns out for the best in this best of all possible worlds.”
Voltaire, famous for his atheism and disdain for people of faith, used every page of Candide to insult his lead character and the godly people around him. With each inglorious episode in the tale, Voltaire deftly turns over stones and discovers the messages that he had himself hidden earlier in the day. He succeeds in making Candide and his entourage appear foolish, because he draws them so self-servingly. And so is it any surprise that in the end Voltaire’s own attitudes about life seem to be proven out as he appears to suggest that we should simply seek to survive life?
In the final tally, however, the joke, which Voltaire tried so hard to pin on those who believe that life is full of meaning and that providence has a hand in both our prosperity and our perils, winds up on the famous French author. After all, if Candide is able to retain his optimistic view of the world in the face of adversity, if he is able to still love his darling Cunegonde even when she has turned ugly and shrewish, then isn’t Candide the happy one?
An awful lot of literature these days seems to follow Voltaire’s lead, suggesting that “life stinks and then you die.” A fair number of movies—especially the sort that the critics go all ga-ga over—take this same attitude. A person, these artists suggest, would be a fool to believe that there’s anything positive, hopeful, or good in the world. The best you can hope for, they seem to say, is not to get run over by a bus.
There’s a lot of evidence to back this worldview, isn’t there? In today’s reading, Amos lists off a litany of the nastiest people on earth, those “who turn justice into bitterness” and so forth. Those people haven’t disappeared in our day. Amos seems ready to embrace the dark side, but then he turns his attitude in the end. He doesn’t prophesy that everything will be perfect, but he does offer hope. What more can we really ask for? Candide, despite Voltaire’s best efforts, seems to have gotten by on hope for years. Surely we, empowered not by Voltaire but by the Holy Spirit, can do at least as well.
A couple of years ago, I had the privilege of serving on a peer review board for a fellow faculty member, somebody from a different department. When this group met, I found myself the odd man out. The two music teachers and one art historian all worked for the same administrator, who will remain nameless. In all my days, I’ve never heard educated people badmouth a supervisor so mercilessly. “If only we could get rid of him,” they all agreed. “Life would be much, much better.”
Not long after that encounter, these teachers got their wish. In a realignment at the college, this man’s position was disbanded and his departments were spread to other areas. This awful administrator became a faculty member. Hopefully he’s better in that regard than he was as a supervisor.
As I look back on the gripes of those other members of that committee, however, I can’t help but think about what might have happened. Did they know, without a doubt, that their new boss would be better than the old boss. In this situation, they seemed ready to take that risk, but often we find that when the old, lousy boss is removed, he is replaced by the new, lousier boss.
I’m reminded of this small-scale truth of human nature when I see it working on a larger scale. How many revolutions can we point to across the ages when the “cure” hasn’t wound up being at least as bad as the “disease.” The American Revolution has, by most accounts, turned out reasonably well, but most of the others haven’t fared as neatly. In Haiti, slaves revolted and drove out the detested French colonizers. Certainly the French weren’t exactly benefactors, but few people would argue that the Haitians are a lot better off now than they were before. In France, the revolution quickly gave way to mob rule and then the endless wars of Napoleon. In Russia, the tyranny of the Czar was replaced by the tyranny of the communists. In Afghanistan, the Soviet oppressors were driven out only to give way to the Taliban oppressors. And I’m afraid that the Saddam Hussein reign of terror in Iraq has only been replaced by a different reign of terror.
We have sayings for this sort of thing. “Out of the frying pan and into the fire” or, in Amos’ words, “Run away from the lion only to meet a bear.” Specifically, Amos ridicules those who look to the Day of the Lord as their time of hope. His point is that the Day of the Lord will sweep away all the sinners, including the self-satisfied ones who believe that Day to be their salvation.
The only way for us to be certain that the “cure” is not worse than the “disease” is when we’re thoroughly inoculated. That’s the work that Jesus did for us. Although the Day of the Lord will be a dark day, it is not a day that the Christian needs to fear. Still, it hardly seems like the way to fix things.
When Penny and I were first dating, we attended a church pastored by an energetic and productive young pastor, whom I’ll call Andrew. This fellow took a sleepy congregation of about eighty and quickly transformed it into a bustling community at least twice that size. Before his pastorate, the church’s members could pretty well pick any seat they wanted, but under his leadership, the sanctuary filled up and rows of folding chairs stretched across the back. Things were happening on this man’s watch.
But this wasn’t just a matter of attendance. Baptisms, which had been limited largely to the few kids who were coming of age each year, suddenly mushroomed. Filling the fount became more than a twice-a-year affair. Worship became more exciting and diverse. People actually looked forward to the services. The level of preaching rose greatly because this was a guy who actually read and thought about matters theological. In a denomination glutted with liberal mish-mash, this guy was reading Spurgeon and preaching the gospel of Jesus Christ. I remember one sermon in which he talked of us as “partners with the Spirit.” “Partners with the Spirit!” What a concept. I loved that idea, and I kept going back to it for months after I first heard it. The fact that I can remember it, probably twenty-five years after I heard it, is a fairly remarkable thing all by itself.
Accompanying these signs of growth, we saw money rolling into the church. We saw people discovering areas of ministry and performing work that they had never considered before. We were a church rolling on to something great.
Shortly after Penny and I were married, however, Andrew abruptly brought an end to all these good things. He came home one day, confronted his wife and the mother of his three children, and said, “I’m tired of being Mr. Nice Guy.” It’ll probably not surprise you to learn that Andrew already had someone on the side. He was living a lie in his marriage and, apparently, in his church. In a matter of days the whole thing unraveled. In a matter of months, all of the good energy that had been rolling about that church seemed to dissipate and devolve into turf battles and self-involvement.
I’m not sharing Andrew’s story to trash the guy. God can take care of that as he sees fit. But I am fairly confident that for some time, before that day when he pulled the rug out from under his family, Andrew knew that he wasn’t living the words that he was preaching. For some time, he was praying publicly to a God against whom he was privately in rebellion. Although not to his degree, I’ve been there too.
This is the sort of heart to whom Amos speaks, saying “I hate, I despise your religious feasts.” He hates our prayers when our hearts aren’t his. He hates our tithes when they’re given to impress rather than out of love. He hates seeing us stand and sing in church when our hearts are backsliding and backbiting.
When God calls for “justice to roll on like a river,” he means it. He wants our hearts, our minds, our whole selves—and not just our religious behaviors—aimed toward him. When we do that, justice will roll on like a river, unstoppable.
My friend Marilyn lives in Perfect Village. That’s really Prairie Village, Kansas, but Marilyn likes to call it perfect. Marilyn isn’t from Perfect Village. No, she grew up in Mexico, Missouri, which is nowhere near perfect. She married a guy who’s pretty close to perfect and had two sons who are about as near perfect as a parent could hope for, but Marilyn never let all of that go to her head. She never started thinking that she was perfect or that life was perfect.
I think what drives Marilyn so crazy about the people in Perfect Village is how they seem to believe that life really can be perfect. They surround themselves with perfection. They buy the perfect house and maintain the perfect lawn. They scour Consumer Reports to buy the perfect car, the ultimate combination of prestige and reliability. They work out each and every day, always careful to put their heart rate into the perfect target range for maximum cardio-vascular health. They make sure that their kids have the best—the best school, best piano teachers, best clothes, and best soccer coaches. These folks attempt to ring their lives with walls and moats of financial security to ensure that nothing bad can ever get them. In short, they do their best to live perfect lives in their perfect town. Marilyn watches them and, even though she does some of the same things that they do, their attitudes and assumptions drive her batty.
Marilyn, although she still resides in Perfect Village, doesn’t believe in it anymore. Probably she never did. A couple of years ago, her husband, who ran the family’s large construction business, had a huge amount of resources tied up in a major project. As they typically did, his company did their work well and on time, but this time, something strange happened. The customer didn’t pay. Weeks turned into months, and promises went unfulfilled. Suddenly, Marilyn’s husband found his third-generation family business tottering on the brink of bankruptcy due to one deadbeat customer. They tottered on that brink and then into it. Life was nowhere near perfect that year.
Happily, Marilyn did not find her life in utter shambles. Although the family business lay in ruins, the family remained rock steady. The income took a hit, but her husband, a talented and devoted construction supervisor, easily found work that kept the bills paid. And they still had each other. Still, life was not perfect. Marilyn, as wise a person as I know, had understood the vulnerability of life before this fiasco, but now she saw it even more clearly. Had she expected life to remain perfect, Marilyn would probably have been shattered by these events.
A lot of us run the risk of being “complacent in Zion” or “secure on Mount Samaria.” We have life pretty well in hand and aim to insulate ourselves into our cocoon of perfection. Now there’s nothing wrong with living the best and most secure lives that we can, but there is a problem with having faith in your security and your perfect life rather than having faith in God.
Life, we must remember, will never be perfect. But God has always been and will always be perfect. We will live in Perfect Village—but not on this earth.
My mind drifts most mornings, as I drive to school, with the news from the radio. It seems that every day another car bomb has exploded in Baghdad, usually near a place where men are lining up to get jobs as Iraqi security forces. Most every day, it seems, another foreign contractor has been abducted, while one who was abducted earlier is beheaded, the actual “execution” making prime video for the people at Al Jazeera. I heard recently that insurgents attack either Americans or cooperative Iraqis somewhere between fifty and eighty times each day.
It’s enough to make the hindsighters among us stand around criticizing everything, and it gives even those most supportive of the military action cause to wonder if there haven’t been terrible miscalculations. But that’s not where my mind drifts. My mind drifts to Israel and Judah and to some little town just outside of Baghdad. I want to imagine a woman, working in her home, in one of those places. Whether five hundred years before Christ or fourteen hundred after Muhammad, this woman poses no threat to anyone. She has offended no one. She’s just doing what traditional woman have done for thousands of years, trying to get through the various jobs that each day presents her to do.
And so what greeted this woman one fine spring morning? If she’s that woman outside of Baghdad, she was probably awakened in the night by the sight and sound of “shock and awe.” The sky was ripped by the sounds of aircraft racing to and from bombing missions, and, a few days, later, the air was filled with the smell of diesel exhaust as tanks and Humvees rolled by. The other women would have experienced a different set of stimuli, but the overall effect would have been the same as the Assyrian or the Babylonian army marched into sight. What this meant was that life as she knew it would be drastically changing.
Amos talks about God raising up a nation against Israel. That nation was Assyria. Later he raised up Babylon against both Assyria and Judah. A few years after that, he raised up Persia to take down the Babylonians. Where my mind drifts is to wonder if we’re not in that sort of a situation right now. Did God raise up the United States to come against Saddam Hussein’s Iraq? For that woman, in the town outside Baghdad, the invasion must have seemed like the wrath of God coming up the Tigris and Euphrates valleys. I don’t know if that’s the case or not, although I can’t think of very many leaders who deserved getting thumped more than Saddam. My point, though, is that nations whom God raises up need to be careful.
God used Israel to punish the Canaanites. The Assyrians punished Israel. Babylon then punished Assyria (and Judah). Persia punished Babylon. Eventually Persia was overrun by Alexander the Great’s Greeks, although we have no biblical warrant to claim that as divinely ordained. The punisher, it seems, winds up being the punished before long.
What does that mean for you and me? I’m not entirely sure. However, when I hear about car bombs exploding in Baghdad, I can be sure that national and personal humility won’t do us any harm.
It was just a few months after my sixteenth birthday that I ran my first stoplight. I was driving home from the bowling alley that day, heading north on Crysler Avenue in Independence. The light at 35th Street turned yellow when I was still quite a ways up the road. I should have slowed down. I knew I should have slowed down. But I didn’t. I just kept going. Then, just as the car reached the intersection itself, the light went red. I remember blazing on through, wincing as I did it, and saying, “I hope there are no cops here.”
Have you noticed, these days, that a red light no longer means stop. It used to mean stop, and I, in my old fashioned way, still treat it as meaning stop, but it apparently doesn’t. No, it seems that today a red light means that two or maybe three more cars should go through the intersection. I suppose all those drivers are murmuring, “I hope there are no cops here,” to themselves.
Of course there were cops there that morning. As I hurtled through the intersection, I saw the patrol car sitting there in the right turn lane. He wouldn’t even have go out of his way to come after me. I continued down Crysler to Oak Ridge Road, the first left after the light. There I turned and took the first right on Shady Bend and then quickly turned into our driveway. As I got out of my car, the police car pulled in behind me.
Not only did I get to experience receiving a ticket that morning, but both of my parents—separately, no less—pulled up in front of the house while the officer was writing me up. I just knew that the neighbors were all peering out of their windows as well.
If I remember correctly, the ticket ran me about $30. It might as well have been $3,000 considering how broke I was in those days. My dad wound up being pretty decent about the whole deal, but he did make sure to torture me a bit.
That morning, when I ran that stoplight, I got exactly what I deserved. I’d love to say that this was my last flirtation with a red light, but that wouldn’t be true. In fact, I’ve been calculating some figures and I’ve discovered that if I always got the ticket I really deserved for running lights or speeding—even though I’m a pretty careful driver—then I’d be bankrupt. About a month ago, I zoned off and just drove right through a red light. By all rights, I should have smashed up my car, gone to the hospital, and gotten a “reckless and heedless” citation, but nothing bad happened.
Happily, we don’t get what we deserve in life. Sometimes we’re just lucky. Other times God protects us or he holds back his punishment. Amos points out two cases of God’s forbearance today. “How can Jacob survive? He is so small?” How could you or I survive if God were to allow us to get just what we deserve? Amos had to continue seeking for God’s forbearance, but we have been granted it permanently through the blood of Christ. Do we get what we deserve? No, but Jesus did.
The great British mystery writer Agatha Christie created two unforgettable and quite distinct characters in her distinguished career. Miss Jane Marple, the greatest senior citizen detective in history stands as one of these characters, but the one who has endeared himself to me is the absurd Belgian expatriate, Hercule Poirot. In recent months, Penny and I have been indulging in film versions of the various Poirot stories. Actor David Suchet brings the waddling Belgian to life in all his fastidiousness and vanity. Poirot’s self-confidence would be intolerable if he were not always correct, but he always manages to engage “the little grey cells” and winnow the important from the unimportant, reaching the truth of whatever crime is at hand.
A stock character in many detective novels is the disbelieving police detective. Whether the hero is Sherlock Holmes, Jane Marple, Lord Peter Wimsey, or Poirot, there always seems to be an official investigator who serves as an antagonist. For years, Holmes struggled against and invariably outwitted the hapless Inspector LaStrade. For Poirot, the character is Inspector Japp. Much to his credit, however, Japp is not nearly as much an obstacle as these characters tend to be. Rather than impeding Poirot’s work, he seems to stand back and marvel at the conclusions that the little man draws. Without a doubt, Inspector Japp is the brightest of these official antagonists that I’ve encountered in detective fiction.
In tonight’s film, Poirot warned the officials not to arrest the dead woman’s husband, despite his apparent guilt. In their rush to judgment, they naturally then arrested an altogether wrong person, only to have their case overthrown by the shrewd detective work of Poirot. If only everyone would listen to Poirot, the world would be a much more orderly place.
Although I’m sure that the shepherd Amos took not nearly so much care in his personal grooming as does Poirot, these two characters have some common traits. Like Poirot, Amos would hold up a plumb line to human behavior in order to note where it is wanting. And like Poirot, when Amos speaks the truth, he encounters many who resist his message.
In the happy literary worlds that Agatha Christie creates, these resisting ears eventually do come around. The guilty are found out, normally in the most dramatic possible manner. The innocent go free. All is well in the end.
In the real world inhabited by Amos—or by us—the outcome is rarely so tidy. Amos, like many of the prophets suffered a torturous fate. He spoke the truth, yet no one listened. No one listened, because they didn’t want to hear the message that he brought.
I’m afraid there’s a bit of Inspector Japp or even Inspector LaStrade in me. When God’s words don’t conform with my view of the world, I find them easy to push aside. I resist the great detective’s words, even though in my heart I know that they’re true.
In the end, I know that, just like Poirot, God’s words will be shown to be true. Like the resisting detectives, I could save myself a lot of trouble simply going along with him. So why don’t I do it? That’s an even deeper mystery than Poirot can fathom.
Penny and I were eating at a restaurant a few weeks ago. I ordered something healthy, like chicken fried steak slathered in white gravy, while she went really adventurous and ordered a burger of some sort. Perhaps I’m being unfair. That burger might have had Colby cheese or something similarly exotic.
When the food arrived, Penny and I both surveyed our plates with great expectation. My food looked terrific. I based that conclusion on the thickness of the gravy on the meat. This was no runny stuff that would fall off onto the plate. No, this was gravy with heart. After I assured myself of the plentitude of pheromones about to be released as I ate this mound ‘o food, I allowed my eyes to scan across the table to Penny’s plate.
Her burger looked properly cooked. The bun appeared to be fresh. The fries had that lovely golden brown cast that suggests good eating. But then I noticed the lettuce and tomato that lay to the side of the plate. There was nothing wrong with the lettuce, but the tomato was simply not right. Its color, far from the robust orange-red that you would hope for, had a yellowish-pinkish look to it. The skin possessed some small bit of color, but the meat was nearly white.
“That’s a sad looking slice of tomato,” I noted.
Penny lifted the slice up with her fork, as if the other side might look better. “Yes it is,” she agreed.
Now I’m not the tomato connoisseur in our family. I like tomatoes in things, but I don’t much like tomatoes by themselves. Give me salsa or marinara sauce, but if you put tomatoes on my tacos or my burger, I’ll pick them off. If you offer me a BLT, I’ll opt for just a BL. I’m just not a tomato guy, so for me to notice the sorry state of this vegetable required it to be truly bad.
If a restaurant serves a bleached-out tomato in January, you can understand it. I’m not sure where you’ll find tomatoes in season in January, but it’s not around here. In fact, all through the spring and summer, tomato lovers around Kansas City gaze longingly at their plants, waiting impatiently for those little globes of green to turn red. But the time is not ripe. And then, when the time is ripe—say in mid July—the ripe tomatoes flow from the plants in such quantities that virtually everybody is trying to give them away. So how, in late summer, could this restaurant be serving some sorry hot-house tomato?
Typically, we think of the day of ripeness as a good time, but in Amos’ metaphor, it’s a time of harvest, and people are the crop. God doesn’t have infinite patience. Like green tomatoes, he may allow fruit to hang on the vine for what seems an endless time, but when the fruit becomes ripe, he will not hesitate. In this passage, his fury is aimed most at those who mistreat the poor and powerless. Surely he expects at least as much from the Christian today as he expected of Israel 2,800 years ago. The time may soon be ripe. Let’s make sure all is in order with our fruit when the gardener comes to harvest.
I’m teaching an Introduction to Fiction course this semester for the first time ever. I’ve done a few literature classes in the past, but this is the first one in a number of years. The results are, to my reckoning, rather illuminating—or rather discouraging or both. Let’s take the strange case of “Young Goodman Brown” as an illustration.
In Hawthorne’s fine story, the hero of the story, Goodman Brown, heads off to the woods, apparently to give his soul to the devil. What he encounters there changes him forever. He sees that not only is he headed off for this midnight diabolical rendezvous, but that virtually everybody whom he respects, from the esteemed elders of his church down to his own wife, Faith, is headed for the woods as well. At the height of the crisis in the woods, Brown sees his wife going over to the devil’s party. At this point, he cries out, “I’ve lost my Faith!” Subtle, eh? After returning from the woods that night, Brown is a changed man. He becomes a sullen and suspicious man until his dying day.
When we discussed this story in class, I found it astounding how some of the simplest allusions that Hawthorne had dropped into its pages in order to echo the words of scripture and theology were utterly missed by my students. Even that heartfelt cry of “I’ve lost my Faith” only meant “I’ve lost my wife” to most of these kids.
Young Goodman Brown suffered from a lack of understanding of God’s Word. As I read the story, it deals with a man’s disillusionment as he discovers the sinfulness of those around him. He himself is headed to the woods—the woods of sin presumably—but he seems surprised to find other visitors there, such as his old Sunday School teacher. Once Brown sees that virtually everybody else is a sinner, he can’t look them in the eye. He knows his own sins, but apparently he had hoped that others wouldn’t be as susceptible to temptation as he was.
My students similarly suffer from a lack of understanding. They perceive the Gospel as a legalistic route, utterly away from the woods, that some sanctimonious fools have decreed as the path to God. In reality, of course, the Word teaches throughout that we are all people of the forest, freed from that dark place only by the grace of God and the sacrifice of Jesus.
Amos warns us of a day when God will send a famine, “not a famine of food or a thirst for water, but a famine of hearing the words of the Lord.” That famine is starving a good number of the students in my classroom. (Unfortunately, I’m given very limited opportunity to feed them myself.) It’s starving a huge swath of the nation’s population. It’s even starving some within the church. People are ‘searching for the word of the Lord, but they will not find it,’ Amos tells us. What can we do but invite them to sup with us?
It’s been about ten years ago, but I used to play basketball every Thursday evening for a couple of hours. Let’s be totally clear about my skills as a basketball player. When I went out for the team in eighth grade, the coach invented a new cut date just for me. He watched me walk across the court and thought to himself, “He’s cut.” I am terrible at basketball. However, I’m not irredeemably terrible. With practice and work, I did get better across a year or so of Thursday evenings. I actually progressed from hopelessly awful to marginally terrible. Had I stuck with it, I’m fairly sure that I could have eventually found myself moving up to almost mediocre.
After we played together for a year or so, several of us conspired together to join a community three-on-three league. Now let’s be realistic. Three of the guys were on the team because they had some reasonable basketball ability. One guy was slightly better than mediocre. And I was there to give people a breather and to pay part of the team fee. At least we all went into that relationship with our eyes open.
One night, though, only three of us showed up. One guy was hurt and another was out of town, so I found myself playing the entire game, something that neither my conditioning nor my talent prepared me for. When the game began, we quickly figured out who was covering whom. My assignment looked like an NBA center to me. I decided to call him Wilt, after Wilt Chamberlain. Wilt was very tall and very thin. I later found out that he’d played college ball at Southeast Missouri State before hurting a knee. But when the guys told me to cover Wilt, I looked back at them slack-jawed.
“What am I supposed to do with him?” I asked.
Our team leader looked me square in the eye. “Just stay with him. Don’t let him get an open shot. Don’t let him move cleanly. Block him out for rebounds. Do what you’d do against anybody!”
So that’s what I did. For the duration of the game, I ran Wilt all over that court. When we had the ball, I made him follow me all over that floor. When they had the ball, Wilt could never rest. He scored his share of points and even dunked one over me, but I felt like I’d helped us keep the game close by my actions.
When it was over, Wilt came over to me. “Good game, man,” he said, shaking my hand. “I couldn’t ever get away from you.” That had to be the pinnacle of my basketball career.
Today, Amos describes something far more terrible and far more inescapable than my basketball defense. The wrath of God that he details will hunt sinners down regardless of their attempts to escape. He fixes his eyes upon the wicked and they will not find refuge anywhere. The only hope, it seems, is surrender. We can all stand to surrender ourselves more fully to the inexorable, inescapable sovereignty of God.
Oh, all powerful, I who am the very scum of the earth, the acme of all that is vile, do grovel at your feet in the attitude of humility.
Apparently, sometime in the 1930s, when my father belonged to the Alpha Sigma Phi fraternity at the University of Missouri, he learned this lovely bit of oratory. He taught it to each of his kids along the way of our growing up, normally inflicting it on us when we were either asking him for something or in extra special trouble. “Oh, all powerful,” he’d bellow, demonstrating how we were to abase ourselves. “Come on! Let’s hear you say it!”
That’s one bit of lore that I have neglected to pass on to my own children. Somehow, though, I can’t imagine them ever referring to me as “all powerful.” Certainly they’d be no better at reciting these words with a straight face than was I.
I’ve been thinking about power lately as I’ve watched four hurricanes slam into various parts of Florida over the past six weeks. As impressive as a good Midwestern thunderstorm or a category five tornado might be, a hurricane is a true work to inspire awe. When you see the power of hundred-plus mile per hour winds and the immense volumes of water that these storms inflict on the coastal towns, you just have to stand back and say, “Wow!”
Although I’ve never experienced a hurricane first-hand, I have seen some pretty dramatic weather in my life. I recall the effects of the Kansas City floods of 1977, especially as they manifested themselves in my backyard. My back-door neighbor, like us, backed up to a creek. Our house, however, sat sufficiently higher that we didn’t suffer from the flood. Tony’s house, though, received the brunt. I looked out my back windows and saw a veritable river flowing across Tony’s sideyard. When I called Tony’s house, he was in the basement. “Yeah, I’m standing by the sliding glass door in the basement,” he explained. “The water outside is up to my knee.” Happily, that sliding door had good seals. Tony’s basement experienced just a bit of a water that night. The next day, he and I went around the neighborhood, examining the destruction that the storm had left in its wake. We found all manner of things in the creek bed, heavy things that the water had picked up in some yard upstream and carried along like a plaything.
As awesome as nature can be at its most dramatic, it only provides the slightest glimpse of the all-powerful nature of God. Amos, today, reminds us of the awesome power of God, calling him “he who touches the earth and it melts.”
Alexander Pope tells us that “fools rush in where angels fear to tread.” Why is that? I have to believe that the angels know something that the fools don’t. We can foolishly discount the awesome power of God just as some people will foolishly discount the power of a hurricane or a flood-level stream. Such fools, however, don’t often have to wait long to have their foolishness proven. Better not to be a fool in the first place, I’d argue.
I tend to be a sort of delayed optimist. When something bad happens, I’ll spend a bit of time groaning over the downside and feeling sorry for myself, but it rarely lasts. In the end, I find the silver linings of these dark clouds. Let me give you an example.
Back in the spring, a huge branch broke free in one of the fifty-year-old trees in my yard. This monstrosity landed on the clothesline I’d just strung, smashed an eight-foot stretch of chain-link fence, and made a huge mess. After walking out to look at this “lemon” for a few minutes, I made a batch of lemonade. “Well, it’s a mess, but it could have been worse,” I told myself. “It could have all gone over in the neighbor’s yards, which would have been a great deal more work and would have required that I clean it up immediately. And it didn’t really hurt anything, aside from the fence. What can the top rail of a fence cost to replace? Had it fallen more toward the middle of the yard, it would have taken out the cable line. Now that would have been a crisis. And it could easily have smashed up the trampoline. Those things aren’t cheap. No, this could have been a lot worse.”
This mess clearly called for powers greater than my bow saw. I drove to Smith Brother’s Hardware and rented a chainsaw. After topping the saw off with oil and gas, I started it, noticing, as I pulled the starter, that the cord was heavily frayed. “I’d better keep it going, since it’ll probably break the next time I pull it,” I noted. After making a couple of cuts, I accidentally let the engine stop. Sure enough, the next pull on the cord snapped it off in my hand and left the saw useless. I’d cut just enough to get the bough off of the neighbor’s fence and into my yard. Taking the saw back to the store, I happily took my money back. “What a deal,” I marveled. “I got to use the saw for free long enough to do what absolutely had to be done.”
In the end, I borrowed a friend’s chainsaw to finish up the chore. You’d be surprised how big a pile of firewood you can get from one major branch of one old tree. You’d be surprised how easily a chain-link fence can be fixed. You’d be surprised how readily a stretched out clothes line can be put right. Aside from breaking a sweat, there wasn’t any downside to the great limb fiasco of 2004—and I needed the exercise anyway.
God often hides blessings in the middle of trials and troubles. When you read Amos’ words for today, it’s easy enough to miss the important little nugget of hope that he lays among the lines. In the midst of all the gloom and doom, amid the promise of devastation, we find a simple little promise: “yet I will not totally destroy the house of Jacob.”
In the midst of the carnage of the Day of the Lord, we find a great promise. When the house of Jacob is preserved, we reap a wonderful harvest. Paul Simon and Billy Crystal wouldn’t be on this planet. But seriously, we’d have enjoyed none of the contributions of the Jewish people had God utterly destroyed Jacob. Most significantly, we’d have had to look elsewhere for our Messiah. But God placed a promise of hope in the midst of all that destruction. That’s enough to make me optimistic.
In the summer of 1999, I visited Israel. Although that’s only five years ago, the nation was a difference place than it is today. The first intifada had long receded into memory. The Oslo Peace Accord seemed to be working at bringing about tranquility between the Israelis and the Palestinians. The second intifada had not yet kicked up its ugly parade of suicide bombings and ambushes.
Still, the land seemed a very tense place. Roadblocks stopped all the cars and buses traveling between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Young Israeli men—boys almost—walked the streets carrying assault rifles, ready to protect their nation wherever the need arose.
One day, when we had some free time in Jerusalem, I ventured with Emily and Alyson down to the starting point of the Via Dolorosa, deep in the Arab Quarter. As we walked those winding, narrow streets, I heard a loud, angry-sounding voice blaring from a loudspeaker in a nearby mosque. I had no idea of what these words—Arabic words, presumably—were saying, but the tone sounded like one of absolute rage. It occurred to me that this voice could be calling all the hotheads of the city to kill Jews or Americans or whoever. It occurred to me that if something severe came down, I’d have a long and dangerous run from here to the relative safety of Christ Church in the southwest corner of the old city. As it turned out, this voice on the loudspeaker was apparently announcing nothing more significant than a bake sale. The speaker was probably the Muslim equivalent of a fired-up Baptist preacher.
As you travel around Israel, you can see the evidence of the violence of the past. On the difficult uphill road leading from Tel Aviv to Jerusalem, you can still view the burned-out hulks of military vehicles—trucks and armored cars—that fell victim to Arab attacks during the 1948 war of independence. The people of the land leave those wrecks there that they might not forget. Another powerful reminder stands on the west side of the city in the Yad Vashem holocaust memorial and museum. There, Israelis, visiting Jews, and gaping Gentiles come to remember a time of horrific cruelty. With these images in the backs of their minds, new Israeli soldiers visit the mountaintop fortress of Masada to be sworn into the military. “Masada must not fall again,” they recite in their oath of service. “Never again” is a watchword in the land of Israel.
As resolved as the people of Israel are to see to it that the brutality of the past is not repeated, this battle is won before they join it. As we read these final words of Amos today, we find a promise of hope. Written in a day before the nation had been taken off to exile, Amos relays a promise of restoration and eternal protection. Israel is “never again to be uprooted from the land I have given them.”
Despite the best efforts of evil men, Israel will be defended. Despite the best efforts of all the forces of evil in the universe, the church of Jesus Christ will persist. Despite all efforts to the contrary, God’s will shall be done. Some people find in Amos a message of wrath, but these people have not paid attention to these final verses.
The promise of God is sure, for Israel and for you and me.
Tune My Heart is primarily an aid to the devotional life of its author, Mark Browning, who holds the copyright for this material. It is provided online in hopes that some will find it edifying. All contents, unless otherwise noted, may be redistributed freely provided that you give credit for its origin and do not charge anything.