These fifty devotions were written in the spring of 2005. Click on a chapter number to jump to the first devotion for that chapter.
1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 -- [Devotions Archive]
It might be one of the sillier movies ever made, but I can’t take my eyes off of it every time I catch this title on TV. The movie? Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade. In this film, Harrison’s Ford’s Indiana Jones character gets to bop around the world, joust on motorcycles, accidentally burn down a castle full of Nazis, meet Hitler, and experience all manner of other adventures.
Not only do we find out that Jones’ father has maintained a lifelong obsession with the Holy Grail, but that this father is none other than Sean Connery. I guess when your dad is 007, you’re likely to become a bit of an over-achiever.
In true Indiana Jones fashion, we discover that the Nazis have taken an unhealthy interest in the finding of the Holy Grail. If they can’t have the Ark of the Covenant, I suppose they reason, then why not go after the cup of Christ? Through a series of betrayals, tricks, and twists, the intrepid explorer, his inexplicably Scottish father, and a bevy of pro-Nazi thugs find themselves in a hidden locale that looks remarkably like the Jordanian city of Petra. Of course, you don’t simply walk into one of these ancient ruins and collect the treasure. No, as anyone who ever saw Raiders of the Lost Ark already knows, the people who built these places filled them with more booby traps than PBS has fundraising shows. In order for Indiana Jones to reach the chapel where the Holy Grail resides, he must pass through a series of perilous tests, each one more threatening than the last. In the end, he finds himself entering a candle-lit room where no one has stood for some 800 years.
Okay, I exaggerate. I say that no one has stood there, but I should have said that no one new has stood there. Inside this little chapel, Jones discovers a rather elderly Crusader knight keeping watch over the cup with which Jesus shared the Last Supper with his disciples. Apparently, by not going out into the sun for all those centuries, this fellow managed to slow down the aging process pretty radically. He looks to be about seventy-five, I suppose, as he tries to wield his two-hand sword. Hey, if I can swing a sword that well when I’m 400, let alone 800, then I’ll be quite happy.
In the movie, there’s no comment made on this guy’s longevity or on the length of his guard duty. According to the legend, he is the third of three brothers. The other two went back to civilization, leaving him to guard the Grail. I guess they were supposed to relieve him after 150 years or so; I’m not sure. Now I know this is just a movie, but I find something marvelous about the image of a guy standing guard for 800 years. There are plenty of people—myself included at times—who can’t remain committed to a goal for 800 minutes. But 800 years is incredible. It’s just a movie, but it’s still a great idea.
I think of this today as I read Paul’s opening words in Ephesians: “To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus.” Paul had a gift for encouragement, I think, but I wouldn’t believe him to be a liar. I must assume that these Ephesian saints were indeed faithful. What better description could we have applied to us than faithful? What better sound than to hear the Lord call us a “good and faithful servant.” I’m not sure that I qualify right now. Hopefully it won’t take 800 years to get there.
In 1988, I finished an M.A. in English. When I started that degree program I didn’t have a particularly realistic plan ahead of me. I think it went something like this: go to school, earn the degree, publish a string of blockbuster novels. Clearly, that plan didn’t quite work out as I had envisioned. Since there was not even a single blockbuster novel on the horizon when I took my degree, I set my sights on some other sort of gainful employment. The only thing that presented itself readily was teaching composition around the city, a class here and two classes there, in hopes of cobbling together an income. I recall walking into an office at Johnson County Community College having taught a grand total of one course in my entire life. Dr. Lamb hired me to teach two classes that term. School year and summers, I’ve been at JCCC ever since, seventeen years all told. After four years as a part-timer, I managed to wrangle a full-time position. All in all, things have worked out quite satisfactorily.
One year after beginning my gig at JCCC, Dr. Lamb walked into the adjunct office, a cramped room where all the part-timers attempted to make some semblance of an office, and introduced me to two new part-time instructors, Brad and Jeff. That’s sixteen years ago, and I still recall my first sight of these two. What really strikes me about that meeting, however, is the fact that both Brad and Jeff still teach at the college. They’re both reasonably close to me in age. To the best of my knowledge, they both teach effectively. Their students don’t line up at the dean’s office to complain. They don’t light fires in their classrooms. They’re quite solid teachers. There’s one of them in particular who seems wonderfully competent. His credentials, thirteen years ago when they hired me as a full-timer, compared very well with mine. I had four years of service; he had three. We’d both completed coursework for a Ph.D. We’d both shown ourselves to be dependable and competent. Yet the school, in whatever wisdom it possesses, elected to give me the full-time possession. Both Brad and Jeff still teach in the part-time ranks. They earn less than half what I do per class, and they get no benefits. Seventeen years into this adventure, I look back and wonder how it happened to be me who was selected for this blessing.
Perhaps there is something marvelous about me that I, in my limitless humility, don’t see. Perhaps the administration at JCCC knew something deep and dark about those other guys. Perhaps God simply chose to bless me for some unknown reason. I don’t know why today I have a nice office and a guaranteed contract. I’d love to say that it’s all because of my merits, but I don’t know that I believe that to be true.
You see, I have to wonder if, but for the grace of God, it might not have been me still struggling to find a file drawer to stash some things in, still worrying about whether I’d have classes next semester, still grousing about my crummy pay. In these opening words from Paul’s letter, we hear not once but twice about God’s predestination. Why did God choose me—either as a teacher or as one redeemed by Christ? I can’t answer that question. But I do know that both of these blessings carry with them a requirement of gratitude and response. I’ll never be worthy of the blessings that God has showered onto my life, but I can try to be.
Last Saturday, our little team played its final game, mercifully enough. It’s not that our boys were smaller in stature than the others who faced them. No, when I say that we had a “little team,” I mean that we were little in talent. We played a team that had one quite good player, one quite hopeless player, and six who weren’t bad at all. They absolutely walloped us with depth.
One of the things that my fellow-sufferer coach and I noticed in the course of that game—and it was the sort of thing that you could hardly keep from noticing—was that this other team had not one, not two, not three, but four coaches looming on the sideline and hollering at the boys. Even if Joe and I had managed to find anything helpful to say to our boys, we couldn’t make ourselves heard over the din of these four enthusiastic yell machines.
I was reminded Saturday of times when I’ve seen all manner of voices coming at a kid on a playing field. The time that springs to mind most came not on a basketball court but on a soccer pitch. The player in question, we’ll call Bubba.
As Bubba brought the ball across the midline, he began to hear a veritable cacophony of instructions. First, there was the coach shouting coaching: “Dribble Bubba. Go as far as they’ll let you. Go Bubba!”
That voice alone might have done something good for Bubba, but poor Bubba had to listen to many other voices as well. There was Bubba’s dad, who sat in the bleachers and had undoubtedly never played a minute of soccer in his life. “Kick it, Bubba! Kick it hard!” he bellowed.
There was Bubba’s mother, who had once attended a professional soccer match and therefore thought herself something of an expert: “Bubba! Just go and score, honey!”
Beyond the parents, we heard one particularly outspoken father from the team, the guy whose kid is the best on the team and ensures that everyone knows it. He shouted, “Bubba, pass to Ronnie. Pass it to Ronnie!” I’m not sure that this dad cared that Ronnie was on the bench right then.
Bubba had to listen to the players behind him, urging him forward. He had to listen to the players ahead of him calling for the ball. He had to listen to that hopelessly optimistic team parent—every team seems to have one—who kept saying, “I know you can do it, Bubba!” Is it any wonder that Bubba got confused?
How many of us feel like Bubba now and again? We hear the various voices of life calling out to us, demanding this or that, urging us right and left. Our loyalties are divided as we try to balance family and work and faith and community and self. All those voices and more shout out to us and make their demands. It’s a wonder we can ever hear anything clearly.
That’s why these words in Ephesians excite me so much. There is plenty of cause for optimism in this passage, but what really warms my heart is the image of bringing “all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.” That speaks of a time when our loyalties will not be divided, when the voices from the bench, the field, and the bleachers will be stilled and one pure and perfect voice will guide us. That’s enough to make even Bubba smile.
Allow me to tell you about what I believe to be one of the truly remarkable novels written in the second half of the twentieth century. The book’s title is Song of Solomon. Now this isn’t the Song of Solomon that you can find between Ecclesiastes and Isaiah in your Bible. This is a novel by Toni Morrison. She’s a favorite of Oprah, but don’t let that put you off. Toni Morrison is a remarkable writer.
At the beginning of Song of Solomon we have a most peculiar scene. A man stands on the edge of the roof of a hospital. Inside the hospital, a woman is giving birth to a baby who will be the book’s most significant character, but for now the action is focused on the outside where the man stands, several stories above street level. A crowd gathers. Some of them are intent on urging him not to jump. Others linger just to watch what happens. Inexplicably a woman in the crowd begins singing: “Sugar man, don’t leave me.” After a span of time, the man plunges to his death.
This strange scene has absolutely nothing to do with the key characters in the novel. The expectant mother inside the hospital has far more urgent matters on her mind than the suicidal man on the roof. He isn’t related to her. His death doesn’t affect her. This scene looks for all the world like a bit of fluff tacked on but having no bearing.
John Steinbeck was known to do such a thing. At the beginning of The Grapes of Wrath, he spends several pages describing a turtle slowly crossing a highway. Just when it seems that the creature might make it to safety in the far ditch, a car zooms along and hits the turtle. And that has absolutely nothing to do with the travails of the Joad family, aside from a sort of pre-figuring. That turtle, slow and helpless, is a lot like the Joads.
But what do we make of Toni Morrison’s suicidal nobody on top of a hospital? What do we make of a scene that appears to have no bearing on the novel at all? That’s what I wondered as I irritably made my way through Song of Solomon for the first time. I found myself feeling impatient a third of the way through the book. In the middle section, I grew tolerant, but I was ready for this novel to come to an end. And then, in the book’s last fifty or sixty pages, I found that Morrison had it all worked out. She pulled together each of the many yarns that she’d laid into this fabric of her text and tugged them until they formed a beautiful tapestry. Yes, we found out about the man on the edge of the roof. Yes, we found out about the woman singing that song. Yes, we learned the reasons behind those things and many more things. Like a pool shark thinking ten shots ahead, Morrison had the entire book worked out. She sank each shot and stood back from the table grinning.
If a novelist can do that sort of planning, then how much more can the Eternal Novelist do it? God knows the plans that he has for us. He knows how you and I are to interact and where our lives should and will lead. God “works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will.” That’s a hopeful bit of news. When I returned home tonight, Penny informed me that we had a broken spring on the garage door. I could have gotten frustrated, but I have to believe that this too is being worked out in conformity with the purpose of his will. I find it hard to believe that, but I have to try.
I mean it. Read it again.
Okay, now that you’ve read it twice—or once for those of you who were slacking—do you fully understand what those words mean? As I read through a rich passage, I am reminded of the heritage of preachers who “camp out” on a particular passage of scripture and wring every last bit of meaning from it that they can manage. There’s a story of the Welsh pastor, Martyn Lloyd-Jones preaching some remarkable number of sermons—twenty-five or thirty—on two words: “but God.” I recently saw a book by this same preacher in which he presented twelve sermons on Ephesians 6:10-20. That’s more than a sermon per verse, but I suppose he could have gone even deeper into the text had he wanted.
This first chapter of Ephesians is so rich that I could have easily spent several weeks working my way through it. And this reading for today has to be the richest of the lot. I don’t ordinarily play the explicator of the scripture, but this stuff is far better than anything I could add to it. Let’s start with verse 18. Paul says that he prays that the eyes of the Ephesian’s hearts will be opened. Why? He wants them to understand three things.
I think I understand hope. I certainly understand inheritance. But this power thing I have to be misreading. First of all, Paul compares this power with the power that God used to raise Christ from the dead. We’re not talking here about some piddling little power. We’re not even talking Elijah-style power. This power even outstrips the power, incredible as it was, that Christ wielded during his natural life. After all, those whom Jesus raised from the dead wound up in the grave again. But that resurrection power—that’s power!
But wait! Like one of those old Ginzu knife commercials, Paul says that’s not all we get. No, this power didn’t just effect Jesus’ resurrection. This power set Jesus at the right hand of God. This power placed Jesus over everything and everyone today and for eternity. That’s real power, and that’s our power.
And just in case you think I’m exaggerating, read those last verses, the part about the church. The church, after all, is us, Christ’s body. And we are “the fullness of him who fills everything in every way.” Forget about those old pagan gods who promised a good harvest or success in war. Paul is talking about a power so ultimate, so absolute that we can scarcely imagine its scope.
Are you following me okay here? Do you have a firm vision of what Paul is describing? Me neither. Perhaps in time it will come to us. For now, all we can do is read it again.
It’s been two years since I moved away from Jabberwocky Manor, the five-acre mini-estate on which Penny and I played at being landed gentry for some seven years. In those two years, I’ve scarcely looked back at all. I don’t miss the open space or the grass that I had to mow in that open space. I don’t miss the long gravel driveway or the barn. In fact, of all the things that I left when I moved away from 12300 East 54th Street, the only thing that makes me pine for the old place at all would be my chickens. I’m about as much a product of the suburbs as you’re likely to find, but I took to raising poultry like a duck to water—or somesuch.
As much as I loved my hens, I grew to detest my roosters. The roosters were every bit as stupid as the hens, but they had two things arguing against them. First, they were ill-tempered and cocky—literally. I mean, where do you suppose that word came from? Second, they didn’t have the redeeming feature of laying five or six eggs each week. That’s why, when the time came to try my hand at butchering a bird, I had no hesitation about which ones to seek out. I grabbed the biggest and nastiest of the roosters and set to work.
Killing a rooster required some highly specialized equipment. I used a tea towel to tie the bird’s wings down so that he wouldn’t flap around in panic during the execution. I bound his feet together with some nylon cord, hanging him from the fence at the hour of destiny. Following the directions that had been conveniently provided for me in one of my books, I proceeded to cut the bird’s jugular vein. The idea here was to have him hang upside down, bleeding, so that his heart could do the necessary work to clean him out. After I found the vein, the process went along neatly enough. The bird, not surprisingly, didn’t hang there gently when I actually made my little incision. But being tied up with cord and a towel, his options were limited. The intriguing thing, however, was that once I stopped cutting at him, he seemed pretty well resigned to the goings on. He simply hung there as his blood flowed out. Clearly, he either met death with absolute calm or he had no clue what was going on. After a few minutes, as the flow slowed somewhat, I saw the rooster shake his head, as if he were getting dizzy and trying to rouse himself. Still, he showed no sense of panic, no sense that anything worse than just hanging upside down was happening to him. A couple of minutes later, he expired.
Having kept this bird since it was a chick, it didn’t surprise me that he lacked self awareness. But as I watched him hanging there, unaware that he was about to die, it occurred to me that, but for the grace of God, I’m not in a lot better shape. Before my salvation, I was dead in my transgressions. I was, as Paul says here, by nature an object of wrath. I was dead but I didn’t even know it; headed to destruction, but blissfully unaware of my predicament.
While there was no real hope for that rooster, there was, happily, hope for me. Today’s reading doesn’t speak of this hope, but it’s the knowledge of this hope that makes the dismal words of these verses tolerable. Let’s leave these bleak words here, thankful that we’re a bit brighter than that rooster. Let’s leave these words of death and turn toward life.
I mentioned yesterday my former home. Today, I’d like to spend a few minutes discussing my present home. In the spring of 2005, as the deal to sell Jabberwocky Manor began to solidify, we faced the need for a new domicile. One day, Penny mentioned that our friends Susan and Allen, would be moving out of town for a new job. “We could buy their house,” Penny announced breathlessly.
Upon hearing these words, I had to question Penny’s state of mind. I’d been in Susan’s house. I don’t mean to sound unkind, but let’s just say that Susan and Penny have very different attitudes toward their houses. For Penny, the house is an expression of self, a projection of her personality. For Susan, it’s a warm, dry place to shelter the family. I have to confess that when Penny first brought this possibility up, I tried to imagine us living in Susan’s house, and I failed utterly. Still, Penny wouldn’t let the idea drop. Every time I suggested that we shop for houses, she pointed me back to Susan’s house. Finally, I relented. “Okay,” I said. “Let’s go over there and walk through the place. You show me how it would work.”
As we walked through, I saw some positive points, but I also saw the rather dank basement and stark walls. Mentally, I attempted to fit our family within these walls, and again I failed. All the while, however, Penny chattered on. “We can do this here and put this here and I’d need to paint this and move this and here’s where this piece of furniture would go and I’d really want new linoleum in the kitchen.”
I listened until my brain hurt. In the end, I just asked for a judgment. “Can you make it work?”
Her answer was a resounding “yes.” In that first few months in the house, Penny made good on her promise. She painted nearly the entire interior of the house. She transformed the outside from battleship grey to some fairly warm colors, burgundy and a deep yellow. We replaced light fixtures and repaired some simple problems. We did major surgery in the basement, transforming the dankness into a wonderful classroom, bedroom, bathroom, laundry area combo. We haven’t put new linoleum in the kitchen yet, but Penny’s a patient person. I probably have until next week.
What I love about my wife—well, one of the things I love—is that she has this ability. She can look at things that are “dead” and see the life in them. She was able love this house when it was still very much un-Penny and then, using that love as energy, turn the house upside down and inside out.
How much more amazing, then, is it for God to look at us and to see the potential in us. For God in his holiness to look at me in my sin and to love me is as amazing as me looking with love at a cockroach. But even if I could manage to look with love at the cockroach, I couldn’t change the cockroach into anything better—unless you consider a dead cockroach better. But God didn’t look at me and bring death. On the contrary, he looked at my mess and brought life. He saw past my transgressions and made me alive in Christ, offering me a home that will last forever, a home that doesn’t want for anything—even new linoleum.
It’s over. As of about five minutes ago, the Kansas Jayhawks have been ignominiously ejected from the NCAA basketball tourney by Bucknell. Who in the world is Bucknell? Kansas fans thought that their team was disrespected when assigned a number three seeding. Bucknell, a number fourteen, didn’t exactly struggle in putting Kansas away. Oh yes, you might say, it was a close game, coming down to a final shot for the win by the team’s best player. But in reality, KU looked lousy the entire game. Only a few times did they flash the brilliant play that made them appear as giant-killers early in the season. Of late, however, they’ve look quite human, quite capable of being tripped up by lowly Bucknell.
As the game wound into its waning moments, you could see the look on the KU players’ faces. They couldn’t believe what was happening to them. A couple of the freshmen sat on the bench with the look of a kid whose dog has just been run over. This wasn’t supposed to happen. After all, they’re Kansas! They were supposed to be able to easily win in the first two rounds. Getting to the round of eight had become all but automatic for these guys. They had a couple of the best players in the country on the floor. Surely the scoreboard must be lying.
I’m sure that in bars all around Kansas City and across Kansas, half-sloshed fans are berating the coach, the players, the referees, the phase of the moon, and anything else that they could blame. But as I watched the team’s hopes slip away with the last seconds on the clock, I remembered a top-ranked Jayhawk team from 1993. That team lost not in the first round but in the second to a team they should have easily handled. I remember sitting, standing, and flopping on the floor of my rented house in Lawrence watching that game. Finally, as the last seconds ticked away, I came to a realization: “They’re going to lose this game.” Frustrated by the defeat, I went outside, hopped on my bike, and rode several miles around Lawrence to get the basketball season out of my system. I came to an awakening that day, pedaling around the university. I recognized that in a basketball game, two teams will play. One will win; one will lose. You can’t always predict which will be which, and in the end it really doesn’t much change the world
On paper, the Jayhawks are a better team than the Bucknell Bison. But the game, as they say, isn’t played on paper. I’ll have to wait at least another year to whoop and wave my hands and pump my fist to a stirring KU victory. Vicarious sports glory has been pretty hard to come by in my hometown of late.
I suppose that’s good for us in a way. A sports win, a political victory, a job promotion, or any other little triumph, vicarious or otherwise, proves fun but fleeting. Such glory rarely lasts much past the echo of our celebration. That’s why Paul’s words in verse six today seem so wonderful. I read there of God raising us up and seating us with Christ. I read of incomparable riches. I read of salvation and grace. It’s exciting stuff, far better than a basketball game.
It’s too late, too dark to go pedaling around Raytown this year, but I don’t really need to do that. I’m disappointed in the game’s result, but we have to put it in perspective. It would have been nice had Wayne Simien’s shot gone down, but I know that the ultimate celebration, the ultimate glory has already been achieved and won’t fade away with the next season. That's a slam dunk.
A couple of weeks ago, the Writing Center secretary at JCCC shared a super-secret folio of information with me. As I walked into the center that morning, feeling at loose ends because I had ten minutes before class and nothing to do that I could do in ten minutes, Susan greeted me with a photo album that looked to be a holdover from the seventies. “Want to look at the Writing Center scrapbook?” she asked.
She should have warned me that inside these pages I would find a photo of myself, thirteen years ago. When I opened the book, that’s what happened to greet me. “Is that me?” I inquired, knowing full well the answer.
“I believe it is,” Susan confirmed.
There I was in slightly faded color. My hair looked even worse then than it does now. My clothes looked—okay, I’ll admit it—they looked pretty much the same. At least I didn’t recognize any articles on my person that still hang in my closet. I sat there, in the Writing Center director’s family room, a cup of punch in my hand and a what-am-I-doing-here look on my face.
Happily, I wasn’t the only goofy-looking person whose visage graced those pages. As I paged through, I found a younger version of Ginny, who retired last year. I saw a very young-appearing Dr. Bill Lamb, my original department chair. Bill stood in a doorway, a cup of punch in his hand and a how-soon-can-I-get-out-of-here look on his face. I marveled as I looked at him. He looked like a kid. This man who had hired me was undoubtedly younger there than I am now. That just didn’t seem possible. I saw others, the ageless Ellen, the gone-to-Texas Richard, and Paul, looking just as befuddled now as he typically looks today. I saw Jim Brown—not the football player—a man who had retired from a career teaching in public schools long before I started teaching. He apparently enjoyed the work (or needed the money) sufficiently that he regularly taught one or two classes at JCCC. It’s been years—probably about ten—since I’ve seen Jim.
As I turned page after page, I noticed something that shouldn’t be that surprising. All of us, the ageless Ellen excepted, looked older. That doesn’t mean that we looked worse, but we certainly looked older.
I’m not one of those people who will get real hung up on age. The fact that I look ten years older than I did ten years ago doesn’t particularly trouble me. However, we have to admit, unpleasant as it is, that our signs of age will lead, sooner or later, to the breaking down of the body. This biological machine that each of us has been given wasn’t designed to function forever. Although modern medicine has extended the three score and ten years lifespan considerably, the human body, over time, inevitably falls apart.
With that cheery bit of reality in my mind, then, I find this single verse from Paul’s letter to be quite a positive message. “We are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus.” Before we were redeemed, we were still God’s workmanship, but we were like a car in which the oil was never changed. The workman’s quality could be seen, but the lifespan had its limits. But after being newly created through Christ, we are not only a quality design on the outside but an everlasting design inside.
As I look at the pages of that scrapbook, then, I’m left with a realization. Each of us has a limited number of days on this earth. We have a certain number of classes to teach or whatever other work we do. We can’t extend that number infinitely, but we can, through Christ Jesus, make those good works all that God had intended them to be when he prepared them for us.
One of the best adventures that Penny and I ever had came in December 1982 when we took a train from Athens, Greece, through what was then Yugoslavia, through Austria, and into Munich in (then) West Germany. In the process of crossing all of those borders, I came to realize more clearly than ever before that I did not belong in any of those places we were visiting.
One of my chief memories of that trip, which spanned parts of three days, comes from when various officials checked our passports along the way. I recall the scene somewhere in northern Greece when the customs men came along. Apparently they only wanted to know what nationalities were on the train since they had us simply show our passports but made no move to inspect them. Penny and I waved our American passports. A pair of Norwegian girls did the same with theirs. Two Greeks also sat in the compartment with us. One of them produced his Greek passport, but the second, the owner of cheese shop, waved a wad of hundred dollar bills in the air. “I am American, too!” he cried out. The customs men were not amused.
As our trip continued, cheeseman worked on arranging a marriage between his son and one of the Norwegian girls. Why? She explained that he probably wanted his son to be able to emigrate to Norway or elsewhere in the European Union. Maybe Dad figured that once his son had Norwegian papers, he could bring the whole family along to Oslo. Prospects in Greece at that time were apparently not that terrific, so Dad looked for greener pastures nearer the Arctic Circle.
If the Greek customs officials were stern and serious, the Yugoslavian ones were draconian. The first thing that I noticed was that these guys carried sidearms. Perhaps the old Warsaw Pact had become so paranoid that they expected serious trouble to roll into their backyard on a passenger train. The second thing that I noticed was that they took our passports and walked away with them. I’ve been to a number of different countries in my life, and it always makes me nervous when somebody wants to take my passport out of my sight. After some thirty minutes of hanging onto our paperwork, they returned them to us.
At various points on that trip, for no apparent reason, the Yugoslavs checked our documents again. I remember waking the next morning, after sleeping my way through the last couple hundred miles of Yugoslavia, to find the train pulling into the station in Salzburg. We’d reached Austria. The Austrian customs officials struck me as far more tolerable. Still, I’ve never met a customs official who seemed terribly friendly—or maybe just one place. As much as I love traveling, there’s something very reassuring about walking through the fast line of U.S. Customs and being welcomed home by somebody who—more or less—speaks American. It’s sweet to come home.
I think these thoughts today as I read Paul’s words about citizenship. Although I’ve always been a citizen of the United States, I am a naturalized citizen of the kingdom of God. Born as an alien and indeed an enemy of this kingdom, I realized the need to emigrate years ago. But the beauty of God’s system is that he doesn’t offer tourist visas, work permits, or temporary residency. God accepts us into full citizenship at our request. There’s no Ellis Island, no quota, and no risk of deportation. It’s sweet indeed to be home.
I don’t know if they still hang out there, but for the first year or so that the U.S. was fighting in Iraq, you could find anti-war protesters milling about the J.C. Nichols fountain near Kansas City’s Country Club Plaza. While I think those people were largely misled, I hold a certain amount of respect for someone who opposes war. After all, any activity that involves blowing things up and putting huge numbers of young people in harm’s way deserves our most careful consideration and judgment. But what really bothers me about the protesters is when they are referred to not as anti-war protesters but as peace activists.
First of all, I really detest the word “activist.” It’s one of those innocuous sounding words that get bandied about in common usage but which dissolve somewhat on closer investigation. The way that I tend to think about such words is to consider the word’s opposite. For example, if you aren’t a “progressive,” then what are you? A “regressive”? If you have “moderates” on one side, then what is on the other side? “Immoderates”? Doesn’t “immoderate” mean drunk? So what is the opposite of an “activist”? I guess we’d have to say that it’s either an “inactivist” or a “passivist.” My spellcheck’s red squiggly lines don’t like either of those words. In fact, those are words that you simply never hear. So if the non-activist word never gets used, then does “activist” really mean anything? But that’s a bit of a rabbit chase, I’m afraid.
What’s wrong with a peace activist? What’s wrong with the idea of pursuing peace or giving peace a chance? These sound like marvelous things. I’m all in favor of peace, as is any rational person. We’ve just finished the bloodiest, most war-afflicted century in the history of mankind, so why should we be other than activists for peace.
I guess that my real problem here is that peace isn’t the sort of thing that humans can wage very effectively. We can wage wars, and we can end wars. We can convene cease-fire talks, demobilize forces, protect borders, and sign treaties, but do any of those things really equate with peace? Peace, after all, is not just the absence of war or, more broadly, of conflict.
Okay, you think that I’m indulging my English-teacher love of semantics, and that may be true, but since my medium is words, semantics is a big part of my tool box. And I would argue that a peace activist really isn’t anything at all. It’s rather like someone who is hired to watch out for the end of the world. The work isn’t terribly eventful, but the job security is terrific.
Humans can build bridges, nations, companies, financial markets, apartment complexes, and entire civilizations, but I don’t know that humans have ever successfully created peace. It’s just not in our nature. I mention this today because Paul’s words in verse 14 really sing out to me. “He himself is our peace.” Christ is our peace. He’s not something to be built or pursued or created or nurtured. Standing as God incarnate, Christ simply is. All of our activism won’t make him more or less than what he is.
As I say these things, please don’t mistake me for someone who thinks conflict and division to be trivial. We should do our best to minimize the things that divide people, but we need to be realistic. Peace will not be created. It will just be recognized and accepted.
For all of one semester, the first semester of my college career, I attended the University of Missouri. During that term, I found the twenty-some-thousand-student MU campus a rather daunting place, but I guess what really got to me wasn’t the place’s overall size but the incredible miscellany of it. It’s like just when you thought you had the joint all figured out, you’d run across something else, a whole other world that you hadn’t even considered.
This thought first came to me one day as I strolled down a side street and noticed a house with a university sign out in front. Here, I discovered, in a sixty-year-old house, could be found the department of atmospheric metaphysics. Okay—I’m making that up, but I do recall seeing a sign for some department dealing with atmospheric something or other, and I recall thinking that this seemed like such an oddball, arcane discipline that I couldn’t imagine there’d be even a course on the topic, much less an entire department and an entire building.
Back in those days, I parked my car in a parking lot a quarter mile from my dorm. This parking lot lay on the extreme edge of the university’s veterinary school, which included numerous buildings. One night, I remember walking through the deserted driveways and sidewalks of the vet school, heading back to the dorm, when I saw a pickup backed to a loading dock and a rancher heaving a dead calf out of the bed. Apparently, this guy was bringing his dead animal in to be tested. It had never occurred to me that the university would be involved in something like that, just as I never thought of them having a specialist in Tibetan art or an experimental alfalfa farm.
Of course, the splendid miscellany of a large research institution is not restricted to academic pursuits. You could also find little corners of the physical plant, the security force, the radio station, the newspaper, the chaplaincy, the arts program, alumni concerns, sports teams, and any number of other tiny fiefdoms, all vying for their piece of the turf, their piece of the MU budgetary pie.
In an ideal world, all of the various slivers comprising a university or any other large organization function toward one overarching goal. All of them should share a single vision or mission. We don’t live in an ideal world, though. Instead, we live in a world where everyone jockeys for position, trying to grab their share of the pie and then some. Some parts of the organization try to take over, while others cling desperately to what they’ve already claimed. New parts sprout up like mushrooms. Perhaps that’s why so many large organizations seem to resemble a house that’s been built onto time and time again, a house that hasn’t been planned very carefully.
In today’s reading, Paul likens us, the church, to a building, built on a single foundation, and dedicated to a single goal. We are not a splendid collection of miscellaneous parts, each pulling its own way—or at least we shouldn’t be. Instead, we should be a splendid collection of miscellaneous parts, all straining upward in praise of the Lord, a dwelling place in which God can live. Does your church look more like that or more like the university? Which way are you tugging your church? Given all that God has done for us, doesn’t it seem fair that we’d dedicate ourselves to providing him a dwelling place rather than inhabiting Chaos U?
Here’s my plan. I’ll go into my Comp I class this morning and enlist the students’ help on a problem that I’m having. “My other Comp class is mad at me,” I’ll explain with as straight a face as possible. They don’t need to be aware of the fact that I don’t have another composition class. “I gave them their papers back, and they all got mad at me over what I said to them.”
The class will undoubtedly stare back at me with an expression that says, “What is this guy’s problem?” But then they’ll decide that listening to my problems will surely prove more interesting than my usual class plans, so they’ll play along.
Then I’ll start sharing the comments and grades that I wrote on the other class’ papers. Maybe I’ll start out with this one:
Passing this would be like passing a medical student who just killed a patient with an overdose of rat poison. You flunk!
Or maybe I’ll try this one on them:
You’ve made a decent effort, but if I pass this paper, then I’ll have to pass all papers. And then standards will go to pot, and before long we’ll have a nation full of idiots. You flunk!
At some point, I’ll definitely run this one past them:
What should I expect from somebody with nose rings and tattoos? You flunk!
At some point in the class meeting, somebody is going to raise a hand tentatively and say, “Did you really write these things on their papers?” And what will I do? I’m not sure. If I can keep the joke going, then maybe I’ll flash this one on the screen:
You’re just like everyone in your generation, always looking for an easy grade. You flunk!
Or maybe I’ll drop the pretense and say “April fools!” to them. Then I’ll go on to explain that this is a lesson on logical fallacies.
I like surprises in classes. That’s not to say that I like all surprises. For example, that student who thinks she’s earning a strong B or maybe an A only to see a D appear on her grade card provides a negative sort of surprise. That student tends to be quite surly over that surprise and yells at me or visits my department chair or whatever. That’s a bad surprise. On the other hand, though, I could describe several good surprises, ones that the students didn’t see coming and that enrich the experience for everybody.
In today’s reading, Paul talks about just such a surprise, one that nobody, across all the thirty-seven books of the Old Testament, saw coming. Sure Abraham knew that his offspring would be a blessing to all nations, but nobody saw the church coming. Nobody saw the promise that was realized in Christ of all people, Jew and Gentile, coming together in one body as “sharers together in the promise in Christ Jesus.”
This month’s issue of Christianity Today carries a cover story titled “All Churches Should Be Multi-Racial.” And indeed they should. Through the power of Christ, the church should demonstrate a unity that transcends all the walls that divide. Just as Christ provides our peace with God, so he should also provide our peace within the church. Far more than all the mavens of diversity in the larger culture, Christians have a loud and convincing reason to overcome differences. Jesus called us, clearly as he could, to “love one another.” If we don’t, then I can imagine his response, a response I don’t want to hear: You flunk!
One summer at Scout camp, I found myself assigned with Neal, another staffer, to build a large campfire. To complete this task, Neal and I had to gather up our tools and walk a good mile and a half to the campfire site. There we would saw and chop enormous logs for a fire built to last several hours. From our tool area, we grabbed a large bow saw and a two-handed axe. It happened that the only axe available was a two-bladed one. Whether it had one or two blades, we just knew that we’d need some sort of axe if we were to get this work done anytime before supper.
With tools in hand, Neal and I headed toward our work site. When we had nearly reached the spot, we saw a familiar red jeep driven by the big kahuna himself, the big-shot camp director, Bill Lewis. As the boss man drove by, he looked at us. Then he stopped. He got out of the jeep without a word and then took the axe from Neal’s hand. After eyeing it for a moment, he said, “I thought we had taken all the two-bladed axes out of circulation.” That said, he climbed back into the jeep, our axe in his hand, and drove off. We stood there for a moment, wondering what to do next. Would he return with a proper axe for us to use? Should we try to lop branches off with a pocket knife? Had I been a bit older, a bit more bold, I would have asked, but as it was, this was the Big Chief who took the axe. You didn’t ask Bill Lewis questions. You just accepted his judgments.
Several years later, I found myself working for the Scouts and assigned to serve under this same man. Right away my normal intimidation with a new boss coupled with my previous feelings of awe to produce a sense of dread. What stupid thing would I do first, I wondered. In the two years I worked with him, I discovered that Bill Lewis, far from being a stone-faced idol, was simply a man. He had his great strengths and his weaknesses as well, but he was just a man. In time, I realized that I could ask him questions and make him laugh. I realized that I could make mistakes and live to tell about it. I learned to count him as a friend, something that I never would have thought possible that day he drove off with our axe.
My time working closely with Bill provided me with access to him. I’ve been happy to see that same pattern of access repeated in several other working relationships over the years. God, however, doesn’t share employment with us. God will never stop his little red jeep and prove to be just another man with strengths and weaknesses. An impenetrable forest stands between us and God. That’s what makes our relationship with Jesus Christ so important. It is in Christ and through our faith in him that we can “approach God with freedom and confidence.”
No tool we can wield, whether it be axe, saw, or whatever, can cut through the forest that separates the natural man from God, yet through our relationship with Christ, we have a clear path to the father. In looking at this truth, there’s nothing for us to actually do. All we can do in response to this verse is appreciate what has been done to clear the way for us.
In 1912, the French painter Marcel Duchamp put brush to canvas and created a unique work: “Nude Descending a Staircase, No. 2.” I’m not sure what ever happened to number one, but number two gained a good deal of notoriety in the 1913 Armory Show and beyond. Today, it resides in the Philadelphia Museum of Art. Before you think that I have some prurient interest in this painting, please rest assured that if the title of it were “Lulu Descending a Staircase,” you’d never know that the figure in it is supposed to be nude. In fact, if you didn’t know better, you couldn’t tell that the figure is a female.
No, what made Duchamp’s painting remarkable was not its realistic handling of the human form. In fact, the figure in the painting is not in the slightest bit realistic. It has instead been abstracted almost to the limits of recognition. What makes Duchamp’s work extraordinary is that it ventures into the fourth dimension.
If you’ve ever dabbled in visual art, you’ve probably recognized that one of the difficult things to master is the representation of a three-dimensional object on a two-dimensional space. You take a big piece of drawing paper and your pencils. You have height and width to work with, but you are attempting to draw something with height, width, and depth. How do you capture depth on the page? It’s not the easiest thing. Art students learn to use tools such as linear and atmospheric perspective and shadowing to artificially create that third dimension in the two dimensional medium. Sometimes, their accomplishment simply boggles the mind.
In fact, any competent artist can do a passable job at representing three dimensions on paper or canvas, but that’s not where Duchamp stopped. He wanted to handle not just a three-dimensional subject but to add the fourth dimension: time. Duchamp’s nude isn’t simply perched at some point in the midst of her descent of the staircase. He attempts to show her going through a large swath of that descent. “Nude Descending a Staircase” portrays a figure descending several steps, somewhat in the spirit of a time-lapse photograph.
Why did Marcel Duchamp choose to paint this painting in this way? That’s a hard question to answer. Perhaps he simply found the idea intriguing. Certainly, it challenges the way that we look at art. Imagine how bizarre it must have seemed in 1913. We struggle enough to think in three dimensions. How much harder, then, is it when we attempt to think in four dimensions.
If you read over verse 18 in today’s passage and count the dimensions, you might notice that Paul enumerates four dimensions. He’s speaking metaphorically of course; God’s love is not a physical object that can be measured. Yet why does he mention “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ”? Wide, long, and high I can understand, but deep as well? Isn’t that redundant?
There’s an old kitschy poster that shows a cartoon character, arms spread wide, saying “I love you this much.” Christ not only loves us wide, but he loves us long and high and deep. One dimension of his love he might be able to comprehend like the arms on that poster, but two? Three? Four? I think what Paul is saying here is that that the love of God is so immense, so boundless, that we cannot even picture it. Perhaps we can get a hint at it as in a painting like “Nude Descending a Staircase,” but in the end we’re left with only the vaguest notion of the positively vast love of our Lord. In a world with far too little love, I find that quite reassuring.
Have you seen the latest hot reality show on television? I’m not much for watching TV, except for Law and Order reruns, but I have to admit to a certain fascination with Extreme Makeover: The Home Edition. Now let me say that the original Extreme Makeover program absolutely turns my stomach. You have people shooting up Botox and getting all manner of other cosmetic surgery done in order to change themselves on the outside while they leave the inside exactly the same. There’s just something wrong with this picture. But the Home Edition version is a whole other animal.
This show, which stars a goofy carpenter, Ty, who used to be featured on the Trading Spaces program, takes one deserving family each week and utterly transforms their home and, in the process, their lives. Let me give you a single example to illustrate. In the episode I saw last week, you had a middle-income couple living with their three kids and a grandmother. That’s six of them, if you’re keeping count. Add to that mix, a set of five kids whose parents had died two years earlier. Now we’re up to eleven. No relation between the two families—you just had this one nice family opening their home, a three-bedroom, decidedly modest place, to keep five brothers and sisters together. That’s cool. But of course eleven people living in a single house leaves a lot of people living on top of one another. That’s where Ty and his crew come in. They roll into town with a plan: send the family away on vacation for a week and set about remaking the house into something more livable. What did they do in this case? They started with a bulldozer and razed the old house. From there they built—incredibly quickly—a gorgeous two-story structure, providing separate bedrooms for most everybody. But they don’t just build some utilitarian shed for these people. No, they create a veritable wonderland complete with stunning décor, specially chosen for each person, and all manner of extra perks. Do you think they kept the old refrigerator? The old washing machine? Of course not. In fact, they tend to go completely overboard, buying them new cars, paying off home loans, and all manner of other things.
When the family arrives home, they place them in the road. A big bus blocks their view of the rebuilt house. After suitable building up of suspense, Ty orders the bus to be pulled away, revealing the house. It doesn’t matter how many episodes of this show these people have seen, they always drop their jaws. This house can’t really be theirs. This furniture, these appliances, these vehicles, this life can’t be theirs. Happily, this program tends to do marvelous things for people who really deserve it and who are truly appreciative. It’s no wonder that the show is a ratings bonanza.
It’s the look on the faces of the people that provides the payoff on Extreme Makeover: The Home Edition. It’s great fun to see the joy and disbelief dance across the family. And when I see that, I’m reminded of this verse, which speaks of God, who is “able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine, according to his power that is at work within us.” Lest we forget, God has already done an extreme makeover on each Christian, changing the old man for the new man. The bus has pulled away and our jaws should drop. In fact, if our jaws don’t drop, then I don’t think that we’re seeing the scene clearly enough. God has taken this old hovel of mine and turned it into a temple, suitable for the indwelling of his Holy Spirit. That’s extreme!
I’m sure that Robert Dibble (name changed to protect the insolent) has retired from the English Department at the University of Kansas by now. Come to think of it, I’m fairly sure when I began attending in the early 1990s, he had already retired. He hadn’t filed the papers or begun to collect his pension, but he had pretty effectively backed away from any meaningful engagement with the school. Because of my interests, I took two classes from this yahoo. In the end, the grades were easy and the burden was light, but nobody learned very much. This is the guy who proclaimed several times that the Old Man in Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea brought the great fish onto the beach, dropped it, and then died. He could hardly have been more wrong. In the book, the fish never reaches shore and the old man lives for some time after the adventure. The same could not be said for my patience in Professor Dibble’s classes.
There’s a legend at KU about this guy. It goes something like this. Robert Dibble came out of the Ph.D. program at some fairly prestigious school. If memory serves, it was Iowa. Not only did he have that notch on his belt, but he had published an article in PMLA. Publishing an article in PMLA is something of the Holy Grail for English scholars. Plenty of people who have had terrific academic careers have never managed to get anything accepted in PMLA, so when Robert Dibble came calling with a Ph.D. from Iowa in one hand and a copy of his PMLA article in the other, the KU folks knew that they had a guy with an incredible upside potential. Here, they undoubtedly reasoned, would be the man who could put KU’s English department on the map. They snapped him up without a second thought.
Apparently, Robert Dibble proved a disappointment from day one. He almost never kept office hours. When a student did catch the guy in the office, he’d bluster so disconnectedly that you left the place more confused than when you walked in. He did show up for classes. That much I’ll grant him. But after you’d been with him for a few weeks, you realized that his repertoire had severe limits. I recall, in a seminar on Joseph Conrad, hearing him refer to the same fairly minor scene in the novel Nostromo during five straight class meetings. He talked about the scene before we read the book, during the two weeks we spent on the book, and two weeks after we finished it. He just wouldn’t let it go. The richest part of the saga, however, is how Professor Dibble is supposed to have gotten tenure. It is rumored around KU that the department forgot to perform a tenure review during his seventh year. Once they granted him an eighth contract, he had tenure. If that isn’t true, it ought to be.
Robert Dibble isn’t really a bad guy. He’s just a guy who didn’t live up to the expectations that KU had for him. I wonder sometimes how God looks at my life. Does he look at the potential that I had when I was saved? Does he think about what I might have been had I followed him more closely? I have to think that some day I will be shown that potential alongside the reality that I’ve created. I’m not looking forward to that sight.
“Live a life worthy of the calling you have received,” Paul tells the Ephesians. He might as well be talking to us. We already have tenure, but that shouldn’t slow us down.
The best movie to debut last year was, without a doubt, The Incredibles. With the recent release of that movie on DVD, people all around find themselves tossing lines from the movie’s various characters around like Frisbees. One of those lines—and not a particularly funny one—rings in my mind today. One of the super hero kids talks about having to hide his powers in order to fit in: “Saying that everybody is special is just another way of saying that nobody is special.”
I’m reminded of that line today as I think about the verses that we’ve read for today. Could Paul have used the word “one” any more times than he did here? “One body and one Spirit—just as you were called to one hope when you were called—one Lord, one faith, one baptism, one God and Father of all.” We are all one. We’re all special. So does that mean that in the end nobody is special?
Look around the world today and you’ll see various pleas for unity. Unity, it would seem, is a good thing. Just look at all the things that have “united” in their names: United States, United Nations, and United Auto Workers. There’s the United Church of Christ and the United Methodist Church. On Star Trek there’s the United Federation of Planets. We believe in unity, it would seem.
Unity, however, can be a difficult matter. Among all of these “United” organizations, the United States has perhaps suffered the least amount of contention and trouble—and no, I’m not forgetting that whole unpleasant Civil War episode. The problem with Unity, it seems to me, is that it calls for different people to get together in the same place. If you’ve been married for more than forty-five minutes, then you undoubtedly know that getting together with even one other person proves tricky. Getting together an entire family, an entire church, an entire nation, an entire denomination, an entire group of nations would seem nigh on impossible.
What makes Unity so difficult? Why does it seem to exist in name so much more often than in reality? Allow me to suggest a theory. Any time that we try to create Unity, we are, as mentioned above, trying to get disparate people or groups together in the same place. That place of meeting might be one of the places currently occupied by one of the parties. For example, if a man and woman marries and the man tries to get the woman to conform 100% to his wishes, that’s going to put her in a place where she’s not all that comfortable. On the other hand, the place of meeting might be a spot in between the two. While such a compromise might be fairer, it will probably inconvenience both parties to some degree. Hopefully, the benefits of the Unity outweigh the inconvenience of the meeting place.
Unity, then, is difficult and imperfect because we cannot unite without compromising ourselves somewhat. We either give up our own rights or take away the rights of another. This might be a minor thing; it might be a major thing. But it is always a thing.
So why all this talk of Unity in Ephesians? That’s the beauty of it. In God we have a place of meeting that is appropriate to all of us. Our meeting place in God might inconvenience all of us sinners to some degree, but it is ultimately a place where we need to be and where we can remain eternally. It’s Unity in “one God and Father of all, who is over all and through all and in all.” Amen.
One of my favorite movies of all times is The Great Escape. In this film, James Garner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and a pack of other actors bust out of a German POW camp in the midst of World War II. This plucky band of escapees set up an incredible industrial complex all out of sight of the Germans. They take uniforms and other clothes, dying them to create passable replicas of civilian garb. They forge documents with which they can make their way past wary officials. They, most amazingly, dig a long tunnel complete with a series of carts on a track with which they can quickly scoot out toward freedom. Granted, this isn’t the amazing complex of work that the POW’s in Hogan’s Heroes could boast, but it is most impressive.
On the night of the big break-out, the men start heading for freedom, one at a time, each disappearing into the woods as soon as he pops out of the mouth of the tunnel. Some of these men were decidedly followers. Assigned a chore, they dig tunnels, dye cloth, dispose of dirt, or gather resources. They’re the worker bees of this great hive, but without their leaders, most notably Richard Attenborough’s character, Big X, they’d be going nowhere.
As it works out, however, this great escape attempt doesn’t exactly pan out well. First of all, the tunnel comes up, inexplicably, short of its intended finishing point in the forest. Although a good number of men make it outside the wire, the Germans catch onto the move before the entire group can make their break. Some of the men are re-captured almost immediately. Attenborough’s character makes a good effort at staying free, but after a lengthy run through the streets and alleys of a town, he is thrown in the clink once again. Steve McQueen winds up running a motorcycle into a tall barbed-wire fence, falling just short of his goal: Switzerland. In the end, a large cadre of the recaptured are taken into a field and machine gunned. In total, only a handful wind up back in the camp, while another handful—three as I recall—make their way to freedom. The Great Escape, for all the ingenuity and courage it represented, didn’t turn out that great after all.
I couldn’t fault the leaders in this movie. They seemed to be blameless for the deaths of all these men. Nevertheless, against the difficult odds of crossing enemy territory without proper papers, money, or language skills, these men could not meet the challenge successfully. Perhaps more visionary leaders might have gotten them out of Germany, but I’m not sure who could have done better.
Today’s reading from Ephesians recounts another prison break, this one a rousing success. Here Paul quotes from Psalm 68: “When he ascended on high, he led captives in his train and gave gifts to men.” Since this message appears to be encoded, let’s put our magic decoder rings to the test. Who is “he”? He, it appears, is Jesus. In verse 8 we see that Jesus ascending must mean that he had first descended. Christ descended into the prison of the grave, yielding himself to death. And then he ascended up from the grave and led captives—that’s us—in his train.
The ending of Christ’s escape adventure proves much happier than the 1963 movie. His escape route puts us far out of reach of our captors. Nobody who joined in his company wound up recaptured or lost along the way. And the destination of this escape proved far better than wartime England. That’s a great escape indeed.
Up until the last couple of days, Jeeves was to me simply a name that formed part of the occasionally useful search engine www.askjeeves.com. Little did I know that the clever folks who put that search engine online had gotten the inspiration for the name from the fiction of P.G. Wodehouse.
In his stories, Wodehouse, who died at age 94 in 1975, presents the marvelous character of the valet Jeeves who comes to the rescue of the rather hopeless Bertie Wooster. Wooster is a man of some money, education, and position, yet he utterly lacks good sense, tact, and the gumption to earn a living. Jeeves on the other hand is the perfect domestic servant. Ask Jeeves anything and he will give you a quick and correct answer. (He’s far more reliable than the search engine.) When you’re in trouble, Jeeves will conjure a clever plan to extricate you from that trouble. For example, when Bertie found himself engaged to a particularly distasteful young lady, Jeeves arranges to hide three cats, a fish in a bowl, and a top hat in Bertie’s apartment. How do these items extricate Bertie from the engagement? That’s rather complicated, but it’s also clever and delightful. That’s Jeeves, perhaps the cleverest fellow this side of Sherlock Holmes.
But I suppose what strikes me most about Jeeves is not his remarkable intellect and good taste. No, what really gets me about this guy is the manner in which he accepts his role as a servant. He appears fully dressed and ready to work when Bertie wakes. He’s there to attend to matters when Bertie retires at night. In between, he manages everything, always with respect and professionalism and a “sir” at the end of each sentence. Jeeves accepts his role in the world, and in fact seems to relish that role. The closest thing to disrespect that he ever shows is the occasional, exceptionally dry, sarcastic remark.
In my experience, there aren’t very many people who accept a subordinate position in the way that Jeeves does. I’ve noticed that my students, when given any grade lower than an A-double-plus, seem to sniff and moan at the injustice of it all. My colleagues rebel at the slightest sign of the administration trying to impose anything upon them. A couple of years back, some of the online teachers actually complained about a new policy requiring them to “respond to email in a reasonable time frame.” Apparently they thought it unreasonable to be asked to be reasonable. People resist the authority of the government, the church, the police, basketball referees, and any number of other authority figures. We don’t like accepting a worldview in which we aren’t perched at the very top of things.
That’s not God’s way, however. In today’s reading, we learn that some have been appointed to lead and others to follow. We see that some have been set aside to teach while others are to learn. And why? It’s so that we can all prosper and grow and reach the “whole measure of the fullness of Christ.” What is the fullness of Christ? Perhaps Jeeves knows, but I don’t. What I do know, however, is that we’ll never experience it unless we accept and rejoice in the roles that God has given us to serve.
It’s one year ago that I wrote the first of these devotions. A year ago, April 11 came on a Sunday and Easter Sunday at that, yet the anniversary is not diminished just because the holiday is already past. I’m a year in, and, since the first day of the current year, I haven’t missed a day. In fact, over the past twelve months, I’ve only missed a handful of days—Sundays excluded. No, I’m fairly pleased with my progress. Not the most routine-driven person at all times, I find myself fixed in a solid procedural loop. Each night, Sunday through Friday, I write the entry for the next day of the week, one week ahead of time. As I write this one, it is Sunday, April 3. In a few minutes, after I complete these thoughts, I’ll mail out the Monday, April 4 entry that I wrote a week ago and which you received a week ago. (Now I’m getting confused.) I’ll delete the April 4 entry and add the April 11 entry, keeping, as always, six entries, a week’s worth, on my computer’s desktop. When, on occasion, I miss a day, then I simply have to make it up at some point to get myself back up to a week in advance. I know you didn’t ask about any of that, but I felt like sharing it anyway.
I guess what really appeals to me about this system is that it seems so orderly and productive. In the midst of a crazy world, it’s good to have a still point that you can latch onto. It’s good to know that you can depend on certain things, certain people. For me, that point can be my time of reading and responding to the scripture. Things change quickly in our world. Today the kids love hip hop music. What will they like tomorrow? Who knows? Today gas prices are $2.15. Where will they be tomorrow? I hate to think about it. People change, nations change, opinions change—What stays the same? In reality nothing stays the same. Even the scripture changes in one sense. I’m not suggesting that the words dance around on the page, but certainly as we, the readers develop throughout our lives, we cannot read the same passage in exactly the same way two times. Still, the Word of God as recorded in the Bible’s pages do provide a firmer foundation than anything else the world allows.
In T.S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton,” the poet employs a Buddhist image of a turning wheel. As a wheel turns, the points on the outermost rim of the wheel move more quickly than those farther in. For example, a spot on the tread of a twenty-inch diameter wheel travels about sixty-three inches in one revolution; a spot halfway between the axle and the tread travels only about thirty-one inches in the same time. Therefore, the spot on the tread is moving twice as fast. As we continue to move toward the axle, the movement slows and slows and slows. Finally, there is, theoretically at least, a spot at the very center of the circle that doesn’t move at all: the still point.
My friends, as we continue our devotional lives, we remain human, in the flesh. We can’t hope to ever reach that absolutely still point. The vagaries of our minds, our sin, and the press of the world will see to that. But we can hope to move closer to the center, where the waves don’t toss us and the winds of teaching don’t blow so powerfully. (I know, I’m mixing my metaphors terribly.) That is my prayer for myself and for each of you today and in the year to come.
The year is 1920 and Carlos “Charles” Ponzi stands at the height of his glory. Born in Italy in 1882, Ponzi came to the United States in 1903. For the first few years Ponzi resided in the states, he worked a variety of odd jobs, but in 1917 he settled in Boston where he would make his mark on the world beginning in 1919. At first, Ponzi settled on a scheme whereby he could have foreign agents buy international postal reply coupons. The coupons could be sent to the United States, used to purchase American postage, and then sold to raise some U.S. currency. Theoretically—and I do stress that word—a hundred dollar investment could be quickly parleyed into $600. Always the conservative, of course, Ponzi assumed that currency exchange fees and other expenses would eat into the profit, thus he only expected a 400% profit. That’s pretty good investment performance if you can achieve it. The only problem with the whole system was that Ponzi couldn’t pull it off.
Not to be deterred by a small thing like the utter unworkability of his business plan, Charles Ponzi began taking investments in his new investment company, the Security Exchange Company (not to be confused with the Securities Exchange Commission, as if anyone could). Ponzi promised a mere 50% interest in forty-five days. That meant that an investment of $1,000 would grow to $2,000 in just ninety days. Continue that process throughout the year and you’ve got $16,000 in your pocket. Let’s face it, if you were guaranteed to double your money in just ninety days, wouldn’t you be up for some of that action? Thousands of people were up for Ponzi’s operation. They lined up to hand over their money. Why, you might ask, were the people of Boston, New England, and the wider nation so eager to toss their money into such an obvious fraud? Why? Because Ponzi made good on his promises. At the end of the first forty-five day period, he paid off the original investments and added on the fifty-percent “interest.” Of course, many investors, giddy at seeing their money grow, simply chose to roll their money over for the next period of time. Once people saw that Ponzi’s plan actually appeared to work, they really came out of the woodwork to lay their money down. At one point, Ponzi’s employees struggled to deal physically with the mound of money laid at their feet.
How did Ponzi pay off his investors? He took the money from investor two and paid off investor one. Investor three paid off investor two, and so forth. So long as new people kept feeding money into the maw of this giant conflagration, the Ponzi plan wouldn’t be dismissed as the Ponzi Scheme. But of course all good things come to an end. By August 1920, the jig was up for Ponzi. He eventually did time for defrauding people through the mail.
Now what, you might be asking, does all of this have to do with our reading for today? I hope I don’t sound irreverent here, but it seems to me that Christianity is the ultimate pyramid scheme. Think about it. In a pyramid scheme, you start with one person and then enroll more who enroll more and so forth. Everyone at the top of the pyramid can prosper as long as more bricks keep lining up at the bottom. But in Christ, we all grow out from one head, bigger, wider, stronger. In this pyramid, there is enough strength in the top stone to bring prosperity to everyone in the entire structure. Unlike Mr. Ponzi’s scheme, the body of Christ can continue to grow and develop forever.
Sometime back in the seventies, when the trendy people of the world latched onto loud plaids and curly perms as the height of fashion, the British rock band Pink Floyd recorded a song called “Money.” The drum track of that song was provided by the ringing of a cash register, and the lyrics told the story of the world’s continual lust for money. A lot of things from the seventies look pretty ridiculous to us today. Yes, we certainly dressed funny and acted funny and listened to funny music and so forth, but that song seems just as on-target today as it did when it first appeared. “Money, get away. Get a good job with good pay and you’re okay. Money, it’s a gas. Grab that cash with both hands and make a stash.”
One of the wisest things that I have ever heard anybody say about money came when I was working for the Boy Scouts. At that time, my annual salary was a princely $15,500. When I traveled to Texas for a three-week training course, one of the big shots of the organization came to speak to our group. “Is there anything that I can do to help you?” he asked us when he’d concluded his session.
“Get us better pay,” some wise-guy called out.
“I know what you mean,” he responded. Then he added the wise advice. “But I’ll assure you that $30,000 gets spent as quickly as $15,000.”
It’s true you know. For most people, it doesn’t matter how much they have; they want more. Look at these baseball players who are holding out for more money when they’re already earning $4 million a year. Now I’m not saying that Carlos Beltran or Mike Sweeney or whoever shouldn’t try to earn as much money as they can, but do they really need to hold out for the last dollar? Does anybody really need all that money?
And of course it’s not just money. There’s the old saying that goes, “You can never be too rich or too thin.” Apparently, you can never have too big of a house. Apparently, you can never own too many cars. When I allow my television to linger on some trashy music video, I find that you can apparently never be surrounded by too many scantily-clad women. It’s amazing.
Of course the passage we read today doesn’t seem to focus on these sorts of indulgences, but aren’t these the sort that most of us struggle with? You’re probably not sitting and coveting the Palace of Versailles, but we all have our problems with the flesh. For me there are two simple struggles: food and sleep. When I eat right for a couple of weeks, I discover that I gain a greater appreciation, a greater sensitivity for the things that I do eat. And when I manage to get myself out of bed early on a free Saturday, I feel good in mind and body. But all too often I just give in to those desires.
Those who don’t know Christ have an excuse for living like heathens. They are heathens. But those of us who know Christ have no excuse. We are not darkened in our understanding.
The song continues: “Money, it’s a crime. Share it fairly but don’t take a slice of my pie. Money, so they say is the root of all evil today.” It’s not the root of all evil, of course, but sometimes, I think our desires—for money, food, pleasure, whatever—are the fertilizer of evil.
Those of you who have been with me for a few months will remember that I took part in a play at JCCC last fall. Although I haven’t gone back to check, my guess is that I blathered on about that experience considerably for several weeks. With that past excess in mind, I hope you’ll forgive me revisiting that time again, because today I’d like to share with you a few words about costume changes.
Theatre work is no place to be shy and timid. You wind up yelling at people with whom you aren’t angry and cozying up to people you don’t necessarily like. That’s all on-stage, but what made me even less comfortable last fall was what took place off-stage. In the first scene of that play, Proposals, I appeared on the scene dressed in slacks and a knit shirt. After conversations with my daughter and housekeeper, I headed inside, presumably for bed. A couple of minutes later, I appeared at an upstairs window, all set to eavesdrop on my daughter as she broke her engagement to Kenny. During those couple of minutes, however, I had to drop the clothes and don pajamas, a robe, and slippers, all in the not-so-private environs of the backstage. Once my pj scene ended, I changed into another set of casual clothes, having to dress fairly quickly so that I could go back out into the yard. Those clothes I managed to hang onto throughout the bulk of the show, but then, after suffering what would be my final heart-attack, I had to scurry down a hallway from stage-left to stage-right and change completely. Because this change happened within about ninety seconds, the director positioned a costume assistant, an eighteen-year-old JCCC student, to help me make my change. It’s been a lot of years since I’ve had someone else button my shirt for me, but this girl, without blushing, did it for me each night for a solid week. I can’t say that the process ever became comfortable to me, but eventually it simply became the thing we did.
In other plays, I’ve had to deal with other costume changes, fast and slow. Why do we go to all that trouble, changing clothes for all of perhaps thirty seconds of on-stage visibility? I guess to answer that question, you’d simply have to see the play without the costume changes. They say that clothes make the man. Certainly, clothes help to make the character. I’ve known of actors who feel that the most important part of their costuming was their shoes. With the right shoes on, they felt like the character. Similarly, with the right clothes on, you can believe yourself to be the Prince of Denmark, an investment banker, or a talking pig.
Penny and I have committed to a joint exercise program. We’ve agreed that if we do well with the program, we should go in August and buy new wardrobes. Why? Our newly sculpted and svelte bodies will feel even more renewed in new duds. We don’t want to wear those old baggy, unfashionable clothes. We want to wear new, properly fitted, unfashionable clothes.
It’s interesting that Paul describes us as “putting off” our old selves and “putting on” our new selves. Elsewhere, he talks of new believers as “new creations.” Here, he speaks of something different. A new creation deserves new behaviors, habits, and priorities. A new creation should be dressed in a new wardrobe. God wants us to dress for our part as the redeemed. Happily, he doesn’t insist that we perform a quick change, but only when we have effectively traded in all our old attire will we feel our best playing the part that this new creation has given us.
What a coincidence that this passage of scripture should come our way for April 15. Tonight, on the local news, they’ll have a live crew situated at the post office watching all the procrastinators dropping off their tax returns in the waning hours of the day, treating this annual pilgrimage as if it were news.
Having filed my taxes ages ago and spent the refund, I today have the leisure to contemplate the significance of tax deadlines. In our society, we tend to have three dates per year on which we find ourselves contemplating our progress in the world and reflecting upon our lives. New Years tends to be given to setting unrealistic goals that will fall apart in the year’s first two weeks. Our birthday, at least for those of us over forty-ish, is given to the angst of aging. That leaves Tax Day as a date on which we can look over our lives profitably. And indeed such a review is fitting for us. It’s said that you can tell a great deal about a person’s spiritual life by looking at his or her checkbook. I couldn’t argue with that. When I balance my bank account each month, I tend to want to complain about Penny spending money at Price Chopper or feeding the kids at McDonalds. Then I notice the things that I spent money on and I bite my tongue. In the world in which we live, money tends to be a very strong indicator of our priorities, our strengths, and our weaknesses. And Tax Day has a way of calling us to account.
When I look over my tax return for the year, I have to examine several things. First of all, I see how much I earned. It’s relatively easy for me to look at my twice-monthly paychecks and think, “Boy, I can barely get by on this.” However, when that total amount appears on the tax form, I have to confess that I earn plenty. When I then look around and see how much I have to show for my earnings, I can get rather upset with myself. Next, I’ll notice the amount that I’ve given to my church. It’s easy to rationalize a delay of a contribution during the year or to “forget” that you received that extra income here or there. It’s not so easy to look at your total income for the year and your total giving and to ignore their great disparity. After all, figuring ten percent is easy enough math for even this English teacher.
I make this whole review sound rather grim, and that’s not how I take it. Indeed, I find the reviewing of my life to be a wholesome and positive experience most years. My work pays me reasonably well and, perhaps more important, I can feel good about the work that I do. I don’t believe that Paul would lump me into the category of “He who has been stealing.”
In today’s reading, Paul identifies three qualities that have no place in the church. First he identifies lying. Second comes anger. Finally, he mentions “stealing” or failing to work. Don’t all three of those qualities seem to be well represented on April 15? In the end, I think, Paul is saying that who we are as people in society has a great control over who we are as members of Christ’s church. We are, after all, one body. Perhaps, if your tax returns are filed, this is a good time to take account of who you are as a member of that body.
This is a tale of two encounters, one actual and one almost. To get into them, I must time travel back to my teenage years.
Our first encounter comes when I am fifteen years old and working the summer on the staff at Boy Scout camp. Three times each day, the staff would gather together, milling around like moths near a porch light, waiting on the back porch of the dining hall for those magical words: “Come on in.” I believe it was supper time when I planted myself on that porch with several of my friends. Glancing around from the porch onto the unwashed masses of campers also waiting, I noticed an adult whom I hadn’t seen in the previous days of this camping session. While most of the adults shared the same basic wardrobe—jeans or shorts coupled with a well-worn T-shirt—this guy came in garb that I’ve never seen on another human at the camp: the uniform of a Kansas City ATA bus driver. Today, I think back on that and wonder at my response, but at fifteen I thought nothing could be so ridiculous as a man in such an outfit. (This from a teen who was wearing tight green shorts and knee socks all summer.) I elbowed my friend Neil. “Hey, check out the guy in the bus-driver uniform,” I muttered. Neil glanced over and then turned to me. “That’s my dad.”
Our second encounter took place several years later at Mt. Washington Cemetery in Independence, Missouri, the site of a another summer job. On this day, Eddie and I were setting corner markers in a large flat section of the cemetery. Eddie was—oh, how should I say this—not the most sophisticated fellow I’ve ever known. My most indelible memory of him comes from a pattern of speech. Eddie always wanted to “Get somethin’ there to drink.” Where “there” was I never did figure out. On this hot July afternoon, Eddie and I were measuring twice and digging once before mixing up concrete to make our markers. I noticed a beat-up white station wagon driving around the road toward us. From a distance, I could see an enormous woman behind the wheel and her twenty or thirty offspring filling the rest of the car. As the car groaned toward us, I stood up and elbowed Eddie. Almost—almost—the words came out of my mouth. “Look at that fat slob,” I almost blurted out. But something stayed my tongue, and I just pointed the car out. Eddie started to move toward the road and greeted his mother, who had brought us “somethin’ there to drink.”
Words, I have learned over the years, can be far more damaging than a fist. Where bruises might disappear, the effects of ill-chosen words will linger, sometimes for years. Had I said such a nasty thing about Eddie’s mother, the next summer and a half of working closely with him would have been changed forever. And as I gradually learned, Eddie’s mom, while overweight, was a fine lady.
“Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths,” Paul tells us today. Do you have any idea how hard that is for me? Yes, you probably do, because it’s probably hard for you as well. We live in a world with plenty of openings for insults, criticisms, sarcasms, and unsavory chatter. We live in that world, and we’re perfectly equipped to join in its activities, but Paul says no.
I’m reminded here of what James says about the tongue (3:3-12). It’s a mighty thing. We do well to learn its control.
We really can’t help ourselves. Most of us spend the first five years of our lives in the constant presence of our parents. From then on those two provide—or should provide—the steady thread of continuity uniting our life. So is it any wonder that we tend to imitate our parents? Is it any wonder that, no matter how diligently we intend to be so different from mom and dad, we wind up being a lot like them? Is it any wonder that, as children, we slip on their enormous shoes and shuffle around the house?
I never intended to be like my father. His work struck me as the dullest thing a person could do. He dressed funny and he used peculiar phrases, things I’ve never heard anybody say. Imagine my shock, then, when I look in the mirror and see a whole lot of him looking back at me each morning. I’m not saying that I look like my dad. What I see goes deeper than that. I tend to react to my kids in ways that sound a lot like him. I have inherited some of his verbal mannerisms. Like him, I have four kids, and like him, I’m nuts about my grandkids. I even find myself drawn to the same sort of dog—the Brittany Spaniel—and the same sort of outdoor sport—quail hunting—that he loved.
Speaking of those grandkids, they were the product of my number one daughter, Emily, who is all of twenty-one right now. Two kids at twenty-one? Who do I know who did that? How about Penny and me? Yes, we married at the same age as Emily and Christian. We had our first child at the same age that Emily had Sydney. And we had another child, probably too soon, although we delayed Alyson a bit more than they delayed Ira.
Speaking of Alyson, here’s a kid who is undeniably her father’s daughter. You just have to look at her and you can see the resemblance—poor kid. But beyond the facial similarities, Alyson is following in my footsteps in school. She started off her college education as an English Education major—just like me. Then, last fall, she called me one evening, completely frustrated with her educational psychology class, and complained that she couldn’t see herself making a career as a middle school teacher. It occurred to me as we spoke that I’d had exactly the same feeling at just about the same time in my educational process. Now Aly is an English major—just like me—but she has no intention of ever going into teaching—just like me. She’s currently enrolled in an advanced composition course. The conventional wisdom around the school is that nobody gets A’s from Dr. Jones. I remember when the conventional wisdom at my college said that nobody tests out of Comp I. I tested out, and Alyson is making A’s. I’m proud of that kid.
In today’s reading, Paul encourages the Ephesian church to “be imitators of God . . . as dearly loved children.” Does that mean that we’re supposed to dress up like God, slipping on his enormous shoes and padding about the place? I don’t think that’s Paul’s intention at all. In so many ways, we cannot be imitators of God, just as we cannot completely imitate our parents. But in other ways we can be like him. Paul gives us the clue as to what trait we’re to emulate when he says, “live a life of love.” I’m sure that my dad got over me not majoring in business or following his path into banking. What made him approve of me, however, was when I showed the same love to my kids that he’d shown to me. Those shoes are big, but they fit well.
In George Eliot’s great nineteenth-century novel, The Mill on the Floss, the reputation of one of the main characters takes a nose-dive in an incredibly odd way. By the end of the book, we have followed Maggie Tulliver from childhood to her young adult years. Due to her father’s financial idiocy and the family’s rather meager prospects overall, Maggie finds herself struggling to find a suitable fellow to marry. So far, I’ve just described the crux of the plot of about ninety percent of nineteenth-century English novels, but to the best of my knowledge, none of those others accords such prominence to a simple rowboat.
While visiting her aunt’s house one day, Maggie is convinced to go out for a pleasant turn in a rowboat with Stephen, a young man who apparently has designs on her. The two push off from the shore and soon find themselves in the current of the Floss. Stephen, with his designs, doesn’t worry about staying close to shore. Before long, the pair find themselves hopelessly separated from their starting point. When Stephen’s marital advances are rebuffed, he simply lets the boat move farther and farther from home.
I remember reading this passage of Eliot’s novel and wondering what the big deal was about them floating so far from hearth and home. Granted, the whole escapade looked to be terribly inconvenient for young Maggie, but since she had no pressing engagements to claim her attention, it didn’t seem all that important that she wouldn’t be home for supper. Yet in the book, she approaches a panic state as they move farther downstream. Maggie, it seems had plenty of cash to arrange transportation back home. Stephen, although not a very obliging oarsman, wasn’t about to force himself on her. So why all the concern? The big deal, it turns out, was fairly simple. When Stephen and Maggie disappeared for a day or so, the assumption among polite society would be that they had been off doing something more than just boating. Did it matter to this crowd that nothing physical had transpired between Stephen and Maggie? No. Once Maggie saw that she wouldn’t be home that day, she knew that her reputation would be worse than Brittany Spears’.
Some people, including the majority of my students, would read this passage and sneer at the severe attitudes of these benighted Victorians. Indeed, the very term “Victorian” has come to be almost synonymous with repression and prudery. In reality, however, the Victorians, although just as fallible as any age of society, had a lot of this relationship stuff figured out. Appearances, it seems, mattered to the Victorians. Just the hint of impropriety, they realized, could sow a seed of doubt between husband and wife, a seed of doubt that could sprout into a real problem. Better, they realized, to avoid even the appearance of wrong-doing. You just don’t get into that rowboat, if you know what’s good for you.
Did the Victorian attitude derive from today’s reading? Perhaps. When Paul says, “among you there must not be even a hint of sexual immorality, or of any kind of impurity, or of greed,” he understood all too well how corrosive those forces could be to the healthy life of the church.
Today, it would seem, the exact opposite attitude seems to prevail. Today, many people seem to resist even the hint of sexual propriety, of purity, or of temperance. In the end, I think, the Victorians have a great deal to teach us about how to live happy lives. They may have dressed funny, but they understood the importance of appearance.
One of the most pleasant community service tasks that I’ve ever done spanned about five years. During those years, I served the Boy Scouts as an Eagle Scout Board of Review Guest Chairman. For those of you who aren’t up on the day-to-day workings of the Scouts, the Guest Chairman is simply a person from the district who comes into a troop when they have a boy being reviewed for Eagle Scout. The idea is that this impartial outsider will ensure that all requirements are met. In practice, the outsider’s presence also tends to lend a bit of gravity to the process. Finally, the guest can sometimes head off a totally undeserving boy being awarded the Eagle badge, although such an outcome remains quite rare.
Having assured the scouts that they have not just failed the examination, we proceed into the meat of the interview. In the course of this conversation, which typically lasts about thirty minutes, we’ll invariably talk about their leadership work within the troop. We’ll spend quite a bit of time on their service project. And finally, we’ll bring up the boy’s duty to God and involvement in church.
I remember one particular review in which I asked something like, “Tell me how you see your duty to God playing out in your life.”
The boy launched right into his answer. “Well, honestly I like to think of myself as an a—“ The “a” sound that this boy made was a long A, as in rhyming with “jay.” For an anxious moment, my mind raced. Was this kid going to latch onto the A word and proclaim himself an atheist? If so, then our conversation would draw to a very quick close. I thought these things in the split second during which his speech stalled. He’d misspoken and continued, “an alright Christian, but we’re not as involved as we should be.” Whew! Crisis averted.
When the Boy Scouts indicate that to earn the Eagle badge you must believe in God, they are not saying that this belief must be absolute and perfect. Simply having doubts now and then doesn’t disqualify a guy from that award. Similarly, when a Scout says, “A Scout is trustworthy, loyal, helpful” and so forth, the expectation is not that all scouts will always be 100% trustworthy, loyal, helpful, etc. No, the expectation is that most of the time we will live up to those things. Similarly, a young man who questions the existence of God Thursday isn’t cast out as a liar when he says “to do my duty to God and my country” come Monday. What we’re looking for is kids who are basically decent rather than basically dastardly.
I tend to think that this is the sort of thought going on in Paul’s mind when says that “no immoral, impure, or greedy person . . . has any inheritance in the kingdom of Christ.” If we take that to mean that anybody who has ever been immoral, impure, or greedy—or even those who fell into one of those categories this week—then I’m in big trouble. Like the Boy Scouts, however, I think Paul is looking at people’s basic nature. And so the question is what is your basic nature? Perhaps, like that Scout I reviewed, you’re “alright, but not as involved as you should be.” Only you can answer that question, but be sure to answer carefully. Your inheritance depends on it.
During the two summers that I spent working at the Boy Scout camp, the entire staff traipsed far out of the area where the first through third-year campers slept snuggly in their tents. We went to a distant campfire area where fourth and fifth-year campers were inducted into a semi-secret society. Twice every ten days—and three times if we drew extra duty—we would all head out of the oldest of the place’s three camps and walk down a long, winding road—part gravel and part decaying blacktop—until we reached the site of these campfires.
On the night in question, I’d been assigned some sort of duty that required me to head to the place early, right after supper. By the time the ceremony had proceeded to the point where my services were no longer required, I felt completely ready to head back to my cabin and my bed. With nary a thought of the walk back home, I headed up that dark, winding road.
Ten o’clock in July is every bit as dark as ten o’clock in December, especially when you find yourself on a narrow, wooded road on a moonless night. I’d gone probably a hundred yards when a profound thought came across my mind: Man, it’s really dark out here. Turning around, I could see the faint glow from a pole light near the campfire ring. Looking ahead, I couldn’t see a thing, although I knew that a light on a building would come in view before too long. And right where I stood, I could literally not see my hand in front of my face.
I’ve never been particularly leery of the dark. I knew this road well, and the surface would let me know if I had strayed off into the rough. I kept walking, slowly and carefully, in the direction where I knew I’d find camp and light. That’s when I heard it. At first, I simply heard a distant rustle in the woods. I stopped in my tracks. The noise drew closer. I could discern the rhythm of a running animal, a big running animal. It had to be a deer, I realized. Standing still in the middle of that road, I heard that deer come up the hill, bashing through the underbrush, apparently running as fast as it could. Another profound thought came to me: If that deer runs into me, it’ll really hurt.
What could I do? Should I run? How did I know I wouldn’t run right into the deer. I determined to simply hold my position and hope for the best. A few seconds later, I heard the clatter of hooves strike the pavement just in front of me. They then disappeared into the woods on the other side of the road.
From that night on, I always carried a flashlight with me when I went to those campfires. Light, you see, can be a mighty useful thing. I’ve been in the dark, and I’ve been in the light. Light is better. That’s Paul’s point here today. He camps out on that light metaphor for quite some time, because it’s really important. Why would we, once we’ve seen the light, choose to go back to the darkness? That’s a good question and one that I ask myself when, from time to time, I spend some time in that darkness. I can keep making those forays, but I should remember the lesson of that deer. You never know when you might get stampeded in the dark.
The Bible I keep on my desk and use to write these devotions is marked by a metal bookmark, the sort you buy at Barnes and Noble. A woman whom I met last fall in my acting pursuits gave me this thing on opening night of our play. It seemed classier than my usual ripped piece of paper for a bookmark, so I latched onto it. Tonight, however, the words etched on that slice of metal jump out at me.
“It is never too late to be what you might have been.” --George Eliot.
While that’s a nice thought, the reality is that it can indeed be too late to be what you might have been. Take the author of that quotation. George Eliot, as it happens, wrote The Mill on the Floss, which I mentioned just a few days back. She—yes, George was a she—wrote about a young woman who endured a father who passed the point at which he might have been financially solvent. That moment came and went in the Tulliver family. And when it had passed by, it was gone forever. Similarly, when Maggie went for her ill-fated boating trip with the nefarious young man, it became too late for her to be a lady of good reputation. At the risk of sounding somewhat cruel, it’s too late for George Eliot today to be anything that she might have been, since she died more than a century ago. Yes, that quotation sounds good. It’s the sort of thing that you tell your best friend who has just lost a job. But in truth, it’s so much nonsense.
It is too late for me to be many of the things that I might have been. I will never be a child prodigy. I’ll never be a millionaire by forty. Realistically, I won’t be a millionaire by fifty, unless teaching starts to pay much, much better. I’m pretty sure that the window of opportunity for me to be a major league baseball player has been closed and painted over.
In a more realistic vein, I know that I will never be a professor at a prestigious university. Ten or twelve years ago, that option remained open to me. I might have aspired to such a goal, but today, barring something truly remarkable in my life, I’ll never climb anywhere more impressive than Wisconsin-Sheboygan. Most likely, my writing career won’t take me into the upper crust of the literary set either. I might have reached that strata at one point, but that road has been passed by, never to return again.
Just in case you imagine that I’m sitting here crying in my Diet Dr. Pepper, you can relax. I realize that life takes us to a series of crossroads and requires that we make choices. I’ve made many choices that have closed off certain routes to me. That sure beats standing at the fork in the road scratching my head.
What troubles me, however, is not the options that I might have missed because of choosing—the roads not taken. What troubles me are those opportunities that I allowed to slip by because I simply let them slip. I know that in dealing with my kids, my wife, my students, and others, I’ve had opportunities that I didn’t make the most of. It’s too late to be all that I might have been.
Again, I’m not overly depressed on this count. I haven’t made the most of every opportunity, but that’s just human nature. I won’t weep over those missed chances, but I will do my best to catch hold of the ones that come by tomorrow. Maybe that’s all that George Eliot had in mind after all. I’m fairly sure it is all God requires of us.
In the opening pages of Douglas Adams silly, but very funny novel, The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, a book that has waited some twenty years for movie technology to catch up with its crazy vision, the main human character, Arthur Dent, is dragged down to the local pub by the main non-human character, Ford Prefect. Ford, who has just realized that the earth is about to be destroyed by an orbiting Vogon spaceship, advises Arthur that before they can hitch a ride on this spaceship, they’ll need to drink a large quantity of beer as a muscle relaxant.
In the pages of literature and on the silver screen, alcohol seems capable of doing amazing things. Penny and I, in our year-long survey of English detective movies, have noticed something of a trend. Alcohol fixes everything. Has your husband just been murdered in a locked room with no apparent access? Have a nice glass of sherry. Do you find all of the various conflicting and confusing clues to be just a bit much? Perhaps a bit of brandy would help. Drink helps to lubricate the tongues of unwilling witnesses who know a few things that the detective simply must learn. Drink will steady the nerves of the sidekick asked to perform some duty way beyond the comfort zone. Yes, alcohol is remarkable stuff.
I’ve come here today neither to praise nor to bury booze. What attracts me to this subject is not the liquid itself but the attitudes that I see revolving around it. I’ve watched friends who would ordinarily struggle to make ten minutes of conversation suddenly manage to fill an afternoon and evening around a bar. College parties would seem unthinkable without a keg to keep things “festive.”
My reason for pointing these things out, once again, is not to assault those who choose to imbibe now and again. We’re all big people. But it’s funny how silly a Christian can be made to sound when we suggest that giving a problem to God will help. Think about it. “Jesus can help you with your problems” will get you ridiculed in many circles, while “I need a drink” will be passed by with nary a question.
Let’s compare some of the effects of these two “spirits.” Both alcohol and God’s Spirit change our personalities and outlooks. The Holy Spirit gives us wisdom, while alcohol simply makes us think we know something. Both “spirits” can make a person feel better, but only one can make us be better. Alcohol tends to dehydrate us, while the Holy Spirit puts us in touch with Living Water. To the best of my knowledge, God’s Spirit won’t affect our driving for the worse. You’ll never be pulled over by the police for driving under God’s influence. The effects of drink wear off in a few hours; the Holy Spirit’s effects can be hung onto forever. Getting drunk, Paul points out, leads to debauchery. What does being influenced by God’s Spirit lead to?
Some people are rightfully wary of alcohol. They understand its effects. Sensible drinkers use it within boundaries. They limit themselves carefully. How sad, however, that many people show an unnecessarily wariness of the Holy Spirit. Here is a mind-altering influence that we need not limit or experience within boundaries. Indeed, we should drink deeply from this bottle. It’s the finest of all vintages.
While channel-surfing through the barren wasteland that is basic cable recently, I came upon a sport that I’d never seen before. I’ve seen boxing, and I’ve seen wrestling—both the acrobatic but non-competitive professional sort and the amateur sort. I’ve watched kick-boxing and sumo. But whatever this battle was called, it far outdid all of those other fighting sports in terms of pure aggression.
The fight involved two guys clad only in shorts squaring off in a ring surrounded by a chain-link fence. I’m not sure if that was to keep them in or somebody else out. With the opening bell, they attacked each other in any manner possible. To the best of my knowledge, nobody used any dirty tactics since apparently anything was legal. The match that I watched ended after only a minute or so when one guy wrapped his legs around the head of the other and squeezed him in a scissors move. You could see the loser’s shaved head turning brighter and brighter red as the pressure continued. Somehow this guy signaled that he’d had enough and the referee called the fight. Just before I flipped the channel, I heard the announcers indicate that the match had ended in a submission.
Somewhere in my file cabinets at school, you can find a file folder bulging with all manner of rejection slips. Most of them are pre-printed form letters. “Thank you for your submission to the XYZ Monthly, but we can’t use your story now.” A few of them are nice hand-written notes from an editor who chose to be personal and encouraging. Anybody who would aspire to be a writer needs to learn to deal with rejection. You print your latest beloved work of genius, package it up with an SASE and a cover letter, and send it off to some overloaded editor somewhere, hoping beyond hope that your work will strike a chord. Even the best writers—which I’m certainly not—learn to live with rejection. You learn to live with the receipt of that thin envelope containing a simple printed statement. “Thank you for your submission, but . . .”
“Submission.” Could any word in the English language have two such different uses. Okay, lots of words have two such different uses, but this one relates to our verse for today. In the world of the fight, submission means utter surrender. Essentially it means that you know the other guy can rip your head off, so you give up. You throw yourself on his mercy. In the world of publishing, however, submission means offering your work, “over the transom” as the saying goes, and giving the editor the opportunity to use it.
All too often, we think of submission in relationships in the first sense. But submission does not have to involve a hopeless surrender. No, submission can mean something far more hopeful. When a writer submits a work for publication, he relinquishes some rights to that work. But the act of submission opens the possibility of something truly special happening. If Tom Clancy had never submitted The Hunt for Red October for publication, he would have retained complete control over the novel, but he would have never earned a gazillion dollars in royalties and seen his book published around the world. No, submission can be a very positive thing.
When we submit to others and when others submit to us, let’s make sure that the act is more like sending a story over the transom and less like a scissors hold around the head. Let us submit to each other “out of reverence for Christ.”
At my high school, we had a truly terrible wrestling team. Part of that terribleness came from the frequent turnover in coaches. In fact, for five straight years, we had different coaches each year. I wrestled in my freshman and sophomore years. I went out in my junior year as well, but the agony of making weight prompted me to quit the team before the first match. Having endured two crummy coaches, I suppose I can be excused for running out when a decent coach finally showed up.
Today, I’d like to share a bit about my first coach, Coach Stark. How this guy happened to become a PE teacher and coach, I’m not entirely clear. While a decent athlete, he seemed singularly unsuited in temperament for coaching high school wrestling. What he seemed suited for was screaming at us. Now I understand a coach screaming at a kid who is dogging it on the mat. Sometimes, when I’m being lazy and worthless, I need somebody to jar me out of that complacency, but that wasn’t the main thrust of Coach Stark’s yelling. This guy would deride us for lack of talent. He’d scream that we weren’t fast enough. I’m pretty sure he once complained that my arms were too short.
One practice really stands out. As our afternoon wore on, the coach began to complain more and more about us not taking things seriously. The strange thing was that we weren’t doing anything different from normal. Yes, we were doing a typical amount of teenage goofing around, but in perspective we put in as good a practice that day as any other. Still, he grew ever more shrill, ever more complaining until finally he hit a breaking point.
“I’ve had enough,” he blurted out. “If you guys can’t take this seriously, then I have no idea why I should be here. You’re on your own.” With that, he grabbed a bag and headed out the door. A few seconds later our team captain got us back into the routine of practice and finished us up in a half hour or so. That little performance—and we quickly deduced that it was a performance, carefully pre-planned including putting his bag near the door—accomplished nothing for Coach Stark. Why? Because he was a jerk. We knew that he really didn’t care about us, our performance, our lives, or anything. So why on earth should we care if he got mad and stormed out. It just seemed like another in a hit parade of insults that he offered us. I don’t think anybody felt bad when he moved on.
In today’s passage, we see this command to submission, but we can’t neglect the other side of it. Coach Stark wanted us to bravely follow his lead in all things, but he hadn’t shown himself somebody worthy of following. Wives are supposed to submit to the leadership of husbands, but to my mind, the bigger burden is on the men who are commanded to be worthy of that respect, just as Christ is worthy of the respect of the church.
As in so many issues of relationships, we can only control one part of the equation. That team captain I mentioned, despite having a lousy coach, managed to finish fifth in state that year. Perhaps, despite my valid complaints about Coach Stark, the reason that I lost every match I wrestled that year lay more with me than with him. I hate to think it, but I’m fairly sure it’s true.
Every semester, it seems, I get the divine pleasure of reading the effusive drivel of some eighteen-year-old girl. It’s the same each year. The names change, but the basic story stays the same. I ask the class to write about “your most influential person” or “the person you admire most.”
“The person who I admire most of all is my fiancé, because he’s the sweetest, most caring, most wonderful person that I have ever met.” That’s the typical kick-off for these little gush-fests. Perhaps I’m too cynical, but whenever I read one of these I become convinced that if this pair should actually make it to the altar, they’ll be doomed for a life of disappointment before the shine wears off the wedding presents.
When you question these girls—and it always seems to be the girls, I’m afraid—as to why they find their intended to be so sweet, so caring, so wonderful, they typically come up with a host of synonyms. “He’s just so nice and kind and marvelous and . . . well, you know. He’s great.”
As a trained professional in the heady world of writing instruction, I press the issue, asking them for specific examples. “Can you tell me about a time when he showed his sweetness and wonderfulness?”
At this points, their eyebrows scrunch together and they think hard. “Well, when we went to prom last spring, he rented a limo.”
“Wow!” I marvel. “That’s sweet.”
“Yeah, and he gave me flowers last month for no reason at all,” she’ll add.
“Gee! That’s caring.” Before she can go on to wonderful, I usually tell her that this is exactly the sort of thing that I’m looking for. She should put thirty or forty of these tidbits into her paper.
I’m sorry to say it, but limos and lilies have precious little to do with love. I’ll tell you what love is. I’d tell them, but they’d never believe me. Love is giving up your day off to watch your two kids and your two grandkids when your wife goes off to have a ten o’clock meeting at the church. It’s not being irritated when you have to feed everybody as that meeting stretches past lunch time. It’s remaining calm as the hour approaches 2:00 and your wife still isn’t home. (It’s 1:59 as I write this.) It’s calling her on her cell-phone and not being bothered by the fact that she has it turned off. Love is emptying and filling the dishwasher rather than pacing the floor and considering all the nasty things you could say when she finally gets home. Love is thinking about all the things that you could be doing and would rather be doing today and then swallowing them rather than tossing them in your spouse’s face. Perhaps most of all, love considers her feelings very deeply, knowing that in her love, she’ll consider yours very deeply. And you don’t do this to earn that deep consideration. You just do it out of love.
In this sometimes distracting passage of scripture we can often focus so much on the gender relationships that we miss the beautiful things that Paul says about the love of Christ and the love between husband and wife.
I’ve never rented a limo for Penny, but I am hoping that one of these days I might measure up to the standard of love that she deserves, the kind of love that Christ shows for the church. That’s a better outcome that the best prom has to offer.
After my various ruminations about my attempts to run at the JCCC gym on my lunch hour last fall, the last thing most of you want to hear is that I’ve gotten back into my workout regime, but I’m sorry. That’s the fact, Jack.
As several of you know, my church has just opened a sort of combination gymnasium, health club, education space, storage space, day spa, and fellowship hall addition. Okay, that day spa thing was a stretch, but the rest of it isn’t. Part of the program in this addition is a physical fitness program. I know that the Bible doesn’t say, “Thou shalt be buff,” but you have to admit that healthy Bible Study teachers will probably last longer than unhealthy ones.
Penny and I have been trying to hit the gym for about forty-five minutes every afternoon. If I can steal away from school early enough, we can make our way around the various scary-looking machines before the evening crowd arrives to laugh at our hopelessly out-of-shape bodies.
Paul says, in today’s reading, that nobody ever hated his own body. But Paul didn’t have to contend with Chipotle, the Internet, and cable TV. In Paul’s day, neglect of one’s body meant forgetting to eat or refusing to wash off a wound. In Paul’s day, only the wealthiest of people could afford to eat enough to get fat and could avoid physical work enough to be out of shape.
Today, it seems to me, we have two ways in which we can neglect our bodies. We can fail to eat, which most of us have no problem with, or we can over-indulge. Strangely enough, had Paul been around the church today, he might have wanted to retract these words. After all, in most good-sized churches, you can find some teen or former teen who has dealt with a body-neglecting eating disorder. I find anorexia inexplicable. I look in the mirror, see that I’m fat, and then want a milk shake, but I realize that this is a real and very troubling ailment. On the other side, we can find far too many people in the pews whom the pews probably hate to see coming. Vast numbers of us are guilty of over-caring for our bodies, feeding them and keeping them from activity to such an extent that we’re killing ourselves. I wouldn’t suffer at the gym so much if I hadn’t “loved” my body so thoroughly with cheeseburgers and comfortable chairs.
This peculiar truth of the modern era complicates Paul’s words somewhat, but they still remain true. How should we love our spouses? We should love them as Christ loves the church and as we, at the best of times, love our bodies. We can fail in love by not doing enough, and we can fail in love by doing too much of the wrong things. In the end, though, we must love as Christ loves, which is loving with a long-term view. Although it’s not easy, I can get up off the couch and “love” myself to the gym not because I enjoy sweating today but because I know I’ll enjoy it in the long run. That’s why I encourage Penny to go each afternoon and why she encourages me. It’s not that we like the way each other looks on the ab machine. We’re just trying to love each other in some semblance of how Christ loves the church. We haven’t gotten there yet, but it’s fun to keep working at it.
Now we’re talking. For several days we’ve been wading through all of that submit to this one and that one stuff, but here we’ve reached a passage that we can truly sink our teeth into: “Children, obey your parents.”
I hate to be critical, but I am here to confess that my parents were not perfect. Oh, and while I’m at it, I guess I could point out that I’m not all that perfect as a parent. Still, I have to think that this “obey your parents” thing has legs. Let me give you a couple of examples, exceptions that prove the rule.
When I went to college, my dad assumed that I’d be a business major. He’d been a business major and had done exceptionally well. I headed to college, so I must be planning on being a business major, right? Wrong. I knew better. I announced my intention to major in journalism. I never earned that journalism degree, shifting from journalism to English education before you could say “editorial page.” As the years went on, the education part of that degree fell away and I earned an English degree. Actually, to give you the whole story, I also intended to add second majors in economics and then history at various times, but they didn’t work out. Never once, though, did I look twice at business. So what did Dad know?
In the spring of 2000, when Emily was preparing to graduate from high school, she took a look at her college fund, all of it invested in growth stocks, and said, “I think we should sell it!” Sell it? What a fool idea. The stock market was charging ahead like a steam locomotive. Money was growing like the dandelions in my yard. The NASDAQ Composite had topped 5,000. And she wanted to sell? A year later, the NASDAQ had plunged to about 2,100 and her money had grown to—oh yeah, we took a bath. Had I only done what Emily suggested the year before, she could have had lots of money to not go to college with.
So am I arguing that parents don’t know anything? Hardly.
Although I knew better than my dad when I went to pick a major for college, that
was probably a one in fifty chance at getting things right. And Emily? She may
have gotten something right other than that bit of lucky guesswork with the
stock market, but I don’t remember when it was.
Parents, you see, aren’t to be obeyed because they are always right. They’re to be obeyed because they’re parents. But Paul here doesn’t just refer to parents. He indicates “parents in the Lord.” Who are our parents in the Lord? I’d point to pastors and deacons and teachers and so forth. Christianity, we find in this letter, is not an individual sport. It’s a team sport, complete with team captains and team dynamics.
So what does this mean for us today? Just as we never obey our parents in every single detail, especially when they’re obviously wrong, we don’t want to blindly obey our “parents in the Lord” since they might occasionally lead us astray. But in the ninety-nine times out of a hundred when they aren’t obviously wrong, we should put aside our selfish desire to do things our own way and simply obey. Wouldn’t the church be a calmer and more productive place if we could make this sort of thing happen?
As I write these words, the brain trust at JCCC is seeking a new Executive Vice President for Academics. The Executive Vice President for Academics reports directly to the President of the college. Below the EVP for A, you’ll find two plain vanilla VP’s. In the credit branch, which is where I camp out, beneath the VP, there are four Deans. And below each of these Deans, there are Assistant Deans, who head up from one to several departments in which you’ll find faculty members. Now the VP used to be called the Dean, while the EVP was simply a VP. The current Deans used to be Assistant Deans when the VP was the Dean, but somewhere along the line somebody decided that calling them Assistant Deans made them sound unimportant, so they changed the name to Associate Deans, but now they’re plain ol’ Deans, which apparently makes everybody happy. The current Assistant Deans—and apparently nobody thinks that this title makes them sound unimportant—used to be Academic Directors. Faculty members get us into a whole other dizzying realm. From all appearances, the old system of job titles worked well enough, but a few years back some important task force determined that it would be a vast improvement for all of these folks to throw away their stock of business cards and get a new title. That’s how the VP became the EVP. You didn’t ask, but I told you anyway.
By my count, I have five bosses at JCCC ranging from my Assistant Dean, John, with whom I deal fairly frequently, up to the President who may or may not know my name. Unlike some of my colleagues, I have no problem with yielding to the authority of another. When John asks me to perform some extraordinary task, I generally agree immediately. Understanding how things work, I know that when I go to him and ask for some special dispensation, he’ll do his best. Some of my colleagues drive themselves silly, frustrated that somebody else has a say in where, when, who, and how they teach. Frankly, I have plenty of things to worry about without those worries.
Unfortunately, some of my colleagues also have a problem with being in charge. They try to run student-centered classes that empower the students to determine their own standards and create their own success paradigm. In practical terms, this means that the students get away with turning in just about anything at just about any time. I’m not going to live that way. The way I see it, when the college gave me that grade book, they intended that I use it. I set what I feel are reasonable rules and then expect my students to comply with those rules. When they do their best, I tend to be pretty flexible, but in the end, it is my classroom.
What does all of this have to do with parenthood and slavery, our Pauline topics of the day? Not much directly, but there is a tie-in. Although we are free in Christ, that does not mean that we are liberated from all forms of authority. I’m not sure exactly how Paul felt about slavery, but I am sure that he thought that someone who found himself a slave should yield to authority. Similarly, he thought that those holding authority should exercise it with wisdom and restraint. That’s good advice whether in the church or the larger society, and it’s advice that mimics the behavior of Jesus himself. (Look ahead to Philippians 2:5-11 for more on that.) I just hope that our new EVP turns out to be somebody who understands these principles.
Recently, I mentioned the woeful wrestling team on which I served as a woeful member in high school. I believe I also mentioned that in the midst of our woefulness, we had one guy who really shone. Donald wrestled at the 167-pound weight class. During my first year he took fifth in the state tournament. In the next season, he won the whole shooting match. Besides excelling in wrestling, Donald was a stand-out football player. He left our school and headed to Southern Methodist to play football in the years before that football program received the NCAA’s “death sentence.”
I’ve only seen David one time since he graduated. He made an appearance at that year’s annual school Christmas concert. When they called all of the alums of the Glee Club up to sing some song that had become an annual tradition, there came Donald. When last I’d seen him, he’d probably tipped the scale at some 175 pounds, but by that following December, the guy was enormous. He had to have weighed close to 250, carrying all of it high in his chest and arms. He made the pictures from those old Charles Atlas ads in comic books look rather anemic.
Let me hasten to say that I don’t know that Donald had injected anything like anabolic steroids into himself in the intervening months. However, given the many other unsavory things that happened at SMU during those years, resulting in them being banned from full participation in football for two years, I wouldn’t be all that surprised. After all, there’s a limit to how much a person can bulk up just by pumping iron and drinking high-protein shakes.
At several times in my life, I’ve lifted weights pretty regularly. I’ve greatly enjoyed the activity when I’ve been into it, which makes you wonder why I would give it up at some point. There’s a very good feeling that comes from the tangible results that you see after you lift routinely for a month or so. You start to see muscles where you hadn’t seen muscles before. More dramatically, you see yourself lifting amounts that you couldn’t ever budge before. I remember after I quit the wrestling team how I suddenly got into weightlifting. In those next months, I could finally bench press more than I weighed, something that probably would have made me a less woeful wrestler. But never in all that time of lifting weights have I been tempted to enjoy the easy results that steroids present. Perhaps if I’d been a more competitive athlete I would have faced that choice.
With all the recent news about this baseball player taking steroids and that one under suspicion, I see that lots of athletes have followed that dangerous path.
Paul today bids us to be strong, but not to be strong indiscriminately. He bids us to “be strong in the Lord and in his mighty power.” We can be strong in our own power or through the power of others. We can spend our days building up power through means fair or foul. Many people whom I see from day to day appear strong—financially, socially, politically, professionally, and so forth— but true strength flows from one source, the only true source. No amount of weight-lifting or steroid-taking can make me properly stronger than what God intends me to be.
Growing up, my best friend for many years was Tony, who lived directly behind me. We went through Boy Scouts together, splashed around in the creek that separated our house, and ran sleds down snow-covered hills. As we got older, we started to do a lot more of running around town and a lot less of splashing in the creek. I can’t imagine how many times over those years that I went somewhere with Tony’s family or he went somewhere with mine. But one thing in all of those trips remained strangely consistent. When it came time to leave for a movie, an overnight, a shopping expedition, or whatever else, Tony would never have his shoes on.
A year or so after Penny and I got married, we drove over to Tony’s house so we could ride together to a friend’s wedding. As we headed toward the old neighborhood, I told Penny, “Tony won’t have his shoes on.” She thought I was kidding, but when we walked into the house and made our greetings to all of Tony’s family, we heard him say, “I’ll be right with you. I just have to get my shoes on.”
By now, Tony is married and has several kids. I have to believe that he’s eventually learned to get his shoes on in a timely way. Probably it’s now his kids who keep him waiting with this ploy.
My kids do the same thing. When it’s time to go somewhere, Tom and Olivia wait until we’re ready to walk out the door. Then they realize that they don’t have their shoes on, can’t find the book they’ve been reading, don’t have a jacket, or need to knit a scarf. Never mind that we warned them thirty minutes before. “Get your things together,” we say, but it doesn’t help. We give them a ten-minute and a five-minute warning. We could provide a fully automated self-destruct sequence complete with a count-down and a siren, but they’d still get down to the last possible moment and need to go rummage around for the right shirt or a lost sock.
As we launch into probably the best remembered portion of Ephesians today, the full armor of God, we hear Paul saying that the Christian should “Put on” this protective suit. It’s not enough to simply own the full armor. We have to put it on. The nature of protective clothing is that you have to wear it for it to work. I’ve found myself drenched before when rather than wearing a raincoat I left it hanging in the closet. I’ve heard of people risking eye injury in a shop when their goggles hung around their necks.
As we’ll find in the days to come, the full armor of God is something available to all of us. This isn’t an outfit that we need to purchase as funds appear. Instead, it’s like Tony’s shoes, always lying about for us to put on at the proper moment. But if we don’t slip those shoes on, then we won’t be ready to leap into action or we’ll harm our feet as we tip-toe about the world unshod.
Let’s not go about our lives undressed. Instead, let’s get our shoes on and prepare for whatever adventures God has in store for us.
Just yesterday, Penny and I were scurrying about the house trying to get everyone out the door for a fun-filled evening with the Cub Scouts. It had been one of those terrific days. I had ranged all over town in the preceding hours. At 8, I’d been at school collecting semester portfolios. At noon, I headed home, ran to the church to exercise, and then made my way to eastern Independence for a doctor’s appointment. From there, I made my way north to reach the Midwestern Seminary campus for a meeting with the visiting accreditation team in order to convince them that, yes, Midwestern should be allowed to offer a bachelor’s degree. Freed from that meeting, I headed back to beautiful downtown Raytown in order to prepare for Cub Scouts, only to have Penny remind me that I would be leading her den again tonight. One of those kind of days.
After having gathered all the accoutrements that I needed to lead the Cubbies, I got my uniform on and hollered up the steps at Tom and Olivia. “Turn the TV off and get your shoes on,” I commanded. We have discovered a mysterious connection in our home: if the television is on, nothing productive gets done by our kids. Having issued that directive, I finished getting ready. Snagging a couple of stray items that we needed to take to the meeting, Penny and I headed up the stairs. And what did we discover when we got up there? You guessed it. The TV was blaring and the kids didn’t have their shoes on.
I know that yesterday I talked about Tony not having his shoes on, and here I go again. That may sound as if I am running out of steam, emptied of new ideas, but I would point out that it isn’t just me who is being redundant. Paul repeats that direction to “put on” the full armor of God in both verses 11 and 13. Why would he repeat those words? My guess is that he repeats them for the same reason that I repeated my words to Tom and Olivia yesterday evening. He knew that somebody wouldn’t be listening.
Why do we not prepare ourselves for the action that lies ahead of us in life? I can’t say for certain, but I will hazard a theory. We don’t prepare ourselves when we don’t take seriously the opponent that we face. There’s a tendency in sports for great teams to let down when they play the dregs of the league. Why prepare diligently when you know you can knock off this foe in your sleep? Often those great teams sleep right through a defeat.
Paul makes it quite clear in this passage that we are not facing a foe to be taken lightly. “Our struggle is not with flesh and blood,” he reminds the Ephesians. Our struggle is in the spiritual realm. If our struggle were simply with people, then we, as people ourselves, could hope to win on our own merits. But if the struggle is with the spiritual, then no amount of our flesh and blood can win the day. That’s why we need to get dressed. That’s why we need to put on our armor. Tomorrow, we’ll start examining that armor, but for now we need to turn off the TV and get ready to get dressed.
Every once in a while, I see these guys strolling around the campus at my school. Did I say strolling? I guess what I really meant was waddling. Let me explain.
These guys wear their big, sloppy shirts and ball-caps cocked at a peculiar angle. Those things I can certainly live with, but the thing that drives me up the wall is their pants. These young men with size thirty-two waists stroll around in size forty-two jeans. The waists of those jeans strike them somewhere around mid-thigh, and they have to constantly hitch the pants up as they walk in order to keep from having their drawers around their ankles.
“Why don’t you get a belt?” I want to yell at them. They wouldn’t listen however. They’re all too busy making sure that their exposed boxers coordinate properly with their big, sloppy shirts.
Of course, we shouldn’t be too surprised to see kids wearing jeans that strike them just above the knee. Waistlines have been trending ever further to the south for a good fifty years. Just this morning, Olivia and I sat in the living room and watched part of Singing in the Rain, complete with Gene Kelly, vintage 1952. In this film, we see the ever-dapper Kelly wearing his slacks in the traditional manner with the waist up around his navel. Fast forward to anywhere today, and you’ll find people who, if they don’t have their pants around their thighs, wear them a good four inches lower than Gene Kelly.
If you’ve ever seen Singing in the Rain, then you know that along with showing Gene Kelly dancing in immaculately tailored duds, it features Debbie Reynolds’ character providing the voice for a lip-syncing actress with a face of gold but a voice of aluminum foil. When the truth comes out, we see Debbie Reynolds raised to stardom and the banjo-voiced Lina Lamont fading with the silent picture age. Ironically, some of Debbie Reynolds singing was actually dubbed by a third singer for the film. That irony, however, is pretty unimportant in the universe of the movie. When Lina Lamont is caught, metaphorically, with her pants down, we know that the whole affair is going to work out just fine for all the principal players. Obviously, in the universe of Hollywood in 1952, truth will win out in the end.
As you read this, you might wonder what on earth lip-syncing, Gene Kelly’s waistline, and “sagging” pants have to do with one another. Probably they have very little in common, but when I thread a belt through these various loops, I do see one important point. The belt can, when used properly, keep a fairly important article of clothing in the right place. Similarly, the truth, when handled with care, can anchor relationships pretty effectively.
Why does Paul start his catalog of armor with the belt? Certainly one doesn’t put a belt on before any other garment, but the truth provides a marvelous starting point. Perhaps the Boy Scouts decided to start the Scout Law with “A Scout is trustworthy” after reading Paul’s sequence of armor. Or perhaps not.
If we do not buckle the truth around ourselves, very little that follows in this sequence can operate effectively. So let’s pull up our pants and tighten our belts. To tell the truth, we look better that way.
About two months ago, I went to the doctor. I had this slight problem: I was going deaf in my left ear. Happily, that problem got solved quickly, but I knew, heading into the office, that I’d get an earful (in my good ear) about another subject, my blood pressure. I knew this because about three years ago I’d gone into this same doctor’s office and listened while they said that my blood pressure was too high. In response to that news, I started taking some drug with a long name. At the same time I started exercising and eating low fat foods. In the span of a month, I’d dropped a number of pounds, gotten into considerably better shape, and saw my blood pressure drop into the acceptable range. Having accomplished this, I figured that if I continued two of the three factors that dropped my bp, then surely I could keep the positive result. After about three months of taking those little pills, I stopped getting refills. Perhaps my diet and exercise theory had some legs, but of course I didn’t keep up on the diet and exercise. Before long I’d gone back to my bad-old sedentary habits.
Last fall, when I went to the JCCC gym to start working out, they did the typical PDSM (Please Don’t Sue Me) thing that gyms do. They took my blood pressure, saw that it was above their limit, and told me to go to the doctor for a release. Did I go? Heavens no. I just went down to the track each lunch-time. Apparently, in the JCCC universe, having a coronary on the track is acceptable, but doing so on a treadmill is a liability issue.
So I went on through the winter and early spring knowing that my blood vessels were under too much strain. I knew that my heart was working too hard. Somewhere, in the depths of my chest, a little man shouted out like Mr. Scott on the old Star Trek shows: “Captain, the engines can’t take much more of this!” I knew this, yet I did nothing.
So when my ear started fading out, I went to the doctor prepared. I couldn’t go on ignoring my blood pressure. I’ve seen the results of heart attacks and strokes. Neither of these appealed to me. I’m not sure if my health insurance would cover a heart transplant, and I have no desire to need to know. My internal organs are too important to ignore.
That’s the idea of a breastplate or its modern equivalent the bullet-proof vest. Police officers and soldiers go around risking their arms and legs. They know that they can live without those if they must. But their chest, full of all sorts of essential functions, they protect as if their life depended on it—because it does.
God’s breastplate is righteousness, and it protects our hearts as well. If we ignore righteousness—the righteousness imputed to us through faith in Christ—then we expose ourselves to deadly attacks. If we treat that righteousness in a cavalier fashion, wearing our breastplate only when it suits us, then we’re just as foolish as I was being by ignoring my high blood pressure.
Today, after getting onto another medicine with a long name, my most recent bp reading was 132/78—quite acceptable. I’m trying to improve my diet and work out regularly, but I will never put my heart to unnecessary risk again. Hopefully I can guard my spiritual health just as carefully.
Eric Warfield, a cornerback for the Kansas City Chiefs, doesn’t get around town as much these days as he used to. After suffering his third DUI arrest a few months back, Warfield discovered that no amount of legal fees could keep the law from coming down on him for his ill-advised behavior. To all appearances, he seems to be taking his punishment like a man. That punishment has included a few days in jail, several weeks in a rehab program, and now several months of house arrest. Eric Warfield today rises in the morning and steps into a limo that takes him to work out. A few sweaty hours later, he gets into another limo and heads home. From that homecoming until the next morning’s departure, a monitoring device anchored to the man’s ankle reports any time he leaves the premises. Apparently, Warfield’s house is so large that he’s had the monitor go off when he’d go to some far corner of the place.
I read all of this information in a newspaper story recently. During this part of the year, football reporters struggle to find anything remotely interesting to put into the paper. The profile on Warfield’s house arrest, however, caught my attention. Here’s a man who is all dressed up with no place to go. He recently bought a Chihuahua. What do you carry your Chihuahua puppy around in? Of course you buy a $1,500 Louis Vuitton handbag. And what do you put around this little yapper’s neck? How about a $5,100 diamond-encrusted collar? Obviously, crime and punishment works a little differently when you’re a football player making several million dollars each year. The detail of excess that really stuck in my mind recalled images of Imelda Marcos. In his closet—a closet the size of a smallish bedroom—Warfield keeps half of his 400 pairs of shoes. Four hundred pairs of shoes? Who on this planet could possibly use 400 pairs of shoes? Certainly, it’s not a guy who for some twenty hours a day, cannot leave the four walls, however spacious they might be, of his own home.
Why would anyone want 400 pairs of shoes? I suppose that I’m being hopelessly stupid in asking this question. After all, you have to possess shoes in all different styles and in all different colors in order to be prepared for all different situations. Wouldn’t it be awful to discover, after pulling on your light chartreuse basketball togs, that you don’t have the proper basketball shoes to set off that outfit? A guy, Warfield would surely answer, simply has to be ready for all situations.
In today’s verse, Paul urges us to cover our feet not with one of Eric Warfield’s 400 pairs of shoes but with readiness that comes from the gospel of peace. I’ve always found this portion of this passage to be the hardest to comprehend, but now it seems reasonably clear. When we’re possessed of the gospel of peace, we’re ready for anything that comes. We have, to use the metaphor from previous days, our shoes on. Eric Warfield might be ready for any situation that the world puts in his path, but the ready believer in Christ, shod by the gospel of peace, is ready for any situation that God puts in his path. He’s ready to clamber over the adversity and climb up the steepest difficulty. Shod with the gospel of peace, we’re ready for everything because we don’t have to worry about anything. With that kind of footwear, we don’t need anywhere near 400 pairs of shoes.
A friend of mine, Marsha, just returned from several weeks of hazardous duty in California. I don’t recall exactly what took her out to the left coast. She either had to deal with somebody in the hospital or she was saving an entire eco-system from collapsing. These stories get jumbled in my memory.
Regardless of her reason for leaving the comfy confines of Raytown, Marsha returned to a life of ease—caring for her house and home schooling her kids—with a certain amount of relief. She’d had enough serious concerns and annoyances for a while. She found herself ready for trivial concerns and annoyances. With little delay, those trivial matters appeared for her in the form of pears.
“You know what I like about Costco, Mom?” her ten-year-old son, the very paragon of wisdom and insight, said to her. When Marsha didn’t answer, he continued to explain his love for the world of warehouse shopping. “They have these boxes for the pears and each pear sits in its own little compartment. It keeps the pears nice. I don’t like bruised pears.”
At that, Marsha responded. It was like an Andy Rooney moment. “Have you ever noticed pears? Why is it that they sell you these pears at the grocery store, and then some pimply-faced sacker practically throws the pears into the bottom of the bag only to bury them under pound after pound of Spam and chili beans and other lumpy, bruising things.”
As she pulled into the garage, Marsha shifted from Andy Rooney to Martha Stewart, looking at her box from Costco, seeing those individually cradled and cocooned pears, and whispering to herself, “It’s a good thing.” As she pushed open the car door, she looked around her garage. She noticed the unused exercise equipment and the boxes of Christmas decorations and all the other things about her house that made her appreciate life and her family. “It’s a good thing,” she reminded herself. As she got out of the car, she heard the neighbor’s dog barking, but it was still a good thing. Then she noticed her son’s skateboard on the garage floor—still a good thing. A pantry-load of groceries, a small mob of healthy kids, and pears in the top of the box—these were all good things.
It was at about this moment, as Marsha’s domestic bliss reached its zenith, that her foot reached the skateboard—not a good thing. In a moment, the skateboard skated, Marsha went from vertical to horizontal, and the once-safe pears came pelting down onto the cement of the garage floor. “Welcome back to the easy life of a home-schooler,” she told herself.
Marsha shared this story, which I might possibly have embellished a bit, in order to illustrate the absurdity of life. I want to use it to illustrate something else. Look at today’s verse. Notice that the Shield of Faith is not a tool for one-time use. Sometimes we get confused. We’re saved by grace through faith, and we rest in the eternal security of the believer, so shouldn’t the shield of faith be retired to hang over the mantle as a relic alongside our diploma and wedding pictures? No. While faith has a one-time value in effecting salvation, it has a lifelong value as we live out our salvation. Those fiery darts, like pears raining down on the garage floor, won’t stop flying just because we confess Christ. In fact, as Marsha discovered, looking up at the light fixtures of her garage, we can’t count on entering a safe zone, where nothing bad can reach us, while we still live in these bodies. That’s why that shield of faith is so essential. I’m sure Marsha will use hers to fend off the slings and arrows and pears of outrageous fortune from now on.
Back in the days before Lance Armstrong started winning the Tour de France every year, that race, which I consider to be the greatest sporting challenge in human experience, only managed to surface in the American press on rare occasions. One of those rare occasions came in July 1995. An Italian racer, twenty-four-year-old Fabio Casartelli, an Olympic champion, found himself flying down a long descent in the Pyrenees Mountains that divide France from Spain. After one of those long, grueling climbs in the mountains, the sort of climb where you’re standing on your pedals for twenty or thirty miles, there must be an incredible joy to flying down the other side of the mountain. You pedal rarely on such a descent, focusing your attention instead on taking the correct line through the turns so that you can keep your maximum speed and not crack up. On this descent, however, Casartelli, plunging down the hill at some fifty-five miles per hour, encountered the unimaginable. Several riders in front of the Italian went to the pavement. Although he attempted to avoid a crash, Casartelli too went down. Obviously, a crash of any sort at fifty-five miles per hour, protected by nothing more than a skin-tight nylon suit, is going to lead to awful results. The first guys who went down suffered broken bones and other injuries. Clearly, the race had ended for all of them. But Casartelli didn’t share their good fortune. He skidded head-first toward the edge of the road. On the outside of these mountain curves, the road is lined with concrete blocks—think of the sort that stand at the end of parking spots—designed to keep cars, or sliding bikers, from plunging into the great beyond. The concrete block that Fabio Casartelli met on that hot July afternoon served its purpose. He didn’t plunge over the cliff. Instead, the Italian’s head smashed into the concrete and stopped there. He died on the scene.
A couple of days back I talked about the breastplate—or body armor—protecting the vital internal organs of police officers and soldiers. In parts of the world less concerned with flying bullets and more concerned with the mundane sorts of injuries a person can suffer, you don’t see a lot of body armor. But you do see helmets. Motorcyclists wear helmets as do bicyclers who have any sense. Construction workers wear hard hats as do miners. In the end, just about anything in the human body can be replaced, repaired, or worked around. I can get a heart transplant or let a dialysis machine do the work of my kidneys. I can live without my appendix or my gall bladder. But take away my brain, and I’m in pretty bad trouble.
They say that Fabio Casartelli might well have lived to race another day had he been wearing a helmet that day in the Pyrenees. In the end, we’ll never know. In the end, we don’t get a second chance to put on the helmet of salvation. None of these other protective devices seems worth anything if the soldier loses his head.
My prayer, friends, is that we all have strapped on the helmet of salvation. If you’re tempted to delay, just think about Fabio Casartelli sliding toward a concrete block.
“Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
If you’ve never seen the film The Princess Bride, then you have no idea of what that statement is supposed to signify. But if you have seen it, then it probably brought a smile to your face.
Inigo Montoya, we learn from this movie, is a Spanish man whose father was a sword smith. When Inigo was just a lad, his father received a commission from a mysterious stranger who had six fingers on one hand. When the buyer came to pick up his newly forged sword, he refused to pay Mr. Montoya, and when Montoya resisted, the six-fingered man murdered him all in the sight of Inigo. Then, for good measure, the villain put a nasty scar across Inigo’s face to teach him a lesson.
As the movie progresses, we discover that Inigo has dedicated his life to learning everything that can be learned about sword combat. He has studied every style of sword fighting and has trained endlessly for one purpose. Having mastered his craft, he sets his face steadfastly toward finding the six-fingered man. “When I find him,” Inigo explains,” I will look at him and say, ‘Hello, my name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.’” Then, obviously, Inigo planned to kill this dreadful creature.
Does Inigo find the six-fingered man? Come on! It would be a pretty lame movie if he didn’t at least find the guy. Does he succeed in his quest? I won’t spoil the ending for you, but I will say that the whole affair does not come off as smoothly as Inigo might have hoped.
So what do you do with your life after you have gotten your revenge? What do you do with your exquisite skills as a swords-man? Rather like General Patton, Inigo Montoya had prepared himself perfectly for war, but he didn’t have a plan for peace.
When I think about the “sword of the spirit, which is the word of God,” I realize that there’s something to be learned by a short study of our man Inigo Montoya.
First of all, while Inigo’s reason for being, his reward for years of study and training, would evaporate the moment that the six-fingered man drew his last breath, the benefit that we get from study and training with God’s word will never expire.
Second, as we have already seen in this study, our battle is not with flesh and blood. It’s with spiritual powers. With that in mind, the sword of the spirit is our only weapon. Without it, we go into battle unarmed.
So why do so many of us go into the battles of this world either empty-handed or poorly trained to use the weapon at hand? Why would we risk ourselves to the enemy when proper preparation can be a relatively easy and painless thing. Perhaps I’m preaching to the choir here, but perhaps not. How many of you just read these little ditties and skip the scripture reference? I know some people do. I’d also think that, given how long I’ve been camped out in this neighborhood, I would have this little passage memorized, but I don’t.
Let us train with the vigor and determination of Inigo Montoya, realizing that there is a villain far more menacing than the six-fingered man awaiting us each and every day. But unlike Inigo, let’s use our swords not for revenge but for liberation.
Had you listened to my son Tom pray a couple of years ago, you would have heard something very much like.
God, thank you for this day. Thank you for my mom and dad. Thank you for everything. Help the kids in Africa. Thank you for the food. Amen.
It didn’t matter whether he was praying for a meal or before bed or whatever. We must have had the most blessed food on the planet in those days, but when Tom’s prayer moved out of the realm of thought-out communication and into the category of rote delivery, we knew that the kid really wasn’t praying in a meaningful way. He might as well have been reciting some Latin prayer out of a Medieval prayer book.
Happily, Tom eventually outgrew that little prayer. The kids in Africa, it seems, will have to fend for themselves. This wouldn’t be a positive development if he really thought about those kids when he prayed that prayer. In recent days, though, we’ve been trying to break the boy of a very peculiar habit as his prayers have begun to go this way.
Dear God. Thank you for this day. Thank you that I got to jump on the trampoline. I hope that we have a good day tomorrow. I hope everybody stays safe. Thank you for the food. Amen.
I’ve tried to convince the kid that God doesn’t care what we hope for. I hope that the Chiefs win and I hope that I have decent weather so that I can mow my grass tomorrow and I hope that the annoying kiddie video that my grandkids are listening to right now will end soon, but that’s not the stuff of prayers. No, when I pray, I don’t “hope” for things. I directly ask for them. “Lord, let us have a good day tomorrow. Lord, keep everybody safe.”
It’s strange that Tom should pray in this manner. When my kids have wanted something over the past twenty-two years, they’ve never said, “Dad, I hope you give me five dollars” or “Dad, I hope you’ll let me go to the movies.” On the contrary, when my kids, Tom included, want something, they know how to ask for it.
With him at ten years of age, I don’t suppose it’s all that alarming that Tom doesn’t pray with the maturity that we might hope for. The problem with his first prayers revolved around their rote, unthinking nature. The problem with his second prayers is actually more significant. He doesn’t seem to be aware of the relationship that he has with the God to whom he speaks. He knows that he can ask me to buy him baseball cards. He doesn’t seem to recognize that he can ask God to do things as well.
What does it mean to pray in the Spirit? With the Spirit of God dwelling within us, praying in the Spirit is very much a form of insider communication. We are allowed a marvelous intimacy with God. Through the indwelling of the Spirit and the access we’ve gained through Christ, we’ve made our way into the inner circle. That’s what Tom needs to realize as he matures in his prayer life. Unfortunately, many people grow far past their eleventh year without claiming this powerful communication tool at their disposal. That’s a shame, but it needn’t be for us. Let us go to God boldly with “all kinds of prayers and requests.”
Today proved a bittersweet day for me at Midwestern Seminary. On the one hand, it was a terrific day as I largely put another class into the past. One of the best things about my work is that every four months or so—two months in the summer—I get to wrap everything up, turn in grades, and start over again. If I bungled things terribly, I only have to live with that disaster for a semester. That’s why I love the end of the term. However, on the other hand today was tough because I bid farewell to several students whom I’ve had all this school year and who I probably won’t see in class again. I’ll use two of them, Richard and Kevin, to stand for the others.
During this semester, Richard, a guy who has a couple of years on me and who served out a career in the navy, accepted a call to pastor a small church in the Ozarks, Lazy Acres Baptist Church. In our one year of acquaintance, I’ve developed considerable respect for this man. He’s intelligent and hard-working, but more important than these traits, he has a terrific passion for advancing the gospel. He might not be the most eloquent of preachers—I’m not sure, since I’ve never heard him preach—but I’m fairly certain that not too many of his peers will out-prepare him. He’ll serve the people at Lazy Acres well, bringing God’s Word to them each and every Sunday.
Kevin’s a different story. Well, not entirely, but I do enjoy tormenting him. Kevin stands six foot eight and has a smile that seems about that wide. All through this year, Kevin has labored over his writing. While words come to this man’s mouth quite easily, they don’t seem to flow down his arm and into his pen nearly so well. Kevin’s a verbal guy, not a written guy. He’s had to work hard to make improvement, and he’s still not an excellent writer. He went in view of a call to a country church last week, and I have no doubt that Kevin, with his quick wit and endearing personality, will make a marvelous pastor for some church somewhere. He’ll be quite a different preacher from Richard, but he’ll also bring a great deal of good ministry to the table.
My prayer for Richard and Kevin is simple. I pray that they will never allow studious preparation or ready wit to get in the way of the message that God would deliver through them. It’s all too possible for a preacher, a teacher, or a devotion writer to rely on the arm of flesh for the message that appears on the page or in the pulpit. In many churches around town, we can find eloquent and learned ministers speaking well chosen but dead words to a starving congregation. I pray that God will guard Richard and Kevin from ever doing that to their flocks.
We needn’t pray for Paul any more. His mouth doesn’t open anew any longer. But we can pray for Richard and Kevin, for your pastor, for all those who preach the gospel in various settings. You could pray for me, and I will pray that when you have an opportunity to speak the “mystery of the gospel,” you’ll have the words to share.
Yesterday I mentioned that I have reached the end of the academic year, the closing of the books for another semester. A week from now, it’ll all be history. On Monday and Wednesday, I’ll be sitting through a couple of exams. In between those times, I’ll be privileged to read a bevy of term papers and listen to a bit of whining. The whining, I’m sorry to say, has already started.
One young lady emailed me recently. She hadn’t been to class in nearly two months, since Spring Break. Her excuse? Her father had suffered a massive heart attack on April 20 (a month after Spring Break) and she’d been dealing with that situation. It’s astounding that she couldn’t whine any better than this. First of all, to think that a family illness relieves you of all responsibility in your life for a solid month is pretty unrealistic. Beyond that, however, is the whole problem of where she was between March 20 and April 20. Apparently, she needed to get ready for that heart attack.
I hate to talk that way. I suppose that what I hate most of all is that at the end of the semester, when I should be able to focus on the positive accomplishments of the ninety percent of my students who have done pretty well, I’m stuck listening to the excuses, the lies, and the shifts of responsibility from the ten percent.
I’d much rather revel in the good work of Angela and Jonathan and Leslie and Rachel, but instead, I have to respond to the plaintive cries of Andrea, whose bad gall bladder kept her from doing any coursework or, presumably, using the telephone for the past two months. Oh, the things these kids today have to suffer through! She knows that her papers are late, but she’d really like to get caught up. And while I’m dealing with this, I don’t have the chance to look pleasantly on the hard work of Victor or Sarah or Gillian or Taylor. It’s enough to make you scream.
At the end of every semester, I see a number of people on the grade sheet who I can only pray will grow up and take responsibility for themselves. The rest of the names, however, are people for whom I have great hopes. I pray all the best upon these people. They don’t have all of life’s challenges figured out at age nineteen, but they’re making progress. They’re growing and learning and making themselves into something. I find that to be one of the more exciting aspects of my work.
Perhaps that was in Paul’s mind when he reached the end of his letter to the Ephesians. He wanted all the best for these people whom he had shepherded into the Kingdom of God. He couldn’t give them everything, but they remained in his prayers as he called down peace and love and grace upon them. I suppose that’s what I should do for all of my students, the good ones who seem to be going somewhere and the lost lambs who are bumping into obstacles at every opportunity. I pray that they will receive peace and love and grace, even when they don’t deserve it. After all, I receive those things when I don’t deserve them.
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.