These devotions were written in the summer of 2004. Click on a chapter number to jump to the first devotion for that chapter.
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This week, my nephew T.J. began his sixth summer working at Boy Scout camp. Some twenty-five years ago, I spent two summers working at that same camp, and when I was there, I ran into several people who had served on the staff a good twenty-five years before that. One man had actually worked there for the first forty-nine years that the camp had been in operation.
Any time you get people together who span the years like that, you’re bound to get into the stories about how things were back in the old days. Yeah, life was tougher back in the good old days. Or maybe life was better back in the good old days. Or maybe it was both. Yessir, I remember when they fed us steak six days out of the week in the dining hall, but we had to hike nine miles both ways to eat it. That’s right. We used to earn nineteen merit badges in a single week in my day, and we had to swim all the way back to the city in order to earn them. They even made us swim for the handicraft badges!
Of course if you’ve never been to Boy Scout camp, then you can probably relate this to something else. Remember when schools used to actually make people learn? Remember when cars didn’t fall apart as soon as they came out of warranty? Remember when baseball players played as if they cared about the game more than the money? Remember?
You probably know what I’m talking about. People seem to have a natural ability to remember the golden age as something better than it could have ever been . A few years ago, when I was doing a study of fly-fishing literature for my doctorate—yeah, I know, you remember back when people had to study real literature to earn a doctorate in English—I discovered that this idea of a lost golden age goes way back. The Greek writer Hesiod, who did his work around a thousand years before Christ, talked about a lost golden age followed by a lost silver age. He was really a negative guy.
As he begins his letter to the Galatians, Paul doesn’t exactly hearken back to a lost golden age, but he certainly doesn’t think much of the current age. What does he call it? “The present evil age.” I think it’s good for us to remember that Paul wrote these words more than 1,900 years ago. He didn’t live in a world with Al Qaeda, Eminem, throwaway marriages, “wardrobe malfunctions,” gay rights, and AIDS. No, Paul’s world had other problems, other manifestations of the evil age. Had Paul lived long enough, he wouldn’t have looked at 1776 or 1950 as golden days. I don’t think Paul could look back and see a golden age unless it was the golden age in Eden.
In this election year, I think it’s really important that we don’t miss the import of Paul’s words here. Christ was sent “to rescue us from the present evil age.” While I don’t propose giving up on this world, we have to remember that the mess the world is in will not be fixed by our efforts. It’ll be fixed only when God decides to take over the place.
It’s been more than twenty years, but I can still picture the jumble of patched-together camping trailers, tents, and various other temporary shelters that dotted the edge of a small field on the Salisbury Plain. If you know your English geography—and there’s no reason to expect that you would—then you know that you’ll find Salisbury Plain near the city of Salisbury. More importantly, however, you’ll know that in the middle of the Salisbury Plain you’ll find an ancient circle of giant dressed stones: Stonehenge.
We visited Stonehenge in early June of our year living in England. As we circled the place and gawked at this ancient wonder, my eye wandered over to the tents in the nearby field.
“Is this a campsite?” I asked our friend, who was guiding us.
“Druids,” he replied, as if that single word would make everything clear. When our puzzled expression only deepened, he went on to explain. “They’re not real Druids of course. They’re just people who call themselves Druids. They come here every June for the Solstice. Frankly, I think it’s just an excuse for a big party.”
In the news recently, I heard something about the gathering of Druids at Stonehenge. Apparently they’re still at it, still pretending to be “real Druids” and still having a big party.
If the phony Druids of Southern England were the only false religion that we had to contend with, then I wouldn’t spend my time writing this, but the world is absolutely loaded with made-up surrogates for religion. I’m not talking about things like Islam and Buddhism here, either. At least those religions have been around for more than a thousand years. I’m not even talking about the churches that are compromising on important but not absolutely central issues of the faith. I’m talking about these Johnny-Come-Lately religions where people concoct a “gospel” that fits with their lifestyle. We’ve got people preaching the most craven sort of works gospel, the sort of teaching that says that the more money you give to God the more you’ll be blessed financially. That sort of thing makes the selling of indulgences by sixteenth-century Catholics seem pretty tame. We have others preaching that you don’t need Jesus in order to have salvation. No, you just need to get in touch with the God-essence within you. Of course you’ll want to have a lot of crystals and scented candles to boot.
With Paul, I’m astonished that people who live in long-Christianized lands like the United States and England can so quickly desert the true gospel of Jesus Christ. But on the other hand, I shouldn’t be surprised. We do, after all, live in a decidedly fallen world, full of people looking for an excuse to do their own thing. Still, for these people to so quickly desert the gospel, you have to think that somebody in the church dropped the ball. We could sit and play Blame the Episcopalians, but that wouldn’t really embrace the problem.
You see, I am the church just as you are the church. And every day I do things or fail to do things that help others find it easy to desert the gospel. I guess what really astonishes me most is not that there are Druids worshiping the sun at Stonehenge today. What astonishes me is that I have done so little to show them the way to follow the true Son.
Although I’m not old enough to remember, I’ve heard that Franz Liszt, the nineteenth-century pianist and composer, could be called the first of the teen idols. Apparently, when Liszt came to town, the young people of the town when nuts for him. Supposedly, when he was leaving Berlin during a “farewell tour,” Liszt found himself greeted by a huge chunk of the population. The resulting traffic snarl is reputed to have stopped the carriage of the king, who was scarcely noticed in the mayhem.
Today, it seems, a person needn’t really accomplish very much in order to be accorded great acclaim. The bar for “celebrity” has been set quite low. I’ve watched my son stand for over an hour in order to get the autograph of the worst player on one of the worst teams of the NBA. Anybody who has made a movie and been in the top five of the credited actors gets treated as if they actually have talent. And on the Disney Channel, anybody who is on screen and breathing is considered a “star.”
Of course there’s a part of me that would like to be a crowd pleaser. I’d love to sell CDs the way that Aerosmith does, pack theaters like Harrison Ford, or move books at the pace that Michael Crichton achieves. But mostly, I’d like to achieve these things in order to cash the royalty checks. Beyond that, I’ve seen that mass fame is a pretty short-lived thing.
When was the last time you read a book by Harold Bell Wright, Lew Wallace, or Hall Craine. A hundred years ago, these authors were big time. Wright is reputed to have had the first million seller novel: Shepherd of the Hills. Wallace wrote Ben Hur. None of Craine’s work has lingered sufficiently to right a bell with anybody today. The writer in me would love to be a crowd pleaser like these three, but I have to recognize that like mediocre ballplayers and excellent pianists, the fame is a fleeting thing.
Fame and popularity depend upon the fickle natures of people, and people can rarely keep their attention trained on one thing for more than a half hour. Today’s phenom is tomorrow’s guest on Hollywood Squares.
In matters of faith, the same holds true. The vagaries of theological speculation come and go, ebb and flow. But the gospel of Jesus Christ stays. It might be understood or expressed a bit differently, but the gospel itself stays the same. I think that’s why Paul spent so much time at the beginning of Galatians emphasizing that the gospel he preached came from God and not from man. The whims of man will blow away tomorrow, but the word of God remains.
When we look at our lives and how the gospel is expressed in them, we need to remember that our lives are a mixture of the man-made and the God-made. These words I write here are a great example of the man-made. They’re fine for today, but I’d be an arrogant fool if I thought that anyone would remember these words ten years from now, much less a hundred. If I’m a crowd pleaser, that’s fine, but in pleasing the crowd, I have to be sure to please God first.
I met Stuart almost a year ago. Having served in full-time ministry for his entire adult life, Stuart has served as a youth and children’s minister for most of those years. Now, in his mid fifties, he found himself a couple of years ago presented with an opportunity. He could move away from the high energy requirements of ministering to kids and into the equally important of church finance and administration. Having sufficient background in finance to do this new job effectively, he stepped into what he thought would be the closing leg of his career, helping a large suburban church exercise better stewardship over its sprawling affairs.
Unfortunately for Stuart (and I think for his church as well) this new position didn’t last long. Here’s how it came down. Stuart went to a local store to buy his family a new television. He pulled a credit card from his wallet and charged the $300 TV. As he headed home with his purchase, he had a suspicion. Checking his receipt, he realized that he had accidentally used the church’s credit card to buy his TV. He stopped by the bank on the way home, withdrew $300 from his account and deposited it into the church’s account. Then, arriving home, he called a layman who helps with financial oversight and explained what had happened and that he’d taken care of the matter.
Other than making a completely understandable mistake—the cards looked identical after all—Stuart had done absolutely everything right. The church had suffered no harm at all. Still, this layman, who apparently resented Stuart’s presence at the church, decided to make an issue of it. Within a couple of weeks, our villain had called Stuart’s character and honesty sufficiently into question so that he felt compelled to resign his position and return to children’s ministry.
While this might have been good for his current church’s kids, I can’t imagine that this sort of madness is good for the kingdom of God. Still, you here stories like this all the time in church circles. It’s enough to make you wonder if we have any membership requirements at all.
I’m reminded of Stuart’s story when I read about Paul having to contend with “false brothers” who were spying on his work and attempting to cause trouble. What was the beef these false brothers had with Paul? Was it envy? Was it doctrinal disagreement? Did they not approve of the sort of music that Paul’s church plants played in worship? Maybe they felt as if they’d been passed over for some position of authority. It’s not entirely clear from the text.
There are entirely too many excuses for church strife that we see today. There are entirely too many people who feel that if a person or a church or a denomination does not agree with them 100%, then they have license to lob all manner of grenades in that disagreeable direction. Just because I don’t like my pastor’s choice of sermon material or the Bible Study curriculum or the style of clothing the youth minister wears or the inclusion of cat people as deacons, does not give me the right to mess up what they attempt to do.
I’m sorry if this sounds more like an editorial than a devotion today, but I’ve seen way too much of this church-destroying behavior in recent months. We have been called to be one church following one Lord. Let’s remember that before we do anything that would allow Paul to lump us with the false brothers.
I remember 1985 as if it were yesterday. Although it’s nearly twenty years ago now, 1985 represents the high-water mark for baseball in Kansas City, my home town. Yes, in 1985, George Brett won a batting title, Bret Saberhagen won the Cy Young Award, and the Kansas City Royals won their one and only World Series crown. Since they are presently ten games out of first place and playing with a payroll only slightly larger than the average Quik Trip store, I don’t think we’ll be adding any pennants any time soon. But we’ll always have 1985.
What I most remember about that series was the ending to Game 6. Now I absolutely refuse to remember the supposed bad call that may or may not have given the Royals additional life in that game. That’s just sour grapes from my friends in St. Louis. But I do remember the little looping single that scored the winning run. I remember seeing that ball head toward short right field. I remember my sense of joy when it dropped in for a hit. I remember the electricity as the outfielder made a strong throw to the plate trying to cut down the decisive run. I remember watching that baserunner, Jim Sundberg, sprawled on the ground, trying to both tag the plate and avoid the catcher’s tag. And I remember the elation that coursed through the room when the umpire’s arms flew wide, indicating that Sundberg was safe.
Do you know who hit that ball and drove in that final run of the game? I do. It was Dane Iorg. Who? Dane Iorg will never see his face immortalized among the greats at the Hall of Fame. He isn’t sought out for autographs these days. Even back then, most people barely knew who the guy was. Dane Iorg didn’t start for the Royals that season. He played, when called on, moderately well. But that night in October, when he looped a fading line drive over the second baseman, Dane Iorg was living a dream that most ballplayers only get to imagine in the backyard.
I’m all for the Dane Iorg’s of this world. What did Dane do? Did he win batting titles or hit 300 homers like George Brett? No. Did he win a couple of Cy Young Awards like Saberhagen? No. He just did what he was called on to do. He went out to play the outfield or first base whenever called upon. He came in to pinch hit when the opportunity arose. Dane Iorg knew his role. He might have dreamed of being an All-Star, but he learned to be a good bench player. That’s admirable.
When Paul talks about his calling to be an apostle to the Gentiles, he might sound like a bit of a Dane Iorg. Witnessing to the Gentiles back then would be about as glamorous as being pastor of First Church of Nowhere. Paul, through all his life, held a special affection for his own people, but he set that on the back burner to be what God called him to be.
In the end, there’s no greater purpose any of us can have than to be what God called us to be. We might be the all-star or we might be the benchwarmer. It doesn’t matter so long as we’re filling the role he created us to fill.
It’s a little strip of cloth, about three quarters of an inch tall and twice that wide. Its background is deep blue and embroidered on that blue is a white overhand knot. Surely this object I’ve just described does not sound like something to be grasped, yet I know people who eagerly seek it. This object is the Boy Scouts’ District Award of Merit, a fairly prestigious award that requires a good ten years of capable service for most people. My sister-in-law, Joy, has decided that I should receive this award.
While I’d be happy to accept the award if chosen for it, I really haven’t given the matter much thought. Most of the good Scouters I know, many of whom have already received it, feel the same way. They’re in Scouting not for awards but for boys. But there are a few of those climbers who set themselves a goal. “I want to get the Award of Merit within five years,” they seem to say. Then they map out the route that they think will take them there. They’ll volunteer for the right committees and assignments. They make sure to get to know the right people. They’ll work with certain troops because of the connections they can make there. Some of these people actually attain their goal. Most of them, I’d say, don’t get there. Most people can see through such shameless résumé-building.
Like a lot of these sorts of honors, the Award of Merit cannot really be earned. When I was a boy, I set my sights on earning the Eagle badge in Scouts. In that endeavor, I had a clear list of requirements. Earn so many merit badges, serve in certain leadership positions, and do a certain amount of community service—you can become an Eagle. When I earned my Eagle medal, I did it largely on my own merits. In fact, once I had met the requirements, no one could stop me from being recognized as an Eagle.
But the Award of Merit is different. You can’t earn it. You can do certain things that make you more apt to receive it. For instance, if you serve as a Scoutmaster for ten years in a troop of 75 boys and help out the district on projects, then you’ll almost certainly receive that award. But there’s no guarantee. You can’t simply receive it on your own merits. In the end, a committee of past recipients has to choose you and bestow the award on you.
Just as some people try to finagle their way to an Award of Merit, many people try to work their way to righteousness before God. They might figure that if they avoid the really bad sins or work at enough Vacation Bible Schools or say certain prayers or never cuss on Sunday, then they’ll get their reward. Paul is quite clear here. That’s not how it works.
“If righteousness could be gained through the law, Christ died for nothing!” My friend, every time you or I slip into sort of thinking that equates salvation with our merit—and most of us do it now and again—we’re essentially saying that Christ died for nothing. Let’s never again diminish the importance of that precious. Do you want an award of merit? You’ll be happier with an award of grace.
I had a conversation with a fellow church member just yesterday. Bruce is a fellow whom I’ve known for a couple of years but with whom I’ve never really talked in any depth. We exchange pleasantries, joke about our kids, and the like, but we never really got beyond acquaintanceship. That changed yesterday.
One of the things that I learned from Bruce was that he had been a long-time smoker. “Yeah, I smoked regularly for eighteen years,” he informed me. “I quit a little over a year ago.”
It was all I could do not to gasp and fall on the floor, pointing and shrieking at this guy’s hidden sin. Okay, that’s not true. I guess what really surprised me was the ease with which he discussed it. Vices like smoking and drinking are certainly not absent from the church, but we don’t see too many of our people speaking openly about them. I remember another conversation I had about a year ago when, Mike, a long-time choir member told me about his new job driving a beer truck. It didn’t so much shock me that he’d hold such a job, but he made no effort to avoid the topic.
And why should he? Now don’t take this wrong. I can think of about two dozen reasons why people shouldn’t smoke or drink. Personally, I never got hooked on smoking and I haven’t used alcohol for decades. Still, I can think of more destructive sins for a Christian to commit.
What does all of this have to do with Paul’s comments about the Galatians reverting to the law? I’ll tell you. It seems to me that humans have a natural tendency to invent laws to define perfection. I don’t know very many Christians who follow the rules from Exodus and Leviticus, but I see plenty of times when we create new systems of ritual purity.
Smoking is unhealthy. It’ll shorten your life. A Christian ought to avoid it, but we should avoid a lot of things that we don’t. Why do we make such an issue of that particular sin? Isn’t that something like a return to the law?
Drinking leads to all manner of health and safety problems. It disrupts families and kills innocent drivers. But some Christians seem to wear their tee-totaling like a badge of sanctification and talk as if one drink would cast an otherwise saved person into the jaws of Hell.
And don’t get me started on wearing modest dress, using a KJV Bible, reading Harry Potter books, following certain voting patterns, or any of a dozen other things that sometimes become a sort of legal path to salvation for Christians who should be believing that we are saved by grace through faith.
Again, lest I be misunderstood, I want to emphasize that I do believe in sin and I believe that at least some of those things above are sins. The elimination of sin in our lives should come as the result of our salvation. It should never be seen as a means to our salvation. Anyone who says otherwise is just blowing smoke.
A little over a year ago, the Kansas City Royals and their new manager, Tony Peña, kicked off a new advertising campaign. On t-shirts, billboards, seat cushions, and everywhere else they could print it, the Royals placed a two-word slogan: We Believe. The idea, it seemed, was that if you believe sufficiently, then you can accomplish just about anything.
You’ve heard the people who follow this philosophy, haven’t you? “You can accomplish anything if you want it badly enough,” they’ll say. I remember sitting at dinner once with a Boy Scout Executive, a guy who was far from the sharpest character I’ve ever met. “I’m going to be the Chief Scout Executive,” he announced to the rest of us (who hadn’t asked). “I know I can do it if I believe in myself enough.”
That was the approach that Tony Peña and the Royals took last year. “We know we can win if we believe in ourselves enough.” In the end, the Royals had a better year than anyone thought they could possibly have had. They led their division until sometime in August and proved a very exciting team throughout the season. But no amount of belief in themselves was going to overcome the fact that they didn’t have a single dominant pitcher on their team. No amount of belief could overcome the fact that their pitchers couldn’t throw strikes. No amount of belief could overcome the fact that they ran through half a dozen second basemen and couldn’t get any offense from their catchers all season. No, belief will only take you so far.
But how can I say that in a space where I’m supposed to be uplifting? How can I say that when Paul is writing that “God would justify the Gentiles by faith”? This makes about as much sense as the Royals trotting out an ad campaign that says, “We’re not that good, but our uniforms are clean.” How can I speak so slightingly of belief or faith?
I think a great deal of belief. But faith needs an object. When you read today’s text, you’ll see that Abraham accomplished what he accomplished not because he believed sufficiently in Abraham. “He believed God,” Paul tells us. Abraham’s faith was in God. Now if my friend with the Boy Scouts thinks that simply having faith in yourself is enough to take you to the top of the heap, he’s in for a big disappointment. And if the Kansas City Royals think that simply having faith in yourself is enough, then they’re headed for obscurity. The world is full of people with a huge amount of talent and faith in themselves who still manage to crash and burn.
It’s vitally important that we, as Christians, are filled with faith. Faith, after all, is the very conduit through which God’s grace flows to us. But just as the conduits that bring water into your house have to be connected to the water supply, the conduit of faith needs to be connected to the grace supply. And faith connected to ourselves, our employers, our country, our political party, or anything other than God is not going to deliver what you need. Have faith, but make sure it’s faith in God.
I’m not a superstitious guy, but I had to wonder a couple of years ago. After my family and I moved to a lovely home on five acres of pasture, I thought we’d found ourselves in Shangri-la. Little did I know, however, that along with our house we had bought what seemed to be a cursed tractor.
The deal I worked out with the owners of the house had us receiving a heavy-duty Case that had been liberated from duty at a local hospital. A week after moving in, I scoffed at the grass rising around our ankles. I mounted the great orange mower in the barn and set out to do battle with the fields. But the key refused to turn the engine over. That time around, a new battery set the blades to spinning. Later problems were not so simple. In the two years that I kept that mower, I had it substantially rewired. I had two different tires repaired. I nearly punctured a third tire when a brace of some sort broke and rubbed against the wheel. One day, I managed to run the mower deck into a telephone pole—as if I couldn’t see that coming—and threw the entire deck off kilter so that it never again mowed level. In short, that mower spent more time on blocks than on the job, more time on the road to the mechanic than it did in the field. Had I been a superstitious person, I’d have said that it was cursed. Instead, I just sold my “curse” to my mechanic.
We don’t believe in things like curses, do we? When Boston Red Sox fans talk about the “Curse of the Bambino,” they don’t really mean it, do they? When people look at the Kennedy family and wonder whether they’ve been cursed, they don’t mean that either, do they? Certainly we don’t believe in the Curse of Ham, a tradition vaguely rooted in the Bible, that our ancestors used as a pretext for the permanent enslavement of Africans. Do we?
No, we don’t believe in curses. We don’t take seriously good omens and bad omens. The idea of a harbinger of doom seems bizarre. If someone were to approach us and say, “Beware the Ides of March,” we’d assume him to be rehearsing for a Shakespearean play. Curses just seem so archaic, so unfair, so unreal. If there’s anything to a curse, then it must be rooted in something that can be observed and studied. Any curse under which my tractor suffered probably had more to do with a succession of klutzy owners than voodoo. Curses aren’t for real.
Yet here’s Paul talking about a curse. Specifically he says that Jesus became a curse for us. Jesus didn’t just fall under a curse, but he became a curse. When I sold my lawn tractor, my mechanic took my curse from me, but he didn’t become the curse. He could, at will, get rid of that curse. But Jesus didn’t just take on my curse. He became my curse. What on earth does that even mean? How can God become a curse? I’d be lying if I claimed to fully understand that, but I can appreciate the gravity of what he did for me. If I ever forget, may I be cursed.
You hear the stories from time to time. Brothers are fighting against brothers in the courts over some scrap of an inheritance. Sisters won’t speak to sisters because one or the other got the parental home or the General Electric stock. I’ve seen this sort of thing in families I know. Otherwise decent people find themselves willing to scratch each others’ eyes out over the contents of a bank account.
With those ugly images in the back of my mind, I want to give my parents—my father especially—a hearty thank-you. My dad, while he had a healthy desire to earn and preserve material wealth, managed to pass on to all four of his kids a sense of fairness and family that transcended our natural feelings of greed. No, the four of us aren’t some sort of super-saints who shove aside all material things. We’re just as acquisitive as the next person, but I cannot imagine any of us scrapping and fighting over a few thousand dollars. (I can’t imagine us scrapping over millions, although if any of you could arrange for millions to be involved I could be more certain about that.)
My dad made it clear when we were growing up, that money was something to be valued, to be sought. I never saw him deal foolishly with money. He believed in economizing and in saving. He believed in investing and expected a healthy return on that investment. But I never saw him seem greedy or tight-fisted. As much as he might work to beat the Cadillac dealer out of another $200, he’d gladly share that and more with his family, his church, or another worthy cause. My dad valued his money, but he never became a slave to it. I admire that and work to emulate it. I think my brothers and sister feel the same way.
It occurs to me that this attitude toward inheritance mirrors to some degree the words that Paul says about the inheritance of God’s blessing. That inheritance, something far more valuable than even Bill Gates’ heirs will ever receive, has been guaranteed not by a legion of Pharisaical lawyers and carefully-worded wills. No, that inheritance comes to us by way of a promise.
When you read the accounts of the Pharisees in the gospels, you see the behavior of heirs who think that they’ll receive their inheritance based on the provisions of law. They move and manipulate, positioning themselves to best advantage. They shine the outside of the cup and leave the inside full of filth. That’s the attitude that Paul contrasts against an inheritance based on promise. This is the inheritance to be received by the heirs of an infinitely wealthy Father. This is the inheritance that awaits us from God’s open hands. There’s no need for a reading of the will or months tied up in probate. This will cannot be contested. I want to live in that family.
It’s no wonder that Paul rails against a return to a dependence on the law in this letter. And he’d rail just as strongly when you and I take steps away from a dependence on God’s promise of grace. Brothers and sisters, let’s claim our inheritance.
Me is a English teacher.
Do you have any idea how hard it was for me to type those words? It amazes me that there aren’t triple red and green squiggly lines under that sentence. Frankly, it wouldn’t surprise me if smoke started bellowing out from my computer.
As I type these words, a British author, Lynn Trusse, is earning major royalties from her book about punctuation, Eats, Shoots, and Leaves , while Karen Elizabeth Gordon has enjoyed over ten years of respectable sales from her book about grammar, The Transitive Vampire. Closer to home, I have seen dozens of students come into my classroom over the years admitting that they were terrible sinners in the world of grammar and usage. They wanted to repent, but they just couldn’t seem to do it. Some of these students become so paralyzed with paranoia over their fallen nature that they can’t seem to utter anything. I can’t count the number of times that I’ve met somebody and told them what I do for a living, only to be greeted with “I’d better watch my grammar, eh?”
Why do we have all of these rules for grammar and usage? Why do we have a difference between “farther” and “further”? You probably don’t know the difference, and you’ve done alright despite that ignorance of the law. Why do we have to make our subjects agree with their verbs? If I were to say “She go to the store every day,” you’d understand what I meant, wouldn’t you?
Are you a grammar sinner? Do you face the wrath of an angry English teacher? As grim as that prospect might seem, let me give you the bad news. Try as you might to perfect your usage, you’ll never achieve written redemption because of the perfection of your prose. No, all across this country today you can find copy editors who manage to expunge the errors wrought by hundreds of writers. They’re very good at their jobs—almost perfect—yet that perfection won’t save them from writerly rejection. And then you’ll find those who achieve great success in their writing and yet who violate most if not all of these supposedly sacred rules.
Why then, you might well ask, do we have to suffer under the law of usage? Why do we torment ourselves with these regulations and restrictions when they cannot earn us the result we long for? Why restrain our language when those who violate the law are seen to prosper? What sort of justice is that?
The laws of punctuation and grammar, Byzantine and obscure as they might seem, serve a purpose. They guide us in the direction of clarity, of communication, and of meaning. By themselves, they don’t make us great writers, but without knowing them, we’d struggle mightily to find success.
Is the analogy sound? Perhaps if don't look too hard at it. God gives us law, moral law, not to confine and torture us. He gives us law to keep us away from trouble and to guide us toward the person of Jesus. The law cannot save you any more than can a well-placed comma. Neither a split infinitive nor a lie will condemn you when you’re living under grace. Still, they have their negative effects. Let’s be careful then not to carelessly sin, grammar sinners.
In about six weeks, several million American high school graduates will make their way to college and university campuses where they’ll enter into the next chapter in their educational stories. Many of those students will make the adjustment without too many broken bones or shattered egos, but a significant number of them will wind up in a sort of academic scrapyard, trying desperately to figure out what went wrong. One of these guys is currently enrolled in my Composition I class. Here’s the outline of his story.
I enrolled in the University of Kansas and moved into the dorms. The first day there, I found out about Charlie’s, a bar that would serve anybody who could see over the counter. Before long, I found myself studying hard to master the complexities of partying in Lawrence. What I didn’t study hard for was class. Eventually I earned two D’s and two F’s. That’s why I’m back at the community college, trying to start this thing over again.
Nobody heads to college with an eye toward being academic crash test dummy, but many thousands of students--students who have plenty of ability to succeed--wind up in similar shape each year. Some of them get there by drinking too much, but many others do it through too much time in front of the TV, too late of nights, too late of mornings, too little homework, or any of a dozen other excesses.
What happens to these people? When they were living in their parents’ houses and attending high school, they were, more or less, treated like children. Somebody kept up on their attendance at school. Parents could actually find out how the kids were doing. Parents—at least some of them—took an interest in where their kids went and with whom. And then suddenly, one day in August, all of that changes.
The college freshman realizes that nobody is going to call home if classes aren’t attended. No teacher phones a parent worried about Susie’s recent slide in grades. Nobody pays much attention to whether you’re on campus or not. In short, you’re treated more or less like an adult. You’re free to drink yourself silly, skip out on the truly important things in your life, and generally make a mess of things. The safety net of life—those calls from teachers and parental restrictions—suddenly disappear.
As grim as I make that transition sound, I doubt that any of you would want to go back to a time when you had so little control over your life. Part of me wishes to go back to those days, but another, louder part wants nothing to do with it. While I might romanticize my youth, I’m happy to be an adult.
Good parents, of course, do their best so that when the reins go slack, the kids don’t run for the hills. God, by giving us his Holy Spirit, prepares Christians for the freedom of being adult heirs. Some people, unharnessed but fighting control by the Spirit, run wild. All of us, we’d have to admit, take a bit of a wild gallop now and then. Sometimes, those moments get us into trouble. But that doesn’t make me want to be a child, living under the Vice Principal of the law. I thank God for my graduation. I just pray I can make the most of it.
Last night, I took my kids, aged nine and eleven to Kansas City’s Southmoreland Park for this year’s offering from the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival. Last year, I worried that my kids would be bored by Hamlet. We watched the Mel Gibson version of the play beforehand, and I worried about that too. It wasn’t the violence. I figure they get exposed to plenty of that. No, it was the general level of impressiveness between the two productions. After all, on screen you had Hamlet played by Mel Gibson and on stage you had a moderately successful Actor’s Equity member. On stage you had Polonius played by veteran British actor Derek Jacoby, while on stage you have—well, I can’t even remember that guy. On screen it was Glenn Close and Helena Bonham Carter. I think you get my drift.
The beauty of it was that kids weren’t bored last year. They absolutely ate the play up, attacking it like me on a blueberry cobbler. This year I attempted to repeat the magic. We rented the 1970 film of Julius Caesar. In that version, which includes John Gielgud and Charlton Heston, we are treated to Jason Robards in what must be the single worst Shakespearean performance of all time. I’m saying that I could have played a better Brutus than did Robards. After watching my kids struggle to stay with that film, I worried last night at the park. I urged Penny to stock the picnic basket with even more junk food than we’d normally bring. I even prepared myself to pack up and leave at the intermission. But did my kids want to abandon ship once Caesar had been stabbed and Mark Anthony had delivered the funeral oration? Not my kids!
I’m pleased to announce that I have developed two little pre-teens who have come to appreciate the bard. For a guy like me, there’s not much that’ll warm the cockles of the heart more. With this success under my belt, I'm getting giddy and ambitious. What might we try next? Goethe’s Faust in German or the complete works of Sophocles? I can scarcely imagine where we might wind up.
On the other hand, I couldn’t have blamed my kids for failing to see the magic that Shakespeare can still produce some 400 years after he penned his words. I’ve had plenty of experiences where I would read some poem that I found simply astounding only to have non-literary types stare at me as if I were chanting railroad timetables in Assyrian. Poetry and theater can be an acquired taste. Once you get it, you get it, but until you do, no one should be surprised. That’s why I’ve worked so hard to give my kids this experience.
But what can we say for those people who have come to appreciate great literature and then opt for junk. I have a friend who falls into that category. He can fully appreciate many of the most demanding and rewarding of writers, yet he’ll turn his mind over to absolute mush. He’ll watch re-runs of Mr. Belvedere and enjoy The Dukes of Hazard. It’s sad.
That’s the sort of thing that Paul is talking about here when he shakes his head at the Galatians. How can somebody who has seen the good stuff turn away and watch the junk? How can somebody who has eaten fine food settle for slop? How can somebody who has enjoyed the glorious freedom of God turn back to the bondage of legalism? That’s a great question, and before we get too full of ourselves in answering, we should turn it on ourselves. Have you eaten of the choicest fruits that God has to offer only to turn away and settle for the spiritual equivalent of Fruit Roll-ups?
For one semester in my college career, I roomed with John. At that time, both of us were new Christians, although we’d both grown up in the church. John, although a terrific roommate, lingers best in my mind because of his zealous idiosyncrasies. Let me just pick on one of these to illustrate my meaning.
Sometime in mid semester, John became convinced that God wanted him to sleep no more than five hours each night. This had something to do with stewardship of time and mortification of the flesh. At least he didn’t decide to wear burlap underwear with maggots inside it. Now if any mere mortal of a roommate were to decide to sleep only five hours each night, then you’d want to pull out your hair. You’d find the guy staying up watching re-runs of The Simpsons until at least midnight and then hear him blow-drying his hair at five or six in the morning. In other words, if he decided to sleep only five hours a night, he’d be deciding that you should only sleep five hours a night as well. Thankfully, John didn’t do that. We’d both stay up until midnight or so. At five, I’d hear just a peep of his alarm. Then, as quietly as he could, he’d roll out of bed, dress himself in the dark, and head down to the dormitory lounge to do some reading. John and I used to play racquetball at seven in the morning sometimes, and I can tell you that his body worked a whole lot better than mine on a racquetball court in the morning, but sitting in a cushy chair in a quiet lounge reading Descartes or Skinner, John was just as helpless as you or I would have been. He regularly nodded off during those early mornings.
I also remember him down on the floor just before bedtime one night. I’d grown accustomed to his kneeling by his bed to pray. This night, though, I noticed him begin his prayers at about 11:30 and then I looked again and realized he hadn’t stirred at a few minutes past twelve.
“John,” I said. “You’ve fallen asleep.”
He stirred, disoriented. “I’m just praying,” he muttered.
“You’ve been down there half an hour,” I explained.
With that, he shook his head and crawled into bed.
I don’t say all of this to poke fun at John. I say it because it’s a great example of the sort of zeal that most of us feel when we first come to know Christ. We’re ready to deprive ourselves of sleep, food, or comfort. We’d walk over hot coals if we thought it’d bring glory to God. We’re wide awake for Jesus, but then, before too long, we doze off. To some degree that might be a good thing, but all too often, it seems, that dozing just goes on and on. It’s this slumber that leaves Paul asking, “What has happened to all your joy?”
I imagine John sleeps more than five hours a night these days, but hopefully not too much more. We were all wide awake once. If you’re feeling drowsy, get close to God and wake yourself from that slumber.
Three years I stood in the gallery of the National Archives building in Washington staring at the fuzzy amber image of the Declaration of Independence behind a thick protection of glass. The security measures employed to safeguard that sheet of parchment boggle the mind, but it’s a uniquely important piece of history.
If the Lord delays his return by a thousand years, I rather suspect that the historians in that age will look back at the United States of America as the nation that did the most to exalt the power of the individual. The whole idea of individual rights as we take them for granted today was inconceivable a few hundred years ago. That Declaration that Thomas Jefferson wrote in the summer of 1776 was not just the birth certificate of a new nation but an important movement in the campaign to enthrone the individual as the most important entity around. In years past, we’ve seen other things highly exalted. Perhaps it was the empire, the nation, the family, the race, the church, the union, the movement, or some other group identity. But in 2004 in America, we find a profound belief in independence. People will resist any imposition of any authority by any body. We, as a people, seem to think that every traffic ticket is unjust, every moral standard is an arbitrary, and every legal restriction is an affront to our natural rights. Hogwash!
Thomas Jefferson did indeed write about “life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness,” but he never argued that individuals should have absolute, unfettered license to do whatever they want. After all, he worked within the Continental Congress to pass the declaration. That group comprised representatives from thirteen colonies. And when he wrote about those rights, he didn’t say “I hold these truths to be self-evident.” No, he said, “We hold these truths.” I think Jefferson knew that independence does not mean the end of all authority.
When Paul contrasts the children of Hagar and those of Sarah as children of slavery and children of freedom, he didn’t have in mind the sort of unbridled license that travels under the name of “freedom” today. What the masses call freedom, I’d call anarchy.
Tonight, I’ll take my family to a fireworks show. How can I dare to leave my home unguarded? It’s simple. I know that my city has police and laws. I know that my neighbors will watch out for me. I know that the vast majority of my fellow citizens would never think of entering my unguarded house. I’m free to go tonight, because most free people freely accept boundaries.
The children of slavery have no responsibilities. Instead they simply obey in order to avoid punishment. The children of freedom, on the other hand, have many responsibilities. They have to pass on this heritage of freedom to their kids. They have to work together to safeguard their freedom. That’s true in America and it’s true in the spiritual realm as well.
So friend, today, as you celebrate your independence, political and spiritual, take a moment to recognize the cost of that freedom. Take a moment to dedicate yourself to the preservation and expansion of these freedoms. We hold these truths to be self-evident, but they aren’t self-preserving.
It is for freedom that Christ has set us free. Stand firm, then, and do not let yourselves be burdened again by a yoke of slavery.
This just in: In Kathmandu, Nepal, rice farmers find themselves facing a slow start to the monsoon season and thus not enough rain to support planting their crops. The image of the farmer beset by drought has been seen in American cinema, although not for several decades. The solution proposed by these Nepalese farmers, however, is, to the best of my knowledge, one we’ve never seen in film.
Somebody in Nepal, it seems, decided that the best way to wring some drops of rain out of the skies would be for the women to go out at night and plow. Naked. Yes, you heard me right. Nepalese women, under cover of darkness, are taking to the rice paddies in their birthday suits and plowing the dry earth. This sort of activity is supposed to placate or please the rain god and therefore generate the rains. Interestingly, the forecast predicts rain in the next few days, so there will undoubtedly be a whole generation of Nepalese women who go around for the rest of their lives convinced that they successfully streaked for storms.
There could be a lot worse examples of religious actions. The world has seen those who felt the need to sacrifice children in order to please the gods. Agamemnon, one of the kings featured in the Iliad, sacrificed his daughter so that favorable winds would blow and allow his ships to sail to Troy. This left his wife ten years to stew over the matter. When he returned home, she killed him. Apparently she wasn’t the religious sort.
We have a world loaded with those who believe that murdering Americans or Israelis or infidels or anybody who gets in the way is a sure way to reach Paradise. Some believe that they must eat a certain thing or not eat a certain thing or pray a certain way or at a certain time. Some think that the right words spoken over the right objects can bring good or bad fortune to a third party. Closer to home, we’ll find the athletes who believe they must wear their lucky socks, touch third base, perform some complicated gesture, slap the team mascot, or do some other ritual in order to experience victory.
These people all try to live a life based on magic. They allow themselves to be enslaved to incantations and exercises all designed to curry the favor of some aloof but bendable deity. But Christians have been delivered from that sort of nonsense. We’ve been shown that no effort on our part can lead to our salvation, no work we might perform will make God love us any more. We live a religion of faith, not one of magic. We are free.
Why then, do we allow ourselves to be shackled again by the slavery of sin? For the most part, we don’t fall prey to religious mumbo jumbo, but we do fall prey to the snares of our adversary. We indulge in food or drink, in lying and backbiting, in envy and jealousy. All of us have one or more of those chains close at hand, ready to wrap itself around us.
These slaves to a magic mentality don’t know the truth. They haven’t been set free. What is sadder than slaves who, once freed, allow themselves to be shackled once again? When that describes us, we might as well strip down and plow the rice fields in the buff. But at least let’s wait until nighttime.
For the second time in recent memory, I’m going to invoke Tevye from Fiddler on the Roof. In his most celebrated song, Tevye sang, “God who made the lion and the lamb, you decreed I should be what I am. Would it spoil some vast eternal plan, if I were a wealthy man.” Although I’ve never had to make my living by milking cows, I can still relate to Tevye. There’s a big part of me that wants a ba-zillion dollars in the bank. I’ve been known to fantasize about how much money I could donate if I had billions of dollars socked away. Let me assure you that, I were a rich man, I wouldn’t waste my time on one long staircase just going up or one even longer coming down. No, I’d do good stuff with that money. And of course I’d take care of myself and my family in good shape as well.
It’s not that I’m a greedy guy. I have no desire to own a French Chateau or a ninety-foot yacht. Any enormous wealth that ever flows my way won’t wind up spent on bepoke clothing and glitzy jewels. But here’s what I’d really like. I’d really like to be able to stop fretting about money. I’d like to know that I can afford to pay my kids’ college tuition without going into debt. I’d like to be able to stop getting that clunker of a Dodge van of mine repaired and just replace it. That’s what I’d like. In retrospect, I don’t need a ba-zillion dollars for all of that.
In the past year, I’ve experienced some extraordinary expenses and an extraordinarily diminished income. As some of you know, I’ve been on sabbatical at half pay. I can’t wait for the end of August when my full pay kicks in again. But you know what’s funny about this year. Despite putting a new engine into that awful van, moving, spending many thousands on renovating the new house, and sending Alyson to Southwest Baptist University, I’m doing okay. I’ve kept up my tithe, paid my bills, avoided new debt, and I haven’t really suffered. I managed to take the gang to Chicago in March. We haven’t missed any meals, and I even have a few bucks in my wallet right now. Who can complain about that?
This year, I’ve realized that if I were a rich man, I would be able to rely on my money rather than relying on God. Some people can handle that, but I’m not at all sure that I could. If I’m relying on anything other than God, then I’m placing my trust in the wrong place.
In this stretch of Galatians, Paul talks about circumcision, a topic that most of us don’t discuss too often. But I believe that what he’s saying pertains to my thoughts on money. If the Galatians put their trust in circumcision or any other action rather than trusting in God’s grace, then they were rejecting Christ. If I trust in accumulated wealth rather than in God’s provision, then I’m showing no faith in God. That’s why I need to keep learning these lessons about trusting God to provide for me.
That all sounds good, but I still have to wonder, “would it spoil some vast, eternal plan” . . . ah, never mind.
Long ago in a church far, far away, I served as the Scoutmaster for a smallish Boy Scout Troop. There’s a reason why that troop was smallish, and it had everything to do with the cast of goofballs who had been running the show over the previous several years. One guy really stands out. I’ll call him Bub, although I’m almost completely sure that the guy can’t read.
Why do I write in such acid tones about Bub? Simply put, the guy was a terrible influence on his own son and every other kid he encountered. His idea of time well spent at camp was to sit around teaching the kids dirty jokes. Once the troop had an overnight at the church. Around midnight, Bub crept into the building—yes, somebody had given this yahoo a key—and discharged a full clip of blanks from a real-live submachine gun. How many ways is that wrong? We’re talking about a guy playing with a gun--an illegal gun at that--around kids, doing it inside a church, and in the middle of the night. Why the SWAT team didn’t show up at the door a few minutes later, I don’t know.
It shouldn’t surprise us to look at the boys who were members of that troop when Bub was there. His son, although employed, has turned out every bit as smarmy as his dad. At least half of the others have experienced serious scrapes with the law. Two of the boys, after coming home from an overnight, decided to beat up a neighborhood kid and steal his $150 Air Jordans. “It was just a joke,” they explained when I questioned them. “We were going to give them back.” I guess guys who get beat up and robbed just don’t have good senses of humor.
It would be unfair—although tempting—to blame all of these problems on dear old Bub. First of all, he didn’t turn all kids over to the dark side. He chased off most of the kids from families with a shred of self-respect. Second, Bub simply represented one more cog in the wheel of influence. These boys came from pretty feeble homes. Bub didn’t put them on the wrong path. He just gave them a bit of a nudge farther down it.
After encountering Bub, I find influence a rather scary thing. I play a part in the lives of scores of people each week. I can influence at least a dozen children during a slow week. And what influence do I present?
When I read the verses for today, I almost feel that Paul is rambling, as if he finds himself as agitated about those who misled the Galatians as I do about Bub. If Paul is anything like me, he questioned himself. Where might he have failed the Galatians? What might he have said so that they’d be strong?
Paul understood the power of influence, both negative and positive. I once heard a man say that “you can make a difference if you want to.” That man was wrong. You will make a difference whether you want to or not. Some of those differences will be good, but some will probably be bad. The best we can do is pray to minimize the bad influences we leave in our wake.
Thomas, Olivia, and I have embarked in a new project. Our mission, should we choose to accept it, is to build a model railroad in our spare bedroom. To that end, we went to a hobby shop last week and bought enough things to play with while we were doing all of the preparatory work. One thing that Tom said struck me: “Can I steer the train?” he asked.
“You don’t steer trains,” I explained. “The trains just go wherever the tracks go. You steer cars and planes and boats.”
Tom stared at the track and then back at me, allowing these words to sink in. I think he’s figured it out by now.
Trains are great. They can pull enormous loads of steel or coal or whatever else more cheaply than any other sort of transportation on land. So why aren’t trains still carrying the bulk of passengers and freight in the United States? It’s simple. You can’t steer trains. Trains can only go where the track goes. That means that you can’t run trains to every Wal-Mart, print shop, gas station, and other destination unless you put in as many miles of track as we now have miles of roads. Trucks can be steered. Trucks can freely move about the city. For most freight loads, trucks are the way to move.
The problem with trucks, however, is that trucks can freely jack-knife. They can freely cross the median and plow into oncoming traffic. They can freely run off bridges. For all the noise that the television makes about train wrecks, truck accidents happen for more often and kill more people. They just don’t make as good of film footage, so the news doesn’t usually report them.
I appreciate my car, and I appreciate the trucks that deliver the groceries and gas and clothes and everything else to my local stores. I appreciate the freedom that comes with the automobile and our road system.
But with freedom, we get responsibility. The train engineer has plenty of responsibility, but the complexity only increases when you’re out on the highways and streets. We use our freedom well in many cases, but sometimes that freedom is abused. Just today, I watched some fool run right through a stop sign just before I reached the intersection. Had I been a few seconds earlier, he would have run right through me. That’s an abuse of freedom. And just so I don’t sound too self-congratulatory, I’ve been guilty of abusing my freedom at times. Several of those times, an intrepid member of our law enforcement system has observed my abuse. That’ll make you careful.
Freedom is a good thing, Paul reminds us. But it’s not a thing that should lead us into wild living. Just because we can do a thing doesn’t mean that we should do it. The abuses of our freedom are obvious, we’re told. Then Paul lists them. My guess is that we can all find one or two items on that list that make us pause and admit our guilt. Let’s pray that God will make us mature enough for the freedom he’s given us.
But the fruit of the spirit is love . . .
At our previous house, we had a big, sprawling garden. One year, I set out to grow sweet corn. After tilling the ground, I laid out a series of rows and planted my seed. In just a week or so, little blades of corn leaves were peeping out of the soil. A couple of weeks later, the plants had grown to look like actual corn plants.
Throughout the spring and early summer, I watched with
considerable satisfaction as the plants reached skyward. But we didn’t harvest
a single ear of corn that summer. Those plants bore no “fruit” whatsoever.
I’m sure there are many reasons, but I’ll point to three of them here. First of all, during the early season, I did nothing to control the weeds. You do the experiment. Till up a patch of pasture and then leave it for a couple of spring months. You’ll have a nice tangle of nasty-looking weeds.
But the weeds weren’t the only problem. Once nature stopped watering my corn, it stopped receiving water altogether. Oh, I dragged the hose out there once or twice, but for the most part, I just let that corn get baked in the sun without the slightest drink. Had my corn plants been cocker spaniels, I’d be appearing on Animal Cops.
Finally, the neighborhood deer herd found my corn irresistible. Come to think of it, I doubt they made any attempt to resist eating what small bounty grew on those stalks. But I did nothing to keep them out of the field. If the deer weren’t picky about routes, they could easily stroll from the thick cover of the creek bed to any point on my property without encountering a fence. And our fences were as porous as the U.S.-Mexico border. The deer saw the “Buffet” sign lit and came in to dine.
Why am I focusing on a failure to produce “fruit” today? It’s simple, I’m not terribly interested in the “fruit” of corn. Those corn plants didn’t possess the Holy Spirit and they don’t have the will to try to produce fruit. But I do have such qualities.
While I wanted to harvest corn, I didn’t love the corn. If I had loved the corn, I’d have plucked those weeds from the soil the moment they appeared. If my heart held love for the corn, then I’d have rigged up and used a watering system. If I loved the corn, then I’d have erected a deer-proof barrier. But I didn’t do any of these things.
I hear people who express their love for a spouse, kids, a church, a job, a country, a city, or any other object of affection, yet their actions demonstrate no more love than my actions toward the corn. As Paul talks of the fruits of the spirit here, he takes something of a double view. The fruit is a natural product of the spirit, but it is something that we can also work toward. I know that God will do his part in producing love, but I’m not so sure about me. Hopefully I do better when the object is more important than peaches ‘n cream sweet corn.
But the fruit of the spirit is . . . joy.
For the past three days, I’ve been camping with my family. Camping seems to be a great separator of people. What I mean by that is that people respond either very well or very badly to the privations that they face when they’re “roughing it.”
During our first night at the camp, we realized that whatever the overall educational attainment of school kids might be, somebody’s doing a terrific job of educating raccoons. The neighborhood raccoons managed to open our cooler and eat everything that we planned to cook. They ate our chocolate bars for s’mores, pepperoni and grated cheese for pizza, and the eggs and bacon for breakfast. Happily, they left our pop.
As best I can figure it, that little raccoon raid cost me about $23. Alyson and I got to make a pilgrimage to Price Chopper and replace the pilfered foods. In the long run, we didn’t miss any meals.
I mention this today, because I know how I might have reacted to that event. “Oh great,” I might have said. “That’s just what we needed! What’s going to happen next?” And if you’ve ever heard me in full rant, you know this isn’t a pretty song to sing. I might have done that, but I didn’t, and for that bit of discretion, I thank God. It wasn’t me who showed control and joy in the face of this nuisance. It was God’s Spirit working within me.
There’s a story told about Matthew Henry, the great Puritan Bible commentator. I can’t recall where I heard it. In the story, Henry is robbed as he travels through England. And his response to the robbery is remarkable. Henry prays a prayer of thanksgiving, grateful to God that he was the robbed and not the robber. Talk about taking lemons and making lemonade.
Joy, it seems to me, is the emotion that comes from realizing just how great God has been to us. If life were a garden, joy would be looking at the ten acres of nearly ripe vegetables and then easily laughing off the scattered sprinkling of weeds. I could find plenty of things that annoyed me slightly on my camping trip. Penny forgot the ground beef and I forgot a cooking implement. The kids next door whined and fought prodigiously, while their grandmother sang “Folsom Prison Blues” out of tune. The showers were rather grimy and the flies never stopped settling on us. And all of that couldn’t detract one iota from my joy.
The fruit of the spirit is joy, because we’re all sinners saved by grace. The fruit of the spirit is joy, because God created us and provides for us. The fruit of the spirit is joy, and neither robbers nor raccoons can steal it away from us, but we can suppress it within ourselves. So let’s resolve to spend some time today contemplating our reasons for joy. When you look for it, you’ll see that the raccoons left it in the cooler for you next to the soda pop.
But the fruit of the Spirit is . . . peace.
A few years back, the Community of Christ (aka the RLDS church) dedicated their temple in Independence. If you’ve been anywhere near the Independence square, you’ve surely seen this snail-shell-shaped spiral a half mile or so from the courthouse. I’m not sure what this says about me, but I was sitting inside the temple’s sanctuary during the dedication service for that building. It wasn’t long after that when I ended my fifteen-year voyage of discovery during which I realized that the RLDS aren’t Baptists. (Yeah, I’m a slow learner.)
What’s so significant about that building in Independence other than the fact that it’s pretty cool to look at? The RLDS temple is dedicated to peace. Every day, they have a “prayer for peace” service in the building. Every year, they hand out an award—sort of a poor man’s Nobel Peace Prize—to someone who has contributed to the cause of peace. The whole idea around that place is that peace is something to be worked for, created, developed, nurtured, or otherwise brought into being. I won’t argue about the desirability of peace, but I do think there’s a point being missed.
When we talk about fruit, we’re talking about something that a healthy plant produces naturally. Take the pepper plants in my garden right now. Five of these plants are doing quite nicely. We’ve gotten oodles of rain this spring and summer. The soil, newly placed in raised beds, is rich and unpacked. The weeds have been kept at bay. And therefore, five of those plants have little peppers in various stages of development, ripening on the vine. The sixth plant, however, was mistaken for a dog toy by a visiting golden retriever. After uprooting the plant and shaking it “to death,” the dog lost interest. It was a couple of days before I realized the damage that had been done. Although I tried to replant the thing, the dog had apparently accomplished his goal. The leaves withered and the plant, although remaining green, has not produced a single pepper.
No amount of right thinking or good intentions will make that pepper plant squeeze out little fruits. It just doesn’t work that way. Similarly, true peace will not come about simply as a result of the good intentions of the folks at the RLDS temple. They can perhaps help resolve a few conflicts and help people be nicer to one another, but real peace doesn’t come from human efforts. If we’ve learned anything from the twentieth century, it is that, left to their own devices, humans don’t create peace.
But the Spirit of God does produce peace. That spirit, dwelling inside of us, can lead us to remarkable accomplishments. That spirit quickened the actions of the abolitionists of the nineteenth century. It’s that spirit that gave courage to German and Chinese Christians in the face of totalitarian regimes. That spirit has led southern ministers to reject their culture and embrace racial equality. That spirit, when properly nurtured and allowed to flower, can lead us into a peace that passeth understanding. We won’t have a nifty, twisty temple, but we’ll have something far better.
But the fruit of the spirit is . . . patience.
I’m stealing this story from a book, Anchor Man, by Steve Farrar, so I have no idea if it’s true or not. If it isn’t true, it ought to be.
According to Farrar, the farmers who grow the most exclusive and valuable sort of bamboo go through an incredible process and exhibit dogged patience to reap their crop. It seems that this variety of bamboo must be carefully planted. Then the farmer has to water and fertilize constantly. This care goes on for the entire first growing season. And what does the farmer see at the end of year number one? Nothing. There’s nothing above the ground to indicate to the farmer that anything positive is taking place.
During the second year, the farmer must once again carefully water and fertilize the bamboo. And again, throughout that second year, there’s not the slightest visual evidence of anything growing in the field. This goes on through the third, fourth, and fifth years as well. Each year, the farmer must continue to water and fertilize, and each year the farmer’s eyes are met with nothing.
Then comes the sixth year. In the sixth year, the farmer continues to water and fertilize. And during the sixth season, the bamboo begins to grow. What is most amazing though is that the bamboo grows like nothing you’ve ever seen. According to the book, the stuff grows ninety feet in thirty days. Think about that! Ninety feet in thirty days means that it grows three feet each day. That’s thirty-six inches in twenty-four hours or an inch and a half every hour. I believe that means that you could basically sit and watch the stuff grow.
To wait six years in order to gather a harvest must take incredible patience. But that sort of patience is not as rare as we might imagine. Look at parents. We water and fertilize—so to speak—our kids for a good twenty years before we start to see a real payback. I went camping with three of my children last week, and I have to say that two of them proved a real test to my patience.
Patience is not a fruit that I yield naturally. I need the patience that God gives. I need patience in listening to my kids ramble on about something that seems so boring. I need patience in wading through dozens of badly written papers from my students. I need patience when I have to wait for other people or when I have to endure their foolishness. I’m not a patient person.
This spring, when Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ came out, a lot of us focused more deeply on the suffering of Jesus on Good Friday. Without diminishing that day, however, I’d like to focus a bit on the preceding thirty-three years. How does the God-Man manage to get through childhood? How does he endure adolescence? How does he put up with Peter, hot days, and uncomfortable nights? It seems to me that the passion began when Jesus took on this flesh. What patience he showed! It’s enough to make those bamboo farmers seem to be in a hurry.
But the fruit of the spirit is . . . kindness.
They say the neon lights are bright on Broadway. It’s true. I saw those lights this evening, although the Broadway I was on is in Nashville rather than the Big Apple. After dinner this evening, several of us attending a conference here took a stroll up from our hotel to the honky tonk strip that is Nashville’s Broadway. We say the legendary Gruhn Guitar store and the Ernest Tubb Record Store. We strolled past more than half a dozen bars out of which mediocre country music wafted. At the far end of the street, just a few yards from the Cumberland River, we ate ridiculously rich desserts at the Hard Rock Café.
All of that fills my memory of this evening, yet the thing that really stands out is the image and the sound of a guy whose scratchy voice blared out over his clunky guitar playing. The song he sang focused on somebody named Railroad Dan or Tom or somebody. Honestly, I tried not to listen. And I must admit that I said something that could probably be tallied in the less-than-kind category: “I wonder if he has a day job not to quit.” I live in a smallish bedroom community where street people and beggars of various sorts really don’t enter the picture. My work lies in a very affluent area where being poor would mean that you can’t pay cash for your Lexus. That’s why, I believe, when I visit city centers, I struggle so upon encountering the indigent. Here’s a fellow sitting on a sidewalk planter, his guitar case open and seeded with some change. His song about Railroad Ron stinks.
So what’s the kind Christian to do? Do we ignore this fellow’s probably social disease and empty our silver into his guitar case? Do we sit down and relate the four spiritual laws to him? Do we simply stand and listen and nod approvingly, as if to encourage his future artistic development. I wish I knew.
It’s one thing to say that the fruit of the spirit is kindness, but it’s quite another to define exactly what constitutes kindness in a given situation. But honestly, that’s a bit of a cop out, isn’t it? While I might have wondered whether or not to toss a quarter to this guy, I had no doubt that my catty comment was unkind. We normally know whether we’re being kind or unkind. We know whether our actions are motivated by the kindness that comes from Christ’s Spirit or the meanness that flows from our spirit.
I don’t have to know the perfect response for every situation I might encounter. What I must do is let the kindness that comes from Christ hold pride of place in my life. When I do that, the coins will most likely fall into the right guitar cases. The neon lights are bright, but Christian kindness can make a city glitter.
I got to spend the last week in the fair city of Nashville, living in a hotel and eating far too much absurdly rich food. Although the nice people from LifeWay worked us hard enough to avoid tempting us into sloth, they led us right to the door of gluttony. On our first night in town (the night before my laptop’s hard-drive crashed, leading to my recent silence) five of us, having not been fed a sufficient measure of pizza apparently, walked a half mile or so up Broadway to the Hard Rock Café. There, amid a museum’s worth of music memorabilia, we indulged in the desserts. I ate the chocolate-chip cookie pie, which was marvelous and reasonably sized. Mia, on the other hand, found herself facing an absolute mountain of ice cream, whipped cream, syrup, and brownie. Probably, the five of us could have all shared her order and walked away satisfied.
The problem with good food, it seems to me, is that it is so good. I ate about half again as much pizza that evening as I should have, but it was so good. All through the week, we sat around a table strewn with chocolates. We weren’t hungry, but we ate anyway. They were so good. When break time came, we didn’t really need the smoothies and brownies and such, but we ate them anyway. Why? They were just so good. I could go on, but I’m sure you get the picture.
The goodness of which Paul speaks in Galatians is not the sort of goodness that I experienced in the various restaurants of Nashville. That sort of goodness looks attractive on your dinner plate, but it leaves you feeling guilty and bloated a little while later. No, the kind of goodness that Paul means is what led us to walk down Broadway and past the half dozen bars that blare music onto the street. It’s the sort of goodness that had us there in the first place, giving up our week to improve LifeWay’s children’s magazines. It’s the sort of goodness that caused Mia to push back her sundae after eating just a sliver of it.
I don’t say these things to brag on myself. If you’ve read these words for very long or if you know me very well, then you know that I’m not uniformly full of goodness. I don’t find uprightness of life and heart just pouring naturally from me. For example, I wouldn’t have pushed back that sundae nearly as soon as Mia did.
But when I look at myself today, I see a man who isn’t who he used to be. As I grow closer to God, my crop of goodness increases. Whatever is good in me does not come from me. What’s good in me comes as the result of Christ within me. Perhaps soon he'll help me control my appetite.
I’ve been around horses enough in my life to realize that if a horse wants to hurt you, it can and it will hurt you. Years ago, in my brother’s barn, I saw Tally, the horse that I’d been riding all afternoon, get spooked about something. After letting go with a piercing whinny, this animal dropped her back legs down into a power position and began jerking backward. In the course of perhaps two seconds, she snapped the wood of the stall where she was tied and dragged a half a pickup load of lumber out into the barnyard. Horses are strong. They can harness that strength amazingly.
If you doubt equine strength, then try this experiment. Find a small child, one weighing perhaps forty pounds. Put this child onto your shoulders and walk around. It doesn’t take long for you to wear out, does it? Now try carrying the child up and down hills. Try running with the kid up there. Try jumping over a three-foot fence! Unless you’re some sort of cross between Lance Armstrong and Rambo, you can’t do these things, but a horse can do it in a heartbeat. Horses are strong.
You can’t watch westerns very long without realizing that horses, while strong, are not born usable. As a colt grows to adulthood, it has to be taught to accept human dominance. The horse’s great strength makes it a very dangerous commodity if it isn’t first trained. The most common word that we use for this process is “breaking.” We refer to “bronco busters” and “a broken horse.” Another term, one I like better, is “gentling.” No, it doesn’t have the pizzazz of bronco busting, but gentling a horse is a lot more descriptive. No rider worth his or her salt wants a broken horse. My niece, a die-hard barrel racer, certainly doesn’t want a broken racer. She wants a horse with the fires of competition still alive in its eyes. What she wants is a gentle and manageable horse, one that won’t kill her when she’s careening through the arena.
I would argue that it’s impossible to be gentle in this world unless you have strength and ability. My eight-month-old granddaughter isn’t gentle, because she can’t really accomplish anything ungentle.
What is God’s gentleness? That’s the gift that allows someone to have the desire and ability to smack an incompetent cashier at McDonalds but also the reserve to keep that from happening. As Tally showed me years ago, she had the ability to inflict great damage at any moment. But she held that ability in abeyance virtually all the time. Jesus was gentle, but he wasn't weak, as he showed in clearing the temple. God calls us to be strong and capable, yet to hold that strength in reserve, using it only in his causes. He calls us to take his bit in our mouth willingly and do his will without fighting. That’s gentleness.
But the fruit of the Spirit is . . . self-control.
Somewhere back in the dim and distant past, educators decided that A’s, B’s, and C’s were too harmful to the psyches of poor little elementary school kids. To replace these scar-forming grades, they invented a new system. It travels under different names in different systems, but when I was growing up, the scale went like this: “Very Satisfactory, Satisfactory, and Unsatisfactory.”
Why do I remember that? Partly because those words—so foreign and meaningless in the mind of a six-year-old—have stuck in my mind. But mostly it’s because of the very last item that appeared on every grade card. “Shows self-control.” Every quarter that item showed up and every quarter, just to the right of it, my teachers checked the box that read “Unsatisfactory.”
What does it look like when a second-grader doesn’t show self control? Honestly, I don’t remember. I know I blurted things out now and again. There were episodes of hair pulling and name calling. I also recall being brought back to reality from my frequent trips into daydream land. Mostly, however, I recall the consequences more than the transgressions of classroom decorum. I got to know the area of the hall just outside our classroom quite well. Also, the principal’s office rarely changed in any way without me being one of the first to know.
Since my mother might be reading this—and this is her birthday—I don’t want to give the wrong impression about her youngest child. I wasn’t a really bad kid. I wasn’t a rebel, an anarchist, or a trouble maker. Instead of making trouble, I just sort of found it, already made, and didn’t have the sense not to pick it up and play with it. Witty things popped into my head, and I didn’t think not to say them. In short, I didn’t show self-control.
Today, I’m a bit better on the issue of self-control. But that’s really not true. While I rarely blurt out invective toward grade-school teachers anymore, I can’t say that I have complete control of myself. If I did, then I wouldn’t have eaten those big greasy burritos last night, I’d not be constantly looking at myself in the mirror and lamenting the extra pounds I’m carrying, I’d have extra laundry in the hamper from exercising, and I wouldn’t have twenty-six papers to grade still stacked up in my in-box.
When I was saved, I discovered a few areas of my life that Jesus simply took over. It was as if God said, “I know you can’t handle this, so I will.” But I also found that in other areas he simply gave me the ability to control myself. I can make myself exercise, diet, and stay abreast of my work. I can, but sometimes I don’t.
Like all of the fruits of the Spirit, self-control is one that we have to allow to work. Just as I can overrule the kindness and gentleness that the Spirit makes available to me, I can allow my sinful nature to get the best of my self-control. But I can’t let that happen. I need to work on it—but maybe tomorrow.
Despite my lack of veteran status, I know just about everything there is to know about military life because I watch movies. Movies, of course, give us the absolute truth about all aspects of contemporary life. Military experience is no exception. Today, my mind is drifting back to an absolute paragon of military documentaries, Clint Eastwood’s film, Heartbreak Ridge. In this film, Eastwood finds himself in charge of a completely out-of-control platoon of U.S. Marines. In a few short weeks, Gunny Highway, Eastwood’s character, transforms this group of miscreants into an elite fighting force. It’s truly amazing what you can accomplish in the movies.
Gunny Highway’s favorite tactic deals with t-shirts. When the platoon shows up to run one morning, he forces them out of their mismatched shirts. On the next day, after they agree to wear the same shirt, he objects that they aren’t wearing the same shirt he is. They attempt to fool him by bringing two shirts the next morning, but he’s wearing something they’ve never seen. Finally, they arrange with his landlady to find out what shirt he’s wearing as he leaves for the base.
There’s probably some truth mixed in with the general fiction of Heartbreak Ridge. But one thing really sticks out to me. Highway expects his marines to think for themselves and allow him to think for them. They’re to look to him for leadership and they’re to find leadership within themselves.
Some people, looking at the scriptures and especially at the more ethics-oriented passages such as we’ve just explored, believe that the heart of Christianity is right behavior. You read a list of spiritual fruits and then you do your best to produce those fruits. Other people, however, say that there’s nothing we can do to alter the actions of God in our life. All we can do is sit back and watch the spiritual fruits grow and ripen.
What does Paul say? It seems clear that, like Gunny Highway with his marines, Paul wants Christians to expect leadership from the Holy Spirit and to produce leadership for themselves. Paul says that the Spirit will produce the fruit and then he turns around and tells us to grow it ourselves.
Like so many things in Scripture, that sounds like a paradox. But in practice, it works. The Holy Spirit will produce fruit within us, but we can affect the quality and quantity of the crop. Semper fidelis—Always faithful—means not just to think faithfully but to act faithfully. When we do, the victory is secure.
Back when I was a member of the landed gentry, I had the crazy notion of taking a backhoe and attempting to dredge out a portion of my pond. After spending a few minutes re-acclimating myself to the controls of the beast, I set to work digging with no clear sense of what I truly hoped to accomplish. The moment rests clearly in my mind. I re-positioned the backhoe a bit closer to the muck and mire of the pond, which was terribly low after a long drought.
“That looks like a good spot,” I thought to myself. “I can probably move about five feet closer without worrying about getting stuck.”
I still don’t know if I could have gone that extra five feet, because I got stuck in that very position. After digging for a few minutes, I noticed the drive wheels starting to sink into the mud. Not a complete fool, I decided to beat a retreat. I popped the jacks up, lifted the front-loader, and put the tractor into gear. I gently gave it gas and released the clutch. And . . . nothing. The tires simply turned in the mud. Over the next half hour, I tried everything I could imagine to extricate that backhoe. I tried to wedge plywood under the wheels. I tried to use the jacks and the bucket to lift the wheels out of the mud. I even tried to push off with the arm. The best I can say is that I didn’t get in deeper than I’d begun. Finally, I called a tow truck.
Whatever I might have thought about that tow driver, the guy wasn’t stupid. He took one look at my location on the pond’s edge, laughed at me, and then started playing out a cable from beneath his truck. Barely taking his truck into my pasture and not taking it off of the gravel of my driveway, he reached out and touched that backhoe with about 150 feet of stout steel cable. After attaching the cable to the backhoe, he sauntered back to the truck, confident in the winch and its ability to drag just about anything anywhere. After only about thirty seconds of working the winch, he’d pulled the backhoe onto dry ground. I took it from there.
“I took one look at that thing and said, ‘I’m not going down there,’” the driver told me as I was writing him a check for a hundred dollars—a bargain if you ask me.
I didn’t ask that driver about his faith, but he understood something that Paul understood. It’s a good thing to get people out of the mess in which they find themselves. But you don’t want to get yourself into the same mess in the process. After spending the first five chapters of this letter talking about the freedom we have in Christ, Paul seems to feel compelled to warn that freedom comes with some peril. It’s not as if I could lose my salvation if I were tempted into some sin, but falling into sin neither glorifies God nor builds up his kingdom. Your ministry should be as powerful as a backhoe, but be careful where you dig.
Sometime early today, Lance Armstrong will roll out of the starting blocks on the eighteenth stage of the 2004 Tour de France. After a stunning all-out sprint led him to a win, his third in as many days, this morning, Armstrong stands four minutes ahead of his closest competitor. The experts seem to agree that, barring some plunge off a bridge, Armstrong will capture his sixth consecutive Tour title on Sunday.
If you’re like most Americans, you can name perhaps one bike racer: Armstrong. This year, the guy has emerged as a product endorser on a par with Tiger Woods. His face is everywhere. And why not? He’s shown himself to be unstoppable in what is probably the most grueling of athletic contests.
But Lance Armstrong didn’t get to the top of today’s long climb by himself. As soon as today’s stage ended, he took pains to give credit to his teammate, Floyd Landis. Even if you have followed this sport a bit and knew names like Basso and Ulrich, you’re unlikely to recognize Landis’ name.
What did this Floyd Landis do for Armstrong? He charged up a long climb, setting a pace that very few others could match. As he broke away from the pack, four others, all top riders, managed to stay with him. With Armstrong behind him, Floyd Landis pedaled mile after mile up that mountain grade, giving it all he had, keeping the pressure on the other riders. By taking the lead position, Landis allowed Armstrong to follow and set him up to finish strong and gain the win. In the end, Armstrong tried to give the stage win to his teammate, but, having broken the air all the way up the mountain, Landis just didn’t have enough energy left to gain the win.
I can’t imagine what goes through a man’s mind as he powers his way up a mountain knowing that he’s probably not going to earn the win. Even had he won today, Floyd Landis knew that what he did was all designed to help Lance Armstrong keep the yellow leader’s jersey on all the way into Paris. How do you keep your legs churning? How do you keep your pedals turning? I’d be tempted be wear out, to quit.
As tiring as the Tour de France must be, though, it’s a much shorter race than the race of life that you and I are running. We face a long climb with only the promise of a far-off reward. It’s tempting to become discouraged, to pull off to the side and stop pedaling. Paul knew that. That’s why he told the Galatians not to “become weary in doing good.” After all, our leader is far more worthy of our service than Lance Armstrong. At the proper time, Paul tells us, “we will reap a harvest.” It might seem far in the future, but that reward is sure. Floyd Landis can’t be so confident.
One of the better respected British authors currently living is John Fowles. Probably best remembered for his novel, The French Lieutenant’s Woman, which was adapted into a movie starring Meryl Streep, Fowles has penned a whole series of highly acclaimed novels. The one that sticks in my mind most tenaciously is The Magus.
Now let me say, by means of fair warning, that The Magus is not a work of Christian literature. I found myself reading it for a course in graduate school, not for a Sunday School lesson. Still, I found it to be an exceptionally compelling book, one that mixes profundities with profanities.
At one point in the book, the protagonist is sharing various stories with a mysterious old man who lives nearby. On this day, the old man tells a story about a madman. This madman, it seems, regularly disappeared into the woods for days on end in hopes of seeing God. At times, the people in the vicinity would catch glimpses and hear noises that indicated the sorts of work that the madman went to in order to see God.
The old man had become fascinated by this lunatic. He began to study his preparations. He inquired as to how the man came to his delusions. Also, he wondered what could preserve him in his delusions. Over time, the old man had begun to creep closer to the madman’s lair, trying to witness firsthand his attempts to conjure an image of the divine. Finally, one day, he found himself on the edge of a forest clearing where the madman had build his little altar and attempted to gain his vision.
In the end, the old man hadn’t seen anything except the madman prostrate on the ground, but what he had heard was enough. He heard the madman saying, “Thank you.” Apparently this fellow wasn’t so mad after all. Apparently at the end of all of his efforts God did appear to him.
Let me be clear. This is not a call for us to all go out into the woods and try to gain a vision of God. What fascinates me about that story is how it parallels reality. Many people in the world think that we’re insane or at least deluded to believe meaningfully in Christ. It’s acceptable to have a faith provided it doesn’t change your life in any way. But when you start doing the equivalent of going off into the woods to seek God, then you must be nuts, right?
Similarly, the gospel that Paul describes in Galatians, the gospel of grace free from the power and penalty of the law, seems like madness to most people. It just can’t work that way. Somehow, someway, we have to find righteousness in ourselves, don’t we? Paul answers, no. “May I never boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ,” he says. That sounds like madness. But if it’s madness, it’s just the sort of madness we need. Let those who think us crazy creep up and spy on us. And when they do, let them hear us saying, “Thank you.”
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.