These devotions were written in December of 2004. Click on a chapter number to jump to the first devotion for that chapter.
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The phone rang in the middle of the night. You know the feeling, don’t you? Nothing good can come from that phone call. I bolted upright in bed and then fumbled with the phone for a moment. Finally, I raised the handset to my ear. “Hello,” I rasped.
“Mark?” a voice asked. “Mark? Are you going to the party?” The voice on the other end of the line sounded vaguely African-American and decidedly female to me. She pronounced the various words by broadening the “ar” sounds so it was “Mahk” and “pahty.”
“What? Who is this?” I croaked in response.
“Mahk?” she continued, ignoring my question. “Ah you going to the pahty?”
“What party?” I demanded.
“You know what pahty, Mahk. Ah you going?”
At length I hung up the phone, completely mystified at who this caller might be. The next night, the same thing happened again. The same voice asked the same sorts of things at about the same time and ignored the same responses from me. Who was this? I scoured my mind. Could it be someone’s actual voice? The only African-American women I knew well enough that they might consider such strangeness were not the type. I then considered other people, men or women, disguising their voices. It just didn’t add up. I couldn’t think of a single person who might have made those calls. And in the ensuing days, no one said anything suggesting they’d been the prankster. I chalked it up to one of those bizarre occurrences that leave your life a little bit more interesting and a whole lot more mystifying.
Those calls came to me nearly twenty years ago, when I worked for the Boy Scouts. In the years that followed, I’d think from time to time about that strange voice in the middle of the night. And then, some ten years ago, the voice called again. It was undoubtedly the same voice and the same sort of questions at the same time of night. This time, the caller only interrupted one night of sleep. To this day, I haven’t a clue who might have disturbed my slumber in such a peculiar way. Maybe they’ll call again some day.
I think tonight about those calls when I read this introductory verse to Habakkuk’s prophecies. We’re about to work through the oracle that this prophet received. What does that mean? Did Habakkuk see that oracle coming or did it drop into his lap as unexpectedly as did my mystery phone calls? I have no answer for that. Still, I have to surmise that even the most prolific of prophets—say Isaiah or Jeremiah—never really got used to these powerful missives from God. I’m not suggesting that the prophets didn’t have a solid ongoing relationship with God, but it’s a big jump from a solid relationship to hearing words as powerful as these recorded in the Bible.
My guess is that the prophets, Habakkuk included, found the words of the Lord disorienting and confusing much of the time. Some of it they understood clearly, but some must have seemed like a dream, like a phone call in the middle of the night. I point this out because sometimes God’s words to us seem mysterious and obtuse. They come at the strangest of times. What can we do? All we can do is pick up the phone and understand as best we can.
The end of the semester brings all manner of lovely sights to my eyes and sounds to my ears. Just this morning, I spoke with two of my fiction students who indicated that they haven’t even begun their term paper, due two days from now. One of these two didn’t have a clue what he’d write. I’m really looking forward to that paper.
Of course, I’m no better. I collected final portfolios from my Comp I students last Wednesday. They’re sitting on a shelf behind me. Am I making good progress toward getting them graded? No, I haven’t even started. I’ll have to finish them by Monday morning, but I’ll probably wait until Friday to get started.
On Monday, Alyson called me from SBU. She found herself facing problems with the documentation on her semester paper in Western Civ, so she called me. This is one of the few advantages of having an English teacher for a dad. As we talked through how to footnote this and how to list that on the bibliography, it occurred to me that she could find a better option if she had some time available.
“So when is this paper due, Aly?” I asked. “Tomorrow?”
The phone went silent for a few seconds. “Uh . . . yeah.”
Of course it was due the next day. Of course she waited until her back bumped against the wall to get a good start on this paper. That’s what students do.
Realize, however, that procrastination isn’t just an academic affliction. No, these students who are delaying the writing of their papers will also pay their car payments late. They’ll do all of their Christmas shopping on the last few days before the 25th. They’ll wait to change the oil in their car and to sign up for next semester’s classes. For many people, delay is simply a way of life. By this time in life, we realize this truth and learn to adapt to it.
Perhaps you think that I’m delaying getting to a point today, and perhaps I am. Unlike the other “minor” prophets whom we’ve examined, Habakkuk addresses his words directly to God. “How long?” he asks. It’s not hard to imagine Habakkuk, looking around a world of injustice, of violence, of evil, and wondering if God just doesn’t have too much on his plate. “How long will you wait, Lord?” he asks. It’s a reasonable question.
I can well imagine a Christian pastor in China wondering, “How long will you let this go on?” Believers in the Middle East must think that God has forgotten about them. “How long will he allow the wicked to run unchecked?” In this country, the violence is of a different sort, but it’s no less real, no less damaging. How long will God allow marriage to be mistreated? How long will he allow children to suffer in poverty? How long will he allow evil to be called good?
How long? I don’t know, but I do know that God’s delay is not procrastination. What we have seen time and again in the Bible, we can expect in the future: God will act when the time is right. For now, all we can do is something else we do poorly: wait patiently.
A few years ago, I got addicted to the simplest of computer games: Free Cell. If you’ve never discovered Free Cell on your computer, then you’re missing a peculiar little fascination. It starts by dealing the entire deck of cards, face up, into eight columns of six or seven cards each. Your goal is to move the aces, then the 2’s, 3’s, and so on into four piles at the top right of the screen. In order to do that, you can arrange cards, alternating black and red, in numerical order. To make the whole game possible, you have four open spots where you can park one card each to get it out of the way. These are the “free cells.” Usually, when I’m paying attention, I can use my free cells skillfully and win the game, but sometimes I find myself in a corner with no more open spots and no moves to make. The beauty of Free Cell, however, comes when you have everything lined up just perfectly. When you have all the cards arranged from high to low, the game will automatically place them up at the top in a split second. It’s a most gratifying feeling.
During my addiction to the game, I kept track of my playing. In order to keep my record clear, I would limit myself to three or four games at a sitting. I’d plot ahead. “Let’s see, if I move that there, then I can move the four to the five and . . .” It got quite involved. At the height of my mania, I won eighty-two games in a row. Today, if I were to win five games in a row I’d be doing pretty well.
I just love it when things work out. When I was a kid, I used to play the game Mousetrap. My friends and I didn’t care about the silly game. We just loved building the Rube Goldberg contraption that served as the heart of the game. We’d crank the crank that kicked the boot that knocked over the bucket that sent the marble down the stairs that made the bigger marble fall from the bathtub and land on the spring board, making the man dive into the barrel that caused the cage to fall down onto the mouse. I think that was how it went. There was something marvelous about Mousetrap, but only when the contraption actually worked, when the marbles rolled where they were supposed to and the cage dropped onto the mouse. But sometimes the thing didn’t work right. What a letdown.
When it comes to setting up circumstances, no mere game can top God. As I read Habakkuk’s reply from God today, I’m struck by the general tone of the words. “Just watch!” God seems to be saying. Watch these things work out. In Habakkuk’s day, God raised up the Assyrians to squash the Northern Kingdom and the Babylonians to squash the Assyrians. Later, he provided the Persians to subdue the Babylonians, Alexander’s Greek’s to beat the Persians, and the Romans to conquer the Greeks. “Just watch,” God said, “and be utterly amazed.”
Does God still raise up nations and people to accomplish his will, to punish the wicked and reward the just? I have no reason to think that he doesn’t, but it would be presumptuous to try to explain all of God’s plans. All I know is that he has plans. And if we’ll just watch, we’ll be amazed.
For two summers while I was in high school, I worked at the Boy Scout camp near Osceola, Missouri. For an over-privileged kid from suburbia, living in a cabin with three other staff members holds a number of worthwhile lessons, most of which I learned during that first summer. The inhabitants of our cabin included Roger, a lifeguard, and Todd, a handicraft worker, but the guy who most sticks in my mind is Dan the Kitchen Guy.
At that time, most of us served on the staff out of the goodness of our hearts (or just to get out of town for the summer). Our pay came in the form of staff t-shirts and weekly ice cream parties. But Dan the Kitchen Guy got paid. You see, they had to pay people to work in the kitchen, because they actually did some work. Todd and I worked—if you can call teaching Scouts merit badges—four hours a day. Roger probably added another two hours, but his were at the pool. Dan the Kitchen Guy, on the other hand, would be up early getting the dining hall ready for breakfast. He’d usually work well into the evening cleaning things up. The few hours he got off were when the rest of us were busy, so he couldn’t even hang out with us.
Over the two months of our stay at camp, Dan’s spirits flagged. His meager paycheck didn’t keep him pepped up. But worst of all for us wasn’t the decline in his spirits; it was the decline in his personal hygiene. Two months in the dishroom and slinging a mop left Dan—how shall I say?—stinky. He didn’t change his clothes often enough. He didn’t shower often enough. He didn’t change his bedclothes often enough. Before long, his corner of the cabin became a no-go zone. After serious consultation, we did the only diplomatic thing that we could. We put an anonymous note on his bunk: “Take a shower. You stink!”
How is it that Dan the Kitchen Guy, who began the summer as a decent and well-groomed guy, came to accept his smelly estate? It’s the same way that any of us do that. Dan was living in a mess long enough that he stopped noticing. He didn’t one day decide not to care. He just allowed his standards to slip, little by little, until what seemed okay to him was unbearable for us.
We humans share a trait with Dan the Kitchen Guy. We’ve lived in sin so long that our noses have become accustomed to it. Whether we’re drug addicts or just petty liars, we tend to sniff at our sin and not notice its noxious odor. But God does notice. As Habakkuk says, “Your eyes are too pure to look on evil; you cannot tolerate wrong.” Habakkuk understood God not as just a powerful being but as a holy being.
When we pray that God will open our eyes—or our noses—to our sin, he will do so, but we should be careful. It might come as a shock to us to know what squalor we’ve endured.
When Olivia was just a baby and my two older girls were both around ten, my family went on a great expedition, dragging a pop-up camper around southwest Missouri for two weeks. Although the trip had exposed me to the glories of Eureka Springs and Branson, I felt a measure of frustration, not having gotten a fishing line into the water the whole time. That’s why I headed to the shores of Table Rock Lake with such gusto on our last evening.
After tossing a few casts into the water that evening, I moved a bit down the shore. My arm swung backward with the rod, but then as it headed forward, I felt resistance. Looking up, I found that my line had become entangled in the branch of a small dead tree. Examining the line, I realized that it would be simpler to snap the branch off and then untangle it at waist-level. I reached up to the dry branch and twisted it hard to break it. In an instant, I heard a snap and then felt a sharp pain. Somehow, I’d managed to sink the hook into my finger without freeing the line from the tree. Now I couldn’t lower my hand, put my rod down, or untangle the line without considerable pain.
When I did finally get myself untied from the tree, I still had a little yellow jig embedded in my flesh. Examining the wound, I saw that the barb had sunk completely into my finger. Barbs, of course, are designed to hold a hook in a fish’s jaw. I can attest that they work just as well at keeping a hook in human flesh.
According to what I learned in Boy Scouts, the proper way to remove a fish hook is to push the point and barb through the skin once again, exposing it to the air. Once the barb is through, you snip it off with wire cutters and pull the now-unbarbed hook out the other way. I attempted to push that nasty point on through my skin again. That option, I quickly realized was unacceptable. For a while, Penny and I considered just ripping the thing from my skin with one mighty jerk, but the carnage that would wreak on my finger seemed unimaginable. In the end, we headed to the Branson hospital where a local anesthetic and a pair of wire cutters made short work of my problem.
Just as I found myself hooked literally on the shores of Table Rock Lake, we as people find ourselves inexorably hooked by sin. With sin’s barb sunk deep into our foolish jaws, we’re as helpless as a worn-out bass on a treble hook. That’s why Habakkuk uses the image of a caught fish to describe the sin-hooked man.
How does the fish get off the hook? Normally it requires some outside assistance. It’s the same with us. Sure, we might be able to throw the hooks sometimes, but not always. And even when we do free ourselves, there’s always another, more tempting lure swimming our way.
It’s the morning after. Fifteen hours ago, I was scurrying about my church, moving things, packing things, tidying up after the latest edition of the Heart of America Christmas Pageant sang its last notes. Although the final performance held details that will provide me with good material on another day, today I’d like to flash back to the first performance of the second week. After a layoff of three days, that performance has a tendency to be a bit ragged. This year was no exception.
In the middle of a long scene covering the miracles of Jesus, we sang a very simple little chorus: “I gotta tell somebody, gotta tell somebody, what Jesus did for me.” I think that most of us learned those words right away. The problem last Thursday, however, wasn’t with the words. It wasn’t even with the notes. No, the problem on Thursday was with the tempo. Like some sort of runaway steam engine, big chunks of the choir started chugging toward the station much faster than others. Two bars into that chorus, the various groups, all singing to their own tempo, had created a sonic disaster.
Now I may not be the best choir singer in the world—no, I’ll take away the maybe—but I do know what you’re supposed to do when the tempo of a song runs out of control. As I moved across the stage that night and heard that burgeoning chaos, a thought came to me. I glanced between a couple of people downstage from me and noticed that, indeed, he was still there.
There, at the far edge of the orchestra, sat this tall man with a focused expression gesturing in the air with a stick. His hand would come down and then go to the left and then go to the right with great regularity. “Wow!” I thought. “What a happy coincidence! This guy is repeating a three-part sequence, and the song that we’re mangling is in three-four time. If we would all simply look at this guy and try to make our tempo match the one that he’s describing with that stick, we could all sing together.” I doubt I was the only person to think about that, but the song ended before we got our act together.
What does the idea of watching the director in a choir have to do with Habakkuk’s words to us today? Just as it never occurs to some choir singers to look at the director when things get muddled, some people never bother to look and listen to God when their lives get interesting. Everybody remembers to talk to God at bad times, but how many of us, after we pray, remember to take our place on the watch and listen for God’s response? Yes, “I gotta tell somebody,” but sometimes it’s more important to listen to the great Somebody. Many of our prayers might be answered in ways that we don’t notice if we don’t stop, look, and listen.
After a busy weekend, I fell into finals week today. At ten o’clock, I met my on-campus Comp I class for the last time, returning their portfolios to them and collecting final exams. At the end of the first hour of the two-hour exam period, there were two people still sitting in the room, me and a kid who has worn sunglasses through every class period this semester. I knew what would happen. Even though everybody else had cleared out by eleven, this guy would sit there agonizing over his test until noon. Some people, it seems, would take the full two hours if you asked them to just write their name on the paper.
My impatience during that exam was heightened because of the pile of papers that I knew awaited my grading touch. Some fifty-seven papers were in my email inbox. Another thirty were physically lying on my desk. Expecting to be done inside of ninety minutes, I’d only brought a tiny bit of work to do. And sunglass boy just kept tweaking and primping his essay.
To make matters worse, I knew that my time grading would be somewhat limited today. I could work through part of the afternoon, but I had a Cub Scout Pack Meeting to finish preparing. With the Christmas pageant and the other hubbub of my life, I hadn’t done much in the way of Cub Scouts for quite some time. I needed to stop by the Scout office on my way home. I needed to swing by the church as well. I needed to gather things at home. And still this guy worked on that paper.
In the end, my anxiety was misplaced. I got a fair bit of grading finished today. The plans for the Pack Meeting went off without a hitch. Virtually every kid showed up tonight. What more could I want? The boys sang a ridiculous song and received their awards. We all got to eat Christmas goodies. But in the end, the highlight of my evening was carrying our stuff to the car and heading for home. It’s not that I don’t love those Cubbies, but my life has been so hectic over the past month that I really just wanted to check off another to-do item and be done with something. Come Friday, when I turn in grades, I’ll be walking on air.
But something interesting happened when we got home tonight. Standing out in the driveway, Olivia and I watched an exceptionally bright meteor streak across the sky. The Geminid meteor shower is peaking tonight. So for about ten minutes, Tom, Olivia, and I stood out in the driveway and waited for these streaks of light. We waiting, knowing that, if we were patient, they would appear. And they did appear.
There’s something to be said for patience. There’s something to be said for knowing that even in the most hectic, nerve-wracking days of our life, events will work out, one way or another, and life will continue. That’s part of Habakkuk’s message to us today. We can get worked up over the delay of justice that we perceive in the world, but in the end, God’s will shall be done as surely as a meteor will burn up in the sky. All of my impatience won’t add a thing to either my own well-being or the glory of God. When I look at the stars, it’s hard to imagine the God who placed them in space being hurried into anything. Perhaps I should follow his lead.
You’ve probably heard the story of Martin Luther’s conversion, of how he happened onto this verse, Habakkuk 2:4 and the idea of the righteous living by faith. You’ve probably heard how he looked at that verse and then looked at all the works with which he had surrounded himself. Stroking his chin, perhaps, he thought, “Gee, this doesn’t seem right.”
As so often happens in these stories, we can learn a bit more by looking at the larger context. When Paul quoted that phrase, “the righteous will live by faith,” in Romans and in Galatians, he probably counted on his reader understanding the larger context. The righteous, living by faith, are contrasted here with an unnamed “he.” What do we learn about this second person? He’s puffed up and full of unrighteous desires. He’s arrogant and restless, greedy and insatiable. “But the righteous will live by faith.”
Yesterday, while sitting through that interminable final exam, I passed the time waiting for sunglass boy to finish by surfing on the net, looking for intriguing information about Habakkuk. In one of those irreproducible strings of web pages that you get sometimes, I happened onto a site that hosted scans of Renaissance books. One of these books grabbed my attention: Christ and Antichrist. I couldn’t read more than a few words of its German text, but the woodcut illustrations of this book told me all I needed to know. Each pair of pages in the book carried two images. On the left side, you’d see a “Christ” picture; on the right, stood a contrasting “Antichrist” picture. It didn’t take me long to figure out that the “Antichrist” for this author was the Pope and the Catholic church. Given the German text and the date, I figured this to be a Lutheran publication. In one pair of pictures, we see Jesus washing the disciples feet. To the right, the Pope sits enthroned with his subjects kowtowing at his feet. On the left, Jesus receives a crown of thorns, while on the right, the Pope is crowned with his tiara. Page after page continues in this vein.
I don’t mention this book to take pot shots at the Catholic church. Instead, I wonder if, stripping away the mitres and robes, we might be able to see ourselves on the right hand pages of that book.
Which of the sets of pictures, which part of today’s reading. describes me better? Am I more often the righteous living by faith? Or am I arrogant and greedy? Am I more naturally pictured washing people’s feet or being served?
On Monday, when I sat in that classroom worrying about when sunglass boy would finish up, I should have heard the refrain: “But the righteous will live by faith.” When I worry about my finances, it should sound again: “But the righteous will live by faith.” When some affront or slight bruises my tender ego, I ought to hear the words: “But the righteous will live by faith.” And sometimes I do, but often enough I don’t.
So for all the times that I live on the right hand page of that old German book, I praise God for providing the life pictured on the left hand page. In Jesus we find not the righteous many but the Righteous One, who always lived by faith.
The other night, I found myself in one of the finer retail establishments in Raytown, the Kicks 66 convenience store. As I stood at the soda fountain filling my cup, I watched a rather ragged looking character walk through the door. “Would you believe it?” he blurted out as soon as he cleared the doorway. “You sold me a $50 one.”
The clerk clearly didn’t follow the guy’s meaning. “What’s that?”
“You sold me a $50 scratch-off ticket,” the customer explained, waving a square of colorful cardstock in the air. Mr. Lucky then explained the process that had led him to this momentous winning. “I came in and bought twenty dollars worth of tickets earlier. When I went through them, would you believe there wasn’t a single winner in there at all?”
The clerk tried not to look surprised.
“Yeah, so I knew my luck had to change. I came in and bought another twenty. Well, sure enough, the first one I scratch off is a three dollar winner. By the time I was done, I had seven dollars in winners.”
The clerk, who must have been terribly bored to pursue the conversation, then asked, “So where did the fifty dollar ticket come in?”
Mr. Lucky got even more animated. “Don’t you remember? I came in here a little while ago and I cashed in those seven dollars in winners.”
The clerk was starting to see the light. “Yeah, and you took your winnings in tickets, right?”
“That’s right,” Mr. Lucky agreed. “I always do that, because then I can win even more. Smart, eh?”
The clerk nodded, although his face seemed pretty dubious.
“And so I figured, ‘Why get just seven tickets? Why not get a nice round twenty?’ So I gave you my winning tickets and thirteen dollars for twenty more tickets. And it’s a good thing I did. Would you believe that ticket number eight was the fifty dollar winner?”
The clerk stared back, “You don’t say.”
If you’ve followed the math of this story, you’ll find that Mr. Lucky “invested” a solid $53 in cash to wind up with $50 in cash. Lucky, eh? Now I’ll grant that I took some liberties with this tale, but the heart of it is true.
As you read Habakkuk’s account of the wicked person who “piles up stolen goods,” you probably don’t think of somebody like Mr. Lucky. I rather doubt that’s what Habakkuk had in mind, but such a person is probably more relevant to us. It’s easy to condemn the Al Capones and Kenneth Lays of this world, but what about those who seek to get ahead through shortcuts and cheats? That’s who we’re tempted to be, much more than gangsters and corporate thugs.
The message of the scriptures, from Genesis to Revelation, seems to be that crime doesn’t pay. I read that and nod, but do my actions indicate that I truly believe? Or am I just as clueless as Mr. Lucky, who honestly thought that he’d really won something? Woe to me when I build even the slightest thing unjustly.
Want to know what I love about my job? I’ll tell you. It’s today. Today, I’ll sit from 9 to 11 in the morning and preside over my last final of the semester. As the tests come in, I’ll grade them, lingering for another fifteen minutes or so to do the last few stragglers. Then I’ll head back to my office where I’ll input the grades into a spreadsheet, calculate all the A’s, B’s, and so forth, and then post the grades officially. It’ll probably be early in the afternoon when I print out copies of my grade book and deposit it in my department’s office. And then? Freedom!
What I love about my job is that every sixteen weeks, all of the students go away. Every sixteen weeks I get to bury my mistakes—or at least send them on to Comp II—and make a fresh start of it. In mid-January, I’ll play this game again with new faces in the seats and a slightly modified syllabus before me. Hopefully I’ll avoid the mistakes of this semester and make entirely new ones with this new crowd. That’s what I love about my job.
I suppose that what I actually love about my job is the sense of completion. I can measure my accomplishment in credit hours earned by my students. Unlike telemarketers, I know that my work actually does something positive for the world. After all, everybody needs to know how to write a good essay. (It’s my favorite day of the semester. Please don’t burst my bubble.)
But when I’m staring into the fireplace next week, I’ll recognize the limited value of my work. While I can point to a couple of former students who have gone on to a measure of writing success, I can point to far more who simply endured my class in order to get their college ticket punched. In the grand scheme of things, how important is my work? It’s more important, I would suggest, than the work of video game designers and less important than the work of paramedics. But let’s break that one down. I’ve had a number of EMTs, full-fledged and in training, in class in recent years. What do those guys accomplish? When I have my heart attack, I’m sure I’ll think them the most essential people in the world, but in the long run, these people simply postpone the inevitable. The world’s greatest economists and architects plan and build things that will pass away before too many years have gone by. “All flesh is grass,” you know.
Habakkuk paints this picture clearly when he declares all of our work as “fuel for the fire.” You can almost hear the voice from Ecclesiastes shouting “All is vanity” in the background. He doesn’t say this in order to convince us that our lives are pointless. Instead, he seeks to draw our attention to the only point worth pursuing. All of the things that seem so important—the sports scores, election results, new cars, hair styles, and on and on—amount to only kindling for the great fire of God.
So what’s a body to do? The choice is simple. Do we want to be burned up or to help do the burning. Happily for us, God has called us to participate in the great bonfire of the ages. I’m looking to be a flame.
For two weeks in 1983, Penny and I lived in a house in the tiny town of Ballybunion, Ireland. Where is Ballybunion? It’s nowhere really. Located perhaps fifty miles from Limerick at the mouth of the Shannon River estuary, it’s a place where the Irish go to vacation, and that’s about it. A friend of my parents owned a small house there, which gave us a free place to hang out for those weeks.
If we walked out the front door of our borrowed home, we could cross a small park, pass the ruins of a castle tower, and then find ourselves overlooking the beach and ocean. With very little to do during those days, we liked to come here and look out over the miles of water, watching as the tides slid in and out, unstoppable.
We reached Ireland on a ferry boat over a rough and fearful Irish Sea. I remember sitting inside the warm cabin of the ship and feeling the nausea building inside as the sea threw the vessel up and down. The answer to seasickness, it turns out, is to watch the waves. When you watch the waves, your mind seems to see that what you are feeling is normal. Then you don’t feel sick. I’d slip out onto the rain-swept deck and watch the waves until I lost all feeling in my skin. Then I’d go back inside to warm up until I couldn’t stand the nausea. By the time we reached the Irish coast, I thought that taking up residency on the Emerald Isle sounded pretty good.
Owing to that passage, I held a great respect for the power of the sea as I stood on the coast at Ballybunion and watched the waves break on the sand. Watching there, I realized that the inexorable, irresistible power of those waves, and centuries of waves before, had broken down larger rocks to form this border of sand.
A week before, in Bristol, I had seen the restoration-in-progress of the Great Britain, the first steam-powered ship to cross the Atlantic. Sitting in a drydock at the Bristol port, this once-great ship looked like a candidate for a salvage operation. Meanwhile, the sea that the ship had been meant to master still rose and fell on its own accord. Indeed, men have long tried to master the sea, sailing on its waves in ever more advanced vessels, but to date no one can say they’ve mastered the sea. Just a few days ago I heard of a giant oil tanker that had gone down in Alaska.
Unstoppable, irresistible, inexorable—these are the terms that describe the oceans of the world. Their size is unimaginable. Their depths cannot be dared without great danger. Their mysteries still resist our knowledge. And that is what Habakkuk compares the coming knowledge of the glory of God to.
We can read this verse and smile, thinking about what a wonderful day that will be when the earth is so filled with the knowledge of the glory of God. But will that be an easy day for us? I’m not so sure it will be. I’m not so sure that this filling won’t wash over us, pushing us to the brink of our abilities, forcing us to hold on for dear life.
That day will be a good day, but let’s not assume it’ll be an easy one.
I was in Boy Scouts with a pair of brothers who were—how shall I say it—not exactly the best Scouts to ever don a uniform. If there was a type of trouble to find, these guys would be in the middle of it. Over the several years that I knew them, I watched them do all sorts of bone-headed things and heard tales about various others. The story I offer today comes back to my mind after many years of hiding out. Frankly, I’d probably have been better off not remembering it.
The scene was a church campground and the time was when these guys were in their early teens. After skipping out of whatever activities they were supposed to be attending, they went to the natural place for boys to go for mischief: the restroom. At this campground, the restroom was a single building, divided in two: one side for men, the other for women. After flushing the toilets sufficiently that the thrill of that wore off, the brothers discovered something that would only enthrall a middle-school boy. They could climb on top of the sink, grab onto the exposed rafters, and clamber into the forbidden attic region of this little building. That adventure wouldn’t have kept them busy for too long had they not noticed something earth-shaking. From their hidden perch in the rafters, they could see into the women’s side of the restroom.
Apparently, these guys spent the entire afternoon up there, keeping watch on the women’s room in hopes that some super-model would change into her swimsuit there. In the end they were mostly disappointed. The facility didn’t get that much use to start with and most of that was restricted to hand-washing and the like. Toward the end of the afternoon, a woman entered the building and spent considerable time in their sight. After several minutes of watching their quarry from on high, one brother looked at the other with a note of shock. “Gary,” the brother said. “I think that’s Mom!” So ended the Peeping Tom careers of these two wise guys.
Habakkuk’s words today offer a stronger condemnation than these guys deserved, but the sin described is essentially the same. You can’t listen to the news for very long without hearing of somebody using some underhanded method or other of exploiting another person. From hidden cameras to date-rape drugs, the world is full of nasty people eager to do nasty things.
Now I’m pretty sure that none of my faithful readers are the type to get somebody liquored up and then compromise their virtue, but we’ve all been known to exploit people now and again. I’ve exploited the good nature of my employer before and taken advantage of return policies at stores, just to name a couple of examples. Now that’s not the same as what Habakkuk decries here, but the sin at the core is basically the same. It gets to the heart of how we see others.
Perhaps in this season of the year more than at any other time, we have to remember that people have been placed on this earth for us to love and serve and befriend, not for us to abuse and exploit.
Back when we lived in the dome house, eighteen months ago now, our five acres backed up to about a hundred undeveloped acres of scrubby land. Much of that is being covered with lovely little three-bedroom homes now, yet another reason for us not to feel bad about not living there any longer. But when we first moved in, the land to the west was the wilderness. And what do city people do to the wilderness? They trash it!
I remember coming home one evening and seeing truck lights up in the wilderness. This wasn’t some joy-riding four-wheeler. That I’d have tolerated. No, this was some yahoo dumping all manner of refuse on the premises. When I’d walk over into that area, I’d find a dizzying array of garbage scattered about: a twisted lawn chair, an old refrigerator, a bunch of broken bricks, and much more. Closer to home, I discovered several little treasures just across my fence row. At some point, someone had decided to discard a bunch of old pallets and some half-full tar buckets ten feet from my property line. When I started mowing that area, I had the unpleasant experience of finding a bunch of discarded wire. Do you know how hard it is to untangle wire from mower blades?
There’s a mentality about trash that many of us develop. We assume that once the stuff hits the curb and winds up in the back of a truck, it’s gone forever. Out of sight; out of existence. Drive around the city on certain lightly traveled roads, however, and you’ll see that the trash tends to linger. And the majority of it that makes it to the landfill lingers as well. It’s just better hidden.
One of the other things I realized while living in the dome house was the encroachment of development and its effects. We used to see all manner of wildlife on our acres. The deer and geese made their way across the pasture every day. We also saw foxes, owls, hawks, and other critters. But as the houses started to go up first to the south and then moving closer, we saw fewer animals. The range of available habitat had been reduced, so they had either moved on or been killed.
The loss of a hundred acres of vaguely wild space isn’t going to cause the collapse of the ecosystem, but on a larger scale we are seeing real problems rearing their heads. In recent months, a good deal of attention has been directed toward the fisheries of the world. In just a few short years, industrial-scale fishing has utterly decimated many fish populations that had been exploited on a more sustainable scale for centuries. On a more ominous level, the jury is still out on the whole global warming issue. What if, in our greed and self-centeredness, we have irreparably broken this world that God gave us? It wouldn’t be out of character for us, would it?
When Habakkuk speaks of “your destruction of animals,” does he speak to us? I don’t know, and I do know that I can’t fix the mistakes of the whole world by myself. What I can do is to live as responsibly on this earth as I can, viewing my part of the world as a stewardship, so that my children and my children’s children will have a chance to use it just as I have had.
When I was in graduate school, I got exposed to all manner of peculiar ways to read literature. Now for those of you who haven’t gone this route, you probably thought that there was just one way to read, say, Moby Dick, right? You figured that you just started at page one and kept moving forward until you reached page last, trying along the way to uncover the deep, hidden meanings. But in fact, there are as many ways of reading Moby Dick as there are stars in the sky or so it would seem. Let me give you a sampling.
There’s the symbolic approach. Why is the whale white and what significance does Ahab’s peg-leg have? There’s the Freudian approach. Isn’t Ahab just expressing his repressed rage for his mother when he attacks the whale? There’s the deconstructive approach. Melville attempted to create a text about hunting a whale, but in fact his book can be turned back on itself to be one about wailing over the hunt.
You think that’s it? Nope! There’s the feminist approach, which wants to know why we aren’t worried about Ahab’s poor abandoned wife. There’s the Marxist approach, examining the power structures on board the ship. There’s the reader response approach, which says that the novel is about whatever you say it’s about when you read it. There’s also the phenomenological approach, which I never did figure out. Did I mention semiotics? No, I wouldn’t want to do that. You can go with the narratological approach, which tries to figure out why the story works as it is constructed, or the formalist approach, which focuses on the various ways that the writer accomplishes things with words. I could go on, but I’m sure you’ve had enough by now.
What do all these approaches have in common? Aside from filling up hundreds of pages of journals and books, they’d seem to have almost nothing in common, but actually they have one important point of connection. They’re all the methods and theories of mere mortals. Bring these approaches (or the dozens more that are sure to pop up in the future as more generations seek tenure) to bear on a work of literature and the literature will remain pretty well unchanged. I’m reminded of Macbeth’s words about life: “it is a tale told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, signifying nothing.”
Why this literature lesson today? I’m reminded of these things when I read Habakkuk’s attack on idols. What good is an idol? It’s no more good than a work of literary criticism. It’s the work of a man’s hands. It doesn’t hurt anything, but it can’t take the place of the work of art. There’s nothing wrong with the idol by itself. For instance, I have a little statue of a pig on my bookshelf. It could be an idol, but it doesn’t become one until someone makes it an object of worship. It’s when we put the created thing in front of the creator. As we approach Christmas, remember to celebrate the incarnation, when God placed the object of our worship in our midst.
They say that the devil is in the details. Frankly, I think that gives the devil too much credit. When I look at the world, I recognize, in most unexpected places and times, that God is in the details. Let me give you an example.
The other day, I was listening to a radio talk show on which Paul J. Whalen, a professor from the University of Wisconsin-Madison, was explaining his recent research, just published in the journal Science. The research attempts to explain how the human brain identifies fear in the facial expression of another person. The key, Professor Whalen argues, is the size of the visible eye white in the frightened person. This shouldn’t come as a shock, of course. When we see something frightening, surprising, or otherwise not quite right, our eyes tend to open wider. Whalen says that the brain’s amygdala—please, don’t ask me what that is—sees that increased eye white and immediately sets the body on alert. After all, if somebody else is frightened or alarmed, shouldn’t we check things out as well?
Where does this reaction come from? Whalen wasn’t sure. Short of taking a newborn who has never seen a human face and then running experiments on that child—something that Whalen didn’t see his wife volunteering their kids for—it’ll be very hard to determine whether this eye-white reaction is somehow hard-wired into the human mind or is a learned reaction. But as a true believer in natural selection, Whalen opined that evolution might have built this little feature into the human mind at some point in the dim and distant past. You know how those evolutionary Just-So stories go.
One creature is born with the tendency for the eyes to open wider when it’s frightened. This, you’d think, wouldn’t be much of an advantage by itself, so evolution struggles to explain why that attribute would be retained. At the same time, another creature is born who just happens to interpret wider-than-normal eyes as a sign of danger. Again, this feature wouldn’t be an advantage by itself. But coupled together, these two creatures get such an evolutionary advantage that they out-produce all the other non-eye-wideners in the herd and eventually take over the world. That’s a pretty reasonable claim, wouldn’t you say?
Or maybe, in his infinite—and I do mean infinite—wisdom, God simply created humans and other mammals with this remarkable and subtle trait.
Each time science expands our knowledge, pushes back the frontiers of the universe, unveils the complexity of matter, and unravels the marvels of life, it shouts of the greatness of God. Through these discoveries, the believer hears of God’s fame and stands in awe of his deeds.
As Habakkuk raises his prayer to God, he doesn’t just proclaim God’s great works, however. He asks God to renew those works in our day. As Christmas approaches, we have to recognize that God’s great creative act was renewed in the Incarnation. It was renewed once again when grace found us as sinners, redeeming us to God. Yes, God is in the details. I love details.
In recent months, I’ve become quite enthralled by a TV miniseries, Band of Brothers. This project, the brainchild of Stephen Abrose, Tom Hanks, and Steven Spielberg, follows Easy Company of the 101st Airborne Division from their training through the end of World War II. After seeing the show in bits and pieces on the History Channel, I decided to rent the whole thing so I could watch it in its entirety.
In tonight’s episode, the men of Easy Company found themselves deployed around the Belgian town of Bastogne, undersupplied, improperly dressed, and surrounded by Germans. For a solid seventy minutes of video, these soldiers shivered and shook their way from foxhole to patrol to foxhole, enduring bitter cold, whistling bullets, artillery barrages, and armor assaults. By the end of that seventy minutes, I felt immense relief at the news that Patton had arrived to break the siege. In reality, the men defending Bastogne fought these difficulties not for seventy minutes but for eight days.
Films like Band of Brothers or Saving Private Ryan demonstrate simultaneously the horror of war and the valor of those who stand watch in those foxholes. It’s important when we remember that valor that we don’t ignore the horror.
No one watching Band of Brothers could forget either of these things. The Horror is a living, breathing thing. It walks on legs and breathes death in the form of disease, injury, shrapnel, foul weather, hunger, and bayonets. The Horror is sufficiently horrible that no one, regardless of their valor, can expect to stand in front of it indefinitely. Some men fall because of their foolish actions but many more fall simply because of some bad luck. There’s no skill that keep mortar shells from falling on you. Given enough time, the Horror would drop them all.
Like the 101st Airborne at Bastogne, humans found themselves besieged by sin, surrounded in the midst of enemy territory. Despite their valor, they cannot hold out forever. Some will fall easily, foolishly, but many others will fall simply because of the enormity of the Horror.
What can stop the Horror? Who can break the siege? Unlike in Bastogne, George Patton cannot break this siege, but there is hope. Let us read Habakkuk’s words of prayer as he describes the approach of God:
His glory covered the heavens
and his praise filled the earth.
His splendor was like the sunrise; rays flashed from his hand, where his power was hidden.
Plague went before him; pestilence followed his steps.
He stood, and shook the earth; he looked, and made the nations tremble.
The ancient mountains crumbled and the age-old hills collapsed.
His ways are eternal.
What can stop the Horror? The God that Habakkuk saw coming from Mount Paran can do this. Tomorrow, as we celebrate the Incarnation, Emmanuel, God with Us, let us recognize what actually happened on that first Christmas. We, who had been under siege at Bastogne, were relieved before the last man could fall.
Do you ever read the scriptures and feel as if the author were speaking to today’s world? Although Habakkuk penned these words over 2,600 years ago, his message seems hauntingly appropriate to the headlines that I’ve read today. As I write this, the CNN website’s top story is “Quake Death Toll Tops 11,000.” Across South Asia, entire nations are reeling in the aftermath of a magnitude 9 earthquake and the tidal waves that followed after it.
I’ve never experienced a bona fide natural disaster. Yeah, I’ve been through a few healthy floods in Kansas City, but they really didn’t amount to that much. I’ve seen the effects of tornados and, via the television, hurricanes, but even those don’t compare with what is going on in India, Thailand, and Malaysia today. In the United States, we have such an embarrassment of riches that we can’t envision life like it is in those countries after the quake. Sure, we have people who suffer greatly and who die, but we don’t see entire communities threatened with long-term devastation. If you don’t die in an American disaster right at the outset, you can be pretty sure that all sorts of food, water, and shelter will be headed your way within hours. But in these other places, the disaster recovery system won’t be able to cope. They’ll be struggling to provide clean water and to keep down disease for weeks to come. It’d be enough to make you wonder if the earth had turned against you.
You can hear the people questioning their lives now, can’t you? “What did we do to deserve this?” You hear it enough around here when a big tree branch blows down in a windstorm or our cable TV is cut for a few hours. How much more would we hear it in Thailand tonight?
How can you feel when the earth, which normally grows you crops, shakes and rends itself? How can you feel when the cooling wind turns into a slashing weapon that dashes whole houses to the ground? How can you feel when the sea, where you used to fish and swim, rises up in a giant tsunami and obliterates your community? You’d have to feel as if the earth itself had turned against you or perhaps God had declared war on the earth.
Habakkuk doesn’t say that God did grow angry with the rivers and streams here, but he indicates that it appeared that way. God’s wrath, however it is manifested, is a terrible thing. We do well to share the loving kindness of God to a lost and searching world, but we do them a disservice if we neglect to mention that God has wrath as well. I’ve experienced—I’m fairly certain—tiny little outpourings of God’ anger when I’ve persisted in certain sins, and I can testify that God’s wrath is not something to be dismissed.
Is God angry with the people of South Asia? I wouldn’t presume to answer that question, but as we watch the news coverage of this event, let’s stay attentive to the little tremors God sends our way so that we never feel the full force of his rage.
Let me tell you about Christmas celebrations in my family. This year, for the first time that I can ever remember, nobody came away from the frenzy of paper ripping and box opening grousing about what they received. We’ve had Christmases past when the gifts were piled higher and the boxes were stuffed with more opulent fare, but that didn’t matter to anybody this year.
You’ve surely experienced the gift-opening sessions when somebody, usually a child, opened eight gazillion presents with enough new and amazing toys to keep an army of ten-year-olds busy for a month. That kid, ripping off the last shred of paper from the last present, looks around with a wounded look and says, “Is that it?”
“Is that it?!” you want to shout back. You’ve got half an aisle from Toys R Us here! “Is that it?!” These gifts cost as much as the gross domestic product of Guatemala! What kind of spoiled, unthinking, ungrateful brat are you? You’ve seen that kid. You might have had to claim that kid as your own. You might have even been that kid yourself.
As adults, of course, we know better than to express our avarice in such a crass manner. We’d never think of saying something so obvious as “Is that it?” No, we wait until later and ask a spouse or a sibling, “Were you surprised with the sort of things Aunt Tilly gave this year?” That’ll get things going most likely, and you can sit back and quietly grouse about how Aunt Tilly bought everybody socks when she got herself that new fur coat. I’ll confess that I’ve been that adult before.
But this year was different. I’m not sure why, but nobody in my family, on either Penny’s or my side, showed the slightest sign of this attitude. And truly, the pickings were rather slim this time. In a moment that I couldn’t have scripted better had I actually been able to control it, Olivia, twelve years old, and Thomas, nine, had their best reactions when they opened their new Bibles. Now, these were decidedly nice Bibles, but come on! For kids that age to get that excited, you’re supposed to have an Xbox or somesuch in the package.
No, it was an idyllic Christmas. Everybody seemed to truly enjoy the year’s blessings and were pleased with whatever fate and Aunt Tilly placed under the tree. It was enough to make the Grinch’s heart grow three sizes that day.
Obviously Habakkuk was not closing out his prayer with thoughts of Christmas, six hundred years before Christ was born, but he expressed the sentiment well. No matter what happens, “I will rejoice in the Lord, I will be joyful in God my Savior.” It doesn’t matter if the fig trees don’t bud or the stock market tanks. It doesn’t matter if the Chiefs lose or gas prices go to two bucks a gallon. “I will be joyful in God my Savior.”
My house did a good job of that this Christmas. Now we’re going to work on the other 364 days of the year. My prayer for all of you is that you might accomplish the same.
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.