These devotions were written in the late summer of 2004. Click on a chapter number to jump to the first devotion for that chapter.
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John Wallace Browning, my great grandfather, born in 1843, joined the United States Army in 1864, toward the end of the Civil War. Assigned to the cavalry, John saw action in the battle of Nashville in December 1864. On December 17, he was wounded near Franklin, Tennessee and spent a fair bit of time recuperating in hospitals, first in Nashville and then in Jeffersonville, Indiana. Once he recovered, John rejoined his unit, traveling with them to a post-war assignment at Fort Snelling, Minnesota.
Here’s where the story gets strange. On July 1, 1865, John Browning deserted from the army. Apparently, he could neither read nor write, and he received orders that he misinterpreted as a discharge. At least that was the story that he told the MPs when they caught up with him. The record suggests that his superiors believed him to be telling the truth. He was reunited with the unit and soon thereafter received his honorable discharge. He received a military pension throughout his later years and is buried beneath a civil war headstone in Siloam, Oklahoma. Thomas wasn’t the first Browning with recorded military service. His father, Andrew J. Browning served as a drummer or bugler in the Mexican War, receiving a Purple Heart at Vera Cruz.
These little facts that I’ve managed to glean over the years about these patriarchs of my family teach several lessons. They suggest the nobleness of volunteering to serve one’s country, the importance of staying out of the path of bullets, and the value of literacy. These are the stories of my forebears. What a shame that I had to learn them in a genealogy library and from online databases.
John Wallace Browning fathered Thomas Lewis Browning in 1879, at the age of thirty-six. Thomas Lewis, at age thirty-eight, saw his youngest child, my dad, into the world. My father was just past forty-five when I was born. But none of us ever heard these stories. When I shared them with my dad several years ago, he had only the vague recollection of his grandfather having served in the war. Isn’t it a shame that a family wouldn’t pass on these little slivers of American history that they’ve help to carve out?
As I dwell on this, however, I realize that while the facts might not have been passed down, many of the values were. My father served in the navy during World War II, while my brother was in the army in Vietnam. They served with distinction but stayed away from flying lead. And all of us are more or less literate. I count these as good things.
As we move to Joel’s prophecies, uttered a good hundred years before those of Hosea, I’m struck by his admonition. “Tell it to your children.” What if the people had heeded those words? What if they had passed the word of God down to their children and grandchildren? If they had, perhaps we would have seen a very different message in Hosea.
And for us? We have children—our own and those around us—to pass the message on to. For their sakes we cannot allow God’s words to stop with us.
This month’s Christianity Today contains a cluster of articles concerning the embattled state of marriage. With people on just about every street corner arguing for gay marriage, it seems like a pretty topical thing to discuss. Some of us, listening the din of the arguments, might wonder how in the world we got into this shape. Did it simply descend on us, completely unannounced, like the Mongol hordes, or did we have warnings. One of the CT articles attempts to trace the attacks upon marriage that have marked the past forty or fifty years. They begin with the normalization of divorce, describing divorce as having changed from a tiny “emergency exit” at the back of the cathedral of marriage into a sort of alternate cathedral all its own. They go on to discuss the changes in sexual mores, the proliferation of abortion, the explosion in one-parent homes, and the vast numbers of children born outside of marriage. Rather than suggesting that these things didn’t exist before 1960, the article wisely describes them as unfortunate aberrations in the years before 1960 and a part of the mainstream today. In short, the article suggests, we should have seen this whole gay marriage thing coming. It’s just the next in a long string of devaluations that the currency of marriage has endured.
I’m not one to sit around wringing my hands about the awful state that the world is in these days. This might be the most wicked time we’ve ever seen on the earth, but I rather doubt it. It’s certainly not the time most hostile to Christianity, at least not in the West. In fact, I’m a lot more interested in the camel that’s trying to stick its nose into the tent of my life than the larger one that seems to have taken up residence in the tent of American culture.
If you don’t know that story, here’s the synopsis. A man traveling across the desert on a camel stopped for the night. He pitched his tent and went to bed. Early in the night, the camel complained of a sandstorm and asked to put his nose inside. The man consented. Eventually the camel worked his head, his neck, and eventually his entire body into the tent and rousted the poor traveler out into the sandstorm. The moral of the tale is that if you never let the camel’s nose into the tent, you’ll be okay.
When Joel writes, 100 years before Hosea and the demise of the Northern Kingdom, he compares a plague of locusts to the coming plague on the nation. The people had let the camel’s nose into the tent in Joel’s day. He attempted to warn them, but we all know the outcome.
That’s interesting history, but I’m much more intrigued by the parallel in my own life. What plague of locusts am I ignoring tonight? What attack of pride, gluttony, or envy am I allowing to gain a foothold in my life. I don’t want to talk about the nation so much as I want to talk about me. After all, the nation didn’t ruin the broader institution of marriage. Individuals did. Let’s dedicate ourselves to seeing the earliest of early warnings that we can.
On Wednesday of this week, instead of going to lunch with my usual gang, I walked across the campus to the gym, a building whose door I’ve rarely darkened aside from command performances like graduations. Having already gotten myself a locker, I was ready to sweat. After dressing out, I hit the track and began running. Halfway around I felt my lungs heaving. And mind you, this is an indoor track. I hadn’t gone very far. I ran two laps and walked one. After repeating that pattern again, I reduced myself to running one and walking two. In the end, I did sixteen laps and ran half of them. Today, nearly forty-eight hours later, I’m still feeling the effects in my thighs. That’s pitiful.
At noon today I intend to head back to the gym to do whatever running I can manage with these sore muscles. I fully expect to be bed-ridden tomorrow morning, but I know that in the end I’ll be glad for having abused myself in this manner.
This new-found enthusiasm for my cardio-vascular health hit a crisis a week ago. As I walked across campus with a senior colleague, I winced when he asked me a question. “Why are you out of breath?” It was a simple enough question. We were walking at a brisk rate and talking incessantly, but that shouldn’t leave me panting. But there I was, gasping for my air. Having continually thought that I needed to “do something” about my physical condition, this simple question pushed me into action.
Of course my activities are driven by two opposing forces. Part of me wants to run, to lift weights, to bike, to swim, and otherwise become the paragon of physical fitness, a sort of latter day Jack LaLanne. But another part realizes that the work involved will hurt. I’ll have sore muscles and achy lungs. I’ll have to sweat and get up earlier or miss lunch. There’s a sacrifice involved with exercise. We only make that sacrifice when the benefits seem to outweigh the pain.
When Steve asked me why I was out of breath, the costs of exercise suddenly ceased to outweigh the benefits. If I manage to stick with this regimen, I’ll have to thank him for helping me make that leap. It’s certainly an easier entry into the land of the sweaty than having a heart attack.
Joel spends a good bit of time in today’s reading describing a denuded and desolate land, a land that has been ravaged by the locust plague. As I read through those words, I found myself feeling as if I were back in Hosea again. But then I got down to verse nineteen and I realized that we have a new idea working here. By putting the land into such a lamentable state, God put them into a frame of mind that would truly seek him. We never appreciate water as much as when we’re dehydrated. We never appreciate air as when we’ve been underwater for a long spell. And we never appreciate the blessings of God so much as when we’re denied those blessings.
May it not take a plague of locusts to remind us just how richly God has blessed us through both his common and his saving grace. The wild animals cry out to him. Can we do any less?
I’m reminded today of the various views that you’ll hear about the war in Iraq. To hear some people talk about the American invasion of Iraq, you’d think that every single Iraqi is permanently angry and offended at the U.S. action. To hear these pundits talk, you’d think that the American forces systematically blew up everything of use in Iraq from power plants down to convenience stores.
On the other hand, you’ll find those who can’t figure out why every single Iraqi hasn’t come out embracing this foreign army that, whatever precautions they took, did do a considerable amount of damage and inflict unintended casualties.
To my mind, both of these parties, who essentially seem to be lining up to give aid and comfort to their preferred political candidates, are singing silly songs. They’re over-simplifying a war that has, like all wars, left a mixed result. What we need in the world right now—what we need in our lives—is not silly songs, but solid songs.
I can’t read this passage from Joel without hearing a worship song in my mind. “Blow the trumpet in Zion, Zion. Sound the alarm on my holy mountain.” It’s an upbeat, energetic song, but does it make a lot of sense for us to sing it? Is it, like the bizarre songs that Larry the Cucumber presents on Veggie Tales a “Silly Song”?
The images that follow after this command to sound the alarm are certainly—well—alarming. They describe an army approaching that will bring an incredible devastation. This isn’t an army whose approach should bring comfort to the inhabitants of Zion or those who find themselves on God’s holy mountain. No, in the very first verse, Joel warns those who are living in the land—that is the land of Israel—to tremble. It talks of devouring fires, people turning pale, earth shaking, and sky trembling. Yikes! It describes an army “such as never was of old nor ever will be in ages to come.” So should we really be singing this song as a victory anthem? Or should it be, instead, a dirge?
The question, of course, depends on where you find yourself in regard to this army. To illustrate, we can return to Iraq for a moment. If you were an Iraqi under the thumb of Saddam, you would welcome the invasion. If you were someone who benefited from Saddam’s power, then you resent it.
Can this apply to Joel’s prophecy? I believe that the trumpet Joel commands in Zion is one that calls the people to line up with the army of God. It says, in effect, “God’s forces will win. The only question is which side you’ll ally with.” Far more than the American invasion of Iraq, the Day of the Lord will be an irresistible victory. The wisest thing we can do is be certain that we’re on the right side of that battle. In Christ, we have enlisted permanently in the victorious army. The only outstanding question is how bravely and ably we’ll serve.
The song isn’t silly. On the contrary, it’s deadly serious.
I went to the gym again Friday. On Wednesday, I made sixteen laps—two miles. Of those I ran eight, although not all of them at once. On Friday, I completed eighteen laps, running ten of them. My muscles aren’t nearly as sore after that second run. While I promise not to keep you informed of my progress in this work-out regimen, I would like to think about it again.
For all of my life, really since I was quite a young pup, I’ve fought to keep my weight in check and my body in a reasonable condition. When I wrestled in high school, I struggled to make my desire to make weight greater than my desire to eat pizza. More importantly, I can remember the coach sending us out to run at the beginning of practice. I thought I’d die running up a long, gradual hill and then across the level of the three-mile course. By the time we got to the mats, I had nothing in the gas tank. Coach always closed practices by taking us down to the basketball court and having us run sprints from baseline to baseline. Why I stuck it out for two full seasons, I haven’t a clue.
Several times in the years since high school, I’ve gotten a bee in my bonnet and started working out. I did a fairly good job during college. About ten years ago, I dropped thirty pounds and went biking regularly. It was great. But each time I got myself into better condition, I then went back to my old ways. The weight came back and the endurance went away.
So today, when I hit the track, I do it with a pretty lousy track record behind me. I’ve squandered a lot of good progress and I’ve done it many times. When Steve asked me, “Why are you out of breath?” I could have simply resigned myself to a lifetime of excessive perspiration and shortness of breath.
I could have, but I really couldn’t. You see, I want to be able to keep up with my son when he’s a teen. I want to hike and bike and play basketball with the kid without worrying about keeling over at the height of the game. No matter how much extra weight I’m carrying around, no matter how abused my body has been in the past few years, I know that I can make things better if I set my mind to it. I know that regardless of the past, I can make tomorrow better.
“Even now,” God tells the people of Israel. “Even now” you can change your ways. Then, in a beautiful turn of phrase, he says “rend your heart and not your garments.” What a marvelous moment of hope we have here.
The promise of God, through Christ, is that no matter where we are, no matter what sort of sin has blocked up our lives, “even now” we can turn our hearts toward God and make things right. This was the promise at the moment when we accepted Christ and it’s the promise that we rise to each morning of our lives. “Even now” we can open ourselves to God’s grace and love.
I’m fairly certain that my all-time favorite Super Bowl commercial is one in which you hear a repeated, mysterious sound as the camera pans across an isolated gas station. The sound is a sort of mechanical buzzing sound. As the camera moves, you realize that someone is trying to get a pop machine to accept a dollar bill. Time after time, the bill goes into the changer only to be rejected. The sound is the changer accepting and then spitting out the money. Finally, after our hero has attempted this deed a couple of dozen times, the first half of the noise sounds, but the second—the rejecting—sound is not heard. The man throws his arms up in triumph only to discover that the machine is out of whatever he wanted to buy.
I have a love-hate relationship with vending machines. This probably goes back to the time in Hawaii when, at age ten, I bought a candy bar only to find that spiders had taken up residence within it. Since that day, I’ve become convinced that the machines are out to swipe my money. When they eat my money, I want to scream and smash the glass, but my greatest frustration comes when a machine is out of diet pop and won’t return my money.
Of course vending machines are simply an appealing and mute target for our larger frustration when things don’t work. When my computer refuses to boot or can’t reach the net, I’m irritated. When my car won’t start, I’m troubled. When I call some company and have to punch thirty-seven different numbers, including inputting my account number twice just so that I can talk to a human being who isn’t able to help me, I get miffed. Things should work, after all! Customer service should actually serve customers. Cars should start or at least give us some warning when they’re not going to. Computers should simply do what we want them to do without the need to purchase all manner of anti-virus, anti-spam, anti-weirdness software. And vending machines should always give me cold Diet Dr. Pepper, free of spiders.
Few things in life, of course, are as dependable as I want machines to be. People and TV shows and political parties and fate will let us down as often as they pick us up; however, Joel promises the perfectly responsive God. The people must put in their quarter—repenting of their evil ways—but the product will inevitably come out, better than we had hoped for it to be. Look at the “product” that God promises in these verses: “enough to satisfy you fully.” This is God’s promise when we rend our hearts rather than our garments. And it’s not just here in Joel. Read 1 John 1:9 or 1 Chronicles 7:14. The promise of God is simple. Repentance leads to blessing, every time. It seems irreverent to talk of a vending machine God, but that seems to be what Joel describes. No correct change required. No out of order sign. Just a well oiled machine.
It was nearly twenty-two years ago that I packed up my new bride and moved to Oxford England for a year of study in the rain. No single year in my life had as much impact on me as did that one. Not a day goes by that I don’t think on some event from that marvelous school year. Today, I’m reminded of an event that I haven’t run across for quite some time.
On Broad Street in Oxford, a wide sweeping avenue that pierces right to the heart of the university, you’ll find Blackwell’s Bookstore. On the first full day that Penny and I were in Oxford, woozy with all the sites around us, we stumbled into Blackwell’s and nosed around for a few minutes. The place sprawled out like an oak-paneled Borders store, but it was in a day before Borders and Barnes and Noble were peppering the countryside with superstores. I was in booklovers’ heaven. Although we wandered through the courtyard of the Bodleian Library and visited a medieval church, my mind kept running back to the seemingly endless stacks of books that filled this dreamlike story.
It was a couple of days later when I went back to Blackwell’s. By this time, I felt like an old hand in Oxford and I could saunter about at leisure. I determined to look for something by Plato. Not finding the philosophy section in my wandering about the store, I asked a clerk. “Upstairs,” the man said. How fabulous! There’s an upstairs. What I eventually discovered was that there were two more floors of books above me. After exploring them, I remembered that my main subject of study for this year would be economics. “Where would I find economics?” I asked another clerk. “Downstairs,” she replied.
I was not prepared for what the journey downstairs revealed to me. As I descended the broad staircase, I didn’t find a basement full of books. No, I found a veritable cavern of books. I don’t believe that I exaggerate to say that the room was the size of a high school gymnasium. There were books on the sunken floor and books ringing the floor on various levels. At several points, apparent hallways of books disappeared into the darkness. I had never seen so many books in my entire life, and now here they all were—for sale!
When I read Joel’s promises about God pouring out his Spirit on all people, about sons and daughters prophesying, and about visions and dreams, I think of the wonder that I felt when I first stepped into the basement at Blackwell’s. The horror that Joel describes at the coming of the great and dreadful day of the Lord transcends all human imagination, yet the promise that he holds out to the people overwhelms that dread.
“You can’t imagine the blessings that I’m going to shower upon you,” God seems to be saying here. But balanced by that, he warns, “You can’t imagine the carnage that I’ll deliver you from.” The day will come when we’ll realize both of those unimaginable realities, and in that day, we’ll fall down before God worshiping. No one will have to tell us to do that. It’ll just come naturally.
When Emily was about a year old, I had no clue about how to be a father. One day, I recall, I had the car and the kid, while Penny was off working or otherwise shirking her motherly duties. That day, I pulled the car up in front of our house, reached in the backseat to extricate Emily from the car seat, and watched as Mount Vesuvius erupted. The kid sent whatever meal she had just eaten all over herself and the backseat of the car. I looked at this revolting mess and wanted to just turn and walk away from her, abandoning the car and the kid in one move. But of course I couldn’t. I got her out and cleaned up the mess. When she was born, I worried about feeding her, but that day I realized that it wasn’t the feeding that I needed to fear.
For centuries, parents have worried about “another mouth to feed,” but that isn’t the case for most people in this country. Very few people need to worry about feeding their kids. You’ll hear that lots of kids go hungry, but that’s typically more because of parental neglect than because the system is stacked against the kid. No, the system, with WIC, food stamps, school lunches, food pantries, share programs, and the like, is set up to provide all manner of opportunities for those kids to get fed. The problem of a child’s hunger isn’t what an American parent should fear.
So what do parents need to fear these days? We need to fear that our kids will get sucked into a culture that abuses drugs and alcohol at an alarming rate and at an increasingly younger age. We need to fear that our kids will become sexually active in middle school and then contract some incurable disease. We need to fear that our kids will come of age without any morality beyond being self-serving.
People who care about kids worry that many of them are growing up without two parents. We worry that they’re being told by their parents’ action that marriage isn’t an important commitment and by the media that there’s nothing really bad beyond intolerance.
It seems to me—and I know that I’m preaching today more than usual—that we as a culture have largely sold our kids. We’ve bought personal liberty with the currency of our kids. We’ve placed a down payment on shaky social experiments with them. We’ve purchased moral relativism with them. We’ve sold them just as surely as if we’d driven them to a slave market.
Joel wouldn’t have been surprised at the state of childhood in the United States. In our reading today, he lashes out on God’s behalf at those who treat kids like some sort of commodity, trading them for money or wine, selling them into slavery. Joel looked out on a depraved culture that saw children not as hope for the future but as an asset to be traded.
Where does that leave you and me? Surely we’re not guilty of the worst offenses of our culture. Just as in marriage we see the relationship between Christ and his church, in our stewardship over children, we see the relationship between God the Father and his children. He could have turned from us when we first made our mess in the backseat of life, but he didn’t. We as a culture can turn from our kids, selling them off like a commodity, but we can’t do that and believe we’re following God’s command. How we deal with “kid stuff” says a great deal about how we view our God.
My high school years were not the glory days of my life. I remember, as a sophomore, watching as my best friend was humiliated by some idiot. I call that guy an idiot, but as I look back on it, I have to think that I was the idiot, standing by and allowing this stuff to go on. But then why would I stand up for my friend. I didn’t even stand up for myself. One incident lingers in my mind. One afternoon, I ran into a guy named Bob in the hallway leading into the gym. While I tried to move to the side so that Bob and I could pass, each of us going our different ways, he had a different idea. Bob took that opportunity to punch me in the stomach several times. Why? I haven’t a clue. To the best of my knowledge, I’d never done anything to offend him. I guess I just looked punch-able. But who am I kidding? I know exactly why he did it. Bob decided to punch me, because he knew I’d do little or nothing about it.
I suppose we all play “what-if” games with our lives. I’ve replayed that brief encounter in the hallway of the gym a number of times in the intervening years. What if I had planted a hard right onto Bob’s cheek? I imagine that he’d have laid me out right then, but I also imagine that he’d have never attacked me again. In teaching, I’ve discovered that one “shot over the bow” will quell most uncooperative students. It’s the avoidance of any conflict that tends to prolong the ordeal.
If you go to the Independence, Missouri square area, you’ll find the Community of Christ—formerly the RLDS—Temple. That building, the church says, is “dedicated to the pursuit of peace.” Now I’m as committed to pursuing peace as the next guy, but if I’ve learned anything from my experience with Bob in the gym it’s that sometimes the best way to pursue peace is to use conflict. A look at history will confirm this. No amount of appeasement and wishful thinking would have put the brakes on Hitler’s ambitions. The Civil Rights Movement couldn’t have accomplished what it did without the willingness of brave people to engage in conflict—much of which was, happily, non-violent. At present, the U.S. is engaged in a “war on terrorism.” That confrontation cannot be won by wishful thinking and endless diplomacy. There are times when we simply must come to blows, as painful and unpleasant as that might seem.
What Joel proclaims in this reading is that war is inevitable. In a perfect world, a world in which God is unquestionably and totally in control, peace will prevail, but we do not yet live in that world. And war—or less cataclysmic conflicts—seem to be a necessary evil, even a divinely ordained tool, until that world is realized.
If conflict is unavoidable, then the difficulty for us lies in knowing which conflicts are ordained of God and which are the creations of man. May God grant us the wisdom to discern this difference and the strength to stand as warriors when that is God’s will for us.
As I write these words, Hurricane Frances is bearing down on the southwest coast of Florida, threatening to inundate low-lying areas and to blow down anything that’s not very substantial. I heard this afternoon that half a million people have been encouraged to evacuate their homes and head inland.
Living in the Midwest, I have no clear image of a hurricane. I can’t imagine a storm that you see coming for days on end. I’m accustomed to tornados, where you might get a ten-minute warning that things are getting truly awful. And with tornados, the path of destruction is relatively narrow. A house on one street can be demolished while another house, a block away is completely unscathed. A hurricane can flood an area many miles wide.
So what do you do when they tell you to evacuate your home? As a Midwesterner, I can’t really answer that question with any certainty, but I have a feeling that I’d know my thought process. I’d have the TV on. I’d try to figure out if my house stood to receive the brunt of the storm. I’d try to talk myself out of leaving. After all, if you evacuate and your neighbors evacuate and most of the police are busy making people evacuate, wouldn’t that provide easy pickings for the crooks? I might be tempted to ride out Frances to make sure that Light-fingered Louie didn’t break in and steal my big-screen TV. I have umbrellas and raincoats. I have shutters for the windows and a life jacket. I can ride this thing out, can’t I? How bad could it really be?
But on the other hand, what if things really are bad? What if my subdivision suddenly starts to seem a lot like coastal waters. What if the winds rip the roof off the house. You can’t go hide in the basement, since it could easily fill up with water. What’s a guy to do? You can’t wait until the last minute and then try to drive for safety. That’s a sure prescription for disaster. They’d find you, somewhere miles away in the Everglades, in your battered car, two weeks from now.
So what do you do? Do you stay or do you go? Do you risk the storm and protect the house? Or do you risk the house but avoid the storm? There’s no clear answer, and with each moment that you delay your decision, Frances looms nearer and the highways out of town get more congested. You have to choose!
Those multitudes in the valley of decision in Florida, however, have a simple decision to make compared with the eternal decision that Joel describes today. If a believer chooses wrongly to sit through Frances, he might die. If an unbeliever chooses to flee Frances, he might live a bit longer. But Joel describes a storm that we can’t truly fathom.
You see, you don’t have to wait for the “back of the book” to find out that God wins in eternity. The Day of the Lord is coming. You can choose to resist God or to be for him. That’s a no-brainer, it seems to me. Still multitudes stand in the valley of decision, debating. Like those people in Florida, they’d best not wait too long to make their choice.
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.