These devotions were written in the winter of 2005. Click on a chapter number to jump to the first devotion for that chapter.
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Several years ago, my college, Johnson County Community College, had the honor of being the site of several protests by Fred Phelps, the Topeka “pastor,” who believes it’s his calling to set up picket lines at the funerals of AIDS patients and anything vaguely tainted by homosexuality. The convoluted logic that powers the mind of Mr. Phelps staggers the imagination. He protested a certain German symphony when it came to JCCC because the German government holds certain gay-friendly positions. He likewise protested against a French singing group because of France’s laws regarding “alternate lifestyles.” By that same logic, I suppose, I should boycott any products made in California due to all the weird positions they hold out there.
It’s not just that Fred Phelps is anti-gay that gets him coverage by the press fairly frequently. What sets this guy apart is how stridently anti-gay he is. His protestors, who are chiefly drawn from his church which is chiefly composed of his extended family, carry signs with such diplomatic messages as “God Hates Fags.” That’s subtle. I’ve seen Phelps not only at JCCC but at a Christian rock concert and the Billy Graham Crusade in Kansas City. The old boy certainly has energy.
Of course his actions don’t just rile up those who disagree completely with him. Many Christians who would embrace at least a subset of his message find his abrasive nature and in-your-face positions hard to stomach. It’s one thing to call homosexuality a sin. It’s quite another thing to have a counter on a web-site indicating how long a certain deceased homosexual has “been in Hell.” The guy gives me the willies!
Some Christians, of course, respond to Phelps foolishly, employing reason in the face of his unreasonable hate. “God doesn’t hate anyone,” these people will say, lobbing a softball for Phelps to blast toward the outfield. How does he respond to this claim? He cites the exact passage in Malachi that we read for today. God hated Edom, Phelps points out. If God hated an entire nation, he argues, then is it so unreasonable for us to accept that he hates people who live a patently sinful lifestyle? Surely, we think, the translation in the Bible must be bad. Surely that word, translated as “hate” in English must mean something different in Hebrew. Go ahead, look it up if you like. What you will find is that it means just what our English Bible says it means: hate.
So here’s my question for today. If God is love, then how on earth—or in heaven—can God hate? If God is love, then how can he hate Edom? Without a good answer to this question, this passage seems to put a pretty serious crimp into our theology. Wouldn’t you agree?
I’m not fool enough to get into an argument with Fred Phelps, but I would point out two slight flaws in his reading of this passage. First of all, the whole point of Malachi’s words is not God’s hatred for Edom. The point is God’s love for Israel. The only reason that Malachi mentions God’s hatred of Edom is to accentuate his love. Second, and more important to my mind, is this. If Fred Phelps wants to walk around carrying signs that say “God Hates Edom,” then I won’t argue. The Bible, in various places, condemns homosexuality very strongly, but nowhere does it say that God hates homosexuals. If God hates somebody, I’m going to let him say it. I’m certainly not going to take that task on myself.
Someday, Fred Phelps will stand before the Lord. I’m not sure if he’ll be numbered with the sheep or the goats, but I feel fairly certain that God will have some comments on Phelps’ protest efforts. Despite the words of both Malachi and Fred Phelps, I still believe that God is love.
We are nearly half way through the current semester, and I still feel as if my classes are a mystery. What really has me flummoxed is the students in my two Introduction to Fiction courses. First of all, we should point out that Intro to Fiction is a sophomore-level course. These people—most of them at least—have already been through the composition series. They ought to know how to be decent students if they have survived this long. That ought to be the case, but you can’t count on it.
On Monday of this week, John, my Assistant Dean, came to my class to observe me. Every three years, John gets to come watch each of the tenured professors do our thing so that he can write an observation form that goes along with a performance review that ultimately has absolutely no bearing on anything in the universe. I could probably be an axe murderer and keep my job, provided I didn’t bring the axe to class. John knows that it’s a formality, and I know it. We have a great relationship, so it’s typically a fairly pleasant experience. But Monday, the students got on my nerves.
My class plan called for me to have a quiz at the outset of the period. The syllabus dictates that I’ll give twelve quizzes during the semester, the best ten of which provide a significant portion of their overall grade. Missing a quiz, therefore, is a very counter-productive action. When I started the class, promptly at 9 am, there were some sixteen of the twenty-eight students in their seats. By the time I finished the quiz, another four had straggled in and managed, through my infinite charity, to get the questions repeated. After the quiz had been turned in, another seven of them strolled through the door, guaranteeing them a big zero on that quiz.
I found this experience somewhat embarrassing given that John was sitting in the back row watching the parade. When they repeated the same sort of action today, I told them how inappropriate I thought it was. You’d think that experienced students could manage to make it to their classes on time. A few would be mortified to walk in more than ten seconds late, while others appear to think it no big deal. I don’t think that such chronic lateness suggests that they have a great deal of respect for me.
Perhaps more seriously, however, such chronic lateness suggests that these kids don’t have appropriate respect for themselves. They’ve enrolled in a class. They’ve paid their fees. And then they skip class entirely or straggle in a third of the way through the hour. If they disrespect me, that’s not so great, but their lack of respect for themselves will stick with them down the road.
The lack of respect that Malachi describes is considerably more serious than my tardy students. God should certainly demand more consideration than do I. Still, the underlying problem is the same. The people whom Malachi criticizes as disrespectful, not only show a lack of respect for God but they seem to lack respect for themselves. You’d think that even failing piety, you could count on self-interest, but not in Malachi’s world. And not in our world either.
Who among us can say that we always—and I mean always—bring our best to the altar of God? That’s a hard question, but one that each of us should pose to ourselves from time to time. Just don’t think about it so long that you show up late tomorrow.
I met Jim about a dozen years ago through Boy Scouts. I had agreed to take over the leadership of the Scout troop at the church where I attended. The outgoing Scoutmaster, who happened to live across the street from me, would take over as committee chairman, while Jim, who still had a boy in the troop, would remain as Assistant Scoutmaster. What could be so bad about this? Surely, I reasoned, I could reverse the shrinking trend that this troop had been experiencing.
It took me a while to get a bead on Jim. I met him and found him to be rather jovial. He didn’t poke needles into the boys, so he seemed like a pretty decent type. His son, however, was a different matter. Here was a boy who had severe issues with any sort of authority. As dictatorial leaders go, I’m definitely a long way on the good side of Mussolini, but to hear Jim’s son talk about me, you’d have thought that he faced Stalin and Pol Pot rolled into one each Monday evening. That should have given me a clue about Jim. After all, that old saying about the apple not falling too far from the tree, for all its limitations, holds a good measure of truth.
When I truly got the full vision of Jim, however, I was stuck at camp with him for ten days. There were three adults there. Strike that. There was one and a half adults—the half was a guy aged nineteen or so—and then there was Jim. If you have your doubts, then just take my little quiz here. Should Scout leaders tell dirty jokes? Encourage boys to skip out of their assigned activities? Put food into a sleeping Scout’s tent at night to attract raccoons? Refuse to attend church services? Cuss like a sailor? If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you would be wrong. Yet in Jim’s universe, these were the daily routine.
My favorite Jim memories, however, came after that camp session, after my committee chairman refused to remove this loose and loaded cannon from working with youth. First, this paragon of safety brought a gun into our church, where we were having a winter overnight, and shot a bunch of blanks to scare the boys. Funny, eh? Then, at camp the next summer, Jim forged the committee chairman’s name so that his boy could earn some award or other. On this move he got caught. That I did find funny.
I don’t know what makes a person behave in such a manner. It would take someone closer to Dr. Phil than I am to understand the forces that were at work in Jim. What worries me the most, however, is what impact a man like that has on his kids and the other kids that he encounters. How long will it take his son to overcome his father’s bad habits? How much will his daughter suffer when she winds up marrying a man like her dad?
You might wonder what my memory of Jim has to do with Malachi’s words against the priests of Israel, but if you think for a moment, you’ll recall that we embrace the priesthood of all believers. You’re a priest. I’m a priest. Our lips should preserve knowledge. People should seek instruction from us. Obviously, Jim fell down in this regard, but since he wasn’t a believer, I really can’t fault him too much. What really troubles me today is how much of Jim I have in me. Do I fail to preserve knowledge or give instructions that will lead my kids and other people astray? I’m afraid that the answer is sometimes yes. So perhaps before I say anything further about Jim’s speck, I ought to deal with the beam in my eye.
“What about the kids?”
In years past, that was the fall-back argument position for people who wanted to protest mixed-race marriages. It’s not so bad, these people reasoned, if a black man wanted to marry a white woman or vice versa, but “what about the kids?” After considerable observation, the data seems to be in and we find that the kids of mixed families are no better or worse off than kids with unmixed parents (whatever that means). We can look at the world of professional sport and see in Derek Jeter and Tiger Woods that well-adjusted and civil people can indeed grow up out of these marriages. We can look at politics and see Barak Obama, the new senator from Illinois. He seems to be about as okay as a person could hope. Indeed, what my informal study has suggested is that mixed-parent kids do about the same as unmixed-parent kids. When Mom and Dad are loving and involved, the kids do okay. When Mom and Dad are distant and unsupportive, then the kids have to have a bit of luck on their side. What a marvel.
A lot of folks—and a lot of them Christian folks—struggle mightily with this issue. They know that God loves everybody, but they don’t believe that means that all marriages will work out equally well. In support of this, these people might cite this passage from Malachi and others that argue against marrying of foreigners.
Have you ever thought about the mixed marriages in the Bible? Joseph married an Egyptian. Moses married a Midianite. A guy named Salmon married Rahab of Jericho. Their son was Boaz, who married the Moabite Ruth. And their great grandson was David (Matthew 1:5,6). Obviously these mixed marriages will never work out.
Indeed though, if you read these verses from Malachi attentively, you noticed that they didn’t forbid marriage to an outsider as much as they forbid marriage to the “daughter of a foreign god.” We don’t know much about Joseph’s wife, but we do know about the others. Moses, with a bit of coercion from God, brought his wife around to following the Lord. Rahab turned her back on her people and embraced God. Ruth, of course, said to her Israelite mother-in-law, “Your people will be my people and your God my God.” Were these the daughters of a foreign god? I don’t think so.
This passage in Malachi calls not for bigotry but for unity. It calls for man and wife to be united—permanently—and to find that unity in the timeless and changeless God. It calls our hearts and our minds and our eyes toward the worship of the one true God.
More than just that, however, this passage calls for us, as followers of Christ, to keep faith with one another. It calls for us to set aside our petty differences and see the one great unifying fact that we have in our lives. If there’s a “social gospel” to be found in the Bible, it is this: True and meaningful society can only exist when a group of people find their common ground in the Living God and in his Son. “Have we not all one Father?” The answer is yes, Christian. Let’s live like it!
They might have seen it coming, but most of them didn’t. I’m talking here about the devastating tsunami that hit South Asia around Christmastime. Now I’m not suggesting that the psychic friends of Sumatra should have predicted this thing two weeks ahead of time. What I’m saying is that a warning sign did show up for those who were present to see it. I say this, because I heard about one man who did see the warning sign and lived to tell about the day.
Apparently, a minute or so before a huge wave hits a beach, the water level drops suddenly and significantly. If you think about it, this only makes sense. The water is being drawn back so that it can come crashing onto the beach a few moments later. There’s an intriguing story that I teach in my Introduction to Fiction course. In this story, “The Seventh Man,” penned by a Japanese writer, Haruki Murakami, an adult man discusses the many years that it took for him to make his peace with the death of his friend who had been swept away by a giant wave when the two were just boys. In that story, as the two boys poke around curiously in the eye of a huge storm, the water level on the beach drops quickly and far too much. The narrator understands that something is up. He hears a sound that also warns him, and he takes shelter behind a breakwater. He takes shelter, but he cannot get the attention of his friend. That’s when the water crashes onto the beach. For years, this boy, who becomes the story’s middle-aged narrator, is haunted by the memory of his friend on the beach and the thought that maybe he should have done something differently.
Some people saw the warning signs on the beaches of Thailand, of Malaysia, of India, and of Sri Lanka. They saw the signs and ran for their lives. Most people, however, either didn’t see the signs or they had no idea what the signs meant. Those people were among the hundreds of thousands who died in that awful day.
As heart-breaking as the tsunami’s toll is, I can’t help but feel worse about the many people who see much bigger signs of trouble coming and who do nothing to prepare themselves. It’s not always weather that I’m talking about. Some people don’t recognize the warning signs as their kids slip off into disastrous lifestyles. Some don’t realize the warning signs that show financial ruin on the horizon. Some don’t heed the warning signs that their bodies emit as their health begins to slip. Sure, sometimes disaster strikes completely without warning, but most times we might see it coming, if we pay attention to the advance warnings.
If you’ve ever listened to Handel’s Messiah, then you’re familiar with the words that Malachi lays before us today. Here we have advance warning of an advance warning. A forerunner will come ahead of the Messiah. We’ve been warned about the warning, so that surely we can’t miss that warning. Yet most people in the first century completely missed it. They dismissed John the Baptist as an overzealous nutcase and they then missed out on the promise that lay with Jesus.
Happily, we have the benefit of hindsight, we can look back on the warning and think, “Here’s the proper way to respond.” And despite that benefit, how often do we fail to hear the voice who prepares the way? How often do we hear and fail to heed? Christ can sweep over us like a wave, but some people find themselves on the sheltered side of the island, immune from the wave’s effects. That works fine if you’re in a tsunami, but not if the wave is bringing you living water.
Today, we reach a red-letter day in our long march through the twelve minor prophets. Yes, today we have reached every pastor’s favorite passage, the clearest teaching on tithing in the entire Bible. I’m not a pastor, so this isn’t my favorite passage. I’m just a layman trying to do my best, but I cannot ignore these words.
I remember several years ago standing behind my department chair, Bill, as I watched him making copies at the copy machine in our Writing Center. Like him, I needed only a few copies of a couple of different sheets, so it didn’t make sense to head down to the staffed copy center. No, it made perfect sense to do this job here. I’m so glad I did, because I saw something interesting that day. When Bill finished his copying, he quickly gathered up his originals and copies, squared them up into a tidy stack and got out of my way. As we passed, I glanced at the papers in his hand and recognized the top sheet: an Eagle Scout application. Bill, it seems, a Scouter like me, was making personal copies on the school’s copier.
“I don’t think that’s official school business,” I observed, smirking. Bill and I have long had a good relationship, so I wasn’t really being difficult.
He frowned slightly at the papers in his hand. “You know you’re right,” he said. Nothing in his tone suggested that he worried about me turning him into the copier cops. “But the way I’ve always looked at it is like this. I do some school work on my printer at home and I make some personal copies on the school machine. In the end, I think it pretty well balances out.” With that, he walked out of the room.
In the years that I’ve known Bill, I’ve never known of him to take unreasonable advantage of the college. I’m sure that if you were to search his home, you might find a legal pad or a couple of pens that were purchased with JCCC funds, but he’s a long way from a thief. Following his copier theory, he could probably point out items that he has purchased for the school out of his own money. It balances out, in the long run.
There are, of course, other ways to rob your employer. With access to the internet and long-distance phone services, I could surely do something untoward. I can cheat them out of my time and even when I give them their full quota of time, I can accomplish less in that time that I should accomplish. When I sign that contract every spring, I essentially sell a significant portion of myself to the college for the next academic year.
Unlike my employer, however, God doesn’t just own a part of me for nine months out of the year. God owns all of me forever. How easy, then, is it for me to rob God. This tithe thing is really just the tip of the iceberg.
God has called me to be a complete steward. He has called me to use all that I am and all that I have for his glory. That means that I must use my time, my money, my talents, my energies, my relationships, and anything else that lies within my grasp for him. Anything less is robbery of someone guaranteed to catch me.
We are, each of us, thieves in the face of our God. Although I tithe regularly, I cannot claim that sort of obedience in the other areas I’ve already mentioned. This fact leaves me rather disquieted. Still, a tithe is a good start, and it helps make my pastor happy.
I’ve just finished writing some materials for my church’s Vacation Bible School. This morning alone, I put over 3,300 words on the page. Frankly, I’m a bit frazzled mentally right now, so if I write anything crazy here, you’ll know why. Part of me sat in this chair this morning thinking a simple thought: “Why, oh why did I agree to do this work?” It seemed like a good idea when I said “yes.” It seemed kind of charming when Penny and I said that we’d direct VBS together this summer. But that was in September. Now it’s March. Now things have to be written. Teachers have to be enlisted. I need to find a music leader. We need to prepare the training sessions. We have to plot out the schedules for some thirty classes. What seemed a good idea in September today seems like the height of foolishness.
Of course, in the back of my mind, I recognize that come June, when we open our doors and have some 500 kids in our program, it’ll probably seem like a great idea again. Yes, we’ll be at the church at eight every morning. We’ll probably be working there until early afternoon each day and trying to put out fires through the rest of the day from home. We’ll be tired, and we might even be cranky with each other—okay, those of you who know Penny know that she’s rarely cranky—but we will be experiencing a payoff for all of our efforts. We’ll be seeing teachers and classes and dramas and crafts and all of that sort of stuff swirling around, and we’ll know that we had a major part in making this happen. We’ll see kids having fun, learning about God, and hopefully coming to faith in Christ, and we’ll have our reward. I know that’s going to happen, but June is still three months away. That’s a long time until payday.
It is said that when William Carey, the great pioneering missionary to India, reached his mission field, he ministered for a full seven years before seeing his first convert. This man, a cobbler by trade, uprooted himself, his wife, and his children from their home in England and headed off to the other side of the planet. Go to India today and you’ll find a decidedly foreign place, but can you imagine how alien that environment must have been for in 1793? Yet Carey soldiered on through those seven lean years and he continued to serve the Lord through the remaining thirty-four years of his life. When he died, he admonished a friend not to talk of him after he passed. “Say nothing about Dr. Carey—speak about Dr. Carey’s God,” he told this friend. William Carey, when he died in 1834, went on to an ultimate payday.
Malachi, in today’s reading, might have been speaking to me as I sat here writing and planning VBS. It’s simple for us, when we’re all satisfied with ourselves from doing good for thirty minutes in a row, to think that God has turned from us. We seem to see the evil prospering and the good suffering, and we wonder how this can be. Where is God’s justice. Malachi reminds us that God’s justice comes in the end. God’s justice will be absolute and unarguable. And since it is God’s justice, we can speak of it today as surely as if it had already fully appeared before us.
When is payday? That’s the wrong question. When we see who is the paymaster, we don’t worry about the date of the pay.
In high school, I was voted “Most likely not to be voted upon.” Had I disappeared from my class of just over fifty people, virtually nobody would have noticed. For many people who find themselves toiling in obscurity through those teen years, there’s the notion that all of the “cool people,” the cheerleaders, the athletes, and other luminaries of the high school celestial sphere will fade into nothingness a few years after graduation. That is the eternal promise of the high school reunion. You go there to see who has gotten fat, gotten divorced, gone bankrupt, or been incarcerated. Okay, nice people don’t do that, but some people do.
Unfortunately—perhaps—I can’t look that way at my high school reunions. Perhaps that explains why I have never attended and almost certainly never will. In my graduating class you’ll find David Hall, of the Hallmark Halls. You’ll find Nelson Sabates, the eye surgeon who does TV ads for his clinics all around Kansas City. You’ll find one guy who got a $70 million “retirement” package (at age 40) from his family’s company. Others are doctors, big-time lawyers, corporate hot-shots, and so forth. One of my best friends earned a doctorate in zoology and discovered several new species of reptiles, before he died from a poisonous snakebite. Yes, even though I’ve done alright, I won’t be impressing anybody at the twenty-fifth anniversary celebration this year. I’d still rank near the bottom of the class, I’m afraid. I’m staying home!
I don’t share any of this in an effort to garner sympathy or pity. No, I say it to remind myself that my riches are not the sort that might be listed on an inventory. They won’t show up on my résumé. They won’t make an appearance on any tax document or require a rider on my insurance. My riches are in heaven and in my God. Now that’s an easy thing to say for a person who has no significant worldly riches. The skeptic would simply accuse me of rationalizing away my relative failure and obscurity. Karl Marx would remind me that “religion is the opiate of the masses.” But interestingly, I think, Karl Marx didn’t have riches in this life or the next.
While it might be ingenuine for the obscure to say, “My riches are in heaven,” is it really better for the rich and famous? Can you hear Bill Gates saying that? Do you hear many Hollywood types deflecting praise? In the end, that saying isn’t simple for anyone to utter, but that doesn’t make it untrue.
Today, as we finish our journey through Malachi and thus the twelve minor prophets, I want to leave you with an image, the parting image of the entire Old Testament. “You will go out and leap like calves released from the stall.” God isn’t telling us that we have to think of our lives today as utterly untroubled. He acknowledges that human existence has suffering in it. His promise, though, is that this suffering will end. Justice will prevail, and the righteous will be put out, leaping, into a rich pasture.
What’s more, he tells us that he will send Elijah to bring more people into that pasture, turning “the hearts of the fathers to their children, and the hearts of the children to their fathers.” If these are the days of Elijah, I’m excited to see what the coming days will bring.
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.