These devotions were written in the fall of 2004. Click on a chapter number to jump to the first devotion for that chapter.
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In a week and a day, Missourians will vote on a variety of things, including who they want to serve them as their new governor. One of the candidates, Matt Blunt, is all of thirty-three years of age. Casting aside Jesus for the moment, who had definite advantages because of the family that raised him, who else can you name who accomplished anything particularly great by their thirty-third year? I’m not talking the sort of people who the world plasters onto magazines. Sure, Michael Vick, Brittney Spears, and Ben Affleck accomplished a good deal in their first two or three decades of life, but that’s not the sort of greatness I mean. I’m talking about somebody making a real contribution to the world at an early age.
Whether or not Matt Blunt is the best choice for Missouri’s governor I’ll leave for a different forum, but I can be fairly sure that this young man has carefully considered the steps in his career. If he hadn’t done that, then he wouldn’t be where he is today, on the cusp of a great political coup. I’m sure that he, conferring with his politically minded family, looked at the Naval Academy and realized that enrolling there would serve him well. He looked at his current job as Missouri Secretary of State, recognizing that such a position could prepare him for a larger office. And is he looking beyond the governorship of Missouri? Is he thinking about serving as governor for eight years and then—who knows—perhaps a move to a slightly more prestigious executive mansion? I don’t mean to question the motivation of anyone who does the things necessary to make a productive career. Just because I’ve never had that sort of ambition or discipline doesn’t give me the right to sneer at those who do.
When I look at this opening verse in Micah’s prophecies, I see a kindred spirit in Micah. Micah, it appears, was not a climber. He didn’t position himself properly to get to the top of the heap. Let’s look at his mistakes. First of all, Micah had the bad sense to hail from Moresheth. Where on earth is Moresheth? The answer is that the scholars aren’t at all sure. Their best guess is that Moresheth was a suburb of Gath, near the Judah-Philistia border. In other words, Micah hailed from the equivalent of Poughkeepsie, hardly the place to make a leap into the legions of greatness.
And what else did Micah do wrong? He didn’t seem to move up. We know from this single verse that the guy prophesied during the reigns of three kings. Since Ahaz reigned for sixteen years, we know that Micah must have held the job of prophet for more than that period. Most of the scholars estimate that his career spanned thirty years. That’s thirty years without a promotion! What was Micah thinking?
Finally, Micah didn’t stay focused. He struggled to stay on message. Just look at this verse. Could he prophesy to just Samaria or just Jerusalem? No, he diluted his efforts between the two. That’s a bad career move, Micah.
Obviously, I’m saying all of this just a bit tongue in cheek. Who can criticize the career moves of a man whom God approved? Not me! True greatness—my greatness and your greatness and whatever greatness Matt Blunt achieves—comes about not as a result of plotting and strategizing. It’ll come by doing God’s will and serving in the career that God provides for us.
They drive me crazy! That could describe a lot of different sorts of people, but the ones I have in mind today are my students who don’t pay attention to instructions. Take for example my online students. At the beginning of the semester, I send them a letter and an email. Either one or the other should do fine, but I send both because I know that many of them will ignore one or the other. Then I post all of the information that was contained in the letter and the email onto the website where we keep the course materials. At the semester’s beginning, I send out the first of sixteen weekly emails, repeating most of the stuff that I had already put into the letter and the email and the online posting. So then what happens? A small group—maybe 10% of the total class—either call me or email me and ask me some question that I’ve already answered four different ways. It’s all I can do to bridle my sarcasm when I respond to their silly inquiries.
On the other hand, I’d like to tell you about a student I have right now in an on-campus class. This guy’s first paper was a bit of a train wreck. He didn’t exactly understand the assignment, so he rambled about without a clear purpose. His grammar left a lot to be desired, and the overall feel of the paper didn’t inspire confidence. I took one look at his paper and thought, “Boy, this is going to be a tough project.”
But the funniest thing happened with this character. When I wrote a hundred words of suggestions on his paper, he actually read them. He thought about them. Then he asked me questions about them. A week or so after getting that first paper back, he sent me a revision of it. At the bottom, he summarized the changes that he’d made, and the improvement was considerable. The paper hadn’t become perfect, but he’d improved it far more than I had expected. I graded it again and wrote another long paragraph of comments. So what did he do this time? He read them carefully again. He thought about my ideas and again asked me questions. And again he revised it. Suddenly, this paper that I couldn’t in good conscience pass had developed into an A. Better still, his next paper started out in the B range. I have no doubt that his next one will probably be an A the first time around. And all he had to do was stop, look, and listen.
That good advice for coming to railroad crossing works pretty well in a writing class as well. But it works even better when you’re dealing with God. As Micah begins his work, he instructs the people of Israel to listen to and look at the Lord. What a crazy idea. When I focus myself on God, listening to his word, I find it much harder to fall into foolish sin. Or I can commit the sin and wait for God to force me to pay attention. In the end, we all stop, look, and listen. Doesn’t it make sense to do it before the train wreck rather than after it?
Back in 1991, I attended a Modern Language Association convention in San Francisco. The first night of the convention, I had one of those realizations that changes the course of your life.
If you’ve never been to an academic conference then you haven’t really lived. You drift from conference room to conference room listening to people read stale and stuffy papers on things like “The Influence of Albanian Fairy Tales on Dickens” or “A Feminist Reading of King Kong.” It’s great stuff. That first night, I went to a session dealing with classical rhetoric: people like Cicero and Aristotle. The presenters were four guys from Harvard.
You’d think that somebody who got into the graduate school at Harvard would be able to do simple math, but apparently presenter number one wasn’t able. The group had an hour to give their papers. With four papers, the math is pretty simple, right? Each reader should take no more than fifteen minutes. After reader number one had gone a half hour, blathering about things that not even he cared about, the others got very restless. Finally, he sat down at the forty minute mark leaving the others to give the Reader’s Digest versions of their papers. Had he possessed anything of even remote interest to share, his offense would have been more understandable, but his paper was so obscure and arcane that everyone’s eyes glazed over.
I left that session quite frustrated. When I reached the outside door, I realized that it was pouring down rain. In the rain, I saw a homeless man trying to line up taxis for people in hopes of getting a handout. I walked back to my hotel that night in the rain. In various doorways, I saw more homeless folk huddled against cold. It struck me hard: while all of us over-educated types were reading pointless papers, real human beings were living on the streets of this supposedly great city.
I shouldn’t pick on just San Francisco. We can find the same sort of squalor, drug abuse, crime, and violence in Washington, New York, Chicago, or any other large American city. These cities that represent the best in us also represent the worst in us. All of the pride that swells up over a place like Manhattan flutters away when we realize how things look at ground level.
What is Jacob’s transgression? Is it not Samaria? What is Judah’s high place? Is it not Jerusalem? Micah, the man from Moresheth, may have come to the big city and had an experience like mine. Perhaps he saw the mighty walls and imposing buildings from a distance but then realized the decadence and idolatry that lay inside.
As citizens of a great nation, we run the risk of taking an unhealthy pride in our accomplishments. Drive around Washington, D.C. sometime and you’ll see plenty of potential “high places.” I’m pretty sure that it’s acceptable to love one’s country, one’s region, one’s city, but we do need to be careful not to allow that love to lapse into sin and idolatry. Like that Harvard fellow reading into the night, we can fall so in love with our own accomplishments that we can’t even see the problems close at hand.
There’s nothing I love more than a good ruin. Over in England, I found nothing more fascinating than the ruins of lovely Kenilworth castle. The jagged remains of once mighty walls cut quite a figure across the sky. Closer to home, I love to visit Ha Ha Tonka State Park on the Lake of the Ozarks. At Ha Ha Tonka, some wealthy businessman built a fabulous home—he called it a castle—high above the lake. At some point after the house was abandoned, it burned. Today, the stone walls rise up like enormous grave markers. Actually though, there’s another Ozarks encounter, a much less dramatic one, that really sticks in my mind. Once, years ago, I was stumbling through a backwoods portion of the scout camp at Osceola. Far from any human-maintained trail, I found something that simply had to have been created by people. In the midst of the forest, a perfect square outline of lush green grass stood out in the undergrowth. Had the square been solid, I’d have taken it for a septic tank, but this one was simply the outer perimeter. The angles were too perfect for this to be an accident of nature. As I gazed around the area, I started to understand what I was seeing. Stretching off toward a nearby road, I could see a corridor of space in the midst of the towering oaks. It seems that somebody had cut a driveway, long abandoned, down this way. I noticed a slight clearing that would have provided a perfect spot for a house. A few scattered stones may have been part of the foundation of that house. And this green, grassy outline? It seemed to have been an outbuilding of some sort. Perhaps this was the site of a shed that had been built on a wooden foundation. With the shed gone—maybe burned down—the wood in the ground had slowly rotted, providing good fertilizer for the grass. When I returned to civilization, I consulted a topographic map of the area. In the vicinity where I’d been standing, I saw a couple of tiny black squares, the marking for buildings.
Nature is powerful. Left to its own devices, it’ll blot out the evidence of human activity in a relatively short span. The great monuments of the past—the pyramids for example—provide an exception to prove this rule.
In the face of the hubris of rulers, who think their deeds mighty, Micah prophesies of the power of nature. Gravity, fire, and other natural forces will put an end to the greatness of Samaria and Jerusalem, Micah promises. The simple fact we must always remember is that all the things that charm us most—whether it be our homes, our health, or our hobbies—depend for their existence on the ongoing provision and protection of Almighty God. Just when we think we can sustain any of those things on our own, God, or his surrogate, Nature, has a way of showing us just how wrong we are.
On Wednesday, two cities in the United States experienced the mountaintop and the valley. As you’ve undoubtedly heard, the Boston Red Sox, for the first time since 1918, won the World Series, sweeping the Cardinals in four games. The people in St. Louis were traipsing about their lovely city as if they’d just had their favorite dog run over, while those in Boston went beserk.
“This is the greatest thing that has ever happened in my life,” I heard one Boston fan opine in a radio story on Thursday morning. What a sad comment that is. The guy sounded to be in his mid-twenties. The Kansas City Royals won a World Series when I was in my mid-twenties, and I thoroughly enjoyed the moment. But the greatest thing that has ever happened in your life? Get a grip!
I heard another Red Sox devotee, a child this time, say, “This rules my life!” I’m not entirely sure what that’s supposed to mean, but I am sure that the kid’s out of perspective. We can excuse these excesses from a child, but they were hardly isolated expressions of Red Sox mania.
Had the reporters been lurking in the streets of St. Louis, they could have undoubtedly interviewed equally misguided Cards fans, people for whom the world seemed to have ended. It’s astounding how out of balance people can get about a game.
A few years back, when the KU Jayhawks were bounced from the NCAA basketball tournament earlier than had been expected, a friend of mine offered a nice bit of wisdom on that sporting event that might be applied in this case. “I feel like the tournament is designed to make sixty-three schools feel lousy while making one school feel great.” That makes a lot of sense. In sports, somebody has to lose in order for somebody else to win. Losing, just like winning, is inevitable.
The mourning that Micah describes in today’s passage is similarly inevitable. There’s a school of thought among some people that bad things just shouldn’t ever happen. The stock market should never go down, the government should keep us from ever getting sick, and all the stoplights should be green all the time. That’s not life anywhere except in certain unrealistic TV commercials. It’s especially not the case in a world full of sin.
Contrary to what some would have us believe, the result of sin—even forgiven sin—is still severe. A world full of sin is a world that will have its share of mourning. Honestly, if we’re never mourning, then we’re probably not paying attention to what’s really going on.
Notice Micah’s words here. He doesn’t say that the people who will be punished will be mourning alone. “I will weep and wail; I will go about barefoot and naked. I will howl like a jackal and moan like an owl.” Who’s mourning here? It’s Micah himself. He condemns the sin but then mourns over the results of the sin.
Which do we mourn over more? The wages of sin or the score of a ballgame? The evils of this world or the price of gasoline? Micah invites us to mourn righteously. Let’s take him up on it.
I don’t remember exactly when he hit the news, but about 15 years ago a self-styled geologist named Iben Browning—no relation—made quite a stir by predicting that the “Big One” would hit the New Madrid Fault in Southeast Missouri on December 3, 1990. While I don’t pretend to fully understand his scientific theories, I can say that they involved tectonic plates, tidal variation, and the relative position of the earth, sun, and moon. Really. Browning had developed a theory that took gravitational forces and other variables into account in an effort to predict earthquakes. His prediction had one major flaw. It was wrong.
Although Cousin Iben didn’t correctly predict that earthquake, those who study that region suggest that the probability of an earthquake of between 6 and 7 on the Richter scale happening in the New Madrid area over the next fifty years is upwards of 90%. In 1811, what is estimated as the most powerful earthquake ever to hit the United States devastated the area centering on the Missouri boot heel and affected places as far away as Boston, where it was said to have rung church bells.
Iben Browning was anything but a prophet. However, it’s possible that his theory is correct. It could be that tidal forces do somehow trigger earthquakes, but that they didn’t happen to in 1990. He could also be completely wrong, of course.
If you study the literature about Micah, you’ll find that he has taken a good deal of guff for his apparently incorrect predictions. It’s true that Micah had some serious doom to cast before Samaria, the Northern Kingdom. And it’s true that Samaria was invaded, conquered, and carried off into captivity by Shalmaneser V of Assyria in 722 B.C., never to be seen again. While Micah hit his predictions regarding Samaria, he also predicted destruction and captivity for the Southern Kingdom of Judah as well, something that appears in today’s reading. The scholarly consensus is that Micah’s voice rose and rose in urgency around the year 701 B.C. This year happened, not coincidentally I think, to be the one when the Assyrians most seriously threatened Judah. As Sennacherib’s army approached Judah, conquering every walled city aside from Jerusalem (2 Kings 18) Micah ever more insistently predicted defeat and captivity for Judah.
So did Micah miss the prediction? Was he a false prophet? Hardly. God relented in his anger toward Judah as a result of King Hezekiah’s repentance (2 Kings 19). And Judah was, of course, conquered and carried away eventually, although they managed to hang onto their independence for another 114 years.
We can take away several truths from this aspect of Micah’s prophecy. First of all, the instructive message that Micah carried was absolutely correct even when his predictive message turned out to be delayed. As a less-than-perfect comparison, realize that anyone who built earthquake-resistant buildings in Memphis because of Iben Browning’s words would not have been acting foolishly. Second, we can trust that God will make good on all of his promises. Finally, we can be certain that God sends his prophets and his word not just to convict us of our sins but to turn us from them, just as Hezekiah turned from his. Iben Browning may yet be vindicated in his predictions, but Micah already has been.
I received a phone call the other night, a recorded phone call with a voice I hadn’t heard in some time. It went something like this:
Hello, this is Vice President Al Gore reminding you that Tuesday is Election Day. You remember what happened in 2000 when thousands of people were denied their right to vote in Florida and St. Louis.
The former-VP went on to encourage me to vote for particular candidates. You can guess their names more than likely. At the end of the call, I discovered that the message had been paid for by an organization: America Coming Together.
Were thousands of people denied their right to vote in 2000 in Florida and St. Louis? I don’t think so, but maybe there were systematic attempts to keep people from the polls in 2000. Stranger things have certainly happened in our history. As I listened to Mr. Gore’s message, I realized that somebody was operating outside the limits of civil society. Either Mr. Gore and America Coming Together were lying in order to stir up people’s anger or somebody on the other side was trying to disenfranchise voters. As the election draws ever nearer, we see plenty of cases where someone is either lying about their opponent or running against a monster.
Just yesterday, I received another phone call. This one accused the candidate’s opponent of something that I’m pretty sure the opponent never did. But, two days before the election, who’s going to put a stop to this sort of thing. If you’re running for Congress, how easy is it for you to counter a charge that you swerve to hit puppies when you drive?
Why do the political operatives engage in these smears, whisper campaigns, and dirty tricks? They do it because they can! Listen to Micah’s warning: “Woe to those who plan iniquity, to those who plot evil on their beds! At morning’s light they carry it out because it is in their power to do it.”
We all possess the power to do evil. With a bit of preparation and care, we can get away with a lot of bad stuff. In the many years that I’ve spent around schools, I’ve seen and thought of many ways for students to beat the system and cheat on their work. Is there a fool-proof means to prevent dishonest students from cheating? I doubt it.
When we read these words, we nod and realize that we shouldn’t cheat, lie, or steal just because we can. The problem is that we tend to overlook the lesser iniquity and evil that we can get away with. I won’t steal a car, but I might run a red light if I can. I won’t steal computers from my employer, but I might take a sick day when I’m not ill.
In the end, I’m pretty sure that Micah meant his words for the big-time cheaters, but that doesn’t mean we can’t apply those words to ourselves. If we don’t, then we’re no better than the quibbling makers of the worst political ads.
Why does God let bad things happen? How long has that question been around? The scholars tell us that Job is the oldest book in the Bible, and what question does Job center around? You guessed it. Why does God let bad things happen?
I know plenty of folks who insist that God never means for bad things to happen. “Those things just happen,” they’ll argue, or “They happen because people do bad things.” I’d agree that those two explanations cover many of the events that happen in the world, but anybody who claims that God never means for bad things to happen hasn’t read today’s verses. How much clearer could it be? God not only means for bad things to happen, he plans them!
As I write these words, we’re about seven hours away from the polls opening all across America. Hopefully, by the end of Tuesday, we’ll know who’ll be leading the nation for the coming four years. But as I look over the last four years, I can see the disasters that befell us. Of course the first one to pop into our minds is 9/11. How easily might that whole plot have unraveled? What if some alert security guard in Boston had realized something was up? What if the alert had been sounded, grounding all the planes until matters could be sorted out? What if the “chatter” of the terrorists had been decoded so that the plot could have been foiled? Wouldn’t this world be a different place today? I’m not saying that God planned the disaster of 9/11, but it’s reasonable to believe that he allowed it to take place.
You could continue to list the disasters of these years. These disasters range from the tiny and personal to the enormous. We can point to crimes, wars, and hurricanes. We can think of fires, deaths, and plane crashes. Are they God’s doing? That’s hard to say with certainty.
Many Americans believe that the outcome of the election today will be of earthshaking significance. Honestly, I can’t think of a time when so many people seemed to believe that an election held the very existence of the nation—perhaps the world—in the balance. It’s not surprising when one side’s proponents see this importance, but today huge numbers on both sides see the outcome of this election as absolutely essential.
If you’re of an apocalyptic bent, you can look at these words of Micah and see them applied to the post-November 2 world. In reality, of course, it doesn’t matter who wins the election. God is resourceful. He might well be planning disaster against the proud using means that we’d never consider.
Okay, if you were looking for an uplifting message today, I’m afraid that I let you down. The truth is that often the disasters that God plans catch up not only the proud and evil but the decent folks as well. It’s quite possible that we’re living in a world that’ll experience more and worse disasters than we’ve seen to date. Unfortunately, God nowhere promises us protection from these things. All we can manage is to do our best not to be those against whom God plans disasters, not to be those taunted and ridiculed. And perhaps, if we turn from evil and seek God’s face, we can delay his plans for the time being.
In 1959, the Walt Disney Company put out a classic movie. Today, it seems, every movie that Disney makes, has made, or has considered making is a classic. Just listen to the Disney Channel for an hour or so, and you’ll discover that their movies are all classics and their actors are all stars. But Sleeping Beauty, that product of 1959, is, to my mind, worthy of the label. It has everything. You laugh and you cry. There’s a pair of daffy but harmless fairies who argue over whether Rose’s dress should be red or blue. And there’s suspense as you wonder if the villain’s prediction of death for the young princess will come true. What more could you want?
Throughout the film, the wicked villain, Maleficent, opposes the Princess Aurora aka Rose. After being snubbed upon the Princess’ birth, Maleficent vows that the child will prick her finger on the spindle of a spinning wheel before her eighteenth birthday and die. In response, the king and queen order all the spinning wheels destroyed and Aurora hidden in the woods, within walking distance of the castle apparently, to be cared for by the trio of fairies.
On the last day of the curse, Maleficent tricks Aurora into pricking her finger. The fairies—ever the practical ones—manage to mitigate the curse, transforming it from death to a sleep that can only be ended by true love’s first kiss. As the film reaches its climax, Prince Philip (a conveniently supplied true love) struggles to escape Maleficent’s clutches and reach Aurora to plant a juicy one on her lips. As he nears the royal castle, Maleficent appears in his path. “Fool!” she says. “You have no idea of my powers!” Maleficent, a tall, lean woman suddenly transforms into an enormous dragon. She is, it seems, the very incarnation of evil.
How often in cheesy movies do we hear some villain say something like this? “Fool! You have no idea who you’re dealing with!” Usually when that happens, the villain discovers who he is dealing with. In Sleeping Beauty, Philip, with a bit of help from the fairies, flings his sword at the dragon, striking her, apparently, in the heart. With a terrific howl, she crashes to the ground and dies.
Today, Micah reminds the false prophets of his world not to forget with whom they are dealing. Satan loves to remind us of his power. When I try to accomplish something good, perhaps having a more consistent quiet time in the morning, Satan is quite good at getting me off that plan. “Fool!” he seems to say, “You have no idea how powerful I am!” It’s easy, as we face the dragons of our lives, to become overawed, recognizing the great power of our adversary. But what the adversary neglects is the power of our ally.
The power of him who is in us is greater than that of him who is in the world. No matter what dragons you face today, they can be defeated by trusting in the strong arm of God.
My employer, Johnson County Community College, turned thirty-five years old this year. Now by comparison with Harvard or Oxford, that’s awfully young for a college. In truth, that’s pretty young for just about any college, but for most of us at JCCC, the place seems quite permanent, as if it has been there forever. In a few years, all of the originals—of whom only one or two are still working full-time—will be gone. In a few more years, I’ll be one of the old timers who can stand around and spin yarns about the way things used to be.
During my sixteen years at the college, we’ve experienced some significant growth. We’ve added programs, attracted students, and built a handful of buildings. But at the end of those sixteen years, I have to say that JCCC today is a lot like JCCC in 1988—only a bigger version. However, if you talk to the real old-timers, the people who populated the school in the 1970s, you realize that this place hasn’t always been like this. They’ll tell you about the faculty being so small that everybody knew everybody else. They’ll tell you about the soap-opera-worthy relationships that formed, dissolved, and then re-formed. They relate the tale of the college president who absolutely refused to grant an easement to the county allowing 111th Street to be widened. He only relented, the story goes, when the man from the county, almost off-handedly, suggested that they could rename the street College Boulevard.
Most people seem to agree that the real change at JCCC came when the early succession of presidents brought about the administration of Charles Carlsen in 1981. Since his accession, the college has tripled in enrollment and blossomed into a leading force for education in the Kansas City area and around the Midwest. Before he came, we had money and talented people, but it wasn’t the same. Apparently we were like a bunch of sheep milling about without direction. I’ve come here today neither to praise nor to bury Chuck Carlsen, but I would point out the importance of strong leadership. As this man nears the end of his long and successful career, I wonder how the atmosphere at the college will change when he finally departs.
Micah, today, uses the sheep metaphor to describe Israel. The choice of sheep as an image is hardly accidental. Like sheep, Israel is helpless without a shepherd. And today, Micah promises a great shepherd in the Messiah. This shepherd will not only clear the way for the sheep but will lead them into the fold and the pasture.
I’ve been blessed to follow some fine leaders over the course of my life. I appreciate the qualities of leadership that I don’t possess. But I recognize that the most inspired human leader cannot compare with the shepherd Micah describes. Above all else, let us never forget to follow the Great Shepherd.
Every year in October, the movie listings start to sprout scary shows in the build-up to Halloween. Recently, I’ve re-watched some of the old horror movie classics. Mostly, I’ve rented the 1930’s Frankenstein flicks from Universal Studios. I can remember, as a boy, watching the late-night Creature Feature movies at our cabin at Lake of the Ozarks. After seeing the Wolfman meet the Mummy or somesuch, I had to go to bed in a room with a sliding-glass door out onto the deck. I usually struggled to get to sleep those nights. I’d let my kids watch those creepy old movies, but scary movies aren’t the same anymore. Back in the late 1970s, we saw the emergence of a new genre of horror film: the slasher movie.
In the slasher movie, some psychopath drifts through the world killing a string of people in novel and gory ways. Several of these films turned into little franchises. Most notably we had Jason of Friday the Thirteenth (parts one through ninety-six) and Freddy of Nightmare on Elm Street. A year or two back, the Hollywood brain trust came out with the natural culmination of these series: Freddy vs. Jason.
Of course when you try to make a sequel to a film that simply strings together ghastly murders, the only way to outdo the previous movie is to kill more people or to do it in more horrible ways. The sick imagination Hollywood demonstrates in slasher movies would turn a decent person’s stomach.
But in a perverse way, there’s a bit of morality to these awful movies. Yes, the killer is a sicko who takes great delight in these sadistic actions, but the people who ultimately die—at least in a strange movie sense of justice—have it coming. One slasher film that took delight in both mirroring and mocking the genre, explained that in these movies sex equals death. When you see the boyfriend and girlfriend head for a private rendezvous, you can pretty well kiss them goodbye. The snobby people die as well, as do the more unpleasant folks. Typically one or two mostly tolerable people—teens as often as not—manage to stay out of the killer’s clutches.
You might wonder what slasher movies have to do with Micah, but if you read today’s verses, you’ll realize that Hollywood gore has nothing on the Bible. Micah here condemns a class of killers, the supposed leaders and rulers, describing their depredations in a frightful manner. But notice that he does nothing to spare the victims. As in the slasher movies, the killers act horribly but the victims get no mercy or pity. They brought it upon themselves.
Happily, the evil we do does not lead to us having our flesh torn from our bones and cooked, but it does, inevitably, lead to serious consequences. The world is full of trouble, and everyone’s guilty. Everyone will become a victim in the world’s slasher movies if we wait long enough. Our cause for hope, however, lies in the promise that through Christ, the cycle of violence, the pattern of victims and attackers, both wicked, will end. In the end of God’s movie, the monster is defeated once and for all. There’ll be no sequel.
In Neil Simon’s play, Proposals, Burt Hines, the fifty-five-year-old heart patient (played at JCCC by me) spars with his housekeeper Clemma (played by a real actor). Clemma insists that she’ll live to be ninety-three years old. “I got my palm read by the Gypsy lady, and she said I got a lifeline that runs all the way up my arm and clean down my leg.”
Burt counters with his own experience. “I had my palm read once. The woman told me that I’d have a great career in the entertainment business.” When Clemma suggests that had been true, Burt argues, “Retailing television sets is not a great career in the entertainment business.”
Sometimes when I’m flipping through the channels, I’ll catch one of those dial-a-psychic infomercials. I look at the cheesy lighting and the absurd-sounding testimonials. Surely, I reason, I could do better. Maybe I missed my calling.
“You’re having difficulty,” I’d begin with my psychic customers.
“And this difficulty involves people.”
“Yes, I can see that there’s someone you know, someone
close to you. Is it a member of your family?”
“Right, I didn’t think so.”
Yeah, I could be a psychic. You make some educated guesses, play some games with people’s minds, and then tell them vague things that they want to hear. Look at Clemma’s palm reader. What is Clemma going to do when she dies at fifty-two? Is she going to go back and ask for a posthumous refund?
This world is full of self-proclaimed prophets. Open the pages of your newspaper’s sports section, and you’ll find the picks for this weekend’s football games. Turn on the cable news channels over the weekend, and you’ll get the stock pickers touting one miracle company or another. And the recent election season left us with no shortage of people predicting this sort of outcome or that sort of movement in the votes. These people pass themselves off as prophets of a sort, but they’re not the sort of prophets against whom Micah rails.
The prophets Micah decries are the opportunistic self-servers who prophesy in the name of God. And let’s not be deceived into thinking that these guys have to be predicting the future. There’s more to prophecy than prognostication.
If you look around today, you can find supposed people of God who adapt their message depending on how the wind is blowing. Let me give an example of someone who could have done that but didn’t. Martin Luther King, Jr. had his flaws, but proclaiming peace just to get fed was not one of them. When King took his church in Birmingham, he could have—he probably should have by worldly standards—just gone along with the status quo. His congregation was the upper crust of Birmingham’s black population. They had it good. They didn’t need some activist pastor coming in and messing things up for them. Still, King, knowing full well on which side his bread was buttered, chose to sound the call for social justice.
It is tempting for us to heed the “prophet” who says what we want to hear. It’s tempting to enjoy their words so thoroughly that we don’t notice their disconnect from God’s words. It’s tempting but it’s dangerous—and not just for those prophets.
It happens at least every second semester. Some student who received a less-than-stellar grade on a paper comes into my office or buttonholes me after class, ready to explain to me why I erred in giving anything less than an A-double-plus to that paper. As the conversation proceeds, it comes to a juncture, a pause, a crossroads where they pull out their heavy guns.
“I talked to my girlfriend’s brother’s friend, and he’s an English major, and he said that I should have gotten at least an A on this.”
Normally I’m nice to these people. I understand where they’re coming from. I explain to them that being an English major is not the same as years of teaching writing classes. What I tell them, in essence, is “I’m right and you’re wrong. The grade stays the same.”
When I first started teaching, I found that part of the education process difficult. I remember the first papers I ever graded. Happily, the class was small and populated with pretty good students. When the smoke cleared, everyone had received a B or better aside from one guy. I made sure to offer consoling words to that one guy who got a C—probably it was a C-plus at that.
Today, it doesn’t bother me in the least to give bad grades, and I certainly don’t consider a C a bad grade any more. God gave us the entire grade spectrum after all; it would be ungracious not to use it all. Today, I simply blurt it out as I see it. If the paper stinks, I tell them how badly it stinks. If they need to rearrange things, I tell them that. When their use of passive voice makes the paper put me to sleep, I’ll actually write something like “yawn” on the page.
Where did I get this level of nerve? I guess it came from experience. Over the semesters, I’ve given advice to students and that advice worked. My grading doesn’t get effectively challenged by students, and they don’t line up at the department office to complain about me. After a while of that sort of result, you gain confidence.
Where did Micah get his confidence? “As for me, I am filled with power, with the Spirit of the Lord, and with justice and might,” he tells the people as he prepares to lay into them. That’s a whole lot nervier than I am when I grade papers.
You have to be confident when you proclaim the word of God in the face of those who don’t want to hear. Have you noticed that these guys just about never say anything that the people will want to hear? How do they get their confidence, and more to the point, how can we get that sort of confidence for ourselves. I have to believe that while we might not become prophets, we can get their sort of confidence through closeness with God. There’s nothing complicated to it. Prayer and scripture study, openness to the voice of the Almighty—when I’m faithful to these disciplines, I’m a man of confidence. When I’m not, I have to try to con everyone.
I feel like getting on my love beads and playing all my 1960s albums. First we’ll have the Beatles singing, “All we are saying is give peace a chance,” followed by Cat Stevens with “Peace Train” and then we can all get together and sing “War (ooh!) what is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Say it again!” Ah! The memories of those days. They come flooding back when I read Micah 4:3.
It’s a wonderful scripture, you know, wonderful enough that it gets reproduced—in its Isaiah version—on the walls of that most godly of institutions, the United Nations. “They will beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. Nation will not take up sword against nation, nor will they train for war anymore.”
The only problem with that passage being a favorite among those who uncritically clamor for peace at all costs is that they neglect a couple of important points regarding the words. Indulge me, if you will, as I explore those important points for a few minutes.
The first important point that the peace-niks fail to note is that it is impossible to beat your sword into a plow without having the converse ability to beat a plow into a sword. Look at 1 Samuel 3:19-20 and you’ll read about a day when the Philistines did not allow the Israelites to have any blacksmiths in the land. Why? Were the Philistines afraid that the Israelites would make better farm implements? No, they didn’t want the Israelites making weapons. In order to have the ability to beat swords into plowshares, you have to have the ability to make swords in the first place. This scripture isn’t a call for weakness and unilateral disarmament. It’s a hymn to a time when weapons, although technically available, will be unnecessary.
The second point is even more important than the first. All of the people who still think that you can end all violence in the world if we just talk things through and really respect each other might cite this verse, but they never cite what comes before it. They like the peace message of Micah 4:3, but they usually aren’t nearly as enthusiastic about the God message of Micah 4:2. Why will the people beat their swords into plowshares? Why will they beat their spears into pruning hooks? Why will they convert their factories from making AK-47s to making microwave ovens? Is it because people will have finally gotten over all of their selfishness and learned to live in peace? Will it be because everyone on earth stopped and really listened to the words of John Lennon’s song “Imagine” and decided to love one another? Is that it? I hardly think so.
Peace will come onto the earth “in the last days.” And in those same days, God will rule supreme from his holy mountain. There will be peace not because the U.N. Security Council voted on it, not because all the people of the earth decided for it. There will be peace because the almighty God, the creator of the universe has decreed it. So when Cat Stevens sings “Peace train sounding louder,” I find myself answering “only if the great engineer is revving the engine up.”
I suppose that we all have our guilty pleasures. In the realm of guilty pleasure movies, one on my list is The Dirty Dozen. I’ve seen this movie—honestly, I have no idea how many times I’ve seen it. If it’s on some rainy Sunday afternoon, I simply can’t avert my eyes. I know that Lee Marvin is going to make that general look foolish and that Jim Brown is going to get killed in the end. I can recite all of the memorable lines—all three of them—back to you before the actors say them. But I still just have to watch that movie.
I’m not entirely sure why that movie appeals to me so much. Is it the great acting of Charles Bronson? No, that couldn’t be it. Is it Telly Savalas as a psycho? I don’t think so. In the end, I think what attracts me to The Dirty Dozen is nothing more complicated that the film’s premise. The army takes twelve misfits and castoffs, guys who had been thrown into the stockade for various outrageous behaviors, and, through the peculiar magic of Lee Marvin, molds them into a crack assault team who single-handedly obliterate a big chunk of Hitler’s officer corps on the night before the Normandy landings. (This event, it seems, got left out of all the history books.)
There’s something very appealing about the idea that all of the goof-ups and losers in this world can, with a bit of trust and some inspired leadership, accomplish great things. This premise works especially well in sports movies. In The Mighty Ducks, Emelio Estevez takes a bunch of no-account whiners and turns them into a championship hockey team. In Wildcats, Goldie Hawn takes a bunch of undisciplined ne’er-do-wells and turns them into a championship football team. In Hoosiers, Gene Hackman takes a bunch of selfish ball hogs and turns them into a championship basketball team. Probably, if we’d plumb the racks at the video store a bit more deeply, we could find the water polo and cricket versions of this same movie formula. Even movies like Rudy and Rocky don’t fall too far from this same tree of inspiration.
At the risk of bursting your movie-loving bubble, life just doesn’t work this way. My experience with teams assembled from misfits and castoffs is that, even when led by great leaders, they remain misfits and castoffs. After all, these people fell into these categories for a reason. Granted, every now and again, you’ll see somebody who, after apparently failing miserably in one place, achieves great things somewhere else, but those cases are the exception. Most of the time, these stories only occur in the movies.
But there is one other place where we’ll find this story playing true. In today’s reading, Micah forecasts a day when God will out-officer Lee Marvin and out-coach Gene Hackman, a day when God will make from the lame and the exiles a remnant and a mighty nation.
We may or may not live to see that day, but I’d suggest that God doesn’t restrict his restorative powers to the last day. If God will make a mighty nation out of the lame, can he not do something similar, but perhaps less dramatic with us? He can and will, if we allow him to reign in ourselves as surely as he will one day reign in Mount Zion.
It was about five years ago that I traveled to Israel, before the current round of violence and conflict began. Even then, Israel was a troubled place. What struck me on that trip more than anything else was the sight of young Israeli men—boys really—carrying automatic weapons as they walked through the streets of Jerusalem. In uniform and out, these youths looked to be no older than the kids who populate my English classes, yet here they were armed not with notebooks and pens but with assault rifles. Why? The government wanted them to be at the ready at all times.
In scarcely over fifty years of existence, Israel has endured four wars, plus a prolonged conflict in Lebanon and the ongoing agony of terrorism and guerilla war. This nation has been accused and abused by virtually every other state on the planet, the United States normally excluded.
As I write this, I have just heard the news that Yasser Arafat has died at age seventy-five. Here’s a man whose life was dedicated to the destruction of the Jewish state being eulogized more fully than many genuine international leaders. Will Margaret Thatcher or Mikhail Gorbachev receive the sort of coverage when they die that Arafat is receiving now? I rather doubt it. But as unkind as it might sound, my thoughts don’t go toward this man but to the various factions and followers who will jockey for power in the vacuum that his death leads. I fear that Arafat’s death will lead to more chaos and destruction, more crying aloud in Israel.
But this is nothing new for these people. For generation—for millennia really—the Jews have been set upon by their enemies, and their enemies seem to be everybody. These words that Micah wrote some 2,700 years ago might, with very slight adaptation, be found to apply today. The nations are gathered against the people of Israel.
The glory of God’s relationship with Israel lies in his forbearance toward their sins. In the span of just a few verses today, God points to the sort of pains that follow from sinful actions. There can be no doubt that Israel today is reaping the harvest that they’ve sown themselves. The nation of Israel has not always dealt blamelessly with the Palestinians. Many Jews have turned away from God. They have sinned and the consequences have followed like night after day.
Despite that sin, however, God does not abandon Israel. Just a couple of lines down from his taunting words in verses 9 and 10, God is pointing to Israel’s eventual triumph over its enemies. The wonder here is not that God hates their sin but rather that he still loves them in spite of that sin.
I’m not Jewish, so these words might not seem to apply to me. I don’t think I go too far afield however, when I believe that God’s attitude toward Israel is similar to his attitude toward each of us as individuals. We will suffer now and again for our sinful behavior, but in the end we will be given horns of iron and become more than conquerors.
When Henry VIII of England took the throne, he was the embodiment of the Tudor family’s hopes for future power. Henry’s father, Henry VII, had been a somewhat miserly, shrewd, and calculating product of the Middle Ages. The elder Henry came to the throne by force, invading England in 1486, killing Richard III, and putting an end to the Wars of the Roses. Perhaps because of his violent route to power, that first Tudor king lived a rather inward-looking and cautious life. But in his son, Henry VIII, the full flower of the Renaissance and English greatness came to blossom. Henry was the child of promise.
In reality, however, Henry wasn’t the child of promise—at least not the original one. His older brother, Arthur, had been the original Tudor destined for the throne. In England, you don’t give a guy the name of Arthur to make him a prince or a duke. No, Arthur was going to be King Arthur, the return of the great mythical hero who would set all things right in the green and pleasant land. The problem was that Arthur died before daddy did, leaving Henry to rise to the occasion of being the child of promise.
One of the problems with being a child of promise in a royal setting is that you no sooner start to fulfill that promise than you need to start figuring out who the next child of promise will be. Even today we can see that problem playing itself out. In Cuba, Fidel Castro has held power for some fifty years, but there’s no one with the skill and charisma of Fidel to take over the job when the leader dies.
For Henry, the problem wasn’t incredibly complicated. He went about creating his new child of promise the old-fashioned way, marrying Catherine of Aragon and having a child. The problem for Henry came with the child, a girl. Mary Tudor, later to be Queen Mary—as in Bloody Mary—did not fit Henry’s vision of a child of promise. After divorcing her mother—or possibly just before, some historians say—Henry married Anne Boleyn, who bore him a child, another girl, Elizabeth Tudor, eventually Queen Elizabeth. Henry dealt with Anne in a fairly straight-forward manner, lopping her head off. He then married Jane Seymour who bore him the longed-for son, Edward, who would become Edward VI before his tenth birthday. The child of promise had arrived. The problem came soon after, however, as Edward VI died at age sixteen.
Children of promise rarely turn out as their parents had hoped, and it’s terribly unfair of us as parents to lay excessive expectations onto our children. As most parents will attest, those promises and potentials almost never come about without a lot of offsetting heartache.
Perhaps that’s the best thing about our reading for today. Micah here famously prophesies of the one child of promise who does not disappoint. As we draw closer to Christmas this year, let us dwell on the absolutely unique nature of that child, who, although he came from the least of the clans of Judah, is the ruler over all.
Who can resist the call of a hero? Throughout history, these characters, almost exclusively men, have appeared and triumphed, most notably in military and political realms. My mind immediately runs to people like William Wallace, the Scottish patriot whom Mel Gibson played so memorably—half his face painted blue—in Braveheart. While his English captors prepared to skin him alive, Wallace—at least the film version of him—shouts out “You can take my life, but you cannot take my freedom!” Wow! That’s a hero. That’s a guy I’d want to follow into the jaws of death.
England’s Henry V stands as another such hero. With his army lacking confidence and wavering between advance and retreat, Henry is portrayed by Shakespeare rallying the troops for another attack on a city’s wall: “Once more into the breach, dear friends, once more; or close the wall up with our English dead!” I’d brave the slings and arrows to follow that leader.
We can find heroes on this side of the Atlantic as well. During the French and Indian War, George Washington served ably as a general’s aid. In one battle he escaped wounds but had two horses killed beneath him and later found four bullet holes in his coat. Quite possibly the richest man in the thirteen colonies, Washington certainly had a great deal to lose by standing against the king in the revolution, but stand he did. I can understand suffering through Valley Forge to follow a man like that.
Then there’s Stonewall Jackson, who sat on his horse, completely fearless as musket balls and cannon shot shrieked around him. He believed that he would die when God willed it and not before. For that reason, he claimed to experience no fear in battle. Jackson showed a different sort of courage by defying social custom and an unjust law when he educated blacks, a strange irony for a man who fought and died for the Confederate cause. Even as he lay mortally wounded at the hands of his own men, who had mistaken him for the enemy, Jackson exuded calm and confidence. Yes, there’s a man for whom I’d support an impossible cause.
And today, we can find heroes scattered throughout our world. I’m not talking about people who are simply brave. I’m talking about people who can lead others and encourage bravery in those others. We all know some of those people, people for whom we’d do most anything. And then we know the other types for whom we’ll do only what we must. It’s not that we don’t respect or even love the latter group, but we know that the heroes will take us somewhere remarkable if we follow them.
In today’s text, Micah continues to describe this hero, who would be born as Jesus of Nazareth some 700 years later. He portrays him primarily as a military leader, a deliverer. In the end, of course, we recognize that Jesus is that and much more.
Sometimes we can get lazy and forget that Jesus stands as the ultimate hero. We can him as someone for whom we’ll only do what we must and not abandon ourselves to his leadership. In the end, Christ is more than a general, a warrior, a king, or a coach. He has created and sustained all of creation, and he will make us co-rulers of that creation if we will surrender our wills to his lead. The idea is simple. If only the execution were so easy.
Have you ever wanted to be somewhere—anywhere—other than where you were at a particular moment. Some airline has created an entire series of ads in which a person winds up in an awkward situation. A voice then says, “Want to get away?” I’ve certainly had times when I wanted to get away.
Today, if you were a rebel in Iraq, you’d probably want to be just about anywhere other than the city of Fallujah. For the past several days, American and Iraqi army forces have been patiently working their way through this town, which had served as a relative safe haven for the bad guys over the past six months or so. I’ve watched a bit of the video that’s been provided from inside the city. Abrams M-1 tanks roll down the town’s streets supported by helicopter gunships, infantry, and who knows what other firepower. The American forces can obliterate the city with almost complete freedom. The last figure I heard had the American casualties at somewhere around one-fortieth of those that the rebels had suffered. The American plan is simple: deprive the enemy of anyplace to hide and then eliminate them all through one means or another. Little by little, they’ll strive to take away the enemy’s range of movement, shelter, weaponry, and everything else that renders them capable of posing a threat. No, I wouldn’t want to be in Fallujah right now if I were an Iraqi rebel.
In today’s reading, Micah describes the Day of the Lord, using the familiar phrase of “In that day” to lead into it. As we read through these verses we find out that God will eliminate all of the things behind which his enemies hide and from which they gain strength. He’ll destroy the horses and the chariots. In other words, he’ll take away their offensive weapons of war. He’ll crush the cities and the strongholds, taking away all of their defensive systems. Then he ranges into the spiritual realm. He’ll destroy their witchcraft. If we’re to take this literally—and I have no cause to do otherwise—then we must believe that at least some of God’s enemies draw on demonic forces for their strength. But God will put an end to that. Then he’ll go after their idols and the other false gods behind which they hide. Finally, he says, he will demolish their cities.
Let me tell you, as unpleasant as Fallujah is for the Iraqi rebels today, the whole world will be even more unwelcoming for those who have not obeyed God in the day of his coming.
What do we learn from this passage? First, we learn that God will ultimately win the battle against his enemies. But we also can apply these thoughts to ourselves. Just as God will root out all who oppose him, he will cleanse us of our disobedience in one way or another. Those who fight against this process of sanctification will experience an unpleasant and futile battle against the Most High. The only rational option for us is the same one available to those rebels in Fallujah: surrender.
We interrupt this broadcast . . .
You know, I’m not all that old, but I can remember a day when the television networks reserved their broadcast-interrupting leaps onto the airwaves for the truly astounding. When President Kennedy was shot and Walter Cronkite come on the air, that made sense. When the first astronauts landed on the moon, that seemed worthy of the interruption. You might remember in the movie Apollo 13, the networks didn’t deem their broadcasts interruptible for a mere message from space. After all, we’d seen that before. I find it odd then that last week the various TV networks all interrupted their normal schedules to bring a truly epoch-making bit of news: the verdict in the Scott Peterson murder case.
If what I’m about to say steps on your toes, then I’ll apologize in advance. There’s not one bone in my body that thought that verdict to be of sufficient importance or interest to warrant tearing away from even an Andy Griffith Show rerun. From what I gathered, some people were quite miffed that the verdict managed to leap in front of Doctor Phil just when he was about to tell somebody how pea-brained they really were. As little as I crave Doctor Phil’s guidance, I have to agree with them. What’s next? “Break news: sun sets! Film at 10”?
I’m no legal expert, but from what I heard about this case, the prosecution had the guy dead to rights. There were no too-small gloves or questionable police practices for the defense to wave before the jury. The suspension of disbelief necessary for somebody to believe that roving killers murdered Lacey and then dumped her body exactly where Scott went fishing that day is colossal. I never bought it, and I was pleased to see that the jury didn’t buy it. Frankly, I found it astounding that there was any doubt about the verdict the jury would return.
But of course there’s always a doubt, and it seems that the more media attention focuses upon a trial the more doubt seems to blossom and spread. Who would have ever thought O.J. could get off? I guess those memories, and obsessive watching of Law and Order, put the networks in a mind to believe that the jury might not only acquit but proclaim Scott Peterson King for a Day. But it was not to be.
As Micah continues his diatribe against the people of the earth, he invokes a legal image with God as the prosecutor bringing his case and the mountains and earth apparently standing as a jury of sorts. God’s accusations come in a limited way today, but they will flow unfettered in the end times. And when that comes, it will indeed be news worthy of interrupting the broadcasts and the flow of our lives. However, in that day, there won’t be any doubt of the verdict that will be rendered. When the creator brings his complaints, he will stand not only as prosecutor but as judge, jury, executioner, and aggrieved party. And his prosecution will not fail. There’ll be no renegade jurors in that day.
I try to be careful about talking about people and recent events that might be viewed as negative, but I’m going to go out on a limb here. As I’ve mentioned before, I’m doing a play at school. One of the student actors is playing a guy I’ll call Johnny Jehosaphat. What follows is a letter to Johnny—or more accurately, the young man playing him.
I’ve enjoyed working with you over the last month or so. You’re a talented and fun-loving guy. I like you, which makes these words a bit hard to say.
Yesterday, you brought music into the dressing room. “It’s a Christian band,” you pointed out. How interesting, I thought as I listened. But I wasn’t shocked. I’d heard a couple of comments that suggested you’re not an absolute stranger to church. Do you remember on Sunday when I heard you singing before rehearsal? What were you singing? “Lord prepare me to be a sanctuary, pure and holy, tried and true.” I love that song. Apparently you have some attachment to it as well or you wouldn’t have been singing it. But I’d like for you to think about that whole sanctuary idea for a few minutes.
Now Johnny, if you want to run down to Talk of the Town and toss back some beers after rehearsal, I guess that’s your business. I’m not going to suggest that tee-totaling is some sort of litmus test for genuine Christianity. But why do you have to tell us about the times when you drank until you threw up? My friend, is that preparation for being a sanctuary? Do those words glorify God?
And then there’s your language. You made some mistake last night—I don’t even recall what it was—and you came out with a strong curse. You remember what it was, don’t you? It wasn’t an isolated case, either. And then there are the jokes and innuendo that you join with and continue. You don’t have to go down that road to be funny or popular, Johnny. That’s not what God’s looking for from you.
Of course I’m just talking about outward things here. I don’t know what’s going on in your heart. And so maybe I’m misguided. Maybe we both are.
I read some words from Micah today. They talked about how God isn’t pleased with outward acts of “religion.” God wants justice and mercy and humility. Johnny, if you want to be a sanctuary, think on those qualities. Break a leg, my friend.
My first job out of college was as a District Executive for the Boy Scouts. As impressive a title as District Executive might sound, most of the year it amounted to a person who put out fires and made coffee at district-wide meetings. The powers that be usually boil the DE’s job down to the three M’s: membership, manpower, and money. You had to take care to have more troops with more Scouts at the end of this year than you had at the end of last year. You had to fill all the leadership spots on your organizational chart. And, most ominous, you had to raise your quota of money when the fundraising time came around.
You can’t really fake the third M. If the money doesn’t roll in, then you’re pretty much dead in the water. But the first two M’s can be faked. You can fake manpower by signing up people who are willing but who you know won’t do a lick of work down the line. You can do that, and the big shots will be pleased because you have those blank slots filled with names. Especially nervy guys would write in names of people whom they hadn’t even talked with.
You can also fake membership to some degree. Let’s say you have a Cub Scout Pack that’s teetering on the brink of extinction. You know perfectly well that it’s not really helping any boys and it’ll be long gone in a few months. When that pack’s charter comes due in November, you should just allow it to drop into non-existence, but you don’t. You talk some earnest and well meaning leader into going ahead and reregistering. After all, they’ll probably get things patched up before long. You can also re-register kids that the packs had dropped. Yeah, it costs a few bucks, but when you’re trying to make your membership goal, those seem like dollars well spent.
There’s a problem with faking it, of course. You might fix your membership problem for this year, but when you fake it, you create an even bigger problem for next year. Let’s say you started the year with 30 Cub Packs. You added one and lost one, and then you kept the phony pack on life support, ending the year with 31. That’s a gain! The problem is that you really only have 30. In order to even break even next year, you’ll have to add one real pack.
Micah’s words today might seem directed at the businessman, but they really apply to all of us. We all face temptations in our lives now and again. We might not have dishonest scales and a short ephah, but we have other situations where we cheat, manipulate, or steal. Maybe it’s the temptation to make personal copies at work or to keep the extra change that the convenience store clerk gave us. Maybe it’s the pirated version of software that we’re running on our computer. It’s always easy to rationalize these things away.
Now I don’t imagine that God is going to bring down catastrophic judgment on me if I bring some office supplies home, but I’d be a fool to believe that those actions won’t have consequences, just like the consequences that a dishonest DE would have for cheating on the 3 M’s.
Just when you think that everything is in perfect order, you see everything fall apart. I could give you a couple of examples, but one pops into my mind immediately. When the ice storm a few winters back knocked out most of the electricity in Kansas City, we found out just how easily our comfortable and fully controlled world can spiral into disaster.
I wasn’t in town when the power went out at our house, but I heard about second-hand from Penny. With the lights out, there wasn’t much a person could do once the sun went down. Not only were they in the dark, but the TV didn’t work. They couldn’t read or work jigsaw puzzles. Our oven, stove, and microwave ceased to function, and the refrigerator began a slow thaw. They couldn’t do laundry or play the stereo. Happily, they still had hot water and a fireplace. They could grill the thawing meats on the grill if they didn’t mind the icy winds. What a great time.
As I mentioned, I was out of town, in Nashville where the weather was quite mild. Upon hearing about the state my family was in, I felt a quick urge to return home. But there wasn’t anything to that. For the next couple of days, flying into Kansas City was nearly impossible, and even if I had managed to reach KCI, I would have found my car utterly iced over. So all I could do was stay in Nashville and enjoy the facilities.
Thankfully, our experiences in deprivation tend to be few and far between. If you want to experience complete and prolonged systems failure, you’ll have to leave these shores. I’m reminded of a short novel by an African writer, Chinua Achebe. His finest work, Things Fall Apart, lives up to its title. Achebe, in this and other writings, describes scenes from colonial and post-civil-war Africa in which crime and decay become the ordinary.
As I mull over these thoughts, and the even more grim words of Micah, my mind could shift to the ominous promise that this sort of environment will eventually appear as this world’s days draw to an end. But rather than travel this well-trod idea, I want to turn my mind in the direction of this week’s holiday.
As we turn our hearts and minds toward Thanksgiving, let us use these words of Micah as a contrast. This is the world in which we might dwell. This is the world that we deserve to inhabit, yet God allows us the grace of living in a place where, most of the time, things do not fall apart. And even if we do live in the days of Elijah, even if our day does see things fall apart, we can stand unafraid, knowing that we stand in Christ. Let us be sure that in this season of thanksgiving, our minds look clearly at the reasons that we have for giving thanks.
People may well have snickered at Genesio Morlacci when he worked as a janitor at the University of Great Falls in Montana. It’s not that Mr. Morlacci was a particularly strange person, deserving of mirth; it’s just that people—students especially—tend to look with a certain amount of disdain upon the people who are paid to clean up in their untidy wake. I’ve heard the students at my school sneer and smart-off regarding the janitors roaming our halls. Why? I really don’t understand what would make a kid who’s earning seven bucks an hour at Subway want to laugh at someone who’s making ten bucks an hour emptying trashcans, but they still laugh.
Certainly janitorial work isn’t the most glamorous stuff that a person can do. It probably doesn’t stimulate the creative juices like some other jobs can. At times it must be just plain lonely. I popped up to my office at JCCC during a play rehearsal last week before realizing that I didn’t have my keys. When I asked the cleaning crew if they could let me in, they stared at me with eyes that suggested they don’t get many visitors at that time of the night. But despite its lack of glamour, janitorial work is a necessary and noble work. I have a lot more respect for those who keep public restrooms clean than I do for telemarketers and department-store perfume samplers—combined.
Still, I can imagine that the kids might have laughed at Genesio Morlacci. Had they known him in an earlier day, they might have looked askance at his dry cleaning business. After all, what would-be entrepreneur imagines himself immersed in the excitement and high stakes of dry cleaning? Certainly Mr. Morlacci didn’t stand as the most respected man in Great Falls. But then he died.
In his will, Genesio Morlacci left $2.3 million to the University of Great Falls. On a bad day, I might be pressed to leave $2.30 to a school, but this dry cleaner and janitor amassed $2.3 million. To make it even more impressive, he died at age 102, so his earning years were back when a dollar really meant something. By contrast, when the Kansas City Chiefs’ linebacker Derrick Thomas, a man who had made multiple millions each year of his ten-year playing career, died, he reportedly left behind only a few hundred thousand dollars. Astounding. Yes, the kids might have laughed at Genesio Morlacci, but he definitely had the last laugh.
Morlacci’s story is a secular example of the old proverb: he who laughs last laughs best. In today’s reading, Micah presents a spiritual version. Those who sneer at the people of God, those who rejoice at the suffering of the godly will have their mirth cut short. In the end, those who follow the Lord will clean up—and I don’t mean like janitors do.
Over the last couple of days, the news—sports news especially, but really all the news—has been saturated with stories of the Debacle in Detroit, the Motor City Mayhem. On Friday night, in a basketball game between the Detroit Pistons and the Indiana Pacers, an on-court scuffle escalated into a disgusting sight when a fan threw a cup of ice at Indiana’s Ron Artest. Artest, a noted hothead, took exception to having things thrown at him by the fans, a reasonable reaction to my mind. Where he abandoned the realm of reason however was when he bounded into the stands and began pummeling people. Eventually the rumble expanded to include three Pacers and a collection of civilians. In the aftermath, the league’s commissioner suspended Artest for the remainder of the season without pay—a $5 million hit for the man, by the way—and suspended two other players for shorter stints.
Who’s to blame when highly paid athletes—or anybody else for that matter—go haywire and start doing damage to those around them. This question isn’t just about basketball. On Saturday, some cross-wired deer hunter in Wisconsin, when asked to remove himself from private property, decided that the appropriate response was to shoot everybody who came his way, notching six kills before being captured.
Where does the responsibility lie for these sorts of actions? In listening to radio discussions of the Detroit madness, I heard a sociologist who decreed that the gap between the earnings of athletes and those of fans caused that problem. Some blamed hip-hop culture. Others blamed the general boorishness of our society. I heard one guy who claimed that business was to blame since they rewarded bad behavior with ever larger contracts.
I haven’t heard as much conversation about the Wisconsin tragedy, but I’m sure that people will be blaming our “gun culture,” the gun manufacturers, those blood-thirsty hunters, and the very idea of private property. Who’s to blame? It just depends on who you ask.
These things pop into my mind today as I read Micah’s words: “Shepherd your people with your staff, the flock of your inheritance.” Who is Micah speaking to there? In other words, whose responsibility is it to shepherd the flock? Having committed the 23rd Psalm to memory years ago, my first thought was that God was the shepherd, but why would the word of God to Micah speak to God in the second person. Similarly, there’s no indication that this is God telling Micah to shepherd the flock. Instead, God is calling Micah’s audience, the people, especially the leaders, of Israel to be the shepherds.
What does that mean for us? I believe it means that we should take the role of shepherding upon ourselves. I didn’t cause Ron Artest or that hunter to go berserk. Nothing I could have done by myself would have stopped them, but there are many things that I can do to shepherd the flock. The responsibility for our wayward world lies, in some small part, with me and with you. Whose flock is it? It’s mine and it’s yours. Let us learn to be better shepherds of these sheep.
On a cold day in April 1945, elements of the American Seventh Army moved into the area near Munich and encountered Dachau, the notorious Nazi death camp. In those waning days of the war in Europe, the American forces, battle hardened after nearly a year of solid combat, held an incredible advantage over the retreating Germans. They were better supplied and equipped, and they consistently outnumbered their enemies. From the breakout of Normandy until the day in May, a few weeks later, when the Third Reich officially surrendered—ignoring a brief reversal around Christmas—the Americans were rolling over the Germans like a steamroller over eggs. Even in that winter reversal, the Battle of the Bulge, German casualties far outstripped those of the allied forces.
It wasn’t exactly “shock and awe” that the American military and its allies were inflicting upon the Germans, but it was the nearest thing mankind had seen in 1945. But then, when the 42nd and 45th Infantry Divisions liberated Dachau—and to this day the veterans of those two units argue over who actually did the liberating—the mission changed for a short time. For a short time, the enemy that these soldiers faced wasn’t a bunch of Wehrmacht guys in their jackboots and wool uniforms. No, when the allies reached the concentration camp, they recognized that their true enemy was death. Rather than trying to defeat the Germans, these guys shifted, if only for a brief time, to trying to defeat death. They brought water and food and clothing and medical care to living skeletons who populated the camps. Even after the liberation, dozens of weakened inmates died, but at least the gas chambers went unused, at least death wasn’t welcomed into the camp like a visiting relative.
At their best, military forces play this double-faced role. They blast away with a devastating fury while on the offensive and then turn their attention to humanitarian efforts when the offensive takes a breather. At their best, the coalition forces in Iraq are fighting the greater enemy, death, whether they’re working to protect civilian Iraqis or to kill those fighting against them. Certainly, like those men who liberated Dachau, they’ll make some mistakes and leave a terrible mess in their wake, but they have a noble goal ahead of them.
As Micah’s message closes out with today’s reading, I find my mind drawn to those long-ago soldiers and to those soldiers of today, for the fury and compassion that Micah ascribes to God seem to be mirrored in the actions of military forces fighting for freedom. Some will argue that the God of the Old Testament has a personality disorder, that he’s inconsistent, but those who argue this way don’t understand his mission. Our God is a God of furious wrath and of unlimited mercy. He’s a God of fierce judgment and profound compassion. He comes to fairly judge the guilty and to free the oppressed. And since I’m both guilty and oppressed, I’ll praise him for his grace above all else.
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.