These forty-nine devotions were written sporadically across the summer of 2005. Click on a chapter number to jump to the first devotion for that chapter.
1 - 2 - 3 - 4 [Devotions Archive]
I took my kids to see the movie Because of Winn-Dixie yesterday. This film, which features a shaggy, smiling dog, lasted only a brief while in the first-run theatres. After yesterday’s viewing at the dollar show, I understood why it hadn’t stayed longer. The main character’s father, a pastor, spends most of his time wringing his hands over his Bible, apparently agonizing as he prepares sermons. When we actually see the man preach, we wonder why he agonized, since he apparently doesn’t shoot for anything higher than be-nice-to-each-other platitudes and absurdly obvious jokes. He’s no more effective in dealing with his daughter than he is with his church. Abandoned by his wife some seven years earlier, this guy hasn’t come close to getting over the pain. Why such a damaged vehicle would be enlisted to bring the gospel to this town escapes me, but God does work in mysterious ways.
If you watch most television and film portrayals of ministers, you’ll see a glaring, and hopefully not terribly accurate, similarity. The typical minister is a sort doubt-obsessed, impotent semi-dolt, someone who is only an ineffective cheerleader at his best and an incompetent charlatan at his worst. These are the guys with more problems at home than in the homes that they attempt to shepherd. Their preaching is one step above anesthesia, and their leadership style reminds a person of either Winnie the Pooh’s Eeyore, always looking for the dark cloud in front of every silver lining, or Rabbitt, a rules-obsessed perfectionist. While there’s an element of truth in this stereotype, as in most of them, there’s also a great deal more fiction in it.
At the other extreme, there’s a tradition in the Catholic church, one that has, to their credit, become far less pronounced in recent decades. The tradition in question holds that the church proper are those people who have taken ordination or other vows. In short, the church is composed by the priests, deacons, bishops, monks, nuns, and so forth. Everyone else, the people who populate the pews for instance, stand on the fringe of the church, waiting just outside and soaking up some of the grace that permeates the locale.
When you look at the whole canvas, you have to admit that the church, when it functions properly, is not a group of cast-offs standing on the outside and looking longingly at the real business being done by the clergy. On the other hand, the living church is not a group of individuals presided over by a meddling and mediocre clergy. No, the church, as designed by God, involves three groups, suitably described here by Paul.
The church of Jesus Christ is composed of a large number of plain vanilla members, “the saints,” who do a vast amount of the leg work in the operation. Real churches couldn’t function without this group, and not just because they need their money. Second, the church has a group of lay leaders. Paul names “the deacons” here. They’re lay leaders, although in imagining this group we needn’t restrict ourselves to those who have been ordained to that office. Finally, the church is led by the “overseers” or bishops or elders or pastors. These are the (hopefully) trained and (sometimes) professional clergy who take a place of leadership in the church.
Just as a body cannot function without all of its various parts, the church of Jesus Christ cannot function without all of these groups doing their part. What can we do with this information? We need to recognize the importance, the irreplaceable nature of whichever group we occupy. Doing this, we will strive to fill our role to our best ability and support the other two along the way. Succeeding in this, the church can be a light to the world.
A couple of years ago, I spent a week at my church’s Children’s Camp, serving as a cabin counselor for a group of very challenging fourth graders. Several events from that year stick in my mind, but one keeps surfacing more than the others.
It was during an evening worship service that Devin, one of my boys, re-committed his life to Christ. After he raised his hand, the camp director pointed to me and asked me to head outside to chat with him.
Before I tell you about our conversation, I need to tell you a bit about Devin. This was not your garden variety fourth-grade boy. Here was a kid who lived in a relatively tough part of town and lived a relatively tough life. Several times during the week he had lashed out physically at somebody in the cabin.
“Why did you punch Mike, Devin?” I might ask.
His response? “Because he called me ‘stupid’” or “because he looked at me funny.” Devin’s attitude seemed to be “fight first and ask questions later.” Even more than the rest of the boys, Devin came to camp and endured the worship sessions and Bible study classes so that he could hit the pool and the lake.
Knowing this boy like I did, it took me back somewhat when, five minutes into our talk, he had tears streaming down his face. He was sick of always getting in trouble at school. He was sick of people thinking he was dumb. He was sick of getting in fights. He was so sick of getting in fights that he got in fights as a result. I know that doesn’t make any sense, but that’s the sort of thing that this kid told me in the darkness of that Ozark night. He just knew that he couldn’t stay out of trouble until school started, and he knew that when school started, the same old problems would kick in again.
I told him that I couldn’t work any miracles, but I did know that if he asked God for help, then God would help him avoid these problems. I challenged him to pray every day between that night and when school started.
“I’ll call you right before school starts,” I assured him. “I’ll call you and we can see if God didn’t help you.” In hindsight, that still seems like good advice.
The problem came a month later when his school started and I didn’t call. I made a promise to call Devin, but it just didn’t happen. Why? I can’t answer that, but I guess it boils down to the fact that it seemed like a better idea on that Ozark evening than it did as Labor Day approached.
I’ve been guilty of not finishing what I started before. I suppose we’ve all done it now and again. We’ve all done it, but that doesn’t make me feel any better about letting Devin down.
When I reflect on this misstep, I take comfort in these words from Paul. God, unlike inconsistent humans, will take the good work begun and “carry it on to completion.” God will finish what he started. What if Jesus had gotten into his adolescence and decided this Messiah thing just wasn’t worth it? What if he had gotten part way to Calvary and thought, “Enough of this”? Thankfully, our Lord is not so undependable as me or as you. He finishes what he starts. With that in mind, we must open ourselves to becoming his latest finished products.
After some three weeks, I’m back from my hiatus, about a week later than I had intended but back nonetheless. I’d hate to think that any of you felt rejected or unloved. I’m sure that your lives just weren’t complete without reading my ruminations every morning. Right? Oh, don’t answer. Rest assured that although I’ve been out of sight, you haven’t been completely out of my mind. I thought of you when they dropped me thirteen floors in the “Tower of Terror” and when the giant T-Rex tried to eat me. I thought about you as I stuffed myself at the German buffet. Mostly, I thought about you as I mowed my grass and cleaned out my gutters.
It’s not an unusual thing for people to think of those they care about at important times. Let me give you an example from last week. One evening during our sojourn in the Kingdom of the Mouse, Alyson and I resolved to head back from the hotel to the Magic Kingdom, there to witness the marvel of Disney fireworks and the night-time parade. Arriving at the gate just as the first running of the parade ended, we fought our way upstream against the current of departing guests, and staked out a marvelous spot for watching the fireworks. At precisely ten o’clock, Jiminy Cricket came on the sound system and began narrating as overhead the sky erupted in a variety of marvelous explosions.
“Wow!” I said eloquently. But what I really had in my mind was the fact that the kids would have loved this. Even though I stood there with one of my kids, which was a good thing, a part of me wanted to have all of them there. It wanted Penny there. It wanted Sydney and Ira, my grandkids. No, to be honest, I didn’t think of you folks at that moment, but I did think about the rest of my family.
The same thing happened at other times during the week. When Tom and Olivia and I found ourselves experiencing an audience with Mickey Mouse, I thought about how cool it would be to have Sydney there—in a couple of years, I think. When we watched Goofy ride a junior-sized roller coaster, the same thought raced through my mind. Penny couldn’t help herself from buying things for the grandkids.
I mention all of this not to bore you with the details of my vacation but to bring the words of Paul into our day. As followers of Christ, we should never be alone. By this, I don’t mean to conjure up some platitude about Jesus always being with us. No, I mean that Christianity is not an individual sport. Whether together physically or not, we are all joined just as surely as my family is joined. When we find ourselves not remembering each other in thought and prayer, this is a sorrowful state of affairs. Yet, I’ll confess, it is a state that we can visit all too easily in our hectic world.
Yesterday, I mentioned that my family and I just got back from a trip to Disney World. About twelve years ago, we took a trip there with our two older girls, Emily and Alyson. On that first trip, I learned a lesson that, while not completely fixed in my mind, has helped to make me a better father.
I’m a type-A kind of guy in a lot of ways. I like to get things done. I like to plan my work and then work my plan. Patience is not a strong suit. Similarly, getting nothing accomplished is not something that I can abide easily. That’s why, when I hit Disney World back in 1993, I drove my family bonkers.
“Come on, we have to get to Space Mountain. Then we can hit Mr. Toad’s Wild Ride on the way to the Haunted Mansion. Move it, move it, move it!”
“Dad, can we go in that store?”
“What? We can shop any time. There’s a Disney Store at home. We gotta hit the rides.”
“Dad, I’m thirsty.”
“Thirsty? You should have drank something at breakfast. Come on. We have to ride eight more rides before lunch if we’re going to stay on schedule.”
Maybe I didn’t sound quite that frenzied, but I’m sure it wasn’t too far off. As my withering family trailed behind me, I know that I had to have that maniacal look in my eyes, the look that appeared in Chevy Chase’s eyes when he discovered that Wally World was closed in Vacation. “This is no longer a vacation,” Chase announced. “This is a quest for fun!”
Yes, we were on a quest for fun on that 1993 trip. We were going to have fun, and buckets of it, even if it made us miserable doing it.
I’m a reasonably smart guy, but some things don’t quite click with me very fast. I didn’t realize that I was torturing my family. But then one day, in the oddest of ways, I came somewhat to my senses. After swimming with the girls for a while, they escaped the pool and headed over to the beach by the nearby lake. I joined them a few minutes later, finding them building sandcastles. A part of me wanted to say, “Hey, let’s go ride the water slide while the line is short” or “How about we head over to Epcot and cover three more countries before supper?” But a better part of me realized that the best thing I could do that afternoon was build sandcastles on a phony beach with my daughters.
I’m slow, but I do learn. What I learned was that we weren’t there to ride all the rides. We were there to have a good time together. And that’s what we did.
Love makes us go against our foolish natures sometimes. It helps us to overcome our bad habits and see the world differently. Love, as Paul tells us here, is the surest route to knowledge and insight. That’s the power of love. Those sandcastles, of course, are long gone, but the structures that we build through love will last forever.
Every day, each of us makes a million decisions ranging from the incredibly minute—should I step on that ant or not?—to the truly momentous—should I give away all my money, shave my head, and live in a commune? There’s a school of thought in physics that suggests that innumerable alternative universes exist, one for each possible branch on the huge decision tree that is existence. Confused? Let me explain. Let’s imagine that the range of possible choices I have is restricted to the keys on the keyboard in front of me. There are some 45 keys by the time you factor in all the letters, numbers, and punctuation marks. Each of them can do two symbols, depending on whether the shift key is held down. That gives us 90 possible results, 90 different universes that the physicists would suggest might exist. Of course I don’t just type one letter. With each succeeding keystroke, we multiply the number of possible universes by 90. After two keys, we’re up to 8,100. Three takes us to 729,000. Four gets us over 65 million. I type about 60 words a minute. If those words average 6 characters, that gives us some 360 keystrokes each minute. If those physicists have it right, then that leads to universes numbering 3.36 times 10 to the 703rd power. That’s 336 with 701 zeroes after it. Wow! That’s a lot of universes.
It doesn’t take long looking at this idea to realize something simple. With 700 zeroes here and 700 zeroes there, pretty soon we’re looking at some pretty big numbers. The upshot of all this multiple universe thinking leaves me cold. The implication is simple: If every possible universe exists, then there’s nothing particularly special about the universe in which we find ourselves. Following this theory, we could find universes in which the Nazis won World War II or where Jonas Salk didn’t cure polio. We could find universes where Jesus decided not to be crucified. Those who follow this sort of thinking would wave away any attempt to suggest that divine intervention is at work anywhere. In the wake of a miraculous healing, they’d say that it might just as well not have happened. In fact, in another universe, it didn’t happen. In response to a religious conversion, they’d suggest that there’s another universe in which the subject is an even more confirmed atheist.
These nay-sayers would scoff at Paul when he suggests that his imprisonment is really working out for the best. They’d point out that if Paul had been released from prison he would have considered that a work of providence. I suppose on that count, they’d have a point.
Is there more than one universe in existence? I can’t answer that with any certainty. But I can state with assurance that if multiple universes exist, then the Lord God is in charge of all of them. He’s working all things to his glory and our good in every universe, whether there be one or 3.36 x 10703.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” I don’t know how he did that or what the scope of that creation entailed, but I do know that he created whatever there is. He created it and continues to control it for our good. You can take that truth to the bank no matter what universe you inhabit.
Today, I sat through what had to be the most interminable funeral sermon that I have ever experienced. I’m not entirely clear why my cousin asked that this fellow to preach at my uncle’s funeral, but she did. I can be entirely clear that this guy rambled on with far too many points, sub-points, illustrations, comparisons, examples, clarifications, qualifications, anecdotes, transitions, and every other sort of rhetorical nugget that he could include.
Please don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing that the guy said that I would argue with. His dedication to the Bible as God’s Word and to Christ as the only way to salvation could not be faulted one iota. Also, I cannot question his heartfelt desire to assist the lost in coming to faith in Christ. The problem came when he tried to assemble his thoughts into a coherent package.
I want you to imagine a room to be decorated. In an adjoining storage area, you have all manner of furniture, wall hangings, sconces, knick-knacks, lamps, and other decorating detritus. In fact, in that storage area, you have enough material to decorate three or four rooms. So what do you do? You just start grabbing things and moving them into the target room. You keep cramming furniture in, keep hanging pictures on the wall, keep lining shelves with little pretties, until there is simply no room left. You do all of this, and then you stop and say, “Thus I have decorated!”
That’s sort of what this fellow today did. He came to the funeral with a mental rucksack chock full of evangelistic stuff. It was all good stuff, true stuff, important stuff. He brought that bag into the chapel and proceeded to try to stuff that stuff into the time he’d been allotted.
At some point—perhaps when he passed the thirty-minute mark—I wanted to stand up and say, “Enough already! I give up!” but I held onto my sense of decorum and kept my seat. In the end, I calmed myself with the notion that he’d undoubtedly do better the next time he tried this.
My impatience this morning has given way to reflection through the afternoon. Was this guy really that disorganized? Yes. But was it really that bad a sermon? The composition professor in me wants to say yes, but the follower of Christ has to qualify that yes, especially after I read these words of Paul’s.
The gospel of Jesus Christ is a remarkable message not just because of its content. The gospel is great because of its method of delivery. It can be effectively delivered by unpolished and unpracticed people. It can be effectively delivered by those who misspeak or use incorrect grammar. It can even be effectively delivered by those whose motives aren’t completely pure. The gospel, you see, is more powerful than those who deliver it.
And so, in the end, what kind of gall do I have to pass judgment on this man who apparently did his best to bring the gospel of peace to whoever in that assembly needed it? I have to remember that any superiority I have over that guy is only in a matter of style. In the end, we are all imperfect conduits miraculously passing perfect living water to a thirsty world.
I went to the gym today. Actually, for the last eight weeks or so, Penny and I have been quite good about getting our workouts in. On average, I suppose, we make it there better than four times a week.
When the church opened up the gym, they put in equipment that makes the stuff you might see on Star Trek look rather old and obsolete. You can measure just about everything with these machines. You can set your exercise goal for a certain heart rate, a length of time, a number of miles, and half a dozen other variables. I’m pretty sure that there’s a way to exercise your spleen with one of the pieces, although I haven’t found that yet.
My workout starts with a five-minute warm-up on a stationary bike. That’s no great effort. Then I proceed around the weight room hitting seven different machines that work out every conceivable muscle in my body. These things keep track of how fast, how far, and how heavy I’m lifting. If I go too fast or to slow, or if my range of motion isn’t ideal, the machine squawks at me.
The weight-lifting is varied, quick, and reasonably enjoyable. But the workout always ends with a session on another bike where I pedal away for a good twenty minutes, pumping my heart rate up to the level of a disco drum. Whatever enjoyment I have in the earlier exercises, that long bike session takes it away. The highlight of my twenty-minute ride is the end, when I get up, my shirt drenched in sweat, and my legs feeling rubbery. This particular piece of equipment interrupts your regular program every two minutes to deliver some pressing news. As you complete each even-numbered minute on the machine, it’ll scroll a message across its screen telling you how many calories you’ll burn in the entire exercise and how many METS (whatever that is) that you’re performing/burning/creating/whatever.
I say all of this today as a round about way of getting to the subject of doughnuts. You see, today, when I finished my twenty-minute sit-and-sweat, the machine indicated that I had burned some 211 calories (or kilocalories if you’re some scientific purist). Add that to the 60 or so calories I burned on the warm-up bike and maybe a hundred lifting weights, and I knocked off some 375 little fat-builders this afternoon.
The problem, however, is that while visiting my mother’s house this evening, I ate a chocolate-covered doughnut that tossed about 375 calories into me. The more I burn, it seems, the more I want to consume. That leaves me constantly about thirty pounds heavier than I’d really like to be.
These thoughts come to me tonight as I read about Paul hoping that “Christ will be exalted in my body.” I think we all want Christ to be exalted in a sort of abstract way, just like we’d feel pleased to see a good ballplayer make the All-Star team or a great American wind up on a stamp. But when it comes to Christ being exalted “in my body,” that cuts a little close to home.
I have to confess that many of the activities of my life—and ones more significant than doughnut-eating—don’t exalt Christ in my body. My guess is that you could point to a few non-exalting things from your life as well. It’s my prayer that I can exalt Christ without giving up all of my doughnut indulgences, but if the price of my worship is a ban on Krispy Kreme, then I pray I have the fortitude to follow that path.
From 1985 to 1990, English actor Christopher Hewett played Mr. Belvedere, Mr. Lynn Aloysius Belvedere to be precise, on the television program of the same name. I count myself fortunate to have never caught more than a brief glimpse of that show. I’m fairly certain that watching a certain level of TV programming can actually suck the brains out of a person’s head.
The only reason on this planet that I would remember Mr. Belvedere has to do with my brother-in-law, Bill. At some point during that six-year run, Bill’s wife announced that they would have stayed somewhere longer except that “Bill wanted to get home to watch Mr. Belvedere.” In other words, this relative of mine, not only had nothing better to do than to watch an insipid sitcom, but he would interrupt his family’s journeys afield in order to assure that they could be home in the comfort of their family room to watch the full half hour of the program. That’s sad.
I’m pleased to announce that in the intervening decade and a half, Bill has discovered a good many other pursuits far more diverting and rewarding than watching Mr. Belvedere. Among other things, he raises coon hounds and pastors a church, but that’s a story for another day—or maybe it’s two stories.
I mention Bill’s former preoccupation with this program because it seems so indicative of so many people in our world. For a huge swath of the population, there’s nothing more fascinating than the Michael Jackson trial, the apparent collapse of Jessica Simpson’s marriage, the results of the latest round of American Idol, or what the stars are wearing as they traipse along the red carpet.
At the other extreme, there are people who seem to milk life for everything it’s worth. They—to paraphrase Thoreau—grab life and suck the marrow out of it. These are the people who die in their nineties with unfinished novels or not-quite-perfect inventions. These are the professors who keep churning out books long after they had any hope of earning any higher accolades. They’re the business tycoons who just keep going and going, like the Energizer Bunny. They’re the doctors who don’t retire because they don’t exactly know how. I greatly admire the people who believe that life is full and rich and wonderful and far too precious to be wasted watching Mr. Belvedere.
But even these busy, driven people don’t quite understand what Paul is saying here: “To live is Christ; to die is gain.” Perhaps one of the reasons that some of these driven people keep going is that they don’t understand that “to die is gain.” Perhaps these are the people who believe that if they slow down and look behind them, they’ll find something ominous chasing after them. But you and I can understand that “to die is gain,” even if we do find the idea of death a bit uncomfortable.
But “To live is Christ”? What is that supposed to mean? Just as when Paul said that Jesus should be exalted in our bodies, this seems a bit intrusive, a bit close to the bone for us. Had he said, “To live is good; to die is gain,” then we could have nodded blithely and gone on, but “To live is Christ” suggests that it isn’t us doing the living, which is something that Paul says elsewhere.
So whether we spend our time watching Mr. Belvedere or being Mr. Belvedere, Paul suggests that we misspend our time. To live is Christ, he says. Presumably anything less just isn’t living.
I mentioned the other day that I’d been to a funeral last week. Perhaps it is those two summers that I spent working on a cemetery crew, but I have always taken a rather special fascination at funerals. I suppose that it really derives from the way that these events tend to lay bare the emotions, the hopes, the fears of the people involved. Many people can grit their teeth and hide their true feelings through the wedding of a loved one. But most of us can’t do that good a job of disguising ourselves when the funeral arrives. Am I being morbid? Perhaps, but if so that’s just the way I am.
One of the things that has always struck me about funerals is the euphemisms that we use. If your vocabulary doesn’t include that word, I’ll help out. “Euphemism” comes from two Greek words: the prefix eu meaning “beautiful and the word pheme meaning “speech.” A euphemism, then, is beautiful speech. When a woman says, “I need to powder my nose”—although, truth be told, I’ve never heard a woman say that—that’s a euphemism.
At a funeral, you’ll hear that the person in question has departed, passed on, passed away, left us, and so forth. The euphemism that always struck me, however, was “He’s in a better place now.” What this person means to say is “He’s in heaven now.” So why don’t they just come out and say that? Is heaven some sort of unspeakable destination like the restroom that we need to hide behind more beautiful words?
People who talk about the deceased being “in a better place now” say it with such certainty, regardless of the spiritual condition of the person, that it has often left me wondering. If this “better place” is so much and so obviously better, then what has the person been waiting around for?
If I had two cars, one a rusted-out 1970 Nova and the other a brand-new Jaguar, do you really think I’m going to be seen driving around town in that Nova? Perhaps all I have to do to get into the Jaguar is to drive the Nova to the junk yard. If that’s the case, then I’m headed to U-Wrench-It before I finish writing this. I won’t be driving that Nova one minute longer than I have to.
If we have assurance of our salvation and the bliss of our eternal life, then shouldn’t we just be busting at the seams to “pass on”? But of course we aren’t. In fact, most of us will go to considerable lengths to delay going to “a better place.” Does this indicate a lack of faith? Does it suggest that we don’t really believe that better place to be so much better?
I’m not so sure of that. It seems that God has made us with a desire to live in this body even as we know that life out of this body will be indescribably better. There needn’t be any “moaning of the bar when I put out to sea,” but I’m not in any rush to get on board that boat.
Irrational? I don’t know, but if it is, then it’s an irrational feeling I share with the Apostle Paul. When the time comes, I’ll be ready for that better place, but I’ll trust my heavenly guide to choose the time when I’ll make the move.
If you haven’t heard the news, Mike Tyson, the one-time terror of professional boxing, announced his retirement after his most recent bout. In this fight, Tyson went up against a tall but unheralded boxer from Ireland, a guy who had been carefully selected as somebody whom the promoters could brag on—since he has a good record—and yet whom they felt certain Tyson could beat. After all, if this maniac were to keep losing fights, you couldn’t continue to get people paying big money for seats, pay-per-view, and whatever else people toss money at for boxing.
In his early years, Iron Mike Tyson looked to be the greatest heavyweight boxer of all time. He attacked opponents with a ferocity and a force that would have gotten him into a good deal of trouble outside of the boxing ring. Come to think of it, it did get him into a good deal of trouble outside the ring, but first things first. In those early years, some eighteen years ago, Mike Tyson didn’t just defeat boxers; he demolished them. In his first nineteen fights, nobody lasted more than six rounds against the man. Twelve of those nineteen fights were knockouts in the first round. That’s unheard of. Even after somebody managed to go the distance with Tyson, he didn’t lose a fight until he had notched an impressive thirty-seven victories. After that loss, he won four more, but at about the time of the last of these wins, in 1991, the wheels were coming off.
Iron Mike went to prison. Upon his release, he reclaimed his title, but clearly wasn’t the same guy. In 1996, he lost that title to Evander Holyfield, and then, in the rematch, was disqualified when he bit Holyfield’s ear not once but twice. In the eight years since Tyson’s foray into cannibalism, he has gone back to prison for attacking a couple of people after a minor car accident, threatened to eat another boxer’s babies, gotten into one scrape after another, and generally behaved just as brutishly as people expect boxers to behave, making Muhammad Ali’s draft-evasion and grandstanding seem positively tame.
In his (supposedly) final fight, Tyson didn’t exactly acquit himself with dignity. As the match began to turn against him, he attempted to break his opponent’s arm and then head-butted him. To the best of all accounts, he did not attempt to eat anybody’s babies.
In England, they say that football (soccer) is a sport for gentlemen played by ruffians, while rugby is a sport for ruffians played by gentlemen. Boxing, you have to admit, looks for all the world like a sport for ruffians. Indeed, we shouldn’t be surprised that a man who showed an incredibly aptitude for bashing someone else’s skull should behave in an anti-social manner. What is truly astounding is when boxers—Holyfield and George Foreman for example—manage to step out of the ring and conduct themselves like civilized humans.
Although my life doesn’t call for me to bash anyone’s skull, I cannot claim to always conduct myself “in a manner worthy of the gospel of Christ.” No, I haven’t bitten anyone’s ear. I haven’t squandered $350 million to go $40 million in debt. I’m not a disappointment on the scale of Iron Mike Tyson, but I am a disappointment from time to time.
Paul sets the bar very high in today’s reading. I can’t get there on my own strength, but when I allow the Spirit of God within me to run the show, I can conduct myself honorably.
Let me tell you a little bit about Vacation Bible School. Way back last August, I had this really terrific idea. I got all enthused about VBS and came to Penny and said, “Hey, how about you and me directing Bible School next year? We’d be the perfect team.” I think what I meant by that was that I could do all of the fun stuff and she could do all of the real work.
Penny responded to that suggestion as if I had said, “Hey, how about you and me soaking ourselves in gasoline and then going to a campfire?” She pondered the idea for every bit of ten seconds before laughing it off.
Then Penny got into a Bible study and God got a hold of her conscience. “I’m pretty sure that we have to direct Bible School,” she announced one fall morning. Having already advanced my mind to other pursuits, it was now my turn to snarl up my nose at the idea. Still, being the ideal husband that I am, I agreed to cooperate in this endeavor. It still seemed like a tolerable idea.
There’s one problem with this project. Nobody told me that there’d be any suffering. I knew that there’d be some considerable work, but I didn’t know I’d have to suffer. I didn’t know that my telephone would become the VBS telephone. I didn’t know that I’d have to paint the gate to Jerusalem or the Philippi jail. I didn’t know that a whole battalion of teachers would decide to quit two weeks ahead of show-time. I didn’t know that my drama people would have illnesses, jobs, and driver’s ed classes get in the way of participating. I didn’t know that Penny would be spending her Tuesdays, like the Lady of Shallot, locked up in a tower at the church, preparing various things. I didn’t know any of this stuff!
What wimps we Christians can be. We whine when practicing our faith gets in the way of our golf game or our day-spa appointments. We grumble when lesson preparation requires more than thirty seconds. We complain when our room is on the sunny side of the building or the pews don’t have the right amount of cushion. We’re pathetic!
Listen to me. Have I actually suffered in the build-up to this Bible School (which, by the way, kicks off next Monday)? I’ve met some obstacles. More precisely, Penny has met some obstacles and I’ve had to help deal with them. I’ve done a few tasks that I hadn’t expected. But suffering? I don’t think so.
Now Paul tells us today that it has been “granted to us on behalf of Christ not only to believe in him, but also to suffer for him.” Read that again, if you didn’t get it. We may only need to believe in order to become Christians, but that doesn’t mean that belief is the only thing involved in being a Christian. No, suffering comes with it. Sometimes that suffering involves trivial stuff like my VBS travails; sometimes it involves persecution and martyrdom. Regardless, though, suffering seems to be standard equipment for us.
So how do we deal with the suffering? We recognize it as a natural part of our Christian walk. We walk through it joyfully. We stop whining and remember that any suffering we endure pales next to the suffering of Jesus one spring Friday.
Several years ago, I found myself as a cabin counselor at a church children’s camp. Now before you get any notion of a church children’s camp being populated by a bunch of choir boys, let me disabuse you of that idea. There were, if memory serves, some eight fifth-grade boys in this cabin with me and another counselor who proved less than helpful. One of these boys spent the week of camp moping around waiting to go home. At his best, he was a choir boy, but at his worst, he could soak up a lot of time and emotional support as he longed for his own bed. Beyond him, I had one kid who seemed determined to let his fists do the talking whenever anyone so much as looked cross-eyed at him. Another kid alternated between laughing maniacally and plotting the overthrow of the camp. One boy seemed to do a chameleon act each night, becoming this wired little wild man when the sun went down. Another couldn’t seem to decide whether to charm the girls in camp or to completely trash our cabin. It was an all-star team. I recall there being one boy who didn’t cause trouble. Just one.
I think it was about the third day of camp. Everybody had been out in the sun, boating, swimming, leaping off of the water trampoline, and so forth. The boys were tired. The counselors were tired. The only real difference between us was that we adults managed to bottle up our frustrations. The boys just let the madness spill all over the cabin. D wanted to punch out J who was angry with T for something that T had said about S. S in the meantime had caused some sort of row with L who, teamed up with his cousin W, got into a yelling match with S and D. In the end, only another T, Tyler, lay on his bed watching the whole debacle.
I walked into this melee that evening, fresh from a worship service that clearly hadn’t quite taken with these guys. Employing my best big-bad-bruiser voice, I quieted them down. I asked what the problem was. Unfortunately, they all started in to tell me. Again, I bellowed for them to stop. Explaining that I didn’t care what the problem was, I sent them to bed. It took some fourteen seconds before the bickering started again.
“We need to have nighttime devotions,” I finally announced. Then a great idea came to me. I had each boy sit on his bed. I asked each of them to open his Bible. Then, in turn, I directed each boy to read these two verses.
“Do you know what that means?” I asked them. They shook their heads as one, the first thing that they’d done together all day. “It means that if you really appreciate what Jesus has done for you, then you’ll do your best to live peacefully together. It means that by fighting like this, you’re basically insulting Jesus.”
“Whoa!” D, the toughest of the lot, said. “That’s bad.”
In desperation, I turned to the Word of God, hoping that it might return sanity to this cabin long enough for me to survive the week. Incredibly, it worked. Incredibly, these boys, who had been at each other’s throats, functioned as a team for the next couple of days.
That’s my testimony about the power of God’s Word to work wonders. If it can do powerful things among fifth-grade boys, it can do them among anyone.
Don’t tell the various professors at UMKC and KU, but I managed to earn a Ph.D. in English literature without ever reading Moby Dick, certainly one of the top three or four American novels. Because of the lingering sense of guilt that I carried with me over this omission, I recently purchased a copy of the book and began wading through it. What I found was a novel that read pretty easily and gave me all manner of useful information—useful, that is, should I ever decide to join a Nantucket whaling expedition.
If you’ve ever read the book or even seen the movie, then you know that the whaling ship Pequod sails from Nantucket on a multi-year voyage of whaling, intent on killing, chopping up, and extracting the oil from as many sperm whales as the ship’s cargo area will hold.
The story’s antagonist, Captain Ahab—played in the film by Gregory Peck—is widely considered an almost wholly evil and obsessed fellow. In Herman Melville’s portrayal, however, Ahab, while a bit out of the mainstream, is undeniably a good whaling captain. He succeeds in leading his crew on several hunts and filling a good number of barrels of oil in the book’s first 600-someodd pages. In the background, however, we know that Captain Ahab is ultimately and unhealthily fixed on revenging himself on the great white whale, Moby Dick, who had taken off Ahab’s leg in his preceding cruise.
At the time of the story, going off in search of whales was an ecologically acceptable thing to do. Indeed, going after Moby Dick made a certain amount of sense. The white whale was also a very large whale. Large whales yielded more oil; thus, capturing Moby Dick would be not only an act of revenge but a financial windfall. Since all of the crew, from captain down to the lowest crewman, were paid some fraction of the voyage’s proceeds, chasing Moby Dick made sense for everybody.
But somewhere along the line, what looked a slightly obsessed act of community interest turned into a self-destructive—and crew-destructive—personal vendetta. Something tells me that even if I had a grudge against that whale, I would have taken the hints. When I met the other captain, who had lost an arm to Moby Dick and decided not to risk anything else on the whale, I would have given up. When I pursued the creature for three days without success, I would have given up. When I had not one but two boats destroyed out from under me by the whale, I would have certainly given up. When I saw my entire ship sunk by the white whale, it would have been too late to give up, but I have a feeling that Ahab continued to rage against the animal until he died.
The Bible, which plays a significant role in Moby Dick, does not speak out completely against self interest. In today’s reading, Paul calls us to balance our own interests with those of others. He draws the line at “selfish ambition” and “vain conceits,” a line Ahab clearly crossed, to the detriment of nearly everyone who knew him.
It is understandable that we will look out for our own concerns. God doesn’t deny us that interest entirely. But he asks us to see ourselves as one among many, in relationship with him. Is that too much? It’s hard, but it’s not too much.
Show me a parent who has not uttered those words at the top of this page, and I’ll show you a parent who hasn’t paid attention to their kids. My favorite, all-time, bad attitude kid in all the world was Veruca Salt, the hateful poor little rich girl who graced the movie Willie Wonka and the Chocolate Factory.
Veruca’s father owned a nut company. When Willie Wonka announced his contest to give five lucky finders of five golden tickets a private tour of the Wonka candy plant, Mr. Salt indulged his daughter by bringing in truckloads of chocolate and reassigning all of his nut girls to candy-bar-opening duty. With thousands of dollars in confections being shelled each hour, Veruca still did not find happiness. “You promised me a golden ticket on the very first day, Daddy. I want it now!” she shrieked.
“I want it now!” That’s Veruca’s catch-phrase. In the course of that film, she wanted an Oompa Loompa, a magical boat, and a golden goose. At least those are the things that I remember. And when did she want them? Now!
Why is it that the more our kids have the more they want? Come to think of it, why is it that the more adults have the more they want? Think back on any of the corporate accounting scandals of recent memory. Why would somebody with tens of millions of dollars need more? You’d think they’d be happy with what they have, but they never seem to be. Instead, they grab for more. That’s a bad attitude.
Paul introduces what is the most celebrated passage in Philippians with this simple injunction: “Your attitude should be the same as that of Christ Jesus.” So let’s take a moment and consider the attitude of Christ Jesus, before Paul guides us through the more ethereal and theological aspects of it in the coming days.
The kids from Willie Wonka can provide us with a good range of attitudes to consider. Was Jesus like Veruca Salt? No, greed did not seem to be in the man’s personality. What about the rotund Augustus Glute, the little brute whose gluttony ended up getting him stuck in a pipe? No, self-indulgence wasn’t the Jesus attitude either. Next comes Mike Teevee, who, as his name would suggest, spent all his time watching TV. Do you see Jesus spending a lot of time doing the 1st Century version of vegging out? Me neither. How about Violet Beauregard, the gossipy, malicious little brat? Somehow jealousy, backbiting, and bragging don’t fit the Jesus mold either.
That leaves Charlie. Charlie thought about others. He enjoyed fun, but not at the expense of others. He enjoyed good things, but not in excess. Charlie had a healthy bit of the Jesus attitude, and he ended up being given the chocolate factory.
Okay, perhaps this little excursion is a bit silly, but then can’t we all see something of ourselves in either Veruca or Augustus or Mike or Violet? I know I can. But my attitude should be that of Christ Jesus. Tomorrow, we’ll start to plumb the depths of just what that means.
I’ll confess right off that the basic idea for what follows came from someone else. I’m not completely certain who that someone else was, but it may have been C.S. Lewis.
I want you to imagine that you are a character in a novel. Since I mentioned Herman Melville’s Moby Dick the other day, let’s take that novel as an example and imagine that you are Ishmael. (If you’d prefer to be Queequeeq or Ahab just to spice things up, that’s great with me.) As you find yourself sailing about the Pacific, you strike up conversations with your fellow shipmates. One day, as you go about your work, high up in the rigging, the first mate, Starbuck, brings you some coffee—sorry, I couldn’t resist that—and then sticks around for a bit of conversation.
“So Ishmael,” Starbuck begins. “What do you think of this Melville fellow?”
You look back at Starbuck, quite perplexed. Melville fellow? Had he asked about Dagoo or Ahab or Parsee, you could have given an opinion, although an opinion about the captain might be a bit dicey. But who on earth is Melville? And so you ask that very question of Starbuck.
“I’m talking about Herman Melville, Ishmael,” Starbuck explains. He’s the author of this novel. In short, he pretty well created you and me and Ahab and the white whale and the Pequod and everything else around here.”
You look into Starbuck’s face, waiting for him to finish up with the punch line. In a moment, however, you recognize that he’s completely serious. “Mr. Starbuck,” you advise. “I’m not sure that it’s safe for you to be up so high in the rigging in your condition.”
Isn’t that absurd? How could a fictional character come to know the author that created him? That’s the question that we must ask ourselves when we consider the idea of knowing God. This God is the great novelist, the creator of the characters, the plotlines, and the setting. But how can you and I know God—I mean really know him—any more than Ishmael can know Melville?
When you read through the Old Testament, you recognize that very few people seem to truly know God. You can find devout people, committed people, people who seem to hear God’s voice, but those who seem to really know God are fairly rare. We could probably count them on one hand.
How could a fictional character know the author? Only if the author wrote himself into the story. This is precisely what God did. Although Jesus is “in very nature God,” the Son has been written into the grand narrative of earth. We learn in John 1 that Jesus is the true creator of all that has been created, yet Jesus did not maintain that authorial distance. He wrote himself into the novel of life in an absolutely key role.
For a novelist to write himself into a story is not terribly remarkable. It’s no sacrifice. But the parallel action that Christ took to enter into the drama of earthly life is, as a movie title had it, “the greatest story ever told.”
This summer, my number-two daughter, Alyson, is working a high-prestige job as a summer custodian in a local middle school. There, for eight fabulous hours each day, Alyson gets to share time with some of the most charming and tactful people you might ever want to meet, doing some really desirable work—like scrubbing mop boards and disinfecting desks—all the while earning a whopping eight dollars an hour.
As I believe I have mentioned in this space before, I worked for two-plus summers during my college years at Mount Washington Cemetery where my co-workers and my duties were just as rewarding, if not more so, than are Alyson’s. However, I only earned four bucks an hour in those days.
I have friends in academic life who have never had a real job. Now I would define a real job as one where you come home physically exhausted at least some of the days that you work. This needs to be a job where you might have significant conflict with co-workers and the boss on any given day. A real job pays only slightly better than minimum wage, involves punching a clock, and virtually demands that you carry your lunch to the site in a little cooler. You get dirty on this sort of a job.
My friends who have never had a real job, complain about things that you’d never believe. For example, this fall, my department head has assigned me to teach at nine and eleven rather than my preferred nine and ten. That means that I’ll need to move my office hour from eleven to ten. As you can see, the end result of this is virtually no change at all. Yes, I’ll have to adapt to not teaching courses back-to-back, but that’s no big deal. I have friends who would be screaming and moaning about this sort of assignment. They’d be calling it injustice and complaining to everybody in sight. In the end, they often get what they want because the boss doesn’t want to listen to all the caterwauling. These people have never had a real job. They’ve never had to learn humility. They’ve never realized that in a real job, the boss might assign you to go clean the vomit off the steps and that even this wouldn’t be an injustice.
I’m glad that I worked those summers at the cemetery. It gave me perspective and an appreciation for the wonderful work that God has allowed me to spend my life doing. I’m glad every time I think about it that I don’t have to go fill graves or wheel rocks into the woods or dig up a leaky water line or sweep out a mausoleum. Sure, my job could be better, but I’ve seen how bad things could be. I’m grateful.
I’m happy that Alyson has this job that she doesn’t love. Come August, she’ll be done with it. She might return next summer, which wouldn’t be awful, but she’ll certainly never forget this summer. That’s a good thing.
It’s important for us to learn humility. Those who never learn humility often find it imposed upon them from outside. As I read Paul’s words today, I realize that no one ever knew more about humility than did Jesus, “in very nature God” who “made himself nothing.” Can we really resist making the small steps of humility that life provides us?
This week, Penny and I are herding cats, also known as directing Vacation Bible School at our church. Our VBS curriculum follows the life of Paul, a rich enough vein for several years of teaching. In a very peculiar move, the story of the first day doesn’t focus on Paul, however. Instead, it deals with Stephen, his bold witness for Christ, and his stoning outside the gate of Jerusalem. Now that’s got to be the most up-beat story that I’ve ever heard of on a VBS day one, but we muddled through it well enough.
I say that running VBS is like herding cats, because virtually nobody in this entire cast of characters, from the youngest of the kids to the most experienced of the teachers, follows the directions that have been so clearly laid out for them. (There is this one fourth-grade teacher though.) We ask the kids to be quiet, but of course they don’t. We ask the teachers to attend an 8:30 teacher worship, but only about half of them show up. We direct parents to pick their kids up in the sanctuary after closing, but we find them wandering nearly anywhere. It’s great.
I’m not surprised of course. When you’re dealing with better than 650 people, even having ten percent of them not follow directions leads to chaos and confusion. And my experience in life suggests that you rarely get people to obey directions. When I tell my students how important it is to do their assignment in a certain order, I can rest assured that many of them will do it in whatever order seems sensible to them. When I tell my kids that it’ll be best to clean up early in the day rather than waiting until bedtime, they still delay the chore. Even my wife—the estimable VBS director—didn’t have the sense this Sunday to wear shoes while walking across the church lawn, despite instructions to the contrary. She “found” a three-inch drywall screw that we’d lost, but she didn’t really enjoy the process. People, it seems, just don’t obey most of the time. (I could, of course, tell stories on myself, but I choose not to this time.)
Sometimes, however, we have no choice but to obey. I’m thinking here of the call of death. We’ll often hear of people taking extreme measures to avoid death, yet death is the one thing in life that we simply cannot avoid. (Taxes, despite the popular lore, apparently can be avoided.) If a person were to fall from an airplane, they would not need to “obey” gravity or death, once the impact came. Regardless of their “disobedience,” the result would be the same. We, as mortal creatures, have no option for obeying or disobeying death.
Jesus, it seems, was the only human ever to have an option regarding death. That’s what leads Paul to make this rather unusual comment about Jesus becoming “obedient to death.” We learn in Hebrews that Jesus suffered all of the things that we normal humans suffer. Here we find that he included in that suffering the ultimate human experience, death.
What does this teach us about Jesus? I suppose that the theologians could make a dozen points, but I’ll restrict myself to one. In this simple yet unique action, Jesus showed himself to be the ultimate man. As less-than-ultimate humans, we should become even more eager to follow his example.
There’s probably no activity in my life—with the possible exception of my compulsive eating of chocolate chip cookies—that has been such a constant as involvement in Boy Scouting. I started at the beginning of Cub Scouts and plowed on into the ranks of Boy Scouting. Eventually I worked a couple of summers at the area summer camp and then graduated into the ranks of the adult leaders. I like Scouting, despite its many flaws, for a number of reasons that I won’t enumerate here.
If you’ve ever been to the Scout summer camp south of Kansas City, you could hardly miss the existence of a peculiar organization: the Tribe of Mic-O-Say. While most of the rest of the nation uses a somewhat similar program called Order of the Arrow, Kansas City has, for over seventy-five years now, had Mic-O-Say. In this program, grown men and older boys dress up in Indian outfits, learn sign language, wear fancy necklaces, and disappear into the night for what must be harrowing induction ceremonies.
Each June, members of Mic-O-Say convene at the camp for a big pig-out and rap session. Supposedly, a lot of camp-preparation work gets done on this weekend, but my experience is that ninety percent of the group disappears into the forest when the work gets started. That evening, the work safely at an end, everybody congregates around a big campfire to witness the weekend’s supposed highlight: the induction of this year’s new Chief of the Tribe.
I used to attend this event pretty regularly, and every year I would walk away from that ceremony with my friends and crack the same joke. “Well, once again they passed you and me over for Chief. What did they see in that guy?” Normally the guy in question is a captain of industry or highly placed professional. Certainly my friends and I were never in the running.
Some people, however, walk away from those evenings truly indignant at why the powers that be never select an out-of-work welder or a custodian for this great honor. Never mind that the Chief will be called upon to do public speaking and many other demanding duties. These people seem to think that the new Chief has invariably bought his way into office.
You’ve probably seen this same story work itself out in some organization you know. Why did so-and-so get promoted? Why is she the club president or the chairman of the board? Why is he the award recipient or the grand poobah? Why? Sometimes, when we ourselves have not been recognized according to what we believe are our deserts, we all can grumble and grouse about the accolades given to another. In the end, of course, most of these recognitions are fairly well deserved.
Look to today’s reading and you’ll see another example of recognition. Jesus was “exalted to the highest place” by God. What is “the highest place”? I’m not exactly sure, but I do know that it’s better than any office, award, or recognition that I’ll ever receive. It’s better than the Chief of the Mic-O-Say for sure.
At times, our relationship with Christ, our closeness, can lead to a lack of awareness of his greatness. But God has exalted Jesus to the highest place—the highest place. It’s certainly not our place to undervalue that sort of exaltation.
If you think that I’m obsessed with Vacation Bible School lately, it’s just because that’s about all my household has been able to do for the past week. Each morning, we get up way too early and make it to the church by about a quarter to eight. At 8:30 there’s a teacher’s worship. Penny usually has to put out some fires here and there. At 9:00 the opening begins. From the end of the opening until about 10:15, I get some down time, but that’s usually consumed with checking out my story-telling dramatists and making sure that they have everything that they need. Then, from 10:15 until 12:15, the monologues are being delivered to rooms full of enraptured kids. At 12:30, the kids are dismissed, and I put things away and help out where I can while Penny answers questions from complaining or befuddled teachers. It’s usually about 1:15 before we can make our way to the car and head for lunch. But it doesn’t end there. The afternoon has been holding some tasks that eat up our time. Today, however, all of that ends.
Last night, Thursday evening, we had our family night. Probably 90% of the kids showed up—most gratifying—and a good time was had by all. As fun as it was to watch the kids sing and then do the activities outside, I have to confess that my most enjoyable moment came when our children’s director got Penny up on the stage and bragged on what a great job she did. I’m sure that somewhere, sometime, somebody has done a better job of directing a Bible School, but that doesn’t diminish the awe that I have for the outstanding work that Penny has done over the last several months. She has earned the right to pump her fist a few times and pat herself on the back. Job well done!
Knowing Penny like I do, however, I know that she won’t do any of that stuff. Perhaps it’s just her disposition, but perhaps she realizes something of a theological nature. Perhaps she realizes that all of our accomplishments are just wood, hay, and stubble unless they’re done for God. In fact, all of our accomplishments come to pass only because of God. Penny realizes these things far better than do I.
A day will come, perhaps very soon and perhaps far in the future, when “at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, in heaven and on earth, and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.” If my drama scripts were good, if Penny’s teacher preparations were outstanding, if some class’s lessons were exciting, if the snacks were tasty, the music tuneful, the games diverting, or the crafts artful, then let it be known that those things were done to the glory of God and to build up the name of Jesus. Like John the Baptist, we must grow smaller as Christ grows greater. It’s easy to remember that when you aren’t accomplishing anything good, but at the end of a successful project, I need to be reminded. Those are my self-indulgent thoughts as this week of VBS draws to a close.
Although we played hooky last week, Penny and I have been doing a very faithful job of hitting the gym each weekday for the past three months. After getting up to speed doing the weight-lifting routine that my semi-personal trainer designed for me, I started to push myself harder. Instead of doing just one set on each machine, I’ve started doing two sets, and I find myself pushing the weights up by ten or twenty or even more pounds for each exercise.
Yeah, I’ve been working my biceps and triceps and quadriceps. I work my pecs and abs and glutes and lats and all sorts of muscles that I don’t know the names for. The one exercise that still kills me is the shoulder press. We used to call this the military press. That’s the one where you sit upright and then simply push the weight straight up from your shoulder. All of the other machines I can bump up by at least ten pounds, but it just ruins me to squeeze out the twelve repetitions of my prescribed weight, a rather wimpy forty pounds.
What really bugs me about working out is when I find myself following somebody else who can lift massively larger amounts than me. If I sit down after somebody else on that shoulder press machine and notice that they were punching some ninety or a hundred pounds into the air, I get all insecure. I look around to make sure that my predecessor isn’t sitting across the room, bench pressing six hundred pounds, and snickering in my direction. Of course what really bothers me is when I follow a woman who’s lifting more than me, but then we all have our own demons, don’t we?
It occurs to me, as I sweat and strain in the gym, that in one way all of these other, stronger lifters are exactly like me. Like me, these people have deltoid or shoulder muscles. The grey-haired ladies who sometimes follow me and struggle to press ten pounds have deltoid muscles as well. In fact, all healthy people have deltoid muscles. The difference, it seems, between two healthy people of the same age and gender is mostly what they have done with their deltoid muscles. If you work out regularly, then your deltoids will be stronger. If you never exercise, then yours will be puny. That’s just the nature of things.
As I read Paul’s words to the Philippians today, I notice that phrase “work out.” I don’t know that he would have thought about exercise, but it fits here pretty well. Many people obtain their salvation and, like their deltoid muscles, they just let it sit there. Other people work out their salvation. They don’t get more salvation, but they get more from their salvation.
I’ve heard other people who interpret this passage differently. They think that we’re supposed to work out our salvation sort of like you work out a math problem. In other words, they think that salvation is something of a long-term project. I don’t think that this verse or any other supports that. What I do think that this passage supports is that our Christian life, like my deltoid muscles, will be stronger, richer, and more productive if given a healthy measure of exercise now and then. Go ahead, pump yourself up!
This is a tale of two groups of people, two groups who volunteered to help teach Bible School last week. (I know that I said I’d get off of this kick, but it just fits this scripture too well.)
The first group is the absurdly large group who bailed out of teaching VBS. These people had, by and large, come to us rather than the other way around. They’d been assigned to a class, invited to training sessions, and provided with the best curriculum that we could muster. Yet, as the critical moment drew near, these folks looked at their calendar and decided that they needed to wash their hair or get their oil changed that week. Now I do know that one or two of our people had completely understandable reasons for withdrawing. If any of them are reading this, then realize that I’m not criticizing you. No, I’m talking about the person who said, “It just isn’t going to work out” and the one who, two months after agreeing to serve, claimed that she couldn’t get the thing together on two weeks notice. At the risk of sounding like a prophetic poseur, these people have truly received their reward, a week free of the VBS ordeal. But I don’t really want to provide any more attention for these people than I already have.
Let’s get onto the second group. These are the shining stars, the people who did “everything without complaining.” They’re “blameless and pure, children of God without fault in a crooked and depraved generation.” Perhaps that’s too much to say, but they are remarkable folks.
How about the woman who appeared on Monday in a wheelchair? She struggled all week to keep up with the schedule, to keep up with her kids. I saw her on Friday and could tell that the week had physically wrung her out. She had every reason, every justification to quit on us. Had she come to us at noon on Monday and said, “I’ve bitten off more than I can chew,” we wouldn’t have thought a thing about it. But she stayed with us and her kids. I feel certain that she has not yet received her reward.
How about the woman in her mid-eighties who has taught VBS since Paul and Silas were around. She didn’t have to volunteer. She didn’t have to show up each day with a terrific attitude and a fount of energy, but she did. Her reward didn’t come last week either.
How about the woman who just moved? The woman who is seven-plus months pregnant? The guy with nine million papers to grade (me) or the various other people with medical problems, family situations, pressing obligations, and the like? They could have easily ducked out, but they didn’t do it. They may have risen some mornings and thought, “I don’t want to go,” but they went. And the kingdom was enlarged as a result.
When Paul talks here about people taking on the attitude of Christ, these are the sorts that he’s talking about. These are the people who give the name of Christ a good reputation. At my best I’m worthy of sitting in the same pew with them.
Imagine what the world would look like if we could all be shining stars like these.
It is work for me to enjoy NBA basketball. In theory, I love basketball above most other sports. But in the practice of the NBA, I struggle to enjoy it. Part of my problem comes from their interpretation of the rules. When I learned basketball, they told me that if you had the ball in your hands and moved both feet, then you were traveling. In the NBA, however, you apparently have to take six or seven steps before you’re called for traveling. The number of steps allowed seems to be correlated strongly with your star status as well. Similarly, I was taught that an offensive player running into a stationary defensive player was guilty of charging. In the NBA, however, Shaquille O’Neil routinely puts the ball on the floor and his shoulder into an opponent, throwing a block that would make an NFL lineman proud.
I guess what really bugs me about NBA basketball is that star system. Blame it on the league, the fans, the TV networks, or who you will, but this ultimate team game has devolved into a series of one-on-one contests with everybody posturing and preening to get their highlights shown on SportsCenter. That, in my opinion, is why the incredible athletes of the United States Olympic team couldn’t win the gold medal in 2004. They didn’t know how to play like a team.
In my great basketball career, I learned my role. I’m not talking here about my abortive eighth-grade attempt. That year, the coach watched me walk across the court on the first day of try-outs and decided that I was cut. I’m pretty sure of it. No, I’m talking here about when I played in a three-on-three league with some friends a few years back. We had four players on the team. We had Tim, a slashing, cutting, terrific point guard; Scott, a solid and mobile small forward; and Randy, a rebounding machine with a good shot playing down low. Then there was me: slow, overweight, with an erratic jumpshot.
It never bothered me that I didn’t get to start those games. I happily lurked on the sideline waiting to give one of the other guys a rest. When I came in, I understood my role. I was to do my best defending my assigned person. I would rebound and pass. Rarely did I take a shot, unless I found myself wide open. I think I averaged one basket each game.
An amazing thing, happened, however. Over time, I could see how my play contributed to the team winning. Tim would drive to the basket. All the other team would converge on him. At the last second, he’d kick the ball out to me, and I’d take an open ten-foot shot. Randy or Scott would be camped out on the other side of the goal in case I missed. We were playing team basketball, and we won.
As I look at the church, I see too many people playing like ball-hogging NBA players. They’re piling up their own glory, working on their own résumés, and not doing the best that they can do for the team. God has called us to his team and given each of us different gifts and talents. Our duty is to play, as leaders or as role players, to the best of our ability, and to rejoice and assist in the successes of others. So go out and play hard. “I am glad and rejoice with all of you.”
Back in 1996, I bought a new Chevy Cavalier. Some would call this little critter purple, but I preferred what General Motors called it: Hawaiian Orchid. That car definitely fit into the category of nothing fancy. It didn’t have a CD player or power windows or any of those sorts of accoutrements. It didn’t even have an automatic transmission, although that was my choice. All that car did, over the six years that I drove it, was consistently get 35 miles per gallon and cost virtually nothing to maintain.
My most vivid memory of it is also probably the worst. I was driving east on I-435 in a pouring rain. Emily, who was attending school at JCCC at that time, sat in the passenger seat. As we approached the dreaded Grandview Triangle, a thought passed through my mind for no apparent reason: I haven’t had a lick of trouble with this car.
I know that thinking such a thought was tantamount to sending an engraved invitation to the break-down gnomes asking for some sort of a disaster. I probably hadn’t traveled a hundred yards up the highway when all of a sudden my windshield wipers ceased to wipe. As the water collected on the window, obscuring my view, I instinctively slowed and pulled off the road. Unfortunately, as I was driving in the leftmost lane, I found myself stopped on the inside shoulder, on the inside of a curve, where everybody else, those scores of cars whose windshield wipers hadn’t stopped wiping, zoomed by at 70 miles an hour.
After fiddling with everything I could think to fiddle with to no avail, I realized that I would either have to sit here as rush hour came up from behind me or somehow limp my car to the nearest exit. While the prospect of driving among all the 70 mph crowd without decent visibility didn’t appeal to me, neither did sitting here for two hours. I instructed Emily to stick her head out the window to look, and we made our way, a mile or so up the road, to an exit, where we proceeded home through traffic that only surged along at 35 or 40.
In those six years that I owned that car, the repair on the windshield wiper transmission—who knew that such a thing existed?—was the only repair I ever had to do. Sure, I had to change oil, get brakes done, and put new tires on it, but nothing else ever went wrong with that little Cavalier. Don’t you just love reliability? I’ve had other cars that made up for whatever blessings that Cavalier gave me.
People are like that, of course. We all know someone who is as dependable as that ’96 Cavalier. When that person says they’ll do something, it’s as good as done. On the other hand, we all know the person who is more like my ’99 Dodge Van, unreliable and unpredictable. I’ve put a lot of money into keeping that beast on the road, and right now we’re driving through the Missouri summer without air conditioning.
Truth be told, we can all recognize ourselves as one of these two types. Understandably, Paul doesn’t have much good to say about the unreliable Dodge vans that surround him. But Timothy was like my Cavalier. You could rely on Timothy.
In the end, we all have a bit of both qualities in us from time to time. But if we truly live for Christ, as we should claim to do, then we owe it to him to live our lives as reliably as my Cavalier. It’s the least that we can offer.
There’s an old saying, “the straw that broke the camel’s back.” It’s one of those clichés that we use and don’t even think about as we say it. I like that image of a camel being loaded with straw. One piece of straw is nothing to the camel. A thousand pieces of straw are nothing. Eventually we build up to a nice load, but surely one more straw can be added. And then another and another. Eventually, however, we find a limit, a last straw that the camel cannot tolerate.
I think of this today, as I think over my life. During the spring semester, I had plenty of things on my plate. I taught my normal load of classes, three sections of composition and one of literature. I continued teaching a Thursday morning course at Midwestern Seminary. Then I took on a Thursday evening course. I led Tom’s Cub Scout Pack and helped out with his basketball team. Straw by straw, I added to my activities. At some point, we see, the back breaks and no more straws can be added. That didn’t happen this spring, although I sometimes liked to moan as if it did.
There are plenty of busy people in this world who believe that they can always add one more thing. Last week, I lamented the people who too easily bow out of tasks, but it’s just as bad when people too easily bow into things. You add this activity and that obligation and another responsibility, and pretty soon, you find yourself hitting the limit. God created humans with limits. We have limits of energy and strength, attention and time.
As we read about Paul, teamed up with Barnabas and later with Silas, we seem to be reading about a man with no limits. He preaches constantly. He serves as a consummate church planter. He deals not only with the issues of today but those of tomorrow and those of yesterday. Perhaps those who knew Paul envisioned him going on forever, yet each day that he spent in that jail from which he wrote this letter was one day that he wouldn’t be out taking the gospel into new fields. Despite his amazing abilities, Paul had limits. Sure his limits allowed him to go far beyond what most of us will ever accomplish, but they hemmed him in nonetheless.
That brings us to this Epaphroditus, the fellow with the unique name. As I read about Epaphroditus, I’m reminded of limits. Here’s a guy who had all the want-to that a Christian could desire, apparently, yet his body simply didn’t cooperate. While his mind and his will said “go,” his body said “stop,” and it said it so effectively that the man nearly died.
Does this make Epaphroditus a failure? I hardly think so. Indeed, Paul praises him. All of us have limits, but many times we fail to discover where those limits lie. I know that I rarely test my limits. We serve God within our comfort zone and never discover if we could go a little further. If we never ask of ourselves more than we can really do, then we’ll never discover all we can accomplish. Is that why Paul put Epaphroditus into this letter? I doubt it, but that’s what I get out of his presence.
At the end of this month, I’ll be appearing in my next big theatrical role. Yes, when The Wizard of Oz debuts for Raytown’s arts community, I’ll be sitting pretty at the end of the yellow brick road, ensconced in the Emerald City, playing the great and terrible Oz himself.
If you remember the movie, you know that the Wizard rules in the Emerald City by virtue of all manner of pyrotechnics and other visual effects, convincing people that he, a rather smallish charlatan, is truly a mighty wizard. In the play, however, as in the book, we get a bit more detail on the story. We learn that after the people of Oz mistook this wayward balloonist for a great wizard and offered to obey him in every way, he instructed them to build the Emerald City. To enhance the glorious green cast of the city, the “Wizard” locked green spectacles onto all of the inhabitants. He hid himself within his palace and ruled wisely but mysteriously, constantly reminding the people that he was “Oz, the great and terrible.”
There’s an old saying about the Big Lie. That’s the lie that someone repeats over and over again until everyone simply believes that it is true. The Wizard of Oz—the man, not the movie—used a relatively harmless form of the Big Lie to maintain his control over the people of Oz. Time after time, he repeated the story of his own greatness and the people tended to believe it. Repetition, after all, can be a particularly effective means of getting a message across.
Since Oz turned out to be a powerless but generally benign fellow, we don’t think too badly of him for staying on message so effectively that he fooled the people of his domain. On the other hand, we can find plenty of examples of considerably less harmless people using repetition to reinforce considerably less harmless messages. Look wherever you will through history and you’ll find these examples. I don’t think I need to invest space here with examples.
On the other other hand, repetition can be a positive thing. Listen to the words of Paul in today’s verse. “It is no trouble for me to write the same things to you again, and it is a safeguard for you.” When the message is the truth, we need to hear it again and again and again.
Most likely, Paul had delivered all of the messages contained within Philippians during his stay in that city, yet again he delivered these words. In fact, if you look through the Bible, from Genesis to Revelation, you’ll see the same message repeated time after time. Time and again, God tells his people, “I am God!” Yet in this case, there is no man behind the curtain trying to pull the wool over the eyes of unsuspecting Ozites. In this case, God strives to pull the wool away and help us to see him clearly. So let’s appreciate the repetition for what it is: a safeguard and another chance to comprehend.
It was that great philosopher of our age, I believe, Thumper, the rabbit in the Disney film Bambi who said these great words: “If you can’t say something nice, say nothing.” Actually, we should be scrupulous in citing our sources and mention that Thumper received this wisdom from his mother. Regardless, this bit of lore is widely spread in various forms throughout our culture.
Case in point: You are eating dinner at someone’s house. The food that they serve tastes like rotten shoe leather boiled in turpentine. Do you immediately leap up from the table railing about the vile stuff that they have served you? No, you somehow choke down a polite amount, mention that you shouldn’t have eaten so much at that lunch-time pizza buffet, and then honestly state, “I’ve certainly never had anything quite like that before.”
Similarly, every man in this world knows that the answer to the question, “Does this make me look fat?” is never “Yes.” Somehow, some way, you have to find some other means of responding to that request.
There are notable exceptions to what I’ll call the Thumper Theorem. On the TV show American Idol, you have Paula Abdul blithely mouthing niceties. She could hear a singer who sounds like a cat being tortured and still say, “You certainly sang that with feeling.” But nobody tunes into American Idol to listen to Paula. No, they want to hear Simon, the judge of doom, who seems to take great delight in insulting and abusing reasonably talented singers. “Listening to you makes me want to claw my ears off,” Simon might say. He’s not a nice fellow, and he never seems to follow Thumper’s advice. Instead, he’d go along with a different tactic: “If you can’t say something nice, be really nasty instead!”
Simon, happily, is the exception in our gentile society. When people deliver bad news, they seem to try to do it in the kindest of all possible ways. A little over a year ago, the Kansas City Chiefs fired their defensive coach. The head coach then spent some thirty minutes telling the press what a great guy and talented coach they had just fired. Then the team hired a new coach and kept all the old players. Doesn’t that suggest that maybe they didn’t really believe that the former coach was so good after all?
I bring all this up today because I think that our society somehow believes that Thumper’s Theorem is to be found somewhere within the Bible’s pages. They believe that to be true Christians we must go around in nicee-nice mode all the time. They’d argue that we can’t call ugly ugly, smelly smelly, or sin sin. To that I say, “Wrong!”
Just read Paul’s words here. He’s calling people dogs and evil-doers. Thumper wouldn’t approve, but apparently God did. Now I’m not calling for a renaissance of callousness. I do hold to another old proverb: “You catch more flies with honey than with vinegar.” However, there are times when a blunt approach is appropriate. When those times come, we’ll just ask Thumper to cover his ears.
I know that in places like Mogadishu and Malawi, Kurdistan and Ecuador, people sit around thinking of their homeland as the greatest of all possible homelands. The people of Andorra look out onto their little patch of the Pyrenees, thinking, “What could better than my home?” The citizens of Luxemburg, all 454,000 of them, probably swell up with pride when they hear their national anthem play. But when it comes to having a reason for national pride, who can top me?
My country isn’t the largest in the world—Russia is nearly twice as large and Canada marginally larger—but it is very large. Not only that, but the vast majority of my country can be cultivated and actually used. There’s no vast stretch of Siberia or other Arctic climes to contend with. (Yes, I’m ignoring Alaska, but I figure that Hawaii somehow offsets Alaska. I don’t see either Russia or Canada offering a comparable place to Hawaii.)
My country isn’t the most populous in the world. Again, it comes in third, our 293 million falling behind the billion-plus of both China and India. Now think that one through. Both China and India have three to four times our population, yet they have considerably less territory. You don’t have to be a math whiz to know that this poses some problems. Where are you going to stash those people? No, we have a large population, but we also have a lot of open room left where you can get away from the press of humanity.
My country is beautiful. It holds such marvels as the Grand Canyon, Yosemite, Niagara Falls, and the Everglades within its borders. And did I mention Alaska and Hawaii earlier? We have prairies and mountains and deserts and forests. Who could want more?
My country is prosperous. Our gross domestic product is greater than all the nations of Europe combined. It’s half again that of China. And while I’m not some sort of a tycoon, I get my fair share of that wealth as do many, many people. In fact, it’s better to be poor in my country than it is to be middle class in many countries of the world.
Where else in the world can you make a healthy living making fun of the president? Okay, there are other places, but there are places where you can’t. In my country, you can vote several times a year, and sometimes it actually matters how you vote. In my country, the biggest complaint human rights advocates worry about centers on a few foreign extremists being held at a military base on Cuba.
My country is so great that all sorts of people from all over the world clamber to get in, legally or otherwise. That’s a country! And today, we celebrate its independence from Great Britain.
And you know what? If I were given the choice between my U.S. citizenship and my citizenship in the Kingdom of Heaven, I’d have to, like Paul, dump all the glories that are America and go for a greater though more distant prize. As important as God blessing America is, let’s remember, as we salute America today, that America needs to bless God even more.
It’s the Fourth of July weekend as I write these words, and the steady stream of war movies on TV and plenty of time to think as I mowed the yard have gotten me reflecting deeply on this matter of freedom. Just what is freedom, and what does it mean to us?
It appears to me over the course of my lifetime, the idea of freedom has changed immensely. Today, it seems, the common definition of freedom is “without restrictions.” We want to be able to say whatever we want to say, go wherever we want to go, think whatever we want to think, wear whatever, live wherever, and on and on. Not only do we want all of those “freedoms,” but we don’t want to pay any price for them and we don’t want to have any responsibility with them. Freedom, as it is painted in our culture, is all about driving some deserted but beautiful highway in a convertible with the top down, laughing and joking with a group of friends, dancing and partying until who knows when. The questions that don’t get asked or answered in that picture of freedom include these: Who bought that car, paid for the gas, and built the road? What effects will these actions have on us or others? How are we getting home once the party’s over? Those are the inconvenient questions, the questions that get in the way of our pretty picture of freedom.
Freedom, it seems, in our culture, is all about “me.” I’m supposed to have all of these rights and freedoms on my own merits. After all, I deserve it.
But that isn’t the way that it used to be, I think. I believe that there once was a time when freedom meant potential and room to navigate, but not total and unencumbered license. There once was a time when people would willingly choose not to put obscene bumper stickers on their cars. They had every bit of the shocking vocabulary at their disposal. They might have even laughed at the same crude jokes. But those people, in that day, recognized a responsibility to the larger population. There once was a time when married couples stayed together faithfully for the duration, a time when separation, infidelity, and divorce were the exceptions. They had the same capacity for marital train-wrecks as today, but they recognized a responsibility. There once was a time when people saw an injustice and, having the freedom to ignore it or confront it, took the more difficult path.
Am I talking about a mythical past? To some degree, I am. Am I talking about qualities that have utterly died out? Certainly not. But I think most people would agree that the demand for irresponsible rights has expanded dramatically in recent years.
Paul understood, however, the source of his freedom. He understood his responsibility. He celebrated having a righteousness not his own but through faith in Christ Jesus. Our freedom, we must recognize, does not have its genesis within us. Even Thomas Jefferson, not the most orthodox of our founding fathers, recognized this when he spoke of us being “endowed by our Creator with certain unalienable rights.”
Having been endowed by my creator with these rights—with this freedom—I believe that I have some responsibility to use that freedom according to his will.
I felt my first taste of depression in the great library at the University of Iowa. Penny and I packed up the kids and hustled up to Iowa City hoping to expedite my application to their prestigious doctoral program in English. My business with the English department consumed all of about thirty minutes. With the rest of the day to fill, we wandered around the school’s bucolic campus for an hour or so, gravitating, as I normally do when visiting a university, to the library.
I remember browsing dreamily among the acres of stacks. My eyes scanned shelf after shelf lined with English poets of whom I’d never heard and critical studies that I would never read. I saw thick treatises on Anglo-Saxon poetry, feminist readings of Beowulf, and studies of the comparative linguistics of obscure Australian poets. It seemed, as I walked those endless aisles that day, that this library’s P’s—the section of the Library of Congress Classification System devoted to language and literature—would have dwarfed the entire library system at UMKC, where I had earned my M.A.
The depression hit me as I walked past an imposing shelf full of books of the folktales and mythology of India. A wave of despair fluttered down on me and utterly ruined the rest of the day. Leaving the library and the university behind, we drove out of Iowa City and through the little towns of the Amana colonies, trying to find something that the girls might enjoy, but the whole way, I remained in a surly mood. Penny couldn’t understand it. Emily and Alyson couldn’t understand it. Frankly, I couldn’t understand it. Only several years later, when I had the experience a couple more times, did I come to wrap my mind around this phenomena.
I read quickly, and I read a great deal, but I can’t keep up. That’s what I absorbed that day in Iowa City. If I can read sixty pages an hour for six hours each and every day, and if the average scholarly book contains some 600 pages, then I might hope to make my way through some 200 books in the course of a year. Of course I cannot maintain that sort of a pace, but even if I could, I’d find myself falling behind. Every year sees the publication of more than 200 books that might prove interesting and useful. And that’s not to mention the thousands of books previously published or requiring a second run through. Even if I were burning through the literature at a break-neck pace, I’d still be fighting a losing battle.
You see, I want to know everything. The more that I learn, the more that I realize I don’t know. The more I read, the more I recognize I need to know in order to make sense of things. It’s a depressing and ultimately lost cause.
Paul, with his scholarly pedigree, probably understood my feelings, yet he professed a different desire for knowledge: to know Christ and the power of his resurrection. In the end, that knowledge is the sine quo non—the “without which nothing.” I may someday read about Indian mythology, but if I read it without learning of Christ and the power of his resurrection, then what will it profit me? Such knowledge would be as lifeless as those rows of books in the library in Iowa City. That’s depressing.
About ten years back, I accompanied a group of Scouts on a climb up “Devil’s Staircase,” an imposing but relatively safe ascent up a huge cliff on Truman Reservoir. The camp staff guys who led this expedition pulled me aside as we got ready to make our climb. “Why don’t you go up first and then you can make sure that none of the boys wander off.” They then planned to supervise the boys as they climbed up this crease in the rock, keeping a careful eye out at the most challenging points. I paused, nervously, for a second. “Come on,” the staff kid urged me. “We haven’t lost anybody all summer.”
For the second time in my life, I clambered up Devil’s Staircase. Unlike the first time, when I’d been accompanied only by a close friend who knew my fears very well, I didn’t want to show my utter paranoia. Freezing up in mid-climb simply wouldn’t do on this day, not with twenty-five twelve-year-olds waiting behind me. In as cool a fashion as I could manage, I scampered up the rock and tumbled, relieved, over the top and a safe distance back from the edge.
A minute or so later, the first of the boys made his way up to the top. We exchanged high fives and everything seemed dandy as the next and the next boy came over the edge. And then it happened. One kid walked right up to the edge of the cliff, stood there, and looked straight down into the gaping maw of death. (It just about makes me come out of my skin to think about it even now.)
My rational mind knows that a typical human being is perfectly capable of walking up to a line and looking over that line without unexpectedly tumbling onto the other side. But when the line is the edge of a cliff, my rational mind takes a vacation. It absolutely killed me to sit there and watch these boys walk nonchalantly up to the brink and glance over. “Hey guys,” I said, trying to stifle the panic in my voice. “Can you step back from the edge please.”
Lions, Tigers, and Boy Scouts can smell fear. These boys laughed at me. Happily, they didn’t start acting really foolish along the brink. Then I would have lost it. In a minute or so, one of their leaders appeared and I could retire to a more tolerable location.
I guess what makes me so susceptible to this vicarious fear of heights is the utter lack of control. I know that the person isn’t going to tumble over the edge, but if he did, there’d be nothing I could do. Try as I might, I couldn’t hold on and save the kid.
What comforts me in today’s reading is that I don’t have to hold on to anything. When I stood looking over the precipice of doom, I didn’t need to hold on because Jesus took hold of me. His grip is sure and his strength is endless. In his grasp, I can look over the edge of the cliff without fear—well, without too much fear.
It seems an eternity ago, but for one year, I taught English at the University of Kansas as a teaching assistant, the lowest of the low men on the totem pole of academic life. At that time, KU had a policy that dictated that they allow anyone who graduated from any Kansas high school to enroll in the university. As a result of this, they gathered to themselves a fair number of kids who had barely limped through high school and had no business at all studying in college, especially at the state’s flagship university.
KU, though, having been required by the legislature to admit these students, found an intriguing way to deal with them. Unlike my current school, where a person might be required to take one or even two remedial English courses before advancing to Comp I, KU dumped every freshman into the composition class. Ready or not, here the essays came and here the bad grades followed. This course ended with a campus-wide exam that was graded by at least two teachers who didn’t know you. If you failed the exam, you failed the course. Such failure put many students on a fast track out of the university and into a time of bitterness.
I had one young man who struggled all the way through my class. At the end of the semester, he had averaged a high D on his papers. Therefore, when he failed the exam, I felt no desire to go out on a limb by appealing the grade. Early in the next semester, this kid showed up in my office.
As he began to protest his F, I pulled out the syllabus. “See, the syllabus says that if you fail the exam you fail the course,” I explained. He continued to argue, leading me to pull out the university catalog. “See, it’s not just me. The university requires me to fail you if you fail the exam,” I added.
These words didn’t sooth him. Finally, he threw in his last card. “But there were some points for journals that you didn’t give me!” he argued.
Points for journals? Didn’t he understand? “You want a million points for journals? Ten million points? Okay, you can have them. But if you fail the exam, you fail the course!” Not once did this student ask me why he had failed the exam or how he might improve his pathetic writing. Apparently that never occurred to him.
This student’s problem, it seems to me, was that he focused his attentions exclusively on the past. He assumed that he had already attained all of the skills and knowledge that any school could ever expect of him. Rather than looking to the future, where his feeble language skills could be improved, he set his face toward yesterday, when some pesky TA robbed him of five or ten journal points and therefore shot down his academic aspirations. Perhaps somewhere today, he’s still bitter about that. Hopefully not.
In today’s reading, Paul walks the line between the past and the future. Yes, Christ had taken hold of Paul in the past, but that didn’t mean that Paul wouldn’t continue to develop and mature while in Christ’s grasp. Happily, God takes hold of us while we’re still sinners. Our choice is what we do while in his hands.
If you’re easily offended, the irreverent Monty Python film Life of Brian is not for you, but if you are possessed of a fairly thick skin, it’s a funny picture, poking fun not so much at the sacred things of life—although it does a disquieting amount of that—but more at the silly ways people respond to the sacred things of life.
Probably the most celebrated example of this parody comes after a crowd in Jerusalem has decided that Brian is the Messiah. Wanting nothing of their attentions, Brian dashes out the city gate and stumbles. In his haste to get up, he drops two things: a bottle made from a gourd and one of his shoes. When they reach the point where their new-found leader fell, the impassioned followers pause for a moment, staring at the two objects at their feet.
“Follow the shoe!” one of them shouts.
“No, follow the gourd!” another demands. Quickly, this newly minted religious movement has divided into two sects, both of them terribly mistaken.
In real life, it seems, religious groups and individuals behave almost this wildly. You only have to drive around town to see the dizzying array of religious groups, each of them offering their version of the truth. Christians get a lot of flak for our tendency to divide and subdivide. To some degree, that criticism is fair, but to another degree it isn’t so fair. All you have to do is study the history of certain religious movements to see that they divided for reasons that went beyond hair-splitting theology. For example, Dutch Reformed, (German) Lutheran, (lower class English) Methodist, (upper class English) Episcopal, and (Scottish) Presbyterian churches can trace the beginnings of their differences to their European origins. It’s only natural that, several hundred years down the road, they would have developed in different ways.
On the other hand, churches do often fragment for what seem to outsiders like trivial reasons. What exactly is the nature of the ordinance of communion? What about Baptism? Can a person lose their salvation? Should we use instrumental music in the church? Does the Bible contain the Word of God or is it the Word of God? Did the gifts of the spirit cease in the days of the apostles? Should men and women sit together in the church? Should a group of churches work cooperatively to send missionaries? These are just a few of the questions that have divided churches and denominations in the past. Some of them might seem trivial to you. Others might seem quite important.
I don’t believe that we should criticize people for holding out for the truth about eternal matters. After all, if these questions—how we worship, how we’re saved, how we know God, how we behave as the Church—are really important, then shouldn’t we work hard to get the answers right? Paul seems to offer advice on this question today. When we disagree, we can trust God to make things clear. But—and this last point seems very important—we must “live up to what we have already attained.” It seems to me that Christians with differences, even apparently irresolvable differences, could bring great honor and glory to the name of Christ by looking to God for their answers and living up to the gospel throughout their differences. At times churches and church members do this, but all too often, we bicker and brood, stubbornly running off to follow the gourd without any care for either the message of God or the brothers and sisters with whom we disagree. Let me humbly suggest that rather than follow the gourd, we follow the Lord.
On Wednesday of last week, the city of London received marvelous and welcome news. The 2012 Olympics will be held in the great city on the Thames. According to a news report, people all over the capital were strolling about with big smiles on their faces, saying hello to each other. As anyone who has spent any time in England knows, that’s not business as usual. But then being tapped to host the Olympics isn’t the sort of news that you receive every day either.
On Thursday of last week, the city of London shook as terrorist bombs ripped through buses and subway trains, killing dozens and injuring hundreds. An editorial writer for the New York Times described the logic of a terrorist attack. Far from being simply an example of madness, a terrorist strike is designed to tear off the veneer of civilization and control that modern society wears. The intent, the writer suggested, is to demonstrate to all of us that we’re not quite as civilized, not quite as calm and polished, as we’d like to believe. Blow up a few bombs, the rationale goes, and everything will come unhinged. People will revert to caveman status in short order, and all of that marvelous civilization will be exposed for the house of cards that it is.
Interesting theory, but it has one small flaw. It isn’t true. During the London Blitz of World War II, Hitler counted on the demoralized citizens simply giving up in the face of nightly bombing raids. While a few of them came unglued or behaved badly during those dark days, the vast majority of the city kept the good British stiff upper lip and did their best for the war effort. Civilization in England in 1940, it seems, ran a good bit deeper than Hitler had expected.
And today that theory, hatched by one obsessed Al Qaeda branch or another, proves just as untrue. In the face of the good news on Wednesday or the bad news on Thursday, the bulk of the British people came together. Far from retreating into self interest and panic, the people of London shared rides, donated blood, and did all manner of other little things to bandage and heal the wounded veneer of civilization. Surely, if months of bombing during the war couldn’t break down the humanity of the people of London, a few barbaric actions on a Thursday morning wouldn’t do it either.
England today is far from the most overtly Christian nation on earth. It’s widely claimed that the average Englishman goes to church three times in his life: to be baptized, to be married, and to be buried. While that might be an exaggeration, it gets at the truth that the English have, by and large, abandoned their rich Christian past. Still, the ethics if not the theology of centuries of Christianity remain in the mainstream of the English people. On Thursday, they demonstrated that by living according to the pattern that Paul had given them.
Our choice each day lies between following the pattern that Christ gives us through Paul and living as “enemies of the cross.” Let’s strive to be worthy of Christ’s name in the best of times, the worst of times, and in all the times in between.
“I do think that most things end badly. Most human enterprise disappoints.” Those were the words of Arthur Miller, the most celebrated American playwright of the second half of the twentieth century—possibly excepting Tennessee Williams. Miller, who died on February 11 at the age of 89, lamented that Americans wanted writers to be entertainers rather than moralists. Yet a look at the morality that Miller espoused might serve as a bit of an explanation for the shape that the world is in today.
I met Arthur Miller some fifteen years ago. I’ll never forget one sentence that he uttered: “That was a house that I bought with my wife, Marilyn Monroe.” Like Monroe, Miller’s romantic relationships seemed to be fleeting and superficial. They were—and perhaps this is unfair to say—based more on entertainment than on morality.
Recently, Penny and I watched the celebrated Dustin Hoffman performance as Miller’s Willie Loman, the main character of Death of a Salesman. Willie could have made a good living in construction work, for which he demonstrates an inclination, yet he struggled along in sales, deluding himself constantly that next week he’d hit the big time. Those who celebrate this play, tend to describe it as a little guy, Willie, being crushed by the inexorable forces of a cruel and uncaring world, but let’s just think this through. Willie could have gotten a job in New York City, but instead he opted to drive seven hundred miles each week into New England, leaving his wife and two sons back in Brooklyn. That’s not the inexorable forces of the big, bad world. That’s Willie. While in New England, Willie has an affair with a secretary. Big, bad world? No. That’s Willie. Willie’s boys turn out just dandy. The younger one, Hap, is a womanizing self-glorifier, just like his father. The older, Biff, after discovering his father’s infidelity, drifts from job to job, never really finding his place in the world. You can blame the world if you like, but I blame Willie. In the end, Willie is offered a job by his neighbor, a job that would allow him to live quite reasonably. Rather than accept the job, Willie drives his car into a tree and commits suicide. Did the big, bad world kill Willie? No, it was Willie once more.
What was Willie’s problem? As I watched this film, I noticed the missing element in Willie’s life. He had no moral compass, no moorings for his life. His god was his stomach and his mind stayed focused on earthly things.
Do you know anybody like Willie? I’m loath to confess that sometimes I am somebody like Willie. At times I let my stomach be my god and I allow earthly things to remain at the center of my attention. Time and again, though, when I allow myself to drift in that useless direction, I recognize that “most human enterprise disappoints.” Maybe Arthur Miller wasn’t as misguided in this as I initially thought. Maybe he accurately diagnosed the problem but just never knew about the cure.
Several years ago, a small army from my church invaded Venezuela. Over the course of a week, we had a marvelous time, presenting a semi-ostentatious drama and preaching in a dozen or so neighborhood churches. As a small bonus, we discovered that the nicer restaurants of Venezuela have quite affordable prices. Most evenings, we ate a late dinner, gorging ourselves on meals that would cost thirty dollars or more at home. I enjoyed the people, the sights, and the whole experience of Venezuela, but, like Dorothy from the Wizard of Oz, I knew in the end that there was “no place like home.”
One of my less favorite memories from Venezuela came as we departed the country. We had paid some sort of visa tax, as a group, before we began the trip. I believe it amounted to some twenty dollars each. When we reached the airport that morning, the officials there informed us that we hadn’t paid the tax and that we wouldn’t be able to leave the country until we paid it. Never mind that we had the documentation to prove that we had paid it. We quickly understood this to be what it was: a shake down. One of my friends looked at me and said, “What are we going to do?” What a silly question. We were going to pay this charge again, even though we’d paid it once already, and grumble all the way to the plane. Our other option, staying in Venezuela, didn’t seem too practical.
As we came into Miami, we passed through customs, steered to the “U.S. Passports” express line by the signs. Walking through that area, I felt the way that I always feel when I re-enter the U.S. I’m glad to have a U.S. passport and that I can’t be denied entry. I’m glad I don’t live in a country where government corruption is a way of life.
I felt just as good when I returned to the U.S. from England. Penny and I enjoyed our year in England, but, as nice as the “green and pleasant land” might be, I’m glad I don’t live there. I’m glad my passport says that I was born in the United States and thus have citizenship here. The customs people don’t have to let the Brits or the Venezuelanos or any other nationalities in when they come knocking, but, short of doing something quite awful, I’ll always be allowed back into the country.
Today, however, Paul reminds us that our true citizenship is not in the United States or Canada or England or Venezuela or East Timor. As fine as my homeland might be, my real home is in heaven. Just as my U.S. passport gives me certain rights and privileges, my citizenship in heaven provides marvelous blessings. I’m especially pleased that they’ll have to let me in when I get there.
Just as we should never take our earthly citizenship for granted, we need to appreciate the great benefits that come with our heavenly citizenship. We weren’t native born, but heaven makes no distinction between the native-born and the naturalized citizens. There’s no place like home.
A funny thing happened on the way to the sermon Sunday. During our church service, as a ladies ensemble sang some innocuous hymn, a woman whom I had never seen before behaved in a quite—uhhh—memorable manner.
The congregational singing had just finished and people were settling into their seats. As the ensemble began to croon, I noticed this woman, about half way back in the sanctuary, still standing. It’s not all that unusual in my church for somebody to spontaneously stand during a moving piece of music, but it is odd for them to stand at the very beginning of the song. It’s even more strange when the person extends her arms overhead and begins fluttering one hand about like a butterfly. Yet that’s precisely what went down on Sunday.
This woman, whom I’ll call the Butterfly Lady—and meaning no disrespect in that—swayed with the movement of the music. Her butterfly floated from side to side. At one point she leaned way over the back of the pew in front of her—fortunately an unoccupied pew—until I thought she might tumble over head first. She then leaned back nearly as far the other way. At one point, she began making gestures that involved bringing her hands up to her chin and then thrusting them upward in a sort of lily shape. The body language suggested to me that she was sending something up to God. As the song drew to its close, she settled into a seat right next to a woman who was apparently a complete stranger. As the Butterfly Lady continued to gesture, this other woman looked on with a mix of fascination and worry. During the ensuing prayer, the Butterfly lady let out two little yelps, signifying—I’m not sure what.
What’s the story with this lady? I can’t say. Perhaps she has some form of epilepsy. Perhaps she’s just a whole lot more charismatic than my church expects. Regardless, her entire appearance suggested that she didn’t fit into our little corner of the world very smoothly.
I mention the Butterfly Lady partly because I don’t know her. As I speak of her, I’m thinking of other members of my church who bother me. Perhaps they’re overly demonstrative in worship. Perhaps they’re unpleasant to speak with. Perhaps they like to play “Top That Prayer Request.” Perhaps their personal hygiene leaves something to be desired. These people exist in my church, and I’m sure they exist in yours.
More to the point, they surely existed in the church at Philippi. I’m sure that Paul could have named a handful of the Philippian saints who got on his nerves or who proved difficult to love. Yet in this verse, he doesn’t speak of a selection of the Philippian church. He speaks of all of them as being those “whom I love and long for, my joy and crown.”
As hard as it might be, I have to love the Butterfly Lady just as surely as I love the easy-to-love Christians. That’s what Paul did. It’s what Jesus did. Can I do any less? In that spirit, I have my hard-to-love people in mind. I’d urge you to get yours in mind as well. Get them in mind and then make a conscious effort to love them and appreciate them, even if they do drive you half crazy in the process.
This year wasn’t the first that Penny and I have played a key role in a Vacation Bible School. Our first time was long, long ago, in a church far, far away. VBS in this church would have been a breeze normally. Our Sunday morning attendance ran between 125 and 150, skewed considerably toward the greyer end of the age spectrum. Given the drop-ins, guests, and neighborhood kids who we might pick up, a normal VBS there would have boasted some forty kids on a good day. But we had a day care center that rented out the basement of the building and brought all of their kids upstairs for this one week, a move that boosted our numbers up to about 150. When you have the teachers who can support forty but the larger attendance, things get rather interesting. Still, we managed nicely enough. I remember heading home feeling considerable satisfaction at the end of the first day. Then the telephone rang.
On the other end of the phone I heard the mellifluous voice of Fran, one of our first grade teachers. Never one for pleasantries, she launched straight into her attack. “I simply have to have six and a half minutes more to teach the lesson.” Okay, she didn’t really say six and a half minutes, but her demands seemed just that precise. She wanted more time for the lesson, less time for snacks, and recreation moved to a time before crafts. She wanted furniture moved and better scissors for her kids. She also wanted to rant and rave about several of those kids—and their parents—in her class. She had issues with the curriculum. I believe she had complaints about the Newtonian laws of motion, but I might be mis-remembering.
After allowing Fran to rant for several minutes, I finally interjected. “Fran, what is it that you’d like me to do to help you?”
She then launched into it again. She needed schedule changes. I agreed to change her schedule. She needed supply and furniture changes. I promised to look into those matters as well. Then she went off on the kids and the curriculum once more.
Again I interrupted. “Fran, is there anything that I can do to help you with those problems?” I asked.
A welcome silence hung on the other end of the phone for a moment. “I guess not. I just needed to vent,” she finally admitted.
It has been my experience in church and other endeavors that the best workers are often the ones who are most difficult to get along with. Frustrating as I found her, I could not deny that Fran was a terrific VBS teacher.
I don’t know who Euodia and Syntyche were. I don’t know what their problem was, but I do know that Paul doesn’t just admonish them to get along. He says they have “contended at my side” and calls them “fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life.”
It might seem tiresome how often Paul’s words lead us to messages about the importance of getting along with each other. In the end, though, I believe these words can leave us with two conclusions. First, intra-church squabbles are nothing new, and, second, it’s very important to work through them for the advancement of the kingdom and the glory of God.
I have to confess that I’m worried as I write this. I’m sitting here at home, but my mind is a couple of miles away in the sanctuary at church where my two kids, and a couple of hundred others, are running through a dress rehearsal for the Camp Applause parents’ night program. Why am I worried? Let me explain.
On Sunday, Olivia and Thomas tried out for solos. Monday, we learned that Olivia had gotten one, in fact a quite nice solo. Today, however, that bit of hopeful glee at being given the nod turns into white-knuckle concern. Here’s the procedure for tonight. Olivia is involved in the “Lights, Camera, Action” class for this week’s camp. That means that rather than going to choir and doing all of those “little kid” things, she’s been fooling with the sound system, the video system, and the lights. That also means that rather than standing with the rest of the kids on the stage, Olivia will be manning some technical station during the program. In her case, it’s the sound booth. And so, at the appointed time, she needs to move out of the sound booth, across the balcony, out of the sanctuary, down the stairs, through a hallway, back into the sanctuary, and over to her appointed microphone. Then comes the singing.
For most kids, this wouldn’t be any big deal. You figure out how long it will take you to get from point A to point B, and then you go there. Simple. But Olivia tends to worry. Which way should she go? Wouldn’t it be faster to go to the left side of the balcony rather than the right? Should she leave during the first, second, or third solo in the preceding song? Where should she stand if she gets there too early? Is she walking fast enough? Maybe she should run. I know that these thoughts are running through her head right now. She’s worrying, and worry in my kids, I’ve found, is contagious.
I haven’t even started worrying about Olivia’s performance once she reaches that mike. In my mind, simply getting there in a composed fashion will be a small victory. Frankly, I can’t wait for the last note of that solo to fade away so that I can relax.
Now I know that Paul says “do not be anxious about anything,” but Paul didn’t have Olivia as a child. He didn’t have Thomas, bouncing around the world recklessly, either. He didn’t have Emily, moving with the grandkids to California, either. He didn’t have—oh, Alyson really doesn’t cause much worry.
No, Paul didn’t have my kids, but he had his reasons to worry as well. And he gave a prescription for overcoming worry here. “By prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God.” Okay, here goes.
Dear God, I thank you for giving me this uniquely gifted and uniquely challenging child, Olivia. She is indeed a blessing to my life. Guide her steps tonight, Lord. Calm her mind and give her focus so that she can get where she needs to be and sing what she needs to sing. And let her parents sit and watch without worrying. This is my prayer in Jesus’ name. Amen
I’ll let you know how it works out.
At the end of T.S. Eliot’s great poem, The Waste Land, come three words: Shantih shantih shantih. Eliot explains these words as a Hindu phrase that could be roughly translated as “the peace that passeth understanding.” Of course, the Harvard-educated poet knew full well the origin of this phrase. As an interpreter of this poem, I’m in a distinct minority, believing that Eliot had already achieved his conversion to Christianity a decade earlier than is traditionally believed.
What, exactly, is the “peace that passeth understanding,” or, as the NIV renders it, “the peace of God, which transcends all understanding”? That’s a great question without a great answer. After all, if it is a peace that passes all understanding, then we can’t very well understand it, can we?
We can’t expect to fully—or perhaps even partially—explain this peace. We can, however, talk profitably about its effects. What does this peace do? This powerful verse tells us. That peace will “guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.” Is that a useful thing? I should think so.
In Eliot’s poem, we’re greeted with all sorts of nightmarish and just plain disconcerting images taken from modern life. Published in 1922, The Waste Land has been widely interpreted as showing the general disillusionment that people had with modern life in the years after the First World War. Through the first four sections of the poem, Eliot guides us through a tour of a post-war London. People mill about aimlessly. They lack connection. Relationships don’t mean what they once did. We’re shown disease and despair and death. Then, in the final section of the poem, Eliot presents us with a series of thoughts related to the passion and resurrection of Christ. The wording doesn’t make the reference certain, but if you read these lines with that in mind, it’s hard to miss. Finally, Peter—at least that how I read it—finds himself at an empty tomb and everything changes. There’s a sudden rush of peace—peace that passes understanding—in the poem, and the lines move toward the inexorable Shantih shantih shantih.
Let’s face it: When Peter realized that Jesus had indeed risen from the grave, when Eliot woke up one morning grasping his faith in Christ, and when you or I allow that peace to guard our hearts and minds, all of the world’s problems do not suddenly melt away. We still face challenges, worries, dangers, and the like. The author of these words, Paul, surely didn’t find his world simpler after his Damascus road experience, but that’s not the point.
When we lay hold of this peace that passes understanding, the troubles don’t disappear. They simply become less relevant, less urgent, less threatening. It’s like the other night when I worried about Olivia making it to the stage in good form. What a pointless worry. She made it just fine and sang gloriously, but what if she hadn’t? I wasn’t allowing that peace transcending all understanding to guard my heart and mind last week. Perhaps I can do better this week.
I may hold the record at Johnson County Community College for having the most sabbatical proposals turned down in a row. You see, the system at the school is that once you are eligible to apply for a sabbatical leave—after six years of service—you can propose some project. Some people propose to finish a doctorate, to teach in Albania, to work in their teaching field, or to do research of some sort. For four years in a row, I applied with perfectly good proposals; for four years I got the bad news rather than the good.
I’m not entirely sure why, but it was the second of those four rejection years that got to me the most. All afternoon, after receiving the curt little rejection letter, I grumbled around, comparing my loser project with those that I imagined had been approved. When I got home, I did my best to get the bad vibes out of my system. By the time I went to bed, I had pretty well forgotten it. But then it happened.
Around two in the morning I awoke—just a normal wake up in the middle of the night. I lay there for a moment, my eyes searching the darkness of our bedroom and then it came into my mind. “Why in the world did they reject that proposal?” Once the notion barged into the cerebrum, all hope was lost. The thoughts poured through me like a tsunami: “They want people to complete degrees, but I’ve already completed my degrees. They want people to return to industry, but I don’t have an industry to return to. This is the sort of thing that a serious English researcher does, but NO, that isn’t good enough for them.”
I got so agitated about the matter that my twitches and twists disturbed Penny. Then I got up and went to the couch. There I lay for nearly two hours before finally sleep overtook me. Happily, I’d gotten over the matter by the morning, but that night was dreadful.
Looking back on it, I realize how foolish I was. To this day, I still believe the sabbatical committee wrong for turning down an absolutely terrific project, but that’s not the point.
What did I focus on that night in October, lying in the darkness on my couch? I focused on what was wrong. Did I focus on what was noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, or praiseworthy? No. Could I have found such things to focus upon, even in that hour of disappointment? Of course.
As we go through our lives, it’s all too easy to accentuate the negative and eliminate the positive—to butcher an old song. It’s all too easy to grumble and grouse. In my sleepless sabbatical rant, I simply ignored the good news of a job that I truly love. It’s a bit like overlooking Christ’s resurrection and simply fixing on the fact that he waited three days to do it. Let’s face it, Christians, with news as good as we have, there isn’t a bad note big enough to give us an excuse for the blues.
Is there anything more fascinating to a nine-year-old than fiddling around with a fire? I remembered that last weekend when I accompanied three of our Cub Scouts on an overnight with the Boy Scout troop. As we gathered around the fire on the first night in camp, it didn’t surprise me at all when all three of my boys had yard-long sticks stuck into the fire. They’d let that stick get nice and hot--embers glowing and flames jumping. Then they’d pull it out and stare at it until the flames died down.
What makes a kid want to play in the fire? If you can’t answer that question, then you don’t remember what it was like to be a kid. My goal with those boys was to keep them from burning themselves or our tents. We succeeded nicely.
I have learned, however, that if you want to keep boys from playing in the fire there is a simple procedure to follow. Simply allow them to build the fire themselves. Why? It’s really simple. A nine-year-old believes that you build a fire like this: You get two logs big enough to create a dugout canoe out of and then you hold a lighted match up to one of them. You can usually tell the fire that such a kid tried to build by noticing the pile of spent matches scattered on the ground. They can easily go through twenty or even fifty matches trying to get their fire started. A good fire builder will use one—or on a windy day, two—to start a rip-roaring fire.
There’s a standard spiel I go through to teach kids how to build a fire. “Get a bunch of little stuff,” I tell them. They’ll then bring in sticks as thick as their wrists. “No, I want little stuff. I want stuff that’s tiny. Then you can get bigger stuff, but nothing bigger than a pencil.” They’ll typically gather in a small handful of such twigs. Then I send them back for more. “I want a lot of little stuff.” Eventually, I tell them to get as much as they think I might possibly need. Then get twice that much. Then get some more.
Once they’ve gathered a small brush-pile, we talk about the three things a fire needs to burn: fuel, oxygen, and heat. We have the fuel, so we need to arrange for the oxygen and build a structure where the air can get to the fire. Finally, only after we’ve arranged for those first two things, do we worry about the heat, the match.
I’ve taught a lot of kids to build fires that way. With a little practice they can become perfect little pyros. I’m not altogether sure that’s a good thing, but I keep doing it, and normally they follow my directions pretty well. Wouldn’t it be nice if spiritual lessons stuck as well as my fire-building lessons stick? Think about all the spiritual matters that you and I have learned. If we’d held on to those teachings, wouldn’t we be ablaze for God?
I rarely speak of the youngest member of our family. Perhaps that’s from the shame that I feel over keeping her in a cage or the irregular schedule we have in feeding her. Yes, Kate is a dog, but that doesn’t mean that she should be fed only when we think about it. Last week I came home one day and found Kate to be quite excited. “What is it, girl,” I asked. “Did Uncle Joe fall into the abandoned mine?” She looked at me quizzically for a moment and then returned to her prancing about. “Or are you hungry?” She didn’t change her behavior one bit, but I decided that it couldn’t hurt to feed her.
I headed down to the garage and scooped up a bowl of her food. She went berserk, leaping up to the level of my shoulder. “Yeah,” I noted. “I guess you are hungry.”
Plopping the food into her bowl in the kitchen, I watched as Kate attacked it. She ate as if she were starving. In retrospect, maybe she was. After enjoying as much of Kate’s pig-out behavior as I found amusing, I went to sit down in the living room. A minute or so later, I heard a strange noise. When I returned to the kitchen, I found that Kate had slid her now empty bowl into the middle of the floor. Was this an effort to get a refill, a doggie version of Oliver Twist’s “Please sir, can I have some more”? I can’t be sure, but that’s how I read it. I scooped her up some more food, and she ate about half of it.
We really don’t deprive Kate of food that often. We do, however, stick her in her kennel for long periods of time. All night doesn’t seem to bother her. Letting her out in the morning, I almost never see her dash for the nearest patch of grass. But sometimes we simply have to leave her cooped up for a very long stretch. We head off to a variety of meetings, lessons, visits, and so forth, and Kate has the privilege of watching all the best sites in our garage. As the weather has turned cooler, we’ve draped a blanket over all sides except the front of the cage, so she can’t even see all around her anymore. She never complains—except when there’s a thunderstorm, but that’s another story.
It’s not that we don’t care about Kate when we go off and leave her. We care, we just can’t show that care very easily. Sometimes we’re just getting preoccupied, but other times we have a legitimate excuse. It’s not like we don’t care.
You have to wonder about Paul, writing to the Philippians and commending them for their concern. He knew that they always cared about him, but there’s caring and caring. There’s the care that makes you do something and the care that makes you say something. Which did the Philippians have? I’m not entirely sure. But I do know which one God would cultivate within each of us. Kate would like it, too.
Allow me to gush a bit about my new house. We moved in a month ago today, and already the memories of our previous house, where we spent a brief two and a half years, are fading into obscurity. Before those memories reduce to a mere dream, I’d like to do some comparison.
Both of these houses are in Raytown, Missouri. It’s at about that point that the comparisons end. The house on Hunter weighed in at about 1,200 square feet on the main floor. We finished roughly half of the partial basement and used that as our bedroom. The rest of the basement served as a classroom and laundry area. With two and half kids at home—Alyson is in college—and those two kids being homeschooled, we found ourselves using every square inch of the place thoroughly. Only on the most dire of days did I manage to get my car into the garage. Other times, the garage looked more like a landing spot for a junk skow. By the time we left that place, I was just about maxing out on claustrophobia.
The new house, by contrast, is a veritable palace, covering some 3,200 square feet on two floors. There’s good bass fishing in the backyard, since we’re on a lake. The basement, almost entirely finished, boasts a room thirty-two-feet square. That’s something like nine decent-sized bedrooms all thrown together. Olivia’s upstairs bedroom is big enough that she doesn’t feel the slightest bit cramped having an extra bed for Alyson’s use. Tom’s room has a twelve-by-twelve attic area that could be easily finished. My car is in the garage every night, although the other side is filled with plunder. That’s okay, though, since our van wouldn’t fit in the door anyway. Oh yeah, and I get a real office, complete with a door. God is good.
I love my new house. Every day or two, Penny will just look at me and say that as well. We have, without a doubt, been greatly blessed here, but as I bask in my newfound surroundings, I have to recognize that God blessed us on Hunter Street as well. We entertained people, taught classes, and enjoyed our grandkids on Hunter. Today, even as I write these words, some thirty homeschool kids and parents are having fun in that big basement room, but we had gatherings on Hunter.
Years ago, I saw a poster that read, “I’ve been rich, and I’ve been poor. Rich is better.” I have to agree that rich is better than poor, but, like Paul, I want to be able to be content with little or with plenty. I’m sure that Paul didn’t mean that he could be hungry or full and it was all the same. What he meant, I think, is that his happiness didn’t depend on food, clothes, a home, or even his freedom. Paul’s happiness came through his relationship with Jesus Christ. The rest was just a bonus.
When I worked for the Boy Scouts, I recall a guy in my three-week training course, who shared something with all of us at dinner one night. “I can do anything I want if I just want it badly enough.” I’ve heard people say that before and since, but for some reason that guy’s voice echoes in my head today.
Today’s verse, one that you may very well have memorized at some point in your life, seems to be simply a variation on my Scout friend’s theme. “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” The King James Version and others say it slightly differently: “I can do all things.” However you want to phrase the idea, I have to question if it is true.
Can I, indeed, do everything—everything—through him who gives me strength? In my ceaseless devotion to your edification, I have endeavored to answer this question through a course of experimentation. To date, I have discovered with reasonable certainty and a fair accumulation of bumps and bruises, that there are many things that I cannot do with or without Christ’s help. I cannot fly. Try as I might, my body makes its way to the ground at a predictable and unsettling rate. I cannot turn lead or anything else into gold. My fishing weights are still as grey and valueless as they were before. I cannot heal the cracks in my driveway nor mind-control my dog into not barking in the middle of the night. Papers will not grade themselves, and I cannot make myself look any more like Brad Pitt, regardless of my efforts.
Is this irreverent? Perhaps, and I do not mean it this way. But today I want to suggest that Paul didn’t mean to say what he seems to say here. Did he mean that he could really do everything? If he could do everything, then why is he asking people to do things for him? Somehow I don’t think that’s what he meant.
The same word, translated here as “everything,” is used elsewhere in the New Testament to mean “everyone” as in “everyone followed Jesus.” Did everyone follow Jesus? No. This is an example of hyperbole, intentional overstatement used for an effect. Jesus himself uses hyperbole. When Paul says “everything,” he means “great things” or “many things.” If he truly meant “everything,” then we should be able to turn ourselves into God. That’s just ridiculous.
A skeptic might claim that this is simply a verbal sleight of hand. I am conveniently explaining away anything that I cannot do by saying that it would fall into the realm covered by hyperbole. So what does this verse really mean?
Let’s look at the context. Paul has just been talking about his ability to be happy despite the circumstances. He’s content whether he has little or much. How does he manage this feat? Easy, he says. “I can do everything through him who gives me strength.” Through Christ, Paul, like us, can control his heart and his mind. He can’t fly or live on earth forever, but that hardly matters. The person who controls his own heart and mind, who finds the secret to contentment, stands like a superhero among most humans. No, Paul didn’t declare himself as Captain Omnipotent, but in this verse he shows himself more powerful than Spider-Man, Batman, or any of that lot.
Can I brag on my brother for a minute? The oldest of the Browning boys, Dennis, has about fifteen years on me. He’s worked for the Postal Service for seventy-five or eighty years, I think, pulling a night shift most of the time. Partially because of those hours and partially because he lives out on the fringes of civilization, near Buckner, I don’t see Dennis very often. Last week, however, I had occasion to call on him for a favor.
I bought a twelve-foot rowboat so that my family and I could tool around on the lake. After measuring the interior of our van, I knew that the boat’s length wouldn’t pose a problem. It never occurred to me, however, that this boat’s width would keep it out of the door. After wrestling it about six different directions, I elected to call Dennis.
“Can you bring your truck to Blue Springs and carry my boat back to my house?” I asked him.
He didn’t hesitate for a moment. In fact, his only hesitation was whether we could get to the boat dealership before they closed. Not only was he willing to help, but he wanted to help now.
Realizing that we couldn’t make the trip that afternoon, we agreed to meet the next day. Half an hour after he showed up in Blue Springs, the boat was bobbing gently on Wildwood Lake.
Perhaps you don’t think it all that remarkable that Dennis would be so eager to help his little, truckless brother out for an hour or so. And I guess it isn’t that remarkable. That should be what family does for each other, although we sometimes fall down on that ideal. But Dennis is that kind of a guy far beyond the family. He seems to look for opportunities to help people. He jumps in when he’s needed. Now I don’t want to portray my brother as some sort of saint. He has his flaws and his own brand of selfishness, but he cannot be faulted as ungiving.
Sometimes when we give, whether it be a gift of money or time, we want to give it on our terms. We want to give how we want to give. We want to give what we want to give. We want to give when we want to give. Ask most charities, and they’ll tell you that a large amount of their giving takes place in the last month of the year. Why? I suppose people are trying to maximize their tax deductions. It’s not that they didn’t intend to give, but they delayed it. Then, when December rolls around, they have to give then or wait another year to deduct the gift. That’s some selfless giving.
Please don’t take this as a criticism of a gift, but there’s something great to be said about a gift given when and how it is needed. That’s the sort of gift that Paul commends here. That’s the sort of gift that we should aspire to give.
How would you like to be paid $313 million for a year’s work. That’s good work if you can get it. Steven Spielberg made just such money one year, topping the Forbes list of the highest paid entertainers. Others who graced the top ten were George Lucas at $241 million, Oprah at $201 million, Tom Cruise with $82 million, and now-governor Arnold Schwarzenegger at $74 million. It makes the cash earned by your top-flight baseball and basketball stars seem kind of paltry.
What is a good living, a suitable payment for our time? To date, my annual pay has never gotten into the tens of millions, but I can always hope. The fact is, I look at my annual income and that of even a crummy professional athlete and realize that it’ll take me twenty years to earn what they earn. There are backup quarterbacks in the NFL, guys who do nothing but carry around a clipboard, earning in excess of a million dollars a year. And if you offered them a mere $100,000, a salary that is well over the nation’s median income, they’d sniff and walk away.
And lest it sound like I’m just bashing the rich and famous, I do my own version of this sort of thing. Just yesterday, Penny and I were discussing the possibility of me offering a writing class for home school kids. “How much should I charge?” I asked. When I suggested $100 per kid, she balked, but frankly, I wouldn’t work for less than that. With fifteen kids in the class, I’d bring in $1,500—I did that math in my head!—which would work out to about $60 an hour of teaching. I’m worth it, after all.
I’m sure that’s what Tom Cruise says when someone offers him a lousy $25 million to make a movie. It’s what Roger Clemons and Barbara Streisand say. It’s what the clerk at the 7-Eleven store says. Somewhere along the line, we all decide what is reasonable pay for us.
The bottom line for me, however, is that I will never be fabulously wealthy. Barring a run of sales on my fly-fishing book or some surprise breakthrough with a writing textbook, I’m going to keep making the comfortable but modest income that I’ve enjoyed for the last fifteen years or so. Do you suppose Tom Cruise sits around lamenting the fact that he’ll never clear a billion dollars a year? Perhaps.
I don’t know what sort of a 401-K Paul had when he wrote Philippians, but I do find it intriguing that, as he sat in jail, he could say, “I have received full payment.” I’m pretty sure he didn’t have a lot of tangible assets, but Paul had what he needed, just as I have what I need, just as Steven Spielberg has what he needs.
We could ask Tevye’s question, “Would it spoil some vast, eternal plan, if I were a wealthy man?” but that question misses the point. Through Christ, we’ve been fully paid. Our salary is just a bonus.
Several years back, I preached at a revival at the “Fountain of Love” church in Venezuela. I don’t mean to make that seem any more impressive than it really was. Basically I was the crazy gringo who popped into a barrio church on three successive nights ready to share a fifteen-minute message. What my sermons lacked in substance they made up for in dullness. Still, the Spirit of God, probably despite our best efforts, moved in that church during the week.
But tonight I’m not really thinking about those three intriguing services. I’m thinking about the supper that the people of the church provided for us on two of the days. We’d been walking around the neighborhood witnessing to people and inviting them to the service all afternoon. When we got back to the church building, we found a tray full of bologna sandwiches and tall glasses of water awaiting us. Lest you have any delusions on this, these bologna sandwiches were very heavy on the bread and light on the bologna. In the end, we realized, these people were relatively poor and were providing for us in the best way that they could manage.
You have to admire people giving of their best, just as you admire a small child who sings with a lot more gusto than ability. You admire it, but that doesn’t mean that you have to be impressed by it. I appreciated those bologna sandwiches, but I wouldn’t say that they bowled me over.
Sometimes our needs are provided for according to the riches of people. If the people are poor, then that provision isn’t going to be anything to get excited about. If the people are rich, the provision might be quite impressive. In other words, when you enjoy the riches of people, you might get bologna sandwiches or you might get lobster.
I’ve long loved the verse that we read today. “My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” The idea of having all your needs met is a comforting one. There’s a certain school of thought that believes that the government should provide for all of people’s needs. I suppose that might be nice if they could actually accomplish it, but I’m not going to be impressed by “The U.S. government will meet all your needs according to its glorious riches.” Yes, the U.S. government is wealthy, but in the end, I’d expect something closer to bologna sandwiches than what I’ll receive from God.
What a benediction this is on Paul’s letter. God will meet all of our needs. He won’t meet some of them but all of them. And he won’t just barely meet the requirements. He won’t be going on the cheap, struggling to make things right. No, he’ll meet those needs “according to his glorious riches.”
What does that mean for us? I think it means that while we might get bologna sandwiches today, we’ll see something far better than lobster down the road.
Yesterday I shared my bologna sandwich story with you. But today I’d like to stay camped out on that same verse for a few minutes. “My God will meet all your needs according to his glorious riches in Christ Jesus.” Yesterday, I emphasized the first three quarters of that verse. God will meet all our needs and he’ll do it in exquisite fashion, “according to his glorious riches,” but what do we make of that last prepositional phrase: “in Christ Jesus.” Is that somewhat like saying “his glorious riches in First National Bank”?
I’d like you to open your wallet for a moment. (Don’t worry, I’m not looking for contributions.) More than likely, you have a rectangular plastic card that looks a lot like one I carry. It’ll have a sixteen-digit number on it and say “Visa” or “MasterCard.” When I used to work retail, I learned that all credit cards are not created equal. Now they do all look pretty much the same. If you were to study my Visa card, you wouldn’t see anything particularly strange about it. You’d notice the issuing bank, and you’d see that it’s a “Priority Club” card, which means I get points in a Holiday Inn guest program. But what’s my credit line? Could you tell? Have I used it up or am I ready to spend? A few years back, I accepted an offer via the UMKC alumni association for a credit card. I used it a couple of times and then tried to buy gas with it. It was declined. Come to find out, these geniuses had given me a whopping $100 credit line. That’s not terribly useful.
I used to get impressed by plastic money, but not anymore. Today, I’m much more impressed with cash. But even cash is a slippery value. Since we haven’t experienced any terrible inflation in recent years, our money still has a solid value, but even a low two-percent annual inflation rate will slowly erode the value of your money. That’s why we don’t just put our savings into a mattress.
Smart people invest, right? You invest in “securities.” A few years back, I found out just how secure some securities truly are when the tech stocks took their beating. Then there are those people who line their birdcages with stock certificates and bonds from bankrupt companies. Yes, smart people invest, but even Warren Buffet gets burned now and again.
Where then shall we look for security? Gold? Baseball cards? Pork belly futures? How about a 401-K full of Enron stock? Show me a form of earthly riches, and I’ll show you a story where those riches failed people. Happily, though, God doesn’t offer to meet our needs with conventional means. His riches are all to be found “in Christ Jesus”? What does that mean exactly? I can’t say exactly. But I do know that these riches are found in the Alpha and Omega, the first and the last. That seems like a pretty safe investment even in uncertain times. I’ll still invest my money, but the returns I’m truly counting on come from a higher source.
I heard a rumor that Chuck Norris wanted to make a new movie that had even more tension and potential conflict. All those Delta Force and Missing in Action flicks weren’t good enough for him. Years of kicking bad guys in the head in the right-and-wrong world of Walker: Texas Ranger just didn’t get him where he wanted to be. So where could he go to find more conflict than with international terrorism? The rumor has it that he wants to film a family reunion.
Okay, I made that up, but you know what I mean. I feel pretty fortunate in the fact that all of the immediate members of my family speak to one another. We don’t have a black-sheep brother who we haven’t seen for ten years or somebody who we foolishly loaned money to back in 1986 or anything. We’re not a real close bunch, but we get along.
From what I notice around me, our family is somewhat unusual. Maybe it’s the fact that we don’t spend all that much time in each other’s presence. It is, after all, kind of hard to get mad with one another when you don’t do things together. But I know families where brother A won’t talk to sister B or where these siblings take the side of the divorced mother while those line up behind the divorced father. It’s enough to make you crazy.
Why do you suppose so many families struggle to get along? It’s pretty obvious why kids living in the same house fight. After all, they’re living in the same house. Maybe they have to share a bathroom or listen to each other’s music. The more I think about that question, however, the more I wonder something different. Why do so many families who struggle to get along still get together? If I have someone at work who I don’t like, I don’t hang out with that person. Why don’t we just do the same thing with family?
Of course the answer to that is that we feel compelled to get together with our family even when we don’t much like them. We’ll do it to please our parents or simply because we recognize that, as family, these people have a special standing.
Why, you might ask, do I mention all of this today? As I read over these last lines from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, I notice that he uses several family references: “our God and Father” and “the brothers.” Curiously enough, I find it really hard to refer to a person as a brother and then talk really bad about him. I find it really hard to think of God as my Father and then to disregard his instructions. I ought to obey God because he’s God, but Paul will use whatever works here. His message, as he closes this letter, is one we should remember carefully. We are family, and as family we need to hang together, love each other, and enjoy fellowship in Christ.
He doesn’t promise it won’t be awkward, but family has great rewards.
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.