These devotions were written in January and February of 2005. Click on a chapter number to jump to the first devotion for that chapter.
1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 6 - 7 - 8 - 9 - 10 - 11 - 12 - 13 - 14 -- [Devotions Archive]
I have to confess an addiction. It’s not alcohol or narcotics that have me in their grip. Still, I have developed a certain physical dependence upon a substance. Is this substance abuse? I suppose it is. How did things come to this point?
My addiction began, innocently enough, when I was a child. In those days, I’d tip large, cold bottles of Coca-Cola into my mouth. Never, in those halcyon days, did I believe that danger lay down this road. With nary a thought for the future, I drank on.
Somewhere during my high school days, I decided to attempt to control my weight. Rather than pouring quarts of sugared water down my hatch, I turned my habit over to the wonderful world of diet soda. When I worked at Mt. Washington Cemetery during several summers, I remember buying Diet Rite Cola from my brother’s Jeep on breaks. At restaurants, my drink of choice was Diet Coke.
The problem with Diet Coke is that once you get started, you tend to go on to something stronger. I discovered the Big Gulp at 7-Eleven during my college years. Thirty-two ounces of Diet Coke went a long way in those days. But eventually, I turned myself over to the Super Big Gulp, a forty-four-ounce reservoir of caffeinated beverage.
For years now, I have risen in the morning and filled a forty-four-ounce cup with ice and two cans of pop. It used to be Diet Coke. A few years ago, I made a switch to Diet Dr. Pepper. On the drive to school, I drain that cup. Between my nine and ten o’clock classes, I almost always pull a can of pop from the refrigerator in my office. At lunch, of course, I have another. Often, as I leave school in the middle of the afternoon, I stop by Quik Trip and fill my morning cup with the bubbling stuff from the fountain. Is that it? Sometimes, but other times, I’ll have another can or two at dinner and through the evening. If I’m at my mother’s house, I’ll almost always pull a can out of the fridge. Let’s face it: I’m a soda pop junkie.
This wouldn’t be such an issue if the caffeine didn’t affect me. It doesn’t keep me awake at night or make me shaky, but whenever I go without the stuff, I get a headache. What good is that? Do I want my well-being to depend on caffeine? No! That’s why I’m working to cut back. Over the last three days, I’ve held myself to two cans each day. In a day or so, I’ll pull back to one. Then I intend to quit altogether, at least for a while. I’ve done this before, but I have always backslidden right back into the drink—literally. Good things happen when I stick to my plan, but I simply don’t seem to have the ability to do it.
As we move into Zechariah’s prophecy today, the prophet’s words seem to speak to my struggle. “Return to me,” God tells me. “And I’ll return to you.” If I do what God wants of me—like eating properly—God will reward me with good things. I know this. I believe this, but it’s so hard.
Can I free myself from my caffeine shackles? I don’t know. Can I turn myself in the direction God wants of me? I can’t say for certain. But I do know that for every step I take toward God, he’ll meet me with an even larger one. I just hope I can take those steps without the energy from my caffeine!
It’s time for another basketball report from Tom’s team. Tonight, I got to mix it up with these third and fourth graders. One of the things that I discovered was that a quick nine-year-old can leave a fat forty-two-year-old huffing and puffing on the boards in no time at all. But that’s not what I want to share with you today. No, today, I’d like to spend a few minutes talking about Chris the Great.
The coach tonight decided to show the boys some game skills. He rounded up several dads and lined us up opposite the boys. Obviously a bunch of adults, averaging six feet tall, could have simply humiliated these boys, but that wasn’t our intent. At least it wasn’t the coach’s intent. He had to keep reminding us dads. I found myself paired up against Chris the Great during a big part of this practice. Chris is a fairly stout kid, and he appears to be a decent all-around athlete, but he doesn’t listen particularly well. He finds it annoying to be on defense and he finds it annoying to not have the ball in his hand and he finds it annoying to do anything with the ball other than flinging it toward the basket. His idea of team play seemed to be to stand wherever he was, regardless of who was around him, and yell, “I’m open, I’m open.” Never mind that he has a guy twice his size standing right behind him who could knock down any shot he tried. No, Chris, at least in his own mind, was open.
Several times, in response to his plaintive cries of “I’m open,” other boys tossed Chris the ball. Immediately, he would turn and, as I said before, fling the ball at the basket. Now Chris has a decent shot, but there’s not a nine-year-old that I know who can consistently hit twelve-foot shots. Most of his shots went wildly off the mark and directly into the waiting hands of one of us monsters. But twice—and twice in a row—he managed to drop the rock in the hole. And what does Chris the Great do when he hits a shot? He thrusts his arms in the air and gets that look on his face. It’s the face that Barry Bonds gets on his face when he hits another steroid-generated home run. It’s the face that says, “Yeah, I’m great. I don’t know why you guys all waited to applaud me until now!” Both times, Chris did this. It was all I could do not to swat his next shot into the next county.
What Chris the Great doesn’t understand is the same thing that lots of athletes, businessmen, politicians, and others don’t understand. They don’t understand that what they accomplish today is just for today. Tomorrow, it’ll be gone and forgotten. Of course, Chris has the excuse of being a kid. Hopefully he’ll learn better. Those adult “Greats” have no excuse at all.
What Zechariah says to the people of Israel here is the same thing that Haggai was saying to them but stated in a different manner. Zechariah wants the people to know that the only Great One around is God himself. If they want to be great, they have to hitch their wagon to God. If Chris wants to be great, he needs to do the same. Now if these basketball dads can just figure that out.
If you want a downer, then pick up the January issue of The Atlantic Monthly. The cover story in that magazine, penned by a national security guru, Richard A. Clarke, takes an intriguing view of the future of the war on terrorism. Rather than dully describing where and how he feels that the nation’s present attempts to protect itself have gone astray, Clarke writes his article as if the year were 2011, six years after the second wave of Al Qaeda attacks began. Rather than attacking New York skyscrapers with jet airplanes, in Clarke’s vision, the terrorists strike casinos and amusement parks, malls and aircraft, subways and railroads. They bring down draconian measures from the government and kill many hundreds. Perhaps more wide-reaching, Clarke sees grave economic ripples spreading like tsunamis from these impacts. Unemployment skyrockets. People simply stop going to malls and Disney World and airports. The economy collapses. The America he describes looks very little like the one we know today.
He describes one scene in considerable and lurid detail. At the “Mall of the States”—Clarke renames virtually everything in a way that one can easily identify his meaning—two pairs of terrorists, disguised as security guards, enter the shopping center from opposite ends. When one pair opens fire, they drive hundreds of terrified shoppers toward the other pair, who dutifully begin shooting. They detonate a truck bomb outside the building, timing their blast to inflict the maximum number of casualties among the fleeing multitude. In the end, the terrorists die, but they kill scores of people. In the confusion, several police officers and mall security personnel are killed by friendly fire.
The truly dismal thing about reading this article is not that I really believe that it will happen. Richard Clarke has books to sell and an axe to grind. You don’t have to read too closely to see that he’s still smarting from perceived snubs at the hands of the present administration. Still, the terrorist acts that he describes just sound so possible that a person can read them and easily feel as if they were inevitable. These aren’t incredible acts committed against all odds. These are completely doable things. Think about it: if four loonies with a bit of spare cash and no great desire to live decided that they wanted to inflict some carnage at Mall of America, they could probably manage to make it happen.
When you read the news, you hear horrible stories about war, hatred, terrorism, pestilence, poverty, and all manner of other dreadful things, most of them preventable, that afflict a huge portion of the world’s population. We have to recognize that our relatively peaceful existence isn’t a thing to be taken for granted.
In today’s reading, Zechariah sees a group of horsemen, an image that immediately calls to mind the four horsemen from Revelation 6. But these horsemen, rather than bringing death, war, hunger, and disease, simply perform a reconnaissance mission. And what do they find? They see a world “at rest and in peace.”
While I don’t give much credence to Richard Clarke’s vision of the future, I do recognize that the only world I’ll ever see “at rest and in peace” will be a world that God puts “at rest and in peace.” The rest and peace that man creates is temporary and illusory. I don’t intend this as a call for panic. Instead, I see it as a statement of reality. We should expect to live in a land without peace and thank God for every day that we live otherwise.
I have a love-hate relationship with roller coasters. For years, I have loved the thrill of the speed, the quick changes of direction, the loops and swoops, and all of that stuff. That’s what I love about roller coasters. What I hate about them, though, is those first big drops. They absolutely wipe me out.
I remember a number of years ago when Kansas City’s theme park, Worlds of Fun, opened what was at that time, a truly top-flight roller coaster, the Orient Express. That red steel track of the Orient Express whooshed and swooshed through a wooded hillside in Kansas City North, taking three different types of inversions along the way. In order to accomplish all of those convulsions, however, the train had to climb an enormous hill and then scream down an even longer initial drop.
Roller coasters—at least the traditional ones—run by gravity. They use some sort of chain system or electric motors to move the train up to a high position. Then they drop the train over a very steep, very long hill in order to build up speed and momentum. The succeeding hills have to get smaller, since friction and gravity will eventually wipe out all of that energy that was stored up putting the train on top of the hill. But in the minute or two between that first hill and the train lurching into the loading platform to disgorge its passengers, you get an exciting ride. But that first hill is, by necessity, a killer.
That first time that I rode the Orient Express, I had already realized my love-hate relationship. My problem with those hills is that they commit all manner of violence to my insides. Some people simply love that hollowed-out feeling that you get when you’re in freefall. I can’t stand it. I knew that if I could just endure that first hill, I’d love the rest of the ride. On that summer day, I jumped into my seat and tightened the restraint. As the train clacked up the chain-hoist hill, I steeled myself for the gut-twisting drop that lay just ahead. When I reached the top of the hill and felt the train begin to pick up speed, I closed my eyes and clenched myself as if that might help me not suffer from the drop. The cars quickly attained a very high speed as we plunged down that awful hill. My belly felt as if it had an aircraft hanger inside. I recall thinking, “That must be about it.” My eyes sprang open, and I realized that we were just over halfway down. Suddenly I wanted very badly to be just about anywhere else.
The owners of Worlds of Fun demolished the Orient Express a year or two back. Apparently it didn’t do enough damage to people’s nerves for today’s riders. I look back on that experience fondly. I still like roller coasters. What makes the ride, and especially that first drop, tolerable is the knowledge that it won’t last forever. I can handle the discomfort of the drop and the anxiety of the ride if I know that I’ll be delivered safely at the station in a minute or so.
Life, like a roller coaster, has its ups and downs, but unlike a roller coaster, it offers no guarantees that stressful times will eventually get better. That’s why I find Zechariah’s words today so hopeful. For seventy years, the people of Judah had been in exile, but in this day, Zechariah assures them, their long roller coaster ordeal is over.
It’s comforting for us to know that God will likewise allow us to suffer but will provide solid ground on which we can stand at the end of the ride.
My brother Wayne is ten years my elder, although he likes to introduce himself as my younger brother. That ten years doesn’t seem all that significant today, but when we were younger, it was a vast gulf of time that placed us in different worlds. Due to that gulf, Wayne and I never really played or did anything together. The biggest interaction that we seemed to have when I was around eight and he was around eighteen came in the form of him scaring the daylights out of me every chance he got. Let me give you a couple of memorable examples.
We both had bedrooms in the upstairs of our home. In the evening, Wayne would usually disappear into his room, close the door, and crank the music up. On the night in question, I headed up the steps and found Wayne’s door closed. No surprise there. I turned down the hall and went into my room. I walked across the room to the closet door, where I could deposit my dirty clothes. Drawing the closet door open, my heart jumped as Wayne jumped out of the darkness like some kind of red-haired puma. How long did he have to sit in there waiting to scare me? I don’t know.
Another night, at our lake house, I got ready for bed in the dark. Why? I’m not sure. Probably flipping on the lights would have been too much trouble. After pulling on my pj’s, I clambered up on the lower bunk so that I could vault into the top deck. And there was Wayne, his body pressed back against the wall. After hitting me with a momentary, pre-adolescent cardiac arrest, he grabbed me before I could fall to the floor. Again, I have no idea how long he waited up there Afterward, he told me that he worried I’d flop down in terror and whack my head on the other furniture in the room. Happily, that didn’t happen.
How many other times did Wayne scare me half to death? I can’t count them all, but it did seem to be his hobby for a while. Today, though, Wayne has grown well out of that. About a year ago, Wayne experienced true fear. He lost control of his van on the Interstate, crossed the median, and had a nasty smash-up with an oncoming car. “I started to think,” he told us. “This might be it for me.” It’s a scary thought.
Now if you’ve read Zechariah’s words, you might think that I feel that Wayne was getting some sort of divine payback for all those youthful scares. That’s not my meaning. But it is true that our strengths can give way to our vulnerabilities quite quickly. Zechariah points to a definite connection, a divine justice, involved in the “craftsmen” who overturn the “horns” that had abused Israel and Judah.
Our strengths, our confidences, our abilities can unravel so quickly. Israel saw it, as did the Babylonians and the Persians. We can see it as well, unless we place our hope in the eternal strength of God. To do otherwise is entirely too scary.
When Alyson, Emily, and I went to Jerusalem a few years back, we discovered a number of marvelous things in that ancient city. Besides the museums and the archaeological digs, we found the marvels of modern technology and commerce. On one memorable day, after eating falafel and boiled porcupine (at least that’s what we called it), we found ourselves out to the west of the Old City in the new, overwhelmingly Jewish and largely modern business district deployed along King David Street. With a hankering for the tastes of home on our minds, the girls and I made a pilgrimage for food. One of the intriguing things we discovered was that in the interests of kosher laws, you couldn’t buy a pizza with both meat and cheese at Pizza Hut or a cheeseburger at McDonalds. They wouldn’t mix dairy foods with meat. We weren’t in a compromising mood and found ourselves in a KFC. With a huge order of chicken—far more than we were possibly going to eat ourselves—tubs of mashed potatoes and cole slaw (for me) and those buttery, wonderful biscuits, we piled into a taxi and raced back to eat at our hotel. The smell alone of the food did a lot for our flagging spirits. With the idea of finger-lickin’ good chicken on our minds, we watched the stores and offices of Jerusalem pass by our cab’s windows.
It’s a marvelous place, Jerusalem. When things are not exploding, you can compare it with any of the modern metropolitan areas of Europe or the U.S. All you have to do is compare the sights of today with the photos of this place a hundred years ago, when Jerusalem stood as a backwater curiosity in the Ottoman Empire, to realize that a good deal of what God has promised to the Jewish people and to this city has been realized, most of it within our lifetimes.
But you can’t count on things not exploding in Jerusalem. The need for security is obvious in this great city. Soldiers walk the streets with automatic weapons. Checkpoints prohibit free movement between Jerusalem and Bethlehem. Metal detectors and guards line the entrances to the Western Wall. No, God isn’t done fulfilling his promise to the chosen people yet.
“Jerusalem will be a city without walls,” the angel tells Zechariah. They’re not there yet. No, the military presence, the “walls” of today, is all too obvious in that city and that land. “And I myself will be a wall of fire around it.”
We can look at Jerusalem and marvel at the prosperity and growth that the place has witnessed in recent decades. We can think the same in various other cities and countries. It’s all too easy to become impressed with the accomplishments of the global economy. But then something explodes in Jerusalem, nerve gas is released in a subway, or airplanes crash into skyscrapers, and we realize that our lifestyles hang by a thread and at the pleasure of God. But in the fullness of time, God will put a wall of fire around the city of Jerusalem. He’ll protect his people, the Jews and those of us who have been grafted into their vine.
Lest we sell our birthright for a mess of cole slaw, we need to remember that the true marvels in Jerusalem and Kansas City haven’t happened yet. Far more than KFC and Pizza Hut can ever do, God will be the glory within Jerusalem and the world. That’s a taste worth savoring.
There’s nothing much more fun than playing Capture the Flag with a bunch of younger teens. Kids say ten and under don’t understand well enough, and the older ones tend to resist crawling around in the muck. But give me a dozen twelve and thirteen-year-olds and we’ll have a fun evening.
If you’ve never played Capture the Flag, let me explain it quickly. You take a big field and divide it in half. You take your players and divide them in half. Each team gets a “flag,” which they must display somewhere on their side of the field. The players from team A will infiltrate team B’s side in hopes of snagging the flag and bringing it back to their side. Should they manage this feat, they win. Should they be caught by patrolling players from the other team, they are put in prison. They can only be freed from prison if a particularly gutsy teammate sneaks up and tags them out of their captivity. Should all of the members of one team be caught, that’s another way for the other team to win. The glory of the game, preferably played in a dark field with enough cover to let a person hide, isn’t really winning. No, the fun is in the play.
There are a couple of strategies that you can take in Capture the Flag. Some people like to use the speed strategy. They’ll sprint into enemy territory and try to snatch the flag from under the unsuspecting noses of their opponents. Slightly more sophisticated is the speed decoy routine. A quick player darts into the other side in order to attract attention. Then, when all eyes and legs are following Mr. Quick, somebody else penetrates deep into the forbidden zone. I’ve always been way too slow for any of the speed approaches, so I have opted for defensive and stealth strategies.
I don’t care how fast or sneaky you might be. If you play this game for any time at all, you’re going to get caught. In fact, if you never get caught, then you’re probably not having any fun. But the absolute worst thing that can happen in a Capture the Flag game is that you get caught early and then get ignored by your teammates. They might decide that if one or two of the opponents are keeping an eye on you, that’s a better advantage than having you free. Or they might just be too lazy to come get you. Regardless, a long captivity can get very old very quickly.
On the other hand, there’s nothing much more exciting than rescuing or being rescued from the opponents’ prison. You might see that friendly player creeping up or just hear a full-on dash. You feel the contact and then you’re off to the races, off to safety on your side of the line.
The promise that God makes through Zechariah today is something you might hear from a Capture the Flag player. God won’t ignore the suffering, the imprisonment of his people. He’ll rescue them. The strange thing about this passage, however, is that Zechariah wrote after the people of Judah had returned from Babylon. Still, God knew that a few centuries later they would be conquered, scattered and abused. And the promise was that of a loyal team leader. “I won’t forget you!”
Although we’ve never been imprisoned in Babylon, we have been enslaved by sin. God has brought us out of that slavery, and he promises never to abandon us in the future. If we look sharp, he’ll come to deliver us and get us back into the game.
I had two teachers in high school who attended Woodstock, the gigantic, ill-planned concert in Upstate New York, with performances by The Who, the Grateful Dead, Bob Dylan, Jimi Hendrix, and everybody else who ever thought themselves anybody in the anti-establishment, pro-drugs, wild and crazy sixties music scene. The promoters billed the event as four days of peace and music. If you’ve ever seen the movie that they made in the wake of it, you’ll know that the weekend involved some classic musical performances, much mud, some really drugged-out people, and a lot of folks who had a hard time keeping their clothing on. Yeah, I had an English and a Spanish/philosophy teacher who attended. That ought to denigrate your opinion of my education a wee bit.
You might not be aware that Christian music has its own annual Woodstock-like event. Cornerstone Music Festival takes place at the 500-acre Cornerstone Farm in western Illinois. This year, if you choose to attend, you’ll be treated to some fine acts. Yeah, Jars of Clay will be there. If that’s not enough to make you order tickets, let me mention Audio Adrenaline, Skillet—yes, Skillet will be there—Joy Electric, Reliant K, and the list of major acts just goes on and on.
Okay, if none or virtually none of these bands mean anything to you, then you can just comfort yourself with the fact that these major acts in Christian music will be changing in a few years. You may stay out of the loop, but you can rest assured that it’ll be a different loop in a few years.
But on a few days in July in the area outside Bushnell, Illinois, you can hear some of the leading Christian rockers available. No, Steven Curtis Chapman and Twila Paris will be sitting this one out. Cornerstone is a bit too rough around the edges for their ilk, but for kids in high school and college—and those of us who never grew up—Cornerstone will be, for a long weekend, the center of the Christian music universe.
How much would you pay for this? Don’t answer yet, for you also get hours and hours of seminars by leading lights in Christian discipleship and apologetics. You’ll get kids’ and youth activities. There are art and craft activities. How about sports? They have sports. And they serve funnel cakes at a price that you can actually afford. Want to swim and bathe in the lake? You can do that, if you like. They also have fireworks. The price for all this? If you order now, it’s only $92. Not bad, really.
I’ve been to Cornerstone three times, although it’s been about four years since I made the pilgrimage. For all the complaining that I do about the traffic and the noise—forget about getting to sleep before about 3 am—and the bands that I don’t really care to hear, I really enjoyed those three trips. My kids enjoyed them. Penny enjoyed them. In those days of camping and rooting around in the mud, I felt as if I had found the center of vital Christianity, the very heart of the movement, not perfect, but truly remarkable.
What could be better than Cornerstone 2005, the Billy Graham Crusade, The Gaithers, Promise Keepers, or whatever else represents the apex of your Christian experience? What could be better is the world that Zechariah describes today. It’s worthy of a shout and of gladness. What a promise that God makes to us! It’s a promise of a day far better than Cornerstone and not nearly so muddy!
Three houses ago, Penny cluttered up our world with a hideous looking piece of furniture, which she called “the pie safe.” Over time, we realized that this object was not a pie safe, but we still called it that. Instead, it was a heavy cabinet complete with curved woodwork and frosted glass. What made it hideous was that someone had painted it apple green. When Penny dragged the monstrosity home, she assured me that she’d soon have it restored to its fabulous original condition. If I remember correctly, we moved twice, toting an apple-green faux-pie safe with us. Finally, one house ago, she found the time to refinish the thing. And how did it turn out? Come over to the house and see. It’s sitting in the hallway of our current house.
It’s nice to see things go from wrecks to riches. When we bought the house in which we now live, it had issues. The exterior of the place exuded warmth, being painted battleship grey. The décor inside had all the charm of a government hospital room. The doorbell didn’t work; the back porch light didn’t work. The phone jack in the kitchen didn’t work. The electrical system looked as if it had been cobbled together to resemble a bowl of spaghetti. The water heater held something like five gallons of water. And that only touches the beginning of the plumbing.
Now, nearly two years later, the house looks a great deal different. We’ve gone with a two-tone deep red and deep yellow look. Most everything in the place works. Most of the plumbing has been upgraded from galvanized to copper, and the breaker box is new and improved. Here’s another case of something being transformed by some effort and a bit of money.
Of course makeovers are all the rage on TV these days. Virtually anybody that has ever hung sheetrock seems to have a home decorating show. You can find a clothing makeover show, a makeover show that promises to make you look ten years younger, and Extreme Makeover, which inflicts massive plastic surgery on its victims. That’s something that, while rather fun to watch, isn’t what I’d want to go through.
I could go on and on with all of these examples of makeovers, of things that seem like “a burning stick snatched from the fire.” I could go on, but there’d be a major problem with my analogy. You see, the man, “Joshua,” who Zechariah describes and makes over in today’s reading appears to the Christian to be none other than Jesus. Joshua, in Hebrew, is the same name as Yeshua, which is the same name that we make into Jesus. Like the “made over” things mentioned above, Jesus looked pretty bad, clad in his filthy clothes. But unlike those “made over” things, the transformation that took Jesus Christ from the cross to the resurrection is something beyond even the most clever makeover artist. As marvelous as “the new you” or the new house might seem on first blush, they can’t hold a candle to the makeover king himself, he to whom God says “See, I have taken away your sin, and I will put rich garments on you.”
So the next time that you’re admiring a refurbished house, refinished furniture, or a restored car, be sure to admire the craftsmanship. But remember that all human makeovers are but pale shadows compared to the work that God did with, to, and through Christ. And to us as well.
The first house that Penny and I owned was the one I grew up in. We bought it from my parents. A big house with a full basement, the place really had only three problems: location, location, location. That house stood one block inside of Kansas City, Missouri School District, which, for a family with four kids, didn’t seem ideal. Had we then been as committed to home schooling as we are today, we’d have probably stayed there indefinitely.
We sold that house in 1993 after several fruitless selling attempts scattered over six years. When the offer came in, we felt absolutely giddy. Now we could go find a house somewhere else and everything would be marvelous. It all seemed so simple.
There’s just one problem with vacating a house that your family has inhabited for thirty years. You have to eliminate a huge pile of junk. And a big part of the problem lay in the unheated cellar beneath the garage. My parents had left a good collection of scrap lumber, old pallets, and other flotsam in there when they moved out, and I compounded the accumulation with all sorts of wreckage in the years I held down the fort. My only reasonable recourse lay in calling for a dumpster in the driveway.
In a single day, I, single-handedly, emptied that storage room, a room that had been littered with junk for three decades. Starting from the door and working my way to the back wall, I carted out broken furniture, boxes of old magazines, and a ton of ruined pieces from an old model railroad I had salvaged somewhere. Time after time, I loaded up my arms with as much as I could carry and struggled out the back door and up to the dumpster. Some things lent themselves to a wheelbarrow or a dolly. Some things simply had to be lugged. I carried one sheet of plywood up, balancing it on my back. Just as I reached the dumpster, the wood slipped and a protruding nail ripped across my skin, leaving a nasty scar that I still carry.
The work took all day, but in the end, that room lay as empty and clean as I could have hoped. I even swept it out just to be neighborly to our buyer. After all those years of clutter, the room looked like something from another planet. In a single day I had transformed it from a dump to a clean, usable storage area.
Read these verses from Zechariah. Now read them again. Focus in on that part where it talks about removing the sin of the land in a single day. I think that sometimes, as we consider our relationship with Christ, as we survey the wondrous cross, we tend to forget the marvel of what he did. In one day, in half a dozen hours, Jesus paid the price for every single sin that mankind has ever or will ever commit. In that single day, he cleaned house much more thoroughly than I have ever done.
Just as we can grow accustomed to various cleaning tasks that we do in our daily lives, we can take for granted that work of Christ. What a mistake that is.
I don’t know what that storage room looks like today. The house has changed hands once more since we moved out. Perhaps it’s clean, and perhaps it is a mess. But I do know that Christ’s cleaning job for me has been accomplished thoroughly and permanently. In one day, for all time, Jesus cleaned house.
In 1983, when I returned from Oxford, England, I fully intended to earn a double major at William Jewell College. Perhaps hoping to transform myself into a sort of philosopher-king, I wanted to study both English and economics. While at Oxford, I’d read a good deal of economics and earned eleven credit hours in the dismal science. English represented my passion, but econ seemed like something that might actually get me a job. It seemed like a good idea at the time.
To earn a degree at Jewell, I had to leap through the usual hurdles. I needed some twenty-four or thirty hours of economics courses. No problem there. I needed statistics. Small problem, but one that I handled. I needed another course, the name of which I am certainly repressing. That course was a higher, more math-intensive statistics course. Bigger problem, but surmountable. Then there was Calculus I. Calculus I lay before me as the great Chance card of an economics degree: “Go to jail. Go directly to jail. Do not pass Go. Do not collect $200.” For something like six weeks, I sat in a calculus course in old Marston Hall at William Jewell. Although that building has been sumptuously refurbished in recent years, in 1983 it smelled like a morgue and looked like a hospital in a scary B movie. I could blame the atmosphere, or I could blame the professor who clearly knew his stuff but didn’t communicate in any language that this English major could comprehend. I suppose I could blame my stars or fate, but it’d all be a waste of breath. Calculus got me in a headlock on day one and kept me there until I whimpered “uncle.” I’d soldiered through Algebra during my freshman year. In high school, I’d done acceptably in various math classes and even excelled in geometry. But calculus just seemed so unnatural! In the end, as I struggled desperately to comprehend limits and derivatives and whatever else that Prof put in front of me, I came to a clear solution to a very simple equation:
Mark ¹ mathematician.
This led to a proof worthy of a failed mathematician:
Mark ¹ mathematician, and
Economists = mathematicians.
Therefore, Mark ¹ an economist.
With a sigh, mostly of relief, I reconciled myself to a single major, English. What a lot of sense that made. English I was good at. English I could understand. Calculus (and the areas of economics that had any real potential to ever earn me a living) seemed about as accessible as Hindu theology studied in Sanskrit. I just didn’t get it.
I’m reminded of this little episode today as I read the continuation of Zechariah’s vision. The angel wakes him up and he sees a mystifying sight. The angel asks if he knows what he’s looking at. When Zechariah admits that he doesn’t understand the vision of a lampstand and olive trees, the angel explains it. You’ll see that explanation in verse six. It’s a great verse, but what does it actually mean and what does it have to do with a lampstand and two olive trees?
Somewhat like me sitting in that calculus classroom, Zechariah had gone to the outermost limit of his understanding. Anything beyond this, he simply had to see and believe.
How often is our own life that way? We can’t comprehend the ways of God. We can’t understand why he would allow a tsunami to kill hundreds of thousands of people or why he allows children to be abused or any of a million other mysteries. We can stare at the great blackboard of life and curse our lack of understanding, or we can accept our limits and accept the true source of power in this universe. “Not by [human] might nor by power, but by my Spirit.” That’s a comforting thought for me whether I’m facing calculus or the mysteries of universe.
In the year that Penny and I spent living in England, we saw some fabulous churches. Not to demean any of the churches of the United States, but, to the best of my knowledge, we don’t have anything that can touch the European cathedrals. Perhaps St. Patrick’s in New York or the National Cathedral in Washington get into the same league—I’ve never been to either building—but Europe is just covered with enormous and gorgeous church buildings. Let me point to a few of my favorites.
Canterbury Cathedral in England is a magnificent sprawling complex of gothic splendor. A month or so back I wrote about Thomas á Beckett, who was murdered in that same building over 800 years ago. The age of the place alone is enough to impress me. The great structure in Canterbury is full of history, full of hundreds of years of people both devoted to God and to themselves. If the building doesn’t amaze you, its history will.
Hundreds of years newer but just as magnificent is St. Paul’s Cathedral in London. After the Great Fire of London in 1666, Sir Christopher Wren set about rebuilding London’s churches. He replaced the old St. Paul’s with a monument to neo-classical architecture so impressive that the United States Capitol dome is a virtual knock-off of it. St. Paul’s stands like a rock in the middle of the great capital city.
Hundreds of years newer yet again is Coventry Cathedral. Bombed out during World War II, this building was recreated in a modern and elegant style. You can still see the ruins of the old, gothic cathedral, past which Lady Godiva is supposed to have ridden. Those ruins have been tidied up and made sufficiently safe that they serve as a sort of prayer garden and park for the city center. A main pedestrian walkway for the city, covered by a high portico, travels between the old and the new churches. It’s a fabulous proof that devout people of artistic brilliance still have a zeal for God’s house.
Then there are the thousands of little parish churches that dot the landscape of England. Some of them are lovely; some are fairly plain. But all of them have the potential to far outshine the glittering cathedrals, just the largest megachurch can be far outdone by any tiny country church in America when God’s spirit is at work there, when lives are being transformed.
What does all this have to do with Zechariah and Zerubbabel and the “seven eyes of the Lord, which range throughout the earth”? It’s simple. If you’ve ever seen representations of the temple that Zerubbabel found himself building, you may have noticed that this was a far more humble edifice than what Solomon had built on the site five hundred years before. Unlike Sir Christopher Wren at St. Paul’s, Zerubbabel didn’t have the wherewithal to outshine Solomon. The new place didn’t have as much gold or cedar from Lebanon. The new temple apparently didn’t gleam like the old one. So why does God, speaking through Zechariah, get so effusive about the new temple?
Here was the temple around which the Messiah would minister. Here stood the building where all the symbols of the covenant would be brought to fruition through Jesus’ sacrifice. In these courts, the God-Man would preach and the curtain to the Holy of Holies would be rent in two. I don’t care if Zerubbabel had only stacked up a half dozen clay bricks, he was building a temple for the ages.
Let’s never become overly impressed with buildings, my friend. For unless the spirit of God is at work there, it’s just a place.
You’ve heard the motto, which is inscribed on many police cars around the country: “To Serve and Protect.” Some people, find that motto to be an ironic one. “To serve and protect who?” the skeptics will ask. That’s a good question. Let’s try to answer that question today.
Some folks believe that the police exist just to serve and protect themselves. What evidence exists for this? You can find enough stories about corrupt cops, the guys who are on the take, to make that interpretation of the motto seem right. After all, I go to the movies and the movies never lie. The police are just in it for themselves. Isn’t that right? And even if they aren’t corrupt, then they’re just self-interested. It’s all about the doughnuts, you know. Yeah, that’s who the police are serving and protecting: themselves.
Unless they’re serving and protecting the man. You know what I mean. There was a day in my hometown that the only black man who you’d see behind the wheel of a car was pulled over by the police. You’ve seen the old footage of the high-pressure hoses and the police dogs. More recently, you’ve read about racial profiling. And if they’re not protecting the man against minorities, then they’re striving to keep the worker down. Or they’re working to keep people with unpopular political opinions down. That’s what the police are serving and protecting: the status quo.
Unless they’re serving and protecting the wealthy. You know there’s one set of laws for the rich and there’s another set for everybody else. If my 1996 Chevy Cavalier gets stolen, do you think the police are going to be going out of their way to retrieve it? Probably not, but the second that Mr. Big’s Lexus goes missing, you know that they’ll be pulling out all the stops. That’s right. The police know which side their bread’s buttered on. They’re serving and protecting the money.
Unless they’re serving and protecting the little guy. It’s hard to believe, but sometimes you can find the police taking care of people who just need a break. I know that it sounds a lot like a Norman Rockwell painting—too naïve, too utopian—but it’s true sometimes. The police have been known to be decent guys. They’ll put up for the little guy every once and a while.
Unless they’re protecting and serving something else. In reality, you can’t expect the police not to serve and protect themselves, but beyond that, their job isn’t really to serve and protect the wealthy, the poor, business, labor, minorities, majorities, or the status quo. No, the police are put in place to serve and protect something bigger than any of these things. They’re tasked with serving and protecting society.
This comes to mind as I read about these two olive trees in Zechariah. These are two anointed servants, but who are they to serve? The servants of God often can be seen serving a church or the poor or the unreached, but in the end, the servants of God are the servants of God. They serve something bigger than the individuals.
Now don’t get me wrong. It’s good for us to be helping the poor, feeding the tsunami victims, praying for peace in Jerusalem and Baghdad, but in the end, God calls us to serve not the world but him. Only when serving the world coincides with serving God should we indulge in such an act.
About twenty-five years ago, Bob Dylan wrote a great song: “You Gotta Serve Somebody.” “It might be the devil or it might be the Lord, but you gonna have to serve somebody.” Let’s choose wisely whom we serve.
Last year saw the lifting of the Curse of the Bambino. Ever since the Boston Red Sox sold the rights to Babe Ruth to the New York Yankees, the Red Sox had failed to win the World Series and the Yanks had won about a jillion of them. I’m not sure when somebody decided that this failure to win could be connected with Babe Ruth, but that’s been the talk for years. I remember when, in 1986, with the Red Sox on the verge of winning, Bill Buckner let a routine ground ball squirt between his legs and gave the Mets the chance to once again snatch up the hopes of the Boston faithful and toss them in the fire. I’ve seen other times when the curse seemed to be in play, but this year, the dreaded Curse of the Bambino ended.
Other curses have seemed even more ominous. Supposedly there was a curse on the tomb of King Tut. When Howard Carter dug up the young Pharaoh’s tomb in 1922, he became an instant celebrity. But then people started dying. Lord Carnarvon, the financier of the expedition, died from a mosquito bite in 1923. Supposedly a dozen other men involved with the dig also died before the decade ended. That sounds pretty severe, but when you start to think about it, it’s not that remarkable. Who were these men? And what percentage of the total team did they represent? How old were they and how did they die? The people who try to make hay out of the Mummy’s Curse don’t point out any of the more ordinary deaths. One French doctor actually suggested that fruits and vegetables in the tomb carried molds that made these men sick. Do we need that sort of explanation for a flurry of deaths? It says nothing about Lord Carnarvon.
For many years, the Curse of Ham was used in Europe and the United States as an explanation and justification for slavery. The popular account goes like this: When Ham saw his drunken father Noah naked, Noah cursed him with black skin and made him a slave. While the remarks Noah made do involve a curse and do mention slavery, that’s about the end of the story from the Bible. In reality, Noah cursed Ham’s son Canaan. More significantly, skin color is nowhere mentioned. Happily, most Christians today reject this reading of the Genesis account, but you can still find a few corners where the Curse of Ham is used as a justification for racism.
I suppose it’s clear from these three examples that I don’t put a lot of stock in the idea of a curse. But still we find curses mentioned more than once in the Bible. In today’s reading, we see a curse associated with a flying scroll. For a curse to be going out over the land doesn’t really surprise me, but let’s look at what that curse involves. The curse basically says that the wicked will pay for their actions. Thieves will be cast out as will those who swear falsely. I think I like that curse, because the flip side of the curse is a blessing to those who will no longer have to contend with these people.
What do we learn about God as we read this passage? Aside from the fact that God uses really strange imagery to teach us, we see that in his grace, God’s curses are in fact blessings in disguise. I find that a wonderfully hopeful truth to keep in mind.
By the time you read this, the race results will be in and the victors will have been crowned. No, the Earnhardts and Gordons won’t be racing at Talladega or KCK this weekend. I’m talking about the great 2005 Pinewood Derby race for the Cub Scouts of Pack 1, of whom I am the fearful leader. Last Monday, I promised the boys that if they’d bring their completed racers, I would provide a track for them to take some test runs upon.
The Cub pack that Tom and I started with had an easy-access Pinewood Derby track. Yeah, you might have to drag a few things out of the Cub Scout closet under the steps in order to get the track into the clear, but once you had the four or five pieces of it into the hallway, you could carry it into location anywhere in the church where you might want to set it up. No problem.
In the current pack things are not so simple. After interrogating the usual suspects a few weeks back, I managed to ascertain the precise location of the track. It resided in a locked shed next to a larger storage building across the street from the church’s old building. Under strict orders not to divulge these closely guarded secrets, I was entrusted with the combination to the lock and set off to retrieve the track.
What I found in that shed was a very dusty but nice looking track. I looked at that track, and I looked at my van. The segments of the track were clearly too long to go into the van without removing a seat. And four of them were packaged together in a cleverly constructed rack. This made for convenience, but it didn’t lend itself to one man’s effort. I returned home and pulled a seat out of the van. Then, accompanied by Penny, I returned to the shed. We pulled that rack of track pieces out of the shed, brushing aside the cobwebs and dead crickets. Sliding it into the van, we discovered something most disconcerting. It still wouldn’t fit. Finally, by angling it carefully into the space, we got the rack in. The final piece we managed to jam in on top with part of the track hanging over the remaining bench seat.
Once we arrived at the church, things weren’t much easier. I located four Boy Scouts to help me move the thing. I also located a dolly. What I didn’t have was an elevator large enough to accommodate the track sections. At length, we decided that the simplest thing would be to just hoss the pieces down the steps. And that’s what we did. I had thought to ask if we could store the track there through this week before the race. After the ordeal of moving it, there wasn’t any asking to it. We just left it.
I can’t say that this Pinewood Derby track was the toughest thing I’ve ever moved. No, I’ve moved a lot of clumsy things in my time, but I know I’ve never moved anything as clumsy as what God moves in today’s reading. God shows Zechariah a basket with iniquity in it. A woman in the basket is identified as iniquity. (Hey, I didn’t write it!) And God simply pushes the lid down on that basket and wings it away as if that were the easiest thing in the world.
What do we learn about God from this strange vision? We see that God can take something clumsy and heavy—the sin of the people—and toss it about as if it were the lightest, most manageable thing on earth. That’s not to minimize our sin; it’s to maximize the power and mercy of God. That’s a quality of God worth remembering.
Some of the dumbest things that I ever did in my life came in the years I spent as a Boy Scout. I can sit here and think fondly back on many bone-headed moves, but the one I’m about to relate, I’m pleased to insist, did not involve me directly.
If you take Missouri Highway 291 north from Independence, you’ll reach the Missouri River and the bridge heading across to the lovely town of Liberty. Just to the left of the bridge, if you look around the flat river bottom area, you’ll see what appear to be giant, grey, metal toadstools rising out of the ground. These are the wells from which the city of Independence pumps its drinking water. The Independence water department owns a healthy swath of ground in that spot, covering a half mile of river frontage. About once a year, our Scout troop would camp in a wooded area on the edge of this land, sometimes touring the water treatment plant as an added bonus.
On the trip in question, my friends and I decided to explore the fringes of the water treatment plant. Walking over the levee that protects the plant from all but the most serious flooding, we could see several large holding reservoirs. Much more fascinating to us, however, was a large concrete bunker in the ground, the top of which lay open to our probing eyes.
Show a twelve-year-old a hole in the ground, and he has to go into it. In thirty seconds, we overcame any fears we’d had and dropped down into that hole. Inside, we found ourselves inside a concrete cube about eight feet square. Large tunnels ran off in three directions from this box. It didn’t take long for us to figure out that one tunnel went to the main plant while the other two headed toward the two holding reservoirs. As we exited the bunker, we noticed two odd-looking contraptions mounted outside. These mechanical objects, we deduced, would allow workers to crank large metal doors closed over those tunnels below and thus guide the water flow.
Several hours later, part of the group headed back to the bunker. Happily, I was occupied elsewhere. They played with those cranks, closing both of the metal doors. As they sat inside the bunker, they thought they heard a noise. Then it got louder. Then they realized they’d better evacuate the premises. No sooner did they scramble out of the hole than the water arrived from the upstream tunnel. With both doors closed, the water had nowhere to go but up and out of the bunker, flooding the entire area. We never got invited to camp there again.
The power of water can dazzle a person. But what’s most amazing about water unleashed is how readily it will flow wherever it’s allowed. (To prove this, just pour a gallon of water on your kitchen counter.) It goes everywhere when it isn’t held back. That’s what I think of when I read about these four chariots that will take the word of God into all the world. God’s word is powerful, inexorable, irresistible. It will go everywhere unless it is held back.
So why would God hold it back? I’m not completely certain, but I think we should remember that God’s word has the power to save and to condemn. That chariot can come to rescue or to attack. Perhaps this is an evidence of God’s mercy and long-suffering that he controls and restrains his word rather than allowing it to flow unimpeded and risk drowning us.
On one of the cable channels, you can watch a show called Inside the Actor’s Studio on which a strange-looking host, James Lipton, will interview various big-shot actors. While some of this guy’s guests can be quite down-to-earth and sensible, far too many of them come off as if they saw themselves as combination prophet, high priest, and object of affection. There’s rarely a shortage of ego when you get among actors.
It’s really peculiar that actors should be these ego-driven critters, when you think about it, because of what they spend their lives doing. An actor’s profession calls for him or her to push back the self and take on the personality, the voice patterns, the behaviors, the attitudes, and so forth of another. I’ve done enough acting to realize that this isn’t the easiest way a person can make a living, and it certainly needn’t be the most self-centered profession. If a basketball player or a surgeon or an opera singer were to show too much self-love, I wouldn’t be surprised. But the nature of acting seems to argue against that tendency.
But of course, when you’re acting you are never completely able to put off yourself and put on the other person. For example, when Jerry Lewis is cast as Hamlet, he can say, “What a piece of work is man,” dress all in black, and mistreat his beloved, but he can’t completely stop being Jerry Lewis. A part of him is going to want to look at Gertrude and bellow out, “Hey lady!”
More realistically, I need look no further than my own experience. Last year in my church’s Christmas pageant, they cast me as Caiaphas. As Caiaphas, I dressed in a sumptuous outfit complete with a funny hat. I stood, my arms folded and face scowling, when Jesus came into town. I did all the Caiaphas stuff that lay before me. But then came the crucifixion scene when they told me to walk up in front of Jesus on the cross and shout ugly things at him, mockery straight out of the gospels. Part of me put on the role of Caiaphas and said, “I can say anything to this awful man! I could hammer the nails if they’d let me.” But another part refused to let go of me. That part found it distasteful. That part hid in the background as those foul words were said, and, when I exited from the stage, that part made me want to break down and cry. The only thing that made me able to get through it was the knowledge that the man I insulted wasn’t really Jesus, but instead another human who hadn’t fully put aside his individuality to play his part.
Zechariah today again introduces the character of Joshua the high priest. He refers to him as the Branch. Clearly, if you’ve read Isaiah 11, you realize that this Joshua, while a man in Zechariah’s own day, is also a foreshadowing of another Joshua—or Yeshua—or Jesus—yet to come. Like all the high priests before and after him, this Joshua stood as an actor, playing the part of Christ taking away the sins of the world. Yet this Joshua could not put away his sinful human nature any more than I can put away my personality when I play a part.
The Old Testament has several characters who played the role of the Messiah, before the true Messiah came onto the stage. Isaac on Mount Moriah, Joseph in Egypt, Moses, Joshua (the earlier one), and now this Joshua all stand in to show the people of Israel the nature of their redeemer. Yet each of these actors falls short. Only the true character, Christ himself, could play the part that God had prepared from the foundation of the world.
Tonight, the Cub Scouts of my son’s pack held their yearly Pinewood Derby. I think I mentioned the difficulties of carting around the track a few days back. Tonight those difficulties continued, but that’s not what I want to share with you. No, what I want to share is the marvelous result. Tonight I got to watch as Kory’s “Bullet” car won race after race. Kory is a Tiger Cub, among the youngest of our band. He’s also probably the most reserved kid we have in the pack. But tonight you could just see the joy bubbling up within him as each time the Bullet did the same thing. We noticed it last week during our practice night. We’d launch four cars at the same time. They’d all race down the steep incline of the track. Normally the Bullet would lag behind the others. You’d have assumed that this little car would wind up in last place. But then, when the cars made their way onto the flat straightaway leading to the finish, the Bullet would apparently accelerate and bolt into the lead, leaving the others in its dust. I know that an unpowered car on a flat track can’t accelerate, so it must be that it didn’t slow down when the others did. Regardless, the Bullet ran through eight races tonight, unbeaten and untied, a truly impressive performance.
I asked Kory’s dad afterward what they had done to make their car so outstanding. I’ve heard of people putting the nails that serve as axles into a drill press and milling them until they’re absolutely round. I’ve heard of them shaving plastic off of the wheels. Some people insist that the key to victory lies in placing weight over the front axle. Others strive to load up the rear axle. Some folks get absolutely maniacal about the alignment of the wheels. If you’re willing to drop a few bucks on the table, you can find any number of people on the Internet with sure-fire systems for building a winning car. I didn’t think that Kory’s dad would go in for that sort of thing, but I figured he’d done something clever. His answer? “I don’t know. We just put it together. Kory hammered the nails in.”
What could be better? A dad and a son spent a couple of hours together cutting out a cool bullet-shaped car. They gave it a paint job that would thrill any first grader. They knocked the wheels on as straight as they could. And they won the race. Kory and his dad understand that the Pinewood Derby is for kids and their parents to work together, have some fun, and do their best.
Unfortunately, a lot of people don’t get that simple truth. You find dads producing cars that could perform well in a wind tunnel. They won’t let their boys get anywhere close to the finished product. Some dads invest in those special plans or in secret speed-enhancing parts. They just don’t get it. Who’s the Derby for? Is it for dad or the boy? Kory knows.
Zechariah asks the people of Israel a similar question. When you fast and mourn and feast and worship, who are you doing it for? Are you doing it for God or for yourself? We do well to ask ourselves that same question. When we perform religious actions, are we doing them for God? Or are we doing them for ourselves? Even a first grader can see that winning the race is meaningless when you’re headed to the wrong finish line.
About a week ago, my son made his brilliant theatrical debut. Tom had been cast in a significant role for a children’s musical, J-Force. Our church’s children were asked to debut this production for the publishers, so on that chilly Monday, a couple of buses full of kids headed to the publisher’s headquarters to present the play for a conference of children’s pastors. While I had to slave all day in front of a hot chalkboard, Penny got the opportunity to accompany the kids. But here’s the rub. She had to ride on the bus with some of these kids.
What could be so bad about being an adult on a bus full of second, third, and fourth graders? Are you kidding? She came to bed tonight and, rather than watching one of our typical detective shows, she started getting immediately groggy. “I’ve been through too much today,” she complained. “I can’t stay up with you.” The clock read 9:15. Before her eyes rolled back in her head, I asked her what had been so bad. Here’s what she said:
“They put me on the full bus. I was the only adult on a bus with A. and W. and C.” Of course she said the kids’ actual names, but I’m far too diplomatic for that. A couple of the names she mentioned made me immediately shudder. The idea of being in the same zip code as these kids made me queasy. But others had to be explained. “W. used to be such an easy kid. But now you’re saying that name every ten seconds. ‘Don’t do that, W.’ ‘Stop screaming, W.’ ‘Keep your hands to yourself, W.’” It’s enough to make you crazy.
Or, in Penny’s case, it’s enough to make you fall asleep before you can watch Hercule Poirot recover the stolen pearls.
As I sit here tonight writing this, though, it occurs to me that the Christian life, the life of the church, is a lot like being cooped up on that bus full of unruly kids. You see, on that bus there were probably twenty-five kids who were no real problem at all. They might get a bit loud now and again, but they were basically good kids. But then there were five or ten or fifteen kids who made you crazy. Some of them are belligerent. Some are annoying. Some just can’t stop talking. They’re very hard to take, but they’re who God put us here with. As I look around my church, I probably see something similar to what you see in your church. The majority of people are easy-going and pleasant to be with, but a significant minority make you want to stand up and scream. They’re belligerent. They’re annoying. They’re absurdly needy. They’re difficult and awkward and they are the church.
As I read Zechariah’s words today, I’m reminded that Christians are not called to live only with the agreeable and socially acceptable. We’re called to live with, to serve, to love the difficult and the defiant, the strange and the stranger. When we fail to do that, we’re making our hearts as hard as flint. You need only read the end of verse 12 to see how God feels about that change.
I can’t blame Penny for wanting to get off of that bus today. I’d have wanted off as well. God never said we have to live on the bus, but when we abandon the bus and keep strictly to ourselves, we’re not doing God’s will.
Every so often you’ll see headlines in the paper or stories on TV about teachers who love their students in the wrong way. I think we all know what I’m talking about, so there’s no need to go into detail here. What goes underreported, however, are those teachers who legitimately and appropriately love their students. When we fall into one of those feel-good, pro-education moods, we might be tempted to lump all teachers together and say that they all love their students, but that would, in the end, be naïve and wrong. The truth is that many teachers do not love their students.
Scott retired from JCCC a few years back. I heard him one time in a faculty meeting talking about his relationship with his students. “I don’t particularly like them and they don’t particularly like me,” he claimed. At the time, I thought he was playing the role of the curmudgeon. I believed that, in his heart of hearts, Scott must truly like those kids. Perhaps he even loved them, although he’d never confess as much. As time went on, though, I came to realize that any love for students that Scott had once possessed had long ago gone the way of the polyester leisure suit. This man truly didn’t care for his students. In many ways he was a good teacher. He’d show up for class every day, and he certainly knew his subject matter. So who cares if he didn’t much like the “customers”? As long as he got the job done, wasn’t that enough?
Then there’s Mary Grace, another teacher at JCCC, and one who lives up to her name in just about every way. Mary Grace does not possess the academic credentials that Scott had. She’s not quite the presenter or presence that he was in the classroom, but there’s one thing that anyone who knows her will confirm: Mary Grace loves her students. She cares deeply about these people. Her specialty is English as a Second Language. Now I pride myself on being good and caring when it comes to non-native students, but Mary Grace goes far beyond the call of duty. She gives up time that she isn’t required to give up. She spends countless hours in her office working with individuals. And all the while she wears a smile that says, “I’m not just doing this to earn a paycheck.”
When I look back at the teachers, the coaches, the youth leaders, and others who have influenced me in the past, I can easily tell you who cared about me and who was just punching the time clock. In my experience, the English teachers tended to fall into that loving category more often than the math teachers, which might explain why I wound up doing what I do. The best of them all, however, was probably an art teacher, somebody who kept in touch with me and acted as if he truly cared about my success whether it was in art or elsewhere.
I think that sometimes we can view God as a sort of uncaring teacher, somebody who has the rules and imposes them fairly and thoroughly. But as I read the opening lines of this chapter, I’m reminded of the boundless love of God. “I am very jealous for Zion; I am burning with jealousy for her.” God loves us better than any teacher, any parent, any coach, or any pastor can ever do. God’s love simply will not let us go gently into the night of sin, just as my art teacher wouldn’t let me get away with laziness in my drawing. And that’s just what we need: a love that doesn’t end when the bell rings.
In 1977, I took one of the great adventures of my life. Along with a good friend and half a dozen guys who I scarcely knew, I headed to the Great Southwest and Philmont Scout Ranch. The eight Scouts and one adult in our group backpacked for twelve days through the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of New Mexico. We ate dehydrated food and drank water purified with iodine tablets. We encountered bears and mule deer and ambushing thunderstorms. It was great!
But what sticks in my mind about that trip, probably more than my one bear sighting, was what happened our last night on the trail. Camped in one of the more gorgeous places on earth, we should have been sitting back and basking in the glory of it all. Instead, two of the guys got into a fist-fight. Nobody found it surprising. We only wondered who it would be and when it would happen. Happily, it didn’t involve me, but in a way it did. For two weeks, we’d all been selfishly grousing about doing the dishes and carrying the water and minding the fire. Nobody complained about the cooking, not because they enjoyed it but because they preferred it to the other jobs. We were a far cry from a team.
The next summer, after spending two months on the staff of the local Scout camp, I had the opportunity to return to Philmont. This time, the crew would be made up entirely of veterans of the camp staff aside from my friend, Tony, who had gone the year before. What I remember about this second trip is how easily it went. We assigned the jobs, but nobody complained about doing them. We all pitched in to collect wood and water. A summer of working together had taught us that when the work got done, the play could begin. Everybody bought into that belief. Everybody but Tony. I don’t mean to criticize him, as he certainly got the hang of this ideal in the next few summers when he worked on the Philmont staff. But that summer, Tony was decidedly the odd man out. I noticed it. The others noticed it. Fortunately, nobody decided to duke it out.
At the risk of making a strictly humanistic statement out of our reading for today, I’d like to look at Zechariah’s words about the temple and consider their application to our lives today. Isn’t it amazing how well our lives tend to go when we join ourselves together to pursue some worthwhile goal? When we’re chasing after our own desires, building our own houses, to use Haggai’s imagery, we encounter roadblocks and problems, but when we pursue the things of God, we not only achieve those things but the worthwhile stuff of our dreams as well.
So what does that mean for us today? I think we need to focus ourselves on building up the temple of God. No, we don’t need to quit our jobs and head off to Jerusalem, but we can build the temple that is our own body. We can build the temple that is the church. If we attend to these matters then “the seed will grow well, the vine will yield its fruit,” and all else will be as we need it. When that happens, the backpack feels light and the trail slopes ever downward.
As you read this, you’re probably making use of one of the marvels of our age: the computer. Somewhere in the brief history of the computer, somebody decided to compare the computer to the human mind, and a great metaphor was born. When our computer stalls out trying to perform some task, we say “It’s thinking,” and when it starts to display strange things that truly don’t belong on the screen, I’ll say that “It’s confused.” Join with me today in a tale of two computers.
Frank and Ernest buy identical computers. Each one shouts triumphantly to the other, “Dude, I’m getting a Dell.” But from there their paths diverge quickly.
Frank gets his computer, sets it up, and immediately begins to traverse the information superhighway at top speed. He goes to web-sites that he has no business visiting and downloads all manner of movies, pictures, and songs to his groaning, nearly-full hard-drive. What’s more, he pays no attention to all of those little pop-ups that ask him if he wants to download “Rip-U-Off” or “GatorSaver” or “SpiesRUs,” those marvelous programs that hijack your homepage and send personal information off to points unknown. Besides that, Frank disables his virus protection, since it adds an extra five seconds to the time it takes his computer to boot. And he’ll open any attachment that comes his way, no questions asked. Before long, Frank’s computer is plodding along at the speed of a sedated slug.
Ernest, on the other hand, is loving his computer. Although he downloads things now and again, he makes sure not to completely fill his hard-drive. He does his best to keep all those nasty SpyWare programs off of his computer, and he has several tools to remove them when they do show up. Ernest has his virus protection fully functional, but he’s still skeptical of things that look dangerous. After all, you never know when you’re going to run onto the next “I Love You” virus. As a result of all this, Ernest’s computer runs circles around Frank’s.
Then one day, Frank complains about his computer to Ernest. Ernest braves the elements to help Frank. Ernest clears off five gigabytes of hard-drive space. He finds and destroys twenty-seven SpyWare programs. He kills a handful of viruses and ensures that Frank’s virus scan is back in place. All of a sudden, Frank’s computer is once again bounding along the mountains like a gazelle.
Here’s the question. Did Frank’s computer “change its mind”? No! The mind inside is exactly the same. What changed was how Frank treated that mind. When you mistreat a computer, a car, a house, a dog, or whatever, you’re going to get bad results. When you treat these things right, then you get good results. How amazing.
As we read today’s verses, we might be inclined to think here, as elsewhere in the Bible, that God changed his mind. But God doesn’t actually change his mind. God simply responds to us according to the way in which we behave. There’s a computer expression that I like: Garbage in, garbage out or GIGO. Rather than believing that God changes his mind, let’s see if we haven’t started to give him garbage to work with.
I remember when I saw the first Rocky picture back when it hit the theaters. For all of about twenty minutes after I left the place, I wanted to go home and start working out. I wanted to get into shape and be as tough as Rocky. Of course, when I got home there were Twinkies in the cupboard, so my best laid plans fell to pieces.
There have been, if my memory serves me correctly, five Rocky films. The first one was amazing. It won the Best Picture Oscar and it deserved it. In those days, people were actually acting in the film and the script, which I believe Sylvester Stallone wrote himself, took more than forty minutes to slap together. In that film, Rocky doesn’t even win the fight. Instead, he simply goes the distance with the champion, Apollo Creed. You see, nobody had ever gone the distance with Apollo Creed, so not getting knocked out by him looked a lot like a victory. It worked in that movie.
Certain elements of the Rocky franchise got laid down in that first film, never to be abandoned. Apollo Creed, the nemesis of the first two, had such a big head that you couldn’t imagine it not getting hit more often. Yes, to have a Rocky film, you have to have an opponent who is incredibly arrogant. Creed was good for two stories. Then along came Mr. T and his character, Clubber Lang. This guy completely lacked Apollo Creed’s sophistication, but he had all the ego that could be stuffed into that considerable body. My favorite Clubber line came when reporters asked him if he had a prediction for the fight. “Yeah!” he snarled. “Pain!”
And if that weren’t enough, in the fourth movie we were treated to a guy named Drago. Now I have to say that anybody who just goes by one name is going to be full of himself. Just look around popular culture and you can see it at work. Drago, a Russian fighter, looked to be a wrecking machine, and he knew it. His best remembered line was “I must break you.” Finally, in the fifth film, we get a double dose of hubris. There’s a Don King look-alike and a would-be protégé of Rocky’s, played by Tommy Morrison, who is worthy of examination all his own.
Of course, these ego-driven fighters wouldn’t be good Hollywood villains if they weren’t also incredibly ominous. Apollo Creed makes Muhammad Ali look like a plodder. Clubber Lang could probably bull through a concrete wall. And Drago we know to be tough because he not only beats but kills Apollo Creed in the ring. Yikes! Tommy Morrison’s character isn’t up to the standard, I’m afraid.
In the end, the pay-off of the Rocky film is watching the scary and vain guys bite the dust. That’s all there is to it. That’s how Sylvester Stallone made a zillion dollars. And of course we like to see the scary and vain guy go down. That’s what Zechariah describes today as he prophesies against the city of Tyre.
You know, it’s not a coincidence that most of the Beatitudes describe people who are decidedly humble. God doesn’t have much use for people who think too highly of themselves. If you doubt that, then you haven’t been paying attention as we’ve passed through the minor prophets these past eight months.
And so the question that I pose for myself is how often am I like Tyre? How often am I relying on my position, my abilities, my strength? God doesn’t just disapprove of hubris in city-states. He opposes it in you and me, and he’s perfectly capable of showing that opposition to us.
A couple of weeks ago, the people of Iraq cast their votes in their first free election in many years. Yes, they had been allowed to vote in the past, but a choice between voting for Saddam and for Saddam didn’t seem to most people to be a meaningful one. But in the January vote, there were meaningful choices. In the end, the big winner was the United Iraqi Alliance, an association of Shiite groups. Perhaps you remember their big national convention last summer. That was the one with all the balloons and people in silly hats and long lines of ridiculous speeches. Or maybe that was here. No, the United Iraqi Alliance—it sort of trips off the tongue, doesn’t it?—didn’t have a convention simulcast on all the major networks. Their claim to fame appears to be that virtually none of their candidates were murdered in the run-up to the voting. Second place fell to a coalition of Kurdish groups led by one Jalal Talabani. Personally, I find that man’s last name a little too close for comfort to the trouble-makers from Afghanistan. The party of the current prime minister, Iyad Allawi, came in a rather distant third. This may be ironically good news for Allawi, who may stop being the target of terrorist assassination plots. Or maybe he won’t be. I don’t know.
What does the future hold for Iraq? Have they just elected their version of a George Washington, a strong leader with integrity who can set the standard for others to follow in the years to come? Only time can answer that question. The time after a change of leadership always seems hopeful but uncertain. You have to wonder if this new boss will be better than the old boss. For the people of Iraq, who have suffered plenty, first under the decades of Saddam-inspired tyranny and then in the mayhem of the insurgency since Saddam’s fall, I sincerely pray that this new government will create a peaceful and prosperous future. But I’m not holding my breath.
In today’s reading, Zechariah shares one of his “greatest hits.” “Rejoice greatly, O Daughter of Zion!” he says. And why are the daughters of Zion to rejoice? The reason is simple: the king is coming. This isn’t the temporal king that we hear lauded in the Psalms. This isn’t David or Solomon. No, this is a king who comes “righteous and having salvation.” For all his good works, David could not be deemed righteous. Solomon never brought salvation. This king comes “gentle and riding on a donkey.” As I understand it, the tradition in the ancient world was for a king to ride a horse when riding to war but to sit upon a donkey when the nation was at peace. This king rides the donkey of peace. It’s not that he’s needlessly humble. He’s not exhibiting false modesty. This king has already won the battles. The horse is in the stable, retired, because he isn’t needed any longer. Rejoice, O Daughter of Zion! That’s a king worth celebrating.
We may be hopeful or discouraged when we look at the events on the newspaper pages in coming days. We may hear of ominous things in Iraq or encouraging ones in Korea. But in the end, we need to remember that our hope does not rest with any horse-riding leader, charging with the cavalry to save the day. Our hope rests with a great king, “righteous and having salvation, gentle and riding on a donkey.” All hail King Jesus!
I’ve never been in combat, but I think I know what it’s like to be under fire. My confrontation came during my graduate work at the University of Kansas. A while back, I shared with the triumph of the day that I uttered my barbaric yawp over the rooftops of Lawrence. On the day in question I never thought I’d reach that moment of yawping. I wasn’t entirely certain I’d get out of the building with my life.
Let’s set the scene by saying that on that infamous day some of my work had gone, in my opinion, under-appreciated. In reviewing whatever feedback I received, I tried to look at the work and the feedback with the utmost of objectivity and I arrived at a conclusion that was, I was certain, completely fair-minded and accurate: I’d written brilliantly and had been notoriously abused by my respondents. However, knowing that the human mind will occasionally fall prey to some slight hint of bias, I decided to put my conclusions to the test. I consulted a close friend, a person who had already earned his doctorate from not only the same department but studying under the same professor. Surely, if this guy thought I had done well, then I had done well. When I put the question to him, I’m sure I did it in a completely unslanted manner. Probably I said something like, “My committee thinks this didn’t do what they wanted, but I think it’s brilliant. Any imbecile can see that it’s brilliant. What do you think?” Not surprisingly, he read it over quickly and said something like, “I think it’s okay,” which I interpreted to be a complete endorsement.
Armed with unimpeachable witnesses, myself and a spineless friend, I confronted my advisor, the dreaded Doug. I explained how the committee had clearly misread, misunderstood, misinterpreted, and simply missed my mystique. Finally, I played my trump card and shared what my friend, his own former student had said. That’s when the shooting started. I believe that I remember his words reasonably well: “I don’t care what anybody else said about it. All I care about is what I said about it. If you wanted to know something about it, you should have come to ask me!”
When the smoke cleared, I found myself soaked not with blood but sweat. Doug, I could tell, hadn’t exhausted his anger. In true graduate student form, I backtracked as possible, alternating between apologies and retractions. Somehow I managed to skulk out of that room with my future intact, but not before Doug made it crystal clear to me exactly how hideous my work had been.
I realize that for you, my faithful readers, the idea of me writing anything that is not unadulterated brilliance is difficult to believe, but it does happen now and again. It had happened on that day, but I didn’t see it, because I had gone to the wrong sources for help. Rather than going to the real source for my assistance, I sought help from myself and others, places where help couldn’t in the end be found.
That is, essentially, what Zechariah shares with us today. People will tend to look for their support in a variety of places. They’ll trust in people and they’ll trust in false gods. But those trusts will invariably disappoint. It is God who gives the rains and makes the storms gather. It’s God who makes the plants grow in the fields. It’s God who does things beyond agriculture, as well. We can go far afield searching for a better foundation on which to build, but in the end our foundation must be laid in the Lord our God.
He was the champion of the Dutch Rub, a master among ear-pullers. At the end of the day, that’s what I’ll remember about my Uncle Howard. I guess it shouldn’t be surprising that the one son in a family with three daughters might develop an ornery disposition, but Howard, it always seemed to me when I was growing up, turned that into an art form. Lest you think I exaggerate, allow me to share with you one of his favorite activities.
Uncle Howard loved to come up behind a likely victim, which seemed to be anybody who was breathing, and grab them by both ears, pulling those same ears outward until the poor victim looked more like Prince Charles than themselves. And then he’d say it, those much-hated words: “Goose or gander?”
The first time Uncle Howard did that to me, I had no idea of how I was supposed to respond. “Goose or Gander?” What’s that supposed to mean? He might as well have said “Map or mocha?” for all the sense it made to me. I suppose that’s why I stood there, flummoxed, with my ears deployed like solar panels under Howard’s constant attention.
“Goose or gander?” he repeated. Again I had no idea how to respond. I think somebody explained to me that I was supposed to select between goose and gander. Why I would choose between these two things, I had no clue, but I did. I stood there for a moment mulling my options before I said, “Goose.”
“Squirm ‘til you get loose!” he said gleefully, tugging a little harder at my ears.
“Okay, then gander!” I tried, although in my heart I really knew better than to say anything else.
“Way out yander!” he then cried out, again pulling at my ears.
Yander? What in the world is yander supposed to mean? If you mean yonder, then say yonder! Can’t you even come up with a word that rhymes? I wanted to say all of those things, but I’d been well enough schooled in respecting my elders to keep those cracks to myself. Instead, I did just what my uncle had suggested. I squirmed until I got loose.
I have to say that having my ears pulled stood higher in my estimation than having him rub at my scalp with his knuckles, but in the end, most of the attention that I got from my uncle during those formative years would be classified among the bad attention—you know, the sort of attention you get from the police or from nervous little dogs.
Why did my uncle enjoy tormenting me? It’s not that he was a bad guy. In fact, my guess is that this was the best way he knew to treat us as something more important than the furniture. After all, he never pulled the furniture’s ears. Although I sometimes found this man distressing, I never mistook his attention for anything other than his brand of fun, directed at people whom he cared about. He just had a funny way of showing it.
What brings Howard’s ear-pulling to mind today are the words that Zechariah shares for the people of Israel. God loves Israel, but you’d forgive Israel if they thought God had a funny way of showing it. God has allowed his people to be spread among the nations, battered and abused. They’ve received far worse than a Dutch Rub over the centuries—and deserved it most of the time—but in the end God’s love will win out. In the end, God grabs them by the ears and bids them “squirm ‘til you get loose.” But unlike my uncle, God won’t let go of his people. When things reach their worst, we can rest assured that we not only have God’s ear but that he has ours.
I haven’t kept chickens for a couple of years now, since the neighborhood dogs brought death to the chicken coop one time too many. But in the years that I did keep the birds, I thoroughly enjoyed it. One of the things that I felt best about was the idea of the chicken tractor. I read about it in a book somewhere, and the concept seemed so perfect that I simply had to make it happen.
A chicken tractor is an enclosure in which chickens can live. It’s a cage with a roof on the top and wire around three sides. One end of the cage is enclosed with plywood giving the birds a bit of a refuge when the foxes come to call. So where does the tractor part of this come in? It’s like this. You put your chicken tractor into the garden. You put the chickens inside along with their feed and water. Then you leave them there for a day or two. The birds will do what birds do. They’ll pluck up every last weed, eat bugs, scratch at the dirt, and leave chicken residue—if you know what I mean. All of these things, we discover, are good for the soil. Every day or two, you move the box down so that the birds begin working over a new chunk of turf. Over time, you move the birds over every fallow portion of your garden, so the chickens essentially cultivate and fertilize the garden thirty-two square feet at a time. It’s brilliant!
But there’s a downside to the chicken tractor. Since the chickens are given less room to roam than they would be typically given in a normal arrangement, they will overload the land if they are not moved regularly. The cultivation and fertilization regime that they might accomplish in two days quickly transforms into a process of ruination. Leave the birds on one site for a week, and that rectangle is pretty nasty for the days to come.
Like so many things in life, the chicken tractor works out really well if it is handled in the way that the designer intended it. But if you try to do things your own way, then the results can be pretty stinky.
Read the words of Zechariah today and you’ll hear a cry for the environment. Is Zechariah a tree-hugger? Not exactly, but I think that he’s reminding us to treat the world that God has given us in the manner that God intended. The earth is a rich and productive place, designed to bring forth all manner of riches for us, but sometimes we just can’t overcome our laziness and our desire to take shortcuts. Rather than using a perfect system in the way that it was designed to be used, we simply have to outsmart the designer. We overfish our oceans, over-spray our bugs and weeds, and over-medicate our animals. And then we act surprised when “nature” doesn’t treat us in the manner that we’d prefer. And we don’t have to go far into the wilderness to find nature’s rebellion. I don’t have to look any further than my own body. It’s astounding how, after I fill myself with junk, I feel less than marvelous.
God has given us a bountiful world, one beyond our needs. If we’ll simply learn the lesson of the chicken tractor, then we can enjoy good soil, fresh eggs, and the occasional fryer. But when we try to improve on the designer’s plan—when we get greedy—we shouldn’t be surprised at the results.
Today, my friend and colleague Ellen came into my office. Ellen and I frequently share our writing with each other, each hoping that the other will spot some embarrassing something before it goes out to a wider and less sympathetic public. In case you had any doubts, she never looks at these things before they go out.
Today, however, Ellen didn’t want me to look at a sample of her writing. Instead, she had something that a third party had written. Apparently, she and a handful of others are proposing a presentation at some conference or other. Ellen’s mission is to pull the proposal together from the contributions of all the others. What this other contributor had offered mystified her, so she consulted me, the Master of Metaphor.
“I’m not sure what to make of this,” she began. “But you’re the Master of Metaphor, the Wizard of Waters, so I know that you can figure it out.”
Yes, I have the distinction of being the only person on the planet to earn a Ph.D. while writing about fly-fishing literature, but that hardly makes me the Wizard of Waters. I didn’t blanche of the Master of Metaphor tag, however. I took up the piece of paper that she offered and began to scan down its contents. I hadn’t gone far when the offending bits raised their heads above the ramparts. “Writing centers must cross the institutional waters as well as cross-pollinate between theory and practice,” the paper read.
Clearly, it was worse than I had suspected. Not only was this writer using a confusing metaphor, but she was mixing her metaphors, first crossing waters and then cross pollinating. Unless she meant to conjure some sort of amphibious honeybee, I don’t really know what this was about.
I read over the words once more and then looked up at Ellen. “I don’t get it,” I confessed. “What is the water supposed to represent? Apparently this ‘institutional water’ lies between schools, but if that’s the case then how can it be ‘institutional.’ Wouldn’t it have to belong to one of the schools? But then that doesn’t make any sense.”
Ellen stared at me and nodded. “Okay, but how do we fix it?” Clearly she didn’t care much for my metaphor analysis. She wanted not extended diagnosis but a quick cure. In response to her question, I looked back at the page, thought a bit, and then offered my best guess: “I haven’t a clue how to fix it.” And I didn’t. Having mulled the matter over all through the afternoon, I still don’t understand what this writer meant to say.
This exchange pops into my mind tonight as I read Zechariah’s shepherd and staffs metaphor. Who is this shepherd? And how does the thirty pieces of silver come into the scene? At one moment in this passage, I see the shepherd as a prefigure of Christ. But then the imagery is that of Judas. So what are we to make of this exchange? I can’t say with any more certainty than what I could bring to Ellen’s page today.
While I can’t be certain who the shepherd is, I can be sure that it’s not me and that I am instead one of the sheep. As a sheep, it makes sense that I wouldn’t fully understand everything going on about me. It makes sense that I might be led astray by a wicked shepherd and that I should rely on the ministrations of a good shepherd. I don’t know who this shepherd is whom Zechariah describes, but I do know the good shepherd who appears time and again in scripture’s pages. Like a good sheep, I can avoid confusion by listening for his voice.
I got a troubling phone call yesterday. You see, I’m a deacon in my church, and in that role I have a number of families and individuals assigned for my care. Most of those people require absolutely no attention. In fact, most of them would prefer that I never pester them at all. However, there are a handful who need and deserve some attention. One person in particular, somebody who has been on my list for over a year, deserves some of my time.
The lady in question is over ninety years of age. She’s been a widow for many years, and her children, long grown obviously, live hours away from here. Would it have been such a difficult thing for me to give her a phone call every week or so? Would it have been a real imposition onto my time if I had dropped in to her place for a half an hour every month or so? I don’t think so, but I didn’t do that. I didn’t get beyond the perfunctory contacts. I sent letters and cards at significant times of the year.
A couple of weeks ago, another senior lady at the church pointed this lady out to me. You see, I wouldn’t even have known her by face. “You’re her deacon, Mark,” this second lady said. “You need to go see her!” Of course I knew she was right. I resolved right then to mend my ways.
The phone call yesterday scared me. I knew that the person calling had to be bringing some level of bad news about somebody on my list. Surely it couldn’t be this lady. It was. Surely the news couldn’t be of the most serious nature. Happily, that phone call reported not a death but an injury. I had another chance.
Yesterday afternoon, I spent a good half hour in a hospital room listening to this lady whom I should have known so much better. She’s a delight. Having fallen in her apartment, she’s suffering from broken ribs and a nasty shiner on her eye. And her first words to me? “You should see the other guy!” In spite of the pain, in spite of the frustration, this child of God has a sense of humor and a sense of hope. I think she enjoyed our visit, but I know that I did.
As I walked out of the hospital yesterday, I wondered if God would number me with the worthless shepherds who desert the flock. Is it because of people like me that the “staff of union” is broken in Zechariah. In John 13:34, Jesus gives his disciples a new commandment: “Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” How often, in our rush to attend services, to promote programs, to plan classes, and, perhaps, to write devotions, do we simply forget to be good shepherds and to love the people. My prayer for myself is that I remain chastened by this patient sheep. My prayer for the wider church is that we all devote ourselves to our shepherding.
These are bleak times for the lovers of the Kansas Jayhawks. As I write this, the once mighty Jayhawk basketball team has lost three straight games. What’s more distressing than those three losses is the fact that one of them came against lowly Iowa State on the KU home court. I’ll be wearing black all week in response to that weekend defeat.
There was a day when opposing teams shuddered and shook when they had to come into the Allen Fieldhouse to play the Jayhawks. You simply didn’t come into that arena and win, no matter how good you were. A huge sign hangs at one end of the building and reads, “Beware of the Phog,” a reference to the building’s namesake, Phog Allen.
What made the Allen Fieldhouse such a daunting place to play? Part of it had to be the fact that it was simply home for the home team. It’s almost always easier to play when you’re playing on your own home court, when you dress in your own home locker-room, when you travel to the game in your own car. The home-sweet-home factor shouldn’t be ignored here. It also doesn’t help to have thousands and thousands of maniacal fans screaming at the tops of their lungs throughout the entire game. Those kids—and some kids at heart—will cheer every basket and mock every opponent’s airball. They’ll perform all manner of wild gyrations when the other team shoots free throws, and then they’ll happily claim credit for each one that’s missed. When you hear those thousands start to drone the ghostly strains of “Rock Chalk Jayhawk,” you know that you’re already beaten.
Of course it doesn’t hurt that KU almost never has a bad basketball team. Even when strong teams come to Lawrence, they aren’t going to just overwhelm the home team. Couple that strong tradition with the home court advantage and you get a formidable place for a visitor to try to come in and win. So what in the world happened Saturday when a decidedly mid-range, unranked Iowa State team ambled into the Allen Fieldhouse? First they took the boys in blue to overtime. And then they had the bad form to win that overtime period. What’s up with that?
Some people get the sense that a home field advantage means that they cannot be beaten. Of course what we normally discover is that there isn’t an advantage that guarantees victory. At least there isn’t one in sports.
In today’s reading, Zechariah describes a sort of home field advantage, a day when Jerusalem will be unbeatable. All the nations of the world will send forces against Jerusalem, but those forces will not prevail. The ancient city will be like “an immovable rock for all the nations.”
Just when we think that there isn’t any hope, when we think that the culture is sliding into absolute decay, and that people are no durn good, we need to envision this ultimate home field advantage. There’s an old saying that I repeat from time to time. “I’ve read the back of the book (the Bible) and we win.” Our God is in control. He will allow the nations to rise up against him and then he will defeat them all, so that no one can doubt his sovereignty. He might not guide your favorite basketball team to victory in the NCAA tournament, but he can be counted on to be the last one standing in the ultimate Final Four.
At one of the merchandise tables at the Cornerstone Music Festival that we used to attend, I saw a T-shirt with an intriguing message: “Body Piercing Saved My Life.” On the back of the shirt was a picture of the pierced hands of Jesus. Despite the truth contained on that shirt, I still have a problem with those young people who seem determined to put holes in ever area of their body not enclosing a vital organ.
For the longest time, I looked at the kids in my classes and others whom I might encounter here and there. I’d see them with eight hundred chunks of hardware lining the edge of their ears. I’d see a ring through the brow or, worse to my mind, a ring or a post through the side of the nose. Some of them, bull-like, would pierce their septum, the cartilage that divides the nostrils. Some have rings through a lip or in the area between the lower lip and the chin. I looked at all of those piercings—and I imagined ones that I couldn’t see and didn’t at all want to see—and had the strangest feeling. In fact, for several years I couldn’t put my finger on what it was that troubled me about them. Then one day I figured it out.
I used to wonder why they would want to shoot holes in themselves, but on the other hand I realized that it was a somewhat arbitrary attitude that I held. After all, I don’t think there’s anything strange about a woman piercing her ears once. Why is that so different from a pierced nose? Still something bugged me.
The real source of my discomfort, I realized at last, was trying to understand why they pierced what they pierced. What makes a kid say, “I’m going to put one hole in the left side of my nose and two in my right eyebrow”? What makes that better than one in the right side of the nose and one in the lip? Why not just become a sort of human pin cushion with all manner of jewelry embedded here and there?
It is my hope to buy a new SUV sometime this spring or early in the summer. When I buy that big critter, there won’t be any doubt as to why I bought it. I want something dependable that can carry our entire family, grandkids included, and can tow our camper. This isn’t going to be some arbitrary purchase. It’ll have been well researched and agonized upon. It won’t, I hope, look anything like these capricious piercing whims that the kids seem to go in for.
Putting holes in one’s body, just like putting holes in one’s budget, shouldn’t be done lightly. I’m reminded of this as I read Zechariah’s haunting words today. “They will look on me, the one they have pierced.” When Jesus chose to allow himself to be pierced, the piercing that saved my life, he did not do it on a whim and he did not do it without a sound reason. He didn’t want those holes in his flesh, but they were necessary. The body piercing that saved my life should cause us a mixture of joy and grief, causing us to sing praises and to grieve bitterly.
In the end, a young person’s choice of holes in their skin means relatively little, but Jesus’ choice to bear his holes means everything. Body piercing did indeed save my life. Yours too?
In case you were wondering about my attempt to wean myself off of caffeinated drinks that I announced a month or so back, I must confess that I’ve utterly failed in that effort. Once again, I’m swilling down a tall glass of soda in the morning and then, usually, a can between my 9 and 10 am classes. From there, the beat goes on. I guess there are worse things in my life.
My diet pop fixation is nothing new. A few years ago, I went to a conference in San Francisco, staying in a hotel there by myself. Although I found myself in the midst of the city’s financial district, I realized one day that I also appeared to be in the midst of a diet pop desert. Sure, I could have purchased a can of Diet Coke for a dollar and a quarter from a machine in the hotel, but I hardly thought that represented good stewardship. I set out searching the neighboring streets for a convenience store or some other establishment where, for perhaps a dollar fifty, I could take away a two-liter bottle. After scanning everything within a two-block radius of the hotel, I came to a conclusion: there simply wasn’t a reasonably priced soda to be found.
The same situation arose last spring when I took the family to Chicago. I walked all the way from Marshall Fields down to my hotel, probably three-quarters of a mile, and popped into every shop that looked promising. Wouldn’t you think I could have found a big bottle of pop somewhere in that stretch of State Street? But no! I came home empty-handed that day.
Last summer, I once again found myself in the diet soda desert when I went with Tom to Webelos camp. Although they had pop machines at a couple of spots in the camp, none of them had any diet pop within. I became convinced it was a conspiracy.
Now I realize that this little problem sounds like a lot of whining and much ado about nothing, but it’s not a completely trivial thing. For a guy who can’t stand coffee and for whom drinking sugared pop is like drinking maple syrup, the absence of the unsweetened stuff threatens to reduce a person to drinking water. Imagine! Likewise, imagine the unspeakable riches that I find when suddenly fountain drinks and twelve-packs become available once again. It’s an exciting time.
When you visit Israel, you recognize that water is rarely a commodity to be found in excess. How exciting, then, is the prospect of a fountain being opened? Not only will the people have the opportunity to drink their fill, but the fountain will “cleanse them from sin and impurity.”
Next to the living water flowing from that fountain, my lack of diet soda is trivial. The fountain of which Zechariah speaks, has opened. It’s been pouring out its waters for two thousand years now and shows no sign of drying up. While I might enjoy a different taste now and again, I have to recognize that I will never go thirsty so long as the fountain is open. And the fountain will remain open forever.
Near the Plaza, Richard Bloch sits in his office. At eighty-two, Mr. Bloch is well past his glory days of building up his family’s company, H & R Block, to pre-eminence in the tax preparation field. But during Bloch’s heyday, he established his company to such a position that today, in order to make headway in the market, a new company has to resort to spotting people dressed as the Statue of Liberty or Uncle Sam out on the sidewalk. You’ve probably seen that bunch, haven’t you?
If I were Richard Bloch, though, I’d have to worry about the future of the company that I built from the ground up, and such a worry isn’t restricted to that company. No, I can imagine worries about family-founded businesses like Hallmark or Disney or Wal-Mart. As often as not, we see these companies, built up by the inspired and inspiring leadership of a generation of founders, go through very difficult times soon after the founders leave the stage. This tendency isn’t restricted to just big companies, either. You’ll see it in smaller construction companies, stores, and so forth. Once that first generation passes from the scene, the future can look mighty stormy.
Of course many companies never get to the point where the business can be transferred from one generation to the next. The statistics on failures among small businesses are frightening. Most new businesses don’t make it past the first few years, after all. For one to make it far enough that a father can pass the store down to the son is pretty remarkable.
Although many will fall by the wayside, many other companies continue to prosper after the founders relinquish the reins. Hallmark, to take just one example, has moved into its third generation of leadership. Certainly the spirit of the company has shifted in the years since Joyce Hall sold greeting cards out of his trunk, but the business remains quite profitable. One would expect it to remain vibrant into the fourth generation.
Zechariah describes tough times in today’s readings, times when a remnant will be tried as if by fire, refined like silver. I wonder sometimes how that image applies to us as the church. When tough times come, when the shepherd is struck, will I be in the one third who remain standing or in the two thirds who are struck down? Will I pass through the fire and be purified, or will I be left behind like dross? These images relate to the time of Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, but I don’t think that means we cannot apply them to our own time.
Just as individuals are placed in various professional roles and tested, we as believers are tested by God. For the businessman, the results of these tests are the difference between profit and loss, success and failure, but for the follower of God, the results stand for infinitely larger stakes. My prayer for each of us is that God will test us and find us worthy so that, at the end of the day, he will say “They are my people,” and we will say, “The Lord is our God.”
Watching a re-run of Law and Order recently, I marveled at something one of the characters said. “People understand that the devil is symbolic,” a lawyer said. Indeed, a significant portion of the population understands that the words of the Bible and the beliefs that underlie Christianity, if they are to have any value at all, must be understood allegorically and symbolically. Jesus, they say, died to show us the value of self-denial. He’s coming back, they argue, only insofar as his spirit rises up in good people of all ages. That’s how a sizeable part of the world thinks.
But that’s not how everybody thinks. A number of years ago, I stood on the Mount of Olives, the very place discussed in this passage from Zechariah, and saw a couple of sights that reminded me that not everybody reads the Bible’s words as spiritualized fairy tales.
If you stand on the Mount of Olives today, you can’t miss the place’s most prominent feature. The bulk of the hillside facing the Old City of Jerusalem is a sprawling graveyard. For centuries, pious Jews have been buried on this slope. And why? Is it because they read Zechariah’s words allegorically? No! They believe that the Messiah will literally appear on the Mount of Olives first. (Christians, of course, believe this as well, although we believe he’s already been there once.) If you’re going to be raised from your grave when the Messiah appears, wouldn’t you want to buried at the epicenter of this event? I can’t think of anything much better than being raised from my grave to see God’s Messiah. No, the Jews buried on the side of the Mount of Olives take these words to heart and literally.
Go to the bottom of the hill and you’ll find a creek bed. Just up on the other slope stand the walls of Jerusalem. If your eyes follow the walls along their eastern run, you’ll come to an interesting spot just opposite the Muslim Dome of the Rock. The Eastern Gate of Jerusalem has been filled in, bricked up, for many years. Why? Somewhere back in the Middle Ages, the Muslim rulers of Jerusalem heard that the Jewish Messiah would enter the city through the Eastern Gate. Those clever Muslims, however, had a surprise for this Messiah in whom they didn’t believe. They’d wall up that gate and then this imaginary Messiah couldn’t enter. As an insurance policy, they lined the outside of the eastern wall with a graveyard. Obviously the Messiah couldn’t defile himself by going through a graveyard. And if he did, he sure couldn’t pass through a bricked up gate. While we might laugh at this effrontery, we have to recognize that these Muslims believed the Bible’s words. After all, you don’t put up roadblocks to stop a symbolic threat.
The sad thing about both of these groups, the Jews buried on the hillside and the Muslims who walled up the gate, is that while they appear to believe in the Messiah, they have not submitted themselves to him. Most if not all of them will find themselves before Christ at a time in the future. They’ll claim their good works and their belief, but he will look at them and say “I never knew you.” It is important for us to believe the promises of the Messiah in the Bible, but it is even more important for us to depend upon the grace of that Messiah.
I’ll confess that when I read about the mountain splitting in two and people passing through it, I struggle to believe. But I know that my redeemer lives, and I know that I can depend on him to see me through whatever perils the future holds. On that day, one way or another, that mountain will split, but I trust that nothing will split me from my Lord and God.
It’s been about nine years now, but I can still remember the sight well. We had moved into our little five-acre mini-estate back in August. By the time winter came, I’d only mowed the grass a couple of times. We were still very much getting to know the property by the time the weather changed.
The house on 54th Street sat at the end of a driveway some four hundred feet long. For all the years we lived there, I recall driving down that little lane and noticing problems. A board from the fence had fallen loose. A hole had developed in the driveway where a drainage pipe ran underneath. A plastic grocery bag had gotten caught in the weeds of the pasture. One day a dead tree fell across the gateway, completely blocking me in. Oh, the joys of home ownership!
In that first winter, however, what I remember noticing was ice formed on the surface of the ground. I got out of my car, clambered over the fence, and inspected this oddity. In several spots, ice seemed to well up out of the grass and flow slightly down the hill. This wasn’t the product of any storm. In talking with one of our neighbors, I had discovered that the area had a number of springs. It occurred to me that day that perhaps we had a spring in that spot near the gate. How cool, I decided. Perhaps I could somehow channel that water directly down to the pond so that it would remain full regardless of the rainfall.
I’m not sure how much later it happened, but I received my water bill around that time. Taking one look at it, I realized that the “spring” up by the gate wasn’t a naturally occurring one. Instead, my water line had sprung a leak.
For all practical purposes, when a piece of your plumbing develops a leak, that water will flow forever. It’s not like the electrical system, where a short circuit will almost immediately trip a safety mechanism—the circuit breaker—and shut the offending line down. No, when a pipe bursts, it will dump water into the attic or into the basement or—in my case—into the pasture until somebody shuts the valve off. What a great system that is—if you happen to own the water company.
I say that the water will run forever for all practical purposes, but we realize that there are limits to the amount of water that a municipal water company can provide. Granted, I don’t have a pipe big enough to drain the water company’s reserves, but there is a theoretical limit. I can remember as a staff member at Boy Scout camp watching the pool director shine a flashlight up at the water tower to be sure that putting water into the pool wouldn’t run the camp short. In various places in the West, water supplies are reaching a critical stage. I’ve heard that the Colorado River no longer flows into the sea, as all of the water has been used up before it gets that far.
Not so the water supply described by Zechariah today. After the Mount of Olives does its big split, water will flow out from it to the east and to the west. And this won’t be ordinary water. This will be living water. I’m reminded of Jesus, in John 4, telling the woman at the well about the living water that he offered. Those who drink this water will never thirst again. As someone who has drunk of that water, I can highly recommend it. How exciting it is to envision a day when that rarefied stuff will flow to all corners of the world, like rivers of grace from the throne of God.
Last Saturday, Tom’s basketball team played the only team that we’d beaten outright all season long. In the first meeting, our boys thoroughly thrashed the others, and we won by ten or twelve. This time, however, although our boys played well, we entered the final six minutes with only a three-point lead. That lead reduced to one. Then it changed to a one-point deficit. With a minute or so left, I felt sure that we could get one more shot and pull victory from the jaws of defeat. Then one of their better players grabbed a rebound and ran the length of the court. My boys set up for the rebound, but there was no rebound to grab. We wound up losing by three.
In the aftermath of the game, I did my best to put a good face on the defeat for the boys. I commended them on how well they had all played and how they had played as a team. And I didn’t have to exaggerate to say these things. Save for a couple of lucky shots by one side or unlucky shots by our side or some boneheaded moves by a couple of our guys, we won that game. I’m convinced that if we were to play that team five times, we’d beat them four times. Still, on Saturday, we lost.
I like being a good loser. While, like anyone, I’d rather win than lose, I believe that a person needs to learn to take adversity with a measure of grace. Having followed the Kansas City Royals over the past two decades, I’ve gotten quite good at taking that adversity gracefully. Having said that, there’s a big part of me that wants to ask for a replay. A part of me remembers that the scorekeepers forgot to put one of our goals on the scoreboard. Was that the only one they forgot? Did they perhaps give one of our goals to the other guys? That would amount to a four-point swing and give us the win.
A part of me wonders what might have happened if Dante and Tom, our two best players, hadn’t been sitting out during that last six minutes. Surely, with just one of them, we’d have scored at least once and stopped at least one goal. That would have done it. And what if Chris—remember Chris the Great?—had kept his head about him during that final period. What if he hadn’t lost track of his man? What if he had gotten into position to rebound. Couldn’t that have made the difference?
I mentioned following the Royals for the last two decades. Back in 1985, the Royals beat the St. Louis Cardinals for their one and only World Series crown. But what the Cards fans remember isn’t the 11-0 drubbing that their boys took in game seven. No, they remember an apparent blown call by an umpire that let the Royals eke out a win in game six. Twenty years later, plenty of Cardinals fans will still complain about that call. Why? It’s because losing gracefully isn’t such an easy thing when you can see so clearly how you might have won.
This truth makes these last words of Zechariah all the more amazing. The survivors of the enemy nations will come to worship the God of Israel. That’s the equivalent of a Yankees fan coming to love the Red Sox. The enemies of God will turn to worship him, however, because they will see him for who he is. They will see his holiness. They will recognize that his victory came not because of a fluke or a referee’s error. God’s victory comes because he is all powerful. In the end that is Zechariah’s message, a message that we do well to keep in the front of our minds each day.
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.