Archive for the ‘On My Mind’ Category
It was printed in the church bulletin: “There will be no service on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving.” Ditto in the Sunday handout: “There will be no service on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving.” Before beginning his sermon the minister tossed out this reminder: “There will be no service on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving.” And again in the closing announcements: “There will be no service on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving.”
“Good sermon this morning, preacher,” said Billy Bob, shaking the minister’s hand. “By the way, will we be having service on Wednesday night before Thanksgiving?” It’s hard to get a message across, because we don’t listen well.
Maybe we tune out at church because we have a sneaking suspicion that if we listen we might be confronted with our relationships, our stewardship, our discipleship. A weak pulpit provides two benefits: a Sunday morning nap and a reason to complain about the poor preaching. When the pulpit is strong, challenging us to live up to the high standards of the Gospel, we may opt for an escape—count the ceiling tiles; make faces at the baby peeping over mom’s shoulder two rows up; mentally draw up this week’s to-do list.
Who wants to have a nice day ruined by Jesus? If you have two coats, give one of them to someone who doesn’t have one; turn the other cheek; if you love only those who love you, you’re a run-of-the-mill sinner; forgive seventy times seven; love your enemies; take up your cross. Whew! No wonder we’ve got cotton in our ears.
Then take it out of the church house into the rest-of-the-week grind. The bumper sticker caught my eye: “My wife says I never listen to her—or something like that.”
We learn to tune out repeated racket (no intended reference to the previous paragraph). There’s a railroad crossing a block from my front door. Engineers give the air horn the mandated two long, one short, and one long blast when approaching the crossing. When I first moved in it brought me out of my chair with back spasms several times every day and jarred me from deep-snooze to wide-eyed panic a couple of times every night. Now I’ve gotten so use to it that I rarely hear it.
Another thing is that we start out listening, but get derailed. Something is said that brings back a memory, and off we go, reliving an experience, a conversation, a relationship.
Then there is preoccupation—a tangle of appointments, demands, promises, responsibilities, or regrets running around in our noggin, refusing to sit down and listen.
Worst of all, perhaps, is fixation on self—like the lady who blabbed for an hour about herself, then said to her dinner companion, “But enough about me, let’s talk about you—what do you think about me?”
What do we hear? Or do we hear at all? At the church door I asked her the same old question, “How are you?” expecting the same old answer, “I’m fine.” She looked at me with tired old eyes, sunk in a tired old face, and said, “As well as can be expected”—then stepped out the door into the cold. In my insensitive detachment I didn’t pick up on it then, but in hindsight I suspect she was saying, “I’m not doing so well. I’m lonely. I need someone to talk to. I need a friend” We hear the words, but not the cry.
Her grocery cart was loaded with goodies packing enough cholesterol to clog the arteries of half the population of Chicago. Seeing the shopper behind her in the checkout line eyeing her heart-attack-waiting-to-happen grub, she laughed and said, “You only live once.” The bedraggled woman working the checkout counter said, “Once is enough.” Did she say it in jest? Perhaps. But I doubt it. I think she was saying, “I’ve been here all day without a break. I’m sick of this job, and sick of pampered people. They buy high-priced stuff that I can’t afford, and drive away in high-priced cars that I’ll never be able to own. When I finish here I’ll take the bus home, fix dinner for five, wash the dishes, do the laundry, iron the shirts. And tomorrow I’ll be back here and then back there, doing it all over again.” I think she was saying, “I’ll live my life out like this, and when the end comes I won’t complain—once is more than enough.”
Do we feel her pain; see her and hear her as the special person she really is? Probably not. To borrow a phrase from Jesus: “Though seeing, they do not see; though hearing, they do not hear.” Let us pray for a tap-on-the-shoulder by that fine line from Isaiah: “He wakens me morning by morning, wakens my ear to listen …”
Dear God, open our ears today, first to hear you; then to hear those you put in our path. Help us to listen, to hear, and to respond.
The Social Security Administration has your number. Or you’d better hope they do. If they zap it you’re in for a nightmare ride that may include termination of benefits, loss of health insurance, cancellation of credit/debit cards, and even denial of access to your bank account.
Just ask Laura Brooks of Spotsylvania, Virginia. Social Security stopped direct-depositing Laura’s funds, and her checks started bouncing. The bank told her that her account had been frozen because she was dead, and that she was locked out unless she could prove that she was alive.
It took two months for Social Security wizards to “revive” her. They resumed her payments, but didn’t refund those she missed while she was dead. They also shorted her deposits because they lost her file, which took two years to rebuild.
Judy Rivers, of Jasper, Alabama, found herself chin-deep in the same mess. Her banker refused to rent her a safety deposit box or renew her credit card—because she was dead. “Well, the good news,” Judy chirped, “is that since I’m dead I can stop making payments to the bank on my car loan.” She said he didn’t go for that.
Laura and Judy are just two among thousands of very-much-alive people in the Social Security graveyard. They’re killing off over a thousand people every month whose hearts are still beating—a whopping 36,657 in the last three years. Administration spokesman Mark Hinkle says the errors are usually caused by human error when flawed data is entered into the computer system. Appealing the deletion can take over a year. In fact, some victims of this digital death have spent as long as 18 years resuscitating their credit lives.
But give the Social Security folks this—they’re on top of it when it comes to names. With a single mouse-click they can spit out the most popular girls’ and boys’ names from a hundred years ago. Here are the top five from 1913 …
Girls: Mary, Helen, Dorothy, Margaret, Ruth.
Boys: John, William, James, Robert, Joseph.
The top five a hundred years later are …
Girls: Sophia, Isabella, Emma, Olivia, Avia.
Boys: Jacob, Mason, William, Jayden, Noah.
I need to get out more; I don’t even know anyone named Isabella, Avia, or Jayden.
You can go to the Social Security website and find out if you’re wearing one of the most-popular monikers for your birth year. Should it bother you if you’re not? Nah.
But there’s one place you want to be sure your name appears: The Book of Life. Paul tips his hat to his “fellow workers, whose names are in the book of life” (Philippians 4:3). And Hebrews salutes believers of all ages whose names are in that book (Hebrews 12:23).
Jesus’ Advance Team of six dozen men made headlines performing miracles and traipsing among snakes and scorpions unharmed. They were exuberant: “even the demons submit to us,” they reported. “Do not rejoice that the spirits submit to you,” Jesus responded, “but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.” Getting your name in the Capernaum Gazette doesn’t amount to much, but getting it in The Book of Life sure does.
You got a promotion; ran a marathon; wrote a book; won a case; aced an election; discovered a cure for cancer. Good for you! That’ll spice up a résumé and make for impressive obituary copy. But it’s limited to a tiny time slice of 70 or 80 years and ain’t worth a saucer of cheese grits if your name isn’t in The Book of Life. But get your name in that book and you’ll just be getting started when you’ve clicked off a billion years.
In Revelation 20 John saw a ghastly end for anyone whose “name was not found written in the book of life.” Those who will experience joy forever, he said, are “those whose names are written in the Lamb’s book of life” (Revelation 21:27).
You can’t download a copy of The Book of Life from Amazon or Barnes & Noble, because there’s only one copy, and it’s in heaven’s keeping. No one can tamper with it. It’s free from error; you don’t need to worry about someone tapping the delete key and snuffing your name.
You can’t buy your way into that book, but it cost a lot to get you there: blood; death. That’s why it’s called “the book of life of the Lamb slain” (Revelation 13:8).
In a Commencement address at Stanford University, the late Steve Jobs said: “No one wants to die. Even people who want to go to heaven don’t want to die to get there.”
Death is an enemy that terrorizes mortals, causing them to be “like slaves all their lives because of their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:15). Some enemies are short-term—we face them, fight them, and defeat them. But death is a lifelong enemy, the last one left standing: “The last enemy to be destroyed will be death” (1 Corinthians 15:26).
Steve was right, you know—we want to go to heaven, but we don’t want to have to die to get there. So we postpone the trip to glory as long as possible; we will spend our last dime to keep from boarding that bus.
Adam and Eve didn’t want to die. There were lots of trees in their garden, and they were free to feast on the fruit of all but one. Snatch a snack from that one and you will die, God said. The minute they sunk their choppers into that apple they knew they’d blown it, so they hightailed it into the woods to hide from God … and from death.
Esther didn’t want to die. Haman’s fiendish plot to destroy the Jews culminated in a savage decree: “Dispatches were sent by couriers to all the king’s provinces with the order to destroy, kill and annihilate all the Jews—young and old, women and little children—on a single day” (Esther 3:13).
Unknown to the top brass, there was a Jewess in the palace: the queen, no less. Bizarre doings had put Esther on the throne. At the insistence of Mordecai, the cousin who had raised the orphaned Esther as his own daughter, she kept her Jewish ethnicity secret. But when Mordecai became aware of the planned annihilation of the Jews, he urged Esther to go to the king and beg for mercy for her people. That had disaster written all over it, for the law specified that death was the fate of anyone who approached the king without being summoned. It had been thirty days since Esther had been summoned. Mordecai pressed the issue: “Who knows,” he said to his reluctant cousin, “who knows but that you have come to royal position for such a time as this?” Oh boy! Get everybody together and pray for me, Esther implored; then “I will go to the king, even though it is against the law. And if I perish, I perish.” She didn’t want to die, but was willing to risk it to derail the massacre.
Jesus didn’t want to die. He wanted to return to heaven: “Father, glorify me in your presence with the glory I had with you before the world began,” he prayed. But—anticipating a horrifying death—there was another prayer that he prayed, not once, but three times: “My Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.” He wanted to go to heaven, but he didn’t want to die to get there. But if that’s what it took to get us there too, he would do it, because he wanted us to share his glory: “Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory” (John 17:24).
Do you look for your name when you read Scripture? You should. I found mine in Romans 5. And guess what? I found yours there too.
At just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. …While we were still sinners, Christ died for us” (Romans 5:6, 8).
That has my name on it. Yours too. Romans 5 tells us that we were not his friends, but his “enemies”—“ungodly,” “sinners.”
While we were sinners Christ died for us. Can you get your mind wrapped around that? I can’t. I could understand it if Jesus had died for his mother. But for the venom-spitting thief on the cross beside him? For Barabbas, the notorious criminal who should have been on the center cross instead of Jesus? For me? For you?
Yes, Jesus wanted to go to heaven … but he didn’t want to die to get there. But when he ran his finger down the list, he paused at my name and said, “I’ll die for him.” When his finger underlined your name he said, “I’ll die for her.” And he did.
Why would thousands of people mail tons of rocks to a volcano? Simple. Pele, the goddess of volcanoes, has them spooked. Pele makes her home at Mt. Kilauea in Hawaii. She has a nasty temper and has had a bad mad on since 1983: without taking a break, Mt. Kilauea has been melting rocks, spitting lava, and eating trees from then ’til now—erupting enough stuff to pave a road around the world three times.
Kilauea is the most visited volcano in the world. And there’s the problem. Tourists can’t keep their mitts in their pockets; they swipe rocks to take home as souvenirs. Seems like a harmless heist, but it gets Pele’s dander up. This is her space and her stuff. You wouldn’t appreciate your dinner guests pocketing your silverware, and Pele doesn’t cotton to visitors filching her lava. There are signs warning sojourners of the “Curse of Pele.” Legend has it that Pele will put a hex on anyone who takes her treasures—and her threats are not to be taken lightly say park rangers: cross Pele once and regret it forever, they say. People smile, then when the ranger’s back is turned, cop a rock and slip it in their backpack.
When the cinder swipers go home and have a run of bad luck, they wipe that grin off their face and begin thinking that Pele may have their number. So every year thousands of Kilauean kleptomaniacs ship their pilfered mementos back to Pele, along with confessions of their crimes, letters of apology, and pleas for forgiveness. Some send gifts: candy, jewelry, and in one case, a black negligee. (Bet Pele was really steamed if she’s a size 6 and they sent a size 18.) The park rangers haul the returned stash to a “rock graveyard” near the summit, and let Pele take it from there.
It’s amusing in a way. Yet, there’s something that resonates in the confessions of these rock snatchers. After all, each of us has some hot lava on our conscience: sins committed, not against a phantom deity, but against the one true and living God. And the whole mess is piled up somewhere waiting to accuse us on judgment day: “you are storing up wrath against yourself for the day of God’s wrath, when his righteous judgment will be revealed” (Romans 2:5).
God is like Pele in one way—he gets miffed when his territory is trashed: “The wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of men (Romans 1:18). Now don’t make the mistake of equating divine wrath with human wrath; they have little in common. Human anger is usually self-centered, prone to explosions of temper and unbecoming behavior because of real or perceived mistreatment. God’s anger, on the other hand, is triggered because sin results in self-destruction. He isn’t mad at you, he’s mad at sin because of what it does to you, his beloved child.
It isn’t just a few on the fringes that brush off the warning signs, it’s every single one of us: “There is no one righteous, not even one … all have sinned” (Romans 3:10, 23). Apologies and bribes won’t change that sorry record. But that’s where God steps in, for while our sins are inexcusable, they aren’t unforgivable.
The only solution is to take our guilt to the mountain. Not Mt. Kilauea. Mt. Calvary. It is there that Jesus “rescues us from the coming wrath” (1 Thessalonians 1:10). That’s God’s remedy, not ours. Not our righteousness, but his: a “righteousness from God” by which we are “justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came by Jesus Christ” (Romans 3:21, 24). His wrath was appeased by his own sacrifice—the sacrifice of his Son—on the cross.
Pele, they say, lives on a mountain. Jesus died on one. Pele spews lava. Jesus pours out love. He doesn’t melt rocks, although “the earth shook and the rocks split” when he died for us (Matthew 27:51). He isn’t an angry God who eats trees, but a loving Savior who died on one. Unlike Pele’s park rangers, Jesus doesn’t deposit our sins where they will just be out of sight—he eliminates them altogether: his purpose was “to do away with sin by the sacrifice of himself” (Hebrews 9:26).
Come to the mountain. Park rangers, priests, or preachers can’t come for you. You must come in person. So come to the mountain. Jesus will meet you there.
Marion Morrison. Does that name ring a bell? Probably not. How about Duke? Maybe. John Wayne? Of course. John Wayne’s birth name was Marion Morrison. His nickname was Duke.
Duke was one tough dude. He won the Civil War, World War II, and got us out of Viet Nam—in the movies. He was the grittiest cowboy that ever pulled on a pair of boots. He rescued schoolmarms, kissed his horse, faced down the bad guys, and always rode out of town a winner. I wouldn’t have the guts to swagger into Duke’s space and say, “Whazzup Marion?” Best not mess with Duke.
Action was Duke’s game; he was a man of few words. But when he spoke he put it simple enough that there wasn’t room for misunderstanding. He’d never be mistaken for a cleric, but here’s something he said that’s right on: “There’s right and there’s wrong. You got to do one or the other. You do the one and you’re living. You do the other and you may be walking around but you’re dead as a beaver hat.”
It’s really that simple, you know. Some things are right and some things are wrong. Renaming a wrong may deodorize it, but it doesn’t make it right. Demonstrations may change laws, but they don’t change wrongs into rights. Supreme Court rulings may make wrongs legal, but they don’t make them right.
Israel was into the renaming game: “We’ll just call evil good.” But God wasn’t buying it:
Woe to those who call evil good and good evil, who put darkness for light and light for darkness, who put bitter for sweet and sweet for bitter (Isaiah 5:20).
THE LIVING BIBLE has that first phrase this way: “They say that what is right is wrong, and what is wrong is right.” You can say black is white ’til the cows come home, but black is still black.
Paul excoriated those who “exchanged the truth of God for a lie … exchanged natural relations for unnatural ones” … and not only did such things, “but also approved of those who practiced them” (Romans 1:25, 26, 32). They were walking around, but they were dead as a beaver hat. Paul said it centuries before Duke: “you were dead in your transgressions and sins” (Ephesians 2:1).
Is it permanent death? It doesn’t have to be. Notice that Paul’s statement of their condition is past tense—you were dead, going on to say that this is the way “you used to live when you followed the ways of this world” (v. 2). In fact, he says, we were all like that at one time, “gratifying the cravings of our sinful nature and following its desires and thoughts” (v. 3). But God lifted us out of that coffin of death and “made us alive with Christ” (v. 5).
Do you not know that the wicked will not inherit the kingdom of God? Do not be deceived: Neither the sexually immoral nor idolaters nor adulterers nor male prostitutes nor homosexual offenders nor thieves nor the greedy nor drunkards nor slanderers nor swindlers will inherit the kingdom of God (1 Corinthians 6:9-10).
Paul wrote those words to people who were living in a society that was every bit as corrupt as ours—probably worse. They had been influenced by it to the extent that they could run their finger down Paul’s list of sins and find themselves. But again, it was past tense: “That is what some of you were. But you were washed, you were sanctified, you were justified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ … (v. 11).
It comes down to this: there is right and there is wrong. We don’t get to decide which is which. That’s God’s domain, and he hasn’t delegated it to humans. Changing laws or renaming sins doesn’t change right to wrong or wrong to right.
We have a choice. Do wrong and walk around dead as a beaver hat. Do right and walk around gloriously alive; washed, sanctified, and justified in the name of Jesus.
They lived just twenty-five miles down the road, but lied and said they had come from far away. Sure looked like they had. Their costuming and props were Hollywood-production caliber: battered sandals; sweat-stained clothes that hadn’t seen soap and water since they were stitched together—ya could smell ’em ’fore ya seen ’em; scrawny malnourished donkeys loaded with cracked wineskins and tattered sacks of moldy bread.
Who were these guys, and what did they want? They were Gibeonites, and they wanted a treaty of peace. They had been scared out of their skulls when Joshua had marched into Canaan and wiped out Jericho and Ai. So they staged a hoax and came limping into Joshua’s camp at Gilgal.
“Who are you and where do you come from?” Joshua asked.
“Your servants have come from a very distant country,” they said. “We are your servants; make a treaty with us. This bread of ours was warm when we packed it at home on the day we left to come to you. But now see how dry and moldy it is. And these wineskins that we filled were new, but see how cracked they are. And our clothes and sandals are worn out by the very long journey” (Joshua 9:9, 11-13).
Watch out! Here it comes … “The men of Israel sampled their provisions but did not inquire of the Lord. Then Joshua made a treaty of peace with them to let them live …” (Joshua 9:14-15).
Big mistake. God had stabbed seven pins in the map of Canaan, marking seven nations that Israel was to destroy. “Make no treaty with them, and show them no mercy” (Deuteronomy 7:2). One of those pins targeted the Hittites, where the Gibeonites’ held citizenship.
Three days after signing the treaty, Joshua and his buddies found out that the Gibeonites were neighbors, living just over in the next county. They were mighty miffed when they realized they had been duped, but they couldn’t trash the treaty because it had been ratified by an oath in the name of the Lord.
In hindsight the cause of the mistake is easy to spot—the Israelite brass “did not inquire of the Lord.” They trusted their own observation, relied on their own judgment, and made their own decision. A costly mistake. And no less so now than then. Human wisdom is limited. Making decisions without inquiring of the Lord is a mistake in any country, in any century, in any circumstance.
In 1933 Hitler’s minions, by rigged election, were put in charge of the German Protestant Reich Church. Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a brilliant young theologian, was fiercely and vocally opposed to Hitler’s regime. But he was fighting a losing battle. He was arrested and imprisoned on April 6, 1943, and condemned to death on April 8, 1945—without witnesses, records of proceedings, or defense. The next day at dawn Bonhoeffer was stripped, led naked into the execution yard of Flossenbürg concentration camp, and hanged with a thin wire—just twenty-three days before the U.S. Army’s 90th Infantry Division liberated the camp.
One of Bonhoeffer’s favorite verses—the text used at his memorial service—was, “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you” (2 Chronicles 20:12). He often quoted this verse as his confession that human solutions are elusive and fragile, and as his conviction that if we keep our eyes and ears open to God the right answers will eventually come.
He was crushed by the takeover of the German church by the Nazis, and his inability to do anything about it: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”
He was grieved by a raging World War that had begun with Germany’s invasion of Poland, and his inability to do anything about it: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”
He was tormented by the brutal persecution and execution of millions of Jews, and his inability to do anything about it: “We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon you.”
Bonhoeffer refused to take his eyes off the Lord, and resisted making any decision, large or small, without inquiring of the Lord. “What good did it do?” you may ask—after all, he was imprisoned at the tender age of 37 and executed at 39. He totally relied on the Lord, yet in that dark patch of history everything went wrong.
Or did it? Consider that those dismal days gave us Dietrich Bonhoeffer, whose courage, faith, and writings have inspired thousands, and continue to do so over a half-century after his death.
You hit rough spots in life where you helplessly sigh, “I don’t know what to do.” I hope you add one more phrase: “but my eyes are upon you, Lord.”
Sometimes we don’t know what to do—and know we don’t know what to do. And sometimes we think we know what to do—but, like Joshua and his pals, are mistaken.
“Do not take your eyes off the goal,” we’re told. Is that the best advice? No. The best advice is, “Do not take your eyes off the Lord.”
Let it never be said that you did not inquire of the Lord.
If your hair has gone gray you’re probably old enough to remember Country-Western composer Carson Robison’s song, Life Gets Teejus, Don’t It?
Sun comes up and the sun goes down.
The hands on the clock keep goin’ around.
I just get up an’ it’s time to lay down.
Life gets teejus, don’t it?
We’re on the hunt for something that will eliminate the “teejus.” Maybe we’ll find it in those tapes hyped on late-night TV by the guru in Atlanta. Or in the Health-and-Wealth seminar in Phoenix. Maybe in a shopping spree. A cruise. A new relationship.
Many thought it would be found in the coming of Messiah.
When Jesus came to the region of Ceasarea Philippi, he asked his disciples, “Who do people say the Son of Man is?”
They replied, “Some say John the Baptist; others say Elijah; and still others, Jeremiah or one of the prophets” (Matthew 16:13-14).
Popular thought was that a martyr or an ancient prophet would return to life to announce the coming of Messiah. Was Jesus that forerunner? Some thought so.
In their view, the good life didn’t begin with once upon a time, but with there will come a time.
To a blind beggar, holding up an empty cup, they would say, “I’m sorry, friend, I have no money, but when Messiah comes …” To a cripple, unable to stand on cadaverous legs, “I’m sorry, there’s nothing I can do, but when Messiah comes …” To an abandoned wife, working three jobs to feed her children, “I’m sorry dear lady, but when Messiah comes …”
There will come a time is a song of hope that makes the present bearable by glamorizing the future. When we feel the sting of injustice or misery we maintain, “When Messiah comes this will change. Then we’ll have the parade. Flags flying. Floats floating. Bands playing. Seventy-six trombones leading the big parade.”
You see, it’s easier to believe that Messiah will come than to believe that Messiah has come. Suffering makes the belief that Messiah will come believable. The same suffering makes the belief that Messiah has come unbelievable.
The common view of Messiah was that he would come and remove the Roman boot from the neck of the oppressed; that he would lead a revolution that would bury Rome and resurrect Israel.
Jesus didn’t fit that view. Even his disciples were disappointed with his tempo. He wasted too much time helping cripples and healing lepers. Unless he picked up the pace the parade would never start, the army would never march.
When mothers brought their children to him the disciples said, “Get these kids out of here; we’re trying to get a kingdom started.” Jesus said, “Put a sock in it, guys. Let the children come to me. Don’t try to stop them.”
When a blind beggar shouted, “Jesus, have mercy on me,” the disciples said, “Get outa here; we’re busy building a kingdom.” Jesus said, “Bring him here to me.”
He turned perception upside down: not where Messiah is there will be no suffering, but where suffering is there will be Messiah.
“So they say I am the forerunner of Messiah, do they? Who do you say I am?” Peter answered, “You are Messiah.”
That weary Samaritan said to Jesus, “I know that Messiah is coming. When he comes …”
“I who speak to you am he.”
He is here. Right here. Right now.