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Loyalty

Monday, April 25, 2022

My in-laws own a Chihuahua named Boomer.  He is a dog of many faults.  For one, his toilet habits are erratic.  The worst fight that I’ve ever seen my wife have with my mother-in-law took place because my wife had stepped in a deposit that Boomer had left in the floor of the guest bedroom. 

However, Boomer does reliably erupt with yaps and snarls whenever a stranger comes on to the property.  His bark is worse than his bite, but it’s not for lack of trying.  My in-laws keep him penned up whenever they have visitors so that he does not fall upon them in his wrath. 

Occasionally, my in-laws’ vigilance has failed, with results both distressing and comical.  Most notably, Boomer once bit a political pollster.  If his abilities had been equal to his outrage, I suspect he would have killed the pollster.  In fairness, though, he never has tried to bite me nor anyone in my family.

I’ve never mistreated Boomer, but I’ve never been at pains to hide my opinion of the dog either.  The nicest thing I’ve ever said about him is that he’s not a cat.  At my urging, my wife once put a set of rat traps in my mother-in-law’s Christmas stocking to help her with her infestation.  Wherever I am, stories of Boomer the psycho Chihuahua are good for a laugh.

However, my opinion of Boomer has changed of late.  He seems to know that I have ALS.  I suspect he can smell it on me. 

When I get down on the floor to stretch, now Boomer will be there beside me.  Sometimes he stretches too; sometimes he licks my hand.  More generally, he wants to be in the room where I am, even if he’s just snoring in the corner. 

Now that I am recovering from COVID in my in-laws’ house, his vigilance has increased.  He certainly can smell the COVID stank on me (I fear that people the next county over can smell it), and he is concerned about me.  Last night, my mother-in-law had to pick him up and carry him out of my bedroom because he refused to leave. 

Boomer remains a dog of many faults.  As I write this, one of his omnipresent white dog hairs is on the keyboard of my laptop.  Given the rate at which he sheds, I figure he must be about half hair.  However, he is loyal, and in my book, that counts for a lot.

At the end of my life, I must acknowledge that I too have been a dog of many faults.  I haven’t bitten any pollsters (though I may yet if they hold still long enough), but I have transgressed the will of my Master in a myriad of ways.  However, I also have sought Him all my life, and I desire nothing more than to be where He is.  In a word, I have been loyal.

If the loyalty of a dog matters to me, how much more does our loyalty matter to God!  “I delight in loyalty,” He says.  Delight!  When we seek Him diligently despite our imperfections, our Creator is delighted!

In this I find great comfort, as should we all.  God isn’t looking for reasons to turn His faithful people away.  He is looking for reasons to forgive, to embrace, and to welcome.  “God knows my heart,” generally doesn’t get people as far as they think, but if loyalty is what He finds in our hearts, we have nothing to fear from Him.

Passing for Normal

Tuesday, April 05, 2022

ALS has brought many changes to my life, some anticipated, some not.  Though I have not welcomed my physical deterioration, it has proceeded in the ways I expected.  I did not expect, however, the ways that it has affected others’ perception of me.

Before my diagnosis, I looked like, and indeed was, a fit, healthy man in early middle age.  People look at you differently when they can tell you keep in shape.  I liked that.  In the earliest stages of my disease, my condition still was not obvious.  I could still bike, kickbox, and do pilates, and it showed.

Those days are gone.  These days, my capacity for exercise tops out at stretching and taking walks.  There’s nothing obviously wrong with me when I’m sitting in a chair, but when I try to do anything, the illusion vanishes.

Yesterday, I got my hair cut.  When my name came up, the stylist invited me to her chair.  A few seconds later, she repeated the invitation in case I was delaying because I didn’t know what to do.  She quickly realized that wasn’t my problem.  She watched me as I levered myself up from my seat, shuffled stiffly over to her chair, maneuvered around the footrest, and collapsed into place.

She treated me with great kindness, but as I bantered with her, there was an uneasy edge to her laughter.  She probably thought it was pretty weird that this messed-up dude was cracking jokes.  When I started to get up, she said, “Watch that footrest, hon,” as though I were not already painfully aware of it.

This bothers me, even though I think it’s a dumb thing to be bothered about.  I want to pass for normal, and when I can’t, I don’t enjoy the distance it creates between others and me.

One of the great puzzles of the modern church is the lack of evangelism by its members.  We talk about evangelism all the time, we pray about it constantly, we hold training sessions, but few indeed are the congregations of the Lord’s people that are evangelistically dynamic.

Explanations abound, everything from lack of devotion to fear.  I don’t think any of those are true.  I think Christians want to pass for normal, and they know that if they are vocal about their faith, they won’t be able to pass anymore.

The most successful personal worker I’ve ever known is Westley Pollard, elder of the Dowlen Rd. church in Beaumont.  When Lauren and I still lived there, she once ran into him at Walmart.  He was going up and down the lines at the registers, inviting people to church.  Normal behavior that is not, but in his time, Westley has baptized hundreds if not thousands of people.

I know this is a painful thing to say, but the question before each of us is whether we love God and our neighbor enough to not be normal.  Are we willing to act out, do the socially awkward thing, and have people look at us funny to possibly save a soul?  That sounds like a small price to pay, but I’m here to tell you that it isn’t.  It’s hard!  However, only if we are willing to pay it will we let our light so shine before men.

The Lunch Lady

Wednesday, March 23, 2022

One of the best-attended funerals I’ve ever preached was for a school lunch lady.  Her name was Marlene Norris.  She was a faithful member of the church in Joliet, with which I was working at the time, along with her husband and three of her children.  As is the custom in those parts, they asked me to offer the eulogy.

I arrived at the funeral home early and noticed when I went into the parlor that half the chairs had been removed.  Only 40 or 50 remained.  Nobody was expecting a big turnout.

This didn’t surprise me.  I’d known and been friendly with Marlene ever since my arrival in the area, but she wasn’t a standout in the congregation.  She attended regularly, but she didn’t speak up in Bible class, teach children’s classes, or sing so that I could hear her voice.  If I remembered her for anything, it was for faithfully updating me on her various ailments every time I greeted her.  To the extent that there is such a thing as an ordinary saint, she was it.

The family was already there, both those who were members in good standing and those who weren’t.  I knew them all.  I also knew the funeral-attenders from the congregation who were beginning to arrive.  You know the type:  those staunch older Christians who can be relied upon to show up for absolutely everything, including the funerals of members of the congregation, their relatives, and even notable brethren from surrounding congregations.  They offer one of the little-recognized fringe benefits of being a child of God—the knowledge that no matter who dies, you won’t have to grieve alone.

However, a third group also began to trickle in, a group of people I did not know.  They weren’t family.  Frequently, they had the wrong skin color to be family.  They weren’t funeral-attenders either.  They weren’t nicely dressed, utterly respectable, utterly at ease.  They didn’t look like they belonged.  They sure thought they belonged, though.

There were a lot of them, too.  They filled the available seating, so the funeral-home staff brought back a row of chairs.  Soon it was filled with people, then another row, then another row.

The process continued even after the funeral service began.  These weren’t people who had ever known the stern duty of appearing punctually at The Next Appointed Time.  Being 10 or 15 minutes late was nothing to them, but Marlene Norris was something.

By the time the last amen was said, the room was full of chairs, and the chairs were full of people.  If I remember rightly, there were even folks standing because there were no more seats to be found.  I’ve never seen anything like it.

The only explanation I can offer is the one in Marlene’s obituary.  It reads, “No one could ever walk in her home and not eat.  She will be remembered for her giving and caring spirit, always putting everyone else’s needs before her own.”  That sounds like an obituary commonplace, right up there with “She loved her family,” and “She loved to travel.”  All the dead are generous and compassionate in their obituaries. 

In Marlene’s case, though, I think the obituary spoke truth.  I think there were students at Gompers Junior High School for whom Marlene the lunch lady was the only kind voice in their lives.  I think there were people who came to her kitchen at home because it was the only place on the planet where they could find warmth and food and love. 

I’m guessing about all this because Marlene never mentioned any of it to me, even while she was giving me every detail about her ingrown eyelashes.  I don’t think she thought about it much.  Compassion was simply the water in which she swam.  However, at the end of her days, the recipients of her kindness rose up and bore witness.

Such is greatness in the kingdom of heaven.

It's Not a Wonderful World

Thursday, March 17, 2022

Recently, I ran across an NBC News story about a woman in the Lviv train station who played “What a Wonderful World” on a piano as refugees from the fighting in Ukraine streamed past.  Of course, NBC painted her as a Symbol Of Hope amid devastation and despair, a promise of Better Days Ahead.  The secular must seize on such symbols because if they can’t hope in this life, no hope remains.

I wondered, though, what the refugees thought of the message of the song, if they thought about it at all.  When you’ve been driven from your home with nothing but the clothes on your back, does the world seem wonderful?  How about when you know that people just like you are being callously slaughtered, and you’re fleeing for your life?  How about when you look into your future and see a refugee camp or worse?

Perhaps I’m wrong, but I don’t think wonderful worlds have refugee camps in them.

The delusion of a perfectible world has been hard to sustain, these past few years.  COVID has carried off millions.  In the worldwide wave of government mandates that has accompanied it, we saw a determination to master the disease from those who must believe that disease can be mastered. 

The recent retraction of those mandates isn’t a declaration of victory, whatever the spinmeisters may say.  It’s an admission of defeat, an acknowledgement that we are at the mercy of a malevolent force that is too powerful for us.  COVID might stop on its own, but we can’t stop it.

We cannot restrain brutal dictators, we cannot limit the ravages of disease, and we cannot keep disaster from overtaking our own lives.  I have spent my life diligently pursuing wisdom and living according to it, only to find out that I was doomed to die young from the moment I was conceived.  I’m certain that wonderful worlds don’t have ALS in them.

Of course, it’s not all bad.  I have savored tremendous beauty, joy, and love in my life.  Even after sin and death have done their work, we still can glimpse the original glory of God’s creation.  Likewise, making a better world for our brother and our neighbor is a noble goal for any disciple of Jesus.

However, the world remains stubbornly irreparable, and the earthly good that we can do is limited by its setting.  The fatal flaw of life under the sun is that it’s fatal, and people who hope in it will be disappointed.

This is not the hope of the Christian.  We know we can’t defeat our earthly enemies, and the Bible warns us that life here is vain.  Even as we drink of earthly delight, we must not hold the cup too tightly.  Even as we work, we must remember that the good we do is temporary, but tragedy is here to stay.

Instead, our hope is in Jesus.  Rather than trying to fix this broken world, He will consume its ruins with fire.  Our eternal home will much better, new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.  By His power, the dust of the slaughtered refugee, the COVID victim, and the ALS sufferer will be raised up to new life.  The resurrected faithful will enjoy eternity with Him by His grace.

This world isn’t wonderful, and it never will be.  Our Savior is wonderful, and He never will be anything else.

Misunderstanding the Messiah

Tuesday, March 15, 2022

In this life, there are a few certainties.  Water is wet, the sun rises in the east, and the mass-media articles written around Christmas and Easter about Jesus are drivel.  However, during the last holiday season, I encountered one that, despite its clickbait title (“The Way We Think About the Messiah Is Very Problematic”), was semi-not-drivelly.  It can be found at https://www.thedailybeast.com/the-way-we-think-about-the-messiah-is-very-problematic.

The first thing that the article gets right is its observation that the story of Jesus’ birth is a messianic one.  In our society, the conflation of the birth narratives with the secular, commercial holiday of Christmas does a great deal to confuse the issue.  When Lauren and I still lived in Joliet, every December we sought out a house that had in its front yard a nativity scene complete with Santa Claus gazing adoringly into the manger.  In addition to being hilarious, it aptly illustrated the muddle of the American mind concerning the birth of the Lord.

The article correctly notes that the star that the magi followed was a royal, messianic symbol.  Though the author doesn’t spend much time delving into the gospels, the birth accounts of both Matthew and Luke are replete with messianic language and imagery.  We must understand Jesus as Messiah according to the thinking of first-century Jews and the prophecies they pondered.

 From this accurate observation, though, the article goes astray.  It critiques the traditional Christian belief that Jesus was more truly the Messiah (indeed, the only true Messiah) than, for instance, Simon bar Kokhba, the so-called messiah who led a Jewish revolt against the Romans from 132-136 AD.  It dismisses texts like Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 by denying that they “refer to a crucified messiah” and claiming that it “seems unfair to imply that Jewish interpreters were overlooking something”.

However, there’s a problem here.  If Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 aren’t messianic texts, what are?  The obvious answer is, “prophecies that mention anointing or the Anointed One”. 

Such prophecies are hard to find.  Though I may be overlooking something, I can find only one clearly prophetic Old-Testament text that mentions anointing:  Isaiah 61:1-2.  However, when Jesus applies this prophecy to Himself during His visit to Nazareth in Luke 4:16-30, his audience apparently thinks that He’s claiming to be a prophet, not a messiah. 

Other passages that mention the Anointed One and turned out to be prophetic, such as Psalms 2 and 45, are not obviously predicting future events.  If I were a first-century Jew and interpreting them without the benefit of Acts 4:25-28 and Hebrews 1:8-9, I would have assumed that they referred to the historical Davidic kings.  After all, the Scriptures often call Israelite kings “the Lord’s anointed”.

By contrast, the passages that the Jews did identify as messianic don’t mention anointing.  The Micah 5 prophecy we’ve already examined doesn’t, but Herod’s counselors say it’s messianic anyway.  After the time of Jesus, the Jews apply the prophecy of Numbers 24:17 to bar Kokhba (“bar Kokhba” means “son of the star”), and there’s nothing in it about anointing either.

In short, there’s no principled reason for Jewish interpreters to have denied that Psalm 22 and Isaiah 53 were messianic while affirming that Micah 5 and Numbers 24 were.  The latter fit in with their expectations; the former didn’t.  If you’re looking for a martial messiah, you’re going to reject anything about a suffering-servant messiah, even if you have reason not to.

Such reasons are particularly apparent in Isaiah 53 and its context.  In Isaiah 52:13-14, the prophet predicts a servant who will be successful and exalted, yet appalling and disfigured.  The first half of the prophecy sounds awfully messianic, which implies that the second half is too.

The Jews could have, and indeed should have, picked up on that, particularly when Isaiah 53 goes on to warn them that the servant will be misunderstood and rejected yet victorious.  They were on notice to look for a messiah who would subvert their expectations, but they didn’t listen.  Once we add “suffering” to the portfolio of the Messiah, all sorts of other passages and prophecies, from Psalms 22 and 69 to Zechariah 10-13, commend themselves to our attention.  Only Jesus fulfilled all of them.

After this, though, the article does us a service by warning us against the distinction between Jesus the spiritual Messiah and the hoped-for political messiahs of the Jews.  This is a temptingly easy distinction for us to make.  Then, we can put Jesus in the church box—the box of a God who used to do things but doesn’t anymore—and look elsewhere for the solutions to our problems.  Is it surprising, then, when Christians begin to describe contemporary political figures using language that Second Temple Jews would have called messianic?

This way of thinking fails both to reckon with the political dimensions of Jesus’ work and to give Him the place that He deserves in our lives.  He wasn’t conventionally political like bar Kokhba was, but His ministry was politically significant nonetheless.  When He rode into Jerusalem on a donkey, cleansed the temple, and condemned the chief priests, He was making political statements.  Certainly, His enemies understood them as such; that’s why they killed Him.  His early disciples did the same in confronting the Sanhedrin or refusing to sacrifice to Caesar, and they faced similarly dire consequences.

Today, we too must embrace the political implications of our hope.  As He did 2000 years ago, Jesus still calls us to look for a deliverance that the world around us does not expect.  We must not put our trust in princes nor think that if we elect the right group of leaders, the ills of this life will be put right.  Instead, salvation will come from God and His Anointed.  Christ continues to guide the course of history according to His will, and He will appear at its climactic end to vanquish evil forever and reward all those who have put their trust in Him.

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