Some Bible stories are like that peculiar cousin that nobody in your family talks about. No one can deny the genetic connection and everyone hopes they don’t show up for the family reunion. There are the heroes with scandals (e.g. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David). The scoundrels who behaved heroically (e.g. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, David). And, to be inclusive, the less than virtuous women (e.g. Rahab, Bathsheba, Tamar). But the stories that give good Christians the most heartburn are those where God himself does something that appears very ungodly. Like the one about Uzzah, in 2 Samuel 6.
In 2 Corinthians 4, Paul pens two of the most amazing verses in the Bible; amazing because they combine bare-faced honesty with bold-hearted hope.
We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed (vs. 8 – 9).
What’s it like to be hard pressed on every side?
In the summers during my high school years I was a bus mechanic’s apprentice. Ralph, the mechanic, wore thick-rimmed glasses which always sat crookedly on his nose, not because the glasses were bent but because the nose was. Ralph looked like he had taken a few punches in his youth. If you made a mistake, and even if you didn’t, he called you a knucklehead. But he had a way of saying it that made you feel he still liked you. Ralph loved the Lord, working on engines and teaching boys how to love the Lord and work on engines.
Once, when I was eight or nine years old, I was loafing around the spacious backyard at my grandmother’s house, looking for snakes, large insects or evidence of the UFO she said she’d seen a few weeks before. Not finding any reptiles or invertebrates, the UFO angle was looking more and more promising — an absence of creatures which scurry along the ground, to borrow a phrase from Genesis, suggests alien alteration of the environment. That, or a proliferation of cats. Mee Maw had about seventeen of them. But UFOs were a much more exciting possibility.
This may be my favorite week of the year — the lull between Christmas and New Years. The traveling is done and/or the travelers who came to see you are headed back home. For most of us, work is slow. Salespeople aren’t calling and clients aren’t answering. School hasn’t yet started. There’s just not a lot going on. Unless, of course, you’re in retail, in which case, may the Good Lord be with you. Especially if you have to work the returns counter. (Be nice to those folks — it’s not their fault.) That said, this is a good time to reflect on the previous 365 days. Here are four questions I think might help.
Betrayals open a floodgate of questions and those, alone, were painful enough. He didn’t even want to know the answers. Joseph dealt with his hurt the only way he knew how. He threw himself into his work trying to bury his anguish in the sawdust of the carpentry shop. He felt sure of himself there. He might have misjudged Mary, but he knew good wood when he saw it. In the shop, he could smooth out rough edges and make all the corners square. When something was nailed down, it stayed. So Joseph worked out his pain in a frenzy of measuring, sawing and hammering until, exhausted, he collapsed onto a cot in the corner and fell asleep.
This post is part of the Ghosts Around the Manger series.
His whole world was dust and timber, hammers and saws, blisters and blue fingernails. In the winter, he used the scrap lumber that littered the shop to build fires to warm his hands before he worked with better wood to build a shelf for this customer, a table for that one. In the summer, sawdust beaded around his sweaty neck and filled the wrinkles of his robes, dusted his feet and tickled his nose until he sneezed.
He could see the finished job in his mind before he even countersunk the first peg. It would assemble puzzle-like until the last rough edge was smoothed and the wood grains ran together into a perfect pattern, as if some sculptor had carved the creation whole from a block of fine Lebanon cedar. This is all Joseph of Nazareth knew, all he wanted to know. Until God called him from his simple world of square corners and smooth edges and framed him for a most complex role in an unpredictable story.
Carpenters have a saying; measure twice, cut once. They are deliberate. And quiet. They use words sparingly. Conversation distracts them from their careful work. When Joseph first appears in the stories of Jesus’ birth, he is being careful and quiet.
This is how the birth of Jesus Christ came about: His mother Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be with child through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph, her husband, was a righteous man and did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her. Quietly.
The angry season is upon us. For the next 15 months, we will be witness to attacks, accusations, allegations and indictments – both the rhetorical and, perhaps, the legal variety. Yes, it’s Presidential Election time once again in the U.S. Granted, we have been blessed by our foresighted forefathers with a bloodless means of exchanging power. For this, we should be grateful. In other countries, the losers are tossed into a hole and covered with dirt. Here, they are tossed onto the lecture circuit and covered with money. So it could be worse. But it can also be tons better. Here’s how not to be a jerk during the election.
You should know that I am qualified to address our jerkiness because I am the chiefest of sinners. I can talk about the ill effects of this particular sin for the same reason I can talk about racism, gender bias, marital struggle, impure thoughts, unwholesome language, pride, envy, sloth, gluttony, coarse jesting and a host of other scriptural violations. I didn’t just go there and get the tee-shirt; I paved new roads and wrote the travel guide.
So I know whereof I speak. Plus, I’m a political junkie. I know who my senators and representatives are. I probably know who yours are, too. I have strong opinions – strong like barf-flavored jelly beans. I mean real strong. Donald Trump’s hair spray strong. Strong and wild – like Bernie Sanders’ hair wild. I keep up. I think you should, too. At the very least, it is our duty as citizens of the United States of America.
But we are also – and primarily – citizens of another Kingdom; God’s Kingdom. We were given not only a new life in Jesus, but are called to a new lifestyle. That new way of living should inform and impact every facet of our lives, including how we handle our first amendment freedom of expression.
Don’t Go Filterless
I start going to the gym again once every four years or so. Which is dumb because starting is always the hardest part. First, you have to muster the courage to walk through the steamy doors into a world where you clearly do not belong. In between sets of bench pressing a million pounds, the regulars look at you with accusing eyes, then turn their sculpted backs and whisper to each other. I bet they say things like, “See that guy? Looks like he hasn’t seen the inside of a gym in four years or so.”
Second, it hurts. I mean physically. After the first set, your muscles start holding up picket signs threatening to go on strike if management doesn’t improve working conditions.
And then there are the mirrors. They are everywhere. If a disco ball dropped out of the ceiling and Stayin’ Alive by the Bee Gees started blaring through the speakers you would NOT be surprised.
But after you get past the shame and the pain and the mirrors, you start to notice the people. They are not all He Man Fitness or Lady Lifter models. They are normal people who work at Publix or sit behind a desk or drive trucks for a living. And they are there for the same reason you are. They are trying to become better. Same goes for the regulars who can plank for 5 minutes without shaking and do 150 reverse lunges while holding 25 pound weights.
Returning to the gym is kind of like going back to church. It’s a hard to do when you haven’t been in awhile.
Surely, gentle surfer of “The Internets,” you have seen the banner ads promising to cure your diabetes, reduce your weight, increase your metabolism, enhance your love life, drop your auto insurance rates, get you out of your last speeding ticket, and improve your golf swing if you’ll just try this. . . One . . . Weird . . . Trick. It’s tempting. I mean the letters are even flashing. And the guy in the picture learned Italian in a week. Why else would language professors hate him? That mom from Georgia is making more money than a Saudi prince. Working from home. And she’s 51.
“In the end, we will not remember the words of our enemies, but the silence of our friends.” Dr. King knew that some moments want words. Sometimes, statements have to be made, songs must be sung, words beg to be spoken. There is a time for silence. Solomon said so. But for every time you wish you’d kept your mouth shut, I’ll bet there are three when you wrote speeches after the fact of all the things you could have said — all the things you should have said but didn’t. Sometimes, the moment is so special, the offense is so great, or the victory is so sweet that somebody just needs to stand up and say something.