The Well-Dressed Terrorist

There were terrorists on my campus this morning. I didn’t actually see them, but I’m pretty sure they were dangerous and sowing discord. ISIS? KKK? No, it was the Gideons!

Seriously, a couple of my students came in to our class this morning toting those little New Testaments (plus Psalms and Proverbs) that the nice suit-clad men were passing out to anyone who would accept them. One guy decided to use the book as a starting point for a series of jokes until I finally suggested that he was going to offend somebody and needed to knock it off.

To be clear, my students are not Social Justice Warriors and knee-jerk Leftists by and large. They’re reasonably open-minded people, but many of them have not been brought up to take the claims of Christianity seriously. People talk about how college helps young people lose their faith. Frankly, most of them seem to have a pretty weak grasp on the topic when they come in the door. This doesn’t reflect on them or even on their families as much as it does on us–or the church at large.

When I was growing up, you could ask most people, “Where do you go to church?” and get an answer. If they didn’t go to church, they found that a little embarrassing. “Well, we haven’t been going as much lately, but we used to go to . . .”

Today, lots of people have zero connection with the church and feel zero problem with that. And why? Do we blame their parents, their grandparents, lack of prayer in school, the ACLU, John Lennon?

I don’t blame any of those. I blame us–or at least our predecessors. The church had at least some hold on those parents or grandparents, but somewhere along the way we decided to take it all for granted. Or maybe we–or they–decided that the church was for us (or them) rather than for others.

The church in which my parents met, in a thickly populated part of Kansas City, dwindled until only about a dozen seniors were meeting in the basement. They eventually gave the building to a growing, living congregation. The church in which I grew up, half a mile from my house, faded until they were bought out, lock, stock, and barrel, by another, more active church.

What did those two now-dead churches have in common? They became more inward-looking than outward-looking. They took care of their own needs rather than the needs of the lost. The Apostle Paul could have done that. He could have just taken care of that church in Antioch and focused on organizing potlucks and prayer meetings. Instead, he went on the road, starting churches all along his route and making sure not to be assume that the next generation would come to Christ.

Those terrorists, those Gideons, came on our campus to disrupt things, to place the Word of God into the hands of people it has not changed. No wonder these guys face hostility from time to time. Happily that hasn’t happened at JCCC. We’re still open to some terrorists.



Lumberyard Attack

After further review, I have determined that I am the most terrible person in the world or at least in the lumberyard. Let me explain.

I read my thoughts about games and grandsons just a few minutes ago. In fact, I read them aloud to them. They were not overly impressed. But perhaps I was more impressed by the whole thing.

Here I sit, complaining about preteens and young teens acting their age, quoting Ephesians 4:31-32 in a most superior manner. Then I start reflecting on my own thoughts. The weather this winter has been dreadful. That is true. But does that justify me in getting grumpy and grouchy about it? Penny did pour out a perfectly good bottle of Diet Dr. Pepper. Wasteful? Yes. Worthy of my irritation? No. My grandsons do react badly to video game reverses, but that doesn’t give me just cause to react badly to them.

As I sat here, repenting of my comment that “there was nothing decent to eat for breakfast”–since Penny just produced biscuits and gravy–Matthew 7:4-5 popped into my mind:

Why do you look at the splinter in your brother’s eye but don’t notice the beam of wood in your own eye? Or how can you say to your brother, ‘Let me take the splinter out of your eye,’ and look, there’s a beam of wood in your own eye?  Hypocrite! First take the beam of wood out of your eye, and then you will see clearly to take the splinter out of your brother’s eye.

Now, the sun is coming out and the snow seems to be ending. My grandkids have calmed themselves and will be going home soon. My stores of Diet Dr. Pepper are utterly gone, but I really don’t need to drink that stuff anyway. If my relationship with Christ is really  a complete game changer, then it ought to change how I deal with games and everything else in my snow-bound day. I can’t pretend that there’s not a beam of lumber with my name on it.

Unless the Lord Builds–or Buys–the House

barn-frontIt was 11 years ago that Penny and I decided that a certain 60-acre tract between Oak Grove and Bates City, Missouri was the place for us to put down roots for the long term. We bought the place despite a few red flags that might have (or should have) warned us away. Somehow Proverbs 3:5 and not leaning on our own understanding comes into play here, at least in hindsight. Declaring discretion the better part of valor, around five years back, we moved back into town in a house just a couple of blocks from where I was raised.

Have we done it again? A few months ago, a unique house was advertised to be sold by auction. A re-purposed barn, this structure has stood in place for over 110 years. Penny went to the open house–I was otherwise engaged–and fell in love with it. We liked the place immensely, but the projected price tag was too much for us. Eventually, we simply prayed: “If this is to be, then let it be.”

So then what happened?

  • We put in a low-ball bid just to show that we were interested. Although we were outbid, the auction didn’t meet reserve. The auction company called, suggesting that the owners were open to offers. We offered considerably less than what they had wanted, and they accepted.
  • But wait, we still own a house and cannot afford to support two houses at once. Our old house was listed on December 29, although the preparatory work had been done before Christmas. At 9:30 on the morning of December 29, people came to see it. They made an offer that evening. We countered and reached agreement during the afternoon of December 30.
  • Did I mention that our old house desperately needed paint? Have you ever tried to get an exterior painter in January? Our agreement with our buyers involved them accepting the house as-is and us giving a slight financial concession. Just not having to struggle with getting a painter was easily worth that price!
  • Although the winter of 2018-19 has been fairly challenging, the days on which we moved were, although cold, quite workable. A few days before or after would have been considerably more challenging.
  • Good friends and reliable family provided plenty of help and several invaluable vehicles. Who can expect to have a friend who owns a huge box truck?
  • We owned both houses for 11 days. Those days made me nervous. We’d already committed a huge chunk of money (and pretty much all our cash) to the new house. We had no guarantee that the sale of the old house wouldn’t flip at the last minute. On Sunday, one day before that second closing, I confessed to Penny that I felt anxious. But why worry? It went off without a hitch.

In short, everything seems to have progressed as flawlessly as we could hope. Even when we had obstacles, they were overcome in ways that suggested that God was in this process. Now our calling is to redeem the grace that has been showered on us.

Yesterday, our grandkids woke up in that house and went to church with us. I think there might have been some nerf gun wars in our huge attic before we left. In the afternoon, our daughter-in-law hosted a dozen women from her church.  Thomas and I went out to the unheated and very rough “West Wing” of the structure to consider how it could be transformed into livable space for his family. Soon, the winter weather will pass and we’ll lay out our garden, planting those seeds of potential. But then I suppose we already have begun to sprout some seeds.

Unless the Lord builds the house, those who build it labor in vain. –Psalm 127:1


Why Are You Still Working?

All that glittersA couple of weeks ago I ran into someone who used to work at my school. In fact, it occurred to me as we talked, he used to occupy the office that I now call home. He looked at me and asked, “Are you about ready to retire?”

I hate it when people ask that question. First, do I really look that old? Second, do you just assume that I can’t wait to get away from my job? No, I’m eligible to retire in less than a year, but I don’t expect to actually pull that trigger for another nine years or so.

During that hallway conversation, he urged me to consider how much I was actually earning by continuing to work. He named someone we both know: “He did the math and realized he was basically earning $1.50 an hour by working rather than collecting his pension.”

I decided to check that matter out. Maybe I was being a sap by waiting to hang up my spurs. When I plugged in all the numbers, I discovered that I’ll be earning about $14 an hour more next year than if I were to simply head into the retirement system. That’s a good deal more than $1.50, but it’s not as dramatic a number as I might have expected. So should I retire?

Continuing my calculations, I discovered that my projected retirement earnings will increase by roughly 50% over the next nine years. That’s 50% or the equivalent of getting an extra paycheck each month. Plus, I realized, that differential is one that I’ll enjoy for the rest of my days. So I’m not just working for that $14 difference but for a future difference that will last until they pack me into the hearse, hopefully decades from now.

But wait, there’s more! Not only do I get to earn more today and more tomorrow by staying employed, I also enjoy my employer paying almost all the freight on my health insurance, effectively increasing my pay even more. As in spiritual matters, my investigation discovered that sticking to God’s plan means a richer life here and hereafter. How marvelous!

In Luke 12:16-21, a rich fool decides to take early retirement. I’ve been fascinated by that parable before. The folly of that farmer is that he wasn’t really thinking ahead. He wasn’t thinking about what his bounteous harvest would mean next year and the year beyond. He wasn’t thinking about the benefits of working or the impact that his industry had on others. Instead he just saw himself relaxing and consuming.

The day comes when it makes sense for all of us to leave our employment, but rushing into that decision is not only imprudent but irreverent.

Hi, My Name is Mark and I’m a Blog Abandoner

Thanks be to God, I’m not an alcoholic or any other sort of addict that would lead me to a twelve-step program. I certainly don’t want to mock their patterns of speech or diminish their challenge, but in some ways, my behavior in maintaining this blog is like the addict with good intentions, the person who desires to remain on the path of constancy but all of a sudden looks up to find himself off the wagon and with a week’s worth of unwritten days.

As I consider my on-again-off again blogging fidelity, as I look at all those non-highlighted days on the WordPress calendar, I’m reminded of the letter to the church at Ephesus from Revelation 2.

I know your works, your labor, and your endurance, and that you cannot tolerate evil people. You have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and you have found them to be liars. I know that you have persevered and endured hardships for the sake of my name, and have not grown weary.  But I have this against you: You have abandoned the love you had at first. Remember then how far you have fallen; repent, and do the works you did at first.

Jesus knew that this church had done some good things, that they had many positive qualities, but he also knew that the passion had faded away. This group of believers was not in danger of losing their salvation and being cast aside with the goats, but their lampstand was threatened. If they didn’t get back on track, Jesus promised in the next verse (Revelation 2:5), their position in his work would be taken away, perhaps relocated.

The church in which I grew up is defunct. It had been a growing, thriving place over several decades, but a couple of years back, whatever remnant of the congregation that still rattled around in that big building turned over the keys to a body less than ten years old. Their lampstand was removed and given to another.

In my own church, I see people who were, in the past, on fire for Christ. They knew their calling and they pursued it with a passion. Now some of those people limp along, half-heartedly, in Bible studies, in the choir, or among the ranks of the deacons. They’ve lost their first love. Still believers, still basically good people, they’re not achieving the good works they formerly knew. They risk watching their lampstand plucked out and handed to someone else.

God called me to write, among other things. Many of those other things are somewhat in the control of others, but my writing is something that is mostly within my control. I could be writing something, here or elsewhere, every day of the week.

But I don’t. I have abandoned the love I had at first. That Greek verb, aphiemi, is defined and translated various ways, but the preferred meaning, according to most scholars, here is to “give up or keep no longer.” It’s not a conscious sending away. It’s not resolutely quitting,  but more of, like the CSB translation, an abandonment.

I didn’t consciously decide to stop playing the guitar a few years ago, but I let it go and now rarely play. Frankly, I think God is fine with that. But this letting go of my first love for writing is more problematic. God’s not pleased.

What have you abandoned or let go?

Binge Living

Lately, I’ve been making my way through Mad Men, which is, to my mind, a terrific morality play about the vanity of human wishes and all of that sort of stuff. The central character, Don Draper, seeks and seeks for something, but he never seems to find it.

Today, however, I really don’t want to focus on the hard-drinking, hard-smoking, womanizing Draper but upon the non-drinking, non-smoking, monogamous me. Yesterday, you see, I watched an episode of Mad Men. Or perhaps it was two. Okay, having looked back on it, I see that it was actually five. Five episodes of Mad Men in a single day.

To be fair to myself, I finished up an outside writing assignment a couple of days ago. There’s no grading to do, and the weather is too chilly for yard work. Nothing else was demanding my time, so I spent nearly five hours watching the ad men of the 1960s muddle through their complicated lives.

In reflecting on those five hours this morning, I was reminded of the lead-in to Jesus’ parable of the rich fool. In those verses, after refusing to arbitrate the inheritance dispute of two brothers, Jesus broadens out the point, warning everyone to beware of greed, because “one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions.”

While that parable is rightly used to discuss the folly of people who think too much of their possessions–people who perhaps worry about where their financial security will be found or who get a little proud and cocky about the magnitude of their 401K–I’m taken with that quotation above from Luke 12:15: “one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions.”

What the Greek indicates there is pretty clearly indicated in the King James and other translations: a man’s life consists not in possessions. The version quoted above uses a perfectly acceptable although perhaps less elegant English word, “is.”

This “is” translation allows the verse to be read in a different manner. What Jesus pretty clearly meant to say is that we should not measure our lives in terms of things. However, when we read “one’s life is not in the abundance of his possessions,” we can take it to mean that a person’s lifespan is not as abundant as a person’s possessions. In other words, “Your days are less abundant than your things.”

To be clear, that’s not what Jesus meant to say, but I think it is a useful concept for us and certainly not doing violence to his overall message. When we waste time, when we, like the rich fool, “take it easy; eat, drink, and enjoy,” we’re not tuned in to the things of God. When God blesses us with extra time, he expects us to steward that time just as surely as we are to steward the riches he might put within our grasp.

We’re warned in Proverbs 23:33: “a little sleep, a little slumber,
a little folding of the arms to rest, and your poverty will come like a robber, and your need, like a bandit.” Let’s recall that not all poverty, not all need can be measured in terms of dollars.

Working Smarter, Not Harder

Time-Running-OutSteve Kamb over at Nerd Fitness may be the most inspiring guy alive. He’s already got me rethinking my weightlifting strategy, but now he’s arrived in my sweet spot, with a post titled, “Why you should do less, or maybe even nothing at all.”

Hopefully you understand that I do not believe in exercising for the sake of spending time around sweaty people. I also do not believe reading for the sake of eye strain or using electronics for the joy of being able to keep all those batteries charged.

Like Steve, I believe that all of these things are a means to an end. For Steve, from the best I can gather, that end is having time to play video games and watch movies, while for me it is to seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness.

Despite what might seem like a rather trivial orientation, Steve seems to get the Bible’s ideas about Sabbath rest.

  • We burn ourselves out when we don’t take the time to actually recharge our batteries, so take time off.

  • Be unavailable when you’re not working.

  • When you’re on vacation or spending time not working, embrace itStay away from your computer, don’t check email, and spend time with friends and family.

If that seems like good sense, check out the rest of the article for his ideas about workouts, life, work, and so forth. I’d read it more carefully, but I need to write another post and I have to check out a problem with my online Composition class and I need to email my students and . . . oh my.