Cause of Death

Ecclesiastes 5:16-17

Phil is dying. That’s the short form of the story. We’d heard that this man, whom we’ve known for about 10 years, had experienced some serious health problems, but as of yesterday we know a great deal more detail, and that detail adds up to a grim reality: short of a miracle, Phil will be gone within a year or two.

The diagnosis involves complicated and unfamiliar words, the sort of words that an oncologist would know, but it boils down to brain cancer: inoperable brain cancer. As I said before, Phil is dying. But then so am I, and so was Solomon when he wrote these words:

This too is a sickening tragedy: exactly as he comes, so he will go. What does the one gain who struggles for the wind? What is more, he eats in darkness all his days, with much frustration, sickness, and anger.

Ecclesiastes 5:16-17

Medical Certainty

Doctors of all sorts have undoubtedly poked and probed at Phil. They’ve stared thoughtfully at CT scan results and stroked their chins while considering lab results. They’ve listened to his chest and squinted into a microscope at biopsy matter. They all agree. He’s going to die.

But then again, so am I. The question is when we’re going to die. Certainly someone without inoperable brain cancer can be expected to live longer than somebody without that issue, but death is down the road. At 56 years old, I can be pretty certain that this vacation of life is more than half over. And even if I did live to be 112, having looked at some of the truly old people in my life, I’m not sure that would be a good thing.

We are going to die, and there’s not a single thing we can do to keep that from happening, despite the pronouncements of various medical visionaries. My consciousness will not be transferred into another body or grafted onto some sort of cyborg.

All I can do is make the best of the time I have here, yet if that involves doing things for others, my kids for example, then I’m just passing the buck down the line. Nothing that I work for in this life can survive me or, at best, a couple of generations. So what’s the point?

Getting in Tune

Phil shared the point on Facebook yesterday. Humans were not created to die, but we all share the same cause of death: our sin. We can trace it back to Genesis 3, but I can just as easily trace it to a hateful thought I had this morning.

Toward the end of John 21, Jesus tells Peter that he would be led somewhere he did not want to go. Indeed, Peter’s life would be shortened by his martyrdom. But by giving away his life in order to make disciples who would make disciples, Peter gained something that would outlive him. By giving away his life to share Christ with his family and then with anyone who would listen, Phil is leaving a legacy that is not just “struggling with the wind.”

So now the question for you and me, as we stare down the road to the inevitable death that is awaiting us, is not our ability to avoid that cause of death but our ability to transcend it. Only by giving our lives can we gain something of lasting value.

Do we need to wait until death is knocking at the door to take that seriously?

Wrong Way but Making Good Time

On a dark night, you find yourself heading west on an empty highway. No other cars impede your pace, while only a few lights, far off from the edge of the road, pierce through the darkness. You’re making good time.

The problem is that you’re going the wrong way. The road is Interstate-80, which stretches from New York City to San Francisco. You’re far from either of those cities, finding yourself in Wyoming moving 80 miles an hour (the Interstate speed limit there). Your destination is Cheyenne.

There’s just one issue. You’re heading west and just passed Laramie. On the off chance that you do not have Wyoming geography firmly implanted in your mind, let me note that Laramie is about 50 miles west of Cheyenne. You’re now making good time in the wrong direction.

There are exits available, small, no-facilities exits that lead to a county road but would allow you to turn around. But you keep going. It’s now less than 50 miles to Elk Mountain, Wyoming. Beautiful Elk Mountain, which boasts little in the way of either mountains or elk, might be a place to turn around. Farther ahead, you’ll find Point of Rocks, Rock Springs, and the marvelously named Little America. You could turn around at any of these places. Sure, it’ll be morning by the time you get there and noon you hit Cheyenne. Yes, you’ll have to cover this same stretch of road again, but you could wait to turn around.

Who would do that on a roadtrip? When you know you’re going the wrong way, you don’t keep going do you? Every mile you drive in the wrong direction will wind up being an extra two miles you have to cover. Anybody with any sense, the moment they know they’ve overshot their destination, will find the first exit and reverse course.

Why is it that when we have the good sense to handle a driving mistake in this manner, we don’t have the sense to correct other errors immediately. Previously I noted that the thing that has been bothering me lately is out-of-control eating. At present, I don’t like where I am, and I’m driving in the wrong direction. So do I immediately find an exit and turn around? No. Instead, I rationalize that Monday will be a good time to make a new start. Or maybe after Easter. Or maybe when the semester is over. That will let me really establish some new habits.

You can plug in your sin–and let’s be clear that gluttony is a sin–and probably convince yourself that you need to repent . . . eventually.

The reality is that delayed repentance is not just inefficient, like driving farther in the wrong direction. It is actually no repentance at all. When Peter and John revealed the gospel to a crowd in Acts 3, they didn’t suggest repentance next week or next year. They directed the people to repent in the present tense, now.

Therefore repent and turn back, so that your sins may be wiped out, that seasons of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send Jesus, who has been appointed for you as the Messiah. –Acts 3:19-20

An exit comes into view, an off ramp to the right and an on-ramp to the left. You can’t refill your coffee here, but you can turn around. You tap the brakes and switch on the turn signal.

Risking the S-Word

ScaleIn a recent post at Desiring God, Lindsey Carlson shares her thoughts about weight loss as it relates to spiritual life. The key thing that struck me–although the entire essay is worth your time–was the nerve that Carlson demonstrated in using the dreaded S-word. Yes, she referred to her excess weight as the result of sin.

While not everyone’s additional pounds are directly linked to sin, I know many of mine are. Historically, I’ve gone through seasons of facing my sin directly, and other seasons where I’ve completely avoided dealing with it and allowed indulgence to rule the day. However, this past year, I’ve experienced a measure of victory both in my heart and, perhaps in smaller measure, on my bathroom scale.

Too often in our society, we avoid labeling anything negative as the result of sin. Identifying something as sin requires judgment, and you can’t utter a (negative) value judgment without being reminded to “judge not lest you be judged.”

Of course, those who will spout off Matthew 7:1 have no problem with positive judgments. It’s perfectly fine in their moral economy to praise, for example, successful weight loss. Constructively criticizing overindulgent weight gain, on the other hand, cannot be labeled as sin.

If a gained pound, a smoked cigarette, a drained beer, or a watched porn video  cannot be the product of sin, then what are they? An awareness of the pervasiveness of sin in this world and, more to the point, in our individual lives stands as a powerful first step to gaining some measure of mastery over that world and those lives.

The Folly of BMI (Bad Measurement Instrument)

ScaleHave you ever had a doctor or nutritionist or some stranger on the street calculate your BMI? In my previous post, I indicated that I would be exploring some of the sources of guidance we might draw upon since the Bible is so woefully negligent in telling us anything about just how much meat we can carry around on our frames. Today, I’d like to explore BMI or Body Mass Index.

Developed by Adolphe Quetelet, a Belgian scientist (but not physician), in the first half of the 19th century, BMI was an attempt to describe the relative heaviness of people. In the metric system, you take the weight (mass) of the person in kilograms and divide by the square of the person’s height in meters. To use English measurements, we divide the person’s weight in pounds by the height in inches (squared) and then multiply by 703. There the formula looks like this:

BMI = (pounds/inches²)x703

In my case, it would be worked out like this for my current weight of 190 and height of 5′ 11″.


My BMI of 26.49 places me pretty solidly in the overweight classification, which ranges from 25 to 30. In order to reach the top of the “normal (healthy weight)” range, I’d have to drop another 12 pounds, reaching 178.

In reality, at present, I could probably stand to lose at least 5 and maybe 10 pounds, but I hardly feel as if such loss is essential. I would agree that getting myself to 178 might have me in the “healthy weight” range, I feel confident that such a loss isn’t necessary to barely reach an acceptable place.

What is wrong with BMI? Plenty. Let me give a simple case study. Omar Infante is the 2nd baseman for the Kansas City Royals. His height is listed as identical to mine, 5’11”. His weight is 195. Therefore Infante has a BMI of 27.2, considerably higher than mine. Are you going to suggest that I have a healthier body composition than this man who is able to deftly turn double plays at a major-league level? Look at any photo of Infante and you’ll have to agree that he’s not the pudgy designated hitter body type. Does he seem healthy? Obviously.

BMI measures one thing, height vs. weight. It does not take into account the frame size of the individual. Somebody with an even higher BMI than Omar Infante is basketball star Lebron James, who comes in at 27.4. Is Lebron overweight? Hardly. He’s a big man and carries a lot of muscle. BMI does not distinguish between good weight and bad weight. It makes no distinction between muscle and fat.

I’m hardly the first to note the measurement’s flaws, but despite years of such criticism, BMI is still widely used, mostly, I would guess, because it is so simple to calculate.

Quetelet was a sociologist, not a physician. His interest was in populations rather than individuals. If you take BMI measurements for a few hundred people in Cleveland and a few hundred people in Nairobi, there might be some useful conclusions to draw from the findings. But BMI is not a terribly useful measurement for individuals, except that it provides doctors with a club to wield on their heavier patients: “Well, your BMI of 30.3 indicates that you are obese!”

To measure individuals using such a population-oriented tool is somewhat like measuring the sin of an individual in comparison with a population. If my SMI (Sin Massiveness Index) is low enough in comparison to those around me, then I can just go into maintenance mode, right? And if my SMI is higher than those around me, then I should feel like a terrible person. Have you ever been in a church where people seemed a bit complacent with their SMI? Or met people who felt unworthy of their church because of their particular SMI? That’s no way to think about your holiness. BMI, while not quite so poor a measurement, is wrong in a similar way.


To Forgive Is Divine (Hebrews 5:3-4)

This is why he has to offer sacrifices for his own sins, as well as for the sins of the people. And no one takes this honor on himself, but he receives it when called by God, just as Aaron was. (Hebrews 5:3-4)

I saw a bumper sticker in a convenience store a few days back. I read the words and then studied the image. They didn’t seem to make any sense. Then I realized just what I was seeing and blushed. I won’t describe the sticker, thereby giving it any value, but it was crass and tacky.

The acceptable level of crass and tackiness in our society has risen dramatically over the span of my life. It wasn’t in the Middle Ages that Jack Paar faced a firestorm of outrage when he told a joke that pivoted on the definition of W.C.: water closet or wayside chapel. Compare that with any random five minutes from How I Met Your Mother or Two and a Half Men. Yes, standards have changed.

Essentially, people have decided that things that used to be “wrong” are now “okay.” At the same time, many things that used to be “okay”–telling racist jokes, for example–are now decidedly “wrong.” I quotate these words because I believe that what’s wrong has always been wrong and will always be wrong. Just because society decides that abortion is a “woman’s right to choose,” does not make it acceptable. Similarly, just because a nation decided for several hundred years that enslaving Africans was acceptable did not move slavery out of the sin column.

Only God can decide what is sin and what is not. Only God can provide the means to settle our sin problems. Only God can call the “High Priest” who will make that settlement. No government office or journalistic position can change these things. No amount of television propaganda or talk therapy can eliminate sin. That’s why the existence of Christ as our high priest is such a miracle.

Brakes on Sin (Hebrews 5:1)

Every high priest is selected from among the people and is appointed to represent the people in matters related to God, to offer gifts and sacrifices for sins. (Hebrews 5:1)

There’s a dent in the side of my truck. Actually, it’s more of a bashed in right side. I did this damage myself on purpose as I side-swiped the basketball goal in the driveway. My other choice would have been to run into the house. With the brakes failing, I had limited options.

Like a fool, I’d loaned my truck to Josh. He called me to say that a brake line had broken, but–not to worry–he’d fixed it. Great. Here’s a piece of advice that I’ve learned from this experience. When you’re largely clueless as a mechanic, you don’t want to engage someone who is just slightly less clueless than you are to do the repair. Josh, as it turned out, not only installed that brake line backwards but didn’t bleed the brakes.

Every mechanic, even those brothers from Boston on NPR, have limits to their ability. No one can know everything there is about cars. I’d certainly prefer to have Jack from my favorite garage look at my car than Josh, but in the end, we all exist somewhere on the spectrum of cluelessness. That’s the nature of things when you select your mechanic, your doctor, your broker, or anything else from mere humans.

What if Jesus could fix your Ford? He’d get it right, don’t you think? Certainly, he showed himself worthy as a better physician than anybody in his day (or ours). Similarly, when Jesus takes your sins to the father, he does not do so in the limited nature of a human high priest. Jesus can make atonement like no one else. This is another of those things that we, living in a Christian environment, can easily forget.


Out of Sight? (Hebrew 4:13)

Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account. (Hebrew 4:13)

My guilt is plain to me, but I’d like to keep it from you. I have chosen between paper and plastic at the checkout line, but, for fear of you knowing my iniquity, I will not confess my choice to you. Perhaps I have forgotten my wife’s birthday, but I’ll never tell you. Once, I might have talked during the national anthem at a ballgame. Maybe, but that might have been somebody else.

Yes, I’m selecting rather trivial offenses, because I really don’t want to talk about the things that I keep hidden, the things that I do, hoping that nobody will see them. I’ve done things in the past, carefully planning my actions so that nobody will see me. I’m not saying what it was I did, of course, since that would defeat the purpose.

But the ridiculous thing here is that I did all of that planning and execution of stealth as a believer in Jesus Christ. In the back of my mind, as the front of my mind was carefully hiding my shame from other people, I knew that the one before whom I needed most to feel shame would not be fooled.

The question I have, when I reflect on these sorts of actions is this. Do I really believe that God sees all? If I do believe, then do I just not care? Or maybe I’m deluding myself about my belief? There are things that I might carefully conceal from my wife, my employer, the IRS, and so forth, knowing that there would be repercussions if my actions were known. But I behave, sometimes, as if the one who sees all, cares about all, and can manifest repercussions of far more magnitude than the others doesn’t really see at all. How can I behave that way?


The Bad Example (Hebrews 4:11)

Let us, therefore, make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one will perish by following their example of disobedience. (Hebrews 4:11)

In recent days, a prominent member of Congress has been thoroughly embarrassed at the revelation that he sent photos of his nether regions to girls half his age via the marvels of Twitter. While I’m not all that shocked at the foolishness of this representative, I am staggered by the lengths to which his political cohorts will go to vindicate his actions.

The guy’s friends started by denying that the piece of anatomy in question didn’t belong to the representative in question. They insisted on this so vigorously that they looked really foolish when the guy admitted his poor taste. Some of these adherents have suggested that Americans need to get over their obsession with sex. “It’s no big deal,” these folks argue. “We need to be more like the enlightened French/Dutch/or some other locale.” Others argued that since he hadn’t preached moral values, he didn’t deserve to be held to those values. I suppose that means that if I don’t insist on payment of taxes, I can’t be prosecuted for evasion. Right!

The problem with all of this nonsense is that it leads people in directions they’re far better off never traveling. Humans are clever. We can think up all manner of reasons why sin isn’t really sin and the path of evil is really the best one for us.

Our choice is so simple. We can relax and enter into God’s rest or we can work very hard to make it seem as if wallowing in the cesspool of immorality is really a terrific idea. Why do we so often choose the latter?

Speeding to Somewhere (Hebrews 2:14-15)

Since the children have flesh and blood, he too shared in their humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death. (Hebrews 2:14-15)

Let me tell you about my Internet connection. When we first moved to Shamayim Hill, our online options were fairly few. We could opt for expensive, slow, and limited satellite Internet. We could choose expensive, slow, limited, and unreliable cell-based Internet. We could select cheap, slower, and even slower dial-up connection. What a feast of possibilities.

Eventually, we chose the first option. Our bill was high. The speed was reasonable, but we could download only 225 megabytes each day. Any violation of this limit slowed the system down to a crawl for 24 hours. That meant that any use of YouTube or Netflix streaming video was a great risk to the domestic tranquility.

But happy day! We broke out of the cage imposed by the evil purveyors of satellite Internet, making our way to freedom in the realm of DSL. It’s wonderful. This computer just finished downloading a 500 meg update. No big deal. We watch Netflix movies that we don’t even want to. We download gigantic files with no apparent purpose. I love it. But mostly I love not having to worry about hitting the limit and being put into the Internet “penalty box.”

As liberating as my DSL connection feels, it’s nothing compared with the liberty that we have through Christ. Death simply poses no threat to us. We have to remember this fact. The people whom Jesus healed during his ministry, have all died again. But those who were delivered from the bondage of sin have escaped sin once and for all.

These two verses contain a vast number of truths, but not a one of them compares in its ultimate importance to my existence and yours.

Building and Burning (Hebrews 1:9)

You have loved righteousness and hated wickedness;
therefore God, your God, has set you above your companions
by anointing you with the oil of joy. (Hebrews 1:9)

In William Faulkner’s story “Barn Burning,” a boy struggles between family loyalty and doing the right thing. His sharecropper father, a charming fellow, takes out his frustrations with his landlords by burning down their barns. The son, Sarty, learned his image of manhood from this father and stands prepared to lie for the man in the court case that opens the story, yet he somehow knows that this is not the proper way to reconcile differences.

How does a boy, growing up under the tutelage of a wicked man, learn to embrace righteousness and hate wickedness? According to Romans, those who live without the law still have the law written on their hearts. They know. Young Sarty knows, despite the natural bonds of familial loyalty that tell him otherwise.

Within each human being, two forces wrestle for control. The forces of righteousness seek to build up the barn, while the forces of wickedness or sin seek to steal, kill, and destroy, to burn down the barn. Few, if any, people live utterly wicked lives, lives with no redeeming features. Certainly none of us lives utter virtuous lives, lives where the love of righteousness has managed to triumph utterly over its adversary. Such a person would be justified by the law, and we’ve seen clearly in Paul’s writing that no one finds justification through the law.

In this introductory passage to Hebrews, the author seeks to set Jesus apart from all other beings in the universe. Jesus is not chief among the angels, nor is he just another man. He is simultaneously God and man, and as such, he managed to perfectly love righteousness and hate wickedness. You and I will never manage to equal his zeal in those pursuits, but our proper response is to try.