Thesis Statement–1 John 1:1

That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked at and our hands have touched—this we proclaim concerning the Word of life. –1 John 1:1

If there’s one question that I have asked in the two decades I have been teaching writing to college freshmen, it is “What is your thesis?”

The reply, often as not, is something like this: “It’s global warming.”

No, no, no! That’s not the thesis. That’s the topic. I can’t count the number of students who have turned out a paper that was clearly on a particular topic but that wasn’t at all clear what it had to say about that topic. You could have a thousand theses regarding global warming, but you need to pick one and support it.

I’m tempted, looking at today’s verse in isolation, to accuse John of a similar short-coming. Okay, he’s going to write about the Word of life, but what about it? Happily, John gets more specific in his attitude toward the Word of life in the ensuing verses and chapters, but let’s not get ahead of ourselves. What does he say here?

In this verse, I believe, John is establishing his credentials. He uses five descriptive phrases before explaining that he’ll be writing on the Word of life. The first of these phrases deals directly with the Word. It is “from the beginning.” Such a pronouncement makes the Word more worthy of our consideration than the latest dish on Brittany Spears.

The remaining four phrases, however, deal not so much with the Word as with he who heard the Word, John himself. To paraphrase, John says that he has heard the Word, seen it, looked at it, and touched it. In short, he has experience. Of course we know that John the Apostle

How fitting that in this first real posting after my lengthy sabbatical, we should have a meditation on the primacy of the Word. The Word is vetted. It is from the beginning. Nothing that has been made was made separate from the Word. Compared to the Word, I am nothing, you are nothing, and even John the Apostle is nothing. So what can we do? How do we respond to the Word? Just as John says, we respond: we hear it, see it, look at it, and touch it. In other words, we study and consider the Word, both in the person of Jesus and in the pages of the Bible.

Extra Credit–Amos 5:3-6

Allow me to tell you about one of my former students, Rick.  In reality, Rick isn’t one student but rather a composite of several types.  Aside from that little detail, he’s completely real.

When he first walked into my composition class at the beginning of the semester, he meant well.  He intended to do his best and earn a good grade.  For the first week or so, he did all of the reading.  When I required some brief writings, he finished them on time.  All was going well in the realm of Rick.  But then his old habits came out.  He began to procrastinate.  The temptation to go party with his friends rather than reading about the nine methods of development got the better of him.  He wrote his first rough draft in about ten minutes, sitting outside the classroom.  Rick’s ship was sinking.

His first ploy came about a third of the way through the semester.  His first paper wound up as a C rather than an A.  “Do you have anything we could do for extra credit?” he asked one day toward the end of the class period.  Students are funny about extra credit.  People who will resist spending a half hour studying for an announced quiz worth fifty points won’t bat an eye at spending two hours getting ten extra credit points.  I don’t understand it.

Next, Rick became a bit belligerent.  When his second paper wound up as a C-, he came to my office loaded for bear.  “My girlfriend’s brother has this friend who is an English major, and he said that he didn’t think there was any way that this paper was a C-.” 

“An English major, eh?” I noted.  As I talked with him, I stood and sat on my desk so that my head was lined up perfectly with my diploma, the big one reading “Doctor of Philosophy—English.”  I continued.  “I’m sure this friend is a great guy, but that’s not really important today.  Would you like me to explain why he’s wrong and I’m right?”

Failing in that bid, Rick resorted to the oldest scam a student can play.  He turned in his research paper, an absolutely brilliant effort sporting a host of sources he couldn’t possibly have found.  This clearly wasn’t his work.  “Rick,” I asked.  “Are you sure that you gave me the right paper?”  He picked up my meaning and reclaimed the plagiarized paper, replacing it with something of his own a couple of days later.

Finally, after a good deal of work, Rick finished the course, earning a C for his efforts.  On the day of the final, he asked me about his final grade.  When I told him the mediocre news, he glanced around and said, “If I give you a hundred bucks will you change it to a B?”  I hope I don’t need to say that I didn’t take him up on that.

What’s wrong with students that they’ll look for help anywhere except where they can find it, in themselves and their work?  What’s wrong with people that they’ll look for help anywhere but in God?  That’s Amos’ question of the day.  Lest we cluck too much at the Israelites, let’s remember that there’s a bit of Rick in all of us.

Never to Rise Again–Amos 5:1-2

Recently I found myself in a conversation with a college administrator (not from my school).  As we caught up on old times, our attention ranged across a variety of people whom we’d both known for years.  This one had gotten a job in Florida while that one took a position in Texas.  But time and again, we found people who remained working as adjunct faculty at the school where we’d known them.

In case you’re not up on the college labor structure, you’re depriving yourself of a system of haves and have-nots.  Full-time, tenure-track faculty members make a decent living, receive benefits, and enjoy marvelous job security.  At present, I believe that I’d probably have to join Al Qaeda to lose my job.  But a large number of classes are taught by adjunct or part-time faculty.  These people are paid poorly—often less than half what full-timers get for the same class.  They receive no benefits, and they have no assurance that they’ll have a job next semester.  A large number of these people are newbies, sort of paying their dues as they get started in the profession.  Many of these folks are still completing their education.  They couldn’t land a full-time job yet, so they really don’t have room to complain.  Another large segment is comprised of retirees and others who have no desire to teach a full load.  These people enjoy teaching one or two classes each semester.  Their pay is limited, but they never have to attend faculty meetings.  The setup seems fair to all parties.

But a third, and significant, cadre of the adjunct ranks are the lifers.  These are people who, for whatever reason, can’t get a full-time job.  They’ve sold their academic birthright for a mess of pottage and find themselves teaching year after year in the same place, hoping against hope that they’ll eventually get a break and reach the majors.  That’s what they hope, but the hope is almost never a realistic one.  After a few years, these people become identified as lifelong adjuncts.  There must be something wrong with them, the reasoning goes, if they haven’t gotten a full-time position yet.  Since they couldn’t get it five years ago, we probably shouldn’t give it to them now.

One guy at JCCC, started teaching adjunct a year after I did.  He got an interview a year before I did.  He’s gotten one since.  But by now it’s been a good ten years since he’s had a crack at the full-time ranks, and he’s put in a total of fifteen years as a part-timer.  That’s nearly half a career!  And the sad thing is that there’s really no hope.  Once you’ve moved from the hopeful new guy status to the hopeless long-timer, you’re never going to make the jump.

Life can be like that.  Regardless of the people who claim that we can achieve marvelous things if we just want it badly enough, many things have passed us by.  I’m not going to get that job at Harvard.  That possibility is gone.  The professional baseball career is gone.  The hope to be a men’s swimwear model is pretty well faded.  I can’t bring those things back, despite all the good vibes I can generate.

Our sinfulness is the same way.  “Fallen is Virgin Israel,” Amos says, but he might as well have substituted my name or yours.  “Never to rise again . . . with no one to lift her up.”  We’re hopeless, just as Israel was.  We’re hopeless, except that we have someone to lift us up just as Israel discovered that she had someone to lift her up.  My modeling career may be down for the count, but I have a hope.  And that hope has a name.

Don’t Forget Him–Amos 4:12-13

Unfortunately, I finished writing my Monday entry before the end of the Chiefs game and watched the remainder of it, not in the reflection on my antique map of Italy, but face-to-screen from a comfy perch on my bed. As you’re probably aware if you’re a fan or have been within earshot of our whining, the Chiefs lost that game, another disappointment in Denver.

But at least this loss wasn’t like the old days. In the old days, when John Elway roamed the earth, no lead over a Broncos team was safe. If you were ahead 900 to nothing at halftime, that didn’t matter. Somehow, John Elway would manage to eke out the victory, 901 to 900, with three seconds left. The guy worked magic. He could run better than most quarterbacks. Just when you thought your super pass rusher had the guy in his jaws of death, Elway would take a step forward, evade the tackle, and then scamper downfield for an easy twenty yards. If your defense chased him all the way to the right side of the field and had him wedged between a three hundred pound lineman and the Gatorade cooler, he’d manage to fling the ball all the way across the field to hit a wide open receiver standing on the left sideline. They should have put a red cape and a big “S” on John Elway.

On Sunday night, the Chiefs simply played a solid Denver Broncos team on their home turf, but in the old days, you didn’t just play the Broncos. You played John Elway and the Broncos. Anybody who forgot that they were playing against John Elway did so at their own peril. It would be like forgetting that your business rival was Al Capone. That sort of forgetfulness is bound to come back to hurt you.

It’s important to remember who you’re dealing with in a lot of situations. In today’s reading, Amos reminds his audience, the people of Israel, who they’re dealing with: God. It’s really easy to say “God.” In fact, it’s so easy that the word has become a staple of casual swearing. Beyond that, we frequently say “God bless you” or “God bless America” or “God willing,” but do we typically remember just who is meant when we utter that little, one-syllable word?

“He who forms the mountains, creates the wind, and reveals his thoughts to man, he who turns dawn to darkness, and treads the high places of the earth—the Lord God Almighty is his name.”

God is not “the man upstairs” or “a higher power.” He’s not “the big guy” or “the goodness within us.” No, God made all things, whether they be as solid as a mountain or as transitory as a thought. He controls all things, from the smallest to the largest. Only a fool forgets who God is. I think that’s why the Proverbs tell us that the “fear of God is the beginning of wisdom.” Go ahead and forget that you’re dealing with John Elway, but never forget who our God is!

Half-Time Adjustments–Amos 4:9-12

I’m an unabashed Kansas City Chiefs fans.  Cut me and I bleed red.  Okay, that’s not the most impressive example I could use, but you get the idea.  As I write these words, I’m watching the third quarter of the Chief’s opener against the Broncos—the dreaded Broncos—in the reflection on a picture above my computer.  At present, the Chiefs are trailing by a touchdown after a fairly dreadful first half.

If you listen to the TV announcers during a football game, which isn’t always a pleasant experience, then you know that one of the things that they like to talk about is “adjustments.”  When the teams go into the locker room at half-time, the coaches, who the announcers love to proclaim as “geniuses,” are supposed to make adjustments.  Having never been in a professional football locker room, I can only imagine what the conversations sound like, but I think I’ve listened to John Madden for long enough to have a good idea.  Today, the Chief’s coaches probably said something like this:

“Okay, you guys on defense, that little running back is eating you up.  He’s running past you and you’re just watching him.  Stop it!  Tackle him.”  Then the offensive coach tells his guys.  “You’ve been dropping those passes.  Instead of that, catch them!”  That’s almost certainly what they say.

Or, in the reflection on the wall, I just saw a better example.  The right-handed Denver quarterback, about to be sacked, decided to throw a pass with his left hand.  It was intercepted by the Chiefs, who then tied the game.  When that quarterback trotted to the sideline, I’m pretty sure that the Broncos coach calmly took him aside and said, “Jake, that wasn’t the smartest thing you’ve ever done.  Don’t do that again.”

Learning from bad things that happen is a key for success in just about any field of endeavor, but in football, the adjustments, the learning from mistakes, takes center stage.  All through a game, coaches and players work together to make sure that they learn from their mistakes, so that when bad things happen once, they don’t happen again.  For example, after the Chiefs gave up a long run for a touchdown to this midget runner from the Broncos, they made adjustments to make sure that wouldn’t happen again.  Except that the guy just ran through the Chief’s line for a forty-seven-yard touchdown and a new Broncos lead.  It looked like an impressive run in the reflection.  You see, you just have to learn from your mistakes, but the Chiefs didn’t, I guess.

Amos points out a much higher stakes situation where people didn’t learn from bad mistakes.  Read the awful things that happened in these verses and then see the Lord’s head shake when he says “yet you have not returned to me, declares the Lord,” three times.  (And he said it twice in yesterday’s readings.)

Silly people, these Israelites, yet they’re not alone.  How must God feel about my continued failures, about my repeated trips into the same areas of sin?  I’m no better than those Israelites.  My only claim to righteousness lies in Christ, who covers over my mistakes.  I have not returned to God, so he sent Christ to bring me home.  That’s what I call a home-field advantage.

…and my lungs and limbs and all the rest of me.