Irony Hour–Amos 4:4-8

This summer, as I graded papers for my online course, and during the opening weeks of this fall semester, I’ve noticed a difference in my comments.  Sarcasm seems to come much more easily than it used to.  Let me give you an example.  In the past, when a student turned in a “research” paper that demonstrated no evidence of research, I might have said something like, “Where did you get this information?”  Today, however, I might be more inclined to write, “Did you know that 42.3% of statistics are made up on the spot?”  When a student presents a 500-word essay in which the issue of capital punishment or abortion is summarily “solved,” I now skip my normal, serious comment about the complexity of the issue and the varying facts and viewpoints that must be considered.  No, today I’ll write something like, “Highly educated people have been arguing constantly over this topic for more than fifty years, but you put it to bed in a page and a half.  Why don’t you fix world hunger next?”

Irony, and its sub-category sarcasm, can be useful tools.  Irony is, essentially, the art of saying the exact opposite of what you mean, assuming that your audience will understand why you’re saying these words.  In a famous example, Jonathan Swift, a seventeenth-century British writer penned “A Modest Proposal.”  In this essay, Swift suggested that the best way to deal with the crushing poverty in Ireland was to sell Irish babies in the meat-markets of London.  Nobody with any sense believed that Swift truly wanted to make cannibals of the English.  They understood that he truly meant to demonstrate that his people were treating the Irish no better than livestock.

In verse four of today’s reading, when Amos tells the people of Israel to go and sin, he is using irony.  When I read this entire passage, I can just hear the biting tone of voice that he must have used.  Then, after verses four and five, he returns to a non-ironic speech.  In essence, he says, “I have tried everything to get you to turn back to me.”  He has tried playing with the weather and interrupting their food supply.  He’s tried sending a string of prophets.  He’s tried speaking literally and speaking ironically.  In fact, he’s tried or will try using just about every figure of speech or object lesson that you can imagine.  And still the people don’t return to their God.

I’ve recently begun to understand just how magnificently God arranges the experiences of my life in order to communicate his message to me.  He’ll use a finicky car or a crashed hard drive, a song in choir rehearsal or a comment from a friend.  He’ll use, most frequently, words like these from Amos.  Unlike these Israelites, nearly three thousand years ago, I have the indwelling Holy Spirit.  You’d think that I’d get the message loud and clear, obeying every time.  But that’s not how it turns out at all.  Might God, in an effort to get his point across, resort to a sarcastic tone with me or with you?  No, he’d never do that!

Cows of Bashan–Amos 4:1-3

In what has to rank as one of my favorite epithets in the entire Bible, Amos takes a shot not at the men of Israel but their women.  “Hear this word, you cows of Bashan.”  Have you ever noticed that when men are described using the names of animals, it’s a generally positive description, while when women are given the same treatment, it’s always a negative association.  When Rocky Balboa was called “The Italian Stallion,” that was perfectly okay, but “the old gray mare, she ain’t what she used to be.”  I could give other examples, but most of the others aren’t really appropriate for polite society.  Hopefully you can employ your imagination to get my drift.

Let’s explore that metaphor for a moment.  When Amos tags these women as “cows of Bashan,” what is he suggesting?  Think about the cows you’ve known.  First of all, cows are not particularly intelligent creatures.  If there were an animal IQ scale, they’d score well above sheep, but all in all they’re pretty feeble-minded.  Have you ever seen a cowboy movie featuring a trained cow?  I don’t think so.  Roy Rogers could train Trigger to do everything from playing dead to fixing biscuits in a Dutch oven, but he apparently didn’t have similar success with Elsie the Cow.

Besides their lack of intelligence, cows tend to do only about three things.  First, they eat.  They’re not terribly discriminating when they eat, but what they lack in discretion they make up for in quantity.  Second, they stand around chewing their cud.  Is there anything in this world that looks more stupid than a cow chewing its cud?  Finally, they—how shall we say?—complete the digestive process.

Cows aren’t useful as transportation.  They’re not bright enough to become a companion.  No, a cow is only tolerated because it is meat on the hoof.  It’ll also tend to produce calves and milk along the path to the butcher’s shop.  But it’s really kind of pitiful to think of a cow as a creature whose highest ambition can be to turn into a nice prime rib someday.

Of course a cow is simply being a cow, right?  There’s nothing wrong with a cow embracing its cow-ness and being the best cow it can be.  What is a problem is when a person—certain women in this case—behave like cows.  Cows we can excuse, but when people are simply eating and eliminating, oblivious to the fate in store for them, that’s a sad state of affairs.

This passage puts an accent on the dumbness of dumb animals.  In verse three, Amos changes his metaphor from cows to fish, apparently, as he prophecies that these women will be taken out of the city with fish hooks.  A trout with a hook in its mouth is one thing, but a person?  That’s rather sad.

As I read these words, I don’t assume that Amos is a sexist.  He has plenty of criticism for men as well.  Instead, he’s lashing out at those who are oblivious to the harm they inflict on others and content living for themselves.  I’m afraid that’s a role I inhabit now and again.  You and I aren’t cows of Bashan, but we must be sure not to carelessly graze in that pasture.  God still has a good supply of fish-hooks, I’m sure.

A Piece of an Ear–Amos 3:11-15

Several years ago, the JCCC basketball team generated a fair amount of interest and attention on campus when they went through their season with a stellar record.  When they reached the regional tourney, they breezed through, hardly breaking a sweat.  This qualified them for a trip to the national tournament.  The campus email gave us breakdowns of games as they were played.  The team won their first couple of games and found themselves in the big one, the championship contest, which they won.

Although I didn’t really follow this team—opting instead for the exploits of my beloved Jayhawks—I did have a couple of students who were playing.  I therefore gained some vicarious pleasure watching as they advanced through their various stages of success.  But something struck me odd in the week before the guys went to the national tournament.  I talked with, Joel, one of those students, about the excitement of getting to go to the national tournament.

“Yeah,” Joel replied.  “That’s pretty great.”  He said this with all the enthusiasm of a grade school kid told that he’d be served liver at lunchtime.  I couldn’t figure it out.  Eventually, however, I did.  In doing so, I learned a bit about junior college athletics.

Like their four-year counterparts, two-year schools are grouped by size and athletic intensity into groups.  The NCAA has various levels for colleges, including Division I, II, and III, and some letter designations that break at least some of those divisions down further.  That keeps Southwest Baptist University from having to play football against Mizzou every year as if they had a chance.  It doesn’t do anything for poor KU, when they have to play Nebraska, but that’s a whole different matter.  Essentially, though, when a team is in Division I or Division II, they stay in that division unless something very significant changes.

In the NJCAA (the J standing for Junior), they opt for a system that resembles the English soccer leagues.  At the end of a season, one or more really great teams are moved up to the higher division.  At the same time, one or more really miserable teams are moved down into the lower division.  JCCC, it seems, had just been moved down into the lower division that year.  And then they won the championship.  Rather a hollow victory, eh?  It’d be like winning the math contest in second grade after getting held back from third grade.

As Amos continues his words of warning, he explains that while there will be a remnant of Israel, it’ll be like the parts of an animal taken from the mouth of a lion.  That’s hardly something for the shepherd to take pride in.  But even more ridiculous is for the piece of an ear to think itself a fine specimen of livestock.

As I write these things, I can look at the wall above my desk and see an array of diplomas and awards, all suggesting my accomplishment.  But I’m just a piece of an ear that Jesus rescued from the mouth of a ravening lion.  Every point of pride I could boast could have and should have been better, less tainted by sin.

It’s rare when I find a college athlete demonstrating true wisdom, but Joel did that.  He realized that, even winning the tournament, they were just the pieces left over.  All he could do was play his best and try not to think about the lion.

Blue Chips–Amos 3:9-11

Originally posted on Wednesday, September 8, 2004

If I remember correctly, I mentioned my father’s reasoning for owning General Motors stock in this space a couple of weeks back. That information came back to me Sunday evening as I watched Sixty Minutes and a report about pornography. As the reporter shook his head in disbelief and disgust, he traced the ownership of a company that creates “adult” movies. This company, let’s call it XYZ Films, is owned by BCD Entertainment group, a subsidiary of EFG Media, which is a division of none other than General Motors. Where you might have thought that GM simply made money by selling cars and auto parts and loans and such, it turns out that they’re into all manner of other things including pornography. So if my family still owned that GM common stock, a small portion of the earnings on that investment would be coming from making and selling smutty movies. It gives a whole new meaning to “blue chip stocks,” doesn’t it?

Lest you think I’m just picking on General Motors here, it turns out that a large array of major corporations are making similar profits on similar products. Just about every hotel chain rakes in big bucks by offering pay-per-view porn on their TVs. The big telecommunications companies are making a big chunk of their profits from this off-color market as well. Most of the entertainment giants have diversified into “mature” offerings as well.

This sort of business and various other troubling trends have led to a surge in “socially conscious” investing. Significant slices of the investing public have decided to avoid investing in any company that supports animal testing or apartheid or alcohol or tobacco or whatever else the investor might find troubling. The problem is that you just can’t get completely away from this sort of stuff. Let’s say that you wanted to avoid any association with or profiting from pornography. Could you do it? You could avoid buying that GM stock, but can you also avoid all mutual funds that own GM? Can you make sure that your retirement plan doesn’t invest in GM? Can you avoid buying all products that GM produces? You couldn’t do that unless you’re ready to take up an existence that looks more like the Unabomber than a normal human being. Happily, I don’t think we have to go that far.

While we probably don’t have to investigate the origin of every box of Post Toasties that we buy at Price Chopper in order to live with a clear conscience, we can’t ignore the injustices and oppressions that do come to our attention. I don’t think that Amos’ warning about those in fortresses and their oppression is reserved just for those who live in castles.

Don’t take these words as a call to socialism or a rejection of private property. But it is hard to imagine that our Lord, who so often criticized the rich and powerful, wouldn’t want us to be very careful not to “hoard plunder and loot” in our fortresses. In a complex, modern economy, you can’t avoid all entanglements with those who do evil, but you can invest some effort to avoid giving comfort to them. This is one investment that will undoubtedly pay eternal dividends.

Warning Signs–Amos 3:3-8

Originally posted on Tuesday, September 7, 2004

There’s an old tale about a man in a flood, sitting on top of his house. He prays that God will rescue him. Shortly after that, a raft floats by and his neighbor offers to take him aboard. “No, I have faith that God will save me.” A few minutes later, a motorboat comes past. Again, the man refuses the offer of help. Finally as the water laps at his feet, a helicopter appears overhead. Once more he refuses to accept their assistance. “God will save me!” he cries out. A few minutes later, the man drowns. When he finds himself before God, the man, indignant, asks why God didn’t save him. God replies calmly, “I sent you a raft, a motorboat, and a helicopter. What did you expect?”

As the Labor Day weekend gives way to a new work week, most of America is heading to their jobs, but for millions of Floridians, Tuesday morning brings the first clear view of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Frances.

If you’ve had your television tuned to any of the various cable news channels over the weekend, however, you’ve already seen some of the devastation. Mostly you’ve watched foolhardy reporters standing out on a beach or alongside a roadway while all around them the rain fell sideways. Today, the insurance adjusters picked up where the reporters left off. The early estimates on the damages left in the path of the storm range from $2 billion to $10 billion. Even the low side of that estimate is an immense amount of money.

But what I find most intriguing about this hurricane is not the staggering amount of property damage but the fairly small number of storm-related deaths. At present, officials are blaming six deaths on the storm. Now six deaths is a lot if one of the dead happens to be close to you, but you have to admit that for a storm that blanketed the entire peninsula for thirty hours and destroyed a huge number of buildings and vehicles, six isn’t a bad number. We could easily see six people die in a bad auto accident during tomorrow’s rush hour. Why was the death toll so low? It’s simple. People heard the warnings, which began several days ahead of the storms, and most of them heeded those warnings. They headed inland and for more substantial structures. Unlike the man on top of his house, these folks took the warning signs seriously.

In today’s reading, Amos uses seven analogies to point out that God always gives warning signs for what he’s about to do. And then, in case you didn’t get it, he states his point very clearly: “Surely the Sovereign Lord does nothing without revealing his plan to his servants the prophets.” The message is simple. Listen to the prophets and live!

Today, we don’t live in a day of prophets, but God still provides warning signs for us. He provides us the means to save ourselves from a great deal of the trouble that we get ourselves into. Sometimes, however, we don’t listen. Other times we hear, but don’t like the message. It’s tempting to ignore the warning signs, but the people of Florida can offer a testimony to importance of listening to them today.

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