Recalculating from the Wrong Turn

A friend of ours just moved to Dillingham, Alaska. After finding this town of 2,300 on the map, we were curious as to its distance. When I asked Google maps to give me directions (and that distance), here’s what I received: “Sorry, we could not calculate driving directions from “Your location” to ‘Dillingham, Alaska 99576.'” So in this case, you can’t there from here. Happily, we can get most places by car. To the best of my knowledge, we can’t drive anywhere that leaves us trapped.

Sunday, our fill-in preacher, speaking on the tenth commandment, instructed us that coveting is not, in and of itself, a bad thing. There are things we should covet. He went on to enumerate some of those covet-worthy items. One of them, he suggested, was faith.

You need to desire the faith that right where you are today is right where God wants to bless you and use you.

That’s what his message notes said, but when he spoke on Sunday morning, the words were a bit different:

Do you have faith that where you are right now is right where God wants you to be and that he intends to bless you there?

Do you see the difference? The first statement, the one that is more defensible in my opinion, says that God can and will (and desires to) bless us wherever we might want to be.

The second statement says that wherever we are is where God wants us to be and that he’ll bless us there. I have to differ.

  • When Adam and Eve ate from the wrong tree, they were not where God wanted them to be. He still blessed them from that place, but he didn’t want them to be there.
  • When David committed adultery with Bathsheba and then committed murder to cover his sin, he was not where God wanted him to be. God still blessed David from that (wrong) place.
  • When I drove my old van on the same oil for far too many miles and blew out the engine, I wasn’t where either God or I wanted to be. However, he could and did still bless me from that bad situation.

If I use GPS to reach some more reasonable location in Alaska–beautiful Ketchikan for example–I might well make a wrong turn. When I head east when I should have headed west, that’s not where the GPS wanted me to go. I wasn’t supposed to be there, but I’m not abandoned. Typically, the GPS will pause and say, “Recalculating” before providing newly updated directions.

My sin will take me down many wrong roads and into many bad neighborhoods. That’s not what God wants. But just like the GPS, each time I take a wrong turn, God recalculates and blesses me from that new location.

I understand what our fill-in preacher intended by his words, but we should remember that God doesn’t want us to be heading down that wrong road. Regardless of where we’ve gotten ourselves, though, he won’t leave us stranded in the spiritual equivalent of Dillingham, Alaska.

Calling all White Hats

In a recent visit to Joel Salatin’s Polyface Farm, I did not meet America’s most famous farmer, but I did meet a four-year-old who provided a marvelous tour of the grounds. “Do you want to see the hay that I climb on?” he asked my wife and I.

What could we say in response? He led us to a hay barn, pausing once with a quick “shhh!” when he thought we might see deer across the pasture.  As he clambered onto a mountain of square bales, his mouth kept up a stream of explanations and comments, a few of which we actually understood.

Apparently at some point, he was launching into a story that was playing in his imagination. “And that’s when we got the bad guys!”

“Who got the bad guys?” I asked.

“I did,” he explained, his face relaying his seriousness. “With my good guys!”

What must it be like to be four years old and inhabiting a world of good guys and bad guys, white hats versus black hats, a world more straight-forward in its allegiances than the plots of Gunsmoke or Bonanza that my mother watches each afternoon?

Those stories and the cut-and-dry characters that populate them seem quaint and simplistic to contemporary sensibilities. We prefer far more nuance and complexity in our fictional characters. The white and black hats have been abandoned for a series of greys. We embrace Don Draper and Walter White, Tony Soprano and Olivia Pope. Even someone as close to the old-school Western hero as Mark Harmon’s Leroy Jethro Gibbs from NCIS carries along some fairly disturbing baggage. The simple character seems as passe as the family of Father Knows Best. We’re just a bit too sophisticated for that sort of thing.

After leaving Polyface Farm, we drove back into nearby Staunton, Virginia. Along the roads of that fascinating small city, we saw a number of campaign-style signs that read “Save the Name.” Investigating this plea, we discovered that a movement is afoot to change the name of Staunton’s Robert E. Lee High School. The opposing side wants to preserve the tradition of that name. In the wake of last year’s chaos in nearby Charlottesville, the urgency of this matter seems to have only increased.

While I understand the feelings of those who think a Confederate general to be an inappropriate namesake for a public high school, I can’t help thinking that those who dismiss Lee out of hand are separating the world into good guys and bad guys just as surely as  my four-year-old tour guide had.

Was Lee a perfect paragon of moral rectitude? No. An absolute devil? Of course not. He was a man, generally honorable but with serious flaws.

In that same Staunton, Virginia, the birthplace of Woodrow Wilson, the twenty-eighth president has his name placed on various local landmarks. Was Wilson a saint? No. Did he segregate the Federal offices in his administration? Yes.

But I wouldn’t argue for his name to be struck from the public view. After all, once we start that sort of action, the only names that can remain are those of people who did nothing. In my own home town of Independence, Missouri, the three high schools are named for Harry Truman (who dropped two atomic bombs), William Chrisman (who owned and traded slaves), and Robert T. Van Horn (who was a lawyer, politician, tax collector, and journalist, thereby almost guaranteeing at least some less-than-stellar doings).

People who do things of consequence almost invariably take some faulty steps. And when various people, from various parts of the moral and social compass, bring their ideas of what constitutes a faulty step, there’s very little hope that anyone’s name could remain on a high school or a street.

Humanity has very few absolute “good guys” and many people who can be partly tarred with some “bad guy” accusations. Perhaps we should be as open to complexity and conflict in our real people as we are in our fictional characters. Let’s leave the simplistic stuff for the pre-schoolers.

The Sabbath-Driven Life

News Update: I have not mowed the grass on a  Sunday since my previous post on the topic. I’m feeling good about that, but my wife and I are planning on driving a very long way on this coming Sunday.

Back to the matter at hand, though. At the beginning of this summer, I had a great lawn care plan pop into my head. Typically, I need to mow the grass for the first time in April and do it roughly once a week until about October. If my records are correct, I average twenty-four mowings per year. So this April, I decided to work ahead. I mowed on April 10 and then on April 12, April 13, twice on April 14, and once a day until I reached twenty. I figured that I could do the remaining four mowings on some cool October Saturday and call it a season.

This seemed like such a great plan, but then the guy from the city waded through the two-foot-tall bluegrass to come to the door and issue me a citation. Clearly, our civic leaders have no vision regarding alternative work patterns.

The reality of lawn care is that no matter how much work we try to do ahead of time, the task is never done until we don’t own the lawn any more. It doesn’t matter how many times I mowed last month, I still have to do the job this week and next week, and next month, and next year.

Similarly, we cannot complete our obligations to God ahead of time. I can’t observe “Sabbaths” seven days in a row and then have nearly two months to spend as I want. I can’t work my tail off serving God for a couple of years and then declare that I have “done my time” and go into retirement.

God has given us lives that we’re to work through just as surely as we care for our lawns. Ignoring the work to be done is not an option. Working ahead is not a real  possibility. Instead, we are to continue serving  and stewarding until relieved.

Paul understood this, although I don’t think he owned a lawnmower. In 2 Timothy 4:7, he doesn’t speak of running hard for part of the race or of struggling through part of a fight. Instead, he sees himself nearing the end of life but pushing through the finish line or the final bell.

I have mowed the good grass? I have finished the yard? Yes, but only until it needs it again.

What Charles Dickens Can Teach Us about Church Music Styles

As my church moves toward merging its two divergently styled worship services, a few people are wringing their hands over how we can combine the hymns of the early service–they actually don’t sing very many hymns now, but don’t tell anybody–with the cutting-edge nature of the later service–which isn’t really that cutting edge.

People have probably fretted about church music since Bach was “contemporary” and people in the pews pined away for Gregorian chant. I recall a devout old woman from my former church who declared that “guitars aren’t sacred,” unaware that people in a previous age had said the same about the organ she played.

As we consider this, let’s look at John Everett Millais’ famous painting, “Christ in the House of His Parents.” (Click the image for a much larger view.)

What does this painting have to do with church music? Consider what Charles Dickens had to say about the composition:

In the foreground of that carpenter’s shop is a hideous, wry-necked, blubbering, red-headed boy, in a bed-gown, who appears to have received a poke in the hand, from the stick of another boy with whom he has been playing in an adjacent gutter, and to be holding it up for the contemplation of a kneeling woman, so horrible in her ugliness, that (supposing it were possible for any human creature to exist for a moment with that dislocated throat) she would stand out from the rest of the company as a Monster, in the vilest cabaret in France, or the lowest gin shop in England.

What Dickens missed or simply ignored was the symbolism and thought behind this painting. Yes, that “blubbering, red-headed boy” had received a poke in the hand. Interesting, the position of that wound, isn’t it? And the nails seen over both shoulders–are they coincidental?

The Mary of the painting, while not an idealized woman, can scarcely be called “horrible in her ugliness” nor does her neck seem unnaturally positioned.

In allowing his vocabulary to play havoc with the reality of the painting, Dickens ignored the dove perched above Jesus’ head, the slightly older boy (John the Baptist?) bringing (baptismal?) water to the scene, and the blessing-like position of Jesus’ wounded hand.

What Mr. Dickens should have said was simply, “This painting is not my cup of tea.” What worshippers, faced with changing music styles, should say is, “That’s not exactly my cup of tea.” Such a judgment is perfectly acceptable. The reality, of course, is that we can learn to worship in many styles if we focus not on the means of the worship (or the style of the painting) but on the object of the worship, that “blubbering, red-headed boy” who grew up to carry the sins of the world onto a Roman cross.

Whether guitars are sacred or not, if they sing about Christ and him crucified, they sing truth.

A Briggs and Stratton Sabbath

A couple of weeks ago, I went outside during the evening to mow my grass. I really didn’t want to mow the grass–who ever does?–but I knew that it needed to be done. The temperature on that evening was mild for summer in Kansas City and the next several days promised the sort of blast-furnace peaks that June and July have delivered this year. Clearly, I needed to lace up my grimy shoes and drag the mower out.

But here’s the deal. That coolish evening was a Sunday. Sure, I’d done all of my Sunday obligations–gone to church, served in the children’s ministry, spent time with my family, all that–but I still couldn’t help remaining completely aware of doing non-essential work on the Lord’s Day. After all:

Remember the Sabbath day, to keep it holy: You are to labor six days and do all your work,  but the seventh day is a Sabbath to the Lord your God. You must not do any work—you, your son or daughter, your male or female servant, your livestock, or the resident alien who is within your city gates. For the Lord made the heavens and the earth, the sea, and everything in them in six days; then he rested on the seventh day. Therefore the Lord blessed the Sabbath day and declared it holy. –Exodus 20:8-11

That’s the fourth commandment, the longest of the ten. Jesus never got accused of murder or idolatry, but he was hit with accusations of violating the Sabbath right and left. It’s true that this commandment was the only one of the ten not reaffirmed in the New Testament, but I couldn’t shake the thought that I was pushing my mower back and forth on Sunday when I could have done it easily enough–although with more sweat–on Monday or Tuesday.

Back in Exodus 16, we encounter God’s message regarding the Sabbath via the provision of manna. You get a single ration every day except Friday when you can take a double ration to last you through Saturday. The message was clear: Trust God.

Shouldn’t I have trusted God better with my lawn mowing? Couldn’t I have trusted him to see me through mowing in the beastly heat on Monday?

This isn’t really just a question about the lawn or even about the Lord’s Day. Instead, it’s a question about trusting God to give me enough of everything in the time (or money or skill or whatever) allowed. I don’t think it was strictly an ecological thing that led God to declare the sabbatical year every seven years in Leviticus 25:4:

But there will be a Sabbath of complete rest for the land in the seventh year, a Sabbath to the Lord: you are not to sow your field or prune your vineyard.

Instead, he wanted the Israelites to do something harder than working, which was not working. He wanted them to realize that even though they hadn’t done the agricultural work that had served them (hopefully) so well in the preceding six years, the land would still produce sufficient crops to support them.

I’d like to spend some time developing this idea of trusting God in the time and resources allotted. I think it will lead into some surprising and sometimes uncomfortable ideas.

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