Frank James, Fugitive–1 John 3:5-6

But you know that he appeared so that he might take away our sins. And in him is no sin. No one who lives in him keeps on sinning. No one who continues to sin has either seen him or known him. –1 John 3:5-6

Frank James, the brother of Jesse James, is buried in Hill Park, a sleepy suburban green space in Independence, Missouri. Unlike Jesse, Frank lived to a ripe old age, dying in 1915 and buried under a somewhat misleading headstone reading “Alexander F. James.”

A few months after Jesse died at the hand of Robert Ford, Frank James made a visit to the governor of Missouri, handing him his gun and surrendering. Frank James, it seems, was tired of living as a fugitive. In the months that followed, James faced charges in both Missouri–for a robbery that ended in the murder of an engineer–and in Alabama–for the robbery of an Army Corps of Engineers payroll. In neither case would this Confederate veteran and hero of folk mythology be found guilty. James successfully resisted extradition to Minnesota to answer for the ill-fated Northfield raid until the end of his days. Still, those and charges always hung over him, even as, in his waning days, he charged a quarter to those who wanted to visit the James family farm.

The case of Jesse and Frank James is a complicated one, intertwined with the injustices of the American Civil War and the later industrial excesses. Regardless of mitigating circumstances, though, it cannot be denied that these men robbed and killed people who had done them no harm. Their crimes cannot be ignored.

Similarly, my crimes, although not as bloody or headline-worthy, cannot be simply ignored. They do not go away just because I am not discovered today. They remain over me, threatening me, unless . . .

Unless as John Milton puts it “one greater man restore us, and regain the blissful seat.” Only in Christ do our sins actually go away.  Only Jesus can deliver us from lives as fugitives.

The Outlaw Bess–1 John 3:4

Everyone who sins breaks the law; in fact, sin is lawlessness.–1 John 3:4

Bess sits in the back of my fiction class, directly under the clock. I notice that she sits under the clock because of her annoying habit of twisting her neck around, turtle-like, to see how many more minutes of my dull-as-dirt tutelage she must endure before she heads off to her next dull-as-dirt class. Perhaps what’s most annoying about Bess is that she’s currently making an A in the course.

No, what’s really most annoying is the way she wants to quibble over ever point. When she misses a class and a quiz, she ignores the clear notice from the syllabus that make-up quizzes will not be given and insists that she should get to take the quiz, because, after all, she wasn’t there on Monday. That seems about as logical as me attempting to get out of a speeding ticket by telling the officer I couldn’t slow down since I was driving too fast at the time.

Today, Bess fussed about not being able to earn extra points on her quiz. I gave the class some fourteen possible points, hoping that most of them would get ten, a perfect score. Bess got ten, but wanted more, because, after all, she wanted them. Grading her papers is an exercise in self-abuse. Everything that I mark, I know, will be questioned. “It’s not so much that I misspelled that word but just that I used the wrong letters to put it on the page.” Okay, she never said that, but it wouldn’t surprise me.

Bess, it seems to me, has no problem with self image. If she has a problem it is with being able to recognize any flaws in what she does. Her wrong answers aren’t wrong; they’re responses to the better question that I didn’t ask. Her grammar mistakes aren’t mistakes; they reflect an alternative method for conveying meaning. In short, Bess simply cannot see anything that she does as wrong–most annoying.

But then how far is that from how the rest of us live our lives. Did I really deserve that speeding ticket? Wasn’t I justified in withholding my tithe? That movie wasn’t really that obscene, was it?

Despite the protestations of moral relativists and individuals like you and me, there are laws in this universe, laws imposed by God. We’re typically quite good at recognizing the laws we do not struggle to obey, but what of the others? Are we all equal outlaws with Bess?

Don’t Be a 97-Pound Weakling–1 John 3:3

Everyone who has this hope in him purifies himself, just as he is pure. –1 John 3:3

Charles Atlas AdHey you! Are you tired of getting sand kicked in your face? Are you tired of being the laughing stock of all the cute girls on the beach? If so, then it’s time that you  took matters in your own hands. It’s time you talked to Charles Atlas. He’ll make a man out of you!

You’ve seen the ads in comic books and magazines. Maybe you’ve even been tempted to send off for the course materials so that you could stop people from kicking sand in your face. (Go ahead. Nod your head. Nobody’s watching.)

As a result of my lengthy research–three minutes with Google–I have discovered that Charles Atlas has been selling his “Dynamic-Tension” fitness course since 1929. Actually, Atlas himself died in 1972, but the company he founded loves on, almost eighty years later. That makes Charles Atlas, Ltd. a longer-lived company than KFC, McDonalds, K-Mart, or Microsoft. Apparently they must offer something of value or they wouldn’t have survived this long. While the Atlas course might not make you the “World’s most perfectly developed man,” as Charles Atlas was supposed to be, it’s just about got to do something positive. While it might have started off with a wish and a prayer of 97-pound weaklings, that wouldn’t keep it going for eighty years.

How much more, then does the promise of being transformed into the likeness of Christ give us hope. That’s the hope, mentioned in verse 2, that John refers back to in today’s verse. Everyone who has that hope works toward their own purification. Although John doesn’t say it, doesn’t it stand to reason that if we are not working to purify ourselves then we have lost sight of that hope, the hope of being a new creation.

Lately, I’ve lost sight of my physical self. After eating better and exercising regularly for nearly a year, I sort of forgot what I was doing it for. The same can happen for a believer. It’s important that we keep the blessing of our new creation in Christ and the hope of our utter transformation upon his return before us each day. Then we’ll live up to the promise. We won’t be 97-pound spiritual weaklings any longer.

Trust the Driver–1 John 3:2

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when he appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is. –1 John 3:2

As I write this, Emily and her kids have infested my house. Sidney is over on the couch with Olivia playing on the computer. Ira is ratting out our dog, calling her “really naughty” for swiping his brother’s graham cracker. Isa, with a cracker in only one hand, is plodding about the house spreading crumbs, while Isa, the youngest, is cooing to himself in a baby carrier across the room. Emily’s out on the deck swilling coffee with Penny, while that unreliable van of hers sits in front of the house.

At some point before they came over, Emily started the kids getting ready, putting on shoes, strapping them into car-seats, and so forth. For all the kids knew, they were going to Disney World or the grocery store or daddy’s job or California. They just know that despite outnumbering Mom, they have to go when she says go. They rarely know where they’re going, but they don’t seem to care. Mom tends to take them to good places and to attempt to make the dull places as good as they can be.

At what point in our lives do we have to have things all figured out? At what point, when we’re told that we need to drive to New York, do we have to have the route figured out, places to stay the night, places to buy gas, and so on all in our head before we take a step toward the car. Twenty-five years ago, Penny and I traveled across Europe not sure where we’d go next and completely clueless about where we’d stay when we got there. I can’t imagine traveling like that today. I like to have everything figured out when I leave home.

Don’t we do the same thing in thinking about our future in Christ? What will heaven be like? What will we be doing after Christ returns? Will we just be sitting around in heaven singing praises to God? Will it be just like Dante predicts in the Paradiso? I’m guessing that our answers to all of these will be absurdly off base.

But here’s the great thing. We don’t have to know how things will be any more than Emily’s kids have to know where they’re going today. When you trust the driver, you don’t have to know the destination or the route. Our insistence on knowing details God hasn’t revealed to us suggests a limit to our trust in him as the driver. Perhaps that’s the question we truly need to address.

Permanent Adoption–1 John 3:1

How great is the love the Father has lavished on us, that we should be called children of God! And that is what we are! The reason the world does not know us is that it did not know him. –1 John 3:1

Walt and Cheryl, a couple that Penny and I used to know, adopted a boy, a kid about eight years old. Let’s call him Tim. They brought Tim into their home with their son, a couple of years older, and teenaged son and daughter. We got to know Tim over the span of several months. We found that Walt and Cheryl had difficulties with the boy, but they seemed to us, a clueless engaged couple ourselves, like the typical sort of problems you would have with a child. They also seemed pretty similar to the severity of problems they had with their natural kids.

That’s why I found it shocking when I learned Walt and Cheryl had returned Tim to whatever agency brought him their way. To our eyes, it seemed they treated this little boy like a piece of furniture that you bring into your home and then realize you don’t like. In fact, it seems they had less trouble “returning” this kid than they would have had taking a couch back to Nebraska Furniture.

Let me say that I don’t necessarily know the entire story. There might have been compelling reasons why Walt and Cheryl “un-adopted” Tim. But on the surface it looked a bit tawdry to me.

The problem, of course, is that no matter how much you love an adopted child, somewhere in the back of your mind there lurks the knowledge that this is not really my flesh-and-blood, those aren’t my genes animating this person. For some parents, those thoughts never rise to the surface, but for others, I’m sure they do. It’s hard enough to love adolescents whom you can’t walk away from, but when you’ve taken them on by choice, the difficulty would seem to compound.

In the grand scheme of things, I am an adopted child of the perfect parent. But I’m not some cute potential adoptee. I don’t have dimples and a button nose. No, as potential adoption fodder goes, I was a two-headed fat kid with diarrhea and bad case of halitosis. I was tough to love, but God loved me. He didn’t love me enough to buy me dinner or to throw a blanket my way. He loved me enough to adopt me into his household, to paint me into the family portrait in indelible ink. I’m not a whole lot more attractive than I was before the adoption, but I am profoundly loved. Family, when it works, is a beautiful thing.

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