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.

Chosen People–Amos 3:1-2

Originally posted on Monday, September 6, 2004

A couple of years ago, Alyson, my number-two daughter, enrolled in my Composition I online class. One of the nice perks of teaching at JCCC is that we get free tuition for ourselves and our dependents. I say free, but the tuition isn’t precisely free. Instead, we enroll in the classes and pay for them up front. We turn in a simple form indicating what classes are being taken. Then, when the student completes the course with a grade of C or better, the tuition is reimbursed. That’s as close to free as a person could really hope.

In order to take advantage of my free tuition for Alyson’s class, I had to not only fill out the appropriate form but ask my department head, John, to sign it. John, a retired Air Force officer who never married (or had kids) doesn’t always understand family issues.

When I took the form into his office and requested his signature, we fell into a conversation regarding teachers having their own children as students. After a couple of minutes of such talk, he observed, “It is sort of a conflict of interest, isn’t it?”

I wasn’t entirely sure of his point, since the chance for a teacher to inflate a single student’s grade-point average seemed awfully minimal. I guess my mystified look communicated my lack of understanding.

“I mean, the parent will want to get the tuition reimbursed, so there’s an incentive to ensure that the student receives at least a C.”

Knowing John for the past four years, I’m pretty certain that he meant this in the abstract and not as a suggestion that I’d do anything improper. But his lack of understanding struck me as amazing.

“John,” I objected. “Don’t you see that for me or any parent, the desire to get our kids a good education will far outweigh any desire to get a couple of hundred bucks in reimbursement?” By the time I left his office, I think he did understand.

In the end, of course, he had no call for concern. Alyson, as a Comp I student, got far more attention from her professor than any of that professor’s other students. She ultimately made an A in the course, but I am fairly certain that I put her through more to get that A than anybody else. I required revisions that I’d have never asked from others. I made notations on minor defects that I’d have let slide from other students. Alyson got the best of me as a teacher, but at times that probably seemed like she got the worst of me. It served her well when she breezed through Comp II with my colleague.

Just as Alyson was my chosen student who got not only the best of my instruction but the harshest of my correction, Israel was God’s chosen people who received the greatest of his bounty along with the most demanding of his commandments. Things that the Lord would have allowed to pass uncriticized from the Philistines or the Assyrians were not ignored when they came from the Israelites. They were his chosen people. “Therefore, I will punish you for all your sins.”

You and I are God’s chosen people. We shouldn’t be surprised, then, when God asks more of us than he asks from unbelievers. He chastises those he loves. It’s hard sometimes being a chosen person. But I wouldn’t trade it for anything.

Et Tu, Israel?–Amos 2:1-16

Originally posted on Sunday, September 5, 2004

This summer, the annual Shakespeare festival at Southmoreland Park was Julius Caesar. Although it comes at the end of act two, the murder of Caesar is one of the high points of the play (which might explain why this isn’t considered one of the bard’s greatest works). Caesar, although shocked, is not completely surprised at the daggers that plunge into his body, one after the next. From Casca and Cinna and Cassius, he expected this sort of thing. But then Marcus Brutus, a man who is practically a son to Caesar, steps up and thrusts his blade into the great man. “Et tu, Brute?” Caesar says with this final breath. “You too, Brutus?” Julius Caesar couldn’t imagine the sort of betrayal that would be necessary for Brutus to join with these assassins.

In these opening chapters of Amos’ prophecies, we see a sort of inverse Brutus action going on. As Amos brings down the curses of God upon the various nations, we can imagine Israel, the apples of God’s eye, standing back and nodding their approval to the words that this shepherd-prophet utters.

Amos attacks Damascus, and the people of Israel approve. He brings down imprecations onto Gaza, and the people shout, “Amen!” He complains about the sins of Tyre, leading the Israelites to yell, “Preach it, brother!” Then he assails Edom. The people of the land perhaps squirm, thinking that these attacks are coming rather close to home. Still, they nod nervously. Next, Amos attacks another neighbor, another relative, Moab. The people smile and nod, but they’re not at peace. “For three sins of Judah,” Amos says. Now, he’s come as close as he can come. The people of the North might have their differences with the Southern Kingdom, but blood is thicker than water. And besides, they think they know where this is leading.

And then, the final dagger plunges in. “For three sins of Israel, even for four, I will not turn back my wrath.” Just as Caesar never imagined that the blade of Brutus would be turned against him, Israel didn’t expect that this rant against their neighboring nations would turn against God’s chosen people.

We are foolish and short-sighted when we believe that God will punish the sins of others and not notice ours. It’s all too easy to identify certain sins as the truly bad ones. Those are always the ones that we don’t struggle against. Take gambling for example. I have absolutely no problem with gambling. I’m never tempted when I drive past the various casinos along the river. That just isn’t an issue for me. It’s easy for me to point a finger at the weakness and self-indulgence of those who gamble away their mortgage payments and spend time they might have invested profitably somewhere else. Those people are sinners. But when I sit at this very computer and play hours of Madden Football, that’s simply a pastime. It’s an innocent diversion. Sure, I could be writing or exercising or reading or playing with my kids or any of a hundred more useful things, but still, playing a video game isn’t a sin. I mean, it’s not like I’m gambling, after all.

We should worry most about our sins when we don’t notice any. That’s when, like the people of Israel, we’re likely to incur God’s chastisement and never see it coming.

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