Monday’s Column: Neal at the Cross
In the 1100s, in an effort to protect travelers going from northern Spain over the Pyrenees to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia (Dogs of God, Reston, 50), a military force known as the hermandads (“the brotherhood”) was organized. Soon, these vigilantes spread across Spain and offered themselves as protectors of roads and merchants. Eventually appointed as a national police force who could collect taxes and prevent insurrection in every municipality, they would go on to exterminate untold numbers of Muslims, Jews, and other “enemies of the state” during the Middle Ages. Reston mentions an unsettling “right” granted to the hermandads in the 15th Century, during the famous reign of Isabella and Ferdinand. He writes, “In a curious turnabout, executions took place first, and trials were held afterwards” (51).
Given our country’s constitutional concept of “innocent until proven guilty,” this practice seems both backward and barbaric. How useful is a trial to present facts about a case after the defendant has been executed? What if the deceased was found innocent? What if there was no proof of guilt? Of course, the “facts” of every case incredibly supported the punitive action that preceded it.
While we may find such a practice appalling, how often do we do the same with our tongues? Through rash anger, reckless gossip, and rabid prejudice, we can serve as judge, jury, and executioner of the reputation and actions of another. How often do we jump to conclusions and assassinate another’s character, but later revelations prove our actions both premature and unjustifiable? Unfortunately, the damage having been done, nothing done by way of reparation can fully undo the effects upon the victim.
What we need to see is the spiritual danger we face who “execute” before “trial.” Solomon wrote, “He who gives an answer before he hears, it is folly and shame to him” (Prov. 18:13). A few verses later, he says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue…” (21a). That New Testament “wisdom writer,” James, adds, “But no one can tame the tongue; it is a restless evil and full of deadly poison. With it we bless our Lord and Father, and with it we curse men, who have been made in the likeness of God; from the same mouth come both blessing and cursing. My brethren, these things ought not to be this way” (3:8-10).
Be very careful! Even when we think we have the facts about another, let us post a guard outside the door of our lips (cf. Ps. 141:3). Better to deliberate and reserve judgment than to execute before the trial has been held!
Toronto Mayor Rob Ford is eating up news headlines these days, from admitting “to smoking crack cocaine, buying illegal drugs, and driving after consuming alcohol” (Allison Martell, Reuters, 11/18/13). His profanity-laced tirades, graphic sexual remarks, domestic incidents, and general godless behavior are all marquee letters on a sign that reads, “No self control here!” His appearance, speech, and videotaped conduct are all primary witnesses to that end. He appears to be one gigantic-sized scandal. Though Toronto’s City Council has voted to transfer his power to the deputy mayor and otherwise curtail his ability to serve, Ford has utterly refused to resign. Mr. Ford seems like more of a symptom than a cause of debauchery and indulgence in western society however larger than life he demonstrates it.
Self-control is an oft-touted virtue set forth by God in His Word. It was important enough to be a part of Paul’s three point outline to Felix (Acts 24:25), to be an important point in Paul’s counsel to Corinthians about godly marriage (1 Cor. 7:5,9), to be a “slice” of the fruit of the Spirit (Gal. 5:23) and to be one of the Christian virtues (2 Pet. 1:6). Paul paints a grim picture to Timothy about spiritually-difficult times to come, talking about men who are “without self-control” (2 Tim. 3:3). He says to avoid such men as these (2 Tim. 3:5).
What is so important about self-control? It is impossible for one to submit to the Lord whose passions and desires are not under control. Paul says, “Those who belong to Christ have crucified the flesh with its passions and desires” (Gal. 5:24). An out-of-control person is out of harmony with His will.
One without self-control is prone to have a negative influence upon others, too. For a Christian lacking self-control, there is the crisis of turning others off from Christianity. There is the equally damaging effect of swaying impressionable people to follow out-of-control, sinful behavior. Either way, a lack of self-control pushes other people further away from Christ.
Ford’s behavior has been described as repulsive, offensive, and flabbergasting. Perhaps he is an uncomfortable, if exaggerated, picture of tendencies we all have in our own lives. Hopefully, seeing how negative a picture a lack of self-control paints will motivate us to take care in this regard.
The first time I recall understanding the significance of the story in 2 Kings 6:30 was sitting in a class taught by Wendell Winkler. He called the lesson “Hidden Cares.” He told us to remember that sitting in the audience each week we preached would be any number of folks carrying around hidden cares. In over twenty years of full-time preaching, I become more aware of that every day. Recently reading about the woman in Mark five who had been suffering for twelve years, I was reminded of this as I thought about the faces of individuals I see all the time suffering in a variety of ways. While we usually know some of the burdens our brothers and sisters are bearing, there are still many others whose troubles are not as widely known.
Jehoram is no Old Testament hero, but is rather a wicked Israelite king. He does not make the cut for the Hebrews eleven list and he does not even behave properly regarding Elisha after the event mentioned in the verse above, but he does illustrate the many who walk around with hidden cares. The verse reads, “When the king heard the words of the woman, he tore his clothes-now he was passing by on the wall-and the people looked, and behold, he had sackcloth beneath on his body.”
The sackcloth was coarsely woven cloth, often made of goat’s hair. It was worn to show mourning and submission to God. No doubt, wearing one of these for any length of time would bring itching, irritation, and discomfort. The garment was apparently meant to reflect outwardly the feelings of the heart and affliction of the spirit of the wearer.
Whether we are preaching or teaching or simply dealing with one another, may we keep a few things in mind. At any given point, the person with whom we are dealing is likely wearing their own “hidden sackcloth.” We may not be able to tell this by looking at their facial expressions or through any verbal cues when we converse. Further, the hidden cares they carry may affect the way they respond to us. Let us not assume they are upset with us or that it is even about us at all. Finally, keep in mind that people cope with their hidden cares in different ways. It is no reflection on the quality of our friendship or relationship if they do not share it. Each of us must determine how, when, and with whom we disclose these things. Let us pray for family, church family, coworkers, neighbors, and others with whom we have relationship as they wear these unseen cares.
To those with sackcloth underneath, remember that God has made us family. There are those you can trust to help bear the burdens. Pray about this and then act. Let these cares refine your relationship with God and sharpen your focus on the place where there will be no such cares. Remember that God is gracious and will not give you more than you can bear. This may seem doubtful at times, but on the other side of the sorrow it will be clear.
No matter how “spiffily” or “slobbily” one is dressed, be aware that underneath may be that figurative sackcloth. May this drive us to be more compassionate and understanding in our dealings with one another.
As a teenager I once had a Bible class teacher who found it appealing, as a teaching style, to raise questions but give no answers. Some students thought it was cool to keep things theoretical. It is interesting that his class never really arrived at absolute truth but stayed hypothetical. I remember feeling frustrated that he raised doubt and uncertainty for some of my peers who might have entered the classroom sure and certain. Who knew that his sort of “style” would become more popular here in the post-postmodern and emergent age?
It seems that some want in the realm of theology what no one would want in the worlds of auto mechanic-ing, accounting, real estate or medicine—theories and questions in lieu of ironclad, definitive answers. Yet, the realm of theology deals with something more important than automobiles, money, land, or physical health. When it comes to God and the Bible, eternity is at stake depending on the answers given and the practice encouraged.
Before we allow some smug, condescending professor, preacher, or pundit to conclude that there are no conclusions or absolutely tout the non-existence of absolute truth, let us humbly ask, “On what basis should we reject the Bible’s authoritative position or exchange it for the point of view of the theorist or inquirer?” Some religious leaders would like us to join them in “always learning and never able to come to the knowledge of the truth” (2 Tim. 3:7). When the Bible contains a significant number of statements clearly defining right and wrong, we should be wary of those who seem intent to put question marks where God put periods and exclamation points. That is not to say that there are not “some things hard to be understood” (2 Pet. 3:16), but let us be careful not to toss into that category what God has already explained.
Kathy and I were privileged to speak in Price, Utah, at the Carbon Emery lectureship. This program affords brethren in that state a chance to be challenged by a specific topic while enjoying each others’ company. Never has the saying been true for us that we were the ones blessed for the time spent. Those in attendance were kind and complimentary, but we felt as though we saw something of what first-century Christianity must have been like. Brothers and sisters from about a half-dozen of the state’s total of no more than 17 churches (including two tiny house churches comprised of 1 family each and at least one congregation whose membership is 7 people) came together to consider faithfulness as well as evangelism against great odds.
The Christians in Utah understand great odds. Mormonism has a stranglehold throughout much of the state, even holding a decided financial and social advantage. So, typically, the Lord’s church, if it exists in a community and owns a building, meets in small, modest meeting houses that may feel grateful to have two dozen people present. The distance between most congregations, with the exception of Salt Lake City, is vast. Yet, though some traveled several hours to attend these lectures, they seemed to savor each moment together with fellow-Christians. Observing these brethren as they ate and visited together, I had the distinct sense that they cherished the likemindedness and common bond that truly drew them closely together
I am not saying that this depth of treasuring one another is missing in parts of this country where the church is numerically strong, but I wonder if being shunned and rejected by the majority of the community does not actually strengthen the tie that binds. As an “outsider,” made to feel very much a part of their spiritual family in the course of less than 48 hours, I left with a renewed gratitude for the relationships at my disposal with God’s people.
Attending worship is chiefly about praising and honoring God. Perhaps there is a level of duty associated with coming to various church functions and activities. Yet, our time together holds great potential as spiritual glue to bond us closer to each other. Does God want that? He must. Jesus taught the disciples, “By this shall all men know that you are My disciples, if you have love for one another” (John 13:35).
Kathy and I attended the funeral of Mildred (Millie) King, Larry’s mom and relative to several Bear Valley members, this morning at the Loveland church of Christ. Ron Lauterbach, the local preacher there, delivered a fine tribute to the godliness of this woman. So many kind things were said by Ron as well as family members about her faithful Christian life. It was all very inspiring. However, the crowning moment of the service was her widower’s words in her honor. Ron saved these words for last, and they were touching. He spoke of his “sweetheart” of 62 years, reflecting on how she put Jesus Christ before anything and anyone else. Then, he spoke about what a devoted mother and wife she was throughout these many decades. It was touching to hear about this wife who dedicated her life to raising faithful children and standing faithfully behind and beside her man. When the service was over, Kathy whispered to me, “I don’t know her, but I want to be just like her.”
Is there any better tribute that can be paid than a life lived well? She served at times as a preacher’s wife, but mostly a school teacher’s wife. She made many a meal and sent many a card to others. Her service was very well attended, especially for a late Thursday morning. All of this honored her, but nothing more than the ones closest to her lavishing such praise about her spiritual maturity and service. And the one closest to her of all people, Leland King, spoke most tenderly, fondly, and cherishingly. No praise outshines the genuine admiration and affection of one’s spouse, the person with the most intimate knowledge of that one. This kind of legacy lives on, even after that one dies (cf. Heb. 11:4b).
Imagine a garden of flowers
With a rose in its midst in full bloom
This one blossom feels that it towers
Over all others sharing its space and room
It’s sure that its pedals are most plush
No other more red in its hue
No stem greener, no rival more lush
It sought every admirer’s view.
One day the gardener visited the flowers
For a customer desired a bouquet
They’d shared the same sun and showers
Shared the same rich soil day by day.
But the proud flower stretched tall its red blooming
Puffed itself to its broadest dimension
But the man searched out ones unassuming
Their modesty drew his closest attention.
For the budding roses would bloom with more vim
In the care of the interested client
Trusting food, water, and housing to him
The posy proved itself quite reliant.
But the abandoned, proud rose surely wilted
His pedals dropped one by sad one
By each customer it felt painfully jilted
Til finally it was dead and gone.
The moral of the story conjures sadness
But its truth we ought never to hide
Fullness of self is pure madness
We hurt self most when we’re full of pride
Forget self, be more modest as you grow
Don’t seek glory and men’s adulation.
The Gardener sees all and surely does know
How to use us. Trust His perfect estimation.
The video from a gas station surveillance camera shows the baffling details. 37-year-old Austin Dawkins was playing with a cigarette lighter and got too close to his gas tank as his 30-year-old wife, Jessica, stood beside him at his truck as he was pumping gas. Flames flare up, Jessica runs away, and Austin lifts the gas nozzle from tank. This sets his wife on fire, and she is seen running as the flames envelop her. She received second and third degree burns to her legs, arms, back, and head. Her husband was arrested and charged with reckless conduct, a misdemeanor. If he has a conscience, the far greater penalty will be shame, guilt, and regret at what his careless conduct did to his wife (www.myfoxatlanta.com, 11/2/13).
The macabre moments caught on video, showing the woman on fire, are graphic. No one can doubt the danger and seriousness of the situation. Spiritually, men and women so often play with fire unable to physically see the consequences of their actions. Whether allowing themselves to become romantically involved with someone other than their spouse or even courting temptation, they put themselves into a very precarious position. In the very context of this moral problem, Solomon writes, “Can a man take fire in his bosom and his clothes not be burned? Or can a man walk on hot coals and his feet not be burned? So is the one who goes in to his neighbor’s wife; Whoever touches her will not go unpunished” (Prov. 6:27-29). The Bible illustrates marital infidelity to playing with fire.
Perhaps one rationalizes indiscreet words, actions, or flirtations as harmless, innocent, and victimless. Yet, nothing could be further from the truth. The flames can spread beyond just the man and woman, doing harm to family, friends, and the church. It can ravage so many lives and leave the perpetrators with an enormous load of guilt. How much better and wiser to see adultery for the dangerous entity it is and leave it alone (cf. Prov. 6:32-33)?