“… I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts…”
Jeremiah 31: 33
In 1733, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, preached a famous sermon called “The Circumcision of the Heart. He began with a melancholy thought. He believed ministers who truly proclaimed Christianity would find themselves under attack for setting forth strange new doctrines. This would happen, he said, because so many people have lived away the substance of the religion.
He argued that many who claim to be Christian have so accepted the world’s ideas that real Christian thought seems strange and foreign.
I once talked to a man who said he wanted to become a minister. At his side sat a woman with whom he lived and to whom he was not married. I have counseled a man who called himself Christian, but who beat his children, abused his wife, and who believed he should be a god in his home. He loved to quote Bible verses that assigned power to him. I once narrowly avoided an argument with a woman who felt saved even as she carried on an affair with another woman’s husband. She joked about a minister who preached on the strange and to her unbelievable idea that sin might cost her salvation. Can you believe that, she asked, that we might go to hell because we have sinned?
I don’t want to speak of these people in judgmental ways. I do not know their inner beings, nor the state of their souls. I do know the immense love God has for each of them. But I find myself, like Wesley, wondering if worldly values have blinded them to the plain commands of the Bible.
What might it mean to have the law of God written on our hearts?
Wesley described such people with words now somewhat out of fashion. He said they would exhibit holiness, humility, faith, hope, charity. He expounded the idea that seems strange to many, that those who believe in Jesus Christ ought to follow his example and walk in his steps. They ought to look something like Jesus looked. In short, they would be changed.
Dr. Fred Craddock tells of a little church he served in Oklahoma. There were four or five churches in town, he said, but the most consistent attendance Sunday was at a café where the men went and talked cattle and weather. All the wives and children were in church, but the best attendance was at the café. The patron saint there was Frank, 77, a good, strong man, a pioneer, a rancher and farmer. He had been born in a sod house and had lived a lifetime on the prairie.
“Old Frank will never go to church,” the café crowd proclaimed.
Fred met Frank on the street, and Frank knew he was a preacher. Frank immediately went on the offensive, even though Fred hadn’t started preaching or proselytizing.
“I work hard,” Frank said. “I take care of my family, and I mind my own business.”
Do you see what Frank was telling Fred? He was saying, “Leave me alone, I’m not a prospect.”
Fred didn’t chase Frank at all, but a strange thing happened. One day Frank walked in and asked to be baptized. Fred baptized Frank, and the community began to talk. He must be sick. Guess he’s scared to meet his maker. They say he’s got heart trouble. I never thought old Frank would do that, but I guess when you get scared. All kinds of stories.
But that wasn’t how Frank explained it. Fred asked him about it the day after the baptism.
“Uh, Frank, you remember that little saying you used to give me so much. I work hard I take care of my family, and I mind my own business.”
“Yeah,” Frank responded, “I remember. I said that a lot.”
“You still say that?”
“Well what’s the difference?”
“I didn’t know then,” Frank said, “what my business was.”
You see, he discovered his business – to love God and his neighbor. Somehow, without a sermon spoken, the word was writ on his heart. So, Fred baptized Frank. He raised his hand and said, “In the presence of those who gather, upon your confession of faith in Jesus Christ, and in obedience to his command, I baptize you in the name of the Father, the Son, the Holy Spirit. Amen.”[i]
Reflect on God’s desires for you for 10 minutes. What command might God write on your heart today?
“I pray that you may have the power to comprehend, with all the saints, what is the breadth and length and height and depth, and to know the love of Christ that surpasses knowledge… .”
Ephesians 3: 18-19
My father was an alcoholic who one day went to work and never returned. He disappeared, leaving no money, no income, and few groceries. He never learned of the miracle. He had been wounded during World War II and had collected a small pension. Just days after he left, we received a letter from the Veterans Administration. They were sorry, they said. It was a mistake. They had underpaid him for years. Enclosed please find a check for $7,000.
Mom consulted a lawyer, cashed the check, and went to learn how to be a beautician. We lived off the money for more than a year, but it was not easy.
Not long after she started classes, someone at the beauty school shut a vault door on one of mom's fingers, shooting blood clear across the 15-foot length of the vault. The injury made it impossible for her to practice what she was learning. She cried because she knew she needed to be able to support us. In an effort to participate more fully, she volunteered to serve as a demonstration model one day. A careless student mixed the chemicals improperly. Mom came home that night with a scarf around her head, covering her fried and frizzy hair. It would not be normal again until it had all grown out. She cried again.
We took in a boarder to help cover expenses.
One day, some men from the IRS tacked a sign on our house. Dad had failed to pay his taxes, so the house would be sold at auction. Somehow, mom found the money.
I recite these things as dry little happenings in the life of a broken family, but each event was more. Each was its own moment of agony, doubt, fear. Each led to tears in the sleepless night.
Some years after she finally opened her beauty shop and began to scrape out a just-barely-enough living, mom fell on the ice and hurt her back. She could not stand. For months, she went morning and evening to a chiropractor, who helped her even as he told her not to do it. He helped her stay on her feet 10 hours a day bending over people's hair in pain. At night, in agony, she cried.
Those times changed my mother forever. She became rigid and distant at times, often distracted. Like many who lived through the Great Depression, she worried about money even when she had enough. She was forever frightened of disruption and commotion, perhaps because for years she poured out all the calmness and strength she had.
But one thing never changed. Her love. She gave and gave. Somehow, through that hellish time, alone and without help, she gave each of us -- my brother, my sister, and I -- dreams. Even when we didn't have two pennies, she encouraged me to think of college. She gave us ideals. She gave us courage. She gave us a real understanding of love.
This was a love that I knew, that I could see and comprehend. How large, I wondered when I read Paul’s words, must a love be that is beyond human ability to understand? How far would unimaginable love go to help another?
I found myself able to perceive the love of God because I had known the love of another. And I experienced immense pain one day when a professor asked a question, as much of himself as of those in his class. He worked days as a counselor in a hospital filled with dying AIDS patients.
His question is one every Christian should ponder.
“How can you speak of love,” he asked, “to a person who has never known love?”
He wasn’t asking a question, of course. He was pointing out our responsibility. We must love the unlovable ones, he was saying, before we try to talk about love.
Not our words, but rather our acts, make God’s love visible.
Ponder your life for 10 minutes. How do you show your love?
“As you have therefore received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him and established in the faith, just as you were taught…”
Colossians 2: 6
When I reported for my job at a newspaper, I had studied and practiced my craft for four years in college. I felt well-equipped. I was promptly sent to the regional desk, and it was like a scene from some old movie. It’s hard to imagine in this computer age, but an old codger sat there amid heaps of clutter. Stubby, fat, first-grade pencils littered the desk, almost lost in a heap of wire-service dispatches, reporter’s stories, old clippings, and sticky pots of glue. The old man wore a hatband with a bill and held a pair of scissors big enough to slice up Texas.
I soon learned that he loved his shears.
“This goes up here,” he would mutter. “Why would anyone want to know this? We’ll put this at the bottom.”
He chopped each story apart. Some sections ended in the trash. He moved important paragraphs to the top, trivia to the bottom. Almost every time, he would ask a question and, getting an answer – heaven help me if I didn’t have one – would turn to his ancient Underwood and bang out a new paragraph. Finally, after each story was hacked apart and meticulously pasted back together, he began working with a pencil, muttering now under his breath, crossing out a word here, inserting a word there, moving words around.
This was humbling and painful, for I was learning how little I knew. When he was done, my stories were shorter, livelier. The important things were at the top. No question was left unanswered.
Every moment with the old man was a teaching moment. He taught, and I learned.
In the eyes of the book of Colossians, we’re all a lot like me as a young reporter. We have a lot to learn. We need to grow. It’s never easy, because some things we prize the most should be chopped out and thrown away. Other things should get more prominence, yet others should be moved down.
The writer of Colossians understands that two things are necessary for any individual to walk the narrow way. First, of course, you must accept Christ. But then you must become rooted in him, built up in him; you must learn about him. This task inevitably must include others around you, for where are we to get the teaching that we need? We will get it from others.
Martin Thornton, a British pastor who has written extensively about spiritual growth and spiritual direction, understands the Christian journey this way. It is a journey of covenant, of encounter, and of incorporation. We enter into an agreement with God in Christ. He will be our Lord, and we will be his people. We will obey him. But then, the deal grows. We actually encounter Jesus. He comes into our presence, and we become involved in a real relationship. And finally, if we persist in learning, in prayer, in faith, we discover that God has entered into us, become incorporated into our very being, and we reach true adoration.
Have you accepted the responsibilities entailed in your faith journey? Do you worship regularly and often? Do you pray regularly and often? Are you engaged in Christian learning with fellow Christians regularly and often? Do you serve God and the world regularly and often?
I read somewhere once about a father who came home and tried desperately to relax with the paper. But he was losing the battle. His little daughter, Suzie, kept bothering him. She jumped in his lap. She asked to play games. She wanted him to read to her. Finally, frustrated, he pulled a full-page ad with a map of the world from the paper, tore it to pieces, and handed it to her.
“Here,” he said. “See if you can put the world back together.”
Suzie, fascinated with the game, went off, but was back in minutes, finished.
“How did you do this so quickly,” her father asked.
“Oh,” she said. “It was easy. There was a picture of Jesus on the other side, and when I got Jesus in his place, the world was all right.”
It isn’t enough to just say you believe in Jesus. Yes, it’s the crucial first step. Even the longest journey can’t begin without the first step. But then you must put one foot in front of the other the rest of the way. You’ve got to get Jesus into the right place, and the only way to do that is to take the next step, to just learn it.
Then the world will be OK. Everything will be in the right place.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. What will you do today to learn more about Jesus?
“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise…
1 Corinthians 1: 27
I sat in my office one time and looked at a wall of books. I thought about those books, remembering things I had read and studied. Which of these books, I asked myself, might yield a treasure for a sermon? I looked again at First Corinthians, and a phrase struck me.
“Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world?”
Another phrase slammed me.
“God chose what is foolish in the world to shame the wise.”
I thought of Donnie, a young black guy who attended seminary with me. He hadn’t read very widely, and he wasn’t good in class. He struggled with assignments, and tests left him numb. I remember sitting beside him during a final exam. I wrote and wrote, nearly filling a notebook. As I finished, I looked over, and he was on his second or third page. It was clear he had little to say.
I wondered, as I took other courses with him, if he could make the grade. He couldn’t untangle theology, and he found critical study of scripture confusing.
Then I took a course in prayer, and week after week I heard him pray. He held no illusions about how smart he was. He had no grand dreams. He never bothered with the logical twists and turns of religion. All he did was care. He prayed for others. He hurt for others. He prayed with a passion and intensity that revealed boundless love.
Another man in the class said what we all thought.
“Donnie,” he said, “you shame me with your prayers. I listen to my prayers, and I hear myself almost always asking for God to help me. You never ask a thing for yourself, but only for others.”
Is there anything in human nature more persistent, do you suppose, than our need to be smarter, stronger, or better than someone else?
In the movie, “Mississippi Burning,” an old former sheriff tells a young FBI agent about his daddy.
When he was growing up, he said, his daddy was a sharecropper who was dirt poor, scratching a living out of the ground. A fellow sharecropper who lived just down the road, a Negro who was just as poor, had scrimped and saved and one day bought a mule. It wasn’t too long before white neighbors began poking fun at the white sharecropper. “I seen old Mose out plowing with his mule,” the neighbors would say. “That looks like a fine mule. When are you going to get a good mule like that?”
One day, the former sheriff said, the Negro found his mule dead, poisoned.
He and his daddy rode past the Negro’s house not long after, and the black family was packing up and moving out. The boy looked across at his daddy, not a word said, and he just knew his daddy had poisoned the mule.
His daddy looked at him and said, “Son, if you can’t be better than a nigger, who can you be better than?”
This attitude enters even the church.
Dwight Moody once sought as a young man to join an aristocratic Boston Church. Even then he was a budding evangelist, and so one Sunday he filled an entire pew with boys from the streets. Shortly afterwards, he appeared before the board, seeking membership, but several snobbish members, upset by the strange faces, told him to pray and reconsider his request. They thought that would send the signal, but they reckoned without knowing Moody.
He appeared before the board a month later. Did you pray about your request, the board asked? Yes, he said, I did. God told me not to worry because he’d been trying unsuccessfully for at least 25 years to get in here.
Everyone knows we need to check out our messiahs before we jump into bed with them. A real messiah would give some sign, create a kingdom, save us from the people oppressing us. That’s not what this messiah did. Jesus hung around with losers. He alienated people by seeking out and being with people of doubtful character. He visited their homes. He talked with them. He seemed more interested in them than in anyone else. He said the sinners would go through the gates before the righteous people.
Now we know he didn’t just accept their sin. He called for them to repent.
But Jesus did something that seems almost impossible. He lumped together the good and the bad, and he showed that we all depend on God’s mercy.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. How do you act with losers?
“Keep these words that I am commanding you today in your heart. Recite them to your children and talk about them when you are at home and when you are away, when you lie down and when you rise.”
Deuteronomy 6: 6-7
Al was an editor I worked with when I was a beginning reporter. He was a long-time farmer, a pious, hard-working Lutheran, and he undertook one year to teach me how to make things in the woodshop.
Al loved and respected his tools. He treated them properly, cared for them, used them with thoughtfulness and love. Each had its place, and anyone watching him could see the care he took. He was a genuine craftsman.
Only years later did I realize he would have been at home in a Benedictine monastery.
Most monks don’t live in an ordinary world. They devote themselves to study, work, and prayer. In many ways, like the earliest monks who fled into the deserts, they run away from the world. Not everyone can be a monk. But there, in their monastic silence, in their retreat from the world, they learn to place God first in all of life. Benedict, who wrote the Benedictine monastic rule, spoke, for instance, of how his monks should treat their tools. All the tools of the monastery – a shovel or a hoe or a skillet in the kitchen – should receive the same respect and care that implements of the altar receive, he said, for they too are used to live out our calling by God.
That’s why I felt Al would be comfortable in a monastery.
He had the most beautiful coffee table I’ve ever seen. He made it when he was young, using pieces of wood from an old, worn, set of steps. He couldn’t afford newly sawn hardwood. The only power tool he owned at the time was a table saw. With it he had notched and grooved the steps, glued them together into a pattern that made a table top, then he sanded and smoothed, shaped and polished. His coffee table was obviously home-made, but incredibly beautiful. One knew instantly the reverent care with which it had been made.
In this desire to use his gifts well, Al lived out his calling by God. He showed that he recognized the gifts God gave him, and he used them to glorify God.
Thomas Merton, a monk, wrote near the end of his life about how a married person might live out his or her calling. This is strange, I thought, a monk giving marital advice. When we enter into marriage, Father Merton said, we choose that as a calling. God sends us into that calling. We must, if we are to honor God, place that marriage high in our priorities. We must treat it as a gift from God. We must thank God for it each day, praise God for the gift he has given, and live within that marriage so that we show God we recognize his generosity. Living out our marriage faithfully and joyfully becomes a form of glorifying God, of placing God first.
We place God first any time we recognize the gifts God has given and use them properly. If we’re a banker, we try, by golly, to do it as well as we can. If we are called to drive a truck, we become the best driver we can possibly be. If we’re a student, we try to excel in our studies. We recognize God’s blessing in the form of relationship or creative work or dedicated teachers, and we give them our best.
Deuteronomy tells us we should love God as we rise up and lie down, as we stay in and as we go out, that we should speak of God every moment of every day.
What does this mean?
It means we must consider God in every ordinary moment of our lives.
Reflect on your life for 10 minutes. How will you place God first in your routine today?
[i] Fred Craddock, Craddock Stories [St. Louis: Chalice Press, 2001], 63.