On Finishing In Second Place

I found former New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie’s book at our local library recently and enjoyed reading about his life and service. I heard the governor speak in 2012 and know him to be a commanding figure in person. He didn’t hold back in his book, either!

Christie told about his rise from federal prosecutor to governor, flirting with national office and the two issues he dealt with in his final term that torpedoed his popularity: Bridgegate and Beachgate. In the former, he explained that the investigation drug on for two years but cleared him of all charges. And he described the latter as a news media publicity stunt. Christie and his family were photographed by helicopter on a state beach during a time of state government shut-down. Thus, the public accused him of privilege. Christie explained that the public beaches were open, though the state beaches weren’t, and that the beach he was on always had a one-mile perimeter protected by New Jersey security.

I guess I’d overlooked the drama in 2016 as the soon-to-be-nominee Donald Trump determined who his running-mate would be. It came down to two: Christie and Gov. Mike Pence of Indiana. Christie said Trump offered him another government post, but Christie only had interest in the so-called “veep-stakes” or Attorney General. He walked away with neither since Trump had already offered the justice spot to Sen Jeff Sessions.

This story reminded me that life often comes down to two choices. Most of us have had the distinction of finishing in second place every now and again.

Sometimes we fall short in job interviews or promotions. I remember a department director in state government telling me this years ago, insisting that they had to hire a female. My being a stepping stone for female advancement didn’t make me feel any better! And we take little comfort in being number two in athletic competitions, even though our team may have defeated a dozen or more in the process of becoming number two--as with Alabama football or Auburn basketball this year.

As followers of Christ we know we’re always number two! We’re called to be God’s servants, and the servant’s desires are always subject to the master’s desires. We subjugate our goals to his, and this process is never-ending. As the Apostle Paul wrote, “I die daily” (1 Corinthians 15:31).

And along the way we have to learn to pick ourselves up and press forward in those days when we fall short of some objective. King Solomon wrote, “For a righteous man may fall seven times and rise again” (Proverbs 24:16).

The God who created us rejoices in our success and sympathizes in our failure.

A Friday To Remember

The wind in my face was bitterly cold in downtown Dallas a few years ago since the winter weather was yet lingering. My continuing education classes had ended at the seminary in nearby Ft. Worth, so the afternoon was free for some sightseeing.

A chill came over me independent of the temperature when I walked onto Dealey Plaza and saw firsthand those sights emblazoned in my memory from childhood: Elm Street, the triple overpass and the sixth-floor window.

I thought back to that terrible Friday in November, 1963. Our class had just returned from lunch when Mr. Vines, our principal, made an announcement on the intercom.

“Boys and girls,” he said, “some of you may have heard already that our president’s been shot. Let’s try to finish out the day in school and I’ll let you know the latest news when I hear more.”

Nevertheless, the senseless death of President Kennedy so paralyzed us that I don’t remember our doing much work in school that Friday afternoon. I remember my family and me glued to the old black-and-white television throughout the weekend and during the president’s funeral the next week.

That Friday in November will live in the bad memory section of my brain forever.

This week the world remembers another bleak Friday on which Jesus of Nazareth was murdered.

His death was senseless, too, for he’d done no wrong. In fact, bribed witnesses had to be brought in to lie about him at his trial. One of the thieves who died with him realized Jesus' innocence when he said, “We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong" (Luke 23: 41).

British writer Richard Jefferies told of a little boy who gazed at a graphic painting of Calvary and exclaimed, “If God had’a been there, he wouldn’t have let them do it!”

But God was there! He wasn't removed from the event at Calvary. Paul insisted “God was in Christ, reconciling the world unto himself" (2 Corinthians 5:19).

God was present at the cross, and he showed us that he loves us in spite of disobedience, that he offers forgiveness to all and that he wants to be our partner in building a life filled with hope.

God’s redemptive plan wasn’t completed on Friday. The Father was faithful to his son and raised him on the third day. Now God promises to welcome all his children on the other side of death.

In light of God’s ultimate plan we believers have renamed that awful Friday. 

We call it Good Friday. 

And so it is.

On Interpreting The Bible

A community continued to lose population and its small churches got smaller. Someone proposed the citizens have a town meeting and determine what options they had. One attendee suggested the declining churches merge to form one community church, and that it be called the Christian church.

A Baptist deacon rose to protest.

"I've been a Baptist for 60 years," he said, "and nobody's gonna' make a Christian out of me!"

A blogger recently insisted that denominations are wrong and a symbol of our failure to hear Jesus' prayer that we be one (John 17:21). Perhaps so, but I don't think we'll see any change in the denominational landscape in the foreseeable future. Denominations exist because we don't interpret the Bible in the same way.

But I'm convinced all of us should hold to three principles as we read the Bible.

First, we interpret the Bible literally. This was the contention of the late Dr. Clyde Francisco. He said we don't read the Bible because we don't understand it, but because it disturbs us.

For example, the Bible says, "love your neighbor as you love yourself," and "forgive one another as God through Christ has forgiven you" and "seek first God's kingdom and everything else will find its proper place." These commands are simple in language, but "pack a wallop" when we obey.

Second, we interpret the Bible symbolically. Often the Bible uses symbol to convey truth. In the gospels Jesus said that if the people on Palm Sunday were silenced, "the very stones would cry out" in praise to God. This is poetry. We know Jesus could've made stones sing if he wished, but this strains the point. He was using poetry to say that praise was in order that day.

And Jesus sometimes used hyperbole--the language of exaggeration that shocks the hearer. He said that one is to "hate father and mother" when following him. The Bible is clear that we're to honor our parents, but his point is that our love for God must be so great that all other loves pale in comparison.

And Jesus said if we have lust in our hearts we should pluck out our eye or cut off our hand. The Bible teaches our bodies are God's gifts and we treat them like a temple--a place where God dwells. And losing an eye or a hand wouldn't cure a heart problem anyway. This shocking language is a way to say that lust is destructive and must be battled.

Thirdly, we interpret the Bible seriously. Jesus told of our final exam in Matthew 25. One day we'll be tested on how well we read God's word and obeyed it.

On Giving Up Breadsticks

I got home a few weeks ago to face awful criticism. My wife said, “You reek of garlic!” It’s true I’d been to an Italian restaurant for lunch and had a breadstick or two, but the garlic in the bread was something I didn’t detect. As Robert Burns wrote, “Would some Power give us the gift to see ourselves as others see us.” Burns wrote his poem after he saw a louse on a lady’s bonnet at church and thought how horrified she’d be if she knew the parasite was crawling on her.

All in all, it’s much better to smell of garlic than to host a parasite.

Nevertheless, I had a decision to make—either enjoy my wife’s company or give up breadsticks. I really love breadsticks, but the choice wasn’t hard to make.

I told this story at church lately and we all had a good laugh. But I shared it in the context of a message on worthy goals. For a worthy family goal, I asked the women to tune out for a minute while I spoke to the men.

The Apostle Paul gave two straightforward words to men in the book of Ephesians. “Fathers, bring up your children in the discipline and instruction of the Lord” he wrote in chapter six. It’s always been God’s intention that the man be spiritual priest of the household. It’s the man’s job to be sure children receive religious instruction. Of course, countless women have taken up the slack when men haven’t lived up to this ideal, but the ideal is real, nonetheless.

Many men in my age group look back with regret to the time our children were young. We were so busy with work responsibilities that we didn’t give enough time to our children who now are grown and away. We wished we’d done better. But we “seasoned citizens” also know our gracious God has given us another chance with grandchildren. We can tell them they’re special, love them and pray for them. We can be their parents’ best partners in raising their children.

Paul also instructed husbands to “love your wives as Christ loved the church” (Ephesians 5:25). This exhortation is in the context of the wife being in submission to the husband—a passage of some interpretive difficulty. But I can’t autocratically instruct my wife to submit if I ignore my part of the contract. To me is given he seemingly-impossible task of loving her just like Jesus loved his church. He loved his church enough to die for her.

Giving up breadsticks is probably one-one hundredth of one percent of my duty to love my wife as Christ loved his church. But it is that.