Wednesday, December 20, 2006

It's All Joy (Philppians 4:4-7)

I’ve suggested that Jesus’ infancy can teach us several things we need to know about the gospel. While we don’t know any ways to start people other than by having babies, we know he could have arrived in any manner he wanted.

That makes me think he had a purpose in his infancy as well. And I think that purpose is related somehow to the experiences that are common to people when babies show up.

And what does Paul’s letter to the church at Philippi have to do with that? Well, look at the subject matter: Joy! Although he writes from prison, Paul encourages the Philippians to rejoice in the Lord. Throughout the letter, he mentions his own joy as well.

The angels told the shepherds they had good news of great joy. Well, babies bring joy. We anticipate their arrival with joy. We welcome their arrival with joy, and we often talk about the joy of the new life that is now with us in the flesh. Joy is an inescapable quality of babies.

Here, of course, is the part where you who have children laugh at me for my naivet̩. Babies are hard work! Babies want fed at unreasonable hours! Babies expect a level of personal service Рespecially in matters of hygiene Рnot given to even the most exalted rulers!

Nope, I’m standing by what I said, because I didn’t say that happiness was an inescapable quality of babies. I said joy was. I believe those two words describe two different things, which we sometimes get confused.

Think of how we usually talk about happiness. Something makes us happy, or doesn’t make us happy. We do use other words sometimes, but mostly we think of happiness as a kind of reaction to things that go on around us.

Go back to babies – what makes them happy? They’re full, they’re clean, they’re warm and they’re asleep. What they don’t know is that within a few hours, one or more of those conditions will change and the change will make them very unhappy. As well as everyone around them.

For us, it’s not that different, even if the things that make us happy or unhappy change as we age (Full, clean, warm and asleep still work well for me, though).

Our feelings of happiness or unhappiness grow from a reaction we have to something outside us. Even though most grown-ups have more control over their reactions than most babies, the reactions themselves don’t go away. We just learn to manage them better.

But we usually use different words to describe how joy comes to us. Something or someone gives us or brings us joy. We don’t respond or react as much as we receive.

And if we truly do receive joy, then it becomes part of us. It’s not outside us anymore, it’s part of who we are.

Ask parents who watch their child do something that makes them proud, like stand up for what they believe in, or achieve something big, or take a stand to protect someone else. Ask them if those moments are worth all the dirty diapers, broken curfews and messy rooms that never seem to get clean. Of course, they’re likely to answer. Those things came and went, but the good man or good woman my child has become or is becoming will be something that lasts.

Theologically speaking, I imagine Paul would have been happier if he had shared the gospel with his Roman jailors from the other side of the bars. But his joy remained either way, didn’t it? As I see it, only something he had brought inside him could have made him joyful no matter what the circumstances were outside him.

If the gospel teaches us anything, it teaches us that God accepts us despite our outward circumstances. God accepts us in spite of how much we may feel we’ve messed up. And even continuing to mess up doesn’t change his acceptance of us.

God’s acceptance of us – what we call being saved by grace – becomes the root and ground of our lives. We don’t define ourselves by our own standards anymore, but by his. He has the first, last and only word in saying who and what we really are – not anything that goes on around us.

That probably qualifies it as joyful news.

Sunday, December 17, 2006

It's Not About You (Luke 3:1-6)

Sorry about the extra delay -- fine case of the sniffling crud this week.

OK, so why a baby?

We know that the main point of Jesus’ life and work was his message of God’s love for people, as well as his sacrifice and resurrection. So why did he show up as a baby?

After all, there’s a lot of risks in being a baby. You break easy. Your cheeks are always red from getting pinched. Grandparents fight over you. That’s a whole lot of risk for the one person alone who could bring about the salvation of humanity.

So why do it? Of course, there’s the obvious reason – so far, nobody’s been able to come up with a way to make human beings that doesn’t start with babies. They’re the essential first step.

But we know Jesus did a lot of things differently than they were ordinarily done. He healed people in unusual ways – if you don’t think so, go wipe some mud on the eyes of a blind person and see what happens to you. He taught an unusual message, and he won our salvation by the unusual method of getting himself killed.

So he could have just showed up, preaching and teaching. After all, that’s the way Mark tells the story. No manger, no wise men, no shepherds; just a baptism and bang! we’re on our way. But Matthew and Luke tell us about that birth, and Luke even throws in a story about an adolescent Jesus.

That makes me think the baby-hood of the Messiah is important. There’s some reason Jesus was a baby, and something I think I’m supposed to learn from it.
Wonder what it is.

I’m kind of at a disadvantage. I don’t remember being a baby, and I deal with them with the slightly mystified reaction all child-challenged people have. But I think I’ve observed a few things that might give me a clue about a possible lesson Jesus’ infancy can teach us.

In listening to my friends talk, I think I know one thing a baby teaches almost right away. Maybe the most important lesson, at least in terms of figuring out the rest of them. Here it is: It’s not about you.

Think on it with me. The arrival of a baby says to those who already live in that space, “It’s not about you.” Because if it was about you, then you would just tell Junior to roll over and wait for the alarm to go off and he could get breakfast then. If it was about you, then someone could clean up her own darn digestive processes. But obviously, it’s not about you.

In fact, pretty much nothing is about you when you have a baby around. And our culture has a very, very hard time with the idea that it’s not about us. So, I think, does our human nature.

Yet the very method God chose to bring about our salvation is mediated in this package that blows up our self-centeredness. When I think about it, I kind of have to admit that the message of salvation itself has that same idea as well.

On the one hand, this idea reins us in. We want to do this, or we want to do that. We want these things, but we learn that getting our way may harm someone else. We may not care and go ahead with what we want, unless we have something that tells us, “It’s not about you.”

On the other, it’s freedom. We approach our creator full of awareness of how badly we’ve failed him, of how badly we’ve overstepped what he designed for us and how much damage we’ve done to the rest of his creation. How can you forgive us, we ask? We did some awful things and a lot of the damage we brought can’t be fixed.

And the message from the Lord is the same message new parents hear from their baby: It’s not about you. It’s about me.

And in the Lord's case, that’s some good news indeed.

Thursday, November 30, 2006

Is He a King? (John 18-33-37)

Sorry, no update this week (Dec. 6). The format from Dec. 3 didn't lend itself to a blog post.

“Christ the King” Sunday doesn’t make everyone’s top ten lists of favorite images of Jesus. After all, most kings in the ancient world and many in some parts of today’s world are nothing like Jesus.

Many of them use their power for their own good, rather than the people’s welfare. They might remake laws according to their own desires or abuse their power against those who can’t fight back. Jesus, of course, is nothing like that. Jesus cares about people and uses his power to help them.

But Christ as the King of Kings, as the ruler and sovereign of all, is a real part of Christian teaching. The first Christian creed, or statement of belief, was probably, “Jesus is Lord.” So we have to come to terms with the idea, even if it doesn’t seem to fit as well as we might like.

Like I said, kingship in the ancient world was something that depended heavily on power and force. A king might inherit the throne from his father, uncle or brother, but he might also have taken it by overthrowing the old king. Even if he didn’t have to fight for it, he often had to hold power by force.

Some nations had legal systems that supported their kings, but many didn’t. In order to be king, a man had to claim to be the king. In order for his claim to stick, he had to have the force to back it up.

“I’m the king,” he might say.

“Who says?” other people might answer.

“Me and all my friends holding the sharp, pointy things.”

“At your service, Your Majesty.”

One reason Pilate asked Jesus if he was a king was to hear if Jesus would make the claim in his own words. He didn’t really care what Jesus answered, because he intended to use the answer for his own purposes. Pilate was trying to play some political games with the religious leaders who’d brought Jesus to him. They wanted something from him? Fine. Maybe he wanted something from them, too.

I’m sure he expected Jesus to deny what he said, because then Pilate could start his quid pro quo-ing with Jesus as well. After all, that’s the way it worked in his world.

But Jesus won’t play Pilate’s game. His answer: “You say that I am.” We often read that with the “you” emphasized. What about this, though: Read it and emphasize the “say.”

Remember, Jesus doesn’t force people to acknowledge him or his authority. He won’t make them accept him as savior and even today, he won’t bully or dominate us. He is our Lord, but he will only be our Lord at our request.

The first step of that request is the acknowledgement Pilate almost makes. “You say that I am a king,” Jesus says. In Pilate’s world, that’s enough. If I acknowledge someone as king, I admit he has the power and I don’t. I describe a state of affairs that already exists, that I can’t do anything about.

But when I say Christ is King, I make a claim and a promise. I claim he’s my ruler, and then I promise to act like it. Because love fuels Christ’s kingship, my claim is worthless without my promise, and my promise only turns out to be worth how well I live up to it.

Christ the King came to serve and to save – and even then, he wouldn’t even force Peter to let him wash his dirty fisherman’s feet. We accept his service to us and in turn are accepted into his service, his work to bring the gospel to the world.

Is he the king? He turns the question back to us. “Am I?” he asks. The true answer has to come from us, again and again.

Saturday, November 25, 2006

The Catholic Spirit (2 Kings 10:15)

As I’ve mentioned to you before, John Wesley’s Methodist revival paid a lot of attention to the practical, day-to-day matters of everyday life. For one, Methodist attracted a lot of people who had to spend most of their waking hours making a living. They didn’t have a lot of time for doctrinal discussions, so they wanted to know what they were supposed to do and when and how.

For another, Wesley himself was a practical man. He published a medical treatment guide, using information he gathered from several sources. He suggested reading lists for his people, including books for people who were just now learning to read.

Many of his sermons dealt with how people ought to conduct their lives if they claimed to be Christians. Wesley himself had little patience for people who claimed all the right doctrines and yet practiced few of them.

Among the most important doctrines for him was that Christians showed love to other people, especially other Christians. He knew Methodism faced the danger of its people starting to think they had a better grasp on the truth than other groups and getting a mite big for their britches.

In his day, Christian denominations were just starting to branch out, and they didn’t always work and play well with one another. Sometimes brawls and riots ended the debate, and in some countries, denominational divisions started wars.

Wesley felt this was completely wrong – Christians might definitely disagree about things, but there was no way that these disagreements should divide them that much. Doubly so in light of the fact that Jesus had said that people will know us by our love of one another.

He picked the story of Jehu and Jehonadab meeting in Second Kings. They met peacefully and agreed they were to be friends. No big deal to us, because we don’t know Jehu and Jehonadab from Jehoiakim. But let’s meet these guys and learn why this was an example Wesley wanted his people to follow.

Jehonadab was a back-to-basics guy, whose followers maintained the wandering lifestyle of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They vowed to live in tents, never build houses and never plant crops, following God the way the patriarchs had.

Jehu was the king of Israel who had been busy consolidating his kingship in the traditional manner – killing every family member of his predecessor that he could find. He also killed family members of Judah’s King Ahaziah, and after meeting with Jehu, he tricked all the priests of Ba’al into meeting in one place so he could kill them too.

But aside from that, as the king he was the representative of the established temple religion version of Judaism. He was the official face of everything Jehonadab opposed, and he had no problem figuring out what to do with enemies.

So when these guys meet, we should expect at least a little bit of spark, if not some downright full-out hacking and slashing. But no – Jehu asks Jehonadab, “Is your heart right, as my heart is with your heart?” Jehonadab says, “It is.” Then Jehu says, “Then give me your hand.” Jehonadab climbs into Jehu’s chariot and rides with him to Jehu’s next stop, Samaria, where Jehu slaughters some more of old King Ahab’s family. Ah, male bonding.

Wesley drew an important lesson from what the two men agreed on, as well as what they didn’t agree on. They agreed their hearts were in accord with each other. They agreed that a sincere desire to worship God formed the core of the other man’s particular beliefs. They agreed that meant they could get along, and because of that, there were things they could accomplish together.

Now, they didn’t agree on those particular beliefs. Jehonadab didn’t give up his back-to-basics ways. Jehu didn’t decide to abandon worshipping God at the temple to go live in a tent.

Wesley wanted his followers to do the same with other Christians. What does it matter, he says, if he preferred to pray from a liturgy and another person preferred to pray spontaneously? Why should that divide one Christian from another in other matters they held in common, like a desire to serve God and save souls?

Put it in our time. What should it matter that one Christian group decides baptism means immersion and another says it may also mean pouring or sprinkling? Should they never work together to feed the hungry, to help those who are homeless, to give the good news to people who haven’t heard it?

Of course not! If their hearts are right with each other, then they should join hands and get to work! It doesn’t mean they agree on everything, but it does mean they agree on the need to love and serve God, on the grace of God given through Christ and on the need of God’s people to spread that word. They can go different places when they need to do different things, but join in the shared task of sharing the gospel.

If we spend enough time at that, then we’ll have enough to do we won’t care about all the other stuff when we get to Heaven anyway.

Heck, I bet all those other people won’t even be disappointed to learn we’re right.

Tuesday, November 14, 2006

Prevenient Grace (Psalm 139:7-12)

Although John Wesley used “prevenient grace” as one of his most basic doctrines, it never got a sermon of its own.

It is an important part of several sermons, though, and we do need to understand it to understand many of his ideas about Christianity. So we might gather up the pieces from a few different places and see what exactly he says prevenient grace is and what exactly prevenient grace does.

First, the words themselves. “Grace,” in this case, means things God does. They may lead or guide us, they may persuade us, they may convince us, teach us, whatever. They all fall under the idea of “grace,” the way Welsey uses that word.

“Prevenient” comes from “prevene,” which is a mashup of some Latin words. Vene means go, or sometimes come. Pre means “before.” If something “prevenes,” that means it goes before something else.

Wesley believed that God’s grace worked in people’s lives before they were ever aware of it, even before they could be aware of it. People may accept Christ as their savior, but God’s grace brought them to the place where they knew they needed to do that, and it even made it possible for them to make the decision. Grace, in fact, worked in a person’s life from the very beginning.

Which is one reason, if you’re curious, we Methodists baptize infants. Of course infants can’t decide on their own that they want to follow Christ. They can’t even decide to roll over at first. But we believe that God’s grace precedes awareness of it. When that baby becomes a grown man or woman and decides to accept Christ, that decision is rooted in God’s grace working from way back in the diaper ages and beyond.

Although this sounds simple enough, we’re about to run into a real problem, which is this: “Before” is in the eye of the beholder.

See, we live inside time – we experience each second as it happens. We group things according to time. This was “before,” this is “during,” and this will be “after.”

God is outside of time, so words like “before” don’t make any sense when we talk about how he sees things. And since grace is God’s activity, then it can’t happen “before” something. Grace can’t happen before salvation, and it can’t happen before something. Yes, we experience it that way, but that’s our experience, not God’s. Plus, does really have to just hover around, waiting for us to do something so his grace can be there before we do it?

We have trouble with this idea – we don’t even have words that can describe it, really. The phrase I like to use isn’t perfect, because it’s got some of the same time-related problems, but it gives me a better picture. Rather than saying God’s grace “goes before” us, I like to say that God’s grace is “already there.”

Our psalmist tells us that no matter where he might want to go, he would find God already there. God’s grace is already there, too. God is already acting in whatever situation we find ourselves, even the horrible ones.

We may not see it, especially in those horrible kinds of situations. But it’s there, though it may be years or even a lifetime before we understand how God worked.

Paul tells us that Jesus showed us love by dying for us while we were still sinners. We weren’t the adopted sons and daughters he allows us to claim to be; we were the prodigals who said we were better off with Dad’s riches to use and waste like we wanted. Even so, Christ chose to sacrifice himself for us, believing that God’s grace would work in us to make us the heirs God had always intended us to be. God’s grace was already there in and around us.

The psalmist goes on after our verses and says, “I am come to the end – I am still with you.” For us, following Christ will bring us someday to that place, where we know we are at the end. Maybe literally, as in living out our last days, or maybe figuratively, as in at the end of our rope.

And when it does, we will find that God’s grace is already there. Already there, and able of redeeming even the end of life itself, changing it – and us – into something new.

“Amazing” is a good word for that kind of grace.

Wednesday, November 08, 2006

The Lord Our Righteousness (Jeremiah 23:6)

As we might imagine, someone who preached for as many years as John Wesley did managed to stir up controversy on the religious scene. His own church didn’t think much of his message that wealth and privilege weren’t necessary to church participation. Especially when he went around saying that to the wealthy and privileged, whose contributions to churches tended to waver when preachers told them they were sinners just like all the rabble they disliked.

But he was also caught up in the theological arguments of his day. One of them wrapped around the idea of something folks called “rigid double predestination.” It went like this: From the very beginning of time, God had picked who he would save. That’s the predestination part. He’d also picked who he wouldn’t save, which is the double predestination part. And no one could do anything about it and he’d never change his mind, which is the rigid part.

The most common way of saying this was: “The elect will be saved, do what they will; the non-elect will be damned, do what they can.”

Predestination came from one of the earlier Protestant reformers, a man named John Calvin. His ideas were best known in Wesley’s day through the Presbyterian church, an ancestor of the Presbyterian church we know today. Calvin hadn’t been quite as enthusiastic about the damnation part as the predestinarians of Wesley’s day, but apparently there are always people who enjoy the idea of other people going to hell.

Calvin originally taught this doctrine because he believed God had absolute power and because people couldn’t do anything to make themselves worthy of salvation. If they could accept or reject salvation, Calvin said, that meant that they had power to defeat God’s purposes or to make themselves acceptable to God.

Wesley sympathized with Calvin’s concerns, but he drew the line at predestination. He had many concerns, such as the idea that predestination meant that God made some people for the purpose of damnation. It’d be like, say, cloning people only so they could be killed later, for parts or something. He also wondered why Christ would come and die for people’s sins if God had already foreordained some people to save and some to get it in the neck.

But as usual, the pastoral concern was Wesley’s strongest objection. People had no way of knowing whether or not they would be saved. The worst person in the world might have an “up” ticket, and the baby who fell victim to fever might spend eternity in torment. Predestination was a doctrine of uncertainty and fear.

Scripture, though, taught that Jesus said he left his peace with his followers. And it taught that perfect love cast out fear. So, Wesley said, people could have assurance of their salvation – they could have some experience that let them know God had indeed accepted them and that Christ’s death meant their sins were forgiven. He saw his “strangely warmed heart” at Aldersgate as such an experience.

People could also accept or reject God’s offer of salvation. God would not require them to be something they did not want to be, and if they didn’t want to be saved, God wouldn’t force salvation on them.

Wesley still had to reconcile his ideas with the fact that people couldn’t earn their own salvation, though. Although he rejected predestination, he didn’t reject humanity’s sinful nature. The name Jeremiah gave to the coming Messiah – “The Lord our righteousness” – was the key.

Yes, we could accept or reject God’s offer of salvation, Wesley said. But God’s grace gives us that ability, and without that grace, we couldn’t even make the choice. Our very choice to accept or reject God depends on God’s power.

Think about it in these terms: We’ve all had relationships that have been broken or damaged somehow. And maybe after a time, we’ve wanted to heal that break. Or maybe the other person does. One of us brings the olive branch – symbolically speaking, of course, unless it seems wise to use a real one. But that won’t make any difference if the other person doesn’t accept the peace offering.

God can offer his forgiveness to us, and does constantly. Unless we accept it, though, the relationship between us stays broken. Wesley, as I noted, said God’s grace alone allows us to accept the offer, meaning that everything about our salvation still depends on God, rather than us. Which is probably for the best, if you think about it.

Thursday, November 02, 2006

The Marks of the New Birth (John 3:8)

John Wesley called himself a “man of one book,” meaning that he based what he taught and preached and how he lived on one book – the Bible.

But when the need arose, Wesley would talk about things that Scripture didn’t talk about. In the sermon “Marks of the New Birth,” he mentions at the outset that the new birth doesn’t really require a definition, since scripture doesn’t give one. People, on the other hand, need one pretty badly, because the definition can help them see if they’ve moved onto God’s path or not. So he’ll give one.

He sees three of these marks: Faith, hope and love. Now, these three tend to hang out with each other, especially in the New Testament, and that connection plays a role in how Wesley considers them as marks of the new birth.

Wesley preached a whole sermon on salvation by faith, so we just need to remind ourselves that faith is more than intellectual consent that Jesus is God’s son. We remember that true faith involves making changes in our lives based on the reality Jesus represents.

When we were of the world, we looked out for number one, for example. As Christians, we still look out for number one, but we’ve moved ourselves out of that spot so God can occupy it. The choice may produce unsettling or even unpleasant results, but we show our faith by continuing to live that way even so.

Also, even though we know sin remains in our lives, we believe it can’t rule us anymore and we show our faith when we repent, seek forgiveness and try to live differently – again.

Our life of faith helps strengthen our hope, Wesley says. We could hope in our own abilities, but we know that’s a false hope. Instead, we hope in the promise God gives.

The Holy Spirit reminds us that we are children of God, adopted as heirs with Christ. The Spirit testifies against spirits of fear, bondage and hopelessness that label us as lost and worthless. Hopelessness could be like acid, eating away at our faith, but hope works against that erosion as we continue to live lives of faith.

We might look at our world and think giving up hope is a sensible idea. Things are, after all, pretty messed up and it doesn’t look like anyone has a solution for these problems. But hope disagrees and insists God will prevail, whether now or in a life to come.

In a way, we could say with faith, we submit our minds and our actions to God. With hope, we submit our emotions to him. Hope is much more subjective than faith – just listen to how we talk about it: “I feel hopeful.” “This feels hopeless.”

So, when we submit our thoughts, our words and actions, and our emotions to God, Wesley says those are two of the marks of the new birth in Christ. If we find places in our lives where we haven’t submitted to God, we know those are areas where we need to bury our old selves so they can rise with Christ.

The third mark of the new birth is love, and things get a little complicated here. Most of us have a hard time defining love, although we can give some basic characteristics. It includes emotions, but it’s a lot more than just a feeling. It demands actions, but they have to come from a loving motivation.

Wesley reminds us Jesus puts love at the core of the two greatest commandments – love of God and love of neighbor. And even if we can’t pin it down exactly, we know that it means we give of ourselves. Not just what we feel and not just what we do, but a mixture of them, combined with that whatever-it-is that makes us who we are.

This final mark of the new birth shows when our love is given to God and our neighbor. It’s not given to success, or the good opinion of other people, or material goods, or pleasurable experiences.

As we dedicate our thoughts and actions and our feelings and ourselves to God and to our neighbor, Wesley says, we show that we are new creations in Christ, and that our old selves are passing away. Even if we slip up or turn aside here and there, we’re no longer who we made ourselves to be. We have become – and we’re still becoming – who God has always designed and desired us to be.

Born anew, through the good news.

Thursday, October 19, 2006

The Means of Grace (Malachi 3:7)

Sin was and is a reality, even in the lives of Christian believers, John Wesley said. Christ’s sacrifice broke its power, and as his grace works in our lives, we watch it diminish and grow weaker. But it won’t fully disappear until God’s final judgment.

So what do we do in the meantime? We “wait for God’s grace.” Ooookay. How long? How do we wait? How will it show up? What else do we do in the meantime?

Wesley preached this sermon because there were some groups in his Methodist movement that suggested things like communion, Scripture reading, baptism and even prayer were idols. Only God’s grace saved people, and these other things could make people dependent on them instead of on God. A person who felt a close connection to God during communion, for example, might be substituting communion for God, especially if they didn’t feel that connection any other time.

These people said that the proper way to worship and serve God was to wait for him to lead them through the Holy Spirit. Anything else was trying to use things to influence or direct God, and that was idolatry.

Wesley disagreed. According to his church and his understanding of Scripture, the means of grace were prayer, study of Scripture, and communion. God worked in people’s lives through these things to influence their hearts, minds and spirits and draw them closer to him.

Jesus himself had directed the disciples to pray and to take communion, and Paul reminded Timothy that Scripture was designed to teach, correct and guide people in walking with God. If Scripture itself directed people to do these things, then how could they be idolatry?

Of course people could abuse them, Wesley said. They might use prayer as a way of showing off their own righteousness, or take communion as routine, or pick and choose Scripture to make their own points without exploring what it might actually mean. But that didn’t make the means of grace themselves wrong – it meant the people who’d misused them were wrong.

When we take a look at these, it’s not hard to figure out how God works in prayer and Scripture reading to guide us, and to affect our lives with his grace. Real prayer, prayer that listens as much or more than it speaks, allows us to hear God leading us. Perhaps it’s towards a call he has on our lives, or perhaps it’s away from a harmful situation or bad habit. Even bringing our concerns and joys before God helps us focus on the source of our joy and our help.

In Scripture, we may also find ourselves guided. And challenged, and confused, and comforted, and stimulated and probably just about anything else that can help us grow in our faith. The stories of people meeting God and dealing with God’s presence in their lives offer us patterns and conversations that open God’s grace to us, and help us open ourselves more to God’s grace.

Communion’s connection is a little trickier, maybe, to see at first sight. But Wesley reminded us that Jesus himself directed us to take the bread and cup, as a way of remembering him. If it were only a memorial to a dead man, then I doubt very much we’d still be doing it today, some 1,900 years later. Memorials fade with time, and there’s nothing special about getting killed by the Romans. Lots of people did it.

But in communion, we remember one who was dead but is alive, one who died and was raised. He told us the bread and wine were his body and blood, and when we take them, we become his body for the world, united by the blood shed in his sacrifice. The molecules of the bread and juice, after they’re digested, spread to every part of our bodies. We, as the body of Christ, spread throughout the world to do what his body did during the years it was on the earth: Proclaim that the Kingdom of God was at hand at that God loves all his children.

Grace is God’s all-purpose tool for remaking and reshaping us so that we more and more resemble what he always intended us to be. As we remember that though death came to Christ, its power was broken, we are reminded that not even death can separate us from God. Those reminders help chip away at the fear and hate that keep our sin alive, reassuring us that God loves us and we need fear nothing. As both fear and hate diminish, more of God’s grace becomes apparent in us and to us.

Just had to wait on it.

Thursday, October 12, 2006

The Spirit of Bondage and of Adoption (Romans 8:15-16)

Methodist founder John Wesley was fascinated by what he saw as a process of salvation. On the one hand, God saved people once and for all through the work of Christ on the cross. On the other hand, Christians didn’t all seem live that out the same way. Some followed Christ’s path closely while others could make an onlooker wonder if Jesus made any difference in their lives. That “split personality” might also change over time, Wesley noticed.

The situation interested him because he saw the pastoral need of helping people move forward in their faith, and because it also matched his own experience. His long years of doing every good work he could think of hadn’t eased his spirit the way God had when Wesley was at the study meeting at Aldersgate.

When he looked at his own life and listened to others talk about their own spiritual journeys, Wesley saw that people seemed to live in three different places on those journeys.

The first he called the “natural” state, or being asleep. People who lived a life in the natural state weren’t really aware of God or of their need for him. Even if they had heard about God and about Christ, they weren’t really interested or moved to find out more. They had other goals – like the satisfaction of their own desires and wants. Today, these people might have bumper stickers that say, “Live fast, die young and leave a beautiful corpse,” or “He who dies with the most toys wins.”

Or they might be good and compassionate people. The key is their indifference to God and an unawareness of any need for God.

Well, sooner or later, the alarm sounds and wakes up the sleepers. Wesley might have called the alarm “life.” Eventually, even the most unconcerned people wonder a little about the purpose of their lives. Wondering why we’re here is something that human beings do and other animals don’t. When I watch “Meerkat Manor,” for example, I don’t recall any meerkats asking each other what it means to be a good meerkat. Which is good, because that would be a really boring show.

Such people might become aware of their sin and start fighting to overcome it. In the terms I like to use, they wake up to the reality that their relationship with God is somehow broken, not what it was supposed to be. So they try to repair it. They try to bridge the gap and try to live like God would want them to.

Problem No. 1 rears its head here: It can’t be done. Like quicksand, sin seems to drag us more heavily the more we try to free ourselves from it. Paul says it this way: The good I want to do, I don’t do. And the bad that I don’t want to do, that’s what I do. Wesley calls this the “legal” state, and said it’s characterized by a spirit of bondage to sin.

Someone in the natural state isn’t really aware of sin, so while they’re stuck in it just as deep, they don’t know it. But someone in the legal state knows about sin, knows its consequences and problems, but can’t get free from it. Wesley said this was his own story, talking about all of the different things he did to try to work his way to salvation.

But God’s goal is that we know the spirit of adoption, to live as believers. He called this the “evangelical” state. God doesn’t want us living as slaves to sin, but as his adopted daughters and sons, heirs with Christ. We may still sin, as another Wesley sermon mentions. Now, though, we know that we are not slaves to it and we are given strength by God to conquer and overcome it.

My tendency when I hear about stages or states or levels is to think they line up and I progress from one to another in a nice neat line. Of course, life is not a nice neat line – it’s messy. And Wesley told his people that people might have different parts of their lives in any of these three states.

I might not be aware of how something I do separates me from God, for example. Or I might be aware of it and trying to master it on my own. Or I might have, through God’s grace, conquered it and be free of it – in order to sin that way again, I have to deliberately act against what my spirit now wants to do. I have to ignore the witness of the Holy Spirit within me, testifying to me that I am a child of God and I don’t have to follow that spirit of slavery any more.

The spirit testifies to my spirit that I am a child of God. What good news.

Wednesday, October 04, 2006

The First-Fruits of the Spirit (Romans 8:1)

If the Church of England had given John Wesley a church to pastor, we might never have had a Methodist movement. Since he couldn’t focus on one congregation, his eyes opened up to all the people outside the church walls who needed to be pastored, who needed to hear God’s word and who needed to be shown that the Kingdom of God included them also.

The world, he said, became his parish.

His sermons often come more from real pastoral issues than a desire to set out a system of doctrines. He made sure he based what he said on traditional Christian teaching and doctrine, but he used them in service to meeting the pastoral needs of his people.

For example, one of the prickliest questions Christians face is the reality that although we are saved and set free from sin, sometimes we don’t act like it. In fact we still have sin in our lives, even though we believe God has restored us to the full relationship he designed us for to start with.

Are the wrong things we do after we’re saved “sin,” like the sins we committed before coming to know God? Are they a different kind of wrong thing? How do they affect our relationship with God? Do they mean we’re really not as right with God as we believe we are? Lots of questions.

Sometimes, Wesley said, people might be so aware of how they seem to be no different than before that it drives them to despair. How could God love them when they kept turning their backs on him? How could they call out to him again knowing that they had made promises and pledges before that all fell through?

Other people might look at their sin and shrug their shoulders about it. Hey, they’d been forgiven already, right? Christ on the cross had covered all their sins, both before and after they accepted him. Sure, trying to do better might be a good idea, and everyone could be a little nicer now and again, but the flesh was sinful, so whaddaya gonna do?

Neither extreme sat well with Wesley the pastor, and he preached this sermon, “The First-Fruits of the Spirit,” to talk about them. As he understood it, neither way of thinking took the Holy Spirit into account, or the work it did in the lives of believers.

For the folks who went all “No worries” about their sin, Wesley pointed out that the new relationship God offers begins with a person being aware of their own sin and repenting of it. Not just feeling sorry for it or regretting it, but genuinely wanting to turn away from the path it represented and take another. These people desired to be freed from their bondage to sin.

Someone who professed Christ as savior but wasn’t all that worried about their own sin should probably ask himself how real his relationship with God was, Wesley said. A relationship where one person doesn’t care what the other one wants isn’t much of a relationship, he noted.

The Holy Spirit moved within believers to show them their shortcomings and sins, so they could reach out to God for forgiveness and help.

Wesley knew that sometimes people felt overwhelmed by their own sin. The work of the Spirit made them wonder if they’d ever make any real changes in their lives. They might figure that they were hopeless and give up.

Of course not, Wesley said. If God loved them enough to reach out to them when they hadn’t yet accepted him, why would he abandon them now? Did they think that these new sins could somehow overpower God’s grace when their old sins couldn’t?

Johnny Cash sings a song where people in church testify they were headed straight up to glory faster than a rifle shot, no detours. Or just like a rocketship. But an old woman stands up and acknowledges that she’s slipped and slid a little along the way, but she trusts God, and she’s getting closer to heaven too, even if it’s only about a half a mile a day.

Wesley would have understood her words well, and he might even have agreed with her. One thing about someone traveling really fast – it’s hard to catch up, even if you want to go where they’re going and they invite you to share the journey. But someone going about a half a mile a day – well, I can match that pace. I’d be happy to join them.

Wednesday, September 27, 2006

Righteousness By Faith (Romans 10:5-8)

Sometimes what “everyone knows” turns out to be wrong. George Washington didn’t really chop down a cherry tree. Ben Franklin didn’t really tie a key to a kite string and fly the kite in a thunderstorm, touching it to discover that lightning was electricity. He would have died.

And whenever Paul talks about “the law,” everyone knows he means the Law of Moses – the group of teachings and instructions that God gave to Moses on Mt. Sinai that include the ten commandments. So they contrast “righteousness by the law” with righteousness by faith by saying that Christ replaces the Mosaic law.

But, John Wesley said, that view runs into some problems – not the least of which is that God chose the Hebrews as his people long before they camped at Mt. Sinai. He made a covenant with Abraham, not Moses, at least five hundred years before Moses was born.

No, the covenant of the law, which Paul says boils down to, “Do this, and live,” goes back much further. It was the covenant God established with Adam and Eve. They were created without sin, and were in that way holy, as God was holy. The covenant had an “assumed” part and a “spelled out” part.

The assumed part was that Adam and Eve, as well as any other human beings who might live after them, would completely and fully love and obey God. Every action, every word, every thought would be in service to God, and each service would be done with all the strength and power they had. Love of God and of God’s creation would be their only motivation, from their first breath to their last.

The spelled out part was God’s spoken command to Adam and Eve not to eat the fruit of the tree of knowledge. This was the righteousness of the law. By “righteousness,” he meant “rightness in relationship with God.”

Fulfilling this covenant meant life. Breaking it meant death. And only perfect obedience to it could fulfill it, which meant even one mistake broke it.

Why then, Wesley asked, would anyone trust in the righteousness of the law? After all, it was designed for perfect people as their way of maintaining an already-existing relationship with God. None of us are perfect, and our relationships with God are broken.

It’s the same as changing a tire with a hammer – even if you manage to do it… heck, I don’t even think it’s possible, so I don’t have any idea what it would look like.

Righteousness by faith, though, comes from a covenant that’s designed to allow fallen people to re-establish a broken relationship with God. That’s what it was made for. It doesn’t ask us to do what we can’t.

We don’t have to say, “Well, first I need to stop this sin, and then I need to begin this good work, and then I’ll probably be OK.” No sale, Bubba (Wesley didn’t say that). There are way more sins to stop than we can count and way more good works than we have time to do. If I seek righteousness by faith, I have to realize three things: 1)I ain’t good enough. 2)I ain’t never gonna be good enough. 3)God will take me anyway.

Again, we can see where faith has to play its role. If we could somehow manage to be good enough, we would know there was a minimum requirement we could reach. We could know we were this close, or we were above the line and we could coast, or whatever. And we would probably turn our achievement into a source of pride or a stick to beat on other folks with.

But the righteousness by faith doesn’t let us brag on what we’ve done, because we’ve done nothing. And it doesn’t trust to some set of standards or reaching a hash-mark of salvation, because it can trust only in God’s love. God is merciful, and God loves us, so we are made right in relationship to him by the work of his Son.

And you know, in the end, when it comes down to relying on me, or relying on God, I think I’d rather rely on God. I know my track record.

Wednesday, September 20, 2006

Justification by Faith (Rom 4:1-5)

Although this is the fifth sermon in his list, Wesley began preaching “Justification by Faith” soon after his experience at Aldersgate. He calls it one of the doctrines on which “the Church stands or falls.”

Others disagreed – the first time he preached it, people called him an “enthusiast, a seducer and a setter-forth of new doctrines.” Those words meant different things in Wesley’s day, as we know. At the very least, I’ve never heard of a sermon being seductive.

Later, when the Methodist movement was in full swing, Wesley visited Epworth, the parish where he grew up and where his father had preached. The church refused him the pulpit, so he went to the cemetery and stood on his father’s tomb and preached there to whomever would gather. He said he did more good preaching three days from his father’s tomb than he might have in three years preaching from his pulpit.

“Justification by faith” continues the effort to properly define the different roles of works, faith and grace in salvation. Justification was the name given to someone who was in a right relationship with God, and in Wesley’s day, many people thought it happened only after what they called sanctification, or becoming holy.

Wesley thought that was kind of silly – the Bible seemed pretty clear to him that “justification” was the pardoning of sin. The justified were free from the accusations of Satan and from the punishment they’d earned for disobeying God’s law. God didn’t pretend the justified had never sinned; he pardoned them so that in the final judgment they would be treated as if they had never sinned. If God had just wanted to pretend, then Christ would not have given his life.

So, if justification is pardoning those who have sinned – Wesley calls them “the ungodly” – then why in the world would those whose good works and sanctification had made them holy need to be justified? If God’s going to pardon a sin, it seems obvious there should be a sin there to pardon, and it also seems obvious that one finds sin in sinners.

When people face the reality that they are sinners, and that they have spent their lives turning their backs on God, then they will seek God’s help to be brought back. They hear God’s promise that they will be new creations in Christ, and they believe that promise comes to them as well.

The good works people do may be good in their impact on the lives of people around them – but until they flow from a heart that loves God first and foremost, they are not truly good works, Wesley said.

Think of the way words look printed on a page. When they’re all lined up on the left-hand side, they’re “left-justified.” If they’re lined up on the right, then they’re “right justified,” and when they’re even on both sides they’re “fully justified.” The same words, the same sentences, the exact same letters look different when they are justified and when they are not.

And that is why our works apart from God may not be good, even though the exact same charity and compassion shown after our relationship with God is restored can be called good.

Now, where does faith come in? We’re told it’s an evidence or conviction of things not seen, and when it comes to justification, it seems like that means we believe God justifies us even if the evidence isn’t there. Paul cites Abraham as an example. Eventually, Abraham believed that he would have a son, even though everything he could see about his wife and himself told him it was impossible.

Wesley says that as we keep depending on Christ’s sacrifice as the way our relationship with God will be healed, then our faith helps produce truly good works, and begins our sanctification. We are being made holy.

Even the faith itself is a gift from God. The ability to understand ourselves lost and admit it comes by God’s grace. I used to say that I was glad the New Jerusalem in the afterlife was so big, because there were probably plenty of people I thought didn’t deserve to live there. But none of us deserve it. Only God’s grace enables us to live like it’s true, and only God’s grace makes it true.

Wesley closes by asking anyone who’s listening who doesn’t yet have that faith to consider it. To realize that they are apart from God and that death apart from God is true death. And in their hopelessness, to cry out, “Abba, Father” to God with the full faith he will hear and respond.

To repent, in other words, and to believe the good news.

Friday, September 15, 2006

The Almost Christian (Acts 26:19-29)

Sorry about the late post. A little under the weather this week)

By the time Wesley preached his “The Almost Christian” sermon, he’d become something of a celebrity in London. Establishment churches disliked his open-air preaching and his strong belief that people could know they were saved, and only four churches in all of London will let him speak in their pulpits.

So Oxford in 1741 was the perfect place and time to let the establishment have it – Wesley was stickin’ it to the man more than 200 years before anybody ever used the phrase.

He takes his line from King Agrippa’s statement to Paul. While defending himself against charges of sedition and rabble-rousing, Paul speaks so well Agrippa finds himself listening a lot closer than he thought he would. He scoffs nervously – in the King James translation Wesley used, he says, “Almost thou persuadest me to become a Christian!”

So what, Wesley asked, would make someone “almost” a Christian? What made someone else “altogether” a Christian?

Getting to “almost” would take quite a bit of work, first of all. They practiced basic virtues of justice and fairness, like “even the heathen,” Wesley said. They did good works for people who were in need, and they didn’t expect fame or a reward. They regularly attended church, and not just to be seen, either. They were properly respectful of worship and they were fair, honest and faithful in all their dealings with people.

So, Wesley asked, how is it possible that someone could do all those things and still be “almost” a Christian? Surely such a person was altogether a Christian. Ah, no, he said. He knew, because he had done every one of those things for years and he knew that for a large part of his life, he was only an Almost Christian. Just like, perhaps, many of his listeners.

What was the difference? It wasn’t in what they did – an Altogether Christian would have the same virtues the Almost Christian did. It was in the why. An Almost Christian might do all those good works for worthy reasons, but the Altogether Christian did them because they flowed from his or her love of God and love of neighbor.

Almost Christians, if asked why they did these good works, might say “Because God told us to,” or “Because they’re in need,” or “Because they’re the right things to do.” Altogether Christians, Wesley said, would answer, “Because God loves me and God loves my neighbor. If I’m going to love God, then I’m going to live that out in my life.”

Wesley was starting to explore one his major themes, and it’s a theme that Christians have wrestled with for most of our history. We can do our best to be worthy of God’s love, and do our best to heal our relationship with God. But it won’t be good enough. We can’t reach God’s level, or even reach the level God has made us for. So God reached out to us and took us in, even though we couldn’t reach to him.

So we do our best, but it isn’t good enough, and God takes us anyway, no matter how far short we fall. But we should still do our best anyway.

In his sermon, Wesley asked his audience how many of them, if they took a good long look at themselves, would even make it to Almost Christian? Forget about scoring a hundred – how many of them would be “B” students, or even “C” students? Johnny Cash used to call himself a “C-minus Christian,” and I imagine he wouldn’t even lay claim to being an Almost Christian.

So why worry about how unfair it is to the Almost Christian that all their work only gets them to “Almost?” Why worry about that when I’ve got a long journey ahead of me to even get that far? Better worry about what happens to all the C and D Christians, all of us who fall waaaaaay short instead of just a little short.

But wait – why “worry” at all? God loves us and has opened his gates to us, inviting us all in regardless of how good or bad we might think we are. No need to worry – we made it! And now, having made it, we want to double our efforts, and reach as far as we can, as a gesture of thanks to God for the gift he gave us.

Ironic, if you think about it. The best way to become an Almost Christian is to start out by being an Altogether Christian.

Ironic, but good news nonetheless.

Thursday, September 07, 2006

Salvation by Faith (Ephesians 2:1-10)

One of the first sermons John Wesley preached after his “strangely warmed heart” experience was called “Salvation by Faith,” and it focused on verse 8: “By grace are you saved through faith.” After a long spiritual dry spell, one night at a Bible study meeting, Wesley found himself absolutely certain that God had accepted him. It was the first time he’d ever felt that, and the experience fueled the preaching and piety movement that later became the Methodist church.

In the sermon, first he tackled grace. Here, it has its more general meaning and reminds us that God doesn’t owe us salvation. God chooses salvation, meaning that God chooses to heal the relationship that human sin damaged beyond human ability to repair.

Then he goes after the idea of faith in general, and compares it to “saving faith,” or salvation by faith. Saving faith is more than just the proper awareness of God, he says. Paul tells the Romans that since the beginning of time, people could learn what they needed to know about God by looking at his creation. They could know that the world had a Creator and that they should respect that Creator and treat what he had made with similar respect. Including each other. Saving faith is also more than just intellectual knowledge about God and who he is. At this level of faith, a person would know God was the creator. They would even know Jesus was the Son of God, somehow God made flesh in creation. The demons Jesus faced as well as the devil himself had this kind of “faith,” because they knew who Jesus was and they obeyed his commands. They accepted his power.

Saving faith takes all of these ideas about faith several steps further. Saving faith totals up all the knowledge about God we have and adds in real action, a real life change that orients us towards God instead of ourselves or the world around us.

Our lives are not ruled by fear of the unknown or our own desires for the things we think we need. They are ruled by God’s directions to love and care for one another, even as we praise and worship God.

Our lives are not even ruled by the sin that’s separated us from God. In Christ, God healed the broken relationship sin caused, allowing us to live lives connected to God. We may still make mistakes or even slip up now and again, but those are echoes of a broken power, one which no longer governs our lives.

Wesley addressed several objections to his idea, but I’ll cover just a few, since they are more likely to be a part of our modern world than some of the others.

If people had saving faith, could they decide things like charity and compassion for others were unnecessary? Wesley asked, in turn, how having a faith that didn’t produce a changed life differed from having no faith at all.

Could people with saving faith grow prideful and look down on people who they thought weren’t saved? Yes, Wesley said, they could. In our day, many of us probably wouldn’t insult someone with a direct put-down of their faith. But haven’t we make little jokes and things at their expense? I have and suddenly I have a hard time saying that doesn’t come from pride.

In the very verse Wesley uses, though, Paul shoots that down – “not because of works,” he says, “lest anyone should boast.” It’s the mirror image of Dizzy Dean – since you didn’t do it, you shouldn’t be braggin’.

And last, might the doctrine of saving faith – that we aren’t saved with works or with our own goodness, but only through God’s grace – bring people to despair? “I can’t ever get it right,” they might say. “It's no use.” Of course it might, Wesley said. That’s the point – to get us to understand that only God can save us and that he’s already done it.

Maybe it’s better to say that he’s already doing it. Salvation didn’t happen once and quit – it keeps on going. If saving faith means that we live our lives oriented towards God’s desires for us, then we should really say that we are being saved by God. Every day. Every hour. Every minute.

Thanks be to God for this good news.

(These next several sermons are my attempt to preach some of the "Standard Sermons" of John Wesley that are cornerstone explanations of a lot of basic Methodist doctrine. Thorough readers are invited to check out the many published editions of these sermons to get the real thing.)

Thursday, August 31, 2006

Words of Life (John 6:56-59)

One of the things John draws our attention to is the fact that Jesus is here to do more than to just witness to the truth. He is the truth, as he points out.

Because of that, John pays a lot of attention to what happens when Jesus confronts people who, to borrow Jack Nicholson’s phrase, “can’t handle the truth.” Like here, for instance. We join the tail end of a story that starts with Jesus feeding the multitudes with just a few loaves and fishes. As you might imagine, this has drawn the crowds. Which would seem to be a good thing, right? More people around means the message spreads more quickly, and that’s what we want, of course.

But Jesus doesn’t seem to want the same thing, because he immediately begins teaching about himself in such strange and almost offensive terms that even some of the disciples who had followed him for some time decide they’re done. The ones who stay say, “This is a hard teaching. Who can accept it?”

We don’t see that the same way, of course, because whenever Jesus speaks about his body and his blood, we think of communion. We’re familiar with the idea, and we’re familiar with the symbolic characteristics of what he says.

Not these folks, though. First, they’ve never heard of communion. Second, they have a bunch of laws about eating human flesh and drinking any blood, let alone human blood. Their holiest teachings, from God himself and given through Moses, condemn those practices in no uncertain terms. Drinking blood, the life of the body, offends God, the creator of life. Eating human flesh mimics the pagans surrounding Israel who sacrificed their own children on idol’s altars and ate parts of them afterwards.

If you want to get a sense of what they’re feeling, think of something that’s really repulsive to you. Now imagine Jesus telling you that following him is somehow like doing that very same repulsive thing.

No wonder people walked away. If following Jesus meant turning their backs on what God had always taught them, then they would have nothing to do with it.

Some stayed, though. Jesus looks at them, and asks if they will leave him also. Peter speaks for them. “Where else could we go? You have the words of life.”

Somehow, Peter understands something the walkaways don’t. He knows what he’s heard makes no sense according to what he knows about God, and about what God wants from his people. It makes no sense according to his way of looking at the world. In fact, it makes no sense according to the way Jesus was supposed to look at the world, either, since Jesus was as much a Jew as the disciples themselves.

But Peter has the faith to believe that there is somehow sense behind the nonsense that he’s hearing. Jesus hasn’t yet told the disciples that he is the way and the truth and the life, but Peter and those who stay seem to have some awareness that he is.

We might think that’s pretty good, and in many ways it is, but look at all of what Peter says. “Lord, where else would we go?” Are those the words of someone who’s checking out the seven habits of the highly purpose-driven life? Do they sound like someone who believe’s he’s found a quick and easy prayer to say to get all he wants out of life?

They don’t to me. They sound like a man who’s drowning in the ocean and has found exactly one thing he can cling to to float on. They sound like someone who doesn’t care how undignified or weird or crazy or even bizarre he has to be in order to hold on.

And if any idea in the history of ideas is weirder than the gospel, I couldn’t tell you what it was. The idea that a God who could make the universe would care about us? Or that he’d love us enough to let us reject him and everything he’d done? Or that he’d still love us after we did that and wouldn’t even let our own sins and limitations keep us away from him? Wonderful, but weird.

We sometimes have too many options around us, so we don’t realize we’re in the same position Peter and the rest are in. We’re able to handle a lot of what life gives us most of the time, so we can overlook our desperate need for those words of life. Every now and then, though, stuff hits us that that makes us turn to God and say, “Leave you? I’ve got no place else to go.”

That’s when God awakens us to the difference between “no place to go” and “no place else to go.” In words, it seems small, but in reality, it’s the difference between hope and despair, between life and death.

Wednesday, August 23, 2006

Wiseguy (1Kings 2:10-12; 3:3-14)

Question: Was Solomon smart, or was he wise? Or maybe he was both?

There’s a difference. Sometimes wise people aren’t smart. And sometimes smart people aren’t wise. Solomon knows the difference, and that’s why he asks for what he does.

This is what I mean. This reading skips over some of the story of Solomon’s succession and his first steps on the throne. First of all, there’s the problem of Adonijah, Solomon’s brother, who tries to take the throne before David dies. Bathsheba, Solomon’s mom, has to intervene because David was pretty clear that he wanted Solomon to follow him.

Then Solomon takes care of some business as he begins his rule. He eliminates some enemies and pays off some old debts – this is were Joab meets his end, for example. Nothing unusual in that. Kings in these days often started ruling by making sure the competition was otherwise occupied, usually by running for their lives or being buried.

Now comes Solomon’s dream, in which God asks him what he wants. Solomon’s answer will tell God what kind of king he wants to be.

He could ask for power and glory, for a long life and victory over his enemies. If he did, he would also be following the usual kingly pattern. Wealth, power, glory, victory, a long reign – these were the signs of a successful king.

If Solomon asks for these things, then God will know he wants to be a king like the other kings in that day and time. What he won’t want is to be a king suitable to ruling the people of God. Remember, Israel is a nation founded on God’s promise and his law. Those things set the people apart from other nations. They’re the chosen people, so they’re supposed to act like it.

Again, God’s promise to David about establishing his throne for eternity suggest that Israel’s king is supposed to be a different kind of king.

We don’t see it written out, but my guess is that when Solomon realizes the choice he has been given, he evaluates what kind of king he has been so far. He sees that his rule has started with bloodshed, with family struggles, with political infighting. He’s had his enemies killed, on the advice of hs father David.

I think that if he did look at what kind of king he’s been so far, Solomon may have realized that he hasn’t been the kind of king who’s ruling God’s chosen people. Nothing sets him apart from other royalty and how they act. And he might decided he doesn’t want to be that kind of king. Which is pretty smart, if you ask me.

So Solomon doesn’t ask for riches and glory and all the other stuff. He says he’s young, inexperienced and he doesn’t know how to be the king of God’s chosen people. If God is going to give him something, could he give him the wisdom needed to be that kind of king? Could he be shown how to use the gifts he has in order to be a king suitable for God’s people? A king who is worthy to be a part of the eternal line that God promised David?

Which is also pretty smart.

The more I look at this story, the less I see God giving Solomon something he doesn’t have and the more I see God releasing qualities he already does have.

Releasing them, guiding them, refining them. God taking something that he had put in Solomon and making it into the tool Solomon needed to be what God wanted him to be.

Language like that echoes the idea that each of us is created in the image of God, designed in some way to reflect something of God to those who see us. If sin has tarnished or marred that image, then Christ’s sacrifice and resurrection cleans it and repairs it, making it what it should be.

Some combination of divine action, genetic inheritance and upbringing gave Solomon enough wisdom to know he needed God to magnify that gift in order for it to be used right. Everyone has some gift or another that is a part of the image God designed for them before they were born. But we don’t have nearly enough of it, or the knowledge of how to use it, anything like the way God wants us to.

Solomon knew this, and so he asked to be shown how to use what he had to fulfill the role God wanted for him.

Smart. And wise too.

Wednesday, August 16, 2006

Absalom! (2 Samuel 18:5-9, 15, 31-33)

It’s easy to see Absalom as a kind of mirror of his father David. Both were charismatic, handsome men with gifts for leadership.

Both started out greatly valued by their respective kings, only to flee when their loyalty was answered with betrayal. Saul became jealous of David and tried to kill him. David, when he was king, did nothing to punish the man who raped Absalom’s sister Tamar because that man was David’s favorite son Amnon. Absalom killed Amnon himself and left Jerusalem for many years.

Eventually, David allowed Absalom to come back to Jerusalem, but he wouldn’t take him back at the palace. Absalom decided to take the throne for himself, and began gathering support for his plans.

David and many of his supporters escaped Jerusalem before Absalom could move. He planted spies to tell him what Absalom was doing and feed his councilors false information. So when the armies fought, David’s army won. Absalom, leaving the battle, got himself somehow stuck in a tree. The Hebrew is weird here, so we don’t know how, exactly. When some of David’s soldiers saw it, they remembered what David had said. “Deal gently with the young man Absalom,” he had asked. So they went to Joab, David’s main military official and the man he’d relied on to help kill Uriah.

Joab’s world is simple. In it, there are two kinds of enemies: Those who have been suitably dealt with and those who are still living. War consists of switching as many of the second group as you can into the first group. So he and his guard go to Absalom and kill him. David is heartbroken – he never fully reconciled with his son, and now he never can.

Why does Absalom’s story end differently that David’s does? I’d suggest it’s because of what Absalom’s story is missing: God.

Absalom never seeks God’s guidance for what he does, never seems to show any thought for God at all. Remember, David knew he would be king after Saul, but because Saul was still God’s anointed king, he wouldn’t attack him. Absalom tries to overthrow his father even though he is God’s anointed king.

None of Absalom’s actions involve God. We may understand his rage and desire to avenge his sister’s rape, but did he ask God if this was the way to deal with Amnon? When he returned to Jerusalem, did he has forgiveness for killing his brother? Remember, God goes on the record pretty early with a not-in-favor-of opinion about brother-killing.

Does Absalom seek God’s guidance before he decides he will have the throne now, thank you very much, and not wait until the old man goes toes-up. Is what he does God’s will or is it his own ambition?

I see him serving his ambition, and not seeking God’s way. I can’t see that Absalom pays any attention to God at all. It’s almost like we’re watching what David’s career would have been like if he hadn’t followed God’s direction and leading before he became king.

Maybe I’m reading the story too simply, but the distinction is there to be drawn. Men who were pretty much equal in abilities and leadership. Men who had similar opportunities and similar circumstances. But one chose the path God laid out for him, and the other didn’t. And one ended up king, and the other ended up dead.

So maybe it’s not our gifts and talents and abilities that make the difference for us in this life. Maybe even if we’ve not got much in the way of talents, what happens to us in life depends on something else. Or Someone Else, I guess, is better.

If I’m on God’s side, then no matter what I’m able to do on my own, I know God’s purpose will be accomplished through me. Which sounds like good news to me.

Wednesday, August 09, 2006

You The Man! (2 Sm 11:26-12:13a)

In our story today, we’ll see King David ask, “What’s with all the chickens, and why are they coming here to roost?”

To refresh, David and Bathsheba had a liaison after David spotted her bathing on her roof. She was married, so her pregnancy would have, at the very least, marred David’s image in the eyes of the people. After unsuccessfully trying to trick her husband Uriah into sleeping with her and thus provide a reasonable explanation for her pregnancy, David has Uriah killed so he can marry Bathsheba instead.

So everything’s all settled now. The baby will be the product of a real marriage, and no one’s the wiser. Except Someone is.

Nathan the prophet came to David and told him a little story about a man and his pet ewe lamb. The man and his family lost their lamb because a rich man with many sheep and cattle didn’t want to use one of his own animals to make dinner for a guest.

David is furious. This is exactly the kind of thing the laws of God were designed to prevent, and as king, it is his job to enforce those laws. The strong should not take advantage of the weak, and this rich man owes four times the cost of the lamb, or else he’s in deep trouble.

“You are the man!”

Now Nathan’s getting wound up, and probably not the least because how often do you get to talk to a king like this? He gives David the message God sent him to bring:

I put you on this throne, God says. I gave you victory over your enemy and I gave you his wives and his household. If that hadn’t been enough, I’d have given you double that, but you didn’t care.

You killed Uriah with the sword of the Ammonites, God says to David through Nathan. You did it.

David’s response is very interesting. “I have sinned against the Lord,” he says.

Does David’s response – he doesn’t mention Bathsheba or Uriah -- mean he lacks compassion for the people he’s hurt? Some people think so, but I’m not sure.

I believe that David now sees the full impact of his sin. He knew he’d done wrong against Uriah and Bathsheba, but since he didn’t get caught, it didn’t count. Now he understands that it did count, in a way he’d never thought about.

It’s probably the one part of God’s message I have to have drummed into me over and over again – God has decided that what we limited human beings do in our finite lives is going to matter. Don’t ask me why, because I have no idea. All I know is that he did.

We’re not just unimportant blobs of protoplasm meandering around on a rock. We bear the image of God. So what we do isn’t just some sort of random spasm of physics and biology. Our actions and words and thoughts echo in eternity, with impacts and consequences and results we aren’t equipped to see.

God, who is so equipped, offered guidelines for us that if followed, help us join those echoes to his plan for creation. He calls us to roles in our lives that do the same, and when we depart from them we don’t just cut ourselves off from each other. We cut ourselves off from God, and we create ripples that may devastate us later, or devastate the lives of others, whether we know it or not.

Again, don’t ask me why. I wasn’t consulted, and I doubt I have the knowledge to have contributed anything intelligent. But I believe this a fact: God has decided that I matter, and that you matter, so what we do is going to matter. Anyone who’s seen one of the Spider-man movies knows another way of saying that: “With great power comes great responsibility.”

So David sees that yes, his actions did wrong people he was pledged to protect. But they also went against God, because anything done to one of God’s children matters to God as well. And he responds in a way that says he finally understands: “I have sinned against God.”

In my life, those words are awful and wonderful at the same time. Awful because I realize the extent of the harm I’ve caused.
Wonderful because once I say them, God says, “Yes, but I forgive you and now I think we can get started on fixing the problem.”

Good news, I’d say.

Monday, June 05, 2006

Mayberry Code Epilogue

All names, organizations, characters, etc., in the following are the property of their respective creators, and no connection with same is implied or stated.

Later, when the deputy was driving the three villains away, Barney and Thelma Lou stood on Andy’s porch, watching.
“I can’t believe that Aunt Bea wasn’t real and Opie had a mother,” Thelma Lou said. “It’s just so…so…fantastic. And Andy was in on it all the time.”
“I wondered,” Barney said. “When he had the guy clear those papers off the sofa. Aunt Bea would never have let papers pile on the sofa.” Thelma Lou nodded. Barney put his hands on her shoulders and turned her to face him.
“But there’s another part to the secret, isn’t there, Thelma Lou?” he said. His eyes held her. “A part that you know, and that you’re only now beginning to understand.” Thelma Lou looked away.
“Yes, I know,” she said. “I hadn’t thought about it before, but it fits. You know how I was gone from town that year, how I was ‘traveling’ with family. I wasn’t, of course. I was pregnant.”
She drew a deep breath, gaining strength from Barney’s steady gaze. “And I had a boy, and I gave him up for adoption.”
“That’s right,” Barney said. “Andy had a wife, and she died, but she wasn’t Opie’s mother. Thelma Lou, you are.”
“Oh Barney,” Thelma Lou said. “That means…well, you know what it means…”
“Yes,” Barney said. “I know what it means. I know I’m the only man you’ve ever been with, Thelma Lou, so I know that I’m Opie’s father.” He nodded sadly.
“That’s the real secret, Thelma Lou. That’s what Floyd knew. And that’s what he died to keep hidden. He was the only one I ever told. The only one I trusted with the secret…the real secret of The Mayberry Code.”

Friday, June 02, 2006

Mayberry Code Ch. 6

All names, organizations, characters, etc., in the following are the property of their respective creators, and no connection with same is implied or stated.

Ernest T. and Andy’s bodyguard stood behind the chair where Andy sat. Andy looked at Barney and Thelma Lou with resigned sadness in his eyes. Barney knew that while he might overpower one of the two men, the other was sure to fire before he could finish. And that would leave them plenty of time to reload and eliminate Thelma Lou. He bided his time.
“Barney, Barney, Barney,” he said. “I’m sure sorry you got mixed up in this. Darn that Floyd!”
“Mixed up in what?” Thelma Lou said.
“Well, Thelma Lou, it’s like this,” Andy began. “Mayberry’s a wonderful town, but it’s got a dark secret. Just a few people know it…”
“I knows the see-cret!” Ernest T. crowed. “Kin I tell it? Kin I kin I kin I…”
“Enough!” Andy barked. “Ernest T., you just hush right now.” He smiled back at his prisoners.
“It’s kind of an open see-cre…secret, really,” Andy said. “I’m sure you noticed that I raised Opie myself, didn’t you?”
“Well, yes.”
“But what you didn’t know was that I wasn’t always by myself.”
“What do you mean?” Thelma Lou asked.
“I mean that I wasn’t solely responsible for bringing Opie into the world,” Andy said. He stopped for a second, watching Barney nod and waiting for Thelma Lou to understand. Suddenly her eyes widened.
“Do you mean to tell me that Opie had a mother?” she asked incredulously.
“Of course, my dear,” Andy said. “The vast majority of educated people are well aware that children have mothers as well as fathers. This revelation would be no shock to them.”
Thelma Lou shook her head, and looked at Barney. “Is what he’s saying true?” she asked. “Did you know?”
Barney nodded. “It’s a pretty well-accepted fact,” he said.
“But we never saw her,” Thelma Lou protested.
“She died,” Andy said.
“But Aunt Bea?”
Andy made quotation marks with his fingers. “‘Aunt Bea’ was a much later creation, forced upon an unwilling group of people by the rich and powerful. Floyd knew that. And he knew that if anyone ever found out that ‘Aunt Bea’ never existed, then they would be forced to accept the conclusion that Opie had a mother. That could have shaken the structure of civilization as we know it. Floyd was a part of the secret Priory of Mt. Pilot, an organization dedicated to keeping that secret.”
He nodded at Ernest T. “So he had to be killed so he wouldn’t share the secret with anyone.”
“That makes no sense,” Thelma Lou said. “If he knew the secret but was part of a group that wanted to keep it a secret, and if you want to keep it a secret too, then why kill him?”
Andy started to answer, then blinked in confusion. When he did, Barney leapt into action. He hurled his iced tea glass with terrific force at the slow-moving bodyguard, diving at the wilier Ernest T. His ruse worked, and he disarmed them both. He stared all three men down.
“Barn,” Andy said dangerously. “There are three of us, and you’ve only got two guns and two bullets. You can’t get us all.”
Barney smiled dangerously. “But you forgot, Andy,” he said, reaching into his shirt pocket while handing one gun to Thelma Lou. “I still carry my bullet, too. Thelma Lou, call the deputy.” He looked at Andy. “What’s his name again?”
Andy shrugged.

Friday, May 26, 2006

Mayberry Code Ch. 5

All names, organizations, characters, etc., in the following are the property of their respective creators, and no connection with same is implied or stated.

Barney and Thelma Lou stood on the porch of the house, nervously glancing at the street, fearing the long silhouette of the deputy’s powerful patrol cruiser. Barney felt exposed on the porch, our of his own vehicle, and it made him nervous enough he missed pressing the doorbell button the first time.
“Calm down, Barney,” Thelma Lou said. “I’m sure it’s all right.”
“Easy for you to say, Thelma Lou,” Barney said sharply. “That deputy’s looking to make a name for himself and apprehending a murderer who happens to be a former officer of the law himself will go a long way towards that.” He stopped, softened when he saw Thelma Lou’s eyes mist up. “Aw, shucks, Thelma Lou, I’m sorry. I’m just on edge. We’ve got to get this thing worked out before he finds us, or I may never get my name cleared.
“That’s OK, Barney,” Thelma Lou said, smiling. “I understand.” Barney smiled back, then squared his shoulders, breathed deeply, and pressed the buzzer. After a minute or so, the light came on and a familiar face showed in the doorway.
“Barn?” the man asked. “Thelma Lou? What are you all doing here so late.” He pushed open the screen door and ushered the pair in.
“Good to see you, Ange,” Barney said, shaking his old mentor’s hand. “I sure hope you can help us. I told Thelma Lou that if anyone could help us, it’d be Andy.”
“Anything, Barn, anything,” Andy said. “Just tell me what’s going on.” He motioned to his bodyguard, a tall, lanky man with drooping eyes, to clear some newspapers off the sofa. Barney and Thelma Lou sat down.
“Ange, it’s Floyd,” Barney started. “He’s been murdered.” Barney then proceeded to tell the whole story, including their harrowing escape from Ernest T. Bass. “He was a nut,” Barney concluded. “So I thought we should come here.”
Andy had been nodding. “Coming to me was the right thing to do,” he said. “The right thing to do.” He motioned to the bodyguard. “Bring us some iced tea,” he said. The man left for the kitchen.
“What do you think’s happening, Ange?” Barney asked.
“What do you think is happening, Barney?” Andy asked in response.
“I haven’t got a clue,” Barney said. “Wasn’t any time to gather any evidence; that deputy was all over us. And you know you can’t solve your crime without your physical evidence. All of your great sleuths use their physical evidence. Your Nero Wolfes, your Sherlock Holmes, your Sam Spades…What?” broke off as Thelma Lou elbowed him sharply. She pointed to the kitchen door, which had just produced Ernest T. Bass. He grinned malevolently over his gun.
“Andy!” Barney shouted. “Separate! He can’t get us both!” But Andy didn’t move. And when Barney saw the bodyguard follow Ernest T. into the room, also holding a gun, he knew why.
“You’re in on it!” he shouted. “Aw, Andy, what’s going on?”
“Shazam,” the bodyguard said.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

Mayberry Code Ch. 4

All names, organizations, characters, etc., in the following are the property of their respective creators, and no connection with same is implied or stated.

Unknown to the deputy, the pair were now blocks away, sitting in the wide bench front seat of Barney’s car. “If only we could have deciphered the rest of that code,” Thelma Lou said. “I felt we almost had it before Deputy Dum-dum broke in.”
“Not to worry, Thelma Lou,” Barney said, tapping his head just under the turned-up brim of his fedora. “I’ve got the entire sequence committed to memory. And I have near-photographic recall. All your greatest sleuths have it. Your Sherlock Holmes, your Nero Wolfes…”
“Barney!” Thelma Lou interrupted. “Floyd’s message?”
“Right,” Barney said. “Here, breathe on the windshield and I’ll recreate it as best I can.”
When this had been accomplished, Barney squinted at it. “So it’s a rhythmic pattern, in groups of syllables,” he said, refreshing his memory by repeating what he and Thelma Lou had already reasoned out.
“And the letters stand for words,” Thelma Lou added.
Dum da da dum dada dum¬da,” Barney said. Then he froze. “I know where I’ve heard that pattern before,” he said. He slowly turned to Thelma Lou. “So do you.”
She looked at him, puzzled.
How do you do, Mrs. Wylie?” Barney said, the horror creeping into his voice. Thelma Lou blanched in shock.
It had been an experiment, to help a hopelessly unrefined and backwards man “fit in” with Mayberry’s high society, in order to impress his beloved. The details had faded through the years, but Barney still remembered the high, nasal voice repeating the mantra, the key phrase that would convince everyone that he was a real gentleman, and not just crazy old…
Ernest T. Bass.
“But Barney, he’s harmless,” Thelma Lou said. “All he ever did was throw rocks.”
“He’s a nut,” Barney said. They both jumped as a heavy weight thumped on the car hood. A grinning face leered through the windshield, distorted by the coded message Barney had traced on its interior surface.
“It’s me, it’s me, it’s Ernest T!” he sang, leaping from the hood to the street. “And I gots me a see-cret that I won’t tell, and I gots me another see-cret that I will tell!” He held up his gun. “I done reloaded my pis-tole and I’ve got a bullet ready to shoot!”
Barney reacted without thinking. He knew they had to get away from the maniacal mountain man, and even though Ernest T. was likely to miss, the way he waved his gun around, Barney couldn’t take that chance. So he floored the accelerator and the car leaped forward, breezing past Ernest T. Barney knew that every second he drew further and further away from the madman, and he prayed he would have enough before the pis-tole spoke and he had to take his chances with a bullet. Even as he thought, the gun roared in the night, and Barney waited an awful second before realizng the bullet had missed both he and Thelma Lou. He turned the corner, heading for the only place he knew he could find help in puzzling through the riddle, before the deputy tracked him down.

Mayberry Code Ch. 3

All names, organizations, characters, etc., in the following are the property of their respective creators, and no connection with same is implied or stated.

The deputy stared at Barney, who smiled knowingly at Thelma Lou. She nodded. “Of course,” she said. “It has to be.”
“But why did Floyd do this?” the deputy asked. “If he had all this time, why didn’t he just name his assailant.”
“Because he’s afraid of a coverup,” Barney said. “That’s why he has the barber’s cover on. He knew that it was possible your department is compromised, and he wanted to be sure only someone he could trust could decipher the identity of his killer.”
“That someone being you,” the deputy sneered. “I’ve heard enough. What you don’t know, Mr. Fife, is that Floyd actually wrote a fifth line in shaving cream, at the bottom of the mirror, and it said, ‘Have Clara ring Barney Fife.’ I’m taking you in.”
“What’s that?” Thelma Lou said suddenly, pointing to the window.
“What? Where?” the deputy said, and as he whirled to look, Barney and Thelma Lou ran out the back of Floyd’s shop. By the time the deputy had turned back from Thelma Lou’s clever diversion, both she and Barney had completely vanished.

Wednesday, May 24, 2006

Mayberry Code Ch. 2

All names, organizations, characters, etc., in the following are the property of their respective creators, and no connection with same is implied or stated.

Barney and Thelma Lou stared together at the letters and numbers Floyd had left written on the mirror in shaving lather.
“The agony he must have been in,” Thelma Lou said. “Waiting for the machine to heat the lather so he could use it to write on the mirror.”
“And not knowing if he would be found before it faded away,” Barney added. “It’s just an outline now.” He shuddered to think of the sharp smell of ammonia and squeak of the paper towel that could have erased everything Floyd had tried to do.
“But what does it mean?” Thelma Lou asked. There were letters and numbers, arranged in rows:
“It’s some kind of grouping,” Barney said. His high forehead furrowed as he tweaked at his bow-tie. He really only owned one good suit and he’d long been planning to buy a full-length tie to go with the gray and white tweed. He’d been needing a haircut, too. Both would have to wait.
With his hat, Barney covered first one line of characters, and then another. “There’s got to be something.” Outside, the Mayberry deputy glowered at Barney through Floyd’s shop window. He wasn’t happy to see Barney here. He’d always felt like a replacement, and he resented the way everyone always talked about Andy and Barney, Barney and Andy. People barely remembered his name. He’d been resentful ever since Thelma Lou had shown up and said she needed to talk to Barney. Alone.
“Could the letters be words?” Thelma Lou asked. “Abbreviations, where one letter stands in for a whole word?”
“Probably,” Barney said. “But what words?” Floyd hadn’t just left the message in shaving lather. He had managed to lather his own face as though he were a man ready for a shave, and even had a barber’s cover snapped in place over his body, Making that last snap and tucking in the disposable collar guard must have been excruciating, Barney thought. And although he couldn’t be sure, the floor looked freshly – albeit unsteadily – swept. It had to have meant something. Again, but what?
The numbers obviously correspond to words, Barney thought. Somehow they were the key to revealing what words the letters represented, and the words in turn would tell them who had killed Floyd the barber.
“Wait, Barney!” Thelma Lou said, excited. “What if the capital letters stand for emphasis? What if there’s a rhythm to the phrase, and they tell us what it is.
“Then the first number goes over the first word, represented by the ‘H’,” Barney mused. “And the second number over the second letter, and so on…aw, Thelma Lou, it’s no use. We’ve got numbers left over, see? Your three and your four are just out there with no letters under them.”
The deputy, who had just come back into the shop, barked a short laugh. “Not so clever, are you then?” he said to Thelma Lou, and her face darkened at his mockery. “Look, Floyd was out of his mind with pain or shock or whatver, and he wrote down something he thought meant something, and then he got ready for a haircut. Case closed.”
“Not so fast, Deputy,” Barney said, and hitched up his pants as he strutted to the mirror. “You see, words are sometimes divided into what we call ‘syllables,’ which are pieces of words or maybe even words themselves. You know what I mean, Thelma Lou.”
“Yes, Barney of course,” she said, and turned to the deputy. “Sometimes a word has only one syllable, and sometimes it has several. A word is always at least one syllable, but a syllable isn’t always a word.”
“So the last two numbers, grouped like this, aren’t words at all,” Barney declared. “I believe the last two numbers represent two words of two syllables apiece.” He held up the long and slender first two fingers of his right hand as he did so, for emphasis.

The Mayberry Code Ch. 1

All names, organizations, characters, etc., in the following are the property of their respective creators, and no connection with same is implied or stated.

Renowned barber Floyd the barber staggered down a shadow-dappled Mayberry street. He lunged for the nearest door he could see, that of his own shop. Inside, he collapsed in a heap in the nearest barber’s chair. He stayed still for a moment, gasping for breath.
A voice spoke, chillingly close. “Don’t ya’ll move a whisker, now.”
Clutching the black leather-padded arms of the chair, the barber froze, turning his head slowly. He had forgotten the cardinal rule of Mayberry: The doors don’t lock.
He could see the silhouette of his attacker framed in one of Mayberry’s streetlights, just inside the doorway. Small, agile, restless. The small man drew a pistol from the waistband of his trousers. They were held up by a piece of rope threaded through the beltloops.
“Y’all shouldna skee-daddled like that.” His accent was difficult to place. “Nowsir, tell me wherdja put it?”
“Oh, I told you,” the barber said, sliding backwards in the chair. “Oh, I don’t think I even know what you mean, you see.”
“Y’all gots a see-cret, and it’s a see-cret you shouldna got,” the small man said. “Now yer a gonna tell me and I’ll have a see-cret too.”
The barber couldn’t breathe. His heart hammered. How could he have known? He stared at the gun, which spent as much time pointed at the ceiling as at him, while the small man agitatedly shifted back and forth in the doorway. “I should have a see-cret too!”
“Well, OK, then,” the barber said, rehearsing the lie he had to tell. When he finished, the small man beamed like a child. “That’s a right nice see-cret, too,” he said. “And now I’m gonna be the onliest one what knows it!”
The pistol barked, and Floyd felt flame sear his stomach. The small man danced a bit on either foot, and then was out the door, capering down the street, singing about his new “see-cret.”
Floyd knew he had one chance to pass on what he knew – the real secret, the one his lie had hidden. Minutes remained before the acids of his punctured stomach seeped into his chest cavity and he digested his own lungs. One chance, because the attacker had chosen to aim low. He started to move, slowly, painfully, realizing that what he had to do would take every second remaining to him. Realizing the irony that the same rule of Mayberry that had left the door unlocked for his attacker had also given him this chance. Guns in Mayberry had only one bullet.