Friday, March 15, 2013

Ignorance is Bliss

He lived in palaces, had the best food to eat, a loving family, his choice of any woman in the kingdom, and a job waiting for him when he grew up. Surely Solomon needed nothing to make life better for him. And yet, he wanted to be more than just a king. Solomon wanted to be the wisest king who ever lived. So began a journey that would take him down many paths, some joyful and good, some sad and wrong.

One result of Solomon’s search for wisdom is the Book of Proverbs. If you read it, you may find yourself surprised at the kinds of things he addressed. He frowned on a good many things your mama told you were bad for you. He advised on everything from gossip to immoral women. In the book of Proverbs you can probably find a maxim for any situation that arises in your life . . . if you look.

How did Solomon get to know all this stuff? Did he just sit down and pen all these proverbs off the top of his head? Did his mama advise him, too? Or did God dictate the words to him? Having personal experience in the area of writing, I know that the answer to all but the first question is probably no. Good writing does not come easily. 

Solomon might have been able to dash off perfect prose but most writers can’t. And while God has often given me things to write, it is never easy to get it right. The things that come from Him are the hardest to put into words.

As for God dictating the words, well, the Bible said “All scripture is given by inspiration of God” not by dictation. For those who don’t know, dictation is where someone literally speaks to you and you write down their exact words with omissions. Inspiration, on the other hand, occurs when you see, hear, or experience something that stimulates you to action, it motivates you. All writing is “inspired” by something – good or bad.

Take this one step further, in 2 Peter the Bible says, “For the prophecy came not in old time by the will of man: but holy men of God spake as they were moved by the Holy Ghost.” Holy men of God, motivated or inspired by the Holy Ghost, wrote the Scriptures and prophesied.

Something motivated Solomon to write as he did. An old, little used definition for the word inspire means “to breathe on” or “to inhale.” God “breathed on” all writers of the Bible and they “inhaled” that “breath”. What does that feel like? As a writer I can tell you that there is something insideme struggling, always struggling, to get out, to be said. That is what moves me to write. When I am able to put it on paper, it is one of the greatest feelings in the world.

Today there are those who say because of this “inspirational” type of writing the Scriptures can’t be completely true because human bias is involved. It is accurate to say that human bias is evident in all writing. In the Gospels themselves, you can see this. You can tell something about the personality of the writer of one Gospel by the way he describes an event that is also described in another Gospel by another writer. The event did not change, just the way it is perceived changed.

However, I can tell you that when God is the motivator a writer will often write things he or she doesn’t want to write but which a driving urgency demands that he write. I suspect the same thing occurs in preachers. They choose the words they will use to convey a particular thought. However, the though is not their own but rather the direction of the Spirit. And two preachers may have the same thought but use different words to convey that thought.

Solomon knew what was required to succeed in life. He knew positive actions bring positive results, and associating with the wrong people will get you in trouble. He knew that there is a point beyond which it is unwise to go. Solomon had wisdom.

Wisdom is “an understanding of what is true, right, or lasting.” It is not “just knowing”. You may know something but not understand it. Wisdom is common sense, and it is gained from either experience or observation. Solomon experienced or observed the things he spoke about in Proverbs and he understood the truth of those things. Sadly, some of the things he experienced were not nice.

Proverbs is filled with positive instruction. You will find advice on how to live a happy, healthy, prosperous, and productive life. It portrays a father instructing his son with all he knows about life. This is a loving teacher, not the “Preacher” of Ecclesiastes. Proverbs contains none of the bitterness and the “all is vanity” of Ecclesiastes.

What happened to Solomon between Proverbs and Ecclesiastes? It almost seems that these books were written by two different people and yet, their subject matter is nearly identical. It is the outlook that changed dramatically and the tone of voice.

In Ecclesiastes, Solomon is old. He has lost his joy for living and his view of life has become cynical, bleak, harsh and unforgiving. The loving father and teacher are absent. In his place, is an embittered, disillusioned old man focusing on his own past failures. He focused so much on failure that he could no longer see life as a gift. It was all vanity. All a man might seek to accomplish in life was vanity, no matter how good.

Solomon had succeeded in his quest for wisdom, but instead of letting it enrich him, he had allowed it to rob him. A journey began in the fire of youth had ended in ashes. He lost sight of all that was important in his search. Never mind all he had done for Israel and for God. He even saw the search as vanity. Solomon’s wisdom told him that once gained, his riches meant nothing, and once understood, life was a waste and death was preferable. “Therefore I hated life: . .” (Eccl. 2:17)

His wisdom told him that God was the giver of all good things, but it didn’t seem to matter because the gifts themselves were also vanity. He learned to recognize folly in his own search for wisdom and knowledge.

Solomon began his journey to find wisdom and knowledge and to recognize folly. During the journey he became wealthy beyond imagination and wise beyond his years. At the end of the journey he was bitter beyond endurance. “For in much wisdom is much grief: and he that increaseth knowledge increaseth sorrow.” Eccl. 1:18.

We should not take this to mean we should not desire wisdom or knowledge. We should pray for this gift. In fact, it is wisdom and knowledge that make life and it’s hardships easier to understand and thereby, easier to bear. If you notice, those who have the most difficult time in trials are those who don’t understand the purpose of trails.

At no time should we seek these gifts for their own sake but to give us discernment and better equip us to serve God. When attainmentis the goal, the value of the item is diminished.

Solomon took life by the horns, hopped on its back, and rode it to death.

Spit in the Devil’s Eye

Jesse sat on the flat, knee-high ledge surrounding  the roof of the apartment building.  He cautiously leaned over and looked ten floors down . . . so very far. He didn't know why he’d come here.  The yellow police tape across the roof doors had gone to the dump a week ago. Nothing remained of tragedy except Jesse’s memory of Lance’s body hurtling toward the hard, cracked, concrete alley below.

Life on the streets was rotten,so death didn't seem so bad to Jesse or his friends. He certainly never thought about what came after death.   Once, some crazy folks came to their door and invited him and his mom to church services at a mission a few blocks away.  They talked about how a better life waited for folks who knew someone named Jesus.  His mother had gone all quiet and funny-looking when they started to tell her about how this Jesus guy had died for her.  Jesse just thought what a sap this guy was to die for people he didn't know.  He said as much and his mother had shushed him.

One of the women had looked sadly at Jesse and said, “He died for everyone Jesse, so you could have eternal life.  He loves you and wants to make life better for you.”

“So what’s he want me to sell and what’s my take?”  They left, leaving a card with his mother and a promise to pray for both of them.

Today was different. Death was someone Jesse had met and didn't like.  He quickly moved back from the ledge and rubbed his sweating palms on his ragged, dirty jeans.  A cold crept over Jesse that even the 90-degree roof temperature could not warm; he began to shake. Lance died and he lived.  The shame of it nearly made Jesse run away again.  What had happened to them?  What had brought them to this deserted, gravely roof and the ledge?  What led Lance to jump and Jesse to freeze?

They grew up in the same city, in the same apartment house.  Their mothers worked at the same factory, and once found they were dating the same married man.  It had been a joke around the neighborhood that, given their mothers’ choice in men,  Lance and Jesse might actually be brothers. Lance and Jesse believed they were brothers under the skin.

The boys attended and quit the same school together.  They belonged to the same gang.  They shared booze, drugs, and girls. They robbed and brutalized together.  Everything that mattered to them, they shared . . . until two weeks ago.  Jesse had been unable to share death with Lance.

Jesse allowed his body to sag to the roof and he sat Indian fashion, hands hanging limp from his knees, eyes staring across the rooftops of a strangely quiet city.  But Jesse wasn't seeing rooftops.  Instead, memories replayed before his eyes like old movies.  His body jerked and his heart pounded with each rapidly changing scene.

Midnight, two weeks ago, Lance hammered on the door to Jesse’s apartment.   A dazed Jesse staggered from the sofa, where he’d passed out hours earlier from the drugs.  As he opened the door, Lance nearly tumbled to the floor. One look at his eyes and Jesse knew Lance was high on something.

“Hide me, man,  he’s after me.  Please, hide me,” he begged, clutching Jesse by the arms.  He was shaking like the windows in their tenement during a storm.

Confused, Jesse could barely stand under Lance’s clinging weight.  It took several minutes before he could answer and by then, Lance was nervously pacing between the door and window. He would press his ear to the door for a few minutes and then peer cautiously between the faded drapes Jesse’s mother had found in someone’s trash.

“What’s goin’ on, Lance,” Jesse asked, looking out the window over Lance’s shoulder.  “Who’s after you?”

“That dude, the one I got the dope from last week,” he said.  “Tonight I was supposed to pay him for the stuff I sold that week but I don’t have the money.”

Jesse stared at his friend.  “What do you mean you don’t have the money?  You sold the stuff, didn't you?”

Lance moved back to the center of the room.  He rocked side to side on his feet, shaking his hands and rubbing them on his jeans.  Sweat glistened on his face and he brushed his runny nose with the sleeve of his leather Bulls jacket.  Lance was terrified and the terror was taking hold of Jesse, too.

“Yeah, I sold a half a kilo but, man, I needed some of the money.  So I borrowed a little of it.  I ain't got it, Jesse.  What am I gonna do?” Then his look lightened and he said, “Jesse, you got some cash?”

“How much?”

“I need $600.”

“Aw, Lance, you know nobody in this neighborhood has that kind of cash.  That jacket you got on cost that much.  Why don’t you pawn it?”

Lance looked shocked at the idea.  “You crazy?  I saved for six months for this rag.  I had to sell twice as much as usual to get it.  I ain't pawning my coat.  Ain't nothing worth that.”

Jesse contemplated his friend for a moment then said, “Lance, he’s gonna kill you.  That coat is gonna be covered with blood and brains.  Ain't nobody gonna give you a nickel for it then.”

For several minutes Lance said nothing.  Then he grinned and pulled off his jacket and tossed it onto a chair.  “Here, buddy, you keep it somewhere safe for me.”


“Cause if the Man kills me, I want to be buried in that coat,” he grinned, “I’ll be a great looking corpse.  I got me a nice pair of Nikes I ripped off from Branson’s department store to go with it.”

A sound from the stairwell wiped the grin from Lance’s face.  He hurried to the door and pressed his ear to it.  The pale, shiny face became deathly white.  He turned back to Jesse.

“Look, is the roof door locked?”

Jesse shook his head as if he were just waking from a long sleep.  “No, but what good will that do you?”

“Maybe I can hide up there till the heat’s off.”  He twitched his shoulders, shook his hands and added, “ C’mon up with me and keep me company for a while.”

“I don’t know, Lance.  Maybe it’d be better if you talked to him.  Maybe you can work out a deal.”

“Jesse, he don’t do deals.  I got to get out of town as soon as I can.  Besides, I don’t want to be working off that money the rest of my life.  I want to live, to go places, be somebody.  I can’t do that here, too much competition.  I been thinking about moving to one of them small towns and start my own business.  I hear that’s where the action is moving, small towns.  This could be my big break.”

Jesse would remember forever his next thought.  Yeah, he thought, this could be your big break.  You could end up with a broken neck.

Lance opened the door and peeked into the hallway.  The dim light of the bulb at the other end of the hall barely illuminated the area in front of Jesse’s apartment.  Clutching Jesse’s arm, Lance moved out on tiptoe and turned toward the stairs going up toward the next floor and the roof.

No one came out of their apartment.  Apart from a furious knocking on one of the other floors, followed by angry voices and a door slamming, no one even seemed to be awake.  Someone was knocking on each apartment door, and they were moving pretty fast. Even as he and Lance started up the roof stairs, Jesse could hear feet coming up the stairs to his floor.  As he closed the roof door behind them, he could hear the pounding begin again.  Jesse picked up a discard pipe someone had left behind years ago, and jammed it beneath the doorknob.

Jesse studied his friend.  Lance  was again shaking his arms and hands, as if to loosen them from something.  His feet couldn't seem to stay still.  His eyes frantically scanned the roof for possible hiding places.  Finding none, he turned a desperate look toward Jesse.

“Lance, I told you this was a bad idea.  Talk to ‘em.”

“No!  I can’t.  I . . . “  Lance fell silent and stared past Jesse, across the roof, to the next building.  He moved to the knee-high ledge and looked down.  “Jesse, how far you think it is to that building across the alley?”

Jesse could only stare in disbelief at Lance.

Lance looked back at Jesse.  “Well?”

“Farther than you can jump.  You must have a death-wish, Lance.”

“If I don’t jump, I’m dead anyway.  This is as good a way to die as any.  Besides, I bet I can do it.  It can’t be more than ten feet across that alley.”  He moved back to the middle of the roof and crouched into a runner’s stance.

Jesse rushed to him, catching his friend’s arm.  “NO!  You can’t do this.  You’ll never make it.  Look Lance, I’ll tell them I’ll help you get the money.  I know a place I can steal $300 of it.”

Lance grinned and playfully hit Jesse in the shoulder.  “Come on, Jesse.  We've done this kind of thing before.  Let’s do it together, man.  Jump with me.”

Jesse looked in horror at Lance.  “But we only jumped buildings a few feet apart.  We ain't never jumped a gap like that.  We can’t make it.”

“Sure we can.  And even if we don’t, well, what we got to look forward to anyway.  Look around you, Jesse.  Where you gonna be in five years?  Listen, we've done it all, man, together.  Drugs, booze, stealing, killing, girls.  Everything together.  Now, across that alley, we got a chance to get free and start over.”

“But Lance,” Jesse asked, “what if we don’t make it?”

Lance threw back his head and laughed, his eyes glittering wildly. “Then we get to spit in the devil’s eye and take over hell, Jesse.”

It took several seconds for Jesse to understand what Lance was asking of him.  His mind couldn't comprehend that his life-long friend wanted him to risk his life.  For what?  $600? Jesse wasn't sure.

It was then Jesse remembered the church people who’d visited months ago.  They’d talked about a man who died for everyone, so they wouldn't have to die.  He hadn't  really understood. Jesse thought anyone who’d die for a person he didn't know was crazy.  Now, his best friend was asking him to do nearly to the same thing.  Again, Jesse asked himself, for what?

Somehow, he knew that what that Jesus guy had done and what Lance was asking was not the same at all. Jesse suddenly wanted to know why Jesus had done it.

The next several minutes things happened so fast, Jesse struggled to remember the sequence.  Someone began to bang at the roof door.  Lance panicked and grabbed Jesse’s arm.

“Come on, Jesse.  Let’s do it.  NOW!”  He began to run, dragging Jesse along with him.  For a minute, Jesse simply followed because he had always followed Lance’s lead.  But, the moment Jesse’s feet hit the ledge, he couldn't move.  It was as if something locked onto his feet and wouldn't let go.

The roof door slammed back and two dark figures tumbled through.  They stopped when they saw Jesse and Lance on the ledge.

Lance paused, looked back at the men, and then gazed for a brief moment at his friend.  “Let’s go, Jesse.  Together, like always.”

For a moment, Jesse looked into eyes he didn't know and was afraid.

Then he jumped, hard, fast and with a wild whoop.  And Jesse stood on the ledge and watched him sail out, toward the building opposite. Then, Lance’s body turned, falling, slowly it seemed, over and over, and his whoop became a scream, until he hit the cracked, concrete pavement below.

For a long time the night was as silent as a tomb.  Not until the sound of sirens broke the stillness did Jesse realize he was alone.  The men who’d followed them to the roof had disappeared, and Jesse wondered if those dark forms had really been there at all.

He stepped down from the ledge, whatever had held him gone.  Reluctantly, he went  downstairs and picked up the Bulls jacket.  Carrying it across his arm, he went down to meet the police and say good-by to his friend.

The memories faded, just like old movies. Jesse brought his thoughts back from that terrible night and pushed himself up onto his feet.  It was time to leave. He had an appointment in half an hour.  If he left now, there was just enough time to walk the distance to the Mission of Jesus just off Maple Street.  He heard that every Sunday they had a service at 10:00 a.m.  Today was Sunday and today . . . Jesse was free.

Peter - A Common Man with an Uncommon Courage

Wouldn't it be great to sit down and talk with Matthew about taxes? Or how about discussing the high cost of medical care with Luke? Maybe, like me, you would like to sit and watch Peter and Andrew mend their nets and listen to some of their stories. Just imagine what they could tell!

Unfortunately, we can’t do those things until we get to heaven and then I imagine that Peter and Andrew won’t be allowed to tell some of their more interesting exploits.

I really wanted to know Peter better as a person, so I began to search the Bible for information about him. I also searched in “The Search for the Twelve Apostles” by William Steuart McBirnie, Ph.D. This is a good book for someone interested in both historical, legendary, and Biblical accounts of the apostles. My search revealed a lot of things I hadn't considered before, some very surprising. I began to think about Peter and the great events surrounding him in a very different way.

Peter was the perfect name for this symbol of the common man. He was a strong, hardworking man. He was what some term “a real guy” or “macho”. He loved the outdoors and his life’s work, fishing. He must have been muscular because you don’t haul in nets filled with fish if you weigh 100 pounds.

Peter liked feeling the warm sun on his skin. I am certain of this. For instance, after the crucifixion, he was out on a boat naked (possibly in his undergarment). When Jesus approached, Peter jumped into the water to keep Jesus from seeing him. I don’t believe it was the first time Peter had been on his boat in his Skivviesä.

Peter also loved his family, especially his wife. How many men today would have their mother-in-law living in their house? And how many men would call a doctor for said mother-in-law if she was sick? In the general population, not many, is my guess. Peter surely must have loved his wife.

Like many physically active men, Peter was impetuous. Impetuous men tend to live in a whirl of activity and give gray hair to those who love them. If life wasn't a whirl before, it certainly was after he met Jesus. Peter stepped out of a boat on a wind-tossed sea, never thinking he could drown until he felt the water rising around him. While the scripture doesn't say so, I can just see the other disciples scrambling and reaching for Peter and yelling at him, “What do you think you’re doing? Are you crazy? You can’t walk on water!” He didn't stop to think . . . he just did it. In fact, I have heard it suggested that Peter may have begun to sink because all the other disciples were yelling at him that he couldn't do it and he better get back in the boat! Ever hear the expression “Don’t rock the boat?” Peter did.

Heaven knows what his wife said when she heard the story. I suspect she just shook her head and sighed. It wasn't the first time he had done something foolish and it wouldn't be the last. Remember later on, he cut off a man’s ear attempting to defend Jesus. Not the actions of a cautious man!

Despite Peter’s obvious human failings, only once does the Lord rebuke him. Peter so loves Jesus that when Jesus begins to explain what is going to happen to him in Jerusalem, Peter immediately begins to oppose his speech. He doesn't want Jesus to die, refuses to allow Jesus even to talk about it. But Jesus tells him in no uncertain terms that Peter is not looking at things with the right perspective. Peter “savourest not the things that be of God. . .”

But there is more to Peter than muscle, impetuosity and lack of vision. He is also a thinker. He was curious and constantly questioning everything, searching for answers. In all the gospels Peter is asking questions of Jesus or answering questions put to him by Jesus. Yet, when everyone else is making guesses as to who Jesus is, Peter answered with certainty, “Thou are the Christ, the Son of the living God.”

Is this the same Peter who denied he even knew Jesus at the end? Yes, but Peter was, after all, just a common man and fear is a very natural and common human response in moments of crisis. Besides, he hadcut off that guy’s ear. No telling what kind of snit that fellow was in, even though Jesus did make it grow back. And there was Peter, just trying to calm down and get warm by the fire and who should recognize him but a relative of the very man whose ear he had whacked off!

One can only wonder what Peter was thinking at that moment but the scripture makes it pretty clear he was thinking fast. Pretend he didn't know Jesus and no one would know he was the sword happy disciple. After all, if they crucified Jesus for preaching and healing, what would they do to Peter! Peter was not stupid.

In spite of all that, Peter fell on his face and repented, not for being afraid but for allowing fear to control him. No wonder Jesus gave Peter the keys to the Kingdom. Here was a man who knew his limitations and weaknesses and how to deal with them. Here was a man of strength, integrity, determination and courage. This was a man whose character had been shaped by the Lord himself. This was a man who, on the Day of Pentecost, would boldly stand and shout to the multitude, “REPENT! This is That!”

A Righteous Legacy

Several years ago, I purchased a book called A Dynasty of Outlaws by Paul I. Wellman. It is unique in that it details the history of outlaw gangs, primarily in the Midwest, during period from the Civil War until the early part of this century.

You may ask, what possible spiritual insight you could get from reading a historical book about outlaws?  Actually, history is a great topic to learn spiritual truths.  And, as I discovered, studying about outlaws can give you an amazing insight to the spiritual realm.

Wellman’s book begins with a description of a raid on August 21, 1863, in Lawrence, Kansas.  William Clarke Quantrill and his raiders sacked Lawrence and left 142 people dead. The book ends with the bloody death on October 21, 1934 of Charles Arthur Floyd, a.k.a. Pretty Boy Floyd. What lies between these two events reveals an astounding truth.

“For the squeamish, this book is not bedtime reading. . .” said one review. Truly, for this is a book that traces seventy-one years of violence among a series of outlaws in the mid-west.

I was fascinated with the history, but I was horrified at some of the acts these men and women performed with no apparent remorse.  Murder was met with the same excitement as a child greets Christmas.  But what astounded me even more was the fact that in seventy-one years, every one of these gangs was directly connected to the previous one in some way. Mr. Wellman includes a “genealogy chart” of these gangs to show their relationships.  Bear with me while I briefly review this.

From Quantrill’s original raiders came three groups of men named respectively, James, Younger, and Shirley.  From 1861 these groups were separate gangs.  The James and Younger boys united in 1866-1882 and a woman named Belle Starr became Cole Younger’s mistress.

The Daltons, cousins of the Youngers, formed their own gang, which lasted from 1891-92. A member of the Dalton’s gang, Bill Doolin, went on, after the deaths of the Dalton’s, to form the Doolin Gang.

Belle got a new boy friend and with her brother, they formed a gang.  She later got involved with three other men and from 1880-1889 she had her own gangs. She is murdered and it is suspected that her own son may have committed the crime in jealousy over her last boyfriend.

After her death, Belle’s son, Henry, and her last lover, Jim French, Cherokee Bill, Dick West and Ben Howell, former members of the Doolin gang, joined Bill Cook to form the Cook gang from 1893-1895.

Then, Al Spenser, survivor of the Cook gang, meets up with John Callahan, Eddie Adams and the infamous Pretty Boy Floyd.  Floyd has two more cohorts before his death in 1933.

The terrible things I read shocked me but the significance of this generational connection brought an even greater shock. Bloody Bill Quantrill was the father of a legacy of evil in the Midwest unlike anything I have ever known. In seventy years of death and destruction, each group begat a succeeding group, sometimes two or three. There were direct and overlapping connections within each group.  Pretty Boy Floyd could trace his criminal roots back to Quantrill.  What a horrible legacy!

I wondered later if any of these men and women knew of the connections they had to the past, beyond their own generation.  Did Floyd know he was a spiritual descendant of Bloody Bill Quantrill?  Did Henry Starr know he too, was a descendant?  Did the Dalton’s know who they really were?  Probably not.  Each of them would have viewed their exploits as being superior to any who came before.  And in some ways, they were right.  Each generation was more evil that the preceding one.  Each inherited a greater blood-lust.

You will think me foolish but as I closed the book, I thought about Quantrill and his dynasty, and I began to weep.  What a terrible legacy to leave behind.  He and his descendants left no noble deeds, no glory, no honor -- no good thing at all. They left behind death, destruction, sorrow and pain -- to themselves and to their victims.

Then I thought of my own family, my grandparents and great-grandparents.  I thought of all the things I knew, both good and bad, about them.  Into my mind came the memory of my grandmother telling me about how her father came to the Lord.

She told me about the time she was baptized in Salter’s Pool, a local swimming pool. As a child, when we passed this pool I would look down in the deep gully where it lay off the highway and think of her and imagine that day.

She told me about the camp meetings that were so prevalent at the turn of the century. I can trace my spiritual family back to the early 1900’s to a large, fairly poor, family who heard the early Apostolic ministers traveling through south Alabama.

Eventually, some were lost; some became preachers, and most continued on a walk with God until they left this world. Some of their descendents are still carrying on in the faith and some have joined other faiths.

When I went home a couple of years ago the pool was gone.  So is my grandmother but the legacy she and others left behind, it remains.  And oh my, what a wonderful legacy it is.  It shines with promise and there is no shame in telling our children of the past or the future.  There is a hope because someone blazed a trail and left a legacy of righteousness.