Twain’s Bad Little Boy: The Rest of the Story

As much as I enjoy Mark Twain’s writings, I have to say that he didn’t always get it right. Take for example what he told us about a particular boy, in his “Story of the Bad Little Boy.”*

This particular bad little boy was named, Jim. This in itself is unusu¬al. As Twain points out, everyone knows from their Sunday School books, that bad little boys are ordinarily called “James.” Nevertheless, this particular bad little boy was called “Jim.”

His unusual name is only the beginning. There are many other interest¬ing differences between this particular Jim and the Jameses of the School lessons. As Twain tells us for example, “Once he climbed up in Farmer Acorn’s apple-tree to steal apples and the limb didn’t break, and he didn’t fall and break his arm, and get torn by the farmer’s great dog, and then languish on a sick bed for weeks, and repent and be good. Oh no!; he stole as many apples as he wanted and came down all right; and he was ready for the dog too, and knocked him endways with a brick when he came to tear him.” As curious as that is, it was not the exception, but the norm. It seemed Jim’s whole life was patterned nearly totally opposite as the events that occurred in the life of the bad little Jameses as told in the Sunday School papers.

If you are the curious sort, and if you haven’t read Twain’s “full” account of this bad little boy, then you are probably wondering whatever happened to this Jim as he grew up. Twain doesn’t leave us in the dark on the matter but spells it out for us explicitly, “And he grew up and married, and raised a large family, and brained them all with an axe one night, and got wealthy by all manner of cheating and rascality; and now he is the infernalist wickedest scoundrel in his native village, and is universally respected, and belongs to the Legisla¬ture. So you see there never was a bad boy James in the Sunday-school books that had such a streak of luck as this sinful Jim with the charmed life.”

As you can see Mark Twain didn’t know everything. If he had, he would have told us about the important things that happened to Jim when his term in the legislature was over. Take heart, dear reader! I am now prepared to present to you “the rest of the story.” Even if your curiosity isn’t running rampant it would do you some good to read it, lest Twain’s short ending leaves you with wrong impression–the impression that you shouldn’t put much stock in the Sunday School books.

To begin with, most curiously, this Jim didn’t get implicated in a financial scandal, though while in the legislature he was involved in a few. He didn’t get impeached and cast out of office. He didn’t serve time in prison where he reflected on his life and saw the error of his ways as have happened to our exemplary James. Oh! no. Jim retired at a ripe old age and spent the rest of his days lavishing upon himself all sorts of earthly pleasures with his ill-gained fortunes. He didn’t have an earth-shattering revelation that taught him the true values of life. He never did turn over a new leaf and become the giving¬est, helpfulest man in the county. He didn’t even lose it all in a shady, risky, speculative investment. No, Jim died filthy rich in the most comfort-able house around, surrounded by a large band of money grubbers pretending to be friends.

Having read all about all these differences between the grown up bad boy named Jim and the Jameses we read about in the Sunday School papers it should¬n’t surprise you to hear that even after death his scenario was quite different from that of all those Jameses.

In the Sunday School papers, if James ever dies–perhaps at the hands of the headhunters to whom he was trying to present the gospel, after he had learned his lessons and repented–he invariably stands before God the Creator and Judge who proclaims as the Good Book said He would, “Well done, good and faithful servant; . . .; enter thou into the joy of thy lord. (Matthew 25:21, KJV)”

Not so with Jim. Instead, Jim stood before God the Creator and Right¬eous Judge and heard, as is also written in the Good Book, “Depart from me, ye cursed, into everlasting fire, prepared for the devil and his angels. (Matthew 25:41, KJV)”

And so you see, while this Jim’s life varied greatly in details from that of the Jameses we read about, the moral of the Sunday School lessons stands: There are consequences to pay for sin. Even if your life is as “charmed” as was this Jim’s, be sure your sins will find you out. Mark Twain didn’t always get it right.

*Quotes are from “Mark Twain’s Sketches, New and Old” (1875), as found in, Bradley, Scully, et. al., editors, The American Tradition in Literature: Fourth Edition Vol. II, (New York: Grosset and Dunlap, 1956, 1957,1961, 1962, 1967, 1974.

When My Dad Said, “Yes!”

My dad was a pastor.  After he passed away I spent some time sifting through his handwritten sermon outlines and manuscripts.  Among his works I found this testimony to the time he said, “yes,” to God’s call on his life.  The following story is his:

I remember when I completely surrendered my life to God and answered the call to the ministry. It wasn’t without a fight with the Devil.  I listened to him, and like Moses who had excuses of why he could not go back to Egypt and lead God’s people out of bondage, I had many excuses as to why I could not go into the ministry. The old Devil just filled my head with excuses. . . But God wouldn’t take my excuses.

“My children are in school here and love it. Lord, couldn’t I just stay until they finish school? And then there is the house. I just remodeled and we love it here. I could just stay here and teach Sunday School and serve on the church board. And Lord, if you really want me to, I will try to preach once in a while here in my church.”

That night God seemed to come so close to me. He assured me there were other schools and that He would provide a place for me to live.

“OK, Lord, I’ll begin my studies and when I finish, then I will go preach.”

You see, I thought I was pretty smart. I thought I could put one over on the Lord, for I knew it would take four or five years or longer to get all my studies finished. Maybe by then, I could just stay right in the New Lothrop church!

“PUT YOUR HOUSE UP FOR SALE NOW AND BREAK ALL TIES.”

“As soon as school goes out. How’s that Lord?”

“NOW, TODAY!”

It was then that final, full, surrender came, and with it, the tears of peace began to flow. I had been keeping all this to myself. As the tears began to flow, I was painting the hallway in my house. My wife didn’t really know what was happening. After explaining to her what was happening and telling her we were to sell our house and was to go into the ministry, I’m sure many questions came to her mind. But she said, “Whatever you do, I am with you.” Thank God for those that stand by our sides.

This was taking place at about 10:00 in the morning. I was working second shift so I had to leave for work at about 1:30 in the afternoon. I went to the hardware store and bought a sign: “FOR SALE BY OWNER.” I took it home and placed it in the corner of the front window the of the house and went to work.

You know, when I came home from work that night I found my wife had left a note on the table. It said, “You are to call this number. Someone called about the house and wants you to call him when you get in tonight.”

I called. A man answered and said he had seen the sign and wanted to know what I was asking for the house. I told him. He didn’t question the price. He just said, “Take the sign down. I will be down tomorrow and make a deposit.”

 

The Truth Behind, “Everything Happens for a Reason.”

Those who have seen the movie, Karate Kid, will never forget the scene when the young Daniel is ordered by his mentor, Mr. Miyagi, to paint the fence, sand the deck, and wax the cars. Daniel is angry and impatient while carrying out the tasks but eventually learns that there was an important reason. The tasks were Miyagi’s method for developing some reflex motions that were very relevant to his martial arts’ self-defense. The reason behind the frustrating chores made everything OK.

There are those who want to place God in the Miyagi role every time something bad happens. You lost your job? Be patient, God has a reason. Your spouse cheated on you? You might not see it now, but there is a good reason. You have cancer? Don’t worry about it, everything happens for a reason! The logic behind those statements is, “Just like Miyagi did to Daniel, God is doing that to you for some reason that will later be clear. Therefore, everything is OK.”

The problem that way of thinking is that it is just wrong! It is true that, “everything happens for a reason,” but that reason is not always because God pro-actively caused it to bring about some desired result. That just isn’t how God works. To God, the end doesn’t always justify the means. To God, the means matters.

Recently, my daughter was in a bad car accident. Some people would have us asking, “Why did God do this? What was he trying to teach?” The answer is, “God didn’t do it. A drunk driver did.” The actual reason was a combination of chemistry, biology, physics, and free-will. The driver exercised her free-will to drink too much of a substance whose chemistry affected her biology in such a way as to give her impaired judgment and reflexes. In that impaired condition she operated a piece of heavy machinery (her car). Simple physics dictate that when a vehicle going over 90 miles per hour overtakes a vehicle going 60 miles per hour the impact is going to cause damage.

On the surface it might not seem as comforting to think that the accident was a result of chemistry, biology, physics and free-will instead of some important unknown God-in-the-Miyagi-role reason. But think a little deeper and I believe it is more comforting! Personally, I prefer a God for whom the means matters.

Go Ahead, Be Greedy for God’s Grace

Think for a moment of the classic “only one roll left in the bread basket” scenario. Two or more people have noticed there is just one roll left. Each of those same two or more people would like to have that roll. Each knows, however, that if he or she takes the roll that means the others can’t have it. Each knows that the virtuous thing to do is to unselfishly leave the roll for someone else.

Think for a moment of the inquiry, “I have an extra ticket for the concert, who wants it?” Several in the group want that ticket. Again, however, each knows that there are others in the group that also want it. Each knows that to speak up and take the ticket means that someone else who wanted the ticket isn’t going to get it. The noble thing to do is to unselfishly keep quiet and let someone else have the ticket.

Imagine going into a hospital emergency room suspecting you have a broken arm. Someone else comes in experiencing an apparent major heart attack. You certainly want to be treated but you willingly accept the decision that the heart attack patient should be seen first.

We could imagine any number of scenarios that follow that same pattern. It all comes down to the concept of limited resources. Since there isn’t enough for everyone, the admirable thing to do is to sacrificially do without so that someone else can have the resource.

Sometimes, I think maybe our prayer life suffers because we apply that principle to the grace of God. That is, we pray as if we believe that God meters his grace. We hesitate to pray for our burdens and concerns because we know that there are others with bigger problems. I can imagine the sensitive Christian thinking, “I can’t ask God to help me deal with my hearing loss because Joan is dealing with terminal cancer.” But we must remember that God is not working from a position of limited resources. God doesn’t approach the day thinking, “I’ve got one blessing today, to whom shall it go?” Any work God does in your life is not taking away someone else’s opportunity to be helped.

I’m not suggesting that you start asking God for a million dollars or that new high-end sports car but in this context I am suggesting that when it comes to seeking God’s blessings in your life, go ahead and be a little “greedy.” God can afford it.

A Sermon Echo from Sunday, January 25, 2015

(A “Sermon Echo” is a short reminder or elaboration of something I preached about on a previous Sunday.)

As Jesus BEGAN his earthly ministry he recruited his first disciples by saying, “Come, follow me and I will send you out to fish for people.” (Mark 1:17, NIV). Jesus ENDED his earthly ministry by keeping his recruiting promise: “All authority in heaven and on earth has been given to me. Therefore go and make disciples of all nations…” (Matthew 28:18-19, NIV)

I don’t think much has changed. If we claim to be followers of Jesus we must be fishing for people (that is, going and making disciple).

On Throwing Stones

John’s gospel tells this story:

The teachers of the law and the Pharisees brought in a woman caught in adultery. They made her stand before the groupand said to Jesus, “Teacher, this woman was caught in the act of adultery. In the Law Moses commanded us to stone such women. Now what do you say?” They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him.

But Jesus bent down and started to write on the ground with his finger.  When they kept on questioning him, he straightened up and said to them, “Let any one of you who is without sin be the first to throw a stone at her.” (vs. 8:3-7)

Notice that Jesus didn’t say, “Let any one of you who is without that sin be the first to throw a stone at her.”

Do we sometimes behave as if he did say that?  I think so.

We do a good (not necessarily great) job of restraining ourselves from throwing stones at people whose sin was like ours or less than ours.  We don’t have the same restraint when it comes to  those who sinned more than us or differently than us.

A prideful person who practices sexual purity wouldn’t throw stones at someone else struggling with pride but can be found throwing stones at adulterers and fornincators.  An unforgiving person who wouldn’t dream of throwing stones at someone else struggling with forgiveness  is winding up to hurl a rock at a lying cheat.  A lady wearing designer clothes that cost enough to feed a third-world village stands ready to throw stones at another woman with a neckline too low and skirt hem too high…

But of course, Jesus didn’t say “without that sin.”  He simply said, “without sin.”

I think we all need to drop the stones we may have picked up.

 

Tragedy & God’s Sovereignty

Tolstoy wrote:  “Men’s minds cannot grasp the cause of events in their completeness, but the desire to find those causes is implanted in man’s soul. And without considering the multiplicity and complexity of conditions any one of which taken separately may seem to be the cause, he snatches at the first approximation to a cause that seems to him intelligible and says:  ‘This is the cause!’  In historical events … the first and most primitive approximation to present itself was the will of the gods…”

At least one thing has changed since that “first and most primitive approximation;”  In my world, the people I know do not attribute tragic events to the “will of the gods,” but rather to the will of God (with a capital “G”).   Time and time again, after tragic and horrific events, well-meaning confessors of faith will shrug their shoulders and say, “Well, it is God’s will.”

I want to take this opportunity to say, “NO IT ISN’T!”   On the contrary, it is God’s will that we all love one another.  Any time we act in a non-loving way we are acting outside of God’s will for us.

The idea that when something tragic happens it is God’s will arises from a misunderstanding of what it means to say that God is sovereign.  It is a misapplication of the term to assume it must mean that God dictates or determines everything.  It pushes the meaning of the term too far to insist that it means that nothing happens outside of his will.

Rather (in this context) his sovereignty means two related things:  First, since God is sovereign, he and he alone determines moral law; that is, he sets the standard of what is right and wrong.  Secondly, he serves as judge and jury.   Because he is sovereign, he and he alone will determine guilt or innocence.  Because he is sovereign he and he alone will pronounce sentence.

One does not diminish or overthrow God’s sovereignty simply by breaking his law; one would have to also escape God’s judgment.   That cannot be done.

One final thought to cerebrate:  Being shown mercy by God is not the same thing as escaping his judgment.  If we are shown mercy it isn’t because we have overthrown God’s sovereignty.  Rather it is precisely because God is sovereign and can show mercy to whomever he chooses to show mercy!

Keeping Christ in Christmas

“Let’s Keep Christ in Christmas”

That has become a very popular slogan. We hear it and see it everywhere. I’m writing this pre-Thanksgiving Day, yet I’ve already seen the slogan on Facebook today more than once. I expect to see it and hear it a lot more over the next few weeks. When most people proclaim it, they are fighting a battle on two particular fronts:

  1. They want to make sure people say, “Merry Christmas,” rather than, “Happy Holidays.
  2. They want to make sure people spell out, “C h r i s t m a s,” rather than abbreviate with, “X m a s.”

While I really like the idea of keeping Christ in Christmas, I’m afraid that even if we win on those two particular fronts, that won’t mean we’ve accomplished our objective. If we really want to keep Christ in Christmas the place to start is in our hearts, not in our oral greetings or on our cards and signs. Therefore, I suggest that we turn our attention to two different areas if we really want to keep Christ in Christmas.

  1. To keep Christ in Christmas, let’s make Christmas Christ-centered.
  2. To keep Christ in Christmas, let’s strive to be Christlike throughout the season.

I fear we are victims of a subtle evolution. Over a long period of time we have developed many customs and traditions for the express purpose of helping us celebrate the incarnation of Jesus Christ. We have time off from work, we visit family and friends, we have celebratory parties and dinners, we enhance our surroundings with festive decorations and lights, we exchange gifts, and we even schedule special events and programs at church. The problem is, that we’ve let Christmas become ABOUT those things rather than using those things to help us celebrate what Christmas is really about.

On top of that, it is both ironic and sad that all those traditions and means of celebrating often create so much stress and pressure that the very act of participating in them can make it difficult to be like Christ! We often end up like little time bombs just waiting to explode. Then there’s the whole gift aspect; I’m afraid that for many, the gift tradition has shifted to being about getting instead of giving. Think about it: When was the last time you heard someone ask, “What did you give this year?”)

It would be nice if I could list seven simple steps to make Christmas Christ-centered and for helping you to be Christlike. As it happens, I don’t believe there is a universal list. What I need to do isn’t necessarily the same thing you need to do. What you need to do isn’t the same thing your neighbor needs to do. What your neighbor needs to do… You get the idea.

However, I do believe I can suggest a universal starting point. It’s simple: Pray and ask God to show you what you need to do to help keep Christ in Christmas and to remain Christlike.

I’d be surprised if he were to tell you to just make sure you say, “Christmas,” instead of, “holiday,” and to spell it out instead of abbreviating it. Keeping Christ in Christmas; it’s certainly something to cerebrate.

Why I Want a Christian President

I am a firm believer in the separation of church and state.  That is, I believe the government should neither promote nor prohibit any particular religion or religious practice.  But I still want a Christian president.  So much so, that to the extent that I have the choice, it will impact my vote.  I want to briefly share some of my reasons…

Here in the United States we enjoy the privilege of choosing our president via free elections.  We have, as Abraham Lincoln so eloquently stated, a “government of the people, by the people, for the people.”  Unlike some other forms of government, this means that we are not simply “ruled” by the President. Rather we are in a partnership with the President.   He leads, we follow; this arrangement is our collective choice.  Back in the nineties, the Republican Party talked about a, “Contract with America.”  The language of, “contract,” is another expression of what I’m talking about.  In essence, when we elect our President every four years, we are entering a contract or partnership–which brings me to the Bible.

In 2 Corinthians 6:14, it says, “Do not be yoked together with unbelievers…”    We most often hear this principle taught in the context of marriage.  However, I believe the principle applies in the context of our “government by the people, for the people.”  It is no stretch of the meaning to suggest that voluntarily electing a person to be our president for the next four years is “yoking” us to that person.  As a Christian, I cannot fathom voluntarily yoking myself in that manner to an unbeliever.  I believe doing so would be to ignore an important Biblical principle.

Perhaps you picked up from the previous paragraph that I don’t see the Bible the way I see any other book.  I believe that as a Christian, I ought to follow its teachings.  Its principles should shape my values, priorities, attitudes, and actions.  I believe that living according to Biblical principles is the best and right way to live.  It shouldn’t take a rocket scientist to understand why I would want a President who also believes this!  I want a Christian president because I want a president whose values, priorities, attitudes and actions are shaped by the same Biblical principles that shape mine.

I want to return again to some words of Abraham Lincoln.  During the trying days of his presidency he once said, “I have been driven many times to my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.”  That is more than just a sweet sentimentality.  The guidance and strength that God gives through the Holy Spirit to his followers in response to prayer cannot be underestimated.  As a Christian, I want a President that can and does rely on God for guidance and strength.

Now I have Christian friends who don’t see this the way I do.  They don’t think a person’s faith is relevant to their choice for a President.  Perhaps you are one of them.  Perhaps you won’t find the reasons I’ve shared to be persuasive.  I hope you at least find them to be something to cerebrate.