The images coming out of Oklahoma City are so painful to see that it is hard to say anything about them without somehow trivializing the tragedy. It seems better to hear from someone who has lived through a comparable experience. I was reminded of a passage from Helmut Thielicke’s series of sermons based on the Lord’s Prayer. Thielicke was a Lutheran pastor who preached these sermons to his congregation in Stuttgart, Germany during the collapse of the Third Reich and as allied bombs rained down on the city.
In the sermon based on the phrase “Thy Kingdom come,” Thielicke writes:
When we, inhabitants of a severely damaged city, walk through a flourishing undamaged section, almost involuntarily our eyes perform a little trick upon us and suddenly the intact facades are transformed into horribly mutilated walls and horror dwells behind the bleak and empty windows. We know what a house looks like beneath its sleek surface, and it is shockingly easy for our imagination to produce this little inversion in which the order system of beams are seen as a chaotic confusion of bizarre and splintered fragments of wood. Again and again the face of death peers out from behind the features of the living, and the shadow of ruins leers at us from the ordered peace of respectable homes…In this world of death, in this empire of ruins and shell torn fields we pray: “Thy kingdom come! We pray it more than ever.”
In his sermon, Thielicke goes on to say that God’s kingdom is to be sought at the point where two lines of the Bible intersect. One is the descending line of divine judgment. This rarely consists in God’s destroying offenders with a thunderbolt from heaven but rather in leaving them to their own wretchedness. “There is nothing more terrible than the man who is left to himself,” Thielicke observes.
The other line is the ascending line of God’s kingdom. This is not a matter of evolution, human development, or the gradual Christianization of the world. Rather, it is a mysterious exercise of God’s dominion which is simultaneous with and contiguous to the other. Thielicke explains, “The manifestations of God’s will are emerging ever more clearly and conclusively in the very midst of decline and decay, and God’s sovereignty rules in power above all rebels and usurpers, bringing his great and ultimate plans for the world to fulfillment.”
This is as true of those natural events which shake the foundations of our world as it is of human affairs. Jesus is the one of whom the disciples said, “the wind and the sea obey Him” (Mark 4:41). Perhaps it is not so surprising that instead of being comforted by such a thought, they were filled with fear. Jesus controls the winds. He is the living one who died and is alive forevermore. He alone holds the keys to death and the grave (Rev. 1:18).
I dreamed that I died last night. I dreamt that I was officiating a wedding and died in mid-sentence. I’ve heard it said that if you don’t wake up during such a dream you really will die. I am skeptical but I didn’t have an opportunity to test the theory. My wife Jane woke me before I felt the full effect.
I also dreamt that my house flooded. I opened the front door to see rivers of water washing down the street. I tried to shut the door against the flood but the water came pouring in and swept me away. No wonder I felt anxious when I finally got out of bed.
But then I always feel anxious on the last day of the semester. I hope that my classes will end on a crescendo. I imagine the students beaming with gratitude as they applaud at the end of my lecture. I envision them being reluctant to leave my presence and finally doing so with tears.
But the reality always falls somewhat short of this fantasy. My final lectures do not build to a crescendo. They stumble to a halt. There are a few handshakes and expressions of gratitude. For the most part, however, my students rush for the door. All that is left are a few straggling papers.
I watch them go and think of a line from T. S. Eliot’s poem The Hollow Men:
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
This is the way the world ends
Not with a bang but a whimper.
Today a student asked me whether I thought it was necessary to mention Jesus in every sermon. Why would a Bible college student even ask such a question? Actually, there are several good reasons. One has to do with the nature of the Bible itself. Students are rightly taught to respect the human author’s intent in hermeneutics. If Jesus is not explicit in the text, it can be dangerous to read Him into to it. When it comes to some passages, it seems hard to make connections to the gospel without engaging in interpretive gymnastics. What does the Proverbs 31 woman have to do with Jesus anyway?
Yet Jesus makes it clear that He is at the heart of the Bible. According to John 5:39, Jesus told the religious leaders of His day: “You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life; and it is they that bear witness about me….” Jesus is not the express focus of every text of Scripture. But all Scripture gives evidence to the truth that is ultimately expressed in the person and work of Christ.
Jesus is the end toward which all Scripture truth tends. When it comes to God’s revelation about Himself, Jesus is the “last word” (Heb. 1:2). This means that the conscious intent of the human author is not sufficient for understanding the true intent of the text. This side of the cross, we have an insight that the Bible’s human authors lacked. When we examine Scripture, we do not look to find Christ in the text. We look at the text through the lens of Christ. Is it necessary to mention Jesus in every sermon? Yes. If Jesus doesn’t show up in the sermon, then it isn’t preaching. Not really.
Well, J. C. Penney apologized to me this week. I was not expecting it. In fact, I wasn’t even aware that something had come between us. But there it was, on the television. J. C. Penney admitted that it was wrong.
“It’s no secret,” the television ad said. “Recently J. C. Penney changed. Some changes you liked and some you didn’t, but what matters from mistakes is what we learn. We learned a very simple thing, to listen to you. To hear what you need, to make your life more beautiful. Come back to J. C. Penney, we heard you. Now, we’d love to see you.”
I confess that my guard was up, perhaps because I’ve been hurt before. Not everyone who has apologized to me has been sincere. For a moment I wondered if I was being used. Apparently not. They like me. They really like me. They want to listen to me. They want to meet my needs and make my life more beautiful. They want to see me. Whoever “they” are.
This, of course, is the trouble with being in a serious relationship with a corporate entity. I’d like to give J. C. Penney a hug and reassure him/her/it that the apology is accepted. After all, we all make mistakes. Who am I to judge? All is forgiven. We should get together soon. Maybe do lunch. I wonder what kind of food it likes?
Tomorrow is the 40th anniversary of my mother’s death. I turned twenty the year she passed. I will turn sixty this year and will have lived ten years longer than she did. I often think of the things she has missed in the intervening time. She never met my wife and never saw my children. She never heard any of my sermons, although she once told me she thought I would be a “darling” minister. She never read my books, although she knew I wanted to be a writer. But then, when I was a boy, I also wanted to be a psychiatrist, politician and a stand-up-comedian. In view of this, I suppose it is not all that surprising that I eventually became a pastor.
Every so often my mother visits me in my dreams. When she does, her visage is sad. It is as if she knows she is out of time and place. I am astonished to find her curled in her old chair, alive and smoking a cigarette. Our conversation is awkward. We are like old friends who have been separated too long and no longer have anything in common. We both know that she will soon be gone.
It is dark when I awake and I try to retain the memory. But it disappears like the vapor of breath on a cold morning. I lie in bed until dawn, trying to remember the sound of her voice. It is beyond recall.
During one of my classes today I noticed a student furiously typing away on her smart phone. I do mean furiously. She was silent (except for the tapping of her fingers). At first I wanted to believe that she was taking notes. But I’m not that interesting. I am certainly not interesting enough to inspire furious note taking.
Then I thought that perhaps she disagreed with what I was saying. I wondered if, instead of voicing her objection, she was recording her rebuttal for future reference. But that didn’t seem likely either. She is a good student who is usually engaged. I was pretty sure that she would voice any serious disagreement.
Finally, I decided to say something. This is always a tough call. If the student is doing something they shouldn’t, then they are embarrassed. I don’t really have a problem with that. But if they are actually doing what they are supposed to be doing (like taking notes) then I am embarrassed. I guess I am more comfortable with their embarrassment than I am with my own.
“I have to ask…are you taking notes on that thing?” I asked. She looked abashed. “No…no. I’m sorry. I’ll put it away.” And she did.
I think in my earlier years I would have launched into a lecture about classroom decorum and respect. But I’ve since learned that when students are distracted, there is often a good reason. Pressures outside the class creep across the sacred threshold and their urgent whispers drown out my scintillating lecture. These distractions often come from things like divorce, death or shattered love affairs. As for the handful of instances where the problem really is a lack of decorum and respect, well those students are not intimidated by my scolding anyway.
After class the student came up to me and apologized. “I’m sorry,” she said. “I didn’t mean to be disrespectful. I was in the middle of a long argument with my mother.”
“I know” I answered with a smile. “I could hear you shouting.”