Wednesday, October 26, 2005

In On The Action

. . . and the master of the banquet tasted the water that had been turned into wine. He did not realize where it had come from, though the servants who had drawn the water knew (John 2:9).

This, the first of his miraculous signs, Jesus performed in Cana of Galilee. He thus revealed his glory, and his disciples put their faith in him (John 2:11).

The aim is flawless perfection.

I don’t know of many endeavors in life where that is the expectation. In sports the aim is to win, and errors are recognized as part of the game. People who love their jobs will tell you they have to do things they’d rather not do, that no job is perfect. The best of relationships have some rough edges, always requiring work. There are no perfect relationships.

But the bar gets raised considerably when it comes to weddings. The aim, the dream, is flawless perfection, not a glitch. And even if something does go wrong such as a late father of the bride, candles that don’t fit the candelabra, an elderly relative being rushed to the hospital after falling while walking into the sanctuary (I’ve seen all of this in recent months) – all of these are to be quietly concealed from the bride. If the day can’t actually be perfect, we can all conspire to make sure the bride thinks it is.

And what’s true today might have been true in the first century. At least something like that seems to be true given the concern over the lack of wine at a wedding feast in Cana of Galilee. Mary presents the problem to Jesus (whether as observation or request is a matter of scholarly debate). Jesus remedies the problem by turning water into wine, and very good wine at that (2:10).

The narrative in John 2:1-11 is familiar to me, but it isn’t necessarily clear. I find the meaning of the event elusive. In the hands of commentators the story seems to get lost in interpretations that make frequent use of the word “eschatological.” At that point the episode just becomes boring. Probably not something a seminary educated person ought to admit, but that’s what too much scholarship does to a good story in my opinion.

However, a few days ago I read the story again and saw something new - at least it was new to me . (Can that be said of any other book?) My discovery was the role and activity of the servants in the story. They are silent characters in the drama. They never speak and they never initiate anything. But towards the end of the story, when they take the water-now-become-wine to the master of the banquet, John slips in a short comment. The master of the banquet did not know where the wine had come from, but “the servants who had drawn the water knew.”

The servants, quiet and unnoticed, faithful and obedient – they are in on the action. They know what has happened. They know where the new wine has come from, and from whom it has come. No one else seems to know. The host of the feast does not know – he’s clearly surprised and delighted, but he isn’t truly aware. We don’t hear anything about Mary after 2:5 – so we’re not really sure what she knows or when she learns of what has taken place. The crowd is clearly oblivious, some of them having had too much wine by this point in the celebration (2:10). The disciples know something since this event or “sign” leads to their putting their faith in Jesus (2:11). But they seem to be observers, or they learn of the event second-hand.

But the servants are in on the action, participants in what Jesus is doing.

Wherever Jesus is being glorified and people are coming to faith in him, there will always be found those quietly obedient people who draw water from the jars and carry that water to others.

Being a servant is hard. It’s hard because it’s easily unnoticed and overlooked. That may be why this latest reading of the story seemed “new.” The servants have always been there, but they are so easily ignored. Other roles are far more appealing. Mary brings the problem to Jesus, even seems to delegate to him. She gives orders to the servants. “Do whatever he tells you.”

Of course the role of Jesus looks very appealing. We never say this out loud – but ever since the Garden of Eden we’ve had a hankering for the star role. We’d love to be able to fix the problem and turn water to wine.

Even the host has an enviable place in the story. He gets the benefit of an abundance of fine beverage for his guests – all of whom will go home raving about the wonderful party he threw and how he really “went all out” for the event. Jesus does the miracle, but the host will certainly get some credit. We like getting credit.

But the role of the servant does little to evoke excitement. It isn’t attractive. Servants receive instruction (“do whatever he tells you”) and carry out tasks (“draw some out and take it”). Yet, it is the servants who are in on the action. They participate directly in what Jesus doing. And that is very exciting.

When it comes to servanthood, my talk exceeds what my heart feels and what my life does. I’m not good at saying “I want to be a servant” and really meaning it deep down. But I do want to be in on what God is doing. I want to see Jesus doing a new thing that transforms people and homes and communities and churches. I want to participate in Jesus’ work.

Wherever Jesus is being glorified and people are coming to faith in him, you’ll find servants who draw out the new wine and carry it to someone else. I want to be in on that action.

Monday, October 10, 2005

Meditation on a Coffee Spill

5:40 a.m. No lights on upstairs. Cup of coffee in one hand, computer tucked under my other arm. Conditions ripe for some kind of disaster.

I should have never tried to walk back to my study without a free hand to grope for the wall and a light switch. I make this walk every morning at roughly the same time. The cup of coffee is a constant too, but not the computer. The trek to the study leads through the guest bedroom, the very room my wife had diligently prepared for friends who would soon arrive for a weekend visit. Everything in the room was ready, including the white bed cover, now freed of the laundry stack that typically concealed (and protected) it.

The darkness was too black to navigate without some help, whether from light or from the slight sweeping motion of my outstretched arm. My plan was simple. I would place my computer on the bed and turn on a light. I moved over toward the bed to put my computer down. At this point I’m not sure where the plan went wrong, simple as it was. As I placed my computer on the bed I heard in the darkness the sound of coffee dribbling on the laundry free white bed cover.

Any early sluggishness of the blood flow in my veins disappeared with the help of a sudden adrenaline surge. The fact that my wife would not be up for nearly an hour gave me plenty of time to do some crisis management. I really have no idea what to do to a coffee stain on a white bedspread. I got a wet towel and did the best I could – which actually turned out to be a decent dissipation, if not removal, of the stain.

In fact, our guests might have never noticed the stain on the bedspread. My efforts at getting rid of it had not been entirely successful, but you wouldn’t see it unless you knew where to look.

But I can see it. I know where to look.

The word “stain” has longed served as a metaphor for sin. This goes as far back as the prophet Isaiah. Though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be as white as snow (Isaiah 1:18). I grew up singing gospel hymns that pictured sin as a stain and the blood of Jesus as the cleansing agent. Several weeks ago I gave my Bible study class a short quiz on these "blood hymns." I asked who could state the entire verse or sentence that went with the following hymn lines.

“There is a fountain filled with blood . . . “[1]
“Would you be free from your burden of sin . . . “[2]
“What can wash away my sin . . . . “[3]

It may seem silly or even banal, my early morning coffee-spill crisis. But I came away from that with a fresh sense of what those hymn writers were talking about and what preachers of a bygone era so eloquently and passionately conveyed from their pulpits.

I recognized that the real stain of sin isn’t visible. The real ugliness of what sin leaves behind is something inward. My spill brought with it feelings of anger and self recrimination (that was such a stupid thing to do). I felt the shame that comes from others knowing what happened (will our guests see this?). I felt the regret of messing up what my wife had worked hard to make nice and presentable. All that stuff was churning around inside of me.

I further recognized that the physical stain can be disguised and hidden – and so can the internal turmoil. By my own efforts at sin management I can remove the stain well enough so that those who look at my life will never really notice the stains. The visible mess is nicely doctored up, and the internal is simply out of view. No one would know anything about it unless they knew exactly where to look.

But I know exactly where to look, and that’s the problem.

Here’s where the good news comes. This is what made hymn writers sing and caused preachers to raise their voices.

The blood of Jesus purifies us from all sin (1 John 1:7).

These are they that have come out of the great tribulation; they have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb (Revelation 7:14).

I still make the early walk upstairs every morning, making my way through the guest room back to the study. I keep one hand free and I turn on a light to show the way. And occasionally I notice the stain (when I look very closely). It’s a reminder. There will be other spills, missteps, faulty moves, careless acts. But a spill can always be trumped by a flood. As the hymn says, sinners plunged beneath that flood loose all their guilty stains.

[1] . . . drawn from Immanuel’s veins. And sinners plunged beneath that flood loose all their guilty stains.
[2] . . . there’s power in the blood, power in the blood.
[3] . . . nothing but the blood of Jesus.

Sunday, October 02, 2005

The Old Man in the Gold Coat

Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did (1 John 2:6).

When I started seminary in 1985 I would occasionally notice an elderly man walking into the seminary library. He always looked the same to me. He wore a hat on his head, the kind that might have been worn by men in the 40s and 50s – but by 1985 looked right only on a person of age. He always had on a goldish colored wind-breaker. It looked large on him, draped down nearly to his knees. He was slightly stooped but his step was sure.

I remember wondering why this man kept coming to the library. That a person of his age would still be active in the pursuit of knowledge and learning struck me as admirable. I feel somewhat embarrassed writing that statement (as if older people don't use their minds), but that’s what I would think when I saw the old man in the gold coat walking into the library.

After being at the seminary for a while, I learned that the old man in the gold coat was T. B. Maston (1897-1988). Maston taught Christian ethics at Southwestern Baptist Theological Seminary for 41 years. I’ve been thinking about him lately. A few weeks ago I started teaching through the book of 1 John on Sunday mornings. Every week a group of folks gather and we work our way through the text, a little exegesis, a lot of application. About a week ago we came to 1 John 2:6. “Whoever claims to live in him must walk as Jesus did.”

T.B. Maston wrote roughly 30 books in addition to numerous articles. The book that made the deepest impression on me takes its title from 1 John 2:6. “To Walk as Jesus Walked.” I recently read that Maston regarded 1 John 2:6 as a defining theme for life. That doesn’t surprise me. Maston walked that way. As I learned more about the old man in the gold coat, my respect deepened. I never actually got to know him, but when he died in 1988 it was a loss for the entire seminary community. I attended his funeral.

One of Maston’s former pastors recently recalled visiting Maston in the hospital at a time when he was hovering between life and death. Beside Maston’s bed was a pad of paper with dense notes in tight small script. When asked about this, Maston explained that he had been re-reading the gospels and making notes on new things he was learning about Jesus from the scriptures.

Maston and his wife had a son afflicted with cerebral palsy. They cared for Tom Mac every day of his 60 year life. Within months of his son’s death, Maston himself died.

Maston’s life reminds me of a book by Phyllis McGinley called Saint Watching. McGinley is basically showing that in the history of the church people have learned holiness by watching holy people. As she puts it, "if I cannot learn to fly like them or sing like them, I can learn a little of their ways (p. 12)." Her premise has biblical support. Paul told the Corinthians, “imitate me as I imitate Christ.” Maston stands out to me as a man worthy if imitation. To learn even a little of his ways would be to make progress in walking as Jesus walked. Maston's walk embodied a lifelong love of learning, of devotion to Christ and faithful love for his family.

And all of it hidden beneath a gentle demeanor and a gold coat.