Bigger Miracles

Last week and this week, my Twitter devotionals have been brief reflections on this verse:

Beloved, we are God’s children now, and what we will be has not yet appeared; but we know that when he appears we shall be like him, because we shall see him as he is. (1 John 3:2)

Now I don’t know about you, but while everything we know about Jesus is glorious, there are some things that really appeal to the little kid in me. When I was in the first grade, like everyone who has ever been in the first grade, I was in a play. I have no idea what it was about and I’m not sure I knew what it was about even then. I had no lines. I played the part of a cloud. It wasn’t exactly the lead role, but then I was no Ron Howard or Justin Timberlake either. And I didn’t care.

My mother, an instinctively creative woman, made me a white cape to wear for the part. Naturally, as any self-respecting six-year-old boy with a cape would tell you, I wasn’t just a cloud. No sir, I was “SuperCloud.” Faster than a speeding bullet, more powerful than a locomotive and able to leap tall buildings in a single bound—you know the story. And with great power comes great responsibility. Like the responsibility to wear the cloud cape to school. Unfortunately my first-grade peers did not share my enthusiasm for the cape, so I was teased mercilessly the one and only time I wore it to school.

But seriously, when you read in Acts 1:9,10 that Jesus just sort of rises on a cloud (yep, a cloud) into the sky as he is talking to his disciples and two men in white robes (see my costume, above) tell them not to worry because he’ll come back the same way, and you know that someday you will be like him, how cool is that? Kind of makes you want to break out into “I Believe I Can Fly“? Or, if you’re not a fan of R. Kelly, how about “I’ll Fly Away” by Albert Brumley.

Look at John 20:19. The disciples were hiding from the authorities, the doors were locked, and Jesus came and stood with them. Catch that? Doors locked? He either walked through the wall or just teleported himself in. How cool is that?

The Jesus with superhero powers is found throughout the New Testament—and the Old Testament for you fans of theophany. He walked on water; healed blind, lame and crazy people; raised Lazarus from the dead; fed more than five thousand people with a few loaves and fishes; and (among my personal favorites) turned water into wine. How cool is that?

Now back to 1 John 3:2. “We shall be like him!”

I’m going to be able to teleport, and walk through walls, and fly and I won’t even have to wear my cloud cape? How cool is that?

Well, it is very cool, but Jesus reminds us often that while miracles are nice, they aren’t that big a deal in God’s economy. Despite my enthusiasm, I am reminded of Paul’s admonition to stop thinking like a child 1 Cor13:11. And when he said “Jews demand miraculous signs and Greeks ask for wisdom,” 1Cor 1:22 I don’t think it was intended as a compliment.

So what is bigger and better than the miracles?

We shall be like him. That is what is bigger than a miracle. I’m not talking about walking through walls here. Let the next sentence sink in before you read further: We shall be like him who is without sin.

This may sound harsh, but sin is who we are. The prophet Jeremiah told us “the heart is more deceitful than all else and is desperately sick… ” Jeremiah 17:9. Some people think Jeremiah was eventually stoned to death. We don’t really know, but you can be certain he didn’t make a lot of friends saying things like that.

In the 6th century a Pope Gregory 1 came up with the definitive list of the Seven Deadlies: pride, wrath, lust, gluttony, envy, sloth, and greed. Apparently there were eight before Greg did a little editing. In 2008, the Vatican graciously updated the list adding seven more ways to run afoul of God(?) in the modern world. These helpful new additions include genetic modification, experimenting on humans, polluting the environment, causing social injustice, causing poverty, becoming obscenely wealthy, and taking drugs. (I sure hope that does not include antihistamines.)

At the age of 19, several years before a falling apple revealed to him the secret of gravitational attraction, Isaac Newton discerned the gravity of sin and made a list of 48 sins  he had committed. Some of them seem harmless enough, “Making pies on Sunday night,” “Squirting water on Thy day,” and “Missing chapel.” Then again, we also learn from his list that he punched his sister, struck many, and threatened to burn the house down around his mother and father. It appears that one of the greatest scientists in history had anger management issues. Intelligence does not exempt one from sinfulness.

One helpful Interweb source has catalogued 667 specific sins from the Bible. I have no idea why they didn’t stop at 666, since they do state that it is not a complete list. Superstitious, I guess.

If you want to do your own research, here are a few popular lists just from the New Testament: Matthew 5:28-32; Matthew 19:18-19; Mark 7:21-22; Romans 1:26-32; 2 Corinthians 12:20; Galatians 5:19-21; Ephesians 5:3-7,18; Colossians 3:5-8; 1 Timothy 1:9-10; and Revelation 21:8. If after reading those lists you still don’t see yourself, you can go ahead and read the first five books of the Old Testament—the Pentateuch. Start with “Don’t eat from that tree!” in Genesis 2 and read all the way through Deuteronomy. Pay close attention to Leviticus 19:19 and Deuteronomy 22:11, “Do not wear clothes of wool and linen woven together.” My mother would hasten to add “Thou shalt not wear stripes and plaids together.”

Suffice to say, we’re doomed. Every single one of us. That includes Mother Teresa, Pope Francis, Francis “I did it my way” Sinatra, Bono, you and me. All of us. Even those well-intentioned souls who drive Priuses with the COEXIST sticker on the bumper, commit murder in their heart when someone in an SUV cuts them off in traffic, or votes for a political candidate they don’t support.

But we shall be like Him. If we are in Christ we will, one day, be like the only person who has ever lived who was without sin. The picture of him in Scripture will become a family portrait as we “become conformed to the image of His Son, so that He would be the firstborn among many.” Romans 8:29  Rather than defined by our sin, our character—like his— will be defined by these words: “love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Galatians 5:22,23

That is the bigger miracle. The one the world thinks is even more preposterous than someone rising from the dead. How cool is that?

Small Martyrs

I am grateful to the resolute lion in winter clothing, psychologist Richard Beck, for bringing to light a quote by the Catholic social activist Dorothy Day. Here it is in part:

“Martyrdom is not gallantly standing before a firing squad. Usually it is the losing of a job (and so the means to life) because of not taking a loyalty oath, or buying a war bond, or paying a tax…Martyrdom is small, hidden, misunderstood.”

We often mistakenly assume that the big things in life are the important things and that the smaller things are somehow trivial, less important in our eyes and in God’s. Very few of us in early twenty-first century America will lay claim to the label of martyr for our faith in Day’s “gallant before the firing squad” sense. We won’t wind up on a cross, upside down or otherwise. But there are those moments in each day when we find ourselves faced with a choice to do or not do the good and in choosing (either way) we suffer consequences, however small.

There is that moment, standing in the checkout line at the grocery store when an elderly man or woman gets in line behind you. The internal debate begins. Should I step aside and let them get to the cashier before me? Will they be insulted or feel patronized if I defer to them? Will I be doing it out of kindness or simply as a way to prove what a kind person I am, seeking their approval (or perhaps God’s) for my unselfishness? Over-thinking this kind of choice can be paralyzing.

Or how about that last piece of your favorite pie sitting in the refrigerator right now? Your ever-ravenous teenage son would love it—not to mention that it is safe to assume his metabolism can handle it better than yours. But it is your favorite; and besides, the kid’s not around right now anyway. Whatever shall you do?

By comparison even to Day’s small martyrdoms, these decisions seem infinitely less important. Without a doubt, if we do set aside self-interest in those little things but do it with a “woe is me” attitude, then we will have fallen into the kind of martyrdom that the apostle Paul describes in 1 Corinthians 13:3. I’m guessing it would be better to simply eat the pie than to “surrender my body to be burned” (figuratively speaking of course).

We could be forgiven for assuming that those kind of situations are trivialities—small things that don’t matter so much in the big picture. But is that true? Do they matter? Perhaps those seemingly trivial choices are the ones that are most instrumental in developing our character. Maybe the decisions we make in those small choices are like the thin, translucent layers that build up around a grain of sand in an oyster. Maybe they are the raw materials that go into producing a pearl of great value.

And just maybe they are a part of the process that God uses to answer the Psalmist’s prayer, “Create in me a clean heart, O God.” (Psalm 51:10)

The Devo140 Back-Story

On launching a devotional Twitter account: @Devo140
I am not, by nature, a morning person. From what I understand (or at least from what I am told by my friends who are morning people) all of the greatest followers of Christ—the divines, the Christian mystics, the great evangelists, the most famous theologians from Augustine to Oprah, Dr. Phil and Christopher Hitchens (can you say via negativa?)—are, or were, morning people. Most of the time I am in a fog from about 7:30 AM until 10:00 AM. 
I’m usually up by 7:30, but up does not mean awake. I operate on autopilot. Making coffee. Showering. Making and eating breakfast. Checking email. Attending a conference call. Working, etc. I could beat myself up for this propensity and label myself as lazy. But with all due respect to Ben Franklin, I prefer to rest in the fact that I have no interest in spending my earliest waking hours catching worms. 
March 8, 2013, the day I started @Devo140, was not much different. I “woke” up about 7:30 with a vague idea from out of the blue that creating a Twitter devotional would be a cool thing. Not especially original, but cool. I even had the idea for a name and, before I even had my coffee, I set it up, designed a simple little logo, and launched the first Tweet: 
“In the beginning was the Word.” John 1:1 The best place to start. Word Up!” 
Given my tendency to have an idea, then figure out all the reasons why it won’t work, and eventually talk myself out of it, the fact that this went from idea to reality in about 45 minutes is evidence that it did not originate in me. And keep in mind that prior to this point, I had created maybe 40 tweets out of my personal account, mostly about politics.
The first profile, which lasted barely an hour before I started to tinker with it, included a line from one of my favorite Mark Heard songs (Orphans of God), “…beating our wings against the walls of this place.” I thought of it as a reference to how confining 140 characters could be, but something about it sounded a bit too serious for someone as prone as I am to occasional bouts of the eighth deadly sin—snarkiness. I’m not a real theologian, and even though I had just committed to playing something like one on Twitter, I didn’t want people to get the wrong idea. So, in acknowledgement of all that, I changed the profile to read: “I am the voice of one tweeting in the wilderness. (Honey, please pass the locusts.) Daily Devotionals in 140 characters or less.” Certainly sets the tone—for now. 
Feeling somewhat self-satisfied as a newly minted purveyor of Twitter wisdom, I brewed my first cup of coffee. Then I had a second cup. Then… I woke up. The realization hit me that I had just launched a DAILY devotional. Emphasis, if you hadn’t noticed, on the word “daily.” Unsure if that was a promise I could keep, I added a question mark after the word “daily” in the profile copy to provide me with a little breathing room. Last thing I wanted to do is over-commit. (Myers-Briggs fans would say I like to keep my options open, but they would use only 4 letters to do it with.) Anyway, if this goes well, I might drop the question mark after, say, 40 days (nights, too, just to be biblical.)
About a week after starting the Twitter account, I decided to look into what it takes to write a good devotional. Yeah, I know. Ready. Fire. Aim. For some reason, there seems to be a consensus that devotional writings—at least those you find in places like The Upper Room—are short reflections of 250-300 words. A little quick math: The average number of letters in an English word is about 5. That means a 300 word devotional is around 1500 characters, or roughly 1160 characters more than I have available to use in a Tweet. 140 characters is 28 words, give or take. This box is smaller than I expected.
It also occurred to me that most of the devotional writings I have read contained three elements—scripture, insight and application. Sometimes, though, it is just scripture followed by a really good question that creates a holy pause. So here’s the plan: Daily. 140 characters. Scripture. Insight and application, or maybe just a question. 
The more I reflect on this adventure the more challenging it becomes; yet it is even more appealing. Something valuable is taking place on a personal level. First, I am going to be forced into daily examination of scripture. Second, it is not just light reading, if I am going to come up with insight and application, this will require genuine study on a verse-by-verse basis as well as actual reflection, followed by careful and sometimes frustratingly concise writing—likely much more difficult than I expect. I hope it helps. If not, it keeps me in the Word, and if that is all it does, that is enough.