Sunday, February 28, 2010

Better off having never known?

I still remember that Saturday night in February of 1990.

Everyone else in our family had made their way to bed, but my Dad and I were still up in the living room, watching the TV news. (ESPN had not yet entered our lifestyle, but we made do. Oh, we made do.) I don't remember now, but I'm guessing we were planning to see the sports report before signing off for the night.

As a teaser before the commercial break, the local sportscaster caused the two of us veteran sports fans to audibly gasp in unison with these words:

"Big night in Tokyo...Mike Tyson has been knocked out..."

It was one of those moments when you really doubt you heard what you just heard. Twenty years later, it's hard not to think of a life-turned-trainwreck when you hear the name "Mike Tyson", but if you're old enough to put yourself back in the pre-facial-tattoo years between 1985 - 1990, you know just how unbelievable this was.

Literally, a matter of months before this night, a student in my speech class at school had given a presentation on the history of boxing, which concluded with these words: "Mike Tyson will be the heavyweight champ until he either dies or retires from boxing."

There was just no way this ever should have happened.

On my office wall hang my two diplomas, the one for my undergrad degree bearing a gold sticker with the words "Cum Laude". Something to be proud of? For sure. But, you don't know the whole story.

Every time I see that sticker, something inside of me cringes.

Rolling into the spring of 1995, I had maintained a sufficient GPA in college to earn the "Magna Cum Laude" distinction on my diploma. I was nearing the end of my undergraduate experience, and was eager to launch my career. Honestly, I was sick of my classes. Tired of pretending to be a school teacher; ready to do it for real.

That semester included a double-block class involving observation hours and several hands-on projects to be completed in order to demonstrate that I could do the kind of work a teacher does.

To put it mildly, I blew off the course. Turned in every single project late, and not "late" in terms of minutes, or even hours. I'm talking more like days or weeks. I deserved to fail the course, but a "C" appeared on my report card, a generous gift from the instructor. (Thank you, Mrs. Hatch!)

While a "C" might not have had a major impact on my status, in a double-block course, the grade counts twice, so my last report card was dotted with two "C"s, pulling my overall GPA down from "Magna Cum Laude" to "Cum Laude", a fact that stung badly on graduation night, and a fact I'm reminded of every time I see that diploma.

It just shouldn't have happened.

Less than a year after his historic upset of Tyson, barely-minted heavyweight champ Buster Douglas showed up overweight and out of shape to defend his new title against the formidable Evander Holyfield, who had himself been preparing to take on Tyson, before Douglas changed the world.

The Douglas-Holyfield bout was a short and shameful joke, and everyone was left grasping for some purpose or point in what Douglas had pulled off eight months before.

In a recent interview marking the 20th anniversary of his upset of Tyson, Douglas commented that he had been prepared to take the title from Tyson, but was not prepared to keep it, adding that "it p****s me off sometimes to think about it..."

Really? Just sometimes?

Y'know, in a small way, I relate every time I see that gold sticker.

While it's easy to shake your head at such a glib summation of such a colossal disappointment, Douglas has identified something common to everyone who has gained something of value only to foolishly squander it.

In my case, it's a bitter, nagging aftertaste that never completely goes away, even as I think about it less and less often as time goes by.

In Douglas's case, it's the entire public perception of who he is. To most, he's the guy who earned the world's respect by winning a rare and coveted title against all odds, only to immediately set about dumping it all by the side of the road, a road that can't be retraced, and a prize that can never be recovered.

II Peter 2:20-21

For if, after they have escaped the pollutions of the world through the knowledge of the Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, they are again entangled in them and overcome, the latter end is worse for them than the beginning. For it would have been better for them not to have known the way of righteousness, than having known it, to turn from the holy commandment delivered to them. But it has happened to them according to the true proverb: "A dog returns to his own vomit," and, "a sow, having washed, to her wallowing in the mire".

I've always wondered just what Peter meant by saying that a Christian who walks away from Christ would have been better off never having known Him. That essentially, a babe in Christ could end up being "better off if he hadn't ever been born". Worse off than a lost soul who never obeyed the gospel in the first place.

It's hard to say exactly what that could mean in eternity. Hotter flames? Darker darkness? A more remote separation from God? Harder weeping and gnashing of teeth? And for those who don't believe in a conscious eternal torment, it's even harder to speculate as to what could be worse for one lost soul as compared to another.

I guess we'll never really know. No one who experiences those things will be able to tell us about it.

But there is something to this.

Jesus Himself warned those intrigued by Him to consider what following Him would cost, His clear implication being that you shouldn't do it if you aren't ready for what that decision will mean for you later. Jesus' description of the disgrace of a partially-completed building (and the public judgment and mockery that go along with it) is not diplomatic.

Hard to say that Buster Douglas doesn't know a little bit about that.

While we'll never know if eternal loss is any worse for one soul over another, one thing is certain:

Salvation is more precious than any achievement, and to lose it after having lived in it would be a unique form of torment all its own, dwarfing Douglas's disappointment, as well as mine.

Matthew 25:41

"Then He will say to those on His left, 'Depart from Me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and His angels.'"

It's hard to read. It's hard to imagine. I hope I don't have to see it happen. And I would never wish upon anyone to be in that crowd hearing those words.

But as painful as those words will be to all who hear them, you'll never convince me that they won't sting worse for those who spent some time in the other flock. Those who had known Jesus' love, given Him their souls, and had lived in His care for any amount of time.

Those for whom it just shouldn't have happened.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

"Hello, Mike!"

Have you ever had one of those moments that you only wish you had known would come back to haunt you?

I'll never forget the time an elderly man walked up to the circulation counter at my university library, where I was employed as an undergrad student worker. The man had to have been well into his 80s, but he got around on his own, seemed seriously engaged in research of some kind, and approached me with a friendly manner.

I checked out his books without complication, wished him well, and then listened only half as well as I later wished I had.

The kindly old man looked at me with a smile and proceeded away from the counter to make his exit from the library.

As he stepped away, he said or asked something that I didn't quite make out.

And that is the moment I wish I had back.

For whatever reason, I'll never know why, I didn't ask the man to repeat himself. Having no idea what he had just said to me, I simply smiled and answered, "Yeah!"

(I know, I should have demonstrated more respect and offered, "Yes, sir" but that is another point altogether.)

Receiving my affirmative response with a nod and a smile, the man walked away, and I went on with my work, only to realize about five seconds later, to my horror, what the man had actually said.

I don't know why this happened, but it was as if my brain received his message via satellite, with a five-second delay.

Whatever the reason, his words at last rang clear in my mind.

The man had actually asked me, "Is your name Mike?"

And I had, without the slightest hesitation, answered, "Yeah!"

So, it all came rushing together in my mind, and I spent the next few seconds contemplating my options:

1.Chase after the man, who had barely reached the exit, explain my error and give him my real name.

2.Let it slide, on the chance that I would never see this man again anyway, and that if I ever did, his advanced age would almost certainly cause him to ask my name again, at which point I could correct my error without him knowing the difference.

Well, I went with choice # 2, and here's how it played out:

The elderly man did indeed reappear at my circulation counter, again and again and again over the next year or so, each and every single time greeting me with a warm and hearty, "Hello, Mike!"

The one possibility that I had completely discounted actually proved true: that this elderly man's mind was a steel trap, a sharp-toothed bear trap, and caught within its clutches were my face and the name "Mike", never to be separated from each other again.

Over the remaining time I saw this man, which amounted to at least a year, if not more, I accommodated this ridiculous error by either avoiding him altogether or making sure I was alone when he approached, so none of my co-workers would witness my charade of responding to the wrong name.

I was "Mike" to this man, with all the nonsense that entailed, all because I wouldn't break down and tell him the truth.

I had another identity for awhile there, one I didn't want my friends to know about, and one I didn't talk about, for the sheer embarrassment of how fake I was acting and how easily I could have avoided such a foolish dilemma.

Does everyone who knows you know the same person?

Do they all call you by the same name?

By whose name do you want to be known?

Sunday, February 7, 2010

Around the next bend...

This morning during worship service, I caught myself thinking it:

I am so ready to be past the stage of occupying small children in church, bringing the things you bring and doing the things you do just to get the family through the service without being disruptive.

Don't get me wrong: We're glad we're doing this, and we made a deliberate choice not to make use of the attended nursery during the service. No dispute with anyone who does, but we decided we wanted our boys to get used to remaining in the assembly without being taken out.

So we chose this, and we knew reasonably well what we were getting into. And it has been a good thing for our family. We can't even remember the last time either one of our boys had to be taken out of the assembly, and they have no expectation of doing anything other than sticking it out.

But, as you can imagine, none of this means what we have chosen is easy.

It takes planning, teamwork, and coloring books to pull this off, and I'll admit it can be tiresome.

For whatever reason, it was especially tiresome this morning, and I let myself think it:

Man, am I ready to be past all this!

Now that a few hours have passed, I'm really hoping no one "up there" heard or took to heart what I thought. Actually, someone probably did, and supplied the thoughts that occupied my mind for the latter part of this morning's service.

It occurred to me that, while this phase of our children's upbringing is indeed challenging, it is only the very beginning, and will end up proving to be anything but the most difficult part.

Very soon, we won't have to worry about bringing coloring books to occupy the boys during the service. We won't have to worry about taking them to the restroom, keeping them quiet, and making sure they stay put.

While those changes will surely be nice, consider the cares that will then occupy our minds:

*What is the state of our boys' spiritual development?

*Do our sons love the Lord? Do they believe the gospel? On their own? Apart from us?

*Are we demonstrating spiritual discipline in our everyday lives?

*Do our boys know the Word of God? Do they pray on their own?

*If we died today, would our boys be left with a faith that could stand on its own?

*If our boys had the choice, as they will in a few short years, would they be here in worship?

*Whose voices threaten to drown ours out of our children's ears?

These are questions with a direct impact on eternity, and the time will come very soon when these questions will take center stage.

Of course, what we're doing now will in many ways lay the foundation for these more consequential things, but...

Maybe the coloring book bag isn't so bad for awhile longer.

It's so easy to think things will be easier around the next bend. That somehow parenting gets easier when you're not changing diapers anymore.

Two foolish thoughts:

First, to want to hurry into a spiritual war-zone with our children's souls in the balance.

Second, to think we're not already there.