Two movies of angst and discovery

Two movies from the early 1990s tell contrasting stories of men who have reached the end of their respective ropes. One of them, “Falling Down,” stars Michael Douglas as William Foster; the other, “Joe Vs. the Volcano,” stars Tom Hanks as Joe Banks.

“Falling Down,” made in 1993, stars with the main character sitting in his car, trapped in traffic somewhere in Los Angeles County. After trying to swat an annoying fly with a rolled-up magazine, Foster abandons his car and sets out on foot, announcing that he is “going home.” As the movie progresses, we learn that Foster is a veteran of the Vietnam War, that he has worked until recently in the defense industry but has lost his job, that he is divorced and his ex-wife is afraid of him and has a restraining order against him, and that this day is his daughter’s birthday and he wants to give her a gift. Along the way, Foster confronts various annoyances of modern life: overpriced merchandise in a convenience store, threatening young men in a gang-run barrio, a fast-food place which refuses to serve breakfast food even one minute past 11:30 a.m., deceitful panhandlers in a city park, and the like. Foster begins the day armed only with an attitude, but in each confrontation he gains additional weapons: first a club made from a baseball bat, then a pocket-knife, then a canvas bag filled with guns including automatic rifles. Meanwhile, his adventures come to the attention of a police officer on the verge of retirement, working his last day at the precinct office. This officer begins tracking Foster, learning who he is, and sensing the danger he represents. Both men are frustrated with their lives. Both men can imagine something better, although neither has a clue about how to achieve that improvement. The movie is clearly aims for their confrontation—symbolically, on a pier where land ends and ocean begins.

“Joe Vs. the Volcano” starts with a man working in a dismal job for a medical supplies company. His discomfort with life provokes physical symptoms which have sent him to a series of doctors. One doctor diagnoses a brain cloud, an ailment which will claim the life of Joe Banks in a few months without any overt symptoms during the intervening time. After Joe quits his job, he is visited by a wealthy entrepreneur who needs a hero. He needs a chemical that is found only on one island in the Pacific Ocean, but the primitive islanders will only permit mining for that mineral if the rich man’s company can procure a man willing to jump into an active volcano to appease the angry god dwelling in said volcano. Having nothing to lose, Joe accepts the mission. He is given a credit card with no spending limit and goes out on the town to remake himself in one day. Then he flies across the country, is welcomed onto the rich man’s yacht, and with the crew of the yacht (including the rich man’s daughter), travels toward the volcano.

Both movies feature a man living in the modern world with despair. Their lives are empty; they have no hope. Both movies use travel as a metaphor for life. The men move from setting to setting, encountering various people along the way, picking up pieces of equipment that will serve them on their journey. Both men inhabit a world that makes little sense, a world in which random things happen for no purpose, a world in which their own role and purpose seems ambiguous and undefined. Foster’s ex-wife is played by the lovely Barbara Hershey; Joe’s female counterpart is portrayed by a young Meg Ryan, who appears as three characters—a darkhaired coworker in the beginning scenes, a red-headed artist (also a daughter of the rich man) in California, and finally the blonde daughter of the rich man on the yacht. In both movies, the main characters survive a near-death experience during their journeys: Bill Foster is threatened by the neo-Nazi owner of a pawn shop he visits, and Joe Banks survives the sinking of the yacht. Both men must finally deal with their mortality at the end of their respective journeys—Bill Foster on the pier, and Joe Banks at the brink of the volcano.

“Joe Vs. the Volcano” is a comedy; “Falling Down” is a tension-filled drama. Yet both movies portray the existential angst of life in the modern world. Both movies confront the viewer with a man like most of us, a man doing his best in the world, a man who seems to have the deck of life’s game stacked against him. Both portray uncommon reactions to the pressure of life, in each case a journey, but one with comic overtones and the other with grim reality. Both movies use the journey as a symbol of life, how people move from experience to experience, traveling a road that can only end with the finality of death.

King Solomon wrote that all of life is “vanity.” Even acquiring worldly wealth, political power, knowledge and understanding of the world, and access to every pleasure is not enough. Solomon suggests that to eat, drink, and find pleasure in one’s job is the best anyone can expect in this world. But even the effort to “eat, drink, and be merry” is not enough. Heavenly treasures remain the only satisfying remedy for the emptiness and vanity of all earthly accomplishments and rewards. J.

A reservation in heaven

Philip Jacob Spener was a pastor and theologian in the seventeenth century (the 1600s). He was born and raised during the Thirty Years War, when his homeland of Germany was devastated by fighting between Protestants and Roman Catholics following the Protestant Reformation of the Church that began with Martin Luther in the sixteenth century. Spener believed that the Church needed a second Reformation, turning away from so-called “dead orthodoxy” and focused on Christ-like living. Like many preachers from other times and other places, Spener said that Christian faith should be a matter of the heart and not a matter of the head.

Here is a quote from Spener’s “Pia Desideria”: Let us remember that in the last judgment we shall not be asked how learned we were and whether we displayed our learning before the world; to what extent we enjoyed the favor of men and knew how to keep it; with what honors we were exalted and how great a reputation in the world we left behind us; or how many treasures of earthly goods we amassed for our children and thereby drew a curse upon ourselves. Instead, we shall be asked how faithfully and with how childlike a heart we sought to further the kingdom of God; with how pure and godly a teaching and how worthy an example we tried to edify our hearers amid the scorn of the world, denial of self, taking up of the cross, and imitation of our Savior; with what zeal we opposed not only errors but also wickedness of life; or with want constancy and cheerfulness we endured the persecution or adversity thrust upon us by the manifestly godless world or by false brethren, and amid such suffering praised our God.”

Spener begins well. I might add that we will not be asked to prove to the Lord on Judgment Day that we were on the mailing list of a congregation. We will not be asked to produce our certificates of baptism and confirmation or the pins we earned for perfect Sunday School attendance. We will not be asked about the boards and committees on which we served in the congregation, or what classes we taught in the church, or about how many missionary journeys we took.

But what will be said about us on that Day? What does Jesus say? Jesus teaches, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven… Many will say to me on that Day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name and drive out demons and perform many miracles?’ Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’” (Matthew 7:21-23) In the famous Judgment Day parable of Matthew 25: 31-46, Jesus separates the saved from the lost “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats”—in other words, quickly, efficiently, and with precision. He will compliment the righteous, saying to them, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the beginning of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat….” Preachers love to proclaim this parable, focusing on the good things Christians should be doing. But they overlook the fact that the righteous, those welcomed into heaven, do not remember doing those good things. They were not keeping score. Only God saw their good works; their attention was upon their Savior and not upon themselves. Therefore, Jesus speaks of blessing, of inheritance, of something prepared since creation, before any of us did anything, good or bad. Likewise, the ones rejected will not remember failing to serve their Lord. They were keeping score; they thought they had done enough to be welcomed into heaven. But Jesus indicates to them that one failure in their life was enough to bar them from eternal life in his kingdom.

Jesus also told a parable in which his kingdom is compared to a wedding reception, one hosted by a king, one to which all kinds of people were invited, people hanging out on the streets with nothing better to do, people who had done nothing to deserve a place at the party. Jesus continues, “But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing wedding clothes. ‘Friend,’ he asked, ‘how did you get in here without wedding clothes?’ The man was speechless. Then the king told the attendants, ‘Tie him hand and foot and throw him outside, into the darkness….’” (Matthew 22:11-13)

In the days when Jesus told this story, people invited to a fancy party like a wedding reception were also given a robe or gown to wear at the celebration. The man at the party who was not wearing his host’s gift wanted to be admired for his own clothing. As a result, he was thrown out of the party. He missed the celebration and spent the night in the parking lot. Jesus wants his followers to know that no one enters the kingdom of heaven because of the good things they did for God. Not only will learning and worldly honors not be enough; our best efforts to be pure and holy, to imitate our Savior, also will not be enough. Anyone who approaches the throne of judgment saying to the Judge and King, “Look what I did for you” will be told , “Go away; I never knew you.” But those who approach God reminding him what Jesus did—how Jesus lived a sinless life, sacrificed that life on the cross, and rose again from the dead—people who offer that reason to be welcome in God’s kingdom will receive the inheritance planned for them, the blessing of God that no one can earn but that all can possess as a gift from God.

Christians are not sinless. Often, they are no better than their unbelieving neighbors. But Christians are forgiven all their sins through the work of Christ. God’s forgiveness is not license to sin. God’s forgiveness begins the work of transforming believers into the image of Christ. But Christians do not study themselves and look for signs of the transformation. Christians study Christ and put all their faith in his promises and his work.

The wedding garment distributed by the host of the heavenly party is a white robe, the sinless life of Jesus. God sees us dressed in the righteousness of his Son and calls us his children. Through Holy Baptism we are clothed in Christ’s righteousness. Therefore, when God looks at a baptized believer, he sees Jesus and he says the same words that he said when Jesus was baptized: “This is my Son. This is the One I love. With this One I am well pleased” (Matthew 3:17).

The Church will always be afflicted with teachers and preachers who tell Christians to look at themselves, to measure their good works, to be assured of their place in heaven through the evidence of the godly things they do on earth. Our good works are signs to other people that we belong to God’s kingdom, but they are not signs to ourselves. We know our secret sins; we know our imperfections. We know that we are unworthy of God’s kingdom. But God has changed us. The work of Jesus has erased our sins, removing them from us as far as the east is from the west (an infinite distance). If we are asked if we have a reservation at the wedding celebration, we confidently say yes, knowing that God himself has written our names in the Book of Life. Our heads and our hearts are redeemed by Christ; our bodies and souls are guaranteed eternal life in a perfect world. When we set our hearts and minds on Christ, no doubt remains that the promises of God are true for us. J.

Happy?

Doug asks me if I am happy. That’s not an easy question to answer; a simple “yes” or “no” does not suffice. For one thing, I have been diagnosed with anxiety and depression. Other those conditions are under control, relatively speaking, they have not gone away or disappeared. I even wrote a book about being Christian and facing those symptoms. Add to that the fact that I am a Chicago sports fan, suffering through unsatisfactory seasons from the Cubs and Bears and Bulls, and “happy” is not likely to be the first word that comes to mind.

Part of my temperament is existential angst. I am an imperfect person living in an imperfect world. Put into theological terms, I am a sinner living in a sin-polluted world. I know by faith that Christ has defeated all evil and death, that he shares his victory with those who trust in him, and that I have been claimed for his kingdom. From those assurances, I receive inner joy and inner peace. Those qualities do not erase symptoms of anxiety and depression; they do not bring about happiness on the surface. The existential perspective suggests that anyone who can be happy all the time in this mixed-up world must be delusional, or at the very least unaware of the things that are happening around us. We all have passing pleasures and delights. Converting them into lasting happiness requires a shallow personality which I do not possess.

Since ancient times, philosophers have said that happiness is the goal of human existence. Socrates and Confucius both offered philosophical approaches to achieving a happy life. Some schools of philosophy, such as the Greek and Roman Stoics and the Buddhists, have said that happiness comes from nonattachment to the world, not basing happiness on anything outside of ourselves, but being apathetic toward the surrounding world. Others recommend maximizing the enjoyment of what is good and minimizing the agony of what is bad—maintaining a positive mental attitude, looking for the bright side of life, seeking the silver lining of every cloud, and viewing the glass as half-full rather than half-empty. While these approaches are effective for some people, they leave others exhausting, struggling to achieve happiness, portraying themselves as cheerful rather than being honest about their feelings, and denying their friends and family the opportunity to support them in their times of need.

Respect for our neighbors (and for our own well-being) suggests that we be honest with others about our feelings. At the same time, we do not want to be a burden to others. We do not want our gloom to darken their days. We do not want to rain on their parade. We do not want, whenever we enter a room, to have people looking around and asking each other, “Who just left?”

Am I happy? Sorry, Doug, but there’s no hands clapping in my corner. Yet I would not say that I am unhappy. Like everyone else, I’m taking the bad with the good, the raisins with the chocolate chips, the rainy days with the sunny days. And a few more rainy days this summer might be needed for the long-term health of the lawn, the garden, and the nearby farms. J.

A boring and pointless self-assessment

I am not a hypochondriac, but sometimes I think that I am. Some of my tendencies are like those associated with mental and emotional disorders, but my life is not disordered by those tendencies. Moreover, we live in a time that is intolerant of deviation in certain areas, even while society emphasizes tolerance in other areas. We diagnose and medicate children to reduce their natural childish exuberance. We scold introverted people for not being more friendly and outgoing. We advise people who are sensitive to loud noises or bright lights that they must be tough and bear some discomfort. We are quick to diagnose faults in other people and in ourselves, and we are quick to try to solve differences which might not be problems in the first place.

I have some obsessive or compulsive tendencies. I check to be sure that I have my keys—sometimes several times within a few minutes. I arrange stacks of paper so they are parallel to the table or desk surfaces on which they rest. I count stairs. But these tendences do not signal a disorder. Sometimes they make life easier. I do not get locked out of my car or my workspace—and I am available to let other people back into the workspace when they have forgotten their keys on their desk. When my glasses fog and I cannot see the stairway in the parking lot, I still know how many steps to take on each flight. (Going down: nine then ten, nine then ten, eleven then twelve, and then one more to the left.) And even the manager of my department at work says that we all need to be OCD in order to accomplish our jobs.

I have never been diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome, but my behavior and personality match the description of AS to a strong degree. I can be deeply interested and focused on a narrow topic. I can be annoyed by changes in routine, even by celebrations to observe holidays and special occasions. I have always struggled with fine motor skills, from being slow to learn how to ride a bicycle to having poor penmanship to having awkward gestures when I bother to gesture at all (which, when speaking, I often fail to do). I am more comfortable dealing with information and facts than I am in social situations. I often misinterpret the feelings of others (see paranoia, below). But, with these challenges, I am highly qualified for some tasks. If my interests were less literary, I would probably have been a successful scientist or engineer. And my teaching skills have been praised because I am able to learn, remember, and find relationships among many facts about a particular person, place, or event.

They say that a person is not truly paranoid if someone is out to get him or her. I was bullied in school, particularly from the fourth grade through the ninth grade. Although I survived, I also assimilated into my personality and perspective some things I was told during those formative years. I am not like other people; I am different. I don’t fit in with the rest of the crowd. I don’t deserve the same respect that my peers deserve. People don’t like me and they don’t want to be around me. Adding to this problem, my parents raised me to have high standards for myself, both in moral behavior and in accomplishment (academic, and therefore professional). I take compliments for granted and do not long remember them; I take complaints personally and cling to them even when the complainer has forgotten them.

Some professionals in the areas of education and mental health emphasize the importance of self-esteem. I don’t have much, and I also don’t consider it important. It means more to me to remember that God created me, that He loves me, that he has forgiven my sins and rescued me from the power of evil, than it means for me to say that I like myself or consider myself a good person. I can list my strengths: I am intelligent, I am polite, I care about other people, I try to do what is right. I do my best at every job, but I also meet deadlines instead of delaying completion, aiming for perfection. I focus on tasks, on details, and on ideas—not so much on people, and definitely not on myself. In a diverse and tolerant world, I hope that my strengths and my challenges balance in a positive contribution to the lives of the people around me. J.

Lazy, Hazy, Crazy Days

When I was growing up in the Chicago suburbs, the school year did not end until the middle of June. Memorial Day (which was not yet a Monday holiday, but always the 30th of May) was just one day off of school, and when I was in high school it was not even a day off, since the marching band took part in Memorial Day activities at the local cemeteries. One of the first high points of summer, then, would be Independence Day with its parade and fireworks. Vacation Bible School happened some time in the summer—I cannot remember if it usually happened before or after July 4, but I suspect that some years it was before and other years it was after. Then, the other grand event was the DuPage County Fair. Being active in 4-H, I always had projects to prepare for exhibit at the fair. Then came the spectacular four-day celebration with carnival rides and meals at the fair, side shows and exhibits of various kinds, barn after barn of farm animals to visit, and all the sights and sounds and smells that meant a county fair. There was also an air show at the nearby DuPage County Airport every July. Many of the airplanes would fly over our house, practicing their routines in the days before the show. And, of course, everyone for miles around knew when the big act arrived—the Air Force Thunderbirds and the Navy Blue Angels in alternate years.

I read a lot during the summer. The library always had a reading program. I always took part, and I always won first prize. I lived within walking distance of the library, so I could visit every day, check out books, and even start reading while I was walking home. There were also books at home that I read every summer: Tom Sawyer, Huck Finn, Heidi, Five Little Peppers, Alice in Wonderland, Wizard of Oz, and a few others. I could ride my bike up to the school playground and swing on the swings, or I could take a ride through the neighborhood. And, of course, there were gardening chores—pulling weeks—with the benefit of fresh fruits and vegetables from the garden.

My father generally took a week of vacation in August for a small family trip. Until I was in high school, those trips were not out of the region—when my mother’s parents stopped traveling because of their declining health, they gave large Christmas gifts to my parents so they could travel, and we finally got to see the Rocky Mountains and other sights in the west. I have dim childhood memories of a rented cabin in a state park—Starved Rock, if I remember correctly. Our vacation stays did not get any more primitive than a cabin. My father said that he slept in tents often enough in the army to satisfy him with that experience for life.

School started again the last days of August. For me that was another landmark event, seeing friends I hadn’t seen during the summer, and settling into a new classroom with a new teacher and a new routine for the year. For me, summer was just long enough and just full enough that I didn’t become bored, but I didn’t regret going back to school. J.

Pastor Ed and his talking dog

Pastor Ed blinked and looked at the invitation again. It was not his imagination. The big church on the highway wanted them to preach the sermon at their tenth anniversary. They wanted to pay him ten thousand dollars as an honorarium for the day’s work. And their invitation included a list of things that they were hoping he would see fit to include in his message that day.

Ed rubbed Rex’s ears as he read the list. The leaders of the big church wanted to be congratulated on their success. They wanted to be told how good it was that they had brought so many believers together so quickly. They wanted to be assured that the Lord’s blessings would continue to flow into their church because they were continuing to do the Lord’s work in a way he liked. Smiling gently, Ed took up a pen and a piece of stationery and wrote a polite letter, thanking them for their invitation and telling them that he probably was not the preacher they wanted for this special day.

He had not always been called Pastor Ed. When he first came to town, he had been Pastor Lee—Pastor Edward Lee when a first name was required. He had preached faithfully at the same congregation for thirty years. Some years it had grown; other years its membership had declined. Some families moved to other towns. Some faithful members had died and were buried in the local cemetery—Pastor Lee had conducted their funerals. He had taught adults and children, he had baptized new members, and he had brought members together in the church to talk through their disagreements and reconcile their conflicts. He had raised a son, Larry, who had gone to school and learned to be a pastor, then had come home to take his father’s place. Ed was semi-retired; he and Larry took turns preaching. With his son’s acceptance as Pastor Lee, the father had become affectionally known as Pastor Ed. Never had he sought the label; he never even particularly liked the blend of respect and familiarity. But he accepted the reality that his son was the leader of the congregation. He sat on the sidelines, pitched in to help once in a while, and allowed people to think of him as Pastor Ed.

The town’s population had been growing the last few years. First, some families had moved their way to get farther from the city. New houses had been built on the edge of town. Then new businesses appeared along the highway: fast food restaurants, and gas stations, and a motel, and then a Walmart. All the congregations had grown at least a little, but the new church on the highway had gathered many of the new families, as well as people who drove in from other towns around the county to see what the fuss was at this new church on the highway.

Now they wanted Pastor Ed, the longest-serving pastor in town, to help them celebrate their tenth anniversary. Chuckling, Ed signed his name to the note and addressed an envelope to the big church on the highway. He checked the desk drawer for stamps but found none. “Looks like I’ll have to buy another book of stamps,” he said to Rex. Ed took hold of the desk, pushed himself up to his feet, and headed toward the apartment door.

Ed had taken a retirement apartment near the center of the town after his wife died. Rex was his constant companion. A German Shepherd, Rex was loyal to Ed. He offered protection from threats, not that Ed ever felt threatened in the town that had become his home. Because Rex needed exercise, Ed kept in shape, walking his dog three or four times a day. Ed also had a purpose to his days, a reason to get out of bed since another living being depended upon his service. Over the years, Ed had recommended a pet dog or cat to many elderly people who felt as if they had become useless in the world. Getting a dog of his own as he moved into retirement had been an easy decision—a “no-brainer,” as Larry would have said.

The letter was mailed, and Ed nearly forgot about the invitation. Then, one evening, he heard a knock on the apartment door. Rex perked up his ears. Ed went to the door and greeted two men. He recognized the pastor of the big church on the highway; soon he learned that the other was head of the church’s anniversary committee. Ed welcomed them into his apartment, made them comfortable, and waited to hear what they had to say.

The committee head pulled Ed’s letter out of a leather-bound folder he was carrying. “We were sorry to get your refusal,” the man began. “We really want to include you in our anniversary service. We were wondering if you would prefer a higher honorarium, say maybe twelve thousand dollars.”

Ed shook his head. “I really don’t think…” he started to say.

“Fifteen thousand,” the pastor interrupted.

“The money isn’t the issue,” Ed told them. “My problem is with your suggestions for the message. All my life, all my career, I’ve never allowed anyone but the Lord to tell me what to preach. For every sermon, every message, I’ve always studied the Bible, prayed, and tried to follow the Spirit’s guidance. What the Lord shows me in his Word, that’s what I say from the pulpit. That’s why I really cannot accept your invitation, generous though it is.”

Both visitors started to speak, but the pastor from the big church on the highway waved his companion to silence. “Ed, we understand how you feel about this,” he assured his host. “We would never tell you what to preach. Those were just suggestions. Of course, we know that you will speak the Lord’s Word to us. That’s all we expect from you. But time’s running short, and the anniversary service is coming up soon. We need a preacher, and we really want you to be that preacher.”

Ed hesitated. So long as they left him free to preach what seemed right, guided by the Bible, he had no reason to refuse. “Let me sleep on it,” he suggested. “I’ll phone you tomorrow.”

“That’ll be fine,” they both assured him. With some additional small talk and some friendly attention to Rex (which the dog appreciated), they wound up the conversation and headed out the door.

That is why, a few weeks later, Pastor Ed found himself driving out to the big church on the highway. The head of the committee had held to his pastor’s promise of fifteen thousand dollars, but he had asked a couple small additional tasks of Ed. He wanted Ed to open the prayer meeting of the congregation’s leaders at the beginning of the day, before people began arriving for the service. He also wanted Ed to speak at the Bible class that some of the members attended before the service. Overwhelmed by the size of the honorarium offered by the ten-year-old church, Ed agreed to their requests.

At the table where the leaders of the church were gathered, Ed felt out of place. Their shoes were shiny, while his were drab. Their suits were crisp and fitted to their frames, while his seemed loose and shapeless. Their ties were bright and colorful, while his seemed quiet and muted. But when the pastor of the big church said his name, and all eyes turned to him, Ed merely said, “Let us pray.” He closed his eyes and bowed his head; he assumed that the rest of the men did the same. “Lord, thank you for this day,” he prayed. “Thank you for this celebration and for the people who are gathered here today. Bless this time together. Let your Word be heard and heeded according to your will. You have promised that your Word is always effective. To those among us who need to repent of pride and arrogance, grant a spirt of humble repentance. To those among us who need to turn away from the world and embrace instead the riches of your grace, grant a spirit of humble repentance. To sinners who need to be called from their sinful ways and to open their hearts to you, grant a spirit of humble repentance. Provide us all with eyes that look to your cross, minds that are shaped by your power, and hearts that are open to your guiding. Not to us, O Lord, but to you be the glory forever and ever. In the name of Jesus. Amen.”

A few murmured Amens signaled the acceptance of his prayer, but the looks on the faces Ed saw when he opened his eyes were not so accepting. “Thank you for that brief and heart-felt prayer,” the pastor of the church barked at Ed. “We look forward to hearing more of your wisdom as the morning progresses.” After some other words were said and announcements were delivered, the pastor took Ed by his arm and guided him to the room where the Bible study would be held.

“That wasn’t quite what we expected,” said the pastor in the brief moment they had together in the hall.

“I told you, I can only say that the Lord guides me to say,” Ed whispered back.

“Well, you’ll have a second chance with the Bible class,” the pastor of the big church told him as he guided Ed into the room and led him to the teacher’s seat in front of the gathering students. Ed took a minute to reflect as he watched the others find their places. Even with eyes opened, he silently prayed that God’s Holy Spirit would guide him and would keep him faithful to the Word. Once again he was introduced, and all eyes turned to him. He hoped that his voice did not quaver as he told the group to open their Bibles to Second Timothy, the third and fourth chapters. “We’ll be looking at what God himself has to say about the power of his Word,” he told them.

Ed steered them through the verses about God’s Word being “breathed out,” or inspired, by God. He spoke about teaching, reproof, correction, and training for righteousness, about being competent as Christians, equipped for every good work. The students smiled and nodded. Those who joined the conversation were eager to tell Ed about the good works they had been doing in the big church on the highway.

Gently, Ed guided them backwards to verses he considered even more important. “Not only does the Bible steer us in this world,” he said, “but it offers us a better world. It makes us ‘wise for salvation through faith in Christ Jesus.’ This is not our doing—it is by grace, a gift of God, not earned by good works.” In the silence, Ed continued to speak about the power of the cross of Jesus Christ and about Christ’s message to “repent and believe the gospel.”

But, as the end of the class was drawing closer, Ed saw that he was in danger of missing the message he knew he had been sent to share. He guided the students to look at the beginning of chapter four, to talk about preaching the word, “in season and out of season,” reproving and rebuking and exhorting “with complete patience and teaching.” Drawing a deep breath, Ed read on, “For the time is coming when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions.” Ed had heard cliches about deafening silences, silences in which one could hear a pin drop. Now he heard such a silence. Eyes darted to and fro, as the students looked at one another but seemed unable to look at their guest teacher. Ed returned to his main theme. “Jesus came into the world with a message that all should repent and believe the gospel,” he reminded them. “When we preach genuine repentance, based on the commandments of God, and when we preach genuine faith, based on the promises of God, then we cannot go far from the truth. We cannot be far from the kingdom of God.” With a few more general statements along those lines, Ed brought the lesson to a close. The students silently closed their Bibles, stood, and left the room, on their way to the service in the big church, where Ed once again would be called upon to bless their assembly and congratulate them on their anniversary.

In a moment, Ed was alone in the classroom with the pastor of the big church. The pastor repeated what he had said before, “That wasn’t what we expected.”

“I told you, I can only say those things that the Lord gives me to say,” Ed responded.

“But how can you be so sure?” the pastor asked him. “Just because you’re reading from the Bible, how do you know that these words are meant from the Lord for this day? What gives you the right to talk to us about repentance, about rebuking and correcting, about itching ears? We’re paying you to preach. Why won’t you say the things we told you to say?”

“You wouldn’t believe me if I told you,” Pastor Ed said.

“Try me,” the other pastor urged.

Ed took in a deep breath and let it out slowly. “You remember Rex,” he said, “my dog, the German Shepherd. He was at my apartment the night you visited.” The pastor of the big church on the highway nodded, and Ed continued. “Most mornings, Rex cooperates and is easy to care for, but this morning he was nothing but trouble. I took him for his morning walk, and instead of walking along and then doing his business, he was wild, darting around, tangling his leash around trees and then around my ankles. Finally, I had to slap his flank, just to get his attention and to get him to behave.

“For the rest of the walk he was better, but as we were going up the steps inside, he started acting up again. In fact, he nearly tripped me and knocked me down the steps. I scolded him then like I’ve never scolded him before.

“Then, when I was ready to leave, Rex lay down in front of the door and wouldn’t let me out of the apartment. I tried everything—gentle words, scolding, dog treats, everything I could think of, but he wouldn’t get out of my way and let me out the door. Finally, afraid I was going to be late, I lost my temper. I grabbed a fly swatter and gave him a good thump on his rump. That’s when Rex spoke to me.”

“Your dog talked.”

“Yes, he talked, in clear language like you and I are using now. ‘What have I done, that makes you hit me this morning?’ he asked. And I said, ‘You’ve been a bad dog, disobeying me and getting in my way, almost knocking me down the steps, and now making me late for this service.’ ‘And have I ever acted this way before?’ he asked me, and I said, ‘No.’

“Then I remembered about Balaam and his donkey and the Angel of the Lord. I remembered how the donkey had saved Balaam’s life when the Angel was ready to kill Balaam for taking money to tell people what they wanted to hear instead of what God intended for him to say. I didn’t see any angel. Rex didn’t speak another word. But I knew that God was warning me, that I had better speak his Word to you all this morning, nothing more and nothing less.”

The pastor of the big church on the highway shook his head and snorted. Beyond that, he didn’t seem to have anything to say. His introduction of Pastor Ed as guest preacher was not enthusiastic, not like the introduction he had given before the prayer or before the Bible class. But Pastor Ed was undaunted. He began with a brief congratulations to the church for its tenth anniversary, but then he proceeded to preach to them about Jesus. He reminded them that the message of Jesus boils down to two words, repent and believe. And he told them that no one can do either of these things without God’s help. “We cannot repent properly, and we cannot believe properly, without the work of the Holy Spirit. As Paul wrote to the Corinthians, ‘no one can say “Jesus is Lord” except in the Holy Spirit.’

“Now God created us for a purpose, to live in his image. For God is love, and God expects us to love. But we all have failed. We all have fallen short of the glory of God. We all need a Savior, and Jesus is the Savior we need. Now Jesus tells us to repent and believe. Without these words of Jesus, we could never repent properly, and we could never believe properly. But through these words, Jesus changes us. He sends his Spirit into our hearts so we repent and we believe. Like the lame man on the stretcher, told by Jesus to get up and walk, we get up and walk. We do these things, not by our power, but by the power of the Lord, power that comes to us through his Word.”

They hadn’t thrown him out yet, so Pastor Ed continued preaching. “We all want to be the stars. We all want to take credit for the good things we do for the Lord. But, when we have done our best, what we have done is still not enough. We cannot earn anything by our good works. All we can say of our best efforts is, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty’ (Luke 17:10). But Jesus is the star. Jesus, the Son of God, is the Sun that shines into our lives and makes us citizens of his kingdom. Jesus obeys his Father on our behalf. Jesus pays his life as a ransom for our sins. Jesus defeats our enemies, rising to grant us a resurrection like his. Jesus makes the difference. Not to us, but to Jesus Christ alone, be thanks and praise and glory for this day.”

Pastor Ed knew that he would not be thanked for his sermon. He did not even know if he would be given the money he had been promised. But he knew that he had done his duty for the Lord. And he knew that, when he came back to his apartment, Rex would be there, loyal and faithful as always, sufficient reward for the day and a reminder of God’s grace and guidance.