We were at an amusement park a few weeks ago. It was a day when the heat index was 108 degrees, and so we did a lot of hiding in the shade and going to shows. One of the shows featured country music. The set looked like something left over from a local production of Pump Boys and Dinettes. The talent, college students hired to do three shows a day, was really good. For some reason they had fastened big stiff wigs on all the girl’s heads. It seemed someone had raided Dolly Parton’s closet (or Donald Trump’s). Most of the songs they sang were recent – not what I consider “country” (if I can’t imagine Hank Williams, or Kitty Wells singing it, I’ll pass), but at one point a young woman stepped forward and sang “Coat of Many Colors” by Dolly Parton. The girl’s voice reminded one more of Patty Lupone than Dolly Parton, but “Coat of Many Colors” is a perfect song, and although it was delivered like “Don’t Cry for Me Argentina,” it made me weep – it always does.
I don’t believe anyone has ever written a better song. “Coat of Many Colors” tells the story of Dolly’s mother sewing a coat for her from a box of rags and scraps because she could not afford to buy a new coat. As she sews, Dolly’s mother tells her the story of Joseph, and how he received a coat of many colors because he was special. The story transforms the rag-coat into a love-coat. This alternate reality persists even when the children at school make fun of her rag coat, as she explains defiantly how her coat is special.
I remember when the song was a hit, and seeing my grandmother tear-up any time it came on the radio in the corner-cabinet in her little dining room. Though a child, the song had the same effect on me. Now that I am a grand-parent the song has an even greater effect because it is about the way love can transform anything from ugliness to beauty. We may not be able to avoid hardship and poverty, but love can use any circumstance for its own strength and growth.
The story which transforms the rag-coat into a love-coat is from the Bible of course. Joseph was just a Hebrew boy from a big (albeit prosperous) family – the 11th of 12 sons. But to his father he was special. He was special to God too, and he became one of the most powerful men on earth. It seems every story in the Bible insists that we see things through God’s eyes. Samuel is told that none of the strapping sons of Jesse he has met qualify as king – God wants the boy out in the field tending sheep. Do not look at his appearance or at his height…for man looks at the outward appearance, but the LORD looks at the heart, God reminds the prophet (I Samuel 16.7).
Jesus, in the beatitudes, seems to invert our whole system of value, telling us that is it a blessing to mourn, to be poor in heart, to be ridiculed and persecuted (Matthew 5.1-12). In fact, the entire story of Jesus turns common notion on its head – God arrives as a new-born baby, and achieves universal victory by being executed as a criminal.
Isn’t it grand that the Bible serves as a pair of blood-colored glasses through which we see the world through the eyes of God. The world, otherwise, is too menacing, too gloomy, too ugly to behold.
In the academy award-winning film Life is Beautiful (1997), actor Roberto Benigni convinces his son that their stay in a Nazi concentration camp is merely a game. He succeeds in shielding his son from the psychological horror of Nazi oppression. He protected his son by getting him to see what was not there. God shows us what is.
The coat of many colors did not make Joseph special, God did. The coat confirmed and expressed reality as God established it. Dolly’s coat of many colors did not make her special, her mother’s love did. God makes that possible too.
The other day I found one sheet of scripture, blown by the wind into my yard. This sheet, which had fallen from a 7” by 5,” thumb-indexed, King James Version of the Bible contained portions of I Chronicles 15-16, and II Chronicles 5-6. It didn’t contain a complete chapter. The I Chronicles passage concerns David bringing the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem. The II Chronicles passage details the dedication of the Temple by King Solomon. Of the four pages of scripture contained on this one sheet more than a full page is filled with names of Levites who participated in the parade bringing the Ark to the capital city.
I picked up the sheet, folded it carefully, brought it to the office, and put it in my desk. I could not bring myself to discard it. I cannot throw away a Bible, no matter how damaged it is. I have never discarded a Bible which was mine. Whenever I find one that isn’t salvageable I repair it as best I can and put it in the free bin at the public library. I could no more crumple this sheet and toss it than I could a drawing by my grand-daughter Noelle.
This single sheet of scripture captured my imagination. I wondered what truths I could find in it. “If I was living in some dystopian future,” I thought, “and this was all the Bible left to humanity, what could we learn from it?” Here below, I offer what I found in I Chronicles 15.3-16.5, and II Chronicles 5.12-6.24. I encourage you to repeat my experiment and find the truths I missed.
I never expected to find so many foundational truths from two fragments of I & II Chronicles. The Chronicles have always seemed to me to be the driest part of scripture – filled with data, but lacking the story-teller’s art which so enlivens I and II Kings. I am ashamed of my prejudice. If all we humans had of God’s word was this one sheet of scripture – these fragments of chapters - we would have more truth than anyone could fathom in a lifetime.
We, however, are blessed with the fullness of revealed truth. We have the plan of salvation. We have the promise of heaven. We have the account of the beginning of all things, and the history of that first generation of Christians. We have four gospels which reveal Jesus in the fullness of His glory and grace.
Do we appreciate what we have? Have we tried to fathom even one page of God’s Word?
At used bookshops I keep an eye out for books by those great humorists of the 1920s and 1930s – James Thurber, Dorothy Parker, Ring Lardner, the incomparable E. B. White, and my favorite – Robert Benchley. I have picked up quite a collection. I particularly like to find a book with the original dust jacket, and not just for the cover art. I love the advertisements printed on the back cover, and sometimes the inside cover of the dust jacket. One often finds lists of exotic books, celebrated in their day, and now completely forgotten, available for the low, low price of $1.98.
On the back of the 1936 edition of Benchley’s My Ten Years in a Quandary, And How They Grew, there is an advertisement for Blue Ribbon Books’ “12 Books that belong in every office or home library.” It includes Funk & Wagnall’s Standard Universal Dictionary for $2.49, The Complete Works of William Shakespeare Illustrated for $2.95, The Modern Home Medical Adviser for $2.49, and the Outline of History by H.G. Wells for $1.98. The list also includes Hammond’s New Combination World Atlas, which comes “with a 32” by 44” folding wall map.” It is unclear from the advertisement whether the wall folds or the map folds. A simple hyphen would have clarified the matter.
Of course you and I both know which book tops the list – The Holy Bible, available for $1.79. This Authorized King James Version includes “a concordance and 394 page International Bible Encyclopedia.” It comes in “large, readable, self-pronouncing type,” and can be thumb-indexed for quick reference for 50 cents more. I have no doubt that of the 12 books listed, the Bible was the best seller – because the Bible is always the best seller, and has been as long as anyone has kept records. It has never sold less than double the number of volumes of its nearest competitor. Not even J. K. Rowling can compete.
The amazing thing about this is that almost everyone who buys a Bible already has one – or three, or ten. And yet we keep buying them. We keep them too. I still have the first leather Bible I received. It has my name stamped on it in gold leaf. I have the Bible my grandfather kept in the glove compartment of his car. I have a well-worn leather Dickson Study Bible that belonged to my wife’s grandfather. I have the little red New Testament, Psalms, and Proverbs the Gideons gave to all us sixth graders back in 1974. I have maybe 30 more. I cannot throw a Bible away, no matter how damaged it becomes. If I have one that is almost unusable I put it in the free book bin at the public library.
So I have a lot of Bibles. We all do. What does that mean? Often, it doesn’t mean much.
In the great John Ford western, The Searchers, Ward Bond, who plays a combination-preacher/Texas Ranger, hands his Bible to a gut-shot rancher and tells him to hold it tight. “It will make you feel good,” he promises. In the movie it has just that effect. I am afraid we often use the Bible similarly – as a totem or talisman to make us feel better.
Of all the books that belong in home or office the Bible is certainly the most important. But it is not like Hammond’s New Combination Atlas – anchoring down the coffee table until someone needs to find the capital of Mongolia (Ulan Bator). We have Bibles so we may read them. We have them to wear them out. We have them to use, and use, and use again – every day.
Oh how I love your law! It is my meditation all day…how sweet are your words to me, they are sweeter than honey to my mouth, the Psalmist writes in Psalm 119.97 & 103. He did not have a Bible in his home or office. The book would not be invented for seven centuries. Scrolls were rare, and expensive. And yet – the word he did have – through public readings, and temple service - was his dearest possession. He treasured it in his mind, and in his heart. The folks at Blue Ribbon Books are right. The Bible belongs in every home and office. It belongs in every vest pocket, glove compartment, back pack, night-stand, care package, and dorm-room. But most of all, the Bible belongs in every mind and heart. This is the Bible’s true home.
The headline on my news feed from Google Chrome the other day declared, “Tyra Banks Urges End to Super Models War.” I didn’t know a Super Models War had even been declared. What international body has the jurisdiction to declare such a war – the Elite Modeling Agency, perhaps, or the editorial board of Marie Claire – or maybe Michael Kors just issues an executive order.
I didn’t bother to click on the article and read it. In the first place I was sure it would be silly. In addition, I knew the actual story could never compete with my imagination (stop chuckling – that’s not what I mean!). In my mind I could see vividly an army of super models in baggy battle fatigues (they would have to be baggy, no one makes battle fatigues in size 0), and 5” stilettos. Cheryl Tiegs and Christy Brinkley, since they are both in their sixties, would serve as commanding officers. Famke Jensen and Heidi Klum fly overhead in vintage WWI Fokker DR1’s. Cindy Crawford and Christy Turlington both drive APC’s filled with commandos from the catwalks of Paris, New York, and Milan. Iman is there commanding her elite, Ecru Beret Forces, which include Kate Upton, Kate Moss, and Gisele Bundchen – all of whom carry bedazzled Kalashnikovs. Those are the ingredients of a proper Super Models War.
Oh the curse of a literal mind.
Several years ago, James Thurber wrote a piece in the New Yorker about taking adults literally when he was a child. His dreams were terrorized by the woman who was “all cut up,” the man who was “all ears,” the man who “could not put his foot down,” and the woman who “lost her head.” The simple use of language requires the simple use of common sense. We need the ability to decode – to discern between a colorful phrase and a literal statement. We bring this common sense to books and newspapers, texts and tweets, movies and television programs, conversations and negotiations or we will fail to understand them at all. We must bring the same common sense to the Bible, or we will not understand it.
Seminary exposed me to a wide variety of serious scholars. They had many different approaches to understanding the word of God. Some were puzzlers and tinkerers – always looking to solve a mystery, or find a new meaning. Some were crusaders, looking for a theological underpinning for their cause. Some were engineers – taking apart and categorizing the grammar, the vocabulary – and in the process coming up with eccentric and improbable conclusions. Some were members of the cheer-squad – looking only for the happy thought, the encouraging phrase. There were the Literal Leonards, the Metaphorical Marvins, the Doom and Gloom Divas, and so many others in the interpreter’s bestiary.
I am sure I bring my share of preconceptions to the Word. But I have always believed that our task as readers is to listen with prayer and common sense. “What does the Bible say?” should be a simple enough question to answer, if we will be still for a moment and listen prayerfully. Jesus, especially, speaks simply. The great challenge is not to puzzle out the things that lead to life and godliness, but to live a life faithful to the Word.
Unfortunately, there are many who are too bored, distracted, misinformed, or irascible to be satisfied just to listen. And so we end up hearing all sorts of fantastical absurdities – Mary Magdalene was Jesus’ girlfriend, Jesus will one day rule from a throne in Jerusalem, it doesn’t matter how we worship, baptism is optional - all about as probable as a Super Model war with all the ordinance and trimmings.
Let us all be aggressively skeptical of any argument which is the product of exotic or byzantine reasoning. If Albert Einstein could state his theory of General Relativity in two pages, I should be able to answer a Bible question of cosmic proportions succinctly as well. If it takes a person 40 pages to argue that baptism isn’t necessary, that person is wrong. The Bible says plainly “Repent and be baptized for the forgiveness of sins,” (Acts 2.38). That is what it means.
ESPN Classic Boxing On Demand is currently running a match my dad told me about for years. It is the 13 round “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” the sixth bout between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta. My dad was a big Sugar Ray fan. He had seen him box an exhibition bout in Trinidad the year I was born. He (a middleweight) boxed the heavyweight champion of Trinidad and Tobago. The 52-year-old Robinson boxed most of the match with his right hand held behind his back and never got his hair mussed. Many still consider Sugar Ray Robinson, pound for pound, the greatest boxer who ever lived.
He fought Jake LaMotta 6 times from 1940 to 1951. Their first five fights were ended by decision. Their last fight ended when Robinson TKO’d LaMotta in the 13th round. Robinson won their initial fight by decision, despite being knocked down by LaMotta in the 1st. LaMotta won the second, by decision, knocking Robinson out of the ring. It was Sugar Ray’s first defeat in the ring – ever. Robinson won the rematch three weeks later, despite being knocked down for a 9 count. They fought twice more before LaMotta, who was always 16 pounds heavier, moved up to middleweight, with Robinson winning both by unanimous decision.
When they met in Chicago, on Valentine’s Day, 1951 Sugar Ray Robinson was the welterweight champion of the world, and LaMotta the middleweight champion. As I watched the fight yesterday, 62 years later, I could see clearly why it loomed so large in my dad’s memory. It was as good as (or better than) Ali-Frazier III. It was the classic battle between the boxer and the puncher. Robinson was slightly ahead on points at the beginning of the 11th round when he let loose a vicious barrage of lightning fast left jabs, right hooks, and uppercuts. For nearly three rounds he pummeled LaMotta’s face until the middleweight champion was lying helpless against the ropes unable to lift his arms in defense. But he didn’t go down. Near the end of the 13th round the referee called the fight.
In Martin Scorcese’s biopic of Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull, LaMotta, dazed and barely conscious calls after Robinson – “You didn’t knock me down Ray! You didn’t knock me down.” LaMotta lost 5 of 6 fights to Robinson, the last by TKO, but Robinson never knocked him down. He held on to that.
There is something noble, even inspiring about standing even in defeat – in refusing to be knocked down. Robert Falcon Scott cuts a much more dashing, romantic, and admirable figure than Roald Amundsen. But Scott and his party died. Jake LaMotta was never the same after the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.”
We live in a world hostile to our faith. It has always been so, and will continue to be. In such a world it is easy to develop a bunker mentality, to hunker down, to feel defensive, to lie against the ropes and brace ourselves for a beating. When you feel this way you cede victory to your opponent.
But we are not called to this sort of resignation. We overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us (Romans 8.37). The gates of hell will not prevail against us (Matthew 16.19). Our faith is the victory that overcomes the world (I John 5.4). All this is because we are born of God (same verse). God in Christ has already crushed all enemies (Hebrews 10.11-13).
Jesus did not die on the cross, raise the third day, and then ascend into heaven so we could lose with dignity. We are, through Him, victors. Let us never cede defeat to the Devil. Let us never forget that Grace trumps him every time. He has no answer for it. He is a loser. Grace is always greater than sin (Romans 5.17-21). Ours is not to cling to the ropes and hope not to buckle at the knees. Ours is to fight and win. If our battle against Satan is compared to a fight for the middleweight championship of the world, we are Sugar Ray Robinson. We win. No matter how many times we get knocked down, grace makes it so.