Willpower

In 1975, three friends and I participated in a 200-mile bicycle marathon on Belle Isle, an island-park owned by the city of Detroit. The course was a five-mile circuit which you circled forty times. Every time you passed the “finish line,” someone stamped your plastic vest. The race lasted twenty-four hours and the goal was to get forty stamps, representing 200 miles.

My friends and I were foolish high school boys (pardon my redundancy) and not one of us trained for the event. I had to borrow an “English racer” (with its tortuously narrow racing seat) because I didn’t even own a bike. Nevertheless, we decided to ride forty-one circuits (sort of a biker’s-dozen of 205 miles) just to say we did.

The race began at noon on a Saturday. We rode at a reasonable speed, and by midnight, we had biked 180 miles. We were ahead of schedule, a bit tired, and didn’t want to finish at 1:30 in the morning, so we decided to take a sleep-break.

The ground was wet and we hadn’t brought sleeping bags, so we found four plastic trash bags and curled up fetal-style for a nap. (Did I mention we were foolish high school boys?)

When we awoke, our legs had stiffened into baked pretzels; we could barely straighten them much less pedal a bike. One of us decided 180 miles was good enough and quit; two of us wobbled our way the final 20 miles; and one of us went the extra lap for 205 miles.

Later, the “biker’s-dozen” boy casually critiqued our failure by observing that we “just didn’t have the willpower” that he has.

Is Sunday School Destroying Our Kids?

Heroes of the faith r1

Several years ago I met with a woman distraught over her son’s rejection of Christianity.

She said, “I did everything I could to raise him right. I taught him to be like the ‘heroes of faith,’ with the faithfulness of Abraham, the goodness of Joseph, the pure heart of David, and the obedience of Esther.”

She wondered why he had rejected Christianity.

I wondered why it took him so long.

The Pig in London and the Lamb in Israel

When I was twenty years old, I wanted to spend a summer abroad, but as a college student I could barely afford ramen noodles. I found work on a communal farm in Israel. For a bit of manual labor, they provided me food, a room, ten dollars a month, and a pack of cigarettes a day. (It was the cigarettes that sold me.)

The weekend before I departed, I heard my first talk ever on being a man. On the way to Israel, I stopped in London to visit some friends. With the talk on manliness ringing in my ear, I swaggered, spat, and unsuccessfully tried to play the man.

During a two-hour dinner party in London, I was introduced to a young woman who promptly deemed me shallow, insincere, and stupid. (I skipped dessert so I could quit while I was ahead.)

A few years later she married a friend of mine, but her opinion of me was chiseled in stone. I once loaned her husband ten thousand dollars; and she suspected me of manipulation. But if I forgot to send him a birthday card, she felt my true colors were revealed.

To her, I was a jerk. And everything I did or said reinforced her judgment.

The Curse of Conformity

In 1983 I landed my first job in the computer industry. I applied for an open position, sent in my resume, endured a few interviews, and attended one final meeting.

In that meeting, my soon-to-be boss said, “I have chosen you for the position, but let me explain why:”

  • I didn’t choose you because of your education” (I had studied 17th Century European Intellectual History, not exactly Computer Science);
  • And I didn’t choose you because your grades were better” (when I say I “studied history” I don’t mean to imply I studied real hard);
  • And I didn’t choose you because of your great business experience” (three years of mission work didn’t qualify as a practical MBA).

His care for my self-esteem was underwhelming; I began to wonder if the job was really mine.

He continued, “I chose you because you answered my questions differently than I would have. I didn’t agree with every answer, but your answers gave me an outlook I hadn’t considered. I don’t need more people who think like me—I already think like me—I need people who offer different perspectives.” He concluded,

“The curse of the computer industry is conformity; never lose your non-conformity.”

We Are Strangers in a Strange Land

My wife’s ninety-year-old mother died last Thursday and we mourn. Someone reminded me that when we grieve, “we do not grieve like those who have no hope.”

I grew up in a family that camped. My father was a pastor who got four weeks of vacation. We took all four weeks at once, camping the whole month of July, mostly in wooded campsites next to windy lakes. We strapped our small Sunfish sailboat on top of our sagging station wagon.

Williamson Family Vacation, July 1968

Those vacations were a young boy’s fantasy, filled with mysterious forests and stormy seas. Four weeks wasn’t enough. We hauled our home wherever we went. It was often hot, but sometimes cold, and occasionally rainy. The car always broke down. And I loved it.

I recently heard a quote from the Epistle to Diognetus that resurfaced all those old memories,

The difference between Christians and the rest of mankind is not a matter of nationality, language, or customs. Christians do not live apart in separate cities, speak any special dialect, nor practice any eccentric way of life…

For them, any foreign country is a motherland, and any motherland is a foreign country.

Selling Our Soul for a Bowl Full of Gruel

Last week I read an alarming passage in Hebrews: “See to it … that no one is sexually immoral or unholy like Esau, who sold his birthright for a single meal.” I thought: Who would ever condemn in the same sentence both adultery and poor, hungry Esau?

Then I remembered a blogger I read. Last fall he urged followers to sign up for a goal-setting course called 5 Days to Your Best Year Ever. He shared his own goals for 2015, and I quote:

  1. Publish a bestselling book and sell at least 50,000 copies in the first year.
  2. Get a six-figure advance for my next book contract by the end of the year.
  3. Make a million dollars in revenue from my business.

If these were the goals of a secular entrepreneur, I’d merely pity him. But he’s a Christian writer. His perverted goals didn’t stop at numbers. He dug his grave deeper when he said,

Now, please hear my heart on this. All of the above is not about money. Money has never made me any happier. What has changed my happiness … is my belief in myself.

I suppose I still feel sorry for him. He’s a young man, unsure of how to handle success. He’s hungry for something—money or fame or self-esteem—but I pity him the way I pity Esau.

He’s selling his soul for a bowl full of gruel. Which God equates with adultery.

Invitations to Intimacy with God

Most Sundays after church, my father invited us kids to critique his sermon. He disliked “Atta-boys” and he loathed a “Nice job!” He loved to observe how we thought and what we saw.

He delighted—really delighted—when we said things like:

  • I think your illustration of the boy on a bike didn’t explain predestination well;
  • I wonder if your second point should have come first, and your third point eliminated;
  • I think the best part of your sermon was the final, “Amen.”

His partly wanted to ensure we listened to his sermons, sure; but even more, he genuinely wanted to engage with us at a heart level by hearing what we thought. Dad encouraged honesty and offered no repercussions when we criticized, disagreed, or misunderstood.

It was my dad’s way of inviting us up into his life.