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.
I recently met an elder whose faith brought him great distress. Three years ago, his small but growing church received tithes that exceeded two hundred thousand dollars, for the first time ever. But this is the rest of the story.
After seeking God, the pastor, elders, and deacons collectively felt led to invest in their youth. In faith, they unanimously decided to increase their 2014 budget by thirty-five thousand dollars to hire a youth leader. But the next year’s donations only increased by a thousand.
The following year they again they sought God, and again in faith set a budget with the extra thirty-five thousand dollars. But giving increased by only two thousand. Last year, in faith they repeated the process, and last year’s offerings decreased by three thousand.
I met that elder a week after the board saw last year’s final numbers. He said, “I have never had so much faith in my life. The entire board had faith. Jesus said that if we have faith the size of a mustard seed, we could move an entire mountain.”
“Well, we had faith the size of the Mt. Everest, and we couldn’t move a molehill.”
The week before Christmas I heard the best argument against Christianity I’ve heard in years.
I met with a professional woman who had worked seven years for near minimum wage in the administration of a Christian ministry. When they decided to move their headquarters, they abruptly dismissed her with two weeks’ severance. She felt used and discarded.
And she felt anger: How could they treat her so callously after seven years of sacrifice? She said, “If they believed God would judge them for their callousness, they would have treated me more generously.”
She added: “What’s so bad about works righteousness?”
I once had a client whose business-gifting outshined the stars of the Harvard Business Review. Yet she scorched everything she touched. Relationships went rancid, projects were poisoned by punitive criticism, and her management style left associates embittered.
We met for lunch a couple times a year for much of the 90’s. Over time, my opinion of her zigzagged from initial awe, to distaste, and finally to pity. These facts emerged:
She was an identical twin, younger by twenty minutes.
Although an excellent musician, she played second chair violin; her twin played first.
She failed to get into medical school so she got an MBA; her sister became a surgeon.
When her boyfriend came home for Easter, he fell in love with her twin.
A year later that former boyfriend married her identical, twin sister.
A business owner I barely knew once phoned to see if we could meet. He was an aggressive entrepreneur, a roaring lion among his peers. Yet on the phone, he seemed different, hesitant, a bit humbler, perhaps broken. He certainly choked up a few times in our short conversation.
We met the following Friday, which happened to be his fortieth birthday. He appeared vulnerable and exhausted, and something in my heart went out to him.
He said he had been struggling the last few months. Nothing he did relieved him of the pain. His restless nights were endless, every discussion with his wife ended up in a fight, and he had even lost interest in helping his son play soccer. As he shared, tears silently rolled down his cheeks.
His voice finally broke and he began to sob right there in the restaurant. I was still unsure what his problem was, but I felt sympathy. It hurts to watch someone suffer.
Eventually he gathered himself and explained. Ever since he was a young boy, he had aspired to run a successful business. He set a goal of having ten million dollars in the bank by the age of forty.
“Sam,” he moaned, “Including savings in my 401k, I barely have six million dollars to my name.”
[This conversation happened. As I re-read it here, I shake my head in disbelief. But it happened.]
For the last forty years, my prayer time has started with the Psalms. And for forty years they have alternately given me hope and then pulled that rug of hope from beneath me. They make great promises, but when I pray them with honest self-reflection, the promises fade away.
Look at the hopeful assurances offered:
Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear. (Ps. 27:3)
The Lord preserves the simple. When I was brought low, he saved me. (Ps. 116:6)
The Lord is my Shephard; I shall not want. (Ps. 23:1)
The problem is simple: these promises seem reserved for Saint Francis, not me:
The Lord dealt with me according to my righteousness; according to the cleanness of my hands he rewarded me. (Ps. 18:20)
Give ear to my prayer from lips free of deceit! (Ps. 17:1)
If I have repaid my friend with evil … let the enemy pursue my soul and overtake it, and let him trample my life to the ground. [YIKES!!] (Ps. 7:4-5)
When I try to pray phrases like, “I have trusted in the Lord without wavering,” the words dribble out of my mouth and splatter on the floor.
I recently met with three friends to discuss a Saturday event we were hosting. I thought a previous decision was a spiritual mistake, and I pleaded that we reconsider. Not only did I plead, I urged and pushed, and then I rammed my point home with a metaphorical baseball bat.
My counsel, intensity, and insistence backed them into a corner. And it all backfired.
I’ve always pictured my flesh driving me to obviously unhealthy action: greed, power-lust, sexual immorality, oppression, and that third helping of Moose Tracks ice cream.
But even when my flesh fights for good things, it always corrupts. And then it destroys. My flesh may resist that unneeded extra dessert, but then it gloats, I thank you God that I’m not like all my gluttonous friends.
Beware whenever our flesh agrees with the Spirit. It’s a smiling crocodile.