So What’s Your Point?

Dear Will:

Simon was a fisherman. He was in business with a couple of brothers, James and John, somewhere near Capernaum, adjacent to the Sea of Galilee.

At the end of one long, unproductive night on the lake, the three partners toiled at the shoreline, mending and cleaning their nets. One can only imagine the thoughts that went through their heads and the substance of their conversation as they contemplated many hours of hard labor that nevertheless had left them fishless.

Just then, a crowd began to converge on the place. Jesus, a young teacher from nearby Nazareth, had arrived in town, and many had come to hear what he had to say. As the crowd swelled and pressed forward to listen, Jesus climbed into one of Simon’s boats and pushed out a few feet from shore so that everyone could see and hear. No doubt the fishermen set aside their nets and joined the gathering.

We do not know the subject of the lesson that day, but when it ended, Jesus suggested that Simon grab his nets and head back out on the lake to try to catch some fish. Given the previous night’s futility, the suggestion may have seemed a bit imprudent. “Master,” said Simon, “we have toiled all the night, and have taken nothing: nevertheless at thy word I will let down the net.”  And so they headed out, Simon and Jesus in one boat, James and John in another.

At a certain place, Jesus gave the signal and Simon let down his net, which immediately bulged with fish. So great was the catch, in fact, that the net began to tear, and Simon was compelled to call for the assistance of those in the other boat in order to secure the catch.

Happenstance? Clearly not. This day on the lake was unlike any before it. Recognizing the source of his good fortune, Simon became overwhelmed by the implications. Why should this man choose him—this boat, this lake, this hour. What could possibly make him worthy of this great bounty? The thought crumbled Simon, and he fell immediately at Jesus’ feet. “Depart from me,” he pled, “for I am a sinful man.”

To which Jesus might well have responded: “Yes. Yes, you are. So what’s your point?”

That is the point, after all. Paul said: “For all have sinned, and come short of the glory of God” (Romans 3:23). Jesus came for that very reason. His life and ministry were devoted to the sinful.

Of course, you know that Jesus did not depart from Simon, but rather invited him—with all of his so-called unworthiness—to leave his nets and follow him from that day forward. Simon’s life changed that day when he agreed to follow Jesus, even though—and especially because—he was a sinful man.

Do you sometimes feel you have toiled fruitlessly, that in spite of your best efforts your life is little more than a few broken, empty nets? May I suggest that in those moments, you give in to the impulse to set those nets aside and join others who have gathered to hear the words of the Master Teacher, others who, like you, are sinful and unworthy, others who could also use a few more fish in their nets from time to time.

“Come, follow me” said Jesus (Luke 18:22). And when He said it, He was talking to you and me.


How to Fill Your Home with the Holiday Spirit

Dear Will:

Since I have a model family, I feel it my obligation to share with you some straightforward advice on how best to fill your home with the holiday spirit. I suggest you start with the decorations. . . .

A.  Put Up the Lights

You might think that it is still the Thanksgiving weekend—a time set aside for gluttony and football—when you discover, much to your delight, that the otherwise terrific guy next door has already festooned his abode with bright and cheerful electric doodads. “When are you going to put up our lights, Beloved?” your eternal companion might sing, filling your heart immediately with Christmas cheer. “Oh, I don’t know, Pumpkin,” you’ll say, “I was hoping perhaps to do it tomorrow during the UCLA-Oregon game.” Overjoyed that you have already embraced her vision, she’ll skip into the house with a fa la la la la.

You’ll start with great brio the next day because putting up the lights is always a highlight of the year for you—especially when there’s a big game on. We suggest the following essential steps:

  1. Untangle the lights. Or not. Throw away the ones that inexplicably become more tangled as you untangle them. Hum happily to yourself.
  2. Put up the first strand with brisk efficiency. After you discover that you have wrong end toward the outlet, take it down and redo it. Give the guy next door a friendly, high-spirited wave.
  3. Bang your head on the roof overhang, opening a gash which casts a Christmassy red across your pale, bald head. Chuckle to yourself as you ponder your amusing misfortune.
  4. Put up the second strand of lights. Replace the bulbs you break when you step on them. Then when it becomes clear that the plug cannot reach the socket, take it down and redo it. Whistle with contentment.
  5. Bang your head on the roof again. Just for the fun of it.
  6. Plug in the lights to check your progress. When half of the lights in one strand won’t come on, spend an hour or so trying to figure out which bulb is responsible for the broken circuit. Give up and rip the entire strand from the eaves with a merry “Ho Ho Ho.”
  7. Continue hanging and rehanging lights until dusk. Fall off of the ladder only as frequently as necessary. Pretend that you really didn’t care about the football game anyway. Think lovingly about your children who sit inside playing video games and texting their friends.
  8. Invite your sweetheart outside to admire the finished product. Give her a warm, affectionate squeeze when she says, “Tomorrow we start on the inside of the house.”

B.  Decorate the Tree

Much to the consternation of your eldest children, the tree comes in a box. Since it consists of three distinct parts, erecting the tree is a lot easier than, say, putting up the lights—which, we realize, does not explain the split lip and the chipped tooth. Be that as it may, the tree goes up in a relative jiffy.

Now comes the fun part: As the ornaments come out of the box, the time has arrived for the traditional, festive colloquy between the strident eldest children, who miss the days of yore “when we shopped for a real tree” each December, and the mom, who reminds them each year that, since we live in California, the trees that are trucked here from Oregon have been dead since Labor Day.  The substance of the discussion might go something like this:  Kids: “Tradition!” Mom: “Fire!” And so on. Until Valentine’s Day.

C.  Deck the Halls

You may not have boughs of holly, but you should have an array of baubles and oddments with which to make the season bright. As you distribute them where once you could find the remote control, observe in particular the stupefying array of snowmen which quickly establish a beachhead in your family room. (Should time allow, you may also wish to ponder the prominence of frosty décor in a place which hasn’t seen snow since there were wooly mammoths hot-tubbing in the La Brea Tar Pits.) As the kids scurry about with their favorite bits of bric-a-brac, notice how the mood has somehow shifted.

When each piece is in its place and the ancillary detritus has been stowed, ditch the yeti and go around the corner to the living room, where instead of elves and reindeer you’ll find shepherds and sheep of various varieties. Take a seat, and perhaps you’ll notice for the first time the holiday music that now fills your home, or the laughter (can it be?) emanating from all three children simultaneously. Cast your eyes about at the scene: On the wall hangs a picture of the Jesus, beside it a favorite print of timid shepherds stealing a glimpse of Mary and Joseph’s newborn son. There might be a wonderful paper crèche from Mexico City or one your son made many years ago out of aluminum foil. And if you’re lucky, you’ll spy a simple display made of olivewood which gets an honored spot on the table in the middle of the room. Notice also that in each crèche all eyes are on the baby. And who knows? You may find that yours are on the baby as well.

And so they should be at this time of year, tangled lights and plastic trees notwithstanding. It is, after all, the time of “peace on earth, good will to men”—provided, that is, that you don’t ask about the split lip.


Trusting in the Covert of His Wings

Dear Will:

Perhaps you saw this photo recently in the LA Times.

Karen Tapia-Andersen / Los Angeles Times

It’s the sort of photo you’re bound to notice. You can’t help but notice it. Brian Williams did. Or at least someone on his staff at NBC Nightly News did. In any case they did a three-minute segment on these firefighters.

Here’s the background: Twelve firefighters were on a hillside trying to keep the Santiago fire from jumping the road and destroying some homes. Without warning, the winds shifted and sent the flames their way. Seeing that they had no escape route available, they removed their “shelters” from their packs and curled up underneath them—cocoon style—while they waited for help. And waited. With no help coming, they huddled together under those shelters, taking short breaths and enduring untold heat in a quest to survive. Finally, after 15 interminable minutes, aircraft arrived, dumped water on the flames, and freed the men. Not one was injured.

It’s a frightening tale made more frightening when you learn that one of those twelve is your friend. Brett Cowdell was among those on the hillside that day. Brett used to be my eldest son’s scoutmaster. Our youngest sons were born within a couple of weeks of each other. He and I were even co-workers before he entered the fire academy. When I saw his wife yesterday, I felt a surge of emotion, so grateful was I that he had been protected when the fires raged his way.

That image—of a good friend, nearly helpless in the face of mounting peril—brought to mind the promise contained within one of Jesus’s saddest laments: “O Jerusalem, Jerusalem, . . . how often would I have gathered thy children together, even as a hen gathereth her chickens under her wings, and ye would not!” (Matthew 23:37). The Lord’s message to all of us is that He offers shelter from the trials which so often rage against us, provided only that we come unto Him. He doesn’t promise to take away adversity, of course; rather he offers to gather and shield us so that we can come through difficulty relatively unscathed. Having personally felt the protection of such shelter, the Psalmist wrote:

Hear my cry, O God; attend unto my prayer.
From the end of the earth will I cry unto thee, when my heart is overwhelmed: lead me to the rock that is higher than I.
For thou hast been a shelter for me, and a strong tower from the enemy.
I will abide in thy tabernacle for ever: I will trust in the covert of thy wings. (Psalms 61:1-4)

I hope that you and your loved ones are all OK in spite of the danger which surrounds us. And I remind you that help is always near at hand.