Law firms tend to follow certain decorative themes.
One is the Lincoln bust theme, usually with framed documents such as The Gettysburg Address. There’s the modernist look with tall flowers in vases and Sotheby’s catalogues on the coffee table. There are the book fanciers, with long shelves of law volumes prominently displayed. On the other hand, there’s the hardscrabble, no nonsense, store-front law firm with crayons and coloring books, and a people’s political poster on the wall.
On this day, the salesman sat in an unusually decorated law office…a crucifix and a portrait of John the Baptist were its only adornments. Very unusual for an office of the law.
The salesman had stopped at this law office to correct an administrative snafu. The snafu could have been corrected by telephone, but as he had driven along the highway toward a different office than this, he had seen the exit for this office and had—on impulse—taken it.
Recently, the salesman had begun to pray. It had seemed odd to him at first, driving down the road. “Dear Lord, I don’t know what to do. Please help me before I smash everything up.” The salesman was not yet a Christian, but he was warming to it as a contemplator of Christianity, and he knew that a powerful question was coming his way.
Once, some months before, the salesman and this lawyer had spoken briefly about prayer, in the way of two men who are trying to move beyond a relationship that is solely professional. Their meeting had been because this lawyer had expanded his firm into this second town, now that he had a young associate to leave behind in the first.
But business had been slow. Despite the slowness of business, the lawyer had bought a new set of statutes from the salesman, forty-one big red-bound books containing the law. The books were located in the conference room where they were visible to clients.
In his own office though, according to what he had chosen for his walls, the lawyer surrounded himself with statutes more ancient even than those of the sovereign State of Maine.
“So I’m praying,” the lawyer concluded. “I’m giving it another three months. I don’t know what will happen with this office. Real estate is down, but I’m getting some small incorporations, and I’m trying to leverage that into some wills.”
“If you get heavier into estate work, wills and such, we’ll need to talk. I’ve got tools for you.”
“Don’t sell me anything, Dikkon. I’ve built myself a problem here, and I need to keep the walls up without spending more money.”
The salesman was still. His mind was a Gordian Knot. He could not do anything to engage in further sales-like conversation. He sat. The lawyer watched him.
The danger right at that moment in the salesman’s life seemed to him to be acute. The ripple effect of a major decision he faced could be uncontrollable. He felt himself being swept along, faster than his caution dared him to go, desiring to adhere to and to further the principle of Life, as he had always done, but terrified he might not correctly identify which way Life was tending.
Should he say yes from his heart, or no from his head?
Recently, after much discussion with a Baptist pastor, hundreds and hundreds of pages of reading, hours of contemplation, endless conversations with his wife, and most particularly after two or three sudden revelations, the salesman had begun to get it about Jesus.
That’s when his fear escalated and he found that he was praying on the road.
The salesman blurted, “But how is a prayer answered?”
How often in that office had such a question been posed? Had the divorcing wife and mother asked it? Had the injured and unemployed mill worker asked it, when the letter from the insurance company was about to be slit open? What about the owner of the hardware store who faced bankruptcy? Or the landlord who needed to rid himself of a deadbeat tenant? Or the drunk driver on his third offense?
All the problems on earth flow through a law office. Perhaps some of the problems facing heaven flowed through this one too, with its crucifix and its portrait of the man who baptized Christ. And then the salesman realized: to ask that very question is why he had stopped here.
In stillness, the lawyer watched the salesman.
The salesman was not embarrassed by his outburst. However, he recognized his question might be asked only in the cloistral quiet of this particular office. “I mean,” he stammered, “how can I know what to do?” Then he tried to lighten the mood. “Here, shall I write it down? I’ll depose you.”
The lawyer smiled. “I’m not a hostile witness.”
“No. But you’re way ahead of me, along the prayerful road.”
“Well, I’m not someone who has ever heard a mighty voice call my name and say, ‘Here’s what I want you to do.’ It would’ve been good if it had. But it hasn’t for me.”
The lawyer was short, round-faced, balding, more hesitant in his speech when discussing the life of the spirit than when discussing the life of the law. What the salesman liked was that prayer lay so near the man’s surface. It brought into this plain monastic room in this small town along a highway to other cities in the northern reaches of Maine an unhurried gravity, a lack of fear, which was soothing.
The simplicity of the office, the kind solicitude of its inhabitant—for a moment, the world receded, and the salesman might have been attending a Carmelite, at a time when he was inclined to speak.
“But how do you know?”
[For an answer, read Part Two next week.]
Let’s talk sin and salvation.
Here’s what might have happened.
Things like this have happened.
Over the telephone, the two of us settled on the date, the time, and the place.
I put the date, the time, and the place into my calendar book, which I carry around with me (most of the time). The young man wanted to talk with me about a book he had started to write. He had written stories, but this was his first try at a book-length story—a novel.
He had read my recent memoir. He was over-complimentary about it, but I liked his earnestness and his initiative. He had tracked me down. Turned out I lived on a peninsula not too far from his own, each of us being Maine coast writers.
We decided to meet for lunch at a country store that I knew made good salmon BLTs because it was about four miles from my house. It was about thirty miles from his house, but he said he did not want to inconvenience me with travel.
I could tell our meeting would be a big event for him. Like many young writers, he had passion for his nascent craft and a keen desire to develop colleagues. I liked what I knew of him already.
The day of our lunch arrived. The lunch was marked on my calendar. I had noticed our appointment the evening before when I checked my calendar about tomorrow.
About mid-morning, unannounced, a friend of mine—a lobsterman who was a deacon at our church—pulled into our drive. I knew he had been toying for several months with getting back into raising bees. He and I stood around his pickup truck, leaning over the sides of its bed and talked bees. He’d tracked down a man in a village about forty miles inland who was tired of bees and had hives for sale.
“Let’s go get them,” my friend said. “Want to go?”
I didn’t have anything planned for the day, and I’d done enough writing already that morning. My wife Channa was off doing things of her own. It was always fun rambling around the back roads of Maine with my deacon friend. “Sure.”
Off we went.
You already know how this sin happened. You live in the same world I do. It’s a fallen world, and you and I are fallen creatures.
Maybe you are not a person who forgets. But it’s a fallen world even so…for you, too.
What the devil likes is to find a crack in us and to wedge himself inside that crack and to widen that crack just a little, so we cause pain to those around us.
Channa was home when my deacon friend and I came back from our trip, his pickup filled with hives and extra supers and hive tools and other bee stuff. She was smiling. “How’d your lunch go?”
Over the telephone, the young writer said he forgave me—what else could he say?—but he was never available when I tried twice to make a replacement date with him.
I have two brains in me. One is a trying-to-be-a-better-man brain. The other is a don’t-bother-to-be-a-better-man brain. The first has a sunnier attitude than the second. However—here’s the other side—the first brain is anxious much of the time while the second brain gets little flashes of illicit pleasure.
To be sure, those flashes of illicit pleasure are instantly stamped out. My consciousness is shamed that they exist.
But the devil has his wily way when he whispers to me (not that I am aware that I hear him)—“No, no. You’re free all day today. Don’t bother to look at your calendar. What fun it will be to ramble the back roads of Maine and pick up bees.”
To forget is an ordinary human occurrence. Most people who have a tendency to forget have developed tactics to avoid forgetting. Make a note on a calendar, for example. What is sin is to allow your don’t-bother-to-be-a-better-man brain to accept the whisper of the devil that, of course, you need not look at your calendar when you are flushed with the sudden pleasurable anticipation of a bee ramble in Maine.
Before I was a Christian believer, I had an unsubtle notion of sin. Forgetting a lunch appointment is not sin, I would have said. I am not a sinner. I forgot a lunch appointment, that’s all.
But I was miserable. The young writer was miserable that an older writer apparently rejecting him.
But that’s not sin. Sin is the big stuff. Sin is murdering someone.
When I, a Jew, grappled with the possibility that Jesus truly might be the answer to my persistent miserable behavior (and to behavior that was misery-making for those I loved), I said that same thing to the man with whom I consulted about Jesus.
He was a pastor.
Arguing with him, I separated sin (murder) from allowing myself to be tempted by the devil with a day hunting for bees (not sin).
I intoned, “I don’t murder people.”
“But you could.”
“Dikkon, in fact there is no ultimate difference between you, and me, and Charles Manson.”
“What are you talking about!”
“I’m talking about whether there is an ultimate difference.”
“I would not murder Sharon Tate!”
“I agree. I don’t think you would. But you could have.”
“Think about it. You’re a smart man. And you’re honest with yourself. Is there an ultimate difference between you and Charles Manson? Think about it.”
I thought about it. He waited a bit and then prodded me. “Aren’t the differences that you are hanging onto in your mind, between you and him, really just circumstantial?”
“They are important circumstantial, but circumstantial just the same.”
“Maybe doesn’t cut it, Dikkon. You’d better think some more.”
I thought some more.
And when I thought some more, I realized that I needed forgiveness for sin.
I possess a sin nature. Consistently, I allow the devil to tug at me whenever he wants. And I sin.
So—just to be clear—I never murdered anyone. But my behavior makes me and everyone I love miserable, part of the time.
What’s the solution?
Simon Peter, the Rock on Whom Jesus Built His Church, wrote us two letters. He wrote them to his own people in his own time, but they are for us, now, too.
In his second letter, Peter—who knew Jesus personally yet possessed a sin nature, just as I do and as you do—Peter laid it on the line. He gives us the solution.
Jesus, Peter writes, “has granted to us his precious and very great promises, so that through them [we] may become partakers of the divine nature, having escaped from the corruption that is in the world because of sinful desire.” (II Peter, 1:4 ESV)
Peter goes on to speak to those who have faith. Faith, he reminds us, is not enough in itself.
To me (and maybe to you), he prompts, “Make every effort to supplement your faith with virtue, and virtue with knowledge, and knowledge with self-control, and self-control with steadfastness, and steadfastness with godliness, and godliness with brotherly affection, and brotherly affection with love.” (II Peter, 1:5-6 ESV, emphasis mine)
I’ve been an orthodox Christian believer for eleven years. I’m still at Step Two yearning toward Step Three. And to reach up even within touching distance of steadfastness would make me weep with relief.
One reason I love Peter is that this impulsive man is so gentle with the readers of his letters.
He doesn’t exhort. He reminds.
In 1:12, he gives us grace by referring to the hierarchy of glory and excellence this way. “I intend always to remind you of these qualities, though you know them and are established in the truth that you have.”
Indeed, when I am miserable and devil-tugged, I go back to Peter, who was just a guy like me, and I am grateful that he took the time to remind me of the truth.
My new birth in Christ came, appropriately, after a gestation which lasted nine months.
To begin the process, the Holy Spirit prompted me to get out of bed one Sunday, in March, in Maine, and to cross our country road to the Baptist church just up the way.
I was a Jew. My wife Channa and our four children were Jews. Of all things, why was I crossing this road?
Next, at that first Baptist service, the Holy Spirit opened my ears. That Jesus guy was able to get in under my guard.
Since Jesus was able to get in under my guard, I began talking with the pastor about Jesus and about all else Christian. We talked and we talked and we talked. For months! For so many months that the months counted up to nine.
Channa talked with the pastor, too, and she and I talked with one another, testing our temperature, as we put it—were we hot, or were we not?
Almost always we were hot.
Last, after nine months, the Holy Spirit placed me in the pastor’s office, for keeps. It was December, and the pastor’s and my conversation occupied its usual long time until, finally, he asked me, “Ready for some questions?”
He asked me four questions.
I answered each question with yes, without hesitation, without any of the constant struggle I had encountered during the first five or six months of the previous nine.
I answered yes.
I was reborn!
By answering yes, I had forsworn!
What had I forsworn? I had forsworn the stubbornness of my intellect.
My intellect had not wanted to give up. It had demanded that it understand. It had demanded that I not distract it with poetry and metaphor, and that it be provided hard proof.
Yet what I had needed during the five or six months was to get out from under the boulder of my intellect—to push it aside so that I my heart could breathe.
After nine months of gestation, I was reborn. I had forsworn. I walked out of the church that day and across the snow with what might be the same wonder as a new born baby feels when it perceives--light!
Three months later, the same happened for Channa, and, during the following four months, for two of our children as well.
And we were baptized.
All hail, Holy Spirit!
Newbies think that everything changes, and, in fact, they are right. Everything does change. However—as in the famous cliché—while everything changes, everything remains the same.
Except for that one detail.
Ah! That detail!
That detail is the Jesus detail.
Newbies assume that everything will get easier. No.
At least for me as a newbie, dealing with the things of the world got harder, not easier.
It took me a long time to understand why dealing with the things of the world should get harder, not easier. It’s because of that one detail I mentioned above, the Jesus detail. It’s because, for the first time, the things of the world became known to me for what they really are.
As a newbie, suddenly I had perspective which I had not had before. By means of my new perspective, I knew that the things of the world—formerly everything—were in fact lesser. They were base, profane.
Now, it was God things that were—and remain--everything.
While I was a Jew, God things were not everything. I regret this, but it was true. They were important, yes indeed. Even vital. But some God things were products of my intellect, hand in glove with my sense of poetic and metaphorical delight.
Many God things while I was a Jew had neither the reality nor the puissance that they acquired upon my rebirth.
Upon rebirth, I was annoyed that my struggles with worldliness continued to abrade me. The world was too much with me, even then, when I had wanted its troubles to fade away.
I wasn’t alone in this. Other newbies discovered the same thing. Even a very early newbie.
One biblical book was written by Jesus’ older half-brother sometime during the period 44 to 49 A.D. James is the name of Jesus’ half-brother. James’ letter is the earliest written document to have been included in the biblical canon.
The letter is written to members of the contemporary church…which, in one way of understanding, is to us, now, who suffer under the burden of the things of the world, as was the case for newbies two thousand years ago.
The letter is an exhortation, coming from a man who, at first, was an unbeliever in his half-brother’s divinity and then came to Christ—dynamically in the same way I did, although obviously with a profound difference since he knew the Lord personally.
I am fond of reading James’ letter. That’s because it is addressed to me.
My re-birth has not removed the world and my sins away from me. My sins, which mirror the world’s fallen nature, must be fought all the time.
And what does James, formerly a newbie, have to say in exhortation to me?
Does James write a lofty theology? No. James’ time of writing was too early for that. Theology had not yet had time to develop loftiness. Instead of being lofty, he’s practical, James is. In his letter, he asserts the real, the daily struggle.
“Gird your loins,” James seems to say.
I suffer from all the attacks James enumerates. Particularly one of them is my oppressor at the moment I write this post.
James admonishes us to fight. He shows us our weapons.
Possibly you, reader—newbie or otherwise—possibly you suffer from one or more of the attacks, as I do.
A gift of my new birth is that now I can speak directly to the Lord, when I am wretched. Here goes.
It shames me that you, Lord, should see each lapse of mine.
That’s what I say. That’s the core of my confession. But sometimes I add this--
You know my weakness and yet you have drawn me to yourself. For this reason, I am grateful, and for this reason, I continue to ask for your protection. If it is your will, may I fight successfully and may my soul be returned to you, as promised by your infinite love.
Then there’s nothing else to say, so I conclude--
What about you, reader?