April 2008


On a recent Sunday following a preaching assignment, I was craving a fish sandwich. I missed the turn off the four-lane for a fast-food place I knew had a big one, so I ended up at another restaurant I had studiously avoided.

Once I got my order, I knew why I didn’t go there. The sandwich they offered was tiny and mostly tartar sauce. I went to the men’s room after my “lunch” to get the residue off my hands. There was no hot water, so I turned on the cold. Trouble was, I couldn’t turn it off when I was finished.

For some reason, I felt a responsibility to fix the problem. I moved the handle to the left; the water kept trickling out. To the right, it gushed, with some ending up on my suit. I fiddled with the knob for a good minute or two, but finally gave up and left the water running.

I thought about my efforts as I drove home. Why was it up to me to try to turn off the water when the management obviously didn’t care enough to maintain their restroom? What made me think I could fix the faucet anyway? And why did I want to help them, especially when my experience at the place was only passable at best, leaving me wanting a fish sandwich that would satisfy my hunger?

The best answer I could come up with was “wiring.” It’s in my nature to try to help. And I like to leave things better than I found them, even if it’s a faulty faucet in a poorly-maintained fast-food joint I’ll never go to again. And, if I didn’t get that water turned off, would anybody else care enough to try?

Of course, I’m not alone in my desire to help, to make things better, to fix what’s wrong, be it a leaky faucet or some big systemic problem in society. Sometimes we have success, if not in finding a permanent solution, then at least in doing a temporary repair. We help friends find a compromise in their squabbling, maybe even a third way neither had thought of. We invent a product or devise a process that answers a need or brings people together. We share with newlyweds our wisdom gained from years of marriage, and they find a way through difficulties.

But not everything can be fixed or even patched. Sometimes organizations are so broken that no amount of re-imagining, goal-setting or board and personnel replacement will deal with the fundamental, systemic dysfunction. Relationships become so twisted with hate and recrimination that the best counselor will throw up his or her hands in frustration. Someone’s body becomes so diseased, his or her mind so chaotic, that medicines and therapy fail to make a difference. The promise of the rock song that “I will fix you” (Coldplay) becomes impossible to fulfill.

All this is simply to say that we can do some things, but not everything. Being human means being limited and being a healthy human means accepting our limitations. Only God can do the impossible. Only God can make “all things” new. It is only in Christ that “everything holds together.”

Guaranteed forever.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

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As I cradled my three-week old great niece in my arms last weekend, she began to dream. Her tiny eyelids fluttered as she entered REM sleep. She cooed; her breathing became more rapid. She kicked. Never had I encountered such a thing. I puzzled over what a baby could have to dream about. But then I realized two things. For one, dreaming is intuitive and non- or supra-rational. For the other, it’s part and parcel of being human. So why wouldn’t even a little infant dream?

Put another way, we are inherently imaginative, creative, and hopeful. Those are the essential qualities that make us human, for they most fully reflect the character of God, in whose image we are made.

Our brokenness does not define us, though at times it threatens to. Dante has over the entrance to Hell: “Leave all hope, you who enter here.” In other words, to be separated from hope equals becoming separated from God (see also Isaiah 38:18). Or to quote a somewhat less literary source, Nick says to Alex in Flashdance: “When you give up your dreams, you die.”

It is our ability to hope even in the direst of circumstances that testifies to our origins in the heart of God and by the hand of God. The flame of zeal for the future, of the dream for a better tomorrow, may become a mere flicker sometimes, but as long as we hope, we are not lost.

The apostle Paul expressed the confidence of someone with complete hope in God: “For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.” Another writer put it this way: “We have this hope, a sure and steadfast anchor of the soul…” (Hebrews 6:19).

We are all cradled in the arms of God and dreaming.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

A church musician employed by two churches for back-to-back Sunday services arrived at her second job to find the congregation was to celebrate Holy Communion that morning. “I won’t be receiving here,” she told the guest minister. “I took at the other church, and it just seems too much to get it here as well.”

When time came for the sacrament, the congregation proceeded to the Table to commune by intinction. The adults took little pieces of broken bread and dipped them in the chalice. But a boy of about nine or ten passed up those tiny portions for half of the large country biscuit-sized host the minister had blessed and torn.

This story seems to me to be a parable of the way people approach spirituality and their relationship with Jesus. Invited to “taste and see that the Lord is good,” some, like the musician, pick at their food or even refuse it. But then they wonder why they’re so hungry and crave so much all the time, why they’re always going after unhealthy snacks to satisfy their longings. A variation of the same approach is practiced by the “samplers.” Just give us a little bit every three months or so, they say, and that will do. And, by the way, all our food has to be comfort food, the familiar and immediately palatable. Nothing new or strange, nothing that might challenge or excite our taste buds. Anything else just seems “too much.”

Others, though, like the boy, can’t get enough of the Living Bread. They stuff their souls with his teaching, pulling off a big piece to chew on awhile. They savor the aroma, feel the texture, delight in the flavor. And then they want more. And still more. They feast on the Word every day, and they desire the Eucharist very often, for they long to be filled up with all the good things God in Christ has to offer. They trust the rich promise of God: “I am sending you grain, wine, and oil, and you will be satisfied” (Joel 2:19). And then they say with the psalmist: “My soul is satisfied as with a rich feast, and my mouth praises you with joyful lips” (Psalm 63:5).

I’m reluctant to say the latter approach/attitude is right and the former wrong. But it might be worth remembering that we follow a Savior who enjoyed life so much that he was called a glutton and a drunkard (Matthew 11:19). And let us also recall that Jesus came to give life “abundantly” (John 10:10).

Hmmm….

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham

“Send out your bread upon the waters, for after many days you will get it back” (Ecclesiastes 11:1)

A couple of years ago, a national Presbyterian magazine published some of my thoughts on how to start a campus ministry (http://www.pcusa.org/ideas/06fall/letssuppose.htm). When I told my dad about it, he wrote: “I’m sure it will go far in the PC(USA).” He meant “have a great deal of influence,” and in that regard, unfortunately, he turned out to be incorrect.

But the article did go “far” from Starkville in another way. It ended up motivating a PC(USA) pastor in Delaware to seek me out by phone earlier this week. She and a number of others are trying to start a ministry at the campus down the street from her church. Her call was a total surprise. I had no idea anyone would even read my piece, much less take time to track me down for further consultation.

Something I had filed away and nearly forgotten now has new life. We simply never know how our efforts will be used in God’s providence, the fruit they will bear for good someplace we’ve never been, among people we’ve never met. The results may be immediate or seen in a relatively short time, like a couple of years. Or that “bread” may float along on the streams of time or swirl in the eddies of cyberspace for quite awhile before we see it again and hear that someone far away was nourished by it.

Do good, then, even if you think your efforts won’t make any difference. Put your ideas out there. And don’t lose hope of their “going far.” God is always full of surprises.

© 2008 by Tom Cheatham