So…about that play.  You know the one, “A Christmas Carol”?  I recently wrote about its ghosts…remember?  Well, there’s one more thing that kept pulling at me, so I had to pull back.  And when I pull back, I put down.  So, here’s what I put down.  I hope it pulls at you too!


“For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds,”     2 Corinthians 10:4

       At the beginning of “A Christmas Carol”, an apparition introduces the audience to the storyline and to its main character, Ebenezer Scrooge.  We learn, through this ghostly being, that Mr. Scrooge’s life is about to be interrupted and that Marley, in his chained condition, is the vessel through whom this opportunity will present itself.  It’s an interesting concept, that of the dead bringing advice and counsel from the grave, but…in part…it’s an accurate one.  Not the part about a ghostly figure appearing and saying, “Don’t do what I have done,” but the part where the chains of an old life are forged into the armaments of a new life.  It’s the old life/new life lesson that presents itself in this story.  That, and the warning given by one who has received his just rewards; granted, he’s a ghost, but it is a fictional story so let’s allow rationality to give way to intentionality, and learn the lessons of the chain.

Before we look at the two lessons contained within the links of Marley’s chain, let’s first refresh our memory by revisiting this play.  We’ll slip in during Act 1, Scene 3.  Here, we see Marley entering Scrooge’s bedchamber, where he explains his appearance and announces the evening’s agenda.

(Marley’s ghost enters the room.  He drags an enormous chain now, to which is fastened cash-boxes, keys, padlocks, ledgers, deeds, and heavy purses fashioned of steel.)

 Marley:  I wear the chain I forged in life.  I made it link by link, and yard by yard.  Is its pattern strange to you?  Or would you know, Scrooge, the weight and length of the strong coil you bear yourself?  It was full as heavy and long as this, seven Christmas Eves ago.  You have labored on it, since.  It is a ponderous chain.

Marley:  I am here tonight to warn you that you have yet a chance and hope of escaping my fate.  A chance and hope of my procuring, Ebenezer.

There we have it.  Jacob Marley, encumbered with a weighty chain, returns by his own desire (hope of my procuring) to offer counsel and hope to his former business partner and friend, Ebenezer Scrooge.  While a ghostly appearance would be alarming enough in itself, this one is far from what one would expect…should one have expectations for a ghost!  Marley is not floating about carelessly, but is haltingly moving under the weight of a heavy chain.  He explains the meaning of the chain, and from that we will receive the same lesson Scrooge received, but there is another lesson linked to this chain.  The second lesson has to do with chains that have been removed…and reforged.  Marley didn’t learn that lesson, so it wasn’t his to share; but Scrooge did.  And, should there have been a sequel to “A Christmas Carol”, I think he would have shared it with us.  But we needn’t rely upon fictional stories to learn our lessons when we have the best-selling, truth-telling, non-fictional book of all time at our fingertips!  The Bible is filled with examples of men and women who have learned the lesson of the chain.  For our purpose, we’ll go to the writings of Paul.  From his life, we’ll learn what Scrooge did; we’ll learn the second lesson of the chain.

When Marley first appears to Scrooge, he gives an explanation for his chain.  For the reader’s benefit, the chain is described so that we too might see what Scrooge sees.  It is described as having items attached to it, not unlike a charm bracelet whose trinkets represent the one who wears it.  For Marley, the tokens which symbolize his life are cash-boxes, ledgers, deeds, padlocks, and keys.  From these “charms”, we learn that Marley’s drive for financial gain was matched only by his desire to lock up that which he had collected.  And, for every earthly treasure he acquired, an eternal link was added to his chain.  That which brought freedom in life, brought captivity in death.  Herein lies the first lesson of the chain:  our current life affects our coming life; that which we desire in part on earth, we will receive in full in eternity.

Marley sought earthly treasures during his life so that, in his death, he received the weight of their accumulation.  Gone was their luster; all that remained was their load.  Jesus warned of such a result in Matthew 6:21; “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.”  Jesus told all who would listen to be careful with earthly pursuits, for they would have eternal pay-offs.  In Galatians 6:7-8, Paul expounds upon Jesus’ message with an analogy:  “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.  For the one who sows to his own flesh shall from the flesh reap corruption, but the one who sows to the Spirit shall from the Spirit reap eternal life.”  You are no doubt familiar with the saying ‘you are what you eat’.  Well, from a spiritual perspective, ‘you chain what you chew’.  Marley’s taste for the possessions of the physical world left him chained to those treasures in death.  When it was time for his heart to join his stored up treasures, he didn’t have far to go.  His links kept him chained to the earth and unable to soar to the heavens.

If Marley’s destiny was doctrinally true, some of us might not be too concerned with the eternal links we form during our earthly stay.  But we must separate fiction from fact, especially when it comes to our eternal destination.  While carrying around a weighty chain might not sound appealing, it doesn’t compare to the weights that will encumber the one who has chosen the gifts of his god over the God of his gifts.  In 2 Peter 2:4, we’re told of the chains that were placed upon the angels who sinned against God; chains that bound them to the darkness of hell as they awaited their coming judgment.  In Mark 9:43, hell is described as a place where the fire never goes out and in Matthew 13:42, it is described as a blazing furnace where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.   Will there be chains that bind the unbeliever?  Yes.  But those chains won’t hold him to an existence in the earthly realm, but will fasten him to a pit of desolation in an eternal realm of darkness.

As a result of Marley’s visit, Ebenezer Scrooge was able to escape the fate that enslaved his friend.  The chain that he had been forging was now being removed, section by section, link by link, token by token.  Scrooge had received an amazing gift; he’d been given a rewrite by the playwright that allowed him to stand upright!  No longer was he held captive by despair, now he was captivated by hope; no longer did the invisible chain with its indelible weight keep him tethered to a painful past, now it linked him to a purposeful future.  And, because the length of his days now exceeded the limits of his chain, Scrooge learned the second lesson of the chain:  that which once fettered can be reforged.

In Scripture, we find examples of others who learned this lesson as well.  Those whose scripts were rewritten by another Playwright that they too might stand upright.  Men such as Joseph, Moses, and Nicodemus; women such as Rehab, Abigail, and Mary Magdalene.  While lesson number one teaches us about the forming of chains, lesson number two teaches us about the reforming of chains, and each of these individuals knew the value of reforged chains.  Paul knew this too, and he wrote about it for our benefit.  He is to us what Marley was to Scrooge:  the voice of one who steps out of the past to speak into our present…to redirect our future.

Paul’s chains fell off on the Damascus Road, or somewhere between there and Judas’ house on Straight Street.  But, despite the where, we know the what…and the Who.  Paul encountered Jesus on that road and, as a result, not only was his chain removed, but it was remade.  Paul’s weight of earthly good was refashioned into a weight of eternal glory.  Through the Holy Spirit, Paul looked not “at the things which are seen, but at the things which are not seen.  For the things which are seen are temporary, but the things which are not seen are eternal.” (2 Cor. 4:17-18).  Can you hear the clinking of the chain as it fell?  Can you hear the hammering as its links are forged into weapons of defense?  “For though we walk in the flesh, we do not war according to the flesh.  For the weapons of our warfare are not carnal but mighty in God for pulling down strongholds, casting down arguments and every high thing that exalts itself against the knowledge of God, bringing every thought into captivity to the obedience of Christ,” (2 Cor. 10:3-6).  With these words, we learn Paul is on the battle line…on the front line, and he is firing away with his weapons of warfare.

But where did these weapons come from?  From what arsenal did Paul receive his tools of defense?  I believe Paul’s spiritual weapons were arrows forged from the links of his chain.  I think each link was smelted and shaped into the shaft of an arrow and I think the tips of the arrows were fashioned from the trinkets, from the charms, that decorated that former chain.  From where does such a thought emerge?  From the words of Paul; from the lesson he learned after he was visited by the Holy Spirit:  “All things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are the called according to His purpose.” (Romans 8:28).  If all things work for our good, then God doesn’t throw old things away, but refashions them to be used for our good…for our defense.  Based upon this truth, the links that made up the chain that once bound us are not rejected but are recycled.  Add to this verse the verses in which Paul uses military terms (“put on the whole armor of God”, Eph. 6:10; “we are more than conquerors”, Rom. 8:37; “endure hardship as a good soldier of Jesus Christ…engaged in warfare”, 2 Tim. 2:3-4), and we know that the unchained life is not an unassaulted life.  Yes, God fights for us.  Yes, the battle has been won.  But, yes, we must engage in the conflict.  Yes, we must place the arrow in the bow…pull back the string…and fire when the enemy approaches.  And from where do our arrows come?  From the same Blacksmith who forged Paul’s; from the One who refashions links and tokens into arrows and tips.

One chain, two lessons.  Two lessons, one change.  Like Scrooge, we too have an opportunity to learn from those who have gone before us; to learn what binds and what releases, what arms and what defeats us.  As one year fades and another unfolds, let’s reflect upon the lessons of the chain and, like Paul, let the weight of earthly goods be exchanged for the weight of eternal glory.

Moving from “But God…” to But God

Moving from “But God…” to But God…

“But God demonstrates His own love toward us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  Romans 8:28

                In my kitchen, there’s a sign with this phrase that greets me each morning:  But first, COFFEE!  I love it.  It’s simple (just three words), direct (have coffee), and directional (have coffee first).  It somehow sends the message that, no matter what the day may hold, it can be handled…and inoculated…with the right amount of caffeine.  And, should the molehill turn into a mountain, simply repeat the process as often as necessary.  After all, since the phrase begins with a conjunction it’s literally “hitch ready”; just hook up and fill up!  Here is a fuel that can be ingested anytime, anywhere, and anyway!  Iced, frothed, condensed, steamed, or percolated; have a preference?  Coffee offers a possibility…and, if consumed first, is a precedent to whatever else may happen in the course of a day.

               Today, as I looked at my sign, pouring my first of several “as needed” cups of coffee, I thought about coffee:  brown, rich, aromatic, yummy.  (It was early and my thoughts were still as dim as the still darkened sky.)  But, as I began to sip it’s lusciousness, either the heat from the cup or the caffeine in the cup redirected my eyes from the word COFFEE to the two words that preceded it:   But first.  As I stared at these words, I thought about conjunctions…(but)…and ordinal words…(first)…and wondered if this simple phrase was, in reality, more of a philosophy than a command.  So I asked myself (dangerous when not even one cup of coffee has been consumed), do I “But first,” other things?  Do I take a side-line approach to some things because, as is true with coffee, I think something else should come first?  Do I put off doing, or going, or saying the right thing because, in my mind if not on my tongue, there’s a “But first…”?  Do I try to armor up on my own when I’m facing a battle or do I search for something tasty to precede the something bitter?  Do I, and this is a biggie, take this tone with God?  Do I…have I…answered Him with a, “But first, …”, or even worse, with a, “But God…”?  Gulp!  I knew the answer to this….and I was going to need another cup of coffee.  Darn sign.

Conjunctions.  They’re supposed to be helpful.  They are meant to join words or phrases together and as such are quite necessary.  For example, “and” comes in handy when you want to let the waiter know you want coffee and dessert.  Likewise, “or” finds its value when, in turn, the waiter asks if you want sugar or sweetener in your coffee.  They may be little, but they are the Legos of our constructed speech that snap our thoughts together.  However, when it comes to “but” all too often this conjunction serves more as a block than as a connector.  “I’d like to bring you some coffee, but first I must take care of my other customers.  I’d be happy to bring you some cheesecake, but all that’s left is the tofu truffle.”  Buts are different.  They reroute before they join and all too often what they join is what we don’t want!  And, we are able to hear them before they’re spoken.  How often have you been listening to someone and you interject with, “I hear a but coming.”

I think many of are prone to bouts of conjunctionitis.  It could also be referred to as “mouth, hand, and foot disease” or, as I will henceforth refer to it, “But God Syndrome”.  It starts with an elevated personal agenda.  Early signs are pouty lips and a rattling in the chest that emits sounds of, “But God, (cough, cough) I’ll spend time with You later…(cough, cough)…when I have more time.”  Next, it moves from the mouth to the hands and presents itself through the stiffening of one’s ability to serve others and sounds like, “But God, I’ll help later…when there are fewer demands on my time.”  Then, in its full-blown stage, “But God Syndrome” affects the mobility of one’s feet and is evidenced by statements such as, “But God, I promise I’ll go to church when I can…it’s just that, for now, things are a bit hectic.”  It’s an illness that’s been around as long as mankind…actually, even longer!  Lucifer, while still in the heavenlies, came down with “But God Syndrome” as he sought to be the worshippee rather than the worshipper…and God butted him right out of Heaven!  Cain was infected too.  His illness showed up when he decided tomatoes could pass as a “blood offering”.  God disagreed.  Cain’s conjunctionitis spread…and soon his brother was dead.  A terminal case of “But God Syndrome” (Genesis 4). Sarai too suffered with this disease; “But God must have meant for us to use Hagar,” (Gen. 16).  Esau and Jacob caught it; “But first give me your birthright,” Esau interposed.  “But God, what good is a birthright if I die?” thought Jacob.  “Take it, it’s yours, Esau,” (Gen. 25).  And on it spread throughout the Old Testament and right on into the New Testament.  Peter showed signs when he said, “But Lord, I will never deny You,” (John 13), and another would-be follower responded to Jesus’ invitation with, “I will follow You, but first let me bury my parents,” (Luke 9:59).  And on and on the disease spreads right into our decade…right into our day:  “Yes, Lord, I will serve You, but first…”

It’s a subtle disease, this conjunctionitis.  It comes on so gradually that we often fail to realize we have it, though we are MDs when it comes to diagnosing it in others!  (Oh, how truthfully Jesus’ words speak to this when He said, “Physician, heal thyself!”; Luke 4:23)  Thankfully, God is the Great Physician and He has extracted the but from our “But God Syndrome” and has created the antidote, oddly enough known by the same name…minus the quotation marks:  But God Serum.  How does He apply this medicine?  By injecting Himself into our thoughts, actions, and issues.  He, through Jesus, connects our life to His purpose.  He reroutes our paths, redirects our focus, and reestablishes our footing.  To every one of our “But God” interjections He injects a But God serum of truth.  He gave the first dose in Genesis 3:15.  Here, when Eve gave her version of, “But God, the serpent tricked me,” it was Satan who heard the but coming when God told him He would send a Savior through whom Satan’s head would be crushed.  In Genesis 8:1, we read, “But God remembered Noah…” and in Genesis 50:20, Joseph reveals his knowledge of God’s truth serum when he tells his brothers, “As for you, you meant evil against me, but God meant it for good.”  David also showed signs of inoculation when he wrote in the psalms, “But God will ransom my soul (Ps. 49:15); but God is the strength of my heart (Ps. 73:26)”.  In John 1:18, we’re injected with the truth that God reveals Himself through Jesus (“No one has ever seen God, but God the One and Only, who is at the Father’s side, has made Him known.”) and in Acts 2:24, we’re reminded of the Great Physician’s power when we read, “But God raised Him [Jesus] from the dead…because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on Him.”  And, finally, one of the greatest doses of But God serum is found in Romans 5:8:  “But God demonstrates His own love toward us in that, while we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”  In true God fashion, He meets us where we are, pinpoints the source of our illness, and inoculates us with the antidote of His word, the one and only Truth serum.

Simple phrases; aptly applied conjunctions; correctly placed ordinal words.  But first, Coffee.  I still like my sign, but I think I need to replace a word.  The questions is, should it read, ‘But first, God’ or ‘But second, Coffee’?  Either way, I hear a but coming…