Businessman Mike Herman tells of his lifelong attempt to catch a souvenir baseball at professional baseball games. A foul ball, a home-run ball or even a batting-practice ball—anything would do. One day, at a batting practice for the St. Louis Cardinals, he got to know James, a 5-year-old boy who was also trying to get a ball. James tried hard to pronounce the players’ names as he politely asked them for a ball. Herman describes the scene: “Before I knew it, my mission became getting a ball for James.
For about 20 minutes, I told him the names of the players who had a ball near the fence we stood behind, and the players turned and smiled as James tried to say their names. Still, no ball. Finally I told James he could have my ball if I caught one (I had been unsuccessful in catching a ball for almost 28 years, so that felt like a safe promise). I wouldn’t be telling this story if you didn’t know what happened five minutes later. I caught a ball, and yes, I gave it to James. I wonder how often God waits to give us something until we are willing to give it away?”
Hachi: A Dog’s Tale is a film based on a real story from Japan and a delightful parable about patiently waiting for the Lord’s return. When Parker Wilson, a college music professor in Rhode Island, steps off his commuter train at the end of the day, he finds a stray Akita puppy with the name Hachi etched on his collar. Parker discovers the puppy escaped a damaged crate after being shipped from Japan. Parker takes the dog home, determined to find the owner. While waiting for responses to the posters he has placed around town, Parker and the dog become friends.
One day, Hachi follows Parker on his way to work, which begins with a walk to the train station. Despite Parker’s bidding, Hachi refuses to return home until his master walks him back to the house. At the end of the day, however, when Hachi hears the train whistle, he runs to the train platform, curls up and waits for his master to return. When Parker sees him, he is stunned by this demonstration of loyalty. The next day the dog is there to greet him again, and on it goes, day by day.
One day Parker suffers a fatal heart attack in the classroom. Hachi waits for hours at the station for his master to step off the train, but he doesn’t return. This happens day after day for ten years, with the loyal dog waiting at the train platform each evening. And then one day, as Hachi drifts off to sleep, he sees his master beckoning him, and the dog runs toward him.
When pastor Clark Cothern was a child, his mother was the dean of women at Grand Canyon College in Phoenix, Arizona. What he saw of college presidents, he saw from floor level, while he played beside his mother’s desk in the administration building. “I would watch as students walked down the hall toward the president’s office and stop. They would rub their sweaty palms on their pants or skirts, take a deep breath, straighten their shoulders, and knock. The door would creak open. That’s when I would catch a glimpse of the president’s shiny, black wingtip shoes. The student would then disappear inside the mysterious chamber known as ‘The President’s Office.’ It was terrifying.”
One day Clark was playing with his toy car in the hall outside the president’s office when the door opened. Then he saw them — those shiny, black wingtip shoes. Unexpectedly, President Robert Sutherland, dressed in his pinstriped, three-piece suit, knelt down and asked, “May I have a turn?” They played cars together, and President Sutherland asked young Clark to call him “Dr. Bob.” The result? “That’s the day my opinion about the college president changed.”1 In a similar way, God came to us in Christ to share his life with us and to reveal that he is not a distant and terrifying being but a loving Father full of grace and truth.
Author Tony Campolo tells the story of a funeral he attended for his friend Clarence when he was 16 years old. For the last 20 minutes of the sermon, the pastor preached to the open casket. He yelled at the corpse: “Clarence! Clarence!” He said it with such authority. Campolo said he wouldn’t have been surprised had there been an answer. “Clarence,” the pastor continued, “there were a lot of things we should have said to you that we never said to you. You got away too fast.”
He listed a litany of beautiful things that Clarence had done for people. When he finished, he said, “That’s it, Clarence. There’s nothing more to say. When there’s nothing more to say, there’s only one thing to say. Good night. Good night, Clarence!” He grabbed the lid of the casket and slammed it shut. Shock waves went over the congregation. As the preacher lifted his head, you could see the smile on his face. He said, “Good night, Clarence, because I know God is going to give you a good morning!” Then the choir stood and starting singing, “On that great morning, we shall rise, we shall rise.”
Sometimes we look for external reasons for our problems when the real explanation lies deep inside of us: A 61-year-old Texas man kept getting drunk, even though he claimed he hadn’t been drinking alcohol. The escalating problem compelled doctors to isolate him — without booze — for 24 hours. He still got drunk. It prompted his physicians to look internally for the problem, and they found it. In the absence of healthy gut flora, brewer’s yeast had taken up residence in the man’s stomach and was turning any starch he ate into alcohol — and enough to inebriate him.
The problem is by no means common, but it does happen from time to time. It usually occurs after a round of antibiotics inadvertently wipes out the good bacteria our bodies need to stay healthy and in balance. When the Pharisees questioned Jesus about the fact that the disciples didn’t wash their hands before they ate, thereby defiling their food, Jesus responded by explaining that we are defiled when impure things — evil thoughts — come from the heart. It’s easier to blame anyone or anything except ourselves, but looking within is often the only way to find spiritual sobriety.
On August 7, 2007, baseball slugger Barry Bonds hit career home run number 756, the home run that broke Hank Aaron’s record. However, many questioned whether or not the new record should count because Bonds was alleged to have used steroids. Sports buffs said if his name is listed in the record book, it should be accompanied by an asterisk to indicate that the record is a sort-of record, a tainted record.
In 2008 Mark Ecko, the man who bought the ball Bonds hit to set the record, branded the baseball with an asterisk and donated it to the Baseball Hall of Fame and Museum. It’s not unusual for Christians to imagine we have an asterisk by our name. We may be destined for that Hall of Fame called heaven, but aware that our lives our tainted, we’re left with a sour taste in our souls. We’re grateful to enjoy eternal life with God, but we wish there wasn’t that sense of being tainted.
The gospel is hard to believe at just this point, but it is nonetheless the great truth. There is no longer a need for sin offerings. The forgiveness we are offered through Christ’s sacrifice doesn’t just make our sin null and void, it also erases the asterisk. God doesn’t see a fixed sinner, but someone righteous and pristine. We are in Christ, and Christ is in us. We are a new creation. The old has passed away — so much so that there is no need for an asterisk — and all things have become new.
The problem with the people of Babel was not that they wanted to be near to God — don’t we all? No, the problem was that they wanted to make a name for themselves. They were hungry for power and glory, and they were willing to go to great lengths to acquire it. A Chinese proverb says, “Those who think they are building a mound may only in reality be digging a pit.”
We often secretly hope that our deeds and aspirations for promotions and acts of service will attract recognition or even earn God’s approval. But we soon discover they may only drive us further from God and wreak havoc in our lives and the lives of others. When God saw the tower that the people of Babel were building, he said, “Nothing they plan to do will be impossible for them” (Geneses 11:6), so he confused their language and disrupted their work. It’s as if God had said, “If I let their sin go unchecked, there is no telling how much worse it will get.” So there is grace even in this judgment: God graciously restrains us from digging our own graves, so to speak.