Seventeen of us sat in the seminary classroom that evening, complaining. It was September of 1972 and our beloved New Orleans Saints were playing in town that Monday night, with the game broadcast on television. As pastors, this would be one of the few games we might be able to attend. Unfortunately, our doctoral colloquium ran to nine o’clock and attendance was mandatory if we expected to graduate on time. With the game blacked out locally, we couldn’t even watch it on television. Through this cacophony of grumbling, the professor entered the classroom.
V. L. Stanfield was a legend on the campus of New Orleans Baptist Theological Seminary. Over six feet tall, he added to the effect by wearing western boots, an oddity in our city. He laughed easily and welcomed laughter in his classroom. Stories about him abounded, including the time he told why he moved to a French Quarter apartment above a bar: “I’ve always wanted to live above sin.”
Striding toward the front of the room, Stanfield called out, “Well, who has been a good boy today?” He was obviously in a playful mood.
“I have two tickets to tonight’s football game,” he announced, “which I am going to give to two of you.”
What happened next provides a wonderful study in psychology. Fifteen people sat at their desks waving their hands. Two got out of their seats and walked to the front. The professor laid the tickets in their palms and said, “The game starts at 8. It’s 7:05 now. I suggest you leave right away if you don’t want to miss the kickoff.”
The students collected their books and waved good-byes to the rest of the class as they headed out the door. Frank said, “Joe, I’ll drive if you will buy the hot dogs.” That suited me just fine. An hour later, the man sitting to our left said, “You boys from the seminary? Those are my seats. I give them to the school and I never know who’s going to be sitting beside me.”
Frank Harmon and I have taken a lot of good-natured ribbing from our classmates over the years, but I suspect neither of us regret for a moment being assertive on that Monday evening three decades ago.
Fifteen people sit back, waiting for good fortune to smile on them, while two get up and step forward. Tell me if that isn’t a parable of life.
Fifteen-year old Ellen sits in her room playing with the television and the computer. She watches rock stars and dreams of a life of luxury and celebrity. She primps at the mirror and insists her parents pay for her exotic hair styles and trendy clothing. Ellen is sure she is destined for fame, with admirers swooning over her beauty, the paparazzi chasing her over Europe, and her face adorning the hottest magazine covers. How to get from here to there has never occurred to her. Ellen sits in her room and waits.
I asked 16-year-old Roger, “What are you going to do when you grow up?” “I want to be a dentist,” he said. “How are your grades?” I said. “Huh?” he said. “Your grades. You have to have excellent grades to get into dental school. They don’t take just anybody.” Long silence. Roger replaced the headphones on his head, blocking out any further noise from my direction, and drifted back into his fantasy world. He waits for life to find him.
Ellen and Roger have never found the seam where today and tomorrow are connected. It has never occurred to either that what they do today determines who they become tomorrow.
Bob and Martha Lou ought to know better. They hold down two jobs, give their children every necessity and many luxuries, and are known in the neighborhood as fine, upstanding people. Frequently, Bob and Martha Lou turn on the television and watch the Sunday services from the First Baptist Church of New Orleans. They hear Pastor David Crosby calling them to “choose this day whom you will serve,” and they reverently nod their heads in agreement. The broadcast over, Martha Lou goes into the kitchen to prepare lunch while Bob heads outside for a little lawn work. Nothing is said and nothing ever happens.
Elton and Freida are less passive. On Sundays, they get dressed and drive the five miles to Parkview Baptist Church in Metairie. They sing the hymns and listen to Pastor Bill Day’s sermon and sometimes give an offering. They respect Pastor Bill and like his preaching, but when he calls for people to open up to Jesus Christ, to make Him Lord and Savior, and to leave the old life behind, Elton and Freida sit in their pews and do nothing. They watch others go forward, week after week, professing faith in Christ, but somehow doing so has never occurred to them. They believe everything the pastor says but have never made the connection between believing and doing.
One of the concerns of our Lord during His earthly ministry was the substitutes people offer God in place of action. He said, “If you know these things, blessed are you if you do them.” It is not the knowing which brings Heaven’s blessings, but the doing.
The list of substitutes which people offer to God rather than put feet to their faith is lengthy. It includes hearing, learning, studying, memorizing, knowing, teaching, enjoying, believing, approving, liking, loving, saying, professing, and claiming.
“Be doers of the word and not hearers only.” Hearing is no substitute for doing. Jesus said, “Whoever hears these words of mine and does them is like a wise man who built his house on a rock.” The best indication that we have learned, that we know, that we believe and love–is our action. Nothing tells the story on us like our behavior.
Four lepers were in bad trouble and knew it. The Aramean army had blockaded their city and everyone inside was starving. As beggars and at the bottom of the food chain, they would be the first to die. So, these unfortunate men came to a decision. “If we sit here, we die,” they reasoned. “But if we walk over that hill and surrender to the Arameans, the worst that can happen is they kill us–and we’re dying anyway. But they might feed us and keep us alive. It’s worth the risk.”
The beggars had no way of knowing that the Lord had panicked the Arameans and everyone had fled the camps. The four walked into a serendipitous delight of food and clothing and treasures.
By refusing to wait passively for a miracle, four beggars took charge of their fate and ended up saving a city. They became role models for those of us who live in desperate straits but do nothing about it. We need to get up and do something, acting to save our lives. It’s worth the risk.
In the final analysis, the Lord God will not ask us what we knew or believed or liked or heard or felt. Judgement will be based on one thing only: what did we do?
(Scriptures used include John 13:17; James 1:22; Matthew 7:24; and II Kings 7.)