ESPN Classic Boxing On Demand is currently running a match my dad told me about for years. It is the 13 round “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre,” the sixth bout between Sugar Ray Robinson and Jake LaMotta.  My dad was a big Sugar Ray fan. He had seen him box an exhibition bout in Trinidad the year I was born.  He (a middleweight) boxed the heavyweight champion of Trinidad and Tobago. The 52-year-old Robinson boxed most of the match with his right hand held behind his back and never got his hair mussed.  Many still consider Sugar Ray Robinson, pound for pound, the greatest boxer who ever lived.

            He fought Jake LaMotta 6 times from 1940 to 1951. Their first five fights were ended by decision. Their last fight ended when Robinson TKO’d LaMotta in the 13th round. Robinson won their initial fight by decision, despite being knocked down by LaMotta in the 1st. LaMotta won the second, by decision, knocking Robinson out of the ring.  It was Sugar Ray’s first defeat in the ring – ever. Robinson won the rematch three weeks later, despite being knocked down for a 9 count.  They fought twice more before LaMotta, who was always 16 pounds heavier, moved up to middleweight, with Robinson winning both by unanimous decision.

            When they met in Chicago, on Valentine’s Day, 1951 Sugar Ray Robinson was the welterweight champion of the world, and LaMotta the middleweight champion.  As I watched the fight yesterday, 62 years later, I could see clearly why it loomed so large in my dad’s memory. It was as good as (or better than) Ali-Frazier III.  It was the classic battle between the boxer and the puncher.  Robinson was slightly ahead on points at the beginning of the 11th round when he let loose a vicious barrage of lightning fast left jabs, right hooks, and uppercuts. For nearly three rounds he pummeled LaMotta’s face until the middleweight champion was lying helpless against the ropes unable to lift his arms in defense.  But he didn’t go down. Near the end of the 13th round the referee called the fight. 

            In Martin Scorcese’s biopic of Jake LaMotta, Raging Bull, LaMotta, dazed and barely conscious calls after Robinson – “You didn’t knock me down Ray! You didn’t knock me down.”  LaMotta lost 5 of 6 fights to Robinson, the last by TKO, but Robinson never knocked him down. He held on to that.

            There is something noble, even inspiring about standing even in defeat – in refusing to be knocked down.  Robert Falcon Scott cuts a much more dashing, romantic, and admirable figure than Roald Amundsen. But Scott and his party died. Jake LaMotta was never the same after the “St. Valentine’s Day Massacre.” 

            We live in a world hostile to our faith. It has always been so, and will continue to be.  In such a world it is easy to develop a bunker mentality, to hunker down, to feel defensive, to lie against the ropes and brace ourselves for a beating.  When you feel this way you cede victory to your opponent.

            But we are not called to this sort of resignation. We overwhelmingly conquer through Him who loved us (Romans 8.37).  The gates of hell will not prevail against us (Matthew 16.19). Our faith is the victory that overcomes the world (I John 5.4).  All this is because we are born of God (same verse). God in Christ has already crushed all enemies (Hebrews 10.11-13).

            Jesus did not die on the cross, raise the third day, and then ascend into heaven so we could lose with dignity. We are, through Him, victors. Let us never cede defeat to the Devil.  Let us never forget that Grace trumps him every time.  He has no answer for it. He is a loser. Grace is always greater than sin (Romans 5.17-21). Ours is not to cling to the ropes and hope not to buckle at the knees. Ours is to fight and win.  If our battle against Satan is compared to a fight for the middleweight championship of the world, we are Sugar Ray Robinson.  We win. No matter how many times we get knocked down, grace makes it so.

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I have been privy to several conversations about book reading habits recently.  Two of these are similar in theme and caused me to ponder the theme in light of how we live our lives.  One of these conversations happened at work where there was a debate on the merits of reading the last chapter first.  One person argued that by knowing the ending they were able to enjoy the reading and see how things unfolded.  Many others in the conversation were vehemently against this idea.  I enjoy books that have some form of mystery in their writing so I sided with the “you should never read the last chapter - first.”

The second conversation happened around the lunch table at Vacation Bible Camp.  A discussion of reading different types of books began and someone made a comment similar to I love those books; I have read them several times.  That made me reflect on the earlier conversations.  If you read a book for a second time, by definition, you already know the final chapter, and the rest of the book for that matter.  I have to reconsider my earlier position.  I have read Sir Arthur Conon Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes books several times.  That is the ultimate in “some form of mystery”.  I must conclude, or at least concede, that even if the ending is revealed ahead of time we can enjoy how the story is revealed in the reading.

Barry is teaching Revelation this quarter to the Senior High class.  I am reading it again to be prepared for conversations this may evoke.  Revelation is the revealing of the last chapter of every life.  It is truly an awe inspiring read.  However, let us consider the hope and confidence that is inspired by knowing the outcome. 

Jesus tells us not to worry – “(For after all these things the Gentiles seek:) for your heavenly Father knows that you have need of all these things” Matt 6:32. Jesus tells us we have a place in eternity - “In my Father's house are many mansions: if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you.” John 14:2. Jesus says he will take care of us here on earth and after we leave this earth.  We are to live boldly in our Christian walk – “Let us therefore come boldly unto the throne of grace, that we may obtain mercy, and find grace to help in time of need” Hebrews 4:16. “So that we may boldly say, The Lord is my helper, and I will not fear what man shall do unto me” Hebrews 13:6.  In boldness we live a life that praises him and brings others to him – “Let your light so shine before men, that they may see your good works, and glorify your Father which is in heaven” Matt 5:16.

Jesus wants us to know how the last chapter of life will look.  It was so important that John was provided a vison of the last moment in time and was provided the remembrance to write it down for us.  1 Thessalonians 4 and other scripture gives us a glimpse and knowledge of how the story ends.  The hope and confidence that comes from knowing the last chapter becomes the genesis of how we can boldly live a life that is well written and will inspire others as they “read” our story. 

Read God’s word.  Have faith in the ONE who is ever faithful.  Have hope in the ONE that is hope.  Rest in the love of the ONE that is love.  Know that if you follow HIM you have read about yourself in the words of scripture about the last chapter (being selected with the sheep - Matthew 25).  Read the last chapter, live life like you will obtain it and enjoy how your book develops.

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            The election of 1800 was as ugly, and rancorous as the one we are experiencing this year. It was the election James Callender accused John Adams of being a senile hermaphrodite. It was the election Aaron Burr nearly stole from Thomas Jefferson. In 1800 electors did not specify on their ballots whom they were choosing as President and Vice President. Thus Jefferson and Burr both ended up with 73 electoral votes. Burr, who was supposed to be Vice President, would not yield and tried to steal the election. The election was thrown into the House of Representatives. It was the Federalists, and particularly Alexander Hamilton who decided the election by moving their support to Jefferson.

            Hamilton, in a series of brief letters to Federalist members of the House, offered two reasons for supporting Jefferson. The first was that although the Federalists disagreed with Jefferson politically, they could admit that Jefferson was seeking the greater good, whereas Burr was only seeking power for Burr. The second reason Hamilton gave was that he was convinced Jefferson, would “venture less” than Burr.* To Hamilton, Jefferson would do the least harm.

            If I do vote for a candidate on the ballot this November (instead of writing in a name), this will be my criteria – which will “venture less.” Thinking back, I find this has been my criteria in 6 of 9 elections in which I have had the privilege to vote. This is a bit discouraging. The institutional decay in our nation seems to require bold action.

            We are constantly reminded of the vast gulf between the leadership we need and the leadership we get - by rising crime rates, crumbling infrastructure, lead poisoned tap-water, increasing income disparity, domestic terrorism, and racial unrest. More than anything else, mass shootings remind us how ill prepared we are to face evil.

            The mass shooting in Orlando last weekend produced 100 casualties and 49 dead. It is hard to imagine such carnage being carried out by 1 shooter. The Sandy Hook shooting still haunts me, because that shooting took place in an elementary school and most of the victims were children. How can we protect our children? How does one explain any of this to a child?

            In a brilliant piece Fred Rodgers did in the wake of 9-11, he encouraged kids to “look for the helpers” whenever something bad has happened. There are helpers around doing all the good they can when tragedy strikes. Taking his advice, we should be heartened by the hundreds in Orlando who lined up to give blood. Lines stretched for blocks, as people patiently waited to do something good.

            It is a great evidence of the good in us, of God in us, that when evil strikes a mighty blow our impulse is to find a way to assert goodness. We feel the need to do something good now, as an act of defiance – as a way of shaking a fist in Satan’s face.

            Jesus teaches us that goodness needs to be an action, not merely a reaction.

            So whatever you wish that others would do to you, do also to them, for this is the law and the prophets. Matthew 7.12

            The “golden” rule demands action. It is about what we do. It makes each of us responsible for asserting goodness daily – not just making a token response when evil seems to have triumphed. Jesus is telling us to “venture more,” to do the good we know to do as soon as we know to do it. James says plainly, “So whoever knows the right thing to do, and fails to do it – for him it is sin,” (James 4.17).

            There are no verses in the New Testament that encourage us to confront evil with an angry rant (or tweet, or posting, or mass-email).

            The New Testament tells us we must assert goodness every day. We must meet every challenge to goodness with a response characterized by “gentleness and reverence” (I Peter 3.15). We must not be numbered among those who say and share hateful things, only to be surprised when others act on those same hateful impulses.

            We assert goodness. We venture more.

*The Founders on the Founders, edited by John P. Kominski, University of Virginia Press, 2008, pp.86-88.

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            The most popular book in Europe for a thousand years was The Consolation of Philosophy, by Boethius. Boethius was born around 480, a member of one of the oldest Roman families, the Anicia. His father was a consul of the Western Empire. His uncle was a pope. He was a scholar. Naturally bookish and inquisitive he amassed a large personal library. He was expert in several languages. He read Greek and Hebrew, perhaps the only man of his generation who had mastered both Biblical languages. He wrote textbooks on Astronomy, Mathematics, Music Theory, and Natural Science. He was a Christian.

            When the Ostrogoths conquered the Western Empire in 510, Theodoric made Boethius a consul. It was a political choice. Boethius, a Christian from an ancient family, was no politico – he was a scholar, and thus no threat to Theodoric. Because he was no politico, he ended up blundering into some palace intrigue, and was arrested in 522.  For two years he was held in the palace of Pavia. He was denied access to his library, but allowed writing material. During those two years he produced The Consolation of Philosophy. In 524 he was bludgeoned to death.

 The Consolation of Philosophy is a book which celebrates wisdom. Like the biblical book of Proverbs, it begins and ends with wisdom personified as a woman. It communicates Christian values – particularly sacrifice, reverence, self-control, humility, and gratitude.  It is a compendium of quotes of classical authors, all made from memory. He quotes Cicero, Catullus, Claudian, Euripides, Ovid, Seneca, Sophocles, Virgil, and Horace among others. He does not quote the Bible – not even once.

            Thus, many question whether it should be considered a Christian book at all. It has a biblical structure. It communicates Christian values. It is by a Christian. However, many secular and Christian scholars regard The Consolation of Philosophy a piece of Classical scholarship. These scholars are right. The Consolation of Philosophy is an amazing piece of scholarship, and an inspiring read – but it is not a Christian book.

            I wonder how many “Christian” books published each year would compare to Boethius’ masterpiece. I think a browse through the most popular Christian titles will make that ancient Roman seem quite modern. Replace the quotations from Marcus Aurelius, and Euripides with humorous anecdotes and inspiring stories, leave out the Bible, and you have a best-seller (especially if you get a jacket-blurb from an athlete or recording artist).

            Some writers (and preachers) use the Word as a garnish – decorating their message with a catch-phrase, or slogan from the Bible. Some use the Word as a condiment – sprinkling a verse or two here or there to give their message a real “biblical” flavor. I believe this to be an insidious form of pandering and disrespect – to the Word, and those to whom we communicate it.

            I believe the Word is the entrée. I believe everyone who writes or preaches as a Christian should conform to the standard established by Ezra:

            For Ezra had set his heart to study the law of the LORD, to practice it, and to teach His statutes and ordinances in Israel. Ezra 7.10

            Anything we have to offer is inferior to what the Bible offers and always will be.  If we share the Word, purely and simply, we will have given the best there is.  I remember the fuss raised when the Department of Education declared, back during the Reagan administration, that ketchup could count as a vegetable in school lunches. The fuss was justified. Ketchup is a condiment, not a nourishment.

            I wish more of us would raise a similar fuss about our spiritual diet.

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The asterisk (*) before a verse marks the stanza that may be omitted, if necessary, without materially affecting the continuity of thought.

                        -Forward to the 54th edition of Great Songs of the Church

            Each year I pick an old hymnbook off the shelf and sing through the songs (not all at once, mind you, but over the course of the year).  This year I pulled down an old, 1974 edition of Great Songs of the Church.  I like to remember the old songs, and they will only be remembered if sung. Hymn #4 in this hymnbook is “Alas and Did My Savior Bleed,” and as I was singing this hymn I noticed an asterisk by verse 2. At the bottom of the page there was an asterisk attached to the words “See Note in Foreword,” so I did. The note from the foreword is the one mentioned above.  This is a six verse hymn in the 54th Great Songs hymnbook, which some song-leaders might think too long. And so instead of just leading verses 1, 2, and 5 the editors have chosen which verse may be deleted without “materially” interrupting the continuity of thought. That word “materially” sounds lawyerly and makes me immediately suspicious.

            The verse chosen for omission is the line: Was it for crimes that I have don he groaned upon the tree? Amazing pity, grace unknown, and love beyond degree.

            I happen to like this verse because the phrase “groaned upon a tree” is so evocative.  The editors of Sacred Selections, and Christian Hymns must have agreed because they include verse 2.  In these once ubiquitous hymnbooks the song only has four verses, and both omit the same verse, verse 4: Thus might I hide my blushing face while his dear cross appears; Dissolve my heart in thankfulness, and melt mine eyes to tears.  I guess if you’re going to cut a verse this would be the one. As a guy, I think it’s a little weird to sing about “my blushing face.” Also, I get a little squeamish thinking about eyes melting into anything – ouch.

            And yet, the last verse begins with the phrase But drops of grief can ne’er repay the debt of love I owe….. and without verse 4 you don’t know what “drops of grief” we’re singing about.

            My point is this: All the verses have to be there.  We may not use them all, all of the time, but we need to know them all – and I am not talking primarily about hymnbooks – I’m talking about the Bible.

            I play favorites with verses. There are some I continually return to, and some others I rarely mention when I preach. I always (always) mention John 3.5 when delivering the invitation. I like this verse because it comes from the mouth of Jesus.  But Galatians 3.27, Acts 2.38, I Peter 3.20 and several other verses would serve as well or better depending on the situation. I also find I return for personal study to the passages I like. Any of the Gospels, I John, Ecclesiastes, Ruth, the Psalms – these I read over and over again. I hate to admit that I really have only a cursory knowledge of Jeremiah or Ezekiel. I would like to say, in the words of James, “My brethren, these things ought not to be this way,” (3.10).

            Let us all remember that any omission “materially” affects the continuity of thought, and that ALL scripture is inspired by God, and thoroughly prepares us for every good work (II Timothy 3.16-17). Let us be committed to listen to the whole counsel of God – not just the verses we like.

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