The Cold Within
Six men, trapped by happenstance in the bleak and bitter cold.
Each one possessed a stick of wood, or so the story’s told.
Their dying fire in need of logs. The first mam held his back.
For of the faces round the fire, he noticed one was black.
The next man looking cross the way saw one not of his church.
And could not bring himself to give the fire his stick of birch.
A third man sat in tattered clothes. He gave his coat a hitch.
Why should his stick be put to use to warm the idle rich?
A rich man just sat back and thought of things he had in store.
And how to keep what he had earned from the lazy, shiftless poor.
The black man’s face bespoke revenge as their fire passed from site.
For all he saw in his stick of wood, was a chance to spite the white.
The last man of this forlorn group did naught except for gain.
Giving only to those who gave to him was how he played the game.
Their sticks clenched tight in death’s cold hands was proof of human sin.
For they didn’t die from the cold without; they died from the cold within.
I don’t know who wrote that poem. I wish I did.
I stumbled upon it years ago when I was competing for my high school speech and debate team. (Yes, I was that kind of cool in high school).
I don’t recall ever competing with it.
And I don’t recall ever making a conscious decision to memorize it.
And yet, years later it remains – engrained in my memory banks.
In fact, it has become such a part of my subconscious that, at times, I hear lines and phrases rattling around in my head.
One line, in particular, frequently reappears.
It’s a line near the end – the one used to describe the last man – “giving only to those who gave to him was how he played the game.”
It would make sense that that specific line would be meaningful to me because of my job – working in government and politics, I spent a lot of time with people who gave only when they got something in return.
But I don’t think that’s the case.
No, I think this poem – and that line in particular – have stayed with me … and come back to me so frequently, but it is what I most fear becoming.
By the time I stumbled upon this poem – at age 15 or 16 – I was already a believer, committed to living my life as God was calling me to live.
But I didn’t yet understand what that meant.
Like every teenager, I longed to belong … to fit in. And even though my understanding of faith was pretty naïve, I knew enough to know that behaviors and even the beliefs required of me to “fit in” didn’t match my faith.
As a teenager, the measures of success were social status and academic achievement and the right clothes.
For us as adults, its money, power and possessions. Those are the yardsticks by which earthly success is judged.
Who God calls us to be … and who the world tells us to be are not the same.
About a year ago, a new survey was released – with great fanfare – that looked at Americans attitudes about success. The headlines trumpeted the dramatic shift in American perspective.
Instead of money and prestige being at the top of the list of ways we define success, now Americans believe that the most important ingredient in being successful is happiness.
The key finding in the study, according to one of the researchers, was that Americans no longer put material possessions but rather put their feelings – specifically happiness, first.
But if you looked a little closer at the data … the number one thing people said made them happy was money.
I’ve relearned that lesson again just recently.
Tell the world you’ve quit your high-paying job that people perceive as one of influence and power in order to become a minister and you’ll get a fast reminder of what our world values.
I recently updated my LinkedIn profile to reflect my new job and actually had multiple people tell me my account had been hacked and “crazy stuff” had been added to my profile. One person emailed to tell me to “hurry and fix it before people start to believe it’s true.”
Paul’s letter to the church at Colassae reminds us that this is not a new challenge.
From the earliest days, Christians have struggled to live out their values in a world that doesn’t share them.
Understanding who the Colossians were might better help us identify with their situation.
Colossae had once been a thriving city on an active trade route in Asia Minor (modern day Turkey). As a result, it was a city of wealth and influence.
But by the time of Paul’s writings, those glory days were fading. The newest trade route went a different way so it was now a city in decline.
Knowing that, we can understand a little about why the people who lived there might have been vulnerable to false prophets and charlatans. They had to be anxious, as people facing change often are, fearful about what the future might hold.
And then along comes someone who claims they know the secrets to winning God’s favor forever – who can ensure that you will be returned to your previous status – who can ensure that “they” (whoever “they” are) won’t keep taking what’s rightfully yours.
We can imagine it all playing out, can’t we?
Paul’s letter to the Colossians addresses this reality head on. He lays out clearly and cogently how our lives should be different once we have become followers of Jesus.
The entire letter is essentially a celebration of what a gift Jesus Christ is to the community of faith. Because he lived, we have a new context and a new power by which we can live. But to be truly transformed by the gift of Jesus, we have to do a few things.
And in the passage our Paul just read, the Apostle Paul tells us what those few things are.
First, I think it’s important to note that all of the “yous” in this passage are plural. Paul is not talking to a single person who has gone astray. He is talking to all of us … together. I think that’s more important now than it was even then. Ours is a world where individualism is celebrated. Each of us is responsible for our own success. “Pull yourself up by your bootstraps” – isn’t that the American ethos?
But Paul says no – as Christians, we are in it together. We are called to be a community.
As Christians, we are not merely called to be of good character. We are called to action.
We have to “put on” certain traits – compassion, humility, kindness, gentleness and patience - so that they aren’t merely who we are … they determine how we live.
Stan Mast, the Christian Reformed Church pastor who led a congregation in Grand Rapids until his recent retirement, described Paul’s call to us this way … (and I love his imagery).
Paul letter reminds us that we are called to put on the work clothes of discipleship each day.
Start with the foundation garments – the underwear, if you will. That would be compassion and humility. Compassion and humility – how we care for others, to the point of putting their needs before ours - are the basic building blocks of all human relationship. No relationship is truly possible where compassion and humility are absent, so we must start with those.
Next, Paul tells us to put on the work clothes of Christian life – kindness and gentleness – the jeans and sweatshirt of our everyday world.
They are not flashy, or sexy or stylish, but they meet the most fundamental of human needs. They should be well worn and broken in because we will need them everyday. Basic human kindness – shown one to another - demonstrates the life changing work of God more simply and directly that anything else we can do. And in a violent world, the need for gentleness worn right out there on our sleeves is clearer than ever.
Next, we must lace up our shoes of patience, so that we can continue to walk with one another even when the race seems too long and too hard to complete.
And, of course, we will need a full wallet of forgiveness. Realistically, we can’t keep from “grieving one another” as Paul calls it, so we will need to reach into that wallet often to pull out big wads of forgiveness.
Finally, we must bind all of this together with an overcoat of love. Paul reminds us that in order to live as Christ called, we don’t need deep philosophy or secret knowledge or long sets of rules like the Colossians were being led to believe.
No, we simply need Christ-like love that transforms our lives so that we might reflect that love to all whom we encounter.
That’s how you dress for success.
So, how do we achieve this kind of success?
Paul lays out four tasks for the Colossians …
- Worship – praise God in song and psalm and word for all he has done.
- Study – let the word of God dwell in you.
- Pray – steadfastly, for a door to the world through which we may share the word (actually in Chapter 4)
- And finally, give thanks – “whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father.”
As people of faith, when we think about all that God has done for us. When we accept that Jesus sacrificed himself for us. When we acknowledge that God has called us to be his own … how can we not be thankful?
And when thankfulness is at the core of our lives, will we not strive to clothe ourselves in compassion, humility, gentleness, kindness and patience? Will we not bear with each other, forgiving each other and putting on love above all else?
That’s who we are called to be.
That’s who the world needs us to be.
Let it be for us. Amen.