Zero-Sum Thing


You must not turn aside, for then you would go
after futile things which can not profit or deliver,
because they are futile.
—1 Samuel 12:21

.   .   .

Back in January 1979, I found myself in the office of a small-time, old-school preacher. Against all odds—and my own better judgment— I bowed my head and got saved. (You can read the improbable account here.) It was a watershed moment in the history of—well, in the history of me. As anybody who knows me will tell you, I’ve been a cultural and social embarrassment ever since.

Among the many strangely pivotal things that happened to me that day, one in particular stands out. As we bowed our heads together, and after I had prayed my decidedly unreligious come-to-Jesus prayer, the preacher began to prophesy over me. In his arrestingly deep, Old Testament voice, he spoke of the path before me. “You will not be able to live like your friends live,” he rumbled. “Though others may enjoy a wide swath of blessing, yours is a narrow way—and you must walk in it.” And with that he sent me back out into an unsuspecting  world.

UntitledMy salvation was indeed a radical one. To this day, God’s mighty, relentless grip on me has been, at times, nearly asphyxiating. I have been annexed by the Living One and am rooted in the utter certainty that I am not my own. For nearly four decades, my soul has been burning with a longing for my Savior and my God, a hunger so overwhelming that my heart has often seemed to strain to rip away from my flesh. Since the day of my first hardcore encounter with the Holy Ghost there has been for me only one true passion, a single narrow path.

And yet. From that portentous day until now, almost forty years later, I’ve also found myself torn between a deep devotion and an insistent ambition. On one hand, all I desire is to know God, and, on the other, I hammer the computer keyboard to complete what I hope will be an acclaimed play. I lay down my intellect at the cross, confessing its ultimate impotence, only to take it up again and, deploying its manifold and impressive weapons, battle for intellectual superiority. I say to God that what I really want is to be a witness of his salvation in the world; then I carefully calibrate that witness in order to avoid the world’s disdain and win instead its shallow approval. I humble myself before the Lord only to rise and attempt to muscle my way to the head of the cultural table. I tell God that knowing him is enough and that serving him in obscurity is worth the ultimate rewards of faithfulness, but then I fret that I might never see my name in the proverbial lights. I am at war with myself.

And then, one day not so many days ago, as I was reading my Bible, I came across the prophet Samuel’s address to the Israelites after they had just installed Saul as their first king. The coronation was a slap in the divine face, a rejection of the Lord as their true king. When confronted with their apostasy and a demonstration of divine power, the people cried out in terror, but Samuel said to them, “Do not fear. You have committed all this evil, yet do not turn aside from following the Lord, but serve the Lord with all your heart. You must not turn aside, for then you would go after futile things which can not profit or deliver, because they are futile.” As I came upon Samuel’s words I knew that God was also speaking to me. It was not a rebuke but a gentle yet firm exhortation, a crucial reminder and corrective: Fred, my servant and beloved son, you must not turn aside from seeking me with all your heart and soul and mind and strength. There is no other fruitful path for you. Do not ebb in your devotion; do not allow yourself to be distracted by the lure of the world’s empty glamour and acclaim which can neither profit nor deliver you. I am your great reward. Everything else—everything—is futile. And this word is now seared into my heart and mind like a hot brand.

I am lost, and I am found. I am fully free and utterly enslaved. My eyes cannot unsee the world’s compelling sideshows; my ears cannot unhear its siren songs. Though I am chosen out, I am still a man whose feet tread the achingly beautiful dust of this world. Yet I cannot yield to these inviting byways, to the seductive, soul-tempting promises that call to me along the way. It is not a matter of religious self-sacrifice, for there is nothing I have of value to sacrifice. It’s a zero-sum proposition. I have only this narrow road and the word that I must walk on it.

.   .   .




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