Thursday, April 21, 2005

The Last Juror

I'm about 3/4 way through John Grisham's The Last Juror, which is probably the 10th or 11th Grisham book I've read. (OK, I just went up to and counted - this is actually my 15th Grisham novel. I didn't actually make it all the way through Skipping Christmas, but I'm counting it anyway.) I'm really enjoying the book so far - he captures the feel of northern Mississippi almost perfectly, as well as the disorientation someone from the "North" can experience moving into the small town South. (Since I served a church in northern Mississippi as a summer youth minister, I'm stunned at Grisham's ability to peg those feelings accurately.)

Here's what I'm afraid of, though. I'm afraid this is going to be the typical John Grisham novel.

"What do you mean by that, Mark?", you ask. And I, as the writer of this piece, am obliged to let you in on a little secret. Mr. Grisham has a disturbing tendency to write 7/8's of a brilliant novel followed by a slapdash ending that is vaguely unsatisfactory.

Witness The Firm, which is an amazing thriller novel with legal implications that devolves in the last 20 pages as the bad guys turn stupid and the good guy becomes darn near omnipotent. Or The Partner, which comes to the logical moral conclusion which is depressing & way too quick. (We won't even talk about The Brethren, which is filled with unlikable characters doing unlikable things coming to justly deserved ends... or The Client, which is just a profoundly silly book.)

I must pause a moment to give Mr. Grisham credit where credit is due: The Pelican Brief is a good movie and a great book, one of my favorite legal thrillers. The Runaway Jury made me laugh. And The Testament is one of the best "Christian" novels I've read.

BTW, I have the same fears about my own life. I don't want to spend 7/8's of my earthly existence making a difference in the lives of people, then spend the last eighth coasting to the finish line.

Look, this isn't just about retirement. In fact, that's the least of my worries right now. It's about my moral character - the way I stick to what I believe.

The weird cross-pollination of John Grisham & Joe Broussard's sermon this last Sunday (way to go, Joe!) is what sparked all this. Joe spoke about Isaiah 6, which starts out telling us that "in the year that King Uzziah died..." A seemingly inconsequential detail from Isaiah, intended to set the story in time - like if I'd said "in the year the Beatles broke up".

Ah, but there's more to the story than that. Uzziah was a pretty decent king (and, let me tell you, decent kings weren't exactly falling out of the sky in ancient Israel). According to 2nd Chronicles 26, he "did what was right in the eyes of the Lord." (This, as well, was a pretty rare commodity.) He rebuilt Jerusalem, opened more land for farming, and helped increase the strength and technology of the army. (This guy could run for president!) He reigned for 52 years. But... (you knew it was coming, right?)

But then the strength & success went to his head. Arrogant & proud, he fell. One day, contemptuous of GOD he walked into The Temple of GOD like he owned it and took over, burning incense on the Incense Altar. The priest Azariah, backed up by eighty brave priests of GOD tried to prevent him. They confronted Uzziah: "You must not, you cannot do this, Uzziah - only the Aaronite priests, especially consecrated for the work, are permitted to burn incense. Get out of God's Temple; you are unfaithful and a disgrace!"

But Uzziah, censer in hand, was already in the middle of doing it and angrily rebuffed the priests. He lost his temper; angry words were exchanged--and then, even as they quarreled, a skin disease appeared on his forehead. As soon as they saw it, the chief priest Azariah and the other priests got him out of there as fast as they could. He hurried out--he knew that GOD then and there had given him the disease. Uzziah had his skin disease for the rest of his life and had to live in quarantine; he was not permitted to set foot in The Temple of GOD. His son Jotham, who managed the royal palace, took over the government of the country.
2nd Chronicles 26:16-21 (The Message)

Ouch.Uzziah ended his days alone when "strength & success went to his head." It doesn't invalidate the good he did, but it drastically decreased his opportunities to enjoy it.

So the questions start ping-ponging off the walls of my mind:
  1. where do I trust in my own "strength & success"?
  2. am I pacing myself to live a "right in the eyes of the Lord" life, or am I burning myself out emotionally, physically & spiritually?
  3. who is speaking truth into my life about where my actions are taking me... and am I listening?
What about you? Are the choices you're making going to lead you into quarantine... or deeper & closer to Jesus Christ?

This article originally appeared in the 4/21/05 edition of "the Grapevine", the e-newsletter of NewLife Community Church.

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