I got a photo in the mail. Taken a long time ago, it is a picture of five adult siblings, three brothers and two sisters, ages 33 to 43, posing informally for the camera on the front lawn of a ranch-style house in Minnesota in the aftermath of a wedding in what seems to be late afternoon.
There is nothing special about the photo. It was of interest to me only because one of the persons photographed is a friend of mine whom I didn't know at the time. I was at first drawn in by a curiosity about what he looked like back then, and whatever else I might glean about him from this still-life celluloid record.
I was seized by the odd realization that I possessed knowledge about all five of these individuals that they themselves did not know at the time some guest clicked a button and froze the moment forever. That is, I knew things about their future. After the slight interruption by that photographer, they would disperse and proceed along the paths that would inexorably lead them to where they are today-one divorced, one in prison, one with a child he gets to see on weekends, one brother estranged from another, a sister with regrets that she did not visit her brother in prison.
The five had a posture of casual ease, on a day of clear blue skies when all's right with the world and disaster is a remote possibility. I wanted to lunge into the picture and give warning: "Turn back! Please! You're headed off a cliff!"
Some of the suffering will be random and fortuitous, as men see randomness and fortuitousness. Some will be the organic outworking of their choices-the little choices they will make in the days, weeks, and years after the snapshot is taken; the choices they are each in the process of making, unknown to each other, on the day of the wedding.
A counselor once told me that counselees often say to her they would never commit the horrendous acts you read about in the papers-adultery, bribery, extortion, murder, or suicide. She responds, "Well, now you wouldn't." Then she explains to them that the person one is at the moment is not the person one will be next month. The you of today is horrified by the very idea of adultery. But every small choice you make in the course of a day-to tell a white lie, to disobey the Spirit in a trifling matter-changes the person you are in imperceptible ways.
It works in both directions, of course. When Jesus said, "Be perfect," He invited us to start on that road that leads, one shade of light to the next, to that transformation whose final destination is utter Christ-likeness: "And we, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another" (2 Corinthians 3:18).
The problem is we are materialists. We figure that a little sloppiness is no big deal because we're saved by grace and can get forgiveness for the small stuff any time we ask. When it is pointed out, by conscience or a neighbor, that we have transgressed in some matter, we sigh that we are sinners and let it go at that. On a parallel track, we warn ourselves against the heresy of works righteousness, and thus the gospel call to absolute discipleship is hamstrung at the gate.
Every bit of food put in the mouth, every dab of paint put on the canvas, every building in a city razed and then replaced by another, changes the whole incrementally. Glorious or horrible destinations are reached one step at a time. "Strangers devour his strength, and he knows it not; gray hairs are sprinkled upon him, and he knows it not" (Hosea 7:9).
I derive a salubrious soberness from the photograph in my hand. I will count no spoken word inconsequential. I will search my heart for stowaways of sin. I will ask the great Shepherd of the sheep to keep me from falling. This moment's faith will position me for tomorrow's.
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