Monday, November 21, 2005

The Downward Slide

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It's always an easier trip down the slide than up. Besides my own experience on playground equipment, I've watched my own kids. After a while they get pretty good at climbing back up, but with nowhere near the speed as going down. They always seem to be a bit more winded after trying to go back up. Riding the downward slide is easy.

Since I've been remembering so much about my college days, it was only natural that "Tom" came to my mind. Tom lived near me in the dorm. I got to know him through a friend of mine who had gone to high school with Tom. Those two roommates, my roommate and I would play cards, share rides, listen to music and generally just hang out a lot together. On Sundays, the three of us (not including my Catholic roommate) would attend church together. For a while anyway. The pastor left that Presbyterian church and Tom lost interest for a while. I found another church, Tom's roommate continued at the Presbyterian church, but Tom gave up church for a while. We'd still have the occasional conversation with religious overtones, but more and more Tom seemed to be unconcerned with his faith.

Nobody pressured Tom to continue looking for a church, and perhaps that was wrong of us. Tom was gone many weekends, so it didn't seem like that big of a deal. Then one day, he came in and told us that he had a new job out of town three or four nights a week, including weekends. As it turned out, that job really pulled him down.

We began to notice things on occasion; small things mostly. He didn't seem to care much about his classes. One day as we played cards, he took a pipe out of his desk drawer, stuffed it with tobacco and lighted it. We sat there wide-eyed, watching him, but Tom couldn't understand our problem. It was just a pipe, after all. We pestered him until he put the foul-smelling thing out. He didn't quit smoking it altogether-- just around us. Which was fine, I guess, but his choice of tobacco wasn't the sweet, fragrant smell I was used to from pipes. Tom's pipe reeked of newspaper and trash fire.

One day, the three of us found his pouch and added to it. We ground up dead leaves from a rubber tree plant in our room and mixed them with his tobacco. He never seemed to notice. So every week, we'd replentish his tobacco supply. That one pouch of tobacco lasted for months, until Tom finally decided he didn't like smoking a pipe anymore. How we managed to keep from laughing when we saw him take out his pipe is beyond me!

As it turned out, it wasn't the poor taste of Tom's tobacco which drove him from his pipe. It was the taste of a new smoke. We found out because Tom's roommate needed to borrow a pair of scissors, so he opened Tom's desk drawer to find a pair. Inside was a different kind of pouch -- a Ziploc bag half-full of pot. At that moment we were more filled with anger than anything else. How could a clean, mostly straight-laced kid turn into a dope-smoking college student who cared nothing about the classes he had taken that job to pay for?

We didn't confront Tom. Instead we tried to redouble our own efforts to be his friends. But by that time, Tom had made his plans to drop out of school. I'm not sure whatever happened to him; whether he continued the downward slide or if he worked his way out of it. I really wonder where Tom stands with his faith today.

The episode with Tom always reminds me of another guy who started off good, but took the big slide. Solomon had it all. The throne. The godly heritage of his father, David. The loyalty of an entire nation. The call from God to finally build a temple. And as a young man, Solomon had the humility to admit that what he needed most from God was not gold and silver, but wisdom. Then God tossed the wealth in to boot. He had everything, and early on he showed how much God has blessed him.

But somewhere along the line, Solomon started the downward slide. Maybe it was the temple building project. Perhaps it was the pressure of keeping track of all the riches. Assuredly all the women, wives and concubines helped King Sol lose hold of the top of the slide. And slide he did. So much so, that by the time he pens Ecclesiastes he is proclaiming the worthlessness of pretty much everything. Despair drips from every letter of that book. And we're left to ponder the details. What happened? How could a man whose request for wisdom had so impressed the Almighty become a wise old teacher finally aware that he no longer knows the answers?

What happens to people like Tom and like Solomon? I've had the whole "once saved, always saved" argument with people on both sides.

"He must have never been saved in the first place," one person would claim.

"Then what do you have to say about a conversion experience which changed a person's outlook and behavior for many years," the other side counters.

I'm not interested in sorting out eternal judgment. I just ache for those people sitting at the top of the slide, and for those halfway down, and for those who are just reaching the bottom. All those prodigals who have walked away; or perhaps just slid away. And I hope they'll be able to lean on Jesus and learn to climb back up.

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