Reflection: When Good Intentions Are Not Enough

Published September 27, 2011

“Will we go or will we stay? It’s the age-old question for Christians. Will we walk the line or remain on the sideline?” Photo: Andre Bonn

Goold Levison was an incredibly gifted inventor. In 1887 he invented a camera that could take a series of pictures in rapid succession. It was a real breakthrough. Unfortunately, the distractions of family concerns and other projects kept him from completing the paperwork to patent his invention.

The delay cost Levison a shot at immortality-not to mention a large fortune. In 1891, Thomas Edison also invented a camera that would take pictures in rapid succession, and it was he, not Levinson, who patented the motion picture camera.

Goold Levison intended to patent his own camera. We can be sure of that. But there were other pressing matters in his life, so he never got around to it. Sometimes good intentions are not enough.

In the Gospel of Matthew, chapter 21, verses 28 to 32, Jesus tells a story about a father who had two sons. He went to the first and said, “Go and work in my vineyard.” The boy said, “All right, sir,” but he never went near the vineyard. The father approached the second son with the same request and the second son said, “I won’t.” Later, he changed his mind and went.

Which of these two, Jesus asked, did what the father wanted?

The first son had good intentions. That should count for something. He didn’t rebel when his father asked him to work in the field. He didn’t talk back. He said all the right things. I’m sure he had good intentions, but sometimes good intentions are not enough.

Why didn’t that first son get around to doing what he’d said he would? Was it because of laziness or busyness? Procrastination or different priorities? We don’t know, but we do know it’s very much a part of human nature to leave behind a mountain of good intentions.

Someone once said that “character is the ability to carry out a resolution long after the mood in which it was made has left you.” The first son had good intentions, but he never made it to the vineyard.

The second son was a bit of a rebel. When his father asked him to help with the chores, he railed and ranted and refused. “Dad, I won’t do what you ask me. I have other plans. My friends are coming over. We’re going to the mall. Working in the field is a drag. Why are you always picking on me? Leave me alone.” He must have said something like that.

But a funny thing happened. He changed his mind and did the work his father asked him to do. Jesus says this second son was the more faithful, the more obedient, because he ended up doing his father’s will.

It happens, doesn’t it? We want to do the right thing, but for a variety of reasons we fail to do it. Maybe it is peer pressure or work pressure. Maybe it is conflicting priorities. Maybe we get so busy that we forget to do what we promised to do. Life is like that. Its one thing after another that tests us, challenges us and determines our character, our integrity and values.

In his autobiography Telling Secrets, the former Dean of Chapel at Princeton University Frederick Buechner describes an evening visit to his mother in Manhattan. She had prepared and was serving a gourmet meal for her visiting son when the phone rang. A friend was on the line. He asked Buechner to come wait with him at the airport. This friend’s family had been seriously injured in an accident, and he was waiting for a flight to join them.

When Buechner’s mother learned of his request, she was furious. The meal was ready and was getting cold. She called him a fool for thinking about ruining a rare evening together for such a ridiculous reason.

“And for a moment," Buechner tells us, "I was horrified to find myself thinking that maybe she was right. Then the next moment I saw more clearly than I ever had before that it is on just such outwardly trivial decisions as this-should I go or should I stay-that human souls are saved or lost.”

Will we go or will we stay? It’s the age-old question for Christians. Will we commit to the cause or hold back? Will we walk the line or remain on the sideline? Will we put up or shut up? Will we follow Jesus or not? When the moment comes to decide, what will we do? All the good intentions in the world are not enough.

The Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard said that Jesus wants followers, not admirers. Jesus doesn’t ask us, “Do you agree with me?” He asks, “Will you follow me?” That’s not a matter of intention. It’s a matter of action. In the simplest terms, can God count on us?

Recently there have been racist incidents in Montreal and right here in London at a hockey game. As terrible as these incidents are, they do not compare to the racism in the southern United States that was prevalent until the late 1960s. Black people who stepped out of line would be beaten, jailed or even murdered. In 1962 there was a remarkable black man who stood up to the white southern establishment. His name was James Meredith, the first black student ever to enroll at the University of Mississippi. This simple act inspired vicious race riots in the surrounding town, but Meredith didn’t let it intimidate him.

Four years later, in a bid to inspire black citizens to vote, James Meredith planned a walk from Memphis, Tennessee, to Jackson, Mississippi. He carried nothing but a walking stick and a Bible. Through the 220-mile walk, he aimed to show that a black man could walk freely through the South. As Meredith commented, “I was at war against fear.”

On the second day of his walk, though, James Meredith was ambushed by Aubrey James Norville, a Memphis hardware clerk. Norville shot him four times and left him to die in the middle of the road. Incredibly, Meredith survived the shooting.

And then, a remarkable thing happened. As Meredith recuperated in the hospital, dozens, then hundreds, then thousands of people gathered to continue his walk from Memphis to Jackson. On the last day, a recovered James Meredith-accompanied by 12,000 people-entered Mississippi’s state capitol.

As I said, can God count on us, even at the risk of our own well-being? Following Jesus demands commitment, courage and perseverance: the commitment to do what has to be done, the courage to act out of faith rather than fear and the perseverance to follow Jesus regardless of consequences. After all, when we get to heaven, Jesus is not going to ask us what did you dream, or what did you think, or what did you plan? He’s going to ask, “What did you do with the life that I have given you?” I wonder… are any of us ever really ready to answer that question? Yet, someday we’ll have to.

Recently the world remembered the tenth anniversary of the 9/11 attack on the World Trade Center. If you are ever in New York City, you need to visit St. Paul’s Chapel, a 245-year old Anglican church across the street from Ground Zero. Miraculously, as the Twin Towers collapsed, this historic chapel survived, and overnight it became an oasis of hope and rest for thousands of rescue and recovery workers.

If we Anglicans at St. James Westminster Church want to know what the church can do in times of crisis, we have only to look to St. Paul’s Chapel. Ten years ago on September 12, after having arranged the first supper of hot dogs, the chapel coordinated an effort to organize, cook and serve up to 3,000 meals per day. Eventually, the chapel, with an army of 14,000 volunteers, offered health care, rest and relief-even music.

Martin Cowart remembers his cousin’s phone call for assistance. He’s a New York mortgage banker, but he was called because church leaders saw the need to feed rescue and recovery workers, and Cowart had worked in a restaurant. Amid the chaos and despair of Ground Zero, during the desperate search for victims and then bodies and then body parts, Cowart mobilized volunteers to help the workers. “No matter what changed, what the rules were, the common goal was to get these people some food, to get these people to a safe place,” Cowart recalled. “It wasn’t about being important, or being the boss or being in charge. It was about belonging to a group that was helping other people. It was totally human. It was around the energy. People were able to give up their self-interest and do whatever it took to get the job done.”

We can learn from these workers at St. Paul’s Chapel. We can learn commitment-seeing the need and doing what has to be done. We can learn courage-the ability to act out of faith rather than fear. We can learn perseverance-following Jesus regardless of consequences. Yes, we can do what is right rather than what is expedient. We can move out of our comfort zone and refuse to place limits on love. We can take our stand on the gospel of Jesus Christ, which is life to the world.

Will you put your life on the line and follow Jesus? Will you live your life in such a way that there is absolutely no doubt to anyone that you are a Christian? Sometimes good intentions are not good enough. God help us as we decide. Amen.

The Rev. Dr. Gary Nicolosi is the rector at St. James Westminster Anglican Church in London, Ont.


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