June 12th, 2019
"Called to Complete"
From: "The Walk: The Life-Changing Journey of Two Friends"
So then, does God supply you with the Spirit and work miracles among you by the works of the law or by hearing with faith
But as for you, be strong; don't be discouraged, for your work has a reward."
2 Chronicles 15:7
In preparing to write this book, I worked through a file of newspaper articles about Bill. In many of them he talked to the reporter about a book he had been working on for years. In a newspaper article dated June 7, 1981, the writer stated that after Bill returned from a sabbatical at Cambridge, he would "begin work on a major volume on the apostle Paul which has been germinating for 10 or 15 years." His working title was Apostle and Task Theologian: Paul in the Perspective of Mission.
His "magnum opus," his "big one." That was Bill's way of referring to the major work on Paul, which he had been researching for decades. Though he had written major commentaries on the books of Mark and Hebrews, it was primarily the life of Paul that dominated his interest and his amazing mind.
Often in the middle of a discussion on Paul, we would have to stop Bill and say, "This is still Paul we're talking about?" We would ask this half jokingly but also half seriously because his conversation had started to sound like he was discussing a close colleague or friend. He knew the mind and heart of Paul as perhaps few ever have.
A typical exchange would go something like this:
"It was during this missionary journey that Paul contracted malaria," Bill would say with the utmost confidence.
"But how could you possibly know that?" someone would respond.
"Because this is a very swampy area, known for malaria-infested mosquitoes," Bill would reply, "and it was only after this point in his ministry that Paul began to speak of the thorn in his flesh." And somehow it would all make sense.
Bill dubbed his unique category for approaching the letters of Paul as "task theology." His theory was that in order to understand Paul, you must take seriously the fact that he was first and foremost a missionary, and he shaped his theology to suit his particular missionary task. It is vital to understand that Paul was always addressing a particular life situation on the mission field. The failure to understand this accounts for so much misunderstanding and dissension in the area of Pauline studies.
The question from Brenda that shocked Bill into the awareness that he had only a limited amount of time left was, "Whom do you want me to get to finish your book on Paul when you die?" That question eventually led him to come to Franklin. His hope was that here he would finally be able to focus on Paul exclusively and finish the book. But there was simply not enough time.
There was not enough time...What does a statement like that imply? Did God make a mistake in His allotment of time to Bill? Had Bill, a man who worked almost sinfully hard, wasted the time he had been given? Or is there another lesson to be learned?
Behind every specific call, whether it is to teach or preach or write or encourage or comfort, there is a deeper call that gives shape to the first: the call to give ourselves away - the call to die. We can, in an incomplete way, give ourselves by writing books or sermons or even songs, but it will always be a fragmentary and incomplete giving because these tasks require no real personal contact.
But real contact was what Bill was all about, and throughout his life he was torn between the academic call - to cloister himself within the library in order to write articles and books - and opening the door of his life to real, living, breathing people who needed his gifts. Ultimately, by grace, he listened to the deeper call to give himself intimately to his family and friends and students, and as a direct result, what he called his magnum opus will never be finished.
Before Bill and Brenda left Seattle to come to Tennessee, the chaplain of the university held a commissioning service for both of them to send them off to a new area of ministry in Franklin. At that service Bill's students and friends were invited to share encouraging words with the Lanes before they left. In the midst of all that encouragement, one of Bill's "boys" shocked us all by what he said.
"Everyone has been recounting all of your qualities, Bill," he said to the crowd. "But I would like to mention something that is wrong with you. You have trouble finishing your work!" A slight gasp came up from the audience. There was a moment of tense silence. Then Bill's friend continued, "And we would like to thank you for not finishing it. For if you had spent the time required to complete the book on Paul, you would not have had the time to invest in us...We are your books, Bill!" It was the kind of powerful moment that only the stating of self-evident truth can bring.
While the call may be to write books or sermons or poems, the deeper call will always be to give ourselves away to others whom God places within our reach. Besides a few words scribbled in the sand, as far as we know, Jesus never wrote a single line. Instead He wrote the Living Word across the pages of those twelve unlikely men who changed the world. So, despite any evidence to the contrary, Bill wonderfully finished his "business." And what will always be left unfinished about it, we are called to complete!