So, two weeks ago, I had the strange experience of taking delivery for two big ticket items in my world.
I got a new briefcase, and I got a new laptop.
The first one was a birthday present from my parents. The second one was for work, which means that it was from Gordon Ng. (Thank you, Gordon.)
I am getting used to both.
Both of them look brand-spanking new. Out of the packaging new.
Of course, in a laptop, that’s considered a quality.
Not that looks are everything, mind you. I’d guess that when it comes to a computer, speed and weight and memory are everything.
But there’s a connection there. We’re all used to the idea that, the newer a laptop looks, the safer it is to assume that it’s as fast and as light and as capacious as they could make it then.
I bet there are people who are into technology and can look at a laptop and say, “Ohhhh. A MacBook Pro early 2015 model. Man, you know, back in its day, that was a great computer….”
It reminds me a little of my dad, who is one of those people who can see an old car in a movie on t.v. and tell you the exact year that car was made because of the shape of the tail-fins or the chrome grille on the front.
Americans have always had a real appreciation for the new thing.
But it is part of the challenge of life today that there is so much that feels so new, so quickly.
Do you ever feel that way?
It is hard to keep up.
Speaking of which: it’s probably also true that in a world that seems determined to go entirely paperless, buying a new briefcase is kind of an old-school move.
Who’s going to need one of those?
Well, I do, and I will.
But here’s the thing that struck me.
In a laptop, being brand-spanking new is considered a quality.
In a briefcase, that’s not necessarily so.
Forget the nylon Land’s End jobbies that were popular in the 80s as a sign of high fashion, like wallets with velcro. I’m not talking about those.
In a briefcase, it’s all about the wear and tear. It’s all about the weathering…the gradual breaking in that comes out of being used—that comes out of being caught in the rain, or left out in the sun, being bungee-corded to the back of bike or scrunched under the seat of an airplane.
Something like that is more than just a tool for taking things from one place to another.
If that’s all you see, you’re missing it.
Because the point is that, over time, a briefcase starts to take on a kind of character.
The more beaten up it is, the more of a treasure it becomes.
If it’s stained, and curled at the edges, and all that, it is all the more highly prized.
It represents the idea that life can be hard on us, day in and day out, but this doesn’t wreck us—far from it. Somehow, that daily wear and tear brings out the patina, the true beauty that lies within us.
I’ve been thinking about that this week, as I’ve been carrying the words of the Apostle Paul in Romans back and forth in my new briefcase.
Do you see where I’m heading?
Because Paul says, “…we boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope” (Romans 5:3-4).
The King James Version puts it nicely too, saying, “…we glory in tribulations also; knowing that tribulation worketh patience; and patience, experience; and experience, hope” (5:3-4).
Jesus himself had been somewhat reluctant to speak so directly.
We heard just a little bit from John’s Gospel of his final speech before the disciples at the Last Supper.
And the part that caught my attention was when Jesus said: “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth…” (John 16:12-13).
He knew hard days were ahead.
I don’t know about you, but if I’d been there, I would have wanted Jesus to tell it to me straight—whatever it was about him or me, or what was going to happen.
And here’s where Paul’s words come back in.
Paul wasn’t a guest at that particular party. But when his time came, he would know all too well what it was like to suffer. He knew what it was like to be a disciple in the hard days. He was there in the thick of it.
And what he wants to ask is how we get from the suffering of now to something like the promised future that we’ve just heard Jesus talking about in John’s Gospel.
And what he wants to affirm is that, yes, life can be hard on us, day in and day out, but even so, this doesn’t wreck us—far from it. Somehow, that daily wear and tear brings out the patina, the true beauty that lies within us.
If Jesus speaks to his disciples about the power of truths they cannot yet bear, it’s Paul who says that those truths—those hopes—come only in our sufferings, in our losses, in the painful lessons we are called to learn.
Some have said over the years that Paul is a glutton for punishment, and I admit that sometimes, he can sound like one.
But there’s a deeper point.
I don’t think Paul is telling us to go seek out the chance to suffer.
Paul’s point is to tell us not to be afraid of suffering. Not to be afraid of life’s challenges and setbacks. Even the big ones. He’s telling us not to let them stop us.
Certainly, yes, they won’t last. They will not be the final word. That is comforting to hear.
Paul’s point is more nuanced: he’s saying that it’s through suffering—through the strength that it can teach us—through the “tribulation that worketh patience” that we develop the strength to become the kind of hopeful people Christ calls us to become.
For Paul, it’s not that we should be hopeful despite our challenges—it’s that we can scarcely hope to become truly hopeful people without them.
To put it in the church’s language: for Paul, it’s only life’s wear and tear that brings out the patina of the character we form in Christ through the patient teaching of the Holy Spirit.
Unless we learn from life in its hardness, we will scarcely know how to stand for life in its goodness.
It’s important to remember that.
It’s especially important to remember it now.
In so many ways, we live in a laptop kind of world—a time when all around us, many feel the deep attraction to what is newest, what is fastest, what is lightest, what is easiest.
Americans have always had an appreciation for the new thing.
And there’s no question that the benefits of the new are many.
But as Christians we are called to live in a certain amount of tension with that kind of world, and to view it with a fair bit of suspicion.
As faithful people, we’re called to see the beauty, and the character, and the hope that all come with learning to keep going, despite what life throws at us.
We’re called to rejoice in how we’ve learned to be tough, old birds when it comes to serving, and loving, and working for the good.
Part of it is seeing through the false promise that life can be painless, or effortless, or easy.
We’re also called to remember that it’s those who pretend otherwise who often end up doing the most damage.
Instead, Paul calls us to remember that the only the way we will work to make the world as it should be is for God’s people to find the strength to endure the world as it is, and to keep going.
More remarkable still, the way he sees it, this isn’t just a tough job that somebody has to do.
For him it’s a joy. It’s a blessing. It’s an honor.
It’s a life we should look forward to living.
That’s not the way that most people talk about their hopes for the future in a laptop world.
But this morning, Paul reminds us that for Christians, as for a new briefcase, it is the daily wear and tear brings out the patina, the true beauty that lies within.
With God’s help, each one of us is on our way to becoming an old bag.
May it be so.