Saturday, December 31, 2016

Putting 2016 Behind

It’s been a trend on social media the past few months to bemoan 2016 as a terrible year that can’t end soon enough. People cite the death of beloved celebrities, economic difficulties, civil and political unrest, or the tumultuous presidential election as reasons why the year was unusually and altogether terrible. I cannot sympathize with said sentiment.

 Like anybody else, I had my own share of difficulties, personal and professional in the past year, but 2016 was a remarkable year of blessing for me. Among the notable accomplishments, I saw my first book published during the summer and I graduated with my Ph.D. degree in December. Those two things alone would be adequate cause for me to rejoice at a very productive and worthwhile year. There are many other things of a more personal nature that have reminded me of the Lord’s goodness and mercy, such as the strength of body and mind to endure difficulties, or holidays and birthdays celebrated with family and friends. Over the past few years, there were times I didn’t know if I’d actually finish my dissertation. There were times when I barely even wanted to do the work. I asked God to give me both the desire and the strength to persevere, and He was blessed me accordingly.  My recognition of the struggle makes the accomplishment all the more satisfying. I’m proud of the work I did and the contribution to Baptist history that I made.

The single thing that gives me the most joy is that acknowledging blessings redefines the presence of pain. On December 2, 2011, I lost a good friend due to tragedy. Five years later to the very day, I earned my doctoral degree, the happy culmination of seven years of struggle and frustration. The timing of the anniversary is not lost on me. God reminded me that a day need not only be defined by tragedy. If it's a day the Lord has made, then we are right to rejoice in it, in the presence of pain and in the recognition of a greater hope.

 We are sinners living in a sin-stained world. Bad things happen. Our good God may bring us both calamity and consolation in his own good timing. For those redeemed sinners God loves in Christ, those elect exiles He calls His children, He works all things together for His purpose (Romans 8:28). As William Cowper wrote in 1774, God moves in a mysterious way, and behind every frowning providence, there lies a hidden smile. And as Paul says in 1 Thessalonians 5:18, "Give thanks in all circumstances."

If your 2016 wasn't so great, then feel free to mourn and lament the pain. But don't stop there. If you aren't able to rejoice in the presence of pain because of a greater hope in an eternal inheritance "incorruptible and undefiled and that faded not away" (1 Peter 1:4), then your 2017 probably won't seem much better. You can make all the New Year's resolutions you want, but true joy only comes from looking at the world and your life from the perspective of eternity. "Consider it all joy, brethren..." (James 1:2)

Saturday, April 25, 2015

Sermon & Illustration

This past Sunday, I got my first opportunity of 2015 to preach at my Louisville home church.  The requested text was 2 Timothy 2:8-13, which is one of the New Testament passages designated as a "trustworthy saying," the other three being 1 Timothy 1:15, 1 Timothy 4:8-9, and Titus 3:4-8.  The message can be streamed or downloaded at the church's website:
"When the Blessed Assurance is Your Only Assurance" (April 19, 2015)

I hold to the full inerrancy of biblical inspiration, so I believe that the totality of the Scriptural canon is equally inspired by God and profitable for doctrine, reproof, correction, and instruction in all godliness.  That said, when the inspired apostle Paul writes to Timothy and explicitly calls attention to a particular idea as a "trustworthy saying," we ought to take special note.  Paul identifies passages like these as something that we should strive to internalize into our hearts so that we can recall it with speed and ease when we need those words the most.  These type of promises are the ones that we ought to turn to when we are struggling with the trials and tribulations of life.  That's one of the themes I focused upon during my sermon.

Reflecting upon this text during my preparation led me to consider the parallels in this "trustworthy saying" and the Christian hymns we so often sing in worship. My favorite hymns are those that convey edifying biblical truth in a manner that is especially memorable enough to stir the affections of the heart.  Most of the classic hymns feature a common refrain (often the chorus) that unifies thematically the unique lyrics of each verse.  The individual hymn verses--though diverse in their wording and emphases--aid the singer's understanding of the unifying "big idea" theme by teaching development of the main idea and even providing an example of application across various circumstances.  Even when I forgot some of the words to a particular verse (as I am prone to do), I know the chorus by heart well enough to look away from my hymnal's text.

I think Paul is doing a similar thing in his instruction to Timothy in this passage.  By the time Paul wrote the letter, he had experienced perhaps the most traumatic experience of his entire ministry.  Unjustly imprisoned, he stood alone at his legal defense, isolated from the love and support of his former partners in ministry.  So as Paul passes on wise counsel to young Timothy, he sums up the heart of his message in these poetic, hymn-like words:
For if we have died with Him, we will also live with Him.
If we endure, we will also reign with Him.
If we deny Him, He will also deny us.
If we are faithless, He remains faithful...
For He cannot deny Himself.

Each of these verses carries a distinct emphasis, but the unifying chorus is that trusting in the promises of God through Christ is what gives us assurance and motivation for our endurance of the difficulties of life.  This is a truth Paul never forgot; even in his darkest times, he learned to cherish it all the more dearly.  I trust the same became true of Timothy.  I pray that the same might be said of me and you.

I've been blessed with opportunities to deliver many sermons over the past two years, but this is the first time I've had anybody translate my delivery into the artistic medium.  So far as I can remember, the little dots at the bottom of the picture are an accurate representation of the folks who sat in the first few pews for the service.  It was also a Lord's Supper Sunday night, so the bread and juice are on the table at the foot of the pulpit.

Artistic Credit to Draven Cheatam

"I have stored up your word in my heart, that I may not sin against you." Psalm 119:11

Monday, December 02, 2013


This Thanksgiving weekend, I took a brief little road trip with Grandaddy, Mom, Dad, and my sister to Erin, TN.  This was the second Thanksgiving without my Granny (mom's side) and it's been over five without my Grandmother (Dad's side).  We explored some sites of historical significance to our family.  Pictured here is the cabin where my great-great grandmother (Grandaddy's granny) once lived:

It's even more rustic on the inside than this picture might suggest.  It's got about three rooms and the stable in the rear.  Less than a mile up the hill from the cabin is the old family cemetery which contains about five graves, one of them being a twelve-year-old boy who died in the 1950s and the other holding the body of my great-great-great grandmother who was born in the 1830s, lived through the Civil War, and died in the 1890s.

I've never had any interest in family genealogy; my brain has a hard time visualizing relatives who I never had the pleasure of knowing in life.  It is very hard for me to imagine my grandparents being young and having grandparents of their own.  But, where I am, they once were.  It's strange to take a few minutes and walk the same places where they used to walk years ago.  I can't imagine living in a three room cabin that, in spite of its rickety appearance, has apparently withstood over a century of wear by the natural world.

Seeing places like this remind me of how my family was able to make due with so little for so many years.  People like my grandaddy were born into humble circumstances, grew up in tiny towns working humble jobs, and then got drafted into the armed services during World War II which took them to some of the most exotic places on earth before they even turned twenty-one.  When their service was over, they returned home to places like Erin and picked up with real-life.  Much of my family moved to Detroit to get work in the auto industry, build families, and then retired back to their Tennessee hometowns to live out their golden years.

I can't imagine what it must have been like to grow up in rural Tennessee during the 1800s or the early 1900s, but my family did it for generations.  They didn't have a lot of possessions, but they did have each other and faith in God, and that was enough.  Children died young and those who survived had to grow up fast.  When you have childhood so brief, I guess it only makes sense that it's important to hold onto those memories and pass them onto future generations.  Soaking in such sights, I'm humbled to the point that I never have any words of insight to add.  But it certainly makes me thankful for all that I have in life and all that has come before me to make me into the person I am today.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

All that's Fit for God

I've been giving some extended thought to the lyrics of Joseph Hart's 1759 hymn "Come ye, Sinners, Poor and Needy." What an honest picture it paints of both man's utter unworthiness before God and upon God's amazing grace toward unworthy sinners.  Plus, it's just super catchy to boot.

Sinners like me are "poor and needy," "weak and wounded," "sick and sore," "weary and heavy laden," and "lost and ruined by the Fall." But Jesus, our sinless savior, is "ready to save us, full of pity, love, and power."

Even if a sinner knows he needs to repent, in his pride he will find ways to justify continuing in unworthiness and delay repentance.  Hence, the sick man will tell convince himself that he should "tarry till he's better" so that he might fancy himself as more presentable to a holy God.  That's the path to damnation, of course, as one who attempts to tarry till he's better "will never come at all."  When God is offering mercy and forgiveness in Christ, He doesn't require the sinner in need of salvation attempt to clean himself up first.  Rather, "the only fitness He requires is that we feel our need of Him."

Of course, I've read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship (honestly, it's one of my favorite books), and anybody who knows true Christianity knows that he was right to say that "grace is costly."  But that fact shouldn't make us hesitate to affirm Jesus' promise in Matthew 11:28-30:
"Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

For as costly as following Jesus can be, being in God's grace through Jesus is nevertheless an easy yoke and a light burden.  God requires nothing of sinners coming to Jesus except for them to recognize their helplessness and total need for a Savior.  Our salvation cost God much, but the cost required of us to follow Him is ultimately a joyous privilege once the Holy Spirit has worked a miracle of regeneration in our hearts.

The amazing truth of God's willingness to save us in spite of our sin motivated my preparation of two recent sermons which I delivered this past October at my home church.  The sermons formed a two-part mini-series, with the first installment establishing the problem of "self-ruined men" and the follow-up drawing attention to God's grace in saving the self-ruined man.

"The Self-Ruined Man" sermon grew out of one of my children's Sunday School lessons on Proverbs 20.  I saw enough connections between verses 18-21 to warrant presenting them as a unit about an ungrateful and impatient son who ultimately brings ruin upon his family's legacy and upon the people under his stewardship.  It's a sad story that doesn't have a happy ending.

"The Prodigal's Father: Redeemer of the Self-Ruined Man", on the other hand, speaks hope to the self-ruined man, not because he can hope to pull himself out of the ruin he's made for himself, but because his heavenly Father stands ready to redeem Him. I preach from the famous "prodigal son" passage of Luke 15, but for this sermon I chose to focus upon the Prodigal Father's grace rather than retreading the prodigal son's failures.

So there it is in a nutshell--ruined sinners we are all, with a holy Heavenly Father who nevertheless stands ready to redeem us on account of the work of a perfect sinless Savior in our Lord Jesus Christ.  Don't bother to try and clean yourself off before going to God in repentance; just arise and go to Jesus.  The only fitness God requires is that you know your need of Him.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

God Moves in a Mysterious Way

William Cowper, while apparently suffering under severe bouts of depression and doubt, famously composed the hymn "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" in  1774.  Upon realizing that God had preserved his life in spite of his own sinful attempts to ruin himself, he was inspired to pen the following verses:

I do not appreciate the providence of God while I'm undergoing the hard times, but I've learned that I need to be willing to trust in God's will even when it seems impossible that the Lord will be true to his promise to work all things together for good for those who are called according to His purpose, as Romans 8:28 proclaims.  I've experienced a week of challenges big and small, personal and professional, and while I've seen some bonds of friendships grow tighter, others have been broken.  How all these trials and tribulations of life work together for good is a matter of God's wisdom, which we shortsighted men rarely ever recognize in the moment.  Nevertheless, God has taught me that I need to keep on trusting in his wisdom and goodness.  Regardless of whether my problems are big or small--deeply personal or simply petty--God's providence will ultimately be proven both good and wise, regardless of whether or not I can appreciate it immediately.

Behind a (seemingly) frowning providence, God hides a smiling face.  One day, I hope I'll be smiling too--and be grateful to God for lessons learned through that magnificent but mysterious plan of His which has a place in it for people as lowly and flawed as myself.


And because so many of my recent posts seem to be so depressing, I'll reference another (slightly more humorous) song--the quintessential sad soliloquy from Ernest Goes to Camp: