Sunday, December 02, 2012

I'm Thankful for This Year... of Suffering

I am thankful for being able to know suffering this year on an unprecedented scale from what I had known previously.

I know that sounds bizarre, and I don't want to give the impression that I enjoy suffering in any sense.  I hate death.  I despise everything about it, everything it has done to people I love, and what it will eventually do to me one day. I hate the fact that we live in a fallen world where suffering and death are inevitable.  Whether it comes suddenly (like the loss of my church friends) or slowly (in the case of my Granny), death is a terrible, terrible thing.  It really is "the last enemy" as Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:26.

But suffering can also be instructive and purposeful in a Christian's spiritual maturity.

This morning, my pastor Brian Croft commemorated the anniversary of our friends' passing with a sermon from 2 Corinthians 1:1-11, where Paul famously proclaimed that God "comforts us in all our affliction so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction with the comfort that we ourselves are comforted by God" (verse 4).  I seem to remember trying to do a Greek exegetical paper on that text, but most of those projects left me less sure of the text's meaning than I was before I even started the study (that's probably one of the reasons why I decided not to push my luck with biblical language studies in the post-graduate level).

Exegetical nuances aside, I think the meaning of this text is more easily accessible for Christian believers who have endured great suffering and loss but have consequently been strengthened in their faith because of that suffering.  They have been able to recognize Christ as truly sufficient for their weaknesses.  Those who have suffered greatly and lost much should be more willing and able to comfort other brothers and sisters who are going through their own struggles.

Truth be told, I've lived a very comfortable life.  I'm still living a very comfortable life.  Growing up, I didn't experience much loss.  Those losses have certainly started piling up in the last five years, however; such is the nature of life.  When you don't known the pain of loss, it's hard to really understand what most of the Bible is talking about.  So, instead of focusing your exegetical energies on comforting people with the Word of God, you can tend to distract yourself with discussions and debates over subjects that (while important) don't really capture the thrust of what the Biblical authors (and the Holy Spirit) were most interested in communicating to God's people.  I could indulge that point further, but now is not the time.

It's important that so many of Paul's letters begin and end with comforting words to the Christian churches.  These churches, regardless of their relative virtues and vices, were living in tough times.  Paul himself had seen suffering beyond what even most of them had experienced.  But even Paul knew that his own tribulations couldn't compare to the greatest sacrifice which our Lord Jesus Christ made for us in his Passion week.  Now that was the definition of a terrible seven days.  Our Savior suffered and died for us, and by His resurrection He secured our eternal reward.  That reward doesn't mean that we've been given a free pass in this life to avoid pain and live a perfectly comfortable life. Quite the contrary, in fact. Our suffering will come, whether by external forces bearing down upon us in hostility or through the natural course of life in a fallen world.

But we've got a promise that we serve a God who is also our Great High Priest.  He symphathizes with us completely in our infirmities and was tempted in every way, yet He was without sin (Hebrews 4:14).  Because of His suffering, we can approach the throne of God with confidence that He will bestow us grace to endure our own suffering and use our experiences to comfort others in their suffering.

Therefore, I'm thankful for this year in which God has taught me suffering, even if my experience is still meager compared to what most people in life deal with on a daily basis.  And I ought to be about the business of bringing comfort and grace to others, because I'm sure I'll be on the receiving end again in the future.

I'm Thankful for This Year, Part II

I am thankful for friends and family and for the time I've been able to spend building relationships with them over the past year.  When I learned of the death of the Boyetts, the first thing I thought about was how terrible it would be to suddenly lose my parents.  When I learned of the death of Stacy, the first thing I thought about was how terrible it would be to lose any of my dearest friends I have made throughout life.

After my friend Adam Embry called to inform me of Stacy's death, I jumped in my truck and personally went  to deliver the news to my dear friends, the Gould family.  After I returned home, I attempted to call up a number of old friends whom I hadn't spoken to in a long time.  As best as I could manage, I tried to tell my friends how much I deeply appreciated each one of them being a part of my life.  And I've been able to use this last year to take some opportunities in trying to make the most of those existing friendships and to work hard so that those bonds don't disappear due to neglect on my part.  I haven't been able to invest as much time as I'd like, and most of the time my contact with long-distance friends has to be limited to email, phone calls, or social messaging technologies.

Stacy's sudden death became a source of some guilt for me because for as much time as I spent with the Ellison family, I couldn't recall many instances where I had verbalized my appreciation of their friendship.  It's a cliche, but "sometimes the important things go unsaid."  For whatever reason, being fully honest about my feelings has been an emotionally difficult thing for me to do.  It's not so much that I'm hung up on some misplaced notion of masculinity, but it just doesn't feel like a very natural thing to my own personality.  Most of us don't live our lives constantly and repeatedly gushing about how much we appreciate our most beloved family and friends, but we shouldn't neglect that sort of thing altogether either.  When God takes folks away from us without warning, we'll regret the fact that we never took the opportunity to let those people know exactly what we thought about them.

I suppose that without that terrible week last year, it would have taken me longer to realize all that.  So I'm thankful that out of those tragedies came something good for me on a personal level.

One more post to come in this series later tonight.

I'm Thankful for This Year

November is the month in which we are most cognizant of our need to be thankful.  This week marked the one-year anniversary of a series of tragic deaths experienced by my Louisville church family, as I have written about repeatedly over the past few months.  A year ago Wednesday I was helping decorate the church sanctuary for Christmas when we heard news that Jackson and Barbara Boyett died in a car crash in Texas, a year ago Friday I was in my room surfing the net after work when I was informed that Stacy Ellison died, and a year ago this coming Tuesday I had just gotten back from Stacy's funeral when I got the call that Lester Jones (a dear old man who served our church for decades) finally passed away after years of declining health.  That was a terrible seven days.  When grieving and suffering loss of friends and family, it can be difficult to convince oneself that thankfulness is an appropriate and realistic response.  Nevertheless, I am thankful to God for many things that have come about in my own life over the course of the past year.

First of all, I am thankful for employment that has allowed me to strengthen my financial situation but also permits me the freedom to make short trips back home to see my family.  Last December, the seminary's archives department had a job opening and my co-workers recommended I apply for the full-time, salaried position.  I was reluctant to do so for a number of reasons, but I eventually decided to apply, interview, and finally accept the job offer effective January 9, 2012.  It's been a great experience, even if it has contributed to delays in progress of my dissertation due to time commitments.  However, the job has also taught me a great deal regarding archival and library skills that have proven valuable in my study efficiency, so it all probably evens out. 

My biggest concern with taking a full-time job was that the responsibility would allow me less time to go back to Tennessee and spend time with family, especially my Granny, who had been bed-ridden for about 2 years and needed constant care.  I wanted to be available in case I was ever called upon to attend to my grandparents on a more frequent basis.  Granny died in late July, but I was able to spend a few more important days with her before that happened, and I got the week off from work to attend and preach her funeral. 

I don't know if I'll stay in library-related employment long-term, as I do have other vocational aspirations, but I certainly am thankful that I am working the job that I have right now.

More to come on this theme later today...

Thursday, November 08, 2012

The Most Important Votes I Cast This Week

"This is the most important election of our lifetime."

I can't even remember how many times I've heard that phrase since 2004.  I've voted in every presidential election for which I've been eligible because I believe it is both my right and my duty as a citizen.  To be perfectly honest, however, I have discovered that voting for a major political party candidate is emotionally comparable to picking a team for which to root in a sports game.  I don't want to belittle the importance of political issues by comparing them to something so trivial as athletic competition, but my emotions are about the same either way.  If my "team" wins the contest, I'll feel happy for a few moments before reality sets in and reminds me that very little lasting good will come out of said "victory."  Maybe I'm more glad to see "the other" lose than I am to see "my team" win, if for no other reason than that I don't have to watch other people gloat who don't see things the same way that I see them.  And if "the other" wins, I'll be disappointed and imagine the day when the scales might tip the other way.  Maybe I'll be optimistic about "next year" or maybe I'll realize that there is no guarantee that "my team" will even come close to winning a future contest.  When I wake up in the morning, I'll go about my real-life business much the same way that I always have.  "The sun rises and the sun sets, and hurries back to where it rises," to borrow a phrase from Ecclesiastes.

But on Wednesday night, in the basement of a little Baptist church in Louisville, Kentucky, I believe I cast four "votes" that have far greater consequences than a four-year cycle.  I joined my Baptist brothers and sisters (with whom I covenanted together nearly eight years ago) in adding three new members to our fellowship and removing one long-time brother through church discipline.  By the grace of God, adding new members to the fellowship is a frequent experience at our church, and it's always a joyous occasion to see what plans God has in store for the newly added brethren.  On the other hand, the disciplinary process is (thankfully) a relatively rare phenomenon, but one that is always painful.

In Matthew 16:19, Jesus promised to give the keys of the kingdom of heaven to His church.  There's been a plethora of diverse opinions as to just what our Lord meant when He said, "whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven."  I don't claim to know all the details of the text's meaning, but I think everybody should agree that it at least affirms that the earthly deeds of the church have eternal consequences.  I believe these eternal consequences are on the line whenever a congregation convenes a business meeting in which they will decide who to admit into the fellowship and who to exclude from the fellowship.

If memory serves, I've had to cast four votes of discipline during my church-going life, and it's been a gut-wrenching feeling in every instance.  When I cast that vote to place my old friend under the discipline of the church, I did so with the sorrowful conviction that my friend no longer valued Christ as the Savior and Lord of his life.  I fear that all his joyful service over the past seven years was but a well-meaning deception... one that he himself may not even have been fully aware.  His sins against his family and his Lord were evident to all, and though my friend acknowledges his fault, he remains unrepentant.  In 1 Corinthians 5, Paul described the act of church discipline as the final, desperate act by which a church might see their sin-bound brothers brought to true repentance and reconciliation.  When the assembly of the church votes to discipline, it amounts to no less than a "deliverance to Satan" so that the man's eternal soul might ultimately be saved at the Lord's appointed time.  God is sovereign, but God uses His church as the appointed means by which people can prepare themselves for the inevitable Day of Judgement when only One vote matters.  In my experience, the disciplined brothers and sisters who respond in repentance are the exceptions to the norm.  In spite of that, we still ought to have hope that God will work mightily to recover the His lost sheep.

For me, political elections have been reduced to futile, half-hearted attempts to restrain sin and human depravity through legal tour de force.  I'm not ashamed to admit that fact, but I don't take pleasure in being a "single issue" voter who knows that even the best-case outcome is unlikely to change laws... let alone change hearts and minds.  It's like rooting for your favorite sports team of aging, overpaid players to make that one last run at the big trophy.  Even if they do manage to capture the championship, the odds suggest that they will lose the crown the next time around.

But when I take my responsibilities as a church member seriously, I have hope for more than simply restraining sin through Law.  I can believe that the Holy Spirit of God is working in and through the people of Christ to do a work of Grace.  When Grace changes hearts and minds, lasting life-change necessarily follows.

The most important "vote" of our lifetime wasn't in 2004, 2008, or 2012, and it won't be in 2016 either.  The more important votes are the ones we cast when we covenant together to prepare people for the Kingdom that is coming.  And that's a Hope that can truly sustain me.

Thursday, November 01, 2012

This Is (or is it Was?) Halloween!

I had a really fun month of October!  Seeing as how most of my recent posts have tended to be serious and melancholy, I thought it might be fun just to do a little "how I spent my free time" update.  October is pretty awesome because it is the quintessential "Autumn" month, starting out with colorful, falling leaves and ending with the great celebration of candy, costumes, and creative spookiness that is Halloween!

The real highlight was a couple of weekends ago when I got an opportunity to travel back down to Tennessee and preach a sermon at the church my Grandaddy has attended for the past thirty years.  The church has been without a pastor for a few weeks, so I tried to provide them with an encouraging yet challenging message from Paul's parting words in 1 Thessalonians 5:12-28. Although I don't think I did justice to the full passage (I put the focus on verses 12-18... especially verse 18), I do hope that I was faithful to God and edifying to the congregation in the things that I did say about what the text demands of us.

I also got to spend that weekend with a dear friend who I hadn't seen for over four years.  My sister came home from college too, which made the days extra awesome.  We planned on watching The Nightmare Before Christmas (DVD borrowed from my good buddy Derek), but we simply waited too late and didn't have the energy to finish it.  We did, however, have time to watch the Buffy the Vampire Slayer "musical episode" (speaking as a new initiate to the franchise, it was alright but it needed more vampire slaying, IMO) and the Monsters vs. Aliens: Mutant Pumpkins from Outer Space TV special.  Ah... good stuff.

I had never seen The Invisible Man (1933) film, so I was glad to pick up that particular volume of Universal's Monsters Legacy Collection once I got back to Louisville for a good price.  I've been collecting those classic monster collections over the last couple of years, and I really like them because they include the whole series of films that Universal made related to the featured monster with some very well-done bonus content.  But regarding The Invisible Man, I was REALLY impressed with the cinematography and pacing of the film.  The visual effects are ingenious and very impressive to watch even today.  I didn't even know that Claude Rains (probably best known as Louie from Casablanca) had played the part of the title character, but given the fact that the viewer never even sees his face until the last few seconds of the movie, he did a fantastic job with is role.  I think there are some important moral and theological ramifications raised by the movie's themes, but I'll save that for a future reflection.  And because the Legacy Collections have an impressive list of extras, I've still got four more sequels to enjoy later, the first of which stars Vincent Price taking up the mantle left behind by Rains.

 I didn't have any intentions of making a Halloween costume this year (I mean, I am 29-years-old for goodness sake), but my friend Joseph and I had a serendipitous moment of inspiration after watching Monday Night Football.  He said I ought to dress up as "the ghost from Charlie Brown" but I misheard him as saying "the ghost of Charlie Brown."  The wheels got turning in our brains, and after a midnight run to Wal-Mart we had most of the materials we needed to make the crazy idea into reality.

Here is the concept art:
And here's what we ended up with:

I think the levitating Snoopy ghost on a leash is was really made the ensemble complete.

And, no, we didn't go around hitting up houses for candy, in case you were wondering!  Joseph & Emily's sons Austin and David did all the Trick-or-Treating as a Ninja Turtle and a knight, respectively.  However, Joseph and I did provide some extra style for the neighborhood with our ghostly get-ups.

Earlier in the month, I decorated my room with some vintage Ninja Turtles decorations I found at a local thrift store for a mere $3:

This Pirate Splinter next to the "rusty" Mouser is my favorite of the whole bunch!

Halloween is an awesome holiday when it's celebrated right!

There were a number of other great memories I have of October '12 (like getting recruited to be a judge in a bake-off and getting to talk to Dr. David Dockery at the Louisville Union University Alumni reunion), but this post has gone on long enough.  Now it's November's time (too bad all the stores just want to get Christmas season started ASAP) and the good news is that Wreck-It-Ralph is hitting theaters this weekend!

And I still need to get around to watching The Nightmare Before Christmas before I have to get that DVD back to Derek.

Monday, September 17, 2012

The Promise I Made as a Boy

I got to head down to Tennessee this weekend to celebrate my Grandaddy's ninetieth birthday (he actually turns 90 on Wednesday, but we celebrated early).  I've written before about my relationship with him and how much I really want to spend as much time as I can with him from now on out.  Needless to say, it was pretty great getting to celebrate his very long life with him again... even if it was a little bittersweet due to the loss of my Granny in late July.

After we celebrated Grandaddy's party at McEwen's "Stagecoach" restaurant we drove up the road to Erin, TN where we visited my (great) Uncle Howard Patterson in the nursing home to celebrate his ninetieth birthday as well.  Uncle Howard is my Granny's brother, and he has always been my favorite uncle because he's long had such a gigantic personality.  He has always been so loud and unpredictable in his remarks, surprisingly funny, but always kind and charming.  He killed hogs and raised beagles.  I think he's the quintessential small-town Tennessean.  In recent years, however, he's had more than his fair-share of health difficulties.  He has long since lost the ability to care for himself and is now confined to a wheelchair.  He has very few memories left, and cannot recall names and faces of close friends and family that he's known for decades.  Fortunately, however, God has still left him with his loud, unpredictable, joyful, cut-up personality.  As my dad likes to say, "He doesn't have his memory, but he's still Uncle Howard."

Uncle Howard, aka "Water Dog"
It was nice to be able to get the (aging) family together to celebrate with cake and presents with him.  But I must confess that simply being in that nursing home both saddened me and scared me.  All through the hallways and the bingo hall, elderly and disabled folks rolled around in their motorized wheelchairs.  A sweet but bewildered older woman rolled up to our party area and wanted to know if her glasses had arrived yet.  The bathrooms could only be entered with a very precise key code.  No one could enter or exit the building unless the attendant first unlocked the door.  The whole time we were there, a haunting rendition of Sonny and Cher's "I Got You Babe" looped endlessly on the single stanza: "I got you to hold my hand, I got you to understand" out of one of the rooms; I couldn't help but recognize the cruel and eery irony in that.

I have respect for anyone who chooses to work and serve in a nursing home for the love of the people.  And I know that Uncle Howard is often visited by family, but I wondered just how many of those other folks had family or friends to come see them often... if at all. 

Years ago, when I was very young and probably still in middle school, Mom made me promise that if something tragic every happened to her and Dad, that I would do everything I could to make sure that Granny and Grandaddy never ended up in a nursing home.  It was a terrifying notion for a kid as young as myself to even fathom.  But this weekend, I understood why my Mom was so insistent that I make her that promise.  I've always felt that somehow my grandparents were uniquely my responsibility to protect and care for.  Even when I went off to college and seminary, I returned home during the summers and spent most of my time over at their house, mostly relaxing and goofing off, but also being ready to do whatever they asked of me.  They raised me almost as much as my parents did, and spending time with them in their last years was the very least that I could do. 

In the end, Mom was the one who really made the sacrifice to care for Granny in her last days.  Throughout all the months that Granny resided in hospitals, rehab centers, and hospices, I don't think Mom ever went home to sleep in her own bed except for very rare occasions.  Granny ultimately died in her own home, not fully conscious of the fact that she was surrounded by family, but she nonetheless died quietly and (so I am told) with a smile on her face. 

Even though God didn't call me to make that particular sacrifice, I still feel responsible for Grandaddy.  He was the first one I visited when I drove in from Louisville.  I had planned to eat with him, and then head back home to Camden.  But Grandaddy said he'd rather me stay with him instead.  I had no regrets honoring that request.  It was my birthday present to him; one that I'll try to repackage as much as I possibly can.
May 2005
May 2012

Tuesday, September 11, 2012

Expecting God to Do Something Great

This past Sunday marked the 9th anniversary of my pastor Brian Croft at Auburndale Baptist Church.  During last Wednesday night's business meeting, he shared a couple of simple reflections that he had learned during his time as pastor.  He recently posted them on his blog.

Both points he noted are good and very emotional subjects for folks like me who have known Brian over the years, but his second point resonated deeply with me:  "The Way God's Blessing Often Flows Out of Sorrow."  In every church, there will be painful losses.  Whenever members leave a church, there ought to be sadness to see them go, even when it is for good reasons like job or ministry opportunities. Some losses come about through controversy as members either leave the church in bitterness or receive the stern hand of church discipline.  Many of these losses, however, will come through the death of members... and some of them tragically so.

In all my years at Auburndale Baptist Church, I never knew such sadness as the stretch of days between November 30 and December 2 of 2011.  Our church lost three people dear to us in two unrelated automobile accidents hundreds of miles away.  In both instances, a vehicle from the opposite lane lost control and made a head-on collision with the specific vehicle containing the people precious to us.  After the first crash, I tried to rationalize it as a simple, occasional tragedy.  But after the second crash, the one which killed my dear friend, I could not accept the fact that it was a simple coincidence.  I felt as if I and my brothers and sisters and Auburndale had suffered a cruel blow ordained by God himself.  As I have confessed in a previous post, I had to deal with a little bit of my own anger toward God for not only allowing such tragedies to happen, but for seemingly being the direct cause of them.  I am thankful, however, that the grace of God in Christ proved sufficient for me and brought my heart to dependence upon him rather than resentment.

But I couldn't shake the feeling that God must have a great purpose in order to ordain such a terrible sequence of events.  The first thing I did after hearing of the loss of my friend was to take the time to call up various people throughout my life who have made a great impact on me (and who continue to be important to me) and simply let them know that I appreciate and care for them.

I have seen the seeds of long-term transformation in my own life since the events of last December.  I try not to ever take the important people in my life for granted or assume that they'll always be around for me.  When people I care about get sick or go through hard times, I do what I can to lift them up and encourage them in the Gospel.  Life is way too short as it is, and it can change from routine to tragedy in an instant.  I do not know what God specifically has in mind for my life, but I hope that I am able to honor the friendship I had with Stacy Ellison by working harder to strengthen the existing and future relationships in my own life.  And I hope God, in his kind and wise providence, will put the people in my life that I'll need to be more effective for Him and appreciate His goodness even more.

Therefore, in light of all losses that have occurred in my life since last December, I'm encouraged rather than discouraged.  I'm expecting God to do some great things.  And I hope I'll get to see them.

Monday, September 03, 2012

Late in the Game, but Still Making Memories

"Cherish every moment with the important people in your life as if it might be the last one, but go ahead and make future plans with them anyway." -[Something I thought up a few years ago]

This weekend I drove down to Tennessee to drive my soon-to-be ninety-year-old Grandaddy around Camden's 15th annual "30 Mile Yard Sale."  It's been an annual tradition for our family to set up sales in the garage while I take Grandaddy around town looking for dirt-cheap deals on rusty metal (among other things).  He uses a cane for precaution and for when his legs get tired, but he can get along fine without it.

This year, I was fully conscious of the fact that I probably won't get very many opportunities to continue this tradition in the future.  Grandaddy has had Parkinson's Disease for nearly a decade, but he still possesses enough strength to maintain a fairly normal life and is still able to do many of the same routine things he has done throughout his life.  The last two years, however, have taken its emotional toil on him on account of my Granny's long sickness and eventual death late in July.  Grandaddy lives alone in heartbreak, but he hasn't given up because he still treasures the time he gets to spend with the rest of our family.

My mother is the only child of Granny and Grandaddy's sixty-five-year marriage, and my sister and I are their only grandchildren.  Needless to say, they pretty much tried to spoil us at every opportunity (not so much in the early years, but considerably more-so since I went off to college in 2001).  I cherish every opportunity I have to make a few more memories with Grandaddy for as long as the Lord gives him health and life.

I told him at Granny's funeral that I want him to live as long as possible.  I suppose that was a somewhat selfish request on my part, but I just can't imagine life without a grandparent, and he's my last one left.  Even though he gets around well, I tried to stay close to him at the yard sales, because I was so worried he might trip on a tree root or slip in some loose dirt.  He almost tripped trying to go underneath a scaffold to avoid some rain, but he caught himself (the old man still probably thinks he's only 75 at times).  Nothing makes me feel old like watching out for the folks who raised me as if they themselves were large children.

After I graduated from college, I was frustrated that so much of my life routine still felt the same as it always did.  I wanted to move on with life.  But now life seems to be changing awfully fast.  I'm watching my elder relatives grow old, suffer, and die.  I've experienced the loss of some great friends, and a few more friends have had some close calls.  But I won't lose heart either.  I serve a God who isn't surprised by anything, and I worship a Savior who has identified himself with the most pitiful point of the human condition.  I don't fear the sorrowful days that surely await me in the future, but I just don't want them to happen anytime soon.  If there is one thing I've learned about relationships in recent years, it's that you really have to make the most of the time God has given you with the people you love the most.