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:

Sunday, August 04, 2013

. . . the More Things Stay the Same

I've spent my last weekend in my campus dorm room, the place where I've lived for the last 8 years.  I'll only be moving about a mile away, but sorting through old materials, throwing junk away, and packing up the stuff worth keeping sure brings back old memories.  I came to Louisville way back on August 5, 2005, when my parents and I moved all my stuff into my Fuller Hall apartment.  Not knowing the layouts of the building, I think we took the most inconvenient path possible, walking long distances and going up various flights of stairs.  And we suffered the first night in the summer heat without an air conditioner or electric fan in the room.  But as miserable experience as that was, the worst part was being left all alone when they departed back to Tennessee.  It would be a few more days until my roommate joined me, and my other friends in town weren't able to fellowship with me for a couple of days.  For the first time in my life, I was lonely.  But I was also excited.

(I even blogged about it.)

Probably best not to ask about this one.

So much time has passed since August 5, 2005.  Going through all my stuff brought back so many memories of the things I've done, the people I've met, and the events I'd almost forgotten.  I've lived by myself for nearly five years, but I no longer feel alone.  And I'm still excited.

"Reformation Day" 2006

I've been blessed with friends, many of whom are no longer with me physically, but always present in my thinking.  As sappy as that probably sounds, it's true.  When I get an opportunity to fellow with friends old and new, I savor it and remember it.

Old Friends, One Last Photo, 2009

I've been blessed with years of education and work experience.  Long ago, I got the degree for which I came to town, and now I'm still working on that last one.  The fact that I've not yet completed that second degree is somewhat of an irritation for me, but I nevertheless feel like I'm still at the right place in life, working hard now to prepare myself for what I want to do in the future.  Back in 2005, I came to Louisville hoping that God could make me into a preacher rather than merely a good student.  And I think He has.


Although I'm not ordained and have never served on staff at a church in a regular ministerial capacity, I believe myself to be a preacher currently working as a steward of other important assignments.  In 2005, I felt lost in sermon preparation and especially behind a pulpit.  It's been a long time since I've felt that way.  To be clear, I do not consider myself a great orator or even a great biblical scholar.  However, there is no situation in which I feel more alive than when I am standing before a congregation of God's people (or even some curious visitors) expounding the weight of the Scriptural text.  In my estimation, God has already given me what I came for, and for that I have to thank the Lord for the people He has put (and kept) in my life over the past 8 years.  But even though I've got what I came for, I now known that I've yet to reach the ultimate goal.

Autumn at Fuller Hall, 2012

I hope I can become a better preacher in the years to come.  And I know the key to doing so is how well I'll be able to integrate my understanding of Scripture with my love for the people whom God puts in my life.  In Philippians 3:10, Paul wrote of his own goal in life, namely "to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings."  As I myself press on towards my own resurrection from among the dead, I pray that I'll continue to understand the power of Christ in me and those I love.  Like Paul, I've not yet reached the goal or fully matured in that most important regard.

Winter at Fuller Hall, 2013

And so it's time for me to press on toward the goal that is never fully reached in this present life.  I'm better for my 8 years in Fuller Hall 229, but I look forward to what God has in my future.  I'm excited.

Sunset  over Louisville viewed from Fuller Hall.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

That Superman Movie...

Let me start off by saying that I liked Man of Steel.  The film boasted stunning visuals, strong casting, and some very bold twists on the familiar Superman mythology.  But although I found the movie enjoyable, I didn't love it, and I was really hoping that the movie would have evoked such affection in me in spite of my skepticism going in.  We diehard DC fans have had to watch all the Marvel-philes bask in the glory of their cinematic success for over a decade, so we really want the few Batman and Superman movies we get to be something special. I think I appreciate Superman more than most people, and I'll admit that I have my own conceptions of what he should be (without dropping spoilers, I think his portrayal in this movie at times contradicted my beliefs about how Superman should act).  But my qualms about Man of Steel aren't so much about any drastic changes they introduced to the Superman mythology so much as they are about the cinematic structure of the film.  Basically, the film didn't quite realize the fullness of its potential. Unlike Jor-El, who hoped that his only son might dream to be more than what society intended, Man of Steel seems a slave to the conventions of contemporary "epic" action movies.

There's a number of really nice little scenes in the film, especially the flashbacks to young Clark Kent's coming-of-age moments in Smallville.  My favorite is when he is upset that the world seems "too big" (since the poor kid can literally see and hear everything around him), and his mother instructs him to focus on specifics and thus "make it small."  There's such great wisdom and power in that line, and I wish Zack Snyder and crew had heeded their own advice through the last half of the movie.

The last half of the movie is certainly a visual sight to behold, leaving no doubt that the special effects crew squeezed every penny out of their reported $225 million budget.  Super-powered entities punch each other around, stuff blows up, buildings get knocked down, and alien death machines try to turn the planet into the equivalent of Gravity Man's stage from Mega Man 5. I love all that stuff as much as the next guy, but this movie's biggest problem is that for all the destruction that takes place in the name of "Action!," little of it really has any emotional resonance.

Snyder's Man of Steel takes place on an ambitious scale; there's epic battles that take place in the glistening skyline of Metropolis, a little farm in Kansas, the frigid wasteland of the Arctic, and a galaxy far, far away.  But for what feels like an hour, all the locales kind of blend into one another as Superman's various super-battles seem to take place simultaneously.  At one point, I was confused on where exactly Superman was supposed to be while all the action was going on someplace else.  He was off risking his life trying to destroy some death machine in a remote spot over the Indian Ocean while a building almost fell on some key staff members of the Daily Planet.  But suddenly, he was conveniently back in Metropolis in time to catch Lois Lane who just so happened to be falling out of an airplane.  (A blatant Mighty Mouse homage probably wouldn't have been out of place there.)

The plot featured some fantastic moral dilemmas for Superman such as whether he ought to secure the survival of his Kryptonian race or else doom his blood brethren to extinction because such a fate might be in the best interests of the the Earthlings who raised him.  That's some pathos almost worthy of Shakespeare!  Regrettably, all the emotional weight of that decision was thrown by the wayside in the name of packing the movie with seemingly endless fight scenes and "disaster porn" (that was accomplished comic scribe Mark Waid's term).  We never really had time to worry about how Superman would solve his no-win situation; there was always another building toppling over to distract us from feeling any anxiety.

This movie had some clever ideas on how to do Superman "different but good" in the year 2013. However, I can't help but think that Snyder may have decided to quit work early on this flick and just entrusted the CGI wizards to finish out the 2.5 hour run-time with oodles of action that doesn't necessarily have any point to it.  That mentality has become the industry standard for most big-budget action movies over the past decade or so, and that's too bad since Superman deserves better.  Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner famously made us believe that a man can fly way back in 1978, while Snyder and crew apparently wanted to convince us that a flying man can single-handedly fight off an alien invasion and devastate a major American city in the process.  Truth be told, Joss Whedon and those plucky Avengers did a much better job at damage control and collateral damage than Superman (and given all their wisecrackin' antics, they probably had more fun doing it too).  And despite all the flurries of furious fisticuffs exchanged between Superman and Zod, sometimes it seemed the characters (and, by extension, we the audience) forgot why exactly they hate each other so much.

Back when Nicholas Meyer directed The Wrath of Khan in 1982, he had to make do with a reduced budget and a general populace that doubted whether the Star Trek franchise had any long-term viability.  Meyer's strategy was to make the most of subtlety so that the audience's focus was always fixated on the personal conflict between Khan and Captain Kirk. Though the two spacemen never physically confronted each other during the course of the film, even the mundane scenes in that movie resonate on an emotional level.  Because Meyer was of the opinion that the best acting usually takes place in confined, small spaces, most of that film's "Action!" took place within a small room, and entire sets were reused with simple cosmetic changes.  The end result is that nothing distracts you from being aware of how much the protagonist and antagonist hate each.  That's the cinematic application of Ma Kent's advice to take the great big world and "make it small."

Man of Steel is an exciting film to sit through once, but I don't really have any compelling reason to sit through it again. It's a movie that hits you in the face with everything on the first ride, and I didn't sense enough subtlety to warrant giving it a closer inspection.  Even though this movie wasn't the film I hoped it would be, I hope it continues succeeding in the box office in order to lay a sustainable foundation for sequels and the off-chance of a good Justice League movie. Lukewarm "critical" reviews notwithstanding, most people I know who have seen the movie say they like it. To borrow an expression from Nolan's The Dark Knight (and I'll defend that movie as high cinema no matter what anybody says): Man of Steel may not be the movie long-time DC fans like me deserve, but it might just be the one we need right now.

Saturday, May 25, 2013

Inappropriate Bible Passages?

I actually thought about titling this post "The Book of Job: What is is Good For?"

I've been away from the internet most of the week, but one of the big stories of the week has been the terrible death & destruction caused by the recent tornadoes in Moore, Oklahoma.  By what I've read, seven Elementary School children were numbered among the cumulative death toll of twenty-four.  When I hear news like that, I rarely feel that I have anything appropriate to say to the situation, especially when I'm hundreds of miles away and can't do anything direct and immediate to aid the people suffering.  And this is one of those times.

Other Christian folks have tried to process their grief and offer their sympathy to the people of Moore, OK with some public statements on their social media accounts.  One such response was a tweet posted by John Piper, the recently retired long-time pastor of Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minnesota. His original two tweets (posted on the day of the storms) were simply quotation from Job 1:19-20, and it elicited quite a bit of internet backlash:
Your sons and daughters were eating and a great wind struck the house, and it fell upon them, and they are dead. Then Job arose and tore his robe and shaved his head and fell on the ground and worshiped. (Job 1:19-20)

He later deleted both tweets and offered some clarifying remarks on his intentions behind the quotes from Job:
The reason I pulled my tweets from Job is that it became clear that what I feel as comfort was not affecting others the same. When tragedy strikes my life, I find it stabilizing and hope-giving to see the stories of the sheer factuality of other’s losses, especially when they endured them the way Job did. Job really grieved. He really agonized. He collapsed to the ground. He wept. He shaved his head. This was, in my mind, a pattern of what must surely happen in Oklahoma. I thought it would help. But when I saw how so many were not experiencing it that way, I took them down.

Even though I already stated that I'm the person who tries to keep quiet in the immediate wake of tragedies that don't affect me directly, if I were pressed to quote a Bible verse to sum up my feelings on a tornado's wake, I probably wouldn't go immediately to Job 1:19-20.  There are a number of Scripture passages that I tend to focus on when adversity comes to my life and the people I care about, but those two verses in Job just aren't among them.  For John Piper, however, those verses might mean almost everything for persevering through tribulation.

By my count, I own about ten of John Piper's books, and I read large portions of just about all of them to edify my soul and challenge my thinking.  One of those books is The Misery of Job and the Mercy of God, which I think was given to me as a gift by my old friend Ian Miller.  Piper dedicated that book "to those who suffer loss and pain along the path that leads to life" (page 7), and the book's thesis is that the 42 chapters of Job testify that "God governs all things for his good purposes" (page 8).  I really appreciate the fact that Piper doesn't try to explain away the weight of Job 42:11, where the inspired biblical author attributes the ultimate cause of all Job's afflictions to the sovereign decision of God himself. Piper embraces the truth that God's sovereignty can be both painful and sweet throughout the course of life.

I believe that John Piper lives in the book of Job more than most of us do; I know he certainly lives there more than I do. I think he sees the mercy and love of God clearly in afflictions that might come upon him. When Piper was diagnosed with cancer a few years back, he held firm to the spiritual realities that he recognizes in the book of Job.
In the wake of this week's tornadoes, Piper tried to apply the same comfort that he derives from Job to the Oklahoma victims and their families. Most of us, however, probably have a harder time finding immediate comfort in the verses he decided to quote on his Twitter. And I think he probably made a mistake in assuming how the words might be received by most people.

As much as I respect John Piper, I certainly don't agree with him on everything, and on some past occasions, he has given the appearance of attributing specific human sinfulness as the cause for why God might send tornadoes upon people.  I wish he wouldn't entertain such speculations, especially not in such a public forum.  But even if he might sometimes fall into the error to which the friends of Job eventually succumbed, Piper's interpretation of the events shouldn't be compared to other irresponsible and egregious uses of Scripture as seen by folks like Fred Phelps and the Westboro Baptist Church.  Those are very different men with very different agendas.

When I was a freshman college student at Union University trying to make sense of the 9-11 terror attacks, Dr. Paul Jackson, my Intro. to Bible Studies professor, encouraged us not to try and attribute such atrocity to any particular sin of our nation, as other public Christian figures had done.  Rather, Dr. J. drew our attention to
Jesus' words in Luke 13:1-5 where he rebuked those who assumed they knew the specific reasons why God would bring calamity upon people (and then called upon all to repent).  All these years later, and I've never forgotten that advice.  Rarely do we have all the answers for what God brings upon us and rarely do we say the right things at just the right time to the right people (or at least I don't).

In conclusion, I don't begrudge John Piper or anyone else for turning to the harder passages in Job for spiritual comfort in the midst of suffering.  But I think the subsequent controversy over his tweets is probably a good lesson for all of us who hope to comfort others.  The Bible passages that have taught us the most wisdom for enduring suffering may not always be so apparent to other folks who might be dealing with the raw pain of present loss and affliction.  We should carefully and humbly consider the wisdom of how people might interpret intent whenever we resolve to try and speak to the pain of others.  I think John Piper made a mistake in this instance, and it's a mistake that I have also made many times in the past.  Sometimes the best thing we can do is simply assure people we are praying for them and offer to help in any way that we can.

Also, I really hate the culture that Twitter creates, but that's a whole 'nother subject.

Sunday, April 14, 2013

A Year with Easter on my Mind

Anyone who has read any of my blog posts from last year can probably discern that 2012 was a hard and emotionally tring year for me.  Throughout most of my struggles and sorrows of that year, however, the one particular passage of Scripture sustained me more than any other was Psalm 22.  Before 2012, my mind rarely associated that psalm with Easter, but now it's become one of the most important points of reference for when I think about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.

I suppose I have to credit my newfound appreciation for Psalm 22 to a brief comment made by Russell D. Moore on his Cross & the Jukebox session on Johnny Cash.  Moore referenced the importance of Jesus' quotation of Psalm 22:1 ("my God, my God, why have you forsaken me?") as some of his final words upon the Cross (and somehow Moore tied the whole thing together beautifully with Johnny Cash's own life story). As terrible a picture of suffering as Psalm 22 paints in its first twenty verses, it nevertheless concludes with an abundance of praises toward God for His goodness and salvation.  And the pivotal point of the psalm occurs at verse 21, where the psalmist confesses to God that "You have heard me!" (the Hebrew word is often translated as "rescue" but "heard" is the literal sense).  The same concept is again present in verse 24: "He has listened to his cry for help."  David, whose name is attached to this psalm, trusted in God to deliver him out of his afflictions, as did many generations of the people of Israel.  But when Jesus on the Cross identified himself with Psalm 22, He didn't have only verse 1 in mind but verse 21 as well.  Jesus knew that His Father had heard his cries and that, even though God's presence appeared to be far away at the time, the Father would not ultimately abandon His Son to death and decay.  And in the great resurrection event of that first Easter Sunday, God the Father proved that He had heard the cries of God the Son and had answered the Holy One with decisive vindication.

Over the past year, I have realized that the only reason why any of us are able to praise God in spite of whatever tough times we might be going through is because Jesus Christ has identified Himself with us in our sin and suffering.  God the Father gave our Lord the victory that is now reserved for those of us who trust in Christ alone for salvation.  God the Father was pleased to accept righteous suffering of Christ as an all-sufficient substitute for sinners like me.  And in the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead, those who have trusted in Christ have assurance that God will raise them up from the depths of suffering and the grave (in the words of 1 Corinthians 15:20-21).

On April 11 of last year (three days after Easter Sunday of 2012), I led a Wednesday night Bible study on Psalm 22 with two of our church ladies both in their eighties.  I got pressed for time and only made it through half of the chapter.  A few months later, I got a another opportunity to lead a Wednesday night study, and I again repeated the lesson and made it through the entire psalm.  I don't know how much of a lasting impression it left on the folks at the study, but it the psalm sure did leave a great impact on me.  I began to yearn for the opportunity to transition my study notes into a more proper sermon outline, and when my Granny's health began to fail again during late Spring I began to consider the idea of using Psalm 22 as the biblical anchor for her funeral sermon which my family requested I deliver upon her eventual passing.  Ultimately, the personal burden proved to be too weighty for me to find a way to do full justice to Psalm 22, so I instead choose Hebrews 4:14-16 (Christ being our high priest who is able to sympathize fully with our human weaknesses) to be the biblical centrifuge of my Granny's eulogy.

This year, my home church back in Camden invited me to deliver the sermons for their Easter services.  I only had about a week's time of preparation, but I realized I\it was the perfect opportunity to prepare that much desired sermon on Psalm 22.  I didn't make any personal reference to my Granny's suffering in my actual sermon but that reality has always been on my mind.  Throughout Jesus' earthly ministry, He showed compassion to sinful and suffering people bringing them temporary healing.  But in Jesus' sacrificial death on the Cross, He identified himself absolutely with the very worst of the human condition.  All the terrible pain that my Granny suffered prior to her death last year was nailed to that Cross alongside Jesus. I don't know what sort of tribulation might await me in my future, but all that stuff unknown to me at this time was also nailed to that Cross alongside Jesus.  The consequences of sin will ultimately drag all flesh into the grave, but praise God that in the resurrection of Jesus Christ on that first Easter Sunday, we have blessed assurance that God has heard us, and He has promised to raise us again.

Even though 2012 held a lot of tough times for my family, it's good to know that even when God's presence seems far away and the troubles of the present seem very near, God has promised that He has not hidden His face from his people.  He has proved his faithfulness to us in the cross and the empty tomb.  And that's why I've had Easter on my mind all year long.

I haven't figured out the proper way to stream audio via Blogspot interface, but my Easter 2013 sermon can be downloaded here if anyone is interested:
"The Cross, the God-Forsaken, and the Empty Tomb" Psalm 22

Saturday, March 16, 2013

Teaching Kids about Hating Sin (aka, Lessons from a Ten-Year-Old's Testimony)

I've been teaching children's Sunday School at my church for nearly seven years, and that responsibility carries its own unique joys and frustrations.  I've been privileged to serve with four different co-teachers throughout process who helped to compensate for my own shortcomings.  I consider myself blessed to have had an opportunity to influence these kids with the Gospel message for so long, but there are many times when I question my own effectiveness in trying to help these children understand the gravity of what it means to be a sinner in need of salvation in Christ

Almost all of my regular attenders have the remarkable benefit of loving parents who are strong Christian leaders and ensure that the whole family is at the congregational gatherings every week, yet not all of these children have experienced God's saving grace and committed their lives to Christ's service.  Therein lies my greatest challenge as a teacher; how can I plant some spiritual seeds in the hearts and mind of these precious but naive little sinners that God might one day grow into genuine faith?  It's not like God needs my participation in His plans, of course, but I do believe that there's a divine purpose for which I've been given the privilege of teaching these kids for a season of their lives.

One theme that I routinely emphasize to the children is that they need to recognize the fact that they are all sinners who are personally guilty of breaking God's commands.  So I'll often ask each child about their own personal acts of disobedience to parents or sins of that nature.  That's when things usually get interesting.  Lying, theft (from siblings), anger (again, usually directed towards their siblings) or hiding the truth tend to be the most frequent confessions I hear.  The kids can easily recognize the fact that they are sinners and even agree that they deserve punishment when they are caught in their offenses. But very few of the kids ever seem to be visibly upset and sorrowful about their sins and offenses, and that's been one of the causes of my frustration over the years.  I'm not content with the kids merely recognizing that they are sinners; I want them to hate their sin and run to Christ for rescue.  I can't make that change happen, but I hope that I can at least communicate the importance of that message.

There's a lot of spiritual advantages to being a child, as Jesus taught us in Matthew 18:3.  Their minds are usually more adept at having faith and in believing in miracles compared to most adults.  And most children haven't had as much time or opportunity to commit grievous sins that can harden the heart against God.   But there are probably spiritual disadvantages to being a child too. I think the inherent naivety of children can make it difficult for them to truly hate their sin for its own sake.  They might hate the punishment that befalls them because of their sin when their parents discipline them, but that's not the same as hating sin.  In order for them to truly understand their need for Christ as Savior, they need to understand how bad sin is... even the relatively "small" sins that they've committed in their short lives.  And it's at this point that I yield the stage to a remarkable testimony composed by a little girl.

Nearly a year ago, one of the ten-year old girls in my class came to Christ and was baptized.  With the help of her parents, she composed a written account of her testimony and the event that finally made her come to hate her sin and put her trust in Christ.  In my opinion, it's one of the best Christian testimonies I've ever read because it displays that rare recognition of how terrible sin is and why we should despise its existence in our hearts.  And the story all started because she was thirsty and decided to lay claim to the last Gatorade before her brother could get to it.

In her own words:
One day me and my brother had our practices, and there was one Gatorade left. I wanted it so I took the Gatorade and started to write my name and draw pictures on it so that I could have it and so no one else could take it.  After I stuck it in the fridge God showed me my heart and showed me that what I did was wrong and that I was being selfish for wanting and taking the Gatorade.  So then I took a note and I wrote, "I'm sorry for taking the Gatorade I feel so selfish just taking the Gatorade please forgive me."  And after I gave my brother the note and the Gatorade I felt like I loved God more than I ever have and I wanted to learn more about god and his word. 

Nearly a year later, I still read those words with amazement.  That ten-year-old girl didn't commit any great moral offense, and I doubt she even would have been punished by mom & dad for taking possession of that drink.  But she realized that the key issue was her own heart, which was selfish and didn't trust God.  And that's the realization that spurred her spiritual transformation.  After a talk with her mom, she was advised to admit she was a sinner and to trust in Jesus alone for salvation.  And then she wrote:
Then I realized that Jesus changed my heart. When I felt my heart change my dad and I read some scripture. One of them was Ezekiel 36:26: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." When I read this scripture I knew this is what I wanted God to do for me, and he did.

I have read many adult testimonies of how God changed hearts and rescued very sinful people out of some very terrible lifestyles, but I can't think of many that impart the same insight into human nature as this little girl's story does.  If we could all hate the small sins we commit against God and our Neighbor as much as she hated what she thought about doing with that Gatorade bottle, then maybe we could all start recognizing how awesome a work of grace that God does in our hearts when we come to Christ.

Sunday, February 10, 2013

When Comforting Others Seems Impossible

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort,who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God.
Paul's opening statement in the Second Epistle to the Corinthians has long struck me as one of the most profound and humbling truths in all of Scripture.  In 2 Cor. 1:3-11, Paul explains that the suffering and affliction that he and Timothy had experienced while in Asia occurred for the purpose of teaching them how to better comfort other believers who go through similar afflictions.  God not only subjected Paul and Timothy to affliction, but He comforted them even more abundantly because of their experience.  The benefit of being brought through affliction to share in the spiritual comfort that comes through Christ is that the Christian is able to better empathize and serve his fellow Christians who are in the midst of their own suffering. 

That's a marvelous portion of Scripture, because it teaches the Christian to view their suffering not as a simple question of "why does God allow this bad thing to happen to me?" but a question of "how does God want me to use my suffering to comfort others who might be going through something similar?"  That's quite a revelation; it turns our focus away from ourselves and encourages us to start thinking about others.

On the other hand, the 2 Corinthians text does at least suggest that if God has not chosen to subject us to a particular form of suffering, then we may not be as qualified to comfort others as we might like to be.  Therefore, the experience of affliction becomes a prerequisite for us to learn how to better comfort others with the comfort that Christ first shows to us when we are in the position of the afflicted one.

That's a hard truth that frustrates me.

I don't have the personal experience to empathize fully with a widow who lost her husband young.  Neither can I fully identify with parents who have had to bury their own children, sometimes before those kids have even been born.  And thankfully, I don't yet know the pain of losing a parent.  But I have friends who live with all these burdens.

Another example has weighed heavily on my heart in recent days. This past week marked an important anniversary for people associated with Union University.  Tuesday February 5 was the five-year anniversary of the tornado that destroyed most of the old student dormitories but did not take the lives of any people on campus.  I graduated in 2005, which means I was already long gone when the storm came, but I had many dear friends who were still there when it happened.  I still remembered how terrified I was that night in my Louisville dorm seeing the reports of the devastation on the news and trying to decide if it was wise to try and call my friends in Jackson, TN to see if they were alright.

After all was accounted for, all of my friends were safe, but they were forever changed after that night.  They had experienced something terrible, a sensation of terror that I cannot even imagine.  I have marveled at the Union story for all five of these years.  There is even a strange sense within me that actually wishes I could have been there on campus that night so that I could have suffered in solidarity with my friends and know the depths of what they had to endure.  I wish I could have been there to help them in 2008, but I wasn't.  And I wish I could be better qualified to know how to best comfort them even to this day.  But that's impossible.  I wasn't there, and I can't understand the affliction (and the comfort) that those students and staff came to understand all too well.

I am humbled by the reality that I am unable to comfort my friends with the comfort that can only come from the people who were there and lived that night.  I experienced my fair share of storm warnings while at Union between 2001-2005, but I never lived through anything even comparable to "The Tornado."  And because of what I've seen at Union, I've since tried hard to prepare myself for a worst-case scenario whenever I endure storm warnings in Louisville.  None of this, however, makes me qualified to compare my experiences with my friends who saw the sights and sounds of February 5th.  I haven't warranted that sense of solidarity. And so I'm frustrated, because I know I am helpless to do what I want to do.  In a very real sense, I am incapable of bringing comfort to others.

But where our own strength might fail, the wisdom and mercy of God abounds all the more abundantly.  Thank God that there are other people who lived through that experience who cared for and continue to care for my friends.  Thank the Lord for the church families of all those folks who served the needs of their own.  Praise be to God that in the Body of Christ, there will always be someone who has undergone suffering so that they might be made more adept to bring comfort to others.

In my helplessness to comfort my friends as I would like, I can only offer my prayers to the Father of mercies and God of all comfort (to borrow the words of the 2 Corinthians passage once more).  And though I might lack the requisite understanding that comes through personal experience, I can pray the words of Philippians 4:7 that God might comfort my friends with "the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding."

Sunday, February 03, 2013

Grieve the Moment

I've spend a good deal of time on the internet over the past few years, and I've noticed a number of trends about how people use their social media accounts.

One thing I've learned is that whenever something tragic happens on a visible and public scale, people will inevitable try to immediately change the tone of the conversation away from a consideration of the present tragedy into a comment about some other issue that is morally significant to their interests.  It's not a matter of "if" someone will act in such a manner, it's only a matter of "when."

I observed this phenomenon after the Newtown, Connecticut school massacre.  Obviously, gun control  laws were and still are the popular subject of discussion, but I noticed another trend among many would-be paragons that bothered me.  There were a few folks who expressed some sentiment along the following lines "The murder of 26 children and school officials at Newtown was terrible but our country has legally aborted over 50 million babies since 1973!" Granted, that's a true statistic, but why does one think it's wise to frame the discussion in that light?  And as atrocious as abortion is, the argument against its legalization is not advanced by diminishing the severity of a mass-scale elementary school shooting.

I don't fully understand why people feel justified in doing this kind of "morality juke."  But I suspect the best explanation might be that the tragedy of the moment doesn't quite connect with their emotions at a truly personal level.  Although nearly two dozen children died (who most of the nation knew not by memory but only by their names and faces), some people immediately wanted to get angry about something else.  Such comments do nothing to console the pain of the grieving families of the slain.  If it were my children, parents, or siblings who were the victims, then I am certain that my soul wouldn't care about being burdened by an additional moral outrage.

As a point of illustration, I recall this same tendency in comments that were made in the context of local news reports about the car accident that claimed the life of my friend Stacy Ellison.

On the news broadcast that aired on television that night, the news reporter narrated the events of the crash and then abruptly changed the subject.  She warned that more automobile fatalities might be in store for Louisville drivers as wintry weather conditions descended upon the city.  Then, as a clip of my friend's crumpled Ford Taurus was displayed on the screen, she issued a morbid warning about the dangers of distracted driving.  I don't know if either Stacy or the truck driver who crossed lanes and collided with him were driving distracted at the time (though based on what I've read, the other driver simply had a medical attack and lost control in an instant), but that question certainly didn't matter to me. I know for certain that wintry weather conditions weren't a factor, but the nightly news nevertheless felt the need to create a narrative where it didn't need to exist.  If I were to ever have the opportunity to have a face-to-face conversation with that reporter, I would feel compelled to ask her why she felt the need to dismiss the immediate tragedy like she did. 

But I suppose I already know what the answer might be.  The fact is that while a fatal automobile accident in a Metro area is both public and newsworthy, it simply doesn't have much emotional power unless one actually knew the victims involved.  It was only newsworthy as a local story, not as a national tragedy.  And the only people who really had to suffer were the victims and the people who knew them and their families.  Those who weren't personally affected by the event could simply divert their minds to other concerns and move on with their life routines.

My hope is we will cease our habits of dismissing the impact of immediate tragedies in order to draw attention to other subjects, however important they might be.  Let us do more to follow the example of Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar, who grieved with their suffering friend for seven days and seven nights without even daring to offer a word, as Scripture recounts in Job 2:11-13.  And let us avoid the imitation of their eventual attempts to shift the narrative from one of grief into irate moral diatribe.  Though there is much evil and suffering in the world that might pain us and remain ever with us, we are often best served to focus on the present crisis of a fresh wound... and grieve in the moment.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Memorable Moments

I haven't have many deep or particularly organized thoughts lately, but I have had a lot of serendipitous moments of epiphany that had the effect of brightening my day in a special way.  So I figured I'd compile them for future reference.

Thanks a Lot for Caring!
A couple of Mondays ago, the checkout girl at Big Lots asked me (totally out of the blue) "you look so sad, what happened today?" It was awkward, but the more I thought about it, I realized that we could use more people like that in the world.

And then I felt totally sheepish in admitting that I was just trying to figure out whether or not I'd be able to make it home in time for the Notre Dame-Alabama BCS National Championship Game. She seemed a bit disappointed after that.

Though what I didn't tell her was that I kinda had to go to the bathroom at the time. That might have been a factor in my somewhat subdued facial expression while waiting in line.

Pay It Forward
I saw this a certain offer going around on some of my friends' Facebook accounts, and it seemed intriguing.  I generally avoid any type of copy-paste style postings because the internet is just full of spam and crazy stuff, but this one was a little different.  This gist of the message was that the first five people to comment on the particular status would receive from the original poster something homemade (not sure if I'll limit myself to that rule or not) as a gift at any random point during the year. But the twist is that each of those five people must return the favor by posting the message on their Facebook pages and make the same offer to five people. 

It's a cool idea, because it makes yourself available to serve some folks in a special way that maybe you wouldn't necessarily think about.  I've got close to 700 Facebook "friends" so any five of them could have had the opportunity to take advantage of it.  Some of the folks who took advantage of my offer are folks with whom I haven't had much contact in the last few years.  It should be a fun and challenging project to try and figure out what might be a cool gift to send them.

The whole thing reminds me of that movie Pay It Forward where the middle-school kid aspires to change the world by doing good for random people he meets and them making them promise to pass along the favor.  It's a pretty cool concept, but of course the poor kid dies at the end trying to break up a school yard fight.  That seemed like a cheap ploy by the movie-people to me.  Oh well, I guess the ghost of Haley Joel Osment's character lives on in spirit...

Granny Always Said I was "Makin' a Preacher"
About a month ago, I agreed to teach the adult Sunday School class for one Sunday in January, which ended up being tomorrow's date, January 20.  A little while later, I volunteered to preach a Sunday night sermon on the same day.  Last week, my pastor asked me if I could substitute for him on the Wednesday night Bible studies for three consecutive weeks, starting with this past Wednesday.  So, yeah, it's been a bit of of a busy week trying to get everything organized.  There would have been a time when I probably would have considered this to be too much commitment and I might have turned some of it down for fear of having my focus divided and not being able to do as good a job as I might like.

But sometime after I began the PhD program at the seminary, I've started to think of myself as a preacher, even if I am still of a work-in-progress and still "in the waiting," so to speak.  Getting opportunities to preach and teach doesn't so much intimidate me as it does excite me (though I still agonize over the preparation and lead-up process).  When I'm up there speaking about the Word, I feel truly alive. To the best of my knowledge, that sense of exhilaration doesn't stem from any kind of vanity or self-serving pride, but from a confidence that it's just where I'm supposed to be.

That doesn't mean I'm ready to start putting out my resumes for salaried church positions. I haven't done that because I'm content to work the job I have so long as I'm still in school, and I don't want to tie up my weekends in case I need to make some quick trips back to Tennessee to visit family.  That day is coming, but I'm not there yet.