Tuesday, November 28, 2006

Not Quite Right

O.K. . . .so I need to check my references to scripture before posting statements about biblical content or attempting to quote passages that I haven't memorized.

I said in my last post that Paul repeatedly states in Philippians 2 that he wants to know Christ. That's not quite right. If you're interestred in reading what the apostle actually said, you'll need to go to Philippians 3. There are a couple of places there where Paul speaks of knowing Christ. In v. 3 he speaks of the "surpassing worth" of knowing Christ as compared with a life of rule keeping and points earned for good behavior. In v. 10 Paul says his aim is to "know him and the power of his resurrection."

I was off a little: one chapter and a few turns of phrase. Still, knowing Christ was a big deal for Paul. May it be likewise for us.

Friday, November 10, 2006

New on the iPod

Some of the best bible teaching in the country is available via podcasting. In addition to our own Dr. Vic Pentz here at Peachtree Presbyterian (link on right of this page) I'm enjoying a new podcast from Ken Myers and the folks who do the Mars Hill audio journal. It's called "Audition" and you can subscribe by going to the Mars Hill website. The Catalyst podcast is great and you'll find good stuff from Melo Park Presbyterian Church, Rob Bell at Mars Hill Church (not connected to Mars Hill audio journal in any way), and Mark Batterson at NCC in Washington, D.C.

On the way to the church this morning I heard part of a song that caught my attention for it's vocals and lyrics. I never actually listen to the country-western stations in Atlanta, so this was a random find while scanning for something else. The group is Sugarland and the song is "Want To" from their CD Enjoy the Ride.

I can't say exactly why I like this song beyond obvious things like the tune and the singer, etc. The song captures a moment between two people - a moment of decision, the precipice of something new between them. This is not an unspoken love from a distance, and it's not a declaration of commitment. It's the moment of what's next. There is mingling of clear desire and hesitant, tentative living.

"We could keep things just the same
Leave here the way we came, with nothing to lose
But I don't want to, if you don't want to."

I'll confess to being somewhat averse to risk, to the unknown. As far as I'm concerned you can never have enough clarity and certainty. This presents a problem when it comes to living by grace. I've got much to learn.

So the song expresses something that for me has significance in the life of faith. In this regard "Want To"is a modern day Song of Songs. It says something about devotion to and love for Jesus. There is always an inclination to settle in to something safe and familiar - even years into the Christian life. We want more, we know there's something more to be known of Jesus and the life he offers us - but there's this tentative stutter step we take before jumping in.

And the bottom line is I don't want to be that way. Paul says over and over in Philippians 2 "I want to know Christ." That's what I want too.

Saturday, November 04, 2006

A Bad Week for Tires

We replaced three tires this week. Two on Wednesday, one on Friday.

On Wednesday I hit a hole in the road that should have been covered by a thick steel plate where construction was being done. I drive over those plates and past that construction site every day - but on Wednesday I was careless,not paying attention to the road. Honestly, I don't know what I was doing that allowed me to hit the open space just perfectly, the impact busting two tires and bending my front wheel.

On Friday my wife was in our Honda Accord and barely out of our driveway when she knew something was wrong. I came to the rescue, changed the tire and took it to a local auto repair shop where two small nails were found in the tread. The tire was plugged and I was back on the road within an hour.

Idolatry shows itself in some peculiar ways in my life. I've been teaching on the Ten commandments this Fall, and I'm forced to reflect on the "no other Gods" mandate given to the Israelites through Moses. I never consciously create or craft another God; they have a way of simply showing up in my life and in my mind, in my behavior and in my thinking. They are there without my knowing it . . . until something happens.

Like two flat tires and a bent wheel that costs me a good chunk of change and eats up hours in my schedule. Then I sense that something inside of me has been kneeling at the altar of control where I manage the details of my life. I regularly worship in the temple of modern machinery that allows me to come and go as I wish. I sense the anxiety that creeps into my heart when money is suddently re-directed and taken from me. Plenty of little idols, a menu of gods.

We're back on wheels - a must in Atlanta. We have to drive to live in this place. I'd gladly drive less than we do, given the horendous traffic. What I know I've also got to do less of is depend on driving and tires for my sense of well being. Time to repent of some little idolatries.

Missed Encounter

“To draw near to listen is better than to offer the sacrifice of fools . . .” (Ecc. 5:1 ESV)

“You can do church and not do God.” I heard my wife say that recently and when I read the opening verses of Ecclesiastes 5 the same idea seeps through the text. Offering the sacrifice of fools is contrasted with drawing near to listen. The fool is the person who made it to the place of worship, but rushed through the familiar practices of the sacrificial act, saying the right words in the right place, but never truly encountering God. A genuine connection with the Holy was neither sought nor anticipated.

In contrast, the one who draws near to listen is after something more, something risky and potentially life changing. God is speaking and the one who listens is open to being addressed by those words; open to an encounter that could lead to God-knows-where.

After a late shift at the hospital during my chaplaincy days I was eager to get home. I had done my eight hours, the midnight chaplain had arrived to take over for the deep night shift, and I was getting to the parking lot as fast as I could go without actually running. I was carrying a small cooler in which I had packed my less than satisfying dinner. Down the hall in front of me a bath-robed patient was walking slowly. My strategy was to blow by on the opposite side of the hall. Without the slightest glance in his direction I passed him, only to hear him say, “You don’t have a liver I there do you?”

Moment of decision; I could laugh that off with a quip and barely lose a step, or I could listen. Transplant patients waiting on an organ know that organs usually arrive in something that looks like a cooler. That robed and unhurried person wasn’t really asking me a question. He was telling me something about himself and in doing so was inviting me to an encounter. By grace I managed to stop, to ask a few questions, to learn that Bill was from Florida waiting on a liver, waiting on a visit from his wife and daughter. It didn’t take too long. But the choice to listen opened up things that I would have missed entirely by refusing to be interrupted in my power walk to the parking lot.

God invites us to an encounter. Perhaps the single most significant factor in whether the encounter will take place is our capacity to listen. It’s so easy to come before God planning our next stop, obsessing over things left undone, our heads full of conversations we need to finish. But this is the way of fools. The invitation to encounter is the invitation to listen. God addresses you today; will your pace permit a response?

Prayer: God, my mind is so full of things that feel urgent to me and all of them seem to keep me from hearing you. As I make my way through this day, help me to hear your invitation, to vary my pace, to encounter you in the details of my life. Amen.

Saturday, October 28, 2006


A time to plant and a time to uproot . . . (Ecclesiastes 3: 2b)

My Dad is a pastor. I remember well being in the car with him one day during my junior year of high school and telling him, “I’ll never do what you do.” The remark was not intended as a criticism. I wasn’t arguing with him. I wasn’t making a statement of rebellion and asserting my independence. I just didn’t want to be a pastor – because growing up in a pastor’s home I had come to associate ministry with moving. Leaving one place and going to another, leaving friends and making new ones, leaving the school I knew and going to one that I didn’t know, leaving the familiar for the strange.

When Solomon said there is a time to plant and a time to uproot, he probably had something agricultural in mind. But for me, to “uproot” isn’t something you do to a plant. It’s something you live; you may choose to do it or it may be done to you. It’s a life experience in which you are pulled away from your source of nourishment, strength, even life. This may be a move to new city, the loss of a job, the loss of memory, a death or a divorce. It can happen in so many ways, but what they all have in common is this: being ripped up from anything hurts.

God is a gentle gardener. He doesn’t tear us from the life-giving soil only to let us dry up or languish. Being uprooted means being planted again. The two belong together. The interesting thing about these seasons is their interdependence. You can’t get planted one place without being removed from another. Saying yes to one thing always means saying no to something else. As Frost’s famous poem reminds us, to take one road means another will not be traveled.

Some of you this morning are in a season of being planted, putting down roots as you work hard at your career, raise your family, remodel the kitchen. Others of you are uprooted, not sure what’s next. Like a trapeze artist, you’re in that split second of being totally airborne, letting go of one thing, reaching for the next. It may feel like an eternity, but it’s only a season.

I’ve heard this line attributed to theologian Karl Barth: “Shall we never allow our hands to empty so that we can receive what only empty hands can receive?” That’s a great question to ponder in the “uprooted” season. We don’t like empty hands, but deprivation is a prelude to more grace.

Prayer: God, I will gladly put down roots where I am today, knowing that there may be a season when life is uprooted. In all seasons teach me to live before you open-handed, ready to receive grace in whatever form you choose to give it. Amen.

Tuesday, September 26, 2006

This Season and the Next

To everything there is a season . . . (Ecc. 3:1)

If you live in North Carolina for very long you quickly realize that life is defined by two seasons. The first is basketball season. To be more precise, ACC basketball season. The second of the two seasons – at least where I lived in Wake County – is tobacco season. As Ecclesiastes says, there is a time to plant and a time to uproot. For four years I marked the season by seeing Richard Jenks on his John Deere tractor, plowing the field across the street from my house.

To my distant and citified observations, tobacco farming was a seasonal endeavor marked by planting (settin’ out) and harvest (putin’ in). I assumed that tobacco growers worked hard in spring and late summer /fall, recuperating from their labor in the cold months. I learned differently when Donny Olive showed me the greenhouse on his farm that sheltered thousands of tiny tobacco plants and supplied growers throughout the state.

Beneath a massive canopy was an expansive array of small plastic trays with little square compartments like the ones you used in the days before ice makers in your freezer. Each little compartment held a tiny tobacco plant, no bigger than the end of my little finger. These plants were carefully nurtured, watered on a schedule, never allowed to get too cold. It became clear to me that the success of what happened in the spring and summer depended upon the success of preparations made in winter. One season was integrally connected to the other and the “tobacco season” was actually happening all the time.

Chances are, the season you’re in right now doesn’t stand alone. If you know joy now, you may know it well because you’ve tasted sorrow. If you’re feeling smothered by sorrow now, past joy may be what you cling to as a source of hope for your future. What’s more – God works year ‘round, and the season you’re in today may well be preparation for a season yet to come, a season not yet available to your imagination.

Here are two questions for you to ponder today: can you identify a past season that somehow prepared you for where you are today? Further, can you see that the present season may in fact be God’s way of preparing you for a season yet to come?

Prayer: Merciful God, I’m thankful that you are always working and that you are faithful in every season of my life. Work in me today by your Spirit to prepare me for whatever you have for me in the coming seasons of my life. Amen.

This Season and the Next

To everything there is a season . . . (Ecc. 3:1)

If you live in North Carolina for very long you quickly realize that life is defined by two seasons. The first is basketball season. To be more precise, ACC basketball season. The second of the two seasons – at least where I lived in Wake County – is tobacco season. As Ecclesiastes says, there is a time to plant and a time to uproot. For four years I marked the season by seeing Richard Jenks on his John Deere tractor, plowing the field across the street from my house.

To my distant and citified observations, tobacco farming was a seasonal endeavor marked by planting (settin’ out) and harvest (putin’ in). I assumed that tobacco growers worked hard in spring and late summer /fall, recuperating from their labor in the cold months. I learned differently when Donny Olive showed me the greenhouse on his farm that sheltered thousands of tiny tobacco plants and supplied growers throughout the state.

Beneath a massive canopy was an expansive array of small plastic trays with little square compartments like the ones you used in the days before ice makers in your freezer. Each little compartment held a tiny tobacco plant, no bigger than the end of my little finger. These plants were carefully nurtured, watered on a schedule, never allowed to get too cold. It became clear to me that the success of what happened in the spring and summer depended upon the success of preparations made in winter. One season was integrally connected to the other and the “tobacco season” was actually happening all the time.

Chances are, the season you’re in right now doesn’t stand alone. If you know joy now, you may know it well because you’ve tasted sorrow. If you’re feeling smothered by sorrow now, past joy may be what you cling to as a source of hope for your future. What’s more – God works year ‘round, and the season you’re in today may well be preparation for a season yet to come, a season not yet available to your imagination.

Here are two questions for you to ponder today: can you identify a past season that somehow prepared you for where you are today? Further, can you see that the present season may in fact be God’s way of preparing you for a season yet to come?

Prayer: Merciful God, I’m thankful that you are always working and that you are faithful in every season of my life. Work in me today by your Spirit to prepare me for whatever you have for me in the coming seasons of my life. Amen.

Monday, September 25, 2006

Mingled Seasons

To everything there is a season . . . (Ecc. 3:1)

For three years I served on the chaplaincy staff of Baylor University Medical Center in Dallas, Texas. In the first six months of my work there I was the chaplain to the maternity area of the hospital. Whenever I would mention this to people, it usually evoked a smile along with a comment that went something like this: “How nice that you get to work in the happy part of the hospital!”

The comment was understandable. Birth is a miracle, and for most couples it ranks near the top of joy-filled, awe-inspiring moments of life. But it isn’t always this way. Sometimes the miracle of birth is mingled with financial anxieties; the presence of the new baby sometimes presses against an already fragile marriage; the celebration that brings in the entire family also opens the door to stressful dynamics that crop up when the entire family gathers in one place.

Even in the hospital, maternity involves more than a much welcomed and prayed for birth. On the sixth floor of Hoblitzelle Hospital I passed out little white New Testaments and prayed prayers of thanks for healthy babies. Down on the lowest floor of the same building was the special care nursery. There I walked into rooms where couples were reeling from words like “stillborn” or septic phrases like “failure to thrive.” Words came easier upstairs. Silence was often most fitting downstairs.

While Ecclesiastes 3 moves back and forth rhythmically between the varied seasons of life, life’s seasons don’t actually come to us that neatly. The joys and blessings are often mingled. The lines blur between birth and death, between weeping and laughing. It isn’t uncommon to be with a grieving family as they cry one moment and then laugh out loud at some memory or story. The tears call forth the laughter that in turn gives rise to more tears.

The seasons of life do not define life. If they did we’d join Solomon and conclude that life doesn’t make sense. We’re whipsawed between different kinds of experience that bring joy and sorrow. But there is a center, an anchor. The Psalmist used words like fortress, rock, foundation, stronghold. This is God. God transcends the seasons. Remember, every season is under heaven.

Prayer: “Praise the Lord, O my soul; all my inmost being praise his Holy name . . . praise the Lord all his works everywhere in his dominion. Praise the Lord, O my soul” (Psalm 103: 1, 22)

Thursday, August 31, 2006

The Poem I Left at Home: For Marnie on Our Tenth Wedding Anniversary


Earlier this morning I was trying to think about what I might write, what one thing begs to be said on this our tenth wedding anniversary. Something about the occasion seems to raise the stakes and put pressure on me and my words. I do this to myself, I know. I’m tempted to think it might be best not to write anything at all. Would silence be preferable to a failed attempt at being profound and poignant? It might be, but I know that such thoughts are wrong because they mean I’m more concerned about being seen as “good” at this, rather than concerned with saying something true to you on this day.

I opted not to write a poem – but I found one that started me thinking about our decade of marriage and the love we’ve nurtured across three states and among two other little people who demand their share of what we need to be giving each other.

The poem was by Wendell Berry (yes, the only poet I’ve actually read) and it was called “The Mad Farmer’s Love Song.” Romantic title, yes? It was a short poem and my intent was to reproduce it here for you. That plan went south once I left the house without the book – a fact that itself has meaning for me; meaning which I hope to share with you in a moment.

The poem basically said that when there is peace in the world and all the work has been done "then I will go down unto my love." And then it added a line that said that said something like, “and I might just go down several times before then.”

Love doesn’t wait for perfect conditions: peace in the world, all the work done, plenty of money in the bank, perfect health. There is something in us that wants all the pieces neatly in place, and then we can give ourselves to the business of loving another person.

But the last line of the poem seems to embrace reality and in doing so it embraces the way love and marriage truly are; we don’t wait for peace in the world and tidy conclusions to all the lose ends and complexities of life. We love now. We love in the midst of laundry and meetings and practices and home-repair. Just this morning you spoke to me of how complicated our days can be. Most of them are – but they are the setting into which the diamond is placed, the gift of life and love that God allows us to share.

On this day that marks our tenth year of marriage I know there is no time for waiting. I also know myself well enough to know how inclined I am to wait and anticipate the turns in life that will free me up to love you better. Maybe that means the kids being older, maybe that means being less distracted by my ambitions. I fear that too often over the past ten years I’ve waited and lost time in loving you as I should.

Leaving the poem at home was probably a good thing. The conditions for writing my thoughts were not what I had planned – not as smooth as I wanted to sound.

But I write for you anyway. This day is moving by quickly, as all the others have since we made our vows; days that have not slowed in the least since we welcomed our Son and moved to North Carolina and welcomed our daughter and moved again to Atlanta and bought our first home and continued to make a life together. Knowing how quickly ten years has passed, there is no time for waiting.

Today I am the “Mad Farmer.” I will not wait for peace in the world and finished tasks and all just right. I will go to you my love several times, often even, before then. I will speak my love to you at the risk of sounding plain. With these words I do so now.

Monday, August 28, 2006


“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven” (Ecclesiastes 3:1 ESV)

“I haven’t got time for this.”

That’s a reflex line when some inconvenience manages to stick its foot into the door of my plans. I use it for choice moments - when the sound of flapping rubber accompanies the violent shimmy in my car while I’m on the highway; when I wake up with that feeling in my throat that tells me I’m well on my way to a full blown head cold; when my best intentions to be careful with my cup of morning-drive coffee don’t hold up against sudden braking and the subsequent sloshing on my tie. These annoyances, minor though they are, usually get the line: “I don’t have time for this.”

Ecclesiastes 3:1 is one of the most familiar and beautiful lines of poetry in the Old Testament. The rhythm of the language and the profundity of thought endear it to us. But it is a disturbing verse of scripture. In our coziness with the words, the offense of what it says is lost on us. The uneasiness can be attributed to one word: Everything. For everything there is a season. “Everything” encompasses some aspects of life that I typically regard as a mistake or an aberration from God’s plan and purposes.

I can accept that God wills my joy and laughter, my efforts to build up and to plant, my embracing others and making peace - but are my grieving and weeping, my casting away and losses also included in God’s economy? The scripture answers “yes.” There is a season for everything. And everything includes all of those things of which I would readily say, “I don’t have time for this.”

But God has time for them. What’s more, God has reasons for them. This is a hard truth, but one which brings us good news if we’ll hear it. It means that nothing in your life is wasted. Nothing. The realities you woke up to this morning may be a source of joy for you; they may be a source of anguish. Whatever they are, whatever they feel like – they aren’t wasted. To say there is a season for everything means that God ignores nothing.

Prayer: I thank you God that nothing in my life is wasted – even the circumstances that seem like a total waste to me. Teach me to trust you in every season of life. Amen

Wednesday, August 16, 2006


A man can do nothing better than to eat and drink and find satisfaction in his work. This too, I see, is from the hand of God, for without him, who can eat or find enjoyment? (Ecclesiastes 2:24-25).

Some time ago I was to attend a Monday meeting at the church that would include lunch. I’d been to these meetings before and knew that the lunch would be good. Usually we had a sandwich on whole wheat bread along with a serving of fruit.

On this particular Monday I was running a mid-morning errand that took me right by a Krystal. My wife doesn’t care to eat at Krystal, so being alone in the car at this place and at this time presented a rare opportunity for me. It was, as Presbyterians are fond of saying, divine providence. The meeting would not convene for more than an hour and besides, Krystal burgers are so small. This wouldn’t really be a lunch, but a mid-morning “snack.”

I pulled into line at the drive-thru, making my way with great anticipation to the raspy little speaker where I ordered my snack – four Krystals, fries, and a medium diet Coke. The aroma of those warm little burgers was like incense, turning my car into a chapel for junk food lovers. I ate my snack as I drove back to the church.

By the time my lunch meeting rolled around, the fruit and whole wheat bread sandwiches looked pretty lame in light of my mid-morning snack. A perfectly good and healthy lunch was being offered to me, but I didn’t want it. I was full. I had traded a good meal with Christian friends for the greasy processed stuff eaten in the lonely confines of my car. Having filled myself with fast-food, I wasn’t able to enjoy a truly decent meal.

What the world calls “satisfaction” is really more like being full of junk food. It’s a kind of fullness that takes away our appetite for what is best and good. C. S. Lewis is often quoted as saying that God faults us not for wanting too much, but for being satisfied with so little. We glut ourselves on what the world offers, and then find that we have no appetite for God. When we are Solomon-like in obtaining possessions and pleasures, denying ourselves nothing, our hunger for the Holy is quenched.

Real satisfaction comes from God and involves God. Solomon rightly knew that it is good to eat and work and be satisfied – but without God it isn’t possible. So how’s your appetite?

Prayer: God, in my own search for satisfaction, the options around me are so alluring. Cause me to hunger for you today and help me to seek you as the source of true satisfaction in my life.

Monday, August 07, 2006


. . . My heart took delight in all my work, and this was the reward for all my labor. Yet when I surveyed all that my hands had done and what I had toiled to achieve, everything was meaningless, a chasing after the wind (Ecclesiastes 2:10-11).

What we delight in one day, we despise the next. Go figure.

We put in the time and get the degree only to realize that our study earned us a piece of framed gothic script. The real world grades on a different scale. We’re not through with hustling to stay at the head of the class.

We get the dream job and find it’s not so dreamy. After a while we start to look longingly at a different place or a different title. We toy with the resume, casually scan journals and papers for “the next chapter” of our lives. Tuition and mortgage keep us anchored, but a part of us envies Tom Hanks’ character in Cast Away.

The same happens with the things we own. We grow tired of what we have because we’re convinced there’s something better, faster, more improved, better located. Sadly, relationships are not immune. We interpret well worn familiarities as incompatibility. We start believing the lie that someone else is out there who can truly understand and love us. We are restless, literally without rest. Like Solomon, we’re fickle. We take delight in “all that our hands have done” on one day, and then finding those very same things meaningless the next.

The rest we seek, the rest that seems so absent in Ecclesiastes, isn’t found externally. We don’t obtain it by doing something different or going somewhere different or meeting someone new. It’s worth noting that when Jesus said “come to me all who are weary and I will give you rest,” he went on to say clearly that in coming to him we would find rest for the soul (Matt. 11:29).

Rest is a spiritual reality before it is a physical reality. It is an inward condition that manifests itself outwardly – in our demeanor, in our work, in our families. Maybe successful people aren’t the ones who work hard, but the ones who can work hard and all the while be at rest.

Prayer: Gracious God, remind me that nothing will happen today that will catch you by surprise. I praise you that are sufficient for my every need and every yearning. Teach me to rest in you. Amen.

Friday, July 21, 2006

The iPod Universe

“I acquired male and female singers . . . “ (Ecclesiastes 2:8b).

I’ve not found much about Solomon’s life that I share in common with him. That is, until I came across a phrase in Ecc. 2:8. Solomon writes that he acquired male and female singers. I’ve done that too. I don’t buy them or hire them. I download them. You see, this past April I became an inhabitant of the iPod universe.

For my birthday Marnie gave me a sleek, black video iPod. It’s an amazing piece of technology. This narrow, flat metallic box will hold thousands of songs. It not only holds songs, it plays feature length movies and allows me to download episodes of TV shows I might have missed. I literally hold a world of entertainment in my hand. With a click on iTunes, I can acquire male and female singers – thousands of them!

But here’s the thing about my iPod: I’ve noticed that it cuts me off from some of the greatest things that happen in my life. I like my iPod, I just can’t find the best time to use it. I can’t listen to my iPod and read a book. I can’t listen to my iPod and study my Bible or write devotionals. I can’t listen to my iPod and be a decent member of my family. I thought about taking my iPod to one of John’s baseball games – but then I felt a little uneasy about appearing aloof, sitting with the other parents with my ears plugged up as if to say, “please don’t bother me.”

The solitary nature of the iPod universe comes close to replicating Solomon’s life experience. Having a world of entertainment in the palm of my hand isn’t as great as it sounds. Being cocooned in a world of self-selected music and entertainment quickly looses its appeal when enjoying the music keeps me from enjoying my life. I imagine Solomon with his own choir and orchestra. He quickly found out that the best music falls flat when the sound of applause comes from only one set of hands.

Solomon says he denied himself nothing that his eyes desired – and that precisely was his problem. When nothing is denied nothing is truly possessed. Having 7000 songs in your hand doesn’t match the joy of hearing the handful of songs that are truly special to you. You can be King in your iPod universe, but the collection of singers means little when your universe has a population of one.

Prayer: God, for your good gifts of music and dance, of food and laughter, make me truly thankful. Teach me to receive these gifts in order to share them with others. Amen.

Thursday, July 13, 2006

You Look Like You Could Use A Vocation

“I undertook great projects: I built houses for myself and planted vineyards . . . I became greater by far than anyone in Jerusalem before me.” (Ecclesiastes 2:4, 9)

Our culture assumes that work has curative powers. It’s good for what ails us, especially if what ails us is an inner emptiness or some kind of invisible bruise on the soul. When we grieve, we throw ourselves into our work. When things aren’t going so well at home, we throw ourselves into our work, creating longer hours at the office. When we feel anxiety that others are advancing while we’re marking time, we throw ourselves into our work in the hope that our time will come and we will one day become greater than all those who came before us.

Solomon, in his own quest for meaning in life, coupled his no-holds-barred pleasure seeking with an intense work ethic. He built structures, acquired land and managed an expansive staff (2:4-7). These are worthy endeavors. Hard work is valued in scripture. In the New Testament, Paul urged that those who won’t work shouldn’t be allowed to eat.

But work for work’s sake, or for the sake of wealth and accomplishment, proves empty. After reflecting on his impressive career, all that his hands had done, Solomon himself comes back to his familiar refrain. It was meaningless, a chasing after the wind (2:11).

This is when someone needed to say to Solomon, “you look like you could use a vocation.” He had plenty of work, plenty of wealth, and name recognition that could have landed any endorsement contract in the known world. But the work lacked meaning because it had somehow become disconnected from God. Like Solomon, we don’t crave work as much as we do meaningful work - a vocation.

The most significant truth about our work is that before we go to a job, any job, God is already working. God works in the world and chooses to use us in that work. God works through us in offices and schools, in courtrooms and labs, in retail stores and restaurants. All over Atlanta God is at work – and today, as you do your work, you are invited to be a part of the work God is doing.

Prayer: Gracious God, throughout this day, as I do my work, remind me of my vocation. Use me and the tasks I’m involved in as a means of reflecting your character to those around me. Amen.

Monday, July 10, 2006

The Limits of Pleasure

“I said in my heart, ‘come now, I will test you with pleasure; enjoy yourself.” (Ecc. 2:1).

“The happiest place on earth.” That’s the line Disney wants you to know by heart when you think of their theme parks and resorts. Since 2004 my family has made three trips to Disney. Yes, we like it. But “happiest place on earth?” I beg to differ.

The first trip we took was in July. I know . . . not an optimal time of year for walking all over the magic kingdom (what were we thinking?). The July heat literally seared an image into my memory. As I stood in line with my own tired and sometimes complaining children, I looked at the mass of humanity waiting in line with me. Remarkably, given that we were all there at the happiest place on earth, no one looked particularly happy. I saw plenty of folks who looked exhausted and mildly irritated. Fanning themselves or holding those water bottles with little motorized fans mounted on top, far too many of them (us!) looked miserable.

What I saw in the lines at Disney shouldn’t surprise anyone. It’s a truth that we’ve known for a very long time. The deliberate pursuit of pleasure rarely yields true pleasure. It is possible to be surrounded by a vast menu of amusements and stimulants and attractions provided for our enjoyment – and yet never experience joy. Sure, we can manufacture an occasional adrenaline rush, a moment of jolting surprise or outright fear, but soon the ride ends and we get in another line with our fans and water bottles and our quickly eroding patience.

Amusement isn’t joy and pleasure won’t lead us to purpose. That’s what Solomon learned as he indulged in wine and laughter. This doesn’t mean we avoid or despise life’s pleasures, never cracking a smile, never going to the party. It simply means we will not expect more of those things than they can deliver. We see amusement as a shadow of real joy, pointing us to something deeper and further in.

Maybe we can hear Solomon pointing us far beyond his time to Jesus, the one who came that our joy might be full and complete. Even a day that doesn’t look very fun can still bring you joy. What would it mean for you to truly “enjoy” this day?

Prayer: Lord Jesus, fill me with your Spirit today so that I may know your joy in the details of my own life. Make me truly and deeply thankful for the pleasures that this day might bring. Amen.

Thursday, July 06, 2006


I wanted to see what was worthwhile for men to do under heaven during the few days of their lives (Ecc. 2:3b NIV).

Tom Kelley is the general manager of IDEO – a design company specializing in product development and innovation. In his book, The Art of Innovation, Kelley devotes a chapter to “the perfect brainstorm.” Brainstorming is a chance for teams to “blue sky” ideas in the quest for the solutions or new direction. Among the several characteristics of “the perfect brainstorm” is the physicality of brainstorming. Kelley explains that the best brainstormers often practice “bodystorming.” This means that “we act out certain current behavior / usage patterns and see how they might be altered.”

That’s what Solomon seems to be doing in chapter 2 of Ecclesiastes. He’s ransacking his life experience, looking for something enduring satisfaction and meaning. Solomon is “lifestorming.” The words of Ecclesiastes 2 do not come to us from a mere philosopher who anguishes over abstract questions and debates answers with other philosophers. No, this book is life-tested, physical and tactile. Solomon runs after life like children chase fireflies at summer dusk. He collects one experience after another, savors it and examines it, extracts from it whatever he can discover.

The quest for meaning isn’t something that we figure out first and then live into. Usually, in life’s classroom, we have to raise our hands without being certain we’ve got the right answers. Every single day we have to get out of bed and live. Our confusion or boredom will not exempt us from this daily requirement. Sometimes our “lifestorming” yields wrong answers and dead-ends.

But sometimes – as with a perfect brainstorm – something clicks. The grab-bag of ideas sparks one thought that becomes transformational. In “lifestorming” the lived experiences may lead to that same kind of moment. It’s a moment we often call conversion.

Prayer: God, today I want to embrace my life eagerly and thankfully. In every lived experience of this day, work by your Spirit to teach me and guide me to the life you intend for me to have. Amen.

Monday, July 03, 2006

Your Legacy

“The people of long ago are not remembered, nor will there be any remembrance of people yet to come” (Ecc. 1:11 NRSV)

A couple of years ago my grandmother came down from Greensboro N.C. for a summer visit. On an August afternoon we spent time driving around Atlanta – the city of her birth – and she pointed out sites of significance in our family. It was a typical oven-like August, and under most circumstances I would have eagerly sought any excuse to avoid short car trips, interrupted by walking around in the heat, followed by another short car trip that never allowed the AC to get chilly. But these were not normal circumstances. My grandmother, aging and weakening, knows things about my family that I don’t know. She remembers things I’ve never heard about. It was a day of new insights and revelations. I loved every thick hot moment of it.

Not far from Peachtree Presbyterian there’s a little Methodist church on Powers Ferry Road, Sardis Methodist Church. One of the stops that afternoon was in the cemetery that occupies significant acreage next to the small building. That day my grandmother showed me a gravestone marked ROSSER. That’s her name, my mother’s maiden name. My maternal great-grandfather was a member there and was involved in paying off the note on the building that currently stands on Powers Ferry Road.

The writer of Ecclesiastes laments that “there is no remembrance of men of old.” In a way he’s right. How is it that I managed to drive by that church for years without guessing that I had even the remotest connection to the place? Three short generations had rinsed my great grandfather from the canvass of my consciousness.

And yet, there has been all along a legacy. Though unrecognized, it is no less real or formative. The generation of ROSSER that established a little church on Powers Ferry road is not remembered by me in the truest sense, but that generation is by no means escaped or truly forgotten. Our lives are cabled by unseen continuities and connections. The “men of old” are always with us.

By someone, in some way, you will be remembered. Your name and accomplishments may not belong to the ages, but the life you live now will somehow be wielded like a sculptors hammer, shaping another life. What will your legacy be?

Prayer: God of all ages, work in me as you see fit shaping a life worthy of being remembered, if only for a short while. Whatever there may be in my life that lasts into another generation, may it bring you glory. Amen.

Saturday, July 01, 2006

More of the Same

All things are wearisome, more than one can say. The eye never has enough of seeing nor the ear its fill of hearing. What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun. (Ecc. 1:8-9).

To those of us who are not kings, that a king could be bored is hard to believe.

The words of Solomon strike me in much the same way my children’s words do when they say to me “I’m bored.” I usually reply, “you’ve got to be kidding; how can you be bored?” And yet, kids with computers and cable TV and Nintendo play stations get bored. Grown ups with comfortable homes and beautiful families and well paying jobs get bored. Nothing new here; Kings get bored. That’s what we learn from Ecclesiastes.

Leo Tolstoy, in Anna Karenina, wrote that boredom is “the desire for desires.” That captures something of the inner deadness that boredom is. The heart beats but never races. The eyes see but never dance in what they behold. The mouth speaks words but rarely to truly say anything.

Thus was Solomon afflicted, as are so many today. In Ecclesiastes the boredom is described as a numbing repetition. What has been will be again. Solomon observed the movements of the sun, the wind, the streams that flow to the ocean. We observe the same traffic patterns in our morning commute, the same scheduled meetings, the routines of carpool and laundry.

Our first response is a change of pace, a new variable in the equation of our lives. This might mean a vacation or a career move. But over time even the new element becomes familiar and well worn. What we need is the capacity to see into the ordinary repeated parts of life and discern the presence and purposes of God. Boredom is what we get when God is bleached out of an otherwise wonderful life. Absent God, the gift of ordinary things, of routines and practices, becomes burdensome.

Try this: Look for God in something familiar. Identify a person in your world with whom you interact every day or every week. Determine to learn one new thing about that person’s life.

Prayer: God, through this day and all of its familiar routines, help me to detect your presence. Remind me that you are at work in the most ordinary details of the most ordinary day. Help me to live this day in eager expectation. Amen.

Friday, June 30, 2006

Beyond Explanations

I applied my mind to study and to explore by wisdom all that is done under the heavens. (Ecc. 1:13a)

His decision to study theology and serve the church was reached by the time he was 16 years old. By the age of 25 he had written two doctoral dissertations. Born the son of a psychiatrist, the sixth of eight children, his father and siblings had little regard for a religious vocation. Nevertheless, the young Dietrich Bonhoeffer was resolute, stating boldly to his brothers “if the church is feeble I shall reform it.”

Bonhoeffer strikes me as a man of conviction and courage. His resistance to Hitler’s regime and his critique of the German church that so readily wed itself to the Reich proved costly. Boehoeffer’s life ended at the age of 39 – hanged in the concentration camp at Flossenburg only two weeks before allied forces liberated Germany.

Without question, the conviction and courage were real. And yet, mingled with these were questions. In prison Bonhoeffer composed a poem titled “Who Am I?” In the poem Bonhoeffer ponders the the chasm between his outer persona - cheerful, friendly, calm and controlled – and his inner turmoil and fatigue and yearnings. Bonhoeffer asks, “Who am I? Am I one person today and another tomorrow?” He finally concludes with these lines

Who am I? They mock me these lonely questions of mine.
Whoever I am, thou knowest, O God, I am thine.

There is a way of asking the hard questions that can either alienate us from God or drive us closer to God. What Bonhoeffer shares in common with Solomon is that both men asked their questions God-ward. And in the end, after the questions are asked, what remains is God. More than answers that solve and explain – there is always God. Wherever our questions take us, God holds us fast and meets us in those places.

Prayer: Father, we thank you that even in our questions you hold us fast. We thank you that in the quest for elusive answers we can know with confidence that we belong to you. Amen.

Wednesday, June 28, 2006

What Do You See?

“I have seen all things that are done under the sun; all of them are meaningless, a chasing after the wind” (Ecc. 1:14).

Do you ever begin the day reading the paper or watching the news, only to wish you hadn’t bothered? The headlines and stories provide us with information and commentary – but all of us take that information and draw conclusions about the world and what it means to live well in our particular time and place. These conclusions can take us in the direction of hope and promise. They can push us toward the search for solutions. They can also take us toward despair.

The words of Ecclesiastes come to us from a shrewd observer of life. The book is a report on what is observed, along with a conclusion. Interestingly, the book begins with the conclusion, moves to various observations, and keeps coming back to rehearse the conclusion. In chapter one alone there are repeated statements of what the writer has concluded about life:

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” Says the Teacher. “Utterly meaningless! Everything is meaningless.” (Ecc. 1:2)

What a fun guy! This hardly sounds like the kind of person we’re eager to hang out with or invite to a party. We can see people dodging into doorways or bathrooms or quickly making a phone call when they see this person coming their way. But this writer forces us to consider a significant question about our own lives and the conclusions we’ve drawn from what we see going on around us day after day.

Do we look at the world and then draw conclusions from what we see? Or do we hold assumptions and ready-made conclusions that determine how we look at the world?

Is it possible that we do both at the same time?

Try this: find a copy of the paper today and scan the headlines. Imagine yourself at Starbucks with Solomon. How would you refute his conclusion “all is meaningless?” Could you refute it?

Prayer: God, I don’t always know what to make of all I see going on around me. On some days my conclusions are hopeful. On other days I sound and feel like Solomon. Help me to see the world as you see it and to live by faith – knowing that there is always more than meets the eye. Amen.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

"Lifestyles Under the Sun": A summer series of sermons and written reflections on Ecclesiastes

NOTE: This summer our Senior Pastor, Vic Pentz, launched a series of messages that explores the book of Ecclesiastes. Keying to a familiar refrain, this summer series looks at "Lifestyles Under the Sun" and the quest for the meaningful life that God intends. Along with the weekly sermons, our congregation receives a daily devotional via email. It has been my privilege to contribute to the series by writing the daily devotionals. In the coming weeks I'll be posting those here. To hear Dr. Pentz's sermons as well as those in the series preached by our associate pastors, please go to the Peachtree website.

The words of the Teacher, son of David, king in Jerusalem. . . I, the Teacher, was king over Israel in Jerusalem. (Ecc. 1:1, 12)

Some people simply have life figured out. They’ve mastered it, know their place in it, know what they want from it and how to go about getting it. They’ve got their act together. Or so we think.

The book of Ecclesiastes is surprising. It’s a book of searching and of asking hard questions. That in itself doesn’t disturb us. After all, most of us have asked or are currently asking the same questions. What surprises us more than the content is the person from whom those questions come. The author of the book is never identified by name, but this much is clear. This person has influence (teacher, or literally “a leader of the assembly”). This person has connections that come with a royal bloodline (son of David). This person is powerful (king over Israel). While scholars are not certain, tradition holds that the book was written by King Solomon.

Our assumption about influential, well connected, powerful people is that they’ve got life figured out. Ecclesiastes shatters that assumption. Solomon held a place in life that many would envy, a place which many are scrambling daily to attain. And yet, he asks the most basic questions of existence. What is life all about? What is the meaning of my existence?

We invest significant energy in hiding our questions. What we assume about others is what we’d like them to assume about us. But we know our own questions, the things we struggle with, the parts of life that don’t quite square with our expectations or beliefs.

The book of Ecclesiastes is an invitation to ask some honest and hard questions. In the coming weeks we’ll keep company with Solomon, listen to his questions and follow his search for answers. Along the way we may find answers to questions of our own.

What are your “big” questions? Are there things you ponder, but don’t talk about with anyone else? Find some place to write these down. Keep track of your thoughts as we journey through Ecclesiastes.

Prayer: Gracious God, before we speak a word you know our thoughts. This includes our questions. We thank you for your patient faithfulness that allows us to ask and to seek. Reveal yourself in these coming days through your word. Guide us as we seek you. Amen.

Thursday, May 25, 2006

The Championship

I’m a ball park Pharisee. It’s not about the rules and making sure everyone keeps them. I’m not that kind of Pharisee. In fact, I neither know nor understand all the rules of baseball. My Pharisee-ism is of a different kind. It’s the kind that Jesus described when he told the story about those two men who had gone to the temple to pray. One of them – a Pharisee – built his prayer around this theme: “Lord, I’m glad I’m not like other people.”

That’s me at the ballpark when my son’s team is playing. I remain calm as other parents scream – sometimes at their kids – and get all worked up. I try to rise above the fray and say to myself “I’m glad I’m not like that.”

But the truth is, I am like that. I’m just not loud about it. That truth became very real to me a few days ago as my son’s baseball team played for the championship of his league. I didn’t change my behavior and suddenly get loud and frantic as if college scouts were secretly seated in the stands and my son’s future hung on this one game. I retained my even keeled demeanor. But what a hypocrite I am. Inside I could feel my vital organs convulsing every time my son took the field and every time he stepped up to the plate to bat.

As I sat there I became aware of how emotionally involved I had become in this game and in my son’s performance. It wasn’t the first time I had felt that way at one of his games. But for just a moment I wondered about this unseen thing that transpires between parents and players, between fathers and sons.

There was moment in the game when I realized that whatever this unseen thing is, it is at some level an exchange of questions: the child asking one kind of question, the parent answering with another kind of question.

An error was made in the field. I don’t even remember what it was – a missed grounder, a bad throw to second. Interestingly, it seemed so critical at the time but it hardly matters now. Of greater significance than the play was what happened for just a moment after the play had ended. I saw the player look over to where his dad was standing. It was a short glance, not the kind where the parent is trying to coach or encourage. It was the kind of look that asked a silent question: “Am I o.k? What do you think of me?”

How often does that question get asked from the field? How often does the question get asked in other places? How frequently do our sons look to us to know if they’re o.k., if we approve of them? John Eldredge says that every boy needs to know that that they have what it takes, and the person who can best tell them that they do is their father.

That quick glance from the field nags at me. I wonder if my own son has glanced my way, perhaps when I wasn’t looking. I don’t know what that young baseball player saw the other day, but I would hope that that kind of glance and the question it carries would always be met with another question. We look back at our sons and ask “do you know how proud I am of you?” “Do you know how glad I am that you are my son?” “Do you know how much I love you?”

There are plenty of us that look to God mainly out of our awareness of our failures, the mistakes we’ve made, the play we missed. For whatever reason, some see God’s response as stern and demanding and the essence of life before this God is about playing flawlessly.

But maybe, when we look to God out of our failure, God answers us with this question: “do you see what I see in you? Do you know how much I love you?”

John’s team won their game – a high moment for players and certainly for the parents. They are champs. The season may be over, but those questions are still exchanged. When my son looks to me, what do I reflect back to him? Is it about the scoreboard or the well executed play? I’ve not always answered him well – but I hope that somehow when he glances my way he’ll know good news. Love isn’t earned by always getting it right. Love is simply there. This is the gospel.

Friday, April 07, 2006

"When I get to college I am so totally going to jump on my bed"

Marnie has been in Cuba on a mission trip since last Friday. She comes home today (praise God!!). I think everyone is ready for Mom to come home. I'm certain I am, and I'm just as certain that my kids are too.

Last night was one of those moments when I could sense that my needle had dropped below "E." The patience well was bone dry and the presenting issue that revealed this was my daughter jumping on her bed. I know . . . this is somethng that kids do, and I'm not above tolerating a little delightful bouncing just before bedtime. But last night I simply wasn't inclined to let it happen.

I made that very clear to my daughter. Very clear. At least I thought it was clear. To my surprise, she didn't get it right away. This evoked more clarification from me - driving my point home with more volume and intensity just to make sure the message got through.

She got it. She stopped bouncing - but then she came out with this unforgettable line that cracked me up (the silent, inward, parent-only kind of cracking up of course). She said, "when I get to college I am so totally going to jump on my bed."

My kids are beginning to understand that "college" means living away from mom and dad. This is a little disturbing to me in that they are only 6 and 8 years old. But Anna's declaration showed me something about how she views who she will be when it is time to leave home. She is taking the present and simply projecting it into the future. Thus, being at college will mean being able to jump on her bed. She might jump on her bed at college . . . who knows. But I doubt it will mean as much to her then as it does right now.

Do we ever outgrow Anna's way of thinking? All of this makes me wonder about who we are becoming, how we see ourselves now and what we expect of ourselves in ten years or so. And how does that compare with what God the Father knows about us and what God intends for us to be? Spiritually, do we think that the greatest thing for us could be an unhindered ability to jump on the bed (whatever that might be), or do we see that as we grow in Christ, that which seems so important now might become less so. We just might take on the mind of Christ. The image of Christ might actually be formed in us so that we are truly transformed? Is it possible that faithful church-going people stop paying attention to their own transformation, as if warming a pew and sitting on a committee is really what Jesus had in mind for us?

I don't think I'll ever forget that line from last night. I hope I won't. Even at this very moment I can see the day when we'll load Anna's things and taker her to college. We'll meet her roomate and help as much as we can until we sense a readiness in her that tells us it's time for us to go. And just before we leave I imagine glancing at her bed, and looking at the young woman she is becoming, and remembering the night before Mom came home from Cuba.

Monday, March 27, 2006

While Standing in Line at McDonald's

So last week we had a tough morning getting out of the house in a timely manner. This meant that in order to drop the kids off in the carpool line without having to walk in to the office and sign them in as “late,” I left the house without eating breakfast. This is never a good thing for me because as soon as van door slides shut and the kids are sprinting to their classrooms with backpacks bouncing from their shoulders, I start thinking about putting something on my stomach to absorb the pot of coffee I’ve managed to down. Almost always I end up at the McDonald’s not far from the school. Sometimes I have a few bucks in my pocket, sometimes I scrape together just enough from the floor of the van and the change holder beneath the AC dials. I’m not especially proud of this – but see my post below of 2/10/06. All that stuff about lousy eating is true.

But I’m not telling this to talk about food or eating habits. On this particular morning, the real take-away from the visit to McDonald’s was a sign that was posted alongside the menu. It was on a plain white sheet of paper in a large black font, all caps. It read “PLEASE REFRAIN FROM TALKING ON THE CELL PHONE WHILE CONDUCTING BUSINESS AT THE COUNTER.”

This was interesting, provocative even. McDonald’s is a fast food restaurant . . . .fast food. And yet, the management of this particular McDonald’s felt compelled to instruct us to not use cell phones while ordering our # 2 combo meals. We can’t slow down enough to get our fast food. The time we’re supposedly saving by stopping at Mickey D’s isn’t enough. We need to keep multi-tasking, staying after it, getting it done, whatever “it” might be.

Just the day before I had read a wonderful story from Mark Buchanan’s latest book, The Rest of God - a book about Sabbath keeping. He tells about his wife’s grandmother, who lived in a gold-mining town. She had a very large stone in her garden and she regularly polished it, reasoning that since it couldn’t be moved it could made to look decent and thus beautify the garden.

On one occasion while polishing the stone, she noticed the slightest smear of something goldish. She touched it with her finger and saw on her fingertip a caking of gold dust. She felt a rush of adrenaline and began to polish the stone feverishly, scrubbing and scrubbing, seeing the gold dust accumulate more and more. After a few minutes she stopped for a break and as she wiped her brow she noticed that her wedding band was lopsided, thick and full on one side, thin and skinny on the underside – the part she had been rubbing against the stone. She had been sanding away her wedding band, chasing a treasure that didn’t exist while destroying a treasure she already had.

That’s the way too many of us live. That’s why a McDonald’s manager feels the need to discourage cell phone use as we order our fast food. What we know as fast isn’t fast enough. We’ve got to move faster, got to do more. We chase an elusive treasure and in doing so lose the treasures we already have.

Reflecting on those experiences from last week sent me searching for a Robert Frost poem that I’ve liked for a long time but had forgotten about. It’s called “A Time to Talk.”

When a friend calls to me from the road
And slows his horse to a meaning walk,
I don’t stand still and look around
On all the hills I haven’t hoed,
And shout from where I am, “What is it?”
No, not as there is a time to talk.
I thrust my hoe in the mellow ground,
Blade-end up and five feet tall,
And plod: I go up to the stone wall,
For a friendly visit.

Sadly, there isn’t time to talk, at least not enough time. We live our days looking around on the hills we haven’t hoed, the things left undone that whisper incessantly for our attention. We shout at interruptions, “What is it?” What now?”

Jesus seemed always ready to thrust his hoe in the ground, always willing to make his way to the stone wall for a visit. He stopped in crowds when someone had touched his garment; he heard the shouts of a blind man sitting on the curb, on the margins of the street traffic and action. Jesus stops and calls him over; calls the one to whom I might have said, “What is it?” What now?”

I’d like to live that way. Maybe a place to start is simply in making enough time to actually eat breakfast at home with my children; to begin the day by making my way to a table for a friendly visit.

Thursday, March 02, 2006


When they saw the courage of Peter and John and realized that they were unschooled, ordinary men, they were astonished and they took note that these men had been with Jesus (Acts 4:13 NIV).

At some point during my first two years of college I discovered C. S. Lewis. That is, I discovered Lewis for myself – learned that such a man had actually existed. I might have heard of him before that, I don’t know. If so, I hadn’t paid attention. But somewhere between 1980 and 1982 I actually held a book in my hands and read words that he had written.

This was important because it was right about this time that the Christianity that had come to me in childhood Sunday school classes, Vacation Bible School, and summer youth camp experiences was no longer working. That doesn’t mean it wasn’t true. It just wasn’t working. It was as if I was away at college trying to wear a favorite jacket that had been given to me when I was nine and then altered somewhat when I hit the ninth grade. It was threadbare. It didn’t fit me. It wasn’t working.

And then I listened for the first time to C. S. Lewis. It wasn’t Lewis himself or some idea I found in him that gripped me. I think what happened was for the first time I heard someone thinking hard about the faith. Here was a man asking hard questions, looking at objections, offering a cogent defense of all that I had known since Sunday School and VBS and youth camp. That started me down road that led to plenty of others who were thinking about faith and thinking about the scriptures.

Thinking became important.

It still is. I continue to hold in very high esteem those Christians who blend passionate faith with the life of the mind. I’m amazed at the collection of Calvin’s commentaries that sit on my bookshelf – all that careful reflection on the bible written down without a laptop. I marvel at Jonathan Edwards’ pastoral exploration of true signs of grace in Religious Affections. I wonder how he was able to pastor a congregation and spend 13 hours a day in his study. And my admiration isn’t reserved for analytical types only. The pastor poets John Donne and George Herbert merit deep respect as well.

Maybe because these figures from Christian history, as well as so many of my own pastors and professors, have impressed me and influenced me in some way, the statement about Peter and John in Acts 4:13 hit me in a fresh way recently. After healing a crippled man at one of the temple gates, these two preachers are arrested. The day after, they are hauled before the official religious leaders and there they present a powerful and defiant defense. As they do so, their accusers are astonished. They note that these men are not educated. They have no credentials to boast of. They are “common men” (ESV). But what they also recognize clearly is that these men “had been with Jesus.”

I’ve been astonished by great learning. For that reason, I’ve often wished I could astonish others with great learning – or at least the very modest degree of learning I’ve attained. But those who examined and grilled Peter and John were astonished for the exact opposite reason. These men are not educated – but they’ve been with Jesus.

Calvin Miller once remarked that his seminary diplomas “say in bold gothic script that I cannot be arrested for impersonating a preacher.” At one point in his own ministry he felt led of the Spirit to remove his diplomas from the wall and stick them away somewhere until they became less important to him.

Some people – certainly not all - might be impressed by a diploma, but they won’t be astonished. Degrees conferred by the academy may elicit envy or admiration, but not astonishment. The kind of astonishment Peter and John evoked came from something that was not obtained in a book. It wasn’t learning as much as it was insight and wisdom and power. Those things can’t be had by reading, at least not reading in and of itself. Those things come from listening; listening to the voice of Jesus, the whisperings of the Spirit.

It occurs to me now that the learned people who have astonished me were also people who listened as much as they read. What I know about myself is that I live perpetually frustrated at my lack of time to read. But what if I had more time, or made more time to read? So what? If there’s no listening, then “all is vanity.” “Vanity” in every sense: both empty and conceited.

“We don’t have silver and gold, but what we do have we’ll give to you.” Those were the words that landed Peter and John in trouble to begin with. What powerful words. And how fortunate for the cripple at the gate (and for us) that they didn’t follow those words by reading a book to him. They simply spoke the name of Jesus and made the man walk.

That’s more than impressive. That’s astonishing.

Tuesday, February 14, 2006

For My Wife, February 14, 2006


On that day the table was rustic, rough hewn
in a Texas pub made to look like England you asked
“what are you passionate about?”
I was surprised, slow to answer.

On this day the answers hid beneath our covers
shouted “boo!” at me and jumped
from the van, eager to fill the bag and box you tenderly
prepared between “Arthur” and breakfast, running to gather
paper expressions of love in containers made by love.

We sit at table still.
Conference table by morning, dinner table by night
and I hear your question again and look at you and
know my answer without hesitation.

Friday, February 10, 2006

A Drive-thru Diet of Bible: Reflections on "Eat This Book"

I’m a lousy eater. It’s true in the most obvious and plain sense conveyed by those words. My eating habits were formed in the south. I love anything fried, lots of carbs. Gravy can be appropriately slathered on just about anything – especially biscuits. If it’s not good for me, I probably love it.

Eugene Peterson has helped me see that I don’t do much better when it comes to the Bible. His recent release, Eat This Book, seizes upon an image used in scripture for taking in the word of God. The prophet Ezekiel stands out among those who were commanded to “eat” God’s word. God’s call to Ezekiel involved a vision – a hand outstretched, holding a scroll. The Lord commands Ezekiel, “eat whatever you find here. Eat this scroll and go speak to the house of Israel” (Ezekiel 3:1-3).

Peterson explores this metaphor thoroughly – literally chews it up. To read the book is to actually observe him doing the very thing he’s writing about.

I love the book, but I come away knowing I’m a lousy eater. Too often, I deal with scripture like I deal with meals. I eat on the run. I eat late when I’m tired. I eat the fast stuff as much or more than I eat something carefully prepared. I gravitate toward certain things.

Listening to Peterson is like having a doctor tell me some really bad news about stuff that’s collecting in my veins, conspiring to keep me from ever meeting my grandchildren or seeing my kids get out of college. Any idea I might have had about things not really being quite that bad in my scripture diet (after all, I’m a pastor!) was dispelled when my bible reading plan took me through Exodus – right at the same time I’m getting the tough reality check from Peterson.

When I started reading the last half of Exodus I could sense the resistance within myself. This is where God gives Moses instructions for building the ark of the covenant, the tabernacle, the furnishings for the tabernacle, the priests’ garments, on and on. It’s excruciating. It’s tedious. It raised my sympathy (only a little) for my six year old daughter who refuses to eat a green vegetable.

But there in the middle of what seemed to be tasteless and bland, I found something delicious. It’s quietly present in the text, not put out on display. It is assumed in the course of the story. I found in Exodus the essence of what is often called “the Christian life.” As people are bringing supplies and offerings to accomplish all this tedious work we read “all the men and women, the people of Israel, whose heart moved them to bring anything for the work the Lord had commanded by Moses to be done brought it as a freewill offering to the Lord” (Exodus 35:29 ESV).

They did what was commanded. They did it because their hearts moved them. God's command and heart's inclination, perfectly wed. When these things are not held and joined together we get a sick spirituality: a spirituality of raw compliance with what God commands, void of heart and passion and joy in obedience; or we get a spirituality defined by whatever our hearts want – which changes regularly, roaming and restless. To live life well before God and with God is to live in such a way that God’s commands and the inclinations of my heart are joined.

The proximity or distance between God’s command and heart’s inclination varies almost daily it seems. We spend a lifetime trying to join them consistently in our living. In Exodus it appears effortless, at least for that season. Israel had a hard time with this too, and the Hebrew scriptures describe this in all its sordid detail.

But I’ve learned something about eating well. Don’t skip things in order to get to the “good parts.” Eat a little slower. You never know where you’ll find the delicacies God has for those who can come to the table and stay a while.

Monday, January 16, 2006

The Spirit at Work in Camden, S.C. in the 1960s

When I was in the second grade in Camden, South Carolina I became good friends with a black boy in my class. The year would have been around 1969. The Civil Rights Act had been signed into law. The Voting Rights Act had also become the law of the land. But real change, social and personal transformation, wasn’t brought about by debate in the house and senate, nor was it obtained by a president’s signature. If such things had been effective in bringing about change, the effects were not yet being felt in Camden – or at least not in some parts of Camden.

At some point during that second grade year my mother received a phone call from my teacher. She was expressing concern that I spent too much time with one child in the class. She thought it would be a good thing for me to expand my friendships, include other kids. My mother was able to read between the lines. I don’t know exactly what was said. My teacher was a member of the church my dad served as pastor. I think she was uncomfortable with the friendship I had developed with a black kid. Being the pastor’s wife, my mother didn’t want to be rude to a church member – but I think mom knew what was going on. She told me about my teacher’s concerns regarding having “more friends.” I think I knew what was going on as well. I was given no mandate in the matter, but something changed with my friend. I wish my memories were a little clearer about it all.

Today Martin Luther King, Jr. is being remembered and his achievements celebrated. And in the midst of the remembering and celebrating, there is an awareness of something not yet fully obtained, of a dream not fully realized.

Yesterday, just before dozing off for my requisite Sunday nap, I caught a few minutes of a documentary on MLK - a montage of old film footage and interviews with King’s friends and associates. One of the men remembering MLK spoke specifically of the day Lyndon Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act. The film showed Johnson seated, signing the legislation, King and many others standing behind him. There is a smile on King’s face, a look of deep gladness and satisfaction. It was clearly a significant moment, one long waited for and prayed for. But now, roughly 40 years later, what seems clear is the powerlessness of law to change human hearts. And until hearts are changed, King’s dream remains elusive.

The church my dad served in Camden, the church to which my second grade teacher belonged, didn’t escape the tremors sent through the nation (especially the south) during the racially tense 60s. On one Sunday morning about 20 students from the predominantly black Mather Academy came to the First Baptist Church and seated themselves in the sanctuary. As my dad tells it, that event sent shock waves through the congregation and provoked a moment of decision. Would black people be seated in worship services at the First Baptist Church? About two months after the event the congregation met to vote on the question. The result was that the church voted to seat any and all persons who came to worship.

But the real story happened at the end of the meeting. As a traditional way of ending and dismissing on a positive note, my dad asked that a hymn be sung. I don’t remember the meeting. I’m sure I wasn’t there. I can only imagine the emotion in the room. After all, votes don’t change hearts and there were surely some bitter people among the relieved and triumphant. But something happened during that hymn. An elderly woman, Mrs. Richburg, slipped out of the pew and made her way to the front of the sanctuary where my dad stood. No “invitation” had been extended with the hymn – but she came anyway. She told my dad that she had come forward to make a rededication, a renewal of her commitment to Christ. After Mrs. Richburg came, others came to do the same. The meeting became revival, lasting another 45 minutes.

King was a prophet, and the words of prophets aren’t born of political and social machinations. Yes, prophetic words have political and social implications, but the vision and words are born of the Spirit. And it’s the Spirit that changes hearts and causes old southern women to make recommitments to Jesus. And it is by the Spirit, not legislation, that the dream will be claimed and lived.

Thursday, January 05, 2006

That Narrow Place In The Road: Believing In and Walking With Jesus

While he was still speaking there came from the ruler’s house some who said, “your daughter is dead. Why trouble the Teacher any further?” (Mark 5:35 ESV)

Urgency will drive us to Jesus, but what keeps us there when the sense of urgent need no longer exists?

Sudden illness, financial crises, fragile relationships, unexpected and unwanted news that leaves us disoriented, not having a clue what’s next – these things drive us to Jesus and drive us to our knees before him. But eventually these things resolve. The illness becomes health or is finally healed in death. The crisis passes. The disorientation leads us to what is often called a “new normal.” And what then? What keeps us at Jesus’ feet? Or do we wander off and take care of our own stuff until the next crisis pushes us back to the ground where Jesus patiently stands.

Jairus had a twelve year old daughter who was dying. Things don’t get more urgent than that. This urgency has pushed him to seek out the teacher. In the circles in which Jairus moved, Jesus was likely looked upon as a renegade. Jairus has some connections with the well established religious structures of his day. He’s a synagogue ruler – not an “ordained” person but someone who has authority and responsibility in the place of worship. It’s hard to imagine that he hasn’t heard things about Jesus. He’s overheard and been in on the conversations, the disparaging remarks, the questions, the theological critiques of what the young rabbi says and does. Jairus has been watching Jesus froma distance.

And as he has watched and wondered about Jesus, his daughter has gotten worse.

When your little girl is dying the esteem of colleagues doesn’t mean much. After all, none of them have been of much real help. Maybe a pious word, a promise to pray. But Jesus isn’t into pious talk. He heals. He touches sick people and something happens to them. He makes a withered hand nimble, capable of playing a flute. Limp and useless legs are made strong and straight with only a word. That’s the kind of thing Jesus does. So when a crowd gathers on the shore of the Sea of Galilee to meet Jesus, Jairus is there. His words and actions reflect both boldness and desperation. He falls at Jesus’ feet. “My little daughter is at the point of death. Come and lay your hands on her.”

And Jesus goes with him.

The same urgency that drove Jairus to the shore and pushed him to the wet dirt at Jesus’ feet now sustains him patiently in the walk home. Jesus delays. He stops to discover exactly who had touched his garment. This surprises, even amuses, Jesus’ closest followers. But Jesus is intent on knowing what it was that had called forth power from him. The timid woman steps forward and identifies herself, explains her actions. They talk.

And Jairus endures this interruption. Why doesn’t Jesus seem more attentive? Why won’t he hurry? She’s dying . . . the journey resumes.

It is at this point that the drama of the event reaches its full intensity. Many dramatic things happen in Mark 5, but the most critical moment in the story is here. As Jesus and Jairus and others continue their journey, a delegation from Jairus’ house meets them. The news is not good. The dreaded report is blunt. “Your daughter is dead.” And then this directive disguised as a question: “why trouble the teacher further?”

The question thinly masks a kind of despair. Those who report the death of the little girl are saying, “it’s over, the need is gone, it’s too late. Why bother the teacher anymore?”

It is this kind of moment that reveals the nature of faith. Looking to God, calling on Jesus is one thing in the midst of urgent need. But when the urgency is gone and there seems to be a finality that won’t be changed, what happens then. Some would tell us “it’s over, too late, don’t bother the teacher anymore.”

But in such moments Jesus invites us to keep walking. His words to Jairus seem to ignore what has been reported. “Don’t be afraid; just believe” (Mk. 5:36). This is hard. How do you believe when your daughter is dead? How do you believe when the marriage is beyond repair or the business is bankrupt or your job is being eliminated? How do you believe in moments like that – and exactly what are you to believe? Doesn’t belief begin to look a little like denial?

Maybe the believing is simply in the walking. Jesus is ready to keep going. He doesn’t come right out and make promises about what he’ll do or what will happen next. He simply extends an invitation to keep walking, to make the journey all the way to the house.

That invitation is extended even now, and perhaps directly to you today. The urgency that drove you to Jesus may no longer be hanging over you – but don’t stop walking. Don’t quit the journey.

Who knows; this walk may well lead to a miracle, but only those who persevere will see it.

Sunday, January 01, 2006

Lift Up the Cup and Call on His Name

When I started writing this there were roughly 40 minutes left in 2005. By the time I finished and got around to posting this the first day of 2006 was nearly over.

There’s a line from Psalm 116 that seems fitting for the cusp of a new year. The Psalmist asks, “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me? I will lift up the cup of salvation and call on the name of the Lord” (Psalm 116:12-13 ESV). These verses contain a question (v. 12) and an answer (v. 13). The question belongs to the year past. The answer belongs to the year ahead.

I look back and ask with the Psalmist, “What shall I render to the Lord for all his benefits to me?” I’ve known so many benefits this year, gifts small and great, sometimes recognized, sometimes not. It hasn’t been all benefits – but the benefits loom large in my mind tonight.

The only right response to that question is provided by verse 13, and it turns my thoughts to the year that will begin in minutes. We don’t respond to God’s gifts by repaying him, by giving something back. Every year, every minute comes to us by grace and is defined by grace. We live continually by that grace as we lift up the cup of salvation and call on God to fill it. We live by grace as we lean into the new year relying on God.

John Piper explains it this way. “When God helps us – as he does every moment of every day – we will not repay him with wage labor to even our accounts, but we will (again and again) lift up an empty cup of need and call on him to fill it.”[1]

I leave 2005 blessed, a cup filled and running over. I enter 2006 in need of more grace, dependent, calling on God to pour out grace yet again.

Gracious God, giver of days and years,
Time belongs to you and all that time brings comes from you. How can we possibly thank you for the way you sustain us from day to day, faithfully present in our sorrows and joys. We prayerfully lift the cup and ask you to fill it yet again as you see fit to do in these coming days. Amen.
[1] John Piper, A Godward Life, vol.2, page 155.