About Me

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Bedford, Texas, United States
Pastor of Woodland Heights Baptist Church in Bedford, Texas and former Professor of Old Testament. But mostly I am a husband of an amazing wife, father of gifted children, and servant of an AWESOME God.

Tuesday, February 4, 2014

Being a "Joyful Idiot" through the Transitions of Life

For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing; a time to seek, and a time to lose; a time to keep, and a time to cast away; a time to tear, and a time to sew; a time to keep silence, and a time to speak; a time to love, and a time to hate; a time for war, and a time for peace. (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8, ESV)

In a sermon I once heard, J. I. Packer described the writer of Ecclesiastes as a “joyful idiot.” That is, he could experience joy even though, and perhaps in part because, he lacked knowledge of all things (hence the idiot part). For him, it was enough that he could see God and he could see the present joys God brought him each day. Recollecting that sermon, I turned to Ecclesiastes this past week as I contemplated the changes that I recently experienced and will soon experience in my life...

This past Sunday I said, “Goodbye” to a good friend and fellow-laborer when our Youth Minister Tyler Downing left his position here in Texas to take another position up in Indiana. I had known about his departure for about a month and spent much of that time thinking about our time together – what he taught me, how I had changed through our relationship, and how I was going to miss him in the years ahead. I also spent some time contemplating how his departure was going to change me and how life transitions overall change us in some significant ways.

In my church, as in all churches, there are a lot of people struggling with the idea of transition. Some are looking for work. Some are dealing with failing health. Some are starting new romantic relationships or taking their relationship to the next level by getting engaged and married. Some, like me, are preparing to see their oldest child leave home for college in just a few months, others are welcoming their children back into their home because finances and life situations have forced them back in. Life is about change and with change comes transition.

Transition is that period between realities that is all at once awkward and exciting and scary. It’s the everyday adolescence of life where you are not who you were but you are also not really who you are going to be either. And it’s hard! But why is it hard? Why do we struggle with something that is so much a part of lives? As often as we go through transition (indeed do we ever leave it?), shouldn't we be used to it by now?

In Ecclesiastes 3, the writer lists many of the various seasons of life, expressing the truism that every part of life has its opposite corollary and that just as certain as we will experience the bad, we will experience the good (and vice-versa). But after this long list of life’s events, he then moves on to reflect upon what all of it means and I think he touches on what makes the journey of transition and change so difficult. He writes, “Also, he has put eternity into man's heart, yet so that he cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11b, ESV). These words, I believe, encapsulate the heart of why we struggle with transition…we are given glimpses of God’s work and general patterns to life, but we cannot really grasp the totality of the course of our lives. The result of this condition is awkwardness, excitement, and fear. So how do we navigate through these times? I think the writer of Ecclesiastes gives us some clues in the passage that follows.

Accept that change is going to occur – the whole nature of the first part of Ecclesiastes 3 relates the self-evident reality of change. Yet, we resist this truth, even deny this truth throughout life. It’s as if we think if we resist hard enough or refuse to budge ourselves, change won’t occur. But if we refuse to grow and adjust, we don’t stop change we just begin to rot. C. S. Lewis wrote, “It may be hard for an egg to turn into a bird: it would be a jolly sight harder for it to learn to fly while remaining an egg. We are like eggs at present. And you cannot go on indefinitely being just an ordinary, decent egg. We must be hatched or go bad. (Mere Christianity)” Change is going to happen, we can accept it as part of life and grow or we can resist and go bad.

Look for the beauty in the moment – a lot of times in periods of transition all we see is what is being lost or what we don’t know about the future. We read in Ecclesiastes 3:11 that God “has made everything beautiful in its time.” The idea here is not that everything is to be viewed through the eyes of the optimist as “good,” but instead that every aspect of life is intended to provide “aesthetic balance.” Though we might not see all that means in our limited capacities, we can find a balance in every experience that helps alleviate the awkwardness.

Accept the pleasure of pleasure – the beautiful moments of the present gives us pictures or glimpses of eternity. Christianity has a long standing tradition of valuing pain over pleasure. The call to count the cost, take up our cross, and to sacrifice have for some reason eclipsed the equally important promises of Christ toward abundant life, an easy yoke, and a rest from weariness. Both sides of discipleship – the cost and the blessing – are part of our journey and experience of Christ. To seek the blessing without the cost leads to licentiousness. To seek the cost without the blessing leads to legalism. Either one without the other leads to an us-centered paradigm that removes God from the throne of our lives. Modern evangelicals do well pointing out the need for cost, but forget to highlight the blessing. Surely we can do a better job of this instead of ceding that part of the conversation to heretical “health and wealth” preachers. We need to learn to take pleasure in the pleasures God has given us.

Trust God – if we can’t see the total course of our lives, doesn't it make sense to trust the One who can? The writer of Ecclesiastes encapsulates the centerpiece of His approach when He wrote, “I perceived that whatever God does endures forever; nothing can be added to it, nor anything taken from it. God has done it, so that people fear before him. (Ecclesiastes 3:14, ESV)” The fear of God mentioned here, which is the beginning of all wisdom, is key to seeing balance, understanding the place of pleasure, and being comfortable with change. It is the salve to burns created by past hurts and the road-map through unexplored paths that life takes us down. Trusting God doesn't come naturally, it is choice we make based upon His position as our Savior, Creator, and Provider.

I am going to miss Tyler and looking into the next few months when I will say, “Goodbye” to my oldest, I know I am going to miss her too. Hopefully, however, I can navigate these transitions with a real sense of stability and trust, focusing more on what I do know (or rather who I know) than on what I don’t. Hopefully, I can come to know what it means to be a “joyful idiot.”

Me and Tyler at his Ordination

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

The Fringes of His Ways

Behold, these are but the outskirts of his ways, and how small a whisper do we hear of him! But the thunder of his power who can understand?” (Job 26:14, ESV)

This morning I was given the task of putting medicine in the ear of my dog. When I called her she submissively came, laid down, and let me put the medication in. She whimpered because her ear hurt as I did it, but she didn’t give me a hard time. As I was doing it, I felt bad about the pain I was causing her and I also felt bad because I knew she had no idea why her master was causing her pain when she had done nothing wrong. I knew it was for her good, but I also knew she had no idea that was the case. It reminded of one of my favorite Bible verses and the journey of discovery God took me on when I first came across it.

The Job 26 passage above is one of my favorite meditations on the greatness of God. It was first shared with me by a friend while we were in Nashville considering in-utero surgery on Jonathan to repair his Spina Bifida lesion on his back, shortly after we received the diagnosis in 2002.

There are two things I really love about the verse. One is the simplicity, yet depth of the idea that all the wonders of creation are but the outskirts (or fringes) of God’s ways. It takes the reflection of Psalm 8, where the writer examines the cosmos and wonders about man’s place in it, and expands it exponentially by relaying the truth that the stuff we see is not even a recognizable portion of the power He maintains. What we see is indeed enough to know He is present, powerful, creative, and magnificent, but not enough that we can assume that we can understand even a portion of what He is capable of or how He might work. Except, of course, in the ways that He Himself has revealed to us truths about who He is and how He works.

The second thing about the passage that makes it so significant to me (and probably why it has stayed with me) is that Job utters the observation when he is at his lowest. Not only has he suffered immensely by the loss of everything, but by this point in the story he has already had to endure the unhelpful theologizing and the damaging accusations of his friends. Job is spent - physically, emotionally, and spiritually. Yet, it is the knowledge of who his God is that spurs him forward, away from the fatalism of his friends and the surrender that so often sets in when life overwhelms. He will seek an answer; he will try to find understanding; he will experience deliverance – not because he is stubborn and willful, but because his God is big.

By the end of the story Job does submit to the situation. Not because he was proven wrong or sinful. Not because he was beaten down and proven to be worthless – in fact, just the opposite has taken place. No, he submits because he is allowed to catch another glimpse of God’s greatness and majesty and that, coupled with an already vibrant and passionate theology of God, was enough to answer his questions and deal with his biggest fear – was God in fact with him all the while?

Like my dog with me this morning, I don’t always understand what God is doing in my life and why His actions toward me hurt. After all, all I can see are the fringes of His ways. But I do know that He is loving in all His ways and He is with me through it all. How do I know that? Because I have experienced His deliverance through some tough times of my own and more importantly, because that is the God He has revealed Himself to be in His word.

Be encouraged!

Tuesday, January 14, 2014

A Tale of Two Churches

And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ, so that we may no longer be children, tossed to and fro by the waves and carried about by every wind of doctrine, by human cunning, by craftiness in deceitful schemes. Rather, speaking the truth in love, we are to grow up in every way into him who is the head, into Christ, from whom the whole body, joined and held together by every joint with which it is equipped, when each part is working properly, makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love. (Ephesians 4:11-16, ESV)

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insist on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.” (Charles Dickens, A Tale of Two Cities, 1859)

The opening paragraph of the classic, A Tale of Two Cities highlights the contrasts of life present in both Dickens’ day and in the years captured in his story about the French Revolution, some hundred years prior to his composition. Although there are many nuanced interpretations and applications that could be taken from the paragraph, perhaps the easiest summation might be “the more things change, the more they stay the same.”

When I look at the current level of debate and correction about social issues and even biblical interpretation in Christianity today, it seems at first glance that the discussions have become nastier than I ever remember them being. Maybe it is just a renewed sensitivity to it in my own Christian walk, but it seems that the level of vitriol between certain groups of Christians has increased lately. In particular, I have in mind exchanges between those who battle for Truth and those who battle for Love as the primary Christian virtue in our interactions with the world and each other.

Now, no doubt both groups would argue that they value the other virtue and, though I don’t know the heart, I would imagine this is true. I have noticed, however, that when questions dealing with the social issues of the day rear their head, people tend to gravitate to one side and then accuse the other of either lacking compassion or conviction. I believe this tendency can be healthy for the Church in the long run if humility and a willingness to listen and learn are present. But too often we become so defensive of our own tendency that we settle in to protect it rather than to become all that Christ would have us be.

Which brings me to my own comparison of a past that seems to model much of what we are experiencing today. Only this time it is not a Two Cities that serve for the comparison, but Two Churches. In the book of Revelation seven letters are sent to seven churches, each representing a specific problem that any church at any time can struggle with. In relationship to the present discussion, Ephesus and Thyatira stand out as representatives of the two groups of Conviction and Compassion, respectively.

We know a lot about the church at Ephesus. It is mentioned several times in Paul’s letters and was even the primary recipient of a letter from Paul that currently bears its name. The church was in a city well-known for its worship of Artemis and the Emperor – it was surrounded by false systems of belief. It was also a church that had struggled with unity and reconciliation – in short, love (Eph 2.11-22; 5.1-2), but which could be generous towards fellow believers when the need became known. This strikes me as representative of so many of my friends who are on the Conviction side of issues. They are quite generous in many ways and they stand strong against the prevalent heresies of the day, but they are more given to separate than to seek unity. And if they are not careful, they become as Ephesus is described in Revelation - “‘I know your works, your toil and your patient endurance, and how you cannot bear with those who are evil, but have tested those who call themselves apostles and are not, and found them to be false. I know you are enduring patiently and bearing up for my name's sake, and you have not grown weary. But I have this against you, that you have abandoned the love you had at first." (Revelation 2:2-4, ESV). They can spot unsound doctrine from miles away, but they really struggle with love, joy, and peace.

The church at Thyatira is less known. Unlike the other six churches listed in Revelation, it was not a district center. From its description in Revelation 2:18-29 we learn that it was church going about the business of the Lord in love and faith, service and endurance, and it grew in its commitment to cultural engagement. But despite being very outward focused and driven, Jesus had these words for Thyatira “But I have this against you, that you tolerate that woman Jezebel, who calls herself a prophetess and is teaching and seducing my servants to practice sexual immorality and to eat food sacrificed to idols. I gave her time to repent, but she refuses to repent of her sexual immorality.” (Revelation 2:20-21, ESV)

The more things change, the more they stay the same.

As believers we have to find the balance. Many of us believe we have it when we don’t (myself included). I tend towards Conviction myself and although I would say, “I love the sinner and hate the sin,” I know that too often those words are more a cliché than a reality. When I look at the ministry of Jesus’ interactions with the prostitutes, tax-collectors, adulterers, and others I don’t see him correcting their theology or even telling them they are sinners first – He always started with compassion. And for me, that is what I am learning to do – instead of correction, I want to start with compassion. They won’t care about the Truth of our words if they haven’t seen the Love in our actions.

I am reminded of a story Andy Stanley tells of a gay pride event that took place outside his father’s church a number of years ago. He said that as the event transpired two church groups formed in response. One group picketed in protest and argued with the participants. The other church group (from a different church than his own) handed out water and sought to express love. The mere fact that the gay activists were there protesting said that they knew of both church’s stance on homosexuality - there wasn't really a need at that point to reiterate it, but instead of expressing the love of Christ, one church decided to express only condemnation. Certainly, in our ever changing society and the lack of clarity on what churches now believe about that same issue, an expression of Truth might be more needed if a similar situation were to happen today. But the question we need to ask ourselves is are we being true to our calling if truth is spoken without an expression of tangible love being brought along with it?

But compassion without conviction becomes sentimentality that is unhelpful and unhealthy. In all of Jesus’ interactions He left the person with a clear sense of Truth. Whether it is the woman caught in adultery – “Go and Sin no more” (John 8:11) or the woman at the well “You worship what you do not know; we worship what we know, for salvation is from the Jews. But the hour is coming, and is now here, when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for the Father is seeking such people to worship him. God is spirit, and those who worship him must worship in spirit and truth.” (John 4:22-24, ESV) ­– Jesus never compromised on the Truth. Indeed, in Revelation, He called Thyatira and us to be more than just culturally engaging, He called them to deal with falsehood decisively.

No doubt the Truth people will tell me I misinterpreted or misapplied the text and the Love people will tell me I haven’t contextualized my observation into present world concerns and perspectives enough, but in the end I hope we learn to strive toward the goal of maintaining both correctly – it doesn’t have to be one or the other and, in fact, in Jesus’ words it CAN’T be just one or the other.  We need to speak the Truth with tangible Love.