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Thursday, March 15, 2018

Stars in the City

“Dear friends, now we are God’s children, and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be. 
We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is.”
1 John 3:2 (Common English Bible)

            Old Dominion’s, Stars in the City lyrics were written by Matthew Ramsey, Trevor Rose, Brad Tursi, and Josh Osborne. With imaginative lyrics accompanied by an infectious sound, this country song narrates a couple almost hitting another car while making a U-turn on a city street. The resulting swerve causes the driver to spill coffee on his jeans. He thinks they’re ruined, but the “girl” in the passenger seat says, “Naw, they’re better now. It’s just a matter of perspective.” She then leans over and kisses him and he ponders to himself, “I don’t know how she does it, but she could see the stars in the city. She sees a diamond when the world sees dust, finds the glitter in the gritty.”

            It is here that the song makes a U-turn of its own. The driver moves from amazement; amazement that his friend can see something good when others see something unfortunate to an honest self-awareness: “I know I ain’t much but that girl sees something nobody else can see, when she sees something in me. Yeah, she could see the stars in the city.” Simply, the man fails to see much when he looks at himself. Yet, the girl in the passenger seat sees something so much more. The girl changes him. Her capacity to see more in life – and in people – than he results in an eager desire to share the same capacity: “The more I hang with her, the more I realize there can be beauty in the broken if you open up your mind.” And moments later in the song, “Well if she’s crazy, I wanna be crazy too. She’s the kinda girl that can break up a band. I wanna see whatever she can.”

            Here, in 1 John, the apostle John has written a pastoral letter to several Gentile congregations. As, perhaps, the last living eyewitness of Christ, John seeks to instill in a new generation of believers a deep assurance and confidence in God’s capacity to change lives. John teaches in this one verse, 1 John 3:2, that the Christian life is a process of becoming more and more like Christ. This process remains unfinished, “and it hasn’t yet appeared what we will be.” But, it is certain, argues John, that the process is an unfolding one that will not be stopped by a disruption or force that seeks to defeat us. What Christ has begun in us will be brought to completion, “We know that when he appears we will be like him because we’ll see him as he is.”

            These are good words for those who are easily defeated. As the driver, in this song, defaults to angst over spilled coffee, magnifying the brokenness and imperfections of the world, the apostle John invites a different perspective. John passionately desires that we see the world – and ourselves – as Christ sees us, as unfinished. Presently, God “sees something nobody else can see, when she sees something in me.” Those who are defeated look in the mirror and sees “dust” when God sees “a diamond.” None of us have become what we shall be. That is out in the future. But God sees the future, sees the diamond we will become, and knowing that this is our ultimate destiny, gives us eyes to see the stars while we make our way in the city of the present.


Thursday, March 8, 2018

All On Me

Gratitude is expressed to Pamela Kent-Balasco for bringing this song to my attention.

“Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads, and I will give you rest.”
Matthew 11:28 (Common English Bible)

            All On Me, a song with a catchy melody and recorded by country music artist, Devin Dawson, is an invitation by the narrator to someone who is deeply loved and is experiencing a heavy load: “You got my number you can call on me. If you’re in trouble put the fall on me. When you’re mad you can take it out on me.” And a few stanzas later, “When it gets heavy put the weight on me. Baby put it all on me. Put it all on me.” Dawson said in an interview with Taste of Country that he has a personal connection with this track because he’ll do anything to take some of the heavy load from his girlfriend. Crafting the lyrics with Austin Smith, bandmate, and Jacob Durrett, Dawson was looking to articulate something he could get behind fully, something that expresses the depth of the commitment he was prepared to make to another.

            In this single sentence spoken by Jesus Christ, and captured by the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is making the same commitment, “Come to me, all you who are struggling hard and carrying heavy loads.” Often Jesus is understood as someone who teaches wisdom for our daily living, providing wise counsel for the multiple decisions that press against each one of us. But the language here is something richer and more gracious than simply offering direction along our daily journey of life. There will be moments in life when direction isn’t what we most urgently need. I speak of those moments, common to everyone, when the journey becomes hard and the load we bear is heavy. In those moments, Jesus reminds us that he is very present with us and invites us to shift some of the burden we carry to his shoulders; “and I will give you rest.”

            Jesus becomes more than someone who gives wise and intelligent guidance for the living of each day. The good news that is offered here is that life isn’t simply a matter of human effort. Certainly, Jesus provides insight, but Jesus does more. Jesus is a constant companion who is always available to share our burdens and give us rest. The “rest” Jesus promises is love, healing and peace with God. When the weight of the world causes us to stumble, Jesus is present to catch us, stand us back on our feet, and give encouragement to take the next steps forward. Life has now become a holy partnership that mingles human striving with the strength of God. No longer is the struggle of life a solo act. Jesus asks, “Come to me.” Jesus desires to share company with us.

            Dawson loves the line in this track, “When it don’t add up, you can count on me.” It is a simple but clever turn of phrase that invites another way of looking at life – an uncommon approach that realizes that when life fails to work one way, another direction is available. Jesus’ life and ministry was a continuous invitation to see the wondrous possibilities available to anyone who trusts in God. Yes, failure is part of life. But defeat does not have to be our story. Jesus is present to God’s people and that changes the mathematical equation of life. Near the end of this song, the narrator sings, “C’mon relax your mind on me. When you need a shoulder, you can cry on me. Baby you can bet your life on me.” In this season of Lent, we hear Jesus saying the same thing to us, “bet your life on me.” Then Jesus turns once again, and climbs-up on a cross.


Friday, March 2, 2018

A Fresh Approach to Prayer

The following is from Doug Hood's Heart & Soul, Vol. 2
“Jesus was praying in a certain place. 
When he finished, one of his disciples said, 
‘Lord, teach us to pray, just as John taught his disciples.’”
Luke 11:1 (Common English Bible)

     In the late 60’s and early 70’s The Newlywed Game was a popular television show. The show would place newly married couples against each other in a series of revealing question rounds that determined how well the spouses knew or did not know each other. There would be two rounds; the wives taken off stage first while the husbands were asked three questions. The wives were then brought back into the studio and asked for their answers to the same three questions. Once the wife gave her answer, the husband revealed the answer he gave – written on a blue card - in her absence. Five points would be awarded to the couple that shared the same answer. The roles were reversed in round two, the wives asked to answer questions about their husbands. The couple that had the highest score at the end of the show won.

     Imagine a similar game that put to the test how well we know God, how well we understand God’s purpose for our lives. I suspect many of us would be embarrassed. Here, in Luke’s Gospel, the disciples came upon Jesus when he was praying. Tremendously moved by what they saw, the disciples asked Jesus to teach them to pray. There is no hint in this passage that the disciples witnessed answers to Jesus’ prayers. Results weren’t what caught their imagination. There was something else. Something that went much deeper.

     If we dispense with the notion that prayer is only about answers, that prayer is simply presenting pleas when we are in need, in danger or a crisis, our eyes are cleared to see what the disciples saw when they came upon Jesus at prayer. In Jesus’ prayer the disciples saw a concentration and absorption into a relationship with God of which they had no experience. Jesus’ prayers demonstrated a deliberate and sustained cultivation of a relationship with God that would put Jesus in the winner’s seat of The Newlywed Game. What is clear in this passage is that the disciples wanted the same.

     Perhaps the greatest difficulty with prayer today is that many are simply out of touch with God. Prayer is reduced to instinct rather than habit, to approaching God out of need rather than a regular cultivation of a personal relationship with our creator. And that is our deepest need - to renew our acquaintance with God. Prayers that flow from instinct tend to be self-centered. The prayer of Jesus is God-centered. It is prayer that takes time to cultivate and requires extraordinary perseverance. But once this fresh approach to prayer is mastered don’t be surprised if another approaches you and asks, “Teach me to pray like that.”


Friday, February 23, 2018

You Should Be Here

“Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about people who have died 
so that you won’t mourn like others who don’t have any hope.”
1 Thessalonians 4:13 (Common English Bible)

You Should Be Here is a piano-driven country ballad, co-written by Ashley Gorley and Cole Swindell, and recorded by Swindell about the death of Swindell’s father. In September 2013, Swindell was out on tour after signing a record deal. During his tour, Swindell was informed that his father had died unexpectedly – and tragically – when a truck he was working on fell on him. Though the song is deeply personal to Swindell, the lyrics are not so specific that those who haven’t lost a parent will feel left out. Each one of us have experienced those moments when everything seems perfect except for the absence of a loved one. This track recovers those moments, releases the deep emotions of loss and articulates with candor, “You should be here, standing with your arm around me here.”

It is this particular moment – remembering a loved one who has died – that the apostle Paul addresses in his first letter to the Christian community in Thessalonica. With deeply emotive language, Paul expresses genuine love and concern for these new Christian believers. Paul then provides a heartfelt, pastoral response to the deep grief that has cast a shadow over them as they remember those who have died: “Brothers and sisters, we want you to know about people who have died so that you won’t mourn like others who don’t have any hope.” At first glance, it would appear that Paul is suggesting that if we have enough faith in the promises of God, we will not mourn the death of a father, mother, or any other loved one. In fact, this is not what is suggested by Paul. A second glance is necessary.

A deeper look at this one sentence of scripture reveals something quite different. Paul understands that grief and mourning are important. The presence of deep grief is testimony that the one who has died made a difference in our lives. Mourning is indicative that the world is a better place because that person was born, lived, and positively touched others. Paul values mourning as part of the human experience. What Paul is saying is that the Christian community is not to mourn “like others who don’t have any hope.” Mourn, yes. But mourn differently. Paul is asking for a distinctively Christian-type of mourning that acknowledges that because of Jesus Christ, the one who has died is not separated from us forever. In the resurrection, we will be together again. Mingled with our grief is the certain knowledge that there will be a heavenly reunion with our loved ones.

In a particularly expressive lyric Cole Swindell captures my own longing for my father when I am walking on the beach: “You’d be loving this, you’d be freaking out, you’d be smiling, yeah I know you’d be all about what’s going on right here right now. God, I wish somehow you could be here. Oh, you should be here.” My father loved the ocean and walks on the beach. I walk to the beach from my office on occasion and wish my father was right there by my side, “standing with your arm around me here.” But grief doesn’t consume me. That is because I mourn differently. Because of Jesus Christ, I now anticipate that day in the future when my father’s arm will be around me once again.


Friday, February 16, 2018

Dear Hate

I have been asked to repost this meditation from November due to the
High School shooting that occurred this past Wednesday.

“God is love, and those who remain in love remain in God and God remains in them.”
  1 John 4:16b (Common English Bible)

     Dear Hate is a deeply moving song, written as an epistolary conversation with hared itself, introducing hate as a character “on the news today” and having the capacity to “poison any mind.” Written by Maren Morris, Tom Douglas and David Hodges and performed by Morris and Vince Gill, the song pinpoints the garden – presumably the Garden of Eden from the pages of Genesis – as hate’s origin. The voices of Morris and Gill, supported only by two acoustic guitars, lead the listener along a serpentine path from Selma, Alabama (“you were smiling from that Selma bridge”), to Dallas, Texas ( “when that bullet hit and Jackie cried” ), culminating in New York City ( “You pulled those towers from the sky” ). Yet, hope remains, “But even on our darkest nights, the world keeps spinning ‘round.”

     Hatred’s power, made visible, is answered three times by a confident affirmation, “love’s gonna conquer all.” It is then that the last chorus flips the narrative of hatred’s destructive ambitions to address love as someone who is personal and omnipresent. Though doubt is identified, “Just when I think you’ve given up,” the presence of love becomes unmistakable once again, “You were there in the garden when I ran from your voice. I hear you every morning through the chaos and the noise. You still whisper down through history and echo through these halls.” Love then speaks, “love’s gonna conquer all.”

     Here in 1 John, love’s name is revealed, “God is love.” More, a promise is made. Anyone who clings to love, not as a feeling but as intentional conduct towards others, will discover that they are, in fact, taking-up residence in God and God in them. It is precisely the demonstration of love toward one another, in obedience to Jesus’ example and command, that the reassurance of love’s power over hate becomes unquestioned. By the intentional and active force of love, given freely to others, Christians are able to abide in God and God in them, in a state of mutual indwelling. And it is precisely by this mutual indwelling that we know we are loved and that the very best that hate can summon will not defeat us.

     Dear Hate stands among a growing canon of songs that grapple with hatred – most notably for this writer, Tim McGraw’s Grammy-winning, “Humble and Kind” – and offers a heartening message that love is stronger. Most days, it seems, the news swings the camera toward another appearance of hatred, moving among us at its foulest. All of us fight back tears and struggle with doubt. It is precisely at those moments that Maren Morris and Vince Gill seeks to encourage us with the good news, “love’s gonna conquer all. Gonna conquer all.”


Friday, February 9, 2018

God Will Guide Us

The following is from Doug Hood's Heart & Soul, Vol. 2

“Trust in the Lord with all your heart; don’t rely on your own intelligence. 
Know him in all your paths, and he will keep your ways straight.”
Proverbs 3:5, 6 (Common English Bible)

The fall semester of my senior year in college would be in England. Arriving at Gatwick Airport in London, I disembarked the flight, entered the airport and immediately experienced considerable confusion. Standing in a common area, bewildered by the signage, I felt a hand on my shoulder: “This is the direction you want to go,” spoke a friendly voice. The confusion cleared, my path was made clear, and I was on my way. I am a reasonably intelligent person but that was a moment when I desperately needed guidance.

Anyone honest about his or her own life journey admits moments where guidance is welcomed. It is no mistake that high schools, colleges and universities have “guidance counselors” available to their students. Determining a direction in life is not something to be decided casually. Nor is it a simple matter to discern God’s desire and direction for us as individuals. There are simply moments when we are as bewildered as I was when I stood in Gatwick Airport so many years ago.

These words from Proverbs provide help. Rather than be intimidated by the vastness of choices and decisions to be made, Proverbs invites us into a relationship with our creator, a relationship that moves from the mind to the heart. There is a critical difference. The mind alone gathers information, orders data and considers several reasonable alternatives. The entire exercise can be accomplished without ever disturbing the heart from its sleep. On the other hand, try building a relationship with a spouse or friend solely on the arrangement of data. It doesn’t work. The heart senses, feels, and longs to know and be known. There is knowledge that is simply unavailable using the mind alone.

How shall we trust and know God with all our heart? We begin by learning of God as God is revealed in the Bible. We continue by doing God’s will as best as we understand it from our reading. There is no substitution or short cut. Divine guidance only comes to those who daily seek it in the scriptures. We become sensitive to the nudges and promptings of God until one day we sense a hand on our shoulder and a voice that speaks, “This is the direction you want to go.”


Friday, February 2, 2018


“God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge are so deep! 
They are as mysterious as his judgments, and they are as hard to track as his paths!”
Romans 11:33 (Common English Bible)

     Let’s be clear – the new country music song by Dan & Shay, Tequila, is not the drinking song that you might expect just reading the track’s title. Careful attention to the lyrics reveals something so much deeper – and extremely relatable – that has an enormous capacity for stirring latent emotions within each one of us. Tequila is first a love song, and for this writer, a beautiful one. The song talks about how something – or some experience – can trigger memories, in this case, a relationship. For the narrator of this song, that “trigger” is tequila: “I can drink whiskey and red wine, champagne all night. Little scotch on the rocks and I’m fine, I’m fine. But when I taste tequila, baby I still see ya. Cutting up the floor in a sorority T-shirt. The same one you wore when we were sky high in Colorado, your lips pressed against the bottle. Swearing on a Bible, baby, I’d never leave ya. I remember how bad I need ya, when I taste tequila. When I taste tequila.”

     This is precisely what is occurring in this sentence of scripture from the Apostle Paul’s letter to the church in Rome. The entire eleventh chapter of this letter is given to a theological conversation of God’s continuing relationship to Israel. With considerable care, Paul outlines a profound and compassionate response to the question of what happens to God’s chosen people (the Jewish nation) when they don’t embrace the Lordship of Jesus Christ. Paul will not accept the simplistic conclusion that God now excludes the Jewish people from God’s promises because they fail to believe in Jesus Christ. And then something happens. All this “theological talk” about the larger purposes of God “triggers” within Paul’s heart an emotional response that he simply cannot suppress: “God’s riches, wisdom, and knowledge are so deep! They are as mysterious as his judgments, and they are as hard to track as his paths!”

     Each of us carries within us “triggers’ of one kind or another. Some triggers are negative, dredging up from within a deep place an emotion of sadness, anger, or fear. Others are positive, triggers that cause delight, feelings of warmth or joy. I lost my father twenty-three years ago. He was the single greatest influence in my life for my deep love of Jesus Christ. Often during my childhood he would tell my brother and me that he cared little what vocational choice we made once we became an adult. What did matter to him is that we love Jesus Christ. One of my father’s greatest joys was spending time with his family in the Florida Keys – particularly enjoying snorkeling in Bahia Honda – one of the middle Keys. The Florida Keys, naturally, is one huge trigger for me. When I am there I feel as though my father is walking right by my side, that large, delightful smile across his face, his hand grasping my hand.

     People have nostalgic attachments to senses like smells and tastes and sounds. For the narrator of this song, tequila is one of those things. Generally, the consumption of various alcoholic beverages has no affect upon him. But the taste of tequila triggers his deep romantic affection for a particular woman. More, he recalls, “I remember how bad I need ya, when I taste tequila, when I taste tequila.” The narrator is clear, “I ain’t even drunk, I ain’t even drunk, and I’m thinking how I need your love, how I need your love. Yeah, it sinks in.” This is not the alcohol speaking. It is the taste of tequila, a trigger that summons forth heartbreak and regret. For the Apostle Paul, teaching and preaching Jesus Christ triggers emotions that began shaping within him when Jesus appeared to him on a certain road that led to Damascus. Emotions birthed and nurtured by continued attention to a relationship with the love of Paul’s life, Jesus.