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Friday, March 31, 2017

There's A Girl

“I was beaten with rods three times. I was stoned once. I was shipwrecked three times. 
I spent a day and a night on the open sea.”
2 Corinthians 11:25 (Common English Bible)

            Trent Harmon shared recently that his country single, There’s A Girl, was inspired not by one girl, but by several romances that Harmon has experienced. With an upbeat and happy tempo, the song is about how guys are driven by girls and how they drive guys to do things they normally wouldn’t do. “Why would we drive six hundred miles one way? Blow through cash that we ain’t made. Get tattoos, wash our trucks, push and press our luck.” The storytelling is crisp and true, a light-hearted look at the old, well-worn phrase, “love makes you do crazy things.” The song is deeply heartfelt and romantic while also poking fun at himself for all the stupid things he does when a girl consumes his attention.

            In his letter to the Corinthian Church, the apostle Paul is singing a similar song, “I was beaten with rods three times. I was stoned once. I was shipwrecked three times. I spent a day and a night on the open sea.” Why would any rational person subject themselves to these things? They wouldn’t. And that is precisely Paul’s point. Trent Harmon does stupid things because, “There’s A Girl,” and Paul opens himself to such mistreatment and danger because, “There is a man named Jesus” who has overtaken any rational thought. Harmon has been taken captive by his love for a girl; Paul has been taken captive by Jesus’ love for Paul. A lyric in Harmon’s song is, “Why does any man do anything in the whole damn world?” The apostle Paul has an answer. It is love.

            Paul acknowledges in his letter to the Corinthian Church that he is bragging when he shares all he has suffered. But Paul is equally clear that this bragging is not for self-aggrandizement. What Paul urgently wants the reader to hear is that there is a man, a man named Jesus, and that if you pay attention to that man, his love for you will get to you; his love for you will result in you doing stupid and irrational things. The love of Jesus Christ is so pervasive that neither beatings, or stoning, or being shipwrecked can drive that love out of you.

            Naturally, what Paul desires by his “bragging” is that we would become curious about this kind of love. Trent Harmon sings, “Why would we ask when we know we can’t dance? Show our hands and change our plans. Lose our minds, break our hearts and learn to play guitar. Why does any man do anything in the whole damn world? ‘Cause there’s a girl. ‘Cause there’s a girl.” Why would Paul place himself in harm’s way, suffer beatings and endure stoning and spend a night and day on an open sea when that is so dangerous? Because there’s a man who has gotten to him. And Paul wants you to know him also.


Friday, March 24, 2017

A Faith That Is Good and Pleasing

“Don’t be conformed to the patterns of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your minds so that you can figure out what God’s will is – what is good and pleasing and mature.”
Romans 12:2 (Common English Bible)

          We are all too some extent suggestible. Stand still on the sidewalk and look up with enthralled interest and a crowd will quickly gather around staring upwards. The instinct to go along and do as others do is a powerful force. We are like clay, easily shaped and molded by our environment. It is a fact that those in the advertising industry count on. A product or service is presented as something that will enhance life, others testify to the veracity of the promises made and in some measure we are separated from our dollars – convinced of the value to purchase as others have. Every day the wind of conformity blows across our consciousness, urging us to go along, be like everyone else, purchase like everyone else and not stand out.

            But “standing out” is precisely what Paul wants for us! Patterning our behavior after the behavior of others and conforming to the world deeply troubles the apostle Paul. Here, in his letter to the Christian Church in Rome, Paul makes an appeal that we not surrender to the world and what the world values. Naturally, there is safety and comfort in going along, submitting to the shaping influence of the culture. But what is safe and comfortable also hampers growth in Christ just as the lack of exercise hampers the development of strong bodies. A strong and mature faith is the goal of those who follow Jesus. This kind of faith – a faith that is good and pleasing to God – is produced from eyes that are fixed upon Christ.

            Directing our gaze upon Jesus, and away from the world, is how we begin to organize our life around him. Rather than stand in the place of everyone else, Paul asks that we listen for the movement of the Holy Spirit, stand in its path and permit it to sweep over us in its onward rush. William Barclay offers a fresh hearing of Paul’s words: “And do not shape your lives to meet the fleeting fashions of this world; but be transformed from it, by the renewal of your mind, until the very essence of your being is altered.” Paul would have liked that translation: “the very essence of your being is altered!”

            Far too many in the church today fail to have robust convictions. When persons in leadership speak and behave in a manner that is contrary to God, they either fail to recognize it or they are fearful of holding their leaders accountable. This is the result of an anemic faith. Going along and getting along is preferable to the cross of fidelity to Christ. Paul desires followers of Jesus Christ that have developed such strength of maturity that they step into the world, recognize disobedience to God and accept the challenge of the storm that will blow across their lives when they call those leaders back to God purposes. And when the gusty winds blow and the storm grows fierce, the mature in faith will not be shaken. Strengthening them will be the very power of the risen Christ.


Friday, March 17, 2017

Letter to Me

“I believe that the present suffering is nothing compared to the coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.”
Romans 8:18 (Common English Bible)

            In his country track, Letter to Me, Brad Paisley imagines writing a letter to his 17-year-old self. Here he reflects on the people and moments that have formed and shaped him to be the man he has now become. More importantly, Paisley shares with his teenage self what he has learned over the years and that the present pain of a broken romance is nothing compared to what will be revealed to him in the future: “You got so much ahead. You’ll make new friends. You should see your kids and wife. And I’d end by saying have no fear. These are nowhere near the best years of your life.” No one who listens carefully to these lyrics will challenge that they resonate deeply with all who have wrestled with failed relationships during the teenage and young adult years, “But I know at seventeen, it’s hard to see past Friday night.” Yet, Paisley concludes his letter with the encouragement, “I wish you wouldn’t worry, let it be. I’d say, have a little faith and you’ll see.”

            The Christian believers in Rome are feeling like a 17-year-old boy and the apostle Paul has written a letter – a letter urging them that they have a little faith. As is true for many believers, those Christians in Rome have mistakenly shared in the assumption that they should be free from pain and should be guaranteed pleasantness. But this is not their experience. Neither does scripture ever make the promise that belief results in a flight from reality. The reality of this broken world is that we will experience broken relationships, disappointment and pain. Those are the moments when, “It’s hard to see past Friday night.” Paul asks that they – and we – take a longer view. Though, in the present moment, we may groan together, Paul urges that we also anticipate together; anticipate that God isn’t finished with this world or with us. There is a “coming glory that is going to be revealed to us.”

            This word from Paul reverses our faith expectations and directs a new path for our walk with Jesus Christ. The Christian now has the opportunity to view suffering not as a “misfortune that has selected us” or as a punishment for some personal failing. All of creation suffers from brokenness and the believer in Jesus is invited to live in the very midst of that brokenness in the confident assurance that God still shows-up for work each day and continues the work of restoration and wholeness. The completion of that restoration lies in the future and the resurrection of Jesus from the dead is but a glimpse of God’s capacity to complete that work. With Paul’s characteristic proclivity for understatement, he tells us that our present suffering pales in comparison to what God has for us in the future.

            When we are around the age of 17, heartbreak seems like the end of the world. We simply can’t think past that week. The present moment is the most important moment of our life. When we get a bit older we realize how ridiculous we were to feel that way, particularly at such a young age. We grasp reality a little better and discover that we did, in fact, survive that difficult age. And we will survive the next heartbreak as well because we know that better things also come our way. The apostle Paul has written a letter. He wants us to know, as Brad Paisley sings, “And oh, you got so much going for you, going right.” What we have going for us; what we have going right is God. Our lives and future are held securely in God’s grasp.


Gratitude is expressed to my daughter, Rachael, for bringing this song to my attention.  

Friday, March 10, 2017

If I Told You

“But God shows his love for us, because while we were still sinners Christ died for us.”
Romans 5:8 (Common English Bible)

            In his heartfelt country ballad, If I Told You, Darius Rucker asks someone to love him in spite of his faults and shortcomings. Written by Ross Copperman, Jon Nite and Shane McAnally, the song’s lyrics are a plea for acceptance, for understanding, and for love, though he recognizes that it is not deserved. “What if I told you sometimes I lose my faith? I wonder why someone like you would even talk to me.” Brokenness runs deep in the words as the song fleshes out a brief narrative of a life that is lived without a father. The visual that is sketched for the listener is quite vivid and one that many people will relate to. Every life is a mixture of brokenness and wholeness, regrets and fulfillments – each with varying degrees of one and the other. Yet, in the middle of it all is the desire of every person to be loved.

            Perhaps no fear grips a life quite like the fear that one is unworthy of love. The apostle Paul knows this fear in his own life. Yet, because of Jesus Christ, Paul has richly discovered a love that puzzles, even defies comprehension: “But God shows his love for us, because while we were sinners Christ died for us.” Love and acceptance is not negotiated. Love is not withheld until we clean-up the mess of our lives. God’s love is freely given to each of us in the very midst of the wreckage of our lives. And it is there that we desire it the most, as Darius Rucker sings, “If I told you the mess that I can be. When there’s no one there to see. Would you look the other way, cause you love me anyway?” The plea is urgent – in this song and in the depths of our own hearts.

            A life not well lived, a life soiled by regrettable decisions and stupid things has an enormous weight that bears down upon our chest and denies life-giving breath into our lungs. Such a life, lived day by day, becomes increasingly sorrowful. Questions of self-worth well-up in the heart multiplying the pain of an already broken life. The plea of the song becomes our own, “If I told you all the stupid things I’ve done. I’d blamed on being young. But I was old enough to know, I know. If I told you the mess that I can be, when there’s no one there to see. Could you look the other way cause you love me anyway? Cause you love me anyway.” The song then ends with the plea becoming more poignant, “Could you love me anyway, please?

            Paul wants us to know that God loves us anyway: “while we were sinners Christ died for us.” This makes all the difference in our lives. Sorrow and brokenness is replaced with joy and gratitude. A relationship with God – once broken by our poorly lived lives – is restored. The enormous weight that pressed against us is removed by an unseen hand and we draw rapidly a fresh breath into our lungs; a breath of hope for a new beginning. That is what God does for us. God nails our old, regrettable past upon the cross and gives us a fresh start. But now we begin with new knowledge – God’s power and love abides with us, and will continue to do so even when we stumble again. That is because God loves us anyway.


Thursday, March 2, 2017

Playing With Fire

“As for us, we can’t stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”
Acts 4:20 (Common English Bible)

            Playing with Fire is a country ballad that yanks the listener into the emotional fervor of a guy and girl who are in a relationship together and are fully aware that the relationship is toxic for both of them. Sung by Thomas Rhett and Jordin Sparks, the song is the struggle – even angst – of two people who cause pain for each other but find that they can’t let each other go. The experience of their love is like “playing with fire,” both knowing better than to continue being together but unable to make the break. “I know I should let it go. Take a different road when I’m driving home. But I don’t want to.” And later in the song when the two are together again, “When I hold onto you baby, I’m all tangled up in barbed wire.” That powerful image is felt by the listener, two people entwined together in a moment that produces pain like being “tangled up in barbed wire.”

            Peter and John, both disciples of Jesus, are “playing with fire.” Jesus has now left his disciples and returned to his father in heaven. Stirred with the vigor and emotional zeal from the events of the resurrection of their friend, Jesus, and Jesus’ post resurrection teaching, Peter and John are continuing the preaching they once heard from Jesus. But there is a difficulty. The religious establishment of that day is not at all receptive to this preaching. Peter and John are confronted and warned to stop. They do not. Both are arrested and placed in prison. When they are questioned the next day, they multiply their difficulty when they remind the distinguished religious leaders that it was they who crucified Jesus but it was God who raised Jesus from the dead. Peter and John are “tangled up in barbed wire” with Jesus. Holding onto Jesus would result in death for Peter and persecution and banishment into exile for John on the isle of Patmos. Yet, they simply “can’t stop speaking about what we have seen and heard.”

            Often I meet people who long for the emotional depth and vigor of faith that they see in Peter and John. For them, faith is more practiced than felt and attendance in worship is more of a chore rather than a celebration that stirs the senses. Jesus remains attractive to them. A belief in God and God’s activity in the world is unquestioned. But the senses are dulled. Routine settles in and activity in the church resembles every other commitment on the weekly calendar. Missing from their faith is anything that resembles the transformative power seen in Peter and John. The “barbed wire” experience has been replaced with exhausting – and largely unfulfilling – church programs. What is unfortunate is the number of people who remain “in love” with Jesus but simply “give-up” on the church.

            This expressive country ballad concludes, “Yeah, I know it sounds crazy. But I guess I like playing with fire, playing with fire.” Perhaps that is the secret. If our faith is to recover the vigor and vitality of Peter and John’s, we will have to step out of the routine of “playing church” and pay fresh attention to this Jesus that ensnared so many of his followers in barbed wire. Read Jesus in the Bible. Learn everything that Jesus taught. Determine to change everything about your life that does not conform to Jesus’ teaching. In some measure of time, you will discover that you are now, “playing with fire.” More importantly, you will begin to see and hear things of such weight and beauty and power that you will find that you simply can’t stop speaking about them.