Friday, November 15, 2019

Steadier than Texas Weather (Friday Devotional)



The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.

- Isaiah 40:8

When I left the house Monday morning, it was 40-something degrees and cloudy. I didn’t check the weather report before getting dressed and heading out the door, because I thought I knew what to expect: it would warm up to the mid-60s by the afternoon and the sun would likely come out. In my golf shirt and blue jeans, I thought I was set for the day.

So imagine my surprise when I stepped outside three hours later and was nearly bowled over by the rain, wind, and cold. In those three hours the temperature had dropped nearly twenty degrees, and the wind chill had already dipped below freezing. By the next morning, the “arctic front” would send temperatures plummeting well below those numbers, with a few school districts in Central Texas even delaying the start of Tuesday’s classes just to play it safe.

In Texas, we’re used to the weather changing on a dime (even if we sometimes fail to account for those sudden changes when we get dressed in the morning.) But no matter how long you live, none of us are ever truly prepared for the way life can change just as quickly. One announcement from the CEO, one missed stop sign, one chance meeting with a stranger—for better or for worse, a single moment can wind up turning your whole life upside down.

In a chaotic world, we look for stability, for something which remains steadfast even when our circumstances seem as variable as Texas weather. Some turn to strong people in their lives, those who seem to have it all together. Others turn to public figures who radiate confidence or wisdom. Still others think they’ll find a foundation in their careers and ambitions.

But ultimately, the only rock which is capable of withstanding life’s sudden storms is the word of God. For all the ways that life has changed over the centuries, for every revolution and new philosophy that’s come along, the gospel has endured. When you turn to the Lord, you find wisdom which stands the test of time, hope which doesn’t fade, and love which lasts forever. Life changes, sometimes far more suddenly than you’re prepared for. So place your trust in the one who is always faithful.

Thursday, November 7, 2019

Grounded (Friday Devotional)



“Seek the Lord and His strength, seek His presence continually.”

- 1 Chronicles 16:11

Three days after the baby shower, the balloons were starting to look pretty pitiful.

Let me back up for a second. Last Saturday, Lindsey and I (well, really Lindsey, her mom, and her grandmommy) hosted a shower at our house for her cousin, who’s expecting her first child. The shower was by any measure a big success—everybody had a great time, we didn’t run out of food, and the mom-to-be walked away with plenty of gifts.

The trouble came when we started cleaning everything up, and our son told us he wanted to leave the decorative balloons up. We shrugged and thought, sure, what’s the harm? The next day, when we asked Andrew if he was ready to take them down now, he said he still liked them and wanted them to stay up. Same story the next day. But by Tuesday, the helium had passed its expiration date, and balloons that had once risen to the ceiling now lay limply on the floor.

So when Andrew came out of his room that morning and saw them on the ground, he cocked his head and asked why they weren’t in the air anymore. I explained to him that the balloons had been able to stay up because of something like called helium, and that the balloons were all out of it and would need to go in the trash now. Andrew looked even more confused by my explanation and my solution. His response: “They don’t need to go in the trash. They just need to be filled up again!”

We all feel like grounded balloons at times, brought down to earth by stress, sadness, and sin. Maybe there was once a time when you soared proudly, when it felt like God was with you in everything you did. But now you just feel weak, defeated, and alone, devoid of passion or purpose.

In such times, God assures us that what we need is not to consign ourselves to the trash can, but to seek His strength. When you come to Him continually—not just in crisis, but also in calm—and place your faith in Him, you find a comfort and a peace that cannot be found elsewhere. Life is difficult and has a way of bringing you low, but what Andrew said about the balloons is true in a spiritual sense for people too: you don’t belong in the trash. You just need to be filled up.

Friday, November 1, 2019

October Reading Log



Can't say I did much reading the first two weeks of October (can't imagine why!), but I'm back in the swing of things now. Here's a look at what I read the past month!

1 Article I Like This Month

"Fascinated to Presume: In Defense of Fiction" by Zadie Smith, The New York Review of Books. 25 minutes.

One of the dictums of woke culture is that you cannot speak honestly about the experiences of another person, that only they can tell their story. How does the novelist respond to such dogma? Zadie Smith, one of the world's most prominent novelists, answers in this essay.



TILL ARMAGEDDON: A PERSPECTIVE ON SUFFERING by Billy Graham

I'm on record as saying that Billy Graham, though unquestionably a dynamic preacher and faithful evangelist, left something to be desired as a writer. In reading How to Be Born Again, Angels, and even his autobiography Just As I Am, I found Graham to be stretching his material for the sake of lengthening the book and thought his folksy, oft-imitated preaching style didn't translate well to the written word. However, Till Armageddoon, Graham's book about the problem of pain, is the best of the bunch, a well-constructed and biblical take on suffering that held my attention longer than his other offerings.

Those looking for anything new regarding the subject matter should look elsewhere—the question "why does a good God allow people to suffer?" is one people having been asking since the Fall. The task of anyone tackling this question is not to provide new answers, but to communicate the biblical answers in a persuasive, compelling way. Graham, with his trademark mixture of biblical support, anecdotes, and humor, does this well, with chapters that feel like sermons (which I mean as a compliment, since Graham is probably the most famous preacher of the last century.)

The book's structure is part of its strength, with a progression from the problems of the world to the problems of individuals and ultimately to the hope found in Christ. Unlike Angels, which felt like a grab-bag of topics and lacked what I would consider sufficient biblical support, Till Armageddon always feels on target both in its mission and its foundation.

Preachers and teachers will find a collection of quotes and sermon illustrations worth borrowing, as well as an accessible resource for laypeople struggling with the problem of pain. And for anyone who's ever struggled with God's role in our suffering, going to Billy Graham for answers is certainly not a bad starting place!



THE PEARL by John Steinbeck

When Lindsey, Katherine, and I came home from the hospital, I knew I wanted to get back to reading, but also knew I needed something short and sweet, something I could easily pick up and put down at a moment's notice. In other words, that was not a week to start a giant biography. So I turned to The Pearl, a Steinbeck novella I had intended to read several months ago.

The Pearl is a moving, fable-like story about a Mexican fisherman who finds the Pearl of the World, a treasure of incalculable value, and how that little pearl manages to become a source not of hope, but dread. It's a simple but moving story (perfect for a sermon illustration) about the corrupting power of wealth and where happiness truly comes from.

Steinbeck's writing is beautiful throughout the story, vividly describing the Gulf Coast of Mexico one moment and succinctly describing the thoughts of the protagonist and his wife the next. With scarce dialogue and a simple plot, Steinbeck nevertheless manages to clearly communicate the story's themes without ever spelling them out. The Pearl is a short, tragic parable that can be quickly read but not quickly forgotten.



WE WERE EIGHT YEARS IN POWER: AN AMERICAN TRAGEDY by Ta-Nehisi Coates

Ta-Nehisi Coates is one of the nation's best essayists, if not the best essayist. Over the last decade, his writings on race in America have provoked discussion, debate, and even a Congressional hearing. We Were Eight Years in Power: An American Tragedy collects Coates' best-known writings from 2009-2017, i.e. the Obama presidency, a time that saw the dream of a post-racial America (a dream Coates never entirely bought into) give way to racial division and white supremacy.

As I've written in the past, Coates is a provocative thinker and writer, whose perspective as an African-American makes him decidedly more pessimistic (he'd say realistic) on race than I am. But even as you feel your blood pressure rising midway through one of his essays, you have a hard time arguing with him. When he points out that the glories of American capitalism would have been impossible without the evil of slavery, he's saying something we've tried to ignore for generations, something that is no less true for being inconvenient. When he points out that white America has consistently rejected the best and brightest of black America in their time, Frederick Douglass, Martin Luther King, Jr., Barack Obama—it hurts because you know he's right.

We Were Eight Years in Power is comprised of an essay from each year of the Obama presidency, along with an epilogue leading into the Trump presidency. Prior to each essay, Coates offers an introduction about what prompted him to write the given essay, along with what he thinks about it now (like most writers, his thoughts about his past work are pretty critical.) These insights into both his process and the evolution of his thinking are fascinating glimpses into a brilliant mind, and make the book worth its price tag even if you've already read the articles themselves.

Virtually everyone will find something in Coates' writing to be aggravated by, but if you go in with an open mind, you will also find yourself enlightened and convicted. For those who want to think critically about race in America, We Were Eight Years in Power is not to be missed.



PASTORALIA by George Saunders

George Saunders, whose novel Lincoln in the Bardo might be my favorite book I read this year, made his name writing dark, comic short stories that manage to speak volumes about the human condition without ever becoming preachy. Pastoralia collects six of these stories, featuring an eclectic assortment of characters haunted by their own insecurities.

The longest of these, the eponymous "Pastoralia" is about two cave people in a modern museum, and is remarkable lesson in world building for any writer—picking up details as you go along, you're always intrigued by the world Saunders describes but are never spoonfed unnecessary information about it; the characters always come first. This knack for making the weird accessible is employed again in "Sea Oak," a story about a small, miserable family who sees their dead relative return to life as an angry, bossy, zombie.

But what I appreciate most about Saunders' writing, here and elsewhere, is his ability to make you empathize with his characters, even the ones who aren't necessarily likable. The protagonist of "The Barber's Unhappiness," for example, is a shallow, insecure little man, but when he decides to go through with his date with a girl he'd considered dumping because of her weight, you are rooting for the couple to work out despite misgivings about him. In "The End of FIRPO in the World," the main character is a mean-spirited boy racing his bicycle around his neighborhood, yet instead of holding his grievances against him, you find yourself pitying him. In Saunders' world, there are no perfect people—but that's all the more reason for us to try and understand one another.

The writing is brilliant in these stories, bending grammatical rules in a way that feels loose but never off-the-rails and that helps communicate the story instead of just seeming pretentious. I've become convinced that George Saunders is one of America's best living writers, and Pastoralia did nothing to dissuade me from that opinion.



ESSENTIAL CAPTAIN AMERICA VOL. 5 by Jack Kirby, John Warner, Tony Isabella, et al.

When Jack Kirby, the co-founder of what we now call the Marvel Universe, moved to DC Comics in 1971, it was a paradigm shift in the comics landscape, an event that DC marketed for months with full page ads proclaiming "The King Is Coming." But when that selfsame king returned home in 1976, there was considerably less fanfare. It had become clear to everyone by this time that Kirby was no longer at the peak of his powers, and his age was finally starting to show in his work, where both written and penciled attempts to portray the culture of the 1970s came off as laughably stilted. The Kirby who, alongside his collaborator Stan Lee, breathed life into Thor, the Incredible Hulk, the Fantastic Four, the Black Panther, and many more was gone. But as this Essential volume shows, even Kirby in his twilight was more interesting than a lot of what Marvel had to offer in the Bronze Age of Comics.

The early issues of this volume are a clear example of Marvel throwing work at whomever was willing to take it that month, with a rotating cast of writers and artists putting out subpar work. The stories are bland, the dialogue is trying way too hard (especially attempts to have Falcon talk in jive, which, um, have not aged well), and Frank Robbins' art is some of the most amateurish I've seen from a Marvel comic book.

But then the page turns, and Kirby is in full control of the character he and Joe Simon created in 1941. Writing and drawing every month (something Kirby insisted on by this time, despite being considerably more talented at the latter than the former), these issues are not as high quality as Kirby's Silver Age material. But especially compared with the issues that immediately preceded Kirby's arrival, they crackle with imaginative energy, dynamism, and out-and-out fun.

Kirby's first story is an extended one dealing with the threat of the "Mad Bomb," a weapon of mass manipulation which threatens to turn the United States into a nation of raging psychopaths. This bomb is, naturally for a story written in the bicentennial year of 1976, the creation of a secret society of British royalists intent on reclaiming the U.S. for the aristocratic class. When Cap and Falcon, aided by agents of S.H.I.E.L.D., finally lay siege to the castle where the secret society is headquartered, Kirby makes the battle feels as momentous as it is ludicrous...and if that's not good comics, I don't know what is.

The remaining Kirby stories are shorter and covered in a collection I previously read. In a special bicentennial issue, Cap travels through time to witness some of America's most notable moments. In a two-part story, Cap meets the Night People, Dickensian social rejects living in a dimension terrorized by monsters. And in the finale, Cap and Falcon face off against Agron, a being of pure energy who time travels from the future to occupy a golem-like body and cause chaos.

1970s Kirby stories are Marvel are all zany, unfiltered imagination. Critically speaking, they're kind of a mess, with stilted dialogue, rushed art, and thin plotlines. But they're fun...and at the end of the day, isn't that what comics ought to be about?

Thursday, October 31, 2019

No Need for A Costume (Friday Devotional)


Therefore confess your sins to one another, and pray for one another, so that you may be healed. The prayer of the righteous is powerful and effective.

- James 5:16

Like a lot of people, we spent last night passing out candy to trick-or-treaters, smiling at all the different costumes the kids were wearing. From Avengers to cowboys, Stormtroopers to ladybugs, a steady stream of children came to our front porch hoping that ours would be a house that passed out “good candy” (based on their faces, it was.)

Halloween is a fun night because it gives everybody a chance to dress up for the night, to put on a mask or a cape and pretend to be somebody else. For one night, you’re not a benchwarmer on your flag football team, you’re Iron Man. For one night, you’re not gap-toothed or chubby, you’re Princess Elsa. On Halloween, everybody gets to pretend to be who they wish they were instead of who they actually are.

Unfortunately, many of us think we have to approach church as though every day is Halloween—we put on a mask of cheerful righteousness and show our brothers and sisters in Christ only the person we wish we were. Whether because we’re worried about others’ judgment or because all we see are Christians who seem to have it all together, there’s a reluctance to come through the church doors without some degree of pretending.

Yet Scripture encourages us to lay aside our masks and come to one another honestly in confession and prayer. When you are willing to show fellow believers who you really are—your struggles and your highlights—you can rightfully call them your brothers and sisters in faith instead of just likeminded acquaintances.

Christ established the church knowing that we are capable of far more for the kingdom together than separately—but if we’re going to walk the journey of faith together, we must really do it together, not with performative righteousness but with sincerity. So may we put the costumes away and love one another well, offering one another truth instead of a show.

Friday, October 25, 2019

Changing the Scenery (Friday Devotional)



“But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”

- Acts 1:8

Something I learned about myself early in adulthood—something which continues to be true today—is that I can’t be cooped up in an office all day long. The custodian at our church has already gotten used to finding me doing laps around the building when the weather is nice in the afternoon, just as our ministry assistant has grown accustomed to me doing my sermon writing on Fridays at a nearby coffee shop. And rarely does a day go by that I eat lunch at my desk—whether at home or a restaurant, I’m out of the building midday.

My office is a comfortable place, ideal in many ways for getting work done: my books are there, my laptop charger is already plugged in, and the Wifi is (usually) reliable. But sometimes you just need a change of scenery.

When Jesus gave his final instructions to the disciples before ascending into heaven, he urged them to spread the gospel far and wide. While they were called to first be his witnesses in Jerusalem, they were then to move to the larger community of Judea, then to the hostile territory of Samaria, and ultimately to the very ends of the earth. Jesus did not intend for the gospel to be a localized message reserved exclusively for the disciples’ friends and family—if the kingdom was to flourish, Jesus’s followers would have to go beyond the familiar.

That command extends to us today—for us to be obedient to the commission Jesus has given us, we have to be willing to change the scenery every once in a while. The circle of people to whom we show the love of Christ cannot be so tight that there’s no room for more; our routines cannot be so regimented that we’re unwilling to go places the gospel has not yet reached.

Sharing the gospel is not something reserved for a certain day of the week, a particular building, or a special group of people. So may you be willing to step out of your comfort zone in the name of obediently sharing your faith—in the name of evangelism, may you be willing to change the scenery.

Thursday, October 17, 2019

What Ministry Looks Like (Friday Devotional)



Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit; and there are varieties of services, but the same Lord; and there are varieties of activities, but it is the same God who activates all of them in everyone.

- 1 Corinthians 12:4-6

If you’d dropped by my office sometime this week, there are any number of things you might have found me doing: studying Scripture, talking with a prospective member about faith in Christ, and praying for our church and surrounding community, just to name a few things. Those, after all, are some of the duties of a pastor. That’s what ministry looks like.

If you’d gone just a few blocks down the road to my house, you’d have found my wife engaged in a totally different world of tasks. You might have found her calling to check on me while she changed our daughter’s diaper. You might have seen her reading to our son while our daughter slept, making sure he got some one-on-one time with Mommy. No matter when you dropped by, you’d have seen tired eyes but busy hands, the marks of a person trying to take care of others. Because that’s also what ministry looks like.

I’d hazard a guess that, if you looked hard enough, you’d find acts of ministry happening all over our city—at the dentist and the police station, in cubicles and hospital rooms, on the DART train and the school bus. Wherever the lonely are comforted, the hungry are fed, and the hurting are healed, the Lord is at work. Wherever you see the love of Christ being modeled, you are witnessing ministry.

Sometimes we fall into the trap of thinking ministry is reserved for the professionals, that it takes a seminary degree or the approval of an ordination council to make you fit for “real ministry.” But Scripture is clear that we are all called to proclaim the gospel, to bear witness to the grace of Jesus Christ. So as you go about your daily work, whatever it may be, do so not just with dedication but with holy purpose, ready to live for Christ in everything you do—because that’s what ministry looks like.

Friday, October 11, 2019

Most Valuable (Friday Devotional)



Love bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things.

- 1 Corinthians 13:7

My mornings start the same way every day. At 4:30, my alarm goes off and I stumble into the living room to pour my first cup of coffee. I spend the next hour curled up in a comfortable chair reading, then at 5:30 I lace up my tennis shoes and run 2 miles. By the time I’ve showered and gotten dressed, the rest of my family is awake and I spend some time with them before heading to the office. From beginning to end, it’s a routine that borders on ritual, beloved and unchanging. Whatever else the day brings, it always starts with my routine.

…except this week. And next week. And probably the one after that.

With a newborn baby at home, my morning routine is suddenly a thing of the past. Sometimes that’s because 4:30 is feeding time, and I’m too busy burping Katherine or changing her diaper to read. Sometimes it’s because Katherine woke us up so many times in the night that I’m loath to get up any sooner than I have to. And in the case of one morning this week, it’s because when I try to read, I’m too tired and stressed to focus on what I’m reading.

I’ve missed my routine, no doubt, and I look forward to the day when we’re all on roughly the same sleep schedule. But I realized something the other morning—and when I say morning, I mean 1:30 in the morning—when I was giving Katherine a bottle: even the things we value most pale in comparison to the people we value most.

In 1 Corinthians 13, Scripture’s famous “love chapter,” Paul tells us much of what it means to love—how love is patient and kind, how it keeps no records of wrongs, how it rejoices in the truth. And again and again, Paul makes clear that love is, at its core, unselfish. When you love someone, getting your way is less important than their well-being. When you love someone, your hopes and ideas can give way to theirs. Love, as Scripture says, “bears all things.”

On the cross, Christ showed us the ultimate example of love by giving himself for us, sacrificing his very life for our sakes. Those who would seek to follow him must understand that love is built upon that foundation: not affection or commonalities, but a willingness to sacrifice. For when we love, we are able to see what—and who—is truly valuable.