Wednesday, September 16, 2020

Far From Cancelled (Friday Devotional)

But we have this treasure in clay jars, so that it may be made clear that this extraordinary power belongs to God and does not come from us. We are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not driven to despair; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying in the body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be made visible in our bodies.

- 2 Corinthians 4:7-10

One of the consequences of the COVID-19 pandemic has been the closure or dramatic reconfiguration of a lot of organizations, traditions, and events that once seemed as reliable as the morning sunrise. Holiday extravaganzas were called off. Conventions and annual meetings moved online. Sporting events were postponed or cancelled outright.

The closure that saddened my family the most was announced on July 7, when the State Fair of Texas confirmed that, for the first time since World War II, Fair Park’s gates would not be welcoming thousands of people this fall for food, shows, photos, and fun. Especially for my son, who dressed up as Big Tex for Halloween last year, it was crushing to hear that “the germs” meant there would be no fair this year.

But in the weeks and months after that announcement, something remarkable happened. First, word started getting around that Fletcher’s, in the wake of the fair’s closure, would be hosting a series of pop-up events around the metroplex to make sure that people got their corny dog fix. Then mom-and-pop restaurants here in Garland decided to get in on the fun too, adding to their menus traditional (and not-so-traditional) “fair fare,” from funnel cakes to fried Oreos. Finally, the State Fair itself announced that they would be hosting a series of drive-through events where visitors could get their photo with a masked Big Tex, chow down on a few favorite snacks, and play a game on the midway. While the State Fair as we know and love it remains closed for the year, it was inspiring to see so many people get creative and make adjustments to ensure that, even if the fair is cancelled, fun is not.

Just as institutions like the State Fair have adapted in the last six months, so too has the church. Despite the discomfort, believers worship in masks on Sunday mornings and block off pews. Those who are less than tech-savvy have learned to use Facebook Live so they can participate in Bible study and worship from home. With so many fellowship opportunities off the table for now, church members have reached out to one another by phone and e-mail to check in and offer encouragement. Church has looked different, but it has not been cancelled.

In such tumultuous times, it’s been helpful to remember that this is far from the first time the church has had to navigate a difficult season. In the earliest days of the church, the apostles faced everything from persecution to sickness to internal conflicts. There were surely moments when they wondered if Jesus’s final promise to them—to be with them always, even to the end of the age—was coming up empty.

But in the wake of their difficulties, they grounded themselves in the knowledge that God was refining them in crisis and that their ability to persevere in struggles was serving as a witness to God’s grace and glory. Hard times made them bend but never break, and every obstacle offered an opportunity to show people how the Spirit breathes life into what is lifeless and hope into what seems hopeless.

Six months into this pandemic, with the end not yet in sight, the church continues to endure, just as Christ promised we would in dark days. May we continue to be obedient to the mission God has given us, making adjustments where we must and using the gifts He has given us. For while many things have been cancelled, ministry most certainly continues.

Wednesday, September 9, 2020

Puzzling Faith (Friday Devotional)

 


For my thoughts are not your thoughts, nor are my ways your ways, says the Lord.

- Isaiah 55:8

When I was in college, I developed a routine—every morning I would grab one of the library’s free copies of the New York Times, open up to the crossword puzzle, and work through as much of it as I could. Mondays I always managed to solve the whole puzzle in less than half an hour, Tuesdays I could usually finish in double that time. But by Wednesday, the puzzle had reached a difficulty level I never quite managed to master without cheating, and by Friday I was lucky to get 2 or 3 of the answers unaided.

Maybe you have a favorite puzzle of your own—a word search, Sudoku, Boggle, or some other game to keep your mind moving and provide some amusement in dull moments. There’s something about the human mind that loves solving puzzles, cracking codes, and finding the answers to riddles.

Unfortunately, that inclination can lead us to misunderstand our relationship with God and misinterpret how we know His will for us. For many a well-intentioned Christian, God’s will is something hidden in a labyrinth of Bible verses, something they can uncover if they dig through enough esoteric passages and decode enough prophecies. Instead of seeing the Bible as God’s Word to His people, they see it as a puzzle to be solved.

Doing so betrays a fundamental arrogance, a misguided belief that knowing God fully and having all our questions answered is something which happens through study and cleverness instead of something that will come by God’s grace on the other side of eternity. What we must humbly remember is that God is higher and greater than we are, that as Paul put it in 1 Corinthians 13:12, “for now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face.”

The good news is that, while God is “unsolvable,” he is not unknowable. The Lord has revealed himself in the person of Jesus Christ, who shows us the character, priorities, and power of God. It is by knowing and following Jesus, the Word of God made flesh, that we know God.

When we come to terms with that reality—that we are called to know God relationally rather than understand him intellectually—we find something far greater than the satisfaction of cracking a code: the joy of fellowship. It is then that we truly understand that God is not a puzzle to be solved, but a Lord to be loved.

Thursday, September 3, 2020

Ready to Share (Friday Devotional)


But in your hearts sanctify Christ as Lord. Always be ready to make your defense to anyone who demands from you an accounting for the hope that is in you.

- 1 Peter 3:15

If you were to look in the trunk of my car, most of the things you’d see wouldn’t surprise you: a spare tire, a few tools, a couple of water bottles, and some reusable grocery bags. But those wouldn’t be the things you noticed first, because what takes up nearly a third of the floor space in my trunk is roughly 30 baseball caps.

I decided long ago that my souvenir of choice when visiting a new ballpark would be the hat worn by the home team, and that initial decision burgeoned into collecting the hats of now-defunct teams and minor league franchises as well. So when you see me around town, I’m as likely to be sporting a Brooklyn Dodgers cap as I am the Rangers’ colors (though you’ll never see me wearing the navy and orange of the Astros—that hat remains pristine and unworn in the back corner of the trunk.)

That explains the quantity of caps, but not why I store them all in the trunk together, taking up space I might need someday. The reason is simple: I’m most likely to wear one when I’m out and about running errands. I wanted to make sure I always had the hat I wanted on hand when the time came. I wanted to be prepared.

1 Peter 3:15 calls believers to a more significant kind of preparation, saying we must “always be ready” when someone inquires about the gospel. Rather than seeing evangelism as the exclusive domain of preachers and missionaries, we are told to be prepared to talk about our faith when opportunities arise.

The truth is that people are more likely to go to their friends with spiritual questions than they are to call the local pastor (at least initially.) With that in mind, every believer ought to have their spiritual trunk packed; we all ought to be able to explain the most basic tenants of our faith. Will you be able to answer every question? Probably not, but there’s a big difference between not having exactly what you need and not having anything at all.

So as you make you way through life, be sure you’re as prepared to share your testimony as I am for a sunny day. After all, I’m glad to always have something to put on my head—but far gladder that I know how to share who’s in my heart.

Monday, August 31, 2020

August Reading Log


Lots of reading at the beginning of the month, less so at the end. Here's what my nose was buried in this August!

3 Articles I Like This Month

"How the Pandemic Defeated America" by Ed Yong, The Atlantic. 34 minutes.

A chronological, blow-by-blow account of all the reasons the U.S. has become the epicenter of the COVID-19 pandemic. A sobering look at all the ways our institutions and leaders failed us.

"How to Learn Everything: The MasterClass Diaries" by Irina Dumitrescu, Longreads. 21 minutes.

By now you've likely seen online ads for professionally filmed, slickly produced, celebrity-filmed Master Class series of how-to videos. This article is one writer's account of what she learned, about the series and about herself, by enrolling in 5 of these classes.

"It's Hard to Make Dignity Interesting. Chadwick Boseman Found a Way." by Wesley Morris, The New York Times. 6 minutes.

In the wake of the stunning news of actor Chadwick Boseman's death at age 43, this article briefly and powerfully explains why he connected so deeply with so many.



THE JOURNEY by Billy Graham

Confession: I didn't finish this one. Off the top of my head, this is the 4th Billy Graham book I've read, and likely my last. Billy Graham was a phenomenal preacher, a model servant, and an effective leader, but his writing has consistently left me cold.

The Journey is essentially his tract on struggles in the Christian life, addressing everything from doubt to temptation to grief. The counsel he offers is, as you might expect, both biblical and practical, and easily understandable to the point of sometimes being reductive. Pastors could easily read these chapters and find sermon outlines within them.

But therein lies the problem: the book reads more like a series of sermon outlines than a unified text. Graham's style works well for a sermon, especially given his oratorical prowess, but it bores me to tears when I read it. So after 100+ pages of skimming, I finally admitted defeat and gave up. Anybody who wants my copy is welcome to itI'll stick to listening to Billy Graham sermons; you can read his books.


THE POST-QUARANTINE CHURCH by Thom S. Rainer

*I wrote a brief review of this book for the Baptist Standard. So as to neither plagiarize nor repeat myself, allow me to simply link to that review here.*


AT CANAAN'S EDGE: AMERICA IN THE KING YEARS 1965-1968 by Taylor Branch

This third and final volume in Taylor Branch's trilogy on the Civil Rights Movement deals with the twilight of that movement as it is overcome by the Vietnam War, divisions with the African-American population, and ultimately an assassin's bullet. Beginning with the initial shock but ultimate triumph of Selma, it continues into Martin Luther King Jr.'s shift to anti-war and anti-poverty activism, where the Civil Rights Movement finally became a truly national movement instead of something confined to the South. By the time of King's assassination, which concludes the book and thus the trilogy, it is clear there is still much progress to be made, something which sadly remains true today.

As in the previous two books, Branch tells the story of the movement with an eye for detail and a focus on key figures like King, Lyndon Johnson, Stokely Carmichael, and others. The book is heavily researched and relies extensively on primary sources newly available at the time of its writing, especially FBI recordings made on orders from J. Edgar Hoover. Readers interested in the movement will learn a lot about the events, strategies, and dynamics of various parties.

If I had one disappointment upon finishing the trilogy, it was that Branch didn't do much biographical work on Martin Luther King. I am fascinated by the man, as are many, and in Branch's hands he remained for the most part a cipher, a Great Man instead of one I came to know and understand. Perhaps sometime in the near future I'll pick up a King biography and see what I can learn.


THE STRANGER by Albert Camus

Between Heart of Darkness in May and now this, I seem to be developing a talent for reading the most depressing books possible during the pandemic. What a fun treat.

The Stranger is an existentialist classic, the story of a man who, following the death of his mother, finds himself walking through the world. Instead of the searing grief he might have expected, he goes on a date after her funeral. His encounters with friends and neighbors show him to be numb to a world that is paying him no mind. The turning point of the story comes when he murders a man on the beach, not out of rage or vengeance, but gnawing annoyance. Even as he is tried, found guilty, and sentenced to execution, this protagonist never descends into despair nor ascends into joy, but remains stuck in an all-consuming malaise.

...sounds fun, right? Admittedly, it's not a beach read. Nevertheless, Camus' brisk, concise prose combined with a consistent (if depressing) theme made this the kind of book I appreciated even when I wasn't enjoying it. It's a novel that wastes no time, pulls no punches, and leaves you thinking by the end. Unlike the aforementioned Heart of Darkness, which was laborious to get through, this was a tale that I still would have finished even if it had been twice as long. Great novels tackle big questions through story, and The Stranger does that in spades.


ESSENTIAL X-MEN VOL. 2 by Chris Claremont, John Byrne, Terry Austin, et al.

Here's the short version: this volume contains the single best creative run the X-Men ever had, and one of the best runs in the history of comics.

Now for the longer version. After Essential X-Men Vol. 1 saw Chris Claremont and Dave Cockrum establish the new X-Men team and new artist John Byrne get his feet wet with some introductory stories, things really take off here, culminating in the Dark Phoenix Saga, a story so definitive that it has been adapted to film twice (unfortunately, quite badly.) The story chronicles the corruption, downfall, and redemption of Jean Grey, a founding member of the X-Men who becomes imbued with a power so strong it consumes her. There's a reason filmmakers and animators keep coming back to this well; it's a classic in every sense. Indeed, "Child of Light and Darkness," the saga's penultimate issue, is one of the best single issues I've ever read.

And then, as if that wasn't enough, only a few issues later Claremont and Byrne follow things up with "Days of Future Past," one of the most famous alternate timeline stories ever written (and deservedly so.) In the story, we are introduced to a dark future in which mutants have been all but exterminated by the Sentinels program, which has in turn taken over the American government. Only by altering the present can the X-Men save their future. In just two issues, Claremont and Byrne put on a master class in storytelling and deliver a tale that holds up just as well in 2020 as it did when it debuted 40 years ago.

Chris Claremont would write X-Men comics for 15 years, but this was his peak. John Byrne was arguably the most popular artist of the 1980s, but his work never looked better than these issues. The pair are McCartney and Lennon, brilliant apart but transcendent together. Any fan of superhero comics owes it to themselves to read these issues.


SATCHEL PAIGE: STRIKING OUT JIM CROW by James Sturm and Rich Tommaso

When I bought this in March at my comic shop's shelter-in-place sale, I thought I was purchasing a graphic novel biography of legendary Negro Leagues pitcher Satchel Paige. By the time I finishing reading it, it was clear I was reading something altogether different, a compelling story about life in the Jim Crow South. It wasn't what I signed up for, but I'm glad to have experienced it.

Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow tells the story of Emmet, an Alabama sharecropper who played briefly in the Negro Leagues (including against the legendary Paige) before an injury ended his career. With black-and-white, simple cartooning, artist Rich Tomasso shows the bleakness of Emmet's life on the farm, especially when it comes to his relationship with the white farmers who live nearby. Both small acts of prejudice and more dramatic acts of hatred, including a lynching, haunt the story.

The moment of hope comes in the book's final hope, when the titular Paige and his team barnstorm nearby against a team that includes the white farmers. While no longer the force of nature he once was, Paige remains an icon, and his performance serves as a beacon of pride for Emmet and his friends.

As mentioned,, Satchel Paige: Striking Out Jim Crow isn't really a baseball book, but a work of historical fiction. Its matter-of-fact look at life in the Jim Crow South is as compelling as it is difficult to read, and Paige's presence in the book acts not as a magical solution, but one shining moment in a time of darkness. Whether you give this to your kids or read it yourself, this book is an easy-to-read, well-written story about Jim Crow that will inform and inspire.

Wednesday, August 26, 2020

Washed in the Water (Friday Devotional)

 

I appeal to you therefore, brothers, by the mercies of God, to present your bodies as a living sacrifice, holy and acceptable to God, which is your spiritual worship.

- Romans 12:1

At nearly 11 months old, my daughter Katherine is long past the days of being washed in the kitchen sink and now takes baths in the tub just like her big brother. For the most part she’s a big fan, especially when Andrew is there with her. She’ll splash in the water, pull up on the side of the tub, and do it all with a perpetual smile.

Until, that is, it’s time for me to pour water over her head. When that moment comes, whether I trickle it over or dump a bucket’s worth, her eyes get wide and her smile is replaced by a distraught expression. If I do it more than once, she’ll start frantically looking from side to side for an escape and will sometimes start to cry in fear. Every night I’m reminded that she likes a little water, but she doesn’t like it to cover her completely. 

Many people feel the same way about God—they want the Lord to work in some areas of their life, but they don’t want Him everywhere. They’re happy to learn biblical principles about family but get indignant when Scripture addresses their finances. They want to receive encouragement from their church but reject accountability. Their appetite for God’s Word extends only as far as their preestablished worldview will allow.

But Scripture could not be clearer that followers of Jesus Christ are not meant to pick and choose which areas we want God to change, as though the Bible were a spiritual menu. Rather, we are called to love the Lord with everything we have, to put no other gods before him, and to offer ourselves to him as living sacrifices. The gospel is not something which simply alters a few isolated behaviors—it is something which utterly transforms you.

That kind of change, which John 3 compares to being born again, can be an overwhelming proposition. But the Lord’s promise is that when in faith we turn our lives over to him—not just the things we’re comfortable parting with, but our whole lives—we will know salvation. After all, Jesus did not come to sprinkle living water around the edges of our lives, he came so that we would be drenched in his grace, righteousness, and love.

Thursday, August 20, 2020

A Sign of Things to Come (Friday Devotional)

 

So when they had come together, they asked him, “Lord, is this the time when you will restore the kingdom to Israel?” He replied, “It is not for you to know the times or periods that the Father has set by his own authority. But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit has come upon you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.” When he had said this, as they were watching, he was lifted up, and a cloud took him out of their sight.

- Acts 1:8-9

For days, there’s been a red line spray-painted all the way down my street, preparation for some road work the city will be doing in a few weeks. Soon enough the street will be lined with construction vehicles, orange traffic cones, and debris. The normal quiet of a weekday afternoon will be interrupted by the noise of jackhammers and steamrollers. By the time they’re done, potholes will be filled and rough places will be paved.

But for now, things remain as they are. And while we wait, that red spray-painted line stands as a sign of what is to come.

When Jesus ascended into heaven, he left his followers with two things, a promise and a mission. The promise was that he would return to complete the redemptive work his death and resurrection guaranteed. Soon all the world would see the prophesied Day of the Lord, when God would judge the living and the dead and restore creation to its intended glory. Soon all the world would fully know the eternal life the resurrected Lord embodied.

But in the meantime, things didn’t appear to be so different. The world had forever changed on Easter Sunday, but it wasn’t fully evident. So what Jesus left in the meantime was a mission—that anyone who believed in him should bear witness to the promise, that his disciples should joyfully announce to the world what was coming. The world would need a sign that restoration was on its way, and Jesus called us to be that sign.

To this day, the world is waiting for God to do the long-promised ‘road work’ that will come at Christ’s return. In the meantime, we are called to remain a red line in the road showing people what is coming, bearing witness to his grace and truth. In a world with destructive instincts, we are called to be constructive. In a world that breaks people down, we are called to lift people up. In a world of cruelty, we are called to be agents of redemption. Soon God will make the crooked places straight and the rough places plain—for now may we be an effective sign, pointing in word and deed to that promise.

Thursday, August 13, 2020

Empty-Handed (Friday Devotional)

 


If I speak in the tongues of mortals and of angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give away all my possessions, and if I hand over my body so that I may boast, but do not have love, I gain nothing.

- 1 Corinthians 13:1-3

When I went to the grocery store Tuesday night, I didn’t expect it to be an eventful trip. My list wasn’t especially long, the store was quiet, and nothing in my half hour walking up and down the aisles indicated anything about the night would be particularly memorable.

Then I got to the checkout line, started loading my groceries onto the belt, and reached in my pocket for my wallet. Feeling nothing, I frantically patted my other pockets to no avail. As my face reddened, my memory caught up to the situation. I knew exactly where my wallet was: my sock drawer at home. All I could do was sheepishly explain my mistake to the cashier, apologize profusely, and go home empty-handed—I had $75 worth of groceries on the belt, but I didn’t have what I needed to pay for them.

In 1 Corinthians 13, Paul warns against making the same kind of spiritual mistake—accumulating a spiritual abundance but lacking the one thing you need most. Writing to a church that had become fixated on the strange gift of speaking in tongues, he cautions that “if I speak in the tongues of mortals and angels, but do not have love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal.” He goes on to say that the most powerful prophet, the wisest scholar, the most faithful believer, and the most sacrificial giver gain nothing if their gifts are unaccompanied by love.

It’s a reminder that we still need today. Too often we appreciate eloquent preachers but overlook faithful parents; we recognize generous givers but ignore tireless teachers; we thank decision makers but look past the humble servants who implement those decisions. Yet if we will look to the cross of Christ, we will see that sacrificial love is far more powerful than anything else we have to offer.

You can go through life doing good works, saying the right things, and setting a positive example—you can fill your spiritual shopping cart until it’s about to overflow. But take it from me, there’s one thing you need to make the rest of it worthwhile. I pray you know where to find it.