Thursday, April 15, 2021

Spotlighting the Humble (Friday Devotional)

 

Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.

- Matthew 5:5

One of the rites of passage for children moving into the youth group at our church is getting to become a helper at the annual Summer Musical Activity for Kids, or S.M.A.K. As a child in S.M.A.K., you spend a week learning a Bible-based musical, working hard to memorize your speaking part or nail your solo. But as a teenager, you get your first look behind the curtain, working alongside the adults to teach the kids, make the props, and still enjoy all the fun S.M.A.K. has to offer.

For several summers, the job I was entrusted with as a teenager on S.M.A.K. week was running the spotlight during rehearsals and at the performance. The church’s spotlight was a heavy, bulky instrument (this was long before the days of digitally operated lighting), and it was my job to hold it as steadily as I could, shining it on the stars of the show during their speaking parts and solos.

But one rehearsal, my hand slipped for a moment and the spotlight’s beam dropped down instantly. No longer was it aimed at the main characters onstage—now it was shining right on the volunteers on the front row, who had been sitting in the anonymity of darkness. Previously hidden, these workers were now in the spotlight.

During Jesus’s ministry, he made it a habit of putting the figurative spotlight—not by accident, but by intention—on those accustomed to life in the shadows. Whether it was by welcoming children, working alongside women, conversing with Samaritans, or touching lepers, Jesus had a way of bringing the marginalized out of the darkness and into the light. By contrast, his harshest words were for the religious leaders of his day, those used to attention and respect. Jesus moved the spotlight off those accustomed to it and pointed it toward those who’d never felt its glow.

In our own day, we know who the spotlight typically shines upon: the popular, the wealthy, and the talented are all used to its glow, as are the attractive, the provocative, and the exciting. Even in the church, we know the spotlight has a way of finding those who fit the world’s criteria of worthiness.

But Jesus’s words and his ministry remind us that his followers have a responsibility not to cater to the strong, but to lift up the weak. Servants of the crucified Savior ought to know better than anyone that in God’s kingdom it is humility, not worldly glory, that exalts you before God. With that understanding, believers ought to not only remember but spotlight those in the shadows.

In a world where attention tends to rest on the ‘worthy,’ we can offer hope to the ‘unworthy,’ bringing them out of the shadows and extolling their value before God and his people. We can proclaim the truth that in God’s kingdom the meek are called blessed and will receive glory and honor. We can follow Jesus’s lead and look with respect and love to those unaccustomed to either—because in God’s eyes, the stars aren’t the only ones who get spotlighted.

Friday, April 9, 2021

Right Before Your Eyes (Friday Devotional)

 


Then their eyes were opened, and they recognized him; and he vanished from their sight.

- Luke 24:31

“If it were a snake, it would have bit me!”

That’s a phrase I’ve uttered many times after finding something I was looking for, from car keys to sunglasses. I’d scan the room, shuffle papers around, start retracing my steps, and then, voila—the hidden treasure would wind up being so close it was hard to believe I’d ever missed it. I’d been looking everywhere except right in front my face.

That must have been how many of Jesus’s followers felt on Resurrection Sunday when, with them desperate for hope, the Lord began appearing to them. Some, mostly a group of women from Galilee, had remained faithful to the end and were mourning his death together. Others, like the Twelve, had fled and gone into hiding, fearing retribution from the religious leaders who’d opposed Jesus. Still others were swapping stories and rumors about what had happened on that Friday and what it all meant. What they all had in common was that, in the wake of Jesus’s crucifixion and death, they were looking for some reason to hope.

How remarkable then that, one by one, they failed to recognize Jesus when he appeared to them. Mary Magdalene mistook him for the gardener. Two men on the road to Emmaus walked by his side for miles and even shared a meal with him before realizing who he was. And when Jesus appeared to Peter, John, and other disciples by the Sea of Galilee, it was not until he helped them bring in a miraculous catch of fish that they realized who they were dealing with. The resurrected body of Jesus, freed from the ravages of suffering and death, was unfamiliar to them at first. Hope was right in front of their faces, and somehow they didn’t recognize it.

We make the same mistake today, looking all over the place for signs from God when he’s already right there with us. We assume that the Lord will announce himself with fire and trumpets and miracles, and thus we miss him when he speaks to us in a still, small voice. Eyes blinded by fear and doubt, we see a gardener where the King of Kings stands.

The Lord continues to work today, sometimes miraculously and dramatically, but often subtly and quietly. May we have eyes to see so that we don’t miss him when he’s right in front of our faces.

Friday, April 2, 2021

Good Friday or Bad Friday? (Friday Devotional)

 


All these things my hand has made, and so all these things came to be, declares the Lord. But this is the one to whom I will look: he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word.

- Isaiah 66:2

I never know quite what I’m supposed to be feeling on Good Friday.

On the one hand, it’s a day of sorrow. It’s on this day that we remember how fallen humanity killed the Son of God, how Jesus suffered, bled, and died for us. We shudder as we’re forced to reckon with our own sinfulness. We remember the agony our Savior endured, the weight he took upon himself, and the price he paid. We weep at the knowledge that Jesus died for us.

But on the other hand, we give thanks today, because by the wounds of Jesus we have been healed. Because of his sacrifice, our salvation was won; because of his death, we are given eternal life. Even on the darkest day in human history, God remained sovereign, and Jesus’s death proved to be the ultimate expression of the Father’s love.

It seems a mistake to spend the day in despair when you know that the cross is the fulfillment of God’s perfect plan, but it also seems too triumphalist to rejoice as though our salvation came without cost. Neither tears nor smiles seem to meet the moment.

Perhaps then the proper response to the cross is something that doesn’t always come naturally: awe. Rather than trying to make sense of the will of God, you can simply marvel at it. Rather than trying to respond, you can pray. Rather than trying to say or do or feel the right thing, you can rest in God.

It is a day of sadness and salvation, death and victory, brokenness and goodness. You may not know how to worship. That’s ok. What matters far more is who you worship.

Thursday, April 1, 2021

March Reading Log

     

March was actually a very disciplined, enjoyable reading month for me—I was reading from 4:30 to 7:00 5 days a week with very few exceptions, and I liked most of what I read. Take a look!

3 Articles I Like This Month

"King of the Canine Canon" by Christian Wallace, Texas Monthly. 30 minutes.

A delightful profile of John R. Erickson, whose Hank the Cowdog series of books was a bedtime favorite in my family and countless others.

"How the Public-Health Messaging Backfired" by Zeynep Tufecki, The Atlantic. 26 minutes.

For more than a year now, there have been two extreme approaches to the pandemic. The first, heavily influenced by former President Trump, thought the pandemic could be ignored and belligerently recoiled at intrusive societal sacrifices like mask wearing, social distancing, and shelter-in-place orders. The latter response, which began largely a backlash to the former, essentially said you need to stay home as much as humanly possible. As we now begin to approach the end of the pandemic (though we're not there yet!), the question should be asked: was there a better way? Was there room for nuance in our public health messaging? And as we march toward herd immunity, can we find some room between the extremes of ignorance and terror where common sense gets space to shine?

"Longing for a Shot at the Majors, but Sitting Out the Sabbath" by David Waldstein, The New York Times. 7 minutes.

Elie Kligman is an up-and-coming high school baseball star with dreams of playing in the major leagues. However, he is also an observant Jew, and refuses to play on Shabbas (sundown Friday to sundown Saturday.) Baseball meets religion...this fascinating story was made for me!

Reading Through the Fantastic Four- #21-45, Annuals 2 and 3

These issues of the legendary Lee-Kirby run sees the writer-artist team getting in a groove, the FF's identity solidifying, and several major characters (especially Doctor Doom) being fleshed out.

If the first twenty issues did a lot of world building, these see Lee and Kirby building on the foundation they had laid. The most notable example of this comes in the classic Annual #2, when they give a full-length origin story for Doctor Doom that never features the titular FF. The next annual is one of Marvel's most famous issues ever, in which virtually the entire Marvel Universe as it existed at that time shows up for the wedding of Reed and Sue Richards.

By and large, the stories are contained to one issue, and many feature guest stars (indeed, it was a marketing strategy for Lee to have new characters guest star in what was then Marvel's most popular book in the hopes of increasing the sales of the guest stars' books). Favorite villains (Doctor Doom, Mole Man, Puppet Master, Super Skrull) return and a few new baddies show up (the Frightful Four).

Jack Kirby's art improves over the course of these 27 issues, as his style moves from its look in the 1940s and 1950s to the cleaner look of the 1960s. Unfortunately, those improved pencils are marred by a series of bad matches on inking. Not until Joe Sinnott is paired with him in issue #44 do Kirby's pencils really start to shine (Sinnott is, FWIW, my all-time favorite FF inker and would remain on the book until even after Kirby's departure.)

I enjoyed these issues well enough, but it seems clear that Lee and Kirby had lots of irons in the fire as they were building the Marvel Universe from scratch; the FF in these issues seem to be less the focus than the Marvel Universe at large (a critique, ironically, that is made even today about both Marvel's comics and its movies.) I'm really looking forward to next month's batch of issues, which for my money are some of the best FF stories of all time.

INTERPRETING SCRIPTURE: ESSAYS ON THE BIBLE AND HERMENEUTICS by N.T. Wright

Regular readers of this monthly log know that N.T. Wright is one of my favorite theologians, something earned not only by the depth of his insights but also by his skill at turning a phrase. So when he released a three-volume collection of his essays and lectures (one dealing with his writings on Scripture, one on Jesus, and one on Paul), I eagerly borrowed my dad's copy of volume 1 and got started.

That was three months ago. And I'm only just getting around to finishing today. No promises I'll get around to volumes 2 and 3.

Unfortunately, most of these essays come out of an academic context, and while Wright at his worst is still a better writer than many academicians, the fact remains that the writing here is, in many spots, dry to the point of dusty. Scholars writing for scholars tend to get pretty verbose and pretty granular, and Wright is no exception here.

The second sin of the essays is another which is common to academic writing: the topics are so specific that one wonders if anyone could possibly care other than the author. This is certainly not true of every essay, but there were definitely a few clunkers which I read for the sake of completeness but was utterly uninterested by. For example, more than one of the essays were forwards for books by other scholars in which Wright spent more pages praising his colleague than talking about the book's subject—while I've spent enough times on the outskirts of academia to know that's part of the ballgame, it makes for tedious reading.

My final issue with the book is more my fault than Wright's, but is worth mentioning (it is, after all, my reading log): Wright's not saying anything here he hasn't said elsewhere. For any familiar with the "new perspective" he has spent his life championing—in which the work of both Jesus and Paul is inextricably tied to their identities as Jews—there's a lot of same-old, same-old in these essays. I've read literally thousands of pages written by Wright, so as I said, this criticism is probably more about me than the essays. But still, if I'm going to read 300 pages of essays, I'd like to learn something new along the way.

Is this a bad book? Absolutely not. N.T. Wright is a font of biblical insight, and even his weaker books are enriching. But is this, as I'd hoped, an accessible summary of his thoughts on the Bible? Not so much.


A BURNING IN MY BONES: THE AUTHORIZED BIOGRAPHY OF EUGENE H. PETERSON by Winn Collier

*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.*

THE BLOODY CROWN OF CONAN by Robert E. Howard

My journey through the original Conan the Barbarian stories continued this month with this volume, which collects the three longest Conan stories Robert E. Howard wrote. Instead of short stories, these are at least novellas (in fact, "The Hour of the Dragon" is long enough to be considered a full-blown novel), which offers better pacing and more room for characterization. While the third and final volume (which I'll read next month) sees Howard return to the short story format, I liked these longer tales.

"The People of the Black Circle," one of the most popular Conan stories, is unique in its setting: Vendhya, Howard's Hyborian Age version of India. The story's Eastern setting gives it a different feel than your typical Conan story, even if the content is pretty rote. When the Vendhyan queen tries to coerce Conan into killing her sorcerous enemies, he instead kidnaps her. However, when her enemies try to attack her, Conan gets swept up in the intrigue. Ultimately the two fall in love (or at least attraction) only to be separated by her queenly duty when her enemies are defeated and the time comes for her to return to the throne.

"The Hour of the Dragon" was my favorite of the three stories, though it was not particularly original. Reading as almost a greatest hits collection of Conan motifs, it begins with the resurrection of an ancient and malevolent sorcerer who seeks to conquer King Conan's land of Aquilonia. Only by retrieving the Heart of Ahriman, a magical gem, can Conan hope to defeat the sorcerer. The story sees Conan acting as a king, a barbarian, and a pirate at various points, and if it doesn't always flow seamlessly, it's a rolicking good time.

"A Witch Shall Be Born" is the shortest and weakest of the three stories. In the story, a queen is replaced her twin sister, a witch, and Conan winds up leading the rebellion against the new queen. While the story has its moments—most notably when Conan manages to somehow escape his own crucifixion—it's not one I'd be likely to reread.

Conan's original adventures come to an end next month as I tackle The Conquering Sword of Conan


TOM SAWYER ABROAD by Mark Twains

TOM SAWYER, DETECTIVE by Mark Twain

In 1894, plagued by money troubles, Mark Twain returned to the well of his most popular characters, writing two new novella-length adventures featuring Tom Sawyer and Huckleberry Finn. The stories had several things in common: both were homages to popular genre novels of the time, both traded realism for fantasy, and both have been largely forgotten by history. And now, both have been read by yours truly.

Tom Sawyer, Abroad borrows heavily from two things: Twain's own travels (which he chronicled in The Innocents Abroad) and from Jules Verne's Around the World in Eighty Days. In the story, Tom, Huck, and Jim (the latter two showing little of the character development from Adventures of Huckleberry Finn) sail to the Middle East in futuristic hot air balloon, where they encounter everything from packs of lions to Bedouin bandits to the pyramids of Egypt. If you're thinking, "that doesn't sound like a Tom Sawyer book"....yeah. You'd be right about that.

Tom Sawyer, Detective stays in the American South, this time so that Tom and Huck can play Sherlock and Watson by solving a murder mystery. While slightly more grounded than Tom Sawyer, Abroad, it's also less interesting, and a more blatant ripoff of popular novels of its day.

In modern terminology, these books are cash grabs, pure and simple. But with Twain at the wheel, even unimaginative pablum isn't bad reading. If you're looking for a fitting sequel to the classic Adventures of Huckleberry Finn, you're better off pretending these don't exist. But if you just like the characters and don't mind turning your brain off, these aren't the worst way you could spend a few hours.

ESSENTIAL DEFENDERS VOL. 6 by J.M. DeMatteis, Don Perlin, et al.

My journey with America's favorite non-team continued this month as Doctor Strange, Hellcat, Daimon Hellstrom, Valkyrie, Gargoyle, and others continued battling the forces of evil and gelling as a group. As was often the case with The Defenders, these issues are classics, but they're fun enough.

What sets these issues apart is how much time is spent on individual character arcs, particularly those of Hellcat and Daimon Hellstrom. Multiple issues leave the rest of the team out in the cold as fan favorites make the book their solo act. I'd like to say that's because the characters are just so beloved or so interesting that they demand more attention, but the reality is that writer J.M. DeMatteis was running out of ideas (as he would later admit) and found it easier to write solo arcs than keep the non-team together.

That creative burnout is what leads to the radical change in the last issue of this volume, in which original Defenders Doctor Strange, Namor the Sub-Mariner, Silver Surfer, and the Hulk are told by an alien prophecy that the team as constituted must break up or else doom Earth to total devastation. In the wake up the non-team disbanding, longtime X-Man and Avenger Beast convinces his buddies Angel and Iceman to join him, Valkyrie, Gargoyle, and ex-Avenger Moondragon in a more formal arrangement than the famously ragtag Defenders ever had. Equipped with a headquarters, charter, and stable roster, the New Defenders would last another 27 issues (and one more Essential volume) before the title was finally cancelled.

As I forecasted last volume, Essential Defenders Vol. 6 sees the title in its twilight, deprived of the goofy fun that made it a cult hit in the 1970s. It's not bad, but nothing I'll revisit. On to volume 7 next month, and then my time with the Defenders draws to a close.

Friday, March 26, 2021

Up Close (Friday Devotional)

 

Therefore, we are ambassadors for Christ, God making his appeal through us. We implore you on behalf of Christ, be reconciled to God.

- 2 Corinthians 5:20

A few days ago, Lindsey and I were talking to our son Andrew about prayer. We explained to him, with Matthew 6:5-8 as our guide, that he doesn’t need to learn big, important words to pray. Prayer, we explained, is just talking and listening to God. And we know God wants us to talk to him, Lindsey said, because Jesus tells us God is our daddy in heaven.

Andrew nodded in understanding. “And this,” he said, snuggling up next to me, “is my daddy up close.”

I think that’s a helpful way of describing what Paul is getting at when he describes believers as being “ambassadors for Christ” through whom God makes his “appeal” to the world. While salvation comes from God alone, it is through his children that it is proclaimed to the world. While Jesus is the vine, his disciples are the branches. We are called, in Andrew’s language, to be Jesus “up close” for people.

The Holy Spirit compels and empowers us to do just that, to be Jesus’s hands and feet in this world so that people can experience the love of God in a personal, powerful, and visible way. While people need to hear about the love of the Lord, they also need to see it—and it is the responsibility of believers to give them something to see. So may your life bear witness to the grace of God in Jesus Christ—in you, may people see Jesus up close.

Friday, March 19, 2021

Sin's Stench (Friday Devotional)

 

Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart.

- 2 Timothy 2:22

Judging only by sight, the skunk is a beautiful animal. Roughly the size of a cat, it’s neither big enough to be intimidating nor so small that you miss its features. Its badger-like face always seems to give it an air of mischief. Its jet-black fur juxtaposes brilliantly against the white stripes which run along its back. And its fluffy tail provides just a hint of vanity to complete the picture.

But of course, when you think about skunks, you don’t think about their looks. That’s because skunks’ most notable feature is not their white stripes or their dark eyes—it’s the noxious spray they release when threatened, an odor so overpowering that it can be smelled more than three miles downwind and can linger for up to three weeks if not dealt with immediately. That spray is so powerful and so memorable that even those who have never experienced it up close know to take it seriously.

So when I spotted a skunk from across the street a few days ago, I didn’t approach it to take a closer look, nor did I try to defend myself from its potential threat by throwing a rock at it. Instead, I did the only sensible thing in that situation: I stayed on the path where I was running and I picked up the pace. I got away as fast as I could.

When the Bible describes temptation, it does so in a way that’s similar to how you might describe a skunk. Sin often appears attractive on the outside; it beckons you over to get a closer look. But when you get too close, it has a way of overpowering you. Sin is far more dangerous than it appears at first glance.

So Scripture calls believers to do exactly what I did the other day when I saw that skunk: stay on the narrow way and run. Instead of changing course in the name of curiosity or conflict, pursue what is good and holy. Keep your eyes fixed on Jesus and continue moving toward him, fleeing from the temptations that are trying to draw you away.

This world is full of temptations, and their allure is powerful, but so too is their threat. So guided by the Spirit, may you be wary of sin’s power and directed by the Lord’s.

Friday, March 12, 2021

Fighting Fire with Fire (Friday Devotional)

 

If your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads. Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

- Romans 12:20-21

Imagine arriving home to find your house ablaze. Your family and pets are fine, but the fire is raging too fiercely to run inside and grab any valuables. All you can do is call 911 and wait for the fire department to arrive.

Now imagine that they show up, sirens blaring and lights flashing, and set to work. You’re no firefighter, so you can’t be sure, but something seems…off. Instead of working together to pull out a massive hose, they emerge one by one with silver instruments that resemble paintball guns. Instead of these tools being hooked up to a giant water tank, each of them is connected to a backpack containing who-knows-what.

In a matter of seconds, your confusion gives way to horror when the captain gives the order. They’re not holding hoses—they’re holding flamethrowers. Facing a burning house, they’re trying to fight the fire with flames of their own.

As that hypothetical illustrates, fighting fire with fire is absurd. Yet for many—including believers—it is too often the first approach taken when conflict arises. Anger is met with anger, name calling is met with name calling, manipulation is met with manipulation. Hurt by someone, the most instinctual and unimaginative reaction is to hurt them back.

Yet the gospel—as preached by Jesus, exemplified on the cross, and taught by the apostles—calls believers to respond differently. God calls His children to meet hurt with healing, contempt with kindness, and malice with magnanimity, to love even our enemies and pray even for those who persecute us. His will is not that we fight fire with fire, but that we overcome evil with good.

Make no mistake, doing so is hard work. Being a peacemaker in an age of outrage means pursuing righteousness when every fiber of your being wants to reach for self-righteousness. But if we want to see God’s redemptive power at work in our world, we have to be willing to bear witness to it ourselves. So in a world ablaze with conflicts, may God’s people remember that we are born of water and the Spirit, and may we meet grievances with grace.