The Disturbing Dr. King

I celebrate this Dr. King day by choosing to challenge and disturb you. 

Seeds planted in the spring, flourish in the fall. This is true whether the crop is wheat or tares. Events do not occur in a vacuum. Nor does history begin on the day we were born. Ascending Kings and elected Presidents are both capable of benevolence and tyranny. Philosophers, poets, pastors, and politicians have contributed to the current climate. We did not wake up here this morning. The winds of adversity harnessed to accelerate change in one generation, may only return to destroy that progress in the next. For every step forward, there are two steps back. 

Mark Twain wrote of how all of culture conspired to reinforce the evils of slavery, “In my schoolboy days I had no aversion to slavery. I was not aware that there was anything wrong about it. No one arraigned it in my hearing; the local papers said nothing against it; the local pulpit taught us that God approved it, that it was a holy thing, and that the doubter need only look in the Bible if he wished to settle his mind — and then the texts were read aloud to us to make the matter sure; if the slaves themselves had an aversion to slavery they were wise and said nothing.” What grieves me the most is Twain’s observation, “the local pulpit taught us God approved it.” Sadly, too many pulpits and podiums are once again excusing these sad and ignorant notions that empowered the philosophies that endorsed slavery and segregation. Presidential podiums, Pastoral pulpits, and Philosophical pontifications have conspired to inspire the current crop of white nationalism that seems to be in season once again. 

Consider the influential philosopher Georg Wilhelm Friedrich Hegel writing in his The Philosophy of History, “At this point we leave Africa, not to mention it again. For it is no historical part of the World; it has no movement or development to exhibit. Historical movements in it –that is in its northern part –belong to the Asiatic or European World…What we properly understand by Africa, is the Unhistorical, Undeveloped Spirit, still involved in the conditions of mere nature, and which had to be presented here only as on the threshold of the World’s History.” Further consider the influential philosopher Immanuel Kant who wrote, “The Negroes of Africa have by nature no feeling that rises above the ridiculous. Mr. Hume challenges anyone to adduce a single example where a Negro has demonstrated talents, and asserts that among the hundreds of thousands of blacks who have been transported elsewhere from their countries, although many of them have been set free, nevertheless not a single one has ever been found who has accomplished something great in art or science or shown any other praiseworthy quality, while among the whites there are always those who rise up from the lowest rabble and through extraordinary gifts earn respect in the world. So, essential is the difference between these two human kinds, and it seems to be just as great with regard to the capacities of mind as it is with respect to color…” 

These philosophical musings shouldn’t be excused as simply “Well it was a different time.” They are to be condemned, as should the bad fruit the poisoned soil continues to produce. Understandings produce thinking. These philosophical understandings produced a society where enslaving others was morally acceptable. And these philosophical understandings enable the thinking that allows for calling countries inhabited by brown and black people “Sh**holes” while welcoming people from countries inhabited by majority white populations. This content is inexcusable, no matter the context. 

The “least racist” person would not make such remarks, nor would they feel the need to declare themselves “The least racist person.” Racist aren’t wearing pointed hoods and white robes, like white supremacist of the past, but they are amplifying a voice buried in the soil of Western Civilization. The truth is that we are responsible for things as they are, our ancestors bought and sold humans to sustain an economic system that benefited us. This is true even if our white ancestors were not wealthy. Poor whites also served as willing pawns to a systemic inequality that bolstered their status. We have much for which we should repent. 

We can’t change the past, but we may reflect upon it honestly instead of romantically. We should tell the truth about our past, and serve today to influence the present and work to change the future. As we reflect and celebrate the life of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., may a prophet of his stature rise once again to challenge the current culture. We are in desperate need of prophetic voices to challenge the current vestiges of power. 

Just as Dr. King wrote of the apathetic state of the church of his day from his cell in a Birmingham, Alabama jail, we should echo his voice today. “There was a time when the church was very powerful–in the time when the early Christians rejoiced at being deemed worthy to suffer for what they believed. In those days, the church was not merely a thermometer that recorded the ideas and principles of popular opinion; it was a thermostat that transformed the mores of society. Whenever the early Christians entered a town, the people in power became disturbed and immediately sought to convict the Christians for being “disturbers of the peace” and “outside agitators.”‘ But the Christians pressed on, in the conviction that they were “a colony of heaven,” called to obey God rather than man. Small in number, they were big in commitment. They were too God-intoxicated to be “astronomically intimidated.” By their effort and example, they brought an end to such ancient evils as infanticide and gladiatorial contests. Things are different now. So often the contemporary church is a weak, ineffectual voice with an uncertain sound. So often it is an arch defender of the status quo. Far from being disturbed by the presence of the church, the power structure of the average community is consoled by the church’s silent–and often even vocal–sanction of things as they are.”

To ask Dr. King’s question again, “Where do you stand in this moment of challenge and controversy?”

Where do we stand?

“In a world where one’s ability to consume and the objects acquired determine one’s worth, there can be no respect for the poor.” bell hooks makes this assertion in her book Where we stand: Class Matters. The issue of respect for the poor is central to her argument that “Today, poverty is both gendered and racialized. It is impossible to truly understand class in the United States today without understanding the politics of race and gender.”

Understanding has always been central to respect. And perhaps one of the reasons why there is so little respect for the poor in this country, is due to a general lack of understanding. The United States has traditionally been thought of as a nation without class, due to the American metanarrative of rugged individualism, exceptionalism, and poverty to penthouse trajectories. Yet a close examination of the lives of individuals and collectives will reveal what the United States promises for all is actually produced for few. As Americans we value exceptional people, we value those who excel in talent and treasure, so we tend to focus our collective attention on the exceptions rather than the rules. The economic rules in American society have been crafted and are enforced in a way that hinders rather than helps a majority of American citizens transcend their class.

One of the major rules of capitalism as it is manifested in the U.S. is that of consumerism, or the idea that people exist merely as a means of buying and selling goods. This consumer mindset reduces humanity to a system of exchange wherein entertainment and advertising empires are empowered to separate people from their money, enslaving them in debt for material objects they do not need and may not want, until the seed of want is planted in them, and then cultivated and harvested by profiting media and material plantations.  The harvest is always greater than the seed, and today American continues to reap an ever widening gap between the rich and poor.

Consider bell hook’s assertion that this idea of class is further complicated by issues of race and gender. The media which serves the profit plantation owners’ purposes continue to promote messages of what is expected of minorities and women in our society. Women are taught how to behave, what to think, and what to wear in relation to men, and to each other. Specifically targeting men ages 18 to 34, and because we tend to emulate the images we most often see, the media not only creates the need but answers that need with a host of material goods with the promise that those who buy these products will ultimately satisfy their desires to be healthy, wealthy, sexy and wise. In this system women become both the purveyors and products, serving the prurient interest of mass populations. Minorities fare no better. The media serves as both mirrors and missionaries of specific ideological stereotypes that are crafted to teach minority groups what to buy and how to behave. For example black young men would be convinced that the only two options for success in our society are by way of entertainment or sports, if the media were the only tutors, and for many, sadly, this is the case. 

A popular tool of marketing has long been the story that is crafted around a certain product to make it the aspiration of consumers, for instance it is common to find many movies and cartoons centered on characters that started as toys. These stories exist for reason: to sell the toy. For adults the marketing and media campaigns may become more sophisticated, but the purpose is still the same, sell the toy. This is especially tragic when these messages informed by economic systems structured in ways to keep people, genders and ethnicities, in their place become a part of the endless cycle of perpetuated poverty. As bell hooks observes, “Fantasizing about a life of affluence stymies many poor people. Underprivileged folks often imagine that the acquisition of a material object will change the quality of their lives. And when it does not, they despair.” 

Idolatry it seems is not an archaic notion. Modern idols are no longer the relics of ancient religion, but rather the creations of modern media priests who intercede on behalf of corporations to enslave the masses. These idols make all the same promises of ancient religions, wealth, love, security, happiness, and like those ancient idols they fail to deliver on these promises. Forcing people to continue searching for the satisfaction they desire at the altar of yet another manufactured and mass produced idol. Theologian John Calvin has written that “The human heart is an idol factory”, bell hooks is a modern prophet testifying to this truth. And until we understand this truth, respect for the poor, respect for one another, and respect for ourselves will continue to be eroded by the elements of corporate and consumer avarice.

When Jesus goes to the party

Can you imagine what it would be like to attend a party where Jesus was an invited guest? If you saw him from across the room would you think that He would be someone you would enjoy having a conversation with? It is amazing to think about, what is even more amazing is that Jesus did attend parties, in fact it was at a party that He chose to begin his ministry. Who begins their ministry at a party?  Think about it, if you or I were to launch a national ministry with the goal of changing the world is a party the most effective forum? Why not a church or synagogue or mosque, venues where people are actually thinking about religion, or why not a college or university where the ideas and philosophies of the day are debated and discussed, or perhaps the halls of congress, the White House, or Supreme Court, or other government institutions, where the direction of countries are forged. But a party is exactly where Jesus chose to launch his ministry, but then again this was a King who was born in a barn, so it is at least consistent with the way Jesus conducts His business. 

Consider further that this was a party where no one, with the exception of His mother and disciples, really knew who Jesus was; to the majority attending the party, He was just another guest, another face in the crowd. Jesus would have remained anonymous had it not been for a party planning disaster. The wine ran dry. As anyone with any party going experience knows a party with out wine is just another meeting. In the midst of this crisis Jesus is confronted by his mother, which must have been slightly awkward. Imagine; you’re there with your disciples, you are getting ready to launch your national ministry, you are God, and your mother starts in on you about something that isn’t even your problem, and before you can even respond she turns to the waiters and says do whatever He tells you. Well at this point, you’ve got to come up with something, you are the Messiah after all, and what kind of Messiah would you be if you couldn’t provide wine for a wedding celebration.

So Jesus gives some instructions, “Fill the jars up with water”, now this must have been an unusual request to the ears of the wait staff. Jars and water is not the stuff of the spectacular. In fact they are two of the most common, ordinary items ever. Where was Jesus’ sense of showmanship? After all He is about to launch a national ministry, His disciples are watching, this is a great opportunity to impress them with raining down wine from heaven with just the wiggling of his pinky toe, but Jesus choose to use jars and water. As unusual as it must have been, the servants did as Jesus asked and filled jars with water, and then they poured it out and took it to the master of ceremonies, and low and behold, out of the ordinary jars and water, Jesus provided the best wine served at the banquet. This is how the Messiah, the God of the universe chose to launch his ministry, with ordinary clay and water. The way that Jesus chooses to continue his ministry is not so different than how it started, He still chooses to work through the transformation of ordinary clay and water. The Apostle Paul said it like this, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things are past away and behold all thing are become new.”

Jesus is still transforming the ordinary clay and water of humanity. It is the stuff of humanity to seek the spectacular, always looking for the best, brightest, and biggest; apparently it is the stuff of divinity to seek the ordinary. Throughout His ministry Jesus did extraordinary things in very ordinary fashion. He once healed a blind guy by spitting on the ground and mixing the water of his spittle and the clay of ground together, rubbing it on this man’s eyes, and then after washing it out the man could see for the first time in his life. Jesus once waited for his friend to die and remain dead for days, so he could then raise him from the dead by simply calling his name, He told a lame guy to get off his bed and walk, a sick woman once touched the border of his clothes immediately being healed, and a boy’s lunch once provided food for five thousand. In general Jesus did very ordinary things like speaking, touching, praying, He never found it necessary to hang around for his picture to be taken and He often told those he healed or delivered not to tell any one. Not exactly the stuff of televangelism. Jesus did the extraordinary in a very ordinary way.

Even when He died, He breathed his last, and three days later just got up. Now granted there was an earthquake, some angelic visitors and other supernatural phenomena. But basically, He just got up, and reveled Himself not to his critics or executioners but to those closest to Him, and in the first instance to women, whose testimony would not even be admitted in a court of law in their culture. Ordinary meets extraordinary; when Jesus got up from death it forever changed the world. And in much the same way as the governor of the wedding feast declared in John 2, “Everyone brings out the choice wine first and then the cheaper wine after the guest have had too much to drink; but you have saved the best till now.” Jesus declared that a new and better covenant was launched with the advent of His death, burial and resurrection. The point made by the master of the banquet is that the intoxicated are in no position to appreciate the quality of the products served them; the drunk doesn’t really care if he is drinking best value wine in a purple box with a smiling grape on the front of it or the finest vintage chardonnay. Amazingly, the finest wine came from ordinary water pots. It seems the finest still comes from the ordinary. The sun rises and sets every day, a baby breaths its first breath, a weary soul breaths their last, these ordinary extraordinary events transpire every day.

Every day Jesus continues to transform me from the inside out. You, and me are like ordinary water pots stacked against a forgotten wall of humanity are chosen to produce the sweet wine of the extraordinary. “But we have this treasure in jars of clay, to show the surpassing power belongs to God and not to us.” this is how the ancient Apostle describes us in 2 Corinthians 4:7, notice that the reason we contain such a great treasure in ordinary jars is to demonstrate the power of God and not of ourselves. Everything that Jesus does in us serves to glorify His name, the transformation serves to bring attention to Christ and his power to change lives. 

A trip to your local grocer will serve to illustrate this point, the grocery store has “name brand” and “off brand” items. The off brand items are often marketed under names like best value or always save or my personal favorite best choice, because after all anything else would be an inferior choice when you realize that the items in the white or yellow cans, contain the same green beans as in the cans with the oversized green guy who stole Santa’s catch phrase. Unfortunately, too often I’m a brand whore, buying the green guy’s green beans or something allegedly grown in a hidden valley to impress my friends and neighbors, like they care what kind of green beans I have in my cabinet, but it’s important that I portray something that I’m not, right? At least that is what television has taught me. What we often spend our money on is the feeling we receive buying the can of vegetables we’ve seen advertised on television, where the product is portrayed to make men successful, children obedient, and women sexy, young and beautiful. If you think that I’m exaggerating a bit, pay close attention to the commercials during your favorite television program. Advertising executives are counting on the cognitive dissonance, or that part of our depravity that tends to measure our wellbeing and success against the wellbeing and success of others, popularly referred to as “keeping up with the Jones.”  

There is something within us that seeks to turn what God desires into something of our own creation, where we endeavor to change the inside by what we do on the outside. We think the deficiency created by sin can be corrected with a make over. The problem is that we are endeavoring to make over what God says must be started over; this is why the language employed by Jesus and the Apostles are terms such as “New Birth” and “Born Again”. Christianity was radical in this respect, religion sought to transform the inside by the discipline of the outside, as far as this aspect of religion goes, the popular religion of the Jesus’ day had this covered. On one occasion the religious leaders challenged Jesus because his disciples did not wash their hands. “Then Pharisees and scribes came to Jesus from Jerusalem and said, why do your disciples break tradition of the elders? For they do not wash their hands when they eat. He answered them, and why do you break the commandment of God for the sake of your tradition?” (Matthew 15:1-3 ESV) Jesus then challenged their tradition of circumventing the commandment of God by making a donation to the religious institution of the day. In essence they had provided a loophole where a financial contribution could cover their transgression. (See Matthew 15:4-6) Jesus drives His point home by quoting the Old Testament prophet Isaiah, “This people honors me with their lips, but their heart is far from me; in vain do they worship me teaching as doctrines the commandments of men.” (Matthew 15:8-9; Isaiah 29:13). 

Throughout his ministry Jesus challenged this whole idea that the outside some how served as the means to justifying the inside, He sums up his thoughts in Matthew 15:10, “Hear and understand, it is not what goes into the mouth that defiles a person, but what comes out of the mouth; this defiles a person.” Jesus went on to explain that the problem with humanity is a heart problem, it is a defect in our soul, the stain of sin that can’t be washed away, “…But what comes out of the mouth proceeds from the heart, and this defiles a person. For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false witness, slander. These are what defile a person. But to eat with unwashed hands does not defile anyone.” (Matthew 15:18-20 ESV) God spoke truthfully of our heart through the prophet Jeremiah, “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately sick; who can understand it? I the Lord search the heart and test the mind, to give every man according to his ways, according to the fruit of his deeds.” 

Jesus served the best wine from the ordinary water pots but some how my depravity turns that into decorative wine bottles full of curdled milk. Jesus once again confronted the religious leaders of his day with this problem, “Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites! For you are like whitewashed tombs, which outwardly appear beautiful, but within are full of dead people’s bones and all uncleanness. So you outwardly appear righteous to others, but within you are full of hypocrisy and lawlessness.” (Matthew 23:27-28 ESV) The bottom line is that there is nothing you and I can do to transform or change who we are, because we are in a disadvantaged position from the get go, everything that we do, even our attempts at self-improvement are steeped in depravity. As Dr. Michael Horton points out in his book, Putting Amazing back into Grace,  “We have distorted and disfigured God’s creation. We would have an excuse, perhaps, if we could say that there was a lack or a defect in our nature; yet the problem is not our humanness but in what we have done with our humanness. We have directed all of our gifts, our religious, moral, creative, and intellectual abilities, toward a declaration of independence from God. We have used the very assets with which he endowed us as weapons against him. Clothed in his very image, we have shaken our fists at God, and said with Adam and Eve, ‘How dare you!’” 

Only Jesus can transform the human heart, only Christ can take what is dark and depraved and make it new and full of light once again. Jesus began his ministry at a marriage party and the Bible tells us that the ministry of Christ will be concluded at a marriage party, but this time he is bridegroom.

The book of Revelation tells us that at some point in the future Jesus will be united with his bride the church, “Then I heard what seemed to be the voice of a great multitude, like the roar of many waters and like the sound of mighty peals of thunder, crying out, “Hallelujah! For the Lord our God the Almighty reigns. Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory, for the marriage of the Lamb has come, and his Bride has made herself ready; it was granted her to clothe herself with fine linen, bright and pure”-for the fine linen is the righteous deeds of the saints. And the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb.” And he said to me, “These are the true words of God.” (Revelation 19:6-9 ESV) “For these men are not drunk as ye suppose…but this is what was uttered through the prophet Joel: And in the last days it shall be, God declares, that I will pour out my Spirit on all flesh, and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall dream dreams; even on my male servants and female servants in those days I will pour out my Spirit…” (Acts 2:15-18 ESV)

What is wrong with the world?

It is widely reported that G.K. Chesterton once replied to an inquiry of The Times of London, as to what is wrong with the world, with the simple response “I am”. Chesterton understood that contrary to popular opinion, the ills of the world find their origin, not in the culture, or in the government, or even in the mores of the day, but in the darkness of the human heart. So as we survey the current cultural and philosophical landscapes it is important to remember the problem is not out there, the problem is in here, the confines of my heart and yours.

As God spoke through the prophet so long ago in Jeremiah 17:9-10 “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately wicked: who can know it? I the Lord search the heart, I try the reins, even to give every man according to his ways, and according to the fruit of his doings.” This reality is what makes the ideas of religion so dangerous. In fact, religion may be the single greatest obstacle to a genuine relationship with God, because it is often the tenants of religion that falsely convince people that they are in a right standing with God, when they are not.

Jesus understood this and communicated to his friends in Matthew 15:11 “Not that which goes into the mouth defiles a man: but that which comes out of the mouth, this defiles a man.” And in verse 19 and 20, He explains, “For out of the heart proceed evil thoughts, murders, adulteries, fornications, thefts, false witness, blasphemies: These are the things which defile a man…” Jesus was responding to the religious culture of His day, which featured a variety of religious sects, from the theologically liberal and conservative, and every stripe in between. These religious people took comfort in their labels that defined their belief system and identity through various interpretations of Scripture. Among these groups were the Pharisees, who provided Jesus with numerous opportunities to challenge the religious status quo of the day. 

Challenging this system was such a priority of Christ, that He bracketed His ministry by cleansing the temple, the very symbol that united the diverse Jewish sects. Jesus literally threatened the religious hierarchy by going to the heart of their power and livelihood. An event so dramatic, that it gained the attention of religious elite, including a leading Pharisee, who risked his ministry by meeting with Jesus, of course under the cover of darkness. The response of Christ is recorded in the Gospel of John chapter three verse three, “Jesus answered and said unto him, verily, verily, I say unto you, Except a man be born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.” These words of Jesus were an immediate challenge to this religious leader, even with all of his years of study and observance of the Scripture; it was the contention of Christ that Nicodemus could not even see the Kingdom of God. 

The metaphor employed by Christ to describe initiation into the Kingdom was not lost on Nicodemus. He picked up on the analogy and challenged it in verse four, “How can a man be born when he is old? Can he enter the second time into his mother’s womb and be born?” Nicodemus was expressing his personal dilemma at the prospect of abandoning his religion in which he had been trained and had faithfully observed throughout his life. Nicodemus was secure in his religious label, a label Christ continued to challenge in verse five: “Except a man be born again of water and of the Spirit he cannot enter into the kingdom of God.”  When Jesus spoke these words, the text that both He and Nicodemus may have immediately thought of is found in Ezekiel 36:25-27, where the Lord promises to cleanse Israel and give them a new heart and spirit, by placing His Spirit within them. 

The point Jesus was pressing on Nicodemus was that it was not his religious label that would save him, but it is only through the divine intervention of God, with the insertion of a new heart, that he could be saved. Just as Nicodemus, we often allow our religious labels to define us. We take comfort in the distinctiveness of denominational labels such as Pentecostal, Baptist, Apostolic, Catholic and numerous others, labels which find no basis in the New Testament but rather in historical divides which serve to pigeonhole their parishioners to the point of spiritual stagnation. 

A careful examination of the New Testament reveals only two labels applied to the followers of Christ. “The Way” by which early disciples referred to themselves, and “Christians” a description with which the culture began to recognize them. Both demonstrated a distinctive life style embraced by the early church that ran counter to the culture in which they lived, a life style that placed faith beyond the failings of the religious systems of the day, in a Savior, the only one who has the power to change the human heart. An experience that  liberates us to live beyond labels, and become what God intends for us to be, His people called by His name. 

Don't assume the gospel

“The gospel is not everything, yet in the final analysis it cannot be tamed into a single simple formula with a number of points that must be recited to everyone, in every time and place. There is an irreducible complexity to the gospel…The gospel is clear and present word, but it is not a simplistic word.” -Tim Keller in Center Church: Doing balanced, gospel-centered ministry. 

“…the gospel is often assumed, meaning that people often think that they have heard the message before and as a result they quickly tune out.”

I love to proclaim the gospel of Christ. But what I am discovering is that often when I communicate the gospel, for many they miss the impact of the message, because the gospel is often assumed, meaning that people often think that they have heard the message before and as a result they quickly tune out. And although they may have heard the message before, they miss the impact of the gospel. The gospel has very real implication for our lives. Because many misunderstand the gospel or are mistaken about the definition of the gospel, they end up emphasizing the wrong actions thinking they are living out the gospel. For some this becomes lived out with an undue emphasis on actions instead of attitudes. The argument goes something like this: “I am going to dress a certain way or refrain from certain actions, or embrace a particular dress style or worship style” and by doing so, “I am drawing closer to God as a result.” These actions communicate either intentionally or unintentionally that (a) “there is something that I can do to move myself closer to God” and (b) “when others do not do as I do they are less of a Christian than I am.”

“It seems that many, after being liberated from the bondage of sin, return to the bondage of condemnation, feeling as if God is demanding of them perfection…”

It seems that many, after being liberated from the bondage of sin, return to the bondage of condemnation, feeling as if God is demanding of them perfection, or at the very least actions that convey a sense of separation from the general population. When in fact, a genuine gospel encounter does not call us to escape the world but to transform the world by embracing the cross of Christ.

Consider the thoughts of author Vinoth Ramachandra “So our salvation lies not in an escape from this world but in a transformation of this world…You will not find hope for the world in any other religious systems or philosophies of humankind. The biblical vision is unique…no faith hold out a promise of eternal salvation for the world the way the cross and the resurrection of Jesus do.”

When we are impacted with the gospel it transforms our hearts so then we can transform the world. This is will not be accomplished by retreating from the world but by serving the world with the gospel. The gospel is the good news that God has accomplished our salvation for us through Christ in order to bring us into a right relationship with Him and eventually to destroy all the results of sin in the world.

“When we are impacted with the gospel it transforms our hearts so then we can transform the world.”

As Keller observes, “Believing in Christ does not mean that we are forgiven for our past, get a new start on life, and must simply try harder to live better than we did in the past. If this is your mindset, you are still putting your faith in yourself. You are your own Savior. You are looking to your moral efforts and abilities to make yourself right with God. But this will never work. No one lives a perfect life. Even your best deeds are tainted by selfish and impure motives. The gospel is that when we believe in Christ, there is now “no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus” (Romans 8:1). Putting our faith in Christ is not about trying harder; it means transferring our trust away from ourselves and resting in Him.”

Well said! May we all find that place to rest in the “irreducible complexity” that is the gospel of grace in Christ Jesus.

Books I've read in 2019.

“Give yourself unto reading. The man who never reads will never be read; he who never quotes will never be quoted. He who will not use the thoughts of other men’s brains, proves that he has no brains of his own. You need to read.” -C.H. Spurgeon

It was a landmark year for my personal reading. These are among the notable books I’ve read in 2019. I commend these books for your consideration in the coming year. 

I look forward to reading more in 2020 and increasing the diversity of the types of books and authors I read. Any suggestions? 

“Ragman and Other Cries of Faith” by Walter Wangerin, Jr. 

“Liturgy of the ordinary” by Trish Harrison Warren 

“The Sin of Certainty” by Peter Enns

“Educated” by Tara Westover 

“On the Road with Saint Augustine” by James K.A. Smith 

“The Uncomfortable Confessions of a Preacher’s Kid” by Ronna Russell 

“The Myth of Equality” by Ken Wytsma

“Searching for Sunday” by Rachel Held Evans 

“Jaber Crow” by Wendell Berry 

“Blood Meridian” by Cormac McCarthy 

“God forgive us for being women: Rhetoric, Theology, and the Pentecostal Tradition” by Joy E.A. Qualls 

“The 100x Leader: How to become someone worth following” by Jeremie Kubicek and Steve Cockram 

“Never Split the Difference: Negotiating as if your life depended on it” by Chris Voss, Michael Kramer et al. 

“Unstoppable Teams: The four essential actions of high-performance leadership” by Alden Mills 

“Beating Guns: Hope for people who are weary of violence” by Shane Claiborne and Michael Martin 

“Selfies: Searching for the image of God in a digital age” by Craig Detweiler 

“Trinitarian Theology: Theological Models and Doctrinal Application” Edited by Keith S. Whitfield 

“The Book of Exodus: A biography” by Joel S. Baden 

“Jesus Freak: 33 1/3” by Will Stockton and D. Gilson 

“Talking to Strangers” by Malcolm Gladwell 

“Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America” by Michael O. Emerson and Christian Smith 


I’m working on engaging others with more empathy. I understand that often my personality may be off-putting. I’m an INTJ according to the Meyers-Briggs Personality profile. I often appear aloof and “all up” in my head. I read a lot. I’m going to encourage you to read too, preferably the books I’m reading. But if you want me to read something, please convince me to do so.

I have to work at small talk, but will gladly discuss any subject of depth or that I find curious and/or interesting. I find willful ignorance annoying. I notice lots of things others generally do not, this means that I see opportunities and tend to recognize problems before they are problems. But sometimes I’m late to the issue because I’m still working through my own thoughts and feelings. I try to focus on solutions and not just problems. And I’m always hopeful. But I’m not always optimistic. 

So work with me as I work on becoming more vulnerable. I want to be a better human, seeing others as the worthy “end” in and of themselves and not just as a “means” to accomplish my goals. I’m a preacher. A teacher. A life long learner. Join me on this journey, but understand it will require patience. I never randomly post anything. I want you to think. Sometimes I’m doing this because I’m still working out what I believe, and I need your help. Sometimes I do this because I embrace what I post as absolute truth and I will always defend truth wherever I find it. I’ve discovered that my head is exactly the right size for lions’ mouths. And I’ve learned to sleep among them. It comes with the territory.

I will not always reveal my motives or purposes in what I say or write. Discernment will be required of you. Have fun. And it’s ok if you don’t get it right. Sometimes I’m not sure either. I have a preference for people and thoughts outside of what you think is normal. What everyone now refers to as normal was once a radical notion. Respond. Question. But always speak to others as you would like others to speak with you. I am not responsible for people who post words on my page that do not follow that axiom. Those are their words, not mine. Know the difference. 

I will not use this medium to simply record the trivial. Hang in there with me my friends. God wired me this way. I’m just celebrating His gifts. I’m grateful you are along for the ride.

Don't misunderstand me.

Have you ever been misunderstood? Often the words that issue from our mouths are not the words heard by our listeners. I recall speaking with a student who was working to finish a research paper. I asked her in my Northeastern Arkansas vernacular, “How much do you ‘like’ to be done?” She responded, “I haven’t finished yet, but I’ll be happy when I do!” I repeated, “But how much do you ‘like to finish?” We stared at each other for a few seconds, not realizing we were using different meanings of the word like. She mistakenly thought that I was asking whether she enjoyed being done with her paper, but I was actually trying to ask how many pages she lacked to complete it. Although we shared the same language, we did not share understanding. 

This phenomenon is present in conversations around the world, and it can be dangerous when it affects our gospel communication. Thankfully we can all recommit to the principles of God’s Word and of clear communication in our efforts to fully recover the impact of gospel communication.

As we seek to be clear presenters of the gospel, the words of the Apostle Paul in 1 Corinthians 2:1–5 are a great guiding resource: “And I, when I came to you, brothers, did not come proclaiming to you the testimony of God with lofty speech or wisdom. For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified. And I was with you in weakness and in fear and much trembling, and my speech and my message were not in plausible words of wisdom, but in demonstration of the Spirit and power, so that your faith might not rest in the wisdom of men but in the power of God.” This passage reveals Paul’s intent that there is only one message that can transform human hearts: the message of the cross of Christ. 

The normative pattern for Paul and the other apostles in the New Testament was a consistent presentation of the gospel of Christ. Christ’s life, death, and resurrection were the hallmarks of the church’s message. This must define our communication as Christians today. But although the message of Paul and the apostles did not change, it is clear that they crafted their messages intentionally to reach specific audiences.

For example, Paul approached the gospel in different ways in Thessalonica and then at Mars Hill. Acts 17:1–3 reads, “They came to Thessalonica, where there was a synagogue of the Jews…On three Sabbath days he reasoned with them from the Scripturesexplaining and proving that it was necessary for the Christ to suffer and to rise from the dead” (emphasis mine). In the synagogue, Paul started with the scriptures, but later in Acts 17, Paul spoke to a very different audience in Athens. He started not with the scriptures but with their cultural artifacts: “He saw that the city was full of idols…So Paul standing in the midst of the Areopagus, said: ‘Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, “To the unknown god.” What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you’” (Acts 17:16, 22–23, emphasis mine). Paul then proclaimed Christ to them. The starting point for both groups was very different, but the destination was the same: the gospel of Christ. 

Like Paul, we must be intentional in our efforts to persuade others of the truth claims of Christ and scripture, not simply relying on the skills of rhetoric but having those skills sharpened and transformed by the Holy Spirit. 

In his book Christ-Centered Preaching: Redeeming the Expository Sermon, Bryan Chapell points out, “Craft cannot make a message powerful if one’s heart and character do not validate its truths.” Certainly preaching is a craft of persuasion, as the Apostle Paul points out in 2 Corinthians 5:11: “Therefore, knowing the fear of the Lord, we persuade others. But what we are is known to God, and I hope it is known also to your conscience.” But so is our everyday calling to the effective communication of gospel truths. As echoed by the voice of the wise man in Proverbs 16:23, “The heart of the wise makes his speech judicious and adds persuasiveness to his lips.” Preaching from the pulpit is a strategic act of persuasion, but all of our speech should be used for the propagation of the gospel. The difference between the goals of gospel communication and persuasion alone is this: persuasion by itself centers on behavior modification, but the point of gospel communication is regeneration, or the changing of a person’s heart—something that only God can do through His Word. 

This is something Paul points out clearly in his opening admonition to the Thessalonians: “For we know, brothers loved by God, that he has chosen you, because our gospel came to you not only in word, but also in power and in the Holy Spirit and with full conviction” (1 Thes 1: 4–5). Whether spoken from the pulpit or in the marketplace, then, the pervasive lack of clarity of our age demands that our gospel communications be CLEAR:

Centered in Christ, the gospel, and the text of scripture: If these elements aren’t at the center of what we communicate, then we run the risk of relegating Christianity to just another self-help mantra. We must communicate Christ and his Good News from every text of scripture, because not to do so reduces the Holy Word of God to a mere collection of inspirational principles rather than what it is—a book of transformational power. 

Intentional in Language: Jesus gives this warning in Matthew 12:36–37: “I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give an account for every careless word they speak, for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.” How often do we throw about careless clichés long devoid of meaning in an effort to communicate the timeless truth of the gospel of Christ? Using such vague clichés can be lazy: “If God brings you to it, he’ll bring you through it.” “Where God closes a door, he opens a window.” While these may be true, we’ve heard them so often they lack resonance. The greatest message ever shared with humanity is worthy of our best efforts to communicate that message. Choose words that will effectively and powerfully demonstrate the simplicity of Christ. 

Empathetic in expression: As effective gospel communicators, we must craft our message to meet the perceived needs and deep concerns of those in our audiences. Whether our audience consists of one or one hundred, our fallen world has resulted in broken people in need of a Savior. We must see and feel the brokenness in every aspect of our communities and relationships, leveraging the Good News to restore what has been broken.

Action-oriented: The gospel of Christ demands a response from all those who hear it. As communicators of the gospel, it is our responsibility to ask for that response. It is not enough to share news and leave the hearers without a path to apply the gospel to every area of their lives. When crafting effective gospel communication, remember to always include an appropriate action to guide your listeners in their response. 

Reflective in nature: Effective gospel messages challenge both the speaker and the listener to reflect on their own lives and areas where the gospel of Christ has yet to fully penetrate. Reflection is a gift of the gospel, calling us to more fully surrender every part of ourselves to Christ. We have been entrusted as heralds of the king of Kings to declare his message. This is both a privilege and responsibility that calls upon us to speak with Holy Spirit–inspired clarity to an ever-increasingly ambiguous world. 

The Spirit of God charges us to communicate the gospel deliberately, productively, and substantively. May we rise to the challenge given to us in Ephesians 4:29: “Let no corrupting talk come out of your mouths, but only such as is good for building up, as fits the occasion, that it may give grace to those who hear.” 

Delta Memories: "A good father and a Good Lord Indeed."

Memories are curious things. They are living, breathing, entities that are sometimes factual and sometimes not. People and events, past, present, and future may often occupy the same space simultaneously in memories. What I remember compared with what you remember may be different or similar. And what we remember may be different or similar to what actually happened. Memory is often unreliable. But at times it is all we may possess, given the absence of any written history. As the privilege of written history is most often reserved for royalty, and not for hillbillies and Delta dwellers like us. 

Sitting with my 92-year-old father at Christmas, I took the opportunity to ask him a series of questions. My mother called it an interview, which is certainly one way to describe it, I thought of it more as an attempt at a conversation. An effort to probe his memories about instances that, at least to me, remain a mystery. I hoped to learn things that I did not know about my Dad. Things that did not occupy my memory of him, but rather his memory of himself. I got lots of facts, several names I did not recognize, a few that I did. Instances and events that he recalled, and near the end a rehearsal of his recollections of World War II and the events leading up to the conflict along with the implications of that and other geopolitical brouhahas. A couple of the stories were funny, stories that I had never heard, involving my Dad and his brothers. 

For instance, on one occasion my Dad and his brothers convinced some neighboring boys to smoke cigarettes of rolled cow manure, a commodity that was always in abundance in our locale. “It was so funny” Dad recalled. “Those Pate boys were always wanting a cigarette, so we gave ‘em one.” At this point Dad spoke in more hushed tones as if he didn’t want everyone to hear what he was about to disclose; “They couldn’t keep those cigarettes lit, so we gave them ‘em some of the manure filling and told ‘em it was good as chew. We made ‘em eat hot shit! Ha, Ha!!” At this point my Dad is laughing mischievously as if reliving the moment. Profanity is extremely rare for my Dad, so as if for a moment we have transcended the father and son relationship and are now old buddies discussing some frat boy shenanigans. In that moment we are equals.

He tells me a few stories of his uncle, who had our last name as his first, but reveals a nick name I didn’t know about, “Pork chop, had walked off the county farm and the law came to pick him up!” My great uncle Loyd was a career ne’er-do-well, who actually shot and killed a man in a drunken brawl. My Dad recalls this incident. A day I also remember from my childhood. I was playing outside, when my Aunt Jenny came running from her home. “Loyd done shot a man!” she exclaimed. She ran inside to use the phone to call the police. I watched the lights and the figures of policemen run about at the end of our gravel road. Uncle Loyd went to jail for manslaughter. I remember when he went away, and I remember the day he came back. 

My Dad then fast forwards to the end of Uncle Loyd’s life, again a day that involved me, many years removed from the infamous murder. By this time, I was an adult. It was a hot summer day, a Saturday, and Dad and I had been working all day to clean up the property around Loyd’s trailer. It occurred to me later in the day that we had not seen Loyd at all, unusual for him, especially considering we were busy around his home. Dad asked me to go in to check on him, I did so reluctantly. Calling out his name as I moved stealthily towards the bathroom, where I saw him, or at least his backside fallen over into his bathtub. I left and told Dad what I had discovered, Dad went inside and confirmed that Uncle Loyd was dead. He was buried with the $3000.00 he was apparently counting when he died. I preached his funeral, I didn’t mention the murder from years before or his consistent drunkenness. Instead I talked about how Uncle Loyd liked to give out candy, loved hunting and fishing, and liked to glue shiny trinkets to rocks. His house trailer was full of them when he died. I held one up and showed one to the small collection of friends and family that had gather to remember him. I concluded with prayer. 

I asked Dad a specific question about another death in the family. “Do you remember the day your dad died?” Dad responded,“Yes, I was about six years old, he died after getting his tooth pulled.” “Who told you he died?” I asked. Dad thought for a moment, then said, “No one, I just knew.” This sounds unfathomable to me. How does a six-year-old just know their dad is dead? I probed for details, there were few that came. My grandfather Jessie Lee Loyd, had a tooth pulled, blood poisoning set in and he died days later, leaving my grandmother, still a young woman, to raise five children on her own. I did learn that the dentist paid an unknown amount of money to my grandmother for some time to come as recompense for her husband’s death. I heard about the selling and purchasing of property, the clearing of land, evacuation during the Mississippi river flood of 1937, and other moments hidden away in the memories of my Daddy. “How is it that you got along, Dad? Who told you what to do or how to do it?” I asked. After a moment of reflection, my Dad responded, “I guess the good Lord taught me, I don’t know?” A Good Lord indeed. 

But what was seemed to be absent in these memories were an excess of feelings. My Dad has never been an emotional person. I can recall him crying once. When he was sixty-six, following a heart attack, he requested that I baptize him. When my Dad came out of the water he cried. Absent that event in my mind, I can’t recall any other moments. I sure he has shown emotions, perhaps to others, but this is the only time that I could remember. Even when my father was angry, there were few moments that I can remember him ever lifting his voice. If quiet is an emotion, my Dad mastered it, or at the very least mastered the art of repressing those feelings. But of late, Dad seems to relish in the feelings of laughter and joy, peppered with frustration that the world no longer so quickly and easily submits to his desires. 

And during this conversation there was lots of joy and laughter, and Dad is anything but quiet these days. Perhaps the longer we live, the more we seek to share with others? We all want to remember and be remembered. This conversation and others I enjoyed on Christmas Day are now committed to my memories. Memories that I will continue to share with future generations. A good moment, good memories with a good father, and a Good Lord indeed. 

Hypocrites and carnival mirrors

One of the often-repeated criticisms of Christianity is that its adherents do not abide by the tenets of Christ. In fact, from those outside the faith, many use the word “hypocrite” as a synonym for Christ-followers. This is not entirely without merit and due largely to a misrepresentation of primal Christianity by Christians. The portrait painted by modern manifestations of Christianity is one of moral perfection and holiness that communicates a superior and arrogant standing in society. Many who come into contact with Christians walk away with a sense that we think ourselves better than most other people.

This may not be true for some, but this is the perception that most often clouds the reality of our faith. The problem, I think, is not with the perception of those outside of the Christian faith, but with those of us on the inside of the faith, and our misperception of the truth which we profess to believe. We hold ourselves up as portraits of truth when we would be better served to live as windows through which the truth of Christ may be seen.

In his book Dangerous Calling, Paul David Tripp identifies the reason for the self-deception found so often at the center of our misrepresentation of authentic faith to a watching world. Tripp writes, “Rather than humbly standing before the honest assessment of the mirror of the Bible to see myself as I really was, I looked into carnival mirrors. Now, the problem with the carnival mirror is that it really does show you you, but with distortion. You don’t actually have a 20-inch-high neck with a 6-inch torso; yes, it’s you in that concave mirror, but it’s not showing you the way you actually look.”

As Christians who are still in process, we often default back to the idolatry of our depraved hearts and set up, as Paul Tripp rightly describes, carnival mirrors that show a distorted view of our identity. As Christians, our identity is in Christ and His performance, and not in our performance. Tripp goes on to write, “This danger greets you every day because there are carnival mirrors all around that have the power to give you a distorted view of you. And when you think you’ve arrived, when you quit being convicted of and broken by your own weakness, failures, and sin, you will begin to make bad personal and ministry choices.” This issue of thinking ourselves “arrived” is at the heart of our inauthentic living that often discourages a world of unbelievers from investigating the truth claims of Christians. 

The origin of the word “arrived” is an interesting one. It was first used to only describe someone who gets to his or her destination by way of boat or ship. It described coming to the land. Of course, the word now describes travel to a destination by any form of transportation. Perhaps too many of us live in a way that communicates wrongly that “our ship has come in” when in fact we are still navigating the dangerous waters of life. We are still very much in need of the Gospel. The good news of Jesus doesn’t give us a distorted view of ourselves, but a realistic assessment that in Christ, all of our brokenness is being put back together in Him.

If we are to challenge the misrepresentations and misunderstandings of Jesus and His followers in our world today, we must commit ourselves to living lives of purpose in the middle of our imperfections, pointing everyone to the perfection of Christ alone.