A Perpetual Factory of Idols

The Protestant Reformer John Calvin once observed, “Man’s nature, so to speak, is a perpetual factory of idols.” Calvin’s observation underscores our human propensity to worship. And while most of us in a Christian context are likely to associate worship with something we do at church, worship defies these arbitrary and cultural boundaries, and at its essence is much more indictive of who we are. Our very identity reflects our worship. Identity encompasses our being, our essence, our activities.

In Western cultures there is a temptation to elevate merely one aspect of our activities, such as intellectual acumen, athletic ability, sexual orientation, social status, work or leisure pursuits, to the defining characteristic or our identity. We live by the philosophy that what we do defines who we are. But biblically speaking our activities are a product of our identity, what we do follows who we are. When we get these reversed, the default disposition of our desires to pursue idols, sets us up for disappointment and disillusionment.

Echoing this sentiment, Pastor Timothy Keller quotes the novelist David Foster Wallace, “Everybody worships. The only choice we get is what we worship. And the compelling reason for maybe choosing some sort of god or spiritual-type thing to worship…is that pretty much anything else you worship will eat you alive. If you worship money and things, if they are where you tap real meaning in life, then you will never have enough, never feel you have enough…Worship your body and beauty and sexual allure and you will always feel ugly. And when time and age start showing, you will die a million deaths before they finally grieve you…Worship power, you will end up feeling weak and afraid, and you will need ever more power over others to numb you to your own fear. Worship your intellect, being seen as smart, you will end up feeling stupid, a fraud, always on the verge of being found out. But the insidious thing about these forms of worship is…they’re unconscious. They are default settings.”

Pastor Keller goes on to point out that these false idols may be bad things, but most often they are simply “good things elevated to god things.” Under this definition, even something as wonderful and practical as a liberal arts education may be worshiped as a false god. Knowledge becoming a pursuit of worship and identity, rather than a means of serving others and glorifying the one true living God.

A disturbing example of this occurs regularly in the modern appropriating of classical literature to reinforce the sinful attitudes and actions of misogyny and white supremacy. As Donna Zuckerberg points out in her book Not All Dead White Men: Classics and Misogyny in the Digital Age, “Knowledge of the Classics is used in these narratives to reinforce existing hierarchies. The potential for upward social mobility through classical education is not truly democratic or revolutionary; it merely continues the trend of excluding those who are not knowledgeable about Greece and Rome.” She goes on to detail the numerous examples of white men who are “particularly attracted to the ancient world because they see in it a reflection of their own reactionary gender politics…namely, that all women, over all historical periods, share the same negative characteristics.” These sinful appropriations of knowledge lead to furthering evil applications that aren’t rooted in the worship of the one true God. A commandment that Jesus points out as the “greatest commandment” with the second to “Love your neighbor as yourself. There is no commandment greater than these.” (Mark 12:29-31) Yet even a cursory survey of history reveals that knowledge is often appropriated by those in power to further marginalize and ostracize those who are deemed outsiders. This perspective sees knowledge as a sacrifice to be given on the altar of satisfying and further perpetuating the false god of power and hierarchy.

This has led to even the church abandoning its call to challenge the systems of the world at critical times throughout our history. As Michael Emerson and Christian Smith point out in Divided by Faith: Evangelical Religion and the Problem of Race in America, The Church “…despite having the subcultural tools to call for radical changes in in race relations, they most consistently call for changes in persons that leave dominant social structures, institutions, and culture intact. This avoidance of boat-rocking unwittingly leads to granting power to larger economic and social forces. It also means that evangelicals’ views to a considerable extent conform to the socioeconomic conditions of their time.” The lessons of history should be clear, when we misappropriate the good gifts of God, elevating them to godlike status in our lives, individual and cultural depravity proliferate.

Like all false gods, knowledge pursued for the ends of power alone will only disappoint. In the words of James K.A. Smith, “It’s when I stop overexpecting from creation that it becomes something I can hold with an open hand, lightly but gratefully.” We should continue to faithfully pursue knowledge and education but only as a means of perpetuating its benefits to humanity and ultimately in praise of the glory of God, remembering the words of 1 Corinthians 8:1, “Knowledge puffs up while love builds up.” To do otherwise continues the production and proliferation of the idols of our hearts

Connecting “This” and “That”

“But this is that which was spoken by the prophet Joel; And it shall come to pass in the last days, saith God, I will pour out of my Spirit upon all flesh: and your sons and your daughters shall prophesy, and your young men shall see visions, and your old men shall dream dreams: And on my servants and on my hand maidens I will pour out in those days of my Spirit; and they shall prophesy”

-Acts 2:16-17 

Peter Enns observes in The Sin of Certainty: Why God desires our trust more than our “correct” beliefs, “No one just ‘follows’ the Bible. We interpret it as people with a past and present, and in community with others, within certain traditions, none of which is absolute. Many factors influence how we ‘follow’ the Bible. None of us rises above our place in the human drama and grasps God with pure clarity, without our own baggage coming along for the ride. We all bring our broken and limited selves into how we think of God.” 

This perspective is helpful to those of us who trade in the art and science of bible interpretation, application, and proclamation. It is helpful precisely because it teaches us that we should approach the sacred text with humility, honesty, and a hyper vigilance to protect the ability of what we believe to be God’s word to speak to all people at all times and in all circumstances.

On The Day of Pentecost, the Apostle Peter was tasked with the first gospel message of the Church age. At this monumental moment in history, Peter employs an approach that is often missed in modern pulpits. Peter, citing Joel 2:28 says “This is that….” Speaking of the present happenings on The Day of Pentecost (This) and connecting it to the prophecy of Joel 2:28 (That) he rhetorically combines the two to create a portmanteau packed with significance. It has been my experience that often we preachers are good at unpacking the historical and cultural narratives of Scripture (That) or at revealing the failings of the modern world (This) but seldom do we effectively connect the two. Extending the illustration of the portmanteau, we end up arriving at our rhetorical destinations, with our congregations in tow, ill prepared for the changing climates of the cultural landscape. 

For example, while many lament the social and justice ills of our day, few are doing the hard work of mining the Scripture for the connections that illustrate a biblical foundation for these important causes. Systematic theologies do little to inform the battles against systemic issues of our day, and often unintentionally contribute to their proliferation. 

This calls for a more robust scholarship that will seek to mine the treasure of Scripture to address the challenges of the day. Scripture isn’t just a document designed to create lists of propositions to be believed, but it is also a prescription for how we should live. As preachers and teachers, we must be willing to answer this call to connect the questions of the modern era to the wisdom of the ancient text. To do anything less is a disservice to the tradition of Apostles and Prophets and ultimately results in a uniformed Church with ballooned heads but beleaguered hearts. 

We must recognize that when approaching what the Scripture says, we can never fully divorce ourselves from how we read the text. The “That” of Scripture will always be fundamentally tied to the “This” of our lives and experience. The two must interact and influence each other in order for the totality of our world to be transformed. 

What Peter proclaimed at Pentecost was a message that connected the ancient tradition to the present reality. Aided by the Holy Spirit this must become our mission as well. Because the present is challenged and changed, not by novel concepts of trending methods, but by powerful truths that perennially flourish. 

Holy Spirit you are welcome…even here.

“If the Holy Spirit was withdrawn from the church today, 95 percent of what we do would go on and no one would know the difference. If the Holy Spirit had been withdrawn from the New Testament church, 95 percent of what they did would stop, and everybody would know the difference” – A.W. Tozer

What real difference does the Holy Spirit make in our lives? Those of us who are Christians would claim that it would make all the difference in the world. But does it really? 

In Psalm 90, Moses described the Lord as a dwelling place, the metaphor communicates something special about the relationship, a permanence in quality. It is often difficult for us to imagine permanence in a transitional world. Everything around us is changing. But Moses cries out to God, “Lord, you have been our dwelling place throughout all generations. Before the mountains were born or you brought forth the whole world, from everlasting to everlasting you are God.” The permanence of the relationship Moses describes is a product of the very nature of God. He does not change, evolve, or decay. A very different characteristic than those He creates and brings in and out of existence. In Psalm 90.3 Moses laments, “You turn people back to dust, saying, ‘Return to dust, you mortals.’ Do you see the contrast? God is from ‘everlasting to everlasting’ and we ‘return to dust.’ The quality of our existence determines the quantity of our days. But yet we live lives as if the Holy Spirit had no permanence. We live lives as if we are permanent and God is transitional. We have church as if our doctrines, words, and songs are eternal, when it is God who should be the author of our doctrine, the arbiter of our words, and the object of our songs of praise. 

But church, too often, becomes another function of our idolatry. Remaking God in our own image. 

Tozer is right when he observes that the New Testament church was much different than the twenty-first century church. They were reliant on the Holy Spirit. We are reliant on our systems. They were dependent on the Holy Spirit, and we are dependent on our talent. They trusted in the Holy Spirit, we trust in church growth practices. 

What if God once again became our dwelling place? What if we were once again dependent on the Holy Spirit? How different would our churches be? How different would we become? 

Also remember

On September 11, 2001, I was returning to class at Arkansas Northeastern College. I remember distinctly walking down the hall of that community college and being told that I should find a television set to see what was unfolding in New York City. Eighteen years later I still feel the emotions associated with witnessing those dark moments, as do all of us that were present in the world on that infamous day. 

With every passing year, I increasingly notice that much of what is posted “in remembrance” of that day are of two kinds, photos of the actual attacks in vivid detail or patriotic images that highlight the heroism of first responders and those who joined in the Armed Forces in response to the attacks. These remembrances seem intentionally shared in order to stir the emotions of those viewing them, emotions meant as a warning that a 9/11 style attack may happen again and emotions that rekindle desires for vengeance on the perpetrators of the attack. This intentional stirring of the emotions also serves as a not so subtle reminder of the perceived evil intentions of Islam. And despite the encouragement of our leaders not to condemn a global religion based on the actions of a few, for most of us the condemnation was an unavoidable destination that is still producing divisive consequences in the world. 

As Americans it is interesting what we choose to remember and what we choose to forget. And specifically, how we as white Americans become angry and defensive when we are reminded of our National shame of slavery, segregation, and murder of black people. Atrocities that, with only a few exceptions, were generally endorsed by every denominational stream of Christianity. And while the events of September 11, 2001 where three thousand of our fellow citizens lost their lives at the hands of Islamic terrorist was a National tragedy that should be memorialized, we should also appropriately and with greater frequency lament the thousands of black people who lost their lives, freedoms, and fortunes to the evils of white supremacy. As James H. Cone points out in The Cross and the Lynching Tree “Between 1880 to 1940, white Christians lynched nearly five thousand black men & women in a manner with obvious echoes of the Roman crucifixion of Jesus. Yet these ‘Christians’ did not see the irony or contradiction in their actions.” And of course, lynching and other racially motivated acts of terror did not end in 1940, they continue along with everyday systemic inequalities and injustices perpetuated through our institutions and culture. But the response the tragedies of 9/11 and sins of white supremacy are remembered in very different ways in our culture. 

Imagine if someone suggested that 9/11 was long ago, and that we should let “the past stay in the past” and we should “move on.” The responding outrage would be appropriately vociferous. But every single day the same kind of dismissive remarks are leveled at those who share the historical facts of what happened to people of color at the hands of white people in our country. 

Immediate action was taken in the hours following 9/11 to care for the families of victims, and continues to this day. This Nation mobilized in a significantly powerful way to respond in attempts to make us all safer. Actions that also continue to this day. Our Nation made a commitment to ourselves, and to this point, have followed through with that commitment, that there will never be another 9/11. Imagine if the same kinds of commitments were made in response to continuing inequalities and injustices in our Nation. Just imagine.

And on this day choose to also remember….

God isn’t a cardboard cutout

As a child, part of my biblical education included Sunday School. For the uninitiated, Sunday School was like regular school except it focused exclusively on the Bible. The education usually lasted about an hour every Sunday morning and included a variety of activities to entertain and educate children about the important life and doctrinal lessons to be gleaned from the pages of Scripture. It also included the added bonus of Kool-Aid and a snack. Kool-Aid drinking was encouraged regularly very early on in my church, and vivid in my memory was the use of a flannel board to communicate the stories of the Bible. A flannel board was a bulletin board of sorts with a soft layer of material on which card stock and paper cut out characters would be placed. As the teacher would place the scene, the animals, and the characters that appeared in the story, one by one on the flannel board, the story would evolve from words to pictures. The story would come to life in the features of those two-dimensional cut outs. 

I distinctly remember that on one occasion, a favorite Sunday School teacher gave me one of these discarded packets for my personal use and entertainment. My ten-year-old self couldn’t have been happier, as now I had the means to evangelize all who were in my household. My older sister didn’t share my enthusiasm, as she and her heathen boyfriend were often my audience. As they “courted” in the living room, they provided a captive audience for me to share my gospel presentations in the living color and dynamism of the flannel board. I was an obnoxious child.

I would recount the story of creation, Abraham, Joseph and his brothers, David and Goliath, Daniel in the Lion’s Den, Jonah, Jesus and His disciples, The Acts of the Apostles with every piece of that flannel collection, often with Jesus as a substitute for multiple characters. It worked because, apparently the creators of the biblical cut outs believed that pretty much everyone in the Bible was a bearded white guy. And herein was one of the many limitations of my biblical flannel collection. The characters were flat and the stories were limited by my understanding of the details. And no matter how well intentioned me or my numerous Sunday School teachers were, none of us could move beyond the flatness of the material we were given. 

As I now reflect in my maturity on those simpler times, I’m simultaneously filled with a strange nostalgia and a quiet resignation. A resignation that no matter how much knowledge I gain about the Scriptures or how much wisdom I’m able to retain, ultimately my knowledge and wisdom will fall flat when compared to true depth of the person and work of Jesus. Like a child playing in a mud puddle on the edge of the Grand Canyon, my best pontifications are meaningless meanderings. God is not a card board cutout. Yet too often my faith is communicated with clichéd repetitions that are as flat as the apathies that inspire them. 

The English author, poet and playwright Dorothy Sayers once observed, “Not Herod, not Caiaphas, not Pilate, not Judas ever contrived to fasten upon Jesus Christ the reproach of insipidity; that final indignity was left for pious hands to inflict. To make of His story something that could neither startle, nor shock, nor terrify, nor excite, nor inspire a living soul is to crucify the Son of God afresh.”

May my tendencies at insipidity be replaced with a true heart of worship to know my God in the face and flesh of Jesus Christ and to bend the knee of my existence in total abandoned surrender to His consuming love. 

Make the distance visible

The disposition of the Christian pastor and preacher is often contested in this age of celebrity and notoriety. Navigating the prevailing culture that rewards self-promotion and banishes the simple, faithful, servants of God to relative obscurity, can be difficult for those without natural gifts of charisma, who still retain a passionate desire to be an effective herald for Christ. However, it is important to remember that the gospel of the Kingdom as Jesus delivered it in the first century wasn’t a popular message with the gatekeepers of religious culture, nor was Christ Himself a popular messenger. But no one would argue that the message of Christ was ineffective or powerless. And while we aren’t Jesus, we are His representatives, and have a responsibility to proclaim the message of the gospel consistently in an increasingly hostile world.

How do we do this without the trappings of celebrity that our culture rewards, or without retreating to silos of affinity which the larger culture ignores? Dietrich Bonhoeffer, the German pastor, theologian, and anti-Nazi dissident, who eventually lost his life due to his opposition of Hitler, distinguished between public speech and preaching by noting, “In normal speech, everything depends on our identifying with our own words. In speaking the word of God, by contrast, everything depends on the distance becoming visible.” (Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Homiletics,” 504) 

The current iteration of popular Christianity often misses the point of making the distance between God’s holiness and our sinfulness visible. Rather, most of our preaching and presentation centers on diminishing that gap instead of highlighting its existence. For example, lots of preaching and presentations in churches today strategically design material that is centered in validating the emotional and social desires of those we want to attract instead of a strategy that challenges the foundations of those desires with the realities of the gospel of Christ. So that the resulting community is one that exist to serve the perceived needs of people rather than addressing the actual needs of people. 

The earthly ministry of Jesus exemplifies that His aim wasn’t the attraction of followers but the calling of disciples. For instance, in John chapter six, the multitude showed up following the multiplication of the loaves and fishes demanding that Jesus replicate his miracle of the previous day. Instead of meeting the desire of the crowd to feed them once again, Jesus challenged them by addressing the actual needs of the multitude, revealing that He is “the bread of life.” (John 6:35) 

And in John 4:4 Jesus insisted “He had to pass through Samaria.” Of course, Jesus could have traveled an alternative route totally bypassing the ostracized region. But Jesus purposely chose to travel through the region that others avoided, precisely because Jesus engages with those others avoid. There was no practical benefit to the reputation or popularity for Jesus intentionally going through a shunned land and engaging a marginalized woman. Unfortunately, too often our modern ministries are governed by practical benefit instead of eternal impact. We obsess over what works instead of what transforms, words and actions that placate rather than challenge, and best practices that justify idolatries instead of tearing them down. 

Bonhoeffer challenged Nazi Germany because he was willing to identify with the Christ of Scripture, who hid Himself among humanity by identifying Himself with those who were marginalized and rejected. In contrast, to the anti-Christ of his age who highlighted his position and his followers by marginalizing, rejecting, and ultimately attempting to exterminate those different than himself. 

Bonhoeffer remarks, “How is Jesus’s particular way of existing as the Humiliated One expressed? In that he has taken on sinful flesh. The conditions for his humiliation are set by the curse, the fall of Adam. In being humiliated, Christ, the God-human, enters of his own free will into the world of sin and death. He enters there in such a way as to conceal himself [there], so that he is no longer recognizable visibly as the God-human. He comes among us beggars, and outcast among outcasts; he comes among sinners as the one without sin, but also as a sinner among sinners.” (Bonhoeffer, “Lectures on Christology (Student Notes),” 356. 

What if we followed the example of Christ instead of the example of culture? How different would our churches, our example be? Ultimately how would our world benefit from reflecting Christ instead of pursuing celebrity? 

Uncomfortable Confessions

Freud observed, “How bold one gets when one is sure of being loved.” Ronna Russell in her book The Uncomfortable Confessions of a Preacher’s Kid, embodies the kind of selflove that enables one to share the most intimate and challenging details of life without fear. Though her memoir is in some places emotionally difficult to read, I found her book strangely cathartic. I qualify my response because although I also grew up in The United Pentecostal Church, our experiences are very different. However, as Ronna points out, “No one escapes fundamentalism unscathed,” and I imagine that much of what I did not share with Ronna’s experience was because I was male and wasn’t under the microscope of a high-profile ministry like her family. The United Pentecostal Church for many cultivates a zeitgeist of fear and control, and it very nearly crushed Ronna’s life. 

Ronna’s story is one of survival, and her intimate confession is a gift of self-disclosure that is often reserved for only the closest of friends. In this way, Ronna befriends us all. A fair warning is in order, Ronna describes her sexual encounters in explicit detail. And given my conservative southern upbringing, I often blushed at the candid nature of Ronna’s writing. However, I appreciate Ronna’s courage in withholding nothing as she describes her transformative journey. And an empathetic reading of the cloistered nature of Ronna’s tightly controlled childhood, along with her marital depravations, provide understanding and context to Ronna’ sexual explorations. 

Ronna’s recollections of her sexual trysts don’t strike me as the ramblings of a person simply pursuing sexual dalliance, but should be understood as akin to a certain impropriety displayed by starving inmates liberated from prison camps. We would not dismiss hungry people for a lack of manners, and Ronna’s experiences shouldn’t be dismissed for moralistic transgressions given the context of her trauma. This was Ronna’s reality in both her childhood and early adult life. A life from which she liberated herself through a sheer determination to survive.

Ronna’s story is a testimony to the resilience of the human spirit, one that inspires even those of us who still hold dear the hope of the Christian faith. A faith that Ronna, understandably so, now seems to reject. I qualify my assertion with the word seems, because after reading Ronna’s book in its entirety, I can’t be sure of where she lands on matters of faith and spirituality.  Throughout her confessions she peppers her testimonies with religious overtones. On many occasions she cites dreams and epiphanies as sources of direction and clarity, this is the language of faith. Specifically, it the distinctive language of Pentecostalism. Perhaps a Freudian holdover from the abuse she endured? Or perhaps a residual enchantment of childhood that an abusive family and church took from her, that now seeks to flourish in maturity and reality. At the very least this is my desire for Ronna. 

But whatever the current status of Ronna’s faith, it is clear that Ronna’s soul occupies a much safer and freer space now that she is liberated from an abusive and misguided belief system that kept her bound for so long. And perhaps her story will serve as a source of healing for others as well. 

I remember…

Time machines do not exist. Not in the tangibility of reality. But they certainly do exist in our hearts and minds, and imagination is tangible. It is real. If you don’t believe me, think for a moment of that departed loved one. Think of the love that was lost. Think of the dream that was never fulfilled. The unachieved goal. The misspent moment. If you think about it long enough, you will feel it. You will feel it not in a superficial way, but in a deep way. Hearts have a reality all their own. So do memories.

If you want to travel through time, close your eyes. Imagine a time now past. The scent of childhood. The music of youth. Those emotions are as real as anything anyone is feeling anywhere in the world. Your memories are important. Every emotion connected with every memory is equally as important. Allow yourself to feel. It is ok to feel angry. If you were every mistreated, dismissed, ignored, passed over. It is ok to feel sad. To weep. If you ever lost. If you ever felt alone. Cry deeply and mourn what once was, or what never was. Feel joy at the thought of what still might be. 

Love. Even when it is not returned. Love. Love is enough. 

Early memories of family and church conflate in my mind. Sometimes it is difficult to know the difference. I board the time machine of memory and emotion. I remember being held in the arms of my older cousins at the end of the church services in our small rural Pentecostal church. I remember feeling… afraid. Fear is a powerful emotion that creates profound memories. I remember being afraid of the rapture. I remember hearing a trumpet blow, lights being turned off, people missing. I remained. I remember thinking what remaining meant. I remember seeing “Uzza” fall over dead because he attempted to steady the Ark of the Covenant. I remember hearing that God killed everyone and saved Noah, but then hearing that Noah did some sketchy things after departing the Ark. Why did God kill everyone and save Noah? Seems he was just as guilty as others who were drowned in the waters of the flood. I remember hearing that God demanded that Abraham offer his son Isaac on an altar, intervening at only the last moment. If God knows all things how did he not know what Abraham would do? If God intended to save Isaac all along and was only using this as foreshadowing of what was to come, then why put Abraham and Isaac through such emotional distress. 

The machine I’m traveling on doesn’t have a theological guide, only an emotional one. 

My cousin was a kind friend in those early fearful years. She would often allow me to stay with her and her family on the weekends. I remember expressing my fear of the rapture to her one night. Instead of judgment, or a reinforcement of my fears, she told me of God’s grace. I remember hearing this for the first time. I can’t say all of my fears disappeared. But I did feel better hearing about love. Love does indeed cast out fear, eventually. 

My time machine doesn’t give an adequate picture of God. It only gives me a picture of how other perceptions of God were communicated to me at the time. Perceptions that were perpetuated to them and passed forward. Neither does my time machine give me a true picture of God. 

But Jesus does. 

I don’t remember Him. Only those in the past must be remembered. Those who are present only have to be experienced. What a friend I have in Jesus. This is my memory and experience.

Dreams on Labor Day

It was Friedrich Nietzsche who observed, “Indeed, it is only by means of the rigid and regular web of concepts that the waking man clearly sees that he is awake; and it is precisely because of this that he sometimes thinks that he must be dreaming when this web of concepts is torn by art. Pascal is right in maintaining that if the same dream came to us every night we would be just as occupied with it as we are with the things we see every day. ‘If the workman were sure to dream for twelve straight hours every night that he was king,’ said Pascal, ‘I believe that would be just as happy as a king who dreamt for twelve hours every night that he was a workman.’” 

Work is a means for living the dreams implanted into our hearts by God. And in this way, no work is demeaning, even the work that is challenging, or that is a means to the end of a greater opportunity. 

In his short story “Leaf by Niggle,”J.R.R. Tolkien provides insight to the struggle many of us face in our lives. Specifically, how do we labor effectively under the curse of sin in our world, families, careers, and the daily grind of our existence? The piece was first published in The Dublin Review and came at a point in Tolkien’s life when he despaired that he would ever complete his epic work The Lord of the Rings.

Niggle, the story’s title character, is a painter whose unique name means “to work in a fiddling or ineffective way, spending time unnecessarily on petty details.” In the story, Niggle is inspired to paint a mural of a grand tree surrounded by a beautiful landscape. But throughout the story he is distracted from his work and is plagued by the thought that he is about to die, which Tolkien describes with the metaphor of a journey. Niggle tells himself, “I shall get this one picture done, my real picture, before I have to go on that wretched journey.” At the end of his life he has managed only to paint a single leaf.

As he journeys to the afterlife, Niggle hears two voices, one that derides him for wasting his life by answering all of the distractions which consisted mostly of helping others, and another voice that comforts him because he was willing to help others. When Niggle arrives at his destination, he finds a picturesque landscape with the beautiful tree that he had labored all of his life to create.

Like Niggle, all of us struggle with the meaning of our lives. In the final analysis, what is it that we have contributed? What of note have we created? The good news of Niggle’s story is that in eternity the perfection he longed for in his created work was realized. In 1 John 3:2 we read these inspiring words, “Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.” The realization of our desires to be in Christ and to be like Christ will be realized when Christ returns.

But until that day, we are called to be faithful to the task to which all of us have been called. We labor in faith knowing that God and the power of the Holy Spirit will make up the difference between what we have imagined and what we have accomplished. Often the key is in discovering what God has uniquely asked you to do and then doing it with purpose and sincerity. For example, God has privileged me to lead a church. As a pastor I am charged with proclaiming the gospel of Christ and serving the people of our congregation. Many days I feel I do an inadequate job of accomplishing the task set before me, but I take comfort knowing the grace of God that has called me to this position is the same grace that keeps me. And I know that one day the people that I serve will be presented before Christ, perfected by the grace of God.

You may not be a pastor or a professor, but whatever your calling in the context of your family and life, know that you are not laboring alone and that one day your labor will be perfected in Christ. As Tim Keller observes about Tolkien’s short story, “The world before death – his old country – had forgotten Niggle almost completely, and there his work had ended unfinished and helpful to only a few. But in his new country, the permanently real world, he finds that his tree, in full detail and finished, was not just a fancy of his that had died with him. No, it was indeed part of the true reality that would live and be enjoyed forever.” 

And continue to dream…

Indecisive silence helps no one.

Breakfast together has become a Saturday morning tradition for me and Candy. Most Saturdays we enjoy a midmorning breakfast at a popular home style chain restaurant. As we were finishing up this morning, an adult and a child were seated directly behind us, the young man appeared to be nine or ten, and the adult female was who I assumed to be his grandmother. As we were finishing our meal we were startled by the commotion behind us. I looked up immediately to see the child banging the table with his fist and throwing his paper placemat at the adult woman sitting across from him. This child continued to make aggressive moves toward the adult. It was apparent that he was really unhappy. This behavior continued for few moments. As Candy and I quietly discussed if we should say or do anything, I noticed big tears begin to fall down the face of the woman. A nice young lady seated to my left, and to the right of the woman, got up and gave the woman a hug. An appropriate expression of solidarity and empathy for what this woman was enduring. For a moment the child stopped his aggressive behavior. Candy and I breathed a sigh of relief. But then the child’s aggressive behavior erupted once again. The woman continued to cry as the child banged the table with his fist. Candy and I, practically simultaneously, stood and turned to the woman. Candy hugged her and I took her hand and asked her if I could pray with her, she agreed, and we prayed together. The kind young woman who had given her a hug earlier joined us. We did not address the young man or his behavior. The woman quietly revealed to us that the child was a foster child with obvious behavior issues. We thanked her for serving this child with patience in such a difficult circumstance and left. The situation bothered us both all day. 

Candy commented on the faithfulness of the kind woman and all foster parents like her who are willing to love children who exhibit problematic behavior as we observed in the restaurant. Candy also pointed out that we could not know what kind of life the child had experienced previous to his coming to the foster home. We speculated that the difficulty of his life certainly had to contribute to his aggressive behavior toward his caregiver. 

But what bothered me the most was my indecision to intervene in this difficulty. It was obvious that the foster parent needed help. But I wasn’t sure what to do. I felt it would have been inappropriate of me to correct someone else’s child in public, although I certainly wanted to do so. As I was contemplating what to do, the young lady to our left answered the call and gave a hug to the object of the child’s ire. A beautifully appropriate expression that was welcomed by this foster parent in distress. As the child’s aggressive behavior continued, Candy and I did act, perhaps if only to distract the child for a moment and bring a prayer of comfort to the foster parent. But perhaps God in His grace blessed this woman with comfort and this child with peace. I don’t know if I did the right thing in not saying something to the child. My fear was that perhaps I may have unintentionally escalated the aggression. But my slowness to respond to an obviously emotional and volatile circumstance still bothers me. We live in a society that teaches us to “go along to get along” to “mind our own business” and “live and let live.” This morning I was living under this societal peer pressure that errs on the side of caution instead of compassion in most instances. 

When I was eleven years old, I remember sitting in the back seat of my mother and father’s car. We were in the parking lot of a popular grocery store in the small southern town we frequented for Saturday business and errands. My dad had loaded the trunk and was seated in the driver’s seat as we prepared to leave. At that moment, we were startled by yelling and screaming coming from across the street. I looked up to see a young black man running. He was being chased by a white man. The white man was accusing the black man of looking “the wrong way” at his daughter, and was cursing the man as he peppered his remarks with the continual use of the n-word. The white man caught up to the young black man and landed a few blows, I saw blood. They black man broke away and continued to run. The white man continued to pursue. I can’t remember who spoke first in our automobile. Someone mentioned that we should do something to help. Someone else said we should mind our business as we didn’t know all the details. I remember how awful I felt witnessing that, and how much more awful I felt that we didn’t do or say anything. We quietly drove away. 

I still don’t know what the appropriate action this morning in the restaurant would have been, or if any would have been more appropriate or helpful than offering words of comfort to the foster parent and praying for them both. But I do know that indecisive silence helps no one in distress. May God forgive my slowness to act when I see others suffering. 

As I write this I heard the news of another mass shooting in our Nation. 

God help us all. God move us to action.