Though death is dead
to death he wages war
Each death a vict'ry
in this lovers' quarrel
'tween sin and death—
two partners in the fight
to steal mens' lives
and lay them in the grave
Yes death is dead
but still death carries pain
As one much-loved
slips out beyond our grasp
And leaves a hole
that never shall be filled
Though life and time
for us yet linger on
Yes death is dead
and sin's defeated, too
That much made known
one Resurrection Day
When One who died
for sin lay buried in the ground
And three days on
no longer to be found
Yes death is dead
and life is sweeter far
When lived with hope
of life beyond the grave
A life for Him
who buried death itself
To give us life
eternally with Him
[Written in honor of my sister-in-law, Jeaneen Blackinton Davis, as she fought a brain tumor that finally stole her life on April 27, 2015.]
I have just started writing for a couple blogs, published by Logos Bible Software, which are geared toward current and prospective seminary students. My first post was just posted at best-seminary.com and, ironically, is titled, “Why You Shouldn’t Go To Seminary.” Now I need to hurry and finish a follow-up piece that will be titled, “Why You Should Go To Seminary”—before Logos decides they don’t want me writing anymore!
Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness, by Eugene Peterson, is the third in a series of three books on the work of pastors in North America. (The other two titles are Working the Angles: The Shape of Pastoral Integrity and Five Smooth Stones for Pastoral Work, which sit on my bookshelf waiting to be read.)
If I had to choose a pastor after whom to model my ministry, it would be Eugene Peterson. He seems so much more concerned about his congregation’s toward maturity in Christ than about its growth in size. His writing is theological, sometimes philosophical, often eminently practical. Best of all, he offers no programs to sell, no models to follow; only sound, Biblical counsel.
In Under the Unpredictable Plant, Peterson uses the story of Jonah to help clarify the pastoral vocation in the midst of a culture that calls (and tempts) pastors to “religious careerism.” He uses Tarshish, Jonah’s destination of choice, as representing an exotic and far-away city where Jonah dreamed of doing big things for God (just not in God’s presence). Pastors today are similarly tempted by the culture to run to the next big, exciting church where they might do great things for God…and then get invited to speak at a conference or two. Ninevah, on the other hand, represents the heart of what God calls pastors to do: faithfully proclaim His message of love and grace to messy people.
Throughout his books, Peterson weaves pieces of his own story: growing up in a home with a Pentecostal preacher mother and a butcher father; childhood encounters with rough-edged farmers; struggling to make the language of the Bible real for an adult Sunday School class (the genesis—no pun intended—of his contemporary-English Bible translation, The Message). These personal stories bring Peterson’s philosophy and theology to life.
I would love to meet Eugene Peterson. I am almost jealous of a pastor friend who, with his wife, got to spend several days in Peterson’s home as a gift from his church! In fact, when looking into seminaries several years ago, Regent University in British Columbia was high on my list, precisely because that’s where Peterson was serving at the time. For now, though, I am content to be mentored vicariously through his books.
She prays her childlike prayers and I correct, seeking to bring maturity to her childlike faith. After all, she’s twelve, and I am old. And, I fear, ignorant.
She asks God to help her aunt not be sick; I ask Him to heal. She asks God to help China get more Bibles; I challenge her to buy Bibles for China. She asks God to help her have a good day at school tomorrow; I pray that she would bring Him glory in whatever comes her way. She asks God to do what He wants; I ask Him for what I want.
What am I doing, trying to make my little girl grow up? I should be asking her to teach me to pray!
“A little child will lead them.” Familiar words. Convicting words. Are they really in the Bible, or merely a slogan that sounds good? My old, mature, needs-to-know self searches: yes, there they are, in Isaiah 11:6. Then Jesus’ words come to my old, mature mind: “Unless you become like little children, you will never enter into the kingdom of heaven!” (Matthew 18:3)
Tonight, Abba, help me; help me learn from my little girl.
A week ago I wrote here that I would post each Wednesday about a book I’m reading. Here it is Wednesday, and although I tried, I can’t. You see, last Wednesday—my first non-holiday, weekday off work in…I don’t know how long—I was hit with some fairly devastating news. Life and death news. And in a cruel twist of irony, I had just journaled that morning about another life and death: my brother’s. You see, last Wednesday was the eve of the 35th anniversary of my brother’s death by the cold hand of cancer. He was three months and four days shy of his 18th birthday; I was 16. Rick died the Wednesday before Palm Sunday. Last Wednesday was the Wednesday before Palm Sunday.
Holy Week—what Christians call the week from Palm Sunday to Easter Sunday, the last week of Jesus’ life—is a time of joy and anticipation, celebrating the resurrection of the one we believe conquered death, sin, and Satan. The joy is interrupted for about thirty-six somber hours as we remember His brutal and senseless death at the hands of jealous religious leaders and a gutless Roman puppet governor, but it returns with the first rays of the sun on Easter morning as we cheerfully share the greeting, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!”
I don’t recall a thing about Holy Week 1980. I certainly don’t recall much joy, but I know the somber hours of mourning lingered far beyond a mere day-and-a-half as Rick’s death cast a long, dark shadow that even Jesus’ resurrection couldn’t seem to erase.
Now here I am again in the middle of Holy Week, and the shadow of another death darkens the days. Not a death-in-the-past this time, but the expectation of one that will come too soon, too young; a death I anticipate and dread, that I strive to hold off, pray against, fight against, beg God to forestall. Yet in the midst of the foreboding shadow of death, life goes on. I go to work with unknowing coworkers. My kids go to school with blissfully ignorant classmates. On the freeway, at the gas station, in the grocery store…even at church I cross paths with people who don’t see the shadow, whose own lives may be bright with the joy of new birth or darker even than my own. And each day I seek a sense of normalcy.
This week, especially, I want to know the celebration of Jesus’ Triumphal Entry. I want to join in on His last Passover meal with His best friends. I want to feel the weight of Peter’s denial and the long, piercing thorns of the “crown” pressed into Jesus’ scalp. I want to wake up on Easter morning and wholeheartedly proclaim, “He is risen! He is risen indeed!” Instead, I am voicing the same accusation both Martha and Mary leveled at Jesus when Lazarus died: “Lord, if you had only been here….”
And Jesus wept. And I weep. And our tears flow together. And maybe that, for now, is the most normal thing about the shadow of death: Jesus is present with me, weeping with me.
Directly across from me, leaning back against a tree, sat the family patriarch. He looked 75 but was likely 15-20 years younger. Around us sat his family – young children, teenagers, and a few perhaps in their early 20s. My hosts brought me a small stool on which to sit, and for the next 30 or 40 minutes we talked about my faith and theirs, the Bible and the Q’ran, about Jesus and Islam. Several times, the patriarch – I never got his name – told me, “What you say is good.” As we concluded our conversation he invited us to return the next day to talk more, but with regret I explained that this was our last day in the area. Repeating his affirmation, “what you say is good,” he added, “We will believe, me and my family. Not today, but probably in two or three days, we will believe.”
This encounter took place ten years ago this past week, in a village in southern Ethiopia. Two days later, the team I was with flew home, spending Easter morning on a layover at Frankfurt International Airport in Germany. My mind often returns to that village and the twice-translated conversation with the family. Did the life-giving resurrection of Jesus Christ take place in their hearts? If I were to return to the village today, would it still be dominated by Islam, or would the patriarch—or one of the children sitting with us in the shade of the tree—be leading a ten-year-old church? For a decade I have longed to return and to meet this man and his family again. Maybe someday I will.
Across the barriers of language, I learned something under that tree that has shaped my life, my faith, and my ministry as a pastor: faith is not a do-it-yourself encounter. We do not come to faith, profess faith, walk in faith, grow in faith, or live in faith alone. Faith is a community affair. It is conceived, born, and nurtured in community. It grows and matures in community. It lives and thrives in community.
This challenges much of what I was taught growing up, which centered on making a personal decision for Christ, a personal confession of faith. This notion of individualized faith, while not theologically incorrect, is at best incomplete. Scripture is filled with stories of households and communities that believed in Jesus…apparently as one, at one time. When Jesus met the Samaritan woman at a well and told her everything about her, she believed; then she went back to her village and told them about Him, and they believed. (Read the encounter in John 4.) When Peter and a Roman centurion named Cornelius each had a vision directing them to meet, Peter shared the good news of Jesus and “the Holy Spirit fell on all who heard the word” (Acts 10). Or read of the conversion of Lydia in Philippi (Acts 16) or Crispus in Corinth (Acts 18).
I don’t know all the implications of this community faith idea. It certainly doesn’t absolve any individual of confessing Jesus for himself or herself. Nor, I think, does it mean that children raised by Christian parents get a free pass into heaven. (These concepts of “fire insurance,” “ticket to heaven,” “get out of hell free” … they’re all really bad theology, anyway; they completely miss the point of Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. But that’s a subject for another post.) Maybe this would be a good opportunity for you to share some thoughts. What implications do you see for yourself, your family, your church, your work, other people in your circles of influence?
“Competitive rowing is an undertaking of extraordinary beauty preceded by brutal punishment.” [The Boys in the Boat, p. 39)
(Note: I'm going to try something new here. Each Wednesday I am going to post about a book I am reading or have recently read. It may be a review, a critique, or simply reflections based on that book. This is the first installment in "What I'm Reading Wednesdays.")
I spent a year on a crew team. A long, cold, wet, wonderful year. Waking up at 4:30 in the morning, on the water shortly after five, breaking a sweat six inches in the bone-chilling cold of a Seattle winter… all for the chance to compete in a few spring races. This is rowing. A sixty-foot boat less than two feet wide, propelled by eight rowers pulling on twelve-foot oars while sitting less than six inches above the water. This is rowing. Hours on the water, days rolling into weeks stretching into months; practice after practice after practice; and all of that just to work your way up to average. This is rowing.
Reading Daniel James Brown’s account of the American crew that won gold in the 1936 Olympics in Berlin takes me back to that year at Seattle Pacific University. We sat in the same George Pocock-built cedar racing shells; pulled hard on the same yellow-spruce oars; plied through the same cold waters of Lake Union and Lake Washington. I don’t know how many times I rowed through the Montlake Cut and past the University of Washington boathouse that is at the center of Brown’s action. Those waters were almost hallowed, the UW crews legendary. If our boat of novices could compete with the purple and gold of our cross-town rivals, then we were on our way.
Legends grow out of history, liberally seasoned with hyperbole. Brown provides both history and hyperbole, breathing life into the legends in the boats we passed on those cold waters.
I grew up playing sports. I’ve competed on the baseball diamond, basketball court, wrestling mat, soccer pitch, and football field. I’ve high jumped, thrown the discus, and run the 800-meters. None of those, in either practice or competition, even comes close to the effort of rowing. Indeed, rowing intensely engages the entire body—including the brain—in a very concentrated period of time. “Physiologists, in fact, have calculated that rowing a two-thousand meter race—the Olympic standard—exacts the same physiological toll as playing two basketball games back-to-back. And it exacts that toll in about six minutes.” [p. 39]
The Boys in the Boat is a mixture of history and drama, romance and sport and adventure. I enjoy it in part because of my familiarity with the sport and the area. Any reader, though, should find much here to keep the pages turning.
For the past week I have been practicing the art of silence, encouraged through a Lenten Guide published by my sister’s church.
“Real silence,” writes Sister Jeremy Hall, “…is a creative waiting, a welcoming openness to God, to our deepest selves, to others… to beauty and truth and goodness, to mystery—and to the word of Scripture that reveals God, and to the Word who is God’s Son.”
Some have called silence a discipline, and it is that. But I have been practicing it more as an art: creative, imperfect, incomplete, but at the same time beautiful and inspiring. The primary way I decided to practice silence was by “fasting” from Facebook. I am not as addicted to that as some people I know, but apparently far more than I thought. After deleting the app from my phone, I found myself surprised by how few other apps on my phone I want to look at in spare moments. I also realized how much I rely on Facebook for social interaction; …a bit scary, given how thin is the veneer of relationship through social media. But at this particular time in my family’s life, when deep, meaningful flesh-and-blood relationships are scarce, I am grateful for even that thin veneer, so the break has been a challenge.
My silence this week has not been merely an abstention from social media, however. I have also taken moments of silence in various forms throughout the day. The Lenten Guide includes a Bible passage to read each day, and I have given myself permission to not read the whole passage, but to stop at a word or phrase or sentence and ponder it. That may sound ridiculously trite to you, but for a recovering legalist it is a major step on the road to recovery!
At other times I have taken a break from my work and just sat for a few moments. Not because the law or the union says I’m supposed to, and not because I particularly feel like I need a rest; I just stop. Perhaps more importantly, I don’t do anything on that break. This, too, is a psychological battle against the influences of my earlier years, when it was drilled into me that I needed to always be “making the most of every opportunity.” But sometimes, I’ve found, just sitting, doing nothing, enjoying what God has put before me is making the most of every opportunity.
Perhaps hardest for me has been to not read or write anything. I am in an unusual period right now, unlike any other I can recall in my adult life, when I have great freedom to read and write and think what I want. After eight years of graduate school, I no longer have professors giving me assignments. Away from pastoral ministry, I do not presently have the demands of preparing sermons, analyzing giving trends, or writing small group discussion guides. So I choose my own books and my own pace to read; I choose what I want to write and when to write it—and am finding a surprising amount of inspiration in my present employment. But since I want to read and write, and have the opportunity to do both, there is a discipline of silence in choosing not to read or write.
Our lives are filled with noise; some good, some bad, some indifferent. Just as God “sabbathed” (ceased, rested) from his work after creation—and instructed us to sabbath—so, too, we need to rest from the noise of life, whether that noise is talking or writing, reading or listening, emailing or Facebooking. Silence is sabbath.
1 God, You are my God; I eagerly seek You.
I thirst for You;
my body faints for You
in a land that is dry, desolate, and without water.
2 So I gaze on You in the sanctuary
to see Your strength and Your glory. (Psalm 63:1-2, HCSB)
These words from David convict me. My prayer is far more often, “I eagerly seek from You. …I thirst for what You can give me.” I wonder if I will ever be satisfied with God rather than constantly longing for what God offers.
I wonder, too, how David went from the wilderness of the first verse to the sanctuary of the second. This may be poetry, but the dry and desolate land is no mere metaphor for David; he was in an actual wilderness, most likely running from a blood-thirsty King Saul—and yet it is not water he craves, but God. He needs water; he thirsts for God. He needs food; he faints for God. I, on the other hand, need God; but I long for a job. I need God, but I crave security, stability, income.
So… A simple word that suggests the answer to a problem, the satisfaction of a need. David is thirsty, fainting for God, so he “gazes on God in the sanctuary.” But wait—David was in the wilderness, not the temple; he was in a cave, not a house of worship. Was the sanctuary a metaphor? Maybe both yes and no. David seems to have cultivated a life of worship, much of which was likely experienced in the temple (actually, probably the tabernacle at this point—sort of a mobile, portable tent-temple). So as a poet, David could probably simply close his eyes and imagine himself there, worshipping God in the company of the people and the presence of the priests.
But as a shepherd he had also spent countless hours and days outside, bearing the sun’s blazing heat, the bitter cold of wilderness nights, the bone-drenching winter rains. He had worshipped God there, too, alone in the company of his flocks, coming alone to his God without the benefit of a priest; looking up to God not through the cloth and skin ceiling of the tabernacle, but in the canopy of space and stars and clouds.
Here, alone again and fainting from thirst in the wilderness, David again looks to the sanctuary of space and finds God’s strength and glory. And he worships. And he is satisfied. And…
3 My lips will glorify You
because Your faithful love is better than life.
4 So I will praise You as long as I live;
at Your name, I will lift up my hands.
5 You satisfy me as with rich food;
my mouth will praise You with joyful lips.
6 When I think of You as I lie on my bed,
I meditate on You during the night watches
7 because You are my helper;
I will rejoice in the shadow of Your wings.
8 I follow close to You;
Your right hand holds on to me.
Praise. Glory. Meditate. Rejoice. In the wilderness sanctuary.
One recent afternoon, road construction turned a ten-block drive in downtown San Diego into a thirty-minute adventure in impatient frustration. The following Sunday our pastor mentioned a smartphone app that not only guides drivers from point A to point B, but also suggests the best route given current traffic conditions. I readily downloaded the app. You see, I don’t much like waiting; anything that will keep me moving more and waiting less is worth trying because unless I am feeling particularly patient, I would rather keep moving then sit at a stop light. Obviously, any movement is progress, right?
The same rule tends to guide my life outside the car: movement equals progress; sitting still is bad. But sometimes—and probably more than I realize or would admit—moving forward merely gives the illusion of progress. Sometimes, in fact, it is impeding the progress. And that principle, too, applies to life outside the car as much as it does to navigating congested streets and highways.
For a while now I have been living at a stop light, waiting for it to change. I don’t like it. I have had a couple opportunities to turn but that didn’t seem the right thing to do so I just sat here, waiting. I have also tried to inch forward a bit—you know, like you do in the car when the light seems to be taking too long; you think if you move the car forward, it will be sort of like raising your hand to an inattentive waiter at the restaurant…you will catch the light’s attention and it will change. That works better with waiters than with red lights, by the way.
I tried mapping a different route, too; not much different, just a parallel street a block over. But the light stayed red and then I noticed the “no turn on red” sign. So I just sat here, waiting. If I only knew what God was up to, why he has me sitting at this red light, then all would be well, I could wait in patient peace. At least that’s what I tell myself.
God, in his grace, has given me with an uncharacteristic sense of peace at this light, but it’s being tested. He’s convinced me that he is trustworthy, but I still don’t want to be here anymore, I want to move forward. Or left or right. I just want to move. I want to move on. I’m tired of waiting. I am fairly certain I have learned everything I could possibly have learned from this recess! Yet a good friend and mentor—one who has been by my side over these months—reminds me: “The wisdom of the ‘wait’ often comes in the following season. But, the depth of the wisdom is earned IN the wait.”
And so I sit here, waiting.