The Habitual as Distraction from Death

The way my day began I could scarcely have improved upon. I had been able to get home this weekend and see my wife and one of the children. I had had a home-cooked meal. I had played with my dogs. I had watched the deer just outside the kitchen window. I had piddled in the yard. I had listened to my wife play piano and sing in church. I had been with my Sunday school class and pressed on in the crucial book of Hebrews. I had sat beside my son in church. I ate lunch with my family at a restaurant just down the road from the church where the burgers are great, the sundaes are on point, the chicken is fried just right, and the employees come and ask if they can clean your table. It was, as cliche as it sounds, a good day. Then I drove back down to post where I work. 

For the first two hours on the road, no issues. Just normal Sunday afternoon traffic on interstates and highways I know as well as I know my own hands. When I got south of the city, still everything seemed normal. But when Interstate 85 and 185 split, both sides of the interstate were stopped. A blue GSP vehicle was parked in the grass median. Cars coming north were backed up as far as I could see. For miles. It was sunny at the time and I could see well over a mile. And as far as I could see, vehicles were stopped. 

Because I was driving south, and because the accident was not on my side, I was just one of the many who passed the tragedy, but not without looking: it seemed a car had clipped a motorcyclist. The interstate was full of leather-clad motorcyclists, scores of them. They had pulled off the interstate beside the crumpled car and the invisible motorcycle. The rider (riders?) of the motorcycle was/were not seen. I don’t know if he/she/they was/were under the crumpled car, obliterated, smeared on the interstate, or perhaps had been catapulted into the woods parallel to the interstate. 

A sick feeling attacked my stomach. None of us drivers could not look, however. It seemed impossible not to look. And still, the motorcyclists came. They rode slowly up the emergency lane to come stand alongside the interstate and await the helicopter (surely!) that would arrive, and ambulances, and firetrucks, and EMTs, etc. It was horrible. And it must’ve happened just seconds before I came upon it. 

And my mind was trying to come to terms with what I was seeing: lives had surely been obliterated. Biographies were being run through the minds of the friends of the deceased. The miles of drivers, cursing the traffic’s dead-stop, had no idea what they’d eventually discover, that lives had been snuffed out up ahead. 

And it occurred to me that the habitual is so often a distraction from death. I will die, too, I said to myself. This man (I’ve no way of knowing it was a man, of course; I’m only surmising) on the motorcycle is gone. His friends are parked along 185 now, on their phones, cooking in the GA sun in their black leathers, telephoning their network, trying to share the tragedy and trying to come to terms with it all. 

Just like that, I say to myself, driving my car south to post, it can all end. And it’s over. Live well, live fully, live coram Deo, live with the reality of who God is and that this life is temporary, live faithfully.  

Tactics, Techniques, & Procedures: Wisdom in James

Today some of the guys in our unit met for our midweek lunch and Bible study. We are beginning the New Testament Letter of James, Jesus’ half-brother (Matthew 13:55; Galatians 1:19). James was not only a devout follower of the Lord Jesus but also a leader in the 1st century Christian church, a period when persecution was real, not a sermon illustration.

The guys gathered into the room. We had pizza and fellowshipped. We caught up on each other. And then I began with the big picture of James–that it was written by Jesus’ half-brother, that it is perhaps the most practical of New Testament books, that it is concerned with action, with living out Christianity amidst hostile environs.

My guys are my congregation, in a sense. Admittedly, I don’t have fellow elders; nor do we have a written church covenant; nor do we own any property or have a steeple or a narthex or a pulpit.

But what we do have is men and women who take time out of their days each week to gather with fellow believers (and/or future believers) and pray and break bread and open our Bibles and sit under the authority of Scripture. We read the Scriptures straight through, book after book. We read, talk about what we read, interpret the words and ideas in their proper contexts, and flesh out how to apply what God has revealed.

And week after week, we are seeing new faces. Guys are seeing what the gospel is, who the gospel is, and what the gospel does.

In Psalm 23, David wrote a lot about how God prepares a table before the believer, and he does it in the presence of the believer’s enemies. Then David penned one of the most beautiful images in literature: “you anoint my head with oil; my cup overflows.” Stunning in its specificity and detail. God anoints the heads of his sheep. He does it by way of the oil of blessing. And at this table in the presence, the believer’s cup overflows. It’s a picture of the faithfulness of God, of Shepherd and sheep, of the goodness of God and his care of his people.

Today when I was cleaning up after Bible study and talking with a friend, inside my spiritual cup was overflowing. We had enjoyed a table in the presence yet again. And we did so by looking into James’ letter, to see how trying to live out the life of the cross in a pagan culture looked in the 1st century under Roman occupation and how it looks today in 21st century under paganism and the politicization of nearly everything.

It is so striking to me how at Bible study, we have male and female, black, white, Hispanic, Oriental, young and old, from rich backgrounds and poor backgrounds, some super-educated and others less so–but we are one in Christ. No special victim statuses or groups. No alphabet identities. It is about how Christ came for us sinners.

And if you have ever been gripped by that amazing grace of the gospel, and been granted spiritual eyes to see, your cup may overflow, too. Why? Because God is good and he gives good gifts to his chilren. And because we get to be part of his cosmic plan to reconcile all thing to himself through the crucified and risen Son.

I look forward to several weeks ahead with as many soldiers as the Lord will send to glean from James the tactics, techniques, and procedures for the Christian life. We will again gather at the table in the presence and be fed heaven’s manna and filled with cups of God’s overflowing good news.

Lightning During Daylight, Thoughts on Reading, & Infinite Jest

This evening as I sat down to write, thunderstorms had passed within five minutes. The thunder remains audible. The lightning seems to have passed.  

Lightning during daylight hours arrests my attention uniquely. As I was driving home from work, several patterns zippered across the sky directly in front of me. Silver-white electric zippers zagged from above and made me feel my finitude.

Does anyone dare to shake his fist at the heavens during a lightning storm? Remember Lieutenant Dan in Forest Gump, raging Lear-like in the waves, and winds, and deluge? Raging against it all. Against the war. Against losing his legs. Against ________? A Vietnam Ahab, raging against his white whale. 

After I worked out and ate a light meal and cooled off, I opened a book I’m reading, Geoff Dyer’s Zona. It is surely a different sort of read for me. It’s about a movie from 1979, Tarkovsky’s Stalker. I’ve not read much Dyer before. And I have not seen all of Stalker yet. It is dark thematically. It reminds me, so far, of Cormac McCarthy’s The Sunset Limited. What I appreciate about Dyer is his attention to detail. He sees the mist over mud puddles in Russia. He writes beautifully of how Tarkovsky’s musical score compliments the angst of the characters. He notices how water can be both baptismally significant and a place to drown. 

Then my thoughts recalled a recent conversation I had with a peer who laughed at me when he asked what I was reading and I told him, “Dickens … again.” I love the works of Charles Dickens, especially Great Expectations and Bleak House and David Copperfield. “Ah,” he said, “I only read non-fiction, books that teach me something,” he said. I did not respond. Clearly we see the world quite differently. Not everything should be a how-to manual. So it goes. 

Then my thoughts went to a scene from very early in the morning. We’d formed up, just before we took off for PT (physical training). I listened to the guys’ conversations. Almost all of them were allusions to movies they’d seen over and over again. No, not Tarkovsky’s Stalker. Pulp. Drivel. The sorts of movies my students know about, and, I’m ashamed to admit, most people I know. 

It’s why, I suppose, one of the many reasons David Foster Wallace, before he killed himself, penned Infinite Jest. It was, he said, intended to be a sad book. Other than the overt Hamletic allusions, it centers on the endless river of drivel, distraction, and emptiness. 

Tomorrow the weather here is to be cloudy, muggy, and hot. Nothing new. But at noon I am opening the New Testament Letter of James to my fellow soldiers. We will read what the half-brother of the Lord Jesus said about counting it all joy when we meet trials of various kinds (James 1:2). We will read about wisdom and its source and how, should anyone hunger for it, might be fed.

But it all strikes me as ironic. It’s in a book, after all—this message about trials and about counting it all joy and about wisdom. A book. To be read. To be studied. It would be a tragic thing, would it not, to instead choose to watch a movie? It would be like watching lightning through another’s eyes, like smelling thunderstorms via a surrogate, like recognizing you had wasted it when you had opportunity to attend. 

First Is the Word …

Image, right? Video, pictures, photos, memes–the visual. I appreciate the gift of the visual. Undoubtedly. But for me, language trumps it. Words win. Language. The power of the written and spoken word.

Returning to my apartment today after a day at the lake with my fellow soldiers, the sun threw golden fingers all over the pines and kudzu-filled scrubs along the ditches, and the grasses were deep green from lightning and thunderstorms over the last four days. I smelled the mimosas and dogwoods and honeysuckle, pungent as almost nothing else haunting memory.

When I got in and cooled off, I opened one of the novels currently on my list, William Gay’s Provinces of Night, and read this, and realized once again why, first is the word:

There was something oddly restful about the fireflies. He couldn’t put his finger on it but he drew comfort from it anyway. The way they’d seemed not separate entities but a single being, a moving river of light that flowed above the dark water like its negative image and attained a transient and fragile dominion over the provinces of night. (161)

This series of sentences follows a tender series of scenes in which a young man, Fleming, and a lass, Raven Lee, have met, and they’ve grown curious about one another and about their possible future and their possible roads ahead. And then the image of the fireflies, temporary in their fleeting deluvial dominion, sums it up. Beautiful. And all in words.

I am under no illusion that most folks will ever turn to the word for their wisdom or joy. It does, after all, take work.

But when I open a novel this fine, or read of King Lear once again, howling madly at his undoing and of Cornelia’s exiled love, or swing upon birches with Robert Frost, or raft the Mississippi with Huck and Jim, or see Boo Radley behind every ghostly elm with Scout and Jem, first for me is the word.

Press on, wordworkers. I’m with you.

Faulkner’s “That Evening Sun”

It was my freshman year in college, when I was seventeen, that I discovered the literary world of William Faulkner. Decades have passed since then and I still read him with amazement and respect. 

Today I read “That Evening Sun,” a tragic tale of a doomed black woman, who fears she’s going to be murdered by Jesus. 

Jesus is her husband. Nancy, the protagonist, is pregnant—by a white man. In Jefferson, MS. In the MS of Faulkner’s era. In a world where lines between white and black were as overt and common as ditches along the roadsides or train tracks. 

Nancy’s terrified of being left alone. She tries to persuade the Compson children to remain with her, to not abandon her to Jesus.

The Compson children are familiar to Faulkner readers: Quentin, Jason, Caddy, etc. And there’s Dilsey, the Compsons’ normal servant, too, well known for her prominent role in The Sound and the Fury. They’re all here, trapped in their doom. 

“That Evening Sun” plays upon familiar Faulknerian terrain: traditionaism plaguing whites and blacks; the individual, essentially helpless amidst the mob; violence; silence amidst suffering; divisions between social classes; the divisions within society; but, most important, the divisions within each individual heart. 

It’s a sad story, terribly sad, because the unvoiced takeaway in the last few lines is that Nancy, innocent in some respects, is going to be killed by Jesus, and no one is going to do a thing to change it.

To Behold or Not to Behold?

Introduction: I do not know how one might prove it, but the most famous play in the world is perhaps Hamlet. And I do not know how one might prove it, but the most famous line in the literary world is perhaps “To be, or not to be: that is the question . . .” At the point in the play when Prince Hamlet says these words, he is contemplating an ultimate question. To continue or not? To endure or not? To be or not to be?

I don’t know how many times I’ve read Hamlet and/or watched it performed. Many times, that is certain. But the more I read it, the deeper it grows.

Segue: This evening as I came back to my place, the sun was going down behind the oaks. A thunderstorm had moved through the area about an hour earlier and dumped several inches of rain. And lightning had webbed across the skies. But now the storms had passed and the clouds were taking new shapes and the smells of the earth were rich, aromatic, redolent of storms stored in memory.

And as I took my trash bag to the receptacle, I saw a woman in her backyard with a new dog, Yorkie-looking, tied on a red nylon leash lashed to a stake in the grass. She was watching the dog and his ears were taut triangles atop his scruffy head. She looked at the dog and he looked at her.

And as I kept walking the evening redness of the sun behind the oaks, I thought it would be a shame not to be moved, not to behold. To behold, as it were. To keep hold of, or to give regard to. To rejoice that creation has a Creator, that he makes beauty, that we are designed to see these colors, imbibe these scents, and point others towards it all, as if to say, “Do you not see what I see?”

Takeaway: I snapped a few pictures. And I beheld. So much depends upon that. Seems it would be improper or even worse to smell the rain, and see the firmament ablaze in flames of color, and watch clouds slowly take on new shapes as they slide on winds, and see the way a dog’s ears respond to its owner . . . and not express gratitude.

I beheld, as if it were the proper thing to do, as if someone were speaking and I needed to listen.

True North & God’s Plumb Line

Today I have another prayer breakfast scheduled for my fellow soldiers and families in our unit. We will begin at 0900. It is a simple undertaking in one sense. That is, it involves prayers, breakfast, fellowship, a speaker, music, singers, a pianist, and soldiers. But ultimately, any success hinges upon God.

It is a window of opportunity for us to recalibrate, to reckon with why we are here and do what we do, and how we ought to navigate our lives.

Who sets the standards for our moral lives? If those standards are built upon anything other than the objective revelation of God in Scripture, they are–by definition–subjectively derived.

In just a few hours, my assistant and I have arranged to have the unit fed Chick-fil-A for breakfast, and we have a musician coming who will lead us in singing our national anthem and in a worship song. And I have asked some Christians in my unit to pray with me for our unit, for our leadership, for our nation, but most of all, for Christian faithfulness in a world that desperately needs the truth and needs to see it lived out.

Why? Because moral true north is essential. We must have it if we are to know how to navigate accurately. If we would be wise, we must know our place and how and why we are where we are.

And if we would know how to navigate, we need to have an accurate reading of the way things actually are. We need, as Amos learned and wrote about, God’s plumb line (Amos 7:7-15).

I am grateful to have opportunities like today to try and minister the Word to my fellow soldiers and their families. I am grateful to be able to pray with and for my fellow soldiers and their families. I am grateful that God continually raises up men and women of Christian courage and conviction who have counted the sundry costs of being a disciple. Come what will, it is way past time to be faithful.

Motifs of Hope

When I was pastoring a church I had a friend in the congregation named Paul, and Paul taught me a great lesson. He told me, “Jon, you sow the seed but only God tills the heart.”

Why was that so foundational for me and what does that have to do with motifs of hope? Follow me.

I had been enduring one of my curses in life–battling sleeplessness and spending more than a healthy amount of time studying the Scriptures in order to pour into a congregation, only to learn that most of the congregation did not care for what the Scriptures had to say.

In addition to pastoring, I was teaching English full-time at a school, serving in the military as a chaplain, teaching Sunday school, leading midweek Bible studies, doing outreach, trying to be a good husband and dad, was in school earning another graduate degree, and on and on. And I was exhausted.

But I pressed on. I labored day in and day out for those people, and I was doing it for the Lord.

But that’s where things got tricky. I was doing it for the Lord, yes. But when the Lord did not do certain things the way I sometimes desired; or when the Lord did not cause certain people to be overwhelmed by His sovereignty the way I wanted; or when … You get the idea.

I wore myself out in ministry, in study, in teaching, in pouring into folks, and for what?

I learned the hard way that I was the one who needed to learn the lesson about God’s sovereignty.

It is only God, as my friend Paul told me, who truly and definitively changes a person’s nature, his heart/soul/core … or what in Greek is the ψυχή, soul.

An example may help. Think of the English word psychology. Literally, it means the “language” (logos) of the soul (psychí). That’s what the gospel does. It changes a person’s soul. It regnerates him. It takes a person from being the living dead to being spiritually alive to God. People hostile to God on a Monday are supernaturally reborn by a monergistic work of God on a Tuesday, for example. Suddenly, they have eyes to see what they were hitherto blind to. Suddenly, they see spiritual warfare for what it is. Suddenly, they see Jesus Christ, not as a swear word, but as the Savior of sinners.

Today I did what is perhaps my favorite thing in the world: I opened the Bible with people I have grown to love. They were fellow soldiers. We have been going through the Gospel of John verse by verse. And today we finished the book.

I read the text. We listened to Pilate’s words to Jesus and to the Jews. We listened to Jesus rebuke Pilate and tell him who actually has all authority (Hint: it’s not human government). We watched as Judas betrayed the Lord. We watched Doubting Thomas demand to touch Jesus’s side before he would believe. We watched Jesus talk to Mary while still in the tomb, post-resurrection. We watched Jesus be crucified between two criminals. We watched Jesus eat fish on the shores of the lake in northern Israel with weak-faithed disciples. And on and on.

And my guys saw it. They listened to me read and teach. We all listened to the Lord and His Word.

And my spirit wanted to shout, “Yes, Lord; You are gripping them! You are giving eyes to see!”

But I also heard my old friend Paul’s words from all those years ago: “Jon, you sow the seed but only God tills the heart.” Yes and amen.

But, Lord, please till. And I will tell of Your works.

And She Grew Up

Today I am pinching myself. Our daughter turned 25 today.

I’m proud of her. She is completely self-sufficient. She works hard. She has her own place. She enjoys her giftings and puts them to good use.

I know few people who love animals as much as I do, but she rivals my affections for the critters, that’s for sure, and maybe surpasses them.

I think back on her girlhood years–the years of soccer practices, of youth retreats with church, of track and field events, of cheerleading, and of years in church together when she was just a little girl.

Now she’s all grown. But the older I grow as a parent, I understand more and more how we always long to keep them, in a sense, under our wings and shelter our offspring.

But we taught her well. She has grown to need us less and less, at least in certain ways, and that’s the way it should be.

Happy birthday, Taylor Ray. We love you. Enjoy your day.

Reminded …

Today I had one of my life’s greatest joys. Here’s the shortened version of the story.

He was a former student where I taught English. He was always intellectually curious and zealous. He asked the hard questions. He was Socrates-like, unafraid to ask the difficult questions, to press the issues for the truth.

He has since grown up, married, become a husband to his wonderful wife, a father of sons, provider, Christian, and budding theologian.

He reads voraciously and deeply. Not the trendy stuff of most of today’s TGC/wokester speaking circuit glory boys, but the truth-tellers of old who have endured: Athanasius, Calvin, Lloyd-Jones, Jonathan Edwards, John Owen, Luther, Spurgeon, etc.

We talked again today. I was reminded of how and why I love him, of how Paul loved Timothy.

Ruth clung to Naomi during the dark times of literal famine and widowhood. And I learned–once again–from a young man I see working out his salvation in fear and trembling, that God is faithful.

He reminded me of my young friend, fighting the good fight of the faith, of the deposit entrusted to him, the truth delivered, once for all, unto the saints.

Press on, dear brother. God has you. And there is no more thrilling, worthwhile, and truthful place to be than in the will of the One who upholds all things.