A Paean for CJ

FullSizeRenderIt was when I pulled out of the driveway that I knew. I knew I had to write it. Let me explain. She was sitting there with the dogs, watching me pull away to drive south again to Fort Benning for surgery this Thursday. I knew I had to write it. I can get it across on the page, things I don’t say as often or as well as I should—namely, that I am grateful for her, for her steadfastness, for her loyalty, for her feistiness, for her prayer life, for her deftness at organizing our lives, and on and on. I had to write it. To write what exactly? A paean to my wife who makes me better than I would otherwise be.

I learned an awful lot during my seminary years. And one of those lessons came by way of my favorite seminary professor. He was teaching us seminarians about personal discipleship. He was stressing that we could learn lots of theological precepts and still lose our marriages. Then he made this profound remark: “Don’t wait till Mother’s Day to realize if you have a Proverbs 31 wife.” Dr. Cutrer, my professor, could have ended class that moment. He was that gifted in teaching via example.

Proverbs 31:10-31 is perhaps the most obvious set of verses in Scripture where a godly wife is praised. King Lemuel uses synonymous parallelism in Hebrew poetry to make the point of how valuable a godly wife is. Here is just one example from verse 10: “An excellent wife who can find? She is far more precious than jewels” (Proverbs 31:10, ESV). Pretty straightforward, right? An excellent wife, according to Scripture, is worth more than fine jewels, and this was written circa 1,000 B.C. in an ancient Near East context, so precious jewels perhaps sparkled more in people’s thinking than they might today.

But what made Dr. Cutrer’s lesson for us more poignant was that Jane, his precious wife, was in class with him. She was at his side, serving alongside him to show us seminarians what an enduring commitment looked like. In short, the precept was theological (that God created, ordained, and loves biblical marriage) but also fleshed out in real lives. Theology was not just to be cerebral but incarnational. And that is why I had to write today—not primarily about theology but about my wife. Following are three examples of why I felt compelled to share.

 Example one: I love to work outside in the yard. Where I’m from, folks call it “piddlin’.” It is a catchall phrase. In my case, it usually involves doing something in the soil. From my mom and my maternal grandfather, I inherited a love for the earth—the smell of soil, a love of colors in nature, of flora, of things growing, etc. Some guys like to peruse sports cars; I like to walk through the garden section at Lowe’s, if that gives you an idea.

When I was outside piddlin’, my wife, CJ, pressure-washed both of the decks on the back of our house. We live in the woods, and so spiders and carpenter bees and all sorts of other creatures like to try and stake a claim on the decks of the house. So while I was out in the yard, my wife had gone down to the basement, hauled up a pressure washer, and sprayed off two decks. I don’t know of many husbands who would have complained. This one didn’t. Score one for the Proverbs 31 wife.

Example two: I have a surgery this week at Fort Benning to reconstruct my right shoulder. I’ll be operated on here, and then return to my barracks room to rest and recuperate, and hopefully, return home for a few days of convalescence. No big deal, right? No need for my wife to drive three hours south. Yet when I told her that I was good, that I had a buddy down here who had promised to look after me if anything goes wrong, she got … well, feisty. “Are you kidding me?” she asked, not really wanting any reply I might have offered. “I’ll be there. You’re having major surgery. Do you really think I’m staying home? Good grief, Pirtle.” Yep, not the brightest husband moment. Score another one for the Proverbs 31 wife.

Example three: I was in a church recently where a teacher was teaching on a couple of verses from one of the New Testament epistles. As part of his lesson, he cross-referenced a passage from another letter but when he cross-referenced the second passage, he did not explain the context of the passage at all. The passage was about dietary laws, not about what he was trying to emphasize. And I was troubled because context is crucial. A fundamental rule of correct interpretation is to know, understand, and teach the correct context. Put bluntly, we are never to rip verses out of context. Anyway, I was troubled but I did not say anything until my wife and I were talking after lunch. I told her what had transpired and she asked me this: “Will you just commit to pray about it (talking to the teacher) this week?” She knows I don’t like conflict, but she was right. Not only should I have gone to the teacher, but I should also have been praying and prayerful as I did it. But I had not. My wife was right on both counts and I was wrong. Score another one for the Proverbs 31 wife.

When I pulled away today to drive back down, she was on the driveway with the dogs. She would undoubtedly go in when I pulled away, make sure the kids were okay, straighten something in the house, perhaps read the book she’s working on currently, prep for the coming week, and wait for me to call and tell her I had made it to Benning again.

I have made it here now and reflected some on how much better I am because of her, on how far I still have to go, on how humbling it is to be chastened and loved by one who loves and remains alongside me despite knowing my many weaknesses.

Her parents (my in-laws) I have grown to love and respect more with each passing year, and two of the greatest blessings they gave this world were daughters, both of whom love the Lord. They (my in-laws, sister-in-law, and wife) know, too, that Proverbs 31 is not just for Mother’s Day homilies. It’s for us stubborn, sinful husbands who don’t tell you enough that you are more precious than jewels.

Consider

Ever taken a personality test? In the military chaplain corps we have access to many curricula that use personality tests as part of their programs. Some tests make use of animals as symbols for personality types. Beavers are structured types who appreciate regimens and rules. Otters are those who frolic and want as much of life as possible to be a festival. Other tests use shapes. Circle types seek harmony and collaboration whereas triangle types are charismatic leaders asking, “How can I accomplish this?” Still other tests use colors wherein yellow types are adrenaline junkies who often tend to be self-centered, whereas blues are known for their loyalty in relationships and their careful self-discipline. I appreciate these tests in so far as they go. However, people are more complicated than just a dominant personality type. We all have peculiar personality traits wherein we trend towards certain behaviors more often. But we have shades of more than one color. We are not just one type/shape/color vis-à-vis our personalities. Different stressors elicit different parts of ourselves. How important is it, therefore, that we consider our ways? Personality tests are helpful as a possible starting point for understanding people. But might there be more value in considering our ways?

Recently a teacher in the church my family and I attend was leading our Sunday school class through a study of Haggai 1 and Ezra 5, two passages that dovetail in their description of Israel’s plight in the 520s B.C. and the rebuilding of the temple in Jerusalem under Zerubbabel. In Haggai (ESV) 1:5, Scripture records this admonition from the Lord delivered via Haggai the prophet: “Now, therefore, thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways.”

Danger lurks when we gloss over commands so fundamental as simply to consider our ways. What did God mean? Just what he said. To consider, to give thought to, to reflect upon the ways in which we spend our time. God commanded what was good for the people—namely, that they consider their ways.

Then the Sunday school teacher asked a powerful question: “How many of us are spending our days traveling the road of life, simply turning up the volume on the radio?” Rather than dealing with the big questions of life, we spend ourselves on trivia, entertainment, and distraction. English poet William Wordsworth wrote the following in “The World Is Too Much with Us,” addressing the same issues:

The world is too much with us; late and soon,
Getting and spending, we lay waste our powers; Little we see in Nature that is ours;
We have given our hearts away, a sordid boon!

The prophet Haggai did not let his hearers off the hook. Listen to his words: “You have sown much, and harvested little. You eat, but you never have enough; you drink, but you never have your fill. You clothe yourselves, but no one is warm. And he who earns wages does so to put them into a bag with holes. “Thus says the Lord of hosts: Consider your ways” (1:6). Again the Lord says through his prophet, “Consider your ways.”

Ever since the Sunday school hour I have kept hearing that refrain—consider your ways. My mind went to a Braves game several days ago. My family and I had gone as part of a group to enjoy another game with some friends. The game ended up being postponed due to rain. But before that happened, we did have time for the “Star Spangled Banner” to be played. I’m an officer in the U.S. military. I am moved each time I hear the tune and recite the words. Bravery, sacrifice, and brotherhood are not just talking points to me. I know heroes and work alongside many each day. But what I noticed when the flag was displayed on the massive electronic billboard inside the stadium was that many (particularly youngish) people in the stadium did not remove their hats. No respect for the national anthem. Nor did many of them even stop talking. They kept eating their peanuts and Cracker Jacks.

Why do I bring this up? It’s not just to suggest that respect for America’s exceptionalism has been emasculated. It’s not even just to suggest that a coarsening has taken place among many of America’s Millennials. And it is certainly not to suggest American patriotism is salvific or in any way the gospel of Christianity.

But as an American, as a military officer, as a husband and father, I grieved inside. I was saddened that young men would not take thirty seconds to remove their ball caps, hush their talking, and at least honor the nation that allows us all to enjoy America’s pastime.

I wonder how many of us in the stadium were considering our ways. I know at least one person who was convicted. I see him daily … in the mirror, when I rise early to shave. Haggai spoke powerful prophetic words: let us consider our ways.

 

 

 

“Lily” (Part five)

 

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“Well,” Tim said, “your dad definitely led in creating Covenant in this community, Beth. I knowfew people, men or women, who are as humble as your dad, but who are resolute in their determination to follow through on such a noble plan. To plant a school like Covenant, with its emphasis on character, not just facts, he and the school are remarkable testimonies to God’s providence.”

“Oh, you are so right, Tim,” Beth went on. “We at Covenant teach our kids about how important it is to be humble. We teach them about how Jesus is the lamb and the servant prophesied in Isaiah 53. We even have the kids memorize the whole passage by sixth grade! Isn’t that great? Oh Tim, you’re so right; we are really being used by the Lord at Covenant. It’s a special blessing of God, I believe.”

Lily didn’t raise her eyes from her metal chair during Beth’s blather. She (Lily) feared her facial expression would betray her view of Miss Rusty-hair. Beth wouldn’t know God’s blessing were it wrapped in swaddling cloths and laid in a manger, Lily thought. Dear Lord, I feel sweat under my right armpit again.

 Riiinnnngggg! A bell sounded in the hallway just outside the door. Lily almost dissolved into her metal chair again. She was sure she was sweating now, but she rejoiced in the deliverance from the tower of air.

Fred, the kind man who had escorted her to Tim’s class, stood smiling against the wall where Lily could see him. After Miss Rusty-hair, Lily viewed Fred as her old faithful friend, though they’d met less than an hour ago, and he’d simply helped her to a class.

“How was that Sunday school class for you, Miss Lily? Did you enjoy Tim’s teaching?” Fred asked.

“I did enjoy Tim’s teaching very much,” Lily said, measuring her answer. She did not know, after all, Beth’s father’s name. Lily felt the sweat under her armpit again, and waited for Fred to ask another question on their way to the sanctuary.

(To be continued)

“Lily” (Part Two)

 

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Fred was the man’s name that walked Lily to class. “How long have you been in town?” he asked.

“Just a few weeks,” Lily said. “I’m a teacher at Covenant. I moved from Rook just last month. I don’t really know a lot of people at work yet, and those I do know–well, I don’t know if they’re active in a local church.”

“I’m talking too much,” Lily thought to herself, but she liked Fred. He seemed trustworthy. His gentle spirit put her at ease. He wore khakis, brown loafers, an off-brand long-sleeve plaid shirt, and brown tie. His thin brown hair was combed over a sun-splotched scalp. And he didn’t have ear hair, Lily noticed. He wore a gold wedding band on his left hand.

“This class I’m taking you to is for married and singles your age,” Ms. Lily, “is that alright?” Fred asked.

“Yessir. Thank you so much,” Lily said.

Entering the class, Fred addressed the teacher. “Tim, we have a guest this morning. This is Lily. She teaches at Covenant. She’s new to town.” Lily smiled nervously, wondering how she appeared to Tim and the class.

“Welcome to our class, Lily,” Tim said. “Please sit wherever you like.”

Metal folding chairs were arranged in a horseshoe pattern on the blue carpet. Tim had a stool and a small metal lectern near the dry erase board.

Feeling eyes upon her, Lily longed to sit. She saw an open chair near the door. As she approached it, she felt examined. As she sat, she gathered her skirt under her, crossed her right leg over her left, and pulled out her iPhone for the Bible app. She felt someone staring at her. Looking up from her phone, a woman was in front of her, between her and the teacher Tim. Lily’s stomach knotted. “Where are Donald and Fred now?” she thought.

“Hey–welcome to our class. I’m Beth! We’re so glad you’re here this morning!” From her metal chair, Lily looked up at Beth. Beth approached six feet tall, had bleached hair that was not blonde so much as orange–rust-colored, in fact. She had large-knuckled hands and black polish on fake nails. She was not wearing a wedding band, but wore rings of every dimension on all her fingers. She had bracelets on both wrists, and had gold crosses hanging from both earlobes. She jangled like a tinker.

(To be continued)

 

“Lily” (Part One)

 

 

imgres“This is going to be awful. Will anyone speak to me in Sunday school, or even during church?”

Lily asked herself. She opened her car door and stepped onto the blacktop of the church parking lot. She was wearing a beige blouse, her long black skirt, tan boots, and her favorite purse. She had a Bible app on her iPhone. “I hate this. Coming to church alone, at the mercy of every crotchety old deacon with untrimmed ear hair and bad teeth. Why did I even come today? This is going to be awful.” So ran her thoughts as she donned a smile and neared the doors at the front of the church. She saw a feigning old man getting ready to utter some platitude about how glad he was she came to God’s house today. Lily could feel sweat form under her right armpit. “Oh gosh,” she thought, as she extended her right hand to shake the old man’s, “I bet he’s got black ear hair. And I’m starting to sweat. And it’s February.”

“Welcome to Beulah Church, young lady. I’m Donald. Are you visiting with us today?”

“Yessir, I’m new to town. My job brought me here,” Lily said.

“Well, welcome. I’ll have someone show you to a Sunday school class for your age group, okay?”

“Yessir,” Lily said. “That’d be great.”

Lily tried not to stare at his ears; she feared seeing black hairs staring back at her. “He seems nice enough, however” she thought.

“But now Sunday school is sure to be a semicircle of the self-absorbed, texting one another, instead of listening to the teacher,” she thought.

Lily had been raised in church. She knew how mean some folks could be. “Was the church ever pure?” she wondered. “I shouldn’t have come. But I needed to. But I’ll not meet any friends. Only friendlies. There’s a world of difference,” she thought. Weighted in her voiceless loneliness, Lily knew that within seconds, she would enter a Sunday school class.

The door to the class loomed straight ahead.

(To be continued)