Wednesday, January 25, 2012


“As you therefore have received Christ Jesus the Lord, continue to live your lives in him, rooted and built up in him, strengthened in the faith as you were taught..."  Colossians 2:6-7

This weekend I took my eleven-year-old son, Josh, out to Chili's for dinner.   It was a chance for me to revisit his desire to be baptized.  For a few years he has been sporadically asking to be baptized.  For a few years I have been saying "no."  It's not that I don't want him to be baptized, I just didn't feel he was ready.

I am a baptist by conviction, not merely association.  I believe, for a host of theological and exegetical reasons (reasons that would make for a horribly dull blog post), that baptism is a marker of allegiance, not a qualification for acceptance.  It's like a varsity jacket.  Wearing the jacket doesn't make you part of the team.  You wear it because you are part of the team.  Baptism has nothing to do with becoming a Christian and everything to do with declaring oneself to be a Christian, an external manifestation of an internal reality.

Because of this, I treat the decision to be baptized as a serious one.  The internal should precede the external.  A heart devoted to God, if sincere, will spill over into life in more ways than just a public immersion in water.  It will be evident in behavior, attitude, and priorities.  Even in failure, the internal devotion still spills over in repentance and confession.

Previously, I was reluctant to let Josh be baptized because I didn't see a lot of this spill over in his life.  I was concerned that he was merely being pulled by the wake of his parent's faith.  But riding a current, even the right current, is a dangerous foundation for faith.  It doesn't take much to sway you in a new direction.  I suspect this is why so many young people, raised in the church, leave when they are on their own.  Their faith has been riding a wave, not rooted in soil.  Those roots make all the difference.

When spring arrives in Upstate New York and the blanket of snow finally recedes, it reveals a landscape of bare trees and matted vegetation. The harsh affects of a punishing winter are evident. But as the weather warms and the days lengthen, the plants come back to life.  Brown turns to green, bare branches are once again clothed, and new growth bursts forth.  It would be a mistake to predict the potential for recovery from the wilted remains.  Instead, life springs from a root system, hidden from sight, but undeterred by the long cold.

I hope to give my children those roots.  Roots with tendrils that run deep into the soil of the Savior; a strong mooring that will serve them well through the seasons of life.  For all the days of sunshine, they will also face days of dreary rain, or brutal cold, or turbulent wind. And even in sunshine, the heat can become oppressive.   For these my children will need to be rooted deeply so that when the seasonal circumstances of life look barren, there will continue to be life beneath the surface.

Over chicken fingers and tostada chips I explained this to my son Josh, though not nearly so eloquently. And I was able to affirm that I see these roots developing.  His faith is becoming his own.  His priorities, attitudes, and actions reflect it.  He'll be baptized soon. Baptized because he's been planted.  Planted in the soil of a Savior who can carry him through the coldest winter into spring.

BLOG NEWS:  This blog has always been intended as a greenhouse of sorts, a place where writing ideas can be planted and cultivated.  The crop, if it's good enough, can be sent to market when the time is right.  A significantly abbreviated version of this post was recently accepted for future use as a Mustard Seed Ministries on-line devotional.  My review of Gary Chapman's Happily Ever After was accepted in an expanded version by New Wineskins webzine.  My earlier post "Navigator in Focus" was accepted for use on  "Our Daily Journey," a blog ministry of Radio Bible Class (publishers of Our Daily Bread).  In addition, this past week I was guest blogger for The Upper Room, corresponding to the day I wrote a devotional for their print publication (written long before this blog was launched).  All said, it's been a satisfying week as a writer.  Thank you for your encouragement as a reader.

Wednesday, January 18, 2012

MLK's Letter From Birmingham To Me

Forty-nine years ago, in April of 1963, Martin Luther King Jr. was imprisoned for his participation in civil rights demonstrations in Birmingham, Alabama.  He was peacefully protesting segregation and, in so doing, was violating a court ordinance against such demonstrations.  In the tension surrounding these protests, a group of eight white clergymen had issued a public statement questioning the timing and methods King was employing. King penned a 21 page response while in prison that has come to be known as the “Letter from Birmingham Jail,” now considered a classic in civil rights literature.  It is an eloquent expression of the philosophy and rational of the non-violent movement.  It is brimming with passion and clarity. 

It is disturbing to read, particularly as he writes of why he can no longer wait patiently for change.  Example after example is given of what prejudice looks like, day in and day out, for black men and women and children.  The string of examples concludes, “There comes a time when the cup of endurance runs over, and men are no longer willing to be plunged into the abyss of despair.”  That line alone conveys the power of King’s rhetoric, and the pain that incites it. 

Even more disturbing is that the letter is written to me.

Not directly, of course.  I was still eight years shy of conception at the time the letter was written.  But I am reminded that King was writing to people in agreement with his goals.  He opens the letter with “My dear fellow clergymen” and closes with “Yours for the cause of peace and brotherhood.”  These were men who agreed with King’s goal of racial harmony but questioned his methods.  They implored patience, particularly as the brash segregationist Eugene “Bull” Connor had recently been voted out of office as Public Safety Commissioner.  The rationale was that the new leadership should be given time to bring about change. 

The focus of the letter is not on the active prejudice of segregation, but the passive prejudice of those who will do nothing (but wait).  King goes as far as to say that “I have almost reached the regrettable conclusion that the Negro's great stumbling block in his stride toward freedom is not the White Citizen's Counciler or the Ku Klux Klanner, but the white moderate, who is more devoted to "order" than to justice; who prefers a negative peace which is the absence of tension to a positive peace which is the presence of justice.”  He goes on to say, “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will.” 

I don’t consider myself prejudice.  I suppose no one ever does, not in polite society, at least explicitly.  I can build my case, point to all the relationships I have with black men, and women, and children.  They are customers, co-workers, friends, and even family (I have two black nieces).  I don’t think much about the color of a person’s skin. 

But I also recognize that I have done little to combat the racism that still exists today.  I am, I suppose, one of those white moderates.  My goodwill runs deep, but my understanding is shallow.  I have only known life in the privileged majority.  I don't know what it is like to be treated with disrespect because of the color of my skin.  It is a hard pill to swallow when King suggests that my passivity may be a greater stumbling block to racial harmony than the activity of true racists.  But it is the pill he prescribes. 

The book of Revelation offers a vision of the kingdom of God, the culmination of all things.  It is a time when all wrongs are made right. Creation is redeemed and mankind is judged.  It includes a picture of people from every tribe, people group, language, and nation worshipping around the throne of God (Revelation 5:9).  The net is thrown wide with the use of the adjective “every” to define how expansive this racially diverse choir is.  Every tribe, every people group, every language. every nation.  And this racial diversity, wide as we can fathom, is held together in racial unity.  Their worship is introduced with the phrase “In a loud voice they sang” (Rev. 5:12).  “A loud voice” is relentlessly singular.

This is what history is plodding towards.  Racial diversity as wide as we can stretch it and racial harmony as narrow as we can hem it in.  As a Christian, my roll is to offer a foretaste of that terminus now. To be truthful, I’m not sure where that leaves me.  This is a reflection with no real conclusion.  I know I gravitate toward what King describes as peace as the absence of tension rather than as the presence of justice.  This is a pattern that infects all spheres of my life - my marriage, my parenting, my workplace, and, yes, my reaction to prejudice.  I know I don't like it.  I am making progress in many of these areas.  This opens my eyes to one more sphere. And awareness is a first step.  So I keep at it...plodding on.

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Thursday, January 12, 2012

Tebow Mania

In ancient Rome, unscrupulous potters would fill cracks and chips in their wares with wax to hide the defects.  Cover over the imperfections and they could sell the piece at a higher price.  Pots that should have been shelved in back aisles at Big Lots were transformed into flawless earthenware vessels and displayed (in soft light) at Pottery Barn.  To combat this dishonest marketing, reputable merchants resorted to marking their workmanship with the label "sine cera," Latin for "without wax."  This became the basis of our English word sincere.  

The image is fitting.  Scripture describes us as "jars of clay" (2 Corinthains 4:7).  And these are jars with cracks and chips.  I know my own desire to hide those defects behind a layer of wax.  I want to sell you a better version of myself than is real.  I can fake it pretty well.  I can pull it off, at least in some settings.  It's easier to fool people when the pot is in the store window than when it's in the home.  Fill it with stew and hang it over a fire and all that wax begins to melt.  I can fool the casual acquaintance, but the intimate relations will see through the wax.  They can tell what is true and what is fake.

I am not a sports analyst.  Not by a long shot.  I am in the scandalous 1% - the tiny fraction American males who have no interest in the NFL.  I usually wait until the Super Bowl to watch my first full game of the season.  But I am a cultural observer and, as such, it has been hard to escape Tebow mania.  He is polarizing, both for his orthodox faith and his unorthodox football.   I feel inept to comment on his football. But allow me the liberty to comment, just briefly, on his faith.

By all accounts of those who know him best, his faith is sincere.  His display of devotion to God is without wax, a true expression of his genuine love for the Lord.  In victory and defeat he gives praise to his Lord and Savior.  This is not something he turns on in public.  He is the same on the field and off the field.   Urban Meyer, his coach at the University of Florida, said of Tebow, "Everything you see is true."

So when he bows his knee, or points skyward, or gives praise to God in his post game interviews, it is not a performance. With most athletes, expressions of faith often feel waxy.  But in Tebow's case, this is clay we are seeing.  This is the real Tebow, not a glossy coating he hides behind.  It comes across as sincere.

Ironically, what is pure clay for Tebow has been loaded with wax by the media and hijacked by pop culture.  The idea of Tebowing has been reduced to a move that is symbolic of Tebow, the football player, not reflective of Christianity, the faith.   It is a flimsy pointer to matters more substantial.  Headlines and sounds bites use religious language in a flippant manner.  It's all very gimmicky.

But this isn't Tebow's doing.  He is just allowing his faith to infiltrate his life.  If it weren't on the football field it would be in the board room, or on the sales floor, or in the shop, or whatever work environment he were in.  This is Tebow, pure clay.  To act otherwise would be to coat himself with wax.   

So don't get hung up on the wax that the media traffics in.  Instead, look for clay.  Sincere faith expressed by a man who loves God more than football. And allow that to serve as a motivation to live your life with the same sincerity.

Wednesday, January 4, 2012

Happily Ever After

As part of the Tyndale Bloggers Network I will occasionally review books provided to me by the publisher.    I hope my reviews will be a window into my life and not just a rehashing of the book.

"Why can't marriage always be like that?"  We had just finished watching Pride and Prejudice with Kiera Knightley on New Years Day and were preparing for bed.  My wife was deeply moved by the noble and passionate love of Mr. Darcy that is revealed in the end.  I was mildly suspicious that this was a set up to expose my lack of romanticism.  "Because it's unsustainable," I stated, a bit too matter-of-factly.  This launched a conversation that spanned two nights in which we explored my wife's longing for and my own dismissal of this expression of love.  It was a circuitous route, this conversation, but it arrived at a satisfying end.  I discovered that I fear romanticism because I feel inept in expressing it.  Sue realized that this longing is planted in her soul as something too big for marriage to fill - a longing only God can satisfy.

And this is our marriage - two people who love each other deeply but have much to learn about themselves and each other.  Sometimes we stumble over each other's feet, and sometimes into each other's arms. Either way, this is a shared journey.  In this case, the vulnerable and risky dialogue that paved the way for mutual insight was more than just dialougue - it was intimacy.  One more log on the fire of love.  A fire that sometimes blazes and other times smolders.

I have a marriage that most people would envy.  It's not perfect, but it is durable.  Sixteen years of marriage have weathered this relationship.  Through the years our love has been pressed and twisted until well worn. It survived crisis that brought the relationship to the brink and led to a period of brief separation about five years ago.  We have fought hard to preserve this union.  We have the scars to prove it.  But the tattered complexion of our love has resulted in a bond that only shared struggle can account for.  There is security in a relationship that has been tested and tried.

I just finished reading Happily Ever After: Six Secrets to a Successful Marriage by Gary Chapman.  I was sent a free review copy as part of the Tyndale Bloggers Network.   The book is a fairly typical example of the marriage enrichment genre, one of the best I have read.  It is organized around six major areas of focus: solving conflicts, negotiating change, handling money, raising children, sex, and in-laws.  Each section is then broken down into seven or eight chapters dealing with one component of that topic.  The chapters are short and straightforward.  There are nuggets of insight that are worthwhile.  Examples abound from Chapman's vast experience as a marriage counselor, putting flesh on otherwise theoretical abstracts.  Each chapters closes with steps to put into practice what has been covered in the chapter.  It's a very good book for what it does.

But this is where my history may cloud my review.  I react against the glut of marriage books that focus on techniques.  With all the emphasis on techniques, marriage is reduced to a skill set, akin to playing chess.  Learn the rules, get some strategy, and you can win.   But the hard scrabble of life is more dynamic than a chess game.  To make techniques the focal point of the relationship, "the secrets to a successful marriage," is to cheapen the relationship.

Techniques are tools.  Tools can be useful.  But having the tools doesn't hinder these issues from continuing to infiltrate my marriage.  Most of these principles were not new to me. Many of them fall under the heading of common sense.  When discussing finances, Chapman instructs the reader to live within their means.  In handling conflict he focuses on the importance of listening.  This is not novel advice.  But even familiar, common sense principles still trip me up.  Knowing does not always equate to practicing.  What saved my marriage and carried us through was not a battery of techniques.  If our fundamental need was for techniques, then Scripture would read more like a marriage enrichment book.  Instead, it focuses elsewhere. 

So maybe there's just one secret to a successful marriage, though this is no more secret than the six Chapman covers.  But indulge me for a moment.  Grant me the leeway to unveil it with flourish, as if something new and novel.  Gather round as I pull back the curtain on this profound insight.  The secret (wink, wink) to a successful marriage is the ardent conviction that marriage is a sacred covenant.  It is a holy relationship intended as a model and metaphor of another holy relationship - one even more intimate and hard won.  It is a promise before God to be faithful to another.  A promise not lightly entered, and not lightly broken.  As such, it is worth fighting for.  This is what held us together.  Even when the relationship itself was quite ugly, we fought to restore it.  It was a sacred ugliness that we would not give up on until all options has been exhausted.  God honored our perseverance.  Techniques were useful in fleshing that out, but always secondary to that bedrock resolve. 

Marriage suffers when we downgrade it's holiness.  Our rush to techniques feels to me like we are slipping toward this downgrade.  Techniques are secondary.  A devotion to covenant faithfulness is primary.  Keep this in focus and Chapman's book can help fill your tool box.   Keep this in focus and you will have a successful marriage.  Keep this in focus and even "successful"  will seem like a cheap word to attach to marriage. Better, marriage will be holy and blessed;  a sacred ugliness transformed into sacred beauty.