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Friday, December 30, 2011

The Cumberland Cruiser in My Mississippi River Port

Vanderbilt athletics got me hired at First Evangelical Church.

Well, in a circuitous way. A gentleman on the search committee assigned to vet me nine years ago played baseball at Vandy, and thought it curious I listed on my resume, under “Interests,” Vanderbilt athletics. I find that curious too looking back now.
But it’s true. One of the few things men get to take into adulthood from their boyhood is their team allegiances. I’ve really had only one: Vanderbilt. I didn’t go to college there; my paternal family heritage is centered in Nashville. My grandparents actually honeymooned in October of 1931 in Columbus, Ohio, to take in the Vanderbilt v. Ohio State game. The football program was great then but waned into misery by later decades.
I don’t know when my prayer-warrior grandmother began praying regularly for her “Vandy boys”—SEC people will understand this passion—but she did on game days. And probably did during the week too. And yet, year after year after year Vandy seemed to be a team almost divinely cursed, like the Chicago Cubs. If we are, I blame the institution’s ultra-liberal divinity school for making God mad and He’s taking it out on the team. But my grandfather finally dropped his season tickets sometime in the 1970s, disgusted that Vanderbilt could lose at home to Furman. FUR-MAN!
You can’t be a Vanderbilt football fan if you have no stomach for losing. Nor can you be a Vanderbilt football fan if you can’t take the annual autumn reproaches of higher and mightier SEC brethren. I’ve seen every other SEC team’s bubbas outnumber Vandy fans at 41,000-seat Dudley Field. They come in the gates scorning our stadium’s size and age and—horrors!—lack of a gargantuan jumbotron. They pencil “W” on their schedules beside the Vandy date before they even play us. Then the ones that fall to us make ridiculous excuses like—I’m looking at you, Ole Miss—we have to play Vandy early, in September, before they’re all banged up!  Hotty Toddy, gosh you’re whiny!
Alas, for it is written! “The reproaches of those who reproach you have fallen on me” (Psalm 69:9).
In my lifetime—42 years—Vandy has posted four winning seasons in football. They can make it five this Saturday if they win the Liberty Bowl, which is why I’m writing this post. My beloved Commodores are in Memphis this week and I’ve been reflecting on why I love them; on why as a grown man I was so giddy to get to breakfast with two of the players Wednesday morning at the FCA Liberty Bowl Prayer Breakfast in the hotel just down the street from my church. I couldn’t wait to call my wife and oldest son and tell them, and email my dad about it.
And I grew up in Alabama! Mostly in a town about an hour-and-a-half north of Tuscaloosa, the absolute ground zero of football fan frenzy. My Boy Scout troop for years ushered one or two Alabama football games a season. I remember the Bear leaning against the goal post in one of the end zones as his team warmed up. Every boy in the stadium would congregate at the chain-link fence behind him, hoping Coach would speak to us. And he often did.
Roll Tide! never stirred me, though, even as I watched them routinely drub Vandy back in those days by margins like 63-3. I even watched Bear Bryant’s TV show, sponsored by Golden Flake, on Sunday afternoons—and you haven’t really lived unless you heard Bear Bryant thank “Golll-den Fl-aaake” in his low gravely voice. If I wanted to pull for a winner, the Tide would have been the logical choice.
But I just loved that star with the V. “Behold, I have engraved you on the palms of my hands…” (Isaiah 49:16).
Some readers will remember the “Leonard’s Losers” radio broadcast. I liked it even though Leonard always picked Vanderbilt to lose. Leonard nicknamed all the SEC teams, calling Vanderbilt the “Cumberland Cruiser” (the Cumberland River runs through Nashville). With his thick Southern brogue, Leonard would usually preview a game, Vandy v. Alabama for instance, like this:
Vandy v. Alabama. The Cumberland Cruiser sets sail for Tuscaloosa this week. Comin’ off a vic’try over ‘dem Blue Pitchforks of Duke, the men in black-and-gold are sailin’ high. But they’ll encounter a pack of angry crimson pachyderms and have to row back to Nashville on the wreckage. Leonard’s Loser: Vandy!” 
Vanderbilt football has vastly improved since my childhood, even giving the mighty Tide some jolts of fear over the last ten to fifteen years. I noticed on the redone 2012 SEC football schedules released this week, that in order to accommodate Missouri’s and Texas A&M’s entrance into the league, Alabama dropped Vanderbilt. At least that’s how I’ll construe it. Because as Warren St. John observed in Rammer Jammer Yellow Hammer: A Journey Into the Heart of Fan Mania (the author followed Alabama football for a year): “Playing Vanderbilt is like riding a roller-coaster—not in the sense of highs and lows, but in that we can experience the free falls and g-forces of a close game all with the knowledge that at the end, we’ll pull safely into the station.”

Not just Alabama fans feel this way. The rest of the conference does too, including the Arkansas fans who sat behind me in the stands at this year’s contest in Nashville, bemoaning the whole time how their seventh-ranked Hogs could possibly be getting beaten by Vanderbilt. Vandy committed some costly turnovers down the stretch and missed a chip-shot field goal for overtime (“How long, O Lord?”, Psalm 6:3), granting Arkansas an eked out victory. I’ve seen this happen many times—rescuing defeat from the jaws of victory, we Vandy old timers call it. But the couple behind me whooped and cheered at the end as if they could now return unashamed to Arkadelphia for a feast of pickled chitterlings. At least we don’t eat our mascot.
I don’t know why I love Vanderbilt football. I’ve tried not to love it. I don’t get upset anymore by the losses as I did when I was younger—well, okay, I did experience mild upset by the way we lost to Tennessee this year. But I haven’t thrown anything in years because I am nowhere near a rabid fan. I don’t follow Vandy’s recruiting or avidly listen to sports talk or send Tweets to their players. I would have years ago but my allegiance is well in check now.
And it’s fine with me that none of my kids like Vandy. After the third or fourth game he attended (all losses) my now 15-year-old asked me a few seasons back, sincerely, “Why do you like this team again, Dad?” I’m taking my 11-year-old daughter and a friend of hers to the bowl game Saturday. She has recently proclaimed her affections for—(sigh)—Ole Miss. I count my blessings though: UT would be worse.
I suppose I’m still interested in Vanderbilt football because of the memories. Yes, a lot of forgettable football. But when I walk into Vanderbilt Stadium I meet myself again as a boy, a teenager, a young adult. I’m not trying to sentimentalize or enshrine it, but Vanderbilt Stadium is perhaps the one specific locality I can say I’ve been going to consistently for most of my life. And it hasn’t changed that much since my grandparents’ time, which actually comforts me.
I inevitably think of them when I go to Vandy home games, as I miss them, and as well an uncle who took me to some games. I remember my dad taking me to games when we’d visit my grandparents in Nashville, and how we’d stay to the end to gather up plastic cups for our cupboard. (I first learned what a flask was collecting cups.) Back home in Alabama, we’d tune in to the powerful WLAC 1510 AM station out of Nashville to hear Commodore broadcasts on Saturday nights. When Lynn and I lived in Nashville after seminary, Dad got season tickets for my brother-in-law and me and him to attend home games together. We’d joke that we were there to see the other SEC teams play—my brother-in-law is an Alabama fan with Vandy sympathies. But what kept us going back was the hope that the next game, the next season Vandy’s fortunes would turn and we’d be there to see it. “Hope springs eternal on West End,” as the Nashville locals say.
Following Vanderbilt football has probably taught me some things about hope. But more so about loyalty. I think that’s why I put it as an “Interest” of mine on my resume ten years ago. I was trying to indicate that I’ve learned the qualities of loyalty and resilience and tenacity, and to some measure I have to credit Vanderbilt football with that.
There’s a lot about fandom I despise and reject. It brings out the silliness and boorishness in people, and too many hang too much vicariously on the shoulders and legs of 18-year-olds. In Alabama college football has crossed over into idolatry.
But I think being a Vanderbilt fan has in its own way made me a better pastor. You can’t be a pastor if you have no stomach for setbacks and disappointments. And like some of Vandy’s teams, the church has seemed to me at times incapable of winning, hopelessly outmatched, and even unworthy of my loyalty. I’ve tried not to love her. But I can’t. She’s part of my heritage. And I thank God often for this now.
I had hoped sometime during my tenure in Memphis that Vandy would get a Liberty Bowl bid. Kind people in my church made sure I was given tickets. Vandy’s opponent is a very good Cincinnati team. I thought of dressing up for the game like John the Baptist and carrying a large placard with “DEFEAT CIN!” on it. Clever, yes? But then my 11-year-old and her friend would be mortified, I’m sure. So I’ll just wear my hat with the star and the V. And I’ll wear my heart on my sleeves.

Thursday, December 22, 2011


I don’t know that parenting in general is any better or worse than it’s ever been. We all recognize I hope that some of the best parents have rotten kids and vice-versa; that within the same family one can find a child who is a credit to his parents but his sibling is not—see Cain and Abel, for example, from the Eden East subdivision. Parenting has been a very human experience since even antediluvian times. And as such it is, among the varied ventures of life, one of the most resistant to glib formulas.
That is not to say there is no tried-and-true wisdom to commend to all parents. Consider this axiom: If you expect respect from your children they will render it. We’ll immediately think of exceptions to this, living as we do in an age of simple yes-but retorts to every rationale. But really now: Aren’t you doing your child a comparatively better service to expect him to respect you? How he or she treats you directly correlates to how he or she will treat others. Laissez-faire parenting is not only weak but weakening.
In a word, my pastoral responsibility to parents is to encourage them. Understand “encourage” in this context to mean enabling their courage. James Dobson was right: Parenting isn’t for cowards.
For the parents I share church and school communities with, I don’t fear their making mistakes of overbearingness—overbearingness being a kind of false bravado whereby I’ll show my kids who’s the boss and what’s what and that’s that. I see some of that around and it saddens me when I do. Paul says bullying-as-parenting is precisely the best tactic for embittering a kid (Eph. 6:4). Whatever the short-term gains in respectfulness and obedience, one is landing the helicopter squarely on his or her children’s shoulders, pinning them under overweening expectations so that one can prove something to himself usually. This is, in St. Benedict’s words, rubbing too hard to remove the rust and crushing the vessel. What Benedict told his abbots translates to parenting too: “Let [the parent] so arrange everything that the strong [kid] has something to yearn for and the weak [kid] nothing to run from.”
But for the parents I share church and school communities with, I fear more the mistakes of underbearingness. I just made up the word, but underbearing parents expect too little from their kids. These parents permit sass, demandingness, ingratitude, untimeliness, inattentiveness, and other overtures of disrespect. It’s the parent that aw-shucks shrugs at his child’s rudeness (some of these kids, Eddie Haskell-ish, are polite to every other adult but their folks) as if nothing can be done about it, as if everybody’s kid is boorish and we just have to laugh it off. Teenagers! What can you do?
Underbearing parents put themselves at their kids’ beck-and-call in ways that aren’t good for the kids. Earlier this school year my son’s football coach sent an email out to parents seeking to rein in our Fed Ex Ground service to school for every little thing the boys were forgetting. He also noted that the office staff was dismayed by the tones of voice some of the boys were using toward their moms (like Napoleon Dynamite barking at Kip to bring him some ChapStick). If the underbearing parent finally does stand up for him/herself, the dignity of the stand is often debased by a frazzled display of pent up self-disgust, since most parents realize implicitly they should not tolerate the intolerable or suffer the insufferable.
Our children need the formation of our discipline, yes. But our children also need to learn to discipline themselves. The earlier we expect this from them the better it is for them. It killed me to see her tears, but this is why I refused to retrieve my daughter’s spelling book from her classroom a couple of weeks ago, even though I have a key to the room (her school meets in our church building). It cost her valuable points on an assignment, but she has to learn to be responsible for her stuff—and herself.
I retrieved my aforementioned son, a ninth-grader, from a class event recently. The event, a Christmas party, was held at a stately home and the kids all looked nice. At the designated pick-up time I pulled up in the cove to find a good number of my son’s male classmates in the driveway and yard, wrestling and chasing each other. It wasn’t hooliganism, granted, but it also wasn’t the venue for that kind of horseplay. I expect such from my younger son’s Junior Kindergarten class. As I probed my older son about the evening on the way home, I learned the same kind of stuff had gone on inside the house too. I was embarrassed for the girls in his class, and felt bad for the hosting moms who were subjected to it.
That a lot of those boys didn’t show the appropriate decorum at that event is the evidence of their immaturity. And immaturity is synonym for undisciplined. I think a 15-year-old boy ought to be young man enough to know how to conduct himself at a nice party. Furthermore, he ought to be young man enough at 15 to personally care about how he comes across. That’s the fruit of self-discipline: self-respect and self-restraint, recognizing what it’s time for and not (Eccl. 3). But boys, and girls, need their parents to both emphasize and expect this from them. It won’t occur by osmosis.
It was either my junior or senior prom. There was one nice restaurant in my Alabama hometown, and some buddies and I took our dates there for dinner. Somehow we neglected to tip our waitress. Since it was a small town word got back to our parents of our mistake, probably that night. To their enduring credit and our enduring benefit, none of our parents went to the restaurant themselves to pay the tip. Instead we each of us were confronted by our parents and sent back to the restaurant the next day to render the neglected tip and offer personal apologies to the offended waitress face-to-face.
Perhaps that waitress shouldn’t have made such a fuss? Maybe, but I’m thankful she did for what I picked up in self-discipline. It was probably the first time I realized just how responsible I was for me. I’m trying to pass the same along to mine. But sometimes it feels like too many of my parenting peers are running out on the check.

Wednesday, December 14, 2011

Searching for a Series

This post will appear in the January issue of our church newsletter:

Occasionally I’m asked how I arrive at topics for preaching. John Houseman, the fusty old British spokesman for the Smith Barney ads of my youth, harrumphed in one of those ads, “Good investments don’t just bite you on the bottom and say, ‘We’re here!’” But sermon ideas sometimes do, and it is hoped each series is its own good investment in our church.

I live under creative deadlines for most of the weeks leading up to 52 Sunday mornings per year. I can’t stand before you on a Sunday and say, “Sorry, but this was a tough week and I couldn’t get any sermon writing in.” The word “amaze” is chronically overused, but truly I am amazed by God’s weekly provision of insights needed to write sermons. It is a source of weekly gratitude, experienced as one among many instances of God’s faithful care of His people.

Although I’m still early in my career, I’ve preached long enough now to have a file cabinet full of older sermons. I don’t often call these out of retirement though. When I do I usually feel the need to rewrite them anyway.

It is good when I force myself to return to texts already studied. One doesn’t want to treat Scripture like a daily commute. It’s just when I think I know something that I’ve stopped noticing. In this vein familiarity doesn’t breed contempt so much as unfamiliarity. So the aim in rewriting older sermons is to “bring out of his treasure what is new and what is old” (Matt. 13:52).  

But I struggle with using older sermons or revisiting older sermon series. I hate confessing this, but it is easy for me to slip into thinking that if I return to a book or topic previously preached—my 2005 study of Jesus’ parables, let’s say—some assume I’ve converted my study into a kind of homiletic microwave. I go in on Saturday night to heat up leftovers for the morning. In other words, if I re-preach a book or return to a topic from a previous series some will think I’m not working hard at preaching. I’m mailing it in; out on my boat Visitation during the week; not using the freshest ingredients.

So how do I arrive at topics and/or books for preaching? Take books first. Much of the Bible I still haven’t taught. As of this writing, cumulatively considered, I’ve yet to preach completely through three of the Gospels, Acts, six of the epistles, Hebrews, and Revelation. From the vaster Old Testament I’ve only preached four Minor Prophets, maybe 25% of the Psalter (some Laments in 2008 and the Songs of Ascents, Pss. 120-134, in my church in Franklin), the Ten Commandments, and only one Old Testament “life of” sermon series (David). While books and subjects I haven’t preached yet get primary consideration when pondering a new preaching series, I also factor how long ago I preached a book. I last preached Philippians, for instance, in 1995. I’ll likely preach Philippians sometime before 2015 but it will be an entirely reworked series.

Preaching is a unique medium. Time constraints and the thematic and declarative nature of preaching means one cannot cover every nuance or issue in a book’s texts. Topical sermon series are one way to compensate. Ideas for these series often emerge from preaching through Bible books. But preaching ideas also “just appear” epiphany-like—while I’m running, for instance, or watching a movie, or shaving (or growing a beard), or sitting on the beach, or in conversation with someone.

That sounds about as inspired as a bite on the bottom, doesn’t it? I wish I could tell you all my sermon series result from concerted prayer and painstaking planning. I do pray about what to preach, of course, and believe God impresses me with topics at times in prayer. He also guides me as I read widely and pay attention to my surroundings. And I make plans too—a good thing for one series in 2011.

I didn’t really want to preach 1 John (“The Gospel as Relational Hygiene: Love is Lather, Rinse, Repeat”). I almost talked myself out of it last spring. But I had committed myself to it as part of a preaching plan I laid out during the Family Meetings in 2010. First John is kind of a frightening book for preachers because it is so repetitive—love, love, love, love, love, and love again! But I found the repetition was the genius of the book, opening whole avenues of considerations for us where I’d only expected to find alleyways.

If done well preaching is expansive, for the preacher as well as his congregation. My sermon series become almost like friends to me. I hate to see them go when they’re over.

Friday, December 9, 2011

The Sight

The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; Those who dwelt in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined. Isaiah 9:2

And he took the blind man by the hand and led him out of the village, and when he had spit on his eyes and laid his hands on him, he asked him, ‘Do you see anything?’ And he looked up and said, ‘I see men, but they look like trees, walking.’ Mark 8:23-24
Close the distance, span the chasm
Between the mawkish and majestic
Inhabiting a hunger, bilious dyspeptic,
I am gaunt of spirit, vision phantasm.

Starved for the sputum that feeds a famished eye
Limber and lithe the hypostatic reach, render me
Blinking now, squinty epiphany;
Gleaming but gimpy, the dawn and dusk vie.

Bemused by the probing: Do you see anything?
The landsmen seem as much grove as grave.

Sepias of shade and shadow in the foregrounds,
Elbows and boughs both leaf at odd angles.

Peculiar people we are, ambient by dint of glint
I see darkness retreating, slowly, since Light its canopy rent.

Thursday, December 1, 2011

How Then Should We Vote?

Another presidential election looms in 2012. At the time of this writing the Republican candidates have completed eleven televised debates with the election still roughly a year away. Presidential campaigns are now almost two full years in length and cost multiple millions of dollars.

Eventually I will be asked my views on this election and its issues and candidates. These questions come around every four years, as do complaints from some that I don’t give the church enough guidance in these matters. In my church there are at least four categories of public preference on presidential politics:
1.      Those who prefer I say nothing at all about anything political from the pulpit.

2.      Those who simply want me to encourage voting as a sanctified civic duty.

3.      Those who believe I need to use election years to sound an alarm about anti-Christian cultural tides but prefer I do this in a way that sounds nonpartisan, or at least not incendiary.

4.      Those who believe true Christians can only vote Republican and thus I should condemn the current president and muster the laity to unseat him.
I won’t take the space here to address what should or shouldn’t be said from the pulpit about presidential elections. But even those in Category 4 still have questions about their candidate options. I have already been asked whether evangelicals can in good conscience vote for a Mormon. (It wasn’t so long ago that Protestants wondered if they could vote for a Catholic.) Four years ago, I was asked whether evangelicals could in good conscience vote for Mr. Obama.
Pastors counsel their people through a wide variety of considerations and conundrums. Politics ensconce both. A voter simultaneously finds in presidential politics much to consider and much that confounds. Candidates romp and stump before a cynical populace and a jaundiced media. This is why it works for Matt Damon’s defeated senatorial character in The Adjustment Bureau to confess that his entire campaign was scripted—even down to the focus group approved scuff-marks on his shoes. It was a trick to make him appear genuine, a true man-of-the-people. And everyone in the theater readily accepts the scene to be art imitating life: Movies tell the truth but politicians lie. We are convinced every man or woman running for our highest offices has a little huckster in them.
But still we hold the presidency in high esteem, as well we should. That office in our system of governance is a marvel of civic philosophy, if not a trophy of God’s common grace when we consider America’s unparalleled role in the world. Biblically considered, occupants of public office are servants of God whether they sufficiently acknowledge God or not (Rom. 13:1-7). The people of God are thus to pray for civil leaders (1 Tim. 2:1-2) and not speak evil of them (Titus 3:1-2), regardless of their policies or personalities or beliefs. If nothing else, attaining to high office is no small human achievement, and to whom much is given much is required.
So it is fitting for God’s people to carefully ponder all candidates for President, incumbents and challengers alike, vetting their stances on the issues of our times. But if you’re thinking of asking me who to vote for, I’ll present you not with whom but how in the form of three guidelines: vote your prudence and vote your conscience and vote your peace.
Vote your prudence: This is probably the hardest directive for most evangelicals to square with because in the last forty years or so we’ve conditioned ourselves to approach presidential elections with an all-or-nothing mentality. The reason is largely due to the civil religion influences of a few higher profile evangelical lobbying entities. Not all evangelical policy and activist groups qualify as civil religionist. Some have quietly achieved a great deal for the public good, such as those pro-life groups that have resiliently and effectively swayed public opinion—and laws—towards greater veneration and protection of human life in the womb. But civil religion in earnest speaks of the nation in terms of the church, conflating the good of the church with the good of the nation. It is biblically haphazard to do this, however, and has rendered some of our civic expectations unrealistic or naively optimistic.
A recovery of prudence is needed because prudence realizes that no one gets everything he wants in a fallen world. As Clarke Forsythe argues in Politics for the Greatest Good, “Prudence in politics aims not at the perfect good but at the greatest good possible in the real world” (p. 38). Os Guinness makes a similar pitch in his book The Case for Civility, that the Founders envisioned neither a sacred public square (which would be a “perfect good” for Christians) nor a secular public square (which would be a “perfect good” for secularists). They envisioned a civil public square as a real good for all and entirely possible in the real world.
So we consider: Which candidate(s) is the realist? Which candidate(s) has the most realistic approach on the issues before the nation, and the approach that does the most good? Take gay marriage, for instance. I do not want to see the state recognize homosexual unions as legitimate marriage because I don’t believe homosexuality is good for anyone, even those devoted to it. But I don’t simply want to know whether a presidential candidate favors a constitutional amendment banning gay marriage. I want to know—and need to know—how he plans to prudently govern those who advocate the opposite position because they are citizens too.
Could it be that what sometimes accounts for so-called “flip-flops” in candidates’ views—and this is true for both Democrats and Republicans—is prudence? Though the public eye usually casts a suspicious glance at changes in policy positions, thinking we are always observing political expedience and gamesmanship at play, an adjustment to views on social or economic or foreign policy matters can be evidence of prudence doing its work.
Vote your conscience. Conscience is the collection of core settings within each of us. It’s the stuff “written on the heart”—what you know that you know is true; what you cannot not know is right and good (please permit the intentional double-negative). Conscience will thus condition or set the limits of prudence. If prudence knows we won’t get everything we want from a candidate, conscience knows what we must get from a candidate.
What if a candidate aligns with your values socially regarding the sanctity of life but has an illicit affair in his past? Is your conscience still free to support him? What if a candidate knowingly had business dealings with a corrupt foreign government and yet he has the best foreign policy platform for the times we’re in? What can you allow? What can you not allow?
Let’s consider the Mormon (LDS) question here, as two Republican presidential candidates are Mormons. I take it as a matter of course that one cannot cordon off his faith from his governance. I do not want anyone in high office trying to pull off that impossible (and ridiculous) stunt. Our faith is a lens through which we bring the world before us into focus, and to suggest that one’s faith won’t impact how he or she governs is a nearsighted candidacy.
As an evangelical, I do not and cannot in good conscience consider the LDS movement theologically legitimate unless they repudiate the errors of Joseph Smith, Brigham Young, et al. Despite LDS protests that they are indeed Christians, Mormons propagate doctrines that misconstrue and misrepresent the nature of God and man, and advocate via their “other testament” another gospel that the New Testament apostles condemn (e.g., Gal. 1:6-9). A reconfigured Jesus will justify no one before God.
So this is serious. I would obviously not consider a Mormon for a Bible college presidency or to be the executive director of an evangelical missions entity. But the presidency of the United States is not an evangelical office. Therefore a man being Mormon does not automatically discount him from my consideration any more than I would discount a man who is an unbeliever. That the Mormon is not fit for the Bible college presidency does not mean he is not fit for the U.S. presidency because the comparison is not apples-to-apples. By the same token, a man who shares my evangelical convictions about the nature of God and the Bible does not automatically receive my vote for President, even if I found him ideal for the Bible college presidency.
These are matters of conscience. The writing on the heart for one voter is that he feels obligated before God to vote for an evangelical candidate because he is a brother or she is a sister in Christ. Then, I say, support that candidate in good conscience. Another voter may feel she cannot support candidates whose churches advance doctrines that lead people away from a true knowledge of Jesus, evangelically considered. Then she cannot support those candidates, and anyone who tries to make her go against her conscience is leading her into sin (see Rom. 14). In the absence of direct biblical references for what to do or not do, one’s conscience is guide. And to quote Luther: “To act against conscience is neither right nor safe.”
Vote your peace. This comes from Paul’s words in 1 Timothy 2:1-2, that followers of Jesus are to pray for “kings and all who are in high positions, that we may lead a peaceful and quiet life, godly and dignified in every way.” In voting your peace, the consideration is: Which candidate has the clearest vision for living peaceably?
Yes, it is a “wars and rumors of wars” world. The consideration in voting your peace is not which candidate will keep us out of wars, for wars may have to be fought—and I don’t think isolationism is realistic (prudent) policy in the world we’re in. Likewise, the consideration is not which candidate will keep everything rosy and prosperous for everyone because no one can guarantee the best for everyone.
Some leaders are better than others. But no leader is going to be good to or for everyone. In voting my peace, I’m not only assessing which candidate presents a view of the world that lends the most to “peace and quiet,” but I’m also putting my peace on the line: If or when this leader makes hard decisions that aren’t good for me, will I still support him? Voting your peace is placing your trust with the officeholder, that when I don’t understand his rationale or actions I’ll not respond with suspicion and disillusionment. Which candidate(s) do you trust? To which candidate(s) can you entrust your peace?
More needs to be taken into account here—political philosophies concerning the size, reach, and essential duties of government, the stilting effect of modern media on the electoral process, the Founders’ presuppositions and vision for the republic—but this is a blog post and already much longer than a blog post should be. Voting is a civic duty, I believe, as well as a great privilege.
“For God is the King of all the earth; sing praises with a psalm! God reigns over the nations; God sits on His holy throne.” (Psalm 47:7-8)

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

The Books List 2011

This will appear as my monthly article in the December issue of our church newsletter. I finished it today:

Each December I use this space to reflect on books I’ve read during the year. I amped up my writing this year in starting a blog and becoming a panelist at Faith in Memphis ( Since reading is foundational to writing, I’m particularly interested now in books that stimulate ideas to further ponder via writing.

The list below is neither ranked nor in order of reading. As always, I lost interest in some books along the way and they don’t make the list. Neither do technical books like Bible commentaries nor periodical readings. Some of these titles were recommended to me by you, and though I can’t always follow through on someone’s recommendation, I like receiving them from you as it indicates you’re reading.

          The Pastor by Eugene Peterson: I’ve read most of his books; his insights and perspectives have shaped and sharpened many of my ministry convictions through the years. While I do not share his ecumenical interests, I'd recommend his memoirs to any pastor.
          The Age of the Unthinkable by Joshua Cooper Ramo: Our world, even amid unprecedented globalization, is largely “organized into instability.” Ramo is a secular author, but I found his advocacy for resilience in American foreign policy (he says we should rechristen Homeland Security to the “Department of Resilience”) applicable to the gospel: Evangelicals should see the gospel as a strategy of resilience more than resistance.
          Caring for Words in a Culture of Lies by Marilyn Chandler McEntyre: The book is based on a series of lectures the author gave at Princeton Seminary. Words and their mediums—conversation, poetry, stories—all matter, and the misuse or abuse of each and all is culturally eroding.
          The Devil Reads Derrida by James K. A. Smith: An assortment of writings Smith has published through the years in various periodicals, subtitled, And Other Essays on the University, the Church, Politics, and the Arts. I like essay-collection books usually. Do you think there could be any redemptive value in a movie like Little Miss Sunshine, or American Beauty? Smith thinks so and attempts to justify why in a couple of essays.
          In the Heart of the Sea by Nathaniel Philbrick: This was my beach book in June, a historical narrative on the 1819 sinking of the whaler Essex. The ship was rammed to splinters by an angry sperm whale (Herman Melville based Moby-Dick on the tragedy). Since reading this book I don’t look at that whale on Vineyard Vines clothes as cute anymore!
          Tempted and Tried by Russell D. Moore: He utilizes Jesus' temptation narratives in Matthew and Luke to lay down some key contemporary insights on how the Tempter relentlessly works for our undoing. I was very impressed with Moore’s prose.
          Heresy by Alister McGrath: Heresies often originate from well-meaning types who are trying to advance the church or recover something they believe the church has lost. But they go too far. McGrath takes the reader on a fascinating tour of what constitutes "too far" in theology.
          A Positive Life by Shane Stanford: The autobiography of the new pastor at Christ Church, who lives with HIV. God has turned the mourning into dancing for Shane and his family.
          Notes from the Tilt-A-Whirl by N. D. Wilson: The author is a modern-day Chesterton, and his book is a playground of peculiar insights. Readers in their twenties will especially “get” Wilson. I loved the book.
          Spiritual Rhythm by Mark Buchanan: I needed this book. Buchanan’s writing is always rich and thoughtful, and in this book he used the four seasons of the year to plot spiritual growth, experience, and work over a lifetime.
          Flannery O’Connor and the Christ-Haunted South by Ralph Wood: The fiction of this Georgia Catholic always contained a deeper commentary on American culture, especially the Protestant South. My favorite O'Connor quote, which I utilize in preaching:When you can assume that your audience holds the same beliefs as you do, you can relax a little and use more normal means of talking to it; when you have to assume that it does not, then you have to make your vision apparent by shock, to the hard of hearing you shout, and for the almost-blind, you draw large and startling figures.”
          The Next Story by Tim Challies: A first book from this Canadian blogger extraordinaire, Challies offers his theological reflections on technology’s potentials and pitfalls.
          The Writing Life by Annie Dillard: A slim book on how writing happens that probably only appeals to writers.
          Humilitas by John Dickson: This Australian pastor and historian looks at humility. The premise of this book is that the most influential and inspiring people are often marked by humility, and that humility is using power in service to others. The book is chockfull of interesting anecdotal examples that bear this out. It’s subtitled A Lost Key to Life, Love, and Leadership.
          Sticky Teams by Larry Osborne: Practical counsel for how to keep church leaders on the same page. I’ve probably never read a book with so many endorsements on the first few pages, including the author’s mother! But such a helpful book to read I shared it with our staff.
As the year concludes, I’m finally into David McCullough’s John Adams and Mike Mason’s Champagne for the Soul, a book written to natural melancholies (like John Adams, and me) about joy. Reading is joy, as is serving a church that encourages me to it. Have as joyous a Christmas as you can!

Saturday, November 12, 2011

Friday, November 11, 2011

Pondering a Decision? Consider Possibilities and Problems

Every year my counsel is sought by people pondering major life decisions. How do I know whether I should make this move, take this job, marry this person? Is God’s will for me behind Door 1 or Door 2, or does God care one way or another what I decide? Did God put this interest before me or these desires in me? How much is up to me? How much has been ordained by God? What about Jeremiah 29:11? What about Psalm 37:4? What about Proverbs 3:5-6? What about James 1:5 or 4:15? What about Acts 16:6-10? What about 1 Corinthians 16:6-9?

This is honest searching in the face of opportunities sought or granted or both. Most of those grappling with these questions have tender consciences to God and want to do the right thing. They know they live Coram Deo (“before God’s face”) but aren’t expecting God will spell it out in the sky for them what to do. And some of them know their hearts well enough to know that it wouldn’t necessarily make follow-through any easier if He did. See ancient Israel in the pages of the Old Testament—a people who had the benefit of direct, audible words from God and still disobeyed.

Obedience is the key consideration for many who consult with me in their decision matters. It is often true of the ones who mull over what they ought to do the longest and tensest that they are most interested in obeying God. But I find, in most of their cases, that the decision being pondered simply does not rise to the level of obedience-disobedience. For instance: If God tells you directly to move to Pittsburgh and you remain in Memphis, you are in disobedience to Him. But deciding to stay in Memphis after considering the new job in Pittsburgh, concluding you don’t want to go after all, is not disobedience to God even if you felt at first a strong interest (or “impression”) to go. My point is that obedience and disobedience to God need to remain matters of response to what God has clearly revealed in Scripture, not what I think He might want from me or where I think He might be leading me.
Fear is another key processor for many, or the specter of regret. Major life decisions frequently have the feel of high-diving. No one wants to belly-flop from that height—make a miserable move, take a fools’ gold job, marry the person of your nightmares. We know one can jump off the high-dive and still climb out of the pool below, but he cannot be “unwet.” Thus many who come to me are looking for some divine assurance—in the absence of divine insurance—that if they meet with troubles or regrets on the other side of their decision it’s not because they flubbed God’s will.
This assurance is rarely frontloaded, however. The future cannot be known until it is lived (excepting biblical prophecy, of course) and God will grow our faith one way or another, wasting no opportunity to do so, even in situations we deem mistaken or failures. But after qualifying obedience-disobedience considerations and helping them plot their fears-regrets continuum, I am prayerfully counseling people these days to consider two points in pondering major life decisions—possibilities and problems.
Possibilities: What possibilities does the decision open to me? And are these possibilities intriguing? For instance, in considering a move or a new job: Am I more intrigued by the possibilities in the new place than the possibilities in the old place? I can misperceive the possibilities of the new place just as I can undervalue the possibilities in the current place. But a sober reflection upon intriguing possibilities—what really interests me—seems to put the considerations on more solid footing. A lot of evangelicals have to overcome the idea that God is automatically opposed to our interests or desires.
Problems: What problems does the decision open to me? Are these problems I want to live with? Note how I phrased that: By “want to” I do not mean one prefers or desires these problems, but that one knows he’ll have to allow them, tolerate them, live with them. Nothing in a fallen world is without problems. Knowing this is the way of life, what problems do you want to live with? For instance: A job in the public eye comes with public scrutiny. Not everyone wants to live with those problems. A staff position in a traditional church has its problems; a staff position in a church plant has its problems. Which problems do you want to live with? A move to another region of the country will likely involve difficult cultural adjustments or anguished distance from extended family. Do you want these problems?
Weighing possibilities and problems takes nothing away from prayer and seeking counsel, nor does it make decisions necessarily easier. What it does instead, I think, is directs what one prays through and how one seeks counsel, countering the “paralysis of analysis” that sets in on too many decision processes.

Wednesday, October 12, 2011

How Do We React to the Death of Someone Who was "Kind of a Jerk"?

As a panelist at Faith in Memphis, I was invited last week to write on death with dignity, and did:  The night before I turned in my post, Steve Jobs died after a long bout with pancreatic cancer.  And then Al Davis died this weekend past after a long bout with the NFL.  “Reaction” has become the word now to catch everyone’s—from family and close friends to the man-on-the-street—take on what kind of life the deceased lived.
“Man knows not his time,” in the words of the Preacher (Eccl. 9:12), although Jobs was terminally sick and Davis an octogenarian.  Both men lived large in the public eye—the popularity of Apple and the NFL is boundless—and so their deaths were subject to ubiquitous public “reaction” chatted up in media outlets, from trending Twitter epitaphs to published articles.
While you have to be Osama bin Laden to have your death celebrated, Al Davis was as destructive a personality as one would care to know.  And yet in the immediate reaction to his death his Machiavellian ways were softened to "maverick," his contemptuousness smoothed into "a complex personality."  In our scrupulous cultural deference to sensitivity, it is simply out of bounds to make any negative (read: true-to-life) comment about a guy like Davis for at least 24 hours, or until his meager positives have been extolled by those few people in his circle who try to tell the rest of us that we just didn’t know him well enough to appreciate him, so stop judging him.  But after the weekend's polite reaction, one sportswriter finally asked, “How are we supposed to react when a legendary figure who was also kind of a jerk dies?”  I’d like to take a stab at this question from a Christian perspective.
Let's begin with God, who says, "I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked" (Ezek. 18:23; 33:11).  God's pleasure is turning the wicked into saints, not leaving us in our sins and jerky rebellion against Him.  I know that apart from His grace I could have easily been more like Al Davis than anyone.  And so the aversion we feel to focus on the most unflattering character side of a deceased person is a godly impulse.  Steve Jobs was also regarded by many as “kind of a jerk," though Jobs was something of a trophy of common grace in that his computer genius served the public good in extraordinary ways that many, including me, are grateful for.  From history’s vantage point, I expect Jobs’ accomplishments will be celebrated on par with Thomas Edison’s and Alexander Graham Bell’s.  He should be commended as a titan of technology.  The macabre way fans in Oakland dress is it's own kind of tribute to Davis, the penultimate raider.
I understand Jobs’ spiritual allegiance was to Buddhism.  If that's true and remained his confession to his last breath, then his eternity is a nightmare, not nirvana.  But if I'd tweeted that line on the night of his death as "reaction," it would have rightly been deemed equivalent to kicking a man not just when he’s down but out.  I would have been thought peculiarly insensitive and petty, a harsh Christian with a Westboro Baptist streak, scoring theological points at the expense of a man whose invention I would have typed the rebuke to his beliefs on.
Such is not tolerated in the great cloud of reaction, we know.  The public is expected to initially show respect and restraint, even if we all know the deceased was kind of a jerk.  But therein is a tension for Christians, at least evangelicals.  Based on what I know of them, Davis and Jobs were not bowing to Jesus in life, and thus in death each appeared before Him with uncanceled enmity still between Jesus and himself.  This is a sobering reality, and if in reaction we say nothing of this for fear that we'll look pressingly triumphant or opportunistically insensitive or hypocritically unappreciative, we then have a truncated gospel.  For, as my Sunday school teacher taught me years ago, the gospel is bad news before it is good news.
Luke 13 is reaction at it's finest.  Pilate, kind of a jerk, killed some Galileans and desecrated the day's sacrifices with their blood.  Jesus is probed for His reaction to this atrocity in Luke 13. He didn't expresses condolences but a warning about the need for repentance—for man knows not his time—those Galileans didn't, the 18 victims of the Tower of Siloam tragedy didn't, nor did Pilate, the jerk who signed Jesus' death warrant.  (I can think to the point of physically shuddering what it must have been like for Pilate the day he stood in Jesus' own court.)
So here's my suggested reaction for us when a person who was also kind of a jerk dies, and the public is weighing in on it.  First, praise and thanksgiving to God that He takes no pleasure in anyone's death, however negligent, abusive, or confused about His designs for them they were.  Second, sobriety that my own death will someday come and thus a renewed resolve to live repentant and more attentive to God.  Third, honesty about the deceased's life and legacy—every life conveys both example to follow and warning to heed—as I want those who will remember me to be honest about me.  Fourth, proclamation of the gospel of grace for sin to the living.  You ultimately want to be remembered as belonging to Jesus.

Saturday, October 8, 2011

On Dying with Dignity

I'm back at Faith in Memphis answering a question on death with dignity:

Monday, October 3, 2011

First Laugh Then Think

I caught a news story last week about the Ig Nobels. These are sponsored by the Annals of Improbable Research. From the website: "The Ig Nobel Prizes award achievements that first make people laugh, and then make them think. The prizes are intended to celebrate the unusual, honor the imaginative—and spur people's interest in science, medicine, and technology."

The 2011 Ig Nobel recipients included research into whether driving while desperately needing to urinate affects attention span like intoxication or sleep deprivation does, and why certain kinds of beetles try to mate with Australian beer bottles. A group of Japanese scientists who invented a fire alarm that smells like wasabi took home an Ig Nobel, as did a researcher, one Arturas Zuokas, who solved the problem of illegally parked cars by crushing them with an armored vehicle. For this Zuokas was awarded the Ig Nobel for Peace. My favorite prize was awarded in the Physiology category to a group who presented their findings under the title, "No Evidence of Contagious Yawning in the Red-Footed Tortoise." Yes, I too expected none.

Last year, the 2010 recipients included (this in the Engineering category) a research team who collected whale snot with a remote-control helicopter. Their report was entitled, "A Novel Non-Invasive Tool for Disease Surveillance of Free-Ranging Whales and Its Relevance to Conservation Programs." And back in 2009, a brassiere was invented that can be quickly converted into a pair of protective face masks. This took home an Ig Nobel—for those times when your lungs need more support than your chest, I suppose. Again, these are achievements that first make one laugh (or gross-out), then think.

I've decided I like these scientists and researchers and inventors who march to a different drumbeat. I like their inquisitiveness, curiosity, and ingenuity. I like their willingness to probe questions and concerns no one has yet looked into or even thought about. What if it turned out that whale snot actually has more relevance to cancer treatment than conservation? The "happy accidents" of scientific pursuits are often generated by the mirthful providence of a God who delights in giving red-footed tortoises the ability to yawn in the first place.

I think the church, after we've laughed, should think about what we can learn from the Annals of Improbable Research's Ig Nobel Prizes. The Bible contains a lot of improbable people and events, does it not? Waters part, walls fall, sun stands still, a donkey reproves, chariots of fire, Jonah covered in whale snot, Peter walking on water, Paul and Silas' bleeding hymnody in stocks.

But who among us evangelicals is probing what it would mean if God did such wonders again—a kind of faith research into realities and possibilities inspired by a worshipful inquisitiveness, curiosity, and ingenuity? Or do we think this is somehow fundamentally unnecessary now in the age of a closed canon, maybe even ignoble?

The Ig Nobel winners may be the true weirdos of the scientific community for all I know. Or they may be the real adventurers. And if something is starkly missing in most of our lives of faith it's adventure—what Canadian author Mark Buchanan once termed as stepping into the "holy wild."

Most of the Christians I know are more interested in respectability and predictability, in establishing routines and patterns so familiar the red-footed tortoises are yawning at us—though apparently not in unison. Sometimes—how do I put this—I think we're just more wimpy than wasabi. What an old priest observed of himself is true of too many of us: when Paul went into town there were riots; when he went there was afternoon tea.

Or as Annie Dillard put it memorably, in Teaching a Stone to Talk:
"On the whole, I do not find Christians, outside of the catacombs, sufficiently sensible of conditions. Does anyone have the foggiest idea what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies’ straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets. Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews. For the sleeping god may wake someday and take offense, or the waking god may draw us out to where we can never return."

Some of us have never properly researched this "power we so blithely invoke." The result is tameness and sameness, as if we really don't "believe a word" of the gospel as Dillard's critiques it. Leave it to someone else to figure out how armadillos digging into archaeological sites altered the course of history (a 2008 Ig Nobel winner). Do you believe someone could be seriously intrigued by that? Well, it depends on how much you care about the course of history being changed. Shouldn't Christians have an insatiable interest in that since we believe the advents of Jesus, both the first one and second one to come, change everything? (By the way, erstwhile eschatologist Harold Camping was awarded an Ig Noble in Mathematics this year, "for teaching the world to be careful when making mathematical assumptions and calculations.")

I look forward to the Ig Nobels each year now. They're fun and the recipients (most of them, anyway—probably not Camping) enjoy the recognition of their work that makes us laugh and think. Somebody has to show us that armadillos aren't just roadkill, but burrowing shapers of history.

But I also look forward, longingly, to what the church achieves when she steps out with curious, adventuresome courage to truly prize her Savior's interests as her own. It may evoke laughter when we do, even scorn. But it also may astound—and spur people's interest in God.

Monday, September 26, 2011

Gestures and Postures

Yesterday afternoon I watched a professional football game. The two teams played with a passion befitting their rivalry. In a tight fourth quarter the visiting quarterback, upon completing a key third down pass play, turned both his eyes and index fingers skyward in a familiar athletic gesture of gratitude to God. The very next play, he threw an interception and trotted off the field, chin on his chest.

Thought question: does God also "convert" key third down completions for believing quarterbacks? What if God actually sent the interception? Is there room in a proper gridiron theology for receiving turnovers from the Lord as well as first downs (cf. Job 2:10)? Is there even such a thing as gridiron theology?

Yes, those of us who think quickly of 1 Corinthians 10:31 will say, there is. Football is certainly within the purview of the "whatever you do, do all to the glory of God" in that verse. And, looking at that 1 Corinthians 10 context, my eye catches the verse immediately before, verse 30, where Paul expresses incredulity at anyone who would denounce his expression of gratitude for that which he was grateful for (the context has to do with whether a Christian could eat meat offered to idols—a subject I think many football players, knowing well their way to the delicatessen, would find interesting). So I'm not criticizing the quarterback's first down praise, no more than I would want to be criticized for making the same gesture in my office when a dreaded phone call is well-received.

On a Sunday morning a few weeks back two of my church members waited for me after a sermon. One thrilled me with tears in his eyes for how God is using him to reach a neighbor; the other picked off the joy with a complaint. One moment I was exulting in the flight of a ball well-caught; the next the air was out of the ball.

It will be for another post to consider how it is possible to give thanks for the defensive back as well as my receiver (Romans 5 teaches as much). Strange would be the quarterback who did in a game. But then witness how most pro football games end with opposing players meeting midfield, standing around chatting. One occasionally sees in those moments a sports-world wonder of wonders: the defensive back who intercepted the quarterback turns out to be his old college teammate, and they embrace and ask about each other's children.

This post is really not about football. It's about recognizing myself—and likely you too—in the quarterback's responses to the great play and the bad play. When I am glad or relieved or achieving, it's chest bumps and fist pumps, head back and hands raised. These are gestures. When I am dismayed or upset or missing my targets, it's shoulder slumps and head droops. These are postures.

The difference is slight. A gesture is chosen, a posture emerges. A gesture is conditioned, a posture is ingrained. In other words, my postures come more natural to me. And this is why, in John Piper's way of putting it, I have to fight for joy; why I need and want to thank God profusely for every positive yard gained at church, home, life.

The bottom may fall out the next play. How does the Bible put it? Sin crouches, pestilence stalks at midday, the flesh is weak. God is not arbitrary. Life is. But when it is the gestures of praise and gratitude coach my posture back upright in order to return to the line of scrimmage. Not reluctantly but eagerly.

Monday, September 19, 2011

An Evanie for Azmaveth

I write this the day after the 2011 Emmy awards.  I didn’t watch it—didn’t know it was on television last night and wouldn’t have watched it anyway.  But you know the award shows: Emmys, Oscars, Grammys, Doves, Espys, CMAs, VMAs, and other less prominent venues.  (I like the annual Golden Raspberry Awards, or “Razzies,” in recognition of the worst in movies.)  These galas can be preening and self-congratulatory, of course, and there is something a tad oxymoronic in effusive “critical acclaim.”  But most award programs emerge from the premise that it is fitting to honorably distinguish those who have particularly excelled in their labors.

In this vein, we recently created the “Evanies” for our staff.  The Evanie is a simple certificate with some kind of “happy” attached like a paid lunch or gift card.  It would be fitting to hand recipients a bronzed cauliflower resting on a Bible in the pattern of our now erstwhile church logo.  But we haven’t the budget for that.

Our Evanies are peer-promoted and given to any First Evan staff member (pastoral or support) who excelled in his or her work.  I even got nominated for one!  Evanies aren’t categorized and only one winner is awarded per week by random draw.  It is simply a fun way for us to regularly commend work well-done, and from the theological premise that our work matters to God.

Many Christians assume “church work” is intrinsically more important to God than “secular work.”  But biblically considered this is a non sequitur.  Consider how, tucked away in all the begats and begottens of 1 Chronicles, there is an interesting little listing of David’s employees.  After noting what each employee’s work was the section concludes, “These were stewards of King David’s property” (1 Chron. 27:31).  Go back in time to David’s day and ask Azmaveth what he does.  He replies, “I am a steward of the king’s treasuries” (a banker or broker, essentially).  And you, Ezri?  “I’m a steward of the king’s soil” (a land manager or farmer).  Obil?  “I’m a steward of all the king’s camels” (animal husbandry, including veterinary care).  There it is: white-collar, blue-collar, and no collar.  But each one’s work benefitted both king and kingdom.

Our work, whatever it is we do and however it is remunerated, takes up the majority of our time and energy every week.  Our work so dominates our years in fact that we tend to fuse what it is we do for a living with who we are or perceive ourselves to be.  But the Christian view of occupation is that our work is more than something to do for filling up our wallets and waking hours each day to a ripe old retirement age.  Our occupations are stewardships through which we fulfill the greatest commandments to love God and neighbor.

Think about it: the most natural context for loving God with all your strength is your daily work.  This follows for loving neighbor, too.  God has given you skills and expertise and aptitude that blesses your neighbors and contributes to their good.  This was the bottom line in Martin Luther’s theology of vocation: that all occupations—pimping, thieving, and serving as a papal priest (!) were Luther’s exceptions—glorified God as long as they contributed to neighbors’ good. 

So the work you do affects others in both the larger socio-economic frame of your entire community to the smaller frame individuals you come into personal contact with in your work.  But as Francis Schaeffer used to teach, there are no little people, no little places.  He meant in the provident ordering of God every one and every place has value.  This is why Luther used to say, “God milks the cows through the vocation of the milkmaids.”

Take garbage collection.  I don’t glorify it and wouldn’t want to do it.  But I do esteem the value of the work garbage collectors do and tell them so when I see them in my neighborhood.  I remember a line from a popular Alabama song (they won a lot of Grammys and CMAs, by the way) years ago that esteemed the value of what we call blue-collar jobs, called “40 Hour Week.”  The line: “And the fruits of their labors is (sic.) worth more than their pay.”  Did you know the first guy in Scripture ever said to be filled with the Spirit of God was blue-collar?  Bezalel was a craftsman whom God filled “with skill, ability, and knowledge in all kinds of crafts” (Ex. 35:31).

The most natural context for loving God and neighbor with all our strength is our daily work, whether we’re blue-collar, white-collar, black-collar, or no collar; whether an Emmy or an Evanie ever recognizes it.  The work you and I do is a gift we’ll love giving to others when we know it delights the one who gifted and fitted us for it.