Who knew finding an Ash Wednesday service could be so complicated?
And wing my words that they may reach the hidden depths of many a heart
Who knew finding an Ash Wednesday service could be so complicated?
I am late with this. My pastor retired at the end of June. My televangelists of the past mocked the idea of pastors retiring. I don’t think any of them really retire from ministry. Their ministry just takes on a different kind of practice, so I don’t begrudge them their retirement. I have been in churches all my life, but I think this was the first time I was there to see a pastor give his or her final message before retirement.
What I’m doing here, though, he might question. He said he sent all his old sermons to the recycling bin. Though he meant every word of those sermons at the time he preached them, he said, “something goes out of them after their preached, and … they’re done.”
I was a little sad to hear that. I had often wondered if he would ever collect his sermons into a book. Apparently not. I would have bought that book. If you’ll forgive me Dr. Bailey, I don’t think this last sermon is done, so I’m going to share for those who weren’t there some highlights. He said a number of interesting things about the art of ministry and preaching sermons. For anyone who has ever wondered how pastors feel about the enormous task of proclaiming the word of God, I think you’ll appreciate his insights.
He said he gave his first sermon on July 4, 1982, called “New Beginnings.” This one, the last before retirement, he called “A Couple of Thousand Sermons Later.” That alone says a lot about why he is qualified to give advice on how to write and deliver a sermon. He thanked not only us but his former congregations for having “open minds, a sense of humor, and forgiving hearts.” No pastor can last long without that.
He believed pastoring a congregation was based on two foundations.
I’m not the only member who will attest he did very well on both counts. I think that’s why when at times he said some things I knew a lot of the congregation did not agree with, they did not push back too hard or try to get him fired. They already considered him a faithful friend and pastor, and they knew he would not say anything from the pulpit without honestly wrestling with the scripture and prayerfully seeking from it God’s message for us. That is where the ability to speak the truth in love served him well. He could let you know where he stood without being confrontational about it.
Looking back to when he was interviewing for this position, he told the nominating committee that he was “a dinosaur.” It seemed the megachurches had brought a new style of worship that included rock bands, short film segments, multi-media presentations, light shows, and stadium seating. That was not his style, and he hoped that there were some people who still found the traditional style of worship appealing.
Though sometimes I feel like I’m a dying breed, I am among those who still find the traditional style of worship appealing when it’s done well. In fact, a few years ago, I watched video of a megachurch service with all the bells and whistles that usually come with that. When I was younger, that would have appealed to me. But now it seems I’m at a point in my life where I want church to be church. That includes corporate and responsive prayers, singing of hymns, music from a choir (traditional or contemporary), reading of scripture, reading of the Apostles’ Creed or something similar, and a sermon that explains the scripture well.
Most of the sermon was focused on the art of preaching itself. It is not the only part of pastoring, just the most visible. The pastor actually does work more than one hour per week. I remember in seminary, I heard a professor say you should plan on one hour of preparation per minute of your sermon. So if your sermon is 15-20 minutes, that means about 15-20 hours of preparation. And that does not include other duties like committee meetings, hospital and home visits, weddings, funerals, counseling, et al, and I was blessed to experience his wisdom and grace in all those capacities.
In an age when we are bombarded with media of different kinds competing for our attention, preaching is challenging today. It requires sustained attention from both the preacher and the listeners, and while megachurches have many tools to keep your attention, the traditional preacher only has words.
As a writer, I think that is what I appreciate about the art of a traditional sermon. I know what it’s like to have to determine not only what I want to say but what are the right words to say it. As Mark Twain said, “The difference between the almost right word and the right word is … the difference between the lightning bug and the lightning.” So I appreciate pastors who know how to capture the lightning. Pastoring requires regular writing on a deadline that has to communicate the word of God to the listeners, which is why I don’t understand why more pastors don’t collect their best sermons into a book, Dr. Bailey’s comments about them being “done” notwithstanding.
He realized early in his career that effective preaching required complete honesty. And so he would confess some things about himself in sermons that he would rather not tell us in private conversation. Because of that, it was always a challenge when he had to preach more than once on the same day, as when we did multiple services to accommodate Covid restrictions. I never heard him complain about it, though perhaps he did in private. But throughout the Covid crisis, his first concern was our safety. So if that meant preaching multiple sermons to keep social distancing or putting more effort into directing people to the church’s YouTube channel, or just doing things that were uncomfortable, he was willing to do it. And I agree that honesty is truly necessary for effective preaching.
Some Sundays, he felt like he had completely failed to get the most important points across. But then as he greeted people at the end of the service, someone would enthusiastically tell him that something he had said really made a difference for them. Then there were other Sundays where he felt great about both the sermon and delivery, but afterwards someone would ask, “Are you okay?” I imagine anyone who speaks in public regularly can relate to that.
On Sundays when people commented there was a low turnout, it never discouraged him. He said he was always amazed that anyone showed up. He knew most of the reasons people show up had nothing to do with him. But even so, he said, “I hope you will allow me to say that your presence here … is and has been the most wonderful affirmation for me that you believe God has called us into partnership to be a community of faith together.”
Lightning. The pastor is the leader of the congregation, but he is not the whole show. I don’t trust pastors who take an authoritarian approach, a model that is sometimes called shepherding, where the pastor’s word is law. As Dr. Bailey said, church should be a partnership, not only between pastor and parishoners, but within the congregation as well. I joined the church because I liked the pastor and his sermons, but also because there were people there who made me feel welcome from the beginning, especially in my Sunday School class. Going there feels like a family reunion, where there are families with multiple generations represented, and you know you are already loved even before you walk into the building. That is what I think being a community of faith together means.
“It’s an amazing privilege in one’s job to be able to study and pray over God’s word at length and then attempt to bring that word to others, and to have people show up to engage you in that enterprise with you.”
Lightning again. Though I am not ordained, I feel most alive when I am able to study and pray over God’s word at length and then attempt to bring that word to others. That is why I started this blog. It’s a sign of his humility and grace that he recognizes that is a privilege, one that no preacher should take for granted, to be able to do that, and have others around who believe in you enough to pay you to do that, not for them but with them.
“My hope and prayer is that in the long run, the sermons have brought mostly hope and joy and good news to people as well as the challenge to live the way God calls us to live in Jesus Christ.”
Lightning again. I’ve heard some preachers say they only want to bring hope, joy, and good news to people. I’ve heard others who complain about them, saying speaking the truth of God’s word needs to challenge people and convict them of their sin, but they don’t have much to say that is encouraging. The way he described it strikes the right balance. He hoped that his sermons brought mostly hope, joy, and good news, while also recognizing living the way God calls us to live in Jesus Christ is a challenge, and preachers need to be honest about that. Again, speaking the truth in love goes a long way to earning your parishioners’ trust.
He quoted a line from Frederick Buechner, one of my favorite authors. Buechner called the sermon “… a creative type of truth-telling that is willing to live with ambiguity, willing to live with unanswered questions rather than presuming to have all the answers.”
I wish more preachers today would take that to heart. Too many of them presume to have all the answers, maybe because they never learned to live with unanswered questions. You’re human. It’s okay to admit you don’t have all the answers. But they have to make you think they know everything, so they quote a Bible verse or two, usually out of context, and say, “This is the word of God,” meaning there is no more room for discussion, no possibility that they might not see the whole picture.
I heard one Jewish woman say, “Jews open the scriptures to begin a conversation. Christians open the scriptures to end a conversation.” Like most statements of this nature, that is true–to an extent. But I agree Jewish tradition is much open to conversation than Christian tradition. Opening the scriptures, and hence sermons, should be an invitation to further thought and discussion. Yes, there are some things I think are the Truth (with a capital T), and I try not to compromise them. But even then, I have room in my thinking for honest and thoughtful debate. On most of my posts I make my opinions clear. But I take the time to explain why I think or believe the way I do, and I’m always hopeful that people will use the comments section to share why they agree or disagree. Most of the time, I am looking to begin a conversation, not end it.
His final prayer for us: “I pray that God who began a good work in you will bring it to completion in the day of Jesus Christ. And I pray that you will continue to open your hearts and your ears and your mind to those who will stand here in the pulpit in the future, attempting to the best of their ability to tell the truth.”
In other words, he hopes we will treat the next pastor the same way we treated him. And he hopes we will continue our partnership of being a community of faith together with whoever is next to occupy our pulpit.
Presbyterians don’t usually applaud, but we gave him a standing ovation. Even the “frozen chosen” have moments when we must show our appreciation. I said in an earlier post I think the next pastor will have big shoes to fill. But if he/she (yes, women can be pastors, at least in PCUSA) honestly wrestles with the scriptures to give us the truth to the best of their ability, is a faithful pastor and friend who invites us to join in their work of carefully studying God’s word and trying to draw from it God’s message for us, whose preaching invites conversation rather than shutting it down, and who offers hope, joy, and encouragement in the challenging work of living as God in Jesus Christ calls us to live, I for one will accept them with an open mind, a sense of humor, and a forgiving heart.
Thank you for reading. Feel free to leave a comment or question below. No trolling, but I am happy to engage in honest discussion and debate. As always, remember these words from Matthew 7:12.
In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.(NRSV)
In case you did not know, March 8 of each year is designated as International Women’s Day. The purpose is not to denigrate men but to honor women and promote gender equality. As the website says,
International Women’s Day is a global day celebrating the social, economic, cultural and political achievements of women. The day also marks a call to action for accelerating gender parity. Significant activity is witnessed worldwide as groups come together to celebrate women’s achievements or rally for women’s equality.About page
Studies have shown countries that do best on women’s rights and equality do best on human rights. It seems a good thing for me to do for IWD is to honor a woman who had a profound impact on my life. Of course, there are several I could name. Since I dedicated my book Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain to Dr. Betty Jean “B.J.” Seymour, my favorite professor in college, this is my International Women’s Day tribute.
Randolph-Macon College in Ashland, Virginia, is a small college with a long history. When I attended, there were just a few more than 1,000 students, and it was about 60% male, 40% female (I didn’t like those odds). It used to be men’s only college, but it went co-ed in 1971. In the same year, Dr. Seymour became the first female faculty member as a professor of religion. She is still known for that and a few more firsts: First female professor to receive tenure, first female department head (Religious Studies), and first female to attain the rank of full professor. Needless to say, she played a significant role not only for the Religion department, but for paving the way for full inclusion of women as students and faculty.
Women at R-MC :: Randolph-Macon College
She was also an ordained Baptist minister at a time when most denominations (including Baptists) forbade ordaining women to pastoral ministry. How could that be? The Baptist church was more of a congregationalist church than, say, the Roman Catholic Church. Even though there was a national governing body that made rules technically for everyone, in practice each congregation mostly governed itself. She found a congregation that was open to ordaining her, even though she was a woman.
In my sophomore year, I took two courses from her: Survey of the Old Testament, and Survey of the New Testament. It wasn’t like studying the Bible in Sunday School, and not like the Word of Faith preachers I listened to. At that time, I started getting disillusioned with the Word of Faith. It wasn’t working the way those preachers said it would, but I wasn’t ready to leave yet. I still thought it wasn’t working because I needed to get “more faith.” By the end of the year, I changed my major to Religious Studies. Not the best financial decision I ever made.
But I learned things from her that neither my church nor my favorite televangelists taught. She taught us the historical background behind the Bible, which changed the way I read it. It’s called reading in context, by the way. That whole thing about man being made in God’s image, and woman was made to serve man, or the Bible forbids women from serving in ministry, she totally debunked—get this—by using the Bible. I was like, “The Bible says God made man in his image, and then made woman to serve him. The Bible says women should keep silent in church for they are not permitted to speak. Show me in the Bible how that’s wrong.”
And it was like she opened up the Bible and said, “Here. Here. Here. Here. Shall I go on?”
And I was like, “Damn, we were wrong!”
If she couldn’t have shown me from the Bible, I never would have listened to her. But she did, so I did. If we were wrong about that, could we have been wrong about other things?
I know some of you are terrified of going there, but if your standard is to do what the Bible says, and what we’ve been taught about the Bible is wrong, don’t we need to know that? She gave me the tools to discover what the Bible meant in its original languages and its original context, something neither church nor my televangelists did. “Just read the Bible and do what it says.” If that is how you approach the Bible, I guarantee you are reading it out of context, just like I was. I had heard people say you have to read the Bible in context to understand it, but she was the first person, along with the college chaplain, to teach me how to do just that.
My church did not talk about doubt much. The Word of Faith preachers taught doubt was something to crush with the Word of God and faith. But Dr. Seymour pointed out places in the Bible where the authors openly expressed doubt. Some of the Psalms address that doubt directly to God. Job had no problem telling God what was wrong with the way God ran the universe. And God included all that in the Bible. This is going to sound funny, but learning to accept doubt was crucial to saving my faith.
And I learned from her that critical thinking is not the enemy of faith. John Wesley had a slogan, “Unite the two so long disjoined, knowledge and vital piety.” Dr. Seymour embodied both those disjoined qualities. Without her example as a woman of faith who refused to compromise her honesty and integrity for any God or religious doctrine, I don’t think I would have any faith to speak of today. By dedicating my book to her, and writing this tribute, I wanted to do what I could to keep that legacy she passed on to me alive.
And I’m happy to say her legacy does live on at my alma mater with the B.J. Seymour Award, which is given each year to “an alumna of Randolph-Macon College who has consistently worked on behalf of issues important to women and/ or girls, and who demonstrates vitality, integrity and leadership.”
When I got my book ready to publish, and I decided to dedicate it to Dr. Seymour, I knew she had died in 2010, but I did not know when she was born. Through the site Legacy.com, I was able to find her obituary. It gave the date of her baptism, but not her birth date. And since she was a Baptist, her baptism probably was not even the same year she was born. I couldn’t believe it. I had never heard of an obituary that did not include the person’s birth date, or even the year of her birth. The obit listed the name and address of the executor of her estate. I called and explained my situation. They told me they knew her birth date. She had to tell them for legal purposes. But she did not want it to be made public. So only a select few know the year she was born. That was why it was not published in the obit. The year of her birth is not even on her headstone.
Most women don’t like to tell their age, but I had never heard of any other woman going to these lengths to hide it. It had been about twenty-five years since I last saw her, and she was still full of surprises. They told me they could tell me if I really needed to know. My first impulse was to say, “Yeah, of course I want to know.” My next impulse was to say, “Shame on you for offering to go against her last wishes.”
So I told them not to tell me, and I would figure out how to work with it. The dedication reads
That was what The Chicago Manual of Style said to do in a situation like this. It does not include the year she was born, and even if I knew it, I would not tell you. Maybe in heaven, I will be able to ask her. Dr. B.J. Seymour is now among that great cloud of witnesses described in Hebrews 12:1, the faithful ones who have gone before me and on whose shoulders I stand. And so B.J., if you are listening, happy International Women’s Day.
Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight and the sin that clings so closely, and let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us,(Heb 12:1 NRS)
Sorry this is a little late, but we had a little incident in our home.
I woke up on Palm Sunday. We weren’t going to church, because of the Coronavirus restrictions. But it was Palm Sunday. My wife and I decided to take advantage of the fact that many services are available online now, especially in response to Coronavirus. Particularly, my sister–a Presbyterian minister–had started filming her services at home to broadcast on Facebook and YouTube. My wife gathered some palm leaves, tied a ribbon around them, and taped them to the door.
She made blueberry pancakes, and I made scrambled eggs. We were looking forward to a pleasant breakfast and my sister leading worship right in our home. While I was getting my plate together, my wife called out from the dining room. It almost sounded like the way she screamed when she saw a mouse, but there was something different about it. I figured it must be a critter of some kind.
She rushed back to the kitchen. I asked what it was, but she couldn’t even tell me. I went to see, and there in the middle of our dining room floor was a snake. Not a big one, it was only a little more than a foot long. But still, a snake. In our home. That cannot stand.
Perhaps the truest verse in the Bible is when God told the serpent there would always be enmity between women and snakes (Gen 3:15). She hates snakes, and I wasn’t thrilled about it either.
It started crawling for the china cabinet. I stepped on it before it got there. The front half was under the cabinet, so I figured that would block it from making a quick strike on my foot. But I was only wearing sandals. Maybe its head would come back out. So I lifted my foot, and it went under the china cabinet. Great! Now how are we going to get it out? Needless to say, Palm Sunday and worship were forgotten at that point.
Why didn’t I just keep my foot on the snake? I had stopped it from going under the china cabinet. And the Bible says, “You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot” (Psa 91:12).
I had it under my foot, just like the Bible says. Should I grab it at the bottom half and pull it out? I shouldn’t have been afraid to do it. After all, the Bible says, “And these signs will accompany those who believe: … they will pick up snakes in their hands, and if they drink any deadly thing, it will not hurt them; they will lay their hands on the sick, and they will recover” (Mar 16:17-18 NRS).
So I could just grab that snake and not worry about whether it was poisonous, and then take it deep into the woods outside my home and release it. That’s supposed to be one of the signs of a believer. While I had it under my foot, why didn’t I grab it? For the same reason I don’t drink cyanide, strychnine, or diesel fuel, even though this verse says it won’t hurt me. Folks, hear me when I say this. NOT EVERYTHING IN THE BIBLE IS SUPPOSED TO BE TAKEN LITERALLY.
So no, I’m not going to grab that snake with my bare hands because of a couple of Bible verses taken out of context. The point of Psalm 91 is not for you to go to the local zoo, climb into the lion’s cage, and jump on its back and say, “Look, I can trample a lion underfoot, because I believe in Jesus Christ.” Many Christians in the first century found that was not meant literally, in case you’ve forgotten.
So we were trying to figure out how to get him out from under there, and how to trap him once he did. While I kept an eye on the snake to be sure he didn’t leave and crawl under something else, my wife brought a Hello Fresh box, a rake, a paint roller, a broom and dustpan, a yardstick, and a pillow case for various ideas we had. I tried calling local pest removal services, but they were closed. Whether because of Coronavirus or that it was Sunday, I don’t know. Finally, I went to the best how-to source on the web, YouTube, and found this from a Tampa area pest control expert.
Glue traps. That was his advice. My wife went to the dollar store to get some.
Meanwhile, I wondered if we might need to move the china cabinet to force him out, so I removed everything from the top section. We never moved it. Instead, we put some glue traps under it. But how do we force the snake onto the trap? My wife fashioned a coat hanger and prodded it into the corner, where I had set a trap. Then its tail showed out the back. I folded another glue trap over its tail to make sure I had it. It was hard to pull out, because the front half was indeed stuck to a glue trap.
I thought about killing it, but the guy in the video reminded me a lot of snakes kill and eat other pests, like mice and rats. It didn’t look like any of the poisonous varieties of snakes in this area, so I was okay with letting it go. He said you could free it from the trap with vegetable oil. I tried the tail first (after going outside, of course). The snake worked its tail free, so one trap down. I took it deep into the woods and poured oil over it. Within a few minutes, he worked himself free and crawled away. Later, I found out it was a rat snake, so I’m glad I let him go.
I had never had to remove a snake from my house before. I didn’t know what to do, so how did I do it? By quoting Bible verses, or naming and claiming promises from the Bible? Truth is, I did quote this verse in my mind.
“You will tread on the lion and the adder, the young lion and the serpent you will trample under foot.”(Psa 91:12)
But you already said not to take that verse literally, so what good was that supposed to do?
I said don’t take it literally. I didn’t say don’t meditate on it. I meditated on that verse the whole time I was trying to figure out what to do, the whole time I pulled the snake out and took it outside, and while I was pouring oil over it to release it. I wasn’t treating it as a promise that God was somehow obligated to put a force field around me and my wife, so the snake couldn’t touch us. “Come on, honey. We can just wait for it to come back out, and I’ll grab it then. Here’s two verses that say snakes can’t hurt us, because we’re believers. Don’t you believe the Bible?” How do you think that would have gone over?
I still put on whatever protective equipment I could: socks, shoes, long pants, and gloves. I didn’t expect that quoting that verse meant the snake couldn’t bite me. I meditated on it for one reason only: To keep myself calm through the process.
I listened to an expert, I did what the expert said, and it worked. I didn’t use the scripture as a substitute for expert advice, only as something to meditate on so I could stay calm. The author of this Psalm did not mean for it to be taken literally. It would help all of us to remember Psalms were originally sung. Songs and poetry most of the time are not meant to be taken literally. They are meant to move us emotionally. Emotions were running high with a snake in our house. This song was made for moments like this. It was meant to help you stay calm and trust God when you have to do something that scares you. And I can tell you in that way, it worked for me.
So with Coronavirus, just as with snakes, listen to the experts and follow their advice.
Psalm 91 is one of the most popular scriptures for promoting peace of mind in stormy circumstances, and with good reason. It is not a license to abandon common sense. As I heard a preacher today talking about his reasons for closing the church and moving services online, “Faith works best when it’s combined with common sense.” So with the understanding that this is not a “promise” that “obligates” God to protect you from Coronavirus by becoming your invisible hazmat suit, I invite you to meditate on these scriptures from Psalm 91 that I am meditating on for comfort and peace in the storm.
You who live in the shelter of the Most High, who abide in the shadow of the Almighty, will say to the LORD, “My refuge and my fortress; my God, in whom I trust.”(Psa 91:1-2 NRS)
For he will deliver you from the snare of the fowler and from the deadly pestilence; he will cover you with his pinions, and under his wings you will find refuge;(Psa 91:3-4 NRS)
You will not fear the terror of the night, or the arrow that flies by day, or the pestilence that stalks in darkness, or the destruction that wastes at noonday.(Psa 91:5-6 NRS)
A thousand may fall at your side, ten thousand at your right hand, but it will not come near you.(Psa 91:7 NRS)
Because you have made the LORD your refuge, the Most High your dwelling place, no evil shall befall you, no scourge come near your tent.(Psa 91:9-10 NRS)
When they call to me, I will answer them; I will be with them in trouble, I will rescue them and honor them. With long life I will satisfy them, and show them my salvation.(Psa 91:15-16 NRS)
-Grace and Peace to you.
If you want something to read while staying at home, check out my award-winning ebook, Dark Nights of the Soul: Reflections on Faith and the Depressed Brain, also available in paperback. And check out other books I recommend on Biblical Fiction, Depression, and Self-Publishing.
I am not posting any blogs until next year. I will resume the first Monday morning. And I hope to have a pretty major announcement then.
Until then, Happy Holidays. Or …
Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, Happy Kwanzaa, Happy Boxing Day, Happy Sol Invictus, Happy New Year, and Happy Dia de los Reyes. Oh, and a Happy Festivus for the rest of us.
Now do you understand why some people say Happy Holidays?
My parents live in Honolulu, so if I want to visit them, I have to fly there. I know. Life is hard. Anyway, I went with my wife and stepson recently. My sister and brother-in-law came as well. Of course, in addition to seeing everyone, I was looking forward to getting in the water.
The day before we were to fly out, I got a flat tire. While I was trying to get to the spare in the trunk, my hand slipped and banged against something. My thumb started bleeding. That’s what I get for trying to fix it myself. I called roadside assistance while trying to stop the bleeding, got the car towed to a place where I could get a new tire, and then went to the emergency room to get my thumb stitched.
We stayed at a hotel near the airport, so we could get there on time. While washing my hands, I broke open a stitch or two. I managed to get the bleeding stopped, but how would affect my beach time? The doctor and nurse who stitched me said after about twenty-four hours, I would be okay to put it in water. However, that was with the wound closed. Now that it was re-opened, I couldn’t be sure anymore. It was Friday night, we had to make the flight Saturday morning, so it would probably wouldn’t be until Monday that I could see a doctor again.
Well, the doctor said I should keep the hand out of the water, just as I feared. Even thought it’s salty, the marine life has to take care of their business in the ocean (not to mention some people, but we won’t go there). That was not a problem without broken skin, but… It was still a good trip but a huge disappointment that I couldn’t really get into the water the way I wanted.
On my last day, I went all the way into the water with my right hand sticking out. I got my wife and stepson to take pictures.
This wasn’t just about obeying doctor’s orders. I was re-enacting a bit of Roman history. One story I heard about the Roman army is that when the emperor Constantine wanted his soldiers to be baptized, they asked if they could keep their right hands above the water. Why would they do that? Because the right hand was their sword/spear hand. It was the hand they used to kill in battle. This is one reason I believe early Christianity was a pacifist religion. I mean, when your founder says, “Love your enemies,” doesn’t that pretty much preclude killing them?
However, soldiers after Constantine were not prohibited from killing. Constantine’s rule marked a sea change where Christianity went from being distrusted and sometimes persecuted by the empire to being the religion of the empire. Unfortunately, it adopted the violent ways of the empire, among other things that we are still living with today.
When people say the church needs to get back to the first century, I wonder if they understand what that really means. Persecution could spring up anywhere without warning, and you could not kill to defend yourself. Their belief was that life was a gift from God. Only God could decide when a person’s life would end. That meant you could not kill for any reason: abortion, euthanasia, war (even if it’s just), the death penalty, or self-defense. Not even to defend your loved ones. When their lives were threatened they did not return evil for evil. They trusted God enough to believe in overcoming evil with good. They did not expect non-Christians to live the same way, but these acts were forbidden in the church nonetheless.
What would it look like if the church really did that? I explore this in a novel I am getting ready to publish with the title (subject to change) Through Fear of Death. A gladiator named Silas converts to Christianity. This means he cannot kill. His defiance will incur the wrath of his lanista and the Procurator of the Games. He finds an unlikely ally in his prison guard, a retired soldier named Marcus Valentinius. Will their friendship and loyalty be strong enough to bring down a ruthless emperor, or will Rome’s system of violence and treachery destroy them?
If you have an opinion about these covers, let me know in the comments below.
If I wrote a book titled How to Meet and Marry Your Soulmate in Just 50 Years, do you think it would sell? I think back to myself at eighteen. He would not have bought that book. He needed God to come through much sooner than that.
At eighteen, I prayed, believing I would receive the wife that God had matched to me, because the Bible promised it. What scriptures are there to promise a wife?
It is not good for the man to be alone (Gen. 2:18).
She is flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone (Gen 2:24).
He who finds a wife finds a good thing and obtains favor from the LORD (Prov. 18:22).
Houses and wealth are inherited from parents, but a prudent wife is from the LORD (Prov. 19:14).
It is better to marry than to burn (1 Cor. 7:9).
Oh, yeah. That last one. I was eighteen years old. You know what it’s like at that age. Hormones were driving a lot of these prayers. But more than that I wanted to find my rib, the woman who would be flesh of my flesh and bone of my bone. In other words, my soulmate. If you want God to introduce you to your Miss Right, you can’t settle for Miss Right-Now. At least that was what I was taught. I wanted to finish college and get a career before I got married. There was some waiting involved. I understood that and accepted it. I figured it would be worth it if I married the woman God intended for me.
But the waiting was much longer than I thought it would be, and it took a toll on my relationship with God. I blamed God for all the years of frustration, opportunities missed, and the ticking of my biological clock. You don’t hear men talk about that, but at a certain age I saw my potency slipping away from me. How was I going to have children? If God were going to answer that prayer of mine, you’d think God would have made it happen in time that my (still nonexistent) wife and I could have made that choice. God promised to grant the desires of my heart (Psalm 37:4). I listened to preachers who set up those expectations for me, and it just made the disappointment greater.
There are some things I understand now that I did not understand then. My mom summed it up when she told me, “You will never find another woman who’s a better fit for you than Fran.” She never said that about any of my previous girlfriends. And with good reason. She was right on both counts, as mothers usually are.
When you are with the right person, you don’t have to talk yourself into it. You don’t have to make excuses for all the ways they make you miserable. The thought of spending my whole life with other girlfriends made me scared. There was too much drama with them. With Fran, the thought of spending the rest of my life with her made me happy. More and more, I got the feeling she was what had been missing in my life. She was both my true love and my best friend. In other words, my soulmate. I had a hard time understanding why my other relationships did not work out. Now, I know. I just did not know what it looked like to be with the right woman until I met Fran.
It was about thirty years later when the prayers of that eighteen-year-old were finally answered. In all that time, I’ve learned the game of trying to find the love of your life is so unfair. You don’t know what it looks like to be with her until you actually meet her. Before then, the rush of being in love can easily fool you. With all my previous girlfriends, there were moments when I thought they could be the one, but we just were not good matches for the long term. Eventually I figured that out. That saved me from marrying the wrong person. But each time it left me frustrated, wondering when will I meet the right person. For a long time, I resented God for making me wait so long.
People would tell me, “It will happen when you don’t expect it.” I did not see how that was possible. Every time I met a new woman, I noticed two things: Is she attractive, and does she have a wedding ring. I got some of them to go out with me, but it never worked out. Eventually, I got so frustrated I gave up completely. So God said, “It is not good for man to be alone”? Apparently God did not include me in that. I resigned myself to a fate of being single my whole life. And then I met her, and fate changed its mind.
What I like most so far is how natural it feels for us to be together. I don’t think about being married the same way I don’t think about breathing. It’s just the way it’s supposed to be. Occasionally, people will remind me, though. Friends or family will ask, “How’s married life?” “Great,” I tell them with a smile. When we tell people we are newlyweds, they are always happy for us. That has been fun. I figured we could keep it going for the first year. A year has passed, and I’m wondering if I can still keep it going.
When something feels natural, though, the danger is in taking it for granted. If anything good has come of waiting so long, it’s that I think it’s impossible to take her for granted. We went to a writer’s group in Buford, Georgia back in May. I talked to one of the men there. He said he has been married fourteen years and still considers himself a newlywed. So my plan now is to keep thinking of us as newlyweds, at least for thirteen more years. And then . . . maybe another fourteen years?
Writers hear the saying “Show don’t tell” all the time. What that means is you don’t tell what the character is feeling. You show it in their actions, physical response, facial expressions, body language, etc. Instead of saying, “He was worried,” or “He was anxious,” you might say, “His brow furrowed.” Fran says I had a furrowed brow when we first met. Now that furrow is gone. What does that show you? For me, it shows how much my relationship with God has healed.
It also shows I didn’t know how much I needed her until I knew her.
If there was one thing I could have changed, it would be having a child or two of my own, in my thirties or maybe late twenties. That ship has sailed. It’s highly unlikely at this point that we would have any children together, unless God pulls an Isaac on us. And I don’t think I would have the energy or desire for it now.
I had no idea that what I was asking for was harder than I thought. I wanted a relationship and a marriage the way it was in the Garden before the Fall. She was flesh of his flesh, bone of his bone. They matched on every level: spiritually, emotionally, intellectually, and physically. If I had just asked for a wife because it is better to marry than to burn, maybe it would not have taken so long. I might have been able to get married in college to satisfy those yearnings. But I asked for more.
When I got married, I wanted it to be right in every way, and I wanted it to be for life. The vast majority of couples, when they get married, don’t think they’ll get divorced. They think it will be for life. And yet, over 50% of marriages end in divorce. Why? I don’t have the answer, and I’m not in a position to judge anyone. If I had married one of my previous girlfriends, I’m sure we would have ended up divorced. I just didn’t want my marriage to be part of that statistic. That meant I needed a woman I connected with on every level.
What if God had said to my eighteen-year-old self, “I can give you your heart’s desire. It’s going to take time before it is right for the two of you to come together. I won’t promise you will be able to have children when it happens”? Would I have taken that?
I might have asked a couple of questions, like, “Why is it taking so long? If you can turn stones into children of Abraham, surely there is more than one woman in the world who can be my wife. If she doesn’t exist yet, take one of my ribs and make her like you did from Adam.”
And God might have said something like, “I haven’t worked that way since the Fall. She does exist. All I am promising is that in the fullness of time, you will meet the desire of your heart.”
“How long is that?”
“In the fullness of time.”
When you pray for something, it’s really hard to pin down an exact time from God. Look at all the times throughout history someone thought they had figured the exact time of the Rapture, and it still hasn’t happened. So when will it happen? Just like the first advent of Christ happened in the fullness of time, the second advent will happen the same way. So stop trying to calculate when.
In Greek, there are two different words for time: Chronos (quantitative time) and Kairos (qualitative time). We live in Chronos, where time is measured in seconds, minutes, days, weeks, months, etc. God operates in Kairos, which means it happens at the right time.
At eighteen I was in Virginia, and she was in South Carolina. The time was not right for us to come together. It took about thirty years to make it happen. As we got to know each other, we learned that all the while, God was slowly, imperceptibly moving us toward each other, so that at the right time, we finally met. It would take a whole other post to tell how it all worked together, but it was enough to convince me whether I believed it or not, God kept working to make it happen at the right time.
Since then it has been a lot easier to trust that God is working everything in my life – even my most frustrating and painful moments – for good, as Romans 8:28 says. So when I ask why God didn’t give me children, if I believe God knew what He was doing better than I did, there must be a reason. I don’t know the reason, and I don’t have to, because even that was something God did for my good. I couldn’t always believe that. But my relationship with God has healed to the point that now I can.
This is a famous passage from The Fault In Our Stars, by John Green, first a book and later made into a movie.
“There are infinite numbers between 0 and 1. There’s .1 and .12 and .112 and an infinite collection of others. Of course, there is a bigger infinite set of numbers between 0 and 2, or between 0 and a million. Some infinities are bigger than other infinities. A writer we used to like taught us that. There are days, many of them, when I resent the size of my unbounded set. I want more numbers than I’m likely to get, and God, I want more numbers for Augustus Waters than he got. But, Gus, my love, I cannot tell you how thankful I am for our little infinity. I wouldn’t trade it for the world. You gave me a forever within the numbered days, and I’m grateful.”
Remember that statistic about 50% of marriages ending in divorce? That hasn’t been true in my family, including extended families. At family reunions, I have great aunts and uncles who have been married fifty, sixty, seventy years. Some who have outlived their spouses. I have cousins who got married at a “normal age” and are still with the same person. A few were divorced and remarried, but not many.
Fran and I will complete our first year of marriage this weekend. It’s very unlikely – unless God does something incredible – that we will live to be married as long as my grandparents were, my parents have been, her parents have been, and of course my many great aunts and uncles and even some cousins have been. I don’t know how long we will have together before one or both of us leaves this world. In comparing the length of time we will have together versus what they have already had, and will have, our Chronos looks so small. John Green reminds me here that no matter how short the time, in Kairos she has already given me infinity within the numbered days. And I wouldn’t trade it for the world.
September 7 marked the 50th anniversary of Led Zeppelin’s first live performance. They have been my favorite band since I was sixteen. It seemed a good time to follow through on something I told my friends in college, that I could make a sermon out of Led Zeppelin songs, so here goes. There are 79 songs in here. See if you can find them all.
Feeling dazed and confused ‘cause you’re trying to find your stairway to Heaven? Ten years gone, and you’re still searching for the houses of the holy? You’re out on the tiles, sick again ‘cause you got the hots on for nowhere. Life is wearing and tearing on you. You can’t sleep because of what is and what should never be. When you’re under the Crunge, life can feel like you’re being trampled under foot. It ain’t nothing but a communication breakdown between you and your creator.
Whether it’s in the evening or on some night flight to a southbound suarez, it’s like I told Darlene, my black country woman, “Your time is gonna come.” Oh that living loving maid. She’s just a woman. When she left me down by the seaside, I cried, “I can’t quit you, Baby,” but she just said, “Hey, hey, what can I do?”
Life was lonely as tea for one. I sailed away and threw myself into the ocean, waiting for Moby Dick to swallow me. But in the darkest depths, I heard God say to me, “Fight for your life.” And for the first time I knew, I mean I really knew, God is with me always.
So believe me when I tell you, friends, it doesn’t matter if you’re a rover and an immigrant, traveling the riverside and singing the blues. You can go over the hills and far away to some misty mountain hop, and God is there for you. You can travel to the black mountain side of Bron-Yr-Aur, and God is there. Even in the ozone, baby, God is there. How many more times must I tell you, God is with you through good times, bad times, even when the levee breaks.
Poor Tom. He thought the Devil was his rock and roll, but that black dog don’t give no quarter. He wants you to keep wandering, lost in the rain. I know because I faced my own devil, and I had to admit to him, “You shook me.”
Oh yes! Oh yes! It’s nobody’s fault but mine. But I’m free today because I told that old heartbreaker, “Babe, I’m gonna leave you,” and I left my wanton ways behind.
Hats off to Roy Harper. He took Walker’s walk to the gallows pole, where he made Achilles’ last stand. In his time of dying, he cried out, “Oh my Jesus! Oh my Jesus! Oh my Jesus! Oh my Jesus!”
So stop being a fool in the rain and step in the light. Because wherever you are, going to California or Royal Orleans or Kashmir or D’yer Maker, the song remains the same.
I don’t mean to ramble on, so let me bring it on home. I’m gonna crawl if that’s what it takes for you to understand. I’m sending you all of my love to let you know this is how you win the battle of evermore. Not with four sticks, but two, joined together. He took that cross on himself to show he’s got a whole lotta love for you, and he won’t never quit you.
Do you feel it now? Do you hear that Carouselambra of the Spirit? Hot dog! This is your celebration day! Are you wondering what you should say? Thank you would be a good start. We’ll boogie With Stu. I’ll bring lemons and tangerines and give a Bron-Y-Aur Stomp, because these are your dancing days. You’ll be like a kid in a candy store rock. That’s the way you get through this life. Beloved, I tell you a mystery. You don’t need to search anymore, because you are all houses of the Holy. God bless all of you.
For Valentine’s Day, I thought I’d tell you how I met my new wife. Before I met her, I had given up on my dream of marrying the love of my life. So if, like me, you’ve reached a point of giving up and thinking it will never happen for you, I hope this will give you some hope.
Fran and I met at a meeting of American Christian Fiction Writers, which my mom told me about, so she gets credit for that. Fran and I were placed in the same critique group, and she had brought the first chapter of a suspense novel she was working on. She had a man watching some security footage of his cabin, thinking he would catch the thieves who stole his canoeing equipment, but instead witnessed a murder. And then through conversation, he found out his boss might have been involved. I was impressed. I told her she had already created fertile ground for suspense.
After the session, we talked a little. I asked if she would like to meet at a coffee shop next Saturday for a mutual critique session, and she agreed. Now you have to understand when I’m interested in a woman, I go into stealth mode. I don’t want her to know I’m attracted to her until the right moment. So for now, we were just talking about writing.
Our critique session went well, and our personalities seemed to click. But before I knew it, we were about to go home. I started to panic, because I had to tell her before she walked away. Time to get out of stealth mode. I said, “I was interested in your writing. But the real reason I asked meet with you is I noticed you’re not wearing a wedding ring.”
And she said, “I think I’m a little old for you.”
I blurted out, “I’m older than you think.”
People tend to think I look younger than I am. I always thought this would be an advantage in approaching women. But now, I had to totally get my head turned around, because I had to convince her I was actually old enough for her. I told her how old I really was, and she replied, “A southern lady doesn’t tell her age.”
I was not going to ask, in case you are wondering. But since the topic was in the open, I needed to reframe it so she could answer in lady-like fashion. I told her, “And a southern gentleman doesn’t ask. But since you know my age, maybe you could just tell me, am I within your range of possibility?”
She said yes, and that’s how it all began.
I have not made a writing manifesto yet. Until then, this will do.