The Starting Point of Sin

Some of you may know that month Jim, the kids, and I moved to southern Indiana as a result of his accepting a new position as head of school for Lighthouse Christian Academy in Bloomington. While this is the third time our family has moved premises, this was by far the biggest change of scene for us all. The distance wasn’t the only factor, though moving hours away is a far cry from the puddle jump moves we have made in the past. We were leaving behind the only community the kids have ever known, as home base at least. The church they were baptized in as infants; neighbors, schools, childhood friends, and on and on it goes. It has been disorienting to say the least.

Packing up the house, we discovered all sorts of things, some good and some not so good. Items we thought were lost were found; dirt and dust we didn’t know were accumulating was discovered, etc. And then we went about the process of repositioning old furniture in a new setting, sorting through forgotten boxes and deciding what to keep, what to pass on to others, and what to throw to the curb. This new setting has helped me to see our possessions in a new light, both literally and figuratively. And this is true of me as well.

The combination of quitting my job which, for the last two years has consumed so much of my time and energy, and moving out of the community I have spent my entire adult life in has been a great opportunity for self-reflection. For me, as I am sure it would be for many of you, self-reflection is usually an opportunity for self-berating. Critical evaluations of oneself aren’t always a bad thing, but too often I use it as a chance to focus on my flaws, cry to God about what a failure I am and crawl into a hole of embarrassment and shame.

Recently, however, I have been trying to take a different approach. I’ve been attempting to see my moral failings with gratitude. If I never see areas where I am weak, how can I grow strong? Yes, it’s unpleasant to have one’s frailties and faults exposed but the alternative is much worse. I must ask myself, do I want to have the appearance of goodness all the while hiding my sinful thoughts and deeds or do I want to expose them in order to grow?

Imagine going to the doctor because, while appearing perfecty healthy, you know there is something internally wrong with you.mThe nurse comes in and hands you one of those delightfully revealing paper gowns and tells you to get undressed so the doctor can diagnose the issue. Are you going to be uncomfortable? Clearly yes, but you have a choice: get uncomfortable and be exposed or stay clothed and continue to get sicker. We are faced with the same choice when dealing with our sin and the Great Physician. He cannot heal us unless He first exposes our disease.

Now I am not calling for some sort of celebration of sin. Not saying that we should all start indiscriminately dropping our metaphorical drawers and glorying in our exposed failures. There is both a time and place for sharing our sin through confession, both with God and with others. Just as none of us particularly want to see people traipsing through the malls in paper medical gowns, I don’t think we should go about broadcasting our moral failures in an attempt to normalize behavior which we are biblically told is wrong.

What I am calling myself to do is to see my sin coming into focus as a starting point to begin from rather than a finish line I failed to cross. From this starting point, I can start the journey, first to repentance and then to growth and freedom. The diagnosis is just the first step; it doesn’t immediately bring the cure. But it is a necessary one without which there can be no healing.

This move was not one that I looked forward to. But I am grateful for the chance to see myself in a different light and to grow as a result. One day, I will make my final move, from earth to my heavenly home. Then I will have the chance to see myself in the light of God’s Glory, clothed not in a flimsy exam gown but in Christ’s righteousness. Then I will be diagnosed, treated and cured, surrounded by the saints and home for good.


Resign to the Grind

This week begins my fourth week as head of school at Lighthouse Christian Academy—a K-12 school in Bloomington, Indiana. There are lots of wonderful, dedicated people there whom I’ve enjoyed getting to know. I’m excited to see what the coming school year will bring. Although none of us know the future, we can absolutely count on two things: 1) God will be faithful to us along the way and 2) the work will be a grind, and by that I mean consistently hard and often tedious work. But that’s okay, because all jobs are, in one way or another, a grind. At least if one is going to do them well.

Before this job, I worked as a college professor for 28 years, and that was certainly a grind. Preparing lectures, giving lectures, advising students, serving on committees, attending faculty meetings, filling out forms, and endless grading. And the research and publishing part was just as difficult and tedious, if not more so. But that’s what it takes for success as a college professor—a willingness to push through, day after day, semester after semester with the tedium.

This is no less true in those fields that are typically considered glamorous or prestigious. Professional athletes are exalted in our culture, envied by many. Yet their work involves enormous amounts of repetition with training drills, weight-lifting, dietary regimens, constant travel, and media interviews. It’s an exhausting lifestyle, to be sure. Of course, we rarely pity them, because—at least in the case of major sport male athletes—they make a lot of money. But that doesn’t keep their work from being a grind.

The same is true in the entertainment world. A successful Hollywood actor must work through countless scripts, repeatedly rehearse lines and prep for their roles, work through conflicts with directors and fellow actors, and do tons of photo shoots and interviews, all the while working with their agents to establish their next acting gig. And the more successful they are, the greater the demands on their time. Likewise for rock stars; whether working in the studio or going on exhausting tours, their work is a tedium of repetition, and success (and sometimes even survival) hinges on how well they can keep the grind from crushing their souls or tempting them to abuse drugs or alcohol—a common problem in the entertainment world for just this reason.

Or consider a successful CEO of a company. Even the multi-millionaire mogul must endure daily briefs about the business, constant number crunching, and all that goes into monitoring product development, marketing, financials, and personnel issues, and pressures often created by rumors of scandal, social media issues, and one’s competitors, not to mention backbiters within one’s own fold. A truly stressful tedium indeed. Again, we never pity the Jeff Bezoses, Bill Gateses, or Jack Dorseys of the world because they are so wealthy. But their professional lives are every bit the grind of any other successful worker.

And then there are the other fields of work that are more obviously grinds—those who work in auto factories, retail management, manufacturing, accounting, mail delivery, truck driving, medical research, communications, informational technology, counseling, landscaping, dentistry, and law. Each of these industries, whatever one’s role, is in one way another a serious grind—again, assuming one is doing reasonably good work. One can avoid the grind by slacking off, of course. But that is simply to choose failure.

Bottom line: to be successful in this world you must resign to the grind. Real achievement necessarily requires a dedication to doing dull, monotonous, repetitive tasks and doing them well. (My latest YouTube video fastens on this point.) This is a fact about the human condition that the writer of Ecclesiastes sums up well when he asserts, “All things are wearisome, more than one can say” (Eccl.1:8). Amen to that.


A Biblical Tension Regarding Cursing the Wicked

One category of biblical psalms is the so-called “imprecatory psalm.” These are psalms which invoke God’s harsh judgment upon those who do evil or otherwise oppose the things of God. One of the most severe among these is Psalm 109, authored by King David:

My God, whom I praise,
do not remain silent,
for people who are wicked and deceitful
have opened their mouths against me;
they have spoken against me with lying tongues.
With words of hatred they surround me;
they attack me without cause.
In return for my friendship they accuse me,
but I am a man of prayer.
They repay me evil for good,
and hatred for my friendship.

Appoint someone evil to oppose my enemy;
let an accuser stand at his right hand.
When he is tried, let him be found guilty,
and may his prayers condemn him.
May his days be few;
may another take his place of leadership.
May his children be fatherless
and his wife a widow.
10 May his children be wandering beggars;
may they be driven from their ruined homes.
11 May a creditor seize all he has;
may strangers plunder the fruits of his labor.
12 May no one extend kindness to him
or take pity on his fatherless children.
13 May his descendants be cut off,
their names blotted out from the next generation.
14 May the iniquity of his fathers be remembered before the Lord;
may the sin of his mother never be blotted out.
15 May their sins always remain before the Lord,
that he may blot out their name from the earth. (NIV)

This creates a tension because Jesus says, “love your enemies and bless those who persecute you” (Mt. 5:44), and the Apostle Paul says, “bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse” (Rom. 12:14). Yet in Psalm 109 and other imprecatory psalms (e.g., Psalms 5, 35, 52, 54, 56-59, 79, 83, and 94) we find requests for calamity, suffering, and even destruction of the wicked, which is anything but blessing. So what gives here? How do we reconcile these biblical passages? On the one hand, we have psalmic prayers that implicitly enjoin us to pray calamities upon the wicked. On the other hand, we have Jesus and Paul admonishing us to bless and not curse. How might this tension be resolved?

Here are some ways of dealing with the problem that I’ve heard some people propose:

  1. The imprecatory psalms are not model prayers. They are not normative so much as insights into the emotional states of the psalmists which accurately reflect our own states of mind when dealing with injustice and wickedness. It is easy to see why most evangelical scholars would reject this approach, as it essentially suggests that there are elements of the psalmic prayers that one ought not to follow, the implication being that following the Psalms in some cases would be unwise or even sinful. Furthermore, this creates a dangerous slippery slope. Where does such suspicion of the psalms stop? Must we then question the wisdom of all of the Psalms?
  2. The New Testament ethic differs from that in the Old Testament. In Old Testament times certain judgmental, even condemning ways of dealing with the wicked were appropriate, but with the coming of Christ we have a different ethic, a revised moral standard. The problem with this approach is that it does violence to the moral unity of Scripture. While it must be granted that the levitical and civil aspects of the Old Testament law were abrogated with the advent of Christ, the moral law remains constant. To suggest that the Psalms recommended an action that Jesus condemned is to suggest that moral goodness itself is mutable. This is unacceptable.
  3. The imprecatory psalms don’t really invoke curses upon the wicked. Yes, they are requests that God bring pain and misfortune upon them, but these do not rise to the level of a genuine “curse.” Unfortunately for this approach, by any reasonable definition of the term, the calamities requested by David in Psalm 109 definitely qualify as curses. Merriam-Webster defines a curse as “a prayer or invocation for harm or injury to come upon one” and Dictionary.com says that to curse is “to wish or invoke evil, calamity, injury, or destruction upon” someone. Surely, by these definitions, David’s requests that his enemy would die, that his children would be impoverished and homeless, and that his sins never be forgiven qualify as a curse.

So none of these options look promising to me. At this point, I believe the best—though not entirely satisfactory—way to deal with this tension is to say that such imprecatory prayers as we find in Psalm 109 might be made in a spirit of blessing, in the sense that one might pray that God would bring such calamities upon a wicked person in order to prompt their repentance, which of course is always a blessing. And one might pray that the loss of descendants and the loss of forgiveness only come as a condition of the wicked person’s refusal to repent and persistence of defiance of the Lord, which is only just. Of course, such a hellish eternal destiny for the wicked is anything but a blessing. But the person praying in this way may nonetheless hope for the person’s repentance while also affirming the justice of God in condemning them if they do not repent. Finally, the loss of descendants can be seen as redemptive at least in the sense that this would mitigate the negative effects of the sins of the wicked down through succeeding generations.

I acknowledge that this way of dealing with this biblical tension is not ideal. At the end of the day, Psalm 109 and other imprecatory psalms present us with a serious challenge as to how we should prayerfully regard the wicked. I welcome any alternative suggestions as to how we might resolve this tension.


Lessons from the Road

The past year has been a rough one for all of us. The pandemic has hit everyone in one way or another. Diminished freedom, closed businesses, canceled travel plans, school shutdowns and of course the deaths of loved ones. As most of you know, over the last nine months, outside of the pandemic our family has been on a rather painful and frightening journey. Not only was Jim unexpectedly fired from his job, but he also lost two dear friends in a tragic accident, our beloved dog passed away from cancer at only 5 years old, and our youngest son, Andrew, broke his arm in what seemed like a routine fall while playing basketball. All of these events have left me emotionally drained and frankly perplexed; wondering what God’s plan is for our future, asking how we can appease Him to make the compounding losses stop. But the past months have also left me with some insights that I wanted to share, in the midst of the story, rather than at the “end.” While Andrew’s arm has healed and he is back on the courts, Jim is still looking for employment and, to put it bluntly, Ben, Meg and Penny are still dead. My hope is that as you deal with your own tragedies, disappointments and trials, some of my observations can come in handy and I want to share them before the curtain closes on this particular season for us, when they are harder to affirm and seem less inevitable. Most mothers will tell you all the pain was worth it when they are holding their baby in their arms, but fewer by far will say the same in the throes of labor pains. Most travelers will say it was worth the journey when they are sitting by the fireside, but rare is the content person when lost and low on gas.

Lesson One: No one knows what tomorrow brings. Repeatedly since August, when Jim was terminated, I have said “I don’t care where we go. I just want to know.” As different job opportunities have come and gone, I have embraced the idea of moving to the city, moving to the country, staying where we are and moving far away. Any of these prospects would be hard, but for someone like myself who loves to plan and organize (read: someone who is a total control freak), none would have been as nearly as hard as not knowing. A week or so ago, when another seemingly viable job opportunity dead-ended, Jim told me he felt God telling us to be still and wait. Well, duh, what else could we do? But there is waiting and then there is waiting. I have been waiting like a five year old on a road trip, kicking the back of God’s seat, asking “Are we there yet?” every two minutes. I am trying, semi-successfully, to wait as in “wait upon the LORD…” kind of waiting. And doing so has stilled something inside, loosened my grip on the future, and made me realize I may not know what lies ahead, but this is nothing new. I thought I knew before, when we got up on that morning last fall like hundreds of other mornings. Ben and Meg thought they knew when driving home from their date night in November. You, dear reader, think you know right now. But, unbeknownst to us, the decision had been made and the driver was going too fast to stop. And unbeknownst to you, the detour could be straight ahead. Who knows? I know who doesn’t know, and that’s you and me. Acknowledging that God has planned this trip long before you could read a map, and that this detour isn’t really a “change of plans” at all can bring a peace that passes understanding. I have cried out “Just tell me what to want and I will want it. This job? That job? No job? I’m good with anything. I just want to know.” And God has repeatedly answered “Just want me and let the rest sort itself out.” Such an annoyingly wise and beneficial truth. It’s just like God to tell us exactly the opposite of what we want to hear, but in a way that is exactly what we need to hear. I have no doubt I will still kick and whine from the backseat in the future, but by God’s grace I will do so fewer times before we arrive “home.”

Lesson Two: God is faithful whether you are happy or not. If you know me at all, you know that I love and respect my parents beyond measure. My folks have been absolute rocks, praying for and encouraging us on a daily basis. As we have waited for news on various job leads, my dad has texted or called to say, “God is faithful.” This, of course, is true. He is faithful to His plans, to His glory and to our ultimate good. But that doesn’t mean He is faithful to provide for our happiness. So each time, my dad has reminded me of God’s faithfulness, I have reminded him that God’s faithfulness does not equate to my happiness. I have never doubted God’s faithfulness. But I serve a god who has allowed His prophets to be jailed, His saints to be martyred, and His Son to be killed. Even Jesus asked for a quick change of plans in the garden. But here’s the thing: when God is faithful to His plans, His glory and our ultimate good, that should be enough to make us happy. It’s like the saying “When Mama’s happy, everyone’s happy.” That’s not because Mama is selfish. It’s because she is the heart of the home and out of her happiness flows the service, planning and love that provides for everyone else. God is the heart of creation and out of His will flows salvation for us all. So maybe my dad was right after all, darn it; my happiness does rest in God’s faithfulness. It just might not be the quick fix sort of happiness I long for; but the kind that His prophets, martyrs and Son are enjoying even now, the kind that lasts forever.

Lesson Three: There comes a time to wipe your eyes and start faking it. This lesson came from my co-worker, a 6’5” giant Nigerian man I call my little brother. When he told me that maybe it was time to stop hiding under my desk and crying, it really annoyed me. Didn’t he know how hard the last months had been? Didn’t he understand the emotional load I was carrying? Didn’t he get it? Maybe he did and maybe he didn’t; either way, though, he was right. The grief we have experienced is real and has changed our family forever. But we are still alive; we still have work to do and there comes a time when you have to get back at it. I think Jim has been much better at this than I have, pouring himself into his music and using his time wisely. I have obviously kept working and kept busy with the kids, but my thoughts have been consumed by our situation. Analyzing it, planning for what’s next, talking through all the “what ifs” ad nauseam, opening up the wounds again and again. Sometimes I can’t help being overwhelmed by the emotion of it all. I just don’t have a lot of buffer to absorb any additional blows. Some things send me back under the desk for a brief time out. Like the time the kids convinced me Maggie had shaved her head and was really upset. But after a few minutes, I have to get back in my chair and go back to work. I don’t want to allow our circumstances to blind me to the struggles of others around me. Just because we are having a tough time doesn’t mean everyone else is off in Candyland having a grand ole time of it. It’s amazing how reaching out to encourage others helps my wounds to heal a little faster. It’s like playing “I Spy” to pass the time on a road trip; being more attentive to the world around you really does make the journey less tiresome.

I hope these reflections are helpful to you, whatever you are currently experiencing. If you are in a season of sorrow, may they bring comfort to you. If you are in a season of joy, may they serve as a “caution ahead” sign; not to diminish the happiness of today but to prepare you for any rough road that might lie ahead.


Ten Great Taylor Swift Songs

Taylor Swift is a towering figure in popular music and for good reason. She has produced nine superb albums and deservedly won numerous Grammys for her work. Despite this, it saddens me to say, she doesn’t get the credit she deserves as a songwriter. At this point, I would list her among the best songwriters in the history of American popular music. Still, some of my friends dismiss her because, at least until recently, her music has been slickly produced and perhaps also because she is so popular. For music afficionados who disdain the torrent of drivel that pours out of the pop music industry this is an understandable reaction. But, alas, for all of the slick production, Taylor Swift is a

from Wikipedia.org

masterful songwriter. So I’ve decided to make a list of what I regard as some of Swift’s best songs, particularly from a songwriting standpoint. But the recorded performances and arrangements inevitably figure in my thinking as well.

I am going to list these chronologically and completely ignore Swift’s first three albums, strong as they are. This means I am bypassing such early classics as “Back to December,” “White Horse,” “Mean” and, my personal favorite from her early period, “Sparks Fly.” And there are many other great tunes I could have included, some of which I actually enjoy more than many of the songs on my list (e.g., “I Knew You Were Trouble,” “Holy Ground,” “We are Never Getting Back Together,” “I Know Places,” “Shake it Off,” “Getaway Car,” “Don’t Blame Me,” and “Paper Rings”).

If you’re not very familiar with Swift’s music or you haven’t closely inspected her lyrics, I invite you to do so as you go through this list. The videos links include lyrics.

  1. “All Too Well” (Red, 2012) – This is one of Swift’s many break-up songs, but which poignantly expresses lingering regrets and features especially powerful arrangement dynamics. This song is a clinic in both songwriting and production. Check out Swift’s live performance of the song at the Grammys in 2013.
  2. “The Lucky One” (Red, 2012) – This is the song that first got my attention regarding Swift’s songwriting talent. A powerfully communicated message about the destructive effects of immense fame—an uncommon theme in popular music. MGMT’s “Time to Pretend” might be the best in that category, but Swift’s “The Lucky One” is right up there.
  3. “Blank Space” (1989, 2014) – Art often imitates life, and sometimes it intentionally imitates lies or exaggerations about life. This song falls into the latter category, as Swift explains in this live performance at the Grammy museum.
  1. “I Did Something Bad” (Reputation, 2017) – At first blush this song seems like a confession, but it’s actually more likely a declaration of innocence in the face of unjust accusation. “They say I did something bad” goes the refrain.
  2. “This is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things” (Reputation, 2017) – Swift is the master of the musical rebuke, and this one is as good as they get, presented in a musical form that is reminiscent of a Broadway musical and accented by Swift’s clever humor (another quality of great songwriters).
  3. “Death by a Thousand Cuts” (Lover, 2019) – This song is the perfect marriage of form to content—blending a poignant melody with a tragic lyrical theme. And it is loaded with great lines. So good.
  1. “Invisible String” (Folklore, 2020) – There are probably ten songs from Folklore that I could include in this list. The album is that consistently strong. But this one stands out to me for its lyrical subtlety.
  2. “The Last Great American Dynasty” (Folklore, 2020) – A song about philanthropist Rebekah Harkness who married into the wealth of Standard Oil tycoon William Harkness. Swift purchased a Rhode Island property once owned by the Harkness, hence there is a personal connection.
  3. “No Body, No Crime” (Evermore, 2020) – A crime drama in a song, complete with a clever twist at the end. Is there anything songwriting-wise this woman can’t do?
  4. “Marjorie” (Evermore, 2020) – An emotionally powerful song about Swift’s grandmother that also works in some instructive life maxims, without being either maudlin or preachy. All couched in a that misty musical ambience that pervades both Folklore and Evermore.

The Temptations of Intellectual Pride

Many times over the years people have asked me about the dangers and pitfalls of studying philosophy, particularly for a person of faith. Usually the questioner has worries about the subject matter of philosophy—the questions that philosophers ask and, especially, wayward ideas that abound in the field, from metaphysical naturalism to moral relativism, which are inimical to a Christian faith perspective. In answering the question, I usually make a couple of observations. One is to acknowledge that, yes, there are many hazards involved in philosophical inquiry as regards the ideas and arguments one encounters in the field. And yes, it is possible for a well-intended Christian philosopher to be duped by what the Apostle Paul calls “hollow and deceptive arguments” (Col. 2:8). I have seen this happen to many people over the years. But I have seen it happen just as frequently, if not more so, in other fields, especially in the social sciences. So philosophical studies should not be singled out as the academic field most hazardous to one’s spiritual health. Moreover, I believe the potential upside of Christ-centered philosophical studies to be greater than that of any academic field, aside from theology.

Another observation is that when it comes to spiritual hazards in academic pursuits, the biggest culprits are not particular subjects, ideas, or arguments but rather human vices that are often occasioned by academic inquiry generally, including but not limited to philosophical studies. Here I am thinking especially about intellectual pride. I can think of at least four ways in which serious academic pursuits present temptations to intellectual pride.

One such temptation is the desire for absolute intellectual autonomy, the impulse to work things out for oneself when it comes to worldview and questions about all sorts of issues, including one’s ultimate values and the meaning of life. Of course, a certain amount of intellectual autonomy is good and proper, even necessary for human maturity. But taken to the extreme, where a person denies, even if only tacitly, the authority of Scripture over one’s life and belief system, this is, from a Christian perspective, most certainly a vice.

Another related temptation is the inclination to dismiss scriptural authority or particular biblical passages because of confusing passages and a lack of philosophical sophistication. While what has traditionally been called the perspicuity of Scripture (the clarity of its meaning, at least on the most central issues, for ordinary readers) is commonly hailed as a hallmark of its divine inspiration, someone who is trained in rigorous logical analysis may be tempted to question this because Scripture’s assertions and narratives are sometimes cryptic, confusing, or even crudely articulated and not what a trained academic, such as an analytic philosopher might “expect” from a divinely inspired text.

Thirdly, rigorous academic training and the pursuit of rational accounts and demonstrable explanations for phenomena can tempt a person toward a disinclination to be content with mysterious aspects of Christian doctrine. Appeals to mystery can sound like a cop-out to the serious academician (never mind the fact that everyone relies on significant articles of faith at the foundation of their belief system—e.g., the laws of logic, the general reliability of sense perception, the law of causality, and even the existence of other minds), and for this reason the Christian scholar may be tempted to deny or disparage the role of mystery in her belief system.

Finally, the fact that academicians tend to be endowed with significant intellectual gifts—which partly explains why they become academicians in the first place—is itself a source of temptation. Such people tend to have greater mental adroitness, and this brings with it skills for profound insight and innovation but also for rationalizations and obscuring moral truths. Intellectual gifts, like all human talents, are a double-edged sword, both a blessing and a curse. A significant aspect of the latter is the temptation it presents for the intellectually gifted person to effectively deploy her acumen to warp, undermine, or obfuscate otherwise plain biblical teachings, especially as these regard Scripture’s moral standards and the obligations they impose on us.

Augustine maintained that the root of all human sin is pride, which is essentially arrogant self-satisfaction. C. S. Lewis agrees, noting that “the essential vice, the utmost evil, is pride. Unchastity, anger, greed, drunkenness, and all that, are mere fleabites in comparison: it was through pride that the devil became the devil: Pride leads to every other vice: it is the complete anti-God state of mind” (from Mere Christianity).

Any gifts or talents with which God blesses us may be occasions for pride, and this is especially true of intellectual gifts, for the reasons I’ve noted. This might explain why there are so many biblical warnings and rebukes regarding intellectual pride. The book of Job culminates with the Lord showing Job the puny reach of his understanding. The writer of Ecclesiastes calls the pursuit of wisdom under the sun “a chasing after the wind.” And Jesus highlights how some of the greatest insights are “hidden…from the wise and the learned and revealed…to little children” (Mt. 11:25).

We would all do well to keep this in mind, especially those of us who are academicians. If not properly tethered by a humble submission to God and the authority of Scripture, our intellectual gifts may actually become a hindrance to understanding, amounting to more of a curse than a blessing. As the Apostle Paul says, “Where is the wise person? Where is the teacher of the law? Where is the philosopher of this age? Has not God made foolish the wisdom of the world? … [T]he foolishness of God is wiser than human wisdom, and the weakness of God is stronger than human strength” (1 Cor. 1:20-25).


Why the Last Shall be First

A recurrent theme in Jesus’ teachings in the Gospels is the so-called “upside-down kingdom”—the idea that the stations of human beings in the next world will be the reverse of what they are in this world. For example, in Luke 9 we read that “An argument started among the disciples as to which of them would be the greatest. Jesus, knowing their thoughts, took a little child and had him stand beside him. Then he said to them, ‘Whoever welcomes this little child in my name welcomes me; and whoever welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me. For it is the one who is least among you all who is the greatest’” (vs. 46-48). And in Matthew 20:16 Jesus sums this up by saying “the last will be first and the first will be last.”

I have long wondered why God set it up this way. Why should the least here be the greatest in the kingdom of God?  And for a long time my best answer was that there is a certain beauty in this—that God would choose this way of doing things for aesthetic reasons. Such irony, after all, makes for a more compelling artistic narrative, right? I still think this is true, but now I believe the fundamental reason is more straightforward. It has to do with our proper place as creations of God. In short, we were made to serve, to be God’s subjects. This is a fundamentally humble role, of course. And although plainly biblical, we are chafed by it because we are naturally prideful. (Even many Christian organizations which claim to emphasize servanthood only do so by using the term “servant” as an adjective describing “leadership,” a fact which shows just how problematic “servanthood” is from a marketing standpoint.).

Human beings, like all other beings in the universe, were created to serve God. And as rational, conscious beings, we were designed to choose to serve God. Such humility is, as I have argued in several places, our proper place and highest virtue (as indicated by the Kenosis passage in Phil. 2:5-11). To be among the least, in an intentional and voluntary way, is to demonstrate the will to serve, a desire to assume one’s proper place in a universe ruled by a sovereign God. In short, then, what I am proposing is that the reason for the “upside-down” kingdom, that the last will be first and the least will be greatest, is that choosing to serve effectively demonstrates the will to fulfill one’s created purpose, to do the job God made us to do. Such a commitment, therefore, isn’t just symbolically or metaphorically “great.” It really is true greatness.

The irony we see in this is only due to the fact that, as fallen human beings we are so disinclined to recognize our proper place of humble subjection to God. We have a natural, sinful tendency to want to be first and to have others serve us, not vice versa. And the overwhelming majority of human beings act accordingly. From such a perspective, Jesus’ teaching is strikingly paradoxical and counter-intuitive. But, again, if God is the sovereign ruler of the cosmos who has created all people to serve him, it’s not really paradoxical at all, nor should it be counter-intuitive to those who have embraced and fully interiorized his lordship. It is neither paradox nor even irony. It is just a basic fact of reality.


The Best and Worst of 2020

It has been an eventful year. On top of the Covid pandemic, we’ve endured some personal losses but nothing that God will not redeem for great good. As usual we are closing out the year with summary remarks about good and bad stuff related to film, music, books, sports, food, and family.

 

Film Experiences

Jim:  With Covid restrictions preventing us from going to the theaters, we watched all of our films this year at home, in many cases catching up on films from previous years. For me, the biggest disappointment was The Lighthouse, which is well acted (by Willem Dafoe and Robert Pattinson) with tremendous cinematography but ultimately an aimless, oppressive narrative. A more successful attempt at twisted horror is As Above So Below (2014), which could be described as American Treasure meets Blair Witch Project in the catacombs of Paris. Dante would be proud . . . maybe.  I was mesmerized by the docudrama Wormwood (2017), which is another film that features a dark psychological trip of sorts, as the principle subject, Eric Olson, seeks to get to the bottom of the death of his father, Frank Olson, who supposedly committed suicide while working for the CIA in 1953. Whoa. Finally, I highly recommend the surprisingly profound My Octopus Teacher, which chronicles the relationship between filmmaker Craig Foster and an octopus off the coast of South Africa. Ever been moved to tears by a mollusk? I was.

Amy: This year has been predominantly about escape when it comes to my viewing habits. I find true crime and detective shows oddly comforting when stressed or sad, inspiring the idea of justice being achievable. Some of my faves this year were Criminal UK and Unbelievable. I also fell down the rabbit hole of The Crown: Season Four, going back and forth between watching and researching the true events. Social Dilemma was terrifying and nearly had me throwing all our phones and devices in the toilet. Emma and Rebecca were period piece highlight and disappointment, respectively. I fell in love with The Unicorn as one of the few shows set in the South I have ever enjoyed.

 

Food and Music

Amy’s Best Food Experiences of the Year: This year my favorite food experience was a two-parter. First, I loved watching the Great British Baking Show with Bailey and Andrew and then I enjoyed celebrating Andrew’s victory in our competition to predict the winner by going out with Andrew and Bailey at a local restaurant with a good friend as our server. Otherwise, our culinary experiences, like many others, were homebound. Sampling the variety of bakery creations the kids concocted was almost worth all of the clean-up. My traditional birthday meal at Chesapeake’s in Knoxville with Jim, my parents and sister and brother-in-law was especially meaningful this year’s challenges.

Jim’s Best Musical Experiences of the Year: I’ve continued to enjoy the recent spate of female singer-songwriters, including Mitski, Phoebe Bridgers, and Madison Cunningham. I appreciated the bold adventurousness of the new Morrissey album, I am Not a Dog on a Chain. The new Dylan album, Rough and Rowdy Ways, was a wonderful surprise. Even more surprising is the fact that the album’s 16-minute closer, “Murder Most Foul” became the first #1 song in the 80-year-old legend’s career. Like millions of others, I was thrilled with both of Taylor Swift’s studio albums released this year—Folklore and Evermore, which are really a time-released double album (a la Radiohead’s Kid A and Amnesiac). With these albums, Swift further cements her status as one of the best songwriters of our time, a fact that is sadly missed on many people, whether due to latent sexism or a simple failure to study the lyrics of her songs. But I digress . . .  My most exciting musical discovery this year was the band MeWithoutYou. I regret to confess that I’m late to the party with these guys. But, man, has it been fun doing the deep dive into their seven albums . . . just in time for the band to announce they are calling it quits.

 

Sports

Jim’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year:  Watching two frustrated sports franchises finally break through to win championships in the NFL (Kansas City Chiefs) and Major League Baseball (Los Angeles Dodgers) was gratifying. Normally I wouldn’t pull for an L.A. team, but after knocking at the door for several years and being denied by the cheating Houston Astros a few years ago, it was good to see the Dodgers finally reach the mountain top, especially for Clayton Kershaw, who by all accounts is an admirable Christian guy.

Amy’s Favorite Sports Moments of the Year:  Like so many things this year my favorite sports moment was bittersweet. Because of my work schedule I don’t often get to see my kids play, but I enjoyed cheering on Sam in his final soccer game of the year. Though it was heartbreaking to see Eastbrook lose in overtime in the sectional playoffs, Jim and I couldn’t be prouder and look forward to watching him play next year for our favorite college coach, Gary Ross.

Jim’s Most Disappointing Sports Moments of the Year:  Seeing the Saints going down against the Vikings (again) in the post-season was tough to take last January. But far more painful than that was watching our son, Andrew, break his arm during a basketball game a few weeks ago. Happily, orthopedist Dr. Daniel Edwards at Marion General Hospital worked his magic on our young man, and Andrew is on the mend and will hit the courts again as soon as the cast is cut off.

Amy’s Most Painful Sports Moment of the Year:  Because of Covid restrictions on the number of people who can attend kids’ games, I was not able to be at Andrew’s game when he fractured his arm. But seeing Andrew’s courageous response and the excellent care he received was a definite positive.

 

Good Reads

Jim:  My most underwhelming read of the year was Frank Herbert’s classic sci-fi book Dune. Just couldn’t get into it, but I’m glad to have read it. I’ve benefitted from digging into Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag Archipelago, which is disturbingly apropos for our time. I also appreciated Rod Dreher’s Live Not by Lies, which was inspired by, and takes its title from, Solzhenitsyn’s Gulag. I’ve also enjoyed working through two classics—Thucydides’ Peloponnesian War and Dante’s Inferno.

Amy:  The highlights of the year were James Clear’s Atomic Habits, Leadership in Turbulent Times by Doris Kearns Goodwin and The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*** by Mark Manson. The latter book was an especially refreshing read. Despite the crudeness of the title, the book spoke to me in a profound way, both as an individual and as a parent. I intend every one of my kids to read it and recommend that you do the same. And if you don’t care to take my recommendation, then frankly, my dear reader, I don’t give a #@%!

 

Best 2020 Family Memories

Jim:  Our family retreat with my in-laws’ extended family in July was awesome. As always, we divided into teams and had some thrilling competition. I also enjoyed building a barn in Knoxville with my father-in-law and getting to know his mischievous cows, Lulu and Dottie.

Amy: Generally, the time we’ve spent together as a family, with Bailey home more than usual, was special. My niece Rachel’s wedding was definitely a highlight. And my supervisor’s traditional African wedding was a wonderful experience with Jim, Bailey, and Sam.

 

Best Kids’ Quotes of the Year

  • Maggie: “I have a zit on my soul.”
  • Andrew: “I think of our time on earth as a terrible sleepover where you just want to go home.”
  • Maggie: “Unlike humans, dogs deserve to be loved.”
  • Bailey: Regarding his initiation into the world of alcoholic beverages: “It’s like I’ve discovered a new primary color.”
  • Maggie: “I want my own guitar so I can get one of those straps and walk around with it in the woods and be one with nature. Wait . . . I hate nature.”

 

New Year’s Resolutions

Amy:  This year has presented Jim and me with some of the most profound challenges of our lives. Next year my hope is that more of my challenges will come from within as I seek to grow in mind, body, and spirit.

Jim:  To pray every morning on my knees.

 

Happy 2021 everyone!


Unconditional Forgiveness

This Christmas we once again celebrated the arrival to earth of the Messiah, whose mission was to achieve forgiveness of the sins of humanity. Naturally, then, the Advent season should prompt us to reflect on our own sins as well as how we may “pay forward” Christ’s work to others. This involves forgiving one another’s sins.

But to what extent should we forgive others? Should our forgiveness of others’ sins be unconditional? There is some debate about this among Christian theologians and ethicists. For example, Doug Geivett maintains that forgiveness is properly premised on the repentance of the offender, and the writer of this article takes the view that a Christian may forgive the unrepentant but need not do so. Similarly, Roger Olson maintains that unconditional forgiveness is a supererogatory act (above and beyond the call of duty). Then there is Lewis Smedes who took the view that the Christian should be willing to forgive unconditionally. I’m inclined to agree with Smedes, maintaining that the Christian should always and in every case forgive those who sin against them, whether or not they ever repent or apologize. While we have a duty to confront those who sin against us, their failure to repent is not grounds for our withholding our forgiveness. (Also, importantly, this view does not entail that we must maintain a relationship with those whom we forgive.)

Here are some reasons why I take this position. First and foremost, there is the model of Christ’s unconditional forgiveness. Jesus forgave even those who were crucifying him, obviously without repentance, praying “Father forgive them, for they know not what they do” (Lk. 23:34). This a major reason why I find it difficult to imagine that on Judgment Day Jesus will say to me, “You know, Spiegel, one thing you really got wrong is you were just too forgiving.” I certainly can imagine Jesus correcting us for failing to confront people for their sin (cf. Mt. 18:15-17). But rebuking us for being overly forgiving strikes me as absurd.

Secondly, God’s commands to forgive others are unqualified. The Apostle Paul tells us to “Put on . . . compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive” (Col. 3:12-14). This point is powerfully illustrated in Jesus’s parable of the unmerciful servant in Matthew 18, which concludes with an absolute injunction to forgive others and a sobering warning of coming judgment “unless you forgive your brother from your heart” (v. 35).

Thirdly, consider the Golden Rule. All of us desire to be forgiven by others when we sin against them and not only when we apologize. We naturally desire grace in such cases, the extension of mercy even prior to our repentance. After all, it is sometimes such mercy which prompts our repentance and a deeper resolve to live rightly. Therefore, if we should treat others as we would want others to treat us, then we should extend forgiveness unconditionally.

Finally, forgiving others unburdens one’s soul. Nothing oppresses the mind like a grudge, which as someone once said, is like taking poison and expecting the other person to die. Unfettered resentment corrodes the soul and adversely affects one’s relationships and personal well-being, while forgiveness is beneficial to one’s mental health and physical health. So forgiveness is very much in one’s own self-interest.

Many Christians maintain that forgiveness is properly contingent on the offender’s confession or apology. Why? I believe one reason is the sheer difficulty of forswearing condemnation of someone when they have been abused or otherwise treated in a severely unjust way. It is not easy to surrender resentment in such cases, which is why absolute forgiveness is an act of profound faith and, therefore, a blessed thing, worthy of eternal reward.

Perhaps another reason is that forgiveness seems to let a person “off the hook” and leaves them somehow unaccountable for their sin. But this is not so, since we are all subject to God’s judgment in the end, as we are told repeatedly in Scripture. In Ecclesiastes are told, “Fear God and keep his commandments, for this is the duty of all mankind. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every hidden thing, whether it is good or evil” (Eccl. 12:13-14). Similarly, Paul says, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor. 5:10). Even if I am completely forgiving of someone, that person still must give account to God for what they have done to me. And this should be a great solace to us, further inducing us to freely forgive others.

Like everyone else, this past year has provided me with plenty of opportunities to be resentful and hold grudges against those who sinned against me. But I rest in the knowledge that God is a perfect judge. Whether I forgive someone, God will still punish or discipline the offender, perhaps even severely. As Jeremiah says, “The Lord is a God of retribution; he will repay in full” (Jer. 51:56b). How could my personal condemnation or grudge ever improve upon God’s perfect justice anyway? This is another reason that resentment is a fool’s game.

This year I have spent a lot of time meditating on Psalm 37, which begins with these powerful lines:

Do not fret because of those who are evil
or be envious of those who do wrong;

for like the grass they will soon wither,
like green plants they will soon die away.

Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.

Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.

Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him and he will do this:

He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun. (Ps. 37:1-6)

These are reassuring and inspiring promises, which effectively fuel the Christian’s will to forgive. In the end, God will have his perfect way with the wicked as well as with misguided fellow believers who sin against us. And if we really have been treated unjustly, he will vindicate us eventually (as he did Joseph in Genesis 50, Daniel in Daniel 6, and, of course, Jesus himself). So we need not fret that justice will not be done or that evil will triumph. God will set things right. Let us forgive unconditionally, then. To do so is an act of great faith, guaranteeing reward in the next life and peace of mind in the present.


Remembering my Friend, Ben Arbour

Aristotle said there are three kinds of friendships: those based on utility, those based on pleasure, and those based on a shared commitment to the good—wisdom and other moral virtues. Most of our friendships fall into the first two categories. Aristotle tells us that rare are those friendships truly grounded in a mutual pursuit of virtue. So I consider myself blessed to have had several of these friends. Humanly speaking, they are the principal reason I display any virtue or wisdom myself. Such friends are absolute treasures, benefitting us not only here but for all eternity. Because the joy and blessings they bring are so immense, losing them is especially difficult. Last week I lost such a friend—Ben Arbour, as he and his wife, Meg, perished in a car accident near their home in Fort Worth, Texas.

It was nine years ago that Ben introduced himself to me at a meeting of the Evangelical Theological Society. I was instantly struck by his exuberance, wit, and sharp critical mind. “You and I have a lot in common and we need to get to know each other,” he declared. Thus commenced our friendship, which he initially characterized as a mentoring relationship. But the truth is that I learned more from Ben than I ever taught him.

An irrepressible extrovert, Ben had a list of friends whom he would regularly call to discuss whatever was on his mind. And he constantly had a lot on his mind. Sometimes he would hit you with an argument he’d just dreamed up. Sometimes he would have a list of topics to discuss. Other times he would simply have a question. These conversations often pertained to some philosophical point, whether concerning the metaphysics of God and time, the ethics of human sexuality, or a practical implication of Berkeleyan idealism, but just as often his concerns were theological, ecclesial, or pastoral in nature.

I was just one person on Ben’s list of regular interlocutors. His philosophical-theological motor never turned off, seemingly even while he was at work, appropriately enough, as finance manager at Sewell Automotive. And sometimes he would begin these phone conversations by saying, “Jim, I have some great news.” To which I’d reply, “Yeah, what?” Then he would declare, “Jesus has risen from the dead, our sins are forgiven, and we will live forever with him for all eternity. Isn’t that great?” Indeed. And this reminder would suitably frame the discussion, debate, or goofy banter that would follow, just as Ben’s entire life was framed. He was a pure Gospel man.

Ben was also a multitrack thinker, known among his friends and colleagues for playing video games on his iPhone while attending highly technical conference presentations. The first time I witnessed this, I figured Ben was simply fatigued and had tuned out of the presentation. But when the speaker was finished and invited questions from the audience, Ben immediately piped up with the several apposite and incisive comments. This was typical for Ben, as I would eventually discover. It was also Ben’s routine, when especially intrigued or unsatisfied with the presenters’ responses to his questions, to pursue the discussion with the speaker outside of the conference room. And on at least two occasions he followed the presenters into the bathroom while doing so. I am thinking specifically of Robert Audi and Nicholas Wolterstorff, who, I am sure, handled Ben’s indefatigable questioning with grace and good humor.

Another fundamental aspect of Ben’s personality was his love for people, especially fellow Christians. He had a voracious appetite for fellowship, which always included rich conversation, clever wit, and good food. Ben was expert at two of these, and he tried to be a decent chef. I can’t say he always succeeded. But he did try. Thankfully, Meg more than made up for whatever Ben lacked in cooking skills.

Ben was also a sports fan, especially, and rather determinedly, of baseball. He frequently made known his conviction that baseball is the best of all sports (a conviction I share, so the matter occasioned no debate between us). Though seemingly trivial, somehow even this conviction of Ben’s was theological, and this carried through even to his rooting interests. For example, in the most recent World Series Ben pulled intensely for Los Angeles just because he was aware that Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw is a committed Christian.

Ben was a great family man—a dedicated husband and father, and it was a joy to see him interact with his four sweet kids. In my last visit with the Arbours two weeks ago, I was struck by Ben’s tender, Socratic interaction with his youngest son, Noah, about some theological point. Ben’s fatherly care, his readiness to help Meg around the house, and the whole Arbour family dynamic of hospitality were a tangible testament to the man’s humility and genuine servant heart. “Mi casa es su casa,” Ben would say. And he meant it literally. The Arbour house constantly buzzed with guests, all of whom seemed to be special friends. One of Ben’s greatest pleasures was connecting his friends with one another. This was not merely some extrovert compulsion or professional networking but a ministry of catalyzing koinonia. It was a spiritual gift that easily surpassed that of the most socially inclined pastors I have known. Almost unconsciously effected, it was borne out of Ben’s boyish joy in the people of God.

Many a devout Christian talks a good game when it comes to intentionally and compellingly integrating the Gospel of Christ into every aspect of their life. Ben Arbour actually did this—to the delight of many and to the annoyance of some but to the benefit of everyone. Those who were close to Ben know how he was always encouraging, even when offering critical push back. Our final conversation two days before he died provides a good case in point. I had shared with Ben the possibility that I might take a teaching job at a school in Asia, which would require my being away from my family sixteen weeks each year. Rather than bluntly asserting that this was a bad idea, Ben simply said, “I don’t think I could handle being away from my wife that long. But maybe I’m just weak in that way.” This humble way of registering his reservations was particularly impactful. And it vividly illustrates the beauty of Ben Arbour as a third-level Aristotelian friend and faithful Christian brother

At this point I am still in the stage of grief that sometimes lingers in outright disbelief. It seems impossible that Ben is really gone. Eventually it will sink in, and I will grow accustomed to the fact that this world is no longer graced by his presence. In the meantime, I consciously remind myself of what Ben repeatedly reminded me: Jesus Christ has risen from the dead, our sins are forgiven, and we will live forever with him for all eternity. Crushing as it is for those of us who love them, Ben and Meg have together begun the next phase of their everlasting lives with Christ. Even now I can hear Ben’s voice: “Isn’t that great?” Yes, Ben. It surely is.