Wednesday, May 28, 2014

 

The Great American Novel: A Song by Larry Norman

Tonight as I have been hanging out with my family, I have had a song running through my head.  The song is by Larry Norman, something of a pioneer in Christian music.  Norman wasn't afraid to take on controversial topics in his songs, and in many ways he was a bold man.  I dearly loved his music, and I own several of his albums on actual vinyl records.  In some ways Larry Norman (along with DeGarmo and Key, Petra, Keith Green, Randy Stonehill, and others) wrote the background music to my Christian life as a young man.  Nonetheless, there was one song that sticks with me.  That song is entitled "The Great American Novel."  Here are the lyrics:

i was born and raised an orphan
in a land that once was free
in a land that poured its love out on the moon
and i grew up in the shadows
of your silos filled with grain
but you never helped to fill my empty spoon

and when i was ten you murdered law
with courtroom politics
and you learned to make a lie sound just like truth
but i know you better now
and i don't fall for all your tricks
and you've lost the one advantage of my youth

you kill a black man at midnight
just for talking to your daughter
then you make his wife your mistress
and you leave her without water
and the sheet you wear upon your face
is the sheet your children sleep on
at every meal you say a prayer
you don't believe but still you keep on

and your money says in God we trust
but it's against the law to pray in school
you say we beat the russians to the moon
and i say you starved your children to do it

you are far across the ocean
but the war is not your own
and while you're winning theirs
you're gonna lose the one at home
do you really think the only way
to bring about the peace
is to sacrifice your children
and kill all your enemies

the politicians all make speeches
while the news men all take note
and they exaggerate the issues
as they shove them down our throats
is it really up to them
whether this country sinks or floats
well i wonder who would lead us
if none of us would vote

well my phone is tapped and my lips are chapped
from whispering through the fence
you know every move i make
or is that just coincidence
well you try to make my way of life
a little less like jail
if i promise to make tapes and slides
and send them through the mail

and your money says in God we trust
but it's against the law to pray in school
you say we beat the russians to the moon
and i say you starved your children to do it
you say all men are equal all men are brothers
then why are the rich more equal than others
don't ask me for the answer i've only got one
that a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son
Although the issues he addresses in this song are predominantly issues of the 60s and 70s, the song still has a lot of relevance for today.  How often do we (as Christians, or even as Americans) think of our own needs first, putting our needs before the needs and suffering of others?  As Norman sings, our silos are full of grain, but we don't make a move to fill another person's empty spoon.  As Christians, we are called to feed the hungry, and yet so often we fail to do so (or we write a check or expect the government to do it because "we pay taxes").  Love for others should require us to consider the concerns of others as more important than our own (see Philippians 3). 

And that is only ONE issue Norman addresses.  He addresses corrupt politics, racism, war, and a multitude of other issues, many of which still linger in our society. 

I can almost see him, looking a bit prophetic in his long hair and faded jeans, singing his words of truth into my soul.  I remember seeing him in concert, and I remember wondering how he was able to read my heart and address my concerns so clearly.

I was young, I was idealistic.  And Larry Norman fed my soul things it needed to hear.  I needed to be reminded that the kingdom of God is more important than presidential elections.  I needed to be reminded that how I treat my neighbor says a lot more about my faith in God than how often I read my Bible.  I needed to be reminded that how I spend my money shows my real concerns and my true convictions.  I needed to be reminded that what I think of God often says more about me than it does about God. 

I needed someone like Larry Norman to remind me--Christianity isn't necessarily a panacea for the world's problems.  It is a relationship with a living Lord who invades our lives with His amazing kindness and expects us to spread that love to others.  Christianity should be an ongoing journey into the Light, into the Truth, and a continuous connection and growing into the image of the One who made me and who laid down His life to save mine. 

I needed to be reminded that Christianity isn't simply about creeds, belief systems, or doctrinal statements.  It is action.  God loved, and He acted.  How can we who follow Him expect to do anything less?  If we love as He loves, we will (indeed, we MUST) act. 

Larry Norman wasn't perfect, but he was a good reminder for me at just the right time.  God used Norman to shore up my conscience, to remind me that in all my gaining of knowledge I needed to also gain wisdom to live life as God intended.  In some of his music, Norman shared that wisdom.

As he reminds us in the song above:  "you say all men are equal all men are brothers/then why are the rich more equal than others/don't ask me for the answer i've only got one/that a man leaves his darkness when he follows the Son." 

How are we doing?  Are we walking out of darkness into God's great Light?  Are we moving in God's direction?  Where else can we go, Jesus alone holds the Words of Life . . .

Thanks, Larry Norman, for sticking in my head.  May your tribe increase!

Thanks for reading! 

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Friday, May 23, 2014

 

Memorial Day, by Edgar Guest: My Annual Post

This weekend we celebrate Memorial Day here in the United States.  It is a day we take time to remember those who have given their lives in defense of our country.  It is also a day when we take time to thank those who currently serve in our military.  Some time back I began a tradition of honoring this day with a poem by Edgar Guest. Let me know what you think!

The finest tribute we can pay
Unto our hero dead to-day,
Is not a rose wreath, white and red,
In memory of the blood they shed;
It is to stand beside each mound,
Each couch of consecrated ground,
And pledge ourselves as warriors true
Unto the work they died to do.

Into God's valleys where they lie
At rest, beneath the open sky,
Triumphant now o'er every foe,
As living tributes let us go.
No wreath of rose or immortelles
Or spoken word or tolling bells
Will do to-day, unless we give
Our pledge that liberty shall live.

Our hearts must be the roses red
We place above our hero dead;
To-day beside their graves we must
Renew allegiance to their trust;
Must bare our heads and humbly say
We hold the Flag as dear as they,
And stand, as once they stood, to die
To keep the Stars and Stripes on high.

The finest tribute we can pay
Unto our hero dead to-day
Is not of speech or roses red,
But living, throbbing hearts instead,
That shall renew the pledge they sealed
With death upon the battlefield:
That freedom's flag shall bear no stain
And free men wear no tyrant's chain.

Thanks for reading! And thanks to all military who served or currently serve to protect our freedoms! May God bless you and your families.

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Tuesday, May 13, 2014

 

A Note to Graduates: What will be your Legacy?

A few days ago I had the privilege of participating in the graduating ceremonies for the latest graduates from Liberty University Baptist Theological Seminary.  As I watched them walk the stage, I couldn't help but think of the things they will do and the people they will influence.  Two verses come to mind as I pray for these new graduates:

Ecclesiastes 7:1 A good name is better than a good ointment, And the day of one's death is better than the day of one's birth.

Proverbs 22:1 A good name is to be more desired than great wealth, Favor is better than silver and gold.

I attended Liberty's graduation, in which I watched several students and good friends walk across the stage to receive their degrees and launch into their ministries. This momentous occasion reminded me of beginnings and endings, but more importantly it made me think of the idea of "legacy" and the kind of impact an individual life might have on people. In the next few paragraphs I'll try to explain.

I'm not sure how much we think of the impact of our lives. As I watched the proud graduates walk the stage, I couldn't help but think about what I may hear about these people in the future. Some of them have already made an impact, some of them have a future impact to make. Most of them have no idea what the end of their lives will be, they only have dreams and hopes and (perhaps) plans.

Some of the seminary students who walked across the stage Saturday have already begun their legacy. Many of them left homes and nice jobs to pursue a degree at the seminary. They said "no" to "success" as the world measures it so that they would have the opportunity to labor for God. Some will labor in obscurity, some will never have "the largest church in America," some will never make the "big money," or write the most impressive "how to" book for other pastors. I know their lives, their hearts, and I know that their legacy will be greater than any can imagine.

The other day I posted a note about "James the Less," and his figure seems fitting here. He was one of the twelve chosen by Jesus, but even church history and tradition have trouble determining who he was. Yet, he was one of the original twelve disciples, one of the eyewitnesses to Jesus' life, ministry, death, and resurrection. Not as famous as James the son of Zebedee, this James nonetheless left enough of an imprint on history to be regarded as one of those individuals who "turned the world upside down" with his life and preaching.

We no doubt graduated a lot of these individuals on Saturday--folks we may have a hard time identifying who will nonetheless make a great impression on many they will bring to Christ or love in God's name. "Less" may describe the knowledge of them, but it will not define their impact on those to whom they minister. I bet there were people in the first century who didn't think of James as "the Less" because of what God did through him. Nonetheless, James built a legacy, and like him, many of these graduating seminary students are building a legacy.  We may not know their names, but God does.  And with his help they are building quite a legacy.

Let me offer a moment of transparency here:  I pray for my students.  Some semesters I pray a LOT!  One of the most frequent prayers I offer on their behalf runs something like this:  "Lord, help these students run further and accomplish more than any of their professors.  May their spiritual progress move the church closer to her beloved Savior, Jesus Christ, and may their growth go beyond what I have experienced."

I pray it, but I wonder if I really mean it sometimes.  I look at students who graduated and who have definitely progressed down the road of godliness in ways I did not imagine.  I see their accomplishments, and I must admit that I am sometimes envious.  Some of my students are accomplishing the very things for which I prayed.  I am proud of them, and sometimes I envy them.  I remember my own seminary graduation well--the dean mispronounced my name, my family was there to support me, and I knew that I was going to be used by God to "set the world on fire" for Jesus.  I promptly went to work in a bookstore.

Yes, a bookstore . . .

Granted, it WAS a Christian bookstore, but I digress.

All those dreams and plans of becoming this pastor or that professor suddenly took a back seat to paying the bills.  My legacy wasn't quite what I expected.

Nonetheless, I wouldn't trade that experience.  Now I pray for students who head out to fulfill God's call on their lives.  I wonder what stories I'll hear in the future.  No doubt there will be stories of churches served, more degrees earned, books written, mountains claimed, families started, etc.  No doubt there will be stories about changes made in the lives of others because of the love of Christ poured out in the lives of these men and women.  I want to tell you all a secret--some of you are heroes to me.  I see what you have already accomplished, I see the potential, and I have so much hope and joy for you.

Yes, I know things don't reflect that at the moment.  In fact, for some of you it is simply time to take a break and take a breather.  Others are already launching into the next adventure.  I can't wait to hear the stories, but I want to leave you with some final questions to ask as you pursue these things.

What kind of legacy are you leaving? Where will your footprints lead others if they follow you closely? Like Paul, can you encourage others to imitate you as you imitate Christ?  Will your love for Christ be obvious? Is your love for others real and clear?

God has blessed me to walk with giants (and some giants in training), and I have to admit that I am often overwhelmed by their collective witness. I am reminded of a conversation I had with Dr. William L. Lane. I admitted to him that I didn't think I could live up to his example of a godly life and scholarship, and he said to me, "Never covet another person's gift, and never despise your own." He went on to remind me that God had not called me to be identical to Dr. Lane or to anyone else. God had called me to use my unique gifts and abilities for his glory. I do not have to live up to the stories of these giants, I simply need to live the legacy God has given me.

No matter how obscure or unrecognized or inconsequential a life may seem, if it is lived for God it will have a legacy. What kind of legacy are we leaving the next generation?  I have no doubt that many of you will leave a legacy that will cause your professor to be a bit envious . . . and I look forward to hearing every marvelous part of those stories!  I am so proud of you all, and I will keep praying. 

Thanks to all of the men and women who left their footprints in my heart and life!

Thank you for reading!

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Monday, May 05, 2014

 

Some Ramblings about James the Less

I've been staring at a blank page for some time trying to think of something to write.  I made a commitment to write on my blog at least 3 times a month, and I seem to keep finding excuses not to do it.  So, I'm tired of staring at a blank page, and I'm writing something.

The other day I offered some advice to one of my PhD students.  I said that one way to "jumpstart" the dissertation process is to make a commitment to sit and write some every day.  Even if it is just a "stream of consciousness" kind of typing, just sit and type. 

So, here I sit, and here I type.

Some things that have passed through my mind lately:  Did you ever notice how many "James" there were in Jesus' circle?  There was James (the brother of John) who was part of the inner circle.  There was also a James the son of Alphaeus.  There was Jesus' own brother named James.  There was even one disciple who was a son of a James.  But the one person named "James" who stands out for me is "James the Less."  Some people think that "James the Less" and "James the son of Alphaeus" are the same.  Church tradition tells us that he lived in Galilee.  He apparently preached in Palestine and Egypt and was crucified in Egypt.  Some scholars think he was a brother of Matthew.  Tradition tells us that he was cut into pieces after he was martyred.  The primary mention of this fellow is in Mark 15:40.

I don't know where this particular James got his nickname "the Less."  The Greek word used can mean either "small" or even "little" as in size or quantity.  It can also mean "young" in age, or even "short" with regards to time.  So, this particular follower of Christ was called "the Less" or "the Youth" or even "Shorty." 

Let that sink in for a minute.  This particular James was known either for his stature (he was short), or for his age (he was young).  Little is known about him (pardon the pun), and his life is overshadowed by James the brother of John and James the brother of Jesus.  We remember him as "the least" or "the youth," and details of his life and ministry are lost to us for the most part.

I don't know why this disciple keeps coming to mind.  It may simply be that something in me identifies with him.  Sometimes I feel like I live in the shadow of others (probably a result of being the middle child), and other times I feel almost invisible.  That isn't a cry for recognition, it is just an honest admission.

You know what I mean, don't you?  You spend a good portion of your life expecting to be or do something great, but when it is all said and done things don't seem to be what was expected. 

Now, I'm not saying this to get your support or sympathy, I'm simply trying to explain how I think James the Less must have felt.  He grew up with great expectations.  He was going to be or to accomplish something great.  He became a disciple-student of an itinerant rabbi named Jesus.  This rabbi hailed from Nazareth and had an unorthodox style about him.  He didn't have the credentials and the papers of the Pharisees, but he spoke with authority and did some amazing feats.

James tied himself to the school of this rabbi Jesus.  Shortly (ha) after joining, he found out he wasn't the only James following Jesus.  Since they had to distinguish, they called him "the Less" due to his youth or stature. 

James the Less . . .

He didn't lead the church in Jerusalem.  He didn't compete with John to sit at the right hand of Jesus.  He didn't get to go to the mount of Transfiguration or to the depths of the Garden when Jesus prayed.

Yet this James, "the Less," loved Jesus nonetheless.  He would die a martyr's death out of love for Christ.  He would give his life serving others. 

Even though he was never known as one of the better known or more popular disciples. 

Even though he was called "Shorty" or "Kid."

Even though he would always be "that other James."

He gave his life as a love offering to Jesus.

I'm humbled just to type the words.  How often do I compare myself to my friends, my colleagues, my brothers and sisters in Christ?  How often do I think I deserve more attention than I think I am receiving?

How unlike James the Less I am! 

I'm not real sure where I wanted to go with this short meditation.  I just know that this fellow haunts my mind.  I dreamed of him once.  I never saw his face, just saw him from the back.  He had no distinguishing features.  He didn't stand out.  He was "the less."

All I know is this--I have a long way to go to learn to walk in the humility of those early disciples.  I sometimes seem to be a long way off.

My Lord, show me how to love as James the Less loved.  Teach me to serve without expectation of recognition.

Okay, I'm done.  In fact, I'm undone.   I need to put this one on the shelf.  I thank God for the many people who have ministered to me who may well have been a "James the Less."  They were not recognized, and they may not even be known to me.

But God knows.  Just like Jesus knows James the Less.

He knows, and he loves them.  Their humble service blesses him as they imitate him.

May the humility of Christ be my goal and my guide as well.

Thanks for reading! 




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