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The Memory of the Righteous

Thursday, October 27, 2022

Proverbs 10:7 reads, “The memory of the righteous is blessed, But the name of the wicked will rot.” It neatly sums up what is left of my earthly aspirations. My life is so reduced that the usual distractions don't matter much to me anymore, but my reputation has become even more important.

This is particularly true with respect to my children. Without the direct intervention of God, I will not live long enough to shepherd them to adulthood. I will only be able to help them through their memories and the memories of others. I want them to remember a father who loved God, loved others, and died with faith and courage. For decades to come, I want them to encounter people who will speak well of me.

However, every earthly desire brings with it earthly vulnerability, and this is no exception. I can control what my children see of me, but I can't control what they think of me. It may be that in adulthood, they decide that I was misguided or even actively harmful in the things I proclaimed.

My influence over those outside of my household is even less. Faithful commitment to God does not protect me from distortion and slander. I have been vilified because I adhere to the Bible’s teaching about the role of women in the church and the practice of homosexuality. Some have not hesitated to accuse me of being bigoted and hateful, even though I detect no animosity toward anyone in myself.

Additionally, God holds me responsible for speaking hard truths not only to outsiders but also to His own. The prophets primarily called Israel and Judah to repentance, not the nations. If I only say the things that I know will be popular and well received by other Christians, I join the ranks of the false prophets.

This does not require outright false teaching (though it often leads to such), merely a diplomatic silence about sin inside the camp. Indeed, as long as I confine my condemnations to the people who won't be reading them, I will gain a reputation for “telling it like it is”. The Pharisees had such a reputation, I believe.

Conversely, if I follow those who are scorned and vilified even by God's people, I will find myself in good company. Of course, this begins with the Lord Himself. He was perfect. He literally never did a single thing wrong. However, rather than winning a good reputation for Himself in the Jewish nation, He was rejected and murdered.

Much the same thing happened to the apostle Paul. Even though he served God as faithfully as he knew how, he aroused such hatred among his countrymen that they followed him around, sometimes for hundreds of miles, to slander him further. When the Romans finally killed him, I would imagine that the majority reaction ranged from relief to joy.

Loyalty to God does not ensure a blessed memory on earth. Sometimes it ensures the opposite. However, even if everyone on earth scorns my name, that loyalty guarantees that He will not. If God remembers, it doesn't matter if everyone else forgets.

Special-Needs Parents and Compassion

Monday, October 03, 2022

Once we become Christians, most of us quickly realize that we are never going to perfectly follow God’s commandments.  Despite all the spiritual artillery we bring to bear, our hearts and our lives stubbornly remain flawed.  In a word, godliness is hard!

Because it is so difficult, many Christians choose to embark on a less painful course of action:  perfecting others.  All of us know the temptation to sympathize with our own sins while extending no compassion to our struggling brother.  Our own spiritual battles are complicated, but the solutions to their problems are clear.  “If only they would. . .” we sigh.  Sometimes, we feel sufficiently enlightened to take them aside and explain, “If only you would. . .”

However, before we decide to get in touch with our inner Aquila and Priscilla, we need to make sure of two things:  that we have engaged in the necessary business of beam removal and that the problem we are critiquing is actually a problem.  We are called to compassion not only for the spiritual weakness of our brethren, but for their earthly problems too.  We should not mistake the latter for the former.

In particular, we should acknowledge the hurdles encountered by parents of children with special needs.  Parenting by itself is difficult enough, even when both parents are there and married to each other, even when plenty of extended family is around to help.  When one of those supports is removed, the difficulty level ratchets up.

The same is true, and even more so, when a child faces physical, cognitive, or emotional challenges.  Perhaps the child is medically fragile, so that half the calendar is filled with doctor’s appointments and hospital visits.  Perhaps they have behavioral struggles, so that they require closer or even constant parental supervision (as a foster parent, I went down that road a little bit myself). 

I’m sure that this list could be extended greatly, but one thing is certain.  The continuing demands of caring for a special-needs child place a tremendous burden on parents.  24 hours a day, 7 days a week, you’re rarely to never “off”. 

It’s the difference between buying something outright and agreeing to a monthly fee.  Compared to $500 up front, that $50 on the credit-card statement doesn’t look like much, but as the months and years flow on, it adds up to a considerable amount of money.  Because of the continual drain of resources, special-needs parents are operating at half efficiency (or worse) all the time.

Sad to say, when too many brethren encounter such parents, they react by becoming judgmental.  They don’t appreciate the 7/8 of the iceberg that they don’t see.  Instead, they react with scorn to the 1/8 that they do see:  the six-year-old who still makes a scene in church every Sunday, the mom whose name never appears on the sign-up sheets to feed the visiting preacher or take meals to shut-ins.  Clearly, all those parents need is a good talking-to, and they’ll shape right up!

No, actually.  What they need is our understanding, not its lack.  This is not to say that all special-needs parents are perfect and that none of them have room to improve.  However, before we designate ourselves the official improver, we need to understand the situation we’re trying to improve.

James, Peter, and I

Wednesday, September 28, 2022

Acts 12 offers one of the great conundrums of the New Testament. In the first few verses of the chapter, the wicked king Herod Agrippa arrests and executes the apostle James, the brother of John. Shortly thereafter, he arrests Peter with the same intention. However, God sends his angel to rescue Peter from prison, and soon after that, Herod becomes worm food.

To most Bible students, this apparently preferential treatment is perplexing. Admittedly, Peter was important to the early church, but so was James. Along with Peter and John, he was one of the three inner-circle apostles during the ministry of Jesus. He was one of only three witnesses to the Transfiguration, and after his death, God was down to two!

Why, then, did God save Peter but allow James to be beheaded? Wasn't James worth an angel too?

At this point, Bible classes usually turn to discussion of the inscrutable will of God. We don't understand why He permits one of His faithful servants to perish while sparing another, but we trust His wisdom, judgment, love, etc.

I too have shared in these discussions, but in the midst of Bible class last night, another thought struck me. The issue here may not be our inability to understand the will of God. It may be our failure to share His priorities.

To us, the death of James may seem senseless and tragic, but it is far from the worst thing to happen to an apostle in the book of Acts. That dubious distinction belongs to Judas, who meets a gory fate in the opening chapter and is erased from the roll of the apostles because of his treachery. He is replaced by Matthias after Peter cites a curse from Psalm 109 as authority for so doing.

The true tragedy here is the story of Judas, not the story of James. It still would have been the true tragedy even if the former had outlived the latter. James fulfilled God's purpose for his life and entered into his reward. Judas betrayed his Lord and entered into a fate so awful that Jesus said it would have been better for him if he had not been born.

We can see all sorts of ways in which James would have been useful in the further spread of the gospel, but self-evidently, he was not necessary. Even Peter, rescued in Acts 12 but martyred on a later occasion, proved not to be necessary. He finished his work, part of which continues with us to this day, and the kingdom went on without him. Both men, I believe, were satisfied to have it so.

I think the same is true of me. Many people have told me how sad it is that my productive life in God's service is going to be cut short. Certainly, it is not the fate that I would have chosen for myself, but it is far from the worst thing that could have happened to me.

I can think of several worse fates off the top of my head. I could have betrayed my marriage vows and been unfaithful to my wife. I could have allowed a porn habit to take over my life and consume me. Intellectual pride could have led me to pervert the gospel I proclaimed. I could have crushed my children and driven them away from God through self-righteous harshness. I could have become a bitter, contemptuous social-media warrior, doing the devil’s work in the name of God.

I would choose death over any of these things, but they are not mere far-fetched hypotheticals. I know my own frame and my own weaknesses. Without the help of God, I would have fallen prey to any or all of them. In some cases, this still may happen. God isn't finished with me quite yet, but Satan isn't finished with me either.

When a servant of God finishes his race, those remaining may mourn his loss, but it is a triumph rather than a tragedy. All of us may serve Him for a time, but His work is greater than any of us, and His purpose will be accomplished with or without us.

We are not necessary to His service. Rather, His service is necessary to us. It outweighs all the concerns of this life. 2000 years from now, will any of us care that we died at 45 rather than 85? Do James and Peter care about the extent of their time on earth right now?

The only thing that will matter to us is that we were faithful, whether for many decades or few. Either one leads to an eternity of glory. Disaster only lies in failure to honor God, for if we do fail, we will have the same eternity to lament it.

Sons

Tuesday, September 20, 2022

Sons are hard. At least, I find it so with my son. My daughter is easier, for all of her fiery red-headed temper and die-on-every-hill determination. I share her stubbornness, and she is also much like my wife. I have decades of experience navigating those waters! Perhaps more to the point, because she is female, she is so different from me that I have no trouble drawing boundaries between us.

That's not true with Marky. He is so much like me that at times I feel like an outside observer looking at myself. He has the same hair, the same smile, the same dry wit. When he flops his ever-lankier body down on the couch, I feel the same movements in my muscles and bones. He is my son, and he could be no one else’s.

Perhaps I deceive myself, but I see so much potential in him. He is capable of both great compassion and great insight. When called on to care for me, he does so with attentiveness and discretion, like a highly trained servant. In Tennessee, his best friend had a peanut allergy, so he resolved never to eat peanut butter—not even in peanut butter cups!—for fear of cross-contamination. Though he has not obeyed the gospel, he spent part of the worship service yesterday writing a page-long meditation about how God's goodness proves His existence.

And yet, he remains an 11-year-old boy. He inherited my mouth but not my 30 extra years of experience in learning how to control it. He frequently puts on displays of great cleverness ungoverned by sound judgment or good sense. He avoids hard work with the same diligence with which he avoids brushing his teeth.

I see these things, and it makes me afraid for him. My father taught me so much through boyhood and early adulthood, but I know that Marky will go through his teenage years without me. It is my single greatest grief about dying. What if he never learns to apply himself? What if he wastes his potential in self-indulgence and self-pity?

I pray for him often, more than I pray for my own health. I also catch myself trying to compress 15 years’ worth of instruction into two. Some of this is harmless. He doesn't need my dating advice now, but he might remember some of it when he does.

Some of it isn't. It drives me around the bend when I see him slacking, and I let him know about that. Loudly. At length. I do the same when he pulls one of his stunts despite having been warned about the consequences if he did.

That hurts him. He finds his failure so difficult to contemplate that he shuts down emotionally, which I intuitively understand as a refusal to acknowledge wrongdoing. Sometimes I recognize what's happening and pull back; sometimes not.

The problem, though, goes deeper than a shortage of parenting time. Yesterday, I was talking with one of my oldest friends, someone who has known me since I wasn't much older than Marky. Marky ran up to my chair, grinned, and began scowling and grimacing theatrically while inches away from my face. I shooed him away and remarked ruefully to my friend, “He’s my son, all right.”

“Yes,” she replied. “Isn't it wonderful?”

Ouch.

My son problem, you see, isn't really a son problem. It's a me problem. My hard line on hard work reflects my own pathological fear of being thought lazy. When I rebuke his foolish cleverness, I am condemning my own, for I am often more clever than wise. Because he is so much like me, he receives the same savage, intolerant criticism that I lavish on myself.

To be the father he needs, first I must quell that internal critic. My son is far from perfect, but so was I, and so am I. Despite my anxious striving to do right, my only hope for perfection is not self-correction, but grace. Only as I accept that can I accept him.

This ability to accept and extend grace is one of the most vital parenting attributes. It’s not the same thing as indulgence or neglect, for grace can only exist in the presence of wrongdoing. Instead, it is the acknowledgement of humanness in both our children and ourselves.

I suspect that if I am driven by fear and self-loathing to withhold grace from my son, I will make him into precisely what I fear he will become. Rather, I must reconcile myself to where he is, setting standards but leaving room for growth and trusting him to grow, even if I won't be around to see it.

Stillness of soul is hard for me when it comes to him. I suspect it is hard for all good parents because we care so desperately. However, no matter how much we care, we cannot control our children. We can guide, but it's up to them to find the good way and walk in it themselves.

Salvation by Grace

Wednesday, September 14, 2022

Recently, I have become an even louder proponent of grace, indeed of the naked necessity of grace, than I ever was before. I can tell from the comments I've been getting on social media that this has made some good brethren nervous. They reply with variations of, “Yes, but you have to do something.” In light of this, I thought it would be useful to explain my thoughts more fully.

Every day, I am confronted with the reality that in the next couple of years, I will die. The Bible tells me that I should be confident in the face of death, that I should contemplate the end of my life with hope rather than fear or despair.

If so, that hope can have only one basis, and I am not it. I know myself too well. I believe that I am a better man than I have ever been before, but I also see more clearly the immense gap between my righteousness and the righteousness of Christ. If I have to be good enough, I assuredly have not been.

I have not been diligent enough. I have not been wise enough. I have not been holy enough. I have not been loving enough. In these and so many other areas, I see no cause for confidence in my own merit, yet I am to be confident.

Such confidence can only come from putting my trust in the grace of the Lord. It is so great that I no longer need to fret over to the sufficiency of my own goodness. Whether that goodness be little or much, His grace is sufficient.

So far, I know that I have said little to settle the nerves of my concerned readers! If indeed we rely on the grace of Christ because we can make no meaningful contribution to our own salvation, doesn't that lead to an apathetic, do-nothing faith that is unconcerned with sin because God is just going to slosh a bucket of grace all over it?

In the first place, I acknowledge that this is not merely a hypothetical. There are millions, both in the Lord's church and outside of it, who treat the grace that they imagine they have received as a license to be worldly. Second, though, the question was answered 2000 years ago in Romans 6.

Too often, we go to Romans 6 to find support for our beliefs about baptism but fail to reckon with the argument that the chapter makes. According to Paul, grace does not release us from the need to do anything. Instead, it puts us under obligation. We are freed from sin, but we become slaves of righteousness.

If we truly understand ourselves in this way, the notion of being do-nothing Christians is laughable. Admittedly, earthly slaves are not known for diligence, but even they will work hard when under the eyes of their masters. We can never escape the supervision of our Master.

We must consider ourselves as having no self-will left in the things of the spirit because we have wholly given over that will to Jesus. We don't even have standing to ask how much or how little we should give and whether it will be good enough. We already have signed over everything.

This dovetails with James’s discussion of justification by works in James 2. Biblical scholars have pitted Paul and James against each other for hundreds of years. However, they should have noted that James didn't merely cite Abraham, one of the most illustrious figures of the Old Testament, as an example of justification by works. He also chose Rahab.

I've watched Bible classes struggle with Rahab for years. How could God exalt a prostitute who helped the Israelites by lying??? However, that's not a difficulty with the text. It's the point. We only become confused when we refuse to class ourselves with Rahab.

Rahab did not justify herself by being good enough. She justified herself through the action that is inseparable from genuine faith. Instead of continuing on to destruction with the people of Jericho, she cast her lot with the people of God.

It is the same with us. If her service was tainted by lying, how much more is our service tainted by envy, pride, carelessness, indifference, and lack of love! All of us are in the business of offering blemished sacrifices. Nonetheless, like Rahab, we serve anyway. We too have cast our lot with the people of God and are justified in His sight.

The grace of the Bible is not a blank check that allows us to sin all the more. It is a demand that we put to death the old man of sin. None of us will ever succeed in so doing. None of us will ever come close.

However, our souls do not depend on our success or failure. The same grace that asks for everything offers everything too, so that we may rest our hope not on ourselves but on the salvation available only through Christ.

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