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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?”


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.

Gathered to His People

Thursday, September 08, 2022

Throughout the Pentateuch, a formula is used to mark the deaths of the godly. It says that So-and-So “was gathered to his people”. Now that I know my own time is approaching, I find myself reflecting on the people to whom I will be gathered.

The list begins with my parents. My father was faithful in all his house as a servant, and he loved to study the Bible more than anything else. To the end of my days, my most central memory of him will be coming down the stairs after school and finding him seated in his old blue recliner, his Bible open in his lap and a stack of Bible helps on the floor next to the chair.

My mother's Bible saw just as much use, even though she took much better care of it. She too lived out her faith, especially in her care for the vulnerable and downtrodden. She volunteered for suicide hotlines. She worked in food banks. She went to trailer parks to teach women to read so she could teach them the Bible. The quietest and most overlooked woman where she went to church was guaranteed one friend, and it would be my mother.

My father’s father was a Christian too. He was nicknamed “Pat” because in his youth he loved to tell tall tales, drink, and fight like the stereotypical Irishman. In maturity, though, he assembled faithfully in the church building down the gravel road from his farm. When it was built, he mixed all the cement in the foundation by hand. Four of his six children will be joining him in his reward.

My grandmother was the biggest reason he settled down. She was a full-blooded Polish Catholic off the boat who met him by chance in Chicago. My mother said she was one of the meekest women imaginable.

My grandparents were married by a gospel preacher because the priest demanded money, but the preacher would do it for free. That won her loyalty and her attendance at services. Both of them were baptized one Lord’s day because she dragged her husband down the aisle with her.

Beyond that, my great-grandfather also was a Christian. He was the son of a Methodist preacher and was brought into the Lord's church by his wife. I suppose her relatives also were Christians, though I don't know anything about them.

Similar tales could be told about my ancestors on my mother's side. Her mother was a disciple too. In my mother's youth, they worshiped at the local Christian Church because it was the only one within walking distance. However, my grandmother knew that it wasn't right to use the instrument in worship and told my mother so. Along some branches of that part of the family tree, I can find members of the Lord’s church practically back to the Restoration.

I have always felt a tremendous responsibility to live up to my family. When the true faith has been so faithfully handed down from generation to generation, how could I be the one to break the chain? I have never met most of these people, but I think they will receive me gladly.

I know, though, that most brethren can't say the same. What if your dad was an alcoholic who beat you black and blue? What if your mom was bipolar and committed adultery with every willing man in town? What if your family tree is filled with child molesters, thieves, and drug addicts?

If you are faithful to Christ, the good news is that your people aren't your people. Instead, your true people are the people of God. Your spiritual family tree starts with Abraham and includes millennia of forgotten men and women who spent their lives quietly seeking the Lord and doing what was right. None of them were perfect, but all of them have been counted righteous.

These are all your people, and I and mine are your people too. We may not share earthly ties of blood, but we are bound together by the blood of Christ. Like the patriarchs of old, we will be gathered to them, and by the grace of God, all of us will be welcomed to a seat at the table.

Leaving the Pulpit

Wednesday, August 24, 2022

Next Sunday morning, I will preach my last sermon ever for the Jackson Heights church. I suspect it will be the last sermon that I ever preach, period. Once I move to Texas, I will be a member of the Kleinwood church, which currently has four preachers on staff and one sermon slot each week for all of them to fill. I can think of few things less seemly or helpful to the kingdom than elbowing for a spot in that rotation!

This is a difficult transition for me. I have been preaching the gospel in one capacity or another since late 2004. Like Paul, I have never been among the great speakers of the brotherhood. Anyone who looked to me for soaring oratorical brilliance would have been disappointed.

Typically, the compliments that I have received have been that I made the Bible understandable and clear. I have striven to do so. It's not a very dramatic goal, but I am not a very dramatic person.

Nonetheless, I believe that I have faithfully served the Lord and His church in my preaching, and I have found great fulfillment in doing so. For almost 20 years, I have taken my place before God's people and explained the Scriptures to them as best I knew how. It hasn't always been very good, necessarily, but it has been my best. A man can lay his head on the pillow and be satisfied with that.

No more. Of course, my last sermon is not the last sermon for others. At Jackson Heights, my place will be taken by Clay Gentry, my beloved brother and co-worker. Clay is an excellent speaker and a serious Bible student. I am confident that he will give the brethren there all the spiritual nourishment they need.

So too at Kleinwood. I know all the men from whom I will be learning. I am certain that they will ably proclaim the gospel without any help from me.

My work of preaching is over, but the work of preaching will continue. This is humbling, certainly. God does not need me preaching anymore, but He has never needed me preaching. I have been useful, I think, but I have never been necessary. If I had never existed, the work still would have gone on.

However, in a deeper sense, my own interchangeability as a preacher confirms that I have kept my proper place. If a work falls apart without a man, that shows that the work was about him, not about God. Some preachers in the world have founded mighty megachurches, but typically, once the preacher is gone, the megachurch collapses. I wouldn't want that to be my legacy!

Instead, my legacy will be that for a time, I served something much larger than myself. Preachers come and go, but the word of God is eternal. In years to come, others will replace those who have replaced me, but if the hearts of those replacements are steadfast, they will proclaim the same gospel I did. The earthly memory of any of us will not last long, but our reward will be great.

A man can be satisfied with that too.


Tuesday, August 16, 2022

Of late, it seems like I've been collecting a lot of compliments about how well I have been handling the changes that ALS has brought. I deeply appreciate the love and goodwill behind these words, but I'm not sure that I deserve them yet. Though I have lost many things, I have not yet lost the ability to write.

I speak in metaphor, of course. Literally, my hands are crippled and nearly useless. I can’t write out a comprehensible sentence. However, thanks to the wonders of modern technology, I can still write by dictation. Though the process is sometimes frustrating, it scratches the itch well enough.

Like most in the arts, I long have been ambivalent about my gift and what I create with it. In my younger years, I wavered between wishing that I weren't a writer at all and wishing that I had been an inspired writer. I write in part for the endorphin rush. Just imagine what it must feel like to be the instrument of the Holy Spirit in producing the greatest writing of all time!

Now that I have grown older and somewhat wiser, I no longer aspire to such heights. To write like the prophets, one must be a prophet, and all of them lived lives of great suffering. What sane person would want to trade places with Jeremiah or Paul?

I also have shed much of my ambivalence. Terminal illness is good at dispelling illusions, and with its help I can see that I have received a great blessing. Though I think I could have done more with it, I believe that it generally has been useful to God and to his people.

To me, “useful” is a word of great power. All my life, I have wanted to be useful: to my family, to my friends, to my church, and to my God. My ambivalence about compliments nearly matches my ambivalence about writing, but over time, I have learned to reply, “Thanks! I'm glad you found it useful!”

If I can write, I can be useful. If I can be useful, I can take pride in and find meaning in helping others. Thus, if I can write, things won't get too bad.

Of course, when ALS takes my ability to speak, it will take my writing too. What, then, of my usefulness?

It is a great grief for any writer to lose the ability to write. The English poet John Milton produced many great works, but one of his greatest is a sonnet entitled, “On His Blindness”. The poem is about Milton’s struggles with losing his eyesight and so becoming unable to write, written from the perspective of faith. He concludes it by observing that God is served not only by those who act but also by those who wait.

I love “On His Blindness”. When I encountered it for the first time in high school, I memorized it. However, I now think Milton missed something. Sometimes the action is not in the writing. Sometimes it is in the waiting.

Recently, I have been drawn to James’ discussion of suffering, and his words in James 5:10 are precisely on point here. He writes about the prophets, those who spoke in the name of the Lord, past tense, and are an example of suffering and patience, present tense.

The final witness that God asked from the prophets was not in their last words. It was in the mute testimony of their suffering and death. Though dead, they still speak through the triumph of faith that endured to the end.

The day will come when I will write either with great difficulty or not at all. However, my usefulness in the kingdom (indeed, anyone's usefulness) will continue for as long as I steadfastly cling to the Lord. It is not the path I would have chosen in my pride and self-reliance, but it is the opportunity that He has provided.

May I have the courage to take it.

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