“BECOMING A FRIEND OF GOD”

I don’t know when I have been more impacted by a book than I have been by Jack Deere’s memoir Even in Our Darkness: A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life. After the opening chapters, which are very short, it was difficult to put it down. I know reading his personal story touched me in a variety of ways, but I’m not sure how to describe my feelings. I’m surprised, sad, challenged, affirmed, convicted, and encouraged all at the same time.

I knew of John Deere through news stories and his books (that’s why I bought the book), but I had no idea of the ups and downs he has experienced. He calls this first book of his in almost 20 years “the unsanitized version of me becoming a friend of God.” That description compliments the book’s sub-title “A Story of Beauty in a Broken Life.”

What I have written so far may not sound like it, but I’m not necessarily recommending you read his story. He is a good writer, but Even in Our Darkness is not an easy read. It is real and raw, and as I read I was impressed with his transparency.

The darkness he writes about includes alcoholism, physical abuse, immorality, drug addiction, sexual abuse, attempted suicide, suicide, betrayal, and more. But as the book’s title suggests, this is a story of beauty even in the darkness of a broken life.

Let me share a few selected quotes that stimulated my thinking and will give you a taste of Deere’s account.

Following his dad’s funeral after he committed suicide: “We had neither church nor church friends to comfort us” (p. 34).

Commenting on some seminary faculty: “They traded blessed are the meek for blessed are the learned, and blessed are the poor in spirit for blessed are the pure in doctrine” (p. 120).

Speaking about his wife: “She tried to tell me how unhappy she was, I couldn’t hear her” (p. 136).

Assessing his spiritual state at one point: “The pursuit of knowledge had supplanted the pursuit of love, and a love of pleasure had replaced my hunger for the eternal things that can’t be seen” (p. 156).

His take on a congregation he served, “I tried to sympathize with their tiny frozen hearts” (p. 195).

This got my attention: “When the devil wants to send a message, he can always find a religious person to deliver it with perfect timing” (p228).

This is worth considering: “Anger circulates in our bodies as negative energy until we discharge it. We can carry it for years, punishing people we love, never understanding why” (p. 257).

His reflection on his life: “Almost nothing in my life has worked out like I thought it should. I thought as I grew older, I would grow more deserving of God’s love, not less” (pp. 269-70).

Thinking about his three children: “I had them too soon. I was too preoccupied with building my kingdom. I didn’t enjoy them as much as I could have” (p. 274).

Another reflection on his life: “When I lusted after material wealth, he turned my gaze toward eternity. When I sought large crowds, he brought me humility. When I tried to change my wife, he taught me how to love and understand her” (p. 278)

I read in order to learn, to be challenged, and to be encouraged as well as for other reasons. I won’t be ready for another book along the lines of this one for a while, but I am glad I read Deere’s gripping story of his life so far.

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IT’S NOT EASY BEING GREEN?

Hopefully most readers will be familiar with Kermit the Frog and his famous song It’s Not Easy Being Green. Kermit is a favorite of Jim Henson’s Muppets for many. In his song he complains about being green, but concludes with a change of mind: “I am green and it’ll be fine, it’s beautiful! And I think it’s what I want to be.” In the title of this post I have turned his statement into a question.

Following a situation in which one of our grandsons was deeply disappointed and my attempt to help didn’t work, on the way home I asked myself, “Being a grandpa isn’t easy, is it?” As I reflected on what had just happened, I thought back to similar situations with our children and remembered “being a parent wasn’t and isn’t easy either.”

I stayed in Kermit mode and reminded myself of a lot of the roles and positions I have had that were not easy. Being a youth pastor was not easy, being the pastor of a small church was not easy, going to graduate school was not easy, being the founding pastor and a senior pastor was not easy, teaching at a college was not easy, and teaching a Bible class at our local high school this past year was not easy.

As I continued to think about these things I realized what a privilege all these roles and positions I have filled have been. If I had it to do it all over again I would not pass on any of the opportunities I have had. As odd as it may sound, part of the fulfillment and enjoyment I have experienced in these positions and roles has been because they were not easy, but it was worth it! If things were or are too easy, I can’t imagine they could or would be as satisfying.

With Kermit the Frog’s line “It’s Not Easy Being Green” in mind, and thinking about everything from being a grandpa to this past year’s teaching, a challenge from Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount came to mind. In Matthew 7:13 and 14 Jesus instructs us, “Don’t look for shortcuts to God. The market is flooded with surefire, easygoing formulas for a successful life that can be practiced in your spare time. Don’t fall for that stuff, even though crowds of people do. The way to life—to God!—is vigorous and requires total attention” (The Message). According to Jesus it’s not easy being a Christian, but it’s worth it!

I agree with Kermit (and borrowing a little from Popeye), “I am what I am and it’ll be fine, it’s beautiful! And I think it’s what I want to be.” I just want to do better and better with it. What about you?

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MY MOM

Our pastor came up with an idea for something different for the message/sermon time on Mother’s Day weekend. He had a few staff members speak at each service telling how our mothers impacted our lives. The challenge was to do it in just five minutes. I was given the opportunity to speak in one service and below is what I said about my mom.

What I remember about my mom when I was very young is when we had friend chicken. Some of you may remember in those days when you bought chicken from the grocery story it included, in addition to the wings, also two backs.

For the longest time I thought the backs and wings were the best pieces because my mom always took them and left the other pieces to my dad, my brother, and me. I eventually realized that she took the pieces she did so we could have the legs, breasts, and thighs. My mom was unselfish.

The next thing I remember is that when I was in grade school my mom when to work in the school cafeteria. When my class and I came through the line she tried not to show me special favor, but it was so difficult for her. While in grade school I always was glad she was there. When I moved to junior high so did she; but to my shame I never was as glad to see her or as proud of her as I had been in grade school. But I do think she understood and never said anything to me about it.

While I was in grade school and junior high my dad was a problem drinker—every weekend he got drunk. But even though my mom would have been justified to kick him out, she never did. As I came to my teenage years my dad became a Christian and got his act together. I don’t think my mom ever regretted staying with him.

When I got my license and was able to buy my own used 53 Chevy my mom always had a message for me before I went out. She would say, “Just one word Bobby, be careful.” I knew what she meant, but I could not help saying, “Mom, be careful is two words.” Like many mothers, my mom worried a lot about both my older brother and me; and about my dad. I guess it goes with having that role.

When my dad was diagnosed with leukemia my mom took great care of him. He passed a few years before she did and took it hard. She lived in Ohio and we lived in California. When I think about it I’m sorry my children did not have more time around my parents, and I’m still sad I was not able to spend time with her during her last few years after my dad’s death.

My mom wasn’t perfect by any means, but she was a wonderful mother through whom God took care of me, loved me, and blessed me.

And on this Mother’s Day I again say thanks to her and to Him.

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DIFFERENT THINGS TO DIFFERENT PEOPLE

Some readers will remember the song “Happiness Is” in which after citing a variety of specifics for select people, the chorus affirms it is “Different things to different people.” Our own experience no doubt confirms the truth of the song’s premise.

I’ve been thinking about another word (in addition to happiness) that also means different things to different people. And not just one word, but several.

What brought it to mind was my quoting of Bruce Metzger in my Bible class and a student’s suggestion that he was one of my favorite professors. As I left the classroom I thought, “What a privilege it was for me to take several classes with such a brilliant, well-known, and gracious New Testament scholar.”

The word, of course, that means different things to different people today is privilege. I looked up a dictionary definition of privilege and read that it was “a special right or advantage granted or available only to a particular person or group of people.” That wasn’t my definition as I was using the word.

Then I looked up the word lucky and read that among other thing it means “fortunate, favored, charmed, fluky, and accidental.” In terms of those choices, I would agree I was fortunate (lucky) to study under Bruce Metzger—I don’t think it was accidental.

The third word, and perhaps the best word, to describe my experience with Bruce Metzger is one of the words included in defining lucky: blessed. One dictionary definition of blessing is “a special favor, mercy, or benefit.” My favorite definition suggests a blessing is “a favor or gift bestowed by God.”

As I understand and use the words I don’t think I have been or am privileged, but I consider many of the opportunities and experiences I have enjoyed as privileges. I wouldn’t necessarily use the word lucky to describe these things, but neither would I be upset if someone suggested I have been lucky. If pushed to be precise in describing my life experiences I would say I have been richly blessed by God and enjoyed many blessings from him.

The words privilege, privileged, lucky, blessed, and blessings all mean different things to different people. The point is that we all have been on the receiving end in many ways, haven’t we?

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MOST DIFFICULT?

As I wrap up my first year of teaching the Bible at Amarillo High School I’ve been preparing what to say in coming to the Bible’s last book.

This will not be the first time I have taught about the Book of Revelation, but a couple of weeks ago I purchased a book about it that was highly recommended and offers some new insights and twists for me.

One thing the author said that got my attention is that Revelation is the most difficult book in the Bible to interpret and understand. You may or may not agree, but I certainly do; and if we survey the many different interpretations and understandings, we have to conclude it is complicated.

I could not agree more with what Gordon Fee and Douglas Stewart say in their book How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth: “It seems necessary to say at the outset no one should approach Revelation without a proper degree of humility!” Yet many interpreters think they have it all figured out.

My sense is that none of us knows exactly what everything in the book means, but I think that is part of the author’s intention. While written late in the first century, Revelation is meant to be read by and applicable to all believers until Jesus comes again. Contrary to what many suggest, I do not believe Revelation’s purpose is to give us a timeline and details of the future. Or as one author phrases it, an “advance DVD of the end of the world.”

Rather than telling us about when and what will happen at the end of time, the purpose of the book of Revelation is to give Christians warning, encouragement, hope, confidence, and comfort in whatever time they live.

One thing the book tells us is that things are bad and they are going to get worse. Revelation, of course, is not the only book in the Bible that tells us that.

A second thing the book tells us is that God is still on his throne. Even though it may appear that evil is dominating, God is still in charge.

Third, since God is still in charge, believers need to remain faithful. Even in the face of suffering and persecution, the call to followers of Jesus in Revelation is to maintain their faith.

Finally, the book of Revelation tells readers that in the end God wins. And if God wins, those who have remained faithful to the Lord also win.

Obviously there is a great deal more that can and should be said about the final book in the New Testament. But hopefully these few words about this sometimes strange and most difficult book will stimulate your thinking.

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ON BEING DIFFERENT

When people say someone is different we only know what they mean by it if we know the context in which they say it. To be different can be a good thing, a bad thing, or neither. There are times when most of us don’t want to be different and other times when we do want to be different.

I recently watched a short video of John R.W. Stott talking about an important biblical teaching that he said we “tend to neglect.” If you don’t know who Stott is, he was a great evangelical leader and Bible teacher who was also the Rector of All Souls Church in London. He was also a prolific writer whose books are well worth having and reading. What he said we tend to neglect is the Bible’s call that the people of God be different.

He noted that in the book of Leviticus God told his people not to do as the Egyptians did or as the people in the land they were entering did. A favorite verse is Leviticus 11:45 where God says, “I am the LORD, who brought you up out of Egypt to be your God; therefore be holy, because I am holy.”

Without citing any specifics, he noted the frequent challenges of the prophets that the Israelites be different from their neighbors. The problem too often was, however, that God’s people were not different.

In moving to the New Testament Stott cited Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew 6:5 cautioning his followers “not to be like the hypocrites.” In the preceding verses Jesus warns about the practice of the hypocrites who do good things “in front of others to be seen by them” and to “to be honored by others.”

The same basic call to be different is repeated and emphasized in the New Testament letters to those who are Christians. The best known instruction is from the Apostle Paul in Romans 12:2a, “Do not conform to the pattern of this world, but be transformed by the renewing of your mind.”

Stott didn’t mention the verse, but I also thought of I Peter 2:9 and what I’ve always considered a less than ideal rendering in the King James Version, “But ye are a chosen generation, a royal priesthood, an holy nation, a peculiar people; that ye should shew forth the praises of him who hath called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” I guess technically Christians are to be peculiar, but I much prefer the word different.

How is this call to be different to be carried out by Christians today? If we are honest I think we must admit that on occasion Christians have done more harm than good in terms of their witness by being different. I don’t like the KJV word peculiar, but neither do I like the words odd or strange.

I’m not sure I fully understand what he was saying, but I go back to Jesus’ instructions to his followers in Matthew 10:16 when he told them, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves. Therefore be as shrewd as snakes but as innocent as doves” (NIV). I also like the rendering in the New Living Translation, “So be as shrewd as snakes and harmless as doves,” as well as the Message, “Be as cunning as a snake, inoffensive as a dove.”

What I am suggesting is that as Christians we are to be different, but there is a way to be different that is not harmful to our witness, but is hopefully helpful. What do you think?

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AN OLD CLICHÉ?

I was surprised to read a news story this morning in which a well-known Bible verse was called an “old cliché.” Neither the story nor the person who said it are important, but the designation got my attention.

The reference was to Proverbs 16:19, “Pride goes before destruction, a haughty spirit before a fall,” and was shortened to “pride comes before the fall.” The point of the verse was not changed, but already being a little irritated it was called an old cliché, I was even more irritated it was abbreviated.

I had an idea what a cliché is, but went ahead and looked up the definition to find it is “a phrase or opinion that is overused and betrays a lack of original thought.” Reading that description confirmed my irritation. I’m uneasy calling any verse in the Bible an opinion, overused, or lacking original thought.

To be fair, I’m not sure the person who cited the verse knew he was quoting the Bible. Whether he knew it was from the Bible or not, although the verse is not overused, it is obviously often used. That’s why he cited it and called it a cliché!

I certainly don’t believe what the Bible says is opinion, but there is much opinion about what it means. That’s why we study it, talk about it, and think about it. The fact that not all Christians agree on the meaning of what the Bible says does not mean that it is opinion. The Christian’s position on the Bible is that it is the Word of God and the challenge is to understand it and put it into practice.

Nor do I believe the Bible is overused. Some passages are cited more often than others, but that does not mean they are overused. If anything, for many of us the Bible is underused in our lives.

But does the Bible betray a lack of original thought? Yes and no. Because it is old and enduring, in one sense it does lack original thought. But to most people reading the Bible today it does not lack original thought. It is rather in many ways revolutionary with regard to our thinking and living. And the more we read, understand, and apply it to our lives the more revolutionary it is.

The Bible is often drawn upon without noting it as one’s source, and I’m always pleased to hear or read that it is being cited in public discussion. However, I wish the person quoting even a truncated version of Proverbs 16:19 would have acknowledged it was from the Bible rather than an old cliché.

We could all benefit from more citations of the Bible in our discussions, and especially from the wisdom of the book of Proverbs.

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