A Gospel to Tell

An old English prof of mine challenged me recently to write something of at least 80 words using only words that derive from Old English Anlgo-Saxon. In other words, no words that come from French or Latin or German, only those that were around between the 5th-11th century AD in the English language. She jokingly said the I probably couldn’t wrote anything theological. So I did. I wrote about the atonement–in free verse poetry no less.

From Wikipedia

Enjoy:

My sin makes his blood rain

The gospel of His body tells

Of His going to His death

But the gift of heaven

Is a gift of light for you

Out of darkness

You are called

What you do 

What you understand

The water cleanses you

The water of His blood

How many your sins

How many they are

Go see and hold

Mark them down

The number of sins 

Is no more

Your life 

His death

You are cleansed of guilt

No sorrow for soul

In life and death

For down to hell He did go

For to heaven you may fly

Not in part but whole

For He bought you in His death

To have life ever more

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Freddie Mercury and Common Grace

Last Friday morning, my kids were getting ready for school and my daughter pensively stopped and looked at me and said “Dad, did you know that the guy who sang ‘Under Pressure’ and ‘Bohemian Rhapsody’ was a refugee?” I stopped for a moment and realized she had been looking at my collection of vinyl records at the time. 

“You mean Freddie Mercury?” I asked.

She nodded. 

From Britanica.com

“Yeah, he was. He’s of Indian-Persian descent and there was a war where he lived when he was a teenager and his family went to England. Not just that, but he was an amazing musician with a great vocal range in singing. He also did a lot to raise awareness for AIDS in the 80’s. He actually died of complications due to AIDS in the early 90’s.”

Pause.

My daughter thought for a moment. “You mean he did a lot to help people who were sick and dying?”

I nodded.

“Was he a Christian?” she asked. 

I shook my head. “He was involved with Zoroastrianism. It’s one of the oldest monotheistic religions in the world.”

“I wish he was a Christian,” she said sadly. “He did so much and helped people.”

I stopped for a second and realized this was becoming a teaching moment. 

“Oh, honey,” I said as both my kids sat on the couch realizing this was about to become a mini-lecture from Dad. “There are a lot of people out there who aren’t Christians but do good. Who do better than most Christians do.” 

“Like a baseball player I read about who is helping the homeless but he’s not a Christian. Sometimes people who do better than Christians put Christians to shame.” My son chimed in. 

“Yes, that can be true at times. There are people out there who are better at being Christians than Christians are. There’s a theological term for this. Its common grace.”

Freddie Mercury was an amazing musician. I think Queen is one of the best rock groups out there over the decades. His vocal range was outstanding. And in the 1980’s he did do amazing philanthropist work for AIDS research. And because of common grace we can appreciate what he did. We cans see the beauty in his music and talent. But common grace is more than just that. 

Common grace is where God allows for people who aren’t saved by his special grace to still do things that are God honoring and beautiful and wonderful. Common grace allows for art, music, literature, creation care, taking care of your fellow human, and the like to be done by those who aren’t Christians. And I think my son is right when he said that some of the things people do put Christians to shame. Some people are better at being Christians than Christians are at being Christ followers. 

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m still a staunch Reformed theological thinker. Common grace isn’t the same as saving grace (special grace). But common grace is important. In fact, Reformed theologian Louis Berkhof (I call him Uncle Louis [Lou-ee] when I’m by myself) says that common grace makes ordinary life possible and gives out the gifts to the world in science, art, and even showers “untold blessings” on people (Louis Berkhof Systematic Theology, pg. 434 [see what I did there, I got all scholarly on ya]). 

Now God’s special grace is for all those who call on the name of Jesus Christ to be saved, who believe in their hearts and confess with their mouths that Jesus is Lord. God’s special grace is a saving grace. It’s important to distinguish between the two. With God’s special grace, we as Christians are called to go forth and do God’s holy work in this world, Christ’s work, kingdom work, of restoration and redemption. We as Christians are called to do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God. You see, common grace doesn’t save. It doesn’t purify us of sin by the blood of Christ (Uncle Louis again pg. 434) but God’s special grace does. 

As Christians we can enjoy and observe and be part of common grace. We can enjoy the works of the likes of Freddy Mercury, or your choice of art of music or what not. We can be active in works of justice and loving our neighbor. And those who aren’t Christian can love their neighbor too. It doesn’t save them, Jesus does. But as Christians we can learn from those who do it better than we can. We can learn about helping others out, doing creation care, living justly and loving mercy from those who aren’t Christian. In fact, like I said earlier, sometimes non-Christians are better at being Christians than we are. 

So, my kiddos received a long theological lecture before heading off to school on Friday morning. They were still on time though. And we all learned something. My kids can bring up good questions which makes me think of life itself. 

When you can, enjoy some good music, enjoy some good art, act justly, love mercy, and do what you can to walk humbly with God through Christ. Enjoy common grace and live out your special grace for those who believe. Learn from those who don’t. And proclaim the name of Jesus in all you do and say. 

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Prayer and a Beaten Up Camaro

Sometime about a week or so ago I was doing some Christmas shopping for my kids. My 15 year-old son loves cars and especially Hot Wheels and so I thought I’d get him some (don’t worry, he doesn’t read my blog and so he won’t know). As I was looking through the different cars, I came across a 1969 Camaro. It was green. It was a convertible. It was beautiful. I too love cars. I’m a big muscle car fan. But this particular car brought back so many memories, I had to get it. In fact, I bought it and brought it to my home office and opened it up immediately. Not to play with it per se but to look at it. The detail. The lines of the car. Made in Malaysia. The car is on my desk right now as I write this. Why is it so important to me? Well, it reminds me how God answers prayer. 

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This tale goes way back when. 

It was in the early 1990’s. My parents had split up and my mom, brother, sister, and I moved down from Northern California to Southern California. A lot of heart ache. A lot of pain. A lot of not knowing. I was in 7th grade and hurting. So was my sister and my brother. So was my mom. My mom was doing her best to work and provide. We had this old 1984 Toyota Tercel hatchback that we had brought down with us. One day on the California freeway, the oil light came on, my mom brought it in and was told it was fine. Shortly thereafter a hole was burned into the engine and the little car that could died. So did our means of income. My mom couldn’t get to her job.

We needed something. 

Anything. 

We were kinda religious, kinda trusting in God, kinda not sure. I know I struggled with the whole thing. But we decided to pray anyway. And prayed we did. We prayed for a car. I didn’t know all the ins and outs of prayer. I just knew we needed a car for my mom. 

My uncle found an old beaten up sky blue 1970 Camaro for $100. The thing was a mess. But it ran. It didn’t run well but it ran. If you hit over 60 it’d start to shake. We called it the milkshake machine. But I’ll never forget the license plate number: 777 NOC. I’m not superstitious. I’m not into numerology. My uncle pointed out to me that as far as he knew, 777 stood for heaven. And the NOC—knocking on heaven’s door. 

Prayer.

It may not have seemed like much at the time, but this was an answer to our prayers. That milkshake machine, the beaten up Camaro got us from Point A to Point B faithfully. It shook, but it was ours. It shook, but it worked. It was what we needed when we needed it.

Fast forward years later with theological training, reading the Bible, and studying on prayer. The milkshake machine Camaro still stays in my mind of God’s provision.

In what is called The Lord’s Prayer, we pray “give us today our daily bread.” When I think of that one line, I think of the Camaro. I think of God’s provision when things were tough. I think of His provision now in my life. Each day I am to rely on Him. Each day I am to trust in Him. Being into Reformed theology, my mind goes to the Heidelberg Catechism, something written centuries ago but speaks about that Camaro. 

The Catechism is set up with questions and answers. And separated by different Sundays to be taught. Lord’s Day (Sunday) 50 asks: “What does the fourth request mean?” What does it mean when we pray “Give us today our daily bread”?

The answer?

Give us today our daily bread means, do take care of all our physical needs so that we come to know that you are the only source of everything good, and that neither our work and worry nor your gifts can do us any good without your blessing.”

So what does that mean? And what does it have to do with a beaten up Camaro?

It’s daily provision. 

God isn’t some ethereal thing out there. He is real. He acts. He moves. He provides. He also blesses. He blesses us even if our theology and understanding aren’t perfect. Back then I didn’t understand prayer. I didn’t understand God. I didn’t understand how things worked. I just thought I’d give prayer a chance. And God acted and gave us what we needed for the time we needed it. Each day I don’t think we knew if that Camaro would start or not. Each day we didn’t know if it would shake to pieces or not on the freeway. But it worked. It was what we needed. God provided. God blessed us. 

Prayer is a weird thing. There’s no such thing as unanswered prayer. God answers prayer with yes, not, and wait. This time it was a yes. I’ve seen in my life there have been many “no’s” and a lot of “wait’s.” But God answers. He is sure to provide what we need when we need it and He blesses it. 

This Christmas season is a weird one with COVID. Heck, this whole year of 2020 has been weird because of COVID. And God still answers prayers. God still acts. And I have seen God provide this year. This Christmas season trust in God. Trust in His goodness. Trust in His care. And trust in Him daily for what you need when you need it. Even if it is a beaten up Camaro. 

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Eight Years

I’ve been thinking much about family these last few weeks. Maybe it’s because Christmas is coming. Maybe it’s because I miss them as I’m living in Michigan and they are all spread out in California. No matter what the reason, I’ve been thinking about them. Memories are weird things. They hit you at the wrong time and come out my eyes like liquid dreams. It could be a phrase, a song, a word. And then the memory hits and I begin to travel back in time to that moment, that reality, that world in which I was in way back when. It takes a tug of the heart to pull me back to the present, but the memory is still there, still present, still alive. And in the liquid dreams I cry. 

There are times when my mind travels back to the busines my grandparents owned while I was in middle school and high school and into college. It was a for-profit thrift store. We lovingly called it: The Store. They didn’t really make money off of it but it was there place. It was our place. It was my haven from the world. 

It was a hot and sweaty summer where we began working at the store. My brother, sister, and I working tirelessly to scrape and shovel out old tile. It was once a butcher shop and the tile on the floor had to go. My grandfather watched us and was glad to point out what we missed and how to put my back into it. Soon carpet was laid down over the concrete floor now tileless. Racks were put up, shelves were put in place, and my grandfather and I built a wall between where the store front would be and the back work area might exist. It was in the back area where my grandmother would sit working on items, smoking her cigarettes and drinking her weak coffee. 

I was in eighth grade when the store finally opened. My grandfather and I in an old beaten up sky blue Ford pickup years past the scrap heap would go to the Goodwill and buy stuff to be sold at The Store. Clothing packed in barrels that smelled oddly like garlic. Today even the hint of garlic brings me back to those Saturday mornings, waiting for the Good Will to open up so that we could pounce on what might be sold later. I had a paper route then as well. We lived with my grandparents at the time. I would get up early in the morning, my grandmother, an early riser, would be waiting for me with a cup of coffee filled with cream and sugar, or cream and sugar with a bit of coffee. She would smoke her cigarette and do the cross word puzzle as I drank my caffeine and headed out to do my paper route, rain or not. I’d return and she would still be doing her puzzle, smoking, and have another mug of cream and sugar and coffee waiting for me. It was expected that I be at The Store after school to help out. 

It was at The Store where family would meet. If I came in the front door and heard classic rock playing softly in the back, I knew my uncle was watching The Store that day. Later after high school, sometimes I’d hear a squeal of joy and know that my sister had brought my niece for a visit, she was so small then. Sometimes my mom would come to just say hello. We would gather there, talk, eat Mexican food from the store around the corner or Chinese food from Chester’s a few doors down. Family was there. The Store brought us together. 

Other times I would come through the back door, parking my bike along the side entry way. There’d be an old couch they couldn’t sell or a desk too big. My grandfather had a hammer waiting for me to destroy it and put it in the dumpster. I’d work out my anger and angst on those things, feeling better once I was done. Other times they would put my back to work, helping pick up unwanted things from garage sales or stacking new inventory on the back shelves. My grandmother, tired of me taking her cigarettes all the time, began paying me instead of cash under the table but with cartons of cigarettes. I didn’t tell my mom until my grandmother’s funeral in 2012. 

The Store lasted for eight years. Years I would never want to lose. Years that were important to me. The Store taught me about life, about helping people in need. I think my grandmother gave away more than she sold. It was at the store where I learned compassion for people. It was at The Store where I learned the value of hard work. It was at The Store where I learned the importance of family. And it was at The Store where I learned about grief. 

I had been in community college, working other jobs in retail and enjoying time with friends. I didn’t know the state that The Store was in. It wasn’t good. It was a nice April day, the clouds were just right, the sun was singing, and my mom told me the news, The Store was closing. Or in fact, I learned as I rode there as fast as I could, The Store had closed. When I arrived, my grandmother was sitting in her usual spot, no coffee, no cigarettes. Just her and my grandfather, the store was a shell of what it was. The shelves we had put up that one summer eight years ago were empty, their contents long gone. The counter where the register was, missing. The Store was a shell, empty, lonely. I cried. It was gone. 

Memories. They come and they go. My grandmother went into the gates of glory back in 2012. My grandfather and uncle both passed back in 2018. All I have now are my memories. All I have of The Store now is but glimpses of the past and what I learned over those eight years. I am glad for those eight years. They taught me so much. I lived so much. And in that time, I grew. Those memories are mine and no one can take them away. As are the liquid dreams that come down in tears from my eyes when I remember both the good times and bad that we lived in with The Store. 

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The Companion of Wisdom and What I’m Learning

Art by Josh Benton

For the last month or so I’ve been slowly reading through the Book of Proverbs. My goal is to seek God’s wisdom. With all the chaos going on right now in our world today, I really feel the need for God’s wisdom. The need for wisdom to make good decisions. The need for wisdom to guide me through the chaos. As I seek God’s wisdom, I’ve noticed something interesting. Righteousness comes along side of wisdom. 

Now this is interesting to me. Why? If you seek wisdom are you also seeking righteousness? If you are righteous are you also wise? Or are they complimentary to one another, each helping the other out. That is, if you are wise, you seek to be righteous and if you are righteous you seek to be wise. 

As I pondered this, something struck me from Proverbs

The righteous care about justice for the poor, but the wicked have no such concern” Proverbs 29:7

And right before that:

When the righteous thrive, the people rejoice” Proverbs 29:2

And around all this, the author of Proverbs speaks about being wise in so many different ways. The wisdom of the king, the wisdom of a son, the wisdom of one who goes to court. Wisdom and righteousness somehow go together. As I have been reading through Proverbs, I’ve noticed this over and over again. Wisdom and righteousness go together. They walk together as one desires wisdom one desires to be righteous. But what does that mean?

In his book, All the Places to Go, John Ortberg talks about how wisdom is making good decisions while surrounding oneself with wise counsel—people who can speak into your life. An old professor of mine from seminary said that wisdom was age plus experience. But I’ve never thought of wisdom and righteousness coming together. 

I’m starting to get wisdom…well, not get it but understand what it is. It’s more than Yoda talking to Luke (geeky reference) but it’s also the same thing. Wisdom has to be untangled and thought through. The Book of Proverbs speaks volumes about wisdom. And it speaks about how to gain wisdom. It even goes so far as saying spend all your money obtaining wisdom (Proverbs 4:7). But it doesn’t say how wisdom and righteousness come together. 

As I’ve been pondering and reflecting on this, I wondered what Paul would say. He wrote most of the New Testament. He was a Pharisee turned Jesus-Follower. He knew his scripture in and out. Doing a quick word search on one of my apps, I came across a slew of references to God’s righteousness found in Romans alone. 

But now apart from the law the righteousness of God has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness is give through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” Romans 3:21-22

Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourself to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness.” Romans 6:13

Then I read 1 Corinthians

It is because of him that you are in Christ Jesus, who has become for us the wisdom from God—that is our righteousness, holiness, and redemption.” 1 Corinthians 1:30

Dude! Wow! The righteousness of Christ is linked to the wisdom of God. 

Through Christ, by the power of the Holy Spirit, we are made righteous. Jesus is the embodiment of God’s wisdom. The beginning of John’s Gospel says this in fact (John 1:1-5).

So if God’s wisdom is connected to Christ’s righteousness, my quest for God’s wisdom in my life in the midst of this COVID chaos is to seek Christ as well. 

Mind.

Blown.

So my quest for wisdom continues. But now I know that in seeking out God’s wisdom, I need to seek out Christ’s righteousness. They are complimentary to one another. They work together because they are part of the same person. They are both part of Christ. And through Christ I can have both. Through Christ I can live both righteousness and wisdom. 

Now here’s the kicker for me I think: Both are available right away. Both can be obtained right away. But it takes time to grow into it. It’s complex, I know but it’s important to realize it. Christ is here now by the power of the Holy Spirit. And by the power of the Holy Spirit living in me by the power of Christ, I’m able to have both wisdom and righteousness. 

Now I just have to figure out how to live it out. 

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The Patient Warrior

victorious warrior

Art by Josh Benton

Lately I’ve been doing my devotions through the Book of Proverbs. My goal is to seek God’s wisdom in things going on in life. My goal is to be a man of God who can live out God’s wisdom. It seems that wisdom and righteousness go hand in hand. When one seeks out God’s wisdom, one seeks out to live a righteous life. In fact, in order to live out wisdom, one lives out righteousness.

Better a little with righteousness than much grain with injustice.” Proverbs 16:8

The LORD detests the way of the wicked but he loves those who pursue righteousness.” Proverbs 15:9

Wisdom itself is life giving. It is more precious than any treasure one can think of.

How much better to get wisdom than gold, to get insight rather than silver.” Proverbs 16:16

Wisdom’s instruction is to fear the LORD, and humility comes before honor.” Proverbs 15:33

As I’ve been studying the Book of Proverbs, one proverb stood out to me. It’s one I’ve read many times before but for some reason, it made me think of what it means to be a man of God and seek wisdom at the same time.

Better a patient person than a warrior, one with self-control than one who takes a city.” Proverbs 16:32

For some reason, my brain mushed the proverb together and came out with being a patient warrior. In the past, I’ve compared being a man of God to being a warrior. A warrior for God is one who is willing to fight the good fight. A warrior for God can be wounded. A warrior can be taught and discipled. But there’s more to this than just mushing together being patient verses being a warrior.

In meditating on this proverb, I looked at other translations. Something caught my eye in the English Standard Version

Whoever is slow to anger is better than the mighty, and he who rules his spirit than he who takes a city.” Proverbs 16:32 ESV

To be slow to anger. What does that mean? I dove deeper into it. The words translated “slow to anger” or “patient” literally is “long in the nose.” It’s a Hebrew colloquialism of saying longsuffering or slow in being angry. I just like that though “long in the nose.” And then there’s self-control. It literally is “rules his spirit.” Combining “self-control” and ruling one’s spirit makes me think of the Fruit of the Spirit.

Paul writes in Galatians

But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.” Galatians 5:22-23

As I reflect on this, I realize that living out wisdom itself means being a follower of Christ and letting the Holy Spirit reside within you. When you let Christ lead, you allow the Spirit of God, the Holy Spirit, to reside in you and produce fruit, produce evidence that you belong to Christ.

In trying to be a man of God, I need to be “long in the nose.” It’s not about taking a city. To take a city is to wage war. I’m not here to wage war. I’m here to be a follower of Christ. As a patient warrior, I am to exhibit that which shows I belong to Christ. And, hopefully, wisdom comes with it. To be honest, I struggle with this. I am not “long in the nose” to say the least. I snap at my kids. I get impatient when driving down the freeway and that person is going 5 miles below the speed limit and there’s a semi on my right and I can’t pass. I get frustrated when things don’t go the way I want them to. I struggle with this. Yet I need to be “long in the nose” in my life. There’s more to life than just this. I need to see the bigger picture.

And so, as I struggle to be a patient warrior, a patient man of God who is “long in the nose” I try hard to follow Him. I deeply desire His wisdom. That’s why I’m reading the Book of Proverbs right now. His wisdom is there. There is so much wisdom wrapped up in this one book that I can barely take it in. Yet I also know that as a follower of Christ, I need to allow the Holy Spirit to work within me to show the evidence that I belong to Christ. And in doing so, I can be that patient warrior.

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A Space for Grace at Pizza Ranch

Mission-920x590The other day I had some daddy/daughter time with my now 12 year-old daughter. She asked to go to Pizza Ranch since we hadn’t been there in some time. With all this COVID stuff going on, it’s been hard to just relax and spend time with family. I think she needed some daddy/daughter time anyway and I couldn’t say no to Pizza Ranch and their buffet (it’s contactless now with COVID).

This Pizza Ranch is nice just a few minutes from our place and filled with the usual Pizza Ranch decorations–cowboy stuff that is. It has cowboy boots on the wall, a lasso, some other cowboy trinkets here and there. It’s a bit overboard but nice. It reminded me of the days I pastored out in South Dakota and we went as a family to the Pizza Ranch out in Platte. We got our plates and were served by staff (its contactless buffet remember?) and my daughter and I sat down and just talked. It was fun watching her eat her cheese pizza and breadsticks, dipping her buttermilk biscuit into her chocolate pudding, and singing along to the songs on the speakers overhead.

“Daddy,” my daughter took a look around and leaned forward to ask me an important question. “Is Pizza Ranch a Christian restaurant?”

“Yup,” I answered slowly between bites of my bronco pizza (all meat). “They even have a vision statement saying they are.”

My daughter then had asked me to look it up. I quickly pulled up my Wikipedia app and read her the history of Pizza Ranch and their vision statement: “To glorify God by positively impacting the world.”

My daughter’s eyes lit up in between bites of her breadsticks.

We talked a bit more, and then my ears couldn’t help drifting towards the table close to us (because of COVID they had only every other table opened up). There was a family of five finishing up, enjoying their ice cream, cactus bread, and dessert pizzas. What caught my attention was the words asked by the youngest child of the family:

“Mom, how many times were you in jail?” they asked their mother.

I could tell in her response that she didn’t like the question. She mumbled and the child asked again. The mother didn’t chastise the child but she seemed embarrassed. “Dad’s been to prison too, hasn’t he?” the child asked again. The mother now more embarrassed. She said some things I couldn’t make out. I shouldn’t have been eavesdropping anyway. The mother mumbled some other things and then announced it was time to go even though the children hadn’t finished their ice cream. She seemed to have had enough.

My mind’s been going back to that scene now a number of times since it happened. Speaking up wasn’t the thing for me to do. It wasn’t my place. But still, there should be room, a space, for grace.

Grace is a funny thing. It’s giving special leniency to people when we don’t deserve it ourselves. The child had an honest question. I don’t know the history behind it, but the present situation was that the child just wanted to know. They were curious. They were interested in their mother. They wanted to know their mother. Grace for the child at that time was needed not chastisement. Grace for the mother was needed, not embarrassment.

If the vision of Pizza Ranch was to glorify God by positively impacting the world around it, neither were positively impacted. Now, I’m not saying this was Pizza Ranch’s job to swoop in and tell the family that it was okay to have that conversation. No need to be embarrassed. It was an innocent question. No need to be afraid, there was no judgment coming from me. I wanted to say something, to do something, to give her room and hospitality and let her know she was in a safe place to have that question asked of her. But I didn’t. I couldn’t. I didn’t know how to.

In the arena of the world that we live in right now, we really need spaces for grace, spaces for that extra leniency and mercy and compassion that certain someone might just need. In this time of COVID right now, we need to offer that grace and love and positively impact others letting them know they too are safe and okay. It’s a struggle right now. I don’t know if this is the “new normal” or not. But I do know that I need to live out the grace of God, the grace of Jesus Christ in what I do and say and how I offer room for others to experience this grace.

What are ways in which you might be able to offer a space for grace for those around you?

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A Movie Not Meant for Me

Black_Panther_(film)_posterFor our Family Movie Night last week, we watched Black Panther. My family as a whole are huge Marvel/MCU fans. We’ve seen all the movies. After hearing of Chadwick Boseman’s passing due to cancer a few weeks ago, my kids have been asking to see Black Panther once again. My daughter even asked for it over Captain Marvel (her favorite). As I watched it, my mind couldn’t help but stop and think and analyze the movie. A I watched, I realized that the movie wasn’t meant for me, a white dude in his 40’s. I’m used to movies catering to me and my age group. When you’re part of the dominant culture, you get used to that. This movie wasn’t that. It was for the African-American community. It was written by, directed by, and starred Africans and African-American peoples in the entertainment industry.

The movie begins in Oakland 1992. On the TV in the small rent-controlled building is the news showing the Rodney King beating aftermath and the riots that happened then. A divisive time.  As the movie goes forward to the aftermath of Captain America: Civil War where we first meet T’Challa who is the Black Panther, we begin to see other areas of social concern in the African continent–wars and human trafficking. The Black Panther breaks this up. He protects the innocent and helps the helpless.

T’Challa is the the king of Wakanda now, a mythical nation of four tribes hidden in the middle of Africa. It is technologically advanced. It is peaceful. Though there might be issues not raised, they appear to live in harmony with one another. My wife (a history PhD student) pointed out what might Africa have looked like if there had not been colonization and the slave trade.

My mind couldn’t stop thinking.

I’m not going to go into a bit by bit replay of the movie. It was overwhelming. I realized my own racism and personal biases. Both T’Challa and Killmonger had valid arguments on why they did what they did. Killmonger was angry about how his people were treated, how the oppressed were treated. He wanted to help the oppress raise up and defeat the oppressors. And he had every good reason why. I have never cried for a villain before, but I cried for Killmonger.

My mind went back to college. Back in the days when I claimed to be “color blind.” I was in the play The Comedy of Errors. The cast somehow had gotten into a discussion of gender and race. I had received A’s in both Women’s History and African-American Literature and thought I knew what I was talking about. I said I believed it was important to be color blind. That’s when Damon spoke up. He looked at me and said “No! I want  you to see my blackness. I am a proud black man and I want you to see that in me.” That has stuck with me ever since. And then I thought about T’Challa and Killmonger. How did I see them?

As I watched, I saw how Black Panther was not only a celebration of the African-American community, it also dealt with the social ills that have plagued it since the forced diaspora. There was pain and there was celebration. There was also the message that those who have should help those who don’t. There was a message of mentoring, of aiding the needy, of being willing to build bridges rather than divide.

Once we finished watching the movie (a true Marvel fan watches all the credits until the very end) I turned to my wife and said “This movie wasn’t meant for me.” She thought about it for a moment and said “No, it was, it was meant to teach you.” We then had an hour long conversation with our children (ages 14 and 11) about systemic racism, the history of it in the United States, how it’s led to the protests we have now, and what we could do to help. We spoke of how God calls us to help those in need. He calls us to help those who are on the margins. He calls us to be a reflection of the Kingdom of Heaven.

And so I wonder. I wonder about my own issues. I wonder about how I treat other people. Do I treat them as image bearers of God or not? Do I live as one reflecting the Kingdom of God? Do I fight systemic racism enough? Do I do my part as a follower of Christ to be a reflection of Christ to others? Do I live as Christ wants me to live?

And yes, all of this and more because of one movie.

What are your thoughts?

 

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Listening and Prayer

devotions pic

Picture by Josh Benton

I’ve been really struggling with listening lately. It’s not that I’m not listening. In fact, I’m doing all I can to listen. I strain my ear to listen. But I’m hearing a jumble of things. The background noise is loud. And I strain to make out what I hear. Then I wonder if I heard what I thought I heard. Then I wonder if I’m just hearing what I want to hear and not what’s being said. Then I wonder if I heard anything at all. I question myself too much and I struggle more with listening.

What am I listening to? The voice of God.

Okay, pull up the psycho bus, I’m ready to be admitted. Listening to the voice of God. It’s interesting in that when we pray, we say we’re speaking to God. In fact, we are. We are bringing our joys and concerns, praises and petitions to the God of the universe. Yet when we sit silently in prayer, waiting, tuning the ears of our heart to the voice of God, people look at us (or maybe just me) a bit weirdly. But that’s what prayer is. Prayer is speaking your heart to God and then listening to His reply.

And He speaks in many different ways. He speaks through the heart. He speaks through other people. He speaks through His Word, the Bible. But He does speak and we are to listen to Him when He speaks.

Yet there are times where I’m in doubt. There are times where I struggle to listen or wonder if I’m actually hearing His voice or just what I want to hear. Then there’s the background noise. It’s deafening sometimes. It over powers the quietness of my heart. It’s my over thinking, my tendency to ponder what I’m pondering. Maybe I’m being too hard on myself. Maybe I need to lighten up a bit, but for me, following God is so serious that it should take every fiber of my being.

I wonder sometimes at hearing the voice of God. For the last number of months (years even?) I have been trying to train my ear to hear His voice in my life. I spend time quietly reading through His Word, the Bible. I spend time quietly sitting in silence (and for an extrovert like me that is sooooo hard) just listening and waiting. I don’t just sit there either. I try to open “doors.” That is, I try to see if God is leading one way and see if there is a viable way of going that direction. When I feel that there is not, then I back away from that “door” and try another route. I’ve learned that God leads by what He provides and other times He leads by what He doesn’t provide. I’ve learned that God is not usually early but He’s never late.

So what am I to do?

I wait upon the Lord. I wait to hear His voice. I step forward in faith and see if the “door” will open or not. I listen to what others have to say, those wiser than me, those who are not on my side as well as those who are. I pay attention to what’s going on around me. I try to be self aware and what’s going on in my own heart. And I wait upon the Lord.

David writes in Psalm 139

How precious to me are your thoughts, God! How vast is the sum of them!” (Psalm 139:17)

That’s how it is for me. God’s thoughts are precious to me. They are vast and amazing. And I await His voice to speak. He knows me. I am fearfully and wonderfully made (Psalm 139:14). God has searched me and He knows my thoughts. He knows what I’m thinking and what I desire (Psalm 139:1-4).

And so I wait on the Lord to speak.

Until then I test doors. I walk by faith not by sight (2 Corinthians 5:7 KJV). And I keep praying and speaking with God. I know He hears me. I know with assurance that He hears me. I must listen through the noise to hear Him.

And so I listen. Call me crazy, but still I will listen.

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Tuning In

guitar messy office

Photo by Josh Benton of my very messy home office and guitar

I must admit something: I have been lax in my playing of guitar. I’ve been taking lessons on and off for a number of years but haven’t taken lessons since 2017. I have been playing guitar though since and had been keeping up with my practicing. And then for some reason, I just stopped. I don’t know why but I did. I just stopped. It was casual stop. It was a stop that I just didn’t realize I really stopped doing. I just did. Then the other day, I looked at my guitar and realized how I hadn’t played it for a while. I picked it up and strummed it a bit. It was way out of tune, I wasn’t sure how but it was. I decided to try to tune it a bit. But my ear couldn’t make out the notes correctly. My ear wasn’t in tune with the guitar. I tried to do some blues licks I knew, but I couldn’t remember the exact finger placement. It had been too long. I didn’t know my guitar.

This morning, as I was doing my devotions, I came to Acts 10. In this chapter, Peter is on top of a room praying (they could do that back then because they had flat roofs and people did stuff like that a lot). As he was praying he went into a trance. In his trance God showed him in a vision a variety of different animals. Peter was told to kill, eat. Peter said he couldn’t because they were unclean. God then said to him that He declared them clean (Acts 10:15). Peter came out of the trance he was in. As he did, three men from a centurion (a Roman military leader), came for Peter because an angel had told the centurion (named Cornelius) to go find a man named Simon called Peter who would be at this house in Joppa (trippy). Peter went at once (brave dude).

Here’s the thing, Cornelius the centurion was what was called a God-fearing person. In the Roman world, you could worship any religion you wanted to as long as you gave kudos to the emperor as supreme leader. There were some Romans (the ones who were occupying Israel at the time) who began following the Jewish religion. They were called God-fearing people. This is who the centurion was. But he too had a vision and the angel in the vision told him to call for Peter. Being a Roman, he wanted everyone to come hear what Peter had to say.

When Peter arrived at Cornelius’ home, he saw it packed to the gills. Filled with people eager to hear what this Jewish man had to say. It struck Peter, his vision of God saying not to make unclean what He declared clean applied right to this situation. To the Jewish person at that time, you didn’t hang out with non-Jewish people, especially Romans. And Peter was a follower of Jesus. At that time in the Book of Acts, people were still trying to figure out how to follow Jesus. And now, here is Peter being asked by a Roman to explain the Gospel message. All connected together.

And the kicker? Peter explains the Gospel message to all the people there and they were baptized. Becoming Jesus followers and changing their lives. Peter went against centuries of culture in order that these Romans too could be part of the Kingdom of God. Sweet.

But what does this have to do with my guitar playing or lack there of?

To be honest, as I reflected on Peter’s vision, I wondered if I would have been able to hear God’s voice. I wondered if I would have been able to discern God’s words and instructions. In tuning a guitar by ear, there are so many distractions. So much competing noise that you need to listen for that particular note. Now, I also like to use a Snark tuner which clips on to the guitar, but still, you need something to help pay attention. Peter had centuries of tradition and culture screaming at him. All this noise telling him not to go to Cornelius’ house. In fact, he even says that he really shouldn’t be there (Acts 10:28) but that God has declared it that he should. All because he listened past the noise to hear the true tune and notes of the one true God.

It makes me wonder. How often do I allow the noise to get in the way of listening to God’s voice in my life? How often do I allow the noise to get in the way of tuning my heart to God’s desires? In fact, how often do I just casually stop paying attention at all and just don’t realize it?

Sometimes I think we wish that God would just speak. You know, a voice from the heavens, the clouds part, the sun shines, and God speaks (not like Monty Python though). During this pandemic, we could sure use something like that. But then I began to wonder, would we even hear His voice? Have we casually stopped paying attention?

As I do my devotions, I pray and listen. I want to hear God’s voice. I want to hear God’s leading and direction. I want to actively be a participant in the Kingdom of God. I so want to be an active Jesus follower. I strain to do so. Maybe I’m too hard on myself. I might be. I just so want to hear God’s leading in my life so I can faithfully follow Him in His kingdom work.

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