Monday, December 02, 2013

Humility


This Thanksgiving weekend, I took a brief little road trip with Grandaddy, Mom, Dad, and my sister to Erin, TN.  This was the second Thanksgiving without my Granny (mom's side) and it's been over five without my Grandmother (Dad's side).  We explored some sites of historical significance to our family.  Pictured here is the cabin where my great-great grandmother (Grandaddy's granny) once lived:


It's even more rustic on the inside than this picture might suggest.  It's got about three rooms and the stable in the rear.  Less than a mile up the hill from the cabin is the old family cemetery which contains about five graves, one of them being a twelve-year-old boy who died in the 1950s and the other holding the body of my great-great-great grandmother who was born in the 1830s, lived through the Civil War, and died in the 1890s.

I've never had any interest in family genealogy; my brain has a hard time visualizing relatives who I never had the pleasure of knowing in life.  It is very hard for me to imagine my grandparents being young and having grandparents of their own.  But, where I am, they once were.  It's strange to take a few minutes and walk the same places where they used to walk years ago.  I can't imagine living in a three room cabin that, in spite of its rickety appearance, has apparently withstood over a century of wear by the natural world.

Seeing places like this remind me of how my family was able to make due with so little for so many years.  People like my grandaddy were born into humble circumstances, grew up in tiny towns working humble jobs, and then got drafted into the armed services during World War II which took them to some of the most exotic places on earth before they even turned twenty-one.  When their service was over, they returned home to places like Erin and picked up with real-life.  Much of my family moved to Detroit to get work in the auto industry, build families, and then retired back to their Tennessee hometowns to live out their golden years.

I can't imagine what it must have been like to grow up in rural Tennessee during the 1800s or the early 1900s, but my family did it for generations.  They didn't have a lot of possessions, but they did have each other and faith in God, and that was enough.  Children died young and those who survived had to grow up fast.  When you have childhood so brief, I guess it only makes sense that it's important to hold onto those memories and pass them onto future generations.  Soaking in such sights, I'm humbled to the point that I never have any words of insight to add.  But it certainly makes me thankful for all that I have in life and all that has come before me to make me into the person I am today.

Tuesday, November 05, 2013

All that's Fit for God

I've been giving some extended thought to the lyrics of Joseph Hart's 1759 hymn "Come ye, Sinners, Poor and Needy." What an honest picture it paints of both man's utter unworthiness before God and upon God's amazing grace toward unworthy sinners.  Plus, it's just super catchy to boot.

Sinners like me are "poor and needy," "weak and wounded," "sick and sore," "weary and heavy laden," and "lost and ruined by the Fall." But Jesus, our sinless savior, is "ready to save us, full of pity, love, and power."

Even if a sinner knows he needs to repent, in his pride he will find ways to justify continuing in unworthiness and delay repentance.  Hence, the sick man will tell convince himself that he should "tarry till he's better" so that he might fancy himself as more presentable to a holy God.  That's the path to damnation, of course, as one who attempts to tarry till he's better "will never come at all."  When God is offering mercy and forgiveness in Christ, He doesn't require the sinner in need of salvation attempt to clean himself up first.  Rather, "the only fitness He requires is that we feel our need of Him."

Of course, I've read Dietrich Bonhoeffer's The Cost of Discipleship (honestly, it's one of my favorite books), and anybody who knows true Christianity knows that he was right to say that "grace is costly."  But that fact shouldn't make us hesitate to affirm Jesus' promise in Matthew 11:28-30:
"Come to me, all you who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest.
Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

For as costly as following Jesus can be, being in God's grace through Jesus is nevertheless an easy yoke and a light burden.  God requires nothing of sinners coming to Jesus except for them to recognize their helplessness and total need for a Savior.  Our salvation cost God much, but the cost required of us to follow Him is ultimately a joyous privilege once the Holy Spirit has worked a miracle of regeneration in our hearts.

The amazing truth of God's willingness to save us in spite of our sin motivated my preparation of two recent sermons which I delivered this past October at my home church.  The sermons formed a two-part mini-series, with the first installment establishing the problem of "self-ruined men" and the follow-up drawing attention to God's grace in saving the self-ruined man.

"The Self-Ruined Man" sermon grew out of one of my children's Sunday School lessons on Proverbs 20.  I saw enough connections between verses 18-21 to warrant presenting them as a unit about an ungrateful and impatient son who ultimately brings ruin upon his family's legacy and upon the people under his stewardship.  It's a sad story that doesn't have a happy ending.

"The Prodigal's Father: Redeemer of the Self-Ruined Man", on the other hand, speaks hope to the self-ruined man, not because he can hope to pull himself out of the ruin he's made for himself, but because his heavenly Father stands ready to redeem Him. I preach from the famous "prodigal son" passage of Luke 15, but for this sermon I chose to focus upon the Prodigal Father's grace rather than retreading the prodigal son's failures.

So there it is in a nutshell--ruined sinners we are all, with a holy Heavenly Father who nevertheless stands ready to redeem us on account of the work of a perfect sinless Savior in our Lord Jesus Christ.  Don't bother to try and clean yourself off before going to God in repentance; just arise and go to Jesus.  The only fitness God requires is that you know your need of Him.

Sunday, September 22, 2013

God Moves in a Mysterious Way

William Cowper, while apparently suffering under severe bouts of depression and doubt, famously composed the hymn "God Moves in a Mysterious Way" in  1774.  Upon realizing that God had preserved his life in spite of his own sinful attempts to ruin himself, he was inspired to pen the following verses:


I do not appreciate the providence of God while I'm undergoing the hard times, but I've learned that I need to be willing to trust in God's will even when it seems impossible that the Lord will be true to his promise to work all things together for good for those who are called according to His purpose, as Romans 8:28 proclaims.  I've experienced a week of challenges big and small, personal and professional, and while I've seen some bonds of friendships grow tighter, others have been broken.  How all these trials and tribulations of life work together for good is a matter of God's wisdom, which we shortsighted men rarely ever recognize in the moment.  Nevertheless, God has taught me that I need to keep on trusting in his wisdom and goodness.  Regardless of whether my problems are big or small--deeply personal or simply petty--God's providence will ultimately be proven both good and wise, regardless of whether or not I can appreciate it immediately.

Behind a (seemingly) frowning providence, God hides a smiling face.  One day, I hope I'll be smiling too--and be grateful to God for lessons learned through that magnificent but mysterious plan of His which has a place in it for people as lowly and flawed as myself.

Amen.

P.S.
And because so many of my recent posts seem to be so depressing, I'll reference another (slightly more humorous) song--the quintessential sad soliloquy from Ernest Goes to Camp:

Sunday, August 04, 2013

. . . the More Things Stay the Same


I've spent my last weekend in my campus dorm room, the place where I've lived for the last 8 years.  I'll only be moving about a mile away, but sorting through old materials, throwing junk away, and packing up the stuff worth keeping sure brings back old memories.  I came to Louisville way back on August 5, 2005, when my parents and I moved all my stuff into my Fuller Hall apartment.  Not knowing the layouts of the building, I think we took the most inconvenient path possible, walking long distances and going up various flights of stairs.  And we suffered the first night in the summer heat without an air conditioner or electric fan in the room.  But as miserable experience as that was, the worst part was being left all alone when they departed back to Tennessee.  It would be a few more days until my roommate joined me, and my other friends in town weren't able to fellowship with me for a couple of days.  For the first time in my life, I was lonely.  But I was also excited.

(I even blogged about it.)

Probably best not to ask about this one.


So much time has passed since August 5, 2005.  Going through all my stuff brought back so many memories of the things I've done, the people I've met, and the events I'd almost forgotten.  I've lived by myself for nearly five years, but I no longer feel alone.  And I'm still excited.

"Reformation Day" 2006


I've been blessed with friends, many of whom are no longer with me physically, but always present in my thinking.  As sappy as that probably sounds, it's true.  When I get an opportunity to fellow with friends old and new, I savor it and remember it.

Old Friends, One Last Photo, 2009


I've been blessed with years of education and work experience.  Long ago, I got the degree for which I came to town, and now I'm still working on that last one.  The fact that I've not yet completed that second degree is somewhat of an irritation for me, but I nevertheless feel like I'm still at the right place in life, working hard now to prepare myself for what I want to do in the future.  Back in 2005, I came to Louisville hoping that God could make me into a preacher rather than merely a good student.  And I think He has.

2012
2013


Although I'm not ordained and have never served on staff at a church in a regular ministerial capacity, I believe myself to be a preacher currently working as a steward of other important assignments.  In 2005, I felt lost in sermon preparation and especially behind a pulpit.  It's been a long time since I've felt that way.  To be clear, I do not consider myself a great orator or even a great biblical scholar.  However, there is no situation in which I feel more alive than when I am standing before a congregation of God's people (or even some curious visitors) expounding the weight of the Scriptural text.  In my estimation, God has already given me what I came for, and for that I have to thank the Lord for the people He has put (and kept) in my life over the past 8 years.  But even though I've got what I came for, I now known that I've yet to reach the ultimate goal.

Autumn at Fuller Hall, 2012


I hope I can become a better preacher in the years to come.  And I know the key to doing so is how well I'll be able to integrate my understanding of Scripture with my love for the people whom God puts in my life.  In Philippians 3:10, Paul wrote of his own goal in life, namely "to know Christ and the power of His resurrection and the fellowship of His sufferings."  As I myself press on towards my own resurrection from among the dead, I pray that I'll continue to understand the power of Christ in me and those I love.  Like Paul, I've not yet reached the goal or fully matured in that most important regard.

Winter at Fuller Hall, 2013


And so it's time for me to press on toward the goal that is never fully reached in this present life.  I'm better for my 8 years in Fuller Hall 229, but I look forward to what God has in my future.  I'm excited.

Sunset  over Louisville viewed from Fuller Hall.

Wednesday, June 19, 2013

That Superman Movie...

Let me start off by saying that I liked Man of Steel.  The film boasted stunning visuals, strong casting, and some very bold twists on the familiar Superman mythology.  But although I found the movie enjoyable, I didn't love it, and I was really hoping that the movie would have evoked such affection in me in spite of my skepticism going in.  We diehard DC fans have had to watch all the Marvel-philes bask in the glory of their cinematic success for over a decade, so we really want the few Batman and Superman movies we get to be something special. I think I appreciate Superman more than most people, and I'll admit that I have my own conceptions of what he should be (without dropping spoilers, I think his portrayal in this movie at times contradicted my beliefs about how Superman should act).  But my qualms about Man of Steel aren't so much about any drastic changes they introduced to the Superman mythology so much as they are about the cinematic structure of the film.  Basically, the film didn't quite realize the fullness of its potential. Unlike Jor-El, who hoped that his only son might dream to be more than what society intended, Man of Steel seems a slave to the conventions of contemporary "epic" action movies.

There's a number of really nice little scenes in the film, especially the flashbacks to young Clark Kent's coming-of-age moments in Smallville.  My favorite is when he is upset that the world seems "too big" (since the poor kid can literally see and hear everything around him), and his mother instructs him to focus on specifics and thus "make it small."  There's such great wisdom and power in that line, and I wish Zack Snyder and crew had heeded their own advice through the last half of the movie.

The last half of the movie is certainly a visual sight to behold, leaving no doubt that the special effects crew squeezed every penny out of their reported $225 million budget.  Super-powered entities punch each other around, stuff blows up, buildings get knocked down, and alien death machines try to turn the planet into the equivalent of Gravity Man's stage from Mega Man 5. I love all that stuff as much as the next guy, but this movie's biggest problem is that for all the destruction that takes place in the name of "Action!," little of it really has any emotional resonance.

Snyder's Man of Steel takes place on an ambitious scale; there's epic battles that take place in the glistening skyline of Metropolis, a little farm in Kansas, the frigid wasteland of the Arctic, and a galaxy far, far away.  But for what feels like an hour, all the locales kind of blend into one another as Superman's various super-battles seem to take place simultaneously.  At one point, I was confused on where exactly Superman was supposed to be while all the action was going on someplace else.  He was off risking his life trying to destroy some death machine in a remote spot over the Indian Ocean while a building almost fell on some key staff members of the Daily Planet.  But suddenly, he was conveniently back in Metropolis in time to catch Lois Lane who just so happened to be falling out of an airplane.  (A blatant Mighty Mouse homage probably wouldn't have been out of place there.)

The plot featured some fantastic moral dilemmas for Superman such as whether he ought to secure the survival of his Kryptonian race or else doom his blood brethren to extinction because such a fate might be in the best interests of the the Earthlings who raised him.  That's some pathos almost worthy of Shakespeare!  Regrettably, all the emotional weight of that decision was thrown by the wayside in the name of packing the movie with seemingly endless fight scenes and "disaster porn" (that was accomplished comic scribe Mark Waid's term).  We never really had time to worry about how Superman would solve his no-win situation; there was always another building toppling over to distract us from feeling any anxiety.

This movie had some clever ideas on how to do Superman "different but good" in the year 2013. However, I can't help but think that Snyder may have decided to quit work early on this flick and just entrusted the CGI wizards to finish out the 2.5 hour run-time with oodles of action that doesn't necessarily have any point to it.  That mentality has become the industry standard for most big-budget action movies over the past decade or so, and that's too bad since Superman deserves better.  Christopher Reeve and Richard Donner famously made us believe that a man can fly way back in 1978, while Snyder and crew apparently wanted to convince us that a flying man can single-handedly fight off an alien invasion and devastate a major American city in the process.  Truth be told, Joss Whedon and those plucky Avengers did a much better job at damage control and collateral damage than Superman (and given all their wisecrackin' antics, they probably had more fun doing it too).  And despite all the flurries of furious fisticuffs exchanged between Superman and Zod, sometimes it seemed the characters (and, by extension, we the audience) forgot why exactly they hate each other so much.

Back when Nicholas Meyer directed The Wrath of Khan in 1982, he had to make do with a reduced budget and a general populace that doubted whether the Star Trek franchise had any long-term viability.  Meyer's strategy was to make the most of subtlety so that the audience's focus was always fixated on the personal conflict between Khan and Captain Kirk. Though the two spacemen never physically confronted each other during the course of the film, even the mundane scenes in that movie resonate on an emotional level.  Because Meyer was of the opinion that the best acting usually takes place in confined, small spaces, most of that film's "Action!" took place within a small room, and entire sets were reused with simple cosmetic changes.  The end result is that nothing distracts you from being aware of how much the protagonist and antagonist hate each.  That's the cinematic application of Ma Kent's advice to take the great big world and "make it small."

Man of Steel is an exciting film to sit through once, but I don't really have any compelling reason to sit through it again. It's a movie that hits you in the face with everything on the first ride, and I didn't sense enough subtlety to warrant giving it a closer inspection.  Even though this movie wasn't the film I hoped it would be, I hope it continues succeeding in the box office in order to lay a sustainable foundation for sequels and the off-chance of a good Justice League movie. Lukewarm "critical" reviews notwithstanding, most people I know who have seen the movie say they like it. To borrow an expression from Nolan's The Dark Knight (and I'll defend that movie as high cinema no matter what anybody says): Man of Steel may not be the movie long-time DC fans like me deserve, but it might just be the one we need right now.