5in5, Day 1

Yesterday began the songwriting challenge called “5in5”. The challenge? Write a song each day, start to finish, for 5 days. It’s grueling, heartbreaking, embarrassing, moving and encouraging. Writing a song and sharing it with others bares one’s soul to the world. It’s risky! People may not like it. It might be really bad! Or- almost worse- it might be mediocre! So why do it? As with most difficult things, it makes one stronger. It grows me every time I do it.

So, this time I thought I’d let you share in the 5in5 experience. I hope that this accomplishes two things: First, I hope this opens the conversation for constructive criticism. After all, what will I learn if I never hear your reactions? Second, I hope this encourages others to be bold and share their art.

Now, about my song. I called it “Good Teacher” because it is inspired by the passage in John 3 where Jesus teaches Nicodemus about being “born again”. I’ve always been intrigued by the word picture that Jesus draws about how the Spirit is like the wind- no one can tell from where it comes or to where it goes except those “born of the Spirit”. Here it is:

The good: I was able to use some of my new music theory knowledge in writing this song! The circle progressions in the last two lines of the verses, the secondary dominants in the chorus and the modulation in the bridge are all direct applications of techniques I learned in theory. It was very exciting to put my education to work!

The bad: I started out trying to emulate the wind with my guitar… but with limited time- 1 day!- it’s hard to bring all the ideas to fruition! Plus, it needs to be finished better. I think it ended abruptly… and I wish I’d had more time to write the last verse. Darn that time limit!

The ugly: Recording is hard! EQ’ing and mixing can be the downfall of an otherwise great song! Hopefully I will get better at this.

Have any advice? I’d love to hear it! Leave me a comment. Let’s have a conversation- whether you’re musically adept or a novice, your comments are welcome! Cheers!

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The Greatest Gift We Can Give

1 Corinthians 15:1-8 – Now brothers, I want to clarify for you the gospel I proclaimed to you; you received it and have taken your stand on it. 2 You are also (being) saved by it, if you hold to the message I proclaimed to you- unless you believed for no purpose. 3 For I passed on to you as most important what I also received: that Christ died for our sins according to the Scriptures, 4 that He was buried, that He was raised on the third day according to the Scriptures, 5 and that He appeared to Cephas (Peter) then to the twelve. 6 Then He appeared to over 500 brothers at one time; most of them are still alive, but some have fallen asleep. 7 Then He appeared to James, then to all the apostles. 8 Last of all, as to one abnormally born, He also appeared to me.

This passage from Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians sums up the heart of the Christian faith: Christ died for our sins, was buried, raised and now lives as our promise of eternal life… our promise of resurrection. It is the Gospel in a nutshell. This Gospel is the Greatest Gift- it’s the ultimate Good News… news so good that Jesus- the Son of God and Creator of the world- willingly and willfully died to give it to you; news so good that the disciples gladly accepted beatings, prison and martyrdom in order to share it; news so good that Stephen allowed himself to be stoned and Paul allowed himself to be imprisoned and killed. Let me ask you… Do you cheer for a sports team?… a racing team?… an athlete? Do you talk about sports to your friends? Do you talk about- and maybe even revere- your favorite players? It’s funny, we’re not shy about talking about our sports teams. Are we shy about talking about the Gospel? I am. Most of us are. But it is far greater than a sports victory. Why avoid it? The Gospel is a greater gift than a large and unexpected inheritance. After all, what is a little money when compared to the hope of life beyond death? But do we live as though we believe it? Most of us pursue wealth much more than God. My best friend lived just up the road from where I grew up. He and I are like family- in fact, we share our families. His mother was my mother and mine was his. Our fathers farmed together sometimes. His home is a place of permanence in my mind. It hasn’t changed much in the 37 years I’ve been alive- a fact that gives me comfort in this rapidly changing world. In my mind’s eye, I can picture my best friend’s home… it’s so familiar to me. I remember the wallpaper. I spent so much time in that house when I was little… I can smell the wood smoke, I can feel the cold, rough stone mantle on the fireplace, I see the pine trees in the front yard through their picture window. I can picture his dad; I can hear his voice. These memories are so concrete; that place seems so unchanging and so timeless… so you can imagine how it upset me to find out my best friend’s dad is dying. He’s dying of diabetes related complications… right now, as I write this. He was on dialysis for years but recently he started getting infections in his feet. When they started taking his toes, he refused treatment. He is tired of fighting and I can’t really blame him. He may have a few days or a few months, but he’s dying. It hurts me- both for the man and his family. I’m telling you about this because death is real and it’s coming to all of us. And when it does, the questions come: What is the meaning of life? What happens after death? Is there a purpose? When death comes, the pain and the process of dying are suddenly less scary than the finality of death. We find that we worried about the wrong things- like the old Joe Diffie song said- “I ain’t afraid of dying, it’s the though of being dead.” With all that being said, I believe that the Gospel is a greater gift to my best friend’s father than a complete healing from diabetes. Is that hard to hear? How can I say this? Because- as great as healing would be- and I believe it would be a truly great gift, he’d still be corruptible, fleshly and mortal. We’ll still get sick, hungry, thirsty and you’re still bound to the grave. But the Good News- the Greatest Gift- this Gospel gives us hope beyond death. John 14:2-3: Jesus said,

In My Father’s house are many dwelling places; if not, I would have told you. I am going away to prepare a place for you. If I go away and prepare a place for you, I will come back and receive you to Myself, so that where I am you may be also.

That’s a Great Gift! There are four things I’d like you to consider about the value of this Gospel: 1. It is life: 1 Corinthians 15:21-22.

21 For since death came through a man, the resurrection of the dead also comes through a man. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ all will be made alive.

On the one hand, Paul is saying, Adam traded life for death when he disobeyed God’s command in the garden. Through him, death came to all of us. But on the other hand, Christ reversed the curse of death… trading death for life by obeying God’s command all the way to the cross, making His life- true life with no fear in death- available to all. Then in verses 54-57:

54 Death has been swallowed up in victory. 55 Death, where is your victory? Death, where is your sting? 56 Now the sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law. 57 But thanks be to God, who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ!

What gift can you give someone that is more valuable than victory over death? Yes, we need to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give to the poor, care for the widow and the orphan. We need to pray for God to heal the sick… but these gifts are all temporary. The Gospel is the hope of eternity. It truly is the Greatest Gift. 2. Without the Gospel, our faith is in vain: 1 Corinthians 15:17-19:

17 And if Christ has not been raised, your faith is worthless; you are still in your sins. 18 Therefore, those who have fallen asleep in Christ have also perished. 19 If we have put our hope in Christ for this life only, we should be pitied more than anyone.

Paul’s Gospel was rooted in the eternal, not in the earthly; in the resurrection, not ‘your best life now’. Or verse 32:

32 If I fought wild animals in Ephesus with only human hope, what good did that do me? If the dead are not raised, Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die.

I don’t know much about fighting wild animals for the Gospel. But I know a lot about living as if the dead aren’t raised! I am sad when I think of how much of my life is spent to provide for the “Now”? Aren’t we often more concerned with our American Dream than we are with the Gospel? How much different would this world be if we were all focused on loving our neighbor into God’s eternal Kingdom rather than forsaking our neighbor as we build a kingdom that will die with us? Verse 32 reminds me of YOLO. Do you know the term?… It means “You Only Live Once”. I did an internet search on YOLO. Here are some of the clean results: “I just ate a 50 piece Chicken Nugget because… YOLO.” “You can skydive without a parachute, but only once… YOLO.” “I ate chocolate cake for breakfast today… YOLO.” We laugh, but don’t these sound a lot like “eat and drink, for tomorrow we die”? 3. The Gospel is our hope for glory: 1 Corinthians 15:42-44:

42 So it is with the resurrection of the dead: Sown in corruption, raised in incorruption; 43 sown in dishonor, raised in glory; sown in weakness, raised in power; 44 sown a natural body, raised a spiritual body.

How long has it been since you allowed yourself to imagine glory? Or when was the last time you tried to picture heaven? Inside and outside of church, we often give God praise for natural beauty- like the Psalmist says: “The heavens declare the glory of God”- but aren’t those things just a “Foretaste of Glory Divine”, as the old hymn says? Aren’t we sometimes shy about speaking of our hope of heaven (our “far off country”, as C S Lewis puts it)? In our shyness, we fear embarrassment in talking about the eternal, so we suppress it. We are afraid to speak about it. But we all- every human being- is bound for either eternal glory or eternal destruction- and that fact should cause us to see people differently. It should motivate us to share the Hope that is Within Us. Lewis puts it this way: (this is one of the most moving and powerful passages outside of the Bible. Read it well… let it sink in) “It may be possible for each to think too much of his own potential glory hereafter; it is hardly possible for him to think too often or too deeply about that of his neighbor. The load, or weight, or burden of my neighbor’s glory should be laid daily on my back, a load so heavy that only humility can carry it, and the backs of the proud will be broken. It is a serious thing… to remember that the dullest and most uninteresting person you talk to may one day be a creature which, if you saw it now, you would be strongly tempted to worship, or else a horror and a corruption such as you now meet, if at all, only in a nightmare.” If you could see the “dullest and most uninteresting person” in Glory, you would be tempted to worship them. That is the value of a soul! Do you see how practical this is? If we understand Glory- if we value eternity- we will humbly and daily carry the burden of our neighbor’s glory. We will treat each other differently. Tell me another gift that transforms us like this? 4. It is more valuable than wealth, family and status: Mark 10:29-30.

29 “I assure you,” Jesus said, “there is no one who has left house, brothers or sisters, mother or father, children, or fields because of Me and the gospel, 30 who will not receive 100 times more, now at this time—houses, brothers and sisters, mothers and children, and fields, with persecutions—and eternal life in the age to come.

I have been speaking almost entirely about eternity. But here Jesus promises that we will also receive “now, at this time”. If you know Christ, did you lose anything that you did not get back 100 times more? I didn’t. I’m not talking prosperity gospel here. I’m not saying that we give in order to get. The life of the believer isn’t perfect. In fact, it may be more troubled. Jesus promised us trials, persecutions and even death for the Gospel. John 12:25:

25 The one who loves his life will lose it, and the one who hates his life in this world will keep it for eternal life.

What I am saying is that whatever you left for the sake of Jesus and the Gospel: Family? You’ll get it back, 100 times over. There are fellowships of Christians- churches- all over the world. They are my mothers, brothers, fathers and sisters. They would be yours, too. It’s popular to bash Christians these days- to characterize them as judgmental. On the contrary, my experience is that there are no more welcoming places in the world than the homes or churches of Christians. Christ has given me family 10,000 times over. Houses? You’ll have eternal houses. Don’t waste your eternal life on efforts to secure temporary housing. Fields? I was a farmer. I left farm fields. I lost many fields for the sake of Christ and His Gospel. But I never had a harvest as valuable as one soul. The Gospel is more valuable than what we stand to lose. I put my life on it. The Gospel is the Greatest Gift because it satisfies now and for eternity. That’s a Great Gift! Do you believe it? If you believe it, do you share it? I’m not talking about beating people over the head with your Bible. You don’t need to have a tract ready for everyone you meet. I’m simply talking about believing God’s words and speaking well of Him. I’m talking about blessing those around you in this world because of your assurance of the next World. I’m saying to live a life of faith in God, Who provided for us what we could not provide for ourselves- eternal hope and rescue from our sinful and corrupted existence on Earth through His Son’s overwhelming and sacrificial grace. And then? Tell others about it. You may have heard the old saying- “Preach the Gospel at all times. Use words if necessary.” Can you imagine trying to communicate our opening passage (1 Corinthians 15:1-8) without words? While it’s true that our actions can demonstrate the Gospel, they could never communicate it. It’s also true that our actions- when evil- can undermine the Gospel we preach, but our good actions can never effectively tell it. If the first-century Christians lived by that motto, we’d likely never have heard the Gospel. “Use words if necessary”… I think we use that phrase to encourage ourselves to do good deeds. We like good deeds! We send humanitarian aid all over the world. Organizations like the Peace Corps, Unicef and the UN span the globe doing many good deeds- feeding the hungry and caring for the sick. Our love for good deeds even affects our politics- our government provides health care, welfare and all kinds of other social programs. Good deeds are good. They help people. But my question to you is this: How many people’s lives have been transformed by humanitarian good deeds? The apostles did good deeds. Jesus miraculously healed and fed people. Missionaries sacrifice their lives to do good deeds. However, they all do good deeds because of the Gift of the Gospel. Why? They believe this Good News- this Gospel that Paul summarized in 1 Corinthians 15:1-8- is the Greatest Gift they can give… and they did give it. I want to point out the fact that it wasn’t for their good deeds that Jesus, Paul and the apostles suffered, nor was it for possessing the Gospel. No, it wasn’t for doing good deeds or possessing the Gospel, it was for sharing this Greatest Gift. Acts 4:13-18:

13 Now when they (the Jews) saw the boldness of Peter and John, and perceived that they were uneducated and untrained men, they marveled. And they realized that they had been with Jesus. 14 And seeing the man who had been healed standing with them, they could say nothing against it. 15 But when they had commanded them to go aside out of the council, they conferred among themselves, 16 saying, “What shall we do to these men? For, indeed, that a notable miracle has been done through them is evident to all who dwell in Jerusalem, and we cannot deny it. 17 But so that it spreads no further among the people, let us severely threaten them, that from now on they speak to no man in this name.” 18 So they called them and commanded them not to speak at all nor teach in the name of Jesus.

Peter and John did a good deed! They healed a man! Everyone was happy about that! But when they taught about the name by which they healed him, the apostles were persecuted. We all love good deeds. But the Gospel is the Greatest Gift- the Ultimate Good Deed! We need to share it as well. You don’t need to beat people over the head with it, simply “be ready to give a defense to anyone who asks you for a reason for the hope that is in you,” as 1 Peter 3:15 says. We don’t have to walk around with tracts. Just speak well Jesus. His Gospel is the Greatest Gift we have to give. But do we believe that? I mean, do we really live like this Gospel is the greatest thing we have? I want to share a story with you. Last week I took my family to Mexico to an all-inclusive resort for a spring-break vacation. The resort was beautiful- with a picturesque beach, delicious food, the friendliest service you can possibly imagine and all the virgin daiquiris you could drink. It was a lovely, perfect little oasis in a desert of poverty. The contrast was striking between the lavishness of the resort and the squalor of the surrounding city. On Thursday we decided to go to the market, so we hailed a taxi driven by a dear man named Alfredo (Freddie). Freddie spoke English very well and was very kind and knowledgeable and gave us what amounted to a guided tour of the city. We really hit it off and he drove us around all day. He knew the city like the back of his hand. But what really struck me about Freddie was his joy. He worked for the same cab company 7 days a week, 48 weeks a year for 27 years making $5/day plus a piddly commission and tips. His wife of 32 years had stayed at home, raising 2 kids that they eventually put through the State University on his small wage. He was thankful for all they were able to afford- like the window air conditioner, which they ran at night during the hot summers and bus tickets, so that they could ride 30 hours across Mexico to see his family every year. You see, they couldn’t afford the $400 for plane tickets. At the end of the day, this man- who had so little compared to us- told us how much he enjoyed our company. He said we have a lovely family. He gave us his phone number and told us that he and his wife would love to have us over to their house for dinner when we come back to Mexico. I gave him a generous tip and a hug and walked away. But I couldn’t stop thinking of him. His offer was over-the-top. We’d spent more on souvenirs that day than the cost Freddie’s precious bus ticket. In that instant I felt ashamed, selfish and spoiled. Freddie would never be able to afford our luxurious resort. And yet this humble man- living in poverty by our standards- wanted me to come to dinner at his house. I had everything, he had nothing… and yet he was inviting me to his home. I felt deeply convicted. As I worked through my thoughts and emotions, my thoughts progressed as follows: At first, I felt guilt for my wealth because of this poor man’s generosity. For a moment I thought “Maybe the problem is that I have too much.” But I realized that wasn’t of God- my possessions are not the problem. Then I felt pity for Freddie and his poverty. “Yes,” I thought, “it’s unjust that some people live in such poverty. What we need is social justice.” But I realized this was not of God, either. Do you know what the problem really is? I feel conviction- and I am convinced that this is a problem for many of us- my conviction is that I have placed too much value on things. Do I value the Gospel of Jesus Christ more than my stuff? My house? My children? My wife? I mean, do I really believe Jesus’ words in Mark 10:29-30? Is eternal life- life beyond death- Is this Gospel more valuable than these earthly things? Is it really the Greatest Gift- the source of all other gifts, as I myself have claimed? If so, why didn’t I share the Gospel with Freddie? How can I hold back? Is it because I’m afraid to be uncomfortable? If I valued the Gospel the way the apostles did, wouldn’t I have shared it? Why is my first concern for Freddie’s financial circumstances? Shouldn’t my first concern be for his spiritual circumstances? Then I would be much more free in giving my possessions. After all, stuff is not important… or, do I really believe that Christ is more valuable than stuff? It’s funny, the stingier I am with the Gospel, the stingier I am with my possessions because my focus is on earthly things. But the opposite is also true! The more freely I give the Good News of hope through Jesus Christ, the more free I am with my possessions because I’m focused on heaven. “Social justice” comes as a result of the Gospel, not vice versa. The Gospel is the Greatest Gift because it is the source of other gifts. How many times in our daily lives to we treat this Gospel- this Ultimate Good News- as some second-rate, sideline issue? If we really believe God’s word, we will live as though: The most valuable thing we have to give is not money, cars, houses or stuff. The only thing of lasting value- the Best Gift we Have to Give- is the gospel of Jesus Christ. Post-script These days, many modern thinkers believe that this world would be better off without the Gospel. They revise history to show that Christianity (along with all religions) is not a force of peace but rather war, killing and oppression. They forget that more people have been killed in the twentieth century by anti-religious, humanist regimes like Nazi Germany, Stalinist USSR, Communist China and Cambodia than were killed in all previous centuries of recorded history combined. In addition, at which times “Christianity” was the cause of wars and killings, it was clearly in spite of– and not due to the teachings of Christ and the Gospel. I hope that it is clear after reading this article that the teaching of any true New Testament church is always to save life- even at the cost of our own lives. That is not to say that a Christian can’t support war, but simply that the true follower of Christ always seeks to save as much human life as possible. The following link is for a great article- written by an atheist- making my case: http://old.richarddawkins.net/articles/3502-matthew-parris-as-an-atheist-i-truly-believe-africa-needs-god

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Words about words

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Praise the Lord, sing to the Lord a new song, His praise in the assembly of the saints. – Psalm 149:1

Sometimes words get stale. Words have connotations; they carry “baggage”. New terms enter the cultural scene with poignancy and relevance, serving to describe some movement or philosophy in a fresh and undefiled manor. Soon, however, the words are weighed down with associations and undertones. Remember the “Religious Right” and the “Social Gospel”? There are countless others from politics, culture and religion. The invention of new terminology and its subsequent drift in meaning is one of the few constants in human existence.

Isn’t it funny, then, that there aren’t any truly new ideas? Thousands of years before Jesus walked the earth, Solomon said, “Whatever is has already been, and what will be has been before; and God will call the past into account.” (Ecclesiastes 3:15) How much more true is that statement today?

This fact is so very relevant to our relationship with God in Jesus Christ and to His church. God’s plan for salvation hasn’t changed since the dawn of time. The message of salvation by faith in the atoning sacrifice of Jesus Christ hasn’t changed for two thousand years. God’s call on our lives as we accept His salvation doesn’t change: love the Lord your God with all your heart, mind and soul; love your neighbor as yourself and go into the world preaching the Gospel and making disciples.

Man is constantly drifting. It’s in his fallen nature. He’s seeking. He’s searching. His pride blinds him. He gropes in the dark, grasping anything and everything that feels real. He convinces himself that he’s found something new to save him, but it’s always the same. Cultural drift is simply a reflection of this. Language, music and art are in flux because man is in flux.

Our challenge, then, is to take the timeless message of God’s saving grace to the culture in the language and the music of the day. What a purpose! This is why our contemporary worship service exists: to bring the Eternal Truth to a temporal world! Psalm 40:3- He put a new song in my mouth, a hymn of praise to our God. Many will see and fear and put their trust in the Lord. I pray that this thought excites you as Sunday approaches! It excites me!

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Tie One On.

While Jesus was in Bethany at the house of Simon who had a serious skin disease, as He was reclining at the table, a woman came with an alabaster jar of pure and expensive fragrant oil of nard. She broke the jar and poured it in His head. But some were expressing indignation to one another: “Why has this fragrant oil been wasted? For this oil might have been sold for more than 300 denarii (almost a year’s wages) and given to the poor.”

Then Jesus said, “Leave her alone… I assure you: Wherever this gospel is proclaimed in the whole world, what this woman has done will also be told in memory of her.” Mark 14:3-6, 9

Mary’s actions became a story. Jesus made sure the story would be told and retold. She received eternal life because of Jesus, but he also gave her immortality through the retelling of this story.

Reading this, I stepped back. It made me stop and hit the “Page Up” button on my own story. I am currently re-reading it with this question in mind: What have I done that’s a story worth re-telling?

When I step away from this computer, I’m going to try to live the extravagant grace that made Jesus the most told story in history. Like Mary, Martha, Lazarus and the disciples, I’m going to step out with His story in mind and try to tie mine on to it. Ready or not, here I go…

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Why the Old Testament?

I would like to vindicate God… but I know I can’t. I’d like to settle His score and set the record straight. The trouble is I’m feeble-minded, biased, fickle and maybe even arrogant. With these handicaps in mind, would you let me try? Would you be courteous- if not interested- enough to take a short mental stroll with me? Thanks. Here we go…

The trouble with the Old Testament is that it is difficult to understand. It is much easier to malign the thing than it is to make sense of it. I know. I’ve done it. Recently, a Christian friend blogged about the fact that she “often believes in God despite (her) beliefs about Him”, citing God’s vengefulness, among other things. It’s hard to disagree. If you read the following references without context, you get a very unflattering picture of God: God condones slavery (Exodus 21), He orders genocide (1 Samuel 15), on multiple occasions He threatens to destroy Israel (Dueteronomy 9:13-14). “Without context“. That’s important. But what context could justify any of these? That’s a legitimate question.

Do you want to know what I find amazing about the Old Testament? There is very little commentary. It just is what it is. There’s precious little “why” but lots of “what”. Wouldn’t it be nice to read about the religious and cultural context according to the writers of the OT? Some historical background would be great, too. Was this ambiguity by design? Was it neglect? Did Moses not foresee that his writings would be read 3500 years later? Why didn’t God tell him to give some more specifics? He could’ve, after all… Moses had a direct line of communication with God. (See Leviticus 7:8, 7:28, 8:1)

Have you ever counseled a friend through a difficult situation? When they ask the hard questions, can you simply give them the right answer? Can you just tell them what to do? It doesn’t work that way, does it? Most prescribed behaviors, responses and precepts cower in the face of circumstance. Even right answers become wrong without the proper heart behind them. Resolution is a journey. It’s a path. There are sins and crimes within and without that must be reconciled along the way. We have to “work it out”.

That’s how it is with God. He can’t give us right answers. If we had a book of precepts, we’d be proud like Pharisees. If God simply gave us a bunch of principles, we’d mis-apply, hoard, tweek and abuse them. We’re not trustworthy with the knowledge of Heaven. He must make us seek. We have to struggle with Him. The answers can’t come from us. They come from God alone.

That’s why the main principle that you can draw from the Old Testament is this: God saves those who call out to Him. Yes, there’s vengence, anger and destruction. But the moral of the whole story is that God saves those who call out to Him. Over. And over. And over again. We tend to defend all those who fall under God’s judgment because we identify with them. But the point isn’t so much that God judges. The point is that He saves. The authors are trying to tell you: Look! It’s a bad world! One way or the other, you’re going to die! It’s a result of sin. God has the end in His hand either way. So just trust God now! Repent! Seek God! He saves! No slick principles here. No simple answers. No behavior modification. Just God’s salvation.

I think the Old Testament is beautiful. It’s amazing. It’s mysterious. It’s illuminated by Jesus. He embodies it. Literally. Jesus claims to fulfill the Old Testament (or “the Law and the Prophets” Matthew 5:17-20). He quotes it. He testifies about it. But He’s not vengeful. What does that say about Him? Is He crazy? Or does He know the truth that the whole thing is about God’s salvation? I’m convinced that He knows the truth. (See John 3:16, Matt 20:28, Luke 19:10 etc.)

This is a God I can love. This is the God that displays His salvation over and over again. This the God that became a man just to show mankind how much He wants this salvation for them. This is the God I worship… worship is my response to it all. This is the God of the Old and New Testaments. This is the God that made me, loved me, forgave me and saved me. This is the God who wants to do the same for you.

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Hi ho, hi ho…

The best way I know to pass long hours in a tractor is with the radio. Maybe that’s because it’s the only way; but still, it’s a good way. But what’s a man to do when the songs get repetitive? That’s when I make up my own songs. Sometimes they’re silly. Most of the time they’re embarassingly bad. Usually, I forget them before I get home and then the cycle starts all over again tomorrow. But every-so-often there’s a good one. This is a story about one of those.

Don’t get the impression that this might be a top-ten song. It’s not. But it means something to me and so floats to the surface like a serendipitous message on a Magic 8 Ball. But as I go back and forth, I begin to sing this song like a slow country waltz:

Tractor wheels go ’round and ’round/ as I go back and forth/ and that west wind blows and the sun beats down/ on my back and the corn/ and as the shadows grow from that ol’ hedgerow/ there’s one thing I know/ I won’t be home for supper… tonight.

Now I don’t have a guitar with me in the tractor, but I can tell this is a three-chord song. Three chords, the truth and a melody that sounds like Waylon Jennings’ “Luckenbach, Texas”. But is that really so bad? So anyway, here we are going back and forth and singing this little song. And I’m starting to like it. But every good song needs a chorus, so I start to sing again:

No, I won’t be home for supper tonight/ And I’m thankful for my understanding wife/ And I’ll pray the Lord her soul to keep as she tucks our kids in tight/ But I won’t be home for supper tonight.

Whoa. This is great! Points with the wife and God glorified! All the bases are covered! Sadly, however, this is where most songs die: one verse and one chorus in. Interruptions, “writer’s block”, loss of interest or lack of raw talent conspire to murder inspiration… and usually succeed in doing so. Determined to rescue this little ditty, I turn to the old cowboy-poets for help on verse 2.

I got Waylon, Willie and the boys/ turned way up loud to drown out all the noise/ But these cowboy songs are growin old and I’m longin for my home/ but I won’t be home for supper tonight.

No I won’t be home for supper tonight/ and I’m thankful for my understanding wife/ And I’ll pray the Lord her soul to keep as she tucks our kids in tight/ But I won’t be home for supper tonight

By now you’ve noticed that this blog post is a story about a song that’s a story about me. If you’re like me, you’re hoping that it all comes to a point real quick. Then it dawns on me: songs are born out of a longing heart. It’s one of those heart-pounding, earth-shaking moments when all of creation has to be examined with this new revelation. Songs are born out of a longing heart! Every hymn, each love song and lost-love song, happy and sad songs and even the silliest song you can imagine addresses some longing of the human heart. Pause here to reflect on this theory. See if it rings true.

This song of mine is no different. I just long for home. No, I long for Home. Sure I want to go home to eat and rest, but my longing for money for food, water and shelter will send me back to work tomorrow… and the next day. What I long for is an end to longing. What I need is a bridge.

Someday I’ll go Home to stay/ where longing seems so far away/ and I won’t be hungry anyway/ but for now I’ll just work and pray/ in expectation of that day/ but I won’t be home for supper tonight.

There it is: the ultimate reason for a song; the ultimate end to all longing. This is the reason for singing and, I’m told, it’s the reason we’ll sing for all eternity.

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To make a short story long…

Mrs. Stilwell lived at the edge of my universe. Her house was the nearest one to mine, but it was a half-mile uphill on a rock road and my six-year-old legs could barely pedal a one-speed Ross that far. If I did go to her house, I usually just used her driveway as a place to turn around and coast back down the hill. But for a few days each summer, I’d go there for Kool-Aid and cookies and vacation Bible school.

My family didn’t really do church. I remember going steadily for a while, but Dad never went. Eventually, Mom got tired of taking us three kids by herself and then youth bowling leagues opened on Sunday mornings, so we quit going. Our family respected the traditions of Christianity. When we did think of Jesus, we thought well of him. But we didn’t think he was God. And the church? That was a place for hypocrites and religious fanatics.

I remember Dad talking about evangelists coming to the house to convert him. Honestly, Dad is a good man and so was his dad, but neither was a church member. All my patriarchs are honest, hard-working and genuinely kind people. Dad has four brothers and each one is a role-model. Consequently, Dad wasn’t ever going to give any hypocrite-preacher the satisfaction of bowing and admitting he was a sinner in need of anything that preacher had to offer. And I loved my dad. So that’s how I was, too.

That’s why vacation Bible school at Mrs. Stilwell’s house caught me by surprise. Only a precious few kids came. But there were several teachers and they taught us just the same. They taught me about God and His holiness. They told us that God created us to love us and for us to love Him. I learned that the first man (Adam) and woman (Eve) sinned and so have we and that is why we’re separated from God. I remember the easel with the cartoon Jesus holding out nail-scarred hands. He had a heavenly glow and He offered us a way back to God. And He was loving. And kind. And gracious. And I sort-of believed it.

But that didn’t last. There were lots of weeds to choke out such a weak little crop. School taught me that I wasn’t made for a purpose; I was to make my own purpose. Science proved that God didn’t exist; but if He did, He didn’t matter. I walked away from God for a long time. I came to resent the way that I was pressured to believe in the gospel back at Mrs. Stilwell’s vacation Bible school. Just like Dad and Grandpa, I was a good man. God was irrelevant at best. What business did they have teaching me about God? I’d have been angry with Mrs. Stilwell if I hadn’t pitied her for believing such nonsense.

When I was nineteen, I came back to God. I was broken and lonely. I believed in Jesus, was baptized and joined a church. God became my rock and He blessed me with a wife, two boys and a voice with which to sing. He led me through some difficult times that I’d have never made it through without Him. I would be utterly and hopelessly lost without God. If you ever doubt God’s existence and His interest in your life, I’d love to tell you some stories of His Divine intervention that could remove all doubt. But do you know that I still didn’t appreciate Mrs. Stilwell or those vacation Bible school teachers? I truly thought that they pushed me to make a decision that I didn’t understand, one that I couldn’t understand. I felt it was a decision that I had no business making at such a young age. I thought if people like her had been less pushy, maybe my dad would have believed. I guess I blamed her (partly)  for my dad’s unbelief. For 30 years. Until last week.

Last week, Mrs. Stilwell passed away. She’s home in Glory, I have no doubt. When she died, there was a card in her bible from when her grandson and I invited Jesus into our hearts when we were six years old at her vacation Bible school. I didn’t know the card existed. Honestly, I don’t remember committing my life to Jesus. But she did. And God did. She never forgot and neither did He. She carried it around for most of my life. It was because of her faithfulness and love that I knew Jesus then, and I’m convinced that Mrs. Stilwell is the biggest reason I know Him today. How many times did she pray for me? She is, at the very least, the first reason that I ever experienced God’s grace and she’s the one I’m indebted to for showing me the One to Whom I owe everything. How many good things would I have missed if not for her?

Thank you, Mary Louise Stilwell. I’m sorry that I didn’t say it sooner. I’m sorry for blaming you for anyone’s unbelief. Thank you for all you did. The Kingdom is larger because of your faithfulness. I will use your story to encourage as many people as I can.

Read her obituary here: http://www.legacy.com/obituaries/theithacajournal/obituary.aspx?n=mary-louise-stilwell&pid=166400855&fhid=7439#fbLoggedOut

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