THE BILOXI BLESSING

THE BILOXI BLESSING

The woman was working hard, digging in her front yard, planting azaleas and poinsettias, obviously enjoying herself. She called to my wife and me as her little dog skittered and barked his way toward us, “Don’t worry, he’s very friendly!” And sure enough, he was.

We were taking our daily walk in a neighborhood in Durham, North Carolina, while our then teen-aged daughter took a voice lesson.

“He is friendly!” I said as she dropped another plant in the dirt and filled in around it.

“He’s a survivor too,” she said. “We both swam under the door frame and out of our house or we would have drowned in Katrina.”

“You’re from the Gulf then?”

“Yes. Biloxi. They said my house would never flood so I never bought flood insurance. You can bet I have it for this house!” She filled us in on how they escaped the hurricane and what it took to rebuild and finally be able to sell out and move to Durham.

“Wow, what a coincidence to meet you. A bunch of guys from our church went down in 2006 to help a Biloxi family rebuild.” I said as we headed off down the street in the quiet neighborhood. “We’ll see you later!”

We returned just in time to be called in to consult with the voice teacher, so we didn’t have time to resume our chat with the neighbor. But as we were backing the car out of the driveway, she dusted off her hands and hurried out to the street. I could tell she felt urgent about something, so I rolled down my window.

“You said your church helped people rebuild in Biloxi?”

“Yes.”

“Would you please tell them how grateful all of us are? I have friends whose insurance took four years to settle. Some still have no home. Had it not been for the Churches and all the Christians that came down to help us we never would have made it. Please tell them how much we appreciate it. And tell them this: A lot of people who had not gone to church in a long time started going again when they experienced the love of the Churches. And a lot of people got saved. Would you tell them that for us? And tell them thank you?”

“I sure will! And thanks for sharing your story!”

We had that conversation in 2009. Many hurricanes have come and gone since then, and the people of God are still helping rebuild. So, to everyone who helped, in whatever way, the people devastated by Katrina, Florence, Harvey, Michael, and others, know for certain that God used your efforts. You blessed others with his love, and you are blessed by the survivors in return.

The Gospel Streamed

The Gospel Streamed

I sat down expecting to be disappointed. Religious television and movies have dissatisfied my artistic, historical, and theological sensibilities so often over the years that my wife, who had already seen the episode, had to nudge a bit to get me to watch.

I came away profoundly moved and ready to buy the first season of The Chosen, a new streaming television series on the life of Jesus as experienced by his followers. It is billed as the largest crowd-funded production in television history and it doesn’t disappoint.

Artistically, The Chosen is very satisfying. The scenery, the videography, the acting, plot lines and story structure draw you in and keep you engaged. Often, in Bible-based films, one or more of those elements is so bad it’s like hearing a soloist mangle the Star-Spangled Banner. You just wish they’d left it alone. Not here. Only a few of the actors were recognizable. Eric Avari (The Mummy, Independence Day, The Brink) plays a nuanced Nicodemus. Jonathon Roumie (The Good Wife, Fallout 4) plays a kind and believable Jesus. But none hit a flat note.

Historically, The Chosen hits its marks with credibility. The interplay between Matthew the tax collector and his Roman body guard and between Nicodemus and a Roman Centurion rings true to what we know of the relationships between oppressed and oppressor. Andrew and Peter’s fishing boat and business and their interaction with tax collector Matthew are also believable.

I’ve only seen the first episode, available here for free, but so far, The Chosen doesn’t disappoint in the spiritual or theological arena either. In fact, just the opposite. Director Dallas Jenkins, son of well-known evangelical author Jerry Jenkins, is a Bible-believing evangelical who has “zero desire to mess with Scripture or make some sort of new theological point. This is about telling these stories in a way that makes the moments in Scripture even more impactful.”[1] Justin Tolley, a producer on the project, agrees. “We don’t want to roll one frame that’s contrary to the Word of God. We want to do it with excellence, to give God our best.”[2] Show consultants include a New Testament scholar and a Messianic Jewish rabbi.

The storytellers of a culture shape the values of the culture. This is the greatest story ever and in The Chosen it is being well told. So far so good, but there is one fly in the ointment. VidAngel, the streaming service they’ve partnered with just lost a big legal battle with the Hollywood movie industry that has the potential to kill the service. That would force the producers to go with another platform that may not be as friendly to The Chosen’s production values. That would be a shame.

If you’re looking for something edifying to watch with excellent production values, I encourage you to try The Chosen, or look up their Facebook page for trailers and background videos. You won’t be disappointed.

[1] https://www.thegospelcoalition.org/blogs/justin-taylor/interview-dallas-jenkins-first-multi-season-drama-life-christ/

[2] From The Chosen Facebook page.

TRUST GOD AND BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELT Dealing With Life’s Disasters

TRUST GOD AND BUCKLE YOUR SEAT BELT Dealing With Life’s Disasters

Denny Hamlin’s win in the Daytona 500 was particularly poignant for Joe Gibbs Racing. The team had just buried their former president, Joe’s 49-year-old son, J. D., who died of a neurological disorder in January. I bet Joe’s family would happily forfeit the trophy and all their successes if they could have J.D. back. But that’s not how they roll.

It reminded me of other personal disasters I’ve witnessed.

Seventeen years ago, this week, I walked with my friends Phil and Shelley Ramsey, as we buried their eighteen-year-old son, Joseph, who died in a car wreck.

A late-night phone call, “Pastor, can you come? Our baby was born with undeveloped lungs and isn’t going to survive.”

A distraught counselee, “I’m thirty-nine and pregnant with our second child and my husband just left me. Where is God?”

Pregnancies that miscarry, dream jobs that become soul shredders, the number and diversity of things that can disappoint and disillusion in life is endless. But it’s worse when we think God has somehow let us down.

Evangelicals are particularly prone to this. We’re taught all our lives that God loves and cares for us: “His eye is on the sparrow,” said Jesus. “Cast your cares upon him, for he cares for you,” wrote Peter. That’s true, but not the whole story. Most of us have a truncated biblical world-view about suffering and it costs us dearly when trouble comes. We cherry-pick the verses we like and forget the context. We think life is supposed to be a Disney World ride when it’s more like the Daytona 500, where the big wreck is always in the offing.

Life’s inevitable disappointments are often about unmet expectations, of God, others, and our selves. When we line them up with what the Bible actually reveals about people, life, death, the world, and God they may not be easier to bear but they do leave us less confused and better prepared to overcome.

Scripture tells us: “time and chance happen to everyone,” including us. “His eye is on the sparrow,” but all sparrows fall. “He knows the number of the hairs on your head,” but they will turn white and turn loose. “We have this treasure in jars of clay,” that can be expected to crack without warning. All humans are “slaves of sin,” prone to follow our self-destructive passions and hurt those we’re supposed to protect. The heart is “deceitful above all things … who can really understand it?”[1]

Depressed yet? I’m not aiming for that, but it’s imperative to see that nowhere in the Bible does God promise us sunshine without sweat and smiles without sorrow. Aligning expectations with revelation dilutes frustration.

What has he promised?

To make us part of his tribe. To share with us his joy. To suffer with us when we hurt. To give us his strength. To counsel and comfort us. To love us even when we don’t love ourselves. To stand with us in life’s battles. To shape us into little Christs. To providentially provide for us and through us the things we need to survive. To empower us to participate in the awesome and terrifying task of advancing his kingdom. To give us a purpose, a future, and a hope, a reason for joy in the midst of pain. And to glorify us with Christ when he returns.[2]

Joy and sorrow will ever run parallel tracks until that day.

Joe Gibbs Racing took their fifty-four-pound trophy to Steak ‘n Shake, Sunday night, just like they did after their first win in 1993. It was the biblical thing to do.

Life is like the Daytona 500, a difficult, fascinating, disappointing, exhilarating, often dangerous, always high-stakes ride. Trust God and buckle your seat belt.

[1] See: Eccl. 9:11; Matt. 10:29-30; 2 Cor. 4:7; Rom. 6:6-22; Jer. 17:9

[2] See: Eph. 2:19; John 17:13; Matt. 28:20; Rom. 8:26; John 15:5; John 14:16; 2 Cor. 1:3-7; Rom. 8:35-39; Rom. 8:15-17; Rom. 8:29; Phil. 4:19; Acts 1:8; 1Pet. 1:3; Eph. 2:12; Rom. 8:18.

SOLOMON’S TOP FIVE ON SEX & ROMANCE

SOLOMON’S TOP FIVE ON SEX & ROMANCE

It’s February 13th and romance is in the air, or at least around the corner. Which leads me to ask this question: Do you know what the Bible teaches about romance and sex? Do your kids?

Most Evangelicals don’t and we’re suffering from it. We found out the hard way when our grown children, all three godly, intelligent young women, told us what a lousy job we did teaching them. Their verdict went something like this: “You did exactly what most Evangelical parents do with their children on this issue: freaked us out, scared us to death, and generally made us feel like sex is the last thing on earth we would ever want to have anything to do with, even in marriage. Other than that, you were great parents!”

When it came to sex, romance, and the Bible, we thought our daughters were fine. But like Mark Wahlberg said in The Italian Job, “you know what fine means? Freaked out, insecure, neurotic, and emotional.”

OK, they weren’t that bad, but it wasn’t acceptable either. That drove me to a Bible study on The Song of Songs. I benefited from Douglas Sean O’Donnell’s THE SONG OF SOLOMON: An Invitation to Intimacy, among others.  Here are my top five lessons from Solomon on love, sex, and romance.

The Bible Celebrates Our Bodies

The Bible does not separate body from soul, matter from spirit, or godly purity from physical passion. It does not devalue the human body. It exalts it. Think of the incarnation! Think of the bodily resurrection! There is no belittling of sensual delights. Jesus turned the water into vintage wine! And he did it at a wedding! There is no contradiction between spirituality and sexuality, between loving God with heart, soul, mind, and strength and loving your spouse with your body. Enjoy it. It’s a gift from God.

Words Have Erotic Power

The Song is some of the most evocative and erotic poetry ever written, but none of it is coarse or crude. The lovers teach us to praise two things: physical beauty and character, and to be specific. Fill in the blanks about your lover’s body: Your eyes are … Your lips are … Your neck is … Your voice is …. Your skin is … Your fragrance is … Fill in the blanks about your lover’s character: Your mind is … Your personality is … Your heart is … Your skills are …  The right words spark the fires of romance. The wrong ones snuff them out.

Timing is Everything

Lovers must make time for love, especially after children arrive. A man’s body works like a smoke detector: one whiff of the right perfume and he is on fire, all his bells and whistles blaring. Women’s bodies are like flowers at dawn, they wake up slowly in the sunlight of affectionate attention. Either way, wise lovers make time for love and don’t rush things.

Risk Heightens Eros

Risk plays a big role in romance. We love the risk-taking lovers: The young man who risks big bucks to follow his love to France, just to demonstrate his love; the teenager who put 500 sticky-note invitations to the prom on his girlfriend’s car; the guy who pays the skywriter big bucks to write “Will you marry me?” in the air above the football game as he kneels and holds out a ring. The extravagance and risk of failure or rejection communicates something powerful to the beloved: I WANT YOU MORE THAN MONEY, PRIDE OR SAFETY. I WOULD THROW MY LIFE AWAY TO HAVE YOU. Risk heightens Eros.

All the Roses Come with Thorns

East of Eden the “rhythm of married life is that of frustration and delight.”[1] There is a natural ebb and flow to romantic love, and the differences in our personalities and stress levels make it difficult to communicate. Be patient and forgiving with each other. The flower is no less sweet for the thorns.

As the book of Proverbs is good for all but addressed primarily to young men, so the Song of Songs is wisdom for all but addressed primarily to young women with their mothers as the primary teacher (8:2). Sing the Song for your daughters as they reach the right age and they will be far more than fine when they’re grown.

[1] David A. Hubbard, Ecclesiastes, Song of Solomon, The Communicator’s Commentary (Dallas: Word, 1991), p.313.

STRAIGHT LINES WITH CROOKED STICKS An Evangelical Response to the State of the Union Speech

STRAIGHT LINES WITH CROOKED STICKS    An Evangelical Response to the State of the Union Speech

Parents of young children need eight hands, I thought as the mom and dad juggled tiny baby, luggage, diaper bag, car-seat, boarding passes, and ID while shepherding their toddler through Phoenix Sky Harbor security. I wish they’d hurry up. Then the agent slowed things down even more by starting a conversation with the little guy.

“Is this your daddy? Uh huh. No, you don’t have to take off your shoes. Is this your mommy? Uh huh, you can hold your bear. Is that your baby sister?”

C’mon dude! Any idiot can see he’s their son! Stop harassing these people and let us in so we can all go home! If TSA agents could read minds I’d be in jail.

Then I remembered a recent news report: Human-trafficking is everywhere all the time and it is not all about sex. The Hispanic, and Romanian house-keepers in my hotels, the Moroccan Uber driver in Austin, the Russian donut shop clerk in Williamsburg, the Asian and Latino cooks who work seven-days-a-week in local restaurants. All might be in a form of slavery, working themselves to death to pay off enormous immigration debt to ruthless traffickers. Some surely are.[1]

Then there are the so-called “sex-workers”: Children, even infants, stolen, smuggled, sold into the sex trade to grow up—if they live that long—with no identity, no power, no voice, no skills and no hope. People who want to do immoral things often plan to do them on vacation. Susie Harville, who fights trafficking in Biloxi, Mississippi casino culture, told World Radio: “We had a person come down to the Mississippi Gulf Coast on a convention and um, while he was here he actually ordered a 12 year-old and a 16 year-old. One was a boy and one was a girl. What we found out was this Montana man was a deacon in his church, was married and had two children at home.”[2]

Twenty years after NAFTA—which George H. W. Bush negotiated and was ratified under Bill Clinton—killed our local textile economy, our still-struggling region is considering Casino gambling to create jobs. Really.[3]

My gut clinches in anger and grief at such stories. Doesn’t yours? But that’s not all. Scripture commands more than sympathy. “Welcome the stranger,” said Jesus. “Provide for the poor and the sojourner,” wrote Moses. Protect the immigrant, the fatherless, and the widow,” preached Jeremiah.[4]

All these ideas and one more simmered in my mind as I read the State of the Union Speech. (I no longer watch. The circus takes too long). God draws straight lines with crooked sticks. Trump the former casino owner advocates for a border solution that will choke entry points for traffickers. Who isn’t for that? Trump, who said “They have to go …” during the campaign argues for fair treatment of the dreamers while fixing our decades old immigration problems. Trump the thrice-married adulterer who has feasted on the fruits of the sexual revolution advocates for that revolution’s greatest victims—the unborn—because we are made “in the image of a holy God.”

Presidents “learn as they go” on the job, said the Arizona sheriff who called Trump’s campaign concrete wall idea a medieval solution to a 21st Century problem. “I support his current position.”[5]

Whether his policies indicate a shift in his personal morality—and I pray they do—is irrelevant. Franklin Roosevelt broke the law by providing covert support for Great Britain from 1936 to 1939 and died in the presence of his paramour in Georgia.[6] Serial adulterer John F. Kennedy[7] solved the Cuban missile crisis, preventing World War III. Rabid anti-communist “Tricky Dick” Nixon ended the Vietnam war and normalized relations with Red China, stifling communism and laying the foundation for global trade which brought billions of Chinese out of poverty and made Dollar General possible.

God draws straight lines with crooked sticks.

That’s why evangelicals like me voted for Donald Trump. We can walk and chew gum at the same time. We pray for his soul while we pull for his policies. If he succeeds in choking the flow of human trafficking and building a barrier wall against abortion, we will rejoice. Hillary Clinton would have done the opposite. It’s that simple.

I’ll try to remember that the next time TSA grills a toddler and Trump tries to privatize air traffic control, which I think is insane. Will you?

[1] https://worldandeverything.org/2019/01/listening-in-raleigh-sadler/

[2] https://worldandeverything.org/2019/02/protecting-children-on-the-gulf-coast-part-1/

[3] https://www.wsls.com/news/virginia/southside/a-casino-in-danville-it-could-happen

[4] Matthew 25:32-40; Leviticus 19:33-34; Jeremiah 7:5-7.

[5] https://worldandeverything.org/2019/01/washington-wednesday-border-security-2/

[6] https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lucy_Mercer_Rutherfurd

[7] https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/reliable-source/post/jfk-intern-mimi-alford-shares-story-of-her-affair-with-kennedy-in-new-book-relevant-historian-robert-dallek-says-yes/2012/02/06/gIQAFgF1uQ_blog.html?utm_term=.d3b02518f54c

REBUILDING PEARLAND: A Day in the Life of a Samaritan’s Purse Volunteer

REBUILDING PEARLAND: A Day in the Life of a Samaritan’s Purse Volunteer

$125 Billion dollars. It’s hard to wrap your head around that number, especially when the city you are in seems to be functioning normally. But that’s the what Hurricane Harvey cost Houston, Texas when it dumped sixty-plus inches of rain on the utterly flat city over four days in August of 2017. That ties it with Hurricane Katrina as the costliest tropical cyclone on record.

Houston metro has about 6.6 million residents and Harvey damaged roughly 204,000 homes, seventy-five percent of which were outside of the 100-year flood plain.[1] Most were not covered by flood insurance. Only when you drive through the neighborhoods and see some new looking houses next to obvious rebuild sites with FEMA trailers in the driveways, others with swollen siding and water stains half way up the walls, and empty lots with camper trailers, do you begin to comprehend the scope of the damage. It’s everywhere.

That’s why Samaritan’s Purse has made a two-year, twenty-five-million-dollar commitment to the Houston area: to help homeowners rebuild. Our team of thirteen joined eleven others from Idaho, Oregon, Texas, and Georgia at SP’s Pearland, Texas base. From there we split up into four teams and traveled from ten to twenty miles to help rebuild flood-damaged homes. The base can host a total of about thirty volunteers per week and SP schedules crews at least two months out. Another indicator of the size of the disaster: SP has a similar base in Rockport, Texas three hours west of Pearland.

The day begins with lights on at 6:30 AM. Pack your lunch in the kitchen between 6:45 and 7:00, followed by a big breakfast—the food was great!— and devotions at 7:30 usually led by one of the volunteers. Crew assignments are issued at 8:00 and teams work together to load up the specially equipped construction trailers with supplies. The trailers, essentially customized fifth-wheel horse haulers, were a marvel of efficiency. SP engineers designed them one winter when work was slow and each one has a slot or shelf equipped with every tool a builder would need.

By 9:00 AM crews are on site and ready—after a brief prayer—to work. Local building codes do not allow unlicensed workers to do the technical stuff like plumbing and electrical installation, but there is plenty to do. Our crews painted, installed soffit and siding, did light carpentry, and installed flooring. SP has already helped rebuild over forty homes and helped other agencies pay for over 500 in Houston. Permitting has proved difficult with the city, but they expect to be building many new homes in the future.

Crews work until 4:00 PM before beginning clean-up and loading to head back to base. Meeting the homeowners is the highlight for most of the crews. Ours had prayer with Mrs. Williams each day before leaving. Watching the smile grow on her face as fresh paint brightened up her walls and the new flooring went down was a highlight of our trip.

Then it’s back to base for showers, supper—did I mention the food was great?—and sharing time which concludes by 7:00 PM. Crews entertain themselves (ours played a lot of Rook) till quiet time at 9:00 PM and lights out at 10:00.

If you’d like to volunteer, visit https://www.samaritanspurse.org/ and click “get involved” at the top of the page.

[1] https://www.thebalance.com/hurricane-harvey-facts-damage-costs-4150087

IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY: Why We Do Disaster Relief and Other Good Things

IT WASN’T ALWAYS THIS WAY: Why We Do Disaster Relief and Other Good Things

“If it hadn’t been for the Christians—all the churches that showed up—we’d still be mucking out,” said the man, a Casino worker in Biloxi, Mississippi. This was October 2006, a little over a year after Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans and much of Biloxi. A crew of about ten men from our church, partnering with Samaritan’s Purse, were in Mississippi to help a family rebuild. I had taken a break to do some man-on-the street interviews with my new video camera.

“My house didn’t get destroyed like some of my neighbors,” he said, “but it was full of mud and water up to waist high. I’m not a churchgoer, but as soon as the storm stopped this group of kids from a church showed up and asked if they could help me clean it out. I was ready to start the rebuild within a week. No way it would have happened without their help.”

That, in a nutshell, is why we’re taking a team of 13 people to Pearland, Texas, next week, to partner again with Samaritan’s Purse and help another family rebuild after Hurricane Harvey. And the thing is, no one is surprised that a small church group from Virginia is traveling on its own dime to help people in Texas. Americans just assume that is what people do, but it wasn’t always this way. That ethos came from Christianity.

Followers of Christ have, since the beginning of the church, shown up to serve when the rest of the world was headed for the hills. When a pandemic broke out in ancient Rome, Christians, including key leaders, stayed to help the sick and dying. When the plague took hundreds of thousands of lives in Europe in the middle ages, Christians stayed to serve while others fled. When the tsunami destroyed Banda Aceh, Indonesia in 2004, Christian missionaries already in country rushed to help the Muslim population there. When the Ebola epidemic hit Africa, Christian missionary doctors and nurses stayed to fight it. That service ethic, based on the individual’s value as an image-bearer of the living God and Jesus’s story of the Good Samaritan, changed the world. Now, American’s just expect it.

Some people are wondering out loud these days what it would be like if we could just get rid of Christianity, or somehow limit its cultural impact. Nikolas Kristof, of the New York Times, reported in 2015 that, “In liberal circles, evangelicals constitute one of the few groups that it’s safe to mock openly.”[1]

This is especially true when Christians, who are called by God to love their neighbor as themselves and to stand for truth in all things, speak and act on their convictions regarding human sexuality, gender, marriage, abortion, and religious freedom.

But, historian and theologian Jeremiah Johnston, who along with his wife and five kids had to evacuate his home near Houston during Harvey, says, “It was the Christians, the people of faith, who immediately mobilized and invaded this city to help saying, ‘I love Jesus. I believe people are made in the image of God. We’re not going to sit here and let you suffer alone.’ I live in the most diverse county in America … but I never saw an Atheist tent anywhere, or an agnostic society tent, I never saw the ‘Free Thinkers’ helping people whose lives were destroyed. There’s a real world-view reason that is behind that.”[2]

Kristof concurs, it’s “true that there are plenty of secular doctors doing heroic work for Doctors Without Borders or Partners in Health. But I must say that a disproportionate share of the aid workers I’ve met in the wildest places over the years, long after anyone sensible had evacuated, have been evangelicals, nuns or priests.”[3]

The faith that causes Christians to serve disaster-stricken people is the same faith that causes us to provide free marriage counseling, speak up for the unborn, encourage adoption, help women with unplanned pregnancies, advocate for traditional marriage, fight porn and sex-trafficking, provide free meals, tell the truth about transgenderism, advocate for prison reform, and stand up for freedom of conscience and religion in the market place. The same Lord that calls us to serve tells us to speak truth in love to all who will hear. It’s why we do what we do

[1] nytimes.com/2015/03/29/opinion/sunday/nicholas-kristof-a-little-respect-for-dr-foster

[2] Warren Cole Smith interview of Johnston on the Listening In podcast, December 21, 2018. See also Johnston’s book, UNIMAGINABLE: What Our World Would Be Like Without Christianity.

[3] ibid