Tomorrow I turn 27. Robert Murray M’Cheyne died at 29. M’Cheyne’s impact has been tremendous on the church though most people touched by his work know it not. M’Cheyne developed the most commonly used through the Bible in a year reading program, continuing in use through avenues such as D.A. Carson’s For the Love of God series and the ESV Study Bible.
As I take a break from work to write this, I’m surrounded by piles of books on inspiration and biblical theology to be used in the slow process of writing curriculum for my new classes. The house is coated with a light covering of dust from a half-sanded 1940s maple coffee table that will be reincarnated as beautiful rather than as the final resting place for leaking glitter bottles. Throughout the halls are boxes full of wedding presents from generous friends, some to be stored and saved and others to be used.
As I think of M’Cheyne’s life and legacy, the temptation arises to grow discouraged about my own. “I must do more for the kingdom,” says the siren voice of the success syndrome. ”If I die at 29, I’ll have done nothing noteworthy and die forgotten.”
But the purpose of faithful service in the kingdom of God isn’t for me to be remembered. It’s that Christ may not be forgotten in this generation and the one to come. The world must pant for justification, not my journals. And so if I were to know that I only had two years left, I’d do exactly what I plan on doing for the next two years: I will teach, that my students might know God. I will love my wife, seeking to bring joy into her life. I will actively serve my church, that I might be a blessing to my fellow believers.
This is what M’Cheyne sought to do. He did not set out to be famous. He was a man who faithfully lived his 29 years. He preached God’s word to God’s people, he wrote letters, he studied theology, he sought to order his life to know God more fully, and then he succumbed to typhus. We do not need men who are consumed by grand visions for the kingdom of God that have themselves as the thumbtack which holds it all together. We need men who will be content to put one foot in front of another day in and day out until they finish the course. May God crucify our ambitions of celebrity.
I haven’t thought about my blog for months. It once was a passion; to be truly honest I must say it was often a consuming passion. The articles written for this site span three major seasons of my life: college, seminary, and now teaching theology at a Christian school. Along the way my ministries have radically changed. My communities have radically changed. My marital status is about to change. (In the good way, not the bad way.)
But through it all, the gospel has stayed the same. I was shot through full of weaknesses seven years ago when I began to write. I still am. But that’s the point of the gospel. I am not perfect. I struggle with sin over and over again. New contexts and new ministries do not change my heart; God does. Slowly but surely he is shaping me into his image. That’s the point of life. More than blogs or ministry footprints or name-dropping, I just want to be faithful. Whatever the context, whoever the people, whatever the mission, I just want to be faithful.
Last Sunday, I began my descent into a world heretofore largely unknown. A world of smashed graham crackers, Brio trains being fought over like a seat on the last chopper out of Vietnam, and detailed conversations about superhero comic picture books that I’m apparently supposed to be intimately familiar with. Welcome to the 3 year old’s Sunday School. I’ve been around 3 year olds before, plenty of them. But it’s always been in numbers of 1 or 2, not a whole herd.
During our singing time, our fearless leader Joe led the kids in a song that I haven’t heard for 15 years but found still imprinted deep within the recesses of my mind.
I may never…
March in the infantry
Ride in the cavalry
Shoot the artillery
I may never fly o’er the enemy
But I’m in the Lord’s Army.
Looking back, I had three distinct thoughts about this song, written here in order:
1) How do I still know this?
2) This is a rather curious song. Following Christ is equated with being a member of an army that is not exactly an army. The etymology of this song would be an interesting study. It bears a marked resemblance to the “muscular Christianity” societies of the early 1890s – 1920s, connected with the Salvation Army and other movements that used militant metaphors to describe spiritual pursuits. Songs such as the Battle Hymn of the Republic, Soldiers of Christ in Truth Arrayed, and Onward Christian Soldiers grew out of this culture milleu, which was also rather postmillennial. What was this song’s sitz-im-leben? (A German higher critical technical term meaning setting-in-life.)
3) What the heck is seminary doing to me, that I’m analyzing a six-line children’s jingle for it’s socio-religious heritage?
As I’ve grown in knowledge of the content of the Scriptures and the various moods of interpretation that have swept Christianity throughout the ages, I’ve discovered just how dangerous knowledge is. Seminary is full of deconstruction. We tear apart a passage, learning the possible translations and the various interpretations of the passage held by those men that we would consider theological mentors. We take history classes and learn how cultural pressures oftentimes drive hermeneutics, giving rise to both good and bad perspectives on the Scriptures. We counsel people from the Scriptures, helping them connect dots within their own lives that they’re not able to connect themselves.We have no reason to wonder that Paul wrote 1 Corinthians 8:1? “[K]nowledge puffs up, but love builds up.”
Last summer I read Black Hawk Down, the account of a failed military expedition deep within the heart of Mogadishu by a large contingent of Army Rangers. Embedded with the Rangers, who are the Army’s elite and specially trained soldiers, were a company from Delta Force, the “D-Boys.” The D-Boys are America’s most highly trained soldiers, the kind who are given a blank check by the government and told “buy whatever you want to carry into combat.” The arrogance of the D-Boys did little to diffuse any sense of competition between the two units. One sentence in particular crystallized the attitude of the camp: In the minds of the highly-trained D-Boys, the Rangers seemed like little more than an untrained rabble fresh from boot camp, a liability in the field who were certain to get themselves killed.
Do we do this as we complain about how many seminary students are at a church, then proudly proclaim we go to a “real” church, intimating that the reality of a church is defined by the lack of formal theological education in the pew rather than the one being worshipped? Do we do this as we contemplate how much more deserving we are of accolades than the man or woman who is recognized for their service to the Lord, cynically attributing their success to inside-track relationships? Do we do this as we write people off mentally for their weaknesses, believing them to be little more than barely-cognizant rabble fit for only the thirty-five person church that is simply delighted anyone would want to come and minister amidst the cornfields?
Love builds up, says Paul. Sometimes it’s harder to rejoice with the rejoicing than weep with the weeping, especially when they’re rejoicing for something you want but was given to them instead. A great test to see how much we truly love our brothers and sisters is to see how easily our heart bursts forth into praise when the Lord uses them in some great opportunity that we were not given. A competitive heart will seethe with envy, though the lips may be smiling. A Christlike heart actually feels those statements of congratulation that are necessarily being offered.
I looked it up, and I’m in the Lord’s Army was written anonymously and has no known copyright. I can’t prove it’s origins. And a wonderful thing of working with the 3 year olds is that they don’t care. They want me to untangle their hair from their nametag, give them their graham crackers, and help them memorize their verse. They want me to read them a story about Jesus, play with the Hot Wheels with them, and demonstrate that I care. There is no theological arms race in the 3 year old classroom. It’s kind of nice. And it calls me to be better than I usually am.
A man who holds every opinion so close to his chest that it merges with his heart will have few listeners and fewer friends.
When I was thirteen years old, we decided that the time was right for a dog to grace the sprawling 2-acre Brooks family plantation. I don’t remember the exact details of how it came to be, but we wound up giving a dog named Rolly a 2 week test drive. Rolly must have been trained by the last survivor of World War 1, because the only thing he seemed to know how to do was dig massive trenches throughout the yard that then became convenient bunkers for the brothers’ occasional mud wars. At the end of two weeks Rolly was loaded back up in the truck, and the Brooks family danced a jig in the driveway as he departed. Despite the Rolly catastrophe, our hunger for dog ownership was unabated, and so entered Hank the Black Lab.
It is no secret that the American marriage adventure has been nothing short of catastrophe. CNN published a statistic that 41% of babies in 2009 were born to unwed mothers, up from 11% thirty years earlier. Divorce rates are astronomical. Browse the Barnes & Noble marriage shelves, and all you’ll see are works on how to put the romance back into whatever you’ve gotten yourself into.
And yet somehow, marriage still holds an exalted place in our culture. Yes, 41% of children are born to unwed mothers (and unwed fathers). Yes, serial monogamy is probably the best way to describe how we functionally live our lives in a culture of cheap and easy divorce. Yes, any concept of faithfulness to vows and commitments has been crumpled up and thrown next to that pair of pink bellbottoms in the dumpster of social disapproval. And yet, the state of marriage is still held in high esteem. No matter how many trenches dug by Rolly, the longing for a dog was yet unabated.
This week Bobby Petrino, head coach of the Arkansas Razorback’s football team, was discovered to be having an extramarital affair with a fellow member of the University’s staff. Petrino was summarily dismissed amidst a chorus of furrowed brows and scolding remarks. This is one in a long list of public officials and celebrities to have an extramarital scandal scuttle their career ambitions.
But why is our culture so outraged when infidelity takes place within marriage? Petrino’s consorting with a woman not his wife doesn’t look a whole lot different than what all of his football players are doing most every friday night. Among them, the scandal is the guy who isn’t doing what they’re doing. Nobody writes articles on the adventures of a Sigma Rho Epsilon freshman. They write articles on Tim Tebow’s virginity. The only difference between Petrino and his players is that he was married. And once the ring is on the finger, even a culture deeply approving of promiscuity understands that something changes.
No matter how far we go in approving what is evil, the ghost-like traces of Christian morality still haunt our hearts and minds. No matter how many trenches Rolly dug, we still longed for the dog that would not. It’s astounding that even the homosexual community longs to be able to marry. As muddle-headed as our culture becomes, there is one thing that it cannot shake: Marriage is something to aspire to. Amidst all the statements of why an indiscriminate offer of our bodies and hearts is best, they still dance no jig in the driveway when a marriage is loaded into the truck and taken away.
One of the beauties of reading old books is that they dispel the ridiculous notions that somehow the people of yesteryear were fundamentally different than we are today. For all our internal combustion engines, polyester and rayon laced clothing, and penicillin, human nature never changes.
Samuel Pearce was an English pastor who died at the age of 34 from tuberculosis. While he died at an age that few today die, of an illness few today will die of, Samuel Pearce was no different than you or me. Writing to his good friend William Carey (yes, that William Carey), Pearce’s pen cries out:
I think I am the most vile, ungrateful servant that ever Jesus Christ employed in his church. At some times, I question whether I ever knew the grace of God in truth; and at others I hesistate on the most important points of the Christian faith. I have lately had peculiar struggles of this kind with my own heart, and have often half concluded to speak no more in the name of the Lord. When I am preparing for the pulpit, I fear I am going to avow fables for facts, and doctrines of men for the truths of God. In conversation I am obliged to be silent, lest my tongue should belie my heart. In prayer I know not what to say, and at times think prayer altogether useless…
I frequently find a backwardness to secret prayer, and much deadness in it; and it puzzles me to see how this can be consistent with a life of grace. However, I resolve, that, let what will become of me, I will do all I can for God while I live, and leave the rest to him; and this I usually experience to be the best way to be at peace…
My labours are acceptable and not altogether unprofitable to the hearers; but what is this to me, if my own soul starves whilst others are fed by me? O my brother, I need your prayers; and I feel a great satisfaction in the hope that you do not forget me. Oh that I may be kept faithful unto death!
Our heroes are flawed heroes. They fell into times of deep distress, long grey valleys where the sun did not seem to shine and the landscape afforded no glimmer of joy. They lost courage, held back their tongues when they ought to have spoken, found themselves grasping to the same promises of God in the midst of doubt and despair.
The difference with them is that their struggles exist in the greater context of a race finished. I read of Samuel Pearce and see that indeed he was faithful to the end, and the faithfulness at the end casts a brighter hue across the dusty grey trails they often trod. Yet, this is why we have the Scriptures, the same promises that have been clung to for generations upon generations of men and women fighting for faith in a world intent upon undoing such steadfast hope. He who began a good work will be faithful to complete it. Samuel Pearce proved it, and we are proving it for the next generation.
Right now there are…
- Abortions being performed in Louisville
- Tomato pickers being oppressed in California
- Brick masons being enslaved in India
- Girls being raped for profit in the Philippines
- Husbands who are forced to work on fishing boats in the Atlantic and Pacific who will then be shot and thrown overboard after the fishing season closes
- Coffee growers being exploited in Bolivia
- Families being killed in Sudan because of the tribe they’re from
- Orphans being made in South Africa by AIDS
- Retiring missionaries not being replaced because there is not enough financial support for replacements.
- Believers being martyred in Saudi Arabia
- Political prisoners being used as lab rats for poison gas testing in North Korea
- Scientists refining nuclear fuel in Iran to be used for evil
- Homeless wandering the streets of Atlanta
- Teenagers driven into drug trafficking by poverty and peer pressure in Detroit
- Children being taught in schools in Berkley that homosexuality is as normal as heterosexuality
- Power players swinging dirty deals for political gain in Washington
- Murders happening in Tulsa
- Children sorting through heaps of garbage in Phnom Penh to keep from starving
- Kind hearted husbands and wives who want to adopt but cannot because of a lack of money
As much as they all break my heart, and the heart of every Christ-follower with me, the sad truth of the matter is that I am utterly powerless to influence almost every single one of these evils. I can tear up at the videos of starving children and be outraged at abuse and horrified at corruption, and yet none of those actually work towards any kind of solution. None work toward alleviating the suffering experienced by those who share God’s marred creation with me.
So what do we do when we stare across the landscape of our 21st century world and realize the shockwaves of the curse have crumbled to pieces far more than we could ever piece back together? Withdrawal is always an option, an option embraced at different times by different Christian groups. “If the world,” they say, “is going to hell in a handbasket, then let them go.” But this does not seem to capture the spirit of Christ declaring that what is done to the least of these is done to him. It does not seem to explain his meals with prostitutes and tax collectors and consistent seeking out of those marginalized by society.
It is here in acts of Christ we see how we might seek to both roll back the curse and not lose our sanity as we stare down the enormity of evil clutching our world. Wherever Christ went, he did good. He did not journey to Rome and topple the pagan Roman government. But he did cast out demons from Roman soldier’s sons. He did not topple the corrupted Sadducee’s stranglehold on the temple economy. But he did clear them out twice with a whip when he was in Jerusalem.
We cannot each individually address all of the evils in our world. But we are placed in unique situations with unique interests, meant to channel our God-given abilities, gifts, and resources toward the redemption of that sphere of life. I live in a dorm of college men who aspire to be preachers. And so talk of fellowship and purity and community and doctrine and love of the brethren will dominate my time and energy. Evangelism will not. But you are in a different place. Be faithful there, and I will seek to be faithful here. And as we go and you meet the Indian refugee whose family escaped from the brick masonry slave pits, you will throw yourself into that cause. And I will meet someone else with a different past, and we will concentrate on that evil to be unwound.
We’re not individually called to address every single issue that we might within the world. Rather we’re called to do good, preach the gospel, and live out gospel implications in a contagious manner to whomever the Lord would have us meet. And I will delight in your ministry and pray for you, as you delight in mine and pray for me. Let us all seek to be faithful in our tempestuous world. We’ll see you in the fray.