The Fear of Death and Why You Should Stop Saying Stay Safe.

Fourteen years ago today, I was much younger and much more naive about life and God’s ways. I thought if I did the right thing, good things would happen every time. That if I said the right things, people would feel comfort and joy every time. I found out that God doesn’t work the way I think he should work. God is not tame, but he is good. I found out that the God we serve is not safe. All my life to that point, I thought he was safe, and the day I realized he was not safe was also the day I began to question if he was even good. 

How I have come to know God over the past decade and a half has changed the way I see him, the way I trust Him, and the way I see everything because of him. It is not an overstatement to say I was blind, but now I see. That day fourteen years ago, led to a chain of events that made me question the goodness of God; it led me to struggle with anxiety as a result of an overwhelming fear of dying. 

It was nearly two years of working through the implications of me thinking that if I pray enough, give enough and serve enough, good things will come from that as my payment from God because of my goodness. I had grown up in church my whole life, and I thought the gospel was for sinners, not for me. I thought God was in my debt because I hadn’t done anything wrong. I was angry fourteen years ago because I didn’t think God heard the prayers of a sweet family suffering far more than I ever had. I was angry because I prayed for a boy filled with more faith than I had ever had. He didn’t rise. I was angry with God because he owed me and wasn’t coming through when I was calling in my favors, eared through years and years of good behavior. 

I was a Pharisee. People look at Pharisees in the Bible and say they are religious zealots who don’t love God they love themselves. That isn’t so. They were some of the most outwardly perfect people you could ever imagine. A pattern of good behavior marked their understanding of life. They encountered Jesus, and he was not the Messiah they imagined. They killed Jesus because he was not and could not have been the God they had long-awaited. I was one of those. I had an idea of God that he always answered my prayers in the way I prayed them, He always did what I thought was right, that he is more pleased with me because of my goodness. I knew God but not his ways. 

It changed one day reading The Jesus Storybook Bible to one of my babies. I read how a woman who was a sinner came to Jesus and took the most important and expensive thing; she had a jar of perfume she broke it, and poured it on the feet of Jesus. The religious people thought this was a waste. It smelled like the lilies in the summer field. It wasn’t a waste. They were mad at God’s kindness to this sinner. They thought Jesus should not be kind to her. “That woman is a sinner!” they grumbled. “We’re the good ones,” God spoke to me as I was reading that to my child and said, that’s you. I knew God but not the ways of God. 

Jesus Calms the Storm

My favorite artist is Rembrandt because of his story, his use of biblical imagery, and the fact he places himself in the paintings he paints. This is what good art does it envelopes you; it swallows you and emerges you into its story. My favorite painting of his is the Return of the Prodigal Son. It’s been the background on my iPhone for four or five years now. I put it on my phone because I wanted to be daily reminded that I am prone to wander like the son, that I growing up in the church and never leaving home left home on my heart, and lastly, I’m called to be the father who loves both those who have wandered far from home and those who have wandered while never leaving home. The gospel points out my sin points me to Christ, and redirects me to run toward sinners.

The Return Of The Prodigal Son

I recently replaced it for the time being with Christ calms the storm. A painting that depicts arguably the best depiction of God’s trust in His Father and our trust in ourselves in all of scripture.

The biblical scene pitches nature against human frailty – both physical and spiritual. The panic-stricken disciples struggle against a sudden storm, and fight to regain control of their fishing boat as a huge wave crashes over its bow, ripping the sail and drawing the craft perilously close to the rocks in the left foreground. One of the disciples succumbs to the sea’s violence by vomiting over the side. Amidst this chaos, only Christ, at the right, remains calm, like the eye of the storm. Awakened by the disciples’ desperate pleas for help, he rebukes them: “Why are ye fearful, O ye of little faith?” and then rises to calm the fury of wind and waves. Nature’s upheaval is both cause and metaphor for the terror that grips the disciples, magnifying the emotional turbulence and thus the image’s dramatic impact.

Michael Zell
Jesus Calms The Sea of Galilee

There are many ironic elements of this masterpiece. The first is the fact it was stolen in 1990 from the Isabella Gardener Museum in Boston. Most experts believe it to be the work of organized crime to be used as ransom to free jailed crime bosses. The irony is that since it was taken, there has been wave after wave of stolen peace in our lives and in our countries collective experience. I do not believe that the theft precipitated our lack of collective peace. It is only a cultural artifact that points to our loss of peace by righting our ship on our terms.

Top 10 Books of 2020

In 2020 I read many books by people who have different views than I have, I read several books on CRT and Liberation Theology as well as some written by Progressive Theologians. I found it interesting to see the world as they see it. I also found it strengthen my resolve to fight for clarity in my thoughts and charity in my interactions with those with whom I disagree. As a result, my reading list was a bit more eclectic than most years. As I look forward to 2021 I do so with a mixture of excitement and sadness as I will be finishing my Seminary degrees. I don’t know if I disliked a book that was assigned to me and will miss the rigor of reading with a deadline. I am excited however to read what I want when I want. I plan on rereading some of my favorite books I read in obtaining my degree as well as much more fiction and hope to write a devotional for pre-teens before the year is out. That being said here are my top ten books for 2020.


The Trellis and the Vine
This book has been on my reading list for a while but had not had the time to get to it. It was required for school so I read it in November. Such a timely book for any pastor to read. If ever we needed the message and strategy of connection over programs it’s now. It ends with an eerie question of what we would do if we had to lead through a pandemic.

Imagine this… As we write, the first worrying signs of a swine-flu pandemic are making headlines around the world. Imagine that the pandemic swept through your part of the world and that all public assemblies of more than three people were banned by the government for reasons of public health and safety. And let’s say that due to some catastrophic combination of local circumstances, this ban had to remain in place for 18 months. How would your congregation of 120 members continue to function—with no regular church gatherings of any kind, and no home groups (except for groups of three)? If you were the pastor, what would you do?

ColinMarshall & Tony Payne


If that quote doesn’t make you want to read this book nothing will.


Live not by lies
Such a timely book. In a world where we are constantly bombarded by what Rod calls “soft totalitarianism” Live Not By Lies teaches American Christians a method for resistance:
    SEE: Acknowledge the reality of the situation.
    JUDGE: Assess reality in the light of what we as Christians know to be true.
    ACT: Take action to protect truth.
The most powerful weapon we have against the secularism of our age is seeing the truth and speaking the truth. Every Christian should read this book.


Atomic Habits
I haven’t read a ton of leadership books over the past few years but this one was recommended by everyone. I read it and was suprised by the simplicity and practical application of what Clear argues for. Also he likes baseball.


Christ Centered Preaching
I have read several books on expository preaching this one is one of the best in terms of explaining the importance of expository sermons as well as the practical examples that walk you through the process of doing so. I read this for a class Dr. Chapell taught at my Seminary. He is an equally gifted communicator and writer.


On Reading Well
One of my Master’s Degrees is in Christian and Classical Thought. My professors reinforced to us over and over again the importance of reading the great conversation in light of the Gospel because every little story we write points to the great story written for us. Dr. Prior highlights a classical work and the corresponding virtue it exemplifies. The result of her work is a more thoughtful reading of books, many of which were written by Christians, that was written with the desire to empower and inform a more virtuous public. Dr. Prior’s explanation of Flannery O’Connor was particularly helpful to me personally as I have read most of O’Connor’s work and missed most of the beauty within them because I was so taken back by the violence and tragedy I missed the redemptive nature of her stories.


Valley of Vision
I have used Valley of Vision to aid my daily times of prayer devotional for a couple of years. Going through this book slowly to meditate and processes its content fully. I found so many of these prayers directing my thoughts and strengthening my faith like few books I have ever read.

‘When used slowly, for meditation and prayer, these pages have often been used by God’s Spirit to kindle my dry heart.’ ——MARK DEVER

I can’t agree with Mark more. I encourage you to add this to your personal time of devotion. There is something so helpful and challenging about reading the prayers of others.


Scripture as Communication
Such a fantastic book. Dr. Brown addresses both of the extremes of Biblical interpretation. In our modern culture, the Bible is looked at as a set of rules to live by or stories to inspire. A prominent pastor in a recent book said that the Old Testament is for inspiration. Brown’s argument that the Bible is communication changes how we read, interpret, and interact with scripture. It is a much-needed vantage point in the present hermetical landscape of the evangelical church.



Deep Work
This is the second book by Newport I’ve read. He is very clear and extremely practical. I have been putting his simple yet profound ideas to the test and have experienced excellent results. We as a society are more distracted than ever we must fight for focus. I used to brag about how many things we can do at once. No longer. I join Newport in striving to do one thing at a time really really well.


Persuasion
Persuasion is a story of love and loss and patient endurance. In her excellent summary of the book which was my inspiration to read it in full Karen Swallow Prior says “The essence of patience is the willingness to endure suffering.” Patience is a lost virtue in our instant secular culture. We put it off till later so we can have it now. The result of this type of living is moral and spiritual bankruptcy. The story was a story of love that lost because of obedience to authority and refined and rekindled because of divine providence. It was my first Jane Austen novel and definitely not my last.

Patience is a virtue, not in overlooking wrong, but in refusing to do wrong in overcoming wrong.

Karen Swallow Prior



Black Rednecks & White Liberals
This year I read several books on race I found Gladwell’s Talking to Strangers and if you avoid the liberation theology at the end Cone’s work on lynching. The least helpful was White Fragility. Over the course of the past several months, I saw this title encouraged by several pastors. Pastor, please don’t do that. Out of all those titles, the reason I chose Thomas Sowell is that he addresses the topic of race in a way that is straightforward and hopeful. To say that being white makes you a racist and there is nothing you can do about it is not the answer to the real problem of racism. Sowell is thoughtful, hopeful, and clear. He is also African American as opposed to DiAngelo who is white. No matter where you fall on the political landscape it is helpful to understand issues of race and how to work toward speaking against real racism in our world today. I believe that Sowell’s work is a great asset in understanding the history of race and helpful solutions for today.

Here are the other books I read this year.

  1. Growth Groups by Colin Marshall
  2. The Lion, The Witch, and The Wardrobe by C.S. Lewis
  3. Missions by Andy Johnson
  4. Canoeing The Mountains by Tod Bolsinger
  5. The Science of Missions by J.H. Bavanick
  6. White Fragility by Robin Diangelo
  7. Center Church by Tim Keller
  8. Letters to a Young Pastor by Eugene Peterson
  9. I’m Still Here by Austin Channing Brown
  10. Love Thy Body by Nancy Pearcey
  11. The Cross and the Lynching Tree by James Cone
  12. Suffering and Joy by Henri Nouwen
  13. The Effective Executive by Peter Drucker
  14. Leadership for the Time of a Pandemic by Tod Bolsinger
  15. Confronting Old Testament Controversies by Tremper Longman
  16. Slaves, Women & Homosexuals by William Webb
  17. The Valley of Vision by Arthur Bennett
  18. The Bible Tells Me So…. by Peter Enns
  19. Washed and Waiting by Wesley Hill
  20. George MacDonald by C.S. Lewis
  21. Evolution and the Fall by James K.A. Smith
  22. In the Year of Our Lord 1943 by Alan Jacobs
  23. Christ-Centered Preaching by Bryan Chapell
  24. American Sherlock by Kate Winkler Dawson
  25. Resilient by Valerie Bell and Matt Markins
  26. Christ-Centered Sermons by Bryan Chapell
  27. A Woman of No Importance by Sonia Purnell
  28. Uncommon Ground by Timothy Keller
  29. Practice Resurrection by Eugene Peterson
  30. The Dutch House by Ann Patchett
  31. Reading the Bible With Heart and Mind by Tremper Longman
  32. Lethal Agent by Vince Flynn
  33. The Green Ember by S.D. Smith
  34. A Basic Guide to Interpreting the Bible by Robert Stein
  35. Hermeneutics by Henry Virkler
  36. Color of Compromise by Jamar Tisby
  37. Exegetical Fallacies by D.A. Carson
  38. The Joy of Fearing God by Jerry Bridges
  39. A Theory of Everything by Alister McGrath
  40. The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris
  41. Eat This Book by Eugene Peterson
  42. Red War by Vince Flynn

The Impact a Bible Can Have

It has been almost two decades since my grandfather died. He was elderly, but his death was sudden. I remember getting the call and, somewhat stunned disbelief made the journey back to the family farm for his funeral. Many emotions accompanied that trip, but of all the things that stood out to me, what I remember most was his Bible. I remember wandering through his house, looking at all the things that reminded me of the summers I spent there as a child. I knew that his passing would change our family in ways I would miss. 

I remember sitting in his favorite chair, and right next to it was his Bible, whose leather cover looked much like the worn leather of old farmer hands. I picked up his Bible. Inside was his daily devotional that he had read neatly tucked into the book of the Bible that his devotional directed him to read that particular day. As I look back on almost twenty years of missing him, what I remember most was the Bible he read and the way he would fold his hands and belt out “How Great Thou Art.” 

The reality is that one day I won’t be here anymore. I will be absent in body but present with Christ. How do I want to be remembered by my grandkids? What do I want them to think of when they think of me? I hope that my life will be small, and He to whom I point will be large. A few years ago, my Grandfather’s Bible inspired me to leave my kids each a Bible of their own filled with notes and thoughts I had based on the passage I read each day. I do this for three years for each of them and will give it to them when they graduate from High School. I usually read in front of them as they eat breakfast. I want them to see me read the Bible and then one day read what I was saying to them all those years ago. I pray it will be a reminder of the supremacy of Scripture above all else. 

So far, I have partnered with several publishers, most recently working with PersonalizedBibles.com. They have a large selection of high-quality Bibles that you can add the name of your child or favorite passage of Scripture to the front. These Bibles would be great for graduations, baptisms, or the traditional first Bible. 

Personalized Bibles gave me a leather journaling Bible that I will be journaling in for my oldest daughter. The leather is beautiful, and the craftsmanship is excellent. Her name is engraved beautifully on the front. I would highly recommend you take a look at the Bibles they offer.

Christmas is coming up, and there is no greater gift you can give your kids than a Bible. Make sure you buy the right Bible for your child’s age. One mistake many parents make is buying a Bible that is too young for their child.

Billy Graham Had a Rule so Should You.

A couple of years ago Vice President Mike Pence mentioned that he follows the “Billy Graham Rule.” This created confusion outside the church and fresh debate inside the church as to how men and women should relate in the workplace.

If you are not familiar with the Billy Graham Rule it came from Reverend Graham’s observation that so many evangelists who had fallen into immorality while separated from their families by travel. Billy said “We pledged among ourselves to avoid any situation that would have even the appearance of compromise or suspicion. From that day on, I did not travel, meet, or eat alone with a woman other than my wife.”

For those of you who disagree with this rule let me say that I hear you in many ways it has gotten weird. I remember a couple of years back talking to a seventeen-year-old boy. He told me he is following the Billy Graham rule. I told him does he plan on getting married ever. He said yes. I then told him there is a good chance he will need to revisit that rule.

This has become a much-debated topic in evangelical circles. Many do not like this rule because it is seen as misogynistic and limiting of women in the workplace. The argument goes that if women are excluded from dinners and meetings they will be excluded in boardrooms. While I am not nieve enough to believe this never happens I don’t think it’s systemic in churches or organizations.

I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel.

Ta-Nehisi Coates

What seems to be far more systemic in culture and churches is divorce. Does disobedience to the Graham rule mean you will have a divorce? Not at all, but in twenty-plus years of marriage counseling infidelity never starts in the hotel room. The two most prevalent causes of infidelity are extensive time with the same person of the opposite sex and alcohol. In saying that I am not saying spending time with the opposite sex is sinful nor is alcohol inherently sinful. Yet there is rarely a story of a spouse breaking their marriage vows that didn’t involve the excess of time and alcohol. We need guardrails. All of us.

For those who think this is a right-wing white evangelical issue. It’s not. Its wisdom. Here is a quote from an Atlantic interview with Ta-Nehisi Coates who is black and an atheist.

I’ve been with my spouse for almost 15 years. In those years, I’ve never been with anyone but the mother of my son. But that’s not because I am an especially good and true person. In fact, I am wholly in possession of an unimaginably filthy and mongrel mind. But I am also a dude who believes in guard-rails, as a buddy of mine once put it. I don’t believe in getting “in the moment” and then exercising will-power. I believe in avoiding “the moment.” I believe in being absolutely clear with myself about why I am having a second drink, and why I am not; why I am going to a party, and why I am not. I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel. I am not a “good man.” But I am prepared to be an honorable one.

I share Coates’ concern. I want to be honorable. The way we function in an honorable way is within boundaries we create with our spouse. We need to create boundaries that serve to protect our marriages from going over the cliff. Pastor and author Andy Stanley says it this way

We need personal guardrails so we don’t stray into areas of life that can harm us or the people we love. If there’s one area in which personal guardrails are most needed but also most resisted, it’s in our relationships.

I don’t think one blanket rule is the best way to create guardrails but its a good starting point.

How Do We Create Healthy Guardrails?

Understand what the Bible teaches about the total depravity of mankind. – The Bible if you have read it is full of stories that reinforce the theological understanding that everything has been marred by sin and tainted by the fall. Ta-Nehisi Coates said this about himself “I believe that the battle is lost at Happy Hour, not at the hotel. I am not a “good man.”If you don’t see yourself as a sinner who needs a savior but rather as basically good you will overestimate your willpower your tolerance and your faithfulness. If Coats as an atheist can see this? Why can’t we?

Talk with your spouse about what guardrails need to be in place to honor God and each other in your marriage. Go with whoever has the most sensitive conscience on this topic.

If you need to make an exception to your per-determined guardrails communicate. My wife and I have a few guardrails we have set but when I am going to meet with a woman I always let her know before and discuss with her after.

Understand you are not Billy Graham. People who are powerful and famous have to be far more careful than someone who works from home. Fame, influence and travel all make guardrails so much more necessary. For most of you reading this those are not realities for you so even though you need guardrails you probably don’t need the same ones as Pence and Graham.

Our desire as Christians should be to primary to honor God in all we do, secondarily to love our spouse and kids well, and lastly to love our neighbor as ourselves. Setting clear guardrails helps us do all three.