Comfort is Close

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” (Matthew 5:4).

When I’m writing or speaking about these opening lines of the Sermon on the Mount, it’s almost inevitable that I end up defining what the word blessed means, or explaining the Latin reason why this passage is known as The Beatitudes. There’s a time for those things, but this is not that time.

This is just a simple post, inspired by the undeniable fact that mourning is part of life, because death itself is part of life. The more we love, the more it hurts when we lose those we love.

Let’s just be completely honest; there is nothing blessed about mourning itself. There’s nothing happy about putting a towel over your pillow because you know you’re about to cry yourself to sleep. There’s nothing inherently joyous about hot tears streaming down your face. There’s nothing to be envied about a person who’s too grief-stricken to speak. Nobody looks at that person and wants to trade places with them.

That’s why this very simple statement has an explanation. Jesus knew that in the depths of our sorrows, we wouldn’t be able to see through the storm clouds to consider ourselves to be blessed, happy, joyous, enviable, or anything like it. And so Jesus explained it for us.

The reason why Jesus understands us is because Jesus Himself knew how it felt to lose a friend. Jesus knew what it was like to feel that burning mixture of anger and sorrow that expresses itself in tears better than words.

And so Jesus explained the blessedness of mourning. Those who mourn are blessed because they will be comforted. It’s just a simple future tense, the normal way of stating something that will happen. The comfort is coming, arriving at any moment. But it’s also a divine promise, because God Himself said it was going to happen.

Jesus can say with certainty that comfort is coming, because He is the one who will bring it. As the gospels unfolded, Jesus told the disciples that when He left, He would send the Comforter, the Holy Spirit. That’s the same third of the Trinity that is also called the Spirit of Christ.

When you mourn, you don’t feel blessed. But you are. You are blessed in your mourning because you have a divine promise that you will be comforted. Jesus could promise that you’ll be comforted, because He will be the one to comfort you through His own Spirit. “The Lord is near to the brokenhearted, and saves the crushed in spirit” (Psalm 34:18).

If you’re mourning, take heart. Comfort is close by.


If you’re reading this, you probably shouldn’t still be a basket baby.

By faith Moses, when he was born, was hidden for three months by his parents, because they saw that the child was beautiful, and they were not afraid of the king’s edict.  By faith Moses, when he was grown up, refused to be called the son of Pharaoh’s daughter” (Hebrews 11:23-24, ESV). [For the full background narrative, see Exodus 1:1-2:3.]

The author of Hebrews uses the passive voice in 11:23 (Moses was hidden by his parents). In the passive voice, the subject is being acted upon. In verse 24 the writer shifts to the active voice (Moses refused). In the active voice, the subject is doing the action. That’s an important linguistic shift. But more than that, it’s an important spiritual shift that each of us must undergo. If we refuse to make that shift, we’re going to stay basket babies for far too long.

There is a time when it’s appropriate to be the baby in the basket, and when you’re there, you need to be thankful that somebody had the faith to put you there. Moses was born into an oppressive slave culture that considered his life to be worthless. Moses was born into a culture of death, but his parents had the rebellious faith to shield him by putting him in a basket to save his life. Moses had no choice in that. He was totally at the mercy of his faithful parents who made the decision about where he would go.

Many of you were raised (passive voice) by believing parents who placed you in a basket of faith before you could know the difference. Your being placed in the basket is evidence of somebody else’s faith on your behalf. Somebody took you to church, or told you when you were making a mistake. Your being a basket baby is the blessing of growing up with a loving, supportive church family. Being a basket baby means that as you grow and mature, you’re surrounded by a biological or church family that loves you and wants you to grow into conformity with Christ. That’s a great thing.

But at some point, you must be identified by what you choose, not by what somebody else chooses for you.

Moses could have chosen to stay in Pharaoh’s house. He could have had the life of ease and royalty, or he could live as a persecuted Hebrew. Either way, he had to make that decision himself. Moses’ parents chose life for him, but Moses would have to choose how he lived that life. Moses could choose to be a prince or a slave. As the song says, “Sometimes the hardest thing and the right thing are the same.”

Moses was 40 when he finally came to that crossroads and left the basket. If you realize that you were privileged enough to have been a baby in the basket, have you left it yet? Being in the basket isn’t really about your age, but your maturity. It’s how responsible you are for your own spiritual identity and development.

How can you tell if you’re still in the basket? There are a few ways:

If your faith is defined by what other people chose for you, then you are still a baby in the basket. Regardless of your age, if you believe what you believe simply because it’s what your parents believed, then you’ve not taken ownership of your faith. At the end of all things, you alone will answer for what you chose in this life, not what somebody else chose for you.

If you’ve never really struggled with what you believe and why, then you might still a baby in the basket. Kids raised in church should be thankful to God that their parents raised them in an environment of love and faith. But if you’re not a child, then you need to be making your own commitments. That process might be painful. You can imagine the personal crisis of Moses as he wrestled with his identity. It’s not comfortable, but it’s necessary.

If you attend church without a thought for what you can personally contribute, you’re behaving like a baby in a basket. If that seems harsh, just think about it: Moses was three months old when his parents put him in the basket. A three-month-old knows how to do about three things: eat, sleep and cry. There are more, but you get the idea. A three-month-old doesn’t care what else you have planned at 3 a.m. If the kid is hungry, you’re going to be awake. If the kid needs a diaper, it will not let you rest until it is warm and dry. We don’t expect babies to do anything more at that point because they are not capable of more. A baby in the basket expects everybody else to take care of its needs. Is that how you view your relationship with your church?

If you throw a fit when you don’t get your way, you’re behaving like a baby in a basket. If you whine when other people don’t meet your needs and expectations, you’re acting like a baby in a basket. Again, that doesn’t have anything to do with age. We’ve probably all known people who acted very much like babies when it came to church life. Everything revolved around them, and if they didn’t get what they wanted when they wanted it, you could expect a fit.

If everybody in your church were as committed to it as you are, would your church be better off, or would it be in trouble?

Moses was blessed to have protective parents; they rebelled against a culture of death in order to protect a helpless child. The church needs more people to outgrow their baskets, take ownership of their faith, and take on the responsibility of looking out for others, even when it’s difficult.

Be a fully functioning disciple, not a baby in the basket.

You do have time. Do it the Burls way.

The Brandon Burlsworth “Greater” movie opens this weekend. If you’re not familiar with his story, here’s the abbreviated version: an All-State lineman in high school, Brandon turned down scholarships from smaller colleges and chose instead to walk on at the University of Arkansas. By his sophomore year, he had earned a scholarship. By the time he played his final game, he had earned his bachelor’s and master’s degrees. He was on the academic All-SEC team and was a first team All-American, leading the Razorbacks to two SEC West titles. In the spring of 1999, Brandon was drafted by the Indianapolis Colts.

Brandon’s senior year was the only year that I ever had season tickets for the Razorbacks. Even from the cheap seats, everybody could see Brandon’s trademark Superman glasses. His was a great life story that ended all too soon. I was living in Little Rock that spring Brandon died in a car accident, just 10 days after he was drafted by the Colts.

All over Little Rock, people flew their Razorback window flags that week in April. It looked like gameday in midtown, all in honor of Brandon. I worked in the Prospect Building and lived in Forest Place right next door, a walkable distance to War Memorial, the central Arkansas home for the Razorbacks. Strangers on the elevator talked about how sad it was, how fun Brandon had been to watch, and what might have been.
Former Arkansas coach Houston Nutt was on the Dan Patrick show this morning, talking about Brandon’s work ethic, his life and his legacy. Coach Nutt shared something about Brandon’s final day that I didn’t know. Brandon had called Coach Nutt that Wednesday afternoon to let his coach know that he wouldn’t be at the team meeting that night. The Hogs were receiving their SEC rings for winning the west the previous season. Brandon was going to miss the ring ceremony because he was driving back home to Harrison to take his mom to their church for Wednesday night Bible study.
I’m not writing this to advocate for a rigid, legalistic church attendance. The nature of Brandon’s commitment to an All-American level SEC football surely caused him to miss more than a few church services along the way. But something about Brandon’s last day struck me. He told Coach Nutt he could get the ring later, but he really wanted to be at Bible study back home. Maybe it was because Brandon knew he he would be leaving soon for the NFL. He had no way of knowing he wouldn’t make it home that night. None of us do.

All these years later, there’s still the sadness that Brandon’s life was too short. But more than that, there’s the admiration of how well Brandon used the life that he had. You have time to do whatever you want to do. And as long as you’re alive, live.

Brandon Burlsworth

Weeping With Orlando

The following is taken from my sermon notes from this morning:

Before I get to my message this morning, I want to speak to a tragedy that will dominate the news this week. In case you haven’t heard, early this morning, a gunman opened fire in a night club in Orlando, Florida. The latest news reports say there are 50 people dead, and at least that many others wounded. The mayor of Orlando has asked the governor of Florida to declare a state of emergency. Local people in Florida are being asked to donate blood. In a nation that is no stranger to mass shootings, today’s goes on record as the worst mass shooting so far.

I read that news before I even got out of bed this morning. My reaction was a mixture of things. I was shocked, but I quickly moved on to be pre-annoyed at the reaction that I knew was coming. If the shooter turns out to be a conservative “Christian” then the left will go crazy. If the shooter turns out to be Muslim, the right will go crazy. People on both sides of the gun control issue will capitalize on the tragedy. The presidential political candidates will issue statements. This is all we’re going to see on the news for weeks. And by the way, it was a LGBT nightclub, which will bring in a whole other angle of the social war to this situation.

I started driving to church, with all that swirling in my mind. And then I heard the voice of a distraught mother being interviewed on the radio. It had been six hours since the shooting, and she still hadn’t heard from her son. You could hear her anguish.

It took me back to December 2012, when a gunman walked into Sandy Hook elementary school and took the lives of 20 children and six staff members. My daughters were the same age as the victims in Sandy Hook. I grieved hard that weekend. If you were here that Sunday morning in 2012, you may recall that I could barely keep it together. I grieved so hard that I could barely speak, because I could see my own children in those children. I could identify with those parents in their loss. And I wept with them.

This morning we Christians were on our way to church as we heard that 50 people died in an LBGT night club last night. There will be many opinions and many reactions… policy, ideology, morality. The social war will rage this week.

For a moment I felt morally superior as I considered that we should grieve for these victims because they are somebody’s children. And then I was reminded of a statement I read this week from Jefferson Bethke in his book “It’s Not What You Think.” He was writing about the female victims of sexual violence and how we sometimes say, “How could somebody do such a thing? She’s somebody’s sister, or somebody’s daughter.”

He notes that when we say that, we mean well. We’re trying to humanize a victim. But unintentionally we are actually devaluing her. Please listen carefully to these words: “We don’t realize that we are subtly tying one human’s value to another human’s value to have weighted value. A person isn’t valuable because she is someone’s daughter or sister; she is valuable and has dignity and worth because she bears the image of God. She is a human.

If every one of the victims from the Orlando shooting had been single, only-child orphans with no children of their own, they would still be human beings, created in the image of God and therefore worthy of our grief.

Heaven forbid that a mass shooting should happen in a Christian church this morning. But if it were to happen, and the news were about 50 Christians who died in church, would you expect LGBT people to say, “Well we really don’t agree with their lifestyle choice to be Christians and to have been in church this morning, but… it’s still sad that they’re dead, because they were somebody’s family member”?

Let us do as the Bible tells us in Romans 12:14-15: “Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep.”

A Distinctly American Islam?

We need to establish two facts about Jesus at the start: First, Jesus rejected political power for Himself, while urging obedience to the existing authorities (John 6:14-15). After Jesus miraculously fed thousands, they showed up the next day to make Him king by force. His reaction? He walked away to be by Himself. When people offered Jesus political power, He reacted the same way He did when people wanted to throw Him off a cliff.

Second, Jesus allowed His disciples to leave (John 6:53-67). When His teachings became too hard to understand or apply, some of His followers bolted. His reaction? He watched while they walked away.

Islam does not offer many examples of a Christlike rejection of political power and religious oppression. Unfortunately, Christianity often does not either.

In April of last year, the Pew Research Center published an article entitled “Why Muslims are the world’s fastest-growing religious group.” The opening paragraph sates that “Muslims will grow more than twice as fast as the overall world population between 2010 and 2050 and, in the second half of this century, will likely surpass Christians as the world’s largest religious group.”

The most recent estimates peg the current American Muslim population at around 3.3 million, or one percent of the total population. Pew projects that Islam will overtake Judaism as the second most popular American religion by 2050. Worldwide, Islam now thrives in areas that were historically Christian.

Perhaps the most dramatic example is Turkey. Home to the seven churches in the early chapters of Revelation, Turkey was Christian for 1000 years. Today, Turkey is 98% Muslim. Given the ongoing spread of Islam in America, what does the future hold for American Christianity? Should American Christians be scared of Islam?

In order understand the present, we need to understand the past. The Bill of Rights was ratified in 1791. The first amendment guarantees Americans liberty of conscience, the freedom to worship – or not worship – as they see fit:

Congress shall make no law respecting an establishment of religion, or prohibiting the free exercise thereof; or abridging the freedom of speech, or of the press; or the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the government for a redress of grievances.”

Most third graders can tell you that America was founded when Puritans fled persecution in England and wanted to establish a free place to worship. Funny hats, Native Americans, Thanksgiving and turkeys and all that stuff.

But how many people realize the extent of religious oppression that took place in the American Colonies prior to the Revolutionary War? I’m writing as a Baptist, and I’m proud of the role that Baptists played in the creation of American religious liberty as we know it. For a much deeper look into this subject, I would direct you to Louis Asher’s 1997 biography of John Clarke (1609-1676).

Very early in its establishment, the Massachusetts colony legislated both civil and religious obedience; the secular and ecclesiastical arms became inseparable. The colony of Massachusetts General Court ruled in 1631 that membership in a church of the Bay area was prerequisite to full rights of citizenship” (Asher).

The Puritans wanted to reform the Church of England from within. They still considered themselves to be Anglicans, calling it the Mother Church. They were centered in Boston, starting in around 1628. The Pilgrims wanted to reform the church from outside. They left England first for Holland because of persecution by Queen Elizabeth I, and then came to Plymouth Rock in 1620.

Baptists suffered greatly at the hands of the theocratic leadership of the Massachusetts Bay Colony. Thoroughly Puritan, they were violently oppressive of divergent theologies held by Quakers, Baptists and other dissenters. It is ironic that the same Puritans who had fled religious persecution in England practiced religious persecution of others once they had control in New England.

Dr. John Clarke was a Cambridge-educated physician and Baptist pastor who voluntarily left Massachusetts in about 1637 to help start a new colony where people could be free to worship as they pleased… or not worship at all. That colony became Rhode Island. Dr. John Clarke founded a religiously free colony 154 years before the ratification of the Bill of Rights.

That’s the same amount of time that has passed from the Civil War to today. In Rhode Island, Baptists were instrumental in the establishment of religious liberty long before the Bill of Rights. Baptists were fighting for freedom of conscience 100 years before James Madison (author of the Bill of Rights) was even born.

In Rhode Island, people were free to be Baptists,  Quakers or atheists. They were free to observe the Sabbath by going to church, or ignore it by plowing their fields. Such was not the case in Puritan Massachusetts. Baptists were instrumental in creating and preserving liberty of conscience, even for those who did not agree with them.

On July 16, 1651, Baptist pastors Dr. John Clarke and Obadiah Holmes, along with Deacon John Crandall, traveled 80 miles from Newport, Rhode Island to Lynn, Massachusetts. They went to assist one of their elderly church members who had lost his sight. The Baptists stayed over until the next Sunday, and Dr. Clarke preached to a small crowd who gathered at the house.

While Dr. Clarke was preaching, two constables entered the house and arrested the three Baptists. On their way back to Boston, the constables forced them to attend a worship service in a Puritan church. When the constables brought the Baptists in, the Baptists refused to remove their hats. They were charged with conducting a private religious service, wearing hats in a Puritan church service, denying the legitimacy of the Puritan church, and attempting to convert people from Puritan theology to Baptist theology.

They were all found guilty. Dr. Clarke’s sentence was a fine of 20 pounds, or to be publicly whipped and kept in prison until the fine was paid. Rev. Holmes was fined 30 pounds or lashes. The deacon was only fined five pounds. An anonymous donor paid Dr. Clarke’s fine and he was released on August 11th. Someone also offered to pay the fine for Rev. Holmes as well, but he refused and chose to be whipped instead.

Rev. Holmes was marched to Boston Common and received 90 stripes. Two bystanders named approached him and shook his. They were arrested and fined for giving comfort to a lawbreaker. One of them died shortly afterward.

Think about that for a minute. The Puritan government of Boston was so oppressive that it whipped a Baptist preacher for not taking off his hat in a Puritan worship service, and then jailed two bystanders for even shaking his hand.

For you trivia buffs, Henry Dunster privately owned the first printing press in America. He was also the first president of Harvard College, and in Boston Common the day that Obadiah Holmes was flogged for being a Baptist in Massachusetts.

Harvard had been formed in 1636, by the same Puritan court that demanded Puritan church membership in the colony. In fact, Harvard was originally a seminary for Puritan ministers. After watching the flogging of Rev. Holmes, Dunster eventually publicly identified himself as a Baptist. He refused to allow his child to be baptized and was forced to resign his position at Harvard in 1654. He went on to found the First Baptist Church of Boston.

Here’s the deal: If you were Jewish, atheist, Baptist or Muslim in Boston in the 1600s, you were out of luck. That’s why it was such a big deal that our founding fathers codified freedom of religion in the Bill of Rights in the 1700s. Before that, it was not a given that America would be a religiously tolerant place.

America was not founded to be a Christian nation; it was founded to be a free nation, whose citizens have historically been Christian.

European Christians were often jerks who viciously oppressed dissenters and heretics. William Tyndale was the first to translate the Bible from the original Greek and Hebrew into English. In 1536, the theocracy of England convicted him of heresy and strangled him before burning him at the stake. His crime? Translating the word of God into everyday language that regular people could read.

What does any of this have to do with present or future Islam in America? If you were a religious dissenter in England in the early 17th century, you would have longed for religious liberty. You can’t get much more un-Christian than strangling and burning somebody for translating the Bible into everyday language.

When those dissenters fled to America, they were initially just as intolerant as the theocracy they had fled in England. But over the next century, American Christians figured out how to craft something uniquely American: religious liberty. By the dawn of the 19th century, religious liberty was part of the American way of life.

Theocracies are bad. Christian theocracies were bad in 16th century England and in 17th century New England. They’re bad now in Sunni Islamic Saudi Arabia and Shia Islamic Iran. Our founding fathers had their issues, but they understood the dangers of established church-state religions, and they wanted no part of state religion here.

I routinely hear Christians today expressing concern about the growth of Islam in America. Their fear plays into the hands of politicians who exploit those fears for their own personal aggrandizement. But I want to propose something that may lessen those fears.

Looking back on English (and even American) Christianity of the past several hundred years is ugly. Jesus surely looked down in horror at the things that “Christians” did in His name. Jesus said that His followers would suffer, not that they would inflict suffering. Instead, the Christian church prostituted itself with state, and their illegitimate child was a spoiled, intolerant brat.

Love for Christ and love for one another as human beings made in the image of God was overshadowed by deeply corrupt avarice, both political and financial. In more recent history, Southern “Christians” perpetuated a system of slavery (and later segregation) that was antithetical to the heart of the gospel. They oppressed because they could, and they did it under the guise of religion.

Religious liberty eventually won out. The Christianity that ultimately took shape in America was fundamentally different from what England and greater Europe had known. After centuries of oppression and corruption, American Christianity was different; it was free. Once divorced from political power, a purer form of Christianity has thrived for generations in America.

For the most part, majority-Muslim countries today are not religiously diverse or tolerant of dissenting theologies. But what if there is a chance in America for a distinctly American Islam to flourish? If American Christianity could turn the tide of centuries of perverse Colonial American and European quasi-Christianity, then why can’t American Islam do the same?

I have fundamental theological differences with Islam. As a Christian, I affirm that Jesus was the Son of God in the flesh, that He died for my sins, was buried in a tomb, and was resurrected on the third day, and that He lives and is returning someday. I do not believe Islamic theology concerning Jesus or how all things will eventually come to an end. But I believe that Muslims have a right to immigrate to America and to practice their religion in America. They do not have a right to establish Sharia law to supplant American law.

Just as American Christians founded a uniquely free place, I hope and pray that American Muslims continue to reject the perverse theocratic oppression of their brothers around the world, and that they embrace the American ideal of freedom of conscience.

I don’t understand not living.

I understand dying. As youngsters, my brother and I attended more than our fair share of wakes, funerals and ICU waiting rooms with our father, a pastor. In my own ministry, I’ve eulogized many, sat with family members while their loved ones breathed their final breaths, and said goodbye to loved ones of my own. I navigated my way through college biology, gaining an elementary understanding of how the human body works… and how it inevitably quits working. Both physically and theologically, I understand dying.

In theological terms, death is separation. For the deceased, death severs the temporary component of personhood (the physical body) from the eternal one (the spirit). The body returns to the dust from which it came; the spirit lives forever. 

For the relatives left behind, death severs relationships. We survivors experience the acute pain of separation from our departed loved one, who is no longer here to laugh with us, listen to us, or make their signature banana pudding for us.

From a Christian perspective, the pain of death’s power is mitigated by the promise of eternal life in Christ. As Dr. Martin Luther King said,

“Death is not a period that ends the great sentence of life, but a comma that punctuates it to more lofty significance. Death is not a blind alley that leads the human race into a state of nothingness, but an open door which leads man into life eternal.”

I understand death. But I don’t understand not living.

Jesus didn’t die to save your body, or anyone’s body. Not from cancer, congestive heart failure, a car accident or an angry swarm of bees. Someday, you’re going to die. People die every day, and not necessarily because they are good or bad, healthy or unhealthy. We die because ever since Eden, death is part of living. If you’re not subject to death, then you’re not really alive. Rocks do not face death, for they are not alive to begin with. Physical death is part of life. But until you die, resolve to live.

Christ-followers believe that the finished work of Jesus on the cross provides salvation. The word salvation implies deliverance from some undesirable fate or danger. The heart of the gospel is that God took on flesh. Christ gave His own life as a sacrifice to redeem sinners from eternal death. That is the narrative of redemption, but that’s not the whole story. Here’s how Peter said it:

“It was not with perishable things such as silver or gold that you were redeemed from the empty way of life handed down to you from your forefathers, but with the precious blood of Christ.” -I Peter 1:18-19

Did you catch that? The blood of Christ not only redeems believers from eternal death. It also redeems from their “empty way of life.” Peter’s word “empty” could have also been translated deceptive, not what it appears to be, vain, or worthless. Half of Peter’s audience had received a cultural religion that was full of rules, traditions, holy days and dietary restrictions, but generally empty of any personal relationship with the Creator. Emptiness.

The other half of Peter’s audience would have received a religion of political power… full of lofty-sounding ideals, but offering no hope of eternal life. For them, the gods were detached and unknowable. Stoic self control was admirable, but since physical death meant the end of existence, the chief aim of existence was to enjoy life while one could. Again, emptiness.

In Walden, Thoreau famously wrote of his fear of reaching death only to discover the he had never truly lived:

“I did not wish to live what was not life… I wanted to live deep and suck out all the marrow of life… to put to rout all that was not life.”

I met Thoreau the summer I turned 13. My teacher was Robin Williams’ Mr. Keating, as Dead Poets Society opened my eyes to a world that I’d never known, a world of beauty and poetry. Years later I grieved at the death of Robin Willliams, because I so deeply appreciated the gift that he had given me, opening my eyes to the world of words and beauty.

Sometimes, beauty can be so overwhelming that it’s almost painful. But in those moments, I’m reminded that I’m alive.

And so I pursue beauty, because beauty makes me feel alive. Teaching makes me feel alive. Even though I’m an introvert, I’m energized when standing before a crowd, sharing timeless truths and new insights. Nature makes me feel alive. Adrenaline surges when I’m floating through river rapids, wading through pre-dawn icy water, or standing atop a 2000 foot granite ledge in Yosemite. I need to feel alive.What makes you feel alive?

Part of our being made in the image of God is our capacity to love, forgive, plan, dream, and maybe most of all, to create. We are not merely animals. We are hard-wired to do something besides just eating and paying bills and procreating until we die. If you’re a believer, you’re not just redeemed from eternal separation from God – you’re also redeemed from an empty way of life. So don’t live in emptiness.

Do something. Leave a legacy. Love somebody. Beef up your obituary. Feel scared. See a sunrise. Create. Provide. Paint. Write. Feed your soul. Eat great food you can’t afford.

Someday, you’re going to die. But until then, for God’s sake, live.


See kids, math really is useful in real life.

I remember it like it was yesterday. We were sitting in Mr. Pinkerton’s classroom in De Queen Middle School. The first Bush was president, and the Internet had not been invented. We’d never heard of iPhones, and Mr. Pinkerton was using white chalk on a green chalkboard to teach us about algebraic equations.

And then it happened. One of my fellow students said the words that should have remained in his head. The student spoke the words to the heavens, not directly to the teacher. He spoke them as a lament: “What are we ever gonna use this stuff for anyway?” Mr. Pinkerton’s face instantly turned stoplight-red. For a few seconds, he said nothing. But it didn’t take him long to frame a response to the student.

We could always judge the severity of Mr. Pinkerton’s displeasure by the intensity of the V-shaped veins on his forehead. This was a biggie, a solid eight on the V-scale.

Math was never my favorite subject. I sailed through the humanities with effortless glee, but math required too much from me. I did learn to appreciate the inherent practical value of math, and even enjoyed using my hard-won geometry skills to help a former boss compute angles on a deck he was building.

But the question remains: “What are we ever gonna use this for anyway?” Well hold on kids, you’re about to learn.

Yesterday I was at the Gillham EZ-Mart. If you’re not familiar with those terms, please allow me to define them briefly. Gillham: A town in rural southwest Arkansas. It is home to about 200 souls, at least that many dogs, and one EZ-Mart. EZ-Mart: A regional chain of convenience stores, with locations in Arkansas, Louisiana, Oklahoma and Texas.

In rural communities without a grocery store (or any other store for that matter), EZ-Mart sells the things that will save you a trip to “town.” Stop in for coffee and some smokes, or treat yourself to something fried on a stick. Or if you’re prone to gambling, you can indulge in a lottery ticket and prepackaged chicken salad sandwich. The recently-constructed location in nearby Lockesburg is a veritable piazza, a monument to small-town commerce, caffeine and community life.

As I was filling my 32 oz. fountain drink, I noticed a shifty guy beside me. He looked like he had just stepped out of casting for Caddyshack. There was a brown leather jacket, stringy mullet, and camouflage pants. Think Rambo, not Realtree.

He grabbed a 16 oz. styro coffee cup and began filling it, but not with coffee. No. That would be too boring, too predictable for EZ-Mart. This gentleman was filling his coffee cup with sugar, repeatedly pressing the sugar button at the coffee station. Each press of the button produced an electronic ejection of sugar, with a sound reminiscent of a science fiction laser gun from the 1970’s. “P-shew… P-shew… P-shew.”

Like most of you, I was taught not to stare. I failed. I gawked sideways as he filled his coffee cup to the rim with sugar, capped it with a lid, gathered his other purchases (a Dr. Pepper and a snack of some sort) and proceeded to the check out. He purchased a cup full of sugar, but paid for it as if it were coffee.

Last night was a bad night at our house. Donald Trump did great in the Super Tuesday voting, and our cat died. I needed a distraction. And so I turned off CNN and started thinking about the guy who bought a coffee cup full of sugar. What was his angle? Unlike the popularity of Donald Trump or Golden Corral, maybe this was a phenomenon I could actually solve. And the answer lies with math. So buckle up, kids. Let’s do a word problem…

Joe Dirt purchased 16 fl. oz. of sugar for .99 at the Gillham EZ-Mart. Question: How much did Joe steal, if any?

We have some knowns (what Joe paid for, and what he actually received) and some unknowns (the value of what Joe actually received). Math is our friend here. And Google.

EZ Mart Sugar

We need to establish the retail value of what Joe received. As pictured, EZ-Mart sells 32 dry ounces of granulated sugar for $2.99. That yields a retail value of .09 per dry ounce ($2.99/32) of sugar. A non-conformist, Joe instead paid .99 for 16 fluid ounces, or .06 per fl. oz. (.99/16). We’re not done, because we’re not yet comparing apples to apples.

In order to solve our problem, we must know how much a fluid ounce of sugar weighs, because EZ-Mart doesn’t sell sugar in the manner in which Joe chose to purchase it yesterday. For this unknown, we must consult Google. We learn that granulated sugar weighs 7.1 dry oz. per U.S. standard measuring cup, which is 8 fl. oz. This one is easy: if 8 fluid ounces of sugar weighs 7.1 dry ounces, then 16 fl. oz. of sugar weighs 14.2 dry oz. (7.1×2).

Using the coffee cup, Joe paid .99 for 14.2 dry ounces of sugar, for a rate of .07 per dry oz. (.99/14.2). The retail value of EZ-Mart sugar is .09 per dry oz. For each dry ounce of sugar that Joe surreptitiously purchased in his coffee cup, he had a net ill-gotten gain of .02 (.09 retail value less the .07 he actually paid).

When we extend that over the entirety of his 14.2 dry oz. sugar purchase, Joe beat the Gillham EZ-Mart out of .28 (14.2x.02) with his treachery.

See kids, math IS useful in everyday life.

And may God forgive Joe Dirt for stealing .28 from the Gillham EZ-Mart.




If Donald Trump is the answer, we’re asking the wrong question.

Disclaimer: These views are my own, and do not represent the views of the church I serve, or the network of churches with which we associate.

I have been interested in politics and national events since I was a kid. I remember being in kindergarten, sitting in my dad’s lap and watching President Carter on the news. I would eat my Lucky Charms and ask questions about national politics. My interest in politics never waned, even though I’ve never run for office and have no intentions of ever doing so. I did a little campaign work years ago. I even got to ride in a presidential motorcade once, but that’s another story for another time.

I consider myself to be well-informed about current events of consequence, especially about the current presidential race. It’s not that I’m smarter than most. I’m just passionate about politics, like other people are passionate about sports or movies. Those who know me best would affirm that I’m not given to hyperbole, I’m not really excitable, and I rarely use exclamation points in normal communication. I’m writing now because this political cycle worries me more than any in my lifetime.

Specifically, Donald Trump worries me. I blocked off some time today to write a post about why Trump is dangerous, and how he inspires false confidence. I was going to document how he is a narcissistic, yet ultimately spineless bully. Like many bullies, Trump has a big mouth and likes to pick on the weak. But also like many bullies, Trump backs down when punched in the mouth. He follows a regular and predictable pattern of blustering about somebody, but backing off his comments when the inevitable pushback comes.

Trump angered me with his “Mexicans are rapists” rhetoric, trying to pander to white nationalist fears. My daughters attend an elementary school in Southwest Arkansas that is 80% Hispanic. My Hispanic neighbors are hardworking people who want a better life for their kids. They risked their lives for a shot at the American Dream, just like most of us would if we had not been born in America.

We could talk about how Trump is not really any of the things that people claim to support him for being. We could punch holes in his conservatism, his family values, his faith and his business success. But in the end, I decided not to write about all that, because all that’s already been said. And it’s been said by people who are much better at it than I am.

The simple, sad fact of the matter is that it doesn’t even matter. Donald Trump doesn’t lose support, even when he’s proven to be false, or says the most cruel, vile, hurtful, narcissistic, un-Christian and misogynistic things. I can only come to the conclusion that his supporters don’t care what kind of person he is. And if they don’t care, I can’t make them care. Trump is probably the nominee that we will get, because he’s the nominee that our reality-TV-loving society deserves.

I’m writing today because my state (Arkansas) holds its presidential primary tomorrow, as part of the so-called Super Tuesday vote, or as we call it down here, the SEC Primary. As I write, Senator Cruz holds a four point lead at 27% in the polls, followed by Trump and Senator Rubio, tied at 23%. I will take it as a small consolation if my state does not end up in the Trump column when it’s all said and done.

If Trump does become president, I will do my best to be respectful. I’ve often been disappointed in my fellow pastors for their lack of respect for President Obama. We are not called to agree with our leaders, but we have a biblical mandate to honor them. If the New Testament commanded believers to honor Nero, then surely we can honor our leaders. But for now, Trump is not the president, and so I can openly say that I have zero respect for him whatsoever. I pray that he does not become my president. And until he is my president, I can say without reservation that he is one of the most dangerous individuals to attempt to enter public service in my lifetime.

I suspect that many evangelicals support Trump because of a deep-seated fear that our Christian-American way of life is in danger. If that’s true, and believers are looking to Trump to somehow preserve American Christian liberty, then it demonstrates an abject lack of faith. If Trump is the answer, we’re asking the wrong question. The New Testament clearly shows that political power is absolutely unnecessary for the church to be both pure and effective.

“The church” was most spiritually anemic and malicious at the times when it wielded the most political power. If Jesus had intended for the church to marry the state, He would have said so. Instead, Jesus told the disciples to honor and respect the pagan governments under which they served and suffered. And lest we forget, Jesus turned down the opportunity to be king (that’s a lower-case k, a politician).

And so I write this so that I’m on record, not with hopes that I’m going to change anybody’s mind. Instead, I write this to publicly state my disappointment in a Republican base that seems bent on destroying their own party, if not the nation which they claim to love. Intellectually, I’ve been a conservative all my life, and yet I do not rail against liberals and Democrats for being what they are. But I’m railing on Republicans for what they’re about to do. At this moment, I’m ashamed of the Republican Party.

I’m ashamed for an abject lack of leadership within the party for not getting ahead of the Trump problem. I’m ashamed of Republicans who’ve listened to so much Fox News and talk radio that they’re willing to trust Donald Trump to save Christmas, Christianity, baseball, apple pie and western civilization. Finally, I’m ashamed of Baptist pastors who endorse Trump. At best, they’re aligning themselves with the man they think will win. At worst, they actually agree with him. I don’t get it.

Trump scares me, but not just because of what he represents and the implications for America today. Trump scares me because of the lessons of history, and a much bigger prophetic principle at work. If we correctly understand Revelation, a powerful, dynamic, wonder-working leader is coming, and he will convince the majority of the world to willingly follow him. We’ve seen it before, and we’ll see it again, on a grand scale.

People feel scared and downtrodden. Give them a powerful leader who serves up a scapegoat, along with promises of greatness in exchange for overlooking his obvious character flaws.

Watch interviews of Trump supporters, and you’ll routinely hear a form of, “Well I really like him because he says what he thinks.”
There’s a reason why sewers have covers.

Jesus said, “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit. You brood of vipers, how can you who are evil say anything good? For the mouth speaks what the heart is full of” (Matthew 12:33-34).

Speaking Well of Mr. Hardin

Bill Hardin blogThe Hardin family moved to De Queen in the early 1990’s, and Mr. Bill became part of the church where my dad served as pastor for almost 30 years. Not long after Mr. Bill moved to town, I graduated from high school and left town for more than a decade. After becoming a pastor myself, I returned to De Queen to transition my dad into retirement several years ago. I only knew Mr. Bill a short time in the prime of his life before he began his prolonged, difficult battle with the disease that ultimately claimed his physical life just a few days ago.

Mr. Bill walked a tough road that very few people must walk, suffering from a very rare disease called corticobasal degeneration. It only affects about six of every 100,000 people. He suffered greatly as the disease robbed him of one ability after another… mobility, speech, and ultimately breathing itself. It is a cruel illness, and maybe someday we will find a cure for it. But this is not about the disease that took his life; it’s about the determination with which he faced that disease.

Earlier this week I eulogized Mr. Bill as I stood before his friends and family during his funeral service. Our word eulogy is borrowed from the ancient Greeks, and the New Testament writers used it quite often. It is usually translated as blessed. But if you break it down, to eulogize is simply to speak well of somebody.

He and Mrs. Hardin were married for over 51 years. That in itself is an incredible testimony. For all those years, he loved and cared for his family. His son said of their family’s ethos, “For all the work and for everything else, when it’s all said and done, what’s left is love.” Mr. Bill demonstrated a great deal of love: for God, for his family, and for his friends.

Like all believers should be, Mr. Bill was a hard worker. His family was never in need of anything. He was a dedicated employee, going to work early and staying late. His career enabled him to travel and see Europe.

On his own time, Mr. Bill loved to go “junkin.” He loved estate sales and local festivals. He was known for pulling over on the side of the road to capture a lost hubcap… even if it was on the side of the interstate. He loved to acquire rare things; one of his favorite phrases was, “This is kindy unusual.” He loved to get a good deal, and was always on the hunt for a bargain. His shop is full of these “kindy unusual things” and acquired bargains.

As a young man, Mr. Bill was often sick. At one point, he had missed so much school that he thought about giving up, about quitting school altogether. His mother was in tears and pleaded with him to keep going and finish school. He stuck it out and eventually graduated from high school. From there he went on to Mississippi State University. Getting him through college was a sacrifice for his parents. At one point, it was time for him to return to Starkville and they were $30 short. Today, $30 is a tank of gas or an inexpensive meal out. At that moment, $30 amounted to a financial crisis.

The family just happened to have some junk out in the yard. Somebody just happened to pass by and buy this pile of junk… for $30. And because of that pile of junk, Mr. Bill’s education continued. His mom saw it in spiritual terms: “The Lord will provide.” He was the first college graduate in his family. He became an engineer, specializing in injection molded plastics manufacturing. He managed operations in his native Mississippi and in Arkansas until his retirement.

He was good at stories. For several years, he owned an antiques dealership in Mississippi. He was a Civil War buff, an interest that I inherited from my own father. During our visits in his final months, Mr. Bill and I spent a lot of time talking about sieges, landings, ironclads, cannonballs and generals. His mind was sharp, right up until the end. I’m going to miss our talks. Personally, his faith and endurance were an encouragement to me.

He’s not the first terminal patient who’s faced his dire physical situation with faith-filled endurance. Nor will he be the last. Society, history and pop culture provide us with no shortage of examples of ‘tough guys.’ That phrase itself probably conjures up images for you. In his final months, confined to a hospital bed in his own home, Mr. Hardin probably did not look tough. But appearances can be very deceiving.

Mr. Bill was a good friend. He loved to hang out with his friends in the Rusty Relics tractor club. He was the magneto man, the chairman of carburetors. It would be an understatement to say that he was mechanically inclined. When he was a teenager, he built his own first car from the ground up. When his tractor enthusiast friends needed help with a project, they knew they could count on Mr. Bill.

As his illness progressed, Mr. Bill did not sleep well at all. He spent many long nights lying awake, unable to move or care for himself. He thought a lot about his friend Dewey, who lived just across the way. They had been neighbors and friends for decades. They helped each other with engines and projects. They shared the sort of unspoken mutual respect that quiet, independent, hard-working, resourceful Southern men have for one another.

Mr. Bill knew that just through the woods, his friend Dewey was in the fight of his own life. They both passed away within a few months of one another. Maybe he never said it in these exact words, but Mr. Bill loved his friend Dewey. And during those long quiet hours while the rest of the world rested, Mr. Bill would lie awake, fighting his own pain, facing his own mortality, and praying unceasingly for his friend Dewey.

Rev. Larry Moore ministered to the Hardin family as their hospice chaplain. During the funeral service, Rev. Moore compared Mr. Bill to the biblical Joseph, a man who suffered so greatly, and yet without bitterness. And not just that; he was still looking out for others even while enduring his own crisis.

Mr. Bill was one of the most faithful and brave men I’ve ever personally known. From visit to visit, I could see his physical condition declining. In the final months as he lost the ability to speak… I did more talking than he did. I would read some Psalms to him, and it seemed to calm him. In one of our last, good long talks, we spoke a lot about heaven, about hope, and about peace. He longed for his situation to change. We all did. We all prayed that things would be different, but they weren’t. God never promised us that our lives would be easy, that we would be free from pain, or that we would be miraculously delivered from cruel conditions like C.B.D. God has promised that we would never be alone, no matter how long the nights are.

Christ did not conquer death in order to redeem our physical bodies. He died to conquer death and redeem our souls, so that what make us really us can live forever.

In 1642, an English poet wrote a poem to his love, from prison:

Stone Walls do not a Prison make,
Nor Iron bars a Cage;
Minds innocent and quiet take
That for an Hermitage.
If I have freedom in my Love,
And in my soul am free,
Angels alone that soar above,
Enjoy such Liberty.

Mr. Bill was imprisoned by a body that had turned against itself. And yet still he was free. During those long sleepless nights, he would lie awake… rebuilding carburetors from the inside out, and restoring tractors from the ground up. And he would pray for his friend just down the way.

Everybody struggles with something. No matter how strong we appear, we all have some battle that keeps us up and causes us pain. We didn’t choose it, and we can’t lose it.

It’s not the battle itself that defines us; it’s how we fight.

On Pastoring

This morning, like most mornings, I stopped at the corner store to get some caffeine on my way to the office. The clerk was on the top step of a step ladder, with her back to me, stocking cigarettes. I put my drink on the counter, showed her the money, and offered to just leave it on the counter so she could ring it up at her convenience. Since I probably purchase the same item 200 times year, I have the total amount down to the penny.

“I’ve seen you ring me up enough times. I could probably hop behind the counter and ring it up myself. But you guys probably don’t want to get that started here,” I joked to her. I heard a laugh from the storage room, where her coworker was working on the books. Everybody likes it when people laugh at their jokes.

The clerk laughed and replied, “Seeing as how you’re a pastor, I think that’d be fine!”

For some reason it hit me. If I ever need a reminder that I’m in the Bible Belt, I never have to wait long for it. I know she was half-joking, but there is some truth to it: “You’re a preacher. It’s a small town in the south. Help yourself to the cash register.”

I live in the buckle of the Bible Belt. Local churches (including ours) will host the hometown football team for a pregame meal every Friday afternoon before home games. Almost every social media post originating from my zip code in the past 24 hours has been supportive of the court clerk in Kentucky who went to jail rather than granting same sex marriage licenses.

I was instantly reminded of something that a church-planter friend of mine had posted just 18 hours before. He’s not so much in the Bible Belt. To be correct, his city technically is in the Bible Belt, but it’s an outpost of modernity, higher education and skepticism, in a region that’s not generally known for those things.

Here’s what my church-planting friend said: “It’s hard to put into reports how often people see me reading my bible and then start loud conversations about how Christians are bigots because they oppose gay marriage.”

If I carry a bible into our local coffee shop on the court house square, I’m likely to have someone offer to buy my lunch, not argue with me. Every week is a home game for me. I’m on familiar ground. I grew up here. I know this place and these people. I love this place and these people. And I realize I’ve got it comparatively easy here.

This week I was doing some background on Thessalonians for our Wednesday night bible study at our church. I was reading John MacArthur’s notes from 2011 as he thanked his church for being a blessing to him like the Thessalonians had been to the apostle Paul:

“God also knew the limits of my weakness. And He knew that He had to put me in a church that was just well-nigh perfect, where I would be loved and supported and encouraged and prayed for and cared for and listened to so that it could continue. There are plenty of churches, you must know this, where if I tried to go there and teach through one book, they’d throw me out, let alone the whole New Testament.

The Lord also knew the limitations of my tolerances and knew that perhaps I couldn’t handle some of the things that others are asked to handle, or I might have lost my focus or left. It doesn’t run in the genes in our family. I think my Dad pastored twelve churches. And when something went wrong, he would feel he needed to go to another place.”

I was struck by MacArthur’s humility. He has led a thriving church for 46 years now. He’s preached through the entire New Testament more than once, and produced a set of commentaries that will be his legacy. And now, nearing the end of his ministry, MacArthur thanks God for giving him an easy, supportive congregation to pastor. Because he might not have been able to handle a tougher flock. That’s humility on high parade.

To my brothers in the Bible Belt: No, not everybody agrees with you. No, people don’t come to church because they’re supposed to. Why not? Because it’s not the 1950’s anymore. We can mourn that, or we can thank God that it’s not the 1950’s anymore. It may have been the glory days of evangelicalism in America… but the Russians were threatening to annihilate us, and African American kids couldn’t go to school with white kids. I didn’t live back then, but I’m not sad those days are gone. Let’s stop whining about how hard we have it, just because we’re going to be in the religious/cultural minority before long. As Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “Unmerited suffering is redemptive.” Let’s stand up and take it like men.

To my brothers out in the trenches on the front lines: I love you guys. Maybe I’ll be there with you someday, playing on the road every week. Until then, I’m not questioning your motives and your methods. You’re in a hostile environment, and church is going to look different there. I celebrate you and your work. Keep your chins up. Go get it.