Alphabet Gospel

A
broken
command
divides
Eden-earth
from
God,
humanity’s
“I ate.”
Jesus — King, Lord, Master, now on earth
proclaiming,
praying,
preparing,
quoting,
quenching,
quieting,
remained
sinless,
taking
upon Himself a
vile
world —
executed,
yet, risen, brings us to
Zion

A Temporary Home

(Our Christmas letter generated enough comments that I decided to publish to a wider audience.)

Dear friends and family,

As most of you know, 2014 was a year of transition for our family. We sold our Mableton home and moved into a newly constructed home in Kennesaw, Georgia. We are so thankful to God for this new house. It has so many great features for Gwendolyn, like a roll-in shower and lots of hardwood floors for her to walk around on in her gait trainer. There is plenty of room for the boys, inside and outside. The location also puts us much closer to our fantastic church (Burnt Hickory Baptist) and great schools for all of our children.

But it was the in-between time, the time we were in a rental house, that I want to share about with you. We jokingly called it our “Acworth Exile.” The rental house was very small, had stairs to Gwendolyn’s bedroom, and was not ready for us when we arrived (no bathrooms were completely finished/working). We had to deal with lots of dust and bugs. And half the garage was full of the landlord’s stuff. It was temporary and a work in progress.

There were some good things, though. All the appliances were new. The location was close to Aidan’s school. We had access to a pool and basketball court. The lease was month-to-month. And, we knew it was temporary. Our new house was being built. We could go see the progress (though sometimes it seemed slow) and imagine what it would be like to move in. So, we crossed off the days on a Steelers calendar and made it work. It was just temporary.

Jesus, who is God Himself, left His forever home to temporarily make his home among us. He gave up His divine rights and power to become an infant, a child, then a man of no privilege. He became a servant to those whom He created and who could not fathom His purpose. We were not prepared for Him. He had to deal with dust and bugs. He left the grandeur and perfection of heaven to sweat, and cry, and hurt, and hunger, and ultimately to be rejected and killed. But He decided we were worth the temporary move. As it says in Hebrews 2:9, “But we see him who for a little while was made lower than the angels, namely Jesus, crowned with glory and honor because of the suffering of death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone.

1298 Hamilton Creek Drive is not our permanent home, either. As believers in Jesus, we trust Him when He said, “In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also.” (John 14:2-3). Jesus is preparing a new heaven and a new earth as our forever home! So, while there is pain and heartache here — while there are temporary laughs and glimpses of eternity – while we gratefully accept our tasks and responsibilities for now – our real home is yet to come. We can’t always see the progress, and we don’t know how many days to mark on the calendar, but God is a builder we can trust. We can imagine (a little) what it will be like to move in. Throughout time, God’s people “desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” (Hebrews 11:16)

Our prayer for your family is that Christmas will remind you of Jesus’ temporary home with us and then you will turn your faith toward that city which God is building for those who trust in Him.

May God bless your temporary home and prepare you for the eternal one!

Thank you, Mr. Truett Cathy: My Tribute

I am rarely affected by the deaths of our culture’s celebrities. But, since I heard about Mr. Truett Cathy’s decline and then death, today, I have been saddened more than I expected. His life and example loom large in mine. Chick-fil-A, the company he started, guided, and ultimately bestowed upon his family has had a huge influence on my life.

At age 15, I took my first permanent job at the Chick-fil-A mall store at Orlando Fashion Square. At 16, my Operator, Henry Dixon, saw something in me that I didn’t see in myself. He promoted me to Assistant Manager with the responsibility of closing the store three nights per week. I learned so much about managing people and customer service during those years. And I worked with a fantastic team. I was even selected to help with a Grand Opening at another Florida store. Henry is still a family friend after over two decades that I have been gone. It was the best job I ever had, and I was there almost 4 years until I went away to Berry College. (btw – I know how everything is made — or was — and I still pay to eat there often. They do things the right way.)

I received both the $1,000 Chick-fil-A Scholarship and the $10,000 WinShape Scholarship (sponsored by Chick-fil-A). I was one of about 100 WinShape students at Berry. We had our meeting at 10 pm on Monday nights (oh, those wacky college schedules). Truett came and spoke to us several times in my years there. He was always funny, told rambling stories, and personable. He was more like a grandfather than a big company CEO. He encapsulated Biblical wisdom into his own unique phrase-ology. For example, he told us that one of his secrets was that if he “gave everyone what they wanted, he would get what he wanted.” That’s servant-leadership, homespun. Its also the perfect model for customer service – something for which I have been rewarded at many jobs after Chick-fil-A. It was through Berry, Chick-fil-A, and WinShape that God challenged my faith and called back into a relationship with Him. I briefly worked at the CFA at Cumberland Mall in Atlanta and met Stephen Kendrick (one of the movie brothers). Our faith conversations were instrumental in moving me back toward church. Another co-worker, Rodney Long, invited me to his church, which got me connected to my future wife (another long story), and — WOW, God really did use Chick-fil-A to change my life.

My mom and sister both worked at Chick-fil-A. (And, yes, I was their boss, but those are stories for another day.) I met my wife at Berry College, and she eventually worked as an accountant for the Chick-fil-A Home Office. She still does contracting work for Chick-fil-A. With her, I had the opportunity to attend several Operator Seminars. One in particular stands out, and I think was a watershed moment for Chick-fil-A. Dan Cathy (Truett’s son) had not yet ascended to his current position as President (and now, CEO). I think he was a VP. However, he spoke about servant leadership and pointed to Jesus’ example of washing the disciples’ feet. He then updated the application by providing everyone in the room with shoe polishing brushes. He proceeded to shine the shoes of his dad and President Jimmy Collins (and probably many others). Soon the whole auditorium was down polishing shoes. I don’t know all the company lore, but I think this was the beginning of what he now calls “second mile service” — all based on the example of Jesus. Truett and Jeanette raised their children right. Their daughter, Trudy, was a foster parent and helped grow their system of family-based foster care (it was about 9 homes back then).

I have heard Truett speak on several occasions. I have met him and shook his hand and said, “thank you.” He wouldn’t remember me, but I will never forget the impact he has made on me. He is the one I think about from Jesus’ parable of the talents. Some servants receive a huge responsibility, but they prove themselves faithful. That was Truett. The news stories focus on how much he had (describing him first as a billionaire). I think about how much he gave away. I don’t have access to any financial figures, but I know that he just kept on giving. One example is Southwest Christian Care. It is a hospice, senior care facility, and a respite center for medically fragile children. My daughter has received free weekends there over the last several years, giving us invaluable respite. All the hospice care is also free. I went to their fund raising dinner last year. Truett Cathy was the chairman of their board (I think) and was a long-time donor. Foster homes, Camp WinShape, scholarships, helping deserving folks start their own Chick-fil-A units, and so much more. These are the legacy of Mr. Cathy (outside his family, of course).

And even more, I think about his commitment to the most important things. Family – he always spoke glowingly of his wife, Jeanette. He challenged his children to work hard and not just expect to inherit the business. Faithful service – as long as I knew about him, he taught 13 year olds boys Sunday School. Worship – he would never compromise on stores being closed on Sunday. (The media seems to find this fascinating. At my store, we made more money in six days than all the other restaurants did in 7. There is an important “secret” here: Chick-fil-A has better employees. Simply put, those who want Sundays off are more likely Christians. And those Christians who value Sunday worship are more likely to be better, more faithful employees. And better rested, too! I’m sure that will enrage some, but visit any Chick-fil-A and compare the quality of employee with any McDonald’s, Burger King, Wendy’s, Arby’s or any other quick service restaurant. Chick-fil-A is easily the best. Consider this: in an industry that averaged 200% annual turnover, I had basically the same crew of teens working with me 3 nights per week for over 2 years.) No matter what challenge, success, or controversy, Truett kept his focus on the non-negotiables.

Chick-fil-A’s corporate purpose is “To glorify God by being a faithful steward of all that is entrusted to us. To have a positive influence on all who come in contact with Chick-fil-A.” I can think of no greater example of this than Mr. S. Truett Cathy. He was a faithful steward of what God entrusted to him and he was MUCH more than just a positive influence on me. Thank you, Mr. Cathy, for all that you did for me and my family. We will never be the same. And, somehow, I am sure that he is teaching the angels his favorite chant: “Is everybody happy? H-A-P-P-Y!”

How Far Our Nation Has Turned From Thee

A villanelle inspired by the book of Jeremiah.

How far our nation has turned from Thee
To Whom we once pledged our faith and trust.
But yet You call to us, “return to Me.”

Choosing chains, yet declaring we are free
Still earth-bound to our own pleasure and lust.
How far our nation has turned from Thee!

Pursuing wisps of fame, power and prosperity
We forsake what is right and just.
But yet You call to us, “return to Me.”

Bowing to desire, but not bending our knee,
Our occasional pleas for help scatter as dust.
How far our nation has turned from Thee!

Praising the sins we ought to flee,
We claim it is Your commands that should adjust.
But yet You call to us, “return to Me.”

Worshiping all but You, why can’t we see
Your judgments upon us are discipline not disgust.
How far our nation has turned from Thee
But yet You call to us, “return to Me!”

Applies equally to Judah at the time of Jeremiah or the United States today.

I Will Remember

Last weekend, Melanie and I had the honor to visit the National Infantry Museum just outside Fort Benning in Columbus, Georgia. The entrance exhibit is called “The Last 100 Yards.” It is a ramp 100 yards long on which the stories of ten important U.S infantry battles are depicted in dramatic scenes. The infantry, they say, has to own the last 100 yards of the battle field in order to defeat our enemies. The museum also includes an overwhelming amount of the history of the U.S. Army throughout all our nation’s conflicts. It is a stirring tribute. There is something very emotional about seeing these reminders of all who fought and sacrificed for our country. I had to think about why.

Some would say that there is no room for patriotism for Christians. Jesus’ kingdom is not of this world. Our citizenship is in heaven, and there our hearts must be focused. There is no dual allegiance or dual citizenship, they would argue. I disagree, as I have written previously. Yes, our ultimate allegiance is to Jesus and His Kingdom, but America, at least in its founding ideals, exemplifies many Christian principles.

Duty, loyalty, personal courage, integrity, honor, respect – these are the ideals carved into the glass columns at the beginning of The Last 100 Yards. These are the traits which mark the best of America’s men and women who gave their lives defending our freedoms and advancing the cause of freedom around the world. It was Americans who turned the tide to end the seemingly endless and useless brutality of World War I. It was America who broke the Nazi stronghold on  Europe and liberated the death camps. It was America that fought back Japanese imperialism in Asia and the Pacific. It was America (primarily) who fought back the Communists in Korea, giving South Korea the opportunity for freedom. (Now, South Korea is one of the top three missionary-sending countries in the world.)

But what gets me so emotional when I see the tradition, brotherhood, commitment, and honor of our military throughout our history? At its best, it reflects the ideals of God’s Kingdom and Jesus, Himself. It was Jesus who never swerved from his duty to purchase our pardon from sin. It was Jesus who called us into a community united by a common mission. It was Jesus who walked the last 667 yards (using the Via Dolorosa as an approximation) to Calvary to die on the cross for our sins. It was Jesus whose death and resurrection won the victory over sin, death, and the forces of evil. And it is Jesus whose armor still protects us today as our defeated foe still tries to ambush us (see Ephesians 6:10-17).

So, as Memorial Day approaches, I will remember. I will remember those who gave their lives, so that I might have freedom. I will remember the families who grieve and mourn and, yet, carry on. I will remember there are missions that are worth the cost. And I will remember the Savior who remembered me.

When You Cannot Walk – A Gait Trainer Faith

Our daughter, Gwendolyn, cannot walk. She cannot even sit up on her own for very long. However, we have a device called a gait trainer to help her practice walking and strengthen her legs and torso. It has a saddle and a wide, chest belt to hold her upright. There are supports to keep her legs in line and rests for her arms. Finally it has wheels that make motion possible.

Last night I was helping her walk. I push her gait trainer along as she moves her feet and holds some of her weight. She is pretty good with her right leg, but she usually lets her left foot drag. Normally, she walks between the foyer and the kitchen, but we tried something new. We walked to her bedroom, which is down a fairly long hallway with a turn. She started giggling as we made it about halfway. She seemed to be excited about the journey. She did a good job of trying to keep her feet moving and holding up her weight. I was so proud of her that I gave her claps and kisses and cheers. Why? Because she did it all on her own? No, because she did what she could. I understand her weaknesses, and I want to help her along.

That made a Scripture come to mind: “For we do not have a high priest who cannot sympathize with our weaknesses, but One who has been tempted in all things as we are, yet without sin.” (Hebrews 4:15). Jesus, our high priest, is well-acquainted with my weaknesses. Weakness, in the original Greek, is astheneia. Helps Word Studies defines it as “an ailment that deprives someone of enjoying or accomplishing what they would like to do.” For Gwendolyn, her mitochondrial disease deprives her of mobility (among other things). Spiritually speaking, my weakness is sin, and it deprives me of the life I really want to live.

Jesus did not come to mock my weakness or to leave me in it. Instead, He came to walk me through it, with the power that He can provide. I certainly have my part to do, but, similar to Gwendolyn, my ability to walk the Christian life is severely hampered. I must have help. Thankfully, the indwelling Holy Spirit is there cheering me on: “In the same way the Spirit also helps our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we should, but the Spirit Himself intercedes for us with groanings too deep for words” (Romans 8:26). I may not even understand why I am struggling, but the Spirit knows exactly how to set my feet for the next step I need to take.

A gait trainer is designed so that the person using it may gradually walk on their own. Supports and restraints can be removed. The wheels can be loosened from a single direction to allow movement in all directions. However, it may also remain to allow for a degree of movement and freedom that someone like Gwendolyn might never achieve on her own. Paul saw this same dynamic at work in his faith. When God would not remove the “thorn” from his flesh, He told Paul, “My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.” Paul, instead of wallowing in his weakness, proclaimed: “Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me” (2 Corinthians 12:9). Paul is not boasting about sin as his weakness here, yet, I think the principle still applies. It is when I accept God’s help with my weakness that I can fully understand (and proclaim!) His powerful grace toward me.

Disease and weakness are part of our world for now. And, they are actually important factors in shaping our faith. But, for the believer in Jesus, there is an even greater hope — resurrection: “So also is the resurrection of the dead. It is sown a perishable body, it is raised an imperishable body; it is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory; it is sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (I Corinthians 15:42-43). Gwendolyn and I will both be able to walk unaided in God’s presence one day!

Bashing Bethlehem?

Christian recording artist Casting Crowns performs a Christmas song called “While You Were Sleeping.” In an attempt to highlight society’s unwillingness to recognize Jesus as God and Savior, songwriter John Mark Hall starts with the example of Bethlehem:

Oh Bethlehem, you will go down in history
As a city with no room for its King

This is based on the very familiar passage from Luke 2:7 – “And she brought forth her firstborn son, and wrapped him in swaddling clothes, and laid him in a manger; because there was no room for them in the inn.” (KJV) We have played this up in our Christmas pageants, too, adding an innkeeper who shoos the laboring Mary and a frantic Joseph away. (I have been the innkeeper in such a production.) Or, perhaps, the innkeeper does the best he can, offering up his stable. But we have gotten this all wrong!

Kenneth E. Bailey, in his book Jesus Through Middle Eastern Eyes, explains both the cultural misunderstanding and the poor translation that have caused our confusion. We do not understand first century housing and hospitality. We also do not think about the details that the Scriptures DO give us. Joseph, a member of David’s royal line, would have had family in Bethlehem who would have received him and his pregnant, betrothed wife. Despite some modern (and ancient) depictions, this was not a case of a last minute journey and labor gone wrong. In fact, Luke says, “And so it was, that, while they were there, the days were accomplished that she should be delivered.” (2:6) There was plenty of time to find a place to stay and people to help with the birth. The culture of hospitality demanded it.

Where Was the Manger?
In western thought, we equate “manger” with a feeding trough in a stable or barn. However, in a typical middle eastern home of the time, animals stayed in the house, not in a separate structure (or cave as the eastern tradition says). They stayed in a lower section of the home and mangers were stone structures on a higher level – right at feeding height. Thus, the mangers were in the main living quarters used by the family. Mary, Joseph, and the newborn Jesus were guests in a house, not outcasts in a stable.

Shameful Shepherds?
Shepherds were not the pillars of ancient middle eastern society. In fact, by the first century, they had an unsavory reputation. Yet, the Luke 2 shepherds were visited by angels and given the good news of Jesus’ birth. They rushed to see Him and went away praising God and telling everyone what they had seen. However, even shepherds would not risk the reputation of their village by refusing hospitality. If this couple and their newborn Child (whom they heard is Messiah!) were stuck in a stable, surely one of the shepherds would have offered his home for them. They certainly would not have walked around town telling everyone about it and rejoicing at the family’s meager shelter. The only reasonable explanation is that Mary, Joseph, and Jesus had accommodations as good as or better than what they could offer. This also suggests that they were guests in a normal household.

What About the Inn?
This is where the poor translation comes in. The word translated “inn” is kataluma. It is not the word for a commercial inn. That word, which Luke uses later in the parable of the Good Samaritan, is pandocheion. Kataluma was a guest room built on above the main family room (see diagram below). In fact, this same word is used for the “upper room” that Jesus and His disciples used for the Passover on the night before His crucifixion. In the home where Jesus was born, there were other guests in the guest room. So, they stayed with the family in the main living quarters.

1st century Palestinian home

1st century Palestinian home

No Room?
John Mark Hall is correct when he accuses America of having no room for a Savior at Christmas. We are distracted with everything but Jesus – shopping, Elf on a Shelf, a secularized Saint Nicolas, celebrations of winter, and more. However, it is not accurate to bash Bethlehem for the same neglect. Jesus was born and sheltered by a modest family (probably related to Joseph) who demonstrated the expected hospitality of their culture. While that is less dramatic, it should help us focus on the real excitement: “Today a Savior, who is Messiah the Lord, was born for you in the city of David.” May your family invite Him into your home this Christmas.