Death is kind of like the sword wound of a Nazgul … no matter how much time passes, we never really recover. It’s been a decade since my mom died; nearly that since my dad.  I’ve attended three other funerals since those (not counting Gram’s). They’re all somewhat like digging a scab off a mostly-healed wound.  You start to just bleed all over.

We didn’t make it down here in time to see Gram before she died.  That wasn’t the original plan anyway for various reasons (including travel time, Gram’s apparent disconnection from reality and the people in it, and our job responsibilities).  But I feel cheated that we weren’t here.  We missed it by an hour & a half.

It’s not that I actually want to see someone die … I guess I just feel guilty that I wasn’t there when either of my parents “shuffled off this mortal coil to touch the face of God” (marvelous speech by Ronald Reagan after theChallenger disaster in 1986).

I didn’t get to say goodbye.

My mom. I wish I had better photos of my parents.
My mom. I wish I had better photos of my parents.
My dad, circa 1952 or 1953. He was an MP in the Army till 1954.
My dad, circa 1952 or 1953. He was an MP in the Army till 1954.

My dad died alone. We’re not even entirely sure when – it was either the evening of June 6th or the following morning.  I kind of commemorate both days … the death certificate reads the 7th.  I guess God kept His promise about “when you walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will be with you.”   I’m sure He was.

Mom was a different story.  She’d been sick for a while, her body decimated by cancer and her mind robbed of its acute clarity by a cancer- or chemo-induced stroke. The damned disease even took her personality – her grace, her smile, her voice, her sparkle. Those last six months were horrible and ugly and everything I don’t want to remember.

As her health failed, mom’s doctor told the family on a Saturday night “it wouldn’t be long.”  My brother called me at college and told me to start preparing to fly back home.  I couldn’t afford to fly on short notice except on the bereavement fare (which you can’t get till someone has died), and I didn’t think I could get there in time anyway.  I had no car; I had no money; I had just begun a new job; I was about to be utterly smashed by the opening week of my first semester of grad school; I was 500 miles from home and lacking any adoptive “parents”—those adults who realize that 18 to 22 year olds are still pretty stupid and need to be mentored in the ways of life.

So I waited the extra 24 hours till my brother called again to say that she was in heaven, then flew home the next morning.  Mom’s journey into the Undiscovered Country was relayed to me secondhand.

My dad and brother and aunts and uncles gathered around her bed when the end was near and started singing. They sang hymns; they read psalms; they prayed; they sang some more.  She slipped away to the sound of their voices. It was done.  I should have been there.

I was far too dumb at age 22 to realize how much I would regret the extremely practical and sensible decision to wait 24 hours to fly home.

Passing: Scattered thoughts on “Crossing the Jordan”

Written from north GA while preparing for Gram’s funeral.  By the way, funeral is set for Sat at 2pm.  Coart’s doing all the speaking. I’m doing the music. 

Traveling home.
Crossing over.
Passing on.
Death is a doorway, a waystop on the journey of life and our terminology reflects it.

I like that people tell stories when they gather for a funeral. You start to hear all kinds of stuff about the second cousin who accidentally set the barn on fire, or the creepy real-life ghost story from the old “home place” up in Such-N-Such county, or the stone d cousin who woke up from her stupor to discover her mom wasn’t around at the time  so she assumed the rapture had taken place and she missed it. (That last one I didn’t make up. I swear.)

Family trees get reconstructed at times like this.  You hear amazing names that no baby-name-book would ever think of (especially in the South!).  You find out things, like the fact that there’s a British branch of the Ramey family: one of Monty’s uncles in WWII fathered a child in England. Cloe (that’s Gram) used to write to the boy, and at one point he sent a picture of himself to the States.


Coart with his Gram.
Coart with his Gram.

She was one of the most ordinary  people in Habersham County, yet extraordinary in her ability to simply love people. It wasn’t a gushy, mushy, touchy-feely love.  It was the real, hard-nosed, hard-working kind of love thatdoes things for people without having to talk about it. Refreshing to find someone who was a Christian instead of just talking like one.

Gram had known her Savior for a long time and there’s no way in this world I would have done anything to prolong her days on an accursed planet like this one.  But John Donne was right when he warned us that we cannot ignore the massive sense of LOSS that accompanies a death.

Losing a human from our population diminishes us all. We are connected, like tiny threads criss-crossing and webbing all of humanity into a living, breathing organism.  No one else will ever exist with Gram’s particular combination of gifts, talents, memories, quirks.

All of the history she lived –the Depression, WWII, the post-war baby boom, desegregation, the turbulent 60s – is now detached from our little circle of reality. She was the storyteller; we were the listeners. Now we are the vessels for stories we can only carry, not know from experience.  Like Lois Lowry’s Giver, we can describe, but we cannot make others (or even ourselves) experience.

Narrow is the Way

So on Sunday during the Lord’s Table we (the worship team) introduced the congregation to this song (mp3) by Mo Leverett:

Narrow Little Road

I believe in the love of God
It is an orphan’s wildest dream
It is a narrow little road
It is an ever-widening desert stream
Oh I, and I,
I will leave this road
For the narrow

It is portrayed in the bread and wine
Let it fortify my bones
It is more than just a sign
It is the fountain from that desert stone
Oh I, and I,
I will leave this road
For the narrow

It is the path where the humble go
It is the narrow not the broad
It is the pathway down the hill
To the graveyard of the living God
Oh I, and I,
I will leave this road
For the narrow

The love of God is the hymn of hope
Let the needy join the throng
Let the widow hear and cope
Let the crippled rise to sing this song
Oh I, and I,
I will leave this road
For the narrow

(recorded by the Red Mountain Church)

I know it doesn’t look like much when you read the text, but I hope you guys know me well enough to remember that I generally hate all weak worship music… this song is quite wonderful as a congregational song. Very singable, very appropriate to communion. (Also the author Mo Leverett is a really cool PCA pastor & worship leader down in New Orleans. He’s an advocate for minorities in the PCA – sometimes the denominational standards for education make it nearly impossible for minorities to become elders. He’s done good work among the minority community down in New Orleans.)

We were talking about the text during sound check on Sunday morning, discussing what exactly the “narrow road” is referenced by the chorus.

Darrell made an excellent point that as soon as we hear that phrase, we think of Jesus’ words in the Gospel that “narrow is the way that leads to life and few there be that find it.” We all instantly assume that the “narrow way” is one of stringent good deeds and a high moral standard. We think of the Gospel and its narrow path and begin charting a to-do list, things to “fix” in our lives.

But that isn’t the Gospel, and thus it can’t be what Christ meant. Our very efforts to keep ourselves tied to a straight-laced list of do’s and dont’s destroys the very heart of the Gospel we’re trying to follow.

I think the road is “narrow” because the only thing on it is Grace. 

As a sinful human, I’m addicted to self-righteousness. To be a beggar, arriving at the banquet and forced to depend on the Host Himself to provide me with the clothing to wear for the occasion — this is humiliating. “I’ll bring my own robe, thanks.” Now that I’m saved, it’s up to me to straighten myself out?

Nope. That’s the big interstate that everybody wants to walk because it leaves us with our pride intact.

Grace is narrow yet ocean-deep in its fullness.
Totally sinful. Totally loved. No condemnation. but also no way of adding my own little works of sanctification to the righteousness of Christ.

All of grace.
Yea and amen.

Love: The Fine Print

The “perfect storm” of thinking hit this afternoon, thanks to Blue Like Jazz, Coart’s Sunday School lesson on doing good works, and just some random stuff that’s been simmering on the back burner for a while….

Getting a grip on the concept that God loves us unconditionally seems to mystify a lot of Christians (including me). Once gripped, the idea undermines a lot of the theology I grew up with, shoving me uncomfortably into a pile of ramifications I’d rather not face.

Don Miller describes his experience as a counselor at the Wilds of the Rockies one summer. (He doesn’t name the camp in his book, but I’m assuming there can only be one fundamentalist Christian camp in Colorado where a sheltered, homeschooled female counselor would be headed to BJU in the fall.) After living for several months as part of a hippie commune in the aspen forests in the Catskills, he marched into the Wilds sporting long hair, a beard, a mere backpack of personal belongings, a pipe, and bad personal hygiene.

Quickly he realized that while the Wilds folks were kind and willing to put up with his oddness (as long as he hid the pipe, cut his hair, and shaved off the beard), they used “unconditional” love like a commodity:  If you met community standards, you were accepted. If you violated those standards, acceptance was withheld until you came back in line. [He’s sure it was well-intentioned.]

That got me thinking: 
Why do we Christians so often “love” people with strings attached? 
Why do we use love as “a means to an end”? 

Christians always feel like we have to point sin out to people. We take that command to “rebuke, exhort” given to Timothy and make it the singular hallmark of Christian ministry, instead of love (cf John 15; I Jn 4).

It seems that within “churchianity” love must always come with stipulations and a higher purpose.  We “love” homeless people or outcasts or “sinners” or “worldly” people so that they will come to Jesus, start living right, realize their sin, etc. We do not love them as they are, without condemnation… and thus our love is manipulation.

And they know it.

Consider this:
The Scripture clearly identifies the Holy Spirit as the source of Jesus’ power for earthly ministry (see Acts 17) as well as the spiritual force behind the good works that Christians do. He and His people tap into the same source. [If you want to quibble with my theology here, talk to Coart. I’m directly quoting what he taught in SS this morning, and he got his material straight from the WCF and the NT.]

Jesus’ earthly ministry was marked by far more compassion than condemnation. Yes, He violently hurled the money changers out of His Father’s house because they were defaming God’s very character by using His name to fleece people. He also excoriated the Pharisees for adding their own man-made rules to God’s Law. (ouch)      He did point out a few people’s sins to them rather directly (such as the woman at the well) and sometimes subtly (the rich young ruler).
But the great bulk of Jesus’ ministry was physical, earthy, patient, effective, and compassionate. He healed; He fed; He encouraged; He loved; He called people to repentance in a way that was both authoritative and gracious.

In John 14 (I think… or maybe it’s ch 16), Jesus says the Holy Spirit “will convict the world of sin, of righteousness, and of judgment.”  That’s His job — He convicts people.   He takes the Word in all of its power and smashes through our walls and self-defenses, laying bare our hearts before the searchlight that reveals our sin. And during the life of Christ on earth, the Spirit was the convicting force in Jesus’ ministry.  You can be sure the Holy Spirit had already been working in that Samaritan woman so that when she met Jesus at the well, she got into a much more life-changing encounter than she’d bargained for.

I think we Christians believe that the convicting work of the Spirit is our rsponsibility– that unless we lay it all on the line and make sure people understand what we don’t approve of in their lifestyle, we are muddying the Gospel.  That somehow, loving a person as they are right now isn’t going to work unless we lay out the contract details in advance:

“To whom love is given, much will be required.”

For unsaved people, our contract demands refusing to drink, smoke, or cuss with them.  Usually if said unsaved one “rejects” our offer of the Gospel, church attendance, or other indicators of spiritual life, we give up. At the least, our humanitarianism is always tinged with the mystical purpose of “drawing them to Christ.”
Unrepentant sinners need not apply–why waste love on someone who doesn’t have any intentions to return it? (If there were hope for them, God would make that person stop sinning… right?)
And definitely no homosexuals. Good God, no. Of course, there’s not much chance of that happening anyway – I can’t even get my raised-in-church Christian school students to read literature written by gays without condemning the author and refusing to listen to anything he’s written. *whew* [I’m glad there’s enough good literature written by “straight” people that I can still get some decent educating done.]
If it’s a homeless shelter we’re talking about, then the people who want a bed & a meal tonight need to sit through a Gospel sermon first. We can’t let them take advantage of us, you know.      And all medical missions clinics had better hire a minister on staff to preach to those needy folks sitting out in the courtyard waiting for their long shot to see the Western miracle-workers.

…..we’re so good at making sure people understand they’re sinners before they feel the love.


Seems like we’ve gotten our job description mixed up with the Holy Spirit’s, doesn’t it?

Now, I hate to be misunderstood, so read carefully:   
Some of you (if you’ve read this far) think I’m saying “all we need is love” (like the Beatles song) and then all the sin in the world will just go away.  I’m not saying that.

Our God never leaves us in our sinful, broken condition (Isaiah 59). His love is all-encompassing, given freely without strings and without our earning it. But it is also efficacious. The kindness of God leads us to repentance (Rom 2) and we are changed.

If I love someone, I won’t let him/her drive off a cliff or beat their head against a wall until its bloody (metaphorically speaking). By nature, sin destroys and damages. It shatters lives, wounds relationships, and costs an incredible amount of effort to “fix.” So I’m not suggesting that the Bible passages about exhortation should be ignored. If I love someone, I’ll probably end up confronting them … and getting rebuked myself when I’m the one doing the sinning.

I’m just saying that the conservative Church has earned itself the (well-deserved and harmful) reputation for judging first and asking questions later … when (according to our Head) we ought to be known by our love.

It’s the love, not the guilt-trip, that changes lives.

Blue. Jazz. Grace.

Been reading Blue Like Jazz these past few days. Picked it up because a couple friends recommended it to me, other people say it’s the devil incarnate, and someone who doesn’t like it told me we can have a discussion about it once I read it. Since I happen to think highly of said friend, I’m working my way through.

I really appreciate Donald Miller’s honest evaluations of what Christianity looks like to “the outsiders.” His stories about Reed college in Portland, the most anti-God college in America (according to the people who study that kind of thing), struck me deeply. One girl told him she figured that if Christianity were all wrapped up in a single person, it would dislike her and condemn her.  Thus, she viewed God with the same attitude and wanted nothing to do with Christianity (later she came to know Christ).

God wooed His bride with grace, love, patience, and forgiveness … not condemnation.  To call Christians to love people instead of instantly pushing them toward some kind of change is not to deny that sin is real and must be addressed. But it seems like most of us judge first and love later (if ever).

I know people have criticized Miller’s book for a number of reasons, including its lack of theological “depth” and bent toward an Arminian view of salvation. The first criticism seems off-target to me — Miller isn’t setting out to write a theological treatise, so people shouldn’t criticize him for what he “leaves out.” If you want to read a systematic theology, go buy Reymond or Grudem.

Miller’s stories with their punches of truth wrapped in layers of rich humanity struck a chord with me. Over the past few years, I’ve sensed a growing desire to connect with the “outsiders”: the marginalized … the hopeless …. those who still think they cannot be saved (to quote the Smashing Pumpkins) …  the people who think God is irrelevant because evangelical Christianity seems to be wholly populated by Republican, judgmental, white soccer moms and their husbands and children.

I think Mike the Cussing Pastor was my favorite character.  You’ll just have to read the book yourself to figure him out.

I’m not done yet with Miller’s book, so I suppose he could spring some shocking horror on me in a late chapter. But at this point (3/4 through the book), I think we ought to give Miller a hearing and downright revel in his idea of Grace.

“I love to give charity, but I don’t want to be charity. That’s why I have such a problem with grace.”

Either way, we’re screwed.

Been thinking again. You’d better duck. 

Unconditional love is striking for a number of reasons (not the least of which is its divine origin, for I am convinced that the selfish human heart is incapable of truly loving apart from an infusion of Grace, common or otherwise).

But this particular aspect of “agape” (unconditional) love has been on my mind recently:

“Normal” human love — even well-intentioned — is always a power play. We often choose to love people because they please us, or we realize that loving someone else puts that person in our debt, so to speak. If I do something for you out of love, I feel entitled to demand certain things in return, like gratitude, appreciation, favors, or love itself.

As usual, God’s paradigm turns our natural understanding on its head.

Most of us realize that being the ‘lover’ in an unconditional sense requires giving up one’s claim to the “return benefits.” If I love someone else because of what I can get out of them, my motives are mixed and my love is not pure.
To quote Jack’s favorite Friends episode where Phoebe tries in vain to commit a truly altruistic act, all of our human love is tainted by the power-play. We see the “prize” at the end — acceptance, self-interest, or just a chance to feel better about ourselves.

Let me clarify that I’m not implying that love ought to be merely a one-way street. I John says that we love Godbecause He first loved us. His love creates in us the ability to return love, and the Great Commandment (“Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind, and strength”) makes it clear that He does expect that love to be returned … but He doesn’t want it from us as an obligation.
We are God’s images, and we learn to love via His example. A godly relationship follows the pattern of sweet fellowship that we see among the  members of the Trinity: love flowing both ways so that both people are richly blessed.   God’s sacrifice of Himself so that humans could experience that kind of love is deep and mysterious and utterly humiliating for me to consider.

That humiliation of being the recipient of a totally self-sacrificial love leads me to a more surprising realization about agape love:

It’s harder to be the beloved than the lover. 

Receiving unconditional love strips away my pride and image of self-worth. Whether received from God or a human, I am powerless to affect the lover’s choice. He/she chose freely to love. It’s not based on my merit. I can’t make it stop by becoming unworthy.

That realization is both an incredible comfort (security) as well as an almost frustrating reminder that — as in most things– I am not the master of this aspect of my life either.

Heh. Ironic.
Perfect love is the ultimate example of my lack of control.


let’s poke it again (Problem of Evil)

To continue a point I was working on a few days ago:

1. God is good.
2. God is all-powerful
3. Evil exists.

Every religion must wrestle with “the problem of evil.:” Trying to affirm more than two of these truths at any one time shoves a person into logical impossibility. For Christians, knowing the promises of God doesn’t make the Problem of Evil any less knotty.

Many folks, unwilling to live on the precarious fault between faith and oblivion, solve the dilemma by weakening (or denying) one of the three core truths that cause the problem. Rabbi Neusner’s famous book When Bad Things Happen to Good People claims that God means well but doesn’t really have the power to do anything about the evil in this world.  Open theists suggest that God doesn’t have full knowledge of the future (again, diminishing His omnipotence) — a handy way to allow evil to exist without blaming God for it (as well as a neat way to explain the paradox between free will and sovereignty). Atheists and agnostics just deny both of the first two propositions, and there you go.

Conservative Christians are too well-versed in Scripture to let go of either the idea that God is good or that He is in control (though most of us will admit to doubting one or both when the going gets hard). Instead, I have noticed that “we” are tempted to diminish the full reality and horribleness of tragedy and evil which touch our lives from time to time.

Romans 8:28 has become a BandAid which Christians try to slap onto the gaping wounds caused by real pain or tragedy. I hear people glibly quote promises, Bible verses, or sermon snippets as if simple answers will take care of everything.

Now, don’t misunderstand me. I’m not taking aim at people who have hacked their way through the deep undergrowth of life’s trials and come out with a much deeper and stronger faith, one that allows them to minister comfort and assurance to their fellow, struggling siblings in the household of Faith. (See 1 Cor. 1)

But I think that Reformed theology (especially) with its emphasis on logical doctrine and precise systematization of theology pushes folks toward that which is glib. Evil is no longer evil … not really.  Because God *does* work much good out of (or in spite of) the tragedy of life, some people assume therefore that the evil itself is not really all that bad. “It’s just a flesh wound!” they cry to the person whose heart has been ripped to pieces by sorrow and loss.  “Cheer up! Be thankful! Your life could be much worse!” echoes at the miserable soul who finds itself trapped in the dark corridors of the mind and emotions.   We rush so fast to defend God’s honor that we try to soften the blow of reality.

I love the Psalms for many reasons. A few years ago I stumbled across this truth:  The Psalmist almost always ends up at the place of faith and soul-healing, but often after passing through dark and troubled waters. He doesn’t mince words, reduce true evil to an illusion of evil which the knowledge of sovereignty magically wipes away. Many of the Psalms are gritty and honest as the writer lays out his grief before the Lord.

My point?

Simply this:  Think before you speak.  Romans 12 says we should “weep with those who weep” in addition to rejoicing with the joyful.

When you find yourself in a position to minister to someone in trouble, first listen and mourn.

Don’t rush to admonish — the time for your exhortation will eventually come. [I’ve rarely met a conservative evangelical who needed help on that score. *grins*]

Real Grace floods into situations that are full of real Evil. 

We don’t have to play the game on “easy” because we’re afraid Grace will lose. 

RameyLady speaks her mind

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