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Though the storm rages…

  Though the fig tree should not blossom, 
  nor fruit be on the vines, 
  the produce of the olive fail 
  and the fields yield no food, 
  the flock be cut off from the fold 
  and there be no herd in the stalls, 
  yet I will rejoice in the LORD; 
  I will take joy in the God of my salvation. 
  GOD, the Lord, is my strength; 
  he makes my feet like the deer’s; 
  he makes me tread on my high places. 

The Holy Bible: English Standard Version (Wheaton, IL: Crossway Bibles, 2016), Hab 3:17–19.

I was in Port Charlotte, Florida last weekend to speak at my former church, Freedom Bible Church. I was scheduled to stay until Tuesday. But, as forecasts for Hurricane Ian came in, I decided to leave on Sunday right after church, hoping to get ahead of the traffic that would certainly come when people started evacuating. This proved to be wise.

Before moving to North Carolina in 2009, we lived in southwest Florida for about 24 years. It was providential that I happened to return last weekend right before the area was hit with the devastation from Ian. For reconnecting with my friends there renewed my love for them and has given a sense of immediacy as I hear updates from so many on social media.

Again and again, the refrain is something like, “We’re safe, some damage to the roof, some trees downed; God is good.”

But what of those who lost all? What of those whose lives were not spared? Was God not good for them?

We often connect the goodness of God with our personal fortune. If things aren’t as bad as they could be, then God has been good to us.

But I don’t believe this is what my friends are saying. I think deep down what they continue to recognize is the goodness and the grace of God which is not negated by misfortune. If they had lost all possessions (and some have) or even life itself (and some have), they would still affirm that God. Is. Good.

It is as my former pastor, the late James Kibelbek, once said, “We don’t measure God’s goodness by our circumstances; we measure our circumstances by the knowledge that God is good.”

Habakkuk understood this: “Though the fig tree should not blossom. nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail and the fields yield no food, the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord; I will take joy in the God of my salvation. God, the Lord, is my strength; he makes my feet like the deer’s; he makes me tread on my high places” (Hab. 3:17-19).

Some people choose in times like this to question the very existence of God, or at least his power or goodness. “How could a good and powerful God allow such suffering?” Habakkuk chose to rejoice in the Lord, to take joy in the God who saves.

I love that expression – to take joy. We must seize it, willfully grasp for it, intentionally take hold of it. For our joy is in the God who saves.

The fact is, we don’t deserve the house that got destroyed in the first place; it is a gift from God. We don’t deserve the life, however long or short, that is snuffed out; every breath is a grace.

What life we have, no matter the degree of suffering, is more than we deserve.

I take heart from all my friends who are using this time of unimaginable devastation to proclaim the goodness and faithfulness of God our Savior!

Tanzania 2022 – July 11 – The red hat tale

In our excursions in Tanzania, we were all impressed with the kindness and friendliness of the Tanzanian people. Nowhere has this been more apparent than in the tale of the red hat.

On Sunday the 10th, after attending a church service in Majengo, we arrived at a venue for lunch and a report from some members of ODS, “Open Door for Development Strategies.” This was a group begun by Lameck Sylvester, who was our guide and host while we were in Mtwara district.

The purpose of this group is to train Tanzanians, who are generally very poor and living on about $2 a day, in the mentality and skills necessary to develop sustaining businesses. They have seen many successes. As one of our guides said, “local problems need local solutions.” This is a great example of that. All in the name of Christ.

So, back to the red hat.

After we left the venue, it became apparent to me that I had left my hat behind. Now, I’ve had this hat for over 20 years and carried it with me on numerous trips, wadded up in my suitcase or pack. It’s been on many a hike, keeping the rain and sun off my head. So, I was a little disappointed but resigned to the idea that I would never see my faithful hat again.

A bajaj (ba-ZHAZH)

The next day, our group loaded into bajajes (a three-wheeled motorcycle with a body) to be carried to our next stop. We generally hired these drivers for the day, and they would hang around while we toured whatever we were seeing that day.

This particular morning, I was riding with Lameck. I noticed we were heading in the general direction of the venue where I had left my hat.

“Lameck,” I said, “Are we going to be near The Old Boma (the venue)?” He said we were not. I explained that I’d left my hat there, but no big deal if I couldn’t get it back.

By the time we arrived at our destination, a thought occurred to me. I went to David, one of our group leaders who knows the most among us about Tanzania.

I asked David if he thought it would be alright if I hired one of the bajaj drivers to go to The Old Boma to retrieve my hat. He said he didn’t see why not.

And then something wonderful happened.

Lameck overheard me asking that of David and said, “It’s already been taken care of.”

On his own, he’d asked one of our drivers to go to La Boma and rescue the lost, red hat. Shortly thereafter, I had my headgear back.

Lameck Sylvester

Time and again, we remarked at the friendliness and kindness of the Tanzanian people. There is a selflessness among the believers that is pleasant and “adorns the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10). Often ready with a smile, they never seem put out by inconvenience or the kinds of things that would make me lose my patience. This was just another example of that.

I continue to carry those memories.

My trip to Tanzania took place in July 2022.

Tanzania 2022 – July 10 – No longer a face on the refrigerator

Yesterday brought us to a school in Majengo. After a brief welcoming ceremony, which included singing children and tribal dancers, I got to meet the child my wife and I have sponsored for several years.

During all this time, various photos of Talik Dalusi have adorned the side our our refrigerator, chronicling his growth over the years. Often not thought of or prayed for as often as he should be. Perfunctory monthly support and monetary gifts at Christmastime.

All of that ordinariness melted away in one quick moment as I came face to face with Talik’s mother, Paulina, and moments later when I was introduced to a shy little boy. Suddenly, he was no longer a picture on the refrigerator.

I gave them some pictures of my wife and me, our dog Roscoe, and our son and his family. Talik smiled and laughed as I gave him two harmonicas and played an impromptu duet with him. A ball and a Frisbee were a big hit as we played catch.

Later, Paulina asked (through an interpreter) if I wanted to see their house. Of course! So we made a short walk to their home where they invited me inside. I felt like an honored guest.

Then came the greatest surprise of all. She escorted me to a place where they had laid a foundation for a new, larger house. “We are building this with the money you send at Christmas.”

Speechless.

Other of my friends said that similar things were reported to them. “This chicken coop…” “These goats…”

It’s beyond comprehension that what to us is a small gift could make such a large difference. That the Lord could continue his five-loaves-two-fish work and that I could have a part in it literally brought me to tears.

Later on, as they were serving us lunch, Talik joined a couple of friends in a contingent helping us wash our hands. As I stood in line, one of his buddies nudged him and nodded over toward me, as if to say, “Look, there’s your man.” Normally pretty shy and reticent, Talik offered me a huge grin with white teeth.

Talik – #30

This boy on the fridge has now found a place in my heart.

Finally, the day had to end. We reluctantly pulled ourselves from throngs of happy, appreciative children.

It was encouraging to see the center that is supported by so many in my church having a real impact on the real lives of people. Where once children were taught under two large trees, they now have a well and several buildings. A foundation for a larger church building has been laid.

One of my party noted that it’s easy in America to think that the church is in decline. But all across the world, the gospel is advancing. It was thrilling to see evidence of that first-hand.

Tanzania 2022 – July 9 – Travel, travel, travel

I believe we have lost all sense of size and space. Technology has put the world instantaneously at our fingertips, and in just over 24 hours, we can travel across the planet. And then, using our tech, we can call loved ones back home and talk like it’s no big deal.

No. Big. Deal.

But it is kind of a big deal. I’m now in Tanzania, having made all the necessary connections with no flight interruptions, all my bags intact. (Too bad I can’t say that of all my party.)

To this point it’s been all about travel. On Wednesday/Thursday, we flew from Charlotte to DC to Qatar to Dar es Salaam, Tanzania. Friday brought a quick trip to the mall for SIM cards and cash exchange. Then a short flight to Mtwara on the southern coast, where we will be for the next 3 days.

Today we begin the actual activities of our trip. We’ll be visiting a school, where some of us, including myself, will get to meet children we’ve sponsored. The world is getting smaller.

We’ll also see some agricultural projects and the results of a savings group that is enabling people to develop sustaining economic activities. As one has said, “We first were looking to survive; now we look to see how we can help others.”

I’m sure I’ll have much more to say about that once I see it. As well as some pictures of Taliki, my Compassion child. Should be a fun day.

Tanzania 2022 – What is the mission?

And after some days Paul said to Barnabas, “Let us return and visit the brothers in every city where we proclaimed the word of the Lord, and see how they are.”

Acts 15:36

I leave tomorrow for an 11-day trip to Tanzania, going with a group from my church.

Rather than going to “help them out” or to do for them what they cannot do for themselves, we are going mainly to observe what God is doing.

My church has had an ongoing relationship with the believers in TZ, having made two previous trips there. This is my first, but others have gone before. We have encouraged the saints there with medical service, instruction in church planting, support for entrepreneurial endeavors, and sponsorship of two Compassion International centers.

After our church’s last trip, Richard and Verena, a Tanzanian couple came to Asheville. They operate the Tanzanian Disciple Making Movements, a support group for local entrepreneurial work. They help local Tanzanians to be more productive in business and farming as a part of making disciples. Their goal is to see self-sustaining industries rise that will lift people out of poverty.

While they were in Asheville, I had the opportunity to sit with them and talk about business from a Christian perspective. I shared with them some of the principles that made Chick-fil-A (where I worked) such a success. We parted hoping to continue the conversation in Tanzania someday.

That day was supposed to come in 2020, but we all know what happened. All the support I’d raised was put on hold for a future visit. I appreciate the patience those who’ve supported me have shown. And now we get to go.

Our purpose is to observe. To see what God has been doing in another part of the world. To “see how they are” in the words of Paul (Acts 15:36).

I will also have the special privilege of meeting Talik, a child we have sponsored for several years through Compassion International. That should be a highlight of the trip.

If I am allowed by the sovereign design of God to be able to contribute some thoughts to the believers there, it will not be because I am greater. Rather I hope for mutual encouragement as we all – mmarekani and mtanzania – are “mutually encouraged by each other’s faith, both yours and mine” (Rom. 1:12).

Asking the right questions

Part of learning, especially when it comes to difficult theological subjects, is the asking of clarifying questions. We want to make sure we’re understanding what the Bible is teaching, and questions can help us get there.

And then there are those inquiries that aren’t raised to clarify understanding, but to challenge the point being made. Querys keep being made because the questioner doesn’t like the answer.

A clarifying question can let the teacher know if the listener is missing the point. “No, that’s not what I mean. Let me try again.” But occasionally, the questioner demonstrates by his interrogatory that he totally gets the point. The teacher at this point wouldn’t retract anything but double down on his assertion.

This happens a couple of times in Paul’s writing as he anticipates his readers’ questions.

One such occasion is in Romans 6:1. Paul has been talking about the gospel, and in particular, that where sin increased, grace abounds all the more.

This leads to the query: “What shall we say then? Are we to continue in sin that grace may abound?”

This question demonstrates an accurate understanding of the gospel points that Paul has been making: that “one is justified by faith apart from works” (Rom. 3:28).

Paul doesn’t at this point back off his point as if his readers misunderstand. Instead, the question asked reveal a clarity of comprehension.

The gospel is shocking. That the most heinous of sinners can receive forgiveness and justification without earning them is a most jarring thought when encountered fully. It leads naturally to the question of Romans 6:1. The query demonstrates that the hearer “got it.”

We see this also in Romans 9. Paul is discussing God’s sovereign freedom to dispense mercy as he pleases – “He has mercy on whomever he wills, and he hardens whomever he wills” (Rom. 9:18).

Then comes the anticipated objection: “You will say to me then, ‘Why does he still find fault? For who can resist his will?'” (9:19).

Paul at this point doesn’t say, “Wait a minute. That’s not what I meant.” In fact, he goes all in on his statements (vv. 20-21), affirming God’s sovereign freedom and grace.

I’ll take it one step further. In this topic, which is full of mysteries which cannot be reconciled in our finite minds, we must get to the unanswerable question. If you’ve come to the place where you have “settled” these truths and questions like Paul raises don’t grab you, then perhaps you have not penetrated to the heart of the matter.

Paul not only doesn’t directly answer the objection, he also doesn’t hedge his statement. Instead, he turns the objection back on his readers to accuse them of “answering back to God.” He gives his answer: you’re in rebellion against God’s revelation.

Paul’s response to this objection accuses them of continuing to question God’s revealed sovereignty and right as the Divine Potter over the clay of his creation.

Paul understands the heart that drives this objection; it is a recalcitrant heart that does not submit to the God who dispenses mercy as he pleases.

This is a hard teaching to think about. But the revelation is clear at this point. God is sovereignly gracious to whom he pleases. Objecting to this teaching reveals far more about the heart and mind that won’t submit to this revealed truth than it does about the difficulty of the doctrine.

Objecting to this teaching [of God’s sovereign grace] reveals far more about the heart and mind that won’t submit to this revealed truth than it does about the difficulty of the doctrine.

The problem is not the questioning. The problem is that the questions keep being asked even after revelation has been given.

The question rightly asked demonstrates clarity of perception. The same question repeatedly asked demonstrates contrariness of posture.

How I became a “hobo”

“It’s a mighty river, rollin’ along…oh, washin’ clean, I’m over my head”

It was the summer of 2018, and I was standing in Headwall Sports, a thrift store in Jackson, Wyoming, browsing some used shirts. Eventually, the store’s music came creeping into my conscious thought. It was a long song with a driving groove and haunting fiddle part. Definitely jam band material.

“Hey, what’s this music?” I asked the shopkeeper.

He looked at his iPad. “That’s Railroad Earth. The song is “Seven Story Mountain.”

“Thanks, man.”

When I got into my car, I pulled up Amazon Music and did a search. For the next 14 minutes, I listened to a live version of that song (listen here) which is a heart-cry of regret and longing to live fully and speak boldly. My guess is that it’s roughly based on the book, Seven Storey Mountain by Thomas Merton.

Oh Lord, to see a light, but fail in strength to follow
Sometimes it’s hard to let it go
Oh Lord, to fail in heart, and each day grow more hollow
Sometimes I just don’t wanna know
But the road that led me here, it’s begun to disappear
Sometimes I wonder where I am

Oh Lord, to hear a voice, but let it fade and wallow
Sometimes it’s hard to let it to
Oh Lord, to find the words, but keep them in and swallow
One day the top is gonna blow
But the road that left me here, it’s begun to disappear
Sometimes I wonder who I am

Oh Lord, to stumble blind, for years without knowing
Sunrise has burned my eyes again
Oh Lord, to crumble quiet, watching from the silence
Sunrise has burned my eyes again
It’s a seven-story mountain. It’s a long, long life we live.
Got to find a light and fill my heart again.
It’s a seven-story mountain. It’s a long, long life ahead.
Got to find a voice and fill my throat again.

-Railroad Earth, lyrics by Todd Scheaffer (?)

I can now scarcely read these lines without an emotional reaction. So many times I find myself lamenting over missed opportunities and wasted moments. But then I’m reminded it’s a “long, long life ahead.” There’s still time to “find a voice and fill my throat again.”

Anyway, fast forward to January 2022, and Railroad Earth was coming to Asheville for a show at the Orange Peel. Now, I had only listened to other material by the band in small measure. Nevertheless, I thought it would be fun to hear them live despite only really knowing one of their songs. So I invited a friend and we gathered at the Peel.

What a show! Two long sets of Americana greatness. Think “Grateful Dead with bluegrass instruments.” Long extended jams. People bouncing, swaying, happy-dancing. But, no “Seven Story Mountain.” Still, a fun time.

I spent the next few weeks rectifying my Railroad Earth illiteracy, listening to and learning the songs I’d heard live and many others. Nugs released a recording of the very show I attended, so within a couple of days I was reliving my Orange Peel experience. I don’t think I really listened to much of anything else in those weeks.

A lively tune called “Elko” told the tale of travelers in the Nevada desert “shutting it down for the night” and “needing a winning hand.” It became my end-of-day work shutdown song. Songs had me “smilin’ like a Buddha” and “chasin’ a rainbow, no good reason why.” Sometimes I’d find myself falling into something, but, whadaya know, I “came up smilin’.” Other times I might feel like “just another bird in a house, trying to get out.” And in a cover of a George Harrison tune, RRE reminded me, “if you don’t know where you’re going, any road will take you there.”

So now it’s the middle of March, and I get an ad across my feed that Railroad Earth is closing their spring tour with two shows in Charlottesville, Virginia. “Hey, that’s only 5 hours away. Why not?”

I get there early on Friday night so I can stand up close. I meet some people for whom this is not their first or second rodeo; one fellow had taken the week off to follow the band and attend 5 straight shows. Others had been to dozens of RRE concerts. I come to find out that, much like devotees of the Grateful Dead were “Dead Heads,” these fans are “Hobos.” I guess I am too, even if on a lesser scale.

The lights dim. The band takes the stage. The drummer begins his cadence. Could it be? The fiddle comes in. Yes! It’s “Seven Story Mountain!” I wipe away tears of joy as I join the happy dancers. I punch my hands in the air and sing along, “one day the top is gonna blow!”

Later, “Elko” was launched and the guy next to me starts tossing playing cards. A young woman gives me a card because I had none. Puzzled, I look around, and hearts, spades, diamonds, and clubs are flying all around the venue. “I need a card, I need a card, hit me! Not too hard!” Todd sings, and cards go flying up to the stage. What fun!

And then I learned something about Railroad Earth shows. They’re interactive. The next night, when “Give that boy a hand” was sung, tiny rubber hands were flying around. I also learned that it’s most definitely worth it to go multiple times. The second night, the song set was completely different. No repeated songs. In fact, only 7 songs from the Asheville show two months earlier were performed in Virginia. The extended jams might be different from one time to the next. It’s as close as I’ve come to what I understand the Grateful Dead experience was like.

I ended that weekend feeling happy, refreshed, positive, and content. I met some new friends. Some fellow believers in Christ. Some fellow musicians who talked tech with me. I joined the Hobos Facebook group.

I’ve been to 3 Railroad Earth shows. I can sing along to more and more songs. I hung a concert poster in my office. I’m awaiting the next tour.

Does that make me a Hobo? I hope so!

The seed must die

Jesus spoke these words after meeting some Greeks who “wished to see Jesus.” He made it plain that the time for his glorification had come. That’s an interesting way to describe the hour of your death. But then he explained, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit” (John 12:24).

I think that when Jesus met with those Greeks, it brought to mind that the Kingdom of God is for everyone. We see the arms of Jesus open wide to receive people from every tribe, nation, and tongue…the “much fruit” of the seed falling into the ground and dying.

We look to the cross of Christ on this Good Friday, contemplating Jesus’ death to cover our sins and secure our redemption. May it continue to bear much fruit in the world.

*I am thankful to Matthias Media, from whom I borrowed the phrase, “the seed must die.”