Wednesday, May 19, 2010

Hidden Blessings

Tomorrow (Thursday) and Friday is the Capital District Track and Field Championship. Of the athletes I coach, the boys 4 x 800 m relay team is running, along with two boys and a girl in the 800 m run, three in the 1600 m run, and two boys in the 3200 m run. A few weeks ago our 4 x 800 m relay team did something our school hasn't done in a while: won an invitational. The guys were ecstatic. They even invited me to go to dinner with them that evening at Buffalo Wild Wings in celebration!

Tomorrow marks the beginning of the end of the season. I doubt any of my athletes is going to run well enough to move on to the regional championship except for our 4 x 800 relay team and possibly one runner in the 800 m. The team is simply too small and inexperienced. And let's face it: urban black kids aren't into distance running. If we have a bad day tomorrow, drop a baton, step outside of a lane, or whatever--the season is over. If not, we'll probably fight it out for third or fourth place in our district and move on to race another week. I don't want it to end.

I'll be moving to a brand-new high school next year and coaching boys' cross country there. This week one of my runners, Maxwell, kept asking about possible reasons that might keep me from going to the new school. Today I gave out a sheet with a racing plan and pacing for their races. Maxwell's brother Markus said, "I'm going to put this on my wall. Someday I'll be able to show my kids and say that I ran for the best track coach in Richmond." Amid further protests against my departure, two sprinters, Michael and CJ, also were talking about how fifty years from now there will be a track (or at least an invitational meet) named after Coach Hall.

Coaching track has really been a bright spot in an otherwise frustrating, fatiguing, and futile year of teaching. It has been really cool being able to connect with my athletes, encourage them, and see them achieve more success in middle- and long-distance events than we've had in several years. (Our sprinters and horizontal jumpers, however, perenially top the district and have competed at the prestigious Penn Relays.) Some runners ask me to pray for them before races. If it weren't for track, I think I would've had a difficult time finding much to thank God for about this past year. But every day I look forward to leaving my classroom, grabbing my notebook and stopwatch, and getting outside. It's a surprise gift from God for which I'm really grateful, a beautiful flower growing up from a cracked desert floor.

Now let's go Warriors! Behold the green and gold!

Monday, May 17, 2010

Scary Jesus

They were on their way up to Jerusalem, with Jesus leading the way, and the disciples were astonished, while those who followed were afraid. Again he took the Twelve aside and told them what was going to happen to him. "We are going up to Jerusalem," he said, "and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will hand him over to the Gentiles, who will mock him and spit on him, flog him and kill him. Three days later he will rise." (Mark 10:32-34)

Jesus is scary. Not like Freddie Krueger or some off-beat Johnny Depp character. Think of Paul Newman in Cool Hand Luke, getting up again and again to take another blow. I remember reading this passage several years ago when the reality sank in of just how, well, bizarre Jesus is. Why do I say this?

He and the disciples knew that in Jerusalem a gruesome death awaited him (see also John 11:8, 16). Yet here Jesus is, "leading the way," preventing anyone else from being a stumbling block by telling him that stuff like that isn't supposed to happen to the Messiah. He "steadfastly set his face" (Luke 9:51 KJV) and marched into a minefield, fully cognizant of what was to come. Who does that? This is not Homeboy Jesus or Kindergarten Teacher Jesus or anything else. This is the ghostly Jesus who walks on water, the one who descends to hell and kisses death, the man who wanders alone for weeks in the desert among jackals and talks with Satan. How are we, as his disciples, supposed to follow this kind of person? How can we even wrap our minds around such determined, purposeful embrace of sacrifice and suffering for the sake of others? And yet that's exactly what he calls us to do.*

Even such a man as Oswald Chambers was freaked out:

At the beginning we were sure we knew all about Jesus Christ, it was a delight to sell all and to fling ourselves out in a hardihood of love; but now we are not quite so sure. Jesus is on in front and He looks strange: "Jesus went before them and they were amazed."

There is an aspect of Jesus that chills the heart of a disciple to the core and makes the whole spiritual life gasp for breath. This strange Being with His face "set like a flint" and His striding determination, strikes terror into me. He is no longer Counsellor and Comrade, He is taken up with a point of view I know nothing about, and I am amazed at Him. At first I was confident that I understood Him, but now I am not so sure. I begin to realize there is a distance between Jesus Christ and me; I can no longer be familiar with Him. He is ahead of me and He never turns round; I have no idea where He is going, and the goal has become strangely far off. (My Utmost for His Highest, March 15)

Yet I cannot get away from following him. Where else can I turn? He alone has eternal life.

*"To this you were called, because Christ suffered for you, leaving you an example, that you should follow in his steps." (1 Peter 2:21)

Wednesday, May 12, 2010


I never grow tired of hearing my wife say, "I love you." Nor do I tire of pledging my love to her as well. (In fact, for some reason, I almost find more satisfaction in the latter.) We could say it ten times a day, and each time would be just as refreshing, just as reassuring, just as meaningful.

Perhaps this is why I never grow weary or bored with Communion. Though we celebrate it weekly at City Church, it's never a rote or ritualistic act. So often, as the bread and wine touch my lips, I hear deep within the Spirit's "still, small voice" assuring me that Christ is mine and I am his, and that all I need in life and in death is in him and is now mine too. The moment of peace, joy, assurance, and rest for my soul may be fleeting, and some weeks it's stronger than others. But I hunger for it without fail, and I'm never left wanting.

* * *

Likewise kissing my wife is an amazing thing. Who knew such a simple exchange could mean so much? The Lord's Supper is kind of like this too. The invisible reality behind the kiss (a covenant pledge of love that exists not only in word, but within our hearts) is illustrated and explained through words ("I love you") and is not only symbolized but actually expressed and conferred or communicated through a physical act (kissing). In the Supper we receive the Lord's love in the same way. He uses physical means (serving bread and wine, which we take into our mouths) to communicate himself to us spiritually (forgiveness of sin, joyful fellowship with him, and strengthening of faith), as explained verbally ("This is my body, given for you. . . . This is the new covenant in my blood, which is poured out for you"). So when we receive the bread and wine, we can know we're receiving God's promises sealed with a kiss.

Friday, May 7, 2010

Like a Child

Last weekend my pastor preached on Mark 10:13-16. The focus was on our necessity to receive the kingdom of God like a child, which means that we must believe our Father's goodness as our great Giver of his time, touch, and blessing (note that Jesus says we "receive" the kingdom). We must also learn to call on God as Abba, "Daddy." We don't bring our successes and achievements to the table in order to be fed. Those who are looking to their own merits or worth as a means of entering fellowship with God totally miss the point.

But, as before, this text made me think about faith. Jesus says that "the kingdom of God belongs to such as these" (10:14). He cannot mean that it belongs only to those adults or adolescents who trust God and come to him like children. It would be ludicrous to set forth children as models of faith ("I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will not enter it.") and yet preclude them from having such an exemplary faith themselves.

Mark tells us that these are "little children" (paidia). What age might these role models be? Matthew uses this term to describe toddlers and infants under two years of age (Matthew 2:8, 9, 11, 13, 14, 20, 21). So apparently even infants and toddlers can have faith and can enter the kingdom of God. Other Scripture corroborates this. John the Baptist leaped for joy over the Messiah's coming even while in his mother's womb (Luke 1:41, 44). King David testified in Psalm 22 that "From birth I was cast upon you [Lord]; from my mother's womb you have been my God" (v. 10). And if this was so in the age prior to Pentecost and the Holy Spirit's outpouring upon the church, how much more so now?

N. T. Wright illustrates this with a clever example:

I once was doing a children’s talk at a baptism. I asked two children to each blow up a balloon. I allowed the first child to only put two or three little puffs into the balloon. The second child went on puffing and puffing and puffing and blew up this enormous balloon. Then I held them up and asked the children, Which of these balloons is fuller? Of course they all said “the big one.” And I replied, “Are you sure? Both of these balloons are full. One is bigger because it has more air, but they are both full—all the space in them is used up.”

A very little person can be totally full of the love of God. Even though, of course, when she grows up and becomes a bigger person, she needs to be filled with more and more of the love of God. But that little person is not half full just because she’s a little person. I realize that this is not a great, well-argued theological justification of infant baptism. It’s simply a way of saying that I suspect that some of our Western cultural prejudices are at stake here. [You can read the full article here.]

Why does this strike or provoke me? Well, lately I have been really deliberating over (guess what?) what baptism means and who is to receive it. I'm beating a dead horse, I know, I know. I've been seeing a lot more validity to the view that while baptism still signifies and confirms participation in Christ through faith, it should only be administered to professing believers. (Gasp! Might I really become Baptist after this long?) But this text throws somewhat of a wrench in that. After all, nearly every example of believers' baptism in the New Testament is that people were baptized shortly after hearing the gospel and responding in faith. But if a child raised in the church and/or in a Christian home may very well believe at age eight months, two years, or whatever, shouldn't we immediately baptize them? What would happen to John the Baptist or to David, those who believed since birth? It seems rather abiblical to me for them to believe and live out this incipient child-faith, while adults refuse them baptism until they achieve a more mature ability to articulate and express their beliefs.

Besides that, if baptism is restricted to a credible profession of faith and regeneration, at what point does that profession really become credible enough to be considered evidence that the Holy Spirit indeed indwells a person? There were evidently plenty of professing believers in churches like Corinth who partook of church activities while nonetheless living unrepentant, "uncircumcised" lives (see 1 Corinthians 10:1-11). Similar warnings are given in Romans 11:20-22, Colossians 1:23, Hebrews 6:1-12, and 2 Peter 2:20-21.

Thoughts? Feedback?

Wednesday, May 5, 2010

Loooongg Gone! -- But Not Forgotten

Yesterday long-time Detroit Tigers radio broadcaster Ernie Harwell was taken home to his Lord at the age of 92. (See ESPN's video story of his life here.) The Georgia native called games for the Tigers for over 40 years and was truly for me, as for countless other Michiganders, the voice of summer. One of my earliest memories was sitting on a stool in our garage on summer nights (probably 1984 or '85) while my dad went about his tasks--changing motor oil, mowing the lawn, building us a swingset. Yet no matter what he was doing, the garage radio was tuned squarely to 790 AM WSGW, with Harwell's rich, warm Southern voice calling the play-by-play. Phrases such as "He stood there like a house by the side of the road" (when a batter struck out looking), "It's loooongg gone!" (home runs), and "There's a souvenir for a young lady from Ypsilanti" (he would choose some random Michigan town when a foul ball was hit into the stands at Tiger Stadium or Comerica Park). But what I think I enjoyed the most about his broadcasts was the fact that he often kept silent and allowed the mic pick up the sounds of the ballpark--the crack of the bat, the hot dog vendors, the sound of Tiger Stadium's organ. It was a little taste of being at the game.

As far as I know, Harwell was a believer in the Lord Jesus; at least he often made mention of blessings given by his "good Lord" and spoke with peace at announcing his own diagnosis with inoperable cancer in 2009.

Ernie, we'll miss you. Thanks for all the wonderful memories.

Sunday, May 2, 2010

Home for Dinner

This afternoon during Communion, I had the following thought: There are many activities a family does together and many things its members can point to as valued ways they share life together and love for one another. But what stands out to me is the family dinner. Everyone may be scattered during their rest of the day and evening in their own separate events and goings-on, but during this meal everyone comes together. It shows that whatever else the day may reveal, this moment says these people are a family, a home. The parents have prepared a meal for their children, a time to discuss the day, heal wounds and relieve burdens, mend discord, and share laughter and find delight in one another's company. Even when outsiders such as the children's schoolmates are invited over, it's special to be invited over for a real meal.

I thought of the Lord's Supper in this way. All of us at City Church (enter your congregation's name here) may interconnect and share fellowship and continued relationships in diverse ways throughout the week, but it's really for 90 minutes on Sunday afternoons that we recognize we're all members of the same family together, namely, God's. Discord and squabbles must be dealt with and put away. And like needy children, we eagerly await the delights our parents have worked to prepare for us not only for our nourishment and enjoyment, but also as a context for glad fellowship and time together with them. What good parent does not love to have his whole family together? So it must be with God our Father, our Abba. He loves his children and, in accordance with our ever-present needs, he dishes out not a tuna noodle casserole, but the flesh and blood of his very own Son, through whom we receive forgiveness of our sins and assurance of fellowship with him.

Perhaps this is why when the Prodigal Son returned home (see Jesus' parable in Luke 15), his father made no delay in preparing a rich feast. He hadn't been able to do so for so long, with an empty chair (or mat, in those days) leaving a gaping hole in their home. The meal was not only a celebration of the son's return. It was also an event made possible only because the whole family was back together again. So it will be when in heaven we feast with our Father forever.

How priceless is your unfailing love!
Both high and low among men
find refuge in the shadow of your wings.

They feast on the abundance of your house;
you give them drink from your river of delights. (Psalm 36:7-8)