The Dissolution of “Probably”

Living in Atlanta, one is asked to visually imbibe a greater variety of graffiti than folks living in smaller towns or rural communities. I’m not saying it’s not present OTP (“Outside the Perimeter” as we say here in the ATL), but the same quantity just isn’t present. Normally, it’s a word scrawled hastily on an exterior surface, one even I with my background in English education cannot decipher. (I firmly believe that reading teenagers’ scribblings for more than a decade left me prepared to translate Sanskrit, Elvish, and Klingon with equal ease. It’s like being one of the X-Men….but with an even lamer ability than Jubilee’s.)

Other times, the graffiti I see is an image involving chimerical creatures or abstract art, and sometimes it’s a whimsical creation like the one below…a pig (or a hippo) preparing to devour an ice cream cone. The juxtaposition of these two items makes absolutely no sense; there’s no symbolic meaning I can glean from it. At one time, when I lived in a world that wasn’t as hyper-decorated as my current home city, I might have poured over this image searching for some hidden truth or imbedded message. Now, eh, not so much. It’s just one more polychromatic embellishment that gives the place character.

Ben and Jerry should name a flavor after this.

I mentioned in a previous post that while I find graffiti interesting, I neither support it as an art form nor wish to outright ban it. If a building is abandoned, by all means, scribble on it you various types of ne’er-do-wells. One man’s crumbling brick wall is another man’s canvas and all that. However, if someone is living in it or attempting to run a business out of it, keep your Krylon to yourself, taggers!

However, just when I think I have my mind made up on a subject, I see new factors that compel me to reconsider my beliefs—even about something like graffiti. Driving home the other day, I saw this little gem on a wall behind a business that’s near railroad tracks. Take a look….

There are two interesting things to note. One, this scribble is one hundred percent legible. Points to the teacher or parent who was a stickler for proper penmanship. After all, there’s nothing worse than having something earth-shaking to say and no one being able to read it because you couldn’t be bothered to follow the rules of cursive. Two, this provocative declaration is without a single grammatical blemish. The correct homonym (There’s) has been selected, the apostrophe is in the right place, “probably” is spelled correctly, and there is even an appropriate use of an ellipsis (…). Granted, it’s in all caps, but one can hardly fault the seeker who penned the statement. Spray paint is dash hard to work with as a medium, and, truth be told, the statement he or she is making might merit the loud delivery.

Compare this message to some of the others I’ve found posted on the Internet…

Image from (Abigail Codogan)
Image from

(Never mind the fact it should technically be “Woe is I.” I’m just happy someone took the time to fix the glaring error!)

Image from

Judging by his or her peers, I firmly believe someone of passable intelligence wrote the message I captured on my camera phone. The handwriting and grammatical correctness tell me as much.

This person is not asking a question but rather is making a statement: “There’s probably no God…”

Not “There’s no God.” or “How can there be a God?” or even “Where is God?” No, this individual is stating that there is no God, but even in that assertion there is no certainty because of the choice to use “probably” as a modifier. Why waste both time and paint (not to mention risk getting arrested) to make a statement like this? Usually, they are quick posts made by a person who thinks he or she has answers to life’s questions (most of which involve a curse word for some reason). This person wanted to leave a half-finished thought behind for others to chew on, one that just happens to involve one of the most important and most hashed-over questions in the universe.

This is a statement that demands an answer from believers, and it is proof that evangelism is still vital in our world. This young person is prompting a discussion about the Lord’s presence with his artistic sojourn—this shrug of the shoulders made with obsidian paint. It’s almost like he’s daring us to retort, not because he wants to enter into a debate in an attempt to prove us wrong. This doesn’t strike me as the work of a hardened atheist whose heart is closed to the teachings of Jesus Christ and is unwilling to hear.

This person needs to be found, needs to be told about Christ and gently compelled by the Holy Spirit to take in the world around him in all its wondrous glory. A Christian needs to take this person and usher him into the very throne room of God as we have all been at times in our lives. After all, anyone who has ever witnessed God at work will tell you that it is impossible to deny His handiwork or His presence once you have been shown. You simply cannot “unsee” God. After experiencing His love and power, the word “probably” can never exist again in your vocabulary.

Now that I’m older, I’m coming to understand just how essential the Great Commission is and how working in the power of the Holy Spirit to witness to others and share the love of God is vital. Millions of people in my city alone are lost and hurting tonight, and all of it is needless. Someone who knows what Jesus Christ was willing to do to redeem us has no need for drugs or the empty promise of another’s body for comfort. Everything is different when He’s in the middle of it. That’s why we must “open their eyes so that they may turn from darkness to light and from the dominion of Satan to God, that they may receive forgiveness of sins and an inheritance among those who have been sanctified by faith” in Jesus Christ (Acts 26:18).

I think about the young man who wrote, “There’s probably no God…” and ache for him. Is his heart seeking answers as mine once did? How will he find them if I’m not willing to go and tell, to leave my own message to the world on that same wall, written in red, next to his….

“There certainly is a God, and He loves you.” 

The Whole Truth And Nothing But

Once upon a time, I was a Christian schoolteacher…

It sounds like the beginning of a C.S. Lewis novel or a somewhat boring fairy tale, doesn’t it? Well, it’s the truth. In my teaching career, I was privileged to work with some of the finest students Florida had to offer and to work with a team of the most amazing educators who ever wielded an Expo marker.

However, I was left scratching my head on more than one occasion by things people, parents in particular, would say. One of my favorite examples was a parent who admitted she and her husband only taught their daughter the New Testament because, as she put it, “God is love, and we don’t want her thinking otherwise.”

I wasn’t teaching the Bible class her daughter was enrolled in that year, so after the obligatory smile and nod, I walked away…her comment firmly lodged in my craw.

My fellow Christians, we cannot simply cherry pick the parts of the Bible we like and leave the rest. We cannot have an incomplete understanding of God’s Word and expect to have the intimate relationship with Him that is required for spiritual growth. Our Lord is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. He needs no help from us to keep the universe cruising along, and our likes and dislikes do not factor into how He manages things. Would I rather no one I loved ever get sick or die? You bet. However, those “valley experiences” are what bring me closer to God and make those moments I live on “the mountaintop” all the more spectacular and valuable.

Right now, the world is incredibly hostile to Christians because we can’t honestly tell them, “If you just love God and love others, you’ll go to heaven.” We can’t all be like Rob Bell who sells millions of books filled with half-truths and blatant lies. No, we have to be the people who explain that accepting Jesus Christ as your Lord and Savior and “dying daily to self” is what is required.

It’s the spiritual equivalent of a plate of broccoli sitting next to a chocolate layer cake. Which one of those two items would you choose if you were told they got you the same result, spiritually speaking?

That is why it is essential for Christians not just to believe but also to be able to explain what they believe and why convincingly. A command of the Bible—both the Old and New Testaments—is the key. We have to have it on the tip of our tongues, to understand who wrote which book, for which audience, and for what purpose. We need to have our timelines straight and our verbiage clear. This is not to say that we need to know every name in the “so-and-so begot so-and-so” books of the Septuagint, but we must be able to discuss the very Word of God in a convicting way. Yes, the Holy Spirit is the one doing that convicting through us, but our witness will be bolder and more compelling if we have the text at our disposal.

To prove my point, I’ll give you an example of a moment when I totally missed out on an opportunity to witness because I didn’t have a firm grasp of the Bible.

In 2004, I had just been diagnosed with Multiple Sclerosis. I was scared out of my mind, angry, and often exhausted. The treatment for the disease (steroids) had sucked the wind out of my sails, and depression finished off whatever was left of lil’ old me. However, I had already missed a term in graduate school due to this illness, and I was determined not to miss another. Ergo, I signed up for one course during the summer—Major Authors: James Joyce. (Insert menacing dun-dun-dun music here.)

There were several problems with this choice. Aside from the aforementioned exhaustion that put me at a disadvantage before it even started, the class itself was structured poorly. It was a six-week course that met for four hours twice a week. Pretty intense, right? Now, in six weeks of intense work, how much material would you expect the class to include? One book? Two? The professor decided it would be a good idea to read and discuss Dubliners, Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man, and Ulysses (as well as the Bloomberg reader we were to study with it) in that time frame. I know that four books doesn’t sound like a lot, especially when the first one is a book of short stories. However, allow me to clarify via comparison.

When I was an undergraduate at Valdosta State University, there was a class in Joyce that took place during the sixteen-week semester and met two times a week for an hour and a half each session. They discussed one work by Joyce—Ulysses—in all that time, and the students said at the end of the course that they didn’t feel like they’d covered it thoroughly enough.

Seriously, Ulysses is that difficult. Even for people who love words, it’s a tough read—one best done with a trusty guide and a llama if you want to get to the top safely.

The missed opportunity I mentioned before the llama tangent came early on in the class while we were reading Dubliners, a seminal collection of fifteen short stories like “Araby,” “The Dead,” and “Eveline” that have been anthologized more times than Joan Rivers has had Botox treatments. The one that got me is story number eight, “A Little Cloud.”

The title is a reference to 1 Kings 18:44,

Then it came to pass the seventh time that he said, ‘There is a cloud, as small as a man’s hand, rising out of the sea!’

The professor had no clue about the passage and was more concerned with the body of the text than the title, but I thought I could be clever and wring a little extra meaning out of it. For those of you who aren’t professed word nerds or former/current English majors, let me tell you, knowing something a professor does not or being able to construct a new theory about a literary passage is akin to experiencing The Quickening. We live for it.

I researched the passage analytically, took notes, and prepared my strategy to get the most “ooohs” and “aaahs” for my effort. However, I read the Bible book in isolation. I had no clue what made Elijah so special or where he fit into the overall narrative. In essence, I was using the Bible as a reference text, I had reduced the Word of God to a secondary role in order to discern the words of a mere man, and I was doing so for an entirely self-serving purpose.

I see now that it was doomed to failure. And fail I did. Big time.

In fact, as I attempted to explain the story—the drought, the worship of Baal by the people of Israel, and the change of heart that came because Elijah was willing to stand alone against a nation overrun with apostasy—he became more and more disinterested. I prattled on, not making any point whatsoever, and generally muddying what had seemed to make perfect sense in my head.

David Hasselhoff’s drunken cheeseburger video made more sense than I did.

The story by Joyce has nothing to do with any of those things. Hence, a straight translation makes no sense. (You might want to click on the link above and read the story, but I’ll give you a synopsis just in case you’re not in the mood.)

In this story, Little Chandler, a mild-mannered banker type who loves poetry, is meeting with an old friend named Ignatius Gallaher who he has not seen in eight years. Gallaher is a high roller in the London press world, and seeing him again makes Little Chandler realize that he’s in a prison of sorts, a domestic one involving a boring job, a cold wife, and a child his wife prefers to him. At the end of the story, he is hopeless and comes to the realization that neither his friend nor his family held him back from his dreams of being a writer. It was only his tentativeness that kept him feeling incomplete; he is the one who is to blame.

Now, looking at it knowing what I know now about the Old Testament, the book of 1 Kings in particular, I could draw an analogy between the domestic life/safe job Little Chandler has and the false god Baal. Just as the prophets of that false idol could not call their god to light the fire under the sacrifice, the “prophets” of domestic tranquility or big city living could produce nothing tangible in Little Chandler’s life.

The little cloud in 1 Kings marks the end of a lengthy drought that was brought to an end when the people of Israel turned from idol worship and back to God. However, rather than be encouraged by it, Elijah turns tail and runs when Jezebel, the wife of King Ahab, calls for his death. He, like Little Chandler, was fearful and likely missed out on an amazing time of ministry because he did not trust in God’s provision. Granted, Joyce’s story is in no way religious, and I’m likely missing out on some key points here that could make the connection stronger, but I now know there is something there because I have a better grasp of the primary text.

But my being embarrassed and missing out on an “Ah Ha!” moment isn’t the problem. I don’t regret missing out on that. However, my half-formed attempt to explain the Bible to a group of people who were already prone to naysaying it only did more to reinforce a stereotype they hold dear—that all Christians are half-brained hicks who cannot think for themselves. Who knows what might have happened if I could have been a better, more prepared witness? I’m not saying a revival would have erupted right there, but a seed or two could have been planted that would have born spiritual fruit in someone’s life when it was tended to by other Christians and nurtured by the ministering of the Holy Spirit.

That is why we can never be content with learning only what our pastor’s teach, though many of those godly men are doing an amazing job ministering to their flocks. The simple truth is that nothing can substitute for digging into God’s Word for ourselves, searching for the answers we need and the lessons our Father would have us learn.

Be diligent to present yourself approved to God as a workman who does not need to be ashamed, accurately handling the word of truth.–2 Timothy 2:15

Waiting for Onesimus

Isaiah 55:11 reads, “So will My word be which goes forth from My mouth; it will not return to Me empty, without accomplishing what I desire and without succeeding in the matter for which I sent it.” It is an oft-paraphrased verse that is usually quoted in a more stylized, King James Version kind of way—“My Word shall not return void.” Isn’t that the truth?

Every time I earnestly study God’s Word looking for a deeper understanding of Him and what He would have for my life, I come away with more than I can process in a single sitting. It provides answers…in spades! This blog may be a bit on the circuitous side, so let me apologize for that in advance. However, I felt like saying something on paper was better than letting it roll around in my head, unformulated, any longer.

This all started yesterday when I read all of Titus in my daily Bible study. I started noticing a pattern throughout Paul’s letter—the repeated use of the phrase “good works.” In fact, there are seven uses of this phrase, only two of which are variations.  The two that are different (“lover of what is good” and “disqualified for every good work”) both refer to what a Christian leader must be. The former phrase describes those fit to be elders while the latter is applicable to the people of Crete, many of whom were grossly unqualified.

Having studied Galatians, I know that works are not what “earn us a spot” in heaven. In fact, our works are nothing more than “filthy rags” before God, worthless in the scope of eternity (Isa. 64:6). However, good works are something we cannot help but produce as fruit of the spirit. Once saved, we can manifest our gratitude to the Father by serving others and bringing His light to the world.

I got to thinking about “good works” and what, for lack of a better term, “qualifies” a work to be good. I don’t know about you, dear reader, but I read stories about amazing missionaries who are converting entire villages in African countries with names I can’t even pronounce and marvel. I hear about people who are fighting to stop child sex trafficking by taking in girls despite the daily threats they receive from the animals trying to sell them, and I want to stand up and applaud. THOSE are “good works” in my book. Through of actions like these, lives are lives being transformed because of the strength security in Christ provides.

What do I have to offer in return? My best example of a “good work” this week was getting a six-pack of Jello chocolate pudding down off the top shelf for an adorable old lady. How is that even comparable!?

Thankfully, we are not meant to compare our good works against others’. In fact, we are not to judge anyone’s actions, including our own. That’s God’s privilege. Paul writes:

Let a man regard us in this manner, as servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God. In this case, moreover, it is required of stewards that one be found trustworthy. But to me it is a very small thing that I may be examined by you, or by any human court; in fact, I do not even examine myself. For I am conscious of nothing against myself, yet I am not by this acquitted; but the one who examines me is the Lord. Therefore do not go on passing judgment before the time, but wait until the Lord comes who will both bring to light the things hidden in the darkness and disclose the motives of men’s hearts; and then each man’s praise will come to him from God (1 Cor. 4:1-5).

God knows why we do good works, and that is even more important than what we do. Buying one homeless man a meal is just as “good” as running a twenty-four hour soup kitchen if it is done with the right intentions—to show kindness to others and share the love of Christ with them.

I’ve been asking God to show me what good works He would have me do. I’ve even told Him, “Father, even if I’m afraid or what You ask makes me uncomfortable, I know You will help me to see it through. I’m willing.” When in prayer, that sounds all well and good, but I would like to think I genuinely mean it. I want to be a “good and faithful servant” and do things that honor my Savior (Matt. 25:21).

But then I read the book of Philemon and swallowed audibly.

After reading the twenty-five verses of this short epistle, I realized that there are times when God gives people moments in their lives when they have to “put their spiritual money where their mouth is” and show that their faith is more than window dressing, some sort of Christian Kabuki theater.

Here’s the backstory—Philemon was a wealthy Christian living in Colossae. His slave, Onesimus, had run away from him and attempted to hide in Rome. However, God had other plans, and Onesimus was brought to Paul who was under house arrest at that time. Paul, who had likely led Philemon to Christ, led the slave to salvation as well. Paul enjoyed Onesimus’ company and desired to keep him nearby, but he knew that healing the breach with his former master was more important and that more spiritual good could be accomplished by sending him back with a letter.

Under the law, Philemon had the right to kill Onesimus. In fact, beating him within an inch of his life would have been viewed by many as merciful in the extreme. However, Paul doesn’t suggest that. Instead, he asks his friend to receive his runaway slave as “a beloved brother” because they were both a part of the family of God.  What he was asking was unheard of at that time! To show mercy to a slave, a person you had previously owned? It was nearly unthinkable.

Paul might have made it easier if he’d ordered the master to forgive the slave, but he does not. Paul writes, “…I wanted you to do nothing, that your good deed might not be by compulsion as it were, but voluntary. . . .Yes, brother, let me have joy from you in the Lord; refresh my heart in the Lord. Having confidence in your obedience, I write to you, knowing that you will do even more than I say” (Phil. 1:14, 20-21).

In essence, Paul tells his friend, one of the many he brought to a saving knowledge in Christ, “I know you understand the concept of forgiveness because you have been forgiven by the blood of Jesus Christ. That’s all well and good, but now I am asking you to practice it as well.” Philemon had every right to abuse, starve, and kill this man that Paul was sending back to him. The world would not have condemned him for any of those actions. In fact, he would draw more ire for doing what Paul was asking him to do—“Receive him as you would me” (Phil. 1:17).

I’m sure Paul sent the poor slave home, letter in hand, hoping that his fellow Christian would do the right thing having been given the choice. And that is what God does with us. He offers salvation to all, but only a few receive. He gives us the choice to heed or disregard His will, all the while earnest that we’ll choose the narrow gate (Matt. 7:13). However, the asking does not stop there. God will continue to push us, to present us with moments and times where we can choose to follow His leading and His will for our lives, leaving it up to us as we grow in faith.

According to all the records and commentaries on this epistle, Philemon did indeed accept Onesimus back into his household, even freeing him from slavery. Many even claim that he “was the Onesimus consecrated a bishop by the Apostles and who accepted the episcopal throne in Ephesus following the Apostle Timothy”! Philemon was able to exercise forgiveness and allow it to strengthen his testimony, and because of it, his formerly rebellious slave became a useful servant of Christ.

The symbolism of their names makes it altogether wonderful. Philemon means “affectionate,” and it is he who shows Christ-like affection for his lost servant. Onesimus means “profitable,” and that is exactly what he became because of Philemon’s willingness to forgive.

Had the Holy Spirit not been working in Philemon and the man himself sensitive to His leading, how many others might have missed out on seeing Christian forgiveness in action? How many might not have come to know the saving grace of Christ Jesus? This is an amazing example of practical righteousness, of Christian brotherhood and love that showed many people the way to salvation who might otherwise miss out.

After all, words and mighty ideals might sound good, but many people will not be willing to sit down and listen to a lengthy scriptural argument. Many care nothing for doctrine or spirituality, those things that show what many are doing is sinful and of the world. However, if they can see it in action and realize that being Christian is more than just a slogan on a t-shirt, hearts that might otherwise be firmly shut and locked against the Word might be opened—even if it is but a crack. That’s all the Holy Spirit needs.

Like Vladimir and Estragon in Waiting for Godot, the absurdist play, I am waiting for my Onesimus. Unlike their “friend” who never shows up, I know my moment will one day arrive. I will then have a choice to make—to follow the leadings of the Holy Spirit and be an effective witness or to let the opportunity pass.  Perhaps, Lord willing, there will be many such times. Therefore, I ask the Lord that I may be like Philemon, affectionate and willing to humble myself in His service , to be used as only He can use me for His glory.

 Soli Deo Gloria!