Growing up in Watauga County, North Carolina, you inevitably hear some really good folk and bluegrass music. It just seems like the natural soundtrack to green mountains and mist-filled valleys. In Watauga, especially, one name always epitomized the gold-standard of mountain music: hometown legend Doc Watson. Doc was a fixture on the nationwide folk circuit for the better part of 5 decades, winning 7 Grammy awards (plus a lifetime achievement award) and the National Arts Medal. He was completely blind from early childhood, but made his way in the world quite capably with his other senses.
Doc passed on yesterday at 89, still picking and singing joyfully in his old age. It feels close to home for me, as his family homestead was just across the highway from my parents’ “homestead” (since 2006) in the little farm community of Deep Gap. The few times I crossed paths with Doc (more often at the grocery store than any place music-related), he seemed like a genuinely humble and grateful man–the simple fact that he was still living on his family land in Deep Gap after his fame attests to that.
Like many of his folk, bluegrass, and country contemporaries, Doc wrote or recorded a lot of spiritually themed music, what could broadly be termed “gospel” songs. It’s difficult to separate the biblical content from those genres, even in songs not explicitly about Christian concepts. The music, is, as Flannery O’Connor might say, “Christ-haunted” because of the deeply Christian culture that birthed it. I don’t know if Doc trusted Christ for his salvation or not, but I sincerely hope so. If the testimonies of those who knew him better and the frequency and passion with which he sang about the Gospel and the Church are any indication, my hope may be well founded. If so, he’s now living what he said once at a concert: ”When I leave this world…I’ll be able to see like you can, only maybe a bit more perfect.”
Can “gospel” music be simply a superficial nod to the Christian roots of our culture that doesn’t have anything to do with the true Gospel message? Of course, but I think it also can be an ember that keeps the cultural memory of God’s sovereign grace from fading completely. Satan loves to have nations relegate the truth of Scripture and the influence of the Church to their history or to certain subcultures. Even more, though, God wills to see nations transformed by His Gospel, and He uses even the histories and subcultures of those nations to plant seeds that can fan those embers into a flame once again.
I don’t want to be in the business of over-spiritualizing popular culture, but I do see a bright lining to the customarily dark clouds of American entertainment in the resurgence of traditional (or “Americana”) music over the past decade. Of course, the music itself doesn’t qualify as preaching. The seeds of the Gospel contained in that music won’t do much to change hearts and lives unless they are watered by clear, faithful teaching of God’s Word and modeled in the faithful witness of believers. We can appreciate the music as the creative spirit of the image of God, but we should also never forget that the message of all the best gospel songs needs to be delivered in person and expounded to take root.
If Doc was indeed a follower of Jesus, I’m sure he could think of no better legacy than that his music would be used to stir the calloused soul of America to seek her Creator. As he sang in a recording of an old hymn (below), so also we can know that our hope doesn’t depend on our culture or, thankfully, on our own merit. Ironically, perhaps, it is this knowledge of the end of our faith that makes the redemption of our culture and the salvation of our fellow men our greatest goal.
O they tell me of a home far beyond the skies,
O they tell me of a home far away;
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.
O the land of cloudless day,
O the land of an uncloudy day,
O they tell me of a home where no storm clouds rise,
O they tell me of an uncloudy day.
O they tell me of a home where my friends have gone,
O they tell me of that land far away,
Where the tree of life in eternal bloom
Sheds its fragrance through the uncloudy day.
O they tell me of a King in His beauty there,
And they tell me that mine eyes shall behold
Where He sits on the throne that is whiter than snow,
In the city that is made of gold.
O they tell me that He smiles on His children there,
And His smile drives their sorrows all away;
And they tell me that no tears ever come again
In that lovely land of uncloudy day.
Posted by Justin Lonas
Originally published in Pulpit Helps, December 2008.
Each year at Christmas, we return to the manger. The simple image of the Messiah surrounded by livestock and shepherds is for many an archetype of the Incarnation and a recurring theme in our hymns and traditions.
We are right to put Christ’s infancy at the forefront of our celebration because God chose to put it at the forefront of the symbolism surrounding His coming. As if the Creator of the universe taking human form wasn’t mind-blowing enough, He chose to arrive on the scene naked and helpless, completely dependent upon his parents for nourishment and protection. In divine paradox, He was both Father and child to them.
In spite of His authority and ability to do so, Christ did not depart from these humble beginnings. Isaiah 53:2 says “For He grew up before Him like a tender shoot, and like a root out of parched ground; He has no stately form or majesty that we should look upon Him, nor appearance that we should be attracted to Him.” He never aspired to “greatness” in the human sense, content to quietly work the will of the Father and withdrawing from the praise of the masses. God-become-man demonstrated His identity precisely by not trumpeting it (Phil. 2:6); those who met Him at the manger were awed at the very ordinariness of His human form.
Equally significant is the location of His birth. While there is confusion as to the exact placement of the manger (whether in a stable, on the lower floor of a house, or in a cave), it is a place not befitting human residence, let alone God’s. But it was there in a dishonorable, unsanitary space that Christ entered His world. British author and philosopher G.K. Chesterton capitalizes on this in The Everlasting Man. Seizing on the image of the cave, he writes, “It was here that a homeless couple had crept underground with the cattle when the doors…had been shut in their faces; and it was here beneath the very feet of the passersby, in a cellar under the floor of the world, that Jesus Christ was born.” Indeed, His birth as an outcast foreshadowed the life of homelessness that He and his disciples led (Matthew 8:20, Luke 9:58).
The lowly birth of Christ, as Chesterton goes on to state, is the central event of all history, the end of mythology’s dreams and philosophy’s search, and the trumpet call of victory over Satan. He says, “It is nothing less than the loud assertion that this mysterious maker of the world has visited this world in person. It declares that really…right in the middle of historic times, there did walk into this world this original invisible being about whom the thinkers make theories and the mythologists hand down myths: the Man Who Made the World.” The manger turns the world on its ear.
God’s entry into the world serves a larger purpose than simply flying in the face of human conventions, however. His arrival was the ultimate demonstration both of His authority over creation (in being born of a virgin) and His love and concern for man. Because He “showed up” in the person of Christ, His character has been demonstrated for all to see. He cannot be ignorant of poverty, for He was poor. He has ultimate sympathy for the suffering because He was tortured and gave His life. No man can accuse Him of being distant or uncaring because He is “God with us.” By healing the sick and rebuking the proud, He reminds us that He has entered the world to “set it to rights”; He will bring His justice.
He came as a man to redeem the world. He had to take part in birth and death to defeat the power of Satan over men (Heb. 2:14). As Athanasius of Alexandria put it, He came “to renew men according to His image.” Because of the manger, birth and life are honored with the presence of the King. In lowering Himself, he gave significance to the daily tasks and struggles of life. He came to set a standard by which we should also live.
This then is the mystery of the Incarnation—through all these things, He commands us to follow Him. From the manger, he bids us to follow into a life of lowliness, wandering, sacrifice, and submission to the Father. The irony of God’s destruction of earth’s status quo is that it simultaneously frees us from slavery under the law and calls us to a higher road. The very Word of God, by whom all things were made and are held together, has shown us the way, and we are to be imitators of Him. Such is the gift of Christmas.
Posted by Justin Lonas.
Lamentations 1:12-14, 20.
“Is it nothing to all you who pass this way?
Look and see if there is any pain like my pain
Which was severely dealt out to me,
Which the Lord inflicted on the day of His fierce anger.
From on high He sent fire into my bones,
And it prevailed over them.
He has spread a net for my feet;
He has turned me back;
He has made me desolate,
Faint all day long.
The yoke of my transgressions is bound;
By His hand they are knit together.
They have come upon my neck;
He has made my strength fail.
The Lord has given into the hands
Of those agiainst Whom I am not able to Stand.
See, O Lord, for I am in distress;
My spirit is greatly troubled;
My heart is overturned within me,
For I have been very rebellious.
In the street the sword slays;
In the house it is like death.”
Lamentations is one of my favorite books of the Old Testament. Its intense grief over the destruction of Jerusalem gives way to a profound picture of God’s hand in both good and evil that shows clearly that He is the Father Almighty, maker of heaven and earth, of all that is, seen and unseen. What I sometimes gloss over in reading this book, though, is that the destruction wrought upon Jerusalem that moved Jeremiah’s pen came from within. The blight on Israel was a result of their collective sins, and they recognized it (though only after it was too late).
The implications for daily life are painfully real. I so seldom lament the sin in my own life and the destruction it causes. Even when I do, the tendency is always to lament the consequences and fail to connect them to the sin. We are the child caught with his hand in the cookie jar, regretting our lack of cookies rather than the breach of trust and relationship with our parents our actions caused. We go on this way, stumbling from transgression to transgression without considering the brokenness of our own hearts.
When God allows our sins to bear fruit in pain and suffering, it is really His special grace to call our attention to our eternal destiny through such temopral consequences. The destruction wrought by our sinful actions should move us to consider our sinful hearts and our cardinal sin of rebellion against our Great and gracious Creator. The brokenness that comes when sin “catches up to us” should drive us to the cross, where the consequences of all man’s sin are on full display, heaped on the Son–”once for all, the just for the unjust” (1 Pet. 3:18). As Charles Hodge put it, “It is obvious that no severity of mere human suffering, no destroying deluge, no final conflagration, not hell itself can present such a manifestation of the evil of sin and of the justice of God as the cross of his incarnate Son.”
When we fail to recognize these connections, to lament and mortify our sin, we heap further guilt on our heards. What is lament but to dwell on our own failure in the face of God’s holiness and to consider ourselves as He does? For the believer, lament is a crucial discipline, the result of which is not despair but the joy of Christ’s sacrifice considered anew. It is only through lamenting the sin that stains us that we can see the grace of God in full. This is what allows Jeremiah to say from the depths of sorrow, “This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never ceases, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness” (Lam 3:21-23).
Posted by Justin Lonas
My dad used to say all the time that the older he got, the more convinced he was of God’s absolute sovereignty and the less sure he was of his own free choice in the developments of his life and faith. As a child (and later a brash teenager), I was disinclined to see things that way–something about our human nature always chafes against any notion that we aren’t in control of our daily lives–but now I couldn’t agree more.
We are born into this world thinking ourselves the masters of our domain, seeking every opportunity to manipulate our situation to our advantage. Paradoxically, we learn to expect that our demands will be met whenever we make them precisely because we are utterly helpless. A parent doesn’t meet the needs of a child because the child’s cries obligate action, rather they do it out of love and concern for their child. A parent, not their child, creates and sustains the proper environment necessary. We grow up predisposed to believe that our parents exist to serve us, and we drag that image into our understanding of God.
Immature prayer often sounds like a more polished and polite version of a young child’s begging: “Lord, please give me (insert desire here);” “Lord, please take away (insert bad situation, illness, or difficulty here).” Is there anything wrong with that? Certainly not, as we are exhorted to ask God for His good gifts–even self-centered prayer acknowledges God as the source of the blessing. When the content of all our prayers is centered around such supplication, however, we are clearly missing something. A God powerful enough to give us these blessings and good enough to answer when we ask is deserving of so much more in our relationship to Him.
Theologically, this teases itself out in debates about the nature of salvation, righteousness, and responsibility. Who is the actor when we pass from death to life? How can we do right and cease from sin? Why do bad things happen in the world if God could stop them? Most of us at least at some point struggle with the interplay between personal autonomy and God’s absolute authority, and the Scriptures give precious little on which to build a sound case for the unilateral triumph of either position. I’ve broken it down before into a too-simplistic set of statements: Those who see God’s authority rigidly (to the point of denying man’s responsibility for anything) view God’s sovereignty correctly (He is either sovereign over all or not at all), but they impute to Him man’s motives and attitudes in the application of that authority in such a way that misses the the vastness of His love and mercy. Those who see man’s autonomy rigidly (to the point of diminishing God’s power) correctly see that we are responsible for our choices, but they impute God-like motives to us that undercut the depth, darkness, and totality of our sinfulness.
I know a lot of people who grew into belief in God’s sovereignty and then have had that confidence shattered by personal experiences or simply an overwhelming awareness of the trauma of life in a fallen world. When we witness a horrific crime or natural disaster, we can’t help but wonder how and why God would allow such things. To some, the assurance that “God is in control” is no comfort and seems a hollow brush-off of visceral suffering.
God is in control, however, just as He was in control the day His beloved, holy, innocent Son Jesus Christ was brutally beaten and crucified in Jerusalem. The cross of Christ (vis-a-vis God’s sovereignty) is not simply a lesson in how God’s plan through what appears to be abject evil is in reality an unimaginable good (a la Gen. 50:20), though it is the ultimate example of that. The cross is not just a lesson in the ways in which God’s plan is beyond our understanding, though it is that too. Though a display of His grace and power and authority to erase our sins, it is still more. Perhaps the way the cross most boldly proclaims God’s sovereignty is through showcasing His willingness to suffer.
Christ was God, the Word made flesh (John 1:14), not another created being. Christ, “who, although He existed in the form of God, did not regard equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied Himself…humbled Himself by becoming obedient to the point of death…” (Phil. 2:6-8). He came from a position of equality with God and yet became a man, “so that He might become a merciful and faithful high priest in things pertaining to God to make propitiation for the sins of the people” (Heb. 2:17). He came down to know the full measure of temptation (Heb. 4;15), pain, and separation from the Father: “In the days of His flesh, He offered up both prayers and supplications with loud crying and tears to the One able to save Him from death, and He was heard because of His piety. Although He was a Son, He learned obedience from the things which He suffered” (Heb. 5:7-8).
When Satan tempts us to believe that God is somehow out of touch or incapacitated by the scope of natural and moral evil in the world, we have to cling to the cross. When he tells us that God could not know our pain, could not feel our inner turmoil, and is not interested in the details of life in this world, we have to throw the battered, bloody body of Jesus in his face and shout, “But He died!”
When we are tempted to doubt God’s goodness and compassion, when we read of divinely-ordered genocide (as in 1 Sam. 15) in the same book as we discover His everlasting lovingkindness and are told to see this as a contradiction that undermines our faith, we have to fall on the cross. The justice and love of God are predicated on the finished work of Christ: He knows “everyone whos name has…been written from the foundation of the world in the book of life of the Lamb who has been slain” (Rev. 13:8). Everything about our understanding of and relationship with God has to hold up under the power of the cross; otherwise, it is incomplete and is “no gospel at all” (Gal. 1:7).
As I said, the older I get, the more I understand my dad’s statement. The driving factor in this shift isn’t so much that I’ve learned more about God’s sovereignty from growing in His Word (though I have), but that I am daily confronted with magnitude of my sin. The more I recognize my own rottenness, the more I recognize that any standing I have before God is His doing alone. The less sound my case seems in the face of God’s holy justice, the more His love breaks through in all its glory. If I though I deserved even a snippet of it, it would be cheapened to me beyond recognition. I’ve got no right whatsoever to live with God, but He died!
Charles Wesley’s words ring true: “And can it be, that I should gain an interest in my Savior’s blood? Died He for me, who caused His pain, for me, who Him to death pursued? Amazing love, how can it be, that Thou, my God, shouldst die for me?”
A blessed Holy Week and Easter to you all.
Posted by Justin Lonas
I wrote this for my student newspaper during my senior year of college after a trip to Louisiana to assist with hurricane relief. I’m reposting it here in honor of the 5th anniversary of Hurricane Katrina’s landfall on the Gulf Coast on 8/29/05 and as a reminder that God is at work in even in the worst disasters we witness around the world.
“œEverybody keeps saying that God sent this thing as an act of judgment on our city. I think it was really an act of mercy ““ there are people who have been praying for something like this for years ““ just waiting for an opportunity to get out of a bad situation.”
These level-headed words from the wife of a New Orleans Baptist Theologial Seminary student didn’t blend with their context.
She spoke them while inspecting her salt-encrusted Chevy Cavalier to the background noise of six men from Bryan College stripping appliances and furniture from her neighbor’s apartment.
I never associated mercy with destruction. The mold-blackened walls, rancid refrigerators and pervasive stench of flooded homes more closely matched my conception of hell than of God’s love. Pausing from our grim task to hear her wisdom sharpened the meaning of our work there.
Before heading to Louisiana for a week of ministry, I wondered how I could show God’s love to people who thought He Himself had destroyed their lives. The words of the seminary wife caught me off guard with the simple truth that God was behind the whole story of Hurricane Katrina, in ways that I never conceived.
New Orleans needed judgment. The city of gamblers, drunkards, prostitutes and revelers, was ripe for sentence to be passed. Gulfport and Biloxi in neighboring Mississippi weren’t much better. Then again, neither is any place on this earth. What cities and towns don’t play host to people who are financially irresponsible, those who depend on alcohol and drugs, the sexually promiscuous and self-absorbed partygoers? “œNormal” places carefully pass over these woes as those who partake of them deftly cover their tracks to avoid condemnation.
New Orleans wore her sins on her sleeve. Did we rush to proclaim the wrath of God on the Big Easy because she deserved it or because we were glad that our own closet hadn’t been blown open by the storm?
Too often we mistake nudges from the Almighty as blows from His sword. We forget that He works in mysterious ways. If He wanted to destroy the city, He could have ““ beyond the shadow of a doubt. Looking at roofs crushed by trees, windows exploded by 130-mph winds and 10-foot-high piles of trash that were once the contents of a home, it’s very easy to think of judgment.
Looking deeper, mercy overtakes judgment as the theme of this saga. A city of 500,000 people losing only a little more than 1,000 to a direct hit by a monstrous hurricane for which it was almost completely unprepared is mercy. Letting people see the Church do the work of restoring lives wrecked by the storm when the government bungled its attempt at the same is mercy. Leading National Guard soldiers and Red Cross relief workers to salvation is mercy. Allowing the terrible beauty of a hurricane to thrash our lives so that we wake from the slumber of Christless apathy is mercy.
New Orleans needed mercy. We all need mercy. God loves to show us His gracious care. We’re just slow to pick up His frequency.
New Orleans was not destroyed. Today, just a few weeks later, it is bustling with the activity of reconstruction. The South isn’t about to let the bosom of its culture wash by the wayside. More importantly, Christ isn’t about to let hurting people go untouched through this upheaval. I’ve never seen as positive an outpouring of energy and resources from the Church in my lifetime.
Those of us who could go offer tangible help did, some more than once, and I’m sure many will continue to go for months to come. Those who could give to the cause gave generously; so much so that there has been an overabundance of supplies for the refugees. The hand of the Lord has been active the whole time. It touched refugees herded into shelters with hot meals and listening ears. It touched uninsured homeowners by preparing their homes for reconstruction free of charge. It touched people living in makeshift trailer parks with welcoming embraces and simple services. It touched relief workers from Bryan with the strength, patience and generosity we needed to be that hand to the people of southeast Louisiana.
Years from now, when we look back on this incredible story of God’s redeeming mercy, no one will think of it as a judgment from on high. We can’t waste the gift He has given us. If we allow our lives to return to “œnormal” after the dust of all this settles, the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina will not be the destruction of the Gulf Coast but the destruction of spiritual fervor by comfortable circumstances.
The words of the prophets linger in the background. “œ“˜I struck all the work of your hands with blight, mildew and hail, yet you did not turn to me,’ declares the Lord.” (Hag. 2:17).
God got our attention and allowed us to rebuild His Body with a righteous work ethic. To Him be the glory, even (or, should I say, especially) when we can’t immediately see His purposes.
Posted by Justin Lonas
“Great is Thy faithfulness, O God my father;
There is no shadow of turning with thee;
Thou changest not, Thy compassions they fail not;
As thou hast been, Thou forever wilt be.
“Summer and winter and seedtime and harvest,
Sun, moon, and stars in their courses above
Join with all nature in manifold witness
To Thy great faithfulness, mercy, and love.
“Pardon for sin and a peace that endureth
Thine own dear presence to lead and to guide;
Strength for today, and bright hope for tomorrow,
Blessings all mine and ten thousand beside!
“Great is Thy faithfulness!
Great is Thy faithfulness!
Morning by morning, new mercies I see.
All I have needed, Thy hand hath provided,
Great is thy faithfulness, Lord unto me.”
© Thomas O. Chisholm, 1923
Chisholm’s hymn is dear to many of us, but perhaps so near that we forget the power of its meaning. This is not just a hymn praising God for His abundant blessing or His steadfast support. In point of fact, the text for this songbook standard comes not from Psalms but from Lamentations – from the lowest point of the lowly life of Jeremiah. And the affirmation of God’s faithfulness comes not after a blessing, or even after deliverance, but after God’s chastisement of Israel. So confident was Jeremiah of God’s purposes in His punishment, that he echoes Job’s cry, “œThough He slay me, yet will I hope in Him“ (Job 13:15a).
“œMy soul has been rejected from peace; I have forgotten happiness. So I say, “˜My strength has perished, and so has my hope from the Lord.’ Remember my affliction and my wandering, the wormwood and bitterness. Surely my sould remembers and is bowed down within me. This I recall to my mind, therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses never cease, for His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness“ (Lamentations 3:17-23).
That is the true test of our faith – do we trust God enough to know that even the troubles we encounter are part of His plan? Do we believe, as Jeremiah did, that “œWho is there who speaks and it comes to pass, unless the Lord has commanded it? Is it not from the mouth of the most high that both good and ill go forth?” (Lamentations 3:37-38).
Posted by Justin Lonas