Archive for the ‘Life and Living It’ Category

How to Be a Pilgrim

October 5, 2009

I am so thankful to God for the years I spent in the youth group at First Baptist Church of Atlanta, Texas.  It was particularly when I was in the sixth grade that I first began to understand that the claims of Christ over my life are total and absolute.  Thus, my Christian faith cannot be tucked away in a private area of my life.  It must shape everything I do and think.  God knows I needed to hear that message at that particular time, and my life has never been the same.

But at the same time I was also introduced to textbook American evangelical activism.  I don’t mean that my youth group meetings were political rallies (we didn’t discuss politics).  I mean that, under the instruction of my youth minister, I dove headfirst into the “transform the world for Christ” mentality.  It has taken me years to recover from it, and I am still in process. 

Of course, a lot of good came out of that teaching.  I became more attuned to the public claims of the Christian faith.  I grew strong and bold (at least more so than I had been before) in personal evangelism.  I developed leadership abilities that have carried me through years of ministry.  I certainly don’t want to suggest that everything I learned in this regard was wrong or of no value to me.

But I also got entrenched in evangelical triumphalism.  I overestimated my own (and the church’s) ability to “build” God’s Kingdom on earth (as though that is something any human hands could do!).  I dreamed big dreams, and more often than not I ended up with big disappointments.  I still wrestle with the ramifications of those dreams today.  And in some cases I have had to smash those dreams because they were nothing more than sugar-coated idols.   

This article by Michael Horton strikes me as one full of biblical and theological wisdom.  Please read it for insight into the relationship between the “already” dimension of the Kingdom of God, the “not yet” dimension of the Kingdom, and the church’s role in between. 

Does God expect me to go out and change the world?  Probably not.  Imagine how few people in the history of the human race can claim to have done such a thing.  We are not all, as Christians, called to be world changers.  But we are all called to be pilgrims, wayfarers on the road to glory who may not pull off a global makeover, but if we faithfully worship, pray, love, and work, day in and day out, as the New Testament calls us to do, we may just end up leaving this place a little better than we found it.  Evangelical triumphalism may not be satisfied with that idea, but if I read the New Testament correctly, it seems that God is.  And that’s so much the worse for evangelical triumphalism.

At the command of God the Father and at just the right moment, the Lord Jesus will bring the consummation of the Kingdom.  It is not yours or mine to build.  Maybe if we lowered our expectations a bit about who we are and what we are capable of doing, we might just find that there is a depth of joy and contentment to be found in living a life of simple faithfulness.  Sure, every once in a while a Paul, an Augustine, a Luther comes along and turns the world on its head, but in between those unusual moments in history, millions of faithful believers pass out of this world unnoticed by the earthly multitudes even while they are welcomed as heroes among the hosts of Heaven.  If I can be one of them, then that will be enough for me.


More Uncertainty

August 25, 2009

Adam met with his oncologist today.  Basically, the bottom line right now is that we do not know what exactly he is facing.  The oncologist is using Acute Myelogenous Leukemia (AML) as his working diagnosis, but Adam’s symptoms are not typical for this form of cancer.  More tests are underway, and we expect to know more early next week.

AML is an aggressive form of cancer that typically requires aggressive chemotherapy treatment.  I am praying that it will turn out to be something else, something that will not require such a hard fight.  But whatever the case may be, I am commending my brother to the gracious care of the Lord.  Please keep praying with me.

The First Big Hurdle

August 24, 2009

Thank you to those of you who have been praying for my brother Adam in his battle with cancer.  Join me in giving thanks to God that we seem to have cleared the first big hurdle: Adam’s PET scan indicates no evidence that the cancer has spread.  This is wonderful news.  God has given us what we asked for. 

Now it is time to develop a treatment plan.  Please pray for Adam’s oncologist to have great skill and wisdom for this and for the treatment to be effective.  And pray for Adam and his wife, Amanda, as they likely will have to endure some difficult days ahead when the treatment gets underway.  I will keep posting updates here.

Prayer Request

August 22, 2009

To those readers who believe in and pray to the sovereign, gracious, triune God of Scripture, I have a request for you: please pray for my older brother, Adam.  He was diagnosed with cancer on Wednesday.  He had a PET scan on Friday to determine the extent of it.  Results are expected on Tuesday.  I have prayed for and am looking for good news from those test results. 

And might I recommend John Piper’s article, written several years ago during his own battle with cancer, as a guide to your prayers?  It is entitled “Don’t Waste Your Cancer.”

Thank you so much for praying.

Thank You, Corn Creek Baptist Church

July 20, 2009

Yesterday, standing in the pulpit at Corn Creek Baptist Church, the place where I have stood and preached hundreds of times, I gave one final sermon to the congregation that I have served since late 2003.  Taking Romans 5:6-11 as my text, I proclaimed the love of God for the ungodly revealed in the cross.  After that we shared communion together, had a traditional Baptist potluck, and then said our goodbyes.  My ministry there is now finished.

I thank God for Corn Creek Baptist Church: for its history, its heritage, and most of all, its people.  When I first came to the church as a young seminarian, I felt a bit like I was out of my element.  I’m not the kind of person you would typically associate with a tiny, rural congregation in the middle of nowhere in northern Kentucky.  But early on I convinced myself that I could love these people because God loved them.  And I convinced myself that I could love this place because God had sanctified it to his name.  And through the years, through the experiences, through the ups and downs, through the frustrations and triumphs, I have grown to love this church as I have loved no other church in my life.

Pastoral ministry has made me a better person.  It has humbled me.  It has made me more dependent on God.  It has caused me to love the gospel more.  It has forced me to see the ubiquity of grace in this world.  It has shown me the beauty of the “little places” that I previously ignored.  It has brought me face-to-face with death and with the process of dying.  It has taught me more of what it means to love others.  I will be forever grateful to God that I had the opportunity to become who I am today in large part because a small church in northern Kentucky decided to open itself up to a young seminarian. 

Yesterday after church I came home and mowed my lawn.  Ministry and mowing will always be linked together in my mind because of an illustration that Albert Mohler once gave at a preaching conference that I attended.  He said that when you mow a lawn, you can look at the finished product and enjoy your accomplishment.  But ministry is different.  When you serve a church, you never reach the point where you can sit back and say, “Now, look at that.  Everything has been accomplished.  My work is done.”

After mowing the lawn yesterday, I felt the satisfaction of an accomplished task.  And then I couldn’t help but notice the irony.  Only a few hours before concluding a finished task in my yard, I had concluded an unifinished task in Trimble County, Kentucky.  I had ended my part of the work at a church where the work will continue to go on, day-by-day, year-by-year, until Jesus comes to make his bride spotless.  I don’t have a finished product to show for the last six years.  Nor do I have, at present, a report card from Heaven telling me how I did.  I must go on now, leaving that matter to the day when the fire will test each man’s work.

So thank you, Corn Creek Baptist Church.  One day, sooner than we know, we will all be together again.  And this time it will be forever.

The Danger of Money

July 8, 2009

I have been thinking about money a bit lately, mainly because I don’t have much of it.  It’s funny how that works.  You tend to think that wealthy people are the ones who value money the most, but don’t underestimate the power that money holds over the middle and lower classes.  The guy who just won the lottery may dream about the possibilities that have been opened to him, but the guy who is living paycheck to paycheck may have nightmares about the possibilities that could be foreclosed on him.  And in their waking hours both men may focus on money most of the time: the one because he has so much, and the other because he has so little and wants more.

By God’s grace, we just came to the end of a home-buying process that began in March.  It ended happily for us.  We now own a home in Jackson, Tennessee (so if you’re wondering where our money went, most of it is invested in the house now).  For the first time in our lives, we own this little piece of the American dream.  And if I could go back, I would hope that I could have handled the whole process better.

Given the way the housing market has gone, credit has tightened up and lenders are becoming much more careful in the loan approval process.  The particular lender we were working with (a large company that specializes in mortgages) did not provide us with good customer service.  They were slow.  They were tedious.  They asked us for document after document and signature after signature.  They had to verify everything three or four different ways.  They forced us to push back our closing date two times, each time leaving us wondering if the seller (who had already been very patient with us) would finally decide to back out and look for another deal.  Because of our mortgage company, a process that began in March could not come to completion until June 30th.

That is a long time to live in limbo.  The house we are now renting in Louisville must be vacated by July 31st, and in any case all this time we have been planning our move for July 24th.  If the deal on this house had fallen through, we would have been left with very little time to find alternative living arrangements.  Numerous scenarios crossed my mind about what could happen to my family.  As a man, a husband, and a father, it is a hard to live in limbo.  You want to be able to point to the roof that will shelter your wife and children, the roof that you have provided for them, and when you can’t do that a sense of failure begins to well up inside you.

Living in limbo took its toll.  I allowed stress to get the better of me.  I found it hard to focus on anything else but the mortgage.  My prayer life took a hit.  My temper flared up on occasion.  I spent hours researching this mortgage company on the internet and agonizing over whether I should pull out and try my luck with another lender (but in the process risking an even lengthier process).  For a while there, I felt like I just wasn’t myself (or, perhaps I was more myself than I realize; sometimes external factors peel away layers of sin that we have never noticed before).

Toward the end, I think I reached a period of greater calm.  On the one hand, that may have been because we were getting some signals that we were near the end.  On the other hand, it may have been because I realized how much I had let earthly, temporal matters like money and the possibilities it offered to us (a new home) dominate my horizons.  I needed to be reminded of what Paul says in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31:

This is what I mean, brothers: the appointed time has grown very short.  From now on, let those who have wives live as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no goods, and those who deal with the world as if they had no dealings with it.  For the present form of this world is passing away.

Obviously, Paul is not advocating a retreat from the world and its institutions.  He does not want us all to withdraw into convents and monasteries and other secluded, celibate communities.  He assumes that we will continue to be married.  We will continue to live in this world, do business in the world, buy, sell, apply for loans, etc.  But he calls us to do it with one thing in mind: the fact that this present world is already in process of passing away.  The resurrection of Christ marks the beginning of the end of this present age.  We cannot withdraw from a world destined to pass away, but we can relativize its importance in our own minds by a greater focus on the world to come.

When I allow things like difficult loan approval processes to get the better of me and overwhelm me with stress, I am communicating something that I don’t want to communicate.  I am saying that my hope is so bound up with the money that this lender can give me that, if I don’t get it, I will be undone.  How sad is that?  It is completely the opposite of Paul’s eschatological perspective outlined in 1 Corinthians 7.  If, on the other hand, I can take mortgage difficulties in stride and show an unshakable joy in Christ and in the inheritance I have in him, I can show the world something of how precious and wonderful he really is.  Just as faithful martyrs demonstrate that the steadfast love of the Lord is better than life, I recently had an opportunity to demonstrate that the steadfast love of the Lord is better than credit, better than houses, better than the American dream.  I don’t think I seized that opportunity.

I am so thankful that we have the house now.  God has truly blessed us.  But I am even more thankful that here, at the end of this process, my excitement about being a homeowner is a little more chastened. And that’s how it should be.

Read This Book

December 13, 2008

I first met George Damoff when I took his class, “Man and the Environment” at East Texas Baptist University in the year 2000.  Although it was a science course, I remember Mr. Damoff having more of an impact on my theology, so deeply was he committed to the authority of Scripture and the supremacy of God. 

I subsequently came to find out that his wife, Jeanne, shares those same commitments.  And at some point I also learned about a tragedy that the Damoff family had endured a few years earlier when their oldest son, Jacob, nearly lost his life in a drowning accident.  The Damoffs are still on a long road toward recovery with Jacob, but the progress he has made to this point goes far beyond what most of the experts predicted, and the impact that Jacob’s story has had on the community of Marshall, Texas, has been amazing.

Now that impact is spreading.  Jeanne is a gifted writer, and she has published Jacob’s story in a book entitled Parting the Waters: Finding Beauty in Brokenness (Enumclaw, WA: WinePress, 2008).  It is available through Amazon.  Buy it.  Read it.  Today.  (Well, you probably can’t read it today, but you can buy it).

What I love most about this book is its God-exalting theology.  It shines through on every page.  Jeanne doesn’t try to “get God off the hook” for Jacob’s accident, the way so many misguided theologians do today any time a tragedy happens.  She exhibits a deep trust in a God who is completely sovereign and who permits suffering in the lives of his children for a purpose.  We do not, and cannot, know the full extent of that purpose in Jacob’s suffering.  God has not revealed that to us.  But he has revealed the truth about himself, the truth that he has not relinquished one ounce of control over the world he made.  And in that truth we rest, even when we do not understand. 

This book kicks God-belittling theologies like Open Theism in the teeth, simply by ignoring them.  Nowhere does Jeanne indicate that a redefinition of God’s sovereignty appeared on her radar screen as a theologically satisfying explanation for the sufferings her family was enduring.  And to my mind, as one who has endured a similar experience in my own family, there is no deeper or greater comfort than knowing that every tragedy we encounter has been foreordained by God for his glory and our good.

Will I Die with Prayers Unanswered?

November 27, 2008

Tonight I read back over something I had written a couple of years ago about particular situations where it looked to me like God was at work, specifically in answer to my prayers.  I was excited.  Now that time has passed, I can see that my prayers were not, in fact, answered.  Almost all of the initially positive signs of God’s work in people’s lives have come to nothing.  I can’t tell you how many times I have experienced this kind of disappointment. 

The temptation here is to pray less, and to pray with less fervency.  If disappointment is what I will get, why invest myself?  Do I want to die having spent a large amount of time and energy asking God for things that never came to pass?  It only makes sense to slack off on prayer a little and put my time to better use.

And then I remember Paul’s words: “I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart.  For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh. . . . Brothers, my heart’s desire and prayer to God for them is that they may be saved” (Romans 9:2-3; 10:1).  Paul took a risk.  He invested himself personally in the eternal well-being of his unbelieving kinsmen, the people of Israel.  He allowed himself to be grieved by their lost condition, and he prayed fervently for God to change their hearts.  Then he went to his death with the vast majority of Israelites still hardened to the Messiah.  And so it persists to this day. 

Was Paul a failure on this point?  Should he have gotten the clue that God wasn’t going to do what he was asking and moved on to something more fruitful?  Should he have closed his heart to Israel once enough time had elapsed and he saw that little had changed?  No.  The same Paul who grieves over Israel in Romans 9 is the one who says, “all Israel will be saved” in Romans 11:26.  I know there is controversy over the interpretation of this verse, but my view is that it refers to ethnic Israel as a whole, at the return of Christ.  Paul’s kinsmen will be saved, in part because Paul prayed for their salvation.  Even for those who do not share this view of the word “Israel” in this verse, all can agree that Paul argues here for the completion of God’s redemptive purpose, the salvation of all of his people.  And even though Paul died long before the completion of that redemptive purpose, I believe his prayers are planted seeds that will bear fruit at the appointed time, namely, the end. 

And that is where we must constantly look when we pray: to the end.  “Hallowed be your name” is an eschatological request, a desire for the full revelation of God’s glory to all of creation at the end of history.  “Your kingdom come” likewise looks to the final establishment of the Kingdom of God.  The same is true for “Your will be done on earth, as it is in heaven.”  The requests that follow—for provision, pardon, and protection—focus on what we need in the present that will sustain us until the end.  And so prayer is profoundly eschatological in nature, and that means much of what we pray for will not come to pass until the end, at least if we are praying correctly.

If the Lord tarries and I reach the point of death, will I do so having invested numerous hours over a lifetime praying fervently for things that have not come to pass?  I certainly hope so.

“Passing Through”

October 14, 2008

My friend Craig has a great post on the importance of connecting to places and people no matter what stage of life you may be in.  I have been a student in higher education for almost nine years now, and that means that for the last nine years I have been in successive stages of “passing through,” always looking forward to what’s coming up next.  As I near the end of my Ph.D. and begin the process of looking for a job, my tendency is to get so wrapped up in the future that I begin to miss the present.  Even worse, I begin to get so wrapped up in myself and in my own goals that I begin to miss the wonderful reality of otherness: other people, the external world, things that were here long before me and will be here long after I’m gone.  And it is simply impossible for me to have deep and abiding joy when I develop that kind of egotistical tunnel vision.

I have read two passages recently that have jolted me out of this narrow, “passing through” mindset.  One is from John Piper’s Don’t Waste Your Life:

The really wonderful moments of joy in this world are not the moments of self-satisfaction, but self-forgetfulness.  Standing on the edge of the Grand Canyon and contemplating your own greatness is pathological.  At such moments we are made for a magnificent joy that comes from outside ourselves.  And each of these rare and precious moments in life–beside the Canyon, before the Alps, under the stars–is an echo of a far greater excellence, namely, the glory of God.

The other passage is from my friend Craig:

Of course there is nothing wrong with just passing through. There have been nomads from the beginning of time. In fact, the tendency to roam may, as a survival instinct, be more wired into our DNA than the tendency to stay. But I’ve often felt that the desire of some to always be looking to the next thing can be more of a refusal to admit that one day they will die.

I think about death a lot.  But I have never thought about it in this particular way.  What better cure for graduate student tunnel vision than the sober reality that my lifeless body will one day go under the ground, and I will stand before God to give an account of my life to him! 

Thank you, Dr. Piper, and thank you, Craig.  I needed to hear that.

(Read Craig’s post here.)

A Taste of My Ancestral Heritage

September 27, 2008

My last name is O’Kelley.  That means I have some Irish blood in me, though I have never really explored that very much.  I grew up in Texas, and my paternal grandfather’s family came from Georgia.  We were already well-assimilated into the American South by the time I came along.  The Irish have a much more noticeable presence here in Louisville, where there is a sizeable Catholic population.  St. Patrick’s Day actually means something here.  When I tell people my name, they understandably assume that, as a person of Irish descent living in a town with a distinctive Irish subculture, I would be in touch with that subculture.  I am not.  (For one thing, I’m a Southern Baptist.  You connect the dots.) 

But I’m hoping to change that.  Here is a small taste of Irish culture, brought to you by an American, Dennis Leary.  I first heard this song when I was in college, and I have always loved it:

If, while listening, you didn’t catch some of the lyrics, you can find them here.  Plus, if you want to pay $9.99 a month, you can even make this song a ringtone!