This is the Mississippi Christmas weather I’ve been accustomed to for most of my life. It’s a balmy 71 degrees here in Paris as I write this Christmas Eve.
Unfortunately, this is going to be a much different Christmas than planned.
Originally, Becki’s mom, my first father-in-law, all of our boys, our daughter-in-law, and the grandsons were all going to be here for presents and Christmas dinner. We were really looking forward to making memories as a family under one roof.
Yes, Covid has crept into our house. At this juncture, only Becki is positive and we hope it stays that way. If I continue to test negative, I’ll have the joy of preaching this Sunday.
In the meantime it is Christmas. Presents are all wrapped and under the tree. Christmas candles are burning and we are looking forward to the best celebration we can have under the circumstances.
And of course, we are not the only family facing changes because of the ongoing pandemic. Many families all over the world have already faced changes much more difficult.
All of that to get to this point: as Christians, we are so very blessed! Having family is blessing—being family is a blessing. Having a church family—being a church family, that’s a blessing too of immeasurable worth.
From that perspective, the gift of Christmas is the relationships we have with each other, the love we are blessed to share.
When I say Merry Christmas, l’m so very thankful for each of you.
Enjoy your family, celebrate the day, and relish the coming new year as we continue to share the blessings of life together.
As I write this it is early and quiet. I’m sitting in an empty old farmhouse outside of Vicksburg, MS drinking coffee and tending the fire.
I’ve already brought up two arm loads of firewood from the back woodshed. It’s not that cold outside, but the brick floors and open air build of Becki’s childhood home keeps it cold inside.
It is cloudy with rain on the way, but a little rain won’t stop what’s coming.
It won’t be long until this old house is filled with children, grandchildren, and great children. Today will be the first time we get to meet Graham, Sophia, Lola, and Rosie—the newest additions to the extended family
And we mustn’t forget those of us who are married in to this huge and sprawling ménage. There are quite a few of us too.
Soon this old house will be filled with the sounds and smells of Thanksgiving. There will be turkey, ham, roast beef, and some venison too. If it goes like it always has in the past, there will be more side dishes than I can actually fit on my plate.
Rest assured though, I will get my fair share of dressing/ stuffing. And of course, Becki has made my favorite dessert: Bread Pudding. I will hope with great fervency there is some left over to take home and enjoy later tonight. (After all, the Egg Bowl is played this evening—Hail State—and bread pudding will pair nicely with that.)
If my Ole Miss friends are still reading after the little blurb above, you should know that no game or team trumps family of any kind.
The past two years have been difficult and long. But as I look at this empty house in anticipation of what will take place here today, I know that I am blessed beyond measure.
Yes, there will be empty seats at the table. We cannot escape that fact. Some of us my share a tear or two, certainly a memory or three. But still, to be here (wherever here may be for you), is just one small indication of the blessings we share.
We sing a song at church on occasion that tells us to “count your many blessings.” As I anticipate family today, as I think about those who will read this little note, I know just where to begin counting my blessings…
The following sermon was heavily, heavily influenced by Short Stories by Jesus, a book by Amy-Jill Levine… and there may be some quotes I inadvertently did not expressly acknowledge. If you find something good and worthy of remembering, give her the credit—I was greatly impacted by her work!
As a kid, I used to play the what if game. What if I had superpowers? What if you were the king? What if my dad was smarter than yours?
What if? Let’s play that game with some tougher questions…
What if the pressing question of the day wasn’t when we could meet in our church building again? (I know it’s important and greatly impactful, but bear with me)
What if the most pressing question didn’t begin with my salvation or yours, or even the salvation of those in our community? (I’ll admit that what if seems like a stretch, but bear with me again)
What if the most pressing question wasn’t about career choices, schools to attend, or jobs to pursue?
What if the most pressing questions had nothing to do with the politics of the day?
What if the most pressing questions were the ones Jesus might’ve asked?
And of course, that last what if means wondering what those questions might be—and we’ll consider that in a bit.
But let me warn you: the Jesus in the New Testament is far more radical than the Jesus we’ve talked about, preached about, and worshiped. This Jesus has a little patience for the things of this world, particularly where our priorities get out of whack with a gospel, God centered life and practice.
Yet, I thoroughly understand how important it is to understand scripture/ theology correctly, but, all the dotting of i’s and crossing of t’s is of little value if the heart isn’t striving toward God!
I promise you we are going somewhere today, but for the moment, let’s segue to the idea of the Church.
It is important to understand that the church was not ordained to be a repository of opinions or our favorite beloved traditions.
It was not organized to serve as a platform for competing debates and arguments over what I like versus what you like.
On the other hand, the church was intended to be a gathering of saved people—a community of those who believe intent on sharing the gift and message of Jesus to the world!
So maybe we ought to consider exactly what the message might be?
Every flavor of Christianity has its own important doctrines, theological points, and distinctive characteristics—every single group has those teachings that are revered and untouchable.
Sometimes those sacred beliefs are based on scripture;
Sometimes they come from traditions transcending the biblical text.
Either way, they form a part of the identity of that particular group.
And because those particular sets of teaching are so entrenched with our identity, we get caught up in the resulting debates, competing ideology, and proving the other wrong.
Unfortunately, a debate that can be won or lost based on style points and how well the other is demolished usually means the Kingdom message hasn’t been advanced at all.
But I do get it. I have spent years discussing, arguing, and otherwise trying to prove my point. Sometimes I was more open to understanding what differences I had with others; most of the time not.
And again, I get it. I get that some of our differences are extreme and undercut the gospel.
But what if the questions the church was supposed to ask were entirely different than the finer nuances of a developed theological position?
What if we really should be more concerned about the questions that pertain to helping bring heaven down to earth?
Yes, the Church is a part of the kingdom. And yes, it is a hospital for sinners, a place for the broken to connect.
But it is also the vehicle by which we join together to share Jesus.
Not the Jesus of popular culture or theology.
But the radical, intense Jesus of scripture who was focused on justice and mercy for all.
In today’s parable that’s exactly what we see.
I invite you to read with me from Matthew 20:1-16…
Your Bible most likely calls this the Parable of the Vineyard Workers.
That’s a bit unfortunate–by calling it that, we have made the focus of the parable about the workers first, and about the location, second.
And that has led to any number of allegories where:
The landowner (and we will talk more about that in a minute) is God.
The grumbling workers are Pharisees.
And those hired latter are the tax collectors, sinners, gentiles, or anybody else that is socially or culturally unacceptable.
And since God is the landowner, this parable is about simultaneously smacking down the Pharisees while lifting up the downtrodden.
I greatly appreciate how this interpretation is comfortable–everyone likes the underdog—and we certainly have seemed to favor smacking down the Pharisees, whether ancient or modern.
Even so, I like it when we can make things neat, tidy, and easy to understand, but is there an overarching message that we might be missing?
Is there a practical message we need to consider?
Is there a question Jesus is inspiring us to ask?
If you are like me at all, inquiring minds want to know…
So, let’s go back to the text—particularly verse 1…
For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire workers for his vineyard.
That’s how the Christian Standard Bible says it. Plenty of other translations use the same term. However, some use names like:
Master of the house.
Basically, they all mean about the same thing, but the best way to see this term might just be householder.
Think about it like this—the parable is about a guy who owns a home and has a vineyard he needs help with.
So, he hires a set of helpers—you see that in the text–It’s right there.
Later he finds more people needing work and he sends them to his vineyard with the promise to give them “whatever is right.” Again, it’s right there in the text.
That phrase, “I’ll give you whatever is right” is incredibly interesting and impactful (and again, I am so indebted to Amy-Jill Levine for helping me see this).
Better yet, it gives us just what we need to live out this parable and quite possibly change the trajectory of our church family.
I’ll do what is right is a phrase that means justice, fairness, righteousness with a heap of charity thrown in.
Think about it… This homeowner hires people who work different amounts of time and he wants to give all a full day’s wage.
In the economy of this world, that just seems strange, but God’s reality, the Kingdom Economy is built on justice, fairness, righteousness, and charity!
It’s all about recognizing our neighbor and doing the right thing!
And that sounds suspiciously like something Jesus once said in answer to the question of what the greatest command was.
Love the Lord your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your mind. This is the greatest and most important command. The second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself. All the Law and the Prophets depend on these two commands. (Matthew 22:37–40 CSB17)
Let me suggest as strongly as I know how that the message of this parable—the message of the gospel—and the message of the church is love! (old devo song sung in the round—love, love, love love…)
How we love others has an enormous impact on reaching them for Jesus!
Listen carefully. I know we have our doctrines and dogmas that are identifying to us. I get that we have core beliefs and traditions that speak important things.
But maybe before we talk about those things…
Maybe before we ever ask someone if they are saved or not…
Maybe we ought to ask them if their children are getting enough to eat—or if they have water and power right now—or if they are working a job that is secure—or if they have real needs to be met…
Maybe before we can ever help with spiritual needs, we need to love with fairness, justice, righteousness and a good bit of charity!
And whether you are aware or want to be aware, there is a whole lot of injustice taking place in country right now!
So, what if? What if Jesus was more interested in how we love our neighbor in the here and now—would we pass that test? Would we be a people blind to differences but with wide-open eyes where love and compassion are concerned?
The world of economics is fascinating if not daunting at times, but we live with a Kingdom Economy of justice, fairness, righteousness, and charity.
And we remember what Jesus told the Pharisees, Go and learn what this means: I desire mercy and not sacrifice. For I didn’t come to call the righteous, but sinners. (Matthew 9:13 CSB17)
April 7, 2018 (from two to four PM) is the date and time of my first ever book signing. The location is Lemuria Books in Jackson, MS. If you are in the area, I hope you can join me. I am looking forward to meeting lots of folks for the very first time.
I am incredibly excited about the release of “Still Wrestling! It has been an unbelievable journey and a labor of love. The official release date is still April 10–although books may ship a few days before that.
I am thoroughly grateful to those who have read this blog from the very beginning. I still plan to write here at what used to be called Desperately Wanting to Believe Again, at Wineskins, and the Clarion Ledger.
Not the least, I am working on a second book effort of my own. If anything, I am almost more excited about this one than anything I have done. But, it is a work in progress and who knows where it will end up.
In the meantime, newspapers are increasingly looking for a greater online presence–this link is to my latest offering at the Clarion-Ledger. I hope you will check it out, show some love and maybe even share it. The more clicks, the better!
Not to us, LORD, not to us, but to your name give glory
because of your faithful love, because of your truth. (Psalm 115:1 CSB
Sometimes life goes in directions we have planned and provided for; other times it takes us places no one could have ever imagined.
One day we laugh; the next we cry.
One day we are surrounded by those we love; the next is lonely.
One day we are on top of the world; the next we are in a deep dark valley.
One day we are the champion of all we survey; the next we lose.
Sometimes it isn’t just a matter of a day or even a week. Often it is comprised of seasons–seasons of triumph, defeat, challenge, and grief.
From one season to the next, we ride the waves of opportunity; we struggle through the stormy seas. It is an amazing thing to live, especially live well among the good and bad this life has to offer.
Over the last four years, I have written about my struggles with grief, doubt, and faith. I have shared my desperation. I have written from a place of pain. I have shouted from a place of joy.
There will be more days of struggle in the future. That is the nature of life.
There will be more days of joy. That too is the nature of life.
The fact is, even in our pain, joy is possible if we look for it.
My life and the life of my family will forever be marked/ scarred by the events of October 10, 2011. However, that day will not define who we are, where we go, or what we do.
To the contrary, we choose hope.
We choose peace.
We choose joy.
We choose the God who gives them.
We choose life!
Somedays it will be easy; other days it won’t, but I choose life!
Speaking of life, I’d like to share something joyous from mine…
Last Tuesday (April 18th), I signed a very important document. I have been waiting and hoping for a long time to say these exact words: I am under contract with Leafwood Publishers!
What does that mean? My book is happening!
There is still work to do. There will be an editing and reshaping process. The name may even change. But, I expect to have copies in my hand late spring/ early summer of 2018.
Over the past several years, so many–God, Becki, family, friends, and church family– have walked with me through dark days and hard seasons. I am thankful for your encouragement and support.
We may yet face dimly lit days ahead, but the Son still shines!
Choose life ( you’ll be glad you did)! Never quit dreaming!
Yesterday I finished writing the epilogue. I cried like a baby. It was an emotional moment–from the sake of memories as well as the thought of all the work/ writing that had taken place.
26 chapters with a conclusion and epilogue to boot.
After all that, where am I?
I don’t really know.
The first draft/ first self-edit has been completed. A couple or three folks have copies and they will be using red pens to mark it up, I am sure.
There is something crazy difficult about submitting a manuscript and/or letting others have a first look. I am terrified of rejection (although to this date, it should be old hat). I am afraid people are going to look at what amounts to an awfully large investment of time, energy, and emotion and find little value.
Having someone say this stinks is quite painful.
At any rate, I am committed to seeing where this takes me. And being a glutton for punishment, I have already started writing another.
Hey, if you are famous and wouldn’t mind writing an endorsement, sing out!
Sometime this month I hope to share with you a really neat opportunity that has been placed in front of me. But that will need to wait just a little while.
In the meantime, some of you have been following my efforts here and in other places–speaking, preaching, Wineskins–for a long time. I am thankful for your encouragement and support.
I have to also mention my wife, Becki, my big extended family, and the Lake Harbour Drive Church of Christ–I am where I am because of you and God.
Thought I’d share with you an article I wrote for our church bulletin this week… Enjoy!
Every year I hear people complaining about their least favorite Christmas songs.
Mostly I am shocked at their choices. I mean for real, you know mommy was kissing Santa Claus. Happens at my house all year long—at least if I am good! (Hey Sweetie, I promise I’ll be good. Sort of.)
As for me and grandpa, we believe grandma did get run over by a reindeer, bless her silly little heart. If I am not mistaken, one of my neighbors shot, stuffed, and hung that bad boy on his living room wall. I have seen it myself.
Oh, the drama.
I can’t figure out why so many are upset over Christmas Shoes. I mean who wouldn’t want a new pair of fuzzy pink house shoes for Christmas? Personally, I wish they’d sing about Christmas boots instead. I could always use a new pair of Ariat’s.
I’ll admit that I kind of wondered where they are coming from with Santa Baby. It seems counter-intuitive to me. I just imagine those fuzzy outfits would irritate any baby, no matter if it is cold outside.
As for poor old Paul McCartney, give that good British knight a break. Don’t be a real-life mean one, Mr. Grinch! Only a Grinch deliberately plans to not have a wonderful Christmas time…
I hope you are smiling with me!
Christmas means a lot of things to a lot of people. For the most part, I enjoy this time of year.
For some there is great theological meaning. Indeed, without the incarnation, we would never experience the Cross. Without the Cross, we would never know redemption, restoration, and reconciliation.
For others, Christmas is a happy time of family—a special Kodachrome occasion for creating memories and remembering days gone by. I am thankful for the memories I cherish of Christmas past. I look forward with great anticipation to many more festive occasions in the future.
Even so, I am also reminded forcefully of those who are missing from around the family tree. I must acknowledge that this holiday is a difficult occasion for some–including me at times.
However, you celebrate, with whatever family traditions you imbue this time of year, I trust you will be enveloped by the presence of God–that you will know the joy of the Savior–that you will embody the Spirit of God that indwells you.
May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him, so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit. (Romans 15:13 NIV11)
Merry Christmas to All and to All a good night!
PS. For those who might still be interested, I am still working on a book–Over 127 pages of single spaced words have been written (that’s a word count of 42, 708) Not gonna quit!
You may look at the title and think the reference is to my tears or lack thereof.
Don’t get your hopes up.
I still cry.
I still struggle.
I still wrestle with loss.
Last month’s five-year anniversary of the day that changed our lives forever was particularly hard.
Honestly? I am already dreading the 27th of this month. That is Cole’s birthday. He would have been twenty-seven. I miss him so.
There is a place in my heart that will always be just a bit raw over our losses. I grieve regularly for my children and their pain.
In some respects, I will always have unanswered questions–at least on this side of the vale.
Believe it or not, sometimes my questions have much less to do with tragedy and more with life itself.`
Scripture often affirms that which we may not always quite understand or comprehend.
In this case specifically, I am reminded of the following descriptions of King David:
But now your kingdom will not endure; the Lord has sought out a man after his own heart and appointed him ruler of his people, because you have not kept the Lord’s command.” 1 Samuel 13:14
After removing Saul, he made David their king. God testified concerning him: ‘I have found David son of Jesse, a man after my own heart; he will do everything I want him to do.’ Acts 13:22
I read those verses and confess: I sometimes struggle to understand how this could be true.
David, a man after God’s own heart?
Obviously that sentiment is positively affirmed by scripture. And just as obviously, I must accept it while I try to understand it.
When I look at David’s life, I see it through some dark and dirty lenses—my own as well as his.
He was a man of mistakes. I am a man of mistakes. Some of David’s, like his affair with Bathsheba and the subsequent murder of her husband Uriah, are stupendously ugly. I’d rather not have to confess all of my ugliness, but ugly I own in multiple shapes and fashions. When you look at David’s family it becomes readily apparent that he would have never won the Father of the Year award. In solidarity, I have made more than my fair share of parenting gaffes and blunders.
So while freely acknowledging the sometimes strident nature of his failures and sins, still God says he was a man after His own heart.
How? How could a man like David be afforded such a gracious epithet?
Better yet, how can I? How can you? Is there any real hope for those of us who own an error filled life?
Yes, there is hope. No matter how dark the day, no matter how messed up the occasion, there is hope. And the answer to how may not be as far off as you might suppose.
These are David’s words: Keep me safe, my God, for in you I take refuge. I say to the Lord, “You are my Lord; apart from you I have no good thing.” (Psalm 16:1-2)
David recognized the one true source of protection—the only place of real refuge. David understood that without God he was nothing. And David, in spite of his epic flaws and failures, longed most of all to know and be known by God.
Although not written during David’s time, I suspect David instinctively knew the truth of Keith Green’s song, “My Eyes Are Dry.”
My eyes are dry
My faith is old
My heart is hard
My prayers are cold
And I know how I ought to be
Alive to You and dead to me
But what can be done
For an old heart like mine
Soften it up
With oil and wine
The oil is You, Your Spirit of love
Please wash me anew
With the wine of Your Blood
May God soften my heart. May God soften yours. And in the softening may we be shaped, formed, and fashioned in such a way as to become a man, a woman after God’s own heart.
I am not at the doctor’s office or hospital.
I am not waiting on a child to get through with music lessons.
I am not waiting on somebody to get ready.
I am not waiting on an appointment.
And even though you were to see me now sitting at my desk in my office pecking away at this keyboard, you would find me waiting.
I am not good at waiting. Years ago in the US Navy we would laugh with frustration at how the military often worked. It was quite common to both hear and say, hurry up and wait…
I am waiting on many things in this life.
People don’t move at the speed I would like.
Things don’t happen in my timeframe.
My expectations/ desires are often not the reality of my world.
And so I wait.
I wait for fairness and justice.
I wait for understanding.
I wait for answers I know will not satisfy the longing in my heart.
I wait for answers that will not be given on this side of life.
And so I wait.
I eagerly await the day when sickness, sorrow, pain, and suffering are no longer a part of our lives.
I long for the day when death is gone forever.
I wait expectantly for the ultimate redemption, restoration, and reconciliation of this world/ creation.
At times it seems as if it will take forever.
And so I wait.
I am tired of being broken.
I am weary of struggling against my own broken nature.
I am often exhausted by by the ache and loss in my heart.
I shed tears on a regular basis for the pain and hurt my children feel but seldom express.
I am sometimes shocked by how much that which would be joyous is overshadowed by loss.
There is a tension here at my new address.
And so I wait.
Thankfully, I do not wait alone.
I wait with my wife and family—we walk this journey together.
I wait with others whose faith has been tested.
I wait with those who so identify with the man who told Jesus: I believe. Help my unbelief.
We are not joyless people out here on the margins.
We are not without hope.
In fact, ours is a hope so real we cling to it as if nothing else matters.
Because nothing else does…
May the greatest of blessings be yours this season.
One of the things I like the most about the Bible is that it doesn’t pull any punches. I mean, there are lots of guys who are generally “good” guys but who do really crappy things. Generally, when you read a story, the main character is presented in the most likable light possible.
Not in the Bible. Or at least, not always.
In the Bible, you hear about guys like David, who was famously described as a man after God’s own heart, but who also impregnated a woman who was married to another guy, and then carried out a plan to kill the woman’s husband so he wouldn’t be caught.
In the Bible, you hear about guys like Samson, who served as a Judge of Israel and was supposed to rescue the Israelites from the Philistines, but he actually just winds up breaking all the vows he made to God, and even when he does kill a few Philistines, it’s too little too late, and he dies without having done what he was called to do.
In the Bible, you hear about guys like Peter who was the rock on which the Church was built, but who was portrayed as incredibly dim-witted all throughout the Gospels. And even after the resurrection, when Peter is supposed to be super awesome all the time, Paul still has to get onto Peter for being a racist.
I think it’s important that these stories are included in the Bible, because the writers understood the importance of a villain story. It’s important to have stories about people who screw things up. It’s important to tell the stories of the guys who weren’t always good at following God.
Because really, that’s our story. I can relate to guy who does good and bad things. I’m familiar with seeking after God’s heart, but also trying to make myself look good. I know what it’s like to know what God has called me too, and to ignore it because there were other, better things to do. I know how it is to want to follow Christ, but to make stupid mistakes.
The Bible includes all these stories to show us that being a follower of God isn’t just something for the elite. David wasn’t bred to be a holy King. He was a shepherd boy who accidentally found himself anointed to be King, and he screwed up along the way. Samson had strength, but lacked the discipline and desire to follow God. Peter was self-absorbed, and only followed Jesus because he thought Jesus was going to lead a violent rebellion against the Romans, but he wound up leading Christ’s Church.
This is important to note, because, like Peter, Samson, and David, we’re not always going to be the good guy. We are going to do things that are stupid, shameful, and Un-Christlike. At some point in our lives, we are going to do things that hurt the cause of the Kingdom of God. And God can use us anyway.
Because the Christian story isn’t a hero story. It’s not a fairy tale. It’s a real story about real people who seek after God and who screw up. It’s a story about people who are constantly being transformed, but who sometimes resist that transformation. It’s a story about people who don’t always look more like God today than they did yesterday.
And that’s encouraging. Because I take steps back. I have days like David, where if people knew what I’d done, they would probably think I wasn’t a Christian. I have days like Peter, where even though I work as a leader in a Church, I exclude people that I’m supposed to include. I have days like Samson, where God gives me everything I need to follow him, and I do my own thing anyway. And it’s on those days that I need these reminders that God’s not finished with me yet. Even on the days that I’m the villain of the story, God works in and through me.
We should strive to be followers of God. We should strive to be after God’s own heart. We should strive to be perfect as God is perfect. But we should also rest in the comfort that God uses us when we screw up. Some of the greatest heroes of the faith were bigger screw-ups than you and me.
Sometimes, the villains make the best heroes.
Tyler Jarvis is the youth minister at the Oak Ridge Church of Christ in Willow Park, TX. He’s married to his wonderful wife Andrea and they have zero kids. He enjoys playing guitar, rock climbing, and writing about himself in the third person. You can check out his blog at tylerjarvis.wordpress.com or follow him on Twitter at @Tyler_Jarvis.