Many of my readers will remember the tragic story of the death of Steven Curtis Chapman’s adopted daughter, Maria. She was killed in the driveway of their home in 2008 when she ran into the path of a car driven by her brother, Will Franklin. The final third of the book takes the reader through that gut-wrenching event, the grief that followed and continues to this day, and the story of how God brought Steven and his music of hope back to the stage. You will fall in love with this little girl adopted from China, and you will be in wonder over how it seems God prepared her for what was to come.
After a flash forward to Steven’s debut at Carnegie Hall, the story begins in the tiny town of Paducah, Kentucky, in the early 1960’s. Steven’s brother, Herbie, was born in 1960, and Steven Curtis came along two years later. The two boys were raised by a father who was as gifted in music as he was possessed by an uncontrollable temper. Both boys lived in fear of upsetting their father, and Steven recalls the time he was trying to help his dad restore an old Army jeep. His dad asked for a nine-sixteenth wrench, and Steven ran to the toolshed and searched for it until he had just the right part. But when he got back his dad said, “Just lay it down, I don’t need it anymore.” Steven’s face fell, and then his dad asked for a Phillips screwdriver. Again he raced to the toolshed to find one, only to be told when he returned that it wasn’t needed. Several years ago, Steven saw the Bruce Willis movie, “The Kid” (incidentally, my wife’s favorite movie), and there’s a scene where the young boy in the movie finds the missing screw his dad had been looking for in his pocket, and his dad got angry at him. Steven said he cried so uncontrollably during that scene that his oldest son, Caleb, reached over to pat him on the back and console him.
The family dynamic changed completely when Steven’s father, Herb Chapman, became a Christian. Instead of sending the boys off to church with their mother every week, now Herb was leading his family. The family started singing together at church, Herb was eventually asked to be the music minister, and the seed of a songwriter was beginning to develop in Steven’s heart. He is today the singer-songwriter who has won more awards in contemporary Christian music than anyone in the industry, including 5 Grammys and 58 Dove Awards. You will read about how God opened the door for Steven in a music career, and how this man of faith has used his enormous talent to promote the good news about Jesus. Since a mutual friend, Larry Warren, first introduced me to his music in the early 90’s, I have been a fan.
I had a hard time getting through the chapter about Maria’s death. The pain is as raw as it gets, and I felt the full gamut of emotions Steven and his family went through in their loss. It is hard. But it is also a story that, I believe, can bring help and healing to any of you who have lost a child. I have never walked that road, but I know many of you have. You will be able to identify with Steven and Mary Beth Chapman, and I trust, you will be helped by their story.
Read this book. You will be glad you did.
A cartoon in the Saturday Evening Post years ago showed a young boy of 5 or 6 years old talking on the phone, saying, “Mom is in the hospital, the twins and Rozie and Billie and Sally and the dog and me and Dad are all home alone.”
That was a time when Moms were still held in high esteem by most in our nation. Mom was the heart of the home, Dad was the head. Moms were the tender-hearted nurturers, Dads the fearless warriors. They made quite a team, Mom and Dad. They were incomplete without each other; his strengths were her weaknesses, her strengths were his weaknesses. Dad was too harsh sometimes, Mom was too soft. Together they raised children in a safe place. Not a perfect place, mind you. But one that was secure.
There are millions of children in the country today who would give anything to be in a home like that. In his book, Love Must Be Tough, James Dobson tells the story of a sixth grade teacher in California who taught in an affluent area. She gave her students a writing assignment. They were to complete the sentence that began, “I wish…” She expected the boys and girls to wish for bicycles, dogs, laptops and trips to Hawaii. Instead, 20 of the 30 children made reference in their responses to their own disintegrating families. Here’s what some of them wrote:
“I wish my parents wouldn’t fight and my father would come back.”
“I wish my mother didn’t have a boyfriend.”
“I wish I could get straight A’s so my father would love me.”
“I wish I had one mom and dad so the kids wouldn’t make fun of me.”
I am so thankful for the Mom who lives in my house. I couldn’t imagine life without her. She truly is the heart of her household, and as the Proverb says, “The heart of her husband safely trusts her.” That’s why she deserves anything I and the kids give her tomorrow. No gift is too good for the Mom who lives and loves at our house.
I heard a story about a boy talking to a girl who lived next door. “I wonder what my Mother would like for mother’s day,” he said. The girl answered, “Well, you could decide to keep your room clean and orderly. You could go to bed as soon as she calls you. You could brush your teeth without having to be told. You could quit fighting with your brothers and sisters, especially at the dinner table.” The boy looked at her and said, “Naah, I mean something practical.”
Are Moms important? You can change the textbooks and expunge the records and re-write history. But you will never, ever, take Mom out of the hearts of her children. Or out of the very center of the home. Moms, what you are doing matters. Don’t give in or give up. I look at my seven grown children and now our five grandchildren who are all beneficiaries of loving moms, and I thank God for the fruit I see in their hearts and lives. Much of who they are as people is attributed to the love and attention they received from their moms.
Billy Graham wrote, “Only God Himself fully appreciates the influence of a Christian mother in the molding of character in her children.”
Amen, and Happy Mother’s Day!
Have you ever known someone who used to follow Jesus, but has wandered away? We all do. James finishes his letter with a strong plea for us to bring back the wanderer. Let’s be clear: the wanderer is not gone because the church has a cross or a steeple, or sings hymns, or doesn’t sing hymns. He wandered from the truth, not a particular set of doctrines or beliefs or practices, but as Douglas Moo says, from “all that is involved in the Gospel.” What’s the big deal? If he has wandered off, chances are he will wander back at some point, right? Not necessarily. This is so serious that James says to bring him back saves his soul from death. How does one wander from the truth?
Wandering from the truth is intentional. Often the one who wanders from convictions has already wandered from moral constraints. He wants to be free, he thinks, to live any way he feels is best for him.
Wandering from the truth is also gradual. You don’t go to Easter service and raise your voice with the saints to proclaim the risen Savior and then wake up the next morning and decide that the whole thing is a hoax. No, it is a gradual decline. That’s why it is vital for us to express our doubts and our questions to those in our circle of influence that are grounded and settled and mature in the faith. Don’t share your questions with skeptics or scoffers, for they will surely encourage you in your wandering, and take you one step further away from the truth. The godly friend, however, will welcome your questions and help you through your doubts.
James writes, “and someone brings him back.” Someone. The work of reclamation is not relegated to spiritual authorities. In fact, it is usually not the pastor or the elders who hear about someone going off the rails first. It is a close friend, a family member, a co-worker. And in fact, by the time the elders hear about it, sometimes the wanderer is so far down the road that apart from a miraculous intervention by God, he will not be brought back. So, if bringing back the wanderer is left to someone, and that’s you, what should you do?
I heard on the radio this week that the Department of Transportation in NC is reminding young people who are going to the prom this year not to take a selfie on railroad tracks. Seriously? Has it really come to this, that teens need to be told not to stand on railroad tracks in sight of an oncoming train and take pictures? But here’s the point. If you saw a young person standing on the tracks, and a train was coming, should you run to your house and call the church leaders? No! You yell at the teen, run towards him, flail your arms and act like a crazy person until he sees you and gets off the tracks. It’s not hard. If your friend has wandered away from the truth, do whatever it takes, as much as you are able, to bring him back. Because you love him.
The plain sense of this text tells me that if someone you love has wandered off, you first have to find him, and understand why he is there. What has he believed that has brought him to this place? Then, you have to risk rejection, or ridicule, or even attack if you are going to bring him back.
It will be worth it.
I remember hearing this phrase from the book of James a lot as a kid: “the effectual fervent prayer of a righteous man availeth much.” I never really knew what that meant, especially effectual and availeth, but I know now that I witnessed it every week. My 80-year-old great-grandmother would go into her bedroom every morning, pull the door to, kneel beside her bed, and pray out loud to the Lord. I sometimes stood at the door and watched her with wonder. I knew it was fervent prayer, and that she was talking to someone she loved dearly. And I came to know that it availed much, and that God heard her prayers, because she was praying for sinners like me to come to know Jesus. What James means in a nutshell is that prayer is a powerful weapon in the hands of the most humble, simple servant of Christ.
Then James goes off the rails when he says that Elijah was just like us, and he prayed great prayers that God heard. What? James, have you forgotten who Elijah was? He was the premier prophet in the Old Testament! When Jesus went up to the Mount of Transfiguration, who appeared with Him to represent the prophets? Elijah. When John the Baptist showed up on the scene to announce the coming of the Savior, he came in the spirit of Elijah, just as Malachi prophesied. Even when Jesus cried out to God on the cross, the crowd thought he was calling for Elijah. How could Elijah have been a man just like us? Well, read his story and you will see he had great triumphs and great failures. He really was an ordinary man whom God chose to use in extraordinary ways to accomplish His purposes.
Warren Wiersbe points out that when James says of Elijah, “he prayed fervently,” that could be translated as, “he prayed in his prayers.” Prayer wasn’t an exercise for Elijah; he really prayed. When we are just exercising prayer, we say all kinds of things. We make announcements in prayer. We correct other people’s theology in prayer. We say “just” a lot. I heard a story about a church member who was “praying around the world” in a meeting. One of the men there got tired of it and finally he said, “Ask Him something! That’s what prayer is. Ask Him something!” I know too well all of these “prayer exercises,” and it is far too easy to fall into that myself, instead of praying in my prayers.
Let’s learn to talk to God like He is really with us, because He is. There was a man in the last stages of cancer, and a good praying friend visited him often and prayed with him. The man with cancer finally asked him, “How did you learn to pray like that?” His friend said, “I know God is with me, and He loves me and hears my prayers. So, I often pull up a chair, right beside me. I pull it up close and just imagine Him sitting there, and I talk to my Father that way. Like a child who is lying in his father’s lap.” The friend heard a few days later that the man he had prayed for had died. And the nurse said, “Yeah, and one thing was kind of strange. Apparently, just before he died, he pulled the chair beside the bed up close, and we found him lying with his head on that chair.”
I want to learn to pray like that.
It was the winter of 1998, and the four oldest Fox children had walked from our house in Graham over to the Pine Cemetery, pulling their sleds behind them. There’s a great hill in the cemetery that a lot of the kids in the neighborhood would sled on. They had been gone for about an hour when Jesse, then 4 years old, asked his Mom, “When are they going to come back from the grave?”
We celebrated the greatest news the world has ever heard last Sunday, the news that Jesus Christ came back from the grave. We continue to celebrate that news, every day. It is the foundation of what we believe, and a solid foundation it is, indeed. For centuries Christians have lived with hope in the midst of suffering, have read His Word and kept His commandments, have gathered with others who believe and given their lives to telling the story, and have even given up their lives to follow Him. But dear readers, we live in a world that is increasingly skeptical of the absolute truth of the gospel, a world that is willing to believe almost anything except that Jesus Christ is God and died for their sins and rose from the dead and is the only way to the Father.
I read a Barna Research poll last year that revealed fully one-third of those who claim to be born-again Christians do not believe that Jesus came back to physical life after He was crucified. What? That’s like saying, “I believe that Michael Jordan is a businessman, but he was never a basketball player.” Saying you believe in Jesus, but not in His physical resurrection is like saying you believe in Christmas but not in Jesus’ birth.
Some believe the resurrection of Jesus is no more (maybe less) than a fairy tale. I had a good friend in graduate school who went on to get his Ph.D. in English and teaches at UC-Davis. We had lots of discussions about God and Jesus and the Bible, most of which he just would not believe. When we had our first child, my friend, Steve, sent me a copy of Mother Goose’s Nursery Rhymes and wrote in the margin to Micah that his Dad should read these to him every day. Well, if Jesus is not raised from the dead, then we might as well read Mother Goose for devotions and memorize the rhymes and believe in Humpty Dumpty. Maybe, just maybe, the king’s horses and the king’s men will be able to put him back together again. That could be our only hope, without the resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Take a look at Paul’s argument for the resurrection in 1 Corinthians 15, beginning in verse 12. This passage is still being used in some law schools as a classic example of sound reasoning. Paul starts the chapter, however, by delineating four truths that are of first importance. 1. Christ died for our sins. 2. He was buried. No swoon theory where Jesus was later revived in a back alley somewhere and then somehow pulled off the greatest hoax in history. No, he was dead and buried. 3. He was raised on the third day. Without this truth, the first two are meaningless. 4. He appeared to many after His resurrection. Without this truth, the third truth is cast into shadow. His body is gone, but where is He?
Jesus Christ is risen, and has become the first fruits of those who die in Him. That means we who believe in Him will also be raised from the dead.
It really doesn’t get any better than that.
How many of you remember your Mom’s stern warning to you as a child: “Do not borrow anybody’s comb!” My Mom was pretty convinced that if I ran someone’s comb through my hair, I would instantly be infested with microscopic creatures that would eat through my scalp and destroy me and life on the planet, as we know it. She even said I would be better off drinking out of somebody else’s cup than to use their comb. So I went through my childhood with an irrational fear of hair germs and would break into a cold sweat when I saw teens sharing their combs (or their picks…remember those?) willy-nilly, without regard for life or limb or scalp. I was convinced that’s why this kid in high school named Chad went bald at 18. He was probably sneaking behind the gym with borrowed combs almost every day.
There are some things you just don’t borrow. Like mouth guards, if you are playing on the basketball team, riding the pine, and suddenly the coach yells for you to get in the game. I never expected that to happen. I was one of those guys at the end of the bench who, if this were a Final Four game, would be locking arms with the other benchwarmers as the starting point guard stood at the free throw line, trying to ice the victory. I never expected to be put in the game. We couldn’t be enough points ahead for the coach to put me in the game. But here he was, calling my name, and I can’t find my mouth guard. Hey, better to risk losing all my teeth in the lane as I am bumping armpits with my head, while trying to get a rebound, than to borrow a mouth guard from Lewis, the kid on the bench even further down the roster than me. I am pretty sure that Lewis kept his mouth guard inside his tennis shoes when they weren’t on his feet. For all I knew, he may have thrown his comb in there, too. No way am I borrowing his mouth guard.
There are some things you just don’t borrow. Like burial plots. I mean, once you are dead, you’re dead, right? There is no way you can borrow a burial plot. You can only borrow something that you intend to give back.
Check the records. There is a burial plot in Jerusalem owned by a certain Joseph of Arimathea. When Jesus of Nazareth was crucified nearly 2,000 years ago, Joseph asked Pilate if he could take the body of Jesus. He put Jesus in “a new tomb in which no one had yet been laid.” Three days later, that tomb was available again because Jesus was raised from the dead, just as He said He would be. You know what is interesting about the Son of God? He entered the world through a virgin birth. He entered Jerusalem for His final week on a borrowed donkey colt, one that had never been ridden. He was laid in a borrowed tomb on Friday, which He gave back on Sunday.
There are some things you just don’t borrow. But I will be eternally grateful that Jesus borrowed His gravesite. That means I will only be borrowing mine for a while, too.
The angel said of Jesus, “He is not here, for he is risen, as he said. Come see the place where he lay.” This, my friends, is why we celebrate Easter tomorrow, and every day: Jesus rose on Sunday, and conquered sin, death, and the grave.
One of the questions I was asked to address with a group of pastors and church leaders in Virginia several years ago was “How have you avoided legalism in your church?” I responded that I think the key to avoiding legalism is keeping the main things the main things. Legalism happens many times in a church simply because the pastor or the elders inflate the importance of externals and underplay the importance of heart issues. The Pharisees had the externals down; they were nearly perfect in every way…on the outside. But inside, Jesus said, the Pharisees were filled with dead men’s bones. They were hypocrites, and therefore could not afford to ever let their guard down and be real with each other. The heart issues remained hidden to all but Christ.
I went on to relate this to how we raise our children. What we praise in our children will be emphasized in their lives: their looks rather than their character, their talents rather than their servanthood, their intellect rather than their heart for God. If our emphasis is on the externals, then we are raising little Pharisees who will make their lives (and those around them) miserable. What we praise in our children will be those things we value the most, and which they will develop with the most zeal.
It is the same with a church. What we celebrate as a church defines what is important to us and ultimately what we will become. I heard a great teaching on this a while back at a luncheon for pastors. The speaker, Rick Sessoms, said that the “products and practices” of a church do not happen in a vacuum but are the direct result of what the church really values. The question for a church then is simple: How do we know what we value? Sessoms offered the following questions as guidelines.
What can we do with this information? I think we can and should evaluate our own lives and the life and health of our churches, to see if what we value are the same things Jesus taught and modeled for His disciples. Those things will be matters of the heart, matters of character, development of leaders who know how to lay down their lives, compassion for the lost, and wisdom that is anchored in the Word.
James tells the church that if anyone is sick among them, they should call for the elders to come and pray over them. Let’s think about that for a moment. First, for the young readers, “sick” is a serious word here that means there’s something wrong. I understand that some of you use the word as a synonym for awesome, as in, “Man, that dude on the guitar is sick.” I can assure you that James is not asking for the awesome people to call for the elders. No, these were people who were ill. Infirm. Not well. And based on the text, probably not ambulatory. They were most likely at home, in bed. What should they do?
Call for the elders of the church to come and pray. Let me hasten to add that this means of grace is not mutually exclusive from the means of grace God has given us through medicine and doctors. But most people, even Christians who know what the Word teaches, will not consider this option and even see asking for prayer as a last resort.
The first question to ask James is, “What church?” Well, the one they are in, the one they are committed to. This passage, along with several others, makes a strong case for church membership. We are called to commitment to a local church, not just casual acquaintance with one. This passage also makes a case for a plurality of elders. Notice James doesn’t instruct the sick person to call for the pastor, but for the elders. Plural. You can find the qualifications for elders (or pastors, or bishops, or overseers, or any other title you want to bestow on those who lead the church) in 1 Timothy 3 and Titus 1.
The second question is, “Who is responsible to get the elders to come and pray?” The ones who are sick! They are to take the initiative. They are to call for the elders, not on a whim, like, “Oh good grief, I’ve tried everything else, maybe I’ll give the elders a go at this.” They call for the elders because of the spiritual authority these leaders have been given. And they call for the elders because there is faith even in taking the initiative.
I think that’s in part why Jesus asked a lame man at the pool of Bethesda, “Do you want to be healed?” The man had been a cripple for 38 years. Of course he wanted to be healed! But wait, if that seems so obvious to us, why did Jesus ask the question? We know that Jesus never asked a foolish question, or an unimportant question, so we have to admit that Jesus asked because He knew some people do not want to be healed. Ray Stedman wrote, “I know many people today who do not want to be healed. They do not want to receive divine help in their problems. They do not want to be helped out of their weakness. They love their weakness, their helplessness. They are always craving the attention of others through their helplessness. They sometimes flee assuming responsibility for their own lives. I have even seen people turn their backs on a way of deliverance they knew would work, because they did not want to be healed.”
The initiative of the sick is essential, as is the response of the elders. Is anyone among you sick? Let him call for the elders of the church. Calling for the elders is a way of saying to the Lord, “I want to be healed.”
I remember one Christmas back in the mid-1980s. I cut down a cedar tree in the woods and dragged it into my living room. I put it in the tree stand, which proved to be a bit too wimpy to hold up the sturdy evergreen. So I went outside to get a couple of cinderblocks that I would place on the legs of the tree stand, to give it support. I knew exactly where the blocks were. My mind argued with itself about taking a flashlight into the dark night. “You know where the blocks are; they are not hidden,” one side reasoned. “Yes, but it’s dark out there. You need to see where you are going,” the other side answered. I won the argument with myself … or maybe I lost. Nonetheless, I struck out into the dark wilderness of my backyard and made my way to the stack of cinderblocks. Having reached my destination without a problem, I congratulated the winning side of my brain for having the foresight to leave the flashlight back in the kitchen drawer. I then picked up two of the blocks and lugged them to the back stoop, where I set them down in the light to inspect them for dirt. That’s when I realized that about two inches from my ungloved right hand, inside one of the cinderblocks, was the healthiest black widow spider I had ever seen. Perhaps she had just eaten her husband and was still bloated from the heavy meal, but for whatever reason, I was spared an attack.
I learned a valuable lesson from that close encounter with a venomous arachnid. Would you like to know what it was? You might want to get a pen and write this down, because this kind of profundity only comes ‘round once in a great while. Here it is: “The light does you no good if you do not use it.”
That’s it. Simple, I know, but in the words of the old country preacher, “That dog will hunt.” You see, a flashlight is useless in the drawer. Headlights are worthless if you don’t turn them on. A front porch light is dangerously without purpose if you throw a T-shirt over it. I learned that lesson the hard way as a teenager when I wanted to have some “private conversation” with a girl on her front porch. Her Daddy was not a happy camper when the smoke from my smoldering shirt smote his nostrils in the living room.
Jesus said it like this: “Men do not light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house.”
Walking in the light of the truth you have received greatly improves your vision. You can see better when you follow Christ. That doesn’t mean he will not lead you through hard times, narrow places and difficult spots. There are dark valleys where we cannot see the next step and must walk by faith and not by sight. But there are also times when we are in the dark because we choose to be there. He has given us the light of understanding but we have chosen to reject it or neglect it.
The old saying is true, that God will only give more light to the one who is walking in obedience to the light that he has already received. That’s where I want to live, in the light. It keeps me honest. It might keep my hands away from poisonous spiders, as well.
James would answer, “Lying is,” because it gets to the ultimate issue of personal integrity. We are bombarded by lies on a daily basis. We hear them on the radio and television, and read them in the news. Politicians and advertisers lie to us. And if we can be totally honest with ourselves, we tell lies, too. We lie to ourselves, to each other, even to God. For some, lying is an art, a craft that they hone and perfect. They understand that lying can move a product or build a resume. They know that, “A lie can travel around the world, while truth is still lacing up its boots.”
We call it “fake news” in the media. We also see that every time a politician opens his mouth these days, there are 50 people fact-checking every word. Sadly, that happens out of necessity. One President in the late 1990s said to his top aides, “There is nothing going on between us,” referring to his White House intern. Of course it came out that there was plenty going on, so when the President was asked before a grand jury to explain his statement that he had made to his top aides, he replied, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is. If the — if he — if ‘is’ means is and never has been, that is not — that is one thing. If it means there is none, that was a completely true statement.”
Huh? Go back 25 years before him, and you hear another President say at a press conference, “I am not a crook.” Which turned out to be a lie. We would all be justified in our anger against these men if we did not have to look at ourselves in the mirror every day. We also shade the truth, exaggerate, and sometimes just flat-out tell lies.
Now I am aware there may be a moral relativist reading this column who would respond, “You’re making a big deal about ‘truth’, but really, there is no Truth with a capital T. There is only little-t truth, which is a construct. Your truth is your truth, and my truth is my truth.” I would say to them, your life proves that you don’t believe that. Because when you get your Duke Energy bill, and the company has inadvertently added a zero, you call them up. You say, “You have made a huge mistake. The power bill should have been $175, but you charged me $1750!” You don’t expect them to say, “Hey, $175 is your truth, but $1750 is our truth. Pay the bill or lose your power.” No, and it’s the same when you go to the doctor to talk about your MRI. You don’t want him to tell you his truth with regard to the results. “Well, the MRI shows a huge mass in your pancreas, and conventional wisdom says we need to aggressively treat that or you will not be here next year at this time. But my truth is that you are fine. Forget about it. Live happy. It’s probably nothing, in fact, I am sure it is.” No, the relativist trashes his own doctrine at that point, as well as that doctor, gets a second opinion and demands the objective truth. My integrity and yours depends on truth-telling, or crumbles for its lack.
James said it plainly: “Let your ‘yes’ be yes, and your ‘no’ be no.” In other words, why not just tell the truth?