George stood at the bus stop and muttered a prayer under his smoking breath that the bus would arrive before his feet froze solid. Even his wool socks were claiming they’d met their match.

“Lovely weather,” said a tall woman trying to warm her hands on a steaming coffee. “Counting the degrees on one hand makes it easy for everyone.”

A couple folks laughed, but not George. He hadn’t laughed much in the last three years.

“Where’s that damned bus?” an elderly man whispered to no one.

George figured the man for about 77. He thought that would be him in 17 years. He wondered if he would still be taking the bus to the clinic every day. He wondered how everything could go so wrong so fast, and in that moment, 17 more years felt a little more like jail.

Living in a city that was home to several Fortune 500 consumer packaged goods companies was a boon to a packaging engineer such as himself, but life is odd, and when his firm offered him early retirement due to increased competition from overseas, he and Jeannie thought their nest egg sufficient for a longer-than-expected retirement. They had some money, a pension, could even handle their daughter Lynn’s college payments, and the company hinted they might throw some consulting work George’s way now and then. Retirement at 57 seemed perfect.

Five months later, while he and Jeannie walked through the bright gold and red of their neighborhood’s autumn leaf fall, a blood vessel burst in her brain.

That was 2½ years, $2.7 million dollars in medical bills, and their retirement home ago. All gone. To keep his daughter on track for graduation, George sold his car and Jeannie’s. Then he got a bill from the college announcing a 15% tuition hike.

George called in some markers at his old workplace and they gave him a basement office and paid him for two days a week. Competition hadn’t eased, but George had been someone once, and the old guard did what they could, shaking their heads at the injustice of it all.

So George caught the 7:55 bus each day. On his two work days, he walked from his 8’x8′ office to the extended care clinic and held Jeannie’s hand. On good days, she’d fix her eyes on his and he could see the light still in them. No one could make out what she said, but George told everyone they were words of love. God help them both if they were something else.

George didn’t talk about the bad days. He’d read to his bride even when her eyes were cloudy glass and no Jeannie seemed present. He didn’t know what else to do. Read, hold a hand, and watch the bank account dwindle to nothing. Sometimes George hated himself for what he thought on the worst days.

Where’s that damned bus? he thought now. A glance at his wrist: 8:08.

Some anxious young turk in clothes three sizes too big spat one of those words that always grated on George’s ears. People didn’t talk like that when George was younger, and whenever he heard someone curse, something inside him died a little m0re. What is wrong with people today? What happened to propriety? George heard someone else spout the same ugly word: the tall woman, her coffee gone.

The sound of a diesel engine. Every head turned to peer down the street. Suddenly, life entered the small collection of people. The bus. Finally. Even from a tenth of a mile away, George could see the “sorry, folks” look on the driver’s face.

When the bus pulled up to the curb, George let others board first, though he and the elderly man exchanged proferred hands, each insisting the other go ahead. Wisdom prevailed, as the senior gave up the battle of politeness, boarded, and George walked into the anticipated warmth of the coach.

Except none greeted him.

He looked at the driver, perplexed.

“It’s why I’m late,” the driver said. “The cold took down two other buses completely. At least this one runs.”

George looked that the mass of people on board and wondered where all the body heat was. The bus stop felt warmer.

“No heater? I’ve got a half hour ride,” he said to the driver.

“You and most everyone else” was the reply.

A half hour of frozen misery.

George sat down next to the largest person he could find and hoped for the best. By the time his stop came, all theories about hoping and the warmth of people of immense size had been chucked out the moisture-frosted window.

Goodbye, frigid conveyance. Hello, old semi-workplace.

The lobby stairway proved a difficult walk when one cannot feel at least one of one’s feet. George wondered if this was what being a pirate with a wooden leg felt like. Arrr.

His office didn’t have a door, so on arriving in the basement, he immediately noted the envelope on his beaten, 1950’s-era desk. A lone envelope. An omen. He opened it, hands trembling.

Numbers flooded the page, and George inhaled sharply at  the sight of them. What they said: Health care costs would now be subtracted from pension payouts. George looked at the number at the bottom of the side column. He flopped into the desk chair, which groaned along with him, and with his back to the doorway, cried.

“You okay, George?” came a voice from behind him.

“Jeannie had a bad night is all,” he said to the wall before him. His reliable, catch-all answer. Anyone would understand it.

“Sorry to hear that,” said the voice. “Hope things get better.” A reliable, catch-all answer. Everyone knew the dance steps. Everyone.

When no further words came and George felt his eyes grow dry, he walked out the door and wandered to a stack of recycling. Toward the bottom of the pile he saw a phone book and grabbed it. Back in his office, he dialed a number.

“Metro. How can I direct your call?” said a voice on the other end of the line.

“My bus didn’t have any heat this morning,” George said. “It’s five degrees outside. I’m 60 years old.”

The woman had a pleasant voice, and she said something pleasant and reassuring.

At the end of the day, George walked to the extended care clinic and found a dull, wrinkled face staring at nothing. He held the hand that belonged to the inert woman in the bed, read from The Psalms and something from a Max Lucado book. Jeannie had liked that author once. At 6:45, George called it a day and caught the—thankfully heated—7:05 back to the two bedroom apartment that was all that remained of once big dreams of retirement.

The 7:55 arrived on time the next morning—without a working heater.

George gritted his teeth.

At the office, he hit redial on his phone.

“Metro. How can I help you?”

“The 7:55 on Erie still doesn’t have any heat,” George said.

Reassurances. Promises. Pleasant talk.

“Can I speak to a supervisor?”

Reassurances. Promises. Pleasant talk.

Hang up.

Work. Extended care clinic. Home.

The cold morning ride racked up more days. George spent those days, in full, at the clinic.  One day of light in the eyes, but nothing the rest.

The next week, the 7:55 still had no heat.

“What’s with you people?” George yelled into the phone at the woman with the pleasant voice. “I want to talk to a supervisor. Can’t you fix the damn heater? This is the 21st century. It’s a damn heater. Fix the damn thing, damn it!”

Reassurances. Promises. Pleasant talk.

Work. Extended care clinic. Home. A letter was in the mailbox. The next pension check—so much smaller. Again, the tears.

And the next morning, the 7:55 felt like a Siberian mausoleum on wheels.

“Look,” George said into the phone. “My heart doesn’t pump like it once did. I know the economy isn’t great, but c’mon. The heater. We’re all freezing on that bus.”

Reassurances. Promises. Pleasant talk.

More days of cold.

When the 7:55 was a couple minutes late the following week, George ran all the scenarios. He kept coming back to a fixed heater. Please, God. Please.

What he got that morning was a bigger surprise. Something was different about the 7:55. Sure enough, on the side it read: Bio-diesel-powered. And George’s heart leapt.

A smile on his face, he waved the elderly man on board and stepped inside.

To an all-too-familiar cold.

“Heater doesn’t work,” said the bus driver.

“What the hell?” George yelled. “Can’t anyone please fix the damned heater? Anyone?”

Knowing Jesus and the Death of Self-Help


12 ApostlesIt was turning out to be the worst meeting Matthias had attended.

Yes, the worship had been exemplary, as usual. No doubt the Lord was present in their midst. But then, so it seemed was a spirit of bureaucracy—and Matthias hated bureaucracy. Hadn’t he been chosen by a casting of lots? How much easier could it have been?

And why DID the Gentiles have to receive the Gospel? Why couldn’t it have stayed among the Jews only? What a bureaucratic nightmare.

So there he sat, hoping against hope that Peter was not going to chime in again.

Oh, heavens no. Here we go.

Peter stood up.

“Brothers,” the apostle announced in his bass voice that shook the flimsy meeting room furniture, “having weighed this question in my soul after much placement before the Lord, I conclude that there are actually only seven steps to a God-honoring sex life.”

“We weren’t talking about sex, Peter,” Silas said. “Were you asleep—again?”

“The question was the title of Levi’s preaching series,” Barnabas reminded, “The 10 Principles of Financial Success.”

He had a gift for reading lips, and Matthias swore that James mouthed,  It’s a baker’s dozen, not 10. That James’s little brother then punched him in the arm meant the youngest attendee at the meeting had heard him too.

A man with a pained expression on his face stood and asked, “How are the Gentiles going to live a life of fullness in our Lord if we who are appointed their leaders can’t decide these simple issues?”

Matthias shook his head. Thomas again. Always stirring the pot.

“Everything depends on our hammering down what is necessary for the Gentiles to live,” Peter agreed.

“You remember that our Lord said I was an Israelite without deceit—” Nathanael started.

Matthias rolled his eyes. Always the same prelude from Nathanael.

“—and I think that we never settled on the take-away points of my series, Raising Godly Children in an Ungodly World.”

“Hey, Mr. Honesty,” someone yelled from across the dimly lit room, “why not be truthful with the Gentiles and tell them you don’t have any children?”

Matthias thought that was worth a good chuckle. He wasn’t alone.

“Now listen here—” Nathanael began, before he was cut off again.

Five Biblical Ways to Reach Your Neighbors for Christ,” Philip said. “I mean, c’mon, guys. Isn’t that what we’re all about? I used those five when I spoke to that eunuch, and you all know how effective that was. Shouldn’t the Gentiles know them? Just five simple ways?”

Andrew leaned over to Matthias and said, “I tuned out after they kicked out Martha. I kind of liked her Beat Busyness the Bible Way.” He then turned pensive and asked, “Do you remember how many steps her method had?”

“I think it was five,” Matthias answered.

Andrew glowered. “No, I think you’re thinking about Philip’s five ways.”

“Maybe I am,” Matthias said. “Maybe I am.”


That meeting in Jerusalem among the leaders of the young Church actually happened. It just didn’t happen that way. The question of how to live a godly life wasn’t found in principles or spiritual To-Do lists. Here’s that meeting’s conclusion:

After they finished speaking, James replied, “Brothers, listen to me. Simeon has related how God first visited the Gentiles, to take from them a people for his name. And with this the words of the prophets agree, just as it is written, “‘After this I will return, and I will rebuild the tent of David that has fallen; I will rebuild its ruins,  and I will restore it, that the remnant of mankind may seek the Lord, and all the Gentiles who are called by my name,  says the Lord, who makes these things known from of old.’ Therefore my judgment is that we should not trouble those of the Gentiles who turn to God, but should write to them to abstain from the things polluted by idols, and from sexual immorality, and from what has been strangled, and from blood.”
—Acts 15:13-21 ESV

In short, don’t load up the Gentiles with stuff to do. Stuff wasn’t the point of the Gospel.

Here’s how Paul saw living the Christian life:

For I decided to know nothing among you except Jesus Christ and him crucified.
—1 Corinthians 2:2 ESV

Jesus summed it up nicely:

And this is eternal life, that they know you the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom you have sent.
—John 17:3 ESV

How is it then that we sit still on Sunday and have someone tell us all these things we should be doing so as to be good Christians? How is it that we say we embrace grace, yet we load ourselves up with lists of necessities and principles and ways and means of living like Christians, when it all begins and ends with knowing Christ?

What if we just knew Christ and knew Him a little more each day? Can’t anyone tell us how to know Christ more?

Or do we not believe this Scripture?

And I am sure of this, that he who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.
—Philippians 1:6 ESV

If we know Christ more deeply, isn’t it the work of the Father to make us perfect in His Son? Why then do we trouble ourselves with endless self-help sermons?

Now if the ministry of death, carved in letters on stone, came with such glory that the Israelites could not gaze at Moses’ face because of its glory, which was being brought to an end, will not the ministry of the Spirit have even more glory? For if there was glory in the ministry of condemnation, the ministry of righteousness must far exceed it in glory. Indeed, in this case, what once had glory has come to have no glory at all, because of the glory that surpasses it. For if what was being brought to an end came with glory, much more will what is permanent have glory. Since we have such a hope, we are very bold, not like Moses, who would put a veil over his face so that the Israelites might not gaze at the outcome of what was being brought to an end. But their minds were hardened. For to this day, when they read the old covenant, that same veil remains unlifted, because only through Christ is it taken away. Yes, to this day whenever Moses is read a veil lies over their hearts. But when one turns to the Lord, the veil is removed. Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom. And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.
—2 Corinthians 3:7-18 ESV

When Right-Hearted Christians Defend Wrong-Headed Theology


Someone had let a whirlwind into the room.

Elder George Merriweather gazed at his Rolex. They’d been at this for only 10 minutes, but it felt like 10 hours. He glanced at Deaconess Lisbeth Cartwright and sighed. The former Miss America candidate from Connecticut nodded, and her blonde curls went bouncing.

Westminster Wesleyan had endured plenty of storms in the church’s nearly 200-year history, but it had scarcely seen the likes of this present hurricane, all 300-pounds in fluorescent eyeshadow of her, Miss T’juana Dupree Jones.

“It ain’t right to call Zion no ’xperiment,” the woman responded. “Alls I sayin’ is that Miss Thelma could use that food too. And Miss Laetitia and Miss Lucinda.”

Pastor W. Thornton Hill III regretted his choice of words. In a way, Zion Holiness Temple was an experiment. Changing demographics in the neighborhood abutting Westminster Wesleyan, while not exactly forcing the church’s hand, made it essential that the church consider an outreach that would bring the Gospel to more of the people who lived in the nearby area. Church leaders also recognized that Zion might need to have its own “flavor” if it was to develop its own style of ministry, one that Hill recognized he wasn’t equipped to understand. While Zion shared much with its parent church, Westminster encouraged the Zion congregation that met under its roof to develop its own programs.

Zion didn’t have a home meals delivery program like Westminster did. And at least one person did not like this disparity.

“Miss Thelma be 91 years old, livin’ alone in a one-room ’partment with no A/C,” Jones continued. “You been up to her place?”

Benevolence Committee leader Quentin Greenway shook his head.

“No, ” Jones said, barely hiding her ire, “I don’t think you been.”

Olivia Brentwell, co-leader of the committee, spoke up.

“You have to understand, Miss Jones, we’re trying to encourage the Zion congregation to—”

“And I’m trying to encourage y’all to recall that Miss Lucinda done got her man blowed up in that desert war and got three precious little babies she need to feed, and y’all got the money and food.”

Greenway leaned forward and attempted his own interjection. He failed miserably.

“And Miss Laetitia been a widow lady for 20 years. You remember her man? Worked hisself to death probably.”

Pastor Hill, who had been listening all the while he played with his Mont Blanc pen, grimaced at the mention. Laetitia Washington’s husband, Franklin, had been Westminster Wesleyan’s janitor for three decades before he passed away.

“Y’all could drive that little van a couple more blocks and drop off them ladies something decent to eat at least once a day,” Jones said. “I don’t see why not. It ain’t right the way it be now. That’s all I gots to say.”

Jones folded her hands into her prodigious lap and stared straight ahead, the laser focus of her eyes burning a hole in the far wall an inch to the right of Greenway’s bald head.

He spoke.

“We have solid, biblical reasons, Miss Jones, for denying the request.”

Jones’s brow knitted.

“We do not wish to enable neediness,” Greenway began. “People fall into a pattern of victimhood that is disempowering. They lose the ability to care for themselves as God intends, instead developing an unhealthy reliance on others.”

Cartwright called on her training and raised herself perfectly erect. “And suffering is good for the soul, Miss Jones. The Bible clearly states that in this world we will have suffering. We should look on it as a gift from the Lord and thank Him for it. Suffering builds character, strength, and perseverance, qualities that every Christian should possess.”

Brentwell smoothed her silk dress and added , “Miss Jones, if we were to give these three women what you ask, how many more should expect the same treatment? God shows no partiality, and neither should we.”

To which Greenway added, “And our own resources aren’t infinite. We have to be able to meet the needs of Westminster’s own.”

The brow-knitting on Jones’s face was beginning to develop its own Zip code.

As he always did, Elder Merriweather saw the moment as a teachable one.

“This is clearly an issue of God’s sovereignty,” he said through steepled fingers, eyes trained on Jones. “While I can commiserate with the plight of these women, they are in the state they are because of God’s will. He alone raises up, and He alone brings low. For us to stand as His judge and claim that we know better by meddling in God’s ways, I daresay our presumption will come back to bite us.”

The human storm stirred again. A hand rose from Jones’s lap, one finger emerging from five, straightening, filled with indignation.

“You with the enabling. You with the suffering. You with the partiality,” Jones said, her eyes flashing, “and you with that word I done never heard before. What all wrong with you? You pushin’ me to sin with what I’m thinkin’, but I’m just gonna say it: Y’all don’t got the common sense God done give a goose.”

Pastor Hill thought to reply when he saw the shock on his leadership team’s faces, but that was before he noticed something on Jones’s face: the track of a lone tear.

“I don’t got nothin’ in this world, not even the stuff in this one office, ” Jones said. “But I can see that I’m gonna have to take my nothin’ and make somethin’ of it so I can take care of three widow ladies who don’t get the food in one day y’all get from one of your brunches.”

At this, Jones lifted herself, collected her faux leopard-skin bag and left, making sure the door of the office slammed with just the right amount of force to make one final statement.

No one said anything.

Finally, Greenway spoke.

“For one, I look at this as a success. That woman left here empowered to take responsibility for the care of these women. By standing our ground, we empowered rather than enabled.”

Brentwell and Merriweather agreed.

“Ministry is hard,” Cartwright added, still a little frazzled by the encounter.

Pastor W. Thornton Hill III didn’t hear his leadership team’s self-congratulations, though. Instead, he could not take his eyes from the old, wooden cross that hung on the wall opposite his desk, just as it had for as long as he could remember.


Here is how another leadership team, long ago and far away, handled a similar situation in a much godlier way:

Now in these days when the disciples were increasing in number, a complaint by the Hellenists arose against the Hebrews because their widows were being neglected in the daily distribution. And the twelve summoned the full number of the disciples and said, “It is not right that we should give up preaching the word of God to serve tables. Therefore, brothers, pick out from among you seven men of good repute, full of the Spirit and of wisdom, whom we will appoint to this duty. But we will devote ourselves to prayer and to the ministry of the word.”
—Acts 6:1-4 ESV

God help us when we make up spiritual-sounding excuses supposedly based on “biblical theology” to ignore doing the right thing.