God's Mercy at the DMV

I am not really one for sharing personal stories. However, I had a particularly encouraging experience of God’s mercy yesterday that involved–of all things!–the DMV and paying taxes. Based on the bizarre and unexpected nature of my experience, I figured you might enjoy hearing about it.

When we first moved to Newberry, SC, more than seven years ago, it took four separate trips to the DMV before I finally emerged with a new SC plate for our vehicle. Part of that odyssey involved a trip to the County Treasurer’s office where I had to fork over $1000+ in property taxes for one vehicle (a vehicle we were leasing and didn’t even own). I’ve been told we have the highest property taxes in the state. I don’t doubt it.

I was appalled. Frustrated. Resigned. When it comes to taxes, what can you do? Hold your nose, swallow the pill, and get on with your life.

Every year since, we’ve had to pay a hefty sum to renew our tag.

This December we bought a Ford Transit from my father-in-law who owns a dealership in PA (I know, I know. Let the homeschool family jokes begin). Because we were purchasing the vehicle across state lines, the sales tax on the vehicle was deferred, and we were responsible to pay it in South Carolina. We had a 60 day temp tag, and as you can imagine, I waited until the last possible moment to go into the DMV and render unto Caesar.

So, if you are keeping tabs, in order to secure our title and tag, that meant this time around we owed sales tax IN ADDITION TO the property tax.

Being a math guy, I can add. I looked up the auto sales tax rate in SC, and it’s 5%. Gulp. Based on property taxes we’d paid in the past, and 5% of the sale of the vehicle, I estimated we would owe $3000+ by the end of it.

My mind started to spin whenever I though of it. My wife is due with our 6th child next month, and hospital bills are about to flood our mailbox. My kids’ school pre-registration fees and tuition for the fall are coming soon.

The numbers made me sick. And I started to pray.

I don’t really know for what. Mercy. Dear God, have mercy. I don’t know from where. I don’t know how. But mercy.

God had me in a submission hold, and I was crying “Uncle!”

Yesterday was the fateful day. I headed to the County Treasurer’s office for the first of two painful stops. All the way, I was praying, pleading, asking the Lord to be gentle.

I stepped up to the auditor’s counter, handed over every piece of paperwork from the dealership (because who knows what they might ask for), and waited.

And waited.

And after what seemed like an eternity, the auditor printed a receipt and said, “You owe $643.00. They will process your payment at the treasurer’s counter across the hall.”

Mercy. Sheer mercy. Expecting to pay well over a grand in property tax, I’m sure I was the happiest taxpayer the county treasurer’s office saw all day.

Then I headed across town to do penance at the DMV. Dear God, have mercy on me, a sinner!

The line was short. As I had fully anticipated, there was a piece of paperwork that had to be filled out and signed by my wife before I could proceed any further, so attempt #1 was over before it began. I headed back out the door.

I got home, filled out the car title application, got Mindy’s signature, and headed back for round 2.

The suspense was killing me. And I’m pleading for mercy all the way.

I return to the same DMV officer, who processes my paperwork, and tells me there will be a $10 late fee for allowing our temp tag go a day past its expiration. I say, no problem.

Her fingernails ratatap on the keyboard as I await my fate.

“Would you like a normal tag?”

“Yes, ma’am.”

Just tell me the damage! Dear God, help me!

“With the late fee, sales tax, and tag fee…that will be $565.00.”

Tears began to well up in my eyes. I asked her to explain how sales tax works in SC.

“Well, it’s 5% up until $500. But there is a $500 cap.”

I couldn’t believe it.

I smiled as I handed her the check. “Miss Rosetta, I was praying the whole way over here that God would have mercy on me. I was fully expecting to pay a whole heck of a lot more than this. God has been merciful to me through you. Thank-you.”

She smiled.

And I went home rejoicing. Rejoicing after paying taxes and visiting the DMV. Twice.

What a weird, merciful God we serve.

9 Classics to Add to Your 2020 Reading List

As you put together your good intentions for 2020, consider adding some classics to your reading list. I know what you are thinking: But weren’t these books written to be read by whiny high school students and no one else? Whether you were forced to read some of these in school or not, I think you will be surprised by how much you actually enjoy these books as an adult. Give one or two of them a try this year. They’re classics for a reason!

The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain

A boy and a runaway slave make the journey of a lifetime in search for freedom only to discover in the end the whole thing was pointless. Or was it? Huck Finn is an American odyssey: the tale of an impossible friendship forged on the River searching desperately for a safe harbor.

Jane Eyre by Charlotte Brontë

Jane Eyre has everything: gothic castles, fiery bedposts, creepy laughter, and emo moments in the woods. All alone in a man’s world, Jane wrestles with her value as woman. To find herself, she must navigate the temptations to follow her heart, caution be damned, with Mr. Rochester or to follow her head and quench all passion with St. John. And BONUS: Something strange is lurking in the attic.

Pride and Prejudice by Jane Austen

You’ll be laughing with every turn of the page as Austen’s frivolity comes to life. The deft author’s dry wit cracks and snarls under a thin veneer of British gentility. What makes for a good marriage? Every character seems to have an opinion, but what does the author–herself unmarried—believe? And what about you?

Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass by Frederick Douglass

A heartbreaking and inspiring tale of an American hero. Unlike the at times melodramatic Uncle Tom’s Cabin, this is a plain-faced portrait of Southern slavery from a man who experienced it. Douglass’s accounts answer questions from detractors that still linger today: If slavery was so bad, why didn’t more slaves run away? Why didn’t slaves speak out about poor conditions? Weren’t bad slave masters the outliers? A black man escapes a world bent on degrading his nature, and it begins with learning the A, B, C.

The Aeneid by Virgil

Set sail with Aeneas and a few survivors as they escape the burned rubble of Troy in search of a new home. Sure, it’s a propaganda piece advocating for the legitimacy of Caesar’s power in Rome, but it’s got a whole lot more gore and action than any thriller you’ll see in theaters! Plus, you will feel like a smarty-pants reading it.

1984 by George Orwell

Everyone is putting all-seeing, all-hearing, all-knowing Portals and Amazon Echo Dots in every room of their homes. Fake news, redacted stories, and doctored bylines threaten to rewrite history every second. Sound like 2019? Nope. It’s 1984, and your world is about to end. Two protagonists hunger for human connection in a digitized police state. Can they find love before it’s too late?

Catcher in the Rye by J. D. Salinger

What if I strung together every thought my three year-old daughter said aloud and turned it into a novel? Welcome to the addled mind of Holden Caulfield, whose ambling narrative reads much like the Facebook comments section. You want to look away, but for some reason…you just have to know what he’s going to say next. This past year may have you asking, has the world gone mad? To steal a line from JAY-Z, Salinger turns the question on its head: “But if everybody’s crazy, you’re the one that’s insane…”

Pilgrim’s Progress by John Bunyan

Bunyan’s novel is a triumph of early English literature and a book that should be read by all Christians of all stripes. This allegory illuminates theological truths and puts in concrete form the feelings, thoughts, and groanings of believers who are walking the pilgrim way. Whether read for enjoyment, devotional meditation, or as a part of family worship, Pilgrim’s Progress will remind you that on this journey of faith you are not alone.

Moby-Dick by Herman Melville

Who’m I kidding? There’s no way I’m going to convince you to read this one. It’s your loss!

Matthew & Luke: A Tale of Two Christmases

In most nativity sets, we blend the various Christmas stories together in one big, happy créche–shepherds, angels, wise men, Mary, Joseph, baby Jesus, manger, and the rest. And rightly so. Each character adds a different flavor to the rich celebration of the coming of the Christ Child. Even the extras that crowd the scene like the ox and donkey, although not mentioned in the Christmas stories, can bring extra theological depth for those who have eyes to see.

However, sometimes in all the Advent amalgamation, we can overlook the distinct Christmas narratives that Matthew and Luke are telling. If you have read the Gospels of Matthew and Luke, then you know how much of the content overlaps in their books. However, when it comes to the first two chapters of each Gospel–when it comes to the way they narrate Christmas–they couldn’t be more different.

Has it ever struck you how different the Christmas stories are in the Gospels of Matthew and Luke?

In fact, considering how much of their stories do align, only specific intentionality can explain how differently they recount the Advent of the Christ. When you set their two accounts side by side, it becomes clear that each is making volitional, contrasting editorial choices. Consider these for a start:

  • In Luke, Caesar Augustus looms large in the background (Luke 2:1).
  • In Matthew, King Herod acts in the foreground (Matthew 2:1-ff).
  • Luke’s Gospel is told from Mary’s perspective and treats her as the main protagonist.
  • Matthews’s Gospel is told from Joseph’s perspective and treats him as the main protagonist.
  • In Luke, an angel appears to Mary before conception (Luke 1:30-31).
  • In Matthew, an angel appears to Joseph after conception (Matthew 1:20).
  • In Luke, the angel tells Mary “and you shall call his name Jesus” (Luke 1:31).
  • In Matthew, the angel tells Joseph “and you shall call his name Jesus” (Matthew 1:21,25).
  • Luke’s Gospel features “a multitude of the heavenly host” (Luke 2:13).
  • Matthew’s Gospel features a solitary star (Matthew 2:1-ff).
  • Luke’s birth announcement is brought by angels to the shepherds of the flock in Bethlehem (Luke 2:8).
  • Matthew’s birth announcement is brought by magi to the false shepherds of God’s people in Jerusalem (Matthew 2:4).
  • Luke’s birth announcement brings peace on earth (Luke 2:14).
  • Matthew’s birth announcement brings trouble to all Jerusalem (Matthew 2:3).
  • In Luke’s telling, the shepherds instruct one another, “Let us go over to Bethlehem…” (Luke 2:15).
  • In Matthew’s version, King Herod sends the magi “to Bethlehem, saying, ‘Go and search diligently for the child…'” (Matthew 2:8).
  • In Luke, Hebrew shepherds “in the same region…out in the field” find the child (Luke 2:8,16)
  • In Matthew, Gentile “magi from the east” find the child (Matthew 2:1,11)
  • In Luke’s account, shepherds visit baby Jesus (Luke 2:16)
  • In Matthew’s account, baby Jesus is the shepherd (Matthew 2:6)
  • At Luke’s Christmas, Bethlehem is filled with singing (Luke 2:13,20).
  • At Matthew’s Christmas, Bethlehem is filled with weeping (Matthew 2:18).
  • In Luke, we find spiritual treasures: “Mary treasured up all these things, pondering them in her heart” (Luke 2:19).
  • In Matthew, we find earthly treasures: “Opening their treasures, [the wise men] offered him gifts, gold and frankincense and myrrh” (Matthew 2:11).
  • In Luke’s narrative, Mary and child enter the Temple to worship the Lord (Luke 2:22,27).
  • In Matthew’s narrative, the magi enter the house, see the child and Mary, and worship him (Matthew 2:11).
  • Luke’s holy family travels to the Temple (Luke 2:22).
  • Matthew’s holy family escapes to Egypt (Matthew 2:13-14).
  • Luke recounts the circumcision and Passover redemption of the male infant Christ (Luke 2:21,23,27).
  • Matthew recounts the cutting off of all the male infants in Bethlehem (Matthew 2:16).

The two Christmas narratives finally converge at the ends of their second chapters:

  • Luke 2:39, 51–“they returned into Galilee, to their own town of Nazareth…And he went down with them and came to Nazareth”
  • Matthew 2:23–“And he went and lived in a city called Nazareth…”

From this point on, Matthew and Luke largely walk hand-in-hand through the rest of the story of Christ’s baptism, ministry, teaching, miracles, arrest, crucifixion, and resurrection.

This leaves us with a question: Why? When authors take intentionally divergent paths as they recount the same historical event, they do it for a purpose. Particularly, we are talking about the opening chapters of the book. These chapters play a huge role in shaping the way we read the entire rest of the story–setting our expectations, creating categories for interpretation, introducing characters, themes, and motifs, and creating a narrative arc that will be closed in a unique way at the conclusion of each book, respectively.

It’s a tale of two Christmases. What unique perspective is Matthew seeking to communicate with his particular Christmas narrative? What stage is Luke setting with the way he relates the events of the Advent?

We could spend an entire book exploring this question. Certainly, Matthew and Luke show us that the events of Christ’s life can be read, understood, and interpreted in multiple ways. The contrast between their Christmas narratives cannot be accidental. There are marks of pointed, intentional, editorial distinctions in each. Although Matthew and Luke have a ton of overlapping content and follow a very similar timeline of events, their contrasting Advent accounts invite us to see these events through two different lenses. Matthew and Luke are seeking to provide complementary readings, not contradictory–much like the creation accounts of Genesis 1 and 2.

The purposes for Matthew’s version of Christmas vs. Luke’s version come to light only as we continue to read the rest of each book. Theology planted in seed form in Matthew’s Christmas and Luke’s Christmas begins to blossom and bear fruit as each gospel writer tells the rest of his tale.

Where to Turn in a World of Competing Narratives

I was reading Psalm 73 this morning, and Asaph reminded me of Reason #372 why it is so important to be in church on Sunday mornings. He begins his Psalm bewildered by the conflict of what he believes to be true in his heart and what seems to be true in the culture:

Truly God is good to Israel,

to those who are pure in heart. 

But as for me, my feet had almost stumbled,

my steps had nearly slipped. 

For I was envious of the arrogant

when I saw the prosperity of the wicked.

Psalm 73:1-3

While Asaph knows in the depth of his soul that God is good to the pure in heart, everything around him seems to proclaim–from the magazine racks and the news and the movies and the workplace and Netflix and Facebook and politics–a contradictory truth: “The wicked prosper.”

For they have no pangs until death;

their bodies are fat and sleek.

They are not in trouble as others are;

they are not stricken like the rest of mankind. 

Therefore pride is their necklace;

violence covers them as a garment.

Their eyes swell out through fatness;

their hearts overflow with follies.

They scoff and speak with malice;

loftily they threaten oppression. 

They set their mouths against the heavens,

and their tongue struts through the earth. 

Psalm 73:4-9

The horrifying story unfolding before Asaph’s eyes seems so true, and it threatens to dethrone the truth hidden in his own heart. What are we to do when the narratives playing out in society are a direct affront to our Christian faith? We are surrounded by conflicting stories; how do we keep our feet from stumbling into false narratives? Asaph shows us the way.

Postmodernism and False Narratives.

I remember the first time I encountered the word postmodernism. I was in high school in the early 2000s, and Christians were certain postmodernism was going to be the downfall of society. At the time, postmodern thought in my limited understanding boiled down to one basic tenet: Truth is relative. It was a dangerous truth claim to be sure.

What I realize now is how I failed to comprehend the point of a postmodern perspective. Postmodernism was descriptive before it was prescriptive. The mantra, “Truth is relative,” was not necessarily the way postmoderns wanted the world to be; it was simply the way the world already operated.

Postmodernism aimed to be apocalyptic. Much like the book of Revelation, it sought to remove the masks and reveal the power struggles beneath the surface. What was really happening when individuals, political parties, genders, races, classes, or religious organizations claimed to have the truth on their side?

From a postmodern perspective, truth is never really about truth. Truth is about power. The truth is malleable—easily refashioned to fit whatever narrative our team is pushing. And whoever controls the narrative controls the world.

Certainly, we cannot deny this often to be the case today. Everyone is pushing a narrative. Everyone is weaving a tale. Just turn on cable news. You will hear two totally different accounts of the “facts” depending on which network you choose. That is because each has a story it is telling, and that story is aimed at expanding the power of their team.

Politicians push narratives. The strange thing is that we all know this. Pundits perform fact checks after debates and town halls, and we are never surprised to find that a politician has stretched the truth—or even fabricated the truth—in order to further the story he is trying to sell to the public. And why? It’s all aimed at election. It’s a vie for power.

Social media push narratives. Instagram and Pinterest are telling tales about what the good life looks like. Twitter is weaving together stories to shape the narrative of social justice and to control whose voices deserve to be heard. Facebook—well, who knows what Facebook’s narrative is these days. But all stories being told by these platforms aim at one thing: maintaining the power, status, and importance of social media in society.

Hollywood pushes narratives. Whether through award shows, celebrity activists, or the content of its art, television and movies are weaving together narratives through the telling and retelling of stories. They are telling us something about the regal place of entertainment in society.

Religious organizations push narratives. The oldest stories in the world originated among religious peoples, and these stories held sway over societies. Even Christians must admit this to be true. Much of the Old and New Testaments narrates how people conquered and fought one another in the name of their gods.

We Need a True Story.

The point is, we live in a storytelling world. And that, brothers and sisters, is why you and I need to be in church on Sunday morning.

Asaph wandered around wearied and discouraged by the narratives of this world, until he entered a space shaped by a different narrative. A space—and a people—shaped by God’s story. He writes,

But when I thought how to understand this,

it seemed to me a wearisome task,

until I went into the sanctuary of God;

then I discerned their end. 

Psalm 73:16-17

It was when Asaph entered the sanctuary of God, when he entered the presence of God’s people, when his ears were filled with God’s Word, that the narratives of this world lost their power. He was comforted by the narrative of the unbending, unshakeable truth—God’s truth.

Friends, we spend six days wandering about in a world that seems to proclaim, “The wicked prosper! The wicked prosper! The wicked prosper!” And if we are not careful, we grow to envy the proud. We become jealous of co-workers who succeed by clawing their way to the top. Our appetites and desires are shaped by daily scrolling through social media. We begin to believe that politics will save us. And for six days, our hearts grow sick with worry and anxiety and doubts and temptation because we begin to believe the false narratives the Serpent hisses in an effort to exercise power over us…

Until.

Until we enter the sanctuary of God. Until we hear God’s people singing. Until we stand and sit and rise and kneel. Until we read aloud the truths handed down to us from the Apostles. Until we confess our sins and hear afresh the grace of God given to us in Christ. Until we lay our treasures at his feet. Until we taste and experience his presence at the Lord’s Table. Until we hear the eternal Word of God and our hearts are kindled afresh by the only true story in all of the universe.

This is why we so desperately need Sunday mornings. Sunday liturgy and worship among the gathered people of God is a rehearsing and a retelling and a reliving of God’s story—the narrative of salvation history. We live the story together of Creation, Fall, Redemption, and Re-creation. It is a reminder that despite the narratives around us that proclaim, “The wicked prosper!”, Jesus Christ, the Crucified and Risen Savior is still on his throne.

When we stand in the sanctuary, the story is reset. The truth reigns, and we proclaim with Asaph:

You guide me with your counsel,

and afterward you will receive me to glory.

Whom have I in heaven but you?

And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.

My flesh and my heart may fail,

but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Psalm 73:24-26

(photo credit)

A Baptist Catechism for Kids

When I was growing up, there was this infomercial for a countertop appliance called the Showtime Rotisserie. I can remember the salesman showing the product’s many practical uses, and after putting a whole turkey or chicken or a salmon or a pineapple or whatever inside, he and the audience would repeat the catchphrase together: “Now…set it, and forget it!”

I love ministry tools that work like a Showtime Rotisserie. Just set it, and forget it. No fuss. No prep required week after week. Do the hard work of getting things set up, but once they’re set, they run pretty smoothly on their own.

That’s why I have come to love catechism. We know we are supposed to disciple our children, explain to them the basics of systematic theology, and discuss with them the truths of the faith. A catechism is like the best kind of Showtime Rotisserie. Once you choose one and make time to practice with your kids, it requires little to no maintenance or preparation. Just set it, and forget it.

At our church, we use A Catechism for Girls and Boys (1798) by Richard Cecil. We incorporate it into our midweek Bible study at church, adults pairing off with children to practice. Each adult asks the question, then the child gives the response. The kids get ice cream when they hit certain milestones. Parents review with the kids throughout the week.

Repetition is key. And we aim for the kids to memorize the answers word-perfectly. The funny thing about all of this is that although the kids are the ones being quizzed week after week, I’ve heard several adults catch themselves quoting from the catechism in adult conversations at church!

Catechize your kids, and you will catechize yourself.

Below is a free PDF of the Catechism we use. I’ve edited it only by updating a few archaisms and adding a place to keep track of when each answer was memorized. I like it because it is simple, good for preschool up through about fifth grade. I like it because it is old. I like it because it is Baptist (trigger warning for non-Baptists!).

You can print it as is, or you can do what I do: Set the PDF print menu to print it in booklet mode, fold it in half and staple it down the middle like a little book. I even put a piece of card stock in for the cover page so the whole thing feels like a nice little book for the kids. The kids love them!

(photo credit)

Romans 12 (Memory Aid)

Another one.

These tracks may not be helping any of you, but I’m having fun.

I’ve been on a journey memorizing Romans and putting the verses to various tracks to help me remember them. This time it’s Romans 12 to Big Sean’s “Blessings”.

As always, not a single word from the ESV translation has been changed or moved. It’s word for word from the text.

Enjoy.

And yes. I promise there is more of this superb content on the way. 😉

Romans 11 (Memory Aid)

Lightning has struck in the same place twice…this time to the bump of the International Players Anthem.

I’ve been memorizing Romans with a friend, and I’ve found bending the lines to various tracks makes them stick in my memory. When it comes to memorizing Scripture, I find the more outlandish the memory aid the better!

It takes a while to figure out how the break up each verse into sections that will rhyme and to bend vowels, etc. to make everything fit, but I haven’t changed any words from the ESV or even changed any word order, so if you want to memorize a chapter word for word, this’ll do the trick.