Yesterday–A Testimony

May 1, 2009

Yesterday I drove to Ellijay, Georgia–the city of my wife’s birth, upbringing, marriage, death and burial. She died around 2:00am on April 30, 1980 while convalescing in her parent’s home from back surgery twenty days before.

Yesterday I drove to her graveside alone. I had not been there alone in some years, perhaps decades. It was time for me to sit with her, pray, reflect, and meditate.

When I arrived, I sat my portable chair near her grave.  Praying, I began journaling as my counselor suggested.  Journaling is often difficult for me, but this time I wrote for almost two hours.

The cemetery is a small one; it is nestled in a small depression with a country white Methodist church building rising above it. The church sits on Highway 52 which rides a blue ridge in north Georgia.  One road makes a short circle within the graveyard–so short that you have to keep your hand turning the wheels as the car moves among the gravestones. The graves are well-kept. It is a serene atmosphere as the cemetery is surrounded by trees and one large fir tree rises near the center.  All of this in sight of the surrounding ridges of the north Georgia mountains. It is a calm, peaceful setting.

Sheila was the first to be buried outside of the circle but today she is accompanied by aunts and uncles on her north and south side.  As yet she has no immediate family lying beside her.

When I sat down, the clouds were ominous. They were dark and brooding.  I anticipated rain and the forecast called for it. I wondered whether I would have to sit in the car and journal.  As I began journaling I wrote that the dark clouds were a metaphor for how I felt sitting next to her. Sadness filled my soul and tears flowed.

As I was writing and thinking about that metaphor–feeling my way through it, the sky changed. The clouds were still there, but a hole had opened up among them. The hole was situated directly above the cemetery and the sun lit Sheila’s grave. It was as if the whole cemetery was engulfed by the blue sky and its bright sun.  At the same time I felt a gentle, cool breeze flowing over me–a calm wind, a peaceful breath.

“God,” I wrote, “is this for me?”

The dark clouds began moving to the northeast, but the blue sky stayed directly over head. The sun was so bright at times that I could barely write. I needed sunglasses but had none. There were still plenty of clouds, but not over Sheila’s grave. The bright sunlight continued unabated.

“God,” I wrote, “are you telling me something?”

As I was driving down Highway 52 to turn into the parking lot of the Methodist church, I noticed how dark the clouds were and I thought to myself “how fitting.” It was how I always anticipated coming here–sad, depressing, upsetting. Consequently, I tended to avoid the grave.

“God,” I wrote, “are you telling me my life has been dark too long? that it is time to see the light?”

The trees whistled with a pleasant wind. The sun dispelled the darkness. The warmth of the sun and refreshing breeze renewed me. The sun’s warmth sent my heart to God’s love and the breeze felt like the breath (Spirit) of God. My father was blowing fresh grace on me–a fresh joy in that painful place with such painful memories.

“God,” I wrote, “you are here now–you are with me. There is peace. The dark clouds are moving away.”

I know not whether you believe in such experiences. But that was mine yesterday. It was as real to me as typing this sentence.  I’ve had them before and this one was simply amazing, wondrous and beautiful.

Is my grieving over?  I doubt it. But I think it reached a new stage yesterday. It was a moment of grace and joy when all I expected was fear and sadness.

“Is this God’s grace?” I wrote with tear-filled eyes.  Yes, indeed, it was.  Thank you, God.

I then visited with Sheila’s parents for a couple of hours. They are godly, good folk. They still love me and I love them.

Bent and Broken but Better For It?

April 29, 2009

Suffering has been stronger than all other teaching, and has taught me to understand what your heart used to be. I have been bent and broken, but–I hope–into a better shape.

Estella to Pip, Great Expectations by Charles Dickens, chap. 59

But he knows the way that I take; when he has tested me, I shall come out like gold.

Job to Eliphaz, Job 23:10

Estella, “bent and broken” by an abusive marriage, is transformed into something “better.” Now she hopes for the love she once rebuffed and Pip sees her as part of his own redemption. Their suffering prepared them for each other. [Interestingly, the first ending to Great Expectations is not so happy.]

Job began his response to Eliphaz with a declaration that “Today also my complaint is bitter” and God’s “hand is heavy despite my groaning” (Job 23:1). But he knows his suffering is a test of some sort–a bitter one, but one which he will endure though he also protests it.

Estella and Pip can stand on the other side of suffering and value it though they did not enjoy it. Job can sit in the midst of his suffering and recognize it as a refining process though painful and seemingly unjust.

But it takes time to get there, if we ever do. Even Job, in his first response to Eliphaz, protested that “his days have no meaning” in the light of God’s testing (Job 7:16, 18). He boldly declared that he would “speak in the anguish of [his] spirit” and “complain in the bitterness of [his] soul” (Job 7:11).

Yet, somewhere in the process, Job saw something more in his experience than mere injustice. He seems to have always thought it was unfair (cf. Job 27:2) but he did come to see that there was more involved than just that. It had a purpose. Whatever meaning he saw, however, did not deter him from protesting (cf. Job 30).

But all sufferers do not come to terms with some kind of “meaning” in their suffering and neither does their suffering always end up “rosy.”  Sometimes sufferers die in the darkness unaware that their suffering has any meaning whatsover….if, in fact, it does.

Does Sheila’s death have meaning? Does Joshua’s? I think they do, but I am at a loss to tell exactly what it is. Did their losses test and refine me? Surely they did. Did I learn something through the fire? Yes, of course.  Am I better for having been “bent and broken”? Yes, today I am.

Was it worth it?  Honestly, No!  It is difficult to value my “betterment” (even transformation!) as more important than their lives. Here is where my protest arises–my complaint that is sometimes bitter and sometimes angry.

But I recognize that I do not see the whole picture. I don’t know all that God is doing; I could not begin to imagine his mysterious and hidden ways.  All I can do is sit where I sit at the bottom of the bowl, experience my little world, feel my feelings and trust that God knows what he is doing….trust that there is meaning in my suffering….that somehow, someway it is–in God’s grand wisdom–worth it.

Trust. That is the key word.  Trust enables acceptance and dispels fear…but it is a process and it takes time, sometimes lots of time. God is patient. I am his beloved. Let us be patient with each other.

Comment on “Providence, Death and Grief”

April 28, 2009

Yesterday I posted two articles by my hand from the 1981 Gospel Advocate. These were my first atttempts, at the age of twenty-three, to write (even publicly speak of) the loss of my wife in 1980.

Reading them again after so long–I don’t think I have read them or perhaps even thought of them in over ten years at least–was an enlightening but also painful experience. As I have thought about the personal, theological and spiritual shifts in my life during my twenties, I was not surprised to see some dimensions of my soul appear in these articles. My comments below are intersubjective and do not intend to address anyone who holds the views articulated in the articles; I am reflecting only on my own experience.

The articles have a distasteful air of triumphalism as I read them today. There are hints of arrogance which I see in the words “proper” or “properly.” I write as if I have it figured out; at least it appears that way to me, knowing my own journey and heart at the time. There is a presumptuousness that understanding providence enbales one to overcome grief.

As I look back on my twenty-three old soul, I give myself lots of grace. It was a soul burdened with grief, reeking with anger against God, and spiritually sick with rebellious feelings. But you didn’t hear that in the article, did you? Well, of course not. It could not be spoken; I would not have spoken it. It would not have been printed. I did not speak it to anyone. I was too ashamed of my feelings, too afraid of judgment by others, and too sick to truly know myself.

I was too much of the hero…playing the hero…to speak such things. I knew what I thought others expected of me, and what I expected from myself. I was supposed to be the hero. It had been my role for some time, and I did not know what to do with my feelings of anger and grief other than feel guilty about them. So, I stuffed them, put on my “theological” face and wrote two relatively detached articles about providence and human life.

I still substantially agree with the articles. I have a high view of sovereignty and trust is a way to healing. I don’t like the distinction between miracle and providence so much anymore, but would rather speak of God’s constant activity. 1 Corinthians 10:13 does not provide the comfort that it once did (or seemingly did in this article)–not sure what is going on with that (it does not “ring” true in my experience). I do believe that God is in control; and he lovingly rules his world for the sake of his people and his creation. While the idea of “divine compliment” seems appropriate, I don’t think of it so much as a “compliment” anymore. Perhaps it is a means by which God garners witnesses in his world to his love, grace and care, but “compliment” is not a healthy word for me now.

The articles leave the impression that I have won. I have overcome. I trust. And everything has settled down. But that is far from the truth. My life was a mess at that moment. I was pursuing my Ph.D. at Westminster, living alone in a one-room studio in Ambler, PA, and making some terrible personal choices. Those choices were the outworkings of my anger and rebellion. Even now shame and guilt surge forward when I think about it even though I know those moments are long forgiven and erased from the heart of God.

What the articles lack–and what I lacked in my life at that time–was a deep sense of lament. I had not learned to lament. I did not know what faithful lament was. I did not know I could be angry with God, even complain and question and doubt, and yet at the same time remain faithful and beloved. I did not learn that (as much as I could “learn” it then) till the summer of 1981 when a friend turned my attention to the Psalms and then Job.

My approach to Job in these articles is about faith and the divine compliment. I had not processed the material between Job 1-2 and Job 42; it was not part of my world. I only “theologized” about sovereignty, the trial of Job, the faith of Job (“Blessed be the name of the Lord”) and God’s “reward.” The laments, bitterness, complaint and horror of Job’s experience had not yet connected with my own. Job 3-41 was terra incognita.

My articles in 1981 are heroic and triumphalistic. They contain much that I still believe, but they are only true if balanced with Psalmist and Jobian laments. They are only true if we excise the arrogance and presumption. They are only true if we remove the detachment and place those truths in the world of lamenters–those who deely feel the injustice of life and the seeming abandonment by their God. Job and Psalms became my Bible after I discovered their laments.

But I give myself a break here (though I find that difficult to do at times). I did not know the laments; I had not experienced the laments of Scripture. I had not learned to pray Scripture. I did not know how to grieve, and in some ways I have only learned to truly grieve in the last year (if even now). I only knew how to project my heroism; and I played it well. I give myself credit for that.  🙂

So, as Don commented yesterday, we need the combination of learning (theology) and suffering. I only see theology in these articles, but I knew the suffering was present in my heart. Now I–and at points in the past I have to some degree–intend to “do” theology with the honesty of a suffering heart. That is part of what I have done on this blog in the past year.

That is what is lacking in those articles. I did not know how to do that then; I did not know what to do with it. The articles are good as far as they go, but they are too detached to resonate with hearts that are angry, grieving and abandoned.  Those articles did not tell the full story of my heart in 1981.

They need a significant dose of biblical lament. We all need that and let us not deny it to those who feel lament; let us give the hurting full opportunity to speak their hurt even if our ears burn and our theologies are offended.

Providence, Death and Grief

April 27, 2009

On April 30, 1980, Sheila Pettit Hicks, my wife of two years, eleven months, and eight days, died twenty days after recovering from back surgery. A blood clot stopped her heart while she slept at her parent’s home in Ellijay, GA.  This week is the 29th anniversary of that horrendous moment in my life. It shifted my life in unimaginable ways for me. Sometimes I still wonder about what would have been.

Less than a year after the event, when I was twenty-three, I wrote two articles for the Gospel Advocate in reflection on my experience. My articles are rather detached, highly theological, filled with suspect language (e.g., “proper” or “properly”) and a bit presumptuous. I have provided the text below of the two articles.  In the next few days I will comment on them in light of my present perspectives.

“Divine Providence and Human Lives (1),” Gospel Advocate 123.8 (April 16, 1981), 239, 244.

Divine providence is a difficult and seemingly elusive subject. Yet it is one which has loomed very important in my life this past year. On April 30, 1980 my wife of almost three years died at the age of 25. Since that time I have pondered the question of God’s control over human lives and the role he plays in our lives (deaths). My reaction to Sheila’s death was not to question whether or not God existed (as some agnostic might), but to question why God would permit such a thing. I want to share with you some of my thoughts concerning the role of providence in our lives. This article will set forth the broad outlines of providence and a second will illustrate how a proper understanding of providence helps the bereaved to overcome their grief.

The subject of providence has been complicated by two factors. First, some confuse the difference between miracles and providence. Both are acts of God, but they are effected through different means. A miracle suspends or supercedes the “laws of nature” while providence is God’s working through nature. The parting of the Red Sea was a miracle while our daily provision of food is providence, but both equally the work of God. Second, some either give no place to God in their affairs (as the Deists of the 18th century) or are idly expecting God to make all their choices for them. God does not wind up the world like a clock and sit back to watch it run down nor does he force choices upon the wills of men. Somewhere between these two extremes lies the Biblical concept of providence.

We may properly divide providence into three areas. First, God continually sustains the created natural order. Psalm 104 praises God for his work in nature. The Psalmist proclaims that rain (v. 13), the growth of grass (v. 14), food for the lions (v. 21) and the breath of animals (v. 29) are acts of God. If God removed his sustaining hand, all of nature would collapse. (Cf. Psalm 148:8; Colossians 1:17; Hebrews 1:3.) Second, God controls the nations of the world for his purposes. (Proverbs 21:1; Isaiah 10:5-19.) Daniel attributes the rise and fall of Kings to God himself. (Daniel 2:21; 4:25.) Thus, we are to pray for peace among nations and for our leaders because God can answer those petitions. (1 Timothy 2:1, 2.) He can answer such prayers because he is in providential control of the nations. (In the book of Revelation God answers prayers of the saints with the destruction of Rome, 8:3-5; 9:13.) Third, God oversees the lives of individuals (Proverbs 20:24.), especially the lives of the righteous. What God does in nature and among the nations affects both the just and the unjust (Matthew 5:45), but God has a special care for his own people (Psalm 37:25). It is this last aspect upon which I wish to concentrate. The basic affirmation of divine providence is simply this: God is in control!

How does God providentially direct the steps of the righteous? To answer this question it is important to draw a distinction between the choices and the circumstances of life. Every day we are presented with a limited number of choices. It is the circumstances of our life which present to us the options of choice. This distinction is important because God does not force us to make this or that choice, but he does constantly control the circumstances of our life (that is, the choices that we do have). If God were not in control of our options from which we can choose, then the promise of 1 Corinthians 10:13 carries no weight. God so controls our life circumstances that he does not permit Satan to tempt us beyond our ability. God does, however, permit us to be tempted with what we are able to hear much like Adam in the garden.

It disturbs me to hear Christians talk of the “accidental” or “chance” circumstances of their lives. Supposedly these are areas of “luck” over which God has little or no control. If this is true, prayer is in great peril. Perhaps when we receive what we think is a negative answer to a prayer, it is really no answer at all since the answer to the prayer lies beyond God’s ability or control. This is patently false. Prayer presupposes that God is in control of the circumstances of our life and that he can answer “yes” even though in his wisdom he may answer “no” occasionally. Sheila and I prayed that her surgery would be successful, but it was not. Am I to think that her death fell outside of the control of God, that it was the result of chance? Certainly not, since if it were true, this would render all prayer for the sick ineffective. (Contrast James 5:14-18.) In fact, herein lies the answer to grief: accept God’s providential control and wisdom.

Certainly, therefore, God works in our lives by controlling the circumstances of our choices. Are we, then, to attribute everything in our lives (even death itself) to the causative working of God? To answer this question we must make another distinction. Theologians have historically recognized two aspects of the working out of God’s will. One is passive, called the permissive will and the other is active, called the causative will. In the former, God merely permits (he does not directly cause) certain circumstances. For instance, God permitted Job to suffer the death of his children, servants and livestock (Job 1:13-22) though he was not tempted beyond what he could bear. God also permitted the Romans to kill Christians though he did not directly cause the death of those saints. (Revelation 13:7, 15). However, there are some things which God does providentially cause in a direct manner (not miraculously, however). God restored Job’s possessions to him (Job 42:12) and he avenged the blood of the Christian martyrs (Revelation 19:2). Thus, whatever circumstances face us in life (whether death, temptation, illness, etc.) it must be the result of God’s permissive or causative will. It must be either since everything falls under God’s providence. But we are in no position, at least in this life, to judge whether each circumstance is the result of God’s permissive or causative will.

Our lives should be built on the assurance that God is in control of everything having a bearing on the circumstances of our lives. We can take comfort, hope and joy in the fact that God knows what he is doing and is able to do it. Herein lies our help in times of need, trial and temptation. In another article, I will attempt to apply this concept of divine providence to those situations we often consider “evil.”

“Divine Providence and Human Lives (II),” Gospel Advocate 123.9 (May 7, 1981), 261, 277.

The basic affirmation of divine providence is this: God is in control! This means that no matter what happens in the circumstances of our life (not those which result directly from human choices), we must always see the hand of God in what is done. Whatever happens, God is always at work either permissively or causatively. This is easy to acknowledge (though we often fail to) when our life is filled with pleasant events. James 1:17 teaches that “every good gift and every perfect gift is form above.” Solomon points out that God sheds special blessings on the righteous whereas he does the opposite for the wicked. (Proverbs 10:3-16, 27-30; cf. Psalm 16:1-6.) Thus, we ought always to be thankful for the many divine blessings we have.

However, when trouble befalls us, it is more difficult (seemingly impossible) to see the hand of God in our lives. Yet, Proverbs 16:33 reads: “The lot is cast into the lap; but the whole disposing thereof is of the Lord.” Another version renders that last phrase this way: “But its every decision is from the Lord.” Whether the lot turns up blessing or trouble, the lot is the result of God’s working. God has either permitted or caused this trouble in our lives. Why did he do it? Perhaps we may be able to answer that question in retrospect or maybe we will never be able to answer it in this life, but more important than speculating on the reason for God’s act is how we are going to cope with this trouble. For weeks after the death of my wife, I continually asked “Why?” It was futile to even attempt to answer that question at that time. (I cannot even answer it now nor do I expect to be able to answer it any time soon.) Instead, I learned to deal with my pain rather than speculating about the “whys” and “wherefores.” In particular, three principles of providence helped me to deal with my wife’s passing (and these principles, I think, are helpful in all kinds of turbulent times).

First, we must trust God’s providential control. Psalm 13 is one that is now close to my heart. The first four verses sustain a continual questioning of God, “How long will thou forget me, O Lord?…How long shall I take counsel in my soul, having sorrow in my heart daily?” Certainly as we all experience times of trial we question God and even complain to him. It seems that we have a thousand questions but no answers. David had that same sort of feeling, but his answer was to trust God. Psalm 13:5, 6 reads: “But I have trusted in thy mercy; my heart shall rejoice in thy salvation. I will sing unto the Lord, because he hath dealt bountifully with me.” Faith puts an end to the questions of doubt. We recognize the providence and control of God and we trust his will. Do we really trust his wisdom in these matters? We may not have the answers, but we know that the Lord does as he is in control of the universe. We must learn to trust him and that is no easy thing to learn in the midst of a personal crisis. Those who wish to help, impress us with the all-embracing nature of God’s control and his continual loving care for us.
Second, we must maintain a proper perspective throughout the crisis. The writer of Hebrews was expecting his readers to undergo some severe trials of faith very soon. Thus, in Hebrews 12 he instructs them concerning how to cope with these persecutions and trials. They were to treat their troubles as God’s fatherly discipline. The writer compares earthly chastenings with God’s heavenly discipline (vv. 10-11).

For they verily for a few days chastened us after their own pleasure; but he for our profit, that we might be partakers of his holiness. Now no chastening for the present seemeth to be joyous, but grievious: nevertheless, afterward it yieldeth the peaceable fruit of righteousness unto them which are exercised thereby.

A good summary of this section is “pain for our own good.” Though it hurts to suffer the death of a loved one, God can (and does) use that experience for our profit. Through pain we come to understand, appreciate and obtain peace. Thus, every crisis ought to be seen from the perspective of discipline. This does not mean that God is punishing us (as if God was punishing me through Sheilas’s death), but simply that God refines and matures us through fire (cf. 1 Corinthians 3:13-15).

If we can see our way through the pain and hurt, there is actually a divine compliment in every trial. With every such circumstance God is saying in effect: “I know you can bear this burden and I will use it to strengthen you.” It is not so much a test of faith (though it is that), but an opportunity to strengthen our faith. Sheila was the first of her immediate family to die. Perhaps she died first because she would not have been able to bear the death of the others. Though that is speculation, it is certain that Gold knew I could (and her family could) bear the burden since he permitted it to happen, and God does not permit us to be tempted above our ability. (1 Corinthians 1o:13.) Since we are often tempted to think that God has forgotten us in our times of trial (Psalm 13:1-4), we must maintain our perspective—which is no easy task, and one with which we need help—and then we will not see God’s absence in our trouble, but his presence through discipline.

Third, we must remember the promises of God and that God is faithful to his promises. Proverbs 16:4 says that “The Lord had made all things for himself: yea, even the wicked for the day of evil.” Thus, God is able to work things out for our profit. This is the promise of Romans 8:28: “And we know that all things work together for good to them that have God, to them who are called according to his purpose.” Further, “if God be for us, who can be against us? He that spared not his own Son, but delivered him up for us all, how shall he not with him also freely give us all things?” (Romans 8:31b-33). The promise is not that nothing bad will ever happen to the righteous, but that whatever happens, God will work it for good. (How could God make such a promise if he is not in total control of our life circumstances?) We know he will since he even gave up his Son for us. If he would do that, then certainly he would do whatever else he could for us. God is on our side. He is working for us, not against us. It seems that the natural tendency in every trial is to think that God is somehow opposing us. But God is working for the righteous in every trial. God is able to take the most despairing of situations and turn them into something good. He is able and he has promised, and God keeps his promises. (Hebrews 6:11-19; 10:23.)

God’s providence renders every sorrow, every illness, and every burden bearable. We recognize his total control and rejoice in his promises. We trust him. With this thought I mind, I wish to end this article with a poem that we found in a book Sheila had been reading the night she went home. We found it her own hand-writing (but nowhere in the book). We think it is her own composition, but we are not sure. In any even, it gave her comfort in recovering from her surgery and it gave me comfort in dealing with her passing. It truly magnifies the providence of God in his sustaining work.

It is in times of calamity,
         in days and nights of sorrow and trouble
               that the presence,
                    the sufficiency
                         and the sympathy of God
  grow very sure and very wonderful.

Then we find out that the grace of God is sufficient,
        for all our needs,
              for every problem and
                   for every difficulty,
  for every broken heart and for every human sorrow.

One Year at WordPress: The Most Viewed Posts/Series

March 30, 2009

My earlier attempts at blogging, before this past twelve months, were rather meager though I did post a considerable amount of material at my first site begun in September 2000.

 I appreciate how the blog has been received by old friends and new ones. Thank you for your patronage. I hope our dialogue can continue and grow over the coming years.

I initially decided to blog as part of my own therapy. Consequently, many of the early posts were about grief, suffering and recovery. I also wanted to post a complete record of my published writings (not yet complete), some lectures and even some academic classes (the Hermeneutics series is essentially that). So my blog is definitely on the “heavy” side of things, and intentionally so.

Consequently, I did not intend my blog to be a place to track my personal or family activities. It was, in essence, an adventure in substantial posts based on my years of teaching and reflection. But, as with anything, it has become a mixture though still heavily weighted to serious historical, theological and exegetical concerns. That, of course, means it has rather lengthy posts which I understand is anathema to authentic blogging.  🙂  But, then again, I never intended my blog to be a kind of daily family update, or pearl of wisdom (though would be a more difficult challenge than I am ready for), or even a detailed account of my journey through life. 

Instead, I have generally followed a couple of paths: (1) journeying through my cycles of grief and recovery with some theological content and (2) a resource for historical, biblical and theological studies.  The latter means it functions more as an encyclopedia than a “blog” in the common vernacular.  The former means it is an invitation to journey with me as we all share the experience of pain and hurt in a broken world.

I changed my theme apperance at some point because I wanted a framework which included a “search” feature so that visitors may search my posts for key words, phrases or texts. I hope some have found it useful. I know I have. I sometimes have to research my own posts to remember what I believe.  🙂  Yes, I am over 50.

To mark this first year, I have identified the top seven posts/series over the past year based on visits (comments considered as well). Here they are in case you missed them–ranked from seven to one.

7. Stone-Campbell Hermeneutics Series (#1 was the most popular). This surveyed the more significant influences and developments of heremenutics within Churches of Christ in the 19th and 20th centuries.

6.  A Reflection on Psalm 84 for those Grieving Loss: even the Valley of Weeping has springs of refreshment but this does not dispel the need to weep.

5.   I Will Change Your Name, a homily on Isaiah 62:1-5. Through spiritual recovery God changes names, particularly the names we have given ourselves or others gave us.

4.   K. C. Moser and Churches of Christ.  The theologian of grace for Churches of Christ in the 1930s-1960s, Moser’s impact on Churches of Christ is beyond estimating.

3.   “Meeting God at the Shack” Series (#5 was the most popular). This was my “pastoral” assessment of The Shack wherein I reflected on my own “shack” and my personal journey of recovery.

2.   “Theological Reflections on the Shack” Series (#4 was the most popular). This was my fundamentally positive “theological” assessment of The Shack.

1.   Divorced People–How Do They Feel?  How do you think they feel?  They hate divorce more than anyone except–perhaps–God.

Old JMH Articles: 1970s Gospel Advocate

March 20, 2009

 With these below and my previous posts (1970s articles and Contending for the Faith articles), I collected my twelve articles that were published from 1977-1979 when I was 20-22 years old.   In a future post I will reflect on my theological journey through those years (maybe 🙂 ).

Holy Spirit Baptism in 1 Corinthians 12:13?Gospel Advocate 119 (October 27, 1977) 679-80.

 I set up a false dilemma in this article: either believe the Pentecotal version of Holy Spirit Baptism (a post-conversion experience including speaking in tongues) or accept that 1 Corinthians 12:13 is submission to water baptism as taught by the Holy Spirit without any direct connection to the Spirit. This article clearly indicates that I stilled lived in the world of “word only” and had a fundamental adversion to any direct work of the Spirit. I failed to see that the water and Spirit could both be elements in one baptism and that the experience of the Spirit is not merely cognitive (“through the word”).

Equal, But Subordinate,” Gospel Advocate 120 (June 29, 1978) 405, 410.

This is a polemical piece directed against a statement made by Norman Parks who stated subordination entailed inferiority.  In response I parallel the relationship between the Father and the Son to the relationship of male and female based on 1 Corinthians 11:3. While the Father and Son are equal in essence (both divinitas), the Son is “subordinate” to the Father in terms of subsistence (filiation; he is a Son) and operation (submits to the Father’s direction in redemptive history). Likewise, so I argue, while male and female are equal in essence (both humanitas), women are “subordinate” to men in their function and role in the family and church (but not world?, I would ask now).  The parallel is too simplistically drawn and does not take account of incarnational Christology.

Did He Understand?Gospel Advocate 120 (November 16, 1978) 727.

This article is the same as the one published in the World Evangelist 7.6 (1 January 1979) 17.  The link takes you to the World Evangelist printing.  I argue–in good debating style–that the tongue speakers in Corinth understood their own speech. It was not “unknown” to them; they understood what they were praying and were edified by it.  Consequently, when contemporary tongue speakers claim they can neither understand nor control what they are saying, they betray the reality that they do not themselves have the same gift that the Corinthians had. Whether the argument remains effective, I will leave for you to decide.  On another day I will comment on my own development on this point which is not necessarily a denial of the claim that I am making in the article itself.  However, my insensitivity to those who experience tongue-speaking as edifying in their own lives is all too evident in the article.

Good, Better, Best,” Gospel Advocate 121 (March 29, 1979) 196.

This is the article that I like the best of all that I wrote in the 1970s though it still has its flaws. It reflects that I was already thinking eschatologically though it did not necessarily affect the structure of my theology as yet.  While life here is abundant in Christ (“good”), to die is gain because to be with Christ is “better” than the present. Yet, the “best” life is the resurrected life. The article is a theology of “body” (soma)–present physical body, the disembodied intermediate state, and the furture resurrection body.  As I read it today, I fear that I underplay present life where God locates us and values us, and I fear that the article may depend too much on “living in the future” rather than being the body of Christ in the present.

We Do Not Well!Gospel Advocate 121 (October 18, 1979) 644, 648.

This article arose from one of my homilies. It is probably a good example of how I preached in the late 1970s (but hopefully too typical 🙂 ). I took a text, and then used the text to scold the congregation about a point that is not really the point of the text. The use of the second greatest commandment is interesting though forced, but the tone and “superior” attitude I see in myself is distasteful and disturbing. The topic is evangelism based on 2 Kings 7:9.

My “Contending for the Faith” Articles–More 1970s

March 15, 2009

Yes, it is true. I wrote articles for Contending for the Faith, edited by Ira Y. Rice, Jr., in the late 1970s.


Ira Y. Rice, Jr. was a good friend of my father Mark N. Hicks.

Mark N Hicks

Ira would stay in our home, it seemed, at least once a year. He would either hold a meeting or at least speak on a Sunday evening or Wednesday evening when he visited. Sometimes he was raising money for Far East missions as he encouraged missions and evangelism, and at other times he was warning the church about the inroads of liberalism within the brotherhood. I rememberd him fondly because he would always leave a dollar in my shoes when he visited.

Ira published my first book A Teenager Speaks on Spiritual Gifts (1977). That is a story I will tell on another occasion perhaps but here I will only say that on one of his visits my father showed him the manuscript. I had written it for my Bible study group at the High School when I was 14-15. Ira asked if he could publish it–and what was a sixteen year old to say? Well, yes, of course!  🙂

My relationship continued with Ira in the late 1970s. I invited him to hold a meeting with the NE Philadelphia Church of Christ (Philadelphia, PA) in Fall of 1978 (I think that was the date). We spent quite a bit of time together those few days, and I remember he warned me about attending Westminster Theological Seminary. I attended Westminster from 1977-1979 when I was 20-21 years old.

As I think back my camaraderie with Rice was a mixture of naivete, influence-seeking, and shared convictions at many levels. I was naive about the politics of the church. I sought a measure of influence and power within the “brotherhood”–and Rice was a clear power broker as well as a family friend. And I did share some basic theological viewpoints with him. The two articles below certainly make that clear.

Ultimately as my perspectives changed–though they changed rather slowly–we parted ways. When I began teaching at Harding University Graduate School of Religion in 1991, our fellowship was fully broken as he regarded the Graduate School as a troubler in Israel. One would only need to scan issues of Contending for the Faith to see his animosity toward the institution because he believed it was a threat to the church as he understood it.

Ira was passionate. He promoted missions in many local churches across the country. He advocated the desegregation of our educational institutions when it was anathema to many, rebuked Foy E. Wallace, Jr.’s racism (Rice was the young preacher who slept in the same bed with R. N. Hogan), and he wanted concrete congregational unity between white and black churches. In terms of racial progress, he was one of the few on the progressive edge. This is one of the dimensions that he admired about where my father preached for years in Alexandria, Virginia–it was a congregation of Koreans, African-Americans, Hispanics and Anglo-Saxons.

Ira certainly had his faults and sins as we all do. I cannot nor will I judge the man but neither will I sanction all that he did or said.  I may disagree with him theologically and with some of his strategies, but I can still appreciate the righteousness of some of his causes.

The two articles below indicate that at one time, however, I shared some of his most cherished convictions:  (1) the authority of elders and (2) the sanctification of the believer by the Spirit through the word alone.

The Lordship of Elders,” Contending for the Faith 10.3 (March 1979) 9-10.

I originally submitted this piece to the Firm Foundation as a response to an editorial by Reuel Lemmons but he declined to publish it because there had been too many articles on the subject at the time. So, Ira published it. The article is negative in tone and intends to demonstrate that 1 Peter 5:1-3 does not undermine the idea that elders have “positional” (official) authority, that is, they have ultimate authority to make decisions about expedients for a congregation. The stress on “positional authority” is an idea that lingers from my book on women’s role in 1978 where it is argued that men have “positional authority” over women (I’m inwardly cringing as I type). Nevertheless, there are still some good exegetical points in the piece–“lording it over” is a form of tyranny.  Unfortunately, I did not have the wisdom or experience to see that tyranny is often expressed under the guise of “positional authority” over expedients.


The Doctrine of Sanctification,” Contending for the Faith 9.11 (November 1978) 1, 3-6.

This is an unusally lengthy piece for Contending for the Faith. It was partly the result of a research paper at Westminster Theological Seminary but I turned it toward specific issues among Churches of Christ. After surveying Calvinists, Wesleyan and Pentecostal versions of sanctification, I offer my own “biblical” version. My understanding of sanctification, however, only involves the mediate work of the Holy Spirit through the word.  I deny the personal indwelling of the Holy Spirit, deny the “enabling” work of the Spirit in the life of the believer, and deny any direct work of the Spirit on the heart of the believer. Rather, since sanctification is through the word, the indwelling of the Spirit is also through the word.

As I read it again, I was struck with how much my “logic” jumps from one thought to another, from one text to another.  I draw conclusions from and string texts together in ways that are quite troubling to me now.  My hermeneutical models and practices were still quite emeshed in traditional proof-texting.

Also, I now recognize that my analysis of Wesleyanism in particular was quite superficial and at times just plain wrong (e.g., indwelling Spirit only comes through second work of grace in perfectionism….NOT!).  What I did have right, I think, is how the Pentecostal Holiness movement substituted the experience of Holy Spirit Baptism for Wesley’s Holy Spirit experience that enabled his version of Christian perfection.  While some of the historical details are correct, the conclusions I draw and the projections I place upon Calvinists, Wesleyans and Pentecostals are prejudiced by my objective in the piece.

There is more to come from the 1970s. I just have to find the time to digitize them.  And I know all my friends are waiting impatiently for them.  🙂

Old JMH Articles: Five From the 1970s

March 13, 2009

This is quite daring, I must admit. Or, it might be rather idiotic. But in my quest to place my published writings on this webpage, I now turn to the 1970s. 

It is rather chilling and sometimes quite illuminating to actually read what I wrote thirty years ago (wow! I really am that old). It is chilling because I find myself cringing at my wording, sometimes my views and often at my insensitivity. It is illuminating because I see my own development and I also see the first inklings or seeds of thought that will develop with time. 

I submitted articles to a wide variety of papers in the 1970s.  Three are represented below and I will share others with you as I digitize them.  Once I have completed the task, I will take some time to reflect on my early rush to print and use myself as a case study on theological development. When the below articles were written I was 20-22 years old (my birthday is July 15, 1957).  Consequently, I will give myself a break for my weaknesses, immaturity and mistakes (including bad grammar….but that one has not changed much).

Are We Born Sinners?,” Firm Foundation 95.10 (7 March 1978) 150, 155.

This article originated from an independent study with Rubel Shelly at Freed-Hardeman University on Calvinism. Since I was planning to attend a Calvinist seminary in the Fall of 1977, I wanted to study it and Rubel accomodated me.  This piece reflects the debater mentality I had at the time as I formulated my arguments in syllogistic form. But the major problem with the article is that I keep talking about “total depravity” when really my article is about “original guilt,” that is, are we born guilty of Adam’s sin.  I still reject original guilt, but I am unfair here with my use of the phrase “total depravity” and it is a superficial understanding of it.  I still like the argument from Ezekiel 18, however, and the distinction between “bear the sins of another” as a matter of consequence rather than guilt–sometimes it refers to consequences, sometimes it refers to guilt, and sometimes it refers to both.  It depends on the context.

Creational Law,” Bible Herald 26.18 (1 September 1978) 283.

This article was a byproduct of my book with Bruce L. Morton entitled Woman’s Role in the Church (1978, noted in the article).  It was my attempt at recognizing a creational ethic–an ethic rooted in creation.  The article roots the permanency of marriage, male spiritual leadership and heterosexuality in creation.  Unfortunately, this is an article where my insensitivity and dogmatism shine brightly.  For example, instead of writing about male spiritual leadership I write about “female subordination” (I cringe even now as I type those two words together).  The article is, of course, much too simplistic. Yet, at the same time, I continue to believe there is such a thing as a creational ethic and such an ethic is normative as reflective of God’s intent for human beings to live as his imagers. 

The Authority of Paul: Its Authenticity,” Firm Foundation 95.43 (24 October 24 1978) 676, 682.

This article arose out of discussions with some people close to me who tended to dismiss Paul, and it also was a byproduct of my contributions to book on the role of women.  I focus on the apostolic authority of Paul and the binding nature of his writings.  Here again I am much too simplistic. While I would still, of course, recognize Paul’s authority as an apostle and recognize that he exercises that authority through writing as well as word, the article has little or no sensititivity to the occasional and cultural horizon’s of Paul’s writings.  My use of 2 Corinthians 10-13 in this article, however, is a seed for my more developed understanding of Paul’s self-understanding as a prophet of the new covenant analogous to Jeremiah’s function as a prophet.

 “Unto You Young Men: Treatise on Tongues,” World Evangelist 7.6 (1 January 1979) 17.

This article is a byproduct of my first book A Teenager Speaks on Spiritual Gifts (1977) which was written when I was 14-15 years old and published by Ira Y. Rice, Jr. Basil Overton, who was a good friend of my father’s, invited me to contribute something for the column “Unto You Young Men.”  So, I adapted something from the book. I argue–in good debating style once again–that the tongue speakers in Corinth understood their own speech. It was not “unknown” to them; they understood what they were praying and were edified by it.  Consequently, when contemporary tongue speakers claim they can neither understand nor control what they are saying, they betray the reality that they do not themselves have the same gift that the Corinthians had. Whether the argument remains effective, I will leave for you to decide.  On another day I will comment on my own development on this point which is not necessarily a denial of the claim that I am making in the article itself.  However, my insensitivity to those who experience tongue-speaking as edifying in their own lives is all too evident in the article.

Baptism as Putting on Christ,” Firm Foundation 96.37 (11 September 1979) 582.

This article is a brief summary of a research paper I completed under Dr. Moises Silva at Westminster Theological Seminary when I took his course on Galatians (the second week of the class we had an exam to test our translation of Galatians!). It was a great class, and I–as a good Stone-Campbell traditionalist and polemicist–wrote my paper on Galatians 3:26-27.  🙂  It was a kind of “turning-point” paper for me because it opened some theological doors for me.  I began to see baptism as about more than the “remission of sins.” Rather, it participates in the instrumentality of faith for justification and sanctification.  “Putting on Christ” is a metaphor for both forensic and ethical aspects of salvation.  When I digitized this piece for presentation here, I was surprised to see how strongly I stressed the imputation of righteousness and how I had already adopted the Reformed language of “means” for baptismal theology (see my last paragraph).

Over the next few weeks I will be working on completing my “published”  articles for the website.  I have several more in the 1970s and 1980s, and then I hope to soon complete formatting my dissertation so that I might offer it here as well.

Whether this is of any benefit or not only you can judge for yourself.   Blessings, JMH

Mercy, Not Sacrifice: Sabbath Controversy in Matthew 12

January 8, 2009

A “God of technicalities”?

The first article I ever published in academia was “The Sabbath Controversy in Matthew: An Exegesis of Matthew 12:1-14″ which appeared in the Restoration Quarterly 27.2 (1984) 79-91. I have now uploaded this on my Academic page.

At some point in the future, I may reflect in personal terms on how that study subsequently impacted me. But that is for another time when I have more time. Perhaps I will make it part of a series about theological turning points in my life. 

However, I linked it today because it relates to my last post, especially the paragraph I quoted from Daniel Sommer at the end of that post. Sommer rebuked what he called a “technical” use of the hermeneutic of silence and authorization. No doubt many wondered whether Sommer himself was not guilty of similar technicalities on where he drew lines of fellowship. In other words, why is the use of instrumental music in a worshipping assembly a godly reason to limit fellowship but to break fellowship over the right hand of fellowship is a technicality? Especially, I might add, when we have technical definitions of when a worshipping assembly begins and ends (choirs–even instruments!–are permitted after the closing prayer but not before), whether a family worship in the home using the piano meets the definition of “worshipping assembly, etc.

Sommer’s language of technicality intrigued me.  That language sometimes pops up in the Stone-Campbell Movement. One recent example  is F. LaGard Smith’s argument that the God of Jesus is a “God of technicalities” (e.g., Naaman, Uzzah) in his Who is My Brother? Facing A Crisis of Identity and Fellowship (p. 252; also p. 127).

It seems to me that this is exactly where Matthew 12:1-14, including the quotation of Hosea 6:6, has something to teach us.  God is not interested in technicalities–he desires mercy rather than sacrifice.  Technically, David broke the law when he ate the “bread of presence” because he was hungry and in a hurry.  Technically, the priests profane the Sabbath every week when they offer sacrifices on the Sabbath.  But if we understand the heart of God, then we will not make these technicalities into fellowship barriers between God and humanity.

Jesus quotes Hosea 6:6 as a hermeneutical principle.  If the Pharisees had known the meaning of Hosea 6:6, they would have had the theological and hermenutical lens through which to consider the actions of others. If they had known the meaning of Hosea 6:6, they would not have condemned the disciples….and neither would we condemn David…and perhaps we might not condemn each other as well.

When we evaluate others based on the technicalities of ritual and precision obedience, we miss the heart of God. God is relational, not technical.  God is more interested in mercy than he is ritual.  God is more interested in relationship than he is perfectionistic precision. This is the declaration of Hosea 6:6, the application of Jesus, and Matthew expects his readers to embrace it as a principle for living in relationship with others (see also the use of “mercy” in 9:13 and 23:23).

This does not entail a rationale or an excuse for disobedience, but it should soften our heart with the mercy of God as we relate to others. After all, should we not treat others with the mercy with which God treats us? And, indeed, I need lots of mercy…mercy for my actions, my words, my ignorance…and much more!  I am grateful that God’s heart yearns for mercy more than sacrifice, for heart more than ritual, for relationality more than technicality.

The article I have posted–first written as a seminar paper for a course at Western Kentucky University in 1980–was one of my first steps toward seeing God’s heart instead of what I once thought was his technicalities.  Maybe it might help you…or maybe not.   🙂

“I Will Change Your Name”

December 28, 2008

When you feel forsaken or rejected

when you feel like a failure or a piece of dirt,

when you feel inadequate or deficient,

when you feel unloved or unchosen,

hear the word of the Lord through Isaiah the prophet

Isaiah 62:2b,4,5b

…you will be called by a new name
       that the mouth of the LORD will bestow…

No longer will they call you Deserted,
       or name your land Desolate.
       But you will be called Hephzibah [“my delight is in her”], 
       and your land Beulah [“married”];
       for the LORD will take delight in you,
       and your land will be married.

…as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride,
       so will your God rejoice over you.

Isaiah’s message is for post-exilic Israel (Isaiah 56-66). The people had returned from Babylonian exile only to find themselves still oppressed, poor, and seemingly abandoned to their fate.  They lived under heavy Persian taxation and were harassed by regional provinces. Jerusalem’s walls were in ruins. Famine and poverty were rampant. The return did not meet expectations; it was not all that it was cracked up to be. Where was the glory of the restoration, the return to the land of promise? The promises of God had seemed to fail. Israel had been deserted and the land was desolate; Israel was rejected and ruined.  The people of God were losing hope.

Isaiah 56-59 outlined Judah’s sins, but Isaiah 60-62 proclaims a message of grace and salvation.  Isaiah 62:1-5 is the climax of that message.  God will not give up on Israel.  He has chosen Jerusalem; it is his city.  He will not relent. His love endures for ever.  He will change Jerusalem’s name, just as he did with Abram, Sarai and Jacob long ago.

Names Matter

God reveals his own character through his names.  Yahweh-Yireh is the Lord who Provides (Gen 22:14).  Yahweh-Shalom is the Lord of Wholeness (Judges 6:24). Yahweh-Mekedesh is the Lord who Sanctifies (Ezk 37:28). The name “Yahweh” means “the one who is” or “I am that I am.” The name of God matters as it defines him and our names matter too because they define us in many ways.

What others call us matter.  They matter because in our woundedness we assimiliate those names within oursleves. “Sticks and stones…but names will never hurt me” is a lie. When, as pre-adolescents, we were labeled “different” or “weird” some of us internalized a life-long stigma in our own minds. Such language and experiences shaped our core beliefs. When we were constantly picked last on the playground, we were named “unchosen.”  When we were abandoned by a parent, we were named “unworthy.” When we were abused, we were named “worthless.”

What we call ourselves matters. If, at our cores, we call ourselves “worthless” or “pathetic,” it will shape how we relate to people. It will shape the nature of our marriages, our parenting, and our relationships. It will shape our churches. Indeed, self-righteousness within our congregations is often more a matter of maintaining our own self-image and ignoring the truth about ourselves than it is about the welcoming, forgiving holiness of God.

What God calls us truly matters.  And it matters more than our own inadequate and inaccurate views of ourselves. How we hear God–the seive through which we filter God’s word to us–often twists God’s naming.  Though intellectually we may hear God say “beloved,” if our core is filled with shame, hurt, pain and abandonment and if our image of God has been shaped by pictures of Zeus holding lightning bolts ready (even eagar!) to inflict retribution, what we hear is not “beloved” but “loathed.” Since we believe–at our core or gut–that we are not worth loving, we cannot believe that God could actually love us in the midst of our shame, abandonment, and sin.

My Names

Only recently have I recognized with any depth the significance of other’s names for us and our names for ourselves.  In recent months I have discovered that at my core–in my own self-image–I had lived with some names that have negatively impacted me. Whether self-generated, or imposed by others, or impressed upon me by circumstances, these names nearly destroyed me earlier this year.  Here are a few of my “old” names for myself.

Forsaken.   I felt this intensely when Sheila died in 1980 after only two years and eleven months of marriage. I felt it again when Joshua was diagnosed with a terminal genetic defect and then died at the age of sixteen in 2001.  Why, God, have you forsaken me? Will you forsake me forever? Why are you picking on me? Is there something wrong with me that you rip my joy from me and every day fill my heart with sorrow?

Failure.  I have felt this most deeply since  my divorce. I failed at the most important relationship in my life. During that trauma I was disillusioned, confused, and deeply hurt. I now own much more of the causes of that divorce than I did in 2001, but  this only increases my sense of failure. The name, seemingly, only gets more apporpriate with time.

Deficient.  One of my early core beliefs is “I am not enough.” Consequently, emotionally I have sought approval and the most effective mode which I found was through work.  Approval-seeking became an addiction. I am a workaholic.  I stuffed myself with addictive behavior in order to feel good about myself, to gain approval, and connect with others.  But ultimately it was an empty feeling. Whatever approval I received was never enough; I always needed more and was envious when others received acclaim.  And I needed more because at my core–somehow, someway–I had been named “Deficient.”

What is your name? How have you been named? What have you felt in your gut and believed at your core that has shaped how you see youself, others and God?

I am only beginning to understand the names I have worn.  But I know there is something better.  God himself has named me. Those are the names I want to internalize; I want to see myself and others through the lens of God’s naming.

God Changed My Name

Israel and I have chewed some of the same dirt.  Forsaken…Rejected…Desolate. Indeed, we have all worn these names in one form or another.  But there is good news–there is gospel.  God changes names and only he can truly do so. To try to change my own name is an illusion, futile and another attempt to fill what is lacking by my own efforts. God must name me and, when he names me, he makes it true.

Isaiah provides a startling image for us which enables us to enter this story emotionally as well as intellectually.  Yahweh’s new name for Israel is “My delight is in her”–the one in whom he delights.  He loves her, enjoys being with her, and yearns for her presence. Yahweh’s name for Israel is “Married”–he unites himself with his people for the sake of intimacy; he wants to know his bride.  Yahweh rejoices over his people like a bridegroom rejoices over his bride–his joy surpasses a wedding celebration.

This is how God feels. This is the truth about his people.  “I will rejoice over you,” declares Yahweh. The king of the cosmos does not sit on his throne without emotional engagement with his creation.  Quite the contrary, God choses his bride, delights in her, dresses her in a bridal gown, and celebrates her with dancing and festivity.

This is how God feels about us.  Our past self-styled names are false names–they are no longer true if they ever were.  We have new names–names bestowed by God.  No longer are we “Forsaken” but we are “Chosen.”  No longer are we “Failure” but we are “Married.”  No longer are we “Deficient” but we are “Blessed”!  Though he knows the depths of our hearts (which are not always pretty), he loves us just as he loves his own Son (John 17:23).

God’s word to each of us is “You are beloved; you are the one in whom I delight.”  He welcomes us, dresses us in festive robes, spreads a table of the best food and the finest wines, and spends the evening dancing with his bride. God wants us and he stands in applause as we wear the names he has given us….Chosen…Beloved…Married…Blessed.

The lyrics of D. J. Butler’s “I Will Change Your Name” speak the essence of this text; hear them, believe them. It is the word of God through Isaiah to each of us.

I will change your name
You shall no longer be called
Wounded, outcast, lonely or afraid

I will change your name
Your new name shall be
Confidence, joyfulness, overcoming one
Faithfulness, friend of God
One who seeks My face.

**Sermon (audio here) delivered at Woodmont Hills Church of Christ on December 28, 2008**