“There is no greater love than to lay down one’s life for one’s friends,” (John 15:13).

Our familiarity with this verse may mask the rather surprising choice of words employed by Jesus to capture and express the essence of sacrificial love for others.

One’s friends?  What about a husband laying down his life, giving himself up, for his wife?  Granted, Paul will declare that such a commitment to one’s spouse reflects Christ’s ultimate love for His bride, the church, but Jesus doesn’t use the husband and wife picture here.  What about a parent, a father or mother, risking his or her life or taking a fatal blow so that their child may be spared?  Again, while this is an undeniably definitive expression of agape love, Jesus passes over it in favor of one’s friends.

Why did Jesus choose to focus on friendship?   Is it because not all people are married or will marry?  Is it because not everyone has or will have children?  Is it because every single one of us needs to value and treasure the blessings of friendship?  Jesus wasn’t married, and He didn’t have children.  But, He had friends: a wide circle, an inner circle, tax collector and sinner friends, beloved friends like Martha, Mary, and Lazarus (John 11:5, 11), and, for a time, a best friend named John (John 3:28-30).

The cover of the September issue of Christianity Today asks the question, “Why Can’t Men Be Friends?”  This question is explored by two feature articles, “’Til Death Do Us Part” by Wesley Hill and “I Didn’t Marry My Best Friend” by Kate Shellnut.  Both authors shed significant light and offer unique perspectives on the subject of the deep need for friendship among Christians, even, and perhaps especially, among believers who are married.

Kate Shellnut tackles the ubiquitous matrimonial mantra, “I married my best friend,” a phrase “now so standard in romantic rhetoric that we forget it’s not part of the traditional [wedding] ceremony.”

Here are a few notable nuggets from Shellnut’s pushback against this common expression of conventional wisdom and popular sentimentality.

Marrying your best friend is enough of a cultural expectation that if I admit I didn’t, people might pity me.  But here’s the secret: I’m actually the lucky one.  I have a husband who isn’t my best friend.  And I have a best friend whom I’m not married to.  They play different roles in my life and I need them both.

The phrase implies that, since married people have each other, they don’t have best friends anymore and don’t need them.  And it exaggerates the risks young couples already face: setting up unhealthy expectations, looking to each other as the sole source of fulfillment.  It also relegates best friends to the realm of singleness.

Even if couples don’t announce that they’re marrying their best friend, many newlyweds live out this philosophy, dropping out of the friend-making game once they have a ring on their finger.  Sociologists find that these days, we typically form our most meaningful friendships prior to age 28.  Not coincidentally, that’s also the average age we get married.

I didn’t marry my best friend.  Instead, I married my husband, with all of my best friends beside me to celebrate.  It was the happiest day of my life.  I got – and still get – to have both.

Wesley Hill opens his case for Christian friendship by appealing to a statement from Dietrich Bonhoeffer, expressed in a letter from prison to a treasured friend.  Bonhoeffer wrote that, unlike marriage and kinship, friendship “has no generally recognized rights, and therefore depends entirely on its own inherent quality.”  Hill describes how intimate friendships, so important in our youth, decline as people, particularly men, grow older.  “Afraid of being perceived as gay or feminine,” men often withdraw from close friendships with other men, and “afraid of crossing boundaries of propriety,” many never develop meaningful friendships with those of the opposite sex.

Hill identifies himself as a gay, single, celibate Christian, who is committed to the traditional Biblical understanding that marriage is a union between a man and a woman.  He writes, “When I contemplate a lifetime of celibacy, I know I want committed friends who will walk beside me on the journey.”  How much easier would that journey be for Hill with the love, support, and encouragement of numerous devoted Christian friends, both men and women, married and single?

My heart was touched as Hill wrote:

I need people who know what time my plane lands, who will worry about me when I don’t show up when I say I will.  I need people I can call and tell about that funny thing that happened in the hallway after class.  I need to know that, come hell or high water, a few people will stay with me, loving me in spite of my faults and caring for me when I’m down.  More, I need people for whom I can care.  As a friend of mine put it, you want someone for whom you can make soup when she’s sick, not just someone who will make soup for you when you’re sick.”

I have been blessed throughout my life with incredible friends, both male and female.  I have great memories of grade school friends in Louisville and Richmond, Kentucky, with a missionary stint in Monrovia, Liberia, sandwiched in between the two.  I had wonderful high school friends in Lewisburg, Tennessee, and Montgomery, Alabama.  Thanks largely to Facebook, I am still in contact with several college friends, both from Faulkner University (formerly Alabama Christian College) and Lipscomb University, including my roommate from Lipscomb with whom I have been blessed to visit annually for the last few years.

In the 26 years since my marriage to Kim, our lives have been greatly enriched by our relationships with friends (some hers, some mine, and some ours) in Tennessee, Hawaii, Alabama, Texas, and now Oklahoma.  I am grateful that our commitment to our marriage has not required that we close off our hearts and lives to others through meaningful and needful friendships.

During our nine years with the McDermott Road church in Plano, Texas, my heart became closely knit together with several brothers in Christ.  These relationships were forged in the context and crucible of a rapidly growing church plant, with all the attendant excitement, sense of mission, constant adjustments, and periodic challenges along the way.  Our time together was both extensive and intensive, resulting in close, intimate friendship.

I have been similarly blessed with friendships over the last five years of my life, especially in developing relationships with some men who are several years younger than myself.  It took me a while to accept that, now in my early 50s, I can be an encouraging older brother/mentor/friend/confidant to those whose lives are at points a decade or two or three behind my own.

Among my friends, there is none closer or dearer to me than Jeff Watson.  If I’ve ever had “a friend who sticks closer than a brother” (Proverbs 18:24), it is Jeff.  In 2009, although he had only known me for three months, he took a day off from work to help me move into our new home in Tulsa.  When Mom passed away in 2010, Jeff drove Kim and the kids from Tulsa to Alabama, stayed for the funeral, and then drove my car back to Oklahoma for me.  He has taken care of my lawn and garden on numerous occasions when I’ve been out of town.  He has ridden shotgun with me on distant speaking engagements, just to provide company and encouragement.

Jeff and I took a quick “man trip” to Tennessee a few weeks ago, visiting a few family members and friends, attending the Diana Singing (a subject matter worthy of its own post sometime in the future), and taking in several sites on a “Pyles family history and nostalgia tour.”  As I droned on and on about relatives, ancestors, farms, memories, cemeteries, and other places of significance to me, Jeff not only listened carefully and patiently, he asked follow-up questions just to make sure he had the facts and stories straight.  Who does that?  Who cares enough to even want to remember such things?  A true friend!

Friends like Jeff and Deanna Watson are not just like family to us; they are family.  They have blessed our lives in immeasurable and incomparable ways, not because of the duty of blood, but because of the choice of friendship and the gift of love.

Among the places Jeff and I visited was Ebenezer Hollow in the extreme southern portion of Marshall County.  Non-existent as a community for decades now, Ebenezer was the place to which my Pyles family forbears migrated from North Carolina nearly 200 years ago in the early 1820s.  Ebenezer is a special place to me; rugged and remote; wooded hills; a peaceful place of connection for me to people I never knew, but whose blood runs through my veins.

Ebenezer means “stone of help” (I Samuel 7:12).  Samuel, the priest of Israel, set up a memorial stone, commemorating the Lord’s faithfulness and deliverance, and named the stone Ebenezer, saying, “Thus far the Lord has helped us.”

Today I raise a memorial stone to friendship.  Like Samuel, I call it Ebenezer, “stone of help.”

To my friends, old and new, far and near:  I would not be where I am or who I am without your help, your encouragement, your love, your compassion, your kindness, and your forgiveness!  Thank you!

Make sure your friends know how you feel about them!  Celebrate them!  Praise them!  Encourage them!  Support them!  Journey with them!  Be there for them!  Laugh and cry with them!  Tell them that you love them!

How does a sparsely populated island nation with no standing army have access to 8 million soldiers and the world’s largest military?

Two weeks ago, on September 3, President Obama delivered a speech in Tallinn, Estonia, just ahead of an extremely important NATO Summit in Cardiff, Wales.  It was a very timely message, especially for NATO Allies who share a border with Russia.

In this age of fleeting sound bites, flashes of video images, and ever-decreasing attention spans, I don’t hold out much hope that many readers will bother to click on this link (Obama’s Speech in Tallinn) and read the President’s address in its entirety.  That’s a shame, because the speech traces the inspiring story of freedom, after years of foreign oppression, in Estonia and the other Baltic states, addresses and condemns Russia’s aggressive meddling and subterfuge in the armed conflict in eastern Ukraine, and reaffirms NATO’s commitment to defend its member states.

Notice, in particular, the following brief excerpts:

As free peoples, as an Alliance, we will stand firm and united to meet the test of this moment, and here’s how. 

First, we will defend our NATO Allies, and that means every Ally.  In this Alliance, there are no old members or new members, no junior partners or senior partners — there are just Allies, pure and simple.  And we will defend the territorial integrity of every single Ally. 

During the long Soviet occupation, the great Estonian poet, Marie Under, wrote a poem in which she cried to the world: “Who’ll come to help?  Right here, at present, now!”  And I say to the people of Estonia and the people of the Baltics, today we are bound by our treaty Alliance.  We have a solemn duty to each other.  Article 5 is crystal clear: An attack on one is an attack on all. 

This renewed pledge of defense for all NATO member states piqued my curiosity about the military strength of the various nations which comprise the Alliance.

It was no surprise to me that the United States overwhelmingly contributes the largest percentage of NATO’s military resources with approximately 1.5 million active military personnel and another 1.5 million reservists.  I didn’t expect, however, that Turkey would be second among NATO member states with just over 600,000 active military.  France is third on the list with 220,000.  In total, NATO has a combined active and reserve military of nearly 8 million.

Now, about Iceland…

Iceland is one of NATO’s 12 founding member states.  Yet, just as was the case when it joined the Alliance in 1949, Iceland has no standing army.  You will notice on a listing of NATO military strength that Iceland has 210 active military personnel and 170 reservists.  However, nearly all of them serve in the nation’s Coast Guard which operates three ships and four aircraft.

How can Icelanders sleep so peacefully at night with nary a worry about invasion or occupation by a foreign power?  They’ve got a treaty!  They are in a covenant.  They are part of an Alliance!  If the need arose, Iceland could call upon the resources of 8 million military personnel to protect its population of 325,000.  That’s 25 soldiers per citizen.  I think I would sleep well and feel adequately protected too!

I am Iceland.  I’m an island surrounded by oceans of uncertainty, self-doubt, discouragement, temptation, spiritual push back, regrets, and failures, both past and present.  To say that I feel insecure and inadequate at times is the mother of all understatements.  Storms constantly lash at the shoreline.  There is always the potential threat of invasion by sickness, financial hardship, broken relationships, grief, and loss.

So, how does a person like me sleep at night?  I’ve got a treaty.  I’m in a covenant.  I’m part of an Alliance.

God is faithful.  He keeps covenant.  He has never broken a promise.

“God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.  Therefore we will not fear, though the earth should change and though the mountains slip into the heart of the sea.  The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our stronghold.”  (Psalm 46:1-2, 11)

“He Himself has said, ‘I will never desert you, nor will I ever forsake you,’ so that we may confidently say, ‘The Lord is my helper, I will not be afraid.  What will man do to me?’”  (Hebrews 13:5-6)

“Then Elisha prayed and said, ‘O Lord, I pray, open his eyes that he may see.’  And the Lord opened the servant’s eyes and he saw; and behold, the mountain was full of horses and chariots of fire all around Elisha.”  (II Kings 6:17)

“Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world.”  (I John 4:4)

“Not that we are adequate in ourselves to think of anything as coming from ourselves, but our adequacy is from God.”  (II Corinthians 3:5)

“And He said to me, ‘My grace is sufficient for you, for power is perfected in weakness.’  Most gladly, therefore, I will rather boast about my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may dwell in me  Therefore I am well content with weaknesses, with insults, with distresses, with persecutions, with difficulties, for Christ’s sake; for when I am weak, then I am strong.”  (II Corinthians 12:9-10)

“And if one member suffers, all the members suffer with it; if one member is honored, all the members rejoice with it.”  (I Corinthians 12:27)

Yes, indeed!  It’s good to be Iceland!

Navarre Beach 2014, exactly two years after our extension on life.

Two years ago, my son and I had a brush with death that significantly changed my perspective on the past, the present, and the future.

It was Thursday, August 16, 2012.  My family and I were vacationing in Navarre Beach, Florida, a favorite destination and an annual end-of-summer “family tradition” that we have been blessed to enjoy for several years.  The previous night, after everyone else had gone to bed, I sat up late and worked on the draft of a blog post.  Three months earlier in mid-May, our special needs son, Coleman, and I took our first ever “Man Trip.”  It was just the two of us on a father/son excursion to St. Louis.  It was an incredible journey for us, but I had never gotten around to sharing the experience on my blog.  I finished the rough draft that night, went to bed for several hours of deep, beach-fatigue sleep, and arose early Thursday morning to proofread, edit, and post it on my blog (see “Man Trip”).  I ended the post with these words:

“Thanks, Coleman!  I couldn’t be prouder of you or more grateful to have shared this “man trip.”  I hope and pray that there will be many more to come.”  

Those almost became the last words I ever wrote.  

After posting the new blog entry, I took a load of chairs and umbrellas down to the beach, then returned to the condo for another cup of morning coffee.  Coleman and my wife, Kim, were now awake.  Our daughter, Hannah, decided to sleep in that morning.  As always, I was anxious to get down to the water.  As I was slathering myself and Coleman with sunscreen, Kim stated that she needed to go to Walmart to pick up a few things.  I remember that we argued.  About what, I cannot recall.  I’m sure it was something trivial and ultimately inconsequential, the very kind of thing about which husbands and wives often find themselves arguing.  But, I do remember that we were both angry when we parted company.

Coleman and I went to down to the water, walking quite a distance down the beach to where I had set up our camp for the day.  The sky was very overcast and gray, the surf was quite rough, and hardly anyone had ventured out onto the beach because of the threatening looking weather.  As we sat there in the chairs, a new beach friend, John from Houston, stopped by to chat for a minute.  He had his fishing gear with him and said that he was heading out to the sandbar which lay about 100 yards offshore, beyond the channel that normally was only about chest-deep.  Even though the water rather choppy, I figured that we could follow John and turn back if it proved unsafe for Coleman.

Coleman doesn’t know how to swim.  However, Coleman doesn’t know that he doesn’t know how to swim, and he has absolutely no fear of the water.  Countless times before, we had simply carried Coleman through the deepest part of the channel, suspending him under his arms, until we reached the waist-deep waters on the sandbar.   As we followed John that morning, the waves began washing over my shoulders.  I found myself questioning the wisdom of carrying Coleman through such deep, rough water, and experienced a couple of anxious moments before we safely reached the shallower depths of the sandbar.

We stayed out on the sandbar for about 30 minutes.  I talked with John as he repeatedly cast his line out into the Gulf, keeping an ever-watchful eye on Coleman as he played in the shallow water, jumping and flapping his arms each time a wave rolled in.  There is always another wave!   John talked about how Coleman exuded such joy, what a special young man he was, and how he loved to see our family playing together on the beach.  I told him about our trip to St. Louis and the blog entry that I had posted earlier that morning.

I prolonged our time on the sandbar in hopes that the tide would go out a bit.  I expressed my concerns about the water depth to John, and he suggested that we wade along the sandbar about 50 yards where he thought the channel might be shallower.  I took his advice and headed back in toward the shore with Coleman.

Much sooner than expected, we were back in water that was up to my shoulders.  I had a firm grip on Coleman underneath his armpits, but I was having to push off from the bottom to keep our heads above the passing waves.  A big wave pushed us forward, and suddenly we were in water significantly over my head.

We had never been in this situation before.  I was struggling hard to keep Coleman above the water, catching a breath whenever I could.  It is amazing how quickly I fatigued trying to keep him afloat.  Within a very short period of time, I was physically spent and simply couldn’t struggle any longer.  I slowly exhaled, waiting for another opportunity to catch a breath, but it didn’t come.  After fighting it as long as I could, I instinctively inhaled, aspirating nothing but sea water.

At that moment, I realized I was drowning.  I didn’t feel panicked.  Coleman was still in my grip.  I just felt suspended underneath the surface of the water.  It was completely silent.  Small breaks in the clouds were allowing a few bright shafts of sunlight to pierce through the water.  I felt surprisingly peaceful as I processed and accepted the thought, “So, this is how I’m going to die.”

The thought of death didn’t frighten me.  I knew that Jesus had saved me and that He had a place prepared for me in the presence of God.  Coleman had always had a reserved spot at the heavenly banquet table.  It was okay!

But, then, I started to think about what this would mean for my family:  the horror of the discovery of our death, the shock, the emotional trauma.

It’s incredible how time seemed to completely come to standstill.  I ran through entire scenarios in my mind.  My death would mean that Kim would be left to care for Coleman by herself.  But, no, he was going with me.  So, it would be better this way, right?  I wasn’t sure, and, just that quickly, I didn’t feel as much at peace.  I wondered if Hannah had awakened and was witnessing this from the 7th floor balcony or from the beach.  That was particularly gut-wrenching.  Was Kim with her?  I had taken off my wedding band and another ring Kim had given me and had left them on the kitchen counter in the condo to avoid the risk of losing them on the beach.  Would she think it was because we had argued?

Even with as much confidence as I had that Coleman and I were going on to be with the Lord, I began to think of the mess of difficulties and the tangle of loose ends that I would leave behind.  Would Kim have to sell the house?  Would she have to move?  Would Hannah be emotionally able to begin her nursing clinicals in just a couple of weeks?  I thought about my extended family members.  I thought about dear friends that I wouldn’t see again, at least not on this shoreline of eternity.  I thought about my church family.  Never free from analytical thoughts about my ministry responsibilities, I honestly remember thinking that I wouldn’t be emailing in my bulletin article the next morning.

Then, out of nowhere, my feet were touching the sand.  The water was still above my head, but my feet were on the bottom.  I was still hanging on to Coleman.  I have no idea where the burst of energy came from (adrenaline?  angels?  angels administering adrenaline?), but I immediately started driving with my legs and my feet as hard as I could, like hitting a blocking sled in football practice.  I just kept pushing.  A wave washed over, and my head emerged above the surface.  I began coughing up water and gasping for air.  I stood there in chin-deep water for what seemed like 10 minutes or more before I could begin to breathe with some semblance of normalcy and stop coughing constantly.  I slowly began trudging toward the beach, with a vice grip underneath Coleman’s armpits.

It was a few minutes before I could fully assess Coleman’s condition.  He had remained still and completely calm through the entire ordeal.  Had he panicked or begun to struggle, neither of us would have made it, because I would not have let go of him!  He was coughing, but fine.  My baseball cap was long since gone.  Coleman’s was remarkably still on, and the very top of the crown was dry; miraculously dry.  Somehow, his head never completely submerged.  We slogged our way back onto the beach and collapsed in the chairs.  John never saw what happened.  He had just kept fishing, his back turned to us, assuming that we were fine.

Hannah came down to our beach camp about 30 minutes later.  I was seriously shaken and had to tell someone what had happened.  I made her promise not to tell Kim, knowing that it would result in an immediate forced removal from the beach and a lifetime ban from ever taking Coleman within two states of open water.  We would be banished from Florida forever!

I was in daze for much of the rest of the day.  Kim asked me several times as she caught me staring blankly into the distance, “What is wrong with you?”  I could barely sleep for the next couple of nights.  Every time I closed my eyes, Coleman and I were back in the water.  I cried.  Not that I feared death.  I just cried.

As one’s children are prone to do, especially adult ones, Hannah eventually told Kim what had happened a few months later.  Sometime after that, Kim told me that she knew.

The rest of the trip was uneventful.  I promised myself (and Hannah and Kim later) that I would never take another chance or risk with Coleman in the water.  No trips to the sandbar with him if the water was more than chest deep on the rest of us.  Yes, we’ve been back out on the sandbar with him since then, but only when the conditions have been safe.

The only lingering ill effect was that I quickly developed an asthma-like wheeze and cough, which worsened each night after lying in bed for a few hours.  It continued to grow worse after we returned home.  It became more difficult to sleep and harder for my breathing to clear in the mornings.  Online reading about the aftermath of near-drowning incidents caused me to take it seriously enough to visit my doctor.  A chest x-ray confirmed that I had pneumonia as a result of aspirating so much water.  A round of potent antibiotics cleared it up, with no recurring problems.

Lessons Learned:

Never leave mad.  Whether you’re just leaving for work for the day or going on a business trip, don’t leave the house or part company with your loved ones when in a state of anger.  Don’t risk that being the memory of your last moments together.  Stay long enough to calm your voice, temper your tone, and affirm your love for one another, even if you are still in disagreement.  The same thing goes for your church family.  Don’t leave an assembly angry at someone.  Granted, none of us would ever leave our places of worship if agreement with everyone were a prerequisite for departure, but make sure they know that your love for them trumps whatever your little snit was about.

Regularly tell people how you feel about them.  You never know when your last opportunity will be.  I didn’t expect that to happen on August 16 two years ago.  No one ever does.  I have since gone to great lengths to regularly communicate in as many ways as I can to family members, friends, and other loved ones how much they mean to me.

Don’t be held in bondage by the past.  I experienced some extreme difficulties in 2008 in my physical and emotional health, my family, and my ministry.  Although I have remained grateful for the blessings of the present in the years that have followed, I continued to be burdened and haunted by unanswered questions and unresolved issues.  To a large degree,  I was still looking over my shoulder at the past with regret, confusion, and disappointment, and it hampered my ability to fully live and invest in the present.  God cured me of that on August 16, 2012.  I made some vows to the Lord that day.  These weren’t bargains made with God while Coleman and I were still in the water, but promises to God from the safety of the beach after I knew that our lives had been spared.  By the power and strength of the Lord, I have been able to keep them.

“Forgetting what lies behind and reaching forward to what lies ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 3:13-14)

 

(I don’t often post about activities in my home church, but this is a ministry that I believe is making a huge impact in our local community of Broken Arrow, Oklahoma.  New Heights Summer Camp is an eight-week, five-day-a-week, 8:30 – 4:30, academic and spiritual enrichment and summer food service ministry for children in our community, most of whom are from low-income families.  Two hot meals a day are served free of charge and the enrichment program is provided for a nominal fee of $10 a week per child.  Earlier this year, a friend posed this question on Facebook, “If your church suddenly disappeared, how long (if ever) would it take your community to notice?”  New Heights, which just competed its sixth summer, is at least one ministry that allows me to answer, “Immediately!”)

Among the many who are starting a new academic year in elementary and middle school in Broken Arrow, Oklahoma, this week, there are 240 children who will be pleasantly surprised at how much they know after a long summer break.

Their reading comprehension skills will be quite a bit sharper and their vocabulary significantly stronger.  Their ability to tackle basic math functions like addition, subtraction, multiplication, and division will be greatly enhanced.  When concepts are introduced in their science classes, they will remember experiments and activities in which they had real hands-on experience over the summer.  When they go to the cafeteria for breakfast and lunch, they will remember the two nutritious meals that they enjoyed somewhere else five days a week for eight weeks during the school break.  When they get a bit discouraged over a test grade or when they experience conflict with a classmate or teacher, they will remember Biblical principles to help them cope with the situation and what Jesus said about the way they should treat other people.

They will remember the adults and teenagers who, even though they weren’t their family members or school teachers, cared enough about them to teach them, encourage them, and even lovingly correct them when they needed it.  They will remember the people who read to them, answered their questions, listened to their stories, and smiled at them when they handed them their breakfast and lunch trays.  When their parents or guardians say, “You know, we really need to get connected with a church,” or “It’s the Sunday before Christmas, let’s go to church somewhere this morning,” or when these children reach their older teen years or young adulthood and feel a serious spiritual hunger, many of them will think first of the Broken Arrow Church of Christ.

Why? Because of New Heights Summer Camp!

Yes, the facts and stats alone are amazingly impressive.  14,202 meals and 7,290 snacks served.  Beyond the 240 registered children from 146 different families, there were 30-40 additional walk-ins fed daily.  3,127 volunteer hours were logged (a number which is likely dramatically lower than the actual hours volunteered, since not everyone signed in and out on the volunteer sheet).  23 community volunteers assisted with New Heights who had no prior association or connection with our church.  New Heights was granted its 501(c)(3) status from the IRS this summer, which will greatly enhance our ability to qualify for additional grants and partnerships.

All of that is incredible, but not nearly as significant as all of the intangibles that are mentioned a couple of paragraphs above.  There is no way to calculate and measure the spiritual influence, the confidence, the positive attitudes, the moral sensitivity, and the academic achievement that will result from New Heights Summer Camp.

Thank you for believing in and supporting this ministry!  Thank you for loving and serving these children!

It takes an immense amount of humility to serve.

It takes an immense amount of humility to allow yourself to be served.

In the upper room on the night of His betrayal, an argument broke out among Jesus’ apostles as to which one of them was considered to be the greatest (Luke 22:24).  It was such an unseemly and misguided dispute, especially in light of what was about to transpire in the hours that followed.  While the cacophony of this ego-driven contest of conceit wore on, Jesus quietly arose from his reclined position at the table, took off His outer clothing, wrapped himself with a towel, filled a basin with water, washed the feet of His disciples, and dried their feet with the towel (John 13:1-5).  As if the divine Son of Man had not bowed low enough in emptying Himself to become enveloped in human flesh, he stooped further still to perform the most menial of tasks for a bunch of whining, self-obsessed men who could not be bothered to extend a simple, common courtesy to one another, much less to their Lord and Master.

Images of “the basin and the towel” like the one above tend to evoke a scene that was clean, sterile, and pristine.  Nothing could be further from the truth.  Jesus didn’t have the modern convenience and protection of latex gloves or the aid of brushes or pedicure instruments.  He used His bare hands to rub and rinse dirt and packed-on road grime from the calloused, malodorant feet of 12 adult men.  As their feet grew cleaner, the water and the towel grew more dingy and dirty.  This was no mere ritual or superficial ceremony; it was a legitimate and much-needed foot bath.

Jesus powerfully displayed unparalleled humility in this act of selfless service.  But, to be served in this way required of the apostles that they dig deeply into their reservoirs of submissiveness and poverty of spirit, neither of which was their strong suit.  It was purely out of pride that Peter protested, “Lord, you’ll never wash my feet!”  “Dig a little deeper in the well of humility, Peter,” Jesus said.  “If you want to be with Me, you’ve got to let this happen.”

Who among the apostles earned a foot washing that evening?  Who deserved it?  Who could have demanded it of Jesus?  For the apostles’ part, it just took humility, faith, trust, and confidence in Jesus that He knew what He was doing, that this was somehow needful and necessary, despite their inability to fully understand it at the time (John 13:7).

Washing feet is not too much of a cultural necessity for most of us, but allowing people to serve us in other ways can sometimes test the limits of our humility.  People will often ask us during an extended illness or other times of crisis, “What can I do to help you out?  Can I do some laundry for you?  Let me pick up your dirty clothes, take them home, wash and dry them, fold them, and then I’ll bring them back to you.”  In our pride, we balk, and we bar their extension of grace and mercy.  “No! No!  I couldn’t possibly let you do that!”  Why?  Because it’s personal; it’s private; our underwear is in there; our dirty underwear!  So, in our pride, we rob them of a blessing, and we rob ourselves of a blessing.

In unmerited grace and unmitigated mercy, Jesus wants to cleanse us.  He wants to do our spiritual laundry, removing the stains of sin that we are powerless to remove for ourselves.  He wants to wash our robes, making them clean and white through the saving power of His sacrificial blood (Rev. 7:14).  It takes humility to allow Him to do that.

In baptism, we humbly surrender our pride to Jesus’ divine will and submissively accept His promise to wash away our sins (Acts 22:16); not a physical cleansing, but an appeal to God for a clean heart and conscience (I Peter 3:21).  Far from a human work that somehow invalidates salvation by grace through faith (Ephesians 2:8-10), baptism is a humble expression of faith and confidence in the power and working of God to save us (Colossians 2:12).  Baptism is a dramatization, a reenactment, of our faith in Jesus’ death, burial and resurrection and a pledge of our trust that God will, through that same resurrection power, quicken us to new spiritual life (Romans 6:1-7).

Baptism is complete surrender.  It is wholly submissive on our part, just as it was for the apostles as they allowed Jesus to wash their feet.   Baptism is a bold proclamation of the depth of our faith in Jesus Christ; enough faith to trust Him; enough faith to obey Him; enough faith to submit to His instruction; enough confidence in Him to simply comply with His request.

My 21-year-old son, Coleman, is developmentally disabled and unable to bathe himself.  He is simply incapable of doing it; it is impossible for him.  Our morning routine each day involves me getting him into the tub, lathering him up, scrubbing him down, shampooing and rinsing his hair, drying him off, drying his hair, shaving him, brushing his teeth, and getting him dressed.  All the power and the “work” that makes his cleansing a reality lie totally outside of himself.  The only thing he contributes to the process is beautiful, humble trust and acceptance.  He just receives the gift and the blessing of grace without pride or protest.

People spend far too much time debating what baptism is for, rather than just accepting where baptism is from.  It is from Jesus.  Just humbly accept it, submissively receive it, and let Jesus do your laundry!

Grace and truth never came into conflict or competed with one another in the life of Jesus as He encountered and related to everyone from prostitutes to Pharisees, scribes to sinners, and rabbis to revenue collectors.  His message of truth and His ministry of mercy were so beautifully blended and perfectly balanced that they simultaneously comforted and convicted, reproved and redeemed, according to the most pressing need of the moment.

“For the Law was given through Moses; grace and truth were realized through Jesus Christ,” (John 1:17).

However, the integration of grace and truth remains a rather elusive combination of qualities for many of us who seek to walk in the steps of Jesus.  We are so predictably “either/or” in our orientations and allegiances.  “I’m all about truth.”  “I’m all about grace.”  Pick a side; join a team; cast your lot; choose your weapon; divide and demonize.  Jesus would have none of that as an equal opportunity offender and a “both/and” purveyor of truth and grace.

Jesus extended unmitigated grace to a man at the pool of Bethesda who had been debilitated by illness for 38 years.  Nearly four decades of suffering were brought to an immediate end when Jesus said, “Get up, pick up your pallet and walk,” (John 5:8).  When Jesus caught up with the man in the temple later that Sabbath day, He said, “Behold, you have become well; do not sin anymore, so that nothing worse happens to you,” (John 5:14).  Jesus wasn’t suggesting that the man’s suffering had been caused by some sin in his life.  He was just providing a timely and needful reminder that there is something infinitely worse than being physically sick for 38 years.

Jesus courageously defended the life and dignity of a woman caught in adultery, and He lavished divine grace upon her when He said, “Did no one condemn you?  I do not condemn you, either,”  (John 8:10-11).  Then He challenged her to “go, and sin no more.”  He didn’t condone or minimize the seriousness of her sexual sin (or that of her absent partner).  He simply covered her transgression with compassion and grace and called her to greater purity and conformity to God’s will for her life.

Grace and truth.

How would Jesus bring that same truth and grace to moral, ethical, and social issues in our contemporary culture?

My reading of Scripture leads me to hold an extremely high view of the sanctity of human life, including the preciousness and sacredness of life inside the womb.  For this reason, like many other Christians, I oppose elective abortion on demand, despite its legality according to state and federal laws and the landmark Roe v. Wade decision of the U.S. Supreme Court in 1973.

As a whole, conservative Christians have been firmly convicted and extremely vocal on the truth side in the abortion debate.  However, as with so many other moral concerns, we very frequently fall short in affirming grace.

There is a widespread need for Christians to communicate a message of grace, compassion, kindness, and forgiveness toward those who have elected to terminate pregnancies by abortion.  We need to seek to understand what was going on in their lives, in their minds, and in their hearts when they made this decision.  For many, it was an absolutely agonizing decision, perhaps driven by fear, confusion, shame, panic, or an overwhelming sense of anxiety about the future.  Very often, abortion is not a solely personal choice, but one that is heavily influenced and swayed by the counsel of friends or parents or pressure from the fathers of unborn children.  The intensity of this influence ranges from mere suggestions, to heavy-handed threats and ultimatums, to outright coercion.

Millions of women need to know that in Jesus Christ, and through the power of His cleansing blood, there is grace, forgiveness, healing, and freedom to be found from the guilt of the past.

“But, elective abortion is murder!”  I know it is.  However, murder is precisely what King David did to Uriah after his sexual sin with Uriah’s wife, Bathsheba.  Yet, David found grace, forgiveness, and restoration in his relationship with God.  3,000 years later, we are still reading and meditating upon the lyrics of David’s poetic songs of praise, lament, penitence, and thanksgiving.

Murder is what Saul of Tarsus, whom we know as our beloved apostle Paul, did to countless first century Christian men and women.  But, he was washed, he was justified, he was sanctified in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ and in the Spirit of our God (I Corinthians 6:11).

“Well, I don’t know anyone who has had an abortion.”  Yes, you do!  You just don’t know who they are.  It’s a friend of yours, a classmate, a co-worker at your office, a neighbor, a family member, or someone in your church family.  It is someone who desperately needs to know that healing and wholeness can be found in Jesus Christ.

In 2008, I went through three weeks of intensive, day-patient counseling to address some serious issues of depression, emotional dysfunction, and emotional and spiritual exhaustion.  One of the therapeutic practices in the program involved being asked to write on subjects in which the counselors perceived that there was unresolved emotional baggage.  We were then asked to read those completed assignments in a group counseling setting.  A major emotional breakthrough came for me two weeks into the program when I was asked to write about my son Coleman’s birth, diagnosis, condition, and prognosis.  I had processed these things cognitively 15 years earlier, but had never allowed myself to face them emotionally.

One of the most gut-wrenching things I have ever experienced was listening to another member of my counseling group read letters that she had written to each of the five children she had aborted earlier in her life.  Her letters were raw, honest, and incredibly powerful.  In the letters, she explained to her children (and to us) what was going on in her life and in her mind at the time, why she did what she did, how she regretted her decisions, and how she longed to see them, meet them, and embrace them when she got to heaven.  The rest of us cried along with her as she tearfully worked through this cathartic process of acknowledging past guilt and embracing present grace and forgiveness.

Even when “right” on the principle of an issue, Christians can be, and very often are, extremely judgmental, cold and calloused, self-righteous, and hypocritical in our fixation on and demonization of a single moral issue.  Worse still, if we allow the abortion debate to be reduced to a plank in the platform of a political party, no room at all remains for grace or mercy.  If I view someone first and foremost as a political enemy on the wrong side of an “issue,” it becomes nearly impossible for me to effectively influence them as a Christian friend.

We don’t have to surrender an inch of moral ground or compromise a single conviction regarding abortion, but we can do much better, we must do much better, in communicating that truth with grace.

How hard is it to take something for granted?  Actually, it’s about as easy as it gets!  It’s no trouble whatsoever for us to begin viewing an incredible gift or abundant blessing as some sort of entitlement or guarantee.  All we have to do is possess it for a while, and it soon becomes a “given” in our minds and attitudes, a presumptuous expectation that it will always be there.  However, life’s unpredictable circumstances frequently serve as a system of “checks and balances” to jerk us back into a greater sense of reality and to rekindle a proper appreciation for the blessings in our lives.

My most recent “Took That for Granted, Now Didn’t You, Tim?” lesson was provided by a lack of air conditioning in my car.  For the most part, I’ve lived in an air-conditioned world, with the exception of the house where I lived in Liberia for two years as a boy and my apartment in Australia as a young adult.  Actually, the apartment where Kim and I lived for three years in Hawaii wasn’t air conditioned either, but who cares?  It was in Hawaii!  Other than those brief stints, my life has been blessed with an abundance of artificially cool air.

In the fall of 2010, the A/C went out in my car.  I planned to use my tax refund the next spring to get it fixed before the summer of 2011 arrived.  However, on Hannah’s first trip home from college after the weather warmed up, she told me that her car’s air conditioning wasn’t working.  So, I did the fatherly thing and used the money I had set aside to have her system repaired.  That’s just what we parents do for our kids, right?  I stuck it out through the heat of the summer of 2011…. and 2012 …. and 2013.  Don’t feel too sorry for me.  It only got up to 114 degrees those first two summers.  Oh, and did I mention the black leather interior?  That helped a lot!

On the hottest days the last three summers, I overcame the temptation to complain by reminding myself that I was extremely blessed to have a car at all, and one that, mechanically speaking, worked quite well.  It faithfully and regularly got me from Point A to Point B, which is what it was designed to do.  I was doubly blessed by the luxury of owing two vehicles.  I lived in an air-conditioned home, worked in an air-conditioned office, and shopped in air-conditioned stores.  I had more than enough food to eat.  I had clothes on my back (my stuck-to-the-car-seat, sweaty back!).  What right did I have to complain?

I got my car’s air conditioning repaired this week.  I can’t believe how cold the air is.  Yet, it probably won’t be very long before I just turn it on and ride in comfort without a passing thought of thankfulness.

Don’t let that happen with the greatest blessings in your life: your relationship with Jesus, your spouse, your children, your parents, your friends, your church family, your job, your co-workers, and all the physical blessings you enjoy.

Let the important people in your life know how much you love, appreciate, and treasure them.  Start with the Lord and work your way down the list!

“A graduation ceremony is an event where the commencement speaker tells thousands of students dressed in identical caps and gowns that ‘individuality’ is the key to success.” (Robert Orben)

I’m grateful that the Pyles household has two graduates this spring who are truly unique individuals.

Hannah recently received her Bachelor of Science in Nursing degree from Oklahoma Christian University.  She will take the NCLEX later this month and begin her career as a registered nurse.  She has a full-time position waiting for her at the hospital in Oklahoma City where she has worked as an advanced nurse tech for the last nine months while completing her degree.  It would be impossible for me to fully express how proud we are of the young woman Hannah has become, the level of hard work, tenacity, and responsibility that she has exhibited in balancing school and work, and the path that she has chosen for her life.

Coleman is “aging out” of the special education program at Union High School this year and will officially be graduating next week.  While we chose not to put him through the rigors, stress, and crowds of the graduation ceremony, we were thrilled that he was included in Senior Honor Night activities at our home church last Sunday evening.  I think he sensed the significance of the occasion, and he seemed to genuinely enjoy the inclusion and interaction with others.  We remain immensely blessed by a large village of friends and church family who love, accept, and embrace Coleman for who he is.

We typically view graduation as an “end,” the closing of a significant chapter in our lives.  Graduation ceremonies serve as an exclamation point to years of academic effort and hard work and sort of tie a bow on a package that has now been completely wrapped up.  But, graduation ceremonies are also referred to as “commencement exercises.”  By definition, commencement is “a beginning, start, opening, launch, onset, initiation, inception, or origin.”  So, graduation is truly a transition, one of life’s segues from “what has been” to “what will be.”

That’s what makes graduation such a joyful time.  It’s so much more than, “It’s finally over!”  It’s about moving on with excitement and expectation into “what’s next.”  This anticipation is also accompanied by a bit of anxiety and uncertainty because it’s a road we have not yet traveled or experienced, and we’re not exactly sure what it’s going to be like.

In celebrating Easter a couple of weeks ago, we were reminded that, because of the resurrection of Jesus Christ and the victory that He was granted by the Father over the grave, our attitude toward death has been totally reoriented and recalibrated.  Jesus “rendered powerless him who had the power of death, that is, the devil, and freed those who through fear of death were subject to slavery all their lives,” (Hebrews 2:14-15).

The fear is gone.  Death isn’t terminal.  Death doesn’t win.  Death is not the end!

Death is the ultimate graduation.  It marks the end of one phase of our existence and serves as a transition to another.  Death is the “commencement” of something better; far better; infinitely and eternally better!

Understandably, there is a level of anxiety about death simply because we haven’t passed that way before, and we have some questions about the particulars of our eternal state. But, there is no fear; only joyful expectation.

Keep living in preparation for your last, greatest graduation.

The class reunion is going to be incredible!

“Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”

James 4:7 communicates this powerful promise from God!  But, have you ever wondered exactly what resisting the devil looks like and sounds like in practical terms?  Is it merely a thought process or reliance on our own will power?  “Resistance” should conjure up images of active, aggressive combat, not passivity or simple wishful thinking that, if we just close our eyes and cower in a corner, perhaps he will go away.  Could the frequency of our failure when assaulted by Satan’s flaming arrows of temptation have something to do with the rarity or non-existence of a proactive plan of resistance against him?

In urging intimacy with God over friendship with the world, James provides us with several rapid-fire imperatives, i.e., some practical actions that we can take to deepen our relationship with our Father and further distance ourselves from our Adversary (James 4:7-10).  In addition to humbly submitting to God and intentionally drawing near to Him, James instructs, “Resist the devil and he will flee from you.”  Similar pushback against Satan is urged in I Peter 5:9.  After the sobering reminder that our Adversary stalks us like a roaring, ravaging, prowling lion, Peter challenges us to “resist him, firm in your faith.”

God gives us this incredible assurance that resistance against Satan will put him in retreat mode.  This truth should embolden our spirits and transform our mindset from helpless “victims” to that of “victors” in our battle against Satan’s enticement and entrapment.  This is not due to any fear that the Evil One has of us, but rather his dread of the One whose Spirit indwells and empowers us.  “Greater is He who is in you than he who is in the world,” (I John 4:4).

Resistance is active.  It is more than just passively praying, “Lead us not into temptation,” then hoping for the best and expecting the worst  It requires engagement of our mind, heart, words, and actions.  So, what does “resisting the devil” look like?  What practical means of resistance can we use against him?

In recent years, especially since enduring what I consider to have been an all-out, no holds barred, full frontal assault from the Evil One in the summer of 2008,  my efforts to resist the devil have come to include verbally rebuking him.  Jesus spoke directly and defiantly to Satan when being tempted (Matthew 4:1-11; Luke 4:1-13), confidently quoting the truth of Scripture against Satan’s lies.  When He felt that Peter wasn’t seeking the Divine will regarding His impending death, Jesus said, “Get behind Me, Satan,” (Matthew 16:23).  In the enigmatic verse that describes a mysterious, other-worldly dispute over the body of Moses (Jude 9), Michael the archangel invoked the name and power of God by saying, “The Lord rebuke you!”

It angers me when I sense that Satan is seeking (yet again) to draw my heart, mind, and life away from God, to buy into worldly ways of thinking, and to act in pride and self-interest rather than in service and agape love to others.  So, I’ve gotten much more confident and comfortable in telling him (audibly) to get lost.  My language toward him is extremely pointed and somewhat coarse.  Love for my enemies does not extend to “the” Enemy.  In the name of Jesus Christ who defeated and disarmed him, I tell him to go “home.”  Since I know his permanent mailing address, I’m not bashful about telling him to go to hell and leave me alone.

I understand that many interpret Jude 9 to mean that we should never be so bold as to directly rebuke Satan in such a way.  However, in light of  translational variations, the sheer uniqueness of the verse, and its relation to material in an apocryphal, non-canonical book called The Assumption of Moses, until further notice I intend to keep right on actively resisting, pushing back, and getting in the devil’s face in the name of Jesus Christ.  I don’t think I can make him any angrier at me than he already is.

Hell is the custom-built home for the devil and his angels (Matthew 25:41).  I don’t feel the least bit timid about wanting him to move in as soon as possible.  When Christ’s victory is fully claimed, the great dragon, the serpent of old, will be cast into the lake of fire and brimstone (Revelation 20:10).  The return of Jesus Christ will not only result in the vindication and eternal salvation of His people, it will also execute the sentence and seal the doom of Satan.  Just one more reason to pray daily, “Come, Lord Jesus!”

Is hell for real?  I hope so.  For Satan’s sake, I truly hope so.

In our spiritual warfare against the devil, resistance is far from futile.  It is incredibly fruitful and effective, backed by the power, promises, and provisions of our God.  Just like the completely out-gunned David who took a stand against Goliath, we run to the battle line to meet the Enemy in the name of the Lord of Hosts.  Without God, David would have been the next notch on Goliath’s sizable belt, a forgotten footnote in the Philistine’s domination of Israel.  It is the Lord of Hosts who is the game changer, the outcome adjuster, and the re-writer of history.

In the name of Jesus Christ, resist the devil!

Are you quite ready for spring to get here?  Not that I’m complaining about winter!  One of the things that I have really enjoyed since moving to Tulsa five years ago is that there is a much more well-defined season of cold weather than we experienced during our previous twelve years of living in the Dallas area.  250 miles further north does make a noticeable difference in average low temperatures, the duration of cold snaps, and the amount of snowfall each winter.  As some of you know, I much prefer to grill out in cold weather as opposed to standing over burning charcoal when the outside air temperature is already 105° F.  Whose idea was that?

But, enough is enough, right?  While spring does not officially begin until March 20, the transition back to Daylight Saving Time this Sunday and the local forecast for daytime temps in the low 70s on Monday and Tuesday have me itching for consistently warmer weather.  There are signs that it is on its way.  Daffodils have had their heads poked up out of the ground for a while now.  They looked as if they were having serious second thoughts last week when they were up to their necks in sleet and snow, but I have a feeling that the next couple of weeks are going to see them rocketing up out of the ground.  Ditto for the hyacinth in the landscaping behind our house.  I noticed some greening of the grass (slight, but still significant) when I took a bag of trash out to the wheelie bin this morning.  The same was true for the patch of grass outside my office window, and close inspection of the rose bushes in front of the main church office evidenced similar signs of new life.  Bring it on!

For those of us who are fortunate enough to live in a temperate zone and to experience the blessing of seasonal variety, spring always follows winter.  Winter’s long nights are succeeded by extended hours of daylight in the summer.  Warmth follows cold.  God gave His word that it would always be this way until the end of time (Genesis 9:22).

This promise of God not only relates to the changing of the earth’s seasons, but also serves as a powerful metaphor for the sustaining hope that can help us endure our spiritual “winters,” the seasons of emotional darkness that periodically shroud our hearts and minds, and the “long nights” of physical pain inflicted by chronic illness and disease.  It’s real, and it hurts and disappoints, but it’s not forever!

“For I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worthy to be compared with the glory that is to be revealed to us,”  (Romans 8:18).

“For momentary, light affliction is producing for us an eternal weight of glory far beyond all comparison,” (II Corinthians 4:17).

“Weeping may last for the night, but joy comes in the morning,” (Psalms 30:5).

Whatever kind of “long winter’s night” you are experiencing right now, keep trusting and holding on to your faith in Jesus Christ “until the day dawns and the morning star arises in your hearts,” (II Peter 1:19)!

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