The Public Death of A Third Place Bible Drill Girl

I was probably ten years old.

A blond-haired bowl cut chunk of boy.

She was probably 13 years old. I didn’t know her name. She didn’t know mine.

I sat in the back. Safe. Bored.

She stood on stage. Vulnerable. Nervous.

A Nice Public Flogging

It was a Sunday night church Bible Drill Competition. The sanctuary seemed uncharacteristically packed. Deacons, rubbernecks, parents, peers, everyone accounted for. Her competition was two boys.

The final three.

The first reference was called and the frenzied rustling of pages began. The first person to get there lunged forward and proudly recited it for the whole auditorium to hear. The next was called. And the next.

2 Chronicles 7:14!

Psalm 23:4!

James 5:16!

Ancient renderings from Nehemiah the adults in the audience had never heard. An interesting subplot was taking center stage. The two boys were running away with the competition. The poor girl fumbled her way through every challenge.

Not once.

Not once did she step forward.

Her older brother was sitting in the pew in front of me with a group of friends. His peers snickered as every squandered verse ran through her fingertips. At one point in hushed brotherly rage he whispered, “Shut Up!”

As the debacle unfolded her shoulders drooped. Defeat washed over her countenance. I could feel the white-hot embarrassment emanate off of her. She likely felt every eye from the faceless shadows peered at her; the spotlight on her ineptitude.

bible drill

At the time I didn’t know what to think; except how bad I felt for her. Now I think:

What a Stupid Petty Tradition

What did this competition teach that girl? That drive by knowledge of a reference and using the Bible as a silly sports ploy is what church is about? That the Christian life is namely about performance?

That night I learned I sure as heck wasn’t going to be a part of any such game. If I felt that much anguish from the back row I can’t imagine what she felt.

Children should be taught not to drill the word but to dwell in it (Colossians 3:16). If anything they should be led to handle what they hold with care and reverence, not rip through it as some recreational means to an end.

The Pharisees were the “Bible Drill” Champions of Ancient Israel. They flaunted their knowledge of the Law with brash eloquence. They wielded their Scripture swords like a drunk pirate, always lazily pointing outwards, never inwards to their own black heart.

Scripture was just a means to an end for them.

I’m informed by generally good scholarship that these teachers of law had the whole Pentateuch memorized by the time they were this girls age…thirteen. The only claim to memorization I had at that age was Blues Traveler’s mildly popular song “Hook”: “Suck it in, Suck it in, Suck it in, if you’re Rin Tin Tin or Anne Boleyn…..”

Pharisees and Bible drill

The Verse That Powns Pharisees

This all brings me to one of my favorite verses in the bible. It’s Jesus’s words to the Pharisees:

You search the Scriptures because you think that in them you have eternal life;
it is these that testify about Me; (John 5:39)

From Genesis to Maps. Every Jot. Every tittle. Everything in Scripture points to Jesus Christ. The eviscerated goats on the altar. The weeping prophets. The immaculate temple. The lovesick king in Songs of Songs. The unlikely shepherd boy who slayed a giant for his people.

The Bible is a progressive unfolding of the person and work of Jesus. The Old Testament had veils and shadows, we have the substance: Christ! If we study the Bible and miss Him we miss everything. That’s why I shake my head when I see a preacher endeavor to open the word, open his mouth and a few quaint stories, funny jokes, principles only, and practical vignettes come out.

People don’t need a little humor and new laws, they need Jesus. Period.

The grace He freely gives will both humble the proud Pharisee, and lift up the perplexed Bible drill loser.

I don’t know where that girl is today. She may not even remember that night as vividly as I do.

I do know this:

She won’t have to find Jesus in a fit of staged performance anxiety.

The Jesus the Bible testifies of can find her just fine. Right where she is. He already won the only victory that matters in her life.

Bible drills be damned.

What “unique” traditions did your childhood stream have growing up?

Bryan Daniels

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The Beautiful Death of American Gospels

I remember Juan.

He was a retired Puerto Rican doctor in his seventies who spent his retirement pouring out his life for the people in the slums of Caguas. His mission house fed the poor a warm lunch everyday and provided free healthcare to the community. He worked like a young man in his prime when he wielded a machete to clear the land for a new mission down the road. He greeted virtual strangers with a smile, a hug, and maybe even a kiss on the cheek.

When asked how much money he needed for repairs on the mission house, Juan beseeched our group,

“You Americans always send money and think that is the cure. We don’t need money, we need missionaries!”

I remember Peter.

He was a middle aged Romanian man who served the youth in one of the few Protestant churches in Timişoara. We stood on a Romanian hillside overlooking the retreat building our group was staying at for the week. Peter beamed with pride as he testified about the building: twenty years ago this was a Communist schoolhouse built to indoctrinate children in name of Marxism. Now it is a Christian camp center dedicated to love children in the name of Jesus Christ.

At the end of our last service at the camp, our American group decided to wash the feet of the Romanian children and adult workers (John 13). One woman, a kitchen helper and parent of a youth, wept uncontrollably as she had her feet washed. When asked what she was so moved by, she said:

“You being Americans, wash our feet!”

I was touched.

And part of me grieved.

Why would Americans be on an undeserving pedestal in this woman’s mind?imagesCAXMI4QO

I wondered what influence the “American” gospel had on her. Even third world countries are reached by the satellite tentacles of TBN, Daystar, 700 Club, etc. How is a malnourished Indian kid who eats dirt brownies supposed to process a purple haired lady sitting on a golden throne asking for money?

How is a poor Haitian boy who witnessed his parents die after a sudden earthquake supposed to process a rich old white man who says God judged his nation because of its religious history?

Was it even the prosperity gospel the Romanian lady heard?

Or was it the gospel of American pride/nationalism even some of my Baptist brethren preached?

Our American heritage said we were a city set on hill, their heritage said they were a Slumdog languishing in the valley.

What she needed to hear was this: She was a precious child of God, a beloved bride, a chosen saint in a Kingdom without end. Everyone in that room was on equal footing; we were all crippled by our sin until God stooped down to us in Christ and lifted us up.

We weren’t Romanian brethren and American brethren. We were brothers and sisters, period. Blood bought adopted kids with the same Father. We were joined with an unbreakable bond that transcended culture or language.

Though our pasts are diversified, our future will be unified in one glorious end. This will be the utter death of all our pet gospels:

After this I looked and there before me was a great multitude that no one could count, from every nation, tribe, people and language, standing before the throne and in front of the Lamb. (Revelation 7:9)

Amen.

Bryan Daniels

“It Is Well”: A Supernatural Confession

The above hymn excerpt was written after several successive traumatic events in the life of Horatio Spafford (1828-1888).

In the mid 19th century, Horatio Spafford was a prominent and successful lawyer in the Chicago area. He had a beautiful family, beautiful home, and prestigious Christian friends who included Pastor DL Moody. Spafford had it going on like a boss, so much so maybe only Job of the OT had a claim on his Horatio_Spaffordcharacter.

Unfortunately, like Job, Spafford never saw the crippling punch to the soul that life was about to deal him.

The first blow was the death of his only son from pneumonia in 1870, at the young age of four. In the spring of 1871 he invested in large tracts of commercial real estate north of the growing city of Chicago. A couple months later the great Chicago Fire struck the area and left him utterly ruined financially.

His business interests were further hit by the economic downturn of 1873 at which time he had planned to travel to Europe with his family . They chose England in part because Spafford’s good friend Moody would be preaching there in the fall. In a late change of plans, he sent the family ahead while he was delayed on business. While crossing the Atlantic, the ship sank rapidly after a collision with the sea vessel, Loch Earn. All four of Spafford’s daughters died in the wreckage: eleven-year-old Anna, nine-year-old Margaret Lee, five-year-old Elizabeth, and two-year-old Tanetta.

His wife Anna survived and sent him this harrowing telegram from England,

“Saved alone . . .”

Shortly afterwards Spafford took to boat to meet his grieving wife. As he crossed over what was essentially his four daughter’s ocean tomb, he was moved to write these words:

When sorrow like sea billows roll; it is well, it is well with my soul...”

Only supernatural grace beyond human comprehension could produce such words after such an event.

And like Job, God wasn’t done with Spafford.

The Spafford’s had four more children. Shortly after the tragedy they moved to Jerusalem to start the “American Colony.” This ministry ran orphanages, hospitals, soup kitchens and more for all the people they encountered (Jews, Muslims, Christians). During the lean years of WWI the ministry helped sustain and keep whole impoverished communities alive. In 1888, four days shy of age 60, Spafford died of malaria, and was buried in Mount Zion Cemetery, Jerusalem.

I don’t presume to know what anyone is going through. And understandably, all this may sound trite in the midst of blinding anguish; but I know the God of Job and Horatio Spafford says this:

“I AM enough.”

“My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is perfected in weakness” (2 Cor 12:9)

And we may say in response to Him, as the world curses our faithfulness and heaps scorn on the God who would allow such tragedy:

“It is well.”

Bryan Daniels

Christianity Absolutely Is A Crutch For The Weak

Christianity is a crutch for the weak.

Yes.

Absolutely.

Thank God.

With a pinched nerve ravaging the muscles in my right buttocks the past month I’ve been walking with a sizable limp. You know, the kind that makes you walk like a zombie with a gangsta lean. I haven’t thought of crutches to ease the pain but I have thought pretty hard about snatching one of those hoverounds whenever I find myself at Walmart. I didn’t want to garner any dirty looks from the old or obese people I’d have to take it from though. But I’m sure people with maimed or broken legs appreciate the support of crutches.

Have you ever went up to an injured individual and declared smugly: “Crutches are for people who can’t walk on their own!”

“Um OK, your point?”funny crutch

Jesus is for people who can’t walk on their own.

Christianity absolutely is for the weak, diseased, emotionally distraught, broken, and depressed of the children of men. The bottom of the barrel is the cream that rises to the top in God’s upside down Kingdom.

As Jesus said (my paraphrase): “I came for the sick, not those who suppose they’re well.” Jesus came for the embittered Lieutenant Dans, the paraplegics who can’t even go to the bathroom without being humbled by the help of others.

The nervous social introvert who can’t even go to the bank without praying they don’t see anyone they know.

For the foolish.

For the poor.

For the unpopular.

For the weak. Especially the weak. (1 Corinthians 1:26-31)

If the statue of Liberty will take them how much more will the perfect Father in Heaven open His strong arms for them? His own dear Son limped up to Calvary to show His compassion for the limpers. He rose from the grave to show they wouldn’t limp forever.

If Christianity is a crutch for the weak I say this: Lean hard into this crutch called Christ, and I promise, you will find Him much more than just a crutch.

Bryan Daniels

Stepford Pastors And The Messy Real Thang

Maybe it is our natural-born propensity for idol worship. Or the cult of personality that our American society succumbs to on a daily basis.

In modern Christianity, we love to love our rock star/Podcast pastors. Not that any would accept that moniker outright. But they are on a stage. In front of adulating thousands. With a semi truck of best-selling merch and CDs. In some cases they are even asked to autograph Bibles….and babies…..Ok not really.

But I am guilty of this.

I have a few sermon jam faithfuls I’ll crank up as I lull off to Sleepytown. If I see a Piper or a Chandler headlining a respective event my interest gets piqued by 63%. Even though it is a gospel message I want to hear from them, sometimes I wonder if I’m treating the Holy Spirit like a little fairy that sprinkles its pastoranointing dust a little more liberally on men who are in my ITunes queue.

So we’ll spend hundreds of bucks, travel hundreds of miles, and devote an extended weekend of our time to go hear these super apostles of our modern faith wax to thousands. But we (ME!) can hardly rub out the eye boogers and roll out of bed before 9AM to hop down the road to hear a local ordinary shepherd minister to us weekly in the flesh.

The Podcast pastor has commentaries, conferences, and well, podcasts. That local stiff has awkward jokes, a dead blog, and bad breath when he tries to pray over your family at the altar.

Slick marketing and our own fallen flesh have made a Podcast Pastor who is not real. Shepherds don’t exist from afar, in comfortable digital seclusion, safe from the sheep they are shepherding. First and foremost, the only way to truly Shepherd is to be. with. the. sheep. Carrying the sheep with broken legs, wrestling out the one’s stuck in mud, warding off wolves with ulterior motives. Try doing this from the sanitary confines of a conference stage…the professional lighting is so blinding you can’t even see the sheep from there…

Don’t want to burst anyone’s bubble here: But Platt/Piper/Giglio/Stanley/MacArthur/Driscoll/Chandler/etc. don’t know you, and they’re not the ones that have been entrusted to personally feed you and care for your spiritual well being. I bet their poop stinks too, just like yours.

It’s not the podcast pastors who are the problem (of course I’m a hypocrite and would love to be one). It’s the fanboys like me who construct a false idol out of them that never errors, always loves, and has an inerrant grasp of the hypostatic union. These aren’t real men with real ministries we’ve made, they are nice clean Stepford Pastors.

Shepherding, and the local church for that matter, is messy business.

And Jesus, the ultimate Shepherd, revealed God’s unwavering personal love for the messiest souls. The blood and dirt at the foot of the cross is a good place to get clean.

I’m almost positive God has entrusted a local pastor over your care somewhere in your neck of the woods. The dude’s not perfect. Neither are you.

This Sunday, how about giving him a mint and thanking him for choosing to get down and dirty with you? I bet that’s what your PodCast Pastor (and better yet, Heavenly Shepherd) would want also.

Bryan Daniels

Be Happy Your False Accusers Don’t Know The Truth…

“Brother, if any man thinks ill of you, do not be angry with him; for you are worse than he thinks you to be. If he charges you falsely on some point, yet be satisfied, for if he knew you better he might change the accusation, and you would be no better by the correction. If you have your moral portrait painted, and it is ugly, be satisfied; for it only needs a few blacker touches, and it would be still nearer the truth.” – Spurgeon

The Very Best Can Only Get Better

(On a beach-head in Kauai 11 years ago…)

Our group settled among an isolated beach strip. About one hundred feet into the cascading water a rock edifice jutted out of the cerulean sea, the perfect height for novice jumpers and divers.

To its immediate left a coral formation had formed underwater, apparently soft and smooth as kids and parents walked knee-deep in water along its roof. I swam out to the reef and found a spot seemingly perfectly formed for my buttocks. In my reef recliner I turned and faced the shoreline.

Brooding green and grey escarpments wrapped along the coast as far as could be seen. Brown sand gave way to dense vegetation almost untouched by humanity. Magnificent mountains whipped with small clouds were seen in the distant inland. The water glittered like diamonds before me and a gentle breeze ruffled the hair I used to enjoy.

My body, surrendered to the water, moved slightly to the rhythm of the gentle waves around me.

A living postcard exploded before my eyes.

It doesn’t get any better than this, I thought.

In that glorious fleeting moment: Complete comfort. Complete safety. Complete satisfaction.

But even in the grandeur of that moment, I was wrong.

It can only get better…for those in Christ.

St. Augustine once wrote after witnessing a North African sunset plunge into the ocean: “If these are the beauties afforded to sinful man, what does God have in store for those who love Him?”

The crystal sea will make the Caribbean look like a mud puddle.

Intimacy with the Bridegroom will make sex feel like an afterthought.

Wine and food at the Lamb’s wedding feast will make a Red Lobster shrimp dinner taste like an expired Hotpocket.

The worst days are no match either. As a slipped disc violently speed bags my sciatic nerve. As nasty flu symptoms begin to ravage my throat and head.

No fleeting moment of satisfaction then. No tramadol/robitussin induced haze then. A “far more eternal weight of glory” awaits His broken and bleeding.

Our worst days,

best days,

average days,

all days;

get better in Christ alone.

Bryan Daniels