Better Man

“I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do.”
Romans 7:19 (Common English Bible)
            Country artist, Taylor Swift, may have written the saddest song I have ever heard, Better Man, performed by Little Big Town. There is considerable speculation as to which one of her former boyfriends occupied her thoughts as she wrote the lyrics – the song speaking clearly to a breakup. Rich, and often times vulnerable, emotions push the story arch forward of a man who failed to return his best for the love and devotion he received, “And I gave you my best and we both know you can’t say that, you can’t say that. I wish you were a better man.” The chorus opens a window to a broken heart, “Sometimes, in the middle of the night, I can feel you again,” Little Big Town sings. “But I just miss you, and I just wish you were a better man.”
            Listen carefully to the apostle Paul, here in the seventh chapter of his letter to the Roman Church, and you can almost hear him humming these telling lyrics. The exception – and this is important – Paul isn’t grieving over a difficult romantic breakup. Paul’s grief is that he wants desperately to be that better man, “I don’t do the good that I want to do, but I do the evil that I don’t want to do.” The deep emotion captured in the song, Better Man, is fully present in Paul’s words. Paul has experienced a deep love from his lord, Jesus Christ, and has no desire to remain the man he was. Paul desires deeply to be a better man because of Jesus.
            Paul is overwhelmed by the magnitude of God’s love for him in the person of Jesus. That love has made Paul fully alert to his own failure to love God – and others – with equal scale. Self-examination reveals a man driven by selfish desire and harmful thoughts and behaviors directed to those he disagrees with. Indeed, Paul confesses to having others beaten and put to death simply because he did not share their faith convictions. Yet, God shows-up in a vision, addresses Paul as he travels to Damascus to inflict more harm on others, and loves him. It is a love that breaks Paul; a love that drives Paul not only to repentance, but a love that results in an intense wish to be something more. It is a love that drives Paul to be a better man.
            The absence of a vision, the intention and location of a means to become more as a follower of Jesus Christ may boil down to one thing: the failure to experience deeply and richly the depth of God’s love demonstrated for us in the crucifixion, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. Any plan to nurture personal faith will fail unless time is given first to reflect profoundly and constantly on God’s love such that we experience delight in God. The result of noticing God in this manner will be an increasing desire to be a better person. This must then be followed by intentional practices that remove our automatic rebellion to God’s purposes for our lives. It is here, noticing God afresh and practicing disciplines for spiritual growth that Paul becomes that better man. The same will be true for us.


The Fighter

“You must have no other gods before me.”
Exodus 20:3 (Common English Bible)
            Country artist, Keith Urban, recently spoke about the lyrics of his song, The Fighter. As one of the three writers who collaborated in the writing of the single, and performed by Keith Urban and Carrie Underwood, he said that it’s a song about helping to heal and protect someone you love. Presumably, the emotional pitch of the song is driven by his love for Nicole Kidman, his wife, who was previously married and had to push through a broken relationship within the scrutiny of the public. “I know he hurt you. Made you scared of love, too scared to love.” Arguably, the highest expression of love for another is the intense resolve to protect them from hurt, and to advance their healing from previous brokenness. Once hurt, healing is a process that takes time, “And it’s gonna take just a little time.”
            Placed at the top of God’s Ten Commandments is this one: “You must have no other gods before me.” Read through the lens of human understanding, through the sinful and fallen nature of the human heart, this commandment seems to emerge from a rather large and fragile ego. What is important is that a man or woman, who indeed may be driven by self-importance, did not give it. God gave the commandment. And God is not driven by infantile impulses that haunt and distort the human heart. The God that emerges in the pages of scripture has one longing, one intense desire – to love and protect us from hurt and brokenness. God has a deep knowledge of all other gods that may attract us and seduce our allegiance. That knowledge has shown, with certainty, that each one will promise much and deliver little. Every other god that calls to us will fail us and put us through pain. Keith Urban’s words could be God’s, “Let me be the one to heal all the pain that he put you through.”
            That great teacher of the faith, Martin Luther, once declared that whatever the heart clings to and relies upon, that is properly your God.i Unfortunately, men and women have the fatal faculty for falling in love with the wrong god, for falling in love with gods that are untrustworthy with our devotion. Initial pleasures may be received and enjoyed but eventually the relationship always ends the same: we fall, we cry and are scared. Keith Urban affirms to his love in the song, The Fighter, that in those times, “When they’re tryna get to you baby, I’ll be the fighter.” The scriptures promise no less from our God who never ceases the pursuit of our hearts.
            Often our soul is on its knees. Broken and afraid, we desperately want to believe that there is some love that is higher than all other loves, a love that will hold us and will never let go. “I wanna believe that you got me baby,” cries the one who has been hurt in this song. “I swear I do from now until the next life,” promises Urban. The imagery of resurrection and eternal life is caught here in the lyrics. Jesus of Nazareth has the power to capture our wounded hearts, and our entire trust, and be the God who has us, “until the next life.” We claim this love when we finally let go of all other gods and their empty promises.


I Woke Up in Nashville

“Just like a deer that craves streams of water, my whole being craves you, God.’
Psalm 42:1 (Common English Bible)
            Country music artist, Seth Ennis, recently released what has been portrayed as a vulnerable love song, I Woke Up in Nashville. This piano-driven song builds a compelling story of a man, who leaves someone he loves for the promise of something more, presumably the bright lights of New York City. Convinced that everything he wanted was, “in this town,” a pervasive emptiness overcomes him. There is a hole in his heart that the promises of the city cannot fill; a hole that will only be filled by the love he left in Nashville. The lights of New York, and the promises within them for a complete and joy filled life, fail him: “Cause those Broadway lights don’t shine the way that your eyes did.” The hollowness of life apart from Nashville drives him back to his first love and the longing for forgiveness; forgiveness that he ever left. Fugitively and literally, he wakes up back where he always belonged, in Nashville.
            Here, the author of this Psalm is on the same journey. With the urgency of a deer, parched with thirst and seeking cool streams of water, the one who speaks in this Psalm craves God. It is a journey that we are familiar with. It is a timeless journey driven by an urge – the urge for God – that takes possession of the human heart. It is a journey that leaps across borders of races and nations and shows no regard for the boundaries of generations. Men and women chase after dreams, chase after the lights of Broadway, to discover that any dream that leaves God behind results in emptiness. In that moment when the Broadway lights dim before the remembrance of God’s love, we rush back to Nashville; back to the embrace of God.
            Although church membership and worship attendance is trending downward throughout the United States and Europe, considerable research reveals that there remains a deep and increasing desire to know God. Everywhere there is a sense of confusion and strain and struggle. Increasingly, people long for something which satisfies but seem unable to find it. Many have pursued pleasure and personal enrichment, but few have arrived at contentment.  As the early church leader, St. Augustine once observed, there is a God-shaped hole inside each of us and, therefore, only God can fill that hole.
            The radiant life that so many seek will not be found in the “Broadway lights” that are chased if God is left behind in Nashville. Naturally, God is not limited in location, not geographical location, anyway. God is present in both Nashville and New York. The great question for every person is whether God is welcomed in the human heart. What the songwriter discovers is, “I was wrong for thinking you were something I could ever do without.” And at the end of the journey which pursues the radiant life, the song writer finally discovers what we all must discover, “You (God) were all that I needed all along.” It is there, at the end, we realize that, just like a deer that craves streams of water, the life we crave is found in God.


Ministry of Imagination

“There was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a Jewish leader.
He came to Jesus at night and said to him,
‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God,
 for no one could do these miraculous signs that you do unless God is with him.’”
John 3:1-2 (Common English Bible)
Nicodemus calls the church to a ministry of imagination. A Pharisee, Nicodemus departs from the narrow, walled-in sectarian views of his colleagues and comes to Jesus in sympathetic inquiry. Perhaps Nicodemus is weary of the wooden, cramping and belittling understanding of the Bible that limits fellowship with others of another point of view. Perhaps Nicodemus fears that barriers of thought and divisions in the fellowship of faith can produce nothing higher than spiritual dwarfs. Perhaps Nicodemus simply wishes for a more expansive and imaginative faith and believes that Jesus can offer the necessary nutriment. For whatever reason, Nicodemus comes to Jesus.
A large faith, a full-grown faith must borrow from others. The genius of maturity is the recognition that a wider vision of this life demands the stimulus of thought found in another’s wealth. No one discovers adequate nourishment for their own development within the poverty of self-centeredness and narrow-mindedness. If we are to exercise ourselves in the wider vision of imagination – as does Nicodemus – we must listen sympathetically to understandings not our own. Otherwise we exist only in an echo chamber, our thought never growing, never expanding. It is well documented that even Shakespeare fetched his water of inspiration from the wells of other great thinkers and writers.
J. H. Jowett reflects that one’s life, thinking and theology will remain comparatively dormant unless it is breathed upon by the bracing influence of fellowship of thought that is beyond our own.1Communion with viewpoints on every side, viewpoints to both the left and right of our own grasp of the Bible and the world of thought, lifts our powers for imagination. It is in a grand and inquisitive imagination that our faith discovers strength and grand proportions. It is where we acknowledge that Jesus is more than anyone can ever fully grasp.
It would be well if persons of faith were to exercise the same imaginative curiosity of Nicodemus. A sincere recognition of another’s position, appreciation for another’s point of view and discovery of another’s purpose and aim in faith strengthens the fellowship of church. Rather than “leaving the table” when disagreements of faith arise, perhaps it would be a richer and more spacious church if we recall the largest common denominator that has always held the people of faith together, the Lordship of Jesus Christ.
1J.H. Hewett, Thirsting for the Springs: Twenty-Six Weeknight Meditations (London: H.R. Allension, Limited, 1907), 193.

From Doug Hood’s Heart & Soul, Vol. 2 now available on Amazon and in the church Narthex.