Book Report: “A Lesson Before Dying”

by Brock Benson

Intro

Before I start let me begin by saying this is the first novel I’ve read in a pretty long time. But I’m glad I did. Normally my reading is consumed with theology and or church leadership works. Why? To be transparent, it’s because I am selfishly depraved and blinded by my own ambition.

I hope my review of this book will enlighten and strengthen believers at Revive and abroad through what God has shown me as I read.

 

Summary

Set in the 1940’s within a small Cajun community of the Deep South, “A Lesson Before Dying” by Ernest J. Gaines is a novel that wrestles with some of the deepest questions anthropology has to offer. The story line follows a young black man named Jefferson and his journey with his friend and teacher Grant Wiggins through the darkest 6 months of their lives.

Jefferson is on trial in chapter 1 for being at the wrong place at the wrong time. Two of his friends attempt to rob a local liquor store when their attempt goes bad. Jefferson’s two friends and the store owner all end up being killed in the shootout leaving Jefferson alone holding the proverbial gun. This crime scene does an incredible job of foreshadowing the entire premise to follow as Jefferson’s journey is an overall lonely path.

Chapter 1 is probably the hardest chapter of the book to read because of the sheer darkness it represents. Near the end of the chapter Jefferson’s attorney, in an attempt to protect him from the death penalty, resorts to using an analogy that creates angst in any believer’s soul. Referring to Jefferson, his attorney instructs the jury that if he receives the death penalty it would be as if they the jury were simply killing a hog because that’s all Jefferson was.

Obviously Jefferson’s attorney believes the logic and strategy of divesting Jefferson of his true Imago Dei dignity to be valid and even an accepted tactic which would be understood by the white male jurors. But it wasn’t. And the real message of the book begins. There is more to being a man than living.  Neither Jefferson nor Grant understand this premise initially and the book shows us the journey of how they both uncover their true identity together thru one another’s help.

Jefferson and Grant’s relationship begins early on in the book as Grant is approached by his local friends and family to be a mentor of sorts to Jefferson as he awaits his fate on death row. Jefferson’s godmother “Nannan”, a God-fearing woman, believes in the Imago Dei Jefferson has been created with and has one wish for Jefferson – that he understand who he is before execution. She along with Grant’s aunt employ Grant who, as a college educated black male local school teacher, is a rarity in the community. Grant’s goal is simple; help Jefferson see who he truly is by committing to visit him weekly in prison.

Reluctantly, Grant finally agrees to help Jefferson. But the real issue is Grant himself is having trouble seeing who he truly is. Even in spite of all his education. He is consumed with leaving town and running away with his girlfriend to find a better life. In this we see Grant believing the lie that running away will “solve” all the problems of emptiness and frustration he faces in his current community. Grant’s struggles create a continual question in our minds.… How can the blind lead the blind?

I need to make a confession. I really despised both Jefferson and Grant as I read. Neither of them really drew me in as there seemed to be no hope for either for the majority of the book. Chapter after chapter passes and Grant’s prison visits seem to be getting nowhere as Jefferson is a motionless blob in his cell, unwilling to even do the most basic forms of communication. But as I reflect on this point alone I realize my frustration with them is the fact that my struggle is so similar to theirs. Whether it’s feeling sorry for myself like Jefferson or believing that a change of scenery will help me feel better. Like Grant I’m no better than they are. Maybe this is the secondary message of the book – we all can buy into the enemy’s lies. 

I won’t ruin or give away anymore of the book for those who may want to read it. But I will end by simply saying this. The author Ernest J. Gaines gives us a genuine fairy tale ending. But you won’t see it if your reading from the world’s script.

 

Caution

I think it’s my job as a Pastor to exercise a certain level of shepherding to anyone who might decide to read the book. So here is my one caution; realize that Gaines does not write this book as a purely Christian work. If you don’t heed this caution you’re going to struggle with how to process certain things. There are gospel centered themes woven throughout the pages. But there is also plenty of sin too. Arrogance, racism, apathy, sexual immorality, cruelty, self-righteousness and violence just to name a few.

 

Now why would I point this out and be telling everyone about a book that I’ve read and has such themes? (I’m a pastor for crying out loud!) I think it’s important we realize not everyone we interact with or read shares our world view. So we shouldn’t be surprised when stuff comes up that’s not rated G. Newsflash the Bible isn’t rated G either….sin is real. Am I saying sin is ok? No. But it does exist. Many times Christians I am around, and I need to include myself in this crowd too, tend to act like it doesn’t exist. Or we are so shocked when we are around people who live in sin that we can’t create meaningful conversation with them because our body language is awkward, unloving and unnatural.

 

Why the book matters

Given the current cultural climate of our day, this book’s message needs to be heard. Black lives matter. And blue lives matter. Because life matters. Furthermore, the dignity God has placed into man means all life should matter. Gaines does a masterful job helping white readers such as myself see the pain and tyranny white supremacy has created for black Americans. Whether or not I like it or even believe it, racism is real. It always has been. Not only between different ethnicities but within the same ethnicities. How is that possible? Well if we really dig into racism there is a deeper rooted sin that feeds it. And the deeper rooted sin that feeds racism is the same deeper rooted sin that feeds and manifests itself into all other sins. Pride. We want to have the authority only God is designed to have so that we can be the god of our own journey.

The second reason this book matters is because it really forces us to rethink one of the cultural axioms we’ve all grown up with. Sticks and stones may break my bones, but words will never hurt me. This simply isn’t true. Jefferson’s attorney who issues the plea for him to be spared the death penalty, does so at the cost of denying him the only thing he really had left. And consequently ends up damaging him in a deeper way than the death penalty ever could. Word’s matter.

 

“How great a forest is set ablaze by such a small fire! And the tongue is a fire, a world of unrighteousness.”

James 3:5b-6a

 

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Signs and Wonders

Signs and Wonders

by Brock Benson

Twenty-six years. That’s how long it’s been since a solar eclipse has happened on the scale that is set to happen on August 21st. The last time the U.S. saw an eclipse of this magnitude was 1979. From approximately 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. the moon will completely block the sun’s presence over parts of the U.S. and everyone from Lincoln Beach, Oregon to Charleston, S.C. will share in the experience at one point in time or another.

It’s no understatement when I say that everyone is talking about it. Both Newsweek and USA today have recent stories covering the event that, at this magnitude, might really be once in a lifetime. Eclipses themselves, we are told, are relatively common. But a solar one on this scale is really rare.

Its rumored that tourism will spike all over the United States as folks from all around the world travel here to share in the experience of the eclipse. And since Nashville is in the path of this total eclipse we will probably experience an influx of visitors ourselves. But more than everyone talking about the eclipse is the fact that there are many who are seeing the it as a spiritual phenomenon that’s going to be revealing hidden questions. In a recent Newsweek article, the renowned TV science personality Bill Nye was asked why someone should care about the eclipse. His response was rather profound.

Two questions everyone wants to know: Where did we come from? And are we alone in the universe? And if you want to know the answers to those questions you have to explore space.”

It would be naive as a Christian to say that there aren’t many millions of people asking deep questions because of what is set to happen August 21st. I don’t consider myself an overly charismatic person who is into “signs”, per say. But how can we as the church not look at this “sign” as an opportunity for the gospel? Furthermore I think this is an opportunity for churches to do gospel-centered discipleship with our people on the subject of signs and wonders. Some are searching for and seeing answers they think the eclipse is bringing when in fact it may not be.

Beginning August 6th Revive will begin a 3 week study called “Signs and Wonders” as we enter into this popular, divisive, mystic, and perplexing subject. We can’t promise we’ll give you every answer you’re searching for. But we can promise you will hear about one answer that makes complete sense.

signs and wonders

According to NASA the Eclipse will begin in Nashville around 11:58 a.m. and end at 2:54 p.m. with the total eclipse happening from 1:27 p.m. to 1:29 p.m. So mark your calendars! We’d also love to extend an invitation to your family to be with us at Revive August 6th as we begin our study “Signs and Wonders”! Everyone in attendance will receive a free pair of eclipse glasses so you can share in the experience with your family.

Then I looked when the Lamb opened the sixth seal, and a huge earthquake took place; the sun became as black as sackcloth made of hair, and the full moon became blood red.

Revelation 6:12 New English Translation

Crucial Conversations

by Randy Taylor

Last Sunday Pastor Brock preached on this subject.  He talked about the 4 crucial conversations between God and Elijah, Ahab and Obadiah, Obadiah and Elijah, and Elijah and Ahab.  You might want to read that last sentence again to try and get it straight in your head.  In 1st Kings Chapter 18, you can read about each of these conversations.  Although each conversation was different, all of them were crucial to the parties that were involved.

Where I work, we have available to us a 2 day course on how to conduct a crucial conversation.  This tells me the importance that should be placed on a crucial conversation should be high.  At our company we know tough decision have to be made and crucial conversations are critical to the success of these decisions.  I believe it is just as critical in our lives outside the work place.

In 1st Kings Chapter 18, God had a plan for reaching Ahab.  He knew that a crucial conversations through Elijah and Obadiah was needed for His plan.  The conversations had to be at the right time and with the right message.  I think there are at least 4 things we can learn about crucial conversations.

  1. Start with prayer. This is probably obvious, but I believe it is overlooked many times.  Each crucial conversation we have should start with prayer when possible.  We should seek guidance on the right time to have the conversation.  We need to ensure we have the right heart for the conversation.
  2. Sprinkle in lots of love. Most crucial conversations go better when they are delivered with a heart of love.  Think back to times when you were on the receiving end of a crucial conversation.  If it was delivered with a heart of love, you were more likely to receive the message.  Without love there is a high potential for the conversation to become heated and emotional.
  3. Add in listening. A conversation is a two way street.  If only one party is doing all of the talking it becomes a monologue.  Listening shows you care about the conversation but more importantly you care about the other person(s) in the conversation.  If you listen, you may learn more about the others in the conversation and realize the things in their life where you can help.
  4. Try to end with agreement. In almost every crucial conversation, an agreement can be reached.  Sometimes this takes compromise from both parties.  Other times one party may “see the light” and realize the need to change or take action.  Reaching agreement will give all involved a sense of accomplishment and a better spirit of working together to accomplish the goal.

I am sure there are more ingredients that make crucial conversations successful, but hopefully, these suggestions will help when you are faced with the inevitable task of having a crucial conversation.

Messy Discipline

Messy Discipline

by Jenna Davis

I’m not currently a mom, but in my job as a nanny I basically get to pretend to be one during the work week. I hear a lot of mothers talk about how God often uses their children to teach them truths about Himself, & recently the Lord spoke to me through a seemingly “mundane” moment with the little one I care for….

After a messy breakfast of milk, banana and Cheerios, I grabbed a wet cloth to wipe his banana-covered hands and face–& he HATES when I do that.
*He also currently has a cold, so when wiping his nose enters the equation, it’s practically World War III.

I do my best to clean him up, as he turns his head from side to side, trying to avoid me. While he is squirming and crying and expressing his frustration for this momentary experience, I tell him,”I’m sorry, buddy, I know you hate this, but I’m trying to help you. You’re all messy and I need to clean you up.”

Whoa.

Enter…The Holy Spirit.

In that moment, He sweetly reminded me that HE knows what it’s like to be in the shoes of a caregiver, & that He is a good one. He loves His children and always wants, and does, what’s best for us. While we may wiggle, squirm, & cry out of frustration in those uncomfortable moments as He is working on us, He is patiently & calmly saying, “I know you might hate this, but it’s for your good. I’m making you beautiful; I’m making you clean.” (Hebrews 12:11)

It was a beautiful moment of realization for me.

However…if I’m honest…most of the time I don’t see it as beautiful, and usually wish that those times of God’s “cleaning-up” weren’t so painful. Sometimes I wish I could just skip to the parts of my life where I get exactly what I want, how I want it, and everything is glorious and wonderful, all wrapped up with a neat little bow…like the end of a Hallmark Holiday movie. (And, let’s be real–thanks to the invention of the internet, iPhone, & Amazon Prime- we are pretty much used to getting what we want, whenever we want it.) But that’s not the way sanctification works & it’s not how discipline works.

It’s hard. It’s challenging.
It’s laying down my will.
It’s daily dying to self.
It’s taking up MY cross to follow The One who bore it all for me when He carried HIS.

He is God.

He is good.

If I believe He is God and He is good, I must also believe that His plans are wiser, better, & that, in spite of my doubt, perseverance is possible, patience is still at work and (slowly…always slowly) making me perfect.

Jesus was a spiritual revolutionary. He said a lot of shocking things to a lot of people, including His disciples. In turn, some of them walked away not being able to reconcile it in their minds. I pray my response would be like Peter’s when those other disciples walked away. Jesus asked him if he wanted to leave, too. His response: “Where else would I go? You alone have the words of life.”

Jesus is still a spiritual revolutionary. He will sometimes ask us to walk through hard things. His heart-shaping and discipline, even if it doesn’t always feel good, is always for our benefit and growth.

And where else would we go?

He alone has the life we need.

He is worth trusting.
May we always long to REALLY trust Him, and rest in His sovereignty, wisdom, goodness and love.

 

Calling All Called: Part II

by Phil Baker

A couple Sundays ago Boone Benson taught us that God calls us through pain, not from it. That made me realize that in my last post I may have given the impression that a calling means it will be easy. But sometimes a calling is hard. In fact, sometimes it is so hard it can feel less like a calling and more like a challenge. I’ve recently felt such a call.

After my wife’s uncle passed away last year, his widow started cleaning out the house and giving things away. This uncle was a collector of various instruments, one of those people who could play virtually anything by ear. For years I had coveted a few of his banjoleles (a type of banjo/ukulele hybrid). I had taken up the ukulele a few years ago and the thought of simply transferring what I knew on the uke to the banjolele was very exciting. So I was naturally hoping to get one of them. But instead she gave me an actual banjo. I’m ashamed to say I was disappointed with my gift. I didn’t get what I wanted. Nevermind that this was a better gift, a much more expensive instrument. It was in excellent shape. And the fact that she set it aside especially for me was a touching sentiment.

A few months went by as I felt that banjo calling to me from inside its case. This Washburn 5 string had a voice and I wasn’t going to keep it silent. So, despite my intimidation and limited knowledge of stringed instruments, I answered the call. I started out very slowly and sporadically. But just recently I really committed to it, taking at least 30 minutes each day to work with it. That first day I got so frustrated I had to set it down and walk away for several hours. I wasn’t getting anywhere. Everything about it was so foreign and awkward. The ukulele was easy to learn. You just strum it. And if you know a few chords you can play a wealth of songs. But the banjo is so much more complicated. You pick it one string at a time. Its strings are in a completely different key and order than a ukulele or guitar. Then there’s that pesky 5th string that refuses a capo. ARRRG! I was tempted to give up entirely. But I gave it one more shot. Day 2 was just as hard. But on day 3 I had a major discovery that invigorated me! Day 4 and the days since I’ve begun to slowly get better. I’ve been plucking away at it every day for a couple weeks now.

Why would I have this calling? Am I to be the next Earl Scruggs or David Crowder? Probably not. At this point, only God knows the purpose. Maybe he just needs me to have calloused fingers. All I know is it’s my calling so I’m not gonna phone it in! (pun intended)

I’m reminded of Mr. Miyagi in The Karate Kid teaching Daniel “Wax on. Wax off.” Daniel didn’t know it at the time but Mr. Miyagi was teaching him a powerful defensive move by building those muscles and muscle memory. It wasn’t until Daniel had endured days of this seemingly pointless exercise that his sensei revealed the rewards of his teachings.

So why didn’t Mr. Miyagi just tell Daniel “Hey, I’m gonna teach you these really useful karate moves by having you do some of my home improvements!” He just kept silent while Daniel worked. Theologian Helmut Thielicke calls this “the silence of higher thoughts”. It means that only God sees the big picture. We can’t comprehend it (see Isaiah 55:9). It’s when He’s mum on his complete plan and just gives us what we need to know. It’s when a parent says “because I said so” to a child questioning their authority. It’s when Mary and Martha ask Jesus why he wasn’t there before Lazarus died (John 11:1-44).

You see, at its root, any calling from God is a call just to walk with Him day by day. Each day you have to rely on Him even if that day won’t be as rewarding as you’d hope. I will continue to practice my banjo day by day knowing that I will have some good days and some days I want to chuck it out the window. But I will continue to walk with Him. And he will walk with me.

So be mindful of God’s callings. Even the difficult ones. We won’t always be given the full picture making it all the more challenging and confusing. But rest in the fact that it is God who gave the call. He’s there at the finish line cheering you on!