Forty Years Ago

Forty Years Ago

I must be getting old.  Fifty-six doesn’t seem that old but I’m constantly amazed at how long I’ve known people.   In Ashburn, Georgia in the early sixties, few people moved. The kids with whom I attended kindergarten also graduated with me.  I could probably list fifty people on my Facebook friend list who were classmates. That’s 52 years of friendship with each one. Wild!

In spite of knowing everyone at Turner County High School, I started my sophomore year in a constant state of loneliness.  I didn’t realize it at first. My best friend of five years, a guy I’d spent hours and hours with both in and out of school, began making life choices that took him in a different direction than my life choices.  He partied; I worked (and sometimes studied). We never had a falling out. He and I simply drifted apart as our lives went in different directions. Even though the separation happened in a passive manner, it was still separation and for the first time in my life, I found myself without a close friend.  I still think about him often and wonder where he is and how he’s doing.

Oh, there were other friendship options and I was truly friends with many many people but no one really knew me, knew my heart.  I was friendly, polite, jovial even, but I was lonely. It was from this loneliness, that I began to pray for a friend, a genuine friend, a friend who would like me in spite of my foibles, failures, and flaws.  What were my options? It wasn’t like a new kid was going to appear out of the blue in this tiny town.

But God… (I think that’s my father’s favorite phrase.)

In spring 1978, First Baptist Ashburn, a church I didn’t attend, called a new pastor, Bob Zbinden.  Rev. And Mrs. Zbinden, affectionately and forever called Mr. and Mrs. Z, moved to town. They had four kids, a daughter in nursing school, twin boys in tenth grade, and a daughter in eighth grade.  Zack and Kelly and I quickly became inseparable. We didn’t even have a single class together that first quarter, but somehow began to eat lunch together.

We hung out at youth group.  We talked long into the night.  We prayed together. Mostly we sang together.  I earned my musical bona fides singing with Zack, Kelly, and Mark Mercer.  The twins inhaled bowls of fresh vegetables at my mom’s table. For two summers, Mrs. Z fed me lunch almost every day.  Our lives became intertwined.

Zack and I drove Kelly to Shorter College and helped him move in.  (I swear to this day an angel repaired our car on the way.) I’ve had dinner with Kelly in Chang Mai, Thailand where he works.  We’ve been in each other’s weddings. We’ve watched each other’s kids grow up, marry, and start their own families.

My wife and I have developed a close friendship with Melanie Zbinden and love spending time with her.  She’s full of love and joy and spreads it to those who have the privilege of knowing her.

Zack attended Georgia Tech while I went to Emory but we both went to First Baptist Atlanta where we continued to sing together.  One Sunday about 35 years ago, Dr. Charles Stanley asked us to remember our most desperate prayer and how God answered it. After the early service, we were in Sunday School assembly in the college department and I pulled Zack aside and told him how lonely I had been and that I had been praying for a friend when he and Kelly moved to Ashburn.  I told him for the first time that he had been a direct answer to my most desperate prayer. We both were tearing up. Mary Beth, the youngest Zbinden saw us and had a look of shock on her face. I remember asking her what was wrong and she said, “Well, it’s not every day I see my brother and his best friend crying!” We just laughed and didn’t offer an explanation.  (So, Mary Beth, here’s why.)

March 18, 2013                                                December 28, 2018

In short, in my most desperate hour, God answered my most desperate prayer with a family that helped shape the direction of my life.  Thank you Zbindens for your love, your care, your influence. May God continue to bless and multiply your family.


“So is Satan an agent of God?”

“So is Satan an agent of God?”

There is a knee-jerk response, “Of course not.” But is that response correct? The question had been asked by an incredibly intelligent man, a lawyer no less, trained in logic, argument, and debate. His question was valid and a direct result of our conversation that morning in small group. His question came from a position of humility; he was not trying to prove a point but genuinely trying to learn more about Christ. So how do we explain our temptations?

Our temptations come from a number of sources.  The world (or our culture and values we absorb from our culture) is a common source of temptation. (Romans 12:2) Our fallen nature produces plenty all by itself, but God tempts no one. (James 1:13-14). The devil tempts us, as we know from Jesus’ battle in the wilderness. He is also allowed from time to time and in order to accomplish God’s purposes in our lives, to “sift us like wheat,” (Luke 22:31). But that is not the same as being God’s agent. Satan, it appears, is always looking for ways, and has to ask permission, to do evil things in order to break our faith.   As Paul says, Satan is allowed to poke us with various pains in order to help us maintain humility

Why must we endure, like Paul, our “thorn in the flesh”? (2 Corinthians 12:7-10). There have been many times in my life that I have prayed for Christ to deliver me from sin, to take away the temptations. “Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.” John 8:34-36 ESV.  If Christ came that I might be free and free indeed, then why don’t I feel free? Why doesn’t the almighty, omniscient, creator of the universe, release me from this pain and suffering? Is he just sadistic? May it never be. Jesus loves us beyond our comprehension. His motivation in all things is first and foremost love for us. If this is true and he desires the very best for us, then why must we suffer our particular “thorns”? Paul wrote, “So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” 2 Corinthians 12:7-10 ESV

What exactly was Paul’s thorn?  We aren’t really sure.  Some theologians believe it was a chronic eye infection; in which case, a physical weakness could not be construed as a temptation.  On the other hand, it seems Paul, a gifted and well-educated speaker and writer, was intentionally ambiguous and vague in the description of his thorn.

First Paul says he has a thorn in order that he might not become conceited. Paul had been given great revelation by God in order that the saints through the ages might know Christ through His inspired word. That had to be a very heady experience for the apostle, yet he was humbled in order that he might not be puffed up. Paul prayed that the thorn would be removed but it wasn’t. Christ accepts our prayers even if He doesn’t remove our thorns. Christ gives us Grace in a sufficient and equal measure to our thorn. Why? So that our strength is made perfect in our weakness. If we had no weakness, what would there be to overcome? If we were never tempted, how would we rely on Christ’s strength to work in us?

Is it indeed possible that Christ Jesus, who loves us more than his own life (Greater love has no man than this, than he lay down his life for his friends.), is it possible that He has a plan for our good that outsmarts our enemy, that uses our temptations, a plan to train us into warriors for his Kingdom? I knew two different friends in high school who had their own thorns and just gave in or gave up. I knew them both as children and believe that they met Jesus but they succumbed to their thorns. One died of AIDS. The other has disappeared and even his family doesn’t know where he is. He is either living under a bridge somewhere, or in jail, or in a grave. Nevertheless, if they truly did meet Jesus, they will be in heaven and at the great feast.

What then is the benefit to fighting and struggling and suffering? When someone gives up and succumbs to their battle, there are no works that survive. They can be saved “as through fire”, but what is the long-term eternal consequence? Their experience of Jesus and his salvation is limited to an eternity of mild gratitude. An overcomer, however, gets to know Jesus now and their works will be proven on the day of judgment. Only the works of gold, silver, and precious stones will survive. (1 Corinthians 3:12-15). Ultimately the most important reward may be a much deeper intimacy with Jesus Christ for all of eternity.

So, is Satan an agent of God? I don’t believe that God’s original plan was that we suffer so, but I also believe that our God is so far greater than our adversary, that He uses Satan’s plans against us and turns them on their head so that we might gain a greater reward because of our perseverance.

Thank you, Jesus, for my infirmities, my thorns, my weaknesses, that I might know you and your redemption and dwell with you in a growing intimate relationship for all eternity.