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Tag Archives: Steve Brown

Friday Humor: “Be Who You Are!” By Steve Brown

Series: Friday Humor #7

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The first axiomatic statement is this: Almost all frustration and anxiety come from a refusal to be what one is. In other words, frustration and anxiety are the result of playing a part other than the one you have been given.

Someone tells the story of a man who was out of work. His unemployment compensation benefits had run out, and he was desperate. He went to the zoo to ask for work, and the zoo keeper told him they didn’t really have any work, but he could make a few extra dollars by taking the place of a gorilla who had died the day before.

Ordinarily the man would not have done it, but he really needed money. He accepted the job, put on the gorilla suit, and made his way back to the gorilla cage. It really wasn’t a bad job. All he had to do was to eat bananas and swing from a rope, and after a while he began to like the job. But alas, all good things must come to an end. One day his rope broke and he fell over the fence into the lion’s cage. He started yelling for help, and the closer the lion came to him, the louder he yelled. Finally the lion came right up next to him, nudged him, and said, “Hey Buddy, will you shut up! We are both going to be out of a job!”

Now the difference between some Christians and the man in the gorilla outfit is that whereas he was forced into his role, we aren’t. We choose a role for which we are not suited, and in that choice is the source of much of our misery and frustration.

Have you ever seen Christians who seemed to be very pure and very spiritual—and very miserable? The problem with those Christians is that they were playing a role for which they were not suited. Jesus said, “No one is good except God” (Mark 10:18). If Jesus was right, and I have every reason to believe He was, then we pretend to be good and pure, we have just climbed into a gorilla suit.

And then there are those Christians who feel that everything they say comes as if from Sinai. They make all sorts of political and social pronouncements as if God Himself had given them a corner on truth. They are very serious—and very miserable. God says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else” (Jeremiah 17:9a). If that is true, then the person who believes and acts as if he or she had a corner on truth (when only God has that corner) has started wearing a gorilla costume.

We see countless examples of Christian men and women who play parts for which they were not created in the pride that so often is the a mark of modern Christianity, in the anger we feel when our plans are crossed, or in the way we want the world to revolve around our selfish desires. It is important that we understand that the source of much of our frustration and anxiety is our proclivity toward being something we aren’t.

*This humorous anecdote was adapted from the excellent book by Stephen Brown. If God is In Charge. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 1983. Pages 61-62.

 

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Dr. Steve W. Brown on the Question: Why Does God Have Rules?

“God’s Rules”

Someone gave me several great rules of diet. Let me give you some of them:

  • If you eat something and no one sees you eat it, it has no calories.

  • If you drink a diet soda with a candy bar, the diet soda cancels out the calories in the candy bar.

  • When you eat with other people, calories don’t count if don’t eat more than they do.

  • Cookie pieces contain no calories; the process of breaking causes calorie leakage.

Don’t you wish those were true?

You see, there are certain inviolable rules built into the universe, so I’m afraid that wishing for fewer calories won’t make it so. The other rules of God are like that too. He doesn’t have rules to make you unhappy. Just the opposite. His word is simply the way the world works. Someone has said, “You don’t break the Ten Commandments. You break yourself against them.”

We would find life more enjoyable if we stopped fighting against God’s rules.

For Meditation & Application: Read Psalm 119

Circle, highlight, or underline all the benefits of God’s Word and knowing and obeying it as mentioned in Psalm 119. You’ll begin to get a taste of all that awaits those who guide their lives by God’s loving counsel.

About the Author:

Dr. Steve Brown is one of the most sought after preachers and conference speakers in the country. Having had extensive radio experience before entering the ministry, he is now heard weekdays on the national radio program, Key Life, and one minute feature, “Think Spots”. Steve also hosts a weekly radio talk show, “Steve Brown, Etc.”. He served as the senior pastor of Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church for 17 years before joining the Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) faculty as Professor of Preaching. After teaching full time for almost two decades at RTS, Dr. Brown retired and is Emeritus Professor of Preaching but remains an Adjunct Professor of Preaching teaching occasional classes each year.

Dr. Brown is the author of many (16 and counting) books and also serves on the Board of the National Religious Broadcasters and Harvest USA (He earned his B.A. from High Point College; an S.T.B. from Boston University School of Theology; and an Litt.D. from King College). Steve is one of my favorite writers and speakers because he is authentic, a great story-teller, is a theologian in disguise, and really knows how to address the realities of how sinful humans can experience the amazing grace of God. The article above was adapted from page 176 in his excellent book on surviving and thriving in a tough world: Jumping Hurdles, Hitting Glitches, and Overcoming Setbacks. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1992.

Steve Brown Has Authored These Outstanding Grace-Filled Books:

Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad at You. New York: Simon and Schuster/ Howard Books, 2012.

A Scandalous Freedom. New York: Simon and Schuster/ Howard Books, 2009.

What Was I Thinking? Things I’ve learned Since I Knew It All. New York: Simon and Schuster/ Howard Books, 2006.

Follow the Wind: Our Lord, the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.

Approaching God: How to Pray. New York: Howard, 1996.

Living Free: How to Live a Life of Radical Freedom and Infectious Joy. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994.

Born Free: How to Find Radical Freedom and Infectious Joy in an Authentic Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.

How To Talk So People Will Listen. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.

If Jesus Has Come: Thoughts on the Incarnation for Skeptics, Christians and Skeptical Christians by a Former Skeptic. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992.

Jumping Hurdles, Hitting Glitches, Overcoming Setbacks. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1992.

No More Mr. Nice Guy! Saying Goodbye to “Doormat” Christianity. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991.

When Being Good Isn’t Good Enough. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990.

Welcome to the Family: A Handbook for Living the Christian Life. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1990.

When Your Rope Breaks: Christ-centered advice on how to go on living—when making it through another day is the hardest thing in the world. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988.

Heirs with the Prince. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985.

If God is in Charge: Thoughts On The Nature of God For Skeptics, Christians, and Skeptical Christians. Grand Rapids: Baker 1983.

 

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Stephen W. Brown on Overcoming Discouragement

“The Demon of Discouragement”

Charles Spurgeon often dealt with the problem of discouragement. He told his students:

“One crushing stroke has sometimes laid the minister very low. The brother most relied upon becomes a traitor. Judas lifts up his heel against the man who trusted him, and the preacher’s heart for the moment fails him. . . . Strife, also, and division, and slander, and foolish censures, have often laid holy men prostrate, and made them go ‘as with a sword in their bones.’ Hard words wound some delicate minds very keenly…. By experience the soul is hardened to the rough blows which are inevitable in our warfare; but at first these things utterly stagger us, and send us to our homes wrapped in a horror of great darkness….

“When troubles multiply, and discouragements follow each other in long succession, like Job’s messengers, then, too, amid the perturbation of soul occasioned by evil tidings, despondency despoils the heart of all its peace. Constant dropping wears away stones, and the bravest minds feel the fret of repeated afflictions. If a scanty cupboard is rendered a severer trial by the sickness of a wife or the loss of a child, and if ungenerous remarks of hearers are followed by the opposition of deacons and the coolness of members, then, like Jacob, we are apt to cry, ‘All these things are against me’… Accumulated distresses increase each other’s weight; they play into each other’s hands, and like bands of robbers, ruthlessly destroy our comfort. Wave upon wave is severe work for the strongest swimmer. The place where two seas meet strains the most seaworthy keel. If there were regulated pause between the buffetings of adversity, the spirit would stand prepared; but when they come suddenly and heavily, like the battering of great hailstones, the pilgrim may well be amazed. The last ounce is laid upon us, what wonder if we for awhile are ready to give up the ghost!” (Charles H. Spurgeon. Lectures to My Students. London: Marshall, Morgan & Scott, 1969, 161-162).

Spurgeon, of course, was talking to ministers, but everyone can identify with his comments. One of the great problems with broken ropes is the inevitable discouragement which follows. How does one deal with the demon of discouragement? Let’s talk about it.

The Great Cloud of Witnesses

One of the keys to dealing with discouragement is found in Hebrews 12:1-3:

Therefore, since we are surrounded by so great a cloud of witnesses, let us also lay aside every weight, and sin which clings so closely, and let us run with endurance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus, the founder and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy that was set before him endured the cross, despising the shame, and is seated at the right hand of the throne of God. Consider him who endured from sinners such hostility against himself, so that you may not grow weary or fainthearted.

The writer of Hebrews first suggests that we are surrounded by witnesses. The eleventh chapter of Hebrews lists a number of Old Testament characters who endured great suffering and who persevered through faith. Talk about broken ropes! The writer ends that chapter talking about people of God who were mocked and beaten, who were stoned, imprisoned, sawn in half, and who had no homes (see Heb. 11:36-39).

The twelfth chapter of Hebrews opens by saying that we are surrounded by a cloud of witnesses; that is, “You are not by yourself. If your rope has broken, look at the broken ropes of others who have gone on to successfully complete their race. Be encouraged by them.”

The apostle Paul wrote the Christians in Corinth about the trials he and his friends had experienced-trials so great that they “despaired even of life” (2 Cor. 1:8). I wouldn’t wish that kind of hurt on anyone, but I’m glad Paul went through it. It makes me feel better about my own discouragement.

Discouragement, you see, is almost always marked by a feeling of aloneness. You feel that no one could possibly understand, no one could possibly have had the kind of troubles you have, no one could possibly be as discouraged as you are at the moment. It helps sometimes to remember that others have indeed shared the occasion of suffering.

An old spiritual says, “When I’ve done the best I can and my friends misunderstand, / Thou Who know-est all about me, stand by me.” But, you see, all of your friends don’t misunderstand. You just think they do. Discouragement is a part of living.

In the early part of the sixteenth century a man by the name of Thomas Bilney became convinced of the need for the Bible in the lives of believers. Because he was vocal about those convictions, he was burned at the stake in Norwich, England, in 1531. His story is not uncommon. Many people have burned at the stake because of their convictions.

Standing in the crowd on the day Bilney was executed was a young man named Hugh Latimer. A graduate of Cambridge, Latimer was so influenced by the life and death of Bilney that he committed his life to the propagation of Bilney’s faith. Later, Latimer became a bishop of the church. When “Bloody” Mary came to the throne, Hugh Latimer was among those who were tortured and killed. While he was burning at the stake, he turned to a fellow bishop and friend being executed with him and said, “Be of good comfort, Master Ridley. We shall this day light such a candle by God’s grace in England as, I trust, shall never be put out.”

I think of Bilney and Latimer when I get discouraged. They are a few of the witnesses who minister to me when my rope has broken. I have also asked God to give me enough grace to “keep on trucking” so that I may be a witness to others whose rope has broken.

The Demon of Guilt

The passage quoted from Hebrews 12 not only suggests that we have company, but also reminds us that we have been forgiven. The writer says, “Let us lay aside every weight, and the sin which so easily ensnares us.” I don’t know about you, but when I’m discouraged, the first thing I do is evaluate my sin-and I find a whole lot. Guilt, you see, is part of the demonic element in discouragement. How do you lay aside the weight and sin? You do it with confession, resting in the promise that “if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:9). Discouragement hardly ever grows in the soil of forgiveness.

When I was in high school, a group of my friends and I had an all-night party. About three in the morning someone suggested that we go swimming in the pool of an exclusive club and hotel in town. It was very dark when we climbed the fence and approached the pool. We were having a good time until one of my friends jumped off the high diving board, sitting on an inner tube. When he hit the water, it sounded like a shotgun blast. Before we knew what was happening the lights started going on in the hotel, and the night watchman came out of his office with his gun and a flashlight. We ran.

As I was climbing over the fence and running to the car, I looked back over my shoulder to see my friend-the one who had jumped off the high diving board-trying to climb the fence holding on to the inner tube. “Bill,” I yelled back, “drop the inner tube or the sucker’s going to get you!”

Guilt is like that inner tube. If your rope has broken, you already have enough trouble without adding guilt to the pile. You’ve already seen that there is no absolute correlation between your sin and your broken ropes. So, don’t forget to throw away the inner tube. Examine your life, accept your forgiveness, and don’t keep carrying around the inner tube of guilt.

Power to Endure

The author of Hebrews says that we are empowered to endure our broken ropes by “looking unto Jesus, the author and finisher of our faith, who for the joy that was set before Him endured the cross, despising the shame, and has sat down at the right hand of the throne of God” (Heb.12:2). Hopelessness is the twin sister of discouragement. No Christian need ever feel hopeless, because we have the choice of looking to

Jesus rather than at our circumstances. Do you remember when Jesus told Peter to walk on the waves? At first the disciples thought Jesus was a ghost, but Jesus quickly told them who He was and settled their fears. Peter, evidently, still had some doubt that Jesus was who He said He was, so he made a simple request:

“Lord, if it is You, command me to come to You on the water.” So He said, “Come.” And when Peter had come down out of the boat, he walked on the water to go to Jesus. But when he saw that the wind was boisterous, he was afraid; and beginning to sink he cried out, saying, “Lord, save me!” And immediately Jesus stretched out His hand and caught him, and said to him, “O you of little faith, why did you doubt?” And when they got into the boat, the wind ceased. – Matthew 14:28-32

Peter’s problem was that he began to look at the waves instead of at Jesus. I don’t know about you, but if the waves had been big, I would have looked at them too. When waves are big, the danger is real, and we think about them to the exclusion of anything else. Some broken ropes are so devastating, it’s hard to look at anything except the broken rope. When you’re going through a divorce, when you have cancer, when you’re losing your children, others may easily say look at Jesus, but it’s very hard to do.

All of that granted, there is still a difference when Jesus is with us. Looking to Jesus may not be easy, and we can’t ignore the waves altogether. However, the point of Peter’s experience was not to show that waves exist or how big they get but to show that Jesus was there. He was there for Peter, and He is there for us.

One of the many nice things about my wife, Anna, is that she always puts little notes in and around the clothes I pack when I leave home for a speaking engagement. Anna knows that I get nervous in academic settings (I ran away from kindergarten, and I struggled through the next twenty years of education) and that I have a great desire to do well and to have people like me and a great fear of failure. As I was dressing before a lecture I was to give at Denver Seminary, I found a note in my shoe: “Just remember that nothing is going to happen today that Jesus can’t handle. ” That note reminded me about the One who owns me and for whom I speak. Because Anna helped me to focus on Jesus instead of myself and the situation, I felt a lot better.

“But  you don’t understand,” you are saying. “My broken rope is a lot more than a little fear about speaking in a seminary. I am really going through a very difficult time. I’m so discouraged that I don’t think I can go on.”

Let me tell you something: The principle is the same
no matter what the circumstances. Either Jesus is there or He isn’t. Either Jesus does have something to do with your situation or He doesn’t. If He doesn’t, you have a whole lot bigger problem than discouragement. But the Scripture is clear about His involvement: “And we know that all things work together for good to those who love God, to those who are called according to His purpose” (Romans 8:28). Focus on Him. It can make a big difference.

I want to remind you of four important items we often forget when we’re discouraged.

(1) Remember the Past

First, don’t forget the past. The past is the informer of the present. Not everything said by Job’s friends was wrong. A case in point is Bildad’s first speech to job:

“For inquire, please, of the former age, And consider the things discovered by their fathers; For we are but of yesterday, and know nothing, Because our days on earth are a shadow. Will they not teach you and tell you, And utter words from their heart?” (Job 8:8-10)

When you look at the history of God’s people, you see God’s faithfulness and love. When you look to your own past, you can also see God’s faithfulness and love.

God has been building memorials in your life from the time you were born. What’s a memorial? It’s a memory of times when God has been faithful. If He was faithful in the past, He won’t stop being faithful now or in the future.

If I had been standing on the side of the boat, watching Peter go under the waves, I would have shouted to him, “Hey Peter! You were walking. You were really walking on the water before you got so overwhelmed by the waves. You aren’t going to drown. Jesus won’t let you.” If I could have gotten Peter’s attention, maybe he would have climbed back up on the wave and ridden it to Jesus. Of course, he didn’t. That’s why Jesus reached down and pulled him out.

I’ll bet Peter recorded in his memory those waves and Jesus’ faithfulness on that day. I’ll bet Peter thought about it the rest of his life.

I keep a diary. I must admit that I don’t write in it very often. In fact, I don’t write in it unless one of my ropes has broken. The diary records not my life but those places in my life when I was hurt and discouraged. When I think I’ve finally gotten into a hole from which I will never escape, I get out the diary and read about the other times when I thought I was in the same place. Then, I remember that I got out of the hole. It may have hurt, but by God’s grace I got out of the hole. God always says to me on those occasions of diary reading, “Child, if I was faithful then, I will be faithful now.”

(2) Remember the Facts

Second, when you are discouraged, don’t forget the facts. Paul instructed the people at Ephesus how to stand in the midst of a

spiritual battle: “Therefore take up the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand. Stand therefore, having girded your waist with truth” (Eph. 6:13-14). Please note that Paul said we need to depend on truth for support; facts are the reality, not our feelings about the facts. One of the marks of discouragement is the “feeling” that God has gone away-that you aren’t important and that you’ve been kidding yourself about your relationship with Him. I heard the story of a man whose wife left him, children disowned him, and business failed. As he was walking down the street, he was hit by an automobile and left bruised and battered, a number of bones broken. In his agony he called out to God, “Why me? What have I done to deserve all of this?” He thought he heard a voice from heaven saying, “Sam, you haven’t done anything wrong. There is just something about you that ticks me off.” Discouragement can make you believe that you’ve offended God. Is that true? Of course not. God doesn’t act in that kind of capricious manner. How do I know that? Because the Bible is clear on the subject. When you were a teenager did you go to one of those Christian camps where there was a closing campfire? If you did, you’ll remember how you took a pine cone or a stick, which represented your sin, and you threw it in the fire. If you were like me, you then told God that from that point on you were going to be obedient and different. You were going to be God’s person. Those are good experiences, and I don’t want to say anything against them. But you can easily make promises of obedience sitting by a campfire in the mountains, with all your friends singing hymns about Jesus. When you come back home and your mother wants you to carry out the garbage, though, the promises aren’t so easy to keep. It took me a long time to recognize that feelings are changeable and a decision made on the basis of feelings, even a good one, probably would change. There is, of course, nothing wrong with decisions based on feelings except that those kinds of decisions hardly ever last unless they are reinforced with facts. If you are encouraged by certain feelings, you will be discouraged by others. If you are encouraged by facts, no matter how discouraged you become, the facts won’t change.

Someone has said, “Never doubt in the dark what God has taught you in the light.” That’s good advice. Some of my friends find great comfort in prayer and studying the Scriptures when they are going through a difficult time, but that isn’t the way it works for me. When my rope breaks, the Scriptures seem as dry as dust and my prayers never seem to get any further than my front teeth. I study the Scriptures and pray when
things are going reasonably well. Then, when the darkness comes, I remember the truth I discovered in the light, and I hang on to that with everything I’ve got.

In your dealing with discouragement, knowing Bible doctrine is essential because it gives you eternal truths, facts that are constant in spite of what your feelings are at any particular moment. Sometimes I don’t feel like a Christian; sometimes I feel that God could not possibly be a God of love; sometimes I feel that there could not possibly be any meaning in my broken rope; sometimes I feel that God has cast me aside and that my life has been wasted. But, you see, feelings are just that—feelings. They have no reality of their own. That is why I remember in the dark the truth that I learned in the light.

(3) Remember the Process

Third, when your rope is broken and you are discouraged, don’t forget that God works out His purpose in the process. The psalmist wrote: The steps of a good man are ordered by the LORD, And He delights in his way. Though he fall, he shall not be utterly cast down; For the LORD upholds him with His hand” (Psalm 37:23-24).

Let me tell you a secret. When you’re up, you think you’ll never be down, and when you’re down, you think you’ll never be up. But in the process of living you will go through times of success and joy and times of failure and discouragement.

In New England folks have a saying about the weather: If you don’t like it, just wait a couple of minutes and it will change. Discouragement is like that. It comes and it goes, so you need not assume that a state of discouragement, or encouragement for that matter, is permanent. When God decides that your broken rope has accomplished its purpose, He will fix the rope, and the discouragement will be fixed too.

My brother, Ron, spent a summer with us on Cape Cod to make some money to pay for his college education. He started out as a waiter because someone had told him that, with the big tips, he would make as much as two or three thousand dollars. That job lasted about two days. After numerous botched orders, broken plates, and angry customers, both Ron and his employer decided that Ron was not cut out to be a waiter. He then got a construction job. The construction contract ran out and he was laid off.

He came into my study one day and said, “Brother, this whole summer was a mistake. I should have stayed at home” I tried to encourage him, but in fact, I agreed with him. The summer hadn’t turned out the way either one of us had expected. But when I got home for dinner that evening, Ron was in a much better mood. I figured that he had found another job, but that wasn’t the case.

“Steve,” he told me, “I got to thinking this afternoon and decided that my life could change in the next five minutes. Why get discouraged?” He was right. The next day he got a job as a ranger on a golf course, and it was one of the best summer jobs he ever had.

Ron understood something we all ought to remember: the only thing that doesn’t change is the fact that change happens. Remember, every day the world rolls over on top of someone who was just sitting on top of it.

Let me repeat one of my favorite axioms: You can stand almost anything if you know it isn’t permanent. As a pastor, I am constantly amazed at the resilience of God’s people. The worst tragedy bringing the most terrible depression eventually dissipates
through the power of God’s grace. It doesn’t always fade quickly or easily, but it does fade away. Just accept your discouragement now as a part of God’s purpose, and be still until the light of understanding and grace shines.

(4) Look to the Future

Finally, when your rope has broken and you are discouraged, don’t forget the future. Paul wrote about what we can look forward to as believers:

Behold, I tell you a mystery: We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed-in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised incorruptible, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality …. then shall be brought to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory” (I Corinthians 15:51-54).

Richard Wurmbrand, who has dealt often with broken ropes, is a voice of hope in the midst of discouragement. He spent some fourteen years in communist prisons and is an example of a follower of Christ who, with hope and love, survived the worst that one man could do to another.

Wurmbrand, discussing the atheism of communism, spoke of the hope we have for the future. He suggested that if someone were to speak to an embryo, he or she might say that there was a wonderful life beyond the womb. If the embryo should answer the way an atheist would, it would say, “Don’t bother me with this kind of religious superstition. This is my world, and it’s the only one I know. I cannot see beyond it, and it is pure opiate to suggest that there is anything beyond.”

“But suppose,” Wurmbrand wrote,

this embryo could think with greater discernment than our academicians. It would say to itself: “Eyes develop in my head. To what purpose? There is nothing to see. Legs grow. I do not even have room to stretch them. Why should they grow? And why do arms and hands grow? I have to keep them folded over my breast. They embarrass me and my mother. My whole development in the womb is senseless unless there follows a life with light and color and many objects for my eyes to see. The place in which I’ll spend this other life must be large and varied. I will have to run in it. Therefore my legs grow. It will be a life of work and struggle. Therefore I grow arms and fists, which are of no use here”  (Richard Wurmbrand. My Answer to Moscow Atheists. New Rochelle: Arlington House, 1975, 156-157).

Broken ropes and the accompanying discouragement remind us that this life isn’t the way it ought to be. Thirst may not prove there is water, and hunger may not prove there is food. But thirst and hunger are very good indicators that there is something somewhere to fulfill those needs, something for resolution and completion, pointing to the future and to a promise.

“Let not your heart be troubled; you believe in God, believe also in Me. In My Father’s house are many mansions; if it were not so, I would have told you. I go to prepare a place for you” (John 14:1-2). When your rope is broken and you are discouraged, remember the memorials God has given you in the past and look to the future with the confidence that He has prepared a place for you.

About the Author:

Dr. Steve Brown is one of the most sought after preachers and conference speakers in the country. Having had extensive radio experience before entering the ministry, he is now heard weekdays on the national radio program, Key Life, and one minute feature, “Think Spots”. Steve also hosts a weekly radio talk show, “Steve Brown, Etc.”. He served as the senior pastor of Key Biscayne Presbyterian Church for 17 years before joining the Reformed Theological Seminary (RTS) faculty as Professor of Preaching. After teaching full time for almost two decades at RTS, Dr. Brown retired and is Emeritus Professor of Preaching but remains an Adjunct Professor of Preaching teaching occasional classes each year.

Dr. Brown is the author of many (16 and counting) books and also serves on the Board of the National Religious Broadcasters and Harvest USA (He earned his B.A. from High Point College; an S.T.B. from Boston University School of Theology; and an Litt.D. from King College). Steve is one of my favorite writers and speakers because he is authentic, a great story-teller, is a theologian in disguise, and really knows how to address the realities of how sinful humans can experience the amazing grace of God. The article above was adapted from Chapter 8 in his excellent book on surviving and thriving in a tough world: When Your Rope Breaks: Christ-centered advice on how to go on living—when making it through another day is the hardest thing in the world. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988.

He Has Authored These Outstanding Books:

Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad at You. New York: Simon and Schuster/ Howard Books, 2012.

A Scandalous Freedom. New York: Simon and Schuster/ Howard Books, 2009.

What Was I Thinking? Things I’ve learned Since I Knew It All. New York: Simon and Schuster/ Howard Books, 2006.

Follow the Wind: Our Lord, the Holy Spirit. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1999.

Approaching God: How to Pray. New York: Howard, 1996.

Living Free: How to Live a Life of Radical Freedom and Infectious Joy. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1994.

Born Free: How to Find Radical Freedom and Infectious Joy in an Authentic Faith. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.

How To Talk So People Will Listen. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1993.

If Jesus Has Come: Thoughts on the Incarnation for Skeptics, Christians and Skeptical Christians by a Former Skeptic. Grand Rapids: Baker, 1992.

Jumping Hurdles, Hitting Glitches, Overcoming Setbacks. Colorado Springs: NavPress, 1992.

No More Mr. Nice Guy! Saying Goodbye to “Doormat” Christianity. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1991.

When Being Good Isn’t Good Enough. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1990.

Welcome to the Family: A Handbook for Living the Christian Life. Old Tappan, New Jersey: Fleming H. Revell, 1990.

When Your Rope Breaks: Christ-centered advice on how to go on living—when making it through another day is the hardest thing in the world. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1988.

Heirs with the Prince. Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 1985.

If God is in Charge: Thoughts On The Nature of God For Skeptics, Christians, and Skeptical Christians. Grand Rapids: Baker 1983.

 

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“No Super Christians” by Steve W. Brown

After a week of meetings in Pittsburgh, a man came up to meet me following the service. A former missionary and member of the church for over thirty years, he said something to me I still haven’t been able to classify as either a compliment or something otherwise. “Steve,” he said, “I’ve really appreciated what you’ve said this week.” I told him I was glad. Then he added, “I’ve been in church all my life, and all my life I’ve heard pastors say that they were sinners. You’re the first one I ever really believed.”

Though I still chuckle about that remark, I acknowledge with complete sincerity his observation. You see, I’m not a pastor and radio preacher because I’m good or have abilities or because I’m talented. I’m where I’m at because God put me here. And sometimes I’ll be soft and sometimes I’ll be hard, but you remember, I’m just like you. God must remind me over and over that even when people call me Reverend, I’m not. Christ established an equality in the brotherhood that has direct implications for me as well as for you.

In every congregation of believers, God sets aside brothers and sisters who are called of God to lead. But the problem is, sometimes we get the idea that we are God’s gift to the world, and when that happens, the delicate balance between gifted leadership and ecclesiastical elitism gets shattered. There’s no room in the Body of Christ for elitism of any sort. That’s the world’s way.

After Queen Victoria and Prince Albert had had one of their famous, loud arguments, Prince Albert went to his room and slammed and locked the door. Queen Victoria marched after him and pounded on his door.

“Who is it?” asked Prince Albert.

“It is the Queen of England.”

Dead silence. The again the question: “Who is it?”

“It is your sovereign ruler,” replied the Queen.

Then once again, “Who is it?”

“It is your wife, Victoria, Albert.”

At that point Albert opened the door.

You may be an elder or deacon or a leader in your Sunday school. Perhaps you lead in some of the other groups in your church and conduct Bible studies. Whatever your role, I thank God for you. But remember that you’re doing it (or at least should be) because God told you to do it, not because you’re a super Christian. There are no super Christians in the body of Christ. All of us are just one among equals. So when a Christian brother or sister stands on the pedestal of his or her own status…when a peacock feathers start flying in the breeze…don’t bow. That kind of behavior doesn’t need to be encouraged. Honesty does. The importance of being honest and acknowledging our true condition and coequal status cannot be overstated.

When a Christian gets honest, something exciting happens. We get to the point where God can use us. Evangelist D.L. Moody once said, “I’ve had more trouble with D.L. Moody than with any other man I’ve ever known.” Thomas a Kempis said, “Be not angry that you cannot make others as you wish them to be since you cannot make yourself as you wish yourself to be.” If we don’t get honest with ourselves, then God is going to force it on us.

Let me tell you a prayer that God always answers: “Lord, show me myself.” Don’t pray it unless you mean it because God will surely answer you, and you won’t like what you see. But he’ll make you different through it—I guarantee it.

Super Christians? They don’t exist. There are only sinners saved by the blood of the Lamb. Remember the next time you find yourself enjoying compliments so much. If you listen carefully, you will hear them sound like a cape flapping vainly in the wind.

*Steve Brown is a radio broadcaster, seminary professor and author. He previously served as a pastor for over twenty-five years and now devotes much of his time to the radio broadcast, Key Life.

With such varied experience and unique perspective on life, Steve is an original. He refuses to be a “guru,” doesn’t want to be anyone’s mother and gives, in his teaching, the freedom to think. Overall, Steve has become known for his refreshing and practical Biblical applications.

Steve serves as Professor Emeritus of Preaching and Pastoral Ministry at Reformed Theological Seminary. He sits on the board of the National Religious Broadcasters and Harvest USA. Traveling extensively, Steve is a much-in-demand speaker.

Steve is the author of numerous books including A Scandalous Freedom, Approaching God, When Being God Isn’t Good Enough, What Was I Thinking? And Three Free Sins. His articles appear in such magazines and journals as Leadership, Decision, Plain Truth and Today’s Christian Woman. Article above No Super Christians adapted from Steve Brown, Jumping Hurdles, Hitting Glitches, Overcoming Setbacks, Colorado Springs, NavPress, 1992, 107-108.

 

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Book Review – Three Free Sins: God’s Not Mad At You by Steve Brown

Why It’s Bad Trying So Hard To Be Good

I’m pretty sure I’ve read every book that Steve Brown has written and I love them all. So I was anxiously anticipating this new book with the “scandalous” title. Steve Brown is NOT a proponent of “cheap grace,” he understands justification by faith alone as well, or perhaps better than most theologians do. Steve Brown writes with his characteristic blend of humor and authentic seriousness about living the abundant life that Jesus came to bring us by helping the reader understand and apply two important truths related to the gospel stated by the late Jack Miller as follows:

“(1) Cheer up…you’re a lot worse than you think you are, and

(2) cheer up…God’s grace is a lot bigger than you think it is.”

These two truths are developed eloquently and cogently throughout the book. In typical Brown-like fashion this book is full of biblical principles, powerful illustrations, and practical examples that will help you become less of a self-righteous Pharisee, and more like Jesus – full of joy, freedom, laughter, and basking in grace and truth.

Some of the specific issues Brown addresses in this book are as follows: perfectionism, self-righteousness, legalism, anger, repentance, unity in the body of Christ, pride and humility, religiosity, honesty, freedom, grace, and truth.

In the very last chapter he specifically answers some of the questions he gets due to his many books, sermons, and speaking on freedom and grace through justification by faith alone in Jesus Christ:

(1) Are you crazy?

(2) Why do you persist in irritating everybody? Free sins? That’s outrageous! Why don’t you write and teach in a normal way?

(3) There are a lot of examples in the Bible that show God’s wrath, and yet you say that God isn’t angry at his people. Are you sure you haven’t gotten it wrong?

(4) What’s hermeneutics? (Brown relates this to question 3 above)

(5) Okay, but what about obedience?

(6) Is holiness and sanctification irrelevant?

(7) What about discipline? You very conveniently avoid Hebrews 12:7. It says in case you don’t know, “It is for discipline that you have to endure. God is treating you as sons. For what son is there whom his father does not discipline?

(8) You don’t seem to care much for excellence nor do you have a very high view of human nature. Don’t you think you’ve gone a bit too far?

(9) Okay, but where do you draw the line?

(10) What about right and wrong? You don’t seem to care about that.

(11) What about being missional? If Christians buy into what you’ve taught, won’t people stop going on the mission field, feeding the poor, and caring for those in need?

(12) Aren’t you a bit pessimistic about human beings?

(13) Doesn’t that lead to “wormology” and a bad self-image?

(14) What if you’re wrong?

As usual (when reading a Brown offering), I read this book and felt the full gamut of emotions – I laughed, and cried, got mad (not at Steve Brown) – but at myself and other Christians – for our self-righteous stupidity, and most of all praised God for His amazing grace and patience with the world, and especially with me! There is solid theological and practical food for the head, heart, and hands all over the place in this book. Once again, I was struck by God’s amazing grace to save a wretch like me. And once again I’m glad for all of humanity that I’m NOT God – and that Jesus is – and that He is my Savior – His righteousness in exchange for all of my many sins – covered by the Blood of the Lamb for all eternity by the sheer grace of God.

 

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Book Review: If God Is In Charge by Steve Brown

The subtitle of this book is “Thoughts on the nature of God for skeptics, Christians, and skeptical Christians.” And these thoughts are at times profound, other times humorous, and always based on Biblical truth. Steve Brown’s books (I’ve read of all of them) are full of stories, good quotes, illustrations, and most importantly – practical expositions of important Biblical passages related to the topic. This book is no exception.

In this enjoyable read Brown tackles the topic of God’s Sovereignty and each chapter looks at the evidence for and the application of each truth. The premise is that if God is in charge:

1)    What is He like?

2)    How is He in Charge?

3)    Why do I hurt so much?

4)    Then I’m Not

5)    Then I’m Responsible to Him

6)    Then I’m Free

7)    Then I can Risk

8)    Then I can Question

9)    Then I can Praise

10) Then I can Dream

The foundations of this book from beginning to end are that God is Big, He’s in Charge, and He loves you. The author mines principles for each of the topics above based on sound Biblical evidence from each text. It’s encouraging, entertaining, thought provoking, and very practical. I think the sign of a really good book is that it’s one you will read over and over again – this is definitely one of those books. Thanks for doing it again and again Steve Brown – Keep the helpful books coming.

 

 

 

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The Music of Freedom (The Boy Who Loved Music)

[Chapter 2 of the excellent book on God’s Grace and Freedom by Steve Brown]

When Being Good Isn’t Good Enough, Thomas Nelson, 1990.

“The elders have ceased gathering at the gate,

and the young men from their music. The

joy of our heart has ceased; our dance

has turned into mourning.” – Lamentations 5:14-15

            Before we go any further in our discussion of freedom and grace I want to tell you a story. It is not fiction. Fiction is the telling of a story that is not true in a way that makes it seem true. The story I am going to tell is true, but its truth is deeper than the story. It is myth in the deeper sense of the word.

Some say that parables are closer to truth than polemics and that stories tell more than sermons. Or to put it another way, myth sometimes touches a deeper truth in us than philosophy. I suspect that is particularly true when presenting fairly radical ideas.

As you continue to read this book, you may grow confused and perhaps a little angry. You may think that I have gone off the “deep end” or that I have become a heretic. You may even find yourself wishing that the things I have said were true, but you are afraid to believe them because nothing could be that good!

On those occasions I want you to read this story again. In it you will find the essence of this book and, without sounding presumptuous, the essence of the Christian faith. Now relax and let me tell the story.

There once was a little boy named Ebed. Ebed had music in his heart, but he wanted it in his hands. He wanted to play the piano. In fact, he wanted to play the piano more than anything else in the world. No one knew it, of course. Boys aren’t supposed to play the piano; they’re supposed to fish and camp and play sports. Ebed liked all those things, but more than anything he wanted to play the piano.

But Ebed’s family couldn’t afford the piano lessons for him. So when his friends talked about learning to play the piano, Ebbie would laugh and make fun of them.

“Playing the piano,” he would say, “is for girls. It’s more fun to play ball. Pretty soon you guys will be wearing dresses and carrying purses!” And then Ebbie would walk off with a smirk on his face. But inside he knew the truth. More than anything in the world, he wanted to play the piano.

Sometimes when no one was around he would sit down at the piano at school and try to play. He really wasn’t that bad for someone who had never had a lesson. In fact, his untutored playing made Ebbie think that he might have talent.

One day at the local ice cream parlor Ebbie noticed his friends and their piano teacher eating ice cream and laughing together. It was obvious to Ebbie that the piano teacher not only taught his students to play the piano but was also their friend. They, of course, didn’t see Ebbie standing by the door. They were too absorbed in one another. Ebbie stood there for the longest time, afraid they would notice him, but also, in a strange way, afraid they wouldn’t.

After a while Ebbie left the ice cream parlor. He felt very sad. He kept up a good front in the parlor, but if anyone had noticed him, they would have noticed the tears welling up in his eyes. Ebbie ran down to the lake, where he went sometimes when he wanted to be alone. Once he was sure nobody was around, he sat down on a rock and began to cry.

Ebbie cried and thought for a long time. He thought about how much he wanted to play the piano, and he thought about the piano teacher. He knew his family was poor and there were some things he just couldn’t have. But still, it would be nice to have a friend like the piano teacher.

All of a sudden Ebbie heard the sound behind him. Turning quickly, he found to his horror that the piano teacher was standing there, smiling at him.

“Where did you come from?” Ebbie asked more harshly than he intended.

“I noticed you at the ice cream parlor,” the piano teacher replied. “You looked lonely and I thought I would follow you. Do you mind if I sit down for a while?”

“Suit yourself,” Ebbie said, “but I did come here to be alone, and I didn’t invite you.”

The piano teacher sat down on the same rock with Ebbie and for a long time didn’t say a word. When the teacher did speak, his voice was soft and understanding.

“Ebed, would you like to play the piano?”

“What makes you think that? The piano is for girls and…” Ebbies voice trailed off as he looked into the piano teacher’s eyes. He couldn’t lie. “Yes,” Ebbie admitted slowly, “I would like to play the piano. In fact, sir, I have always wanted to play the piano, but I don’t have the money to pay for lessons.”

“Well, maybe I can do something to help.”

“Yeah,” Ebbie responded, “like what?”

“Well, I could be your friend. Friends don’t charge for helping. If I was your friend, I could teach you to play the piano.”

“That would be great!” Ebbie shouted, jumping up. In his excitement, he almost fell off the rock into the lake. But the piano teacher caught Ebbie just in time, and they both started to laugh. Ebbie couldn’t remember a time he had laughed so hard.

“You know my name,” Ebbie remarked. “I can’t believe you know my name.”

“Yes,” the piano teacher agreed. “I have known your name for a long time.”

“Well, if we’re going to be friends, I guess I ought to know your name too.”

“It’s Immanuel,” the teacher said, “But my best friends call me ‘Manny.’ I hope you will call me Manny too.”

Ebbie decided that day he was going to be the best piano player who ever lived. “Others,” he thought to himself, “don’t think playing the piano is that important, but it’s what I’ve wanted all my life. I will work and work until I’m the best piano student the teacher has, and he will be very proud of me.”

But over the next few weeks, Ebbie found that playing the piano was not as easy as he had supposed. He had thought he would be well on his way after only a few lessons. Nobody, however, had told him about scales, the hours of practice, and the simple little tunes beginners have to play.

One day, after an extremely frustrating lesson, Ebbie turned to his teacher dejectedly, “I’ll never get this right, Manny. I keep making the same mistakes over and over again. And I can see it in your eyes. You’re about ready to give up on me, and I would understand. It’s all my fault.”

“Ebed.” Immanuel’s smile made his words almost unnecessary. “I will never give up on you. Friends don’t give up on friends.”

“What if I leave and don’t come back?”

“Ebed, if you never came back, you are still my friend. I will always be here to give you lessons.” And then with a grin Immanuel asked, “Do you still want to play the piano?”

“Of course, I want to play. I’ve always wanted to play, but nobody ever told me it was going to be this hard.”

“Did I tell you it would be easy?”

“No sir.”

“But I did say you would learn to play the piano, and that I would be your friend. We’re working on the first, and the second will always be.”

Immanuel sat down on the piano bench beside Ebbie.

“Let’s look at the piece you’re working on.”

Ebbie sheepishly got out his beginner’s book and turned to “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” Ebbie blushed to show his teacher that he had gotten no further in the book.

“Play it for me,” Immanuel said.

“But I can only play the treble line well.”

“Doesn’t matter. Play it for me anyway.”

So Ebbie began to peck out the melody of “Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star.” To be perfectly honest, the little star didn’t twinkle very brightly. Ebbie kept missing notes and stopping often to make sure his fingers were in the right position. His rhythm was halting.

And then, to his surprise, Ebbie heard the most beautiful music he had ever heard. He looked to his right, Immanuel was adding to Ebbie’s notes with his right hand. And then, without missing a beat, the piano teacher eased himself behind Ebbie, encircled Ebbie from behind with his arms, and added bass notes with his left hand as well! Ebbie continued to play his one-note melody, but now it sounded totally different.

Immanuel’s melody wove into Ebbie’s single line, transforming the simple melody into a complex symphony of sound. Ebbie was so fascinated that he almost forgot to keep playing. The harmonies, one on top of the other, soared in an increasingly complicated arrangement, sounding almost like an orchestra. Soon Ebbie was totally lost in the wonder and beauty of the music coming from the piano.

When Immanuel and Ebbie finished playing the piece, Ebbie felt tears stinging in his eyes, and through the tears he could see Immanuel smiling.

“We make pretty good music together,” Immanuel said.

“You don’t mean ‘we,’ do you?”

“Yes, Ebed. We made the music together. You did what you could, and I did the rest.”

And then Immanuel invited Ebbie into his study. Over the weeks, Ebbie had enjoyed sitting and talking with Immanuel as much as he enjoyed learning to play the piano. In fact, if the truth were known, Ebbie enjoyed his time with Immanuel more than anything else in the world.

Immanuel lived in a large house close to the lake where he and Ebbie had first met. The house was almost overpowering in its size, and Ebbie always felt as if he were visiting the house of a great nobleman. At least, that is how he felt until Immanuel would answer the door. Then the cold, foreboding nature of the house was transformed by the presence of the teacher, and Ebbie felt he was visiting a good friend. But then, Ebbie thought often, any place where Manny lived could not help but be wonderful.

Immanuel was obviously quite wealthy and had wonderful taste. Ebbie was too young to understand the intricacies of interior design, but he was old enough to know that the house was “right.” From the paintings which hung in the large entrance hall and the thick carpet on the floors to the grand piano on which Immanuel gave lessons, everything fit together and made Ebbie feel comfortable.

One thing always puzzled Ebbie, but whenever he was with Manny, he forgot to ask him about it. Ebbie knew Manny had a lot of students, but Ebbie never saw any of them. In fact, when Ebbie was with Manny, there was never anyone else around and, even more surprising, Manny never seemed to be in a hurry to get to another lesson. Often Ebbie would expect his time to be limited, but it never was. Today wasn’t any different—Many seemed to have all the time in the world.

Immanuel’s book-lined study, where they were now sitting, felt right to Ebbie too. The study was just off the studio where Immanuel taught his students. They were sitting in easy chairs, Immanuel’s big frame filling his chair and Ebbie’s small frame almost swallowed up by his. Ebbie’s feet barely touched the floor.

“Ebed,” Immanuel began when they were settled, “you said I had made the music, or, at least, you insinuated it.”

“Well,” Ebbie replied, “you did make the music. You didn’t need my single line to produce the kind of music you played today.”

“That’s true. I could make music by myself, but I have chosen not to do that. I have chosen instead to work with my friends and to help them make the music.”

“Like today?”

“Yes, like today. You played as best as you could, and I made up for the rest. Ebed, from now on it will be that way. Whenever you do what you can, I will make up for the lack. If you do nothing, I will still make up for the rest, and when you are older and play with greater competence than you do now, you will still make some mistakes. Just remember that even then when others think you don’t need me, I will still make up for the lack.

“And there is one other thing I want you to remember always. It won’t mean a lot to you right now, but later you will think of it and be glad.”

“What’s that, Manny?” Ebbie asked, feeling a little uncomfortable.

“Don’t look so pained,” Immanuel laughed reassuringly. “It’s good. I want you to always remember that you are my piano student. No matter where you go, no matter what you do, no matter how well or poorly you play the piano, you will always be my student. And Ebed, you can hang your hat on this: Someday, perhaps in another place and time, you will be able to play the piano exactly the way I play the piano. Even then, you will be my student and my friend.”

Then, to emphasize his words, Immanuel leaned forward. “Do you understand what I am saying?”

“I think I do,” Ebbie responded.

“Ebed, I love you far more than you can possibly understand now. That will never, ever stop, no matter what else happens. I give my life for my students, and because of that they are always my students.”

Ebbie thought a lot about what Manny had said to him that day. In fact, he never forgot it for the rest of his life.

But once he almost did.

As Ebbie continued piano lessons he found others teased him the way he had teased Manny’s students before he started taking piano lessons.

“Don’t see you much on the ballfield much any more,” one boy snickered at him after school one day.

“I’ve been busy,” Ebbie responded somewhat hesitantly.

“Playing the piano, huh?”

“Yeah, mostly.”

“What have you become, some kind of fairy? You and the girls ought to get along just fine.”

That was just the beginning. Soon, the other boys joined in the teasing, making fun, not only of Ebbie’s piano playing but of Ebbie’s piano teacher as well. At first, Ebbie was angry at them, but after a while he started listening to and believing some of the things they said. Little boys need friends, and Ebbie was losing his rapidly.

Ebbie visited Manny’s house less frequently, and he almost stopped practicing the piano altogether, even though he had been making genuine progress. The more he had practiced the better he had played. But now he was almost back to the level of a beginner. He was so ashamed that he finally stopped going to see Immanuel.

Weeks passed and, even though his friends had stopped making fun of him, Ebbie felt miserable. Sometimes he would look at the piano at school and think about playing, but it was just too costly. At night Ebbie would think about Manny and sometimes he would cry. He didn’t know why he cried, but he did know that he missed Manny. Then, before finally falling asleep, Ebbie would make all kinds of promises to himself about getting back to the piano and going to see Manny. But when mourning came he always forgot about the promises.

“Manny asked about you yesterday,” Martus, (Greek for “witness”) one of Immanuel’s other piano students, told Ebbie one day at recess. “He said to tell you not to forget what he told you.”

Ebbie didn’t know what Martus meant until later that afternoon when he remembered that special talk in Manny’s study. Ebbie felt the tears well up in his eyes. Instead of going home, he went to Immanuel’s house.

“I’ve been expecting you,” Immanuel said as he opened the door. “Are you ready for your next lesson?”

“But I haven’t played in so many months.” Ebbie looked down and pretended to find something quite interesting in the rock floor on the porch.

“Doesn’t matter. You are always my piano student, and that hasn’t changed. You may have been a poor one for the past few months,” Immanuel smiled, “But you are my student. Come on in, and we can begin where we left off.”

It was the best piano lesson Ebbie had ever had. In fact, Ebbie thought at home later, I’m almost glad I turned away from Manny and his piano lessons. If I had never turned away, I would never have known how much Immanuel loves me and how much he wants me to continue piano lessons.

It was a growth experience for Ebbie. Whenever his friends teased him he would remember how he had caved in to their criticism and how Immanuel still loved him, and his sadness would be transformed into joy and thankfulness.

But the trouble Ebbie had with those who didn’t understand the importance of playing the piano was minor compared to the trouble he had with his fellow piano students.

Ebbie thought that once he had become a piano student he would become part of a family of musicians where everyone understood and helped each other play the piano better. It was not to be.

“You’re doing it all wrong!” shouted a little girl who had overheard him practicing on the piano at school. “You’re playing soft when you ought to playing loud, and you’re playing loud when you ought to be playing soft.”

“You’re rhythm is all off,” criticized another student who had heard Ebbie play. “How do you ever expect to play the piano if you can’t tell the difference be between 4/4 and ¾ time?

“You hit three wrong notes,” another exclaimed, “If you don’t start playing the right notes, you are going to disappoint the teacher. And after all he has done for you! The rest of us have been talking and we’ve decided that if you don’t get better, you’re going to shame all of us.”

“If you are ever going to play the piano properly, you must practice at home, not at school,” one of the students informed Ebbie one day after class.

“But I don’t have a piano at home,” protested Ebbie.

“Well, why don’t you get your parents to buy you one?”

“We don’t have the money. That’s why.”

There was a long silence, but Ebbie noticed a look of disdain on his fellow student’s face as he walked away. He knew the boy felt that Ebbie should quit taking piano lessons if he couldn’t afford a piano.

One afternoon when Ebbie had finished his lesson, Immanuel said to him, “Ebed, you seem sad. What’s the matter?”

“Oh, nothing,” Ebbie replied, betraying his words with the grimace on his face.

“The others bothering you?”

“Sometimes.”

“They bother me too sometimes.”

“But you don’t hear all the things they say.”

And then Immanuel smiled. “Ebbie, I know my students. The girl who told you that you needed to play soft when you are playing loud, and loud when you ought to be playing soft, is only criticizing you because she is doing so badly with her own lessons. The boy who criticized you’re your rhythm hasn’t been to a lesson in almost three months. He thinks if he points out your mistakes, people will not notice his own.

“The boy who told you about the wrong notes is so busy telling others about their wrong notes, he doesn’t have much time to play himself. If he played the piano very much, which he doesn’t, he would probably hit more wrong notes than you do. The boy who told you to buy a piano with money you don’t have has three pianos, but he hardly ever plays any of them. People always admire his pianos, and he thinks it’s the same thing as admiring his piano playing.

“And the others who suggested that you were hurting the reputation of all the students are very insecure about their own piano playing. Your playing is different, and the other students don’t like piano players who are different.

“And Ebbie, the comment about disappointing me isn’t true. Never let another piano student tell you that you disappoint me. If I’m disappointed, I’ll tell you. When I’m pleased, I’ll tell you that too. But I am the only one who knows whether I’m disappointed or pleased.”

Ebbie felt a whole lot better after Immanuel told him about the other students. In fact, he felt a little superior to the others. That is, until Immanuel said to him, “Ebbie, I’m telling you all this so you will remember that I have made you my student, even with your mistakes, because I love you. But I don’t love you more than the others. The only reason I told you about them—and if I chose, I could tell them a lot about you—is so you will remember that there isn’t a single piano student in the world who doesn’t make some serious errors. Their problem is that they tried to pretend that they were better than you.

“Now you know the truth. Remember it, and don’t make their mistake. Remember how you forgot about me for so long? How you quit practicing and how I accepted you when you wanted to resume your lessons? Remember how I never stopped loving you? I will do the same for them. All my piano students are equal because they have the same teacher. You must never think you are better than the others just because you know the truth.

“And Ebbie, never forget that I make up the difference for them, just as I do for you.”

After that, Ebbie loved Immanuel more than he ever had. When he walked away from the teacher’s house, he felt free. He didn’t have to pretend to be a wonderful piano student. Nor did he have to pretend not to care. He didn’t have to point out the mistakes of the other students in order to feel better about himself; after all, the piano teacher loved all the piano students. All Ebed had to do was stay close to the piano teacher.

Every spring, Immanuel had a recital at his home for his students’ parents. Ebbie had worked for weeks on his piece, and his mother had bought him a new suit with some money she had saved. Ebbie felt wonderful—until he got up to play.

When he started to walk toward the piano and saw all the people waiting for him to perform, he panicked. He wanted to run. But when he looked over at Immanuel, his teacher gave him a “thumbs up” sign. No way am I going to disappoint Manny, Ebbie thought.

But as Ebbie began to play, he forgot the music. He played the wrong notes. Once he even lost his place and had to start over. When Ebbie got up from the piano bench, he didn’t dare look at the audience or his parents or, especially, Immanuel. He had wanted to do so much better. But instead, he had disappointed everyone.

Ebbie was so miserable he didn’t notice that the audience was applauding. In fact, they applauded for almost five whole minutes, shouting, “Encore! Encore!” Ebbie didn’t hear it. He had already walked out the back door and headed down to the lake where he sat on his rock and cursed himself.

Hours passed and the night grew cold. Suddenly, Ebbie heard a rustle behind him, and he turned to find Immanuel standing there.

“I really botched it.”

“Yes, you really botched it. But they didn’t know.”

“What do you mean, they didn’t know? Of course they knew. I’m so ashamed. How can I ever face them again? And Manny, I’m even more ashamed to face you. You loved me. You trusted me. You taught me to play the piano, and I let you down. Please don’t look at me that way, Manny. I don’t believe I can stand it.”

“Ebed,” Manny said, taking an uninvited seat on the rock by the boy, “you misinterpret my look. I’m not disappointed in you. You must remember that I’ve been teaching piano for a long time—longer than you could possibly know. Do you think your performance surprised me?”

“Well, I guess not. But…”

“No buts, child. Your vanity has been hurt, but you haven’t failed me. Ebed, I love you. I told you that, but you forgot.”

“I guess I did,” Ebbie whispered.

“And you forgot something else.”

“What’s that?”

“Remember, I told you I would always make up for your lack. I did that tonight.”

“You mean…”

“That’s right. You didn’t play as well as you will play some day, and perhaps you didn’t play as well as you could have played. But you played, and I made up for the difference. The audience heard the music, not the mistakes!”

Ebbie jumped up and started to dance on the rock. Immanuel laughed heartily, but managed to caution Ebed, “You are going to fall off this rock if you aren’t careful, and I don’t relish going swimming on this kind of night.”

That night was one of the most important nights of Ebed’s life, second only to the evening he had met Immanuel. Ebed began to practice playing the piano far more than he had previously.

In the years to come, Ebed botched some other concerts. Sometimes he got angry at Immanuel. Sometimes he thought about giving up on the whole thing, and he even walked away a few more times. But Immanuel was always there, loving him and helping him make music.

You might wonder what happened to the little boy. That’s the best part.

Ebed grew up and became a world-class pianist. He came to be known, as one critic put it, as “the essence of perfection.” In concert after concert, all over the world, Ebed played to standing-room-only audiences. When he finished a concert, after the applause had died away, Ebed would smile and remember that no one had heard his mistakes. Later he would always thank Immanuel for making up for the lack.

One evening after a concert in New York, when he was almost seventy years old, Ebed was dining with some friends when he felt a mild pain in his chest. He marked it up to indigestion, but as the evening wore on the pain became more and more acute. Halfway through the dinner he collapsed, and his friends called an ambulance.

Ebed was only half conscious when they put him on the stretcher and placed him in the ambulance, but then he woke up. It was a strange kind of awake because he seemed to be looking at the whole scene in the ambulance from a different perspective. One of the attendants looked at the other and sighed, “We’ve lost him.”

“You haven’t lost me!” Ebed wanted to shout. “I’m right here!”

But before Ebed could speak the sound of a piano caught his ears—the most beautiful music he had ever heard! Turning around, he found himself at Immanuel’s house. Well, maybe it wasn’t Immanuel’s house, but it looked the same, only even more beautiful than he remembered.

Drawn through the front door by the music, Ebed found Immanuel playing a magnificent concerto at the grand piano. Ebed listened, entranced.

When Immanuel finished, neither he nor Ebed spoke for a moment. Then, turning to Ebed, Immanuel broke the silence. “Now, it is your turn.”

“Me?”

“Yes, you!” Immanuel laughed, “And I believe you are in for a surprise!”

Ebed sat down at the piano, and as he placed his hands on the keys, he felt a freedom and power he had never before felt. Every nuance, every note, every rhythm was perfect. The music soared and filled the room. Out of the corner of his eyes, Ebed could see Immanuel smiling, as a father smiles when his son performs perfectly. Ebed’s heart beat excitedly.

“Ebed,” Immanuel said softly, “now you play just the way I play.”

“Yes,” Ebed replied smiling, “I know.”

“And I have a new name for you, Ebed. Before, you have been called Ebed (Hebrew for “servant” or “slave”). Now your name is Deror (Hebrew for “liberty” or “freedom”). Now the music is yours forever. You are home.”

 

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