The trash heap of educational reforms is littered with decisions made by armchair educators far away from the very students impacted by those decisions. In Tennessee, like most other states, well-intentioned politicians regularly debate and codify impractical ideas that adversely impact public education. Soon after, unelected educational bureaucrats, far removed from the classroom, applaud these new laws, revise TDOE and TSBA policies, and chaos ensues. Perhaps the only thing that ever changes is the order of the nonsense. Sometimes the old switcheroo happens, where the bureaucrats initiate the madness by proposing the reforms that subsequently get codified by the politicians. Either way, it’s a public education tale as old as time, and it would be comical if it weren’t exceedingly problematic and increasingly detrimental to children.

The most recent example in Tennessee comes in the form of T.C.A 49-6-3115, more commonly referred to as the Third Grade Retention Law. The law does not automatically require retention for a 3rd grader who performs below proficient on the state’s annual reading test. The law simply targets students who perform below a threshold deemed acceptable by the state legislature and then requires those students to navigate a confusing flow chart of contingencies until they successfully check enough boxes to be promoted, contingencies that will presumably cure their perceived academic ailments and magically open the door to fourth grade success.

T.C.A 49-6-3115 was passed by the Tennessee General Assembly in 2021 and scheduled to take effect in school year 2022-2023. Educators were remarkably quiet in the days and months between the passage of the law and its implementation. Perhaps we all assumed that the state legislature would come to its collective senses. We were wrong, and the chaos has begun. Tennessee schools are currently scrambling in preparation to retain an estimated 65% of our current 3rd graders…or provide legally prescribed interventions to avoid The Great Retention.

In spite of this chaos, educators don’t have to wonder what the fallout from the retention law will look like on our campuses. We have TCAP data from both 2021 and 2022. Analyzing 3rd grade ELA test results for current 4th graders can provide administrators with a pretty clear idea of what we can expect with regard to how many students are in jeopardy of being retained. But analyzing both 3rd and 4th grade ELA test results for current 5th graders yields even better information. In other words, not only can we predict the practical fallout, we can also estimate the number of students who will be unnecessarily punished by the law.

Are legislators aware that some students have historically scored somewhere BELOW PROFICIENT as 3rd graders, and then AT OR ABOVE PROFICIENT as 4th graders? It’s a verifiable fact. Do these politicians understand that many students manage to achieve grade-level reading proficiency without the burdensome interventions now codified into state statute? And the back-to-back testing years of 2021 and 2022 are not anomalies as they pertain to this fact; consecutive testing cycles prior to the pandemic reveal similar patterns.

The relatively small sample size to which I have access as a building administrator provides an interesting opportunity for analysis, although it would be fairly difficult to extrapolate these data beyond the walls of our specific school. The diversity of public schools across the state—and even within the same district—makes it impractical to generalize my findings, although I suspect that most administrators would find something similarly alarming within their own buildings. Make no mistake, some students will be unnecessarily retained if this law is not changed or repealed. The findings for my school are summarized in the list below.

  • Number of 5th graders currently enrolled: 137
  • Number of regular ed 5th graders who took the ELA TCAP on this campus as both 3rd and 4th graders: 83
  • Number of regular ed 5th graders who took the ELA TCAP as both 3rd and 4th graders and scored somewhere BELOW PROFICIENT as 3rd graders: 19
  • Number of regular ed 5th graders who took the ELA TCAP as both 3rd and 4th graders and scored somewhere BELOW PROFICIENT as 3rd graders BUT AT OR ABOVE PROFICIENT as 4th graders: 7

At my school, in other words, if the retention law had been actionable in 2021, exactly 19 of my rising 4th graders would have been in jeopardy of retention. That number represents an entire class of retained students. More alarmingly, 7 of these 19 students (more than 36%) would have been mistakenly targeted, given their subsequent score of proficient (or better) on their 4th grade TCAPs. It is important to reiterate that these year-over-year score improvements occurred without the new interventions required by the retention law. The takeaway? Promotion and retention decisions should never be made based upon a single data point. Educators understand this, and that’s why these types of decisions are best made as close to the students as possible and in collaboration with parents.

The deeply flawed law we now know as T.C.A 49-6-3115 was debated and passed by elected officials on Capitol Hill, many of whom have their own children or grandchildren enrolled in private schools (and effectively insulated from their overreaching legislation). The bill was signed into law by our governor, a mechanical engineer by trade and a cattle farmer by the grace of God. And now the unelected and underpaid folks at the TDOE have been left to manage the confusion the law has created. It’s a sad but familiar pattern for Tennessee educators. The TDOE’s best attempts at damage control can be found in the form of an incomplete list of FAQs available here. District- and school-level educators likely have a few more FAQs, some of which will be shared in an upcoming blog post.

The optimal decisions for public school students are made as close to those students as possible. Parents and teachers are clearly the closest. Here in Tennessee, Capitol Hill and Andrew Johnson Tower—the places where laws and policies are enacted—are hundreds of miles away from many of the students impacted by these directives. What a shame.

To conclude for now, is anyone else in favor of reminding elected officials and bureaucrats that Tennessee students are better governed by the educators within their schools and their districts? When it comes to decision-making for Tennessee’s public schools, the proximity of the decision makers will always determine the efficacy of the decisions. It really is as simple as location, location, location.


A battle currently rages in America for the minds of the most innocent and impressionable among us, our children. The battlefields appear to be elementary school libraries, and the weapon of mass indoctrination appears to be literature. How tragic.

From a public school perspective, the raging debate over books has very little to do with the validity of the causes being portrayed in trendy children’s literature or the messages of humanity being communicated. Who among us would deny that police brutality and excessive force are real concerns? What educated person would claim that race relations in America need no further attention? These are fact-based challenges we face and social burdens we carry as adults. But why would we deliberately expose innocent children to these adult problems?

Should a first grader who dresses up like his SRO on Community Helper Day be exposed to a library book villifying this same community helper as a baton-swinging, minority-hating monster? Would we compose and illustrate a children’s book depicting all clergy as child molesting pedophiles because an extreme minority of priests and pastors molest children? Should we publish kids’ books about arsonists masquerading as firefighters? Does a child really need to know that some firefighters deliberately set the fires they are called to extinguish? I see very little difference between these extreme examples and A Place Inside of Me, the children’s book currently being challenged across America.

Most children are developmentally incapable of reconciling these contrasting images of community helpers. They can’t yet wrestle with the metaphor of one bad apple, much less the idea of a few bad police officers. Typical elementary kids understand “good guys,” and they know about “bad guys.” We shouldn’t expect them to grapple with the fact that these two groups sometimes overlap. Not yet, anyway. Internal battles of cognitive dissonance are better saved for adults with a fully developed frontal cortex.

Children in general will soon enough learn that some cops are bad, some clergy commit heinous acts, and some fireman are arsonists. They don’t need to learn these things in elementary school libraries or classrooms. Kids should spend their innocent years learning about honesty and compassion, about caterpillars and butterflies, about subjects and verbs. This fallen world will creep into their lives soon enough, unfortunately. The job of parents and teachers is to serve as gatekeepers, protecting children from the evils of depravity until we can no longer do so. Educators should love first and teach second, using age-appropriate resources and apolitical literature. Elementary school is the wrong place for politics and the wrong time for exposing innocent children to ugly adult problems. Are we really willing to sit idly while coordinated attempts are made to jade kids and jeopardize their innocence? Our kids need courageous gatekeepers now more than ever.

Just my three cents worth (adjusted for inflation).


One of my favorite parts of spring is The Kentucky Derby. I especially enjoy all the back stories of the owners, the jockeys, and the trainers. Most of all, though, I enjoy the stories of the horses themselves. This year’s Derby winner, Medina Spirit, has one of the best stories ever, not to mention a great deal in common with underprivileged students.

Medina Spirit’s mother, Mongolian Changa, had an average pedigree, a below average race history, and an early retirement courtesy of a tendon injury. His father, Protonico, was a rather unimpressive sire, and big-name breeders showed little interest in him. The two equine afterthoughts (and first-time parents) turned out to be a match made in horse heaven. Medina Spirit was born on April 5, 2018.

Mongolian Changa was initially incapable of producing the milk and colostrum her foal desperately needed, so Medina Spirit was forced to feed on frozen milk from another mare on the Florida farm. Medina Spirit was described as a playful and competitive colt, but he was sent to auction in January of 2019 at the same time his mother was sold to another breeder. The colt was bought by a single bidder at a back-ring auction for yearlings with weak pedigrees. Medina Spirit was sold for the $1,000 minimum.

This past Saturday, the $1,000 yearling (and 12-1 underdog) led The Kentucky Derby from start to finish, beating million-dollar competitors with much more impressive pedigrees. The first-place payout was $1.86 million. Medina Spirit’s trainer, Bob Baffert, said it best: “That little horse has so much heart. He doesn’t know how much he cost.”

What a powerful reminder for educators. Pedigrees are not predictions. Some of our students experience inauspicious starts, survive challenging adult interactions, and grow alongside much more “pedigreed” peers. Those circumstances don’t have to define them, though. In fact, one caring adult can help a kid overcome all of them. Imagine what an entire team of caring adults can do.

No need to imagine–schools help underdog kids overcome circumstances every day. Educators change the world, one long shot at a time.


Potato SmilesLet’s get back to school. Let’s get back to friendships, potato smiles, and learning. It’s time for students to enjoy some normalcy in a fun and familiar place. For many children, life away from school is neither normal, nor fun, and it would be a mistake for us to presume otherwise. Classrooms were built for learning and laughter; taxes were paid to educate kids in the most optimal way. It’s time for the majority of us to answer the school bell in person, at least those who can safely do so.

Clearly we face a new threat these days. Everyone realizes that pandemic risks can’t be completely controlled. If we could control them, they would cease to fit the very definition of the word “risk.” These threats can be managed, however, much like all other risks students face. Risk Management departments are pretty common. Risk Elimination departments don’t exist. And so it is in public education.

Schools don’t attempt to mitigate every risk with a one-size-fits-all approach. One-size-fits-all fits nobody well. Protecting kids from allergic reactions to food or bee stings, for example, looks far different than protecting them from playground accidents or crosswalk dangers. Johnny doesn’t forego recess because a bee sting could be catastrophic for him, and Susie doesn’t skip lunch because her peanut allergy produces anaphylactic shock. Billy uses the crosswalk safely every day, thanks to trained  school staff, and in spite of 350 rolling threats known as automobiles. Given the multitude of daily risks, schools remain statistically one of the safest environments in our culture because of caring adults who help students navigate threats. Our collective track record is nothing short of remarkable, and COVID-19 is not likely to change that. Schools have been managing ever-evolving risks since the days of one-room schoolhouses.

Certainly, school year 2020-2021 will be an experience unlike any other. Nonetheless, our students should still experience school year 2020-2021. These experiences should ideally be as close to normal as safely possible. We can implement common sense, protective measures for those students who attend in person. We can even provide virtual instruction for those students who don’t come to campus. Simulating social interactions in a virtual environment, on the other hand, is simply impossible. And social interactions are a critical part of the learning experience at all grade levels. Brick and mortar classrooms remain the best places for learning about core subjects, related arts, and social dynamics.

We need students back on campus. Our approach to risk management, like our approach to instruction, must remain differentiated. I believe it will. Do students and staff experience risks on a normal school day? Of course they do; however, the countless benefits of school, generally speaking, outweigh the costs of assuming those risks. That was true before this pandemic, and it holds true even now in these strange times with strange new threats. Let’s answer that school bell and get as many kids as possible back on campus, where learning is optimal and safety has always been the top priority. Besides, I can’t eat all these potato smiles by myself.


Like many families, the Duncans’ holiday routines and traditions are borderline sacred. Mother’s Day is for celebrating Mildred with flowers, cards, and a family meal. Father’s Day, with the exception of the flowers, is no different and allows us to honor Leroy. We gather for ham rolls on Easter, and we grill burgers on July 4th. Christmas Eve is for exchanging gifts, and New Year’s Day is for black eyed peas. This year, however, the gifts remain wrapped and the black eyed peas are still in the package, as I write from Mom’s bedside at St. Thomas Hospital. She was admitted the Friday before Christmas and the new year finds her still recovering. As it turns out, Mom got a pacemaker for Christmas and extended care for an intestinal obstruction. Christmas 2018 has been, well, different.


The enemy tries to convince me that different is bad. The Holy Spirit inspires me to believe otherwise. It’s hard to feel sorry for my family when other families would love to spend just one more Christmas with a lost loved one, inside a hospital or anywhere else. It’s difficult to gripe and moan about spending the holidays in a hospital room while service men and women spend months and even years separated from loved ones. The enemy tempts me to turn this holiday season into a Hee Haw skit . . . “Gloom, despair, and agony on me; deep, dark depression, excessive misery. If it weren’t for bad luck we’d have no luck at all. Gloom, despair, and agony on me.” But what the enemy intends for harm, the Lord intends for good. The devil reveals a distorted perspective intended to steal Christmas, kill my family’s joy, and destroy our hope. But the devil is a liar.

God provides, through the lens of faith, a much clearer perspective. Mom’s sickness has brought unexpected blessings. Christmas 2018 has enabled my sisters and me to spend countless hours one-on-one with Mom. Together, we have enjoyed deep conversations. We have watched The Price is Right, Rachael Ray, and Charles Stanley sermons. Mom has kept us laughing with her quick wit and too many one liners to remember. Once when I asked her how she was doing, she said, “I’m stretched out on this bed like a new dollar.” After kitchen staff brought in her clear liquid breakfast, she excitedly proclaimed, “That’s too much for an elephant to eat!” Still the funniest comment came while we were watching The Young and the Restless, the “story” Mom has watched for more than 40 years. “There’s that Victoria,” she said. “She’s got about three men on the hook, and I don’t know which one she’s going to pick!” We shared a long laugh after that one.

There have been good days and bad days this Christmas season, but all days have offered blessings that would have been overlooked if we had chosen the enemy’s doom and gloom perspective. As believers, we have an alternative. Believers are not commanded to give thanks FOR all things, but we are commanded to give thanks IN all things. That perspective enables us to give thanks for several specific things in the midst of this particular challenge: days upon days of precious time with Mom; a revived prayer life; and the beautiful blessing of seeing Mom love on and minister to the staff who have provided her care. Her hospital door is a revolving one, with visits from nurses and techs who aren’t even assigned to her that particular day. Mom is a 78 year-old rock star at St. Thomas because nobody has a clearer perspective than her. She oozes the love of Christ.

Finally, my family has been reminded of a few important truths through Mom’s hospital stay. We have been reminded that traditions are less important than those with whom they are shared. We have been reminded that nothing is more precious than time spent with loved ones. Most importantly, we have been reminded that we don’t have to believe the enemy’s lies. The Duncans would, of course, choose Mom’s health over the hidden blessings of a hospital stay. But if the former is not possible, the latter should at least be recognized, if not cherished. What the enemy intends for harm, the Lord intends for good. No, we aren’t thankful for Mom’s sickness, but we have chosen to give thanks through it, as the Good Lord commands. And He is ever faithful.


Predators LogoLast night something strange happened. I watched a regular season hockey game on TV in its entirety. To make sure I experienced the totality of the event, I watched the pre-game, the post-game, and the intermission reports. Stranger still, this was a Thursday night when I could have been—normally would have been—watching the Philadelphia Eagles at the Carolina Panthers. That’s right, I chose to watch grown men on ice skates (okay, the Stars vs. the Predators) instead of an NFL game between two teams that were leading their respective divisions. I chose the NHL over the NFL last night, and it was absolutely magnificent. Surely this is a sign of the Apocalypse.

I was angry the day the Predators showed up in Nashville. As a basketball junkie in a city with a shiny new arena, I was admittedly still bitter that Nashville had been unsuccessful in bringing the NBA’s Sacramento Kings to Music City in 1996. “Great,” I thought, “here come the ice skating Europeans, Russians, and Canadians.” It wasn’t any kind of cultural prejudice—it’s just not easy to cheer for dudes whose names are impossible to pronounce playing a sport I had never played. Understand that I didn’t hate hockey. I supported it…sort of.

The EA Sports NHL game was my second favorite to play on my SEGA, behind only Madden NFL. That made me a hockey supporter, right? Municipal AuditoriumHeck, I even went to hockey games. In the early to mid 90s, my wife and I would cheer on Nashville’s minor league hockey team, the Knights, in person at the UFMA (Unidentified Flying Municipal Auditorium). Fresh out of college and newly married with no kids, these were double date nights with dear friends—friends who also went to church with a UFMA usher. Don’t judge me. Sure we got in free, but I paid for every single bag of deep-fried mini-donuts I bought from the concession guy, and I ate thousands of those things. Think round, bite-sized funnel cakes. Whatever I didn’t eat, I generally wore home. Clearly, I was a hockey concession supporter at the very least.

Fast-forward a few years. The Predators first home game was October 10, 1998 in the Gaylord Entertainment Center, affectionately referred to by locals as the GEC. Although I attended some games at the GEC the first few years, I generally did so imagining—wishing even—I was going to an NBA game instead. How could we waste that beautiful arena? The Hockey 101 segments on the jumbotron in those days were thoroughly embarrassing. Thanks to my SEGA, I knew every hockey rule there was to know, but apparently most Nashvillians did not. Looking back, I suppose I was a hockey snob if not a hockey fan.

The hype was definitely palpable that first year, but October 10, 1998 was not the day Nashville became a hockey town. How could it be? The Houston Oilers had relocated to Nashville and were playing at Vanderbilt, just a few blocks away from the GEC. AdelphiaWorse for the Predators, Adelphia Coliseum, a 69,000 seat football stadium, was being built just across the Cumberland River from the GEC. Thanks to a Music City Miracle and a Super Bowl run in 2000, Tennessee’s new NFL team, the Titans, had captivated the collective interest of what was already a dyed-in-the-wool football town. Nashville was absolutely rabid over the Titans. So rabid in fact, the city threw a Super Bowl LOSER parade…and more than 20,000 people attended…in 33 degree weather. A teacher at the time, I had students skip school to attend the parade. I excused their absences.

If never the most popular team in town, the Predators most definitely have always enjoyed a cult-like following throughout the team’s existence in Nashville. Home sellouts were never really uncommon, and Predators sweaters were regularly spotted around town. The NHL had carved out a nice little niche in Music City, but the team played second fiddle to the Titans. Nobody disputed that. The new millennium provided some special days in Predators history, to be sure. Much more nostalgic than anything else, none of the following events represent the day Nashville became a hockey town. All of these milestones happened while Music City was preoccupied with its beloved Titans. Until the day it wasn’t.

  • October 7, 2000 – Predators win season opener against the Penguins in Tokyo, Japan
  • December 6, 2001 – Predators record 100th franchise win against the Senators
  • April 7, 2004 – Predators play first playoff game, a 3-1 loss against the Red Wings
  • April 11, 2004 – Predators log first playoff victory, a 2-1 win against the Red Wings
  • July 19, 2007 – Predators fans rally to keep team in Nashville after owner, Craig Leipold, flirts with multiple buyers (7,500 fans attend, not counting George Plaster)
  • April 24, 2011 – Predators record first playoff series win, beating the Ducks in six games
  • April 20, 2012 – Predators win first round series for second consecutive year, beating the Red Wings in five games
  • April 20, 2017 – Predators record first playoff series sweep against Blackhawks
  • May 7, 2017 – Predators win a second-round playoff series for first time ever, defeating the Blues in six games.
  • May 22, 2017 – Predators become Western Conference Champions for the first time, defeating the Ducks in six games
  • May 29, 2017 – Predators play in first Stanley Cup Finals game, losing 5-3 to the defending Stanley Cup champions, the Penguins
  • June 3, 2017 – Predators notch first Stanley Cup Finals win, beating the Penguins 5-1 at home.

Loyal Predators fans remember most, if not all, of these milestones. Many likely remember where they were when the team accomplished these things. But a dedicated subculture hardly a hockey town makes. The great irony in this story is that Nashville became a hockey town on a 90-degree day when the Predators were playing a meaningless preseason game in Columbus, Ohio some 377 miles away from Music City. In fact, the day Nashville became a hockey town had nothing to do with hockey at all. On a hot Sunday, September 24, 2017, the Tennessee Titans refused to take the field for the National Anthem before their home game against the Seattle Seahawks. While 53 misguided players and an entire coaching staff holed up in the locker room in the bowels of Nissan Stadium, Nashville’s sports culture changed forever.

Preds Pick LogoMusic City is now a hockey town, and a mediocre Titans team (whose last playoff win came in 2003 with Steve McNair at QB) should consider itself fortunate and humbly pick up the second fiddle. The funny thing about the ice-skating Europeans, Russians, and Canadians is that they all stand for our National Anthem, likely recognizing the uniqueness of their American opportunity and possibly even remembering real oppression in some of their home countries.

On September 24, 2017, while a group of under-achieving, overpaid football-players-turned-social-activists chose to disrespect America, grown men on ice skates whose names we can’t pronounce stole the collective heart of Music City. Like it or not, Nashville is now a hockey town. And that is the real Music City Miracle.


John Williams was a military veteran. That wasn’t the most interesting thing about him, though, because John Williams was also homeless. I met him on a cold January night many years ago when I picked him up from downtown Nashville. He was short in stature and had a head full of silver hair. He had only two other things with him that night, as I remember: a trash bag containing everything he owned and a nasty cough. It was the kind of cough that makes people wonder if something is medically wrong. Still, I drove away unconcerned with Mr. Williams in my back seat. My Sunday School class sponsored Room in the Inn twice each winter. John certainly wasn’t the only homeless man we had encountered with a wicked cough. He would, however, become the most memorable.

Room in the Inn is a ministry partnership between the organization that bears its name and local churches scattered throughout the Greater Nashville area. The ministry itself indirectly provides a multitude of resources for Nashville’s homeless population, including food, shelter, and job training. The only thing directly provided by Room in the Inn is Christ’s love—the only provision actually needed. John Williams was one of eight homeless men assigned to Long Hollow Baptist that Friday night—one of eight men entrusted to the overnight care of the Jon Duncan/Wayne Smith Small Group. If Room in the Inn leadership had recognized the dysfunction that was the “Jon Wayne Gang” they likely would have offered services to us on the spot. We affectionately referred to the class as the Land of Misfit Toys. Class members were in their 30s, 40s, or 50s and had children of all ages. The only thing some of us had in common was Jesus. But that common denominator meant that we enjoyed being together, and we enjoyed spending a Friday night serving those the world had forgotten.

I don’t remember very many details of that night prior to 12:30 a.m. I’m sure we had a delicious dinner with our guests, like always. Salad, pasta, and vegetable casseroles were the usual, and the men always loved the food. Sometimes we served dinner to the homeless on china with actual silverware. One or more of our guests would usually remark that it was way better than the pizza they had eaten the night before at a church whose name they had forgotten in a suburb they couldn’t remember. Coffee was a necessity. We typically had no scripture reading, no praise songs, and no formal invitation. The only prayer was usually a blessing over the food. In fact, the only thing we directly provided was Christ’s love—the only provision actually needed. One or two of the fellows were usually big talkers, but the remainder were either quite introverted or embarrassed by their need, content to go to bed immediately after eating. As I recall, John Williams finished dinner and went directly to the mattress he had claimed immediately upon his arrival. He was asleep on the vestibule floor by 9:00, not to be heard from again for three-and-a-half hours.

Wayne and I were settling into our makeshift beds in the church lobby, light green leather benches that looked far more comfortable than they actually were. We didn’t complain. Nothing like first-world suffering for Jesus, right? The lights were out, the crowd long gone since dinner cleanup had concluded. Several class members would return the following morning for breakfast duties and to tidy up after our guests. We had already played “the last word”—a ridiculous game in which Wayne and I deliberately tried to out-weird each other by saying the most random word before falling asleep. The last word was probably biscuit, nectar, or something similarly stupid, funny only to weirdos like us.

Although I don’t remember the last word of the night, I will never forget the next word we heard—INNKEEPER!! The voice sounded like someone who wanted to shout but didn’t have the lung capacity to do so. INNKEEPER!! We weren’t dreaming. One of our homeless guests, John Williams, attempted to call for help a few more times while Wayne and I just looked at each other, trying to determine who fit the description of innkeeper. Nothing like this had ever happened when we hosted the homeless before. It was supposed to be a tidy little package deal—pick up homeless men, feed them dinner, provide a shower and a bed, feed them breakfast, and drop them off in Nashville the next morning. In fact, I remember sharing with our class after we hosted a previous time that it all “just seems too easy.” Normally, the morning drivers just dropped off the men back at the ministry on Drexel Street and returned immediately to our comfortable, suburban lives in time for ball games, naps, or family time. My point was that being the hands and feet of Christ didn’t just happen in scheduled, twelve-hour increments, like hosting the homeless. “It just seems too easy” turned out to be prophetic words. The Lord has a sense of humor.

INNKEEPER!! We both incoherently concluded that Mr. Williams needed our help, so we staggered to our feet, still unsure of who wore that official title. When we got to Mr. Williams, he was struggling to breathe and told us that he was having chest pains. This dude needed a doctor, not an innkeeper, and certainly not two public school teachers. We called 9-1-1. The paramedics arrived quickly, did some preliminary diagnosis work, and wheeled John Williams out on a stretcher to the waiting ambulance. I followed in my car, leaving Wayne-the-Innkeeper in charge of the remaining seven men. Selfishly, it seemed like the easier job. The paramedics were taking care of Mr. Williams, and Wayne was taking care of the other guys. I had very little responsibility. I’m pretty good at very little responsibility.

At the ER, I watched just outside an observation room as a SWAT team of physicians and nurses swarmed the old man hooking up machines and asking questions. This was bad. The pace of the work became more frantic, and the door to the room was suddenly closed. This was worse. Unsure of what to do next, I found the waiting room and sat there for what seemed like an eternity. What was my next move? Who did I need to call? At some point, a doctor emerged and asked, “Is the family of John Williams here?” I was the only person in the waiting room. Bracing myself for the unthinkable, I muttered something like, “I’m just the innkeeper.” I managed to explain that John was a homeless man whom I had met only seven hours earlier. I told the doctor that he was part of a larger group my church was hosting overnight. The doctor said that Mr. Williams had suffered a serious heart attack but was now stable and would hopefully recover. “Now what?” I mumbled. The doctor said John had to be admitted to the hospital, but that wasn’t really what I meant. I’m not sure why, but I asked if I could see the old man, and the doctor led me to the room.

Mr. Williams was partially reclining in the bed and wearing no shirt. He had wires connected to his chest and an oxygen tube inserted into his nose. He was sweating profusely, his silver hair drenched, and still struggling to breathe. I guess this is what “stable” looks like, I thought. As I asked questions he was either unable or unwilling to answer, I wiped his brow with some tissues I found in the room, admittedly angry that a loved one was not available to do so. God had never asked me to be so personally involved in the life of a stranger…until the night He did. There literally was nobody else to help this man. As I headed back to the church later that morning, it occurred to me that innkeeper sounded much better than caretaker. Caretaker had a permanent ring to it.

Room in the Inn had no record of relatives for John Williams, so the Jon Wayne Gang became his de facto family during his hospital stay. Several class members visited him a few times during his recovery. We learned that he had served in the military and bounced around from city to city after his enlistment was over. He had worked mostly in food services but had never managed to scrape out much more than a minimal existence. There was no wife, no kids. I asked him if he knew Jesus, and he assured me that he had at some point in the past. “I have backslid,” he told me ashamedly. I assured him that I didn’t know any believers who had not backslid at some point in their walk. He seemed relieved to hear that and assured me that he had, in fact, professed faith in Christ at some point in his past. Mortality has a way of making men open to these kinds of conversations. I gave him a Bible only to learn that he was borderline illiterate. When he asked me to read it to him, I asked him what he wanted to hear about. He couldn’t decide, so I gave him the first three choices that popped into my head: Christ’s birth, His death and resurrection, or the early church. “I want to hear about the early church,” he said. “I already know about that other stuff.” I chuckled and began reading from the book of Acts, while he listened intently.

Over the next few days, John’s health improved. I brought him a portable CD player along with CDs of our pastor’s sermon series, Written in Red. He needed a brief tutorial on how to operate the CD player. Finally something I felt adequate to do. It never really occurred to me that the old man, now a heart patient, would soon be released and would resume his life on the streets of Nashville or some other city. Needless to say, I was completely unprepared when the hospital called with discharge orders. I was even less prepared for the list of medications that Mr. Williams now needed.

I remember it was absolutely frigid the day I picked John up from the hospital. My car heater was cranking full blast, as I drove this homeless veteran and his unfilled prescriptions to what felt like his funeral. “How can I just drop this guy off like nothing has happened?” I wondered. In a state of concealed panic, I called a relatively new class member, Kevin Eidson, who had helped us serve John and the other homeless men a couple of weeks earlier. Didn’t I remember Kevin mentioning that he was a pharmacist or something similar? My phone call interrupted Kevin’s lunch with his wife, but he graciously agreed to meet me immediately, and I drove directly to the restaurant. I showed him the stack of prescriptions, and they were miraculously filled free of charge within an hour. This pharmacist who had only recently started attending our small group turned out to be the Executive Director of the Tennessee Board of Pharmacy. God is so awesome.

Our class collected enough money to rent a room for Mr. Williams at the Hendersonville InTown Suites, where he stayed for several weeks and ate food lovingly supplied by class members. Several of us visited him regularly, but never for very long. He seemed to enjoy having control of his very own heater and kept the room like a sauna while he lounged in shorts and a t-shirt in early February. During Mr. Williams’ recovery, Jeff Morris–our church’s Room in the Inn coordinator–worked tirelessly to piece together a work history. John was entitled to military retirement, along with Social Security benefits. Apparently Mr. Williams had never stayed in one place long enough for anyone to help him. In fairness, maybe he didn’t want to be helped. Heart attacks aren’t always bad things, I guess. What the enemy intends for harm, the Lord intends for good. God showed off again with Social Security payments that began in record time, not to mention retroactive benefits that had accrued for several years and were paid in lump sum. Jeff had also managed to find a permanent home for Mr. Williams at Christian Towers, a retirement community in Gallatin, Tennessee. We could all envision John walking down to the town square daily for coffee with new friends and food that he could now afford on his own. He seemed excited, too.

On the day Jeff Morris arrived to take Mr. Williams to his new home, the happy story abruptly ended. Instead of finding John packed and ready to go, Jeff found him collapsed on the shower floor of his rented room. A brain aneurism killed John Williams before he could even begin his new life. The day he was supposed to move into his new home in Gallatin turned out to be the day he moved into his permanent home with Jesus. I don’t think he minded.

On this Memorial Day, I remember a veteran who was forgotten by the very country he served. John Williams defended his country honorably and then proceeded to live for decades with the dishonor of homelessness. I find comfort in the fact that for a few short weeks at the end of his life, John experienced the love of Christ exhibited by a group of unsuspecting Christians who thought we were just feeding eight homeless dudes some pasta and giving them a place to sleep on a cold winter night. The dishonored Mr. John Williams was ironically buried with full military honors and laid to rest at the Middle Tennessee State Veteran’s Cemetery in Pegram, Tennessee. No relatives could be found to attend the funeral. Mr. Williams is survived by two clueless innkeepers and a small group of believers who smothered him with Christ’s love, if only for a few weeks. We are all looking forward to seeing him again someday.


My fifteen-year-old daughter recently experienced her first plane ride. She flew from Nashville to Anaheim with a brief layover in Las Vegas. Those few hours of travel time were less anxious for her mom and me than they otherwise would have been, had she been flying alone. She and around thirty classmates, many of whom I have known for years, made the trip with trustworthy adult chaperones. No big deal. Still, there was that minor uneasiness any mom or dad would feel sending their child 36,000 feet above without direct parental supervision.

After boarding, she sent us a text to let us know that she had gotten a window seat, evenBean Text though she boarded as part of the “B” group. Her excitement reminded me of my first flight many, many years ago and my surprise to find that Earth looks much different from above. I remember being shocked at the efficiency with which mankind had managed to subdivide God’s creation. Geometry took on a new meaning for me that day, as I peered out the small window to see squares, rectangles, and circles in various shades of green. In fact, the blues of the water seemed to be the only creation unmodified by property owners and surveyors. But even some of the blues were manmade shapes. God supplied the water, true, but humans still managed to figure out how to shape the reservoirs in many cases. Isn’t it interesting how the created insist upon helping the Creator?

I wonder if God gets a chuckle at our attempts to partition our lives into convenient little categories. The sectioned and quarantined landscapes that surprised me during my first flight are symbolic of my attempts to manage my dual citizenship – – being in this world, not of this world. How many of us treat our Heavenly Father like a neighbor, establishing property lines and building privacy fences? Even as believers, we work deliberately and strategically to partition our lives into spiritual zones – – a little Jesus here, but not there; a tidy tree line separating our Sundays from the other days; a neat little fence row to separate secular me from spiritual me. We convince ourselves that entertainment, particularly music and movies, requires spiritual subdivision. Many of us, if only for a brief season, have attempted to check God at the door to our workplaces and schools. Or we might have semi-consciously declared, “I’ll be right back, Lord,” as we disappeared through the gate to a less-than-Christlike event or crowd. And what about the online acreage of our lives? How many of us have attempted to post a “DO NOT ENTER” sign at the entrance of the virtual “Back 40” we call the internet. As if we can contain the Omnipresent. Isn’t it interesting how the created insist upon helping the Creator?

Green Geometry

I would imagine that God is indeed disappointed at believers’ feeble attempts to compartmentalize our lives. He created us for companionship, so it is undoubtedly hurtful when we claim Him as our Father but occasionally insist on distancing ourselves from Him, like a middle schooler who asks to be dropped off as far away from school as possible. When God looks at our lives from 36 gazillion feet, does He see our virtual fence rows and imaginary tree lines, or does He see uninterrupted green pastures of faith hemmed in by only His still waters?

Be the God of my entire life, Lord. Remove the fence rows and tree lines. It’s all yours, anyway. “Be Thou my Vision, O Lord of my heart. Naught be all else to me, save that Thou art. Thou my best Thought, by day or by night. Waking or sleeping, Thy presence my Light.”


It’s Sunday morning, and I am at home writing instead of worshiping at church. Worse, my family is here with me. I don’t feel like much of a spiritual leader right now, and that burdens me tremendously. It’s a responsibility, a Biblical mandate, which I take very seriously. Church is what we do. Not because it makes God love us more or because it’s the road to Heaven. It’s just what we do. On a “good” Sunday, we go to worship our Savior. On a “bad” Sunday, we go because it’s a habit. I hope God honors both. He tells us His Word does not return void.

The problem is my Spirit is unsettled. My wife is watching Andy Stanley in the living room, and my kids, both of whom have grown up in our church, are still in bed. Our justification? My daughter got home from a drama workshop last night at around 1:15 a.m. We let her sleep in this morning. The rest of us stayed home because getting my daughter to her small group has become our motivation for going to church. She loves her small group. She is growing in her faith with a core group of friends during a formative time in her life. Her spiritual vitality currently takes priority over the spiritual stalemate in which the other three family members (all adults) currently find ourselves. Spiritual leadership is burdensome and sometimes involves opportunity costs.

Giving has become a serious stumbling block for me. It hasn’t always been this way, though. My wife and I have tithed since we got married. She brought the practice into the marriage, and I admittedly lost the argument against it. I’m so grateful I did. Tithing is an act of obedience for us. More than that, though, it is an act of worship. Giving should feel good. My much, much better half prefers to give by faith and let God do the rest, understanding that she isn’t giving to a church; she is giving to the Almighty. Because of my cynical nature (I thoroughly hate that about myself), I take a much more pragmatic approach. I believe that stewardship of God’s resources requires me to ask questions. I think stewardship requires clarity, in other words. Clarity is becoming increasingly difficult to get in our churches, however. Clarity now requires scheduled meetings.

  • How is the church specifically spending tithes and offerings?
  • Who is benefitting from God’s resources, filtered through His congregation?
  • Is church staffing fiscally lean?
  • Are church staff members enjoying affluent lifestyles underwritten by offerings of less fortunate church members?
  • Does a single mom’s offering help provide church leaders with a higher standard of living than her own child enjoys?
  • Have glossy ministry plans replaced the financial transparency once provided by traditional church budgets?
  • When did internal “Resource Teams” comprised of church employees replace traditional finance committees comprised of laity?
  • Am I the only one who thinks a healthy church should redistribute wealth outside its walls, not within them?

Maybe I have simply evolved into the old church contrarian. I hope not. Ministry costs money, and I understand that we can’t put a price tag on salvation. Ultimately, Jesus Christ is the only one who paid for my salvation. I am not redeemed by corruptible things. If an affluent minister leads a nonbeliever to Jesus, is that person any less saved because of the minister’s affluence? Of course not. So, wouldn’t the matter be a personal one between the minister and God? I suppose it depends on whether I am enabling that affluence through my tithes and offerings. Wouldn’t I potentially be complicit in the sin of greed if I knowingly give to a church or a religion that fails to hold ministers financially accountable? The Western Church has historically been a shining city on a hill for a dark and fallen world. Is our Light dimming because we have ignored the fog of greed? I blame no one more than I blame myself. I am personally guilty of greed, too. But silence is something I can be guilty of no longer.

The remainder of this blog will likely win me no friends. In fact, what I am now compelled to question publicly is far more likely to cost me friends. The Holy Spirit compels me nonetheless, so I have reluctantly decided to post this blog. God controls the timing and circulation of the message. Observations that follow collectively comprise the source of my unsettled Spirit. It should also be noted that I have approached various leaders at different churches with these concerns on several occasions over the last year. Emails have been exchanged, and face-to-face meetings have occurred. I have sought counsel from trusted mentors, and I have prayed for discernment. Answers provided by humans, though polite and conciliatory, have proven inadequate to settle my Spirit. Discernment alone has led me to start this conversation. I genuinely wish it wasn’t necessary to do so. Readers who know me personally should not necessarily assume that the observations shared reflect issues within my home church exclusively. The context is much broader than that. What follow are questions about the Western Church in general, not allegations about a particular congregation.

I wonder if Jesus is honored when prominent pastors own lucrative, non-profit ministries, some of which are underwritten through the tithes and offerings of local churches. “Non-profit” should not be misinterpreted to mean “non-salary-paying.” More importantly, would Jesus leave the tables upright if he walked into our churches in 2017? I wonder what He would think if He visited church websites and clicked on hyperlinks to Amazon where pastors’ books are sold, some for profit. Selling things for church participation is nothing new, and Jesus was pretty clear about His thoughts regarding the matter.

In Matthew 21:13, when people need animal sacrifices to participate in worship, Jesus reprimands the merchants selling animals in the Temple: “My house will be called a house of prayers, but you are making it a den of robbers.” In John 2:13-16, Jesus overturns the moneychangers’ tables and drives the animals out of the Temple with a whip, telling the merchants, “Get these out of here! Stop turning my Father’s house into a market!” To summarize these two scriptures, business people were engaged in an acceptable practice at an unacceptable location, the Gentile Courts (an outer part of the Temple). Jesus passionately condemned the practice because of the place it occurred.

In modern times, when people need Bible supplements to participate in church-wide initiatives, Jesus remains silent unless someone has the courage to speak out against the practice. It seems like a compelling similarity: Ancient Jews were encouraged to buy animals in order to participate in church; some contemporary Protestants are now encouraged to buy supplemental resources in order to participate in church. I wonder if our gathering places have become marketplaces. I wonder if has become our modern day Gentile Courts. The only way the two scenarios could be more similar is if the Jewish priests had been the ones selling the animals in the Temple. They were not. The practice would have been unconscionable. Not today. Entrepreneurial pastors are seemingly everywhere.

It is no accident that Jesus talks more about money than Heaven and Hell combined. It is no mistake that 16 of the 38 New Testament parables focus on money or possessions. Estimates are that 10 percent of Gospel verses directly or indirectly address money. Somewhere around 500 Bible verses are devoted to prayer; another 500 verses focus on faith. But money is the basis of some 2,000 Bible verses. Jesus understands the temptation of greed. So did Martin Luther. Money is referenced 13 times in his 95 Theses, the document that sparked the Protestant Reformation.

Christian entrepreneurs are no less Christian because they sell things, and pastors are no less Godly, in my estimation, if they sell Bible supplements. In fact, Paul says in 2 Corinthians 2:17, “Unlike so many, we do not peddle the word of God for profit.” We can infer, then, that profiting from God’s word is not necessarily sinful.  If it were, Paul would have likely condemned the practice in no uncertain terms. I see Biblical evidence of entrepreneurial believers, and I see Biblical evidence of vocational ministers. What I don’t see, however, is Biblical evidence of entrepreneurial ministers. The Western Church has seemingly built a different model. The practice is rampant. It is not, unfortunately, the only trendy, questionable practice in modern Protestant churches.

What about the evolution of the church budget into vague, glossy ministry plans? Church members still need to know that church leadership is intent upon being good stewards of God’s resources. It shouldn’t require a private meeting to learn that approximately 50 cents of every church dollar is earmarked for personnel. A $20 million church budget, in other words, pushes less than $10 million toward the heart stirring images–disaster relief, missionaries, and orphans–projected in our sanctuaries on Sundays. What we don’t see projected are pastors’ swimming pools, boats, and gated communities, none of which are necessarily sinful. But these are also reasons we give–veiled reasons. We need to be assured that greed has not crept into our beloved churches. Godly stewardship compels us to know if the offering plate has become a source of affluence.

The problem is church members can’t find these assurances based on the current trend of “ministry-based budgeting” with hidden personnel costs. We need financial transparency. I am neither a Bible scholar nor a theologian, but the only consolation I find in this capitalistic, Western Church model is the assurance God gives us in Isaiah 55:11: “…my word that goes out from my mouth…will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire.” No, God’s Word does not return void. And that’s why not even our collective greed can damage His purposes. But it sure can leave the Spirit unsettled.

My prayer is that the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth aren’t allowed to creep in and choke out the Word, making us unfruitful. That’s my prayer for everyone, church leaders and laypeople just like me. God continues to do miraculous work through His church in spite of our imperfections. Imagine what He would allow us to see if we were willing to break free from the shackles of greed.


My brother-in-law has driven Cadillacs for as long as I can remember. No words I could put together would describe the Cadillac experience for those who have never ridden in one. As a teenager, bumps and potholes that shook my insides while driving my 1982 S-10 would seemingly disappear in his Sedan DeVille. Sometimes when I rode in that Cadillac with him, I found myself wondering if familiarly rough roads had been repaved. There was that much difference.

Not much has changed over the years, at least regarding transportation. My brother-in-law still drives Cadillacs, and I still drive a small pickup truck, a 1993 Toyota, with 155,050 miles on it. At least that’s what the odometer read when it stopped working at some point many years ago. The rides are equally as different as they were in the late 1980s. What has changed over the years, however, is my faith. The Cadillac/pickup truck analogy is the best one I can use to describe the difference in the faith of my teenage years and that of my middle-aged years.

As youth became young adulthood, I continued to believe that God smoothed the path of the Christian. Through Divine Intervention, I believed blessings were essentially a resurfacing job on the Road of Life. Saying my prayers and reading my Bible, I believed, were reasons enough for Him to keep my pathways free of bumps and obstacles. My reasoning established a perception that Christians traveled a much smoother Road of Life. Imagine how shocked I was to learn otherwise. Personal experiences and those of much more mature Christians around me forced me to rethink my faith. Reading my Bible and praying were not enough; my road was pretty bumpy at times, and I watched as men and women of deep faith received diagnoses, buried loved ones, and lost businesses. My solution? Praying specifically for God to remove problems had to be the only answer. And so I did—for my family and for my brothers and sisters in Christ.

Over the years, those kinds of prayers seemingly went unanswered more often than not. “Removal prayers” sometimes still do. I continue to pray for smooth sailing and no obstacles. “Lord, go before me and…” is the habitual line. “Order my steps, Lord, and protect me from…” is another favorite. But why would God remove the very challenges he uses to mold me? Why would He direct me around a crisis that deepens my faith? Why would he take away friends’ problems that detour them closer to Him? Did he ever remove the thorn from Paul’s side?

Reality is evidence that believers and non-believers travel the same roads, literally and figuratively. Crises and challenges are not reserved for pagans. The only difference is in our spiritual suspension. Isaiah tells us that the Upright One makes the way of the righteous smooth (Chapter 26, Verse 7), but “way” should not be mistaken for the road or the path. The smooth ride of the Cadillac was never a result of road condition. The secret was in the shocks. Lord, equip me with shocks of faith and struts of trust. Road hazards are everywhere.