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Hello, fellow wayfarers. How to combat cynicism in the wake of the Asbury revival … How an anonymous critic sparked a memory that changed my whole life … What I’d say to those still grieving a past divorce … Plus, a South Carolina fisherman hooks us with his maritime-themed Desert Island Playlist (and sneaks in a Christmas song at the end) … This is this week’s Moore to the Point.

Russell Moore

The Asbury Revival in a Cynical Age

Over the past several weeks, the world has looked to a phenomenon many assumed was of a bygone era: revival.

For some, the Asbury revival has sparked a renewed sense of hope for the future of the church. For others, though, reports of revival are met with something else—a jaded sense of cynicism.

By cynicism, I’m not referring to the professional social media contrarians of whatever sort or tribe—for whom almost anything is an occasion to reignite old fights with whomever they deem to be “the enemy.” I’m referring instead to those of you who are just disappointed and tired. You’ve seen so much that’s fake that it’s hard for you to believe that anything so extraordinary could be real.

A few weeks ago, my friend Yuval Levin said something in our conversation on my podcast that I haven’t been able to get out of my mind. He commented that most people think of the cynical as the opposite of the naïve—when really, it’s just another way of being naïve. The more I ponder his point, the more I think he’s right.

The apostle Paul told us to “test everything; hold fast what is good” (1 Thess. 5:21, ESV). One type of person throws overboard the hard work of testing by just receiving everything—or, at least, everything preapproved by the person’s tribe or ideology or movement.

That’s a lazy mindset that leads exactly where the Bible tells us it will—to inviting wolves who know how to exploit it. But cynicism exhibits the same kind of laziness. One need not do the hard work of testing the spirits if one rules everything as inauthentic from the outset.

For some people, cynicism is based on a kind of materialistic naturalism that assumes the only “real” things are quantifiable. Others may hold to a certain political ideology that assumes the only “real” things are those one can mobilize for one’s cause. Still others might be cynical due to a religious fundamentalism that eschews any mystery that seems out of step with one’s syllogisms.

For still others—many people, in fact—cynicism is a product not of a fighting spirit but of a broken heart. This is not really cynicism in the way we tend to think of it as much as it is a form of self-protection. One can’t be hurt, it’s assumed, if one doesn’t expect much. It’s less jaded than it is just numb.

That’s understandable. Some of the people I know most nervous about events such as the Asbury revival came out of church movements that were themselves the afterburn of some other revival, perhaps the Jesus Movement of the 1960s and ’70s. These Christians sometimes were exhausted by a kind of artificial emotional whipping up—the leaders’ attempts to somehow re-create what they had once known when the fires of revival seemed closer and stronger.

One friend from one such tradition told me he did not question the authenticity of the Asbury revival. As a matter of fact, he—like me—is cheered by it. Still, he said, he is not worried about the students themselves or the school’s leadership. Rather, he’s concerned about the various hangers-on who are drawn to any extraordinary spiritual moment and, ultimately, those who will be there to sell them stuff or use them to gain power.

If you feel nervous or skeptical about the Asbury revival, I would point you to one of the places I feel the most cynical, exhausted, and disgusted: the Jordan River.

Over the years, I’ve taken groups of seminary students and others to Israel and the surrounding lands to study the Bible in the places where the events of Scripture occurred. Most people on these trips were traveling to the Middle East for the first time.

Many of them remarked about how much they loved Galilee in particular. Sitting in a field near the Sea of Tiberias can give one an imaginative sense of what it must have been like to sit on just such a hill—perhaps in the exact same spot—hearing Jesus teach. Many sites have a similar response.

But then there’s the Jordan.

We have often waited, sometimes a half hour or so, to see the river because some prosperity-gospel evangelist was there dunking busloads of people who came to “rededicate” their lives to Christ. How many of these people, do you suppose, also paid money to these preachers in exchange for some sort of “blessing” they believed they could obtain?

And, of course, one must enter and exit the Jordan River through the gift shops. There one can buy Jordan River key chains, Christmas ornaments, and “genuine Jordan River water.” The place seems so market-oriented and desacralized that I expect if Jesus were to arrive there now, he might turn over the moneychangers’ tables before seeking out his cousin John the Baptist.

Students usually walk away mumbling, “That looked nothing like the Jordan River.” Of course, by definition, it looks exactly like the Jordan River—but I know what they mean.

Do the marketers, grifters, and hangers-on at the Jordan invalidate what happened there? Do they somehow null the fact that Jesus—in that very river—identified himself with us sinners in the waters of baptism? Does the sound of merchants hawking goods drown out the voice that once thundered overhead, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased” (Matt. 3:17)? Not at all.

In the Gospel of John, Jesus escaped religious leaders who sought to arrest him after he spoke what they—rightly—interpreted to be a claim to deity. Where did Jesus go? Right back to the Jordan River, “to the place where John had been baptizing in the early days” (10:40). The Scriptures tell us that many found Jesus there and said, “Though John never performed a sign, all that John said about this man was true” (v. 41).

The novelist Jonathan Miles once wrote, “In the wake of any miracle come pilgrims, and behind them, inevitably, the souvenir-mongers.” If Pentecost were to happen today, people would be taking selfies in front of Simon Peter preaching. Someone would have a Worship Songs from Pentecost album out within months. And many of us would wonder whether that’s what Pentecost was all about—just more hype.

The question for us today is the same one those who found Jesus at the Jordan were asking themselves. Whether we see the signs or not—or whether we can believe our own senses when we do see them—is what we’ve heard about the Son of God true?

We can rest assured that it is.

Revivals are, by definition, fleeting things. That’s why we should be grateful when we see them, as the aftereffects of the wind of the Spirit blowing around us. But that’s true of all our encounters with God. T. S. Eliot reminded us that we perceive only flashes of those unattended moments where it seems that time intersects with something timeless.

Often, we look to some time in our lives when God was extraordinarily active and wonder, What happened back there? Sometimes, because we can’t explain it or repeat it, we wonder whether it was real at all. That’s partly because we too are souvenir mongers. We want to turn those brushes with Jesus into tangible tokens we can control.

We want the Jordan River water vial when what we really need is the One who came up out of that water. Revival—personally or corporately—can remind us that we are not in control but that we are also not abandoned to chaos.

The full effects of the Asbury revival will take years to see. What happened at the Jordan River is, infinitely more so, rippling out through the millennia. Those of us who sometimes grow cynical can make the case—compellingly—that such cynicism is well earned.

But maybe what can break through all of that is to really expect that God might just hear, as he has before, our earnest plea: “Revive us again.”

Why I Look at the Right Side of the Room Every Time I Speak

Over the years, probably hundreds, maybe thousands, of people have handed me notes after I’ve finished preaching or teaching. I would bet 99 percent of them have been words of encouragement and kindness. Of course, I remember the 1 percent of them that weren’t.

Though it’s been 15 or so years ago, I can still remember the note somebody gave me at the back door after I had just finished preaching at our church: “You always look to one side of the church and not at the other. You are ignoring us over here on this side.”

The note maker wasn’t referring to factions or tribes in the church. He or she meant that I literally looked mostly to my right, much more than to my left. I’ll admit I was annoyed, but after that, I also paid more careful attention to looking toward the other side of the sanctuary while preaching. I started noticing that the critic was correct: I do tend to look over to my right most often.

Then one day it suddenly dawned on me why I do that.

When I first started out in ministry, I was terrified of preaching. I don’t know why. In middle school, I was in extemporaneous speaking competitions where they would give us an impromptu topic and ask us to defend a position on the spot. And I’d served in politics—as a communications director and in all sorts of other roles—where I’d spoken all over the Fifth Congressional District of Mississippi telling folks why they ought to elect and reelect Gene Taylor to the US House of Representatives.

But preaching was different. I didn’t feel adequate, and every time, I would tremble inside with fear.

Because of that, Maria and I would go to our empty church building every Saturday evening, and I would practice my sermon for the next day over and over and over again. I don’t know how Maria endured it.

But every Sunday, my nerves would disappear once I started preaching—and it’s because of Joe Garcia, an older man in our congregation at Bay Vista Baptist Church in Biloxi, Mississippi. Mr. Joe has long since passed away. Yet every time I looked at him back then—on the right-hand side—he would be smiling and nodding along in a way that I can’t really describe but that communicated, I’m with you; keep going. Whenever the nerves would hit, I could just look at Mr. Joe.

Of course, habits are set early and tend to build on themselves. Long after the nerves of that sort have passed, I think I am still, without consciously realizing it, looking for Joe Garcia every time I speak.

When, not too long ago, I suddenly realized the connection between those two things, I felt a wave of gratitude.

Don’t you find that in your own life? More often than not, the things that change everything for us are not the big moments, where in a movie the music would swell in the background. Instead, they’re usually the little kindnesses, the small gestures of grace—from people who have found some way to quietly tell you, I’m with you; keep going.

Survivors of Divorce

Over the past week, I’ve heard from a lot of you about last week’s newsletter, most with moving stories of what you’ve lived through with the dismemberment of a divorce—maybe your own, maybe that of your parents.

Some of you, though, are living with guilt. Maybe you had no choice to divorce—or to live through the divorce your spouse initiated—but you grieve what that awful reality was like, and is still like, for your children.

In The Storm-Tossed Family, I mentioned a friend’s situation that I think about all the time. He and his wife (whose children are a bit older than ours) dropped their firstborn child off at college, and he found himself standing outside the dormitory weeping. He realized that much of his crying was more than just that he would miss his son. My friend thought of all the time his job had taken him on the road—all the dinners, bedtime stories, and little moments he had missed. He realized that, all along, there had been such limited time with this child and that eighteen years go by faster than they tell you. “Why did I waste any of that time watching television?” he said.

An older man standing nearby listened to my friend list all his regrets of lost time and said, “Oh, the Lord redeems all of that.”

My friend found that word liberating. The man wasn’t trying to reassure him by telling him, “Oh, come now, you were a good father.” I can objectively say that he is an exceptionally good father, but that wasn’t what he needed to hear in that moment. He would just have rationalized it away, knowing that the stranger on some university lawn didn’t know him or his family.

If the man had told my friend not to worry about all those absences, that they didn’t matter, that “children are resilient,” he wouldn’t have believed all that either.

Instead, this wise man offered something better: a word of grace.

Those of us who have never lived through a divorce—either ours or our parents’—can’t experientially understand what it’s like for those of you who have. But we do know what it’s like to hurt people—to say words we can’t unsay or neglect to say what we need to until it’s too late.

And yet, in Christ, we are not just forgiven (although that’s amazing enough!). We are also having our stories joined to his story—the One in whom “all things hold together” (Col. 1:17). If neither life nor death nor height nor principalities nor powers can separate us from the story of Christ, do we really think our regretted actions of the past can either?

Our stories are all broken. A new one is forming around us, in ways we can’t see. God redeems all that.

Desert Island Playlist

Every other week, I share a playlist of songs one of you says you’d want to have on hand if you were stranded on a desert island. This week’s submission comes from reader Gregg Brickle from Lexington, South Carolina.

  • “Old School” by John Conlee—I have listened to this song hundreds of times (along with most of John’s songs since I first heard him as a college freshman in 1983) and still get a chill when I hear the stand for moral purity in marriage at the end of the song.

  • “Don’t Stop Believin’” by Journey—Love this as early ’80s rock but also as a statement of faith. Once had a young, courageous contemporary worship leader in our small Southern Baptist church play relevant portions of this during worship! He is no longer with the church (albeit thankfully not for the song but for a call to a West Coast church).

    (RDM note: “Don’t Stop Believin’” in a worship service would send me to the West Coast too. Okay, back to the list.)

  • “Southern Cross” by Crosby, Stills, & Nash—Sailing to see the Southern Cross is still on the bucket list.

  • “Son of a Son of a Sailor” by Jimmy Buffett—Takes me back to fishing with my dad offshore of South Carolina from the mid-1970s through 2004. RIP Dad. Fish on!

  • “Give Me Just a Little More Time” by Chairmen of the Board—Iconic South Carolina beach music. Probably should throw “Gone Fishing” in here as well, since that would come in handy on a deserted island.

  • “September” by Earth, Wind & Fire—It might get a little boring on the desert island, so I need a go-to song to get me up and dancing.

  • “Into the Mystic” by Van Morrison—Caught several blue marlin to this song. It had an uncanny ability to make the fish bite, so we played it often on those offshore trips mentioned before. Cassette of course.

  • “One Love” by Bob Marley—We could use the message of unity in this day.

  • “White Christmas” by Bing Crosby—Would need something to play on the island during Christ’s birthday every year, wouldn’t I? (Sticking to the secular for the parameters of this exercise.)

Thank you, Gregg!

Readers, what do you think? If you were stranded on a desert island for the rest of your life and could have only one playlist or one bookshelf with you, what songs or books would you choose?

  • For a Desert Island Playlist, send me a list of 5–12 songs, excluding hymns and worship songs. (We’ll cover those later.)

  • For a Desert Island Bookshelf, send me a list of 5–12 books. If possible, include one photo of all the books together.

Send your list (or both lists!) to, and include as much or as little explanation of your choices as you would like.

Quote of the Moment

From the inside, it can feel like confusion; only slowly do we learn what we really care about, and allow our outer life to be realigned in that gravitational pull. With maturity, that robust vulnerability comes to feel like the only necessary way forward, the only real invitation, and the surest, safest ground from which to step.

On the inside we come to know who and what and how we love and what we can do to deepen that love; only from the outside, and only by looking back, does it look like courage.

—David Whyte, “Courage,” from the book Consolations

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Russell Moore

Russell Moore
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