When Isaac Made Me Cry

But this poverty of spirit is a gracious disposition of soul, by which we are emptied of self, in order to be filled with Jesus Christ.” 

-Matthew Henry, Commentary on Matthew 5

We won’t forget the Alamo. But four days at the National Bible Bee in San Antonio afforded even more glorious moments to remember. 

But one stands above. It was when Isaac made me cry.


I will remember Joshua Bontrager (pictured), a dobro-plucking, dairy farmer from Koloma, Iowa reciting Psalm 103 in the final round. We met Joshua in the parking lot our first night. Struck by his gentle zeal wondered aloud how he prepared for the Bee. “Honestly,” he said with a hint of a grin, “I like to study sermons and commentaries.” And so he stole our hearts.

But hearing this Joshua recite my favorite Psalm is not what I’ll remember most.

I will remember a senior and still genial Dr. James Dobson asking the Junior Champion, who happened to be Joshua’s brother, “So, Taylor, are you coming back next year?” I will remember a young Taylor shrugging as he said, “Lord willing.” And Dr. Dobson chuckling, answering, “You should say yes.” And Taylor shrugging again and smiling, silent.

But this humble example in speech, in faith is not what I’ll remember most.

I will remember waiting beside Shirnette in from New York in the small room where her Christine and my Sam would soon be ushered in to recite. Her admission that preparing for Nationals was, “a fight every step of the way,” bonded us. As did, we would soon learn, seeing our kids struggle hard before the judges. So this time with Shirnette is etched. 

But this time with Shirnette in the frying pan, before the fire is not what I’ll remember most.
I will remember visiting with gentle Julia Leary as we awaited results. Julie is a mother of nine. Her Sarah won last year’s competition. Her six year-old Victoria is precocious too. When Julie shared the whole crew had driven 24 hours from New York to compete, Victoria piped up with a family travel secret: Full bladders don’t matter. 

But this Leary family’s costly devotion to the cause is not what I’ll remember most. 

I will remember How Firm A Foundation echoing loud around Cibolo Canyon Ballroom where we all gathered that second night. Never mind that the screens went blank; the lyrics were written on these hearts. Strong, strong they sang, What more can He say, than to you he has said, to you who for refuge to Jesus have fled. 

But singing this soul-stirring song with that joyous throng is not what I’ll remember most.   

The Spirit

In a sermon on Acts 10 John Piper explains that the Spirit comes,

[T]o make Christ real to people and to show us who he really is in his glory so that we come to love him and trust him and obey him and show him to the world. 

What this means is that the Holy Spirit is more likely to come power where the truth about Jesus is being lifted up and made plain. The Spirit loves to come and take the truth about Jesus and turn it into an experience of Jesus

We know that no one can control the Spirit. He is free to come and go. The wind blows where it will and God gives the Spirit as He wills (John 3:8, Hebrews 2:4, Corinthians 12:11). But we also know that the Spirit comes to glorify Jesus (John 16:14). So maybe by exalting Christ in our words, as Peter did in Acts 10, we can increase the chances He’ll come.

I think Isaac did that. I think he increased the odds.  

The Moment

I sit beside Shirnette in the little judging room, and 
Isaac is escorted in. He’s the third of eleven to recite in this room this morning. He states his name and Bible version to the judges.

The timer is set for five minutes. And the moment begins.

The judge said, “Your first passage is John 4:21-25.” Isaac said, “Pass.” 

The judge said, “Your second passage is 1 Corinthians 15:50-54.” Isaac said,“Pass.” 

The judge said, “Your last passage is 1 Timothy 6:4-8.” Isaac said, “Pass.”

And with that third pass, all hope of Isaac advancing was dashed. This is how it ended. Hours and months hiding hundreds of verses in his heart had came to this. Did Isaac wonder, I wondered, if all that time memorizing instead of Minecrafting, reciting verses instead of running around, and studying Greek instead of playing games was wasted?

I hear the judge, again.

Thank you, Isaac. You have some time left. Is there a passage that you memorized that you’d like to recite for us?

Isaac Yang, age eight, inhales deeply. No one breathes. Now Isaac answers.

Yes, please. I’d like to say Matthew 5:3-12.

Now he turns his back to the judges and faces us. And Isaac recites clearly, calmly, word-perfectly all ten verses of the Beatitudes.

Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth…

And the Spirit falls. The Spirit turns the truth of Jesus into the experience of Jesus and we all try to still our sobs and wipe our tears and dig for Kleenex. Here is Isaac living out loud Jesus’ words. Here in this little room is this little one-poor in Spirit, inheriting heaven, and calling down the Spirit even as in loss and disappointment he recites, Blessed are the poor in Spirit. 

*   *   *   *   *

Matthew Henry said this blessed poverty of spirit is,

[A] gracious disposition of soul, by which we are emptied of self, in order to our being filled with Jesus Christ…we are thankful for what we have, and make the best of that which is. Being poor in spirit is to sit loose to the world and not set our hearts upon it, but cheerfully to bear losses and disappointments which befall us.

Isaac made the best of that which was. He sat loose to worldly hopes. Dreams of advancing ended when he passed. But Isaac didn’t cry. Isaac exalted Jesus. Poor in spirit and filled with the Spirit, he cheerfully bore loss and disappointment. He brought Christ’s blessed words to life.

That’s why above all these precious moments, I pray I always remember when Isaac made me cry.
Isaac, second from right, second row up, standing beside our Samuel.
National Bible Bee Primary Qualifiers, 11/18/15