Announcement and teaching

it is wellHi everyone, it’s been awhile since I posted. It’s been a little crazier than usual around here, as our family has been praying about and anticipating a move this summer. The decision was just made final this week, and we’ll be heading just about 25 miles to the east to live in the city limits of Chicago. Specifics beyond that aren’t set (well, other than that husband Dave will be teaching at a charter school downtown–that’s a huge answer to prayer!), but we’re waiting to see how God leads.

In the meantime, I’d like to share a teaching that I gave at our women’s Bible study a couple weeks ago. It was written during one of the most uncertain times of this journey of moving (though I know there are more to come!). I’ve done an audio of it as well; it’s about 25 minutes in length and you can find it just below this paragraph. This is far longer than my usual posts, and I apologize for that.

“I AM the Way”

Our teaching topic today is Jesus’ “I Am the Way” statement. I’ve been thinking about that statement for weeks now, so the collect that was prayed at the beginning of the service this past Sunday jumped out at me. I’d like to pray it over us today as we look at Jesus as the Way for us.

Almighty God, whom truly to know is everlasting life: Grant us so perfectly to know your Son Jesus Christ to be the way, the truth, and the life, that we may steadfastly follow his steps in the way that leads to eternal life; through Jesus Christ your Son our Lord, who lives and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, for ever and ever. Amen.

Before we get into talking ABOUT the passage, let’s read it together. This is John 13:31-14:10, some of Jesus’ last words to his disciples before he was betrayed. (Follow the link above to read the passage on Bible Gateway.)

In John 14:6, Jesus said, “I am the way and the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me.” This morning we’re looking at the first noun in Jesus’ statement: “Jesus is the Way,” and exploring what that means for us, both in terms of salvation but also for our daily lives, for the step-by-step journeys we are all on. I’m “preaching” to myself this morning. That is usually the case when I teach—God always makes it very personal, but this is one that has been intensely applicable to me right now, and I’ve been praying that the journey I’m on and what I’m learning of Jesus being the Way for me in it will be of real use to you as well.

For about a year now, my husband and I have felt a pull to move to the inner city, with my husband sensing a specific draw to urban education. We’ve sought discernment about this urge, we’ve gathered people to pray with us, we’ve gotten counsel, and my husband has applied for a couple of jobs in inner-city Chicago schools. I won’t bore you with the process that has followed, but it has been very much a 3-steps-forward, 2-steps-back kind of journey, and both jobs are still possibilities even though it’s now almost May—and in the educational world, that’s getting late! Meanwhile as I’ve sensed the Lord’s leading, I’ve fought fears of “If this happens, what about school for my kids? Won’t they all have closed their enrollment? What about housing? How will we sell our house and find someplace to live in that short of time? What neighborhood?” It’s gotten to the point that I realize that if God actually opens doors and makes this happen, it truly is miraculous because I’ve got no control over it.

So, with all this swirling around in the background of my life, I began to prepare for this teaching. One of the things we do to prepare is to work our way through a set of pre-sermon questions, and one of the questions is this: “How is this passage supposed to make you feel?”

I laughed out loud when I read that question because, honestly, I identified in many ways with the disciples. I’m asking some questions that sound really similar to theirs. “Where are you leading? What is going on? Is your way for us here or there? Can you please just make the way clear?”

So, just like the disciples in the passage, I was feeling confused. I was identifying more with their feelings than with what Jesus was saying. But then I had to look at the question again, because it doesn’t ask, “How does this passage make you feel?” It hadn’t asked me how I actually felt when reading the passage but instead asked how the passage was supposed to make me feel—and that was entirely different, because the intent of this passage is hope! It’s an incredibly hopeful passage, full of eternal belonging and promises of home.

But I, just like the disciples, needed to see it differently. I needed a different perspective on Jesus being the Way. I needed a different understanding of the way.

We, here in 2016, know that verse 31 is speaking of Jesus’ crucifixion and resurrection; he’s speaking of our salvation. Then, in verse 33 he is referring to his ascension and in 34 to the new resurrection life his followers will live. These are huge, eternity-changing events!

And after he says all these monumental things, Peter asks, “Where are you going?”

Peter missed the salvation; he missed the new life of love, and he focused on Jesus leaving. I get that! Peter missed all the other stuff because Jesus just said something that threatened Peter’s imagined way of life. “What? You’re leaving? That can’t happen! We’ve got plans! You’re our leader!” Peter, along with probably all the other disciples, had his sights set on something other than God, something other than God’s purposes. They couldn’t see anything other than their own purposes. Peter was still expecting Jesus to establish an earthly kingdom, to restore Israel to glory, and Peter was wanting a significant part in this restoration. Now please understand I’m not putting Peter down for this. He wanted to be Jesus’ right-hand man, the one known for being completely supportive. He wanted to be the rock that Jesus had called him.

None of these things are bad, but they were what Peter wanted. Peter wasn’t asking what God wanted. He wasn’t looking to the Father, as Jesus always was. In chapter 14 we see the same tendencies in Thomas and Philip. Thomas, in verse 5, said, “We don’t know where you’re going.” He, too, has his eyes somewhere OTHER than God. And that’s when Jesus points him—all of them—back to God, telling him that the way Jesus is going is ALWAYS to the Father and then Jesus makes the I Am statement that He is the complete and only way to the Father,

And before I smack my forehead and say, “C’mon, guys, don’t you get it?” I have to realize I do the same thing. I formulate my own plans, and I get my eyes off the Father. I forget that HE is my ultimate goal, my complete belonging. I, too, form a plan that seems right to me, one in which I know my place and feel settled and secure, and when God does something or says something that upsets my plan—or suggests that’s not His plan, then I’m just like Peter. “What?”

And when I do this, it’s like I’m walking through an open field with my eyes on the ground, making my own way—forgetting my way doesn’t lead to the Father. I forget to look up at the Father and keep looking up, so I also forget that in him I am home.

This looking, this Father-gaze—this Father-fixation, you could say—is only possible through Jesus. He made a Way, the only Way possible, between us and the Father. Through his death and resurrection he wiped out all the sin and evil that was between us so we can see the Father and know his loving face and feel his arms around us. So we can know that in the Father’s love, we are home. We belong. In and through Jesus, we are brought to our true home with him and the Father. That home is our ultimate destination.

And this Destination influences the journey to it, and this is another meaning to Jesus being the Way. He is not only the destination, He is the way of the Father. Jesus perfectly lived this way of the Father. He revealed it to us in both his words and actions. In the Gospels, he said, over and over, in many different ways, that his eyes were on the Father. And that determined how he lived. He wasn’t trying to please others or himself—just the Father. And this is the kind of life, the kind of way to which Jesus is referring in John 13:34-35. He tells his disciples—he tells us—Love one another. As I have loved you, so you must love one another. Earlier in this chapter he’d given them a very concrete example of this when he washed their feet and told them to do the same. Bishop Stewart spoke of this call to love in the sermon this past Sunday. He told us we are called to choose a life of costly love, sacrificial love—that is the Christian life. That is the life Jesus lived, the life that revealed the Father to us, that showed us the Father’s way. And it is also the life we are to live. We are called to service, to other-focused lives.

And here is where I get a little stuck–in a couple of different ways: first, HOW do I do that? I’m selfish by nature. How do I live a life of sacrificial love when I am unable to do that? Second, how do we know exactly which direction this life of sacrificial life should take? For example, in my particular situation right now, we have a lot of good choices, and all of them—including the choice of staying in our current situation—involve costly love and service. I don’t think there’s ONE right choice. I think God could and would use all of them, but we still are faced with a choice, and that can be overwhelming.

I see this in my head kind of like a Google map with the middle part missing. It’s as if I’m looking at the map, and two dots are flashing on it. One dot is the “You are here” dot; it’s our current location. The other dot is the “destination” dot. The map behind the “You are here” dot is filled in, in a lot of detail. We can look back on our journey and see a few of its twists and turns and kind of how it got us to the point we’re at. The other dot, the destination dot, is labeled “eternal home,” “eternal life with the Father,” and around the dot are all these wonderful descriptors like “full satisfaction in Christ,” “freedom from all selfishness,” “completeness,” “wholeness,” “belonging,” “everlasting peace and love.”

So I have the ultimate destination dot and I have the current location dot, but the map in between isn’t filled in. It’s blank, so I don’t know the path between the two dots.

Now, so far I have talked about two “ways” that Jesus is the Way. The first is that Jesus is our destination, our ultimate home with the Father, and the second is Jesus as our example, showing us the Way of the Father—full of sacrificial love.

Those are two wonderful and essential understandings of Jesus being the Way, but I need more! If I only have those two dots—the current location and the ultimate destination—and then the example of Jesus, that still leaves me with big blank space in my map. HOW do I walk your way? I ask. Which direction do I take? How do I know? Am I just supposed to choose the way that looks hardest each time? What if I don’t? What if I choose the easier way and then feel guilty? (Some of us get stuck in that trap, don’t we? You know who you are!) We say, Lord, I’m lost in the in-between place. I’m stuck!

This is where the third understanding of the Way brings hope to my heart. Jesus is the Destination; he is the way of the Father—and he is the way to the Father. He is the path beneath my feet as well as my guide and companion on the journey; He holds my hand as we walk together; he carries me in the difficult parts; he is before me and behind me and beside me. He is in me.

In this passage in John, the disciples couldn’t see this yet. Their vision was still clouded. They didn’t understand; they weren’t saying, “Lord, we get it; You’re completing our eternal salvation with your death and resurrection.” No, they were still looking for an earthly kingdom and still hoping for some recognition and honor in it—but regardless of their clouded perspective, they had this one hugely important thing right: Jesus was their life! They’d walked with him for three years, and they didn’t want that to end. They’d journeyed with him. They’d looked to him for where they were going to go and how they would be fed and where they would sleep at night. And now he was talking about leaving them. I would have asked the same question. I still do!

And Jesus says to me, to us, exactly what he said to them. Please look with me at John 14:16-19, 26-27. (The link will take you to John 14:16-27 in the NIV.)

 

Jesus didn’t leave the disciples as orphans. He doesn’t leave us either. We are not vainly trying to make our way to the Father, hopelessly striving in our own strength to live as Christ did. No, He gave us His Spirit. “You will see me,” he promised. “You are not alone on the way. I will come to you. Because I live, you also will live.”

So the Spirit guides us through the blank space between the current location dot and the destination dot on the map. This doesn’t mean we get to punch the “list navigation steps” button and see all the twists and turns laid out. No. Often the Spirit reveals only one step in front of us; though at other times the Spirit settles us in a sweet spot for a time. Sometimes the way is full of trouble and hardship. Sometimes we seem stuck—with the way in front covered in fog. We’re not sure where to step.

But no matter what the journey is like, we’re not doing it alone. And that makes all the difference.

As my family has been in this journey of ambiguity—which Pastor Matt calls “a darn good story,” (because he’s not the one living it! J) the Lord keeps reminding me of this truth in a lot of ways. There was the time when Father Kevin stood up after the sermon a few weeks back and said, “I sense there are some here who are in a smog of confusion”—actually, I don’t remember if he said it just like that, but being who he is, I can see him picking words like that—and my husband and I looked at each other and just nodded—and then went and sought prayer. There was the Good Friday service, when I knelt at the cross, full of uncertainty for my children in this possible move, and I heard the Lord say, “I have them. They’re mine.” And then when I shared that moment with my two daughters at the Holy Week reflection service a couple weeks later, my younger daughter’s eyes got wide and she said, “Mom, he told me the same thing when I was at the cross that night. He said, ‘Maddie, I have you.’”

In just the right moments, when my doubts are crowding in, God elbows them out of the way and says, “Look at me instead.” He did this earlier this week when I was meeting with a young mom friend and she said, “God gave me an image while I was praying and I think I’m supposed to share it with you.” And though her vision didn’t give specific direction—it was of a woman lying paralyzed at the feet of Jesus and then being raised by him into courage and strength and service—it encouraged me and renewed my hope. The Lord has done this again and again in this process.

And when I keep my eyes on the Father, when I remember that the Spirit is with and in me, then I also remember I don’t need to worry about the navigation steps. I don’t need to know them. He will reveal what needs to be revealed, when it needs to be revealed. I don’t need to be troubled or afraid. Jesus has made the way for me to be home in the Father, to belong to him. That will be fully realized in eternity, but it’s also a resurrection reality right now. I can live, now, at home in the Father, belonging to him. That is most important—that’s the BIG thing—so I can trust him for everything else, for this journey right now.

You can, too, no matter what your “current location” looks like, no matter what the step in front of you looks like, no matter if you feel paralyzed or overwhelmed or bored or lost or sad or anxious in your “current location.” In these past few months, my husband and I have prayed the prayers for dedication and guidance and quiet confidence over and over. Sometimes we pray them back-to-back, asking for our hearts to be prepared for service, asking for direction and then asking that we would be reminded that our place of belonging is in God. I’ve combined the elements of these prayers into one that I’d like to pray for all of us right now.

Father God, through Jesus we have our home and belonging with you. By the might of your Spirit, lift us, we pray, to your presence, where we may be still and know that through Christ, you are our God, you are our Father. As our Father, please help us to follow the way Christ revealed. Draw our hearts to you, guide our minds, fill our imaginations, and control our wills so that we may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you. Then use us, we pray, for your glory and the welfare of your people. And Lord, when we are uncertain of the way, give us the grace to ask you for guidance. May the Spirit save us from all false choices and lead us on your straight path. Through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

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A sermon and thoughts on Generosity

Two days after my sister sent me the Matthew 6 commentary on generosity and giving that I shared in my last post, I opened up my podcast library on my phone to listen to the latest Tim Keller Sermon and found that it is titled “Blessed Are the Poor.” It so closely relates to the Matthew 6 commentary that I am blown away. Clearly this is something the Lord wants me to meditate on and pray about more–and, of course, DO! Click on the link above to listen to this sermon via Podbay. Keller doesn’t pull any punches, but he ends by drawing our attention back to grace. He reminds us that “generosity” that is based on guilt is simply religion; it’s not founded in the Gospel.

One image from the Matthew 6 commentary that I keep thinking about is the “single eye.” Here’s a quote from that section: Jesus’ illustration about the “single” (NIV good) eye and the evil eye would immediately make sense to his hearers: a “good” eye was literally a healthy eye, but figuratively also an eye that looked on others generously (Sirach 32:8). In the Greek text of the Gospels, Jesus literally calls the eye a “single” eye, which is a wordplay: the Greek version of the Hebrew Bible also uses this word for “single” to translate the Hebrew term for “perfect”-thus “single-minded” devotion to God, with one’s heart set on God alone. An “evil eye,” conversely, was a stingy, jealous or greedy eye; yet it also signifies here a bad eye (Mt 6:23), one that cannot see properly. Jesus uses the “single” eye as a transition to his next point, for the “single” eye is literally undivided, having the whole picture: thus one is not divided between two masters, as the text goes on to explain (v. 24).

mads eye

I’ve posted this picture (shot by my older daughter [the subject is my younger daughter]) before, but I felt it was very appropriate for this post.

I want the generous, single eye Jesus speaks of. I want to see more and more clearly God’s great, incredible, beautiful love for me–until my eye is filled up with Love-Light so that my view of every other person is filtered with Love. This morning I was reminded that this not only applies to those in physical or social need when I realized I was viewing an interaction with a neighbor without a bit of Love in my gaze. There was no generosity in my view of her. I was thinking of her only in relation to myself, of how she had inconvenienced me. God had to remind me that the generosity He calls us to is a way of life that impacts how we see EVERYONE!

This prayer is adapted from the Message version of Matthew 6.

Lord, help us to open our eyes wide in wonder at your amazing love. Help us to believe and trust that you love us more than we can ever understand. Fill up our eyes with the light of your love so that we don’t squint our eyes in greed and distrust but look instead with generosity on others. May we deny and abandon the self-worship we are so drawn to and worship you alone. This single worship will fill our entire lives with Light!

 

Named and Naming

cross picI can still see in my mind one picture from my very first children’s Bible. There’s Adam, his back facing me, a plant strategically covering his butt. Both arms are by his sides, but one hand is lifted slightly. The pose seems to say, “I’m thinking. The right name will come to me, and it will be perfect.”

In front of Adam is a vast line of animals, stretching off into the horizon. I remember a few of them: the lion, his mane-surrounded face looking wise and calm, a giraffe just behind, its neck and head arching toward Adam, and a gazelle-like creature, poised as if standing still was an extreme effort.

I’ve always been fascinated with this story, with humans having the privilege of naming. Naming, I feel, is a small act of creating, a small act that opens the door to vast possibility.

We humans love to name—our children, our pets, our businesses, even inanimate personal belongings. We seem to think that when we name, we hold a bit of interest in that person. We feel we’ve set them on a path because names carry connotation for us. Some names are strong; others are beautiful or quirky or unique. When we name, we confer not only possibility, but a hoped-for direction or purpose.

Could this love for naming be a longing for the privilege we had pre-Fall?

We lost so much at the Fall, relationship with God paramount, so perhaps the loss of our naming privilege does not seem very big, but I wonder about that. I think it must have been fairly significant: names are a big deal in Scripture. In historical accounts, the naming of children or places is often included. God changed people’s names several times, and in each instance the name change carried weight. It signified a new direction, a new identity, and a different relationship with God.

I’ve learned that the very fact we have names is important. I’m reading a book on Genesis* right now, and in the section about the serpent/Satan in Genesis 3, the author made this statement: “What is interesting is that in all but one of these … occurrences (of the name ‘Satan’), ‘satan’ has attached to it the definite article, ‘the satan.’ This indicates ‘the satan’ is a title, not a personal name. Satan is not who he is, but what he is. He does not merit a name, and in antiquity, not to have a name was to be reduced to virtual nonexistence.” (emphasis mine)

I often tell my children Satan is not capable of creating. He can only twist toward evil what God created for good, and this quote expanded my thinking: Satan un-named himself when he turned away from the Creator, and in so doing, he separated himself from any participation in creation. In a way, he undid himself. He made himself nothing, incapable of doing anything true.

In the Fall, we, too, un-named ourselves. We spurned “beloved” and “image-bearer” and put on false names like “self-sufficient” and “independent.”

But God snatched up the true names we cast off so flippantly. God kept them safe, and through the magnificent work of Immanuel, God restores them to us. Truly named ourselves, we can once again join God in the creative work of naming others.

I’ve been pondering this idea for a long time, particularly in my context as a mother. Each day I contribute to the naming of my children. With the attitudes, actions, and words I direct toward them (and in the absence of those as well), I shape their concept of themselves. I can name them “beloved” and “valuable” and “growing.” But I can also twist their concept of their name: “You are a bother.” “You are incapable.” “You are not worth my time right now.” I can reinforce their un-naming.

This is not only true for parents. We all have people we are called to nurture in one way or another, and we can be a part of naming them as God wants them named: valuable, unique, and beloved.

We can name even the people we simply pass on the street. When we make eye contact with a person, we “say,” “I see you. I acknowledge you as a fellow human being.” That is naming.

And when we avert our eyes, what then?

In I Peter, we are told we are “chosen (to be) God’s instruments to do his work and speak out for him, to tell others of the night-and-day difference he made for (us)—from nothing to something, from rejected to accepted.” **

And in this “telling,” we get to name others—with the names God has for them. He says, “I’ll call nobodies and make them somebodies; I’ll call the unloved and make them beloved. In the place where they yelled out, “You’re nobody!” they’re calling you “God’s living children.” **

We name: You are Somebody. You are Beloved. You are God’s living child!

What incredible work!

*Handbook on the Pentateuch by Victor P. Hamilton, published by Baker Book House, 1982. The quote I reference is on page 43 in this edition of the book. The link in the book title takes you to its page at Christianbook.com’s site, where you can buy the 2005 edition.

**The Scripture links take you to Bible Gateway, to that Scripture in three versions (The Message, the Amplified, and the NIV) side by side. It’s awesome to look at them in this way!

Our bodies–declared GOOD

redeemedI think it was my sister who got me started on Popsugar/Fitsugar workouts, which are offered free on Youtube. (Don’t worry, this is not a commercial for Popsugar, nor is it a plug for exercise!)

The vast majority of the workouts feature Anna R, a fitness expert. One of the things I appreciate about Anna is that, though she looks exactly as our culture would expect a fitness expert to look, the other women in the videos with her do not, and she always treats them with the utmost respect. Her goal for them is fitness, not the “perfect” figure, and she doesn’t seem too terribly focused on the fact that she herself pretty much has the perfect figure.

The other day, though, I got a new perspective on Anna R. I pulled up Youtube in the early morning, typed in Popsugar fitness, and all the little squares came up, each a video choice. The human figures in the little squares were about an inch high. Intrigued by the caption on one—which promised a full-body workout in 20 minutes—I clicked on it.

When it popped up in full screen, I was surprised. When it had been limited to a tiny square, I had assumed the thin, athletic figure in the middle was Anna, and the figure to the left, who was still shapely but not quite as svelte—was one of the “other women,” the “normal” women, the ones I identify with when I follow the workouts.

But no. The woman in the middle was the very tall, very thin fitness expert Astrid M, and the woman to the left was Anna. Since Astrid’s thighs are probably the size of my upper arms, Anna didn’t look quite so thin next to her, particularly when their images were shrunk down.

And I suddenly wondered if “perfect figure” Anna plays the comparison game, too.

After all, most of us women do.

I do it, but I grow increasingly frustrated with myself for engaging in this body-comparison game. It’s a waste of my energy; it’s ridiculous; and I see clearly that no good comes from it. More and more I also understand that obsession with or subtle shame for the appearance of my body is connected to a twisted view of sexuality. Deep within I believe my worth is tied to my attractiveness, and this view is linked to the curse.

I was reading N.T. Wright’s Surprised by Hope when he made an almost offhand comment about one of his students hoping her resurrected body would have a different nose. I identified immediately (except I happen to like my nose; perhaps my ears, though? My thighs?)

But then I wondered, Why would she have a different nose? What is wrong with the one she has right now? I understand our resurrected bodies won’t bear the effects of sin and the curse (no heart failure, cancer, blindness, missing limbs, aching knees, etc.) but do we really believe that God looks at her nose—or my ears/thighs or your hips—and says, “No, that is not good”?

After all, our justification for calling parts (or the whole) of our bodies “not good” is generally in comparison with others’ parts/wholes. If my thighs are strong and get me places and can climb mountains and walk trails, why do I care that they might jiggle a little in the process? Why would that make them “not good”?

Answer: because they don’t look like Anna R’s or Astrid M’s thighs.

We have a terribly skewed version of “good.” It must mean “perfect,” we think, and we then imagine “perfect” to be uniformity, complete symmetry, fitting within a narrow definition of beauty and perfection.

But with this view, Eden becomes a very sterile garden. Did every piece of fruit have to look exactly the same? Were funky shaped pears forbidden? Did all the tree trunks have to be straight?

Or did it include lumpy fruit and gnarled branches, and were these considered GOOD because they showed in unique ways the beauty and creativity of God?

Did God rejoice in their distinct, individual beauty?

Does God do the same with that woman’s nose—and my ears—and my thighs—and your hips?

I’m reminded of the verse that often ends wedding ceremonies, “What God has joined together, let not man put asunder.” (Mark 10:9)

I’m not trying to wrongly use that verse to speak to our body image (it’s clearly referring to marriage), but there is a principle here. God put my body together. I must stop denigrating it; stop ripping it apart with my words and attitudes and thoughts. And I certainly must never denigrate someone else’s body.

We should feel free to work out and eat well to allow our bodies to serve us better, to serve God better, to serve others better, but we must love them in the process. God loves our bodies; God made them. He will eventually restore the damage done to them by sin, but they are still his creation.

Who knows—my resurrected thighs may jiggle just as much as my current ones.

And my resurrected mind and spirit will fully agree with God’s assessment: they are good.

The freedom of being a small character

flower close upI just finished Still by Lauren Winner, an author who rises higher on my favorite list every time I read another of her books. (Follow the link above to her Amazon page to see all of them.) Still is about what she calls a mid-faith crisis–the doubting, dull doldrums–and what still keeps her in the faith and allows her, ultimately, to remain still in it.

One of my freelance assignments right now is a week of devotions on the “walk humbly” portion of Micah 6:8, and I’ve been simmering in that phrase before I begin the actual writing. Perhaps that is why the quote below from Still caught my eye. Whatever the reason for my first attraction, I have returned to it several times since, and I want to share it with you. If you are wondering this day about the specific purpose of your life; if you have thought “What am I doing?”; if you’re struggling with your significance/success–or seeming lack of it; if you’re shamed by failure, this one’s for you.

“It turns out the Christian story is a good story in which to learn to fail. As the ethicist *Samuel Wells has written, some stories feature heroes and some stories feature saints and the difference between them matters: ‘Stories…told with…heroes at the centre of them…are told to laud the virtues of the heroes–for if the hero failed, all would be lost. By contrast, a saint can fail in a way that the hero can’t, because the failure of the saint reveals the forgiveness and the new possibilities made in God, and the saint is just a small character in a story that’s always fundamentally about God.'”**

That last line (emphasis mine) keeps grabbing me. A load rolls off when I sit with it. I sigh with relief and gratitude. Yes! I breathe, yes!

white flowersFather, you are the Playwright of the greatest story ever, and you’ve given me a role in it, a small but somehow still important role. This story is about You; it’s for you; it’s by You. I come to you now and ask that You would simply show me what You have for me today in this story. Help me to release the big story to You, to let Your capable pen write it. Help me to live into the part you have for me, one small scene at a time. Give me great joy in doing my best for You. Remind me that You empower me to live out my role. May my bit part–and all our parts collectively–glorify You.

Just on a whim, I did a search on the word “story” on Bible Gateway. I specifically chose The Message to search from because I thought it might use the word “story” in a symbolic sense as well as in a literal one. I wasn’t looking for anything in particular, but I found some beautiful, arresting passages. I’ve included some of them below.

“You’re hopeless, you religion scholars and Pharisees! Frauds! You keep meticulous account books, tithing on every nickel and dime you get, but on the meat of God’s Law, things like fairness and compassion and commitment—the absolute basics!—you carelessly take it or leave it. Careful bookkeeping is commendable, but the basics are required. Do you have any idea how silly you look, writing a life story that’s wrong from start to finish, nitpicking over commas and semicolons? ***Matthew 23:23-24

[ Trusting God ] So how do we fit what we know of Abraham, our first father in the faith, into this new way of looking at things? If Abraham, by what he did for God, got God to approve him, he could certainly have taken credit for it. But the story we’re given is a God-story, not an Abraham-story. What we read in Scripture is, “Abraham entered into what God was doing for him, and that was the turning point. He trusted God to set him right instead of trying to be right on his own.” ***Romans 4:1-3

I’ve preached you to the whole congregation,
    I’ve kept back nothing, God—you know that.
I didn’t keep the news of your ways
    a secret, didn’t keep it to myself.
I told it all, how dependable you are, how thorough.
    I didn’t hold back pieces of love and truth
For myself alone. I told it all,
    let the congregation know the whole story. ***Psalm 40:9-10

*The Samuel Wells link leads to a piece he wrote for The Christian Century about Bonhoeffer. It doesn’t link specifically to this topic, but it’s a really good read and what he wrote near the end of the article about Bonhoeffer’s assumptions about his own life’s “success” really do flesh out the quote above (which is not from that article).

**The quote is linked to the specific page it can be found on in the book God’s Advocates: Christian Thinkers in Conversation. It’s a Google book, so the entire thing is available for reading on that page.

***The Scripture links lead to a parallel versions (Message, NIV, Amplified) of that passage, allowing you to see other translations alongside Peterson’s work.

Odds and Ends: a recording, a verse, a suggestion

A RECORDING: If you didn’t read the last post, a poem by Wheaton Academy student Tyler Jackson, please scroll down below this post to see it (or follow the link above). The more I read her poem, the more I am influenced by it, so I made a recording of it in case any of you would rather hear it (poetry so often has a different effect when it’s listened to) or listen as you read along. Here’s the recording:

A VERSE: In my latest post in the Confessional Living series, it was implied but not actually stated that the Holy Spirit most often uses the very Word of God to make us aware of our hidden (or not so hidden) sins. Hebrews 4:12 is a oft-quoted verse about the power of Scripture. I’m putting it here in the New Living translation because it makes the verse new and fresh even to those who have quoted it since they were children. I am also including verses 13-16 because the Gospel, hallelujah, goes beyond our sin to the Savior who rescued us through His own sacrifice.

Hebrews 4:12-16 For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.13 Nothing in all creation is hidden from God. Everything is naked and exposed before his eyes, and he is the one to whom we are accountable. 14 So then, since we have a great High Priest who has entered heaven, Jesus the Son of God, let us hold firmly to what we believe. 15 This High Priest of ours understands our weaknesses, for he faced all of the same testings we do, yet he did not sin. 16 So let us come boldly to the throne of our gracious God. There we will receive his mercy, and we will find grace to help us when we need it most.

*Here is Hebrews 4:12-16 in several different versions/paraphrases.

A SUGGESTION: Are you wanting to read Scripture more and allow God to use it to change you? Bible Gateway has recently added a section to its website titled “Scripture Engagement.” Here’s the first paragraph on that page: “This section of Bible Gateway, created in partnership with the Taylor University Center for Scripture Engagement, outlines a set of practical exercises and activities you can undertake to interact more meaningfully with the Bible.” I would encourage you to check it out by following the link above.

Odds and Ends

This is a purposely random post. It includes further thoughts on a recent post; one quote; and one Scripture passage (in three versions) that I found beautiful.

Last weekend, as I was walking just after our first snowfall, I saw this bud lying on the ground. I brought it home, set it in the snow on our patio, and shot a picture. I changed my header picture to this shot because it certainly describes this strange transition of weather we are in. Down to 12 degrees one night, and then five days later it's back up to 50!

Last weekend, as I was walking just after our first snowfall, I saw this bud lying on the ground. I brought it home, set it in the snow on our patio, and shot a picture. I changed my header picture to this shot because it certainly describes this strange transition of weather we are in. Down to 12 degrees one night, and then five days later it’s back up to 50!

1. A couple days after posting the Meanderings on Being piece, I heard a radio interview with James Bryan Smith about his book The Good and Beautiful God. He shared this wonderful illustration from his book: A 19th century Russian Orthodox priest named John of Kronstadt was terribly bothered by the alcoholics he saw passed out in the gutters on his way to the church where he served. Unlike the other priests, he could not simply walk by them. Compelled by love, John would lift up the “hungover, foul-smelling people from the gutter, cradle them in his arms, and say to them, ‘This is beneath your dignity. You were meant to house the fullness of God.'” When I heard that amazing story, my mind jumped to my thoughts about the “God-blank” I wrote about in the Meanderings piece. Hmmm. “You were meant to house the fullness of God.” Oh, I like that.

2. If you live in the U.S. and used Google today, you saw the funky artwork at the top with a quote in it from Corita Kent. Here’s the quote:

“To understand is to stand under

which is to look up

which is a good way to understand.”

I like that, too. When I read the Google blurb on Kent (1918-1986), I learned she was a nun, a teacher, and an artist known for contrasting the idea of consumerism with spiritual concepts drawn from her religious background. I found one article on her in which a friend described her as “a Boston lady who understands friendship and ‘who quietly waits for the gentle inner voice to whisper’ where it will take her next.” An artist whose friend described her first in terms of FRIENDSHIP–and then referred to her as a thoughtful artist: that’s a good model!

3. Here are the verses: Psalms 16:5-7. I’m pasting it in here in the Amplified version (of course), but the reference link will take you to a Bible Gateway page with the ESV, Amp, and New Living translation side by side. (I love that tool!). This verse, too, informs my “meanderings on being.”

The Lord is my chosen and assigned portion, my cup; You hold and maintain my lot.

The lines have fallen for me in pleasant places; yes, I have a good heritage.

I will bless the Lord, Who has given me counsel; yes, my heart instructs me in the night seasons.

Thanks for reading.

Jen

a suggested read

I link all Scripture references I use in my posts to Bible Gateway. If you haven’t used the resource before, it’s an excellent online tool. It’s not only easy to search for a particular Scripture or theme or key word, you can also view the same verse in multiple versions (and languages), listen to it read aloud, and read commentary on it.

Bible Gateway also has an excellent blog, contributed to by its own staff and guest writers. The common theme, of course, is that each and every post has to do with Scripture.

All of that to say, I found this great post on the BG blog this morning related to the book of Job (which fascinates me more and more as I grow older), and I thought I would pass it on. It’s titled “Job is a Book About Jesus: an Interview with Christopher Ash.”

Hope you enjoy!

The “why” of Bible reading

When I open my online “Read through the Bible in a Year” program, it tells me I am on day 275 of 365.

That’s true, but it’s taken me quite a bit more than 275 days to get to this point. I don’t remember exactly when I started this plan, but right about the time I started falling behind in it, I discovered the “catch me up” button at the bottom of each daily reading list.

At first I felt guilty, as if I were a woman on a diet sneaking cookies.

But I don’t feel guilty now.

Not long ago I downloaded The Pursuit of God by A.W. Tozer to my Kindle. He wrote this in his preface to the book: “The Bible is not an end in itself, but a means to bring men to an intimate and satisfying knowledge of God, that they may enter into Him, that they may delight in His Presence, may taste and know the inner sweetness of the very God Himself in the core and center of their hearts.”

I reflected on Tozer’s words in my journal. Why do I study Scripture? I wrote. That is a necessary question to answer. If my desire, as I read, study, and meditate, is not to know God better; to be more awed by His beauty and goodness; to be convinced more fully of His love for me; to be satisfied in Him and by Him—if all this is not my aim, then I may as well read another book.

Christ did not die for me to make me a Bible scholar; He died so I could have relationship with His Father. The only point in being a Bible scholar, then, is to deepen my knowledge of and relationship with God.

Yet other purposes often take over when I read Scripture. Sometimes I am seeking a particular answer to a theological question. Sometimes I simply want to know more just to know more (and I don’t mean that in a good way). My purposes can get even further from what they should be when I am following a reading plan. I like to see the little checkmarks fill in the empty circles on the reading calendar. I like the completion aspect of it. “Well, I got through Leviticus and Numbers. Now let’s tackle Deuteronomy.”

It can become a homework assignment; something to “get through.”

And when I don’t complete it, I experience guilt.

All these purposes cheapen both God and His Word.

Early last fall, my mother-in-law sent me a devotional she’d written for me to edit. The title was “Encountering God.” She wrote this: One way I encounter God that is such a thrill is when I draw near to Him before beginning my Quiet Time. I deliberately turn my focus to His presence. In my mind, I see Him standing before me. I focus my mind on Him, blocking out all else around me. Then I pray: Father God, I draw near to You, and in faith, I receive You drawing near to me. I see Him smiling at me and then coming near to embrace me with His Strong Arms. My soul is filled with delight as I allow myself to feel His embrace and His love for me pouring out through his loving arms. 

He never fails me. When I draw near to Him, He is always ready, and He graciously draws me close to His heart. These encounters strengthen my faith and hope in the One Who calls me His very own special treasure.

If I prepared for Bible reading and study like that, I would see and treasure Scripture as the very words of God. I would be unconcerned with “getting it done” and completely consumed with seeing God revealed in Scripture.

I share this post because a new year began only 21 days ago, and I know that many Christians resolve to read the Bible more in the new year than they did in the old. I certainly don’t want to discourage anyone from reading Scripture—it’s still the Sword of the Spirit even when we don’t approach it as such—and I know we gain much from reading the entire Word of God…

but we gain God Himself, and not just knowledge ABOUT Him, when we read His Word with anticipation and awe.

*For a great article about yearly Bible reading plans, read Bible Gateway’s article “When Reading the Bible Becomes a Chore: Six Ways to Keep Your Bible Reading on Track This Year.

*Bible Gateway also has a variety of Bible reading plans. Visit this page.

Building a good fire

At summer camp bonfires when I was a kid, we used to sing “It only takes a spark to get a fire going…” (Evie, 1976).

It made fire building seem easy. Light a match: done!

Not true.

Several years ago I read “Making Fire,” a short story by one of my writing friends. In it, an outdoorsy guy takes a girl on a camping trip and teaches her to build a fire.

He shows her how to set the logs up like a teepee, how to build an island of bark and twigs inside and then layer the island with dried grass. If the dried grass is brittle enough, a spark will set it ablaze. The hope is that the flames will lick the logs above into ignition while the base gets hot enough to spark the bark underneath. “Never rest,” he instructs her. “You have to keep watch, keep feeding it.”

By the end of the story, it’s clear this guy is good at building both literal and figurative fires, and if this girl stays with him, she will get burned.

Still, he is a good fire builder (he was based on a real character), and I’ve followed his instructions this winter as I’ve coaxed fires to life in the wood-burning stove in our “new” house (though I use the cardboard and paper contents of my recycling bin for kindling). “It Only Takes a Spark,” though true in its context, is not enough. A spark may create a flame, but it takes a lot more effort to get and keep a good fire going.

Fire building has a strong parallel to my faith. It took a holy spark—not created by me—to begin God’s work in my heart. He had already prepared and built up a readiness for that spark to take hold. Again—all God’s work.

But what about the “feeding” of the flame?

That’s partly MY work.

And I’ve noticed a disturbing trend in my spiritual fire-tending of late. I’m feeding it twigs and balled-up newsprint. They create spurts of flame but no lasting burn. I’m reading three books at one time—and each of them is worth reading slowly, thoughtfully. I’m doing devotions quickly, without much deep thought. I’m reading through the Bible in a year, but I’m doing it on my Kindle just before I fall asleep at night, so I’m not taking notes and reflecting on it; I’m barely keeping my eyes open for the Psalms and Proverbs. I’m listening to podcasts while I work out in the mornings—each morning a sermon from a different church. I listen to more sermons on the radio during all my commuting. This is all good stuff—but it leaves no time for reflecting. My thoughts and my prayers flit from one “small” piece of truth to the next.

It’s like I’m trying to keep the fire going with a steady influx of little stuff. It keeps the flame alive, yes, but stop feeding it for about a minute, and the flame is gone. There is no deep-burning core to keep it going. I need larger pieces of wood to do that. The flame burns into the core of these pieces, and the glow from that produces long lasting heat and a fire that is not easily put out. Eventually you have the kind of fire that ignites other pieces of wood when they are placed on it.

That’s what I want.

And to move toward that, I’m going back to the basics. I’m not saying “the basics” is the only way to combat my 21st-century, technology-fed, short-attention-span spiritual growth, but I want to focus, and when I can easily switch from my Bible reading to check my schedule or e-mail and can get sidetracked by an interesting link I see on the sidebar of Bible Gateway, it’s really easy NOT to focus. So here is my plan: I’m studying one book, reading it again and again and then slowly, verse by verse. I’m reading it in my good old print Bible. I’m going to write notes on the margins and journal with paper and pen. If I want to compare translations, I’ll just have to get out another print Bible (okay, I might use Bible Gateway for that—I love that feature). I’ll read commentaries only after I’ve studied it myself. I’m going to find some logs rather than wood chips of time for study and reflection and prayer.

I’m not going to get rid of all the other stuff (the podcasts and sermons, etc.), but I’m hoping that with a source of deep flame, the other twigs will become part of that flame, feeding it.

God is a deep, steady flame Himself (the burning bush, the pillar of fire in the wilderness, the symbol of the flame in the tabernacle that was never allowed to go out).

He wants that for me, too.