Thursday, May 21, 2015

Talking Me Off the Ledge

I hesitate to use the title, Talking Me Off the Ledge, out of concern for those with suicidal loved ones or suicidal thoughts themselves. But I decided to keep it, because it is an accurate description of the emotional and spiritual role godly friends have played in my life over the last year in particular. I haven't stood physically on the ledge, ready to end my life. But I have felt many times of late that I was emotionally and spiritually on the ledge, that if I could have figured out a way to quit a life of faith, I would have. But the words of the disciples in John 6 have been true for me.
“Where else would we go? You have the words of life.” John 6:68
I haven't left the faith because God hasn't let me. I haven't quit because God won't accept my resignation. I have been kept in the faith by the God who promises He will not lose any of His own.

In those moments of despair, God has repeatedly sent me friends and family who have talked me off the emotional ledge. They have been God's hands and feet, the body to Jesus' head, that have held me and talked to me until I walked back into the safety of the room, feeling like I could face the overwhelming struggle around me. I have had enough of these conversations over the last year to notice some common elements.

1. Their faith is strong enough not to feel threatened by my fear and unbelief in the moment.

2. They are safe. They don't minimize my struggle, but listen and then talk me through it without shame or condemnation that I am in that place (or in that place yet again after talking to them about the exact same struggle last week).

3. Most have gone through their own crisis of belief in the midst of suffering and can truly empathize with me.

4. They understand the point of the angry psalms, God's gift of grace to us who struggle through pain that does not reconcile easily.

5. They believe and hope for me until I can do it again for myself. They pray for me in hope and confidence in God, and through their prayers, God ministers His grace to me.

Like the paralytic man lowered by his friends through the roof to meet Jesus, such friends point us to Christ when we feel too weak to seek Him out by ourselves.  They bear our burdens with us when we feel overwhelmed carrying them alone.  And they do it as Christ's hands and feet.

We all need friends who will talk us off the ledge, who aren't threatened or horrified by the depths of our deep emotions when we are in crisis. We all need people who will calmly respond to us and help us fact check when we are overcome with emotion. We need these people in our lives, and we need to BE these people in the life of our friends.
Ecclesiastes 4:9-10 Two are better than one, because they have a good reward for their toil. For if they fall, one will lift up his fellow. But woe to him who is alone when he falls and has not another to lift him up!

Sunday, May 10, 2015

The Role of Elder, the Gift of Shepherding

I note a common theme around discussions of limiting the role of pastor to males only. The concern is that we are limiting women using their giftedness in the Body of Christ. This is a legitimate concern to address. I think in many cases conservatives have not adequately used the giftings of women in their congregations, hence the popularity of parachurch women's organizations.

But we need to correctly frame the problem of our use of women's gifts in the Body of Christ, and we need to speak of it precisely from Scripture. And I want to say boldly that limiting the role of overseer/elder/pastor to males only is not the same as the very real problem of not giving opportunity for women to use their spiritual gifts in our local congregations.

First, what are the gifts of the Spirit as the Bible discusses them? There are three main passages on spiritual gifts:

I Corinthians 12
7 To each is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good. 8 For to one is given through the Spirit the utterance of wisdom, and to another the utterance of knowledge according to the same Spirit, 9 to another faith by the same Spirit, to another gifts of healing by the one Spirit, 10 to another the working of miracles, to another prophecy, to another the ability to distinguish between spirits, to another various kinds of tongues, to another the interpretation of tongues. 11 All these are empowered by one and the same Spirit, who apportions to each one individually as he wills.  
Ephesians 4
7 But grace was given to each one of us according to the measure of Christ's gift. … 11 And he gave the apostles, the prophets, the evangelists, the shepherds and teachers, 12 to equip the saints for the work of ministry, for building up the body of Christ, 13 until we all attain to the unity of the faith and of the knowledge of the Son of God, to mature manhood, to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ,  
Romans 12
6 Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them: if prophecy, in proportion to our faith; 7 if service, in our serving; the one who teaches, in his teaching; 8 the one who exhorts, in his exhortation; the one who contributes, in generosity; the one who leads, with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, with cheerfulness. 

Some may argue whether the list in Ephesians 4 is what we would consider spiritual gifts, but by the wording in verse 7, it seems so. Also, there is some confusion because we have conflated the gifts around the idea of pastoring (shepherding, teaching) with the office of overseer in a church. All overseers must pastor and should have the gift of shepherding, but there is also a type of pastoral care that should be found in the Body of Christ outside the authoritative role of elder/overseer. For instance, mentoring and parenting are both shepherding situations that those not in the role of elder do.

Note that NONE of these three passages on spiritual gifts use the Greek words for elder or overseer, episkope that Paul uses in I Timothy 3 or presbuteros that Peter uses in I Peter 5. These are the words we associate with the office of pastoral authority in the local church. The episkope (pronounced episcopay) in a church should likely have a number of these spiritual gifts, especially the gifts of teaching and shepherding, wisdom and exhortation. But note that these gifts are not synonymous with the role of episkope, which I am convicted by the language Scripture uses in I Timothy that God limits to men only.

The role of overseer/pastor/elder in our churches today is not a spiritual gift, and denying it to women does not keep them from exercising their spiritual gifts. I personally believe I have the gift of teaching and shepherding. Others have confirmed that for me, so I feel reasonably comfortable saying it. I have been in churches that did not give me much opportunity to exercise those gifts in the church. I primarily use the gift of shepherding while raising my children, but I am also now in a church (with male only elders) that has given me great opportunity to use my gifts among our congregation. If church leaders value those gifts in women, the opportunity to use those gifts as women abound without taking on the role of elder/overseer.

On the flip side, it is good for male leaders, particularly elders in complementarian churches, to recognize that the gifts of the Spirit don't seem to be limited by gender. The implication then is that women as well as men are gifted in such ways, and the Church needs to use those gifts for the maturity of the overall membership. Women are gifted with wisdom and exhortation. Men are gifted with wisdom and exhortation. Pastor, do you see the value of such gifting among the women in your church? If so, how do you develop those gifts? How do you use them for the overall health of your church? Because that is what such gifting among the women as well as the men in your congregation is for – to equip your congregation for maturity and unity in the faith. Steward those gifts!

Thursday, May 07, 2015

Raising Gentle Boys

Before I say one more thing about raising boys, I need to define gentle and explain from Scripture why it's important.

First, gentleness is strength under control. It is distinctly different than weakness. A baby is weak. But a father who has the strength to crush the baby but instead tempers that strength to cradle it securely is gentle.

Second, why is gentleness important for men?

1) It was important to Jesus.
Matthew 11:29 Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me, for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
2) It is a fruit of the Spirit.
Galatians 5:22-23 But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law.
3) It is part of a walk that fits, or is worthy of, the gospel calling we have through Christ.
Ephesians 4:1-2 I therefore, a prisoner for the Lord, urge you to walk in a manner worthy of the calling to which you have been called, with all humility and gentleness, with patience, bearing with one another in love,
Scripture is crystal clear that gentleness is a characteristic of Jesus and should also be a characteristic of God's children. I see anecdotal evidence of this in life as clearly as I see it in Scripture. The best men I know are very strong but temper their strength to love those God has given them to serve and protect. And the worst failures of men that I have witnessed were not because the men were physically or mentally weak, but because these strong men did not learn how to temper their strength and instead wounded the very ones they were called to love with their unrestrained power, authority, and mental abilities.

As I look back at my efforts to raise gentle boys, boys who are strong but who also temper that strength in care of others, I am starting now to see real fruit. My boys are still relatively young, and I am curious to see how this will play out as they grow up. Five years ago, I wrote on modeling for our children the way we want them to act – treating them as we want them to treat others. These posts I write are lectures to myself, and that post in particular was one big long lecture to ME. I've internalized those thoughts and worked to model for my boys in two particular areas that I am now seeing fruit.

Teaching mutual respect for all image-bearers. 

In a post on valuing all of life, I talked of a new effort I was making to look people in the eye that I would normally avoid to instead treat them with basic human dignity. My boys are often in the car with me when these interactions come up, and I think we all benefit from them. We are growing together as a family in valuing all human life. My boys' particularly struggle with “bad” kids in their classes and their sense of justice around punishment. We talk about what might be happening in that kid's home. Who in their home or neighborhood treats them badly that they come into school in such a negative place that they treat others that way? My boys understand Zig Ziglar's Kick the Cat syndrome. We also talk about what we can do to stop the cycle, to not contribute to one more person treating them as less than human.

Teaching particular respect for authority. 

Along with teaching general respect for all human life, I have worked to teach my boys particular respect for authority. Their parents' authority. Their pastor's authority. Civic authority. But to teach it, I must also model it. I have been particularly convicted of my view of parental authority as an adult. Certainly, parental authority changes when a child grows up and leaves their parents' home. But for years I didn't value and solicit my parents' advice the way I do now. I hope I model for my boys a parental respect into adulthood that will be helpful to them as they become adults. 

Finally, I wanted to give some resources that I have found very helpful for me and my boys as we grow in relationship, and I seek to raise strong young men whose strength is submitted to God.

-Jess Thompson's Exploring Grace Together: 40 Devotionals for the Family. My boys LOVE this book and ask me to read it to them nightly.

-The Action Bible. The graphic images in this picture Bible are appropriate and helpful to understanding each story. Before my boys were comfortable readers, they could follow much just by looking at the pictures. Once they were able to read, they have come to understand much of the Story of Scripture by reading this during sermons that went over their head. I love that they can stay engaged in the purposes of Sunday services even when the pastor loses their attention when they have their Action Bible with them in service.

-Momastery's Key Jar. My boys ask me daily to do this with them. The questions in the key jar (we have a key plastic bag because I didn't have any jars at the time) provoke thoughtful interaction around the table or in the car. We often do them at bed time since our time around the table has been messed up lately.

I hope something there is helpful or encouraging to you. I'm only about half way through the at home years of raising my boys. It's been years since my last post on raising kids, and I wonder what the next few years hold. Though I don't know exactly, I do have more hope now. I'm not paralyzed by fear of failing my children because of my own ignorance (though heaven knows I've done some stupid things). And I'm not paralyzed by fear that they will reject me or God (though they may for a season) . I have a hope that won't disappoint, and that has equipped me to parent with confidence, not fear. Perhaps that is the biggest gain in parenting of all – the one I have had inside myself believing in God's promises for my children.

Monday, April 27, 2015

Strong Feelings on Lectio Divina

As a blog author, I am intrigued by what posts strike a nerve and what posts do not. Apparently, (some) people have strong feelings (to use a phrase from my children's preschool) about Lectio Divina. The concerns I've heard are that it opens the door to Satan, it results in a subjective understanding of the Word, it leads to New Age spirituality, and so forth.

Some people are very concerned about Bible reading and prayer that involves a time of quiet meditation. As I read their concerns, my perception is that when reading the Bible, in their opinion you should only be reading or speaking prayer, but not sitting or waiting in Scripture quietly. Stopping to sit in Scripture and pausing in prayer to hear from God through the Word are viewed with great suspicion as a time that opens us to deception by Satan. I find that entire concept foreign, and I think it is because of my own theological convictions that I do so.

I've been thinking today through doctrines from the Word that give me a framework for sitting with God in prayer and Bible reading with a desire to hear from Him. Here are some theological points to consider:

1. Perseverance of the saints. I believe with the Apostle Paul that He who began the good work in me will continue it (Phil. 1:6). My conviction is that God keeps me, and I am not afraid that Satan will pluck me out of God's hand (John 10:28). I am definitely not afraid that Satan will pluck me away from God through my own personal Bible reading.  God says He's not going to lose me, and He's left the Holy Spirit within me as the deposit to ensure that outcome (Eph. 1:14).

2. The value of memorization and meditation on the Word. God's Word is a lamp to our feet and a light to our path, the psalmist says. The psalmist then commits to hide God's Word in his heart (Psalm 119:105). How do we hide God's Word in our hearts? We memorize it by repeating it to ourselves. Repetition of God's Word is a normative, healthy Christian practice! Now some are concerned with repetition of small portions, like a word or phrase, of Scripture. I don't see that as the thrust of listening prayer and Bible reading. The particular instructions I suggested and have used for myself focus on a passage around 12 verses, reading through the entire passage repeatedly. While one may zoom in on a particular word or phrase, it is in the context of its place in a larger reading of Scripture.

In short, if you are concerned with someone repeating a single word from Scripture in an eastern type trance, fine. But don't project that onto my post in particular. And in general, I don't think that's a fair concern for most modern evangelical discussion around listening Bible reading and prayer. That seems a straw man that is irrelevant to what is actually being discussed -- slowing down in Scripture reading to let God speak to us through His Word.

3. An inflated understanding of Satan. Critics seem more worried about Satan than they are confident in the Holy Spirit. I keep thinking of I John 4:4, "Greater is He that is in you, than he that is in the world." We are certainly instructed to be cautious of Satan (for instance Paul's instructions in Ephesians and Peter's of Satan walking about as a lion seeking to devour). But those warnings have Satan on the outside, not talking to us from the inside. That's pretty important!  If you are in Christ, you have been SEALED by the Spirit (Eph. 1:13 and 2 Cor. 1:22).  Now people debate what exactly it means to be sealed by the Spirit, but it means something. My conviction is that it means that we are safe in the Spirit -- He is the guarantee of Phil. 1:6, that God will not default on His promises to us, and Jesus loses none of those God gives Him. God took both sides of the covenant with Abraham, and He has taken both sides with us. We are safe in Him because HE will not default on His promises to us.

Furthermore, it is the SPIRIT not Satan that lives within me. While Satan can and does taunt me from the outside, the Bible never talks of him as indwelling us or speaking to us from the inside.  Again, the phrasing of being sealed by the Spirit is helpful.  A seal locks the letter with the stamp of the king.  Seals remove openings that allow contaminants to flow into an object or that allow seepage out of the object.  We are sealed in the Spirit.  Exposit that and then think of the implications!

Consider also that when Satan approached Eve and later when he approached Jesus, while he did use God's Words against them, he did it externally. He did not come internally into their psyche, and I would argue strongly that he is unable to do that to any who are in Christ Jesus, sealed by the Spirit. Satan can possess unbelievers from the inside. And he can oppress believers from the outside. But I see no Scripture that warns of a Satan that can speak inside of us once we are in Christ and sealed by the Spirit.  The Bible presents a dangerous Satan, but not an omnipresent and omniscient one. That's God, not Satan.

If you are in Christ, you do not have Satan and the Spirit inside of you dueling it out. THAT is a bad teaching, and those knowledgeable in theology should know better than to entertain that idea.

I am a big proponent of expositional Bible preaching and teaching.  I employ it even right now as I think about why an expositional understanding of Scripture protects us from fear of a Satanic voice that can lead us astray from Scripture from the inside.  Satan may attempt to use someone outside of me misusing Scripture to deceive me, and in that event it is important to understand Scripture objectively to ward off such bad teaching.   But if we are in Christ and sealed by the Spirit, the Spirit within us is greater than our opponent outside of us.  It is in that framework that I can come to God in my Bible reading and confidently listen for Him to speak through His written Word to me.

I hope something there is helpful to you as you think of how to approach your own personal Bible reading and prayer.

Sunday, April 26, 2015

Directed Devotions

Growing up in Christian youth group and then attending Bible college, I heard much instruction and emphasis on daily devotions. But it has probably been a good twenty years since I've sat under teaching on the value of devotions or how to do them. Even the term devotions sounds hokey to me now, a throw back to the naïve enthusiasm of youth ministers and the teenagers they led. I read my Bible and pray regularly, but I don't think of it as devotions, at least not the way it was used in my youth.

Our church is in the middle of a four week adult study during our Christian Formation hour (formerly known as Sunday School), and the topic of devotions has come up. But it's the grownup, reformed, educated version.

And it has powerfully affected me for good.

We call it Lectio Divina or Listening Prayer. In one sense, it is basically the type of devotional time emphasized in my youth group, time reading the Bible and praying to God. However, I recognize now that much of my previous understanding of devotionals, particularly in my youth, centered on reading someone else's words on the Bible rather than reading the Bible itself. And maybe that's the central difference in Listening Prayer and a more mainstream view of devotions and devotionals.

The second difference in Lectio Divina and my youthful understanding of devotions is the listening part. It's not so much studying the Bible as it is hearing from the Bible. When practicing youth group type devotions, I read the Bible for ten minutes (or someone else's devotional about the Bible) and prayed my prayer requests for the next twenty or so. Lectio Divina entertwines prayer, reading the Bible, and listening for God to speak to us through it. It is the listening part that I am not used to. I am used to reading the Bible to hear God speak to me and praying my requests to Him. But I am not used to stopping as I read and pray to listen for the still small voice of the Spirit speaking to me through it all. 

Oh, what I have been missing.

In these first weeks of practicing listening prayer for myself, a practice used throughout the history of the Church, the Spirit has been speaking to me clearly through the Word. He's emphasizing parts of His Word to me, drawing my eyes to truths He knows I need. It makes me think of the sweetness of the word devotion in its purest sense. For too long that word was used as a plural noun in reference to my Christian walk with God. Devotions were something I did. But adding the s messed up the word for believers, in my opinion. I don't need devotions, but I do need devotion.

If you google devotion, you will see it defined as love, loyalty, or enthusiasm for a person, activity, or cause. I am loyal to God, but more importantly, He is loyal to, committed to, and loving of me. It's devotion, not devotions -- a covenant keeping relationship with another, not a thing I do to fulfill a religious obligation. Slowing down in my Bible reading and prayer has made me better understand my devotion to God and His to me. It has helped me settle into a communicative relationship with God where He reveals Himself (and myself) to me.

If you are interested in experiencing deeper interactions with God through His Word, Lectio Divina, or listening in prayer and contemplating God's Word to you in a way practiced throughout the history of the Church, can be a help. Here are suggested methods adapted from the book God Still Comes by Charles Shields and Cinthia Ferrell.

1. Begin with prayer; invite God to speak to you in whatever way God knows you need. "Open the eyes of my heart," the psalmist prayed.

2. Read a passage (choose one not over a dozen verses) slowly and thoughtfully twice— once for familiarization and once just to “listen.” During the second reading, watch out for the word or phrase that reaches out to you, that grabs you, that shimmers in your mind’s eye. Hold on to the word in your memory. Don’t analyze why you happened to choose it. Merely observe the word or phrase.

3. After the 2nd reading, be still and listen for at least 2 minutes. If your mind wanders, draw it back to scripture.

4. Following your time of silent listening, write in your journal the word or phrase that grabbed you. At this point, no other comment is necessary.

5. Read the passage slowly again. Watch for your word or phrase. (On occasion, your word/phrase may change. If a different word or phrase grabs you, listen to it. Let the Spirit of God lead you in the process.) Sit silently again for a minimum of two minutes. As you ponder your word or phrase, observe what emotion it creates in you. Observe how the word/phrase connects into your life. How does it hook you? At the end of your time of quiet, write in your journal just two things: your word phrase and the emotion it created in you.

6. Read your passage a final time slowly and thoughtfully. Return to your word or phrase, unless you are drawn in a different direction. (Remember, you are not alone in this process. You have invited God to work with you.) Sit silently for a longer period of time—at least double the previous periods of silence. As you reflect on your word/phrase and feel the emotions it generates, ask yourself, "If this is God's word to me now, what is God calling me to be or do?" Stick with that question until you get some response. At the end of your time of silence, write in your journal all that you have observed and experienced.

7. Conclude by thanking God for whatever you received. There may be instances when nothing insightful comes to mind. Thank God for the quiet time.

Our Christian Formation teacher encouraged us that though this time might likely come with conviction of sin, it would not come with a voice of condemnation. If we are in Christ and hear condemnation or shame, that is not the voice of God (Romans 8:1).

If you have struggled to feel close to God through Bible reading and prayer, I encourage you to engage with God through the Word this way. I am currently setting aside time on the mornings I don't have early obligations (two days a week for me) to sit in the Word this way, and it has blessed me greatly during a hard season in my life.
Hebrews 4:12 The word of God is alive and active …

* Not long after posting this, some pointed out to me criticism of Lectio Divina.  I understand the concerns of opening Scripture up to "private interpretations," and listening Bible reading does not replace the need for expositional preaching and teaching.  But I separate criticism of contemplative prayer from criticism of listening Bible reading.  Contemplative prayer apart from Scripture is of course wide open to error.  But meditative, listening prayer within the confines of Scripture reading seems very different, and I strongly support listening to God through His Word.