Friday, June 26, 2009

Man of Sorrows, Acquainted with Grief

A book arrived in the mail last week, unsolicited by me. I opened it distractedly and thumbed through the materials that came with it. After about a minute of reading, I started sobbing uncontrollably as I stood at my kitchen counter. I am not an emotional woman easily given to tears, but I could hear God already speaking to me, meeting me in a place of deep personal struggle, dealing with questions that were so hard to understand that I kept them at bay as best I could. Over the last 2 years, I have walked with several friends through very dark circumstances. Not your daughter is pregnant out of wedlock dark. Not you lost your job kind of dark--though I've seen these too, and those are definitely dark places, and I DO NOT minimize that pain. But I have 3 friends who have walked through things worse than that--among them, the murder of my aunt. I remember sitting across the living room from one of my friends in the midst of an unspeakable crisis and praying to myself as I sat with her, "God I know You are good and I know You are sovereign. But I have no idea how to reconcile that with what I am witnessing now." As I read the foreword and introduction to the book I received in the mail, I realized I was talking with someone who had been there before me and knew exactly what I couldn't reconcile on my own.

The book is Hearing Jesus Speak into Your Sorrow by Nancy Guthrie. Nancy lost both her infant daughter and son to the same metabolic disease a few years apart. In the introduction, she remembered her pastor asking at the graveside service for her infant daughter, "This is the place where we ask, 'Is the gospel really true?'" And that is the question I asked too as I sat across from my friend in her living room--is the gospel really true? I believe it is, Lord, but I realize I have holes in my understanding that are exposed by this tragedy. I asked it again at my aunt's funeral. And I've asked it repeatedly as I walked with yet another friend through betrayal and abandonment. There are times where the only thing that sustains me is that, like the disciples in John 6, I have no where else to go.

66 From this time many of his disciples turned back and no longer followed him. 67"You do not want to leave too, do you?" Jesus asked the Twelve. 68 Simon Peter answered him, "Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.

I understand that response. Sometimes, the only thing that seems to hold me is that I don't have anywhere else to go if I did leave the faith. Nancy Guthrie meets us in that place and points us to Jesus over and over as the answer to those unanswerable questions. She asks the really hard questions and doesn't skirt around any of them. She reminded me that Jesus does indeed meet us in the worst of circumstances with real answers--not trite, polite sayings that would fit on a motivational calendar but real, HARD, deep truths that have the power to cut through the most awful scenario you could imagine and meet you right there with authentic, genuine hope.

Nancy shared this piece of her story that I found especially poignant.

Our church family had walked with us through some difficult days, joining with us in making the most of Hope's brief life as they took her into their arms and into their hearts, and sharing the deep sorrow we felt in the emptiness following her death. So when we stood up to tell them that I was pregnant again despite the surgical steps we had taken to prevent another pregnancy, they could not hold back their joy. They burst out in applause before we could get it all out. But there was more to get out. After the applause began to die down, David added, "And this child will have the same fatal syndrome his sister, Hope, had."

There was an audible expression of dismay. This was not the happy ending everyone felt would have been the appropriate fit for our story, certainly not the one they felt would make following God look good.

(A) friend in class told us that she wept that morning and into the next day. It didn't seem right to her. And it didn't fit her idea of the way we can expect our good God to work in the lives of believers. It seemed to her that the fitting end to the story would be that God would bless us with a healthy child, showing the watching world that he makes up for the losses he allows into our lives.

And she wasn't the only one.

How many of us are right there with her church friends? Surely a good God would not do THAT. Right?! And then the reality sets in--that's exactly what He did. Well, maybe their faith wasn't enough. Or maybe I need to reevaluate my belief in the sovereignty of God. Instead, Nancy examines Jesus--His own life's example and His teachings to His disciples. And we realize that He set them all up for earthly lives and deaths that were about as bad as we could imagine. And He was good to them.

Many of us are not ready to hear this truth. You can not handle the truth that there is a better good than you have ever imagined but that the path to it is excruciating. But others of you are there. You know the pain well and you ask yourself, "Surely the gospel matters in this pain. Surely something about Who God is can meet me in this and transform it from the bitter place I currently live." I'm not recommending that you let Nancy Guthrie be your guide. I am recommending that you look to the Man of Sorrows Himself--this one who is well acquainted with grief and familiar with suffering. If you are ready to let Him be your guide, then Nancy's book is a great starting place.

Isaiah 53:3 He was despised and rejected by men; a man of sorrows, and acquainted with grief;

**Here's an older post on walking with friends who are suffering.**

Tuesday, June 23, 2009

Spiritual Parasites

From the parable of the sower in Mark 4

5Other seed fell on rocky ground, where it did not have much soil, and immediately it sprang up, since it had no depth of soil. 6And when the sun rose, it was scorched, and since it had no root, it withered away. …

Jesus’ explanation

16And these are the ones sown on rocky ground: the ones who, when they hear the word, immediately receive it with joy. 17And they have no root in themselves, but endure for a while; then, when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately they fall away.

I am really interested in understanding the implications of Jesus’ teaching here. I discipline myself against judging others in their walk with Christ, and yet I want to be discerning in recognizing the pattern of seeds, growth, and fruit that Jesus’ describes in this parable.

The phrase “it had no root” is especially noteworthy to me. I have spent my life in Christian circles, and I have witnessed a lot of seeds springing up that have enthusiasm for a bit but then fall away when the going gets tough. The phrase that clarifies what’s happening in this case is that “they have no root in themselves.” Wow! That’s sobering. They have heard the truth and they receive it with joy. They seem really excited about it all. They jump right in and get involved. But over time, they are more like the moss on my stone patio than the lavender with deep roots in my garden. The moss grows on anything, but all I have to do is step on it and it is uprooted and scattered. Why? It doesn’t have any roots of its own. It’s a parasite. It gleans from its host, but it produces nothing on its own.

That’s a sobering analogy. Even more sobering is to think of this word picture in terms of people I know. In particular, I am aware of a few men who have attached themselves this way to godly women I know. They are parasites. Spiritual seeds sown in their midst seem to spring up quickly with joy, but they have no roots of their own. This type of man gleans all he can from the woman who has caught his interest. But if she is ever removed from the picture, his true state is immediately revealed.

In this parable, Jesus teaches that true Christians, those in which the seed has taken root, are recognized by their fruit. But I find that many in Christianity define fruit very differently than the Bible. We often think of fruit as numbers of people we witness to or influence. But the Bible defines fruit as the character produced in the heart of the seed bearer. The fruit of the Spirit—the clear evidence that the seed has taken root and that the Spirit is at work—is love, joy, peace, kindness, gentleness, and self-control (Galatians 5). Na├»ve enthusiasm isn’t spiritual fruit. Large numbers aren’t spiritual fruit. If we really want to examine ourselves in terms of spiritual fruit according to this parable, we must examine our love. Our gentleness. Our kindness. Our self-control. And it’s probably wise to do this in community with other believers.

The place I wrestle most is what do you do with someone exhibiting the traits of a spiritual parasite? Let’s say you are a woman who recognizes this man in your life. And yet, because you love Jesus and share His compassion for others, you don’t want to throw this guy rudely to the sidelines. It is right for us to hope that our analysis of this guy is wrong, that he will develop deep roots in Christ. The gospel demands just this type of grace and hope from us for him. It is right that we remain compassionate toward this guy. We must be both truthful and loving with a view of the thing that would most likely point him to Christ for the long haul. If you find yourself in this situation, I encourage you to find other godly Christians who will share your burden for this guy and come along side of him IN YOUR PLACE. See, you are an idol to this guy. You may think you are helping him, but really he is most likely letting you stand in the place of God to him. If his happiness and enthusiasm for the faith rises or falls based on your responses to him, trust me, you are an idol to him. The most loving thing you can do for him is get out of the way. Get out of the way is not the same as abandon. Make sure there are other godly believers, maybe a married couple or group of men, who are willing to call him, pursue him, and walk with him through the season of seeing his need for a real relationship with the Root of David, that he may move from parasite to true branch in the Vine.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

My Children's Father

On this Father's Day, I'm reflecting on what I have learned from my children's father. His strength is the relationship he is careful to develop with our boys. My husband is a hard worker, taking seriously his responsibilities at work. But when he gets home, he is intentional with his last reserve of energy to engage the boys and truly LISTEN to them. Just yesterday, I was rebuked by his example. My 4 year old is a stream of endless questions. At some point, I usually just tone him out. I really don't know why crows are black, and I'm exhausted from the other 5 things I'm doing for him right now. Yesterday, our car ran over a rock that had fallen off the bank onto our driveway. What did we hit? Why did we hit it? Why did it fall? Why was it in the driveway? Our entire drive to dinner was a stream of questions about the rock in the driveway? Really, how many ways could I explain such a thing? But my husband very patiently explained it to him. Then he told me he could remember having exactly such a stream of questions as a child, and he well understood that, as irrational as the questions seemed to me, they were coming from a real place of curiosity in my son's personality. My son wasn't moderately curious like me. Instead, his curiosity is fundamental to his personality. He really needs to understand how things work. I had a choice now to squash his curiosity or foster it. And much of my choice on how I handle this personality trait at age 4 will affect how he views me long term. Am I a person he can come to with his questions? Am I a safe place to ask these things? Will he be mocked? Will he be shut down? Do I value his curiosity or scorn it? Because I see the person my husband has become in part due to his God-given curiosity on how things work, I realize that my son's curiosity is part of his unique giftings from God.

The real issue is that my husband fosters an authentic relationship with my boys not based on preconceived notions of what we want them to be but on their own personalities with their own strengths and weaknesses. He values consistent discipline as I do, but he's much more consistent than me at accurately reflecting the definition of proactive training in righteousness rather than reactive retribution for wrongs. My husband is about much more than just getting conformity out of my boys. His influence on them is not based on rules but a real relationship, and that reflects much to me on how my Father in heaven parents His children.

Tuesday, June 16, 2009

The Rod

I have been a bit schizophrenic concerning this post—putting it up, taking it down, and putting it back up. I hesitated to post it because I hate conflict, and I fear being labeled and misunderstood. I have found this particular topic oddly polarizing. But the issue has been on my heart for a while, and I think I need to post it. I hope it leads to thoughtful conversation not polarizing accusation. So here goes (again).

I’ve been reading an author that I will not name (because he’s not the point of this post) who has written a GREAT book on Christian parenting. I love the book and have underlined many things in it. But after much encouraging, helpful instruction, I got to a chapter about The Rod. The author quotes Scripture like Proverbs 13:24, “Whoever spares the rod hates his son, but he who loves him is diligent to discipline him.” Then he defines “rod” as restrained physical punishment and uses this verse to say those who do not spank their children (with restraint—he is careful to set up safeguards against angry retribution) are in sin.

I’m not sure if it is a weakness or strength, but I am a bit obsessive compulsive about correcting misuses of Scripture. After various experiences in my youth in which I blindly trusted whatever a spiritual leader said only later to find out that the Bible actually taught something entirely different, I am now a bit militant about sizing up what I hear from whatever religious leader today against Scripture itself. People say some crazy things and claim it is Bible, but I will NOT give up my belief that Scripture from start to finish, when accurately handled, is exactly what God meant to say and infinitely useful for equipping us in everything we face today.

All that to say, I cannot figure out Biblically why this author assumes the use of the term rod in Proverbs means physical punishment. I keep thinking of Psalms 23: 4, “Thy rod and Thy staff, they comfort me.” No one assumes the use of the term rod in Psalms 23 means physical punishment, right? The Shepherd isn’t spanking the sheep. If Psalms 23 said the Good Shepherd does not spare the rod, would we assume that He is hitting the sheep? I wouldn't. And it’s the same Hebrew word as Prov. 13:24. The Psalmist is comforted by God as his shepherd, symbolized by the shepherding rod and staff. He is comforted that there is someone walking with him in authority over him protecting him, guiding him, and leading him. If the Shepherd spared the rod, it would mean He has removed His hand of protection and instruction from the sheep. While I definitely see Scripture in which the term rod is used in conjunction with the idea of physical punishment (the verses always use a clear indicator of the intent), there is nothing inherent in the Hebrew definition that implies physical punishment. And there are many ways the term rod is used in Scripture that have nothing to do with physical punishment.

My study so far shows me that the Bible doesn’t forbid spanking children …

Proverbs 23:13 Do not withhold discipline from a child; if you strike him with a rod, he will not die.

… but I don’t see where it prescribes spanking either. Let’s take the example of Proverbs 22:15, another verse often used to say the Bible prescribes spanking.

15Folly is bound up in the heart of a child,
but the rod of discipline drives it far from him.

The Hebrew words are the shebet of muwcar, meaning the rod/staff/scepter of discipline/instruction/correction. I fully agree with this verse and seek to conform my parenting strategies to it. God says I have a shepherding staff to guide my little sheep who will veer off in their own ignorance and folly if I ignore my responsibility. He has tasked me with guiding them and my figurative staff is discipline. We defined discipline in a previous post as proactive training in righteousness. (If you haven’t read that post, please read it and the comments that follow before finishing this one as this post builds on those foundational thoughts.) I discipline my children, instruct them, and correct them to teach them wisdom in the place of folly. God wants me to be like Him—to use the same shepherding rod and staff that comfort me in Psalms 23 to train my children in righteousness. I am not dogmatically opposed to spanking, but I think it is a gross leap in logic to use this verse in Proverbs to justify or command spanking. The term rod implies shepherding authority and accountability. God says that I have an obligation to engage my boys with my God-given shepherding authority over them. I cannot cop out and disengage. My sister and I just had a discussion about her temptation to be a lazy single parent, but though it would be much easier to cop out and let her boys do whatever they want all day, she knew she had a God-given obligation to shepherd them—to engage them, instruct them, reprove them, support them, redirect them, and so forth.

I was raised in the South and understand well the concept of spanking. I now live in the Pacific Northwest and understand well the views against spanking. My point actually is not to lobby for or against it—people can get really militant on both sides. I just want us to accurately understand what Scripture says on the topic and what it means by the use of the term rod. Do not read the “rod of discipline” and translate it as spanking. When you read “rod of discipline”, think shepherding staff that trains in righteousness. If spanking is your primary tool for doing that, I encourage you to expand your toolbox.

For me, this means thinking long and hard every time I discipline my boys about what God instructs me to do in that moment. My tendency is to be a hands off parent, but God has called me to proactively engage them. My lazy parenting is a sin according to Proverbs 13:24. Just this week, I have looked at my boys in the midst of a conflict and thought, how does God discipline His children? How do I reflect the image of Christ in my responses to these boys? How do I train them in righteousness in gospel-centered ways using my God-given authority as their parent? I am not there yet, but just meditating on what this should look like in my home has been a beautiful time of reflection on how my Father in heaven parents me. I encourage you that if you want to understand God’s instructions to you and I as parents concerning the rod in Proverbs, first meditate on His own example to us in Psalms 23 for a bit.

1 The LORD is my shepherd, I shall not be in want.
2 He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
3 he restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness
for his name's sake.
4 Even though I walk
through the valley of the shadow of death,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.
5 You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
6 Surely goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the LORD

Friday, June 12, 2009

Oh, Mr. Darcy.

I've often thought that chick flicks and romance novels are a "good girl's" version of pornography. Mr. Darcy is oh so desirable. Just writing this article makes me want to go rewatch 6 hours of Pride and Predjudice all over again. Here is a thoughtful article that compares and contrasts chick flicks and pornography. This author has the right balance and offers thoughtful reflection rather than condemnation through which those of us who love a good romance can guard ourselves against unrealistic, unbiblical expectation.

Sunday, June 07, 2009

Reflections on 11 Years of Marriage

My husband and I celebrated 11 years of marriage this weekend. Many women have been married much longer and have much more wisdom than I have to offer. One elder's wife in particular offered me some wisdom a year or so ago that really ministered to me. Even within the last month, a not so old elder's wife who had a good five to ten years on me in marriage spoke pointed truth to me that God has deeply used in my heart. All that to say, I have more to learn, but I have also learned a thing or two over the last decade--things I wish I had known earlier in marriage. At the same time, I think they are things I couldn't learn any other way. Here are some of them.

The first thing that I have learned is that, despite being raised in a Christian home and going to Bible college, taking missions trips, and doing all the things good Christian girls should do, I wasn't as good a person as I thought I was. That has taken me a long time to realize and has been a hard pill to swallow. When we have had conflicts, my first reaction has always been how much my husband was wrong. But I have come, slowly but surely over time, to realize my selfishness and insecurities. My way of doing things is not always the best way. My gut instincts are not always godly. And my facial expressions and tone of voice often communicate the truth of my character though my words try to portray something altogether different. Nothing makes me madder or threatens me more than for my husband to confront me on my sin. But the truth is that I am a sinner, and it is to my great benefit to aknowledge my sins and deal with them through the gospel.

The second thing I have learned is that men are very different from women (I don't have any brothers). My husband comes to most everything in life from a totally different angle than I do. It took me many years to realize that my female way of looking at things was not the only way of looking at things. It took a long time for me to stop seeing my husband's differences as threatening and to start really listening with a sincere desire to understand his point of view. I highly recommend For Women Only by Shaunti Feldhan to any newly married woman. Shaunti's book was a gift to me from God that the Spirit used in conjunction with the Word to radically change how I thought about my husband's manly ways.

Another thing I have learned is that my husband often shows me his love in the ways he finds loving. If you've read The Five Love Languages, words of affirmation and gifts are my love language. Acts of service are my husband's. He isn't big on cards or gifts, though he knows they mean something to me and has certainly worked over the years to give me gifts that I would find meaningful. But I didn't realize for a long time how many other things he did for me on a weekly basis to actively love me. I get up with our boys and let him sleep in whenever I can, and that act of service means much more to him than an emotional card ever would. And on Mother's Day when I didn't get a big gift like I did on my birthday, I realized that he had gone out of his way to serve me in many other ways that were genuine expressions of his love and appreciation of me. It's been huge in my life for me to understand his methods of showing love.

But maybe the most important thing I've learned is that grace is powerful. I thought I was a gracious person when I got married. But I wasn't really. I was nice. I was polite. I was generally kind and tried not to talk badly about others. While all good traits, that's not Biblical grace. Biblical grace is letting go of your right to retribution and then returning good for evil. When I felt that I had been done wrong, I was not gracious about it at all. I'm not one to yell and scream, but I can definitely pout. I can put out the vibe that you have done me wrong as long as it takes until you make it right. God has taught me much of His grace to me and His demand that I show it to others. And there is nothing that has transformed my marriage more than laying down my rights and bearing long in love, learning exactly what God means when He uses the term grace.

On paper, these are 2 dimensional concepts. I can't really explain the depth of what I've learned. I can't fully articulate the 3 dimensional circumstances in my marriage through which God has taught me these things. I can only say that God has changed me these last 11 years. He's exposed a lot of sin and wrong thinking on my part, and He has taught me that the gospel is much deeper and meaningful to my marriage than I could have ever understood without walking this walk. Marriage has truly been God's instrument of sanctification in my life.

Wednesday, June 03, 2009

Job, Screwtape, and Our Testimony in the Heavenly Places

I've had the book on my shelf for four or five years, but I'm finally just getting around to reading The Screwtape Letters by C. S. Lewis. For those who didn't read all of Lewis' works before graduating from college, The Screwtape Letters is a series of fictional letters written between two demons trying to undermine the faith of a new Christian.

It reminded me of one of the most important truths of the book of Job. Sometimes our suffering, temptation, and testimony has nothing to do with others here on earth. Sometimes it is completely about the testimony we give in the heavenly places. In Job, there is no evidence that anyone on earth ever realized the point of his suffering. Yet, there was indeed a point. Satan's accusation was that Job only worshipped God because God had blessed him with family and finances. Job's testimony to Satan through his suffering was that God was worthy to be worshipped whether He blessed Job physically on earth or not.

We tend to see our sufferings as valuable only if we can see some kingdom purpose for them on earth in a certain time frame. We lack patience, and we lack perspective. And then we faint in the midst of trial. Paul in Ephesians 3, says "His intent was that now, through the church, the manifold wisdom of God should be made known to the rulers and authorities in the heavenly realms." When we persevere in faith in the midst of temptation, trial, and suffering, there is something much bigger going on than what we look to in our earthly reality. We are giving testimony to demons and angels alike of the wisdom and worth of God.

I love this quote from Screwtape's letters to his demon nephew. It makes me think of Job. And it gives me hope and joy as I think of my own trials.

"Our cause is never more in danger than when a human, no longer desiring, but still intending, to do our Enemy's will, looks round upon a universe from which every trace of Him seems to have vanished, and asks why he has been forsaken, and still obeys."

If you are in the midst of suffering and struggling to find God's pursposes in it, I hope you are sustained by the vision of a sullen demon walking away in disgust because despite his best efforts, you were faithful to God, not because He was good to you (though He is), but simply because He is worthy.