Thursday, February 25, 2010

Thorns in the Flesh

I read a Facebook update today in which a reasonably healthy friend experienced health issues out of nowhere that are likely going to be something he has to deal with for the rest of his life. My first reaction was concern and hope for healing. My second reaction (not spoken publicly) was a realistic, “Welcome to the world of the chronically ill.” And I didn’t mean it with sarcasm. I meant it seriously. Welcome, dear friend, to the world of the thorn in the flesh that God does not remove. As you adjust to its pain and inconveniences, know that it will also bring unusual blessing to you as it distracts you from much that does not matter in this life and makes those things that do matter seem much more precious.

I Cor. 12 7 So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. 8 Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. 9But he said to me, "My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness." Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Paul doesn’t say exactly what his thorn in the flesh was. Speculation is that it had to do with poor eyesight that caused him to have to dictate his letters to an assistant. He does call it a messenger of Satan to harass him. There’s an interesting tension here between his trust in God’s sovereign control over this thorn and his belief that it comes from Satan. But even if Satan has sent the thorn to harass him, an uninvited guest that impedes his progress and annoys him persistently, Paul is still confident in God’s supernatural ability to thwart Satan’s purposes for this thorn and replace them with His own good purposes.

What is God’s good purpose in this thorn? It is a simple purpose with profound results – humility. God’s purpose is to keep Paul, who was entrusted with an incredible privilege in sharing the gospel, from becoming conceited. The purpose was TO MAKE HIM WEAK. That is so opposite our views of what makes an influential leader. We want our leaders fit and handsome. But God instead allows affliction that brings Paul low, for it takes us being in that state to hear some of the most beautiful words from God to His children in all of Scripture. “My grace is sufficient for you. My power is made perfect in weakness.” Wow! God says basically “I will be enough for you to accomplish what I want you to accomplish. Your weakness opens the door for my supernatural strength to become fully realized in you.”

So, welcome, friend, to the world of the chronic thorn in the flesh. It may be cancer, diabetes, osteoporosis, heart disease, glaucoma. It may be a long-term financial burden, caring for a disabled loved one, or what have you. The main characteristic of it is that it isn’t going away, and it seems like something that is going to keep you from doing the things for the Lord you thought you would do. But really, it does the exact opposite. As Satan harasses you with it, God opens your eyes to your utter dependence on Him in a way you didn’t fully grasp before. And then, in HIS strength when you have absolutely none of your own, He accomplishes things that you never thought possible.

Thorns hurt. They are not pleasant. They don’t get easier. They remain an agent in our lives that makes us weak. But I love God’s supernatural ability to transform the worst that Satan throws our way into the very things that accomplish His gospel purposes through us.

9 Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. 10 For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

Sunday, February 21, 2010

In defense of homeschooling, homebirthing moms

This isn’t really about homeschooling, homebirthing moms but about the misplaced stratifications in Christian circles that even consider them a subcategory. My post on Equipping Women for Gospel Centered Lives hit a nerve. As a follow up to it, I want to explore tensions between women at different stages of life or even in the same stage of life and how the gospel equips us for something better than defensiveness when we are different. After teaching a session at a women’s retreat, a young mom with several children, all home birthed, shared with me how she has learned to keep her mouth shut about her good experience with birthing her children at home. Inevitably, her sharing seemed to put others on the defensive, and she couldn’t figure out how to be honest about her good experience without offending. So she learned to just keep it to herself.

I have struggled with such discussions. I had two c-sections after complicated diabetic pregnancies, followed by a week in the hospital with newborns with low blood sugars needing more milk than I could supply. It undermined my ability to breastfeed, and try as I might, I never caught up with my milk supply. I would have loved to have a less invasive birth experience, but the realities of my health issues in this fallen world made that impossible. In perfection, I imagine Eve would have had Cain and Able at home in the garden without complication. It is a good goal, and I admire, even encourage, those who feel equipped to follow that path. But how do we live in the tension between great goals and earthly realities?

First, we have to remember that Scripture is sufficient in its commands. It is sufficient in all it declares good, and it is sufficient in all it declares evil. If someone is pressuring you to conform to a standard that Scripture does not command, I think it’s okay to stop them and say, “I’m feeling that you think your choice is more moral than mine, and I feel pressure to conform to a standard that Scripture doesn’t prescribe.” If you say that lovingly and politely, the response you get back will be telling. They may very well feel that their choice IS more moral, and hopefully you will have opened their eyes to a problem in how they view choices that Scripture does not specifically command. If they are in Christ, they are more likely to realize that they worded their thoughts poorly and will correct themselves to be encouraging without attaching moral superiority to it. I had a friend go on and on about how wonderful breastfeeding had been for her. She stopped herself in the middle and clarified to me a correct view of the gospel and breastfeeding. She didn’t want to NOT be able to share with me, her good friend, the value she saw in breastfeeding. I appreciated her clarification and enjoyed talking with her about it. With the gospel in its proper place, the conversation ended up being HELPFUL to me, a poor breastfeeder, without being CONDEMNING.

Second, those of us who feel defensive need to lay down our swords and examine exactly why we feel defensive. The underlying foundation of a defensive stance is that you feel insecure. Many, many times, we get defensive not because someone is attacking us, but because they hit a point that nailed us in our insecure places. Breastfeeding, homeschooling, home birth, parenting techniques, courting, dating, husbands, work, clothing, organic food, you name it (I actually heard of a women’s retreat in which making your own organic foods was upheld as the morally superior choice for Christian homemakers). Have you personally wrestled with God and His Word to the point you are confident in Him in your choices? If so, you will be secure. You need to know who you are in Christ and what He has called you to be and do in the circumstances you find yourself. This will come from ONE singular place – personal prayer and Bible study. If you rely simply on your peer group to determine your convictions, you will always be constrained by what they think of you. You need a superior authority on which to rely when you are not at peace with other’s social pressure. That superior authority is God and His Word.

God does declare some things morally superior. So don’t interpret my words as a work around for things God has commanded in clear terms. But, WOW, do we Christians name a lot of things as morally superior in a way that Scripture never does. The answer is to know what Scripture says clearly, and submit to those things. For everything else, seek God’s wisdom to make the choices He has for you in your particular circumstances. This will free you from insecurity and defensiveness and equip you to love (and hear) your sister who is convicted differently.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Equipping Women for Gospel-Centered Lives

At a recent women’s retreat, I met ladies I had never known before and continued conversations with others that I had already casually known. At some point in the weekend, casual conversations changed to something deeper. Women that I had thought of in relatively straightforward ways began to reveal circumstances that had seriously complicated their lives. The church leader’s wife whose husband had struggled with homosexuality. The Sunday School teacher whose father had taken his own life the year before. The trim, well groomed, single career woman whose brother and best friend had died in a car accident when she was eighteen. The church secretary who was fired from her position after complaining over sexual harassment from a pastor. It dawned on me over time that though the women walking around the retreat all looked relatively well adjusted, the vast majority of them had dealt with or were currently dealing with serious trial and struggle. Something had invaded the boundaries of their lives, decimating their na├»ve notions of how their lives would play out. A brother dies. A father commits suicide. A pastor betrays them. A husband walks away. A boyfriend stops returning calls. Miscarriage robs, and the pregnancy test never shows two lines again.

There is something in the gospel that meets wounded women in their brokenness. Scripture certainly gives general comfort that transcends gender. Male and female find healing from their woundings in the gospel. But there is also a particular balm to women that meets us in the woundings tied specifically to our gender. For some of us, our woundings are tied to our own failures – we have sought to find our identity in something God has not declared good and then we are frustrated when it does not satisfy. But for many more, our woundings are tied to wanting exactly what God has instructed us to want. Loving our brother, mother, or father is a good thing. Desiring marriage to a godly man and raising children for the Lord is consistent with God’s earliest designs for man and woman. Submitting to a church elder fits with God’s design for church authority. Confronting them for their sexual harassment fits as well. Yet many women’s greatest struggles, fears, and woundings stem from their vulnerability over the very things that God has declared good for them and His specific commands to them in light of those purposes. Women need to be taught what God declares good for His daughters. But women also need to understand how the gospel equips them to deal with the vast gulf between what God declares to be His good plan for them and the reality of their daily lives.

In light of this, may I speak for a moment to those leading women’s ministries and organizing women’s teaching events? If your message doesn’t resonate as well with the single woman watching her biological clock ticking away without a date in 8 years as the wife and mom who homeschools her children, you have missed the fullness of the message of the gospel. You may have communicated some out of context Scripture on women’s roles in the church and home, but you missed the gospel that equips us to bridge the gap between God’s good plan and the depraved world in which we live. That’s a bold statement, I know, but hear me out.

We need to teach on marriage and family in a way that ministers grace to the single, widow, or infertile woman. We need to teach on submission and church authority structures in a way that equips women abused by the very leadership to which they were called to submit to boldly live out their giftings as co-heirs with Jesus Christ. We need to teach on motherhood in a manner that sets not it as the highest good but our conformity to Christ through its trials and our failures in it.

If by the term conservative you mean someone who believes Scripture means what it says and its instructions can be taken at face value, then I am as conservative as they come. But I am not comfortable with the tone of teaching I have heard the last few years from conservative evangelicals on women’s issues. Day in and day out, I hear from woman after woman who doesn’t fit the mold, perhaps by her choice but more often by circumstances completely out of her control, who feels lost in our evangelical construct of what the godly woman looks like. The problem is that she was not taught clearly that the image in which she was created is God’s and the image to which she is now being conformed is Christ’s. She feels pressure to be like Ruth or the Proverbs 31 woman but not so much to be like Christ. But Scripture doesn’t give us that leeway. She was created in God's image and is being conformed back to Christ's. Period.

In just the last two weeks, I have had three different women (2 single and 1 married) tell me of the disconnect they feel when they hear teaching on women’s issues. Each loves God and is seeking His plan for their lives. Yet there is a vast disconnect between the peer pressure they feel from their churches and study groups and the reality of what it means to be a woman in their particular personal circumstances. Maybe I’m just reacting to a perception that is not the reality. But as my husband often says, perception is the reality of the person who perceives it. I think I perceive this as reality not because Christian leaders don’t believe the right things about the gospel and God’s plan for women but because we haven’t been careful to parse it and present it clearly. When we leave open the opportunity for misinterpretation, we can’t be defensive when people misinterpret it.

It is not good for man (or woman) to be alone. And, yet, God calls many women (and men) to live in that very state for the majority of their lives, a state that He Himself calls “not good.” Children are a blessing from the Lord, and yet their presence in or their absence from our lives can be the biggest source of struggle a woman faces. There is something in the gospel and all that Christ has accomplished on the cross that equips women to deal with the difference. Longing for what God declared good, yet living abundantly in Christ until His kingdom comes and restores all that lacks now in our lives.

A single friend and I had a long conversation about this over dinner a while back. She articulated to me so beautifully the doctrine of living in this tension between what God declares good verses what He has allowed in her life. I have asked her to write her thoughts out and hope to post them here in the near future. Until then, I hope simply with this post to provoke thought on what it looks like to teach to women on every subject from the constant foundation of the gospel bridge between what God created us to be in His image and what we now find in our reality. May our ministries minister grace to women—single, married, widowed, with kids, without kids—to live in Christ and be like Christ, overcoming with joy at every stage of life.

Saturday, February 13, 2010

Malaise

What is wrong with me?! I have been struggling the last few days. Struggling with … I’m not sure what. I thought I was tired. But my husband took care of the boys so I could sleep in, and that didn’t fix it. I thought it was my messy bedroom. But I cleaned it up to the point that it looks exactly right, and that didn’t help. I finished a crochet project that had languished in my To Do box. I cooked a dinner I thought everyone would like. I wore an outfit I felt good in. And still I sit here thinking, what is wrong with me and what do I need to do to feel better?

Malaise. A vague sense of uneasiness and discontent that colors my responses to everything. It's not PMS. I can't attach it to any particular negative circumstnace. I can’t lift it myself. I can’t tweak my appearance, cross off enough things from my To Do list, or eat, exercise, and sleep enough to lift it. I know as a Christian where I need to go to address it. Yet, even knowing the right answers, there remains a gulf between my reality and my ideals.

So I lecture myself.

God is my sovereign, wise, and compassionate Father. He is intimately aware of the details of my life, and I can trust Him with my circumstances. Christ took my sins on His shoulders to pave the way for me to enter God’s presence. God is transforming me into Christ’s image, and His discipline (His training in righteousness) is a blessing because it roots out sin and wrong thinking in my life. It is a very good thing that God doesn’t leave me in the state He found me but transforms me, even when it involves hard circumstances. Christ is my perfect Bridegroom. The core longings of my heart for relationship are perfectly fulfilled in Him. He loves me, He died for me, and He sits at the right hand of the Father eternally making intercession for me. Apart from abiding in Christ and meditating on the benefits of my relationship in Him, I can do nothing.

After I review the things I know to be true no matter what cloud hangs over my head today, then I pray with Paul's prayer at the end of Ephesians 1 as my model.

“God, I know that you have accomplished something on the cross that is supposed to give me hope and confidence even when I’m tired with a cloud over my head. What do I have in Christ? What does it mean to be conformed to His image? How does that look right now? God, enlighten me. I need to understand the hope of what you called me to be, because I don’t believe this general discontent is consistent with all you have called me to in Christ.”

Then I read the Word. I learned a while back not to seek out verses I think will be helpful to my perceived problem. Instead, I just keep reading wherever I was studying before. Tonight it’s the Psalms. And it’s just about God. Holy is He. Praise the Lord with thanksgiving. It’s not about steps to lift myself out of my malaise. It’s just about the character and worth of my God. When God tells Moses form the burning bush simply, “I AM”, it means something that gives perspective to everything else. Tonight I am reminded, God is. God is holy. God is worthy. And I lay back and meditate on that alone, allowing it to sink down into the parched ground that surrounds my heart tonight. He has met me in my need with the simple facts of His character and worth. My malaise isn't necessarily lifted. But I have perspective now, and that makes all the difference.

Monday, February 08, 2010

Something Better Than Coping Mechanisms for Dealing with Depravity

Truer words were never spoken. Here is R. C. Sproul in his overview of the Pauline epistles, speaking on the theme of Ephesians.

“Oh the regeneration we have that creates spiritual life! Before, life was simple—we only served one master. But now we have a war going on in our members between the old man and the new man, between the spiritual man and the man of flesh. I can’t stand it when I hear preachers say, ‘Come to Jesus and all your problems will be over.’ My life didn’t START being complicated until I became a Christian. Because now I know that war, and when you enter that war as a Christian you sign up for the duration until you enter into glory.”

Before we came to Christ, we had depravity and coping mechanisms for dealing with depravity. In Christ, we have something significantly better—a new man with new life. The battle for the rest of our lives is letting God’s plan for what man and woman were intended to be in perfection, created in His image, overcome the coping mechanisms we’ve adopted for dealing with ours and other’s depravity. This happens through our organic union with Christ and all the spiritual benefits Christ has purchased for us on the cross.

This battle between the old and the new, between coping mechanisms for dealing with sin verses embracing God’s vision for what we look like in the safety of the Garden, is particularly relevant to me when I think of some of the more controversial words to women in Scripture, particularly the command in Ephesians for wives to submit to their husbands. Submission in a depraved world is HARD, often UNFAIR, and regularly OPPRESSIVE. Some of us despise the idea of submission out of simple pride. We think we make better decisions than our husbands. But the harder truth is that there have been and still are many, many men who physically, verbally, emotionally, and/or sexually abuse women. It is clear in Scripture. It is clear in secular historical writings. And it is clear in the headlines of today’s newspaper. Women have rightly learned that those men cannot be trusted with authority over them.

We need a correct perspective on why our experience tells us it is not safe or smart for a woman to submit to her husband and why the thing to which Paul is calling us in Ephesians 5 is radically different. The key is that it was the FALL OF MAN and not God’s created order itself that brought about the enmity between man and woman. People who do not know Jesus can only see this issue from the perspective of depravity. They only see what is wrong with relationships between men and women, and they cling dogmatically to the mechanisms of self-preservation they have learned over the years. But Paul calls us to look at the relationship between men and women as God intended it to be in perfection (he specifically refers back to creation in similar teaching in I Corinthians 11 and 1 Timothy 2). In Ephesians 1-4, Paul has already shown how Christ’s death on the cross has purchased our redemption and begun the process of restoring us to the image of God in which we were created. Now he calls on us, male and female, to begin reflecting in our homes, not coping mechanisms for dealing with depravity, but a way of living that echoes what God intended in the perfection of his creation of man and woman.

In light of this, what does marriage that is IN CHRIST between IMITATORS OF GOD look like? Paul describes it in depth in Ephesians 5. We must include in this piece of teaching the last phrase from the previous section—which is mutual submission. The command to wives to submit in Ephesians 5:22 doesn’t even actually include the word submit—it is built on the last phrase, “submitting to one another out of reference for Christ.” So we have to frame our understanding of 5:22 on 5:21 to which it is intimately tied.

Mutual, sacrificial love is the hallmark of those who are imitators of God, putting on the image of Christ through the power of our spiritual inheritance in him. At times, my husband submits his will to mine. At times, I submit my will to that of my children. And those times are not cop-outs or signs of weakness of the authority figure. Rather, it reflects the humility that Christ has called all of us too. My children want one thing. I want something else. I could insist on my own way, but as often as possible, I choose to submit my desires to theirs out of love for them that reflects the character of Christ to them. Sometimes, my children’s desires conflict with mine in a way that I cannot compromise, and they submit to my will as their God given authority. Similarly, in those particular conflicts between a husband and a wife in which both parties hold strong differing views, God calls on the wife to submit her will.

What if your husband really does have poor decision-making skills? Note that this is not about reflecting something about our husband—Ephesians 5:24 indicates this is about reflecting something about Christ and His church. There is something about submitting our will in peace and not by compulsion that reflects the cross and our spiritual inheritance. In Christ, we no longer must strive. The fate of the world or even just my little family does not depend on me either boldly taking charge or subtly manipulating. Maybe you do make better decisions than your husband. But that is irrelevant to God’s purposes here. His purposes for your marriage extend WAY past the earthly cares that tend to divide us. Christ has made effective promises about what he can and will accomplish on our behalf—and when we submit our will and agenda to the imperfect authorities in our lives, we are reflecting trust not in them, but in HIM.

The battle between our old ways of dealing with our sin and other’s sins against us and this new thing of being conformed to the image of Christ and reflecting His relationship with His church in our home will be a lifelong struggle. It’s complicated. But cling to the vision of the perfection and safety of the Garden and know He is calling you back to that again. Make choices in faith toward what He is calling you TO, not in light of what He is rescuing you from.

Thursday, February 04, 2010

Leave Your Gift at the Altar

Matthew 5 21 "You have heard that it was said to those of old, 'You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.' 22But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, 'You fool!' will be liable to the hell of fire. 23 So if you are offering your gift at the altar and there remember that your brother has something against you, 24leave your gift there before the altar and go. First be reconciled to your brother, and then come and offer your gift.

I have a long, varied Christian experience – many churches, many Christian ministries, Christian colleges, mission trips, etc. Someone who knows me is going to think I’m writing this about them and their experience. I’m not. Or maybe I am, but I’m writing it about 50 different experiences. In other words, if you see yourself in this exhortation, it’s not because I am writing about your specific experience, but because your specific experience really reflects something that happens quite often in our Christian experience for which Christ has given a very clear specific command.

The situation is unresolved Christian conflict. Some issue came up, people got angry, and instead of resolving the issue, one or both parties dug in their heals. Eventually each went on their separate way unreconciled. The answer is NOT what most of us try to do – keep plodding along in Christian ministry in hopes that all the other good that seems to come in spite of or maybe even because of the conflict will outweigh the bad. The answer is, quite simply, to STOP EVERYTHING and be reconciled.

Consider the scenario Christ presents – this guy or girl is at the altar ready to offer a good gift, likely a very good gift. The quality of the gift about to be offered is not in question here. It could be the best gift ever, given of completely good motives. And Jesus says LEAVE IT. Don’t distract yourself from this unresolved situation by all the other good things you have done and continue to do for God. Praise God your ministry has pointed others to the gospel. Praise God that you still bring meals to the sick or visit widows in their affliction. That is good and the appropriateness of those offerings is not in question. And, yet, Jesus stills says LEAVE IT. First, be reconciled to your brother or sister. If you continue in fruitful ministry while unreconciled to your brother or sister in Christ, it does not discount the value of your offering. It just is plain, simple disobedience. It’s sin.

Reconciliation doesn’t mean that you and your opponent finally fully agree about whatever issue that prompted your original conflict. It means that you humble yourself to say, “You are more important than this issue. And while I hold to my convictions, I was angry and unloving in our conflict. Please forgive me.”

Humbling myself in these situations is the hardest thing I’ve ever done. In my experience, it is extra hard to talk myself into moving toward someone in reconciliation. First, they likely sinned against me as I did them. And I desperately need them to recognize their sin against me. The fear of rejection is two fold – I fear that they may reject my apology, but I also fear that they won’t acknowledge their part in the conflict. In that scenario, I imagine myself walking away in utter dejection after humbling myself and being real and vulnerable with that person. But the reality of my experience is that even when someone doesn’t receive my apology or acknowledge their sin against me as I want, I still have won. Because the point was obeying Christ’s commands, and now I can offer Christ my offering to Him without baggage. The other person may not have received my attempt at reconciliation, but Christ receives it. And THAT makes it worthwhile.

If you are plodding along in Christian ministry in hopes that all the other good that you are doing outweighs the bad of the lingering conflict, remember Christ’s instruction to stop everything and be reconciled --- and OBEY Him.

If you are in that place, feel free to request prayer in the comment section.

**One added thought -- This verse helps me know how to think about good Christian ministries that have sinned against someone I know. Until I examined Christ's teaching here, my choices seemed to be only to ignore their sin and support the good they were doing or totally discount everything they did because their sin was so obvious. When confronting a ministry leader once about their sin against another, their response to me was, "But don't you all the good this ministry is doing?!" Christ gives us a 3rd response, which is neither denying the good works the ministry/person is accomplishing or accepting their sin against you or another. They could be doing great good. BUT they STILL need to stop everything and be reconciled. They may be doing great things and still be disobeying Christ.