Sunday, August 29, 2010

Keep Calm and Carry On -- Being a Strong Helper after God's Own Heart

I’m going to rehash some old stuff here, with the disclaimer that this is my own lecture to myself, and I need to review it. I occasionally hear lectures or read books on “Biblical Womanhood” or the “God-centered Woman.” But I’m personally coming to love the term “Gospel-Centered woman” best. It’s becoming a goal in my life--not just to know what the Bible says about women, because knowing only what the Bible says I ought to be brings self-righteousness when I get it right or self-condemnation when I get it wrong. Instead, when I’m gospel-centered, I not only understand what God created me to be as a woman, but I understand His plan for redeeming me and reforming me back into the image in which He created me, for I can not do it on my own.

Where do I find my identity as a woman? It’s not the Proverbs 31 woman or Ruth—it’s God Himself. I was created in HIS image (Gen. 1:26-27) and am being conformed back to Christ’s (Romans 8:28-30). In Scripture, the defining characteristics of the first woman—those things that make her utterly unique to her male counterpart—are inextricably tied to the character of her Creator. Knowing Him precedes knowing ourselves. If we want to understand our identity as women, we must first understand His identity as God.

Genesis 1 26 Then God said, "Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground."

27 So God created man in his own image,
in the image of God he created him;
male and female he created them.

After Genesis 1 states the general idea of man and woman being created to bear the image of God, Genesis 2 then zooms in on the creation of the first woman.

Genesis 2:18 The LORD God said, "It is not good for the man to be alone. I will make a helper suitable for him."

This woman, created in the image of God, was designed to be a helper suitable to her male counterpart. When I read this in common English, it always sounds condescending and substandard. “I’m called to be Help?! That sounds like some 18th century snob referring to their servants. I’m not the Help.” But that is simply because our English translation can’t do justice to the Hebrew term. Instead, think of the Man of Sorrows carrying His cross toward Gethsemane. As He stumbles, Simon of Cyrene steps in to carry it with (or for) Him. This is a much closer picture of the Biblical concept of Help. It is not a maid. It is more like a crutch. It is not a mindless sidekick waiting on an order. It is Morpheus or Trinity to the Matrix’s Neo. The Hebrew word is strong.

The Hebrew term for helper is most often used in the Old Testament of God Himself, which makes sense since the woman was created to bear the image of God. Consider its use in Deuteronomy 33:29.

Deuteronomy 33:29 NIV Blessed are you, O Israel! Who is like you, a people saved by the LORD ? He is your shield and helper and your glorious sword. Your enemies will cower before you, and you will trample down their high places.

God Himself is called our helper, the same Hebrew word used of the first woman in Genesis 2:18. In the New Testament, the Holy Spirit is also called our Helper, Counselor, and Comforter (depending on which translation of the Bible you use). These are all translations of the Holy Spirit’s role of paraklete, or one who comes alongside in aid. When we understand God’s role on this issue, it puts this in perspective. God, Almighty Sovereign Lord of the Universe, is our helper, and we, as women, are created in his image. If I hold on to the attitude that being created as a helper is condescending and substandard, I am basically mocking the name of God and His character, for the role of helper is one He willingly embraces.

God our Help defends (Ex. 18:4), cares for the oppressed (Ps. 10:14), delivers from distress (Ps. 70:5), rescues the poor and needy (Ps. 72:12-14), comforts (Ps. 86:17), supports, shields, and protects (Ps. 20:2 and 33:20). God’s example reveals a high and worthy calling for women as helpers suitable to their husbands. We are not glorified maids, butlers, or cooks waiting on an order to perform from a master. This is not God’s example of help at all! We are called to show compassion, support, defend, and protect those in our care. We are called to deliver from distress and to comfort. We are called to be conduits of God’s grace in our homes. We are called to be like Christ.

There is a sense in which God’s call to us is a general call to be strong helpers and advocates in widespread ways. My help extends to my children, my neighbor, and the stranger that God brings across my path as He taught in the parable of the Good Samaritan. But there is also a very strategic application of this help. Eve was created to help her particular husband. I remember asking my husband one day, “What would you find helpful?” To put the question in context, I had heard much from various sources about what a Christian woman was supposed to do for her husband. I found myself judging how well I was doing by comparing myself to friends, women’s ministry leaders, book authors, and so forth. If any of them suggested a better method of fulfilling my role in my home, I either worked to adopt it or beat myself up for my laziness for not. When my husband and I talked about it, I realized he longed for my help in the strongest sense of the term. But I was constrained by lesser expectations of others that distracted me from helping him in the ways he needed. When I ask him what I can do for him on a particular day, he often tells me to simply “keep calm and carry on.” He needs me to be strong and face the chaos of the day with two small boys with calm responses. He needs me to defend and protect, to rescue and comfort, to support and care for those who can’t care for themselves. He needs me to minister to our family like God our Help ministers to me.

This may be painful to hear if you are single, widowed, or divorced. But you too are God’s strong helper though you do not have a particular man to whom to direct it. Throughout Scripture, women helped. Ruth helped Naomi. Mary helped Jesus. Phoebe helped Paul. Lois and Eunice helped Timothy. Yet, I do not trivialize the reality in which you find yourself. As God said in the garden and you well know by your own life experience, it is not good for man (or woman) to be alone. If you find yourself in this state of aloneness that God declared “not good,” you are in good, godly company.

The gospel of Christ meets us in all of these realities. Single woman who longs to be married. Married woman who longs to have a husband who loves her as Christ loves the church. Divorced woman whose marriage ended in betrayal. Widow who feels the hole in her heart daily. The truth for all of us is that the fall of man has marred the image of God in us. We are not what He created us to be. And the fall of man has marred the environment in which we lived. Others around us are not what He created them to be. Loved ones betray. Loved ones die. And sometimes, loved ones simply never show up. But, in Christ, we start to see the reclamation of His image in us through redemption. In Ephesians 1 and 2, the Apostle Paul lays out for us all Christ’s death on the cross has accomplished for us. He expounds on it more in Ephesians 3 and 4. Then he opens Ephesians 5 with the amazing phrase, “Therefore be imitators of God.” Finally, we have the tool for bridging the vast gulf between our created image in Genesis 2 and the fall of Genesis 3. Now, in Christ, we start to reclaim His image in us, and Paul fleshes out what this looks like across the board—husband, wife, parent, child, coworker, boss, and every relationship within the church.

I can’t fully articulate in this short article how exactly the gospel does this for us. Paul sets the foundation for how God does it in six chapters in Ephesians, and I have spent much time studying it there. But living it out daily will require a lifetime of gospel meditation and transformation until finally I see Jesus face to face in perfection. Today, I am simply asking God in prayer how the gospel equips me to reclaim His image in my life and what it looks like to live it out as a strong Helper in my relationships. I trust He will meet us all in this prayer with wisdom for this day’s struggles as a woman after God’s own heart.

Sunday, August 22, 2010

Confusing worry with being responsible

I worry. My excuse is that I’m trying to be responsible. The two aren’t the same. One is good, a trait often praised in Scripture. The other is abject sin—sucking the life out of the one worrying and maiming those around them. In my life, the line between the two is illusive, the one easily bleeding into the other.

I wrote recently on God’s clear conviction in my heart on the issue of worry while on vacation. God showed me in stark terms what my worry cost me. He made it clear that His plan was for me to receive THIS DAY from Him and live within its boundaries—receiving THIS DAY’S good and THIS DAY’s bad. I got the message while on vacation with family. I heard Him, and I responded by His grace. On vacation. But it’s another matter entirely to put it in practice when I get back into the rhythm of my normal life. My home. My marriage. My boys. They need a responsible mother/wife who, like the virtuous wife of Proverbs 31, looks over the affairs of her household, has a plan, and executes it so that they are prepared for adversity. But, oh, I am humbled by how easily my good planning for my family becomes a sin with grievous consequences.

It’s very hard to be prepared for the day of adversity without fearing the day of adversity. And then Christ says something completely counter to my thinking – “Therefore do not worry about tomorrow, for tomorrow will worry about itself. Each day has enough trouble of its own.” (Matthew 6:34) The word for worry is pretty general – it could mean simple concern or thought, or it can mean anxiety or worry. I so often feel that my duty today is the very opposite of this instruction—I feel obligated to think ahead, be concerned about the future, to PLAN. And while planning sounds like an innocent, reasonable thing for a godly woman to pursue, my plans are rarely emotion free. My plans come with emotions—anxiety, care, worry, concern. So I am starting to take Christ much more literally than I ever have before when it comes to this instruction. I am convicted to start limiting my plans to this day. I’ll plan lunch. I’ll plan afternoon activities. I’ll take thought and concern for tomorrow tomorrow. Today, I have thought and concern for this day alone.

The truth that you know as well as I do is that wives, moms, and women in general MUST plan ahead. Our society, our very existence, requires it of us. Enrollment in preschool and kindergarten for my children this fall took place last February. Their clothing and food require planning ahead. And finances for sure benefit from careful planning with an eye toward the future. And yet, when my careful planning morphs into anxiety and worry, I MUST value Christ’s commands in Matthew 6 over my perception of responsible behavior. Responsible planning must be sacrificed if it feeds sinful worry. I have to open my hands and LET GO of my planning and live THIS DAY. And maybe tomorrow, God will grant me the grace to plan in responsible ways without anxiety. But until He does, I must hate my sin enough and trust Him enough with my future to let go of the mental paths that lead to sinful worry.

I praise God that He has not left me as an orphan to figure this all out. Instead, He has given me very specific instructions that free me from feeling like my family’s wellbeing depends on me figuring it all out and planning well ahead.

Matthew 6
25 Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat or what you will drink, nor about your body, what you will put on. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothing? 26 Look at the birds of the air: they neither sow nor reap nor gather into barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not of more value than they? 27 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 28 And why are you anxious about clothing? Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, 29 yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 30But if God so clothes the grass of the field, which today is alive and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, will he not much more clothe you, O you of little faith? 31Therefore do not be anxious, saying, 'What shall we eat?' or 'What shall we drink?' or 'What shall we wear?' 32For the Gentiles seek after all these things, and your heavenly Father knows that you need them all. 33But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.

34 "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.

As counter intuitive as it seems, it is to our great benefit to obey Christ and believe in the value of these instructions. Christ calls us to receive moment by moment His daily (hourly) grace to do His will. Because He has a plan for us over the next 6 hours. And anxiety over next week’s Costco run, next month’s school bill, or next year’s whatever will distract us from what He has for us right now. And He does have something for you RIGHT NOW. Receive today, and don’t worry about tomorrow. You are not being irresponsible by doing so. In truth, obeying Christ on this matter is the most responsible thing you can do.

Friday, August 20, 2010

Legalism in Any Culture

Secular or religious, legalism occurs in unique forms in every culture. Religious legalism involves the belief that salvation or sanctification can be gained through personal good works. Secular legalists judge theirs or others’ conduct by their adherence to particular laws or standards. I was raised in the south. There is southern secular legalism. There is southern religious legalism. I now live in Seattle. And there is much legalism here. It surprised me – leaving southern, religious legalism, I simply did not expect the legalism I’d find in the Pacific Northwest. But it is alive and well in Seattle in particular. In the secular form, there is a strong belief in moral improvement. They may define morality a bit differently than in the south, yet their version of morality is still laudable. Environmental responsibility. Care for the poor. Racial reconciliation. And they are very good at judging others based on how well they adhere to those high standards. But the Pacific Northwest religious legalist is most interesting--and disturbing--of all.

We’re cutting edge. We’re cultural. We have cool music. But we are as legalistic as anyone anywhere. What really separates us in disturbing ways is that we preach against others’ legalisms, picking at the speck in their eyes, with complete ignorance of the beam in our own. Some people are legalists because they value legalism. They want to be moral, and they think they can be moral on their own if they are really diligent at it. That’s fair. Wrong, but fair. But when you, in theory, know from Scripture that you can’t be moral on your own and you can recognize the inept attempts of others to earn their righteousness on their own, and yet you miss it so clearly in your own life, it is the epitome of Matthew 7. And Christ warns against it in STRONG terms. Don’t do this!! Don’t diagnose the problems in others’ lives while missing the ones in your own. It doesn’t work. It’s destructive. Christ warns us against this for a very good reason.

The grand hallmark of all religious legalism is that the legalist never realizes that the greatest threat to his morality is WITHIN HIMSELF. So he (or she) warns against particular elements of culture or the negative influence of certain types of people. He/she (me) doesn’t recognize personal pride as the greater evil that destroys even the isolated one living within strict cultural boundaries. It’s why The Village is such a great commentary on religious legalism. No matter how hard they worked to cut themselves off from the world, they couldn’t protect themselves from the evil within themselves.

Run, friend. Run hard. Run fast. Away from the Christian leader/speaker/preacher who preaches harder against the culture without than the sin within. He or she is leading you astray, and the false sense of accomplishment you get as you “discern” the evils of society will distract you from the sin that will destroy you, the proud self-righteousness within that mocks the cross (because it makes you think you don't need the cross as much as the next guy) and which God despises. Pride destroys. Despise it. Beware of it. Run from it. Diagnose why it invades your psyche. It reveals the worst theological belief system possible – the one that says my greatest enemy is the culture outside the walls of my safety zone. Because in that system, YOU don’t need Christ. THEY do. And that mentality will suck the life out of you. Your good choices won’t save your children. Your involvement in a certain ministry won’t gain you spiritual blessings. Your adherence to your church’s marriage class methods won’t guard your marriage. Your strict book reading guidelines won’t heal you, your spouse, your kids, or your relationships. Your morality won’t save you. Only Christ will. Get it straight. And be very wary of others whose attempts at morality apart from Christ alone distract you from abiding in Him.

Friday, August 13, 2010

My Biggest Regret

Years ago after graduating from Bible college and working in several conservative Christian ministries, I came back home to live. I was nice, diplomatic, and earnest. Looking back, I think the Biblical description is "zeal without knowledge," and I now well understand why the Scriptures warn against it.

In our small country church, I led a teen ministry to local nursing homes and organized a teen choir. When time came for the teen choir to perform in Sunday evening service, I worked to get the presentation just right. I wanted to do our BEST. I wanted to give a great presentation with good harmony in song. That would bring God the greatest glory, right? The subtle undercurrent was that a great presentation would make me look good. It would make me look like someone who really knew what they were doing, trying to bring some excellence to the music program at our small country church.

I had spent years away at Bible college and its various associated camps and ministries, all which emphasized EXCELLENCE. You had to try out for choirs, and only the best made it in. The presentations were awe inspiring, every hair in place, every note exact. And I came to believe that such presentations brought the most glory to God, and we need to do everything to bring glory to God, right?! (I Corinthians 10:31)

Now back to the teen choir in my small country church. We had practice once again right before the evening service in which we were supposed to sing. I made sure those with the best voices were closest to the microphone, and we sounded reasonably good. But RIGHT before service began, a tone-deaf teenage girl ran in late wanting to sing with us. And I refused her. Her mother wanted her to sing too, but I refused her as well (ever so politely). I had been trained to value an excellent presentation. The goal was to bring glory to God, right?! And you can do that best by being as good as you possibly can be, right?! Even refusing to let the tone-deaf girl who missed practice sing even though she REALLY wanted to, right?!

I never saw that girl and her single mom (who probably really needed the fellowship of that congregation) at church again. And I know to this day that my actions put a stumbling block in front of them that they indeed did stumble over. I can’t change it. But I know that in my na├»ve quest for the glory of God, I denied the thing that gives Him the most glory – the tone-deaf singing of a sinner saved by grace. God may receive minor glory from slick presentations, but it can't compare to the glory He receives from simply saving sinners. People are more important to God than presentations. That’s a no brainer, right? But it wasn’t to me, and I sacrificed a person for the sake of a presentation. I knew as soon as she walked out of the building that I had made a BIG mistake.

I believe strongly that God saves people, not me, and I’m at peace that I am under no condemnation by way of Christ’s death on the cross for me for this incidence. I don’t feel GUILT. But I do feel regret. Most of all I feel firm resolve that I always keep this truth in my mind – God saves sinners and His greatest glory is from the grace He lavishes on them.

Ephesians 1: 4 – 6 “In love 5 he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will, 6 to the praise of his glorious grace, with which he has blessed us in the Beloved.”

I pray that I never again pursue a slick presentation at the expense of the heart of an individual. Ministries do it all the time, content to let hurt individuals walk out left and right like they are dead weights holding back the ministry from properly fulfilling God’s mission. No!! Run after the hurt individual. Call them back with grace. Because THAT is God’s glory!

I’ll end with this song by Philips, Craig, and Dean – His Favorite Song of All which is also my favorite song of all.

He loves to hear the wind sing
As it whistles through the pines on mountain peeks
And He loves to hear the raindrops
As they splash to the ground in a magic melody
He smiles in sweet approval
As the waves crash through the rocks in harmony
And creation joins in unity
To sing to Him majestic symphonies

But His favorite song of all
Is the song of the Redeemed
When lost sinners, now made clean
Lift their voices, loud and strong
When those purchased by His blood
Lift to Him a song of love
There's nothin' more He'd rather hear
Nor so pleasin' to His ear
As His favorite song of all

And He loves to hear the angels
As they sing, "Holy, holy is the Lamb"
Heaven's choirs in harmony
Lift up praises to the Great I Am
But He lifts His hands for silence
When the weakest, saved by grace, begins to sing
And a million angels listen
As a newborn soul sings, "I've been redeemed"

Cause His favorite song of all
Is the song of the redeemed
When lost sinners, now made clean
Lift their voices, loud and strong
When those purchased by His blood
Lift to Him a song of love
There's nothin' more He'd rather hear
Nor so pleasin' to His ear
As His favorite song of all

It's not just melodies and harmonies
That catches His attention
It's not just clever lines and phrases
That causes Him to stop and listen
But when any heart set free
Washed and bought by Calvary, begins to sing

That's His favorite song of all
Is the song of the redeemed
When lost sinners, now made clean
Lift their voices, loud and strong
When those purchased by His blood
Lift to Him a song of love
There's nothin' more He'd rather hear
Nor so pleasin' to His ear
As His favorite song of all

Holy, holy, holy is the Lamb
Halleluiah, halleluiah

Thursday, August 05, 2010

This Day

Psalms 118
21 I will give you thanks, for you answered me;
you have become my salvation.
22 The stone the builders rejected
has become the capstone;
23 the LORD has done this,
and it is marvelous in our eyes.
24 This is the day the LORD has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.

I am on vacation with family for two weeks. And I have a lot on my mind. Fears for the future. Some immediate like concerns about flying back stuck with two small boys on a 6 hour flight. Some decades away, such as will my boys love Jesus (and me) when they are teenagers? I have unfulfilled desires that hang over my head – things that God tells me to want for His kingdom yet He waits to work to fulfill them. So I sat in a rocking chair in the mountains of North Carolina with my sister that I haven’t seen in 6 months. Worrying. And God said, not quite audibly, but still quite clearly, “Receive THIS day from Me. Take no thought for tomorrow.” And then the angels whispered an obscure Stephen Curtis Chapman song about “This Day” in my ear that I can’t get out of my head now (still singing it a week later -- it's become the theme song for this 2 week vacation).

This day all His mercies are new
This day every promise is true
Father, help me to believe
Give me faith I need to know You
And trust You this day
This day

So I received THIS day from God. I opened my hands and let the worries fly up to Him. It’s His problem, not mine. And I received from Him the gifts of grace for that day – special conversation with my sister. An evening worshiping and reading scripture with my 16 year old nephew. Instead of worrying if my boys would love Jesus when they are 16, I received the gift of God’s grace that my nephew, whom I’ve watched grow up, does love Jesus and His Word and had sincere, thoughtful prayer requests to share. I received the treasure of a lunch with a friend who always points me to Christ despite the many burdens she faces in her own life, another gift of His grace that strengthened me in Him. And all which would have floated right past me if He had not pointed me to put off worrying about the future and receive from Him His grace and mercy for THIS day.

So THIS day, I receive His promises and plans for THIS day. THIS day, I am at peace in Him. And I take no thought for tomorrow, because God says clearly it’s worries are enough for itself. TODAY is the day I am living.

Matthew 6:34 "Therefore do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself."