Saturday, December 25, 2010

And so it began

Every now and then, God shows me something from Scripture in such a way that I hear loud and clear His message to me. Such was today, Christmas day. I am 40 years old, the youngest of 3 girls. And today was the first time I've fully hosted Christmas for my parents. I've been working on a low key menu for a few weeks, and things came together relatively well. My boys are ages 4 and 6, and this year it seemed of growing importance to start instilling in them the true meaning of Christmas. We've been talking about the Christmas story, reading it from many different books, acting it out in church Christmas programs, and talking it out using a playmobil manger scene. All that to say, I've had a bit on my mind in preparation for today. After reading the Christmas story last night, this morning was a flurry of Christmas activity. At some point, I managed to steal a few brief moments away to read my Bible.

I have been working my way through the book of Luke since last summer. I keep getting distracted away from it, but I also keep coming back. And today, God timed it so that my reading spoke a clear message to me particularly on this day we celebrate Christ's birth.

The topic? Christ's death.

Yes, today my reading in Luke just “happened” to fall on the crucifixion. I hadn't really noticed in the days before this that I was at that point in Luke. But it was stark this morning. While my boys read last night of one Herod's pursuit of the infant Christ, today I read of another Herod's interaction with Him. Judas betrays Jesus. Herod and Pilate become friends as they try to figure out what to do with Him. Jesus stands silent in the presence of the accusations against Him. He's beaten and sent to the cross where He interacts with a thief who recognizes who He is. Peter denies Him while a centurion recognizes Him. He dies.

And then comes the most amazing thing in all of Scripture. “The curtain of the temple was torn in two.” The thick heavy curtain that separated the outer portion of the temple from the Holy of Holies, which was the symbolic presence of God, was torn in two. No more priests interceding in our place. No more blood sacrifices to atone for our sins. Instead, we have ACCESS. Bold, confident access.

So today as I unwrapped gifts and cooked turkey and ham, I was humbled to think that what I'm really celebrating is the start of the countdown to the moment that veil in the temple was torn, to the moment that Christ paved the way for me to boldly and confidently access my Father. And maybe the purest form of celebration I can offer on Christmas day and the days to come is simply to avail myself of the access He has given me through His life and death.

The veil is torn. Wherever you are this Christmas season, whatever you perceive stands between you and Him, come boldly and confidently to Him now in prayer. Avail yourself of the end result of Christ's birth, life, and death for you.

Pray.

Wednesday, December 15, 2010

Eating it

"I and the public know
What all schoolchildren learn,
Those to whom evil is done
Do evil in return."
-W. H. Auden, 1-Sep-39

Auden wrote those words about the outbreak of World War 2, but the headlines on every news network today reflect it as well. I was painfully aware of it as I watched an older teenage boy in the park physically abuse his younger cousin recently. Though he was gone by the time the police got there, I know had they questioned him, he would have said that someone did it to him when he was young (probably the evil grandmother yelling at the other kids while it was all happening). If you follow the tangled web that leads to any act of vandalism, bullying, abuse, or even terrorism, you will find someone at some point acting out on what evil had been done to them – not paying it BACK usually. More often, they are paying it FORWARD—Zig Ziglar's kicking the cat syndrome. Tolstoy, in his short story The Forged Coupon, traces the cancerous progression of evil beginning with a boy falsifying the amount on a coupon, which eventually progresses to murder. It's the circular saw of evil, each act of evil adding another blade in the ever widening circle.

Into this world is born the Lamb of God. He doesn't pay it back. And He doesn't pay it forward. He eats it. My pastor called it absorbing injustice, and I recommend his sermon on it here.

And we are called to be like Him. Tim Keller has said it boldly, “A Christian's call is to stop the spread of evil.” When I first heard that quote, I had to stop and think ... Really?! Not just avoid evil or not do evil myself, but to actually STOP evil? It was helpful to go through Ephesians again with women at my church this quarter. By the end of Ephesians, when Paul says “stand firm,” this is exactly what he's calling us to do. By God's GRACE, He has equipped me to deal with the evil in myself. And by His grace, He's given me the tools to deal with the evil in the world. I am called to plant my feet, hold up my shield, hunker down, and STAND FIRM. And when evil slams up against me, Satan's schemes to defeat me and undermine the march of the kingdom of God, I hold on – feet planted, sword in one hand, shield in the other – and preach the gospel of peace that brings an END to this war.

I love the picture painted of spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6. But what does that look like in real life? THAT is the million dollar question. I'm thinking about it this morning with my children. How do I teach them to eat the forged coupon? Left to themselves and apart from Christ, their little conflicts with one another escalate to a childish form of murder every time. It starts by someone politely asking for a shared toy, and ends with each boy crying after scratching and clawing the other in anger. I'm thinking about it in terms of myself. How do I eat it when I receive the forged coupon? When my children do evil to me? How do I stand firm in the gospel of peace when my husband is short with me? When he misunderstands me?

I am also contemplating this in our world. Abuse and oppression are everywhere. I've become particularly aware of it in the church—spiritual, sexual, and physical abuse in many different denominations. It's as rampant in Bible and Baptist churches as it is in Catholic ones. It's often hushed up by church leadership with the end result of predators moving quietly to another congregation in another city to offend again.

My call is more than just to deflect evil off myself, leaving it to affect someone else later. Nor am I called to a victim mentality that endures evil so that evil is perpetuated by my indifference. No, I am called to an endurance and steadfastness that absorbs and ends it. ENDS it. Social justice is the natural outworking of the gospel of peace, which I talked about here. I've heard good things about Tim Keller's book, Generous Justice, which I have as the next book on my To Read list.

I am beginning to form a global perspective of what this looks like. Then, as I sit in my chair thinking about my part in ending global evil, I'm distracted by my son walking through the room, demanding something of me. And I'm reminded that my first line of battle is right here in this house, right now, with these two guys – planting my feet firmly in the gospel of peace, absorbing injustice, and doing unto them not as they just did to me but with a vision of what God is calling them to be. Like the guy who can stop the saw with his hand, my job isn't to get out of the way while the circle of evil perpetuates itself. And my job is certainly not to stay in the cycle. But I am now equipped and called to END it.

Special thanks to my pastor's wife for prompting me to think on this, especially in terms of our children.

Tuesday, December 07, 2010

An external act of religion that actually means something.

Having come from a religious background that, much like the pharisees of Jesus' day, abused teaching on the externals of a person, I am skittish at even considering that externals DO mean something spiritually. Yet, Scripture is clear. Everything flows out of the HEART, but it does flow OUT. Our external actions can have value in terms of self examination. But their value cuts both ways. We can examine externals and become satisfied with ourselves to the point that we ignore our heart – the white washed tomb syndrome. In that case, there is a disconnect between the heart (which is dead) and the externals (which look good). The outside looks clean, yet it houses dead men's bones. Christians have always been adept at coming up with amazing amounts of white wash to cover our tombs. But we also often miss what Scripture itself says is the appropriate outworking of a heart that abides in Christ in light of His gospel. What should be flowing out?

I am slowly working my way through Ray Ortlund's commentary on Isaiah, God Saves Sinners. His discussion of Isaiah 1 has pricked me, a sword that cuts deeply and exposes the truth of our problems (MY problems) and the only thing that will fix it.

Isaiah 1 is a lament by God over His children. You are wounded and bleeding, says God, yet oblivious to your sorry condition (v. 5-7). You continue with the traditions of worship like you always have, to which God brings a strong rebuke, “Bring no more vain offerings” (v. 13).

Vain means empty. Useless. Ineffective. Their worship means nothing and accomplishes nothing. They are, in theory, following the letter of the law in their external worship, but it is utterly ineffective, actually becoming a burden to God (v. 14) rather than the incense it should be.

Hear well both the indictment against them and then the answer God gives them in Isaiah 1.

“Your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your deeds from before my eyes, cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, correct oppression; bring justice to the fatherless, plead the widow's cause.” v. 15-17

As I read verse 17, I immediately thought of those intriguing words on pure religion in the New Testament in James 1. They intrigue me because I so rarely have heard it emphasized with the clarity that Scripture seems to speak of it.

James 1:27 Pure and undefiled religion in the sight of our God and Father is this : to visit orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world.

James calls it PURE and UNDEFILED religion. When you boil it down and remove the impurities, here is what you will have left. Growing up, I read that passage in my Bible but NEVER heard it as a topic of sermons, or youth activities, or Sunday school lessons, or Christian school devotionals, or ministry staff meetings, or chapel messages, or … well, you get the picture. Yet James uses wording that makes it sound like something pretty important. And when I read Isaiah 1 this last week and Ortlund's commentary on it, I realized, it is of UTMOST importance.

The Greek term in James 1 for religion is interesting. It particularly applies to the outside practices and visible worship that flow from our doctrine and beliefs (as does Isaiah 1). We all know to focus on heart issues. Yet everything that we inwardly believe plays itself out outwardly. Our worship music, preaching styles, the method in which we pray, the way we decorate for Christmas, the Christian t shirts we wear, the WWJD bracelets, the cross necklace, or whatever other OUTWARD manifestation you can imagine of your belief system – that is “religion” of James 1:27.

If you read James 1:27 in the context of the entire chapter, James is teaching on being a doer, not just a hearer, of the word. He says many people look in the mirror, see the truth of what God says, but then turn away unchanged. They hear it, but it never connects in a way that makes a difference. James says that a crystal clear outward indicator that the truth of the gospel actually registered with you is care of the oppressed and remaining unstained by the world. I've heard the second phrase taught in the past in a way that is contradicted by Jesus' own earthly example, and that's never good. So I want to think more on what it means and post those thoughts another day. But the first indicator is pretty straightforward—care of widows and orphans, and when coupled with Isaiah 1, the general seeking of justice and correction of oppression.

I generally value these things, but I am praying about what I need to see in the mirror of God's Word and how that will affect my responses to the oppressed in my realm of influence. I have vaguely noticed this in the past, but I didn't have the gospel conviction to realize what was happening. I remember years ago counseling a former church member who was undergoing a serious crisis shortly after leaving our church at the time. She was suddenly in terrible need. What an awesome moment to show her the love of God and unconditional nature of His grace, right?! It was slowly dawning on me -- this is a gospel outworking of love kind of moment. Yet church leaders kept putting me off in my efforts to get help for her and her children. I thought at first that the leaders and I just had a different philosophy on the church's obligations to former members. So I did things on my own without church support, a little befuddled by it all. Reading Isaiah 1 and James 1 clears it up for me. Now I realize that the real philosophical disparity was over the gospel itself. Gospel-centered, grace loving, Christ abiding hearers of the Word walk away from the mirror with a readiness to care for the poor, the widowed, the orphaned, and the oppressed. Once I realized that my burden for gospel-centered care of widows and orphans was not supported by my church leadership, I realized something significantly more. What do the words gospel, grace, and Jesus mean in this moment practically? My gospel understanding deepened, and my conviction to help the oppressed solidified in light of it.

But despite bad experiences with others on the subject as well as my own slowness to grow in it personally, I am also encouraged. As the gospel moves forward, I see a flourishing, gospel-centered growth in ministries focused on care of and justice for the oppressed. Here are a few.

Members of my church are heavily involved in Seattle Against Slavery and Rwanda Partners.

Dan Cruver has spearheaded a growing movement, Together for Adoption, with yearly conferences and lots of helpful material.

Russell Moore has written a great book on the subject of adoption, Adopted for Life.

A good friend of mine has started working for and raised my attention to Illien Adoptions International.

In my small church (maybe 300 people max), at least 4 families have adopted, two of which are elders' families. There is no big push for adoption, per se. It's just in their spiritual, gospel-centered DNA. It's NATURAL to care for such things when you believe what our church believes and teaches about Christ, the gospel, and our adoption into God's family. The church also has a robust deacon's fund ready to help any who have need. A few months ago, I met a guy in line at Walgreens who had been burned out of his home, and in half a day, deacons at church were ready to assist him with getting temporary housing. Helping needs, caring for the oppressed, and seeking justice is the accepted norm there. It's not an agenda. It's the natural outworking of the gospel.

Now, PLEASE don't walk away from this article with a simplified checklist on which people or ministries with adoption ministries are good and those without are bad. It's bigger and deeper than that, and people who love Christ and the gospel are doing it left and right in ways most of us will never know. Most of all, it's about MY PERSONAL heart, not yours, or theirs. When I hear God's Word and see MYSELF in the mirror in light of it, I will turn out with a posture toward the widow, orphan, oppressed, and in need. My posture will be to seek justice, to correct oppression, and love the abandoned and orphaned. If that's not your posture, don't immediately go looking for an adoption ministry to which to send your money out of guilt (though sending money is good). Instead, preach the gospel to yourself. Our posture toward the needy will be corrected when we hear the Word and see ourselves clearly in its mirror. Meditate on the gospel, grace, and the life of Jesus. Anything less than looking anew on the cross will just produce self-righteous legalists (and nobody wants to be adopted by them!). :-)

**If you'd like to share a link to other gospel-centered ministries living this out, please feel free to do so.**

**One additional note -- what if you or your ministry sit under the accusation of harboring injustice or ignoring the care of widows or orphans? Our worldly coping mechanisms are denial and shame. But the gospel offers us a different beautiful, real solution -- REPENTANCE. It is as simple as saying, "Yes, I committed injustice instead of correcting injustice. But I see from the gospel hope for myself and a call to something different toward others. I repent." THAT is the antidote for accusations of disobedience against you. Chances are, the accusations are true. Face it. Repent. And then get up and go forward in a new direction. To the praise of God's glorious grace.

Saturday, December 04, 2010

The Holidays Clarify Our Pain

I first posted this last holiday season. But since the readership of this blog has almost doubled since then (and I had sinus surgery this week, so writing something new is out of the question), I thought this would be a good post to highlight again.

I have spent my fair share of Christmases crying under the Christmas tree in the dark, staring at the lights on the tree dreaming of the Christmas I want, rather than the Christmas I have. This Christmas, I am joyfully anticipating family time, and I thank God that I don't foresee crying under the tree this year. But I've had enough lonely Christmases in the past, longing for something different, to respect the fact that many of you who follow this blog are entering a season that puts a harsh spotlight on the losses in your life. Perhaps you lost something you had -- a child, a spouse, a parent, a relationship. Perhaps you feel the loss of something you long to have but have not yet gotten to hold – a child, a husband.

The holiday season clarifies our pain. It makes it very clear exactly what we are longing for and exactly what we are mourning. It is especially hard to distract ourselves from our losses during this season. If you find yourself in this place, with the spotlight shining on your losses so that you can not escape the pain whether sitting under the tree, singing a carol, buying a gift, or opening a present, here are some thoughts from someone who has been there before.

1) Your loss is real, and it is OK to feel it deeply. But know also that you are not alone in your loneliness. Despite what you likely sense, most others are not enjoying the holidays unconditionally. There is not something wrong with you. Or actually, there is something wrong, but there is something wrong with all of us. So don't let the feelings of loss, loneliness, and isolation go unanswered in your own head. You may feel that you are alone and no one else understands the weight of the loss you carry through the holidays, but the truth is that MANY of your brothers and sisters in Christ are carrying such burdens, and you are not alone in your loss. Feel your loss, for it is real. But fight Satan when he tempts you to isolate yourself or distance yourself from others because of it.

2) Holiday pain can also clarify what you do have. Screw turkeys and cranberry sauce. Forget gifts given and received. Stocking stuffers are over rated. Instead, understand that your circumstances also shine a spotlight on Christ. When you aren't distracted by Christmas frivolities (or enamored by, as many of us are), you can recognize the void that can only be filled by one thing -- Christ Himself. It was during lonely Christmases that I discovered Colossians 1 and sat under a tree reading it to myself. It sustained me, not just for a season, but I've gone back to that passage for a lifetime.

I'll leave you with Colossians 1, this passage that tells us exactly Who arrived in the manger that night. As the holidays spotlight the pain of your losses, I encourage you to let God's description of His Son shine an alternate spotlight on all you have in Him this season.

15 He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation. 16 For by him all things were created, in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or authorities—all things were created through him and for him. 17 And he is before all things, and in him all things hold together. 18 And he is the head of the body, the church. He is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, that in everything he might be preeminent. 19 For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, 20 and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

21 And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, 22 he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him,

Wherever you are this season, daughter of God and bride of Christ, I hope this vision of the eternal One you have in Christ will sustain you during lonely times. You are loved and wanted by Christ. You do have a family, in every idealistic sense of the term. It is in Him and with Him. That truth won't erase the pain of your very real loss this holiday season, but may it be the balm that soothes and comforts you, for by His wounds, you are healed.

Wednesday, December 01, 2010

Discovering Jesus in the Old Testament

Nancy Guthrie has written a new One Year Devotional series – Discovering Jesus in the Old Testament. I missed Cyber Monday, but if you are looking for something for yourself or a stocking stuffer for a loved one, this is a good choice. Nancy drew me in immediately in the introduction as she recounted a life history in the church is which the Old Testament seemed basically file folders of separate moral lessons with little overlap. Do this. Don't do that. Be like Joseph. Don't be like Saul. The stories were taught as life lessons or faith lessons but didn't speak into the whole message of Scripture. For so long in my own life, I didn't know what to think of Jesus telling the men walking the Emmaus road with him in Luke 24, "O foolish ones, and slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Was it not necessary that the Christ should suffer these things and enter into his glory?" And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he interpreted to them in all the Scriptures the things concerning himself.”

Over the years, I've started filling in the gaps, primarily by sitting under preachers who have taught me Exodus, I Samuel, Jonah, and Ruth through the lens of the gospel. Second, I've learned to look up cross references when they are mentioned in my study Bible. When I read a prophesy in Isaiah, then notice the the cross reference to Luke in which Jesus says, “Today this is fulfilled in your hearing,” I have learned something incredibly important about both that OT prophecy and Christ himself. Scripture stops being a disjointed set of moral lessons and starts being the coherent, connected message of God's good plan for his children from creation in Genesis to the marriage supper of the lamb in Revelation.

If you would like help making those connections, Nancy's book is a good starting point. Note that it is not a commentary or Bible study. It is a devotional with short, succinct thoughts. I am early in my reading of it, but so far, I've been provoked to think about how the creation of woman from man ("bone of my bone and flesh of my flesh") is directly linked to Christ's relationship with his church, his Body in the New Testament, especially Ephesians 5. I'm meditating anew on the intimate nature of this relationship after seeing that connection. I also gained insight from reading the story of Cain and Abel in terms of Hebrews 12:24--“ to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant, and to the sprinkled blood that speaks a better word than the blood of Abel.” What message apart from Christ does the blood of Abel speak? And what infinitely better word does Christ's blood now give us? I had never before made that connection.

The message of each devotional may seem redundant because it's gospel, gospel, grace, grace, and a little more gospel. Christ this. Cross that. But...um...that's the point. God started preaching the message of Christ immediately after the fall of man. If you are in need of some simple, gospel saturation (and aren't we all), this may be a good resource for you.