Thursday, November 24, 2011

A Habakkuk 3 Kind of Thanksgiving

Habakkuk 3
17 Though the fig tree should not blossom,
   nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
   and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
   and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
    I will take joy in the God of my salvation.
19 GOD, the Lord, is my strength;
    he makes my feet like the deer’s;
   he makes me tread on my high places.

Holidays can be the hardest times of the year. One friend recently recounted leaving a church service at Thanksgiving because he just couldn't put up with everyone's thankful testimonies when so much was going wrong in his life. Thanksgiving became a catalyst for his crisis of faith. He's emerged from that season, praise God. But I heard him clearly. When you are hurting, American Thanksgiving in conservative Christian culture can be salt on an open wound.

I have a lot of friends who are hurting right now. Financial crises. Spiritual crises. Physical crises. Children walking away from the Lord. Spouses walking away from the Lord. It's a Habakkuk 3 kind of Thanksgiving.

I thank God for including Habakkuk 3 in His inspired Word to us. He's preserved these words, written in an altogether different time and culture. They were words of faith in a barren wasteland when they were first written. And despite the very different political and economic circumstances we face today as 21st century believers, they are words of faith in a barren wasteland for us too.

Words of faith in a barren wasteland. The fig trees aren't blossoming. In fact, there's no fruit on any trees. No field is producing anything. And as if that's not enough, the animals aren't producing either. The stalls are empty. The flocks are cut off. It's barren. The sheer number of things that have gone wrong are evidence not of coincidence. No, we are too familiar with the abilities of our sovereign God to believe this many things going wrong at once is just chance. And THAT escalates our crises of faith. God, have You turned away from me? I'm following You. I love You. I'm serving You. Where ARE You?!

For us in the barren wasteland asking where God is, He answers us from Habakkuk 3. I am here, child. I am here in my Word, communicating to you that you are not the first of my children to spend extended time in the wasteland. You are not alone. And as Habakkuk found me in the wasteland, I am here for you too. There is still joy to be had in me. Take it! Take joy from Me. In Me. I am still, even in the barren wasteland, offering My strength to you. I will make you graceful like a deer in this awful season, standing firm in treacherous places.

Jobs come, and jobs go. Fig trees blossom. Fig trees die. Loved ones grow in faith. Loved ones walk away. But God is transcendent. And we really do, even in the wasteland, have something for which to be very, very thankful. I tell it to myself often--as bad as your circumstances seem on this day, God has not left you as an orphan. He knows where you are, and He has met you there in His Word. Take this day the joy that He freely offers you in Him.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Women Saved Through Childbearing?!

Last week I posted a short encouragement to moms of infants and toddlers. I average 200 or so visitors to the blog daily. I've had a few times on this blog that daily visitors have spiked over 1000. The Gospel Coalition has picked up a few of my posts. I posted a few articles on Desiring God, and hits to the blog spiked then too. But after the post for moms of infants and toddlers, no major source picked up the blog article. Even so, hits to my blog were at an all-time high. Over 450 (*now it's 500) individuals shared the article on Facebook—most definitely an all-time high for this blog. I pondered all of this. No major evangelical outlets picked up this article. It didn't stand out to them, and I respect that. Yet, for the moms in the trenches, it struck a major nerve.

Moms in the trenches—now there's a demographic. You're not the soccer moms. More the spit-up moms. The poop moms. The keep-them-from-swallowing-poison-today moms. Raising these little ones has exposed in us something raw and needy. Childbearing. Child rearing. It is not for the faint of heart.

A few years ago, I sat through a Mother's Day sermon that made me cringe at the onset. The pastor announced his passage, and I wanted to walk out. It was 1 Timothy 2:15.

“Yet she will be saved through childbearing--if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.“

Come on, Pastor?! Don't you know better than to go there?!! Paul sounds like such a sexist there. And, yet, on this particular Sunday, the message ended up being a real encouragement to me. I finally got the point of Paul’s words. I’m sure it helped that I was the mother of 2 young boys stuck in the trenches. As I listened to the pastor’s explanation in light of my own experiences as a young, na├»ve, but earnest mother, the Spirit made some things clear to me from this passage.

I grew up thinking the term “saved” referred simply to that one point in time in which I walked down the isle of my church, repented of my sins, and publicly professed belief in Christ. That was “getting saved”. Once I “got saved”, that term had served its purpose in my life, and I needed to focus on other Christian obligations. As an adult, I’ve come to understand the broader way the Scripture uses the term salvation. Salvation is a process that follows me from the day I first understand my need for Jesus Christ (or more accurately, from before time began) until I sit at the Marriage Feast in heaven as the Bride of Christ. Scripture uses the terms justification, sanctification, and glorification to define this process. I was saved (justification). I am being saved (sanctification). And I will be saved (glorification).

The term saved encompasses our redemption from sin and reconciliation to God. The entire process is by God’s free grace through faith in Jesus Christ. It begins with justification—God opens my eyes to my need for Him, and I repent of my sin and place my faith in Jesus. God declares me righteous through Christ’s payment for sin on the cross, switching Christ’s perfection to my account and my sin to Christ’s account. But then I wake up the next morning, and I still struggle, quite consistently, with sin. This leads to sanctification—where slowly over time God roots out our sin and conforms us more and more to the image of Jesus Christ. It’s becoming in reality what God has already declared us to be in heaven—i. e. perfectly righteous. Glorification is the end—in heaven, God will present us to Jesus at the Marriage Feast in beauty and perfection. We will finally be in reality a Bride worthy of the Lamb.

But here I am now, a 40 something mother of 2 young boys, stuck right in the middle. I am justified—God has declared me righteous in heaven. I am reconciled to Him through Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. But I’m still a sinner. In the midst of that, I begin the process of bearing (the Greek here indicates bringing into existence, forming, becoming, developing) children. For me, this process began years ago when I was a single woman who thought I may never get married and have kids. God was sanctifying me back then through my fear of never bearing children. One older single friend gave testimony to me of the great spiritual struggle she had to say goodbye to the children she would never bear. God rooted out much fear and wrong thinking in her life through that struggle. During the mother’s day sermon in question, the pastor made the point that single and infertile women shouldn’t feel excluded from I Tim. 2:15, because God still uses the issue of childbearing in their lives for their sanctification. I have heard from many women who struggle because they are unable to bear children. They too give testimony that God has used the issue of childbearing to sanctify them much.

Once I did get married, we got pregnant easily, miscarried, and then had problems getting pregnant again. Again, well before I ever physically bore a child, God was using the bearing of children to reveal to me my fears and unbelief. Then finally I had my beautiful boys. They daily bring me great joy. And God uses them daily to reveal to me my great sin. Before I got married, I had no idea how selfish and self-oriented I was. In marriage, I began to see it a little bit. But now, I am bombarded 100 times a day with the need to die to myself. I had NO IDEA I was so alive to myself in the first place. I’m also becoming increasingly aware of how little I trust God. It’s one thing to trust Him with my own safety. Another thing to trust Him with my grown husband. But to trust Him with my vulnerable, little boys?! God once again is rooting out my wrong views of His character and replacing them with the truth of His trustworthiness from His Word.

So, yes, I am being saved—redeemed from sin and conformed to His image—through the bearing, development, and formation of these boys. I realize that for the rest of my life, I will be the mother of these 2 boys. And for the rest of my life, God will use them to test my faith and reveal my wrong thinking, lack of trust, pride, and selfishness. This is my marathon, which is why Paul warned of the need for perseverance in I Timothy 2. God will use them to root out sin, but then He’ll replace it with the righteousness of Christ as He conforms me to His image. To the praise of His glorious grace.

2 Corinthians 3:18 And we all, with unveiled face, beholding the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the same image from one degree of glory to another. For this comes from the Lord who is the Spirit.

Sunday, November 13, 2011

When Good Men Do Nothing

"All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is that good men do nothing." Edmund Burke

It's been painful to watch the fallout of the Penn State sexual abuse scandal. The subject has inspired numerous Christian blog posts. One of the best I have read is from a Penn State Campus Crusade for Christ staffer. You can read it here. Probably enough has been said, yet unraveling the answer to the question of what causes good men and women to do nothing at times in the face of evil seems important to me.

I love football and have respected Joe Paterno as a coach over the years. It saddens me to see his incredible career end in such a way. What saddens me most is that I think, in terms of character, Joe Paterno is a respectable man. Yet, this respectable man allowed a very bad thing to go on under his nose. And not just him – there's a whole slew of men who should have known better who allowed the worst kind of abuse of a minor to happen on their watch. They closed their ears and turned away. How did that happen?!

Some have expressed concern about how Paterno and others have been treated in the wake of the allegations. I think this stems in part from the disturbing idea for many of us that we might have reacted exactly the same way. We too might have wrestled for days over what to report to higher ups and how to paint what we did report. We too might have let it go after doing the bare minimum needed to ease our conscience. I could easily see myself at certain stages of my life numbing my conscience on the issue with words like “Well, I reported it to my authority. I did what was required of me. I can't help it if they don't do more. I've done my responsibility.”

Penn State's football program is legendary. Joe Paterno ran a tight ship. The men in charge of that program--Athletic Director, Coach, Offensive Coordinator, Defensive Coordinator, and so forth--were respected and revered. They were obeyed. It was not unlike authoritarian church and ministry structures with which I have been involved over the years. In those systems, the good guys are the ones who respect authority. They buck it up and contribute even when they dislike an order. Respect, cooperation, and obedience to your superiors are fundamental to the entire system. I have empathy for the young graduate assistant who first witnessed his boss raping a minor in the locker room. I'm sure he was shocked and horrified. What do you do when your authority in this authoritarian system is the one doing this act? The GA didn't intervene. And I fear that when I was his age, I may not have intervened either. At least not immediately. Now 41 years old and the mother of children myself, no one could stop me if I witnessed that today. But back then, I valued respect of authority so much that I fear I would have been paralyzed in the moment, to my life long regret.

The graduate assistant finally told his dad, and his dad helped him tell Coach Paterno. Both seemed to meet their minimum legal requirement. Yet neither stopped the cycle of abuse that continued for several more years. Why? The Campus Crusade pastor points out in his article the deficiency of love for the victim. That is the fundamental, root issue. But a secondary issue is that they all thought they had more to lose by standing up strongly for the victims than they did by protecting the program. Obviously, they were very, very wrong and have lost much more by covering it up. The urge to stand up for a little guy none of them knew faded in the shadow of the behemoth that was the Penn State football program.

Good men do nothing a lot. Good women too. We do nothing sometimes out of self protection. But more often, I think we do nothing because we value protecting authoritarian systems more than we do standing up for the victim. I've experienced this before in various Christian ministries—a leader with authority does wrong. But the reputation of the institution and those associated with it seems more important than seeking justice for the one abused or oppressed. I could write out a long list of names of good men and women I know personally, men and women of proven character and good reputation, who did not stand up for victims and instead protected a program or ministry. I've done it myself at times. Rocking the boat didn't seem a Christian virtue in that moment.

Though good church people often value submission to authority over advocacy for the oppressed, God is clear on what we need to do with abusive authority.

Isaiah 1:17
 17learn to do good;
seek justice,
   correct oppression;
bring justice to the fatherless,
   plead the widow’s cause.

Psalm 82:3
Give justice to the weak and the fatherless;
   maintain the right of the afflicted and the destitute.

Psalm 10:18
to do justice to the fatherless and the oppressed,
   so that man who is of the earth may strike terror no more.

Proverbs 31:9
Open your mouth, judge righteously,
    defend the rights of the poor and needy.

God calls us to step up for the poor and defenseless. Be aware of our propensity to turn away and hear clearly God's command to engage. And if you have been silent or turned away, humble yourself and make it right. If the gospel is truly our foundation in Christian ministry, we have hope for redemption and transformation when we choose humble responses that seek to correct our mistakes. Humble repentance, not defensiveness, is the absolute key to dealing with past failures, and meditation on God's strong admonition to do justice for the oppressed is key for the future.

Wednesday, November 09, 2011

Give US Grace – parenting advice for moms of infants and toddlers

I've mentioned my mom's group Bible study before. We are studying through Give Them Grace and enjoying the discussion very much. We have a number of mothers of very young kids with a few moms of older, school age kids. Give Them Grace has been such a convicting, encouraging study for me, mother of a kindergartner and 1st grader. My boys can express themselves and understand me. They are starting to process the gospel, and I praise God we are at that stage.

However, I've been trying to implement grace-based parenting ideas for several years. I wish someone had told me years ago that the person that most needed grace in those early years with infants and toddlers was MYSELF. The baby and toddler years are TOUGH. They are very different from the early school years, though they too have their struggles. The toddler years are crazy, and we need different expectations of our parenting in those early years.

I was at peace for the first few months with a newborn—I knew those first months would be dominated by feeding issues and trying to get my child on a schedule. But I didn't realize that the survival mode I was in in those early months would actually go on for years. I thought I should be progressing faster than I was. Part of my problem was that I had a number of friends with similarly aged daughters who communicated much faster with their mom than my boys did with me. The other problem was that my little ones did not take in a new environment by observation, but by exploration. I've noticed some little ones who hang back and observe in new environments. But my boys walked in a room, noticed a door, and start opening it and shutting it to figure out the hinges. How does that outlet work? What's a fire alarm? How does this thing I've never seen before taste? It was pure survival in our home for a good 4 years. Sure there was nurturing. There was training, correcting, and management. But the overarching theme of it all was simply SURVIVAL.

As a mom finally out of that stage, I recognize the symptoms in my sisters in Christ right in the middle of it. Stress in our marriages. Stress in our friendships. And so much stress just in our heads and hearts. In light of all that, I have a few points of advice I wish someone had shared with me.

1) Preach the gospel to yourself. You will not survive this stage without meditation on all God has said over you in Christ. Chances are your figure at this stage isn't going to help your identity. Your homemaking skills aren't going to help your identity. If you are relying on your external successes at this stage of life to give you meaning, you are sunk. But let this time, when you can not keep up a facade, reveal your true heart, and then turn to God in that desperation. He has a good plan for your life, and part of that good plan are these years of simple survival nurturing your young children.

2) READ YOUR BIBLE. I talked in my last post about this. God promises supernatural strength through His Word, and you KNOW right now you need supernatural strength. You may only have 5 minutes (even if you have more time, you likely don't have the brain power to process more than that). The Psalms bring me so much comfort at stressful seasons of life, primarily because the majority of the Psalms were written during stressful seasons in the Psalmist's life. His cries to God echo mine in the stress of life, and God's answers to him always encourage me.

3) Don't let women at other stages of life pressure you with expectations of what you can accomplish at this stage. When your children are little, forget color coordinated meals. It's ok if there's laundry in the basket or your bathroom needs cleaning. If you have a choice between doing dishes and taking a nap, use paper plates and take the nap. Rest helps so much with the stress of life at this stage. You will be better able to nurture your children and keep them safe if you've had a nap.

Eventually, you'll emerge from this stage. Your children will start communicating with you. They will reach a point developmentally where you can start communicating the essence of gospel grace to them. But you'll never communicate it to them until you first get it for yourself. And the early years with infants and toddlers, as we are stripped of our abilities to do for ourselves what we once easily did, are a prime time for us to understand God's grace to us more deeply than we ever have before.

Sunday, November 06, 2011

There is no coasting in this walk of faith.

God refuses to let me coast in this Christian journey.

coast (verb)
--to continue to move or advance after effort has ceased; keep going on acquired momentum;
--to advance or proceed with little or no effort … (

Yep. I can't coast. I like to get momentum and then keep going after effort has ceased. I like to advance with little or no effort. I really do. But it doesn't work that way for me in the Christian life. I TRY to coast. Often after particularly fruitful times, I try to keep up momentum without doing any work. I get distracted from reading my Bible. I may still pray as I go, but I don't stop and cry out to God on my knees. But my walk with God just doesn't work that way.

I'm utterly dependent on Him day by day. My sister says that if she doesn't get time alone with God on any given morning, we really don't want to be around her that day. I'm learning the same about myself.

I read this quote on a friend's Facebook page.

“No amount of activity in the King’s service will make up for neglect of the King Himself.” –R.M. M’Cheyne

That quote has me pegged, and the author is exactly right. But it is so easy to fall in the ministry trap—where you are talking to others about Christian things so much that you forget your personal relationship with Christ. You talk more ABOUT Christ than TO Christ. I thank God He doesn't let me get away with that for long. I thank Him because HE is my inheritance. God is the gospel, and that personal relationship with Him is the culmination of all the good that Christ accomplished for me on the cross. When I try to feast on Christian things instead of Christ Himself, I wither up and die.

I never excelled at 30 minute morning devotions, even when I didn't have kids and was in Christian environments that pressured me to do them. I just am not very self disciplined. But there is nothing like utter desperation to get you doing something you've never been able to do with simple self discipline. I now keep a New Testament with Psalms along with a highlighter and magnifying bookmark (because I'm getting that old) next to my reading chair and laptop. I don't get 30 minutes to read/pray. But I take 5 minutes here and 5 minutes there. I'm just reading the Psalms right now, because that's about all my desperate heart can process. I envision one day reading a book of the Bible and researching it thoroughly again. I want to write a study on I Peter. But for right now, I'm just clinging to the Psalms, comforted immensely that someone else has struggled with heavy burdens and that God saw fit to record their cries in His written word as they lived out their relationship with God.

It's so easy to get distracted from Christ by Christian things. But the walk of faith just doesn't work that way. The culmination of the cross is that the veil is torn that separated us from the throne of God. Christ cried out in that moment, “It is finished!” And He had done all that He came to do when He opened the way for us to have free access to God Himself. This access to God is the heart of the gospel. God Himself is the gift. God is the gospel, and may we all remember we will wither in ministry for Him without availing ourselves of this relationship Christ has secured for us.

Psalms 73
25 Whom have I in heaven but you?
   And there is nothing on earth that I desire besides you.
26 My flesh and my heart may fail,
   but God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.

Tuesday, November 01, 2011

Performance Evaluations and Sanctification by Grace

The topic of performance evaluations in Christian ministries came up on a website I sometimes read. A robust discussion ensued, and I've been thinking about the topic ever since. Occasionally, I feel the need to give some disclaimers about myself, and this post is one of those occasions. First, I am nobody and have no authority. I am literally writing this in my pajamas. Second, I call this blog a lecture to myself. Others are welcome to read and interact, but I don't write this to lecture you. Just me. If something is helpful to you or makes you think, that's awesome. With all those disclaimers said, I'm going to give my thoughts on the topic. I think the principles apply well beyond the topic of performance evaluations, so maybe the discussion here will be more relevant to readers than the topic at first seems.

The discussion on performance evaluations in Christian ministry reminded me how easy it is for our theology and our practice to diverge from one another. That was the point of my first book, Practical Theology for Women. What we believe about God and the gospel has to mean something in our daily practices. And I submit that it has to mean something on the topic of rating the effectiveness of staff and leaders in Christian ministries.

The second thing that came to mind in the discussion on performance evaluations is how important it is that we never assume the gospel. I did that some in my first book – assumed that the readers knew the gospel. Life experience between my first book and my second book taught me otherwise, and the Ephesians Bible study, though every bit as practical as my first book, is saturated with the gospel from beginning to end (as Paul himself does in the book of Ephesians). As we take communion each Sunday, my pastor reminds the congregation of the necessity of this review of the gospel. We are by nature suspicious of grace. We don't really believe that gospel grace changes people. We will default to law and performance every time apart from regular meditation on the truth of the gospel, and Scripture is full of examples of this very thing.

The third thing that came to mind when thinking about performance evaluations is that Christ didn't seem to use them with His disciples. At least He didn't use them to decide who He'd disciple or who He'd promote. Of all the disciples who actively hurt Jesus' ministry, Peter had to be at the top. Yet, after Peter cuts off a soldier's ear and then DENIES Jesus three times, Jesus' next interaction with Peter is to reaffirm that God will build His church on Peter. Peter would have failed his performance evaluation in every way, yet God gives him the greatest task of all – “feed my sheep.” Jesus deliberately set up discipleship methods that were the exact opposite of the world. His discipleship tactics do not fit secular business models.

I think the important theological issue at hand is sanctification and how it applies to rating the effectiveness of someone and then what to do without them after assessing them. Theological positions on sanctification seem to fall into 3 categories. Sanctification by works, sanctification by a mix of works and grace, and sanctification by grace. I grew up in a Christian environment that didn't use those terms but practically believed in sanctification by works. We were saved by grace and no works of our own. But then, because God had done so much for us on the cross, it was our job to obey and be righteous. There was great guilt heaped on those who fell or made mistakes, and they were easily discarded, deemed unworthy of further discipleship. Why waste time on someone just sucking up resources?

In my 20's, I started attending a reformed church that taught sanctification by grace, where the only work on my part was cooperation with the Spirit and even that was empowered by God. That was transforming for me. I can't put into words how beautiful it was to understand that God took the responsibility for my daily transformation as much as He did my first moment of regeneration.

And we, who with unveiled faces all reflect the Lord’s glory, are being transformed into his likeness with ever-increasing glory, which comes from the Lord, who is the Spirit.
—2 Corinthians 3:18

I don't lay back passively as God makes me righteous. Yet, I'm not the first cause of my righteousness or obedience either. God moves in and for me, equipping me to be and do something I could never muster up on my own. Consider how the Scripture speaks of this concept:

Consecrate yourselves and be holy, because I am the LORD your God. Keep my decrees and follow them. I am the LORD, who makes you holy. (Lev. 20)

Therefore, my dear friends, as you have always obeyed—not only in my presence, but now much more in my absence—continue to work out your salvation with fear and trembling, for it is God who works in you to will and to act according to his good purpose. (Phil. 2)

In Leviticus 20, we’re commanded to be holy (sanctified or set apart for God’s purposes) because God is making us holy. In Philippians 2, we’re told to work out what God is working in. And in Ephesians, Paul instructs us to put off and put on, as we are being renewed (passive voice) by the Spirit. The Holy Spirit is working in and with me, so that I show outwardly what He is changing in me. Any righteousness we exhibit outwardly is a result of our inner relationship with the Spirit. You can’t separate the two, and God is the first cause.

Now apply this all to the idea of performance evaluations. Obviously, there is no value in self-delusion over our faults. I've been evaluated at times, and it can be helpful. The evaluations that were helpful, by the way, were OBJECTIVE, not subjective opinions by my employer or boss. If we've evaluated someone using objective, quantifiable measurements, what do we do if we find them lacking? We need to distinguish between moral failings and weakness in giftings or talent. And if Christ is our model, we don't write them off for either. If we are discipling them, we must offer them the HOPE of the gospel for their daily transformation. Your moral failings are real, but they don't define you! Christ has paid for this on the cross. Put off the old, lean into Him for the renewing of your mind, and put on new ways that reflect His image in your life. And if you aren't particularly talented, that's OK too. God is clear that He uses the weak things of the world to confound the mighty. It's His modus operandi. However we respond to poor performers, the gospel calls us to something other than writing them off for their past performance. We can't use the world's business models to dictate how we evaluate and promote or demote staff in Christian ministries.

The gospel changes EVERYTHING. It's not a footnote or addendum to Christian ministry. It is relevant when we are loving/respecting our husbands, it is relevant when we are parenting our children, and that same gospel is relevant when we are evaluating our staff.