Thursday, February 11, 2016

Sanctification in the Walmart Line

It's clear from the Scriptures that sinless perfection is impossible in this life. (1 John 1:8-10, 2:1-2) We will battle indwelling sin until we die or Jesus returns, which is why Christians need the gospel just as much as those who have yet to enter the Kingdom of God. But what about mistakes? What about those silly, careless things that crop up now and then?

Life would be easier if I would always get it right. Life would be even easier if everyone else would get it right, too. For example, can you imagine how this would transform shopping at Walmart? What would it be like if there were always enough cashiers? And cashiers who were efficient? What if everyone counted their purchases so no one had too many items in the express lane? Think of how pleasant that experience would be. But I will not always get it right no matter how hard I try and neither will you or the folks at Walmart.

The fall has taken its toll, and no one is exempt. My physical body has failed me at times where I've dropped dishes due to butter fingers. My mind has gotten distracted so I've lost count when measuring an ingredient for a recipe. Although breaking a glass and miscounting cups of flour are not sins in themselves, what has been my response? What attitude comes to the surface when I'm at Walmart with 20 other people waiting for a single cashier when there are six vacant registers?

There have been times when these irritations didn't bother me, praise God, but my responses have not always been sinless. I've been impatient with others and unkind thoughts have flitted across my mind even though I kept my mouth shut. I've been frustrated when I didn't live up to my high expectations of myself. This is sobering especially when I consider what sort of person I may be in 10 or 20 years. As the saying goes, practice makes perfect, and these little instances of pride and impatience can add up to create quite a curmudgeonly woman. But it doesn't have to be this way.

"For this is the will of God, your sanctification." (1 Thes. 4:3) I can rest in this truth and the fact that the Holy Spirit hasn't stopped convicting me of sin and granting me repentance. I do not have to finish the race on my own or in my own strength. And I have hope knowing that He will renew me, turning potential irritations into sanctification lessons. Occasions for impatience and pride can be transformed into opportunities to grow in kindness and humility. Even at the checkout line at Walmart.

Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience Col. 3:12

Monday, February 8, 2016

Confessions of a Cymbal-Clanger

"I am deeply persuaded that the foundation for people-transforming ministry is not sound theology; it is love."  At first I wanted to close the book. The club-wielding Pharisee inside of me was quick to decry Paul Tripp's words.

One of the benefits of reading well this year is time to think on what I'm reading, to wrestle it out. And I have wrestled hard with Tripp's premise. Uncomfortably so. After all,  I've read, taken notes, studied long, written much and talked much about theology. Shouldn't theology be the basis for all we do? Tripp points to 1 Corinthians 13:1-2:
If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love, I am a noisy gong or a clanging cymbal. And if I have prophetic powers, and understand all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have all faith, so as to remove mountains,but have not love, I am nothing.
Notice that the Apostle Paul doesn't deny the importance of prophetic powers, understanding, knowledge, and faith, but he goes on to say that they will pass away (1 Cor. 13:8). Wisdom, discernment, and faith are critical components of our lives as believers, but they are useless without love.

So I've continued to ponder Tripp's claim and how to offer hope to those around me who are hurting. And I've wrestled with another of his statements:  
The hope of every sinner does not rest in theological answers but in the love of Christ for his own...This love is not a band-aid attempting to cope with a cancerous world. It is effective and persevering...It faces the facts of who we are and how we need to change and simply goes to work.
I remember the ministry of Amy Carmichael, the lives changed because she loved Christ and He loved others through her. She preached the Gospel to them, but she loved them first. I consider the words of Martin Luther, "This should be the sign by which they should know whether they are true Christians or not...He makes him humble, gentle, and ready to help his neighbor in any need." (source) The great theologian knew that love, not theology, was the fruit of the Spirit.

I've realized that having a solid biblical theology is absolutely necessary. But I've also realized that offering a dose of good theology to someone in pain can be like offering a starving woman a lift to the grocery store. I may have shown her what will fix the problem, but I haven't helped her fix it.  I haven't loved. Oh! that I would learn the value of shutting my mouth and loving! Job's friends sat with him on the ground seven days and seven nights, and no one spoke a word to him, for they saw that his suffering was very great. (Job 2:13) Once they started speaking, they became clanging cymbals. I see myself in their words - fumbling for answers, giving terrible advice, pushing my ideas, drowning out the message of grace while I clanged on and on.

Several months ago I stood beside my closest friend as she mourned the loss of her father. Ten days later, I stood beside her again as we watched the medical examiner take both of her husband's parents. The depths of grief and despair were unimaginable to me. I wanted to offer comfort, make sense of the senseless, give her some deep theological truth to carry her through. It was God's grace that I was completely unable. He kept me silent, as Job's friends were. I held her, I prayed for her, I cared for her children. I watched her church family do the same. Words would have sounded as clanging cymbals, loud and discordant. They needed people to silently sit alongside them in the mud of suffering. They needed love.

Theology and a right understanding of God is essential to live the Christian life in a fallen world. Persis recently challenged us: "So please don't be afraid of theology. Please don't be afraid to open the Bible and stretch your understanding." I couldn't agree more. As I learn more, I trust more. I gain more peace in the chaos of this temporary home. I live more wisely and bring more glory to Him. My friend Becky said it well,
Studying big books about the Bible like commentaries, systematic theology, and other very important titles like The Institutes of Calvin, etc. is absolutely important; but we should never forget that the ultimate goal of knowing more is to love more. Love God more, love our neighbor more, love our family more, love the Word more, love to meditate on the Word more.
 It's time to lay my cymbal down.

Wednesday, February 3, 2016

Theology in Story

This past week in my hermeneutics class, we have been studying historical narrative. Today, I thought I'd edit a post I wrote for my own blog three years ago. I'm thankful that much of what I wrote then has been re-iterated by my prof, and that I have learned even more.
Historical narrative makes up most of the Old Testament. What, exactly, is it? Is it just historical fact? Is it theology? I'm going to start with what it isn't.
It is not allegory. The account of Jacob watching a ladder to heaven is not an allegory of the Christian's ascent to God.  It was something Jacob actually saw. The account of Adam and Eve in the garden is not just a picture of sin; it actually happened.
Secondly, the Old Testament narratives are not moral stories. While morality is depicted in the accounts, their primary purpose is not like an Aesop's fable, to teach morality. 
Thirdly, Old Testament narratives are not doctrinal lessons.  It is true that we can discern God's character throughout the Old Testament.  That is actually one excellent way to read the Old Testament, to look for aspects of God's character.  But again, that is not their primary purpose. The stories will highlight and support doctrinal teaching, but their purpose is to tell a story; a true story. Their purpose is to provide an account of history which demonstrates a theological truth.
Narratives have plots, characters, conflict, tension, themes, and resolutions. God is the ultimate protagonist, and Satan is the ultimate antagonist. In their book How to Read the Bible For All Its Worth, Fee and Stuart say this:
The basic "plot" of the biblical story is that the Creator God has created a people for his name - in his own "image" - who as his image bearers were to be his stewards over the earth that he created for their benefit  But an enemy entered the picture who persuaded the people to bear his "image" instead, and thus to become god's enemies.  The plot resolution is the long story of "redemption," how God rescues his people from the enemy's clutches, restores them back into his image, and (finally) will restore them "in a new heaven and new earth."
There are three levels of narrative. There is the overarching narrative of God's plan for his creation.  That is what Fee and Stuart are referring to in the above quotation. Then there is the level of the redemptive history of man, through the covenant people of God. And there are the individuals narratives, stories like the account of the Exodus, or the story of the Judges. When Jesus talks about the Scripture testifying to him (John 5:39), he means that first level of narrative. 
When we apply Old Testament narrative, we should look at that those first two levels, yet we are often tempted to restrict our applications to what we have learned from the third level of narrative. That is not going far enough. We need to reflect on the other two levels if we want a theological application.
Restricting our application to the third level of narrative alone is an example of moralizing. For example, I may think to myself, "Sarai followed Abram without question when God called him out of Ur. She was a good wife. If I want to be a good wife, I need to be like Sarai." That is moralizing. It is a noble thing to be a good wife, and there are other places in Scripture which support the principle of being a responsible wife, but this account of Sarai and Abram leaving Ur is not about marriage. Esther is not about how to be manage a difficult husband. Every story about Moses cannot be reduced to a lesson about effective leadership. 
What we want to do is look at the God of the biblical characters, and put our faith and trust in him the way they did. Their God is our God. Instead of, "Dare to be a Daniel," dare to trust Daniel's God (that is an example my prof used). One of the downsides of moralizing is that it tends to forget about the relationship of those individual stories to the entire canon of Scripture. We miss out on so much if we forget about those aspects; we miss out on seeing the Bible as a unified whole. And that is part of what is so beautiful about the Bible.
Everyone loves stories, and the stories of the Bible are wonderful, exciting stories. But they are unlike any other story because they happened. And they are a part of a grand narrative orchestrated by God. Let us not forget to read them in that light.

Wednesday, January 27, 2016

When they come to take my car keys away

Curmudgeon: a person (especially an old man) who is easily annoyed or angered and who often complains. 

If you are familiar with Twitter, one of my favorite accounts is the Church Curmudgeon.  He is the quintessential grumpy old man, able to blend wit and complaint in 140 characters or less. As a parody, the Church Curmudgeon is very funny, but if this was real life? I think the humor would be quickly lost.

As I contemplate growing older, I often wonder, what will I be like in 20 or 30 years should the Lord tarry and He allows me to live that long? How will I respond to changes down the road? When they come to take my car keys away? When I have to turn my checkbook over to my daughter because I forget to pay the bills? When I can no longer live on my own? These are ordinary activities that I've taken for granted for decades, but when they are gone, I suspect it will hit hard. "I used to be able to do XYZ, and now it seems I can only sit and do nothing.", would be a natural response. It would also be very natural to take out my frustration at my lot on those around me, but is this inevitable as well? Am I destined to become a curmudgeoness? I don't think it has to be that way.

Now I want to be clear that sanctification is the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer. I am not implying that aging well is something I must do to earn or keep my standing before God. I am accepted on the basis of Jesus Christ's substitutionary death for my sins and imputed righteousness alone. But as the Holy Spirit works, I believe He is able to change me and my desires. Even the desire to honor the Lord in the face of old age is His doing. So having said all that, here are three truths to gird my mind:

Remember who God is - I am changeable. God is unchanging. I do not know the future. He knows all things. I am weak. He is almighty. I am dependent on Him for every breath and heart beat. He holds all things together by the Word of His power. Nothing can thwart His purposes from being fulfilled, and my times are in His hands.

Remember where my identity lies - God has equipped His children with different strengths and abilities, but I cannot forget where my true identity lies. My being is not ultimately found in what I do or the gifts God has given. My being is found in who God has declared me to be - His image bearer, a redeemed sinner who has been made His child by grace. I may lose my skills. I may be less competent as time goes on, but I can never lose my identity in Christ.

Remember my final destination - We are on this side of eternity and reaping the effects of the fall, but it won't be like this forever. The new heaven and new earth are coming, and we will be forever with the Lord.

I don't think aging will be easy. Life hasn't been easy to this point. But God hasn't left me to finish my days on my own. The truth of who He is, what He has done, and the final consummation of His purpose lifts my eyes away from my finite existence to see the bigger picture. I believe the truth of the gospel has the power to change everything - right now and even when they come to take my car keys away.

Thursday, January 21, 2016

We have to do the work

Only two weeks into my hermeneutics class and I'm already overflowing with the things I am learning. What I have been studying has me thinking about Bible study.

In the past, I've seen a lot of women's bible study material. I do not hesitate to say that the majority of it was not good. A lot of it was fluff. A lot of it took verses out of context or disregarded the existence of a context. A lot read things into the text. A lot tried to impose 21st Century understandings on documents that were written three thousand years ago. Many of them don't seem to expect the student to do any work, and I wonder how much work the writer has done. There are good ones out there, but there are many more bad ones.

Bible study is not a matter of what R.C. Sproul calls "lucky dipping;" that practice of closing our eyes, opening our bibles, putting our finger on a page, finding a verse, and waiting for illumination. The Bible is a divine book, but it is also a human book. And it's a book, a work of literature. That will dictate how we approach it. Yes, the Spirit does guide us, but it won't do the work for us.

There are many things that make Bible study a challenging task. Here is a small sample:
  • The chronological distance between the events and the reader
  • The original languages were not English
  • The very different cultures of the Old Testament and New Testament worlds
  • Our pre-understandings as readers
Do these challenges mean that we cannot understand the Bible? Certainly not! God intended for us to understand it, and we believe in the clarity of Scripture. We have the Holy Spirit to teach us, but that does not rule out hard work. I read this in my textbook:
. . . Being indwelt by the Holy Spirit does not guarantee accurate interpretation. Though we have no desire to diminish the creative work of the Spirit, the Spirit does not work apart from hermeneutics and exegesis . . . 

. . . The diligent Christian with even an average education who is willing to study, and who has access to the fine tools now available, can arrive at the central meaning of virtually every passage in the Bible. 
No matter how good Bible study resources are, we still have to do the work. How much work are we prepared to do? Do we simply want to let someone do the work for us? As a teacher, I have seen that my students get much more out of the lesson if they have familiarized themselves with the content beforehand. I need to do more work than my students. Teaching requires more than being able to use a DVD series to lead others. We should still be doing the work whatever "extras" we choose to utilize in our studies.

May I be so bold as to suggest that if we're not comfortable doing the interpretive work ourselves we should think twice about teaching? I suspect that sentiment won't be popular. It's fashionable these days to avoid using the word "teacher," preferring instead "facilitator," or "leader." I'm a little old school on this issue. Someone has to be teaching. Someone has to have done the work.

Bible study how-to books for women are readily available. Many want something written by women for women. I'm not familiar with all of the books directed to women, but I have read Kathleen Nielson's book Following the Ways of the Word. A book my hermeneutics professor suggested for a lay audience is called Journey into God's Word. I have not read it myself, but I hope to have a look at it somewhere down the line. Another of his recommended resources is How to Read the Bible for All Its Worth. I found that very helpful, and would recommend it. I have heard good things about Jen Wilkin's Women of the Word, but have not seen it myself. When you are shopping for one, do consider investing in a how-to book that takes into consideration the various genres found in the Bible. We can't approach prophecy in the same way we do an epistle, and those differences are important. Check out the table of contents of the books you are interested in. If you can afford it, buy more than one.

We have the God's word in our own language. What a privilege! Some people don't, and some people have only portions. With this treasure in our hands, shouldn't we study it to the best of our ability? Simply put, it means work. There is no getting around it. It won't come easy, but it will be worth the effort.