Monday, December 30, 2013

Keeping Christmas

...and it was always said of him, that he knew how to keep Christmas well....


There have been days - entire seasons, even - when I've thought I knew how to keep Christmas well. I've devoted myself to study the Incarnation, lit the Advent candles every night, listened to "O Holy Night" more than "Santa, Baby" and not gotten caught up in the hustle & bustle that December brings. Then there have been days - entire seasons, even - when the opposite has been true. I've been Lucy instead of Linus, making Christmas a production and forgetting that behind all that's shiny and bright lies a babe nestled in stiff straw surrounded by dirty animals and the lowliest of men. I have utterly failed at keeping Christmas well.

At the beginning of this Christmas season, I found myself somewhere in between. Then I read this excerpt that my fellow ordinary theologian Lisa shared at her blog. It has stuck with me ever since.

"In all the days when I’m filled with despair because of my sin, and when I can’t find God if my life depended on it; when I give up in fear, doubt, guilt, and despair, I have his righteousness–a righteousness that was lived out for me, on my behalf, and upon which I can rest. Oh, thank you, glorious God. Having loved us, he loved us to the end."

We often fail, and that's exactly why Christmas is so wonderful! Because of Christmas itself, there is grace when we do not keep Christmas well. Amazing grace, indeed!

As we close out 2013 and begin a new year, may we be filled with wonder at such marvelous grace and be ever grateful for it.

Monday, December 23, 2013

Merry Christmas



For to us a child is born,
to us a son is given;
and the government shall be upon his shoulder,
and his name shall be called
Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God,
Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace.

Isaiah 9:6

Merry Christmas from all of us at OOTO.

Friday, December 20, 2013

Confessions of a Christmas Curmudgeon

I have something of a reputation as a Christmas curmudgeon, one not entirely unwarranted, as Christmas seems to bring out the worst in me. I never intend for the holidays to culminate in me sobbing into the wrapping paper out of sheer exhaustion and frustration but, well, sometimes, many times, it happens.

I really love Christmas. Really. I do. Of course I love the baby Jesus and the miracle of the Incarnation. I also love giving gifts and spending time with family. I love sending and receiving Christmas cards. I love decorating our tree with treasured ornaments from my girlhood as well as ones made by the boys through the years. I love that I cook the same thing each Christmas Eve and I love that we eat it in the dining room with candlelight. I love when my husband reads the Christmas story from Luke 2 and I love the early morning excitement on Christmas Day.

But all is not always merry and bright, is it? Giving gifts isn’t just the giving of the gifts; it’s finding out exactly what the recipient wants and then purchasing that exact, perfect, completely un-surprising gift. Decorating the tree isn’t just decorating the tree; it’s seeing pictures of everyone else’s beautifully ornamented tree on Facebook and wondering if yours isn’t just little Charlie Brown-ish. And what about Christmas cards? You kind of like that picture of your family your sister snapped in your parents’ backyard, that is until you get the gorgeous card with the gorgeous family picture clearly made by a professional (and clearly touched up). Even cooking a meal becomes a competitive endeavor after just a quick perusal of Pinterest.

It’s not just me, is it? Surely you too feel the weight of the expectation of the perfect Christmas and your utter inability to go there. What will set us free from the endless cycle of frustration and failure that mars our Christmas celebration?

You know as well as I do: it’s the gospel. It’s the Christmas story itself. When the time had fully come, God sent His Son, why? To save His people from their sins. We could not, we cannot, save ourselves. To paraphrase Tim Keller, He had to come get us. Your Christmas failures, mine too, echo this truth: we need saving. You’re not enough and I’m not either and not only that but our pursuit of the perfect Christmas is really the worst form of idolatry. We think we’re making it all about Jesus when it’s really all about us. But, glory to God, Jesus saves the weak, the desperate, the not-enough, the failures, the idolaters, and the curmudgeons, yes and amen.


So stop trying to achieve Christmas perfection. You can’t anyway. Look instead to the baby in the manger and remember God’s sovereign rescue mission. He came to get you! Rest in this grace. Serve others out of this joy. Give good gifts because of this indescribable Gift of gifts. Worship Him and not the perfection of your Christmas. He alone is worthy!

Wednesday, December 18, 2013

Why Christ Came - To Seek and Save the Lost

And when Jesus came to the place, he looked up, and saw him, and said unto him, Zacchaeus, make haste, and come down; for to day I must abide at thy house… And Jesus said unto him, This day is salvation come to this house, forsomuch as he also is a son of Abraham. For the Son of man is come to seek and to save that which was lost.                   Luke 19:5, 9-10
A few weeks ago, our small group was discussing how Christ's first advent prepares us for His second. The pastor then posed a question: "Do we long for Christ's return?" One sister admitted that as much as she wants Jesus to come back, she wants Him to wait because some of her grandchildren aren't saved. I appreciated her honesty because this is something we can all relate to. We have family members and friends who have yet to put their faith in Christ. We've shared with them as best we can. We've prayed and wept, and our hearts ache for them.

During this season, we may be with loved ones who do not know the real Source of Christmas joy. But as long as there is time and breath, there is hope because this is one of the reasons Christ came - to seek and save the lost.

Many of God's people can remember what it was like to be without Christ, without hope, and without God in this world (Eph. 2:12). Some have lived this way in the world, while others were nurtured in the bosom of the church. Both types of people have the same sense that they are strangers to God and to grace.
Jesus came to seek these lost persons and save them. God in Christ is a seeker (Luke 15:3-6). Nineteenth-century British poet Francis Thompson affectionately refers to God as the "hound of heaven" in a poem by that name. The author recounts how he deliberately fled from God, but throughout his life he sensed he was being followed by feet that moved "with un-hurrying chase and unperturbed pace" to bring him to salvation. Without fail, God always gets His man.
When Christ came to Zacchaeus' tree, He called the little man by name. Given Zacchaeus' vocation as a tax collector, his name was probably often spoken in derision or disgust. But Jesus spoke his name with respect, enthusiasm, and purpose. No doubt to his own surprise, Zaccheus responded to Jesus hastily and joyfully (v. 6). The Lord knew Zacchaeus by name! And, by God's grace, Zacchaeus recognized the sound of his Shepherd's voice (John 10:16)!
Zacchaeus climbed a tree  out of curiosity to see Jesus. But God was drawing him up into the tree so that Christ might find him. Christ called him down from the tree to embrace him. That day Zaccheus came to know the life-changing experience of an anonymous poet:

I sought the Lord, and afterward I knew
He moved my soul to seek Him, seeking me.
It was not I that found, O Savior true;
No, I was found, was found of Thee.


Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation, Joel R. Beeke & William Boekestein, Reformation Heritage Books, 2013, pg. 62.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Eyes Wide Open

Taken from the archives of my former blog...

Christmas is tougher this year.

Not because there are fewer presents. There are still plenty.

Not because there are fewer decorations. The ones scattered among our home are the most meaningful.

Not because I didn't send Christmas cards. I stopped doing that years ago.

And not because the calendar is too full. Although, honestly, it's more full than I would like and I'm already committing that next year will be different.

Christmas is tougher because I've been reading about Katie's work in Uganda, watching Eric's video about our Depraved Indifference, thumbing through the Samaritan's Purse catalog, and thinking about all the Compassion children who need sponsors.  Feed the World comes on the radio, and I listen intently to the words -think of the children they're about - instead of trying to remember which popular singers took part in the Band Aid project.

I want to reach out to them.  Give until it hurts.  But my little drop in the bucket is just that. The truth is, no matter what I give, someone will still be hungry.  Someone will still be homeless. Someone will die from a curable disease or lack of clean water. Someone will still need Christ.

The need is overwhelming to me.  At times it crushes my chest so that I can barely breathe.  Tears well up and rain down my cheeks.  I don't understand.

Why them?

Why me?

Why do I get to sit on my sofa and look at these images through the veil of a laptop screen? 

Why do I get to put them out of sight and move on to the next thing? 

Why did you open my eyes to this hurt, Lord? 

And then I realize that, painful as it is, I do not want to go back. After the nativities are nestled safely in storage containers and the Christmas tree is boxed up for another year, I do not want to return to the world of comfortable oblivion. I want to keep walking toward my Savior, loving others as He instructs me to love them. To give from the ridiculous abundance I have been given.

The message of Christmas doesn't belong packed away with the decorations.  It must be lived out every day of the year.

Confession: I have failed at this miserably, but I press on toward the goal and praise God for His grace.

Friday, December 13, 2013

A Baby Is a Harmless Thing

Adoration of the Shepherds,  Gerard van Honthorst
A baby is a harmless thing
And wins our hearts with one accord,
And Flower of Babies was their King,
Jesus Christ our Lord:
Lily of lilies He
Upon His Mother’s knee;
Rose of roses, soon to be
Crowned with thorns on leafless tree.
A lamb is innocent and mild
And merry on the soft green sod;
And Jesus Christ, the Undefiled,
Is the Lamb of God:
Only spotless He
Upon his Mother’s knee;
White and ruddy, soon to be
Sacrificed for you and me.
Nay, lamb is not so sweet a word,
Nor lily half so pure a name;
Another name our hearts hath stirred,
Kindling them to flame:
‘Jesus’ certainly
Is music and melody:
Heart with heart in harmony
Carol we and worship we.
—Christina Rossetti

Wednesday, December 11, 2013

Born to Be a Curse

God made a promise (Genesis 12:1-3; Genesis 15:1-6). Abraham believed in the promise, and it was counted to him as righteousness (Genesis 15:6).

After that, God made a law (Exodus 20:1-17). The law came after the promise. The law did not nullify a covenant already ratified. There was a purpose for the law, but it wasn't the way to righteousness.

The promise Abraham believed was Jesus (Galatians 3:7-14). Before he details the birth of the child, Matthew is careful to establish that Jesus is the one they were waiting for (Matthew 1:1-16), the son of David, the son of Abraham. And while he was the child they were expecting, he was also born to be much more.

Paul, in his letter to the Galatians, exhorts the believers not to fall back on a system of the law, which came after the promise, and which cannot impart eternal life. In the third chapter, he reminds them in v. 10-14, that to fall back on the law is to return to a curse:
For all who rely on the works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, "Cursed be everyone who does not abide by the things written in the Book of the Law, and do them." Now it is evident that no one is justified before God by the law, for "The righteous shall live by faith." But the law is not of faith, rather "The one who does them shall live by them."  Christ redeemed us from the curse of the law by becoming a curse for us -- for it is written, "Cursed is everyone who is hanged on a tree" -- so that in Christ Jesus the blessing of Abraham might come to the Gentiles, so that we might receive the promised Spirit through faith.
Christ was born to be a curse. The sinless baby of Bethlehem, meek, vulnerable, and totally dependent upon his mother, came to be a curse.

Christ was not a curse because he hung on a tree, rather, he was hung on a tree because he was cursed by God:
The law's curse is God's curse because the law is God's law. Thus, Christ became an object of divine reprobation, cursed both by God and by his law.1
He was cursed when he bore the sin of the world, when his heavenly father turned his back on him as he hung on the cross (Matt. 27:45-50). Because he was the curse, we are no longer heirs of condemnation if we are in Christ. We are heirs of the promise.

Does that not just blow your mind when you think of it? How would I have felt, as a mother, after waiting nine months, when I finally held my beautiful baby in my arms was reminded that this child was born to be a curse? It touches us at the deepest parts of our hearts to think of that.

That is what it took to save us. God is a covenant-keeping God, and it was his intention to keep the one he'd made with Abraham; the one which would include us; the one that gave us access to God through faith.

When we welcome the Christ child into our hearts this season, let us remember the reality that he was born to do something that no one else in human history was born to do: to be a curse. He was born to be a curse for you and for me.

1. Philip Graham Ryken, Galatians ( Phillipsburg, NJ, 2005), p 117.

Monday, December 9, 2013

Dorothy Sayers on the Incarnation

From the essay "The Greatest Drama Ever Staged":
Official Christianity, of late years, has been having what is known as “a bad press.” We are constantly assured that the churches are empty because preachers insist too much upon doctrine—dull dogma as people call it. The fact is the precise opposite. It is the neglect of dogma that makes for dullness. The Christian faith is the most exciting drama that ever staggered the imagination of man—and the dogma is the drama. [p. 1]

He [Jesus] was not a kind of demon pretending to be human; he was in every respect a genuine living man. He was not merely a man so good as to be “like God”—he was God.

Now, this is not just a pious commonplace; it is not a commonplace at all. For what it means is this, among other things: that for whatever reason God chose to make man as he is—limited and suffering and subject to sorrows and death—he [God] had the honesty and courage to take his own medicine. Whatever game he is playing with his creation, he has kept his own rules and played fair. He can exact nothing from man that he has not exacted from himself. He has himself gone through the whole of human experience, from the trivial irritations of family life and the cramping restrictions of hard work and lack of money to the worst horrors of pain and humiliation, defeat, despair, and death. When he was a man, he played the man. He was born in poverty and died in disgrace and thought it well worthwhile. [p. 2]

So that is the outline of the official story—the tale of the time when God was the underdog and got beaten, when he submitted to the conditions he had laid down and became a man like the men he had made, and the men he had made broke him and killed him. This is the dogma we find so dull—this terrifying drama of which God is the victim and hero.

If this is dull, then what in Heaven’s name is worthy to be called exciting? The people who hanged Christ never, to do them justice, accused him of being a bore—on the contrary, they thought him too dynamic to be safe. It has been left for later generations to muffle up that shattering personality and surround him with an atmosphere of tedium. We have efficiently pared the claws of the Lion of Judah, certified him “meek and mild,” and recommended him as a fitting household pet for pale curates and pious old ladies. To those who knew him, however, he in no way suggested a milk-and-water person; they objected to him as a dangerous firebrand.

He was emphatically not a dull man in his human lifetime, and if he was God, there can be nothing dull about God either. But he had “a daily beauty in his life that made us ugly,” and officialdom felt that the established order of things would be more secure without him. So they did away with God in the name of peace and quietness. [pp. 4–5]

Dorothy Sayers, Letters to a Diminished Church, W Publishing Group, 2004.


Friday, December 6, 2013

Books as gifts

For Christmas one year my brother gave me a copy of John Piper's Don't Waste Your Life, a gift I greatly appreciated but I have to be honest, I couldn't help wonder if there was some sort of not-so-subtle message he was attempting to convey?

I kid.

Sort of.

I mean, I'm quite certain he did not think me wasting my life. Of course he didn't.

Anyway, I mention it because I love to give books as gifts. I actually don't give books as often as I'd like because, well, let's face it, some recipients are not the bibliophile I am and, if they are, I sometimes have a difficult time deciding what book to give. Maybe I'm not alone? Here's a few suggestions to jump start our book giving this year or perhaps to add to our own wish list.

For moms (and all women, really): Glimpses of Grace: Treasuring the Gospel in Your Home by Gloria Furman will encourage any woman no matter her stage of life or motherhood. Grace abounds even as we pursue the most ordinary of tasks.

For those wanting to get organized this new year: The Organized Heart: A Woman's Guide to Conquering Chaos by our own Staci Eastin. Actually, as I survey the chaos that surrounds me, I'm thinking I need to revisit this one myself. Does the gospel impact my lack of organization? You bet it does.

For the history buff: Hands down one of my favorite reads this year was Destiny of the Republic: A Tale of Madness, Medicine and the Murder of a President by Candice Millard. Utterly fascinating. Equally interesting: The Presidents Club: Inside the World's Most Exclusive Fraternity by Nancy Gibbs and Michael Duffy.

For the avid reader of literature: Booked: Literature in the Soul of Me by Karen Swallow Prior. Karen writes about a life of books with an English professor's passion. This memoir made me love the well-loved books of my childhood all the more.

Other book suggestions:

A devotional. I'm not very good at keeping up with a yearlong devotional but I really like those comprised of 30 or even 60 days' readings. Comforts from Romans: Celebrating the Gospel One Day at a Time and Comforts from the Cross: Celebrating the Gospel One Day at a Time, both by Elyse Fitzpatrick, are great.

Memoir. I highly recommend The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert by Rosaria Butterfield. What an amazing testimony to the saving grace of a sovereign God! Rosaria's story will blow your mind. Holy Is the Day: Living in the Gift of the Present by Carolyn Weber is another spiritual memoir I liked very much. And, for an old title but one I also thoroughly enjoyed, All Creatures Great and Small by James Herriot.

Fiction. It's tough to give a novel as a gift since preferences vary widely but in my opinion any fan of quality fiction would enjoy Hannah Coulter by Wendell Berry. So, so good. I cried at the end. Or, with the movie having recently released, The Book Thief by Markus Zusak is a good option (the writing! it's the writing!). 

The classics. Last year my son and his girlfriend gave me a copy of Pride and Prejudice, a book I've read hundreds of times and already own at least two copies. This particular edition from Anthropologie is hardback with deckle edges and an adorable book jacket. I love it. Similar editions of well loved classics are fantastic book gifts. 

A Bible. The Gospel Transformation Bible is on my wish list!

Can't decide? A gift certificate to Amazon or another bookstore is a thoughtful option!

What books do you like to give as gifts? Have you received a bookish gift that was particularly thoughtful? Let us know in the comments!

Wednesday, December 4, 2013

Why Christ Came - To Save Sinners

This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners; of whom I am chief. 1 Timothy 1:15
For then must he have suffered since the foundation of the world: but now once in the end of the world hath he appeared to put away sin by the sacrifice of himself. Hebrews 9:26

In Christ's first coming, He implemented a rescue plan conceived in the mind of God before the foundation of the world. He did not come to promote holiday cheer, boost end-of-year sales, or serve as the central figure in a nativity scene. He came to save sinners.

To save sinners, Christ had to put away what makes people sinners - namely, sin. At the dawn of man's history, sin, like an unwelcome virus, infected mankind early enough. But how could it be exterminated? God was already answering this question through the Old Testament sacrificial system. One of the main themes in the epistle to the Hebrews is the repetitious labors of the Old Testament priests. "And they truly were many priests, because they were not suffered to continue because of death" (Heb. 7:23) Morning and evening, priests placed burnt offerings for sin on an altar, the fire of which was never to go out (2 Chron. 13:11; Lev. 6:12).

Nonetheless, sins were not fully, extinguished through this system (Heb. 10:4). Old Testament sacrifices were merely a shadow, or copy of what was to come (Heb 9:23); thus, the priesthood of Aaron could have sacrificed burnt offerings for a million years without putting away a single sin. The writer of Hebrews says the seed of Adam needed a better priesthood to put away sins - a priesthood "after the order of Melchisedec" (Heb. 7:17; cf. Ps. 11-:4). Likewise, a better sacrifice offered in a better tabernacle was necessary. When a truly perfect sacrifice was offered in the tabernacle of heaven, sin would finally be put away…

Christ put away the sins of many first by carrying them to the cross, and then to the grave (Heb. 9:28). The sins of God's people were crucified and buried in Christ (Rom. 6:4-5). So fully has Christ purged the believer's sins that Hebrews 9:28 adds, "Unto them that look for him shall he appear the second time without sin unto salvation." How staggering is the thought that we can eagerly anticipate the return of the Savior who was wounded of our transgressions!

Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations of the Incarnation, Joel R. Beeke & William Boekestein, Reformation Heritage Books, 2013, pp. 5-6.

Monday, December 2, 2013

The Purpose of the Incarnation

Once again it is time to turn our hearts toward the Incarnation, God become man. As we here at Out of the Ordinary examine our hearts to prepare Him room, we'll once again be blogging a little differently. While we step back from our usual fare, we pray that our offerings here will magnify His Name and help you celebrate the wonder of Christmas.

I do not know why it is, but we often lose a sense of purpose in telling the Christmas story. We focus so much on the birth of the baby and on the sentiment that goes with that story - and there is a certain amount of legitimate sentimentality that goes with it - that we miss the most important things. Actually, the story is treated quite simply in Scripture, and the emphasis is always on the fact that Jesus came to die. The Lord Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, took a human body in order that He might die for our salvation...The Lord Jesus Christ came into this world with a purpose, and that purpose was to do God's will: to be our Savior. We miss the most important thing about Christmas if we fail to see that.
~James Montgomery Boice, The Christ of Christmas (19-20)

Friday, November 29, 2013

Honoring Number One

I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.

You shall have no other gods before me. (Exodus 20:2-3 ESV)
All of God’s commands are important, but this is number one.

To keep the commandment to worship the Lord our God and no other god, we need to know him as he has revealed himself. When our view of God is skewed, it isn’t quite the one true God we are holding in our minds when we worship. To the extent that our view of God is different than his self-revelation, we are  “exchanging the truth of God for a lie” (Romans 1:25)—and that's idolatry. This is why the Westminster Larger Catechism lists ignorance and misapprehensions of God right beside unbelief and misbelief in the list of sins forbidden by the first commandment.

We can't excuse our ignorance of God by thinking there's no use trying to understand what he is like him because he is incomprehensible. It is true that God is incomprehensible. He’s infinite and we have pea brains. R. C. Sproul says we are like infants struggling to understand a genius.1 We will never, ever, not in a million years or eternity, understand the whole of who and what God is.

But God identifies himself to his people immediately before he gives this command. “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of the land of Egypt . . . .”  The incomprehensible God tells them something about himself, something he has done for them, something they can understand, so they can focus on him when they worship. They could know him, not fully, but truly, because of his self-revelation.

We have even less excuse for ignorance than the Israelites did, because in all of scripture, God is defining himself for us. In the Bible, says Sproul, the genius is speaking to the infant in the infant’s own terms.2 God condescends to speak to us in language we can understand. We can know him, never fully, but truly, because he tells us about himself and his works.

It’s always worth the effort it takes to understand God’s revelation of himself, because the more we learn of his character and actions, the more we are able to see him as he really is. The more we know, the more it is the one true God we hold in our minds when we worship. 

Have you ever heard someone say that obedience matters more than theology? I have—and it's a silly statement. Commandment number one makes knowledge of God, or theology, fundamental to obedience. Obedience starts with theology—knowing what can be known about God, what he has shown to us (Romans 1:19)—so there is less idolatry and more truth in our service.

1R. C. Sproul, Truths We Confess 
2Same as above

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Astonished

He was astonished. The New American Standard says he was "amazed."

Paul, the apostle, after a very brief introduction, jumps right into his letter to the Galatians with the declaration that he was astonished.

Astonished by what? He was astonished, he says, "that you are so quickly deserting him who called you into the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel" (v.6).  Where was this false gospel coming from? Troublemakers, those who wanted "to distort" the gospel (Gal. 1:6-9).

He gets even more forceful, ending this paragraph (v.6-9) with the impassioned words:
But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one preached to you, let him be accursed. As we have said before, so now I say again: If anyone is preaching to you a gospel contrary to the one you received, let him be accursed.
Two times he uses the word "accursed." The NIV says, "under a curse." It's basically calling down an anathema on anyone who preaches a false gospel; serious business.

Whose gospel did the Galatians believe? They believed God's gospel, given by Christ to the apostles, including Paul himself. Paul spends the remainder of this chapter and part of chapter 2 defending himself against charges that he did not preach the real gospel. The opponents of Paul wanted to add something to the gospel, in this case, adherence to the law. Paul reminds them in Gal. 2:15-16 that no works of the law will save anyone. In fact, he repeats this sentiment three times in verse 16 alone.

Would you recognize a false gospel if one were presented to you? False teachers are generally quite subtle. They don't walk up to you and say, "Hey, want to buy into a distorted gospel?" John Stott reminds us that the danger is actually within the church:
The church's greatest troublemakers (now as then) are not those outside who oppose, ridicule, and persecute it, but those inside who try to change the gospel. It is they who trouble the church.
The Galatians received the gospel verbally through the apostles. We receive the gospel today through the apostles' teaching as transmitted through the Word of God. The long and short of it is that if you don't know the bible, you won't know the gospel. We either believe the gospel as revealed in Scripture or we believe in a false one.

Do we know the gospel well? Would we be able to discern whether or not someone was adding something to it? Would we add something to it ourselves?  Do we let our pet moral behaviours, or our cultural preferences become extra requirements for our justification?

Do we know more about culture issues, church government issues, contemporary worship issues, or gender issues than we do about the gospel? It's okay to know about those things, but they aren't the gospel. Understanding the gospel is a life or death matter; eternal life or eternal death. More than ever, in a day when competing "truths" abound, we need to uphold the truth of the gospel. We need to know it, and protect its purity. We need to be bold, like Paul.

Monday, November 25, 2013

A Blank Check

In the youth small group I help lead, we’ve been working through Follow Me by David Platt. It’s been a good study so far.

A recent lesson talked about giving God a blank check with our lives. It’s a biblical concept. If God is God, and we owe everything to him, we must be willing to follow him wherever he leads. It’s picking up our crosses and dying to ourselves.

But once again, I was struck by how instantly we assume “blank check” equals “big ministry.” Part of this is the metaphor, but we tend to make these assumptions regardless. I surrender all. Here am I send me! And when we say that, we assume that we will be sent.

Most of us aren’t, though. We push the blank check across the counter to God, only to be miffed if he writes “nursery duty” in the line. We tend to assume we will be sent to do something public, but most of us will be quite ordinary. We are making casseroles for new moms and preparing the communion trays. So many little tasks need to be done for the church. So many ways we need to love those in our local church body. So many people in our neighborhoods and towns who think Christianity is just a list of dos and don’ts, who need to be told the good news of the gospel.

I’ve written on this before, and I’m sure I’ll write on it again. Anywhere, anything. Even if it’s humble, and even if it’s never noticed. But it’s never unnoticed by the One who calls us.

I like how Nate Palmer puts it in his book, Servanthood as Worship:
The call to servanthood is a call to worship God by serving others with joy, even when we are not thanked, even if we are mocked, and sometimes even when it seems our service does no actual good. In the absence of recognition, reward, or results, we can be satisfied with what God has done already, what he has promised to do, and whatever he may choose 
to do in the future. With regard to ourselves, God’s ultimate treasure and reward—eternal salvation—has already been given to us through Christ. Can we really ask more of God than this? With regard to those whom we serve, God has promised to make our efforts fruitful in his own time and his own way— one plants, another waters, but God gives the increase.
Our satisfaction should come from God, not in whether our ministries, however humble they may be, are noticed or even, to our assessment, as fruitful as we hope.

So neither he who plants nor he who waters is anything, but only God who gives the growth. (1 Corinthians 3:7)

Friday, November 22, 2013

Being in the Word every day

It's the kind of email every Bible teacher loves to receive from one of her students. "I have a question for you," it read. "I struggle with being in the Word every single day. Is there any direction you can offer me to help? I'm open for all suggestions."

Back last summer, a friend and I were tossing ideas back and forth about what I could teach for the upcoming fall session of Bible study. We kept returning to the prophets and I expressed doubt--well founded doubt--on my ability to adequately teach such an intimidating subject. Finally, my friend and I decided that our goal for our particular group was a simple one: to encourage women to love the Word of God. If just one woman, we agreed between ourselves, if just one woman leaves a lesson on on the prophets curious to know more about the Word then, well, we will consider our time well spent.

So I get this email. And I pause and in great humility I praise the Lord for His grace and faithfulness--this is what we asked Him for!--and then I type my response. Here is how I sought to encourage this sweet, eager student of the Word...

You are not alone! I think we all struggle with consistently spending time studying and meditating on God's Word. I know I do! I'm not sure exactly what you are looking for, but here's a couple of things I do/have done. 
Read through the Bible. There are all sorts of Bible reading plans out there! Just a simple google search will turn up tons. So many times we put this off until January 1 but there's no magic in beginning at the new year nor even in beginning in Genesis 1 for that matter! There are plans that are just the gospels, just the New Testament, two year plans, six month plans, etc. Find a plan that appeals to you and begin today. Just reading the Word and gaining a "big picture" perspective as well as increased familiarity have been greatly encouraging to me.
Work through studies and books that have a daily Scripture reading and questions. Here are a couple I'm familiar with and highly recommend:
Memorize Scripture. This is something I'm not very good at but really want to be better. When I do try to be more diligent, I use Desiring God's Fighter Verses app for my phone but again there are probably multiple scripture memory helps out there. I like that there are several memorization tools within the app as well as various tracks to choose from. For instance you can memorize whole sections of Scripture and the app breaks it down into weekly memory verses. 
Remember what your goal is. Sometimes I get so hung up on checking the little boxes for my daily reading plan or memory verse and feeling so guilty when I miss that I tend to just give up altogether. I have to ask myself: is the point really reading Bible through in a year...or is it to know the Word and thereby to know God and to love Him more? If its the second then I can repent for missing yesterday (and the day before and the day before and...) and set my heart to seek Him TODAY. True confessions: I totally dropped the ball for a couple of months this summer. Ok, more than that. I picked back up with October's reading (totally skipping all those books of the Bible I was supposed to have read before) and, yet, still, today I read the entry for October 27. :) But there is grace, much grace, and the Lord promises to meet the seeking heart with Himself. He is so good! 
Hope that helps! If not, email me back and ask me more questions. I love questions like this and it encourages me more than you know!

How much do I love God's Word and how much do I love seeing others grow in that same desire! May the Lord grant us all a hunger to grow in the knowledge of Him through the diligent study of His Word!

What encouragement would you offer to someone eager to spend time in God's Word more consistently?

Wednesday, November 20, 2013

A Hospitable Heart

I was recently convicted about my hospitality or lack thereof. I find it intimidating because I associate it with having a large home, a big dining room table, a love for decorating and cooking, and being an extrovert. Based on this ideal, which is largely a product of Martha Stewart phobia and Pinterest insecurity, I've failed because I don't fit any of those categories very well. So I guess I have an easy out, right? No. The Word won't let me off the hook that readily:

Contribute to the needs of the saints and seek to show hospitality. Romans 12:13
Above all, keep loving one another earnestly, since love covers a multitude of sins. Show hospitality to one another without grumbling. As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God's varied grace. 1 Peter 4:8-10

Notice the Bible says nothing about the picture-perfect quality of the hospitality, but it does talk about loving and serving the saints. And this is where my problem lies. I've been focused on the outward and lost sight of what drives hospitality - the heart.

When I think about God in terms of hospitality, He is the ultimate host of hosts. We weren't fit to sit at His table, and what does He do? He sends His Son to bear the punishment for the sin that separated us. Jesus lived the life we could never live so we could stand before God clothed in His righteousness. We aren't even invited as guests for a bit and then sent on our way. God has adopted us as His own to live with Him forever.

So if I keep the gospel in the forefront, then hospitality is nothing less than showing God's generosity in Christ to others. 

This is freeing, isn't it? It frees me from keeping up with the Marthas because there's something greater I can offer than the fanciest gourmet meal or the poshest home. God has poured out His love into my heart, and by His grace, I can share that same love even if it's with a cup of cold water in Jesus' name. This also frees me from the comparison trap. You may be able to prepare a wonderful feast for 50 and a 9 x 13 tater-tot casserole may be more my style. But if our hands are fueled by God's love in our hearts, that's what matters. 

And if I may say so, it's a good thing.

Monday, November 18, 2013

What About Giving Thanks?

My childhood home was always the last in the neighborhood to be decorated for Christmas - or so it seemed. We had two neighbors who decked their halls and yards on the day after Thanksgiving every year. Other families would watch them in wonder, silently judging their premature and gaudy decorations. Even though our decorations were modest, our home still seemed so different at Christmas. I would plead with Daddy to allow us to decorate before December 15th. I don't remember that he ever relented.

The abundance of  gaudy decorations my neighbors displayed would be considered sparse by today's standards. Decorating the day after Thanksgiving is customary, but even waiting that long seems to be going out of fashion. Black Friday dawns before sunset on Thanksgiving Day. Radio stations begin playing Christmas music on November 1st.

As the Christmas season has been extended, the season for giving thanks has been pushed aside. Who can blame retailers? Thanksgiving doesn't boast the magic of elves or the fun of dressing up to collect candy. Tucked quietly between the two largest commercial holidays of the year, a day set apart to purposefully remember our blessings seems provincial and prosaic.

How things have changed since Gorham D. Abbott penned these words in 1833:
"When first New England was planted, the settlers met with many difficulties and hardships, as is necessarily the case when a civilized people attempt to establish themselves in a wilderness-country. Being piously disposed, they sought relief from Heaven, by laying their needs and distresses before the Lord in frequent set days of fasting and prayer. Constant meditation, and discourse on the subject of their difficulties, kept their minds gloomy and discontented; and, like the children of Israel, there were many disposed even to return to that Egypt which persecution had determined them to abandon.

"At length, when it was proposed in the assembly to proclaim another fast, a farmer, of plain sense, rose and remarked, that the inconveniences they suffered, and concerning which they had so often wearied Heaven with their complaints, were not so great as might have been expected, and were diminishing every day as the colony strengthened; that the earth began to reward their labors, and to furnish liberally for their sustenance; that the seas and rivers were full of fish, the air sweet, the climate wholesome; above all, they were in the full enjoyment of liberty, civil and religious. He therefore thought, that reflecting and conversing on these subjects would be more comfortable, as tending to make them more contented with their situation; and that it would be more becoming the gratitude they owed to the Divine Being, if, instead of a fast, they should proclaim a thanksgiving. His advice was taken; and from that day to this, they have in every year observed circumstances of public happiness sufficient to furnish employment for a thanksgiving-day, which is therefore constantly ordered and religiously observed." (source, italics mine)

We have forgotten how to give our humble thanks.

Instead, we move from Halloween straight to Christmas, spending countless hours and untold sums of money on celebrations that shout Look at me! and Give to me!

We're so concerned about getting more that we fail to give thanks for what we already have.

Social media is brimming with posts expressing gratitude for being able to serve others (e.g., "Today I'm thankful I can cook dinner for my friend who just had a baby AND watch her twin toddlers all afternoon. #thanksgiving").  The right hand tells not only the left hand, but the entire world, what it's doing. (see Matthew 6:1-4)

A narcissistic culture is quick to call attention to and appreciate itself.

Yet there is but one source for all our blessings.  "Do not be deceived, my beloved brothers. Every good gift and every perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father of lights with whom there is no variation or shadow due to change." (James 1:16-17)

Does our thanksgiving acknowledge Him? Not just the holiday, when we stuff ourselves with food and football. Does our giving of thanks demonstrate our awareness that without Him we would be utterly lost -  physically, emotionally, and spiritually?

I love Christmas. The lights, the decorations, the carols, and the evening rhythm of Advent readings all bring joy to my soul. I can hardly wait to celebrate the Incarnation. What better way to usher in that season than to take time to earnestly and deliberately give Him thanks? 

And as Lisa wrote so beautifully, "...may this discipline of thanksgiving mark us as God's people and may we be a grateful people whose joy extends far beyond the month of November."


Some people seem to think that if they set apart certain definite days for praise, it is enough. For example, they will be grateful for a whole day once in the year—thinking that this is the way God wants them to show their gratitude. But the annual Thanksgiving Day is not intended to gather into itself the thanksgiving for a whole year; rather it is intended to give the keynote for all the year's life. Life's true concert pitch, is praise. If we find that we are below the right pitch, we should take advantage of particular thanksgiving seasons to get keyed up. That is the way people do with their pianos—they have them tuned now and then, when the strings get slack and the music begins to grow discordant—and it is quite as important to keep our life in tune as our piano. - J.R. Miller (source)

Friday, November 15, 2013

Vocational Thanksgiving

Two years ago I did a short study of the doctrine of vocation, which teaches us that all labor is a divine calling and a means by which God works his providential care for creation. It changed my attitude toward my own work. Who can resent a task that is God's chosen way to do his benevolent work in our world? Even my  routine chores have meaning if they are a calling from God.

What's more, understanding the doctrine of vocation changed how I think about those whose jobs provide a service to me. Yesterday, for instance, the Purolator man delivered a parcel to my place. It was addressed to my son, and heavy—too heavy to ship by Canada Post. He wheeled the parcel to the garage door and left it there, because he knows that the big stuff goes in the garage/shop that houses my son's business. Later, the mailman delivered two more packages, a book for me to review, and a tool for my son. These are two people whose labor make my life—and the lives of those around me—better.

The doctrine of vocation teaches me that when they delivered their parcels, these men were wearing the "mask of God," to use a phrase from Martin Luther. We might say God was hiding himself in their work, whether they knew it or not. He was caring for me and mine through them. They are his good gifts to me, along with all the other people whose jobs make my life better.

During this season, as I practice the discipline of thanksgiving, I'm trying to remember to thank God for the ordinary people whose labor serves me. Thinking through my day, besides the two men mentioned above, I'm thankful for 
  • the workers in my grocery store. God provides my food through them. 
  • the farm workers who grow and harvest fruit and vegetables and the truck drivers who transport them to my grocery store. God feeds me through their labor, too.
  • those who maintain our winter roads, who are God's means to keep me safe as I drive.
There are more, but let's make this a cooperative exercise of thanksgiving. What workers are you thankful for? Whose labour does God use to provide good things for you? Tell us, and thank God for them, in the comments.

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Two books for newlyweds

These recommendations might surprise you. They aren't the typical books one would recommend to newlyweds. However, they both discuss important issues that will affect marriage and family.

The first is Kevin DeYoung's Crazy Busy.  This book discusses a problem many seem to have: being too busy. It is a very personal book, with DeYoung using his own struggle with busyness as a platform. He is careful to emphasize that he has not figured it all out yet. It is a brief, easy read.

The book highlights seven different things that might contribute to our busyness. The last chapter is an exhortation to be in the Word. Three dangers to being overly busy are: it ruins our joy, it can rob our hearts, and third, it can cover up the rot of our souls. DeYoung is clear: busyness is a heart issue. Everyone has the same amount of time in a day, but the tendency to being too busy reflects what's going on inside.

I really liked what he said here:
Busyness is like a sin: kill it, or it will be killing you. Most of us fall into a predictable pattern. We start to get overwhelmed by one or two big projects. Then we feel crushed by the daily grind. Then we despair of ever feeling peace again and swear that something has to change. Then two weeks later life is more bearable, and we forget about our oath until the cycle starts all over again. What we don't realize is that all the while we've been a joyless wretch, snapping like a turtle and as a personally engaging as a cat. When busyness goes after joy, it goes after everyone's joy.
We cannot be fooled into thinking that as wives and mothers (or even sisters or daughters) that being overly busy won't affect other relationships. It will.

Some others who reviewed the book were disappointed by the last chapter, because it lacked a "how to fix it" section. Instead, it was suggested that to begin tackling the problem, the one thing we can do is to be in Scripture regularly. I was not disappointed by this exhortation; in fact, I thought it was wise. For him to say that he had this issued nailed down may have been very premature. DeYoung did not indicate that he had figured it all out, and finished his book in keeping with that understanding. To provide a prescription for others who battle being too busy really is not possible aside from a very general recommendation, which he gave.

The other book I would recommend is  The Organized Heart, which is by our own Staci Eastin. It dovetails nicely with DeYoung's book. Staci's book, like DeYoung's, addresses the issue from a heart perspective. Just like our tendency to take on things and become busy is a heart issue, so is how we cope with our busy lives. The heart issues which can influence our organization are perfectionism, possessions, leisure, and yes, busyness. Busyness can be why we are disorganized.

In the chapter about busyness, Staci asks the question "What does fear of man have to do with my calendar?" Plenty. Sometimes, our busyness is about being liked:
Women who agree to do too much are often driven by the desire to be liked... Fear of man indicates we find our worth in pleasing others than than pleasing God. Instead of working to bring glory to God, we hope to bring glory to ourselves.
It is crucial that our motive for taking things on is to be obedient to God's calling, and ultimately to bring Him glory, not because of the fear of men.

Sometimes, avoiding the trap of being busy is simply a matter of learning to say "no" without fearing that others will not like it. I realize that sounds simplistic, but I have been in a position where I was too busy.  There are times when it is indeed a matter of just biting the bullet and saying that two letter word.

It is much easier to prevent becoming too busy than it is to find oneself buried under, and having to climb out. This is why I would recommend these two books. They both encourage the reader to evaluate his heart. Busyness doesn't happen because we're married; the seeds are there when we get to the altar and will be brought into the marriage. Young couples can be encouraged to think about these things before they become problematic. There is a lot more to planning for marriage than putting together a wedding and setting up housekeeping.

We don't have to do it all. God doesn't expect us to. But what he does expect from us is to be good stewards of what he gives us: our homes, our families, our children, and our vocation. If we consider those things at the beginning of our married lives, it might not be so hard to manage later.

Monday, November 11, 2013

Testimony

When I was about ten, a friend of mine asked me why Jesus died on the cross. I repeated the answer I had heard countless times, "Jesus died on the cross for our sins."

She heaved an exasperated sigh. "I know that's what the answer's supposed to be, but what does that mean?"

Her question stumped me, because to be honest, I didn't really know. But I didn't want to admit that to her. "You know," I bluffed. "He died for us. For the forgiveness of sins."

The thing is, both of us had grown up in church. Both of us had heard the gospel countless times. But we couldn't explain it at all—other than parroting back an answer we didn't understand.

I continued like that for quite awhile. While I did start to understand that Christ's death was a punishment that I deserved, I didn't let that truth change my life. If I ever felt convicted for my sinfulness, I took a quick tally of "good" things I had done. Like many people, I hoped that the good would somehow outweigh the bad. Like a lot of teenagers, I believed it would be easier not to sin when I grew up. And if I did meet some tragic fate, I also hoped I would have time to ask forgiveness before I breathed my last. Just in case.

And then in college, things quit working for me. It seems absurd to type the things that were going wrong at the time, but for my relatively charmed life, they seemed big. The boy I liked transferred schools and forgot about me before the college had faded in his rearview mirror. A fraternity picked my closest friends as their sweethearts but didn't pick me. Even then I knew that these things weren't real tragedies, but I no longer had anything to distract myself from the facts: I was a sinner, and I couldn't seem to fix it.

One Sunday in the midst of this dull, gray semester, I went to church. I didn't see much point in it, but I was a nice girl, and that's what nice girls did. And sometime during the sermon, I got it. I realized that if I could stop sinning on my own, then Jesus wouldn't have had to die. I understood for the first time the meaning of a word I had known and sung about my whole life: grace.

It's common for people like me to assume that the first time we accepted the gospel was the first time we heard it. But I know better. I was no doubt told the gospel hundreds and hundreds of times. I even remember thinking that it couldn't really be that easy. Surely there's something that I need to do. But no, I just needed to accept the gift.

Now I teach the youth at my church. Every now and then I'll ask them questions. How many of you think it will be easier to stop sinning when you're an adult? How many are worried that you'll die before you get a chance to ask God to forgive you? How many of you try to remind yourself of good things you've done when you feel bad about the bad things you've done? Sometimes a brave soul will even raise her hand.

But always, every chance I get, I tell them. I tell them that yes, they are sinners and they can't fix it. There is a solution, though. It's Jesus. He lived the life they should have lived and died the death they should have died. But he gives grace. It's a free gift that they just need to accept.

Some of them accepted this truth long ago. I rejoice for them, and remind them of the gospel they still need to hear. Some of them probably don't get it. Some of them might decide someday that they were never told. But sometimes, a hurt, humbled heart will be sitting in front of me, and they will be ready to hear why what they're doing isn't working. And since I don't know when that day will be, I tell them every chance I get.

Friday, November 8, 2013

#novemberthanksgiving

So it's November. Leaves are falling, basketball season beckons, and stores are pushing all things...Christmas?

Poor Thanksgiving. It's the forgotten holiday, at least in terms of retail marketing. On Facebook and Twitter, however, there is much giving of thanks in this, the month of November. Some of us are deliberate in our thanksgiving, listing a blessing a day in the days leading up to Thanksgiving itself. Others of us share our thanksgiving more spontaneously, tweeting that for which we are grateful with the hashtag #novemberthanksgiving. Others of us have been more careful with our thanksgiving lists, cataloging thousands of gifts not just in November but throughout the year.

These are good practices. I love reading what you are thankful for and I find that your gratitude is contagious. In fact the discipline of thanksgiving has proved to be personally instructive. Here are some of the lessons I am learning as I give thanks this month...

1. As I thank the Lord for His good gifts to me, I am submitting myself to His sovereignty. He is the Giver of all good things and graciously blesses according to His good pleasure. My thanksgiving is meaningless apart from acknowledging that His provision is first of all from Him and not only good but according to His sovereign plan for me.

2. As I determine to identify the Lord's blessings and thank Him specifically, I see the abundance of His grace and I not only revel in it, I rest in it. He is so, so good and my gratitude prompts humble contentment. I am blessed beyond measure; what more do I need? He is enough and He is everything.

3. And so I find joy in the Lord and not in the stuff He has given. This seems a little counterintuitive at first. I mean, I'm acknowledging the stuff He gave, aren't I then finding joy in that stuff? Perhaps sometimes. But as the first point above reminds me, He gives and He is good. Gratitude for His goodness to me causes me to joy in Him, the Giver, and to see that nothing compares to the indescribable gift of Jesus. He is better! The gifts are mere tools that serve the purpose of pointing me to the true treasure of this life, Jesus Christ my Lord!

Whether you post your thanksgiving or tweet it with an accompanying hashtag, whether your gratitude is marked by a list of a thousand gifts or if you whisper your thanks in private prayer, may this discipline of thanksgiving mark us as God's people and may we be a grateful people whose joy extends far beyond the month of November. 



Wednesday, November 6, 2013

The turns in life which try our spirits

Have you ever wondered why believers still struggle with sin? Or to bring it home, why you struggle with sin? It would be so much easier for God and for all of us if we overcame sin once and for all in this life. But is it possible that in His sovereignty, He uses this on-going fight for His glory and our good?1

Here are some thoughts by John Newton:

The Lord appoints occasions and turns in life, which try our spirits. There are particular seasons when temptations are suited to our frames, tempers, and situations; and there are times when he is pleased to withdraw, and to permit Satan's approach, that we may feel how vile we are in ourselves. We are prone to spiritual pride, to self-dependence, to vain confidence, to creature attachments, and a train of evils. The Lord often discovers to us one sinful disposition by exposing us to another. He sometimes shows us what he can do for us and in us; and at other times how little we can do, and how unable we are to stand without him. 
By a variety of these exercises, through the over-ruling and edifying influences of the Holy Spirit, 'B' [the maturing believer] is trained up in a growing knowledge of himself and of the Lord. He learns to be more distrustful of his own heart, and to suspect a snare in every step he takes. The dark and disconsolate hours which he has brought upon himself in times past, make him doubly prize the light of God's countenance, and teach him to dread whatever might grieve the Spirit of God, and cause him to withdraw again. The repeated and multiplied pardons which he has received, increase his admiration of, and the sense of his obligations to, the rich sovereign abounding mercy of the covenant. Much has been forgiven him, therefore he loves much, and therefore he knows how to forgive and pity others. He does not call evil good, or good evil; but his own experiences teach him tenderness and forbearance. He exercises a spirit of meekness towards those who are overtaken in a fault; and his attempts to restore such, are according to the pattern of the Lord's dealings with himself.2
                                                                                                                                         
1. Extravagant Grace: God's Glory Displayed in Our Weakness, Barbara Duguid, P&R Publishing, 2013, pp 51-61.
2. Letters of John Newton, Banner of Truth Trust, 1965, pg. 22. Online letter here. (italics mine)

(Adapted from a previous blog post.)

Monday, November 4, 2013

A Prayer for Monday

MY GOD,
I bless thee that thou hast given me the eye of faith,
   to see thee as Father,
   to know thee as a covenant God,
   to experience thy love planted in me.
For faith is the grace of union
   by which I spell out my entitlement to thee:
Faith casts my anchor upwards where I trust in thee
   and engage thee to be my Lord.
Be pleased to live and move within me,
   breathing in my prayers,
   inhabiting my praises,
   speaking in my words,
   moving in my actions,
   living in my life,
   causing me to grow in grace.
Thy bounteous goodness has helped me believe,
   but my faith is weak and wavering,
     its light dim,
     its steps tottering,
     its increase slow,
     its backslidings frequent;
It should scale the heavens,
   but lies grovelling in the dust.
Lord, fan this divine spark into glowing flame.
When faith sleeps, my heart becomes an unclean thing,
   the fount of every loathsome desire,
   the cage of unclean lusts all fluttering to escape,
   the noxious tree of deadly fruit,
   the open wayside of earthly tares.
Lord, awake faith to put forth its strength
   until all heaven fills my soul
     and all impurity is cast out.


Friday, November 1, 2013

Dying Well with Flavel

The internet is full of articles on dying well. Primarily, what is meant by dying well is having a "good death,"—dying with one's affairs in order, without needless physical suffering, and surrounded by loved ones. This kind of good death happens when this world's problems (pain, loneliness, etc.) are alleviated at the end of one's life.

Aiming for this kind of good death is an honorable objective. I know from my experience caring for a dying loved one that having adequate pain medications, organized finances, and the presence of family and close friends is a blessing to someone facing death.

But when the Puritans spoke of dying well, they were looking beyond the physical realm to the spiritual one. For them, to die well was to die in a state of peace with God, anticipating the joy of being forever with Christ. Dying was something they prepared for by living what J. I. Packer calls "the forward-tilted life"—a life lived with the mind focused on "the ultimate destination."1

Flavel's List
In his book Keeping the Heart, the Puritan John Flavel lists five truths for dying well. He calls them "considerations calculated to help the people of God  . . .  keep their hearts loose from all earthly objects, and cheerfully willing to die."

First, he writes, consider that "death is harmless to the people of God." Yes, death is unnatural: the process of dying can be painful, and in death we will be temporarily separated from our body and from those we love. But Flavel reminds us that for the believer, death will not be a precursor to God's wrath, but the gateway to heaven. "Why," he asks, "should you be afraid?"

Second, bear in mind that "death is necessary to fit [us] for the full enjoyment of God." Paul says "while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord," but once we leave our body behind in death, we will be "at home with the Lord" (2 Corinthians 5:6-8). The way into the fullness of Christ's presence is through the doorway of death.

Third, Flavel writes, "the happiness of heaven commences immediately after death." Yes, we will wait until the resurrection for our glorified bodies, but we will immediately be with Christ, which, Paul reminds us, "is far better" than the life we have now (Philippians 1:23).

Fourth, remember that "by death, God often removes his people out of the way of great troubles and temptations." In this sin-cursed world, every life has its share of difficulties: our bodies fail; we suffer losses; we constantly struggle with sin. Death is God's way of releasing us from "innumerable evils and burdens which are inseparable from the present state."

And last, trust that "God can accomplish by other hands what you desire to do further here." The God who "upholds the widow and the fatherless" (Psalm 146:9) can be trusted with all of our unfinished business.

Learning from the Puritans
I lived the the first forty years of my life in material comfort, untouched by serious illness or death—and that isn't unusual. Our circumstances allow us to ignore death's reality until something catastrophic happens, and then we are caught off guard, spiritually unprepared to be at peace in the face of death.

The Puritans, on the other hand, lived in death's shadow. They frequently experienced physical suffering, hardship, and the early deaths of family members and friends. These constant reminders of the inevitability of death moved them to spiritually prepare themselves for it. Thinking about their "ultimate destination" was more natural for them than it is for us.

But death is as inevitable for us as it was for them. If we're wise, we'll prepare for it, too.
Puritans like Flavel can help us learn how to live a "forward-tilted life"—a life focused on the joy of being forever with the Lord.

1Puritan Portraits by J. I. Packer, page 89.

Wednesday, October 30, 2013

The Last Word on Worship

Here we are at the end of a month of posts focused on worship. I'm so thankful for my fellow bloggers, and our guest writers who contributed to the discussion. It's an important topic.

That being said, there is always a temptation to talk something to death. When it comes to worship discussions, with the emotion that frequently accompanies them, we may risk talking more about worship than actually doing it. So much has been written about it and continues to be written about it; we may be tempted to immerse ourselves in the debates surrounding it to the detriment of our own worship.

I like what D.A. Carson says in Worship By the Book. This volume, edited by Carson, has essays from Tim Keller, R. Kent Hughes, and Mark Ashton. Carson's contribution discusses the theology of worship.

Carson gives a detailed definition of worship and then proceeds to discuss each element. He reminds us that the object of our worship is our Creator-God, and that we worship him because "he is worthy, delightfully so." He goes on:
What ought to make worship delightful to us is not, in the first instance, its novelty or its aesthetic beauty, but its object: God himself is delightfully wonderful, and we learn to delight in him. 
In an age increasingly suspicious of (linear) thought, there is much more respect for the "feeling" of things - whether a film or a church service. It is disturbingly easy to plot surveys of people, especially young people, drifting from a church of excellent preaching and teaching to one with excellent music because, it is alleged, there is "better worship there." But we need to think carefully about this matter. Let us restrict ourselves for the moment to corporate worship. Although there are things that can be done to enhance corporate worship, there is a profound sense in which excellent worship cannot be attained merely by pursuing excellent worship. In the same way that, according to Jesus you cannot find yourself until you lose yourself, so also you cannot find excellent corporate worship until you stop trying to find excellent corporate worship and pursue God himself. Despite the protestations, one sometimes wonders if we are beginning to worship worship rather than worship God. As a brother put it to me, it's a bit like those who begin by admiring the sunset and soon begin to admire themselves admiring the sunset.
It all comes back full circle to God himself. How can we worship what we don't know? We must know God, and to know God, we must seek him as he reveals himself.  It does us no good to know more about the "wars" of worship than we do about the object of worship.

Monday, October 28, 2013

When We Gather Together

This post is adapted from a post that originally appeared on my blog. I had started this post before I read Persis's excellent post that covered similar ground. Here's my take on the subject.

When it comes to the music we use in worship, I can honestly say I have no real preference. I grew up in a church where we sang the great hymns of the faith accompanied by an honest-to-goodness pipe organ. At Sunday night youth group we sang “Pass It On” and “Peace Like a River.” I visited my grandparents’ church where everything was sung a cappella. I attended regional youth rallies where the worship leader was an up-and-coming songwriter named Rich Mullins. Each scenario has its own appeal, and I would be hard pressed to pick a favorite.

I don’t share this as a claim to any sort of moral superiority, but to illustrate that my age and childhood situations make me sort of an oddity. I’m like a well-socialized puppy. I’ve been put in a lot of different situations, so I’m not likely to bite out of fear. And because of that, I’m baffled that the music wars have become such an issue. Seriously? We live in a condemned world. Our freedom of speech is being increasingly muzzled. Countries that once sent scores of missionaries to the unreached world are trying to silence people from preaching the gospel. But lets get the music thing hammered out. I suppose one side could arm itself with electric guitars and the other side with hymnbooks and we could hold a cage match.

The contemporary worship people need to realize that the hymnbooks contain some rich, beautiful songs. The hymnbook people need to realize that there are some great new songs being written. And as for the complaints about the repetition in contemporary worship music, go read Psalm 136.

So while I’m on my pulpit, let me bring in some scripture.
The crowd joined in the attack against Paul and Silas, and the magistrates ordered them to be stripped and beaten. After they had been severely flogged, they were thrown into prison, and the jailer was commanded to guard them carefully. Upon receiving such orders, he put them in the inner cell and fastened their feet in the stocks. About midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns to God, and the other prisoners were listening to them. (Acts 16:22-25)
Paul and Silas had been flogged, placed in stocks, and put in jail. This was not the pristine holding cell of “The Andy Griffith Show,” but a first century prison. It was dirty. There was no indoor plumbing. They had open sores along their backs, and it’s quite unlikely that they had received any sort of medical treatment. And yet they sang praises to God.

Can we do that? Is our worship that sincere and independent of our circumstances?

Or our are we so busy trying to justify our personal preferences that we completely miss the point?

Friday, October 25, 2013

Worship in the Dust

Our dear Lisa is taking a blogging sabbatical this month. While we miss her tremendously, we're pleased to have a couple of friends contributing in her spot. Today's guest is Elizabeth DeBarros. We're so thankful to have her join us as we continue to discuss worship.


“If you return to the Almighty, you will be restored:
If you remove wickedness far from your tent
and assign your nuggets to the dust,
your gold of Ophir to the rocks in the ravines,
then the Almighty will be your gold,
the choicest silver for you.”
— Job 22:23-25

__________________________

Eliphaz’s harsh counsel to Job had become for me a life-giving rebuke. When no particular set of circumstances could be blamed for my individual sense of devastation, I was perplexed, undone. Standing in the midst of a thousand tiny shards of which I was sole proprietor was shocking enough, until I realized it was by divine appointment.

I must’ve looked the part, too, standing at the back of the sanctuary all pensive, full of yearning, tentative, wholly uncomfortable.The pastor’s usual effusive greeting turned inquisitive.

“How’re you doing?”

“Decimated,” I replied, my eyes burning.

His demeanor shifted something between sober and hopeful. “That’s worship.”

He offered no more.

It was a moment of grace, really, as I caught a glimmer of what he meant.

I was being crushed. And it pleased God to crush me.

____________________________

If I were to define worship in a particular sense, it would be this:

Worship is a returning to the dust from whence we came. It is the act of being brought low before a holy God, humbled by what cannot be done in one’s own strength: to surrender to the crushing process that we might bring forth the fragrance of Christ.

It’s here in this backdrop, this place of dust, where we die to self, yielding to Him by the exchange of our will for His, beholding the object of His majesty, His might, His glory in the face of Christ. Where we truly begin to live.

From this vantage point, we see light, discover reality, learn righteousness, and reap in wisdom. We begin to value what matters most, and learn to discern what doesn’t. The world’s pull weakens, our idols fall, and the noise fades. In this place of dust, we come to terms with who we really are: frail, depraved, needy, and desperate. Here is where a healthy self-loathing kicks in, superseded by a healthy self-love, informed by the doctrine of the Imago Dei. This is where we begin to move beyond the blur and find clarity of our eternal purpose, where we learn to live coram Deo as we traipse this earth’s crust before the face of a holy God, walking in the good works He’s prepared in advance for us to do. This is worship, too. Part of our reasonable service.

You may ask: But what of the crushing?

Well, what of the flower? The petals are macerated, the oil is extracted, and the perfume is distilled. You are an alabaster jar. Have you any nard?

That question is answered in the yielding. Learning to come under the mighty hand of God takes a lifetime, willing to be crushed in the process. Gethsemane is given us to test us, if we choose right, the outcome is His; a fragrant offering. He will not refuse it.

Will you be crushed for His sake?

_________________________

One of the great obstacles to true spiritual worship is that we forget who we are: animated dust, called and beloved by a Supreme God, created for His good pleasure and for His glory. One of our great sins is that we think it’s about us and for us, and we do all the choosing. We profane the Lord by not distinguishing between the holy and the common, rendering our hearts to a lesser god.

If you will be tested,then return to the dust; bring with you your nuggets of gold and your fine silver,too, those things you cling to. Allow Him to refine you in the fire, form you into a choice instrument set apart for His praise and glory.

Lay low in to the dust. Find Him there.

“…then the Almighty will be your gold, the choicest silver for you.”
— Job 22:25

Elizabeth DeBarros makes her home in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains in northern Virginia with her husband of 24 years, their two sons,and beloved cat, Adagio. She cares deeply for people, words, theology, Darjeeling, and likes taking long walks in any kind of weather. She can be found at Finding the Motherlode where she shares her thoughts, observations, poems, and the occasional firebrand.

Wednesday, October 23, 2013

I am of Chris Tomlin, I am of Isaac Watts, I am of...

If you could pick a fantasy worship team like fantasy football, who would you choose? Keith and Kristyn Getty? Chris Tomlin? Or how about a converted Mormon Tabernacle Choir and Philadelphia Orchestra to lead the hymn singing?  A cappella Psalms anyone? If you could satisfy your musical taste every Sunday, would you be able to worship better?

Music naturally generates an emotional response, which is not inherently wrong, but it is possible to make these emotions the arbiter of whether we have worshipped well or not.  Certain styles become synonymous with worship in our minds and others most certainly not. Sadly, this has led to "worship wars" in the church where musical preference has become a hill to die on.

This doesn't mean we shouldn't dialogue about the quality and type of music in the church. When we do, may God give us a spirit of humility. This also doesn't mean we shouldn't care about the theology of the lyrics. But we weren't saved by songs or the feelings they induce. Neither was the veil rent by an awesome electric guitar riff, the majestic swell of a pipe organ, or four-part harmony. We can stand before a Holy God and worship Him only because of Jesus.

Therefore, brothers, since we have confidence to enter the holy places by the blood of Jesus, by the new and living way that he opened for us through the curtain, that is, through his flesh, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near with a true heart in full assurance of faith, with our hearts sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies washed with pure water. Hebrews 10:19-22

In the end, our earthly favorites will be long forgotten when we join the ultimate worship service. We will sing a new song with brothers and sisters from every nation and tongue, and, I daresay, musical preference. The music will be perfect. The singers will be perfected. But the song isn't the focus. It's the Lamb. (Revelation 5:9-14)

Shouldn't the focus of our hearts be the same?

Monday, October 21, 2013

Worship Him Well: Part II

And let them make me a sanctuary, that I may dwell in their midst.
~Exodus 25:8 

Last time I wrote about the worship experiences we had during our search for a new church home. We knew what we were looking for - having experienced it once before - but we were on the verge of being convinced we wouldn't find it locally.

Then we went to a church that meets in a YMCA gymnasium. The makeshift stage and metal folding chairs loudly declare their temporariness. The acoustics leave much to be desired. There's no room for a choir, and the musicians spill out from the black stage onto the glossy gym floor. When the heater turns on, it sounds like a firecracker being set off.  And yet it is in this place that I have worship God.

As our pastor reminds us, the worship service on Sunday is God's gift to His people - a respite in a harsh world and a time of refreshing. The cares of the week often press in against my soul, rendering me bone weary and out of sorts. It is during this sacred time that I am brought back to the reason for my hope (Col. 1:27). It is here that I am brought to tears and want to cry out with Isaiah, "Woe is me!" (Isaiah 6:1-5) And it is here that I am given the assurance that my many, many sins are forgiven (Psalm 103:8-12). It is here that I worship God in spirit and in truth (John 4:24).
 
I have walked the aisles of Notre Dame in Paris and of St. Patrick's Cathedral in New York City. They are works of magnificent splendor. Stunningly beautiful, to say the least. But they did not come close to giving me the feeling I have every time I step into that loud and unaesthetic gym. I smile as I remember that the Israelites also had a temporary church, but "...the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle" (Exodus 40:34).

The object of our worship isn't to be found in the size of a building, the architectural elements of it, or the finery that fills it. Moses knew that. He knew he did not want to continue without God's presence. He begged God to show him His glory (Exodus 33:15-18). God granted his request. When Moses descended Mount Sinai, his face shone so much that the people were afraid (Exodus 34:29-33). He had worshiped God well. 

It is my prayer that when I leave church each week, I may say the same. It doesn't matter where I meet Him; I only want people to look at my face and know I have been in the presence of God.

Friday, October 18, 2013

Glorifying and Enjoying

You probably recognize the title of this post as a reference to Question 1 of the Westminster Larger Catechism:
Q. 1. What is the chief and highest end of man?
A. Man's chief and highest end is to glorify God, and fully to enjoy him forever.
This is the ultimate purpose for our lives. God created human beings to glorify him and fully enjoy him forever.

If I were to define worship in  three words, I'd say it is "giving God glory." If I could use more words,  I'd add that it is also "enjoying God for who He is." When we worship God, then, we are fulfilling our ultimate purpose, because we are glorifying and enjoying him.

(Incidentally, travelling thought-wise in the opposite direction, we could say that when we glorify God in our thoughts and activities—and there is potential to glorify God in every single thing we do (1 Corinthians 10:31)—we are worshipping him. This is why, as Kim reminded us in the previous post, worship "is about our whole life." Every thought and action can be an act of worship if it is done to honor God.)

We can think of corporate worship (the worship we do when we gather with other believers in the church) as glorifying and enjoying God together as the assembled body of Christ. If our worship is genuine, then, its purpose is to glorify God—and not ourselves. True worship focuses on God as Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, and no one else, and seeks first to please him, and not ourselves or others. True worshippers ask "How does God want us, his church, to worship?" not, "How do we want to worship?"

In genuine corporate worship, we delight in God together. As a body, we gaze upon his beauty (Psalm 27:4). We may enjoy the music, the sermon, the others who join us in worship, but primarily, we enjoy seeing and knowing God as his gathered church.

And true worship is forever. It carries on into eternity, where the four living creatures "never cease to say,
“Holy, holy, holy, is the Lord God Almighty,
who was and is and is to come!” (Revelation 4:8 ESV)
The company of eternal worshippers will include you and me, too, fulfilling our chief and highest end by glorifying God and fully enjoying him forever, saying for all eternity,
“Worthy is the Lamb who was slain,
to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might
and honor and glory and blessing!”
“To him who sits on the throne and to the Lamb
be blessing and honor and glory and might forever and ever!” (Revelation 5:12-13, ESV)