Wednesday, December 31, 2014

Seven Things for the New Year

This is an excerpt from a New Year's address by James Smith who was C.H. Spurgeon's predecessor at the New Park Street Chapel. He mentions seven things to experience, to have, to do, to enjoy, and be preserved from in the New Year. When I read his lists, I couldn't ask for anything better for my loved ones or myself in 2015.

May God grant us these blessings for His praise and glory.

*******

[T]here are seven things I wish you may all more fully EXPERIENCE this year:

His Spirit working in your hearts,
His blood speaking in your consciences,
His power subduing your corruptions,
His blessing resting upon your souls,
His presence cheering your way,
His righteousness covering your sins,
His peace keeping your hearts and minds.

There are seven things I wish you may know it is your privilege to HAVE this year:
a name in his book,
a sight of his covenant,
a tear in his bottle,
a place in his heart,
a title to his fullness,
a right to his promises,
and an interest in his prayers.

There are seven things I wish you may DO this year:
weep at his cross,
wrestle at his throne,
cleave to his truth,
walk in his ways,
aim at his honor,
comfort his people,
and spread his fame in every direction.

There are seven things which I wish you may ENJOY this year:
the light of his countenance,
the power of his love,
the hope of his calling,
the blessings of his chosen,
contentment under all dispensations,
liberty in performing his commands,
and victory over every foe.

There are seven things from which I hope you may be PRESERVED from this year:
a hard heart,
a seared conscience,
a Laodicean state,
a proud look,
an unforgiving spirit,
an envious eye,
and distrusting God.

And now, brethren, Jesus can give all that I wish you to experience, to know, to enjoy! And he can preserve you from all I wish you to be kept from...

The LORD bless you and keep you; the LORD make his face to shine upon you and be gracious to you; the LORD lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace. Numbers 6:24-26

From A New Year's Address, James Smith, New Park Street Chapel, London, 1849.

Monday, December 29, 2014

My Bible Reading Plan for 2015

After Christmas has passed, the Christian blogosphere begins to buzz with suggestions for reading through the Bible in the coming year. I could link to them here, but chances are that you're already seeing some of these posts in your feed reader. If not, Google "Bible reading plans" and you'll find plenty to choose from.

I confess that I've started many and finished none. Does that make me a Bible-reading failure? I don't think so. I'm of the quality over quantity sort. While I enjoy reading certain books together to see how God's narrative of redemption fits together, I learn more when I read slowly and deliberately. When I don't feel the condemnation of the unchecked boxes. It's taken me a while - up until right now - to realize that it's okay if I don't subject myself to this pressure. While it's true there are verses - in fact, entire books - in the Bible I've never read, God won't bar me from Heaven. My salvation rests on the shed blood of Christ, not checks on a bookmark.

I admit I've been frustrated in years past because I can't keep up, but the impetus for my change in attitude has been my pastor. He started preaching on Exodus last January. As of this writing, we are little more than halfway through. Some people may cringe at the thought of going through a book - particularly an Old Testament book - at this snail's pace, but I have learned more than I ever thought I would. Holding a magnifying glass to Israel's exodus to the wilderness has helped me discover Jesus and the glory of the Gospel over and over again.

In 2015 I'll be spending three months with each of the Gospels, focusing on the life and ministry of Jesus. I want to think deeply on these things, and ponder them in my heart as Mary did (Luke 2:19). Of course I'll be reading along in Exodus until we finish, then I'll start whatever book my pastor preaches through next. And I'll also be reading the Scripture recommendations in my devotional resource, New Morning Mercies: A Daily Gospel Devotional.

At the beginning of this year Lisa wrote a post about the rewards of reading through the Bible in a year. I encourage you to read it and give it much thought. Focusing on the Gospels is what I need in the coming year, but others will have different needs. If you've found a particular reading plan that works well for you, please share it in the comments as an exhortation to others.

Happy New Year and may you be blessed by whichever plan you choose for 2015. As Lisa wrote, "The goal is not the plan; the goal is reading the Word."


For as the rain and snow come down from heaven
and do not return there but water the earth,
making it bring forth and sprout,
giving seed to the sower and bread to the eater,
so shall my word be that goes out from my mouth;
it shall not return to me empty,
but it shall accomplish that which I purpose,
and shall succeed in the thing for which I sent it.
-Isaiah 55:10-11


_____________
*Please note I'm not suggesting that reading the entire Bible in a year isn't a worthwhile pursuit, or that we should ignore portions of the Bible. My 2015 approach is what I feel I need to do at this particular point in my life. The bottom line is to Read.The.Word.


Monday, December 22, 2014

Christmas Memories and Christmas Wishes

My grandma used to keep a glass container of peppermint sticks on the TV, right under the starburst clock that everybody’s grandma had in the 70s. (Both my grandmas had one.) It may have been a Christmas thing, and it may have been just one Christmas, but in my mind they were there for a very long time.

We always went to this grandma’s house late morning on Christmas day, and one Christmas I had forgotten to eat breakfast in all the excitement. Therefore I got to have a peppermint stick before lunch. To this day when I see peppermint sticks in a jar I think of that Christmas morning.

Memory is a funny thing. I will be driving along and a song will snap be back to 1988. Today the lady in front of me in the checkout lane was wearing the perfume of a college friend. The scent of a certain kind of air freshener reminds me of my sophomore year dorm room, and the smell of mildew reminds me of the dorm laundry room.

We attach things to our memories. Some are pleasant, and some are not. Some take us back to times of sadness, and some times of happiness.

When it comes to Christmas, I tend to agree with Charles Spurgeon: “I hold it to be one of the greatest absurdities under heaven to think that there is any religion in keeping Christmas-day. There are no probabilities whatever that our Savior Jesus Christ was born on that day…” But, like Spurgeon, I think celebrating it is a good thing: “Since it is lawful, and even laudable, to meditate upon the incarnation of the Lord upon any day in the year, it cannot be in the power of other men’s superstitions to render such a meditation improper for to-day.”

For a little while, people in the Western world have to give at least a fleeting thought to what we’re all doing. Society is doing its level best to separate our Christmas celebrations from the birth of Christ, but they haven’t managed to sever them completely.

Sometimes all the preparation makes me tired. I once commented to my daughter that when you really think about it, the idea of putting a lighted tree in your living room is kind of bizarre (I may have stolen some of her joy with that remark). But I hope that this season causes people to think, just for a second, about what all the fuss is about. I hope that in the midst of Santa and elves and reindeer, in the frantic purchasing of gifts, that they ponder what it all really means. I hope that somewhere in their minds, the real story of the baby in the manger is there and they think about it. And I hope that if they don’t know, they ask someone, and I hope that they get the right answer.

This post was adapted from a post that appeared on my personal blog.

Friday, December 19, 2014

I need Christmas

It's something of a strange Christmas for us this year. In fact, it doesn't feel much like Christmas at all. I haven't decorated nor do I plan to this year. Nope, not even a tree nor a wreath. I put out some red and white snowflake placemats, hung a "Merry Christmas Y'all" towel in the guest bath, and called it a day. Don't worry, I'm not *exactly* a Scrooge, no more than usual that is, but we are in the process of packing to move to a new home in January so unloading and reloading boxes of Christmas decor is a little more than I care to take on at the moment.

I suppose the most Christmas-y part of the month has been the boxes arriving on my doorstep. Online shopping is my friend, yes and amen.

So, yeah, Christmas doesn't exactly feel like Christmas to me. It's interesting to me how much my Christmas celebration is propped up by the externalities: the tree, the garland, the weather. Don't get me wrong, I love tradition and I think the rituals of Christmas can greatly enhance our observation of the season. At my church, for example, we light the candles of the Advent wreath on the Sundays leading up to Christmas. I always look forward to the Scripture reading and to the hopeful anticipation that marks the coming of our Savior.

This year though. In the busy-ness of the fall, December descended with shock and surprise, I am distracted, my mind is full of everything but the hope of Advent, and I think, this isn't Christmas, at least not the sepia toned version we hold to be the ideal.

My friend and fellow counselor at the pregnancy center died suddenly. Such loss and sudden grief doesn't feel much like Christmas either.

I scroll through my Twitter feed and my heart grows heavy. It doesn't seem much like Christmas there either. Our world is broken. Grief, injustice, heartbreak, wickedness, loss--this is the world we live in. We need a Savior. We are lost, desperate, doomed. We need rescuing.

I look into my own heart and, if I take an honest assessment, I see brokenness there too. Sin, wickedness--I need a Savior. I am lost, desperate, doomed apart from Christ. I need rescuing.

I need Christmas. Our world needs Christmas.

Here is the reason for the season in all its stark reality: we are so wicked and so depraved and so willfully rebellious in our sin that we could never save ourselves. Indeed we would not want to. God had to come get us.

This is the Christmas season. Not because the calendar tells us so but because today is the day of salvation. God the Father sent His Son to be born a baby. Fully man and fully God, He lived the perfect life in perfect obedience and died a cruel and horrible death to pay the penalty for sin. He rose from the grave and He lives to freely offer forgiveness and His perfect righteousness to all who would repent and believe. This is the good news of the gospel and of grace, this is the hope of Advent, this is Christmas.

“…and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matt. 1:21

Wednesday, December 17, 2014

The Gift of Gifts


O SOURCE OF ALL GOOD,
What shall I render to thee for the gift of gifts.
    thine own dear Son, begotten, not created,
    my Redeemer, proxy, surety, substitute,
    his self-emptying incomprehensible,
    his infinity of love beyond the heart's grasp.
Herein is wonder of wonders:
    he came below to raise me above,
    was born like me that I might become like him.
Herein is love;
    when I cannot rise to him he draws near on wings of grace,
        to raise me to himself.
Herein is power;
    when Deity and humanity were infinitely apart
    he united them in indissoluble unity, the uncreated and the created.
Herein is wisdom;
    when I was undone, with no will to return to him,
        and no intellect to devise recovery,
    he came, God-incarnate, to save me to the uttermost,
        as man to die my death.
            to shed satisfying blood on my behalf,
            to work out a perfect righteousness for me.
O God, take me in spirit to the watchful shepherds,
    and enlarge my mind;
let me hear good tidings of great joy,
    and hearing, believe, rejoice, praise, adore,
    my conscience bathed in an ocean of repose,
    my eyes uplifted to a reconciled Father;
place me with ox, ass, camel, goat,
    to look with them upon my Redeemer's face,
    and in him account myself delivered from sin;
let me with Simeon clasp the new-born child to my heart,
    embrace him with undying faith,
    exulting that he is mine and I am his.
In him thou hast given me so much that heaven can give no more.

The Valley of Vision, edited by Arthur Bennett, Banner of Truth Trust, 2013, pg. 16.
Photo credit: Workshop of Rembrandt [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Monday, December 15, 2014

Finding What Matters in Christmas

From the 2010 archives of my personal blog.


Even with its candle glowing, the Advent altar looked bare. A new Nativity scene, perhaps? After all, what's Christmas without the baby?

I looked in several stores, finding nothing that fit. Then I remembered my girl's childhood set, given by a friend. It would be just right there.

Can we move it to the altar?

But it's mine. I want it in my room.


And how can a mother argue with that?

I remembered a set in the attic, a small one I don't use anymore. I offered that to her. Once again, I was content to offer my leftovers to this sweet child.  She reluctantly agreed.

When I went to find it, I found another I'd forgotten about. It fit perfectly.

I'm ashamed that I had casually tossed the Holy Family in with other Christmas decorations I no longer use...and there are many. I've tried numerous ways to deck our halls over the years, wanting to find the perfect combination befitting a magazine cover. I ran myself ragged, only to find that shiny baubles and figurines left me empty. Their loud shouts of look at me! drowned out the quiet of the manger.

This season is different.

Yes, there are still a few shiny baubles tucked among a small number of Santa Clauses from my youth.  There are sappy holiday movies. There will be Christmas cookies, parties, and gifts.

But in the hushed glow of the Christmas tree...

I gaze at the past - treasured decorations from my own childhood that bring to mind Christmases gone by.

I see the fiery love that has spanned nearly two decades - beautiful ornaments and trinkets given by my love.

I hear the quiet of the Heavenly hosts holding their breath in anticipation of God becoming man.

I feel the lump in my throat, as I swallow hard & resolve to no longer mar Christmas with my own self-indulgence.

I hear the beat of my own heart as I prepare Him room and wait expectantly for His arrival.

Friday, December 12, 2014

A Sure Thing

There was a time in my life when everything was building. I was gaining: more children, a bigger home, further education, a better life. There was hope, not necessarily for big things, but for good things.

But before I got there, the tide turned. The gaining stopped and the losing began: illness, death, and children who wandered. And with the losses came a clear view inside my own heart, because there’s nothing like losing beloved people and cherished dreams to reveal the idolatry in my desires.

This is the way of our world: sin, dark hearts, illness, and death. The whole thing has been cursed. I’ve always known it, but now I know it. I feel it in my chest every morning.

It was here, into this world, a cursed world that steals dreams and makes hearts ache, that the Eternal Son was born and grew and lived. When did he come to understand that so many innocent boys his own age had been slaughtered—and slaughtered in an attempt to kill him? How old was he when he lost his earthly father? How did he feel when his own brothers disbelieved him? When a friend betrayed him? When his people did not receive him? Did the dark hearts around him make his heart ache?

One thing is sure: He experienced more of the darkness of our world than I will. I know the darkness of my own life, but on his cross he carried the whole dark curse.

He carried the curse to turn back the tide. He returned hope, but a better hope—the kind of hope that’s a sure thing. It’s certain hope for big things and good things: healing and life and clean hearts. It’s hope for another world—a new world. Our great gain is a sure thing because God gave and Christ gave up.

Wednesday, December 10, 2014

Can Man Forget This Story?

I was not raised in a Christian home, but I loved Christmas. We didn't have much, but my parents always worked to make it nice for us.

While it was a wonderful time, it was never a time to learn about the reason for Christmas. We had a little crĂȘche in the living room, but that was about it. We had a bible, but it was never really opened. To hear about the real reason for Christmas, I relied on what song and story told.

Back then, in public schools, we learned Christmas carols. Yes, we sang about Santa Claus, but we also sang, "Hark the Herald Angels Sing," and "Joy to the World." We also read picture books telling the story of Christmas. One year, my teacher was a nun, and we heard a lot about the Christmas story that year. One year, I went to the public library to learn more about how other places in the world celebrated Christmas, and I learned more about the birth of Christ from those books. In my room, I listened to Bing Crosby's Christmas album (yes, long before CDs or cassette tapes), and I heard "O Come All Ye Faithful" sung in Latin and English.

I was thankful for what those songs and stories provided for my inquiring mind. I'm thankful there were songs which sung about the birth of Christ. Sometimes, I feel very sad at the fact that today, children know more about "Grandma Got Run Over by a Reindeer" than they do about Mary and Joseph, or that Christmas movies depict nothing of people celebrating the Christ child, but instead focus on ridiculous family situations during the holidays, or sappy romance scenarios. One could go through the whole season if he wanted, and never hear about Christ.

I am thankful for poems like this, by Ben Jonson, who was a 17th century poet. I'm thankful they are still preserved. While as a child I enjoyed stories like How the Grinch Stole Christmas, and read them to my own children, I am thankful for the stories, songs, and poems which tell the truth of Christmas. I hope that somewhere out there, a child or young person who is wondering about Christmas will find this poem. I read this to my children when we homeschooled. I seriously doubt it's acceptable to have publicly educated children memorize such poems as a class, but hopefully, an inquiring student will find it on his own.

Can Man Forget This Story?

I sing the birth was born tonight,
The Author both of life and light;
The angels so did sound it,
And like the ravished shepherds said,
Who saw the light, and were afraid,
Yet searched, and true they found it.

The Son of God, the eternal King,
That did us all salvation bring,
And freed the soul from danger;
He whom the whole world could not take,
The Word, which heaven and earth did make,
Was now laid in a manger.

The Father's wisdom willed it so,
The Son's obedience knew no "No,"
Both wills were in one stature;
And as that wisdom had decreed,
The Word was now made Flesh indeed,
And took on Him our nature.

What comfort by Him do we win?
Who made Himself the Prince of sin,
To make us heirs of glory?
To see this Babe, all innocence,
A Martyr born in our defense,
Can man forget this story?

Friday, December 5, 2014

Christmas lights, worn out moms, and the world

One night, fourteen years ago, we piled the boys in the van and took a drive to look at Christmas lights. The baby was then a mere few days old and his mother an exhausted wreck as all new mothers are. How long had it been since I'd ventured out of the house? For that matter, how many days had I spent in my pajamas? My life at that point consisted of a hazy conglomeration of feedings and occasional naps and the demands of not only the newborn but of a 5 year old, 4 year old and a 2 year old. Bless my heart.

That night we drove around the neighborhood pointing out the spectacular and the not-so-spectacular light displays. I can't remember if the boys were impressed or not. I do know I nearly wept from the few moments of rest. And freedom. And shock. Is it crazy to admit that I was surprised to find that life outside my four walls had carried on as usual? People decorated their homes and went to work and cooked supper, all without any knowledge or concern of the life-altering event I'd just experienced. It sounds silly to admit but I suppose I had forgotten there was a world beyond my own. As I said my life had, to that point, been consumed by the needs and responsibilities within our four walls. When we ventured out and I caught glimpse of the world outside I was surprised.

We concluded our little escape at the drive through nativity put on by a local church in our community. There amid the livestock and the mock stable was a baby. And a new mom. As we listened to the cassette tape intended to accompany the live nativity and as I watched the depiction of Mary and the baby I thought of my own newborn babe and I considered all over again the humility of Mary’s obedience and the joy of the Messiah’s birth, the baby Jesus born in a stable, wrapped in swaddling clothes, lying in a manger.

My need was great in those days and the gospel became incredibly precious to me as I struggled with the sheer physical and emotional exhaustion of being a mom to four. The incarnation—that Jesus became a man—was a comfort. He knew fatigue. He understood weariness. He was fully man and fully God and able to sympathize. He saves worn out moms desperate for grace, yes and amen.

That cold night we spent admiring Christmas lights taught me another important truth: the blessing of the Incarnation isn’t only for me. I am part of a wider story, a bigger picture, a greater world. All around me people are living lives desperate for the truth of the gospel, lives untouched and unchanged by the life-altering, world-altering event of Jesus' birth.

Jesus saved me, glory to His name, but He came to save all who are His. This gospel story isn’t merely about me and my need, it is about God redeeming a people for Himself through the birth, death and resurrection of His Son. There is a world outside our immediate context. May we look beyond our four walls and see God’s sweeping purposes throughout history. Mary, me, you--we are part of the joy God brings to the world through His Son. Let us go and tell.


Author's note: this article originally appeared at my personal blog December 2013. 

Wednesday, December 3, 2014

God Keeps His Promise

I can't imagine what went through Adam and Eve's minds after they ate the fruit of the tree of the knowledge of good and evil. They had lived in perfect communion with God, each other, and creation. But now, by their act of disobedience, sin ruined this harmony forever. Adam and Eve hid from their Creator. They were blame-shifting and about to be expelled from paradise. If I summed up all my moments of regret and multiplied them thousands of times over, perhaps it might come close to what they were feeling. But I also wonder if these words gave them hope even in the midst of the fall.

I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; he shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel. Gen. 3:15

Theologians call this verse the proto-evangelium, the first preaching of the gospel. One day a seed of the woman will deal a death-blow to Satan. This seed will suffer in the process, but he will be victorious, not just for himself but for all mankind. So God pronounced judgment, but He promised hope as well. 

I wonder if Eve remembered this promise when Seth was born after Abel's murder and Cain's banishment. Could he be the one? But Seth died, and subsequent generations after him lived and died. Yet this hope lived on and was fueled by hints and glimpses of the One who was to come - a ruler from the tribe of Judah (Gen. 49:10) and an heir to David's throne who will reign in justice and righteousness forever (Is. 9:6-7). Despite the ebb and flow of history and the spiritual condition of His people, God would keep His promise.

But when the fullness of time had come, God sent forth his Son, born of woman, born under the law,  to redeem those who were under the law, so that we might receive adoption as sons. Gal. 4:4-5
But as he considered these things, behold, an angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream, saying, “Joseph, son of David, do not fear to take Mary as your wife, for that which is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.” Matt. 1:20-21

So the incarnation fulfills God's promise in Genesis 3:15, the fleshing out of the proto-evangelium. Not just any descendant of Adam, but God the Son taking on human flesh, living a perfect life before God the Father, taking our deserved punishment on the cross, and dealing a death-blow to the Serpent. The Seed of the woman has won once and for all!

We have the benefit of looking back and tracing this thread from Eden to Bethlehem and ultimately to Calvary and the empty tomb. We can appreciate the longing of the Old Testament saints who believed that God keeps His promise even though they didn't live to see its fulfillment. In a sense, we are like them because we are hoping in God's promise, too. 

Jesus came once, but we are waiting for Him to come again. We may not understand or agree on the details of how it will unfold. History and the state of the Church will continue to ebb and flow. We may die and go home before Christ returns, but we can rest assured that God will keep His promise. 

For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore encourage one another with these words. 1 Thess. 4:16-18.

Sources:
Sermons on Genesis by Pastor J. Ryan Davidson, Grace Baptist Chapel, September 2014 to present.

Monday, December 1, 2014

Double Vision




To understand what my Savior means to me
You must look beyond Calvary.
No, I do not deny the impact of the Cross,
For it was there my Beloved paid the cost
Of my sin; my shame and guilt He did bear
So that I could look at my life and see Him here:

In the hug of a child, so precious and dear;
When she says say “I love you”, it’s His voice I hear.
In the love of a friend who holds my hand tight,
I can hear Him whisper, “My child, I’m here. Everything’s alright.”
When I was ready, He made me a wife
To a husband who ministers to me each day of my life.
So many other blessings I can’t begin to count.
I’m afraid if I do, I’ll leave something out.

But it’s this about my Jesus that I most truly love:
That He left His glorious home up above
To come to this world. My heart can’t comprehend
How He could leave His Father for this place of sin.
Born among animals. He died amidst thieves,
Ridiculed and mocked. Oh! Soul can’t you see
That my Jesus left Heaven that night long ago
Because He knew that years later I would be needing Him so!

I ask you to put the manger beside the Cross.
See them together, and realize God’s loss.
How it must have hurt to send His Son away,
Yet He did so, even knowing there would come a day
He would see Him, covered in blood,
So that His children might proclaim “JESUS IS LORD!”
And reconcile with Him in our Heavenly home;
This is the reason Jesus left His Throne.

Don’t focus on one and lose sight of the other.
To know the whole story, you must put them together;
The manger of hay and Calvary’s tree
Unite with the message: MY JESUS LOVES ME.