Wednesday, January 27, 2016

When they come to take my car keys away

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Thursday, January 21, 2016

We have to do the work

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tuesday, January 19, 2016

The Lost Art of the Handwritten Letter



“Then letters came in but three times a week: indeed, in some places in Scotland where I have stayed when I was a girl, the post came in but once a month;—but letters were letters then; and we made great prizes of them, and read them and studied them like books. Now the post comes rattling in twice a day, bringing short jerky notes, some without beginning or end, but just a little sharp sentence, which well-bred folks would think too abrupt to be spoken.”Elizabeth Gaskell, My Lady Ludlow


Among my most treasured possessions is a tattered cardboard box full of handwritten letters that my husband and I exchanged  43 years ago.    Ours was not the usual courtship because it was almost entirely done by correspondence.   Robert and I were high school acquaintances but our romantic interest didn’t blossom until later after I moved to Utah and he moved to Colorado.    We wrote letters to each other for two months,  sometimes twice a day,  and after just a few phone calls and  only seven days of  being together in person, we were married.  

The advent of technology dealt a major blow to the art of letter writing,  which is tragic in my opinion.   We have truly lost  a wonderful  means of expression in a world that  has downsized communication  to memes and 140 characters.
“Research has shown that the general act of writing by hand can promote quite a few physical and mental benefits,  from improving learning abilities to fostering a more positive outlook on life.   And when it comes to writing that is used as a form of communication between two people, namely letters and postcards, the impact of such messages lasts far longer than any alternative version offered in our high-tech world.   From the careful intentions of the sender to the value experienced by the receiver,  no true match exists for this old-time, traditional means of conversation.”
While the next generation may never experience the delight of rummaging through boxes of musty handwritten letters  tucked away in a closet,  God has preserved for us  letters that are of far greater value.    The New Testament contains copies of 21 letters that were originally handwritten by the apostles or with the aid of an amanuensis (Rom. 16:2; 1 Peter 5:12). Paul wrote 13 or 14  if  he authored  Hebrews.   James, Peter, John, and Jude wrote  7—and then there were also the 7 letters to the churches dictated directly by Christ to John and recorded in the Book of Revelation.
Last Sunday our pastor began a new series in the book of Colossians,  and  reminded us that these  letters of correspondence were originally intended to be read aloud to the congregation.    As he does occasionally,  we were asked to stand to hear the reading of  the entire book, which took about ten minutes.     As this marvelously  detailed letter was being read aloud,   perhaps in a similar way  that the house church in Colossae first heard it,   I  considered the methods of correspondence we use  today.    I wondered about the impact that  communicating in sound bites  has on our relationships and even  how  it might influence the way we approach the Scriptures. 
The apostles wrote  personal letters addressed to both  individuals and congregations.   These letters,  though written under the inspiration of the Holy Spirit,  were intended to convey  the author’s  thoughts and affections along with  instruction, encouragement, exhortation,  and correction to the  hearers.   Letters to the churches were meant to be read  in one sitting,  as well as to be studied carefully in context.   
 I have been challenged  on two accounts  this week.   The first is to remember to read  the New Testament epistles in their broader sense so that I that don’t  lose the forest through the trees.      And the second is to resurrect  to some degree,  the art of letter writing.    I think a  good  start would be  to buy a box a beautiful stationary and write letters to each of my grandchildren—chances  are they won't collect  many.    But first I’ll have to brush up on my handwriting.   

Wednesday, January 13, 2016

The rubber that meets the road

"I can't imaging going through [fill in the blank] if I wasn't a Christian."

Your answer for the blank may have been different from mine, but I think we would agree that we would not want to face trials or even an ordinary day without Christ. But what does that really mean when push comes to shove? What difference does it make being a Christian?

Does being a Christian mean I won't have any problems? Do I truly get my "best life now?"1

If being a Christian doesn't give me an automatic out from hardship, does God still love me? Is He with me? How do I know this? Is it a feeling of emotional well-being? But what if I feel nothing?2

You may be thinking, "Enough of the questions already." You may be answering my questions in your head. But what are your answers and, more importantly, what is the source of those answers?

For some of you, your answers came from the Scriptures. You took what the Bible said about God, His character, and His ways, and applied it to my questions. In short, the rubber of theology met the road of life. But sadly there is also a climate in Christendom which defines spirituality as "an experience devoid of doctrinal content and detached from any testable historical claims."3 "I don't need doctrine. I just love Jesus. Can't we just be practical?" And I was the poorer for this attitude.

I was a Christian for decades when I was blindsided by a trial. At that time, I was underfed, bordering on spiritual starvation. I read the Bible subjectively with myself as the main character, not God, but I was never taught how to study the Bible. I knew of Him secondhand, but I never bothered to test and examine those teachings for myself. So I passively absorbed whatever came down the pike. Consequently, there was no theological rubber to meet the road - more like bare rims scraping the asphalt. But in His mercy, God did not leave me malnourished. My family began to attend a local church where we were fed the Word and strengthened through the ordinary means of grace. I began to learn about the God I had confessed for years but didn't really know. My circumstances did not change, but I changed. Truth came to bear on my life, and this made all the difference in the world.

So please don't be afraid of theology. Please don't be afraid to open the Bible and stretch your understanding. We can learn about a God who is so great and yet condescends to save sinners. We can trace His faithfulness from Genesis 1 to the certain conclusion in Revelation 22. The truth of God found in His Word is an anchor for our souls and a feast spread before us. So let's dig in. What are we waiting for?


1. Romans 8:18; 2 Tim. 3:12; Matt. 5:10-12.
2. John 14:26-27; Psalm 46:1; Rom. 8:32-39; 2 Cor. 1:3-4; 1 Pet. 5:10.
3. Total Truth, Nancy Pearcey, Crossway, 2008, pg. 118.

Tuesday, January 12, 2016

Using the Sword as a Club

Just two weeks into my 2016 reading plan and I'm already reaping the benefit of reading less and thinking more. The slower pace gives me space to tie my reading together and apply it. Though beneficial, I can't say it's entirely fun. In fact, this extended pondering has led to conviction and brokeness.

The Lord has been using Amy Carmichael: Beauty For Ashes to reveal my pride and self-centeredness. He's also been showing me how often I focus on the trivial. For Amy, trying to rescue and minister to as many children as possible in India, "[t]hree things mattered: the verbal inspiration of Scripture, the power of God to deal with His enemy, and loyalty to one another." (p. 88) These were her requirements for those who would partner in ministry with her. She stood firm upon the Word and solid doctrine, but those were the only issues that divided her from others in ministry. When she parted ways with some co-laborers who did not believe in the total inerrancy of Scripture, she did so privately and remained quiet about it.

Of course, Amy Carmichael didn't have the technology of today. No world-wide audience at her fingertips. (Her books were published only because her mother championed them in Amy's native England.) No up-to-the second news feeds. She wasn't concerned with site hits or the number of people who liked her latest pithy tweet.  She was too busy working long, hard days for the sake of the Gospel and the broken children she had rescued from temple slavery and prostitution.

Amy Carmichael had an effective Biblical ministry, which Paul Tripp defines well:
...truly effective ministry of the Word must confront our self-focus and self-absorption at its roots, opening us up to the vastness of a God-defined, God-centered world. Unless this happens, we will use the promises, principles, and commands of the Word to serve the thing we really love: ourselves. This may be why many people read and hear God's Word regularly while their lives remain unchanged. Only when the rain of the Word penetrates the roots of the problem does lasting change occur.
His words unwrap my sin and lay it bare before my blinded eyes. I have wielded the Word of God has a sword against the wrong enemy: the people around me. When I first came to Reformed theology nearly a decade ago, I jumped in feet first and then proceeded to stomp on those who didn't agree with me. Publicly, via social media. Privately, with friends. Alone, in my own thoughts. I have used the Word to serve myself, to make myself feel superior, to call attention to myself. I have been running for the prize of being right, instead of the true prize Paul exhorts us to pursue (1 Cor. 9:24-25).

I know I am not alone. There are weekly - sometimes daily - internet debates that bear out this truth. At times it seems as if believers are intent on throwing each other into the lion's den. We're not satisfied until we've caused a feeding frenzy.  I fear we've become defined by issues, rather than Scripture. Even if we're not the ones hurling the stones, we stand by like Saul and nod our approval (Acts 8:1).

The Lord has opened my eyes to the hurt inflicted by my misguided zeal. I've wounded others as well as myself, damaged my personal ministry and wept many bitter tears in recent years. Thankfully the Lord's grace is greater than my sin and is powerful enough to soften even this hardest of hearts.

As I continue to think about Gospel living and loving others, I find great encouragement from Amy Carmichael: "Let nothing be said about anyone unless it passes through the three sieves: Is it true? kind? necessary?" (p. 58). These are three questions worth asking before I speak, write or think about someone, or to them.

Put on then, as God's chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so you also must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony. And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in one body. And be thankful. Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly, teaching and admonishing one another in all wisdom, singing psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, with thankfulness in your hearts to God. And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.
-Colossians 3:12-17

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Dust off those hymnbooks!

Music is an important part of the Christian life. It is one of the ways we worship God. A good song or hymn can teach doctrine, provide comfort, and verbalize praise in words we cannot find ourselves. Music is a wonderful aid to memory, so the pairing of music and Scripture is a winning combination.

We sing songs of praise on Sunday mornings, but hymns aren't just for Sunday morning. And while many churches make use of a screen for the words, I still love a good hymn book. I read music, and I sing alto, so having the notes is nice for me. I think reading music is a good skill to have, and it's not hard to learn.

A few years ago, a friend told me she keeps a hymnal beside her when she has her devotions. Every day, she reads a hymn along with her Bible reading. It sounded like a great idea to me. What better way to add to our private times of worship than with well written songs to God. If one is not a singer, the words alone are edifying, but if one does sing, it's an excellent way to learn new songs. Yes, there is an abundance of Christian Contemporary music available, but let's not forget about our hymn books.

I want to suggest a few hymnals for use if you're interested in having one to look at as part of your daily devotions.

First, the Trinity Hymnal. I have used this one one and off for a few years. It has many of my favourites and also some songs I didn't know. The hymns are arranged topically, and there are readings from the Psalter in the back, written so that they could be read responsively. It also has the Westminster Confession of Faith and the Shorter Catechism.

Recently I was given a copy of Hymns of Grace, which was put together by The Master's Seminary. It's a wonderful collection of traditional and newer hymns, including some written by John MacArthur, R.C. Sproul, The Gettys, and Bob Kauflin. I particularly liked the Benediction and Doxology settings. I love to sing the Doxolgy, and I liked these settings. Scripture passages are well placed among the selections of the hymnal, and are in the ESV. They are also presented in a way suitable for responsive reading.

A recent purchase for me, and something that looks promising, is The Book of Psalms for Worship. This book contains musical arrangements of all of the Psalms. Each Psalm has at least one tune, and some have as many as seven different variations. One of my favourites in this volume so far is a setting for Psalm 14, which is to the tune of "O Sacred Head Now Wounded." It's just beautiful, and because I know the tune well, I can focus on learning the words.

I'm looking for ways this year to keep my mind focused on God, and one way is through music. Singing praises with the Body of Christ on Sunday morning is great, but so is singing them in our homes on our own or with our family. The simplicity of tunes found in many hymnbooks make remembering the words easier. And the words are important.

If you want to hear good hymns, do check out our Rebecca's blog every Sunday. She shares a hymn there every week.

Tuesday, January 5, 2016

Why Women Should Study Church History

 
How shall we labor with any effect to build up the church, if we have no thorough knowledge of her history,  or fail to apprehend it from the proper point of observation?   History is, and must ever continue to be, next to God’s Word, the richest foundation of wisdom, and the surest guide to all successful practical activity.” 1—Philip Schaff

It’s unfortunate that the average Evangelical Christian has so little knowledge of church history.   This comes as no surprise since few churches engage their congregants in studies of our incredibly rich spiritual heritage.
Church history is not only relevant but it is  extremely fascinating!  It is a panoply of doctrinal and spiritual battles and victories showcasing God’s preservation of His beloved Bride.   Discovering how the Lord emboldened men and women to remain true to Christ and the Scriptures throughout the ages will surely encourage believers facing the challenges of our day.

WHAT’S GENDER GOT TO DO WITH IT?

First, notwithstanding the Biblical mandate for male pastoral leadership in the church, women do happen to make up half of church history and have  played a vital role in contending for the faith.     But most  church history courses  won’t cover  these contributions,  which is too bad.    Neglecting  to teach such an important aspect of church history that  provides  godly examples of  women who promoted sound doctrine,   may  inadvertently contribute to the rampant problem we have today  with women who distort the Scriptures and assume leadership roles God intended only for men.   Furthermore,  the fascination with Medieval Romish mysticism reflected  in many women's studies might lose luster if  women understood  the serious heresies attached to it.  

Beginning with the New Testament and moving forward, we can learn from godly mothers like Lois and Eunice, and Monica of Hippo  (331 AD) whose answered prayer for her son Augustine has blessed the church today.   Influential scholars like Queen Katherine Parr, the last wife of Henry VIII,   nearly lost her head promoting the Gospel during the Reformation.   Amy Carmichael (b.1867), the single missionary to orphans in India, risked losing everything she had worked for when she boldly stood against  an encroaching social gospel.   And of course that old saying  “Behind every great man stands a great woman” applies to many women throughout history such as  Katie Luther, Idelette de Bure Calvin, Susannah Spurgeon, and Vera Pink
 
I think we also  need to take care  not to allow current gender debates to color our understanding of the women who have made their mark on the history of the church. For example, one might view Anne Askew, the 16th century martyr, as promoting egalitarianism—a charge that her interrogators wrongfully accused her of.    Instead, this young mother died for refusing to comply with the Catholic teaching  of transubstantiation.    Her life has challenged me to  continue contending for doctrinal purity and separation from apostasy amidst our growing ecumenical climate. 
 
Becoming acquainted with the courageous women who left their footprints behind will do more than  just satisfy a curiosity about the pink side of  church history.  These women were true champions of the faith and sparkle as jewels woven into the beautiful tapestry of the Church.  Their examples demonstrate  ways that we as contemporary women  might continue fighting the good fight of faith in the midst of all sorts of adversity,  regardless of  our station in life.    Sisters, to borrow a phrase, we are standing on the shoulders of “Giantesses”!
 
And second, women and men alike would benefit from a standard course in church history, whether done autodidactically, online, or on campus because it gives us a broad overview of the most critical points in church history.   It will also help us to appreciate more fully those who have served the Church when we understand  the context of the times in which they lived. 
Nowadays the resources available to us are endless!  Nate Busenitz, professor of Historical Theology at the Master’s Seminary has written a great three part blog series for TMS’ Preachers and Preaching  giving 10 reasons why  we should study church history.  He begins by saying,
  One of the great blindspots in contemporary American evangelicalism is its lack of historical awareness.   With his characteristic wit, Carl Trueman explained the problem like this:
‘I was asked last week why some evangelicals convert to Eastern Orthodoxy and Roman Catholicism.  Reasons vary, I am sure, but I commented that one theme I have noticed over the years is the fact that evangelicalism lacks historical roots.  That is not to say that it has no history; rather it is to say that a consciousness of history is not part of the package.  Rock band worship, Beautiful People everywhere (miserable middle aged plain people need not apply), and history nowhere in sight unless it is a reference in the sermon to an early Coldplay album.  On that level, I can understand why people looking for something serious, something with a sense of theological and historical gravitas, simply give up on evangelicalism and start looking elsewhere. Some adults want a faith that is similarly adult, after all.’ (Source)”
You can find the series here:  Why Study Church History - Part 1,  Part 2, Part 3.  The Master’s Seminary has generously posted  Professor Busenitz’ 24  video class lectures in Historical Theology HERE .  
And here’s a few more resources you might like.  PLEASE feel free to add your recommendations in the comments. 
CHURCH HISTORY RESOURCES
Podcasts:
Video teaching series for sale but some are free
Survey of Church History Series by  W. Robert Godfrey 
TGC:  Church History Made Easy by Dr. Paul Jones –12 DVD lessons 

Recommended Church History resources from-
Books:

History of the Christian Church by Philip Schaff - 8 Vol.  (free online here)
Christianity Through the Centuries  1 Vol.–  by Earle E. Cairns  
Library of Christian Classics - 26 Vol.
Chronological and Background Charts of Church History by Robert Walton
Fox’s Book of Martyrs (free here)
The Unquenchable Flame-Discovering the Heart of the Reformation by Michael Reeves

Steven Lawson:
Foundations of Grace Vol. 1
Faith Cook:

Friday, January 1, 2016

A prayer for the New Year

A prayer for the New Year, from The Valley of Vision...
O LOVE BEYOND COMPARE, 
Thou are good when thou givest,
when thou takest away,
when the sun shines upon me,
when night gathers over me. 
Thou has loved me before the foundation of the world,
and in love didst redeem my soul; 
Thou dost love me still,
in spite of my hard heart, ingratitude, distrust. 
Thy goodness has been with me during another year,
leading me through a twisting wilderness,
in retreat helping me to advance,
when beaten back making sure headway. 
Thy goodness will be with me in the year ahead; 
I hoist sail and draw up anchor,
with thee as the blessed Pilot of my future as of my past. 
I bless thee that thou has veiled my eyes to the waters ahead. 
If thou has appointed storms of tribulation,
thou wilt be with me in them; 
If I have to pass through tempests of persecution and temptation,
I shall not drown; 
If I am to die,
I shall see thy face the sooner; 
If a painful end is to be my lot,
grant me grace that my faith fail not; 
If I am to be cast aside from the service I love,
I can make no stipulation; 
Only glorify thyself in me whether in comfort or trial,
as a chosen vessel meet always for thy use.
Happy New Year, friends! We here at Out of the Ordinary are grateful for you, our readers, and for your continued support and ongoing conversation. May the Lord be glorified in 2016 and always!