Monday, December 31, 2012

Encouragement For 2013

Some encouragement from the Prince of Preachers as we close out 2012 and look forward to 2013...

And the LORD will guide you continually. 
~Isaiah 58:11
"The LORD will guide you." Not an angel, but the Lord will guide you. He said He would not go through the wilderness before His people, but an angel would go before them to lead them in the way; but Moses said, "If your presence will not go with me, do not bring us up from here." [Exodus 33:15] Christian, God has not left you in your earthly pilgrimage to be guided by an angel: He Himself leads the procession. You may not see the cloudy, fiery pillar, but the Lord will never forsake you. Notice the word will - "The Lord will guide you." This makes it certain! We may be sure that God will not forsake us! His precious shalls and wills are better than men's promises. "I will never leave you nor forsake you." [Hebrews 13:5] Then observe the adverb "continually". We are not merely led sometimes, but we have a perpetual guide; not occasionally left to our own understanding, and so to wander, but continually hearing  the guiding voice of the Great Shepherd; and if we keep close to His heels, we will not drift but will be led by a right way to our eternal dwelling. If you have to change your position in life, if you have to emigrate to another country, if it should happen that you are poverty-stricken or suddenly promoted to a more responsible position than the one you now occupy, if you are thrown among strangers or cast among foes, don't tremble, for "the LORD will guide you continually." There are no dilemmas out of which you will not be delivered if you live near to God and your heart is kept warm with holy love. You will not go astray in the company of God. Like Enoch, walk with God, and you cannot miss your road. You have infallible wisdom to direct you, unchangeable love to comfort you, and eternal power to defend you. "The LORD" - mark the word - "the LORD will guide you continually."
*Taken from Morning and Evening: A New Edition of the Classic Devotional Based on The Holy Bible, English Standard Version

Friday, December 28, 2012

Six Books of Theology Every Christian Woman Should Read

As you put together your reading plan for the coming year, consider these books. Each is easy to read, not too long, and of classic quality. If you are new to the study of doctrine, these won't be too difficult for you, and once you've read them all, you'll have an excellent overview of basic Christian theology.

If you're already a theology buff and you haven't read all of these, put the ones you've missed on your reading list. You'll learn something in each one, I promise.

On Scripture
40 Questions About Interpreting the Bible by Robert L. Plummer is made up of short stand-alone chapters answering 40 common questions related to understanding the Bible. There are plenty of charts and lists to keep things uncomplicated, and enough humour and stories to keep things unstuffy. I don’t know of any introductory book on interpreting scripture that would be more useful for the lay person who desires to better understand the Bible than this one.

On God's Nature and His Work
Knowing God by J. I. Packer will help you understand who God is, what he has done for you, and cause you to love him more because of it. Years ago when I was writing posts on God's attributes, I referenced this book frequently because Packer has a way of expressing truths about God precisely. This is one of the most frequently recommended Christian books, and there's good reason for it. I know people who re-read this every couple of years, and there's good reason for that, too. 

On the Trinity
Michael Reeves’ passion for the doctrine of the Trinity comes through on every page of Delighting in the Trinity: An Introduction to the Christian Faith. It’s obvious that for him the doctrine of the Trinity is not dry, irrelevant, or embarrassing, but the central truth of Christianity, “the truth that shapes and beautifies all others.” Reeves doesn’t assume that the reader has a background in Trinitarian theology, so this is an excellent choice for a student or new believer. And his passion for the subject makes it a good choice even for those who consider themselves well-studied in the faith. None of us are beyond more delight in the Trinity.

On the Work of Christ
Leon Morris wrote the definitive scholarly work on the cross of Christ, The Apostolic Preaching of the Cross. Happily for those of us who aren't exactly scholars, he took the material from his big book and made a version just for us, titled The Atonement: Its Meaning and Significance. Here Morris explains the terms associated with the atonement, like justificationsacrifice, and propitiation, so we can understand the meaning and significance of what Christ accomplished for us.

On the Big Picture
I have two recommendations in this category. The first is The World-Tilting Gospel by Dan Phillips. It's the whole-Bible gospel delivered to us in an energetic, easy-to-understand, earnest-but-never-preachy style. I suspect this book was written with newish believers and young Christians in mind—and it’s perfect for them—but it is also good for every believer as a reminder of the unabridged Gospel.

Second, there's D. A. Carsons' introduction to the Christian faith, The God Who Is There: Finding Your Place in God's Story. In fourteen chapters, Carson explains the big story of the Bible, the story of God's work in the world from creation through to final restoration. Out of the Ordinary's own Kim Shay wrote that this book assumes
the reader knows very little about the Bible, and would be an excellent tool for sharing with someone interested in Christianity, or even someone who has a lot of pre-conceived notions about it.  Dr. Carson writes like a wise father figure, patiently, carefully explaining very difficult concepts in a way that leaves you thinking with delight at the end, "Hey, I understand that!" 
She's exactly right. If I could say it better, I wouldn't have quoted her!

Even if you consider yourself well versed in the big biblical picture, these two books will help prepare you to communicate the Christian faith.

Are there any easy-to-read doctrine books of classic quality that you would add to this list? 

Monday, December 24, 2012

Immanuel, God with us

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 Out of the Ordinary.

Friday, December 21, 2012

"...and THIS is Christmas?"

For our first Christmas tree that first year we were married, my husband and I went to a tree farm and he showed off his manly manliness for his bride by single handedly cutting down the tree carefully chosen after much (much!) deliberation. We hauled it up to our second floor apartment and proudly strung lights and hung ornaments.

We had precious few Christmas items that first year of our married life. Oh, we had several ornaments for our tree, my mom saving and adding to a collection of ornaments from the time I was a little girl. But beyond that there was little else with which to deck the halls.

For that first Christmas, I did purchase a white nativity set at a local craft show during my work lunch hour. Upon returning home from work that afternoon, I eagerly unpacked each piece, carefully placing it in just the right spot in the center of our kitchen table. Yes, the kitchen table. We had no other piece of furniture on which to place it! Mary, Joseph, the shepherd, the angel, the three wise men, the camels, the donkey, the sheep, all took their respective places in the Christmas tableau. That is, except for the baby Jesus. He was missing. Absent. Nowhere in the box. AWOL.

Providentially, the box had a sticker on its side containing the name and contact information of the seller. I called her and described my dilemma. She laughed and said, "It doesn't really make much sense without Him, does it?" She promptly mailed me a baby Jesus figurine.

I thought about her comment a couple of weeks ago as Christmas decorations and boxes and wreaths and other Christmas debris littered my den and dining room in my feeble attempt at decorating (or, not, as the case may be). I thought to myself, "and THIS is Christmas?"

I thought about her comment this week as I've hurried and scurried and rushed all over town to shop, shop, shop and spend, spend, spend, asking myself "and THIS is Christmas?"

Today I stood in (yet another) line, and commiserated with another mom as we complained of the frenzy and frantic busyness that mark Christmas, both of us confessing we hate it and how relieved we are when it's over already and I thought once again "and THIS is Christmas?"

It doesn't make much sense without Him, does it?

May my celebration of Christmas be marked by a sense of gratitude and awe. May I remember, and be thankful to God for, His indescribable gift. May I forgo the false gods of materialism and perfectionism and consumerism and instead worship the Only One worthy. May I rejoice, not in shopping or decorating or in giving and receiving, but that the Word became flesh and dwelt among us and we beheld His glory full of grace and truth. Let's behold His glory this Christmas season as we look beyond the manger to the cross and to the sacrifice of our Lord that accomplished for us forgiveness and redemption and life everlasting. Let us see Jesus!

Author's note: This post originally appeared on my personal blog in December 2007. 

Wednesday, December 19, 2012

Peace on earth

Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace, good will toward men. 
Luke 2:14 (KJV)

Such was the angelic announcement to shepherds in a field outside of Bethlehem. If I had been one of them, I would have been thrilled to hear this news. After wars, captivity, more wars, and now Roman invasion, who wouldn't want peace on earth?

Our time isn't very different. The world is still broken, and we long for the day when fear, conflict, and death will be things of the past. But where can we find this? Is peace possible through finding our better selves? The bumper sticker tells us to "Visualize World Peace", but even if every person on the globe obeyed, it wouldn't change things one bit. "Let there be peace on earth and let it begin with me" sounds nice, but it doesn't get to the root because the problem is you. The problem is me.

We've been at war with God since the day Adam fell, and thus began the history of human strife, the rotten fruit of our rebellion against a good and holy God. There was nothing we could do to heal the breach. The debt we owed was greater than the budget deficit. We were without hope and without God in the world. But in a stable in Bethlehem, God intervened, and on a bloody cross, He displayed the full extent of His good will toward men through the death of His Son.
For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross. And you, who once were alienated and hostile in mind, doing evil deeds, he has now reconciled in his body of flesh by his death, in order to present you holy and blameless and above reproach before him, Col. 1:19-22
This may seem more suitable for Easter than Christmas, but this is why Jesus came. The rightful King descended from His throne to save the rebels who were bent on overthrowing Him. The war was won by the Conqueror dying in the place of His enemies. The Guiltless bore the punishment of the guilty, and the unrighteous are declared justified. Instead of alienation and hostility, we are reconciled to God and to one another. Through Immanuel's death and resurrection, "God with us" is a reality.

Isn't this good news? This should ignite our praise. This should fuel our love for the lost and spur us to share the glad tidings far and wide. Jesus, who was born to die and rise, is hope for the hopeless and peace for the war-torn. Glory to God in the highest!

Note: The Advent series at my church is "Jesus, born to die and rise." This post was inspired by this sermon on Mark 15 by Pastor Ryan Davidson.

Monday, December 17, 2012

Christmas is for the Watchers

A busy weekend kept me away from the computer for several days (not that I'm complaining!). So, like Rebecca, I'm recycling a post from my personal blog. This one from last year, as my husband had just graduated from college and we were waiting for a job.

I light the candles scattered among our nativities, and my soul whispers the familiar word that dominates my thoughts.


As our family keeps watch, I consider how that first Christmas was for the watchers.

Joseph, watching for a roof to shelter his betrothed, great with child. Watching for a place fitting to birth the Prince of Peace. Weariness from the journey did not deter him.  This night - this holy night - was for watching in awe as the Creator came to His creation, helpless and tiny.  

Mary, keeping watch over her newborn son and pondering the miraculous in her heart. Her song was sung long before. She praised God before her delivery. She praised God before her deliverance. This night - this silent night - was for watching over the Lord of All.

Shepherds, watching over their flocks that night. They worked though all of Israel groaned with the years of waiting to hear from God. Carrying out their duties as usual, not knowing that their lives were about to be radically changed.  Not men of much learning, but wise enough to leave the work behind and follow the Lord's proclamation. This night - this glorious night - was for watching God keep His promise in the most unexpected of ways.

Magi, watching the brightest star appear in the sky. At just the right time, it appeared to herald the incomparable work of God. Though they didn't have the Scriptures, they couldn't deny Him.  They left everything behind to find Him. This night - this wondrous night - was for watching God's brilliance overtake the darkness.

I watch the flames flicker, shadows dancing over the birth scenes. Despite Joseph's weariness, Mary's weakness, and the disappointing circumstances they found upon their arrival in Bethlehem - despite it all, God came.

And the world, not watching, missed it.

I close my eyes, think long about my own weariness, weakness, and disappointing circumstances. Then I glance again at the Babe, and I remember that God will come.

And so I keep watching.

Friday, December 14, 2012

In the Fullness of Time

I sat at my desk yesterday, working on a new piece to post here today, while family life swirled around me. The grandbaby was squawking, my son was trying to find a bootie for the dog's still-healing foot so he could take him snowshoeing, and my head was threatening to explode as I tried to keep track of it all. I escaped upstairs to iron the clothes I needed to wear for caroling last evening, and while I ironed, I decided to scrap the new post—which was turning out as disjointed as my afternoon—and enjoy the grandbaby and the wonderful winter weather.

So here's all I've got: an advent piece I wrote several years ago. We view the incarnation from the already-accomplished side of God's plan—and how blessed we are! This is a brief look from the other side, as God's glorious plan played out in redemption history.

In eternity past, prior to his first creative command, God had a plan for the history of his creation. At the very centre of his plan was His own Son, foreordained to redeem humankind from the ruinous results of sin. That God’s own Son would come as Redeemer was at the heart of God’s purposeful will—the plan that he invariably works in all things to accomplish.

It was a glorious plan, but a plan yet to be revealed and a plan yet to unfold in history.  And then, piece by piece, God’s word revealed his purpose, and piece by piece, his command brought it to pass.

We have a hint of God’s redemptive plan in the curse of the serpent: “He shall bruise your head, and you shall bruise his heel.” The plan is there in his promise to Abraham: “In you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.”

It was according to his plan that God brought his people into captivity in Egypt and then raised up Moses as God's agent of redemption to bring them out from slavery, foreshadowing—anticipating—the greater Redeemer to come. The plan is there, too, when God gave the law—the perfect law written in stone, the perfect law that no one could keep, the perfect law that held people captive under a curse. It was this perfect law that showed the need for the great Redeemer to come. In all this, piece by piece, God’s word was revealing his purpose, and piece by piece, his command was bringing it to pass.

The prophets of old spoke, not according to their own will, but according to God’s plan, carried along by the disclosing work of the Holy Spirit, and moved by him to record those prophecies for us. God’s perfect plan raised up Isaiah, who prophesied of a virgin who would conceive a son whose name would be “God is with us.” God’s Spirit set Jeremiah apart from his mother’s womb to be a prophet to the nations, to reveal the coming new covenant when God’s perfect law would be written on his people’s hearts. These prophets, too, were pieces of the plan, teaching God's people to expect the day when their great Redeemer would come. Yes, piece by piece, God’s word was revealing his purpose, and piece by piece his command was bringing it to pass.

And then the counsel of his will called for the fulfillment of his promise. It was the right time according to his purposeful plan; it was the perfect time for everything to change.

It was the fullness of time.

Monday, December 10, 2012

A Mother's Heart

I once worked at a store where only one of my co-workers was male. The poor man managed to endure while we discussed shoes and hairstyles, but what he couldn’t abide was our childbirth stories.

He would usually try to protest, but when the conversation shifted, he would find a task that would take him elsewhere.

Women love childbirth stories. Like Melanie in Gone with the Wind, we tend to believe “the happiest days are when babies come.”

Christmas is no exception. We love the story of Jesus’ birth. And though we try to be realistic and remind ourselves of the third-trimester donkey ride and dirty stable, we still focus on the result -- the baby wrapped in swaddling clothes.

If you’ve been a mother long enough, your child has disappointed you. Sometimes the disappointment cuts so deeply our hearts are broken. But all mothers, biological or adoptive, remember the joy and hope we felt the first time each child was placed in our arms.

Only one mother never had her heart broken by her child’s sin. Only one mother never had to accept that her child was not perfect. But that mother had her heart broken in a way that we can’t understand. She lived to see her nation reject the Messiah sent to save them. She lived to see her son die a violent, horrible death. As Simeon prophesied in Luke 2:35, she experienced a pain so deep it was like a sword that pierced her own soul.

I’m much closer in age to Mary at the foot of the cross than Mary at the manger. I can’t imagine the grief that flooded her mother’s heart as her son was beaten, spit upon, and nailed to a cross.

But Jesus was more than Mary’s son, he was also her Savior. Her son’s death secured her only hope of salvation. Because of Christ’s death on the cross, we can look past the pain and hurt of this world, past the sin that so easily entangles us (Hebrews 12:1-3) and look forward to the “hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:27)

And the angel said to them, “Fear not, for behold, I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Savior, who is Christ the Lord. (Luke 2:10-11)

Friday, December 7, 2012

Jesus in our ordinary

I have a nativity that belonged to my grandmother. I'm not sure where she got it as I never saw it displayed in her home. Whether it was a gift or a bargain buy she couldn't pass up, I will never know. I do know that I am glad I have it, not only because it was hers but because I think it lovely and unique in that it has no babe wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger. There's a baby, yes, but He is held in His mother's arms.

I have this nativity displayed on an end table in our family room. One day earlier this week I was eating my breakfast and reading my Advent devotional for the day when I glanced over to the nativity. There among Mary and Joseph and the shepherds was also a collection of books, a tv remote, my iPad, my plate of pumpkin bread and, of course, my cup of coffee.

Not to mention a fair amount of dust.

A housekeeper, I am not.

Nor am I a skilled iPhone photographer so please excuse the blurry photo.

My first reaction was one of dismay and maybe a little self-hatred, both in regard to my lack of housekeeping skills as well as our tendency to cover every horizontal surface in this house with all sorts of remnants of daily life: books, newspapers, mail, empty tea glasses, you name it. It doesn't seem right, somehow, for baby Jesus to be surrounded by dirt and dust and the ordinary accoutrements of our day-to-day living. Jesus and the tv remote? It seems almost sacrilegious. Maybe I should put Him on a top shelf somewhere, away, protected, safe, special.

But isn't that just what Christmas is, Jesus in our ordinary? The Son of God not considering equality with God something to be grasped, but making Himself nothing, taking on human form, coming to earth as a baby (Phil. 2:6-8). What an ordinary plan! What humility! We might set out to save the world via the sort of Savior born into wealth and prestige and certainly privy to our modern conveniences of satellite broadcasts and twitter feeds and 24 hour news cycles, not to mention deodorant and tailored suits and air conditioning. And epidurals.

Not so God. When the time had fully come He sent forth His Son (Gal. 4:4), to a family in poverty enduring oppression under a hostile regime. He was born in a stable, among livestock. Can you imagine the dirt and the smell? What a place to give birth! What a place to cradle your newborn Son--in a manger, a feeding trough!

The humility of Jesus' birth, the humility of His life and His death, all are echoed in Paul's assertion that for our sake He who was rich became poor so we through His poverty might become rich (2 Cor. 8:9). Jesus entered into the dust and dirt of this world so that we might know the glory and the beauty of life in Him and with Him. We are rich indeed, we who have Christ.

While it's certainly not the sort of Christmas decorating that will grace the pages of my Southern Living magazine, I find that a nativity surrounded by real life is in some ways wholly appropriate. Jesus in my ordinary revealing the extraordinary. What grace. What condescension. Hallelujah, what a Savior.

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Christ Incarnate - The Sinner's Only Hope

She will bear a son, and you shall call his name Jesus, for he will save his people from their sins.
Matthew 1:21

"There was no hope for any sinner unless the Son of God Himself should save him. But the apostle Paul, writing to his son Timothy, says, “This is a faithful saying, and worthy of all acceptation, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners;.” (1 Tim. 1:15) You may measure the depth of our danger by the glory of the person of Him who undertook to deliver us from it. It is the Son of God, whom angels worship, who has come “to save sinners.” It must be a deep destruction from which only God Himself could rescue man...

"Jesus Christ did not come into the world to help you to forget your sin. He has not come to furnish you with a cloak with which to cover it. He has not appeared that He may so strengthen your minds (as some men would have you believe,) that you may learn to laugh at your iniquities, and defy the consequences thereof. For no such reason has the Son of God descended from Heaven to earth. He has come, not to lull you into a false peace, not to whisper consolation which would turn out to be delusive in the end, but to give you a real deliverance from sin by putting it away, and so to bring you a true peace in which you may safely rejoice. For, if sin be put away, then peace is lawful; then rest of spirit becomes not only a blessing which we may enjoy, but which we must enjoy, and which, the more we shall enjoy it, the better shall we please our God. 0 sinner, the good tidings that we bring to you, in the Gospel, are not the mere glitter of a hope that will delude you at the last, not a present palliative for the woe you feel, but a real cure for all your ills, a sure and certain deliverance from all the danger that now hangs over you!

From Christ Incarnate - The Sinner's Only HopeChrist's Incarnation, The Foundation of Christianity by C. H. Spurgeon (emphasis mine)

Monday, December 3, 2012

A Season of Consecration

The very fact that so many people considered the Messiah's coming more of a fairy tale than a future event was, in itself, a cause for repentance. It wasn't just that God had promised to do it. It was that the reason he promised to do it was like an intimate promise between lovers. God's promised Messiah was a merciful gift of love to a people who needed both mercy and love. He would come to them in all their pain, brokenness, and struggle, and make everything new. They were desperate for this, and the proof of their desperation was perhaps the most evident in the fact that they couldn't bring themselves to live as though this promise was real.
~Russ Ramsey
Are we any different? The promise has been fulfilled, but do we live like it's real? I fully rely on His promise during major, life-shattering events such as the loss of my husband's job or my mom's sudden passing. Yet I confess that it is in the mundane task of day-to-day living that I often forget. God became man and broke the bondage of sin. I should be shouting that with every ounce of marrow in my weary bones. I am desperate, yet I've forgotten how to live in desperation.

As we begin this season of Advent, I want to cling desperately to the Lord and His promise. I want to watch for Him and make ready my heart. I want to remember that the Gospel is not a fairy tale, and I want to stop living like it is.

My fellow ordinary theologians and I are consecrating this time of Advent, stepping back from our normal posting to focus our hearts on the very good news  - Emmanuel, God with Us. We invite you to join us as we journey through the Advent season together.

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 (ESV)