Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Strengthening the tie that binds

Blest be the tie that binds
Our hearts in Christian love;
The fellowship of kindred minds
Is like to that above.

Kim's post last week on the heels of my pastor's sermon on Acts 2:42-47 got me thinking about relationships in the local church. I love my church, and we care for one another very well. But if the standard is Jesus' command to love one another as He has loved us (John 13:34-35), who would dare say they do this 100% of the time and have no need for improvement? If I carefully examine my own life, I'm convicted of how often I fall short. So as I've considered this subject, here are a few ways that may help us strengthen the tie that binds. (Disclaimer: These suggestions are coming from an introvert's point of view. Any extroverts out there, please be patient with me.)

Don't wait for "them" 

Why don't "they" (the elders/ministry leaders) start a program, change the church culture, or just do something? Have you thought this? I have. It's easy for me to hang back and wait for "them" to take the first step, but I don't do this in my family. I don't wait for a committee to institute a program before I go to my daughter or pick up the phone to call my sister. If the church is the family of God, which it is, shouldn't I treat them like family?

Be sensitive 

This is a converse to the previous point. We should encourage one another to step forward and inch our way out of our comfort zones, but it's not always easy. In fact it can be very difficult for those who are shy or just feel awkward. There may be folks who dread speaking in a group for fear of asking a stupid question or giving the wrong answer. May we be sensitive and not expect others to interact in the same way or with the same ease that we do. This is a practical way to think of others more highly than ourselves and put their needs first. (Phil. 2:3-4)

Be patient and persevere

If social media is our guide, face-to-face connections can seem slow to cultivate and hard work to maintain. I can "friend" and "follow" with a click of the mouse and "unfriend" and "unfollow" just as easily, if it doesn't suit me. It's not so easy in the local church. Life in 3-D can be a blessing, but it can also be messy. Yet I've made a covenant to pursue the well-being of this local expression of the Bride of Christ, which requires patience and perseverance. I don't expect my familial relationships to fly at the speed of Facebook, so why would I put time constraints on relationships in the church? And perhaps what I deem a mess is the very thing God is using to sanctify us and strengthen our ties, not only with each other, but to Him?

What ways do you strengthen the ties in your local church? Please share in the comments section so we can all be encouraged.

Monday, January 26, 2015

Aging Gracefully

Gray hair is a crown of glory;  
it is gained in a righteous life.
-Proverbs 16:31 (ESV)

A few weeks ago Denise McAllister wrote an article for The Federalist entitled "Madonna, It's Time to Act Your Age". In an age when posts are forgotten five minutes after they've been published, I've found McAllister's words have stuck with me. Her article is a response to another that criticizes Madonna for baring certain body parts in a magazine. She doesn't agree with the author, who frames the issue as Madonna's harm to the feminist cause. Instead, McAllister points to a far larger concern - what a culture which promotes and idolizes youth is doing to its women.
As is evidenced by celebrities whose plastic surgery debacles are plastered on the cover of magazines as they refuse to age gracefully, we have a tyranny of the maiden in our culture. She is our goddess, our ideal, because she represents everything we value most—youth, sex, and physical beauty. Instead of raising young girls to tend their inner beauty, we bombard them with sexualized messaging about how to cultivate their outward beauty. This makes them self-centered and narcissistic, something that influences their attitudes toward motherhood, marriage, and aging.
Of course I'm disgusted that any woman feels the need and the freedom to pose for suggestive photographs; however, I admit I'm more concerned that a 56-year old woman tried to prove her relevance and appeal by pretending to be thirty years younger. Madonna may argue that she's celebrating her age by flaunting her body, but I believe she has affirmed the declining value of older women.

Hollywood is full of women who seem to have stopped the hands of time. Sixty is the new forty. We marvel at how they do it. Forget plain old soap and cold cream; spa treatments and injections are the latest beauty must-haves. Cosmetic companies are raking in the profits, while we are left feeling more hollow than ever.

McAllister writes, 
The only solution to this sad dilemma is for a woman to see herself, not as a maiden, but as a woman—a human being with a body and soul—who goes through different stages in her life, transforming into a better and wiser person. What she carries with her through each of those stages is her character, her inward self that is growing in love, knowledge, and wisdom. But she can’t cultivate those aspects if she is focused on sexual, social, and economic power. She can only do it if she sees past the power constructs of the world and realizes what’s really important, what will last, what will grow more and more beautiful—her spirit, her mind, her soul. Those grow more lovely in the fertile soil of loving relationships, service, hard work, humility, devotion, loyalty, and faith.
The focus on outer beauty is a battle Christian women have been waging for years, and it's doubtful we'll win anytime soon. Madonna's antics prove that the pressure to be beautiful is only part of the problem; the quest to stay forever young has led us down a dangerous road. And we're taking our daughters with us.

Our girls are watching us. Are we declaring the truth of Proverbs 16:31? Do we believe that truth ourselves? This is not to criticize women for dying their hair or taking measures to make themselves more attractive. We are, after all, supposed to be good stewards of what God has given us and seek to bring glory to Him through all aspects of our lives, even our appearance. Yet by equating beauty with youth, we've disregarded the great privilege - and responsibility - we have in growing older.

Once again from McAllister,
We need to honor our mothers and grandmothers who have worked hard their entire lives caring for their families. We need to honor women in our communities who might never have had children, but they serve nonetheless, even without fanfare. They have lines on their faces and gray in their hair, but their beauty shines from within.
It is vitally important that we teach our daughters that aging isn't a death sentence; it's the result of living. The lines on my face have been carved by hours of laughter and tears. My brow has been furrowed by worry over a sick child, job loss, and death. Stretch marks and scars give testimony to God's faithfulness. The gray hair hasn't come yet, but I pray that when it does I will accept it as a crown of glory and not something to be covered up.

Friday, January 23, 2015

Believers Will Live With Jesus Forever

. . . so we will always be with the Lord.
1 Thessalonians 4:17 
After his resurrection, shortly before he ascended to heaven, Jesus gave some final instructions to his disciples, and promised them this: 
. . . I am with you always, to the end of the age. (Matthew 28:20 ESV
How is it that Jesus, who would soon leave his disciples behind and return to his Father in heaven, could also pledge to remain with them always? The answer to this question comes in another of Jesus' promises to them: 
And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you. (John 14:16-17 ESV)
The ascended Jesus continued—and continues now—to dwell with his people through the presence of his Holy Spirit within them.

Perhaps I should have titled this post Jesus Will Live With Believers Forever. That's more like what Jesus says in these verses. But he also told his disciples that he was going to prepare a place for them, and eventually, he would bring them to be with him (John 14:2-3). Both statements are true: Jesus lives with his disciples now and they will eventually go to live with him.

In Death

The apostle Paul writes that in everything that happens—and he includes a long list of possible harrowing circumstances—Christ's love, and so Christ himself, is with the believer (Romans 8:35-39). Nothing in this world separates us from him, not even our death, because when we die, we to go be with him where he is.

At the moment of death, our soul separates from our body and goes to heaven to be with Jesus. The process of dying will undoubtedly be difficult, but "[a] Christian," J. I. Packer writes, 
may rightly think of his death-day as a date in Jesus' diary: when the appointed time comes the Saviour will be there to lead His servant into the light of His own nearer presence and closer communion.1
Christians call this heavenly fellowship with Christ experienced by the souls of believers who have died the intermediate state, because this is where the believer lives between their death and their resurrection.

And this is more or less the sum of what we know about this place where our souls wait for our resurrection. The Bible doesn't tell us much, and despite all the popular so-called "heaven tourism" books, scripture is our only source of true information about the intermediate state. What scripture does say is that being a soul in heaven is better than being a body and soul united together in this fallen world (Philippians 1: 21-23), because in heaven we will be "at home" with the Lord (2 Corinthians 5:1-8). We will be with Jesus in a way that's nearer and better than the way he is with us now. What's more, at death, our souls are "made perfect" (Hebrews 12:23). There is no more struggle with sin, for God makes us completely holy intermediate state.

A believer, then, can face death with joy, knowing that what comes on the other side is better than what we experience here as we live sin-wrecked lives in a sin-spoiled world, because we will be with Jesus, closer to him than ever.

In Resurrection

The intermediate state, wonderful as it will be, is not the best there is. We were created in the image of God as body and soul. Our existence in heaven will be lacking something we need—a body. We will still be looking forward to something more and better. In heaven we will be longing for the day of Christ's second advent, for our resurrection when we receive our glorified bodies and for the beginning of our life with Jesus in the new heavens and the new earth.

It's then, finally, when everything we need and want will be given to us: a new body, a new earth, and a reunion with all saints we've loved as they are resurrected with us. But most important, we will see God face to face, and live in his never-ending presence (Revelation 21:1-4; 22:1-5).
In the face of God we will see the fulfillment of all the longing we have ever had to know perfect love, peace, and joy, and to know truth and justice, holiness and wisdom, goodness and power and glory and beauty. As we gaze into the face of our Lord, we will know more fully than ever that "in your presence there is fullness of joy, at your right hand are pleasures for evermore" (Ps. 16:11).2
Believers will have full and eternal joy because they will see God's face and live in his presence forever, and never again want anything else.

Learn More
  1. Study 2 Corinthians 5:6-10; Hebrews 12:22-23; Revelation 21:1-4; and Revelation 22:1-5. 
  2. Read up on the intermediate state and the new heavens and new earth in your favorite systematic theology. In Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, these are chapter 41 and chapter 57. You can read from Berkhof's Systematic Theology online: Physical Death, The Intermediate State, and The Final State
  3. Read the entries on the general resurrection and heaven in J. I. Packer's Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs
  4. Listen to Wayne Grudem teach about Death and the Intermediate State and The New Heavens and New Earth.
1] 18 Words: The Most Important Words You Will Ever Knowby J. I. Packer, page 203.

2] Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem, page 1164.

This post is the last in a series of posts with sixteen truths every Christian woman should know. Here's a list of them all.
  1. God Has Spoken (posted at the True Woman Blog) 
  2. God Is Three and God Is One
  3. God Is Who He Is
  4. God Had a Plan
  5. God Created the Universe
  6. We Are Made in God's Image
  7. We Are All Sinners
  8. God Saves
  9. The Son Came
  10. Jesus Lived and Died
  11. Jesus Is Risen
  12. Jesus Is Lord
  13. We Must Believe
  14. Believers Have New Life
  15. Believers Belong
  16. Believers Will Live With Jesus Forever

Friday, January 16, 2015

On packing, dumpsters, and true treasure

I am currently in the process of packing up our house in preparation to move at the end of this month. We've lived in this home for fifteen years so, yeah, there's a lot of stuff to be cleaned up and cleared out. A lot of stuff. Fifteen years plus four kids? You get the picture.

It's quite an undertaking to be sure but I kind of like it. For the moment anyway. There is great freedom in weighing the relative beauty or usefulness of an item and then making the decision to pack it or give it away. I'm no minimalist but I'm liking the process of paring down to things I really love and use.

Packing has also been an exercise in gratitude. I have laughed and remembered and maybe even blinked back a tear or two as I uncover long forgotten pictures and scrapbooks and other memories.

And so much of what we have is due to the generosity of our family! Giving us everything from beds to tables to lamps to mattresses and box springs, our families have been so good to us and we are grateful. My husband's grandmother was especially generous to us, giving us furniture items like chairs and cedar chests, precious items like a Roseville vase and the not-quite-so-precious like an orange plastic colander.

Upon her death several years ago, we received her dining room table, chairs, hutch and buffet. When we drove over with the Uhaul to pick up the dining set, most of her earthly possessions had already been divided among the family, and my husband's father was emptying the house of the remaining items in order to ready it for sale. A dumpster had been hauled in to the backyard for convenient disposal.

I rummaged through what remained in the house on a scavenger hunt of sorts, saving a few items from sure dumpster doom. We discovered some Bibles, one belonging to my husband's great-grandmother containing the occasional childish scribble of his grandmother's name marked by her age.

But mostly it was junk deserving of the dumpster. A lot of junk, I might add. We spent the better part of the day tossing objects great and small into the dumpster. I can't tell you what fun my boys had hurling items over the edge and listening for the accompanying crash or shatter.

I thought to myself then, and continue to ponder today as I sort through fifteen years of accumulated possessions and my own fair share of junk: isn't that just like life? Isn't that what the things of this world ultimately come to: a dumpster in the backyard? These were items my husband's grandmother had cherished and kept for years, decades in most cases, now thrown into a dumpster and headed for a landfill.

She was a godly woman, my husband's grandmother, and she knew her true treasure did not lie in this world. In fact, the last time we saw her alive she told my husband she was ready to die, that she had asked the Lord to go ahead and take her Home. I am quite certain she gave no thought for the things of this world in her desire for the next.

As I evaluate keeping or tossing, packing or giving away, the dumpster serves as an important visual, reminding me this world is not all there is, and the material things I sometimes strive after with such obsession will ultimately end up in a dumpster headed for the landfill.

Am I storing up treasures in heaven, or merely filling the dumpster?

May I set my heart on things eternal, seeking after Jesus, the true Treasure of this life. And the next. For where my treasure is, there my heart will be also.

*Parts of this post appeared in an article at my personal blog, August 2007

Wednesday, January 14, 2015

Be a Berean, not a Bobblehead

When I think of peer pressure, I usually think about school kids and the push to fit in with the in crowd. But pressure to conform still exists even when you're too old for playground politics.

In 2005, a neuroscientist conducted a study to determine what happened in the brain when a person was influenced to give wrong answers under peer pressure. Was it a conscious decision to conform or were perceptions actually altered? The subjects were first tested individually. They were shown two different three-dimensional objects on a computer screen and asked whether the first object could be rotated to match the second. As would be expected, the parts of the brain used for spatial concepts and conscious decision making were the most active. Then the researchers livened things up. The subjects were tested in a group, but the other members were ringers who unanimously gave the wrong answers. If the subjects were deliberately choosing to go with the majority, the conscious, decision-making part of the brain should be the most active, but it was not. There was less decision-making activity and heightened activity in the spatial area of the brain. Given these findings and the fact that the wrong answers increased, the researchers concluded that peer pressure altered the subjects' perception of the problem. To put it another way, peer pressure changed their understanding of reality.1

Now why am I bringing this up and boring you with brain research? Well, let me relate this same problem with a completely different scenario.

Many years ago, I attended a sermon by someone I respected and knew fairly well. But during the talk, the speaker made a statement that gave me a double-take. He said something that seemed wrong. In fact, it was completely contrary to what was in the Bible. This wasn't just a slip of the tongue but a point that was stressed repeatedly. After the message was over, I joined a group to discuss this sermon. I can only speak for myself, but I have a gut feeling that everyone was wrestling with some form of cognitive dissonance. We were Christians who had some knowledge of the Bible, and we just heard something that directly contradicted a very basic scriptural truth. Would anyone come out and say, "You know, I thought so-and-so said this and it seems the opposite from what is in the Bible."? 

Sadly the group leader began to justify this questionable statement by using all sorts of mental gymnastics because the speaker had to be right because he was the speaker. Right?  Pretty soon the majority of the group were nodding their heads in agreement. After listening to comments from people who were older than me and who I considered more spiritual, I caved. It wasn't a conscious, "They are saying XYZ and I think they are wrong, but I will say XYZ too so they will still like me." It was much more subtle. "It must be just me. The speaker must have some deeper knowledge of the Bible that I completely missed on a plain reading of the text. I'm just an ordinary believer. Everyone else is more spiritual. They know better than I do. I will trust their better judgment and let go of my misgivings."

Looking back, this was very dangerous. My reality was altered by peer pressure, and it wasn't whether object A could be rotated to look like object B. I succumbed to basically exchanging something true for a lie. I was not being a Berean. I was a bobblehead, nodding in blind agreement, because deference took precedence over discernment.

Thank God, we live in the post-Reformation age. There are Bibles on our shelves and a host of resources at our fingertips. We can speak freely and offer respectful dissenting views without fear, at least in the West. (Our brothers and sisters in other parts of the world pay a much higher cost for this privilege.) But, may we not take this for granted. The truth in God's Word is too precious to be handled casually because souls may hang in the balance. May we think carefully and consider what we have heard or read. May we diligently search the Scriptures and see if these things are so. May we buy the truth and sell it not.

The Church needs Bereans, not bobbleheads.

1. Quiet: The Power of Introverts in a World That Can't Stop Talking, Susan Cain, Crown Publishers, 2012, pp. 90-92.

Friday, January 9, 2015

Believers Belong

Adopted by God
But to all who did receive him, who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God . . . . (John 1:12 ESV)
When you believed the gospel, you were adopted by God. He became your father and you became his child. Before you believed, you were estranged from God, but with adoption, you come into a loving father/child relationship with him. J. I. Packer explains that our "adopted status means that in and through Christ God loves [us] as he loves his only begotten Son and will share with [us] all the glory that is Christ's now."1

Adoption is one of the saving benefits that comes to us through Christ's work. The believer's sins have been forgiven and they have been given right standing with God, so they can be adopted by him. Or to think of it another way, believers have been united with Christ, and the relationship they have with God the Father is in many ways similar to his. He is the unique Son of God, but those united to him, as his siblings, are also God's sons and daughters—sons and daughters by adoption.

A Comforting Truth

Adoption is—or should be—and extremely comforting truth, but  I know women for whom the idea of God as a father is more uncomfortable than comforting because of their own father's abuse. God's fatherhood, however, is the perfect fatherhood prototype, and our earthly fathers are either imperfect copies or shameless perversions of it. If your father loved and cared for you well, you are one step ahead in understanding what it is to relate to God as a father. Thinking of God as your father will naturally reassure that you are secure in his love.

On the other hand, if your own father was abusive or neglectful, you may need to reshape your idea of fatherhood starting from the fatherhood of God as described in scripture. You will need to think of God as father as fundamentally different than your earthly father. In God's family, writes J. I. Packer, "you have absolute stability and security; the parent is entirely wise and good, and the child's position is permanently assured."2 God, as the ultimate father, will always love you, care for you, and never abandon you.

Benefits of Adoption

There are many benefits that come with our adoption. First, adoption gives us an intimate relationship with God. We can come to him as a child comes to their parent, telling him our deepest wishes and fears, and asking him for his help with everything in our lives. Second, it means that we are led by the Holy Spirit to be obedient to him (Romans 8:14). Third, our status as adopted children means we receive his discipline (Hebrews 12:7). This may not always seem like a benefit, but it is, because God's discipline is for our good, causing us to grow in holiness. Fourth, as adopted sons and daughters, we have an inheritance. We are, says scripture, fellow heirs with Christ (Romans 8:17). As heirs, writes Wayne Grudem, 
[a]ll the great privileges and blessings of heaven are laid up for us and put at our disposal because we are children of the King, members of the royal family, prince and princesses who will reign with Christ over the new heavens and new earth. 3
Put in a Family

The family we join when we are adopted includes all the other adopted sons and daughters of God. All believers are our brothers and sisters. Another name for God's family is the church. The church as God's family exists at two levels: the family that includes all believers world-wide throughout history, and the smaller family that includes all the members of a local church.

There are no only children in God's adopted family—although I admit to sometimes feeling that it would be easier if there were! Everywhere in the New Testament it is assumed that all believers will participate in a local church, for the local church as the family of God is the soil in which believers grow best. It's here, primarily, that members of God's family fellowship with their brothers and sisters, worship with them, serve them and serve with them, and are spiritually nourished and trained by them.  
And just as in our physical families, where we are shaped by our relationships with our brother and sisters, we are shaped by our relationships with the members of our spiritual family, even the relationships containing conflict. From our more difficult siblings, we learn, at the very least, patience and self-sacrifice
This afternoon I'll attend a memorial service for a very elderly woman who began attending our church ten years ago or so. In a local paper piece marking her death, someone described her as "crotchety," and that's the perfect word to use—and a label I think she'd accept. Despite her frequent expressions of concern for the well-being of others, she was not always easy to get along with! Her crotchetiness either resulted from or resulted in estrangement from all of her physical family, but in God's family she found people who loved her well in spite of herself, helping her with many of her needs as she grew more feeble and even more irritable.

This is the way it should be in God's family. As members of our adopted family—a family whose bonds are stronger than the bonds of an earthly family—we keep loving and serving each other even when it's not easy, and God uses the messiness of our experiences with each other to sanctify us.

Are you thankful for God's gift of adoption? That God is your father forever? Are you thankful you have been placed into a family that is, at it's best, a little foretaste of the family gathering that heaven will be?

Learn More 
  1. Memorize Romans 8:14-17. 
  2. Read up on adoption and the church (our adopted family) in your favorite systematic theology. In Wayne Grudem's Systematic Theology: An Introduction to Biblical Doctrine, chapter 37 is on adoption and chapter 44 is about the nature of the church. 
  3. Read chapter 19, Sons of God, in J. I. Packer's Knowing God, or the entries on adoption and church in his Concise Theology: A Guide to Historic Christian Beliefs.
  4. Listen to Wayne Grudem teach about adoption.
1] Concise Theology by J. I. Packer, page 167.

2] Knowing God by J. I. Packer, page 209.

3] Systematic Theology by Wayne Grudem, page 740.

This post is the latest in a series of posts on truths every Christian woman should know. Here are the previous posts: