Monday, November 30, 2015

My Favorite Advent Reading

Yesterday was the first Sunday in Advent. I started my Advent reading a few weeks ago, because I desperately need Christmas this year. I've collected some terrific books over the years. In the past, I've read one or two each season. Choosing just a few from among these treasures has proven difficult, so I'm trying to read them all.

Why Christ Came: 31 Meditations on the Incarnation by Joel Beeke. These short devotions are part of my morning quiet time. Starting my day with a reminder of why Jesus came (to receive worship, to call sinners to repentance, to bring great joy) focuses my attention on my need for Christ during a season when the world clamors for my attention.

Behold the Lamb of God by Russ Ramsey. I finish the day with these slightly longer readings. This Advent Narrative draws me into the story of God's redemption of His people. Written more like a book than a devotional, this powerful little book is packed with Scripture references that give me much to ponder as my day draws to an end.

I generally read for a little while each evening, which gives me time for more substantial readings. I'm working through three excellent resources one at a time.

Come, Thou Long-Expected Jesus: Experiencing the Peace and Promise of Christmas edited by Nancy Guthrie. This collection of essays written by Tim Keller, Martin Luther, and others was my first Advent resource, and remains a favorite.

The Christ of Christmas by James Montgomery Boice. This compilation of Christmas sermons was my first exposure to Boice. I really enjoy his teaching.

The Incarnation in the Gospels (Reformed Expository Commentary) by Daniel Doriani. Another wonderful offering from the Reformed Expository series.

Finally, at the dinner table each evening we celebrate by lighting candles and reading Let Every Heart Prepare Him Room: Daily Family Devotions for Advent by Nancy Guthrie, which is perfect for families of all ages.

What about you, reader? Do you have any favorite Advent resources you'd like to share with us? We'd love to hear from you!

Friday, November 27, 2015

Book Review: The Biggest Story

How the Snake Crusher Brings Us Back to the Garden by Kevin DeYoung

The children in your life probably know many of the stories in the Bible. They are likely acquainted with Abraham, Joseph, Moses, and David, and been taught to apply the stories to their own lives: “Trust God like David did when he killed the giant,” for instance, or “Don’t disobey like David did when he had Uriah killed.” And there’s nothing wrong with using the Bible’s stories like this, because God intended for them to serve as examples for us (1 Corinthians 10:6).

But the Bible is more than a collection of individual stories with heroes to imitate or villains to avoid imitating. It is one big story comprised of all the smaller stories. It’s the story of God’s work of creation; humankind’s fall, bringing with it the corruption of everything; and God’s work to make it all right again.

Do your children know this story, the biggest one? Do they understand how the stories of the Old and New Testament fit together into a grand narrative of a “snake-crushing King” and “destined-to-die Deliverer” who will bring us back to the garden?

Kevin DeYoung’s purpose for writing this book is to give children the whole picture, the one that connects “the dots from the garden of Eden to Christ’s death on the cross to the new heavens and new earth.” This book started as a Christmas sermon for the families in his church, a sermon written to read like a book. Now, in the Biggest Story, DeYoung's text has been joined with the rich illustrations of Don Clark, illustrations even more evocative (if possible) than the text.

Since it's is an overview of the biblical narrative, the book doesn’t go into the individual stories in detail, but assumes the reader (or listener) already knows them. The child who is familiar with the stories of the Bible, then, will understand more than the one who is unfamiliar with them. But a parent reading aloud can fill in what is missing if a child has questions.

Of course, you can’t tell the big story of the Bible without talking about human sin, and some of the sin included in the Bible is shocking. While he doesn’t minimize sin, DeYoung does explain it in ways that are appropriate for young children. For instance, he writes, “Isaac was sort of a weakling. Jacob was a selfish trickster. And Judah did such dumb stuff, we don’t even want to talk about it.”

There are 121 pages of beautifully illustrated text in 10 short chapters in The Biggest Story. For the younger child, reading a chapter or two at a time would work well, while an older child would easily finish in one sitting. But whether it’s read in one sitting or more, the reader and listener will be left longing for the yet-to-come end of the big story, when the Snake Crusher comes “back again to wipe away all the bad guys and wipe away every tear,” when “there will be nothing but the best days, day after day after day after day. And forever and ever it will be a wonderful time to be God’s children in God’s wonderful world.”

The Biggest Story: How the Snake Crusher Brings Us Back to the Garden is recommended for children aged 5-11, but my 2 and 4 year old grandchildren enjoyed it, too. The illustrations kept the youngest one interested even when he might not understand the story. This would be an excellent Christmas gift for preschool or school aged children.

Kevin DeYoung is senior pastor at University Reformed Church in East Lansing, Michigan. He blogs at the Gospel Coalition and has authored or coauthored numerous books.

Tuesday, November 24, 2015

"Thanksgiving Street" by Susannah Spurgeon

"Thanksgiving Street"
"Whoever offers praise glorifies Me."

      "The time of the singing of birds is come," and from early morning until the sun sets, their sweet notes are a constant reminder of the duty and delight of thanksgiving. Out of the joy of their hearts they trill forth their gladness for the sunshine, and the opening flowers, and the unfolding leaves; and I have heard the same tender song when the rain has fallen, and cold winds have blown, and dark clouds have swept across the sky. Many a time have the birds in the garden sung a lesson in my listening ears, and rebuked my dullness or my unbelief, by their gleeful carolings.
   Ah! Dear friends, some of us do not praise our God half enough. We "raise an Ebenezer" now and then; but we pitifully fail to obey the command. "Rejoice in the Lord always." Yet, how much we have to bless Him for, and what sweet encouragement is given to our gratitude by His assurance, "Whoever offers praise glorifies Me!"    How often are we told, in His Word, that He takes delight in our thanksgivings and songs!   The praise we render is dearer to Him than that of angels—for they cannot bless Him for redeeming love, for pardoned sin, and the blessed hope of resurrection glory.

Oh!  Is it not to the eternal praise of a covenant-keeping God, that poor pilgrims, wandering through a wilderness, and having to wage constant war with the world, the flesh, and the devil, should yet be enabled to sing gloriously, as they put their enemies to flight, and overcome by the blood of the Lamb? It is the overcoming ones who learn to praise. The fingers which can most adroitly use the sword, are the most skillful in touching the harp. Each time God gives us the victory over sin, we learn a new song with which to laud and bless His holy Name.

   Does it not make your heart leap to know that your Lord takes pleasure in your praise?   In His ears are ever sounding the eternal symphonies of the universe—that majestic chorus which began "when the morning stars sang together, and all the sons of God shouted for joy;" but He turns from these to you, and with infinite tenderness and love, bends to listen to the grateful songs of His redeemed ones, as they bless Him for all His benefits.

    The feeble notes uttered on earth by a truly thankful and sanctified heart must, I think, swell into anthems of glorious melody as they rise to the throne of God!"


From "A Basket of Summer Fruit" by Susannah Spurgeon (written after the death of her beloved husband,  C. H. Spurgeon).  Courtesy of Grace Gems

Tuesday, November 17, 2015

In Need of Christmas

Christmas commercials and decorations started popping up on November 1st. The Hallmark Channel soon joined in with non-stop holiday movies. A local radio station began playing Christmas music. The Christmas season seems to come earlier every year, a fact which has troubled me in the past. I adore November, with its days of giving thanks, trees ablaze, and warm aromas. But this year I've already pulled out a favorite Christmas CD. I've thought about decorating. I've started my Advent reading.

I need Christmas this year.

College applications have been finished. The graduation annoucements have been ordered. The Senior portrait has been framed. The days with my girl in our home full-time are waning. Thoughts of watching Christmas specials and driving around town to look at lights ease the pain of seeing her wings unfurl. This is the last Christmas of my girl's childhood. It's beautiful and heart-breaking all at once.

I need Christmas this year.

Relationships strained by the gospel. Hurts and grievances both, unspoken. Wishing and wishing that I could just cry on Mama's shoulder.

I need Christmas this year.

One Thursday in October, we gathered with dear friends to celebrate the life of a father. The next Thursday, we stood beside those same friends in a blur of uniforms and crime scene tape as the coroner drove away with two more loved ones. It was, and is, surreal. I've never felt so completely helpless. I ache for their loss.

Oh! how I need Christmas this year!

A dozen years ago, my husband and I visited a friend in Paris. We walked through the Louvre, looked out from atop the Eiffel Tower, strolled the streets of the beautiful City of Lights. Today those same streets are lit with candles to honor those who lost their lives at the hands of terrorists. People who were enjoying an evening out, not knowing it would be their last.

Yes, I need Christmas this year.

Not the shopping lists or the decorations. Not the holiday movies or music. What I desperately need is the Christ of Christmas. I need to know that my worries of a girl leaving home, my sorrow for broken relationships, my grief for friends (and their much, much deeper grief), and my fears of the evil of this world have all been taken care of by a baby born in a manger. It's the most unlikely tale the world will ever hear, this story of Christmas. It is the best news a weary woman - indeed, a weary world - could receive. And yet even Christians have romanticized Jesus' birth to the point that I wonder if we truly recognize the full wonder of it. The baby heralded by angels and greeted by shepherds changed the fate of the world. Martyn Lloyd-Jones writes,
When the King of Kings and the Lord of Lords came into this world, he came into a stable. If you do not feel a sense of holy laughter within you, I do not see that you have a right to think that you are a Christian. Thank God, this is gospel, this is salvation. God turning upside down, reversing everything we have ever thought, everything we have taken pride in. The mighty? Why he will pull them down from their seats. He has been doing so. He is still doing so. Let any man arise and say he is going to govern, to be the god of the whole world; you need not be afraid - he will be put down. Every dictator has gone down; they all do. Finally, the devil and all that belong to him will go down to the lake of fire and will be destroyed forever. The Son of God has come into the world to do that. (as quoted here)
Tears fill my eyes as I read those words. Yes, time passes too quickly, those we love often wound us deeply, people die unexpectedly, and our enemy prowls about like a roaring lion (see 1 Peter 5:8), but Jesus' birth and his death give us hope in the midst of this fallen world. This is the truth of the gospel, the reason I need Christmas not just this year, but every year.

But when the fullness of the time came, God sent forth His Son, born of a woman, born under the Law, so that He might redeem those who were under the Law, that we might receive the adoption as sons. Because you are sons, God has sent forth the Spirit of His Son into our hearts, crying, “Abba! Father!” Therefore you are no longer a slave, but a son; and if a son, then an heir through God.
Galatians 4:4-7 (ESV)

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Trusting God with Our Money Troubles

“I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked”

The American Psychological Association recently conducted a study of more than 3,000 adults  to determine the effects of  stress  on people’s health.   They discovered that money was the leading cause of anxiety in America,  in spite of the fact that we are one of the wealthiest countries in the world.  Financial worry outpaced concerns about work, relationships, and health.
“Nearly three quarters (72 percent) of adults report feeling stressed about money at least some of the time” 1
 When  Christians  experience  money trouble we can rest knowing  the Lord does not want us to lie awake  at night worrying.      And we  know this  is true because  Jesus told His disciples not to worry about their material needs.  (Matthew 6:25)  Likewise,  Paul also  tells us to be anxious for nothing  and to pray about everything.  (Philippians 4:6).   The purpose of this post is not to suggest  resources to help  solve  a financial crisis,  but rather to consider  how we can  minimize  anxiety and maintain a Biblical perspective when going though one.   

Granted,  when  our financial  problems  are self-inflicted we probably want to flog ourselves,  but we need to accept God's forgiveness if necessary,   learn from it,  and move on.     Even those situations are under God's sovereign control and are designed to work  for our good in the end. (Romans 8:28)    But sometimes  no matter how well we try to plan and budget,  unforeseen circumstances  can come up  and we find ourselves in way over our head.    

A major financial reversal  can be every bit as sanctifying  as  other kinds of trials because  it's humbling  and  it forces us  to depend on  God.    I know it’s not easy  keeping calm when the bills are stacking up,   but  learning  to trust the Lord  in  times of  uncertainty is one of the things that sets Christians apart from world.   "For the Gentiles eagerly seek all these things;  for your heavenly Father knows that you need all these things.”  Matthew 6:32.  

Another problem  with stressing  about  money  is that we can be tempted to covet and envy others.    Asaph was a Levitical choir director who made this mistake  and his envy  led  him to  utter despair and bitterness.
“But as for me, my feet had almost slipped;   I had nearly lost my foothold.  I envied the arrogant when I saw the prosperity of the wicked. They have no struggles;  their bodies are healthy and strong   They are free from common human burdens;  they are not plagued by human ills.”  Psalm 73:2-5
He had falsely believed these people had it all together because they were wealthy and healthy and he just couldn’t grasp why he, being righteous, had to struggle.
“When I tried to understand all this, it troubled me deeply till I entered the sanctuary of God;  then I understood their final destiny.”  (vs.16-17)
When Asaph turned to the Lord  he realized that God had set those he had envied “in slippery places” and they were headed for destruction.    In the end he came to his senses and rejoiced in the knowledge that God was all he had,  and all he would ever  want or need.
“Whom have I in heaven but You?
And besides You, I desire nothing on earth.
My flesh and my heart may fail,
But God is the strength of my heart and my portion forever.”  (vs.25-26)
Just as “God is good to Israel”,  He is also good to us.   The Lord  doesn’t  promise  us health and wealth,  but  He knows our needs better than we do and  instructs us to pray,  “Give us this day our daily bread”.     He  wants us to  depend completely on Him  because He  is our strength and portion regardless of our circumstances.

Friday, November 6, 2015

The Lord who fights

The tenth chapter of the book of Joshua opens with the kings in the southern region of the Promised Land forming a coalition to come against the city Gibeon. The men of Gibeon send an urgent plea for help to Joshua and as he and the mighty fighting men of valor prepare for a night march, the Lord once again assures Joshua of victory:
Do not fear them, for I have given them into your hands. Not a man of them shall stand before you. (Joshua 10:8)
It is interesting to note that the Lord speaks in past tense though the battle has yet to be fought! The Lord will be gracious to empower His people and to secure the victory for them. The outcome is assured but the people must step out in confident obedience to engage the enemy.

What follows is surely one of the most interesting passages of Scripture! The author of Joshua reports that after Joshua and his men marched all night long in order to launch a surprise attack, it was the Lord Himself who secured the defeat.       
And the Lord threw them into a panic before Israel, who struck them with a great blow at Gibeon and chased them…and as they fled before Israel while they were going doing the ascent of Beth-horon, the Lord threw down large stones from heaven on them…and they died. There were more who died because of the hailstones than the sons of Israel killed with the sword. (Joshua 10:10-11)
Verse 14 summarizes the Lord’s intervention: “for the Lord fought for Israel.”

Our God is a warrior God! He fought as the victor who crushes His enemy under His feet. In our pursuit of a kinder, gentler Savior, we sometimes overlook the power and might of our Lord who stores up wrath against those who oppose Him. We forget the Jesus of Rev. 19, he who will judge in righteousness and will make war, wearing a robe dipped in blood.
And the armies of heaven, arrayed in fine linen, white and pure, were following him on white horses. From his mouth comes a sharp sword with which to strike down the nations, and he will rule them with a rod of iron. He will tread the winepress of the fury of the wrath of God the Almighty. (Rev. 19:14-16)
It is this God, mighty and terrible, holy and omnipotent, who fights for His people.

And it is this God to whom Joshua prays in Joshua 10:12 and the Bible tells us “the sun stopped.” Scholars attempt to explain or interpret this miracle as perhaps a solar eclipse or maybe even just poetic license on the part of the author. The emphasis of the text, however, is found in verse 14:
There has been no day like it before or since, when the Lord heeded the voice of a man…
This God, this powerful, almighty, sovereign God, the fierce commander of the armies of heaven, He hears, He listens, He answers the prayers of His people. What kind of God is this? What kind of grace? That the Lord of heaven and earth would stoop down, would condescend to hear and answer the prayer of wicked and sinful me.

I don’t know what your battle is. I don’t know where the enemy is coming against you. I do know this: the Lord’s words of comfort to Joshua are for you too. You need not fear. If you belong to Jesus, the Lord Himself fights for you. And your enemy? His doom is sure and his time is short.

Like Joshua, we too can cry out to the Lord, most especially when the battle is heated and our hearts are heavy. Because of Christ, we can draw near to Him in prayer as His daughters. As His child, ask Him for what you need! He is faithful and He will meet your needs according to His riches in Christ Jesus. He is gracious and He is sufficient.

Just as I don’t know your battle, I also don’t know what your victory will look like.  I daresay it will not be the ease and comfort of your best life now. In fact, it seems to me the victory the Lord most often grants is the perseverance, the grace, to get up and fight another day, another hour, another minute.

We discussed these truths in Bible study on Tuesday. After class my friend confessed through her tears that she is afraid of what the victory may look like. She and her family have endured much for  the kingdom of Christ. She is weary. She fears. And who wouldn't? But her hope is in the mighty Lord who fights for her. He is the fierce warrior, yes, but He is also the gentle Shepherd who comforts her and assures her that she can and will endure.

Glory to God, we have hope beyond this life! Whatever you suffer today as a believer in Christ, you can know that it is only light and momentary compared to the eternal glory that awaits. Keep fighting the good fight, sister. Don’t be afraid. The Lord has given you the victory and He Himself fights on your behalf.

Wednesday, November 4, 2015

The patience of Job's friends

You may be wondering why I chose this post title. The King James version of James 5:11 commends Job's patience, not his friends'. But that's the point. Job's friends weren't very patient, were they? To their credit, Eliphaz, Bildad, and Zophar started out well. When they heard of their friend's tragic loss, they joined him in his grief and sat silently in the dust for a week. (Job 2:11-13) But when the week was over, they opened their mouths and inserted their feet. I don't think they wanted to add to Job's wounds with their words. I'm sure they wanted to help him out of his distress by offering the best advice they could, but they made things worse.

Now it's easy to criticize Job's friends, but I don't know if I would have done any better. It's a very normal reaction to want to fix the problem as soon as possible when you see a friend suffering. If the problem can't be solved, then the next best thing is to try to lift any despair through encouragement. Better still, if you've just come through a trial yourself, then you can share the lessons you learned and all the good that came of it. But comforting someone through a trial isn't always that simple.

God does work all things together for good, but the "all things" are tailor-made and as individual as we are. Suffering "well" is not one-size-fits-all, and I shouldn't expect that to be the case. Also I would never question a person's faith like a prosperity preacher if the trial is prolonged, but do I get impatient when it's taking longer than I would like for someone to "get over it?" But who sets the timetable? God does, and that includes the end of the trial and a person's response. There may be wounds that are never healed in this life and sorrows that follow us to the grave. Am I willing to be there for the long haul? Because there isn't an expiration date for bearing one another's burdens.

Perhaps the most freeing thing is realizing that as an onlooker, I need the help of the Holy Spirit just as much as the person in the trial. All I can do is step out in faith and oft-times imperfectly love a friend. Sometimes it may be right to offer verbal encouragement. Other times there are no words, but it's okay to admit that. A simple, "I don't know what to say. I wish I could change the situation for you, but I can't. But I love you and I'm praying." may be what is needed at that moment. I won't always get it right either, but there is no shame in "Please forgive me if I hurt you. I want to help." A formula would make things so much easier, but it is far better to learn dependence on the Lord as He works the fruits of patience and love in my life.

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.  Col. 3:12-15.

Monday, November 2, 2015

Giving Thanks When You're Hurting, Revisited

October crashed in hard, knocking me off my feet. Watching someone you love suffer is just plain difficult. Walking beside them through horrible tragedy is too much for words. In The Lord's providence, he worked to prepare me. Though I'm not sure I could have ever been prepared for this place of grief. As I thought about my return to blogging and what I would post during this month of Thanksgiving, I remembered my post last year. Honestly, I don't remember what I was experiencing at the time, but the words I wrote then are still true today, no matter the circumstances.

I've always felt like I could write thanksgiving posts with one hand tied behind my back. It's not that difficult to come up with some cheesy, schmaltzy post about all the blessings in our lives when we're trying to impress others. We don our Suzy Christian masks and pull out all the right words. After all, Jesus died for our sins and that's plenty to be thankful for!

I'm not trying to trivialize the typical Thanksgiving post. We all mean well, and we know we should be thankful. Indeed, we have much to be thankful for. But the difference between knowing that and living it...well, sometimes that's a chasm too wide to cross.

Such is how I was feeling last week. I was disappointed and discouraged. I was deeply hurt, and I didn't feel like putting on a fake smile and sloughing it off. I needed to mourn a bit. Providentially, my Bible reading the next morning answered some of the questions I was struggling with. I began to see how to handle the situation,  but I didn't understand why it was happening. I wanted comfort.

As I was getting ready for work, I was listening to Pandora's Sovereign Grace station. One of the songs brought tears to my eyes.

Shall I take from Your hand Your blessings
Yet not welcome any pain?
Shall I thank You for days of sunshine
Yet grumble in days of rain?
Shall I love You in times of plenty
Then leave You in days of drought?
Shall I trust when I reap a harvest
But when winter winds blow, then doubt?

Oh let Your will be done in me
In Your love I will abide
Oh I long for nothing else as long
As You are glorified
~Mark Altrogge

I realized then that too often my thanksgiving is conditional. I am quick to praise God in the good times; it's not so easy when I'm hurting. Yet a life that glorifies God requires me to give thanks equally, in all circumstances. Not that I should put on a fake smile and thank God for the thorn - Paul asked God three times to remove his (2 Cor.12:8) - but that I should thank Him that He is sovereign over the thorn and every detail of my life. Even when I'm hurting.


Come Weary Saints by Sovereign Grace Music is a beautiful and encouraging compilation of songs for times of pain and suffering