Origin of Sin, Brene Brown, Grace, and God’s Sovereignty

Here are two excerpts from my manuscript from week 4 of Reformation Doctrine based in Romans 5:12-21. You can listen here.

Why is the doctrine of sin important? Why are we spending all this time trying to understand the problem—why not spend all our time on the solution,  isn’t that more important? It’s because every other system and religion in the world agrees with Aristotle, that we become righteous by doing righteous deeds. This is the root of Buddhism—that happiness is attained by leading a good life. Not all systems agree on what righteousness or goodness is exactly or what constitutes righteous deeds or a good life, but they all are basically self-help programs. If that isn’t true, if we don’t become righteous by doing righteous deeds, if we can’t contribute anything to our justification, but are sinful by nature, that’s important to know. Really important.

Brene Brown is a popular figure in the self-help genre that more and more women are turning to. I once saw a clip of her talking about shame and guilt. She said that guilt is feeling bad for what we do. I did something bad, so I feel guilty, but that shame is feeling bad because we believe we are bad. So, she was trying to help people change how they talk to themselves. Stop the self-talk of “I’m bad,” and start the self-talk of “I’m not bad, I did something bad.” But this is the opposite of the Christian doctrine of original sin. And it matters which is true. It matters whether we are simply good people who do bad things sometimes or if we are actually bad people who can’t do anything good in and of ourselves. Paul has shown us that we don’t just do bad things, we were born in Adam—born in sin—it isn’t so much a choice we make as an inherited family identity.

But, we DO all make the choice to sin on top of it all. And how incredibly sad and depressing to have your hope of getting rid of shame be dependent on your self-talk, your internal messaging to yourself—talking to yourself rightly about it. That’s no hope at all. We need a hope outside of ourselves, we need something deeper than our flawed minds to rely on to get us out of this mess.

Martin Luther, for all his obsessing over seemingly minute sins and constantly running to the priest in confessional with an overactive and tortured conscience, was actually not even close to reckoning with the depth of depravity in all of us. He could confess all that he DID wrong, but where could he go to confess that HE was fundamentally sinful, inside, tainted?

We need the freedom to acknowledge that I don’t just DO bad things, but I am, by nature, a sinner, because look who my father is—Adam, the trangressor. And look at the inclination of my heart—it’s condemning evidence. Freedom doesn’t just start with grace—it starts with the confession of core sinfulness—it’s after we reckon with the fact that every part of us is tainted by sin, in our very nature, that we take our first step toward sanity, our first step toward truth.

Without the doctrine of sin, the grace that flows out of the fount of the crucified and risen Christ is meaningless. Without knowledge and acknowledgment of sin, we make the cross of Christ small, we make his grace an unnecessary and we shove down what we know to be true from our conscience.

Without the doctrine of sin, grace becomes casual, no big deal, cheap, and belonging to me, not Christ. Have you noticed this? We get everything one hundred percent backwards. We believe that sin is outside ourselves, just something we occasionally do and that grace is something we get to dispense from our own fount inside ourselves, rather than Christ’s. So, we say things like, “I just need to give myself some grace.” As if the dispenser of grace is a faucet or well rooted in our own heart that we can turn off and on. What we usually mean is, I need to let myself off the hook for whatever obligation I failed to meet or whatever thing I did that is making me feel bad about myself. But, we don’t get to give ourselves some grace. Grace originates in God, not us.

God gives grace through his Son, Jesus Christ. And when we have Christ, when we’ve trusted him and received him and put ourselves at his mercy, he gives us grace without measure. He gives and gives and gives it to those who need. But it isn’t a cosmic letting off the hook, because Jesus paid the price. Jesus was on the hook. When we talk about grace like a silly little way of getting let off the hook for something and sweeping it under the rug, we forget that the forgiveness that he gave us freely, cost him dearly.

But with the doctrine of sin—which is reality whether we believe it or not, we get is more than just a new way to think about shame or guilt. When we confess our sin and our nature as sinners who rebel against God not in actions merely, but by the bent of our souls that cause us to want to rule over him–when we receive him, we get a new heart, a new man to be born from, a new nature. We really can be called saints, not because we’re perfect, but because we were born of an imperishable, perfect seed in Christ.

When we are in Christ, and Christ in us, the hope of glory, we are free to dispense HIS grace to the people we meet. We do that by telling them the Gospel and introducing and re-introducing them to Jesus. We can look inside to find grace, not because it originates with us, but because Christ is in us, the giver of all grace. Then, yes, we should talk to ourselves and remind ourselves when we sin that that is not who we are anymore.

William Tyndale, “By grace…we are plucked out of Adam the ground of all evil and graphed in Christ, the root of all goodness. In Christ God loved us, his elect and chosen, before the world began and reserved us unto the knowledge of his Son and of his holy gospel: and when the gospel is preached to us it openeth our hearts and giveth us grace to believe, and putteth the spirit of Christ in us: and we know him as our Father most merciful, and consent to the law and love it inwardly in our heart and desire to fulfill it and sorrow because we do not.”

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So, what are we to take away from this very major, very important, very deep, very hard passage [Romans 5:12-21]? What summary statement should we give it?

If I had to give it one, it would be Jesus is MUCH MORE better than Adam! How’s that for grammar? But, I think for our purposes, what we want to first draw from this text is that it shows human kind’s sinful origin in Adam. This passage makes it clear that we are all “in Adam.” We are born in Adam and are partakers of the sin nature.

Here’s a quick run down of everything that came through the one man, Adam:

▪Romans 5:12a: “Therefore, just as sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin”

▪Romans 5:14: “Yet death reigned from Adam to Moses, even over those whose sinning was not like the transgression of Adam”

▪Romans 5:15a: “many died through one man’s trespass”

▪Romans 5:16a: “For the judgment following one trespass brought condemnation,”

▪Romans 5:17a: “because of one man’s trespass, death reigned through that one man”

▪Romans 5:18a: “as one trespass led to condemnation for all men”

▪Romans 5:19a: “For as by the one man’s disobedience the many were made sinners,”

That’s a pretty robust doctrine of sin that Paul has given us. It’s different than the descriptions of sin he gives in Romans 1 concerning the Gentiles and Romans 2 concerning the Jews. This is the deeper reason for sin. It’s called Original sin, because it gets at the origins.

I think it might help us to answer one objection that may have arisen in your minds. It’s the obvious one—which is, “If we sin because we were born in Adam, how can we be at fault for it—we didn’t ask to be born in Adam?” We touched on this earlier, but I think it’s worth addressing more fully. Here’s what Luther said in The Bondage of the Will, on God’s freedom to harden Pharoah:

“Why then does He [that is God] not alter those evil wills which He moves (meaning why doesn’t God change Pharaoh for good)? This question touches on the secrets of His Majesty, where “His judgments are past finding out’ (Rom 11:33). It is not for us to inquire into these mysteries, but to adore them. If flesh and blood take offense here, and grumble, well, let them grumble; they will achieve nothing; grumbling will not change God! And however many of the ungodly stumble and depart, the elect will remain (John 6:60).

Luther continues:

The same reply should be given to those who ask: Why did God let Adam fall, and why did He create us all tainted with the same sin, when He might have kept Adam safe, and might have created us of other material, or of seed that had first been cleansed? God is He for Whose will no cause of ground may be laid down as its rule and standard; for nothing is on a level with it or above it, but it is itself the rule for all things. If any rule or standard, or cause or ground, existed for it, it could no longer be the will of God. What God wills is not right because HE ought, or was bound, so to will; on the contrary, what takes place must be right, because He so wills it. Causes and grounds are laid down for the will of the creature, but not for the will of the Creator—unless you set another Creator over him!”

Luther makes a good point–maybe the only point as relates to this objection. When we question why God made things a certain way, it’s like questioning why fish swim or why birds fly or why we all have parents or why we all enter the world needy, dependent infants or why trees loose their leaves in fall or cucumbers are crisp or why roses smell so lovely. We may ask, but it is not to the point. We cannot change God—nor if we could would it be for anyone’s good. This is His world, run by His will for his good pleasure. And he is the kind of God who reveals his glory to sinners in a very unusual way—by saving them through his “MUCH MORE” grace given through his Son, dead on a cross and resurrected three days later.

We dare only say with Paul, “Oh, the depth of the riches and wisdom and knowledge of God! How unsearchable are his judgments and how inscrutable his ways!” Rom 11:33

Woman’s Chit Chat and the Costly Word of God

Here’s an excerpt of the teaching from week three of the Reformation Doctrine Study. Those following along can listen here.

Calvin says:

“Men’s conceptions of God are formed, not according to the representations He gives of Himself, but by the inventions of their own presumptuous imaginations…They worship, not God, but a figment of their own brains in His stead.

And so I ask you, and myself, are we putting our words in God’s mouth? Tim Keller says, “If your god never disagrees with you, you might just be worshiping an idealized version of yourself.” Does God seem to—most conveniently—always agree with your assessment of things? If that is the case, you must ask yourself whether you are worshiping the God of the Bible or a figment of your own imagination. The Bible is a costly costly book. If it hasn’t yet wrested anything from your clutches, be warned. It will force your hand. It will confront you.

Believing the Bible has cost me close family relationships, it has cost me the assurance I once had over someone else’s salvation, it has cost me the core sense of self that I once had. It has taken all my wisdom and made it a mockery. It has taken all my dearly held feelings and laughed in their face. It has taken my comfort and my hopes and dreams and put them in a shredder. And I have a hard time trusting Christians for whom believing the Bible has cost them nothing—it just seems to fit with their cultural norms already. But believing the Bible is always costly, for everyone. And you want to know the price tag of believing the Book? The price is everything.

But do you want to know what it has given me in return? Jesus Christ—and along with him, ALL THINGS. Unimaginably more than I have ever lost. Can I testify to you? Every loss is worth it. Every loss is gain to be given the opportunity to know God, to know my Savior, in this book. We can say with Paul, “For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him..” (ESV)

And the women of the reformation knew better than most of us the cost of submitting to the Scriptures. Nuns who joined the reformation had no protection—they left their convents with no husband, no money, no home, no church protection. They were disobeying everyone and everything to obey the only One who matters because they’d met him in his book.

Argula von Grumbach wrote a letter to the University of Ingolstadt in 1523. This university had threatened to kill an 18 yr old student for his Lutheran sympathies. They threatened to burn him alive and threw him in prison for a while. And she, bold woman that she was, took up her pen to write in his defense, an almost unthinkable thing for a woman to do at the time. Here’s part of the preface to her letter,

“What I have written you is no woman’s chit-chat, but the word of God; and (I write) as a member of the Christian Church, against which the gates of Hell cannot prevail… may his grace carry the day.” (The Account”, in AvG/Matheson, 90).

If someone had to evaluate your words, would they say of you, she speaks no woman’s chit chat, but the very word of God? Isn’t that something to aim for? Do you know his word enough that this is even a possibility?

The doctrine of the Scripture and its authority is still very much at the heart of the divide between Catholic and Protestant. Without agreement on the Bible’s words and authority, we can never have agreement on our understanding of justification or other doctrines contained within the Scriptures. As long as Catholic doctrine elevates man’s thoughts to the level of God’s thoughts, in putting their tradition and councils on par with the Bible, there will always be a level of bondage and corruption in the spreading of its message. The Bible, the God behind the Bible, must be free to rule and reign, free from our human tendency to put our words in God’s mouth and that comes when we trust it. We must trust that it can make itself understood, by the power of the Spirit. Our job is to listen to what it says. To do what it says. To confess it, to spread it, to love it.

A french woman, Marie Dentiere, who joined the side of the reformers in Geneva and, like Argula, scandalously took up her pen as a sword in the battle said this,

“For what God has given you and revealed to us women, no more than men should we hide it and bury it in the earth.” Women, we have our part to play in the cosmic scene we find ourselves in. It’s not the same scene as the reformers, it’s many acts later, but it’s no less important. And we can only play our part if we’re tethered to God’s word.

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The Secret Ingredient in Bible Study

Below is an excerpt of what I shared with the women at Bible study yesterday. It’s Luther’s rules for theologians. We’re studying Reformation Doctrine and if you want to follow along with us, you can do so here. Here is what I shared yesterday:

I wanted to take a minute and encourage you as you study your Bibles and seek to grow as theologians—as women who are knowing God better. Some of you may be overwhelmed with life. You’re here, but barely. You may be in the middle of something really hard. Luther has some encouraging words for you and me:

Martin Luther said in his Preface to the Wittenberg Edition, “I want you to know how to study theology in the right way. I have practiced this method myself… Here you will find three rules. They are frequently proposed throughout Psalm 119 and run thus: Oratio, Meditatio, tentatio (prayer, meditation, trial).

Regarding prayer Luther says:

“You should completely despair of your own sense and reason, for by these you will not attain the goal…Rather kneel down in your private little room and with sincere humility and earnestness pray God through his dear Son, graciously to grant you his Holy Spirit to enlighten and guide you and give you understanding.”

Regarding meditation, Luther says:

“Secondly, you should meditate. This means that not only in your heart but also externally you should constantly handle and compare, read and reread the Word as preached and the very words as written in Scripture, diligently noting and meditating on what the Holy Spirit means…Therefore, you observe how in this psalm David always says that he will speak, think, talk, hear, read, day and night and constantly—but about nothing else than God’s Word and Commandments.  For God wants to give you his Spirit only through the external Word.”

Regarding trials he says:

“Thirdly, there is the tentatio, testing (Anfechtung). This is the touchstone.  It teaches you not only to know and understand but also to experience how right, how true, how sweet, how lovely, how mighty, how comforting God’s word is: it is wisdom supreme. This is why you observe that in the psalm indicated David so often complains of all sorts of enemies…For as soon as God’s Word becomes known through you, the devil will afflict you, will make a real [theologian] of you.”

Psalm 119:67 Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I keep Thy word. 68 Thou art good and doest good; teach me Thy statutes. 71 It is good for me that I was afflicted, that I may learn Thy statutes.

Nothing has put meat on the bones of my study like trials, friends. Our youngest son with special needs has neurological sleep problems, which means 4 years of really bad sleep and lots of throw-up every week because of his problems swallowing. It’s amazing how bad sleep and vomit can open the eyes of our heart to behold wondrous things from God’s Word. Trials give us the gift of desperation. They give us the testing ground for our beliefs and the unmatched joy of knowing and experiencing Christ to be the keeper of every promise. So I encourage you to persevere and let your trials be the hammer that drives you deeper into Christ.

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The Fog and the Longest View

On vacation this past week, our son Titus had a seizure.

Just writing that, I know that each person reading has a different understanding of what that means. Lots of us think of seizures as fairly benign, because they usually are. Some are freaked out by them. Titus has only had two seizures, both were this kind: status epilepticus. They’re not your typical seizure; they’re long, life threatening, and the mortality stats on them aren’t encouraging.

After the first one, which landed him in a coma in the PICU, we were on high alert for the possibility more would happen. But for over two years, things have been quiet. Until on vacation, when it was the farthest thing from my mind.

It’s hard to describe what Titus’s seizures are like without sounding like a real drama lover. It seems for those of us who really dislike drama, God has this way of inserting it into our lives, and forcing us to own that we don’t control how peaceful things are.

The simple fact is he looks like he’s dying, or even dead. His eyes are fixed, he’s not “with us,” he doesn’t move or have any faculties, and he stops breathing, which turns him the color of purple gray dusk. It’s not something I can put out of my mind by force. It just shows up there, in my waking sight. It’s there when I close my eyes at night, pressing on me.

Now is a good time to remember the all the positive stuff, like how he recovered from the seizure on his own this time, how it didn’t keep on, how he got checked out and was fine and got to come home, how it’s likely his meds have been working really well over the last couple years and an increased dose will help them to keep working well.

Those facts are a real comfort and they are worth giving thanks over. But they’re so superficial in the end. They don’t reach the deep places that need comfort.

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Two days after the seizure, we were hiking along the rocks on the shore of Lake Superior in a thorough fog. The mist and ashy cloud was everywhere, and who could believe in weather as brooding as that, that the sun was out there, above it all, gleaming and oblivious?

There are times when this belief seems as far-fetched as a fairy tale. How can the sun be giving warmth and causing life, when all around is shadow and veil? Shouldn’t I feel it? Isn’t feeling it what makes it real? And that’s when the hot, life-giving rebuke of God sears:

“Have you entered into the springs of the sea,
or walked in the recesses of the deep?
Have the gates of death been revealed to you,
or have you seen the gates of deep darkness?
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth?
Declare, if you know all this.

“Where is the way to the dwelling of light,
and where is the place of darkness,
that you may take it to its territory
and that you may discern the paths to its home?
You know, for you were born then,
and the number of your days is great!” Job 38:16-21 (ESV)

I must believe, am commanded to believe, that in our darkest haze, the light is unchanged. Because it is in our darkest haze that we stop straining for the earthly light of better circumstances, as if we understand what that would look like, and start leaning hard on the unseen Light that has already overcome the darkness. This is our only comfort in life and death. It’s that we belong, body and soul, to the Light. I do not wish for foggy days–gifts that they may be to my vision of God. But I do not wish them away either.

Never do I feel more keenly how much an unearned gift faith is, than in the fog, where no long views are offered me. It’s when we’re granted no long view, that we must exercise the faith that depends on the unseen longest view. Oh for the grace to believe when we have not seen–we have not seen healing, we have not seen relief, we have not placed our fingers in the holes in his hands, we have not seen resolution or an unsullied idea of the next twenty or thirty or fifty years. We have not seen it here, in this world. Yet, give us the grace to believe Christ is all and in all and there is a better world to come–this is my daily prayer.

“Jesus said to him, ‘Have you believed because you have seen me? Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.’” John 20:29 (ESV)

Staring at the Paper Towel Roll (and Other Ways to Stiff-Arm Uncommon Grace)

We should buy stock in paper towels. They’re what keep us from sloshing around up to our ankles or elbows in spills, drips, and yes, throw-up.

It seems I have a roll everywhere: in the kitchen, upstairs in the hallway, in the car, and we always bring one to the basement when we’re all down there for movie night. The other must-have is the cleaning wipe. They do the follow-up clean to the paper towel. Of course, we also use actual towels with water and soap, but when everything has spectacularly splattered to the nether regions of furniture, floor, and surrounding people, the paper towel has a certain immediacy and convenience to it.

But every now and then, a big spill happens and I will simply stare in the direction of the paper towel roll. Utterly irrational and completely ridiculous, I can only be thinking one of two things: 1) someone else will take care of this problem if I just sit here, or 2) this problem will take care of itself if I just sit here. It usually only takes a few seconds for sanity to prevail and for the stalling engine to start, but it’s a real thing that happens.

And this sums up what is likely the biggest spiritual problem I face–and maybe you, too. It’s not that grace isn’t there. It’s not that the paper towel roll of life is empty. It’s that sometimes I just stare at it rather than see it as a gift and help and true grace and mercy.

Jesus is more than a paper towel roll–the analogy has major limits, people, but stick with me. He’s more than the clean-up to a problem, but he’s certainly not less than that. And how often do we talk about him, look at him, eye him from a distance, but fail to avail ourselves of the grace found in him?

Sometimes I say things to one of my children and I know they’re hearing me on some level–they’re giving some slight outward acknowledgement, but thirty seconds later, they don’t know what it is I said. They heard, but they weren’t listening. That’s us with looking at Jesus. We look. We may even gaze. But it’s the gaze of a bored boyfriend sitting on a bench at the mall mindlessly staring while she tries on another pair of shoes. He’s not really seeing anything. How often do we look at Jesus, but we’re not getting anything, not grasping a concrete reality, not truly receiving or knowing anything with our own minds and hands and hearts.

One thing that has sometimes slowed me down in laying hold of the grace in Jesus is that it often doesn’t feel how I think it’s going to. It doesn’t look or feel super spiritual or ultra meaningful or cosmically life-changing. It just looks like singing a song of praise when I want to call a friend and complain. It looks like ordering my thumb to open my Bible app instead of facebook. It looks like receiving the gift of a text from a friend who offers prayers and support, rather than letting my thoughts spiral to self-pity. It looks like thankfulness for every small thing that is going “right” today–especially the teenager helping with lunch, rather than griping inside about all the stuff that isn’t worth griping about (which is all of it, by the way, even the really hard stuff).

God’s grace through Jesus is everywhere– a flood of kindness that keeps us watered and growing even during a drought, but we’ve got to tune our ears to really listen for the grace, we’ve got to look with our eyes to really see it. And that, in NO WAY, means that we’re earning it, or getting it by our own means. It’s a gift. But even gifts have to be received.

It’s uncommon grace found in that paper towel roll. When I first learned about common grace, I was really helped to have that category, but after awhile I started misapplying it to mean that all the normal good stuff of life that I experienced was a mere impersonal common grace. What I failed to see was that Jesus’ sacrifice makes me God’s child. When we’re God’s children, every way we interact with and relate to God is done in that paradigm. Nothing he gives us is a mere “common” grace–it is a grace that comes only because Jesus secured it for us, just as he secured our status as God’s children. Even paper towels. If ALL THINGS work for the good of God’s children, then if we are God’s children, we must receive everything in life as a particular grace through and by Jesus.

The paper towel roll is never empty with Jesus. There is always, always, always grace. Not just barely enough, but more and more and more than our brains have categories for. He cares more for us than we do. He’s committed to our good, our obedience, our growth more than we are. He never forgets to restock the shelves of grace. In Christ, they are infinitely available. Stop staring at them and start receiving them through Christ.

P.S. Here’s a link to my latest DG post, The Only Constant in Life.

A Podcast Interview: Risen Motherhood

Last week I was interviewed by Laura Wiffler and Emily Jensen of the Risen Motherhood podcast about having a child with special needs. It was a neat experience and I really loved getting to share Gospel hope with moms.

Emily and Laura both have little kiddos and are applying the Gospel to motherhood as they walk through it. Their podcast hits about every topic you could hope for as a mom–from food choices to fear to guilt to comparison. You can subscribe to Risen Motherhood podcast on iTunes or listen on their website, which includes many helpful resources and links.

Listen to my interview here or here.

 

On Loving a (MN Nice) People Group

Sometimes I long for God to send us somewhere–somewhere other than here. I have this idea that ministering to the nations is ministering far away. How often do I consider that I am part of the nations that Jesus spoke of. That my children are the nations. That if Jesus or Paul or the apostles saw us (as yet unconverted), we’d be some of the most foreign, needy, weird people they’d ever encountered.

I find I can sentimentalize just about anything, from special needs to far away places to the actual people who live in those far away places. It’s easy for me to love the people I barely know and the places I’ve barely been. In my high school years, I traveled to Mexico City, Mexico four times to come alongside some missionaries who’d been there for over 20 years. We helped put on camps and Vacation Bible school and built relationships. What’s interesting is how much more sentimental and glowing it was after going once than after going four times. After four times, I was more invested and less enthusiastic. I was less “in love” with the people and more just learning to like them, having discovered they were just like all people everywhere: containing strengths and weaknesses, warts and beauty.

I suppose that’s true in all our relationships. The beginning of love is always a whirlwind of emotions and ignorance, not without some foundations, but still, it’s irrational and causes us to say and do things a clear head might forgo.

I turned 36 this month, which means I’ve now lived in Minnesota almost as long as I’ve lived anywhere. I moved here when I was 18 for college and, minus two summers in Iowa, I’ve been here ever since.

When I first got here, I loved so much about it: access to the arts, museums, people who cared about education, people who worked hard, better roads, a theologically rich church. But eventually this wore thin as I discovered what seemed like giant barriers to developing relationships with people. For a state known for its Minnesota Nice, I felt like I searched in vain to find it.

To me it seemed more like Minnesota Passive Aggressive, or, Minnesota: Cold Weather and Cold Shoulders, or, Minnesota: Good Luck Trying to Figure Out What We Really Think, or, Minnesota: Refuge for Introverts and Others Opposed to Making Eye Contact. I know this isn’t everyone’s experience and probably says as much about me as anything. I can think of a few less-than-lovely tag lines for myself as well: AntiMinnesota: Ready, Fire, Aim Conversation Starters, or, AntiMinnesota: Adventures in Awkward Oversharing.

The thing is people are people. They’re unique in their strengths and weaknesses and it’s always by the grace of God that we grow in real love (not hype or ignorance) for people who are different than us. After eighteen years here, I can say that God has grown in me a deep love and loyalty for this people group. The nice people group. The can’t-make-eye-contact people group. The group with the strong opinions that they’re afraid to let out. I’m pretty sure I’ve started adopting quite a few of their ways. And I can say that I’ve been well-loved by this people. They endure those of us who say too much, too fast. They hang in there with people like me, who seem to have never met a thought that they didn’t feel the need to express.

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I’m SO thankful for those who’ve left home and country to go to the faraway nations. Those who are laboring in places where Christian churches are rare or absent, who are upending everything to take the Gospel and plant it in soil where it hasn’t taken root. Those who are staying long enough to actually know that the people they are there to love are no easier to love than any other people. It is a high calling and I want to do everything I can to support them and affirm that what they’re doing is massively important and essential and set apart.

And for as long as God has me here, I want to look around at this people: the MN Nice people, the melting pot of the Twin Cities, and love the heck out of them, dontcha know.

 

 

Soul Keeping in the Dark

It’s no secret that our special needs son has sleep problems. It’s been true since the first days of his life. I still remember his never-more-than-twenty-minute naps. And his rarely-more-than-2-hour stretches of sleep during his first year (and often only 30 minutes or an hour). Then his first year ended, but the sleep problems sallied forth.

His feeding tube and anti-seizure meds gave some reprieve, but not enough to make anything close to normal. Three and a half years in and he’s still up every night, usually multiple times or for sessions of writhing/crying. I don’t share this as a pity play, but a fact.

Lately I was reading The Life We Never Expected by Andrew and Rachel Wilson. It’s a book about hard realities and Gospel hope raising two autistic children. I haven’t ventured into much reading of this sort on disability because when you’re living a hard reality, the last thing I feel like doing is reading about how hard it is. The real thing is enough. But I read it so that I could see if it was a good book to recommend to others. And it is. It’s really good. These excerpts from the chapter Quest For Rest wrecked me:

…”it’s no coincidence that the Scriptures talk about fasting from various physical joys at times–food, drink, sex–but never from sleep.”

“In our case, this has meant reconfiguring our entire lives to get more rest.”

“…we’re learning how to pray and process our disappointment with God. It might sound ridiculous to say this, in light of all that has happened over the past few years, but I think the greatest single challenge to my prayer life has been the fact that so many prayers for sleep have gone unanswered. For night after night, I have put Zeke in bed, knelt down next to him, and said, ‘Father, we pray that you would give Zeke a good night’s sleep. Please give him peace and rest, and may he wake up after 5 o’clock, or even after six. It would be so much better for him and so much better for us, and it would cost you nothing. Please, Father. Amen.”

“Then the next morning, as the familiar patter of feet comes down the corridor toward our bedroom, I have rolled over to look at the alarm clock and seen in despair that it says 4:27, or 3:52, or 4:41. And immediately the thought comes: No, God hasn’t answered my prayer. Again.”

The words are painful. They resonate. Tom and I have prayed every night since Titus was born for good rest for him and us. We have changed the rhythms of our lives to keep sane. We’ve let things go. Even so, sometimes I find myself pushed under water.

Titus has learned to pray. It’s one of the first constructive behaviors he picked up on and regularly started imitating. We’d fold our hands and bow our heads to pray and he would too. He still does. At night, I’ve never been able to get him to stop the cycle of writhing/crying once it starts up. It just has to play out. But probably 6 or more months ago, I started saying to him, in the dead middle of the night, very loudly and forcefully, “Titus, let’s pray!” And amazingly, the writhing and crying stopped and he grabbed my hand, closed his eyes and waited for me to pray. Which I did. It felt a bit like a miracle.

Now he asks me to pray anywhere from 2 to 10 times per night, depending on how much he’s up. He wakes up and says, “Mommy! Pray! Pray! Mommy!” There have been nights when I’ve wanted not to pray. The seeming futility of it overwhelms me, and I think, What good is it to pray, when I ask night after night for rest and the answer is no, and Titus will be asking me to pray again in 10 minutes or an hour or 2 hours. 

Titus still writhes and cries at night, he’s still up just as much as he ever was before he started asking me to pray through the night. But, in my despair over the sleep, I could easily miss something huge. My son asks to pray. My son asks to pray. 

Think of all the kindness of God and answered prayer in him asking to pray. It’s worth pausing over and giving thanks for.

Even as I give thanks for that amazing thing, it doesn’t erase the difficulty of sleep problems. It is grueling and lonely. Yet, prayer keeps me from being isolated from the One person I can’t live without. In the darkness, we turn to God and pray, because he’s there with us. The rest of the house may be asleep, but God isn’t. In bleariness and bone-weariness, I talk to the One who keeps our souls through the night.

If you find yourself in the dark and seemingly alone, my hope for you is that you would know God’s nearness. Sometimes the darkness remains, sometimes the circumstances won’t change, but always, always, always, he’s there. He’s keeping you and that’s what counts.

Psalm 121

[1] I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From where does my help come?
[2] My help comes from the LORD,
who made heaven and earth.

[3] He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
[4] Behold, he who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

[5] The LORD is your keeper;
the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
[6] The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

[7] The LORD will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
[8] The LORD will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time forth and forevermore. (ESV)

Why Sunday Matters, Union With Christ in the Wilderness, and Baking The World Better

I’m home again this Sunday. More sickness. Which means I’m writing down everything on my mind. Forgive the disparate nature of it all.

I’ve been trying to get to the nub of why missing church hurts so badly. Is it because I don’t get to hear the sermon? Or the Sunday school teaching? Well, yes. But no, because I can listen to those later in the week when the recordings become available. Is it because I feel cooped up and want to see people and have some social time? Well, yes. But no, because I get to see people and get out other days of the week.

What I miss most is hearing, receiving, and singing together. When we hear the Word preached together, it’s different than me downloading some killer sermon to listen to by myself. When we sing songs together, it’s different than when I find the latest or best hymn album to listen to in my kitchen. It’s valuable to do those things at home, but it’s not the same as being with God’s people on Sunday.

When we gather as God’s people and sing a song to the Lord and about the Lord from our heart, with other Christians singing the same song, and the same words, from their hearts, we are being united. Every Sunday morning God is answering Jesus’ prayer that we would be one as he and the Father are one. When we submit ourselves fully to the faithfully preached Word of God we are being made one as shoulder to shoulder our brothers and sisters put themselves under that same Word. That’s what I miss so much.

I’m never quite as aware of my frailty as on a Sunday when I’m engulfed in the singing of his people. My faith won’t survive without the faithful saints singing next to me. It’s true that “you can have all this world, give me Jesus..” as long as when we say “Jesus” we mean his body, too. I can’t live without his people. Sundays at home with sick kids are God’s good plan to remind me of this even more.

I’ve spent the better part of the past year thinking about our union with Christ. It has become to me the sweetest of all truth in the universe. I was reading through the sermon text for today, while at home, wanting to keep on the same page as everyone. I couldn’t get past the first two verses.

“The Spirit immediately drove him out into the wilderness. And he was in the wilderness forty days, being tempted by Satan. And he was with the wild animals, and the angels were ministering to him.” Mark 1:12-13 (ESV)

So much to take it. But I was strengthened by remembering that it’s God’s Spirit that puts Jesus (and us) in the wilderness, and that we can be in the wilderness and not fear, because Jesus already did it for us. He did it perfectly. He made a path through. The Israelites couldn’t do it, I can’t do it on my own. But because of him, we can walk through the wilderness and resist temptation. He did it for me and he leads me in paths of goodness and faithfulness right through the desert and dry land.

Sometimes it’s hard to know what goodness looks like. Is it a good attitude? Is it doing good things? Can the world engage in goodness? What is Christian goodness? If I get the laundry done, how is it distinctly Christian goodness–doesn’t everybody have to do that? This is another area where thinking about my union with Christ has made life all the sweeter.

There is a Christian way to do the laundry, and make supper, and tend the garden, and go to work, and clean the house. And that is to do them all in Christ and for Christ, with his garments of holiness round about us. It’s so easy to think that our Christian selves are the selves that do “ministry.” The Christian part of us is the part that goes to church, or does Bible study, or disciples a younger person, or helps in Sunday school, or has a quiet time. But because of Christ everything we do is a Christian thing. And I’ve been reveling in baking bread while united to Christ and seated in the heavenly places.

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There’s this cute hashtag: #baketheworldabetterplace. I love it. I love it because, in Christ, it can be true. In Christ, we can bake the world better. In Christ, baking really can be a way to befriend faithfulness. I can love my children with the love of Christ by baking. I can put my hands to do good works in and for Christ by baking. I can teach about him through baking; I can love Christ with baking; I can enjoy Christ in baking.

Baking in and of itself is a common good–it provides food, it is enjoyable. But baking while belonging to Christ is something else entirely. The metaphor (bread is food that sustains) and reality (Christ is the bread of life that sustains) meet spectacularly when baking as a Christian. Doing good works in Jesus’ name is transformative, both to the “good work” and to the person doing them and the person receiving them.

I mention all this baking hubbub, not to get you to start baking, which is completely unnecessary to your life as a Christian. But to ask you, what are you doing everyday that you can see in a new light because of your union with Christ. The laundry (making dirty things clean)? Making supper? Reading books? Accounting? Science experiments? You are doing those things in Christ. They belong to him and are for him. What metaphors are brought to fullness in your doing them?

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When we’re in Christ, nothing happens apart from him. Not our relationships with other Christians, or our relationships with non-Christians, or our interactions with the stuff in the world (like flour, clothing, tools, tv). We don’t invite Christ into those things. If we’re in him and he’s in us, it’s a reality that he’s there. But our awareness of him is what needs heightened. Which is part of why we need each other, Christ’s body. To keep each other remembering and reminded.

If you were at church today, I hope you know the gift you were given. And if you were at home or the hospital or somewhere else, I hope you know Christ as the one who blazed a trail through the wilderness for us.

Doing the Spiritual Splits

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I was looking at my calendar and realized my church attendance on Sunday morning is less than 50% for 2017. I’m sure I’m not alone. This has been a brutal winter for illness in MN and I’ve found myself rocking an ever-growing and under-the-weather boy on many a Sunday morning.

Rocking this morning is as calm as you’d hope, but my mind has been anything but. I’ve been pinned, all the while the laundry goes unfolded, the dishes unloaded, the supper un-prepped, the Bible study undone, the garden unplanned, the knitting un-knit, the lovely sunshine un-basked in. And on and on.

I was chatting with a fellow mom of five last week, brainstorming ways to bring structure and discipline to our mornings with so many variables in the form of small people and exponential relationships and possibilities for things to go awry. Change, thou art steadfast. It seems we never do live the same day twice.

I’ve always been a go-with-the-flow type. Probably a fourth child thing. Going with the flow ensures that I am GOING! And WITH others! Nothing worse than being left behind for a fourth child. This go-with-the-flow personality has served me well in many ways. I’m not opinionated about many decisions, as long as the people I love are around, which means I’m usually easy to get along with. But, it’s not a personality forged from virtue, it’s forged from my desire to have maximum enjoyment in life–and I tend to think that going with the flow will make me and those around me happiest.

But I’ve learned over the years that it’s easy to mistake this go-with-the-flow style for true flexibility–the kind of flexibility that’s learned to be content in any circumstance. All it takes to learn the truth is take away the ability to go with the flow. What happens when I’m forced to stop the movement, forced to be still, forced to make my own decisions without the comfort and enjoyment of the company I long for? And then what if even my best laid plans are thwarted? Like today with the laundry and the dishes and supper and actual work that I’m supposed to do?

There are probably many of you reading who aren’t go-with-the flow types. Maybe your type A or you like to run the show and make the decisions. Maybe the idea of being a passenger in the ride of life is a thousand slow deaths by pin prick. It’s probably more obvious for you that growth in Godly flexibility is necessary. You know your rigidity, your fight for control. And hopefully you know that it needs to be crucified in favor of trusting God.

But, if you’re more like me, your lack of flexibility might come as a surprise. So I’m hoping this reflection is helpful for you. Spiritual flexibility is just my way of saying that we trust God in every circumstance, without bitterness or bucking, that is to say, with real contentment. How flexible are we when we aren’t even allowed to be flexible? When we’re just stuck in the same place over and over, learning the discipline we want to run from?

So my hope today is not in getting up from the rocking chair where I currently type away with my little boy’s head resting on my arm. My hope is not in what I will accomplish or how easy I am to get along with on lunch choices. My hope is in God. I can trust that while I sit in this chair, he is accomplishing everything he wants to in and through me. And when the time sitting here is up, by faith I will flex to do what he’s put before me next. I’ll mess up, but I can trust him. He’s teaching me the spiritual splits, so that I can bend and flex and never break as I stretch out to love others in Jesus. Oh that our arms would reach out with Jesus’ as his were nailed to the cross. And they do, because we are united to him in life and death and life.