On Being a Christian Woman in the Year of Our Lord, 2018

Last month I was intrigued to read the prediction that 2018 will be the year of the evangelical woman. I enjoy Karen Swallow Prior, the tweeter of that tweet, but I have no interest whatsoever in living in a world where the year belongs to evangelical women or women in general or evangelical men or any other such group. I am relieved that no matter our proclamations, 2018 will remain the year of our Lord.

Over the course of the past few years, I’ve observed a pendulum swing in the more public places of Christendom (i.e. Twitter, blogs, social media, and the like. You know, the important places 😉 ) regarding the voices of “evangelical” women, reflected on a much smaller scale in the more private, local sphere.

To begin with, I hate pendulums. What are they but roller coasters that cause us all a ridiculous amount of motion sickness? The good news is that Scripture is immune to pendulum swings. It’s just as solid and unchanging as it ever was. And more good news: we can stand on the unmovable Word of God and smash the pendulum with that same Book all at the same time. The Bible can multitask.

I’ve tried to put my finger on what seems to be afoot, particularly with conservative Christian women––for whom the sound of the rumbling is different than its liberal counterparts, yet seems to be aimed in the same basic direction. It seems the culprit is a general sense that women have been underutilized and pigeon-holed in Christ’s body and the internet is the main means by which this problem has found its voice.

Here’s my summary: Biblically-conservative Christian women are eager to have visible, biblically-conservative leadership by women in their churches and eager to learn from gifted, female Bible teachers whether locally or nationally. Secondly, women with the gift of teaching in conservative churches have felt underutilized/devalued and are carrying some angst, even as things may change for the better. (The accuracy of these points will vary greatly depending on your local context, but I’m speaking generally).

The underlying lesson is: women are hungry for teaching from women. This is basically right and good (Titus 2:3–4). They would like living examples of wise, Bible-soaked women to follow and imitate. They would like to be fed meat, not just milk. And hungry people get nourishment wherever they can find it––they aren’t picky, they’re starving. If only the worst kind of teachers are available to women, many will go ahead and eat the rot.

So, from the perspective of the hungry Christian woman, this pendulum swing is very much a good thing, if it means more resources available to her that make it possible for her to learn and understand her Bible and her God better. Assuming that gifted conservative female Bible teachers don’t just stay within the boundaries Scripture lays out for women in regard to how they may and may not lead and teach, but have come to LOVE and TEACH the boundaries as good gifts, this is all upside. And I’ve seen lots of this. Loads of helpful Bible resources made accessible for women. Podcasts that go deep in wisdom and the gospel and basic Christian living. It’s awesome––what a time to be alive.

But I’m not so sure this fully describes where we are. There also seems to be an itch, an inkling, an impulse, even in the conservative sphere, that has begun to demand status for women as important and essential humans whose voices must be heard. It’s not that I disagree that women are important and essential, it’s that publicly insisting so is entirely an un-Christian way of trying to get that point across.

In this CT piece, Hannah Anderson (whose book on humility was a great read for me last year) says, “The way forward is for the church to identify and support gifted women, partnering with them via theological training and commissioned ministry positions. If you don’t want women breaking down the doors, simply open them for them.”

This encapsulates it: the mood, the slight angst, the rumbling.

If women are breaking down doors in order to use their gifts in the church, the solution cannot only be to teach men to open the doors. I agree that that is part of it. Let men learn to honor women and notice gifts and facilitate the work of the ministry and open the doors for their counterparts that are helpers by nature. It seems this is vital and basic Christianity and men should be exhorted to act like Christian men.

But there’s another side to it: we must teach the women to act like Christian women, not door busters. We must teach them that the Christian life is not one of getting our way or forcing our plans or barging in––it’s one of dying daily, humble waiting, prayerful dependence, and unseen service where our right hand is ignorant of our left. That breaking the doors down would be the path toward anything but misery seems obvious enough––which doors are enough, when does it end?

Once we’ve broken them down, it’s impossible to open them rightly.

Think of Paul’s letter to Timothy. Paul tells the young Timothy that he shouldn’t let anyone despise him for his youth. I don’t know about you, but I’m apt to cheer, Yeah! You heard him! Stop despising me! I’m owed a little respect! Is Timothy supposed to demand and insist that no one is allowed to despise him? Is he supposed to say, “You must value me!” No.

Paul tells him how: “Let no one despise you for your youth, but set the believers an example in speech, in conduct, in love, in faith, in purity” (1 Tim. 4:12). This is the way of Christians. How do we get respect? How do we make people see our God-given value? We go low. We set an example. We don’t insist on our importance.

What if Christian women in 2018 decided that in all things we would set an example in our godly and gracious speech, our exemplary conduct, our loving actions, our bold faith, and our complete purity? What if we stopped trying to exalt our voices and “be heard,” but gloried in exalting Christ (Matt. 23:11–12)? What if we stopped seeking a seat of honor, but resolved to eat even the crumbs from the Lord’s table (Matt. 15:27)? What if we really trusted God––that God sees us, God loves us, Christ came for us, and the Spirit’s working in us, whether others see it or not? What if we really lived like it was the year of our Lord, not the year of the evangelical woman?

This isn’t theoretical for me. I’m as prone to desire recognition and a seat at the table as the next person. I’ve got more opinions, thoughts, and ideas than is safe for any one person to have. I long to have whatever gifts God’s given me recognized, valued, and utilized to their full extent and it can be painful to be constantly weaning myself from those mixed-bag desires. But, in Christ, I know that God is building his church. And I can take the steps of faithfulness available to me, speak and serve when given opportunity, and if not, rest in the knowledge that God doesn’t actually need me to do the jobs I think he might need me to do.

Jen Wilkin says this in her talk to Acts 29 church planters, “The contributions of women in the advancement of the kingdom are essential and indispensable. If we have crafted a vision of the church in which women are extra, in which women are nice but not necessary, we have crafted a vision for the church that is foreign to the Scriptures.”

I couldn’t agree with her more. She’s right. The church advances as the church––made up of all its parts. The stronger are supposed to see that the weaker are indispensable (1 Cor. 12:22). They’re supposed to show them extra honor (1 Cor. 12:23–24). And I think in the context she was speaking to––pastors desiring a woman’s perspective on how to better minister to women––it is helpful to give that reminder. I’m thankful for women like Jen who have had doors opened for them and now are using that platform to ask men to open the door for more women.

But there’s another side to being part of God’s people on his vine and that is that none of us are actually essential. God could raise up stones in our place.

In Romans, Paul tells the Gentiles that they aren’t as special as they might like to think––he’s telling us the same thing:

“But if some of the branches were broken off, and you, although a wild olive shoot, were grafted in among the others and now share in the nourishing root of the olive tree, do not be arrogant toward the branches. If you are, remember it is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you. Then you will say, “Branches were broken off so that I might be grafted in.” That is true. They were broken off because of their unbelief, but you stand fast through faith. So do not become proud, but fear. For if God did not spare the natural branches, neither will he spare you. Note then the kindness and the severity of God: severity toward those who have fallen, but God’s kindness to you, provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off” (Romans 11:17–22)

Did you catch that?

It is not you who support the root, but the root that supports you.

Do not become proud, but fear.

Neither will he spare you.

Provided you continue in his kindness. Otherwise you too will be cut off.

Is this part of what we’re teaching women? Are we reminding them that being a physically weaker vessel doesn’t make us humble by nature? That we aren’t owed a seat at any table, but Christ has graciously given us one at his? That as awful as it is that many women have been victimized by men, it’s equally awful that women also victimize those smaller than them, in varying ways? That pride is no respecter of gender and infects everyone in Adam, including women? Are we letting them know that they’re Christians too, which means we women have to die to the desire to be important. We have to die to the desire for the year of the woman and replace it with year of the Lord.

That doesn’t mean that we ignore the real needs of women––in no way! We must feed them, honor them, love them, and serve them––but not in an oddly self-serving, self-promoting way, rather as sacrifice. We must disciple women and fit their gifts into the body. But discipling isn’t only plugging in gifts or putting people in the right seats or developing leaders or getting a woman on staff. It’s also teaching everyone that the only path to life is crucifixion–that they aren’t living anymore, but it’s Christ who lives in them. It’s teaching them to, “Do nothing from selfish ambition or conceit, but in humility count others more significant than yourselves.” (Phil. 2:3)

Exalt others. Honor others––men and women and children. That’s how we follow our Savior, who didn’t count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but in humility became a servant. Only then can we be exalted, once humility has so lowered us that only God himself can raise us up. And he will, in due time.

I’ll end with two practical concerns I have with the pendulum swing I see in some of the public sphere of conservative Christendom that’s been trickling down locally.

  1. It makes advancement mainly a function of women teaching and (accidentally?) devalues all the other ways women serve as an essential part of the body. It’s like we want all women to be teachers. I understand why the focus is on women teaching, because that’s the area that some are slower to embrace–feels risky, like a woman might overstep the bounds. But, in the same way I think men can be devalued when they aren’t teachers or pastors, I think the same thing is happening with women and we should avoid this silliness at all costs. You don’t have to be an up-front teacher in order to be a spiritual mother. A female on a stage speaking to a group is not essential to thriving spiritual mothering or the fulfillment of a woman’s role in the local body. A woman teacher is no more effective or influential in God’s economy because she’s been given a microphone.
  2. Our swing is in tandem with the current swing of liberal and unorthodox Christians as well as with the world, albeit on a different scale. This doesn’t make it all wrong, but it’s something to note. When the world is swinging into transgenderism and gender queer identity, and the liberal church is swinging into ordination of women and self-identified gay Christians, the conservative swing toward a disproportionate valuing of the stage/platform as the most important place for women to serve may seem minor, but we should pay attention to it. Don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater––there are important things to learn in this pendulum swing, good and right actions to take. There are many faithful upfront women teachers that I love and have learned a ton from–I want their number to increase! But maybe the most important lesson is that the pendulum needs to be smashed with God’s word.

Christians have a fixed and ancient reference point. Let’s hold fast to it.

A New Year’s Invitation: Resolved, to Tear My Heart to Shreds

I’ve been thinking for some time about New Year’s resolutions. I often read through Edward’s list for inspiration at the end of the year. He has a way of injecting our impending death into our living so that our lives are smaller and bigger all at once.

One basic theme keeps making its way to my mind and heart. It’s not exciting, not new, not deep or intellectual. It’s that I would stop sinning against God and the people around me. All the things in life I’d like to accomplish would be greatly aided if I could make even small gains in victory over sin. My hopes and dreams are great and many and all of them require Christ’s righteousness and a killing of sin.

I want to be the kind of parent that is parenting with the salvation of a thousand generations in mind, not merely surviving the irritations of the evening. I want to be the kind of wife that helps and doesn’t hinder, that does good and not harm all the days of his life. I want to be the kind of friend that is completely committed to another’s well-being, especially their eternal well-being, without worrying about reciprocity. I want to be the kind of church member that honors her leaders, that sharpens and loves them, and that sees and cares for the whole body–the unseen and indispensable. I want to be the kind of online person who is so earnest and sincere in her words and sharing that trying to people-please or schlep for popularity is a non-factor, but the glory of God is all.

You can see how sin, maybe especially inward sin without obvious manifestations, is a giant roadblock to all of these hopes and dreams.

I will not parent with a thousand generations in mind if I’m stuck in the sin of selfishness and laziness and can’t rouse myself to be laid down as a sacrifice on the altar of daily living. I cannot be the kind of wife who helps and doesn’t hinder, doing good everyday if I’m stuck in the sin of a critical spirit. I cannot be the kind of friend who has another’s eternal well-being in mind if I’m stuck in the sin of keeping tallies. I cannot be the kind of church member who honors her leaders and cares for the whole body if I’m stuck in the sin of desiring honor or a voice for myself. And I cannot be the kind of online person who is sincere in her service and brings glory to God if I’m stuck in the sin of people-pleasing or platform-building.

Edwards 56th resolution says this:

“56. Resolved, never to give over, nor in the least to slacken my fight with my corruptions, however unsuccessful I may be.”

It’s that last phrase that must not be lopped off: “...however unsuccessful I may be.” If success is what keeps me in the fight against sin, then I’ve gotten it wrong. Especially since the more I see my sin and the more I try to kill it, the more God reveals deeper layers to my sin. How is it that twenty-five years of walking with Jesus and I sense more sin in myself than ever before? Shouldn’t the opposite thing be happening? Discouragement is the road to circular sin apathy. If I’m discouraged by my lack of success in killing sin, I think it’s hopeless and I stop trying so hard, which reinforces the evidence that I just can’t quit sinning in any capacity. Fighting sin can’t be based on how I feel I’m doing at it.

Don’t get me wrong, there must be growth and change and discernible progress––that is not optional. But it’s like coming a mile believing the race is a 5K, then to keep going with the new realization that it’s a 10K, only to find this some kind of marathon and the distance is unknown, but so much more than I would have ever dreamed when I started.

God tells us through Joel, “…rend your hearts and not your garments. Return to the LORD your God, for he is gracious and merciful, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love; and he relents over disaster” (Joel 2:13 ESV).

God wants us to tear up our hearts over our sin, not our clothes. He wants us to see the consequences for what happens to us and our people if we don’t turn. What happens if I continue in sin? Biological offspring that are denied the tastes of an eternal Father and friend? A marriage that forsakes the log in favor of the speck? Friendships that offer smooth words and zero wounds and are destined for this life only? Church members that put their own needs first and others’ last so that the most vulnerable are forgotten, never seen? And online platforms and puffing up that normalizes self-promotion in the name of Jesus, blurring the lines between a selfish ambition and a holy one?

There are real consequences to sin that aren’t boundaried by the heart in which the sin happens. No, the consequences spill out and multiply.

And it is with these serious and fearful thoughts in mind that I make my resolves and invite you to join me.

  1. Resolved, to tear my heart to shreds over my sin, whether big or small, seen or unseen.
  2. Resolved, to return to the Lord as quickly as I can, making repentance a flat sprint, not a jog or meander.
  3. Resolved, not to look at my sin one second more than is helpful for making me sober and fearful, and then to look headlong at Christ, who has paid for every bit of it.
  4. Resolved, to let thankfulness and joy be the result of repentance as I enjoy increased fellowship with my Father, rather than assuming a posture of guilt or on-going regret.

Lord, would you replace sinful inclinations and actions with thoughts of the glories of Christ and willing hands for good works and happiness in returning to you over and over, so that the appeal of sin becomes bitter and dreadful and Christ becomes more of what he is: my whole life.

Christ’s Ornaments: Learning Our Place on Jesus from Isaiah

This Advent I’ve been reading Isaiah, seeing Jesus at every turn.

I found one passage that was particularly apt for the season ornaments and Christmas trees:

“Lift up your eyes around and see; they all gather, they come to you. As I live, declares the LORD, you shall put them all on as an ornament; you shall bind them on as a bride does” (Isaiah 49:18).

God is speaking to his chosen one–to Zion and to the singular man, Jesus Christ.

Christians commonly glory in having been clothed with Christ. We wear his garments of holiness. It’s worth glorying in. But have you gloried in the fact that Jesus wears you? That you are put on him as an ornament? Bound on him the way a bride puts on something old, new, borrowed and blue? How much must he love us, to display us for all to see?

When I look at the tree this Christmas, I’m remembering that Christ has put me on, not just the other way around. Lord, grant me to be a beautiful ornament adorning Christ this Christmas, whether at home or away, at rest or at work, whether sick or well, tired or alert, “so that in everything I may adorn the doctrine of God our Savior” (Titus 2:10).

What Is the Church? What Does the Church Do?

Below is an excerpt from Reformation Doctrine: The Church and Practice. You can listen here.

I was on a website this morning that exists solely for the pupose of commemorating the 500th anniversary of the Reformation. It gives a brief history and tracks the development of Christianity in the US and it says this,

“This is the 500th year of the Christian Reformation and Christianity has become a fractured, incomplete and conflicted body of Christians. This half-millennial milestone marks an opportunity to consider where we are, how we have arrived there, and what can be done.”

I found that to be an interesting statement. What tripped me up in that statement, among plenty of other things on the website, were two things: the verb tensing was one. Christianity “has become a fractured, incomplete and conflicted body of Christians…” Has become? I think we’ll see that even when everyone was part of the one institution of the Catholic church things were far from free of conflict and division. The east/west schism is the obvious thing, but also the conflicts over who was pope, and even doctrinal conflicts within the Catholic church that still happen today!

The second problem with that statement was saying that the church is incomplete. That’s true in an eschatological sense. But, also, the church is simply Christ’s body. It is incomplete in as much as people still need to hear the good news and be adopted into the family called the church, but it is not incomplete because we have made clear our doctrinal positions. It’s not incomplete because we’ve held fast to the Gospel, even if it means factions have developed. Quite the opposite.

So, what is the church? Who decides what the church is? Where does authority come from?

These are the questions that get at the heart of why Protestantism exists. Often when we talk about the reformers, we talk about it like they broke with Rome, as though they walked out the door, when in reality, they were kicked out of the Roman Catholic church. Luther’s goal was always to reform the Catholic church from the inside.

But the Catholic church didn’t want to course correct. The problems that were brewing in the Catholic church had been brewing long before Luther came on the scene. One of the most basic problems was around the issue of authority.

Where does authority come from? From the pope? Which pope? There were three popes at one time! From the councils of men governing who becomes pope? Who controls the institution known as the church? Or does authority come from God’s Word? And if it does (as we believe it does), what does God’s word have to say about what the church really is? Is it simply an institution? Or is it something else? Is it God’s people? What kind of authority does God give to his people, the church?

When You’re Walking Through More Than “Just a Season”: Perpetual Living in the Season of Chronic Dying

I love seasons. I love how there is always something to anticipate, always something to look forward to: snowy woolish white, new green buds, lush full life, the brilliancy of death in the leaves of autumn.

And the season motif was first put forward by the wisest of men: Solomon.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:

a time to be born, and a time to die;

a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted;

a time to kill, and a time to heal;

a time to break down, and a time to build up;

a time to weep, and a time to laugh;

a time to mourn, and a time to dance;

a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;

a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;

a time to seek, and a time to lose;

a time to keep, and a time to cast away;

a time to tear, and a time to sew;

a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;

a time to love, and a time to hate;

a time for war, and a time for peace” (Ecclesiastes 3:1-8 ESV)

I’m not sure how I would have survived the “season of motherhood” that included multiple littles with no older kids, little sleep, crazy amounts of diapers, and very little adult conversation without the constant reminder that I was in a season, that there would be an end, that what faithfulness to that job looked like would not be what it looked like forever. In a few short years, faithfulness would be teaching reading, tying shoes, and working on a solution to toothpaste on the walls, cabinets, and floors.

And now, faithfulness has expanded to include in-depth conversations about the Scriptures, help with increasingly difficult homework, maintaining rhythms and schedules, cultivating mentor-like friendships with my own growing kids, and legitimately funny jokes.

But I’ve noticed that there are some areas of life that are perpetual seasons; they aren’t “just a season” as the sages like to say. They are things that won’t relent until we die.

What about the depression that is vastly longer than the season of “post-partum”? What about the hard marriage that lasts fifty or sixty years? What about the unwanted singleness that endures your whole life? Or the diagnosis that doesn’t have a cure? Or the early death of a loved one who you never do get to see again in this life? Or infertility that doesn’t abate? What about seasons that have no transient time-tables?

What about caring for a child with special needs whose needs remain into adulthood? There isn’t a changing of the seasons in the same way that there is with other children, and while many parents are either longing for or dreading the day their children are independent adults, parents of kids with significant special needs do not anticipate that season in the same way. Which isn’t to say that things are stagnant or always look the same for those parents or kids. We all do change. Things can be easier or harder, simpler or more complex. And many people like myself, simply do not know what future stages will look like. I have reason to be very hopeful, but I simply cannot know. I must walk forward with no predictable season in front of me.

I’ve heard parents with “typical” kids say that that’s true for everyone, not just special needs parents and kids: none of us know what the future will hold for our children. And of course they’re right. But there is a legitimate difference of how we anticipate the future with “normal” kids and special needs kids. With my “normal” kids, it’s true I don’t know the future, but there is a template of growth, development, and maturity that is to be expected, not because we’re pretending to be God and predicting the future or presuming on his kindness, but precisely because what Solomon said is true. To everything there is a season.

Anyone who’s observed life knows how things are supposed to go. The reason we grieve special needs or untimely death or terrible illness is because those seasons have been interrupted or the predicted flow of things has been changed. The reason the grief over the death of a fourteen-year old is particularly horrific and different than the grief over a ninety-eight year old is because we have an innate understanding of how this is supposed to work.

Yet, there is great hope in knowing that while you may not be in “just a season” temporally speaking, this whole temporal life is a season. This life is the melting of winter for Christians. For some of us who have been set down in the shadow with little to block the bitter wind, we may weather this life with an ongoing chill in the bones. And for others, the sun may be throwing a bit more warmth as we perceive a centimeter of green on the tips of the trees. So, for some, this thing called life is a season with a certain sort of predictability to it—with one thing leading to another. And for others, this thing called life is a season of ongoing and chronic trial that doesn’t follow a pattern. And for most everyone, it is a combination of both.

But, we must know that winter is doomed, no matter our experience here and now. We wait for the fullness of life to come, but it is coming. Things are changing in unseen places. The seeds are underground, but they are pushing up. We may be in a chronic season of dying—dying to our expectations, our hopes, our good desires even, but we can live through it. We can perpetually live in the season of chronic dying because Christ has died once for all and he has put us in himself. He has put himself in us. Let Christ in you, the hope of glory, keep you renewed in each and every season—especially the one of chronic dying.

He knows a thing or two about how to help you live through that.

No Dieting When It Comes To Sin

Below is an excerpt from Reformation Doctrine: The Spirit. You can listen here.

Romans 8:12 “So then, brothers, we are debtors, not to the flesh, to live according to the flesh. 13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live. ”

So who are we indebted to? Clearly not the flesh, but Paul says we are debtors. We are indebted to the Spirit, who has given us life and because of that, we put to death the deeds of the body by the power of the Spirit, and live. This doesn’t earn us his Spirit or a place in Christ, this is evidence of his Spirit that’s already been given to us because we belong to him.

This is our sanctification. We must do things. We must put to death the deeds of the body. That’s us. We’re doing it. But we are doing it by the Spirit. We have a Helper–a powerful, powerful Helper–by whom we can put to death the sinful attitudes and actions that linger in us. And we must put to death the deeds of the body every day. It’s not a one and done sort of thing. Christ’s obedience and salvation are one and done. He finished his work. But this battle to kill the flesh is ongoing until he comes again. John Owen said, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”

Galatians 5:16-26, “But I say, walk by the Spirit, and you will not gratify the desires of the flesh. For the desires of the flesh are against the Spirit, and the desires of the Spirit are against the flesh, for these are opposed to each other, to keep you from doing the things you want to do. But if you are led by the Spirit, you are not under the law. Now the works of the flesh are evident: sexual immorality, impurity, sensuality, idolatry, sorcery, enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy, drunkenness, orgies, and things like these. I warn you, as I warned you before, that those who do such things will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (ESV)

I think what’s most remarkable about the works of the flesh that must be put to death is how unremarkable so many of them are. These are the ones that likely hit home for many of us: “enmity, strife, jealousy, fits of anger, rivalries, dissensions, divisions, envy…” We may balk at the orgies and sorcery, but if you’re like me, the envy and anger seem like maybe they’re not such a big deal. What’s a little strife? Are dissensions really that big of a thing? But they are. They all are. They’re satanic. And they’re not fitting for a child of God who has his Spirit dwelling in us. And if we make a practice of them, we will not inherit God’s kingdom.

The problem is, as a friend remarked to me recently, we usually want to reduce sin rather than kill it. We put ourselves on a diet from sin, where we still get some on the weekends, but we’re hoping for a few less sin calories. This doesn’t work. Sin has to be killed not reduced or put on a diet—not twenty minutes from now or in an hour or a week, but now. And it has to be killed now again tomorrow, and now the next day and the next—the same sins over and over, always killed now. We kill them by confessing, repenting, turning, and taking drastic practical measures—like getting rid of the internet or cutting up a credit card or exposing it to a friend until it shrivels.

We kill sin by the sword of the Spirit which is the word of God. Joe Rigney says this about the fruit of the Spirit of self-control, he says, “God is restoring control of you to you.” That means that we get to look at our hand and say, “Don’t touch that.” And tell our eyes, “Don’t look there.” And tell our thoughts to stop thinking that.

And the sword of God’s Spirit, the word of God, will help us immensely in this. Because you might have an argumentative streak that when you tell yourself to stop doing something, you talk back to yourself and say, “Just once,” or “I think it will be ok this time,” or all kind of crazy things, if your mind is anything like mine. But you can shut that argument down with God’s final word—you can make it quiet when you pierce it with the Spirit sword of the Bible. Stop talking back to yourself with your own words only, and start telling yourself God’s words. He says that sin is death and the Spirit is life and peace. Look to Christ and believe him.

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.

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.

 

 

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.