Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Whenever you eat or drink...

Even though he hasn't aged out of the nursery yet (that comes in December), T has started asking to sit through church with us. We make him pay attention for the singing, the Bible reading and the prayers, but then he pretty much does his own thing for the sermon. He knows the service is coming to an end when we begin to celebrate communion (we do it every week at my church), and though he hasn't asked, I've started to contemplate how to give him a simple, clear explanation for what's going on with those little pieces of bread and those little cups of wine.

Leave it to Sally Lloyd-Jones!

We read this tonight in the Jesus Storybook Bible (emphasis mine):

Then Jesus picked up some bread and broke it. He gave it to his friends. He picked up a cup of wine and thanked God for it. He poured it out and shared it.
"My body is like this bread. It will break," Jesus told them. "This cup of wine is like my blood. It will pour out."
"But this is how God will rescue the whole world. My life will break and God's broken world will mend. My heart will tear apart - and your hearts will heal. Just as the passover lamb died, so now I will die instead of you. My blood will wash away all your sins. And you'll be clean on the inside - in your hearts."
"So whenever you eat and drink, remember," Jesus said, "I've rescued you!"

Wednesday, July 16, 2014

1 Corinthians 13: A Mother’s Meditation, Confession, and Plea

This is a meditation that I offered at a baby shower tonight; for some understanding of my interpretation of various parts of this passage, please check out my last post, "...And the Greatest of these is Love."

1 Corinthians 13: A Mother’s Meditation, Confession, and Plea

If I speak perfect toddler-ease (even with a calm voice all day)
but have not love, I may as well have just put the kids in front of the TV all day.

If I can communicate the gospel perfectly and eloquently, and I always understand what’s going on in my little peoples’ hearts, and if I miraculously keep a perfect home in perfect order and my kids on a perfect schedule (that’s the mountain-moving part)
 but have not love, I am nothing.

If I give and give and give of myself to my family and my church,
and if I serve until the point of total burnout
but have not love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient,
even after the fourth water spill and a toddler who still refuses to let me put a lid on that cup.

Love is kind,
 responding gently to the endless toy battles and showing mercy instead of “I told you so’s.”

Love does not envy
another mom’s gifts or social position or husband or child’s developmental milestones,
and does not boast
(even inwardly) of her own gifts, achievements or family.

It is not arrogant or rude
to the husband who is inexplicably delayed in coming home from work and seems blissfully ignorant of how horrible the children have been all day and what that extra 20 minutes is costing me.

It does not insist on its own way,
even though I am (of course) right.

It is not irritable,
even after barely sleeping the night before

Or resentful
that I seriously can’t get a moment’s peace and instead am being force-fed fake jalapenos and cheese while two kids and a 100-pound dog crush around me on the toilet (true story).

It does not gloat or feel better about myself when other people’s kids melt down in public,
but rejoices when my kids or anyone shows even the slightest inclination toward repentance or loving the truth.

Love presses on, even when I’m so, so tired;
strives for consistency and joy, even when I don’t feel like it;
trusts that seeds sown now will reap a harvest;
reads Curious George Makes Pancakes for the umpteenth time in a row, with enthusiasm.

Love keeps doing all this not just because I’m a mom and that’s what moms do,
but also because my children are a precious gift to be stewarded for a short time, and so I press on through tears of laughter and tears of pain and tears of sheer exhaustion.

As cliché as it sounds, this time of intense work will fade away.
The little achievements that seem to define my sense of well-being or self-worth, they will cease.
As for the all-consuming schooling decisions and parenting what-if’s, they will pass away.

For we only see a small glimmer of who God created our kids to be, and we often only see the hard work of each day, but when Christ returns, the true value of our efforts (or not) will be revealed.

Everything that I do here on earth is temporary, and yet how I do it is eternal. When Christ returns, it won’t matter how early my kids knew the catechism, how clean my kitchen and bathrooms were, or how well-behaved my kids were at restaurants. These things are important, but only if I see them as the training ground for eternity. When Christ returns, he will make plain to us what is really important and valuable, and in the meanwhile …

Oh, Lord!

Paul intended this passage to be a mirror, held up before the Corinthians to see how, even at their best, they were rotten through-and-through, pursuing their own glory at the expense of their community.

As a mirror to my own life, 1 Corinthians 13 shows me a lot of rottenness, too. I see so many deficiencies in how I love my family and my community. But I do not do justice to the cross if I stop there. The cross tells me that it is impossible for me to ever love like this, but that love like this is possible, and that it is within reach.

Above all, God, I pray that you would pour your love into my children’s hearts, that they would know, deep inside, with unshakeable conviction, that you have loved them like this … to the death.

As a mom, I want so badly to control my kids’ lives, for my own comfort and glory, and for theirs. In your infinite love and wisdom, you teach me through this parenting journey that my kids are not my own, that I cannot control them, and that I cannot control or bargain with you where they are concerned.

My job is to be faithful where you have called me,
to sow with hope,
and to love those entrusted to me.

“And so these three remain: faith, hope, and love…”

Give me faith, Lord, in all that you are and all that you have promised.
Give me hope, Lord, that the seeds I sow will bear fruit in your time and plan.
Above all, Lord, give me love, love for you. Love that spills over into my family, my friends, and my community in joyful worship and service. So much that when my children one day reflect on their upbringing, they will do so with gratitude, not for my love, but because my love pointed them to this promise:
“I have loved you with an everlasting love.”

Tuesday, July 15, 2014

"...And the Greatest of these is Love"

I've been enjoying some extended time meditating on and studying 1 Corinthians 13, for reasons that I will make clear in a subsequent post. In the meantime, I want to share with you some of the general things I've learned about the chapter that I honestly had never thought about before.

It's amazing to me that I can have known a passage almost entirely by memory for most of my life, and yet when I actually sit down and think about it, I really don't know what a lot of it means. For example, why does the Apostle Paul choose to open a beautiful chapter praising the merits of love by talking about speaking in tongues and prophecy? And what on earth is he talking about when he says "when I was a child, I thought like a child ... but when I became a man, I put childish things behind me?" He doesn't even mention love there! And, why do "faith, hope and love" remain, but why is love the greatest?

If you know all these answers, skip this post; but if you're like me and you've never really given it a second thought when this passage is read at a wedding, read on!

First of all, 1 Corinthians 13 is a passage in context; it comes right between 1 Cor 12 and 1 Cor 14. Duh, right? But, what is Paul talking about in these passages? Spiritual gifts and, specifically, the gifts of speaking in tongues and prophecy. (Oh! "If I speak in the tongues of men and angels ... if I have the gift of prophecy..." See also, "But where there are tongues, they will cease.") In 1 Cor12, Paul has been correcting the Corinthians about the way they've been using these gifts, which are meant for the benefit of the entire church body, for their own glory. 1 Cor 12 gives guidelines for the proper way to use these gifts for the community, and Paul ends that discussion with this promise, which also serves as an introduction to the "love chapter:" "And now I will show you a better way."

"The better way" actually turns out to be a devastating critique of the puffed-up Corinthian church when you read it in light of the controversy at Corinth. Peppered throughout this love passage are comments that amount to telling the Corinthians that all their gifts (and hence, their self-worth) are nothing if they are using them out of pride and self-seeking. Using your gifts in love is not just a better way, it is the only way.

And Paul isn't just telling them this to bring them down a notch (by the way "tongues of angels" likely refers to Paul himself and his heavenly vision, so if anybody has reason to boast in tongues, it's Paul; but he includes himself in the critique of doing it all without love: "then I am nothing."); he gives them the theological/eschatological rationale for the superiority of love.

Tongues and prophecy are gifts meant for the church in this "in between time," before Christ's return and the consummation of his kingdom. We won't need people to be mediating a message between us and God when we are worshiping him face-to-face. When Christ returns, tongues and prophecy will cease. This is where Paul uses the "when I was a child" bit: childhood is while we are waiting for Christ; when he returns, we'll be all grown up and will have no use for childish things (no matter how good they were for us as children).

As it turns out, faith and hope are also "here and now" gifts, even though they rank far above the specific gifts like prophecy and tongues that have been so divisive in the Corinthian church, because they are essential to each person's daily survival in the Lord. Faith, as the book of Hebrews tells us, is confidence in things that we have not seen. Paul tells us in the love chapter that we see dimly now, but then we will see face to face. There's no need for faith when you're looking your Savior in the eye and can touch his nail-scarred hands. Likewise hope: "who hopes for what he sees?" (Rom 8:24). We wait for God's promises to come true, and we trust that they will, and that is hope. No need to hope anymore when the promises have been realized.

And so what remains and is, therefore, the greatest? Love. God is love, and this love will be surging joyfully through our worshipful throng for eternity.


After making these discoveries (again, amazing how I can have most of a passage memorized and have heard it for all of my life but really not have any idea what it meant), I started wondering if it is, after all, appropriate to personalize and individualize this chapter back into my own life (as is so often done at weddings). But then I realized that Paul is addressing pride and the tendency to use things that I have been given or that I do in order to glorify myself, to find my sense of identity or well-being with regard to God and my community (i.e. my justification), at the expense of my primary community, my family, not to mention my broader communities like church family and other circles. So, this passage isn’t just pointed at the heart of people who speak in tongues; it’s also pointed right at my own heart. And, I hope, at the hearts of others of you who, like me, find yourselves constantly stumbling and having our own desires get in the way of true, Christlike, cross-shaped love.

Sunday, April 27, 2014

Extravagant Grace - a review (part 4)

(Just joining us? Part 1, Part 2, Part 3)

Finally, on Matthew 11:28-30, a lengthy excerpt, but I think I need to quote all of it: 

For as long as you remain in your body of flesh, living on earth, you are called to do two things, neither of which you can do in your own strength. You are called to run the race like a champion athlete (1 Cor 9:24), and you are called to rest in Christ (Matt 11:28-30). These are not two separate but equal callings, as if we must constantly try to strive and rest at the same time. On that approach, all our striving will consume our resting and we will live our lives in a swirl of ceaseless activity, perpetual service to God, and countless self-salvation strategies. Rather, resting must be primary, for according to the author of Hebrews it is the goal of our striving.

He says, "So then, there remains a sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God's rest has also rested from his works as God did from his. Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience." (Heb 4:9-11)

In Matthew 11 Jesus said, “Come unto me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” Rest must be the primary paradigm, for even if we strive with all our might for obedience we will always need the righteousness of Christ to stand in our place. No goodness of our own will ever be good enough; even in our best moments our righteousness is like filthy rags (Isa 64:6). If we are to stand before God we must be constantly hidden in the royal robes of his goodness.

We know this for sure because, although we will be busy in heaven, it is portrayed for us as the Sabbath rest that never ends. Our chief theme for all eternity will be rest and delight in our Savior, so as we seek to enjoy a foretaste of heaven on earth now our primary goal should be to understand what it means to rest and delight in the finished work of Christ. What better way to get the courage and strength to keep running the difficult race than to rest supremely in Christ even as we set about the serious work of obedience? (225-6)

As I read and re-read this passage, I’ve finally come to this question: how does Duguid believe that Jesus would define “rest” in Matthew 11? Based on the comment that “on that approach [viewing striving and resting as equal callings], all our striving will consume our resting and we will live our lives in a swirl of ceaseless activity, perpetual service to God, and countless self-salvation strategies,” it seems that she views “rest” as antithetical to “striving.” I find this curious given that her “rest” passage, Matthew 11, combines the notion of rest with taking Christ’s yoke upon us. It is precisely in the work of being yoked to Christ (we don’t need to argue that this is “striving” language, do we?) that we will find rest for weary souls. Obedience apart from Christ’s rest produces “a swirl of ceaseless activity, perpetual service to God, and countless self-salvation strategies.” As Duguid says, these are “not two separate but equal callings.” In the totally unexpected way that Christ’s brings his grace to us, obedience and rest are the same calling, and this is how Christ can say that we will only find rest for our weary souls by taking his yoke upon us.

I’ll be very honest here: it disturbs me that this book has gotten such resounding endorsements given that Duguid seems to misunderstand the relationship between obedience and rest in Christ’s economy. I spent the last several years studying the book of Romans, and so when I started finding this bifurcation throughout the book, the phrase “the obedience of faith” kept coming to mind. Paul uses this same phrase in Romans 1:5 and in Romans 16:26 (verse 27 is a doxology that closes the book). So in his greatest of theological treatises, the apostle Paul uses the phrase “the obedience of faith” as bookends, drawing together 11 chapters of indicative and five chapters of imperative into one inseparable phrase. True obedience only comes from faith, and truth faith always and inevitably produces obedience. Duguid’s separation of “striving” and “resting” seems to indicate that we alternate obedience and faith, and even though she returns at the end of this quoted passage to refer to “[resting] supremely in Christ even as we set about the serious work of obedience,” the fact remains that she has fundamentally separated the two from the outset.

As an aside, I think one big danger in this bifurcation is that Duguid’s core audience, those who are weary and heavy laden by guilt and by seemingly fruitless efforts at obedience, will seize upon the encouragement to rest from their striving toward holiness and let down their guard. “I’ve been working so hard to be holy, I’m now going to take my Sabbath rest and quit trying so hard for a bit.” This is when we the weary will be at our most vulnerable, because it is then that our “rest” idolatries that can be the most seductive (sloth, gluttony, addictions). I believe that a truly Gospel-centered approach to sanctification must seamlessly bring together the finished work of Christ and his ongoing work in our hearts, beginning at the deepest levels where we aren’t even aware of the depth of our sin, and showing us not only Christ’s sufficiency but also his incomparable beauty in such a way that we want for nothing else, and our behavior can’t help but follow our heart’s desires. This, my friends, is what it means to be transformed (and transfixed) by God’s extravagant grace.

Here’s the thing: I desperately need the message that is the purpose of this book, that when I am at my worst (not to mention what I perceive to be my best), God is at his best. By “at his best,” I mean the character traits that make our Yahweh God unique, above anything mankind could possibly invent, and as he revealed himself to Moses after the golden calf fiasco: “The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Ex 34:6-7). As I write this, I’ve just totally lost it on my husband and kids, so much that he invented an excuse to get them out of the house so that I could cool off a bit. I am in constant, desperate need of a Savior who will save me from the flames of hell, as well as the way that hell still grasps for control of my angry, selfish, self-sufficient heart. “Oh, wretched woman that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord!” (Rom 7)

The heart cry of this book echoes that “Thanks be to God!” I’d love to see a re-written version in a couple of years that maintains Duguid’s trademark vulnerability, compassion and insight into life in this body of death, but with the pendulum swings modulated into a theologically balanced as well as deeply encouraging work.

Extravagant Grace - a review (part 3)

Maybe these are just quibbles, preferences in how I wished she would have worded things so that they would have been more clear or would have agreed with my sensibilities. Maybe the CCEF root-fruit model has been overdone and we need a fresh way of understanding, one that says something like, “If the sovereign God’s primary goal in sanctifying believers is simply to make us more holy, it is hard to explain why most of us make only ‘small beginnings’ on the road to personal holiness in this life” (p 29). (Note, again, the “either-or,” or a “more/less;” God cares passionately about our holiness, just as a doctor cares about getting us symptom-free; it’s just that on the road to genuine holiness, God will take the time to do heart chemotherapy and let our outward “symptoms” perhaps even become worse in order to truly heal our whole selves.)
Quibbles? Wording preferences? I was told to read through to the last chapters in order to get to the heart of the book’s theology. Here I found more Scripture (much of the rest of the book is interpreting John Newton’s writings). However, to my dismay, I found the same pendulum-swings and interpretations of Scripture that didn’t ring true with my understanding of those passages. I checked with a few trusted counselors. And they agreed with me. Here are three passages of Scripture that Duguid uses in the very last, summing-it-all-up chapter, in order to send us off into living life with this new understanding of God’s Extravagant Grace.

Philippians 2:13  "If the Christian life is made up of times when God is at work to will and to do (Phil 2:13), times when he is at work to will but not to do, and times when it seems that he is doing neither, what are we called to today?" ... her point is that "We are to strive for growth with all our strength and to work to put sin to death within us " (p 220). YES! But I struggle with the fact that she said that there are times where God has a will for us but he is not working in us according to that will (maybe all that’s needed here is an explanation of the difference between the prescriptive and the decretive will of God?), and there are other times when it seems like he has neither a "will" or a "work" for/in us? (Operative word, of course, of that last bit is “seems.”) But really, saying that there are “times when it seems that he is doing neither [willing nor working] isn’t at all the point of Philippians 2:13, is it? Verse 13 follows verse 12, which says, “Therefore, my beloved, as you have always obeyed, so now, not only as in my presence but much more in my absence, work out your own salvation with fear and trembling.” The point of this passage is that God is always at work and he always has a will, even if we can't see or understand it, or if it seems contrary to what we think he should be doing (like chemotherapy is killing cancer, even when we can't see it working and we don't understand how it all works).Oh, and by the way, the previous 11 verses (remember that verse 12 has a “therefore”) are about how Christ himself both motivates us and empowers us to this persistent, steady obedience because he himself obeyed unto death and is now victoriously reigning over our lives and everything else.

Romans 12:3 "For by the grace given to me I say to everyone among you not to think of himself more highly than he ought to think, but to think with sober judgment, each according to the measure of faith that God has assigned."

Duguid’s explanation of this passage begins by recognizing that “Paul [issues] a strong command to radical obedience… This command makes it clear that we are not at all passive in our sanctification. There are things we need to try hard to do, acts of obedience that we need to pursue ” (223). I agree with this statement wholeheartedly; Romans 12 is the famous turning point in the entire book, the hinge point of the “indicative” and “imperative” shift, and so it is fitting that Paul issues a strong command to radical obedience. What I find puzzling in Duguid’s dealings with Romans 12 is a particular fascination that she seems to have, perhaps gleaned from her time spent in Newton’s works (with which I am admittedly unfamiliar), with the “measure of faith” terminology that Paul uses. She takes the phrase "measure of faith" to mean that God metes out degrees of faith to different people just as he distributes different gifts to each, all for the building up of the entire body. She expanded on this idea earlier in the book (chapter 9), and hints of it are present in chapters 2, 3 and 4, where she reflects on Newton’s descriptions of different stages in the Christian’s maturation process.

While I don’t dispute the fact that God has measured out faith according to his divine plan, it seems like a pretty unhelpful focus with regard to the passage, since she then tells us that we need to live in a community because "deciding how much faith you have isn't something you should do by yourself."  I guess I’m failing to understand why it would be useful or helpful to sit around trying to figure out (even with the help of others) "how much faith you have." As I said, I’m sure these comments hearken back to her earlier chapters in which she describes baby believers, maturing believers and mature believers, but even many of the descriptions under those headings can all apply to all of us at varying times, so the descriptions as “phases” might themselves be a bit unhelpful. But on top of that, I haven’t understood the purpose in spending the time and the effort in determining "how much faith you have," except perhaps to explain why a person is not bearing fruit, or to offer a point of comparison between oneself and other believers. Wouldn't it be more helpful to simply recognize that God has us all at varying points on the journey; he's given us all unique gifts, strengths and weaknesses; and he calls us to walk faithfully before him with what we have been given, without comparing or quantifying? Isn't it for all of us to say, every day, "I believe, Lord, help my unbelief?"