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meandering thoughts on the Christian life

Questions for Abigail

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            Abigail’s story is one of a wealthy, intelligent, and beautiful woman, and we read about her in 1 Samuel 25. I admire her so much that I named one of my daughters for her. In fact, if I could go back in history and meet anyone, it would be Abigail. Here are the questions I would ask:

            Throughout the centuries we have taken our hats off to you for your example of a faithful wife.  But really…how did you do it?  How does a woman submit to a man known as a fool? Obviously in ancient times you had far fewer choices than we have today.  But even so, weren’t you at all tempted to tell David and his henchmen exactly where to find your drunken, foolish husband?

            How did you end up married to Nabal the fool?  Did your parents arrange the marriage?  Was he always known as a fool, or was he respected in the community at one time?  Was anyone else aware of the difficult road you walked?

            We know from your words to David that your source of strength was from God.  We see that you obviously spent deep private moments with the King of kings.  What were your deepest prayers?  What did He speak to your heart in those quiet moments?  How did God let you know that He would take care of you?  What did you do every day to find rest for your soul in the middle of turmoil?  Did you struggle before God with the “whys” of your life?

            What about your in-laws?  How did you deal with the people who raised “the fool?”    Did you want to ask your mother-in-law what she did in raising him, so that you could do the opposite with your own children?

            Speaking of children, the Bible gives no record of any children from your marriage to Nabal.  Was that by choice?  What on earth would you have told your children about their father?  Would you have tried to shelter them from knowing the truth about their father?  What would you have done if any of your children had inherited his tendencies?  Or worse, what if they had admired him and copied his ways?

            Did you ever try to change him?  How did you cope when you first realized what a fool he was?  How did you remain loyal to a husband like Nabal?  Where did you go in your heart to deal with your own emotional needs?  Did you pretend in front of him that things were fine?  Were you afraid of him?

            How did you come to have such an intimate relationship with God?  Was your difficult marriage the very thing that drew you closer to your heavenly Father?  Were you ever angry with God for your circumstances?  Were the words you said to David words that God had whispered to your own heart?  Did you ever look down the long road of your future with despair?  Did you ever wish Nabal would die?

            Did having plenty of money help your situation any?  Many of us with financial burdens often imagine that life would be so much easier if we had enough to pay the bills.  Was it easier?  Did you have any years where money was tight?  Did you ever have to suffer need as the result of his foolish financial decisions?  I don’t get the feeling that Nabal would have been open to any financial advice from his wife.  How did you deal with that?  Were you always able to leave your needs in God’s hands?  Did your faith ever falter under the strain?

            How intimate was your relationship with Nabal?  Did you long to be able to have an open and respectable conversation with him?  Did you ever try to share your feelings with him?  Or was it easier to just smile and keep your thoughts to yourself?  Did you ever try to point out his foolish ways?  How much suffering came because of his attitude toward you?

            Did you stick by Nabal because you had no other options?  Or was it because you vowed before God, “ ‘Til death do us part.”?  Could you have gone back to your father’s house and explained the situation?  Did anyone think you should just be happy to have a husband?

            I want to go back to why you stood up for Nabal before David.  Was that something you regularly had to do?  Why did you protect him from David and his men?  Did you not see that as a way out of a painful and difficult situation?  Your servants obviously knew about Nabal’s foolishness, and they felt comfortable speaking to you openly about him.  How did you keep your respectability with them?

            Did you ever spend emotional energy wondering how your life would be without Nabal?  Did you love him in spite of his flaws?  Did you try to change your situation?  Did you long for things to be different in your marriage?  Were there ever any pleasant moments with Nabal?  Or did you sit by the fire at night alone?  How does a woman find contentment for her soul when outward circumstances scream pain and frustration?

            Did your painful marriage cause you to want to warn other women about marrying a man like Nabal?  What would you have taught your own daughters about marriage?  Again, we understand that in ancient times women did not have the range of choices that we have today.  How did your limited options affect your ability to find contentment?

            We learn so much of your character from the eight verses you spoke to David.  What were you asking when you said, “But when the Lord has dealt with my lord, then remember your maidservant?”  Did you have any idea that God would take you out of your situation?  Was there rest and contentment in the hope of change?  Or was there “peace in the valley” just knowing God was with you?

            How often did you have to act to prevent calamity from Nabal’s foolishness?  How did you feel when he collapsed over the news of his near calamity with David?  What about during the ten days before he died?  Did you know he was dying?  Was it difficult to care for his needs during those days?  Was your faith strong during those days, or did you struggle with doubts and fears?  We think of you as such a fearless and strong woman for confronting David.  Did that come from your own confidence in God’s sovereignty?  Did you see everything as being held in God’s hands, as you mentioned several times to David?  Did you feel “bound in the bundle of the living with the Lord your God?”

            One more thought: as we read the rest of your story, it seems in a way like a “love at first sight” romance that so many long for. But was it really that great? The Bible tells us that David was a handsome man, and maybe a young widow, even with great wealth, would have been in a precarious situation in ancient times. But the rest of your story doesn’t really seem that wonderful to consider: a life on the run and sharing even an exciting husband with other wives doesn’t seem that much better than what you had. Maybe when life settled down and you were able to have a peaceful palace life things got better for you? I find myself hoping they did, even though it seems doubtful. Maybe your entire life on earth was full of unpleasant challenges. But still you found faith in your loving heavenly Father, and the words we have from you still inspire us.

            How can we thank you enough, Abigail, for the powerful example you have been through the ages?  You have certainly encouraged us through the years, and I hope that, from your now eternal perspective, you are able to see how profoundly grateful we are for the life you lived here on earth.  I hope that my own legacy will be even a portion of the hope and encouragement to absolute faith in God that yours has been.

Ten Tips for Parents

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For many years I taught 6th grade Sunday School, and most years I had the opportunity to meet with the parents of my students at the beginning of the year. Having worked with 11-12 year olds for such a long time, I developed some ideas to help parents navigate the journey into the teen years. I applied these ideas to my own child-rearing, and hopefully they can help a new generation of parents as they seek to raise their children in the Lord.

  1. Identify your goals.

“Choose for yourselves this day whom you will serve…”   Joshua 24:15

Whatever the age of your child, make sure you know what your goals are for that child.  If your child is very young, you obviously have an advantage in shaping your child-rearing to reflect your goals.  If your child is older, you can still have goals for your relationship.  Spend some time in prayer, asking God to help you identify appropriate goals for your family. The goals you set for your parenting will impact everything in their lives, so consider carefully. It is definitely worth considering whether your goals are primarily spiritual or worldly, and being honest with yourself about this.

  1. Study everything!

“Listen to counsel and receive instruction that you may be wise in your latter days.”   Proverbs 19:20

Almost every profession has some sort of continuing education or professional development.  Parenting should be considered every bit as urgent for study and instruction.  People jokingly say babies do not come with instruction manuals, but of course that is certainly not true.  There is an enormous array of parenting manuals/conferences/video seminars/etc. available from every possible perspective.  Even if you narrow down to only Christian perspectives, there is still a staggering number of opinions on how children should be raised.  Study the Bible first, and then read as many parenting books as you can. I have included a list of some of my favorites at the end.

  1. Notice everything. Sweat the right small stuff.

“In all your ways acknowledge Him and He shall direct your paths.”   Proverbs 3:6

From the very beginning, even from the earliest awareness that you will become a parent, practice noticing everything that might impact your child.  I am always amazed at how much time and energy some parents place on covering every electrical outlet in the home while allowing other harmful influences into their children’s lives.  These influences can range from inappropriate media (television, music, movies, books, magazines, etc.) to negative relationships.  Notice everything your child watches, hears, says, does, or has any contact with.  You must constantly describe and define life for them in terms you want them to understand.  Do not skimp on this one.

  1. Ponder educational choices.

“Study to show yourselves approved unto God…”    2 Timothy 2:15

Make sure that the education your child is getting is the one you hope they are.  Several years ago, my 6th grade Sunday School students were describing something in one of their textbooks that seemed particularly disturbing to me.  I asked them to bring the book to class so that I could see for myself what it said.  They told me that they were not allowed to take that one home, since the school did not have enough of that particular book.  I asked them if their parents had seen the information they were telling me about, and not one of them had.  Be sure you know what your children are learning when they are not with you.

  1. Live the Life

“And these words that I command you today shall be in your heart.”   Deuteronomy 6:6

These Old Testament words were written specifically to parents.  You must have your own spiritual life in order if you are to teach your children what they must know.  You are teaching them all the time, from the moment they are conceived.  They learn your attitudes, your voice inflections, and most importantly what your priorities are every minute of every day.  Make sure your own relationship with God is strong and growing.  You cannot make this stuff up on your own.  You must be following the right Leader in order to lead your children to a crown of life.  Make sure they know you read your Bible and pray, and read and pray with them as well.  That is how they learn.  They spot hypocrisy in their parents way earlier than you hope they will.  When they question you about it, be sure you teach them that you are not perfect, but you are following the Perfect One and are aiming to grow more like Him.

  1. Teach them the truths you want them to live by.

“You shall teach them [God’s Words] diligently to your children…”     Deuteronomy 6:7

The Bible is a book of consequences.  One mistake I see parents make is to fail to teach their children consequences of thought, behavior and words.  Make sure you understand what the Bible teaches about consequences so you are able to teach it to your children.  Obviously this is a life-long commitment for every parent…indeed every Christian.  To seek to understand Biblical truths in order to teach it to your children is a sobering responsibility.

  1. Own your goals.

“Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, that he will also reap.”   Galatians 6:7

Just as we teach consequences to our children, we must not ignore the fact that we will also reap what we sow in our children’s lives.  I am always amazed at parents’ surprise and disappointment when their children reflect the parents’ own teaching in the teen years.  We all know good parents who have children who make bad decisions, and bad parents whose children turn out fine.  But it is worth noting that this is generally the exception and not the rule.  I have often noticed that when children of bad parents turn out well, it is often that the parents were not hypocritical about where they stood.  Hypocrisy, often characterized by “lukewarm” Christianity (surely an oxymoron), is a very dangerous quality for children to observe in their parents.  We must be eager to repent when our children point it out in our lives.

  1. Be sure to discipline

“Train up a child in the way he should go, and when he is old, he will not depart from it.”    Proverbs 22:6

The root of discipline is disciple, so the thought should not be from a strictly negative view.  Sometimes when children are young, it seems everything we say (sometimes loudly!) to them is what not to do.  But it is very important to teach positive discipline as well.  It is also important not to ignore any root in our children that we would not want to see the later fruit of.  Of course, discipline looks very different for different ages, and it is urgent to pray over the appropriate discipline for your own children. Make sure you are listening to God’s Word above all.  By all means spank them when they are young! When they are teenagers, I recommend deep prayer over disappointing behaviors and attitudes. Taking privileges from a teen who is about to enter adulthood should be carefully considered; if you have trained them to only “forced discipline” rather than self-discipline, who will take their privileges when they go to college?

  1. Be active in church.

“Not forsaking the assembling of yourselves together…”    Hebrews 10:25

It always bothered me that Hebrews 10:25 seemed to be the only specific command to attend church.  But as I studied and taught the New Testament, it occurred to me that all the letters to the churches assumed the believers were participating together in worship.  Indeed, it was what they were used to as good Jews before they were Christians.  It is worth noting that the longest book in the Bible was the hymnbook for God’s people for corporate worship (Psalms).  Today’s parents have so many activities pulling them away from regular Sunday worship.  If you involve your children in activities that regularly take them away from the normal worship/discipleship opportunities at church, it can be assumed that you are not using your own gifts to serve the body of Christ.  This fact will not escape your child.  Your children’s interest in serving or even attending regularly will reflect your own commitment to church.

  1. Teach good decision-making.

“But seek first the kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things shall be added to you.”    Matthew 6:33

Every decision in life should have a Biblical basis.  Even making sure your children get enough rest at night can be shown to be connected to the Biblical truth of being good stewards of a healthy body.  Train yourself and your children to find the Biblical solution to every aspect of life, including behavior, friendships, activities, relationships, etc.  Again, this is a life-long pursuit for every believer, but it is worth training your children from the earliest age that this is what we do.

Resources for Parents

  1. Bible
  2. Shepherding Your Child’s Heart by Ted Tripp
  3. Training Them Up by Henry Clay Trumbull
  4. Biblical Parenting by Don Gilchrist
  5. The Heart of Anger by Lou Priolo
  6. Assumptions That Affect Our Lives by Christian Overman
  7. Let Us Highly Resolve by David Quine
  8. Precious in His Sight by Roy Zuck
  9. The Strong-Willed Child by James Dobson
  10. Parenting Isn’t for Cowards by James Dobson
  11. The Mystery of Children by Mike Mason
  12. S.M. Davis videos (www.solvefamilyproblems.com)
  13. http://www.lamplighterpublishing.com
  14. Josh McDowell everything
  15. Already Gone by Ken Hamm
  16. http://www.answersingenesis.org

 

 

What Happened to This Church?

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What exactly happened here? At one time this church had several hundred in attendance every Sunday. Now eighty is considered a good Sunday. At one time this church had  thriving youth and children’s ministries. Now there are maybe twenty enrolled, with only about half of those in attendance on any given Sunday. At one time the church gave generously to missions; now it struggles to pay the bills. At one time, families worshipped together. Now it’s mostly white-haired saints whose children and grandchildren are at the lake, or maybe at the ball field. Maybe they are just sleeping in.

So what happened? Did the church stop loving Jesus? Was there a scandal? Did the pastor fail? Did the music ministry not make the leap to worship music (as if that’s not what they were doing all along)? What about the lights? Did this church fail to transition from traditional lights to color-coordinated flashing light shows? Maybe their screens weren’t large enough or high definition enough to keep the younger worshippers interested. Maybe the sermons were too old-fashioned; maybe they liked King James for too long, and one day no one could understand. Maybe the pastor wore a tie for too long. Maybe he didn’t have skinny jeans or a beard, or at least scruff.

Do they have a gym? That could have been their downfall. These days an exciting youth area is key. Gyms were then; ping pong tables and video games are cool now, or was that last year?

What about their education program? Did they come out of the dark ages and prioritize relevance over basic Bible knowledge? Our denomination has continually updated teaching methods for everyone, keeping track of every trend and fad. When the education establishment in society came out with how oppressive memorization had become, whole denominations abandoned memory verses. The good that came from that mistake was the growth in popularity of memory programs like AWANA, so I guess ashes to beauty there. In the old days, Bible study units had titles like, “The Life of Paul”, or “The Patriarchs of Israel”. Today the more common titles include: “How to Improve Your Marriage” or “A Spiritual View of Finances”. Not that those aren’t interesting or helpful enough; it’s just that we used to study the Bible more to learn about how to please God rather than how God might benefit us.

Did the overall ministry stop meeting the needs of the members? Of the community? Was that ever the purpose of the church…to meet needs? Or was every member supposed to be using his or her gifts to edify the Body of Christ? When did it get so all mixed up?

Was it one ineffective pastor? Did one bad choice by the congregation cause the decline? Did losing that momentum doom this church to the hospice phase of a church’s life? Our denomination boasted over 1800 new church plants in one year. In our area, one of those church plants was across the street from another church; one actually met in the same building as an existing church, but was a separate congregation. God help us. We planted 1800 churches but let probably twice that number die; after all, we are in the Bible belt: a church on every corner.

So is it wrong to criticize new church plants in the Bible belt when so many churches are content to die a slow death, never doing the hard work of self-assessment on how we got to this point? I do confess to that criticism, although I acknowledge the Holy Spirit conviction of judging another’s work for God.

In our area there are more churches in decline than churches that are thriving, but we are still planting new ones right around the corner. No worries about the 98% non-Christian nation of Wales or the island in the Philippines with 1 million people and not one evangelical church. We do still think about Chicago and Portland, who do not have so many Christian churches. But surely North American missions is on that.

So even after much thought, we still can’t explain exactly why all these churches are dying. And how many have a thriving church right down the road. What is the difference? And is the church that appears to be thriving really do the work of God? Just because a lot of people come to hear the preacher or the music, or to enjoy the awesome light show, does that mean people are being saved? That discipleship and true worship in spirit and truth are happening? God only knows.

Father, may we pray for each other and each other’s churches in this place in time. May we seek to be faithful servants both individually and collectively as Your Body. May the world know we are Christians by our love and not by our cool programs or the social ills that we oppose.

 

What About Santa?

 

 

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Maybe it was because I had an older brother who had already experienced the Santa years, but I never remember believing in a real Santa Claus. I remember it as a game my parents played, pretending that Santa set out the gifts during the night on Christmas Eve. I remember seeing Santa at Howard Griffin Land O’ Toys, but never imagining him to be anything other than a man dressed up for fun. I always knew the gifts were from my parents; after all, we didn’t have a chimney, so there had to be another explanation.

I had honestly never met anyone who believed the idea of Santa Claus to be controversial until I moved to Houston, Texas in the early eighties. I met people who had convictions about things like Santa and Halloween that I had never realized were controversial. In the same way we knew Monopoly money was just pretend, we grew up knowing that Santa was pretend too.

Since I was the children’s director for a large children’s program, the questions and arguments built up like the walls of Jericho. Who was right? Should we ban all fantasy games because some children would think they were real? Should we consider whether the young ones were stumbling over this? Why were parents having a hard time with this? Were they suddenly unable to help their children distinguish between fiction and reality? Were they lying to their children? Would their children grow up to believe Jesus was pretend too, as some claimed? Since I had never believed Santa was real, I didn’t grapple with any of this growing up. But here it was, a very real dividing point among Christians.

It was even controversial among the church leaders. The extremists on one side thought the whole idea of Santa should be exposed as a demonic lie, and all children should be told the truth. The opposite extreme was that we should let Santa visit children’s Sunday School classes and pass out toys. What a mess.

Of course the tricky part was that St. Nicholas truly is a historic person who gave out toys for the poor children. Would we demonize that? Was that the beginning of the commercialization of Christmas, taking the emphasis off the birth of our Savior and putting it on the giving of gifts to each other? Were we ever instructed biblically to celebrate Jesus’ birth? Weren’t the death and resurrection the biblically mandated celebrations? Should we blame the wise men for this mess?

With my own children I didn’t have to face the controversy at all. During his preschool years, my oldest child was extremely fearful of anyone dressed in costume. During the Christmas season, we would carefully walk as far as possible around the mall Santas, with me assuring my son that it was just pretend. He almost had a meltdown in my arms when a well-meaning grocery store checker asked him if Santa was coming to visit him. The idea that a man with a white beard in red clothes might come to our house was too much. As I felt him tense, I assured him that it was just a game some people play at their house, and Santa was certainly not coming to our house. So we were able to successfully avoid the whole issue of whether I was ruining my son’s childhood by depriving him of an innocent belief in being good for toys. And every parent knows that what one child knows, all your children know. I did tell my children that lots of parents like to play that game, so they should not tell their friends that Santa was fake. We had the usual gamut of extremities among our Christian friends with some not even putting up a tree or decorating since it was all pagan, and some going all out with Santa and all the trappings.

So how have I advised parents and children’s workers through the years on this contentious issue? I have told parents to carefully think it through and honestly lay it before the Lord in prayer. For children’s workers in the church, it seems obvious that the whole controversy should be avoided. I have found it difficult during Sunday School to help children focus on the birth of Jesus when Santa is the one that gives them gifts, and even knows if they are bad or good. I have always been relieved that I teach older children, so I don’t have to worry about whether they truly believe in Santa. It becomes a good opportunity to discuss the meat offered to idols in Romans 14 and how good Christian people can disagree on issues and still keep the unity of the body.

Cold Feet

 

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I’ve always imagined that the water was pretty cold when the priests of Joshua’s day had to step into the Jordan River after forty years of wilderness wandering. As they were finally crossing over into the Promised Land, I wonder if they thought about their forebears being able to walk across the Red Sea on perfectly dry ground without getting their feet wet at all. I also imagine that the stormy waters that Peter stepped out into to meet Jesus were cold as well. In both of these Biblical accounts, faith was demonstrated literally by getting cold feet.

In our day, the phrase, “getting cold feet” most often means the opposite. It usually means someone is afraid to go through with something important. We have all heard a groom good-naturedly teased about getting cold feet on the day of his wedding. And if statistics are any indicator, most of us have experienced cold feet when asked to speak publicly or to give a public presentation of any kind.

But when I consider these accounts of faith that required getting cold feet, I realize how often I falter. Would I, like Peter, have actually asked to get out of the boat? Jesus did not require it, but Peter was eager to prove his faith. I imagine I would have cheered Peter on from the supposed safe place. But is anywhere apart from Christ a safe place? Or maybe in my heart I would have criticized his impulsiveness. I don’t really picture jumping out of the boat; I picture my feet warm inside the boat. And I’m afraid that even if the storm waters inside the boat were rising, making my feet cold in the boat, I might have still opted for walking by sight rather than by faith.

And what about the priests in Joshua’s day? It doesn’t seem that they really had a choice. Or maybe they did. If I were in their spot, pride would have forced me to step into that cold water. I’m sure there wouldn’t have been any reward for me in that kind of obedience, done out of obligation rather than in faith and love of my Master.

So what are the places in my life that God commands me to get cold feet, or that He would be pleased for me to step out of the boat? The first thought that comes to my mind is His repeated command in Psalm 37 not to stress about anything. I keep my own feet pretty warm in the fires of the stresses of life. Several years ago I had some stress-related stomach issues; I told my doctor that I was ashamed that he thought stress was the cause of my symptoms since I wanted my life to exemplify faith rather than stress or anxiety. A further word on that is to “Be anxious for nothing…” (Philippians 4:6, NKJV), but again, my feet are rarely found immediately stepping into the cold waters of faith. Even when I know I must turn my fears and stresses over to God, I usually indulge in at least some time of toasting my toes with my own thoughts. And my mind can surely run away with anxious thoughts.

So today I am praying for cold feet. I’m praying to be as eager as Peter was to run to Jesus out of pure joy. I’m praying not to sink in the waves by taking my eyes off of Him. I’m praying for, “Well done, good and faithful servant,” (Matthew 25:21, NKJV) rather than, “O you of little faith” (Matthew 14:31, NKJV). I’m praying that I would joyfully heed the will of God when He commands me to step into my own Jordan River, trusting Him to stop the currents of doubt that threaten to drown me. He saw the Israelites safely to the other side, and He lifted Peter out of the waves; He will do the same for me.

 

 

An Unexpected Lesson on Free Will

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Last night I helped Claire with the five-year-olds at church. For full disclosure here, I much prefer working with middle schoolers, but last night the need was in kindergarten.

This morning as I was praying for various friends and loved ones in their own personal crises of faith, I thought about my own faith journey. I thought about faith in general and free will. Then my mind wandered back to the kindergartners.

It didn’t take very long in the room to notice the bend of each of their hearts. The first one I noticed seemed determined not to cooperate. Claire seemed to have endless patience in redirecting the wayward one. After about fifteen minutes I suggested taking him to his parents (this sort of thing almost never happens with middle schoolers); and though Claire acknowledged the possibility to the uncooperative one, I had no feeling that her patience would end there. She kept holding out the opportunity for him to participate well in the class, even with no encouragement from the small rebel. Of course Claire had at least two advantages: she knew she had a limited time to have to hold her patience, and she knew the child.

Another notable personality had a lot of spunk, but there was the definite air of cooperation in her. Every time Claire gave her any instruction, she immediately obeyed. Oh, she could be found running when she was supposed to be walking, but just a word from Claire brought those little feet back to the proper speed. It was truly delightful to watch her exuberant and obedient spirit working in tandem.

The third stand-out was somewhere in-between. Sometimes she cooperated well; other times her little arms were folded across her chest in defiance. During our one hour together, there was not a single time that she failed to eventually follow Claire’s direction, but I had some moments of doubt about her. Her delayed obedience did not contribute well to the spirit of the group, but she was a far cry better to deal with than the rebel child.

This whole scene reminded me this morning of how we must appear to our heavenly Father. And maybe another step in understanding free will. It did not occur to anyone in the room, young or old, that Claire might lose control of the group. As the obvious one in charge, she was certainly sovereign in the room. But she gave them a great deal of leeway to choose their own actions and attitudes. Of course there were big and little consequences to the various levels of cooperation: the most compliant child had the best role in acting out the story. The least compliant ended up not being in the story at all. The lukewarm child had a role, and played it well, but there was always a sense that she could not be depended on not to bolt when it suited her. And again, Claire was both in charge and ultimately in control of the group. She gave them free will, but there were certainly limits. And I noticed that the limits for one might not necessarily be the same for another.

So last night I felt that I had caught a glimpse of how our heavenly Father deals with our frailties. And I saw how to pray this morning: Lord, help us to be compliant children, both for Your pleasure and for the good of the body of Christ. Help us to trust and obey Your directions. Help us to look expectantly and with a glad heart for the next plans You have for us (we might get to spoon cotton balls into a plastic bin and love it, even if we wanted to act out the big bad wolf instead!); help us to trust when we don’t understand what’s next or why You let so-and-so act that way. Help us to wait patiently when we want so desperately to play on the playground, but the word is not tonight- maybe next week. May we grow in Your ways the way we hope the kindergartners grow in all the ways they should.

Wrong/Right

2 Samuel 6:1-9

Even Indiana Jones knew about the poles. How did Uzzah miss those? What did they think the rings were for? And does this story mean anything for us today if we are not archeologists or movie buffs?

Mr. Whitaker surely thought so: “God isn’t just interested in the results, He’s also interested in how we arrive at those results.” (Adventures in Odyssey)

Mr. Whitaker told the story by comparing right/right, right/wrong, wrong/right, and wrong/wrong. You can find his wonderful lesson at http://www.whitsend.org by searching “Rights, Wrongs, and Reasons”. And in the end, you will find that he describes Uzzah’s mistake as wrong/right: Uzzah did the wrong thing for the right reason. And it cost him his life.

So what does it all have to do with us? Do we sometimes do the wrong thing when we are trying to do a work for God? Does God ever strike anyone dead these days for making a mistake? I can’t say I have personally seen God do that, but who are the casualties today when we figuratively carry the ark on a cart?

In 2 Samuel 6, there’s no doubt that they were trying to do a great work for God. There’s no doubt that their hearts were tuned to bringing glory to God. The problem was that they were making it up as they went. They had clear instructions about carrying the Ark, but somehow they missed it. Or ignored it.

So, what are we, the foot soldiers today, supposed to do when we see a fellow soldier carrying the Ark of God on a cart? Unlike the foot soldiers of 2 Samuel 6, I have my own copy of the Law of the Lord. Am I under grace when my leaders or fellow soldiers allow or even suggest compromise? What about culture? Did anyone standing by watching the Ark on a cart think, “Oh well, those rings were for another day and time”? Does anyone care to find out what the rings on the Ark are for? Do they matter? Can I decide for myself how to glorify God? Have I studied His instructions, or am I ignorantly offering a new cart for service?

And who is Uzzah today? Will we ever know how many spiritual deaths occur because we have stood by and encouraged each other to make up our own path of obedience? Or maybe we were shoulder to shoulder with the Uzzahs of our generation, and we didn’t even notice they were gone. Should we continue in sin that grace may abound? (God forbid – Romans 6)

In what ways am I making up my own Christian walk? Am I obediently walking God’s path, or making up my own (Colossians 2:6-7)? Am I proclaiming the name of Christ while carrying the Ark the way I want to carry it? Do I even know what God requires? Did I accept grace for salvation, then decide to walk the religious path of my own choosing? Is that even offered (Matthew 16:24)? Have I ever denied myself? Have I entertained thoughts of what I think I deserve in this life (other than hell of course)?

So, where are my instructions? Have I read and studied them, or am I still making them up as I go (2 Timothy 2:15)? Should I look the other way when my fellow soldiers are carrying the Ark on a cart? Am I my brother’s keeper? Am I responsible for “restoring such a one” (Galatians 6:1)? Who am I sharpening (Proverbs 17:27)? Or are we all dulling each other with all this talk of grace? Don’t truth and grace go hand in hand (Psalm 89:14)? What blessings are we forfeiting because we are standing by watching the Ark being carried disobediently? What judgments are we enduring that we don’t even notice?

Do I really delight in obedience, or do I delight in pragmatic service? Am I even searching for the guidelines, or am I avoiding them and marking the hard ones down to “that was then”?

I hope as I seek to serve God that I am always seeking right/right…never settling for half right on any level. I pray that we would encourage each other to slide the poles through the rings, even if we do have a shiny new cart to offer. I pray we would hide God’s Word in our hearts that we might not sin against Him (Psalm 119:11 )

 

Open Windows Generations

When I was a little girl, our church offered “Open Windows”, which was a small devotion booklet that came out every few months. My mother did not mind if I got one when the new ones were put on the table in the foyer. But I did notice that she never got one. I wondered if something was wrong with it that she didn’t take notice of it, but she assured me that it was fine. Each day “Open Windows” would have a scripture verse at the top of the page with several paragraphs explaining how that verse could apply to your day.

Our family read the Bible together every night, so a devotion time was certainly promoted in our home. But my mother did not want “Open Windows” or any other book about the Bible during that time…just the Bible. That was all we read during our evening devotions. She said “Open Windows” type magazines and books were fine some other time during the day, but they would not take the place of regular Bible reading.

Through the years, I noticed that devotion booklets and even devotion books were becoming more and more popular and available. I have personally been blessed by many of these types of books in my own Christian journey.  I have especially been challenged by My Utmost for His Highest by Oswald Chambers. But I always took heed of my mother’s advice that none of those would replace reading the Bible. They could be added to my Bible reading time, but always have the Bible first. And always be sure to spend more time in God’s Word rather than just what someone else says about God’s Word.

I also noticed a shift in actual Bible study material. When I was growing up, it seemed like most of the titles were about God or about a specific part of the Bible, for example, a study on Romans or maybe a study on the Names of God. I’m not sure when I began to notice that the more popular Bible studies had titles like, “Biblical Principles for Finances” or “What the Bible says about Dating”. The emphasis had shifted from learning more about God to learning more about myself…from learning how I could better relate to God to the more pleasant idea of how God and His Word relate to me. And people began to know less and less about the Bible in general. They were being trained to take a verse or a passage here and there to get a point across. At some point, I learned the concept of “proof-texting”, which means exactly what I’m describing: picking a topic and finding scripture to put around it. This practice seemed to promote a lot of misunderstanding as scripture was taken out of context. No one seemed to know or care much about context.

Even daily Bible reading began to have a different focus. Rather than spending time in one chapter or passage, we began to be encouraged to read quickly through the Bible in a certain amount of time. There was even one I heard of in which you read the entire Bible in a month. I decided to look up what the Bible itself says about Bible reading, and surprisingly I couldn’t really find anything that encourages just reading. I found a lot on studying and meditating. And there’s the specific “line upon line, precept upon precept” passage from Isaiah. But I could find nothing about reading and certainly nothing on skimming.

These trends over the past several decades have seemingly had a negative effect on how people understand the Bible. This is exactly why I have spent the past few years writing about line by line study of the entire Bible. Old Testament 101 and New Testament 101 are the results of this effort. Both are available on Amazon or a free download on the “About Us” page of this blog. I have seen great benefit in studying the Bible in an orderly way as opposed to random topics or needs-based studies. I have learned that studying the Bible sequentially helps us to understand what God’s Word says about every conceivable human situation.

My hope is that the next generations will see the need to return to true “line upon line, precept upon precept” Bible study. I hope that more and more people will see that we don’t even understand our own needs apart from God’s Word. I hope that people will want to study the Bible to learn about God, and through knowledge of Him we will see ourselves and our desperate need for Him more clearly. I hope that as people come back to deeper study that future generations will not be deceived by culture. I hope that the people who are drawn to “Open Windows” because it is a quick way to connect with God will include deeper study of the Word in their devotion to God.

Mercy and Truth-the Meeting

“Mercy and truth have met together; righteousness and peace have kissed.”      Psalm 85:10

Is there any place in modern Christianity where mercy and truth are meeting together? In my immediate Christian world, I see a lot of mercy and truth fighting against each other rather than meeting and kissing. We have the “grace and mercy” group who are greatly offended when truth or righteousness are brought up. On the other hand, we have the “truth and righteousness” group who can get testy when grace and mercy are used as guidelines. So where do they meet? Do they ever? Can they? Apparently in Psalm 85 they do, as well as dozens of other passages in scripture. The New Testament church found they had to find the meeting place. But do we sense any urgency toward that meeting today?

I suppose each side always feels it has the corner on the balance market. I know I do. I feel I am always looking at both sides and seeking unity in Christ. But I suppose those on the other side of every argument feel the exact same way. And yet, rather than closing the gaps, the chasms seem to widen with each new generation. Maybe in my coming of age years, the pendulum was more near center, but was always in the process of swinging from one extreme to the other. And our enemy has always triumphed in those extremes.

Paul and Peter certainly fought for that unity. And there were apparently some rather touchy situations while they found that place of unity that God has provided for those willing to swim upstream on these issues. But it certainly is hard. I wonder is it harder today than it was in the first century, or are we just less inclined to buck up and figure it out? We seem to give up on each other without regret. Or maybe we just regret where the other side won’t budge more than the fact that we are divided. I’m afraid this is causing us to look like a deformed body of Christ. Rather than wholeness and unity, we are turning out to say we don’t need this or that part…we’ll take our strengths and go form a new church over here. So we are becoming not a whole body, but parts of bodies in different places. The foot no longer needs the hand; the ear no longer needs the eye. But can we be rightly related to the Head if we are not rightly related to each other? Isn’t that the whole point of the Corinthians passage? Is anyone truly addressing these problems? In my immediate Christian world, we seem more polarized than ever.

I can’t think of any time in the Bible where truth and righteousness took a back seat to grace and mercy. Many focus on the “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone,” and forget that Jesus also said, “Go and sin no more,” as well as, “Sell everything you have.” Mercy was certainly offered, but not before Truth was spoken. Both together are the very core of confession and repentance. We experience mercy instantly when we admit the truth in our own souls. And let’s not even begin the argument over whether being saved “by grace through faith” requires any sacrifice on my part. What does repentance even mean in that equation? Isn’t the cross itself the perfect union of the truth of our sin and the mercy of God in salvation? Or, put another way, the righteousness of God satisfied in the grace of forgiven sin?

At least in this generation the arguments are over Biblical ideals, and not whether the Bible is actually true, as the fight was in my earlier years. Thank God for that.

But today the question remains for me: will I ever see the marriage of mercy and truth in today’s church? Will mercy and truth meet together, or will they continue to be at odds? The members of the body who possess true discernment are usually seen as the judgmental “truth and righteousness” type. Mercy is so much more pleasant to deal with until church leaders are making dangerous compromises in order to accommodate the gift. Will we always divide ourselves along these lines, grieving the Holy Spirit as we simmer in disunity? God help us to find the place of meeting; help us to be willing to come together in Your name and figure this out. May we see the true meeting of mercy and truth in our generation.

Middle School Lesson on Women’s Headcoverings

A few weeks ago, one of my 6th grade students wondered about women’s head coverings and keeping silent in the church. Of course he was asking that question to me, his female Sunday School teacher with no visible head covering. So yesterday was the day that I tackled this issue with the class. Of course all 6th grade discussions are full of their questions/comments that are both insightful and amusing, and there would not be enough room to add those in. But basically, here’s how it went:

First of all, several things must be noted before we delve into this complicated and controversial subject:

  1. The challenge of taking a certain passage of scripture and attempting to understand it by itself (apart from the context of the entire book) cannot be overstated, especially with controversial issues that have obviously been interpreted differently by different denominations. This is precisely why I encourage you to study the Bible in order (“line upon line, precept upon precept” – Isaiah 28:9-10). If you form the habit (as most Bible studies do) of selecting passages based on interesting topics and try to understand the context, it presents avoidable roadblocks to true understanding. This topic is certainly no exception. So even though we will discuss this topic in class, we will wait to form conclusive thoughts until we are able to study the issue as we have been commanded in Isaiah, laying the foundations of study/knowledge and building on that.
  2. The danger of conveniently categorizing challenging issues as cultural for that day or for ours. The quick and easy explanation of women’s role in the church is that their culture was different from ours and their cultural symbols as well. And both of those thoughts are certainly true. But we should be incredibly careful that we thoroughly study and seek Godly counsel on the validity of assigning cultural differences to spiritual truths. For example, many homosexuals claim that all Biblical admonitions against their lifestyle were cultural for that day and easily explained like women’s head coverings and eating shellfish. Obviously not many conservative Christians (those holding to more literal interpretations of the Bible) would agree with that. But the comparison should make all believers even more careful about casual or convenient interpretations.
  3. I hope each of us desires to obey all of God’s Word to the best of our understanding. And there are not any commands that we should dismiss lightly as cultural or “not for us today”. I love bacon, but if it weren’t for Acts 10, I would likely abstain or spend a lot of time confessing/repenting. And we do not just think up our own opinions about any scripture, which is why we are studying and discussing these issues together.

So, in light of those ideas, let’s turn to 1 Corinthians 11, where the trouble all begins. Of course, we should really read/study all of 1-2 Corinthians, noticing that these were letters to particular churches answering specific questions on the Christian life and church order. The first 16 verses of chapter 11 address several issues that need unpacking. First of all, God gives us the order of authority, and no matter how we interpret it, we must agree that it says “the head of woman is man.” But then it immediately addresses men’s head covering. So what do you notice that men with hats do at any function at which a prayer is being offered? Of course they remove them. And why is that? It is a sign of respect, even if that man is not a true believer in God. So we begin by noting that there is still a bit of literal interpretation in this passage.

However, the part concerning women is a bit more complicated. Let’s first consider today’s culture. Have you ever seen a woman with a head covering? How about a Catholic nun? A Muslim woman? Amish? A Bride? The queen of England? Do these head coverings all mean the same thing? Of course in today’s world, they do not. And if you saw a woman walk into our Baptist church service this morning with a hat on, what would be your first thought? Would it be, “Oh, that woman must be a submissive wife,” or would you think, “She must have gone to the mall yesterday”? Of course in today’s culture, a typical American woman’s hat would be a fashion statement first, and it would likely not occur to anyone that she is trying to show submission to her husband.

The length of women’s and men’s hair is also mentioned in these verses. And again, long hair on a man and short hair on a woman were apparently strong cultural symbols in that day. In the 1960’s there was quite a lot of controversy over the length of men’s hair. Most shoulder-length hair on a man back then symbolized at least rebellion against social norms. I remember as a child of that time feeling some confusion over that. I had certainly been raised with the pictures of Jesus with hair exactly like what was causing all the controversy. I really think that is when it began to sink in to religious circles that there were many more cultural issues that will have to be thoughtfully dealt with than we originally thought.

1 Corinthians 14 mentions women keeping silent in the church, as does 1 Timothy 2. The 1 Corinthians passage is in connection with speaking in tongues, which is another lesson for another day. 1 Timothy seems to be about women having authority over men in the church. I don’t really see how either of these straightforward statements could be explained away by culture, but I know many churches do. We must continue to study these issues and compare them to the whole of scripture, which I am diligently trying to teach you, beginning in Genesis. God has specifically instructed us to study in order to “rightly divide the Word of Truth” (2 Timothy 2:15).

Obviously these issues take more than a one hour discussion to learn all that God would have for us. We know that many Bible scholars believe that these instructions were addressing particularly disorderly women in the early church. But we do have to make some assumptions that are not specifically stated to hold that view. I just want each of you to be careful to study exactly what the Bible says, being careful to note which thoughts are actually written there and which ones come from opinions of men. Our different denominations prove that spiritually-minded people may arrive at different conclusions over many Biblical issues, but we can still be brothers and sisters in Christ.

Again, we have identified some issues that need to be prayed over and studied. And in one hour we did not arrive at many hard-line conclusions. Go read all of 1-2 Corinthians; add Philippians and Romans 14, and then let’s discuss some more.

And one more thing: if Michael stood in the pulpit this Sunday and said, “You know church, I have been studying 1 Corinthians 11, and I think our women should keep silent in the church and wear head coverings,” you can bet that next Sunday I would be wearing a hat, and a man would be your teacher.