Come Together for the Better

Weekly we gather — seldom daily as they did in New Testament times, the era of ravenous lions and Nero’s flaming, pitch-dipped Christians, human torches to light his gardens.  Lugging our three pound Bibles and a week’s worth of accumulated angst, we gather, having in common our hearts of flesh and likely the scar tissue where hearts of stone rubbed us raw in time past.

“Coming together” Paul calls it at least four times in his Corinthian communiqué, and he chides that congregation for coming together “for the worse.”  By contrast, he launches into what amounts to a reenactment of Jesus’ last Passover celebration in the Upper Room with words that have worn grooves in the church’s collective memory.  “This do in remembrance of Me.”

According to John MacArthur, Paul’s account of Jesus’ last Passover celebration in the Upper Room pre-dates the Gospels, making it the first written record of the event from which we pattern our modern day communion service.  Paul received the story that the eye-witnesses would write about later.  Let that sink in for a moment:  post-crucifixion, post-resurrection, post-ascension, Paul was given the privilege of writing about an event he would never have been invited to at the time.

The bread and the cup had once been the centerpiece of the early church’s coming together.  However, in keeping with human nature, it had become a hollow shell.  Indifferent, ritualistic, unrepentant, and greedy, the Corinthians gobbled bread and slurped wine without a thought for Christ’s sacrifice.  It was Paul’s intent to fill that tradition with meaning once again.

Can we say that what happens when we “come together” each week is “for the better” — for the enhancement, the building up of the Body?  Oh, we will not do it perfectly.  Not now.  Not on this planet.  But do we listen more than we speak?  Do we ask questions like a bridge from heart to heart —  and then really pay attention to the answers that travel back to us on that bridge?  Can we bear in mind that the point of our gathering has very little to do with order of service or music style or whose turn it is to serve in the nursery?

Whatever our tradition — bread cubes and grape juice, matzo and wine, daily, weekly, or monthly — when we gather “for the better,” we receive the story anew.  We lift up the Gospel of Truth and put the wonder of incarnation on display, demonstrating that we are committed to a Kingdom that is both already and not-yet.

Here in New England, church attendance is no longer a cultural norm.  Unbelievers (and even some Christians) have accounted for the church in the column labeled “irrelevant,” but — whether by curiosity or by compulsion — if an unbeliever enters our fellowship, what would be his impression of our “coming together?”  It’s no surprise that Paul had thoughts on this.  His goal was that an “outsider” be convicted, called to account, and overcome by the reality of God’s presence.

If awe is a contagious condition, is anyone who wanders into my fellowship at risk?

Are the bread and the cup, the ministry of the Word, the lifting of voices, and the offering of gifts an empty tradition, a hollow shell —  or does grace flow like wine?

Are hearts nourished with the Living Bread until the truth overflows and splashes, soaking believers and unbelievers alike with the glorious outcome of having come together “for the better.”

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The Way to Hope

A long-ago friend I’ll call “Beth” suffered from depression, growing more and more discouraged as she slogged through her days under the weight of it.  I asked her one day, “Why don’t you try reading a book about depression?”

“I’ve tried,” she replied, “but they only make me feel worse!”  If only she could have read Hope Prevails by Dr. Michelle Bengtson, I believe she would have been uplifted, encouraged, and enlightened in her understanding of what was going on in her body, her mind, and her spirit when depression washed over her days.  Dr. Bengtson has experienced depression herself, so she writes from inside the problem, and, as a clinical neuropsychologist, she experienced the shock of realizing that the treatment suggestions she had offered to her patients were not working for her.  Medication, therapy, diet, exercise, prayer are all tried and true remedies for depression, but it was only when she began exploring the spiritual component of depression that she began to find freedom.

Hope Prevails offers the comfort of companionship, the clear light of truth, and the gift of hope with solid facts about depression:

  • “In any given year, approximately 18.8 million Americans adults suffer from depression.  If we broaden the scope, in most countries 8-12% of the population suffers from major depression at some point.”
  • Depression is chemical; it is genetic; it can have physiological roots; and it is influenced by environmental factors such as stress.
  • The underlying roots of depression lie in the spirit of the depressed person who lacks peace and joy and has bought into lies about herself that detract from her ability to live life to the fullest.

The hope Dr. Bengtson offers is not a personal recipe that she takes credit for, but springs instead from a Scriptural promises that point the way to a supernatural hope.  When she says that those who mourn will find comfort, that those who sow in tears shall reap in joy, and that there is an inexpressible joy available on this planet, she is not offering Scripture as a “snap out of it” lucky charm, but as a truth to replace the lies that lead to depression and as ammunition to fight the battle.

Dr. Bengtson’s go-to verse is Jeremiah 29:11, for it speaks of a hopeful future that is invisible to the eyes of the depressed believer.  A steady diet of strong truth works to bring feelings into line with a quest for biblical joy.  Michelle recommends a gratitude journal as solid accountability in practicing “the settled assurance that God is in control of all the details . . . the quiet confidence that ultimately everything is going to be all right, and the determined choice to praise God in all things.”  This “settled conviction about God” is Kay Warren’s definition of joy which forms the bedrock on the road to healing and restoration.

Peace flees in the presence of shame, and owning one’s brokenness shines light into the dark places where shame rules.  Dependency on God and genuine forgiveness as a path away from bitterness and resentment are strong medicine.  Hope Prevails urges readers to take responsibility for their responses to circumstances —  a victim mentality leads only to self-pity and gets in the way of accepting God’s glorious validation of our identity as believers:  Accepted!  If God says “beloved,” who am I to disagree?

The truth of our value to God rests on the exorbitant price He paid to own us, and this counteracts all the whispered lies that hiss “unlovable” and “not good enough” into the ears of our heart.  Dr. Bengtson’s own embrace of this truth is part of her story, and she also shares her experiences of  illness, dysfunction, and grief that allow her to reassure her readers that pain is not wasted, nor is it evidence to disprove a loving God.  On the contrary:

“God never protects us from that which He will use to perfect us.”

Dr. Bengtson urges her readers to take advantage of any and all possible treatments for depression from medication to better sleep habits, but stresses that a God-reframed mindset and care for one’s spiritual self is the foundation upon which all other modalities will find greatest success.  Her message and the message of God in His Word are one:

Hope does not disappoint.
Hope prevails like love poured out in the heart;
Like light kindled in a dark place;
Like a Listening Ear who “searches the heart” and intercedes in wisdom;
Like a sign post in the road pointing away from danger.
Even in the midst of depression — by grace — reach out for and rejoice in hope.

This book was provided by Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

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Let It Burn!

“You don’t need to fast,” she said.  “Your prayers are enough.”

But I did need to fast, because her situation sounded really bleak, and God was talking to my heart about it.

 

Bev was traveling alone in Uganda when she injured her knee hurrying across a busy street.  Swollen to nearly twice its size, the knee was painful.

But the itinerary called for travel to Congo.

The schedule called for long hours of teaching and counseling.

She shared her need for prayer through the medium that brought us together:  the internet.

Bev is a warrior (and a SheLovely) whose ministry allows her to see, firsthand, the burdens women bear, sometimes quite literally. During this most recent trip, Bev saw women of all ages and sizes carry bundles of up to 100 kilos or more on their backs. These bundles are secured by a rag, wrapped around their middle and then over the front of their forehead. The women bend forward to carry the weight, but there’s no posture that will lighten the load of  trauma. In the DRC, rape is often used as a weapon of war. Women are marked as damaged goods, husbands abandon them and this back-breaking labor barely finances what’s left of their lives.

Following this most recent trip to Africa, Bev returned to her home in Australia, hair aflame, excited to share the potential for ministry among women of Congo whose whole life trajectory could be altered by the ownership of a simple wheelbarrow or by the introduction of a micro-enterprise that will enable them to provide for themselves.

“I think I need to learn French,” Bev exclaims, “and I have found a couple of women who are connected to the interior decor industry.  They are looking to source products from women across the world.”

Urgency like this comes with the realization that God has given us the ability to solve problems and meet needs in our lifetime. Years ago, Bev stood beside a crib in a Ugandan hospital, looking with grief at one of the 177,000 children living with HIV.  She heard the Spirit say, “You can do something about this if you want to,” and Cherish Uganda was born, a ministry that provides a home, health care, and education for children infected with HIV/AIDS.

Today, she envisions a ministry to women and children of Congo called Scarlet Women – because of the blood and the shame.  She dreams of building a path out of the poverty and hopelessness that her eyes have seen.

What sets your hair aflame?  What challenges you to step outside your safe routines and known ways?

Do read on!  There’s much more at SheLoves Magazine . . .

Capture

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The Holy Pursuit of Happiness

For quite some time now I’ve had the urge to poll a room full of people with this question:  What words come to your mind when you think of God?

First impressions are what I’m looking for, and I have a feeling that very few responses would include the word “happy.”  In The Happiness Dare, Jennifer Dukes Lee is out to change the way we view happiness — and, along with that, our view of God.

With Scriptural evidence for a happy God (Psalm 68:3; Isaiah 65:18) who rejoices over us, His people (Zephaniah 3:17), Jennifer invites her readers (Double Dog Dares us!) to pursue happiness, to stalk joy,and to do it according to the unique way in which we have been created.

Contrary to popular perceptions of God (and of Christians!), the Gospel itself is a call to happiness which is not in any way antithetical to holiness.  Theologian John Piper has written at length in defense of the concept of a happy God:

“Happiness is part of holiness . . . If you tried to describe what it means to be a holy person and left out happiness in God, you can’t do it.  There is not such thing as holiness minus happiness in God.  Happiness in God is the essence of holiness.”

Jennifer Dukes Lee lays down the challenge to overcome obstacles to happiness with truth that jumps into our hole of unhappiness and builds a ladder toward the light.  To the defeatist notion that “This is just the way I am,” she offers the happiness booster that “little by little, I can become happier by changing the way I think.”  Comparison is a happiness hacker that will yield only to a determination to find happiness of one’s own rather than wishing for someone else’s life.   A heart of gratitude is the antidote for perfectionism and discontent.  The truth of Romans 12:2 is nowhere more practical than in the “renewal” that takes place when the believer alters her thoughts toward happiness.

What makes The Happiness Dare unique (and do-able) is the recognition that happiness looks different on everyone.  Some people are simply wired for a happier outlook on life.  In fact, studies show that 50% of our happiness is governed by genes.  Ten percent is dictated by life’s circumstances.  That leaves 40% within our ability to control, so tipping the balance scale toward happiness is far more feasible if we understand ourselves and others.

I took the Happiness Style Assessment in the book (and you can take it online here).  It turns out that I’m a Doer/Thinker, so while I’m checking tasks off my list and pondering the outline for my next blog post, I’m smiling inside.  If you are a Relater, an Experiencer, or a Giver, you might want to run for the hills at the very thought of my happy place, but that awareness of our unique wiring only makes God look more amazing — because he made us all.   The happiness of my loved ones — however different from my own — feeds my happiness, and all of it is a gift from our happy God, and “part of a happiness cycle that rotates forever on the axis of the Cross, a cycle that will carry us all the way home.”

On Earth as it is in Heaven.

Amen.

//

This book was provided by Tyndale Momentum an imprint of Tyndale House Publishers, Inc., in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”

Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Why Read the Lists?

“I’m glad you’re the one reading this,” said the patient husband.

He was referring to the tongue-twisting list of names in I Chronicles 5 with all their adjacent vowels and unexpected consonant blends.

I could see his point, but, to be honest, I was enjoying the effort of decoding the names and then saying them, one by one, out loud to the air inside our min-van.

As we waded through the names in I Chronicles, I couldn’t ignore the repeated evidence that God keeps records of the names of His people.  When we look at an old year book or at the many pictures that scroll their way through our social media minutes, it’s human nature to look for the faces and names of those we recognize and love.  God needs no news feed to keep track of His beloved, and every face, every name has significance to Him.  This truth is prevalent throughout the Old Testament:   remember Moses begging God to wipe his own name out of the book rather than giving up on his people?  And the lists go on throughout the books of history right into Nehemiah and the years of exile.

In the New Testament,  Jesus told The Seventy (when they returned from their short-term missions trip), “Rejoice because your names are written in heaven.”  His message to them was that God’s cherishing and recording of their name is more reason for them to rejoice than their ability to “trample on serpents and scorpions, and over all the power of the enemy,” (Luke 10:17-20).

Just as God sees all time at once, exists outside of time, and yet is available to you in your moment, so He also sees all of humanity at once — and yet He cherishes uniqueness.  He knows you by name.

Multi-syllabic,
Mostly unpronounceable,
They march across the pages.

Trailing their fathers,
Embedded in community,
Their names inscribe the ages.

There are no nameless —
There are no faceless
Followers of God Most High.
Although we read them
With hearts too numb to marvel
At the grace that’s between the lines;

For these are the people promised to Abraham,
The ones for whom God split the sea,
Who sold themselves cheaply
And squandered their chosen-ness —

Just like me.

Seventy servants
Returned from a mission
With tales of demons falling.

Sharing their conquests,
‘Til Jesus gave perspective:
“Your joy is not your calling,

“But you have names
And you have faces
You’re followers of God Most High.
And so your names,
‘Enrolled among the righteous,’
Are written in My Book of Life.”

For they are the people promised to Abraham,
Outnumbering the stars they can see.
When the Lamb’s Book is opened
They’ll hold their breaths, listening.
On their faces, they’ll be listening —

Just like me.

//

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I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers

A Theology of Happiness

When I pause for a minute to ask my self what I really want in life, my unedited first response is . . . well, embarrassing.  I want to be happy, and my shallow definition of a “happy” life looks something like this:  a vehicle that never breaks down, children who behave well and experience a measure of success, a maintenance-free house, and a healthy body.  Now, truly, there is nothing wrong with any of these lovely things — or even with my desire for them.  However, life on a fallen planet makes their simultaneous fulfillment unlikely, at best.  This is why those of us who believingly follow Jesus Christ must find our way to A Different Kind of Happiness — one that does not depend upon a problem-free life.

Larry Crabb offers helpful clarification for my happiness-seeking heart by tying my understanding of happiness to the notion that happiness comes from loving others sacrificially.  Because this flies in the face of our instinct for self-protection and desire for instant well-being, Larry’s argument unfolds over the course of over two hundred well-constructed and earnestly compelling pages.

We’ve long distinguished between happiness and joy, but Larry uses the words interchangeably, instead creating two helpful categories of happiness:

  1.  “Second Thing Happiness” — which requires at least some of the things on my list in order to feel good;
  2. “First Thing Happiness” —  which is entirely different and “develops when we struggle to love others with a costly love that is possible only if we have a life-giving relationship with Jesus that is grounded entirely in His love for us.”

Does this sound unrealistic?  Does it sound as if it contradicts what we know and experience on this “narrow road that leads to life?”  No one would argue with the truth that the happiness and joy that Jesus experienced in His time on this planet came from giving Himself. And only the gloomiest of theologians would argue against the notion that God is supremely happy, and that He wants to draw us into that happiness.  Yet, at the same time both Old and New Testaments describe Jesus as a Man of Sorrows “and acquainted with grief.”  He was a free agent, entering into suffering — and doing it on behalf of unworthy people, (Romans 5:7,8).

The good news that God draws us into involves life on a narrow road.  For Larry Crabb, this has included a cancer diagnosis, ongoing treatment over a period of years, several recurrences, and now a new episode of treatment being ushered in just as he was grappling with the concepts in this book.  Misery like this is just one of the symptoms of this life under the sun.  However, Scripture, prayer, and a life centered around spiritual discipline offer us a glimpse of life from above the sun in which we pray for grace to relate to others in a loving way that puts Him on display no matter what our outward circumstances.  Larry calls this the prayer “that God always answers.”

The jarring truth that we look for our happiness in all the wrong places is supported by two facts that sound distinctly heretical:  (1)Sinful urges come from a place within us that is experienced on a deeper level than our redemption; (2)Sin delivers a pleasure that Jesus never provides.

If that’s the case, then, how is it possible to find happiness along with a life of holiness?

“In order to compete with sin’s appeal, holy desire, the longing to live a Christlike life that displays the relational beauty of Christ to others, must be rooted in faith.  And that faith exists only when it is lodged in the certainty that soon it will give way to an incomparable experience of joy that will forever destroy the appeal for sin.”

The goal of Christlikeness is always a long way off, but life on the narrow road is designed to “squeeze” the unholiness out of His followers, leaving them free to follow hard after the prize of knowing God at any cost and to hate anything that obscures the reality of God’s loving presence.

The antidote to our persistent “Broad Road Thinking” is a heavy dose of the Gospel which Larry examines in the context of seven probing questions:

  1.  Who is God?  God is relational, a three-Person community of love, fully committed to the happiness of others.  Even His glory is relational.
  2. What is God up to?  He is devoting His unlimited resources to forming those who receive the gospel into disciples who relate like Jesus.
  3. Who are we? We are relational persons with a potential waiting to be realized, created to know joy in knowing God, with potential to put Jesus on display.
  4. What’s gone wrong?  As a race, we’ve rejected God’s identity as “the source of all that is good.”   We look elsewhere for goodness and happiness.
  5. What has God done about our problem?  He killed His Son.  Of course, this will seem of little consequence if we persist in settling for “Second Thing Happiness.”
  6. How is the Spirit working to implement the divine solution to our human problem?  This side of heaven, “we experience the Holy Spirit’s presence most richly in our darkness and distress” and “His power most potently in our weakness and failure.”
  7. How can we cooperate with the Spirit’s working?  By never giving up on ourselves and others; by battling for a better love and seeking to truly know one another; by giving in both word and deed.

What would happen if we threw ourselves into this battle for a better love?  The happiness that Jesus experienced on this Earth coexisted beside the worst kind of anguish and suffering.  It was fueled by deep and significant relationships.  Truly His narrow way is the way that leads to life.

//

This book was provided by BakerBooks, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my review.  I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 : “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.

Abundance and Harvest – Still in the Garden

Deep into the days of summer, I’m sharing a post that I wrote last year for my church’s website.  With an early spring snow, this year’s garden is behind schedule, but what a treasure it was to discover hearty, red-veined beet leaves during a just-before-dusk weeding session last night . . .

Once the dew dries today, I will amble up to the garden and pick enough tomatoes to fill my Maine Garden Hod.  There’s no stopping those plants now, and if I don’t hurry up and pick enough green tomatoes for our favorite relish —  well, there just won’t be any green tomatoes up there.

While I’m picking, I’ll take note of the dill’s progress.  Two days ago (when I last picked tomatoes, but who’s complaining?) the sprays of small yellow flowers were pale fireworks.  Poet, Luci Shaw would say, “They lift their lovely, loose exactness.”   Somehow,  in spite of their diminutive size, they were still of interest to the honey bees.

However, today, I expect that I will see signs of the flowers going to seed, a good thing if you like to make dilly beans, as I do.  I have seen lots of recipes for other delicious and satisfying uses of dill:  cold cucumber soup with fresh dill, beautiful heads of dill floating delicately in big canning jars full of colorful veggies.

Someday, maybe.

But for right now, for today, my dill reminds me to dream big, to expect great things,  because soon I will harvest all the dill seeds I can capture.  They will scatter and flee as I snip the dry stalks, but most of it will make its way into a brown paper bag to dry.  Once dry, it will spend the winter in a quart jar,  on a shelf in the basement for next year’s dilly beans.  If it weren’t for the fact that next summer I will be harvesting bushels of green beans, I might even forget it was there; but summer will come again, and the abundance of this fall will result in crisp, pickled beans next year.

Abundance is a lesson some of us have to learn by rote.  My patient husband and I had our first argument (26 years ago) in a grocery store, and the controversy found its gnarled roots in the issue of abundance.  He had grown up in a house where the pantry was full and the spice cupboard was a museum devoted to a long history of past recipes.  On the other hand, shopping had been a day-to-day thing in my growing up years, and it seemed to me that I had unwittingly married someone who wanted to spend our net worth on food.

I’m still learning about abundance, but not by looking into my full cupboards . . . and refrigerator . . . and freezer . . . and pantry.  (We’ve definitely come to an understanding about the merits of a well-stocked kitchen.)   Now, when I need a lesson in abundance,  I go to the Source.   Paul is practically crowing in Romans 11 when he exclaims about the deep wealth of God’s wisdom and His rich and inscrutable nature.

I am exhaust-able, and often exhausted, but I will never exhaust the resources of God and His Word, and so I read and ponder —  not to arrive at a “theology of everything,” (. . . but wouldn’t that be great?).  I come back to the Source  to be reminded of abundance, to dream along with Isaiah and the Apostle Paul about all that God wants to do and His “unsearchable” ability to carry out all that He has planned.

“All these things my hand has made, [says the Lord], and so all these things came to be:”

[dill seed and honey bees,

tomatoes and patient husbands],

“But this is the one to whom I will look:  he who is humble and contrite in spirit and trembles at my word,” (Isaiah 66:2)

Tremble at His Word.

Tremble at His abundance.

//

Subscribe to get regular Bible studies and book reviews from Living Our Days delivered to your inbox.  Just enter your e-mail address in the box at the top of this page.

I link-up with a number of blogging  communities on a regular basis.  They are listed in the left sidebar by day of the week.  I hope that you will take a moment to enjoy reading the work of some of these fine writers and thinkers.