Just One Thing: Peace

According to commentators, the final syllable of the name Jerusalem suggests the words “peace” [shalom] and “prosperity” [shalvah].  We don’t hear it in our English rendering, but try this instead:  think “yer-u-sha-lay-im.”  (Hear it now?)

At any rate, both peace and prosperity were in short supply during Nehemiah’s tenure in Jerusalem, but he was a man of vision.  Even as an Israelite born in exile, Nehemiah would have known the Hebrew scriptures, and I am reading Psalm 122 this week with Nehemiah looking over my shoulder because this psalm of ascent affirms and corroborates the value that Nehemiah placed on the city of Jerusalem (yer-u-sha-lay-im).

Here is his blueprint in Psalm 122:3:

“Jerusalem is built as a city that is compact together . . .”

Coverdale translates the description as “a city that is a unity in itself,” and Eugene Peterson adds, “the city itself was a kind of architectural metaphor for what worship is:  all the pieces of masonry fit compactly, all the building stones fit harmoniously.”

Here is Nehemiah’s purpose in verse 4:

The city to which the tribes ascend, all GOD’s tribes go up to worship, to give thanks to the name of GOD  — this is what it means to be Israel,”  (The Message).

“Whatever the limitations of its citizens,” says Derek Kidner, “Jerusalem was where God saw fit to build His House.”  This was Nehemiah’s vision, and the peace of Jerusalem that the Psalmist (David) pleads for in Psalm 122 was a means to an end, this end being worship.  God is the one sufficient reason that justifies the rebuilding of the city. God is the one sufficient reason that his people join to worship.  As people of God, even today, we find our framework in worship.  Hear words from the pen of David (Psalm 122:9), but let your mind envisage Nehemiah’s heart:

“For the sake of the house of our God,
GOD, I’ll do my very best for you.”

For Nehemiah, doing his very best for God involved career displacement, physical danger, and continual risk.

Charles Spurgeon told a story about a reaper, laboring in a field on a summer’s day.  He paused in his work, looked for his whet stone and began sharpening his blade.  Was he wasting precious time?  Of course not, for each sweep of the tool will be more effective for its having been sharpened.  And this is the role that worship plays in the life of the believer.  It is the pause that brings all our work for God and all our words about God into focus.  It is the stone that whets our appetite for God, Whom we desire all the more for having experienced some of his loveliness.  In our longing for peace of heart, peace in our home, and peace in our world, it may be time to stop, to reach for the stone and to sharpen our blades.


This post is the fourteenth in a series in which I ponder “just one thing”  each week from my study of the book of Nehemiah as I travel slowly and thoughtfully (on snowshoes!) through the chapters with my Sunday School class.  If you’d like to make a comment or leave a link to your own post about your wall-building stories, I’d love to read it. If you want to catch up with previous posts, here’s the link:  https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/tag/nehemiah/

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Intimacy 101

Going into a job interview, I used to worry about over-selling myself.  At some point, I decided that I would rather lose out on a job opportunity than to suffer the indignity — six months down the road — of wondering if my boss was wishing she could find that stellar employee she had thought she was hiring.  I’ve tried to have the same mindset with my family, thinking that it would be better to have them actually know me than to have them be impressed with me (although I wouldn’t complain if both could be true).  The fact that I attend a small church, webbed through and through with relationships, also requires a high degree of congruency.  The person I am when I’m sitting in the library teaching the Bible had better be the same person who stands in the parking lot and hollers at her (and sometimes other people’s) children!

This connection with other people and this vulnerability of being fully known was missing from Donald Miller’s life.  As one of the eleven people in the universe who has not read Blue Like Jazz, I approached Scary Close with tabula rasa.  Even so, I found the tale of his meandering quest for intimacy and the memoir-like account of his courtship with his wife to be refreshing and redemptive because, ultimately — Hooray, he gets it!

Donald Miller spent his early adult years building a career based on an image that worked well for him, but he was brought up short when a wise counselor asked, “How else will we connect with people unless we let them know us?”  It is profoundly lonely to realize that all your friends love an image that you have projected.  The scary question always lurks:  “What if they knew the real me?”

Miller helps his readers to see that most of us hide our truest selves beneath an “outer ring” or a character that we learn to play in order to win or to “deserve” love and acceptance.  In his case, humor and intelligence made him feel powerful and professionally successful, but his dating life “was a death spiral of codependency and resentment.”  Letting go of his need to be impressive and to control every atom in the universe was necessary in order for Miller to become the other healthy person in his relationship with Betsy.  To expedite the process, he decided to “hang out with better people,” and soon found that he also wanted  his work style to evolve from self-involved introvert to collaborative team-player.

As Miller interacted with his fiancée’s family, he realized the same principle bears out in family life:  transparency within the family is a predictor of emotional health and happiness in children.  To this end, Scary Close offers help for recognizing and ending manipulative behavior, overcoming fear of intimacy, and avoiding the loss that comes from “careful” living.

Two concepts from Scary Close flashed like comets across my relational sky:

1.  All relationships are teleological; i.e. “going somewhere; living; alive and moving and becoming something.”  Married for nearly twenty-five years, I don’t want to find one day that we’ve begun to coast downhill in our relationship just because we have taken it for granted and stopped working at it.

2.  No human relationship will ultimately satisfy my heart, and even intimacy with God will not yield ultimate fulfillment on this planet.  To expect otherwise is to deny the reality of our present condition of “groaning within ourselves, eagerly waiting for the adoption, the redemption of our body,” (Romans 8:23).  In the meantime, however, until that soul-healing is complete, it is wonderful to walk beside another fallen creature in understanding and acceptance, and to see in our children the fruit of having let them become scary close.

This book was provided by Nelson Books through BookLookBloggers in exchange for my unbiased review.

The Redemption of Rev. Rowdy

Another name has joined Father Tim and the Reverend John Ames in my directory of beloved fictional pastors.  Rowdy Slater stands apart from the others (and from most real life pastors, I expect) in two important ways:
1.  Neither Fr. Tim nor the Rev. Ames could look out over his congregation and say, “At one time or another, I’ve punched most of them in the face.”
2.  Neither answered his call to the ministry in order to avoid jail time.

In Feast for Thieves, Marcus Brotherton has created a work of fiction that kept me turning pages long after I should have turned out the light, while, at the same time, setting forth a prototype for pastoral training and development.  From the moment of his first exposure to truth, Rowdy was a conflicted prophet with mixed and often misguided motives.  Rising to announce his salvation, but distracted by the smell of bacon, he offends a benevolent preacher and misses out on the free breakfast.  Later on, mindful of his responsibility to his daughter, he risks everything to honor an “obligation” to an evil man from his past.  Fist-fights and white knuckle journeys at gunpoint move the plot along, but there’s a delightful homeliness to the steady rhythm of Rowdy’s feeling his way into the ministry.

In his pastoral role, Rowdy’s ignorance is refreshing.  He lands with both feet in the first chapter of Genesis and, by including directions for field dressing a squirrel, manages to stretch his first sermon to three full minutes.  Although green as grass, Rowdy is spared none of the politics of the pastorate.  By failing to omit the third verse of “Shall We Gather at the River,” he earns himself an anonymous nasty note (“That is the way we have always done things around here . . .”) and discovers the perennial church music debate.  By loving a post-World War II congregation, he is baptized into the “mix and mingle of a world of pain,” and gets shot at for his trouble.  He takes pastoral counseling in stride with more homespun wisdom than biblical knowledge (“Well, it’s worth a wait and see.”); and, within days of taking on his position, he launches a successful building program.   Rev. Rowdy does systematic theology on the fly, but asks all the right questions (“How did God ever know about losing a son?”).   Problem is that by the time trouble from his past comes calling, it’s too late to bail out — Rowdy already cared too much.

Marcus Brotherton has populated Cut Eye, Texas with a cast of characters that both showcase and facilitate Rowdy’s transformation from a drifting and dishonorably discharged former WWII paratrooper to a young man with the heart of a shepherd.  There’s Miss Bobbie, the sheriff’s single missionary daughter who had kept the church doors open throughout the war in Rosie the Riveter style; then, there’s her dad, Sheriff Halligan who believes in Rowdy and the town of Cut Eye in equal measure and dreams a future for both.    No congregation is complete without its version of Mert, the crusty church secretary, and no Texas town would be believable without its Deuce Gibbons, ringleader of the rabble-rousers.  Eventually, nearly the whole town ends up sitting in the pews, from Deputy Roy (who plays “older brother” to Rowdy’s prodigal) and Cut Eye’s shady mayor to the town floozies and ne’er do wells.  Then, there’s faithful Goomer who just wants to hook Rowdy up with some reliable transportation.

Whether the stuff of epiphany or imagination, the “lawman beside the river” who invited Rowdy to “find the good meal and eat your fill” got a good thing going for the town of Cut Eye — and for Rowdy.  With his feet under the table at the Pine Oak Café and his heart committed to the body of Christ at Cut Eye, Texas, he just may be on his way to “eating the good of the land,” and let us all remember that whenever any of us come to that table, it’s a feast for thieves.

This book was provided by River North Fiction, a division of Moody Publishers, in exchange for my unbiased review.

Just One Thing: Inconvenience

The prompt this week at the #WholeMama linkup is “Tradition,” and that’s one thing we’re strong on here on this country hillside in Maine.  Especially during the Christmas season, my boys expect that we will do things “a certain way” — because we’ve always done it that way and because of the comfort and joy that comes from the rhythm of tradition.  Funny that this haphazard creature should be mum to a brood of traditionalists.  I’ve resurrected a post from earlier this year to ponder my uneasy relationship with the demands of tradition.

“May we so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal.”

This was my daily prayer during the years when my boys were tiny, and even though I’m not from a tradition that uses prayer books or puts the emphasis on the first syllable in the word “collect,”  I’ve recently started praying these words again.  I’m “passing through” a different kind of temporal these days, but my grasp of the eternal still seems just as slippery.   And as I study Nehemiah 4, I find myself wondering if Nehemiah ever looked at the wall and the rubble and the people of God, and regretted the inconvenience of it all.  If he did, I certainly don’t see it in the decisive way in which he regroups and rallies the crew to keep on building; and I confess that I don’t hear it in the matter-of-fact way in which talks about his strategy for defense:  “Our God will fight for us.”

He’s still the same Nehemiah of the chapter two “arrow prayer”: “So I prayed to the God of heaven and I said to the king . . .”

If you know that God will fight for you, what’s a little inconvenience?  Still, somewhere along the way, I have detected a subtle selfishness in my “no’s,” and I began to sift my motives.  Am I saying “no” to this request because what the bright-eyed boy wants to do is unreasonable?  Or (cringe) am I saying “no” because I don’t want to bother with the inconvenience of it? As a result, I’ve become a champion of my children’s option to “inconvenience” their mother, and I’m drawing the circumference loosely enough here to  include more than middle-of-the-night vomit clean-up.   I’m remembering requests for an extra chapter from The Hobbit at lunch time, for a day with the easel left standing in the kitchen, for sewing up a hole in the favorite stuffed animal before bedtime, and for a shivering three minutes on the snowy deck to “watch this!”  I’m thankful to have been brought up short, to have received that quiet reminder to embrace inconvenience as part of the call to mothering.

Nehemiah never seemed to lose sight of the fact that he was building a wall to enclose a nation-state that would represent God before the people of the earth.  For that high and holy calling, no inconvenience was too great.  Like Nehemiah, mothers live a life of swords and shovels, but sometimes we forget that it’s not about the wall — it’s about the people inside the wall.

So, the words of that prayer are not my own, but they frame my heart away from the deadly details and into the mindset of a builder:  “With you as our Ruler and Guide, [may we] so pass through things temporal that we lose not the things eternal.”

Do you find that you lose sight of your calling in the details of “wall-building?”  If you’d like to leave a comment or a link to your own post about your wall-building stories, I’d love to read it.  This post is the thirteenth in a series based on the book of Nehemiah, travelling slowly and thoughtfully through the chapters with my Sunday School class.  If you want to catch up with previous posts, here’s the link:  https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/tag/nehemiah/

One Weekend in History

For years I celebrated Easter as if it were a stand-alone holiday, singing “Up from the Grave He Arose” without giving much thought to the horror of the Dying or the silence of the Dead. Providentially, my early efforts to incarnate and to enliven an invisible God in the hearts of four sweet boys found a way into the obtuse heart of their mother as well.  Therefore, this Lenten season, I will be re-reading A Glorious Dark, a book about believing which confronts the loss and defeat of Friday and the awkward silence of Saturday with Sunday morning resurrection truth.  Where memoir meets theological pondering, author A.J. Swoboda’s story winds through his faith journey, with the bonus of startling spotlight quotes which he aims at himself and at all of us who say that we believe.  Here’s one of the dozen or more:

“Many envision faith as a kind of hall pass for laziness, excusing them from a life of action, doing, and working hard.”

Ouch and amen.

What we believe about one weekend in history, the three days’ journey from Golgotha to the garden tomb, impacts our whole experience of the Christian life.  A Glorious Dark challenges the reader to enter into Friday, to “own up to our part of the evil in the world.”  This involves trusting for the lavish grace to have our emptiness filled, our requests denied, and our fatherlessness remedied by the Father.  On Friday, we turn our faces away from our “sponge” of choice and embrace our identity as pilgrims, lifelong seekers of the will and the voice of God.

With candor, Swoboda describes the bleak-hearted rising of post-crucifixion Saturday, and because much of the Christian life is lived under Saturday-like conditions, it is helpful to hear that we must “sit in Saturday;” we must “squat in the tomb” in order to enter into the grief and disappointment of the original disciples.  Saturday is our opportunity to remember our own mortality, to remember that we live with Jesus in his death.  On Saturday, we evict ourselves from the center of the universe by “embracing the gift of waiting,” and by mourning our failure to see others and their grief.

Resurrection Sunday not only verifies all that Jesus claimed, but it points to his future coming, the ultimate surprise which will serve to further verify all that we hold true.  As the church meets to celebrate the resurrection every Sunday, we also reenact the resurrection, celebrating the mystery  with “people we normally wouldn’t love, [who] breathe down our necks, [but who] hold our feet to the fire of our beliefs.”  Sunday faith perseveres when my theology cannot account for the chaos I see around me.

A Glorious Dark reveals a God who “stand[s] tall” above human history and invites (rather than scorns) the questioning heart.  After all, of the thirty-one questions Jesus posed in the Gospels, He answered only three.  When God does not break into history to rectify the list of problems set forth in my latest memorandum/prayer, it will be helpful to remember the messy way in which that one weekend in history played out for those who were on the scene.  Once again, the life of Jesus will be made manifest, a glorious life emerging from a glorious dark.

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This book was provided by Baker Books 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.”

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A Week of Signs and Symbols

Is there anything better than a book in the mail?
The A to Z Guide to Bible Signs and Symbols landed in my mailbox last Saturday, and I was immediately drawn by its glossy weight.  Everything about the book, particularly its colorful images, said “quality.”  Opening to the introduction, I learned that a symbol’s job is to represent while a sign points.  Symbols are pictures that denote an object while signs are clues.  The authors, Neil Wilson and Nancy Ryken Taylor, urge their readers to enjoy the book beside an open Bible.  As I read through the Table of Contents, I thought, “Yes, I could use this book,” and thus began a week of signs and symbols in which I challenged myself to be conscious of the presence of biblical signs and symbols in my regular study — not simply to go looking for items from the table of contents, but, instead, to bring an awareness of these clues and pictures, pointers and representations to my regular encounters with the Scriptures.  I began immediately:
Saturday – Last minute details of preparation for my Sunday school class on Nehemiah led me to examine the entry for gate.  All of Nehemiah chapter three is devoted to the rebuilding of the wall around the city of Jerusalem with special emphasis on its gates; and there on page 110 was a picture of the Eastern Gate.  Jesus spoke of metaphorical gates, and described Himself as a Gate, the entrance to the heavenly city.  Obviously, for Nehemiah and his stalwart crew of builders,  gates represented a secure future for their nation-state.

Sunday – In the mini-van, on the way to church, I heard a re-broadcast of a 1987 sermon from Matthew 12 by Billy Graham.   Ironically, the Pharisees ask Jesus for a sign, and He gives them only the sign of JonahI also noted the use of three and was pleased to find it also had an entry.  I learned that there are other parallels between Jonah and Jesus besides the “three days and three nights” which spell the believer’s deliverance.   Here I also noted the presence of a significant quote in each entry that sheds further light on the sign or symbol.  Philip Graham Ryken gave further clarification: “Jonah was the illustration; Jesus is the resurrected reality.”

Monday – My devotional reading of the Psalms of Ascent took me to Psalm 120 where the disgruntled and alienated psalmist informs the liars who have harmed him that their reward will be burning coals from the juniper tree.   It turns out that the image of a tree being cut down is bad enough (being felled), but in this case the tree is reduced to charcoal.

Tuesday – Pulling my notes together for an evening Bible study on the life of Lydia (Acts 16), I found two symbolic items.  Lydia was baptized in water, and, sure enough, there was a section on baptism in the entry for water.  I learned that the symbolism of baptism “harks back to the ancient thought of water as the abyss, a symbol of death.” which certainly enhanced my understanding of the act of coming up out of the water being equated with new life.  Paul and his team encountered Lydia and the other ladies worshiping on the Jewish Sabbath, fitting because the day was set apart to call to mind the “promise God had made to preserve and save his people.”  Ironically, it was a Gentile woman who responded to Paul that day, entering into the promised rest of Jesus’ New Covenant.

Wednesday – Reading a book in preparation for Lent (A Glorious Dark by A.J. Swoboda), my focus was on Friday, the day of the crossIt was not until the 4th century that the cross became a symbol of Christianity.  Each entry in the book also has a key verse, and I Peter 2:24 serves to remind the reader that the cross frees us from our sins.  “His wounds have healed you.”  It is a symbol of death, but also a powerful symbol of radical discipleship and a surrendered life.

Thursday – To enhance my understanding of the Psalms of Ascent, I turned to Isaiah 2:3 and 30:29 and found mountain in both verses.   The presence of the mountains, “visible for miles around, . . . reminded [Israel] of God’s presence among them and above them.”  The pilgrims ascending to worship on Mount Zion direct our minds to the future, where the mountain symbolizes redemption and communion with God.

Friday – Having mined all my teaching passages, my devotional reading, and even the radio, I wondered if I would find a sign or symbol for this last day in my Week of Signs and Symbols.  At 5:30 a.m. I flipped the page in my 20+ year old daily calendar of Elisabeth Elliot wisdom, and knew that I was ready to finish the week.  Featuring Proverbs 18:10, which is also the passage that the authors used for the key verse, Elisabeth delightfully fleshed out the symbolism of the tower:  “He is our Refuge when we are afraid, our Strength when we are weak, our Helper when we cannot cope.”  A tower offers protection and security here, but is also used in Scripture to symbolize careful planning, design, or even arrogance as in the Tower of Babel.)

Having convinced myself of the usefulness of The A to Z Guide to Bible Signs and Symbols, I was further encouraged by the authors’ humble spirit of caution in approaching the topic.   Each of the biblical signs and symbols in the book (over 125 in all) are arrows to point out where God is at work and images to promote a greater intimacy with God and His unique Book.

This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of Baker Publishing Group in exchange for my unbiased review.

 

An Invitation to Die

Glory Hunger by JR Vassar:  A Book Review

A favorite scene from one of my favorite movies is the moment when Anne Shirley learns that she has won the Avery Scholarship.  Her fellow students pick her up, carrying her on their shoulders, and they laud her accomplishment with cheers!  There’s something supremely satisfying about that kind of glory — better than a thousand clicks on any “like” button could ever be.

According to JR Vassar, my identification with that scene points to a condition all humans have shared since our kind first drew breath in Eden’s sweet garden.  In our deepest hearts, we were made for glory.  We are designed to value greatness, to respond to it in others.  We want to possess greatness, and we want to be recognized and appreciated for it.  Tragically fallen, however, our God-given response to glory has become a selfish, enslaving need.  I want “a ‘yes’ spoken over me by everyone.”

This quest for “rogue glory” results in Christians who measure their worth by their Klout score or the number of re-tweets they can rack up in a day.  “We are broken people looking to other broken people to fix our broken lives,” when something far greater is available:  the glory that comes from God.  This comes in the form of a verdict of fully-loved-and-completely-accepted, handed down from the highest court in the universe.  With that foundation firmly in place through the gospel, the believer is free to:

  1. Quit rolling the Sisyphean boulder of approval up Mount Expectation every day.
  2. Renounce narcissistic concern over image management.

This freedom leads to priorities based on a clear view of reality.  Hence, even a fallen creature can “love what is most lovely, value supremely what is supremely valuable, and glorify most what is most glorious.”

Chapters 1-4 of Glory Hunger set up the tragedy of this preoccupation with self, while chapters 5-8 shift the focus from diagnosis to treatment:  what to do about “our affections, [which] tend to be disproportionate to the objects loved.”  Vassar uses Scripture to showcase the ultimate worth of God, extracting practical guidelines for maintaining a right and reality-based view of a man’s or a woman’s identity and urging the reader to consider some ultimate questions:

  1. What does the cross say about humanity?  Before the cross, “we shrink to our true size,”  says John Stott, and yet see evidence that we are loved and worthy before God.
  2. What is the source of all blessing?  A thankful heart is the sure antidote to competing with God for glory.
  3. How important is human praise?   The discipline of obscurity ensures that our righteousness is practiced before an audience of One.
  4. Is ridicule worth the greater glory of following Jesus?  Full-blast discipleship is costly in a culture that does not applaud radical devotion to holiness.

Vassar comes back to the gospel at every turn because the glory hunger that gnaws away in the heart will be legitimately satisfied only in pursuing glory for God and seeking approval from God.   This satisfaction is borne out in a life characterized by service to others and concern for their glory rather than exploitation of others in greedy self-promotion.  Glory Hunger is an invitation to die — to fall to the ground like seed and bear fruit, not in the limelight, but in the warm, life-giving glow of God’s approval.

This book was provided by Crossway in exchange for my unbiased review.