Just One Thing: History

The longest recorded prayer in the Old Testament, Nehemiah 9:6-38 is also the fullest summarized retelling of Old Testament history.  It’s all there, point and counterpoint:  the Red Sea crossing, the manna, the subduing of the Canaanites.  Ponder these alongside the disobedience, the mutiny, and the faithless complaining.  A slow reading of this prayer with an eye for the ebb and flow of righteousness reveals six paired instances of Israel’s rebellion and God’s redemptive responses.  Whether Israel’s dance of death speaks to your heart about the mercy of God or about His patience and longsuffering, it is a testimonial to God’s commitment to His chosen ones, and this, I believe, is what led the people to take the words which describe their ancestors’ rebellion and to turn them Godward in the form of prayer.  Like their predecessors, they were in great distress (vv. 36, 37).  They desperately needed reassurance that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob was still the kind of God who would meet them with forgiveness and restoration.

The chart below is for your personal study.  We scrawled it large and garish on our Sunday School white board last week, but I recommend printing it and taking notes in the margins, because this prayer of generational confession follows the psalm of praise that bubbles through verses 5 and 6.  It follows a litany of liberation trumpeted through verses 7 through 15.  These are scaffolding under Israel’s faith, emboldening them to come clean with the past and to make solid plans for reformation (see Nehemiah 10).

Without too much thought, I, too, could come up with a chart like Israel’s, and while it is important to avoid morbid introspection, it is good for my soul to recall the work of God on my behalf in the face of my pride, high-handed rebellion, and irrational faithlessness.  The mirror of God’s Word startles and forces me into honest evaluation, but God’s history of faithfulness and redemptive work in the past inspire confidence for bold reform.

Scroll down to find the chart I mentioned earlier in this, the twenty first in a series of posts pondering  “just one thing”  each week from my study of the book of Nehemiah, as I travel slowly and thoughtfully through the chapters with my Sunday School class.  If you’d like to make a comment or leave a link to your own blog 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/.

                                             Israel’s Rebellion and God’s Response

Nehemiah 9:16,17 Presumptuous disobedience and mutiny Grace, mercy, and steadfast love
Nehemiah 9:18-25 Idolatry Supernatural guidance and provision
Nehemiah 9:26, 27 Disobedience to the law; murdering God’s messengers Deliverance through the godly leadership
Nehemiah 9:28, 29a Evil (again) Deliverance
Nehemiah 9:29b, 30a Pride and stiff necked rebellion Patience; warning through prophetic messages
Nehemiah 9:30b, 31 They would not listen More grace and more mercy, even in the midst of exile

Receive. Respond. Repeat.

John Piper shares a story of his experience at a sky-scraper construction site in Minneapolis.  The foundation was in place and he gazed, astonished, into the depths of the hole — four, five, six stories down into the soil of middle America, ensuring a sturdy foundation.  His application from this experience was that a deep foundation is needed to support a lofty truth.  Deep into the fertile soil of Scripture, Christine Hoover has dug, laying the foundation for the lofty truth of a grace-oriented gospel in From Good to Grace:  Letting Go of the Goodness Gospel.  She trumpets the life-changing pronouncement that God loves and saves, not because of what we do or contribute or accomplish, but because of what He did through Christ on the cross.  This mystery changed the foundation of her own theology from moralism and legalism to dependence upon “the righteousness which comes from God by faith.”

She writes of her years devoted to the “goodness gospel,” whose foundation is performance.  Everything from extending hospitality in the home to personal devotions and service in the church are evaluated according to “results” — the response of others, the sense of “accomplishment” they produce.  Adherents to the goodness gospel must be “good enough” to win the approval of others and the heart of God.  The truth is that the goodness we seek in our daily lives is a work of God the Holy Spirit.  This turns the goodness gospel on its head because a life of following the Spirit’s leading may not add up to measurable results and impressive resume material.  Christine helps us to see that “the reason we obey is to please the God who loves us.  The results are up to Him; they’re His concern, not ours.”  I was reminded over and over again that my obedience is a result of my relationship with God, not a qualification for earning His approval.

The scriptural basis for From Good to Grace has been tested in the crucible of a church-planting ministry in which Christine and her husband are in the process of “birthing” a fellowship of believers — everything starts from the ground up.  Chapter by chapter, Christine’s growing understanding of grace provides the backdrop for rich scriptural messages of hope which are supported by a helpful discussion guide at the end of the book.   The message is that the work of ministry is God’s, and just as our children are “ours” only in the sense that we steward them for God, we must accept the spiritual reality that life-transformation, salvation and spiritual growth are actually God’s territory.  By grace, we kick ourselves out of the center of the universe and receive the job description that goes with true grace-oriented ministry:  faithfulness and obedience.

Letting go of the goodness gospel can be summarized with two verbs that form the structure of Christine’s thesis:

  1. Receive:  It is God’s demonstrative, ultimate, and heroic love that mends.  That is, it reconciles us to God and then opens the door of my heart to receiving God’s help through His Spirit and to embracing the true freedom that releases the believer from slavery to roles or the opinions of others, to the death-sentence of comparison/competition, and from the grip of paralyzing fear.
  2. Respond:  Eight little words light the fuse that blows up the goodness gospel once and for all:  “We love Him because He first loved us.”  We are the loved.  When we believe that, everything in life becomes a response to His love, and it shows up, most amazingly, in our love for others.  Suddenly, service is not a burdensome checklist, but a joyous offering.  Our weaknesses and failures are even available for God to use, a risk unheard of under the goodness gospel, but a manifestation of God’s grace and power when offered up in response to His great love.

The stream of living water that runs through the true gospel of grace is receive, respond, repeat.  Because God is not in the business of daily performance evaluations, we are free to treasure what God treasures most:  faith.  By faith we receive what’s been given in Christ, and we respond in worship, love, and joyful service.

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

Unexpected Life

Linking up today with friends from #livefreeThursday where we are all pondering the topic:  “no strings attached.”  Well, fine, say I, the Bible-teaching evangelical.  My confessional theology is all about the sovereignty of God.  I love and serve Him, and He gets to call the shots.  But when He really DOES call the shots, and I don’t like what He has chosen, can I find grace to let go of my plans?   Undone, a memoir by Michele Cushatt (who, incidentally, spells her name correctly), chronicles her process of living a “no strings attached life” in the midst of the unexpected.

When my plans go awry and the unexpected happens, all the cracks in my theology show up.  I like to believe that if I do “A,” then “B” will happen, and I might just have some teensy control issues, so Michele Cushatt’s memoir, Undone:  A Story of Making Peace with an Unexpected Life held me in its grip from start to finish.  Michele’s cancer diagnosis could not have come at a worse time.  Her three teenage sons required energy and attention and, on top of that, her career in public speaking was taking off — all good things!  But how could she manage this in the aftermath of a surgical procedure on her tongue that would leave her speechless and in unrelenting pain?

Through a vulnerable narrative of her circumstances, Michele reveals that “the day cancer showed up in my life, God showed up bigger.”  In words, raw and relevant, she traces the lessons in “one day at a time living” that came with a second marriage and blended family. She addresses the futility of worrying, her frustration with the imperfection that accompanies mothering, and the miracle of providence — all the times that God showed up to prove His faithfulness and to demonstrate His love.

“Just because something is hard doesn’t mean we’re not called to it; and just because it’s hard doesn’t mean it’s not good,” became a watch word for Michele as she lived the hard gift of mothering through cancer.    Then, just as the Empty Nest (“The Promised Land!”) seemed to be within her grasp, the Cushatts added three special-needs preschoolers to their family.  In spite of her best efforts, she could not make perfection happen in the midst of the upheaval of their PTSD and attachment disorders, and once again, her readers have a front row seat to witness the miracle of God’s grace at work in the circumstances of her life.

Undone marches through the heaviness of some very intense days, but Michele brings her humor and creativity of expression into the telling so that grace gets the last word.  The reader who battles perfectionism will find food for the soul in reading about Michele’s relinquishment of the day-to-day struggle to keep all the plates spinning in unison and about her acceptance of the “the holiness of a rough-draft life. . . Of trying and stumbling, but finding the grace to get up and try again.”

This book was provided by Zondervan through Book Look Bloggers in exchange for my honest review.

Just One Thing: Joy

Linking up with Erika and the #WholeMama community today on the theme of Joy.  When I taught my way through the book of Nehemiah with my Sunday School class this year, I was reminded of the context for one of the Bible’s most “quotable” verses on joy — it’s not what I expected!  Thanks be to God that He is  our  infallible source of joy during Advent and throughout the year.

Then he (Ezra) said to them, “Go your way, eat the fat, drink the sweet, and send portions to those for whom nothing is prepared; for this day is holy to our Lord.  Do not sorrow, for the joy of the LORD is your strength,”  Nehemiah 8:10.

I wonder if people who sing and give testimonies about the most well-known verse in Nehemiah realize the irony of it:

A captive people impoverished by taxes and famine conditions returns to their homeland — a broken down city — and stands for six hours to hear their priest read aloud to them the record of their ancestors’ rebellion.  Living in the grip of a distress which they have brought upon themselves, they are encouraged to rejoice!  Yet, we see in verse 12 that they actually obeyed, because, in spite of their circumstances, they had been invited into the Lord’s joy which He delights to share with His people.

A careful reading of Scripture should banish from our minds, once and for all, the idea that God is a cosmic kill-joy, and yet the myth clings in spite of the writings of Paul (Rejoice in the Lord always, and again I say rejoice!) and in spite of salient pronouncements such as Phyllis McGinley’s:  “Dourness is not a sacred attribute.”  Martin Luther had no patience with his friends who behaved as if it was.  Melanchthon, his contemporary, was of a cool and reserved temperament, highly virtuous and still clinging to his monkish lifestyle even after having joined the reformers.  Fiery Luther roared at him to relax, and with his gift of over-statement declared:  “God deserves to have something to forgive you for!”  Commentator Derek Kidner observes from Nehemiah 8:9-12: “Holiness and gloom go ill together.”  In his commentary on the Psalms, he points out in Psalm 126 that the singers on their way to Jerusalem provided two metaphors for the joy of the Lord.

  1. Streams in the Negev:   Utterly dry in the summer, the arid regions to the south flood in minutes when the spring rains come.
  2. Sowing and reaping:  Crops require time and human effort in order to produce a harvest.

There is wisdom in these complementary images for those who would know the joy of the Lord.  It is His to give, and it may come in a flood, but it may also require cooperation from a heart that seeks God’s perspective on life’s circumstances.

In Psalm 137, when the Israelites lament, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” they answer their own heart-wrenching question in the lyrics that follow —  Jerusalem was to remain their “chief joy.”  Being at home in God’s City is also the ultimate joy for the present-day believer.  All the things that we chase after in our pursuit of “happiness” pale in comparison to the expectation that comes from having our spiritual roots at home in the City of God.  Anticipation of that day allows the believer to sustain joy and confidence in the face of a terminal diagnosis, loss from a natural disaster, or the heartbreak of wayward children.  In fact, the strength of which Nehemiah 8:10 speaks, in the Hebrew [maoz]  implies a refuge, stronghold, fortress or place of protection.  God’s joy is the believer’s safe haven at all times, and, dare we believe, in all circumstances?

In Christine Hoover’s new book Good to Grace, she expresses an honest response to the juxtaposition of God and joy:

“When I think of God delighting as He throws us a really good party, it surprises me a little, like I’ve got it wrong . . . Doesn’t it feel a little sacrilegious?  If so, perhaps we’re missing that God is in fact a celebratory God.  He delights and exults in those who accept His invitation to come to the party and sit at His table.”

Far from a pasted on smile and a forced “amen,” the joy of the LORD is not a requirement of the Christian life — it is a consequence!  We’re not dependent on fleeting imitations of joy, or even to the temporary outbursts of joy found in Nehemiah 8 (and later in Nehemiah 12) but are invited to the robust and eternal joy that comes from taking God’s grace, trusting His promises, accepting His unmerited invitation to “the party,” and allowing His joy to be our joy.

This is the twentieth in a series of posts in which I ponder “just one thing”  each week from my study of the book of Nehemiah, as I travel slowly and thoughtfully through the chapters with my Sunday School class.  If you’d like to make a comment or leave a link to your own blog 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/.

Blog Swap!

            Michelle Lesley is my guest today in this, my first-ever blog swap.  Our intent is to give our readers the benefit of a different writing voice and greater diversity of content.
            I have been following Michelle’s blog for some time, and have been challenged  by her clarity and confidence as she encourages her readers to pursue righteousness and the wisdom that comes from the Word of God.  Michelle is a ministry wife, the homeschooling mother of six, and a published author.  She also teaches a ladies’ Sunday School class in her church in Louisiana and, miraculously, cranks out an article on her blog nearly every day.  From the abundance of available content, I have chosen to share with you her post called:

You’re Not as Dumb as You Think You Are:  Five Reasons to Put Down that Devotional and Pick Up the Actual Bible.


Michelle Lesley is addressing a mindset that devalues the work of the Holy Spirit in the life of the believer.  He promises to guide you into all truth (Jn. 16:13) and to give understanding (Ps. 119:34), but, often, we circumvent that spectacular privilege by reading other peoples’ interpretation of the Bible instead of the Word of God itself.  This is a temptation I have battled in my own teaching preparation, so I know that you will be challenged by Michelle’s words today:

“My heart goes out to these ladies because they desperately want to learn from God’s Word, but somewhere along the way, someone or something has convinced these perfectly intelligent women–I haven’t met a dumb one, yet– that they’re not good enough or smart enough for God’s Word.”

Click here to continue reading and don’t forget to subscribe to and follow Michelle Lesley on social media.

What are some of your greatest challenges in studying the Word of God?  Do you find it tempting to jump right into a commentary rather than comparing scripture with scripture, using cross references, and studying the context on your own?  What’s working well for you as you press on to know the Lord through His own written words?

Getting Explicit

One of the rites of passage in our family of four boys has been the one-on-one camp out with Dad.  Around the age of ten or eleven, before they were interested in girls, before their bodies started to take on a mind of their own, my good husband took them away for a weekend of canoeing and hotdogs; tenting and s’mores; swimming and “The Talk.”  He had all kinds of resources to serve as a broad outline, but the main reason why the whole experience was not bathed in awkwardness is that he has had an open-door policy for “that kind of question” ever since he was changing their diapers.  Obviously, I have been involved in our boys’ sex-education as well — I was with them 24/7 when they were all young.  But their dad has been their go-to guy, and he’s happy about that.  If More Than Just the Talk by Jonathan McKee had been written a few years earlier, he would have read it and used it, because the author candidly addresses topics that might not occur to the average middle-aged parent.  He would rather run the risk of offending his reader with startling truth than to allow them to be blind-sided by real life after it’s too late.

Running through the book is the all-important Deuteronomy principle that you don’t just sit down and discuss “plumbing and mechanics” with your children when they hit puberty and consider that your work is done.  Our children receive inaccurate and damaging information about sex from entertainment media and technology — McKee calls them The Pseudo Parent.  Kids  get this information about dating, sex, and friendships a little here, a little there, when they are sitting in their house, when they are walking by the way. . .  Anyone hearing an allusion to Deuteronomy?  This is the premise of More Than Just the Talk:  if you want to be the one who shapes your child’s bedrock beliefs about sex, you have to be available for explicit day-to-day conversations about issues you might prefer not to acknowledge, at times of the day (or night) when you’d rather be doing something else — like sleeping.  The Pseudo Parent is explicit (think about song lyrics for a minute), so the REAL parent has to avoid the trap of using “irrelevant words from a different era” in conversations about sex.

Speaking frankly from his own regrets, McKee shares personal experiences that have shaped the way he deals with questions in his present-day ministry with teens.  Most of the questions he has heard from teens over the years about the “rightness or wrongness” of specific behaviors boil down to one clear answer:  “Lusting is wrong.”  Based on this biblical truth (Matthew 5:27-29), McKee encourages believers to flee sexual sin in all its forms and provides some very specific and practical conversational guidelines for teaching our sons and our daughters what it looks like to pursue righteousness, for this truly is the path, more than just the avoidance of sin, which leads to life and freedom.

More Than Just the Talk is based in reality, and parents may gulp at the startling statistics around sexual activity, use of pornography, and the prevalence of STD’s.  However, they are offered with hope that readers will take on their kids’ unanswered questions about sex with explicit information that is offered like a calm voice of hope in their child’s ear saying, “Sex is good.  It’s a gift from God.  You can talk to me about anything.”

Disclosure:  This book was provided by Bethany House Publishers, a division of Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my honest review.

Yes, We Do

The Great Compromise of 1990 is not in the history books — but it should be.  It all started when I sewed a beautiful quilted Christmas tree skirt the year before I got married.  Naturally, I expected to enjoy it under my tree for the rest of my days.  However, at some point after our May wedding, I learned that my patient husband’s family had always piled fir boughs under their Christmas tree, and, naturally, he expected to do so for the rest of his days.  Enter conflict, and cue Dr. Linda Mintle.  According to her latest book, We Need to Talk, there are six styles of dealing with conflict whether it occurs in marriage, with other family members, in the office, dormitory, classroom, or a church business meeting.  Our comparatively trivial disagreement could have been resolved in various ways:

  1. Avoider – If my patient husband and I were avoiders, we might have just decided that having a Christmas tree was too much trouble.  Better to avoid the conflict than to hash it out.
  2. Volatile – With this conflict management style, we might have chosen to take turns having our choice of Christmas tree adornment, always ribbing the other, making snide comments, and fielding fake phone calls from Martha Stewart asking for permission to film our tree during quilted tree skirt years.
  3. Hostile – If we had allowed the matter to accelerate to this level, we would have resorted to blame, personal attacks and criticism, showing contempt for the other person’s choice of decoration.  Definitely leave the bottom of the Christmas tree out of all family pictures!
  4. Competitive – This style may have led to years when the tree skirt went missing, or when the fir boughs mysteriously landed in the woodstove.  There would have been plenty of argument over the pros and cons of each style.
  5. Accommodation – If one of us had immediately given in to the other, it may have simplified our lives temporarily, but could have led to resentment in the long run.
  6. Validation – Maybe it was because we were newlyweds, but I remember a very calm and rational discussion about our Christmas tree conflict.  The Great Compromise of 1990 surpassed either option taken alone, for, from that point on, we spread a layer of fir boughs on the floor under the Christmas tree, and then positioned my beautiful quilted tree skirt atop the boughs with tiny tufts of evergreen peeking around the circumference.  Rather than a source of tension, that particular conflict has become symbolic of our ability to bring our two worlds together for a new and better outcome.

In spite of this wonderful and harmonious outcome, it is still true in our marriage that, yes, we do “need to talk,” because it is impossible to live in harmony with everyone all the time.  A relationship with a strong foundation of trust will weather conflict more effectively, and Dr. Mintle helps her readers to see that trying to avoid dealing with issues only postpones — and likely heightens the urgency of — the conflict.  Recognizing individual differences and identifying preferences will increase understanding of the other person, and part of the communication process should include a clear statement of one’s expectations.

Negativity and disrespect only cloud the issue.  We Need to Talk gives advice that is both biblical and practical for dealing with families of origin, “difficult” people, and the special challenges that come with divorce and blended families.  Forgiveness is the oil that keeps relational machinery from seizing up or wearing out, and the real life examples of forgiveness from Dr. Mintle’s practice put flesh on the bones of I Peter 2:21-23:

” . . . you should follow [Christ’s] steps . . who, when He was reviled did not revile in return; when He suffered, He did not threated, but committed Himself to Him who judges righteously.”

I read We Need to Talk with a pen in my hand because I wanted to underline and remember the wise words, both clever and brief, exemplified by these favorite few of Dr. Mintle’s Maxims:

  • Disrespect erodes love.
  • Fear triggers conflict.
  • A constructive dialogue can emerge from positive feelings, but a negative response will reinforce negative feelings.
  • Grumbling and complaining are signs of doubting God.
  • Parenting seems easy until you have children.  (Whoa, do I hear an amen?) 
  • The problem with being deluded is that you rarely know when you are!
  • Venting anger doesn’t work.  It just fans the flames.

Supplementing the content in her book, Dr. Linda Mintle blogs about making positive life changes in Doing Life Together at beliefnet.com.

Disclosure:  This book was provided by Baker Books, a division of the Baker Publishing Group, in exchange for my honest review.