What Do They Really Need?

Fourteen years as a missionary in Cambodia changes your view of God.  It changes the way you stand in front of a church and give a report.  “This is what God did” somehow gets sorted out from “This is what I thought He was doing at the time” and “This is what I expected.”  In fourteen years, a diligent and creative missionary can change the landscape around a tribal village.  That’s what happened with Ralph and Kim:  bridges span river beds, water towers provide safe water, medical and educational facilities stand cheek by jowl with planed boards and thatch.

So many needs to tend to:  the cobra bite, the malaria patient, the feverish baby.  But then it becomes clear that the medicine sent to the home of the sick child got washed down the throat of an alcoholic dad — along with most of any good things that come through the door.  Then you notice that the baby hanging in the hammock is not actually being watched by anyone — unless you count the twelve-inch centipede that is inching its way toward him.

Can even the most heroic, godly, and motivated missionary on the planet deal with this kind of need?

According to John Owen in Chapter 7 of The Mortification of Sin, the answer is a resounding “no!”  That’s not to say that Owen would abandon the mission field.  His word to the missionaries of the world would be to work on conversion before focusing on  behavior.  There’s no mistaking his meaning, because he says it in various ways:

“Unless a man be a believer, . . . he an never mortify any one sin.

Mortification is the work of believers.

There is no death of sin without the death of Christ.

Sin is to be mortified, but something is to be done in the first place to enable us thereunto.

Mortification is not the present business of unregenerate man.  Conversion is their work.”

He would likely view the bridges and the water towers as a means to an end, that end being faith, for it is by faith that the believer receives the power of the Spirit, by whom sin is put to death.  In fact, those Cambodians may “easier see without eyes, speak without a tongue than truly mortify one sin without the Spirit.”

And so let the work of conversion begin.  While Kim sewed up ragged wounds and ran I.V. tubing from poles to patients on mats and in hammocks, Ralph began the work of translation.  Together with their children, they built relationships with people in the village.  By 2017, the entire New Testament should be available in the tribal language of this hidden jungle people group.   They will be able to read for themselves the good news (that is “even gooder than we ever dared hope” according to Frederich Buechner) that the Spirit of Christ may dwell in them, the Refiner’s fire who alone is the remedy for sin.

But beware, missionaries, and beware, Christians in all lands, because “to break men of particular sins, and not to break their hearts, is to deprive ourselves of the advantages of dealing with them.”  John Owen uses strong metaphors to describe this tendency to attack sin apart from the work of the Spirit.  He compares it to “beating the enemy into an impregnable castle, not to be prevailed against.”  “Peccant!”  (diseased or offending) is this call to mortification apart from believing.  This vain method of contention deludes them, hardens them, and destroys them, resulting in the “most vile and desperate sinners.”

This truth lands very close to home, because my most important mission field over the past twenty years has been my four sons.  Has my missional motherhood (Gloria Furman’s term) been a gospel of “philosophical self-regulation” or of purifying the soul through the Spirit in obedience to the truth? (I Peter 1:22)  I want nothing more than to see my sons as “living men,” engaged in a living faith, for “where men are dead, sin is alive and will live.”

Hence, the call of Christ in evangelism, teaching or missionary work is not the stamping out of sin, but the igniting of Spirit-fire.  When we get the transformation in the proper order (conversion before mortification), we “call a man away from mending a hole in the wall of his house to quench a fire that is consuming the whole building.”

Rubik’s Cube of Interlocking Crimes

A Promise to Protect by Patricia Bradley:  A Book Review

Author Patricia Bradley has created a page-turning Rubik’s Cube of interlocking crimes.  The book starts out with a bang — literally, as Dr. Leigh Somerall’s beloved brother is murdered at gunpoint.  Was his murderer connected somehow to the shots fired at Leigh?  Or was the target really Sheriff Ben Logan?

The town of Logan Point looks on as Ben and Lee sort through the rubble of two fires, the complexities of their past relationship (Can it be rekindled?), and the social complications of small town living where everybody knows your name — and your business.

Best of all Patricia Bradley drives a stake into the eternal truth of God’s sovereignty.  Overcome by mystery, loss,  and life-threatening events, Sheriff Ben and Dr. Leigh affirm that God does not make mistakes, and that He is able to handle the aftermath of poor choices.  The real mystery in A Promise to Protect is the miracle of forgiveness.

I received this book free from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

An Open Letter to My First Mentor

Living Our Days

Happy Birthday, Joanne!

Do people in heaven celebrate birthdays?  Probably not, but more important for you (and tragic for me) is that this is the tenth time you have celebrated a birthday in heaven.  Another thing I’m not absolutely clear on is whether you are aware of this birthday greeting; whether you are privy to some of the milestones, triumphs, and failures I’ve missed sharing with you over the past ten years.  I’ve gotten used to thinking of you as a member of my “cloud of witnesses.”  I hope I’m right.

One of the reasons that I’m ok about admitting my uncertainties (that I have not yet developed a theology-of-everything) is that from the time I was sixteen years old, I witnessed your questioning spirit, your curious mind, and your whole-hearted  “pressing on to know the Lord.”   I wanted to know Him, too, so I trailed along behind you.   In fact, I wish I could ask you now if you…

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The Non-methodical Method

I’m with Paul.

When he vents in Romans 7 about his “captivity to the law of sin,” I hear a howl of frustration.  For Paul, for me, sin is an inside job, and we are all betrayed by our own mortal flesh before we open our eyes in the morning.

But then, being Paul, he rips the rhetorical right out of his question, (“Who will deliver me from this body of death?”), by providing an answer — THE answer:

I thank God —  through Jesus Christ our Lord!

Wouldn’t it be helpful to get a glimpse of the Apostle Paul’s personal journal?  What did the struggle look like between “the law of God” and “the law of sin” in a mind and a heart that was utterly devoted to God?

We want a method.  “What’s working for you?”

John Owen, in Chapter Six of The Mortification of Sin, describes the process of killing sin as a pilgrim on the path — not exactly describing it from the rear view mirror, but definitely in process:  “Here’s how you’ll know that you are warring against evil in your heart.”

I.  Pulling the plug on bad habits

This Puritan must have had a sense of humor:  “And the reason why a natural man is not always perpetually in the pursuit of some one lust, night and day, is because he hath many to serve . .thence he is carried on with great variety.”

When it comes to sin, we are all on the cafeteria plan.  Where to begin?  So many choices.

John Owen also had a heart, because it seems that we have his sympathy here.  Not only does he admit the “violence and impetuousness” of the temptations we fight, but also shows that he is aware of differences in temperament among individuals.  What looks like diligence in a workaholic is alike, in degree, to what looks like a peaceful heart in a lazy man.  But these, along with the more “scandalous sins” must be put to death at the root, which is not a pretty thing to look at, at least from the inside.  John Owen borrows Paul’s image:  crucifixion, (Galatians 5:24) and describes the death of a sin with violence involving struggle, beating down, and fastening it to a cross.

By contrast, we give up too soon.  With behavioral scientists admitting that it takes an average of 66 days to break any habit (and the range is anywhere from 18 to 254 days), very often we “leave the principle and root untouched, perhaps unsearched out, [and] make little or no progress in this work of mortification.”

II.  Declaring war

According to John Piper, “Just Do It” is an atheistic stance, but, verbally, not far from this truth:  “Do It in the Spirit!”  Where boot straps leave off and Spirit picks up is a matter of the heart.  Owen urges the believer to take his stand on the cross and to take the mercy of God for fighting sin.   It is by the Spirit that we recognize sin as the enemy of our soul; it is by the Spirit that we know our enemy well; it is by the Spirit that we will “load [the enemy, sin] daily with destruction . . . new wounds, new blows every day.”

III.  Experiencing victory

How does one recognize success?  “[Sin’s] motions and actions are fewer and weaker than formerly, so that they are not able to hinder his duty nor interrupt his peace.”

This convinces me that the “normal Christian life” is found in a moment-by-moment clinging to the promises of Scripture and a praying-like-breathing dependence on the Spirit who “implants . . .principle[s] of grace that stand in direct opposition to [sin] and are destructive of it.”  Indeed, “promptness, alacrity, [and] vigor” are the characteristics of the “new man”  in “contending with, cheerful fighting against” sin.

As children of the age of self-help books, 12-Step programs, and “Everything-Under-the-Sun for Dummies,” we come to the Word of God looking for a method, a sin-killing strategy that we can execute and then move on.  What we find in John Owen’s Mortification of Sin — and in the Word of God itself — is not mechanical, but relationship-oriented.  Fight temptation, hate your sin, take the Spirit’s power, and do it as if your life depends upon it.  It does.


It’s Time to Exhale

Breathing Room by Leeana Tankersley:  A Book Review

Generally speaking, for most of us, it’s not the catastrophes that wear us down.  It’s the frictional grind of too many little things:  cars that fail to start, toddlers with a missing shoe, teens with missing respect, too much month and too little paycheck.

Standing under a sound roof in a sound body, with a healthy family and a full refrigerator, we question the goodness of God and poke holes in our theology.  We covet and carp and compare, backing ourselves into a tight and suffocating space.

Leeana Tankersley has walked that path of self-contempt, feeling small and trapped and that it was “not OK to struggle.”   She welcomes readers into her process of discerning that the breathing space she was seeking is God Himself.

In the Hebrew Scriptures, one of the names for God is Ha-Makom meaning ‘the omnipresent,’ literally translated ‘The Place.’  This name for God is often used in the traditional Jewish sentiment offered to someone in grief . . . ‘May The Place comfort you.’

Without handing out blank checks for self-pity, Tankersley shares her own pain, using imagery from 12-Step programs and highly diagnostic insights gained during her years with three small children and her Navy Seal husband in the foreign culture and geography of Bahrain.  She shares insights from a broad range of authors and thinkers:  from Anne Morrow Lindbergh to Anne Lamott; from C.S. Lewis to Stephen King.  The author’s humor and poetically descriptive language lighten her message:

We’ve gagged the ache with Doritos and Diet Coke.  We’ve covered it up with bronzer.  We’ve smothered it with layers and layers of trying-too-hard.   We’ve shut it up with the how-richly-blessed-we-are-talk.

Breathing Room is an invitation to the life revealed by the Lord of Isaiah 55:2:  “Let your soul delight itself in abundance.”

I received this book free from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group. The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.

That We Be Not Mistaken

In Chapter Five of The Mortification of Sin, John Owen bends over backward to delineate for his readers what mortification of sin is NOT, the better for us to recognize it for what it is:  a miracle of grace.  This seemed like a good place to pause for a review of the content up to this point.  Pardon the places where this post loses poetic traction and slides into the ditch of doggerel, but doesn’t the discipline of rhyme and meter  force you to really think about what you are trying to communicate?

“Put sin to death,” says Romans 8.

“By Spirit’s power, don’t hesitate,

“And you will live.”  It’s God’s command

Declared by Paul with pen in hand.

John Owen, taking up his quill,

Exhorts that the believer will

Make this his daily task to do:

Be killing sin lest it kill you.

With stony heart by Spirit taken,

Grace abounds, sin is forsaken.

Take the Spirit’s comfort, vigor —

Gifts of mortifying rigor.

Truth be told, it’s God’s largesse

That uproots darkness and weakness.

Now, lest one think, “The dragon’s slain

And never to be seen again!” —

Remember St. Paul’s anguished cries,

“I do the evil I despise!”

Hypocrisy (or hiding well)

Is just a safer path to hell,

For sin has not been killed a whit

Nor holiness increased a bit.

A temperament sweet and sedate,

Though pleasant still does not equate

With mortified iniquity.

His heart may still a cesspool be!

Nor does the soul who (finding pride

No longer serves her) turns aside

To worldliness or vanity —

New masters do not make one free.

Amidst afflictions and distress,

The oft-resulting righteousness

That follows sin’s heinous eruption

Is likely just a brief disruption:

Cat and mouse, legerdemain,

While sinful habits still remain.

Thus, Brother Owen clarifies

Mortification by the lies

The hapless saint may swallow whole,

Sadly deceived in mind and soul.

The Creation of a Protagonist

Deceived by Irene Hannon:  A Book Review

With Deceived there is no deception when it comes to Irene Hannon’s portrayal of her main characters.  Kate Marshall, a young widow, still grieving the three-year-old sorrow of losing both her husband and son in a boating accident, glimpses a boy who looks and sounds remarkably like her son.  Her suspicions haunt her until she, against her own misgivings, searches out a private investigator, and, thus, a cadre of male protagonists join the story, their office banter, “I’ve got your back” camaraderie,  and quiet competence whisking the plot along to its satisfying and surprising conclusion.

I have had very little exposure to the genre of Romantic Suspense — but, truthfully, what is more suspenseful than romance?  Add to this the agonized longings of a mother to be re-united with her son, factor in the dangerous process of uncovering the secrets of another person, and set the cast of characters in a very believable world where what we think and believe about God, about love, and about other people shapes the course of our lives, and the result is a book that I am eager to  recommend to the women in my church as well as to their high-school age daughters.

Irene Hannon’s protagonists are not flat “good guys.”  Rather, they are punctual, compassionate, moral, competent, hard-working and dedicated individuals who, also, at various times in their lives, make impulsive decisions, experience lust, exhibit impatience, suffer from fear, selfishness,  insecurity,  and addictions.  Her descriptions defy cliche:  for example, Connor Sullivan, P.I. has eyes, “dark as obsidian; they searched, discerned and reassured . . .”    And as Kate begins to trust Connor professionally, she begins to notice how “those dark eyes warmed like the volcanic origins of the black glass whose color they mirrored.”  Poetic imagery such as this  takes “tall, dark and handsome” to a whole new level.

Because in our fallen world no one is all wrong and no one is all right, Deceived gives us three-dimensional characters who  act out their need and brokenness according to their acceptance or refusal of God’s grace.

Because the Word of God is living and powerful, a chance encounter with Ephesians 4:31,32 in a pizza joint during the day triggers a  middle of the night spiritual wrestling match between the antagonist and the God He has misunderstood.

Because God is at work even when He chooses to remain anonymous, small miracles happen, and this truth is most satisfyingly demonstrated in Deceived.

I received this book free from Revell, a division of Baker Publishing Group.   The opinions I have expressed are my own, and I was not required to write a positive review. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255 http://www.access.gpo.gov/nara/cfr/waisidx_03/16cfr255_03.html.