God Most High — God Most Near

The Presence of God by J. Ryan Lister:  A Book Review

Sometimes a book is conceived long before it is born.  Seeds for The Presence of God were planted in the summer of 2000 with the author’s study of Psalm 16:11:

You make known to me the path of life;

In your presence there is fullness of joy;

At your right hand are pleasures forever.

Letting Scripture direct his steps, Lister began an expedition to understand the biblical motif of God’s presence and the result is an exhaustive chronicle of the presence of God throughout biblical history.  His book is a theological feast which requires a slow digestion.  As I was reading, it occurred to me that working through Lister’s book, section by section, alongside a trip through the Bible in a year would provide enriching backstory to each day’s reading.

The Presence of God  is based on several big-picture concepts:

1.  Defining the “presence of God” requires two distinct delineations.  Eschatological presence is  the immediate and fully relational presence of God seen only in Genesis 1-3 and Revelation 21-22 when the believer finally enters the dwelling place of God for all eternity.  After Adam and Eve’s rebellion, there is a change that occurs in the presence of God.

“Adam’s sin disturbed the whole universe, hung up the great curtain in the temple, and dug the hole for the coming cross of Christ.”

God’s redemptive presence comes with the goal of restoring all that sin has destroyed.  From that point on, the divine presence is at work in history to bring about a New Paradise that will cover the whole earth completing what the first creation began.

2.  The presence of God is a central goal in God’s redemptive mission, but at the same time, it is the agent by which God accomplishes that mission.

3.  It is not contradictory for a God who is transcendent to also be immanent.  In fact, it is God’s transcendence that allows for His immanence, and, the glorious truth of His immanence is based on the intimacy that has always existed among the members of the Trinity.

Lister argues that each of the Old Testament covenants revolves around God’s promise of a place in which to house the divine presence and a people to revel in that presence, thus reflecting His glory.  He helps us to see that “God’s commitment to be present with His people is overwhelming — strong enough to conquer sin and death.”  Spotlighting the presence of God as the center of redemptive history, Lister works his way through Old Testament time until Matthew trumpets the entry of God in the flesh, when redemptive presence takes on flesh and blood, sweat and sandals.   From this point in Scripture, “our Lord is pulling the common threads of all the previous covenants together to create the beautiful fabric of the New Covenant.”

Following the trajectory of God’s presence across the story arc from Eden to tabernacle, from temple to exile, and from Jesus to the New Jerusalem is well worth a Christian’s reading time, but J. Ryan Lister goes the extra mile in his final chapters to answer the “so what?” question.  The magnificent truth that God is with us gives deeper significance to our great salvation, to our identity as the church, and to our anticipation of the future coming of Christ when He will, once again, usher in His unmitigated presence.  The fact that He has drawn near to us opens the door of relationship for us to draw near to Him.  The Pentecost reversal of Babel’s alienation points to the Spirit-initiated work of reconciliation that God desires for the world.  In the believer, the Spirit does the work of sanctification, empowering the miracle of killing sin and displaying righteousness.  Manifesting the presence of God in this age, the Church waits for Christ’s return, not so that we can quibble over the WHEN, but so that we can rejoice over the WHY:  that our story and His story may once again be one.

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


Just One Thing: Heat

When I was a kid, the Pioneer Times used to publish just about anything.  Our hometown post-mistress doubled as on-site reporter for the town’s news, and there were weeks during the news-desert of mid-January when your second cousin’s baby shower was ink-worthy, right down to the least-of-these who attended, ” . . . and her Aunt Fannie cut the cake.”

At first glance, Nehemiah 3 reads a little bit like a slow news week in the Jerusalem Times:  the goldsmith’s son worked next to the perfumer, and next to him was the selectman’s son, and so on.  Then, it seems as if Baruch and Meremoth had arrived (vv. 20, 21) Amish barn-raising style to make repairs near the home of Eliashib the high priest.  Verse one reveals that Eliashib was fulfilling his high priestly duties by consecrating the Sheep Gate, and was, therefore, unable to make repairs near his own dwelling.  Baruch and Meremoth were serving God by serving Eliashib.

The use of an adverb (certainly the most unsung part of speech) focuses laser attention on the work of Baruch:  [kaw-raw’] in Hebrew, and variously rendered carefully, earnestly, zealously, or diligently in English Old Testament parlance.  According to Strong’s Exhaustingive Concordance, its literal meaning is to glow or grow warm; to blaze up or burn.

I pray for this heat.

I pray for it because so much of what I do gets only half my heart.  In the rush of repetition and the mindless monotony, I hear myself murmuring, “This is just not my thing.”

Baruch’s occupation is not mentioned in the tedious catalog of names that comprise Chapter 3 of Nehemiah.  However, it’s safe to speculate that rubble removal and wall building are just a side-line for him.  I wonder how he was managing to pay the bills during this 52-day building marathon?  I doubt if he had a vacation-time bank available . . .

Not every re-builder got an adverb, and so the list of multisyllabic names scrolls on through thirty-two verses which might begin to look like long-ago yearbook pages and newspaper articles of “name comma name comma name” under a blurry black and white group shot — unless.  Unless one of the faces in the picture belongs to someone you love.  Then you search for the face (third row, second from the left); you find the name; and you smile.

Whenever I read a list of names in Scripture, I try to imagine the eyes of God tracking with mine as they run down the page, His with pleasure and in-depth knowledge (omniscience between the lines), loving the individual who wore the name, and knowing what his diligence cost.

Baruch’s earnest offering of back-breaking labor — it’s enough to warm your heart on a January day.

This is Number 8 in my study of  “Just One Thing” per week from the book of Nehemiah.  These are a spin off from my Sunday School Class at Spruce Head Community Church where we meet every week to let the Word of God change us.  Posts from previous weeks are available at this link:  https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/tag/nehemiah/

Holly Barrett

The Head and Heart Behind Narnia

The Romantic Rationalistedited by John Piper and David Mathis:  A Book Review

Even though he died over fifty years ago;

Even though he was an atheist during his early adult life;

Even though, as a confirmed Anglican churchman, he never jumped onto the evangelical bandwagon, C.S. Lewis’s popularity as an author is greater today than at any time during his life.  John Piper attributes this to his “utter commitment to both the life of the mind and the life of the heart,” and has compiled a comprehensive tribute to and analysis of Lewis’s contribution to the shaping of the evangelical mindset.  Because he has partnered with four other Lewis scholars, each chapter of the book brings a fresh perspective on the life, theology and writing of “the patron saint of evangelicalism.”

Philip Ryken on Inerrancy:  If anyone ever has a beef against Lewis, it’s probably related to his doctrine of Scripture (unless they won’t read him at all because he smoked and drank alcohol).  Ryken is clear on Lewis’s most important theological shortcoming:  he “placed the inspiration of Scripture on a continuum with other forms of literary inspiration, thus downplaying to some degree the uniqueness of the Bible.”  Add to this the fact that he “believed there were contradictions and probably errors in the Bible,”  and that he “doubted or denied that certain parts of the Bible were historical,” and you have to wonder how C.S. Lewis has gained his rock star status among conservative evangelicals.   Oddly enough, Lewis came into criticism from liberals of his day because he was committed to the veracity of the accounts of miracles in the Bible, specifically the resurrection of Jesus Christ.    While I acknowledge the fact of his suborthodox stand on Scripture, Lewis’s story of Aslan’s charge to Jill Pole to remember the signs, to repeat them morning and night, to get them word-perfect so she would have them ready when needed is always my go-to story when I need a strong illustration of the importance of Scripture in the Christian life.  Clearly, Lewis had a high view of Scripture and lived a better theology than he knew when it comes to the importance of biblical truth for discipleship.

Douglas Wilson on Soteriology:  The question in this chapter is:  Was Lewis “reformed” in his understanding of God and salvation?  Wilson comes down on a solid “probably” here, but, of more importance is his exploration of Lewis’s magnificent portrayal of the undragoning of Eustace in The Voyage of the Dawn Treader, as well as his analysis of the masterful storytelling by which Lewis created a world where we see Truth more clearly for the unfamiliarity of the setting.  Sarah Arthur has said many things well, and this is one:  “When the front door of reason is locked and double-bolted against the gospel, . . . the back door of the imagination often stands wide open.”  This is Lewis’s shining contribution to the conversation on salvation, and the fact that he did not claim to be a theologian at all seems to make the question of whether or not he was “reformed” a case of measuring a mile in ounces.

Kevin Vanhoozer on Imagination:  Laying the foundation of C.S. Lewis’s awakening to the truth of Christ through the baptism of his imagination, largely from the influence of George MacDonald’s writing, Vanhoozer makes a fascinating case for the role of imagination in discipleship and theology.  As a disciple, Lewis was, in the words of one biographer, “the most thoroughly converted person he ever met.”  As a theologian, he was a committed amateur who loved the map that theology provided for being “taken into the life of God.”   He put reason (“the organ of truth”) and imagination (“the organ of meaning”) in their most useful relationship to one another through his use of story.  His body of writing promoted a Biblical imagination, which, in Vanhoozer’s words, “sees reality as it truly is.”

Randy Alcorn on Heaven:  Better than Alcorn’s examination of the end of all things in the Revelation and his enlightening clarification of the term “new earth”; even better than his references to the Chronicles of Narnia — which paint the most compelling picture of the afterlife that I have ever read — is Randy’s own story of finding C.S. Lewis and thereby finding Christ.  The account of his hunger for truth and its satiation is (for me) the most important part of this collection of essays.

John Piper on the Use of Creation:  “[God] likes matter.  He invented it.”  Beginning with this Lewis-truth, Piper urges his readers to join C.S. Lewis in enjoying all the good and enjoyable things that God has made and to do so with thanksgiving.  When we do, it becomes an act of worship, for God has given to us Himself in all of creation.  This is not Pantheism, nor is it true that a shriveled and ascetic approach to all that is good in this world is a higher holiness.  The wisdom of C.S. Lewis is that Aslan (who is good, but certainly not safe) has given all the delights of His creation so that, by enjoying them, our eyes would turn to the Giver and our hearts would long to go “further up and further in” that we might know Him better.

For my review of another recommended biography of C.S. Lewis, click here: https://michelemorin.wordpress.com/2014/07/03/this-is-not-that-kind-of-biography/

Zip It!

Keep It Shut by Karen Ehman:  A Book Review

Whether you enter every room mouth-first or just struggle with an angry outburst from time to time;

Whether you habitually turn the prayer chain into a gossip group or just lapse occasionally into insecurity-fed flattery;

Wherever you fall on the sliding continuum of the blab-o-meter, you’ve undoubtedly wished, at some point in your life, when it comes to your mouth, that you could just Keep It Shut! 

Karen Ehman has earned the right to issue a stern warning concerning the use of words by transparently sharing her own history of open-mouth-insert-foot.  Grounded in Scripture, Keep It Shut confirms that a problem with the mouth begins in the mind and in the heart.  Gracious words spring from a heart that is “laced with grace,” a quality that comes straight from God who kindly sets the example with His ultimate compassion.  To reinforce the influence of the mind over the mouth, Karen has compiled a collection of Scripture verses on the right use of words which can be photocopied for memorization and meditation.

Don’t by fooled by the old standard, “Is it true?  Is it kind?  Is it necessary?” because even if your comment passes the truth test, motives count, and they are “weighed by the Lord” (Proverbs 16:2).  Among the many helpful check-lists in the book is a list of questions for examining motives before speaking.

In the digital age, our fingers can do the talking for us, making it even more urgent that we recognize when it’s time to be quiet.  In fact, one of the most thoughtful suggestions in this very practical book deals with confidentiality.  When handling a particularly sensitive issue involving a friend, Karen texted the reassurance that she would not be talking about the situation to anyone other than God, and then reminded her friend that she was praying and available if needed.  As difficult as it may be for a “talker” to imagine, sometimes the most helpful thing a friend can say is nothing.

However, godly speech is not an excuse for wimping out when there is hard truth that needs saying.  Instead, she who would speak the truth in love “must find the fulcrum — the pivot point that balances gentle honesty with hard truth enveloped in love.”  The truth is that death to self is the only antidote to “angry mama mouth,” and it is the only fire extinguisher for the flames caused by “the gasoline queen.”  “See in it a chance to die,” said Amy Carmichael whenever one of her orphanage staff complained about the cost of discipleship, and a costly discipleship it is when a natural -born talker has to weigh the impact of all those words.

Used rightly, however, words are a gift, and Keep It Shut ends on a blessedly positive note with many suggestions for using words to build up and not to tear down.  I have already recorded one of Karen’s ideas in my planner for use during Lent, and her final chapter and appendices beautifully capture the challenge of any spiritual discipline.  There is the old behavior which needs to be cast off, and there is the new Christ-exalting behavior which, by the Spirit, we are empowered to put on.  In maintaining a mouth that glorifies God, not only must we be “quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry.”  We must also be quick to use “gracious words [which] are a honeycomb, sweet to the soul and healing to the bones.”

Disclosure:  This book was provided by BookLookBloggers in exchange for my unbiased review.

Throw Out the Cookie Cutters

Mothering from Scratch by Melinda Means and Kathy Helgemo:  A Book Review

When my four boys were all very small, there were days when I could have argued that I was too strict, and then heaped guilt upon myself for being too lenient — all within one hour’s time.  When my mind and heart were in the wrong place, mothering was a toxic cocktail of irrational guilt, odious comparisons, and self-condemnation.

Written by mothers for mothers, Mothering from Scratch offers an approach that breathes grace into a mother’s life.  Instead of shoe-horning ourselves into someone else’s plan, why not try mothering out of the individual strengths and characteristics that God designed when He made you?  The “perfect mother” lives next door to Big Foot and down the road from the Loch Ness Monster.  By recognizing this and owning our inadequacies, mothers gain a “unique opportunity to make a gigantic leap in our moral development.”

Kathy and Melinda urge mums to find their comfort zone and then to work at broadening it so that mothers and children grow together.  This is a graceful balance between sensible self-care and mature self-denial.  Mothers need relationships with other adults and the opportunity to develop personal interests, but they also must set up boundaries to protect the fleeting years when their children need them most.  Godly wisdom is necessary for setting these priorities, and every family will look a little different.

At the end of each chapter, thought-provoking questions and suggested action plans make this book a great choice for a mum’s group study.  Rich in resources throughout and then finishing off with three pages of suggested books, blogs, and pod casts, Mothering from Scratch is also a practical reference.  The authors’ personal anecdotes from their own families are like a warm hand on the reader’s shoulder saying, “We can do this.”  Empowered by the Spirit, free of the cookie cutters, and sensitive to the uniqueness of our own family, “there is, therefore, now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.”

This book was provided by Bethany House Publishers in exchange for my unbiased review.

Just One Thing: Gates

“They laid its beams and hung its doors with its bolts and bars. “*

Not exactly the stuff of which a “life verse” or a New Year’s Resolution is made,

But five times in Nehemiah’s counter-clockwise tour of the wall we are confronted:

What’s the point of a walled city if the gates are not secure?

Shore them up!  Every beam; every door; every bolt; every bar,

Not just for the glory of Old Jerusalem, but for the glory of God,

Who is, after all, the Center, the focus of Nehemiah’s renovation.

“Where there is no center, there is no circumference,”**

And how we need a circumference–

A boundary–

Not to hem us in, suffocation-style,

But to correct our warped geometry,

To free us up,

To establish the playing field:

“Here is the goal.”

“This is my responsibility.”

“Someone else will cover this area.”

After all, didn’t original sin sprout from the refusal of a boundary?

What if, instead of an outreached hand to harvest death,

Eve’s response had been,

“Let me not be like unto God.  Let me be instead what I was created to be.

Let me be a woman.”***

Today, and everyday, let me secure the gates.

All day long we choose

With eyes, ears, lips, fingers —

Trivial pursuits, mindless entertainment,

The gates wide-open to the corrosion of our souls.

Lay the beams, tighten the bolts and bars.

Guard your heart and live free.


* Nehemah 3:3, 6, 13-15

**Eugene Peterson, Reversed Thunder

*** Elisabeth Elliot, Let Me Be a Woman

For further study, read Nehemiah 3 in a sitting.  It may be second only to “the begats” in its repetitive monotony, but if your Bible has a map of Nehemiah’s Jerusalem, follow it around the wall as you read.  It really does help!

Take Charge of Your Money and Your Life

The Financially Confident Woman by Mary Hunt:  A Book Review

“Don’t you have to have lots of money if you’re going to ‘manage’ it?”

“I don’t/can’t do financial stuff.”

This mindset might keep you from reading the new edition of Mary Hunt’s book, but you wouldn’t expect to find that the author of a half dozen books and a nationally syndicated column on personal finance used to think that way as well.  Her motto was:

“I’m not overdrawn, just under-deposited.”

It turns out that a change in what one believes about money is the key to changing irresponsible and self-defeating behavior with money.  Like losing weight and all the other “impossible things” in our lives, it comes down to simple (but maybe not easy?), everyday practices.  Hunt reduces her plan to three major points:  (1)giving; (2)saving; (3)spending less than you earn.  However, she does not stop there.  She provides a self-assessment quiz for financial responsibility and a whole chapter on reforming bad habits.

As the old saying goes, “If you aim at nothing, you will surely hit it,” so Mary Hunt sets up the target with Nine Habits of a Financially Confident Woman.  This section should be required reading for every young woman about to leave the nest, because it breaks down some very basic but mysterious-sounding concepts about investment,  while also giving a stern warning (learned the hard way) about debt and living beyond your means.  Her explanation of the term “no-load, growth mutual fund” on pages 99-101 is worth the price of the book! She makes her e-mail address and web site available and ends the book with a six-week action plan for becoming a financially confident woman.  For me, the most challenging — but chilling — statement comes in the middle of the book:

“One year from today, I guarantee that you will not be the same person you are today.  You will be either better off or worse off.”

Well, I know that I want to be better off . . . what am I doing today to make that happen?

Disclosure:  This book was provided by Revell in exchange for my unbiased review.