Just One Thing: Fear

Fear is a powerful motivator.  Even the reluctant student might memorize lists of data for fear of failing a class.  Motorists maintain a more conservative driving speed in areas where police regularly patrol.  Unfortunately, there is also the fear that paralyzes, that leads to irrational decisions and self-protective behaviors.  Fear of God, however,  is the supremely rational fear, because it is a response to God’s power, position, and person, and this God-inspired awe or reverence was Nehemiah’s continual default.  This is evident in his prayer in Nehemiah 1:11:

“O Lord, let your ear be attentive to the prayer of your servant, and to the prayer of your servants who delight to fear your name . . .”

It is lived out in his beyond-the-call-of-duty generosity in Nehemiah 5:15:

“The former governors who were before me laid heavy burdens on the people . . . but I did not do so, because of the fear of God.”

Nehemiah was being formed by his fear.  This was a salutary thing in his case, because his fear was well-placed.  In fact, Nehemiah’s fear of God prevented him from fearing his enemies and their threats.  Thomas Chalmers might have described this as “the expulsive power” of a better fear.  Exodus 20:20 finds Moses trying to reason with the people of Israel that if they would only fear God [with reverence and awe], they would not need to be afraid of God [with servile terror].

Again, I find myself returning to the prayer of the Southwell Litany:

“From fear of men and dread of responsibility, strengthen us with courage to speak the truth in love and in self-control; and alike from the weakness of hasty violence and moral cowardice, save us and help us we humbly beseech thee, O Lord.”

Fear of Men

Fear of God clearly had “expelled”  fear of men from Nehemiah’s leadership style.  He called a spade a spade — and a cheat a cheat, (5:9-11), and an imposter an imposter, (6:12).  He refused serial invitations from neighboring dignitaries and called the local nobility on the carpet for treating people like possessions.  By comparison, my life is positively devoid of politics, but you won’t find me sticking my neck out in a church business meeting when controversy is on the agenda.

Dread of Responsibility

It was Nehemiah’s fear of God that enabled him as governor to embrace his duty  to love and care for the remnant in Jerusalem, (5:15).  Far from “dreading” this responsibility, he provided for their material needs through days of famine at his own expense, and, recognizing his responsibility to uphold reverence for God before the people, he refused to shut himself into the Holy Place to escape his enemies’ threats.  As governor, but NOT a priest, his entry into the Holy Place would have desecrated the house of God, causing Israel and the surrounding nations to question his reverence for God — as well as his courage.  Nehemiah feared sin more than he feared death.

“Strengthen my hands,” was Nehemiah’s request in the midst of danger and intrigue.  Sure beats, “Calgon, take me away!”  I am more likely to pray for deliverance from a bad situation than to pray for diligence and mastery of it.  Throughout my years of mothering, I’ve been drawn to the Southwell Litany because I see the potential dangers that come with the “dread of responsibility, ” such as:
over-using the t.v. as a babysitter;
side-stepping an essential confrontation with the hormonally crazed teen; or
having THAT conversation with the friend who has lapsed into husband bashing.

We, too, are always in the process of being formed by our fears.

Nehemiah prayed, “Remember me, my God, for good, according to all that I have done for this people” (5:19),  because he was serving an audience of One.  Likewise, may our primary concern be pleasing God, a salutary fear that will crowd out any tendency to play to the crowd.

This post is the sixteenth 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 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/.



Five Women. Five Stories.

We’ve heard the stories so many times that their plots no longer phase us.
Five husbands?  Sure.
Jewish women publicly washing the Messiah’s feet in costly oil?  Why not?
A show-down in the temple between Grace and Law?  Yeah, it’s fun when Jesus outsmarts the Pharisees.
A desperately ill woman healed in a crowd with just a touch?  Well, um . . . this is the Bible isn’t it?

The Day I Met Jesus opens the imaginary diaries of five New Testament women, allowing us to relive their stories in real time with the benefit of Mary Demuth’s imaginative back story added to set the scene and provide depth.  (If you have ever enjoyed reading Ellen Gunderson Traylor, you will find these stories to be delightful.)  The actual scripture text follows the story and is then skillfully unpacked by Frank Viola.  He alludes to Old Testament background passages, biblical themes found in the story, and helps his readers to place the event in the great arc of redemptive history.  Questions have been provided for each chapter to facilitate individual study or group discussion.

I found that my empathy for the five New Testament women was enhanced by reading the historical and cultural context behind their story.  In addition, Demuth’s sanctified imagination provided very probable and believable circumstances leading them up to the day they met Jesus:
1.  The woman caught in adultery was an abused wife who became a Christ-follower and a witness to the crucifixion, longing to shout, “He who is without sin, crucify this man!”
2.  The prostitute who crashed Simon the Pharisee’s party and anointed Jesus’ feet with oil is portrayed as a victim of rape and, therefore, a teenage runaway.  She learns of a Man who loves outcasts, and following Him, her hungry heart found hope and forgiveness in His gentle teaching on a hillside.  Finally free of her shame, she wanted nothing more than to give Jesus her greatest gift.
3.  The early church named the Samaritan woman Photine [Foteenie] which means “enlightened one.”  As a result of her divine appointment at the well, this desperate woman who, after six failed relationships,  had used up all her chances in life, finally encountered her true Husband — and a Samaritan community met their Messiah.
4.  Tradition has christened the woman with a flow of blood Veronica, and, looking over her shoulder as she writes a final letter to her granddaughter, the reader is invited to relive the years of her shame and anguish.  Ceremonially unclean and suffering from infertility in a culture where either affliction was devastating, Veronica’s desperation created in her an inspiring (and enviable) depth of faith and determination.
5.  Most well-known of the five, but perhaps least understood, is Mary of Bethany who reminds us that even those closest to Jesus are not exempt from disappointment and testing of faith.  Whenever she appears in scripture, Mary honors Christ in a way that demonstrates his true worth.

In The Day I Met Jesus, the reader’s eyes are opened to a way of reading the Bible that most of us miss.  Spare narratives, nameless characters, and minimal backstory, if taken at face value as mere words on a page, will become “just another story.”  With these five memoirs to prime the pump, I’m encouraged to dig deeper into the cultural context, the unspoken motivations, and the presuppositions that drive the characters’ words and actions.  Naturally, the point of these five revealing diaries is not merely to record history, but rather to encourage the reader to consider his or her own meeting with Jesus.  Is it a warm memory of an event that has little significance in the present?  Was it the first meeting in a series of daily encounters that continue to shape your life?  Is it yet to occur?  Jesus welcomes the powerless, the marginalized, the outcast; the educated, the influential, and the elite.  He will welcome you.

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


Thinking God’s Thoughts After Him

“Why would God want us to speak to Him?”

William Philip’s question stopped me in my tracks because most authors of books on prayer argue from the opposite perspective:  “Why should you want to speak to God?”  Forever curious about the nature of God and constantly frustrated with my inconsistent prayer life, I found biblically-based and deeply thoughtful reflections in Why We Pray, which focuses on explaining rather than exhorting, and bases the explanation for why we pray on satisfying theological reasoning expressed in four points:

1.  We pray because God is a speaking God.  He spoke the world into being.  He spoke to our spiritual forbearers audibly.  He spoke salvation through His Son (see Hebrews 1:2), and He speaks today by His Spirit to all who seek his words in the inspired Word.  Created in his image for relationship with Him, our highest privilege is communion with God.  Thus prayer becomes “the audible form of that right relationship with God.”

2.  We pray because we are sons of God.    The only begotten Son of God is ultimately the only “true human being” in the sense that He maintained constant communication with God.  As the God the Son, he had direct access to the Father.  And no wonder the gospel is called good news, because the truth is that all who are in Christ Jesus are the sons of God and have that same access to the Father!  An important point of clarification is that because “son-ship” in biblical times implied a certain status, the term “son” should not rankle the female ear.  If “son” offends, a better substitute would be “heir” rather than “child,” because “everything that [belongs to Jesus] by right of birth is now ours by right of adoption.”  The staggering application of this truth to our prayer life is that, as our Father, God “cannot not hear us” when we pray.  Hence, our identity as pray-ers stems from our standing rather than from our merit or performance.

3.  We pray because God is a sovereign God.  Having taken the initiative in calling out to us, and having restored broken lines of communication with humanity in the death of his Son, God Himself is the ultimate reason that prayer is even a logical activity.  John Newton poetically summarizes Philip’s argument:  “Thou art coming to a King/Large petitions with thee bring/For his grace and pow’r are such/None could ever ask too much.”  However, this attribute of sovereignty constantly rides the theological seesaw opposite human responsibility, particularly in relation to prayer.  Why We Pray makes an excellent case for a balanced seesaw:  “God is sovereign, and we are responsible.”  Philip encourages his readers to view prayer as “thinking God’s thoughts after Him,” not as robots, but from a place of privileged partnership, understanding God’s goal for the universe and receiving all the benefits of a working relationship with One who is aware of, concerned for, and able to meet our deepest, truest needs.

4.  We pray because we have the Spirit of God.  It is the indwelling Holy Spirit who aligns our desires with God’s sovereign purposes — and who convinces us that it is not in our best interest to try to align God with our selfish purposes.  The indwelling Holy Spirit’s enabling us to become “real pray-ers” bears out the truth of Jesus’ insistence that it was far better for his disciples that He leave them, for the ministry of the Spirit completes a staggeringly important circle:  the sovereign God who speaks abides in his true sons through the Holy Spirit’s ministry for us, in us, and to us.  As a result, the believer who abides in Him and prays in line with the revealed will of God in scripture will pray with confidence.

An excellent and very relevant and realistic point for “boots on the ground” Christianity is the matter of prayer when the will of God is not clear on a matter; e.g.  the prayer for healing of a gravely ill family member.  When God has not seen fit to reveal his will, “to attempt to drum up lots of faith in order to be sure that God will answer our prayer is self-deception.”  In fact, “often the more fervent the prayer the more pagan it is,” (see Matthew 6:7).  Refusing to lay the matter out before a sovereign God and scorning the words “if it is your will” is not a mark of faith, but of presumption.

Reading Why We Pray, answering each chapter’s Questions for Reflection or Discussion, and realizing anew the nature and motivation of true prayer is an eye-opening experience.  In the foreword, Alistair Begg has written, “In our Christian lives, nothing is more important and nothing more difficult to maintain than a meaningful prayer life.”  I would add to that:  there is no greater privilege than the challenge of becoming a praying person — because of Who God is and because of who we are in Christ.

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

Trading Guilt for Grace

What if you really believed what the Bible says about God — that He loves you like a perfect Father, like a perfect Husband, like the perfect Friend, like the perfect Leader?  What if you let the truth sink into your soul that God’s perfect love is not tied to your performance or to your success or to the way you look in your yoga pants?  In You’re Loved No Matter What, Holly Gerth invites you to consider how embracing this truth might change the way you relate to your children, clean your house, approach your job, conduct your ministry, and even how you look back at yourself from the mirror.

Having battled the pitfalls of perfection, Holly challenges women to a right understanding of God and His Word with the goal of correcting faulty responses to verses such as Matthew 5:48:  “Be perfect as your heavenly Father is perfect.”  The Greek word for perfect [teleios] is more about maturing growth or completion than it is about being perfect right now; and, furthermore, God makes it clear in his Word that the perfection our hearts long for will only be fulfilled completely in Him — and in the future.  Holley’s chapter on heaven (delightful!) explains that our bent and broken striving for perfection in our present life is evidence that God made us for something far better than what we experience on this planet.  The fact that we are being made holy (Hebrews 10:14) is only a foreshadowing of the perfect place, perfect relationships and perfect people found only in Heaven.

In the meantime, God has called his women to a grace-oriented freedom from perfectionism.  Holley shares transparently about her own lifelong and on-going battle to take the grace offered in Christ.  Reading descriptions of her lunch meetings with friends and heart-to-heart conversations, I felt as if I had been invited to pour a cup and pull up a chair.  In a sisterhood that, together, receives what is already ours in Christ, there will be blessed freedom to say no, to be unique, to carry less, to ignore the Pharisees, and to take risks.

Warm and relational, yet solid and Truth-based, You’re Loved No Matter What is an excellent resource for a group study with a Seven-Step Action Plan and a Go-Deeper Guide, but would be equally effective for individual use by women of any age.  The fears that we battle, the guilt that gnaws at our bones, the endless race to do enough and be enough can end today with the heart-healing truth that being a Christian is not about “leading a good life.”  It is not about perfection on this planet.  What Christ offers is a new identity:  perfection in Him; the freedom to be who you were created to be; and a healing relationship with a God who truly is perfect in every way and loves you perfectly — no matter what.

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

Just One Thing: Powerless

Muttering under my breath, I cleaned up the mess that is called party food.  Where to put it all?

Refrigerator?  Full!
Cupboards?  Full!

My grouching escalated into a claustrophobic “ti-rage” about my cramped life until, in the quietness of loading the dishwasher, I realized that I had been complaining about one thing:  abundance.

Turn it around, soul!

Instead of cursing the full fridge and the pans falling out of the cupboard, try this:

“Bless the Lord, O my soul, and forget not all his benefits,” (Psalm 103:1).

Comfortable, secure, my sheltered heart has no idea what it is to live the live of the powerless.  As Nehemiah chapter five begins, three groups of people appeal to Nehemiah with their sad situation:

Group One:  Families with no land who need grain to survive.  Perhaps their work on the wall had interfered with their livelihood.

Group Two:  Land owners who have had to mortgage their fields to provide for their families but cannot repay their debt because of famine conditions in the land.

Group Three:  Those who had borrowed heavily to pay Persian taxes (leaden tax tables demanding as much as 40-50%!) and have had to sell their children into slavery because of this indebtedness.  To make matters worse, the oppressors/lenders/mortgage holders/slave owners are their own countrymen, fellow Israelites.

All three groups are coming from a position of powerlessness.  There is a unique fear that only the powerless experience.  Most of us have no knowledge of it, but, like Nehemiah, we must find the courage to look at it squarely, for it is all around us.

I’ve been praying from the Southwell Litany these days.  You can Google it and see that it’s a helpful prayer for a mum’s heart (although I’m pretty sure that George Ridding had bigger things in mind when he wrote it back in the 19th century).  It asks:

” . . . from the weakness of moral cowardice, save us and help us, we humbly beseech Thee,  O Lord.”

If we slip the bands of “moral cowardice” for a moment and look too intensely and for too long at the plight of the powerless, we might find that we need to make some uncomfortable adjustments.  A series by R.C. Sproul has been one of my resources in studying Nehemiah.  He cites the startling statistic that only 4% of evangelicals actually tithe.  I know that I was startled when I heard it because, in my notes, just to make sure that  I got it, I wrote the converse:  96% do not tithe.  The most prevalent reason stated for not tithing was this:  “I can’t live at my current lifestyle and tithe.”

Like the people of God in Nehemiah’s day, we find the glory of God to be too costly.  With extravagant and prophetic gestures (5:12, 13), Nehemiah calls the remnant  back to the Law of God, or as Derek Kidner says in his commentary,  to “making gifts, not loans.”  Nehemiah, by his own example, calls Jerusalem to move beyond generosity and into radical sacrifice.   Verses 17 and 18 give us a peek into Nehemiah’s private journal where he records that 150 people sat at his table on a regular basis and were fed at his expense.  As governor of Jerusalem, he was entitled to a salary and an expense account, but he took neither.  Seeing that it would have been a burden for the people to care for him, he cared for them instead.

This is integrity.  Nehemiah looked at his own possessions and at the powerless and desperate situation of his brothers and sisters and concluded, “I have enough.  I don’t need more possessions.  I don’t need to be more comfortable than I already am.”  Surrounded by people who love me, by warmth and comfort and convenience and plenty, Lord, banish me from the center of my universe.  Open my eyes and my heart to the needs of the powerless.  “From the weakness of moral cowardice, save us and help us, O Lord.”

This post is the fifteenth 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 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/


A Saint to Celebrate

Soon the Leprechaun traps will appear in our home, constructed from oatmeal containers, Legos, Lincoln logs, and an old cracker box painted green.  They get a bit more sophisticated every year, but the bait is always the same:  the golden Legos and anything else the boys can find that resembles gold.  In the many years that we have been “trapping” Leprechauns, we have yet to capture anyone, and, to be honest, the only real proof that we have of the Leprechauns’ existence is the havoc they wreak upon our house every St. Patrick’s Day Eve (a little-known observance, to be sure).  They’ve been known to turn the milk green, to kidnap stuffed animals and dress them in green clothing, and even to write “Leprechauns Rule – Boys Drool” on our windows in green finger paint.  Our sons are highly motivated in this business of building Leprechaun traps, because the sneaky little guys in green always spring the traps and leave behind some of their treasure:  golden wrapped candy.

Obviously, there is no spiritual significance to this crazy holiday tradition — unless one values the teaching that God invented fun and delights in creativity — but, it certainly heightens my boys’ interest in reading stories about St. Patrick, both historical and fanciful.  Flame Over Tara has been read aloud several times in our home, coming to us as part of our history curriculum, but finding a home on our bookcase and in our year.  Author Madeleine Polland has masterfully woven two young fictional protagonists and their families into the context of the Roman Empire’s expansion across the Channel and Patrick’s arrival in Ireland in 432 A.D.  Macha, a young teen, but of marriageable age in that culture, and her eleven-year-old foster brother Benet meet Patrick on the day of his arrival and are drawn by his mystique, his talk of a foreign God, and their father’s revelation that Patrick’s arrival fulfills an ancient prophecy.

With all of Ireland’s spiritual life in the grip of the Druid priesthood, superstition and magic are all the Irish knew of spirituality.  Patrick’s arrival is met with distrust and outright hostility, especially among the Druidic advisors to King Leary.  Young Benet is swiftly chosen to apprentice under Patrick; therefore,  Macha is seized with restlessness and a desire to learn more about Patrick’s God.  An impetuous decision imperils her family, endangers Patrick,  and spreads political intrigue all the way to the royal palace.

Wise as a serpent, Patrick challenges the rituals of darkness during the Druid’s high holy day, trusting his God, his knowledge of nature, and the brain that God gave him.  Drawn into the crisis, Benet demonstrates faith in God and loyalty to his mentor under incredible pressure, and Macha matures into a deeper understanding of what it means to follow the true and living God.  Polland’s rich narrative provides the back story to many of the blarney tales behind the legend of St. Patrick, resulting in an account that is both historically enlightening and God-exalting.  Flame Over Tara is a great addition to a homeschool curriculum and a great family read-aloud for the month of March!

Names Matter

When we named our four boys, we were careful to discover and to ponder the meaning of the names we were considering before making a final choice.  Then, we looked at each newborn and asked ourselves if the name fit and if its meaning would be a blessing to him throughout his life.  Names matter.

In The Wonder of His Name, Nancy Leigh DeMoss has chosen thirty-two names from the list of over 350 names and titles that Scripture has related to Jesus Christ.  She has carefully explored their meaning, their scriptural and historical background, and, most importantly, their significance in revealing Jesus’ identity, his relationship to humanity, and his role in God’s redemptive plan.  Each devotional is accompanied by excerpts from hymns and inspirational quotations from a host of authors ranging from the church fathers through contemporary pastors and theologians.  Nancy Leigh completes each lesson with application questions to cement the biblical teaching.  For those interested in more in-depth study, each devotional has a corresponding message available online at http://www.ReviveOurHearts.com/wonder.

Content alone would place this thoroughly researched and skillfully written resource on my shelf as a helpful reference.  However, the calligraphy and sensitive water-color illustrations of Timothy Botts have elevated these thirty-two meditations to a place in the backpack with my Bible and study notes for times of thoughtful reflection.  The Wonder of His Name is a call to worship and a reminder that the only right response to the person and work of Jesus Christ is wonder.

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