Remembering Grammy Morin on Her Birthday

I spent some time today making curtains for my grandson’s bedroom.  I have to go back and re-read that sentence, because he has not been born yet (due October 14), and my mind and my heart are not yet one on this matter of grandparent-hood.  I doubt if my grandson will notice that the hem is not exactly perfect or that the header is not perfectly exact. There are, apparently, rules for such things, but I do not know them.

My mother-in-law knew all the rules for sewing, and when I sew, I always think about her.  (It keeps me from thinking bad words.)  She loved to sew and did so in a way that I can only describe as reverent.  Occasionally, it became necessary for her to consecrate the entire living room with a sewing project.  I still wear a bathrobe she made for me nearly twenty-five years ago.  She presented it as an offering of love both to me and to the Lord, and I received it as such.

So many things have happened since Ma went to heaven.  Two of my sons have no memory of her, but they know about her nonetheless, because her memory is part of our family lore.  Her love for me, her daughter-in-law, was one of the greatest blessings I received with the gift that is my husband.  “She’s mine!”  Ma declared sometime after our engagement, and she spoke the truth.

Strong-minded and passionately interested in every detail of our lives, she shared her opinions freely.  For whatever reason, this never seemed oppressive, and I never felt condemnation if we chose to disregard her advice.  Most of the time, we were thrilled to have someone who delighted to be in our orbit, for whom no detail was too inconsequential to share.

What did you have to eat?  How many jars of beans did you can?  How many is that in all?

She would want to know that my grandson’s curtains are yellow with tiny John Deere tractors in parade formation.  She would undoubtedly have noticed the irregularities of header and hem, but she would have held her peace.

By some miracle of bequest, I have her sewing machine.  It knows more about sewing than I do, and if I left it switched on, I’m sure it would manage just fine without me, but I know this:  Ma would be glad that I am using it today to sew curtains for her great-grandson.  She would also like knowing that I am about to join the “Grammy Morin” club, because that is what my grandson will call me.  This, like the sewing machine, is a miracle of bequest, a title too weighty for me to carry because it still has a life of its own.  Still, somehow, I think the burden will be light because I saw what it takes to be a “Grammy Morin” by watching the original, and thus we carry burdens of being which are beyond us.  I am a following sheep, an inhabitant of the Kingdom of God, and a bearer of fruit because I know Shepherd and Door and Vine.  I do none of these things with perfection — irregularities of header and hem abound on every level — but they are an offering, and, like my grandson’s curtains and my twenty-five year old bathrobe, they are an offering of love.

Happy birthday, Ma.  We miss you.

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On Mission with Jesus, Seeing through His Eyes

Unshockable Love by John Burke:  A Book Review

John Burke is a pastor with the heart of an evangelist.  He has endeavored to pattern his ministry after Jesus’ three-year stint on this planet.  Jesus saw the masterpiece, the exquisite work of art, within everyone He encountered.  Their sin was foreign matter — mud — obscuring the value of their true identity, clearly visible to God the Son.  With this as the bedrock under Burke’s ministry at Gateway Church, he presents the results in this, his third book, seasoned liberally with real-life stories.

Relevant works of art and photographs at the beginning of each chapter in Part 1 anchor the illustrations they support.  Listening, asking before telling, remembering that we are in the age of mercy:  none of this is new, but when was the last time I asked anyone a truly probing question?

What do you hope for in life?

What are your heart’s greatest desires?

What is your spiritual background?

Because believers do not know the answers to these questions, we do not know the hearts of the people God brings into our lives, and much of our missional activity is more pharisaical than Christ-like.

An appendix defining terms used in sharing the Gospel and helpful tables allowing Scripture to speak out on leadership and the predestination/free will controversy support Part 2, which is, essentially,  a manual  for building disciples.  Compassion for the unbeliever’s need of Christ seeps through the cracks of every page without diluting the practical, boots-on-the-ground battle plan.  Burke calls the ministry team a Network and diagrams The Wave of Impact that a Network can have through meaningful relationships.

What makes Unshockable Love more than a commercial message for Gateway Church or just another manual on evangelism is the same quality that makes it impossible to read this book without examining your own heart.  The truth of Scripture is presented as if Burke is looking at it for the first time, and writing off the top of his discoveries.  On Galatians 5:1:

People change when they willingly follow God’s Spirit in a moment-by-moment way.  God doesn’t run over your free will; his Spirit works with your willingness.  If this is how people change . . . then we need to be people who help others to willingly trust and follow the Spirit of God.  That’s our only job, not fixing or changing people, but encouraging them to see why God is good and that they can trust his Spirit to produce great things in them.

Some books on evangelism and outreach seem to have been written as documentaries, preserving under glass a method that worked somewhere at some time.  Unshockable Love seems to have been written because there was a truth, bubbling in the core of a pastor’s heart, that had transformed his ministry and his life.  If the church of Jesus Christ will tap into Christ’s heart of love and demonstrate the attitude of Jesus and the actions of Jesus, we will impact the world.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. 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.

Mortification, Heart Frames, and Dishwater

There are myriad benefits to reading The Mortification of Sin by John Owen, but chief among them (for me) has been that, as I dive into chapter four, it is affecting the content of my daily ponderings.  My consistent practice has always been to attack a challenging book blitzkrieg style, check it off my bucket list, and then move on to the next one.  By contrast, a chapter a week seems to be a much more profitable approach, giving the words time to leak into the cracks between my brain cells.

Just yesterday, rattling the canning jars around in soapy water, the theme song of chapter four was singing itself over the sounds of my busy background:  “The life, vigor and comfort of our spiritual life depends on our mortification of sin.” 

Standing in that spot, when’s the last time I had a thought that was deeper than my dish water?

I pondered, “Just how is this true and visible in my life?  Have I recently experienced the Spirit’s enabling to ride the bucking bronco of temptation to its mastery?  Or is my ‘mortification of sin’ more like the spin cycle of transgression and repentance made famous in the book of Judges?

“Furthermore, if  I am not  experiencing this, am I living a sham Christianity?

“Does my life, vigor and comfort depend mostly on healthy check book balances, good behavior among the offspring, and a happy number on the bathroom scales?”

Fortunately, Owen makes it clear that the path toward mortification of sin does not lie in the dredging up of my dirty dishwater.  Life and vigor and comfort are not to be found in a morbid rehearsal of my sinful deeds like the knee-climbing monks on 14th century stone steps.  Instead, he encourages me to look for “plants of grace” in my life.  Are they flourishing and vigorous?   Only if they are exposed to the life-giving light of God’s grace.

This, John Owen contrasts with the weakening and darkening diminishment of sin which “unframes the heart.”  Merriam-Webster and the dictionary on my Kindle shrugged their shoulders over “unframes,” and Google offered me prints and chalkboards, but not hearts.  Frames enclose and provide boundaries.  Eugene Peterson speaks of something like a frame in Reversed Thunder: a circumference.  “When there is no center, there is no circumference.”  He speaks in regard to worship, and there I find the key to this “life, vigor and comfort.”  When the worship, the glorification of God is my center, He will give me the circumference, the frame, for my wandering heart.

As the jars went into the drainer, sparkling and waiting for tomorrow’s apple butter,  and the soap suds swirled down the drain, I knew this:  viewing  righteousness, and the Christian life from a position of vigor and comfort doesn’t  change only the way I think about sin.  This could change everything.

 

. . . Honor to Whom Honor

Steel Will by Shilo Harris with Robin Overby Cox:  A Book Review

In this gritty memoir, Shilo Harris has gone beyond a mere re-telling of the events surrounding the catastrophic injuries sustained during his second deployment in Iraq. In it, he makes a case for U.S. citizens, and especially Christians, to find meaningful involvement in caring for and encouraging our wounded warriors and their families.

From childhood, Shilo knew that he was meant to be a soldier — the third generation in his family. He shares poignant memories of growing up in Texas, including the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) on his early years, as his alcoholic father self-medicated  to escape memories of Vietnam.  Poor decisions and his own entanglement with alcohol plagued Shilo’s meandering path through adolescence and early adulthood, during which he was (in his own words), “all hat and no cattle.”  However, meeting and marrying Katheryn and enlisting in the army after 9-11 began to give purpose and direction to his restless heart.

Vivid descriptions of his base encampment in Iraq, the bleak desert, the heat, and the loneliness set the stage for the fateful day of his injury in February 2007.  When his Humvee hit an IED, the force of the blast tore his Kevlar helmet from his head, taking his ears with it.  He was engulfed in flames, and the bulk of two densely written pages is required to chronicle the extent of his injuries to face and body.  What follows in Steel Will is the path of healing, recovery, and restoration and its effects on Shiloh’s heart and his family.

Fortunately, the author provides a glossary of the myriad military acronyms that must be understood in order to follow his career.  His experience in February of 2007 ushers in an entirely new kettle of alphabet soup  (TBT, PTSD, STSD), describing the traumatic effects of catastrophic bodily injury on the soul of the victim, his family, and his caregivers.  Lists of recommended reading, resources, and ministries make Steel Will a handbook for fellow travelers on the path of healing.

Speaking from his own journey of three-steps-forward-two-steps-back, Shiloh Harris spares the reader not an iota of the excruciating horrors of his experience.  Parents who pass this book along to their high school age children should be aware that his narrative occasionally slips into the use of coarse language and four-letter words (PG level).  What I found to be particularly chilling is the fact that his descriptions of pain and blackouts and the anguish of PTSD leave the reader cringing, all the while knowing that words can only scratch the surface of the horror he actually experienced.

In light of all this, how are we who follow the teachings of Jesus to view Romans 13:7 (Render, therefore, to all their due . . . honor to whom honor [is due].)?  Are we off the hook with the purple heart and a pension?  The questions raised in Steel Will go beyond the ability of a 12-Step program or even of a counseling office.  Harris raises issues that smack of theology and hard truth:  Where was God when this happened to you?  Can God heal the invisible wounds that go beyond words?  What is the role of gratitude in the healing process?  Questions such as these shine the spotlight on the One who came to heal the broken-hearted and to proclaim liberty to the captives, to console those who mourn, to give beauty for the ashes of a lost career, a lost vitality, a lost identity.  Isaiah 61 speaks of the rebuilding of ruins and the repair of desolation.  This is God’s business, and, therefore, it is to be the business of His people, His church.  When our eyes have been opened to the need, we are responsible.  May God use this book to give us wisdom, sensitivity, and a heightened awareness of the needs of the veterans in our churches and communities.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Baker Books through the Baker Books Bloggers http://www.bakerbooks.com/bakerbooksbloggers program. 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.

Family Tension and Reconciliation — Amish Style

The River by Beverly Lewis:  A Book Review

Beverly Lewis transports her readers to the world of her Amish characters where everyone wakes up in the cozy bedroom of a sunny farmhouse with birdsong and the smell of bacon in the air.  The dinner tables are set with fresh-baked bread and a hearty dinner that surely includes gravy and mashed potatoes, polished off by a slice of apple pie piled high with whipped cream.  Still, this is no Pollyanna-ish world of perfection, and it is kept from being so by the author’s skillful portrayal of family tensions, personal regret, and the kind of conflict that only religious differences can enflame.

Eight years before the story begins, Tilly had left her Amish roots behind.  We find her married to an Englischer, the mother of twin daughters, and happily inhabiting a world in New England that is much farther removed from her Lancaster County home than geography would imply.  When a call from her older brother alerts her to the failing health of her father and an upcoming anniversary party for her parents, she and her sister Ruth (who left the Plain life shortly after Tilly)  make the agonizing decision to return to the family homestead for a visit.  Tilly’s shiny red car is not the only thing that sets her apart from the Plain life.  However, she realizes upon returning that the stiff and sometimes frigid relationship with her father has not thawed with the passage of time.

Running through her Eden Valley homeland, the Conestoga River is an ominous and poignant backdrop to Tilly’s memories of home and to her homecoming.  Still grieving over the drowning death of her baby sister, the whole family carries this pain and the disappointment of Tilly and Ruth’s departure like a dark weight.   Aging parents, locked doors, secrets, the reappearance of an old beau, and the tenderness of renewed relationships with family and friends make for an emotional reading experience and create a heart-felt bond between reader and characters.

A particular strength of this tale is the positive and refreshing way in which Beverly Lewis describes Tilly’s and Ruth’s departure from the Amish faith and way of life.  Still in a vibrant relationship with God, they portray the truth that God is at work in people, and is not tied to any denomination or organizational structure, no matter how cherished.  Recognizing God’s right to lead our loved ones in ways that we may not understand, but that are ultimately for their good and His glory, is a path away from heart ache and toward respect and family harmony.

Disclosure: I received this book free from Bethany House. 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.

Mortification of Sin: A Gift of the Spirit

The delightful community at The Loft has posed a question:  What would you tell your past self, and I’m sharing my musings here based on The Mortification of Sin by John Owen, a Puritan theologian who wrote this entire book based on one verse, Romans 8:13, and putting forth one huge directive:  Be killing sin, or it will be killing you!

13 For if you live according to the flesh you will die; but if by the Spirit you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Chapter Three of John Owen’s Mortification of Sin is rich with pithy quotes in which he disdains the efforts of all who would attempt to kill sin in their meager human strength:

In vain do men seek other remedies; they shall not be healed by them.

. . . prayer, fasting, watching, meditation, and the like.  These have their use in the business in hand; but whereas they are all to be looked on as streams, they look on them as the fountain.

. . . they are always mortifying, but never come to any sound mortification.

They watch over themselves, and pray for a season, until this heat waxes cold, and the sense of sin is worn off:  and so mortification goes also, and sin returns to its former dominion.

Our fallen and broken selves are most pitiful in our distractedness.  By the time we have cobbled together a coherent thought about “putting to death the deeds of the body,” our post-Edenic hearts have moved on to some more entertaining or seemingly urgent pursuit. Owen’s thesis is this:  the stony heart is removed only by the work of the Spirit, His fruit crowding out the fleshly variety that thrives like weeds in an untended tomato patch.  Sadly, our tending is often without prayer and rooted in will-power (and pride).

She Who Struggles with a Sharp Tongue (and whose fingers are poised over the keyboard at this very moment) may go an entire day without an uncharitable outburst toward man or beast, but let her get over-tired or over-taxed, and the vitriol flows instead of the honey she intended.  Indeed “always mortifying . . .”

But then — a plan.  Yes, we will tape Bible verses to the refrigerator, the bathroom mirror:  “Let no corrupt communication proceed out of your mouth, but that which is good to the use of edifying.”  Oh, and “from the same mouth come blessing and cursing. . . these things ought not to be so.”  This will keep the sin-killing wrecking ball swinging for another day or two.  Maybe.  But like other “remedies, [she] shall not be healed by [it].

Finally, the “heat waxes cold, and the sense of sin [having] worn off,” she makes a virtue out of her unrighteous habit, extolling the benefits of “speaking one’s mind” at all times.  “I’m blunt, that’s for sure.  No one ever has to wonder where he stands with me.”

And so the dust rises.

Sometimes they think, indeed, that they have foiled sin when they have only raised a dust that they see it not.

May God help us.

When Are Children Ready for John Owen?

It ‘s an occupational hazard, I suppose — twenty years of child-rearing and almost twice that of standing in front of random groupings of kids and teens in hopes of teaching them something from the Bible.  It’s no wonder, then, that when I want to make sure I understand something, I imagine communicating it to children.  Being impatient, I had not, until recently, tackled any of the Puritans, but when Tim Challies challenged his readers to join him in plowing through the Mortification of Sin, he gave me the push I needed; especially since it was already on my Kindle.  Having finished chapter two, I spent moments in the mini-van today pondering the rich theological truth which John Owen extracts from Romans 8:13:

For if you live according to the flesh you will die, but if by Spirit, you put to death the deeds of the body, you will live.

Certainly, young believers need to hear the concept, “Be killing sin or it will be killing you.”  Temptation will not go away in this life.  They also need to know that their own efforts to “be good” (as adults are continually exhorting them to do) are not at all of the Gospel.  But is it possible to present a lesson about sin using concepts of death and destruction (“Kill sin!” cries John Piper.) in a way that children can receive and not be frightened or overwhelmed?

John Owen’s premise could be stated:  Feed what you wish to live and to flourish.  Starve what you wish to kill.  This is a violent truth for young ears, unless, that is, we use plant life to illustrate it.  Picture the classic science experiment:

Four plants.  Plant #1 goes into a sunny window with water everyday.  Plant #2 goes into a closet with daily water.  Plant #3 goes on the window sill with no water.  Plant #4 is the unfortunate model of mortification — no light, no water.  If we expect our learners (and our own dear offspring) to kill sin, our teaching and modeling has to include teaching on discouraging its growth in the form of company kept (I Corinthians 15:33), media choices, and thought life (Philippians 4:8).  They need to hear the truth that sin will never be satisfied with just their big toe in the water.  Jaws-like, sin will devour every offering, and one relaxation of the standard will likely lead to another.

However, there’s something deeper here that I am cautious about presenting to a group of children for fear of appearing to minimize the power of the Gospel.  Yes, the sinner is saved by grace.  Yes, the righteousness of Jesus was enough to carry the repentant thief from the last seconds of his wasted life into paradise.  But . . . yes, the believer is expected to make a muscular effort to live according to the commandments of obedience and love which Jesus carried forward from the Law and which the New Testament reinforces.  We do not nullify the gospel by teaching our children that “the vigor and power and comfort of our spiritual life depends on the mortification of the deeds of the flesh.”  Especially if we are careful to remind them that killing sin is not the way to heaven, but instead, it is the way we demonstrate that Jesus has made us fit for His heavenly home.

This teaching is as imperative for the next generation of little Pharisees as it has been for us, their parents.  Just this morning, Eugene Peterson reminded me that, “the worst sins are not even possible to persons who do not live a life of faith.” (Reversed Thunder).   Being kind to the kid nobody likes (I John 3:11), growing in grace (II Peter 3:18), making godly choices (Galatians 5:17), behaving consistently with our “divine nature” (I Peter 1:4,5):  these are all the work of the Spirit in the believer’s life, but kids need to demonstrate that they are plugged into the source of power.  If I am a ten-year-old with a quick temper, this may involve saying no to myself one hundred times a day.  It may involve asking myself “meddling” questions before going to bed at night:   Did I live like a free person today?  Did I let sin win?  Did my choices and words feed righteousness in my life —  or did I feed sin today?  Are my friends drawn to Jesus because they see that He is what makes the difference for me?  Or do I take the credit for all my good works?

Because of John Owen’s Mortification of Sin, I am challenged to examine the way I present the gospel as well as the way I teach believers(children and adults!) how to live a godly life.  Has this been your experience?   What thoughts do you have about teaching the truth of gospel-centered mortification of sin to young learners?