Category Archives: Comforts and Calls

Bible Reading Thoughts

file-6I was asked to talk today for a bit about the practice of personal Bible reading. I want to first make clear that this is more like calling in an eyewitness local off the street than calling in an expert. For one, I don’t want to Ananias and Saphira myself by putting on that I am more pious than I am. I’ve thought about this a fair amount because of my weakness, not because I’m really good at it. Two, I’m sure many of you have learned a good deal more than I have and out of your years of faithfulness could testify to even greater benefits than I could.

Bible reading is a large topic, so I thought I’d sort of reflect out loud on a few questions I’ve asked myself over the years. And fair warning, I firmly agree with one of my favorite teachers that, “the rabbit trail IS the point.” So, this may be a bit wandering and exploratory, but hopefully edifying and freedom giving along the way.

Principles and Methods

As we approach any undertaking we should always pause to consider what the principles or end we’re after verses the methods or means we’re using to get us there.  When we get these mixed around we can become slaves to our methods and give ourselves license to stop short of our goal.

Let’s say for example that you want to have a healthy heart.  One principle component of a healthy heart is exercise.  You could choose from dozens of methods to achieve this principle: jogging, swimming, dancing… Say you chose jogging. It’s cheap and you can do it anywhere and it requires less coordination than dancing.  After a while you forgot why you jog, but you just knew you had to check it off for the day.  Next you start becoming an evangelist for jogging. It works. But then one day you start getting shin splints and then you have knee problems, pretty soon you find that you have to give up jogging.  Now you feel like failure, but you’ve long forgotten about why you started jogging in the first place, so you sit on the couch and mope.  You’ve become a slave to a method. Methods change, principles don’t.  In reality, you’re free to take up swimming now, or some other method that fits your end goal of having a healthy heart.

When it comes to studying the Bible I think it is important to keep principles and methods straight.  We want to know Christ and be saved by the power of his resurrection, we want to be obedient to all his revealed will, we want to know the character of the judge and Creator, and we want to worship Him. Our plan of study will vary with the seasons and days of life. There is great freedom in having mastery over our choice of methods. We can identify problems and solve them when we have the end in mind, but if we latch on to a method, we’ll most likely get stuck at some point and get discouraged.

What are a few principles I keep in mind as I approach personal study?

1.How does the Bible view itself? Often as food: sweet dripping of the honeycomb (Ps 19),  we “feed” on Christ whom all the Scriptures bear witness to (John 5:57, Luke 24), we should desire to grow on spiritual milk (1 Peter 2:2) and then onto solid food (Heb 5, 1 Cor 3), so I use that metaphor as well.

Fundamentally, just like we need food we need God’s word.  So eat.  Every day will not feel like a feast.  Some days we eat peanut butter and jelly and some days we eat turkey and stuffing and mashed potatoes.  Our Bible reading will probably look more like this pattern of sustenance and feasting.  Sometimes we’ll really dig in deep and study something very particular and other days we’ll graze and chew and be fed.  And this is all good.

When we eat food, we grow up (or at this age sometimes out).  But it doesn’t happen all at once.  I think sometimes we are like the little boy who thinks if he eats his peas at one dinner, he’ll be dunking a basketball the next morning.  Growing takes time, we can’t expect to eat a huge meal here and there to even keep us alive, let alone help us grow healthy, strong bones and muscles; it’s not the way we were made.  In the same way, we must approach our Bible study as daily bread, asking the Creator to feed us, his finite, time limited, tired creatures who can only take in one stomach full at a time.

A word to the perfectionist types like myself, the type that comes up with an elaborate plan that crumbles at the first sign of failure, is to hack resolutely at it; bit by bit, over and over, you’ll start to see the threads weave together, you’ll notice themes, you’ll have more “light-bulb” moments where one text will remind you of another.  Just because you skipped breakfast the last three days, doesn’t mean you should keep skipping breakfast.

2. Scripture interprets Scripture. We need to be taking in the full picture as often as we can. We want to read the books as books, the stories as stories, the arguments as arguments. Don’t get hung up squeezing every last drop of meaning out of every text or seizing up on a passage that doesn’t make a ton of sense to you right now.  You’ll come back around to it soon enough with more wisdom and knowledge. Kids have to try a food like 17 times before they develop a taste for it. I heard a good analogy once: The Bible will fit together like a puzzle- perfectly, simply, but not all at once.

We can learn from our kids here. Kids learn to talk by listening and copying. They are hearing vocabulary well outside their range and sometimes they even use it, to everyone’s amusement.  But that is how God made them to learn.  They’re immersed in the language and before long their trying it out and little by little they gain mastery and confidence.  Sometimes we need to be humble enough to start where we are to begin the slow process of growth rather than try to “catch up” to a standard we think we should be. I think subtly, we can approach Bible reading with that instant gratification expectation that is so familiar to us modern people. If we are not having a culinary experience every single day, that’s normal. It doesn’t mean we aren’t growing or that it will return void.

3. Hunger is the precursor to a growth spurt. I can’t remember who pointed this out to me, but it was really helpful to notice God’s plan for hunger in Dt 8:3:

And he humbled you and let you hunger and fed you with manna, which you did not know, nor did your fathers know, that he might make you know that man does not live by bread alone, but man lives by every word that comes from the mouth of the Lord. Dt. 8:3

For a long time I didn’t really think much about the manna God gave as much more than a solution to predicament they just happened to be in. But really, God let them hunger to prepare them for His food, which was of course even to prepare all of us for the Bread of Life. God causes us to hunger for his word in his kindness. I was thinking about how this is applicable even to this group. When we read a hard book, or have discussions that bring up questions we didn’t have before, or we’re wondering if what an author is saying is really true, this is a kind of hunger. Hunger makes a good chef. A study like this is a great place to be a Berean. Take your hunger from here to God’s word.

4. The role of educated clergy provides the check and balance to personal study. Thankfully, due to the reformation, the Bible is not under lock and key from the lay people. We have it in our own language at great cost to many saints before us. This great gift comes with responsibility. It is important that we are reading in conjunction with teachers and pastors, sitting under good expository preaching week after week. It is also helpful to have a good grasp on the systems of the Bible. R.C. Sproul’s explanation is helpful:

Reformed theology is systematic. The science of systematic theology is so called because it attempts to understand doctrine in a coherent and unified manner. It is not the goal of systematic theology to impose on the Bible a system derived from a particular philosophy. Rather its goal is to discern the interrelatedness of the teachings of Scripture itself. Historically the systematic theologian assumed that the Bible is the Word of God, and as such is not filled with internal conflict and confusion. Though many themes are treated by many different human authors over a vast period of time, the message that emerges was thought to be from God and therefore coherent and consistent.

Reformed systematics are a tool for studying the Bible. If reading our Bible like is a meal, then systematics are kind of like a farm. Systematics aren’t the food, but like a farm they are concerned with maximizing quality and quantity, organizing it, preparing for future meals, safeguarding it from outside dangers. The Holy Spirit is the one who illumines the word of God to our hearts, but there is nothing extra spiritual about foraging around in the woods by ourselves, not making use of the means he’s provided.

With these principles in mind, what does the method look like for me?

First of all, I think that thinking of the Bible as food informs how I read. Eating is essential to life, but not every meal is a steak dinner. I listen to the Bible while I do laundry or clean the house. We listen to it in the car. I try to read the Bible to my kids in the morning and my husband reads the Bible at family worship in the evening.

I really had to learn to leave off the quiet time ideal. The idea looms about that there is this idyllic study setting: we have a journal, colored pens, tea, and a sunrise. That really is a good thing, don’t get me wrong. But it’s simply not realistic to my season of life. I looked up where the term quiet time started- it started with college students. And that makes sense. It really is a time of life conducive to intensive study. I tell my teenage girls to take advantage of their time of life; it is a season for deep root growing while other responsibilities are smaller. But without a flexible methodology, I think we as women can feel a looming sense of failure if our quiet time is anything but quiet. I’m going to read a fairly lengthy quote by Doug Wilson. I come back to it so often because it is so freedom and perspective orienting, I think it’s worth it. His example is to moms particularly about children in church, but it applies to anyone who is busy with the work of God. You might have to do a little translating work to your own context:

Whenever God’s people take up the adventure that he sends them, there are always troubles that arise in the midst of the adventure that make you want to second guess your initial decision.  In the midst of the turmoil that you’ve gotten yourself into, it is easy to wonder if you read the fine print carefully enough. One example would be the path that many of you have chosen to follow, bringing many children into the world, caring for them, providing them with Christian education, bringing them to worship every week and doing so in a church service where all the littles spend the entire worship service with us, worshiping together with us. This is no fad. Fads are not this much work. But it might be easy to think that this must have been a fad when I chose to do it. I want to speak a particular word of exhortation and encouragement to you moms, for example, who are doing this.  It would be easy for you to focus on all the “management troubles” in your row, you know:  the little ones are squirming or making faces at the visitors behind you, or spilling communion wine into the Psalter, or having to be taken out 3 times in the service and brought back in again.  You don’t need to be reminded of the drill.  It might be happening right this minute.  You might be wishing you could listen to this word of encouragement to moms but you are distracted with other duties.  But be encouraged in this one thing, all these things are happening (and they really are happening) but they are happening in the presence of the Lord.  He delights in them.  He wants you here and he wants you here in this kind of shape. Bringing children to Jesus is something that he welcomes and he welcomes all that is entailed in it.  We sometimes think He wants us to be more like the officious disciples, frowning at the squirmers, when he actually wants us to be more like the squirmers ourselves.  Unless you become as a little child you cannot enter the kingdom of heaven…

I apply this idea to my bible reading. If I didn’t have all this work to do, all these people to care for, I could sit and read my Bible! He has given you the work to do and he does not look down on you with disappointment because you feed your soul by listening to an audio bible while you cook dinner for your family. All these “inconveniences, noises, and needs” are actually working to kill my checklist mentality, my self-sufficiency. I come to the word heavy laden, weak, and needy. He wants me to come hungry, in this kind of shape because he wants to sustain me with the right kind of food, himself.

I’m not discouraging time alone in Bible study and prayer. I am discouraging giving up on bible study and prayer because quiet time conditions are not your reality. And I am encouraging freedom. I do strive for some quiet time. Mine looks like once in a while driving to get a diet coke in the morning and staying in my driveway with locked doors while I read my Bible and pray. It’s my modern take on Susanna Wesley. It might look like some extended reading a few times a year on a vacation. But more often, I read my Bible while my kids practice violin in my ear. I read a chapter while I’m waiting in line at the grocery store. I read out loud to my kids. And I listen to it more and more. It all COUNTS.

Remember this is a fight of faith and it is hard work. The devil is our continual adversary. J.I. Packer (in his foreword for R.C. Sproul’s book, Knowing Scripture, which I highly recommend) says if he were the devil he would attempt to get people to stop reading their Bibles:

How? [he says] Well, I should try to distract all clergy from preaching and teaching the Bible and spread the feeling that to study this ancient book directly is a burdensome extra that modern Christians can forgo without loss. I should broadcast doubts about the truth and relevance and good sense and straightforwardness of the Bible, and if any still insisted on reading it I should lure them into assuming that the benefit of the practice lies in the noble and tranquil feelings evoked by it rather than in noting what Scripture actually says. At all costs I should want to keep them from using their minds in a disciplined way to get the measure of its message.

It’s no wonder that we should find opposition at this point. I’ll end with Piper:

The goal of Bible reading is not only that we would see God, but that we would also enjoy him. But more than that, we don’t just want to see and savor God’s glory privately within us — we want it to conform us to that glory, so that others can see and experience God’s glory through us. This, then, is the last goal of Bible reading: to be changed from one degree of glory to another, by beholding the glory of the Lord.

 

 

 

A Dialogue Between A Believer and His Soul by Joseph Hart

I have in mind to share here, now and then, poems and passages of literature which I find particularly beautiful and useful. I came across the following lyrics by Joseph Hart in an anthology of Christian poetry, called The Sacrifice of Praise. I love the way the very structure of the poem echos the internal conflict of a soul fighting to preach rather than listen to itself.  The stanzas start off long with more sophisticated argument, but as the soul exhausts its questions and gives way to the believer, the stanzas shorten as one gasping for breath. The soul’s cries become groanings and the believer’s truth most pointed and persevering.

A Dialogue Between A Believer and His Soul
Jospeph Hart (1712-1768)

Believer:
Come, my soul, and let us try,
For a little season,
Every burden to lay by;
Come, and let us reason.
What is this that casts thee down?
Who are those that grieve thee?
Speak, and let the worst be known;
Speaking may relieve thee.

Soul:
O, I sink beneath the load
Of my nature’s evil!
Full of enmity to God;
Captived by the devil;
Restless as the troubled seas;
Feeble, faint, and fearful;
Plagued with every sore disease;
How can I be cheerful?

Believer:
Think on what thy Saviour bore
In the gloomy garden.
Sweating blood at every pore,
To procure thy pardon!
See him stretched upon the wood,
Bleeding, grieving, crying,
Suffering all the wrath of God,
Groaning, gasping, dying!

Soul:
This by faith I sometimes view,
And those views relieve me;
But my sins return anew;
These are they that grieve me.
O, I’m leprous, stinking, foul,
Quite throughout infected;
Have not I, if any soul,
Cause to be dejected?

Believer:
Think how loud thy dying Lord
Cried out, ‘It is finished!’
Treasure up that sacred word,
Whole and undiminished;
Doubt not he will carry on,
To its full perfection,
That good work he has begun;
Why, then, this dejection?

Soul:
Faith when void of works is dead;
This the Scriptures witness;
And what works have I to plead,
Who am all unfitness?
All my powers are depraved,
Blind, perverse, and filthy;
If from death I’m fully saved,
Why am I not healthy?

Believer:
Pore not on thyself too long,
Lest it sink thee lower;
Look to Jesus, kind as strong
Mercy joined with power;
Every work that thou must do,
Will thy gracious Saviour
For thee work, and in thee too,
Of his special favour.

Soul:
Jesus’ precious blood, once spilt,
I depend on solely,
To release and clear my guilt;
But I would be holy.

Believer:
He that bought thee on the cross
Can control thy nature,
Fully purge away thy dross;
Make thee a new creature.

Soul:
That he can I nothing doubt,
Be it but his pleasure.

Believer:
Though it be not done throughout,
May it not in measure?

Soul:
When that measure, far from great,
Still shall seem decreasing?

Believer:
Faint not then, but pray and wait,
Never, never ceasing.

Soul:
What when prayer meets no regard?

Believer:
Still repeat it often.

Soul:
But I feel myself so hard.

Believer:
Jesus will thee soften.

Soul:
But my enemies make head.

Believer:
Let them closer drive thee.

Soul:
But I’m cold, I’m dark, I’m dead.

Believer:
Jesus will revive thee.

Time to Laugh

We sort of crash into Wednesday afternoons. Today it’s raining and everyone is tired. Naps didn’t quite seem the right kind of rest, so we went the laugh hysterically at ourselves by matching personalities to movie characters route. I highly recommend it.

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Child-bearing: A Cursed Blessing

baby-1296409_1280Baby bumps, “the glow,” a new wardrobe, showers of gifts, bundles of joy– pregnancy can really sound appealing. War sounds appealing to young boys too. But veterans will tell you, after all the strategy is drawn and the military precision practiced, when the battle starts to rage it is bloody, chaotic, and terrifying. I think pregnancy is a little like that. (Actually, without the blessing of modern medicine, it is a lot like that.)

EdgarSometimes people like to wax poetic about the miracle growing inside you. But I usually get a strange creeping sensation up the back of my legs. Remember Edgar from Men in Black? That’s the image that comes to my mind. I’ve been body snatched. I can’t walk straight, my face swells up, and foreign body parts, not controlled by my brain stem, start sticking out at random intervals. Hormones dip and sway, and so does my equilibrium and my mood. I can’t think of words. I feel more like my body has been invaded by aliens than like a bearer of miracles, and I’d just rather not talk about my insides.

I feel undignified, clumsy, stupid, and worst of all, I feel ashamed that I would have any negative feelings about a blessing as grand as bearing children, especially when it is not afforded to everyone. So I count my blessings and cry out gratitude to God. And it is good. But then I still have the feeling that each flight of stairs takes a year off my life, and my blood pressure drops so that I have to lay on the kitchen floor, hoping my 3-year-old is in the mood to obey and put the shredded cheese back in the fridge.

While I’m lying there on the floor, my prayer goes something like, “I know I should be thankful right now. I don’t want to complain. I know my body is not my own. I know this is a privilege. I want to raise Godly offspring. I want to do this right. I know you are in control of vasodilatation and spinal nerves. Why are you preventing me from doing this well?!”

And there it is –the source of the stench. Once, we had a dead mouse that was behind the oven. Cleaning the rugs helped a little and so did bleaching the trash cans, but we had to get to the source to get rid of the smell. I can count my blessings, try not to complain, and that is right and good. But at the root, I am believing wrong things about myself and about God. I would not “do this well” if only God would let me. God is doing for me all things well, including training me by trials of various kinds that lead me to repentance and to eternal life.

Wherever we find suffering, be it on a large scale, or in this case, of the most ordinary, mundane variety we should draw the line back to sin. I don’t mean a one-to-one kind of correlation necessarily, but we need in recognize that we are a cursed race from the time of Adam. We won’t apply the right remedy until we understand the cause. We are a cursed people. And for women, all things childbearing is at the center, “To the woman he said, ‘I will surely multiply your pain in childbearing; in pain you shall bring forth children.” (Gen 3:16)

Already, I’m encouraged, but only because I know where this story ends. The curse is not the last word. 1 Timothy 2:15, “Yet she will be saved through childbearing-if they continue in faith and love and holiness, with self-control.”  John Piper suggests an understanding of this verse by Henry Alford:

The curse on the woman for her [“transgression”] was, “in pains you will bear children”. Her [“childbearing”] is that in which the curse finds its operation. What then is here promised her? Not only exemption from that curse in its worst and heaviest effects: not merely that she shall safely bear children: but the Apostle uses the word [“will be saved”] purposely for its higher meaning [eternal salvation], and the construction of the sentence is precisely as [in] 1 Cor 3:15 — [“he will be saved so as through fire”]. Just as that man should be saved through, as passing through, fire which is his trial, his hindrance in his way, in spite of which he escapes — so she shall be saved, through, as passing through, her child-bearing, which is her trial, her curse, her (not means of salvation, but) hindrance in the way of it. (Alford, H. [2010].Alford’s Greek Testament: an exegetical and critical commentary [Vol. 3, 320]. Bellingham, WA: Logos Bible Software.)

The message to the cursed woman is the same message for all weary sinners- wounded, sick, sore, pregnant, anxious, or toiling. Piper ends with this encouragement: .

God’s word to all those burdens and frustrations and miseries is No! This is not my last word to you! My word is salvation! My word, in and through every fiery trial, is to save you, rescue you, preserve you, and give you a future and a hope. All of that through faith in Jesus Christ.

Seeking the Kingdom Before the Cookies

Guest Blogger: Stefan Hull is wife to Josh and mother of 5. She is a deep lover of God and neighbor and a fierce hater of her sin. 

oreos-925659_1280For a good portion of my life, I have experienced that particular woe of carrying extra weight. Having just delivered my fifth baby, I’m feeling the “extra” even more poignantly, along with a host of other maladies that post-partum seems to magnify exponentially.

I am stressed, tired, overwhelmed, feeling insufficient, bored with the mundane and quite often full of shame at how I look. My knee-jerk reaction is to hastily replace those feelings with literally anything else. It could be Facebook, a mindless game or an untimely nap, but I run to nothing as frequently as I run to food. Turns out I can’t rid the house of food, though I’ve considered. It will always be close at hand. The struggle often feels hopeless.

“Try harder,” I tell myself. “Be disciplined. Be better.” But I never can, I never do and I never will. Even the times I think I have overcome, I am simply replacing one master for another. I quickly, though not for any length of time, become the slave of fitness, self-love or vanity.

I used to think I had an eating problem, solved by eating better foods in better quantities in better ways. It has become obvious that the battle to “eat right” is just a distraction from the real war waging in my heart.

Jesus was clear when He said “come to me all who are weary and heavy laden and I will give you rest”. Notice He didn’t mention anything about a quick detour to the cupboard to grab a few Oreos first. Eating has a remarkable ability to numb unpleasant feelings for a time, becoming a type of counterfeit savior, an idol. Jesus is asking for my affections, all of my affections, and particularly the broken ones so common to tired moms. I am instead offering my heart to mere morsels.

So there it is, the real battle. I am an idolater searching for rest in measly idols. Though it’s very bad, this is very good news. There is hope for idolaters. To the idolater, Jesus says “come.”

Rather than mindlessly raising my hand to my mouth, looking to rich foods and lonely feasts to save my soul from all the bad feels, I want to lift up my heart to Christ and do what He is so kindly commanding; come to Him. Come with the tired emotions, the overwhelming moments, the little disappointments, the big failures. Come, taste and see if He would give me what I truly seek.

Come to Him with those hard feelings, and stop trying to eat them. Lord, I feel overwhelmed with the constant chaos. I need you, though my body and mind want to be numbed with food, I know it promises what only you can give. Please help.

Come to Him in His word, not in the snack drawer. “I lift my eyes up, up to the Heavens. Where does my help come from?’ My help does not come from the maker of peanut butter cups.

Embrace God as my portion, not the cookie dough. “’The Lord is my portion’, says my soul, ‘therefore I will hope in Him.’”

Repent. Lord, I’m an idolater, foolishly seeking what cannot give me satisfaction. You alone can satisfy, help my unbelief.

When I wage war here in my heart, fighting to keep Christ central, two wonderful things happen. The first, a byproduct and a happy consequence of not being a slave to food is I actually slim down. But absent are all the worried strivings and intense anger when it doesn’t come off fast enough.

The more important result; my soul is at ease. And isn’t this exactly what I have been pursuing, albeit in all the wrong places? A rested soul. Yes, I’m still fighting, but I’m fighting for the one thing that can actually give me peace.

“But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness, and all these things will be added to you.”

Not Enough

crocodileI have a nasty habit, from time to time, of practicing a little routine laziness. It’s not really a conscious plan, but it is a purposeful one. I reserve a little effort, so that when I look around at all the unfinished business of our life and home, I can say to myself, “Well, if you would just work harder, all this would be taken care of.” It’s a cheap attempt to manufacture hope. It doesn’t work.

Eventually, the guilt bubble swells to bursting and for many days I work with frenetic energy trying to get it all done. But invariably, even after a stretch of “doing my best,” laundry piles decorate my bedroom, a room needs painted, a friend is waiting for a return text, a kid is behind in math, a Bible study chapter remains unread, at least one child’s fingernails are disgusting, and someone is always wrong on the internet.

As you can guess, the result of this wild seesaw ride is not a serene heart with a finished to do list. It is either a mom turned drill-sergeant or a wife in a puddle of tears. On one puddle occasion, I spilled over onto Chris, “I am really trying- hard! It’s just not enough!” I think I even added something like, “I’m running up a sand slide over a pit of hungry alligators. And it doesn’t matter how bad I want to live, I’m losing ground!”

His reply that night was a paradigm shifter (he ignored the alligators),”Do you think the widow’s last coin was really going to buy anything? God doesn’t ask you to fill every need, he asks you to give all you have.”

Of course! The widow didn’t give all she had left because she thought it was going to relieve the synagogue of all its financial burdens, she gave because of who she valued and trusted. She valued the Lord over her own life, and she trusted that however he would use her last coin was better than buying her last meal.

Now, I have never literally had to give all I had. But I can still learn from someone who has. In those moments, when it feels like I’ve given everything I had to live on, then I have one last choice to make. Either, I can despair and die in the knowledge that everything I have and am is just a drop in the bucket, or, by faith, I can hold still while the Holy Spirit kills my self-sufficiency and reminds me that I already have Christ.

In his hand, our last coin is beyond comparing to the wealth of Solomon. In asking it of us, he is making room in our hearts to understand what it means to have Him. He has no need of our money or our great efforts, but is graciously pleased to use them, and what’s more, show us that he is all that we need.

The Ghost of Feminism Present

 

You know the growing feeling that someone is following you?  I try to shake it off as too much caffeine, maybe hormones, or too much novel reading. But as much as I wish it was a lump of undigested cheese, I fear the ghosts of feminism are trying to take shape among some who would call themselves complementarians.

It’s in a disgruntled blog here and an ear tickling question there, but it seems to be growing. Perhaps it is mostly manifesting in a corner of the internet somewhere, but in some form or another I think it will always creep into the corners of the female heart. The desire for control and the tendency to fret and clamor is nothing new under the sun or my roof for that matter. Continue reading