Wednesday, December 13, 2017

God makes a home for the lonely


As I write this, it is a cold and rainy December day not unlike a day nearly 10 years ago. I was going through one of the hardest seasons of my life. My husband had left our marriage, and my daughter and I felt very lost in the world. We had been out of church fellowship for a number of years. My family lived several states away, so even though we had a few Christian friends, we were essentially alone.  Scared and alone.

At the advice of a friend, I began reading some guy named Charles Spurgeon who I had heard of back in college. I was reading as much of the Bible as I could because it was my only source of hope. However, his writings awakened a hunger for sound teaching that I never had before. I read everything I could find online by this dead Baptist preacher, but I knew that wasn't enough. We needed to find a church, so we began visiting places in the area.

Some churches were too large. Some didn't use the Bible much at all. I was beginning to get desperate and resigned myself to attending a church our friends had returned to. Out of that desperation, I did an Internet search on "Reformed Baptist" churches in the area because Spurgeon was a Reformed Baptist, even though I didn't really know what that meant at the time. But if it was good enough for Spurgeon, it was good enough for me. I was surprised to have one entry show up in Google that was very close to our home.

So on the last Sunday of 2007, I drove the short distance to a little gray church I had driven by so many times. My daughter was away on visitation, so I braved going on my own. There were only about 20 people that dreary day, but they were so kind and welcoming. I didn't feel the awkwardness that would sometimes come over me when I visited other places solo. The interim pastor gave a simple message straight from the Word, and I heard exegesis for perhaps the first time in my life. I told my daughter we needed to go back the following Sunday, and she loved it as much as I did. Even though I was in all respects a stranger, it was like coming home because these brothers and sisters were family in Christ, and here we are 10 years later.

Some things have changed over the past decade. The Lord has led people out and brought more people in including lots and lots of children! The interim pastor who preached the first real sermon I ever heard and baptized my daughter is now in heaven with several dear saints who have gone ahead of us. The visiting preacher who filled the pulpit that baptism Sunday was called to be our pastor a few months later, and he is still faithfully shepherding us today. We're a group of ordinary people who need the ordinary means of grace as we journey, often stumbling on the pilgrim road. But our bond in Christ has kept us as we pray, weep, rejoice, and continue to grow together.

One verse I clung to during that tough time was "A father of the fatherless and a judge for the widows, is God in His holy habitation," (Ps. 68:5) but the Psalm doesn't stop there. It continues with "God makes a home for the lonely." He has done that through this small local church for which I thank Him.

Photo credit:By LudwigSebastianMicheler (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/4.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

Thursday, November 23, 2017

Countless Gifts of Love


. . . . giving thanks always and for everything to God the Father (Ephesians 5:20 ESV)

We should, of course, be thankful every day for the many blessings we receive from God. His good gifts come in a never-ending stream, so thanksgiving to him should be a constant in our lives.

But today, Thanksgiving day, is set aside to focus on God's gifts to us and be thankful for them. On Thanksgiving last year we invited you all to participate with us in thanking God and many of you did. Your contributions were a true blessing to us, and one more thing to be thankful for.

We are hoping you'll join us in thanking God this year, too. First, we'll each tell you one or more things we are thankful for. Then you can add your thanksgiving thoughts in the comments of this post or in the comments on our Facebook page. As I (Rebecca) have time, I'll update this post to include what you've written.

Kim:

This probably won't be a surprise to those who know me, but I am so very thankful for being in seminary. I am especially enjoying my Greek class, and even though it often makes me feel like I'm a dullard, I love the class. I'm thankful for having a husband who is very supportive and friends who think learning Greek is exciting. I'm thankful for the leadership of the school, the men and women who have a vision for Christian education and who desire to make an impact on the community. I'm thankful that God had me wait for just this exact time in my life to go back to school.

Persis:

The line “All I have needed Thy hand hath provided” has been going through my head since Sunday. I am thankful for God’s provision that runs the gamut from the little practical things to the big things. It’s been 10 years since my current job fell into my lap when I desperately needed to find work. It will also be 10 years next month since I first stepped through the doors and into the welcoming arms of my church community. I am thankful for God’s keeping then and now, His care over my family, and for His saving and persevering grace. God is good.SaveSaveSaveSave

Rebecca:

The last four months have been difficult ones for me, but in the trials I have seen God's hand. He has provided for me and protected me and eased me through it all. I can think of several times when he sent people (sometimes strangers) at just the right time to help me out of a difficult circumstance. I am very thankful for his mercy to me in the past and thankful that I can trust him to help me navigate future difficulties, too.

At this moment, I am thankful for my warm home. I am thankful for the many windows looking out on the snowy world. I am thankful for my children and my grandchildren, who bring me much joy.

Deb:

This year, I have been so thankful for a busy season of life. The Lord has provided the means for me to continue my education while still working full-time and continuing to serve in the body of Christ. More importantly, I am thankful for my wonderfully supportive church and the Godly elders and pastors who love and serve our congregation faithfully. Finally, I'm truly grateful for deeper bonds that have developed over the past few years with my family members. I continue to pray for each of them, but especially those who remain unsaved to come to know Jesus Christ as their lord and savior.

What are you thankful for?

Thursday, November 16, 2017

Book Review: Refresh

Shona Murray is inviting us to step back and look at our lives. In her book Refresh, co-written with her husband, David Murray, she encourages us to live a grace-paced life. In conjunction with her husband's book, for men, Reset, Shona has chimed in with this excellent word for women. It's an invitation we as women should accept. She opens the book with words that many women can relate to:
Overwhelmed. Exhausted. Depressed. Panicky. Stressed. Burned out. Broken. Paralyzed. Drowning. Empty. Recognize yourself in any of these words? Maybe in all of them? 
You're not alone. These are the most common words I've heard Christian women useing to describe themselves and their lives. 
Whatever happened to the words peaceful, calm, joyful, content, quiet, rested, refreshed, and fulfilled? Wouldn't you like to exchange the second set of words for the first?
Shona shares extensively from her personal experience with the consequences of her own hectic pace of life. Ultimately, it led to a struggle with depression. Her openness regarding her illness is among the most appealing things about Refresh. Women who struggle with mental illness often feel isolated and alone. To hear how someone else has found healing is always encouraging. In an effort to build a foundation which guards against burnout, the focus of the book lays out principles to establish a grace-paced life.

Shona uses the image of the gym: just as physical health requires a training regimen, so does spiritual health. Each chapter along the way, is a "station" in a training program. We start with a Reality Check, and then move through the remaining stations: Replay, Rest, Re-Create, Relax, Rethink, Reduce, Refuel, Relate, Resurrection.

One of the most compelling parts of the book for me was the initial step of evaluating who we are. In the chapter "Reality Check," she calls upon the reader to examine her life closely for signs and symptoms of burnout. We need to be realistic about ourselves. What may feel like standing on top of the world could actually be standing on the edge of a dangerous precipice.

In my own struggle with anxiety, recognizing my limitations as a human being was difficult, but necessary, and Shona addresses that:
Once I began to see the practical implications of being a limited, complex, and fallen creature, I began to see God differently, I saw myself differently, and I saw life differently.
We don't like the idea of being limited. We are told that we should defy limits or that to refuse to live without limits is living an inferior existence. The truth is that we are limited, and I was grateful for Shona emphasizing that truth. It is often a failure to realize our limits that sends us crashing down.

In addition to promoting proper sleep, rest, and exercise, Shona also encourages us to examine who we are in Christ rather than living under false identities:
The Bible uses many different words and metaphors to describe the Christian: forgiven, redeemed, accepted, justified, adopted, heir, blessed, seated in heavenly places, sealed with the Spirit in Christ, and so on (see Ephesians 1). If I expand "Christian" by adding these grace-driven descriptions to my list, this part of my identity will have much more influence on my self-image. A grace-filled identity will produce a grace-paced life.
We are often more consumed with our identity as wife or mother or are more preoccupied with our work outside the home. Our most important identity in found in Christ. We can be actively serving in the Church and still not be focused on our identity in Christ. Our identity in Christ is the most crucial one, and finding the right balance between that identity and the others may mean making changes.

Refresh is a book borne out of Shona Murray's experience. But it is not a unique experience. Her story is the story of many other women. This book is one woman's encouraging word to those who find themselves burned out and stressed out and looking for some help. Even more than that, Refresh would also help young women seeking to establish healthy habits that will be useful for a long time to come.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Doctrine Matters: Imputation

For decades as a Christian, I was taught and believed that Jesus got me in the door, but the rest was up to me. This was terrifying. I remember crying as a child wondering if I would have the courage to be a martyr for Christ, and wondering if I would lose my salvation if I failed. I remember hearing about the movie, A Thief in the Night, and wondering what would happen if I wasn't ready. I lived with so much uncertainty that current events would strike fear in my heart because I doubted I would be good enough when Christ returned.

Finally one day, I was raking leaves and listening to R.C. Sproul's lectures on What is Reformed Theology?. When he discussed the doctrine of justification by faith alone, it was as though the sun broke through the darkness, and I experienced assurance for the first time in my Christian life.
"In the final analysis, the only way that any person is ever justified before God is by works.  We are saved by works, and we are saved by works alone.  Don't touch that dial..."
"[W]hen I say that we are justified by works and by works alone, what do I mean by it? I mean that the grounds of my justification and the grounds of your justification are the perfect works of Jesus Christ. We're saved by works, but they are not our own. That's why we say we're saved by faith, and we're saved by grace, because the works that save us aren't our works, they're Somebody else's works."1
God takes my sin and places it on the righteous, holy, perfect Lamb of God and expends His wrath upon the Him. But if the story ended there, my sins would have been dealt with, but what about my life? What about God's just requirement that we be holy as He is holy? He takes the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ and puts that to my account. This is imputation. There is no question anymore of where I stand before God. The endless cycle of trying to earn acceptance before God is broken once and for all.
The understanding of imputation also holds out the only real hope that real Christians have of maintaining real acceptance with the real God. The reality of imputed righteousness is a real encouragement to ongoing sinners. Even as believers we must admit that sin is mixed with all we do. Even though we are justified believers, we still stumble and fall. We still make backward steps. What will keep a believer persevering in the face of remaining sin? Just this: the knowledge that the righteousness that renders us acceptable to God is not our personal achievement. It is Christ's righteousness achieved for us.
What is a Christian to do when he stumbles and falls in sin?  He must keep looking to Christ by humbly repenting and starting over.  This is how we battle discouragement. This is what keeps us from losing hope. On the believer's worst day this thought can keep him from utter despair: Jesus Christ is my righteousness. To see, remember and believe that God has credited Christ’s righteousness to us and has on that basis accepted us once and for all, is to find the strength and the direction to fight against every form of discouragement and temptation and frustration in life.2
This is why I love the doctrine of imputation. Having lived without assurance so long, it's no wonder I can't forget the day when I realized that peace with God rested outside of me or my performance. I still stumble and my assurance may waiver, but there is someone else that I can look to - Jesus Christ, my righteousness.

Sources:
1. What is Reformed Theology? Teaching series by R.C. Sproul, Ligonier Ministries.
2. Imputation: The Sinners Only Hope - Thomas K. Ascol, Founders Journal, Issue 59, Winter 2005, pp. 1-13.

This is based on a post from my personal blog from 2010.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Testing, Testing


. . . you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7 ESV).

I knew a couple—active in their local church and, to all appearances, committed Christians—who stopped believing in God after tragedy struck their family. First, they struggled with trusting God. "If God is good," they wondered, "how could he allow our young son to die? How could he allow this kind of suffering?"

None of the answers they received satisfied them. "What good is faith in God," they asked, "if he won't at least protect us from severe trials like this one?" They were angry with God and stopped going to church. Eventually they stopped believing God even existed. It's been thirty years now and they persist in their unbelief.

The loss of their son showed that their faith had been a quid pro quo kind of faith: they believed, but they expected that God, in turn, would protect them from tragedy. Their faith, despite appearances, was not genuine faith and their trial revealed it.

But true believers keep on trusting in the midst of suffering because they know their only hope is for God to carry them through it. And as they suffer, real believers see that their ultimate hope is not in this world, but in eternity with God. Their trials demonstrate the genuineness of their faith, not so God can see its quality, but so they can. And when they do, they will be assured what they hope for most will be finally be theirs.

So believers (real ones, that is) can "count it all joy" when trials come because every trial they endure shows their faith is true. And better yet, every trial works to make their true faith more true, because as genuine faith endures suffering, it becomes more steadfast and more mature. Suffering, then, both proves faith and improves it (James 1:2-4).

Count it all joy, my sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds . . . (James 1:2).