Sunday, September 30, 2007

Please say a prayer for Joe and Susan

Tomorrow my cousin's husband is going into Vanderbilt to prepare for a stem cell transplant. He has Multiple Myeloma. If you happen to read this, whether you know him or not, I would like to ask if you would say a prayer for him that he achieves the best possible success from this treatment and has no serious complications to impede his recovery. I know that God is able to make this treatment even more successful than the highest expectations of the doctors. And that is what I have been praying for.

Please take a moment to pray for Joe. And please also say a prayer for my cousin, Susan. I know that I would need lots of prayer to get through this if it were my husband being admitted tomorrow. I don't see Joe and Susan as often, since moving an hour away. But I love them so much and have thought of them and prayed for them continuously ever since Joe's diagnosis earlier this year. Joe is in his mid-forties and his family needs him to be around for a long time!!!

Wednesday, September 26, 2007

God's Sovereignty

I had a full day yesterday and wasn't as focused as I wanted to be in my thoughts for last night's small group. I got out of the house earlier than usual (not a morning person) and went with Rebecca (my d-i-l) to her Tuesday morning Bible Study at Christ Community, then played with the kids and had lunch. I could not make myself leave until after 2:00. (I am so thankful to have a daughter in law I can feel close to and enjoy spending time with.)

Janet commented last night about how God seems to speak to us in themes at certain times. She said that when we were reading "The Excellent Wife" and "Women Making a Difference in Marriage," it seemed like all she heard and read (from other sources as well) was focused on being a godly wife. Same thing happened with another topic -- discipleship, I think. And now we are reading a book about prayer and she was telling us about another study she's doing on prayer and how everything right now, for her, seems to be on the subject of prayer. I have experienced this many times and it always amazes me. Not long ago, it seemed like God was putting the story of Esther constantly in front of me through all kinds of unconnected sources. And right now He is doing that with His sovereignty.

I enjoyed the morning Bible study at CC yesterday. I took so much away that I intended to share in our small group, but I didn't write things down and my thoughts were scattered. The morning study focused on God being wondrously complete within Himself. The handout said, "He lacks nothing. He needs nothing. There is neither deficiency nor contingency with Him...God neither had to create anything nor redeem anyone! This highlights just how gracious His grace really is! God is absolutely sovereign and free."

The leader spoke of this notion that is often taught about God creating out of loneliness. He lacked something and we are what He lacked. He needed something we could provide; relationship. I can't remember if I was ever specifically taught that or if I formed this concept in my own mind from various influences, but I know that at some point in my life I did view God this way. This thinking does not make sense to me anymore. But it helps me see that there are so many ways we diminish God and elevate man in our thinking, without ever realizing that is what we're doing. And this is just one example of that. We love out of need. God does not. God had absolutely everything, including relationship with His Son, from all eternity. God was never lonely. God was not compelled to do anything out of lack. He is complete within Himself.

One of the take away questions to ponder was that every Christian believes in the sovereignty of God, but not all Christians agree on the extent of His sovereignty. Why do we, by nature, want to put limits or qualifiers on His sovereignty? Mainly, because God's sovereignty confronts our supposed autonomy and our desire for self-sufficiency. We want to add something to the work of salvation. But God is the author and finisher of our faith. He has not saved us because of something worthy of redemption that He saw in us. He has not chosen us because He saw something special already in us. He is not filling a void through us. We are unworthy recipients of His love and grace. Any other concept elevates the creation and reduces our Creator.

In the second chapter of Yancey's book, he elaborates on getting the right perspective. So often, we go to God with our list, ways He can serve us. Instead, we must start with Him. He writes, "Prayer, and only prayer, restores my vision to one that more resembles God's. I awake from blindness to see that wealth lurks as a terrible danger, not a goal worth striving for; that value depends not on race or status, but on the image of God every person bears; that no amount of effort to improve physical beauty has much relevance for the world beyond."

We live in a world that shouts at us continuously to conform to the values of the world and of our ever changing cultures. This is the same world that, in Yancey's words, "colludes to suppress, not exalt, God." He closes the chapter by writing, "In prayer I shift my point of view away from my own selfishness. I climb above timberline and look down at the speck that is myself."

I was emotionally overwhelmed several times during the study on God's sovereignty. My perspective on God has been so dramatically changed in the last several years. And when your perspective on God is enhanced, so is every single other aspect of your life.

Sunday, September 23, 2007

Chapter Two: View From Above

In chapter 2 of "Prayer: Does it make any difference?" (and he obviously believes it does), Yancey is talking about lightning strikes. And he makes this statement:

"A hundred times a second lightning strikes somewhere on earth, and I for one do not believe God personally programs each course."

This statement, and others like it, are the basis for one of the first criticisms directed at Yancey. One Amazon reviewer comments that in the past, Yancey has "hinted that he adheres to the doctrine of Open Theism and believes in a somewhat less than omnipotent or omniscient God." And "while this new book does not contain an explicit affirmation of that doctrine, Yancey again drops hints that he does believe it." The reviewer quotes several passages in the book, including the one about the lightning strikes, as evidence of this view. Yancey points to the fact that Jesus himself refuted those who blamed tragedies on God. The reviewer takes exception with Yancey in that this position "does not affirm the truths of Scripture regarding God's fore-ordaining of all events, no matter how tragic" and goes on to say that "Yancey presents a God that is simply far too human."

There are other criticisms, but since I tend to write lengthy posts anyway, I will stick to one criticism at a time.

This one statement did not stand out to me as anything alarming, either time I read it, for a couple of reasons. For most of my life as a Christian, I would have agreed with Yancey. That was my concept of God, too. Not that I ever would have said I was an Open Theist or that God was not omnipotent or omniscient. I believed He COULD personally program every lightning strike or every event, if He wanted to. But I believed He set the world in its order and allowed nature to operate within that order.

I didn't know how closely this resembled the view of someone like Thomas Jefferson, who was a deist and viewed God as a watchmaker, of sorts, who made the watch and then stepped back and observed its function. I had always heard Thomas Jefferson quoted as though he were a great defender of the Christian faith in the founding of our country. It just goes to show how much we accept as fact, without the proper examination, the beliefs and ideals of others. One thing that helped to cure me of this was a US History class I took several years back. Every time I expressed an opinion, the professor would then ask me what evidence I had based that opinion on. I quickly learned to ask myself that question and to make a greater effort in knowing why I believed what I did. Doing so never undermined my faith. It strengthened and defined it.

I never gave much thought to the Sovereignty of God or to Providence or any such things until I left the church I grew up in and began to pay more attention to such Scriptures. For example, I don't remember ever contemplating the reality of God knowing/forming me in my mother's womb and knowing me before the foundation of the world; that I was HIS before I even came into being. It's hard to grasp this or think of such verses as something more than poetic when you grow up in a place where the pastor doesn't view abortion as a sin and you've been taught that an unborn child does not have a soul until it takes a breath on its own. Therefore, it's not really even a life that one is taking. Even THAT was normal to me at one time because it was all I knew.

I have since come to realize how much that view contradicts the Word of God. And I now have a much different view on abortion. If God knew me and called me before I was even conceived, as Scripture tells us, I was His child even before I took that first breath on my own. I can only choose Him because He first chose me. So my concept of God has drastically changed. Where I once did not see Him taking much of a role in the minor details of my life, I now see the evidence of the opposite being true.

God is bigger to me now than He has ever been. I do not believe He is sitting back and watching His creation operate on its own within the boundaries of time and nature. I believe He is personally involved in His creation, down to the smallest detail. As far as the lightning strikes, well, there are more than 100 of us per second who are talking to God; He listens, answers, comforts, chastises, blesses, gives us the grace to endure and persevere. That takes much more effort, in my little pea brain, than directing lightning strikes.

I no longer embrace Yancey's view. But I still understand the quandary and appreciate his honesty. I agreed with more of this chapter than I disagreed with. And I will elaborate on that in a future post because this one is already long!

Sunday, September 16, 2007

Prayer (Philip Yancey)

I host a women’s study group in my home on Tuesday evenings. We read a Christian book collectively and meet once a week to discuss it over dinner together. We read one book over the course of several weeks, taking a break before we start another one. We originally started with two books on God’s role for us as wives. We've studied Mary and Martha and other women of the Bible. We've read about discipleship. And now we are about to read a book on prayer.

I love to read Christian books that are thought provoking and challenging. While going through a difficult experience this summer, someone told me how much they had enjoyed Philip Yancey’s book “Prayer: Does it make any difference?” I was praying more intensely than usual at this time; not only for my own needs but for others in need of God’s attention and mercy. And I devoured this book. I enjoyed it so much that I suggested it to our group. Then I read some negative reviews on Amazon. There were valid criticisms that I hadn’t given much thought to as I’d read the text. This left me wondering two things. Did I do the right thing to recommend this book? (Not the first time.) And why is it that someone else has to point out to me (quite often, it's my son) where a theme or concept is unscriptural? (i.e., Christ did not die on the cross so we could have a purpose driven life. It’s not about us, but the glory of God!)

I seem to read for the good and overlook things I don’t agree with. But when something does not line up with the gospel, I want to develop the discernment to instantly see it on my own and not think of it as a difference of opinion (mine and the author’s). I want to recognize when an author’s point of view does not line up squarely with God’s Word. It isn’t just a matter of opinion.

Since reading “Prayer” the first time, I have finished C.J. Mahaney’s “Living The Cross Centered Life” and am in the middle of reading John MacArthur’s, “Saved Without A Doubt.” Both are excellent. These two authors do not stray from scripture as much as Yancey does. So I’m wondering how differently I may view Yancey’s book the second time through. But we’ve decided that one of our purposes in reading it will be to examine and learn to recognize where an author strays from the Word of God.

Yancey does not approach this book as an expert on prayer. He asks more questions than he provides answers. The book is a conversation more than a manual and there are many reflections on prayer by others (authors, church members, spiritual mentors and ordinary people) scattered throughout. I got a lot of inspiration from those. I guess another thing I got from the first reading of this book was the reassurance that I am not the only Christian who isn't where she would like to be in her prayer life.

It deeply bothers me that I pray with such intensity in crisis or despair, then seem to relax a bit when the anxiety lifts. I don't want it to be this way. Unless a real emergency exists, I tend not to think the mundane details of my life are significant to God and, therefore, I don't ask Him for help as often as He probably wants me to. When I pray, I find myself just wanting to thank God and express my appreciation. That part comes so naturally. I struggle with the "petitions" and "requests" area of prayer. I feel so insignificant and unworthy. It's hard for me to understand why God would even listen to me, when I am so undisciplined and easily distracted. All my life, I have felt like a disappointment to God in so many areas. And yet He has been so good and so faithful to me in ways I never would have expected. He has proven how much the details of my life matter to Him. So it doesn't make sense that I would still fight this battle. But I do.

Truthfully, I have many of the same questions about prayer as were cited in Yancey's book, and one dilemma is that I find myself always trying to figure out "the right way" to pray instead of remembering that my relationship and communication with God is found in prayer. I'm unnatural when I try to pray out loud and in front of others. I long for that to be different. And so I ask anyone who may be reading this (especially my small group) if you would say a prayer for me that I would allow God to continue to stretch me beyond my comfort zone and help me to grow in all of these areas I have written about.

Saturday, September 15, 2007

Be Perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. Matthew 5:48

The following is a quote from a John Stott Bible Study I receive through email. This is an excerpt from today's reading in Matthew 5; specifically addressing verse 5:48.

Some holiness teachers have built upon this verse great dreams of the possibility of reaching in this life a state of sinless perfection. But the words of Jesus cannot be pressed into meaning this without causing discord in the Sermon. For he has already indicated in the beatitudes that a hunger and thirst after righteousness is a perpetual characteristic of his disciples, (Matt.5:6), and in the next chapter he will teach us to pray constantly, ‘Forgive us our debts.’(6:12) Both the hunger for righteousness and the prayer for forgiveness, being continuous, are clear indications that Jesus did not expect his followers to become morally perfect in this life. The context shows that the ‘perfection’ he means relates to love, that perfect love of God which is shown even to those who do not return it. Indeed, scholars tell us that the Aramaic word which Jesus may well have used meant ‘all-embracing’. The parallel verse in Luke’s account of the Sermon confirms this: ‘Be merciful even as your Father is merciful.’ (Lk.6:63), We are called to be perfect in love, that is, to love even our enemies with the merciful, the inclusive love of God.

Christ’s call to us is new not only because it is a command to be ‘perfect’ rather than ‘holy’, but also because of his description of the God we are to imitate. In the Old Testament it was always ‘I am the Lord who brought you up out of the land of Egypt, to be your God; you shall therefore be holy, for I am holy.’ But now in the New Testament days it is not the unique Redeemer of Israel whom we are to follow and obey; it is our *Father who is in heaven* (45), our *heavenly Father*(48). And our obedience will come from our hearts as the manifestation of our new nature. For we are the sons of God, through faith in Jesus Christ, and we can demonstrate whose sons we are only when we exhibit the family likeness, only when we become peacemakers as he is (9), only when we love with an all-embracing love like his (45,48).

I have really been thinking about writing on this blog lately. But where to begin? I have been contemplating beginning with my testimony. But my testimony is a book, not a day's blog entry. Then today's Bible Study arrived and I knew where I would begin, as this frames an appropriate beginning to my personal testimony.

I grew up in a church that taught the doctrine of perfection. From a small child, I understood that I did not have eternal life based on the cross of Christ. I would have eternal life only through attaining the same standard of sinless perfection that Jesus Christ lived as my example. The cross represented my entry point, forgiveness of past sins and the opportunity to receive the Holy Spirit (as a subsequent experience to salvation); my beginning to strive for this perfected status. If I died short of reaching this perfection, I would have a resurrection at the end of the thousand years. The bride would already be ruling and reigning with Jesus (those who reached perfection before their natural deaths were the only ones who did not have to sleep for a thousand years and whose souls left their bodies to enter heaven and wait there for the return of Christ).

If I reached perfection, after my resurrection, I would live eternally on the new earth. If not, I would die again and remain in the grave forever. We were taught there was no literal hell or devil. Satan was our carnal mind. (Although we did believe that there were evil spirits under God's control.)

As a result of this teaching, I can remember several things at a very young age. I never believed I'd be in heaven with God because I never believed I could be perfect. I also never feared hell for myself or anyone else, because I didn't believe it existed. And I was never concerned with spiritual warfare or any kind of demonic activity in the earth, because it wasn't real to me. I viewed scriptural passages that spoke of such things as symbolic. I believed that everything supernatural was from God and the Holy Spirit. I'm not saying that everyone else under this teaching came to these same conclusions. These were the conclusions I drew from what was taught. I remember, around the sixth grade, asking God why I had to be born in the "true church" and know these "truths." I so envied other Christians who at least had the joy of believing they would go to heaven when they died (even if they were deceived). I know it was about sixth grade or younger because I remember where I lived and where I was when I first had these thoughts and felt this hopelessness. I also remember wondering so many times -- what was the good news about finding out you had to be perfect to be accepted in heaven?

We were expressly taught that if a person was newly saved and had put their faith in Christ, but then walked out of the church and were hit by a bus, they did not go to heaven. They would sleep for a thousand years, resurrect to find the true church in operation and then have the same opportunity to know this "truth" and reach perfection, only then obtaining eternal life on the new earth. There were questions I never thought to ask, such as what was meant then by Hebrews 9:27 ("Just as man is destined to die once, and after that face judgment,").

It is this platform from which I went on to receive the gospel and experience salvation through faith in Christ alone, after viewing myself as a Christian my entire life. I had to unload so much spiritual baggage to believe the simplicity of the gospel and what Christ has already accomplished for me. I spent 43 years being taught a different gospel. But make no mistake about it, my gratitude for the cross of Christ is as great or greater than the person who heard about Jesus after a life in the gutter. The cross means more to me now than it ever did at any time in my life. I can't even begin to put into words what a song like "In Christ Alone" means to me now, after my previous concept of what it meant to be in Christ.

Ironically, I once collaborated on a song of praise with a friend. I include her name (Debbie Bresee) to give her the proper copyright acknowledgment. The second verse of this song says:

Knowing all that he would suffer,
All the shame that he would face,
Willingly he came and took my place.
Oh, how much he must have loved me
To leave heaven and die in such disgrace.
Then raised from the grave,
this promise he gave,
Everlasting life!

I knew Jesus loved me. I knew he died for me. I remember weeping as I sang this song, thinking about the agony Jesus suffered to give me a chance at eternal life. But even as I worshipped him and sang these words, I did not understand that I was supposed to KNOW and BELIEVE I already had eternal life through faith in Christ alone. I believed the promise of eternal life was only to those who fully overcame all sin in this life just as he did. Putting my faith in Christ was my initial salvation, not my complete salvation. But even though I never imagined myself as one who would accomplish this goal, I wanted to serve him in gratitude for his loving me. I knew that I deserved nothing good in this life and that any blessing I did receive was from him. And no matter what the requirement was for me, the penalty he had paid on the cross was still gruesome and agonizing for him. I didn't comprehend that a God of justice could not punish His Son for my sin and then also punish me after I was covered by the blood of Jesus. Does this mean that I think it doesn't matter how I live? Oh, no. Never have I had a deeper longing to live a life that glorifes my Savior as since I have understood it isn't about me and my performance. It is about my Lord.

I need to find a place to conclude this entry because it's already so lengthy. Now that I've started, I'm sure I will continue my testimony in subsequent entries. Every aspect of my life in Christ today has a correlation to my past because it demonstrates God's amazing deliverance. I want to say, in conclusion, how grateful I am for the deliverance God has brought to my life. I am so unworthy of His goodness and mercy and faithfulness. He has been faithful not because of my faithfulness, but because He is faithful.