Hope in Troubling Times

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Kelli, my wife, and I had the honour to speak in Day One chapel at Moody Bible Institute today.  If you weren’t there, or you just want to go over it again, this is what we said:

Kelli: “Hope in the Midst of Difficulty”

Peter and I met at Moody.

In the fall of 1998, I started my teaching career here. And that same semester, Peter came from the mission field in Pakistan to study at the Moody Graduate School. We were introduced to one another by Moody Graduate School Professor, Dr. Green, over lunch one day in the cafeteria. We spent much of our dating life frequenting the coffee shops in this neighborhood. I would plan lessons and grade papers. Peter would sit across from me, reading thick textbooks and writing essays.

Fifteen months later, in December of 1999, we were married in a 13th century church in Plympton, England. We started our married life, full of so many hopes and dreams.

However, just a few short years into our marriage, the wheels began wobble. And we entered a very difficult, extended, painful season.

Some of the particulars are as follows…

Peter’s dad was diagnosed with terminal cancer and died just months later.

We wanted to start a family, but suffered multiple miscarriages and the grief of infertility.

Our church at the time did not seem to know how to help us in our hurt, and when I descended into depression, their response was to discuss church discipline, adding to our pain rather than helping us through it.

Then, not long after, my mom was diagnosed with cancer, and my dad suffered a life-altering injury.

The expense of my dad’s care put a serious financial strain on our family.

While Peter tried to put on a brave front, I spiraled deeper into the fog of anxiety and depression.

And for quite some time, I very much struggled with the concept hope.

I know the details are very different, but perhaps your journey is in some ways similar to ours.

Most of you, I imagine, came here to Moody with certain hopes and dreams.

And whether you have been here for just one semester or for several years, during this season—this 2017-18 school year—you might feel as if the wheels are wobbling.

It has been and will continue to be a season of loss.

A season of life-altering injuries. Some which we have incurred ourselves, some which we have watched happen to people we love. The fact that you are here—in this place, at this time—will undoubtedly shape your life and your ministry in some significant ways.

This has been a season during which certain cancers have been allowed to grow in our midst.

A season where we are sometimes wounding one another—brothers and sisters in Christ—adding to each other’s pain, rather than helping each other through.

We are well aware, too, that for many of you—the current crisis of our community is layered on top of other personal trials that you are experiencing, making it that much more difficult to process the pain.

We’ve talked to a number of you who are finding it hard to know how to hope.

It’s an often misunderstood concept, I believe. This concept of HOPE.

During our darkest time, Peter would sometimes play a computer game. One of the characters in the game was called the Librarian. And the Librarian used to pop up on the screen sometimes and speak oh-so wisely, saying: “Hope is the first step on the road to disappointment.” At the time, this sounded just about right to me.  Maybe it sounds right to you too.

Hope sometimes sounds like a dangerous or foolish thing to do.

This is because we sometimes speak of hope in a rather flippant fashion. We hope in the same way that we wish upon a shooting star, or toss a coin into a well, or blow out our birthday candles.

“I hope I get what I want.”

Or “I hope this situation turn out all right.”

Or “I hope this pain comes to an end.”

Or “I hope God answers my prayer.”

We too often hope FOR an elusive end goal, rather than hoping IN.

Or if we do hope IN, we hope IN fallible things.

We place our hope in other people, or in our own strength, or in a scheme of our own design.

And then we flail and we flounder. We are easily overwhelmed by the waves.

When we hope FOR a certain outcome, or we hope IN a mortal mooring, rather than hoping IN our sure and certain God.

In the summer of 2006, when our little family was still in the thick of that very difficult personal season, Peter and I took a much-needed vacation to the Island of Great Chebeague, off the coast of Maine. We desperately needed some time and space to heal and to rediscover true and eternal and Biblical hope.

We spent a week on that island, and during our time on Great Chebeague, God began to restore my understanding of what it means to find a certain hope in the midst of difficulty. Through much prayer and journaling and Bible study. Through long conversations with Peter and quiet walks on the beach and providential encounters with strangers, He repeatedly and persistently revealed Himself as the source of all hope and made His mercies known.

At the end of our island week, Peter and I had to take the ferry back to the mainland. We stood on the ferry’s deck for most of the one-hour ride, wanting to soak in every last bit of the Casco Bay. It was another foggy day, however, and it was difficult to see very far ahead. Eventually, though, our captain instructed us to focus our eyes toward the southwest—over the bow of the boat and beyond—out into the fog. The Portland Head Lighthouse, he promised us, was just a mile down the coast. So we strained our eyes to see. And sure enough, even before we could see the lighthouse herself, her beam was visible through the mist—rotating, pulsating, warning ships of the rocky coast, and guiding them home.

For the rest of the ride, I kept staring into the cloudy air.

Nothing but fog.

Nothing but fog.

Nothing but fog.

Then, suddenly, FLASH.

That simple image has stuck with me in the many years since as an image of hope. A sure and steady source of light when it is hard to see for the fog.

Sometimes our life situation feels so much like that fog. Other times it even feels like the black of night. But God—in His sure and steady faithfulness—breaks through the darkness and the mist in so many ways—through a Bible passage or a prayer or a conversation or a providential encounter—to lead us on and give us hope.

We pray that this morning, our worship together, and the truths from the Scripture passage that Peter is about to share, will be one more flash of light for you. One more reminder of our certain hope.

Peter:

Lamentations 3:1-3, 16-40

I am the man who has seen affliction
by the rod of the Lord’s wrath.
He has driven me away and made me walk
in darkness rather than light;
indeed, he has turned his hand against me
again and again, all day long.

16 He has broken my teeth with gravel;
he has trampled me in the dust.
17 I have been deprived of peace;
I have forgotten what prosperity is.
18 So I say, “My splendor is gone
and all that I had hoped from the Lord.”

19 I remember my affliction and my wandering,
the bitterness and the gall.
20 I well remember them,
and my soul is downcast within me.
21 Yet this I call to mind
and therefore I have hope:

22 Because of the Lord’s great love we are not consumed,
for his compassions never fail.
23 They are new every morning;
great is your faithfulness.
24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”

25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
27 It is good for a man to bear the yoke
while he is young.

28 Let him sit alone in silence,
for the Lord has laid it on him.
29 Let him bury his face in the dust—
there may yet be hope.
30 Let him offer his cheek to one who would strike him,
and let him be filled with disgrace.

31 For no one is cast off
by the Lord forever.
32 Though he brings grief, he will show compassion,
so great is his unfailing love.
33 For he does not willingly bring affliction
or grief to anyone.

34 To crush underfoot
all prisoners in the land,
35 to deny people their rights
before the Most High,
36 to deprive them of justice—
would not the Lord see such things?

37 Who can speak and have it happen
if the Lord has not decreed it?
38 Is it not from the mouth of the Most High
that both calamities and good things come?
39 Why should the living complain
when punished for their sins?

40 Let us examine our ways and test them,
and let us return to the Lord.

I first turned to Lamentations 3 when I was 18. The biggest trauma I had experienced was getting dumped by a girlfriend, one I particularly liked. And in my hurt, I punched a wardrobe for the first (and last) time. After realizing that was a bad idea, I searched Scripture and found Lamentations 3.

After finding the passage for the first time, I kept coming back to it—any time I felt lost or in a dark place—because of its beauty and consolation.  During the events in our life, which Kelli described earlier, I was pushed back again to this sanctuary in Scripture.

The teaching I received as a student in Moody Graduate School explained the passage even more.  Dr. Julius Wong Loi Sing shared with my class that the whole book of Lamentations is structured like a ziggurat. Unlike modern, western writing which builds to a crescendo at the end, this book builds to a climax in its middle.  The whole structure ascending like the steps of an ancient temple to the beacon of hope surrounded by the overwhelming circumstances of Jerusalem’s destruction.

Like a lighthouse surrounded by the fog, so this is a passage of light—Lamentations chapter 3—is surrounded by the darkness of the rest of the book.

Also important to our understanding of this passage and the book of Lamentations as a whole, is the fact that the experience of the author personally is parallel to the experience of the community and the city as a whole. There is both an individual and a corporate experience of desolation and isolation.  There is nowhere for either Jerusalem or the author to escape.  God’s hand holds the writer firmly in place—just as He holds His people—to the point that he rubs their face in the gravel.  This tragic situation is inescapable.

However, just when all hope is lost there is a ray of new hope like the beam of a lighthouse in a dark sky. 

What does Lamentations 3 teach us about this hope?

  1. First of all, we see that the basis of our PRESENT AND FUTURE hope is God’s love and faithfulness remembered from the PAST.  In verse 19, the writer remembers his affliction and his wandering. He remembers, and he is downcast. 

But in verse 21, he turns his attention to , “THIS I call to mind, and therefore I have hope. Because of the Lord’s great love, we are not consumed. For His compassions never fail.” 

Encouraging ourselves and our community to memory is key to healthy lament.  When we have a full picture of reality, we sometimes are traumatized, remembering the bitter times, but also we remember the redemption.

And in looking beyond our circumstances, we catch a glimpse of the glory. The reality of our present situation is contrasted through faith with the reality of God’s steadfast love, His unfailing compassion, and His ability to sustain.  “We are not consumed!”

God is love, and his love is loyal and kind.  In his commentary on Lamentations, F. B. Huey writes:

The basis for renewed our hope is God’s “great love.” The Hebrew word hesed, sometimes translated as “covenant love,” is a word that has the basic meaning of loyalty or faithfulness, especially as related to the covenant initiated by God; the word involves obligations to family, friends, and the community. Another basis of hope is God’s unfailing “compassions”, which are experienced in a fresh and new way every day.

God’s love never ceases.

His mercies are new every morning. They are continuing.

Great IS HIS FAITHFULNESS, the writer proclaims!

God is faithful in ways that are fearsome and awe-inspiring.  He can tear down a great city like Jerusalem, but he can also create beauty from the ashes.  God has faithfulness to destroy and faithfulness to build up.  God is faithful to the people of Israel by reminding them of his constant attention to them.  He reminds them of his faithfulness to their broken covenant by bringing them low.  Now the people have no option but to remember their God.

  1. Secondly, we see that holding onto hope REQUIRES PATIENCE, TRUST, and PERSEVERENCE.

In verses 24-26 God brings His people all the way back to the beginning AND ASKS HIS PEOPLE TO WAIT. 

24 I say to myself, “The Lord is my portion;
therefore I will wait for him.”

25 The Lord is good to those whose hope is in him,
to the one who seeks him;
26 it is good to wait quietly
for the salvation of the Lord.
The repetition of the word ‘good’ harkens back to the pronouncement of God on his good creation in the book of Genesis. The writer reminds himself and God’s people of the time when God created order out of chaos.  God’s mighty Word has created goodness once before. And He will do it again—in His time.

But we must wait for Him. Quietly. Patiently.

And when we do, when we seek God with perseverance and trust Him to act, we will see him form a new creation where now there is despair. 

We will see His SALVATION!

  1. But thirdly, we see that holding onto hope also NECESSITATES OUR HUMILITY AND SURRENDER! 

Verses 27 – 40 describe the humbling condition of the people. They are weighed down under a heavy yoke. They sit alone in silence. Their face is buried in the dust. They must offer their cheek to the one who would strike them. 

The people have been forced into a complete surrender to the conquering Babylon, but this is just a small picture of their need to completely surrender to the God who has allowed his people to be brought low. As they look from a prostrate position in the dust, they may have hope.

They do not have to sit passively, waiting for a change in their fortunes. While Hope may require waiting, it is not passive. We do not just wallow. We seek HIM!

God does not purpose for his people to be left in the dust – rather, knowledge of the whole story of God leads to hope.  God does not willingly crush people.  Quite literally, his heart is not in allowing his people to be crushed.  His heart is in the restoration of his people – a restoration that can only be achieved once people have been laid low and have surrendered to the potter’s forming hand.  He allows the bad and the good. And when God lays a hold of His people, He re-forms and remakes them, which is when His heart is glad.

Finally, in verse 40, we are called to authentic self-examination, confession, and repentance. 

40 Let us examine our ways and test them,
and let us return to the Lord.

Our times of greatest pain are our opportunities for greatest growth. It is God’s call to restoration!

The Word of God calls us to stop, to feel what we feel and process those emotions: To be authentic, and communicate our heart, raw and rubbed in salt, to the God who heals.

The Word of God calls us to remember God’s faithfulness from times past.

The Word of God calls us to cease our activity, sit silently, and wait.

The Word of God assures us that when we are crushed and our face is ground in the gravel, true greatness is found. True greatness originates, though, outside of ourselves.

The Word of God points us to a sure and steady HOPE—a hope that is only found in the steadfast LOVE OF THE LORD.

I first found Lamentations 3 to be a source of great hope when I was 18.

I clung to Lamentations 3 when Kelli and I were going through those dark years that she described earlier.

And we return to Lamentations 3 in these difficult days. It is a beacon of light in the fog.

It reminds us to remember.

We remember His faithfulness.

We remember that He used my dad’s cancer to bring him to a saving knowledge of Jesus Christ.

We remember that He gave us two beautiful children through adoption to love and to raise.

We remember that He used our pain to drive us to a deeper dependence on Him and to grow our understanding of His love.

We wait with you—to see His salvation.

And we surrender.

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Looking for Rest

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Recently close friends have renewed their concern for our family’s lack of rest.  In the Spring, we toiled seven days a week.  We filled all the waking hours in our day. We even started to reduce our sleep for the sake of productivity.

Alarmed by the toll lack of rest takes we had a cure-all which we thought would solve everything.  The potential quick-fix remedy was to take a vacation to England.  We left our McHenry house and lived for a month in my mother’s house in Plymouth, England.  The question is whether the vacation was actually restful.  My children had never been to England and I hadn’t been for six years.  The result was that there were lots of extended family and friends who wanted to see Daryl and Amelia.  There were expectations to be met at church, too.  I was welcomed with open arms at the little Brethren church in which I grew up.  On June 4th, they gave me both their Sunday morning service and their evening service in which to preach.  They even laid on a tea for our family and another visiting missionary from South Africa.

I have another issue with vacations that I have adopted my father.  He would see Paris in a single day, the alps in another, and spend a few days on the French Riviera.  Sightseeing with my father could give you whiplash being done in such haste.  I am not quite as extreme, but I do have some of the same vacation drive.  My mother rented a seven-seater car this summer which we used every day to explore a long list of fishing villages, beaches, old houses, and other attractions.  We would leave home in the morning and return home at midnight ready to repeat the whole process the next day.

It was an exciting vacation, but was it restful?  At times it was.  There was one day in particular where we took a walk across the fields of Dartmoor together as a family.  We talked openly and I thanked God for the beautiful creation surrounding us.  However, even on a vacation I had difficulty resting.

The Bible teaches a deeper rest than the temporary fixes we cobble together.  In Genesis 2:2 God rested from all his work on the seventh day.  God ordained a Sabbath rest.  Jesus called people to himself saying, “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest (Mtt. 11:28)” Below I will unpack three principles of rest in Hebrews 4:1-13.  Hebrews 4 is built on the back of Hebrews 3 which extensively quotes Psalm 95.  The writer of Hebrews also has in mind Genesis 2:2. Concerning rest, we should not isolate this passage from the rest of scripture.  The biblical theme of rest is an integrated whole, best understood by considering all of the passages side-by-side as an overarching context.  Hebrews 4:1-13 reads:

Therefore, while the promise of entering his rest still stands, let us fear lest any of you should seem to have failed to reach it.  For good news came to us just as to them, but the message they heard did not benefit them, because they were not united by faith with those who listened. For we who have believed enter that rest, as he has said,

“As I swore in my wrath,

‘They shall not enter my rest,’” 

although his works were finished from the foundation of the world. For he has somewhere spoken of the seventh day in this way: “And God rested on the seventh day from all his works.” And again in this passage he said,

“They shall not enter my rest.”

Since therefore it remains for some to enter it, and those who formerly received the good news failed to enter because of disobedience, again he appoints a certain day, “Today,” saying through David so long afterward, in the words already quoted,

“Today, if you hear his voice,

do not harden your hearts.” 

For if Joshua had given them rest, God would not have spoken of another day later on. So then, there remains a Sabbath rest for the people of God, for whoever has entered God’s rest has also rested from his works as God did from his.

Let us therefore strive to enter that rest, so that no one may fall by the same sort of disobedience. For the word of God is living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and of spirit, of joints and of marrow, and discerning the thoughts and intentions of the heart. And no creature is hidden from his sight, but all are naked and exposed to the eyes of him to whom we must give account.

Ellingworth, in his commentary on Hebrews, lays out the line of argument the writer is making in Hebrews 4 when he writes, “The implied sequence of thought is: God made a promise that his people would one day have access to his own place of rest. The place of rest has been available since the seventh day of creation. The promise cannot be repealed; but it was not fulfilled at the time of the exodus; it therefore remains open for some.”  We will focus on three principles from the passage rather than doing a rich exegesis of all that it contains.  There is too much embedded in this rich passage for us to explore.  We will look at three principles dealing with rest.  The first principle is that rest is for the faithfully obedient.  The second principle is that rest comes to those who cease from their own works.  The third principle is that rest is only truly found in Jesus Christ.

Firstly, rest is only for the faithfully obedient.  The principles of faith and obedience must both be present if one is to enter God’s rest.  In Hebrews 3 and 4, the example of the Israelites complaining at Massah and Meribah is the example of a people who did not enter into God’s rest because of their rebellion.  They had a point of decision where they could choose to believe God and enter into The Promised Land, their land of rest, or they could be disobedient and choose to turn back.  As we know, from the writings of Moses, the people of Israel vacillated in the wilderness on numerous occasions.  They doubted Moses and they doubted God.  In these times of doubt the tribes became restless.  In times of obedience God blessed the people.  However, the people’s experience of true rest was not forthcoming.  When David wrote Psalm 95, he was still saying that God’s rest was available to his audience.  When the writer of Hebrews writes, he says that true faith and sincere obedience leads to rest in his time.

A faith in God leads to a peaceful assurance that he sustains and manages the world and we do not.  There is a healthy fear when confronted by a real and growing perspective of God.  When we see his immensity and capacity, we are struck by more than one reaction.  While we know he has the whole world in his hands, we also shrink back in the face of such power.  While we know that he sustains the universe, we know that he has intimate insight into the internal workings of my soul.  The same word of God that brings peace also brings fear.  I can rest assured that the God who commands angel armies is on my side, but my heart still beats wildly in my chest if ever I gain a glimpse of his authority and power.

While we resist or ignorantly walk my own way, we find ourselves at war with heaven.  We find ourselves at odds with the sustainer of vast worlds.  Because of his great love, we are not consumed, but the expanse of his wisdom and his dominion should cause us to surrender.  It is only in true surrender that the battle ceases.  We can then rest captive.  Only then do we find that our former adversary was not the cruel tyrant that we might have thought him to be.  We find that we are captivated by his love.  We rest in his shalom.

What kind of God do we believe in?  Faith is central to rest.  Is the object of our core belief able to deliver freedom from stress and worry?  Although many have had faith in Jesus at conversion, they have faith in themselves to keep God at bay.  Faith is a matter of appeasement rather than dependency.  The focus of the passage is not on the faithlessness of those who failed when tested.  The focus of the passage is on a positive, faithful response to God’s offer of rest.  As Ellingwoth states, “The emphasis is on faith as the essential condition for access to God’s place of rest; contrast with the wilderness generation is secondary.”

I met a Bible teacher this week from a Christian school, not local to my home, who has struggled with rest.  His time in recent years was heavily invested in computer and video games.  He most recently played Borderlands and Borderlands II.  He said that with all the ‘looting and grinding’ that he had to do in the game, he would spend five hours a day playing, easily.  The most frightening statistic was, when he added up all of his game-play hours, he calculated that he had spent between 9 and 12 months of his life living in a virtual world and leveling up a character who didn’t exist.  He was aghast at the lack of development he had done on himself in the real world.  He suddenly realized the physical fitness and spiritual maturity he could have achieved and the only fitting response seemed to rid himself of his gaming systems in complete obedience to the call of God on his life.  It is strange how gaming addiction in our generation is dealt with differently than other addictions.  For example, we do not give the alcoholic a little less alcohol, or the smoker a few less cigarettes.  The wisdom of Jesus is to cut off anything that detracts from our pursuit of God.  This Bible teacher had the courage to completely unplug, and the result of his courageous obedience is rest.

Each of us has to ask ourselves whether we are being obedient to both the scripture and the conscience that God gives us.  We cannot expect to find rest if we live in direct contradiction to the will of God.  We must expect turbulence if we decide to fly in the face of The Holy Spirit.  If we examine what we know God has told us, how are we receiving it?  Are we surrendered or resistant?  For example, the Bible says not to commit adultery.  Just like the Pharisees of Jesus’ time we may obey the letter of the law by not divorcing our spouse.  However, we may deceive ourselves about how incompatibly, or lack of respect absolves us from any obligation to love unconditionally. Deep down, we know that we should do better, but our tiredness and our disappointment leads us to disobey God’s commands to love others unconditionally.  Or, say you have a neighbor God has prompted you to talk to.  Each time you see them you feel awkward and doubt whether God wants you to speak.  You rationalize and excuse yourself.  You will not experience the peace or the rest of God while you persist in disobedience.

The first principle was that rest comes to the faithfully obedient.  The second principle is that faith comes to those who cease from their own work.  God created the universe in six days and then he ceased from his work.  Now God’s work is one of sustaining what has been created.  To work independently of God, to seek our own occupation apart from the Creator, is the biblical definition of sin and evil.  The writer of Hebrews calls his readers to a biblical theology of rest.  This is illustrated well in the book of Ecclesiastes.  Rest cannot be achieved, Ecclesiastes tells us, by pursuing gain.  Creation has sustainable rhythms.  There are cyclical patterns to life.  Seek to get ahead and live a life that is self-serving and you break the system.  Drink all the water and everyone dies of thirst.  Eat all the food and everyone dies of hunger.  Ecclesiastes warns about amassing wealth, pleasures, education, and even religious fervor.  The anxiety and greed that comes from amassing possessions or status strips us of our ability to rest.  The truth is most people have enough.  Jewish wisdom and Jewish festivals lead us to reflection on the God who provides.  Because of God’s great provision we can rest.  We have enough for the day.  That is what we need.  The restful man in Ecclesiastes enjoys the drink at hand.  He takes time over his meal.  He enjoys his family.  He rests by being in the moment.

The rhythms of life, as God designed them, are sustainable.  We see them in the patterns of life in Scripture.  People rose with the sun and did a full day of work.  Then, in the evening, the family gathered around the meal table.  The evening was the beginning of the next day, not the end of the present one. In the creation narrative, we read repeatedly, “there was evening and there was morning…” to describe the order of each day.   The evening was filled with restful expectation.  It was not seen as a reward for a hard day’s work – it was the beginning of one.  God encouraged his people to work from a place of rested stillness, not toward an exhausted emptiness.

If you keep a scheduler, or day timer, you will have a sense of how many tasks you complete in a week.  Often we have an agenda and it is over-full.  God cannot be calling us to a multitude of tasks that corrupt his own created order or rhythm.  There must be a sustainable ebb and flow to life.  We know that God does not call us to work seven days a week.  If all seven days are filled, we have at least a day-full of our own work.  Also, God calls us to contemplative reflection of himself.  If we have no time for the task of reflection, we must have inserted one of our own tasks.  Ultimately we must jettison all of our own tasks and replace them with his.  In this way we cease to strive and toil.  We are like a captain of a boat that ceases to row and raises the boat’s sails.  When its sails catch the wind it moves rapidly.  The boat doesn’t do the work, the wind does.  The boat aligns its sails with the wind and then moves.  Phil Vischer has had to learn this secret the hard way.  He stressed and fretted as the creator of Veggietales because he was trying to save every child for God.  It almost broke him down.  After therapy and a significant appraisal of his life, he got back into the child entertainment industry.  This time he called his company Jellyfish because a jellyfish is taken where the tide leads.  Like a jellyfish, Phil Visher learned to rest by ceasing from his own work and let himself be taken along by God.

People often do their own work because they believe they have to take care of their own lives.  The question arises, ‘What causes people to work so hard to do their own work?’  Though there are many causes, a few of the most common motivations that thrust us into busyness are to be accepted, to preserve an image, to feel safe, to control, to accumulate, and to win.  Acceptance is a foundational desire for all of us.  We forget that God has accepted us unconditionally while we were still sinners and so, subsequent to being saved, we often work to show God that we were worth the sacrifice after all.  Many people received conditional acceptance from parents or friends based on their performance.  They develop deep patterns of frenetic activity to fend off rejection.  The God they serve is modeled in their minds after the taskmasters they have served.  Receiving God’s loving embrace and resting in that can be the cure for craving acceptance.

Some people have a false ideal in their mind of who they are meant to be.  This can be connected to acceptance, but it can also be escapist or rooted in false information.  The Bible provides identity guidelines for the believer, but all of our true identity is in Christ.  We are gifted an identity rather than tasked with working hard to create it.  Our work creates a myth and it hides the true self.  When we give up the image we can rest.

Some people do not accept that God protects them and has destined them for heaven.  The Bible reminds us that people can kill the body, but they can’t destroy the soul.  People who forget this build up literal and figurative walls of protection around themselves.  This takes work, but freedom from fear of harm brings rest.

Some people desire the sense that they are in control.  Their perspective of self-importance distorts the enormity of creation and the Creator.  It is hard to accept that forces are at work which determine the fate of the world which are beyond our ultimate control.  God gives us mastery of all that he wishes us to steward.  Complete mastery and control of our world is an illusion.  Accepting that God is ultimately in control and we are not helps us to let go of tension.  In letting Jesus take the wheel we can rest.

Some people have a desire for more.  The prosperity gospel of health and wealth even provides a Christian blessing to a life of materialism.  We study in school to get good qualifications.  Good qualifications get us a good job.  A good job earns us more money.  With more money we can buy more things.  With more material possessions comes more happiness.  Those who have walked this path to its conclusion know this isn’t true.  Those with wisdom see the clutter of an overfull life, caring for more and more possessions, and they strip down to the simplicity of what is needed.  They put a rein on their desires and in the space that is created they find rest.

Some people have to be first.  It can often be an issue with identity.  However, to them, ‘no-one remembers second.’  Winning is the only option.  They work hard to crush the opponents with no thought that the opposition is created by God.  They rejoice in winning without realizing that competitive living creates one winner and multiple losers.  There is no rest for the person driven to be first.  However, in using their abilities as God directs – in causing others to succeed – the driven personality surrenders first place and finds rest.

Having looked at two principles of rest from Hebrews 4, we now move to the third and most significant.  Rest is for the faithfully obedient, rest is for those who cease from their own work and most significantly rest is found in the person of Christ.  Rest is most powerfully a relationship with Jesus.  When we find Jesus he does his work through us, to the glory of God and in the power of the Holy Spirit.   Seamands teaches us that the ministry and work of life is the outworking of a Trinity that reaches out to the world in love through us.

John Koessler, my colleague at Moody Bible Institute, says it well, “Rest is not an inner state that can be produced by thinking a certain way or placing ourselves in the right conditions. It is obtained only by entering into a relationship. When we find Christ, we find rest.”  Unpacking this we can see that people think that they can manage rest by their own actions.  However, the actions are futile if we are not one with Jesus.  Koessler puts it succinctly when he says that, ‘Christ offers us rest by offering himself.’

The writer of Hebrews, throughout the book of Hebrews, is establishing the supremacy of Christ in every area.  He is greater than the angels, greater than the patriarchs.  Now the writer calls us into relationship with this Jesus.  While it is still ‘Today’ we may enter into God’s call to intimacy through Christ.  We may come home to his embrace.  It is the rest of the heavenly hearth.  It is the rest of home.

The best way I can illustrate the connection between relationship and rest is to take you with me back to Dartmoor.  Dartmoor is a barren, rolling landscape with marshes, rocks, rivers and few trees.  It has a rugged beauty, but it is hard walking.  Walking on the moor is always hard work with no paved pathways.  Out on the moorland by yourself, as the mist comes down and you can’t see far enough to navigate, you may find the walking more than mere drudgery.  However, some of my earliest memories are walking across the moorland in violent storms or in intense sunshine with Grandma.  My Grandma was a constant fountain of conversation.  I would find her in a walking party and we would talk.  Because I had her with me I would forget about the hard work of walking.  I would focus on her and the weather and rough ground would cease to be my focus.

This is a pale reflection of how life in Christ operates.  As we walk with him, he gazes at us with love.  As we seek him he empowers us with his presence.  As we struggle, he lifts us with care.  All the work that we do is his work and we wonder at all that we have achieved.  Our capacity to serve and our capacity for relationship both grow.

We have many false gods which promise us rest.  Financial security, romance, vacations and entertainment are a few.  The economy and its health is seen as the barometer of the health of the nation.  As people are educated and indoctrinated into systems of production and consumption, rest is equated with an early retirement coupled with days spent on a yacht or on the golf course.

Romantic relationships are presented as a place of rest in romantic comedies and pop songs.  If we find the love of our life, he or she will accept us unconditionally.  In their arms we will be complete.  Our search is over and we find our rest.  However, the love of our life becomes a source of conflict and worry in real relationships.  They cannot personally fulfill us.    So, those who doggedly hold to this ideal jump from one romance to another believing that ultimately it will satisfy.  However, in God’s kingdom healthy romance is meant to point beyond itself to the divine romance.  It is Jesus who most completely woos us.  It is Christ who most completely pursues us.

Vacations vacate.  They create an emptiness where healing can take place.  However, emptying one space to move into another fails to deliver.  The deepest problems in our lives cannot be solved by a mere change in scenery.  They must be solved by a change of heart.  We are not ultimately fulfilled by an emptying.  We must find something or someone who truly satisfies.

The most common way to find rest is in distraction.  If we cease to think too hard we can get through life in some way refreshed.  However, this refreshment is rather like an induced coma.  It does not intentionally build up.  It does not replenish or refresh the soul.  It anaesthetizes so that we are just unaware of the fatigue in our bones.  The body, soul and spirit are not renewed, they are just remembered no more.  This is a shallow sleep, even with our eyes still open.  We dull our senses to the values we are ingesting.  Rather than fill ourselves with nourishment we veg out – we become couch potatoes. True rest empowers and fulfills.  Entertainment amuses us.  ‘To muse’ is to think.  To ‘amuse’ is to cease from contemplation – from thought.  As Neil Postman would argue, many in America are ‘amusing themselves to death.’  This is light years away from entering into God’s rest.

In England we do not have ‘vacations.’  We tend to call all of our days off from work ‘holidays.’  This creates a different mindset if we go back to the original meaning.  Holy days are the source of our holidays.  We were originally given time off to be with family and think more deeply about God.  The church had feast days where communities would gather together.  The Sabbath used to be more strictly observed.  People ceased from their weekly routines to think more deeply about God and connect in community.  Not every day should be a vacation, but Christ makes available to us a state of mind where every day is a holiday.  Our union with God through Jesus creates opportunity for rest as never before.

St. Augustine, one of the early church fathers had a prayer which draws us to where we should be.  It functions as a great summary of all that has been said.  Let us finish by praying this prayer together:

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.

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A Man Seeing Jesus Through a Woman’s Eyes

Image result for pierced and embraced kelli worrallI have finished reading the published edition of my wife’s book, Pierced and Embraced.  I had heard the talks and read the drafted copies in part, but the whole body of work was something I had yet to see.

I was surprised by the unity of the book because it told seven different stories.  However, the lives of the women in the gospels orbit around the central person of the gospels.  All seven of the stories point to Jesus.  What is also natural is the sense of chronology.  The book starts with Mary, mother of Jesus, whose wonder at the arrival of Jesus is the backdrop of our nativity scenes.  The book then watches Jesus’ life unfold through women who are fully embedded in the gospel narratives.  Women who are downtrodden by the culture or hidden behind hypocritical chauvinism are raised up and given a place on the stage.  However, each of the seven stories plays a part and glorifies the main character.  Each woman is pierced and embraced by the God-man.

In the final chapter, Jesus leaves Mary Magdalene in the garden, telling her not to cling on too tightly because there is so much more to come.  I finished the book with the same feeling.  I wanted more.  I wanted to see Jesus through more women’s eyes.  The book encourages women readers to express their experience of Jesus in ministry.  The book encourages women to speak up about their experience of Jesus.  It is a distinct voice – the voice of a woman.  the distinct perspectives of women and men need to both be expressed to create a complete picture.

In Genesis, Eve was created as a partner in the work that God gave mankind to do.  In many of our churches women are relegated to silence in all situations because of a strict understanding of Paul’s direction to churches.  In many households men don’t listen to women.  I am sure we have all seen a man at some point mock his wife behind her back – even to her face – because she keeps talking and he doesn’t want to listen.  However, my home will be richer and my preaching will be enhanced because of the voice of my wife in this book.  I believe sincerely that she has experienced Jesus through the lives of the women in the gospels.  I think her connection with these women has blessed me.  I am reminded that Kelli and I are equals and partners.  I am reminded that men and women need each other.  I am reminded that both perspectives create a kind of unity.  Out of that unity comes a more complete picture of the Truth.

I would easily recommend that any women’s group use my wife’s book as a Bible companion.  However, what I did not anticipate was how important I think it is for men to see Jesus’ relationship with women through a woman’s eyes.

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When Your Wife Enriches Your Ministry

11334172_10207116030883420_6051698478758119009_oI was speaking on the woman with a hemorrhage in Luke 8:40-56 at Warrenville, Bloomington,  and Gages Lake in Illnois over the last few months and Kelli, my wife, was able to help me.  She gave me a draft of her book that is coming out in August, Pierced and Embraced.  As I am reading through an advanced copy of her book, I re-read the chapter Seen and Healed:  The Woman with the Hemorrhage today.  The passage I preached on covered Jairus and the woman with a hemorrhage.  While the heart of Jairus was easy for me to penetrate, the heart of the woman who touched the hem of Jesus’ garment was less obvious to me.  This is why I think that Kelli’s book is important for male preaching pastors to own.  My wife’s examination of the women of the New Testament gives insight that many of the commentaries that I was using do not.  Unlike the academic commentaries that are my staple in preaching preparation, my wife’s Bible companion walked me into a feminine insight and deeper application.

After I preached from the passage this last Sunday, at Gages Lake, we sat down with our friends Mike and Cathy Bryant and Kelli and we reflected upon how Kelli and I had both examined the passage.  With the fusion of both of our perspectives there was a completeness in the communication.  When my wife has spoken at women’s retreats about this incident, she has started with the Gospel of Mark.  When I have spoken from the passage, I have started from the Gospel of Luke.  She has majored on what the story shows about who Jesus is, which is definitely essential.  I entitled my talk Shame. Desperation. Disappointment. Faith.  Kelli and I both tried to understand the shame of Jairus and the unnamed woman.  We explored the desperation and the disappointment.  However, what is required of the reader is an active faith in a healer who is worthy of that faith.

Kelli writes:

Desperation and Faith

Seeing, then, how Jairus falls at the feet of Jesus with such abandon, and how the woman with the hemorrhage creeps up to Him through the crowd with uncharacteristic courage, we must ask this next question:  what compels them to come?

The answer, I believe, is twofold – desperation and faith.

In verse 23 [of Mark 5], Jairus falls at Jesus’ feet and begs him on behalf of his daughter.  “My little daughter is at the point of death.  Come.”  The word that describes his plea is translated “earnestly” or “greatly” or “repeatedly”.  This is a matter of life and death, and he is understandably desperate to save his little girl.  He wants her to live.

Similarly, the woman comes to Jesus because she wants to be physically whole.  She wants the bleeding to stop.  She has tried everything else, and Jesus is her last hope.

Yes, they both come in human desperation.  But they also both come with some measure of faith.

If you can spare the time to listen to the sermon I preached on July 2nd (Bloomington E-Free Sermons July 2&9 http://subsplash.com/efreebn/s/61f0edf/), it’ll take 30 minutes or so, you will see how much my wife’s insights and mine sound the same.  It’s because we have informed each other.  Ministry as a couple is meant to be this way.  There is a completeness to the perspective.  This is what happens when your wife enriches your ministry.

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Water from the Well

Today I had that feeling that you have when a conversation ends too soon.  It was that time when you are at the coffee shop feeling a strong connection and your friend looks at their watch and says, “Is that the time?  I am so sorry I have to rush and pick up the kids.”

Reading chapter 2 of Pierced and Embraced in the morning sunshine I was transported to the well in Samaria, where a woman of questionable reputation was avoiding her neighbours by drawing water in the noonday sun.  At the same time, Jesus was there making witty and insightful remarks which reflected the woman’s longing and the condition of her heart.

The style of the writing works like some modern day T.V. shows such as The Arrow.  They tell two stories that are intertwined, one from the past and one from the present.  My wife unfolds the well worn narrative of 2,000 years ago and then shows its relevance by being transparent about her own experiences.  My wife is not perfect, and although she admits that she once ‘welcomed the label of perfectionism’ she paints a self-portrait warts and all.  The shortcomings of the Samaritan woman point to the need for Jesus’ life-giving water, and my wife’s shortcomings do the same.

As she lists labels and lies that we hide behind, or are crushed under, the transparency subtly exposes our own desires to create an image and hide our shame.  However, just like the ending of Mark’s Gospel, just as your heart swells with the sense that you have found important truths that you want to hear more about, Kelli’s chapter draws to a sudden close.  It has the affect of saying, “Over to you …”  In fact, the questions for reflection and discussion at the end of the chapter make that step fairly obvious.

For those longing for more of the life-giving water, an appropriate response would be to pursue the narrative further in the Gospel of John.  Kelli’s chapter only serves as a taste.  It serves as a step downward into the well.  This Bible companion, unlike some, does not promise to deliver ‘everything-you-need-to-know-about-John-4.’  It takes you by the hand and shows you the rim of the well where you might drink and drink to your heart’s content.  It has a humility about the women on the page and a transcendence about the Saviour.  It’s almost as if it breaks the conversation and rushes into town bidding you to come and meet the man who told me everything I had ever done.

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A Companion in Bible Study

Image result for pierced and embraced kelli worrall You may have noticed that, although I read through all of the NIV Application Commentary Series on 2 Corinthians, I did not post regular entries about what I had read.  I am trying to let go of posting daily reactions to what I read.  I am trying to be a little more private and introspective.  I think it is my calling for this season to simplify – to stop reaching out to more and more people and to reach out with increased focus to God.  To Rest in Him.  To stop and smell the flowers.  To look at the scenery.

Now that I have finished 2 Corinthians, I have ordered the Galatians commentary by Scot McKnight.  The waiting formed a window where I could sit down with my wife.  We have literally done that on the back patio a number of times this week.  However, I have also sat down with her a number of times in a less literal sense as I have been reading an advanced copy of her book.  I have sensed in the thoughtful words on the pages a connection with my life’s companion .  In a sense I feel the book itself is a companion available to a broader audience.  It is a Bible companion, almost a commentary similar to Tom (N.T.) Wright’s Bible For Everyone series.  The first chapter gives the sense of a transparent and authentic person sitting down beside you and discussing the life of Mary.  Because the book is more intimate and personal, it requires action on the part of the reader, too.  Kelli requests that the reader sit down with a journal and a Bible.  I thought this might be awkward, but it is not formal like a Kay Arthur or Beth Moore study – it is refreshingly different.  As I read it, it was less of the study and more of the companionship.  It was a quiet conversation.  In a word, Kelli’s book was ‘relational.’  Pierced and Embraced actually connects the reader with Mary and other New Testament characters rather than writing about them like a sterile book report or an academic exercise.

So, in the quietness of my retreat from the world and my increased satisfaction with all that God bestows on me each day, I felt like my wife was sat with me in my devotions even though she was typing in another room.  My heart was touched by the artistry of the turn of phrase, the piercing power of truthful insight, and the humility of a heart which is searching deeply and going deeper.

Here is an excerpt of what I read this morning which questions the common understanding of a calling which is measured by ease and comfort:

Sometimes our calling causes us to cower under the covers.  Sometimes we respond with uncertainty and fear when we hear him speak our name.  Sometimes we respond with dread.  Because sometimes God causes us to do crazy things.  Sometimes He calls us to build that great big boat when there is no sign of rain.  Sometimes he wants us to go to Nineveh and risk our very lives to share His good news.  Sometimes He calls us to care for people who seem downright impossible to love.  Sometimes those unlovables live in a distant land across the sea.  Sometimes they reside right under our own roof.  So we love, not because we feel compelled.  Not because the prospect propels us out of bed at the first light of day.  We love simply because he commands us to and because He loved us first.  (Taken from Called to Obey:  Mary, Mother of Jesus in the book Pierced and Embraced)

I would recommend that both men and women read this book in a quiet place and contemplate the Bible readings with Kelli.  I would then recommend they write down some thoughts and share them with a friend, or group of friends, over a coffee.  I believe the book will pierce and embrace your own soul, as Mary’s was pierced and embraced.  I believe the subsequent conversations will form deeper connections with others.  Most importantly, though, I am grateful for a wife who is an eloquent artist leading people deeper with The Father, through the ministry of The Son, in the winsome power of The Holy Spirit.

 

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The Absence of Bible Study

Image result for the absence of Bible study

When my children needed to be homeschooled we had to find time to do it.  Kelli and I oriented our lives around opposite schedules and we made sacrifices.  One of the sacrifices for me was the daily posting of Bible study reflections on this blog.  I hadn’t really done it for a constant flow of readers – my postings were too frequent to be popular.  Popular bloggers limit themselves to one decent post a week.  In fact a decent post has been defined to me as a weekly blurb of about 800 words or less.

One of the things I sacrificed along with my daily postings was my daily reading of a commentary.  I would get up each morning and read a selection from scripture from the NIV Application Commentary series.  I have read the majority of the commentaries now, but as I was finishing up 1 Corinthians I just let it go.  My rationalisation was that I would be reading daily with my children, so I would check the box of daily Bible study with them.

However, as I drew from a shallower well, so my refreshment and renewal became more superficial.  In doing a routine for the sake of my children, I lost the depth of connection that I had done from my own heart to God.  I hadn’t become pagan, but I had become less thoroughly Christian.  Not that God was saving me less, but just that our conversations had become less enlivening.

Today I read the introduction to a commentary on 2 Corinthians and I was drawn into the book in a deeper way.  I have had oases of experience over the last year and a half, but they have been oases and not running rivers.  I have prepared sermons and tried to spend close to twenty to twenty-five hours with a text.  When I know that I am preaching on a passage, somehow I make time for it.

Bible study can not just be a cerebral activity, it must be formative.  It is not about the information, but the formation (James K A Smith).  The patterns we form our lives around must also have a focus.  The focus of all of us should be the father heart of God.  Our highest call is into divine intimacy, and our life practices must show that.

This summer I am challenged to re-institute a pattern of Bible study that does not check a box, but that consistently holds my attention and fixes my gaze away from self and onto a saviour who is bigger than my mind can grasp.  I have studied the Bible consistently, but it has not been devotedly.  In developing a pattern of devotion and prayer in my children I have neglected a healthy pattern in my self.  Eating consistently the diet of an 8-year-old is not sufficient nourishment for a 47-year-old.

As I post on the Plymothian, I am not producing so that others may consume.  I am not buying in to a system of commercial success, platform building, or broadcasting.  I am just journaling for God and committing to evidence that my heart is devoted to him.  May it be so.

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