Spring hope and restoration

Restoration. I often feel like spring is a picture of restoration as the world’s life seems to be restored after the (apparent) barrenness of winter. With someone who is definitely affected by the dark, cold days of winter, I often feel like my heart awakens with spring every year. I love warmth and sunshine. This year’s long-in-coming-spring felt trying for me. But it came. And in that there is a hint of the Future Restoration all of creation is waiting for (whether they realize it or not). 

A few weeks ago, I taught from 2 Kings 8:1-6 about a widow whose land is restored, and the way this seemingly obscure story is included in the Bible to speak to us of a much greater hope of restoration.

8 Now Elisha had said to the woman whose son he had restored to life, “Arise, and depart with your household, and sojourn wherever you can, for the Lord has called for a famine, and it will come upon the land for seven years.” So the woman arose and did according to the word of the man of God. She went with her household and sojourned in the land of the Philistines seven years. And at the end of the seven years, when the woman returned from the land of the Philistines, she went to appeal to the king for her house and her land. Now the king was talking with Gehazi the servant of the man of God, saying, “Tell me all the great things that Elisha has done.” And while he was telling the king how Elisha had restored the dead to life, behold, the woman whose son he had restored to life appealed to the king for her house and her land. And Gehazi said, “My lord, O king, here is the woman, and here is her son whom Elisha restored to life.” And when the king asked the woman, she told him. So the king appointed an official for her, saying, “Restore all that was hers, together with all the produce of the fields from the day that she left the land until now.”

Parts of my talk are included below – praying you will be encouraged by the hope of restoration wherever you feel the longing for it most today.

Have you ever lost something very precious to you? Maybe not valuable in terms of price but irreplaceable because of what it was. While visiting my parents in South Carolina over Christmas, I lost the pearl ring my parents gave me for my 30th birthday. I didn’t realize I had lost it until we arrived back in Norfolk. I just assumed I had already packed it some place really “special” but couldn’t find it when unpacking. I searched through all of the usual places, multiple times. I called and asked my mom to look for it, which I assumed would be like looking for a needle in a haystack since it could have been anywhere. And it didn’t show up for weeks. I considered it gone forever. Imagine my relief and joy when I pulled on a pair of pants to find it comfortably lodged deep in the pocket. I felt like I had received it back again! Isn’t that what makes restoration almost better than the original gift? You had counted it as lost, and then it’s restored. Webster’s defines the verb “restore” as

Verb

  1. Bring back; reinstate.
  2. Return (someone or something) to a former condition, place, or position.
Synonyms

return – give back – renovate – renew – rehabilitate

This is a small, trivial example of something lost that’s been restored. What do you find yourself longing to be restored today? Maybe it’s the weight of relationships that are broken and feel lost forever – maybe with a parent, or a child, or a spouse, or a friend. Or maybe you are in the process of losing a home or a job due to financial stress, unemployment, or your new orders. Perhaps you are losing an entire way of life as you anticipate a major change on the horizon – whether it be a joyful change like marriage or having children, or bittersweet such as retirement or kids leaving for school or college. Maybe you find yourself in a much darker place than anything I’ve mentioned yet as you deal with the loss of someone close to you through death, or the loss of hope through miscarriage or infertility, or the lingering loss of childhood or innocence because of past abuse. And in all of these losses, what often accompanies them is a loss of faith or trust in God and his goodness. Is God going to come through for you when you feel like you’ve lost everything that matters to you – or if not everything, the one thing or person that mattered the most? Is restoration even possible?

Our story today says yes as it highlights God as the one who provides and the one who restores. As we think about it together, we’re going to look at God’s provision and restoration from three perspectives: 

(1) God’s restoration for the Shunammite woman

In 2 Kings 8:1-6, we see a woman who experiences God’s provision and abundant restoration in her life. First, we need to do a little background on her life to remember her remarkable history. In 2 Kings 4:1-37, we are introduced to this woman who is wealthy and hospitable, building a room for Elisha to stay in when he passes through their town. She’s the woman who was given a son by God in repayment for her kindness after years of apparent infertility. And she’s the woman who loses her son unexpectedly at a young age to death, and then seeks Elisha’s help when he dies. What happens next is one of the greatest miracles in the Bible. She receives her son back when Elisha restores his life to him in a resurrection miracle. All of this happens before this chapter of her story begins.

It opens with bleak circumstances and yet we see the first evidence of God’s care for her: God’s provision of a warning. Israel is going to be hit with a seven-year famine (no small thing for an agrarian society), presumably as part of God’s desire to wake them up from their idolatry. This woman will be spared because she is given a warning by Elisha of what’s coming. We see her faith in her response described in verse 2, “So the woman arose and did according to the word of the man of God.” What she left behind was no small thing. We know that she was wealthy and that she was comfortably settled, and she leaves all of this behind to go live in the land of the Philistines (enemies of Israel). This would not have been a comfortable place to live by any stretch of the imagination.

Perhaps it helped that she knew it would only be seven years, for we see her journeying back after seven years. Her land and her home are now gone, and she must appeal to the king for it. What we see now is a second aspect of God’s care for her in his provision of perfect timing. As she enters the king’s court, the king “just happened” to be asking Gehazi (Elisha’s servant) to tell him about Elisha’s miracles. And Gehazi “just happened” to be telling him about the resurrection miracle when the woman herself walks into the king’s presence and Gehazi announces her, “…here is the woman, and here is her son whom Elisha restored to life.” The king is intrigued and asked the woman herself to recount the story. He is duly impressed, and as a result, appoints an official with the instructions, “Restore all that was hers…” and not only that, but also “all the produce of the fields from the day that she left the land until now.” This is abundant provision, over and above what she requested or expected.

What we see through this short narrative is a God who provides and who restores, caring for the needs of one individual woman and her family. Do you wonder why this particular story of this particular woman is included in the Bible for us? I find great comfort in the reminder that our God is a God who is in the business of restoration. And that our God goes about restoration one individual at a time. He is not only the God of global restoration of all things, but He is also the God who is in the business of restoring individual lives.

(2) God’s message of restoration for Israel

The original audience, Israel, were also sojourners like this woman, sojourners not by choice but by captivity. They must have wondered whether they would have homes and land to return to one day. Imagine what great comfort they would find through this story! For them, the sermon would have been something like the following:

  1. You will be restored to your land after exile – there is an end in sight
  2. God notices, cares, and orchestrates details to make his will come to pass for his people
  3. Do according to God’s word like the Shunammite woman and God will provide and restore

(3) God’s promise of restoration to His people today

Those points are certainly not irrelevant for us today, who also live as spiritual exiles who are not home. If we think of the big picture of the story of what God is doing in history, we also are ones who have had a home that we left (the Garden of Eden). We are now in captivity to sin, to futility in our work and to pain in child bearing/raising. We are awaiting restoration of all creation and a perfect home with God who will make all things new. But we have even more hope as we wait than the Israelites did because we can now look back to Jesus Christ. Just as the woman’s restoration of her land hinged on the son restored to life, so does our restoration depend on the Son restored to life.

During Easter we particularly contemplate Jesus’ death more than any other time in the calendar year, and we also celebrate Jesus’ resurrection life as the high point of the church calendar. It is the highlight of Redemption – of God’s global Restoration story. For in Jesus restored to life, we all have hope that we ourselves will also be restored to life after death and that even now our hearts are restored from sin’s captivity. Jesus came to begin the process of returning all things to their former/rightful condition, place, and position. With his death and resurrection life, He promises to bring back and reinstate all those who believe in him to a place of unbroken relationship with their Creator. The ripple effects of such a restoration are to be seen and experienced most vividly in our restored relationships with one another and in our joint restoration efforts to restore cities, communities, all of creation to its intended glorious state.

What could this really look like for you and for me as we face the death of friends, financial difficulties, life stress, overbooked schedules, health problems, broken relationships?

God agrees that your life and this world is broken, it is far from his original intent and the glory it was created to display. Don’t let the brokenness keep you from seeing the perfection of the God who created it all to be good, and who is on a global renovation/restoration plan to make it so again.

Don’t let the weight of your sin keep you from experiencing the restoration of grace and forgiveness guaranteed by Jesus Christ.

Remember who we were created to be and what the world was created to display, and mourn how far we have all fallen. But dare to hope and pray and work with the God who is in the business of restoration. 

When you break Lent (and it breaks you)

Lent.

The period of 40 weekdays that in the Christian Church is devoted to fasting, abstinence, and penitence.

I chose what I thought would be four hard but do-able items for my Lenten fast this year. Call me an overachiever, or more accurately, an over-estimator of my own strength. A month ago I posted about my hopes for Lent. How hard could it really be? And how refreshing and empowering could it be! In taking away many of my heart’s distractions – phone apps, Target, sweets, t.v. – I assumed that God would replace my heart’s misplaced affections with a renewed love for Christ and the people around me.

About three weeks in, I broke Lent. Fully and completely. Not just one day, but I think it was about every day of the week and I broke every single “fast” multiple times. I rationalized why for each of them.

  • Going to Target will help me stick to our family budget on some key grocery items like Kashi cereal and goldfish.
  • “Non-essential” phone app category expanded dramatically. I started Lent with 6 icons on my home screen that I deemed “non-essential.” I’m ending Lent with twice as many.
  • Television is the only way that my husband and I can really share down time together after busy days in the midst of a busy week
  • I really just “need” a quick pick-me-up. Nothing like a bite of chocolate to do that.

My response to breaking Lent? First, my typical pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-straps approach: “Just try harder, Heather. Get it together. You can do it!” As this failed, I descended to self-blame, punishment, guilt and shame. “This is really not that hard. There are millions of people in the world who LIVE without these things daily, and you can’t just go without for 40 days?? What is wrong with YOU?” That also got me nowhere fast.

And then I realized that maybe this is the real purpose of Lent. To reveal (again) that I cannot fulfill the Law. Any law – of God’s eternally perfect law, other people’s expectations, or my own standards. Maybe Lent is meant to show me how little I can do in my own strength, and therefore how MUCH I need Jesus and His life, death, and resurrection that we celebrate at Easter. Truth echoed in these verses from Romans 3:19-20 –

Now we know that whatever the law says it speaks to those who are under the law, so that every mouth may be stopped, and the whole world may be held accountable to God. For by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.

Breaking Lent is one way that the law breaks me. It’s a beautiful breaking, for it leads me to the One who restores and makes new. If I didn’t practice a Lenten fast this year, I would be that much less aware of my helplessness to gain eternal life and a relationship with God on my own strength or efforts. And so, in an upside-down backwards way, breaking Lent has broken me of trying and pointed me in desperate hope to Jesus whose death we remember this week and whose life we celebrate next Sunday. Listen to this hope found in Romans 5:6 and 21 –

For while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly. … so that … grace also might reign through righteousness leading to eternal life through Jesus Christ our Lord.

As we round the final corner of Lent, walking into Holy Week’s somber reflections, let us remember that we cannot earn Easter on our own merit. Our best trying leaves us hopeless. Let us fall in our weariness and allow Jesus to pick us up and bring us with Him to the cross and then the hope of the empty tomb this week and always.

2013: the year of NEW

20130107-073027.jpg

New. It’s a word that conjures up freshness, a clean slate, a beginning, something unused, not old. Like this exquisite sunrise we witnessed on New Year’s Eve. I don’t often get to see a sunrise because I’m just not “a morning person” but this was an unexpected benefit of getting up at 4:30 am that day to drive back home before toddlers became too cranky. It was breathtaking and glorious. I want it to be the picture of this new year dawning, of every day dawning. One of my favorite bloggers, Ann Voskamp, names her years, and I thought that I would follow that trend this year. I want it to be new. In every way.

To experience God’s mercies that are new every day (Lamentations 3:22-24).

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.”

To live out of the new heart I’ve been given by God in the Spirit (Ezekiel 36:26-27).

26 I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit in you and move you to follow my decrees and be careful to keep my laws.

To put off the old self, put on the new self created to be like Christ (Ephesians 4:24, Colossians 3:10).

24  … put on the new self,created after the likeness of God in true righteousness and holiness.

10 … put on the new self, which is being renewed in knowledge in the image of its Creator.

To experience a taste of the future when our returning King comes to make all things new because even now, I am part of this new creation (2 Corinthians 5:17).

17 Therefore, if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; the old has gone, the new has come!

I want to fight sin in a new way, and to see new grace instead of dwelling on old hurts, failures, sins.

Less complaining, more thanksgiving.

Less thinking about what I want, more thoughtful considering of what the Spirit wants.

A posture of listening. (I am so quick to talk, to speak, to offer my “wisdom,” to think I know better.)

To see my children anew and delight in them.

So much about my life has felt mundane, monotonous, difficult. And I am tired of complaining about it and then feeling stuck and defined by it. I want this year to be different. I want to experience new freedom from sinful anger, discontentment, and complaining. I don’t want to repeat old cycles of sin that are so well-learned by me. I want to know a newness that permeates every part of my heart, life, world, neighborhood, church, community.

For starters.

How? Empowered by the Spirit of Christ, who is the source of all things NEW, a few thoughts as I’ve had time to reflect and ruminate during this first week of 2013:

  • Renewal of the mind = memorize Romans 1, 8, 12 (as per Ann Voskamp’s plan) and begin the 2-year Bible reading plan by Whitmer
  • Take Voskamp’s “Joy Dare” to purposely focus on gratitude instead of complaint
  • Weekly “state of the union” with Seth to connect about marriage and our lives (an idea I’m indebted to Jim & Marsha Petty for – my wonderful landlords when I first landed in Philly for seminary)
  • Focus on my children when I’m home with them – less texting, escaping to technology via email/Instagram/FB/etc, less talking on the phone, maybe even fewer visitors and play dates so that I don’t miss these years.
  • Read 40 books. Life –changing ones, preferably. I’m off to a good start with Seven by Jen Hatmaker. Revolutionary, in a word. (Thanks for inviting me to read this with you, Katherine.)

The source of my hope for NEW is here in an ancient prophetic book, Isaiah 43:18-21 –

18 “Forget the former things;
do not dwell on the past.
19 See, I am doing a new thing!
Now it springs up; do you not perceive it?
I am making a way in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland.
20
… I provide water in the wilderness
and streams in the wasteland,
to give drink to my people, my chosen,
21 the people I formed for myself
that they may proclaim my praise.

Connecting Christmas with the Newtown Tragedy

stars at night

Darkness. Black darkness. Tiny beams of light come through. But it’s still night. We still wait. We can’t see clearly, and we don’t know when daylight will arrive. Yet aren’t the stars brighter because it is so dark? They are not visible when the sun is at full strength. We await Light. The true Light sent into the world, whose first coming [Advent] we celebrate during this season. But all it takes is the horrific story of a deranged 20-year-old committing the most senseless tragedy to date in an elementary school in a safe, postcard-perfect New England town that had a single homicide on its record of the past 10 years – all it takes is this one story to remind me, to remind us, that there is a greater Advent we await. Our king came in weakness and vulnerability the first time, but when he returns next, there will be no question of his power and his strength and all evil will flee before him like darkness at dawn’s first light.

Come, thou long-expected Jesus, born to set Thy people free. From our fears and sins release us; let us find our rest in Thee.

The only way I can reconcile the Newtown tragedy with this season is to see it as a study of contrasts. The darker the light, the brighter the star shines? The God who came, and who is coming again, came to the unsuspecting and unaware. But not to take life senselessly – he entered to give life abundantly. Many asked “why?” Why would a powerful God, the Creator of all, stoop to take on human flesh in some mysterious and lowly way? Love. Love that beautifies and gives life to the one loved. Many still ask why – why come to a virgin? Seems humanly impossible. Why come poor and not rich? Why come to a lowly city? Why spread the news first to those despised in society [shepherds]? Unlike all of the “why” questions we’re asking about the Sandy Hook tragedy, these “why” questions are beautifully inexplicable. Underneath all the search for why and theories as to what caused Lanz to do what he did is a search for safety and protection that we are never guaranteed on this side of heaven. I shiver with fear to write these words. I feel the “survivor guilt” of being able to hug my two daughters when there are 20 sets of parents who waited in vain for their children on Friday. I feel the anxiety mixed with nausea when just imagining what it would have been like to wait for  my child who had been senselessly murdered. I said to a friend in jest, “Another point for homeschooling.” Yet the sobering reality is that I cannot protect my children in any place, at any time. I cannot guarantee their safety. This is a call for me to entrust my fear to the God who banishes fear, who has prepared a safe place where sin cannot enter, death is no more, and tears and mourning are forever banished.

Because I worship a God who came near, I can have faith to picture what you won’t see in any news report. We see the images of weeping parents without their children. But what would it be like to imagine our Father God welcoming these little ones home on Friday? Rescued from the evil of the world, now safe forever from the power of the Evil One to hurt and destroy. They were not embraced by their earthly parents on Friday, but could they be embraced by God their Father through faith in Jesus? Who knows but that many of these little ones had the child-like faith Jesus tells us we are to emulate. Now they see the reality we hope for during Advent.

Even more so, I know that I can trust this God who came near. In the midst of heart-wrenching suffering and sadness, I was reminded by our pastor this morning that our God is a Father who knows what it’s like to have a child unjustly murdered. He allowed Jesus Christ – his only Son – to die for the sin of the hurt and rage and brokenness of all the human race so that we might be saved from sin’s death sentence. So that we can hope for full justice even in such a tragedy. So that our own sinful brokenness might be healed and we would know comfort in the midst of unspeakable pain.

No more let sins and sorrows grow, nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found

As there are new corners touched and hearts broken by sin’s curse through this tragedy, I can hold onto hope that Jesus is coming to bring joy when he reigns with truth and grace and that even now the comfort of the Christ-child (God come near – Emmanuel) can be tasted in the midst of a dark world. We wait for dawn in the dark blackness of night. But it is coming. He is coming. Come soon, Lord Jesus!

grief, glory, and hope

Having recently returned from our annual vacation at the beach with my family, I am basking in its beauty. One of my favorite memories from this week is the surprising delight of watching monarch butterflies migrate over the beach heading South for the winter. They flew constantly, in groups of 10-12 at a time, in a constant parade through the dunes.  I am feeling restored and refreshed from time with family with whom we can both laugh freely and converse deeply. And just in time, as only days after our return, a beloved sister in Christ from our church passed away to glory after a long battle with cancer. Seth and I both had the privilege of walking alongside her during this journey towards Home, and it has changed us. Reminds us of how very close we each are to eternity, and of how full of suffering this side of heaven can be. Her memorial service will be the second I’ll attend in a month, the first being that of my sister-in-law’s father who also passed away after a battle with cancer. It is sobering and causes one to reflect on life, its endings and beginnings. Death even when “expected” is always a shock. It feels so wrong, because it is. It is not part of the original plan for Glory.

Death tarnishes humanity, casts its long shadow of fear over life. But we have a God who conquers it, in whom we can rejoice even in grief. How do you walk alongside someone who is literally in the valley of the shadow of death? (Psalm 23) Or with those whose lives now are shadowed by the grief of a loved one’s death? You walk with them. You listen; you learn; realizing that there is much to be found in these times of mourning. Ecclesiastes points to that:

It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind, and the living will lay it to heart. (Ecclesiastes 7:2)

And you hold out hope with them in the midst of grief. Not in a shallow Pollyanna-rose-colored-glasses-this-isn’t-that-bad kind of way, but in a deep way rooted in the hope of the One who also hates death. The One who hated it so much that He sacrificed His own Son to destroy it – through His own death and then victory through His resurrection. We have hope that all who believe in Christ by faith will live again in the place where there are no tears, no pain, no brokenness. We have hope that we will see the One face-to-face we have only known by faith on this side of heaven. We have hope that in the midst of deep grief and mourning, there is One who meets us there – one who uses these very places to open up our own souls to more of His love, to know more of His comfort.

For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too. (2 Corinthians 1:5)

The hope doesn’t take away the tears, nor should it. It doesn’t answer the questions; it’s not meant to. But it gives peace and courage amidst the pain and the questions. I have seen that in my sister-in-law and her family. We are already experiencing that in our church family here too. I want to learn more of that. This is the Glory hidden here now: it weaves through life, mixing joy and sorrow, grief and hope.

thankful

I wanted to give a bit of an update after the last post. Yes, motherhood has felt particularly difficult over the past several weeks, but also YES, I have a God who is alive and who meets me in the midst of all of life’s struggles and provides even more than what I need. And my heart is refreshed and thankful today as I think about …

  • grace and mercies new every morning – and every moment – as I need them
  • the refreshment of a week with family – who reminded me what a delight Lucia & Alethia are to us
  • moments to relax on the beach without having to track down the girls (thank you, Gigi & Pops!!)
  • the infinite horizon of the ocean meeting the sky that is just a tiny picture of the infinite love of God for His people “O, the deep, deep love of Jesus … vast, unmeasured, boundless, free … rolling as a mighty ocean, in its fullness over me …” (lines from my favorite hymn)
  • a date with Seth in Charleston
  • the refreshment of God’s Word – recently decided to read through the book of James. Its practical wisdom has been just what I need in this season of life, from the book called the “Proverbs of the New Testament.”
  • a day to be with God’s people and worship and receive the bread & the wine … and rest (thanks to a longer nap from the twins)
  • friends who encourage, pray for me, remind me that I am not alone in the hard days (you know who you are – thank you!)
  • my husband who faithfully loves and cares for me and our daughters
  • our God who is always faithful and loving and merciful, unchanging though all else can seem like it has changed

Remembering Beverlee

Yes, this might be another tear-jerking post, so consider yourself warned. But I could not let today go by without remembering Beverlee Kirkland. It was a year ago today that this dear friend and mentor passed away. What a woman of grace she was! She continues to be someone I remember and whose presence in my life I miss. She prayed regularly with me and for me, even while suffering from complications related to diabetes that left her home-bound and often hospitalized during the two years I knew her. A year later when I find myself in a similar place of being confined to home while on bed rest, she continues to be an example to me of faithful, selfless love even in the midst of suffering and physical limitations.

So in honor and memory of Bev, here are a few things she’s left behind as a legacy for me personally (and I would imagine for many more as well):

(1) Self-less love and concern for others while undergoing intense suffering. Whenever I would visit her, whether at home or in the hospital, she always began our conversations by asking me how I was doing. She would follow-up with specific things I had asked her to pray about and was always others-centered.

(2) The importance of putting on your makeup even when you’re sick. Laugh if you may, but this reflected her grace and style. She was a classy woman always, and she’d have her makeup on even when in the hospital. So during my brief stint  in the hospital a few weeks ago, I remembered this and put on my makeup and my pearl earrings as a tribute to Bev.

(3) How a cup of tea leads to rich conversation. Whenever we met at her home, we would first fix a pot of hot British tea. And somehow, that just set the tone for a more thoughtful and rich discussion. She was quite the hospitality queen, and I frequently ask myself, “What would Bev do?” when I’m preparing to have guests over. It’s really the little details that can make a big difference.

(4) The privilege of prayer. In her last months when she was feeling so weak and ill, she still prayed for me and many others. When her eyesight kept her from reading, she could still keep praying – and she did. She showed me what a privilege prayer is, and the real ministry it is to the church. She helped to build our church through her prayers, even when she couldn’t physically be involved.

(5) How Jesus bestows dignity and beauty to suffering. She is one of the most beautiful women I have ever known, and this is because of the Christ-like beauty that shone through her even more so as she suffered. Christ was her strength, to her last day, and her suffering was made beautiful because of Christ’s radiance shining through her. There’s a picture and an obituary at this site (scroll down).

I know that she is Home with Jesus now, and that gives those of us left behind great comfort and hope. Yet we still miss her. And I hope that one day I will leave a similar legacy. She is now in the company of one of the witnesses urging us on to run with perseverance this race marked out for us by our King, fixing our eyes on Jesus (Hebrews 12:1-3).

Identity, security, glory (Ephesians 1.1-14)

When was the last time that you heard something that you thought was too good to be true? It probably won’t take you long to think of something, whether it’s as trivial as the diet pill pop-up advertisement or the free* vacation (*requiring only that you listen to their 2 hour long time-share presentation and give your credit card info to them so that they can charge a non-refundable $75 deposit  – true story, by the way, that happened to friends of mine a couple weeks ago). Yet I imagine that you, like me, have other deeper and more life-defining moments of disappointment: like the parent who walked out on your family when you were young or the spouse who seemed to make all your dreams come true – until you discovered he or she had been living a double life for years. These kind of disappointments make us as a generation prone to cynicism. Or in its “milder” forms perhaps “realism” or “not-getting-your-hopes-up-too-much” kinds of approaches to life.

God’s promises for the Christian in Ephesians 1:1-14 require that we leave our disbelief, cynicism, disappointment behind. Because to comprehend even a small part of what  God is saying will feel at first that it is simply too good to be true. Yet we forget the difference between our Creator God and our own fragile and broken humanity. People will always disappoint, but God stays true forever. So suspend your disappointment, and imagine that this is true for you as one who believes in Christ! Be encouraged and amazed by our God … and come to Him with your worship and your questions.

1Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God,
To the saints in Ephesus, the faithful in Christ Jesus:

2Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

3Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ. 4For he chose us in him before the creation of the world to be holy and blameless in his sight. In love 5he predestined us to be adopted as his sons through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will— 6to the praise of his glorious grace, which he has freely given us in the One he loves. 7In him we have redemption through his blood, the forgiveness of sins, in accordance with the riches of God’s grace 8that he lavished on us with all wisdom and understanding. 9And he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, 10to be put into effect when the times will have reached their fulfillment—to bring all things in heaven and on earth together under one head, even Christ.

11In him we were also chosen, having been predestined according to the plan of him who works out everything in conformity with the purpose of his will, 12in order that we, who were the first to hope in Christ, might be for the praise of his glory. 13And you also were included in Christ when you heard the word of truth, the gospel of your salvation. Having believed, you were marked in him with a seal, the promised Holy Spirit, 14who is a deposit guaranteeing our inheritance until the redemption of those who are God’s possession—to the praise of his glory.

I want to highlight three aspects of this feels-too-good-to-be-true passage:

  1. The identity of God’s people: in Christ
  2. The security of God’s love in Christ
  3. The beauty and glory of God’s purpose in Christ

1. The identity of God’s people: IN CHRIST

  • Jesus Christ is key to the security of God’s love and the beauty of God’s purpose, and so it is in Christ that we find our identity. We’re now, like those this letter was addressed to, saints – faithful – holy – blameless – we’re loved because we are  “the Beloved”: is this how you think of yourself?
  • We are:
    • Blessed in Christ (3 & 6)
    • Chosen in Christ (4)
    • Adopted through Christ (5)
    • Redeemed & forgiven through Christ’s blood (7)
    • Recipients of an inheritance in Christ (11) through hoping in Christ and believing in Christ (12-13)
  • We exist by His grace in Christ, through His grace in Christ, and for displaying His grace in Christ. “For the praise of His glory” is the refrain of this passage. Glory means God’s beauty, goodness, character. In essence: who He is. This phrase means that it’s not about me but about God. My purpose and identity is discovered as I see myself in Christ: redeemed, holy loving — existing to love God with all I am and love others as God loves me. This is not, as a friend of mine said, making us less of who we are but MORE of who we are meant to be.
  • We are God’s own adopted children enjoying the same rights as natural children: both privileges and responsibilities.

2. The security of God’s love in Christ

  • Secure because His love began before the beginning of time – before you were born, before the world was created. God knew everything about you, yet chose to love you. “Having been predestined” means that God gave you a destiny before the beginning of time, and this destiny was to be His beloved one. It is not unlike the love of a mother for her yet unborn child, or parents anticipating adoption: they choose to love this child before they know him or her.
  • Secure because it depends on God’s work, not yours. It is not the strength of our faith that matters most, but the faithfulness of God, as my friend April reminded me. It is primarily God’s activity that is highlighted in this passage, and our activity is merely to respond. God chose, adopted, redeemed, forgave, gave an inhertance, sealed, lavished, and made His will known – to US! Our response is to hope in Christ by believing in Christ when we hear the gospel (the good news that Jesus Christ died and rose again that we may be called “holy and blameless” before God – that our sins may be forgiven and redeemed).
  • Secure because of this cascade of blessings (vv. 3-14). God not only chose us in Christ, but also adopted us in love. He not only adopted us in love, but also redeemed us. Not only redeemed us, but also forgave us. Not only forgave us [the debt], but gave us an inheritance [put credit to our account]. And how do we know we won’t lose this? We’re not only given an inheritance, but sealed us with the Holy Spirit as a guarantee of what’s to come. This is total and complete security from beginning to end.
  • What difference does this make? [what Ephesians lays out for us is termed by theologians as the doctrine of election]  I can testify personally that it makes all the difference in the world. Before God opened my eyes to the beauty of His secure love for me, I constantly vacillated between pride and fear. On the days when I felt like I had done pretty good (enough good deeds, loved others, wasn’t impatient in traffic/etc), I would feel prideful – confident that I had deserved God’s favor. However, on the many other days when I saw my own failures, I would be full of fear, worry, insecurity, and anxiety. How could God possibly love me if I struggled so much? The security of God’s love in Christ frees me from both. I have no room for pride, because God has done it all. And fear is banished, because I can’t be separated from God’s love. (see Romans 8:28-39 for another full description of these truths)

3. The beauty  and glory of God’s purpose in Christ

  • His love and choosing of us in Christ isn’t a haphazard wish, but it is intentional and purposeful. Verse 5 says that these promises are “according to the purpose of his will,” verse 9 repeats that: “according to his purpose,” and  verse 11 sums it up by saying it is all “according to the purpose of him who works all things according to the counsel of his will.” Even right after the Fall in Genesis 3, there is the promise that Jesus will come – the seed of Eve who will crush the serpent’s head – God purposed to send Christ to make it possible for us as sinful people to become holy and blameless.
  • His purpose/will is to bless us with “every spiritual blessing” – to lavish us with “riches of his grace,” making us who hope in Christ recipients of His grace.
  • His purpose/will is that we who were his enemies, who are broken and marred by sin, become holy and blameless – as Christ takes our sin and gives us His righteousness.
  • And God’s purpose/will is not only to reconcile individuals to himself and to each other, but to restore all things in Christ – in heaven and on earthin the “fullness of time” (v. 9-10). This is all about understanding the larger story, summarized so well by N.T. Wright in his excellent devotional commentary on Ephesians as follows:

“God’s great prayer at the opening of this letter is a celebration of the larger story within which every single Christian story — every story of individual conversion, faith, spiritual life, obedience and hope — is set. Only by understanding and celebrating the larger story can we hope to understand everything that’s going on in our smaller stories, and so observe God at work in and through our own lives.”

It is often hard to wrap my mind around such a beautiful picture of full redemption. That is why I think C.S. Lewis has done it so well in the closing chapter of the last book in his excellent series, the Narnia Chronicles, entitled “The Last Battle.” Soak it up – and believe it is really as good as it seems and as true as it is good:

Then Aslan [the character of a good lion who represents God in these stories] turned to them and said, “You do not yet look so happy as I mean you to be.”

Lucy said, “We’re so afraid of being sent away, Aslan. And you have sent us back into our world so often.”

“No fear of that,” said Aslan. “Have you not guessed?” Their hearts leaped and a wild hope rose within them.

“There was a real railway accident,” said Aslan softly. “Your father and mother and all of you are — as you used to call it in the Shadowland — dead. The term is over: the holidays have begun. The dream is ended: this is the morning.”

And as he spoke He no longer looked to them like a lion; but the things that began to happen after that were so great and so beautiful that I cannot write them. And for us this is the end of all the stories, and we can most truly say that they all lived happily ever after. But for them it was only the beginning of the real story. All their life in this world and all their adventures in Narnia had only been the cover and the title page: now at last they were beginning Chapter One of the Great Story which no one on earth has read: which goes on forever: in which every chapter is better than the one before.

Introduction to Ephesians: Identity & Grace

So my apologies to those of you who have faithfully followed my blog. I took a break because I was preparing to present two lectures on Ephesians to our church’s women’s Bible study. But I hope you’ll also be encouraged by these truths as well. Here’s week 1: introduction to Ephesians …

INTRO: The New Year is often a time for reflection, review, and resolutions. (and hey, it’s still January – so it’s not too late!) I tend to be a reflective person, and so there’s something I love about this transition. What’s often inherent in the “new year promise” is the hope of a new identity. Yes, you can have the body you’ve always wanted, and so new gyms lure you in with promises of new rates and fitness challenges – and the “January crowd” always packs it in. Finances went bad last year? This year offers new promises of sticking to your budget and paying off debt. This is the year to finally put to rest old family feuds; to finally face the “ghosts from your past”; to finally overcome that besetting habit that’s plagued you. And our resolutions reflect our desire to recreate our identities – to make over our selves into the better versions we know we could be.

I, too, enjoy this aspect of a new year. I’ve reflected on the old year; thought about how I want this new year to be different. There’s something hopeful about the freshness of the calendar year. Listen to these resolutions I came up with in 1996 (when I was a junior in high school):

1. To be more diligent in schoolwork-try very hard to complete the work the night before.

2. To go to God first about everything that happens

3. To have a more consistent walk with God – not so many ups and downs

4. To not be a part of a car accident in the next year

5. To exercise at least once a week

6. To have a daily quiet time of 5 minutes or more

7. To be rid of all jealousy

8. To have better family relationships

9. To watch for God’s hand in all that happens in my life and see the good in all situations

And apparently I was still working on some of the same things in 1997 (senior year of high school):

1. To have a daily quiet time with God greater than 15 minutes

2. To exercise 3 times a week [at least I moved up closer to what’s recommended!]

3. To give each day to God by prayer and thank him for each day in the evening

4. To cease complaining

5. To try to complete all homework before Sunday

6. To be uninvolved in a car accident this year [I was only in one, by the way, and that was Dec. ’95]

7. To live each day in full reliance upon my Lord with the hope that He has a wonderful plan for my life and “is able to do immeasurably more than all we ask or imagine” (Eph. 3:20)

These resolutions are not bad in and of themselves. I included some good goals — yet the truth is that I’m still working on much of them! The promises of Ephesians offer something much better than our reflections and resolutions that accompany the New Year. Ephesians speaks directly to the question of identity – offering you the reality of the identity you’ve been given if you are a Christian, or the identity you’re invited into if you’re not yet a Christian.

Who needs Ephesians? All of us do! As you can tell from my new year’s resolutions, I tend to struggle with finding my identity in my own righteousness – my efforts to pray more, read the Bible more, exercise more, even love people more – and I forget grace. I first really read, studied, meditated (and even attempted to memorize) Ephesians the summer between my sophomore and junior year of college. For those of you who have heard my testimony of God’s work in my life, this summer is the one I refer to as “the summer of grace.” I entered this summer an exhausted legalist, trying to perform the works God required of me in my own strength, and I left the summer an energized, free daughter of God, empowered by grace to minister in new ways to the 50 freshmen and sophomore women I was an R.A. to my junior year. I can say that I would not have gotten through that stretching year without the grace of God in Christ described so beautifully in the book of Ephesians.

Where are you?

  • Maybe you, like me, are a legalist worn out from trying to live a holy life and do good. You’ve probably focused on the last half of Ephesians and skimmed over the first half. Yet these last chapters cannot be lived apart from the grace we find in Christ – which is the focus of the first 3 chapters. You need to remember to start at the beginning!
  • Or perhaps you are a Christian who has forgotten what kind of life grace compels you to. The struggle against sin has ceased to be a struggle, because you’ve given in and now find yourself caught in habits you’re ashamed of. You know you’re “saved by grace” anyway, so what’s the big deal? Jesus comes to you through the message of Ephesians to call you into a bigger life – one of obedience and transformation motivated by grace. You’ve been rescued from darkness, so live no longer there.
  • Maybe you are unsure of Jesus and His claims. You wonder what all of this Jesus stuff is all about. You heard about the hope of a Savior to come promised and pointed to through our study in Genesis, but you wonder why you need Him. Or if you really need Him at all. The gospel message is loud and clear throughout Ephesians – describing what grace is and why all of us need it.
  • Perhaps you’re doubting who you are and you are struggling to find your identity. You’re looking in all the typical places: marriage (or independence), children, career, even good deeds, friendship, fitness & health … yet you find that each of these crumbles as soon as you seek to hold onto it and find your life here. You were made for more than this.

This is a letter written to people who also were struggling with identity and reconciliation: Gentile Christians in the region surrounding Ephesus.

  • Ephesus was the 2nd largest and 2nd most important city in the Roman Empire (2nd only to Rome!) – modern day Turkey
  • For Gentiles to be able to be in God’s family was revolutionary. Before Jesus Christ, spots in God’s family were reserved only for Jews. After Jesus, salvation is made available to all who believe, both Jews and Gentiles. The Jews weren’t too happy about that – and this left the Gentiles feeling a bit insecure of their identity.
  • PAUL wrote this letter to as a circular letter, meant for Christians in this entire region, to assure them of their identity as Gentiles in Christ. (like a group email – why there’s not as many personal references like in the parallel book of Colossians, written around the same time)
    • How was Paul qualified? What were his own identity struggles? He was a Jew who was known as “Saul” and who persecuted Christians. God interrupted him en route to Damascus and saved him, calling him now Paul. And then he experienced intense persecution for the rest of his life as he became a missionary – bringing the good news of the gospel of Jesus Christ’s salvation through Asia, all the way to Rome.
    • Yet he’s writing while imprisoned in Rome – for the very identity of “Christian” that he now writes and reminds them of. Imagine the impact this would have had on the first readers!

So what does Paul write? What will you find here?

  • THEMES:
    • Central message of be who you are – in contrast to who they used to be and how they used to live in the past
    • Your past before Christ, your future in Christ, and how this is to affect your present day-to-day life in Christ
    • Reconciliation: being made right with God and with others – “Only through Christ can all other division be brought to an end.”
    • Truth and beauty of the Triune God (God the Father, Jesus Christ the Son, the Holy Spirit)
    • Grace
    • Challenge/call to exhibit God’s glory and grace through daily life
    • God’s action and His work
    • A high calling empowered by the Spirit
    • A love story written before the beginning of time
    • How to engage in the spiritual battle we’re in
  • STRUCTURE:
    • Intro/greeting; body of the letter; closing
    • Two halves: 1-3 – who God’s made you as a Christian; 4-6: call to live like who you really are
    • Eloquent prayers
    • Truth and promises that are gems of grace to be treasured
    • Practical exhortations
    • Household code
    • Spiritual warfare

It’s very easy with the changes of life, whatever they might include for you in this new year, to forget who you are. Or to feel like you’ve lost a part of who you are. Changes that come with moving are always hard for me and provide an opportunity for me to re-examine where I’ve really been finding my identity – is it in being known by friends, playing a crucial role in a small church plant, being a counselor with a large church counseling center, not getting lost when I drive. The most recent move for us from Philadelphia to Norfolk has been no different! And I’ll admit that although I would say this has been the best, smoothest transition I’ve ever experienced, it has still served to be a bit of an identity-shake-up for me.

And I found myself feeling a bit down in December – generally unmotivated, wondering whether I was really making a difference, missing familiar holiday celebrations with close friends, and questioning what my identity is here in Norfolk.

Yet God met me through the study of Ephesians to remind me that who I truly am has not changed at all over this year, and it won’t change for the next 10 years either. It gave me hope and motivation to pursue what God’s given me to do during this season, not having to make it my life or where I’m finding my meaning (which would make any task unbearable) – and there’s been a true sense of joy where there was a vague sense of discontentment because of the riches that are mine in Christ.

So our prayer for you as you begin to read this book, either for the first time or the 50th time, is that you will be refreshed and revitalized in seeing the beauty of who Christ is for you and who you are in Christ – and it will become a letter that you will keep close to you to return to often.

[you can hear the talk at this link]

Advent meditations week 3: joy

Christmas joy as a child seems to come more easily than for us too-often-jaded (and stressed out) adults. I reflected on this in a post 4 years ago. The cynical side of me dismisses that with the explanation that a child’s joy is often an adult’s stress (like all of their gifts they open gleefully on Christmas morning). Or with a reflection on a child’s naive belief compared to an adult’s “innocence lost.” (who doesn’t remember how disillusioning it was to learn the truth about Santa?) But then there’s the part of me that is fighting cynicism and remembers Jesus’ words in Mark 10:15 –

I tell you the truth, anyone who will not receive the kingdom of God like a little child will never enter it.

And so perhaps this Christmas, we need to learn from the children around us and enter into true Christmas joy. Pure delight and awe and enthusiasm for this season. For Christians, we have every reason to rejoice at what is celebrated – God becoming man – and this week’s Advent readings reminded me of this hopeful mystery.

It began in a strange place: Habakkuk 3, but with a chapter that closes in verses that have given me joy in the midst of some of the darkest and saddest seasons –

17Though the fig tree should not blossom,
nor fruit be on the vines,
the produce of the olive fail
and the fields yield no food,
the flock be cut off from the fold
and there be no herd in the stalls,
18 yet I will rejoice in the LORD;
I will take joy in the God of my salvation.

What this seems to mean is that God is his strength. Not his “herds” or “vines” or “fields” or “fig trees.” (I’m thinking “money” or “career” or “marriage” or “friendships” or anything else I think will give me strength only promised by God.) When all of that is stripped away, he still has joy because he has God. And because God has come to earth in the person of Jesus Christ and now dwells in the hearts of all who believe, there is the promise that God will never leave me. And so neither will joy.

Joy is guaranteed by the coming of the “Helper” – the Holy Spirit who will reveal all things and who guarantees that we will see Jesus again and be filled with joy. (John 16:5-28) I get a taste of this future joy now as I pray in my Father’s name and watch him answer prayer. As well as when I listen to and read God’s Word – when God works its effect on me, I will “go out in joy”  and “be led forth in peace” because that is the purpose for which he gives His Word. (Isaiah 55:9-13)

Psalm 66, 96, Isaiah 12, and 1 Peter 1:3-9 expand on the concept of Christmas joy by giving reason after reason to “shout for joy to God, all the earth …” (Psalm 66:1). It’s a joy at the gifts we’ve received, not unlike children on Christmas morning. The difference is that these are gifts that have been guaranteed to last forever and which will impart a joy to carry us even through the trials of life. And perhaps that trial includes Christmas this year – the promise is that there is yet a joy to be found and celebrated.