when God’s wrath becomes beautiful

Yesterday I taught our women’s Bible study on the passage of Romans 1:18-32. It’s a tough passage. Nothing easy or pleasant or (at first glance) comforting here. The theme is God’s wrath revealed against human sin. And yet it comes not in fire and brimstone but in a gradual giving over to what our hearts desire. That’s what’s terrifying about it. There are four stages of this “sin anatomy” found here:

1. Worship exchange (verses 18-22) – Although evidence of God’s beauty exists around us in creation and within us in the form of eternal longings that can’t be satisfied by the world and a conscience, we suppress this and worship Beauty rather than its Author.

2. Truth exchange (verses 24-25) – Unmoored from a relationship with God, it’s easy to believe lies rather than truth. And it’s the only way my idolatrous worship can be supported – that I believe lies that arise from empty/futile/pointless thinking and a darkened heart. The darkness supports the lies and the lies build the darkness. To the point that I call evil good and good evil. It’s also evidenced in my guilt dysfunction – I feel guilty for what I shouldn’t, but fail to feel guilty for what I should.

3. Relationship exchange (verses 24, 26-27) – Inevitably, this leads me into using people around me to get what my heart craves (and worships) rather than lovingly serving them as fellow made-in-God’s-image beings. Sexual sin is a vivid example of this, and Paul does not skirt around this issue in Romans. Lest we begin to think we can judge another because “I don’t struggle with that …

4. Identity exchange – This is the deepest descent, the natural place we end up when first starting with exchanging God’s glory for creature and creation glory. I become what I practice, and the sin I dabbled in now owns and defines me. “Murder” is listed side by side with what follows, and all of us are caught in the net of practicing the unrighteousness that justly deserves God’s wrath:

  • gossips
  • slanderers
  • God-haters
  • insolent
  • haughty
  • boastful
  • inventors of evil
  • disobedient to parents
  • foolish
  • faithless
  • heartless
  • ruthless

When honest, we are left in despair by the end of this chapter in Romans. Where is the hope for any of us or for the world? And what do you do with this? Apparently, one common temptation would be to (still) try to self-justify and use this chapter to judge others, for Paul launches into the following warning at the beginning of chapter 2:

Therefore, you have no excuse, O man, every one of you who judges. For in passing judgment on another you condemn yourself, because you, the judge, practice the very same things.

But, thanks be to God, Romans doesn’t end with chapter 1, or even after chapter 2, or 3. [It gets more bleak before it gets better.]

For what all of this is leading to is the beauty of the great gospel exchange. In which God loved us so much that he was willing to enter into our messy world, messy because of us – corrupted by our fall from created intent – sent his very own Son, Jesus, to do the unthinkable. To exchange HIS holiness for our sin; to exchange HIS righteousness for our unrighteousness; to exchange HIS perfect record as the holy and beloved Son of God for our record stained with sinful idolatry – and pay what we deserve. The price of God’s wrath, which he alone experienced in all its furor on the cross. And the good news doesn’t stop there. Not only is God’s wrath paid for, but we are given Jesus’ life in exchange for our own – his beauty for our shame. And this is what we have been craving all along. All of our attempts to exchange glory for idols are merely attempts to run away from/cover/hide/escape the gaze of the all-knowing God, from whom we cower in fear because we know we aren’t worthy. But God, even in revealing his wrath, provides hope for rescue.

And this is how God’s wrath becomes beautiful for the one who is hidden in Christ through faith. This is the only way I could teach on such a topic yesterday and not leave in despair and hopelessness. I know that there is good news; but the good news implies that there is bad news. God’s wrath is real, but as a Christian, I will never have to feel its reality because Jesus took it all. This makes me weep for the mercy I’ve found … and this invites me away day after day after day to worship the Beautiful One instead of his gifts.

Five Minute Friday: worship

Sunlight streams in through stained glass on a Sunday morning congregation, hands raised in praise as they worship. Yet it’s oh so much more. A daily direction and orientation of my heart. I am always directed somewhere – something I want, what I fear, what has captured my attention is what I am worshiping.

All-encompassing attention; caught up in what is bigger than me. And when that is God, my heart is happy and right and joyful and full. And when it’s something less than my Creator – a created thing – my heart shrinks to the size of its worship object. I am hungry, never satisfied, always wanting more. More, more, more. For nothing will fill my worship-sized soul space like the God who made me. Who made the stars as they twinkle on the blackest night in the country. Whose vast, immense, eternal presence is merely reflected in the infinite horizon of ocean meeting sky or mountains majestic. Oh, for my soul to meet this God of my heart and our world! It too will rise up in praise with all of its might, joining the chorus creation sings unceasingly day after day. 

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I’m participating today in Lisa-Jo’s “Five Minute Friday” where you write for five minutes on a topic, unedited. Fun way to get a quick blog post and stir the creative writing process.

Lenten fast and reading “7”

cropped-img_0363.jpgThere is a beauty to winter’s barren branches rising against the crisp blue sky. A beauty quite different from that of the branches clothed in spring’s fresh buds and blooms of life or when radiant in fall’s glorious colors. It is not unlike what’s gained from a fast. It is in what’s not there that we can see and appreciate what is, and even anticipate what will be again. Reading the book 7 by Jen Hatmaker has been good to remind me of the beauty of what is not. The beauty of less rather than more, of giving away things rather than gaining more possessions, of turning off media instead of plugging in, of growing in appreciation instead of discontentment, and of making God’s Kingdom priorities bigger than that of my own “American kingdom” of self. I don’t want to make  a new Christian law to follow, which I could so easily try to do – something that focuses on me trying harder and doing more. Yet I see its value in the way that what she does is so counter-cultural that I can’t help but begin thinking more about the eternal treasures we are to be storing up instead of earthly goods to acquire. Now if only that thinking would translate into doing … 

Enter the Lenten fast. The introduction from our church’s Lent devotional guide sets the scene:

Lent is a season of preparation and repentance during which we anticipate Good Friday and Easter,
inviting us to make our hearts ready for remembering Jesus’ passion and celebrating Jesus’ resurrection.

It is traditional to choose something to fast from for 40 days beginning on Ash Wednesday (with Sundays as “feast days”). In combination with some of what I was challenged by in the fasts, I decided to choose a few things nearest and dearest to my heart: (1) Target, naturally (2) non-essential phone apps (3) sweets/desserts and (4) tv for Seth and me

And I am here to tell you that I have kept this fast perfectly and will never be turning back again. Ahem. Not quite. I’ve been surprised by how difficult it has felt at moments, at how naturally I want to distract myself with Pinterest, Instagram, Facebook, email; at how much I have longed to just escape into a good tv show at night; at the way I crave something sweet in a hard mom moment; and at how I’ve longed to run to Target with my daughters in tow just to buy something shiny. I think that without even thinking, I was using apps, reaching for sweets, and making a Target list in the first few days of Lent. Yikes! Am I really that addicted? Apparently so.

But there has also been something sweet that has crept in amidst the new “barrenness” of my life in these areas. Less budget drain and more time spent playing with my kids because of no Target; more focus on the present because of no phone apps; more rest and conversation with my husband because of no tv; more reminders to turn to Jesus in prayer instead of reaching for the nearest sweet escape (not to mention, more energy!). Every day has not been like this. I have fought these self-imposed restrictions and wiggled my way out of them occasionally. I have been angry more quickly some days because my false refuges have been taken away. What’s come to the surface of my heart is not always beautiful. But then again, with more to repent of, I am brought back to Jesus more often.

One of the Lenten passages this week was Matthew 6:1-21. I was struck by the phrase, “your Father who sees in secret.” In the context of this passage, it’s talking about doing these things in secret: giving to the needy, fasting, and praying. What do I do in secret, that only my Father sees? And how does what I do in secret reveal where my heart’s true treasure is located? Too often what’s revealed is that I am unloving towards my family, resentful of what I give, that I’m self-indulgent and prayerless. When performance for others is stripped away, what is left? Here is a place of repentance, as I seek the identity of being clothed in the righteousness of the One who perfectly obeyed – even in secret – and where I am reminded that Christ’s life in me – in the very core of who I am when all else is stripped away – is my only hope of glory. But what a very sure and certain hope it is! So fasting leads to repentance which then leads to celebration. And this is the Easter worship of a Life crucified then resurrected and now waiting for me in heaven.

Take Ten for Thanksgiving

Fall PumpkinsAs I looked up the word “thankful” and its synonym “grateful” in the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, I thought about how I often throw those words around – particularly at this time of year – with no thought to what they actually mean. Hence the dictionary search. As I came across this compilation of definitions, what I have reason to be thankful for became more clear, too. And why I am not more thankful is a sad commentary for my lack of eyes to see, really see, all that surrounds me. I’m going to ask you to do something with me today. In between preparations for the big feast, or after your belly is full from feasting, take ten minutes to sit down and think of ten things for which to be thankful. (Thankfulness is a great natural antidote to the anger I’ve been writing about, too, by the way. An angry heart and a grateful heart rarely coexist at the same time.)

First, the definition:

  • conscious of benefit received
  • appreciative of benefits received
  • affording pleasure or contentment
  • pleasing by reason of comfort supplied or discomfort alleviated
  • well pleased, glad

Isn’t that eye-opening? Hopefully, that begins to get you thinking about some items for your thankful list. I wanted to take this even further. Thanksgiving for me as a Christian isn’t merely having warm feelings of general goodwill and thanks for life in general. Thanksgiving has an object: the Creator and Giver of all good things. Thanksgiving is to be part of my life as someone in relationship with God. One verse I found summarized Christian Thanksgiving quite concisely:

Psalm 75:1 – “We give thanks to you, O God;

We give thanks, for your name is near.

We recount your wondrous deeds.”

In those three lines, the writer of this ancient worship hymn instructs me about God-oriented giving of thanks.

  • “Giving thanks” is an action – a choice and a decision.
  • “We” – not merely individual, but corporate. Something we do in community, with our community, and on behalf of our community.
  • the direction of my thanks – God! Seems simple but often I find myself not thanking God directly. Or really attributing something I’m enjoying to another source, like my great ingenuity in thinking of how to manage my day to find some peace and quiet, my self-sufficiency, my bank account, etc. The ultimate source behind all of this is God. And as a Christian, I am asked to go straight to The Source with my thanks. This will help my heart keep worshiping.
  • the why of giving thanks – “for your name is near.” God himself is evident all around me, and he is present with me and within me by the Spirit. Who he is – his character – is very near to me. If I have eyes to see!
  • how to give thanks – remembering his wondrous deeds. This is a specific recounting of what God has done, with an implication of a sense of wonder and awe at the God who has done these deeds.

Here are a few of my “ten” when I sat down to recount specific thanks to God. I’d love to hear a few of yours, too!

  1. The beauty of barren branches against a wintry blue sky
  2. God bringing together a Carolina girl and a Jersey boy in Philadelphia to marry, raise twin daughters, and expand one another’s cultural experiences
  3. Parents who love God, Seth, me, and our daughters – on both sides
  4. Daughters who are teaching me how to love more fully
  5. Faith awakened at a young age with which to receive God’s greatest gift of grace in Christ
  6. A heavenly Father who’s known me from the beginning of time and pursued me with love

And I could go on. I hope that I will never stop. I’m about 300+ into Ann Voskamp’s “One Thousand Gifts” challenge. And you could just be beginning with your first ten! Read more at her blog here. And happy Thanksgiving!

awed by the moment and calmed by Jesus’ love

These are the two themes that I feel like God’s been teaching me about – much of it through observing our quickly growing almost-11-month-olds. They are crawling everywhere and into everything. Very curious about life! We love that although it makes our days much busier as well. The hardest part of the evening for them (and all of us) is that 4-7pm timeframe when it’s not yet bedtime and both naps are over for the day. And they begin fussing, which can quickly turn into crying and screaming inconsolably. Almost inconsolably. Some days they can be quieted by something quite simple, childish really (and they are babies, after all). We stumbled upon it accidentally when we started singing to them the first song that came to mind, “Jesus Loves Me.” Most of the time, this will calm Lucia and Alethia. Or at least give a few minutes’ reprieve from the screaming. The words and the melody familiar to them because it has been sung over them by parents, grandparents, friends, has a quieting effect on them. As I noticed this “magic song,” it made me pray for them that they would always be quieted by Jesus’ love. Long after they would outgrow this song, would that the truth conveyed by this little childhood tune sink deep into their hearts! And as I prayed for them, I started by praying for my heart, too, that can be so easily tossed  to and fro by the ups and downs of a day or a month or a year or a season. In case it’s been awhile since you’ve sung that tune, here’s the main verse of that little ditty:

Jesus loves me

This I know

For the Bible tells me so

Little ones to Him belong [and aren’t we all “little ones” compared to God’s greatness?]

They are weak [oh, so aware of this for me!]

But He is strong.

Yes, Jesus loves me [repeat 3 x’s]

For the Bible tells me so.

My best friend’s daughter “sings” this tune by saying “Bible” when you say, “Jesus loves me.” Isn’t that adorable? And how much I have to learn! Truly we are to become like little children in order to know the great truths about our God and King.

As Seth and I move into this new phase of parenting children, training and discipline and instruction are topics we are earnestly seeking to learn about because we are aware of how much they are soaking up each day and how much they begin to be in need of parental guidance. We have begun watching an excellent parenting series by Paul Tripp (one of our counseling professors when we were in seminary), and he begins his series by discussing our need to provide our children with a God-saturated environment. By this he means that we are not only to teach our kids truths about God, but to give our children a sense of awe about God. Which, he points out, cannot happen if we ourselves are not in awe of God.

A book I’m currently reading is helping me to open my eyes to the awe of the moment, the richness of our great God who is present in each moment. And so many moments I skip by or pass over or endure with gritted teeth because I’m missing God. For all of you who can relate, I cannot recommend highly enough Ann Voskamp‘s book, “One Thousand Gifts.” The book itself is a gift to me who has trouble seeing what really matters. She echoes Tripp’s teaching as she writes:

“Every moment I live, I live bowed to something. And if I don’t see God, I’ll bow down before everything else. … How I want to see the weight of glory break my thick scales, the weight of glory smash the chains of desperate materialism, split the numbing shell of deadening entertainment, bust up the ice of catatonic hearts. I want to see God …”

Voskamp writes about how hurry is the enemy of awe, that “Hurry always empties a soul. … I only live the full life when I live fully in the moment. … The fast have spiritually slow hearts.” How this convicts me, who prides myself on efficiency and races against the naptime clock to see how much I can possibly fit into those brief “free” hours of a day! Who, in trying to recruit my babies into my hurried lifestyle, causes exhaustion and stress for us both.

I have much to learn. I am thankful for this moment, this time when babies are sleeping to soak in these truths and ask for grace to keep doing so. If God is present everywhere and in every moment, I only must have eyes to see Him. Which I feel like I am only beginning to do.

Sunday: reflections on worship when you can’t attend church

One of the hardest parts of strict bed rest has to be Sunday mornings, when I can’t go to church but my husband (our assistant pastor) spends half of his day there (8:00 am – 12:30 or 1:00 pm). I don’t think I can remember a time when I couldn’t go to church for such a long stint of time. Yet I am thankful that our God is one who comes to us, so that we can worship him wherever we are and that I don’t miss out on his grace simply because I can’t attend church right now. I miss church – don’t get me wrong – and it is a source of rich grace to be able to go, but God knows (and has arranged) the particular seasons of my life. And so he will also arrange another way for me to experience church on Sundays. So with this unique season comes unique opportunities. I get to be my own “worship director”, and so I try to make Sundays different from the rest of the days.

The church bells around the corner regularly call me to worship when their hymns begin at 9:00 am (lasting until 9:30 am). That’s a nice start to the morning. Then I choose a sermon to listen to online from one of my favorites: our pastor, Jack Howell; Joe Novenson at Lookout Mountain Pres.; Ruffin Alphin at Westminster Pres. Church here in Suffolk; Bob Willetts at Grace Pres. Church here in Chesapeake; or Andy Lewis from the church I grew up in, Mitchell Road Pres. Church in Greenville, SC. It’s been great to listen to these sermons and be taught by God speaking through them. It’s been great to see how God’s led me exactly to the right sermon I’ve needed each week. And really there are too many good ones to choose from, so I’ll probably be adding another one as my “Sunday school.”

I listen to some favorite worship music and sing along [but this part I think I miss the most about not being able to physically be present for worship at Trinity Pres.], trying to focus on the words and make them my prayer.

Another way I am seeking to tangibly engage in worship on Sundays is by spending time reflecting on what I am thankful for and then communicating that to various people who have loved and served us in the past week. Truly the list seems too large to recount, and when I begin reflecting, I am aware of God’s gifts in the church and the way that he is sending the Church to me when I can’t go to church. Seth and I have been so overwhelmed by the many who have helped us. I won’t list them by name, but I do want to list a few of the acts of service I’m thankful for today:

  • the friends who traveled from Philadelphia to spend last weekend with me and totally pampered me all weekend through their cooking, cleaning, creativity, laughter, and conversation
  • friends from church who have brought us meals, visited me for lunch, ran errands for us, went grocery shopping for us, helped Seth paint our home (a seemingly never-ending project), and even cleaned our house … wow. we are overwhelmed!
  • friends and family who continue to call or text to check in with me and see how we’re doing
  • thoughtful and encouraging cards we’ve received in the mail
  • two friends who threw their baby shower for me at our house – bringing everything with them, including serving dishes and utensils [since finding ours amidst the boxes could still be a bit dubious]
  • my parents who have made the 14 hour roundtrip yet again to come and help us get settled in, paint the nursery, etc …
  • and it goes without saying (but I should still say it!), my faithful and persevering husband who is not only assistant pastor, but also now home-repair project manager (a solo position now), chief chef, and home healthcare aide to a needy pregnant woman who can sometimes be cranky as well …

For all of these, and many many more, these verses Paul wrote to the Thessalonians come to mind: “We give thanks to God always for all of you, constantly mentioning you in our prayers, remembering before our God and Father your work of faith and labor of love and steadfastness of hope in our Lord Jesus Christ.” (1 Thessalonians 1:2-3)

Easter: joyful disbelief or cynical doubt?

As I read and reflected on the Easter story this morning as told by the four Gospels, what stands out is the response of those who heard the news of the empty tomb and the risen Jesus. Initially, there is fear. Yet the fear becomes “great joy” or it gives way to cynical doubt.

There is Mary Magdalene who is one of the first at the tomb on that first Easter morning. She hears the news and is filled with fear. But then she sees Jesus, and her fear turns to the disbelief of joy that he is alive and so she worships him and spreads the news to the rest of the disciples. Most of them do not immediately believe, but persist in cynical doubt. Luke actually says that the disciples regarded the women’s report as “an idle tale, and they did not believe them.” However, Peter went to see for himself. And then he went away marveling at the too-good-to-be-true truth of Jesus’ resurrection.

Thomas persists in his doubt because he missed the first resurrection appearance of Jesus to the disciples. He boldly claims that he will “never believe” unless “I see in his hands the mark of the nails, and place my finger into the mark of the nails, and place my hand into his side.” I wonder why Jesus didn’t show up immediately to dispel his cynical doubt. But he doesn’t. He waits eight days, and then he appears and invites Thomas to, “Put your finger here, and see my hands; and put out your hand, and place it in my side. Do not disbelieve, but believe.” Instantly, Thomas is transformed from a doubter to a worshiper.

Where are you this Easter morning? Be assured that Jesus can (and will) meet you wherever you are. Maybe he will call your name personally, as he did for Mary in the garden that first Easter morning, and you will be overcome with joyful disbelief. Or perhaps you, like Thomas, are more cynical and it will be a longer journey for you. Jesus can meet you here, too, transforming your doubt into the worship of faith.

He has risen. He has risen, indeed. And he is alive. Let us then worship with joy this Easter morning.

a picture says a 1000 words

And so I give you the pictures that speak about this past weekend’s celebration of Seth becoming a “Reverend” as he was ordained as a minister in the Presbyterian Church of America. Our hearts are full from the outpouring of love from family and friends, both old and new, many of whom traveled to be with us in celebration. We feel like it was a glimpse of heaven. Thank you all! (or y’all or yous guys …)
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The ordination service as Seth becomes a Reverend through the laying on of hands

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IMG_4171My sister-in-law Nicole, “little” brother Jonathan, and nephew Caleb

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Caleb was the most excited of all for Uncle Seth …

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Family and out-of-town guests on a tour of Norfolk

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friends from Philadelphia & my parents

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IMG_4190 A few of our new friends in Norfolk

Seth’s family (parents, aunt & uncle) who traveled from New Jersey

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IMG_4164And we all know that no party is complete without my youngest brother Bryan!

why I go to church

I’ll be honest. This morning was one of those mornings when I felt like sleeping in would have been more valuable than going to church. Attending “Bedside Baptist” or “Church of the Holy Comforter” is what we termed it at my Christian college when we (or our friends) skipped church to sleep in. It makes sense, right, that I can meet God alone just as well as at church?

Yes, and no. In our individualistic society, we have the false notion that we can be sufficiently self-contained in ourselves if we try hard enough, read the right things, listen to the right people. But the reality is that God created us for community. In my own private worship time with God, there are glaring sins I miss because I’m blind to them. How can I see? Through people around me lovingly pointing them out in a way that points me to Jesus. My husband can see sins that I conveniently ignore (and vice versa). Even more so in church, I am drawn to worship God in a way that I wouldn’t be able to alone. Singing worship songs alone can minister to my soul, but it falls short of the awe found in worshiping by singing that same song with a whole congregation. Praying alone can be sweet, but I’m easily distracted and not nearly so focused as when praying alongside other brothers and sisters in Christ. Hearing their prayers focuses me and directs me to pray in ways I wouldn’t have come up with on my own. I love that during our church’s congregational prayer time, I hear different people spontaneously voicing their prayers — of thanksgiving, confession, worship, or request. When it comes time for the sermon, I always hear something that I wouldn’t have challenged myself with and I see a new way of reading a portion of God’s Word.

Why do I go to church? Because I need church. Even when I don’t know I need (maybe especially so then), I need it. I need my brothers and sisters in Christ to point me back to the gospel through their prayers, words of encouragement, sermon, hymn-singing, honest doubts and questions.

This morning as I was wrestling through why to go to church, I read a chapter in Eugene Peterson’s book “A Long Obedience in the Same Direction” that reminded me of all of this. He says it much more succintly and poetically than me, so I hope you’ll enjoy it as much as I did:

If we stay at home by ourselves and read the Bible, we are going to miss a lot, for our reading will be unconsciously conditioned by our culture, limited by our ignorance, distorted by unnoticed prejudices. In worship we are part of “the large congregation” where all the writers of Scripture address us, where hymn writers use music to express truths that touch us not only in our heads but in our hearts, where the preacher who has just lived through six days of doubt, hurt, faith, and blessing with the worshipers speaks the truth of Scripture in the language of the congregation’s present experience. We want to hear what God says and what he says to us: worship is the place where our attention is centered on these personal and decisive words of God.