Glorious Repetition

I love Sunday school. I know in some circles Sunday school is considered old-fashioned, giving way instead to its hipper sister “life group” or “fellowship group” or some other nomenclature that carefully avoids both “Sunday” and “school.” As I’ve confessed before, I’m a church girl through and through, and, as such, I like Sunday school. I like it on a Sunday and I like that it is a school, presumably of learning.

I first taught Sunday school when I was in college. I was given charge of a group of girls, sixth grade I think, and each Sunday we sat in a circle and discussed the Bible and faith and Jesus. I loved it.

In the years since, I’ve taught middle school girls, college students, and young adults. I currently teach a ladies’ Sunday school class and each Sunday we sit in a circle and discuss the Bible and faith and Jesus and I love it still.

I once heard a famous author and speaker say that her proudest role was that of the lowly Sunday school teacher. Forget the thousands attending her conference or buying her book, it was the role of Sunday school teacher that meant the most. I get that.

Back when I was a young mom teaching middle school girls in Sunday school, I had the auspicious privilege of teaching the book of Job. Not my choice, mind you, but that of the curriculum we had been given. If I recall correctly, the study of Job lasted not one but two full quarters. Yep, six months. Which is no doubt adequate for a careful exposition in an advanced Bible class perhaps or maybe a sermon series. But for middle school girls? An eternity.

I felt as if I were repeating myself. “You know what Job’s friend said last week? He says again. And how Job protests his innocence? Yep, Again.” Or, “Remember when we said God is sovereign even in our struggles? Yeah, that. Again.”

Maybe those middle school girls, for all their talk of boys and clothes and friends, learned something. Evidently I did. Repetition prompts retention, proven by my repetitious teaching in Job over twenty years ago and me still talking about it here today.

I felt much the same way teaching through 1 John in my Tuesday morning Bible study. this spring Not only are the themes of faith, love, and obedience repeated throughout the letter but John often says the same thing, or a slight variation of it, multiple times in his short 5 chapter letter. I once confessed to my friend that I was finding it difficult to get excited about preparing nearly the exact same lesson I’d just taught the week before!

But repetition prompts retention and I daresay one reason John keeps repeating himself is that his readers needed those truths drummed into their heads and hearts over and over and over until they didn’t just know it, they knew it. In fact, he tells them that he is writing so that they may know–be confident of, have a settled conviction that–they have eternal life.

And John writes to me too. As I think over my spiritual journey I am embarrassed by how many lessons I must learn and relearn and relearn, how very repetitive both my sin and the Lord’s gracious instruction are. In fact, John’s threefold emphasis of faith, love, and obedience are the very same areas in which I sense the Lord’s ongoing, repetitive dealings in my own heart and life.

Faith: to what am I holding on for hope? For peace? For security? For joy? For identity? If it is anything other than Christ alone, I am like the false teachers John denounces as deceiving themselves.

Obedience: how often do I choose comfort? Pragmatism? Avoidance of looking (or being) weird? But John asserts that God’s commands are not burdensome but for my good and His glory.

Love: how often am I selfish? Denying the benefit of the doubt? Asserting my rights over another? Indulging in self-satisfaction under the guise of introversion? Over and over and over the Lord is gracious to remind me that He is for and about people and as His child I must be also. I’m ashamed at how easily I forget.

But the grace of the Lord! His mercies are new every morning, an ongoing, repetitive outpouring of forgiveness and redemption and grace that is not without effect. Every Sunday in Sunday school, every Tuesday in 1 John, every day, every hour, He is faithful and His Spirit reminds me over and over and over of my sin, yes, but also of the free forgiveness that is mine in Christ. Over and over and over and over again. I praise God for the glorious repetition of conviction and mercy.

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Part of my story

The Christian internet is a strange place and that may be the understatement of the year. Lines drawn in the sand, critiques and criticisms lobbied back and forth, tempers flared, hysteria and histrionics, all are part and parcel of the issue or tragedy of the day. Truly it is exhausting, not to mention confusing, trying to determine who or what one is supposed to agree with on a given day.

One of the latest evangelical brouhahas involves Mark Driscoll and some comments he made at a recent conference. In the midst of the social media flurry of censure and reproach–or perhaps because of it–Jared Wilson posted “John Piper and Mark Driscoll Talked Me Off a Bridge.” In his post, and you really must read it, Wilson describes how the Lord used the ministries of these two men to, in Jared’s words, save his life.

I was clinging to the hem of Christ’s garment then, sleeping in our guest bedroom, by which I mean living in the guest bedroom and spending plenty of nights face down on the carpet groaning. I was picking up the crumbs where I could find them. Two sources of bread. The podcasts of the aforementioned Pastors Mark and John. I was getting a vision of a very big Jesus with a very big grace for sinners from them. And the Spirit used their preaching in those days to work a gospel renaissance in my life, a miracle really. My wife can attest to that.

Wilson acknowledged the possibility of some “some pushback if only because of those names you see up there in the title,” but attests “this is part of my story, part of my gospel wakefulness, and it is a part I will never deny or disavow.”

Like many who read that post I thought of my story, my gospel wakefulness, and the men and women, sinners all, who the Lord used in profound ways. Two watershed moments come immediately to mind, their influence on me so profound that their memory remains clear and distinct.

I’ve told you before of my first taste of in depth Bible study. I was a young mom of a toddler and a baby, the baby then only weeks old. An older woman in our church offered a Bible study on Sunday afternoons, “A Heart Like His” by Beth Moore. I remember reading the details in our church newsletter and telling my husband I thought I’d attend. Why, I don’t know, apart, of course, from the Lord’s providential grace. I clearly recall sitting at the table in the church classroom at the close of the first video session, looking to my friend who sat next to me and saying “Wow.”

Wow, indeed. Does it seem crazy to you that I, who had grown up in church, had no idea that the Bible could be known like that? Or that a woman could teach like that? I was blown away. The Lord used that study, that teacher, to birth in me a passion for His Word and for teaching and for theology and for study and for encouraging women in the deeper things of the Lord. This is part of my story and I am indebted to Beth Moore.

I have also related many times the incident of me on my back patio reading a book on grace and my inner legalist being so shocked that at the close of the book I said aloud, “That can’t be right.” Which is, you know, how every law-bound self-righteous Pharisee responds to the scandal of true grace. That book was “The Ragamuffin Gospel” by Brennan Manning and its effect on me and my understanding of grace was nothing short of profound. I’m re-reading it now and finding its depiction of God’s grace to ragamuffins like me to be encouraging, and yes, still a little shocking. This too is part of my story and I am grateful for it.

Manning and Moore both have their critics in certain corners of the Christian world but their part in my story I cannot disavow.

Truly there are many more men and women, some famous, some not, who faithfully served the Lord and in so doing affected my life in ways they could not know. The countless Sunday school teachers of my growing up years. My pastor and his blog posts that I read long before he was my pastor. Many of you who are reading these words and your blogs. John Piper and the first book of his I ever read, “Seeing and Savoring Jesus Christ.” Nancy Leigh DeMoss and her books “Brokenness” and “Surrender” that I used to facilitate a group at a time when both brokenness and surrender seemed far too painful a price. The list goes on and on.

I am part of their legacy of faith, God pouring His grace on me, a sinner, through the lives and ministries of other sinners–isn’t that just like Him? It pleases Him to use the foolish and the folly of what they preach to save those who believe. Indeed He chose the low and despised, the things that are not, to bring to nothing the things that are so that we might not boast before Him. Christ is our wisdom and righteousness and sanctification and redemption. Not man, not a book, not a preacher. Jesus. We boast in Him. (1 Cor. 1:18-31)

Wilson closes his post with the admonition to preach the gospel:

Don’t stop preaching the gospel. And if you don’t preach the gospel, start. Then don’t stop. You don’t know whose life you are saving. Not you, really, but God.

God is in his gospel faithfully proclaimed doing his thing, talking people off bridges. Me? I’ll never forget. So I’ll never stop.

His grace is not without effect, yes and amen. Let us be found faithful!

Who has the Lord used in your life? To whom are you grateful for their faithful ministry? Who is part of your story, a part you cannot deny or disavow?

This is what I pray for

Longtime readers of the blog will know I tend to wax a little nostalgic at the close of a unit of Bible study. Y’all know I’m not given to strong emotion, certainly not of the sappy variety, but there’s something about coming to the end of a given journey together through the pages of Scripture that does something to my heart. I think of the excitement and apprehension that marked the beginning; I think about how I would make out a course outline way back at the start and as I would type it up I would wonder with every week’s lesson title that I type what the Lord will teach us and how He will change us. All that wondering is then reality when we reach the final lesson and, well, I am overwhelmed.

I mentioned to you that this particular study, or pair of studies, has been as challenging as any I’ve ever taught. There are a couple of reasons for this, I think. One is the sheer breadth of the material. We have been studying Jesus in the Old Testament, specifically Genesis through Deuteronomy, using Nancy Guthrie’s excellent workbooks The Promised One and The Lamb of God to frame and facilitate each week’s lesson. I remarked last fall as we were wrapping up Genesis that we could have easily titled the course “Theology 101” since our lessons wrestled with doctrinal truths such as God’s sovereignty, the problem of evil, election, judgment for sin, salvation by grace, just to name a few, and this winter’s study proved no different. We did not shy away from the deep things of the Lord and I am thankful for it.

So not only were we discussing heavy theological and doctrinal truths but we were often doing so several chapters of the Bible at a time. Each week I reminded the class of our “helicopter” approach; rather than looking at our selected text via a verse by verse exposition, we would swoop down as it were, highlighting the passages that developed our theme of seeing Jesus. You can imagine, then, the challenge of preparation each week.

I was also challenged by the format of the class itself. It had been some time since I’d taught strictly via lecture so, introvert that I am, I naturally had to work through a case of the nerves. My biggest worry, though, wasn’t my Tuesday morning anxiety attacks but the fear that I may be contributing to the consumer culture that seems to plague many current evangelicals. I don’t want the women in my class to be spectators but it seems to be I might be encouraging just that response and this frightens me.

I will say I think our current format fits our group best. And I do know that spiritual maturity on the part of the students is not solely the teacher’s responsibility. My passion, what drives the hours I spend in preparation, is for women to know and love the Word of God. I want them, me, all of us together, to be thinking women, strong women armed with a strong theology, a theology forged in the careful and passionate study of Scripture. I don’t know if this can be accomplished by me standing at a lectern for an hour or so on Tuesday mornings. I hope so. I pray so.

On Wednesday a friend of mine, a fellow Bible student, told me about another friend, also part of our group. “She’s curious,” my friend told me, “she wants to know more.” As she was telling me, I wanted to cry (I told you Bible study can make me a sap). This hunger, this desire, this compulsion, this is what I pray for.

I am so grateful for these women, my friends and sisters in Christ, who come alongside as we study the Word together. As they sit before me, Bibles open, hearts expectant, ears attentive, they are God’s grace to me. Teaching is a responsibility and a challenge both, yes, oh, yes. It is also a privilege, a gift I do not take for granted. I love the Lord. I love His Word. I love teaching. I love these women.

We wanted to see Jesus and we have. Glory to God, we have. No wonder my emotions well. My heart is full.

And our journey together continues! We may have finished this study but we begin another in April. I cannot wait to see all that the Lord will do in us and among us. He is faithful and He will do it.

On women’s conferences and a growing passion for God’s Word

I attended my first women’s conference over thirteen years ago. It was a Beth Moore conference, in the early years of her speaking circuit, with only a couple thousand attendees. So small, in fact, that its venue was a church and she did book signings in between sessions, if you can believe it.

As I said, it was my first such event and I was blown away. It seems strange to us now, in our information saturated culture of Twitter and Facebook and internet and blogs, to think that I really had no idea what to expect. All I knew of women’s Bible studies was the display at the LifeWay store in the big city. That plus the Christianbook catalog were my only sources of what was happening in the up and coming world of women’s ministry. Remember, this was before the DVD. I don’t even think my husband had talked me into a computer and internet for the house yet! Up to that point, my only framework for ministry to women had little to do with the Bible or any sort of in depth Bible study but rather more to do with our monthly missions meetings (a good and excellent ministry in its own right).

So, yeah, as you can see, I was blown away.

So I became something of a women’s conference junkie. My heart stirred by the realization that the Bible could be known and studied with a level of depth and passion that I had never before encountered, I began facilitating and leading Bible studies for the women in my church and planning trips to conferences all around the southeast. We would buy tickets and make hotel reservations well over a year in advance; we would stand in line along with the thousands of women seeking a fresh word, a fresh experience, a front row seat.

I try to think now what I was really seeking then through all my conference road trips. What appealed to me so? Some accused me, half teasingly, of being a Beth Moore groupie, an appellation I resented and resisted. True, we attended far more Living Proof Live conferences than any other; it’s also true that Beth, like her or not, has an uncanny ability to relate to her audience as if you are all BFF’s. Though I too considered Beth a friend, I honestly don’t think it was she who inspired so many road trips but rather her infectious desire for women to be engaged in Bible study. I understand some find fault with her approach to Bible study but for me, at that point in my journey, she offered something I had never before experienced. In my ignorance her instruction seemed a feast to me, I who up until then had no idea I was starving.

As you know, if you’ve read this blog for any length of time, I grew somewhat disillusioned both with the big conference experience as well as the neatly edited, beautifully packaged studies marketed to women. I began to deliberately avoid video driven studies, not because I thought them evil in and of themselves, but rather because I began to observe a tendency in myself and others to study the study and yes even the teacher over and above the Bible itself. My approach to leading Bible study changed and my conference attendance waned. While I remain profoundly grateful for all those conferences I attended and the hours of video instruction I received, I find myself hungering for a substantive, serious study of the Scripture. I love God’s Word. I want to know how to carefully examine it and study it and know it. I am weary of studies that are about me, me, me, full of fluff and empty panaceas. Though I often feel ill equipped both as a Bible student and certainly as a Bible teacher, I want to press on to the deep things of the Lord, to the meat of Scripture.

I do not say such as a boast nor as an indictment of specific authors or speakers. However, I do believe it is our privilege and our responsibility–as believers, as women, as wives and moms and sisters and daughters, as passionate followers of Christ desperate for His grace and desirous of His glory–it is our privilege to know His Word, to be women of theology and doctrine, and for His Word to be living and active in our lives. Therefore I am so excited about The Gospel Coalition’s Women’s Conference next June. Watch this video and see if you don’t get excited as well!

The Gospel Coalition describes the conference as being…

…for women but not all about women. It’s about the gospel of Jesus Christ. It’s a time to learn more of what Scripture says to us—and to say it to each other. A time to dig deeper into the character of God and his purpose for his people. A time to gather together and share biblical encouragement as sisters, daughters, wives, mothers, and friends. Several renowned Bible teachers, including three TGC founding members, will explore the theme “Here Is Our God!” by guiding us through the Bible’s unfolding revelation of God to human eyes and hearts. Plenaries will offer exposition of biblical texts in which the Lord shows himself to his people. Seminars will feature women living out the Word, seeing and serving God with transformed and transforming lives. 

Dig deeper…share biblical encouragement…guiding us through the Bible’s unfolding revelation…exposition of biblical texts…living out the Word…” Yes and amen! Sign me up! I don’t know yet if I’ll be able to attend but I sure hope I can! Anyone else excited? Who is going?

Interested in finding out more? Read the conference details here.