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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My House Without a Christmas Tree

1354077As a girl, I loved the book The House Without a Christmas Tree. I understand it was a television special but I don’t remember having watched it. The book, however, I read, and reread, many times over. The grief of being motherless mirrored in the lack of a Christmas tree captivated me, no doubt because I could not imagine life without a mother nor, for that matter, a December without all the accoutrements of Christmas.

I had forgotten all about The House Without a Christmas Tree until this past December when it was my house without a Christmas tree or anything else festive decor related. No, no, we weren’t suffering from a tragic loss or anything like that. Rather, we moved and, upon moving in to our new home, we began a minor remodel. Nothing huge, just replacing flooring and installing ceiling fans, stuff like that. But it meant that our downstairs living space was for the most part uninhabitable during the month of December.

First world problems, I know. Actually upper middle class first world problems and I get that. But, as embarrassed as I am to admit this, I grieved the lack of a tree and the few other Christmas items I used to scatter about in a noble attempt at decking the halls.

It’s weird, isn’t it? I mean–and this is for all you longtime readers (anyone? anyone?)–just how many posts have I logged in at this site lamenting Christmas and my disdain for all its bells and whistles? I’ve labeled myself a Grinch and I’ve rather loudly and repeatedly announced my Yuletide hatred.

Not the baby Jesus part, mind you, I didn’t claim to hate that, but rather all the pomp and circumstance of the season: the tree and the decorating and the hustle and the bustle and the frenzied and frenetic pace.

But this year I didn’t hate it. I missed it. I was sad. I grieved.

I think maybe it had something to do with my boys growing up and the nest emptying. “It’s my second son’s last Christmas break at home!” I kept anguishing. I felt the pressure of wanting the perfect Norman Rockwell type scene, you know, the stuff they tell us memories are made of, especially when my Instagram feed was full of them. The sense of failure and inadequacy overwhelmed me, as we huddled upstairs out of the way of the workmen doing their work.

It’s silly, I know. But I confess as much to you because of something I read in Come, Let Us Adore Him, an advent devotional by Paul David Tripp. The December 16 entry begins with the following observation:

In truth, that beautifully decorated tree, wrapped presents, and all that tasty holiday food, which make us happy during the Christmas season, are poor representations of the world into which Jesus was born, and what his everyday life would be like. Jesus didn’t show up for a celebration. He wasn’t here for a vacation. His world wasn’t well decorated, and he surely wasn’t well fed. He came to a world that had been dramatically broken by sin, and his calling was to expose himself to the full range of its brokenness…Jesus came to suffer because he came to be our Savior.

Tripp goes on to say that there’s nothing wrong with the tree and the ornaments and the fabulous food; of course our celebration of the Incarnation of our Lord should be one of joy and jubilation. Yes! We’ve been saved by the lavish gift of grace granted to us by the Father in the life and death of His Son, glory to God!

And yet Tripp says our joy should be tempered, that we should commit ourselves to be “a sad celebrant.”

Let your joy at what your Savior has gifted you be mixed with grief at what it cost him. Remember this Christmas that you celebrating the birth of the ‘Man of Sorrows.’ Remember as you celebrate that the One whom you celebrate enjoyed none of the things that likely make up your celebration (a house, beautiful things, fine food, etc.). This Christmas may your holiday joy be shaped and colored by remembering that you have eternal reason for joy because of the life, death, and resurrection of your humble, willing, suffering Savior.

That last sentence,y’all. I was a sad celebrant, indeed I was, sad and resentful and jealous too, but only because I grieved the lack of what I thought constituted Christmas, stuff that in reality Jesus never had. I mean, I knew it intellectually. Of course Jesus didn’t drink wassail out of a matched set of Christmas mugs while gathered with his family in matching pajamas in front of a fake tree lit by strings of electric lights. I know that; I knew it last month. But seeing my grief for what it was–and what it wasn’t–this was sobering. And good. Thank you, Paul Tripp, for reminding me of true joy and rightly placed sadness.

Maybe it wasn’t the lack of decked halls that brought you grief this Christmas or on this chilly rainy day in January. Maybe you couldn’t even admit to being a sad celebrant, because celebrating seems so foreign to your current circumstance. May you and I both, however flimsy or weighty our grief may be, place our hope and joy in Christ. Let us ponder His sacrifice and His suffering and thank Him for coming to save us. Let us remember our eternal reason for joy: Jesus, our Savior, our Lord, our indescribable gift from God.

Real is best

I write on a Tuesday and I have to admit to you that today and the past three or four Tuesdays prior, I’ve felt off, floundering about like a fish out of water. Generally speaking, my Tuesdays are spent at a podium or around a table, studying God’s Word with a group of women I love and esteem. However, our study is on break for the summer and, though summer breaks are necessary and good, a Bible teacher without a class feels, well, a little lost.

We just finished a study of selected Psalms and while I knew it would be good–hello, it’s the Word of GOD–I think it will go down as one of my favorite times in Bible study. I am always overwhelmed and humbled by the sheer goodness of God, how He tenders our hearts to His Word, how He reveals Himself and His gospel in beautiful and glorious ways, how He teaches and transforms. This go ’round He did all that, even more so. He is so good.

And my Bible study girls? What grace they are to me! Each and every group is different but all encourage me and sharpen me by their participation and presence. I know that no teacher can exercise her gift apart from students to come alongside but I am always–always!–happily and humbly surprised there are those who choose to join me.

I was wondering the other day just how many women have passed through one or more studies with me. Not that I see such a number as a trophy or something to seek after or boast in, but rather I see each woman and her attendance as a trust, a gift, a privilege wholly undeserved. I am not worthy but I am grateful.

I read an article yesterday about, of all things, whether pastors should use social media. In the article Tony Reinke describes the pressure many pastors feel when they compare their offering with the level of excellence widely available with the mere click of the mouse or scroll of the phone.

I get this. Currently there is much discussion on social media about women and ministry (indeed, when is there not?), particularly in terms of online and parachurch platforms. For many women their primary source of discipleship comes from outside their local church, and why not? Most of the popular teachers and podcasters and bloggers are so because they are good at what they do. They are funny, they are skilled orators, they are relatable, they are super fashionable, and did I mention they are funny? Me? I can’t compete with that.

My offering is humble, simple, ordinary. While I may have once resented it, I now not only embrace it but see it for the sacred privilege that it is. I believe we need to be in Bible study with people who know us, who know our name, who look us in the eye, who hold us accountable by their very presence, who see us at football games and the grocery store and other times when the mask is off and the real shows in all its realness, who know our hypocrisy, and who point us to the only hope, the gospel. To do so for another is a privilege and a trust. My Bible study girls are this, and more, for me and I hope and pray I am the same for them.

Books and blogs and podcasts are good, indeed they are. But they are no substitute for real people in our real lives living the real gospel side by side with us in the midst of real life with real problems and real need. Virtual is good; real is best.

So for my real friends who join me each Tuesday, thank you. I am grateful for the real fellowship we enjoy with the real God who in His providence placed us in real proximity to seek Him and to know Him and to study His Word together.

Goodness undeserved and astonishing

I write this on Good Friday. It is the Friday afternoon at the close of a difficult week. Not difficult because of difficult circumstances but difficult because of a funk and things said and a migraine and failure and sin and, well, you get the picture.

Weeks like this remind me why I need Good Friday. Today Christians remember and commemorate the death of Jesus, which is weird, if you think about it, that we celebrate death but that’s exactly what we do. We celebrate the death of Jesus because without it we come to the end of a difficult week or a difficult day or a difficult phone call or a difficult season or a difficult conversation or a difficult diagnosis and we have no hope.

It is easy and, I think, common to glance over Good Friday to get to the joy of Resurrection Sunday. Good Friday becomes incidental to the real show. Of course the Resurrection is the hope and foundation of our faith, yes and amen, glory to God. Paul says that without it, we are pitied because our faith then is in vain.

But today I feel the despair of my sin. I see my weakness and my utter depravity. I know–I know–that my sin is real and my utter insufficiency overwhelms me. I need the truth that Jesus resolutely set His face to His death, that by one sacrifice He paid it all, that here is the love of God demonstrated in that Christ died for sinners. This is the goodness of Good Friday–that Jesus, my Savior, has borne my griefs and carried my sorrows and healed me by His wounds. Yes, please, Lord.

I pulled my copy off The Valley of Vision off the shelf to put word to my need…

EVERLASTING CREATOR-FATHER,
I have destroyed myself,
my nature is defiled,
the powers of my soul are degraded;
I am vile, miserable, strengthless,
but my hope is in thee.

If ever I am saved it will be by goodness undeserved and astonishing,
not by mercy alone but by abundant mercy,
not by grace but by exceeding riches of grace;
And such thou has revealed, promised, exemplified
in thoughts of peace, not of evil.

Thou has devised means
to rescue me from sin’s perdition,
to restore me to happiness, honour, safety.
I bless thee for the everlasting covenant,
for the appointment of a Mediator.

I rejoice that he failed me not, nor was discouraged,
but accomplished the work thou gavest him to do;
and said on the cross, ‘It is finished.’

I exult in the thought that
thy justice is satisfied,
thy truth established,
thy law magnified,
and a foundation is laid for my hope.

I look to a present and personal interest in Christ and say,
Surely he has borne my griefs,
carried my sorrows,
won my peace,
healed my soul.

Justified by his blood I am saved by his life,
Glorying in his cross I bow to his sceptre,
Having his Spirit I possess his mind.

Lord, grant that my religion may not be occasional and partial,
but universal, influential, effective,
and may I always continue in thy words as well as thy works,
so that I may reach my end in peace.

-“The Mediator,” The Valley of Vision

Talking on the phone and learning to be needy

My friend called me this week and when I first saw her name on the caller ID, I admit my first thought was that she was calling with bad news. She lives out of town and we rarely talk, like with our voices, so for her to call, while welcome, was also disconcerting.

It wasn’t bad news but rather the best sort of happy news and we chatted and laughed and talked, like with our voices, for quite some time. It was great.

I once talked on the phone all the time. Way back when my babies were just that, I had friends with whom I would talk on the phone about everything and anything. For instance, I had one particular friend that either she or I would call the other right at 9 am nearly and we would proceed to talk for an hour, sometimes more. Every day.

This is crazy, particularly in comparison to my current phone talking habits which are nearly nonexistent. I’m not (exactly) a hermit; I do converse with people but with the more narrow medium of text messaging.

And I love it. Text messaging, as I’ve asserted often, is an introvert’s dream. Short, direct conversations which can be easily avoided or abandoned, what’s not to love?

Years ago I was on the phone with a friend, conversing like with our voices, me bemoaning the general state of my life. I can’t remember my specific circumstances but I do know that the laundry wasn’t done and the dishes were piled in the sink and I sighed and whined and complained about both and probably a wealth of other things besides.

About fifteen minutes after I hung up with my friend, my doorbell rang. It was my friend and she walked straight through my front door to my kitchen sink and began to wash the dishes. THE NERVE. Not only that but she refused to leave without taking a few loads of laundry with her to wash. I allowed her the boys’ laundry and some towels but not my or my husband’s dirties. My dignity, what was left of it, compelled me to draw the line somewhere.

I was mortified. And embarrassed. And utterly humiliated.

Evidently I reserved the right to complain but not the right to accept help. And there was no quid pro quo here. Her kids were grown and out of the house and she had all the time in the world for a friend’s need as well as her dishes and laundry. In the end I could only receive her help and I hated it.

In Sunday School I am teaching through the book Side By Side: Walking with Others in Wisdom and Love. Author Ed Welch asserts that in any healthy community, the members both give and receive help. This process of walking with another begins with each of us realizing we are needy.

I am needy and that truth rankles, as was so obvious when my friend administered very real, very practical help to me all those years ago. I don’t think I’m alone in my dislike of my helplessness. We all would rather appear strong and like we have “it” all together, whatever “it” may be.

Admitting our need feels risky. We conceal our neediness, or we revel in it, like some kind of weird misery contest, but in reality, we are embarrassed by our weakness, we are afraid of what others may think, and we fight to appear competent.

Welch states the obvious: in order to receive help I must admit my neediness. But there’s a less obvious dynamic at work: in order to effectively give help, I must also admit my neediness. In fact, my honest admission of my weakness, according to Welch, is one of the greatest gifts I can give the church. Wait. What?

Honestly assessing who I am and living in that honesty make me a better helper. Self sufficiency, on the other hand, may really be arrogance. Our community will grow together in love and humility as we each of us understand our weakness and our need for each other. This is the grace of the gospel, is it not, that I am so weak and flawed I needed rescuing and the Lord did just that. It is humbling and humiliating to be so weak and so needy but it is also beautiful.

Help is given and I only receive. I cannot earn it and I cannot repay it. My friend taught me as much all those years ago and I am grateful for her example of friendship and of gospel grace.

The impossible

I started 2017 off with the best of intentions and by that I mean I attempted to implement a new Bible reading plan, a new Scripture memory plan, and a new plan to journal.

Please, please, don’t ask me how any of those plans are going currently. Let’s just say there’s grace, much grace, for those of us with the best of intentions and the worst of follow through.

Just keepin’ it real.

Anyway, so in order to effect my newfound determination to journal more regularly (yeah, I know), I began to write out my thoughts regarding these ten questions for the new year. Self evaluation is always good, and biblical too. We are to examine ourselves and to ask the Lord to search us and expose any grievous way in us. What better use of my journaling endeavor? And, hey, automatic fodder for writing so win-win.

Question 2 asks, “What’s the most humanly impossible thing you will ask God to do this year?”

I have to confess: my first thoughts skewed toward the more personal, wildest dreams kind of answers. The sorts of things that are, if I am honest, more improbable than impossible, and certainly more about me, my comfort, my ambition, my happiness.

But as I pondered a little more and scribbled a little longer, I had to ask myself: what sorts of things are humanly impossible? What is it that only God can do and what among those things will I dare to persist in prayer for?

Among the list of humanly impossible things I came up with: The saving of souls. The spread of gospel zeal across churches and communities and around the world. Partnership and community that spans socioeconomic, ethnic, and racial divides. Babies no longer aborted but wanted and welcomed and loved.

We cannot effect any of these apart from the power and providence of God.

I grew ashamed of how little I ask for these impossible things.

When I ask for what only He can do, I am asking to see His power, to see His kingdom accomplished on earth as it is in heaven, ultimately to see His glory. The smallness of my prayers–confined only to my world, my life, my concerns, my wants–reflect the smallness of my faith. When I am only asking for my own comfort and the granting of my deepest desires, it is no wonder I find prayer difficult to the point of nonexistence.

What humanly impossible thing will I ask God for? What will you? Let us pray big and bold prayers, prayers that stretch beyond the reach of the probable into the realm of the impossible, prayers that dare to believe that God can and will answer according to His providence and His wisdom. Let us believe that the humanly impossible can be made possible by the working of the will of our good and gracious God. May we see His kingdom advance in power to save, to inflame, and to transform, and may we rejoice with the humble wonder of knowing we asked Him for it.

On death, grief, and the bent of my life

We were staying with our Mam Maw, our maternal grandmother, my sister and I were, when we got the news. Mam Maw hung up the phone and turning toward us, she pulled us to herself as she told us that our other grandmother, our dad’s mom, had died.

My sister immediately burst into tears while I, no less sad or bereft, stood there shocked by the loss of death and, if truth be told, perhaps somewhat embarrassed by my stoicism.

Of course if you knew me or my sister as girls you would probably say our responses were spot on. I have always been the more reserved–dare I say the more boring–of the two of us. My sister would drift through the house singing at the top of her lungs and I would be in the quietest corner I could find hunched over a book.

One Halloween my sister and I got the inspiration to trick or treat our own house. Our home at the time had several doors that opened to the outside so we decided we could go “door to door,” in the assumption our mom would indulge us by skittering from one door to the next with the requisite candy.

Meanwhile my dad had his own inspiration to attempt to scare us. He grabbed a sheet and as we made our way across the yard he ran by on the other side of the house with the sheet waving behind him. I was frightened out of my wits, frozen by my fear, unable to move, my mind immediately racing with how and where we could retreat, hide, escape. My sister, on the other hand, propelled me forward, laughing, barely containing her excitement and was it joy?

That’s us in a nutshell, particularly in terms of strong emotion. Me, frozen, thinking, standing back. My sister, embracing, transparent, eager even.

My husband and I received a similarly heartbreaking phone call a couple of weeks ago. This time my husband got the call and he immediately wept upon receiving the terrible news. Our friend Ron had been killed. I didn’t cry right then but prayed over and over, aloud and silently both, “Oh, my God.”

Some of us cry and others of us brood. I’ve brooded much in the days since that phone call as the truths of life and death gain greater weight and urgency. I’ve been moved to action too; in the tradition we Southerners have of marking all of life’s events with food, I’ve cooked a pork tenderloin and a Dr. Pepper cake and a squash casserole, all meager offerings in the face of the family’s devastating grief. Necessary and needful but still inadequate. What is a casserole to assuage the loss of husband and father?

Ron’s death was sudden and shocking. As I brood and ponder, I sometimes cannot wrap my mind around it. How very bizarre it seems, and I don’t mean that disrespectfully, but to consider that one Sunday Ron was there at church with us, serving and conversing and singing and praising, and by the next he was dead and buried? It is sad, unspeakably so. It is heartbreaking. It is shocking. It is sobering.

One thing I can say unequivocally about Ron: he loved the Lord Jesus. That I can assert without a shadow of a doubt. He certainly did not know that the Lord would call him home on that particular Wednesday night but it didn’t matter, not ultimately, because this was the bent of Ron’s life. His love for the Lord marked him; it was how he lived.

All my brooding has led me to this question: should the Lord take me today, tomorrow, or four decades from now, is the love of the Lord the bent of my life? Could you stand over my casket and say without a doubt that this girl lived for the glory of her Savior? It was so of my friend and I want it to be so for me. I think Ron would be happy for this to be his legacy: men and women saved from their sins by the grace of the Lord and living the rest of their lives, however long, however short, aflame with affection for their Savior.

Yes and amen.

A martyr’s pose, a burden, and a call to serve

My church has various community groups that meet on Sunday nights in homes for food, instruction, and, of course, community. Five classes are offered in the course of a year, each set in an eight-week rotation. The children have their meal and instruction at the church building and their teachers rotate each 8 weeks.

Yeah, it’s complicated but it works.

I am currently three weeks into my eight week children’s teaching responsibility. I have lamented loud and often over my dislike of teaching children, criticized teachers whose groups run late and whose participants are thus late in picking up their kids, and just generally whined and cried all the while striking a rather dramatic martyr’s pose.

Just keepin’ it real.

Something my husband said to me recently drew me up short and made me realize for all my disdain, I had been given both a privilege and an opportunity—one I had actually volunteered for, mind you—even if it wasn’t the sort of privilege and opportunity I most enjoyed. I’ve always maintained that I will rock the babies during my turn in the nursery and, yes, teach the children (for eight weeks a year, mind you) because someone once rocked my babies and taught my children, affording me the opportunity of a few moments’ peace and an uninterrupted among grown ups, yes and amen. In other words, I always thought I was serving the moms and I do.

I also serve the children. Sure, they interrupt me when I’m talking and they can’t remember one week’s lesson from the next and they surely would prefer a funner and funnier teacher (I would!). Hello, I don’t even do crafts.

But I do have a burden: Biblical literacy. Thus what motivates me to teach women on Sunday mornings in Sunday school and on Tuesdays in Bible study also motivates me to teach children on Sunday evenings. So every lesson I emphasize the following points:

  • Everyone has a Bible in front of them. We work together to find the correct passage and we read it together. We rejoice in the incredible, amazing privilege we have to read and hear God’s Word for ourselves!
  • We pray before our lesson because we acknowledge that God is the author of His Word and we need His Spirit to help us understand. We want to know more about Jesus, about the gospel, about God, about ourselves, and about the Bible. These things are spiritually understood and we need the guidance of the Spirit so we prayerfully and humbly ask.

These are simple truths but they are truths that I didn’t fully grasp until I was an adult and once I did, my spiritual life was radically changed. My passion is for others to see the beauty of God in Christ as revealed in His living Word. May the Lord do so and more in the lives of the children who must suffer my teaching on Sunday evenings!

I know that we all want to serve in ways we most enjoy. Sometimes we get to; sometimes, however, the need lies in the sort of service that tries our patience and exposes our arrogance. I am ashamed of those times in my life. Let me save you the same heartache and remind you: it is our privilege to serve others as Christ served His disciples, on His knees washing their feet.

I daresay your church is like mine and is in need of willing volunteers, particularly in children’s ministry. If you belong to the Lord Jesus then you have a message to share and a story to tell and, whether you are a man or a woman, whether you feel gifted or called, the next generation needs to hear them. My story is not your story, thankfully, but all our stories fit together in the grand, glorious Story of grace and redemption found only in Jesus Christ. May you find a need and fill it, serving others as you have been served!

The Lord God Saves His People

I actually wrote this post a couple of months ago. I post it now, well, for a couple of reasons. Some days it feels as if the world has gone crazy and everywhere I turn the news is either sad or bad. I find the book of Judges to be, strangely enough, a comfort.  Though times were certainly sad and bad–and crazy!–the Lord did not and would not abandon His people. Then and now true hope is only found in the mercy of the Lord.

And I don’t speak only of the global news cycle. For my church, it is our privilege to bear one another’s burdens through difficult and devastating circumstances. The book of Judges reminds us the Lord will be faithful; we trust His continued mercy and grace. 

I am currently teaching the book of Judges in the Bible study I lead on Tuesdays. What a fascinating—and sad—book! A few weeks ago we discussed chapters four and five and the two women featured there: Deborah and Jael.

And who can’t be fascinated by Jael? The evil commander Sisera is fleeing the battle and happens by her tent. She beckons him inside and he, knowing her husband to be a sympathizer, accepts her offer of refuge. She, however, has other loyalties, and drives a tent peg through his forehead, thus killing him while he sleeps. Talk about a strong woman of valor!

We discussed why some might find Jael a troubling savior. She lied, for one, and committed murder in cold blood, for two. What do we make of that? I asserted that we must recall the point of this narrative and of the book of Judges as a whole: that the Lord God saves His people. Thus Deborah’s song can exalt Jael as most blessed among women because she was the instrument of the Lord’s deliverance.

We must also trust the Lord when we encounter these seemingly ethical and moral quandaries, Jael not being the only example. As careful Bible students, we must distinguish between what the Bible is reporting and what it is commanding. Not all passages are meant to be prescriptive.

And finally I made the point that in Sisera’s death we see the awful but certain truth that the Lord will defeat His enemies. His wrath is sure. This a terrible truth taught to us in both the Old and New Testaments. The Bible is clear: the wages of sin is death and all who reject the Lord and persist in rebelling against Him will suffer His punishment.

But there is good news for those who are in Christ Jesus! He bore the punishment for our sins on the cross and we who repent and believe Him are now free! Not only that but we can trust Him with justice against those who have hurt us. I said yesterday that I didn’t know how those in class with me may have suffered at the hands of another—and I didn’t—but that the Lord is faithful and He will repay.

After class I learned that one of the ladies new to our group had indeed suffered horribly and tragically. Her story is hers to tell and I won’t share the details here; it is enough to know that she has endured a tragic loss. It was a difficult lesson for her, she admitted. “Finally, ultimately, I have to trust the sovereignty of God,” she said. “And I love Him more today, I trust Him more, and I know Him better.”

I left Bible study with a sober and heavy heart, saddened by the evil that seeks to devour. I thought over my lesson with its confident assertions; were they merely pat answers, full of the easy, empty ignorance that knows nothing of true suffering? My friend’s faith humbles me. Her story pierces through our (my) comfortable, unchallenged best life now to remind us (me) that evil is real, belief is hard, questions remain, but the Lord is trustworthy and His grace is sufficient.

My friend’s testimony is that of the book of Judges: the Lord God saves His people. This is not only the truth of Judges, but of the whole Bible and of the gospel message. He will have victory over His enemies, among whom we all once were apart from the grace of God. His mercy is our only hope, our only salvation, our only security, our only lasting joy.

 

The happy and the sad

Prior to my family and I seeing the movie “Inside Out,” my husband remarked to our guys that their mama–me–might be moved to tears because the film features a young girl moving with her family several states away.

“Me, cry?” I scoffed at the thought. It’s an animated movie, for crying out loud, no pun intended.

Yeah. So. Okay, I cried.

In the movie, eleven-year-old Riley moves from Minnesota to California and it is an emotional upheaval, which is, as you know, the premise of the movie.

In real life, thirteen-year-old me moved from Alabama to Texas and, like Riley, I found the transition difficult.

Also like Riley I experienced the horror and embarrassment of crying at school.

It was in Mr. Whitlow’s eighth grade history class. Mr. Whitlow was giving a test that day and having joined the class mid-year I was not only ignorant of most of the test material but also overwrought and overwhelmed and I cried.

Interestingly the only student in the class to pay me any mind, to even notice my tears much less offer any sort of comfort, was a boy of brashness and bravado, the kind of guy who seemed destined to be a drop out statistic. “Hey, it will be okay,” he told me. “Don’t cry. You’ll be fine.”

I’m ashamed to admit it but we probably never spoke again. You know as well as I do how the middle school social structure works. Though I have long forgotten his name, his kindness to me I will remember.

However ignorant my classmates may have wanted to appear, Mr. Whitlow noticed my tears and called me outside. He too assured me that I would be fine. Is it the test? Do you miss your friends? Are you okay? Yes, yes, and I didn’t know. He told me I didn’t have to take the test after all. He told me to come by and talk to him anytime. I didn’t but I knew I could.

Call me a martyr but I did take the exam and out of sheer grace Mr. Whitlow gave me a twenty-point bonus so I could have a B. Mr. Whitlow, I do not know where you are now but your kindness to me I will also remember.

Transition is hard. Moving away from friends and all that is familiar is heartbreaking and sad. But, as “Inside Out” attempts to portray, sadness gives weight and perspective to joy. The movie character Joy tries to preserve the happy core memories, not realizing that the sad ones are equally as critical. And this is Biblical, is it not? Paul discovers grace through his thorn in the flesh. Not only that but he reminds us that it is the light and momentary struggles that achieve an eternal weight of glory.

We see this most starkly in the death of Jesus. What greater heartbreak than the cross? But what greater joy than the Resurrection three days later? Sadness may endure for a night, the Psalmist writes, but joy comes in the morning. This is the tension of life as we know it: sadness and joy, heartbreak and hope, struggle and glory.

Though thirteen-year old me surely doubted, I did survive. Forty-seven year old me can see the Lord’s hand at work then and since, weaving a story, yes, a story of both loss and gain, but ultimately a story of grace and redemption. The sad times become as precious to me as the happy because there I see and know the provision and providence of my good and gracious God.