The God who is for us: Mary’s Song

THE GOD WHO IS

In October 2016, I gave the following exposition on Luke 1:46-55, known as Mary’s Song or the Magnificat, at my church for a women’s event. In this season of Advent, I’d like to share it with you. It’s interesting that Luke includes in his Gospel Mary’s Song, which is an interpretation of the preceeding events (the annunciation and the incarnation). What do we learn about the nature of God (who he is) through Mary’s Song? That’s the question I try to answer. You can read my manuscript below or listen to the audio of it here. May this Advent season ever remind you of the nearness of God in Jesus Christ and his unfathomable love for you.

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I don’t know about you but even though I’ve been a Christian for a long time, I still battle in my mind with different, opposing views of God. Every day is a struggle with belief in some way: a belief in a God who still loves me, a belief in a God who forgives me, a belief in a God whose mercy does not run dry, a belief in a God who is near me not far from me. Perhaps you find yourself asking yourself, Is God going to run out on me like that parent or spouse? Is God not going to forgive me like that friend who refused to forgive? Who is God and what do we believe about him in those darkest moments when we have nothing left to give?

Our God is not the god of Julie Gold’s song, “From a Distance,” who is or perhaps should be at a distance.

Who is God is the singular, most important question for us believers and in fact for all of humanity. Everything else stems from how we answer that question.

That is why I am about to do something unusual: teach from an Advent passage 66 days before Christmas.

But I think Mary, the mother of Jesus, can help us answer this question, Who is God?, in her song, also known as the Magnificat.

Read Luke 1:46-55.

Who is the God we find in Mary’s Song?

First, Mary praises a God who mercifully acts on her behalf.

Mary’s Song is a response to what has happened only a few verses before, in the annunciation of the incarnation of Jesus Christ. You may remember that twice Gabriel tells Mary that she has found favor with God—and what favor! She is the one who will bear the Son of God, the Son of the Most High.

Mary was a young, poor, country, unmarried girl from Nazareth. Nazareth, that place of which Nathanael asked, “Can anything good come out of Nazareth?”

Mary has no reason to boast—perhaps that’s why she was so troubled over what the angel said. On what merit could Mary find favor with God so that he would send an angel and promise his presence?

No merit of course. Like us, Mary was a daughter of Eve. Like us, she could join in and say as we do in our prayer of humble access, “We are not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under Thy Table.”

But what immediately follows in that same prayer? “But thou art the same Lord whose property is always to have mercy.”

Mary’s Song locates the saving activity squarely in the very being of God as Savior who acts mercifully for her. God has determined himself to be her Savior. God’s looking on the humble estate of his servant is not the kind of looking we women do when we go window-shopping. “I’m just looking,” we tell our husbands, our mothers or ourselves. This means I’m going to admire but I’m not going to buy. But when God looks, he acts. When God looks, he buys. And when he acts, we praise. As New Testament scholar Joel Green puts it, “God acts graciously; people respond with joy and praise.”

God’s merciful action results in a new title for Mary: blessed. We Southerners love to use the word “bless.” I’m the most guilty. I’m especially guilty of saying, “Bless her heart.” “Bless her heart” can really be used as a cutting remark. We use it when someone has done something foolish or silly. We use it of those who are gullible or when someone has just gone through difficult circumstances.

But when the word blessed is used of someone in Scripture it is used of someone who has received divine favor, who has been blessed by God. God’s blessing flows from being in right relationship to God. Jesus tells Peter after he confessed him as “the Christ, the Son of the living God”: “Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven.” True blessing comes from the One from whom all blessings flow, who has the power to bless, because he himself is blessed because he is God. Mary’s blessedness points not to herself but to the One who has blessed her, God her Savior.

Why is Mary called blessed? “For he who is mighty has done great things for me, and holy is his name.” Do you notice the juxtaposition in these first few verses? Mary, who is humble and who is a servant, is juxtaposed with God, who is mighty and who has done great things. It is only the One who is mighty who is able to take the lowly and lift them up and change their status. The Mighty One has taken her from the place of a lowly servant to a place of blessing and honor.

But how does He do it? Our text doesn’t supply that answer but that’s why we read Scripture in conversation with Scripture. God the Mighty One is able to bless the lowly one by himself becoming lowly. Paul writes in Philippians, “Christ Jesus, who, though he was in the form of God, did not count equality with God a thing to be grasped, but emptied himself, by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men. And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.”

The fullness of God’s blessing came to Mary in the very presence of God. In Gabriel’s announcement, he tells Mary that the Most High will overshadow her and the Son of God will be conceived in her. Think of the magnitude of such an act.

When King Solomon was getting ready to build a temple for the Lord, he said, “The house that I am to build will be great, for our God is greater than all gods. But who is able to build him a house, since heaven, even highest heaven, cannot contain him?”

The same God who cannot be contained by the highest heaven, whose small toe was too big to fit in Solomon’s temple, chose to make himself small, so small to fit in a womb, Mary’s womb. This great act of humility was the gracious act of the Mighty One for Mary. This is why she can say, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior!”

But Mary’s Song doesn’t stop there with verse 49. Mary not only praises a God who mercifully acts on her behalf.

Secondly, she also praises a God who mercifully acts on behalf of others, namely Israel.

Mary understands that what God has done for her is representative of or sets into motion what God is doing for his people. New Testament scholar Joel Green says, “It is by means of his looking ‘with favor on the lowliness of his servant’ Mary that ‘he has helped his servant Israel.’” It is through her that God has chosen to fulfill his covenantal promise.

Just as Elizabeth’s pregnancy was a sign for Mary that God would fulfill his word to her, so Mary serves as our sign that what God has done for Mary he will do for us. Of course we won’t bear the Son of God, but just as he poured out his Spirit on Mary and she was not consumed, so too he will pour out his Spirit at Pentecost and thereafter for everyone who believes in Jesus Christ. Just as he reversed Mary’s status and showed her favor and mercy, He will do the same for us.

But what may make us feel uncomfortable is how God’s mercy is described. It’s described in very concrete, worldly terms. Where is the spiritual reality of God’s mercy or the talk of hearts and faith and sin? Why does Mary use the description of God overcoming the social realities of our daily existence instead of Him overcoming the sinful realities of our spiritual existence?

We reject the promises of prosperity gospel preachers that with just the right amount of faith and the least amount of sin God’s blessings will pour out on us in material ways. We reject this because we know that even the righteous will suffer.

So what do we make of this?

First, God is a merciful God. God’s acting in human history is an act of grace. Grace implies that we are given something we do not deserve. The second part of Mary’s Song begins and ends with reference to God’s mercy: “His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation” and “He has helped his servant Israel in remembrance of his mercy.” Thus God’s acts listed between verses 50 and 54 should be read in light of God’s grace.

Theologian Karl Barth says, We have “perverted, wasted and hopelessly compromised our own being, life and activity, who find ourselves disqualified.” We are all messed up people, “offending and provoking God, making ourselves impossible before Him.”

It is what we confess and pray to God each week in our prayer of confession: “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed, by thought, word, and deed, against thy divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.”

Like Mary, we have forfeited any rights to salvation.

Oh but God. When God’s name is used with the word but, there is hope. God coming to us through the womb of Mary breaks into our world with a declaration of his mercy and the divine “but.”

“But God, being rich in mercy, because of the great love with which he loved us, even when we were dead in our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved!” Eph. 2:4-5.

Once again Barth says, “‘God with us’ means more than God over or side by side with us, before or behind us. It means more than His divine being in even the most intimate active connection with our human being otherwise peculiar to Him. It means that God has made Himself the One who fulfills His redemptive will. It means that God has become man in order to take up our case. What takes place in this work of inconceivable mercy is, therefore, the free over-ruling of God, but it is not an arbitrary overlooking and ignoring, not an artificial bridging, covering-over or hiding, but a real closing of the breach, gulf and abyss between God and us for which we are responsible. At the very point where we refuse and fail, offending and provoking God, making ourselves impossible before Him and in that way missing our destiny, treading under foot our dignity, forfeiting our right, losing our salvation and hopelessly compromising our creaturely being—at that very point God Himself intervenes as man.”

This is why, friends, we can say that God with us is God’s for us in Jesus Christ.

Second, God is a God who cares for the whole person. Think of Jesus’ ministry. Yes, he proclaims good news for the sinner, but He also feeds the hungry on the mountain. He physically heals the wounded. He commands his disciples to take care of the most vulnerable: the widows and orphans. He turns water into wine for a wedding feast; he delivers those who are demon-possessed. He raises the dead and gives them back to his family. He weeps with the weeping. The fact that the God who created the material has entered into the material shows us that God cares about even the very basic necessities of this life. His mercy doesn’t stop with overturning the oppressor of our spiritual lives but extends to those people and those things that oppress even our physical lives.

This part of Mary’s Song is declarative of what God is doing in the present, but also a prophecy of what he will do in the future.

He scatters the proud, brings down the mighty from their thrones, sends the rich away empty, exalts the humble, and fills the hungry. In this context, Mary is not simply talking about the poor as those who are unfortunate and the rich as those who have money. These terms are used to represent those who are humble and depend on God (the poor) and those who use their power and privilege to oppress others (the rich). You can have money but still be poor in spirit; you can have little money and still reject God in your pride. These are representative terms.

But even God’s judgment on the mighty is an act of mercy in order that they may repent and turn to him. In his mercy he takes away those things which become our stumbling blocks to him, and he gives those things which sustain his people.

So, in conclusion, who is God? What does Mary’s Song teach us about our God?

He is the God who has determined himself to be a God with a people. He is a God who desires to be known personally and by what he does for us. He is a God who loves freely and freely acts mercifully on our behalf. He is a God who desires to be praised for what he has done for us in history.

He is the God who, as we confess in our creeds, “for us men and our salvation came down from heaven, and was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary, and was made man.”

For us men and our salvation.

Theologian T. F. Torrance says, “He loves us with the very Love which he is.”

Again: “In this final revelation of himself God proclaims himself to all mankind as the one Lord God the Father Almighty, the Maker of heaven and earth, who in his overflowing love will not be without us human beings but has freely come among us to be one of us and one with us in order to reconcile us to himself and to bring us into communion with himself.”

And one last quote from Torrance: “We believe that what God is toward us in Jesus Christ, the Word made flesh, he is in himself, antecedently and eternally in himself; and that what he imparts to us through the Spirit who sheds the love of God into our hearts, he is in himself, antecedently and eternally in himself.”

This means that there is not a different God behind the back of Jesus. The God we see in Jesus is the same God who is for us in history. The God who is for Mary is the God who is for us, working in our lives, hovering over our chaos and creating us new. He is not a God at a distance; He is God with us. Mary’s God is our God. Thus, Mary’s Song is our song. In Christ, we too can sing:

My soul magnifies the Lord,

and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior,

for he has looked on the humble estate of his servant.

For behold, from now on all generations will call me blessed;

for he who is mighty has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

Amen.

 

 

 

 

 

 

SaveSave

SaveSave

Homosexuality and the Love of God: A response to Jen Hatmaker and Katelyn Beaty

By Osvaldo and Kristen Padilla

RembrandtReturnOfTheProdigalSon-feat

It has been the suggestion of a number of Protestant denominations that the matter of LGBTQ can be separated from the basics of the gospel. That is, that one can be affirming of homosexual unions (please note the clarification about this at the bottom) but this need not affect the traditional core of the gospel. Or to put it another way, the receiving into the churches of LGBTQ folk who want to continue in those relationships is something that is not in the same sphere as the core doctrines of the church. The acceptance of LGBTQ folk as stated above has nothing to do with the continual upholding of central belief commitments such as are expressed in the Apostles Creed or Nicaea. The reception of LGBTQ people who want to continue actively in those relationships does not at all affect my evangelical identity, to the extent that that identity is determined by certain core, doctrinal beliefs. So the argument goes. We want to suggest that a recent event involving popular Christian speaker and author Jen Hatmaker and Katelyn Beaty, managing editor of the evangelical flagship popular magazine Christianity Today, proves that such arguments are entirely incorrect.

The recent event is actually a continuation of an event that occurred two years ago. In March 2014, Hatmaker penned a controversial blog post entitled, “World Vision, Gay Marriage, and a Different Way Through,” in which she left room for those who believe same-sex marriage is OK to be within the tent of orthodox Christianity. Or to put it another way, there was no connection between the basic doctrines of Christianity and same-sex marriage.

Last week Hatmaker spoke out again regarding the issue of homosexuality, causing another stir. In an April 23rd post, Hatmaker writes,

One thing I said was that it is high time Christians opened wide their arms, wide their churches, wide their tables, wide their homes to the LGBT community. … Here are my arms open wide. So wide that every last one of you can jump inside. You are so dear, so beloved, so precious and important. You matter so desperately and your life is worthy and beautiful. There is nothing “wrong with you,” or in any case, nothing more right or wrong than any of us, which is to say we are all hopelessly screwed up but Jesus still loves us beyond all reason and lives to make us all new, restored, whole.

Standing by itself, her ambiguous post (just what does it mean to love and to open arms wide?) on love does not say much. In fact at first glance her words should be echoed by all of us who love sacrificially and without exception. But what does it mean to be loved by God? Does being loved by God imply a relationship with God? What does she mean by “there is nothing ‘wrong with you’”? In particular, since Christians through the ages have said that repentance is the gateway to a relationship with God, what is the connection between repentance and the love of God?1

Enter Beaty. She provides a defense of Hatmaker’s statements by concentrating on the love of God. The title of her piece is: “What Jen Hatmaker gets right about Christian love.” Beaty’s conclusion is that the angry response to Hatmaker is indicative of a misunderstanding of God’s love.

But the response from both sides of the spectrum also highlights how confused we Christians are about the nature of love—the love that God has for us, and the love we are to have for those who don’t know him.

Beaty sees as the problem with the opponents of Hatmaker that they put a condition for the acceptance of LGBTQ folks. The condition that Beaty sees is repentance. Consider the following statement:

This radical love of God in Christ is precisely what compels us to love God in return and to repent accordingly—not the other way around. And oh, do we so often confuse the order of love and repentance. Driven by mere human logic, we want to make ourselves right with God before he can declare it. We still want to do something to earn his love, and we want others to do the same—to repent first and really mean it, lest love be used as a license to sin.

To bolster her argument, she quotes from Episcopal priest Fleming Rutledge. Here is what the latter says about repentance: “The temptation is to say that repentance is necessary before God can forgive us.” Yet, “The truth is the other way around. Repentance is something that God works in us as a consequence of his prevenient grace.”

And so we have come full circle to our introduction. In fact, the current debate on same-sex unions depends squarely on our understanding of some of the basic things of the gospel. In this case, repentance.

Now there are some significant problems in Hatmaker/Beaty’s statements about the relationship of God’s love to repentance.

First, Beaty approvingly quotes the view of repentance from Rutledge, “The temptation is to say that repentance is necessary before God can forgive us.” The problem with this is that it contradicts the Bible. Consider the following passages:

And he answered them, “Do you think that these Galileans were worse sinners than all the other Galileans, because they suffered in this way? No, I tell you; but unless you repent, you will all likewise perish. (Luke 13:2-3)

And Peter said to them, “Repent and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins, and you will receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. (Acts 2:38)

Repent therefore, and turn back, that your sins may be blotted out, that times of refreshing may come from the presence of the Lord, and that he may send the Christ appointed for you, Jesus (Acts 3:19-20; emphasis added)

So, in fact, without repentance there is no salvation. This leads us to a second point.

Second, the problem with Beaty is that she understands repentance as a human work, as self- amendment. She views it as our contribution to salvation. Consider the following:

And oh, do we so often confuse the order of love and repentance. Driven by mere human logic, we want to make ourselves right with God before he can declare it. We still want to do something to earn his love, and we want others to do the same—to repent first and really mean it, lest love be used as a license to sin.

Is this really what repentance is? Repentance is actually a gift of God, as much a gift as faith and justification. Consider the following passages:

The God of our fathers raised Jesus, whom you killed by hanging him on a tree. God exalted him at his right hand as Leader and Savior, to give repentance to Israel and forgiveness of sins. (Acts 5:30-31; emphasis added)

God, having raised up his servant, sent him to you first, to bless you by turning every one of you from your wickedness. (Acts 3:26)

This is repentance. It is a gift of God by which he grants us a contrite and broken spirit (Psalm 51), which desperately wants to turn toward a new life. It is not amending our lives; it is a God- given desire to live according to God’s commands. Consider also the following quotation from Beaty:

Prevenient grace is the kind of grace that runs out toward us when we have barely managed to walk down the path toward our father’s house. It’s a kind of grace that wipes off the slop, enables us to stand up straighter…

The Scriptural view is that you couldn’t even walk without God-given repentance, not even barely; you couldn’t even stand up at all (let alone straighter) without repentance. The irony here is that Beaty inadvertently has shown what she believes about grace—that it is a cooperative endeavor in which God meets us “when we have barely managed to walk down the path.” Grace for her is helping us “stand up straighter.” In reality without grace we cannot get off the ground in the first place! But if you understand repentance in the way that she does, of course you are going to make statements like the ones above.

To end where we began: how we view homosexuality—not in the abstract but the very specific issue of same-sex marriage—is not something that can be separated from core doctrines of the Christian faith. It is tied to doctrines such as grace, repentance, and the love of God. If “God is love” (1 John 4:8), and yet you do not understand the love of God, then you don’t know God. And so the relationship of repentance to the love of God goes all the way down to the very being of God. For your view of repentance, consciously or unconsciously, says what you believe about the love of God.

Can you know the love of God in the abstract without knowing God relationally? And can you relationally know God without repentance? If the answer is no to this second question, then you cannot know the love of God (God is love) without repentance.

Let us be clear, we are not suggesting that a person has to repent in order for God to love them. That would be silly. God loves us no matter what our state is. But we are asking how can you enter into a relationship of love with God without repentance. Is that possible?

 

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1 In Romania, for example, evangelicals are called “the repentant ones.” And in Latin America, repentance is used as a shorthand for the whole experience of salvation.

Osvaldo’s father lives with us. He is not a Christian. We have literally opened our home, hearts, and arms in love for him. We share the gospel of Jesus Christ with him and tell him ad nauseam about God’s love. He also comes to church with us. But he has yet to experience the love of God; he has also yet to repent. If you cannot know God or God’s love behind the back of Jesus, and if Jesus’ greatest act of love was what he did on the cross so that our sins might be forgiven, he will not know for himself God’s love until he turns (repents) and recognizes Jesus as Lord. All rationale and stubbornness has him not repenting; that is why we are always praying that the gift of repentance might be granted to him so that he will experience God’s love. His behavior won’t change right away, but we know that in Christ the Holy Spirit works to transform us according to his will. 

Please note that we are not suggesting that Beaty is in agreement of same-sex unions. For Hatmaker we are not sure where she stands. The problem we have is the way repentance as it relates to the love of God is articulated. Scripture teaches us that we are to always correct and reprove and be corrected and reproved so that another gospel, different than the gospel Paul preached, isn’t preached. And in this case we felt strongly that what was being articulated regarding repentance needed to be corrected.

Lastly, this entire post highlights what I (Kristen) have been saying in this blog. Women (and men!) without theological education should be especially careful before making statements about doctrines about which the best Christian thinkers have been reflecting on for centuries. Both Hatmaker and Beaty betray the least amount of acquaintance with robust theological discussion on the nature of repentance and the love of God. Shall we let people who have no formal theological training tell the rest of the church what repentance is and what the love of God is?

Osvaldo Padilla is associate professor of New Testament at Beeson Divinity School, where he teaches Greek and the Gospels and Acts. 

Tomorrow Will Be Anxious for Itself: Finding Grace and Peace for Today

“Life is lived forwards but understood backwards.”

I believe that my Christian preaching professor was quoting someone else when he spoke these words in class more than eight years ago, but I attribute them to him and have never forgotten them.

Back in perhaps late October or early November (I don’t remember now), the women’s minister at my church called me. The speaker they had lined up for their Fall Women’s Coffee event had cancelled; would I step in. I agreed. With less than a month to prepare I prayed for a text for the coffee event. The Lord kept leading me to Matthew 6:25-34, “Do not be anxious…”.

By God’s grace, I gave the same talk at two different times on this passage on November 13. I said that the answer to incessant anxiety or worry even when our circumstances are grim is believing and knowing that God is a good father who loves us.

Life was going pretty well, by the way.

Then four days after I gave this talk, I had an unusual thing happen that prompted me to seek a colonoscopy.

The colonoscopy showed I had ulcerative colitis (UC), an auto-immune disease that attacks the colon. Ironically, my husband had suffered from the same disease for the past 12 years and we both had UC in the same spots of our colons!

On the heels of grappling with a new diagnosis, just two weeks after my colonoscopy, our 4 year old son went to the bathroom and also had an unusual thing happen. He was too young to have this disease and it would be too coincidental if he and I would “get” it at the same time!

After a tumultuous two months and some odd weeks of doctor’s visits, blood work, stool samples and tears, he finally had a colonoscopy two weeks ago that revealed colitis. Three days after his colonoscopy, he began having abdominal pain. This led to him being hospitalized last week with pancreatitis and learning that his colitis is in fact Crohn’s colitis. Two days after being home from the hospital, I fell ill very quickly. I went to the doctor just this Saturday and learned I had bronchitis and what she thought was a virus. She didn’t test me for the flu. Sunday I thought I was going to die. Yesterday I tested positive for the flu.

Two Mondays ago, hours before we took Philip to the ER, I listened to the talk I gave that November morning for the first time despite the fact that I hate listening to my voice. I listened to myself, an earlier self without any real problems, talk about trusting in God’s goodness and his love for us as our Father. I listened to myself say that when we take our eyes off of our circumstances and place them on the goodness and love of God we find relief from our anxiety and worry.

I believe often times it is the teacher who learns the most when he/she prepares to teaches. I don’t know if God gave that message for anyone in those rooms on November 13, but I do know I needed the message. Perhaps I didn’t need the message on Nov. 13, but I needed it last week, this week, and even today. I don’t think it was a coincidence that the Fall Women’s Coffee speaker cancelled or that God put the Matthew 6 text  on my heart. He knew that I was about to enter into a time when I would possibly question his goodness and his love for me. He knew that I was about to face a diagnosis of my own and of my beloved son’s. He knew that I was about to go through the ringer of physical exhaustion and face situations that would cause great worry.

Perhaps I still don’t understand looking backwards why these things have taken place (I don’t know if I ever should), but I do understand looking backwards that God was reminding me of his goodness and love (and even had me teach on it!) on the cusp of when I would need reminding of it the most.

I don’t know what’s going on in your world, but perhaps you, too, need reminding of God’s love and goodness. If so, you can listen to the talk I gave here.

Hallmark, Idealization and the Gospel

hallmarkThe night after Thanksgiving I sat down to watch my first Hallmark Christmas movie of the season. My husband, who was close by in the living room and curious as to what I was watching, was struck by the “perfectness” of the main male and female characters. “Everyone is perfect in this movie! Perfect teeth; perfect hair; perfect skin; perfect body.” For the rest of the movie he teased me for watching such an unrealistic, cheesy movie. Finally he couldn’t hold back the question that was bothering him: Why would you watch such an idealized movie when reality is so different?

I thought about it for a moment. To be sure the characters were nauseatingly good-looking and the plot was super predictable. But my answer to him was simple: escape. What the Hallmark movie did for me was to provide an escape from a world filled with gun violence and radical, tyrannical Islam on one extreme and bad breath, tantrums and a messy toy room on the lesser extreme. It provided a “perfect” world where none of these things existed and I could pretend, too, even if just for a moment that I existed in this “perfect” world. The Hallmark movies are an idealization.

Hallmark has learned how to capitalize on women’s desire for the ideal, specifically for the ideal love and relationship. In fact if you watch enough of these movies, you realize the actors, setting and character names change from move to movie but the plot basically remains the same. Yet it still makes us feel good and warm and fuzzy.

I believe this desire for the ideal is something that God has placed in each of us in order to point to Himself. Living in a sinful, broken world even professing non-Christians idealize their own imagined heaven. Surely this messed up world cannot be all we get! We see this concretized in Hollywood as it has even capitalized on “heaven” movies like What Dreams May Come, City of Angels, and, my favorite, Dogs Go to Heaven.

But these feeble attempts miss the mark and idealize the lesser instead of the greater. The world idealizes what they believe is the ultimate of all relationships and love – romantic love between a man and a woman. This is Hollywood’s and Hallmark’s ideal. But their ideal fails, for as soon as the escape is over we walk into a kitchen with dirty dishes, or go to sleep next to someone who no longer loves us, or walk out to a beat-up old car that puts out more exhaust than it does breathable air, or go home to an empty house that reminds us we are truly alone. The escape they provide lasts momentarily; it doesn’t change our reality. Their idealization is of something that they cannot ever promise we will receive.

And sometimes we reject others’ attempts at idealization and create our own. Christmas-time seems to be the perfect stimulant for idealizations, and we parents are the most susceptible. We want to give our children the same, if not better, idealized Christmases that we remember. Christmas becomes a 6-week long, “magical” event where we become so consumed with creating the ideal Christmas that by the time Christmas is over we and our children experience the biggest let down of the year. Our idealized world has ended.

Small doses of idealization aren’t bad, I believe, as long as we recognize that they aren’t the end in themselves but point beyond themselves to the True Ideal which actually becomes our Reality and is the Ultimate Reality.

In the Incarnation, the Ideal has broken into the Real. Put another way, heaven came to earth. God became flesh and dwelt among us. And this Ideal is God’s ideal as defined by Scripture not our ideal defined by our standards. If it were our ideal, we would have placed Jesus in a castle not in a manger (not to even speak of the crucifixion!). Yet in Christ, we are not only shown an ideal love, the apogee of all loves, a I-lay-down-my-life-for-you kind of love, but it is a love that doesn’t remain on a TV or movie screen. It’s a love that goes with us and transforms us. It is a love that doesn’t make you sick after too much of it, but a love that continues to give you life upon life so that you can never have enough.

Sometimes when we use the word ideal it is a word that describes something that will never become real. This is not true of Jesus, the Incarnation or God’s love for us. The “ideal” is so real, it is even more real than what we call our reality. What we find in Jesus Christ is the ultimate reality.

It strikes me that when Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray, the first thing he tells his disciples to ask of God is for heaven to break into our reality. It is a prayer that asks for this world to mirror and become perfect world of heaven. “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” (Matthew 6:9-13). Heaven is the sphere where God reigns as King and where his will is completely done. Since God is perfect and sinless, good and love, heaven is the place that reflects this majesty and character of God. Jesus tells us to pray for that perfect world to break into our world so that earth will become like heaven.

Until that day comes in full, Jesus promises those who he redeems and who follow him that we enter into the Kingdom of God (also known as the Kingdom of Heaven) partially while on this earth. In Jesus Christ, we have one foot on earth and one foot in heaven. Or, put another way, we have one foot in reality and one foot in the perfect world that is yet to be.

For some of you the following will make your toes curl, but I am guilty of reading the last page or sometimes the last chapter first when I begin a new book. I did this for Harry Potter and Lord of the Rings. I can’t help it. I want to know how the story ends before I begin so that when I get to the difficult, scary, they-aren’t-going-to-make-it parts of the book, I can press forward because I know how it will end.

God, who loves us and wants to be known by us as Father, does the same thing for us. He gives us the book of Revelation so that we will know how the story “ends.” We can brave the middle parts; we can preserve during hard reality moments. We can have faith and hope because we know that his ideal will one day become real to us, and that God “will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.”

After watching two Hallmark Christmas movies this season, I have already had my fill. I can’t take another. But watching them reminded me of my need and desire and longing for that ideal, perfect world. A world that actually began away in a manger where God pitched his tent among us, a world that I taste every time I worship with my church family, pray and read Scripture, and a world that I know is coming, which will be God’s answer to our prayer: let your Kingdom come.

 

Chipped fingernail paint and the gospel

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This past weekend was one of those tough parenting moments. As an aside, I am thankful for those friends who debunked the myth early on that it’s only the 2s that are “terrible” or else I would be completely unprepared for the 4s! Our son Philip threw the tantrum of the year. We had never seen him that angry. Because he didn’t get something he wanted on Friday night, he lashed out at us in every possible way. He was like a mad dog with his teeth sunk into his anger, and he was not going to give it up. Finally after a long time of us holding his bedroom door shut and telling him to get on his bed and calm down, he gave up. His anger gave way to tears, but the damage had already been done.

 

We grounded him for the first time ever. I’m sure it won’t be the last. Because he was grounded, it meant that he missed his best friend’s birthday party on Saturday and the first birthday party of the new school year.

 

Saturday morning after waking up, Philip went into his playroom and played quietly by himself. After some time passed, I went to him and told him how much we loved him but also how much he hurt us by his sin. He looked up at me and said, “Mommy, please give me a new heart.”

 

“We know all too well our sins and offenses.”

 

Sunday morning we rushed to church late as usual. Even though I had little time to get ready, my hair and make-up were satisfactory, and I was wearing jewelry and new clothes. Quite a feat for a mom of a little one! Everything about my outward appearance looked put together except for my fingernails. My dark blue fingernail paint was chipped and ugly. My fingernails gave me away that all wasn’t put together on the outside.

 

“It turns out Jesus doesn’t even want the best we have to offer.”

 

One of the main reasons that my husband and I left the Baptist church and have come to the larger Anglican church (our church is actually an evangelical Episcopal church) is because of weekly Communion. In part we love taking weekly Communion as it is a constant, visible reminder of the gospel. But we also love the way in which Communion is taken at the Anglican Church. Instead of little cups of juice and fingernail size crackers being passed to each person individually without ever needing to leave your seat, the taking of Communion in the Anglican tradition involves getting out of your seat and kneeling next to brothers and sisters. Communion isn’t just an individualistic experience but one the church does together. (As an aside, in a way, Communion is also more of an individual experience in the Anglican tradition as the priest or vicar gives each person, individually, bread and wine, looks into their eyes, and says, “Take this and remember Christ died for your sins.”) I remember the first time the significance of the act of taking Communion truly sunk in. I walked forward with open hands, bringing nothing with me, kneeling in reverence and submission, and receiving the bread and wine. This was the message of the gospel. I bring nothing of my own merit to Christ. Instead I kneel at the feet of Christ in reverence and submission waiting to receive from him in faith his body and blood which were broken and shed for the forgiveness of my sins. Instead of taking Communion, here I’ve learned to receive Communion just like I have received the gospel of Jesus Christ.

 

“What does Jesus want? He wants you.”

 

Sunday morning after listening to Dean Andrew Pearson’s wonderful sermon of the gospel of Jesus Christ, which I have been quoting here, Communion was offered. We were sitting on the last row that morning. As I waited for my turn to go to the table, I prayed and watched people of different kinds get up from their pews to receive Communion. Then, a few rows ahead of us, a man on crutches got up and limped forward to the Communion table. He was lame. Yet while he is lame on the outside, it occurred to me we all approach the table of Jesus Christ limping, lame with our own, invisible crutches and bruises. Just like Philip asked me on Saturday, so I, too, that morning came limping to the table asking, “Jesus, please give me a new heart.”

 

When it came for my turn to get up, I looked down at my chipped painted fingernails and was thankful. I was thankful that there was something on the outside of my body that wasn’t perfect, that needed fixing, that was ugly. Because it reminded me that stripped of all of my pretenses and outward appearances, I am one in great need of Jesus. I need a new heart. Every day. I, like Philip, make my Father sad. At times, I, too, sink my teeth deep into sin, into my selfishness and pride and refuse to let go. I, too, need the Holy Spirit to continue to sanctify and make new my heart. I, too, come to God on crutches knowing that he heals the sinner, cures the brokenhearted, and makes new the old. Only in Jesus do we find what we’ve always been looking for – love so perfect, love divine.

 

“Every time we celebrate Communion we issue an altar call. We say, The table is set. This is what Jesus Christ has done for you. He has died and is risen again. And he is alive. Come forward and simply receive by faith Jesus Christ. What do you bring when you come forward? Nothing. You just come forward, and whether you are rich or poor, young or old, whether you got it together or you’re a total wreck, whether your bruises really hurt or whether you are still struggling with your bruises, we all take the same posture on our knees and open our hands like beggars and simply receive. We say ‘yes’ to Jesus and surrender our hearts and lives to him.”

 

For the full sermon, listen here.

My unexpected sabbatical: A look back at Cambridge

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There is a clock in the center of Cambridge, England. Actually there are as many clocks in Cambridge as there are churches in Birmingham, Alabama (where I am from). But the clock I am referring to is a special and unusual clock.

The Corpus Clock draws the attention of visitors and residents alike. For one, there are no hands on this clock. In fact, at first glance, one might not know that it is a clock at all! What draws people to it is its unusual appearance. Amongst a sea of brown and grey bricks and stones sits an encased 3-dimensional circle, almost 5 feet across in diameter, plated in 24-carat gold, and worth at least 1 million pounds if not more.

What is even more unusual about this clock is that the time is accurate only once every five minutes. Sometimes the clock slows down and at other times it races forward. Not to mention that what sits on top of the clock is a strange creature that looks like a cross between a grasshopper and a locust. This creature, also known as the Chronophage or “Time Eater,” opens its mouth as if he is eating time and occasionally blinks to show his satisfaction.

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Although the clock isn’t always accurate it truthfully represents our perception of time. For often time feels as if it has slowed down: when school or a work day feels like it will never end; when waiting for an appointment; or when waiting for test results. At other times in life time feels as if it is moving too fast, especially as a parent when you watch your children grow. Yet, no matter whether time has “slowed down” or “sped up,” it nonetheless passes and what is in the past will never be present again. This is why the Time Eater makes such an impression. For it illustrates this reality in a haunting way: time is eaten until it is eventually all gone, evidenced by the Latin inscription that marks the top of the clock: mundus transit et concupiscentia eius (“the world passes away and the lust thereof”) from 1 John 2:17.

One year ago my family packed up what we could fit in six suitcases and moved to Cambridge, England, for six months for my husband’s sabbatical. I’m crying now as I write this. Those were some of the best months of my life!

My husband teaches New Testament at Beeson Divinity School in Birmingham, and was up for his first sabbatical since being at Beeson Divinity. He was under contract for a new book, The Acts of the Apostles: Essays in Interpretation, History and Theology (Downers Grove: InterVarsity Press, forthcoming), which meant he wanted to spend his sabbatical at a good, theological library. Cambridge is home to the world’s largest (and best!) evangelical library, Tyndale House, not to mention that by being at Tyndale House he also had access to the Cambridge University libraries.

When our family of three moved to Cambridge, we did so for my husband’s sabbatical. Sabbatical comes from the Latin sabbaticus, which means to cease or take leave from work. You might also recognize the connection with the word Sabbath.

While Osvaldo was taking a paid leave of absence from his work as a theological educator, he wasn’t ceasing from work entirely. Yet, his reprieve from teaching allowed him to do something else that he loved – research and writing.

Then there was me. At that time I was a stay-at-home mom. Moving to England didn’t mean that I was ceasing from my work. I just carried it with me. His name is Philip, and at the time he was three. This won’t be a sabbatical for me, I thought.

What I soon discovered, about a month after being in Cambridge, was that indeed God was gifting me with a sabbatical of my own. But not in the way that you or I would think.

What moving to Cambridge did for me was that it took me out of my comfort zone and gave me a reprieve from expectations, commitments, temptations, cultural priorities, and even idols that came with where I was living. In this way, I was gifted a sabbatical.

The power of contrast allowed me to see those areas in my life and heart that had been controlled by culture or worldly things rather than by God.

Our way of living drastically changed. We were now living in a place without a car, TV, or 4G Internet access away from Wifi hot spots. Our home had no air conditioner, which surprisingly was a problem during the summer months, and no electronic clothes dryer. Part of my daily routine was to hang all of our clothes, towels and sheets! To get anywhere in town we would mostly walk or cycle and occasionally take the bus. This meant spending more time getting around town, which, consequently, meant more time in communication with my son, reflection, and prayer.

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This contrast brought clarity. The Holy Spirit opened my eyes to see those things in my life back home that were superfluous, that created unrest in my life (the opposite of Sabbath), and that were unpleasing to Him. Like looking at my reflection in the glass window of the Corpus Clock, by living in Cambridge the Holy Spirit allowed me to see myself more clearly. In many ways I had been living like that person for whom the Corpus clock is true – as if time was a limited commodity that I had to utilize before the Time Eater ate it up.

I’ve heard it said, “That’s the thing with idols: when you think you have a control on them that is when they really have control of you.” For me, one of those idols was time.

The ironic twist in my sabbatical was that as life became more difficult (no car, TV, clothes dryer, etc) and thereby in many ways more time consuming, as I spent more time in communion with Him, and as time became less of an idol for me, the more time I had. My days felt longer. I had time for tea. For relationships. For conversations. For adventures. As a result, I experienced more freedom.

Within a month, I noticed a change in my spirit. Burdens that were once there, often placed by me, were gone. Life was simpler. Less time was spent caring what others thought, what others were doing and saying on social media, and trying to keep up with Pinterest, while more time was spent visiting parks. (We visited a total of eight while in Cambridge.)

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We took adventures. My first month in Cambridge, I was invited to a tearoom with other moms and children, whose husbands and fathers were studying at Tyndale. Going would mean cycling with Philip almost four miles one way without having a GPS. I screenshot some maps, packed a backpack and our basket on the front of the cycle, and we were off. With the help of several, kind English people, who gave me directions along the way, that little adventure took us down ivy-grown paths, along a river, past open, green fields, into an apple orchard where I eventually sat down for tea and scones with other women while the children played under apple trees.

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Whereas time before Cambridge was rushed and there never seemed to be enough of it, in Cambridge I was finding more time with the cessation of expectations (i.e., making a wreath for my front door or planning parties), material things, and the need to work and be productive all the time. Whereas my time in prayer and Scripture were rushed and not always made a priority before Cambridge, in Cambridge there seemed to be ample time for me to hear from God through His Word, prayer and Christian friendships.

As I reflect on our six months in Cambridge now that I sit back in our home in Alabama, where we have two cars, a TV, 4G Internet, air conditioner (hallelujah!) and an electronic clothes dryer, I am not the same person. Despite my longing to be back in Cambridge to have that way of life once more, God’s unexpected gift to me (and really to my entire family) of a sabbatical has stayed with me. Although I find myself back in a busier culture with different values and temptations than that of England (which has its own temptations and negative values), God reoriented my mind and heart so that I could discern better and easier between what was important and unimportant, what was good and what was stealing my rest and joy, and what was necessary for life and salvation and what was cultural.

As I think back to the Corpus Clock, it strikes me that the inventor of the clock only put the first part of 1 John 2:17. Either he didn’t know the rest of the verse or didn’t believe it. “The world is passing away along with its desires” would leave anyone depressed. Life is frivolous. Life is just a breath. You’ve heard it said, “Drink, eat and be merry for we may only have the night.” I feel that as Americans we often live in this kind of reality. Live this life to the fullest because we all have just “one life to live.” Perform, do, work. Hurry up! Time is passing, and you only have a short amount of time to accomplish so much before you die. In this way, even for the Christian living in the States, life can be hard, restless and pressed from every side.

Yet this is not how the story ends. In Jesus we have a “salvific but” in this verse. The “but” tells us there is an alternative to the prior reality. For some, there is a period after “the world passes away and the lusts thereof,” but in Christ there is a comma. “But whoever does the will of God abides forever.” What is the will of God? Jesus answers this question for us in John 6:29, “This is the work of God, that you believe in him whom he has sent.” The world may pass away, but those who do his will – believe – will live forever and will never die.

You see, by Jesus Christ destroying sin on the cross and overcoming death in the resurrection, he destroyed the Time Eater. Those who die with Christ – by faith – will be raised to everlasting life. We won’t need a clock that tells us that time is passing by because time will never end. Instead of a Time Eater, we will have a Time Giver: Jesus Christ.

Before I went to Cambridge, I lived by a clock. Now that I am working outside the home full-time, in some ways, I live by the clock even more! But by the grace and mercy of God, the gift of my sabbatical continues. The reality that Jesus gives us is not one that has to wait until we pass from this life to the next; rather, it is one that begins here and now if we allow Him to be first in our life. You don’t need to go to Cambridge, England, to have this kind of sabbatical. As Jesus continues to reorient our hearts so that it is no longer bent inward toward self, time, and the things of this world, but arched outward to Him, He gifts us with rest, freedom and, ironically, more time.

 

 

 

 

 

Homesick for Home

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Four months and some days ago we returned back to the States from having lived in Cambridge, England for almost six months.

I began missing Cambridge the moment the taxi driver drove us out of the city toward London.

It is funny what a place can do to someone. I am homesick for Cambridge, even if it was my home for a brief moment in time. Her streets, churches, colleges, bicycle paths, foliage, river, parks, and people have all left an impression on my heart and mind, and if I close my eyes I am immediately transported back onto her streets on my bicycle soaking in the sights, smells and sounds.

As I continue to reflect on our sabbatical and specifically our time in Cambridge, I am humbled by the many spiritual lessons I have learned. But this particular lesson is one that the Teacher continues to teach and one that I hope He doesn’t stop teaching. And it is this: Cambridge points to something better – a better home.

I have been homesick before. I moved to Birmingham, Alabama, to pursue a masters degree having no immediate family less than seven hours away. In fact, I had no family east of the Mississippi River. I was alone and missing home.

When we were living in Cambridge, I, also, had moments of homesickness, especially around Thanksgiving. Not only did we not have family to celebrate with us, but since Thanksgiving is an American holiday, it was for all practical purposes nonexistent in the world in which we now lived.

Even though I have had these homesick moments before, this time living back in the States missing Cambridge has been different. For one, I have a deep longing to be there. But what makes this homesickness especially different is that every time I think of Cambridge, God redirects my thoughts to the new heavens and the new earth. It is not as if missing and longing for Cambridge is a bad thing (it’s not!), but longing for Cambridge has been the impetus for longing for something better than Cambridge. The Holy Spirit has used Cambridge to point to something better than itself.

For those of us living in places free of persecution, it is easy to romanticize and memorialize this world as if a particular place will bring about inevitable happiness or as if there is truly heaven on earth. When I have had these types of moments with Cambridge when I only remember the good and not the bad, I will talk to some of my American friends living there. By the end of our conversation I am reminded quickly the things that I hated about living in England: no clothes dryer, a hot and cold faucet, high costs of living expenses, not prescribing antibiotics unless you are “dying,” its often impractability, and leaving dishes to dry without rinsing off the soap. To put it succinctly, Cambridge is not perfect.

If I move back to Cambridge tomorrow, I would not necessarily have a better life. To be sure, I would find many things to complain about and I am sure I would be restless at times. I will not have reached heaven on earth. Cambridge, ultimately, would not be my final home, nor would I want it to be.

Yet, coming back from Cambridge reminds me of what it means to long for something better, for something that I love, for a place I want to go. Jesus has redirected my longing for Cambridge to longing for that promised, blessed new earth when all will things will be made right and when all will be at peace and rest because God will be our God and we will be His people. Knowing Jesus has given me a foretaste of what is still to come. His presence has put into my heart a longing for that eternal home.

Cambridge is not my final destination. The new earth, where God and man will dwell together again in perfect peace and love, that is where I am headed. That is where I long. And, until then, I will be homesick for something better than Cambridge. I will be homesick for Home.

“So we do not lose heart. Though our outer self is wasting away, our inner self is being renewed day by day. For this light momentary affliction is preparing for us an eternal weight of glory beyond all comparison, as we look not to the things that are seen but to the things that are unseen. For the things that are seen are transient, but the things that are unseen are eternal. For we know that if the tent that is our earthly home is destroyed, we have a building from God, a house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this tent we groan, longing to put on our heavenly dwelling, if indeed by putting it on we may not be found naked. For while we are still in this tent, we groan, being burdened—not that we would be unclothed, but that we would be further clothed, so that what is mortal may be swallowed up by life. He who has prepared us for this very thing is God, who has given us the Spirit as a guarantee. So we are always of good courage. We know that while we are at home in the body we are away from the Lord, for we walk by faith, not by sight. Yes, we are of good courage, and we would rather be away from the body and at home with the Lord. So whether we are at home or away, we make it our aim to please him. For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” 2 Corinthians 4:16-5:10

“But as it is, they desire a better country, that is, a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared for them a city.” Hebrews 11:16

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the first heaven and the first earth had passed away, and the sea was no more. And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, ‘Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.’ And he who was seated on the throne said, ‘Behold, I am making all things new.'” Revelation 21:1-5a