Monthly Archives: December 2011

Promises, Not Resolutions

I have to admit that we are coming upon one of my favorite times of the year.  I know that some people get the after-Christmas blues, but that has never been my experience.  The stress of the holidays is over, and we start a brand new year.

January always feels like a very fresh month.  I have fresh calendars full of weeks I haven’t used yet.  The days are oh-so-slowly beginning to lengthen, and now that Daylight Savings Time starts in early March, that really does mean something.  The stores have loaded up their sales tables with merchandise from 2011 to make room for new things in 2012.  Even the bareness of the outdoors, stripped of leaves, flowers and Christmas decorations, has a kind of freshness about it.  Gardeners and farmers have already been preparing for planting in the spring, and the trees are hibernating to prepare for fresh coats of leaves in late March and early April.

Seasons of rest are always seasons of anticipations.  As much as we grieve for things we left behind in 2011 — jobs that we lost or left, family members that passed away, all the changes that mark the progress of our lives — January 1 is the moment that we turn around and face forward to the possibilities of the New Year.  I know what I want out of the next twelve months.  Right now, I have a dissertation sitting on my own 2011 “clearance table.”  I’ve got one more chapter to submit to the committee and a conclusion, and I will be done.  My year of possibilities hopefully includes graduation, and the prospect of moving forward in my career.  And with the dissertation no longer hanging over my head, I begin to dream more emphatically of other projects and interests.

There is something about a New Year that encourages optimism.  After all, whatever disappointments we experienced last year belong to last year.  I am convinced that, while God’s mercies are new every morning, He is an observer of times and seasons.  Landmarks are important, and that includes special days that are landmarks on the calendar.  We can make resolutions every morning and pray for mercy to fulfill them, but New Year’s Day is an invitation to revisit the promises that God has made to us, the Scriptures that the Holy Spirit has invited us to claim as our very own.  “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord,” and He declared it to people who had every reason to believe they had fouled up those plans beyond repair (Jer. 29:11).  But they hadn’t, because they were God’s plans, and God always gets what He wants in the end.

We can approach 2012 joyously and fearlessly, not because we have resolved to be better people, but because God has resolved that we shall be better people.  “He who began a good work in you,” writes the apostle, “will bring it to perfection at the day of Jesus Christ” (Phil.1:6).  Until then, my best hope is co-operation and obedience.  So, as the clock strikes midnight, I will be meditating on God’s promises and not my own intentions, and I will certainly be trusting to His faithfulness and not to my own consistency.

Happy New Year!



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A Question of Worth

My mother was born in North Carolina, as were her parents and grandparents.  In fact, the family’s North Carolina roots are quite deep.  I have even seen a digital copy of one ancestor’s marriage license — from North Carolina — during the American Revolution.  It is an interesting document.  Apparently, the newly minted state was too cheap to throw away its old licenses, so they scribbled out the reference to his majesty, the King, and wrote the state governor’s name into the margin.  Perhaps, some frugal clerk wanted to see if the Revolution worked out for them before he went to the expense of ordering new documents from the printer.

As I said, our North Carolina roots are deep.  So, I read with interest and dismay the story that National Public Radio is featuring on its website by Julie Rose entitled, “A Brutal Chapter in N.C.’s Eugenics Past.”  Prior to World War II, a number of states had eugenics laws designed to keep the “unfit” from reproducing.  The unfit were usually persons with disabilities, or those too poor to afford the children that they produced.   Eugenics fell out of favor in the U.S. after WWII because Americans discovered the atrocities committed by the Nazi’s eugenics program.  North Carolina, however, kept its eugenics committees into the 1970s.  According to NPR, North Carolina sterilized more than 7,000 people.  Mecklenburg County alone (the Charlotte area) sterilized an astounding 485.  While sterilization was supposed to be voluntary, the state cannot now be sure that some of these people weren’t coerced.

Of course, they can’t be sure.  Persons selected for sterilization came into the system from psychiatric hospitals, “schools for troubled youth,” and the welfare system, to name a few ways.  In other words, the eugenics program targeted vulnerable people, just as euthensia is an issue wrapped around vulnerable people, i.e. the terminally ill.  How can anyone be sure that people in extreme circumstances, especially when they have diminished capacity, are not being bullied or deceived into consenting to an irreversible act on their own bodies?

The truth is that society cannot have individual liberty without also upholding human dignity.  It is our dignity, our fundamental value as human beings, that gives us a claim to liberty.  In The Declaration of Independence, Jefferson asserted that life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness are rights bestowed upon us by our Creator.  They are inalienable because they are issued by divine decree and cannot be revoked by human authority. I’m not inviting you to stand and sing an anthem, but this is as good a time as any to consider how foundational this belief is to our way of life.  We may question whether Jefferson, a slave-owner, really believed that “all men” are created equal, or if he just meant to apply it to white men, and he surely did not mean to include women.  Our emerging national conscience, however, has insisted on applying it to everyone.  We fought a war over slavery, argued over women’s suffrage, and pushed on through the Civil Rights Movement, and every time we came back to the idea that The Declaration of Independence doesn’t free anyone unless it frees everyone.

The core of that conviction is that the worth of a person lies in the fact of his or her humanity.  We do not measure the value of a person by race or social class, as every civilization before ours has done.  We declare everyone equal on the basis of shared humanity.  That means that we must value life whether or not the individual is capable of giving society anything in return.  To decide that someone is dispensable because they are “a drain on the system” is to return to the days when societies considered the wealthy or the well-born to have greater intrinsic value than the poor.  Either way, you have measured human value in monetary units.

I realize that I appear to be addressing an issue (eugenics), which seems to have been tossed into the waste-basket of history, but the truth is that the underlying attitude never goes away.  Our society still wants to push abortions for babies that test positive for Down Syndrome (never mind that the test has a high rate of inaccuracy).  We still debate euthanasia, arguing for “quality of life” rather than quantity, as though each minute of life did not have intrinsic worth.  We complain loudly about welfare mothers, and while surely there is a better way of life than to eke it out on the dole, we forget that every child has enormous potential and a legitimate claim to good care, however dire the circumstances of his or her childhood.  I don’t have easy answers for the economic situation each of these issues create, but to dismiss life on the grounds that we can’t afford to maintain it seems to me a dangerous move away from our core convictions as a free society.

My mother was almost forty when I was born.  She was perfectly content with the two children she already had and certainly hadn’t planned on adding another.  My father was the church custodian and cleaned a doctor’s office on the side; mother was Nurse’s Aid.  They didn’t have health insurance.  According to the NPR article, they were exactly the sort of family that the eugenics board in North Carolina thought they were helping — families who didn’t need the burden of one more child.  Fortunately for me, my parents didn’t consider children to be “life accessories,” and they didn’t think that I cost more than I was worth.  I hear politicians preaching that our society should ensure that every child is planned and, therefore, wanted.  But planned and wanted aren’t necessarily the same thing.  Children are wanted when the parents recognize the intrinsic value of the child, and when they understand that no amount of freed-up income can compensate for losing one.  Children are wanted when society understands that it is worth the money to build more schools, give single mothers a hand-up, and provide safe and nurturing communities that allow even the disadvantaged child to thrive.

Otherwise, we may have left the eugenics model behind, but we will inevitably invite something equally despicable to take its place.

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The Day of Small Things

Almost all of us, unless we are narcissists, occasionally suffer from feelings of insignificance.   I remember how devastated I was at the age of 18 or so, when I first saw a tennis prodigy on television winning her first championship at the age of 16.  There was something disconcerting about seeing someone shoot to the pinnacle of her profession, when I hadn’t even succeeded in picking one yet.  This is funny to me now, but it wasn’t then.  Most of us, at some point in our lives, have wanted to do something that would get our names in the record books. Something that would make us great or legendary.  Instead, we find ourselves, the vast majority of us, in the middle of the daily grind.  We do our apparently small deeds that are just like the countless small deeds that everybody else is doing, and sometimes we wonder if we are even capable of that much.  The loss of a job or a failed relationship makes us wonder if even the ordinary is beyond us. 

For those of us who have struggled to achieve the status quo, we have our kindred spirit in the Old Testament character, Zerubbabel.   We are preparing to start a book study of Zechariah in my small group, and the preface to the book in my ESV study Bible pointed to Zechariah 4:10a as one of the key verses of the book:  “For whoever has despised the day of small things shall rejoice, and shall see the plumb line in the hand of Zerubbabel.”

“Who is Zerubbabel?” you ask.  And secretly you wonder, What is a plumb line?

Zerubbabel was a descendent of King David, a grandson of one of the last kings of that dynasty, and in a position to claim the throne himself, except that there was no throne to claim.  The kingdom had been lost in the exile to Babylon.  Now Judah was a tiny part of the great Persian Empire, and Zerubbabel was only a governor under the authority of an imperial government far away.  Twenty years before, the Jewish people had returned to their homeland to find nothing but poverty and ruined cities.  Nehemiah had rebuilt the walls of Jerusalem so that the people could have a measure of security, but it fell to Zerubbabel to build a new temple — one that would be only a shadow of the beautiful edifice built by his ancestor, Solomon.  There was a shortage of money and, of course, there were political obstacles.  The prophet Haggai was delivering sermons to the Jewish people to stir up their enthusiasm to this work of rebuilding God’s house.

But the enthusiasm wasn’t there.  They were a beaten people.  The glory of Jerusalem had been stripped away.  Even if they rebuilt the temple, it wouldn’t compare with the one that Nebuchadnezzar had destroyed.  Besides, they were in a daily battle for survival.  They were trying to rebuild a nation out of the ashes of their grandparents’ sin and failure.  It seemed like all the great works of God had been done in the past.  God had parted the Red Sea and demolished the walls of Jericho in the long ago, but now His people were grubbing weeds and stacking bricks.  The still-chosen people of God were suffering from a profound case of nobody-ness.  It seemed like a day of small things.

Then God began to speak to Zechariah through some of the most striking visions found anywhere in Scripture.  God had not forgotten His people; His historic plan for them had not been abandoned.  He would bless them again, and He would send them a King to restore their ruined kingdom.  Did they feel insignificant?  God was sending a King who would  exalt the insignificant: 

“Rejoice greatly, O daughter of Zion! Shout aloud, O daughter of Jerusalem! Behold, your king is coming to you; righteous and having salvation is he, humble and mounted on a donkey, on a colt, the foal of a donkey.”  (Zech 9:9 [ESV])

To Zerubbabel and his contemporaries, it must have seemed that their part in this unfolding plan of God was very small indeed.  Yet God repeatedly assured Zerubbabel of his calling and his significance.  “Who are you, O great mountain? Before Zerubbabel you shall become a plain.  And he shall bring forward the top stone amid shouts of ‘Grace, grace to it!” (Zech 4:7 [ESV]).  Zerubbabel was destined to succeed because the favor of God rested upon his work, and no obstacle would prevent him from finishing what he had started.  The finished product might not be impressive to human eyes in the way that Solomon’s temple was impressive, but God would be pleased that Zerubbabel had done the necessary work to glorify God in his own generation.  Zerubbabel was a blessed man.

Even more, God was going to change the perspective of those who saw and judged Zerubbabel’s labors.  Those who despised the era in which they lived as a “day of small things” were going to get an attitude adjustment.  They were going to see the favor of God, the grace of God, in the success of Zerubbabel, and God would have glory in the triumph of His people.  What was required of Zerubbabel?  There was one key ingredient to the promise.  The people would rejoice to see him holding a plumb line.  This was a tool used in the ancient world to make sure that a wall was straight.  If the angle of a wall was off-center, the whole building was in jeopardy.  As the leader of the people, it was Zerubbabel’s job to see the work was being done properly — to come behind the workers and verify that each part of the building was firm and straight.  His diligence in the small things, and God’s blessing on the whole project, were the guarantees of success.

Should we feel insignificant then because God has called us to a task that seems small or unimpressive?  The truth is that not one of us is in a good place to judge the value of our own work.  After all, your high school history book was full of people of who were mighty and famous in their day, and yet not one piece of what they built has survived.  Matthew Henry notes that Zerubbabel is a picture of Christ in that God promised that he would both start the temple and finish it.  In the same way, Christ is the beginner and the finisher of our faith.  He is both the cornerstone and the capstone of all that we seek to accomplish for God.  Let us to look to Him and boast in the finished work of Christ.  All that we do for Him will have significance.  We will each look back on our own day of small things and cry, “Grace, grace.”

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A Recent Passing

I was listening to BBC World News last night, when I first heard the news of Christopher Hitchens’ passing.  As with any such loss, sympathy must go to his family and colleagues.

I never got around to reading any of Hitchens’ books.  They aren’t the sort of thing I would pick up for casual reading, as a rule.  My response is to comments that Hitchens made that were replayed on the BBC last night.  Hitchens was famously resistant to the idea that he might have a death-bed conversion.  In the event that rumors of one got out, he implored the public to consider his actions the result of the illness and medications.  In the replayed interview, Hitchens responded to a question by stating that IF God does exist, and Hitchens did indeed find himself being judged by such a person, his only plea would have to be that he did not insult God with insincere and self-serving last-minute prayers.  Otherwise, he did not know what defense he could make, but that he certainly wouldn’t be “servile” about it.

That Hitchens wouldn’t say a prayer to hedge his bets was probably the closest he came to good doctrine.  Jesus had a term for prayers that were said without faith or sincerity – vain repetitions – and warned that God wouldn’t answer prayers that were noise and no substance.  What stunned me about Hitchens answer was the notion that one could address God with servility.  Clearly, Hitchens understanding of God-ness left something to be desired.

Atheists operate under that assumption that Christianity is one of many mythologies and, having lumped the Christian God in the same category as pagan gods, they assume that the Christian God must be just as limited in personality and power.  If one were addressing the womanizing Zeus, or the mummified Osiris, or the harlot Ishtar, a certain independence of thought might be rightly considered a virtue.  These gods did not create the cosmos; they were born out of it.  And they certainly unfit to be the moral judges of humanity.

The Christian conception of God, however, is that there is a Being of limitless power who willed and created everything that exists.  Science, therefore, cannot contradict our knowledge of Him, but it can refine and expand that knowledge, because God is the author of science.  He wrote the rules and designed the systems that scientists discover.  Because He created space and time, He exists outside space and time.

Does anyone have any idea what such a Person must be like?  How about this:  Go to and watch the four of episodes of The Fabric of the Cosmos.  Do we really think it would be servility to pay homage to a God who could invent such a universe or even multiple universes?  If there really is a God, and I believe there is, then He deserves the worship of those He has made, whether we understand His judgments or not.

And would we dare to disagree with Him to His face?  God told Job to stand up and answer Him like a man (Job 40:7), and Job’s answer was to repent “in dust and ashes” (Job 42:6).  God told Ezekiel to stand up and answer Him like a man, but Ezekiel had already fallen flat on his face, and he was unable to get up until the Holy Spirit lifted him up (Ez. 1:28, 2:1).  A person may resent the fact that there is Someone with the right to judge us, but that does not make it any less true.  The fact that we must say it with fear and trembling does not make it any less true.

Believe me when I say that, if Hitchens was guilty of arrogance in how he spoke of God, I have been guilty of the same arrogance.  How often have I complained about the circumstances that God has put me in?  How often have I questioned the goodness of God, or been angry or bitter about the injustices of the world I live in?  And, yet, I too must stand before this God and give an answer.

I went to bed last night thinking about my own defense before God.  It is what it has always been.  God has pardoned me for the sake of Christ, and my defense is in Christ.  He is able to save to the uttermost all who come to God through Him (Heb. 7:25).  I hope, therefore, to see God with awe, but also with joy.  But let me also remember, when I am most inclined to complain about life, that it is God who will someday judge me, not the other way around.

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I had an allergic reaction a few weeks ago, and it had nothing to do with the high pollen count.

I was listening to a DVD of a Christian speaker talking about false messages that our culture sends to  women – a very good and timely topic.   There is much to dislike about the way popular culture pimps out a sexually supercharged image of women everywhere from online porn to the posters hanging up outside Victoria’s Secret.  I think a number of women have also bought into the pressure to achieve according to a certain definition of worldly success.  Then, too, many women feel the weight of condemnation when something goes wrong with their families, say a marriage falls apart or a prodigal goes astray.  Yes, I would agree that we are in need of a biblical understanding of womanhood and our place in the world.

The thing is — and this explains my allergic reaction — I’m not sure that God has laid out such a handy-dandy definition as this speaker seems to be suggesting.  I think she has boxed up definition of Christian femininity that is much too small.  Certainly, we accept the authority of ALL God’s Word.  We do not dismiss verses because they are inconvenient to how we want to view ourselves.  I do think, though, that the traditions of men have so tangled up the question of how we as women are to understand ourselves that it behooves us to re-examine just how God does portray women in His Word.  The plain truth is that the contemporary church has divided itself into two camps, and I am not satisfied with either of them.

Please note, I am not a theologian.  If you are looking for someone who knows Hebrew and Greek to explain this to you, I can’t.  I can tell you that this is an issue that has left me with some old wounds and some bitterness that is desperately in need of forgiveness.  I also know that my issues are small time compared to women who have suffered at the hands of abusive fathers and husbands, an experience which I have never had.  Contemporary women are suffering from a full-blown identity crisis.  We don’t need someone to say, “God loves you.  Now here are all the biblical ways that you’re second-class.”  Nor do we need a false image of womanhood that has nothing to do with the people God made us to be.

Let me ask you this.  What mental image comes to you when I say the word “lady”?  Is there a certain way that a lady looks?  And, if so, why?  Paul’s famous admonition goes as follows:  “And I want women to be modest in their appearance. They should wear decent and appropriate clothing and not draw attention to themselves by the way they fix their hair or by wearing gold or pearls or expensive clothes.  For women who claim to be devoted to God should make themselves attractive by the good things they do” -1 Tim 2:9-10 (NLT).  The three Scriptural requirements are that our appearance be modest, that it be appropriate, and that it be completely overshadowed by our actions.  I don’t think we should turn this into a legalistic decree against all adornment.  But rather, I want us to consider whether our mental image of a “lady” does not automatically include a certain polished and put-together look that is nowhere mandated by this verse.

In fact, I think this verse is pretty clear that God does not define womanhood by externals.  Sound obvious?  Not to every sermon, book, or article I’ve encountered on the subject.  There is always the tribute to “inner beauty,”  which is usually characterized as a virtuous character and a quiet spirit, but the author (male or female) always seems compelled to add that “of course” women still want to be attractive, and that we should do our best with what God gave us.  Or, as the preachers were wont to say when I was a girl, “A little paint never hurt any old barn.”

Aside from the disrespect of that last aphorism, would you be surprised to know that up until very recent times (think the last century), most Christians assumed that make-up was immoral?  A woman who painted her face was seen as deceptive at best, or, at worst, a fallen woman advertising her wares.   I am most certainly not suggesting we go back to that, but I am wondering why the church so emphatically reversed its opinion.  For the better part of nineteen centuries women were taught that their faces looked exactly as God wanted them to look, and that they needed no artificial improvement.  They were not told in one sermon that they were fearfully and wonderfully made, and then told in the next to do the best with what they had.  Talk about sending mixed signals!  Lord knows, I don’t want to idealize our fore-mothers, who didn’t paint their faces, but who did squeeze themselves into impossible shapes every time they put on a corset.  I do want us to step back and consider that how we portray an ideal womanhood is every bit as time-bound and changeable as the ideals of our ancestors.

I think there are a number of people in the Church at large who have imprinted their own fantasies, or their own mistaken nostalgia, on verses that have to do with women.  As if the words “JUNE” and “CLEAVER” appeared in the 31st chapter of Proverbs.  I’ve read the Bible on the Proverbs 31 woman, and that is one formidable dame.  When the 18th century Bible commentator Adam Clarke was seeking an example among his own contemporaries, he cited Susannah Wesley — not for her housekeeping, but for her intellectual accomplishments.  He mentions her virtue, then adds, “Besides, she was a woman of great learning and information, and of a depth of mind, and reach of thought, seldom to be found among the daughters of Eve, and not often among the sons of Adam.”  She was admirable, not just for excelling among women, but for excelling among men as well.  Moreover, if you read Clarke’s commentary, he is quite clear that even in his own day there was a place for women in industry and trade.  I mention this because what passes for nostalgia in some evangelical circles has very little to do with history.  For most of history, a woman who did not have to work with her husband to make ends meet was a rare thing.  A status symbol in fact.  A woman who didn’t have to work in a workshop or a factory or on the farm was advertising her husband’s affluence; she was staying at home because he could afford it, and most men couldn’t.

And this brings us to the third part of Paul’s description of beauty.  The idea of femininity that is promoted in churches is often largely passive.  It involves a certain look or the belief that only men are called to ministry and women are perpetually cast in the supporting role.  Yet, Paul implies that the godly woman has work of her own.  Certainly, the Proverbs 31 woman does.  In both passages, women are not only offered, but enjoined to the dignity of meaningful work.  The Proverbs 31 man is, in fact, able to take an active role in the community (“sitting in the gate” indicates a position of leadership and influence) because his wife is working with him, and he is not the sole provider for his family.   The woman of I Timothy 2 is defined by and approved for her good works, not by her appearance, however pleasing.  By “good works,” we can understand an active and outgoing virtue.  There are no awards in Scripture for the person of either gender who leaves the important work to everyone else.

So what do we do with all this?  Well, I suppose we can validate a certain amount of concern that girls have about their appearances.  There is a place for teaching what is modest and appropriate; even feminists cringe at the sight of young girls dressed like sex slaves.  But I do have a problem that much of the church materials addressed to young girls are centered around these first two characteristics (modest and appropriate dress), and the third quality, that of being defined by our work rather than our appearance, seems to be relegated to a supporting role.

If the church really wants to combat the demeaning representation of femininity in our culture, it needs to get serious about cultivating the talents and gifts of girls.  I don’t mean cliches about “girl power.”  I mean that the church needs to recognize that God has invested real and powerful gifts in every woman — gifts of great worth and significance — and that the entire body of Christ is weakened every time a girl fails to identify and use those gifts because she was brushed off or set aside.  Better still, impress upon each the fact that God made her for relationship with Himself, that she was made for God’s will and pleasure (Rev. 4:11), not for a man’s, and then watch her regulate her dress and actions accordingly.


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