Slow reading – best birthday gift ever!

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The birthday present arrived 3 months late, making it VERY special.  I could tell the wrappings contained a heavy book.  “Aah, what could be better than a book from a kindred sister!”  Regina had gifted me with what turned out to be a 37-month course in Puritan thought.  I had no idea how long it would take to read through all 1265 pages when, in October 2014, I opened up William Gurnall’s collection of sermons on spiritual warfare.

Never having heard of William Gurnall, I found out online that this 17th-century English pastor preached biblically-rich sermons that have fed many a pastor and layperson since.   When I ponder the time this dear man invested in writing out each sermon, dipping his quill every couple of words into his inkwell to continue, I marvel.

Through his preaching listeners then and readers today have taken to heart what God reveals in the Bible about the nature of fragile, sinful, and blood-bought Christians and the need to be fortified against the very real dangers of sin and spiritual attack.  These exhortations have stood the test of time, for nothing in human nature has changed since the 1650s and 60s.

Gurnall Book.png (see Wikipedia info at end of post)

How has my journey with Gurnall changed me?  Taking nothing away from the content, I would say that I have developed the very enjoyable habit of SLOW READING.

Living within an hour of Asheville, North Carolina where SLOW COOKING/EATING reigns, it’s not a long stretch to picture slow reading.  This book delighted me and soon I accepted the gift it presented: to savor and take notes from each column and page.

The very language of Gurnall’s writing enthralled me.  Only 6 or 7 decades past the time of Shakespeare, the sentences evoke very different word pictures through the use of what we would call ‘old English’ and Latin.  I found myself eagerly looking up English words I did not know, as well as Latin phrases.

And, my French teacher-self was gratified as I recognized the plethora of French words apparently accepted in everyday parlance in 17th-century England. (puissant or powerful comes to mind).

I took notes as I read.  And I only nibbled on Gurnall weekends and summer mornings when I was home.  Hence, my 37-month trip with this pastor!

I will give you one tidbit from Gurnall that I formulated into a prayer for myself:

  • As Gurnall teaches – not only must I keep killing the pride and the anxieties and the resentments that pop up daily in order to maintain and grow my holiness, which is a source of godly strength and way to see and savor God more and enjoy him. – but I must work to grow the counter qualities. That is – humility, trust/reliance on Him and rejoicing and being glad in each hourly circumstance that God brings since I KNOW that this very circumstance is what He thinks is good for me.
    Help me, Lord!

So what is next?  – a book written in the early 1980s by my favorite pastor to listen to and read.  John Piper spent an 8-month sabbatical thinking about, studying and then writing a book on Romans 9:1-23 entitled The Justification of God.   I settled in with Piper this past weekend, pen and paper in hand.

What about you?  Have you discovered the joy of slow reading?  If you start with William Gurnall, not only will you develop an effective antidote to the unfortunate decline of your attention span due to current technology, but you will be spiritually fortified as well.

**

Per Wikipedia – “Gurnall is known by his Christian in Complete Armour, published in three volumes, dated 1655, 1658 and 1662. It consists of sermons or lectures delivered by the author in the course of his regular ministry, in a consecutive course on Ephesians 6: 10–20. It is described as a magazine whence the Christian is furnished with spiritual arms for the battle, helped on with his armor, and taught the use of his weapon; together with the happy issue of the whole war. It is thus considered a classic on spiritual warfare. The work is more practical than theological; and its quaint fancy, graphic and pointed style, and its fervent religious tone render it still popular with some readers. Richard Baxter and John Flavel both thought highly of the book. Toplady used to make copious extracts from it in his common-place book. John Newton, the converted slave trader, said that if he were confined to one book beside the Bible, he’d choose Christian Armour. Richard Cecil spent many of the last days of his life in reading it, and repeatedly expressed his admiration of it. Charles Haddon Spurgeon commented that Gurnall’s work is “peerless and priceless; every line full of wisdom. The book has been preached over scores of times and is, in our judgment, the best thought-breeder in all our library.”

 

Spiritual attack and renewal

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Before we moved to Asheville I wasn’t aware of being under spiritual attack.  As a lover of God’s Word, I should have been!

1 Peter 5:8

Stay alert! Watch out for your great enemy, the devil. He prowls around like a roaring lion, looking for someone to devour.

My first years at my school in Asheville his weapon of choice took the form of parental complaints to the principal. This year, he dialed up the discouragement knob.  I’ve been aware for the past 3 years that complaining, gratitude and contentment are connected. When I complain, I invite unhappiness.  So recognizing the grumbles and replacing them by cataloging blessings has been the approach I’ve PRAYED to employ. Intuitively I knew that gratitude could defend me when mildly demoralized.

The enemy turned subtle; however, the attacks intensified.  He selected a foreign language departmental meeting to resurrect a familiar conflict between those who employ a grammar-based approach to teaching and those (me) who advocate a comprehensible-input method.  I felt like giving up.  The effort to advocate for proficiency over accuracy loomed exhausting.  And I fell into low-level depression.

But God….had sovereignly scheduled a fully-funded conference for me and 7 other colleagues to attend.  Zip enthusiasm. Nada!  I was seriously contemplating giving up teaching after this year.  Two nights before my scheduled departure, the demons descended in force. Could have been just one, but it sure felt like a host of them!

The effect?  I stayed awake most of the night, feeling the energy for any of my roles drain away. Whether managing the day-to-day family budget, facilitating a monthly women’s group at church, writing blogs, or especially my job. Fear filled me and sleep was alien.

But God….revealed the next morning during my time with Him that this was a new form of spiritual attack. That startling insight alone made the difference and carried me through the day.  My resolve to FIGHT grew back.  By the next night I actually felt some enthusiasm growing for the trip.  Then insight.  I could see that God had ordained this conference IN ORDER to refresh and energize me for the next phase of life.  And in order to remind me to depend on Him.

And energize me He did.  I sought out workshops led by advocates of the comprehensible input way of teaching foreign languages. The old mojo flooded back.

That vicious and evil feline tried once more that night of conference day 1. I awoke at 2 am and couldn’t fall back asleep. He repeated his destructive sword parry the following night as well. OVER-WHELM-ING did everything loom. All the changes to shift my lesson focus back on a proficiency track seemed impossible GIVEN the obstacles I played over and over in my mind’s eye.

But God….countered with Truth.  He reminded me that if He planned this trip and allowed me to undergo the attacks to toughen me up, then He will lead me each day as I create and plan new lessons.  I don’t have to have all the answers or specifics in place for the rest of the year.  He is enough.  After all He is my ever-present Provider.  So I do what any of us must do in this world, as temporary New Creation sojourners in a yet-to-be redeemed world:

  • we walk WITH Him, hand in hand, keeping our eyes on the One who creates and sustains

Whew!  Glad I’m not in charge.

Deut 31:8 The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.

 

 

Fighting discontent with prayer

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Father, you who SHOULD be enough, forgive my discontent!

You specifically command us NOT to covet. And I continue to disobey you. Coveting, wanting what I don’t have, is the very opposite of loving you with 100% of my mind. As the sun of summer passes over the yardarm, I find myself internally grumbling and focusing on the countdown to the end of my quiet mornings and longer evenings. As though Jesus’ purchase of eternal life were not enough, my disquieted heart is MORE focused on my dread of going back to school. To the point that:

  • not only am I not reveling in these pristine mountain mornings,
  • but I’m deliberately avoiding your will for me that I rejoice, pray and thank you in every thing.

But you have not left me to fight this by myself. If so, then as Martin Luther so rousingly portrayed:

a mighty fortress

Did we in our own strength confide,
Our striving would be losing;
Were not the right Man on our side,
The Man of God’s own choosing

So just how do you propose to help me, Father?  Your word to me in fear and anxiety has always been –  Armor-up, Maria!  Dread, that wicked picturing of a scary future, is simply a different flavor.  (And just as much a violation of your command to count ALL things as joy – whether trial or trove, since they come from You, for my good.)

I thank you, that your word in Ephesians 6 has taught me the following tactic:

  •  we’re to pick a weapon from the arsenal of your Word and fight the fear with spirit-indwelt force.

Here is what you gave me this morning during church and I’m going to make it mine in this battle with discontent:

James 5: 11-12 Take the old prophets as your mentors. They put up with anything, went through everything, and never once quit, all the time honoring God. What a gift life is to those who stay the course! You’ve heard, of course, of Job’s staying power, and you know how God brought it all together for him at the end. That’s because God cares, cares right down to the last detail.

When I personalize your encouragement I find it easier to remember your promise. But I need your Holy Spirit to prompt me, to remind me of your sure pledge each time I’m attacked by those Satan-suggested gloomy pictures of the coming school year.  Then I can substitute your word to me for the fear scenario I’ve assembled.

Just like Job’s assignment was not what he chose, but he stayed under your heavy hand, honoring your name, with your strength I will stay in the seat you have seen fit to assign me this day, this season. In return for his loyalty, you blessed Job more richly than he ever could have pictured. So I will look to my future blessings.  You’re more kind than I can imagine, so just maybe you have woven treasure into what I’m dreading.  But if nothing else, may my sure inheritance in the next life fill me with enduring energy to be faithful to your will.  Help me to savor and daydream about what full fellowship with you, and overflowing joy may be like.   

God, you KNOW that I can’t successful win the battle against fear and dread without your supernatural help. But woe is me if I don’t daily take up the spiritual weapons you’ve handed me and use them throughout the day and night as the enemy lobs in artillery shells of discontent.

In Jesus’ name, whose intercessions I’m counting on, I pray.  Amen!

Don’t be discouraged by James’ marriage of faith & works

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Patrick has been continuing to preach on that often controversial passage in James 2 about how faith and works relate.  Yes, we are saved by grace through the gift of faith.  But the changes in our thoughts, words and deeds (‘works’) that follow our conversion offer proof of the genuine nature of our new faith.

James 2:14 – What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?

Having just finished Michael Crichton’s novel – State of Fear, a fast-paced thriller about stopping some extreme eco-terrorists, I easily recalled a perfect example of this faith needing works to be legit.

State of Fear

Toward the end of the race to save America from an induced natural disaster, the main character is challenging the claims of both a housewife and a TV actor that the environment is their primo cause that motivates them.  Their testimony or profession crumbles with each pointed question:

  • Why is it that your main residence has 10,000 square feet?
  • How do you also justify maintaining an apartment in NYC and a vacation home to which you travel?
  • Why is it that you jet here and there to environmental conferences?
  • Why do you live so far away from your husband’s office that he commutes daily by vehicle, thus adding to carbon emissions?
  • Why is it that you think that those eking out an existence in ‘natural’ jungles in the 3rd world are content and we should all return to the wild?
  • Why haven’t YOU given up living in a 1st world country, then?

It is not enough to claim you believe something without proof that your convictions have changed the way you live.  As James points out so pointedly,

James 2:19 You say you have faith, for you believe that there is one God. Good for you! Even the demons believe this, and they tremble in terror.

This morning I was reading in 1 Samuel 11 about the terrorized people of Jabesh Gilead whose village was besieged by the Ammonites.  They sent word to Saul and Samuel who through the Holy Spirit united all of Israel to come to their rescue.  See if you can discern how faith and works are coupled in this next verse: 

1 Samuel 11:9 They (the mustered Israelite army) said to the messengers who had come, “You shall say to the men of Jabesh-gilead: ‘Tomorrow, by the time the sun is hot, you will have help [against the Ammonites].’” So the messengers came and reported this to the men of Jabesh; and they were overjoyed.

That last word, ‘overjoyed’ is evidence of the Jabeshites’ faith in the messengers’ news. Anxiety and fear fled when they trusted the communiqué. How do we know?  Look at how they rejoiced – not just a little, but with exUBERance.

Their demeanor and response backed up their profession that they believed the messengers. There was no longer a ‘need’ to fret.

Works don’t have to always be big actions.  Our settled feelings, our resting in God prove our faith.

Are these kinds of works easy? No!  I have to sometimes fight the fear and anxiety when facing a situation for which I have no answer and see no solution.

Just this week God has gifted us with a new opportunity to prove our faith.  An old enemy, a bodily response to worry sprang up suddenly, attacking my husband 3 days ago.  This condition had not plagued him for 4 1/2 years, so the return was a shock.  You know how the fear works, the well-worn pattern of thinking and ‘what-if-ing’ that accompanies these situations.

Immediately I pulled out my go-to weapon of choice, Psalm 84:11 NO good thing does the Lord withhold from those whose way is upright.

I have to conclude, by reason, that if God has seen fit to allow this old enemy to plague us, then He has only good in mind.  By His grace, Mike and I ARE stronger and more practiced at trusting and wielding the sword of the Spirit.

Yes, it’s hard and continual, but I trust our good and loving Father.  And I want the spiritual forces of darkness AND my Christian brothers and sisters AND the unbelieving world to witness what faith in God looks like in a Christian.

Habakkuk 3:17-18 Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines, though the yield of the olive should fail and the fields produce no food, though the flock should be cut off from the fold and there be no cattle in the stalls, YET I will exult in the LORD, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation.

Stay tuned for how God brings us through this excursion into the valley.

 

 

What if?

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The Lord is my light and my salvation—
Whom shall I fear?
The Lord is the refuge and fortress of my life—
Whom shall I dread?

Though an army encamp against me,
My heart will not fear;
Though war arise against me,
Even in this I am confident. (Psalm 27: 1, 3)

“But Daughter, what if the men forget?” the anxious and elderly man conjectured, rubbing his hands as he rocked back and forth.

“Father, I have their assurance. We mustn’t be fearful.  They will come through.  After all, I did not let them down when they were being sought by the King’s men,” Rahab spoke quietly with calm assurance as she rubbed his shoulders.

The old man seemed to soak in her words for a few minutes, but then another thought assailed him.  “What if they can’t find our house in all the confusion of the attack?”

Tenderly, Rahab reminded him, “But I have fastened the scarlet cord to the window ledge, just as they instructed me.  They will see it.”

One last time, her dad fished for another possible mishap, “Yes, but what if they are killed by the King’s soldiers before they can save us?”

Rahab’s words silenced his doubts, for a while. “Father, I trust the God of the Hebrews. He is not like any other god. We know how He rescued His people from the Egyptians and led them through the desert.  He is trustworthy.  He always does what He says.  We will put our faith in Him, not the spies or fortuitous circumstances, but in this Rock.”

Rahab

Like Rahab, I have moved beyond my known world of visible help out into the wilderness where many of God’s people have journeyed.   About two weeks ago heart palpitations invaded Mike’s heart. Uninvited, they immediately set about to mess with his pumping chambers, adding extra beats in an intermittent pattern that disrupted his sleep in a debilitating way. What brought them on? Apparently a series of seemingly random events such as dental pain and a bad cold and a reaction to Sudafed are the precipitating causes we think. But ultimately God, the originator and sustainer of the universe, is the First Cause of all that happens to us.  Permitting these little messengers of Satan to plague Mike, God has gently and lovingly overseen my husband’s battle with fear and anxiety at night.  ‘What-if’ scenarios have especially been hard: apprehension that the heart meds won’t work and worry that sleep will evade him.

What God has shown me as I’ve battled with Mike, mining God’s word for strength and assurance, is this:

Every hero of faith has been led out to the very same desert, alone except for God, and beyond sight of provision, to confront and battle the fear of the ‘What-Ifs’.  Similar to how American Indian young men endured solitary testing for their manhood initiation rite, believers have been dragged or led into an arena to do spiritual warfare.  Equipped only with God’s word, (His promises, His past provisions, and knowledge of His character) this fiery trial has provided them the opportunity and gift to prove decisively to themselves whether God is true and faithful. Just look at a few of our Biblical ancestors:

  • Rahab had to trust the spies’ promise of rescue when Joshua and the tribes surrounded and attacked Jericho
  • Abraham had to hold on to God’s promise that heirs as numerous as the stars would come through his son Isaac who lay bound on the wood, about to be sacrificed
  • Esther had to entrust her life to God as she courageously broke the king’s law and approached him unbidden, risking death
  • Mary faced possible death and certain public humiliation by explaining to Joseph and accepting the circumstances of her imminent pregnancy
  • Paul’s friends in Rome brought food and supplies to him in prison, courting possible imprisonment by association

Many weak, frightened and flawed men and women have encountered that ultimate, often unsought moment.  They have had to answer once and for all the only question that matters.

  • Can I trust God?  Do I believe what He says in the Bible?  Will He actually come through?

With no more visible proof than what each of us has already learned about Him experientially, and/or by reputation per other believers’ accounts and in His Word, we come to the edge, alone.

  • Do I step into the chasm, trusting in the evidence provided?
  • Will He catch me?

Many of you have already endured this refining, this baptism of fire meant to bless you, not to harm you. Sure, we can orient our life in the direction of banking all on God, preemptively before God brings on a trial of trust. But sometimes our good Father accelerates the timetable or the intensity of the ‘Faith Course’.

Mike and I didn’t consciously enroll in this particular curriculum.  But obviously God thought it was necessary to strengthen our faith, to test it so WE would know how real and valuable the gift of faith is that Christ purchased for us. We needed a push, apparently!

Daily the homework and pop quizzes confront us, but I know that all who stick it out in God’s school make it to the end, fully qualified.  And what is reassuring is that He doesn’t enroll anyone who is not going to graduate and be purified.  In fact, we have the personal attention and daily assistance of the Remedial Counselor.  We can’t help but pass.

As I reminded Mike this morning, we WALK through the valley of the shadow of death. We haven’t moved in, to settle down.  Yes, it is dark and scary and over the past few weeks we have not KNOWN what to do.  We feel like Hezekiah who prayed publicly in front of his people,

“….we have no might to stand against this great company that is coming against us. We do not know what to do, but our eyes are upon You.” 2 Chronicles 2:12

In our need, the road has seemed starless and confusing with no signposts directing us where to go or what to do. But our good Shepherd IS leading the way, HIS way, along ‘paths of righteousness for His name’s sake’.  He will bring us out into green pastures.  The end is sure.  I can see it, with my eyes of faith.

 

 

The danger of freedom

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I’m learning to think through what I hear in sermons and what I read.  When God wants to impress a truth on me, He tends to funnel the same message through multiple media.  The lesson last week that perked down into my resistant sinful pattern of thinking was: It’s not about me!

Before you scoff at how obvious that message is, let me assure you that it is VERY counter-cultural.  As pastor John Piper teaches, our society has been saturated with the mantra of the importance of Self-Esteem.  And you know as well as I, that a lie repeated oft enough takes on the weightiness and respectability of Truth.

self esteem

We slavishly work to think well of ourselves or gather praise from others.  That need becomes more than something nice to have.  It becomes our master, our God, and we its slave.

The other day, though, I was given a new thought.  I was feeling ‘sick of myself’ – just tired of thinking about me, what I eat, what my body feels like, how I’m doing with that perpetual thorn, how it’s the lens through which I view the world, the regulator that governs how much positive energy and interest I give to others.  Gradually, a life-altering truth took on substance:

  • It’s not about me.
  • It doesn’t have to be about me.
  • I don’t HAVE to even think about me.
  • Thinking about me doesn’t bring me any joy or energy.
  • I can actually be freed from thinking about me.
  • In point of fact, it’s about Him.  I exist, the birds sing, the trees sway, the oceans roar, the stars glisten, all of us alive to make much of God!

I had gone to bed the previous night with such new inklings swirling about in my head.  And when I awoke and greeted the gravel road for my morning walk and conversation with God, I started to think about me, as ‘per usual’.  But suddenly, the fragrance of freedom tickled my nose and I looked up at the stars and said:  I don’t HAVE to think about me today.  I’m FREE!!!

Well, if I’m not pondering me or my problems, then what am I thinking about when not occupied with teaching or conversing with someone or reading?  In all those interior, unencumbered moments, I get to mull over what makes our God so great.  And in fact, the Bible promises that far MORE joy, TRUE joy comes from those God-truths than any introspection.

  • Psalm 1:2  (How happy is the one who….) delights in the teachings of the LORD and reflects on his teachings day and night.
  • Psalm 119:97  Oh, how I love your instructions! I think about them all day long

There’s also that statement of fact in verse 11 of  Psalm 16In your presence is fullness of joy….. I don’t think the psalmist is referring just to when we are in heaven with Jesus.  We are present with Him in a conscious way when we are thinking of Him. Therefore, joy comes from shifting the focus of my waking mind off of ME and onto God.

All day long, I felt like a little child, giddy with delight over a secret treasure.  I would stop and reflect, “Why do I feel so happy?” and then all of a sudden, the truth would flood back. “That’s it!  I don’t have to think about me!  I’m free!!

ball and chain

Do you want to know what happened that night?  I risked sharing this oh-so-tenuous feeling of potential permanent freedom with Mike.  He got it, what I was feeling.  All was well. We were enjoying some close moments of joy that come from sharing truth about God.

We sat down to our treat of dinner on trays and another episode of Agatha Christie’s famous Belgian detective, Hercule Poirot. At the conclusion of both, a tiff flared up ‘out of nowhere’ that isolated us one from the other. Mike headed down to the smoking cave in withdrawn silence and I mulled over delaying a grace-filled loving response to his probable text apologizing for his anger. “I want him to know how it feels to be the recipient of his chill!” I selfishly thought.

I sat down to read the paper and sure enough within 10 minutes, ‘ping!’, the apology popped up.  But his words changed my feelings.  He wrote: “I don’t know what came over me!  These feelings came out of nowhere!  I’m confused and hurt!’

Suddenly, I knew.  It was spiritual attack.  I immediately closed ranks with my husband.  Fingers flew furiously as I consoled him that none of this was about us, but about a new God-truth, that promise of freedom he and I had rejoiced over.  Satan does NOT want us to trust God.  He works to thwart that glorious Freedom from Self.  This enemy of God also wants to disrupt and destroy married couples.

With that life-restoring revelation from God, our conversation whipped back and forth as we discussed this dark assault.  We moved closer together but weren’t quite restored.  More conversation by email brought light and by our evening reunion, we were back on the same side, glad to be reunited.  But we were more aware of the need to remain one with each other, with God at our back, our side and in front.  He is our sure refuge in times of trouble AND in times of blessing.  Blessings can be dangerous, too, if we are not aware of our vulnerability.

PS:  It’s been 4 days and that freedom from self IS authentic and available anytime I want to let go of the boring!

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