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Friday
Feb172017

The blessing of an unchurched home

My husband and I had two very different experiences growing up. He was a from-the-cradle church kid. Church twice on Sunday; prayer meeting on Wednesday; youth club on another night. Vacation Bible School, church camp, going to Christian concerts; he was saturated in Christian culture. Not so for me.

I love my parents, and they were the exact parents God wanted me to have to be who I am today, but Jesus Christ was mostly a curse word in my home. There was absolutely no spiritual influence. No prayer before meals; no church on Christmas or Easter; no Bible stories. The only evidence of Christianity in our home was an unread Bible and a crude little manger scene taken out at Christmas. The first time I heard the creation story was in my Kindergarten classroom, and after that, over the years, I longed to know who God was. I had my times of going to Sunday school with a friend, being taken to Pioneer Girls with a friend, and being given a Bible by the Gideons in 5th grade. By the time I was 14, I felt frustration that I knew so little. There was no one to help, and I was left to my own devices and a public library. If you think reading a systematic theology is hard when you're a Christian, try reading a Catholic one (I was baptized as a Catholic, so that's the route I took) when you're 14 years old and you have no idea what you're reading. Fourteen was not a good year for me, but God meant it for good.

One of the struggles I have often had on the occasions when I have taught young people is relating to kids who grew up in the church. And sometimes, that goes for my own kids. I just cannot wrap my head around why someone would not want to take the heritage of faith being offered to them. I have confronted many apathetic teens for whom the gospel has become a drag, and I can't relate. And it's not just teens who are like that. Many adults who grew up in the church are similarly lukewarm. Maybe it's because I'm an all or nothing kind of person, but I can't understand why when we're given this amazing grace, this unity through Christ with the God of the Universe, why some don't seek it eagerly. 

As I continue in seminary, I am learning so much, and seeing so much more to learn. Not everyone needs or should go to seminary. But the drive to know God better doesn't cost a thing, and it's easily satisfied these days: cheap books, free resources, and freedom to worship without fear. Yes, there are changes in negative ways with regard to toleration for Christians, but we're nowhere near the persecution for our faith stage in North America. There is disinterest in the things of God even among Christians. I've heard Christians talk more about politics than they ever do about God. 

When we are denied something, it becomes more precious. I don't look back on my life in an unchurched home as something that set me back or crippled me in anyway. It made me appreciate teaching when it was given to me. I continue to appreciate it. My school is not famous. It's no Westminster Theological Seminary or Southern Baptist Seminary. My prof isn't famous, but he's a great teacher, and a godly man. I'm so thankful for him showing up every week to teach. And I'm thankful for the other profs and for the president of our school who care that the school continues to do what it does.

It is a wonderful thing to have been raised in a godly home. But that on its own is no guarantee for a godly life. Who would have thought that I would someday end up as a 52 year old seminary student? I'm thankful for those years when I had to look hard. I'm thankful it was not all handed to me. It made me appreciate the opportunities I was given.

Tuesday
Feb142017

Book Study or the Bible?

I always feel uneasy when someone asks me for a suggestion to teach younger women. When I am asked this, inevitably what the person wants is a book that has a study guide. I find it even harder when I'm asked for something that is topical, geared to marriage/family/children.

In the past, when I have taught younger women in a group setting, I have used such books, but my approach has changed somewhat over the years. The reality is that when we use a book geared toward such issues, most of the time, the author begins not with a biblical text, but with a predisposed position that she/he unfolds, including biblical material. There is nothing wrong with that, but one must be aware of that reality. No matter how good the author is (and there are a few good studies), there is no assurance that the focus is on Christ. And likely, there will be a lot of behavioural instruction. At this point in my life, I prefer to teach a book of the Bible and flesh out the topics within the context. Topical teaching, done responsibly, is actually a lot more work, and it involves more than proof-texting. The last topical study I was given to use could be considered as nothing short of irresponsible in how it handled various texts, taken out of context.

This year is my 30th wedding anniversary. My children are grown. As I look back on what helped me as a young mother, I've come to a couple conclusions. First, what helped me in the matter of parenting my children was not specific teaching about how to raise my children. In fact, the one parenting class my husband and I took together was the worst mistake we ever made. What was more helpful was the presence of other mothers, my own and my mother-in-law included; women who had raised children and had wisdom to share. Plus, a lot of it was basic common sense. Why do I  need to consult the Bible for potty training or behaviour issues? The response is very simple: consistency and patience. And I needed to confront my own selfishness. Many of the struggles I had as a mother were a matter of not dealing with my own impatience and lack of grace in dealing with immature people. That's something only time can improve upon, hence the reason why Grandma is usually much more patient than mother.

Regarding marriage, when it came to dealing with conflict and other matters, biblical principles beyond Ephesians 5 were far more helpful.  In short, my attitude was often my biggest problem. It still is. Now, I have been fortunate in that I have a good husband who doesn't abuse me physically or emotionally; he doesn't drink his wages or look at porn. I don't know how I would have handled those situations, but I doubt very much that a class with a bunch of women discussing an author's marital advice would have been sufficient. In those cases, I suspect that women need a lot more counsel, and from someone who knows what she's talking about.

I don't know if this reveals my ignorance or not, but while books directed to marriage counsel can be good, ultimately, strong marriages depend a lot on the spiritual maturity of the people involved, and often, it's just a matter of growing up and submitting to God's will. Yes, we do want strong marriages, but I feel uncomfortable with the idea that our marriages are seen as successful only if we look like teenagers in love. There is conflict in marriage. It's unavoidable. It doesn't mean we're failing. Many times over the years, my husband would say that our marriage would be better if we just loved each other more selflessly and treated each other better than ourselves. 

When I teach young women now, I prefer to go right to knowing God. And that takes time. Sometimes, as well-intended as they are, books that begin with "how can I have a good marriage and be a good mother?" aren't asking the right questions. Because, ultimately, marriage and family may change. And then who are left with? Ourselves.

Sunday
Feb122017

Daily Readings - John 4:7-15

J.C. Ryle, Daily Readings
John 4:7-15

We should mark Christ's readiness to give mercies to careless sinners. He tell the Smaritan woman that if she had asked, 'he would have given her living water.'

The infinite willingneses of Christ to receive sinners is a golden truth, which ought to be treasured up in our hearts and diligently impressed on others. The Lord Jesus is far more ready to hear than we are to pray and far more ready to give favours than we are to ak them. All day long he stretches out his hands to the disobedient and gainsaying. He has thoughts of pity and compassion towards the vilest of sinners, even when they have no thoughts of him. He stands waiting to bestow mercy and grace on the worst and most unworthy, if they will only cry to him. He will never draw back from that well-known promise: 'Ask and ye shall receive: seek and ye shall find.' The lost will discover at the last day that they had not because they asked not.

We should mark the priceless excellence of Christ's gifts when compared with the things of this world. Our Lord tells the Samaritan woman, 'He that drinketh of this water shall thirst again, but he that drinketh of the water that I shall give him shall never thirst.'

The truth of the principle here laid down may be seen on every side by all who are not blinded by prejudice or love of the world. Thousands of men have every temporal good thing that heart could wish and are yet weary and dissatisfied. Riches and rank and place and power and learning and amusements are utterly unable to fill the soul. He that only drinks of these waters is sure to thirst again.

There is no heart satisfaction in this world until we believe on Christ. Jesus alone can fill up the empty places of our inward man. Jesus alone can give solid, lasting, enduriing happiness. The peace that he imparts is a fountain which, once set flowing within the soul, flows on to all eternity.

Friday
Feb102017

What makes a book timeless?

Yesterday, in my theology class, we were discussing the gifts of the Holy Spirit, and specificallly, the debate between continuation and cessation of gifts. Part of our assignment was to engage with a chapter from Charismatic Chaos and Showing the Spirit. Both of these books were published more than twenty years ago; Charismatic Chaos in 1992 and Showing the Spirit in 1987. I was curious if there had been any works that were more recent, and while I didn't spend a whole lot of time on the matter, I didn't find much. In fact, Carson's book is one of the Leader Recommended books at Westminster Books. My prof said that he thinks it is still one of the best books on the subject. John MacArthur, however, has written another book on the topic, Strange Fire.

I was perusing my book shelves this week, making space for books which had previously been beside my bed, and wondering what I could remove from the shelves. I noted that there were many books I purchased in response to some controversy or issue I'd been interested in. I think I can safely say that while I don't think I'd throw them out, the books on the Emergent Church (I have about four of them) can safely be tucked away in the Rubbermaid bin until such time as I have more bookshelves. Does anyone talk about the Emergent Church anymore? I don't think I'll read those books again.

There are other books on my shelf that I know I will read again. Books by Lloyd-Jones, David Wells, J.I. Packer, the Puritans, church history, and biographies by Iain Murray. The commentaries I have by Karen Jobes have been utilized more than once, and will no doubt be again. Yet there are other commentaries I have purchased which have made their way into the Rubbermaid bin because what I want from a commentary has changed over the years.

I've been trying to sort through what I think it is about a book which guarantees that someone will be reading it in ten years or even ten months. These days, books come so fast and furious, the lifespan of the interest in a good book can wane quickly. What was yesterday's "Must Read!" may be gathering dust on the shelf tomorrow.

One thing I think which makes a book have a longer appeal is what its concerns are. Matters like holiness, righteousness, conversion, the atonement, the Trinity, and the Scriptures are examples of ones that have always pre-occupied the church. And yes, marriage and children are similar topics, but the way those concerns are approached have changed. I doubt very much that the concept of "biblical womanhood" was probed too deeply 150 years ago, but men and women like the Puritans gave a lot of thought to marriage and family. I think many of the contemporary issues we spend a lot of time on ultimately become non-issues in a few years, despite our fascination with them at the time. Those books can ultimately provide historical material about the times, but there are still books which are read for their content which endures.

The question about what makes a book timeless is a question I continue to ask myself. Hopefully, my thoughts on the matter will shape my book purchases. I have far too many books which are kind of "obsolete" in a sense. I'm asking myself more and more if the book I'm investing in is something which will guide my thinking over the long haul or if it's just satisfying a momentary pre-occupation. If it's the latter, then maybe I don't need to buy a book, but instead just partake of a few well-written articles instead.

Yesterday, I finally acquired the Battles/McNeill translation of Calvin's Institutes. I wanted a hardback copy, and I didn't want to sell a kidney to get one. I found one used. It was cheaper than the new softcover edition. The dust jackets are pretty worn and its previous owner has underlined, but the bindings on both volumes are tight. I'm confident these will be well used for many years. Now, if I can just decide which books will be put into the Rubbermaid bin to make room, I'll have space for them.

Wednesday
Feb082017

Trade-offs in seminary timing

I'm taking two classes this semester, both taught by the same professor. Perhaps that is why I keep getting things mixed up in my head. Plus, I have classmates in both classes. This week in Theological Foundations, we are studying the Holy Spirit, something which includes reading a chapter from John MacArthur's Charismatic Chaos, and a chapter from D.A. Carson's Showing the Spirit. Carson's writing is much denser, and requires a lot more concentration, but it is worth the effort.

In my Moral Theology class, we are studying euthanasia and physician-assisted death. I have a case study this week to respond to as well as coming up with a response for our weekly discussion question, where I have to decide between two competing views of whether or not withdrawing water and nutrition from someone in a persistent vegetative state.

There have been times over the past week when I have forgotten which assignment I'm working on. Moral Theology is delivered partially through online forum and class time, whereas Theological Foundations is a weekly class. As I was reading about the persistent vegetative state matter, I was perplexed about a few things, and I comforted myself, "Well Dr. Fowler will go over this in class this week." Um, no. We don't meet on campus weekly. It was not like this when I was a first year university student and juggling five classes. I had an easier time remember what was what.

Yes, concentration can be affected as we age. The long and short of it is that for women, decreasing estrogen can affect concentration. Thankfully, I can still work very effectively in the morning, so while it's not always fun getting up at 5:00 a.m. (now that puppy has re-established my morning wake-up time) those two hours of work I get in before my husband gets up are usually very helpful.

A few days ago, I was reflecting on how different it may have been had I decided to attend seminary when I was younger. Instead of staying home with the kids, I would have taken a class here while they were in school. Would I have found it easier? Well, with small kids, I doubt it. The financial burden would have made it difficult as well. Had I attended seminary before having children, while time and concentration may have been better than now, would I have appreciated it?

Being an older student has its benefits. Not only do I have a bit more life experience to bring into some discussions (which is becoming evident in Moral Theology), but waiting for it as I have has made me appreciate this opportunity. I can't speak for younger students, but I know for myself that when I was younger, I probably would not have felt the same way. As we get older, we begin to appreciate more than things are not necessarily owed to us, but are, rather, gifts from God. Furthermore, because I am an older student, and I have been studying the Bible all along, my core Bible knowledge is very helpful. Also, I have been studying theology in the past few years, and that has helped in coming to terms with new concepts we're learning.

Unlike some younger students, I don't know as if I see anything in the future for me beyond getting a piece of paper that says I have completed the requirements for a degree. But the knowledge I am gaining will have been worth it. And if I had been a younger student, perhaps I would not have felt that way.