Solemn Assembly, and the Ongoing Issue of Race in the United States

Unless you’ve been living under a rock, you’ll know that the issue of race relations has been at the forefront of the minds of most Americans during the last few months.

Among others, Pastor Eric Mason has been engaging other pastors to lead their congregations through a solemn assembly – a week of prayer and fasting surrounding these issues, asking God for mercy and a renewed passion toward unity among His people that crosses the boundaries of race, culture, and creed for the sake of the gospel.

To support this effort, our team at LifeWay has written a couple of Bible studies that can be downloaded absolutely for free at smallgroup.com. Just click the link at the top of the page that says, “Download the Bible studies for #NationwideSolemnAssembly” and they will be downloaded to your desktop.

Our hope and prayer is that God will use these studies to reinforce the truth that God has broken down the dividing wall of hostility both between He and man and between all cultures with the power of the gospel.

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Did Tolkein Waste His Life?

He did more than write engaging stories; he created worlds. And in that creation, he created maps, legends, folklore, and even languages.

One might look at the life of JRR Tolkein, author of The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings among other things and think that he wasted his life. After all, who composes an entire elvish language? Who goes to the painstaking work of drawing extensive maps of a world he has imagined? There are bigger and better uses of one’s intellect and time surely.

In regard to this issue, Jon Bloom writes:

Since I am not God, I do not know how much of his life Tolkien may have wasted in his work. God knows I’ve wasted more than enough of my own already. But in terms of Middle-earth being a means of escape, Tolkien had this to say:

“Evidently we are faced by a misuse of words, and also by a confusion of thought. Why should a man be scorned if, finding himself in prison, he tries to get out and go home? Or if, when he cannot do so, he thinks and talks about other topics than jailers and prison-walls? The world outside has not become less real because the prisoner cannot see it. In using escape this way the critics have chosen the wrong word, and what is more, they are confusing . . . the Escape of the Prisoner with the Flight of the Deserter.” (“On Fairy-stories”)

Tolkien never intended his tales of Middle-earth to be a desertion from reality, but a means of seeing beyond the confined walls of our perceptions to a much larger reality beyond. And he suffered no delusions that Middle-earth was that reality. But through the lenses of Middle-earth, Tolkien, an unashamed Christian, wanted to show us “a far-off gleam . . . ofevangelium in the real world” (emphasis his, “On Fairy-stories”). His kind of fantasy was intended to help prisoners in the real world escape and go home.

There is a deep, profound reason why God created us to be story-makers and storytellers, and why, when the Word became flesh (John 1:14) he frequently spoke in stories. The best make-believe stories help us better understand the real world. And in our day, such stories are needed more than ever.

True indeed.

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The Imagination is a Muscle

In the last two weeks, during Christmas vacation, our family has had conversations about good and evil, conformity and individuality, space and time travel, physics, and mind control.

That’s because we are about three quarters of the way through reading A Wrinkle in Time by Madeline L’Engle. It’s a book I read when I was in the 4th or 5th grade and it covers all the above, among other things. It’s a little funny, a little heady, and a little scary all wrapped into one, even for the adults since neither of us could remember exactly what happened since we read it so long ago.

In addition to learning some of the finer points of the space / time continuum, I think my biggest takeaway for both the kids and for me is that the imagination is a muscle, given to us by God. And like any muscle, without regular exercise, it will atrophy. But when you work it out, it grows stronger and stronger. I’ve seen it happen in the last two weeks.

When we first started the book, the kids were having trouble keeping up with some of the content. The younger two (7 and 4) were glazing over by the end of chapter 1. So we had to stop and explain the plot, but then something else started happening.

In addition to talking about it, the kids started imagining. They started mimicking the different voices of the characters depending on the scene in which they were engaged. They acted out some of their motions. They talked about what they would do in a certain situation. And as they did it more and more, I saw it happen:

Their imagination began to grow.

And mine did, too.

This growth, I think, is something that we start to lose as we grow older. We lose our sense of wonder; we lose our ability to imagine. Though there a lot of causes for that loss I’m sure, I think it’s mainly due to our refusal to take advantage of the opportunities for wonder God has put before us in every day life. And those opportunities are there. As Elizabeth Browning said, “Eath’s crammed with heaven, and every common bush afire with God, but only he who sees takes off his shoes; the rest sit round and pluck blackberries.”

Chesterton had a similar take: “Contemporary society has become dry, not for lack of wonders but for lack of wonder.”

One hope I have this year, both for me and our family, is to take advantage of what’s around us. To not be so busy that we cease to imagine. And that through exercise, we will see the world of dragons and dwarves, of strange and distant lands and adventure, to grow in our minds and hearts. And as it does, that we will be reminded that all of these things which we imagine point us to the greater adventure that’s before us in the kingdom of God.

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Kids Love What Brings Their Parents Delight

Great post from Desiring God here. Very encouraging this Christmas:

My happiest Christmas memory is the time each year that my aunt Nancy directed my cousins and me in a reenactment of the nativity. The youngest among us — a girl — was always baby Jesus, and as Mary, my main job was not dropping her when I placed her in the manger (and avoiding wayward staffs twirled by the ragtag band of boy cousin shepherds).

When I reflect on those memories, the principal player was my aunt Nancy. The yearly play was her idea, so of course we looked to her to take the lead and to direct us as to when to proceed solemnly into the living room for our performance. But more than that, we followed her lead because she cared. She was enthusiastic about the story we were reenacting, so we naturally were too.

My happiest memories as a child, and the ones imprinted most indelibly on my heart, typically involve a happy or enthusiastic adult — a teacher who taught my class to dance the Virginia Reel during our Civil War unit, a softball coach who infused fun into every practice, and a band director who loved his job.

But the happiest of happy moments always involved my parents. When my dad laughed or my mom got excited about something, time stood still and my heart threatened to burst. I delighted to see them delighted; their enthusiasm and joy instantly and naturally transferred to me because I loved to see them happy.

Kids learn to love what brings their parents delight…

Read the rest here.

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My Name is Joseph (Part 3)

You can read Part 1 here and Part 2 here.

It didn’t take me long to decide what to do.  For the several nights Mary came by every evening to try and see me.  I just had my father send her away – I thought I would see how she liked it for a while.  After about a week of this I sent word to her house that I would be divorcing her.  It would be a private ceremony, just us and the Rabbi, and then I’m sure Mary would just move away.  It would be quick and easy and best of all, over.

That was the first night that I actually slept well.  Now I know what I’m about to tell you may sound crazy, but I woke up the next morning with an entirely different aim in mind.  I had the strangest dream that night – except it wasn’t like a dream because it was more real than that – it was more like a vision.  I’m not sure who it was that told it to me, but I remember the message clearly: “Do not divorce Mary, for her child is from the Holy Spirit.”  And then he told me what to make this kid – Yeshua.

I’ve never been so conflicted.  First of all I didn’t and still don’t understand all the implications of that dream.  I mean, this angel – or whatever he was – called me Joseph son of David, which I’ve never been called, and then he said that there was something special about this little boy.  So what was I supposed to do?  Was that dream real?  Was it from the Lord?  Or was it just bad wine from the night before?  It was pretty radical if it was real – that meant the Lord was asking me to become unrighteous.  He was asking me to give up my reputation and go against the laws of my community.  On the other hand, if it wasn’t real, then I would be taking on the responsibility of someone else’s child.

What can you do in a situation like that?  You believe you have heard the voice of the Lord but it makes no sense to do what he has said.  It defies logic.  I mean He might as well have told me to move my whole family to Egypt!  But I guess we all face that decision someday.  So what could I do?  I didn’t divorce Mary that day.  In fact, when I talked to her, she told me that she had a dream almost exactly like mine!  And believe it or not, she told me that she had actually not even, you know, been with a man.  I know, crazy right?  But it was sane enough for us to believe.

So against the advice of my father we continued our marriage.  I with I could tell you that it was smooth after that.  I wish I could tell you that our families fell in line and supported the decision we had made.  I with I could say that we were not persecuted and that people didn’t whisper when we walked by.  But I can’t.  The day of our wedding was the worst.  Usually the wedding happens about a year after the engagement begins and it can be a week long celebration, but not ours.  Ours was quiet.  Nobody from the community wanted to come.  My mother was a basket case – she cried through the whole thing and then went home right after.  Mary and I ended up just having a quiet meal at home together.

Things didn’t get better, either.  People stopped coming to my father’s shop.  My mother could barely go to the market without being publicly disgraced.  Mary wasn’t even on speaking terms with her parents.  We finally decided that the best thing for us to do would be to move from Nazareth.  Maybe we could get a fresh start.

That’s really what we were thinking when we went to Bethlehem.  Now that was an ordeal.  Have you ever tried to make a 4 day trip with a pregnant woman?  Let me tell you – the bathroom stops alone are enough to drive you nuts.  That’s where my son was born – in a cave on the side of a hill in Bethlehem.  And that’s the story of how our family began.  Life was a little better in our new town, but we still got the looks when we walked down the street.  We feel judged a lot of the time.  And sometimes, if I am honest, I would have to say that it’s hard not to be angry at God.  I was convinced that this is what he wanted from me, so where is the blessing for my obedience?  Is my reward the disapproval of others?  Is my reward a tarnished reputation?  What about all the names that people call me and I know they will call my son?  Is that our reward?

But in those moments when I feel angry, I catch a glimpse of my son – my little boy.  I realize that this – my relationship with Jesus – is what really matters.  And it’s like just for a moment everything that I once thought was profit – my own righteousness, my reputation, my job – I now consider loss.  In fact, I consider all things as loss compared to the surpassing greatness of just knowing this little boy.  And I’m not alone in that.  I see in his eyes that he wants to know me, too.  He loves me – not because I am a great guy, or have flawless righteousness, or because I am a great carpenter, but just because of who I am.  And somehow, when I’m with him, all those things I’ve lost don’t seem to matter that much.

Because what I have is better. Much, much better.

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My Name is Joseph (Part 2)

Part 1 is here.

That day is crystal clear to me.  She had sent word about a week ahead of time that she would soon be on her way, and I started to get excited.  Sure, I wanted some answers about why she had left, but more than anything, I just wanted my wife back.  It was a Friday that she came home.  I remember because I had made a mental list of things that had to be done before sundown because sundown signaled the start of the Sabbath.  I was going over the list in my mind as I approached my father’s house, and there she was.  She was sitting on the gate of the house and I stopped in my tracks.  I saw her before she saw me, so I just stood there for a moment.

I felt my chin start to shake and the tears form in my eyes.  My tool belt slipped from my hands and fell to the ground and then she looked up and saw me.  In that split second, I wondered what her reaction would be.  Did she leave because of me?  Did she not want me any more?  But all of my doubts were soon gone, because when she saw me she grinned from ear to ear.  We walked toward each other and then we embraced.  I know, I know – it’s too far physically, but in that moment, I don’t think either one of us cared.  And suddenly I knew that everything was going to be okay.  I had so many questions to ask her, and I had so many things to tell her.  I wanted to tell her how much I had missed her and how much I did love her.  I wanted her to know that I never wanted her to leave again and I would always be there for her.  I wanted to hold her and tell her that she could confide and trust in me.  But before I could say any of those things, she pulled away from me.

That’s when I noticed it.  She was looking down at the ground and the sun was at just the right angle for me to see the brightness in her face.  She looked beautiful and yet somehow different.  It wasn’t the girlish kind of beauty that I was first attracted to but a more mature – an older beauty that I now saw.  I was 7 years older than she was and suddenly I felt like a child.

She said to me, “Joseph, I want to tell you the reason that I have been away.  It is a wonderful reason, but it may be difficult for you to hear.”  I wasn’t worried about what she would say.  Not right then.  So I assured her that she could tell me anything and that the important thing was that we were together again.  And then she said 2 words that literally took my breath away: “I’m pregnant.”

I can’t describe what it felt like.  My head felt dizzy.  All the breath went out of me.  I couldn’t process what she had just told me.  She was pregnant?  How could she be pregnant?  Who was this person?  This is not the Mary I thought I knew.  How could she have been unfaithful to me?  Then it all started to make sense – her father’s shame, her distancing herself from the situation, the lack of news.  I felt like such a fool.  And all the while she had the nerve to stand there smiling like this was a good thing.

Did she not understand what was happening?  She was an adulteress!  She had gone behind my back and ruined herself with another man.  She had ruined everything – our life together, our future, her reputation, my reputation, my family’s reputation – what would our neighbors say?  What would my father say?  And still she smiled.  I dropped her hands and started to back away.  I said, “You’re what?  How… how could you?”  She wasn’t smiling any more.  She started after me and said that if I would only give her a chance to explain – but I would hear none of that.  I didn’t want to see her.  I didn’t want to know her.  These last few months had been nothing but a lie.  All I wanted to do was to get as far away as possible from the situation, and so I did.  I ran.  I ran until my legs started to hurt and my stomach got a pain in the side.  And after I stopped running, I started to cry.  I felt angry – who was she to think that she could make a fool out of me?  I felt betrayed – who was this other man who could not control himself?  But most of all, I felt hurt.  And ashamed.

I stayed out very late that night.  When I finally came home my father was waiting for me.  I thought about trying to hold it in, but I told him everything.  He responded just like I knew he would.  Father always raised us to respect the law.  The law was what separated us from the other nations.  The law is the means by which God blesses and curses.  And on this point, the law was very clear – I had to divorce Mary.  It was not even an option – in fact, most Jewish communities demanded a divorce in the case of adultery.  To not divorce her would be illegal, not to mention compromising my own personal righteousness.  I mean, think about it – if I married Mary, then it is as if I condone her actions.  Not only that, but I will be branded as unclean for the rest of my life.  She’s already going to carry that reputation around – why should I go down with her?  It’s not my fault she got pregnant.

So, as father said, I basically had 2 options.  I could either seek a public divorce or a private divorce.  If I went public then Mary would be disgraced before the whole community, and technically, she could be stoned even though nobody really did that any more.  And part of me really wanted that.  Was that really so wrong after what she had done to me?  Part of me wanted to see her have to explain her conduct in front of everyone.  I wanted people to come up to me and shake my hand and congratulate me on my own purity.

But in the end I decided that the best thing to do was to divorce her quietly.  I don’t know why I decided to do it; maybe it was because it would give Mary a chance in life if she moved out of Nazareth, maybe it was for the baby.  Probably it was mostly because even though she had hurt me so badly I still didn’t want her to be mad at me.  But whatever the reason, this option would allow me to maintain my personal righteousness and save Mary from so much humiliation.

Now I know what you’re thinking: is your own personal righteousness really that important?  Maybe it should not be, but I’m just asking you to try and understand my culture for a minute.  We live our whole lives based on honor and shame.  If I didn’t have my honor, my own personal integrity, then I wouldn’t be able to shop in public.  Some merchants wouldn’t sell their goods to me.  Most people would refuse to buy the stuff that I make.  Being shamed would affect every area of my life.

It just wasn’t worth it…

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My Name is Joseph (Part 1)

You may or may not know that I have a 10-year-old son.  In English, his name is Joshua; the Greek translation is Jesus.  Both of those sound pretty good, but I think I like best of all the sound of the original Hebrew name: Yeshua.  Yeshua does pretty much the same things that all 10-year-olds do.  He likes to run and jump and play.  He makes silly noises that sound like bodily functions.  He likes to wrestle and throw the ball around.  And I know that every father thinks that his kid is the best, but Yeshua really is.  I’m just so proud of him – and I know that he is going to do great things in life.

Of course he is going to do great things in life – look who his mother is!  I wish all of you could know my wife and what an extraordinary woman she is.  She is beautiful and patient.  She loves her God more than anyone I have ever known.  She loves her family and is fiercely protective of them, and she is a wonderful mother.  There’s so much that goes into having children, and she remarkably handles every piece of it.

And I never get over the fact that she loves me.  She makes me feel important.  She makes me feel important when we’re never going to be rich.  I mean, I have an okay job, and I can put food on the table, but our life will never be extravagant.  We will always live pretty much hand to mouth.  And I’m not a really important person in the community and I never will be.  But overall, I would say that we are a very happy family.  I know that none of this sounds very extraordinary or amazing in any way, and to be honest, it’s not.  It’s only amazing when you know the way that our family started.

What I have told you about us up to this point, many of you probably already know.  Great wife, wonderful child, that’s all very clear just from observation.  But what you may not know is that my wife was actually pregnant before we got married.  Yeah, I know, you never would have guessed it looking at us, but it’s true.  So now you know – we are not the perfectly righteous, completely obedient, wonderful Jewish couple that we appear to be.  But I’m asking you to reserve judgment until you hear the whole story.

I’m not exactly sure how marriage works in your culture, but in our culture, it is a year long process.  At least.  That in itself is not easy for an 18 year old.  I mean, I have needs!  But anyway, back to the marriage.  There are two stages in a Jewish marriage and the first stage is the betrothal period.  This begins when my father would go throughout the town and surrounding towns and find me a young girl, usually about 11 years old, who would be my wife.  I remember the day that it all happened.  I was outside in the shop working on a chair for some neighbors when my dad burst into the house.

“Joseph!  Joseph!” he yelled.  “I’ve found her!  And son, you will love her.  She is beautiful.”  Well you can imagine my excitement, and my nervousness.  I mean, I trust my dad, but you know – seeing is believing.  As it turned out, she was from Nazareth, too, so later on that night I went out for a walk.  Now I knew that I couldn’t be alone with her yet – heck, I really wasn’t even supposed to be in her presence yet, but I went out looking for her house anyway.  I just wanted to see her.  And so I crept around through the courtyard and eventually found her home and I waited there until I got one good look.  I was not disappointed.  She was beautiful.  In fact, I must confess, all I could do when I saw her was to think back to the Song of Solomon – you know the parts I mean.

The next morning the marriage preparations were in full swing and about a week later we had our first ceremony.  Now this was not the official marriage ceremony, it was more like a pre-nuptial ceremony.  This would officially begin Mary and I’s life together.  Even though after this ceremony we would be called “husband” and “wife”, we still couldn’t, you know, be together.  In fact, the best we could do is spend a little time alone together at my dad’s house.  I remember that day well – the rabbi was there and my dad gave the traditional gift of livestock to Mary’s family to unite our families.  Her father gave us some money that we could use to start our family in about a year, and then it was time for me to give my gift to her.  Through the giving of my gift, I would symbolize my commitment to our relationship.  I didn’t know what to give to her.  I thought about when my forefather Isaac gave expensive clothes and jewels to Rebekkah to begin their marriage.  I sure couldn’t do that – I mean, who was I?  Just the son of the local carpenter.  So I did what I do best – I made her something.  It was a little plaque to put over our doorposts that had the shema written on it, and I decorated it with some ornate wood on the sides and it looked pretty good.  She seemed to like it anyway.  I just wanted her to know that I was going to base our marriage on the law of the Lord from the very start.

And then it was done.  We were married legally.  In fact, at that point I had legal rights over Mary.  The only way that our betrothal could be broken was by divorce, but you never think about that right after your marriage begins.  For the first couple of weeks, things were great.  Mary and I would spend time together almost every night.  We would talk about our lives and our future.  We would talk about the carpentry shop and how we might even someday try to save up enough money to open up a second store.  Imagine me, Joseph, a chain!  We were getting along so well so you can imagine my surprise when I decided to stop by her father’s house on the way to work one morning.  Her father opened the door like he was surprised to see me.  We exchanged pleasantries, but there was something wrong in his voice.  I couldn’t put my finger on it, but it was like he almost felt ashamed.  He wouldn’t look me in the eye and he acted very hurried in our conversation.  And then he told me that Mary had left early that morning for her cousin’s house up in the hill country.  I tried to get him to tell me why she left so quickly and without telling me herself, but I couldn’t get anything out of him.  All he would tell me was that it was important for her to go away and that she would be gone for 3 months.

As he shut the door, I stood on the porch in disbelief.  Was Mary sick?  Was Elizabeth, her cousin, sick?  What was going on?  So there I was with nothing to do except wait.  So I waited, and I waited.  There was no news.  Mary’s father stopped opening the door when I came to ask about her.  No one in town knew anything.  Everyday I would get up and go to the shop and try to concentrate on work, but how can you do that?  My wife was somewhere in Judea, not sure exactly where and not sure exactly why.  Three months is a long time.  It was a long time of wondering and thinking, and of trying not to be angry.  Those months are just kind of a blur now – work and home, work and home, work and home.  Some days I was angry, some days I was hurt, but by the time it was over, all I could think of was how much I just wanted her to come home.  And then she did…

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Burping Baby Jesus

From The Best Christmas Pageant Ever:

Imogene had the baby doll but she wasn’t carrying it in the way she was supposed to, cradled in her arms. She had it slung up over her shoulder, and before she put it in the manger she thumped it twice on the back.

I heard Alice gasp and she poked me. “I don’t think it’s very nice to burp the baby Jesus,” she whispered, “as if he had colic.” Then she poked me again. “Do you suppose he could have had colic?”

I said, “I don’t know why not,” and I didn’t. He could have had colic, or been fussy, or hungry like any other baby. After all, that was the whole point of Jesus—that he didn’t come down on a cloud like something out of “Amazing Comics,” but that he was born and lived…a real person. (73-74)

Yes. That is indeed the point.

His birth was painful. It was dirty. He cried. His mom probably cried. I bet His dad did, too. And while we’re on the subject of that dad, I can’t imagine the stress of traveling with a pregnant wife only to find she’s in labor only to find there’s no place to stay the night only to find yourself hanging out with the animals.

When we sanitize this scene we miss something wondrous about it.

Jesus, Immanuel, God with us… and all the inconvenient implications that come with being a true, human baby.

God became man so that we might become the sons and daughters of God.

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Whatever Happened to St. Nicholas?

Interesting article here:

How did a fourth century heretic slapping bishop from Southern Turkey wind up being a fat, Coca-Cola-swigging American elf?

St. Nicholas was born into a wealthy Christian family in the third century. His parents died in a plague, and having inherited the family fortune, he decided to obey the radical call of Christ and give it to the poor. So he became famous for his generosity to those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

Bishop Nicholas was exiled and imprisoned during the persecutions under the Emperor Diocletian, and after his release, attended the Council of Nicaea in AD 325 where he famously lost his temper and slapped the heretic Arius in the face. He died December 6, AD 343 in Myra and was buried in his cathedral church. Legends grew up about his generosity, and throughout the Middle Ages he became one of the most popular and wonder-working saints across Europe.

Now “jolly old St. Nick,” aka Santa Claus, is a secular figure used to promote godless good cheer and commercial consumerism. What happened?

Read the rest here.

 

 

 

 

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Don’t Miss the Chance to Think About What You’re Singing

Christmas, maybe more than any other time, is a season where people say things they don’t mean. Sometimes this is innocuous and for the sake of politeness: “Yes, of course I need a sweater with Santa in a motor home! Thank you!” or “I absolutely don’t think it was too much for you to put a 9 foot inflatable snow globe on your front lawn. It looks awesome!”

Other times, though, it’s more surprising. Take the example of Christmas carols. These songs have some of the most deeply rich theological lyrics:

“Hail! The heav’n born Prince of peace!
Hail! The Son of Righteousness!
Light and life to all he brings,
risen with healing in his wings.
Mild he lays his glory by,
born that man no more may die:
Born to raise the sons of earth,
born to give them second birth.
Hark! The herald angels sing,
‘Glory to the newborn King!’”

Or this one:

“Silent night, holy night!
Son of God love’s pure light.
Radiant beams from Thy holy face;
with the dawn of redeeming grace,
Jesus, Lord at thy birth.
Jesus Lord, at Thy birth.”

Or maybe this one:

“For lo! the days are hastening on,
By prophets seen of old,
When with the ever-circling years
Shall come the time foretold,
When the new heaven and earth shall own
The Prince of Peace, their King,
And the whole world send back the song
Which now the angels sing.”

These are beautiful lyrics. They are rich lyrics. And they are familiar lyrics. This season, don’t let the familiarity of the tune drown out the wonder of the words.

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