Monday, August 25, 2014

A Momma's Heart Breaks, No Matter Her Culture

It's been a sad cycle of news these last few weeks. We've heard reports of children being slaughtered in Iraq, thousands have died and suffer from Ebola, Robin Williams committed suicide, Michael Brown was killed, an American city is in emotional upheaval reminding us all of our nation's rocky history, and James Foley was murdered for all the world to see. These are just the things I can think of off the top of my head. I know there are more and it's hard to take it all in. I don't respond to major news stories usually. Most of that decision is owing to the fact that I don't know enough about it to offer any credible insight into the situation, and almost all of it is owing to the fact that others (much wiser than I) have better things to say. So I listen and think and talk and pray. But I rarely write about it.

Until now.

I'm not going to offer any commentary on any particular situation. Again, even though I'm writing about the generalities of our sad news cycle, I still don't feel adequate to speak into any one situation. But I am going to speak to one thing that unites a large percentage of our global population.

I'm a mom.

My heart has been slowly breaking as I processed each piece of sad news these last few weeks. With each snippet of story I saw, one thought kept coming to my mind, I wonder how the mothers are doing?

Motherhood is the great equalizer for us as women. It's why we share birth stories with complete strangers. It's why we offer advice with a new mom. "It will get better," we assure her. It's why we cry when we see other mothers sending their children off to college (or the first day of school). We've been there. We know the feeling. We've felt the morning sickness. We've felt the first kicks. We remember the feel of their heads when the nurse first placed them in our arms. We've been up late at night with a sick toddler. We've kissed a skinned knee, packed a lunch, wiped a tear, and never once have we thought we would be the one to say the final goodbye to them. If the thought has crossed our minds, it's been in our deepest nightmares.

But as I've watched the news lately that's all I can think about. The mothers. The mothers who have rocked their babies to sleep and read them books, now burying those same children in the cold, dark, ground. And I can hardly choke back the tears.

Whatever we believe about any situation that is happening in our world (whether or not missionaries should go to places that threaten their lives, who was at fault in the death of an African American teenager, how to handle the suicide of a celebrity, or how to respond to the crisis in Iraq) one thing is certain, the people we are talking about as the latest fodder for the evening news are children of grieving mothers. Whatever is true about them, their mothers lost something that can never be replaced--or at least are facing the possibility of the loss.

And while I have no answers to the many problems facing our world I do have this. Tears. A mother's heart breaks the same no matter where she's from. And this momma is grieving with her.

Tuesday, August 19, 2014

Women Are No Threat to Me

In my single days, my roommates and I kept an article from John Piper on our refrigerator as a daily reminder to fight the sin of comparison. I was reminded of it last week as we wrapped up our summer bible study on John with the women of our church. As Peter has just been restored to fellowship with Christ, he is immediately pulled into the comparison game as he looks at his fellow disciple, John. Piper says this about Peter's question to Jesus.
That’s the way we sinners are wired. Compare. Compare. Compare. We crave to know how we stack up in comparison to others. There is some kind of high if we can just find someone less effective than we are. Ouch. To this day, I recall the little note posted by my Resident Assistant in Elliot Hall my senior year at Wheaton: “To love is to stop comparing.” What is that to you, Piper? Follow me.
Comparison is such a besetting issue for us as women. We see a woman dressed differently than us and we mentally stand next to her and boast in our attractiveness or wallow in how much better she looks. We see another mother with her children and compare our parenting skills, or lack of skills. We see a wife love her husband well and measure our relationship next to hers. We see a co-worker excel at a particular task and wonder why we can't work with the same speed and precision. Or to hit it home for me, I read another writer and feel stings of comparison as her perfectly crafted sentences make mine look like the work of an amateur.

The business of comparison is a dirty one.

But I was struck by something else as I studied this last part of John, something that put my own struggles with comparison in perspective. Peter and John both served very necessary, yet unique purposes in the establishment of the church. John lived a long life and wrote a number of New Testament books. Peter was at the forefront of the spread of the church (through much persecution) and according to tradition, was crucified upside down. Both lives looked very different. But both were needed in God's kingdom.

The same is true for us as writers, women, mothers, wives, employees, and church members. As a writer, I may say something in such a way that a specific woman has ears to hear. Land a different woman's eyes on my written words and she may need the voice of another friend of mine, who writes in a different voice. Both voices are necessary, both styles get the point across, but everyone has different ears to hear in different situations. We are all necessary.

In the writing world it can be easy to compare our own abilities and accomplishments with the woman next to us (or to put it more clearly, on the Internet page next to us). But we mustn't do that, friends. Like Peter and John, we have been given unique abilities, voices, and styles to minister to women who need to see that God's word is true and valuable in their lives. The woman who writes with more wit or careful turning of a phrase than me is not a threat to my gifting, but a blessing. She helps others see God when my words fall short. That is a gift! She is a service to the church in the same way I am called to be. I can lean on her and learn from her, but I should never resent her.

There is much to celebrate in this particular season with the multitude of women writers. I am encouraged by so many of them. As Christian women, who long to see God glorified in our lives, let us take the words of our Christ to heart when we feel the sting of jealousy rise up in our hearts over the giftings of another:

"What is that to you [sister]? You follow me."

Thursday, August 14, 2014

Salvation Comes Through Jesus, Not Courtney

The other night as my head hit the pillow I felt weighed down by a lingering cloud of guilt. I couldn't shake the sense that I was doing something terribly wrong, or at least not doing enough. Either by commission or omission, I was failing. But what I couldn't understand was why I felt this way on that particular evening. There were no catastrophic accidents with the twins that day. No one had a meltdown that was out of the ordinary. I hadn't lost my temper with Daniel, the boys, or anyone else who got in my way that day. By the outward looks of things I had no real reason to feel like I was missing the mark.

While it didn't look like I had a reason to repent over my actions, I did. Here is what I mean. For starters, I have noticed in the past week that I have allowed myself to grow lazy in training the boys. Instead of stopping whatever I am doing at the moment to help them in their burst of emotional outrage or fight over a stolen toy, I often stick to quick fixes without really understanding what is going on or showing them a better way. When I recounted the events of the day that particular night I was struck by my own selfish actions towards my boys. I didn't deal with them because it wasn't convenient for me. I didn't lovingly break up the fighting because I didn't want to be bothered. Immediately I was reminded of all of the biblical warnings for failing to discipline and train our children and I confessed to my husband that I was certain I had failed them for life (I'm a little dramatic at times).

But there is something less obvious that needed my swift repentance. It's the thing that I have noticed most in my own heart as I've learned this whole parenting thing.

I can't save my children and I need to stop acting like I can.

My children will be who they will be in spite of me. While I would like to think that if I just did all the right things for the necessary period of time, my kids will come out praising Jesus, but the unfortunate fact is they won't. They might, but it's not a guarantee. The promises of God are not a magic potion.

Of course, for the many biblical truths about God's sovereignty over salvation there are countless ones that talk about our need to be faithful with what he has given us. I will give an account for how I raise these boys. I have a responsibility to teach them and train them in God's ways. God's sovereignty is intertwined with my responsibility. But that doesn't mean I can save them. It doesn't mean that my every sin towards them will lead them on a swift path to destruction. It doesn't mean that my catechizing of them will lead them to repentance and faith. I obey and God gives the results.

This is incredibly freeing for an often sinful momma. But it's freeing for everyone, really. Maybe the unsaved person in your life is your brother or sister, mother or father, husband or wife, co-worker, friend, or neighbor. The truth remains. There is no other name under heaven by which men can be saved (Acts 4:12). And that name isn't Courtney (or your name). It's Jesus Christ.

We will not always present the message of Jesus' life, death, and resurrection perfectly. In fact, we often won't even come close. At times, our lives will betray the very Jesus we love. We will miss the mark with those we care about. We will sin against them. We will serve them in our own interests, not their own. But Jesus is the one who saves. The same blood that covers us can cover our loved ones, too.

There is freedom in that, my friends. When we are overwhelmed by how much we sin against our kids, our spouses, our friends, and church members we are given an opportunity to show them that Jesus saves us, too. We repent before God and them, seek forgiveness, and trust in his grace to make us more like him. Our kids will see that testimony of the power of Jesus just as evidently, if not more so, than if we had always done everything well.

I'm so thankful that Jesus saves. It gives me hope, not just for me, but for my kids, family, and friends, too. He makes dead hearts beat again. He opens blind eyes. And he alone can save even the vilest sinner.

Monday, August 11, 2014

Be a Faithful Mom, Not a Busy One

I take the twins to a story time once a week at our local library. They love it because they get to meet new toddlers and play with new toys. I like it because I get to meet other moms who are doing the same thing as me—learning this whole mom thing one toddler step at a time.

Since the twins have turned one I have struggled a lot with what I do with my time now. One year was a big milestone for us. They finally started sleeping more consistently, which meant I had a little more freedom to do other things again—like reading and writing (and sleeping). With the new time has come a whole new set of challenges, like all changes bring.

As I talked with one of the moms at story time I was struck by the frequency with which she mentioned the other things she does in addition to being a stay-at-home mom. She is thinking of opening a small business again, does small jobs on the side, and tries to keep her foot in the career world she left behind. I get the pull to do other things. In fact, I do other things, too. So I’m not knocking the other things at all. I understand that seasons of a mom’s life lend themselves to more time for such endeavors. And those can be very good opportunities for us. But as I reflected on her insistence that she has a profession outside of her child the finger turned back on my own ambitions.

How do I define myself when I speak to others?

Or to put it even more specifically, how do I want others to perceive me? Do I want them to see me as just a stay-at-home mom, or do I need something more than that?

With this new season of time the twins have afforded me I have noticed a new struggle emerging. I want to feel like I’ve accomplished something. If I get to the end of a day with little tangible results for the labors of my day, I feel defeated. Did I do anything of value? Did I accomplish something important? Did I write enough? Did I clean enough? Did I work hard enough to justify my existence and worth in this family?

More often than not the answer is a resounding no, because even with the emergence of time, twins don’t always give me the time I am expecting. And I’m only human. I just can't do it all. Or even come close to doing all I want to do.

But I think the problem is deeper than simply wanting to be useful and productive. When Betty Friedan encouraged housewives to find their identity outside of the home the cultural acceptance of the stay-at-home mom was lessened. I agree with her notion that women should never find their identity in their home, husband, or children. But in a lot of ways, our culture has traded one identity for another. Maybe we don’t think a woman should be defined by her work inside the home, but we do define her by what she does outside of it. Feminism has made us all feel like we need to be doing something useful to justify our equality and personhood. Women have made great gains for us and we should be taking advantage of those opportunities.

This is true for the stay-at-home mom, too. The reality is we don’t often have tangible markers for how we spend our days, unless you count the fact that our kids are clothed, fed, and smiling when our husbands get home. But sometimes we can’t even boast in that. It’s easy to be discouraged when we can’t point to what we did with our day as the basis for our value. The truth is, sometimes we can’t even remember what we did with our day. We’ve given up a lot to be here, we think to ourselves, so we better earn our keep. I even often find myself telling Daniel all I did in a given day, with the secret hope that he will see that I worked hard. I did something useful. Like the mom at story time, I want him (and everyone else) to see that my busyness during naptime and playtime amounts to a lot of good old fashioned work.

But that is not how God views our work. As I’ve written elsewhere, a mommy’s worth is not marked by check marks on a task list, but by sacrifice and service. Those are not always results we can point to as evidently, but they are there nonetheless. But it’s also more than that, I think. In the same way that our culture values work outside of the home, it also values busyness. We think that if we are super busy than we must be doing something right. We are so important. We have so much to do. We are busy, busy, busy. But is busyness the standard for faithfulness? Is it the standard for getting things done? Is it true that the more we do the better we feel about ourselves?

I doubt it.

I’m coming to terms with some things with the extra chunks of time I get now that my children take a regular nap. It’s okay if I nap, too. It’s okay if I write and clean and do other things, but it’s not wrong to rest either. My children and husband are served more by a happy and rested mom than a mom who got her to-do list done. And I feel better for it, too.

One of the phrases I repeat to myself often is that “busyness does not equal faithfulness.” Work important. We were made for it, actually. But as a stay-at-home mom my work doesn’t always look like my work did when I sat at a desk all day, had lunch meetings, and wrote marketing plans. Sometimes it means I’m up all night with a sick little boy (and thus need a nap) and sometimes it means I’m cleaning, writing, and cooking during my free moments. As an image bearer, I was made to work. This is true. But I was also made to rest. And as a mom who struggles with wanting to find my worth more in my work (and not in my rest), I would do well to learn the balance of them both.

Tuesday, August 5, 2014

Why We Sing

I’ve always loved to sing. I come from a family of singers. Some of my fondest childhood memories are of my mom singing hymns to me to help me fall asleep. You could say music is in my blood. I’ve transferred that love of singing to my local church as well. As long as I have been a Christian I have looked forward to congregational singing. Finding out the songs on Sunday morning when I open my bulletin is like Christmas morning every Sunday. Musical worship stirs my soul and readies my heart for the preached word.

But what if you don’t like to sing? Or maybe you do, but you aren’t much of a singer. Is congregational worship still for you? Does it matter if you stand silently in the pew (or chair) on Sunday morning because you simply don’t (or can’t) sing?

I think so.

I have been reading through the Psalms this week and been struck by the frequent references to musical praise. While the musical instruments may have changed over the years, musical worship has always been part of God’s economy. In fact, many of the psalms in the Bible were originally intended for musical worship. The psalmist meant for them to be sung congregationally.

Psalm 33:2-3 says:

Give thanks to the LORD with the lyre; make melody to him with the harp of ten strings! Sing to him a new song; play skillfully on the strings, with loud shouts.
Psalm 89:1 says:

I will sing of the steadfast love of the LORD, forever; with my mouth I will make known your faithfulness to all generations.

 And again in Psalm 91:1-4 (a song specifically designed for the Sabbath, the holiest day):

It is good to give thanks to the LORD, to sing praises to your name, O Most High; to declare your steadfast love in the morning, and your faithfulness by night, to the music of the lute and the harp, to the melody of the lyre. For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work; at the works of your hands I sing for joy.

So what does all of this have to do with us, in the 21st century? Musical worship is not a new, modern idea invented by people who want to get more young people in the doors of our churches. While the mode and style of musical worship might influence why a person attends a particular church, the act of musical worship is a universal privilege for all believers, regardless of preferences or denomination.

The psalms are far more concerned with what we sing, not necessarily how we sing. Of course, what we sing has implications for how we sing, and often how we sing reveals what we believe about the One we are singing to. But for brevity’s sake, I want to encourage us to think primarily about why all of us, good and bad singers alike, should strive to be active worshipers when it comes to congregational singing.

Psalm 92 is a good place to start. Like I already said, it’s a psalm for the Sabbath, which was the Jewish day of worship. The Sabbath was our Sunday. So this psalm was meant for God’s people to use in worship of him. Because he has authority over all things, including us, this means our musical worship of him must be under his authority. He cares about how we worship him. To say it another way, he wants us to worship him in the way he prescribes and with our entire beings. Singing praises to God should be a delight to our soul. Musical worship is God’s plan for his people. Music stirs our affections and draws us out. Even secular music does this for us, right? Music causes us to feel deeply. And this is a gift to us. When we sing our hearts should be stirred to remember God and his ways. So if you are struggling with a desire to sing on Sunday morning whether because of lack of talent or lack of interest, remember this, dear Christian. Singing to God, as described in God’s word, is the overflow of a joyful heart in God alone. We should delight in singing to God because we delight in the truths of God. Congregational singing is not as much about the talent of the one singing as much as it is about the object of our singing—God. Our collective singing on Sunday morning should be a rich reminder of the goodness of his ways, the power of the cross, and the treasure that God is for us in Christ.

We sing because we love God, not because we are the next Whitney Houston. Making a joyful noise is more about the One who makes us joyful than the squeaky noise coming from our vocal chords.

So sing with all your might, my friend. Let the truths of God’s word stir your heart to worship him in song as you praise him for all he is for you in Christ.

Monday, August 4, 2014

How to Work Out Your Salvation

"We are to strive for growth with all our strength and to work to put sin to death within us. But we are to do so in a way that is always mindful of our inability and weakness so that we do not despair." -Barbara Duguid (Extravagant Grace, 220).

Friday, August 1, 2014

Extravagant Grace: A Review

I received a copy of this book at the bloggers gathering at TGCW14 over a month ago. The title, Extravagant Grace: God's Glory Displayed in Our Weakness, by Barbara Duguid (P&R), caught my eye immediately. I feel weak often. I am overwhelmed by my sin on a regular basis. This book, I thought, must be written for me.

I could not have been more right.

It is a rare occasion that I finish a book sad to see it end. At over 200 pages, I honestly wished for it just to keep going. Not because it was incomplete or in need of greater explanation, but because it was good for my soul. I was opened to a fresh understanding of my indwelling sin and its purpose in my own sanctification. I was confronted with the glory of Christ's death on the cross and his righteousness that covers me. I was encouraged to remain steadfast in my fight against sin and my trust in the Savior. I just wanted to keep reading in order to drink deeply from the well of truth contained in its pages.

This book reminded me of three crucial truths about the Christian life.

The value of prayer. Duguid reminds us that only God can change a person's heart. He is the one who grants the new birth in Christ and changes a person day by day. Because of this we should pray fervently for God to work in the lives of people. I was encouraged to pray for family members who don't know Christ and for friends I know struggling with besetting sins. I was convicted to pray for myself. I know that there is just as much besetting sin in me as the next girl. No amount of willpower will get rid of it for me. I need the supernatural work of God to change me and make me more like himself. The good news is that he has promised us this very work in his word, Duguid says. We aren't praying blindly, but with bold faith for God to do what he delights to do--humble his children and make them like himself.

The reason for indwelling sin. This point is probably the greatest takeaway for me. Duguid says that God wants humble children, which is one of the primary reasons he leaves us with indwelling sin. Sin humbles us. It shows us our desperate need for a Savior. Because of our tendency towards self-sufficiency, if we had been wiped clean of our propensity to sin at conversion we would fail to give God glory for this cleansing. Indwelling sin keeps us on our knees and gives God glory. It also makes us long for heaven more. Only on that final day will we truly be cleansed from the sin that entangles us. While God sees Christ when he looks at us now, there will come a day when the full, sinless righteousness of Christ will cover us completely. Heaven is our final home. We will see God in all his glory because we will be like him, perfect and whole. This truth should make us ache for that day. Our sin reminds us that we are not there yet--not even close. Come, Lord Jesus!

The importance of a long term view of the Christian life. Because our salvation is an "already, but not yet" reality, we need not be discouraged when we are not yet there--or when those around us aren't either. Duguid says that God is the one who gives people differing degrees of faith, sanctification, and resistance to sin. Some of us struggle with certain sins all of our lives. But because of the final day, when our sin stains are cleansed in their entirety, we can have hope for the present. God completes the work he starts in us and in our friends and family.

Uses for the book. Because of the nature of the book, it is a really good option for any type of book study. There are in depth questions at the end of each chapter that bring the points of the chapter home. Duguid is a biblical counselor, so she is skilled at getting to the heart of matters. There are multiple questions, so if you were working through the book in a book club or small group, you may, for the sake of time, go through only two or three questions in a gathering. But if you wanted to use the book in one-on-one discipleship or personally the questions would be really useful.

One of the main points of the book is that she interacts with John Newton and his teaching on the Christian life, indwelling sin, and God's grace. It made me want to buy the writings of Newton immediately! While I was always helped by her interaction with Newton, the back cover of the book states she turns to Newton "to teach us God's purpose of our failure and guilt." This is true to some extent, but she doesn't use him as much as I thought she would. This is not a critique by any means, because I think the book is perfectly complete on its own. It's more an observation than anything else. I suppose by interacting with Newton, even if it was less than I anticipated, she did her job. I want to read Newton now. And read this book again and again.