Thursday, November 16, 2017

Book Review: Refresh

Shona Murray is inviting us to step back and look at our lives. In her book Refresh, co-written with her husband, David Murray, she encourages us to live a grace-paced life. In conjunction with her husband's book, for men, Reset, Shona has chimed in with this excellent word for women. It's an invitation we as women should accept. She opens the book with words that many women can relate to:
Overwhelmed. Exhausted. Depressed. Panicky. Stressed. Burned out. Broken. Paralyzed. Drowning. Empty. Recognize yourself in any of these words? Maybe in all of them? 
You're not alone. These are the most common words I've heard Christian women useing to describe themselves and their lives. 
Whatever happened to the words peaceful, calm, joyful, content, quiet, rested, refreshed, and fulfilled? Wouldn't you like to exchange the second set of words for the first?
Shona shares extensively from her personal experience with the consequences of her own hectic pace of life. Ultimately, it led to a struggle with depression. Her openness regarding her illness is among the most appealing things about Refresh. Women who struggle with mental illness often feel isolated and alone. To hear how someone else has found healing is always encouraging. In an effort to build a foundation which guards against burnout, the focus of the book lays out principles to establish a grace-paced life.

Shona uses the image of the gym: just as physical health requires a training regimen, so does spiritual health. Each chapter along the way, is a "station" in a training program. We start with a Reality Check, and then move through the remaining stations: Replay, Rest, Re-Create, Relax, Rethink, Reduce, Refuel, Relate, Resurrection.

One of the most compelling parts of the book for me was the initial step of evaluating who we are. In the chapter "Reality Check," she calls upon the reader to examine her life closely for signs and symptoms of burnout. We need to be realistic about ourselves. What may feel like standing on top of the world could actually be standing on the edge of a dangerous precipice.

In my own struggle with anxiety, recognizing my limitations as a human being was difficult, but necessary, and Shona addresses that:
Once I began to see the practical implications of being a limited, complex, and fallen creature, I began to see God differently, I saw myself differently, and I saw life differently.
We don't like the idea of being limited. We are told that we should defy limits or that to refuse to live without limits is living an inferior existence. The truth is that we are limited, and I was grateful for Shona emphasizing that truth. It is often a failure to realize our limits that sends us crashing down.

In addition to promoting proper sleep, rest, and exercise, Shona also encourages us to examine who we are in Christ rather than living under false identities:
The Bible uses many different words and metaphors to describe the Christian: forgiven, redeemed, accepted, justified, adopted, heir, blessed, seated in heavenly places, sealed with the Spirit in Christ, and so on (see Ephesians 1). If I expand "Christian" by adding these grace-driven descriptions to my list, this part of my identity will have much more influence on my self-image. A grace-filled identity will produce a grace-paced life.
We are often more consumed with our identity as wife or mother or are more preoccupied with our work outside the home. Our most important identity in found in Christ. We can be actively serving in the Church and still not be focused on our identity in Christ. Our identity in Christ is the most crucial one, and finding the right balance between that identity and the others may mean making changes.

Refresh is a book borne out of Shona Murray's experience. But it is not a unique experience. Her story is the story of many other women. This book is one woman's encouraging word to those who find themselves burned out and stressed out and looking for some help. Even more than that, Refresh would also help young women seeking to establish healthy habits that will be useful for a long time to come.

Thursday, November 9, 2017

Doctrine Matters: Imputation

For decades as a Christian, I was taught and believed that Jesus got me in the door, but the rest was up to me. This was terrifying. I remember crying as a child wondering if I would have the courage to be a martyr for Christ, and wondering if I would lose my salvation if I failed. I remember hearing about the movie, A Thief in the Night, and wondering what would happen if I wasn't ready. I lived with so much uncertainty that current events would strike fear in my heart because I doubted I would be good enough when Christ returned.

Finally one day, I was raking leaves and listening to R.C. Sproul's lectures on What is Reformed Theology?. When he discussed the doctrine of justification by faith alone, it was as though the sun broke through the darkness, and I experienced assurance for the first time in my Christian life.
"In the final analysis, the only way that any person is ever justified before God is by works.  We are saved by works, and we are saved by works alone.  Don't touch that dial..."
"[W]hen I say that we are justified by works and by works alone, what do I mean by it? I mean that the grounds of my justification and the grounds of your justification are the perfect works of Jesus Christ. We're saved by works, but they are not our own. That's why we say we're saved by faith, and we're saved by grace, because the works that save us aren't our works, they're Somebody else's works."1
God takes my sin and places it on the righteous, holy, perfect Lamb of God and expends His wrath upon the Him. But if the story ended there, my sins would have been dealt with, but what about my life? What about God's just requirement that we be holy as He is holy? He takes the perfect righteousness of Jesus Christ and puts that to my account. This is imputation. There is no question anymore of where I stand before God. The endless cycle of trying to earn acceptance before God is broken once and for all.
The understanding of imputation also holds out the only real hope that real Christians have of maintaining real acceptance with the real God. The reality of imputed righteousness is a real encouragement to ongoing sinners. Even as believers we must admit that sin is mixed with all we do. Even though we are justified believers, we still stumble and fall. We still make backward steps. What will keep a believer persevering in the face of remaining sin? Just this: the knowledge that the righteousness that renders us acceptable to God is not our personal achievement. It is Christ's righteousness achieved for us.
What is a Christian to do when he stumbles and falls in sin?  He must keep looking to Christ by humbly repenting and starting over.  This is how we battle discouragement. This is what keeps us from losing hope. On the believer's worst day this thought can keep him from utter despair: Jesus Christ is my righteousness. To see, remember and believe that God has credited Christ’s righteousness to us and has on that basis accepted us once and for all, is to find the strength and the direction to fight against every form of discouragement and temptation and frustration in life.2
This is why I love the doctrine of imputation. Having lived without assurance so long, it's no wonder I can't forget the day when I realized that peace with God rested outside of me or my performance. I still stumble and my assurance may waiver, but there is someone else that I can look to - Jesus Christ, my righteousness.

1. What is Reformed Theology? Teaching series by R.C. Sproul, Ligonier Ministries.
2. Imputation: The Sinners Only Hope - Thomas K. Ascol, Founders Journal, Issue 59, Winter 2005, pp. 1-13.

This is based on a post from my personal blog from 2010.

Thursday, November 2, 2017

Testing, Testing

. . . you have been grieved by various trials, so that the tested genuineness of your faith—more precious than gold that perishes though it is tested by fire—may be found to result in praise and glory and honor at the revelation of Jesus Christ (1 Peter 1:6-7 ESV).

I knew a couple—active in their local church and, to all appearances, committed Christians—who stopped believing in God after tragedy struck their family. First, they struggled with trusting God. "If God is good," they wondered, "how could he allow our young son to die? How could he allow this kind of suffering?"

None of the answers they received satisfied them. "What good is faith in God," they asked, "if he won't at least protect us from severe trials like this one?" They were angry with God and stopped going to church. Eventually they stopped believing God even existed. It's been thirty years now and they persist in their unbelief.

The loss of their son showed that their faith had been a quid pro quo kind of faith: they believed, but they expected that God, in turn, would protect them from tragedy. Their faith, despite appearances, was not genuine faith and their trial revealed it.

But true believers keep on trusting in the midst of suffering because they know their only hope is for God to carry them through it. And as they suffer, real believers see that their ultimate hope is not in this world, but in eternity with God. Their trials demonstrate the genuineness of their faith, not so God can see its quality, but so they can. And when they do, they will be assured what they hope for most will be finally be theirs.

So believers (real ones, that is) can "count it all joy" when trials come because every trial they endure shows their faith is true. And better yet, every trial works to make their true faith more true, because as genuine faith endures suffering, it becomes more steadfast and more mature. Suffering, then, both proves faith and improves it (James 1:2-4).

Count it all joy, my sisters, when you meet trials of various kinds . . . (James 1:2).

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Think on These Things

The ease and speed of communication are wonderful things. When my daughter went on a trip this summer, I could track her flights in real time and expect an email on her arrival. There was no waiting for weeks on end for a letter assuring me she had safely crossed the ocean. Just a few clicks was all it took. But this ease and speed of communication have a downside.

There are times when it seems as though all the bad news in the world comes scrolling across my screen. Tragedies both natural and instigated by man seem to pile on top of one another until it is overwhelming. When a particular story or issue strikes a chord, my heart aches, and I want to do something about it. But situations are too big and attitudes too entrenched for one woman to make that much of difference, which can lead to discouragement and even cynicism. I've been feeling this as of late, which is why my pastor's sermon on Philippians 4 was very timely.

Given human nature and the state of the world, joy isn't my normal default nor is it something I easily slide into. Joy in the Lord needs to be pursued intentionally, and one way is described in verse 8.
Finally, brethren, whatsoever things are true, whatsoever things are honest, whatsoever things are just, whatsoever things are pure, whatsoever things are lovely, whatsoever things are of good report; if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things. Phil. 4:8 (KJV)
This is more than avoiding the bad like an ostrich that sticks its head in the sand in denial. I've tried that, not literally, but I could only keep but so much at bay. This involves actively seeking  the good, which is also more than the power of positive thinking.

If anyone was a realist, the Apostle Paul was. He had no illusions about his circumstances. He was in prison. He fully expected to die a martyr's death. He was deeply concerned that the believers in Asia minor would remain steadfast in the face of increasing persecution. But even in his incarcerated state, which would have been horrific by today's standards, Paul found true, honest, just, pure, lovely, and good things to think upon. And God has given His people these joy-producing things to think on today.

Just consider these verses in Philippians (NASB):
For I am confident of this very thing, that He who began a good work in you will perfect it until the day of Christ Jesus. 1:6
Now I want you to know, brethren, that my circumstances have turned out for the greater progress of the gospel, so that my imprisonment in the cause of Christ has become well known throughout the whole praetorian guard and to everyone else, and that most of the brethren, trusting in the Lord because of my imprisonment, have far more courage to speak the word of God without fear. 1:12-14
For this reason also, God highly exalted Him, and bestowed on Him the name which is above every name, so that at the name of Jesus every knee will bow, of those who are in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and that every tongue will confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father. 2:9-11
For our citizenship is in heaven, from which also we eagerly wait for a Savior, the Lord Jesus Christ; who will transform the body of our humble state into conformity with the body of His glory, by the exertion of the power that He has even to subject all things to Himself. 3:20-21
Be anxious for nothing, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all comprehension, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. 4:6-7
These are words of assurance and hope that are worth clinging to when the world seems so dark. And these are only a few verses from just one book. How much more in the whole counsel of God! 

While it is vital for me to "think on these things" as an individual, the benefit is multiplied in community. For example, my small group met and discussed the sermon on joy. One young sister, more than 40 years younger than me, shared how this sermon seemed tailor-made for the challenges she has been facing in a new school. But this circumstance has also driven her to  pray, seek out other believers, and look for gospel opportunities. I think everyone in the room was moved by her testimony, and we left that evening praising God because we could share "these things" together.

There are still times when I get stirred up and need to deliberately step away from the endless media stream of what is wrong with the world. Yesterday in fact. But stepping away doesn't mean I stop caring. Rather it gives me the opportunity to actively seek the good as I take my burdens and prayers to the One who is perfectly just, righteous, and compassionate. The One who holds the world together and governs its events. And the One who is coming again. 

"if there be any virtue, and if there be any praise, think on these things."

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

A face I won't forget

I've told this story before on my personal blog, but I'm too lazy to go looking for the original text. It's a story I will never forget, so it's not hard to remember details.

When I was in 8th grade, I was bullied by a group of kids in my grade. I was not the only one. That same crowd of kids targeted another girl, Kathy. She had a very sweet face, long black hair, a quiet voice, and a very generous bosom. For reasons I could not fathom, she did not wear a bra. She often wore a knit powder blue t-shirt. It attracted attention. She was not a skinny girl, so phys. ed. was particularly bad for her, especially when she had to run laps. I used to wonder why her parents just didn't buy her proper attire, but looking back, I wonder if it was a matter of them not being able to provide those things.

People snickered behind her back and to her face. They taunted her and called her names. However, one of the worst things she endured was when, during a group project, Kathy "accidentally" got glue in her hair. That long black hair, almost to her waist, with glue in it. I remember the name of the boy who did it.

A target for bullying myself, I felt her pain, yet I never said a thing in her defence. In my own immaturity and selfishness, I didn't want to be seen to befriend her because I wanted to keep as low a profile as possible. In my own stupidity, despite knowing that those people were not worth being friends with, I still wanted their acceptance. I don't remember ever having a conversation with her. I was glad when junior high ended.

My high school was big; 2500 students strong. It was so easy to simply slip into anonymity. It was a clean slate, and I forgot about Kathy until one day in 11th grade when I was in the cafeteria. I said hello to her and as she smiled at me, I was taken aback at how pretty her smile was. I'll never forget her saying to me, "I didn't think you'd remember my name."

Kathy, I will never forget.

All these years later, I still remember her face clearly, and I still feel regret for not having reached out to her in friendship. I knew the pain she was going through and I did nothing to show her my sympathy.

I won't forget also because this kind of conduct never really goes away. Teenage bullies often grow into adult bullies. Perhaps the strategy changes, but there are still those who exclude others, belittle others, try to control others, and look down on others. And there are still times when, in an effort not to be rejected by whatever group we belong to, we don't reach to others, or we don't defend those who are bullied. I can't forget Kathy because I see the same kind of thing still happening. I want that memory to remind me that I need to be kind  and show love. I need to reach out to others, something I don't find easy, because I generally find it difficult to trust others. But I have to try.

As Christians, love and kindness ought to be part of our daily expression. Yet, we fail. I fail. But it can be something as simple as saying hello, smiling at someone, and making eye contact. It means remembering that we are to esteem others better than ourselves, not try to reduce them. It means remembering that we are all created in God's image. Within the context of the Church, it means that we are part of the same body. Who abuses her own body? Or dismisses it when it is in pain? It means thinking outside of ourselves and our own desire for attention and approval. Particularly with using social media, we can spend a lot of time courting the favour of the important people; the popular people. But do we reach out to those around us who really need friendship?

I hope Kathy has a good life today. I hope she has friends and family. I pray she found Christ. Maybe she was already a Christian, and had I got to know her, I would have found that out. Wherever she is, I pray God's blessing upon her.