Joseph’s Pregnant Expectations: an advent tale

[We are in the midst of Advent, the time of expectation, so I offer this post from the archives imagining what that first Advent must have been like for Joseph.]

***

I didn’t get any sleep last night. I haven’t been sleeping well for a while, in fact. My friends say that’s normal for someone about to get married, but it’s not just that. It’s about my Mary.

Don’t get me wrong. She’s the sweetest and wisest woman I’ve ever met. But right now we’re merely betrothed and haven’t had our wedding night yet. That’s why when she came to me a while ago with her news it caught me by surprise. Complete surprise.

“Joseph,” she said, “I have to tell you something.”

“I love when you tell me things, my sweet.”

I meant to make her laugh, but she looked down and drew a deep breath.

“You know I want to be the best wife possible for you.”

“And I to be the best husband I can to you.”

“Please let me say what I have to say, or I might not be able to say it at all.”

I stood in silence as I saw something in her eyes I’d never seen before. Was it doubt? Fear?

“Joseph, you are the only man I have ever desired to wed. There is no other for me.”

“Yes?” I tried to keep my voice calm but her words frightened me.

“But I … there is no way to say this without hurting you … . Joseph, I am going to have a baby.”

“Of course you are.” I laughed a little at what I thought were mere wedding jitters. “I hope we’ll have many children!”

“It is not a matter of us having a baby, Joseph.” She looked down again, then back up with a strength I’d not seen in her before, as if her spirit had been freshened. “Do you remember I went to see my cousin Elizabeth?”

“What about it?”

“I went to see her because she and I share something.” I was about to say that cousins share many things when she blurted out, “I’m pregnant. Just like her.”

***

I didn’t know what to say to her. I don’t know if I did say anything to her as a matter of fact. Not that afternoon anyway.

The next day I went to her father’s home to speak with her. I waited in my shop until I knew her father would be busy elsewhere and stood at the door asking her mother for a moment of Mary’s time.

“I didn’t know if you would come back,” Mary said.

“Neither did I.” I leaned on an olive tree in the courtyard as she sat on a little stone bench. “You’re sure about … ?”

“Very.” She straightened the skirts of her robe. “When I said I am pregnant just like Elizabeth, I meant it in more ways than one. That’s one of the reasons I’m so sure.”

I was about to tell her of my decision, the one that had kept me up all night, the decision to end our betrothal quietly rather than make a public spectacle of cancelling the marriage contract. I don’t know what kept me from announcing my intentions, but it was something about her calmness. She must have known I had no other course to take yet she still had that same look that came over her the day before.

“Joseph, do you believe those stories about angels visiting Abraham?”

“What?”

“Angels. Do you think they’re real?”

“Of course. They’re in the Torah, so they must be real.”

“I’ve seen one.”

“One what? A Torah scroll?”

“An angel. One visited me. And then I became pregnant.”

“Don’t make up stories, Mary. If you are pregnant, you don’t have to tell me by whom. But don’t make things up. This is too … it’s too … .”

“I know this is hard, Joseph. I couldn’t believe it either.” She reached for me hand and I let her take it. “So I went to see Elizabeth. Her husband Zechariah is a priest, you know.”

“The one who took ill and lost his voice,” I said. Where was she going with this?

“Not ill. This is one of the things I meant when I said I am pregnant like Elizabeth. Joseph, She and Zechariah are going to have a son in their old age by the power of the Spirit of God. But Elizabeth told me that Zechariah refused to believe it so God’s angel told him he would not be able to speak again until his son was born.”

“And now you are saying I too will be struck mute because I don’t believe you?”

“No, my love. I am saying that I too was told that I am having a son by the power of the Spirit of God. But this child will not be born of a human father like Elizabeth’s child but by our Father in heaven.”

“Only a miracle could accomplish that,” I said as I pulled my hand away. How much of this was I expected to take?

“I can only tell you what the angel of God told me, and that now it has come to pass. I am going to have a baby by winter.”

***

There were many more nights with little sleep after that. Yet this morning I rose refreshed, strengthened for the new day.

I too had seen an angel.

One moment I was lying there wide awake and the next thing I knew I was in a dream. With an angel.

“Joseph son of David,” the angel said to me, “do not be afraid to take Mary home as your wife, because what is conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit. She will give birth to a son, and you are to give him the name Jesus, because he will save his people from their sins.”

And then I was alone with the first hints of morning light resting on the window ledge beside my bed. I arose and dressed, waiting for the day to dawn fully so I could see Mary.

Her father was amused at my early arrival.

“Have you broken your fast, son? Mary is helping her mother prepare our morning meal. You can join us.”

“No, I … thank you, I mean … but I … .”

“Joseph, what has come over you?” He laughed as he added, “You look as if you are about to jump out of your skin.”

“Perhaps I am. Is it possible I can see Mary now? I know it’s not … .”

“Yes, yes, of course. She is your betrothed, after all.”

“Yes,” I said to his retreating back, “she is.”

Soon Mary came out wiping her hands on an apron.

“Joseph,” she said, bearing that same look of strength and peace, one I now felt must be mirrored in my own face. “Father says you have something to say that can’t wait until we’ve eaten?”

“Mary, I just want to tell you that I am going to be the best father I can to our children.” I took her hand and led her to the stone bench.

“I’m sure you will love your children.” She sat calmly as I knelt between her and the olive tree.

“I am here to promise you that I will love all children you bear, Mary. All of them.”

She smiled down at me. “You look as if you too have had a visitor in the night.”

***

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Advent, Wilderness Times, and God’s Comfort

Isaiah delivered God’s promise of his comforting presence, and now in Advent we anticipate celebrating the fulfillment of that promise in Jesus’ birth. May the Spirit who dwells within you lift you up whether this is a wilderness time or a mountaintop moment in your life.

Here are the words of Isaiah from chapter 40, verses 3-6:

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Suicide, Shame, and Deciding to Remain

[Today’s guest post by Charlyn Wright speaks of despair and redemption, suicide and family, movies and life.]

The first movie that I remember seeing that broke my heart wide open was “The Shawshank Redemption.” Based on a Stephen King novel, it tells the tell of Andy Dufresne, who was given a lengthy prison term for a crime he did not commit. Despite his circumstances, Dufresne continues to hold onto the optimism that the future will be better. He tells a friend, “Hope is a good thing, maybe the best of things.” Sadly, his fellow inmate Brooks does not share that sentiment. Upon being released from prison—and hence the only home he ever really knew—Brooks finds himself scared and alone on the outside. In the most heartbreaking scene of the movie, he says he has “decided not to stay.” He later takes his life.

I remember vividly cringing at the scene of him swaying back and forth from the ceiling of his rooming house, his neck in a noose. Why, I wondered, would anyone ever do such a thing to themselves? That was 1994.

Fast forward to December 24, 2014. It was a bitterly cold day in western Kentucky, It was Christmas Eve, my first ever I would not be spending with my two beautiful kids. All I could muster up the energy to do was to lay on the couch and replay over and over how I had gotten to the place I was in and how it had all gone horribly wrong.

I thought about the 23 year old woman who walked down the aisle to get married to the father of her 6 month old despite knowing that it was the wrong decision. I thought about the woman who naively thought that having another child might fix the marriage and curb her husband’s sex addiction. I thought about how broken that woman had been when the father of her children had asked her to “open” the marriage and how she had turned to alcohol to cope. I thought about how quickly the drinking had gotten out of hand and how the woman had filed for divorce and then decided to go to rehab. How, when she came back home, her husband had moved back into the house while she was gone and said to her frankly, “It’s MY house and if anyone’s going to leave, it will be you.” How that very thing happened a few months later and how gut-wrenching it was to know that leaving meant estrangement from those 2 precious teenagers who were exposed to things that no children should be. As I watched the snow fall outside my window, I felt half unconscious from the shame pouring over me.

That day, I too decided not to stay.

Since I had no car to get around, I decided to walk to a nearby hardware store. The plan was surprisingly simple. After looking at the beamed ceiling in my apartment’s dining room area, I figured all I needed was one of the kitchen table chairs and some good, strong rope. I bundled up and headed off into the blustery day. The hardware store was almost empty when I arrived. I wandered the aisles until coming to the section I was looking for. The rope felt prickly in my hands. I was conscious of the song playing on the store radio but not much else. “Here I am, Lord, is it I Lord? I have heard you calling in the night.” I headed up to the checkout area. A young man who looked an awful lot like my son was behind the register. I tried to avert my eyes and act nonchalant.

When I looked up to pay, his eyes met mine. They were full of kindness. “Ma’am, I hope you have a blessed Christmas.”

I hurriedly thanked him and headed out of the store, It was snowing harder. I thought of my kids. I thought of my parents and brothers, I thought of the song playing in the store. I thought of how God might have something better for me, possibly. I thought of Andy Dufresne. I thought of hope. And I decided to stay. I tossed the rope into a nearby dumpster.

Five years later, I think about what I would have missed out on had I followed through with my plan on that dark, cold day. How I would have missed out on meeting and marrying the love of my life, who ironically enough, I met through a mutual friend in AA. How I would have hurt so many people who cared about me. How we can live with our heartache and let it prod us to try to bring light into other’s darkness. How I would have never known that God really can and does revise our next chapters to make meaning out of the painful previous ones.

My prayer every morning when I wake up is that God will use me, a broken but redeemed person, to tell others that I hope they decide to stay too.

***

Charlyn Wright is a writer, wife, mom, music aficionado, teacher, naturalist, and world traveler who’s passions revolve around putting into words stories that reach out to people who seek connection. In her free time she practices mindfulness by kayaking and hiking every chance she gets. You can find her on Facebook.

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The Negative Doctrine of Biblical Manhood

Getting doctrine right is important. Reading the Bible – knowing what it says and what it means when it says it – is a blessing given by God. Which means that when you see the Bible say something you should strive to understand it.

It’s important too not to create doctrines based on things the Bible doesn’t say. This is a trap which a prominent ministry recently fell into.

Creating doctrine out of negative space

A student at the University of California at Santa Barbara visited the Grand Canyon years ago. An art major, she chose to represent her impression by sculpting the Grand Canyon. Rather than display the deep emptiness of the canyon with the walls rising high around it, she sculpted the emptiness as a solid mass by making the canyon’s actual shape into a mold, pouring plaster into the emptiness, and then removing it to show the shape of that emptiness as a free standing body.

Grand Canyon – National Park Foundation

It was a clever way to get people to think about the Grand Canyon, but nobody was fooled into thinking they were seeing the gorge created by the flow of the Colorado River flowing along the base of the canyon. The solidity of the negative space was a representation of an aspect of the canyon, yet it was not what anyone would call the reality of the canyon itself. The solid plaster represented what had been taken out of the canyon in its formation, not the canyon as it truly exists.

John Piper’s recent article at Desiring God, Do Men Owe Women a Special Kind of Care?, is likewise created from negative space. He uses the absence of information in a few passages to create an entire doctrine on how men and women are to relate to one another.

The article starts by decrying what Mr. Piper sees as an inability of some people to understand that men as a sex are spiritually – not just anatomically – different from women as a sex. He believes there are some things the Bible requires of men toward women that it does not require of women toward men. He calls this requirement “peculiar”: men, he insists, have a responsibility that women do not and cannot have if they are each to live out their spiritually sexual natures.

He starts by acknowledging that women and men are to care for each other generally.

While affirming the importance of mutual love, respect, honor, and encouragement between men and women, there is in our day a resistance against the biblical summons for men to show a peculiar care for women that’s different than they would for men — and a strong disincentive to women to feel glad about this.

He then cites a few passages where husbands are told to care for their wives.

But in Colossians 3:19, the apostle Paul told husbands, “Love your wives, and do not be harsh with them.” That is not the same as saying, “Neither of you should be harsh.” We can tell from Ephesians 5:22–33 and 1 Peter 3:7 that this admonition to men is owing to a peculiarly male temptation to be rough — even cruel — and to a peculiarly female vulnerability to that violence, on the one hand, and to a natural female gladness, on the other hand, to be honored with caring protection and strong tenderness.

Contrary to Mr. Piper’s assertion, the passages from Ephesians 5 (which he failed to start with verse 21’s call for mutual submission) and 1 Peter do not reveal an inherently male temptation to be cruel and an inherently female gladness to be honored with protection. Yet he insists that these passage reveal:

God requires more of men in relation to women than he does women in relation to men. God requires that men feel a peculiar responsibility for protecting and caring for women. As a complementarian, I do not say that this calling is to the exclusion of women protecting and caring for men in their own way. I am saying that men bear a peculiar burden of responsibility that is laid on them in a way that is not laid on women. (Emphasis in original.)

Those concepts, in fact, are entirely absent from the Bible passages Mr. Piper cites. He looks at this emptiness and tries to make it stand as a solid body (much as the art student created a solid mass from what is missing) and sees a doctrine in what is not there.

That might work as an art student’s project but it doesn’t work as doctrine.

Learning from what is actually there

The passages Mr. Piper cites actually do lead to a discernible doctrine, but it is one found by looking at things that do exist, not matters that are absent. Look at them together:

Husbands, love your wives and do not be harsh with them. (Colossians 3:19.)

In this same way, husbands ought to love their wives as their own bodies. He who loves his wife loves himself. (Ephesians 5:28.)

Husbands, in the same way be considerate as you live with your wives, and treat them with respect as the weaker partner and as heirs with you of the gracious gift of life, so that nothing will hinder your prayers. (1 Peter 3:7.)

While Mr. Piper’s doctrine posits these passages somehow reveal that men have a responsibility to women that women do not have toward men, a more reasonable reading is that these passages teach that people in positions of authority and power (for example, husbands in ancient households) should not use their position to harm those in weaker positions (like wives in those same households).

Take 1 Peter 3:7, for example. As Margaret Mowczko explains in A “Weaker Vessel” and Gender Justice (1 Peter 3:7):

Peter calls wives “weaker vessels” because he wants husbands, not necessarily to pity them, but to be more understanding with their wives who were, with few exceptions, disadvantaged economically, legally, and politically in the first century.

Cultural context – something that exists for all writings, including the Bible – helps inform the reader’s understanding of the writer’s meaning in a passage. The place of women in Peter’s day shows them to be disadvantaged compared to men.

The verses from Colossians and Ephesians likewise show a relationship where the husband is told not to use the superior position given by the world, but to love his wife with the same love Jesus has for all his people. These passages recognize the cultural context (something that actually exists) and tell people in power not to abuse that power.

This is a doctrine that applies to men and women alike.

  • If you have power, never use it to harm those who are weaker than you.
  • If you have authority, never use it to harm those who are subordinate to you.
  • If you have a position of responsibility, never use it to harm those who are under that responsibility.

Instead, use the power and authority and responsibility God has given you to love everyone he has put in your life, whether a family member, a co-worker, a classmate, or a stranger on the street.

This is the doctrine you can glean from those passages, and there is nothing negative about it.

***

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Who Is More Christian: Superman or Green Lantern?

They found Krypton!

Well, the astrophysicist working with DC Comics has found a spot in the universe that fits the general parameters for Krypton’s location. It would be hard to prove, seeing as how Krypton blew up decades ago. You could go there and check it out if you want, though. It’s only 27.1 light years away.*

I read a lot of comic books when I was a kid. Superman, Batman, Archie, Richie Rich, Little Lotta, Wonder Woman, Justice League, Sgt. Fury and His Howling Commandos, Supergirl. If it was in a comic book in the 60s and 70s, I probably read it at one time or another.

Superman was fine, of course. After all , he’s the Man of Steel! He has all those great powers, flying and x-ray vision and super strength and more. And Batman is the Caped Crusader, a master detective who invents great gadgets to help him catch criminal masterminds, a driven crime fighter who trained his body relentlessly so that he is up to any physical challenge. I liked reading their adventures, especially when they joined forces, but I can’t say I had any enduring desire to be one of them.

My Kind of Superhero

My favorite superhero of them all was Green Lantern. Not Superman, not Batman, but Green Lantern. You see, he had something neither of those other heroes had.

Green Lantern was a regular guy.

Superman came from another planet. No matter how hard I tried, I could never be a person who came from another planet.

Batman had brains, a great physique and a vast family fortune at his disposal. Even if I were as smart and as strong as he (and I’m not), that family fortune thing was never going to happen to me.

Hal Jordan, on the other hand, was a regular guy when one of the interplanetary members of the Green Lantern Corps crash-landed on earth and with his dying breath passed on to Hal the secret of being a celestial crime fighter, peace keeper and superhero: the light of the Green Lantern itself. Hal took up the mantle, taking the Green Lantern oath that appeared in every comic:

In brightest day, in blackest night
No evil shall escape my sight
Let those who worship evil’s might
Beware my power, Green Lantern’s light!

I could never be from Superman’s planet, I could never muster all the personal and family resources Batman had, but I could always hope someone would come from far away and give me super powers of my own.

Does that sound so unlikely? I don’t think so.

The Light From Above

One of the big things I like about Green Lantern is his oath and it’s focus on light, and the unreserved assurance that no evil can escape that light. It’s almost biblical.

How can a superhero comic book be like the Bible? Our heavenly Father is the Father of heavenly lights (James 1:17), and there is nothing his light cannot shine on:

Woe to those who go to great depths
to hide their plans from the Lord,
who do their work in darkness and think,
“Who sees us? Who will know?”
(Isaiah 29:15.)

If I say, “Surely the darkness will hide me
and the light become night around me,”
even the darkness will not be dark to you;
the night will shine like the day, for darkness is as light to you.
(Psalm 139:11-12.)

Here’s how all this plays out in real life: Jesus came to us from a place much further removed than the Green Lantern Corps’ home planet (Ephesians 4:9-10); he came in order to makes us like him (1 John 3:2), to seat us with himself in the heavenly realms(Ephesians 2:6); and all this comes to us as a gift (Ephesians 2:8-9), free of any charge to us at all. (Isaiah 55:1-2.)

Gift means gift, and free means free. And it’s no comic book story.

But it is super.

***

*1.59307345 × 1014 miles. That’s really far.

***

I wrote this post for ThinkChristian, where it originally appeared in 2013.

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Sex Sells, Sex Provides

[From the archives.]

***

The mother stood in my courtroom, arguing for custody; the father hadn’t bothered to show up. She had no lawyer but was well dressed, well groomed and well spoken. I’d read through her paperwork and didn’t see her occupation, so I asked her.

“I’m an exotic dancer.”

Exotic dancer? I asked in my head. You mean like a stripper?

Out loud I coughed slightly and said, “And what’s your monthly income?”

She told me, and by the end of the hearing I awarded her custody of her son.

Later back in chambers I had a question for my clerk. “That mom, the exotic dancer. Do you think that means she’s a stripper?”

“Oh come on, Judge,” she said from her desk. “What other kind of exotic dancer is there?”

That led me to other questions.

What kind of society is it that makes young mothers feel that becoming a stripper is the best way to be able to provide for their children, to put a roof over their heads and food on the table?

What kind of society is it that makes young fathers feel that they can leave their children behind, forcing the mother to raise the child all on her own even if it means she has to take a job in a strip club?

A Community Subsisting on the Sex Trade

Here’s an article that broke my heart and brought me hope at the same time.

A village in Gujarat hosted a mass wedding and engagement ceremony of 21 girls on Sunday aimed at breaking a tradition of prostitution which has for centuries exploited women of a poor, marginalised and once nomadic community in the region.

The article explains that this village’s inhabitants once served warring factions by selling their daughters to warlords as entertainers, dancers, sex slaves. The government has tried to help the village build an economy, but farming isn’t as profitable as prostitution so they continued to sell their daughters. One government official said, “Prostitution is a tradition which this community adopted for ages and it has been very normal for them. They did not think they were doing anything wrong.”

Where did I find hope in this? Working as a prostitute lasts only until the woman is engaged to be married so the government and a group of social activists organized a mass wedding of young women before they entered the sex trade. Eight got married and thirteen more got engaged, ending the possibility of life as a prostitute for those twenty-one young women. In a village of 50,000 people it’s not much, but it’s a start.

Ransoming Slaves

It didn’t come cheap. The activists spent $18,000 to make this happen. In a country where the average annual salary is about $1,300 this is a fortune.

We who belong to Jesus Christ should be able to relate. We’ve been ransomed too. The ransom was high: it cost Jesus his life. But that’s who he is, it’s what he does. He sets captives, slaves, the oppressed free!

Our Neighbors: oppressed, captive, enslaved

It’s easy to look at that village and shake our heads at how a society could go so far down that road, so far that prostitution is not only condoned but depended upon for daily sustenance.

Remember the young mother I spoke of at the beginning of this article? That’s not in some far off village of former nomads. That’s here and now.

She takes her son to school, she goes to PTA meetings and parent/teacher conferences, she drives him to soccer practice, and she goes to court to make sure there is a legal order that says she gets to make the decisions about what’s best for her son.

She works as an exotic dancer to make this all possible.

So I ask:

What kind of society do we live in?

What is the Body of Christ doing about it?

What are you doing? (And what am I doing?)

You may not be able to do much but remember that whatever you do, it’s a start.

***

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Sex, Women and Jesus

[Today’s guest post is from Sheila Gregoire, a noted expert on sex in Christ.]

If you look at the best-selling marriage books on Amazon, it’s amazing how many are Christian.

Christians buy marriage books. Christians study marriage. Christians seem to prioritize marriage, and value marriage, more than the general population.

So Christians must have awesome marriages, right?

Well, I guess there’s some good news. Studies have repeatedly shown that committed Christians do, indeed, have the best marriages (though secular progressives come pretty darn close), and that Christians have lower divorce rates (although we also put up with abuse much longer than non-Christians do).

When I did my surveys for The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex, I also found that Christian women enjoyed sex more than those who didn’t call themselves Christian.

There’s only one thing. While we do better, we don’t do substantially better.

When I asked women to rate their sex life on a scale of 1-10, for instance, Christians rated it, on average, 7.36. Non-religious women rated it 6.38. So, sure, we’re doing better. But it’s not buy-a-float-in-the-Macy’s-parade-to-celebrate level better. And a lot of those women who rated their sex life high also didn’t reach climax. (I think they didn’t understand how great sex is really supposed to be.)

Now Christians have the Holy Spirit living in us. We’re supposed to be transformed. We’re supposed to be passionate (and I do believe that hot and holy go together!). Shouldn’t we be doing awesome?

I’ve spent the last seven years blogging primarily about sex, and I’ve seen, over and over again, Christian couples facing major sexual problems. Women with no libido. Men with no libido. Porn use (in both men and women). Trouble reaching orgasm. Difficulty setting boundaries. It goes on and on, to the point that I get scared to check comments every morning because it can get so depressing. If Christians have the Holy Spirit, and Christians value marriage, why are we having so many problems?

I think I know–but I want to test several hypotheses and see.

I want to get to the root of what makes sex & marriage great for women–but also what makes it terrible. Together with two researchers, I’m embarking on what I hope will be the largest survey of women’s sexual and marital satisfaction (and dissatisfaction). I want to figure out what the key things are that make marriage click, and what things set couples up for a world of hurt.

Christians should be thriving–but we’re not. Instead of just offering Christian pat answers about submission or having more sex so he won’t stray, let’s do some evidence gathering, so we can create some evidence-based solutions.

Can you help? I need as many Christian women as possible to take this survey. If you’ve ever been married (even if you’re not right now), I’d love for you to participate! Most Christian marriage surveys have ignored divorced or remarried women, but we’re being sure to include them, because they have a lot to teach us about what went wrong in the first place.

And, no, men aren’t eligible for this one (sorry, Tim!), but hopefully we’ll do one of men in the future.

Take the survey right here!

Want some incentives, even though Tim’s awesome readers don’t need any? You can win 1 of 98 prizes (valued at over $2000 in total) once you take the survey. Plus everyone who takes it gets a free intimacy igniter–a 4-date night exercise that can ramp up your intimacy in your relationship.

Thanks, everybody! I appreciate your time.

 ***

If you’ve returned here to comment after taking the survey, please refrain from speaking specifically about any questions, so as not to “prime” those who haven’t taken the survey yet. Thank you!

 **

Image result for sheila gregoireSheila Wray Gregoire blogs everyday at To Love, Honor and Vacuum, where she tries to get beyond Christian pat answers and help people stop seeing marriage as a to-do list, but instead as a passionate adventure. She’s the author of 8 books, including The Good Girl’s Guide to Great Sex and 9 Thoughts That Can Change Your Marriage. You can also follow her on Twitter and Facebook.

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I Read Reference Books For Fun

[Updated from the archives.]

***

I like to read. A show of hands for those who are like-minded.

I like to read reference books. Another show of hands please … waiting for those hands to go up … still waiting … ok, how about with every head bowed and every eye closed … now let’s see those hands go up … hmm, still waiting … .

Reverence for Reference Books

The reference books I’ve read have mostly been on language and writing. My first was Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. It has its shortcomings, but in college it had a permanent place on my bedside table as I read and re-read it in hope of improving my writing.

Others I’ve made my way through include The Oxford Companion to the English Language (cover-to-cover 1184 pages), The Quotable Lewis – an encyclopedic selection of quotes from the complete published works of C.S. Lewis (encyclopedic is right), and Bryan Garner’s A Dictionary of Modern Legal Usage (which I won at a seminar he gave in the late 80s).

This predilection for reading reference books applies to my Scripture reading as well. Some people would even say the Bible itself is a type of reference book, like the fundamentalist preacher who, hearing I wanted to study history in college, bellowed The Bible is the best history book there is!” (Yes, and no. It’s a book with passages of history. And poetry. And genealogy. And travelogue. And much more.  As a whole, it is God’s revelation of who he is, not a history book.)

I’m not talking about the Bible as reference book, though. I’m talking about study Bibles. They combine Scripture with a running commentary of the text, and have been my usual mode of personal Bible study for years now.

Studying Study Bibles

The first Bible I read through from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22 was a regular NIV I’d bought back in 1984 in a little Christian book shop in Brighton, near the University of Sussex where I was going to school.*  It had no study notes or commentary to guide me.

It was captivating.

The Bible I bought in Brighton. I wore the first cover to bits, so had this second cover put on.

The Bible I bought in Brighton. I wore the first cover to bits, so had this second cover put on.

After a few years I decided to give a study Bible a try so I read through the NIV Study Bible. I bought one of the earliest editions and read it through, along with all the study notes along the way. I thought it was the greatest thing since Guttenberg used movable type. Imagine reading a passage and having the commentary right there on the same page. This was wild stuff for me 25 years ago.

Then I read the NLT Life Application Study Bible. That was an interesting tool. All the study notes, as you might have guessed, went to how the passage applied in one’s life. I can’t say I followed a lot of their specific application advice, but I can say that the notes opened up new understanding for me on a lot of passages.

I then went back and re-read the NIV Study Bible, mostly because I hadn’t found another one to pick up yet.

I took a short break from study Bibles and read the one-year HCSB. I’d never before done one of those one-year plans where you read a bit from several books of the Bible each day. There’s something about reading passages in a different order for being able to see things you’ve missed before.

I’ve used the Spirit of the Reformation Study Bible, too. If you want solid Reformation doctrine from a solid theologian, then this will fit the bill. Did I already lean toward Reformed doctrine before reading this? Yes. But even those who are not can learn much from the solid teaching in this study Bible.

Reading the Bible I Stole

I recently read through the Archaeological Study Bible. My daughter had been to Israel a couple of times and wanted this for herself so we picked up a copy for her. She hadn’t taken it to school with her yet and I got to where I needed to start a new study Bible and there it was. I’ve been enjoying the notes and articles and maps and charts. Again, new ways of understanding Scripture opened up all the time with this one. And I didn’t even blink when I got to the passage about “Thou shalt not steal”.

The version I just finished is a chronological and narrative Bible. It’s chronological in that it sets the passages out in order of the events recorded, or in order of when it was written. It’s narrative in that the editor has insightful mini essays periodically inserted between Scripture passages to introduce, link, or summarize what you’re reading. It’s designed to read through in a single year, and reading the passages in this order opened up new understanding of God’s word.

Back to the Beginning

Now I’m reading the Bible through the way I did the first time, not with a study Bible but just the Scripture text itself, reading from Genesis 1 to Revelation 22. And I’m using that same Bible I bought in the little book shop in Brighton.

God’s word is amazing. Does the Holy Spirit need commentaries to guide us in understanding that word? Of course not. But he is able to use them to open up our understanding of God’s wonderful story, and that’s something worth studying.

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*I became a Christian while studying in England: My Salvation Story.

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Don’t Leave Your Mat by the Sin Pool

Jesus healed a man who’d been crippled for decades, a man who had apparently run out of options for getting himself well.

Now there is in Jerusalem near the Sheep Gate a pool, which in Aramaic is called Bethesda and which is surrounded by five covered colonnades. Here a great number of disabled people used to lie—the blind, the lame, the paralyzed. One who was there had been an invalid for thirty-eight years. When Jesus saw him lying there and learned that he had been in this condition for a long time, he asked him, “Do you want to get well?”

“Sir,” the invalid replied, “I have no one to help me into the pool when the water is stirred. While I am trying to get in, someone else goes down ahead of me.”

Then Jesus said to him, “Get up! Pick up your mat and walk.” At once the man was cured; he picked up his mat and walked. (John 5:2-9.)

The man found the cure he’d been hoping for. Now he could walk as well as anyone else. He must have been amazed to be able to do as Jesus bid him: “Get up!”

Jesus also told him to take his mat in hand and walk, and he did. Wouldn’t you? The person who healed you tells you to do something, you might be in a frame of mind to do whatever they say.

Why did Jesus point out the mat, though? The man knew it was there. He’d been resting on it for years. Perhaps Jesus thought the man was so preoccupied in his excitement that he might forget it. Perhaps Jesus wanted the man to see he was now able not only to walk but to carry loads.

Regardless of the reason Jesus told him to pick up the mat, there’s a lesson here for everyone healed by Jesus.

Staying away from the sin pool

I practically swam in the sin pool and, until Jesus came along and told me to get up and showed me he had made it possible for me to live otherwise, I liked it. I was just like this, and then Jesus came along:

As for you, you were dead in your transgressions and sins, in which you used to live when you followed the ways of this world … . All of us also lived among them at one time, gratifying the cravings of our flesh and following its desires and thoughts. … But because of his great love for us, God, who is rich in mercy, made us alive with Christ even when we were dead in transgressions—it is by grace you have been saved. And God raised us up with Christ and seated us with him in the heavenly realms in Christ Jesus … . (Ephesians 2:1-6.)

I had my mat–or beach towel, or pool chair, or whatever you want to envision–right there at the sin pool. If this metaphor were literally true, Jesus might have told me to pick it up and take a walk away from the sin pool, too. As it is, the Bible lays out for me what the next steps are.

Therefore do not let sin reign in your mortal body so that you obey its evil desires. Do not offer any part of yourself to sin as an instrument of wickedness, but rather offer yourselves to God as those who have been brought from death to life; and offer every part of yourself to him as an instrument of righteousness. For sin shall no longer be your master, because you are not under the law, but under grace. (Romans 6:12-14.)

If you’re not under the law, how will you know how to live your life? Won’t you need rules? The simple answer is no you won’t. It’s not laws and rules that lead you to staying away from the sin pool. It’s God’s grace in you by the power of the Holy Spirit.

For the grace of God has appeared that offers salvation to all people. It teaches us to say “No” to ungodliness and worldly passions, and to live self-controlled, upright and godly lives in this present age … . (Titus 2:11-12.)

But you’re thinking it might be nice to have a couple of pointers for staying away from the sin pool. You’re right, and here they are:

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. (James 4:7.)

… let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. (Hebrews 12:1-2.)

Satan flees from you at the sign of your resistance. How can you find the strength to resist? In God’s grace. Don’t leave your mat by the sin pool where you’ll return to lie on it. Sin entangles, but Jesus frees us not only to get up and walk, but to run in a race free from any and all entanglements.

Submit to God and keep your eyes on Jesus. Take up your mat, leave the sin pool behind, and get ready to run.

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The Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel Denies the Gospel and God’s Justice

The “Statement on Social Justice and the Gospel” came out a year ago and is worth looking at once again. Scrutiny reveals that the statement perverts both the gospel and one of the gospel’s components, social justice.

The first paragraph of the statement’s introduction asserts there is “an onslaught of dangerous and false teachings that threaten the gospel.” This is error. The reality is that the gospel is not threatened by lies, and falsehoods pose no danger to it.

The statement’s introduction then identifies the culprit as social justice but places the phrase in quotes, allowing the reader to assume that social justice is not a real concern for those seeking to live out the gospel of Jesus. Once the concept of social justice is dismissed, the statement is free to list a number of other aspects of life that are supposedly not gospel. The statement slowly builds to sex and race divisions, reaching them in articles XI (Complementarianism) and XII (Race/Ethnicity). The statement’s point is that feeling oppressed is no reason to consider someone to actually be oppressed: “we deny that a person’s feelings of offense or oppression necessarily prove that someone else is guilty of sinful behaviors, oppression, or prejudice.” (Art. XII.)

This is a straw man argument. No one says feelings are necessarily prove anything. The real point–and the one deflected by the statement–is that if a woman or person of color says they feel oppressed or offended they are referring to something that happened to them, not some emotional state of mind. The proper response is to listen and investigate.

If oppression or offense exist, the Bible says to do something about it.

“Speak up for those who cannot speak for themselves, for the rights of all who are destitute. Speak up and judge fairly; defend the rights of the poor and needy.” (Proverbs 31:8-9.)

Rather than dismiss social justice we are embrace it as part of the gospel of Jesus. (Luke 4.) Did the authors of the statement have good intentions? It doesn’t matter, since they deny the gospel in dismissing the pursuit of justice the Bible calls for.

“Justice, justice shalt thou pursue.” (Deuteronomy 16:20.)

Not a bad pursuit indeed.

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