Friday, March 31, 2006

Justice and Mercy

Justice and mercy could hardly be more opposite. To think of it simply, justice is giving someone what he deserves, and mercy is not giving someone what he deserves. Yet these characteristics somehow coexist in the character of God:

God is merciful. As David Powlison has recently written, mercy is who God is, mercy is what He does, and mercy is what we need. In His mercy, God "does not treat us as our sins deserve or repay us according to our iniquities" (Psalm 103:10).

God is just. "He is the Rock, his works are perfect, and all his ways are just. A faithful God who does no wrong, upright and just is he" (Deuteronomy 32:4).

How can this be? Aren't these two qualities contradictory? How can God be both just and merciful?

Take a look at Hosea 2, which paints a bleak picture of the ways God intends to punish unfaithful, adulterous Israel:

"I will make her like a desert,
turn her into a parched land,
and slay her with thirst.
...I will block her path with thornbushes;
I will wall her in so that she cannot find her way.
She will chase after her lovers but not catch them;
she will look for them but not find them.
...I will take away my grain when it ripens
...I will take back my wool and my linen
...I will expose her lewdness
...I will stop all her celebrations
...I will ruin her vines and her fig trees,
which she said were her pay from her lovers"
(excerpts from Hosea 2:3-12).

As harsh as it sounds, God is certainly being just here by punishing Israel for her spiritual adultery, for betraying Him and turning to other gods. He is right to do this--it is what His unfaithful people deserve; it is the fair wages for her sin.


That's not the whole picture. In His mercy, God does not abandon Israel. She has been unfaithful, but He refuses to forsake her. All this harshness, all this discipline, demonstrates God's unwillingness to give up on His relationship with His people. He's committed to be active in their lives, rather than just turn His back and walk away.

As God in His justice thwarts Israel (block her path, wall her in, destroy her harvest), God in His mercy is speeding the disillusionment that is inevitable. False gods cannot save her; they cannot give her the hope and the blessings and the protection she needs. She will find this out sooner or later...God, mercifully, makes it happen sooner.

Israel gets prideful when things are going well and thinks she can handle life herself. We do the same thing, thinking we can do it ourselves...thinking we can be "good enough" to save ourselves, to earn acceptance from the Holy One of Israel. Full of justice and mercy, He shows Israel (and shows us) that's not possible:

"Because you have depended on your own strength and on your many warriors, the roar of battle will rise against your people, so that all of your fortresses will be devastated" (Hosea 10:13-14).

He leads us into the desert so that He can speak tenderly to us--so that we will seek Him. In the end of the book, we see the merciful conclusion to His just punishment of Israel:

"I will heal their waywardness and love them freely" (Hosea 14:4).

Justice and mercy, coexisting in the beautiful, matchless character of our Holy God.

Wednesday, March 29, 2006

Flexibility, Honey

One beautiful thing about staying at home even when you don't have kids is the freedom of flexibility in your schedule. Though this lack of structure and routine can often be my downfall, and though it doesn't make sense to others, I've discovered this week one more way it can be a source of blessing.

I spent a couple of hours Monday and all day yesterday babysitting for an incredibly bright and adorable toddler named Annalyn. Her family goes to our church, and her mom has been horribly sick this week. (She's not terminally ill or anything--she has an absolutely nasty case of the flu or some such thing.) Annalyn and her daddy were sick with it last week, and Mommy nursed them back to health...but when mommies get sick, who takes care of them? Even more, who takes care of their energetic and demanding children?

Perhaps just one reason God has me at home during this season is to be able to do just that. When Pamela (Annalyn's mommy) called, sounding desperate and miserable, I was in a position to help. Most other women in our church would love to help, but couldn't because they have either a) young children of their own, or b) a full-time job. Since I don't have either, I could come right over. I spent time playing with Annalyn and keeping her out of trouble while Pamela lay in bed, too weak from fighting off this bug to keep up with her two-and-a-half-year-old daughter.

Wish I had a picture to post--Annalyn really is a cutie. And she cracks me up. The title of this post comes from the fact that, when she's not calling me "Miss Aney" (pronounced like "Amy," but with an "n" instead of the "m" thing I love about the South is the way children call adults Miss or Mr. Firstname--it provides a way to be respectful without being so formal), Annalyn occasionally calls me "honey." There are not a whole lot of things funnier than being called "honey" by a tiny little blonde who's not even completely potty-trained. "Find a stick, honey," she tells me. "You do it, honey." It's hilarious.

Tuesday, March 28, 2006

Toward a Cross-Centered Life: Final Thoughts

As I wrap up this series, let me make the necessary disclaimer:

Do not for a moment think that my last several posts have been implying that I now have everything all figured out.

I don't. (That's why the title is "toward" a cross-centered life!) I've been blogging about this because it's the heart of what's been going on in my life over the past few months, and because I want to share the powerful message God has been teaching me. Not because I have "arrived." Not even close.

I still fail much more often than I succeed. I still get discouraged. I still have a whole lot of ugly pride in my heart.

But I'm learning. I'm learning to acknowledge my dependence on Christ every moment. I'm learning that every success is by His grace alone, and that no failure changes my standing before my Father in heaven.

Slowly, I'm learning what it means to be cross-centered. I pray that God in His grace will continue to increase my understanding of the cross, my love for Him, and my awareness of my dependence on His grace. I pray He'll do the same for you.

Thanks for sticking with me. I hope someone, somewhere, has been blessed by my ramblings on cross-centered living.

Cross-centered life series: (intro)(1)(2)(3)(4)(5)(6)(7)(8)(9)(10)(final)

Monday, March 27, 2006

The Gospel Song

Just ran across this simple, beautiful song. It sums up my recent series--reflect on these lyrics on a Monday morning:
Holy God in love became
Perfect Man to bear my blame
On the cross He took my sin
By His death I live again

"The Gospel Song," from Songs for the Cross Centered Life. Lyrics by Drew Jones, music by Bob Kauflin. Lead sheet is here.

(HT: marriedlife)

Sunday, March 26, 2006

Toward a Cross-Centered Life: Part 10

If, like me, you long to be cross-centered, you may by now be asking the same questions I have been asking:

How? What does that look like?

Mahaney's answer: "A cross centered life is made up of cross centered days."

Profound in its simplicity. How do I live a cross-centered life? One day at a time. Not looking at the formidable goal of "life," but at the immediate goal of today. Living a cross-centered life by centering myself on the cross today. Tomorrow I'll center myself on the cross again. Tomorrow can worry about itself.

Mahaney offers many practical tips for centering your life on the cross, but I've already quoted the book enough. If by now you have not considered getting The Cross Centered Life and reading it for yourself, let me urge you: Go get The Cross Centered Life and read it for yourself! Even if you don't like to read. This book is tiny--it's only 85 pages in a small hardcover format. And if you want more, buy Mahaney's new book instead: Living the Cross Centered Life is supposed to be (I haven't yet read it...but feel free to buy me a belated birthday gift ;) a combination of this book and his book Christ Our Mediator, along with new material.

I don't work for these people. I don't even know them personally. I just believe in the unparalleled importance of this message. See for yourself!

Next: Wrap-up - Still learning

Friday, March 24, 2006

If the Gospel is the Main Thing...What is the Gospel?

I keep saying that the gospel is the MAIN THING. But what exactly do I mean? Heaven forbid anyone walk away from this series (if anyone is still reading this series) not having a clear understanding.

The apostle Paul wrote: "I want to remind you of the gospel I preached to you...For what I received I passed on to you as of first importance: that Christ died for our sins" (1 Corinthians 15:1,3).

From The Cross Centered Life:

First importance. The Bible tells us that, while there are many different callings and many possible areas of service in the kingdom of God, one transcendent truth should define our lives. One simple truth should motivate our work and affect every part of who we are.

Christ died for our sins.

...He sent His Son into the world to live a perfect life and go to the cross to bear His wrath for sinners like you and me.

This is the "main thing," the very essence of the cross centered life. ...Nothing else--not even things that are biblical and honorable--are of equal or greater importance.

And this isn't just C.J. Mahaney's main thing. It was Paul's main thing:

The cross was the centerpiece of Paul's theology. It wasn't merely one of Paul's messages; it was the message. He taught about other things as well, but whatever he taught was always derived from, and related to, the foundational reality that Jesus Christ died so that sinners would be reconciled to God and forgiven by God.
I have several other great quotes from the book about Paul's cross-centeredness, but suffice to say, Paul "resolved to know nothing...except Jesus Christ and him crucified" (1 Corinthians 2:2). His final exhortation to Timothy:

Remember Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, descended from David.
This is my gospel.
(2 Timothy 2:8)

(All quotes [besides Scripture] from The Cross Centered Life by C.J. Mahaney.)

Toward a Cross-Centered Life: Part 9

The pride in my heart is ugly, and the legalism it fuels despicable--but I praise God that He loves me too much to leave me there! The key to a new understanding has been this:

"We never move on from the cross, only into a more profound understanding of the cross."*

This is what I (and the vast majority of the church, I'm afraid) have been missing. The cross saved me. Check. Saved by grace. Got it. Now let's move on. What do I have to do now? How can I make myself a better Christian? What's the latest fad or brand of theology or doctrinal debate for me to jump on board with?

I'm finally learning I can never move on.

That's it? you're asking. That's the whole profound revelation/revolution? There must be something more. C.J. Mahaney answers you:
I can hear you asking, "But don't I need more than that?" another sense the answer is yes, you do need more. You've been saved to grow, to serve in a local church, to do good works and to glorify God. But the "more" that you need as a follower of Christ won't be found apart from the cross. The gospel isn't one class among many that you'll attend during your life as a Christian--the gospel is the whole building that all the classes take place in!
I feel as though, over the past few months, the ultimate cliche-of-all-cliches light bulb has gone off on my head and heart. For all of my Christian life, I think the gospel has been "one class among many"--one thing to understand about God. Important, but merely one truth to grasp before learning other, deeper truths. How flawed and incomplete my understanding has been. The gospel IS the Christian life--the gospel IS the deepest, truest truth.

Mahaney continues:

The gospel isn't just for unbelievers. It's for Christians, too. "Every day of our Christian experience," writes Jerry Bridges, "should be a day of relating to God on the basis of His grace alone. We are not only saved by grace, but we also live by grace every day."

Not just for unbelievers! Are you getting that? The gospel is not the starting blocks that launch you to run the race. It is the shoes on your feet that enable every step. It is the ground that you tread on, the very path that leads you HOME.

I feel like I keep saying the same thing over and over--but I don't care! I want to be known as someone who can't get over the cross, can't get away from the gospel. Grace and the cross not as a memory of what saved me, a distant sight in the rearview mirror, but as my constant source of joy, hope, motivation and ability, standing before God and acceptance by Him.

*David Prior, quoted in C.J. Mahaney's The Cross Centered Life. All other quotes from the same book.

Next: Part 10 - Cross centered days

Thursday, March 23, 2006

Toward a Cross-Centered Life: Part 8

While I was reeling from the Thomas Schreiner quote (see my last post), Mahaney continued to drive the point home in his book:

The implications of legalism are staggering in their arrogance. Legalism claims that the death of Jesus on the cross was either unnecessary or insufficient. It essentially says to God, 'Your plan didn't work. The cross wasn't enough and I need to add my good works to it to be saved.'

Of course, no Christian would dare utter such terrible words. But when we shift our concentration away from the gospel, legalism slowly and subtly twists our thinking until our lives make this awful statement on their own.

I felt like a microscope had been held up to my heart. Here was the truth about what I had been unconsciously saying and doing: I had, in my pride, spit in Jesus' face and said, "That wasn't enough. If I work hard enough, if I am good enough, I will earn God's acceptance and approval more completely than You could earn it for me."

Forgive me, Jesus.

Next: Part 9 - Never move on

Toward a Cross-Centered Life: Part 7

In February, I finally began reading the book that's the heart of it all: The Cross Centered Life, which is basically (as I understand it) the life message of C.J. Mahaney, founder of Sovereign Grace Ministries. A quote on page 25 put a huge piece of the puzzle in place.

That sounds incredibly cliched, unless I back up and explain. A brief tangent: In the summer of 2003, before all this began, I was interning at Kingdom Building Ministries. During a seminar that summer, all the interns brainstormed as many "life" metaphors as possible (life is a bowl of cherries, life is a journey, life is a roller coaster, life is a get the idea). Then we each had to draw our "life picture" using one of the metaphors. Here's what I came up with (excuse the glare):

After I drew it and explained it to others, it took on more and more meanings that I hadn't even thought of at first. The colored pieces represented different areas of my life that didn't seem to go together--passions, interests, talents, ways God has created me. For example, one corner has shades of blues and greens; another has shades of oranges and yellows--but it doesn't seem like they're going to connect. The gray pieces represented the "unknowns" of my life--so much uncertainty--and the black pieces represented struggles, bad choices, hard times, etc. The black piece attached to the bottom left corner was a gift from my mentor, who reminded me that "this, too, fits"--that God was using even the black pieces to make my life picture beautiful.

Anyway, all that to say, as I read The Cross Centered Life, I felt like a section of the puzzle suddenly came into clear focus. It reminds me of working on a jigsaw puzzle, when you've assembled one area, and separately assembled another group of pieces, and then suddenly you see how they go together and snap the connecting pieces in. The picture comes into focus. Now you can actually begin to see the picture, not just random colors. You feel like you're really making progress! That's what this was like for me.

So, tangent aside, here's the first quote that arrested me (emphasis mine):

Thomas Schreiner writes that "legalism has its origin in self-worship. If people are justified through their obedience to the law, then they merit praise, honor, and glory. Legalism, in other words, means the glory goes to people rather than God."

I was stunned. It was so clear. Until that point, I'm not sure I had ever fully understood how pride and legalism were so intertwined in my heart. As I said last week, the two had seemed to me like completely separate struggles: pride, on the one hand, and grace, on the other.

It may sound obvious to you--maybe you're wondering how I could be so dense as to not see it. But I hadn't seen it. I was amazed at how God was putting pieces of the puzzle into place and bringing such clarity. My pride and my struggle to understand/accept grace were not two unrelated problems. They are two sides of the same coin.

It is pride that feeds my legalism and blinds me to grace. It is legalism that keeps the focus on me and my pride, obscuring grace. I could never understand or fully embrace grace because to do so would mean to remove all pride, all reasons for boasting, all credit and glory. To do so would mean admitting I was helpless and hopeless on my own before a holy God.

Next: Part 8 - staggering pride

Wednesday, March 22, 2006

Stand for True Freedom for the People of Afghanistan

**3/23 UPDATE: Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has called the president of Afghanistan to express the U.S.'s concern.

You may or may not be aware of the religious persecution happening in Afghanistan. A man named Abdul Rahman is currently on trial. His "crime"? Conversion to Christianity from Islam 16 years ago. The prosecutor is pursuing the death penalty. Rahman could be freed if he would deny his conversion and claim Islam once again, but he refuses to turn his back on Christ.

The Evangelical Outpost asks:
Did American troops give their lives removing the repressive Taliban government only for us to replace it with Taliban-lite? Will we once again remain silent as a government we helped to install executes a man for his religious beliefs? "All that is necessary for the triumph of evil,” said Edmund Burke, “is that good men do nothing.” We did nothing to stop the adoption of a theocratic constitution, believing at the time it was a “necessary evil.” Will we continue to do nothing and allow evil to triumph?

World Net Daily reports today that the U.S. is "monitoring the situation."

In her latest commentary, Michelle Malkin quotes Tony Perkins of the Family Research Council: "How can we congratulate ourselves for liberating Afghanistan from the rule of jihadists only to be ruled by Islamists who kill Christians?"

Malkin has much more on this story, including contact information for the Afghan embassy and the U.S. State Department, at her blog.

Stop. Take less than five minutes right now to send President Bush an email. You can edit and send a pre-written email at the American Family Association's website (though doing so will put you on their email list).

And one more thing: pray for this man!

Will evil triumph because good men do nothing?


This post could well have my name printed on the top.

Do you, like me, struggle with pride? If you're a living, breathing human, C. J. Mahaney says you do--it's just a matter of how pride manifests itself in your life.

Think that's not a big deal, as I once did? "Yeah, I struggle with pride," I have admitted rather matter-of-factly (pridefully?) in the past.

Then go read an explanation of pride that doesn't sugarcoat your sin. I pray that our gracious God will show you, as He has been showing me, what it really means to struggle wtih pride. May He faithfully root it out of my heart and yours.

Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Toward a Cross-Centered Life: Part 6

I've explained how I tend to "assume the gospel" through legalism. But many Christians may fall off the other side. They assume the gospel through licentiousness--another ten-dollar word that's thrown around a lot.

However, licentiousness doesn't just mean "thinking that we're saved by grace so we can live however we want." Most of us know that's a lie. Consider this different perspective on license, which presents how Christians like those in the emerging church movement and others may tend to assume the gospel:

another type of probably more likely to afflict the church as a whole: practical licence. ...The gospel tells us that we draw near to God only by "the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body" (Hebrews 10.19-20). But we act licentiously towards a truth like that when we regard singing or "worship" as what actually draws us close to God, or anything else that we can think of: religious art, breathtaking scenery, a church building. ...This is profoundly mistaken because it is assuming that the gospel is true but we can draw near to God by other means as well. It is practical licence.

Underlying this is a tendency to assume the gospel by elevating experience. Where this is happening, the church will be marked by an increasingly personalised approach to the Christian life. Christians begin to act only on what they believe God is saying directly to them, with the end result that the biblical gospel begins to seem less immediate and relevant than the latest "word from the Lord". The subtle drift towards "personalised truth" leads to all kinds of distortions: God becomes known only in as much as we experience of him, we relate to God on the basis of what we personally find helpful, we believe the right things but become reluctant to state that the opposite of those things is wrong.

So what's the point? When we assume the gospel, the effects on our own spiritual lives can be devastating--as I have experienced firsthand. I believe it was my skewed concept of the gospel and my descent into legalism that choked my faith. And, not to sound like a doomsday prophet, but--it only gets worse for those who follow us. As the article puts it, "there is vast potential for the next generation to deny what they have simply never had the chance to understand." The last few lines of the article sum it up:

Individually, every day, we face the choice whether to sit under the Bible alone, to run to the cross alone and look to Christ alone or to begin to shift our gaze on to other things. Once we begin simply to assume these truths, then we are already beginning to stop "acting in line with the truth of the gospel" (Galatians 2.14). The potential consequences for ourselves are harmful; for the generation following us they are disastrous.

That's the bad news. But the good news is, it's not too late to come back to the gospel, in all its glory and profound simplicity.

(All quotes from "Assumed Evangelicalism" by David Gibson. First printed in RTSF Newsletter From Athens to Jerusalem, Vol. 3, Issue 4, Autumn 2002. All emphases mine.)

Next: Part 7 - puzzle pieces

Jesus Plus

Those truths about legalism that I spoke of in my previous post were reinforced for me by Rob Wilkerson at Miscellanies on the Gospel. I love the way he explains this concept and drives the point home in a post called "Jesus Plus ??: Pivotal Moments of the Gospel in Our Lives":

Jesus is sufficient. He is all we need to have favor with God. Therefore to add anything to Jesus is to deny His sufficiency.

...It is Jesus plus nothing else. Being a Christian is not about Jesus plus homeschooling, Jesus plus hymns only (or Jesus plus worship songs only), Jesus plus King James Version Bibles (or ESV's!), Jesus plus your current denomination, Jesus plus Macintosh computers only (or Jesus plus PC's only), Jesus plus vegetarianism (or Jesus plus no-carb-diet only), Jesus plus fill-in-the-blank-with-your-favorite-parenting-methodology, Jesus plus Reformed theology, Jesus plus Conservatism, Jesus plus Republicanism, Jesus plus Habitat for Humanity, Jesus plus charismatic theology, Jesus plus we-only-pray-in-Elizabethan-English, Jesus plus courtship, or Jesus plus anything. [emphasis original]

If there's a plus sign at all after Jesus in your thought process, denomination, theology, or lifestyle, you deny the gospel. I'm not saying any of these things are wrong in and of themselves. ...But the point behind all of these issues is what motivates them. If any of them are motivated by a sense of gaining God's pleasure, or some sense that we are living holy lives, or some feeling that we are being righteous, or that we are earning our place in heaven, then they are all wrong. All of them. If Jesus and our joy in Him isn't the motivation behind any of these things, there is neither any evidence of grace or mercy behind these kind of lifestyle [choices].

Next: Part 6 - licentiousness

Toward a Cross-Centered Life: Part 5

If there are two ways to assume the gospel, the first one has been my downfall.

Legalism. You've heard the ten-dollar word thrown around countless times, but consider this simple explanation. Not to overgeneralize, but it's often the Reformed/conservative Christians who tend to assume the gospel this way:

One of the hallmarks of an assumed gospel in an evangelical church is that the gospel is regarded as being for the outsiders, the non-Christians who ever so rarely slip in to one of the services. When we limit the gospel in this way to unbelievers we begin to adopt extra ways of relating to God and to others, and they all fall under the label of legalism.
The core of this type of legalism describes my own journey. In a single sentence, this is what I lived like I believed:

Assuming the gospel means that we regard it as what gets us to heaven but that other things are needed to make us good Christians - it is Jesus plus-something-else as what we really need to be right before God and others.

...the effect of truly grasping the gospel is to find ourselves amazed at the fact that what we do adds nothing and takes away nothing from what God has done for us in the Lord Jesus. When the church realises that this gospel is what we need to encounter every day as Christians then it stops assuming the gospel and begins to give it centre-stage in every aspect of the church's life.

Though this is my struggle, other Christians are apt to fall off the other side. More on that coming up.

(All quotes from "Assumed Evangelicalism" by David Gibson. First printed in RTSF Newsletter From Athens to Jerusalem, Vol. 3, Issue 4, Autumn 2002. All emphases mine.)

Next - Jesus plus...

Monday, March 20, 2006

Toward a Cross-Centered Life: Part 4

A few months ago I stumbled upon a clear explanation of what I had been doing for much of my Christian life. In short, I was "assuming the gospel." The article that explained the magnitude of this to me is called "Assumed Evangelicalism: Some Reflections En Route to Denying the Gospel." It offers a much more thorough explanation of what I've been talking about--so I'll excerpt heavily here. The whole thing is worth reading, but I know most of you won't click over.

The article opens with an analysis of the Mennonite Brethren movement:

The first generation believed and proclaimed the gospel and thought that there were certain social entailments. The next generation assumed the gospel and advocated the entailments. The third generation denied the gospel and all that were left were the entailments.

...Proclaiming, assuming, denying. This description of a movement's history is admittedly something of a caricature - any such development would always be the result of many complex factors. Nevertheless, it...has lessons for us...

The lessons to be drawn are simple: The author suggests that the evangelical church (defined here as "Christianity that gets its definition from the gospel, the good news") could be headed down the same road.

Assumed evangelicalism believes and signs up to the gospel. It certainly does not deny the gospel. But in terms of priorities, focus, and direction, assumed evangelicalism begins to give gradually increasing energy to concerns other than the gospel and key evangelical distinctives, to gradually elevate secondary issues to a primary level, to be increasingly worried about how it is perceived by others and to allow itself to be increasingly influenced both in content and method by the prevailing culture of the day.

So how do you know if you're assuming the gospel?

The spiritual health-check for assumed evangelicalism is to look at these key gospel truths [Romans 1:1-6 is offered as a basic outline] and to ask: are we gradually beginning to move on from these truths to new initiatives which are effectively leaving the gospel behind ... or are we pouring our lives into reliving, retelling, re-believing this same gospel story? Are we doing so day after day, with increasing personal understanding and deepening joy and gratitude?

As this article describes it, you can assume the gospel in two opposite ways. Some people or some organizations/churches are more prone to falling off one side than the other, but we can all be susceptible to both, and they're equally dangerous. I'll outline both in my next post.

(All quotes from "Assumed Evangelicalism" by David Gibson. First printed in RTSF Newsletter From Athens to Jerusalem, Vol. 3, Issue 4, Autumn 2002. All emphases mine.)

Next: Part 5 - legalism

Birthday in St. Louis

My birthday (I turned 24 on Saturday--thanks, all two of you non-family members who remembered!) started with breakfast in bed, thanks to my wonderful husband who makes mean French toast, and then turned into a wonderful weekend in St. Louis. The purpose of our trip actually wasn't to celebrate my birthday, but rather, to celebrate the ordination of Steve's cousin Josh and to spend time with extended family we hadn't seen since last March. And what a fun weekend it was!

Steve and I had a great time catching up with cousins and being entertained by their beautiful, precious children. I wish I had pictures to post! (My favorite lines of the weekend came from four-year-old Zack, who informed us that the lemonade he was drinking at Houlihans "makes my tongue dizzy" and then told everyone what we taught him to say: "I have ornery in my eyes!" He really does--there is no mistaking the mischievous twinkle in that little boy's expressions!). Though it was a short visit, it was full of games and laughter--and my in-laws even gave me a fun surprise birthday celebration! I celebrated with my family when we were home last weekend, and then this weekend, Steve's mom made a yummy white chocolate cake and his family all sang to me.

The weekend culminated with last night's ordination service. Josh, who's been in seminary for the past two and a half years, was ordained as a minister of the gospel in anticipation of his becoming a pastor this May/June. It was an emotional and God-glorifying worship service, and Steve and I were so blessed to be there. We felt richly rewarded to be a small part of God's blessing to Josh and Ali and their four little ones (including the aforementioned Zack). There is nothing like the feeling of being used by God in some small way to show His faithfulness to someone else!

Though our late-night drive home included an unplanned "scenic diversion" through the stupid Illinois towns of St. Jacob and Highland (somehow we both missed the split for I-64 and headed north on I-55 instead, then had to cut across on state roads), we made it home safely and are glad to be back in Tennessee where things should settle down a little after all our recent road trips!

Saturday, March 18, 2006

Toward a Cross-Centered Life: Part 3

It wasn't until late September, when I found myself with long, quiet hours to spend at home in prayer, study and reflection, that God started weaving the threads together.

It began, and continued to build, with several blogs that have become my favorites: GirlTalk, SoloFemininity, WorshipMatters, and GospelDrivenLife, among others. Each of these people is tied closely to Sovereign Grace Ministries, an organization I've respected and been drawn to ever since attending one of their conferences a few years ago. And it doesn't take long reading any of them before you notice a common denominator: None of them can stop talking about the gospel. They always come back to it. They apply it to every aspect of life. And it makes them stand out--not in a "trying-to-be-impressive" way, but in a solid, godly, "these people understand something and live something more deeply than most Christians" kind of way. They seem to be following Christ with deep joy, with wholehearted love for the gospel. They seem to have something that a lot of the church is missing. I was irresistibly drawn to it.

As I read John Piper's Don't Waste Your Life and then an advance e-copy of C.J. Mahaney's new book Humility: True Greatness, that theme comtinued. Clearly God was trying to tell me something, to move me in a new--or rather, an original--direction. I wrote then:
Lately it feels like God is taking me back to the basics. As I've grown in my faith over the last eight years, I've sometimes felt proud of myself for studying deep issues or reading profound books or having insightful God seems to be gently tugging on my hand, urging me to turn around and look at what brought me here: the cross. And His grace. I think we all get so caught up in our snazzy theology that we lose sight of the main thing.
Suddenly I was longing to step back from all the debates that Christians get into, all the tangent issues that we obsess over, and all the good things that we let become the enemy of the best thing. I was drawn to what I saw in the bloggers mentioned above--the fruit of living what C.J. Mahaney calls a "cross-centered life." I thought I was really beginning to understand it then, but God had much more to show me.

Next: Part 4 - assuming the gospel

Friday, March 17, 2006

Toward a Cross-Centered Life: Part 2

In the midst of that desert, an unexpected blessing: plans came together for a trip to Denver. Since she could not come to my wedding, my mentor Diane invited me to come out for a visit, where I'd not only get to see her, but several other wonderful friends and co-workers at Kingdom Building Ministries. She also planned a spiritual retreat for the two of us up at YMCA of the Rockies in Estes Park. I wasn't doing much praying by that time, but I prayed for a breakthrough. I prayed that God would meet me there, somehow.

I spent a good deal of the weekend in tears. I had been excited about the retreat, but hadn't stopped to realize that getting away for a whole weekend and seeking God would mean coming face to face with where I was instead of pushing down the struggles and trying to be numb. It would be painful. And it was. I didn't understand why, if I desperately wanted to "get it" and walk closely with God once again, why He wouldn't help me to understand what was going on and get through it.

The first part of the breakthrough came in remembering God's past faithfulness, which I've already blogged about extensively. It has since become a sort of life theme for me. I had to recount and acknowledge what I knew to be true of God's character--in Scripture as He kept His promises and refused to forsake the Israelites, and in my own life as I had experienced His care and guidance countless times already--in order to believe that He had not abandoned me this time.

Yet I still felt like I was dealing with two huge and almost opposite issues. One was grace. I had a constant feeling that God must be disappointed with me. I heard people say things like, "Nothing you do will make God love you any more, and nothing you do will make God love you any less," and I said, "yeah, but..." Where does it say that in Scripture? Surely He must be disgusted with me a lot of the time.

I had a hard time accepting that grace, that love. And I didn't know why, because certainly my parents had wonderfully modeled unconditional love and support my whole life. I never felt I had to earn their love. Yet the struggle was there all the same. Diane made it her mission that weekend to show me unconditional love and grace, but still I struggled with the notion that God's view of me must be tied to my performance.

The other issue I was dealing with was pride. I had always known I struggled with pride, and would have admitted it rather flippantly. But it was that weekend that God opened my eyes to the magnitude of pride as a sin, and how offensive it is to Him--far worse than external things that I would point to as "dramatic" or "horrible" sins. God broke me, and showed me how ugly the pride in my heart really was. I begged Him to teach me to walk in humility.

By the time I left Denver, I felt as though--cliched as it sounds--a huge weight had been lifted from my shoulders. Life wasn't suddenly perfect, but I felt as though God had met me and I was on my way back.

But I still had hardly begun to grasp the idea of grace, and I was far from seeing how my "two separate struggles" were really one and the same.

Next: Part 3 - weaving the threads together

Thursday, March 16, 2006

Toward a Cross-Centered Life: Part 1

The journey I'm on started about a year ago. Of course, in the heart and mind of God it started a long time before that, but a year ago is a clear place to start explaining.

Last March, I was living at home. I had graduated from college and was engaged to be married to the man of my dreams. I was reconnecting with my best friend, and I was part of a great Bible study. Though my job was challenging and often not fun, it was meaningful, and I was working with people I loved. Furthermore, I had no real bills to pay.

And I was miserable.

Sounds like I'm an ungrateful wretch. But the fact was, all the joys in my life could not compensate for the one thing I lacked: intimacy with God. I felt drier than...well, than my mouth felt when I once ate a bite of raw plantain (try one and see what I mean--it is absolutely bizarre, the way all the moisture is immediately sucked out of your mouth, even if you take a drink of water).

My devotional time with God had been reduced to "shoulds" and "have tos" rather than a desire to spend time with Him. I felt completely empty. I alternated between desperately crying out, and ignoring the emptiness, existing in numbness because it was too painful to get into. The worst part was that I had no idea what was wrong with me. I hadn't been dealt some raw deal in life; I hadn't endured a crisis or a tragedy of any kind. I had no identifiable problem that could be labeled and treated. I was just dry and empty.

After almost six months of this existence, I wondered what God was doing in all of this and why He seemed so distant. I was afraid of the thought that I might never be the same again. I never seriously considered walking away from faith, though I sometimes wanted to. I knew my denial of truth wouldn't change the truth. Two Scriptures were the cry of my heart during this time:

"Lord, to whom shall [I] go? You have the words of eternal life." (John 6:68)

"I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24)

Next: Part 2 - Breakthrough

Wednesday, March 15, 2006

Genocide in Africa

Mainstream media are finally giving some attention to the crisis in Sudan rather than settling for coverage of who in Hollywood is dating/cheating on/having a baby with whom. The Today Show's Ann Curry is doing a series all week on the genocide taking place in Darfur. You can read her blog here, with reports from Africa and a photo journal of her trip. I'll update as the videos become available; for now, here are the first two segments from Monday and Tuesday:

Monday: Crisis in Chad, Darfur Examined

Tuesday: Women Terrorized in Darfur

Tuesday, March 14, 2006

Broadway Baby

The first show I saw was The Sound of Music, put on by my high school alma mater sometime in the late 1980s. I was in elementary school, and I was completely enamored with the (what I perceived as) incredible talent of the "big kids" on stage. Every year, Mom and Dad would take us to the high school musical, from The King and I to Hello, Dolly to Guys and Dolls. Then when I got older, I experienced professional Broadway, in the Big Apple, for the first time--Beauty and the Beast and Damn Yankees. I was hooked.

I don't know what it is, but when the lights are dimmed and those first schmaltzy notes swell from the orchestra pit, my insides tingle. I end up wistfully imagining myself onstage as one of the characters, and I find myself humming the songs for days (or, more often, singing them at the top of my lungs in the car, with the volume turned up loud enough that I think I sound just like the actress on the CD). Showtunes are just in my blood. What more could you ask for than a world where people randomly break into song, and everyone on the street magically knows all the words and all the same dance steps?

Steve and I headed home last weekend for (in my case) a Broadway-filled weekend. On Saturday, I went with my parents and my best friend, Julie (ironically, Broadway strikes again--we became best friends when we co-starred in Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat together) to see Thoroughly Modern Millie. Some friends and I had tickets to see Millie on Broadway in March 2003--but the day we arrived in NYC on chorale tour, the musicians went on strike, and all theaters were dark. I was beyond disappointed, especially when I got the soundtrack and fell in love with the music (and with the incredible Sutton Foster's voice). So my parents, as a birthday present (hint,'s coming), bought my ticket to go see the show when it came through Toledo on its national tour. The actress who played Millie...wasn't Sutton...but I loved seeing the show nonetheless.

And, afterwards, the wonderful bonus was some great girl time with Jules, over dinner at none other than...Subway :) We had a great time catching up at the familiar restaurant where we enjoyed dinner together every week last year while I lived at home.

On Sunday, the Broadway extravaganza continued with the main reason for coming home: the high school production of Bye, Bye Birdie! Besides the fact that Birdie has been one of my favorite shows ever since I saw the 1995 movie version with Jason Alexander and Vanessa Williams, there were several important reasons to come home and see the MHS version. Many of the parts were played by kids who acted with me in our high school shows when they were 4th and 5th graders. And, the musical was the directing debut of an old friend of mine, the super-talented Melissa Saneholtz, who I performed with in several shows before she was hired by our alma mater as the high school music director this year.

Jamie knocked my socks off when she was just ten years old and played Nellie Oakley to my Annie in Annie Get Your Gun. She had tremendous stage presence for a fourth grader and was absolutely adorable. Ever since, she's been like the little sister I never had--she was even a junior bridesmaid in my wedding last summer. Now a sophomore, she has unfairly skipped the awkward stage altogether and grown into a beautiful, talented performer. When I heard she got the lead--Rosie--in Birdie this spring, I knew I had to make a trip home. She did a fantastic job. (I wish I had a scanner so I could post "then" pictures of these kids--I dug out old scrapbooks when I got home and they are hilarious!)

I had the privilege of sharing the stage with Andee, Jamie's older sister, not once but twice. She was the cutest little Munchkin in The Wiz (I was Addaperle, so the Munchkins were "my" little kids) before appearing in Annie Get Your Gun two years later. With her sparkling smile and personality, Andee instantly wins you over. Not to mention, talent--and beauty--definitely run in this family. I have loved seeing Andee in my old show choir for the last few years (she's a senior now) and she stepped skillfully into a supporting role in Birdie. I think it takes more talent than people realize to pull off a role with few lines--Andee's facial expressions, reactions to other characters and comedic timing as Mrs. MacAfee were stellar.

And then there was Wes--the fourth grader who played the mayor of Munchkinland eight years ago, and whom I wanted to take home with me when the show was over. I fell in love with this kid--and it's hard to believe he's now grown up enough to have played Albert Peterson in Birdie as a senior this year. Wow! Grown up indeed--I was blown away by his voice!

All in all, it was a wonderful weekend, filled with not only musicals, but time with family and dear friends. And it was capped off, much to Steve's delight (insert wink here), with my belting out "An English Teacher" and "Spanish Rose" on the way home last night as I drove the last stretch. This morning he informed me he had the unfortunate selection of "How Lovely to be a Woman" running through his head, thanks to me :)

Friday, March 10, 2006

Only a Crazy Person

"'s obvious that you no longer have the crucified Jesus in clear focus in your lives. ...For only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God. If you weren't smart enough or strong enough [or good enough] to begin it, how do you suppose you could perfect it?" (Galatians 3:1,3, The Message)

Besides giving up something unnecessary/unhelpful for Lent this year, I also wanted to add something good--specifically, something that would help me deepen my understanding and love for the cross. So I'm studying Galatians. Already it has been wonderfully fruitful and I'm beyond thankful for the way God has graciously given me a hunger for His Word.

Yesterday I read through the book of Galatians in The Message paraphrase, for a different perspective. These two verses in chapter three stopped me cold. Only crazy people would think they could complete by their own efforts what was begun by God.

I can't think of a better way to describe my journey as a Christ-follower. All these years, I thought that I had to complete by my own efforts what God had begun. I knew without a doubt that I was saved by grace alone--Ephesians 2:8-10 and all that--but I thought after that, it was up to me. I had to earn God's acceptance and approval.

Over the last few months, God has been exposing that belief for the foolish and dangerous lie that it is--and replacing it with a love for and an increased understanding of the glorious grace of the gospel. Grace that doesn't stop when I am saved, but continues to make me acceptable to God at every point of my life, so that I can approach Him not because of my own successful efforts, but because of the blood of Christ.

Why did I have such a foolish, crazy understanding for so long? It's becoming clear now: It's because I no longer had the cross in clear focus in my life. It was in my rearview mirror, a nice memory of what saved me. Foolishness.

If I had kept the cross the MAIN THING in my life, I would have known what I am now finally starting to grasp: the cross symbolizes what my independent efforts amount to. I was powerless to achieve my salvation, yes. But apart from the cross, I am also powerless to achieve any sort of sanctification or growth.

My Journey Toward a Cross Centered Life:
Part 1 - Miserable
Part 2 - Breakthrough
Part 3 - Weaving the threads together
Part 4 - Assuming the gospel
Part 5 - Legalism
Interlude - Jesus plus
Part 6 - Licentiousness
Part 7 - Puzzle pieces
Part 8 - Staggering pride
Part 9 - Never move on
What is the main thing?
Part 10 - Cross-centered days
Wrap-up - Still learning

I'm Still Here

Two things have kept me from blogging much lately (except for pasting other people's thoughts). One is a tight deadline for a Kingdom Building Ministries research project. I've been learning about random things from DNA to electricity to Mother Teresa to Chinese legends--I love sleuthing to verify facts for a book. I just finished a little while ago--whew!

The other is a uncertainty about how to express what's been on my mind lately. I've been wanting to blog about the way God has been putting puzzle pieces in place over the last few months in terms of who He is and what the main thing is. I am continually amazed at how the lessons He's been teaching me over the last year are suddenly coming together and making tons of sense as a whole. He has me in a great place right now and I want to share that...but am unsure where to start!

If I get a chance, later today I'll kick off with a brief post to introduce my thoughts--then hopefully follow that next week with a series of sorts. No promises, but I'll do my best--I need to get back to writing, if nothing else, then at least in the form of blogging :)

Until then, have a blessed day, everyone!

Thursday, March 09, 2006

Much of You

Another one of those songs I've listened to a dozen times, yet just recently heard for the first time. This could be the anthem for where God has brought me and where I hope to be headed. I was going to highlight the lyrics that have most hit me, and ended up with half the song in boldface.

How could I stand here
And watch the sun rise
Follow the mountains
Where they touch the sky
Ponder the vastness
And the depths of the sea
And think for a moment
The point of it all was to make much of me
Cause I'm just a whisper
And You are the thunder

I want to make much of You, Jesus
I want to make much of Your love
I want to live today to give You the praise
That You alone are so worthy of
I want to make much of Your mercy
I want to make much of Your cross
I give You my life
Take it and let it be used
To make much of You

And how can I kneel here
And think of the cross
The thorns and the whip and the nails and the spear
The infinite cost
To purchase my pardon
And bear all my shame
And think I have anything worth boasting in except for Your name
Cause I am a sinner
And You are the Savior

This is Your love, oh God
Not to make much of me
But to send Your own son
So that we could make much of You
For all eternity

I want to make much of You Jesus
I want to make much of Your love
I want to live today to give You the praise
That You alone are so worthy of
I want to make much of Your mercy
I want to make much of Your cross
I give You my life
Take it and let it be used
To make much of You

--Steven Curtis Chapman, "Much of You" from All Things New

Tuesday, March 07, 2006

His Love Took Him There (but not like you think)

Bob Kauflin just keeps 'em coming today. I should post some original thoughts of my own...but why bother when I can point you to nuggets of gold like these? (all emphases mine)

"There is an error to avoid, the danger of seeing the loving obedience of Christ as primarily and exclusively for the sake of man, when, in fact, it was primarily out of love for God that he accepted the cross (Heb. 10:7). Dr. Geerhardus Vos stresses that our Lord's Messiahship was 'absolutely God-centered.' 'Jesus,' says Vos, 'accepted the cross out of a motive of love for God even more than, and before He accepted it because of His love for man...In dying, as in all else He did, He hallowed God's name.' This is a truth too often overlooked, and it in no way detracts from the wonder that Christ loves each one of his people with all of his love." (from The Cross He Bore by Frederick S. Leahy, published by Banner of Truth Trust)

I've heard it said that Jesus died on the cross because he would "rather die than live without us," and that the cross shows how much we're worth to God. While I can understand the motive behind these and similar thoughts (that the cross demonstrates God's profound love for us, which it does), they tend to obscure where our focus should be. If thinking about the cross leads me to think more about myself, I've missed the point. Jesus died to uphold His Father's justice and righteousness (Rom. 3:21-26). My sins alone required the death of the Son of God. The reason Jesus confidently endured the cross was not ultimately because of His love for US, but because of His love for His Father and His zeal to uphold His glory. The cross sets us free from constant self-love to passionately love the One Who created, sustains, and redeemed us.

May the cross of Christ amaze you, astound you, and continually awaken your soul to the infinite mercies of our great God.

Wow. What can I add to that but, WOW.

Better to Do Something Imperfect

A challenge from Isaac Watts (emphasis mine):

"I am at last convinced that it is better for me to do something for God, though it be imperfect, than to be guilty of perpetual delays in hopes of better pleasing myself."

(HT: Worship Matters)

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Like "Rudy" for High School Basketball

I always love a feel-good sports story. Be sure to watch the video.

(HT: Justin Taylor)