Forty Names of Jesus: A Lenten Devotional for Families


Having been raised Southern Baptist in the 1980’s, I’m not sure that I heard the word Lent before I was a Religion major in college. Since learning of the liturgical calendar, I have been fascinated with this way of faith that gives a structure to the year and an intention to my worship.

Forty NamesThis is part of the reason that I jumped at the chance to preview Jennifer Spencer’s work Forty Names of Jesus: A Lenten Devotional for Families. The other reason is that, in the years that I have known Jennifer, I have learned that she is a learner, a teacher, a mother, and a friend who is naturally curious and desires to do life with excellence. A curious teacher writing a Lenten devotional was something I simply could not pass up.

In the preface, Jennifer shares her inspiration for researching and writing this book; she had a need for something to teach her children about Jesus and couldn’t find material to meet that need in the particular manner she desired. That desire to help her children move from knowing stories about Jesus to actually getting to know Him intimately resonated with me as a new mom. As I read, I more and more appreciated her work as a teacher as well. While there are many strengths to this devotional, the following aspects make Forty Names particularly useful to me as a mother and an educator.

First, the devotional is adaptable. Jennifer does a fantastic job helping the reader understand the different tools she intentionally provided. While the actual reading for each day is relatively short, she provides multiple ways to adjust the breadth and depth of the study so that it is age appropriate for each member of a family. With a key verse and concept for each name as well as additional passages of study, I can use this to introduce my toddlers to the names of God but can also use it with my small group of high school freshmen without having to do much prep work on my own.

Second, the devotional is educational. The word devotional tends to have the connotation of fluffy or feel good, and there is a time and place for warm fuzzy devotional books. What is so appealing in this particular devotion is that Jennifer finds a way to warm the heart through engaging the mind. Moving seamlessly from Hebrew to Greek and Old Testament to New, Forty Names digs just a little deeper by providing historical and literary information that helps the reader understand and appreciate each name just a little more than you did before you started.

Third, the devotional is theological. A vital part of teaching children about our faith is helping them see the common themes throughout Scripture that point the reader to Christ. This particular work falls in line with recent works for children such as The Jesus Storybook Bible, which declares the precious truth that “Every story whispers His name.” In terms that even young children can understand, Jennifer teaches about concepts such as redemption, sacrifice, and propitiation, and uses familiar Bible stories to illustrate the meanings.

Fourth, the devotional is readable. It is possible to teach deep theological truths in layman’s terms. With simple definitions and a multitude of cross references that will help the reader increase familiarity with the full counsel of Scripture, there is an attractiveness to this work that draws the reader in and invites you to stick with the book, to come back for the next reading. A good teacher leaves a hook for her students so that they begin to internalize their motivation to keep learning, and the daily entries in this devotional are specifically written to guide the reader to the conclusion that she should just keep reading.

With all that has been written in recent years about the exodus of youth from the church and the biblical illiteracy of professing believers, devotional works like this one show us that learning about Jesus does not have to be either loud and flashy or dry and boring; learning about Jesus can be simple and satisfying. Learning can be fun, and it can be genuine, and it can be done alone or in groups. We can even learn as families. An ideal plan for families with kids spread across developmental stages is to simply start small (one verse and the concept) and then just allow the conversation to continue by using the additional passages and questions as your guide. You may be surprised just how long even the youngest in your family may stick around to talk and learn.

This is a devotional that can be added to your family’s permanent library because Jennifer wrote it in a manner that will allow you to also use it year after year and build upon what you’ve studied in previous readings. I am thankful that it is a resource that I have for years to come. If you are looking for a guide for your family for this upcoming season of Lent, I highly recommend Forty Names of Jesus.

It’s Only Terror If It’s Unknown


The oldest and strongest emotion of mankind is fear, and the oldest and strongest kind of fear is fear of the unknown.

H.P. Lovecraft, Supernatural Horror in Literature

It didn’t take long after the news broke about a militia taking over a government compound for my Facebook Newsfeed to light up with people calling BS on the stark differences in how this situation is being covered (or not covered) by media. 

Here are some things to think about:

This group is being described as a militia. They believe they are doing the work of God and have taken over a government area. 

When groups of middle eastern descent are described as the one above, we call them “radicalized extremists.” 

But this militia is not of Middle Eastern descent. They’re white farmers. They’re Christians. They remind us of our crazy Uncle So And So. They are familiar and, therefore, are a militia.

We, as a society, are geared toward white men (Don’t even try to deny it. Theirs is the default perspective of western history, religion, politics for the last 500 years. We can’t change it til we own it). Because we think we know white guys so well, a militia in Oregon doesn’t seem so scary. 

Farmers with rifles talking about patriotism and freedom. Yeah, we know those guys.

But here’s the thing to remember: in Saudia Arabia, Osama bin Ladin was once someone’s crazy uncle. 

Radicalized extremists are the same the world ’round. But these guys are our radicalized extremists. We know what to expect, so it’s no big deal.

But here’s the problem for all of us who are still relatively offended by the term “white privilege;” when we don’t respond to the white guys with guns the same way we would respond to minorities with guns, we’re displaying our privilege for the world to see.

This isn’t a topic I normally write about, but race relations have become the topic of conversation in our culture the last couple of years. I was once one of those idealistic “progressives” who believed wholeheartedly that we were a post-racist culture. One of those “I have black friends and my sister is black!” sort of defenders of white openmindedness. The continued popularity of Donald Trump’s hate-fueled campaign confirms that we are not post-racism at all.

And so the question remains, “What should we do?” I believe the answer lies in how you identify we

We as believers must acknowledge the role that fear of the unknown plays in our prejudices and convictions. Whether that unknown is another race, culture, or religion, simply admitting we don’t know is genuinely the first step to learning about others. It’s tough to learn about black America when you still steadfastly hold to the line “There’s only one America!” To say that is to deny the rich heritage of those who have come together to make America.

This country was never about eradicating other cultures for the sake of a new one. This country was founded on the exact opposite premise; that people should be able to bring their beliefs and their dreams with them in order to live them out freely. Those who say coming to America means converting to Christianity and speaking only English have missed the beauty of the Grand Experiement. 

So this event brings me back to a belief I’ve firmly held for years; the way to combat fear is to know. If you’re fearful of Muslims, get to know a few. If you struggle with showing compassion to the LGBT community, be vulnerable and ask a gay co-worker if you could ask them some questions. If you are afraid of the gun toting religious “patriots” currently committing treason in Oregon, peruse some Facebook pages and read up on what they stand for.

Demonstrate empathy. Give people the benefit of the doubt. And be consistent. Not all black protestors are thugs and not all thugs are black protestors. Not all Muslims are radicalized extremists and not all radicalized extremists are Muslims. Do a little less stereotyping and take the time to get to know people and their stories on an individual basis.

How do we loosen the grip that fear currently holds on our nation? Simply put, know and be known. 

The Circle of Life


There is a time for everything, and a season for every activity under heaven:
A time to be born and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot,
A time to kill and a time to heal, a time to tear down and a time to build,
A time to weep and a time to laugh, a time to mourn and a time to dance…
Ecclesiastes 3:1-4
There is a time for all things. Sometimes, those times just occur simultaneously. It’s been a season of multiple “times” in my life recently. I’ve had times to do all of the things listed above; I feel like the last year has included every activity under heaven. Illness and death, graduation, painful separations from people and places that I love, relocation, new risks, leaving old dreams behind and realizing new ones. And then there is that rare moment when a dream you thought was dead is plopped down in your lap again. Literally.
When I left Chattanooga in July, I thought that I was leaving behind my dream of fostering and adopting. After more than two years of training and several possible placements that went to other homes, I moved to Louisville, terrified at the change to come, but perfectly content being the single girl in a new city. I moved in stages over the next couple of months, slowly bringing what I needed as I needed it.
In April, I had moved into my grandmother’s house, planning to remodel it and live in it with my future kids and my two dogs. I ended up there for about 10 weeks with three dogs and no kids. But this crazy time of crazy times began last November, when my grandmother unexpectedly passed away. I had the honor of spending her last days with her, and on the day before she died, I snapped this photo:
2014-11-24 18.36.42-1When we moved my grandmother to the Hospice unit, we realized she was most comfortable on her side, but she needed a pillow to prop up her arm. My back seat is always full of stuffed animals, so Pooh ended up being the pillow my Nana hugged. I love this picture. It’s a reminder of the love and support I know I always had from all of my grandparents. She is the one stepping into eternity, but it looks like she’s holding me up. It now hangs over my desk at home as a sweet reminder that no matter where I may go, I have a support system that is always holding me up.
My grandmother’s death allowed me to have a space, a home for new life, and when I moved out of her house, I thought that dream had ended, or at least been delayed indefinitely. The last few months, though, life and death have been intricately intertwined, a precious reminder that there are different times in life, and sometimes they really do happen all at once.
Life and death and love and eternity.
Hope.
All powerful words, all captured for me in the image above.
Which is why, when I woke up last Sunday after dozing off while putting Big Sister down for a nap, seeing this took my breath and brought tears to my eyes:
2015-10-24 21.32.23There’s someone else, cuddling Pooh with one hand, and hanging on to me with the other.
One moment is a sweet reminder of memories made and a life well lived, a legacy to uphold.
The other moment is a precious promise, a new and unexpected life to cherish and protect, a generation to whom that legacy will be passed.
The last month has been a whirlwind of preparing my grandmother’s house to be sold to a different young family. Several weekends I have gone back to Chattanooga and have simultaneously closed a chapter with my grandmother and begun writing a new chapter with my own kids. These intertwined times were literally being separated into different boxes, what was being preserved, what will be moving to Kentucky. But the best moments were when those old memories were packed up to come to Louisville for Big Sister and Little Man. Books and toys and highchairs that have been used and loved by generations of kids in my family are being used again. And my Nana would be thrilled to see that.
My worldview recognizes that life is a line; there is a beginning and an end to time itself, and it’s not stopping for anyone. But even while time marches on, the seasons and rhythms of life remain. There are circles and connections, and sometimes the time to laugh and the time to cry may just happen at the same time. Just like spring comes after winter, new life is born out of death, and occasionally, we get to be there to see both the end and the beginning. And both are good.
And by the way, that Pooh has officially been designated a family heirloom.
Love the Sojourner

Love the Sojourner


  
“Love the sojourner, therefore, for you were sojourners in the land of Egypt.” Deuteronomy 10:19 (ESV) 

In biblical times, hospitality was expected and homes were open to travelers. Inns were few and far between, and often dangerous places to stay. I’ve wondered on occasion what this hospitality command would look like in my Bible Belt culture where we have as many hotels as we have churches.
The past two weeks, I’ve not only seen this love, I have experienced it.

When I accepted my new position at a school in Louisville, I knew personally one couple here; Kevin and Patricia Smith, two of my parent’s best friends in ministry and in life. And they took it upon themselves to make sure this sojourner was well loved.

They weren’t ok with me staying in a hotel until I found an apartment, so they asked a friend from church if I could stay with her. She said yes without ever even speaking to me. The plan was to take it a week at a time, and stay with her until I found an apartment and could move in.

When I arrived at her house yesterday, she told me that it would be crazy for me to pay a mortgage and apartment rent when she has this house, so if I could handle her, I was welcome to stay with her until my house sells in Chattanooga. 

We chatted all evening about foster care and teaching. Mrs. Pat dropped by to check on me and make sure I was settled in. Then she took me to get buttermilk pie for dessert and drive me around the area.

This morning, Pamela, my host, made enough coffee for both of us and helped me figure out how long it would take to get to school because of last night’s flooding and regular traffic issues.

Then, as I was walking out the door, she said, “You know, I don’t even know your last name. What is it?”

That is loving a sojourner. Not needing the details, but just knowing the need and meeting it.

As my sister said last week, “People are strangers. Until they are not.”

And in the unity of the Spirit, we may be sojourners, but we are never truly strangers. 

 

Always?


One of the best parts of teaching at the school where I work is that our students regularly lead us in worship. And our praise band is “if they cut a record I’d buy it” good. 

They are talented, but they are also so honest in their walks with the Lord. I spend enough time with them each week to know their hearts. I see them worship with abandon and then get snippy with a friend or parent. I know they’re fallen and fallible. And they know it, too, which is one reason I love them so much.

Tonight was Awards Night, and our praise band and chorale led us in a time of worship. We sang Chris Tomlin’s song “I Lay Me Down,” and when we got to the bridge, the student leading closed her eyes, raised her hands, and proclaimed, “This is my favorite part of the song,” before singing the statement, “It will be my joy to say Your will, Your way, always.”

Immediately my heart responded, “Always?” I realized that so much of my silence, my frustration of the last two years has been that it has not been my joy to say, “Your will, your way.” Not at all.

This time six years ago, I was working at the YMCA in Wake Forest, NC, interviewing to teach history at an English speaking international school in Kabul, Afghanistan. I was chasing my dream: Bekah Mason, world traveler for Jesus.

Four weeks later I was living with my parents, back home in Chattanooga. No job, no degree, no globetrotting.

It was not my joy to say, “Your will, your way, always.”

It was not my joy when a counseling position I was developing for a ministry with a local office didn’t receive needed funding and was eliminated.

It was my joy to receive a phone call about a long term sub position to finish the school year at a local Christian school. 

It was my joy because I had always wanted to teach there, AND it was for the remainder of the 2009-2010 school year, after which I intended to move to Louisville, KY, and begin my PhD. My plan, my joy.

Six years later, through changes in departments, internships, starting and failing that PhD, coaching, learning, and loving, it has become my joy to be here still. Not my plan, but still my joy.

I am reminded of the man in Mark 5 whom Jesus delivered from the legion of demons. The text says that the man was imploring Him that he might accompany Him. And He did not let him, but He said to him, “Go home to your people and report to them what great things the Lord has done for you, and how He had mercy on you.”

Go home to your people. For those of us with a wanderlust that is often unquenchable, there is no joy in Jesus telling us to go home. 

I love the travel, the short term, the excitement of new places and people and challenges. But my life is not about me, and in these last six years, I have learned one valuable thing about myself: to stay is to be known, and being known is a hard part of sanctification. Being known means tears and vulnerability, it means people knowing your weaknesses. Being known can be terrifying, but to be useful in community, we must be known.

The girl who moved to seminary nine years ago with plans of never coming home has ended up back in the same zip code her family has lived in for 21 years. I live in my grandmother’s house, teach at the school my sister attended, have the children of my friends in my clasess, and it is my joy. 

So is it my joy to say, “Your will, your way, always” in my heart? I’m still not there. But He is. Through the urges to run away, to self-destruct, to doubt and question and second guess. HE is always, and He is enough to bridge that gap on the days that I haven’t quite found my joy.

Because, you see, He is my joy, and He always finds me.

Why I Am (& Always Will Be) Pro-Life


10 week fetus

Here in Tennessee, abortion is once again the debate of the day. With Amendment One on the ballot today, the last few weeks have seen a dramatic spike in television ads, conversations, debates, and the return of the same old arguments both for and against abortion in general. I’ve heard the typical arguments: “God gives life. We must protect babies who cannot protect themselves. Abortion is murder.”  and, “It’s a woman’s body and it’s her right alone to choose how to deal with it. A child who will be neglected or unloved shouldn’t be brought into this world. If a woman is raped, it’s simply inhumane to expect her to carry a reminder of the horrific event.”

Yeah, yeah, yeah. To both sides.

There are philosophical and rational reasons to be pro-life. I appreciate bio-ethicist Scott Klusendorf’s argument of simplifying the debate to one question: “What is the unborn?” It removes the religious element altogether and places the discussion on a philosophical level.

But in all of the level headed discussion that’s possible, this debate quickly digresses into emotional and experiential arguments. People tell me that I don’t know what it’s like to be in the position of being pregnant and being unable or unwilling to care for the child. I’ve never been raped and don’t know what I would do if I was in the position of dealing with the aftermath of both rape and pregnancy. And those people are right. My personal experience doesn’t lend me the opportunity to speak from that perspective.

However, my experience allows me to speak about abortion from a very different but still VERY personal perspective; some of my favorite people in this world were born out of the circumstances described above, and I refuse to believe my life would be better without them.

When I hear people say that babies who will be born to people who will neglect or abuse them should be aborted, I hear them say that this world would be a better place if my three sisters and several of my best friends weren’t here.

When I hear people say that babies who are the products of rape shouldn’t exist, I think of my ministry friend Ronnie Hill, and I think about the work that wouldn’t be done if his mom had decided to abort him after she was raped as a teen.

When I hear people say that women who aren’t ready to have babies are better off when they delay parenting until they’re in a better position to parent, I think of my friends and women I have counseled, who made that decision 15 or 20 years ago, and still weep with grief over the loss they never realized they would experience.

I’m sure that the suicide rate of people who grow up in abusive environments is higher than in those raised in better childhood situations, but if we’re going to argue for choice, shouldn’t that person have the choice to end their life rather than the choice be made for them?

I am well aware that my parents (and all foster parents) are the exception and not the rule to caring for kids, and I know that countless children do live horrific lives of abuse and neglect, with no known way of escape.

But I also know that there is love and care beyond the two people who gave birth to those children. As I mentioned above, there are three incredible women who are my sisters who had really crappy birth parents, people completely incapable of caring for them. And the only reason I have those three sisters is because their crappy, drug addicted, abusive, neglectful mothers didn’t have abortions when that would have been the easy and even understandable option.

So why am I pro-life? I could give you a theological explanation and spout a lot of Bible verses. I could lay out a debate full of philosophical laws and rhetorical devices. But today, I have friends and family who have spent weeks hearing tv ads and talking heads say that they shouldn’t be here, and I want to be pro-sisters. And pro-friends.

I want them to know that they are loved. And valued. And wanted. I want them to know that I am pro-them.

Sisters

 

(top photo credit: http://imgarcade.com/1/human-fetus-at-12-weeks/)

On Law, Grace, Bondage, and Dog Collars


This weekend has been a yard work weekend. After ten weeks of volleyball’s regular season, I took two days to clean up my sorely neglected yard. Fences needed to be cleared, bushes trimmed, grass mowed, beds weeded. There was a LOT of work to do.

trimming bush

IMG_7215 FullSizeRender

For a bit of background for this story, you need to know that, for months now, my puppies, Scout and Atticus, have been on a wireless fence system to keep them from wandering into the road or the neighbor’s yard. The appearance of their being able to roam free is an excellent home security system. The down side to the system is that, in order to limit their access to the neighbor’s yard, they do not have free reign of my entire yard. Rectangle shaped property and circle shaped wireless fences don’t work well together. So Scout and Atticus have experienced several months of being unable to get to the back half of my yard.

image5

(Meet Scout and Atticus. They like each other.)

Cue this weekend. It was a stinky week, personally, spiritually, and professionally, but it was a glorious weekend, which meant I needed to be outside. Badly. And the puppies followed me all around the yard; until I moved toward the back of the yard. At that point, the puppies quit hanging out with me. When they got to the border of the wireless fence, their collars would beep and they would back up and lie down, getting as close to me as their collars would allow, but never going beyond that limit.

I decided this afternoon that I would let them wander the whole yard since I was going to be out there, so I took off their red fence collars and put Atticus’ regular collar on him. I couldn’t get Scout to sit still long enough to put hers on, so she went collarless. This is the point at which the teachable moment began.

As I walked to the back of the yard, they both followed me to the point that their red collars would have beeped if they had them on, and they stopped and laid down. It didn’t matter how much I called for them, they weren’t coming. They had spent enough time on those red collars that they knew not to go any further or there would be a consequence.

In an attempt to coax them to the back of the yard so that they could run and play, I walked to Atticus, gently held his collar with two fingers, and led him beside me toward the back yard. He was very tentative– until he got several feet past the “shock zone” that he knew should be there. When he got past that part and I was still with him and nothing bad had happened, he wandered around, smelled things, and generally chilled out.

Scout, on the other hand, stayed in the wireless zone, barking endlessly for us to come back to her. Since she didn’t have a collar on, there was nothing for me to hold on to in order to lead her back therewith us, and she would have none of the idea of simply following me out there.

image1

As I watched this scene unfold, the picture of how the Law, Grace, and bondage to sin work in our lives unfolded in my mind as well.

These are the Law:

image3

They tell the dogs just how far they can go, and they punish them if they attempt to overstep their boundaries. But the Law is meant to protect them; before the collars, I once chased Atticus across South Moore Road and about two blocks down the street. Barefoot. In my PJs. With Crazy Hair. At 5:30 am. It was special. The Law, in this case, is good. It taught Scout and Atticus right from wrong.

Then one day, the Law was removed. The punishment was no longer a threat. I’d taken that threat and put it on the table on the back porch. Yet the puppies still respected the boundaries the Law had set in their lives. They were free, but still living by the Law. They knew that boundary was there for a reason, and they kept it.

Until I put a new collar on Atticus and led him away. It reminded me of the opening statements of Paul’s letter to the church in Galatia:

Galatians 1:6 I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel– 7 not that there is another one, but there are some who trouble you and want to distort the gospel of Christ. 8 But even if we or an angel from heaven should preach to you a gospel contrary to the one we preached to you, let him be accursed.

All I had to do was put a different collar on him, and he followed me right past the boundaries set for him and into an unprotected and dangerous world. This new collar represents bondage in the life of a believer. Atticus could have roamed free within the set boundaries, collarless and without fear, but by taking up a new collar, a new form of bondage, he left the boundaries he knew and didn’t quite know what to do with himself. But take note of the bondage that led him astray, for they are what spoke volumes to my own heart:

image2

One tag is his name. Oh, can’t our name, our reputation, become an idol and a bondage?

One is his rabies tag. Look, he’s a good dog. He’s done all the right things to be considered good. Maybe for us that’s giving time or money to good causes, or going on mission trips, or attending the right church or small group. He’s checked off his legalistic list of things to look good.

The middle one is his microchip tag. He’s even a “member” of a home. Sometimes church can become an idol of bondage. Do you belong to the “right” church? Listen to the “right” super pastors or worship groups? Ascribe to the “right” doctrine of the the day?

None of the tags on his new collar of bondage are bad things. In fact, in the right circumstances, they are very good things. But in this case, they were use to lead him away, and often, it’s the good things in our lives, done for the wrong reasons, that get us into trouble.

Now, back to Scout. Let’s look at the picture again with the imaginary fence line drawn in:

image1

Scout is sitting, barking her fool head off at Atticus, begging him to come back. But she refuses to cross the line to come get him, and there is no bondage around her neck for me to lead her astray. She is free. Free enough to roam within the boundaries given to her while still knowing her limits, even without the threat of punishment.

That is the freedom we have in Christ! He said Himself that He came not to abolish the Law, but to fulfill it. Scout is a picture of a believer free of bondage, trusting the one who knows and loves her. I removed the collar of the Law, yet she continued to trust that those boundaries were still what were best for her. And because she did not allow herself to be put into any other bondage, she could not be led astray. She was even in the position to call for her little brother to please get back in line and come back to the right side of the boundary. Which is exactly what he did.

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For freedom Christ has set us free; stand firm therefore, and do not submit again to a yoke of slavery. Galatians 5:1

Be free, friends.