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.

A Teacher’s Thoughts on Senseless Evil

Sometimes, teachers and students can complain about the security measures that have been implemented in schools in response to the world in which we live. Locked doors, key cards, surveillance cameras, safety drills, student uniforms and staff IDs to help identify outsiders. Today reminded me that horror and senseless evil happen regardless of the safety measures we put in place. But we don’t just say, “Why bother?” As parents, as teachers, as adults who love the kids in our lives, we will do whatever it takes to do all that we can to keep the kids we love as safe as possible.

So that is why we keep doors locked and make visitors sign in and have video cameras and do safety drills. Because days like today happen in a broken world, and we want to be as prepared as we can be to deal with the senseless actions of broken people. As a teacher, every time we have an intruder drill, I remind myself that, as the adult responsible for my kids, I am responsible for being willing and able to lay my life down for them if it is required.

Just this week I studied John 10 with my 10th graders, and we studied about Jesus, the Good Shepherd, who was willing to lay down his life for His sheep. As teachers, our kids are our sheep, and many today gave their lives to try to protect their sheep.

We are brokenhearted for the teachers, students and parents in Conn., we will pray for all involved, we will keep our own kids a little closer, we will take our own safety drills a little more seriously, and we will remember that God is near to the brokenhearted. I pray for their comfort and peace.

For parents looking for ways to talk to your children, here is a good article.

For believers looking for ways to talk about a good God and an evil world, here are some good thoughts.

The Rape of Christ

We are only prepared to receive and comprehend the grace of God when we have understood His infinite holiness and our incredible sinfulness. ~James MacDonald

I have been attempting for months to help someone understand just what the big deal is about our sin, and sexual sin in particular. I was struggling to bring to light just how badly our sin breaks the heart of God, and 1 Corinthians 6:5-20 is the passage I ended up returning to several times.

This passage gives us a clear explanation of the connection found in mind, body and soul specifically; each is intricately involved in the health and welfare of the other. Sins actively committed in our body impact our souls and minds; thoughts lead to actions which lead to spiritual disconnect from the Father. Spiritual brokenness can cause mental and physical side effects like depression, anger, apathy, even physical pain.

So, according to this passage, our physical actions impact us mentally and spiritually as well. We use our bodies and train our minds to respond a certain way, leading to addictive behavior. Most people today watch enough Dr. Phil to understand the mind/body connection.

But what about the spiritual aspect of sin? How does that impact us? How does our sin impact our relationship with the Triune God? According to this passage, our sin effects Christ intimately and directly. He tells us that, at the time of salvation, we become joined in one Spirit with Christ. He is a part of us, we are a part of Him. This is why the marriage relationship is a picture of our relationship with Christ; separate beings, joined together to become one while still remaining unique beings. One of the greatest mysteries of how we as spiritual beings function.

Follow this logic for a moment; as believers, we are joined to Jesus, being one in Spirit. He is with us and a part of us, present and actively involved in all that we think, say and do. That’s a pretty convicting thought.

But Paul then immediately uses an extreme illustration to make his point; he asks who in his right mind would ask Jesus to sleep with a prostitute? The answer to that rhetorical question is, “No one!” Jesus was tempted in every way, yet without sin. Jesus doesn’t want to engage in illicit sexual activity; his one goal is to glorify His Father in Heaven in mind, body and spirit.

So, following Paul’s graphic illustration, what are we doing when, as believers, we force Jesus, with whom we are joined in one Spirit, to join us in immoral sexual behavior? We are essentially raping Jesus. We are forcing him to participate in sexual activity He wholeheartedly desires to avoid because it brings no glory to the Father in Heaven.

Some statics claim that by the end of college (or age 22) as many as 20% of all women have been at least convinced to participate in a sex act she would otherwise have avoided. Ask any woman who’s been in that situation, and she will tell you how it made her feel. Dirty. Shameful. Used. Broken. Brokenhearted.

Sometimes it’s difficult as believers to understand how our sin breaks the heart of God. In following Paul’s logic in this passage, it should be abundantly clear; to engage in immoral sexual activity is to force Jesus to engage in sexual activity against His will. Our selfish momentary pleasure is equal to the rape of Christ.

Looking at it from that point of view, how do you think our sin breaks the heart of God? How would your heart break knowing that a loved one had been raped, abused, molested? How did you feel if it’s happened to you? What steps do you take to protect yourself from being in a situation in which those things could happen? How do you teach and train the young boys and girls in your life to avoid those situations? Shouldn’t we do the same for Christ?

If we are one in Spirit with Him, shouldn’t we live our lives in such a way that we do everything within our power to keep Him from being involved in activities He desperately wants to avoid?

Is Your Greatest Liability God’s Greatest Asset?

On behalf of this man I will boast, but on my own behalf I will not boast, except of my weaknesses. Though if I should wish to boast, I would not be a fool, for I would be speaking the truth. But I refrain from it, so that no one may think more of me than he sees in me or hears from me. So to keep me from becoming conceited because of the surpassing greatness of the revelations, a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. 2 Corinthians 12:5-10

This morning I was having a conversation with a young woman I disciple and we were talking about old responses like anger rising back up within us. Our conversation went something like this:
“I don’t know where it comes from,” she said. “It hasn’t been this bad in weeks.”
“Well, you’ve said yourself that you’re stubborn. Use that stubbornness for God’s glory and stubbornly refuse to give in to the temptation.”
“What do you mean?”
“God created you with a strong spirit intentionally. Use it for his glory instead of your own. Being stubborn is a good thing when you are stubbornly standing for truth.”
“That’s the first time someone has said my stubbornness isn’t a bad thing.”

But then one day I was preparing a lesson for a class while I was in seminary. I was studying Romans 10 in which Paul discusses the misdirected zeal of the Hebrew people. I thought about his life. He was so zealous for the Law that he persecuted and killed Christians. But when he was converted to a saving faith in Christ, his zeal didn’t go away; instead, God redirected that zeal to be used for His glory. God took Paul’s greatest character flaw and redeemed it to turn the world upside down.

The lights clicked on in my heart and mind! If we are fearfully and wonderfully made (Ps. 139), then God knew that I was going to be a stubborn, independent knowledge-seeker. The very qualities I had been working in my own strength to repress in my life… What if they were characteristics God had intentionally given me to be used for His kingdom and glory? How could my weaknesses be made strong in Him if I would just allow him the opportunity to work in and through them?

What a revolutionary and freeing thought! God didn’t desire to obliterate my personality and identity—he wanted to use them for himself! He wanted to keep me, but make me better by fashioning me into a unique image of His Son.

So what about you? How could God use your character flaws and besetting sins for His glory? If you are a notorious talker or gossiper, could God use that love of speaking for his glory by spending time each day talking with elderly shut-ins? Do you shop for things you don’t need when you’re stressed? What if you started buying things for the less fortunate and focusing that stress on serving others instead of serving yourself? Are you a stubborn know-it-all like me? How about using that thirst for knowledge and desire to debate to study the Word and teach it to others? Do you find yourself in unhealthy, emotionally entangled relationships? What if you allowed God to meet your needs and then focused on pouring your life into others in discipleship relationships?

How can God redeem your greatest weakness instead of repressing it? Can your greatest liability become the greatest asset for the Kingdom? Give him all of you, not just your supposed strengths and gifts, and just see the strength He can display in your weakness.

His Love is Better

Psalm 63
1 O God, you are my God; earnestly I seek you; my soul thirsts for you; my flesh faints for you, as in a dry and weary land where there is no water.
2 So I have looked upon you in the sanctuary, beholding your power and glory.

3 Because your steadfast love is better than life, my lips will praise you.
4 So I will bless you as long as I live; in your name I will lift up my hands.
5 My soul will be satisfied as with fat and rich food, and my mouth will praise you with joyful lips,
6 when I remember you upon my bed, and meditate on you in the watches of the night;
7 for you have been my help, and in the shadow of your wings I will sing for joy.
8 My soul clings to you; your right hand upholds me.

Read closely the words of David. Take note of the words above that are in bold.

If you didn’t know that David was talking about his desperate desire to know God, you could think that he was describing his praise and adoration of an absent lover. Many modern love songs use similar words and phrases to describe our attempts to have this type of need met by another human being.

But David declares that HIS steadfast love is better than life. Better than life.
Did you catch that? Think about your life. Think about your strongest love, whether familial, platonic or romantic.

Think about your most loyal friend. He is more loyal.

Think about your most caring parent. He cares for you more faithfully.

Think about your most affectionate relative. He embraces you in an eternal love.

Think about your most passionate lover. He loves you more passionately and sacrificially.

David says His love is better than all that. And David would know. He was half of one of the most loyal friendships recorded in history. He experienced passionate lovers. He was adored by shouting fans. He was the king of a nation. He had it all! Yet he still said that the love of the Father was better than all of that.

Do you doubt Him? Have you ever given him the chance to prove His love to you? I’m not asking if you’ve gone to church or practiced religion; the church is made of people and no person or group of people will meet the need we all have in the depth of our souls to know and be known. Have you ever taken Jesus up on his offer of steadfast love that is better than life? Or are you so enamored with the creation that you have missed the infinite love and satisfaction found only in the Creator?

“We are half-hearted creatures, fooling about with drink and sex and ambition when infinite joy is offered us, like an ignorant child who wants to go on making mud pies in a slum because he cannot imagine what is meant by the offer of a holiday at the sea. We are far too easily pleased.” CS Lewis, The Weight of Glory

Christians, Facebook, and Politics

A friend posed this question to me a little while ago:

Someone asked me today how I could post praises to God, and then bash Obama. I was also asked how I thought God would feel about this. Question: How can we as Christians disagree with the policies of this administration that go against the word of God without sounding like “bashing”?

Sometimes I think the problem is that we pray in private and criticize in public. I was much too guilty of that at one point, so I’ve quit posting my opinion about politics. People know how I feel, so when I address issues now, I talk about issues, not people, and I post the truth of Scripture, not my opinion.

Romans 12 and 13 give great instruction on how to interact with those who oppose us and those who govern over us.

Romans 12:16-21:Live in harmony with one another. Do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly. Never be wise in your own sight. Repay no one evil for evil, but give thought to do what is honorable in the sight of all. If possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God, for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” To the contrary, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him something to drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals on his head.” Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.

Many believers, myself included on occassion, have allowed the current political tone to divide the body of Christ. We have an “Us vs. Them”, “W vs. Obama” mentality. “We” don’t like it when “they” talk about “our man”. So why do “we” expect “them” to be ok with it when “we” talk about “their idiot”? Isn’t that the attitude most days? If you need to blow steam about a particular political official with whom you disagree, do so in a “safe” place with people who agree with you and not on your facebook page where your steam could burn someone else and cause them to stumble.

So what should we do when we morally disagree with the policies of a particular administration? Paul tells us in Romans 13:1-7, “1 Let every person be subject to the governing authorities. For there is no authority except from God, and those that exist have been instituted by God. 2 Therefore whoever resists the authorities resists what God has appointed, and those who resist will incur judgment. 3 For rulers are not a terror to good conduct, but to bad. Would you have no fear of the one who is in authority? Then do what is good, and you will receive his approval, 4 for he is God’s servant for your good. But if you do wrong, be afraid, for he does not bear the sword in vain. For he is the servant of God, an avenger who carries out God’s wrath on the wrongdoer. 5 Therefore one must be in subjection, not only to avoid God’s wrath but also for the sake of conscience. 6 For because of this you also pay taxes, for the authorities are ministers of God, attending to this very thing. 7 Pay to all what is owed to them: taxes to whom taxes are owed, revenue to whom revenue is owed, respect to whom respect is owed, honor to whom honor is owed.

Speaking out against issues of morality is acceptable. For example, I have a real concern with some “Hate Crime” legislation that could be used to legal action against those who speak out against homosexuality. I believe that homosexuality is just one of many ways mankind has found to twist God’s good gift of sex, and in my ministry, I spend much time speaking and teaching about the truth of Scripture concerning sexual brokenness. If such legislation is passed, a time may come when I will have to choose whether to submit to the government who is asking me to be quiet on a subject about which God says I am to speak the truth or if I will practice civil disobedience, speak out and then accept the civil consequences of that civil disobedience.
But most political issues are not necessarily moral issues; we may think they are unwise, they are the result of past mistakes, they are detrimental and painful and appear asinine at times. But to bemoan the actions of any President as if the sky is falling after every speech he gives leaves the world to assume Christians are whiney hand-wringers who don’t really trust that God is sovereignly in control. President Bush is not the total idiot most Democrats make him out to be and President Obama is not the antichrist most Republicans assume him to be. Neither one is solely resposible for “where we are now” but I am certain that our current situation has not taken the God of the universe by surprise.
As far as disagreeing without bashing… I’ve learned that I can disagree without posting it on facebook. I’m learning that, as a believer, my status has a huge impact on people and I choose to use it now as a chance to speak hope and grace into the lives of others instead of using it as a megaphone for my unsolicited opinion. I don’t want the things I do or say to become a stumbling block for those who need the Gospel more than they need to see things my way concerning the American political system.
So as a believer, regardless of political affiliation, what are you doing to support our current civil servants? Do you pray for them? Do you send them notes of encouragement? Do you write in with ideas of how to change the things with which you disagree? Do you let them know your opinions? How do you keep yourself actively involved so that you don’t just become another all talk, no action complainer? After all, most of us complain that that is what “we” hate most about “them”. Turns out, we’re all “them” to someone.

Of Joy and Desire, Part 3

Lewis’s point is that there are desires for many things in this world. In his apologetic works, he discusses at length man’s desire for food, for rest, for companionship, for beauty, for enlightenment. He says, however, that those desires do not function in and of themselves. Rather, they are used as proofs by God to ensure us that, just as we desire food and there is food to fulfill that desire, there is also a God with whom we long to unite that will, when we ask Him, come down and fellowship with us in a way that will meet our every longing for Him. “Creatures are not born with desires unless satisfaction for desires exists. A baby feels hunger; well, there is such a thing as food…. Men feel sexual desire; well, there is such a thing as sex. If I find in myself a desire which no experience in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that I was made for another world” (Lewis, Mere Christianity). God created us with desires that can be fulfilled temporally in order to give us hope that those desires that cannot be fulfilled temporally will be fulfilled eternally. Our Creator desires for us to know that that we were not created with a desire that will not be fulfilled, and Lewis’s argument that since all temporal desires are fulfilled, then even those desires that we have not yet found fulfillment for will one day be fulfilled.

When looking to the Bible for confirmation of Lewis’s argument, one can look to Hebrews 11:13-16 where the writer speaks of those in the Old Testament who were highly esteemed for their faith in an unseen fulfillment of their desires:

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance. And they admitted that they were aliens and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one (emphasis mine).

Even upon their death, these great men and women of faith had not received the things promised to them. Their desires had not been fulfilled. And rightly so, Lewis would argue, for who would want to place their faith for eternity in a longing fulfilled in this life? He, for one, did not. “Every step I had taken, from the Absolute to ‘Spirit’ and from ‘Spirit’ to ‘God,’ had been a step toward the more concrete, the more imminent, the more compulsive” (Lewis, Surprised by Joy, 237). When it comes right down to it, all anyone in this world is looking for is something sure in which to place their trust. What could be more trustworthy than a God who has ensured that everyday we will experience small confirmations of His constant presence both here and in the hereafter?