The Covenantal Heart of Proverbs

20200302_110931In reading through Proverbs this time, I am, for some reason, struck by all of the assumptions these seemingly universally applicable texts have.  Wisdom literature seems to always be trotted out as some kind of instruction that is non-religious and able to be used in even the most secular, non-religious person’s life.  But this one verse (Proverbs 14:9) jumped out at me this morning as a blaring example of the inescapable covenantal context of Proverbs.  Notice the parallel between “guilt offering” and “acceptance”.  This proverb is implying that there is a need for a guilt offering in order to find acceptance.  But this verse leaves us asking such questions as follows:

  • What is a guilt offering?
  • How can one be “upright” and still be in need of a guilt offering?
  • Acceptance implies there has been a breach in a relationship, so “acceptance” with whom?

In order to answer any of these questions, we have to look to the rest of the Bible.  It’s when we do that that we find that we are all in need of a guilt offering (Lev. 5.14ff; 2 Cor. 5.20-21), whether we are among the “upright” or not.  Or to put it in other covenantal terms that place us within the new covenant with Christ, we all need the cleansing sacrifice of Christ on the cross, the once-for-all guilt offering.  We all need Christ as our guilt offering in order to come to Him the first time (i.e. our conversion), and we all need that guilt offering for the whole course of our lives in Him (i.e. “the upright”).  And we find this “guilt offering” in every worship service where we have confession of sin and an assurance of pardon.  It is there where we renew our acceptance with God in Christ.  It is there where there is a dying to ourselves (i.e. the right to stand up based on our own good deeds) and a rising to new life (i.e. the need to cling to Jesus for each step of every day).  It is there where we are reckoned in a fresh and renewed way to be united to the crucified and resurrected king.

Imagine that.  All this from a supposedly non-religious text.  Whowouldafiggered.

Review of Grandparenting with Grace

In this post, I’m pleased to share my tiny little corner on the internet with guest reviewers, Jerry and Linda Mead.  Jerry is a retired minister in the PCA, and he and Linda have three adult children, five grandchildren, and one additional grandchild who is currently preparing to make his arrival later this year.  I offer their review of Larry McCall’s Grandparenting with Grace: Living the Gospel with the Next Generation here unedited and hope this resource can be useful for many of their peers. Grandparenting_with_Grace_Thumbnail__42118.1547653485

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A Review of a Significant Book

I have sat with a young woman who talked of being raped by her step-father from the time she was 14 until she was about 17. Her mother either didn’t want to know or was too drunk to care.

I have been in the emergency room with church members when they were told that their loved one lying before us was brain dead and that only the rescue measures were keeping him alive. They turned and looked at me with the implied question, “What do we do now?”

I have had a neighbor knock on my front door at 3:30 AM to ask me to call 9-1-1 because his brother was lying unresponsive on the bedroom floor. He had died of a drug overdose. The 9-1-1 operator asked me to check and see if my neighbor’s brother had a pulse while we waited for the first-responders to arrive.

I have prayed with a woman whose husband was so verbally and emotionally oppressive toward her that she had to flee their home in order to feel safe. Her church leaders only wanted her to meet with him to work toward reconciliation.

These experiences don’t make me an all-star. They just mean I was the one placed in the path of those who were suffering. No amount of training can make one prepared for the gravity and gut-wrenching nature of these situations. No book that one can read or course that one can take or counseling cohort one can participate in could ever fully deflect the emotional impact of being asked to bear these burdens. But knowing that one is going to be involved in some form of helping field (e.g. pastoral ministry, hospital/hospice work, military chaplain, etc.) and not receiving any training or not preparing oneself for the impacts that are sure to come only means one of two things (if not both): 1) you will be wounded more severely by hits you didn’t see coming because you didn’t expect them and should have; and 2) you will worsen the trauma of those you are seeking to help. There is help to be found. One can begin to prepare. One should begin to prepare.

Dr. Diane Langberg’s book Suffering and the Heart of God: How Trauma Destroys and Christ Restores is an amazing step forward in preparing people for what to expect if working with traumatized people (i.e. abuse survivors, rape/trafficking survivors, etc.). Dr. Langberg has worked with trauma-related issues in the counseling field since the 1970’s and has traveled globally to study, as she puts it in several places, “the litter of hell” that is left scarring our fellow humans.

This book is not enjoyable. There were days I tried to read it while eating my lunch, and I couldn’t because it was making me nauseous to read of such evil being perpetrated on other people. However, it is quite possibly the most important book I’ve read since I finished seminary in 2006, and it is my hope that this book will have a broad readership, especially in the Church, since it is the Church’s calling to be a minister of mercy to the oppressed and afflicted (James 1.27) in whatever community She finds herself. And rest assured, they are in every community. We will meet them if we are being faithful.

What follows is a kind of review, but not really. Really all I’m doing here is listing my recommendations for various people groups that would derive benefit from this book.

  • Recommendation for men preparing to become ministers: Read this whole book. You and I will most likely never be an expert in trauma or even counseling, but we are often called upon to be like a spiritual first-responder. Dr. Langberg has stared into the face of horrible evil both within the church and without. This isn’t just evil that has marred people who show up at church. Some of this is evil perpetrated by church leaders … self-deceived, self-justifying, sheep-devouring church leaders. Yet Dr. Langberg still loves the Church. This is your calling, so learn from her. You will enter into the lives of wounded, raped, abused, and oppressed people in your community, some of which have been victimized by church leaders or other people who claimed the name ‘Christian’. You must help the wounded; and when their trauma infects your days and nights, when their wounds make you want to hate the Church, you must realize your own need for the risen Christ. And you must remember that it is the same Church that Christ shed his blood for.
  • Recommendation for Church leadership/elders: Each Church session/consistory/board of deacons should have at least one person who is conversant with this book. I would go so far as to say that every single church elder should read the chapter “Understanding Domestic Violence”. Many are quick to say that the words “abuse/abuser” don’t appear in the Bible. But the words “oppressed/oppressor” are prominent words (Pss 9.9, 12; 12.5; Prov 31.8-9; Jer 22.3 to name a few). Study those words and you will see that the Church is called to look like the Lord in defense of the oppressed. This includes demanding more than a few tears from the oppressor/abuser. Dr. Langberg’s words about self-deception and repentance in this regard (both below and elsewhere) are worth the price of the book:

“Anyone who engages in abusive behavior has practiced self-deception. They have practiced avoiding the truth. To think that someone can practice a sin pattern for years and simply say “I am sorry” and be all better is to fail to see sin as our God does… True repentance is consistent change demonstrated over time and is shown to be real when the cup is bumped again and again and something new spills out indicating a new pattern.” p. 265 {emphasis original}

  • Recommendation for Church members: Read chapters 1-7 and 11. These chapters will teach you much about the mind of Christ, his heart for the oppressed and the suffering, the nature of sin and self-deception, and our own proclivities to avoid suffering and grieving people because their suffering and grief make us uncomfortable. However, what did the Son of God do for us? He set aside His glory. He entered our darkness. He laid down His right to comfort to enter into the human condition. He was the Word of God made flesh… the Word of God applied to suffering, despairing, grieving humanity. This was no glib and light-hearted jaunt in applying the Word of God to humanity. So just as Christ didn’t glibly apply himself (the Word of God) to His people, but rather entered into our state of grief and pain, so we need to learn to apply ourselves (embody the Word) thoughtfully and carefully to those who have survived/are surviving oppression, pain, trauma, and grief. Dr. Langberg is master instructor in this area and your church will be better equipped if you sit at her feet for a while.

For the Church in general and for those who are involved in helping fields in particular, we are involved in stepping into the litter of hell when we minister to the oppressed, the suffering, the grieving, the abused. But their pain, rage, grief, addictions, fear, obsessions, despair, twisted thinking, volatile emotions, etc. are not the enemy. Sin and death are the enemy, and the Lord Jesus has already conquered them. He calls us to join him in his work of turning back sin and death. Dr. Langberg makes this point beautifully as she relates the ministry to the suffering to the raising of Lazarus from the grave in John 11. I’ll let Dr. Langberg have the last words here and invite you into this work:

“[Jesus] engages human beings in the resurrection process. Now, someone who can raise another from the dead is surely not troubled by a little stone being in the way. It was not necessary that people remove the stone, but he catches them up in his resurrection work. He calls Lazarus out and engages humans again. “Unbind him.” Lazarus… cannot see, is bound with clothes that restrict him, and he stinks. Jesus calls people to assist…He could just as easily have Lazarus come out free of grave clothes. Stones and sheets are not a big deal if you can raise the dead. God has called you and me to participate in his resurrection work. We do ordinary things like move stones and remove grave clothes. He has called us to go with seemingly ordinary methods into the place of death and darkness… [But] no matter how good you are at rolling stones, handling stench, and removing grave clothes, you cannot raise the dead. He is the resurrection and the life.” pp. 75-76 {emphasis original}

Prayers Beyond the Sick List

We have little visitor’s cards in the backs of our pews at church just like every other church that has pews.  They aren’t anything special – just a place for us to help collect some contact info from folks who visit so that we can follow up with them.  On the back side of these visitor’s cards is a side where people can write a prayer request, drop the card in the offering plate, and have the elders pray for what is written later that week.  People write on these cards what is on their hearts.  Little children ask for prayer for a sick teacher or sibling.  Someone has a major surgery coming up.  Someone else is recovering surgery.  Someone has a loved one who is fighting cancer or battling some kind of intractable pain.  There are lots of hurting people out there, and their hurts and pains and struggles show up on these cards.  But recently I’ve been getting a congregation member who is asking for prayer for a different kind of battle.  And it has upset my prayers in the best possible way.  Here is this saint’s three most recent prayer requests (shared with permission):

Prayer requests

What a humbling thing to have a congregation member asking for focused prayer that gives thanks for the fact that “the grave and death are conquered“, prayer for “those who feel without hope” and “those lost in substance abuse“, and prayer “for the fulfillment of His promises.”  What a privilege to be joining with this dear woman at the throne of grace for such things.

Yes, of course, we should always be praying for these things.  But how many times does our “should” and “do” look very different?  Someone once told me that we often speak of “making something a priority”, but at the end of the day, a priority is what we actually do.  So the content of the prayers we actually pray reveal what we have prioritized.  It reveals what we deem important.  If I lose my job, you can bet I’ll be fervent in prayer for the Lord to provide a new one.  If I lose my health, God is going to be hearing from me about restoring me to health.  Health, provision, safety, good relationships… these are important to us, so that’s where we camp out in our prayers.

But every once in a while, something rises to the surface that causes us to lift our heads and see the broader world that holy scripture lays before us to be used as content in our prayers.  For me, that something happens when this dear congregation member writes a prayer request card.  And if there’s at least one saint at Pilgrim Presbyterian Church in the small town of Martinsburg, West Virginia praying this way, how many other saints are out there in your churches, casting these cares upon the throne of grace? How many other saints are out there asking for others to join with them in giving thanks for the resurrection of Jesus?  How many fervent petitioners are laying siege to the gates of hell that the captives to depair and addiction might be released?  How many other Christians in our churches are pleading with the Father to fulfill His promise to cause the earth to be “…filled with the knowledge of the glory of the Lord as the waters cover the sea (Habakkuk 2.14)”?

How many of you when reading this feel like me when I get one of those prayer request cards?  Kind of makes you want to get in on this kind of praying, doesn’t it?

A Humbling Thanksgiving

I’m not sure whether it’s every Thanksgiving season or every time Black History month rolls around (or maybe both) that I think of this poem by Phyllis Wheatley [“On Being Brought From Africa to America”(1773)].  She was the first African-American woman to publish a book, and every time I read this, Ms. Wheatley’s words humble me.  May I, one day, be refined as Ms. Wheatley.  I look forward to the day I get to meet her in glory.

‘Twas mercy brought me from my Pagan land,
Taught my benighted soul to understand 
That there’s a God, that there’s a Saviour too:
Once I redemption neither sought nor knew.
Some view our sable race with scornful eye,
“Their colour is a diabolic die.”
Remember, Christians, Negros, black as Cain,
May be refined and join the angelic train.