Marginalia

Helen Ashton died last Saturday. She was 91, and a member of Northwest Presbyterian Church. Helen was active during my first four years at NPC. We would greet each other weekly at the door and exchange pleasantries, but she would comment often enough on the worship service or sermon to let me know that she was engaged. As Helen’s health declined she attended less frequently, and then not at all. Over the past two years our doorway greetings transitioned to visits in nursing homes, rehabilitation centers and, frequently at Riverside Hospital. Her health deteriorated to the point that I felt it was important to visit Helen the night before we left for our summer vacation; I feared I would not see Helen again.

Helen proved me wrong for several more months. Three visits ago we spent a sweet and quiet hour talking about Christ, faith and heaven. Helen told me she was not worried about where she was going, but she was a little afraid of the step in between; an honest appraisal from someone suffering a terminal illness.

Last Friday I received word that she was again in the hospital and the prognosis was not good. I rushed to Riverside. Helen was mostly unresponsive during our visit. I read Scripture and tried to decipher the requests emerging from her discomfort. She wanted water. And then she didn’t. It would be a stretch to say we conversed. But we were present to each other, and God was present with us. Before leaving I asked Helen if she wanted to pray and received my most vigorous response of the hour, a rapid head nod. I prayed and asked God to give her peace as she took that step. I prayed the Lord’s Prayer; perhaps she joined me subconsciously. Helen died early next morning.

When I met with Helen’s son Warren and his wife to plan the memorial service, I asked if I could see Helen’s Bible. Perhaps there would be a verse or two underlined that I would choose to share. I didn’t mention to Warren how reading my grandfather’s marginalia – the notations in the margins of his Bible – provided me insight into the questions he had. My grandfather Elmer had the kinds of questions we all have: Who am I? Where am I going? Who is God and will he forgive me? His journey through skepticism to Christ outlined in his Bible notes.

Warren kindly dropped of Helen’s Bible. There was not a single verse underlined; there were hundreds underlined, starred, and notated. The inks changed, the block handwriting was as legible as a tight cursive script. Some books of Helen’s Bible received more attention; I imagined her concentrating on a book in personal study or attending worship while a pastor patiently taught through the Gospel of John, or 1 John, or the Psalms. I realized it was fanciful to presume to know why Helen made certain notes, why certain verses stood out to her at certain times. But the themes in her notes rang true: “eternal life – you believe by faith – 1 John 5.11, 12, a gift. Immortality a future gift. At 2nd advent of our Lord”; on 1 Thess. 4.13-18, “immortality – not an endless existence but a communion with God. Eternal satisfaction and blessedness. Freedom from pain and sorrow, service to God and a vision of divine glory”; Helen the cancer patient noted at Psalm 139: ”I am wonderfully made.” Who we are and where we go: not questions that exist at the margins of life but questions core to who we are, to who Helen is.

Though occasionally scholars scrutinize the margin notes of famous men and women, marginalia are mostly notes to oneself. No one expects their margin notes to be read by others. Marginalia are self-serving, but not selfish. They record cries of hearts. Helen, like most of us, wasn’t famous. She was a wife, mom, grandmother, worker, and a daughter of the King. She outlived her husband by many years; she battled a terminal disease with courage. She read in her Bible that her disease didn’t define her; she was wonderfully made and deeply loved. Certainly by her husband and family but also by the Lord who gave her the gifts of faith in Christ, forgiveness and a forever family. Her marginalia record part of her journey with Christ, but not finally the substance of her journey with Christ. Helen’s margin notes read like stones in longer path winding towards a step that, now having been taken, has introduced her to the reality that she waited for, wrote about, believed in, scribbled about next to John 3.36: “the one who believes in Jesus already has everlasting life.”

~ DS

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How I Study the Bible

Short post today on my personal Bible study method:

  • I read one Psalm, one chapter from the Old Testament and one chapter from the New Testament in order. So your plan would begin with Psalm 1, Genesis 1, Matthew 1.
  • There are 779 chapters in the OT (not counting the Psalms, which have 150) and there are 260 chapters in the NT. This means that by the time I read through the entire Bible once I have read the OT once, the NT three times, and the Psalms five times. Given the significance of the Psalms to the worship of God’s people (you could view the Psalms as Israel’s “hymnal”) and the significance of the Gospels (Matthew, Mark, Luke, John) for understanding the Christ-centered life, this is an helpful ratio for my spiritual formation.
  • After reading my three chapters I write no more than a paragraph of summary – something I learned from the text, a thought prompted by my reading, or how the text interacts with my mood that day.
  • Particularly important to me is the way that the three chapters are unified thematically. All Scripture is about God’s redemptive plan and his commitment to bring light from darkness. My paragraph of writing almost always includes the way the three chapters I read serve this theme.
  • After reading I spend time in thanksgiving and prayer for those who have asked me to pray for them.

My favorite coupling of texts: Matthew and the minor prophets. Longing for a king then the fulfillment of that hope in the Gospel most focused on the Kingdom of Christ. That was lovely. Close second: Amos and Revelation.

This method of study keeps me well-rounded and avoids getting bogged down in difficult areas of Scripture. I remember, for instance, the way that Paul’s epistles were a breather for me after a particularly long section of historical narrative in the OT, and the Psalms kept me grounded in thanksgiving during my reading of the Levitical order. Alternately, the Minor Prophets reminded me at the proper times of God’s care for the poor and hatred of injustice when I found myself losing focus in the repetitive themes of the Psalms of Ascent.

The reason I restrict my journaling to one paragraph is that concision forces me to think more deeply about themes and avoid long and aimless rambling. You may need the rambling, I need to reign it in – since I talk for a living! I also feel less intimidated by the task of Bible Study.

Next week: my pattern of personal worship
~JK

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Sanity for the busiest fall ever.

“…to those sanctified in Christ Jesus, called to be saints together with all those who in every place call upon the name of our Lord Jesus Christ…”
(1 Corinthians 1:2 ESV)

My heart is with those of you winding down your summer and battening down the hatches for what will be the busiest fall you’ve ever experienced. At least I’m pretty sure it will be, just as it has been every year in recorded history. There is one Biblical concept that unites those items on your calendar and allows us to attack them with a sense of confidence and rest: vocation. Christianity does not recognize any sort of action that does not begin and end with God’s voice. Go. That is what vocation means, to be called. We are called out from one thing to the next and from one way of being to the next. Of course we have done a fine job of imagining that the interior life, particularly the religious interior life, is where God speaks and where God calls. Pray better, that voice says. Be kind where possible. Stop watching that or saying that or at least stop letting people know that you do. If there’s a benefit to this sort of compartmentalization, it is that we are less troubled by our conscience in all of those places we have taped off from religious intrusion. And we are free to engage those things with only our satisfaction as the highest end. We do what is right in our own eyes. Perhaps we shouldn’t be too hard on that way of living; sometimes it may feel more productive to just put our head down and go to work without troubling ourselves with religious thinking.

But the downside is significant. The downside happens when you are looking out toward a new school year and you feel the calendar already laughing. The downside happens when you recognize that your most profitable years in the workforce are slipping by and your retirement account is a joke. Or when children or marriage or friendship does not happen the way you had always hoped. This is when the interior Christian life feels too small, way too compartmentalized.

Tthe Bible insists that there is no place where God does not extend his call to human beings. God extends his call to live differently into every place where you may go. He calls you to be his person in your home, among your children if you have them. He extends his call into your marriage or into your friendships with neighbors and coworkers. Into all of these places he extends his call to you to live like a Christian. This is your vocation and it does not end where the typical boundaries lie. It does not end where inconvenience makes life difficult. God’s call does not end where there is opposition to the gospel. If he did you would never have been saved! Vocation does not end where living is difficult. In fact this may be where we finally begin to understand what it really means to be called. In all of those places God claims to have a call upon your life.

“And after you have suffered a little while, the God of all grace, who has called you to his eternal glory in Christ, will himself restore, confirm, strengthen, and establish you.” (1 Peter 5:10 ESV)

Vocation also means that wherever God calls us, there his grace extends too. It makes his world out of ours. It grants us a sense of perspective and casts away fear. We are never on the periphery of God’s care. We are never alone. Our mess, the mess we see right in front of us, is God’s mess. There is no dividing line between your personal disaster and God’s holy ground. There is no line between your duty to follow Jesus at home as at work. And there is no line limiting your comfort either, or the courage you have as a result of God’s presence in all of those places.

The outcome, then, of the person that lives vocationally is God-honoring activity in every place, God-honoring trust in His care and his purposes, God-honoring forgiveness when we get it wrong, God-honoring mercy for the people we encounter and God-honoring desperate prayer when we recognize that these messes, so much a part of God’s world, can only flourish in his hands. And when we have done this, when we have begun to live in every place with this Christian vocation, we will find his great care extending out to us  and producing perseverance and hope through every last bail of laundry, every fierce deadline, and every mocking laugh of your schedule and the tick of the clock. Now let’s go to work. ~JK

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The Cross to Quiet the Great Longing

Picture 066The soul was made to hunger and thirst for satisfaction. There’s nothing wrong with human longing. It was made to be in deep longing, but this deep longing was intended for God, for relationship with God, for the worship of God, for service to God, for the glory of God and the enjoyment of Him forever. The soul longs and it is the human condition that for most human beings the soul will long without rest, hunger without satisfaction, thirst without drink. But there are circumstances whereby that longing is pricked and brought to the surface: a nation may feel it collectively, as we have this week due to the horrific events in Boston – which is a story fierce with terror but also fierce with the mercy of God, and we should remember that.

It may be the success of a friend that awakens that longing for satisfaction, it may be the joy of a neighbor’s healthy marriage that makes you feel alone. It may be the experience of suffering, or of the suffering of your children if you have them that may also awaken that longing.

The soul constantly hungers and thirsts. Psalm 63 teaches us that the truest satisfaction of the soul’s longing can only be found in God, which is both an helpful teaching and a stinging corrective. There are signs of unmet longing, hunger and thirst in the disasters that fall us as a people, moment without end. It should cause us to examine ourselves: are we seeking our satisfaction from God or are we like so many others, like the sort of person that must burn not only themselves to be full but everyone around them. Are we so different? Are we drinking from the same well as the person that put violence to so many men, women and children? Or are we willing to say with David that God’s “steadfast love is better than life”?

It is the satisfaction of humanity’s deepest hunger and thirst that Jesus’ life and vicarious death accomplished. What is left is for you and for me to feast.

More Sunday

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Born to (Not) Run

Born To (Not) Run

My morning reading encompassed Mark 14, a chapter that begins ominously as leaders plot to kill Jesus and weaves between intimacy and intrigue. Jesus tenderly receives a woman’s anointing as her anointing him unto death; Judas enters the plot to betray Jesus; Jesus and his disciples share the Passover and the Lord’s Supper is instituted; Jesus predicts Peter’s denial. After Jesus’ arrest all of the disciples flee: the familiar names and, curiously, an anonymous young man (v. 51) following after Jesus who was seized but who escaped naked into the night, leaving his captors holding his clothing. It’s possible this anonymous young man is Mark the gospel writer himself. If so, Mark’s signature appearance in the gospel he pens is marked by fear and flight. By the end of chapter 14 Peter has not only fled from Jesus but denied Jesus three times.
Contemplating the death and resurrection of Christ is a good time to observe the disciples’ running and reflect on our own propensity to run. Principally, the cross calls us away from false confidence in our own spiritual strength. J.C. Ryle’s comments on Mark 14 helped me reflect on this point:

Let us learn from the flight of these eleven disciples, not to be overconfident in our own strength. The fear of man does indeed bring a snare. We never know what we may do, if we are tempted, or to what extent our faith may give way. Let us be clothed with humility.

The annual recital of running feet reveals own hearts; often we seek to preserve our own lives instead of trusting ourselves to the only one capable of holding us steady. We sing in solidarity with the hymn-writer “prone to wander, Lord I feel it, prone to leave the God I love.” Owning my propensity to run fosters charity towards other Christians.

Let us learn to be charitable in our judgment of other Christians. Let us not expect too much from them, or set them as having no grace at all, if we see them overtaken in a fault. Let us not forget that even our Lord’s chosen apostles forsook him in his time of need. Yet they rose again by repentance, and became pillars of the church of Christ.

Among the first disciple-runners were future missionaries and martyrs and possibly a young man that God would grow up and inspire to write a gospel.
Recognizing our propensity to run fuels our love for Jesus who neither ran nor runs away from running disciples who disappoint him.

If there is one trial greater than another, Ryle notes, it is the trial of being disappointed in those we love. It is a bitter cup, which all true Christians have frequently to drink. Ministers fail them. Relations fail them. Friends fail them. One cistern after another proves to be broken, and to hold no water. But let them take comfort in the thought that there is one unfailing friend, even Jesus, who can be touched with the feeling of their infirmities, and tasted all their sorrows. Jesus knows that it is to see friends and disciples failing him in the hour of need. He is never weary of forgiving. Let us strive to do likewise. Jesus, at any rate, will never fail us. It is written, ‘His compassions fail not’ (Lam. 3.22).

Good Friday and Easter are historical makers inviting runners to stop, stand still, and know the grace of forgiveness and welcome from our Savior who didn’t run. He stood still long enough to die for runners. Alive again, he stands to extend grace and forgiveness to those whose running has pained us. May Easter 2013 bring the joy both of knowing Christ’s welcome and extending it to the runners in our lives.

~DS
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J.C. Ryle quotes are from: Ryle, J.C. Expository Thoughts on Mark. Carlisle, PA: The Banner of Truth Trust, 1857. Reprint, 2012, pages 255-256..

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Life Matters. Always.

Life Matters. Always.

January 20 is Sanctity of Life Sunday. This year I’m struck that Jesus is more radically pro-life than I am. Following Jesus leads me to think comprehensively about valuing life than I typically do. Through the mission budget, NPC supports Pregnancy Decision Health Center (PDHC), a ministry providing counsel and material support to moms and couples making decisions in the face of an unplanned pregnancy. You can learn more about PDHC at the table in our lobby today. I’m glad for this partnership and am glad we can highlight it today.

One risk of a Sunday like Sanctity of Life Sunday is defining my pro-life commitments more narrowly than Jesus’ pro-life commitments.

John the gospel writer describes Jesus, God’s Word Incarnate, categorically as the source of all life: “without him was not any thing made that was made.” This reminds me to value human life at each moment of existence within and beyond pregnancy, from birth to death.

As such, Jesus expands my definition of being pro-life to include, for example:
• Volunteering in the nursery so that the parents and siblings of a newborn can hear Jesus’ words of eternal life. How many eternities of children has God changed because their parents heard the gospel preached while a stranger cared for them!
• Championing foster and adoptive parents who stand in the gap for others.
• Mentoring a young student so that student’s educational and vocational prospects improve.
• Affirming the pro-life ministry of student ministry workers – paid and volunteer – who champion the gospel in conversations that cause teens to think about and apply the gospel.
• Visiting the sick, providing a meal for the recuperating or caring for the homeless as vibrant pro-life statements in a culture that celebrates youth and fitness.
• Sharing the gospel personally with others so that God’s message of eternal life can be known?

Jesus pushes me further. Jesus is also pro the lives of friends who feel like strangers and unlovely on a Sanctity of Life Sunday. Jesus is pro the life of a father or mother who chose to terminate a pregnancy. Jesus is pro the life of a doctor who chose to provide that service. Jesus is not less for them than any who have sinned, fall short of God’s glory and are justified by his grace as a gift (Romans 3.23-24). Each of God’s adopted sons and daughters are blood-cleansed, grace drenched creatures.

Would you join me in praying for an increasingly pro-life view that is as big as Jesus’ power, love and grace?

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What is he doing here?

Christmas_Night_2011_St_Charles_Avenue_New_Orleans_04Audrey and I read through the Bible together because that is what fathers do. I think that is what fathers do. Her mother reads with her on nights when I’m away at work. They read stories about large red dogs and small identifiable objects. What is it? Can you find the letter ‘Y’? Where is the Giraffe? I read the story of Adam and Eve in the Jesus Storybook Bible. Or I read the story of Abraham and Isaac, or of that mighty, stinking Ark, full of God’s love and mercy treading oceans of judgment. Or I read about Samson, a womanizing and blustering fool who feared no man but himself even in his final act – part vanity and part faith. Which I suppose is the composition of you and me most of the time. Recently we read through the story of the Advent and I prayed as I read that the words would find soft ground in her heart. I read and Audrey asked questions over me:

Who is that? What is he doing?
He’s looking at Jesus the baby.

What is HE doing?
He is also watching the baby Jesus.

Before I finish my explanation she asks another question about another illustrated character.

What is HE doing?!
He’s a cow eating and watching Jesus.

I ask her to stop asking questions so daddy can finish reading the story because this story is very important, I tell her. I should tell myself; prone to distraction as anyone. And she lies back against the pillow or against my chest and watches me turn the pages and listens to me say, well, what exactly I am not sure. She knows in some places that the story is sad or the story is funny or triumphant. She knows in some places that I speak another way altogether. It is the same way I speak when I warn her ahead of time that something will be powerful and dangerous, or delicate. Advent gets that tone, the tone of reverence. One day she’ll understand reverence, I think. One day I may even understand it.

*   *   *

There was no room for them at the Inn, Audrey. And they were outside in the stable and there were animals like the animals you have seen at the zoo like cattle and sheep. And there was Jesus as a baby. There was his mommy and his daddy. Well, not exactly his daddy. You see, Jesus was begotten not made. He was very God of very God. But here he was a drooling, pooping very God. He was God on the straw. And the people are there because they know that Jesus is very special. They know that Jesus came to fix the world from bad and sad things. They know that Jesus is good and Jesus cares for them and Jesus is strong. Yes, that is a chicken.

You see everyone watching Jesus? They are watching because they waited a long time for Jesus to be born. They waited years and years for Jesus and there were a lot of bad and sad things that happened while they waited. They watched him while the cow mooed and the sheep baaed. And shots rang out in elementary schools. And they waited while they were happy and while they were sad, too. So they were quiet because they were so glad that Jesus was finally born. Do you know what they did when they saw Jesus in the manger? They worshipped him. They worshipped him kid. Just like we must worship him too.

*   *   *

What is he doing? It is a question for the grown up that reads the story as much as the child who listens. Maybe it is a question for the man or woman so eager to turn one page into the next, one season to the next. What is HE doing? He is saving my life. What is HE doing?! He is bringing peace so heartening and deep that the parent becomes a child again watching the manger. He has come, he really has. There are the sheep and the oxen. There are the mother and father and the shepherds smelling more like animals than the animals. And here I am and here you are too. What is he doing here? It is a question every reader and listener must answer. There is a saying somewhere that you can take the man out of the fields but you cannot take the fields out of the man. What is he doing? He is doing what I cannot do.

He is being born into our straw worlds. This is what HE is doing. He is being born into a stable for beasts of all sorts. He is beating swords into plowshares, He is restoring the years locusts have taken. He is mothering the orphan and fathering the fatherless. He is shouldering the government, He is binding up the wounded. He is vindicating, He is repaying. He is laying before us the Great Story and making readers of us all.

Merry Christmas
-JK

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