Kaleidoscope (Helen Wieger)

kaleideoscope

Kaleidoscope

There is this beautiful deep down
         that is real
            whole
            beautiful
    like the kaleidoscope

you have broken parts
          raw edges
          needs
            of stays,
            stability

Quaking, shifting, shaking
    deep down
      who are you
      this shape emerging
      new
    yet always there

by Helen Wieger

Illustration by Corrie Haffly

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Two years ago was my 20th high school reunion: an unexpected opportunity to revisit my teen-self and also reconnect with some girls I had known then. It is a rare thing to get a time-lapse glimpse of yourself and others; to note the continuity and discontinuity in us all. For of course, we are the same people we always were—I am recognizably the 16-year old Bronwyn they knew—and yet we have all changed so much.

Helen’s kaleidoscope poem captured something of this mystery for me.

 

 

She Dared Me – a guest post by Tifani Oaks

Friends: I am excited to introduce you to Tifani Oaks, who sent me this post as part of the Words That Changed my World series. I am so grateful she chose to share her story of daring greatly with us.

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Toward the end of my senior year of college, a very wise woman uttered something that turned my world upside-down. She charged me with a task of sorts: to some, it may have seemed simple; to others, it may have seemed almost second nature; but to me, it seemed impossible.

It was crazy. It was far outside my comfort zone. And it was risky.

There’s no way on earth I would actually consider it, I reasoned. She’s out of her mind if she really thinks I’m going to do something like that.

She doesn’t know me: she doesn’t know my story; she doesn’t know what I’ve been through.

And I was right. She didn’t. She didn’t know me at all.

In fact, I had met her just days before: she had humbly offered up her driving services to those of us college students who were interested in attending a book signing event in Palo Alto. And I, somewhat on a whim, had decided to join.

As we pulled out of the parking lot, I felt anxious—uncertain about whether my sudden burst of spontaneity was such a good idea after all.

But after spending no more than a couple of hours with her, squashed between children’s car seats and several mounds of Cheerio’s stashed strategically beneath the crevices of the back seat of her minivan, I found myself utterly drawn to her.

It wasn’t because of anything she said, really; it was just her: her passion, her wisdom, her demeanor.

So I shot her a rather lengthy message after the event, hoping my honest [albeit somewhat forward] words would elicit a favorable response.

The following evening, I found myself seated comfortably on her couch, surrounded by a trove of children’s toys, an expansive collection of coffee mugs, and an inexplicable feeling of warmth and acceptance.

There was a genuineness about her: a transparency that I longed to understand.

There in her living room, I began to share a piece of my story with her.

I told her about the breakup, about last summer, and about my honest desire to have and maintain spiritual friendships.

She sat quietly for a moment, as if she were taking everything in.

“I dare you…” she began.

My heart began to race. Never one to shy away from a challenge, I was eager to hear what she had to say.

“I dare you…to be vulnerable with them.”

My heart sank. I hadn’t anticipated that one.

Instead of the usual feelings of eagerness and zeal that would typically accompany the almost-immediate acceptance of such a challenge, her call to action was met only with silence and timidity.

With them? I thought. She was referring to the women in my Growth Group, or small-group Bible Study: the women I admired; the women I wanted to impress; the women with whom I longed to develop lasting relationships.

Impossible, I thought. I could never do that.

Sure, I could be vulnerable with her.

But that was in the safety of her home. She was an adult, a mother, a mentor.

She wasn’t a college student, a rival, a peer.

She had been through all of these things once before: she could provide me with insight and guidance, not judgment or rejection.

That was what they would offer me, I was certain—like the others before them.

It was easier to hide.

Easier to hide behind my walls of insecurity and self-doubt: behind perfect makeup and plastic smiles; behind red lipstick and inside jokes; behind sparkling shoes and busy schedules.

“I—I don’t know if I can do that,” I managed to stammer after several moments.

“I’m not forcing you to,” she responded. “Just mull it over—give it some thought.”

And “give it some thought” I did.

For the next 24 hours, doubts about what might await me if I accepted her challenge consumed me.

A million what ifs penetrated my thoughts: What if they hate me? What if they think I’m crazy? What if they don’t understand? What if… What if… What if…

So I prayed. And prayed. And prayed.

It took time and discipline. It took faith and hope. Most of all, it took trust—lots and lots of trust.

Every time a doubt entered my mind, I resolved to give it over, give it up, and trust [and beg and hope and plead] that God would know what to do with it.

And each time I relinquished these doubts, these fears, these anxieties, they were exchanged for peace: peace about my task, peace about my fears, peace about the outcome.

Because no matter how terrifying it seemed and no matter how insecure I felt, God was showing me that He was trustworthy and that He would be there every step of the way.

I wouldn’t be alone: I had a partner, a friend, a Savior.

It’s only been a few months since I accepted her challenge; but the benefits of accepting that challenge have been impressively, surprisingly, astonishingly rewarding.

I have never felt more free, more at peace, more at ease with who I am in Christ.

And I have never been more excited to begin so many new relationships.

Her challenge has truly sparked a desire within me to be real with people: to be open, honest, genuine.

Because my shortcomings, my failures, my misgivings do not define me; my identity is found in Him who is immutable, Him who is immovable. And he will be there through it all.

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photo-18As a recent graduate of UC Davis, Tifani spent the majority of her academic career in exploration: her interests are vast and diverse, making her decision to finally settle down in the philosophy department a difficult one. In her spare time, she enjoys spontaneous trips to the countryside and practicing yoga. She has a profound appreciation for hazelnut iced coffee, C.S. Lewis, and driving with the windows down. She will also never pass up an opportunity to dance or to talk about her Jesus of the Gospels.

7 Amazing Parenting Tips from Rudolf and Rose

7 Amazing Parenting Tips from Rudolf and Rose

Last year I went to a baby shower where everyone present was asked to write their one best piece of parenting advice on a piece of paper to give to the mama-to-be. There were about 20 women at the shower. 8 of the slips had the same advice: “Take Rose’s parenting class.”

Rose is something of a legend in our sleepy little town. In her early years in the trenches of motherhood, she found herself with 3 young, rambunctious boys and a rising sense of panic. In her reading, she came across Rudolf Dreikurs’ book “Children: The Challenge”, and found it so helpful that she enlisted other mama friends to read it with her. The word about Rose and Rudolf spread, and some thirty years later I had the tremendous privilege of sitting in Rose’s living room and reading Dreikurs with Rose as she added her annotations and advice to the discussion.

20131028-200635.jpgThe basic premise of Rudolf and Rose’s parenting is this: children want to belong. They want to know they are significant and feel secure in their place in the family. However, sometimes children will pursue misguided behavioral paths to try and achieve a “place”, after all – negative attention is better than no attention. As such, much of Rose and Rudolf’s advice is aimed at cultivating parenting practices which instill a sense of belonging in our children: cooperation and togetherness are the name of the game.

Of course, to find out more you should read Dreikurs. Even though it is at times outdated (e.g. what to do when your children are climbing all over each other in the back seat of the car…. clearly in the days before mandatory safety belts) and even frustratingly 1960’s in its gender roles (describing “Mother” and “Father’s” roles in a way that would have given Gloria Steinem palpitations) – it is an encouraging, wise and deeply helpful book. Especially if you read it with Rose.

Sadly, there is no mail-order Rose to send to desperate parents, but thanks to the glories of the internet, here are just a few of the gems from Rose’s treasure-chest of advise on parenting which I scribbled down in my notebooks:

  • Have fun together as a family
    What people enjoy together brings them together. Make time for games and projects where ALL enjoy the fun. Cultivate a sense of belonging while laughing together, you’ll need it later on.

  • Talk WITH them, not TO them
    Involve your kids in family decisions, whether they are small or big. “If you tell me, I forget. If you show me, I learn. If you involve me, then I understand.”

  • Don’t sweat the small stuff.
    Rose’s rule of thumb was this: “If it doesn’t last more than 5 years, if it doesn’t cost more than 5 dollars, or if it doesn’t hurt more than 5 people… it’s not a big deal.”

  • Don’t do for a child what they can do themselves.
    Wait for them, encourage them, but let them do it.

  • Take time for training
    Set aside time to teach your children skills: how to clear their plates, how to fold a shirt. This need does not disappear with time: in adolescent years, take time to teach them how to drive, have conversations with adults, how to face awkwardness (Rose’s suggested line, which I wrote down in toto for future reference was this: “Sometimes you’ll make mistakes in public places or not know what to do and you’ll feel awkward or embarassed, but that’s okay, and it will pass.” Simple, yet SOLID GOLD, people!)

  • A misbehaving child is a discouraged child
    Our kids often use wrong means (misbehavior) to try and achieve good goals (a sense of belonging). If they are discouraged about who they are or insecure about their place in the family, often that means they will ramp up the only “effective” behavior they know (effective in that it gets their parents’ attention). Rose and Rudolf have much to say on this topic, but they call for compassion on “misbehaving” kids, as well as combining it with a few ace parenting tricks, one of which is…

  • Encourage, encourage, encourage your children.
    Whereas praise refers to general statements about a person (“you’re so smart”), encouragement gives specific statements about a deed (“I see you worked hard at putting ALL the colors into that painting of a rainbow!”) Tell them you love them, you SEE them, you notice their effort and their progress

Skimming through my notes on Driekurs makes me realize how much I need a refresher course with Rose. Her kids are testimony that it is possible to raise teens who have a strong sense of belonging. I want a home like that too. Encourage, encourage, encourage, so that our children will know they belong, belong, belong. Lord, have mercy.

This is post 28 of 31 Days of Belonging. For a complete list of posts, click here.

Where Do Teens Belong?

Our friend Joe has been telling us about teens.

Joe works with teenagers: he loves them, he listens to them, he learns from them and about them. I, on the other hand, am intimidated by teens: I didn’t understand my own teen years, and have been bewilderingly perplexed by the whole adolescence thing most of my life. However, we have three kids who are creeping towards adolescence faster than we realize.

And so, I listen to Joe when he tells me about teens.

This is what I am learning: Adolescence (that period between childhood and adulthood), is lengthening. 100 years ago, puberty started later, and people were considered “adult” by the time they were 17 or 18 – ready to marry, work, leave home. They knew who they were, to whom they belonged, and what they were supposed to do.

These days, however, puberty is starting earlier, and experts are saying that adolescence is only really ending towards the end of their 20’s. It is only as people today are staring their 30th birthday down that many begin to know who they are, to whom they belong and what they are supposed to do.

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The work of adolescence is to figure those key things out, and in our world teens are having a dreadfully hard time doing so. They are barraged by information and pressured to perform at a level that has never before been expected from teens. But, unlike generations before, they are required to do more and more of this work of “figuring life out” by themselves.

Our world today is characterized by age-specific activities and programs: at school, on the sports field, in church, in camps – we group people by age, and do our best to “meet their age-specific needs” by creating a program “targeted at their ages”. Much of this is done with love and concern for teens’ development and well-being – and even their social comfort in being with their “own”, but Joe is at pains to point this one thing out:

The downside of age-specific activities is that our teens begin to feel unwanted by any other age groups. Rather than feeling nurtured by the programs designed “just for them”, there is a residual feeling of being abandoned by adults, left to their own devices, both literal and figurative.

These issues are complex and there are no doubt many contributing factors underlying why things are the way they are today. Joe is careful not to over-simplify, but surely he is right to point this one thing out: whereas adolescents used to spend the majority of their day around adults, experiencing life and learning alongside adults; these days adolescents spend the majority of their time around other adolescents, experiencing life through a teenage-grid. Thousands of hours of organic lifestyle mentoring and parenting have been traded for specialized skills-training and youth-specific activity.

Perhaps, teens today are learning economics in a class, rather than from an adult who trusts them enough to watch them figure out how to balance a tight household budget.
Perhaps they get YouTube rather than long conversations over dinner.
Perhaps by shielding our teens from tough conversations about death, betrayal, finance and sex (because it isn’t fun, and they shouldn’t have to think about those horrible things at their age),we are doing them a disservice in not allowing them to feel welcome in our adult world of facing challenge, sometimes failing, and having to try again.

I don’t yet have teens, and so I’m still a decade away from having to put this into practice, but Joe’s words as ringing in my ears as I look at the kids in my life. We cannot give up, we need to engage. We need to be present, we need to start the conversation and not give up. No matter what we do or say or plan, we want to communicate to them that they BELONG. They belong at home, they belong with us, they can stick around for the tough times, they can do the tough projects along side us.

And so we say this to our children: We’re going to do to this thing called life TOGETHER. We will not abandon you to your peers to learn about life. We will do our best to make home a safe place for you to be you as you grow up here. We will affirm our love for you, we will welcome your friends. We will not hide our mistakes from you. We will ask for your trust, your forgiveness, your partnership in our family. We will pray together, serve together, learn together, laugh together.

I think Joe is wise. He knows about teens. I so very much want to be wise about teens too, that we may love them better all the way into adulthood. If you think Joe is wise too, perhaps consider how you can tell a teen you love that they belong in your life today?

There’s Rooibos in my Soul

Part of me will always belong in South Africa.

I’m in my tenth year away, but the smell of a steaming pot of rooibos tea can cross those ten thousand miles in an instant. To the land of charm and Mrs Balls chutney and street vendors selling “peeeeechez, just five rrend-a-beg”. To howzits and hauw’s and hala kahles. To now nows and just nows.

I love my life in California, but when we step off the plane and begin our drive on the left hand side of the road, remembering again to keep an eye out for careening mini-bus taxis, there’s a sense of belonging that comes rushing back as quickly as my original South African accent.

I take in the shanty houses: corrugated iron roofs held down with rocks, yet sporting satellite dishes. I watch for cows and teenagers on the side of the highway, knowing that either of those might venture across at any moment. I know these things without having to think. Like rusty fingers pressed into the service of Chopin after a decade away from classical piano, my mental muscle-memory is called into service along the Cape Town freeway, if not a little slowly.

I buy government loaf white bread hot from the neighborhood Spar. I count out the change without worrying that I will get the combination of coins wrong to make the right amount. In ten years, I still can’t count nickels and dimes properly, but rands and cents make sense to me.

I hear birds. Oh, the birds!

I hear languages: eleven official and funagalo to boot.

I smell trees and cars and poverty and fear and joy.

I don’t live in South Africa anymore. When people abroad ask “what’s South Africa like?” I have to say that I don’t know. Ten years is a long time to be gone. Things change. I know who the president is (more’s the pity), but not much else. My fingers have been taking pulses elsewhere for some time now.

But despite the gap of 3670 days and 16,994 kilometers between my Californian present and my Capetonian past, when I look up at Devil’s Peak and feel the South-Easter stir,

Somehow,

Somehow,

I still feel I belong.

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That there is Devil’s peak, the western peak of Table Mountain. My alma mater is the rose-colored building on its slopes. This picture does not do it justice… Especially at sunset. This schmaltzy post is day 24 of 31 days of belonging a writing challenge for the month of October. For a complete list of posts, click here.

Divorced: Now Where Do I Belong? – guest post

I am honored today to welcome author/speaker Elisabeth Klein Corcoran. I met Elisabeth through the Redbud Writers Guild, and have been moved to tears more than once by her writing. Elisabeth’s new book, Unraveling: Holding on to Your Faith through the End of a Christian Marriage (Abingdon) was released on October 1.

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For almost two decades, I knew what I was and where I fit. I was a wife and I fit pretty much anywhere, because our world and the Church seem to be pervaded by a couples’ culture.

I could even go somewhere alone, because I knew that I was part of a twosome and that I would be going back home to another who was waiting for me.

But some horrible things happened and some awful things were said and some choices that I never would’ve guessed were made and I found myself shocked and ending my marriage after almost twenty years.

I wasn’t shocked because our marriage had been idyllic and this all came out of nowhere. I was shocked because I had thought, somewhere deep down, that I would always, always be married; always, always be a part of this couple.

And then I wasn’t.

And then I was alone.

And then I didn’t know what I was or where I fit anymore.

And it was lonely. And I was sad. And I felt lost.

We had spent the entirety of our fragile marriage in one church community and they walked us through our reconciliation attempt and then released me to legally separate. To say I am grateful for what my church leadership did for me, my marriage, my then-husband and our children is not even scratching the surface. They covered over us. They fought for us. And then, through all of our tears, they released me.

But then, something shifted. In them? In me? I have no idea. But I found myself sick to my stomach and on the verge of tears for the better part of six months every single time I drove into my church parking lot, now husband-less, and letting the tears fall on my way home.

I had always been a Mrs. there, someone’s other half. But I found myself feeling more divorced within the walls of my church community than I did anywhere else in my life. I knew I was divorcing, but I felt even more divorcing there. And when that other half was no longer by my side, I wanted to hide and cry and run away and not be seen.

I just couldn’t do it anymore. The place that had surrounded me and supported me no longer felt like my second home, and so, despite that I was already in the throes of grief over my marriage, I then left my other love – my church.

I wish I had answers for this. Who did this to me? Was it something someone said? Was it a look? Was it the perceived whispers and imagined shunning? Or was it one hundred percent me and my shame and my humiliation and my grieving? Or was it all of these elements swirled together and so much more that I may never fully understand? I don’t know.

But I know that I walked into a church down the street and heard the pastor say on my very first night to the entire gathering, “I don’t care what your baggage is…you are welcome here…you are welcome here…you are welcome here…{pointing to person after person after person}…you are welcome here.” And tears fell down my cheeks as my soul let out a sigh of relief, of homecoming. Of belonging.

20131020-135135.jpgElisabeth’s book Unraveling: Hanging Onto Faith Through the End of a Christian Marriage is available on Amazon. Visit her online at http://www.elisabethcorcoran.com or https://www.facebook.com/ElisabethKleinCorcoran. She is the moderator of two private Facebook groups: one for women in difficult Christian marriages, and one for Christian women who are separated or divorced. Email her at elisabethkcorcoran@gmail.com if interested in joining.

This post is part of the 31 Days of Belonging Series, and I am grateful to Elisabeth for sharing her story as part of it. For a complete list of posts, please click here.

One question to ask if you’re wondering “should I buy this?”

One question to ask if you're wondering_One of the big challenges for me as a believer, living in the world that I do, is trying to figure out how to manage the stuff we own. Words like stewardship, financial planning, wisdom, investment, generosity, living debt-free and justice are all bandied around within the Christian community when the topic of money is raised.

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Often, I feel that “wise counsel” about money gives very contradictory advice. Should we “give generously to those who are hungry now, and trust God for the future?”, or should we “invest wisely for the future so as to not be a burden on our children?”

(This article has been updated and posted at Propel Sophia – head on over to read the rest!)

photo credit: reluctant femme.com

Where The Heart Is

I counted the miles on my way back home:

       Boarding the airplane in Amsterdam (9,000 miles to go) – still not home.

       Touching down in Los Angeles (300 miles to go) – still not home.

       Touching down in Sacramento (15 miles to go) – still not home.

       Stepping off the escalator into the arms of my baby boys – home.

Home, even though I still had 15 miles to go.

Home, even though I was in a dirty airport and was still a car ride away from being able to sink my feet into slippers and raid the snack cupboard without guilt.

I wish my brain had the capacity to remember those 10 seconds forever: the wild, ungainly loping of my 16 month old, moving his stout little legs as quickly as he could across the arrivals hall shouting “Mama! Mama!”  I wish I could freeze-frame the giddy glee of my 3 year old, so overcome with excitement that he lay on the floor spinning in circles. Or the delighted, relieved, shared-joy-smile on my husband’s face.

If home is where the heart is, I was home. Nevermind my stuff, nevermind my geographical coordinates: these were my people, to whom my heart belonged.

In the days that have followed, I keep recalling that scene in the airport, and the intense feeling of home-ness and belonging I felt. If the feeling of being home has to do with our identity-in-relationship, then that makes sense of a few things for me:

  • Why church can feel like “home”, no matter where we are in the world. I find identity in my relationship with God and other believers: He has made His home in us, and we find our rest in Him, together.
  • Why, as a South African living in the States, I find it hard to answer the question “are you going home?” when I travel. There are people I love and belong to on both sides of the Atlantic. In a sense, whenever I travel, I am going “home”. Similarly, with loved ones always separated from where we are in the world – there is always a sense of not being fully “at home”. Something is missing. People are missing.
  • Why, despite strong feelings of attachment and belonging to people in this life, I still long to be Home with God – to find myself in the ultimate place of belonging.

If our feeling of home has to do with identity-in-relationship, that explains why (despite the wonderful relationships I have here), I still long to be home with God and His family. Only then, on that Day, in the new heavens and the new earth, will we-and-all-we-hold-dear be united together. On that Day, we will see Him face to face. On that Day, we will finally belong. On that Day, we will be home.

And until then, we belong to our loved ones with a longing reserved for eternity. We yearn for it in our hearts. And in airport arrivals halls, we can almost touch it. It’s a taste of the homecoming joy to come.

Homecoming - Bronwynphoto credit: wnn.com

It was my great joy to swap guest posts with Kate Motaung yesterday: her “31 Days of Defining Home” series has a lot of cross-over with “31 Days of Belonging”. For a complete list of Kate’s posts, click here. For a list of the Belonging posts, click here.

The Illustrated Guide to Justification


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I’ve been wanting to write this post for nearly a year now. In fact, the reason I chose the topic “31 Days of Belonging” was because I wanted to include a mini-series on Justification. Thinking through this topic has arguably been the most rewarding thing I’ve learned from the Bible in several years. I hope and pray it is true to the Scripture, and helpful to you. If you just want the pictures part, please feel free to scroll down past the introduction.

A rose by any other name may smell as sweet, but it is not true that all words are created equal. Some words are more important than others, and for people of faith, JUSTIFICATION is one of those words.

The early church, persecuted and condemned by the courts of Rome, clung to the truth that they were justified by the court of God.

1700 years later, the course of Western Civilization changed because of the reformation rallying cry of “justification by faith”.

Blood has been spilled over this issue. It’s important to understand it.

After three years at seminary, I thought I had a fairly good grip on what justification meant. I had studied church history and soteriology and (good grief!) even translated Romans from the original Greek into English. So when I started preparing a series of conference talks on the big words used to describe what Jesus accomplished on the cross (redemption, justification, adoption), I thought I would just be brushing up on my bible college notes. I could not have been more wrong.

In my studies, I discovered that in the dozen or so years since I finished seminary, some of my theological heroes have been fencing with ink over what justification means. NT Wright and John Piper, in particular, have both written books on the topic in the last few years: publicly, heatedly, passionately disagreeing with each other – and both appealing to the Bible for support. I was beginning to appreciate why my friend Dan Seitz had said he believed “justification was the biggest issue facing the church today.”

I hit the books. The conference date was coming up and I was panicking. When I read Piper, I totally understood what he was saying. But when I read Wright, I found myself nodding and underlining and agreeing with him too. Weeks of wrestling later, I found myself trying to wrangle these big ideas into sentences. I felt like I was trying to capture wild tigers running loose in my head. I labored with words as I labored with the Word.

I sifted through ideas, and landed up with a series of annotated illustrations which, to me, were an “aha!!!” moment in understanding. What follows is my attempt to understand what the Bible teaches about justification – incorporating both Piper’s insistence that it means our complete pardon by God due to the merits of Christ, and also Wright’s insistence that we explain justification with reference to the wider Biblical context, and particularly, with reference to Father Abraham, whose name appears in every New Testament passage dealing with justification.

Before we get to the pictures, there are two brief things to note:

1) Justification is a LEGAL word. It is the opposite of condemnation, one of two possible verdicts which can be given in a legal trial. When the Bible talks about justification, it is a courtroom image – where a contract (particularly, a relational contract, or COVENANT) is being adjudicated by God the judge.

2) Justification and righteousness are WORD BUDDIES. In both Hebrew and Greek, righteousness, justice, and justification are all different forms of the same word. It would be theologically correct (but linguistically awkward) to think of justification as “righteoussifying”, or righteousness as “being legally considered to be JUST, or exonerated, or declared to be in the right, by God”.

But now… on to the pictures.

-The Illustrated Guide to Justification-

Way back when, in a hot middle eastern land, God bound himself up in a relationship with a man named Abram. Just like marriage covenants are created by making vows, so God initiated a (wonderful, intimate) binding legal relationship by making vows to Abram. Renaming him Abraham, God vowed that he would bless Abraham: he would give him a land, many descendants, an honored name and a world impact. Most importantly, he promised himself to Abraham. “I am your very great reward,” God said (Genesis 12:1-3).

Genesis 15 tells us what Abraham’s profound response was: he believed God.

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Abraham believed God, and God “credited it to him as righteousness” (Genesis 15:6). In other words: God JUSTIFIED Abraham, or gave him a legal stamp of approval.

Here is my attempt to depict what this relationship looked like: against the backdrop of Genesis 1-11 and the sin of the whole world, culminating in the tower of Babel, God created a sphere of blessing and started a new relationship with people. He would be Abraham’s God, and Abe would be his person. Abraham believed God (in other words, he had faith).

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Now when a contract is contested in court, the judge’s job is to determine whether the parties have performed their side of the contract. Each party is judged according to what they promised to do. If the court finds that they have performed properly, they would receive a verdict of “justified”. If they don’t, they would be “condemned”.

So at this point, if Abraham and God’s covenant (or contract relationship) was to be scrutinized, in order to be “justified”, each of them would need to keep their promises. God would need to keep his promises to bless Abraham, and Abraham had to believe it. And the verdict? Abraham was “justified by faith”. This does not mean that Abraham was sinless, but it does mean he was within the sphere of blessing. He was relating rightly to God, and was one of His people.

400 years later, God had a “vow renewal ceremony” with his people, this time at Mt Sinai with Moses and some angels officiating. This time, God was making a covenant with Abraham’s descendants (whom we call Israel). Exodus and Deuteronomy record God’s “I will” promises. Specifically, he promised to keep his promises to Abraham. He promised again to be their God, and have Israel be His people. And He gave them the law, to show them how to live.

This time, however, Israel made vows too. “We will do everything you say in the law,” they promised. As God’s people, Israel had to choose how they would behave in this relationship. If they were faithful and obeyed the house rules, things would go well for them and they would receive blessing upon blessing. (Just like in marriage, if you are faithful, you reap blessings!) However, if they were unfaithful to Him and rebelled, there would be sanctions and curses (to use the language of Deuteronomy.

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It is important to realize this about the covenant between God and Israel: he KNEW they were not perfect people, and so within the law He made provision for sins to be confessed, paid for and forgiven through the sacrificial system. The “sphere of blessing” included provision for dealing with sin. This is crucial because we often confuse “righteousness” with “sinlessness”, but they are not the same. Abraham wasn’t sinless. He sinned aplenty, but his heart was orineted towards God. Israel wasn’t sinless either. To say that you needed to be “sinless” to be justified (or found righteous) means that God set Israel up for failure from the start, which cannot be true.

To be found “righteous” or “justified”, Israel didn’t have to be sinless, but they did have to have their sins DEALT with. God gave them the substitutionary sacrificial system and called Israel to confess their sins and have FAITH (just like Abraham did), that their sins were dealt with. Sinful Israel could still, by faith, be in God’s “sphere of blessing”, and if that’s where they were then they could get God’s judicial stamp of approval, or justified. Being righteous doesn’t mean being sinless, it means being in a RIGHT-RELATIONSHIP according to the covenant (while that covenant provides for forgiveness).

Consider how Romans 4 explains David’s understanding of justification under the Mosaic Covenant:

Now to the one who works, his wages are not counted as a gift but as his due.  And to the one who does not work but believes in him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is counted as righteousness,  just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works:

“Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered;

blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” (Romans 4:4-8 ESV)

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The law given at the “vow renewal ceremony” highlighted one big problem: sin. Israel had hearts that were “prone to wander”: their sinful hearts were always pulling them away from God. The law put into words what already lurked beneath: their tendency was to drift away, to distrust and disbelieve God, and by walking towards the nations – they walked out of the sphere of blessing.  The Old Testament recounts God sending prophet after prophet with the message “Come back! Come back to me! Come back because I love you, and come back because if you move away from me your sins can’t and won’t be dealt with!” But Israel kept wandering.

What, then, shall we say of the “verdicts” on God and Israel’s promise-keeping on their covenant? The prayer on Nehemiah’s lips towards the end of Israel’s history is very revealing:

“You are the LORD, the God who chose Abram and brought him out of Ur of the Chaldeans. You found his heart faithful before you, and made with him a covenant to give his offspring the land of the Canaanite, the Hittite, the Amorite, the Perizzite, the Jebusite, and the Girgashite. And you have kept your promise, for you are righteous. ” (Nehemiah 9:7-8)

“Nevertheless, Israel was disobedient and rebelled against you and cast your law behind their back and killed your prophets, who had warned them to turn them back to you, and they committed great blasphemies.” (Nehemiah 9:26)

“Now, therefore, our God, the great, the mighty, and the awesome God, who keeps covenant and steadfast love, let not all the hardship seem little to you that has come upon us, upon our kings, our princes, our priests, our prophets, our fathers, and all your people, since the time of the kings of Assyria until this day. Yet you have been righteous in all that has come upon us, for you have dealt faithfully and we have acted wickedly. (Nehemiah 9:32-33 ESV)

Verdict on Israel? Condemned. Unrighteous.

Verdict on God? Righteous. But…. uh oh. Here was a problem. God had a covenant conundrum.

To be found righteous according to the covenant, God had to keep ALL the promises he had made to Israel, which included a promises to:

1) BLESS Abraham’s descendants and the whole world through them (Genesis 12), and yet he had also promised to

2) PUNISH them for breaking the covenant.

What to do? What to do?

Well, the New Testament is very clear that the brilliant and wise way God kept his promise was by initiating a new covenant through Jesus, the promised Messiah. The original covenant had been with Abraham, the vow renewal with Abraham’s descendants, but the new covenant would be with Abraham’s descendant . Galatians 3 makes a big deal of pointing out that God had promised to bless the world through Abraham’s descendant (singular), not descendants (plural). Jesus, Abraham’s descendant, would live as the perfect, righteous and faithful Israelite. He would make vows back to God: “Here I am,” he said, “I have come to do your will.”

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Finally, there was perfect covenant performance. Jesus completely kept God’s covenant. He was completely faithful, completely obedience, completely sinless (thus earning ALL the blessings of the Mosaic covenant for doing it right). However, in his death he offered a full and perfect sacrifice for the sins of sinful people (thus paying for ALL the curses of the Mosaic covenant for sin).

So how did this covenant do in court?

Jesus – was declared completely righteous. He was justified. He checked all the boxes.

And God? was justified too, in that He kept EVERY promise he had made in the former covenants by fulfilling them in Jesus.

Jesus alone stood in and created a new “sphere of blessing” in the covenant he sealed with his blood. He ALONE was justified as the covenant keeper. He ALONE earned the right to be one of God’s people, and to have God be His God.

The good news of the gospel, though, is that while all of us by nature are in the blue zone of judgment for sin, if we have FAITH in Jesus, we will be “IN CHRIST”. By faith, we can literally move into Jesus’ sphere of blessing – NOT because of our own works, but because of Jesus. We can be legally declared to be “one of God’s people”, “justified”, “in the right with Him”, with our sins having been dealt with.

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Justification means more than just having our guilty verdicts removed. In light of the promises with Abraham, it includes our judicial pardon, but it also speaks to our inclusion in God’s people by faith – just as Abraham, David, Moses, Rahab, Ruth, Anna and Simeon were.

Consider the following verses:

Christ died for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God. (1Peter 3:18)

But now the righteousness of God has been manifested apart from the law, although the Law and the Prophets bear witness to it—the righteousness of God through faith in Jesus Christ for all who believe.

For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fall short of the glory of God, and are justified by his grace as a gift, through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus, whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.

This was to show God’s righteousness, because in his divine forbearance he had passed over former sins. It was to show his righteousness at the present time, so that he might be just and the justifier of the one who has faith in Jesus. (Romans 3:21-26 ESV)

I understand the last two verses to be saying “see how God has solved the covenant conundrum!” God’s surprise ending in Jesus was not foreseen by Israel, but in hindsight the pattern was there all along (“the law and the prophets bore witness to it”)

“For as many are the promises of God, in Him (that is, Jesus) they are YES!” (2 Corinthians 1:19-20)

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No-one deserves to be in a covenant relationship with God. Abraham didn’t, Israel didn’t, you and I don’t. However, God wanted to be in a relationship with us, and made a way to do that through Christ. The pattern of how he would do it legally (through a covenant) was there from the beginning, and the pattern of how he would deal with sin (through a covenant) was foreshadowed too – but the final “ta daaaaa!” of his plan was only revealed in Jesus.

Justification means being legally declared to be right with God.

Sins forgiven. Included in God’s covenant. One of His people.

Always and forever, because of Jesus.

All it takes to be in God’s sphere of blessing is to believe in Jesus. Stand in the circle, friends. Stand in the circle. There’s nowhere better in the whole world (Romans 5:1-5).

This is day 8 of 31 Days of Belonging. Over the next few days I’ll be sharing some thoughts of the practical implications of justification: “If we belong to God, then what?” Stay tuned. 

The Buddy System

Scuba-diving school was intense. The instructors taught us how to manage our equipment, clear our masks, regulate our air flow and how to descend into the water slowly to give our bodies time to equalize under the pressure. We practiced in the pool, and after a few sessions we graduated to the ocean.

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Standing on the sandy Saldanha Bay beach, our instructor imparted one more lesson before we took the plunge: we could not dive safely unless we had a Buddy. We quickly paired up and studied the wetsuit-clad features of our new partners. These were the people we had to look out for underwater: were they handling the pressure changes? Were they safe? Were they close enough to reach if there was trouble? Every few minutes, we needed to check in with our Buddy. “All OK?”, I would ask with a signed thumbs up. “All OK,” my Buddy would signal back.

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Having buddies made diving safe.

Four months ago, when I started this blog, it felt a lot like scuba diving. There was so much new information, a new world to explore: the equipment was unfamiliar, my figurative mask needed clearing, I wasn’t sure how to control my breathing. In the excitement of the first few weeks, I dived in and quickly felt the pressure building even though I hadn’t ventured in very deeply.

That’s the tricky thing about deep water: the pressure increases quickly.

I was so thankful a few weeks later to have lunch with three women who had been writing for a lot longer than I had. They had perspective, encouragement, tips. They offered support and community. As it tuned out they were all members of the Redbud Writers Guild: a community of Christian women who are “fearlessly expanding the feminine voice in our churches, communities and culture.” I turned in my application the next day.

It seems fitting to me that the Redbud writers call each other “Buds”. Diving into writing, I need a buddy. I need someone to check: am I handling the pressure changes? Am I safe? Am I within arms reach if there is trouble? I need experienced buddies to watch and learn from, to see how they chart their courses and handle the currents. Social Media allows us a way to check in with each other: “you OK?” a Bud will ask. And fittingly, the facebook signal for reply is exactly the same as in diving:

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Having Buds makes blogging safe.

In a sea of sharks, I’m so glad I belong to my Buds.

 

This is day 5 of 31 Days of Belonging. Click here to see a list of other posts.
Photo credit: splash dive.com, liveandletsdive.com