Featured

Welcome

What is This About, Anyway?
Welcome to my new site, Reese’s Exegesis. It’s my home on the internet for all my latest writings and musings. And as much work as I know this will be, it feels good to be back to the internet and sharing my thoughts with all of you. I hope we enjoy getting to know each other.

So, What is This About?
Well, I’m not entirely sure. I’m starting this thing with a sense of adventure and I’m not sure exactly where it will lead. I’m hoping it leads to some great conversations, a new community of friends, and everybody getting to know Jesus a little better. A pretty good mission, wouldn’t you say?

What You Can Expect To Find Here
Here, you will find my musings. There will be some exegesis (of course) and some discussion. There will also be reviews of (mostly) Christian books. And there will be chitchat — lots of random chitchat.

Will There Be Controversy?
Most likely. When discussing the bible there are always differences of opinion and interpretation, and that is okay. It’s great. I’m not afraid of diversity of opinions. All I ask is that we respect each person’s right to see things differently. We can agreeably disagree.
In fact, I think we should disagree. I think we should discuss our differences. I always learn something new when I interact with someone who sees things differently than I do. As one of my wise professors said, “Everyone has some light.” And we can all stand to add to what we have.

Why This? Why Now?
These are big questions and the answers are long and complicated.

I am doing this for the love of writing. I always loved to write: Fiction, Nonfiction, online, in journals… it really doesn’t matter. I love to express myself in the written word.

I am doingthis becaise I love learning. Anyone who knows me can tell you how much I enjoy learning new things. I love reading, I love school, people that teach me things. I am always on the quest for knowledge. Committing to study here Will help to feed that desire to learn and to know more.

I am doing this to connect with God. Studying is one of the best ways for me to connect with God. I’m not sure if scholarship is a spiritual gift, But if it is, I certainly have it. I feel like God often meets me when I study. For that reason, I do this.

I am doing this for myself. Truth be told, I am really struggling in my faith. I have been for a long time. I’m not sure what the answer is. I read books and they help. I go to church and it helps. I think some Time concentrated study may also help me out of this. Who knows? I might help someone else in this process as well. So shall we study together?

My Promise To You
I love to listen to the advice of experienced writers as I walk my path as a writer. One piece of advice comes up over and over: be honest. It doesn’t matter whether you write fiction or nonfiction. Honesty is an essential. It’s a non-negotiable. Because if the writing isn’t honest then it is pointless. It rings hollow. It doesn’t do anything for the reader.
There’s a famous quote:

Writing is easy; simply open a vein and bleed.

That is exactly what a writer must do: bleed onto the page. It must happen to write a successful novel. It must happen to write an effective book on business or fitness or gardening. And it absolutely must happen to write anything about Jesus. It’s a waste of everything if the writing isn’t honest. So what you will find here is honesty. I promise you that.
You won’t find platitudes or cute phrases here. I have no time for that. What you will find is careful study. You will find my true thoughts and experiences. And hopefully, we will all experience Jesus here.

I think the study will help me more than anything. But I think sharing will help too. I am a writer at heart and I think the writing and sharing and discussion might be the thing I need at this challenging point in my life.

So come on in and let’s get closer to God together.

post

Delayed , But Still Delivered – Seeing Acts 16 Through Fresh Eyes

Quite unintentionally, my husband and I have been reading about Paul quite a bit this month. Recently, I read through Acts 16. The story of Paul and Silas in prison is found there. I must confess, for years, I thought this was the story of Paul and Silas being delivered from prison by an earthquake. After looking carefully, I don’t think that’s quite the point of the story.

This story takes place Philippi, which is a Roman colony. The city of Philippi was located in Macedonia. As such, Philippi enjoyed elevated legal status. The beating of Roman citizens was prohibited and could have resulted in Philippi’s  loss of their elevated status.

The story begins in Acts 16:16, where Paul and his companions are headed to the house of prayer. Along the way, Paul casts a demon out of a slave girl because it had been harassing them. But the slave’s owners were upset because they had had been exploiting her condition. They made money from her telling fortunes. When the demon was gone she could no longer tell fortunes so they reported Paul and Silas.

The city officials seized them and beat them with rods. This is one of the three beatings with rods Paul alludes to in 2 Corinthians 11:25. They were then thrown into prison. The jail keeper was warned that they should not escape, so he put them in the dungeon with their feet in stocks.

Around midnight Paul and Silas were praying and singing praises to God and suddenly there was an earthquake. The prison doors were opened and the chains were broken. The jailer, who had fallen asleep, woke to see the doors open. He supposed that the prisoners under his care had escaped and took his sword to kill himself. Paul lets him know that no one has escaped and the jail keeper asks what he needs to do to be saved. So Paul preaches to him. The jailer then takes care of Paul and Silas. He and his family are saved that day. 

Heavy on the Drama

As a writer, I love this story. It’s heavy on the drama and the emotional stakes are really high. Paul had just freed a young girl from demonic oppression. We cheer for her newfound freedom and we marvel at the power of Jesus.

So the city falls to its knees in repentance, right? Not quite. Local officials seize Paul and Silas and they beat them — with rods. And after beating them, the officials throw them in jail. Paul woke up that morning with the intention of spreading the gospel. He was headed to the house of prayer when the whole thing went down, after all. By nightfall, Paul was bleeding in jail. Not a good day, if you ask me. 

It’s important to note that Paul was doing exactly what God called him to do. Paul walked a hard road. He made a lot of enemies and he endured great suffering. Paul’s life illustrates a very important lesson: following God’s plan and walking out your calling do not exempt you from trouble. In Paul’s case, walking out his calling was the primary cause of his suffering. Following God’s plan does not mean that things will be easy. Or pleasant.

This is an important point to make because I feel that we too often try to entice non-Christians with the lie that they just need to find and follow God’s plan and life will “work.” We tell them that God’s plan is better than theirs. I think this creates an unrealistic expectation and sets people up to be blindsided by the reality that following God’s plan could be absolutely miserable. 

In this case, Paul and Silas were severely beaten —with rods— and then imprisoned. I have to be honest. That would have been it for me. Good thing God wasn’t counting on me to plant churches in the first century. There wouldn’t be any.

But Paul and Silas have a very curious response to being beaten and imprisoned — in my opinion, anyway. They are praying and singing hymns to God. They transformed the prison cell into a church and begun to have service. 

God Broke the Chains When His Children Called on Him

Paul and Silas were praying and singing hymns in prison. The prisoners were listening. The jailer may have been listening, himself, before he fell asleep. But they sang and prayed in the midst of a very dark situation.

God responded in a very dramatic fashion. There was suddenly an earthquake that left the prison doors open and the prison chains broken. It wasn’t Paul and Silas’ deliverance, but it was a very dramatic response from God.

It’s Not That Simple

Reading this story this week I learned something new. I never realized that Paul and Silas went to the jailer’s home and he apparently took them back to prison after cleaning them up (v 35-40). Paul and Silas were back in jail when the order to release them came.

The way I’ve heard this preached in the past emphasized the earthquake and the chains falling off, as if that is the moment of Paul and Silas’ deliverance. It wasn’t. 

It’s possible that the officials felt the earthquake (wherever they were) and decided to free Paul and Silas because of it. It could have been something else entirely. They may have been planning to release them the next day all along. The text doesn’t tell us so we cannot know.

What the text does tell us, however, is that Paul and Silas didn’t walk out of prison once the chains were broken and the doors were opened. To say that the earthquake was their means of deliverance isn’t really accurate.

What we can accurately say is that prayer and praise are powerful. We can see that all over scripture. Were Paul and Silas delivered because of their prayers and praise? Quite possibly, but it wasn’t quite that simple. 

Crisis

I want to focus for a moment on the jailer. That day probably stared just like any other. During the first century, Roman jailers were known for their cruelty and malice. We can only imagine what he had been up to before Paul and Silas arrived. He showed up to work his shift and had been given orders to make sure Paul and Silas didn’t escape. He fell asleep, only to be awakened by an earthquake. He saw the prison doors open and he paniced.

This was a real crisis. He was responsible for any escaped prisoners and the prison doors were standing open. He was so distraught that he drew his crowd to kill himself. Thankfully, Paul stopped him.

But that was the end or one crisis and the beginning of another. Yes, the prisoners were all present and accounted for, but the jailer then realized the real crisis: he was faced with the undeniable power of a God he didn’t know. He fell trembling before Paul and Silas. This was no small matter. The jailer was utterly vulnerable and wholly aware of his need. He asked Paul how to be saved. Paul’s message was simple: Believe in Jesus. Paul preached the gospel to him and his family and there were saved. 

So, who was delivered that night? Not Paul and Silas. They went back to prison only to be released a few hours later. It was the Philippian jailer and his family who were delivered the that night. It is not to be missed that Paul and Silas were delivered from prison. God did intervene on their behalf. Just not that night.

Conclusion

Of course, I’ve read this story before. I’ve heard it preached many times. But as I read it last week I saw things I hadn’t seen before. It was really about what I thought it was about. It’s not as simple. It leaves me with as many questions as I have answers.

Of course, it would have been a cooler story had Paul and Silas strolled out of the prison after the earthquake. It would have tied things up nicely. Paul and Silas are in jail, there’s an earthquake, and then they’re free. But that’s not the way it happens. As it has happened so many times in scripture and in my own life, deliverance didn’t come in the expected manner or on the preferred timeline. In this story, it did come though.

So I walk away from the story with two very broad ideas. First, following God’s plan can be miserable. At times, at least. I know this firsthand. It can be stressful. It can be dangerous. And as in so many cases, it can be deadly. No wonder Jesus says people have to hate their own lives to follow him.

The second is slightly more comforting: God has a plan of each of us and God will employ extraordinary measures to see it accomplished. Paul and Silas wound up in jail, but God’s plan was for them to preach Jesus, so he had them released. Paul meets a lot more trouble in the coming chapters, but you can also see God working despite the trouble. 

May God work on your behalf as well.

On Voices

A few weeks ago, I visited the blog of a well known Christian author. She seemed like a cool person, but I ultimately remember leaving her blog feeling very disconnected. While she had lots of good points, I remember thinking that she lived in a totally different world. She was white. She married her college sweetheart. She’s spent the last several years raising kids and writing. That’s her world. I cannot relate.

I’m a black woman from the south side of Chicago who married well after college (let’s not talk about how long, thank you). I don’t have kids. I have spent most of my life alone, searching for Mr. Right. Our lives could not be more different. I felt sad leaving her page because I didn’t connect to that world. It was just too big of a leap.

Eventually, I realized that I’m just tired of hearing the same voice. White, Christian, married in/right after college, lots of kids, making a life of writing. It seems like “the story.” And I don’t have that story. I can’t even relate to that story. And then the question rose, Why should I have to?

When I think about myself as a writer I think about my voice, the uniqueness that I bring to everything I write. I think of my voice as DNA. You never really see it, but the effects of it are infused into every topic, every narrative, and every word choice. It’s the combination of  my experience, my knowledge, and my worldview that underlies everything else. I could go into a detailed description of the writers I enjoy and the distinctiveness of their voices, but I’ll spare you that. I’ll summarize here by saying that there are certain writers that have been able to connect with me in a deep and personal way, not because of the information being transmitted, but because of the voice. And the voice of a writer is heavily influenced by their story.

Last week I did some writing about my story and the fact that I may have to begin to share it.  I am still thinking about what form this will take. A bit of honesty here: I’m not the biggest fan of my story. I really wish lots of things had gone differently. But they didn’t. And as a result I have the story that I have lived — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

Part of me wants to ignore the hard parts. Sweep them under a rock somewhere. But the more I think about it the more I see how wrong this is. The more I learn as a writer the more I realize that all voices are needed. 

As a reader, the voice of the writer makes all the difference. It’s true of fiction and nonfiction. It is  especially true in a Christian context. But it’s bigger than that. The writer’s voice shapes every word in the newspaper. It shapes every blog. It shapes everything said on Twitter.  

So while I may not be particularly thrilled with the way some parts of my story turned out, I do have an appreciation for the fact I can speak to certain things in ways that others cannot. That makes me feel unique and I think my story has value because of that.  But even that it isn’t the most important thing. The most important thing is that my voice is available for those that need to hear it.  

Choosing Marriage — Update and Book Review

The past few months have been a whirlwind.  Soooooo many things have happened since my last posting. Since my last post I have both gotten engaged and married. This gave my last read, Choosing Marriage, special significance.

I discovered the book through the Relevant Magazine Love & Money Podcast, which was co-hosted by Debra Fileta, the author of Choosing Marriage. I highly recommend the Podcast, but today I want to focus on the book, which I am finding tremendously helpful.

The author, Deb Fileta, is a licensed professional counselor. She combines her insight as a counselor with Christian wisdom in Choosing Marriage.

Choosing Marriage is packed full of wisdom for making your marriage better, but also for making yourself better. The need for making yourself better is a major theme throughout the book, making it a good pick for singles as well as couples. Each chapter focuses on a different aspect of relationships and is followed by two sets of questions: one for married couples and one for singles. 

Deb Fileta starts by talking about what it means to choose marriage. She gives good reasons to choose marriage. In a culture full of people telling singles to “be content,” Deb Fileta spends all her time on reasons to choose marriage. This is so refreshing.

One major theme of the book is that you must choose your marriage over other things – making the best choice for your marriage in the face of other interests. This will often involve sacrifice; sometimes small, sometimes great. Sometimes that means putting someone else’s needs ahead of your own. It’s about the choice to choose self or choose marriage. She urges readers to always choose marriage. 

One thing the author points out quickly is that it’s never “Me vs. You” in a marriage. It’s always “Me vs. We.” It’s always a matter of whether to choose self or marriage. This was a revolutionary idea. I’m used to seeing the other person as the opponent. This formula emphasizes that it’s not one person versus another. It’s choosing my own selfishness or choosing love. This puts the focus of the issue on me and the fact that I get to make the choice. That’s empowering. And it’s a game changer.

Deb Fileta also spends some time talking about walls that people erect to protect themselves or deal with life: isolation, withdrawal, fantasy, denial. She talks about how destructive they can be, but also talks about how to recognize them and how to break them down through vulnerability and intimacy.

Maintaining intimacy is one of the keys to a lasting marriage, and I don’t just mean sexual intimacy. Deb Fileta talks about the need to have regular connection with your spouse, beginning with conversation. Surface conversation about the weather isn’t enough. Deb Fileta outlines the four levels of conversation couple should regularly have: facts, opinions, feelings, and beliefs. She also stresses the need to always connect with your spouse first. We have to be careful about confiding and discussing too much with friends and family. This includes venting. According to Deb Fileta, the more you connect to other people about the matters of your life the less you’ll need to connect with your spouse about it. This works against the intimacy couples should be building. She stresses the importance of investing your time in your spouse rather than everyone else. 

As a Christian author, Deb Fileta emphasizes the importance of nurturing a deep relationship with God. I’d expect this from a Christian book about marriage. What I didn’t expect is the correlation between nurturing a relationship with God and loving your spouse well. Connection to God facilitates to connection with each other. She notes that we can only love our spouses properly when we have been refreshed and transformed by God himself. Pursuing a relationship with God will produce the fruit of the Spirit, which are essential to loving your spouse.

One of the things I like the best about Deb Fileta’s approach to relationships is her focus on improving yourself. She urges every reader to pursue greater health and wholeness as an individual because this will improve your relationship. She suggests that improving yourself is one of the best ways to improve your relationship. I really like the emphasis on improving yourself and seeing the positive impact on your marriage.

This was a really great read. It was full of insight and wisdom and I am sure I’ll be a better wife because of this book. I would recommend this book for couples for sure. I’d recommend this book for singles if they’re looking for ways to improve themselves in preparation for marriage. This book is less about what to look for and more about what you can do to be ready when you meet him or her. 

There are a lot of books about marriage out there. I feel like this one is unique because it gives the reader a way of looking at marriage that I have not seen presented any other book. There is a strong emphasis on the importance of individual health and the power each individual has to improve their marriage. Highly recommended.

From Despair to Deliverance

Note: This is post happened purely by accident. This is not the post I intended to write at all. However, this is the post that the text demands and I believe that it is the post that God intended for me to write. I hope you find it helpful.

In my unspecified number of years on this planet I’ve seen a lot of things. Not as much as some, but I have seen a lot. I’ve seen a lot of things I never thought I would. Life has taken a number of twists and turns, most unforeseen. Some have been wonderful. Some have been terrible. But I can say that I have been through a wide range of emotions. I’ve been enraptured and I have been utterly despondent (I may write about this one day). So as a reader, and a writer, I pay attention to a character’s emotions. I love the places in a story that are full of drama and the characters are feeling strong emotions. Those are the moments that make the story.

There is a dramatic story of deliverance found in 2 Kings 6:24 – 2Kings 7:20. This story takes place in Samaria, which is the capital city of the Northern Kingdom (Israel), where Joram reigned as king. Joram (a shortened version of the name Jehoram) was the son of Ahab, one of the worst kings in Israel’s history. Joram did some things right, but in the end he was judged to be a king who did evil in the eyes of the Lord (2Kings 3:2).

The prophet Elisha ministered during the time of Joram. Elisha was the protege of the prophet Elijah. At the end of Elijah’s ministry Elisha became his successor. Elisha is a fascinating character and his life and miracles would make a book in themselves. While he was a faithful and powerful prophet of the Lord, Elisha’s ministry was largely rejected by Israel.

At the time this story takes place King Ben-hadad of the Aramean (Syrian) Kingdom of Damascus and his army had besieged the city of Samaria. The conflict between the Arameans and Israel wasn’t new. In Chapter 6 (2 Kings 6:8-23) King Ben-hadad sent several companies of soldiers to attack Israel. Each time the Lord told Elisha were the attack would take place. Elisha warned the king of Israel and there would be soldiers ready to defend.

When Ben-hadad became frustrated his advisors let him know that the prophet Elisha was warning Israel of their plans. He then sent soldiers to eliminate Elisha. Elisha, however, prayed that God would make the soldiers blind and led them into Samaria. Israel’s king prepared a feast and the Arameans returned home. After seeing the power of Israel’s God the Arameans left Israel alone.

However, the peace didn’t last. There is no way of knowing how long it lasted, but at some point (scholars suggest that several years had passed) Ben Hadad besieged the city of Samaria. Previously, Ben Hadad had been sending companies of soldiers. For this occasion Ben Hadad mustered his whole army.

The siege lasted so long that even the most undesirable pieces of meat sold for exorbitant prices. The citizens resorted to cannibalism (2 Kings 6:27-30) and the king was very distraught. He became so frustrated that he sent a messenger to cut off Elisha’s head. Joram regretted his hasty decision and followed behind the messenger himself. He blamed God for their calamity and asked Elisha why they should wait on God any longer. Elisha assured the king and his servant that food would be sold at the usual price the following day. Joram’s messenger didn’t believe Elisha and Elisha promised him that he would see the deliverance but wouldn’t get to partake.

Just outside the city walls there were four lepers, starving to death like everyone else. One of the four suggested that they surrender themselves to the Arameans. He reasoned that the Arameans might kill them, but if they did nothing they would die anyway. At the very least there was the chance that the Arameans would show them mercy.

However, the four lepers arrived at the Aramean camp at dusk to find the place deserted. God had caused the Arameans to hear the thunderous sound of many horses and chariots. They supposed that the Israelites had hired the Hittites and Egyptians to fight for them and the Arameans fled, leaving all their food and supplies.

The lepers arrived to the deserted camp and ate their fill. They decided that it was wrong to keep they good news to themselves and shared the news with the gatekeepers. The Israelites feared a trap, but finding none, they came out and plundered the camp of the Arameans. The doubtful messenger was trampled to death as the people rushed out.

A few things stand out to me in the narrative:

Things Were Really Bad
I do not want us to lose sight of the fact that this was a horrible situation. People were suffering terribly and at least one person lost his life (the infant whose mother ate him). Later in 2 Kings we see that the king of Assyria besieged the city of Samaria for three years at another time. We don’t know how long Ben Hadad’s siege was, but it was long enough for all of Samaria’s supplies to be exhausted. Things had gotten really, really bad, and chances are, things were really, really bad for a long time. And time has the profound ability to magnify suffering.

I want to call attention to this because I don’t want us to go so quickly to the deliverance that we miss the depth of their suffering. Yes, the deliverance is the point, but the suffering is a painful reality. We cannot simply gloss over it. We must acknowledge it. Only then can we see the deliverance for what it is.

God’s Miraculous Provision and Deliverance
Most important, and most obvious, is God’s miraculous provision and deliverance. This is just one in a long string of miracles God used to protect and sustain the Israelites. As mentioned, God miraculously intervened when the Arameans came to kill Elisha, resulting in a time of peace for Israel.

That seems to be the overarching theme of this passage: God’s faithfulness to deliver. These were trying times for Israel. The entire Aramean army was suffocating their city is a crippling siege. The conditions in the city had deteriorated to the point where people resorted to eating animal refuse — and even their own children.
The situation had grown desperate and looked hopeless. Yet, God works a miracle on the Israelites’ behalf. The Arameans hear the sound of an army approaching and they flee. By any means necessary, God cares for his people.

Looking at the story of Israel, beginning with their emancipation from Egypt, one can see an established history of God caring for the Israelites. This is the Salvation History of the Israelites and it includes story after story of God’s miraculous provision, protection, and guidance.

Despair
In this passage we can see the despair of the people of Israel. Women are eating their own children. We see the utter despair of King Joram, who tore his robes when he saw the effects of the siege on his city.

He was faced with his own helplessness. There was nothing he could do to end the siege. His city was powerless against the Aramean army and their king lost hope.
In his despair Joram lashed out at Elisha, promising to separate Elisha’s head from his body that very day (2Kings 6:31). Just a few verses earlier Joram was calling Elisha his father. In the throes of despair, however, he perceived Elisha to be his enemy. Some scholars suggest that this is because he felt that Elisha could being the siege to an end but simply chose not to.

Joram also blamed God: “All this misery is from the Lord! Why should I wait for the Lord any longer?” (2Kings 6:33). This implies that Elisha had already instructed Joram to wait for the Lord to intervene. Joram was pushed to his limit and didn’t feel they should wait for the Lord any longer.

What would Joram have done? Would he have surrendered to the Arameans? We can only speculate, but I think it’s possible that he may have been considering this very thing in response to such a hopeless situation.

Apostasy Runs Deep
Joram’s lack of faith wasn’t tied to this specific situation. Yes, this was a trying experience that brought him to the point of despair. But God miraculously delivered the city. That should have turned Joram and the Israelites to the Lord, but it didn’t. There is no evidence that Joram followed the Lord after this incident. Instead, Israel continued in their sin and were eventually brought to destruction when the Assyrians carried them off into exile (2Kings 17:6).

God’s Word Does Not Fall to the Ground
Elisha made two specific prophecies on God’s behalf. The first was that food would be abundant and selling at pre-siege prices the following day. The second was that the Joram’s messenger, who was vocally incredulous, would see the miracle but not partake of it. Both things happened exactly as God said they would.

Action Required
The last thing that stood out was the fact that some action was required for their deliverance to be complete. The action began with the four lepers who took the initiative to go to the Aramean camp. It involved a huge risk. The Arameans could have put them to death immediately. The lepers, however, decided to take the risk.

The next action that was required was the actual raid of the Aramean camp. The Israelites feared that the Armeans had laid a trap and planned to slaughter them when they came out of the city. Had they given in to that fear they would have continued to starve though provision was at hand. They had to take action for their deliverance to be complete. They were cautious at first, which was sensible under the circumstances. They sent five scouts to make sure it was safe. Upon learning that it was safe the Israelites had to go out and gather the much needed provisions. Their survival was dependent on their taking action.

Where I See Myself

This is an Old Testament passage but I see myself very clearly. I see myself in Joram. In the face of the suffering of his own people and his own helplessness Joram responded by blaming and lashing out. “All this misery is from the LORD! Why should I wait for the LORD any longer?” (2 Ki 6:33). He blamed God for the situation. He then lashed out at Elisha with death threats — and he even sent a messenger to execute Elisha.

I see myself in Joram. While I’ve never put a hit out on anyone, I have blamed God — many, many times. I’m in the midst of a trying period right now and I think I blame God at least once a day. Like Joram I wonder why I should wait on him or pay attention to him at all.

I also see myself in Joram’s servant. He had deep-seated doubt and unbelief. The situation was so dire that he thought not even God could make it right. I have definitely been there. There are days when I wonder if God can make things right in my life. Even if he does, part of me feels like it will be too little, too late. And that’s just a back-handed way of saying that can’t make things right at all.

This is an interesting passage for me. It’s one that I find particularly challenging — especially right now. This passage is difficult for me to process because I’m in a very difficult season of life. I absolutely blame God because he hasn’t kept his promises to me and that is causing part of the problem. The issue of God not keeping his promises is not subjective. God has not kept his promises to me. This is an objective reality. Yet, in this passage I am confronted with an account of God’s word being fulfilled to the letter. And I assume that the stories contain the Bible actually true. So I’m forced to reconcile my present reality with what I assume to be a true account of God keeping his word. How do I reconcile decades of inaction with what I find in this passage? The answer is: I’m not sure.

Considerations

This is a complex passage with many things to consider.

Waiting
There are a many lessons that can be gleaned from this passage. One of them is that Samaria had to wait for God’s deliverance. However, I think “wait on the Lord” is a gross oversimplification and may even miss the point of the story entirely. The lepers didn’t wait. If they had it’s possible that the story would have a very different outcome. Rather than simply waiting, the lepers took action. Certainly, there are times when we have to wait. But I think we miss much of the passage’s meaning when we stop there.

Despair vs. Hope
It’s striking how both are very present in this passage. King Joram was in the depths of despair in the face of this siege. The lepers, who were starving to death like everyone else, took action based on hope. They hoped that the Arameans would have mercy on them. Note that they were intending to surrender to the Arameans. Joram may have been considering the very same course of action, only his surrender would have been an act of defeat and despair. Same action. Different motivation.

Don’t Forsake Hope
This, I believe, is the main point of the passage. We’ve established that these were desperate times for the inhabitants of Samaria. We’ve examined the various reactions of Joram, his messenger, and the lepers. The miracle of this passage is that God delivered his people from what looked to be an impossible situation. The message of this passage is that we serve the same God and therefore, we should never lose hope. The bible is filled with accounts of miraculous rescues, provision, and demonstrations of the Lord’s chesed (lovingkindness). We should believe in the Lord and trust him to deliver us in our time of need. We should remember the Salvation History of God’s chosen people as well as our own personal Salvation Histories, and cling to hope in the Lord no matter how bleak the outlook.

Don’t Be Afraid to Try
There are times in life where the path forward is clear. Unfortunately, there are times when the way forward isn’t clear at all. There will be times where we have a number of options and aren’t sure which to pick. There will be times where, like the lepers in 2Kings 7, we face situations where all the options are unpleasant. Pray and consider carefully, and then take action. Sometimes taking action is the only way to find out what God has planned for you.

I’m not suggesting that we take crazy chances simply for the sake of doing so. James 1 tells us that if we lack wisdom we should ask God for it because he is eager to give it. I don’t believe God wants us to be paralyzed by fear. I believe God wants us to take action when necessary.

Consequences of Unbelief
Joram’s servant didn’t believe when Elisha told him that food would be available at the usual prices the following day. Because he didn’t believe he wasn’t able to experience the deliverance that God provided. This isn’t the first instance of punishment for failure to believe. Israel was forced to wander in the desert for 40 years because of unbelief. God takes it personally when we don’t believe, and sometimes, there are dire consequences.

In the Wake of Deliverance
I think it’s important to take a look at the aftermath of Samaria’s miraculous deliverance from the the Aramean siege. The people rejoiced at their deliverance, but it did not change their hearts.

As humans, we seem to have both short and selective memories. God delivers us, we rejoice, and when the next obstacle comes we despair. If we’re not careful, we can forget God’s past work on our behalf. I think this is one of the reasons that God established the observance of feasts, like the Passover, where he commanded his people to stop and remember the things he has done. The purpose of these celebrations is not only to teach future generations about God’s power and faithfulness, but to remind ourselves as well. We would do well to periodically observe the things that God has done.

A Look at the Larger Picture
Unfortunately, Israel was ultimately unmoved by God’s deliverance. 2Kings 17:5-23 describes how the repeated sin, idolatry, and wickedness of the Israelites led to their destruction. 2 Kings 17 describes the end of Israel:  This disaster came upon the people of Israel because they worshiped other gods. They sinned against the LORD their God, who had brought them safely out of Egypt and had rescued them from the power of Pharaoh, the king of Egypt (2Kings 17:7). Again and again the LORD had sent his prophets and seers to warn both Israel and Judah: “Turn from all your evil ways. Obey my commands and decrees—the entire law that I commanded your ancestors to obey, and that I gave you through my servants the prophets.” But the Israelites would not listen. They were as stubborn as their ancestors who had refused to believe in the LORD their God (2 Kings 17:13-14).  Assyria eventually defeated Israel and carried the people into captivity.

While I don’t think many of us are in danger of our cities being besieged, I do believe that we may each be facing our own personal siege. We may be facing any number of crises and desperate situations. The message of this passage is that God is strong and powerful and attentive to our needs. The reality for all of us today is that in the face of impossible situations, the Lord is in our midst and he is still mighty to save.

 

Book Review: The Sacred Search, by Gary Thomas

Something really cool happened recently: I started dating a new guy. Because it’s been a while since I’ve been in a relationship, I felt like I could use some guidance going through this process. So I decided to pick up a book called The Sacred Search to see if I could glean some wisdom from the author, Gary Thomas.

I must admit, I have really been enjoying the dating process. I’ve been going new places, having lots of fun, and just enjoying getting to know another person. It’s really intoxicating. But the first sentence of this book sobered me up very quickly : “The faithful pastor’s face grew taut as he told me, ‘Let me be honest with you. My marriage has constituted the biggest cross of my life.”

Just like that, I realized that this is not a game. This is a lifetime decision that must be made consciously and prayerfully. Once that reality was established, the author went on to give guidance to readers who are dating or considering marriage.

One of the first things Gary Thomas says is that infatuation will lead you wrong every time. According to the research he cites, infatuation lasts approximately 18 months. So Gary Thomas recommends basing your marriage on more than infatuation. He also cautions against basing the desire to marry someone on things like beauty, physical appearance, financial standing, position or status, or sexual chemistry. Unfortunately, lots of people make the mistake of basing marital decisions on fleeting things like these and it leads to a lifetime of frustration. Gary Thomas writes to help his readers avoid this fate.

This book has been eye-opening for me. It is giving me things to think about that would never have crossed my mind. For example, one of the things Gary Thomas points out is that a husband and wife need have similar marriage styles, the way that the husband and the wife relate to one another and build a life together. For example, some people are focused on in the arts. Others are more focused on the corporate world, or the kids, or their home and garden. Thomas encourages readers to think about things like how you will spend your evenings. How will you spend weekends? How will you spend vacations? All of these are the things that are reflected in your marital style. Do you prefer to lots of time together? Or do you plan to have separate interest and hobbies? These things are important because a couple needs to match in terms of style.

Gary Thomas brought up an issue I hadn’t given much thought to: gender roles. He doesn’t get into whether the Complementarian model (where the wife submits to the husband) or the Egalitarian model (where it’s 50-50) is better. He just urges couples to make sure the they both agree on the role that each partner will play. Disagreement here leads to all kinds of frustration.

The central theme in this book, which is woven from the beginning to the end, is that a marriage without a mission is likely to fail. I don’t quite agree, but I do feel like Gary Thomas has a point. Having a greater mission for your marriage gives you something to work toward. When life throws its curve balls at you, you need a sense of shared mission to help you to grow together and not apart. And it happens that Gary Thomas has such a mission to suggest for marriage: the mission of marriage should be to seek first the king of God together. That should be the mission of each individual and it should be the mission of the couple. Working toward that mission will help couples to grow together and glorify God together. While I’m not sure if this is the case 100% of the time, I do feel that these are wise words. I do think it’s important for people to have a mission. I hadn’t really thought about having a mission for a marriage, but I suppose it makes sense. And this is something that I will definitely be talking over with the gentleman I’m dating.

Another thing Gary Thomas encourages is making your communication three-way, God being at the center. Gary Thomas urges couples to discuss God often. What is God saying to them? What is God doing in them? He also encourages couples to discuss struggles and areas where God is calling them higher.

Throughout the book Gary Thomas reminds readers that the purpose of marriage is to build a life together that glorifies God. He encourages readers to marry for the right reasons and to choose a person that will be a good partner in building a life. Your mate can be a huge blessing or source of great frustration. Thomas urges readers to choose wisely.

The book’s biggest strength: This book helps you to ask important questions. It alerts you to blind spots and gives sound advice for evaluating a partner.

The book’s biggest weakness: I feel like the author stated things too strongly at times. For example, a marriage without a mission (namely, the mission to seek the Kingdom above all else) is likely to fail. There are countless couples that don’t have this mission (or a mission at all) and they build happy, successful marriages.

Should you read the book? I highly recommend it. If you are dating, or planning on dating, you should read this book. It helps you to think past for long walks in the park and whether or not he likes dogs and more about questions like, is the actively pursuing God? What is he working on? This book will help you to think and consider things that you wouldn’t have thought about otherwise. And considering the far-reaching consequences of a poor marital choice, I think it’s worthwhile to clean any wisdom you can. This book is a great place to start.

Wrestling With God

I guess I’m a nerd. I have always been a good student. Always brought home really good grades (my mother gave me no choice). But I have never been particularly athletic. I was on the volleyball team in high school, mostly for my own enjoyment. Sadly, I was a horrible player and hardly ever saw playing time during games. I think I just liked being a part of a team — so much so that I kept working out with them even after I was formally kicked off the team.

Though I do hit the gym pretty often now, I still don’t consider myself an athlete. Even if I were to become an athlete I know one sport I would never want to try: wrestling.

We had a wrestling team at my high school and I would occasionally see them practicing. Wrestling looks absolutely miserable. You have to exert strength over time as your opponent tries to best you. I’d rather hit a volleyball any day.

For this reason, perhaps, I find the biblical account of Jacob wresting with an unknown being in Genesis 32:24-32 particularly disturbing. Jacob, the second son of Isaac and Rebekah, is quite a character. He’s self-centered, self-serving, and decidedly dishonest. Even so, God meets him, uses him, and blesses this Patriarch of the faith.

The Setup
This incident takes place at a crucial time in Jacob’s life. He is about to meet with his estranged brother, Esau, knowing that Esau is out for revenge for a prank Jacob pulled in his youth. Years before, Jacob tricked Esau out of his inheritance as the firstborn and then fled to escape Esau’s wrath. He hadn’t seen Esau since.

In Genesis 31, however, Jacob is fleeing from his father-in-law, Laban. True to his nature, Jacob managed to acquire great wealth from Laban by craft and trickery. However, when Laban became hostile toward him, Jacob left with his wives and possessions. He decided to return to the land of his fathers, but in order to do that he would have to face Esau.

When Jacob learned that Esau was coming to meet him with four hundred men, Jacob was distraught. He prayed that he and his family would not be killed. He then divided his company into two groups. He sent gifts ahead to placate Esau, but kept his wives and children with him. When they came to the Jabbok, Jacob sent his wives and children ahead of him across the creek. Jacob remained alone on the other side. It was then that an unknown being attacked Jacob and wrestled with him all night, resulting in an injury, a name change, and a blessing for Jacob.

The Jabbok, also called “the blue river,” is one of the most important rivers in the region. Before bridges, rivers had to be crossed by laying wood or flat stones at the shallowest point to allow passage. The fact that Jacob would attempt this at night demonstrates a sense of urgency and distress.

When Jacob is alone and vulnerable, a mysterious assailant attacks him in the night. Jacob was ninety-seven at the time, and by physical standards, could have been easily beaten. The assailant has no trouble injuring him, but his inability to subdue Jacob shows that this was not a purely physical struggle.

The identity of Jacob’s assailant remains a topic of much discussion. The text describes it as a man. Questions abound: Was it God himself? Was it an angel? Some scholars speculate that it could have been Esau’s angel, or perhaps Esau himself, that attacked Jacob during the night. Jacob may have even initially thought it was Esau.

Genesis 32:28, 30 indicate the both God and Jacob identify the “man” as God. As the story unfolds, “the reader gradually becomes aware that this is no ordinary assailant; it is God in human form.”

When he realized that he was not prevailing against Jacob, the man “wrenched Jacob’s inner thigh.” Some feel that this refers specifically to the hip joint, but this is not certain. Most take the word “wrenched” to mean dislocated. However, scholars point out that this cannot be the case, because if Jacob’s hip was dislocated he would be unable to even limp.

When asked his name, Jacob reveals it without hesitation. He then asks for the attacker’s name, but is refused. While Jacob may not have known initially that he was wrestling God, he knew that the assailant was someone that could bless him. Even after being injured, he keeps a firm grasp on God.

Just before daybreak God pronounces a blessing on Jacob. He changes Jacob’s name to Israel, which means “he strives with God.” He is no longer the man he was. Israel, the one who wrestled with God and man (and prevailed!) fathered the twelve sons that would grow into the twelve tribes of Israel.

We All Wrestle
In this story Jacob is facing a crisis: his angry and estranged brother is coming after him so he prays for divine protection. God comes to him in the hour of his greatest need. Had God come in all is glory, Jacob would have been obliterated. Instead, he comes to Jacob in a way that Jacob can understand and interact with. After this encounter, Jacob realizes that he goes forth with the blessing of God.

I don’t think Jacob is the only one to wrestle with God. I think that we all wrestle with God at some point. And I think that some among us wrestle more than others. The big thing I see here is that God is willing to engage us in this way as we wrestle with him.

Wrestling is deeply personal. It requires very close contact. It might involve smelling the other person’s breath, getting covered with their sweat, and potentially finding your face in some awkward places. In a similar way, Jacob’s wrestling with God was deeply personal. This wasn’t the first time that God had come to Jacob. Years earlier God came to Jacob in a dream. In the dream the Lord stood at the top of a ladder that went from earth to heaven. In Genesis 32, however, God isn’t at the top of a ladder. He’s on top of Jacob!

Michael Lawrence has an interesting thought: God may wrestle with people in difficult times by taking the very form of anticipated difficulty. Jacob was trying to avoid a fight. And what does God come to do? Fight. God takes the
initiative, but Jacob engages God when he comes. Jacob perseveres. He persists.

Like Jacob, we should not be passive when wrestling with God. It’s unlikely that God will show up and wrestle with us physically (but if he does, I’m cool with that.). More commonly, we wrestle with God in earnest prayer. In the case of Jacob, the battle was both spiritual and physical. For us, the battle is usually spiritual. It’s a fight to keep praying, but like Jacob, we must not allow discouragement or God’s silence to erode our faith. We have to keep fighting in prayer.

Jacob wrestled with God all night. All night. He was engaged with God in intense physical combat for hours. God injured Jacob and Jacob still didn’t let go. I absolutely love Jacob’s determination and tenacity. It seems that he wan’t willing to do all that wrestling to come out empty-handed. If only I could do the same.

I know from experience that this is so much easier said than done. I’m praying for a number of things — things I’ve been praying for over a decade. It’s easy to pray for a while, but after such an extended period of time, it’s easier to just declare God unjust, uncaring, and unfaithful. Because that’s what the record shows. It’s an objective fact: God has not done the things he promised me.
Reading accounts like this encourage me to keep wrestling with God for what I need and what I have been promised. It whispers hope when time has worn away faith in God’s willingness and even his character. It makes me want to wrestle a little longer, hold on a little tighter, and resolve to do this through the pain for as long as it takes.

Jacob’s encounter with God was transient but the effects were permanent. Jacob’s name was changed, and thus his identity. He bore a limp for the rest of his life. Perhaps most importantly, Jacob is blessed. The same can be true for us. Let’s persist in prayer. Let’s hang on through pain until we get our blessing.

The 21 Day Fast

It’s September and autumn has definitely come to the Chicago area. The weather is getting chillier, the days are growing shorter, and kids have returned to school. Personally, I mourn the end of summer. However, I know that many look forward to the change from summer to fall.

Whether you enjoy it or not, for most, the transition from fall to summer brings a certain change in the rhythm of life. The barbecues are winding down and summer travel is drawing to a close. Life just changes in the fall.

My church takes advantage of this transitional time of year. We re-launch our small groups, groups that meet in homes for study, prayer, and community. We begin our Nights of Worship, which take place on Friday nights. And to kick things off we usually embark on a corporate 21 day fast. It’s not the type of fast where everyone starves. Each person chooses what they will take a break from, anything from social media to certain types of food or even food altogether.

This 21 Day Fast is also a challenge. We are challenged to participate in a small group, attend the weekly prayer meetings and spend time with God each day.
As previously mentioned, this is a difficult time for me. I am struggling a bit in my faith. When I heard about the fast I was going to sit this one out, but I decided to participate. I will make the effort. We will see if any fruit comes from it.

One of the things I will be giving up is shopping. I like to shop. Okay, I love to shop. But I feel like it’s gotten to be a bit much lately. I feel like I’ve been relying on it to make me feel better. In a good mood? Let’s swing by the mall. Tough day at work? To the mall we go. It just seems like I’ve been looking the shopping experience to bolster my mood and make myself feel better. Why do I do this? Because it works. There is definitely a reason we call it retail therapy.

And though it’s fun, it is ultimately unhealthy. It also isn’t practical. I have come to know the benefits of paring down and living a simpler lifestyle. It’s important. It can change your life. But lately, it has been more important to see what’s new at Sephora. It’s not like I need more makeup. It just feels good to get get more — or even just look at it without buying.

It just seems like my priority has become doing things that feel good. Shopping feels good. Mindless snacking on various goodies feels good. Sleeping late feels good. Wasting time on the internet feels good, especially when you’re shopping online. The thing is that none of these activities support my goals. And when you choose what feels good over the things you’ve committed to then there’s a problem. Something needs to change. And for me something needs to change immediately.

So I will be throwing myself into this 21 Day Fast. It may just the reset I need. I will be studying the book of John during this time as well. So we will see how pushing back from some things changes me spiritually. Who knows? This may lead to some permanent change as well. Feel free to pray for me as I do this.

Out of Sorts, by Sarah Bessey

I recently read Out of Sorts, by Sarah Bessey, on the recommendation of a friend. She knows I’m in a challenging place in life and faith and she thought it would help me. Of course, she was right. Out of Sorts is about the process of sorting out your faith. Over time we accumulate things and sometimes need to sort out our beliefs.

Sarah Bessey begins by talking about the process of sorting through her grandmother’s belongings upon her passing. It was a healing process for her. But when her other grandmother passed away Bessey was denied the opportunity to take part in the sorting, and that seemed to deepen the sense of loss that she felt.

As I read the book I found that Sarah Bessey is no stranger to loss. She has had several miscarriages and has walked through sorrow with family and friends. She addresses suffering and pain in a chapter dedicated to the sacred practice of lamenting in a healthy, biblical way.

Part of Sarah Bessey’s history is her extended departure from the church. Out of Sorts is the story of her gradually finding her way back. As she describes the process of finding her way back she lights the way for the rest of us.

One thing I love about this book is the way that Bessey affirms all Christian faith traditions. So often different faith traditions like to criticize other faith traditions for what they seem to lack. And that’s not our place. We are called to love and call forth the best in one another. Sarah Bessey affirms that different aspects of Christian faith have helped and strengthened her — everything from the Word of Faith to the beauty and consistency of the liturgical traditions.

Another thing I love about this book is that she addresses things that Believers who may be struggling in their faith may find difficult. For example, Sarah Bessey directly takes on the topic of evil and suffering. She has given birth to stillborn children and lost friends and loved ones far too soon. She had to endure the pat answers and foolish attempts to explain away her suffering. In her book Sarah Bessey dismisses them all and offers her thoughts on evil and suffering without being dogmatic. After being exposed to so much dogma in the past and hearing so many pat answers to my own grief, I really appreciate her thoughts and her approach to sharing her thoughts.

Y’all… The chapter on vocation and calling absolutely rocked my world. I wasn’t expecting to find such a chapter in this book. Sarah Bessey writes about her life as a pastor’s wife and then her life once they had left full-time ministry. This chapter really spoke to me. I found this chapter so healing. So freeing. And I feel like it has caused me to question some of my anger. For that reason alone I may need to re-read it.

This book was a dense read at times. Sarah Bessey is a scholar and it shows. I have deep respect for conscientious scholarship and Sarah Bessey has done a phenomenal job in her study. And she brings it to this book in a way that is not overbearing. Life is messy. There are no black-and-white answers. Sarah Bessey says these things time and time again. But for her, everything comes down to the heart of Jesus. At this point, I’m not sure if I can say the same. After reading this book though, I have more things to consider as I work out what the heart of Jesus really is.

Let me end with a quote from Out of Sorts that I think sums up the book very nicely:

“I hope we all wrestle. I hope we look deep into our hearts and sift through our theology, our methodology, our praxis, all of it. I hope we get angry and say true things. I hope we push back against celebrity and consumerism; I hope we live into our birthright as a prophetic outpost for the Kingdom. I hope we get our toes stepped on and then forgive. I hope we become open-hearted and open-armed. I hope we are known as the ones who love.”