finding the motherlode

– mining for a vein of truth in the stuff that matters –

Tag: theology

session one: small wonder

CHOOSING 8 OUT OF twenty-three essays isn’t easy. And if they happen to be written by Barbara Kingsolver, it’s like selecting from a Jacques Torres dessert menu. Très difficile. But beginning somewhere is how anything gets started, and since Small Wonder (HarperCollins 2002) is the kind of book that can be read back to front no matter, consider this a friendly push into the secular tide even as we dive deep into the gospel, cresting the waves of Biblical thought.

For those just arriving, please read the introduction here to better understand the faith-based premise for this discussion challenge.

Today and every Thursday through October 25, we’ll be discussing one of Kingsolver’s pieces while looking through a Biblical lens at her take on life, genuine concerns, and impassioned insights. Our goal is not to provide exhaustive Biblical commentary but to stir our minds to pure thinking and learn to discern with a redemptive eye, resting in the fact that Truth is perfect — we are not.

So glad you’ve decided to join us. Welcome!

SESSIONS

September 6- Small Wonder 

September 13- Saying Grace

September 20- What Good is a Story? with Becky Pliego

September 27-Lily’s Chickens

October 4-Letter to a Daughter at Thirteen with Melissa Jackson

October 11- Letter to My Mother

October 18- Household Words with Diana Lovegrove

October 25- The One-Eyed Monster, and Why I Don’t Let Him In (Conclusion) 

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SESSION ONE: small wonder

I’ve never been to the Lorestan Province in Iran, but the story as retold by Barbara Kingsolver about a missing 16-month-old boy brought me to the mouth of one of its caves, where he was found encircled in the arms of a bear, safe and fed.

Why a lactating female bear became the boy’s wet nurse explains part of the equation. But to understand why it didn’t tear the baby limb from limb takes faith. What’s more, the event took place in the obscure dark, in the mountains, halfway around the world — just days after America’s skies were exploding and raining down scraps of metal, dust, and fuselage — and people. A disparity of global extremes.

That Kingsolver was riveted by the events of 9/11 is more than understandable — shock and awe were universally suffered by nearly all. So much death in the name of ideology was a hard pill to swallow, one many still can’t get down all the way. Then comes along this highly improbable story. Research verified it as true.

What to call it? An act of grace? A miracle? Yes. What to do with it? Give tribute to Allah? No. But that she did shouldn’t cause us to shut down, lest we be guilty of the worst kind of fundamentalism. The weightier matter for the Christian is to beg for wisdom in how to respond to someone dangling from a tightwire of hope and despair. Find the lead straight into their heart. Tell them of the one true God.

Folk tales convey a broader cultural parallel; make us smile. But obscure, amazing news reports cause our jaw to drop. Should they occur in the wake of terror and disaster, even an atheist may be compelled to look up. Or set someone to wonder hard and long. A whole different kind of shock and awe, the kind that tempers the soul, summons hope.

Sometimes, timing is everything. This was one of those times, as Kingsolver wrote, “the lion could lie down with the lamb.”

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A BIBLICAL LENS:  

  The many times the author refers to “God” in this essay can’t be missed. But we must make distinctions. When an unbeliever acknowledges a transcendent Being at work in the world in a pluralistic sense, it’s a Christian’s obligation to make the most of the opportunity, use it to Christ’s advantage. Note how Paul preaches to the Stoic and Epicurean philosophers in Acts 17:

“Men of Athens, I perceive that in every way you are very religious. For as I passed along and observed the objects of your worship, I found also an altar with this inscription, ‘To the unknown god.’ What therefore you worship as unknown, this I proclaim to you.” 

-Acts 17:22-23 ESV

From there, he plots the course of redemptive history by first describing God as Creator of heaven and earth, the Giver of life and breath to all men. He even quotes some of their own poets. He then recounts God’s work based on the covenantal promises. Finally, he declares God’s ultimate redemptive plan as revealed in Christ Jesus. From a polytheistic platform at the Areopagus, Paul posits the gospel by means of common grace to proclaim God’s saving grace.

As for Kingsolver paying tribute to Allah for the miracle, I hazard to think she was, out of respect to the story’s origin, trying to be gracious in a politically correct way. Regardless, God isn’t threatened by man’s darkness, nor should we be. He determines both sight and blindness, who sees and who cannot. When a person ascribes to deity but not specifically Christ, it’s a matter of what Paul explains in Romans 1, what theologians call general revelation. Understanding this doctrine should serve to heighten our sense of obligation to preach the gospel to all men.

Back to the boy and the bear and the aftermath of 9/11. We know that Providence deems circumstances both bitter and sweet. We also know that all things serve Him. When a real-life parable of such magnanimity forces hope out of hiding, it helps us accept tragedy and heal, offering, as Kingsolver said, “the possibility of taking heart.”

I’m grateful Kingsolver perceived the power and mystery infused in this survival story and had the largesse to write about it. It’s inspiring, humbling — the boy and the bear, yes, but also how she unwittingly brags on the God of hope and wonder. As she said, “God is in the details.”

Yes, yes He is.

For from him and through him and to him are all things. 

-Romans 11:36

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Next Thursday: Saying Grace

-Please share comments, quotes, Scriptures, or views below-

this side of exquisite


ENOUGH PAIN MAKES US HONEST, eventually. And pharmacy records don’t lie. We’re a sophisticated people wrapped in gauze, covered in a thousand tiny Band-aids, hiding behind the fact that we’re bleeding out all over, hoping nobody will notice.

If pain were not so shameful, we’d have no problem baring all. But it is. So we do a work around.

Minimize. Avoid. Deny.

“Look Ma, no pain!”

But Ma is smarter than that, and knows that pain is bigger than us all — a result of the Fall, part of sin’s curse. The Garden, birthplace of the mortal wound, where guilt, shame, fear, and every manner of pain was introduced by one man’s act of disobedience, sentencing men to death.

Can I say this? The sin of disobedience is the root of all pain. Too simplistic? Agreed. But it’s true. Hang with me. It gets better.

_________________________

Theology doesn’t help much in a fire. Water does. But damage occurs either way. Theology, however, protects both left and right, front and center, behind, before, and after. A sound theology escorts, walks us through, helps us assess things when life strikes — perhaps not immediately, but, of course, that’s not how it works.

First, we hurt. Maybe hurt and run. Go numb. Fixate. Or protest. We manage pain rather poorly, usually by making things worse in our scurry to find a cure. We don’t want to admit the depth of our pain. It scares us. Dealing with death is a whole other matter. When the curtain looms final, we give pause to grieve, pay our respects. Sometimes oddly. We yell at doors — or chairs — and other inanimate objects. Pound our fist on the hard-packed earth. Seethe under our breath just enough for no one to notice. Some travel, others clean the basement or take up bowhunting. Complexity defines us, stares back at us — we want everything nice and simple.

But life isn’t like that.

Pain, at times, can be astounding — sets the world in a desperate frame, causes us to adopt strange ideologies, if only temporarily. There’s a time to hurt, be human. Rail. Retreat. But please don’t give the world the silent treatment. Be real. God has shouldered bigger burdens. When living on the brink of ruin gets to be too much, listen to the Teacher, find out the assignment.

Remember the cross.

The blood that flowed from Immanuel’s veins flowed for you. God’s wrath against sin and His love for men were eternally expressed by one man’s act of obedience in that historical, cataclysmic moment. There’s nothing trite about the cross.

Nor is there anything trite about our pain. It shouts, tears at us, reminds us that we’re fallen and need the kindness of a Savior to lead us to repentance. Healing is found in the cleansing blood of Christ’s own wounds, where peace is made and new life comes, borne in the marks of a blood-washed soul.

Exquisite.

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For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross.

-Colossians 1:19-20 (ESV)

 

End note:This post is not meant to be an exhaustive treatment on the vast topic of pain. It’s an observation written as a generalization in hope of stirring our thoughts about the Biblical purpose of pain and God’s glorious provision for same.

Chapter Nine: The True Nature of Spiritual Warfare (Chapter Ten, too)

“Even the devil is God’s devil.”

— Martin Luther

WEEK 6

¡Arriba! Piña colada smoothie…it’s what’s for breakfast! Just in time for summer, too, as we come to the end of our book discussion. Thanks for reading along and sharing your thoughts. I’ve enjoyed every minute — studying, summarizing, posting, and responding to your comments. But to be honest, I didn’t find “A Place for Weakness” to be an easy read. A bit dense in places, perhaps better editing would’ve helped to streamline some of the clutter and repetition. Hopefully you;ve been edified. With sound theological underpinnings tied to our mast, we can sail on the high seas of life in hope that somehow, through us, God is glorified. Such is the way of faith for those who endure, come what may.

SUMMARY of CHAPTER 9

Winding down Part Two, “God of the Empty Tomb,” Horton focuses on two major themes: Satan and death. In “The True Nature of Spiritual Warfare,” he zeroes in on the conflict that takes place in the unseen realm between the kingdom of God and the kingdom of Satan and how the drama plays out in our lives. But the Director never once abandons the stage. With Satan’s role as “prosecutor and Christ as our defense attorney…Satan’s objective in this contest is to undermine our confidence in God’s merciful will toward us, while God’s is to strengthen it.” Here’s where we soldier up to engage in Ephesians 6-style combat: “As counterintuitive as it is for us, we must turn outward at precisely these times and hope only in the Lord, whatever our conscience threatens, whatever blandishments Satan offers, whatever our experience tells us is the obvious case.”

While there’s no denying the reality of spiritual warfare, Horton decries a certain theology some circles employ, where a whole vocabulary has emerged to navigate what he terms to be borderline “cosmological dualism,” — “the belief that the universe is in the grip of a cosmic duel between God and Satan, as if these represented two equal forces.” And there’s the rub — there is only one Sovereign. As Luther said, “Even the devil is still God’s devil.” Horton argues for a faith that understands this both Biblically and empirically, based on the fulfillment of prophecy in Scripture and historic eyewitness accounts.

“The most exciting and liberating thing a believer can hear in the middle of spiritual and physical distress is not that there is a secret battle plan for defeating the powers of darkness if we will only come together and follow its fail-proof steps, but the announcement that Jesus Christ has already accomplished this for us in his first advent.” (pp. 166, 167)

This is the good news. There is no better news. For the “Judge himself — whom the transgressors had originally arraigned — takes off his robe and dons the warrior’s suit.”  Then the question “Who wins?” becomes the declarative: “He won!” — the verdict by which the believer truly lives and overcomes.

SUMMARY of CHAPTER 10

In “When God Goes to a Funeral,” Horton makes clear that the account of Lazarus in John 11 is not some contrivance about Jesus arriving late to raise a dead guy so everyone can gawk. Rather, it is the scene where sin’s worst fruit, death itself, is on display, now about to be subject to the power of God for the glory of God. This Biblical narrative reflects the eschatological truth of the hope yet to come: God’s triumphant defeat of the last enemy — Death. Jesus wasn’t late. He knew exactly what he was doing — pointing to Himself as “the Resurrection and the Life.”¹

But Mary and Martha’s tendency is our tendency. They didn’t understand. If only Jesus had come sooner…though they believed, they weren’t able to see the big picture. And so often, we can’t either. “God, if you really care about me, ________________— fill in your own blank.” (p. 181)

But Jesus doesn’t condemn them for their frustration. Instead, He lifts their vision.

Finally, Horton makes an appeal for the restored significance of grief by reminding us that “Jesus wept.” From this, he cautions against false piety. Whether the approach be stoic or sentimental, neither are commended. Both are given to extremes, seeking to avoid “the messiness of life.” We’re meant to grieve, but “we do not grieve as others do who have no hope.” ²

“At the graveside, neither optimism nor pessimism; sentimentalism nor stoicism tell us what is happening here. Only Jesus’ cross and resurrection define the event for us.” (p. 191)

1. John 11:25
2. 1 Thessalonians 4:13

MY TAKE

It’s one thing to write a book on suffering that offers treacle, it’s quite another to offer moorings for theological sanity. In “A Place for Weakness,” Michael Horton writes with the welcome bedside manner of one who has observed and endured a variety of life’s conundrums. There is no grandstanding. He’s a realist — a believer in a gospel that “is the power of God for the salvation of everyone who believes.” ³ He makes his case for finding answers to the hard questions by presenting the truth found in Christ and nowhere else. Of all the efforts made by men to diffuse the stress and strain of life’s sufferings — whether it be blame, denial, a “theology of glory,” hyper-spirituality, inspirational platitudes, bad theology, stoicism or sentimentalism — none of them are sufficient to answer the cardinal questions: Why? and “Is God good?”

Horton’s answer doesn’t bother to cater to man’s felt needs as though they were ultimate. He points to a far more glorious future by proclaiming:

“The good news is twofold: (1) justice will be done; liberation will come; righteousness will be vindicated; evil, oppression, and violence will be wiped off the face of the earth; and (2) all who repent and turn to the Redeemer will be saved.” (p. 173)

This is no cop-out. Genuine saving faith in Christ rests upon these truths and are of the most profound consequence for an individual. The iron-clad nature of Truth is substantiated upon the inerrant Word of God; there is no greater place to put our faith and trust. That these claims are true whether believed or not is a great comfort to God’s people, and ought to give skeptics pause.

But perhaps one of the most heartening aspects of Horton’s view is that he’s fully grounded in reality. He doesn’t negate the pain and heartache of this life. There’s a time for tears and a place to fall apart. A shoulder is to cry on. God can bear our questions, fears and doubts. Grief and mourning are normal this “side of Easter,” and part of the poignant beauty of what it means to be human. As the book title suggests, there is a place for weakness.

In case you missed it, throughout the book Horton makes clear that death is not a celebration, but the “last enemy.” He’d rather that we face the consequences of the Fall head on than be falsely comforted by hearing, “Death is a natural part of life.” At least the former allows for the gospel to shine! Sadly, even today’s Church has run aground on this one. Amid Horton’s pastoral warnings against the prevailing doctrinal winds of our day, his greatest exhortation to the Church is to trust in Christ and find in Him the unshakeable hope that transcends this vale of tears.

In Him was life, and the life was the light of men.”

John 1:4

3. Romans 1:16

WORTH REPEATING

“there is a cosmic battle…”

“Life’s crises, whether they start out as physical or spiritual, end up involving the whole person in any case.” (p. 164)

“Satan is bound, under house arrest. And yet, like a Mafia boss in prison, he still manages to cause trouble.” (p. 168)

“This is where Satan sets up his battlements and builds his ramparts: God and His Word are not to be trusted; instead, be your own boss, find your own path, believe in yourself, and be true to yourself.” (p. 172)

“We will not grow without a fight…”

“Christ is enough, even for you.” (p. 178)

“It simply did not make sense.”

“Jesus wept.” (p. 187, John 11:35)

“We do not grieve “as others do who have no hope,” but we do grieve.” (p. 191)

“The last enemy to be destroyed is death.” (p. 192, 1 Cor. 15:26)

“In Christ, the end has already begun.” (p. 193)

“O Death, where is your sting?”

GROUP CHAT

  • As usual, you’re welcome to leave a comment on these last chapters. Also, feel free to share your impressions of the book, too.
  • Now that you’ve finished reading “A Place for Weakness,” think about how you’ve been challenged in your view toward suffering/trials. Please share with us what you’ve learned, as it could be helpful to other readers.
  • Want a challenge? Answer the following question from Chapter 7/Question 4:

“Does Christianity “work”?

(for a refresher, re-read “Our Faith is not a Fix”on pages 131-133)

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A warm thanks to all for reading, listening, and contributing to the discussion.
I trust it’s been as enriching and edifying for you as it has been for me.

“May the LORD make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you;
the LORD turn his face toward you and give you peace.”

-Numbers 6:25-26

♦  ♦  ♦

-Soli Deo Gloria-



Chapter Seven: Out of the Whirlwind (Chapter Eight, too)

“Even now my witness is in heaven; my advocate is on high.”

— Job 16:19 (NIV)

WEEK 5

A chocolate protein shake never looked so good! Speaking of good, I like how Horton opens Part Two, “God of the Empty Tomb,” by pulling on our heartstrings again. In Chapter 7, “Out of the Whirlwind,” he tells of the tragic loss of a dear mentor and family friend, unafraid to show the messy side of life. Then he introduces Job, where things get even messier. But we’re supposed to learn something from Job — namely, that God sits enthroned and how we are to bow before Him, come what may. From there, in Chapter 8, “A New Creation,” we’re treated to an informal Bible study on the truths of justification, sanctification and glorification. Out of the whirlwind is right. Like Job, we never look so good as when we allow God to have His way with us.

SUMMARY of CHAPTER 7

Of all the chapters so far, “Out of the Whirlwind” is Horton’s multifaceted jewel — it shines by touching on the best and worst of humanity. He shares the painful account of his friend’s life riddled with trial and disease that led to his eventual suicide. Remarkably, this man was a pastor. And just when we want an explanation for this senseless act, Horton raises the curtain on Job, where we find a man bereft of not only home, family, health and livelihood, but of sound, godly counsel. Dire straits always seem to put God on trial, too. This is the test — is God good? After having lost everything except his hope in God, Job says: “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God; I myself will see him with my own eyes — I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!”¹

A picture of raw faith, Job is remembered not for his pietistic stoicism, but for having fastened his eyes on God. He appealed to the One deserving of all glory, placed confidence in Him for His own sake, and dignified the trial with prayer. But when God told him to be quiet and to brace himself like a man, he repented under the mighty hand of God — the only right response.

“No one can say, ‘I am innocent. I should not be going through this.’ This is why we need to turn from trusting in our own righteousness to the Mediator who announces to the court that he has found a ransom to deliver us from final destruction. Only this, and not the inspirational platitudes, can truly lift one’s countenance.” (p. 126)

Even when man shortchanges himself by giving up, as was the case with Horton’s friend, God never loses a battle. Mercy triumphs over judgment. Job looked away from himself and remembered that he had a Mediator. Grace is such that when God and man are put on trial, God’s shares His vindication and both come forth triumphant.

1. Job 19:25-27 NIV

SUMMARY of CHAPTER 8

Horton’s most theological chapter yet, “A New Creation” treats Romans 6, 7, and 8 with the proper care and thoroughness they deserve. By detailing the “already” position of the believer as described in Romans 6, he doesn’t fail to address our present “not yet” reality of Romans 7, ending with Paul’s glorious announcement of our Romans 8: 1-17 certain victory. From all this, the author affirms what is affirmed in Scripture: the believer’s blessed status in Christ.

But what Horton often likes to do is first remind us our origins. By pointing to our Adamic nature and subsequent bondage to sin, he reveals how it’s only through the atoning sacrifice of Christ that we’ve now “been made perfect.” He then exposes man’s ever-failing attempt to better himself. By borrowing a term, “the Protean style,”²  from psychologist Robert Jay Lifton, he describes our postmodern culture and how people of all walks of life seek to reinvent themselves. He says, “Everyone wants to be someone or something else, a new creation — but on their own terms.” This is the height of what is called nihilism, as here Horton colorfully defines it:

“Nihilism is having two hundred TV channels from which to choose, life as a perpetual smorgasbord in which choice becomes an end in itself. We forget what we’re even choosing or why. We are “in charge,” but of a life that seems often to lack any definite purpose or sense of destination.” (p. 138)

Then Horton brings us back around to center stage, where nihilism serves as the perfect foil for the gospel:

“Something has happened outside us, in history — a divine disruption that really has inaugurated a new world. The Holy Spirit has been sent by the Father and by the Son, who sits victorious at the Father’s right hand, to make all things genuinely new from the inside out.” (p. 138)

As believers in Christ, God has brought an end to all our striving. The need for reinventing ourselves is over. Faith adorns us from within and without. We’ve been made new.

2. From the Greek myth in which Proteus constantly changed his shape to evade capture.

MY TAKE

I’m grateful to have found Horton’s chapter on Job, “Out of the Whirlwind,” to be an easy read. There’s more good theology available in that book than I ever knew and it’s worth reading again in light of Horton’s commentary. I particularly appreciated Horton’s sober and compassionate view towards his friend’s suicide — proof that having a firm grasp on sound Biblical theology inevitably leads to having a realistic and merciful posture towards another’s frailty.

And since I never seem to tire of sound doctrine, “A New Creation” sat well with me, even if the chapter did go long. I applaud Horton for his unapologetic stance against our present postmodern culture. He takes no prisoners, shining a spotlight on all the messages we receive from our advertising world. Let’s face it, “reinventing yourself” is what you do if you are unregenerate. He does a wonderful job puzzling it out, showing how there is “nothing is new under the sun.” It’s true. Sin is not original. It’s all been done before.

But what I liked most about this chapter is how Horton faithfully stewards over the gospel, showing us how we can hold several truths in tension (Romans 6, 7, and 8 ) and still walk in the intended fullness of our redemption this side of heaven, keeping pace with the hope of glory in the age to come.

WORTH REPEATING

“Like Job, we make conclusions based on limited information, trying to figure out why things are happening to us.” (p. 119)

“Bildad means well, but he too suffers from bad theology.” (p.119)

“Bad things happen to bad people, good things happen to good people, but there is no such thing as bad things happening to good people. There is no one good, no not one.” (p. 120)

“Though he slay me, I will hope in him…”

“Just because we don’t have the answers does not mean there are no answers.”(p. 128)

“What happens here and now is not the whole story.” (p. 131)

“There is a Redeemer…who will right all wrongs and make all things new.” (p.134)

“The verdict of the last day is rendered here and now. For us, judgment day is a settled affair.” (p. 141)

“We live because he lives.”

“To suggest that we can add anything to our redemption is to insult God’s liberal expense in making us his children. We cannot be more chosen, accepted, forgiven, or justified than we are right now.” (p. 143)

“So we do not lose heart…”

“In moments of peak piety, I am still a struggling believer; and in moments of great transgression, I am still baptized into Christ’s death and resurrection and thus a citizen of the new creation that has dawned with Christ’s victory over sin and death and his sending of the Spirit…the normal Christian life! (p. 151)

“In the end we will wear the conqueror’s crown.”

GROUP CHAT

What wisdom we learn from Job! What teaching we receive from Horton! Please leave a comment, ask a question, share a quote or offer insight. Of course, if you’d rather simply listen, that’s fine, too.

If you’d like to answer a chapter question from the back of the book, please feel free. Just remember to reference which chapter/question it is so the rest of us aren’t left stranded. Thanks.

FOR NEXT WEEK

Conclusion:

Read Chapters 9 & 10:  “The True Nature of Spiritual Warfare” & “When God Goes to a Funeral”

-Thanks for coming-

♦  ♦  ♦

Our last time together is next Wednesday, June 8

Chapter Five: Is Anybody Up There? (Chapter Six, too)

“We cannot climb up to God, but He has descended to us.”

— Michael Horton

WEEK 4

Lots of ice, a decent amount of half & half, and some turbinado sugar to let sink down to the bottom…that’s how I roll when it’s hot! OK…yes, the book. Well, if there’s one thing Michael Horton is good at, it’s taking a profound subject and blasting home a layered point as he spins several plates while hopping on one foot. In these next two chapters, he pulls out the BIG guns and fires away at the BIG questions: Where is God? and Why, God? There’s much to consider and discuss; I won’t even try to cover it all. But hopefully, we’ll tap a vein that brings some life and builds faith. Remember, next week we start Part Two: “God of the Empty Tomb” in which we have left only two more discussions. Then what we’ve learned will be, as the author says, “put to the test of real life.” Now, once I plunk in my trusty pink straw, I’ll be good to go…

SUMMARY OF CHAPTER 5

In “Is Anybody Up There?” Horton answers the universal question, “Where is God when we need Him most?” by first stating that God condescends to us through His ordained means of grace and the many “masks” He wears through the neighbors and saints in our community. He then proceeds to take the reader on a long meandering tour to explain our inherited godless culture, where the existence of God isn’t taken for granted anymore as much as it has been exchanged for despair (p.72). Horton credits the Nietzsches, the Feuerbachs, the Marxes and the Freuds of this world for having systematically sown unbelief by reducing God to a void, a dream, a drug and a coping mechanism — the fruit of which has come to bear in William James’ pragmatism. As it flourishes in society and in the Church, its dictates of “God is whatever works” and “what we think we need” undermine the high and holy place of God, without anyone batting an eyelash.

But Horton does not abandon us to despair. He finishes the tour by announcing that this not the gospel, and warns us to not buy their trinkets. Using the literary technique of contrast, he reveals their theology of glory as the mythical tales of supermen — religion of the worst kind — and tells of a better way. To the one crying, “Where is God for me, for us, given the mess we’re in right now?” Horton offers not the general revelation of God as displayed in the glory of a magnificent sunset, but the special revelation of His saving will, a particular promise that says: “I have forgiven your sins, so come to Me. Do not be afraid.”

The author knew where he was going the entire time — and guides us back to where he started, reminding us of a Savior who condescends to us.

SUMMARY of CHAPTER 6

In “If We Just Knew Why God Let It Happen,” Horton attempts to recover what’s largely been lost — an appreciation for God’s ordinary providence in society. He advocates for theological sanity by asking: Can we let God be God? Can we live with mystery and still trust Him, in His goodness? as he introduces the ideas of providence vs. miracle, common grace vs. saving grace, direct vs. indirect government — showing how they work together in all of life throughout the whole of God’s sovereignty, seen and unseen. He suggests a faith that allows for tension in truth where these distinctions play out:

“Just as God rules the affairs of his creation no less through providence than miracle,
or common grace than saving grace,
he is just as active when he works through creatures
as when he directly brings about his designs apart from them.”
(pp. 105-106)

Single-handedly, the author lifts our vision to behold God “even where we do not usually expect to find him, and to trust that even when we do not find him, he is already there.” Nobly and with expertise, he gently cautions us away from yielding to unbelief cloaked in gnosis, or in other words, a “need to know.” Which begs another question: Would “knowing why” change anything?

In answer to that, he quotes Calvin: “It would not even be useful for us to know what God himself…willed to be hidden.” (p. 98)

MY TAKE

I’m grateful for the way Michael Horton educates while warning and protecting the flock of God. In Chapter 5, he may have gone off on a tangent or two and repeated himself a lot, but he didn’t waste a drop of ink — or my time — in doing so. I appreciate his gift of persuasion. He soundly reasons that we put away religious thinking and the fleshly, cultural temptation to succumb to a theology of glory. I need reminding over and over that I have a Savior, as I tend to forget that this mighty God is nearer than I dare trust in my hour of need.

Chapter 6 had my wheels turning! I loved how he put this one together, explaining in detail the distinctions of providence and miracle, common and saving grace, direct and indirect government, etc. Like a true reformer, he carries the torch for a faith that is Biblically balanced, one that wards against worldly principles and the lesser goals of gnosis and hyper-spirituality, the pretense of knowing what God is up to at all times. And he points to a God who is gracious, to the One who heals either by way of the surgeon’s hands or the immediate miracle, to the One who rains on the just and the unjust. Horton does not apologize for God, nor does he seek to explain Him away. Instead, like a faithful steward, he humbly regards the majesty of the Lord and invites us to do the same.

I found this chapter to be not only encouraging, but refreshing!

WORTH REPEATING

Religion actually is a projection of our own felt needs, fig leaves of our inner lives to cloak our guilt, a golden calf of our own imaginations to hide us from the God of blinding glory. But religion is not revelation. Religion expresses our longings. Revelation communicates God’s.” (p. 75)

“The sheer presence or existence of God is not itself good news to us in our sin.” (p. 77)

“One moment we may be lost in the grandeur and sheer force of the ocean’s waves; the next we are just as lost in their dread as they burst their bonds, causing havoc and destruction.” (p. 80)

“Things are not as they seem.”

“We do not know what God has decided in his deep and mysterious hiddenness, and we can only know what God condescends to reveal to us as he cloaks his unapproachable light in humility and weakness. (p. 83)

“He has still not revealed everything.”

“He remains Lord over his counsels.” (p. 96)

“God’s wisdom reorients us to see everything differently.” (p. 104)

“Our times are in His hands…”

“God’s providence cannot really be discerned apart from the gospel, apart from the knowledge that God is up to something here that will turn Good Friday into Easter morning.” (p. 110)

GROUP CHAT

OK, that was a lot to swallow. What resonated with you? What did you like/dislike? Reflect on? Agree/disagree with?

Please share your thoughts, insights, questions, or favorite excerpts in ftm’s comment section. Of course, if you’d rather simply listen, that’s fine, too.

FOR NEXT WEEK

We begin Part Two: “God of the Empty Tomb”

Read Chapters 7 & 8:  “Out of the Whirlwind” and “A New Creation”

-Thanks for coming-

♦  ♦  ♦

Let’s meet back here again next Wednesday, June 1

Chapter Three: Suffering on Purpose (Chapter Four, too)

“God nowhere promises us temporal prosperity, but the way he has redeemed us makes all of our trials cruciform,
that is, shaped not by the circumstances themselves,
but by the suffering and victory of Christ.”

— Michael Horton

WEEK 3

Enjoying the book so far? Michael Horton covers a lot of ground in these next two chapters. If by now you understand a “theology of glory” vs. a “theology of the cross,” it should be clear sailing from here, as Horton has placed a sort of theological compass in your hand. Tip: Allow it to inform you the rest of the way, as we’re going to pick up the pace by covering two chapters a week. I’ll offer a brief summary for each and I’ll be pulling more quotes. Also, today’s chapter 4 summary has a few terms linked to their definitions just in case they’re new to some. Hey, maybe next time I’ll get tricky and throw out a question from the back of the book:) But for now, grab your favorite drink, get comfy and let’s have another go-round. By the way, I’m making mine a latte!

SUMMARY of CHAPTER 3

In “Suffering on Purpose,” Horton sets the tone for the rest of the book by affirming that just as Christ suffered on purpose, so do we. Nothing we undergo is in vain or wasted. God uses every bit to conform us into the likeness of His Son. And he reminds that God is not aloof or heartless as He carries out His secret plan, but He is working all things together for good. In all our troubles, God offers “more than chicken soup for our souls” — we have an anchor of hope that has “entered the inner sanctuary behind the curtain.”¹ He goes on to detail how Jesus’ first coming was not to reign as Glorious King, as the disciples were expecting, but as Suffering Servant sent to die. God’s unfolding plan of redemption on the timeline of history was a theology of the cross — purposeful — yet terribly misunderstood. While the disciples were hankering for the best seat in the house and wondering who would get to sit on His left and right in glory, He was preparing to wear a crown of thorns, pour out His blood, and have a spear thrust into his side for the forgiveness of their sins — and ours.

1. Hebrews 6:19b

SUMMARY of CHAPTER 4

In defense of Truth, Horton calls the shots in “Is Your God Big Enough?” One by one, he lines up and fires away “execution-style” the prevailing lies of this postmodern age. By first taking aim at pragmatism, he quickly disposes of the view “God is useful” and the notion “if it works, it must be true.” He makes target practice out of moralistic therapeutic deism, a term coined by sociologist Christian Smith to describe what the average card-carrying American teen believes in the name of religion: “God is whatever I need.” He cleans up by offering a perspective on perhaps what is the most common detriment to genuine faith, that “fatal combination: experience-centeredness and sentimentalized pictures of God.” From this vantage point, Horton challenges the reader to believe God to be “most present precisely where He seems most absent.” He then bravely moves in for the kill. While he sympathizes with the problem of evil and suffering in our lives, he states that apart from Christ, there is no practical solution. His message? Our hope must be in a God bigger than ourselves, our experiences, and our understanding. Horton then points to where we must place our trust: In the promise of redemption — both now and in the future, that day when He wipes the last tear from our eyes.

“It is the Christian doctrine of God, as maintained within historic Christianity, that invalidates both hyper-immanence (pantheism) and hyper-transcendence (deism). Jesus Christ not only teaches us but exhibits to us that the God of Israel is both the Lord over and beyond us and Immanuel, “God with us.”

MY TAKE

Growing up, my family experience was less than wonderful. By God’s grace, I endured the chaos from having been reared by an alcoholic father and an emotionally fragile mother. We sustained much collateral damage as sin tore at each of our souls in different ways. As the youngest, I learned to adapt and cope in the midst of an emotional war-zone, finding little comfort for my heartache. But at age 12, God saw me in my distress and caused me to cry out to Him. With great compassion, He met me in my need. Somehow, I knew that God had a purpose in it all. By the time I turned 16, that glimmer of hope turned into “the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.” I had become a Christian. And I discovered this: Time spent in the furnace of affliction was no mere happenstance, but allowed by God to bring me to Himself. I knew what things I had suffered would be used for His good purpose. After all, He was God. Looking back, that was the extent of my theology. All I could do was lean on Him with all my weight…little did I know He was carrying me.

Years later, I needed my God to be bigger than He had ever been. Newly married and about to turn 30, I received word that my dear older brother, Johnny, 32, had committed suicide. That September evening, it was as though time stood still while everything else changed.

How could someone in his prime, just married, so full of talent and flashes of brilliance be so deeply broken and distraught? This was my brother, my friend, the one with whom I had shared faith in Christ, played the game “I See Something Blue” on the grassy hill near our home, and survived alongside of in our own private holocaust. Now he was gone. That was the day I experienced the point of no return and what it means to “Trust God” — when all sense of control is lost and nothing makes sense. The moment when all the oxygen was being sucked from my lungs. I was devastated.

This is grace: In the midst of my grief and anguish, God got bigger — apart from anything I did, really. In the aftermath of such horrible tragedy, Grief became my closest friend. She accompanied my every sigh and left gold nuggets at the bottom of each puddle of tears. During that time, I learned this: There’s nothing that comes into my life that hasn’t already passed God’s white-glove inspection. He knows the exact number of all my days from before the foundations of the world and God perfectly understands my sorrow. His compassion is very great, and He rules in Majesty over all from a high and holy place. He is beyond finding out.

WORTH REPEATING

“We’re going to Jerusalem all right,” Jesus kept saying, “but it will be nothing like what you have in mind.” (p. 41)

“In Christ — that is, under his guardianship — we are assured that God, not Satan, is king; life, not death, has the last word; righteousness, not sin, reigns over us; blessing, not condemnation, is our inheritance here and now.” (p. 46)

“It is finished!”

“But the theology of the cross proclaimed, embraced, and enacted by the Suffering Servant has stripped from the powers of darkness their ultimate threat and will in due season trample all enemies underfoot.” (p. 50)

“We know that we have drilled into reality when its gushing intensity throws us off balance.” (p.53)

“There is no theology-free experience.”

“It is all interpreted, and the question is whether there is something outside our experience to critique it, to let it know whether it got things right. ”  (p. 55)

“The God who comes to us in revelation is not a projection, but a Person. He wrestles us to the ground, takes away our pride, and leaves us walking with a limp so that we will never forget the encounter.” (p. 58)

God is self-sufficient…God is unchangeable in his nature and purposes…God has all knowledge and all power over every circumstance…God is everywhere…These “invisible attributes”…are not sufficient to arouse hope in the midst of crises, but they are essential presuppositions of it. Unless God is God, nothing else matters.” (pp.61, 62, 63)

“That God knows everything about us and has sovereign power over our destiny is bad news apart from a Mediator.” (p. 62)

“God is as present on the streets of New York City as He is in his heavens.” (p.63)

“God does not exist for us; we exist for God.” (p. 65)

“He can and will set everything right…”

“God determines the future, and therefore we can be confident that his suffering for us in Christ will yield the promised fruit: everlasting peace in a world where suffering is no more and God will be all in all.” (p. 68)

GROUP CHAT

So there you have it. Those are my thoughts. I would love to hear yours. Please leave a comment, ask a question, share a quote or offer insight. Of course, if you’d rather simply listen, that’s fine, too.

If you’d like to answer a chapter question from the back of the book, please feel free. Just remember to reference which chapter/question it is so the rest of us aren’t left stranded. Thanks.

FOR NEXT WEEK

Read Chapters 5 & 6:  “Is Anybody Up There?” and “If We Just Knew Why God Let It Happen”

-Thanks for coming-

♦  ♦  ♦

Until next Wednesday, May 25

Chapter Two: Good News for Losers

“We don’t like to think of ourselves as losers, especially in America.”

— Michael Horton

WEEK 2 

Maybe it’s me, but I had to read this chapter very s-l-o-w-l-y before I grasped his overarching point. Perhaps the up close and personal approach to chapter one is what threw me off — because this chapter is the BIG picture, like looking through a wide-angle lens. But I think I got his point(s). In a nutshell: Americans are happy in denial, everyone wants their best life now and go to heaven, but only if they don’t have to suffer and die beforehand…or some variation on that theme. Let’s give it a shot.

SUMMARY 

One of Horton’s literary strengths is his ability to cut down to size whole paradigms in less than a few pages. In the chapter, “Good News for Losers,” he helps us understand how things have evolved both culturally and in the Church.  He shows how Friedrich Nietzsche’s philosophy of the individual’s “will to power” has held great sway — from the rise of Nazism to its silent creep into the modern Church. The sweeping effects of this man-centered “superman” ideology is seen en masse, most notably among those who believe their felt needs are foremost. This exaltation of man, otherwise dubbed as a “theology of glory,” pervades our Western thinking on every level. What’s most alarming is how widely it is embraced among evangelicals. Whether expressed through a methodology of worship, indulgent lifestyle, or our national craze of “staying forever young,” this phenomenon of “[f]eeling good has emerged as not only a national priority but a religious obsession for Christians and non-Christians alike.”

By bringing us back to the truth of Scripture, Horton erects a platform to display the “theology of the cross” — the true centerpiece for our faith. He goes on to show that, in all its “weakness,” the cross of Christ is the very power of God, not only saving us from the power of sin, death, hell and the grave, but also enabling us to embrace the reality of suffering in our lives:

“Just where the highest and holiest victim of truly undeserved suffering cries out,

‘My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?’

victory over sin and death is taking place.
This is the foolishness and weakness that trump the wisdom and power of the ages!” (p. 28)

Meantime, as the world works ever harder at “winning,” going to ever greater lengths to deny the reality of pain, suffering, and death, its bondage to fear is greater still, disguised in multimillion-dollar industries designed for self-preoccupation and pleasure. But not so for the Christian. “Heaven is not here, it’s There”¹ — we’re not home yet. This is why, by God’s grace, we can accept our wrinkles, count loss as gain, and render troubles as light and momentary, knowing that they’re achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. Why we can look death square in the face and feel no sting — the stinger has been removed. Good news for losers, indeed.

1. Elisabeth Elliot, Keep a Quiet Heart

MY TAKE

When I became a Christian more than 30 years ago, I received the full gospel message of Christ and Him crucified. I’m grateful for the strong Biblical foundation that was laid early on. I was a world-loser and a world-forsaker — I had run away with the gold! But as time tells both sides of a story, I’ve seen the spiritual landscape change and erode.

Sadly, many Christians today have received only just enough truth to know that Jesus died for them, but they stumble in the dark for not knowing much else. A blight has been upon the Church for decades, a famine for Truth has ensued — a time when hungry souls eat whatever is given them. Little wonder why a “theology of glory” runs rampant in churches today, usurping the authority of Scripture and delivering a neutered gospel. Even less wonder why people lack the power to overcome sin; they don’t understand the fundamental truths of Scripture. So when a holy spokesman like Horton comes around blowing the whistle on a counterfeit gospel, I listen. Why? First, to make sure that there’s no stain of a “theology of glory” found in me. And to be ready to give an answer to those without, because the gold I hold is a “theology of the cross” only found at the foot of the cross, the place where sound doctrine was first nailed down. The place where I learned what it meant to lose all…that I might gain Him.

WORTH REPEATING

“I do not think that a Biblical sense of human sin and the need for redemption outside ourselves requires national pessimism, but a religion of human goodness will never sustain a people in times of disaster and threat.” (p. 25)

“…just keep it happy.”

“Today we have conveniently removed death, and with it the communion of the saints, and relegated it to nondescript secular cemeteries with euphemistic names like “Forest Lawn.” ” (p. 32)

“The goal of life is not to be happy, but to be holy; not to make ourselves acceptable to ourselves and others, but to be made acceptable to God by God; not to be gathered together with all of the successful people in the prime of our life, but to be gathered unto our fathers and mothers in the faith.” (p. 35)

GROUP CHAT

So, where did you land in this chapter? What did you like or dislike? Reflect on? Agree or disagree with?

Please share your thoughts, insights, questions, or favorite excerpts in ftm’s comment section. Of course, if you’d rather simply listen, that’s fine, too.

Things to know:

  • If your comment is in response to one of the chapter questions in the back of the book, please make a brief note. For example, if you’re answering question 3 of Chapter 2, a quick “Q#3” will cue readers as to what you’re talking about.
  •  If you’re offering a view contrary to that of the author’s or that of another commenter, please offer Scriptural reasoning. Our goal is to edify the group by holding to Biblical integrity throughout the six-week discussion.
  • Feel free to post a link to your own site if you left a comment there.

FOR NEXT WEEK

Read Chapters 3 & 4:  “Suffering on Purpose” and “Is Your God Big Enough”

Bonus: “Good News for All,” James Smith, 1860

-Thanks for coming-

♦  ♦  ♦

Let’s meet again next Wednesday, May 18

Chapter One: When Tragedy Strikes

“Trials come in all sizes and shapes, targeting our conscience,
our hopes and dreams, our expectation of how life works,
our confidence in God and His purposes.”

— Michael Horton

WEEK 1

Feels like forever since I first proposed the idea of hosting an online book discussion. Just needed some time to stir up interest, give everyone a chance to purchase their book, and actually do some reading. Now, here we are! I’m so glad you’ve decided to join the discussion. Got my cuppa Darjeeling, virtual coffee’s hot, let’s get started…

 SUMMARY

In his book, A Place for Weakness (Zondervan 2006), Michael Horton opens the first chapter, “When Tragedy Strikes,” by opening his heart. He plucks at the reader’s heartstrings by sharing the harrowing account of watching his aged father waste away in less than a year from the ravaging effects of a brain tumor. Before his eyes, the stoic giant he knew and loved had deteriorated to the level of a helpless infant, only pitifully so.

With the compounded loss of his dad, his mother’s health problems, and the grief shared with his wife after the couple’s multiple miscarriages, I venture Horton felt a little more than astounded at all he had to endure. And perhaps as helpless as his father, too, if not pitiful in his own right. Only difference being that Horton was still on this side of eternity, now left to grapple with the big questions.

In the face of human suffering, whether because of emotional distress, a seemingly senseless tragedy or debilitating chronic illness, Horton presents a theological framework for delving into the tough questions: Is God good? Does God care? Why do some people suffer so much in their death? Why is death often so slow and painful? He argues that theology is best learned apart from when being tossed about in the storm, when “the wounds are too open to the elements.” Perspective is scarce then. Aside from the need for practical care and friends with listening ears, he says, “Theology is the most serious business.”

But perhaps most supportive to the premise of the book, Horton comforts with these words:

Even if we do not have a lot of sound teaching to fall back on, we can be comforted by the truth of God’s grace in the middle of it all and learn, or be reconfirmed in, a few marvelous promises, even in the valley of the shadow of death.” (pp. 20-21)

MY TAKE

As soon as I began reading, I couldn’t help but recall the years when my own father’s health began to decline. The gravity that hung on me, aware of the despair and sense of failure that gripped him — and how his smiling Irish eyes went from a soft grey to one degree away from wild was a weight of significant dread. For this bear of a man, suffering the blows of stage IV renal failure came with one indignity after another. Dialysis treatment represented the beginning of a five-year losing battle and was what finally wore him out. He was like a bug caught under the light of God’s eternal gaze with no strength left to escape. But Mercy is divine, and when doctors fully expected him to pass from this world, he rallied another ten days, where Grace led him to a state of utter physical and spiritual surrender. Indeed, God had the last word. At his funeral, the gospel went forth to the sound of bagpipes and a setting sun.

This chapter solidified what I had learned from those difficult years of watching my father diminish under the crush of disease and despair. I learned that God is a redemptive God. And with all due respect, I learned that God will not be mocked, though His mercy is very great. He squeezes every ounce of glory for Himself out of a life, in His way and in His time, not a minute sooner — or later. He truly is Lord of all.

WORTH REPEATING

“On one side are counselors so concerned to clear God of charges that they underplay the element of complaint to which even the psalmist gave eloquent voice — the blues of the Bible. On the other side are those who sentimentalize suffering and defend the sufferer at the expense of the only One whose sovereignty and goodness can provide transcendent solace.” (p. 18)

“Now it was all being put to the test of real life.”

“Understanding who God is, who we are, and God’s ways in creation, providence, and redemption — at least as much as Scripture reveals to us — is to the trials of life what preparing for the LSAT is to the practice of law.” (p. 19)

“And so we need to learn from God’s Word how to meet trials, apart from which more tough times will only tend to reinforce what we already believe, whether it’s good or bad theology.” (p. 21)

GROUP CHAT

How did the first chapter read for you? What did you learn? Reflect on?

Please share your thoughts, insights, questions or favorite excerpts in ftm’s comment section. Of course, if you’d rather simply listen, that’s fine, too.

Things to know:

  • If your comment is in response to one of the chapter questions in the back of the book, please make a brief note. For example, if you’re answering question 2 of Chapter 1, a quick “Q#2” will cue readers as to what you’re talking about.
  • If you’re offering a view contrary to that of the author’s or that of another commenter, please offer Scriptural reasoning. Our goal is to edify the group by holding to Biblical integrity throughout the six-week discussion.
  • Feel free to post a link to your own site if you left a comment there.

FOR NEXT WEEK

Read Chapter 2: “Good News for Losers”

-Thanks for coming-

♦  ♦  ♦

We’ll meet again next Wednesday, May 11

theology

Dreams and goosebumps do not a theology make.

So many people want to know God, but often their methodology is whacked. To know God on our own terms is to not know Him at all, but to seek Him according to His Word is to find Him. When we acknowledge Him in all His glory and seek His face in prayer, there then exists a possibility for making a good pot of theological stew. 

Do your best to present yourself to God as one approved, a worker who has no need to be ashamed, rightly handling the word of truth.

 2 Timothy 2:15

Every Christian is given a mandate to pound out a theology that brings glory and honor to God. What’s curious about the passage above is that it’s surrounded on all sides by admonitions to avoid godless talk and aberrant beliefs. Not a word about buying the latest commentary or theological tome. Only a call to holy living and various exhortations to guard against falsehood.  Aren’t these the ingredients called for when preparing a sound Biblical theology?

Theology—honest, good theology—opens up a plethora of knowledge about God, but study alone will not bring anyone closer to God. Put another way, hours of zoological study will not necessarily make a good zookeeper. A good zookeeper must love animals to ensure proper care. Same principle applies to knowing God. For theology to truly “go somewhere,” faith must be fleshed out in obedience to what He says. Otherwise, those coveted soup bones will remain on the counter and left to rot for lack of a sizeable pot. Nobody eats.

Hopefully, my taste for theology is maturing, but the way I go about things can be noisy. I’m the one usually found banging the side of the pot trying to separate truth from lie. Let me at the good stuff. I’m craving a sample of something lean and on fire. Something that tastes better the more I chew. I need food that sticks to my ribs and can sustain me through the bleakest of winters.

So I’m blowing dust off the lids of some old hymns, reading Psalms and Proverbs and downloading sermons from heavyweights like Whitefield, Edwards, Tozer and Spurgeon. And, yes, I’m grateful for the array of commentaries and reference tools. But one thing I’ve done that has made all the difference: I quit reading the Bible like it’s a daily horoscope. Instead, I regularly take all sixty-six books and imagine them lined up in front of me and I pick one. With yellow highlighter in hand, I begin by trying to learn something of the writer, understand its historical context, and proceed to read carefully—in large chunks at a time. I chew slowly and take a few breaks here and there. Good theological stew takes time to digest.

Then guess what happens? I get up from the table and life smacks me with an ideology that doesn’t match with mine. Or some other conundrum presents itself unsolicited. Where’s my slotted spoon when I need it? I wait to give my systematic theology a chance to kick in. Sometimes I wait days or weeks at a clip. When it comes to getting clarity, timing can be iffy.

Meantime, I pray and ask God to show me what it all means. Without fail, He answers. Makes me feel like a hunter; I feast for weeks and there’s enough for everybody all around. My cooking secret isn’t sensational, but it is deeply satisfying:

A theology that truly glorifies and honors God is best left to simmer a long, long time. Expect it to take years.

                                               Slotted Spoons