Hebrews: A bright hope

Jesus radiance glory God Hebrews Bible study

This Fall, I have the pleasure of studying Hebrews with some wonderful friends who share such amazing insights, I feel like they all should write devotionals or speak at church retreats. They’ve helped me look at this book with a range of fresh perspectives that bring some of the older – and honestly, difficult to understand – words and passages to life and applicability for our present times.

Right out of the gate, we hit this verse that speaks to the greatness of Jesus, and were fascinated by this description of His nature, captured in the term “radiance.”

In the Greek, this means “reflected brightness,” or “effulgence” (see what I mean by archaic language?). So Christ reflects the brightness of God’s majesty, which makes sense since He is the exact imprint – a precise reproduction – of God’s nature.

Our group talked about how “radiant” isn’t a label we use that often nowadays, except in a few specific circumstances to describe the faces of:

1) A bride on her wedding day
2) A woman after she gives birth and holds her baby for the first time
3) A believer on their deathbed as they draw their final breaths before entering eternal glory

Isn’t that striking, how we perceive someone as radiant or glowing when they’re delighting in an overwhelming moment of joy – even if that moment involves pain and suffering? And how much of that luminosity is a reflection of the pure brilliance of the object which the person is beholding – the bride, her groom; the mother, her child; the believer, their Savior seated on the throne.

There’s a reason so many VBS programs over the decades have utilized the pun-ny “Son-shine” theme.

Jesus is the Light of the World, the Lamb who is the Lamp; He shines in our hearts to give the light of the knowledge of the glory of God. And the more we’re with Him, soaking in His grace, the more our lives will reflect His bright hope in a world shuttered in darkness.

May we shine like little radiant lights mirroring His glory.

Jesus radiance glory God Hebrews 1:3 Bible study

Whose platform is it anyway?

platform belongs to God.jpg
[Photo: Oscar Keys via Unsplash]
I was born during the Jennifer Era of U.S. history. Jennifer Aniston, Jennifer Garner, JLo, and I joined more than half a million of our moniker sisters in dominating the baby name charts from 1970 to 1984, until those scheming Jessicas hijacked our reign.

Whether this trend can be attributed to the name of the doomed heroine in the acclaimed 1970 film “Love Story,” or to random cycling mass phenomena in accordance with mathematical processes, we all know it was a massively popular name back in the day and are wondering which hippie/hipster fad will produce another generation of Jens, Emmas, and Bellas.

My name is thoroughly unoriginal, and I’ve come to accept that. What’s more difficult to swallow is the apparent requirement in this digital age for writers to leverage their names as their brand.

Sure, it makes sense. If you want to reach an audience with your message, you have to get your name out there so people can find you and read your work. To build a successful author platform, you must create a social persona to which fans will flock and publishers will beckon for book deals.

It’s DIY marketing with an egotistical spin, and it seems if you ever want to go anywhere in the publishing world, you’ve got push yourself to promote yourself.

An inner conflict

In case you didn’t pick up on it, I was cringing between the preceding lines. I strongly dislike the concept of self-made publicity for many different reasons, including the aforementioned ordinariness of my name. The world has plenty of Jennifers; it doesn’t need another one running around tooting her own horn.

Also repelling me from the “be your own brand” strategy: my tendency toward shyness, lack of knowledge and desire to market like a boss, and fear – fear that others won’t like me, or that they will like me and expect a standard of excellence I can’t always (or ever) deliver, and fear that I’ll care way too much about others’ perception and evaluation of the person I project myself to be.

Aside from these unpleasant factors, the most stomach-turning aspect of self-marketing is its very nature. Count how many times I dropped an “I, me my” in the preceding paragraph. I sound as conceited as a 2-year-old.

I know there are millions of people out there pounding the social pavement to develop online personalities as a means to spread an important message or advance a worthwhile movement or simply make money as a business venture, and that’s fine. However, I think there’s a tension that can and should arise for Christian authors writing Christian books, a vocation and niche I aspire to pursue.

If you’re ostensibly writing to proclaim the gospel and convey the truth of God’s saving grace, how do you justify throwing your time, energy, and resources into promoting yourself? How can you reconcile God’s command for His people to be like Christ – humble, submissive to His will, seeking His exaltation above all else – with your endless striving for people to like you and follow your words?

He must increase

Prominent Christian authors addressed these and other concerns regarding platform building during an online discussion earlier this year. Beth Moore, Margaret Feinberg, and Karen Swallow Prior shared honest thoughts from their experiences in the Christian publishing industry, warning of the perils of social media ladder climbing and admonishing believers to fight the fleshly temptation to make ourselves known under the guise of making Jesus known.

I followed these conversations with rapt attention, as I respect these women and want to heed their guidance in venturing out into this field. Yet for all the wisdom I gleaned, the klaxon of prideful posturing alarmed and discouraged me, especially after researching the platform strategy and confirming it as the new norm for author best practices.

This brought me to a crisis of writing about faith: Accept the necessary evil of self-promotion to move forward with my publishing aspirations, or refuse to undertake this sinful endeavor and scrap the whole dang author idea.

Dismayed as I was, I kept thinking and researching and praying, and then came upon this article by a not-yet widely known writer contemplating “The Social Media Strategy of John the Baptist.” Reflecting on John’s gospel, she describes how the outspoken forerunner of Christ grew a following as he proclaimed the coming Messiah, and then once Jesus appeared on the scene, directed his followers to the incarnate Savior:

“God had given John a platform – he had become famous and influential in his own right. But John used his platform to draw attention to the only One who could satisfy and save their souls.”

John used the platform God had given him to draw attention to Jesus, not himself, and made this outrageously meek statement that should be the motto of every follower of Christ: “He must increase, but I must decrease” (John 3:30).

John 3 30

I read this article, and pondered this verse, and thanked the author and John the Baptist for this critical reminder.

Serving purely

Any platform I have is God’s, not mine. He gives and takes away gifts, skills, relationships, email subscribers, Twitter followers, and “tribe” members for whatever purposes He intends – most specifically, to exalt His name and shower goodness on His people.

Knowing this, I can publish a blog under my name, post content designed to encourage others, even seek out new readers to engage and connect with, and do so with a clean conscience IF my heart’s desire is to increase Jesus’ fanbase, not my own.

With whatever my hands find to write, I pray that the efforts involved – from production to publicity – will point others to the King of Kings, the Word of Life, my Blessed Redeemer.

Hands write point to Redeemer

As the pastor at my church stated during a recent sermon on Daniel’s rise to prominence in the Babylonian Empire, all due to God’s divine appointment and his humble obedience: “The greatness that the Scripture teaches is best described by you moving through the world and leaving a wake of the Kingdom of God behind you.”

I will not do this perfectly. The Spirit will inevitably need to convict me, on a repeated basis, and I petition Him to have at it. He knows how much I struggle with craving approval.

I also don’t plan to write exclusively about issues of deep spiritual significance, and occasionally cover more lighthearted subject matter – particularly that of the deprecating, keepin’ it real variety. This is fun for me, and I hope my enjoyment of pouring out some creative juices edifies others and honors God, as much as any mocking commentary about a TV show can accomplish that.

In stepping out on this precarious limb, setting up a platform for my writing work, I ask God to help me make wise choices in His strength, to value His truth above any other opinion or striving for “likes,” and to help me follow Beth Moore’s advice on navigating social media branding:

The answer will be found in serving God as faithfully and as purely as human hearts and souls know how and let Him build His own following and determine who listens to what voice and when.

Serving God with a pure heart isn’t ever easy, and the way forward isn’t entirely clear. Marketing as an author in the Christian publishing industry is risky business, with a danger involving soul-devastating consequences. The uncertainty weighs on me, and I expect to feel apprehension about this platform racket for however long the Lord allows me to write about Him.

But by His grace, I will forge ahead, trusting Him to send forth His Word either through or in spite of me, as I write under my humdrum, exceptionally unremarkable name, aiming to lift high the greatest Name in all the world.

The one reminder we should set for life

remember to thank God phone reminder

It is a universally accepted fact that one of the primary jobs of a parent is to nag your kids ad nauseam about saying “please” and “thank you.” They demand a cookie; you reply sing-songingly “What’s the magic word?” They beg to open birthday gifts; you interject a rhythmic “Well, what do you say?” after each is torn into and tossed aside.

Given my constant chorus of sometimes gentle, more times exasperated reminders, it irks me that my boys still forget to utter these common courtesies on a daily basis. Why is it they can’t recall these simple phrases they learned and even signed with their cute, pudgy hands as infants?

The lack of thanks especially bothers me. How have they grown into such gimme gremlins who expect milk to be served on tap and my phone to be accessed anytime for whatever random, nonsensical questions they want to ask Siri? It’s not like we’ve raised them in a day spa equipped with silver spoons and bunk bedside service.

Amidst this aggravation, it hit me that my incredulity at my sons’ ingratitude should be tempered by the knowledge that a) they’re 6- and 4-years-old; b) all kids can act ill-mannered at times and are by nature whiners; c) I do my best to provide a wealth of love and meet their basic needs, so of course they’ve become accustomed to abundant care and can occasionally take it for granted; and, most strikingly, d) I’m much worse at giving thanks than they are.

This conviction recently latched onto me and pierced my heart down to its most prideful parts. A single, frank comment posed in response to a sarcastic statement I made on social media cut my tongue right through to the cheek: “You should count your blessings.”

Oof. That stings, and spins so many self-incriminating wheels turning: Am I truly ungrateful? Have I fallen into complacent indifference to this bountiful life God has given me? Do I frequently fail to praise Him for the grace upon grace He provides every day? Has my preoccupation with perceived shortfalls eclipsed my appreciation for tangible windfalls – my husband, my children, my friends, my home?

In deed and in word, I can be ungrateful at times, and far too often, my numerous blessings go uncounted. Even though my heart recognizes the need for and importance of giving thanks, my mind habitually forgets to express it, to my own detriment.

In her latest book, “The Broken Way,” Ann Voskamp conveys the risk we take maintaining this gaping mental lapse: “Whenever I forget, fear walks in … Forget to give thanks – and you forget who God is. Forget to break and give – and it’s your soul that gets broken.”

When we forget to thank God, we lose our grip on the reality of our relationship – the essence of our lives’ dependence on Him – a kind of fatal spiritual amnesia.

How could we be so dense as to blank out on these truths? Perhaps we can blame our biology.

Thankfulness should theoretically be stored in long-term memory, which is permanent but requires conscious thought and is subject to weakening over time. Forgetting from long-term memory can be explained through retrieval failure – as one professor of psychiatry and aging described in an article on tip-of-the-tongue phenomenon (i.e., brain farts): “… if you don’t retrieve a memory often, it may be harder to remember. You know you have it somewhere, but you just haven’t used the information for a while. It gets a little a bit dusty.”

Lord knows how dusty-headed and absentminded His people can be, which could be why He repeats the concept of thanks more than 200 times throughout Scripture (according to KJV Hebrew and Greek concordances). In the Old Testament, “thank” appears most frequently as yahdah, which literally means to use the hand; to throw – think: hands extended in praise and confession. In the New Testament, it often shows up as eucharisteo, from the roots eu = good/well + charis = grace, as in Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.”

In whatever we do, we must do whatever it takes to remember to thank God, to thank others, to live with hands outspread in thanksgiving for our redemption. Our Father has faithfully provided reminders throughout His Word to cue gratitude: through the aromas and rituals of thank offerings and Passover, through songs and hymns of praise, through the breaking of bread and pouring of wine in remembrance of the Cross.

As Voskamp intones, like a doxology, “the eucharisteo, then koinonia”: “Everything He embodied in the Last Supper – it is what would heal the body’s brokenness. Brokenness can be healed in re-membering. Remembering our union, our communion, our koinonia, with Christ.”

This is Truth worth committing to memory. It is a commitment, and because we’re human, requires reminders – whether that’s a note on the mirror, a notification on a phone, a song, a smell, a memento or alert of some kind – whatever signal or process that can help jog our memories of our undeserved grace and trigger the flow of our praise.

I’m still figuring out the best way to do this. Maybe I’ll recruit my boys to aid me in this effort and repay me for all the nagging I do to them. I can hear them now, chanting wholeheartedly: “Mom-my, you forgot to say thank-you.”

Nice reminder, kids. Irritating, but necessary, and vital for living life to the fullest.

Biblical smack talk with @JillianMichaels

It’s the type of thing you’d expect to snag at a church ladies’ swap – I mean, besides those near-threadbare yoga pants that you can totally still get some use out of and a coupla vintage glass jars that are just begging to be repurposed in some darling yet probably doomed Pinterest project.

The awesome find I scored at a recent moms’ group exchange was a Jillian Michaels kickboxing DVD. In it, the celebrity trainer blasts through three 20-minute cardio workouts while barking belligerent threats intended to scare the fat off of you.

More than helping me sculpt a mombod physique, this DVD has provided ongoing entertainment value watching my kids mimic the moves of Jillian’s fiercely fit crew, whom they identify by the color of each woman’s sports bra – “I’m following the orange girl!” – and hearing them repeat her violent phrases in situations outside of an exercise context – “Let’s break some ribs! Push this guy through the wall! Take his jaw off! Smack him down! Take him out!”

jillian-michaels-header-imageimg_0506img_0527

Amidst all her hollerin’ to work harder, dig deeper, and thrust your hip out farther, Jillian issues a blunt proclamation that stirred spiritual implications in my mind: “You’re gonna get out of this what you put into it.”

What my girl Jillian is talking about here isn’t the length of time you spend working out; it’s the amount of effort you exert working out. Over and over again throughout the DVD, she reminds you that you’re only training for 20 minutes, so you better make it count and jab, chop, and whack as vigorously as you can.

Pep talks like this from the fitness/athletic field can be applied several different ways in a Christian living conversation: press on in the faith, run the race set before you, and so forth. What struck me about this particular motivational invective was the principle of return on investment and how that relates to our approach to the Bible.

Just as in cardio kickboxing, the level of examination and meditation I pour into God’s Word directly affects the amount of wisdom and edification I reap from God’s Word. Stated another way, per Jillian Michaels: You wanna play? You gotta pay.

This is logical from both a physically fit and fiscally sound perspective. Exerting little effort to study Scripture is likely to yield minimal results (learning/growth), while investing greater effort is more apt to yield better results (more comprehensive understanding of who God is and how we can be like Him).

Certainly, there are circumstances and seasons of life that can make it difficult if not impossible to engage in intense study (hello, newborn parenthood). But I think we sell ourselves short when we automatically assume we haven’t got the time or mental capacity to go deeper, and instead, settle for completely acceptable yet not terribly substantial contact with the Bible – like, say, spending a few minutes a day scrolling through elegantly scripted verse memes on Instagram.

Consider this admonition from Jen Wilkin in “Women of the Word”:

Learning what the Bible says and subsequently working to interpret and apply it requires quite a different practice than many of those we commonly associate with ‘spending time in the Word.’ We cannot afford to assume that our good intentions are enough.

I can just hear my grace-extolling crusader comrades now: “Alert! Alert! Legalism detected! Someone call for Philip Yancey while we lock her up in a room plastered with pages from the epistles!”

Friends, I’m not trying to be legalistic here. Of course we must be wary of implying some religious formula, as if x number of hours spent studying Scripture = x number of stars on our holiness charts. This has nothing to do with the basis of our salvation, or our position in Christ, or the ability of the Spirit to move in our lives through means besides direct engagement with the Bible.

Please hear me out in a spirit of love and mutual conviction when I say that pursuing knowledge of our Lord and Saviour should be our utmost of #lifegoals. To love God is to know God, and to know God is to study God.

#lifegoals quote

Thankfully, there are many good resources available to help us accomplish that: the previously mentioned “Women of the Word,” Kay Arthur’s “How To Study Your Bible,” and some great apps including IF: Equip, She Reads Truth, and First 5.

Psalms 119:2 says “Blessed are those who keep his statutes and seek Him with all their heart” (NIV), or rephrased “Joyful are those who obey His laws and search for Him with all their hearts” (NLT).

I pose this question to myself, and to you: Are we dripping sweat to seek Jesus? Like, at all? Isn’t He worth the effort – any amount we can make?

I urge you, in my best Jillian butt-whupping voice, to sweat with me and dig deeper in God’s Word for the sake of knowing Him more.

joyful obey God's laws search with hearts Psalm 119 2