Wednesday, March 29, 2017

Alive in Him {Book Review}

Gloria Furman's new book Alive in Him: How Being Embraced by the Love of Christ Changes Everything  provides an accessible, effervescent overview of the main themes of Paul's letter to the Ephesians. You might call it a devotional commentary, but it reads more like time over coffee discussing Ephesians with an interesting, well-read friend. The author's subtitle captures the gist of her main idea, which she states fully in the Prologue:
"Ephesians describes in broad strokes and detailed lines how being embraced by the love of Christ changes everything."

Furman manages to pull off the impressive feat of clearly communicating profound theological truth in clear, conversational language. She includes quotations from the likes of William Cowper, Richard Sibbes, and John Owen. At the same time, she uses frosted cupcakes and caterpillars as illustrations and chooses section headings like "Whoa--This Is Heavy," "The Narrative That Eats All Other Narratives for Lunch," and "[Paul Drops Mic. Body Walks This Way]." Cultural references include zombies, Back to the Future, and The Office. If anyone is tempted to write off a book on Ephesians as dry or boring, Gloria Furman is the one to prove that idea wrong.

Her years of missionary life also add the exotic spices of global geographic and cultural references. She recognizes that the lives and experiences of Christians vary from place to place and peppers her thoughts with acknowledgements of the global church's diverse expressions of the one body of Christ. We don't look alike, sing alike, speak the same language, or enjoy the same kinds of refreshments at church gatherings, but we are all parts of one body with one crucified, risen, and ascended Head, Jesus Christ the God-Man, and we are all called to walk like Him. As a former missionary and wife of a missionary kid, I deeply appreciated this for personal as well as theological reasons.

Those distinctives only touch on the style of the book, which is winsome. They are her way of putting the cookies on the bottom shelf. In this case, the cookies are the beautiful, life-altering truths within Paul's letter. This book does not include lengthy quotations from the book of Ephesians itself; the author states at the outset that she wants the reader to experience the beauties of the Biblical text firsthand with her book as a sort of travel guide. She writes in a way that invites the reader to fall in love with Ephesians and its divine Author as she has and, in so doing, to be changed. In her own words, "My goal is to lead you deeper into the text of the Bible so that you can see for yourself just how wide and long and high and deep is the mind-boggling love of Christ (Eph. 3:18–19)."

Here are a few of my favorite quotes:

We hang onto the “But God” of the gospel by faith through grace, because in that gospel we trace the echo back to the source of all things. We find Joy himself. And O, what kindness we have been shown by God in Christ Jesus! For we were not even looking for him when he found us. Our deadness is interrupted by rich mercy, and we are raised to life in the throes of un-looked-for upheavals of joy. This kind of tasting and seeing of God’s goodness tells us that there is more to life than what we can taste and see. Then we become hungry for more and more of it. And our eyes will not stop searching the horizon of eternity, hoping to catch a glimpse of the Beloved who promised that he would return for his bride. (72)

Our obedience to God is not the kindling for the fire of our salvation but the heat emanating from the fire that God started and fuels. (73)

The single most mind-blowing, life-altering reality of being in Christ is that we no longer need to hide ourselves from the presence of the Lord God; in Christ we may walk with God in perfect fellowship now, and ultimately forever in the garden city that is to come (Gen. 3:8) (82).

...“the existence of the church is God’s cosmic booyah to the Devil” (98).

In this garden of community we are all seeking the flourishing of the others. We want others to see and savor Jesus and to know his love that surpasses knowledge. It becomes our chief interest and aim to help others to know Christ, removing the rocky obstacles out of the way so that their roots can find anchor (101).

There is no time to waste complaining of our “chains,” for we are prisoners of Christ himself. He is the one who has set us in our current circumstances, whatever they may be, for his good purpose to glorify himself. Like Paul, we see our chains as opportunities and not hindrances (Eph. 6:20). 169-70

Our strength comes from the Lord. Paul has already told us what the Lord’s strength is like. His power is immeasurably great and it is for us who believe. The Lord’s great might raised Jesus from the dead. Raised. From. The. Dead. It’s the same power that seated Christ— the Son of Man (a human being!)—at his right hand in heaven. It’s the same power he used to kill the hostility between Jew and Gentile at the cross. It’s the same power that is stronger than anything we can imagine that is working inside of us (see Eph. 1:19–20; 2:16; 3:20). No, beloved, do not worry whether you will be strong enough. God is strong enough (163).

Immeasurably great power is irrevocably accomplishing all his holy will (173).

Gloria Furman has experienced the embrace of the love of Christ that changes everything, and the enthusiasm she conveys in her newest book is contagious. I pray this taste makes many within the reach of this review reach out for their Bibles first, to renew their hearts in the Ephesian letter, and for her wise and winsome book second, to appreciate Ephesians better and fall more deeply in love with its divine Author.

N.B. I received a free advanced reader's copy of this book from the publisher, with the invitation to share my thoughts if I enjoyed it. If there are discrepancies in wording or page number between this post and the final published version, I apologize, but this is why.

Tuesday, March 28, 2017

Oneness with Christ

"I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me."
Galatians 2:20 ESV

"It makes no matter where He places me, or how. That is rather for Him to consider than for me; for in the easiest positions He must give me His grace, and in the most difficult His grace is sufficient....

"So, if God places me in great perplexity, must He not give me much guidance; in positions of great difficulty, much grace; in circumstances of great pressure and trial, much strength? No fear that His resources will be unequal to the emergency! And His resources are mine, for He is mine, and is with me and dwells in me. All this springs from the believer's oneness with Christ."
Hudson Taylor, Hudson Taylor's Spiritual Secret

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Lesson of the Loaves {from the Archives}

    The apostles  gathered around Jesus and reported to Him all that they had done and taught. He said to them, "Come away by yourselves to a remote place and rest a while." For many people were coming and going, and they did not even have time to eat. So they went away in the boat by themselves to a remote place, but many saw them leaving and recognized them. People ran there by land from all the towns and arrived ahead of them.  So as He stepped ashore, He saw a huge crowd and had compassion on them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd. Then He began to teach them many things.
    When it was already late, His disciples approached Him and said, "This place is a wilderness, and it is already late! Send them away, so they can go into the surrounding countryside and villages to buy themselves something to eat."
    "You give them something to eat," He responded.
    They said to Him, "Should we go and buy 200 denarii worth of bread and give them something to eat?"
    And He asked them, "How many loaves do you have? Go look."
    When they found out they said, "Five, and two fish."
    Then He instructed them to have all the people sit down in groups on the green grass. So they sat down in ranks of hundreds and fifties. Then He took the five loaves and the two fish, and looking up to heaven, He blessed and broke the loaves. He kept giving them to His disciples to set before the people. He also divided the two fish among them all. Everyone ate and was filled. Then they picked up 12 baskets full of pieces of bread and fish. Now those who ate the loaves were 5,000 men (Mark 6:30-44, HCSB).

Near the end of the last century, I sat in my first class, 601 Spiritual Life, of my first full-time semester of seminary.  Dr. Bill Lawrence, with abundant energy and clear enthusiasm for his subject and students, was a good way to begin. He told us over and over, "Repetition is the key to learning," and perhaps he was right.  Again today, as I read the account of the feeding of the 5,000, I heard his voice reminding us of what he called "the lesson of the loaves."

The first clause of the lesson describes the problem in the passage: more than 5,000 (if women and children were also present) hungry people in a remote wilderness, late in the day.  What does Jesus say?  He tells the apostles to feed this impossible multitude with five small loaves and two tiny fish.  My pastor at that time compares the quantity of bread and fish of the original Greek to "granola bars and sardines." In other words, Mark isn't talking about 5 loaves of sandwich bread and 2 whole salmon but an even greater degree of impossibility. In Dr. Lawrence's words, "You must do what you cannot do with what you do not have."

How many of us feel that way on an almost daily basis?  Whether the "must do" involves mothering, a difficult job, the lack of a job with financial pressures that will not let up, health problems, or just the ordinary pressures of life, most of us understand this feeling of overwhelming demands and inadequate resources.  I certainly do. In the Scripture passage, though, it is Jesus who places the demand on the apostles, so in that instance, at least the impossibility was His will.

Thanks be to God that the lesson doesn't stop there!

The second clause from Dr. Lawrence provides the solution: "BUT He will do what He can do with what He does have."  Jesus takes His followers' inadequate resources, blesses them, breaks them, and gives them to the disciples to distribute.  In His hands, they become not only a start, not only enough, but too much.  The great crowd eats until satisfied, and still 12 baskets of leftovers remain. "He will do what He can do with what He does have."  Jesus' resources are adequate for the overwhelming demands of following Him and seeking to serve those He brings us.

This morning I was feeling like those disciples: the list of responsibilities, projects, paperwork, and prayer requests longer than the day ahead and far greater than the strength in hand.  Reading Luke's account of this event in my daily portion reminded me of my teacher's words, and I found courage to bring the needs to Christ and take His strength, one basketful at a time.  It only felt right to pass the basket on to you.

That doesn't mean the needs will feel any less overwhelming or more possible. Feelings may or may not change. If the Lord is the one putting the needs on our plate, however, He will not fail to give grace enough to match them, one crumb at a time, as we keep going back to Him for more.

Dear Crumbles, whatever your overwhelming need today, take heart:

"You must do
what you cannot do 
with what you do not have,
He will do through you
what He can do
with what He does have."

I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content.  I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need.  I can do all things through him who strengthens me (Philippians 4:11b-13, ESV).

Monday, March 20, 2017

Dandelion Grace

And there arose on that day a great persecution against the church in Jerusalem, and they were all scattered throughout the regions of Judea and Samaria, except the apostles.... Now those who were scattered went about preaching the word (Acts 8:1,4, ESV).

"The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the church" (Tertullian).

Gusts of affliction
Scatter grace
Like dandelion seeds.

As we pray for our brothers and sisters who are suffering, whether from persecution, displacement, or other trials, let us not forget to pray for God's glory and kingdom through believers' suffering. Let us (me!) not forget that the Lord intends to use our own suffering for His glory. Your pain is not wasted, Crumble. God has a plan and means it for your good, the church's gain, and His glory. May you find hope in that!

Thursday, March 16, 2017


“It doesn’t matter, really, how great the pressure is,” [Hudson Taylor] used to say; “it only matters where the pressure lies. See that it never comes between you and the Lord - then, the greater the pressure, the more it presses you to His breast.”
from Dr. and Mrs. Howard Taylor, Hudson Taylor's Spiritual Secret, p. 139

Monday, March 13, 2017

The Tenderness of Our Shepherd

Ewe and lamb, Dall sheep, Denali National Park, Alaska
"O trembling heart, look away, and look up! Your sorrows have been multiplied indeed, by looking at difficulties and second causes. Now cease from all this. Talk no more about the walled cities and giants; about the rugged paths and dark valleys; about lions and robbers. But think of the love, the might, and the wisdom, of the Shepherd. Love that spared not its blood! Might that made the worlds! Wisdom that named the stars! Your salvation does not depend on what you are, but on what He is. For every look at self, take ten looks at Christ. Cease using the first pronoun, and substitute for it the third....
"He has a shepherd’s tenderness; no lamb so tiny that He will not carry it; no saint so weak that He will not gently lead; no soul so faint that He will not give it rest. He pities as a father. He comforts as a mother. His gentleness makes great. He covers us with His feathers, soft and warm and downy; and under His wings do we trust" (F.B. Meyer, The Shepherd Psalm).

Friday, March 10, 2017

Strength in Weakness

Yellow-rumped warbler (female, we believe)

One might fairly substitute "brokenness" or "meekness" for "weakness" in the following quote:
“…It is amazing how strong we can become when we begin to understand what weaklings we are! It is in weakness that we can admit our mistakes and correct ourselves while confessing them. It is in weakness that our minds are open to enlightenment from others. It is in weakness that we are authoritative in nothing, and say the most clear-cut things with simplicity and consideration for others. In weakness we do not object to being criticized and we easily submit to censure. At the same time, we criticize no one without absolute necessity. We give advice only to those who desire it, and even then we speak with love and without being dogmatic. We speak from a desire to help rather than for a desire to create a reputation for wisdom” (Fenelon, Let Go, Letter 29).
Reading these words this morning, on a day when I am aware of my weakness with every step I take, reminded me of how far I have to grow in realizing its intended fruit. Amore and I welcome your prayers for the Lord to heal my painful joints and provide His restored strength. The last four weeks have brought new difficulties in that regard, and we have yet to discover the medical explanations for them. If the Lord prompts you to pray for us, please also pray that weakness, hardships, and "calamities" (to our limited sight) would do their good, gracious, refining work in us.

We are so very grateful for your friendship and prayers over the last six-and-counting years!

But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. For the sake of Christ, then, I am content with weaknesses, insults, hardships, persecutions, and calamities. For when I am weak, then I am strong. (2 Corinthians 12:9-10, ESV) 

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Sufficient Grace

...a thorn was given me in the flesh, a messenger of Satan to harass me, to keep me from becoming conceited. Three times I pleaded with the Lord about this, that it should leave me. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.” Therefore I will boast all the more gladly of my weaknesses, so that the power of Christ may rest upon me. (2 Corinthians 12:7b-9, ESV)

"God’s grace is illustrated and magnified in the poverty and trials of believers. Saints bear up under every discouragement, believing that all things work together for their good, and that out of apparent evils a real blessing shall ultimately spring—that their God will either work a deliverance for them speedily, or most assuredly support them in the trouble, as long as he is pleased to keep them in it. This patience of the saints proves the power of divine grace.... He who would glorify his God must set his account upon meeting with many trials. No man can be illustrious before the Lord unless his conflicts be many. If then, yours be a much-tried path, rejoice in it, because you will the better show forth the all-sufficient grace of God. As for his failing you, never dream of it—hate the thought. The God who has been sufficient until now, should be trusted to the end" (Spurgeon, Morning and Evening, Morning of March 4).

See also: The Gift of Thorns