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Thoughts About Lent

Day before yesterday was the first Sunday of Lent. I have never been a part of a church that observes Lent and I’m not attuned to the liturgical church calendar, so I was caught by surprise when I read a blog last week about Ash Wednesday, the beginning of the Lenten observance.

In my growing up years, the only people I knew about who observed Lent were Catholics. I knew they had special church services, did penance for their sins, and gave up certain things during the 40 days prior to Good Friday (minus Sundays, which are a celebration of the Resurrection). Then I learned that other denominations followed the same practice – but not ours.

Ask.com defines Lent as “a time when many Christians prepare for Easter by observing a period of fasting, repentance, moderation and spiritual discipline. The purpose is to set aside time for reflection on Jesus Christ – his suffering and his sacrifice, his life, death, burial and resurrection.”

While many of our churches that grew out of the Anabaptist tradition do not observe Lent, viewing it as a manmade holy day and frowning on rituals and liturgies, I think there can be much spiritual value in taking time at this season to meditate on scripture that describes Christ’s suffering and sacrifice on our behalf. The greatness of his love and the depth of his sacrifice should lead to confession and repentance from sin. Fasting can be a part of our observance. Spiritual fasting may mean anything from going without meals or a certain food to eliminating certain attitudes or activities from one’s life in order to free ourselves from the desires of the flesh and turn our hunger toward God. The decision to fast should be led by the Spirit of God.

While I do not feel led to fast, I have decided to observe Lent by focusing my devotional times on the cross of Christ. I am working through Contemplating the Cross, a small book by Trisha McCary Rhodes that provides daily scripture readings from the Old and New Testaments, a brief narrative of a few moments in Christ’s journey to the cross, and probing questions to consider. I want to understand in a deeper way the rejection, the anguish, and the terrible suffering Jesus endured for my sake!

Some blogs I’ve read offer insights and suggestions for observing Lent. You may find something helpful on one of these sites:
http://blog.lifeway.com/womenallaccess/2014/03/03/what-lent-taught-me-about-myself/#.Uxd_QWex4rg
http://www.christianitytoday.com/amyjuliabecker/2014/february/in-defense-of-lent.html
http://www.judydouglass.com/2014/03/discovering-mercy-lent/

If you don’t choose to fast, you may want to make a donation to someone in need. A suggestion would be to help our sisters and brothers in the Central African Republic who are experiencing severe hunger – an unintentional fast caused by the bitter suffering and destruction they have experienced because of the warring factions in their nation. You can donate at http://www.encompassworldpartners.org/component/k2/item/4590-africa-relief.html

I trust that during these days leading up to “Good” Friday (the darkest of all days for our Lord), your heart will be stirred again by the depths of his suffering on your behalf. Then rejoice, because after dark Friday comes Resurrection Sunday!

Do you observe Lent? What practices are especially meaningful to you? I’d love to hear from you.

Thanksgiving Day is family reunion day on my mom’s side of the family. We gather in the hometown of one of the cousins (this year in Tennessee) and have the traditional turkey dinner with all the trimmings. After the meal the men watch football (or sleep!), the women visit and the children play. We end the day by singing praise songs, sharing what we’re thankful for, and eating leftovers.

As much as we love each other and enjoy getting together on this special day, this is just a small slice of our individual families. Things look good on the surface as we catch up with one another on a fairly superficial level, but the truth is that although all of us are Jesus-followers, each family has struggled with heartbreak or a painful, messy situation of some sort. We are no different than other families.

Every family is at least a little bit dysfunctional, mine included. Usually we try to keep the messes hidden so we’ll look okay to the rest of the world. But Elisa Morgan, one of Christianity Today’s top fifty women influencing the church and culture and former CEO of MOPS International, has opened wide the closets of her life to reveal her personal story of brokenness, from her family of origin to her family today.

The Beauty of Broken is a raw, candid and heartbreaking look at the issues that Elisa’s family struggled with and that many parents face, including divorce, alcoholism, teen pregnancy, drug addiction, homosexuality, and more. In childhood, when her parents divorced and her mom sought refuge in alcohol, Elisa thought it was her fault that her family broke, so she tried her best to fix things, or at least to hide her family’s problems. As an adult, she was determined to make an unbroken family. So she bought into the myth that if parents implement “perfect family values,” their kids will turn out okay and they will be immune from being broken. But the problem, she acknowledges, is that she was broken. “Everybody is. So no matter what we do, we all end up making broken families…There is no such thing as a perfect family.”

Using her family of origin and her “family of creation”, she shares the hope that God offers in the form of twelve “broken family values” such as commitment, humility, reality, relinquishment and more. She reminds us that God understands that no one is perfect, but he wants us to remain in relationship with him as he picks up our broken pieces and shapes them into his design for us.

My family is broken, just like yours is. It’s true that we haven’t dealt with all the struggles that Elisa’s family faced, but my husband and I are broken people just like you. How grateful I am for a loving God who is able to take our brokenness and use it for himself.

The book ends with an Appendix of Hope and Scriptures of Hope to remind the reader of God’s love and healing grace in the midst of brokenness. But at the beginning Elisa writes, “This is my story. This is not the story of [naming her other family members]…This is my story, as I believe God wants me to tell it. And maybe – just maybe – it’s your story too.”

Fourth in a series
By Sharon MacMillan

As a Bible study teacher, have you found yourself running for a notebook so you could write down some golden nugget of truth that would be just perfect for next week’s lesson? It’s a veritable feast as you talk over some new insight that had never dawned on you before with others who love to know God’s Word.

Peter experienced joy as he preached to the crowd at Pentecost in Acts 2. After he had identified who Jesus was and what He did, Peter saw 3000 people respond to the message, becoming believers in Jesus! If you had been the one giving the message instead of Peter, what would have been in your mind as you watched people from all over the inhabited world bowing their knee to Jesus at that moment? Peter may have had joy in watching new believers coming into the fold, but he did not respond with pride or self-adulation after the painful lessons he had learned from Jesus a few months before. He knew that Jesus had called him to feed God’s flock. And obeying Jesus in answer to His call was his only desire.

Jeremiah’s experience as a message-bearer of God presents a contrast to Peter’s. Sometimes there is no joy in being the messenger for God. He had been appointed and prepared to relay a message of coming judgment to disobedient Israel. Instead of a joyful embrace to God’s offer of mercy, the people came against Jeremiah with angry red faces and eventually put him in a pit to keep him quiet and away from them. God didn’t relent. When Jeremiah tried to hold back speaking the message of gloom, doom and judgment, the words would burn within him. You can read about this conflicted prophet’s testimony in Jeremiah 20. God needed Jeremiah to warn Israel to turn from their adulterous ways so they would not be destroyed. The result was not blessing for Jeremiah, but suffering.

What is common between these two men? Both had been prepared to receive God’s message so that it could be delivered effectively: Jeremiah’s mouth had been cleansed and Peter had been filled with the Holy Spirit. Both knew that obeying God by giving His message was their first priority no matter what the results. Both knew their God and knew the messages were truth.

We Must Remain True to God’s Word
Beth Moore’s chapter on “Calling all Teachers” from Mercy Triumphs helps us understand the role of the teacher, which explains why not many should be teachers. The teacher must not compromise from giving God’s message of truth to God’s people, even if suffering is involved. A few chapters later in Acts we see that Peter didn’t always have an adoring audience and he ended up in prison. One thing cannot be disputed: To be effective, a teacher must teach God’s Word with no apologies and no compromise. We know that in the last days, days that are similar to ours, people will have itchy ears, wanting to hear pleasing messages, not necessarily convicting ones. But we must continue to teach the Word without watering it down or softening the message so that conviction can take place. We, like Peter and Jeremiah, must teach out of an uncompromised heart in our love for God.

We Must Teach Out of Godly Character
Referring again to Beth Moore’s, “Calling All Teachers,” her comments on James 3:1 regarding teaching are welcome words of wisdom to the one who wants to take this calling seriously and desires to be effective. She calls us not only to teach without compromise, but also to not allow ourselves to be affected by praise or criticism. Both can make you motivated or unmotivated with wrong motives.

The teacher must not be lazy – there is no substitute for the hard work of study so that God can interface with the teacher. What a waste of words if we end up teaching our own ideas! We would be taking others down Misleading Avenue or become misled ourselves. Both will incur God’s judgment instead of the blessing He wants to give. In learning new things from the Lord we are at risk for both pride and humiliation. Neither one of these should be allowed to rule over the life of a teacher. We must teach from a sincere heart (James 3:17). We should be eager to let God do His good work of disciplining and chastening so that we are in sync with Him, teaching the message as a faithful messenger.

Our Hearts Must Be Nurtured by God
Oswald Sanders, author of Spiritual Discipleship, tells us what God is after to make teachers who are able to teach His powerful Word of truth. We need a transformed life where the heart is burning with passion for God and for His people. Jesus taught, “Love the Lord your God with all your heart, soul, mind and strength; love your neighbor as yourself.” How can we possibly teach the truths of God if He is not the LOVE of our hearts? He knows the process by which transformation can take place.

How does God nurture those called to teach? He reveals Who He is in His holiness so that all desire is turned towards Him as we spend time in His presence. In a most holy moment (Exodus 33:11-23), God unveiled Himself to Moses for our viewing. What was the result of revealing His glory? Moses bowed to the ground and worshipped. We will find ourselves responding to God in the same way as He reveals Himself to us. Our sin will be magnified; our need of Him will cause us to fall before Him in thankful adoration for His grace, mercy and love. The cross of our Savior will become all the more precious to us.

How could we ever impart the knowledge about the Almighty God without our own encounter in His Presence? We are to be emptied of our own speculations, our own intentions, our own resources to make room for the powerful Word of Truth and the Presence of His Holy Spirit within.

The veil used to cover Moses’ face becomes a symbol of what happens when we are face to face with God. When the people of Israel saw Moses after He had been with God, his face was so radiant he had to use a veil. Every time the people saw Moses with the veil, he was a stunning reminder that God had been with Moses. They could learn from Moses’ radiance alone that God is gloriously holy and yet approachable if we follow in full obedience. Moses was able to speak face to face with God. The words he shared with the people were not his own words but God’s.

God ‘s Teachers Must Be Tested
James teaches what God’s goal is for His teachers. He wants them to come to maturity, to be complete, lacking nothing. He wants teachers that have been taught by God Himself. How would God bring this about? He brings Father-filtered trials that develop our perseverance or endurance. He will not let up on the process until we receive the promised crown of life, which He delights to give to His beloved people. In the process we will have been transformed into His likeness. Through these trials, disciplines will be established that will be useful for effective teaching. Dependence on Him will be taught so that we will not teach from our own wells but from His. He will become more precious to us than we could ever have dreamed. And that will be a priceless thing to impart to others. What an honor to represent God and His truth to His people!

So if we are to be teachers we will be led into his Presence, we will be tested so that we can learn the truth of His Word, we will become so in love with God that nothing matters but doing and teaching what He has given to us to teach. “I will be with your mouth” is just as true for us today as it was for Moses. Believe it! And let all else go!

We first noticed it about ten years ago. People began showing up at church who seemed to be misfits in society. They came to services, but their behavior was different. Befriending them was a challenge. As we saw them more often, it was apparent that they needed some kind of help, but what? I remember feeling helpless and telling someone, “We’re not equipped for this. We don’t know what to do.” Because we didn’t know how to handle them, we tended to turn away and, in all honesty, hoped they would go away.

Eventually some moved away, but others came. Again, we didn’t know how to help them. But this time they were more open with us, and we learned that they were dealing with mental illnesses like anxiety disorders, depression, bipolar disorder and schizophrenia. None of us are psychologists or psychiatrists, but for some reason God has directed them to our local church. So we ask, How can we minister to them with grace and compassion? How can we help them understand God’s unconditional love? How can we help them grow spiritually?

They call it the “no-casserole illness.” We take meals to people who experience physical illness and suffering, yet for the most part we ignore the fourth of our population that suffers mentally. We have relegated that part of our society to the fringes. Because of the stigma attached to mental illness, it is a topic that is still taboo. We are afraid to talk about it and, if we suffer ourselves, we fear rejection or criticism if the truth were known. Yet the church has been called to carry each other’s burdens – to bind up the broken-hearted and provide a safe, healing place for all who suffer, not just the physically sick.

Because my husband and I have befriended a young woman who is bipolar and suffers from anxiety disorders, and because I have a friend whose son is schizophrenic, I have read with interest the articles and blogs about mental illness written by Amy Simpson and published in Christianity Today magazine. Amy, the editor of GiftedforLeadership.com, knows first-hand what it’s like to live with someone who suffers from a mental illness because her mother is afflicted with schizophrenia. So I was anxious to read her new book, Troubled Minds, in which she draws on personal experience as well as interviews with pastors and laypeople she surveyed to present a look at what it’s like to live with a mental illness and how the church tends to respond (or not) to these people who sit in the pews week after week (maybe hiding their suffering behind a mask), who are our family members, neighbors, friends, and brothers and sisters in Christ.

In addition to describing some broad categories of mental illness with general explanations, Simpson gives a brief overview of the mental health care system in this country and shares the experiences of individuals who have tried to develop coping mechanisms for dealing with their suffering. She also devotes an entire chapter to discussing not only society’s misunderstandings, but of greater importance to Christians, the stigmatization of mental illness in the Christian community.

I appreciate the encouragement to deal more openly and lovingly with those who suffer and their loved ones who care for them. I grew up in a time and Christian culture where silence ruled. Not only did one not talk to others about one’s problems, but “Christians shouldn’t be depressed,” or it was a spiritual problem, or all psychologists were suspect. I knew from personal experience that Christians do get depressed, and no amount of prayer or confession of sin relieved my emotional suffering. As a result, I saw a Christian counselor for a year and thank God for her wisdom in helping me to recognize and deal with the issues that contributed to my depression. Simpson addresses these stigmatizing attitudes.

What is the church’s responsibility, and how can the church minister? Simpson concludes by offering examples of churches that are ministering effectively to the mentally ill in their congregation, and includes an abundance of resources to assist in ministry to people affected by mental illness.

If you, or someone you love, know the suffering caused by a mental illness, I encourage you to read Troubled Minds. It will give you hope – not that the illness will be cured, for mental illness doesn’t go away as other illnesses do, but that there is a way to minister to these dear ones who suffer, and that God can use mental illness in a redemptive way. Simpson says, “We all have hope in the current redemptive work of Christ and future and eternal fulfillment of his promise of life without the burden of sin…Our hope for the present is in Jesus and his work in and through us. Sometimes that work brings healing; sometimes it brings a new and deeper perspective on pain. Sometimes it knocks down prison walls that will never be rebuilt. Regardless, it always redeems…There is hope! Let us, the church, proclaim that hope in what we say and do.”

Third in a series
By Sharon MacMillan

*Word

*Prayer

*Mission

*Leadership Development

*Mentoring

*Community

 

One morning, a bolt of lightening hit this teacher as she was preparing her lesson.

As I looked over our chosen study guide, I noticed that the core values of Women of Grace surfaced throughout the lesson (upper left hand corner of this page). This jolting truth has made a lasting change in my partner and I as we study our lesson. “This is significant!” we thought. “We can be intentional every week in Bible study as we ask the Lord for ways to help women develop spiritually into fully-formed disciples that can train others.”

With this intentional way of teaching, we can be on the lookout for ways to actively disciple our women. We can identify those who want to learn to teach and invite them into the teaching process. We can watch women who are ready to become spiritual leaders and provide a way for them to use their giftedness. We can teach and model what a prayer warrior does so that they desire to join us in our intercession. We can support women in their mission, allowing them to share where God has sent them to minister and we can encourage them, meeting the ones they are influencing towards the Savior. We can find mentors for those who are ready to be mentored. We can make sure these values appear in our community gatherings so that women are enriched in their discipleship process with every opportunity for fellowship. What an opportunity for Bible Study time to become a center for active discipleship!

Because these core values are in the frontal lobes of our minds as we prepare our lessons, my teaching partner and I spend time observing what God is doing in each woman. Not only is Bible study an environment for spiritual nourishment, it is also a place where women can begin to identify their God-given calling through their interest in a particular core value. It may be a basic giftedness that is needed in the local body of believers.

Work with your women’s leadership team and ask them where they see these core values operating in your women. You will be surprised to find that many of these values are already in place in the local body. Some may require more attention than we have given. In our case, mentoring needs to be cultivated. So we are praying for the Lord to guide.

James identified a fully-formed disciple as “mature, complete, lacking nothing” in James 1:3-5:
“Count it all joy, (my sisters,) when you are faced with many kinds of trials because you know that the testing of your faith develops perseverance. Perseverance must finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.”
This is serious work in the life of every woman of God and this work gives us great value as His disciples.

Ron Boehm, a leader in the Vision Ohio, church planting movement, is finishing his dissertation about church-planting spouses. He is learning that if a church-planting wife understands her calling she is more apt to be engaged in ministry. If her calling is unclear she will approach her involvement in the ministry quite differently.

Every woman who understands her unique calling from God as His woman will be more willing to enter into a life of significance and usefulness as His disciple, depending on God to empower her and lead her into His ordained work for her (Ephesians 2:10).

As spiritual teachers, we won’t be content until we see movement in a woman’s life as she fulfills her unique calling in her spiritual development. Consider adding this dimension of using the core values in your teaching so that your study time becomes an environment for making fully-formed disciples. Be prepared for an adrenalin rush in the process of partnering with God to make disciples who can teach others also.

If you need to speak with someone about these learning methods and opportunities for spiritual discipleship for women contact Sharon MacMillan at gleskafam@mac.com or Chery Boehm at cheryboehm2@mac.com

Second in a series
By Sharon MacMillan

Adults need to engage in 5 different ways for learning to take place because of the way our brains function, according to Malcome Knowles, a well-known educator who has studied how adults learn best. He says:
1. Adults need to understand WHY something is important to know or do.
2. Older students need the freedom to learn in their own way: visual, auditory or kinesthetic methods.
3. Adult learners need to learn experientially through role play, skits, writing, building, etc.
4. Adults need the right time to learn.
5. They need positive encouragement.
(Source: http://adulted.about.com/od/teachers/a/teachingadults.htm)

With permission from Viki Rife, speaker at “Belleza que Dura,” (Beauty that Lasts), a recent Hispanic conference for women, we observe ways the women engaged in the learning process so we can apply these methods to enrich our Bible teaching.

To see pictures and read the complete article, go to http://www.wgusa.org/learning-styles/

Teachers who have accepted their calling to teach women, know that they must take this job seriously and must plan to teach to the students’ learning style, yet depending on the Holy Spirit to teach. When Jesus said to Peter, “Feed my sheep,” (John 21:13-17) He entrusted to us a very important task.

We who are called to teach share in the joy and contentment that God gives as He feeds us so that we can, in turn, feed His precious sheep and feed them well. His Holy Spirit partners with us so that illumination takes place in the hearts, minds, souls and strength of His women. The illumination will lead to transformation of their very lives as they become conformed to the image of God.

Pray and ask God, your good Shepherd, to show you how to best feed the women that come to your study every week. If you have chosen a study guide, use it as a tool. Do the scriptural study but think about the learning styles of your students and begin looking for creative ways to teach the truths of God’s Word that will be specific to each woman in your class. You will see the light in your women as you connect with them in how they learn.

By Sharon MacMillan

“I get it!” is a response every teacher wants to see on the faces of their students. Teaching the Bible is no different; in fact, Bible teachers cannot take their role lightly, as James warns, “Not many of you should become teachers, my fellow believers, because you know that we who teach will be judged more strictly” (James 3:1 NIV, 2011).

When is the last time you took a second look at your teaching skills when it comes to women’s Bible study? Have you fallen into the trap of business as usual? Do you grieve when the women don’t come prepared because they weren’t able to work on their study with the Lord at home?

This is indeed a heartbreak for the teacher who has expectations for her students to “grow in grace in the knowledge of our Lord and Savior.”

Could there be more we teachers can do to inspire, motivate and teach our students to make the most of their Bible study?

1. Do you pray for your students weekly? They have spiritual battles that can be conquered by the use of the Sword of the Spirit. Realize that you may be a tool of the Holy Spirit to connect the dots for the students between what they are going through and what they are learning in their study.

2. Do you value the time the women give to you? It is a very precious gift that the women entrust to us and it needs to be valued.

3. Have you prepared well? Sadly, it may be that the teacher has not fully prepared her presentation so that the women feel the importance of what they are doing as bible students. The fire we acquire from thorough preparation will ignite in them as we meet around the Word.

4. Have you considered enriching the lessons of a pre-written book? Study the content well before you teach. The women have probably chosen the material because they are interested in the subject. But our task as teachers is to connect their interest with their need to grow.

5. Can you identify the learning styles of your students? This is important as you give them a workbook based on a Bible topic or even a book of the Bible.
a. Who learns best by listening to a lecture? Some can take in information and retain it best as it goes through their ear gate.
b. Do you have students who track best by seeing what you are teaching? This is my husband’s style where he can read and comprehend anything
(Imagine my husband out in a boat with a library book, learning how to sail! Well, it happened! And we only hit bottom once! )
c. Maybe you have a group of women who love to learn by engaging their hands in activities. These are the ones who take notes or love to work on some kind of project that is associated with the lesson.

It is possible that there could be a combination of two or more styles. But the point is we don’t all engage best the same way. Now consider what you are doing by giving women a book of fill-ins. Who would gravitate to that style the best?

6. Do you believe God for your students? He wants them to grow in the Word and in their spiritual development overall. Your time together around the Word can be a catalyst for helping them in their prayer lives, encouraging them to be on mission as they share what they have learned with others. You may be equipping mentors to model their faith to others. You may be training the next Bible study leader! You are engaged in discipleship with the women.

7. Finally, do you enjoy your women? Love your women. Let them see that you take this time with them very seriously. Let them catch a glimpse of your heart’s desire for them to become confident in their relationship with the Lord. They will love that you want them to grasp the precious life-changing truths so that their walk with the Lord will become vibrant and alive! Be patient with those that aren’t quite ready to move on as quickly as you would like. We are all a work in progress.

Sharon MacMillan is a pastor’s wife and co-leads women’s Bible studies in her church. She also serves as Spiritual Life leader on the Women of Grace USA Board of Directors.

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