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How to Grow in Bible Literacy, Part 1

Most Christians want to know their Bibles better. Of course we do. It is the word of God written for his people. But in order to do that we need good tools. Below are some of the things I’ve learned over the years of trying.

Make it a Habit

All the books about habit building that have come out recently should tell us something about the usefulness of habits. If we try to study God’s word only intermittently, we will grow in our knowledge, but not by much. Just like every teacher you ever had said, you’ll learn a lot more if you study a little bit every day than if you try to cram in long study sessions every few months.

Don’t Just Read, Study

Many of us were taught to read our Bibles daily, and that’s great place to start. In fact, reading is the first step of studying. But it is only the first step. I don’t follow a Bible reading plan anymore because studying has produced so much more fruit. I followed one for years, but eventually gave it up so that I would have more time to study. It’s been a good decision. That said, if you’re unfamiliar with the Bible as a whole or have never read the whole book, reading it through will help you know more context as you study. As you read, make at least a little time to practice the habits of closer study.

Read Repetitively

Even though we want to do more than simply read scripture, in order to study well, we must read a lot. For shorter passages, plan on reading them through at the beginning of each study session. When studying large sections of scripture, like a whole book, read it through two or three times before digging into the details. As you go, study the passage a few chapters at a time. At the beginning of each study session, read those chapters. In addition, occasionally re-reading the whole book will help you to put everything in context.

Have a Plan

I usually have a game plan for what I want to work on during my study time. When I sit down, I already know that I will compare two passages, or look for all the characteristics of God I can within a passage. This means I can use the full half hour I have for studying, rather than spending the first ten minutes figuring out my next step. Not only does this strategy mean I use my time better, it also makes one day’s learning flow into the next more effectively.

However, sometimes I hear my son stirring before I even get to my desk. Toddlers don’t regard clocks. They just wake up yelling “choo choo” for no apparent reason. When that happens, I save my plan for the next day, and just read the passage as much as I can before he comes running to me, demanding snuggles. Even in this unplanned reading, I generally notice something I hadn’t seen before or think of a question. I usually can’t do anything except mark it in the margins, but it helps move my study process forward despite the abbreviated time.

Employ Marginalia

Read from a copy of the text with lots of room for marking things. It should be double spaced with a good sized margin. Plan on filling it up as you go along. If you have a beautiful Bible that just feels to precious to write in, take that to church along with a notebook, but study out of something you can write all over. I have a growing collection of black binders full of printed copies of various passages. The printed pages give me the mental freedom to write all over the page, no matter how insignificant a note seems, because I’ll never run out of room. I can just print another copy.

Pray the Scriptures

As you study, pray through the passage. Pray not only for your study, but also pray the scriptures back to God. This practice deepens my understanding and helps me connect what I’m learning to the character of God. My cerebral self needs to slow down and be with God through his Word, not just study it. Otherwise, I’ll slip into treating it like a text book rather than the living word of God.

Apply What You’ve Learned

Most of us jump to application. We do our morning quiet time and try to find something to take away, to apply and obey. The desire to obey is good, but we need to do a lot more work to get to applications that are actually from scripture, rather than what we think scripture might be saying. However, we should not study to the neglect of applying God’s word to our lives. In fact, in the application of God’s word, we develop better eyes to see the truth of God’s word, which grows our love for Him and his word. 

If you feel lost in getting started studying the Bible, I pray that these tips help you along your path. I’ve never implemented these perfectly, nor do I think I ever will. But by coming back to them again and again, I have had the joy of growing in my knowledge of the Lord. God has made his word accessible. We just have to do the work to understand it. 

Next week, I’ll share some more practices I’ve learned over the years of trying to grow in my knowledge of scripture.

Three Elements of Bible Literacy

The average person can read and understand the Bible. Let’s not skip past that too fast. God intends the Bible for the average believer. The Lord did not give us an academic textbook meant only for those sequestered in seminaries. His word is not obscure or opaque. He didn’t hide what it has to say in convoluted language. He gave it to us to read. He means for us to understand.

We shouldn’t walk away from Bible study bewildered. We can expect unresolved questions, but the Bible isn’t cryptic or impractical. God gave it for the everyday life of everyday people. We can each grow in our knowledge and understanding of God’s word. Familiarity with the scripture is called Bible literacy, which has three major components.

Knowledge

Bible literacy begins with knowledge. This can start with kids in Sunday school learning songs to help them know the order of the books. I still speed-sing through an old Sunday School song to find Obadiah. Of course it goes deeper than that. Knowledge consists of recognizing and being able to retell Bible stories, quote some verses, know generally where to find passages (i.e. “That’s in one of the Pauline letters, I think.”)

The Bible is a large enough collection of literature that this base of knowledge always has room to grow. An early Bible learner might be able to tell about David and Goliath and the Nativity and quote John 3:16, but many who have cherished the word of God for a lifetime cannot summarize the message to the church at Pergamum in Revelation from memory. 

Understanding

Bible literacy continues with the second element: understanding. While knowledge means a familiarity with parts of scripture, a person with understanding will have clarity on how those parts fit into the whole. Understanding requires familiarity with the overarching story of Scripture and how the narrative weaves together.

For instance, a knowledgeable person can recount with reasonable accuracy the story of David and Goliath. But a person who understands the narrative arch of Scripture knows that David will become Israel’s king, and that the Messiah will come from his line. So in this story, not only does God raise up David in the eyes of the current king, Saul, he also foreshadows the coming Christ who would rescue Israel. 

Application

The third element of Bible literacy is application. We cannot just develop knowledge and understanding as if for an academic exercise. God has given us Scripture as his mediated presence so that we may know him more. As we know him more, we can love and obey him more. To truly have Bible literacy, we must apply the knowledge and understanding to our lives.

Knowing the story of David and Goliath foreshadows Christ, then the believer can understand that as God delivered Israel from the Philistines through one man, David, he has delivered the Church from our own sin through one man, Christ. Seeing this picture of the Gospel reminds us of the great grace we have in Christ, which should lead to worship. God had a plan for salvation all along. He was woven the story of Christ through the scriptures so that we may know he is good and keeps his promises. We can trust him. 

Knowing, understanding, and obeying the Bible is one of the ways in which God in his grace has chosen to sanctify his people. He has not hidden his Word in obscure, difficult language, but has made it possible to read and understand. We can develop Bible literacy, but it takes work. Next week, I’ll share some of my own ongoing struggles in growing in Bible literacy.

Seeking Salvation in Everything but Jesus

Have you made your New Year’s Resolutions yet? I wrote mine down in November. Like many people, I indulge in calendar induced optimism every January. New Year’s Resolutions can be fun and useful, but contrary to everyone who’s trying to sell you something this time of year, they will not save you.

I love self-improvement practices. I work to form habits that overtime will increase my capacity to live the life I want. I get up at 4:50am to go to CrossFit. I track my steps and make time to read everyday. I eat a lot of vegetables. I use a Bullet Journal to keep myself organized, and I schedule my tasks in advance. I’m a complete sucker for online classes. I love learning and growing so that I can thrive and help people around me thrive. 

These habits have made my life better. CrossFit has improved my physical strength, and helped me cope with Northeast winters. Instead of drowning in sticky notes and forgetting appointments, I put everything in my handy little BuJo. But in the midst of all this I can loose sight of the fact that these things are not my salvation. They are good gifts from the Lord, but they will not save me. They will not fix me. They will not make me whole. 

No matter how much improvement we make, we remain broken apart from the saving grace of Jesus. Without him taking on our sin and shame and giving us his righteousness, we would still be held captive to sin. 

Things like exercise, healthy food, and good organization systems are part of the Common Grace of God, his gifts to all of humanity whether or not an individual worships him as Lord. They can and do improve lives. My Bullet Journal helps me manage my time better, but it cannot change a sinful heart that desires to use my time for myself rather than for other people’s good and flourishing. Regular exercise improves my physical and mental health, but apart from finding my worth in Christ, my arrogance will increase with my physical strength. Healthy food can quickly become an outlet for my desire to control rather than good stewardship of my body. 

The Lord has given us the ability to learn, grow, and improve. The countless resources available for these purposes are gifts from the Lord, and we should avail ourselves of them to the degree that they are helpful. However, they will not fix the brokenness in us. Only Christ can change our bent toward sin. 

If we hope in the trappings of self improvement culture, then we will always come up empty. The story of Scripture teaches us that no matter our effort, no matter the systems in place — even the Mosaic Law — we cannot fix the brokenness in ourselves or society. 

But Christ. For those who trust in Christ, he takes on our sin and shame and places it on his own head. In its stead, we receive his righteousness. He pays our debt, and we receive his inheritance. Before God, it is as if we have perfectly obeyed the law with a joyful heart. From that position of right standing before God, we get to enter into a transformative relationship with him. In his grace, he doesn’t leave us in sin, but invites us into greater holiness. He transforms our hearts so that we bend toward obedience rather than rebellion. All of our self improvement efforts cannot change the states of our hearts — but grace upon grace — God gives us a new heart.

Advent

Christmas hasn’t felt cheery for me since I was a child. All of my adulthood, the season has felt like a letdown. But I love Advent. Advent reminds us that so much of life doesn’t feel cheery and happy. Instead, we’re waiting in the midst of brokenness for light to shine through. We wait with hope, but the waiting itself is painful. 

In my experience, church has been a hard place to acknowledge difficult things. People want to get to the “fix” so quickly. They want the neatly wrapped up story of redemption and restoration. But the story of our lives don’t often go that way. We want Christmas morning with it’s perfectly wrapped packages and bows, but we’re living with the mess inside. 

During Advent, we get an opportunity as the Church to collectively acknowledge the pain of waiting for all things to be made right. While we are hopeful, we are also acquainted with grief, pain, suffering, and loss. In fact these are the reasons we need the hope so much. We wait with hope for restoration and redemption within each our stories. But we also wait with hope for when Christ will return — not as a crying baby — but as a returning king who speaks and ends the darkness. Christ came into a world of darkness. He came to a world that needed light. His coming — his glorious, angel proclaimed, shepherd guarded coming — is good news because the brokenness was so bad. In order for the joy of his coming to break upon our hearts as it should, we must see our need, our brokenness as it is. 

So often the holidays are a painful time. Grief and loneliness get heavier. Pain feels sharper. As the world seems to get taken over with cheeriness and jingle bells, our lives don’t look like a Christmas card. There’s sin, addiction, and broken relationships. There’s the empty chair and the shorter gift list reminding you of the buried loved one. Or like last year, the person I put on my Christmas list who died before December waned. As the year ends, we feel the sting of the still unfulfilled hopes, the losses and the consequences of our own sin.

Advent is the season for people who are hurting during the holidays. It’s the season that calls us away from the lights and trees and Holiday Cheer to remind us that the Lord sees our suffering. He sees all the reasons we need hope. He sees us and has sent a Savior. 

We have so much to celebrate because our Savior has come, but we live in the “not yet” of a world waiting for his return. As the Lord remembered the cries of His people waiting for the Messiah, he hears our cry, sees our tears and brokenness and will send his Messiah. This time as a King coming to claim his throne. All will be made right. Tears will turn to joy. Brokenness will be healed. Darkness will turn to light. 

Bible Study Resources

In pursuing more serious Bible study, I’ve found a few resources immensely helpful. If you’re just starting out in study the Bible or trying to grow in Bible Study skills, these resources will be helpful to you as well.

A Good Study Bible 

I use the ESV study Bible, but any reputable one from a major translation will serve you well. I’m hoping to get one in a different translation soon. 

A Printed Copy of the Text 

Copy and paste the text from Biblegateway.com in to a document and double space it. Be sure to keep the footnotes. Print it out on actual paper with actual ink so you can mark it up with a real pen.

Colored Pens or Pencils 

Since I’m a bit of an office supply hoarder, I have a set apart set of pens for this: my fancy Japanese ones with the super-fine nibs. You don’t need fancy Japanese pens, but if you want some, it’s a good excuse to buy them. Having multiple colors helps you to see patterns and themes as you mark up the page. For instance, you can underline a frequently repeated phrase or theme and see patterns that you wouldn’t have spotted otherwise.

An English Dictionary 

I’m not talking about a Greek to English dictionary. Webster’s will do. As I’m reading closely, I come across words that I think I know the definition for, but looking them up gives me a better understanding of the text. Of course you can just use Google for this, but I tend to get distracted the moment my computer is open, so I use an actual paper dictionary that I got for less than a dollar at a thrift store. 

A Class on Bible Exposition 

This one is more of an investment —definitely in time, but possibly in money as well. I recommend Crosslands Seminary’s class on Bible Exposition. It’s $120 to access the material for a year, and you’ll need to purchase a few books to complete the course work. While there are other course available, I’ve really appreciated Crosslands because it’s mostly reading rather than lectures, which is much easier online. If you tend to learn best from listening rather than reading, you should probably find a different class. But for this American who struggled in the lecture-heavy American education system, a UK based reading-heavy class has been a delight. 

If you’re looking for a free (donation encouraged) class that is not a full seminary class, but still immensely helpful for the average lay person, Dallas Theological Seminary, has a four week long course that will equip you for years of Bible study. 

 A Set Time 

Serious Bible study takes focus. Focusing takes time. I have a scheduled time each week that I get to dig into whatever portion of Scripture I’m studying. It’s during my son’s nap times on Saturdays. That way, if he doesn’t nap well, my husband is the one who takes care of him and I still get my study time. Many people set apart certain mornings to study. I’ve tried this before and found myself sleeping at my desk with my coffee growing cold. Even when I was able to stay awake, I couldn’t make the words on the page make any sense to my brain. So now, I happily sleep to a reasonable hour and study while the sun is in the sky. 

Commentaries 

This is my last used tool. After I’ve studied a passage, read it repeatedly, asked questions of it, and sought for the answers within scripture, then it’s time to reference a commentary. Start with a classic full Bible commentary like the Matthew Henry Commentary and build your library from there. 

Most of all, in order to read and study the Bible well, I’ve need to commit and recommit myself to doing the work over and over again. There are weeks that I slog through my Bible Study, unsure of what the pay off is. I know it’s good for me to do. I know it will help me to know and worship the Lord better. But I still find myself looking for the instant gratification. The way studying will change and sanctify me today. However, I don’t always or even usually walk away from my study time with a clear understanding of how the Lord is working in my life through it, but looking back, I can see the transformation he’s work. As my knowledge of and love for his Word has grown, he has used that to transform my heart and make me more like him. It’s a lifelong work, and for that I’m thankful.

Do you have any recommendations for Bible Study resources? If so, I’d love to learn from you. Comment below.

Noah’s Ark is Not a Children’s Story

Noah’s ark is not a children’s story. It’s about God killing all of humanity with a flood. Everyone on Earth, except one family, drowned to death.

Oh and there’s some animals too.

Obviously, this story appears regularly in children’s Sunday school because little kids love animals. In telling the story to children while focusing on all the cute animals, we’re teaching children and ourselves to tame scripture, to ignore what it actually says and make it more palatable to our modern sensibilities.

But scripture is not tame. It is not easy to read. You can either ignore the hard parts and focus on the encouraging bits, though many of those are misquoted and misunderstood. Or you can wrestle with the difficult passages and through them know God more.

Let’s not miss the point of the story: God judges the wicked and saves those who follow him.

The story of Noah’s ark includes God judging humanity for its sin, picking one family to save, and willingly destroying those he chose not to save. This is not a story meant for our modern sensibilities.

But what do we learn in the story?

God Desires Righteousness

Sin demands death. In Genesis 3 we see that rebellion to God, whose very person is the source of all life, necessarily brings about death. Humankind had devolved into rampant depravity and perversion. They were rebelling against God who had created them and made them in his image. “The Lord saw that the wickedness of man was great in the earth, and that every intention of the thoughts of his heart was only evil continually.” (Gen 6:5) Instead of living in glad submission to God, humanity was rebelling against him which only leads to destruction.

The Lord had made it clear to previous generations that sin was not ok. And yet Noah’s generation filled the earth with violence due to their rebellion.

The Lord decides that he will start over with the family of a righteous man. What does “righteous” mean? Surely not infallible, because Noah had a major drunken carousing sort of failing after the flood.

Based on Noah’s actions in the story, righteous refers to someone who trusts God. Noah trusted God enough to obey him and build the ark, to gather his family and the animals. He trusted God through the storm and weeks of flooding. He trusted God enough to praise him in the midst of devastation. He was not perfect, but he trusted the Lord.

God is Gracious

God is gracious to Noah in that he gives him a chance to be saved from the flood. However, God didn’t just miraculously protect Noah. He gave him a command to obey: “Build a big boat.” If Noah had disobeyed, he would not have been saved. But he took the opportunity given to him by God to trust God. Noah had a faith that showed in his diligent work of building a boat even in the midst of mocking neighbors.

Noah’s obedience shows a deeply formed character and a heart that trusts God. Building a large boat by hand is not a short project, and Noah persisted in obeying over the long-haul.

God Keeps Promises

Even though sin demands death, God promises that he’ll never destroy the earth through flood again and puts a sign in the sky as a symbol of that promise. Those who keep reading know that God already has a plan to defeat death caused by sin. Christ would come, and instead of God destroying the world because of sin, Christ would allow the world to destroy him. In his death and resurrection, we are freed from the price of our sin.

God has promised that he will make the world whole again. Far from destroying the world, he will renew it into what the Earth was always meant to be. And just as he kept his promise of a savior, we know that he will keep this promise. We can trust him.

God is Mighty to Save

This post is Part Two in a series about commonly mistaught or misunderstood Bible passages. Read Part One on reading verses in their context here.

I once taught children’s Sunday school and was given a curriculum to use about the Exodus story. The gist of the lesson was that Pharaoh disobeyed God, so God punished Egypt with plagues. Therefore we should obey God unless we really like frogs. I ignored the curriculum and told my class of thirteen kindergarten boys (I get tired just thinking about it.) the story of God revealing his glory to the world.

Ancient Egypt was the most powerful kingdom in the world at the time. And Pharaoh was the most powerful man on earth. Egypt had the strongest military and the most wealth. They had enslaved whole people groups, like the Hebrews. It seemed no one could defeat or diminish Egypt.

Enter Yahweh

Yahweh, the God of the Hebrews, told Pharaoh through Moses to let his people go. Pharaoh would have scoffed that he would let such a large part of his workforce go. Who would make him?

As an answer, God sent a plague, then another plague, then another. The plagues weren’t random. Each plague showed Yahweh’s power over something the Egyptians worshipped or drew their power from. The Nile, both an object of worship and their source of agriculture, was turned to blood. Their cattle died. Locusts ruined their crops. The sun went dark.

Yahweh was shouting to everyone in Egypt, from Pharaoh to the lowliest slave, and everyone who would hear the story passing through on trade routes that He was more powerful than the gods of the strongest kingdom on Earth.

Anytime Pharaoh seemed to want to relent and let God’s people go, God would harden his heart. He was not done yet. He had more false gods to dethrone.

Salvation Through a Lamb

Then God foretold the tenth plague. The firstborn in every household that did not obey God’s command to spread lamb’s blood on the doorposts of their house would die.

Pharaoh lost his son and heard the grief of his people. He relented. He let God’s people go.

But the story did not stop there. Once again, God hardened Pharaoh’s heart, and he regretted what he had done and sent his military to stop them. He had the strongest military in the world chasing down a group of recently freed slaves with elderly people, children and animals slowing down their progress. He had no reason to think that there was any possible outcome other than his military overtaking them and recapturing them.

Except God.  Except God had just defeated all of Egypt’s gods. Except God had destroyed his nations crops, and shown his might over and over and over through a stuttering shepherd and his younger brother.

Even so, Pharaoh sent his armies, and God showed the world that he was stronger than the mightiest army in the world.

God is Mighty to Save

Everywhere the Hebrews travelled, kings had heard of what Yahweh had done for his people.

If we make this a story simply about obeying God or else he will destroy you, we miss what the story is teaching about God. Yes, God sent plagues to Egypt in response to Pharaoh’s hardness of heart. But he did it for a reason: to show the world his glory.

He also did it to protect and free his chosen people. He had chosen these people that they may be a blessing to the world by proclaiming his glory. The rest of Exodus is God forming them into a nation. But here, before they had a temple, laws, festivals, rituals, or land, while they are still simply a people and not yet a nation, God is declaring his own glory through them. Because that is why he chose them.

In the middle of showing his glory to the world, God offers salvation through the blood of a lamb. God would continue to use the imagery of blood on wood as a means of salvation until it’s ultimate culmination in Christ’s death on the cross. In short, the story of Exodus shows that God is mighty to save.

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Why You Should Read Verses in Their Context

This month, I’ll be writing about commonly misapplied and misunderstood parts of scripture. Because all 66 books of the Bible are the inspired word of God, we are to take seriously the work of reading, interpreting and applying them. This is not a thing to be lazy with. There are some stories and verses in particular that are frequently misunderstood within church culture. So each week this month, I’ll be re-examining some of them. I won’t be doing any serious scholarship on these passages. Instead, I’ll examine the passage in a way that anyone could using skills gained in high school literature class.

It’s Not About Sports

This first passage is short enough to show up on t-shirts. Lots and lots of t-shirts. Mostly shirts from sports teams. “I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.” Philippians 4:13. Sure when you read only that verse, it sounds like a great encouragement for your workout or upcoming game. Its about strength after all. But in context, the verse is about something very different.

In his letter to the church at Philippi, during his closing thoughts Paul is thanking the church for helping him financially, grateful that they have “shared in his troubles”. At the same time, he is trying to comfort them about his state of need by telling them that he has learned to be content in whatever situation he is in.

“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 Christ who strengthens me.”

When Paul says he can do all things through Christ who strengthens him, he means he can be joyful in Christ whatever the circumstances of the moment, whether in physical comfort that could dull his soul to the beauty of Christ or in life threatening circumstances that could make him doubt in the goodness of God.

Paul was writing this while imprisoned in Rome where he was awaiting trial to determine whether or not he was executed by the oppressive Roman government. And he was not just surviving. While in prison he was actively engaged in ministry to those who visited him and was encouraging the believers. He was in uncertain and precarious circumstances, and the letter of Philippians overflows with deep joy in Christ. This is the same letter in which Paul says, “To live is Christ; to die is gain.”

Phillipians 4:13 is not about weightlifting or winning the game. It’s about trusting in God and delighting in him whatever our circumstances.

It’s About God

Speaking of trusting God. This next verse has been butchered and plastered onto coffee mugs and inspirational mouse pads for as long as I can remember. “Be still and know that I am God.” Psalm 46:10. Why do I say butchered?

Well, did you know there’s another two lines to the verse?

“Be still and know that I am God.

I will be exalted in the nations,

I will be exalted in the earth!” Psalm 46:10 (Actually all of the verse.)

Taken in the larger context of the the (rather short) Psalm we see that the author’s command to “be still” comes at the end of a song about the glory and might of God being known among the nations despite widespread disaster and suffering. In verses 8 -9 he calls people to “come, behold the works of the Lord”. The command to be still is a call to trust that God will be made known to the whole world even though it seems impossible.

The Psalmist cared far more about the glory of God than about his own suffering.

Sounds a lot like Paul.

Each of these verses are commonly removed from their context and therefore broadly misunderstood. The Holy Scriptures are not quotes to be cherry picked, but the very word of God written down that we may know him. We a have deep responsibility to interpret the Bible the best we are able to do. In order to do that well, we need to start by treating the text with respect and reading it in it’s full context.

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Why Minimalism Will Not Bring You the Peace You’re Looking For

I don’t know if it’s getting the Christmas decorations out or the piles of mystery boxes in the basement, but I’ve been on a ruthless house purge lately. I don’t know where all of this stuff came from, but I want about 50% of it gone. Often times, I feel like a stuff-wrangler rather than a wife, mom, writer or church member. I don’t like that feeling.

Of course, if you’ve been on the home design part of the internet the past few years, you’ve probably heard of the KonMari method of cleaning: purging your possessions until you are only surrounded by those things which sparks joy. It promises more peace, more control over one’s life, and more joy. There’s nothing wrong with cleaning out your closets, especially when you can give things to people who can use them.

Searching for Peace in the Wrong Way

But the KonMari method is faulty thinking. It promises joy and peace through control, specifically control of one’s environment and possessions. The Gospel calls us into joy and peace through surrender.

Our culture has long told us that more is better. If we have more house, more stuff, a bigger car, we’ll be happy. No surprise, rampant materialism has proven a weak god.

Now we’re hearing the opposite: having less stuff will give you peace. You’ll be more joyful when you only own a small amount of carefully curated things. This is still seeking joy and fulfillment through possessions. But now there’s a different facade.

In other words, minimalism is still materialism. Same pendulum. Different direction.

Set our Hopes on God

Scripture charges us to examine our hearts concerning our possessions:

“As for the rich in this present age, charge them not to be haughty, nor to set their hopes on the uncertainty of riches, but on God, who richly provides us with everything to enjoy. They are to do good, to be rich in good works, to be generous and ready to share, thus storing up treasure for themselves as a good foundation for the future, so that they may take hold of that which is truly life.” 1 Timothy 6:17-19

Paul, who is writing this letter to Timothy, focuses squarely on the eternal here. One may be rich in this present age, but poor in good works. Or one may be rich in the present age with their hopes set on God and their lives full of generosity. Money and personal possession only offer the facade of security. No amount of hoarding things will give us security, and no amount of curating our possessions will give the lasting peace we desire. That only comes from fixing our hopes on God.

He has blessed some of His people with abundant financial means. We are to delight in Him for these things. Part of delighting in Him is to share as He shares: abundantly. God is constantly inviting people into the joy he experiences. We are to be just as generous with our material possessions.

Generosity Over Self-Centeredness

It may seem that this can live in line with the KonMari method. It urges you to get rid of things and give them away does it not? However, the goal is KonMari is not generosity, but in owning things that only give you joy by eliminating the things that do not. The focus is squarely on you and your emotions, not on the people you’re donating your leftovers to. Scripture urges us to take the focus off of ourselves and our stuff and fix our eyes on the Lord.

Does this mean that wealthy people have to live on next to nothing and give away most of their money? No, the text doesn’t support that. But if we’re focused on our possessions, seeking joy from them in such a way that it is inhibiting us from doing good, being rich in good works, being generous and ready to share then our possessions have become our idol.

The pleasure we get from earthly things – whether it be an abundance of possessions or a minimalist curated collection – will inevitably end. It will fade or we will die, whichever comes first. However, joy in the Lord is eternal. It stands the test of time. In thanking Him for the gifts He has given, both material and eternal, we can find a deep, abiding joy.

A Heart Issue

So what does this mean for my house purging? It changes my goal. I started getting rid of things when I was frustrated by the constant clutter. I wanted fewer possessions to deal with because I thought that was the way to deal with my frustration. But as I’ve turned these thoughts over in my head while sorting boxes in the basement, I realized that I was seeking my own peace through reducing the clutter.

But clutter is not the problem. My heart is. I need to set my hope on God, not on a clean house. I need to set my mind on Christ and his work on the Cross, even while I sort piles of things to be given away.

To be sure, getting rid of some stuff will make it easier to find the things we actually use. And it will mean less time cleaning and organizing, which means more time for more important things. Plus, people could actually use some of these things.

But it will not bring me peace. It will not fix my heart problem. In some magical far off Neverland where I actually finish purging every last item that my family doesn’t need, I will still find things to be frustrated and discontent about. But Christ offers peace and the knowledge that we rest in the hands of an Eternal God who cares about our day-to-day even in the middle a pile of mystery boxes.

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How My Family is Slowing Down for Advent

I’m feeling the pressure of holidays stacking on top of one another with little breathing space between. We barely arrived home from traveling for Thanksgiving and before the laundry is done my mind is spinning with Christmas plans. We’re hosting family so there’s decorations, meal planning and putting the house in order along with finishing a few languishing projects before they arrive. Also my 14 month old wants to run around the house at full speed banging blocks on all of the things.

In the middle of the flurry of activity, I want to celebrate the first coming of Christ and look forward to his second coming. Somehow that’s what gets lost in this busy season, isn’t it?

The Ecclesiastical Calendar

This year, my family is going to try following the ecclesiastical calendar. Our Baptist/non-denominational selves are unaccustomed to observing a liturgical tradition, but the more I’ve learned about it, the more I’ve understood how it can be a tool to remind us of God’s story of redeeming the world.

The Church calendar is a cycle of seasons throughout the year. Each season focuses on a different point in the story of God’s redemption of the world through Christ. The seasons are: Advent, Epiphany, Lent, Easter, Pentecost, and Ordinary Time. There are variations on the calendar, and it can get a lot more complicated than that, but that’s the basics.

Since this tradition is new for my family, we’re keeping it church calendar lite. We’ll mark each season with traditions that make sense for our family without adding pressure to our schedule.

The Season of Advent

Advent, which means arrival, focuses on anticipating the coming of Christ. We reflect on Israel’s anticipation of his First Coming, and look forward to his Second Coming ourselves. The season reminds us we live in the already-not-yet.

Christ has already come, lived, died, and lived again to redeem us, but we do not yet experience the fullness of His redemption. One day, He will right all the wrongs and heal all the brokenness. But we’re not there yet.

Advent is a season to focus our vision on the joy and hope in Christ. My favorite hymn for this season, one that beautifully expresses this tension, is O Come O Come Emmanuel.

Advent for our Family

For our Advent celebration, I’ll use a few candlesticks I already have and some branches cut from our Christmas tree to make an Advent wreath. On the four Sundays of Advent, we’ll do a short family devotional based on the theme of each Sunday: hope, peace, joy, and love. That’s it. That’s Advent.

When my son is a few years older, we’ll come up with a simple activity to include him in anticipating Christ’s coming. For example, slowly building a nativity scene over the course of the season and talking to him about each piece.

Simplifying Christmas so We Can See Christ

We’re also re-examining normal Christmas traditions in light of Advent. This year, we won’t get a tree until the first Sunday of Advent, rather than the normal day after Thanksgiving. A mere one week delay creates a little breathing space in our family’s schedule. We’ll keep gifts simple: each person gets one present, plus gifts from grandparents. Some traditions we’ll cut out altogether. There won’t be matching pajamas or Christmas card photoshoots. No Christmas movie watching marathons and not every hall will be decked.

Wassail and clumsily played Christmas hymns on the piano? Yes! These rituals slow us down and point us to Christ. Family newsletter to everyone we know? Not a chance.

Some aspects I don’t have any influence over: my husband’s office-wide Christmas party or back to back family celebrations. But we’ll host his work group’s party in January or February. Last year, everyone agreed it was nice to have one less event during Christmas and to have a fun evening in the dead of winter slump. No law says you can’t have a white elephant gift exchange after the first of the year.

My goal in following the church calendar is not to add more stress, because who needs that? Instead, I want the celebrations to slow us down enough to focus on Christ. Family traditions shape the culture of a family. I want ours to be centered on Christ, not on the busyness of the holiday season.

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