Closer Than A Sister, Week 5

By STEFANIE BENNETT | CONTRIBUTOR

Part 3b: Challenges in Sisterhood, Chapter 13 (pp. 187-191) 

Friends,

It has been my great honor to serve you these past five weeks through the blog. It is my hope that you have felt connected to the study, even if you were unable to attend in person, and that it has increased your fervor for biblical community.

In this last session, we looked back at all 3 sections of the book: A Community of Faith (Chapters 1-3), Living with Sisters in Community (Chapters 4-9), and Challenges to Sisterhood (Chapters 10-13), concluding with Fox’s call to see and savor Jesus as our Perfect Friend (Chapter 13).

As Jana addressed the Summer study group for the last time on Wednesday, I was so struck by her beautiful exhortation that I could think of no better way to close out this study than by enclosing her words below:

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By JANA HENRY | CONTRIBUTOR

Sisters,

Here we are at the end of the study.

Before you go, I want you to know my prayer for you– that the eyes of your heart be enlightened ever more so to this hope to which we have been called (c.f. Ephesians 1:8). And that you have been encouraged to live out this hope together, bearing with one another, eager to maintain the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace because we are united to Christ and to one another through His blood (c.f. Ephesians 4:2-3).

May we love one another as Christ has loved us in giving His life for us, thereby meeting our greatest need– for cleansing, for forgiveness, for being made new again– so that we can come to Jesus and recognize that all our longings are met and fulfilled in Him.

Do we still long for friendship? That’s a good thing.

But remember! Jesus is our perfect friend.

John 15:13 says, “Greater love has no one than this that someone lay down his life for His friends.”

Jesus did that for you and me, and because He is our perfect friend, we can love others as He commanded us to, living in community with one another, forgiving one another and seeking to grow up together as one body in Him, reflecting His image to a dark hurting world.

Remember!  Love is the calling card, the mark by which we will be known, so that those whom Jesus is calling may be delivered from darkness, transferred to the kingdom of His beloved light, and live together in perfect community for all eternity.

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As I thought about this grand vision of Sister-Friendship that Fox lays out in her book, my mind was drawn to one of my favorite hymns.

Bryan Jeffrey Leach wrote this hymn in 1978. He was born in England, but spent  more than half of his life in the United States. He was an ordained minister, serving many congregations, and didn’t start writing hymns until his mid-30’s. At the time he wrote this hymn, he was lamenting the fact that there were so few popular hymns that related to the church. He decided to write one of his own. The result was We Are God’s People, which he later said was his favorite of his hymn texts. He said, “I loved singing it, and I like especially the mixture of metaphors in it [ . . .] which illustrate the true nature of the church.”

It has arguably been one of my favorites, too, since the first time I sang it many years ago in this very church.

Listen for the images Leech refers to, taken right out of the pages of scripture.

It starts off:

We are God’s people, the chosen of the Lord

The psalmist says in Psalm 100 – We are God’s people the sheep of his pasture.

And Peter says in his 1st epistle – You are a chosen race, a royal, priesthood, a holy nation, a people for His own possession to proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into His marvelous light.

Born of His Spirit, established by His word

Again Peter says – You have been born again, not of perishable seed, but of imperishable, through the living and abiding word of God (1 Peter 1:23).

Our cornerstone is Christ alone and strong in Him we stand

From the prophet Isaiah – Behold I am laying in Zion a cornerstone, chosen and precious and whoever believes in Him will not be put to shame (Isaiah 28:16).

Leech concludes Stanza 1 with a “Therefore”:

O let us live transparently, and walk heart to heart and hand in hand

He goes on in the next stanza to liken the church as the Bride of Christ.

In this we hear echoes of Ephesians 5, and look forward as the apostle John did to that great day when the wedding feast takes place.

The third stanza –

We are the body of which the Lord is head

Here we recognize the echoes of Ephesians 4– Grow up in every way, into Him who is the head, into Christ.

And finally, the fourth stanza–

We are a temple, the Spirit’s dwelling place

Ephesians 2:22 says, “In Him you also are being built together as a dwelling place for God by the Spirit.”

Leech concludes the hymn using a metaphor of his own –

We die alone, for on its own,

Each ember loses fire:

Yet joined in one the flame burns on

To give warmth and light and to inspire

Leech likens the individual members of the church to embers (or logs) in a fireplace, whose purpose is to give warmth, light, and –  he says, “to inspire.”

Yes, put together in a pile, the logs give great WARMTH to the chill of this often-dreary world,

and LIGHT, so that we may see the way in the darkness,

and they INSPIRE.

How do logs INSPIRE? It’s when I look at what happens to these logs when they are pulled apart from the fire and placed by themselves on their own that I find the answer: they quickly cool off and their light grows dim.

You see, it is when the logs are put together that the flame grows hotter and the light beams brighter, because the logs INSPIRE each other to do their job with greater intensity.

This is what I think is meant by this last verse.

And so together as one body, the Bride of Christ, the temple, with Christ Jesus himself as the cornerstone, we reflect God’s glory to the world. The heat of fire brightens up the night, and people are drawn to the warmth of God’s love as they see us loving one another because of the great love with which God has loved us.

And so, let us go forth worshipping our marvelous Savior who has knitted us together in HIS perfect love, purposing to love one another as He has loved us.

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Fellowship with God Through Confidence in Christ,

led by Barbaranne Kelly

A study of the text of 1, 2 & 3 John, supported by the whole of Scripture, and its application to believers today. We will search out the doctrines taught in these epistles and the covenant connections which tie them to all of the Bible.

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led by Kathy Horan

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Closer Than A Sister, Week 4

By STEFANIE BENNETT | CONTRIBUTOR

Part 3: Challenges in Sisterhood, Chapters 10-12 (pp. 145-185)

Oh Friends,

I was bracing myself for some hard conversations today. Weren’t you?

In considering this section of Fox’s book, “Challenges in Sisterhood” (Chapters 10-12), I expected our conversations to be riddled with stories of ways in which community had failed us, and to feel such shame over the ways I had failed at community.

But blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ who has blessed us with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly realms because we are united to Christ! (c.f. Ephesians 1:3, emphasis mine).

Instead of complaints and critique, I listened to godly, faithful women of the church rejoice at the ways in which God had supplied their needs and healed them, even in the midst of deep disappointment and loneliness inflicted by believers they loved and trusted. They did not dwell on their hurts—nor dismiss them as petty–, but rather, chose to dwell on the healing of God through the work of God and the love of others.

They rejoiced that, even though change and even conflict were woven into their lives, they could find the purposefulness of these discomforts by looking to the “God of all comfort” who has authored and is perfecting our faith. And then, they considered how their experiences were useful for deepening their ministries to others who might also feel lonely, rejected, or neglected.  

And doesn’t the example of these godly ladies point us right back to the very reason why we need community– to help us take our eyes off of ourselves, draw us out from our isolation, and show us the beauty and selflessness of our Savior—which then compels us, similarly, to build up the body in love and service?

In spite of the glorious promise of community, however, Fox’s chapters also forced me to remember that community must be cultivated (Chapter 10), and with that, there will arise barriers and challenges (Chapters 11-12). (Translation: Work and Problems!)

In truth, it doesn’t take much to discourage us from the things we don’t want to do. If I even think the gym is going to be crowded, I’m out. My landscaping suffers because watering it means standing outside in the heat. And it may be the same way with community. Faced with any of the challenges Fox mentions in Chapter 11—loss or rejection of a friend, disconnectedness, shallow friendships, and circular loneliness– we can be tempted to run away in self-preservation at the smallest sign of rejection or discomfort.

This is where the grounding we received from the previous chapters of the book (and Jana’s exhortation during the study) help us remain committed to community, even in more serious disappointments. We remember that we were made for community. We recognize that community was hopelessly broken until Christ intervened to restore it. And now, Christ’s blood unites believers for all eternity with a bond stronger than human blood. And from this knowledge, we can help, rejoice with, exhort, learn from each other, and grow together, even when community is imperfect.

We recognize that conflict and barriers to community are part of the fallen world. They are one more reminder that, for now, we live in tents, but we are looking toward a heavenly city with foundations, whose architect and builder is God (c.f. Hebrews 11:9b). But we take heart to know that, in Christ, our eternal community has already begun, and although we only see in part, when the perfect comes, the partial will pass away and we will enjoy perfect communion with God and his Bride forevermore (c.f. 1 Corinthians 13:9). Amen! 

For this reason, we are compelled to hold fast to our community of faith, in spite of personal pain or disappointment, because of Jesus Christ, who loved his Bride to the point of death, even though he also was gossiped about, rejected, abandoned, and made to feel unwelcome by the very people he came to serve.

And He, being rooted and established in love, shows us the way forward into community, beyond our failings and the failings of others:

“Put on then, as God’s chosen ones, holy and beloved, compassionate hearts, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience, bearing with one another and, if one has a complaint against another, forgiving each other; as the Lord has forgiven you, so also you must forgive. And above all these put on love, which binds everything together in perfect harmony (Colossians 3:12-14, emphasis mine).

And with this love, we are left, not with hostility, but with hospitality. We can risk our comfort for the comfort of others because of the comfort we have been given by God himself (c.f. 2 Corinthians 1:3-5). We can reach out to others—strangers, the hurting, visitors—because the risk is greatly diminished when we, ourselves, are basking in the welcoming hospitality of the Son, our Perfect Example.

Closer Than A Sister, Week 3

By STEFANIE BENNETT | CONTRIBUTOR

Part 2b: Living With Sisters in Community, Chapters 7-9 (pp. 105-144)

[Y]our walk with God is designed by God to be a community project. Anonymous, consumerist, isolated, independent, self-sufficient, “Jesus and me” Christianity is a distant and distorted facsimile of the faith of the New Testament.

                                                             –Paul Tripp, New Morning Mercies, July 12 devotion

The Nitty-Gritty

It’s week 3—and if you’re like me, you’re getting to the parts of Fox’s book that make you a little less comfortable. Jana called this week’s reading, “the nitty gritty,” and “gritty” is right. We’re oysters with the sand of truth in our shell, and we’ll either work hard to get it out and get comfortable again, or we’ll grapple with the grit until it becomes a pearl. In other words, we’re beginning to see that this “community” thing is work and will cost us something—but, oh, the rewards!

As I sat around a table on Wednesday with a handful of other women of all different ages, stages, and struggles of life, I was encouraged to find that they were brimming with stories of godly women who, even at the expense of their own comfort, had modeled purposeful, dimensional discipleship to them. Coupled with Fox’s chapters for this week, we can be encouraged that our efforts to exhort one another (chapter 7), learn from each other (chapter 8), and grow together (chapter 9), made possible and purposeful by the work of Christ, is worth all the work. And let us not forget Paul’s reminder that “it is God who works in you, both to will and to work for his good pleasure” (Philippians 2:13). In this, we can ask for God to grant the will to love and serve his church in this way, and rejoice in his goodness when he answers.

Nit-Picking?

As we began to discuss chapter 7 (Sisters Exhort One Another), you may have been tempted to shrink back at the thought of exhortation, sensing it to be too risky. Throughout your life, you may have been on both the giving and receiving end of exhortation, and it may not have always gone well. One woman at our table summed the risk perfectly: “I want you to like me, and I don’t think you’ll like me if I confront you.” Spurgeon, also, knows the risks: “we never get any praise for telling people of their faults; we rather hazard their dislike; a man will sometimes thank you for it, but he does not often like you any the better” (qtd. In Fox, 111). Certainly, removed of its love and purpose, exhortation can look remarkably similar to nit-picking, or “fussy fault-finding” (Thanks, Wiki, for this succinct definition!), and no woman I know wants to be characterized in that way.

So what, then, is the purpose of exhortation, and what would compel us to do it, even in knowing all the risks? To answer, Fox points us to Bonhoeffer:

Exhorting one another with the truth of God’s word is a ministry of mercy, an offer of genuine fellowship” (qtd. in Fox, 112).

Furthering this, Janaexplained that this ministry of mercy “takes exhortation from ‘fussing’ to a valuable cause.” When we exhort (or are exhorted), it is an offering of fellowship rooted in the finished work of Christ. We are not pointing to ourselves when we address issues, but rather to our perfect Savior. “The basis upon which Christians can speak to one another is that each knows the other as a sinner, who, with all his human dignity, is lonely and lost if he is not gotten help. This is not to make him contemptible nor to disparage him in any way. On the contrary, it is to accord him the one real dignity that man has, namely, that though he is a sinner, he can share in God’s grace and glory and be God’s child” (Bonhoeffer, 105-106; qtd in Fox, 112).

Isn’t it beautiful that, above all, exhortation is about bestowing upon someone their “one real dignity”? In this way, “let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing nearer” (Hebrews 10:24-25).

Knit-Together

And some of the other beautiful, life-giving ways that we can stir one another on toward love and good works is by learning from each other and growing together. While it can be tempting to keep our learning/teaching at a surface-level, Fox proposes that discipleship is not about “general tips for our life [or] passing on personal advice [ . . .] it’s about pointing you to the wisdom of God’s word. It’s about helping you understand your identity in Christ and what it means to be a daughter of the living God” (128-129). Or, to paraphrase Susan Hunt: “Discipleship is equipping through relationships” (Fox, 129). By invoking the Titus 2 mandate in this chapter, Fox calls us to both look ahead toward those who have journeyed faith longer than us, and “see their footprints going ahead of us,” while also looking behind to those who will journey in our faith footprints (126). And this is something we are all called to, not just those who bear the gift of discipleship.

In fact, sometimes we can allow our “spiritual giftedness” to limit us. If we decide that our spiritual gift is not kids or encouragement or picking up trash, we can console ourselves into avoiding whole areas of service to the church. But we are promised that in serving others, we receive the benefits of growing together in unity, and if we do not love the church through both our gifts and service to it, the whole body suffers. Fox exhorts us, “The purpose of God’s giving gifts and graces is communal, not personal. My spiritual gifts are not my own; they belong to Christ and his church” (Ryken, 100; qtd in Fox, 138). And this is a very good thing because “when each part is working properly, [it] makes the body grow so that it builds itself up in love” (Ephesians 4:16).

May God use our gifts and our love for Him and his church to show us how we can be a blessing in the way he has designed.