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:

*************************************

By JANA HENRY | CONTRIBUTOR

Sisters,

Here we are at the end of the study.

Continue reading “Closer Than A Sister, Week 5”

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.

Closer Than A Sister, Week 2

By STEFANIE BENNETT | CONTRIBUTOR

Week 2: Closer Than a Sister

Part 2a: Living With Sisters in Community, Chapters 4-6 (pp. 65-102)

Recalling the beautiful and communal nature of our Triune God and our design as bearers of this image, as Fox illustrated in last week’s readings, we are now compelled to act—to help our sisters, mourn with them, and rejoice together. It is a beautiful image, and one we have felt the benefits of many times. Women abounding in the love and unity of the Father have brought us a kind word, a warm meal, a meaningful exhortation– and we are better for it.

Drawing from Timothy P. Lane and Paul David Tripp’s Relationships: A Mess Worth Making, Fox connects our insights from last week to compel us toward action in these next three chapters: “When you and I serve, we are living out what God has made us to be: servants. It is when we are serving that were are most like the Trinity. Father, Son, and Holy Spirit redeemed a fallen world through service and sacrifice. There is nothing more God-like than serving others” (qtd. in Fox, 71).

Sisters Help Each Other (Chapter 4)

And yet… we are often hesitant to help others. Why is that? Fox proposes an answer: because it takes sacrifice (71). Helping others is a sacrifice of time and resources. But Fox also invokes Bonhoeffer to give us some perspective:

We must allow ourselves to be interrupted by God [ . . .] It is part of the discipline of humility that we must not spare our hand where it can perform a service and that we do not assume that our schedule is our own to manage, but allow it to be arranged by God” (qtd in Fox, 72).

And certainly humility is needed when we find ourselves in a position of need as well. Because dogged determination and independence are prized in our culture, we can sometimes feel ashamed when it comes to asking for help. But in reality, the entirety of our faith runs counter-cultural. “We weren’t made to be autonomous. We were created to be dependent upon God and mutually dependent upon others in the Body of Christ” (Fox, 74).

Sisters Mourn Together (Chapter 5)

And the reality of our need for God and other believers is never more glaring than in our grief.

But, oh, the comfort of knowing our sweet Savior who is not only acquainted with all our grief, but who grieves with us even as he binds up our wounds.

Indeed, Fox reminds us:

  • Christ knew loss as he mourned at the graveside of his dear friend Lazarus.
  • He knew rejection because those from his own hometown attempted to kill him (Luke 4:29).
  • He knew hunger and loneliness.
  • He knew abandonment when his closest friends fled just when He needed them the most.
  • He knew deep sorrow as He thought about the horror that awaited Him at the cross [ . . .] (Fox, 78, emphasis mine).

But this we also know:

“[T]he God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, [ . . .] comforts us in our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. For as we share abundantly in Christ’s sufferings, so through Christ we share abundantly in comfort too” (2 Corinthians 1:3-5).

How is it that we are able to sit in the dust with our sisters and mourn with them, even when it feels unnatural and uncomfortable to do so? Christ.

How is it that we can listen intently and empathetically to our sister’s hurts without the need to “fix” or rescue her? Christ.

How is it we can speak encouragement and Gospel truth to a sister who cannot see her sweet Savior in her season of sadness? Christ.

Fox assures us that as we renew our minds in the water of the Word, we gain wisdom and surety about what we should do when our sister in Christ is suffering.

Sisters Rejoice Together (Chapter 6)

In some ways, however, it may be easier to genuinely grieve with a sister than rejoice with her. Fox explains that rejoicing with our sisters “means we ought to have joy for what God is doing in [her life]. Yet sometimes, such joy is hard, especially when the blessing in our sister’s life reminds us of the blessing we think is missing in our own life” (94-95).

Is it any wonder, then, that Fox spends the majority of the chapter addressing our disordered desire to envy others and begrudge them the good they have received? She points us to James to address the issue:

“What causes quarrels and what causes fights among you? Is it not this, that your passions are at war within you? You desire and do not have, so you murder. You covet and cannot obtain, so you fight and quarrel. You do not have, because you do not ask. You ask and do not receive, because you ask wrongly, to spend it on your passions” (James 4:1-3).

If we are to have any hope of countering this propensity toward envy, it will be by embracing the selfless love that the Father has modeled for us– one that “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (1 Corinthians 13: 7). And further, “as we seek to find our contentment in Christ, our sister’s joy becomes our joy [ . . .] for we know that she is united to us as we are united to Christ. The good that happens in her life is also our good and vice versa” (Fox, 101-102, emphasis mine).

And if, like me, by the end of these chapters, you are still feeling woefully weak and inadequate for the roles set before us to help, mourn, and rejoice well with our sisters, perhaps you will also join me in looking to Jesus, the Author and Perfecter of our faith, who encourages us with His word:

If any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask God, who gives generously to all without reproach, and it will be given him.” (James 1: 5).

May we be encouraged by our good God, who both calls and equips his daughters for good works that He prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them! (Ephesians 2:10)