Monday, December 31, 2012

Reflecting on 2012

On the whole, 2012 is a year I'll remember as having been pretty difficult.

Academically speaking, there have been considerable highs and lows. Spring semester was unbelievably stressful, yet I was proud of myself for accomplishing everything I set out to do: completed coursework, passed my Greek exam, passed comprehensive exams.
On the other hand, since June, I've watched (almost) my worst-case scenario play out. Carving out a dissertation topic has proven even more difficult and frustrating than I'd thought it would be. At some points, I've had doubts about my vocation. Reluctance, at any rate. I haven't seriously considered quitting; I've just lost much of the excitement and drive I came in with, and I can't foresee how I'm going to win that back. But I will keep working.

My grandmother's death in August was not unexpected, but obviously very difficult. It was the first time I experienced a loved one's death from hundreds of miles away. That has made it harder for reality to sink in, and I miss her.

There have also been personal difficulties throughout the year. Looking back over some of my private journaling from the year, I struggled with confidence on a level I hadn't for awhile. I truly hope this is something that will change as I look toward turning 30 in 2013! At various points, I also felt great anxiety over future unknowns. I've been working on gathering the resolve to face things that scare me, and I expect there will be more of them in the coming year. (Maybe that also has something to do with turning 30.)

However, there have been so many blessings as well. As in past years, church life was an absolute highlight. We continued participating in small groups in the spring and fall, every member of which I've come to love. I also branched out a little by joining the women's Bible study in the fall -- so many good people there, such as my gifted friend Susan, whom I look forward to getting to know more. Sometimes I still struggle to know where I fit in the church, what I have to contribute, since I'm shy, most of my abilities are overwhelmingly cerebral, and many areas of ministry don't seem to interest me. Some of that, though, probably just means I need to be willing to try more things. I've never felt anything but loved in our church, that's for sure.

Related to that, our friends have been a great gift of God this year. I don't know where I'd be without my friend Coralie and her family, who always make us feel so welcome and loved. Good talks with my sweet friend Rebekah have been a highlight, too. As an introvert, I've never been someone who has or really even desires to have a lot of friends, but I cherish the ones who are given to me.

Of course our awesome family is always a joy as well. We had the opportunity for a wonderful trip to California in March, as well as several trips to Pittsburgh. Thanks to my parents, we were able to buy a new car this November, something we didn't expect to happen for a very long time! I missed my three goddaughters a lot, but am holding out hope of being able to visit their families in New York and Maine in the coming year. Kevin and I celebrated four years of marriage this summer; we continue to do very well on the whole, and I'm so grateful for him.

Perhaps my biggest takeaway from this year, though, is a deepened belief in God's sovereignty. I've felt that God has pushed me beyond myself to greater dependence on Him, which allows me to learn more of His provision and faithfulness to His promises. That in itself is a great mercy. I know He has shown me more gentleness than I'm even aware of, and certainly more than I deserve.

Happy new year to all of you! Thank you so much for reading. My prayer for you in 2013 is this verse that's been on my heart a lot lately: "May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that by the power of the Holy Spirit you may abound in hope." (Romans 15:13 ESV)

Monday, December 17, 2012

State of the Dissertation Update (December)

If someone asked my advice about entering a PhD or other research-based degree program, I might suggest that they not do so unless they already have a fairly solid idea of what they hope to write their dissertation or thesis on. This is because you can't assume that, in as few as four semesters of coursework, you will be assigned to write a paper that develops organically into a viable dissertation topic. It certainly could happen, but it doesn't for everyone. Or it might happen that your best paper is written for a course outside your main field of research (in my case, seventeenth-century Scottish Puritanism), and it is effectively too late to backtrack and re-tool your entire program to accommodate a new focus.

Of course, entering a program with a topic in mind is no guarantee, either. Even if you are able to satisfy admissions committees that you have a good, general idea percolating (as I obviously did), that doesn't mean the idea will bear fruit three years later.

In short, there's no foolproof approach to tackling a dissertation. Either way, you aren't going to realize how difficult it is until you're actually at that stage.

I drafted most of a topic proposal this semester, as I had planned, but after he read it last week, my advisor's opinion was that there is still too much guesswork involved. As I had sensed myself, it's not close to flowering into a full, focused argument that I can build a book-length project around. He isn't saying I need to scrap what I've got, by any means; there is good material there to work with, but it is still pretty raw. So it isn't really as if I'm having to start from scratch. That's a good thing. Still, I've been kicking around this set of ideas for six months, and I'm not sure where to dig next. It's discouraging, because I had hoped to defend the proposal and be ready to start writing chapters next semester.

Being fairly low on the self-confidence scale, I didn't think academics was an area where I particularly needed to be humbled further, but that seems to be what is happening. I already knew that identifying problems and asserting opinions about them was my weak point, so in that way, it's no surprise I'm feeling stuck. I still believe I can and will achieve this; right now, I just don't have a clear picture of what that's going to look like.

It does seem that the burden of discontentment has been lifted somewhat recently. Not that I won't struggle with it again, but it is at least shifted to the backburner, for now. I know I can only struggle with what's been placed in front of me for this moment. I'm thankful for that, since I'll accept whatever mercies I can get.

Friday, November 16, 2012

Some Peculiar Temptations of Academia

An obvious temptation for a good student is the temptation to define oneself by academic success. Especially for a graduate student, life is a series of checkpoints and comparisons—which programs did you get into? Have you passed comps yet? How many conference presentations are listed on your c.v.? Long before reaching this level, the pursuit of a certain grade point average and class rank can become all-consuming. I remember the sheer weariness of trying to excel and distinguish myself in high school. I believed my academic standing was the only thing I had going for me; if that were taken away, I was afraid there wouldn’t be anything valuable left. Certainly many people in higher education are motivated by those same fears; the stakes only get higher, and the competition more cutthroat, as one advances.

This isn’t the only temptation, however; indeed, it sounds perverse, but I almost wish this were the one I struggled with the most. (Then, at least, I'd be getting more work done!) As I’ve progressed through college, a master’s degree, and now a doctoral program, I’ve observed a shift almost to the opposite extreme. I’m not sure quite when it started. At some point, I recognized that the higher you go in academia, the more you will encounter people who are smarter, more accomplished, and more driven than you. These are people who have been motivated by the same desires to impact the academy, the church, or the world that first prompted you to gamble on grad school—and they will probably do that work better than you ever could.

This can be a freeing realization. It can allow you to loosen your grip on the idol of success and no longer be mastered by the constant fight to prove yourself. It lessens the guilt of having a life outside of study. For example, I have often prioritized home, church, and friends over academic work, because I’ve felt that ultimately, these are the important and lasting things in my life. Even if grad school proves to have been a big mistake, or I never secure a dream job or publish a book, those people and values will still be there. Moreover, it’s unlikely that the world would miss my contributions that much.  (If you want to get a better sense of what I mean, I recommend this essay by Carl Trueman, which has had a big influence on me over the past couple of years. Yes, I recognize that Trueman’s comments are directed to middle-aged men. I still think the piece has much to say to my generation.)

I’ve worried, though, that this attitude shift—and the shrinking of my goals that has accompanied it—has opened me up to a different set of temptations. From believing that academic ability was the only thing I had going for me, I’ve gone to doubting that I have much worth contributing to academia. Is it just a different form of hubris? It’s sinful to make too much of oneself, but is it any better to make too little of what the Lord is doing? Maybe, deep down, I think that if I'm probably not going to be one of the elite scholars known for their impact on the field, then it isn't worth this much effort to attain a middling sort of career. At any rate, perhaps I don't trust God to do anything worthwhile (by whose measure?) with the likes of me.

In other words, as I’ve moved towards fitting academia into unobtrusive crannies of my life, of downplaying its importance, am I disdaining the gift God has given me through the rare privilege of getting to pursue this work? It’s one thing to refuse to define myself by academic achievement. My fear is that I’m using that attitude—which, at heart, may be good—as a pious cover for my unwillingness to work hard. I’m burnt out, and I’m tired of putting everything on the line for a career that may have little payoff (something I glossed over as an idealistic 24-year-old).

I’m not sure what words to give to this temptation. (Maybe “laziness” or “entitlement,” for starters?) Or how to address it. I sense this is the place where I’m supposed to describe a God-honoring balance that the realistic grad student should observe. But I’m not sure what that is, or how attainable it might be.

I know that God’s grace gives me the freedom to be defined neither by my successes nor my failures. But here’s how I tend to interpret that truth on a daily basis: if I loved God enough, then I would work harder. If I really “got” grace, if I were grateful enough, then all of this would click, and I’d be cheerfully persevering through the latter stages of my degree.

Obviously, there’s a disconnect here.

Maybe it’s not a question of whether I love God enough, but the fact that He loves me and is pleased with me regardless of the practical outcome of this program. That won’t change whether I succeed or fail. Even if I proceed through all the academic hoops for mistaken reasons or ungodly motivations, He’s given me this opportunity for a reason, for the sake of His plan and purpose that are larger than me. If I mess up, or I earn a Ph.D. that never yields material success or fulfillment, or I do become one of those blessed few who “live the dream” within academia, what’s important is that my actions are transparently full of Christ for everyone else to see.

I’m not sure I do believe this. I know I am not yet at a point where it's changing my heart attitude and the way I work. My fear is that it’s another set of pious justifications for having made a poor life decision. But it’s what I have to go on, and these are the temptations I’m learning to pray through.

Sunday, October 28, 2012

Book Review: Christ and the Desert Tabernacle by J. V. Fesko

I have had a growing conviction that one of the keys to Christian discipleship is solid biblical hermeneutics. This is just a funny way of referring to the practice of interpreting Scripture. The notes in the ESV Study Bible (p. 2567) state that "Scripture is no ragbag of religious bits and pieces...rather, it is a tapestry in which all the complexities of the weave display a single pattern of judgement and mercy, promise and fulfillment." As a believer learns to discern that pattern, trust in God's promises throughout Scripture, and hence the believer's assurance in walking with Christ, grows ever deeper.

The interwoven nature of Scripture was a basic interpretive principle for much of church history, for the Fathers of the first few centuries as well as for the seventeenth-century Puritans. More recently, however, critical biblical scholarship has led to a more cautious and even suspicious stance toward such interpretation. My own seminary training, for instance, often favored a more fragmentary approach; my sense of where Christ could be found in the Old Testament grew confused.

Because of this, I was pleased to review Christ and the Desert Tabernacle by Dr. J. V. Fesko, Professor of Systematic and Historical Theology at Westminster Seminary, California. Dr. Fesko aims to help ordinary readers recognize the "entire world of references, allusions and foreshadows of Christ and the church" to be found in descriptions of the Old Testament tabernacle. Surveying the building materials, the Ark of the Covenant, the various furniture, and even the consecration of the priests, Dr. Fesko describes the purpose and function of each element of the Tabernacle, then examines it again in light of the New Testament. He shows how each element not only provided the means by which God dwelt among his people in the long-ago desert, but may also be read as shadowing forth the future realities of Christ and his church. Each chapter concludes with reflections connecting aspects of the desert tabernacle with our Christian lives, both individually and corporately. A few examples that I found especially striking:
  • The blood-smeared horns of the altar represent the costly sacrifice of Christ to which we cling for mercy.
  •  The priests' garments point to those of Christ, our High Priest, who robes us in His own righteousness.
  • The altar of incense reminds us of Christ's ongoing intercessory prayer for us.
  • The bronze basin is a figure of the waters of baptism and the washing of regeneration by the Holy Spirit.
My favorite chapter, however, was the final one on the Sabbath--the subject with which Exodus' tabernacle instructions end. The cessation of labor on the Sabbath was meant to be a visual sign that God had placed himself in the midst of his people and was sanctifying them, making them holy. It showed that the Israelites could not enter God's eternal rest by their own labor, but only by the labor of another. For Christians, the Sabbath continues to serve as a sign. Through the work of Christ, we have already begun to enter into the Sabbath rest of God (Hebrews 4:3). Just as God was present among His set-apart people in the desert tabernacle, so His Holy Spirit dwells among believers in Lord's Day worship, conforming them to the image of the Son. "When we absent ourselves from church. . .we are tacitly admitting that we do not need the sanctifying work of God in our lives [...] How often do we long for heaven itself but pass by the Lord's Day as an opportunity to get a taste of heaven?" (131)

Dr. Fesko's book made me better appreciate both God's otherness and how close He has come to us in Christ. The sights and smells of the tabernacle are mostly quite foreign to us--animal blood, burnt offerings, incense, golden cherubim. Yet they are assuredly part of our story, because they show the lengths to which God has always gone to dwell among His people--first in the desert tabernacle, later incarnate in Jesus Christ, and now in us, through His Holy Spirit. And the layers of that story are already embedded in these seemingly obscure passages of the Pentateuch.

I thought the book would have been much enriched by examples drawn from the church's long history of Old Testament interpretation. The connections Dr. Fesko draws are part of a centuries-old tradition; even though this is not a study in historical theology, I would have loved to hear more of his expertise in that area. Also, it should be pointed out that there is not a simple, one-to-one correspondence between Old and New Testament in every case. But, particularly for Christians unfamiliar with these passages of Exodus, the book serves as a helpful introduction and could be used profitably for individual or group study. Learning to read the Old Testament in this way, "We can look forward to the day when faith will give way to sight. Christ will not only indwell us spiritually but we will dwell for all eternity in the presence of our triune Lord...[W]e will know completely and fully what Israel only knew in shadows and in a manmade tent. . .the eternal abiding presence of God." (56)

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.

Friday, September 28, 2012

Wowed by an Unlikely Book

When you stand as close as we have to real life miracles, you will get roughed up. . .Splinters fall from the cross. They travel a long distance and they pierce the skin -- maybe even the heart. And wrapped in this risk and danger is God's embrace and promise to work all things (even evil ones) to the good of those who love him. . .[W]e are not to be Pollyanna about this. Many of the "things" we will face come with the razor edges of a fallen and broken world. You can't play poker with God's mercy -- if you want the sweet mercy then you must also swallow the bitter mercy. And what is the difference between sweet and bitter? Only this: your critical perspective, your worldview. One of God's greatest gifts is the ability to see points of view that exceed your personal experience. That is what it means to me to grow in Christ -- to exceed myself as I stretch to him.
-The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, pp. 124-125.
Rarely have I finished reading a book and thought, "I want to buy a stack of these to hand out to people." But The Secret Thoughts of an Unlikely Convert, by Rosaria Champagne Butterfield, is on that short list. Since I can't buy it in bulk right now, I wanted to at least say something about it here. I first heard about the book through reviews (there's a good one here) and bought a copy directly from Crown & Covenant Publications. You can also get it from Amazon, and apparently there's now a Kindle edition.

The thing about this book is that there's probably something in it that will nettle or disturb virtually any reader. I'm not normally drawn to books like that; they're too exhausting. But the story of Rosaria's conversion is never provocative for its own sake -- it always points to Christ. So even though I wouldn't call it a leisurely read (I finished the book in two sittings because it was too hard to put it aside for long), it has a hard-edged beauty that will stick with you.

Rosaria was a tenured professor of nineteenth-century literature specializing in queer theory at Syracuse University. In the process of researching a book on the American religious right, she was welcomed into the home of a Presbyterian minister and his wife. Through many conversations with them and others, her whole world was upended as she came to accept the precise claims of Christianity that she had set out to critique. By the end of the book, Rosaria herself is a Presbyterian minister's wife with experience in Christian college teaching, church planting, classical homeschooling, and foster care. But, as you're probably guessing, there is a lot more to the story than that -- and it's the messiness amidst all those things that made the book especially beautiful to me.

I finished Secret Thoughts with unanswered questions and points of disagreement, and I'm sure that in subsequent readings, I would find more; but what the book emphatically did was make me think differently about the power of the gospel. Even if you're not sure you would like Rosaria's story, I'd encourage you to give yourself the opportunity to be surprised by it. I was. And if you do read it, I'd love to hear what you think.

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

State of the Dissertation update

One of the purposes of this blog is to provide a glimpse of what an academic's life looks like. To be honest, I'm not sure that's a picture I'm eager to share with you right now (at least not of this academic's life!). But I can at least tell you what I'm working on these days.

In my program, after all coursework and exams have been completed, the third year is devoted to writing something I've heard variously referred to as the "programmatic essay," the "dissertation proposal," or the "dissertation prospectus." Our program has undergone so many changes in recent years that I'm not entirely certain which of those terms I'm "supposed" to use, but for now, we'll just call it the proposal.

The dissertation proposal is what it sounds like: a document (in this case, no more than 25 pages) that proposes my chosen topic to a committee of faculty, including a justification for that topic (demonstrating that the field needs my research), my tentative argument, and an outline of the means I will use to prove that argument. Of course, at this stage, many aspects of this will be tentative. However, I need to satisfy the committee that my project is really something I can write a 200-page dissertation about.

One of my worst nightmares about this program was that I would arrive in my third year not knowing what I wanted to write about. It would be way too dramatic for me to claim that nightmare has come true. At no point have I been completely lost. Still, it has taken much longer, more discouragement, and more revisions to arrive at a topic than I had hoped (about six months). My topic is not yet at a stage that I'm prepared to unveil it publicly, but hopefully soon. :-)

I think there are several reasons it's been disappointingly hard to narrow down my topic; I won't delve into them all here. One conclusion I've reached, though, is that my dissertation will not be my dream project (and likely shouldn't be). The goal of the dissertation is to prove that I can undertake independent scholarly research on a high level. So the topic should be 1.) achievable and 2.) something I am content working on for two or three years. I don't expect to be in love with it (and it's a little late for that)...but I do hope I can sustain a reasonable amount of interest in it, for obvious reasons.

So, to break it down less wordily, the coming year should look like this:
Now-December: Drafting dissertation proposal
Sometime early in 2013: Presenting and defending proposal to a small committee
The remainder of Spring semester 2013: Completing research and starting to write the dissertation in earnest.

As for the nuts and bolts of's really weird not being in classes anymore (with the exception of a seminar that meets Mondays to help us third-year students write our proposals). I think it takes a rare, exceptionally driven and disciplined student to manage the transition from coursework to dissertation gracefully. I can already tell you that is not me. I've had many more discouraged days than hopeful and productive ones, so far. But with God's grace I persevere. :-)

Saturday, September 15, 2012

Grace for Dirty Dishes (and other daunting obstacles)

When I was newly married, one of the biggest obstacles in my household was dirty dishes. I simply couldn't stay on top of the ever-accumulating pile in our tiny kitchen. No sooner would I triumph over one stack than the sink would fill up tauntingly, and I'd be faced with hours of washing once again. Filled with resentment and a mounting sense of defeat, I would procrastinate to the point that there was barely space in the kitchen to scrub effectively, much less cook meals. Things grew ugly. At some point, I virtually surrendered to the dirty dishes.

It sounds so ridiculous now. But it's hard to overstate how defeated I felt. Somehow, the dirty dishes were a metaphor for all my failures as a wife, my aimless non-student status, the ugly sin in my heart, everything. All of it coiled tightly in my chest and spilled out in tears whenever I summoned the nerve to tackle the dishes. I remember standing in the kitchen thinking about what our pastor had preached on Sunday. I knew that my domestic failures said nothing about my identity in Christ. The thought that my existence was defined more by my disastrous kitchen than by the beauty of Christ was an insidious lie. I agreed with that. It just didn't change what I saw before me -- or my sense of utter powerlessness in the face of it. Considering that I allowed a simple household task to become freighted with so much, it's little wonder that I gave up.

Nowadays, I can praise the Lord that He's brought me to the other side of much of that. It's taken the better part of four years, a relocation, consistent effort toward fresh starts in habit and attitude, and the aid of a beautiful dishwasher (!). What it hasn't been is automatic. In wrestling with the meaning of grace for my life, I've wondered if I've operated under wrong assumptions about how grace changes things.

For example, as I discussed with my husband recently, grace is not some sort of "positive-thinking alchemy" that instantaneously transforms my circumstances. Sometimes it does work in plainly miraculous ways. Other times, I've looked at apparently unchanged circumstances as evidence that I'm just not believing hard enough, or that I haven't sufficiently humbled my heart to "get it." Even if that were true, it's missing the point. It risks twisting grace into another form of works-righteousness, something that I muster up on my own behalf. Such "grace" would be no grace at all.

For another, grace is too big for my heart to receive all at once.
The truth about my soul's union with Christ may take awhile, may take a long time, to work itself out in forms that I can confidently perceive and put words to. There's much walking by faith, not by sight, and waiting on the Lord to work as He has promised to do. This can be painful and pretty messy in the in-between. That doesn't make His grace a bit less objectively real.

I can say that, even though I no longer struggle in the same way with chores like washing dishes, dirty dishes scenarios linger in my life. So how to confront them? I'm still struggling. One thing the Lord has been teaching me is that it's hard to let others be party to those scenarios, but that sometimes He calls us to do this, and with excellent reason. Not that we need to be transparent about them to whomever will listen. That's not necessarily God-glorifying or helpful. Yet opening up about the shameful things, to trusted brothers and sisters, can be a thing the Lord uses to make His grace powerfully seen and felt in daily life. Insurmountable situations begin to look survivable, and burdens more bearable, in the fresh light of such grace.

You'll likely find that you are loved and prayed for more than you'd guessed, and that you'll be received with more grace than you'd dared hope for. That's all Jesus. He knows the depth and cost of our sin better than we do, and He has already obtained an undiminishing supply of the grace we need. I'm preaching to myself here: we can trust Him to give it to us in the time and through the means He knows to be best for us, and for His glory.

Wednesday, September 5, 2012

Book Review: Delighting in the Trinity: Why Father, Son and Spirit Are Good News by Tim Chester

One of the most influential courses in my M.Div. program (and not just because I sat next to my now husband!) was a seminar titled Patristic Trinitarian Doctrine. Whenever I happened to mention the name of this class to a non-academic, or even to some seminarians, I often got a laughing response -- something like, "Better you than me," or "What's the point of that?" I remember feeling dismayed that just because it had a lot of syllables (or maybe included the word "doctrine"?), people assumed the subject matter was difficult, obscure, or not "useful."

Nowadays, I think there was likely self-righteousness in my response. No doubt I thought I would get my degree and promptly begin authoring books that set everyone straight about the importance of the Trinity! I have a better appreciation now for just what a difficult task that truly is. What's more, I was far from the first to notice a need for such books -- and there have been an increasing number of them, from the capable minds of teachers like Fred Sanders (The Deep Things of God), and now from U.K. pastor and church planter Tim Chester.

Delighting in the Trinity is Tim Chester's attempt to answer the question, "How is the doctrine of the Trinity good news?" The book emerged from Chester's conversations about the Christian faith with two Muslim friends. Their questions prompted him to consider how, rather than being a source of panic and embarrassment, queries about this doctrine should instead provide "a lovely opportunity to share the heart of our faith" (9). I appreciated this missional framing for the book.

This book is divided into three parts: "Biblical Foundations," "Historical Developments," and "Practical Implications." Part One outlines the scriptural basis for Trinitarian belief, paying closest attention to the events of Calvary. Especially helpful here are the common mistakes Chester identifies about what happened at the cross: that an unwilling Father was placated by the Son, and that an unwilling Son was victimized by the Father. He convincingly shows that we must make sense of the Cross in light of the Trinity: "The cross alone reveals the radical, gracious freedom of God...Only God is so gracious that He freely chooses to be God-forsaken to reconcile Himself with those who have rejected Him. Nothing demonstrates the 'godness' of God so much as the godlessness of the cross" (79).

As a doctoral student, I was most interested in Part Two. Chester devotes considerable space to summarizing how the doctrine of the Trinity was articulated in light of the biblical material and the concerns of the early church, tracing developments in Trinitarian theology through the medieval and early modern periods to the present day. He provides a quick, but by no means cursory, survey of the thought of Tertullian, Origen, Athanasius, the Cappadocian Fathers, Augustine, Aquinas, Anselm, Calvin, and more recent theologians. I even learned some tidbits I'd been unaware of, such as that the sixteenth-century Anabaptist, Menno Simons, authored a work on the Trinity in which he tried to prove the doctrine through exegesis alone, without reference to earlier controversies and creedal formulations. While advanced students will find these chapters unavoidably simplified at points (such as that the Eastern patristic tradition focused on the threeness of God, the Western tradition on the unity of God), I appreciated that Chester devotes as much space as he does to historical theology. While many writers for laypeople might be tempted to minimize such details, Chester takes pains to show what was at stake for the church in earlier ages. The interested lay reader will find plenty of footnotes to encourage deeper reading of primary sources.

Language about the "practicality" of doctrine always makes me a little nervous, but Part Three of Chester's book might better be titled "The Trinity: a matter of life and death" (137). The survey of various "theories" of the atonement is quite good; my biggest takeaway from this section is Chester's strong argument that substitutionary atonement is "the truly trinitarian view" because only in this view is the atonement "a transaction between God and event within God" rather than something transacted between God and the devil ("dramatic" view) or between God and humanity ("exemplary") view. "Salvation starts with God, is achieved by God and is applied by God." (149) Later, he argues, "Once you abandon a trinitarian understanding of Christ, it is difficult to make sense of the cross except as an ideal to which we should aspire or an example of the transforming power of self-giving love." (152)

The book closes as it began, with further pastoral, missional, and apologetic applications of Trinitarian doctrine. I noticed some points that could have benefited from further elaboration; for example, Chester appears to favor a Free Church ecclesiology (168) but doesn't spend much time defending his claim that this view accords with robust Trinitarianism. I also would have liked to see an even more frequent and explicit emphasis on union with Christ. For example, I would have enjoyed hearing more about worship as participation in the Trinitarian life (13).

On the whole, though, I very much appreciate Delighting in the Trinity and would certainly recommend it to any Christian who wants to better understand the roots and critical importance of this doctrine. I am thrilled that books like this one are being written, and I hope to see Chester (and others) continue the trend of accessible theological writing.

The publisher provided me with a review copy of this book, and I was under no obligation to give a favorable review.

Cross Focused Reviews Blog Tour

Monday, August 13, 2012

Fighting against Providence

To my limited sight, sometimes providence doesn't look so wonderful.

For instance, this summer, I've really been struggling to work on my dissertation. There are several reasons for that, and not all of them are bad, much less sinful. But I've come to realize that one of the reasons is that I've been angry at God.

Earlier in the summer, I had told myself, piously, that I don't really get angry at God, that it just isn't a thing I struggle with. But I'm no longer so sure. At least, in my case, it seems to take the form of a sullen, distracted, foot-dragging resentment that covets what others have instead of praising the Lord for what I've been given.

See, I've been feeling restless in the seemingly endless student phase of my life and coveting the season of life that many of my friends and peers are in--growing families and putting down roots and just, well, living real, grown-up looking lives. Sometimes it truly feels like we're never going to arrive there. While it might not be wrong to long for those things, at times I've allowed the longing to spill over into discontentment and ingratitude.

I know that plenty of people would love to be in the position I am in, of getting to study theology and history full-time, and working towards producing something publishable in the field. Honestly, right now my response to that is, "I promise, this is not as fun as it looks." But I've felt convicted of the need to repent of an entitled, thankless attitude. It's failing to recognize the privilege of advanced study and the goodness of the decade's journey that's led here. What's more, it's God's loving provision for me, and it's wrong for me to grumble about it. He has a purpose for it. Thankfully, it's not my job to discern that purpose right now!

I don't doubt that God could shake things up in such a way that academia doesn't end up being my primary focus in future years; but for right now, it's what's right in front of me, and every indication I have is that it's what He intends for me to pour my heart and soul into indefinitely. So my prayer is that I can get to a place where I am pursuing it joyfully once again. Including on the days when it's unpleasant, "just a job," and when the temptation is to fixate on other things.

There's part of me that's still crying angrily, "This is a crummy provision! This isn't what I want to be devoting these years to anymore. Can't you just give me what I want right now? Maybe give me an easy out?" But the Lord has shown me again and again that He knows far better than I do what I need, and how He wants to be glorified in my life. And it's for me to trust Him and learn (over and over again, however painfully) to be satisfied in Him above all else. Please pray for me as I struggle to believe and to show forth in my life that His providence is indeed wonderful.

Wednesday, August 8, 2012

Seminary and Spiritual Growth

This week a particular blog exchange caught my attention. First, one of my favorite church historians, Dr. Carl Trueman, wrote this post in which he remarks that the primary job of seminaries is to impart the skills needed for future ministry, but that seminaries "cannot really engage in spiritual formation in any deep way"; such formation takes place in the context of the church, where the Word is preached and the sacraments administered, just as it does for every other Christian.

Later, another respected church historian, Dr. Michael Haykin, responded with his own blog post in which he agrees with Trueman that the seminary is not the church, but argues that Trueman downplays the formative role of preaching, friendship, and faculty mentorship in seminarian formation. Trueman comes back with an interesting and appreciative response here.

This has been a fun exchange for me to read because it's a question I have considered before myself--exactly a year ago, wouldn't you know!

You might recall that one of my disappointments about my own seminary experience was that, as I wrote before, "there is little shared sense of how, or for what end, students are to 'formed,' or shaped, for service." Of course, it was a different issue for me than for the kinds of seminarians with whom Trueman and Haykin are mainly concerned, in that I wasn't attending seminary with the goal of ordained ministry. Plus, my situation was a little unique in that I was of a different theological stripe than most of my classmates (something I hadn't quite expected coming in), and it had been some years since I had been really immersed in the life of a local church. For both those reasons, I leaned on my church much more heavily than the seminary in order to grow in my faith--I needed a refuge, and I needed to learn how to be in the church in the first place! It was only in church that I learned to submit to the teachings of Scripture, to come to the Lord's Table, and to walk with brothers and sisters in Christ. The same kinds of accountability, kinship, and grace were not at work in the seminary classroom, generally speaking.

With that in mind, I incline toward Dr. Trueman's perspective on this. The question he poses--"what does the church do that the seminary cannot?"--is vital and needs to be considered in light of the historical development of seminaries and their relationship to the church. Still, I'm intrigued by some of Dr. Haykin's comments, particularly on Christian friendship as a means of grace! It's always exciting to follow a rigorous and respectful exchange between world-class historians, and I hope to see further discussion of this important subject from them and others.

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Four Years

I wasn't looking to get married when I was 25. It was barely on my radar screen, to be perfectly honest. My attentions were elsewhere, but as usual, the Lord knew better than I did. I'm still amazed how He brought us together and where He's led us since.

I'm so thankful to have gotten to spend the past four years with my best friend, and to know that, Lord willing, we'll only become better friends as the years go on. It's a humbling thing to be loved so graciously--to hear it and see it demonstrated every day. I have much to learn about being a good helpmeet to him. But I'm really looking forward to it!

Happy anniversary, babe!

Friday, July 13, 2012

the state of the dissertation

About a month ago, I hit a bump in the road regarding my dissertation topic. The bump came in the form of my likely adviser suggesting that my proposed topic was not focused enough and/or had probably been sufficiently researched already. So, whereas I had begun the summer fairly certain of being on a steady track, I have been progressing more in fits and starts since then, at times just spinning my wheels. I have some general ideas, in the same neighborhood as the original (preaching in the early church), but I haven't yet determined their viability or been able to commit to a single one. I've effectively backtracked to a point I should have passed several months ago, and I can't say that's not demoralizing.

Of course, no matter the scale of the project, figuring out what my ideas are, what it is that I want to say, has always been the most agonizing part. I am okay at researching and love actually writing, but getting to the point where I can write is often an anxious process. So it doesn't come as a great surprise that I am sitting in the idea phase and feeling stuck. The same thing happened with my undergraduate thesis and with virtually every paper I have written since professors gave me the freedom to choose my own topics. In the end, most of that has turned out pretty well for me. Still, it's not the most fun place to be sitting. And it could become problematic if I don't get un-stuck within a week or two.

I know it isn't helped by the fact that I've been asking questions about my sense of my vocation, which is probably a healthy thing to do, but might be getting mixed up and conflated with the topic-search in unhelpful ways. I mean, it just doesn't work very well trying to discern a dissertation topic while discerning whether I see myself thriving in academia in the longer term. So I'm trying to lay the latter piece aside, for now, and focus on the task that's given to me right now. (And don't worry. I'm not thinking of dropping this program. That isn't even on the table.)

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Geekery & Godliness: Some Preliminary Thoughts

The ideas in this post are a work in progress. For almost a year now, questions about the intersection between academic theological study and growth in godliness have been at the back of my mind. (Probably for longer than that, to be honest.) Even though I suspect that these questions are best worked out in a longer writing project, I felt compelled to start getting them on paper, if in abbreviated form.

The topic is definitely in need of refinement. You'll note that the post is titled "Geekery & Godliness," because when I first jotted down the idea for this post, I was thinking in terms of a more catch-all category of "theology geeks," including those who are self-identified nerds about theology, but are not necessarily engaged in formal study of the subject. As I began writing, though, I noticed that my concrete ideas were closely connected to the life of the theology graduate student -- unsurprisingly, as that's the life I know. It's possible that much of this can apply to non-academic geeks as well as grad students, but I am not sure yet.

Also, the cautions I give below arise from my own experience. They are all areas in which I have felt personally convicted. I'm quite certain, however, that not all academics have experienced these precise things, and I would love to hear those other perspectives. And, if there is anything here you'd like to see me expand upon in future posts, please let me know. Like I said, I'm kind of testing the waters to see if this is sustainable as a longer-term project -- something that can be of help to others.

It should go without saying that I think the academic pursuit of theology and/or "theology geekery" is a glorious thing. It is a blessing to have so many wonderful resources at my disposal, as well as a context in which to develop my ideas. But I have become increasingly convicted that geeking out over my Puritan Paperbacks or Popular Patristics collections, or doing theological research as my job, are not, in themselves, signs of a healthy spiritual life.

A Couple Obvious Gifts of Theological Study
  • Theological study should lead us to praise God continually, to desire to pursue Him ever more deeply, and to love the church, Christ's Bride, more and more. It is a sweet privilege to have the opportunity to devote ourselves to an intensive study of these subjects. We should rejoice in that.
  • Theological study should compel us to serve the church with what we've learned, in any variety of ways. It is rightly undertaken with the aim of being at the church's disposal.

Some Cautions
  • Theology geekery is not automatically spiritually beneficial. Just because I am often surrounded by the works of the early church fathers or the Puritans does not mean I am actively seeking the Lord, but it is easy to allow my studies to become a proxy for prayer and time spent in Scripture. There have been seasons when, because I was studying sacred things, I lulled myself into believing I could allow my prayer life to slide. Proximity to godliness is not the same as practicing it.
  • Studying theology for a living is not spiritually superior to any other employment or vocation.
  • A theology student should be firmly anchored in the local church and submitted to its leadership. Listening to lectures and engaging in seminar discussions during the week is not the same as sitting under the preaching of the Word. The latter is one of the ordinary means of grace; the former (mercifully) are not. And while you should certainly bring your God-given intellect to bear on what you are taught in church, that is not an invitation to spend the bulk of the sermon critiquing the pastor's exegesis and thinking how you could do it better.
  • A theology student should regularly soak in the basics of the faith, above all in God's Word. Chances are, a graduate theological education (or, sadly, in my experience, a seminary education) is not going to teach you how to do this, which points again to the importance of being under the shepherding of godly leaders. Don't be too proud to ask elders or mature believers for counsel in this area. (If you have time, take a moment to read the Martin Luther quote in this blog post by Carl Trueman. I believe it's getting at the same idea.) It's important to do this, not in spite of the intricacy of your dissertation topic, but because of it. You probably understand less than you think you do.
  • Take time to be in relationship with non-academics and those who aren't consumed by the student season of life. You need them; and fellowship with your brothers and sisters will far outlast your successes and failures in academia, and will prove far sweeter besides.

I believe it is possible to cultivate a life of both God-glorifying scholarship and vibrant, mature faith. My concern is that theological study, as it is often practiced today, does not always lend itself to ready integration of these areas; at any rate, it sometimes leaves students adrift and scrambling to pick up the pieces. I'm not attempting to lay down guidelines for how to do that, as I am very much caught in the midst of it myself. However, I hope this could be a place to start a conversation.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

"A bruised reed He will not break."

Recently I was compelled to read a little book that's been sitting on our shelf for a year or two – The Bruised Reed by Richard Sibbes. First published in 1630, this book is available in a 2008 reprint from The Banner of Truth Trust, in their wonderful Puritan Paperbacks series. Don't let the idea of archaic seventeenth-century language dissuade you; this book is very readable, possibly the easiest Puritan text I've encountered. It is also a deeply comforting book.

Richard Sibbes (1577–1635) was an English Puritan preacher who flourished a century after the Reformation began. According to Beeke & Pederson's Meet the Puritans (Reformation Heritage, 2006), he was known for his godly lifestyle and for reaching Englishmen of all classes with his plain, Christ-centered preaching. The Bruised Reed, one of his most celebrated works, is an exposition of Isaiah 42:3, "a bruised reed he will not break, and a faintly burning wick he will not quench." In Sibbes' own words (p. 72), "The comfort intended in this text is for those that would fain do better, but find their corruptions clog them; that are in such a mist, that often they cannot tell what to think of themselves; that fain would believe, and yet often fear that they do not believe; and that think that it cannot be that God should be so good to such sinful wretches as they are."

My intent isn't to take up any more space with biography or outline, however, but to let you read some Sibbes for yourself. As I read, I kept marking sections and thinking, "These quotations are golden; I must share them with my friends." So here you are:

"Hence we learn that we must not pass too harsh judgment upon ourselves or others when God exercises us with bruising upon bruising. There must be a conformity to our head, Christ, who 'was bruised for us' (Isa. 53:5) that we may know how much we are bound unto him." (p. 5)


"Ungodly spirits, ignorant of God's ways in bringing his children to heaven, censure broken-hearted Christians as miserable persons, whereas God is doing a gracious, good work with them. It is no easy matter to bring a man from nature to grace, and from grace to glory, so unyielding and intractable are our hearts." (6)


"If Christ be so merciful as not to break me, I will not break myself by despair." (10)


"A Christian complains he cannot pray. 'Oh, I am troubled with so many distracting thoughts, and never more than now!' But has he put into your heart a desire to pray? Then he will hear the desires of his own Spirit in you...God can pick sense out of a confused prayer. These desires cry louder in his ears than your sins. Sometimes a Christian has such confused thoughts that he can say nothing but, as a child, cries, 'O Father,' not able to express what he needs, like Moses at the Red Sea. These stirrings of spirit touch the heart of God and melt him into compassion towards us, when they come from the Spirit of adoption, and from a striving to be better." (51)


"Weaknesses do not break covenant with God. They do not break the covenant between husband and wife, and shall we make ourselves more pitiful than Christ who makes himself a pattern of love to all other husbands? Weaknesses do not debar us from mercy; rather they incline God to us the more. Mercy is a part of the church's marriage inheritance...The husband is bound to bear with the wife, as being the 'weaker vessel' (1 Pet. 3:7), and shall we think Christ will exempt himself from his own rule, and not bear with his weak spouse?" (58)


"Failings, with conflict, in sanctification should not weaken the peace of our justification and assurance of salvation. It matters not so much what ill is in us, as what good; not what corruptions, but how we regard them; not what our particular failings are so much as what the thread and tenor of our lives are, for Christ's dislike of that which is amiss in us turns not to the hatred of our persons but to the victorious subduing of all our infirmities." (96)


"If we look to the present state of the church of Christ, it is as Daniel in the midst of lions, as a lily amongst thorns, as a ship not only tossed but almost covered with waves. It is so low that the enemies think they have buried Christ, with respect to his gospel, in the grave, and there they think to keep him from rising. But as Christ rose in his person, so he will roll away all stones and rise again in his church." (125)


"Let us make use of this mercy and power of his every day in our daily combats: 'Lord Jesus, thou hast promised not to quench the smoking flax, nor to break the bruised reed. Cherish thy grace in me; leave me not to myself; the glory shall be thine.' Let us not allow Satan to transform Christ to us, to make him other than he is to those that are his. Christ will not leave us till he has made us like himself, all glorious within and without, and presented us blameless before his Father." (123)

Thursday, June 28, 2012

"by His grace, in this part of His vineyard, I grow."

It occurred to me that I've had this blog for about a year now. That means we've been living in St. Louis for two whole years—longer than we'd lived in Berkeley. We've already spent more than half our marriage here.

I've been reflecting lately on how St. Louis truly feels like home to me. I don't just mean in a sentimental way, or that I feel like I've lived there all my life. It's also not true that Western Pennsylvania and Southern California aren't "home"; they probably always will be, no matter where we end up. But there is a real sense in which it's home, and I think there are two pieces of that:

First, the fact that we decided it was home before we even moved in. As we made our decision about where I would begin a doctoral program, Kevin and I were very intentional about choosing a place that would not only allow me to thrive academically, but where we could establish a home. I want to be careful not to make this sound like a diss on Berkeley; there are people in Berkeley I deeply miss, and even a few other things...there will always be a certain sweetness about the first place we lived as a married couple. But I'm not sure we ever felt settled there. It was rocky ground for us. Nevertheless, I know that the Lord put us there for specific reasons, and in time I trust I'll better understand them. (...I hope so. I have questions!)

It quickly became evident that St. Louis had the potential to be home for us in a way that Northern California was not. There were many practical aspects of this, affordability being only one. The bigger reason was that we immediately found a church we loved and said, "This is our church." (Admittedly, this is made easier by the fact that we aren't seminarians—no matter how often we're mistaken for them!—and we don't have a home church elsewhere.) We took the attitude that St. Louis was where we meant to put down roots for a good long while. I, especially, have clung to the belief that my school is only one reason we're here, and it isn't the only or most important part of our lives here. It could be that I'm reacting strongly against a decade of being labeled as a transient student and refuse to be defined by that any longer. Whatever the wisdom of that, it's felt rather crucial to my sanity at times, and apparently it's effective, as I often forget that we technically still fall under that "just-passing-through" category.

The second, more important reason that St. Louis is home is because God has made it that for us. He knew what we needed far better than we did, and he has provided for our every need. I've continually been humbled by his providence—materially, spiritually, relationally—during our short time in St. Louis. He picked out the apartment we would move into, the neighbors we would have, the church we would attend, the small groups we would join, long before we ever thought about them. He planned the classes we would take, the sermons we would hear, the conversations we'd cherish, the months we'd just scrape by, and the joyfully routine days and weeks. All of these things—both the things that make me glad and the things that, as of this moment, make no sense to me—are part of a story God has already written. However it unfolds, God is glorifying himself in it, and teaching me that I am found in him.

Though we anticipate being in St. Louis for two or three more years (I truly can't begin to picture what our lives will look like at that point, or where we'll be headed next), we know very well how things can change. No matter what, it is highly likely that we won't be here forever. That doesn't take away from the fact that St. Louis has truly been, and is, our home. It's my prayer that my home and heart will be as open as possible during whatever remaining time the Lord has for us here.

Friday, June 22, 2012

The unopinionated blogger?

Lately I've been noticing that I'm not a very opinionated person. No doubt this realization was brought on by the fact that I'm wrestling with my dissertation topic, trying to identify a niche in the scholarship that's all mine. This exercise is all about stating and defending an opinion nobody has made before. Occasionally, I wonder if I'm cut out for this. But I remember all the people who've invested in helping me reach this level, and I trust their judgment. They are not dumb people, and let's face it, I'm not a good enough actress to convince them I'm something I'm not.

Still, I've noticed that, in general, I much more readily acquiesce to others' opinions than argue for my own. It's more comfortable for me. I've wondered if it's connected to my aversion to speaking up in general. Some of the time, it's not just that I'm afraid to state my opinion; it's that I don't have one, or don't want to dig deeply enough to figure it out what it might be. It's almost as if I don't let myself think, for fear of developing an opinion. Because if I have an opinion, I might be called upon to share it, and not only would that mean having to assert myself, it could mean disagreeing painfully with someone I care about. Much easier to just not think about whatever it is, and assume that the people around me are smarter and better informed.

It might be that being "opinionated," or a particularly original thinker, is just not in my makeup. I think that's okay. And I suppose it's not an inherently bad trait to be disposed to take other people's word for things. I would like, however, to know my own mind a bit better, and be less afraid to share it as appropriate. Not only for my sake, but for the sake of anyone the Lord might give me the opportunity to train and teach, and who might read what I write. As much as I sometimes shrink from believing it, the Lord has given me a good mind, and I'm commanded to use its full powers (along with the rest of me) to love and honor him.

Even while seeking to become more discerning about some things, I take comfort in knowing that I am held fast in the Truth. In that I'm immovable, and not because I reasoned my way into it. And I know that when it's called for, He'll give me the boldness to speak about what is truly important.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Hymn that's in my heart right now

I was first introduced to this hymn via Red Mountain Church's album "The Gadsby Project" over three years ago. It's been among my favorite "old hymns" since that time, but it took on renewed meaning when I listened to it a couple of days ago. I hope you'll hear God's promises for you in these words the way I do. Be sure to read the scripture reference, too.

"Pensive, Doubting, Fearful Heart"
Gadsby's Hymns #273
Text by John Newton
"To the afflicted"Isaiah 54:4-11

Pensive, doubting, fearful heart, 
Hear what Christ the Saviour says;
Every word should joy impart,
Change thy mourning into praise.
Yes, he speaks, and speaks to thee,
May he help thee to believe;
Then thou presently wilt see
Thou hast little cause to grieve.

"Fear thou not, nor be ashamed;
All thy sorrows soon shall end,
I, who heaven and earth have framed,
Am thy Husband and thy Friend;
I, the High and Holy One,
Israel's God, by all adored,
As thy Saviour will be known,
Thy Redeemer and thy Lord.

"For a moment I withdrew,
And thy heart was filled with pain;
But my mercies I'll renew;
Thou shalt soon rejoice again;
Though I seem to hide my face,
Very soon my wrath shall cease;
'Tis but for a moment's space,
Ending in eternal peace.

Though afflicted, tempest-tossed,
Comfortless awhile thou art,
Do not think thou canst be lost,
Thou art graven on my heart;
All thy wastes I will repair;
Thou shalt be rebuilt anew;
And in thee it shall appear
What the God of love can do."