A Loving Life: A Book (and a Life) that Small-Town Pastors Need

This article originally appeared at Small Town Summits Articles. I serve as the Content Manager for Small Town Summits Articles.

There are books, both in the Bible and on your shelf, that can sometimes take you by surprise. They are books that God uses to shake you up, to comfort you, to strengthen you, or to show you blind spots in your life or ministry. The book of Ruth and a book about Ruth, A Loving Life: In a World of Broken Relationships by Paul E. Miller, both did that for me recently.

The book of Ruth has left our church, and me, changed. A Loving Life left me in tears as I read the last page, something that hadn’t happened to me in a long time.

I had planned to preach the book of Ruth for Advent this year, and about a month before I would begin preaching it, I was at a Small Town Summits Leadership Retreat. One of our co-founders, David Pinckney, recommended A Loving Life, a study of Ruth, and said that it was one of the best marriage books he had ever read that isn’t really a marriage book. Since I love studying the topic of marriage and was going to be preaching the book of Ruth soon, I ordered it that week. A month later, I ordered it for our Elders and Deacons to read and encouraged their wives to read it as well, and ordered another copy for our church library. It’s that good.

There was something about studying the book of Ruth at this season in our church’s life that was just exactly what we needed. Church members were encouraged to see God working in ordinary lives in a small town through ordinary means of kindness and hard work. There was a freshness to the gospel as we saw how God prepared the line of King David and ultimately the line of King Jesus to come through Ruth and Boaz. We marveled at the patience and mercy of God in bitter Naomi’s life as she thought she had returned to Bethlehem empty, but then experienced the fullness of God’s grace by the end of the book. And we were challenged and inspired by Ruth’s kindness and chesed love as she reflected the covenant steadfast love of Yahweh over and over and over again throughout the book.

A Loving Life helped me to process the book of Ruth in bite-size chapters that explain a small portion of the text, with robust application and illustration for today. Here are three reasons that the biblical lessons from A Loving Life are especially relevant to small-town pastors. 

Reminders that God Works Through the Small and the Ordinary

God’s providence is all over the book of Ruth and because of this, all over A Loving Life. It is impossible to read these books and feel that God is distant or uninvolved in small places and ordinary lives. Bethlehem was not Jerusalem—yet this is where this great drama that ultimately leans towards God’s plan of redemption in Christ takes place. Ruth went to work gleaning in a field to provide for her and Naomi while Naomi grieved—and through that ordinary act of work God provided food, a husband, a baby to continue the family line, and a place for Ruth and Boaz in the kingly line of Christ!

Small-town pastors need to often be reminded that God works through the small and the ordinary. We need to hear what Miller writes: “To love is to limit…Ironically, the experience of love, of narrowing your life, broadens and deepens your life….Love always involved a narrowing of the life, a selecting of imperfection. So God’s love for us lands. It landed in Bethlehem sometime in the fall or winter of 5/6 BC as a little Jewish boy. God’s love is so specific it boggles the mind.”[1]

Reminders that God Works To Humble Us and Then Exalt Us

In one of the most significant chapters in the book, “The Gospel Shape of Love,” Miller explains how God often brings resurrection through death to ourselves. He explains how we are not trapped in a pagan view of the world, a cycle of life and death. Rather, because of the gospel our lives literally move through a “J-curve” of life, death, and then resurrection.

This is not only about eternity, because many times this is how God works in our lives as followers of Jesus today. We are called to die to our dreams and desires to live for what God has called us to. For small-town pastors, this often means humbling ourselves to be content with a small, hidden place of service, knowing that God sees and knows and cares. When we don’t work to exalt ourselves but to exalt Jesus where he has sovereignly placed us to serve him, we are in exactly the place he wants us to be. As Miller describes this spiritual principle: “As we go downward into death, we are active: active in seeking humility, in taking the lower place, in mindless, hidden serving. This is the journey Jesus took…We can do death. But we can’t do resurrection. We can’t demand resurrection—we wait for it.”[2] In dying to ourselves, in exalting Jesus, he lifts us up, giving us contentment today, occasional vistas of his work through us today, and ultimately invaluable eternal reward in heaven.

Reminders that God Works Through People Committed to Love

Over and over again, we see Ruth absolutely committed to loving others, and in particular her mother-in-law Naomi, whose God she now serves wholeheartedly. By studying the life of Ruth, we are challenged to love others more like how God calls us to—whether that is through loving your spouse, your children, a widow, a foster child, that difficult church member, or the person in your small town who hates the presence of your church in the community. The kind of love Ruth displays again and again is a quiet pointer to the love of her greatest descendant, “…the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me.” (Galatians 2:20b)

A Loving Life is one of those rare books that I felt I could have just dipped in highlighter. I hope that you will read it and be challenged and encouraged and changed. I hope that you will share it with your leaders so that you can all grow into excelling still more at living lives of love. I’ll let the very end of Miller’s book leave you with the last word:

Everything Ruth does—from walking through the gates ignored and unthanked to giving her newborn son to Naomi—is a function of her love for Naomi…You simply can’t beat love. You can’t out-humble it. You can’t suppress it, because you are always free to love no matter how someone treats you. If others are putting nails through your hands, you can forgive them. If someone is shouting curses at you, you can silently receive them. Love is irrepressible.

Faith and hope will one day pass away, but not love. Love is forever.[3]

[1] A Loving Life, p. 74.

[2] A Loving Life, p. 71.

[3] A Loving Life, p. 156.

Do You Love the Word “Propitiation”? Why we should use, study, and explain the big words the Bible uses in our preaching and Bible study.

A shorter version of this blog post appeared at the Baptist Convention of New England blog.

Two months ago I was preaching a series on the gospel, and in one sermon I preached Romans 3:21-26 which includes this gold nugget, talking about Jesus: “…whom God put forward as a propitiation by his blood, to be received by faith.” (Romans 3:25) Today, I preached 1 John 2:1-6 as part of our verse-by-verse study through the book of 1 John, which includes this jewel, talking about Jesus: “He is the propitiation for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.” (1 John 2:2)

They were some of the most encouraging sermons I have preached for months, not only for me but also for the church family as we rejoiced in the gospel together.

I believe that in our preaching and Bible study, when we come across technical, “big” words that the Bible uses, we should use, study, and explain those words, rather than skirting around them or simply glossing over them with an alternative phrase.

We Use “New To Us” Language All the Time
When we moved to Vermont from the West Coast for me to pastor here, my family and I woke up the next morning and drove around town to familiarize ourselves with our surroundings. It was May, and we kept seeing signs that said “Tag Sale.” They often looked like Yard Sale or Garage Sale signs, and once we followed a few of those signs and saw a Yard Sale happening, we incorporated this new phrase into our thinking and speaking. We now don’t give it a second thought to say, “We should clean out the garage and have a Tag Sale this summer.” To function well in a new environment, you have to learn some of the new vocabulary that will help you to understand things you encounter.

When somebody becomes a Christian or begins to really study the Bible on their own, they need to learn some of the new vocabulary that they will come across in the Bible or they will always struggle with those passages. When we as pastors or Bible Study Leaders don’t take the time to slow down and explain what difficult doctrinal words and concepts mean as we encounter them, we risk doing unintentional damage. We stunt the spiritual growth of those we minister to, because they will flounder when they run across these words in their own Bible study, and we also unintentionally teach that the words God chose to put in the Bible are too hard for us to understand.

Why You Should Love the Word “Propitiation”
With less educational resources at their fingertips, the Bible writers of both the Old and New Testament did not flinch to use technical words when they taught about God. Although the same could be said for Bible words dripping with meaning like “justification,” “redemption,”and “regeneration,” let me give you an example using the word that recently made me pause and ask how to teach it, “propitiation.”

As I studied to preach Romans 3:25 and then 1 John 2:2, I was amazed to discover that the Greek translation of the Old Testament (the Septuagint) uses a form of the same word 6 times. It is often used to talk about the Day of Atonement, but one use made my jaw drop. In Psalm 130:4 the Psalmist rejoices: “But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared.” Yes, it is forgiveness, but he didn’t use the word for “forgiveness,” he used the word for “propitiation.” Those who sang Psalm 130 understood that in order for forgiveness to happen, their sins needed to be paid for.

But we really begin to understand what Jesus did for us so he could be our propitiation when we look at how a form of the word is used in Hebrews 9:5. There the writer of Hebrews uses a form of the word “propitiation” to describe the mercy seat, the covering of the Ark of the Covenant (this form of the word is found 28 times in the Greek translation of the Old Testament, 24 of which also refer to the mercy seat that was on top of the Ark of the Covenant).

The covering of the Ark of the Covenant is under the two golden cherubim and it represented God’s throne on earth. It was the place where God’s Shekinah Glory, his special presence on earth, resided. Only the High Priest could go into God’s presence there, and only once a year on the Day of Atonement. But when he went in there, he would sprinkle the blood of a sacrifice on the mercy seat; he sprinkled it, in other words, on the “propitiation.”

Inside of the Ark of the Covenant, in addition to Aaron’s budded staff and a pot of mannah, was God’s Law. The blood of the sacrifice went between God’s Law, which the people had broken, and God’s presence, which the people could not stand in without a worthy sacrifice.

This is where Jesus comes in. Jesus is not only our High Priest, Jesus IS our propitiation. Today. 1 John 2:1 explains that Jesus IS the propitiation for our sins. Present tense.

Have you broken God’s Law recently? What about the 10 commandments? Have you lied, coveted, lusted (Jesus pointed out that adultery happens not just with our bodies but also in our hearts), or not honored your parents recently, just to name a few of those 10 commandments? Jesus IS your propitiation! Jesus’ blood stands between you, the Law-breaker, and the holy God. Now that silences the accuser!

Let the people God has entrusted to you in your congregation or Bible Study glory in the gospel from the many different angles the Bible gives us, by not running away from the difficult words in the Bible. Explain them when you use them, but study and explain these technical and rich Bible words in such a way that they will want to sing hallelujah when they encounter them, whether it is in church or during their personal Bible study.

We want them to run TO propitiation, not away from it! Because when they run to propitiation, they are running to Jesus.

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