When was the last time you read an old book?
C.S. Lewis had an opinion on this: “It is a good rule, after reading a new book, never to allow yourself another new one till you have read an old one in between.”
Lewis urges Christian readers to step outside of their century to read the “old books.” In fact, he penned these words as part of an introduction to the over 1,600-year-old classic, On the Incarnation by Athanasius. As Christmas nears and we reflect on our Lord Jesus coming in the flesh, let us learn first-hand about the Incarnation from Athanasius, a Christian who suffered greatly to protect the biblical truth that Jesus is both fully God and fully man.
Who Was Athanasius?
Athanasius, an early Church Father, was born sometime during 296-300 A.D. in Alexandria, Egypt. The city of Alexandria played a pivotal role in the Eastern Roman Empire. Athanasius grew up during the reign of Diocletian, emperor of the Eastern Roman Empire, and his successor Galerius, both of whom violently persecuted Christians. As a young child, Athanasius saw followers of Christ driven from their homes, tortured, and martyred.
Later, as a young adult, Athanasius studied under Alexander, bishop of Alexandria, and engaged in the great Trinitarian strife—the Arian controversy. Arius, a priest in Alexandria, denied the divinity of Jesus and taught the heresy that since Jesus is the Son of God, as a son, Jesus had to have a beginning and thus was a created being. He confused many in the early Church by falsely teaching that God the Father alone was truly God, and that Jesus his Son was not God, but instead, was the first and greatest creature made by the Father to accomplish man’s salvation. Bishop Alexander opposed Arius and fought to maintain the true deity of the eternal Christ….
Editor’s Note: From its inception, the women in the PCA have loved on and supported the denomination in practical ways. One way has been through the annual women’s ministry love gift. This year, the women’s ministry of the PCA is praying for and partnering with the different agencies and committees of the denomination regionally. Throughout the year, we will highlight the committees and agencies to learn more about what they do and how we can pray for them. I recently interviewed Gary Campbell with PCA Retirement and Benefits (RBI).
Christina: Can you tell us what RBI does for the PCA? How did it come into existence?
Gary: Thanks, Christina, for the opportunity to talk about the ministry of PCA Retirement & Benefits (RBI). Put simply, RBI provides employee benefits and support services for PCA church servants. Our mission is to prepare, protect, and nurture PCA servants through investment, insurance, relief, and related services, so they can focus on ministry. RBI was founded at the very beginning of the denomination in 1973. It was known as the Annuity Fund for Ministers and was part of the Administrative Committee. In 1973 the organization was a very small operation, but as it grew there was a need to establish it as a separate denominational agency overseen by a dedicated governing board. This was accomplished in 1982 when our name was changed to Insurance Annuities and Relief (IAR). Today, RBI serves over 7,000 participants with combined assets of $650 million in the PCA Retirement Plan. Group Insurance volume is almost $685 million covering 4,281 ministry partners. And RBI Ministerial Relief has paid $637,726 in awards to 64 beneficiaries in the past four quarters.
Christina: What are the main services pastors seek your assistance with?
Gary: That’s a good question. I believe the leading source of incoming and outgoing calls is related to questions church workers have regarding saving and planning for retirement. These interactions are a result of a retirement readiness survey we conducted in late 2010 with the assistance of Price Waterhouse Coopers. The survey confirmed our worst fears. We found that PCA church leaders were significantly behind in their preparation for retirement and, by implication, the future for widows of PCA teaching elders was dire. We realized that reversing this trend would require effort and prayer by RBI to unify the denomination around a solution to this problem. Since 2010, RBI has transformed the organization to embody a relational/missional culture of service to church workers. We employ a team of teaching elders who are also Certified Financial Planners to proactively meet with church workers throughout the PCA. We also publish a yearly compensation guide called the PCA Call Package Guidelines to assist churches as they seek to understand how to pay pastors fairly and deal with complex issues such as pastoral housing allowance, social security, and other unique facets of pastoral compensation. This has been a monumental effort and I believe the needle is moving, but we have much more work yet to do.
Christina: Are there any groups that are particularly under-served?…
Everything in me wanted to attack. After how I had been mistreated—by a friend no less—no way did I want to absorb the pain. Quite the opposite; in my sinfulness, what I really wanted was for her to hurt too. I wanted her to pay for how she had wronged me.
On the other hand, in my anger and hurt, I really did not want to sin. I wanted to be careful not to say or do anything that would be un-Christ like. I wanted to be forbearing, gracious, and forgiving. But I was afraid that because of how hurt and angry I felt, my contrary nature would win out.
An Ongoing Struggle
This internal conflict is the reality of being in the Spirit, and also living in a broken and fallen world. Through faith in Christ’s redeeming work for us at the cross, we’ve been set free from the power of sin, yet the presence of sin still remains. This means we will continue to deal with these dueling natures within us until we are glorified. Too often though, it seems there is no battle; the flesh just wins out. Like Paul in Romans 7, I identify with the desire to do what is right, but then going on to do what I don’t want to do instead.
“For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Romans 7:18-20)
Editor’s Note: From its inception, the women in the PCA have loved on and supported the denomination in practical ways. One way has been through the annual women’s ministry love gift. This year, the women’s ministry of the PCA is praying for and partnering with the different agencies and committees of the denomination regionally. Throughout the year, we have been highlighting the committees and agencies to learn more about what they do and how we can pray for them. I recently interviewed Paul Hahn, coordinator of Mission to North America (MNA).
Christina: Can you explain the origins of MNA and its role in the PCA?
Paul: Mission to North America (MNA) was established at the very beginning of our life together as the Presbyterian Church in America (PCA), as a permanent committee of the PCA to coordinate the extension of the church in North America. From the very beginning, church planting (at that time usually referred to as organizing churches) has been core to MNA’s task of pursuing the flourishing of the gospel throughout the United States and Canada. And from early on, other ministries of word and deed which would serve to advance the gospel were given birth inside the MNA family: disaster response, chaplain ministries, networks promoting justice and mercy, and gospel outreach to college campuses (RUF was originally part of MNA).
Initially, most new churches were formed in the PCA through transfers or splits from existing denominations who were drifting from their theological moorings. In the next phase, MNA staff directly recruited and launched most of the new churches. Since 2000, MNA has focused on providing services, resources, and hands-on leadership and training, so that churches and presbyteries can take full ownership of launching new churches. MNA has also been on the cutting edge of enabling the PCA to become a more diverse church in a gospel sense — with our various minority movements, as well as the New City Church Planting Network and our Justice and Mercy initiatives. In this most recent period, many more MNA Missional Partnership ministries have been added to serve established churches in their word and deed outreach to their communities: Metanoia Prison Ministries, Engaging Disabilities, ESL, Immigrant and Refugee, and Ministry to State, among others.
Christina: What is your role at MNA? How have you seen it change during your tenure?
On the night before Thanksgiving 2010, I laid next to my sleeping husband and wondered if he’d wake to find that I’d died during the night. My fear may have been exaggerated, but it wasn’t completely unreasonable. My fever was over 102, and the number of white blood cells available to fight infection in my body was dangerously close to the number of hairs on my head: zero.
One month earlier, I’d been diagnosed with angiosarcoma. This rare, aggressive cancer threatened my hopes to celebrate my 35th birthday, see my three small children grow up, and reach milestone anniversaries with my husband. I was fighting for more Thanksgivings and determined to enjoy this one to the fullest. But it was hard to be thankful.
From the world’s perspective, I didn’t have much to be thankful for. I was stricken with a terrible cancer and facing months of difficult treatment. I was bald, sick, fatigued, and scared. And yet, the truth of God’s Word challenged my thinking: “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (I Thessalonians 5:16-18).
When someone’s arrested, a rule called the “Miranda rights” requires the first words spoken to the accused to be, “You have the right to remain silent.” This right is given in order to protect the accused from bringing further incrimination upon herself. Oh, that the Holy Spirit would whisper those words to me before I speak! Proverbs 10:19 says, “When words are many, transgression is not lacking, but whoever restrains his lips is prudent.”
Words. We speak them, think them, and write them. We use them to persuade, deter, build up, tear down, instruct, make someone laugh, and make someone cry. Our words shape us, shape others, and reveal what’s truly in us.
Words can bring healing . . . and they can bring deep hurt. Proverbs 18:21a says, “Death and life are in the power of the tongue.” As people created in God’s image, our words, although not omnipotent like his, are still potent. Our words have power, not to be life-creating, but to be life-giving. Sadly, because we’re broken, sinful, and rebellious, our words also have power to destroy and be life-taking.
Do your words breathe life into others—or do they suck the life out of those around you? Do they bless and not curse, strengthen and not weaken, build up and not tear down? James says that, even though we can tame every kind of animal, no person can tame the tongue. So where do we turn? How can we become women who use our words to offer life, and healing, and hope, and help?
Because our words simply expose the reality of what’s happening in our hearts, the only hope we have is to be changed from the inside out. We need to be women who are transformed by the Word of God.
God’s Word Creates Life
Our God is a God who speaks. Speaking is the first thing we see him do in Genesis 1—and his words bring life! He spoke everything into existence: the heavens, the earth, the sun and moon, the land, the sea, the birds, and the animals. His Word brought forth life.
Once God spoke life into existence, life continued to be found in obedience to his Word. Adam and Eve were told to obey God’s good Word. Their obedience didn’t earn them all of God’s good provisions; God had freely given them everything they needed. Obedience to his Word simply meant they would continue to experience everything he had graciously given…
Where do you turn in Scripture when God calls you to walk through suffering? During a particularly difficult trial 20 years ago, a wise Spiritual Mother asked me, “What if the worst thing you fear in this circumstance comes true? What is still true?” Her answer pointed me to Psalm 139. The entire Psalm is filled with comforting truths; here are four which have guided me through many a dark valley.
God knows me
O Lord, you have searched me and known me!
You know when I sit down and when I rise up;
you discern my thoughts from afar.
You search out my path and my lying down
and are acquainted with all my ways.
Even before a word is on my tongue,
behold, O Lord, you know it altogether.
You hem me in, behind and before,
and lay your hand upon me.
Such knowledge is too wonderful for me;
it is high; I cannot attain it.
Psalm 139 begins with God’s intimate knowledge of me. Not only does he know everything there is to know about me, even the ugly and shameful secrets which I hope to hide from the world, but he knows my thoughts before I think them and my words before I speak them. His knowledge of my path and acquaintance with my ways is not based on observation, but on his sovereign providence in my life, for he predestined my steps according to the counsel of his will before the foundation of the world (Eph. 1:4, 11). God doesn’t merely know my steps, but he is guiding my every step and holding me close…
At the end of August, I took my kids to the orthodontist and there were ceramic pumpkins on the doctor’s front porch. That same week, Kroger replaced the school supplies on the seasonal aisle with Halloween candy. Don’t get me wrong. I love fall. However, my first instinct upon seeing all the orange and purple was indeed horror. With it being 90+ degrees outside and with two months to go before the end of October, I just wasn’t mentally ready! It felt like I just unpacked from summer vacation. School may have started, and college football may be have been in full swing, but my sleeveless shirts, white pants, and flip flops were still in heavy rotation, and my kids were still spending much of their weekends at the neighborhood pool.
A Thanksgiving Meal
My how things can change in just a few weeks! In my ladies’ bible study, we studied Leviticus 3, which describes the fellowship offering, and suddenly… I can’t wait for Thanksgiving! The first question in our study guide asked us to reflect on what it is we desire to communicate to our guests when we host a special meal. My thoughts immediately went to Thanksgiving. I love Thanksgiving for many reasons. The first reason can be summed up in five simple words: Aunt Margo’s Green Bean Casserole. This is THE dish in my family. THE non-negotiable. It’s the only time that my non-veggie eaters will happily shovel forkfuls of something green into their mouths, and unfortunately that includes my husband. The cheesy, tangy, salty, buttery-cornflake-crusted, decadent goodness is impossible to beat. Thank you, Margo. We love you.
The second reason I love Thanksgiving is because…