Monday, April 24, 2017

Prodigal Parent

Scripture tells us that Mary had other childrenJames, Joseph, Judas, Simeon and at least two daughters (Mark 6:3). One can only speculate what it was like to live with an older brother like Jesus! But scripture does give us a few glimpses into their relationship.
Jesus’ brothers said to him, “Leave Galilee and go to Judea, so that your disciples there may see the works you do. No one who wants to become a public figure acts in secret. Since you are doing these things, show yourself to the world.” For even his own brothers did not believe in him. John 7:3-5
Then Jesus entered a house, and again a crowd gathered, so that he and his disciples were not even able to eat. When his family heard about this, they went to take charge of him, for they said, “He is out of his mind.” Mark 3:20-2 
Jesus' brothers did not believe in him! They thought he was crazy! They tried to take charge of him. And they were nowhere to be seen when Jesus was falsely convicted and executed. Perhaps the fact that he wasn't carrying his weight around the home was the problem. Perhaps his perfection convicted them. Perhaps they were tired of him always being right. Perhaps they resented his popularity. Perhaps they hated being pushed into the spotlight to answer questions about him. After all, to them he was just Jesus, their big brother.

What strain this must have put on Mary's relationship with them. How hard it must have been to have children who didn't believe, even after all the years of recounting the angel's visit, promises, the evacuation, the miracles. 

Prodigal parent! Pierced! Mary knew the pain of a mother whose children do not follow the Savior, even though they have have been raised hearing the Gospel and seeing the handiwork of God. Any mother is torn when her children don't get along or have each other's back. Mary balanced the piercing tightrope of supporting her son's mission and loving her prodigals.

Thankfully, Mary's pain didn't last forever. Somewhere along along the way, her prodigals began to hear, listen and believe the truth about their very unique brother. After the resurrection, Jesus appeared to her son, James (1 Cor 15:7) and all the brothers were found joined together in constant prayer with the new church (Acts 1:14). James then became a leader of the church in Jerusalem (Acts 15:13-22, Gal 2:9) and is believed by most scholars to have written the epistle of James. Mary's other son, Judas, also wrote an epistle (Jude) and her sons and their wives took missionary journeys (1 Cor 9:5). I think we can safely assume that Mary's stalwart faith and unwavering belief in her son, Jesus, eventually helped her other children to also believe. 

Many of my dear friends have children who are prodigals. I often sit and pray with them as tears and sorrow overtake. They wonder what they did wrong. They are quick to blame themselves. Their greatest desire is for their children to love and follow Jesus.

The Apostle John says: No one who is born of God will continue to sin, because God’s seed remains in them; they cannot go on sinning, because they have been born of God (I John 3:9). May this be a comfort to those with prodigals. If the seeds of faith and salvation are in your children, they will not be able to run forever. The Spirit will draw back a wayward child. May we be the example Mary was to her prodigals.

In what ways are you a prodigal parent?
How does Mary's example encourage you today?

PRAYER
Jesus, thank you that the example of a godly mother can influence a prodigal child. I pray for my friends who know the piercing of this pain. Please help them to have stalwart faith and unwavering belief in you and your Spirit to draw back a wayward child.

Friday, April 21, 2017

Grieved

One year during home assignment, we put our sons in a private Christian school. We thought the environment would be less of a shock to our MKs used to life in Indonesia, but that proved not to be the case. How hard it was to watch both of them struggle—adjust to culture, make friends, understand idioms, wait for invitations, figure out this new life. I grieved for my boys. I wanted to take away their hurt and pain. I just wanted them to be happy. How much more so, Mary grieved for her son. Listen to what Mary had to witness and endure on his behalf:
Jesus left there and went to his hometown, accompanied by his disciples. When the Sabbath came, he began to teach in the synagogue, and many who heard him were amazed. “Where did this man get these things?” they asked. “What’s this wisdom that has been given him? What are these remarkable miracles he is performing? Isn’t this the carpenter? Isn’t this Mary’s son and the brother of James, Joseph, Judas and Simon? Aren’t his sisters here with us?” And they took offense at him. Mark 6:1-3 
Among the crowds there was widespread whispering about him. Some said, “He is a good man.” Others replied, “No, he deceives the people. “You are demon-possessed,” the crowd answered. John 7:12, 20 
All the people in the synagogue were furious when they heard this. They got up, drove [Jesus] out of the town, and took him to the brow of the hill on which the town was built, in order to throw him off the cliff. Luke 4:28  
They were using this question as a trap, in order to have a basis for accusing him. John 8:6  
Then the Pharisees went out and began to plot with the Herodians how they might kill Jesus. Mark 3:6
The chief priests and the whole Sanhedrin were looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put him to death, but they did not find any. Many testified falsely against him, but their statements did not agree. Mark 14:55-56
Grieved! Hurt! Pierced! Surely Mary felt the pain of Jesus' rejection, loss of reputation, and friends, especially among the neighbors. Usually, a celebrity has total acceptance and carte blanche among the home crowd. So when they don't, it pierces even more.

No mother wants her child to be an offense to others. We want our children, nieces, nephews and those we mentor to be liked, accepted, respected and loved by all. And how much more grieved are mothers of children with disabilities or social anxieties or mental illness? These moms especially understand the words of the author of Hebrews: Continue to remember those in prison as if you were together with them in prison, and those who are mistreated as if you yourselves were suffering. Hebrews 13:3

What did Mary do? Did she rankle at the injustice? Was she angry at the mockers? Tempted to speak up in his defense? Or did she wish he wouldn't be so bold or abrasive? Maybe change his tone or his approach? Why does he say such controversial things? Why did he do that? Doesn't he realize the neighbors are talking? I don't want him to get hurt. Play it safe so that he doesn't have to suffer. Be normal so nobody notices. Had she expected that the Savior would be embraced with open arms? Did she think he could take David's throne peacefully?

I think Mary did what she had always done. She remembered—the prophecies, the exact words of the angel, Jesus' reply in the temple. And she pondered—the miracles he performed that showed his power over death, illness and nature; the words he spoke that revealed his identity as the bread of life, the lamb of God, the door, the way, the light, the living water.

Mary's unwavering faith enabled her to stand with Jesus in his pain and support him with her presence. And eventually, her journey led her to become a true disciple, to actively participate in the first church planting effort—to spread the Gospel.

What words and actions have you witnessed about your loved ones that have pierced your soul?
What promises from God do you have to remember and ponder? (See Dt 10:18, Is 53:2-3, Jn 15:15, Ps 145:8-9, 18 for starters)
What miracles and teachings of Jesus strengthen your faith?
How can you channel your grieving into spreading the Gospel?

PRAYER
Lord Jesus, I pray for all who grieve watching their children struggle to lead a normal life, to be accepted, and loved. I pray for those whose hearts are pierced because of the pain their loved ones endure due to the ignorance and cruelty of others. Strengthen their faith, remind them that you too endured ridicule and rejection and show them how to direct their pain into spreading the news of your salvation.

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

Releasing

On the third day a wedding took place at Cana in Galilee. Jesus’ mother was there, When the wine was gone, Jesus’ mother said to him, “They have no more wine.” “Woman, why do you involve me?” Jesus replied. “My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.” John 2:1, 3-5

Finally, the opportunity was here! Mary's son, Jesus, was the Messiah, but he had yet to reveal himself to the world. She had kept this in her heart and pondered it for three decades. Here was the chance to show his power. 

But Jesus responded in a startling way. He called Mary "Woman!" Not mother, mummy, mama, or mom. This was her dearly loved son that she had carried, birthed and raised. What did he mean by this? Even if Mary totally understood that Jesus meant no disrespect and still loved her very much, there had to be some pang, however small. There always is when a mother realizes that things have changed in her relationship with her child. Releasing! Pierced!

Jesus was telling his mother their relationship would be different from now on. He was no longer under her authority, but would act only at the initiative of his Father. He would be about his Father's business, on God's timetable. 

My sons are young adults. They are no longer under my authority. I have to let them go. Author and pastor, Chuck Swindoll describes this releasing in Great Days with the Great Lives:
Ultimately, the decision to hold anything loosely—especially as it applies to relationships—is an act of faith. Human instinct would have us clutch the things we adore most. Releasing them, presenting them to God, requires that we trust Him to do what is right. When we do this for our children, the lasting impact we leave is a practical model of faith. And I can think of no better way to teach our children about the God we worship than by modeling our trust in Him daily.
I believe Mary was able to let Jesus go to fulfill his mission because she understood God's compassionate love for her (Luke 1:50). This love is described in Isaiah 54:10 Though the mountains be shaken and the hills be removed, yet my unfailing love for you will not be shaken nor my covenant of peace be removed,” says the Lord, who has compassion (mercy) on you. 

Beth Moore points out in her Bible study, Breaking Free, that the Hebrew word for compassion or mercy (racham) means a love like that of a parent for a child, especially an infant. While we rear our children to become independent of us, God raises us to become more and more dependent on him for he never has to let us go.

Are you struggling with letting your children (or spiritual children) go?
Has someone that you have mentored and discipled surpassed you? 
Are you still trying to keep them under your wing? 
How can you encourage them to be about their Father's business?

PRAYER
Compassionate Father, I rejoice that you will never let me go, nor will you ever let my children go. Thank you that because of your unfailing love, I can take the step of faith to let them go to serve you and fulfill their calling just as Mary let Jesus go to become the Savior of the world.

Friday, April 14, 2017

Widow

Joseph, by Fontanini
I have a beautiful Italian Fontanini nativity set. Last year when I set it up, I realized I didn't know which figure was Joseph. In fact, I was afraid I didn't have Joseph at all. So I googled and discovered that one of the figures that looked like a shepherd was in fact Fontanini's Joseph figurine. Once again, I was reminded how often Joseph is sidelined in the story of Christ's birth.

We cannot look at Mary without giving Joseph the applause he deserves. Joseph was a righteous man. He chose to act honorably despite the norms of his shame-based culture. While he knew the child Mary was carrying was not his own, he did not want her to be disgraced publicly (Matthew 1:19).

Joseph was also an obedient man. When he had the confirmation from God that Mary's story was true, he was all in, totally on board (Matthew 1:20). Mary and Joseph illustrate what one of my favorite authors, Carolyn Custis James, has coined the "Blessed Alliance—God's design from creation that men and women join forces in serving him together" (The Gospel of Ruth).
He shuts down his carpenter shop, gets behind his wife's calling, and adapts himself to his wife and God's calling on her life. His whole life will be committed to making sure she succeeds in carrying out the mission God has entrusted to her. (James, Half the Church)
Like Mary, Joseph was favored, blessed and pierced! He too, paid a high price to follow God's calling.
These are costly decisions for Joseph for they diminish his reputation in the community, turn his life upside down, and run his private agenda through a shredder. But he is every bit as resolute as Mary when she subordinated her public reputation to the private call of God. (James, Malestrom)
What an amazing partner and ally Joseph was to Mary. He was indispensable in helping her fulfill the calling. But somewhere along the way (scholars believe it was before Jesus began his public ministry), Joseph died. Mary is now a widow! Pierced!

In Mary's culture, the oldest son would bear the responsibility of taking care of a widowed mother. However Jesus was wandering around the countryside with no income. Since scholars believe Mary moved to Capernaum with Jesus when he began his public ministry, perhaps Mary was included in the financial provision that came from the women disciples (Luke 8:1-3), perhaps Mary's other children took up the mantelwe do not know. But we do know that Jesus made sure that Mary was taken care of after his death (John 19:25-27). All things considered, Mary must have acutely felt the loss of her biggest supporter, Joseph.

Seventeen months ago, one of my best friends, Lori, died after a ten year battle with cancer. Her husband, Ben became a widower. How deeply pierced his soul has been. He has lost the other half of his alliance, his counterpart. I have witnessed what a huge adjustment it is for him to navigate life now without a partner by his side, especially when that partner was as deeply committed to fulfilling God's calling as he is.

Scripture doesn't tell us how Mary coped. But I believe her faith and her ability to ponder things in her heart helped her through this. She kept her focus at all times on her calling and got personally involved in Jesus' mission, even encouraging him to begin his public ministry (John 2:1-5).

May we too, whether we have an earthly spouse or not, stay focused building God's kingdom and may we form many Blessed Alliances with our brothers and/or sisters.

How have you experienced the Blessed Alliance?
Have you ever lost a dear partner? How is Jesus providing for you?
How can you get involved in Jesus' mission?

PRAYER
Lord God, our provider, thank you for the beautiful example of Joseph who adapted his life to ensure that Mary was able to fulfill the calling you gave her. Give us more men like Joseph. And when we are separated from precious partners, provide and keep us committed to seeing your kingdom come.

Thursday, April 13, 2017

Anxious

When our son John-Mark was about 5 or 6, we lost him in Heathrow airport. We were sitting at the gate waiting and did not notice him wander off. I looked up and he was just gone. A very anxious 15 or 20 minutes ensued as we searched up and down the walkways for a small, blond boy. When we found him a few aisles over, he was surprised at the anger in our voices, for he had only been curious and was exploring. I can relate to Mary's anxiety.
Now [Mary and Joseph] went to Jerusalem every year at the Feast of the Passover. And when [Jesus] was twelve years old, they went up according to custom. And when the feast was ended, as they were returning, the boy Jesus stayed behind in Jerusalem. His parents did not know it, but supposing him to be in the group they went a day's journey, but then they began to search for him among their relatives and acquaintances, and when they did not find him, they returned to Jerusalem, searching for him. After three days they found him in the temple, sitting among the teachers, listening to them and asking them questions. And all who heard him were amazed at his understanding and his answers. And when his parents saw him, they were astonished. And his mother said to him, “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” And he said to them, “Why were you looking for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?” And they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them. And he went down with them and came to Nazareth and was submissive to them. And his mother treasured up all these things in her heart. And Jesus increased in wisdom and in stature and in favor with God and man. Luke 2:41-52
Todd Pickett, Dean of Spiritual Development at the Center for Christianity Culture & The Arts, Biola University, describes this passage very vividly in the Advent Project, January 7, 2017.
What parent does not dread this moment? In Luke 2:41, Joseph and Mary begin the journey back to Nazareth after days of Passover celebration in Jerusalem. As usual, they are caravanning home with other Galileans, a parade of hundreds of pilgrims, maybe thousands, stretching out miles along the route. It will take them about 5 days. Men and women walk separately. Children tag along, willy-nilly, now with mothers, now with relatives, now with friends, but somewhere safe in the mass. 
The sun is dropping below the horizon. The caravan slows, bunches up and finds a place to camp. Mary turns to Joseph, casually: “Where is Jesus?” Joseph replies, “I thought he was with you?” 
They hurry to Jerusalem. It takes them a whole day and then two days of searching. No 911 to call. No “Passover 2016” FB group to poke. Agonizing. Hard, hard. “After three days”3 days!they find him in the Temple. They are incredulous and “astonished”. Jesus sees them, looks up calmly and says innocently (in essence): “What?” 
Distressed! Anxious! Pierced! “Son, why have you treated us so? Behold, your father and I have been searching for you in great distress.” Other versions say they were anxious or frantic. Mary's words smack of irritation and anger. When I finally found my son in Heathrow, I blurted out in anger, putting the blame on him for wandering off. Fear is often expressed that way.

But Jesus answered, “Why did you seek Me? Did you not know that I must be about My Father’s business?” In essence, he was saying, "What are you worried about? I am not lost. I am right where I should be. I am in my father's house doing his business. Don't be anxious. I know what I'm doing".

The narrative says that "they did not understand the saying that he spoke to them". So what did Mary do with tall this confusion and anxiety? She "treasured all these things in her heart". In this text, treasured (diatereo) means to keep continually or carefully, to watch thoroughly. Again, in Pickett's words:
A 12-year old Jesus sits among scholars and teachers, taking careful notes, asking really good questions. The teachers may have looked up at the parents: “Is this your son?” Mary and Joseph perhaps at this moment recall the angel’s prophecy: “He will be great” (Lk. 1:32). 
What are you anxious about today? Especially in regard to your children?
What business is your Father about that might comfort your anxious heart?
What promises from God do you need to treasure today?

PRAYER
Jesus, thank you that you are always about your Father's business. Teach me not to be anxious but instead to treasure your words and remember that you know what you are doing.

Monday, April 10, 2017

Refugee

When Jesus was born to his mother Mary, there was no baby shower, no birth announcement, no balloons, no visitors in the waiting room, no facebook post. Instead there were some very unique visitors.
So [the shepherds] came in a hurry and found their way to Mary and Joseph, and the baby as He lay in the manger. When they had seen this, they made known the statement which had been told them about this Child. And all who heard it wondered at the things which were told them by the shepherds. But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart. The shepherds went back, glorifying and praising God for all that they had heard and seen, just as had been told them. Luke 2:16-20
Mary and Joseph then stayed in Bethlehem for about one to two years until the second group of unique visitors arrived.  
On coming to the house, [Magi from the east] saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. Matthew 2:11
Any sense of safety or normalcy that Mary might have envisioned for herself and her family evaporated with the departure of the Magi.
When they had gone, an angel of the Lord appeared to Joseph in a dream. “Get up,” he said, “take the child and his mother and escape to Egypt. Stay there until I tell you, for Herod is going to search for the child to kill him.” So he got up, took the child and his mother during the night and left for Egypt, where he stayed until the death of Herod.  Matthew 2:13-15a
Thus began Mary's life as a refugee. She fled for her life in the dead of night, lived in a foreign country, learned a foreign language, tried to keep her baby safe. And just as she was getting adjusted to Egypt, she was on the move again.
After Herod died, an angel of the Lord appeared in a dream to Joseph in Egypt and said, “Get up, take the child and his mother and go to the land of Israel, for those who were trying to take the child’s life are dead.” So he got up, took the child and his mother and went to the land of Israel. But when he heard that Archelaus was reigning in Judea in place of his father Herod, he was afraid to go there. Having been warned in a dream, he withdrew to the district of Galilee, and he went and lived in a town called Nazareth. So was fulfilled what was said through the prophets, that he would be called a Nazarene. Matthew 2:19-23
Mary's life was chaotic, unstable, unsafe. And even after she returned to her home country, she still lived in occupied territory. Refugee! Evacuee! Pierced!

In January 2000, I fled Lombok Island at two o'clock in the morning on a jet boat with my husband, two young sons and some teammates. We were leaving so that we would not find ourselves in the path of Muslim mobs who were systematically destroying homes and churches of Christians throughout the island. And there are many global women who are on the move constantly, who live in occupied territory, who make hard decisions to protect their children from constant danger. 

Tucked away in this narrative is a wonderful statement about Mary which gives us tremendous insight into how she was able to withstand the many soul piercings she endured, including evacuation.
But Mary treasured all these things, pondering them in her heart Luke 2:19.
Treasured (syntereo) means to remember or keep in mind lest it be forgotten and pondered (symballo) means to consider, confer with oneself or dispute mentally. Mary wrote a mental diary of everything that happened to her so she wouldn't forget and then she tried to make sense of it by debating within herself. I believe she reminded herself again and again what the angel had told her, who her son really was, the words of Elizabeth, Simeon and Anna, the miracles of her conception, Joseph's dreams, the amazing visitors and their glorious gifts that had most likely funded their journeys.

How can we, too, not believe and trust when we treasure and ponder all God had done for us and ask him to help us understand what he is currently doing?

In what ways are you an evacuee? How has your life been unsettled, unsafe and chaotic?
What do you need to treasure and ponder today?

PRAYER
Sovereign God, you are my refuge when I feel like a refugee. You are my strong tower. I run to you and I am safe (Proverbs 18:10). Help me remember all you have done for me and understand your ways.

Wednesday, April 5, 2017

At-Risk

John-Mark D. Burkholder
"I can feel that", I told my obstetrician as he pricked the left side of my abdomen on December 11, 1992. I was on an operating table in an outdated birthing clinic in Bandung, Indonesia, prepped for a C-section. As with my first pregnancy, I had pre-eclampsia but this baby was also breech. The epidural, which had been a great success during my first C-section, wasn't working so well this time. Finally, the doctor gave me a local anesthetic and began the procedure.

"What was that?" I gasped in my grogginess some time later. "Your anesthetic is wearing off. Breathe with me", calmly stated my teammate, a nurse. Quickly, I was put under general anesthesia and woke to greet my new son, John-Mark.

Then a year later, I was pregnant again but at twelve weeks, and on my 31st birthday, I miscarried. During the night, I wept as I said goodbye to my third child. I didn't know it then, but I would never conceive again.

According to the World Health Organization, about 830 women die from complications related to pregnancy or childbirth each day. "The majority of maternal deaths are due to hemorrhage, infection, unsafe abortion, and eclampsia (very high blood pressure leading to seizures), or from health complications worsened in pregnancy."

Childbirth is usually a joyous occasion but it can also be one that pierces a heart. It has and continues to be very dangerous. Mary's was no exception.
In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world...So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them. Luke 2:1, 4-7
Mary and Joseph traveled to Bethlehem, a journey of about 80-90 miles. And while she was probably very pregnant, she most likely walked for three to four days since there is no mention of a donkey in the narrative. My seminary professor believes they settled in with relatives in a house already overflowing with other guests also in town for the census. So, Mary and Joseph were relegated to the ground level where the animals were kept. She gave birth then, in an animal shelter - the stable, if you will. No sterile birthing room. No Lamaze class. No anesthesia. No nurse.

At risk! Pierced! Mary was in pain. And she knew that her birthing situation was less than ideal. And that many women died giving birth. The scripture doesn't tell us about Mary's feelings and thoughts during her labor and childbirth, but I believe Mary did the only thing she could. She believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her Luke 1:45. God had said she would have a child, and so she pushed through the piercing pain of labor. Joy was intermingled with pain. Tears with laughter. And the Son of God was brought in to the world.

For Mary, the pain of childbirth led to the joy of welcoming a son. But for some women, the pain ends in more pain, in empty arms, in dashed hopes. And some women understand the fear of giving birth under less than ideal circumstances. Still others never have the chance to give birth at all. For all of us, Mary's example reminds us what God's Word says:
Know therefore that the Lord your God is God, the faithful God who keeps covenant and steadfast love with those who love him. Deuteronomy 7:9
Trust in him at all times, you people; pour out your hearts to him, for God is our refuge. Psalm 62:8
How did your childbirth experience give both joy and pain? 
What promises of God can you trust today?

PRAYER
Faithful, covenant keeping God, show your steadfast love to women everywhere whose childbirth experiences have not ended in joy. Today we remember your promises and we believe that you love us and will be our refuge.

Monday, March 27, 2017

Upended

The saying goes: The best laid plans of mice and men often go awry (from To a Mouse by Robert Burns). Or to quote the true source: Many are the plans in a person’s heart, but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails. Proverbs 19:21

From the onset, Mary's favor and blessing were mixed with a pierced soul. She was all set to marry Joseph and raise a normal Jewish family in Nazareth. She expected to follow in her mother's footsteps. She was probably already dreaming of how she would keep her kitchen, raise her children and organize her days. But all that changed in an instant. 
Mary was pledged to be married to Joseph, but before they came together, she was found to be pregnant through the Holy Spirit. Because Joseph her husband was faithful to the law, and yet did not want to expose her to public disgrace, he had in mind to divorce her quietly. Matthew 1:18-19
Mary's life was upended. With her pregnancy came the potential to destroy the normal life she had imaginedhusband, marriage, future children, reputation in the community, extended family. And by Jewish law, she could even lose her life if Joseph so chose to exercise his right to stone an adulterer.

While I believe Mary was spiritually mature for her age and that she trusted God, she was human like you and I. This change of plans still took readjusting, rethinking, dying to dreams. And a fiance's intentions to divorce would cause pain. Upended! Pierced! Yet Mary responded to this sudden interruption to her carefully planned life with surrenderLet it be to me according to your word (Luke 1:38)and praiseThe Mighty One has done great things for me, holy is his name (Luke 1:49)!

And God's purposes prevailed. When Joseph woke up, he did what the angel of the Lord had commanded him and took Mary home as his wife. But he did not consummate their marriage until she gave birth to a son (Matthew 1:24-25). Joseph and Mary were married immediately. The fear of rejection gone. A husband and father provided. Protection for her and her unborn son.

Upended! Pierced! I remember sitting in a team meeting with tears flowing down my cheeks. I could not shake the strong sense I had that life would never be the same, that I would never again be with this group of people in this room. God was nudging my husband and me to leave our ministry of twelve years, but the future was unclear. It didn't happen in an instant, but life did change. I was prepared to be in Indonesia until I retired. I didn't make it past 40 years old. My dreams were upended.

Anything can change our plans in an instant. A diagnosis of cancer, children struggling, a spouse not finding the right fit, parents failing health, a marriage proposal, the loss of a partner, a visa denied, a job lost. Even when we know the truth that God is changing the plans, it still pierces! It doesn't mean we don't trust God or that our faith is weak. It means we have to surrender and praise because He alone is [our] protector and deliverer. He is [our] refuge; [We] will not be upended. Psalms 62:2 NET

What sudden loss of dreams or change of plans have you experienced?
How can you respond with surrender and praise?

PRAYER
Lord Jesus, thank you that while we make plans, your purposes prevail. When my plans are upended, I take refuge in you. In you, my soul will not be shaken. Amen.

Thursday, March 23, 2017

Pierced One

When I was 15, I got my ears pierced. While never strictly forbidden, ear piercing was silently frowned upon in my family. After all, if God had meant me to have holes in my ears, I would have been born with them! But I was fascinated by the big hoops that hung on the ears of my older and sophisticated cousins. 

So while on a choir tour to the big city (for an MK living in Papua New Guinea, that meant the coastal town of Lae where expat shop owners offered modern wares and catered to western customs), I heard that some of the other girls in the choir were going to get their ears pierced. I don't remember even really wrangling with this. I gave in to the axiom that it is easier to get forgiveness than permission. I went for it. 

I felt a pinch and a prick and came out of the drug store sporting my new gold posts.  Immediately the guilt set in. What was I going to tell my parents? How would they react? My conscience forced me to make a phone callan expensive act in a time period when the phone was reserved for emergencies and life and death situations. My father was gracious, heard my confession, and let me keep my adornments.

Around that same time, a popular worship song was Pierce My Ear based on Exodus 21:2, 5-6: If you buy a Hebrew servant, he is to serve you for six years. But in the seventh year, he shall go free, without paying anything. But if the servant declares, ‘I love my master and my wife and children and do not want to go free,’ then his master must take him before the judges. He shall take him to the door or the doorpost and pierce his ear with an awl. Then he will be his servant for life. The song went like this:
Pierce my ear, O Lord my God.
Take me to your door this day.
For I will serve no other God.
Lord I’m here to stay.
 
For you have paid the price for me;
With Your blood you ransomed me.
Now I will serve you eternally.
Lord I’m here to stay.
Lyrics & Music by Steve Croft, Copyright © 1980 Dayspring Music, LLC
While I did not pierce my ears to mark my willing lifelong allegiance to God, Mary did declare herself to be a slave of the Lord (Luke 1:28 I am the Lord’s servant). In that, she was accepting whatever God brought her way. Mary was favored and blessed, but that didn't mean life was a bed of roses. You see, there was this ominous prophecy from Simeon. 

When the baby Jesus was 40 days old, Mary and Joseph took him to the temple to dedicate him and offer sacrifices to the Lord. While there, a righteous man named Simeon recognized that Jesus was the promised Messiah he had been waiting for all his life.
Then Simeon blessed them and said to Mary, his mother: “This child is destined to cause the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be spoken against, so that the thoughts of many hearts will be revealed. And a sword will pierce your own soul too.” Luke 2:34-35 
A sword will pierce your own soul too. Typically we think of this prophecy referring to the way Mary's son would die. But as I have looked at Mary's life, I find that there were piercings all along the way. Her plans were upended. She was misunderstood. Her pregnancy was at risk. Her birthing circumstances were trying. She evacuated, became a refugee and made her home a in foreign country. She felt the anxiety of a  missing child. She was widowed at a young age. She had prodigal children. Her son offended others. She felt the pain of being rejected. And she watched her firstborn son die a gruesome death.

In declaring herself a slave of the Lord, Mary accepted whatever would comethe good and the bad, the laughter and the tears, the joy and the pain, life and death. There would be surface hurt and deep soul-searing pain. Some piercings would last a moment and some a lifetime. May we, like Mary, declare ourselves to be God's servant even if it means a sword will pierce our soul too.

Are you a slave of the Lord?
Read the words of the song above and decide your allegiance.

PRAYER
Lord, as Mary did, I declare that I am your servant. You have set me free from sin and death and made me a slave to righteousness and life. I will serve no other God. Lord, I'm here to stay. Amen.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Blessed to Obey

Last Christmas, I had the privilege of watching my son perform at the Lancaster Bible College concert. I so enjoyed his enthusiasm, the way he sang so heartily and paid full attention to the director. Not only was he in the choir, but he also played bells and xylophone. But then, to my surprise, he suddenly burst into solo, confident and clear. Wow, was my heart full! I put a proud mother moment on facebook! I wanted the world to know that was my son! 

In Luke 11 Jesus was teaching. He was responding to questions from the religious leaders. They were accusing him that his power came from Satan. He rebuked them. Then, very randomly, an unnamed woman spoke up and blessed his mother, Mary. She was so impressed by Jesus' ability to answer and refute the religious leaders that she wanted to compliment the woman who raised him.
As Jesus was saying these things, a woman in the crowd called out, “Blessed is the mother who gave you birth and nursed you.” He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” Luke 11:27-18 
I wonder if Mary was in the crowd that day? Did she hear this woman praise her and did she finally feel vindicated? Finally someone had acknowledged her! Finally someone had said what any mother would want to hearpraise for her child. Praise that she had raised a good son. This recognition would have been especially meaningful because in those days, women were not valued for much other than raising sons.

Mary probably expected Jesus to heartily agree. But instead Jesus replied that his motherThe Blessed Virgin Marywas NOT the blessed one! Rather, the one who heard the word of God and obeyed was blessed.

This concept is emphasized over and over again in Scripture:
Now that you know these things, you will be blessed if you do them. John 13:17
Because you have seen me, you have believed. Blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed. John 20:29
But whoever looks intently into the perfect law that gives freedom, and continues in it - not forgetting what they have heard, but doing it - they will be blessed in what they do. James 1:22-25
Blessed is the one who reads aloud the words of this prophecy, and blessed are those who hear it and take to heart what this written in it, because the time is near. Rev 1:3
Blessed is the one who keeps the words of the prophecy written in this scroll. Rev 22:7
I don't think Jesus meant to diminish the role of motherhood. After all, Mary nursed Jesus, weaned and potty trained him, fed and clothed him. And greater still, taught him how to act rightly, to know and love God. She taught him his first theology. In the words of my brother-in-law:
Jesus too, although he was also divine, had to learn how to talk and read and write and do math or carpentry properly (none of which is innate or instinctive, but requires training). But more importantly, I think we can assume that as a boy, Jesus also had to be taught how to share his toys, and to not always insist on his own way. In all that sort of training, Mary would've played the most important role. [She had] more influence, humanly speaking, over the kind of person [Jesus] became than any other person ever would or could have.Rev. David Handy 
And we know that Mary did a good job as a mother, not only because of the man Jesus grew into, but also by the fact that two of her other sons, James and Judas/Jude, ended up being leaders in the early church and left us two of the books of the New Testament.

What Jesus is saying is that being his mother was not Mary's primary role or her main identity. Her primary identity was the same as it is for all women today. We are image bearers of God, representing his heart to the world (Gen 1:27). We are ezers (strong helpers), warriors partnering with the men in our lives (Gen 2:18). And we are kingdom builders, followers of Jesusdisciples (Gen 1:28).
A woman's life is truly blessed not when she becomes a mother, but when she hears and obeys his Word. The crowning glory for a woman (as for a man) is to be a disciple of Jesus Christ. This is a woman's true identity, and the only path to blessedness. To base our identity on anything else is to stand on shaky ground. But nothing can ever take away from us our calling as disciples of Jesus.Carolyn Custis James, Lost Women of the Bible
Mary was not blessed (well off) because she was Jesus' mother. She was blessed because she heard his word and obeyed. And she indicated this when she responded in obedience ("Let it be to me according to your word") and became a disciple of the Kingdom of God.

Like Mary, I am not limited to the role of mother. I cannot rest on the laurels of the achievements of my son or find my value in the person he becomes. (This is actually what the Apostle John calls the pride of life in I John 2:16, and is not a characteristic of someone in the Kingdom of God.) Instead, I am blessed when I attend to and consider the word of God, keep it and obey it. As Jesus called Mary to be his disciple, he calls all of us.

What is your identity based upon?
How are you blessed according to his definition?

PRAYER
Lord God, thank for making me a mother, but thank you for showing me it is not my identity. I am first of all your disciple, and as that, I desire to believe your word and obey you. Teach me more how to do that.

Blessed to be in the Kingdom

Mary would not have qualified by Jewish standards to be The Blessed Mother. The Jews of Jesus' day had very strict criteria for the blessed. They had to be Jewish, male, religious, healthy and wealthy. If you were sick or poor or female, well, your bad! God obviously wasn't blessing you!

We know (see previous post) that the Greek word for blessed is makarios which means "well off or fortunate". James Bryan Smith explains this concept in his book The Good and Beautiful Life. In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus "looked out at the crowd of desperate, sad, broken and persecuted people, and called them makarios". In short, Smith describes the Beatitudes this way:
Blessed are you who are feeling marginalized from God, who have nothing going for you spirituallyfor you too are invited into the kingdom...We are blessed because of Jesus. The kingdom is available to even us. We are not cut off from God. Life situations don't prevent us from entering the kingdom. The life circumstances that Jesus called blessed are commonly thought to be anything but that. And the Beatitudes are radical because they teach that these people have the same access to the kingdom as the rich and happy.
Mary was Jewish and from a good family line, but she was female, poor and from a very insignificant town. She would not have been an acceptable choice to birth the Messiah by the standards of  her day. But God turned everything upside down and invited "females, sick people, the poor, the second class half-Jew, the person whose life has been broken by bad choices, the outcast, the refugee" into his kingdom.

Scripture also says blessed are the givers (Acts 20:35), the forgiven (Rom 4:7-8), the single (I Cor 7:40) the excluded (Lk 6:22) and the insulted (I Pet 3:14). In other words, anyone who is invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb (Rev 19:9).

Just like all of us, Mary was invited into the Kingdom of her sonthe Son of God. In Acts 1:13-14, we see that Mary was present with her other sons in the prayer meeting that birthed the church! Mary shows us that true blessing doesn't come from pedigree or education or status. It comes from being a true citizen of God's Kingdom.

I have fallen into the trap of the Jewish leaders. I forget that it is not my health and wealth and race and gender that makes me blessed. I am blessed because of Jesus, because the kingdom is available to meJesus is available to me. I am blessed when I believe this!

In what ways are you blessed in this sense?
How are you living as a member of God's kingdom?

PRAYER
King of Heaven, thank you for inviting everyone into your kingdom. Thank you that I do not have to be wealthy and put together before I can join. Thank you that you take the poor, the sick, the marginalized and the hurting. Thank you that you took Mary. I am truly blessed to be in your kingdom.

Blessed to Believe

Recently this post popped up as a memory on my facebook page: He [my son] gives me such joy, has so many talents, and loves Jesus. I am a blessed mother.

And this from a coworker heading to the field for the first time: The entire journey went smoothly without any delays, missing luggage or other problems. What a blessing!!

And what about this from the advertising world: Slow wifi at home. Guess I'm studying at the gym tonight. #NOTblessed 

I think I'm blessed. I often call myself blessed. I even sign off my emails with "Blessings". I say "bless you" after someone sneezes. #blessed on social media has become very popular in recent years. And Mary too was called blessed several times in the Scripture. In fact, she is known in many circles as The Blessed Virgin Mary.
When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the baby leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit. In a loud voice she exclaimed: “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the child you will bear! But how has it happened to me that the mother of my Lord should come to me? As soon as the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the baby in my womb leaped for joy. Blessed is she who has believed that the Lord would fulfill his promises to her!” Luke 1:39-45 
From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me - holy is his name. Luke 1:48
Merriam Webster tells me that blessed can mean ether "held in reverence" or "enjoying good fortune". We typically think we are blessed when we can list the things that make our lives good. We also associate being blessed with being godly or earning God's favor. We feel blessed when life treats us well, when the mortgage goes through or the new car sits in the driveway. But is this really what being blessed means?

We get a clue from the Greek words Elizabeth and Mary used. The first time Elizabeth spoke, she was invoking a benediction over—or speaking well ofMary and the baby in her womb. She was recognizing that God had graced Mary with a great honor—a favorable expression from God. This is the word we most often associate with blessing. It is the word that describes our spiritual state in Ephesians 1:3 Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in the heavenly realms with every spiritual blessing in Christ.

But in Elizabeth's second sentence and in Mary's declaration of herself, a different word is usedmakarios, which means "happy or fortunate, truly well off". It refers to those for whom everything is good. Makarios speaks of life in the kingdom of God and never refers to material or physical benefits. (We will look at other aspects of makarios in future posts.)
So considering this definition, I think these verses could be paraphrased: 
Well off (or fortunate or happy) is the one who believes God fulfills his promises.
I am well off (or fortunate or happy) because the Mighty One has done great things for me.
Mary was graced with an awesome task and she rejoiced and gave God praise. She recognized that it was God who was at work doing mighty things. She was blessed, not because she got to birth and raise the Son of God, but because she believed God's word and responded in obedience: "be it unto me according to your word."
This, then, is what it is to be blessed: it is to be found ready to obey God with whatever we have at hand. It is to be a tool ready-on-hand for our Lord if ever he wants to use us, and to be used by him. Jessica Snell, writer, editor
So what do we do with #blessed and all the good things in our lives? Be grateful. Practice gratitude. Mary understood grace and was grateful to God for bestowing grace on her. Likewise, it is God's grace that gave me my son and God's grace that enables him to have such talents and give me joy. For that, I am grateful. Gratitude is an important discipline. Thank God for your husband and children, your singleness, your joys and also your sorrows. Recognize where they came from and who is the true source of all good things. But understand that is not what makes us blessed.

We are blessed when we believe that God will do what he says he will do. We are blessed when we recognize his ability to do the impossible on our behalf. We are blessed when we acknowledge the mighty things he does.

In what ways are you blessed in this sense?
What promises of God are you believing or not believing today?

PRAYER
Gracious Father, thank you for the good life you give to me out of your generous grace. I have many comforts which I did not earn nor do I deserve. I am so grateful. Today I choose to believe the promises in your word and acknowledge the impossible, mighty things you do on my behalf. In that I am blessed. 

Thursday, February 23, 2017

Good Things

According to my brother-in-law, the Rev. David Handy, "Traditionally, since ancient times, in liturgical churches (Lutheran and Anglican, as well as Catholic and Eastern Orthodox), the Blessed Virgin Mary is considered the greatest of all the saints, bar none. Greater than Francis of Assisi in the 13th century, or St. Benedict (founder of the Benedictine order of monks) in the 6th century, or any other saint, male or female. Yet Mary never held any office of leadership in the church, never wrote a book or received any theological education."

But she did pen one of the most beautiful songs in Scripture, Mary's Magnificat!
And Mary said: “My soul glorifies the Lord and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has been mindful of the humble state of his servant. From now on all generations will call me blessed, for the Mighty One has done great things for me—holy is his name. His mercy extends to those who fear him, from generation to generation. He has performed mighty deeds with his arm; he has scattered those who are proud in their inmost thoughts. He has brought down rulers from their thrones but has lifted up the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things but has sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel, remembering to be merciful to Abraham and his descendants forever, just as he promised our ancestors.” Luke 1:46-55
Mary glorified God and rejoiced. She gave thanks for the great things he had doneher miraculous conception and the honor of raising the Messiah! She was humbled and realized the future impact of this miracle. She knew she was well off (blessed) because of God's grace shown to her. She wasn't focused on herself and the child. She focused on Godthe holy, merciful and powerful one. Most of her song described the Mighty One, whom she obviously knew. He alone brought down the proud and lifted up the humble as she had been lifted up. He did not favor the wealthy or privileged, but was just. He remembered his promise to Abraham so long ago and continued to help Israelnow by sending a Savior. Her God was faithful and she trusted him.

This is all very lovely but the phrase that stood out to me and met my need this day was the reminder again that God has filled the hungry with good things. A quick look told me that the hungry could be translated the needy. That's me! And good things are pleasant, useful, upright and pleasurable. I want those! In other words, a fresh reminder that my God is Good! And he has given me what is beneficial to me.

God chose Mary for an incredible task. For that, she gave God praise and recognized his hand of grace and blessing on her life. But that calling also brought pain. It wasn't easy to fulfill. It meant a change of her plans, a total upending of her dreams, confusion, ridicule, misunderstanding, unrecognized sacrifice.

Yet Mary said that God fills the needy with good things. The pain of Mary's calling produced the crossthe salvation of the world. What better end justified that means? Mary was only a conduit, an ezer (a helper), but she was still blessed.

Mary's ride was bumpy. Jesus' was too. For him, there were weddings, joyful times with children, the laughter and fellowship of friends, good food. And there was the cross. 

I too was graced with an awesome taskthat of showing unconditional love to my husband. Can I take the blessing of my callinga fun, attentive, communicative husband along with the pain? My pain (and his) too, will produce something. And perhaps his will produce something more beautiful, like Jesus' did.

Why do I default to thinking God's calling means everything should go smoothly? I'm doing his will so I should be blessed (in the 20th century sense) or at least given an easy ride? As Mary focused on the Mighty One, I choose to focus not on my lack but on God, the filler of my need.

PRAYER
Lord God, Mighty One, I so need the reminder that you are good. I am so needy. My neediness sometimes overwhelms those around me. But you have filled me with good things and today, I choose to focus on you and not what I lack.

Wednesday, February 15, 2017

A Safe Place

Mary sat there trying to catch her breath. What had just happened? Had there really been an angel right in front of her just moments before? "I'm going to have a baby!" She involuntarily gazed at her stomach as her hand touched her garment. "Is he already in there? Jesus, the angel said his name was. The Messiah. The One who will save us all!"

"Wait! Who will believe me? What should I do? Who should I tell? Oh no, what about Joseph?" She panicked. "Will he understand?" The truth of what was happening to her hit her full force. "I could loose Joseph. Surely he won't divorce me or have me stoned? What will mom and dad say? How will I tell them? Oh, what should I do?"

Then she remembered the voice of the angel. "Cousin Elizabeth is pregnant too! I have to talk to her. She'll understand. I need Elizabeth. I will go to her. She'll know what to do."

Mary made the necessary preparations as soon as she could and headed off to the home of Elizabeth and Zechariah. As she walked, she thought about Elizabeth. "Elizabeth is so righteous. She has observed God's commands and decrees blamelessly.* Poor Elizabeth. She has endured so much because she has no children. She has heard every reason in the book and has been given every remedy known to man. Imagine thinking that Elizabeth was childless because she had sinned! And what about that silly idea that she try mandrake leaves like Rachel did! But that will end soon! A miracle has happened."

Mary made her legs go as fast as she could to Elizabeth's home, her place of safety and comfort.

At that time, Mary got ready and hurried to a town in the hill country of Judea, where she entered Zechariah's home and greeted Elizabeth. Luke 1:39-40
What a precious relationship Elizabeth and Mary must have had. I believe Elizabeth was much more than just a relative. She was a friend, a mentor, a sister, a confidant, an encourager - all that Mary needed at this strange time. She needed someone with strong faith to believe her. She needed someone who had personal experience with miracles and God's way of doing things. She needed someone to explain the changes about to take place in her body and how to give birth. Elizabeth fit the bill.

Pondering Mary's relationship with Elizabeth has made me wonder who I hurry to when I have a unique need. Who is my Elizabeth? Who do I have in my life who lives rightly and follows God wholeheartedly? Who has experienced the miracles of God and knows he can do the impossible? Who will give me Godly counsel and encourage me to hear and obey the voice of God?

And likewise, am I an Elizabeth for others? Am I a place of safety and comfort that others can run to?

PRAYER
Lord God, thank you for giving Mary a place to run to in her time of need. Thank you for Elizabeth's godly example. Please provide this kind of friendship and mentoring for me and my sisters in Christ. Teach us how to be a place of strong safety and comfort for others.

*Luke 1:6