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.” Luke 11:27 
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.
He replied, “Blessed rather are those who hear the word of God and obey it.” Luke 11:28
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.