Jesus’ invitation to Martha

Over the years, Martha from Luke 10:38-42 has come to be treated with a sort of condescension. A tension seems to have surrounded Martha and how she is interpreted. Many years ago a book was written encouraging readers to “Have a Mary Heart in a Martha World”. I did not read it (so perhaps I am ignorantly misjudging), but the title alone seems to lean toward a dismissiveness of Martha or pits the sisters’ spirituality against one another. I recently asked a minister for his thoughts on Martha; he commented she just thought she was better than Mary.

Such interpretations have not only done Martha an injustice, but have created within the Church an occasional Gnostic-like tendency to cast chores, tasks, or projects in an unspiritual light as work that gets in God’s way. I have known many Christian women who are very much like how Martha is depicted in the text—hospitable, generous, hardworking, multitasking, and a bit bossy. You likely know them, too. They are your mothers and sisters, wives and daughters, grandmothers and aunts. They energetically bounce from the laundry to vacuuming to cooking dinner to washing dishes to jumping large Lego-set buildings in a single bound. And do they occasionally raise voice to make us get with the program? They most certainly and, I daresay, rightfully do. If my Mom tells me to help her take the turkey out of the oven or to set the table, I don’t tell her to chill out. It therefore seems antithetical to Christian living to suggest that serving Jesus and his followers, even with a bit of a bite, is somehow bad behavior.

What if, however, Martha’s service or even snappiness had little to do with what is happening here? What if, rather, Jesus’ response concerned what Martha was not yet experiencing?

It should be noted that neither the text, nor Jesus actually condemns her tasks, which would have included preparing food and accommodations for guests. In fact, Martha’s actions are appropriately normal for the role society had placed on her. Here, as through history, women prided and distinguished themselves by keeping and offering the home as a haven for their families and guests. By recognizing Jesus’ prominence, inviting him and the disciples into her home, and providing them with food, shelter, and a preaching platform, Martha is executing her role with an excellence any Jew would praise. In her meticulousness, however, she was unaware of or distracted from how the reality of her role is expanding right in her home.

The boundary lines were clearly labeled by years of tradition. Surely Mary knew her role in society, that she was to prepare and provide. Yet here Mary sits at Jesus’ feet. Surely Jesus also knew the rules, that when the men assembled to listen to rabbis, the women were to remain in separate locations. Yet here he teaches without sending her away.

One could see this as just another one of Jesus’ social faux pas. Or, considering his mission to proclaim and ordain the Kingdom of God, Jesus’ actions could also be understood as the welcoming of women into a fellowship with himself that was equal to that of the men. As Mary is blessedly tuning into this new kingdom reality, however, Martha is busy carrying out her duty, all the while noticing her sister is not. “Doesn’t she know her place in this world? What is more, the rabbi is not redirecting her back to her place.” Of course she raised an objection; there’s a way of life and duty to safeguard.

Notice the numerical contrast Jesus draws in his response. He describes Martha as distracted by “many things”. He then adds “there is need of only one thing”.

The “many things” really aren’t the problem. On any day, Martha and Mary would have had “many things” to tend. What puts these tasks out of place on this day, however, is the king in the living room proclaiming the good news that is redefining the reality of everyone and the roles they play in God’s kingdom. Martha doesn’t have to give up her tasks, and Jesus doesn’t want her to. But he does want her to understand that the margins in which society has framed her role are expanding in light of the kingdom reality being learned in her living room. To understand this, Jesus wants her there with him and the other kingdom citizens. In this sense, Jesus’ words to her could be seen as an invitation to enter into what Mary had already joined.

If she did, she might begin to gain the sense that in Christ “there is no longer male or female”. She might also begin to see the hospitality and generosity she showed and shared would soon characterize Jesus’ early church body. Perhaps afterward, her, Mary, and even the disciples and Jesus would all pitch in with the tasks, learning to do life together.

Neither Martha or her tasks were the underlying issue; both just needed to be recontextualized to God’s kingdom. This time devoted to the “one thing” would come to set the tone for approaching and accomplishing the “many things” so that from the “one thing” would flow a joy, peace, and purpose permeating the “many things”.

We all have roles; we all have duties. They become ambiguous and our frustration grows when those roles and duties are not being lived out from the kingdom context in which God has framed them.  In light of the kingdom reality Christ calls us into, I pray you and your roles and duties may enter into a faith-filled spaciousness that opens your heart up to the redemption, community, and purpose his presence brings. I hope there you find the grace, clarity, and dignity that blesses and refreshes your heart for service.

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Do you know you are loved?

In Oliver Stone’s epic biographical interpretation Nixon, the controversial filmmaker makes much of Nixon’s personal insecurities as the driving force behind most of his professional decision-making. There is a scene near the end where, as Richard Nixon’s presidency is imploding, one of his last remaining advisors, Henry Kissinger, is watching a televised speech in which the president again denies having any knowledge of the Watergate cover-up. Exasperated their president has lost touch with reality, Kissinger comments to the chief of staff “Can you imagine what this man would have been had he ever been loved? It’s a tragedy, because he had greatness in his grasp”.

Historical accuracy aside, the comment stands out as a reflection of a narrative with which we all struggle—knowing we are loved and living from out of that awareness. For many people this struggle stems from growing up in an environment where they never were actually shown any love at all. For many other people, this struggle is the result of never having actively embraced the love they were actually shown. In such cases, the grounded assurance of being both loved and lovely is lacking. This deficient awareness of love seems only to fuel futures filled with fearfulness, distrust, bitterness, isolation, loneliness, and, ultimately, the withholding of love towards others, thus perpetuating the cycle.

I can do nothing about the environments that create such a poverty of love, but I can try bringing to your attention that love exists and is abundantly available and accessible. To do so, please allow me a well-worn platitude that is also very true: God loves you.

My father and pastor, Charles Robinson, recently preached a terrific sermon wherein he referenced Nebuchadnezzar’s casting of Hananiah, Mishael, and Azariah into the fiery furnace. Citing Daniel 3:25, Pastor Robinson commented “God didn’t rescue them from the flames; God joined them.”

This arouses the deep awareness that God has not left us alone to the environments and moments in which we feel so often abandoned. Though they seem bereft of our preferred expressions of love, they are not without God’s presence. The totality of place and time is permeated with the presence of God. I refer of course to the incarnation of Jesus Christ: God with us, God amongst us, God for us. Through Christ’s incarnation, crucifixion, and resurrection, the presence of God fills the present of every believer’s person, place, and period and expands across their past and future. When pains of the past and fears of the future come stealing in, Christ is already there to absorb every ache and anxiety, redemptively molding your memories and moments into a grace that emits his majesty through you. When time and life feel fractured and fragmented, Christ fills the cracks and the voids, the emptiness and brokenness, so that all may be restored to wholeness. We then shall find we need not resent the past nor fear the future, for they are becoming the planes upon which God’s salvation has and will play out.

In Christ, God conveys upon us love without end. Christ awakens us to what throughout this world lies dormant—the rich assuring awareness that we are lovely and loved.

Do you know you are loved? Has knowing Christ enabled you to accept that truth? If your mind was constantly attuned to this awareness, how might you imagine living?

A helpful insight on the Prodigal Parable

rembrandt-return-of-the-prodigal-sonI recently finished reading Henri Nouwen’s wonderful book The Return of the Prodigal Son, a dual contemplation of Rembrandt’s painting of the same name and Jesus’ parable upon which it was based.

Within his book, Nouwen shares many great reflections that are likely familiar to you from the multiple sermons, devotionals, and teachings you’ve heard through the years on the oft-taught parable—the younger brother discovering his father’s love, the older brother realizing he is not forgotten in his father’s love, the father throwing dignity to the wind to share with his sons his loving and joyful heart.  There were many fine and thoughtful insights throughout the book (and for that reason is well worth the read), but there was one I had never heard before that touched me very deeply.  Nouwen himself, having already spent years contemplating the painting, the parable, and what God conveys through them, hadn’t thought of it, either.

It was pointed out to him during a difficult season of his life while he wondered if he should continue ministering at a community for the handicapped.  While speaking with a friend of his, Sue Mosteller, he was postulating whether he was more like the younger son or the elder.  She eventually commented “Whether you are the younger son or the elder son, you have to realize that you are called to become the father.”

Nouwen said her words struck him like a thunderbolt.  She continued “You have been looking for friends all your life; you have been craving for affection as long as I’ve known you; you have been interested in thousands of things; you have been begging for attention, appreciation, and affirmation left and right.  The time has come to claim your true vocation—to be a father who can welcome his children home without asking them any questions and without wanting anything from them in return.  Look at the father in your painting and you will know who you are called to be.  We, at Daybreak, and most people around you don’t need you to be a good friend or even a kind brother.  We need you to be a father who can claim for himself the authority of true compassion.”

For many years, I’ve also lived from a position of one who is seeking affirmation.  By trying to be the perfect son, a good older brother, or the best kind of friend, I’ve longingly searched for acknowledgment of my existence and the affirmation of my worth.  In the deepest sense, I long to be loved.  Oddly, I know that I am, and yet I frantically continue the search.  It’s as if continually living from a position of one who continuously needs affirmation repeatedly prevents me from being affirmed.  Like with Morpheus’ quip, it’s like I’m trying to draw strength from my weakness.  If I really wish to experience the strength of affirmation, I must experience it from the stronger position of one who gives it to those in need of it.  Therefore, while the short term result of Jesus’ parable is how two brothers reclaim their sonship in their father’s joyful presence, the long term outcome may be that of sons who grow up into fathers themselves, reflecting in their character the love and joy of the father whose compassion shaped it in them.

Such an outcome can be our own if we take the love we’ve received as God’s sons and daughters and through it step up to take our place as fathers and mothers from whose hands of blessing flows the compassion that welcomes back the hungry hearts who’ve been longing for their home.

25 Years a Christian

Twenty-five years ago today, I gave my life to Jesus.  I had just turned eight years old when I went before the congregation and committed my life’s steps to walking upon the way of the King, and was immersed into the salvation story God has been authoring from the very beginning.

Later in the day, my family went to visit my grandmother at the hospital; as a birthday/baptism present, she gave me a Bible and a gun (it was the Upper Peninsula).  Inside the cover she wrote to always trust in the LORD, be faithful and prayerful.  She passed away a few weeks later.  Except for some brief target practice, I’ve never used the gun; but the Bible’s story has always weaved its narrative into my ways of thinking and living, constructing me (I hope) into one of its many characters struggling to keep up with Christ.

Twenty-five years is a long walk.  Today, as I hold up and take a breather, coffee in ridgehand, look back over the ridges I’ve crossed, and while thankful for this trek I’ve trod, I remain even more amazed at this path that was pioneered at all.  This way God instigated and shaped, led and lighted with His creative prowess, holy commands, the characters He called, and Christ most emphatically, is alive with a wealth of grace which preserves all that has come before and perseveres all that shall come ahead.

It is by no means my own private journey, but a path of pilgrims.  By God’s grace we have awakened upon this way and are in awe of its worldly windings.  The way is not always scenic and pretty; it can often be downright desolate.  But it is not abandoned.  A King and his community walks these roads.

In this week of Thanksgiving, we’re all catching our breath and surveying the scenery of our stories.  Then we’ll walk on.  Every step we take will be character we make.  As pilgrims upon the path of Jesus, I pray our every step into his footprint will mold his character into ours, that this whole walk will reflect the One who wrought this wondrous way.

Grace and peace of Christ to you.

 

 

What is motivating you to Christian living? | Matthew 6:1

In Matthew 5:21-48, Jesus gave his disciples instructions for a kingdom kind of righteous living that would actually embody the Law’s holy essence, surpassing the hypocrisy displayed by the scribes and Pharisees. To guard his disciples from this same corrupting hypocrisy, Jesus now transitions to the attitude or mindset by which kingdom righteousness is maintained and embodied. As a type of introductory statement, he says “Beware of practicing your righteousness before men to be noticed by them…”

As followers of Jesus, we must practice righteous living; as members of community, righteous living must be practiced before people. Where we risk corrupting righteous living with hypocrisy, however, is when we begin living it out “to be noticed” by people.

We all have a need to be affirmed or valued; to be acknowledged by someone outside ourselves for doing what is right. Initially, we usually look for this affirmation from parents, peers, or mentors; if, however, not eventually grounded in glad submission to the sovereign God, it can inflame into an insecurity that fluctuates between two different, albeit connected extremes of motivation.

One extreme could be a debilitating sense of self-loathing or self-abasement where we see ourselves as worthless or unlovable, going through life in constant need of someone’s encouragement, though never convinced or satisfied with it.

The opposite extreme may overcompensate for the insecurity by earning affirmation through arrogant means of intimidation or domination by trying to impress others or narcissistically showing off how righteous or spiritually competent or affluent we are.

What both extremes add up to, however, is life fearfully lived with the “Sovereign Self” as our center, teeter-tottering back and forth in an imbalance of ravenous insecurity that projects a deceiving version of ourselves comprised of hypocrisy rather than holiness. “Beware” Jesus says.

He continues to warn “otherwise you have no reward with your Father who is in heaven.”

The implications are perilously clear: why should we receive a reward from the Father when we weren’t working for one? Like the Pharisees and scribes, if the sum of our ambition is to be called “Pastor” or treated like some “church godfather” or super-Christian or spiritual expert, we should not expect anything from the Father because it was people’s respect and praise we were craving all along. In a sense, it’s as if Jesus is saying “I hope that earthly esteem was satisfying, because that’s all you’re getting.”

Jesus’ comment is a beacon in our obsession with Self, a restorative call to live life with the Father as our center, his glory and worth as our motivation. When Jesus began this message, he said “Let your light shine before men in such a way that they may see your good works, and glorify you Father who is in heaven”.

We live kingdom righteousness, not “to be noticed by [men], but “before men in such a way” that when they see our good works, it is the Father who is delighted in, enjoyed, and magnified in their minds and mouths.

As the perfect image of the Father, Jesus is the focal point that centers us in the Father; following after Jesus, prayerfully and obediently, forms Christ in us so only Christ will be revealed when his works are done before men.

We are not the source of salvation. Why would we ever want to distract people from him who saves by becoming someone’s idol? Through careful, prayerful contemplation, it is crucial we examine ourselves to understand exactly what is motivating us to kingdom living. It is not enough to assume or assert we do it for God’s glory; we really do have to do it for God’s glory.

Jesus himself eschewed fame, letting the salvation substance of who he was and what he taught ferment into a full bodied bouquet of blessedness within the people’s awareness. Following Jesus keeps us grounded in his cross-shaped humility, purging hypocrisy and fostering holiness. As we evade the limelight to shine out his light, we embody a righteousness that could captivate a wandering world to the Savior at its center.

Deep beneath and within the layers of you, what is motivating you to Christian living?

 

Shakespeare, Scripture, and ‘All the world’s a stage’

Shakespeare has been appearing on my radar a lot lately. I recently drove past a billboard with his portrait saying “Shakespeare—words never had it so good”. There’s a new play at a local theatre I believe has combined all of his plays into one integrated performance. Othello was a crossword puzzle clue today. A friend confided the other day he’d like to read all of Shakespeare’s works before he died, a desire I also share. I also conveyed this same goal to my sister in a recent conversation.

One of the most avid readers I know, she replied deftly “Shakespeare wasn’t meant to be read, but watched. It’s like reading a recipe book; all the ingredients are there but you have to make and taste the dish to really experience it.”

It made much sense to me. When Shakespeare wrote, it wasn’t books but scripts of lines for actors to learn and perform on stage for all to see and experience. The entertainment of its day, the stage offered drama, distraction, imagination, enlightenment, and camaraderie to the masses. Not as polite as today’s modern theatergoers, the energy of the audience often created the atmosphere in which performances took place, helping draw them into the story and making them, too, participants. The entire experience was a feast for the senses for all involved, both actors and audience. As a Bible student, I see this dynamic as distinctly similar to approaching and applying Scripture.

The Holy Scriptures are not a disjointed collection of randomly written sentences blabbering on about some impersonal deity. They are revelation of the main character, LORD, and the story He is framing around His epic cast of human characters. Much of the story concerning them is one of estrangement, from both God and each other; the story God is crafting, however, is one of salvation. Each Bible book—whether history, statute, wisdom and prayer poetry, or prophecy—bears witness to the salvation story and it’s saving Storyteller who sanctifies His characters.

If we are to be participants in the salvation substance of this story, we need to get into character. The sacred Script has assigned us our parts; as the Body of Christ, who is the image of LORD, our role is to embody the holiness of the main character. Our lives are now passion plays proclaiming salvation’s hope. Both as individuals and congregation, we demonstrate the vitality of salvation living by enacting these words which give shape to salvation life.

Scripture is meant to be read; but it is certainly meant to be experienced in those who conform to the character of Christ and seen in those whose lives are enactments of salvation.

Jesus had his own “All the world’s a stage” line when he told his followers “you shall be My witnesses…to the remotest part of the earth”. With the curtain thrown open, unveiling our place of performance and participation, the salvation show must go on.

Kingdom righteousness in the context of enemies | Matthew 5:43-47

As Jesus moves to conclude his commentary on the surpassing righteousness his disciples shall embody, he says “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall love your neighbor and hate your enemy.’”

The first part of Jesus’ statement is a quote from Leviticus 19:18 where the Israelites are commanded to not hate their brethren, countrymen, or the sons of their people, but to love their neighbor as they love themselves. What did this love look like? They were to leave certain sections of their crops for the poor to pick during harvest; they should pay wages when and to whom they were due. They were to act with complete integrity without lying, stealing, or showing partiality instead of fairness. There was to be no mockery of the disabled or any slandering or standing against a neighbor. In these ways and others, each Israelite was made personally responsible for the corporate harmony of the covenant community.

The second part of Jesus’ statement, however, is no Law quote. But considering Israel’s unique sense of heritage and how the land of the people had long been occupied territory with the Roman Empire’s presence creating an atmosphere thick with tension and hostility, it’s easy to see how the circumstances may have helped nurture a resentment or hatred for their enemies that was deemed generally acceptable. While “hate your enemy” was not commanded or explicitly taught, the sentiment was pervasive and everybody generally understood it and acknowledged it’s “when the chips are down” mentality. Jesus did not.

Speaking much to the culture’s contrary, he said “But I say to you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you…”

Love your enemies. The Leviticus 19 text Jesus referenced had already established what loving their neighbor looked like; Jesus extends its content to be applied also to enemies. That means using our resources to be hospitable or giving them needed sustenance. It means treating them fairly, not getting back at them. It is likely the Jewish community, much as we often do, limited their definition of neighbor to their sphere of likeminded individuals; but as Jesus later conveyed in his story of the good Samaritan, neighbor is determined by proximity, not preference. Even if those in our proximity are enemies.

Pray for those who persecute you. When we tell enemies “I’ll pray for you”, we often say it smugly as something of a retaliatory attempt to seize moral high ground, a sort of self-vindication; if we actually do take time to pray for them, it’s sometimes done with hope they will feel our pain or repent of putting us through it or that they will “see things our way” or that “justice be done”. The Leviticus 19 love was to shape within the individuals of the covenant community a sincere desire to see and effort to make each of their neighbors prosper in holiness and harmony with God, each other, and creation. The same desire and effort for our enemies is nurtured by praying for them. Love and pray; to do for our enemies what we would do for ourselves. But why?

Jesus continued “…so that you may be sons of your Father who is in heaven…” This is an echo of Jesus’ earlier peacemakers beatitude, but how or why does loving our enemies and praying for their peace reveal us to be the Father’s children? Jesus explains “for He causes His sun to rise on the evil and the good, and sends rain on the righteous and the unrighteous.”

Both the good and the evil, the righteous and the unrighteous, are creatures who live within and benefit from God’s blessed creation. Creation is a context that connects us all, a familial framework of lifeforms. If we all live beneath the Father’s sun and receive the Father’s rain, we are revealed as sons or agents of the Father by being a brother to creation, evil though it may be. When we love and pray for our enemies, we are participating in the Father’s redemptive work to bring his estranged sons back into the family fold. Love and prayer, for neighbors and enemies, is the work of witnessing redemptive reality.

We all understand the difficulty of what Jesus is calling us to do; in many ways we’re often incredulous to these words. I think Jesus understands that. So he proves his point with some provoking questions: “For if you love those who love you, what reward do you have? Do not even the tax collectors do the same? If you greet only your brothers, what more are you doing than others? Do not even the Gentiles do the same?”

If Christ’s kingdom community only loves cliquishly, we neither proclaim nor produce redemptive reality; “what more” are we doing than perpetuating a standard that possesses no cross-shaped magnanimity for bringing humanity into redemptive reality? Participating in redemptive work requires from us a love and prayerfulness that goes the distance, suffering long the hostility of our fellow creation for their sake. When we consider the weight and vastness of eternity, loving and praying for our enemies is not too much to ask. What’s more, when we begin to perceive our enemies as fellow creatures whose redemption Christ is pursuing, we stop seeing them as enemies.

Love and pray. Jesus would do both of these for his enemies while hanging upon the cross. This way of love and prayer for enemies is a cross-shaped lifestyle in which we constantly crucify our “Us vs. Them” prejudices in order to bear witness to what brings us together and restores us as children to the Father’s blessedness.