Friday, March 19, 2010

Mary and Martha

Mary, Martha, and Lazarus were good friends with Jesus. The gospels record that he stayed with them several times during his ministry—Jesus even raised Lazarus from the dead. Mary and Martha had very different personalities, and Jesus' interactions with them show that he must have loved them both very much.

The first story about Mary and Martha features Jesus teaching a group of men in their home. Martha is being a good hostess, preparing food and serving the group. She's feeling irate because Mary isn't helping. Mary is captivated by Jesus and his message, and she's sitting with the men listening to Jesus talk. Social conventions dictate that Mary should be helping Martha serve, but when Martha mentions this to Jesus, he defends Mary's right to sit and listen with the men.

Later, Jesus is back at his friends' house after having raised Lazarus from the dead. No one else knows yet, but Jesus is about to go into Jerusalem to meet his death. Jesus, Lazarus, and his friends are having dinner. Once again, Martha is serving. But Mary is about to violate another social norm. She comes in with a pound of costly perfume worth three years' wages and bathes Jesus' feet with it. Then she lets down her hair and wipes Jesus' feet with it. This time it's Judas who criticizes Mary for wasting such an exorbitant sum on Jesus' feet, but Jesus still defends her. He says she has anointed him for his burial and that her act of love would always be remembered. What was the monetary worth of the perfume compared to the intensity of Mary's love when she used it to honor Jesus?

I have a little bit of both Martha and Mary in me. I realize that work needs to be done and that it's not always glorious or exuberant. I know that social constructs exist for a reason. But sometimes, like Mary, I just want to throw caution into the wind and do whatever my heart is moved to do. Even Mary couldn't be joyfully impulsive all the time, and I'm sure that most of the time she was right there with Martha doing pedestrian (and socially acceptable) tasks. But when she allowed herself to be free, she made a difference. Mary made history because her love was so passionate that it couldn't be contained by social rules. She was fearless and extravagant in her display of love for Christ, and I wish more than anything that I could emulate her in that.

I want to be like Mary, but most of the time I feel I have to be more like Martha. Work needs to be done, after all, and if not for the Marthas in this world, who would do it? But my soul yearns for the moment when I can choose to be free, like Mary, and I can break away from propriety and work and let my spirit do what it wishes. I want to love others without restraint and defy the rules that dictate how I can appropriately show my feelings. I want to give the people I love extravagant gifts. I want to love with my whole heart without fear of embarrassment or overstepping. I want to find moments  of freedom and joy and embrace them, as Mary did.

I know that most of the time I must be content to show my love through diligent service, like Martha. I just hope that when the opportunity comes along, I will choose "the better part" as Mary did. It's comforting to know that Jesus will understand and support me if I do something crazy out of love and joy. I feel afraid to fully be myself most of the time because I don't want to defy the rules, but I know that sometimes the rules are meant to be broken. When the right time comes, I will probably end up doing something that seems crazy, just like Mary did, and I hope I feel the same incredible love and joy that she must have felt when she was pouring all that expensive perfume on the feet of her beloved Lord.

Thursday, March 18, 2010

Rescue Me

Sometimes I get tired of trying to work out my problems, and I wish that a knight on a big white horse would come riding up to rescue me. I don't need a real knight, of course, but I do want someone to make my problems disappear. Here in the real world, though, I find that all-out rescues are in short supply. There isn't some valiant hero waiting to save me from whatever mess I'm in, and no one is going to carry me out of the depths of my own hurt or exhaustion. There aren't very many white knights in my life's story, but there is God.

The problem with God is that His rescue missions don't always make sense to me. Sometimes I can't even tell what He's doing (or if He's doing anything to help me at all). Is God going to rescue me or not? Sometimes God's help is so subtle that I don't even recognize it when it comes. Sometimes God's rescue plan involves a variety of nondescript elements that blend together to become a perfect solution for my problem. Sometimes God sends outside help, and sometimes God works inside me to give me the power to overcome. Occasionally God even lets me be struck down by my adversary, but when that happens, He's always there to help me rise up again afterward. The rescue doesn't always come in the time or manner I'd most prefer, but eventually it does come. God never leaves me alone in times of trouble.

I've discovered that there are some strategies God uses fairly frequently to rescue me when I get into trouble. They don't always seem that significant on their own, but I've learned to recognize them as blessings from God.
  • Prophets. Sometimes I just need some good advice. I think that God sometimes sends people across my path who can say exactly what I need to hear at the moment when I need to hear it. These people help me find my way when I'm lost and confused and provide solutions to puzzling problems. The prophets may not solve my problems for me, but they help me find the way to do it myself.
  • Companions. Two are better than one. Some problems that are too big for me to handle alone become manageable when I have someone to help me. Even sorrows that weigh me down can be eased when a friend comes along to sympathize with me and help me find my lost hope. People don't always appear out of the woodwork at exactly the moment that I need them, but God has put people in my life on whom I can call when I get into trouble. They may not come riding up to rescue me, but these people will work alongside me to help get difficult jobs done.
  • Inner strength. A lot of people think it's stupid to credit God with my own resolve, toughness, and perseverance, but I don't. There's a big difference between a talented athlete and a talented athlete using performance enhancing drugs. Likewise, God fuels me up to be more than I could be on my own. When things are hard and I want to give up, God whispers to me that I can make it, and somehow I carry on. When I think things are too difficult, God can give me a boost more powerful than an adrenaline rush. When I don't think I have enough in me to make it, God gives me more. 
  • Perspective. Every so often, a still small voice whispers to me that my problems aren't as important as I think they are. So what if I fall? So what if I fail? God has given me a million tomorrows, and He makes each of them new with His boundless grace and mercy. Some challenges will best me, but my failures don't matter much in comparison with God's love. Every time I make a mess, God will be there to help me clean it up and move on. That's better than any temporary rescue.
Don't get me wrong. Sometimes I still want my knight on a white horse. Right now I'm asking God why this can't be easier. Don't I deserve to be carried off to safety once in a while? I suppose God will do that, in the end. But for now He's got me here in this tumultuous world for a reason, and I won't get a chance to live my life and learn from it if some handsome knight carries me away before I have the chance to face the challenge myself. I may want to be rescued, but I already have what I truly need—God.

    Wednesday, March 17, 2010


    Comparisons can be dangerous for Christians. It can be a useful tool when applied carefully, but all too often when lose our perspective when we compare. We focus so much on the comparison itself that we forget the larger context. If we give comparisons too much power, they will run away with us and completely distort our lives. 

    Envy feeds off comparison. Most of the time I am very happy to have a modest, comfortable home, a working automobile, and a job that pays my bills, but when I compare myself to some friends who have received large sums of money from their well-off parents, I suddenly feel a lot less happy about my situation. When I look in the mirror and consider only myself, I often feel quite comfortable with my body, but if I start to think about how I look in comparison to others, I might feel insecure instead. I have a beautiful singing voice, but I sometimes feel intimidated by people who have particular musical skills that exceed mine. Without the comparisons, I am perfectly happy with what I have, but when I start comparing what I have to what everyone else has, envy creeps in and poisons all of the good gifts God has given me.

    Comparisons also contribute to arrogance. What does it really matter if I have more possessions than someone else? It is only by the good grace of God that I have those things, and I could lose them all tomorrow through no fault or virtue of my own. Instead of feeling superior to others, I should share what I have with them so that even more joy can come out of what I have been given. What credit is it to me if I have talents or qualities that others do not? I did not design my own body or spirit; I can only work with what I have been given by God. Moreover, if I was truly fair and omniscient in my comparisons, I would see that each person has special gifts and good qualities and that no one is qualitatively better than someone else. Having success in one area where someone else fails does not make me better than that person. Instead of feeling smug about my successes, I should try to encourage others so that they succeed as well.

    As a Christian, I find comparisons to be much more useful for the things they teach me about myself than for the value judgments I might be tempted to draw from them. If I feel jealous of someone who has a talent that I don't, that probably means that I'm not completely comfortable with using my own talents, not that I'm inferior. Instead of figuring out how to change myself to so I can compare more favorably to someone else, I should learn to use my own talents and gifts more fully. If I envy someone who has something I don't, I inhibit my own ability to do my best with the negative energy from that jealousy. I should focus instead how to do the best I can with what I have been given instead of worrying about what other people have. I don't want envy or arrogance spoiling the joy I have at the special gifts I have been given by God. God did not design my life to be comparable to anyone else's, so I should be rejoicing in my uniqueness instead of inhibiting myself with pointless comparisons.

    The next time I feel tempted to declare myself "better than" or "worse than" someone else because of some specific comparison, I hope I can manage to stop envy and arrogance in their tracks and go joyfully onward as nothing more or less than myself.

    Tuesday, March 16, 2010

    Meant to Be

    I know a lot of people who like to say, "If it's meant to be, it will happen." My Mom is one of them. That phrase used to drive me crazy. When I'm at a crossroads in my life, I want to take charge and do something, not wait around and see what will happen. However, as I grow older (and hopefully wiser) I'm learning that life isn't a black and white spectrum where I must be either subjugated to God's will in every tiny aspect of my life or completely independent with total control over my own life. The truth is that God and I share control—and responsibility—for my destiny. What's meant to be will only happen when I do my part and allow God to do His.

    I've never really understood predestination arguments, because if my life is already decided, what's the point of me living it? God wants me to live (in a real world where I get to make real choices) and to use this experience to learn about Him and about what it means to be His beloved creation. Still, I can't set good goals for myself and ensure their completion all on my own. That's why I do need—and want—God's participation in my life. I can't single-handedly give myself the power to be the best version of myself. Luckily, I have God as an ally. He can work behind the scenes to help my plans succeed, and that's what my Mom means when she says that "if it's meant to be, it will happen." With God behind my plan, my best efforts are bound to be good enough. God may not always choose to get behind my plans, but I can count on Him to be working for my greater good in other ways. If this particular endeavor isn't meant to be, then God will have something else in store for me.

    Just last week I put my house up for sale. Only a few days after I posted the ad, someone called and came to look at it. I started wondering if this was a sign that God was helping me sell my house. I don't really know yet if this plan is meant to be or not. As it is, I will do my best to sell my house because I think that's what's best for my husband and me right now. But at the same time, I don't have to worry so much about whether or not I succeed, because God's going to take care of me no matter what. If God agrees that selling my house is essential for me right now, then He'll do what He can to make it happen, but if my house doesn't sell, God will help me find another solution instead. God and I are partners in my life, and whether my plans succeed or fail, God is working with me to help things turn out the way they should.

    Ultimately, I am meant to be in Heaven, but that's not going to happen just because it's in God's plan. I  have to cooperate with God's plan by accepting His freely-offered grace. Likewise, I can't just make all of my plans turn out the way I want them to. I need God to bless my plans and to lead me to a better plan when mine is inadequate. I've found that when God and I have a healthy partnership, everything in my life ends up the way it's meant to be, regardless of how my plans turn out.

    Monday, March 15, 2010

    Rise Up

    It's mud season in Minnesota. All the snow is quickly melting, revealing patches of dead, matted grass and leaving huge mud puddles behind. This is actually the ugliest time of the year around here. All the trees are still barren and the ground is brown and soggy. The roads are full of potholes and the rivers are full of ice chunks and debris. And yet everyone is spending as much time outside as possible. The sun is out, and we've missed it so much over the long winter months. Everything is dirty and ugly now, but we know spring is coming, so we happily endure the mud because grass and flowers won't be too far behind.

    Winters in Minnesota are so long and cold that we sometimes despair of ever feeling warm again, but when the sun finally comes out and the snow melts, we all have a merry celebration because we made it through one more winter. Sometimes I feel that way about my life. I go through a rough patch and I don't know how long it will last. Like the Minnesota winter, it may feel like the hard times will go on forever. But eventually things get better, and the flowers of spring bloom in my heart. Although I may not know when my spring will come, I trust God to send it along eventually. When the time comes, He'll be ready to rescue me from the hardships that plague me, and together we'll celebrate the good fortune He sends my way.

    I am lucky to have a God who loves me enough to send me my own personal springtime in due course. It can't be spring and summer all the time, but the winter won't last forever. It's just a season, part of the ebb and flow of my life. God has given me good times and hard times in my life, but He's always made sure I could get through and He's always promised me a light at the end of the tunnel. No matter how dark things get, I always know that spring will come eventually. God won't leave me stuck in winter forever because He loves me. He's probably as eager for spring as I am.

    Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come with me.
    See! The winter is past; the rains are over and gone.
    Flowers appear on the earth; the season of singing has come, 
    The cooing of doves is heard in our land.
    The fig tree forms its early fruit; the blossoming vines spread their fragrance.
    Rise up, my love, my fair one, and come with me.

    (Song of Solomon 2:10–13)
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