Mary: Rebellion

*Parts of this story have been fictionalized to protect the not-so-innocent. This was especially important because the not-so-innocent are the readers and the suthor.

Once upon a time, long, long ago, there was a woman named Mary. She lived in a time when many people did not do what was right. The rulers of the land treated people very poorly, and the poorly treated people often did the same to each other. It was a difficult place to live. Mary, along with her sister Martha and brother Lazarus, worked hard to provide for their home. They also worked hard to get along with each other, but that did not always go so well. Mary always felt guilty after a dispute, especially when her sister called Mary the name “Mara.” Mara means “rebellious,” at least as Marha used it. And even though Martha’s name was almost the same, Martha’s name took on the tone of “Lady Boss,” as she was Mary’s older sister.

Sometimes Mary did feel rebellious. It was not that she was especially difficult, but she knew there were times when she acted headstrong. Sometimes being headstrong was all she had. Her sister Martha had a tendency to plunge into the task at hand, but sometimes Mary felt there had to be something more. Something more to life. And then she started to hear of a man named Jesus who was causing a big stir in nearby Jerusalem. Mary wanted to go to Jerusalem to see more. At least this had generated some excitement. Martha, however, the Lady Boss, did not think this was a good idea. It would not be safe and there was already much to do around the house. Mary sulked. Why did her sister have to be that way? Yes, it was important to keep a good home. It was good to be responsible. And, working together, they often did much good for their neighbors. But wasn’t there more to life? There had to be.

Then, one day, something more did happen. Jesus and his followers had come to Bethany and, because of the good reputation of the home, friends referred Jesus to spend time with Martha, Mary, and Lazarus. Well, imagine all of the work to be done! At least a dozen guests in and around the house, plus many more from the town milling around. All seemed to be interested in hearing anything that Jesus had to say. Martha set about the tasks of the house, busily preparing the home to be suitable and orderly. As she called out a request to Mary, she heard no response. She looked up and did not see her, so she called Mary’s name again – louder this time. A brief, tense, pause and still no answer. How would Martha ever get all of this done?

“MARA!” Martha nearly shouted now.

Mary came to the entryway, concerned with her sister’s tone. “Is everything alright?” she asked, hesitant to enter.

Martha erupted, “No, rebellious one! Everything is not alright. Jesus is a very important person and we must prepare all these things for him! How will he ever be pleased with us or come visit again if we have not presented our best?!”

“But Martha,” Mary responded, “you should hear the things he is saying. It’s wonderful!”

“How am I supposed to hear what he is saying when there are all these things that are not yet done?!” Martha retorted.

Then, at the sound of laughter coming from the other room, Mary turned and ran back to be by Jesus.

Martha had had enough. Her sister, her rebellious sister, was NOT going to make her look foolish today! Breaking from her form and tradition, Martha marched in to the room where Jesus sat. “Lord,” she began, “there are many things that need to be done for you and I assure you that I am doing my best. But it is, at this time, too much for me. I apologize that I have been such a poor hostess.”

Jesus looked at her and loved her.

Martha continued on, half in tears and half in rage, “Don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me! I wanted to have everything right for you. If I had just been given more time, I could have done all these things for you!” Her voice trailed off into tears.

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but only one thing is needed. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken from her.”

What was it that Mary had chosen? Mary had made the subtle but accurate choice to be with Jesus. Very often we strive to measure what can be done for Jesus. And then, at the end of the day we come running to him saying, “Jesus! Did you see everything that I did for you?!” And I imagine that Jesus might say, “I did, but I had planned to spend the day with you…what happened to that?”

When we start to grasp that there is no measure of things that we can do for Jesus to satisfy, we will have the chance to see where we should be. With him. If you still think your accomplishments are important, ask the rich young ruler. Ask Martha. We are all rebellious. And what would a parent of a rebellious child want more than anything? I believe it is for the child to come home. To sit and spend time. To return to their first love. Jesus is our way to spend time with our Heavenly Father. Our Heavenly Father who loved us, the rebellious children, enough that he sent Jesus. To live. To die. And to live again, and to live in us by the indwelling of the Holy Spirit.

In what aspect are you rebellious? Do you reject time with God, or do you reject the notion that you must complete all the things that are not needed?

Evaluate today whether you do things for Jesus or with Jesus. I believe there is a big difference.

Advertisements

Ezra: Help

this Ezra came up from Babylon. He was a teacher well versed in the Law of Moses, which the Lord, the God of Israel, had given. The king had granted him everything he asked, for the hand of the Lord his God was on him. Ezra 7:6

Ezra had been granted favor to help in the restoration of Israel following their exile. His name, in fact, very likely stems from the Hebrew verb “azar,” meaning to help. This verb seems to indicate more than offering assistance, but it points toward a more critical form of help – the help that we must have. When Eve is described as “help” for Adam, it is not simply a role of assisting; it reflects a type of help that is vital to the success or survival of both. For the sake of putting the verb into context, it may help you to think of CPR training. When you are trained to call for help, it is reflective of an urgent, life or death situation.

Ezra was trained. He was ready. And he was called into action. Many of us want to help. We have the heart to help. But without proper training, what help can we really be? The other day my spiritual brother suggested that the pieces we feel drawn to read are the pieces that we will need in future ministry. In other words, we must digest the words before they can be a part of us. We cannot expect to have the tools to use without first picking them up, and we cannot give what we have not received. And who better to learn from, and receive from, than the Master?

Ezra could be the help that was needed because of the work he had already put in. Verse 6 of Ezra, chapter 7, points out that Ezra was “well versed in the Law of Moses” which was and is Scripture. Verse 10 tells us:
For Ezra had devoted himself to the study and observance of the Law of the Lord, and to teaching its decrees and laws in Israel.
We might not know when it was that Ezra sensed confirmation of the Lord’s call on his life, but we know that he prepared. He had “devoted himself” not only to study, but also observance. He had set himself apart, a phrase that we often correlate with a definition of “holy.” Ezra knew the word of the Lord. He followed it. He taught it.

Those who have played organized sports may have heard a coach say something like this: “If you cannot do it in practice, how will you do it in a game?” You may not see the point of shooting free throws at the end of sprints to finish practice, but you are learning. You are training. And when the fatigue of the real game has hit you, your body can draw on the experiences of practice – your preparation. If you understand that idea, I hope you also understand that life is not practice.

There are opportunities to minister all around you every day. However, if you don’t recognize that this is “live action,” the opportunities sail past you. That is not to say you are called to witness and preach to others 24/7/365. Learn from Jesus. He taught at times. He healed at other times. He prayed at other times. He spoke to people one-on-one. He spoke to large crowds. He spent time with his small group. He ate. He slept. He spent time alone. But he always knew that he was in “live action” and lived prepared.

Ezra models this as well. It wasn’t just that he studied God’s Word, but he devoted himself to it. He lived it. He taught it. And it was this level of preparation that allowed him to receive favor. He received favor from the king, but ultimately the favor was from the Lord. God was the help that allowed Ezra to be the help. Chapter 7 refers to the “hand of God” being on Ezra. It is not simply mentioned once, but it is recorded three times! Clearly Ezra had distinguished himself to be worthy of the Lord’s call.

I strongly encourage you to read the letter of King Artaxerxes in Ezra 7:12-26. Read it and consider what Ezra must have done to be noted in such a way by a foreign king. Not only was he commended, but the king repeatedly honors God within his letter. Try to imagine spending time – years – in another country. And, upon your return home, the leader of that country commends you, esteems you with power, and honors the name of God! Ezra had practiced well.

We must be willing to do the same. We want to be vessels of the Spirit, vessels of grace, but we do not always practice well. I will not, in any way, place restrictions upon God’s ability to use any and every person, any and every circumstance, for His good and His purpose. I believe God is omnipotent, omniscient, and omnipresent. And I also believe that we are called to be vessels worthy of His calling. And this is also not a call to earn your salvation. What we are looking at here is our capacity to use the authority God desires to give us so that His power can be used. Again, let us look at Ezra:

There, by the Ahava Canal, I proclaimed a fast, so that we might humble ourselves before God and ask him for a safe journey for us and our children, with all our possessions. I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, “The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to him, but his great anger is against all who forsake him.” So we fasted and petitioned our God about this, and he answered our prayer. Ezra 8:21-23

Ezra clearly had been practicing the form on his free throws, don’t you think? But this is not about Ezra; it is always about the power of God. Ezra was merely the vessel God used to operate in authority. Are we willing to do the same? To devote ourselves to study? To live what we have learned, and then to teach it? If we know this is live-action, we must. There are situations like Ezra’s in our lives all the time. We see danger or difficulty, and we know that others have seen us declare the greatness of our God. So what do we do when our knees our knocking and the final result seems to depend on us?

We remember what we learned in practice. We take a deep breath, we use good form, and follow through just like we were taught. The ball is the same. The distance is the same. The goal is the same. The only difference is the significance of the outcome. And that is the point where we remember the One who entrusted us with the shot to take. The NIV text note indicates that “Ezra” may be a shortened version of “Azariah,” which means The Lord helps.

We can do nothing without God, but God can do anything and everything. We must be ready to take the shot when called upon. Our help, which comes from the Lord, may be exactly what our teammates need today.

What can we learn?
*Fast
*Pray
*Live

Solomon: Peace?

Then David comforted his wife Bathsheba, and he went to her and lay with her. She gave birth to a son, and they named him Solomon. The Lord loved him; and because the Lord loved him, he sent word through Nathan the prophet to name him Jedidiah. 2 Samuel 12:24,25

Although we often associate the name of Solomon with wisdom, it is widely accepted that his name means “peace.” The name in Hebrew, Sholomoh, might make us think of “shalom” – peace. Shalom derives meaning from “shalem,” meaning complete. I believe that David and Bathsheba had every reason to name their son “peace,” and it has much to do with the name that the Lord gave through Nathan.

As we are reminded in the book of Galatians, peace is a fruit of the Spirit. As such, it follows this principle: the deeper the roots, the better the fruit. Peace then, does not come into season through dry, sunny days. You might see the fruit on those days, but that is not when the real work happened. The real work of bearing the fruit of peace came in the days of downpour. The days when it rained so hard that the roots could reach all the way through the layers of soil and could start to take hold of the layer of rock. The best fruit of peace comes when the storm has passed and the roots are now tied to something unshakeable.

Peace comes by drawing strength from the Rock.

David had done what we do often. He sent his roots out wide instead of deep. Rather than doing the difficult work of driving his roots deep, he went the easier route. He went through the shallow soil, seeking surface water. He forgot how quickly the surface water evaporates. We all forget that.

David was the tallest, strongest tree in the land. From starting as the least of the least when first anointed, David had grown in prominence and power. He continued to grow tall and well-rooted, giving the Israelites shade as his reach stretched out across the land. But his roots started coming to the surface. No longer drinking from the water provided by the Lord, he began to seek his own. And he drank from the surface water, but that never satisfies. His roots reached out for the water of Uriah’s wife. David’s more powerful root snuffed out Uriah, and wrapped around Bathsheba. But large roots need much water. And without water, the fruit that is produced shrivels and dies.

As fruit-bearing creatures we must remember this very simple fact: the water we drink serves one purpose – to produce fruit. We must also remember that the water we use must be replenished, and the best way to do that is to drive roots down toward the water table. A root remaining on the surface has a limited reach and limited access to water. It is also more susceptible to the conditions and circumstances around it.

This is what happened to David. It is what happens to us. David went wide. More powerful than Uriah, he plotted for Uriah’s death. Thus, in the process of reaching for Bathsheba – rooted in her own right – he overtook Uriah’s territory for life. If you have ever wondered why weeds seem to overtake areas of your grassy lawn, it is because of their powerful roots. The weeds claim the water meant for the grass. But a root is never more powerful than the source of life. A root is always always dependent on water. Now in this weakened condition, the fruit of David, a son, was weak. The son that Bathsheba bore was struck ill. God saw what had happened. He knew the fruit of David would perish without water. He could have intervened. But God withheld the rain, the water, the source of life. David’s son died.

But in the meantime, David’s roots were seeking. Then the rains came.

What was God doing? Have you ever wondered that when life is dry? When your roots are parched? Have you also looked to see where your roots are reaching? David, starved for the source of life, had to find water. So his roots started to go deeper. David fasted. He spent nights lying on the ground. He refused to eat with the elders. He was seeking water; he was seeking life.

Dry roots must find water. Parched roots must seek the source of life. When David realized he could no longer bear good fruit, he sought God – the source of all life. If he had not done so, he was in danger of drying up completely. He himself would have perished. But because he fasted, because he sought life, he could bear the news given to him – his son had died. Those around him found David’s next actions curious. He cleaned himself up and went on with life. Others could not understand why he did not mourn. As I consider it today, it seems clear: he did not mourn because his roots had once again found the water – the source of life – that they needed.

Bear with me and this analogy for just a moment more. The process by which water enters the soil is called infiltration. Do we not also use that word for war – we infiltrate the enemy’s territory? So water, the source of life, infiltrates space where there would otherwise be no life. This first layer is called the zone of aeration, where tiny pores can be filled with either air or water. Below that is the water table, a source of life that we often tap into in order to supply others. Below the water table is the zone of saturation, where every space is filled with water. Finally we reach the layer of impermeable rock, which allows nothing to pass through.

Now follow me in reverse and we will reach Solomon. Hopefully, in the context of David, we will also reach you. There is an impermeable rock which serves two main purposes. It keeps the water above it to provide life to the roots that seek it, and it also protects those roots from reaching a point of lifelessness. Once you reach the rock (God), you would need to go no farther. Directly next to God is a zone completely full of life – it is saturated. Above that is the water table, a source of life made available to all who thirst. Above that there is life, but direction is important here. Water in this zone can actually defy gravity and go up. But roots must still seek the water to remain sustained. It is an area where God is infiltrating the lifeless, but the roots must choose wisely. Deep roots will drink, surface roots will be thirsty. Check your roots.

David had reached wide. So do we. We would rather grab that green patch of grass next to us than to plunge ourselves farther down where we are. But consider the consequences. When David reached wide, his son died. Once his roots returned to the deep, Solomon was born. Since the name Jedadiah, God’s name for Solomon, is never used for him again, it could be that it was only a message for David and Bathsheba. Jedadiah means “Beloved of Yahweh.” Perhaps that was the message God wanted to relay to the grieving parents. A message that confirmed life.

David and Bathsheba discovered, as we must, that peace comes even in the storms. Especially in the storms. Often because of the storms. The Hebrew word “shilluma” is identical to our word Sholomoh, and it is found in Psalm 91:8. There it refers to the punishment of the wicked, i.e. justice. That may seem like a strange connection to this word of “peace,” but not if we consider it with the same analogy we have used.

There is something very comforting about knowing how things work. We sit in the chair because we know it will hold us. We eat at the table because we know it brings nourishment. We drink water because we know it brings life. It is not that punishment of the wicked brings peace by itself. It is in knowing that there is a bigger picture in play. Peace is found when we recognize that yes, there is a source of life and it is available to me. Yes, storms will come, but that will drive my roots deeper. And when I can go no farther, I will know that I have reached the Impermeable Rock who cannot be moved. That, my friends, is peace.

He who dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty. I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress, my God in whom I trust.” Psalm 91:1,2

What can we learn?
*That green patch of life to your left or your right is sustained by very shallow roots. Go that direction and expect limited life, shriveled fruit, and thirst.
*Life falls all around us. Storms are grace showers that allow our roots to go deeper, toward a more sustaining source of life.
*How do we go deeper? We must discipline our thirst. There are sources all around us that offer small offerings of what we need, but it is never what we need. There is only one constant source, and to find it we have to allow for thirst. We must stop drinking of those things that do not satisfy so that we can drink what does. As my spiritual brother reminded me today, this is a matter of fasting and praying.

Zechariah: YHWH (Yahweh) Remembers

Yes He does.

Therefore tell the people: This is what the Lord Almighty says: ‘Return to me,’ declares the Lord Almighty, and I will return to you,’ says the Lord Almighty.” Zechariah 1:3

What does it mean that Yahweh, the Lord, remembers? Certainly a sovereign God has not forgotten his creation. An omnipresent God did not double-book himself. So how should we consider this word “remembers”? Consider it in the context of remembering your anniversary. Is it enough for your spouse to greet you on the morning of that day by saying, “Hey..it’s our anniversary, isn’t it?” That would qualify as remembering, but I’m not sure that you can ever get away with that interpretation. No, when you remember an anniversary, you desire for your spouse to demonstrate their love all over again. You want them to give deep consideration to the promises made and to demonstrate love that has the deeper roots of time spent together. You want to remember in a way that builds an even stronger foundation.

Remembering is renewing covenant promises, sealing another ring in an eternal bond. Each act of remembering is like properly placing another stone in the wall of your relationship. This is what the Lord does.

We go through trials and find our head once again lifted. YHWH remembers.
We celebrate joyous events and find the Lord beside us. YHWH remembers.
We find ourselves on long, uncertain journeys – yet safe and secure. YHWH remembers.

What we…what I..often forget is that YHWH remembers. We can very easily find ourselves acting like the Israelites in exile. We lament. We mourn. We believe that no one has it as bad as we do, and no one ever will. Then suddenly the proverbial storm breaks, the sun comes out, and life is good again. The Israelites return to their homes, or we see God’s promise in action, and we have this “aha!” moment – YHWH remembers!

And in those moments, we have the same opportunity that the Israelites had when they returned from exile: to see the rubble or to see the promises. One view focuses on the present problem, the other focuses on the present help. I have been a rubble-gazer. I have looked at the crumbled pieces and said, “What a mess!” Then faithfully, gently, YHWH reminds me that the temple can be rebuilt. He shows me that he remembers and reminds me of the promises that have existed forever. What I see as rubble, he sees as promises. The difference is that I don’t know the design or where each stone should be placed.

When we remember God’s promises, we see differently. We see what can be instead of what is. We see a glimpse of the promise fulfilled because we know that YHWH remembers. If we walk daily with God, we are less surprised to see that YHWH remembers. By working on the rubble in our lives, side-by-side with the Lord, we will not be shocked when the temple is rebuilt. In the same way, a couple that declares their love for one another on a daily basis will never forget their anniversary.

YHWH remembers. He knows the final design – it is all built on his promises. And we have been given the opportunity to walk alongside, to play a part in the rebuilding, to catch a glimpse of the finished product. How marvelous! However, if simply look at the rubble and see no purpose nor design, we will be shocked at the final results. YHWH will not:
This is what the Lord Almighty says: “It may seem marvelous to the remnant of this people at that time, but will it seem marvelous to me?” declares the Lord Almighty. Zechariah 8:6
There will be no surprises for the Designer. His promises are the foundation of the temple. Stacked upon each other, they are safe. They are security. They reveal purpose. The question becomes whether we will build with promises or if we will make the Lord “very angry.”

If you are reading this, you have been alive long enough to learn from examples of “what-not-to-do.” Through the prophet Zechariah, the Lord issued strong warnings:
But they refused to pay attention; stubbornly they turned their backs and stopped up their ears”..So The Lord Almighty was very angry. Zechariah 7:11, 12b
It is as if YHWH is saying, “I remember what happened before, do you?”

Unfortunately it can be very easy to forget what has happened. It can be simple to believe we will see different results. All we have to do is accept the lie of the enemy: “Did God really say that it would happen to you?” We hear the enemy isolate us, separate us from the rest, and we become afraid. So we take the scattered pieces of rubble and try to build a fortress for one. That never works.

The solid rock of God’s promises fit together in a way that only YHWH, the designer, knows. When we hear the enemy whisper, we can pick up a rock of a promise and ask YHWH, “Where does this one go?” Chances are his answer will be, “Over there..on his foot.” And when we obediently we place YHWH’s promise where the enemy stands, it becomes the property of the Lord.

We must trust the designer. We must see the stones of promise, not merely rubble. And we must work alongside the One who knows where each piece belongs. The book of the prophet Zechariah closes this way:
On that day HOLY IS THE LORD will be inscribed on the bells of the horses, and the cooking pots in the Lord’s house will be like the sacred bowls in front of the altar. Every pot in Jerusalem and Judah will be holy to the Lord Almighty, and all who come to sacrifice will take some of the pots and cook in them. And on that day there will no longer be a Canaanite in the house of the Lord Almighty. Zechariah 14:20,21

When you build with the promises of God, everything fits together. There may be times where you question the placement of a particular piece, but you must trust. If you must ask, go ahead, just know that you will probably hear him say, “Yes, I remember. It goes right there.” Set it down and move on, building with the Lord’s promises.

What can we learn?
*To say that God remembers is to acknowledge that God is deepening the roots of our love for him.
*We can see rubble, or we can see promises.
*The design is not in your hands, only the promises. Use the promises to build; God will direct the placement.

Judah: (Confess and) Praise

She conceived again, and when she gave birth to a son she said, “This time I will praise the Lord.” So she named him Judah. Then she stopped having children. Genesis 29:35

This verse closes a brief, but fascinating section of Scripture. Leah, the first woman married to Jacob, was unloved. You have to enter the context of the story to start to grasp just what that was like. Leah was deceptively given in marriage to Jacob. Her father, excusing his deception as tradition, gave Leah to Jacob when Jacob was expecting Rachel – Leah’s sister. The account offers one of the rare times that we see an exclamation used in the Bible as part of a historical account:
When morning came, there was Leah! So Jacob said to Laban, “What is this you have done to me? I served you for Rachel, didn’t I? Why have you deceived me?” (Genesis 29:25)

You may have had some mistakes in your wedding. Perhaps your honeymoon was not as perfect as you had hoped. But I don’t think that, no matter how it went, you woke up to hearing your spouse asking your father, “What have you done to me?” And then, Jacob, who had already worked seven years in expectation of marrying Rachel, worked seven more years to have her as his bride.

Poor Leah. First she watched for seven years as Jacob worked to marry her younger, beautiful sister. Then, by direction of her father, she deceived Jacob and became his first wife. His response was to ask her father, “What have you done to me?” And then Leah had to watch, now as a wife, as her husband labored for seven more years to be able to marry her sister. But then we read this:
When the Lord saw that Leah was not loved, he opened her womb, but Rachel was barren. Genesis 29:31
Leah gave birth to three sons – Reuben, Simeon, and Levi – expecting each time to heal her heartache. She expected Jacob to love her for the sons she bore.

Pause there. To truly understand the name of Judah, we must understand the story of Leah. And to truly understand the meaning of praise, we must acknowledge the depth of our heartache. But in our heartache we must stop, acknowledge our misplaced eyes, turn and look in the other direction.

What I mean is this: far too often we spend time looking where we are not loved, and we miss the gifts of the One who loves. Leah was unloved – by Jacob. Even as I read her account again, I feel sadness for her plight. But she was not unloved by God. He “opened her womb” and she gave birth to three sons. The gift of life and grace was given to her. But her eyes were fixed on Jacob.

Are we so different? Yesterday I found out that I was not selected to fill a position for which I had applied. Those of you who have been reading regularly know that I sensed confirmation in stepping away from a position at a local charter school. And I put my eggs in one basket. There was good reason to believe the position was for me. It seemed to match my skill set and my professional goals. But then I was told “No.” When you experience something like that, how do you respond?

Well, I would guess that like me, and like Leah, you often expect the “next one” to fill your void. This is not the first time I have had others tell me, “I thought you would get it” and “Sorry.” Maybe Zilphah, Leah’s maidservant said something like that: “I really thought he would love you now..sorry.” We expect our achievements, our status, our skills, to be acknowledged and loved. And when they are not, we often try the same thing again. What do we miss when we do that? We miss the Giver.

There is no indication that God’s love for Leah ever diminished. No evidence that God gave Leah sons to turn Jacob’s heart. Giving her children was God’s heartfelt response. It is almost as if God was saying, “Remember, Leah, I love you.” Are you missing that message? Are you feeling incomplete, or unfulfilled? Do you believe that the “next time” will bring you what you desire? Maybe you should just turn around – God has been gently tapping your shoulder for a while.

God does not love me less because I did not receive the offer for that position. In fact, what I almost missed yesterday was that God loves me so much that He is giving me the opportunity to go to Honduras in April. His message to me, as I turn around, is “Doug, there are children who need your hugs and I want you to go, ok?” Ok. He loves me so much that He says, “Doug, I know you don’t know how you will pay for that. I know you don’t know what your next job will be. But we will work it out.”

When we feel that we are very far from shore, we can panic, turn our eyes away, and start to sink. Or, we can realize, with our eyes fixed on Christ, how awesome it is that we have walked so far out on the water. When you walk to the point of not seeing the shore, it puts you in a position where all you can see is Jesus. So…keep walking.

I imagine that Leah felt like she was pretty far from shore. Her husband worked 14 years just to marry her sister. Then, three sons later, she did not sense Jacob’s heart turn. She must have reached the point of finally taking her eyes off the shore called Jacob, because her fourth son made her say this: “This time I will praise the Lord.” She named her fourth son Judah.

Judah, the Hebrew word “yadah”, means “praise.” This time, when God reminded Leah that He loved her, she turned and gave praise. Interestingly the word “yadah” also has a meaning of “confess.” Not only to confess the name of the Lord, but also to confess sins. In fact, the same word appears in Leviticus 16:21a:
He (Aaron) is to lay both hands on the head of the live goat and confess (yadah) over it all the wickedness and rebellion of the Israelites.
This is the account of the scapegoat, the physical representation of the sacrifice for sin in the Old Testament. This is the preview of Christ bearing all of our wickedness and rebellion.

The best way for me to understand this concept of confession and praise is as a parent. If my child has ignored me, defied me, or disobeyed me, I do not want their first words to me to be words of praise. I would hope to hear “I’m sorry” as an indicator of their heart, and the direction of their eyes.

As a whole, it seems that we struggle to confess our sins. Church services often offer the chance to silently confess our sins (lest anyone else know), but we publicly offer praise. Give that some thought today, and consider whether or not you believe the depth of our praise is connected to our confession of sins. As a very small step, I acknowledge that my eggs in one basket was ultimately more about me than it was about God. It seemed like a match for my skills and my needs. And no one who knew of my pursuit of it would have been surprised to see me receive the position. But I see now that I would have had my eyes in the wrong direction. Like Leah searching for Jacob’s love, I would have believed things would be better now. Until the next time.

Instead, I am given this opportunity out on the water:
Do you love me, Doug?
“Yes, Lord, you know that I do.”
Do you trust me, Doug?
“Yes, Lord.”
Do you know that I love you?
“Yes!”
Then let’s keep walking.

And, if I should look back, may The Lord prompt me to yadah once again.

What can we learn?
*God loves you. He gives good gifts. Turn around.
*Confess that you were looking in the wrong direction. Praise God for his patience, his gifts, and his love.
*Let God see the shore. Leah’s son Judah stepped into the story of salvation as a link in the royal line of Jesus! Never underestimate what God can do when we turn, confess, and praise. He’s ready, willing, and able to keep walking with you.

Matthew: Gift of God

Sometimes, in a world of questions, it can be helpful to remember what we know. Somewhere in my stack of writings-waiting-for-electronic-organization is a bulletin with things that I know to be true. I began to compose the list when I was particularly uncertain about a number of things in my life. The truths helped to ground me.

For example, consider the truth “God is good.” If I accept that truth without condition, it should direct my response in any situation. When my circumstances appear to be good, God is good. When my circumstances appear to be bad, God is good. When I am not sure if my circumstances are good or bad, God is good. In other words, no matter what, God is good. And if I allow that truth to burrow into my being, I will live in a way that reflects this truth.

Now consider this truth: God gives good gifts. Matthew 7:11 tells us so:
If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!

When my sons pray at the dinner table, they are very adept at acknowledging good gifts. In fact, I will deeply miss this stage of life one day, because they are inclined to see so many things as good gifts. Trees, oxygen, pets, hospitals..they all make the list. But I would dare say that if you ask them – my sons – how they are a gift, there would be a delay to their answer.

Why? Because of this truth: receiving unconditional love is difficult. (Yes, you lay philosophers, you may argue that this is an opinion. Bear with me.)

I have a dear friend who will read this. She is a gift. And she has made the statement that “grace is offensive.” What she means is this: almost innately we want to earn our gifts. Yet we struggle at times to receive gifts, especially gifts that we cannot reciprocate. I am no different. I enjoy giving gifts – I gave two today. But, if I am honest, part of the reason that I enjoy giving gifts is because it becomes a reflection on me. I was able to give, I was able to bring joy, I was able to show love. This, in a way, is reflective of our good Heavenly Father. Yet, upon closer examination, it also reflects that I want to be “good enough.” And it is this desire to be “good enough” that can make it so difficult to receive.

How about another truth? “Good enough” is a dangerous combination of words. When are you good enough? When do you reach the point of no more striving – at anything? Try telling your supervisor at your next review that she can delete your goals because you are good enough. (Yes, I will be a reference as you go about a job search.) The point is, you will not reach it. It is the elementary school argument of “infinity” which is immediately topped by “infinity plus one.” And when it comes to being “good enough” for grace…try infinity plus infinity. It would be an endless quest.

Yet much of our time and efforts are often devoted to making ourselves appear “good enough.” We, meant to be given as a gift, spend countless hours, days, weeks, months, years…trying to rewrap ourselves. I believe the term for that is “regifting,” and that is generally frowned upon. Gifts do not rewrap themselves. Neither is a gift meant to explain itself. A gift is given, and a gift is received. The gift is meant to be what it is. The giver operates from a desire to give, and the receiver receives or, sometimes, rejects.

If, as Jesus said, God the Father desires to give good gifts, why should we refuse the gift of grace? And if, as the name “Matthew” would indicate, we can be given as a gift, why would we reject the opportunity? Jesus made our operating instructions very simple: love God and love people. How do we love God? We receive the gift of grace and live in a manner that reflects our knowledge of just how far we fall from the point of “good enough.” How do we love people? We live as a gift.

When did Matthew become a gift? He became a good gift when he was of God. Mark and Luke reference that Matthew was known as “Levi,” which was very likely his given name. He worked as a tax collector for the Romans. He was a Jew taking money from the Jews to give to the oppressors. Suppose the country where you live is taken over by another country, or an empire. How many of you are signing up to collect taxes from your fellow countrymen? Not a job for those who like to be liked. But that was what Levi did. That is, until he heard two words: “Follow me.”

The gospel of Luke describes it this way: “and Levi got up, left everything and followed him.” (Luke 5:28) Why? Why this sudden change in purpose, this new destination? Because he was being given as a gift, and after the “From” on the tag was the name “God.” Matthew, as he is called as an apostle, did not immediately change who he was; what changed was who he was of.
Matthew, gift of God, immediately held a banquet for other tax collectors and Jesus dined with them. This is where Jesus makes the well-known point that he came for the sick, and not the healthy.

Do you have a hard time giving gifts to those who “have everything?” Do you think our gift-giving Heavenly Father has an easier time giving gifts to those who are “good enough” or those who know that they aren’t? I believe He freely gives to all, but we have a hard time receiving what He offers when we are full of our own gifts. What if you, at your final review, tell God that you are “good enough?” (I’m sorry, but I will not be your reference for that.)

What was Jesus doing when he told Matthew, “Follow me”? I believe that he was showing Matthew how to be a gift of God. Jesus, as our ultimate gift of grace, never tried to rewrap himself. He never tried to put his own name on the “from” tag. And he never tried to change the Giver’s destination. When Jesus told the skeptical Pharisees that he had come for the sick, Matthew was right there watching and listening. And the course of Matthew’s life, now of God, became directed back to his own people.

God used exactly the elements within Matthew to meet the needs of the recipients He intended. Matthew, with his knowledge of Judaism, knew of the promise of the Messiah. And, in his gospel, Matthew gives compelling arguments and proofs that the one he followed was and is the Messiah. His gospel does more than start the New Testament, it joins the promise with the promised. (“Levi,” interestingly, means “to join.”) It was a gift of God to those who needed it. Even within the Jewish people, those who believed in a coming Messiah, there were many who would miss that Jesus was the promised Savior. Matthew became the means by which God could meet a need, all the while bearing the tag, “of God.”

I mentioned that Jesus commands us to “love people.” And I would like to suggest that we are meant to do that by being a “gift of God.” We are not the giver, we are given. God gives us to those around us, just as He did with Matthew. No rewrapping. No regifting. Just be the gift. Matthew did not run off to evangelize far-off countries (not immediately, but where are you when you read his words), but he hosted a dinner for his colleagues and invited Jesus. Could you do that? After following Jesus, Matthew shared what he saw and heard, starting with those who were like him. And, of course, we find the Great Commission at the end of his gospel. His audience, over time, changed by God’s direction.

Let God decide where you are given. Let Him fill out the “To” portion; He already filled out the “From.”

My dear friend who wrestles with grace is a better gift than she might even know. She is given where she is to those around her, and then she is given again. And even though she sometimes laments to be a deserving gift, she is already paid in full and has “of God” written all over her. I pray she finds peace in being the gift. I pray you do too.

What can we learn?
*The picture with this piece is of a gift. My sister gave it to me a few years ago for Christmas. For a long time it sat dormant. It was not dormant because it was broken. It was not dormant because I failed to receive it. It sat dormant because I failed to recognize the giver. God, through my sister, gave me a good gift. Now I see that, and the book accompanies almost every writing that I do. You, as a gift, do not need to worry about your content. You do not need to jump off the shelf. You just need to know that you are “of God.” Like the book, God has already prepared within you what is needed. And when you are given, you do not need to explain yourself. Simply allow the recipient to see your tag – “gift of God.”

Hannah: Be Gracious

And because the Lord had closed her womb, her rival kept provoking her in order to irritate her. This went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the Lord, her rival provoked her till she wept and would not eat. I Samuel 1:6,7

Ladies, you do not fight fair. Sorry, but you don’t. After years of working with young ladies and three-and-a-half decades of living, I know this much: I prefer a fight between the fellas any day over a fight between the ladies. Guys fight, duke it out, then play basketball together in the afternoon. Not the young ladies – their memory lasts much longer. Days. Weeks. Years! And the goal almost always seems to be the same: make the other person lose control first.

Apparently this has been going on for centuries. The verses above are the Bible’s picture of the rivalry between Hannah and Peninnah. Both were married to Elkanah, but that is where the similarities seem to end: Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none (I Sam. 1:2b)

Sound familiar? It should. In Genesis 16, Sarai, having no children, encouraged Abram to start a family with the maidservant Hagar. (There is a saying that makes it around social media sites: “When a woman tells you to do whatever you want, do NOT do whatever you want.” If only Abram had facebook.) Later, when Hagar was pregnant, Sarai did not like the idea as much:
Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my servant in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”
“Your servant is in your hands,” Abram said. Do with her whatever you think is best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so she fled from her.
Genesis 16:5,6

There would seem to be a link between these rivalries and the curse placed upon “the woman” as described in Genesis 3:16.
I will greatly increase your pains in childbearing; with pain you will give birth to children. Your desire will be for your husband, and he will rule over you.”
The NIV text note for this verse suggests that God displayed grace in this moment. In spite of the fact that Eve and Adam had crossed the boundaries established by God, in spite of participating in an act that deserved death, God continued to allow for life.

Life through childbirth. In that way God displayed the qualities of the Hebrew word “hanan,” the root of the name Hannah. According to abarim-publications.com, the “HAW Theological Wordbook of the Old Testament states that this verb ‘depicts a heartfelt response by someone who has something to give to one who has a need.'” God had blessed Adam and Eve to fill the earth (Genesis 1:28), but He had also promised Adam that he would die if he ate from the tree of the knowledge of good and evil (Genesis 2:16,17). So Adam should die and life should end. But God is gracious. Enter hanan – God’s heartfelt response to give to one with a need. Graciously, God allows life to continue, even though the process would be painful.

In fact, referring to women as “graceful” is completely accurate. It is by the act of childbirth that God chooses to extend His grace. Women, as the vessels who bear children, are therefore, full of grace. God’s grace passes through them to enter the world and be a sign of His continued “hanan.” Understanding that childbearing is a gracious gift from God adds a layer to the stories of Sarai and Hannah. It adds a layer to all who find themselves unable to have children. It becomes not just a question of establishing a family; it becomes a question directed at God – “Why do you withhold your gift from me?”

Hannah’s closed womb was more than an emptiness, it was complete misery. Her “rival” had children and “kept provoking her in order to irritate her.” Her husband didn’t get it. He loved her and gave Hannah a double portion for the annual sacrifice, but he did not understand her pain:
Elkanah her husband would say to her, “Hannah, why are you weeping? Why don’t you eat? Why are you downhearted? Don’t I mean more to you than ten sons?” I Samuel 1:8.
Hannah’s silent response to her husband is Hebrew for “doghouse.” No! He did not mean that much, because to bear a child would be for Hannah to experience God’s grace. And Hannah experienced this for years.

What do you do with your emptiness? It might not be a barren womb, but you might be in a season where you are not seeing the movement of hanan. You feel provoked. You feel less than. You feel empty. You feel unheard, and no one understands your pain. And for some reason, it seems that even God has closed His hands. He is withholding gifts; He is withholding grace. So what do you do when no one understands?

Cry out.

The details of the following account reveal much about Hannah. We read that Hannah “stood up” after a meal, then “In bitterness of soul Hannah wept much and prayed to the Lord” (I Samuel 1:10). It is as if Hannah has had enough. She cannot sit and bear the weight anymore; she has to do something. And now, after years of trying to hold it together, she pours it all out. In fact, the priest Eli believed Hannah to be drunk because he saw her mouth moving but heard no words. Her heart was praying.

Have you reached that point? Have you reached a point where you are willing to stop praying prayers that you think others want to hear? I am certain that this was not the first time Hannah had prayed concerning children. But maybe this was the first time she laid it bare, where she became unconcerned with the thoughts of others. This time her appearance no longer mattered. This was a matter of the heart.

It was this need of Hannah’s that God saw, and He had a heartfelt desire to give. There are two key points I want to address about what happened next:

1) Eli acted as an intercessor for Hannah. After hearing Hannah’s story, Eli answered, “Go in peace, and may the God of Israel grant you what you have asked of him.” (I Sam. 1:17)
The other day I passed by someone who extended to me a specific blessing. Upon hearing the words, I knew the blessing she spoke had been given to me. I knew it would happen. Less than two hours later it was confirmed. We must not underestimate nor miss the opportunity to be the vessel that God chooses to use as He pours out blessings. We are His agents, His vessels of grace. I believe Hannah knew she had received it when Eli spoke those words. She acknowledged his words, went to eat, and “her face was no longer downcast” (v.19) Was she pregnant yet? No, but she knew it would happen. Soon, she did receive the gift of pregnancy, and gave birth to Samuel.
Male or female, we can be “graceful” by allowing the gift of God’s words (life) to pass through us.

2) Remember the One who gives. Hannah had made a vow to give her son in service to the Lord before she received him. Upon giving birth to Samuel, she knew she would give him to ministry. And she did. Much like the faith of Abraham who went forward to sacrifice his son Isaac, Hannah trusted the Lord. Her gift of Samuel would always be her son, but his life belonged to the work of God. And, in response to her gift, God gave Hannah more gifts – three sons and two daughters. As soon as God does “the impossible,” it becomes possible. Do not hold on to His gifts as if they are your last; give them over as if the gift is your first.

What can we learn?
*God responds with a heartfelt desire to meet our heart-starved needs. Let Him hear your heart; He has what you need.
*Be an intercessor; speak words of blessing as a vessel of grace.
*The gift, once you have received it, is only the beginning. God always outgives us, so do not hesitate to honor him with the firstfruits. It all belongs to Him, and He will continue to meet our needs with abundance.