Change Your World

The Bible never depicts this world as being fair but it does show us a way through the trouble.

A very Jewish tale is told in Mark 6: 17 – 29.  In summary, Herod divorces his first wife to marry Herodias.  John the Baptists suggests that this is not a good idea.  His advice angers Herodias who decides he needs to die.

Herod liked John the Baptist.  He liked to listen to him even though he didn’t understand him.  He didn’t understand him because he refused to follow the heart of the message–to repent.  He refused to turn from being his own Lord to the humility and faith which allows what is good and holy to take hold of him.  So, when Herodias became angry, in order to keep the peace in his home, Herod had John the Baptist arrested.

On the day of Herod Antipas’ birthday, Herodias gets her revenge.  It begins when her daughter dances for King Herord and all the guests.  Artists have captured this dance on many canvases.  This one, from Reni who lived in late 1500s, portrays the daughter as aloof, dancing, holding the hair of John’s head as it is presented to her.

It is a picture of a great wrong.

I wonder what she, the daughter of Herodias, understood?  Did she know the game of power being played by her mother?  Maybe not for the word used for the daughter is “girl” not “woman.”  The same Greek word is used earlier in Mark for a 12 year old girl who Jesus lifts out of death.  When the dancing girl of the banquet is offered half of the King’s kingdom, instead of saying, “alright!” and living large, she goes to her mother, and says “what shall I ask for?”

Evil manipulates the one with the crown, of one who refused to learn the language of humility, or faith, or grace.  Take heed.

The story suggests evil is born of a grudge and spread by the innocent.

A simple birthday party, a celebration of life, corrupted.

On the one hand, I want to condemn Herod Antipas.  Herod–the man who is the center of his own dance.  He makes himself an easy target.

On the other hand, how many times have we held in higher regard something other than what is right and holy?  Even Peter denies Jesus when push comes to shove.

It is hard to hold on to what is right and holy.

I have opportunity to speak to couples now and then.  Everyone fights.  There should be a book about that for couples similar to the one for mothers and their little children called “Everyone Poops.”  Everyone fights.  This is true about all our relationships—friends and coworkers alike.  What often happens is we feel slighted in some way.  The other doesn’t understand us.   Lists of wrongs are kept.  Anger grows.  We’ve tried everything, we say, as the one who we once loved and respected becomes the enemy to our peace.

The best general reminder scripture gives about all of our relationships is that our first priority is not the happiness of the other person.  Herod tried to make his wife and niece happy and it led to the death of the holy one.

Our first priority is to do right by God, to hold on to what is right and holy in ourselves and in the other.

As Christians, we do this by looking to see Jesus.

In this scene from the rock musical Jesus Christ Superstar, Jesus has been brought to Herod Antipas having been arrested for treason.

It takes time to find Herod among the dancers, underneath the many bulbs that light up the “H.”  But it is not hard to see Jesus there in white lit robe in the foreground.   In the midst of all that is wrong, there is Jesus, waiting.

When we look to see Jesus at work in us and in the other person, we will often find him there, kneeling before the Herodian dance, the ego’s masquerade, waiting for us to repent.

Look for him.  Call for him to stand up.  Unbind him.

He is there in the one who is hurting herself beyond recognition.  He is there in the boss whose heavy hand you have felt.  He is there in the “other” and he is there in you.

Martin Luther King Jr. fought for equality, not with a violent revolution, but with a Christian witness calling the enemy to take hold of what was holy and good in them.

Look for Jesus.  You may not ever be offered half of the King’s kingdom but you will see your way through to what is good and holy.   That is enough to change your world!

In Christ,

Heather

Life-giving Transformation

Before Jesus begins his ministry, people from all over Judea go out to the wilderness to John the Baptist.  There they hear John’s message to “repent,” to turn toward a new direction, and receive a baptism for the forgiveness of sins (Matthew 3: 1- 6, Mark 1: 2 -6, Luke 3: 1-6, John 1: 19-23).  John is pictured as a wild man wearing camel’s hair, eating locusts and honey, announcing to all who come that “there is one coming who is much greater than me.”   As scripture focuses on John’s role of being a herald of Jesus, it is easy to overlook that a multitude of people left the city and went away from the temple in order to have a spiritual experience with this wild man that they could no longer get through their religion.

They wanted something new–something to shake up their traditional ways.  Perhaps their experience of the temple had become too much like their experience of the world around them.  That some of the religious elite were in partnership with the Roman government to keep the peace is made clear from the battles Jesus would soon fight.

And, yet, the river Jordan is not a pictured as a place of a political rally, but rather as a place of transformation: a place of personal new beginnings, and a place where Jesus comes before he calls his disciples.

Transformation is at the very heart of Christianity.  Two ways scripture leads to it are through the ideas of repentance (to turn around) and forgiveness of sin (release from the past).  It is the releasing of what has kept us apart from God that allows God to move us in a new direction.  The multitude came to the river Jordan.  There they heard John the Baptist affirm their intuition—it is good to turn around and try a new way.  Enter the water, be cleansed of all that holds you to your past, that you may be free to go with God.

Let’s be clear that transformation is as crucial for those who have tried to live pious lives as it is for those who are doing the things their mothers would cry out against.  For all of us there are times when our lives have become too close to what the world expects and, in those times, we lose touch with God.

As a result, the life that once was ours seeps away.  Often, our religion, whatever it is, urges us to do the same old things that have become polluted by community expectations.  We go to church because “good wholesome people” go to church and it is good for our children.  Even spiritual practices meant to help us hear God’s voice can become too familiar, or a way to brag about our spiritual prowess, rather than allowing God the opening to take us on a new journey.

When our way of being which fed our strength and mission has run its course–and it will–to find a new way requires transformation.   Just as it is not easy for the caterpillar to turn into a butterfly, so it is not easy for us to choose to enter into the effort of change.

It takes God to move us.  God-given insight comes in innumerable ways.  After all, God is the Creator, and thus there is no limit to God’s creativity in engaging us.  It could be with a change in employment–or a word from a stranger.  It could be an opportunity that has come your way–or a remembered dream.  The call to take a new path on your journey with God happens more than once in a lifetime.

There were two doctors, one the head of family medicine at UCI, and the other the head of geriatrics in the Presbyterian hospital in New York, who spoke on the radio of the need to continue to keep the brain flexible as we grow older…stay engaged, try new things.  When I was in school they warned us our generation needed to be flexible because the work world would change as we grew older.  Expect to have more than one career, the experts told us.  Even the secular world understands: our ability to walk a new path keeps us alive.

Still, if you are anything like me, when you feel vulnerable (and the need to change yourself makes you feel vulnerable, indeed), your first reaction is to go back to the strengths you’ve developed over the years whether or not they are of God.

It often takes a “God movement” to lead us beyond insight into action–to help us let go, turn around, and walk a new path with our God.

The ministry of Jesus begins with a God movement.  Multitudes came to the river Jordan because there they received a baptism which sanctified, made holy, their need to let go of the familiar and to try a new way.  Jesus began his ministry in the same water.  The baptism in the river Jordan empowered people to turn and follow God’s voice into the wilderness and beyond.

Perhaps today you would like to join in with this God movement of transformation.  Knowing we all need to splash in the river Jordan every now and then, to prepare for what God wants to do with us next, use your imagination and washing time to prepare not just to meet the day, but to find a new mission with God.  Perhaps you can use your day off to find one of the many flowing rivers in the nearby mountains and touch the cold water to your forehead as a sign of your desire to turn around.    Or use the pastor you know or the church to which you belong to take a moment to confess what it is you want to let go, hear the words of forgiveness, and turn a new direction.  However you enter the waters, understand that you don’t go in alone, but in your action you join with the multitudes of the centuries who come to transform their ways,

You go with Jesus.

Heather

The One Voice that Matters

We Christians are a strange lot. 

In my mail the other day, on top of the advertisements was one of an unhappy man and an unhappy woman sleeping in the same bed but turned away from one another. A friend of my husband’s, shown this flyer, thought it was probably advertising a linen sale. Closer inspection reveals that this carefully chosen image with the “My Pillow and Me” text was actually for a start up church.

Back to the pile of advertisements, just underneath the unhappy couple, was a rather different image…the cover for the first Victoria’s Secret Valentine’s Day catalog.

Maybe Victoria’s Secret has an alternative way to approach the couple’s challenges.

We Christians have a problem. It doesn’t look like fun to be a Christian. Even the church advertised on the sleek post card, which I’m sure uses fun contemporary music and preaching from a young, engaging family man, looks like its seeking unhappy people to fill its chairs. Come and bring your problems to us and we will make you into happy, wholesome people. The Bible tells us how.

While Jesus wasn’t advertising lingerie, I always picture him with eyes that, when they look at me, make my heart flutter. It is good to walk with Jesus. 

Not because Jesus is going to make you into a good person. To be good is too small a goal, too determined by what those around us call good. Such a quest keeps our ears listening to the wrong set of voices.

In college I earned some of my keep by refereeing basketball and baseball games. We were cautioned against having “rabbit ears,” a term for hearing all the grumbling, shouting comments made about our calls. The good news for the basketball referee is that the 24 second clock starts five seconds after you hand the team the ball, automatically limiting the length of appeals. It is much harder in a game like baseball when the screaming fits of the one who thinks they’ve been wronged continue indefinitely. To be a good referee means your goal is not to please all the voices on the court or the field or the crowd. To be a good referee is to make the calls that allow the game to be well played.

When you are a player, if all is going right, you don’t even think about the referee. You have the opportunity to leap and run and tackle and block. I didn’t referee football, but it’s the playoffs, so bear with me. You have the ability to use all of your natural gifts, and all the gifts of those on the team, to create moments of pure bliss. A football spectacularly caught and run into the end zone; a no look pass that leads to a slam dunk; a tackle of the running back behind the line of scrimmage; a block high in the air of the superstar’s shot. Aren’t these the moments that make the game worth watching?

It is good to walk with Jesus because when he sends the ball your way, he believes you will catch it. When you do, when you have those moments when you know you’ve done something that is pleasing to God, is that not bliss?

For those worried if there’s a place for them on the team, you should know there doesn’t appear to be any kind of tryout. In the gospel of Mark, Jesus just says, “follow me.” And James and John put down the net they were focused on mending, get out of the boat where their father and servants remain, and follow. They don’t show any natural ability. Just get up and follow. 

Now, I suspect there were some voices raised in spirited protest at that moment. But the gospel’s ears have tuned them out. The gospel is not interested in what the servants or the dad has to say. Instead it records only Jesus’ voice, and I quote from the King James Version because the words are so familiar…”Come ye after me, and I will make you to become fishers of men.”

Spoken by just anyone, these cryptic words would not have moved anyone out of the boat. But some have served under a commander. You knew his voice. Is it not true that you would follow the voice of the one who is there to keep you alive?

A cacophony may surround you, there may be shouts and cries, there may be your own stubborn voice making it clear that you don’t like what you are being asked to do, or another’s voice who is telling you what you need to do. But there’s only one voice that leads us to life everlasting.

What keeps us alive, what keeps us in the game, is when we, upon hearing Jesus’ voice, get out of whatever boat we’ve been on for a bit too long. Christianity is not a settling down type of faith. It is rather a faith that calls us to go and fish people out of the small worlds they are swimming in to show them Jesus’ way: sometimes by example, other times by words and prayer, and yet other times by opening up and sharing your God story with one who is eager to hear.

I will make you to become fishers of men.

Call these words from Jesus a mission statement and notice how it is big enough to encompass wherever you are in your life. It is not dependent upon your job, or role, or age, or health.

And now notice that Jesus says “I will make you to become….” There is some training involved. Jesus plans to show us the way. These words come at the beginning of the gospel of Mark. There is much scripture yet to be told before we enter Jerusalem, see Jesus nailed to a cross, and look into the empty tomb. There are many disciples to be gathered, people to heal, demons to expel, doors to knock on, and bread to be served. There is much to learn.

We don’t learn how to be a master fisherman or fisherwoman in a day. Even when we do know some of the basics like how to put a lure on a line or a worm on a hook, how to cast out and reel in, how to share our story, how to pray, how to listen, and how to challenge, we still sometimes let the big one get away.

The great thing about a Jesus mission is that it continues on beyond our failings, beyond the world’s failings. When we accept Jesus’ mission we don’t suddenly become superstars, but we enter into a new arena where the rules beckon us to see beyond the challenges of this world.

So take the ball and run. With Jesus, there’s always an opening. With practice, each one of us has a chance to break out into those blissful moments when we know we have pleased God.

Pleasing to God

When the firm ground shifts, praise God.

As I started to prepare for my next preaching assignment (North Long Beach Christian Church, January 22, 10:45), I turned to this week’s lectionary texts–a set of readings used by many Christian churches across denominations.  They struck me with full force.

“If riches increase, do not set your heart on them.” (Psalm 62: 10)

“For the present form of this world is passing away.” (1 Corinthians 7: 31)

And, in describing Jesus’ calling of his disciples, Mark writes:

“As he went a little farther, [Jesus] saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John, who were in their boat mending the nets.  Immediately he called to them; and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men, and followed him.” (Mark 1: 19-20)

These scriptures remind us that family, riches, and our current work do not last.  God’s mission for us must be large enough to move us beyond our current roles.  “For the present form of this world is passing away.”

Paul’s summation:  “Let even those who have wives be as though they had none, and those who mourn as though they were not mourning, and those who rejoice as though they were not rejoicing, and those who buy as though they had no possessions, and those who deal with the world as though they had no dealings with it.” (1 Corinthians 7: 29-31)

Stop everything!  Paul shouts.  Seek only to please the Lord.

Stop worrying about finding one who will love you, stop fretting over the possible loss of your job, let go of your anxiety about what you will eat, drink, or wear.  “Follow me,” says Jesus.  Come and please God.

In the word of our culture:  Really?  We look around and see what others have and what we do not.  When someone else has what we most want–what we have spent years faithfully preparing for–how can we not feel jealous and angry?  When we’re losing our job, when we’re graduating from college into a hopeless job market, when we’re losing our home, when we’re betrayed by the one we thought loved us–when what we thought we could count on is no longer, how can we go on believing that God is on our side?

While the Bible expects us to cry out as in the Psalms, the word given to us who are experiencing personal landslides is not an answer to our torment, but an action:  cling to God.  Join with the Psalmist to praise God.

On God rests my deliverance and my honor;  My mighty rock, my refuge is in God (Psalm 62: 7)

And yet, perhaps because they are so often used, these words are too easy, providing a vision of comfort and stillness.  It doesn’t have to be that way.  The word from Mark is not to be still, but to move out with Jesus–to please God.  A more contemporary song of praise–Matt Redman’s “Blessed be the Name,” puts at the end of the song’s crescendo these words:

You give and take away, You give and take away, My heart will choose to say, Blessed be the Lord.

Redman’s lyrics are, to the mindset of many, downright offensive.  They are strong enough to get my attention.  What do you mean God gives and takes away?  Before them comes…

Every blessing you pour out, I turn back to praise; When the darkness closes in, Lord Still I will say…

Blessed be the name of the Lord, Blessed be your name; Blessed be the name of the Lord, Blessed be your glorious name.

When the football player who became a houshold name in the past few months lost his playoff game and entered into the realm of reporters, was he not trying to do just this?

Couched in all the imperfections of a man, we don’t believe it.  It offends.  It is easier to find fault, discount him as being naive and insensitive.  And he may be both.  And, at times, we may be both.  But as the ground beneath our feet moves, it may be better for our souls to let go of the judgment and instead join our voice with one who is trying his best to hold onto his God when the road, for now, has ended.

Let us join with the Psalmist and offend this world’s sensibilities when, having lost something great, we joyfully proclaim God has another way.  Let us shout out that on God rests our honor:  Join in…”My heart will choose to say….”  Let us be prepared to follow Jesus.

Long ago, the sons of Zebedee sat in a fisherman’s boat, mending their nets with their dad looking on.  How small is their world.  How tiny their expectatoins.  Hunched over, their mission, which seemed as essential to them that moment as breathing, is simply to fix their tattered net that it might once again hold fish.  The hired men wait for them to finish.  Their dad, knowing only what he has always done, is fixed in place.

How often do we get caught up in our own net mending?

Praise God who puts an end to that.  Our lives are not meant to be so narrowly defined.

If the ground under our feet is sinking sand, it is time to rise up, leave the mending to those who need the work, and use our gifts–the gifts that no one can take away–to please our God.

Blessed be the name of the Lord, blessed be your glorious name.

In Christ,

Heather

Fight On!

One way to be near my daughter while she does homework and not interfere is to do crossword puzzles.   I’ve learned an important lesson from these puzzles:  keep working at it until the solution makes sense.  When I leave something in that doesn’t quite work, it is most often wrong.

Many grieved this week because a man was put to death for a crime that some say he didn’t commit.  Others began to grieve 22 years ago when an off duty policeman with a one year old daughter and an infant son confronted someone who had pistol whipped a homeless man in a fast food parking lot , and was shot in the face and heart.  Compassionate people of every stripe mourn, cry out for justice, pray.  Things don’t
make sense to any of them.  Still, they fight on—trying to find answers in a world that often has few to offer.

How different they are from my daughter’s classmate I’m working with in math.  When I ask her to explain something as simple as rounding numbers back to me, she speaks
nonsense, as if she’s given up on ever being able to understand.   My first job is to get her to fight again, to believe that she can and deserves to understand.  She can find the right answers.

Jesus fought.  Jesus fought against the legalism of the Scribes and the Pharisees.  He fought against the buying and selling in the temple.  He fought for the right to
heal another no matter the day.  These things didn’t make sense.  He sought a solution.

The cross is an ugly answer.  It is the result of what we Christians believe was a choice Jesus made to allow God to enter the fight–a choice based in his deep understanding of
God’s will.  In the gospel of Mark, Jesus speaks about how it is necessary for him to die and, after three days, rise again.  He repeats this three times as if he understood the whole plan.  Yet, in the Garden of Gethsemane, as he waits for the soldiers to take him, he still looks for another way.  “Take this cup away from me.”  Jesus keeps on fighting until
that final moment of understanding that God has a way forward, that moment when he says, “not my will but yours.”

We are most alive when we are fighting for a solution.  Sometimes that puts us on opposite sides of political and religious debate.  So be it.  Keep on fighting.  But don’t give up on God.  Sometimes God has an unexpected solution that brings life.  Our loving creator has a
way of seeing outside of the box.  For those who keep fighting to understand, keep on fighting to hear God’s word, more will be revealed.

In Christ,

Heather