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

Dyers of Purple Cloth

One day, as they had many times before, a group of women gathered by the river to pray. Among them was Lydia. Scripture tells us she was a dealer in purple cloth, meaning she was a businesswoman. Her name is the same as the name of the state from which came the dyers of cloth, allowing her to act illustratively as a connection between people of business and people of faith. Lydia is not poor. She has no disease from which she needs healing. She hasn’t had 7 husbands. She does have a business and a household to run. Even with these responsibilities, she takes time out of her day to meet with other women to pray.

Paul arrives in Philippi looking for someone to talk to about Jesus. He is told that there is a group of God Fearers who pray by the river. A God Fearer was someone who wasn’t Jewish–or a worshiper of the gods in the Roman Pantheon–but one who sought to know the one God more. Paul walked over to the women with Timothy and Silas. The women looked up from their prayers. Allowing the interruption, they welcomed them, and asked them to speak.

Scripture does not record the men’s words. Instead, it turns us towards Lydia. At first, we are told, she heard their words. The Greek word used is the usual one for hearing. But there came a time when Timothy reports, “the Lord opened her heart to listen eagerly to what was said.” The word behind “listen eagerly” is prosecho, meaning to turn one’s attention and mind towards. There has been a change: Lydia’s heart opened, and she awoke to a new way.

We do not hear details of her baptism. Here the sparse writing matches a down-to-earth, get it done attitude which may be the way of Lydia. Scripture gets on to business: ”When she and her household were baptized, she urged us, saying, ‘If you have judged me to be faithful, come stay with me.’ And she prevailed upon us (Luke 16:15).”

(The only other time someone prevails upon another in Luke/Acts is when the two men who unknowingly walked with the resurrected Jesus to Emmaus urged him to stay and eat with them. And, in the breaking of the bread, their eyes were opened.)

At first glance, it seems as if Lydia is merely being hospitable, allowing the small group of evangelists to stay with her. But just as there is silence between Paul’s visit to the river prayer meeting and Lydia’s whole household being baptized along with her, so there is silence between the time she welcomes Paul into her home and the last word we have about her. It is as if the writer of scripture throws up his arms and admits not knowing how Lydia could do what she has done.

While Lydia operates beyond our vision, we watch as Paul gets into trouble when he, in frustration, sends away a spirit of divination that had made a woman following him around in the marketplace quite the pest. His exorcism angered the unnamed woman’s owners who enjoyed profits from her spiritual gift. A crowd gathers, Paul is accused of disrupting city life, and Paul and Silas are thrown into jail. Many know the oft-told tale of Paul and Silas singing hymns at midnight, the chains falling off them, the jailor’s baptism, and the Romans’ official release of Paul and Silas. It is a story worthy of the many sermons that have been written on it. But, when Paul is released, how many of us remember where he goes?

Here’s a clue–there is a ministry in St. Louis called Lydia’s House; it provides transitional housing to women coming out of prison.

Acts 16: 40 “After leaving the prison they went to Lydia’s home….”

To do what? To collect their belongings? To get a good meal before they left?

Perhaps both, but here is what we are told: “When they had seen and encouraged the brothers and sisters there, they departed.” Brothers, in Greek, is a way of naming those who have become part of the family of God through Christ, by whose spirit Paul says, we are adopted. In short, Lydia had founded a church. She brought people into a life with Christ, those who were looking for a spiritual home and a way forward with God.

How did she do it? How do we do it? It isn’t all spelled out in this scripture, but there are general clues. First, Lydia had a group of women she met with regularly to pray. Prayer and community were already a part of her life. Second, she allowed the Holy Spirit to take hold of her, to open her heart, and help her listen attentively. She was present, leaving behind her worries, allowing what God wanted to give to her to enter in. Finally, she sought to be a person of faith. She didn’t invite Paul into her house based on what she had there, but rather on what she had shown herself to be. With all these traits in place, she got to work without fanfare or arguments about a woman’s role, doing what God would have her do in the name of Jesus.

Whether you are a woman or a man, as we enter into Advent preparing for the coming of Christ, it seems like a good plan.

In Christ,

Heather