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

For the Love of Mary

During Advent, Mary takes center stage in the Biblical story.  Believers who speak a historical creed speak of her as the Virgin Mary, underscoring the miraculous nature of Jesus’ birth.   Some whose faith lives outside of the historical creeds speak of her as a young girl, pregnant before she was married; they see in God’s use of her another sort of miracle.  And yet, both traditions find their souls singing the words of Luke 1:46 – 55, the Magnificat.  In this telling of the pre-birth stories of Jesus, this is Mary’s response to the news that she is carrying God’s son: not the easiest of jobs even for an experienced homemaker!  Luke chooses to reveal Mary’s faith and God’s world-turning ways through a song:

 

My soul magnifies the Lord

and my spirit rejoices in God

my Savior,

for he has looked with favor on the

lowliness of his servant.

   Surely, from now on all generations

will call me blessed;

for the Mighty One has done great

things for me,

   and holy is his name.

His mercy is for those who fear him

   from generation to generation.

He has shown strength with his arm;

he has scattered the proud in the

thoughts of their hearts.

He has brought down the powerful

from their thrones,

   and lifted up the lowly;

he has filled the hungry with

good things,

   and sent the rich away empty.

He has helped his servant Israel

   in remembrance of his mercy,

according to the promise he made to

our ancestors,

   to Abraham and to his descendants

forever.

Through Mary’s faithfulness, God scatters the proud, brings down the powerful from their thrones, and reaches out to us.

I didn’t think much of Mary until the day I stood with my husband David in St. Peter’s square, being soaked by rain.  From high above and far away the Pope, appearing as a faint, fuzzy dot in a distant window, blessed us.  I felt more cold than blessed, and mostly I worried that I would miss what I most wanted to see that day: the earliest Christian art found in the underground catacombs, the burial place of the first Christians. 

 After a lunch on our feet, we took a bumpy bus ride down the Appian Way and entered again into the rain and the mud.  There was a sign pointing to catacombs, but they weren’t the particular catacombs I had hoped to see.  It was winter.  The light was quickly turning to darkness.  I mentioned we were cold and wet.  Stomping the ground because of my irritation with having spent time waiting for a rainy blessing on a PA system instead of making it a priority to see what I wanted, I gave in and went reluctantly into the available catacombs.

We went on the tour, going underground with flashlights and a Franciscan monk.  He asked David what he did for a living; David talked about his software business.  Then he asked me what I did.  At that time I was studying for the ministry and I said so, hoping I wouldn’t offend.  He took no offense– instead, knowing what I was doing made him more passionate about what he was showing us.  He added to the usual tour.  When we were done, he asked me to wait a moment.  He had something to give to me.  It was night–the rain had momentarily stopped–when he returned with an iconic picture of Mary, the kind you would pick up in a Catholic store.  With a kind smile, he pressed the picture into my hand and said “this is Mary, the Mother of God.”  And the peace of God descended upon me as it does when one has truly been blessed.

When I think about Mary and that day, I realize that God knows that a blessing from on high can easily  miss us.  When the rain is pouring down, when all around us seems to be mud, words spoken through a loudspeaker don’t mean much.  But when the words are spoken by one willing to walk with you through the dark, one who is also a person of faith, the raging ego is calmed, the heart opened, and God can get in. 

I know many of those who were brought up in non-Catholic Christianity want to run right to Jesus as the one who walks with us through the dark.  Mary seems like an idol, one who gets in the way of our direct relationship with God (I’ve been told by some I’ve served that they are uncomfortable with the way Catholics lift up Mary). Consider this: there are times when even Jesus seems too distant, too perfect, too much a Lord rather than a friend.  Jesus had titles.  Mary has only her name, her humanity, her arms that held Jesus. 

Holding Jesus is what we imperfect human beings are called to do on Christmas.  We can contemplate Mary that we might be strong enough to hold and love the one who will die. We can picture Mary’s strength bringing us comfort when we feel alone in the storm.  And, if in so doing, we find a like courage to joyfully sing out a faith where God disrupts the cosmos–rather than orders it according to our plans–then thank God.

 Maybe then our souls will magnify the Lord. 

             Heather