Wednesday, May 17, 2017

Condemned by Judas or Praised by Jesus?

 To the probing observer, portraits emerge from Scripture’s eternal pages.  Some are masterpieces of the rarest quality, startling the onlooker with the very presence of Christ.  “Sitting at the Feet of Jesus”— this caption underscores the life of Mary of Bethany.  A woman of faith, Mary discerned  what others did not.  Her words are few, but her actions testify of her heart for Christ’s words.  

It is Mary whom Christ commends on two occasions of note.  In Luke 10, Mary’s ability to perceive the “one needful thing” is praised over Martha’s well-intentioned service.  Later, at a feast commemorating Lazarus’ resurrection, Mary anoints Jesus’ body and receives the breath-taking commendation—
          “Wheresoever this gospel shall be preached throughout the whole world, this also that she hath  done shall be spoken of for a memorial of her (Mark 14:9). 

Three Gospel writers record this story; comparing these narratives helps shape the incident in our minds:  Mary lavishly poured costly ointment upon both the head and the feet of her Messiah.
             And being in Bethany in the house of Simon the leper, as he sat at meat, there came a woman having an alabaster box of ointment of spikenard very precious; and she brake the box, and poured it on his head” (Mark 14:3).
            “Then took Mary a pound of ointment of spikenard, very costly, and anointed the feet of Jesus, and wiped his feet with her hair: and the house was filled with the odour of the ointment” (John 12:3).

Many sat under Christ’s teachings, heard His stories, and listened to His parables.  But Mary glimmers forth from Scripture’s pages as one who took away from Christ’s presence something others did not.  Even His own disciples balked at the reality of His crucifixion and burial, but she seems to have comprehended these difficult subjects, for Christ’s commentary sheds light upon her intentions: For in that she hath poured this ointment on my body, she did it for my burial” (Matt. 26:12). 

How often did Mary meditate upon the words of her Lord?Faith cometh by hearing,” Romans 10:17 tells us, “and hearing by the Word of God.”  So many heard the same message—and could not bear it.  Yet it seems Mary’s faith increased as she imbibed the Messiah's eternal words to her soul.  That faith produced vision, which caused her to  “get it” when others did not.

Mary’s actions illustrate her comprehension of the sacrifice urged in Romans 12:1-2—“I beseech [beg] you therefore brethren, by the mercies of God, that ye present your bodies acceptable to God, which is your reasonable service.  And be not conformed to this world but be ye transformed by the renewing of your minds, that ye may prove what is that good, and acceptable, and perfect will of God.”

It was as if Mary understood the mercy of God in allowing her to be part of Jesus' time on earth.  Using those moments, she drank deeply His words of life. Shaped by these eternal truths, she willingly poured out precious spikenard—worth about a year’s wages--upon His head and feet.

It’s reasonable—if we see what God has done for us—to present ourselves to Him.  But one will never present his body to Christ who has not first recognized the battle for his mind. Though Mary’s mind had been marred by sin—like every other creature's on the planet—drinking of Christ’s eternal words transformed her into a woman who willingly worshiped (even when others misunderstood).

A container of alabaster
It is only as the Word of God penetrates our minds that our reactions, our relationships, and our reality is affected.  Romans 1:21 says, “. . . when they knew God, they glorified him not as God, neither were thankful; but became vain in their imaginations, and their foolish heart was darkened.”  Mary knew God.  And because of that, she chose in her life to glorify God’s Son, Jesus Christ. When Jesus came through her village of Bethany, she honored Him.  Martha opened up her home to Him—a noble and noteworthy service—but Mary clearly opened her heart to Him, for she let His words penetrate her thoughts, which resulted in actions that glorified Him.  

While Martha intruded upon Jesus’ teaching, calling for Him to rebuke her sister, impugning Him as “not caring,” Mary sat silently at His feet, imbibing His words.  Perhaps Martha inwardly ascribed “laziness” or “lack of awareness of the need at hand” to Mary’s desire for Christ’s teaching.  In reality, Mary saw the value of hearing God’s Words.

When God looks down upon our churches, our homes, and our daily lives, does He view believers that love His words?   How many today see the absolute necessity of  choosing the“one needful thing” that Christ commends?  How many base their every decision upon it, seek to obey its every precept, and willingly structure their lives around its eternal truths?

Mary was listening.  And she was listening to the right thing.  That’s why she heard that Christ would be buried and she did something about it.  That’s why she made the choices she did when Jesus visited her home. 

Dear believer, Jesus is visiting your home today.  Seeing your weariness, He beckons you to come to Him.  Come unto Me,” He invites, “all ye that labour and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Matt. 11:28).  Christ longs to shape your mind to see the world from His perspective, to shape your thinking to prioritize His life.  How do you listen? 

Others attended the same sermons, heard the same parables, and saw the same miracles.  One of those was Judas.  When Mary anointed Christ’s body with precious ointment, Judas saw waste.  He saw a foolish woman, worthy to receive condemnation for her lavish sacrifice:
            “Why was not this ointment sold for three hundred pence, and given to the poor?”            (John 12:5).
            This he said,” John writes, “not that he cared for the poor; but because he was a thief, and had the bag, and bare what was put therein” (John 12:6). 

Interestingly, John tells us Judas started the contentious spirit that day, but Matthew indicates it was “the disciples” who “had indignation.”  How easy for one scorner in a crowd to get Jesus’ disciples to doubt the good intentions of other true believers!  One scorner’s comments can affect church members and bring them to “great indignation” for what appear to be culturally foolish actions of a truly devoted follower of Christ.  Judas seems to have riled up the other disciples against this dear saint, so that when Jesus understands the comments He asks them,
            “Why trouble ye the woman? for she hath wrought a good work upon me.  For ye have the poor always with you; but me ye have not always” (Matt. 26:10).

While He commends the sacrificial spirit of Mary, Jesus rebukes the Judas spirit in the midst of His disciples. 

Who really heard His words?  Who really comprehended the vast superiority of His way?  Judas’ words sound pious—“Give to the poor!” but Mary’s whole-hearted sacrifice is what Christ commends.

Dear believer, do you respond negatively to the lavish sacrifices of God’s people?  At a graduation ceremony this past Sunday, young people testified that they would gladly serve Christ with their lives, pledging even to return their diplomas if they denied His Gospel.  A New Yorker spoke of his passion to return to that populous city to spread the Good News; a broken young man spoke of God’s capturing his heart and renewing his commitment to serve the people of Eastern Europe.

Does full-time ministry seem a waste?  Let us consider Christ’s opinion.  Does He honor such sacrifice?  In a world that has quadrupled in size in the last eighty years, we do well to question the lack of love for full-time ministry in the church, the supposed lack of “being called” to Christ’s harvest field.  Is the Judas mentality causing many to doubt the worthiness of sacrifice?

I love these words of William Booth, which sum up the spirit of Christ-honoring sacrifice: 

"'Not called!' did you say?  "Not heard the call,' I think you should say.  Put your ear down to the Bible, and hear Him bid you go and pull sinners out of the fire of sin.  Put your ear down to the burdened, agonized heart of humanity, and listen to its pitiful wail for help.  Go stand by the gates of hell, and hear the damned entreat you to go to their father's house and bid their brothers and sisters and servants and masters not to come there.  Then look Christ in the face, whose mercy you have professed to obey, and tell Him whether you will join heart and soul and body and circumstances in the march to publish His word to the world."

Mary's lavish sacrifice reminds us that if we take the time to really hear Christ's words, we will clearly perceive our need to surrender our all to Him.

Saturday, April 29, 2017

Yet I WIll Rejoice

The days had dawned overcast and gray for the last several mornings.  The muddy brown of early spring found puddles in which to collect.  Umbrellas accompanied those leaving their homes, and the wet seat of my car reminded me that my once pristine sun-roof had turned twenty this past January.

So many things crowded my to-do list that I wondered how they would all get done.  The next day we were to leave on an out-of-state trip, but another thought flashed on the radar screen of my mind, beeping at odd moments, corralling my thoughts in one important direction: I must visit my friend before I left-- the one who’d been diagnosed with multiple brain tumors three months before.

I’d been praying for an opportunity to share Christ with her and had sought, each time I saw her, to plant little seed thoughts of spiritual things.  I’d left tracts and even an audio presentation for her, but I knew I needed to open my mouth and share with her how she could know, from the Bible, that she would have eternal life.  Thus, I’d prayed for the right opportunity, specifically asking for an absence of distractions, that I might openly share the Gospel with her. While I believed God would open the door, I also knew I had a job:  I must walk through that open door.

And that day, after a week of rain, a situation occurred that nearly distracted me from God’s plan.  It tugged at my spirit, seeking to bring it down into a mindset of discouragement and defeat.  But I knew that spirit was not of God. 

“Although the fig tree shall not blossom, neither shall fruit be in the vines; 
the labour of the olive shall fail, and the fields shall yield no meat; 
the flock shall be cut off from the fold, and there shall be no herd in the stalls:  
Yet I will rejoice in the LORD
I will joy in the God of my salvation. 
The LORD God is my strength, 
and he will make my feet like hinds’ feet
and he will make me to walk upon mine high places”—Habakkuk 3:16-18.

Some years ago, these treasures tucked away in Habakkuk had ministered to my spirit.  They reminded me in a spiritually difficult time that, although eternal results do not appear to be occurring as we would like to see them, we can—in the midst of such circumstances—rejoice. 

A fig tree
I was reminded of what I'd learned of the fig tree back in January on our trip to Israel.

“Do you see this tree?”  Our guide had asked, as we made our way through a nature preserve to the historic site of Tel Dan.  When we looked up, we discerned two tiny pieces of fruit on the tree, which towered a few feet above the tallest member of our group.  Our guide identified this as a fig tree and explained that this tree should always have some kind of fruit on it.  He reminded us how Jesus had cursed the fig tree He passed which had no fruit.   

While the fig tree should hypothetically always have fruit, it doesn't always blossom.  And sometimes that's how the spiritual world around us looks-- as we note a seeming dearth of eternally significant fruit in the landscape about us.  And it is in those difficult times that we must rest in these directives from Habakkuk--rejoice!  Regardless of what you see around you, take heart and joy in God.

As I asked God for His help in giving the Gospel to my friend, He directed me to claim Habakkuk 3:17, go forward in faith, and rejoice in Him.  He also amazingly granted me an extra hour in that event-packed afternoon so I could make the visit which I desired.  What a gracious God He is!  

“Yet I will rejoice in the LORD, I will joy in the God of my salvation.”  I was quoting the verse as I parked my car.  I was speaking it quietly to myself as I made my way out into the dreary rain and rehearsing it in my mind as I walked down the halls of the building where my friend lived.

I knocked on the slightly-opened door and a voice I did not recognize signaled me inside.  Looking up, I noticed a friendly nurse, who had not been there the week before.  After I had introduced myself, the nurse informed me it was about time for my sleeping friend to awaken, though she'd experienced an unprecedentedly difficult night the evening before.  

My friend was curled up on her bed when I entered the room, face slightly swollen from her illness.  Oxygen tubes extended from her nose and mouth, but she was completely cognizant.  We had several things in common, and as I shared with her the truth of being born again, from John 3, her intent look and manner informed me that her heart was ready to hear. 

“No, I haven’t come to Christ,” she told me, after I’d shared with her my testimony.  Like me, she had been raised in a very religious home, but today she'd heard from God’s Word that it was not baptism or communion that saved a person—it was repentant faith in Christ. 

“Would you like to be born again?” I asked her. 

“Yes,” she said.

“You can do so now, right here, in this bed," I told her—mentioning how in my own story, I had gotten saved as a child, ready to be tucked into bed for the evening.  You don’t have to be in a church building or anything.” 

She told me she wanted to turn to Christ later--when she was alone, by herself. 

Together, we prayed and I asked God to continue to help my friend understand her spiritual need and to give her freedom from the feeling of pain.  When I said “Amen,” she added, “If it be Thy will.”

After leaving the visit that day, I called some dear sisters in Christ and prayed with them.  I feel confident that my friend did, indeed, trust Christ for salvation, as she indicated she would.

Door of Opportunity
My friend passed away within days of my return.  She had slipped into a coma and then departed from this earth before I could see her again.  How grateful I was for God’s open door, for His direct answer to prayer in allowing me to see her and share the Gospel with her, and for her words to me that she would come to Christ.

With the events surrounding that visit, I was reminded of our need as believers to ever walk in faith, live by the truth of God’s Word, and be continually aware of the devil’s devices to distract us from a very intentional goal of our Savior--to “seek and to save that which was lost” (Luke 19:10).  Anything that diverts us from this mission must not capture our attention. Rather, we must place our gaze upon Him, our eternal Strength and Savior, so that we might gladly proclaim His name.   

Has He not redeemed us to be to the "praise of His glory" (Eph. 1:12)?  Let us then stand ready, ever aware of the enemy’s strategy for our minds and hearts to be distracted by times of barrenness or a seeming lack of eternal fruit and instead walk by faith, following the voice of our Savior, our ever-present Help in trouble.

Saturday, April 8, 2017

Bloom with Grace: A Lesson from the Buganvellia

Glossy leaves cover the Buganvellia bush most of the year, but this April, it burst into color.  Laden with blossoms, its fuchsia blooms brighten the garden with their singular hue.  Most often, as it graces the corner of a tucked-away garden in the big city, it lies forgotten, unnoticed, and isolated.  But regardless of passers by, inconsequential to any circumstance, it perennially blooms, adding loveliness to its out-of-the-way corner in this garden plot.

Rarely do any stop to notice it.  Even less commonly do those appreciate it.  But, regardless of its clear lack of popularity, this bush thrives, almost smiling in its habitat.  Days frequently dawn dark and dismal.  Storm clouds threaten.  Ocean winds traverse, sometimes ferociously, across this rather barren spot.  A weather beaten fence, its wood greening from lichens and moss, stares back at the floral-covered bush.  Nevertheless, the shrub happily cascades flowers, dozens upon dozens of them, each day bringing forth new blooms.

How faithfully God's servants can likewise offer Him their worship as they continually give themselves to Him.  Numbers of individuals the world over labor in places where few see or appreciate them.  Some believers are persecuted, experiencing daily torture at the hands of their enemies.  Others suffer forms of verbal abuse.  And, tucked away in Christian homes the world over, numerous mothers of children labor, unnoticed by many about them.

I think of my own mother, now in her sixties, who once lived in the throes of rearing ten children.  Many of her duties cried "mundane" to thousands of her counterparts in the culture.  And yet, amidst the commonplace of daily life, she continues to exude warmth and friendliness to the many individuals who partake of her hospitality--including those in her own family.

Once, upon returning home from elementary school, I recall a transformation in our kitchen as I noted tiny strips of noodles dangling from every imaginable hanging spot around the kitchen table.  The cast iron black chairs and even the metal fixture of the kitchen light offered niches of all varieties for the drying pasta--one of several culinary experiments my mother joyfully undertook in an attempt to provide nourishing, cost-effective meals for her family.

Some delicious treats from my mother's kitchen
 No cooking project seemed too daunting for my mother to tackle--from crafting homemade candy on the marble table top to kneading loaves and loaves of the softest homemade bread--a tradition that continues to this day and finds its outgrowth in all types of creative and delicious home-baked treats (which she has shared with many others)--including sticky buns, cinnamon rolls, Swedish tea rings, and dinner rolls.

Savory soups from farm-raised chickens and a variety of garden vegetables warm weary travelers visiting from the world-over.  Hungarians around our Thanksgiving table offered praise with us one year, and my mom was sure to season her chicken soup with the paprika flavoring she purchased in that country.  Zsolnay porcelain dishes of the finest blue, rimmed in a delicate gold, and shipped as a gift from my father, added their own dimension of loveliness--as laughter, Christian fellowship, and home-baked deliciousness contributed to a special holiday.

Zsolnay porcelain
When I was  college student, a Russian violinist and his family, recent emigrants, entertained our family with a lovely concert, including numbers such as the moving minor tones of Vittorio Monti's famous "Csardas."  How I enjoyed helping my mother arrange scrumptious scones on a platter and offer samples of savory tea to our guests.

In high school, I assisted in the kitchen as we entertained a Singaporean woman.  Egg rolls, rice, and sweet and sour chicken graced our palates that evening.  Such hospitality breathed beauty into our home.

Sometimes, we found ourselves frantically preparing to ready our rooms for guests' arrival.  I took charge of refreshing the bathroom or vacuuming the living room, dusting the bookshelves, and attempting to enliven the decorations with fresh flowers.  But everyone worked together, and the end result provided memories to be treasured.

How many other children, reared in homes where parents embrace hospitality and cultivate a joy in serving others, likewise reap the benefit of individuals who, like the Buganvellia in my friend's flower garden, literally "bloom where they are planted," thriving in an element where many may not appreciate, few may notice, and even fewer may express approval.  And yet, such is the reality of the Christian experience.  Faithfulness, obedience, and service--day in and day out, 24/7, continually living out the beauty of the truths of God's Word.

Hundreds of faithful stewards in Christ's churches the world over serve Him happily where few may appreciate.  Perhaps their duties include cleaning the church building or caring for small children in the nursery.  Their daily service might be teaching others' children in a Christian school classroom or pouring out their hearts in prayer for the members of Christ's body.  Seemingly unnoticed and unseen by the eyes of many, they continue to offer the sacrifice of praise to their Redeemer as their lives offer the joy of faithful service.

And from the throne room of Heaven, the King of the Universe looks down and beholds.  He hears every word, sees every act, and notices the cheerful worship of His saints.  Their lives bloom before Him, beautifying the corner of earth where He has set them. 

May they ever bloom with grace.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

A Concert of Praise: God's Plan for His Church

When my husband told me a few weeks ago that he had arranged for us to attend a Baroque concert, I found myself anticipating the event.  The night arrived, clear and cold. Orion's commanding presence looked down from the sky as we found our way into the crowded auditorium.  After Thomas picked up the tickets, he met me at the back of the auditorium.  But that evening's experience exceeded my expectations and found me drawing parallels to a greater group of which we are both a part, God's institution for this age--the local church.

The concert was beautiful, breathtaking, better than most.  The musicians, mainly Italians, spoke through their instruments.  Virtuosity, interplay between the musicians, and a collectively choreographed and sonorous sound graced the ears of the audience.

It's the first concert I've attended where the audience received two encore numbers as a result of our hearty and continued standing ovation.

"I guess they feel like playing tonight," the woman beside me remarked.

But I said to Thomas, "I think it's because they're Europeans."  In Italy, concert goers attend the opera with musical scores in hand.  Pavarotti was booed offstage once because his voice cracked.  Italians are musical connoisseurs.  They taste the delicacies of classical and Baroque music and know what to expect at a concert.

Not only was their performance of Baroque masterpieces from Vivaldi to Corelli excellent, but also their presence as actors was apparent.  Their eyes spoke.  They communicated grace, joy, and pleasantry with each other as they worked together to portray contrapuntal melodies, echoing motives, and graceful accord.  Beauty frequently works into my eyes unwanted tears that form in the presence of such ecstasy.

As I left the concert, overcome by its unmistakable sense of collective artistry, I was inspired to consider the way in which the local church is to function.  The kind of relationships that ought to exist.  The ways in which individuals are to beautify Christ by exercising themselves to godliness.

The concertmaster, an unspeakably talented man whose first encore selection included a cadenza with notes so high they appeared to transcend the fingerboard, led with authority.  When the selections finished, the group members applauded one another--something I hadn't witnessed before.  Highly trained and talented musicians, they lacked the stiff formalism of many performers I have witnessed.  As any skilled instrumentalist would, each made his portion of the work appear easy.  Each one voiced the music and evidenced a relationship with his own instrument, as if it were an extension of himself.  Fluid readers who clearly understood the composer's original intent and singularly embraced their own particular roles in adding a unique hue to the colorful performance, each instrumentalist contributed wholly and meaningfully to every selection.

Frequently, in a passage characterized by rests, the musicians, catching the spirit of the music, smiled pleasantly at one another, looked away from their musical scores, and took time to enjoy the performance.

It's rare to be entertained by such qualified musicians who understand their instruments and the musical selections they perform, who visibly respond so positively to their leader, who applaud each others' accomplishments, and who have clearly mastered their craft.
Imagine the beauty of God's church if each member would see himself thus. Indeed, every member is part of a greater body, which has been designed for an eternal purpose.  Understanding this, would that each member would tap into his potential, letting the joy song of Jesus flow out from him, in the context of the local church, to grace the lives of those in the surrounding community!

Imagine the kind of experience the lost should enjoy if they were to behold such Christians, who, with joy and love, heartily follow the men of God whom God has placed over them.

Imagine the impact upon our surrounding communities believers such as these would be, who interpret Christ's Gospel so skillfully, who revel in the pleasant songs of Zion they are creating as they live as masters of their craft--unafraid of "what ifs," for they have spent hours developing their lives with a Master Who has shaped them, formed them, and breathed life into them.

And because of their ability developed by the Master's hands, their relational interplay within the church itself is harmonically pleasant.  With jealousy never given even a passing thought, they applaud the accomplishments of others.  With strife and contention buried under a pile of rubble, they joy in the unique giftings of one another.  With words of strife never spoken from their lips, they live with harmonious grace and kindness, breathing life into each relationship and clearly portraying the original intent of the Composer's score--the actual meaning of the Word of God.

Let us be of that number in God's church who powerfully interpret the everlasting text of Scripture in our lives as we live together in unity and exquisite oneness, experiencing the power of God's Spirit as a result!

Friday, February 24, 2017

Our Trip to Magdala: Glimpses of Mary's Transformation

Demon possession was a very real phenomenon in the ancient world.  And while it remains an issue today, many in the secular-dominated West fail to comprehend its reality.  But in Jesus’ day, many came to Him for release from evil spirits—or others interceded for their healing.  One woman in particular stands out as a masterpiece of the healing powers of Jesus.  Her name?  Mary Magdalene.

Often viewed through the lens of popular culture, this Mary has received a bad reputation.  In the 14th century, for example, a "Magdalen House” for women of ill repute was erected in Naples. The Scripture, however, indicates no such connection between Mary of Luke 8 and the sinner woman of Luke 7. From paintings and other traditions, some have guiltily construed this “woman which was a sinner” as an adulterous Mary Magdalene.[1]   With the fiction of popular culture dragging Mary’s name through the mud, it is high time her reputation be restored to the reputable place she occupies in God's Word.

As Peter’s name is mentioned first in the list of disciples, so, in all but one instance (John 19:25, where, at the scene of the crucifixion, one would expect Christ’s mother to be given preeminence), Mary Magdalene’s name is listed first among other women who followed Christ (Matt. 27:56, 61; 28:1; Mark 15:40, 47; 16:1; Luke 24:10).  This is no accident, and it appears Mary stood at the forefront of other women disciples.  Luke tells us of

            certain women, which had been healed of evil spirits and infirmities, Mary called Magdalene, out of whom went seven devils, And Joanna the wife of Chuza Herod’s steward, and Susanna, and many others, which ministered unto him of      their substance” (Luke 8:2-3).

The life of Mary Magdalene took on even greater significance for me as I visited her village on my recent trip to Israel.  As I walked, listening to our tour guides describe the city at the time Mary lived here, I began to place myself back in time, in the days before Mary Magdalene became a Christ-follower.

Imagine walking through the streets of a first century town in this region which the biblical writers refer to as “Galilee of the Gentiles.”  The streets, five feet wide, with stone houses standing parallel to one another, speak of a presence that is both Jewish and Roman.  Here, a tower stands--from which the city gets its name—Magdala—or Tower. 

Site of the fish market at Magdala
The marketplace, a bustling, noisy place that smells distinctly of fish, is alive with activity.  (In Greek, the town’s name is Tyreche, or “the place of smoked fish,” for it boasts a thriving fishing industry.  Tilapia, or St. Peter’s fish—a kosher fish for Jews since it has both scales and fins—dominates the fish trade that exists here with Jerusalem. ) Raucous laughter greets the ears of those passing the House of Dice, as Roman soldiers cast their dice in a gamble for some silver trinkets acquired from a recently convicted felon.   

Many  Jewish homes come complete with their own private mikvehs, or ceremonial baths—for the Torah demands cleansing--after touching a dead body, having any running issue, or for a host of other situations, as the first five books of the Bible clarify.  Greco-Roman homes include floors of intricate mosaics, some with swastika-type designs.  (This symbol for most of history was considered a positive one until it became distanced from that reputation by Hitler and the Nazis.) 

A mikveh at Magdala
One woman emerges from her home.  Her long, flowing hair covered by a veil, she walks, basket in hand, toward the fish market.  You’ve seen the sight countless times but watch in fascination, anyway, for none know just when the demons will overtake her.  And there, at the corner, it happens.  A child has accidentally stepped into her path and, helplessly, the woman stops, eyes glazed, as foam appears at her mouth.  The once placid features become immediately contorted into a grimace.  Her basket falls to the ground in the frenzy.  Moments after, a gray-haired man, her father, quickly hastens to her side, seeking to pull her near him and motion her homeward.  Her brothers appear next on the scene and eventually, ten of her male relatives are able to carry her back home.

Why do they insist on allowing her to travel to the market alone?  You wonder.  Is it that they need some peace in the house?  Or is it that she is only affected at certain times?  That she goes days without being overcome and then, it happens?

This is how I imagine life might have been for Mary Magdalene, Mary of Magdala, from whom Christ cast seven devils.

The Magdala Stone

Oh, how many times in her possession might Mary have sat at the synagogue at Magdala, eyes fixated upon the Magdala Stone?  (This stone artwork bore upon it a representation of the Temple at Jerusalem, complete with a flowered pattern, it would seem similar to the covering for the Holy of Holies, a menorah, and a wheel, indicating, perhaps, the wheel which carried Ezekiel heavenward in his spirit).  Her brown eyes fastened to the stone before her, in those moments of clarity, she no doubt wished beyond measure that her body might be free from her devilish inhabitants.  Oh, that a deliverance might occur!  Oh, that she might get to God without these devils always interfering!
A mosaic on the floor of the synagogue at Magdala
One day, a new Rabbi enters the village.  His fame has already gone before Him as the Healer of the sick.  If one would but come to Him in faith, it is reported, her sins would be forgiven; her infirmities, healed.  And so, upon hearing He would be arriving to teach at their synagogue, the crazed woman finds a seat in the audience.  The next thing you know, she is cured.  No more frenetic fits.  No more lunacy.  No more crazed outbursts.

Mary becomes a devoted follower, a calm and controlled woman, dominated by a passion to serve a new Master.  Now, her daily market escapades bring back extra fish and you learn that she, along with other women, have been preparing it to assist the new Rabbi and His disciples.  She makes frequent journeys these days, always carrying a sufficient supply of food and provision for this Teacher Who has revolutionized her life.

For the next few years, her dramatic devotion is witnessed by all who know her.  She organizes supplies, plans routes for journeys of assistance and aid, arranges the women’s quarters, and seems to nearly perfectly manage the affairs of this ministry of providing of her substance for the physical well-being of Jesus and His followers.

And, most likely, because her life has been dramatically affected by this Master, we see her, as a matter of habit, accompany Him on His most dramatic journey, from the shores of Galilee to the foot of the cross.  As Christ wept in the Garden of Gethsemane, as He sweat great drops of blood with His disciples dozing in sleep, full from their Passover supper, unaware of the incredible cup of suffering their Lord was about to taste, she and the women may likely have hovered in the shadows.  As Christ stood in Pilate’s judgment hall, while Peter denied Him about the fire, Mary Magdalene would have been nearby.  As He walked the Via Dolorosa, she and the others would have watched, grieving at their hearts, that this Master, Who had rescued them, would be taken so unfairly, punished so severely, and hung so cruelly upon the worst of Roman punishments, the cross.

            And many women were there beholding afar off, which followed Jesus from Galilee, ministering unto him:  Among which was Mary Magdalene, and Mary the mother of James and Joses, and the mother of Zebedee’s children.—Matthew 27:55-56.

When Joseph of Arimathea came to beg the body of Jesus (John 19:38), when he and Nicodemus prepared Christ’s body (John 19:39-41), carrying it to Joseph’s new garden tomb, Mary saw (Mark 15:47).  That was Friday evening.  On Sunday, John tells us, the first to appear at the tomb was Mary.

            “The first day of the week cometh Mary Magdalene early, when it was yet dark,      unto the sepulchre, and seeth the stone taken away from the sepulchre”—John 20:1.

Reporting that Jesus’ body was gone was Mary.  And when the disciples "went home," one woman stayed on at the site of the grave, weeping for her Lord.  That woman was Mary. 

I believe those tears she shed were saturated in sorrow.  Where had her Lord gone?  She and the others had come to anoint His body, but it was not there.  And then, at a pinnacle moment in all of Scripture, our Lord appears first to this one from whom He had cast seven devils, Mary.   Sir, if thou have borne him hence, tell me where thou hast laid him, and I will take him away” (John 20:15) says the grief-stricken woman in sorrow to the Man she believes is the gardener. But one word from His lips stills her murmuring heart cry. 


At His words, she answers, "Master."   

And Christ gives her a commission:  Go..and tell...”

And that is what she did.

Now, nearly 2000 years from that moment, stones from an ancient synagogue at Magdala remind us of a woman who may have been healed there, for Christ no doubt came and taught in that exact synagogue.  (A mudslide from Mt. Caramel behind the town of Magdala covered the town and preserved it for 2000 years and today, archaeologists have discovered evidence of a town’s last attempt to save their lives, for in unearthing the ancient town of Magdala, synagogue pillars were discovered at the entrance to a roadway, suggesting that the inhabitants here started dismantling their synagogue.)

In 67 A.D., Magdala was destroyed.  Josephus records that thousands of people lived here at the time of the Roman conquest and that the sea ran red with their blood.  No human remains nor weaponry were discovered at the site possibly because these inhabitants were killed, captured, and sold into slavery, for there was no resettlement of this village. 

Would Mary have been a victim in that destruction?  Likely, if she had been still alive, she would have fled, having believed Jesus' words that such destruction was coming.   While such details are not stated in Scripture, what we can learn from Mary of Magdala is what one delivered and devoted Christ follower can accomplish for Him.

What about us, who have likewise been delivered from the chains of our sin?  While few can say that seven devils have emerged from them, anyone who partakes of Christ's eternal salvation has been delivered from the awful penalty and power of sin's reign in our mortal bodies (Rom. 8:11).

Is our devotion in like measure to that of Mary from Magdala?  Have our entire lives been offered as a service to this Divine Master?  If not, may we learn from the woman from Magdala and offer Christ our all!

[1] Lockyer, Herbert.  All the Women of the Bible.  Grand Rapids:  Zondervan Press, 1967, pg. 100.
Top picture from
Food picture from
Fish picture from
Mary telling Peter and John picture from

Sunday, February 5, 2017

Best. Trip. Ever.

A view of the stream bed where David chose 5 stones
--> "If you could go anywhere in the world, where would it be?" I asked Thomas, years ago, before we were married.

He didn’t miss a beat.  “Israel” was his immediate reply.

Israel?  I thought.  What’s the rush to see Israel?  I’d been to Asia and several European countries.  I wanted to see all the British Isles before I worried about seeing Israel.

But, since going, I have to say my recent trip to Israel was the best trip of my life.  While I’ve only been to sixteen other countries outside the States, I would have to say I love Israel best. 

There’s an electricity in the air, an all-things-Jewish feeling that one gets who experiences the culture first-hand.  A land of immigrants who long to be there, many of whom have voluntarily arrived to build up a land that is rich in God’s blessing--who understand, to some degree, the biblical past and embrace whole-heartedly the Jewishness of the future—so many people share this vision of hope.  The Temple Institute, whose employees are carefully investigating the correct dimensions of each piece of temple furniture, portrays the vision of an Israel where, once again, a temple will be rebuilt.

Israel stands as an island in a sea of Islamic nations.  It serves as a beacon of hope, of democracy, of freedom.  And, for the believer, it functions as a very real picture of fulfilled prophecy.  These are God’s chosen people.  This is the Promised Land.  And so many of the Jewish people there get it.  Their embrace of God’s plan to inhabit this land is seen all around.

At the beginning of the Snake Path that leads up to Masada
Traveling during the Bush years throughout Europe, I saw numerous anti-America signs.  Not in Israel.  Nearly every shop we went to was selling the t-shirt that read, “Don’t worry, America:  Israel is behind you.”  Several Jewish people that I met commented positively on the recent inauguration and election. 

How different it was the very first morning, arriving back in the sleepy Midwestern town of 7000 where I live and heading to the coffee shop to wake myself up after a very short night, to hear an elderly woman remark, “Any real news?  Nothing happens here.”  She was trying to locate a newspaper other than the town’s insignificant one. 

In Israel, the center of the world, terrorism threatens; here, soldiers and police openly carry machine guns on their person.  The morning before, I had looked about the lobby of our hotel and saw twenty soldiers, preparing to embark on a mission, each of whom carried a machine gun, slung from the shoulder.  We felt safe, knowing that they would protect us if danger threatened.

Outside a gas station, armed security guards stand on duty.
 Tears budded in the corners of my eyes at various, unforeseen moments throughout the trip.  The first time it happened was in the plane, on the way to Tel Aviv.  Throughout the plane stood various Orthodox Jews, moving back and forth, prayer books in hand.  So many Jewish people flew with us on that flight and I was seated next to a girl who, leaving her fiancé in the United States, was going to be getting married in Israel, with a traditional Orthodox Jewish ceremony, within the month. 

We had a wonderful conversation, and I shared with her my love for the Jewish people.  She was eager to get out of Israel and away from her very orthodox family.  The rules had seemed oppressive.  She was drawn in by America, where, on the streets of Manhattan, Orthodox Jews wore their yarmulkes openly.  The tolerance she felt in America trumped the alienation from other cultures she felt at home.  She’d even met several Arab friends in America, she told me—and they were really nice girls.  Why did her people and their Arabic neighbors always have to fight? She lamented.

But Israel wants peace.  “Shalom,” they say in greeting.  “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem,” they quote.  They’ve willingly given up territory with Muslim neighbors just to have peace, and yet many countries in the Arab world refuse to acknowledge their existence or even their right to exist.  We passed by what the new media reports as “refugee camps” and were shocked to find that those Palestinian refugee camps sport no tents:  these built-up towns, though dirty (certainly more so, in comparison to Jewish-dominated towns) were a far cry from “camps” for refugees.

The entrance to the cave (now a church building) where Christ was born
What made this the best trip ever?  Knowing that I was in the very place that God had chosen for Himself.  Knowing that these people are the ones God has chosen, the apple of His eye, the care of His heart.  I could finally visualize Zion, see the Valley of Jezreel, locate features of Jerusalem with my very own eyes.  And getting to know Jesus and His first-century followers better. 

Now, as I open the Scriptures, I see many more places than I ever did before.  I view the landscape; I see the towns; I consider the cultural significance in a way I didn’t realize was possible.  When I read of Peter and Mary Magdalene, I feel they are my friends:  I was at Peter’s house and saw the streets of Capernaum.  I was in the synagogue at Magdala and stepped on the streets that Mary Magdalene once did.

“As a result of this trip,” our guide told us, “you will come to know Jesus in a deeper way.”  I didn’t believe his statement at first:  I’ll admit, I was skeptical.  After all, isn’t the Bible sufficient for all understanding?  Yes, it is.  But putting the Bible in its context in a way this trip did—that did reveal Jesus to me in a new way.  And our guide, also a student of the Bible, was able to help us connect Jewish symbols and images of Christ’s teaching to the land we saw before us.

Our guide encouraged us to read Mark on the plane ride home—“It’s only sixteen chapters,” he reminded us.  And, as I did, I could visualize Capernaum, where Peter lived and Jesus stayed.  I could see Jarius leaving the synagogue and the woman in the crowded street touching the hem of Jesus’ garment.  Now, as I hear or read Scripture, I find myself seeing the place it was written and finding this perception of the geographic and cultural context of Israel revolutionizing my understanding of the Word.

And when I got to the end of Mark, the words of Jesus, “Go ye into all the world, and preach the gospel to every creature” (verse 15) took on an even greater significance, for they reminded me of what I had just seen:  the physical location of His crucifixion, burial, and resurrection; the physical place of His birth; His mother Mary’s home in Nazareth, the synagogue where He taught.  And now, having walked in His footsteps, having seen His vision for the world, having experienced, to some degree, the Scriptures come alive like never before, I too long to take His precious, life-giving Gospel to every individual the world over.  It is His plan of redemption for all mankind.

Hiking into a water vat
In the next articles, I plan to chronicle for you my adventures in detail.  This was the best trip of my life, and I highly recommend that every student of the Bible take this trip—and do so while you’re young.  That way, you can hike up Masada, like Thomas and I did.  You can wade through Hezekiah’s Tunnel. You can trek down the steps to the water shaft at Megiddo.  (As the youngest members of the group, we took advantage of the extra hiking opportunities, which others had difficulty managing.) 

So go to Israel.  Start saving now.  Within the next couple of years, Thomas may be leading a group.  I know that I, for one, can’t wait to go back to the place that’s central to God’s plan, the beautiful gem of Zion, the land of Israel.

Thursday, December 22, 2016

All Things By Prayer: Bloom’s Taxonomy for the Christian Life

As a teacher, I happen to love teaching my students how to think--creatively, uniquely, and from varying perspectives.  Bloom's Taxonomy, a personal favorite reference point, is an organizational chart, sometimes depicted in the form of a pyramid, which denotes the various levels of thought:  knowledge, comprehension, application, analysis, synthesis, evaluation.   

One discovery I've made is that engaging students in the writing process often triggers action at the top of the pyramid and demonstrates the kind of thinkers individuals are becoming.  Writing draws from the lower parts of the pyramid and provides a handy evaluation tool to note what concepts a student grasps and which ones need further review.

But what does Bloom’s Taxonomy have to do with the Christian life?  In considering the way I have observed Christianity, I was wondering the other day if it’s not a bit like Bloom’s levels.  Spend a lot of time developing Knowledge (that’s good—we know, because 2 Peter 1 says we are to “add…knowledge.”  Read the Word.  Go to church.  Learn much of Christ.  This stage is valuable (and cyclical, as it occurs daily). Indeed, without knowledge of the Scriptures, we will be ill-equipped to function in the Christian life, for we will not know the mind of God concerning truth. 

Knowing the Scripture is not enough, however:  it needs to be comprehended.  For instance, understanding that vision can refer to the Word of God, as in 1Samuel 3:1— “And the child Samuel ministered unto the LORD before Eli. And the word of the LORD was precious in those days; there was no open vision” is a valuable bit of comprehension of the language of the King James Bible.  Thus, verses like Proverbs 29:18, “Where there is no vision, the people perish: but he that keepeth the law, happy is he” reach very different conclusions than if the word vision is comprehended in the way individuals use the term today.

But application—where the message hits home, the rubber meets the road, where knowledge must be lived out in life—proves an even higher order Christian living skill.  It means taking that message we heard Sunday and walking in its truth.  It’s knowing that we should meditate on Scripture all day long and then actually doing it.  

Analysis, of course, is the dissecting into parts, the taking of words of Scripture and studying them out, of deeply working through questions about passages, people, paradigms, and discovering how they relate to one another and to the text of Scripture, in general.  It’s also analyzing the truth in our daily lives.

 Synthesis includes walking with Jesus all the time.

But synthesis is how it all works together.  Like all the time.  Like every single minute of the day.  It is an actual living out the Gospel every minute, walking with Jesus 24/7, and watching His Spirit produce His fruit in our lives.  Every Christian can be here.  We can all be synthesizing the sounds of the Christian experience and living in the beauty of Jesus (Psalm 27:4), but I wonder how many of us actually do that.  For myself, synthesis has, for many years, been a strong desire.  It’s been a longing of my heart to live out every biblical truth I know, but I too often have found myself unable to perceive the proper balance of truth in every situation of life.  The synthesis, that beautiful harmony and orchestral symphonic production of just the right mixture of God in my life, can get lost as I chase after the truth I learned Sunday but forgot the one I learned three months before.  So, in my experiential evaluation, what am I seeing as the key to synthesis in the Christian life?


Yes, prayer.

In his Systematic Theology, Wilhelm a Brackel speaks of this very attribute.  He writes, "Have and maintain a soul which is pure and undefiled, fully devoted to God, and finds her existence in communion with God."  He illustrates such a spirit in the person of Nehemiah, who was able to to speak with men while simultaneously praying to God:  

"Then the king said unto me, For what dost thou make request? So I prayed to the God of heaven. And I said unto the king, If it please the king, and if thy servant have found favour in thy sight, that thou wouldest send me unto Judah, unto the city of my fathers’ sepulchres, that I may build it"     (Neh. 2:4-5).

When I started this year, I committed to pray at a deeper level than I ever had before.  A number of various influences in my life encouraged it, and I decided to go with it.  As I reflect upon that one decision, I praise God for giving me a small glimpse into the incredible significance and necessity of prayer in a believer's life.

You know Philippians 4:6—“Be careful for nothing; but in every thing by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known unto God”?  I knew it said “everything.”  But it’s true.  It really means everything. 

In pursuing prayer, I’ve seen even more clearly a life lesson that God has taught me many times throughout the years--how completely dependent I am upon God for everything.  Literally.  Without Him I can do nothing--NO THING.  And it seems to me that no thing can be synthesized, lived out in the right way in the Christian life, without all prayer.  

So now how does life look for me?  Far different than I ever thought it would.  Back in January, my prayers were fervent, but the Lord has continued to reveal aspects in my spirit that need replacement with the Spirit of Christ.  Taking the advice of a book on prayer, I began writing out prayers rooted in Scripture.

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” become a regular request in my life.  One area that God has shaped my spirit has been in my response to the sins of other about me.  The sins of others often shot fiery wounds into my own spirit, and the peace of God, which I knew could “keep my heart and mind”—too easily stole away from my heart as these conflicts seemed like mountains to be claimed in prayer.

However, God has graciously made me aware that His plan is that I pray about everything with thanksgiving.  If that praise is missing with every request, then my own spirit can become negatively affected and my goal, God's glory, will not be realized by others about me, who will not perceive in me the praiseworthy God I serve.

Other challenges presented themselves.  I struggled knowing how to deal with critical words from others.  Truth does not reside in what people say or think, because they can misread situations. But if others saw something in me (accurately or not), I wanted respond biblically.  How could I know when people were right and how could I best respond to their words?

How I needed God’s wisdom in sorting this out!  Situations such as these were not ways I had envisioned God answering prayers.  In fact, it seemed the more I prayed, the more prayer was making my life a challenge.  But I knew God was good and I could not stop praying.  Even when I saw individuals departing from God, dear ones for whom I had prayed, I knew God heard my prayers, for the saints in Revelation attest to that truth.

Then I heard a message dealing with another upper level of Bloom’s Taxonomy (not called that, of course):  evaluation.  How do I evaluate my Christian life?  What is the litmus test of my Christianity?  What is the canon, the measuring stick, the rule by which my Christianity will be judged?

Simply put, it’s fruit.

Now I’ve heard preachers talk about all the souls that will be saved if we are right with God.  But when my brother Josh preached a message on spiritual fruit, he noted that the fruit which is 100-fold, 60-fold, or 30-fold is fruit of God's Spirit of righteousness.  He traced the fruit texts in Scripture dealing with the idea of fruit—John 15, Galatians 5:22-23, James 3:18, and others.  Of course, it can include the fruit of souls.  But if we’re going around evaluating how many souls have come into the kingdom because of our witness, we might get pretty bent out of shape, since we don’t actually know that anyway.  (One plants; one waters; God gives the increase.)

Fruit:  the evaluative stage of our Christian experience
That message greatly helped me develop the right kind of evaluation of my Christian life.  The Christian life, I knew, is about what God thinks of me.  But it’s also about how much fruit of the Spirit I’m producing.  Who doesn't long to be a 100-fold Christian?  Someone who bears spiritual fruit continually? And yet, I was reminded, that fruit will not be fruit sourced in us.  It will be entirely from Him.  What’s more, any lack in me is an evidence, not necessarily of something I need to change, but another way I can totally and completely depend upon Him!  As I applied this message to my need to depend on God for the fruits of the Spirit, the Lord began to teach some valuable lessons.

In synthesizing what fruit looks like, I've come to realize that dependence on the Spirit for His fruit production happens multiple times in a day.  At some point during a busy day, I will come to the end of “my” love and every other spiritual fruit.  But the Spirit is never depleted of His love, joy, peace, longsuffering, etc.!  While I desire to do right all the time and manifest God's fruits continually, such a life is impossible without continual dependence upon the Spirit’s help.  Daily.  Moment by moment.  Because God is the Source of our being--not only of our every physical breath, but in our every spiritual breath, as well!

It seems to me that this weapon of "all prayer" hinges the armor of the saint.  Prayer is crystalizing knowledge for me and further clarifying God’s definitions of things.  Because God's Spirit produces peace, confusion need have little, if any, place in our Christian experience as believers depend on the Holy Spirit for everything and walk confidently, looking in faith to Jesus.

Now nearing the end of this year, I look back at the sweet moments of prayer friendships that have developed with others, including a dear godly woman whom I call regularly to share in moments with our Master in prayer, laying everything in the lap of the Savior while claiming His promises to hear and answer.  The incredible freedom of spirit that emerges from such sweet times has been revitalizing!  Various messages on prayer have likewise bolstered the seed that began to grow in my heart last January.  A detailed study of the Lord’s Prayer has provided a road map for meeting God in prayer.  Opening the Psalms or other Scripture prayers to pray God’s thoughts after Him for a particular situation has proved a special encouragement as I reflect on the eternal words from our Lord.  

Some might call certain events mere coincidences--like "running into" the same individual twice in one day-- but I’m seeing those encounters as God’s call to prayer for that one, to lift up that person before the throne of grace.  And watching specific answers to prayer happen in the lives of people I love is yet another beautiful evidence that God is real, that prayer works, and that I am incredibly dependent upon the Lord for anything and everything that happens in life.

What a journey it has been so far!  And, by God's grace, I anticipate continuing it every day of 2017. 

In prayer. 

With thanksgiving.

"Oh that men would praise the LORD for his goodness, and for his 
wonderful works to the children of men!  
For he satisfieth the longing soul, and 
filleth the hungry soul with goodness"--Psalm 107:8-9.