Friday, April 30, 2010

Mordecai, the Parent

Check out the study of Mark in May at my blog this month. A new entry every two or so days.

Mordecai, the Parent

If you heard her story for the first time, it would bend your heart in her favor. At a young age, she lost both parents and was taken into the loving care of a responsible cousin. But even that situation wasn’t ideal, because the cousin—like his fellow countrymen were captives. No one knew if they would ever be allowed to return to their native homeland.

Later, another twist is added when a war king banishes his queen and robs the community of many beautiful young virgins so they might enter his harem, training to be the next queen. That short introduction leads us to the story of Esther in the Bible, also known from birth as Hadassah, meaning myrtle.

With Mother’s Day and Father’s Day coming up on our calendars, let’s consider this child and her later adult life for a few weeks. Let’s look at the characteristics of this young girl Hadassah and how her faith developed. Despite all her disadvantages—she grew into a woman of character, and eventually through God’s providence became the Queen of Persia.

Like many children today, she had a substitute parent instead of her birth parents. It’s a fact of life. Things happen. Even Jesus had a stepfather. Ester’s story could be one of the most encouraging biblical stories of all time to single parents, grandparents, or foster parents rearing children. Let’s discover how this “disadvantaged” child turned out.

Hadassah had some stellar qualities for one so young. Obviously, her male cousin Mordecai trained her to behold God with wonder instead of resentment. Holy text says that Hadassah was “lovely in form and feature,” and that her cousin had “taken her as his own daughter when her father and mother died” (Esther 2:7).

For the young Hadassah, every circumstance exists for bitterness to take root and breed resentment. However, Mordecai and her community of faith must have taught her to look for everyday blessings instead of focusing on the have-nots of life. Mordecai viewed rearing Hadassah as a privilege and this lived-out-generosity influenced her capacity to esteem life.

The world’s history is replete with stories of people providing for fellow human beings even though not kin. The Egyptians—Potiphar, a jailer, and a pharaoh—all saw to Joseph’s needs when he had been sold-out by his brothers. Moses was educated and sustained by an Egyptian princess in the shadow of another pharaoh. At 40, when Moses fled for his life, the Bedouin Jethro—a priest of Midian—took him in. And he gave him a job, a wife, a place to work and make sense of life.

A first step to integrity is to believe and live out that each person is created in the image of God—that life has intrinsic value because God is the originator. Little Hadassah learned this from Mordecai as he cared for her as his own.

As many of the cultures, Israel became a story telling nation, and Israel embraced the tradition of passing on the stories of God around dinner tables, during chores, at bedtime, and when they walked about. In today’s world, some children hear about God and some don’t.

Little Hadassah, no doubt heard the stories of God’s rescue again and again—instilling a hope to trust someone mightier than her cousin Mordecai or herself. Israel’s history included Noah and the ark of safety, the nomad Abraham and his escapes, and near-death-Job, having his life, family, and fortune replenished.

Over the next few weeks, Esther’s story can give hope to parents, those who parent their own children and those who parent others’ children.

Take the first step with your family and lay a foundation of trust in God. Second teach that every person has value and that life deserves respect. And, third, no matter the circumstances instill hope not bitterness.

Model this for the children around you, and then allow God to construct the child’s life. Like little Hadassah, who grew up to save her people, God can empower the children within your care to have wholesome futures and they might even be lifted up to represent God in high places.

Sunday, April 25, 2010

Mark in May

At my home congreation, we have a book of the month club and congregants study a guide written by one of our members--none scholars, just everyday Christians, who are out to please the Lord.

I've written the guideline for the book of Mark. Every few days, I'll post one section of the guideline and some comments along. Join me in this quest to delve a little deeper into the gospel of Mark.

The Gospel of Mark Reading and Study Guide by Cathy Messecar, May 2010

Get ready for a treat. As you read through the book of Mark in May, you will meet anew—Jesus the Wonderful, the breathtaking Savior sent to redeem the entire world.

You will also see a timeframe of Jesus’ day-to-day ministry, when he went from one good work to another and didn’t grow weary. The book of Mark uses the terms immediately, at once, without delay, as soon as, just as over 40 times. Those time references allow us to see that Jesus’ day was crowded with needy people. His example—even when pressed—can help us pattern our responses after his servant heart. Mark helps us see the immediacy of the needs that surrounded Jesus.

Authorship: Most scholars agree that Mark wrote this gospel. However, Mark may have witnessed only parts of Jesus’ ministry, making some think that Peter guided and advised Mark’s writing of the gospel while they were in Babylon together (1 Peter 5:13).

John Mark: son of Mary (Acts 12:12), cousin or nephew to Barnabas (depending upon commentary opinions, Colossians 4:10).

Purpose: The purpose of Mark’s gospel—written primarily to Gentile readers—proves by Jesus’ works that he was sent from God, empowered over nature, demons, and illnesses. Mark shows that Jesus deserves allegiance above all others. Mark emphasizes the authority and miracles of Jesus rather than the teachings of Christ, and his inspired writing technique—of relating mostly miracles—reminded me of God arming Moses with miracles to prove to the Egyptians that God ruled supreme.

Theme: The word servant is only used seven times in the text of Mark, but the prevalent theme is captured in chapter 10:45 when Mark writes about Jesus that he came not to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as ransom for many.

Date: 65-70 A.D (most scholars), while some give it a much earlier unreliable date.

Key Words: The Inductive Study Bible suggests key words or phrases to highlight in Mark: immediately, at once, without delay, just as. Also consider these: authority, kingdom of God, references to Satan or demons and covenant.

Throughout this study, my passion is to interest you in thinking about how Jesus interacts and life-supports you each day. I encourage you to daily offer a prayer of thanksgiving for Jesus’ intervention, healing, or comfort. Instead of ending a prayer “in Jesus’ name”—which has a tendency to become trite or meaningless—try the sample prayer-ending phrases at the end of each chapter or come up with your own as you study Mark. Think of actual ways Jesus helped you throughout the day and end your prayers in that way.

The printed chapter-study (available at foyer Conroe Church of Christ, Conroe, Texas) includes a general question or two on each chapter, a summary thought and prayer endings; the online version at the church website is more substantive. I’ll post the online version at my blog every few days and welcome your comments: 

Chapter One

Verses 1-8, John the Baptist prepares the way

The long-awaited baby of Luke-one-fame, John (later known as the baptizer), became a nomadic prophet, who ushered in the Light to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death (Luke 1:79).

If you had seen this bedraggled prophet dressed in camel’s hair and feeding on locusts would you have listened to his message or discounted him as weird?

(By the way, my husband David thinks John occasionally filled in his menu with a roasted desert critter)

Verses 9-13, the baptism and temptation of Jesus

God cannot be tempted by evil (James 1:13), however, Jesus—God with us, in the flesh—could. Jesus employed several means to resist temptation. Name those. Have you also used these successfully? How? When?

Verses 14-20, the calling of the first disciples

In September of 1984, C. D. Davis, one of our ministers said, “If we are really following Jesus, he will make us fishers of men” (bold italics mine). Consider C D’s challenge and these words of Jesus, “Come follow me and I will make you fishers of men.” What fisher-of-men gifts do you have?

Verses 21-28, Jesus drives out an evil spirit

Mankind has free will and we can obey God or not. What beings do not have a choice when God issues an imperative command? Sit quietly and imagine verses 23-28 playing out in front of you. Are you, too, amazed?

Verses 29-34, Jesus heals many

Notice how illnesses and diseases are mentioned separately from casting out demons? Why did Mark do that? Read James 6:10-13. Who are your unseen enemies? With God on your side, how will you defeat them?

Verses 35-39, Jesus prays in a solitary place

Jesus’ solitary time with God maintained his heart, soul, servant spirit, work, and character. How do you maintain your ministries?

Verses 40-45, a man with leprosy

Consider the description of Jesus that he was filled with compassion when he saw the leprous man, and he reached out to touch and heal. Since Jesus is the only one worthy of comparing our actions to, how “filled” are we with compassion toward the suffering—the ill or those suffering the consequences of their sins?

Summary Thought: Jesus is able to overcome all outside forces and our inner weaknesses and to come along side to make us fishers of men.

Prayer Endings: In the name of Jesus, who was tempted but did not sin (vs. 12).

In the name of Jesus, who prayed in solitary places (vs. 35).

Friday, April 23, 2010

Test God, Can You Out-Give Him?

"Tonight we had rice and milk for supper. We fed the family for about fifty cents and put the two dollars saved into a fund for the hungry. We do this almost every Sunday night." Ruth Gibson wrote about their family’s effort to help feed the poor in her book Chipped Dishes, Zippers and Prayers.

They saved about 100 dollars in a year’s time and donated the money to a charity that feeds the hungry. But with each bite of plain rice, an immeasurable lesson of sacrifice reached their hearts and their children’s. The Gibsons found a way to teach their family about personal giving even while living in our cappuccino, movie-going, air-conditioned, blessed society.

Ruth Gibson also wrote a prayer to God about their rice and milk meal. Within that prayer, she admitted her frustration at the immensity of the world’s hunger compared to her family’s meager gift. However, she laid her frustrations in the hands of the Maker of grain, the Inventor of Manna, the Supplier of All Good Things, our loving Father.

Every day God calls his followers to sacrifice in some way so they can better serve others. My sacrifices vary. Some days I give time, some days I give up sleep, some days I give cash. But what if a need comes along and I have little left to give? What if we’re already scraping the bottom of the peanut butter jar to make our kids’ school lunches? God says give anyway. Trust his provision-promises. He watches and supplies those who look beyond their own needs to the needs of others.

When God confronted Israel about their lack of tithes because they spent what they had only on themselves, he said, “‘Test me in this,’ says the LORD Almighty, ‘and see if I will not throw open the floodgates of heaven and pour out so much blessing that you will not have room enough for it’” (Malachi 3:10). I’m convinced that if all who could work would work and if we helped our disabled neighbors as God intended then governments would almost be out of the welfare business.

Some persons give to individuals and charities out of their abundance while others give out of their little. For either giver, a few spending adjustments will allow them to give even more. Families grow used to chicken dinners when a night of rice and beans could easily fill bellies. Sodas and expensive drinks are guzzled when tap water could be the beverage of choice. Sometimes the deciding factor is selfishness, an unwillingness to sacrifice personal wants.

I started a habit over five years ago that has become ingrained. When Dave and I exercise the privilege of eating in a restaurant, I order water instead of cola or iced tea. Then—periodically—that saved money is given to a charity. Dave remembers to tip the as if we’d ordered more expensive drinks because it’s just as much work for wait staff to bring water to the table.

If we eat two meals per week away from my kitchen (and we usually do), then about five dollars is saved. Multiply that times 52 weeks in a year, and that’s $260 for a charity. To me, giving up my cola is not as noble as a meal of plain rice, but it’s one way to increase my giving to others.

When compared to some sacrifices of now-a-days Christ-followers—imprisonment or dying for their faith—an iced tea forfeit remains a pittance. But God “opens the floodgates of heaven” toward the giver of a cup of water in his name to a $10,000 donation to drill a well in a remote village.

When we do without a luxury to help others—whether we skip a meal or forego a new change of clothes—God honors that charity. God benefits generous givers with more, enabling them to further donate.

In my life experience, God has proved to me that I can’t out give him. Has God already brought someone’s true need to mind as you read? Here’s a challenge—find someway to help, whether measured in volunteer hours or dollars or milk money.

Test God. But get ready. You will need to build bigger rooms—to hold all the blessings funneled your way.

Call for contentment stories

To all my friends (and writer author friends, too): I have a work in progress, contracted to be released spring 2011. I plan to include 12 personal stories (men and women) of how you learned contentment. I especially want to know of specific times and how you found your way to trust and contentment.

Your stories can be small situations that only took moments to play out or major, life-altering events. Humorous events are welcomed, too. Briefly describe the event/moment when you lacked contentment and how you got to a better place of peace and trusting God to take you through.

Please write these in first person. Avoid pat answers and vague generalities. I reserve the right for my editor and/or me to revise your submission. To kick start your memories here’s the definition I wrote in the manuscript about God’s instilled peace, “Contentment learned from our trustworthy God brings satisfaction of mind and heart in feast or famine”

Please include your phone number, email address, occupation, and mailing address, nothing but your story will be shared, and I'll notify by September whose story is included. You will receive a free copy of the book in late spring 2011 if your story is used. Your stories can be from 500 words to 1,000 words and will be featured in a section with this working title and your first name: Embracing Contentment ~ Gerry’s Story

Email me at writecat at consolidated dot net

Friday, April 16, 2010

Genuine Smiles

At four years old, he sat in my lap, twisted his head to the side and asked, “Grandma Cathy, are you in misery?” I suppose my face must have hinted at my melancholy. My husband had just phoned and said he’d hit two cows in his Peterbilt, so I’d sat down to plan my phone calls to begin straightening out the mess and his fenders. That’s when miniature psychologist Jack had climbed into my lap and summed up the moment.

Our face topography often maps our moods. Sometimes face etchings only reveal the mood of the moment, but often the lines detail the history of smile-visits or frown-visits.

I didn’t do the counting, but here are some smile statistics. The average woman smiles about 62 times a day, while men smile and add to their crows feet on the average of 8 times a day.

Women, don’t get smug, yet. When it comes to outright laughing, males and females lag behind the youngsters. Each of us laugh only 15 times in 24 hours while a child will giggle, snigger, and chuckle his way through a day to the merry number of 400.

Want to know about smile power? Look back at your high school yearbook pictures. A study has shown that if you smiled in the photo, then you are more likely to have a successful career and marriage.

I’ve found that smiles are more difficult to produce when I’m on a tight schedule. We are a society in the passing lane. We pass co-workers in corridors. We pass family going in and out of our homes. We pass fellow Christians in the church building aisles. And we pass a myriad of unknown people while shopping or driving. If you are up for an experiment, take time to notice people’s faces. Don’t stare, but glance up and smile at those who pass by. Watch for responses.

I’ve been face watching lately. Here are my results. Most are too busy with their current mission to even acknowledge another’s presence. They simply pass by and get on their way. Others will nod or in some way let people know they are aware of them. And then there are those people who take the time to smile, increasing the array of crinkles around their eyes. Simply beautiful.

Karen McLendon-Laumann captured the essence of how grins are caught: “Smiling is infectious, you catch it like the flu. When someone smiled at me today, I started smiling too."

Dale Carnege says, “The expression one wears on one’s face is far more important than the clothes one wears on one’s back.” The smile is powerful and universal. A smile isn’t border-bound. A smile speaks any language.

Smiles also offer a cordial greeting to the uncomfortable. Paula’s husband died suddenly last August. Yet, as friends and family gathered to say goodbye to Lee Roy, Paula’s gracious smile warmed our hearts. Even in the throes of mourning, she chose to help friends and family. She chose to offer us encouragement through her genuine smile.

A smile indicates an embrace of life. Even though a day’s activities may not be ideal, a shared smile indicates an enthusiasm for a better day. And that may be all fallen-countenance-folk need is for someone to offer hope through their smile.

This week, bestow smiles and reflect God’s grace to your contacts. And if you’ve memorized the following age-old-blessing, further God’s favor by praying silently over the people you pass: “The Lord bless you and keep you; the Lord make his face shine upon you and be gracious to you, the Lord turn his face toward you and give you peace” (Numbers 6:24-26).

Friday, April 09, 2010

Ouch-Steel Toed Scriptures-April 9

Ouch. Ouch. Ouch.

Do you ever read a scripture that has on steel-toed boots? One that steps on both feet?

For several months, one such scripture traipsed around after me. Remember Jesus’ instructions about doing good deeds? Some wanted to make sure they were seen when doing their good deeds. Jesus caricatured them as hypocrites with trumpeters—marshaling and announcing—so that all could see their “Alms Giving Annual Parade.” People actually did this. How often I don’t know, but these horn-tooters had the only reward they would get—the praise of men. Now-a-days if I honked my horn all the way to the church, other travelers would just think I was crazy.

Jesus gave an alternate path to follow when doing any good deeds. “[W]hen you give to the needy, don’t’ let your left hand know what your right hand is doing so that your giving may be in secret.” The bonus, “But then your Father, who sees what is done in secret, will reward you” (Matthew 6:1-5).

“To be honored by men…to be honored by men…to be honored by men.” Jesus’ words washed and washed and cleansed and cleansed, speaking to me: keep quiet about good deeds. The more his words soaked in, the more I noticed the ways that I manage to get good deeds noticed. In order to best explain this I’ll tell you about a piddling money donation.

I walked into a store during the holiday season and the red-kettle bell-ringer stood at the entrance. I practice donating a dollar each time I enter stores over the season. Believe me, I don’t shop that often so the amount is measly by the time the New Year begins. The bell ringers usually smile and give a hearty thank you. I like that. Makes me feel good. Sainted and Santa-ish.

On one such giving spree, I had the folded bill in my hand and when I poked the money in the rectangular slot, someone leaving the store had just dropped in money from the other side and the bell ringer didn’t see my donation. And when she turned warm eyes toward me, I felt compelled to point to the red pot and say, “I just gave.”

Couldn’t let her think a miser had just passed by, now could I? And then I felt sick at my stomach as I walked through the store. I was embarrassed that Jesus saw that. Why couldn’t I have just smiled and wished her a good day? Let God see the gift, no matter how small the amount.

Since that time, the Lord has revealed to me other times that I mention my good deeds in casual conversation with others. When rattling off schedules and busyness, it’s easy to tell about a pot of soup, a card written, a visit made, a dollar dropped into a kettle.

I’m nearly through reading the compelling biography Rees Howells, Intercessor by Norman Grubb, originally published in the 1950s. The revised book encourages readers even today because of Mr. Howell’s strong prayers and his counting on the Lord to provide everything he needed from missionary funds to affirmations of his ministry.

I know life is a lesson-in-progress and as my friend Jan Tickner is fond of saying, “The Lord’s taking me on one more lap around Mount Sinai.” Amen, Jan. I’m right behind you panting and making my laps.

There’s no need to hand wave, shout or even subtly draw attention to my good deeds. Rather I should tell about Jesus who laid down his life saying, “But I, when I am lifted up from the earth, will draw all men to myself” (John 12:32).

I’m learning that when I step back, Jesus steps forward.

Sunday, April 04, 2010

Easter—it’s all about living fully here and now and beyond the grave. Allow me a few memories of cemeteries to help explain.

On a get-away weekend to see bluebonnets, we walked through the La Grange, Texas “Old City Cemetery.” We’d driven by many times, and each time, we’d say, “One day we’ll stop and look around.” On that trip we did.

Most compelling to passers by is an angel statuette, human-sized, standing guard over a headstone. Great sorrow exudes from the angel. Head bowed. Full-length wings droop. Established in the 1840s, the cemetery contains mass graves of victims of the yellow fever epidemic of 1867.

In the 1870s, the first cemetery association in the state of Texas formed to care for this site. Other Italian marble statuaries—genuine art—also grace this old burial ground. Many forgotten human stories marked by stones.

On a trip through Dublin, Texas, my eyes were drawn to a low-walled cemetery. As we neared, I saw a young adult male kneeling on a grassy grave near the front. In obvious grief, he rocked himself back and forth. On that day, my husband and I glimpsed a human story marked not by stone, but by the person left behind.

On another journey, I played a favorite CD titled “Resurrection,” when I drove up behind a slow moving line of cars. Ahead, I saw in a curve of the road that a hearse led the procession. I slowed to a courteous distance and watched as respectful oncoming drivers pulled onto the shoulder of the road. At that moment, I trailed the final earth-chapter of a human story.

Slowly I proceeded while resurrection-song lyrics played. I especially remember the lyrics from “Arise, My Love.” The words describe: A risen Savior. The trembling earth. A shaken tomb. The return of life. The grave stone removed.

Jesus was familiar with cemeteries, too and had dear friends pass over. His devoted friend Lazarus died, but Jesus didn’t arrive at his tomb until four days later. His sisters Mary and Martha were in the throes of mourning when Jesus said to Martha, “Your brother will rise again.” She misunderstood Jesus to mean that her brother’s spirit would return on judgment day.

But Jesus visited the cemetery and commanded life to return to Lazarus immediately and that day his sisters clasped his warm hands. The Creator and Sustainer of life demanded death’s claiming fingers lift from Lazarus.

Lazarus’ resurrection—like a movie trailer—gave a glimpse of the ultimate resurrection, release date to be announced by trumpets. On the Sunday after Jesus’ crucifixion, women brought spices to his burial place. Upon arrival, they saw the tomb’s large closure-stone rolled to the side, where angels declared to them, “He has risen!” (Mark 16:6).

Later, Peter wrote, “But God raised him from the dead, freeing him from the agony of death, because it was impossible for death to keep its hold on him” (Acts 2:24).

Christmas celebrates the beginning of an eternal salvation story. Easter celebrates the culmination of Jesus’ work as deity on earth—his righteous living, his sacrifice for all, his defeat of death.

Most of us have seen too many cemeteries. But Christ-followers await the best and final chapter of life when Jesus will return and death will no longer be part of life.

When the time is right, God will once again step into all our human stories with a command to arise. Come, Lord Jesus—topple the stones. Roll them away.

Friday, April 02, 2010

Christ--the Mercy Seat

When David took over the throne in Jerusalem, something was missing—had been missing for 30 years—the Ark of the Covenant. Contrary to make-believe-movies, the wooden box was not magical. God ordained the construction and measurements of the ark as a visual reminder of his constant presence with the house of Israel. God wanted non-superstitious followers who would recognize him as central to their everyday routines as well as their worship times together. The ark symbolized God’s mercy and loving kindness—always among the people.

Before David’s kingship, the Philistines had stolen the ark in a battle and carried it away, but they got rid of it when they suffered serious illnesses brought about by God. The ark then spent years at the home compound of an old priest, Abinadab, and then King David arranged to bring it home. After one tragic start to return the ark to Jerusalem, David waited three months before attempting the trip again.

David invited the entire nation to join in the celebration, and told his Levite brothers to appoint men to sing “joyful songs,” accompanied by lyres, tambourines, and harps. In front of the ark, cymbals and horns announced the great event. Exuberant King David expressed great joy as the ark came into Jerusalem and he “danced before the Lord with all his might” (2 Samuel 6: 14.).

Compare this joy-filled event—when the stolen mercy seat returned to Israel—with the days leading up to the crucifixion and the resurrection of Jesus. Before the foundation of the world was laid, God knew that evil would enter and steal our right to eternal life, and God chose to revitalize mankind here and in the hereafter through Immanuel, Jesus, God with us. Eventually the servant Jesus would willingly take up the burdens associated with the cross because humanity needed a mercy-seat savior.

Recently I finished the book “Thin Places” by Mary DeMuth, award winning current Christian author. In her memoir, she relates glimpses into her traumatized childhood which included many rapes at the age of five and a very dysfunctional family. Today, she is a joy-filled Christ follower with a Christian husband and children. While her experiences no doubt left serious scars, she affirms that her rescue from her tragic past came in the person of Jesus Christ. He revitalized her life and changed her nature from fear to joy.

As an adult, Mary realizes that her innocence had to bear the sins of adults around her. She describes her childhood as wearing the “sin of another unwillingly like a scratchy coat in summer’s heat.” We’ve probably all had to bear the brunt of another’s sins, such as when a drunk driver kills a child. The parents bear the ill of that sin for the rest of their lives. Mary DeMuth’s wording helped me better understand that Jesus took up our sins willingly.

Jesus willingly laid down his perfect life as a sacrifice so that all sins could be forgiven and a new mercy seat be placed among us. And in the miracle of his resurrection, he also triumphed over the wages of sin—death. The writer of Hebrews encourages us to “[F]ix our eyes on Jesus, the author and perfecter of our faith, who for the joy set before him endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of God” (12:2).

In Jesus’ ministry, he sometime sighed toward heaven and then performed a miracle to restore health and wholeness. Scholar Elwood Sanner calls Jesus’ sighs “wordless prayers.” As we remember the long ago events that atoned for our sins, some us will sigh on this day called Good Friday (possibly derived from an English term God’s Friday). Through our series about King David we saw his many sorrows and triumphs and we wrap up by envisioning his celebration as he returned the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem.

This Sunday, as we remember Jesus’ triumph over death through his resurrection, let us celebrate with abandon that a mercy seat in the person of Christ our Lord has entered the human story.

Happy Easter.