don’t be distracted: Anna

There was also a prophet, Anna the daughter of Phanuel, of the tribe of Asher. She was of a great age, having lived with her husband seven years after her marriage, then as a widow to the age of eighty-four. She never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day. At that moment she came and began to praise God and to speak about the child to all who were looking for the redemption of Jerusalem.

Luke 2:36-38; NRSVue

It seems like there’s nothing easier than being distracted. My spiritual mentor and director and good friend has told me that in his experience there can be a thousand screaming monkeys. All the more true for me as well. I can count on something distracting me from meditation on scripture, from listening and hearing God’s voice, receiving God’s word.

Anna was not one who lived with distractions. Oh, I’m sure that she had to deal with possible distractions. But interestingly we’re told that “she never left the temple but worshiped there with fasting and prayer night and day.” She had been married but devoted herself exclusively to God after her husband died. Maybe she never had children. We’re not told. But it reminds me of what developed later, the monastic orders.

But as followers of Jesus, it seems to me that we’re called to be entirely devoted to Christ in normal life, just as Jesus did in his thirty-three or so years on earth. Yes, 1 Corinthians 7 tells us that one can be more totally devoted to God when unmarried and Jesus wasn’t married. But he did work in his “legal” father’s trade, and perhaps as the oldest son looked after his mother Mary after Joseph passed. There are responsibilities and concerns that come with marriage and family, to be sure. Anna knew all about that. What is needed is total devotion to God, something we can always give, even while we’re busy fulfilling family along with other responsibilities. In fact we show devotion to God in part by giving ourselves fully to the responsibilities at hand. But at the same time, when and where we can, we regularly want to be attentive to God by being in scripture and prayer. In Anna’s case, fasting as well.

Because of this, Anna was ready when Christ appeared. She was primed and afterwards pumped, telling all about this child. Something for us as well, in our time and place, yes, even today in the midst of all the distraction of the season. This should be what we’re all about, our very heart.

In and through Jesus.

being preoccupied with Jesus and his teaching and vision, along with a complaint about the industrial revolution, and encouraging words about Mary and Martha

Now as they went on their way, he entered a certain village, where a woman named Martha welcomed him into her home. She had a sister named Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet and listened to what he was saying. But Martha was distracted by her many tasks; so she came to him and asked, “Lord, do you not care that my sister has left me to do all the work by myself? Tell her then to help me.” But the Lord answered her, “Martha, Martha, you are worried and distracted by many things; there is need of only one thing. Mary has chosen the better part, which will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42

Especially in the past, there’s been many a discouraging word about Martha from this passage, along with encouraging words for Mary and those like her. I’ve noticed a redress to the point where you almost think the passage must surely be somehow exonerating Martha, and not giving the Mary there, the appreciation she deserves.

I think a careful look at John 11 along with this passage will help us appreciate both women, that they were both faithful followers of Jesus. Martha seems to have more of an assertive, take charge personality, while Mary seems more laid back, and more withdrawn. We probably side with one or the other, or see something of both in ourselves.

The problem with Martha which I think is evident in this passage is that she gets so preoccupied with necessary things, that she loses sight of what is altogether the most necessary. And as much as I can easily be withdrawn like Mary, which isn’t necessarily bad, I find too that certain matters can easily take up my complete attention to the point that I’m totally preoccupied with them, and not with the Lord.

That said, I want to say a word of praise for Martha. She surely was a master at what she did. She probably knew how to make up a meal and had the gift of hospitality with a flair. And when you think about it, that served Jesus and his disciples, along with whoever may have joined Martha, and her siblings Mary and Lazarus, very well.

Nowadays it sometimes seems that people change jobs and interests almost as often as clothes. While older folks like me tend to stay with one thing, the younger folks are much more flexible, which in itself is not bad. But for both what can be missing is really becoming good at something, and I mean good in the sense of decades of experience.

But for us who have done basically the same thing for decades, often it’s in terms of the Industrial Revolution in which work was depersonalized in most difficult, even dangerous work, or simply doing one simple thing all day, and all of that for a paycheck from an employer which all too often saw the bottom line as the only thing that mattered. But people were more than happy to do the same thing day in and day out to get what might have been a relatively good paycheck and benefits especially during the heyday of the unions. Essentially gone were the times when people specialized in this or that. With mechanization on an assembly line, it could all be done exponentially faster. Jobs were plentiful in those spaces, so that the breadwinner, normally always male, would get their job, and stay in it. Not only accepting the boredom, but enduring what was rugged, rough, even dangerous work, if it deserves to be called work. And oftentimes probably not living as long as a result. Even though we now live in “the post-industrial age,” we can’t assume that manufacturing jobs are of the past. Worldwide they are present, and still the backbone of much of what is going on in the business sector. All that to say, I think we tend to not even appreciate the gift of individuals like Martha as people once did, and don’t forget that Jesus was a carpenter, and surely a master at it.

The point I want to make here is not: Be like Mary and not like Martha. It’s more complicated than that. Instead whatever we not only have to do, but get to do in life, we need to in everything be preoccupied with Jesus, and with Jesus’s teaching and vision he cast. That is what should be our main preoccupation, even as we continue on day after day with the occupations and responsibilities we have.

And this is to be our preoccupation every day. For some reason I can easily slack off on weekends, and let up in that. I think it’s because there’s an element of rest from the busy and often hard workweek, and a kick back and relax kind of mentality. And we need some of that, indeed regular rest, even a weekly sabbath of sorts. But somehow within all of that we need to purposefully keep our Lord and his teaching and vision before us. Not only to help us, but so that we can find where we fit in our Lord’s vision along with everyone else. In and through Jesus.

“the present crisis”

Now about virgins: I have no command from the Lord, but I give a judgment as one who by the Lord’s mercy is trustworthy. Because of the present crisis, I think that it is good for a man to remain as he is. Are you pledged to a woman? Do not seek to be released. Are you free from such a commitment? Do not look for a wife. But if you do marry, you have not sinned; and if a virgin marries, she has not sinned. But those who marry will face many troubles in this life, and I want to spare you this.

What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.

1 Corinthians 7:25-31

The “present crisis” is tied to the time being short, and the world in its present form passing away. That may have to do with the realization of the change that Christ’s resurrection brought, the beginning of the end of this world, as the new word and new creation begins to emerge in Christ, someday to be culminated and completed when he returns.

That being said, we still have to deal with whatever our “present crisis” may be, which depends on time, place and circumstances for sure, unless it’s the general idea of what all Christians go through in life as followers of one Lord, Jesus. This is not going to let up, but in some form will always be with us, if indeed it’s the latter thought that is in view. But it is temporary, even said here to be short.

The point is that we followers of Christ live differently given the new world we’re a part of within the old world in which we live. Yet we do share common concerns, true if we marry or even if we don’t. There’s no escape from the problems which beset a broken world. Right now with the COVID-19 pandemic we have an illustrative case in point. We’ll do many of the same things everyone else should be doing. Or at least out of love for neighbor I think we should be doing those things, like wearing a face mask in public, etc. But because of our faith in Jesus with the confidence that somehow the new world is emerging, we will also act differently. Never violating love for neighbor or what is properly right in the eyes of all. But with the confidence that this is not the end. And that we’re here to be devoted to the Lord, whatever our situation. In and through Jesus.

what is most basic to us?

I am writing to you, dear children,
because your sins have been forgiven on account of his name.

1 John 2:12

It seems like in this day and age, or surely any day and age for that matter, but maybe more so now in some ways, we Christians can forget and come to neglect and even rather think light of basics which are central to our lives as believers and followers of Christ. Perhaps a good example is the passage cited above. We might come to take for granted that our sins are forgiven, and even hardly think of that at all since we’re so caught up in other things.

Right now in the United States Christians are often very much caught up in politics, or maybe something of the culture war, or whatever cause it might be. Some of that might be good in its place (maybe some of it not), but we need to get past the “ho-hum” attitude we often have about what we might call “first things,” and what is beyond that.

We need to live in the world of Scripture, the story that God portrays. And then see everything from that light. And not let the world direct us as to what’s important. And if there’s some overlap between what we think and what others might be thinking, all well and good. But our hearts and lives are on a different course entirely. As we dwell on the basics and go deeper. And refuse to consider basic to ourselves anything else, at least not in comparison. In and through Jesus.

devotion to closeness to God

Their leader will be one of their own;
their ruler will arise from among them.
I will bring him near and he will come close to me—
for who is he who will devote himself
to be close to me?’
declares the Lord.

Jeremiah 30:21

Therefore, brothers and sisters, since we have confidence to enter the Most Holy Place by the blood of Jesus, by a new and living way opened for us through the curtain, that is, his body, and since we have a great priest over the house of God, let us draw near to God with a sincere heart and with the full assurance that faith brings, having our hearts sprinkled to cleanse us from a guilty conscience and having our bodies washed with pure water.

Hebrews 10:19-22

Submit yourselves, then, to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. Grieve, mourn and wail. Change your laughter to mourning and your joy to gloom. Humble yourselves before the Lord, and he will lift you up.

James 4:7-10

The NET Bible note says Jeremiah 30:21 is a rhetorical question with a “no” answer expected. That is not clear in the NIV nor the KJV, perhaps more “literal” in English from the Hebrew, but clearer in other English translations. No one would dare seek to draw near to the God of Israel on their own. Hebrews 10 makes it clear that the way has now been open to all of God’s people through the blood, the once for all sacrifice of Jesus in his death on the cross. We in Jesus are a “holy” and “royal priesthood” (1 Peter 2:5,9), and “made…to be…priests to serve…God” (Revelation 1:6).

So the way that was once made open through only designated ones necessarily year after year is now made open to all through Christ’s fulfillment in his atoning sacrifice. Not that “Old Testament” people couldn’t draw near to God who were not priests. They could do so only through the sacrificial system when possible, of course through faith. Enoch would be a prime example before the law was given (Genesis 5:21-24), and David (Psalm 15) and Daniel afterward (Daniel 9-12).

The passage in James quoted above makes it clear that this must be both in attitude and action. We’re told of the need for ongoing repentance, keeping short accounts with God. As well as simply taking the time to come near to God. This must become a priority, maybe we should say the priority of our lives.

I have more or less tried to do something like this over the years. I would in theory seek to be doing this all day. I did have a few special times, one I can remember early on in particular, “a date with God” as I called it, of drawing near to God. But special times each day were not a part of my life such as what evangelicals call “personal devotions.” I thought I would more than less be seeking to do that all day. I think at least to some extent this was a mistake. It is better to err on the side of making sure one has that “quiet time” with God. I used to listen regularly to God’s word being read. And now open my little Bible off and on throughout the day. But there needs to be those special times in prayer and in the word, not just thinking we can do that as we run throughout our day. But God will honor our attempt to do that even in the midst of the rush of life. Yet we need those times in silence before God.

Then hopefully as a pastor friend, Marvin Williams reminded me, we’ll have the scent of Christ on us, and be enabled by the Spirit to lead others to him. In and through Jesus.

simplify

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[a] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42

As I get older I am wanting to and actually simplifying my life, not just making that attempt to do so, but gradually doing it, or at least so I think. That doesn’t mean one isn’t aware of and as necessary on top of so many responsibilities part and parcel of this life. That part never ends. How we approach all of that is another matter.

Mary in the story above had come to simply be devoted to hearing the Lord’s word, sitting at his feet and taking it all in. Martha was busy about, not actually having time to listen. Through this episode she ended up learning the lesson well, evident from the passage in John 11 on Lazarus’s death. She became open to the Lord’s word, but I’m sure continued to serve well, even if she pared down some of what she did.

Life itself doesn’t seem to get any simpler, maybe even more complicated as time goes on. We learn more and realize just how complex it all is, and how for so many problems in this world there are no easy pat answers. Except…

As followers of Christ we need to dial down as to how we approach all of this. “What is our calling?” is one good question we can ask. Our attitude and actions must follow. There are few things that matter, in essence only one. We must be immersed into our Lord’s teaching, into the Lord himself. Everything else can fall by the wayside in comparison with that because without that nothing else we do will matter. We won’t receive the blessing and be the blessing needed. What is needed given to us in and through Jesus.

press on

We can become weary and lose heart, indeed think all or most is lost for many reasons. And yes, things are lost along the way. Many of us make some bad decisions which God either protects us from, or not, but often with consequences of one sort or another. Or we lose friends who we once thought were truly friends, but we find out otherwise. And we doubt ourselves, still ringing in our ears voices from the past which put us down in discouraging ways.

It doesn’t matter. We need to press on, period. There’s much for us to live for now. Witnesses to Jesus and God’s good news in him. Prayer for loved ones, friends, all who are in need, even our enemies. Doing what we can to help others. None of this small in God’s eyes.

For me it’s the goal of an interactive relationship with God through ongoing Scripture reading and prayer during the course of a day. With the goal of devotion to God in loving God and others. And wisdom to make my way through all of life in a way that’s honoring to God and helpful to others. In and through Jesus.

romantic love

Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth—
for your love is more delightful than wine.

Song of Songs 1:2

Song of Songs (click link for full book) is essentially a celebration of what we call romantic love. It celebrates the love between a woman and man. The opening lines quoted above suggests that women can be the initiators, often done subtly in our culture.

Unfortunately in the minds of too many, instead of being a wondrous gift from God, sex can be seen as a necessary evil. In Scripture there’s no question that sex is tied to procreation. God gave it to bring children into the world, as he told humankind at the beginning, to fill the earth. But Song of Songs makes it clear too, that sex is for pleasure, as Paul says, that each might give their bodies fully to the other for mutual satisfaction.

Of course romantic love is not just about sex, although given the sometimes reticence and even shame, as if sex was dirty, our culture, and specifically sadly enough, even religious culture can inculcate sex as something less than the wondrous gift from God that it is. But again, it’s not just for pleasure. That pleasure is given to God for procreation. Of course not every couple can have children for biological reasons. They continue to enjoy such relations in marriage for bonding and enjoyment, as well as to satisfy that God-given drive and desire.

Married and sexual love is an important part of life, but not everyone marries. Some out of choice don’t, to give themselves fully in devotion and service to the Lord. Others don’t marry not by choice, wishing for a mate, but somehow not finding any such person. While we are sexual beings, our identity goes deeper than that. We are God’s by creation and through Christ by new creation. We are God’s children, one family, again by creation, but more so in Christ, by new creation. While we don’t leave our sexuality behind, our primary identity is more than that, so that when need be, we can sublimate such desires to God, and find joy and satisfaction in other gifts God gives us.

Sin distorts all the good in creation, but by both common grace, and saving grace, God gifts us. We’re to be thankful, and enjoy. As well as submit everything to God, knowing that full realization of what we were created to be lies ahead in the resurrection in Jesus. While we press on in this life to give ourselves fully to God and then to others in and through Jesus.

a proper obsession

Because the Sovereign Lord helps me,
I will not be disgraced.
Therefore have I set my face like flint,
and I know I will not be put to shame.

Isaiah 50:7

Last evening in our church small group, my wife leading our book study from Francis Chan’s book, Crazy Love, the chapter on being obsessed, I was reminded of my current reading through the gospels. If you don’t call that an obsession, what Jesus was doing, and his disciples following him, learning to do the same, I don’t know what an obsession is. To be obsessed is to be intensely occupied with something. Jesus’s life was wrapped up in his Father, obedience to him, and in doing so, being a servant to all, even unto the death of the cross.

The quote from Isaiah above is from what is called the servant songs, fulfilled by Jesus. And the idea of setting his face like a flint is echoed in the gospels when Jesus set out to Jerusalem for the last time, knowing this visit would end in his crucifixion.

As the time approached for him to be taken up to heaven, Jesus resolutely set out for Jerusalem.

Luke 9:51

That was the culmination of Jesus’s obsession. Just begin to read through the gospel accounts: Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John, and you’ll see that they’re marked by a singleness of vision and devotion to that. And in and through Jesus, we carry on that same life. We either follow Jesus in that way, or according to Jesus, we’re not following him at all. That’s the life to which we’re called by God in Jesus. The life we’re redeemed to in turn for the redemptive good of others. In and through Jesus.

 

one thing needed: simplify, personal, but not private

As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[a] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

Luke 10:38-42

I’m not sure which one I identify with the most: Martha, or Mary. I aspire to being a one thing kind of person like Mary was. Yet I find life is filled with so many responsibilities, and I can’t let up on any of them. Maybe this variant reading which was originally in the TNIV, but is in few other translations has merit, not only from a consideration of the manuscripts (see the NET note on Luke 10:42), but from other considerations.

Regardless, I think it’s imperative to try to simplify life as much as possible. With one goal in mind: learning to sit at Jesus’s feet and take in his words, and let them soak in. The equivalent to that today might be one’s quiet time. “Personal devotions” has taken a beating, but maybe we miss a lot by not trying to have a “quiet time” that is personal between us and the Lord. Individualism is one thing, something we should avoid, but personal another, which God wants for us all.

What has to be guarded against is the notion that it’s all about us and the Lord. It’s actually all about God’s good will in Jesus, yes for us, and for everyone else. While it should be deeply personal, it is never to be private, either, or else it’s not following the Jesus of scripture, so that it’s not actually following our Lord.

But I want to simplify all the more in the way Jesus commends here. Sitting at the Lord’s feet, so to speak, and letting his words soak into my heart and mind so as to impact my life. Something I believe I need.