Wednesday, December 14, 2016

I was recently challenged to "write 350 words about a sibling."  Here is my answer to the challenge, coming in at exactly 350 words of fictional siblingdom.  (Sorry chick, no kind words about you today.  And none for the brother unit either).

“What can I prepare for you today?”

The barrista looked familiar, uncannily so.  Her voice too.  She looked at me just as intently.  We must have been staring at each other; a voice behind me grumped, “Lady, hurry up and order.  You’re not the only one in line, you know.”

“Um, I’ll have a vanilla latte.  Large.”  She rang up my order and I stepped aside to the pick-up counter.  I continued to watch, and she glanced at  me as she went on with her duties.  Could she?  Naahh …  Here?  

My drink was ready, and I decided to stick around a bit.  Today’s staff meeting would have to start without me.
Four years old is too young to lose your family.  My mother and Dad split up when I was very young.  Life as a mistress to a Wall Street day-trader pulled at her heart more than her own two children.  Daddy’s heart was so shattered that he could not cope with one daughter in first grade and me so wide-eyed in the world.  He left the city with my sister Rachel.  She was 6 at the time.  I was left to live with my Robert, my Daddy’s brother.  I found my maternal parent unit a while back on Facebook, but could not bring myself to contact her.  Turns out, she has a second family of her own.  It would be many years before I could use the word “forgive” as something I would do for either parent.   But not a day has gone by since the day four-year-old me cried endlessly over my world being torn apart.
Could my world change over a vanilla latte?  Butterflies in my stomach described the beautiful hope, but the rushing in my stomach was much more intense.

I studied her every move.  I know I recognize her!  Does she know me?  Remember me?  Would she accept me?

Finally, a break in the activity.  Rag in hand to wipe the tables, she works her way in my direction.  And the recognition slams me.  She’s my half-sister, my mother’s daughter.

Can I accept her?


Sunday, November 20, 2016

God's iPad

I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Advocate, who will never leave you. He is the Holy Spirit, who leads into all truth. The world cannot receive him, because it isn’t looking for him and doesn’t recognize him. But you know him, because he lives with you now and later will be in you. -- John 14:16-17 NLT

It's been some time since I last publicly splashed in the ponder.  A lot of life has happened since my cancer diagnosis and treatment. I survived (obviously), and survived beautifully.  God worked gloriously in my illness, even allowing me to not need my final chemotherapy treatment!  The only lingering side effect of my treatment is numbness and occasional razor-sharp pains in my toes.  Other than that, I feel great, my blood work is well within acceptable ranges, and the doctors are very pleased with my progress.  

And, I have decided to begin blogging again, picking up where "Mary from the Prairie" left off. Topical blogging.  Pick a prompt, and see how God shows up.

It is not always easy to sit before a blank screen with fingertips on the keyboard, and have something profound appear.  So I asked my friend Great Scott to help out.  

"Tell me, Great Scott, what is the first item to your right?"
"My laptop computer."
"Okay. That will be my topic.  Laptop computer."
"I can't wait to see the content."
"Neither can I!"

I have been thinking of what my Christmas gift to myself will be this year.  After pondering between things for my apartment, a vacation getaway, season tickets to the theatre, and the like, I am leaning toward an iPad or something similar. Why? I enjoy the portability of projects I am working on. Emails and related documents and spreadsheets, sharing on social media, and the like will not require me to be tied down to a desk. There is nothing wrong with my aging laptop. Considering it also doubles as my desktop, the lappy is still a very valuable tool.  I will not abandon lappy.  Not yet. But adding the dimension of convenience with an iPad (or something similar) would make it nice to not have to carry my big ol' heavy(ish) and big(ish) laptop computer when I want to work on something away from home.  

If my laptop computer is my home base for extracurricular emails, documents, spreadsheets, and social media, then (work with me in the pondering, guys) we could see the local church as our home base for spiritual task-handling.  It is our center for worship, Biblical teaching, prayer support, outreach to the needy in the community.  There is great value in having a home base for these things, and congregations should not abandon the home church. It's what churches do, and do very well.

But here's a lightbulb over the head ... You don't have to be at church to do the things you do at church! You don't have to take the chapel and its rows of pews and lecterns and altar and all, and pull it behind your blue chevy. That is because as Christians we have received the Helper promised by Jesus. We have the Holy Spirit, to enable us to carry out in obedience what Jesus taught his followers while he was on earth. 

We can raise our voices and hands in worship outside of church.  We are not confined to a sanctuary to lift requests and praise and confession and thanksgiving to our Creator. Bibles can be opened at home, in the waiting room, on the bus. Helping needy can be face-to-face, taking the time to hear someone's story, which is much more powerful than tossing a few bucks in the plate for the special offering. 

My analogy of our Christian walk going from laptop computer to iPad is not a perfect one.  But during my illness I experienced first-hand people using their "spiritual iPads" to help me. ME!  

I experienced strangers stopping to pray for me, on the street, while I was waiting for my ride.
I experienced people stepping forward to meet my needs, by bringing meals, walking me to my car, calling to remind me to drink water.
I experienced people worshipping God, praising Him with every small victory I had.
I experienced people taking the time to help me feel dignified, even somewhat normal, by taking me out to a meal or a movie.

I experienced the dimension of others utilizing God's iPad, when they could have opted to stay with the laptop. 

Whether I actually do decide my gift to myself will be an iPad or something else remains to be seen. In the mean time I want to be directed by the Holy Spirit to be God's iPad to the others I encounter. 

God's grace

(this entry was originally posted June 18, 2014, at another blog site.)

Life took an unexpected turn … I’m now the lady with cancer.  

I’m still sister/daughter/niece/aunt/friend/colleague.  And now it’s different.

I started chemo. Therefore, I receive attention I didn’t get before.  

I accept I have to slow down. A week ago I would take a book to Starbucks on a whim, and sip iced coffee for hours. I would spend time shopping for shoes, going from store to store, and end up not finding what I want. This week, I do my shopping in bed, online, with a bottle of water at my side. Getting out of bed means, well, getting out of bed. As much as I want my “last week” life, the vise grip pain in my legs, feet, tips of my toes, convinces me the Starbucks and mall shopping is so-last-week.

I find myself dependent on others for tasks that only a week ago I was able to do on my own. It’s humbling in ways, and in other ways, well, I can get kind of used to someone else taking out the garbage and carting the laundry up and down the stairs.

People don’t want to see me suffer, and rallying behind me is what they do in their helplessness because they can’t take away the disease. 

“People want to help. Let them.”

Do I “deserve” their help? No, to “deserve” something implies there was a scorecard of some sort being kept. As far as I can tell, the offers are gestures to help me to do what I can’t do on my own. These offers are called “grace” – a gift I do not deserve. 

In the process of wrapping my mind around the words “We found cancer cells” I had this feeling that because my body was damaged, I had somehow failed. Sure, there were risk factors I could have handled differently, but I knew the cancer was not “caused” by me. I find it far-fetched that anyone would place blame on me for having this disease. It’s not as though it was a lung disease caused by chronic heavy exposure to carcinogens.  The type of cancer I have could happen to any woman who breathes air, drinks water, and eats food. But I decided to pursue the thought.  What IF someone were to place blame on me for something I did or failed to do? Immediately my mind went to the scriptures:

As (Jesus) passed by, he saw a man blind from birth. And his disciples asked him, “Rabbi, who sinned, this man or his parents, that he was born blind?” Jesus answered, “It was not that this man sinned, or his parents, but that the works of God might be displayed in him. (John 9:1-3 ESV)

Come again? My disease that is not my fault has a purpose? And it’s for God’s work to be displayed? 

My world had been upended in recent days, so I decided to accept this in faith. Cancer, so the works of God might be displayed. OK, let’s see what happens when God shows up …

There is an often used saying, “By the grace of God.” When you take the time to ponder, I mean really ponder this saying, it can be a bit mind-blowing. God is God – all-knowing, all-powerful, almighty. He has a high standard for His people to live up to. It’s laid out in the Ten Commandments. There’s not anyone who hasn’t broken at least one of them. I’d be the first to admit I’ve broken more than one in the same act. If grace is “an undeserved gift” why would a God who demands perfection offer it to people who are expected to live up to that standard but miserably fail? We can’t make the mark of perfection on our own. Why would a holy and perfect God bother to help us?

The word “sin” means “to miss the mark.” Love covers a multitude of sin, bridges the gap between our missed targets and God’s mark of perfection. There is no way we can cover that divide on our own. Grace is unmerited favor; an undeserved gift.  Among God’s greatest works is the gift of grace. God is love. God showed His love for us in that while we were sinners – are sinners – Christ died on the cross to bridge that gap for us. If that isn’t grace, I don’t know what is.


“People want to help. Let them help.” Friends do that. It’s their gift of grace, to bridge the gap between what I can do on my own, and the mark that is expected of me. They cannot extend the same grace that God offers, but they can in their own way allow God to show works of grace through them. And I cannot thank them enough.

Sunday, July 21, 2013

Stories ... We all have one ...

Isaiah 20:2- At that time the Lord spoke by Isaiah the son of Amoz, saying, “Go, and loose the sackcloth from your waist and take off your sandals from your feet,” and he did so, walking naked and barefoot.

In this passage God sends Isaiah to give a warning to Israel.  In addition to using words, God instructs Isaiah to do something more.  God instructs him to walk naked and barefoot for three years!   Certainly, Isaiah felt uncomfortable about what he was being called to do, but remained obedient.  The message, Isaiah was delivering far outweighed the embarrassment of being uncovered.

Sometimes when we feel the prompting of God’s Spirit to share how Jesus has changed our lives we may feel uncomfortable with what God is asking us to do.  We may feel embarrassed or ashamed to “expose” our past to others for fear that we may be ridiculed or rejected if people knew what we would rather keep hidden. 

We all have parts of our lives we are ashamed of, ways of life that we have turned from because of what Jesus has done in us.  It’s been said everyone has a story of their faith journey, and that every story is part of God’s story.  God’s story is not meant to remain hidden, but shared.  When we share our past with others in the light of how Jesus transformed us, we share with them the truth that God loves us as we are, but does not want us to remain in the shame of our past.  It is through Jesus that we are forgiven and set free!

Ponderings for reflection …
*What in my life has changed because of Jesus?
*Have I ever shared that with anybody?
*With whom can I share the story of how Jesus changed me?  (If you feel uncomfortable, share with a pastor or another trusted Christian.)

Sunday, May 05, 2013


Psalm 145:3  Great is the LORD and most worthy of praise; his greatness no one can fathom.

All throughout history there have been men and woman who were considered great for one reason or another.  Thomas Edison was a great inventor; Madame Curie, a great scientist; Michael Jordan, a great basketball player.  Those who grew up in the 30’s and 40’s are said to be of the Greatest Generation.  And I can’t forget - Al and Martha Thuente are great parents (I ought to know – they’re mine)! 

Usually what makes a person great is his or her accomplishments or reputation of doing good things.  But a person’s deeds and goodness have a limit.  No matter how great someone is, he can  only know so much, can do so much, can give so much, because his wisdom, ability and resources are finite.  Greatness can only be so great. 

When we think of God, his greatness is limitless.  Even the greatest of men could not have created the world we live in.  After all, how is it possible for man create anything if he himself had not yet been created?  Only God could create our world!  King Solomon, the wisest man of all time, was not wise by his own doing.  His wisdom was granted as an answer to his prayer to our all-knowing God!  When Jesus told his disciples to take a poor boy’s lunch of bread and fish and feed thousands of hungry men, women and children, everybody present learned that you can’t out-give God!  And God’s great unfailing love for our less-than-great selves is such that he would rather come to earth in the form of one of us (Jesus) and die as punishment for our sins for us, than to spend eternity without us.

The accolades for the great things men and women do will eventually fade, whereas God’s glory never will.  God deserves all of our praise now, and forevermore!

God, your power, knowledge and love are greater than we can begin to imagine.  We thank you for sending Jesus to come and die for our sins so that we never have to be separated from your love.  By far, this is the greatest gift we could ever receive from you!  Let us be people of praise, and tell of your greatness today and every day!  Amen.

What makes somebody great?  What great thing God has done in your life?  Who can you tell today about God’s greatness?  Blessings,  Mary J

Saturday, March 30, 2013

A Forsaken Savior

All throughout scripture God assures of us the promise that He is always with us.  He gave that promise to Jacob, to Joshua, the people of Israel.  And Jesus gave us that same promise before his ascension into heaven.  Not only is God’s presence promised to us, but also His love, the patient, kind, faithful, enduring, never-failing love, is ours as well.  The passage that says it in a way no other does – spells it out, if you will – is Romans 8:38-39

For I am convinced that neither death nor life,
neither angels nor demons,
neither the present nor the future, nor any powers,
neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation,
will be able to separate us from the love of God
that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

These words are a wonderful assurance of how secure my relationship with the Father truly is.  Ever since I have known and experienced God’s love, I cannot imagine life without it.  I have not even tried to imagine. 

That is, until last night.  Last night’s Good Friday “Come Thirsty” Good Friday service centered around the last sayings of Jesus.
"My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?" 
In that moment Jesus had taken upon himself all of the sins of the world.  In that moment the wrath of God was poured out upon His only Son.

In that moment the assurance of God’s love, the oneness of the Son with the Father, was abruptly, violently, merciless taken from Jesus.

As the congregation listened and meditated on the message as it was being delivered, I imagined, what would it be like if every single promise the Bible gives us were taken from me, abruptly, violently, mercilessly? 

What would it be like if the God – the One who by His Holy Spirit lives inside of me – left my life without so much as a good-bye note?

Panic.  Anguish.  Inconsolable grief.

The physical suffering of Jesus was not enough to satisfy the wrath of God’s judgment.  The Savior experienced the heart-wrenching emotional and spiritual agony the Father must feel when we choose to live in an unrepentant broken relationship with Him.

Jesus, you suffered the anguish of separation from the Father’s love.  You did it for me, so I would never have to know the pain of such abandonment and forsakenness.  The promises of your presence and love mean much more now than ever before.  Your love for me is deeper, higher, wider than I can ever comprehend.  I thank you more than my words can ever express.  Amen.

Sunday, March 10, 2013

Home Renovation

Psalm 139:23-24  Search me, God, and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

The apartment where I live is on the edge of a fairly upscale neighborhood.  The homeowners have for generations taken pride in their property, keeping their houses in top condition and their landscaping in beautiful shape.  Except for one.  This particular house is on a double-sized lot, boasts 6 bedrooms, 6 bathrooms, an elevator(!) and guest/maid quarters, making it much larger than the neighboring homes.  In talking to some neighbors I learned that the owner was an older man who lived there.  His wife died years ago and their two sons have lives of their own in different parts of the country.  I do not know what kind of work the man did for a living, but I am told he was the male version of the “crazy cat lady,” at one time having over 20 cats!  He eventually became ill and could no longer maintain the home.  The house had fallen into a serious state of disrepair.  After the man was taken away by ambulance the condition inside and out had become so deteriorated and rat-infested that the city had to condemn the property.  This once beautiful home had become the neighborhood’s version of a “haunted mansion”.

The house "before" renovations
(but cleaned up for the probate sale)

About six months ago there was new activity at the house.  Rooms were being gutted out.  Trees and bushes that had become overgrown were trimmed back.  Trash dumpsters were on the street, filled with debris.  About a month or so I drove by in the evening and saw the lights on inside, even though it was evident the house was not yet occupied by new owners.  But the changes were happening.  The house now has a “For Sale” sign in the yard.  This past weekend the realtor held an Open House, so I stopped by to see the results of the transformation that had taken place.  The transformation is stunning!  The plumbing and electrical systems were replaced.  New flooring was installed, the landscaping now rivals other million dollar homes, and the kitchen has new state-of-the-art amenities.   And I am told they expect the elevator to be fully operational by the time the home is sold to a new family!

All spic n span, inside and out!

When I think of the transformation of this home (mansion) I can’t help but think of how the transformation by Jesus in our own lives is evident when we choose to become Followers of Jesus.  The Bible tells us that when we believe in the Good News of Jesus Christ our salvation is sealed; however, transformation from Fan to Follower is not a “once and done” deal.  Often our transformation means we must allow the Holy Spirit to “gut out” and replace certain things in our lives, such as unhealthy lifestyles, the entertainment we choose, sometimes even our jobs or relationships.  To maintain those changes we must surrender ourselves daily to prayer, Bible study, and to the will of God.  To neglect these things is to allow our lives to eventually deteriorate. But the good news is when we recognize and confess our state of disrepair (sin) to Jesus, he is faithful to forgive us and restore us from all unrighteousness!

And so my fellow ponderers, I offer these questions to you:
  • ·       What areas of my life do I need to allow Jesus to gut-out and renovate?
  • ·       Are there any renovated parts of my life that need to be cleaned up before they fall into disrepair?
  • ·       When others look at my life today as a Follower of Jesus, do others notice a difference from when I was only a Fan?

Dear God, we thank you that we can come to you just as we are yet you love us so much you do not want us to remain in our state of sin and disrepair forever.  Show us the rooms in our “homes” that need to be gutted out.  Ignite your Spirit within us that we may be constantly renewed as Followers of Christ.  Amen.  

Monday, February 18, 2013

... And the rest ...

(I've decided to pull out some blog posts from the archives ... this one is from July, 2006 ... )

Thus the heavens and the earth were completed in all their vast array. By the seventh day God had finished the work he had been doing; so on the seventh day he rested  from all his work. And God blessed the seventh day and made it holy, because on it he rested from all the work of creating that he had done. - Genesis 2:1-3

God rested. I read this passage, and wondered, How does God rest? I asked a Really Good Friend this question. He told me, "God sits in his La-Z-Boy recliner with the remote control, and surfs through 1,000 channels and still can't find anything good to watch!"

hmm.... Man is created in the image and likeness of God ... but I was looking for an answer from the deeper end of the Think Tank...

Our lives can be hectic at times. Whenever I finish a task when I am at work, I take a moment to reflect upon what I did. These fleeting moments of rest are sometimes mini-celebrations. Usually, it's a very brief "Yet, that report is finished!" or "Woo-hoo, I have an empty folder!" And on Friday afternoon when the office door closes behind me, the celebration really starts!

While God was creating the world, he paused at the end of the day to reflect upon the goodness of what he had done. It was a time of to contemplate the satisfaction of a task completed. Then after he finished creating the universe, he made an entire day holy, a day of rest.

Rest is a paradox. It is an activity (a "do-ing" thing) in which we stop do-ing. When we "do" rest, or actively rest, we can just "be" with God.  And God gives us the thing we do -- "rest." Even in resting, we still are doing something. When we rest in God, we are doing what is pleasing to Him. That is when we experience the love, peace, joy, and comfort that comes from being in God's presence.  

In Jeremiah 6:16, we are told "Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls." Jesus tells us, ""Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light." (Matthew 11:28-30). The Message translation refers to Jesus' invitation as "learning the unforced rythms of grace." Wow!

But going back to my original question. How does God rest? True, God never stops working in our lives or in the world around us. He never grows tired or weary (Isaiah 40:28), and does not need to stop to be rejuvenated.

Parents find a peaceful and joyful sense of rest when their child comes to them, cuddles in their arms and says "I love you" (without the follow-up question "Can I have ... "). I think in the same way, God rests when we go to him open-armed and empty-handed, with pure love, adoration, and devotion for him, and seek rest in his loving arms.

Tuesday, January 01, 2013


Last week we celebrated Christmas, and the coming of the Christ Child, the Savior promised by God to bring hope, joy, love and peace to the world.  Christmas often brings with it thoughts and images of family gatherings around a dinner table with turkey and dressing and sweet potatoes and all sorts of other wonderful food.  All of the children can’t wait to show off their favorite gift that Santa left under the tree.  And all is right with the world, because everyone overflows with genuine love for each other, even love for the nerdy brother-in-law. 

There are many, many people who look forward Christmas as their favorite time of year.  But how many know someone whose tree was a little thin on the gifts this year?  Whose family gathering was tense because of strained relationships?  Whose dinner table had one less chair than previous years?  Or whose reality failed to meet what they expected Christmas ought to be?

The Bible passage of Isaiah 61:1-3 is a prophecy, a promise from God, that He will send someone to give us something better.  The “something better” – better than even the best Christmas you could have – is Jesus Christ, the Messiah.  In fact, the name “Christ” or “Messiah” means “Anointed One.”  At the beginning of Jesus’ ministry on earth he stood up in the synagogue, opened a scroll and read the words from Isaiah, "The Spirit of the Lord is on me. He has anointed me…” 

Anointed?  What’s that?  Well, in short, to be “anointed” means you are set apart and empowered by the Holy Spirit for a particular purpose for God and God’s kingdom. When we ordain and install deacons and elders we lay hands on them, and pray for God’s anointing on them, for His leading and guidance.  I am part of a team that organizes retreats and Christian camps in Southern California.  At our retreats when a speaker comes forward to deliver a message, the leaders also come forward to lay hands on him or her and ask for God’s anointing on the speaker and the message.  When God’s anointing is on the speaker, God gives him or her, the words to deeply touch the hearts of the people who are listening.   When we are aware of God’s anointing, the Holy Spirit takes what we’re doing and brings it to a higher level.  There is no gift better than Jesus' anointing our lives; our ministry; our church; our anointed calling in life.

Jesus Christ had the anointing of the Spirit of the Lord upon him like no one before, and like no one since  Let’s take a closer look at how the work that Jesus was anointed for, gives us something better in our lives: 

I. Jesus was Anointed for proclaiming the good news  A long-time friend of mine wrote a play about a character from the Old West.  After a couple of years of research and writing, he was finally able to publish it on Amazon a couple of months ago.  Great news, right?  I thought so too, when I heard it later from a mutual friend.  But as good as the news of this achievement was, it would have meant so much more to hear it from the author himself, wouldn’t you agree?
During the days of Isaiah when the prophecy was given, God’s people were living in exile, in a pattern of sin.  They had turned their backs on God, worshipping and placing their trust in false gods.  Their actions put a separation between them  and the God that brought them out of slavery in Egypt and into their own land.  Even in this separation, God still loved them and wanted to be in a relationship with His people, but not in their sinful state.  Who better to send than Jesus – God in the flesh – to give us the good news that through believing in him, and asking for and receiving forgiveness for our sins, we can have a life in fellowship with the God who loves us!  We do not have Jesus physically here on earth with us, but we have the next-best thing:  the Bible, God’s love letter to us.

II. Jesus was Anointed for helping the brokenhearted  Part of our nature as humans is to love and hope and dream. To do these things is to share our heart, and that takes trust – trust that your heart will be kept safe.  But we live in a broken world.  Relationships fail.  Hopes shatter.  Dreams lead to disappointment.  When that happens the result is a broken heart.  I don’t know about you, but when I’ve dealt with my own heartbreak, all I wanted to do was hide in a cave and not come out, because I don’t know who or what to trust any more.

As children bring their broken toys
With tears for us to mend,
I brought my broken dreams to God
Because He was my friend.
But then instead of leaving Him
In peace to work alone,
I hung around and tried to help
With ways that were my own.
At last I snatched them back and cried,
“How could you be so slow”
“My child,” He said, “What could I do?
You never did let go.”

Jesus wants to heal our hearts.  He tells us, “Don’t let your hearts be troubled. Trust in God, and trust also in me.”  Trust involves letting go of our hurts, so we can receive the “something better” that God wants to give us.

III. Jesus was Anointed for helping those held captive become free  Captivity can come in many forms.  There are those who are held in prison, some for many years or even a life sentence.  Or captivity can be extended illness, restricting your ability to get out of your home.  Or it may be a metaphorical prison, such as living with guilt or shame.  One of the worst forms of captivity is because of circumstances you have absolutely no control over.

In 1985 Terry Anderson was the chief Mideast Correspondent, based in Lebanon, for the Associated Press.  On March 16 of that year, after finishing a tennis game, Anderson was kidnapped at gunpoint, placed in the trunk of a car, and taken to a secret location known only to his captors.  He was held hostage for nearly seven years.  For the first twenty-four days he was chained to his cot, blindfolded.  Imagine being kidnapped by – you don’t know who – and held – you don’t know where – chained and blindfolded for over three weeks, with just your thoughts, mostly of your family and whether you will see them again.  I don’t know about you, but I’d go literally crazy from that kind of agony!  Not long before his kidnapping, Terry Anderson was an agnostic who was beginning to seek God.  He pleaded for a Bible, not knowing what his Islamic captors would do. 

In an interview after some time after his release, Anderson says, “The next day, something thudded on my cot.  My chains were loosened; I sat up.  The blindfold was removed, but a blanket was put over my head so I couldn’t see anything but the book on my lap.  It was a Bible, (hold up a pew Bible) the Revised Standard Version, red cover.”  For the next seven years of his captivity, he scoured the Bible, book by book, page by page, reading it probably 50 times.  Each time he found something new to sustain him.  Although he was not physically free, Terry Anderson knew that through Jesus he had a freedom that nothing else could give him.

In John chapter 6 Jesus was giving some teaching that many followers found difficult, and many turned away and deserted him.  At that point, Jesus asked his disciples, “Are you also going to leave?”  Peter recognized Jesus offered something better.  He said, “Lord, to whom would we go? You have the words that give eternal life.  We believe, and we know you are the Christ – the Anointed One – the Son of God.” 

IV. Anointed for proclaiming God's favor  We all have favorites.  A favorite movie – mine is “Finding Neverland”;  or a favorite time of year – Autumn!  A favorite pair of jeans … and it feels good to be someone’s favorite.  We might have a favorite actor, or pastor, or athlete … or favorite friend.  I actually have a t-shirt that says “Jesus loves you, but I’m his favorite!”

Now, God does not have favorites – he loves everyone the same.  But there are times where it sure feels like you’re the favorite.  I remember when I was looking to change jobs. I was told I was good at what I did, but I was not happy.  I was in a position and a career track where the next step would be a promotion.  In fact at that time I was invited to apply for positions that would be a step up.  After much prayer and input from many people who knew me well, I knew that was not the course God wanted me to take.  I decided to find a position that was a step backward.  It was not an easy decision.  Besides the step down in income, I was also concerned with what people might say about me taking a demotion as “something better.”  But you know what?  I felt like I was really God’s favorite – Opportunities came up at the perfect time, for the perfect job, for the perfect office, and no one questioned why I was taking the step back.  In fact, there were many coworkers who told me they admired me for doing it! 

I believe that a big part of why I felt so favored was because I was seeking the Lord’s guidance every step of the way.  But God’s favor isn’t only for when we make big decisions.  It’s in the everyday stuff as well.  When someone favors you, they do things for you and give you special privileges they don’t give to anyone else.  In Matthew 6, Jesus invites us to look at God’s provision and beauty in the world around us.  “Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?”  “See how the lilies of the field grow. They do not labor or spin. 29 Yet I tell you that not even Solomon in all his splendor was dressed like one of these. 30 If that is how God clothes the grass of the field, which is here today and tomorrow is thrown into the fire, will he not much more clothe you?”  God favors us so much that he offers us something he does not offer any other beings, including Satan and the angels that rebelled with him.  He offers us salvation through Jesus Christ, even when we turned our backs on him.  For when we were still sinners, Christ died --- for US!  For God so loved the world that he gave his only son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.  For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him.  God favors us so much, he wants us to spend eternity with him in heaven!

V. Anointed for comforting those who mourn  
We all remember the terrible shooting at Sandy Hook school in Connecticut just two weeks ago.   To the town of Newtown this was their 9-11.  As a nation our hearts broke for the victims and their families, and for the innocence lost.  As we struggle to make sense of it all, some might ask, “Where is God?” 

When Lazarus died and Jesus arrived days later, Lazarus’ sister Mary fell at his feet, weeping. “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” 

Jesus was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.  Jesus wept too. 

In times of loss, we do often question “why.”  Just as important – probably even more important – than answers is just having someone who will come beside you, put their arm around you, and allow you to simply grieve.  Did you know that God keeps track of our sorrows? That our very tears are so important to God that he keeps them in a bottle in heaven?  Psalm 34 tells us, “The LORD is close to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.”  God is right here, right with us, in the midst.  When our heart breaks, God’s heart breaks just as much, or even more. 

But death is not the end.  Jesus told Martha and Mary, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies; 26 and whoever lives and believes in me will never die.  Do you believe this?”

Do you believe?  There are two possible answers.  Yes, or No.  A “no” answer leaves a sense of lostness, helplessness, hopelessness.  Their beloved is gone – and there are no words to comfort the ones left behind.

Yet, for those who do believe, for those who have accepted Jesus as their Lord and Savior, there is cause for much gladness and joy. Because of Christ we have the hope – no, the promise! – that we will see our cherished ones again.   He will wipe away every tear from our eyes, and there will be no more death, sadness, crying, or pain, because all the old ways are gone.  It doesn’t get any better than that!

Jesus gives us something better.  A better life as we speak of His good news.  A better life as we help the brokenhearted.  A better life to help those who are captive become free.  A better life to experience God's favor and share it with others.  A better life as we comfort those who mourn. Christ anoints us to do all this!!


Sunday, August 19, 2012

Cardboard Prison

When I was very young I would often sit in a corner and think.  It wasn’t because I was in trouble – I was just a very introspective kind of person, even as a child.  And often my dad would ask, “What are you doing, Mary?”  “Oh, just thinking.”  “What are you thinking about?”  “Ooh, nothing…”   “Well, how do you know when you’re finished?”  and I’d usually let out a little giggle, and be off to do something else.

It is often said that the times that people are most reflective about their lives   is during times of stillness, when in the quiet all they have is their thoughts.  Imagine with me if you will, that we are peering into thoughts of someone who is in that place of reflection.  Now before we go there, let me say that this person whose thoughts we are about to delve into IS NOT ME.  It is a fictional person we’ll call Alex.  Alex can be representative of anybody.  So without further ado, let’s see what is on Alex’s mind:


Tomorrow is my birthday.  "Happy birthday to me, Alex ... I'll be fifty-three..."  And what have I done with my life?  I’ve had three failed marriages.  My first one was right out of high school.  I was young and dumb, you know, and had no business being married.  Then there was number two.  And that’s how I felt after a while.  Nothing I did seemed to be good enough.  And my last one – I was left cold.  I came home one day to a house full of furniture, and a note saying that our marriage was not worth saving.  I don’t understand where things went wrong …

Financially, things could be worse.  I might not live in the neighborhood I’d like to live in, don’t drive a new car every seven years.  I’ve changed careers more than a couple of times.  Right now I’m in a job that … let’s say I don’t dread going to it every day.  It looks like I’ll have to work longer than I’d like to before I can afford to retire.  But at least I have a job, a place to live, and can put food on my table.

And I have my health.  But even that scares me.  Last year a co-worker of mine learned she has MS.  My younger brother died from a heart attack in January.  Jack was so young – only 47.  Mom was my age when she died from cancer.  It so difficult for me to watch her suffer like that – she fought so hard up until the end.  And Dad’s Alzheimer’s has progressed – if you can call it “progress” – to the point where he doesn’t recognize anybody.  He used to be my biggest fan, and it hurts so much that he doesn’t know me…. I don’t want to be a burden to my daughters.  Ever.

My girls.  They have their own families and live in other states now.  I did the best I could with them, but sometimes I think I should have done more.   I’ve been trying to save some money so I can go see the grandkids this summer – they’re growing so fast!  But with prices for everything going up, and my job cutting back, and now my car going on the fritz … it’s always something …

I’m afraid of getting old.  But I definitely don’t want to die. I’m not ready to.  Still, I can’t help thinking, Is this all there is?  Growing up I was taught to be my own person, to make my own decisions, to create my own destiny. … I’ve lived my life as a pretty decent person.  But when I look at what I have, I feel like I don’t have much of a life at all.  I'm "alive," but I feel so ... ...


I remember during my college days there were these groups on campus with signs that said "Are you saved?"   Me?  Saved?  From what?   For what?  What kind of offbeat question is that?  "Are you saved?"

I didn't know any of those students very well.  I had a class with one or two of them, but outside of school, we ran in different circles.  And I never asked them about this “being saved” thing.  I'd just keep walking by, puffing away on my Marlbroro cigarette as I'd make my way to my next class.  I didn't want to get involved in their religious mumbo-jumbo. Besides, I didn't need “saving”.  I went to church and Sunday school when I was growing up.  I wasn’t a trouble-maker or anything like that.  I was a good enough person, and that was good enough for me.

One of those girls from college – her name is Laura, we had a chemistry lab class together back in the day – I'd see her around town throughout the years.  She always seemed ... different.  Even back then.  Not in a bad way.  Just, I don't know, different.  It was as though she had a handle on life, you know?  Even after I dropped school our paths would cross, but not in a way where we'd connect.  We'd say hi at the grocery store, make eye-contact at the gym, that kind of thing.  Our kids knew each other, but only as schoolmates.  Her kids were in the grades between my girls.  Her children seemed “different” too.  Even when they were teenagers.  They dressed more conservatively than most kids.  Modest, but not dowdy, you know?  They didn't party.  They were actually respectful to their parents!  I don't know what their grades were like, but they still managed to be popular. …  I don't get it.  My two seemed so out of control at times.  My girls and I are about as close as Alaska and Zimbabwe.

I saw Laura and her husband not long ago having dinner at that little Italian place DiMangi’s.  I don’t know how long they’ve been together now.  Must be more than 25 years ... and they still adore each other!  You can tell it’s not an act.  I don’t remember anyone ever looking at me the way they were looking at each other.  Genuine love that looks deep into the soul.  How could they do that?  I've struck out, three times, and never even came close to having what they seem to have with each other.

I’ve made lots of mistakes and bad decisions over the years, and look where it got me.  Life doesn’t give do-overs.  Hopefully I still have a lot of life to live though.  I want my life to get better, not worse.  I wonder –  how I can have just part of what Laura has?   


Let’s come out of Alex’s thoughts, and back to here-and-now. 

Alex, the person whose thoughts we eavesdropped on could be anybody who is struggling through life without Jesus.  Perhaps Alex reminded you of someone you know.  Perhaps Alex reminded you of you.

Very often when we think of spreading the Gospel we think of sharing with those with visible needs, such as the homeless, the troublemakers, the addicted … people who are much different from us.  But in John 3:16, it is clear that Jesus was not selective about whom he came to save. 

“For God so loved the world that he sent his only Son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have everlasting life.”  

But Jesus did not leave it up to us who we ought to share the gospel with.  His final instructions to his disciples in Acts 1:8, “…you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth.”  That covers a lot of territory!  But notice where Jesus said his disciples would start – in Jerusalem.  Right where they were, in their own neighborhood, being witnesses to people who they already knew and who knew them.  

To be a witness is to attest to things that you personally have seen, heard, and experienced.  The “Laura” in our story was doing what Jesus commanded us to do.  She was a witness at school, and later in the town where she lived, and in her relationships with her husband and children.  Alex saw that, and recognized something in Laura’s life that he did not have.  But Alex was “stuck” in life, wanting more but not knowing how to get it.  

That place of being “stuck” reminds me of a comic strip I saw many years ago.  It’s one of those single-panel comics.  In it is a picture of a man sitting in a cardboard box, with bars cut out of the front of the box, like a prison.  The man has paper chain between his wrists, like the paper chains you make out of construction paper at Christmas time.  And the caption below the comic reads, 

"Mr. Boffo" by Joe Martin

“Handcuffed to the bars of a cardboard prison, he waits out his time like the fool that he is.”

Here is a man who is free to leave his prison any time he wants.  The chains holding him are construction paper – he can rip them apart with hardly any effort.  The bars in the box are cardboard – he can pull them apart and walk out between the bars any time he wants.  Yet there he remains, “stuck” in prison.  It is as though he does not know he can be free.  No one has told him.  If he has been told, he has rejected the news.  Until he believes he can be free, he remains in prison, serving a life sentence.

You don’t go to prison for being a “good” person.  You end up in prison when you do something wrong.  When you do something wrong, it’s called “sin”.  Let’s see what Jesus says about that.  In John 8:34, Jesus said:

“I tell you the truth, everyone who sins is a slave to sin. Now a slave has no permanent place in the family, but a son belongs to it forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.”

Alex did not do anything horribly wrong in his life.  But Alex did admit to doing some wrong things and making poor decisions.  That is sin.  Alex is a sinner.  And as a sinner, he is not a free person.  Not unless he knows who can set him free.  And that is Jesus.

Now, we know Jesus is not physically here on earth.  But there are witnesses to what Jesus has done in their lives.  If Jesus has impacted us in any way, you and I are witnesses.  And what does a witness do?  Tells what they know.  What do we know?  Jesus can change our lives.  Who can you and I help by telling?  People who are in “cardboard prisons.”  Who do we know in a “cardboard prison”?  Alex.  And who does Alex represent?  Anyone we know who does not know Jesus.


There was a time in my life that I was like Alex.  Not exactly the same story, mind you.  I wasn’t 53 – I was more like 23 or so.  I too saw the tables set up on the college campus, and I too thought, why do I need to be “saved”?  Like Alex, was not a troublemaker, but I had made some mistakes, and had a few failures of my own.  I too was looking for someone who could look deep into my soul and still love ME. 

My “Laura” was a man named Jeff and his wife Debie.  I met Jeff and Debie through a guy I had dated for a couple of years.  The more I got to know Jeff and Debie, the more I could see they were different from most people I knew.  They were not perfect, but they had this unusual assurance about them.  They had a sense of joy, and peace, and gentleness that I didn’t see in the world around me.  I wanted those qualities in my life.  

The relationship I was in at the time eventually ended, but I remained friends with Jeff and Debie for quite some time.  They invited me to go to church with them.  The first few times they did, I made lame excuses why I couldn’t go.  I had to work – at 3:00 that afternoon.  I was out the night before – but not really that late.   But they kept inviting.  I even used the excuse, “If I showed up at a church, the roof would cave in!”  But eventually I thought, I’ll go just once.  What have I got to lose?  So I went.  And through Jeff and Debie I was introduced to the One who could free me.  They introduced me to Jesus.  The same Jesus who made a blind man to see.  The same Jesus who looks deep into my soul and still love ME.  The same Jesus who could set me free from a cardboard prison.  The same Jesus who, while I was a sinner, died on a cross so I could have life.  And my life has never been the same since.

Who is your “Laura” that introduced you to Jesus?  I want to encourage you to thank them or do something to honor them for what they did, even if you have lost contact with them.  But more importantly, who is your “Alex” that is still serving a life sentence in a “cardboard prison”?  Just as Alex needs Laura to tell him he can be free, just as I needed Jeff and Debie, Your Alex needs YOU to introduce him or her to Jesus. 

If you had the key to open Alex’s prison, it would be unfair not to give it to him, right?  Jesus is that key.  The difference between a life sentence in a cardboard prison, and living a life of freedom in Christ is to humbly come before the Lord, and say, “Jesus, I come to you as a sinner.  I confess to you that I have made mistakes and poor decisions in my life.  I am sorry.  Thank you, Jesus, for forgiving me of my sins, and freeing me from my cardboard prison.  I turn to You to be my Lord and Savior.”  

Brothers and sisters, know this:  There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.  For if the Son has set you free, you are free indeed!   Amen.