Saturday, March 30, 2013

Why Jesus didn't speak a word

A careful comparing of all four Gospels is needed to figure out the order of what happened to Jesus from the moment he was arrested in the Garden of Gethsemane to when he died on the Cross. Matthew, Mark, Luke and John don't highlight all the same details but we can piece it together with some detective work.

It seems Jesus was brought first to the household of Annas, the father-in-law of Caiaphas, that year's high priest (John). Annas referred the case on to his son-in-law, and after some questioning and severe beating by the people, Caiaphas had Jesus turned over to Pilate, the Roman Governor. Pilate, suspecting that the charges were trumped up and Jesus had done nothing wrong, tried to free him. When he found out that Jesus was from Galilee, he tried to pass the responsibility on to Herod, saying that Jesus was under Herod's jurisdiction (Luke).

Luke goes on to say that Herod was delighted to have Jesus stand before him as he'd been curious to see him perform a miracle for a long time. Yet when he fired a barrage of questions at him, Jesus said nothing. Herod and his soldiers got tired of that, so after dressing him in a kingly robe and making fun of him, they sent him back to Pilate. At this point, Pilate once again tried to free him, but when the people behaved as if they were ready to start a riot, he decided to give the crowd what they demanded.

When I used to read Luke's account of the events, I wondered why Jesus refused to reply to Herod. As a young person, I assumed there must have been a touch of insolence there, some bravado like a schoolboy being called before the principal, whose only comeback is to sullenly clam up and ignore questions. But one day, in a book about God's favour, I came across an explanation which is completely different. Perhaps Jesus didn't speak because he was so powerful and full of so much favour from God that if he'd opened his mouth, he might have prevented himself from being crucified. The fact that the words we speak are surprisingly powerful has been in the media a lot recently, from both secular and spiritual sources. If this is the case, imagine the possible effect of any words from Jesus declaring his identity and innocence.

In Exodus, when Moses dared ask God's name, the Lord replied, 'Tell them I AM sent you.' That was always a confusing, bothersome scripture for me. What sort of a crazy name is that? Yet when the soldiers in the Garden said that they were looking for Jesus from Nazareth, he responded simply with the same words, 'I am he,' and it was enough to make the soldiers keel over with his power (John). It amazes me that they still had the audacity to take him before the high priest after that. I would have stuttered, 'Sorry sir, I think we got the wrong person,' and run away.

It does make sense that because Jesus knew his time had come, keeping quiet in Herod's court was to help make sure that God's plan was fulfilled. He had many chances to get out of the situation before. He'd always operated under God's favour and now was no different. He didn't have to be in Jerusalem at that time, he surely could have escaped in the Garden when the soldiers fell backwards, and Pilate was willing to let him go. Even Pilate's wife had a revelation in a dream that Jesus was an innocent man and sent a messenger to her husband, warning him not to harm Jesus (Matthew). Any ideas of Jesus as a victim and underdog I retained had to go. All the time, he was master of the whole situation and chose to face the Cross for us, when he could have got himself free at any time.

Many people understand that when Jesus died on the Cross as our sin substitute, part of the benefit for us is having our sin cleared away and forgiven when we look to him, because he willingly took our punishment. It follows that when God looks at us, he sees people who he regards just like his son, Jesus, because we've been cleansed from our sins. We're like the adopted siblings of Jesus and he's like our big brother. The Bible also calls us joint heirs of the kingdom of heaven. One of the most exciting parts of the Easter story for me is that as adopted children and joint heirs with Jesus, we may experience similar favour to that which he could've used to prevent him going to the Cross at all. Amazing! We don't need to think of ourselves as sinners, worms, hopeless cases, underdogs or losers either. Each Easter reminds me to act like it.

Our new position is what inspired Jesus, when risen, to assure us that we'd be able to do similar things to those he was recorded doing, and tell us to go everywhere in the world telling the Good News to everyone.

Have a blessed Easter, everyone.

Friday, March 22, 2013

People can do as they please with our gifts

Next week is my youngest son's ninth birthday and we've been wrapping presents, which he's been shaking and trying to guess. Every Christmas or significant birthday, I've faced the challenge of trying to match gifts with people who will love them. I like to think they will find my presents valuable or useful and not be disappointed. Don't we all prefer to think that our presents are being used and loved rather than sitting, forgotten, in the back of some cupboard or drawer? But protocol demands that when we give a gift, it's out of our hands and we must leave it to the recipient to decide what to do with it.

Years ago I got into some friction with my mum which started when she offered to give me back a present I'd given her so that I could give it to my mother-in-law instead. I protested that I gave it to her, thought she'd like it and didn't want it back. She said she was only trying to help and then got offended and didn't talk to me for some time. I regretted opening my mouth and it made me more determined than ever to remember that what other people do with presents I give them is their own business. If we find the perfect centrepiece for somebody's hall stand and then they don't choose to put it there, we can't march over and demand that they do. Once it's wrapped and handed to them, it's out of our control.

Well, why should it be any different with gifts we give to God? Many of us have heard it said that God gives us our passions and talents and what we do with them is our gift back to Him. In my case, I like the notion that writing novels isn't just amusing myself and others but giving a gift back to God. But it struck me that some of the angst I go through may stem back to this whole thing about gift giving. Am I treating God with the same protocol I'd treat anybody else I gave a gift to? Or am I getting my nose out of joint because I really want Him to use it a particular way?

Perhaps I catch myself thinking like this. If I give God my writing, I consider it a good gift which includes time, imagination and skill in crafting words and telling stories. It also covers the sacrifice of possible money I would have earned doing something else instead. So I expect Him to take it and make sure lots of people read it, recommend it to their friends and that I'll get plenty of good feedback. I also like to think that He'll wrangle things so I can earn enough money from it to support my family and even get to take them on little holidays from time to time. I want Him to help set up articles and speaking engagements. I look at the lifestyles of other authors and notice that this seems to be the way He's used their gifts. That's how He's supposed to use a writing gift, isn't it?

But no, God, like anyone else, has a perfect right to leave my gift at the back of His cupboard if He wants to. What applies to other people must also apply to Him. It's my inconsistency that makes me sad. A vase may be put on the hall stand for show where many people can see it, or it may be used in the recipient's own private retreat to be used only by them. In the same way, a gift of writing may be used by God to impact millions, or perhaps just thousands, hundreds or even tens.

If you're like me, you chafe at the idea of being tossed to the back of a cupboard and forgotten about. Imagine somebody taking out your gift and saying, "I forgot all about this. I totally would've been using it if I remember I had it." Over the years, I wonder if I've had some vague, unconscious idea that this is what it may have been like with my writing in God's celestial drawer?

Bringing these feelings to light shows up some ridiculousness about them. It helps to remember the nature of this particular recipient, who has promised that He's numbered all the hairs on our heads, that He'll never forget about any of us, that there's nowhere we can hide from Him, no matter how fast or far we may try to run. He is closer than our next breath and living deep in our hearts. Thankfully, this is where He differs from any normal gift recipient. His drawers don't contain darkness and cobwebs. He is responsible and dependable with what we give Him, because He gave it to us in the first place. And that needs to be enough for us. All we need to worry about is being good stewards of our gifts and using them to the best of our abilities, trusting Him to illuminate what we don't know every step of the way. We need to rely on His promise that He doesn't give gifts for nothing and will certainly make sure our gift are put to perfect use.

Saturday, March 16, 2013

We may be too close to catch the spiritual fragrance of our lives

My daughter, Emma, asked me, 'If you could change just one aspect of your face, what would you choose?'

I really couldn't think of anything straight off. No single feature seemed to stand out as needing a change. There was nothing I'd put myself through the rigors of botox or plastic surgery for, anyway. Eyes OK, nose, check, cheeks, no problems, mouth and chin fine. I wouldn't mind reducing the sheer size of my skull but that wasn't what she was getting at. It was a surprising exercise that raised another question. If I can't find any major problem, why do I pass other women and think, "I wish I looked like her"? Could it be that I'm just overly familiar with my own face.

Is the concept of longing for greener pastures such a powerful syndrome? When I was a teenager living down near the beach, I loved the Adelaide Hills because I thought they looked like picture postcards from some storybook. I suppose they still do, but that doesn't stop me wanting to be elsewhere now that I've lived here since I was 18. The Italian countryside, America, European castles, the Great Wall of China, tropical islands up Queensland's coast, I'd be at any of those places in a flash if I had the chance.

Where do we draw the line and just be content? I sometimes find myself battling a sort of restlessness and guilt that I'm not different and feeling that I ought to be. There's a deep angst that I don't measure up to what others would probably be like in my place. Yet I did a similar sort of exercise to when Emma asked what part of my face I'd change. Once again, it was hard to put my finger on anything that may need a radical overhaul.

I love my family, work hard, and know I must have a sense of humour because it often gets tickled. I don't like the ill-at-ease feeling I sometimes get during one-on-one social situations, but as I try to cover up, I really shouldn't beat myself up over that one. I must be empathetic, because anyone without that quality probably couldn't pull off writing the sorts of books I do. What is it then? What is the quality I lack that causes this restlessness? Do you ever have similar feelings?

Could it be that we can all relate to the story of the boy who wanted more than anything to visit the shiny, palatial dwelling around the other side of the lake from where he lived? One day he set off on an expedition to get a close look. When he arrived, he was perplexed to find that it was just a normal looking place with weeds in its courtyard and a bit of salt damp in its bricks. And it didn't shine at all.

Suddenly, a girl who lived inside came out to greet him. While they were chatting, she pointed across the lake and said, "I'd love to know who's lucky enough to live in that fantastic looking place." The boy was amazed to see that she was pointing straight at his house, shining in the early sunset.

My son, Blake and I enjoy going on night walks around our neighbourhood. Near our last house is a huge mound of pine chips. He likes running up and down where there are grooves from the feet of other kids. I like getting several hundred yards away from it and then taking a deep breath of the pine-scented breeze. It doesn't seem as strong closer up. Maybe it's the same with life in general. We don't necessarily notice the goodness when we're living with or through anything, because we're too close to catch its real spiritual fragrance.

That's why we hear stories of elderly women who tell harried mothers of toddlers to remember to appreciate and enjoy every moment. Also, why I've sometimes been away for a couple of weeks, or even just a weekend, and then returned home with a renewed appreciation for my environment. Whenever I've finished writing a book and all the editing has been done, I like to wait a bit of time and then read the pages with fresh eyes as if I'm a brand new reader.

Maybe taking some distance to survey our familiar things really works. I've heard advice to list our blessings as if we're somebody else. Not a bad idea.

Friday, March 8, 2013

Maybe I'm being pruned

The start of 2013 has been one of pruning for me.  I don't feel I have many leaves fluttering in the breeze right now, let alone fruit dangling from my boughs.

Shortly before Christmas, we had a surprise call from our Real Estate agent telling us that our landlords decided not to renew our lease. Their son had decided he wanted to move in. This was a blow as we'd only been living in the picture-postcard house for eight months. Back when we first went through, I made a point to ask whether they were looking for long-term tenants. "Yes, they are." The owner lived overseas and her partner lived interstate. It seemed perfect and we all loved the house. It incorporated 2-storeys, a huge spa bath, lots of cupboard space and a restful blue colour scheme. I'd had great fun showing people through and saying, "Yep, this is our mansion." Now, as we started looking for other rental properties, I was learning how foolish it was of me to be so proud of something that had never belonged to me. Having a grueling house move so recently behind us, breaking our old lease and losing money was all heartbreaking.

Hey, I've been going around saying how our prayers have been answered, that even though we weren't actively looking for a new house, this just came up out the blue, we're blessed and serendipitous things are happening. Now, as well as being homeless, I feel like a total doofus.

About the same time, early January, there was an email from my publisher reiterating things we couldn't help knowing already, that Australian Christian fiction sales are slow and even though we're all doing our very best, we're all pouring in and getting not much to show for it. I remember sitting there reading it, straight after coming back from walking through yet another potential change of address, thinking, OK, I might as well face this too. I'd better stop kidding myself that book sales will some day shoot through the roof. That's what I've been hoping for over a decade and I might have been better working some office job.

I avoided blogging and social media because I didn't want to come across as wallowing in self-pity, even though I was. Social media, I've found, is like the surface of a pond. When you stop putting things in, the ripples subside as if you had never been working your butt off. So I felt isolated as well as foolish. At the same time, my eldest son came to the end of his homeschooling journey and couldn't figure out whether he ought to accept a TAFE or University offer and I felt clueless about how to advise him. My identity as the wise, homeschooling mum who always knows the best advice to give was out of the window too. I felt demoralised and drained. There was no money, not even enough for a lousy take-away. The ripple effect of self pity was still going strong, anyway.

It occurred to me to begin wondering why this stripping away seemed to be happening all at once. I sensed that maybe, if I'd been setting my worth on all that fruit and foliage, it was placed where it shouldn't be.

OK, I've got to accept that I'm still the same person as when things seem to be going well. I've got to remind myself that God loves me for who I am, not for what I do or what happens to me. Am I actually going through a pruning stage like that vine in the New Testament?

Then I begin seeing, maybe it's a favour, in a way. People who get to keep all their status symbols may be like urbanites who have their view of the galaxy obscured by the city skyline. At this stage of 2013, I feel I have nothing to stand behind at all. What you see is what you get. I must stop worrying over what people think, how I'm perceived. Must stop trying to meet higher standards. Maybe when your trappings are pruned back, the simplicity of merely living in the knowledge that God loves you no matter what, may be all we need. It may allow me to move from the city smog and draw a deep, fresh breath. Galatians 6:4 tells us not to be impressed with ourselves. Well, maybe God was making sure I could not be impressed with myself.

What am I finding when it's all pared back? That family are most important. That it doesn't really matter where we live, because we're still having fun times in the house we've just moved into. That even though I'm aware of the lowly position Aussie Christian fiction holds compared to other literature, I still want to spend slabs of time doing it. I still have a sense of purpose about it, even though it's hard and probably won't ever earn me status or wealth as I'd once dared to hope. It's still my chosen pursuit in spite of the lack of trappings. Giving yourself wholeheartedly to the task closest to your heart is valuable.

Maybe these are worthwhile sorts of thing to find when you're pruned.  And at times like this, I guess we shouldn't forget the real purpose of being pruned is to bear more fruit at some later time.
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