Saturday, May 28, 2011

An Alabaster Summer

As someone who has a very fair complexion, summertime has rarely ever meant tanned skin. For me, laying out in the warm rays, although relaxing in itself, requires layers of sunscreen unless I want to look something like a strawberry. When I was a teenager, I persisted in believing I could gradually gain that sun-kissed look given enough baby oil. Yeah, right. I finally learned my lesson after enough painful nights of trying to fall asleep with a vicious sunburned back and days of putting up with dry, peeling skin layers. Occasionally, I still have the opportunity to wear the ever so luxurious farmer’s tan (burn in my case), but for the most part, I’ve decided sunscreen is a blessing rather than the bane of my existence.

So when it comes to my skin tone, an alabaster summer is a regular occurrence for me. However, this year, it means something different.

In three different places, scripture records an unforgettable occurrence of a woman with an alabaster container of perfume. Matthew 26:6-13, Mark 14:1-9 and John 12:1-8 all record the same event from three varying, yet synonymous, perspectives: that of Mary, Lazarus’ sister, anointing the feet and head of Jesus as he dined at the house of Simon the leper.

We first learn about Mary when Jesus comes to the house of Mary and her sister Martha. While Martha was busy trying to show her love for the Lord by doing things for Him, Mary wanted just to be with Him. While I am sure Jesus appreciated the meal Martha was preparing, He knew that relationship isn’t built on works but on intimacy, and He commends Mary for her willingness to pursue what was most important—time with Him (Luke 10:38-42).

Undistracted by the wealth of her family and their high-profile friends in the Jewish community, Mary knew she needed Jesus. Mary’s story, though, doesn’t end there. She also experienced hard places of wondering what God was up to and witnessed things beyond her imagination (John 11:1-7, 17-45). Because she knew places of closeness with Him and times of questioning, she chose to live outside the boundaries of others’ opinions—both those of her sister and those in her community. She believed in the glory of Jesus and His great love for her, and so she willingly laid down all that was valuable in order to pursue Christ.

Like Mary, I want to grow in what it means to sit at His feet and spend time with Him. And I want it to learn it from an alabaster summer.

While doing things for the kingdom is important, true service begins with our intimacy and worship. It is so easy to define our ministry activities as our time with Christ. We justify that since we’re doing things for Him, we must be close to Him. But doing things for Christ isn’t the same as knowing Him or loving Him. I can wash my husband’s clothes, clean the house and make His favorite meals—and those can be an expression of my love for Him. But I can also do all of those things and not make him a priority in my life or even be committed in love to him. The same is true in our relationship with Christ

Mary’s story also shows us that worship reveals and purifies our motives. Claiming they cared about the poor, some of the disciples, specifically Judas, resented Mary’s worship. In truth, he cared only for what he could gain. Our willingness to focus on Christ reveals places in us where we care too much about ourselves and our desires. Setting aside time for Him makes us deal with the heart of why we serve Him—is it to have our needs met or because we are truly captivated by Him?

In thinking about Mary’s sacrifice, we can see that Mary’s gift represented her life. Paul reminds us in 2 Corinthians 4:7 that “we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves.” He is the treasure in us—our relationship with Christ is not about us having life all figured out. He longs to fill us—the alabaster containers of our humanity—with who He is.

As we think about how to live out this truth in our lives, consider the following characteristics of alabaster:

• Its soft quality makes it pliable but also fragile.

• Because it is soluble in water, cleaning (if not handled properly) can often mar the quality of the stone.

• “Each vein of alabaster has its own unique colour and characteristics”1

• Trying to mix alabaster with other elements to add support can often destroy the alabaster.

“Damage often occurs when alabaster is combined with other materials in the construction of an object. For example, a constricting wooden or metal frame or mounting bracket can impart stress on the alabaster, resulting in breakage. Old repairs often were made with metal pins or ‘cramps’ in the form of large staples, inserted into holes drilled in the alabaster. When these expand with temperature fluctuations or corrode from moisture, they can break the alabaster. Other repair materials found on alabaster objects can also cause further damage. These include plaster, and various adhesives that can shrink and become brittle over time.” 2

Battered by life and plagued by the enemy’s lies, we may feel broken with little to offer. However, the image of the alabaster box filled with precious ointment stands as a vivid picture of our lives once we are filled with the treasure of Christ’s Spirit in us. An unrefined stone, we have been bought with the blood of Christ. Any attempts to “clean” or “save” ourselves end only in greater brokenness, and the walls of protection we build in our own strength serve only to damage our ability to be the woman Christ has created us to be. But like Mary’s alabaster box, our true value comes from the life of Christ in us.

That brings me to the point of an alabaster summer. While summer is a great time of year for hanging out with friends and relaxing in the cool of a summer night, I want it to be about more than making great memories with those I love. I want to be changed in His presence.

To me, an alabaster summer is about:

INTIMACY—to discover more about who God is and what He believes about me

SATURATION—to be filled continually with His Spirit and experience the restorative power of His presence, so much so that it permeates everything I do

TRANSFORMATION—to know the healing power of His word and be changed by His truth.

With this vision in mind, I am going to go after a few key areas in my spiritual life and I invite anyone to join me.

1. Quality and frequency of our time spent with Him

• Is time with Him a priority in our day?

• Is our quiet time truly quiet (in other words, are the cell phone, email, facebook, television, and conversations with others a distraction or do we separate from those things during our time alone with the Lord?)

• Do you place we time in the Word above your time in other resources (Christian books, sermons, twitter, doing ministry)? While these are great resources, they cannot replace time in His Word.

2. Transparency and focus in prayer

• Are we honest with God about our needs and desires?

• Are we honest with God about our sin and our feelings/actions toward others?

• Do we take time to hear His opinion and pray according to His direction?

3. Quiet meditation on His Word and Rest (spirit, soul and body)

• Do we like silence?

• Do we seek out opportunities for rest (which is different than sleeping)?

• Do we look for God’s creative input into our lives?

Perhaps a bit unusual for a summer challenge, there are no guidelines for a set number of chapters in the Bible to read each day, hours to pray, service projects to complete, souls to win or times to fast. However, all of these disciplines--study, prayer, giving, evangelism and fasting—are intrinsic parts of our spiritual walk and should be a natural outpouring of a greater understanding of His love and character as we mature in Him.

So, if you so choose, I encourage you to join me on this summer journey. While the most important thing will be a hungry heart, I also encourage you to have a journal ready, find a Bible reading plan and let go of control. The God of the universe stands ready and willing and He loves to be with you.

My heart has heard you say, "Come and talk with me." And my heart responds, "LORD, I am coming." - Psalms 27:8 NLT


Friday, May 13, 2011

There You Are

One of the most vivid sermons I ever encountered is one I never heard. Because I attended a Christian college, we were required to attend chapel each week, but with that requirement also came the grace to skip an allotted number of services in allowance for life’s unexpected moments.

It was one of those days, and while I can’t exactly remember my reason for skipping chapel, I can pretty much guarantee it had something to do with my head being on my pillow. (The same reason I skipped several, and I mean several, 8 am Grammar and Syntax classes. Grammar is tough any time of the day but positively brutal at 8 am). But for this particular chapel that I missed, the message was entitled “There You Are,” and according to my friends, it was one of those sermons that was well worth hearing. The premise was basic, yet profound: are we a “Here I am” or a “There you are” person? In other words, do we walk through life expecting others to see, acknowledge and affirm us; or do we seek to make others the center of our attention? It’s the sermon I never heard but have never forgotten.

All of us want to know we exist for a reason. In my limited understanding of philosophy, to believe we exist without purpose has but one end—nihilism, or nothingness. Such a belief is not possible for the Christian. Though we may face times of discouragement and questioning—and we do--to believe we live without purpose is to deny the existence of the Cross.

As a teacher, I find the presence of existential thought in literature to be not only intriguing but evidence of God’s handprint in our making. A seemingly intimidating concept, existentialism basically revolves around man’s search for purpose and the infinite list of questions that every choleric personality puts away in a box marked “unsolvable” and every melancholy writes on the walls of her mind to ponder at any given moment. Wherever we look, however, we can see that the desire to live with purpose exists in the heart of every man and woman.

And that is the beauty of a “There You Are” sermon. A necessary reminder that we were created for something beyond ourselves, such a message tells us that God responds to us with a resounding “There you are,” and His love answers the deep questions of why we exist. Yet the very fact that we need a reminder to love Him with our entire being and to love others as we want to be loved tells us that our once perfect design has been marred by the dogma of self-centeredness.

In our desire to know our purpose, we must remember that without Christ, we can produce nothing pure or good (John 3:27). We can be successful, we can be philanthropic, we can be motivational. But only those seeds born in the hope found in Christ carry true life, and in the long run, the true measure of our works isn’t in the act but in the heart (1 Corinthians 13:1-3). We were created for purpose, but living with purpose and needing to see the effects (i.e. needing to experience recognition) of that purpose are two different things. Think of Peter’s admonition to the church that the perfection of their faith would come through what they would not see: “As to this salvation, the prophets who prophesied of the grace that would come to you made careful searches and inquiries, seeking to know what person or time the Spirit of Christ within them was indicating as He predicted the sufferings of Christ and the glories to follow. It was revealed to them that they were not serving themselves, but you . . . “ (1 Peter 1:10-12a, emphasis added). The writer of Hebrews reiterates this idea by saying,” All these died in faith, without receiving the promises, but having seen them and having welcomed them from a distance, and having confessed that they were strangers and exiles on the earth” (Hebrews 11:13). It’s natural to want to see the results of our efforts—natural, but not the thing on which to base our choices. Scriptural truth isn’t ever circumstantial, and true purpose—if it’s found in Christ—is selfless.

Finding our purpose isn’t about what others see, acknowledge or affirm in us. Instead, it begins with a simple statement: “There you are . . .”