There’s Just Something About Mary: The Irony of Mary

Jeni Martin

The Christmas season is filled with beautiful pictures of love, grace, peace and hope.  I especially love seeing all the nativities on display.  What could be more beautiful than a mother holding her newborn?  As I reflect on the Christmas scriptures, I’m reminded that things aren’t always as they seem.

I’m moved this year by the ironic sufferings of Mary.  We see Mary as the chosen one, the woman most blessed by God.  However with this blessing came a tremendous amount of suffering that probably even felt like a curse!

My college age daughter likes the TV series, “Jane the Virgin.”   It’s about a young girl who goes to the doctor for a routine pap smear and ends up being mistakably inseminated and just like that she is pregnant, engaged and a virgin all at the same time.   Jane has a doctor who admits the mistake.

Mary didn’t have that! …

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When Christian Leaders Fall

Pastors embezzling money, getting caught looking at porn, having affairs, the list goes on and on.  What should church leaders do when a leader falls?

  1. Tell the Truth to your church family.

People are hurting and talking a lot to one another when a leader has made a bad sinful decision.  These conversations can quickly balloon and turn into untruths, suspicions and assumptions that can further cripple the church family.  It’s best to have a formal gathering where a statement is read and published for all to read and hear.  Too many details do not need to be shared but the sin needs to be named publicly.  This is the first step in guiding your church family to healing.  Hiding what happened can split churches.  Protect your church and tell the truth.

  1. Minister to the fallen leader, their family and anyone else that was directly involved.

It’s Godly to offer to pay for a series of therapy sessions for the fallen leader and their family.  We need to acknowledge that the public exposure of sin is MOST painful to the leader and their family.  Give them hope that they can get through this and heal.  If there’s another family directly involved, like with an affair or an abusive situation involving a minor and their family, it’s also crucial to minister to these families too.  If there’s an addiction problem, offer help and be the kind of church that believes our God restores and heals.  You can be clear that offering help doesn’t mean the fallen leader can still have their position of leadership.

  1. Caution: Do not make rash decisions as a reaction to what’s happened.

It’s ok to step away, pray and wait in moments when our emotions are high.  Do not underestimate the value of prayer and asking for God’s leadership.

  1. Reach outside your congregation for guidance and support.

Most denominations have a consultant that can help guide you through a healing process and help connect your church to healthy people who can fill in for you.  Remember the other pastors on your staff team are also experiencing emotions as well and it would be a gift for them not to have to take on everything immediately.  Invite an outside speaker that has experienced something like this to address your church family.

  1. Be clear about the steps ahead.

Be clear about whether or not this fallen leader will have the opportunity to be the leader in the future.  Let people know what the plan is to fill the fallen leader’s responsibilities in the meantime while church leadership can regroup and plan the next steps.  Communicate these steps as they are taken and this will relieve some stress for everyone.

  1. Focus on ministry and celebrate what God has done in your church.

Be quick to remind the church family of their God stories!  Celebrate what God has done among you.  Inspire one another to look ahead and focus on doing ministry instead of gossip and negativity.  Lead your people to God.  You are still God’s church!

  1. Lead your church through a process of forgiveness.

Forgiveness is essential for the church to heal and move on.  Forgiveness doesn’t mean that everything is ok and will go back to normal.  Forgiveness is a process and we cannot allow what a leader did to define the church.  Model forgiveness for your church family and speak forgiving words.

  1. Later on down the road, the job description for the open position should be visionary, not reactionary.

Many churches hire the opposite personality of a person they had to fire or ask to resign.  While this doesn’t seem rational this happens in churches frequently.  Hiring should be visionary and about where the church needs to be led, not a reaction to what’s transpired.

 

Misunderstanding Baptists: Soul Freedom

“So in reality Baptists are the most broad-minded of all people in religion.”  My Southern  Baptist Sunday School class full of young Baptists in their 20s burst into laughter when I read this statement to them!  This quote comes from The Baptist Faith and Message written by Herschel H. Hobbs.  I’m using an edition that was published in 1971.  It’s the explanation of the Baptist faith and explains which distinctive beliefs are so important to Baptists. After laughing, our conversation then shifted to how misunderstood we are in society.

One of the basic beliefs of the Baptist faith is called, “soul freedom,” or the “competency of the soul. “  It’s explained here quoted from the same book I mentioned above:

“Baptists insist that every man shall be free to decide for himself in matters of religion.  Baptists have ever been the champions of soul freedom, not for themselves alone but for all men.  Thus it is that Baptists believe that a person has the right to be a Baptist, Methodist, Presbyterian, Roman Catholic, Jew, infidel, atheist, or whatever he chooses to be.”

“They (Baptists) grant to every man the right that he shall be free to believe as he wants.  But they insist upon the same right for themselves.  The moment a Baptist seeks to coerce another person – even another Baptist – in matters of religion, he violates the basic belief of Baptists.”

I’m guessing what you just read is probably quite shocking to you?  This might even shock some Baptists too?  Our society would probably define a Baptist as a closed-minded, judgmental person who isn’t very open to hearing the opinions of others.  Herschel Hobbs also writes, “If there is any judging to be done, it is God’s responsibility, not man’s.”

Baptists are very concerned that everyone in our world hears and understands the Gospel Message of the Bible.  We are not out to judge, but to share this message and every person has the opportunity to respond to this message how they choose.  We are not out to coerce anyone but to share what God has done for humanity.  It is only God who draws mankind to Himself through the Holy Spirit.  Baptists do not believe this happens through coercion or human persuasion of any kind.  Nobody becomes a Christian through an argument, manipulation or coercion.  We simply share faith and we believe all people have the right to respond as they choose.  And, as I quoted above, “if there is any judging to be done, it’s God’s responsibility, not man’s.”

What do Baptists Believe?  Maybe we should do some reading before we come to conclusions on what a Baptist believes.   I’m assuming many Baptists out there can also use a refresher on what they believe as well.  Maybe some who call themselves a Baptist should choose another term for themselves?  As a good Baptist, I leave this up to them to decide!

My Personal Response to Easter

Christians can seem to be strange people.  I remember when I met a real Christian for the first time.  A neighbor of ours had invited my family to church.  I had been to church as a child a few times and I found it so boring I thought I’d die.

Here’s my story of having a spiritual awakening through Christianity:

I was probably in the 8th grade and my family agreed to visit our friend’s church.   I remember walking into the foyer feeling a little guarded not knowing exactly what to expect.  People from left and right greeted my family and I, asked our names and helped us find our way.

I remember thinking, “These people don’t even know me, why are they being so friendly?”  Friendliness isn’t the right word exactly as I sensed something deeper.  I sensed they had something I didn’t and wasn’t quite sure what that was.  I was in Northern Virginia and people just stayed out of each other’s way there.  Everyone was on a mission to get their tasks done and most of the time people didn’t even look at one another much, much less greet someone!

Whatever was in the air of that tin building we visited made us want to go back.   I was curious to discover more about these people and what it was they had that I did not have.  We started going pretty regularly.

One night the youth pastor was teaching and I felt a light bulb go off in my head.  It was clear to me now what these people had that I didn’t:  they had committed themselves to follow Jesus and have given their lives to Him.  The first step in following Jesus is asking for forgiveness and repenting of sins.   The next step is to thank God for sending Jesus to die and pay for the sins of all mankind.  I just needed to accept this free gift and in turn hand my life over to God and follow Him and serve Him.

The night I heard and understood this message, I returned home and prayed to God in my room asking for forgiveness, asking for help to follow Him, asking Him to take my life and guide it.  I cried and cried with joy and felt a heavy load was lifted from my soul.  I felt very different.   I know now this was the Holy Spirit coming into my life.  I wasn’t alone any longer even when I was physically alone.   God was with me.

One of the greatest differences people noticed in me was my insecurities were gone.  I cared a whole lot as a teenager about what people thought of me. Making this decision to follow Jesus was a freeing one for me.  I mattered, I belonged, I was a child of God.  I didn’t need to search around anymore for my identity, God gave me a peace in that area of my teen life.

I also had sinful desires to explore certain things in life that could have been very damaging to me as a young person.  After that prayer, those desires were gone.  I didn’t change myself, God changed me.   He did that.  I only prayed in faith for God to forgive me, save me and change me.

One Way to Evaluate Our Mission Involvement

My grandfather went on several mission trips to Mexico years ago.  When he arrived back home he would light up when he told us how many tracts they had given away on the street corners.  This was their main task: handing out little folded papers that had Bible verses on it that shared the Gospel. As a person involved in missions now I believe what he did was a waste of time and resources.  I know many Mexican people and have good relationships with them.  I’m well aware that some of them are illiterate.  I’m also aware that their culture is very relational.  Handing out tracts isn’t the “best” thing.

So, how do we gauge what to do and what not to do in Christian missions?  Our resources are limited, so how do we know if we’re using our resources in the best place?

One test to help us answer this question is something I learned from a missionary in Nigeria.  I don’t know if this concept is unique to him or if he learned this from someone else.  All I’m saying is I cannot take credit for this as it’s not my original idea.  It has certainly stuck with me and helped me fine tune various ministries I’ve led and it’s been successful for us.

He shared three words:

GOOD ->  BETTER->  BEST

We can do many “good” things for God.  We would all say that helping someone is a good thing.  But is it the best thing?  We can evaluate our “good” things and make them even better in the work that we do, but how do we know if we are doing the “best” thing when we are choosing what to do and what not to do on a daily basis in our mission ministries?

GOOD – I can do many acts of kindness, but so can someone who isn’t a Christian!  I know many kind, giving people who aren’t Christians.  What makes the Christian different than any other volunteer who serves an organization?  Can we even call this “Christian ministry?”

BETTER – The difference is we have been transformed by the Gospel message and that is the very reason we have a desire to do an act of kindness.  So, we can take our good thing and make it better if we share the Gospel as we go along.  We should always be ready to share the reason for the hope we have in Christ (1 Peter 3:15).  We need to constantly be finding ways to put more God in what we’re doing!  How can we take our good things and make them deeper missionaly?

The BEST thing is sharing the Gospel with people who respond to it and in turn those who responded sharing it with others.  When someone finds transformation they want others to know about it!   We need to be providing atmospheres for this to happen.  Of course this requires us to appreciate and be excited about our own faith experience and we need to be willing to share it.

One way this has been fleshed out among us is we developed a camp for at-risk kids that were referred to us by school social workers.  50% of the kids who came to camp accepted Christ for the first time after hearing the Gospel many times throughout the camp experience.  One of our volunteers felt led to open her home to those who were new believers to create a space to disciple them and help them grow.  These kids invited their friends to come hear what they has experienced.

Do not despair if you’re doing too many good things!  You can make them better by being intentional at sharing the Gospel as you go along and be thinking about what you’ll do when someone comes into the Kingdom!   Have that plan in place and ready!

And remember: He who tried and failed is much better than he who didn’t try at all!

So take your good things and build relationships through then so you can share the Gospel and watch God move in powerful ways.  Ask God to transform those who are the recipients of the Good News in your ministries.

God is Incredibly GOOD!

I’m so moved by the goodness of God…  Here is my offering of thanksgiving, sharing my story:

“Lord, I’d sure like to be married.  But I will follow and serve You whether I’m single for the rest of my life or married.”

I prayed this prayer in my early 40s.  I’ve been single, never married for my entire life.

Yes, I had a high school boyfriend and a few college boyfriends along the way.  They just didn’t seem to fit in with my calling.  I felt a strong calling to Christian ministry in my teen years.

Yes, I’ve heard all the advice one can possibly hear that insensitive people throw out to single people!  The worst ones insinuate that I must be doing something wrong or that God must not be happy with something about me.

Dating life seemed to worsen with age so I just decided I’d had enough painful experiences that it was time to STOP, take a break and just focus on ministry, so that’s what I did.

I have served 3 churches and have been serving as a mission pastor in the church I serve currently since 2006.  When I arrived here I was deep in conversation with a teen from a previous church about the suffering she was enduring in her home.  Before I knew it she had nowhere to go and I heard God asking me to take care of her at least until she could graduate high school.  I cared for her for about a year until her abusive father left and it was time for her to mend her relationship with her mother.  I took her back home and I sensed the Lord calling me to open my home to more kids like her so I called our local department of social services.

I became a licensed foster parent and before I knew it I had cared for 17 kids in 7 years!

All throughout this experience I was pouring my heart and life into the ministry of foster care and missions.  I LOVE all of this!  It’s wonderful!

Before I knew it over a decade had passed and I had a few men asked me out and I declined explaining that I was content and made the decision to stop dating long ago.

One fall night I found myself praying to God asking for a husband.  Then, my gaspac heating system went out.  It was time for a new one.

“God, I have this big old house because You called me to do foster care.  You know I don’t have the money for this.   Please help me!”  I searched high and low and FINALLY found 0% apr financing, so I had a new gaspac put in and I make payments on it now.

That same year I prayed a similar prayer in the spring, “God, my roof is leaking.  I paid a company $400.00 to seal it up and they say it will last for a year.   You know I don’t have money to pay for a new roof.”

One day I get a message on Facebook from a deaf guy that asked me out while we were in college. “Hi!  Do you remember me?” the message read.  I was lying in bed next to my oldest adopted daughter (we were having one of those late night chats).  “Hi!  Yes I remember you.  I remember you asked me out to a dance and I declined.”

“You’re so mean!” my daughter said.  We chatted a little more and I made it clear that I have 4 children, I love my career and I’m not willing to relocate for a man.  “I’m settled here so we probably just shouldn’t talk.” I said.

We’re now married!

Two people in their 40s who each never married, no biological children, and now we’re married!

And because he had paid off his house we were able to pay cash for a new roof!  It doesn’t stop there! We’re getting new windows put in this month!  Our current windows are original to the house that was built in 1907!  Don’t even try to imagine our heating bills!

All adoptions in our household are finalized with our three children and now we’re focusing on being a family, working our jobs and raising the kids well.

Ok God!  I’m taking notes!   You always step in and provide for me what I need when I need it.  I trust You and will serve You even when things seem desperate financially, emotionally, spiritually, etc…  Please forgive my anxiety over earthly things!  The things I desire most come from You anyway!  Thank You God!  You are Good even when my mind wanders into places of doubt and darkness.  May I be a bearer of Your goodness to others in Jesus name, Amen.

Psalm 128

The “Right” Church?

Yesterday a smart, educated man was telling me about all the churches he and his wife have attended in town.  One church was too contemporary for them, another just didn’t feel right, etc…  He didn’t indicate whether or not he was attending one currently.

Today, I awoke and turned on a Christian radio station.  They were discussing the “right” church for you, the one that feels right, it doesn’t matter where you go, just that you find one, “that’s right for you.”

I wondered, “What does God think of this?”  All this talk that everything just has to fit us perfectly or we’re out.  Is it really God’s goal to have a church that perfectly fits everyone’s desires to the point that it feels, “right” to them?  What are we saying about us when we speak like this?  What are we saying about God?

In our culture it’s obvious from the conversations above that we Christians have become pretty self-absorbed.  We are consumed by the world of consumerism and materialism.  If we don’t like something we throw it out and get another one. It’s our culture.  Are we applying our immediate gratifications/consumerism/materialism to the church?  We seek out things we like that we feel fit us.  Is this really God’s plan for us?

Does God want us to choose our church family based on worship style?  Preaching style? Location? Children’s Ministry? Youth trips?  Certain kinds of small groups that I like?  Use of media?

What’s at stake here is the answer to this question (our worldview):  Who or what’s at the center of the universe?   Us or God?  Who should be at the center of my life?  Me, or God?  Of course Christians will say, “God!”  But, is that how we are fleshing out our lives in our everyday conversations and decisions?

The conversations above are coming from a ME-centered worldview.  A ME-centered worldview says, “I’m in the center of it all and I make decisions with me as the most important thing.”  A God-centered worldview looks a bit different: it means God is placed at the center and God is elevated as the most important.  My personal desires yield to God’s commands in Scripture.

Entertainment based ministries are fun but lack depth and aren’t a place to grow in your faith.  These kinds of churches yield to the ME-centered church shoppers.

We have a young couple that noticed this about a local church that does big events and spends a lot of effort entertaining people and trying to do cool stuff by creating different fun themes and applying them to the Bible.  If we are God-centered, we start with the Bible and the theme comes out of scripture.   If we are entertainment based, we think of a theme and apply the Bible to it.  Make sense?   It’s a bit ME-centered.

So…

What is the “right” church?

One Step to Living at Peace With Ourselves, God and Others

Over Christmas break my teen daughter expressed she was having trouble sleeping.  She felt worried when she was laying down at night.  I asked her what she was worried about and she couldn’t even seem to pinpoint the problem.  A few weeks later when school resumed I asked to see her grades.  I discovered quickly why she was stressed out!

She had a 0 for a paper that was supposed to have been turned in on December 21st.  It was now January 3rd!  Over break I helped her brother edit a paper he worked on and tweaked many times.  She watched as we went through this process knowing all along she had a paper she hadn’t done.

When I discovered she had an outstanding paper I reminded her of one of our household mantras: “Work before play!”   If our work isn’t done, it’s not time to “play.”   If my homework isn’t done I cannot watch TV for example.  This is a simple teaching of priorities to my children.

I explained that she would be grounded until she finished the paper she had outstanding. It had to be written well enough to turn in.  I helped her work on this and edited it and she turned it in.

“No wonder why you couldn’t sleep!” I said.  “You were hiding from me that you hadn’t done one of your responsibilities.”  She was punishing herself with worry when all she needed to do was get that paper done.

One life lesson I’ve learned is that I am at peace when I have fulfilled all my obligations and responsibilities.   I too cannot sleep when I have something I’m behind on.  I’ve even woken up in the middle of the night to work on things that are worrying me.   Sometimes just making a simple list helps me tackle what’s stressing me out. This helps me feel more organized.  I feel like I have a deeper grasp on what’s ahead.

I think this has a spiritual lesson for us as well.  Our hearts cannot live in peace if we are hiding things.  Confession is a healthy practice that helps us all be more emotionally and spiritually healthy.  It’s healthy to name our faults and weaknesses before God and to the people we trust.  It feels soooo freeing and good when we can break free of something that is worrying us deep in our soul.  Making headway in an area that we feel we are failing in builds our confidence.

If we just do what we are supposed to we feel at peace.  We can even get ahead! Hiding things we don’t want others to discover is very stressful.  Each day is a fresh new opportunity to stop hiding things and make them right.  Step up to the plate and start doing that one thing that bothers you that you’re not doing well enough.

I imagine this is why criminals who are running from the law sometimes turn themselves in.   The unrest in their souls and the stress of always thinking they’re about to get caught is excruciating.

Lay it down, confess it, do your best to make it right and move on.

The wisdom of Proverbs 28:13 (NIV) says it best:

  “ Whoever conceals their sins does not prosper,

    but the one who confesses and renounces them finds mercy.”

My daughter did this and she is sleeping soundly now!   I hope this discussion will help her strive to keep up with her schoolwork better and will encourage her to apply this lesson to the other areas of her life as well.

The Untold Symbolism of Christmas: The Wreath

I can’t help but notice how the beautiful deep symbolic, spiritual meanings behind our traditional Christmas decorations seem hidden.  One of my favorites is the wreath; the most beautiful wreaths are those made from fresh greenery that someone gathered and put together.  The smell is mesmerizing and its beauty is natural and whimsical.

Wreaths of holly are especially beautiful.  Holly leaves are prickly and remind us of the crown of thorns Jesus wore while hanging on the cross suffering.  Holly produces deep red berries that represent the drops of blood Jesus shed while hanging on the cross.  This can be a reminder to us that even suffering can be beautiful.  The suffering Jesus endured to offer us such a beautiful gift of forgiveness is unparalleled.  Our suffering can be made beautiful as well when we give it to God and endure like the evergreen in the dead of winter.

Evergreens are never changing, never ending, and stay the same despite their circumstances.  There is no death of leaves for the trees and bushes that are evergreen. Evergreens have the power to battle the forces of winter. They are beautiful all year long and give us the gift of color when others are brown and appear to be dead.  This can be a reminder that no matter what’s going on around us we know God gives us the strength to press on and to even radiate beauty in our circumstances.

Wreaths are circles of beauty symbolizing God’s eternal love that endures forever.  The coming of baby Jesus brings us the opportunity to be transformed by the giving of our lives to Him.  We can love like God does and become citizens of eternity. A circle never ends.   Those of us who are followers of Jesus Christ carry with us the sacrificial loving gift of eternal life we have been given through the love of Jesus.

As followers of Jesus we will one day pass from this life into eternity where we belong. The never-ending circle symbol is especially comforting to those of us who have lost loved ones who followed Jesus because we know they are still alive and one day we will be reunited together.  The circle is also said to be a symbol of unity and peace.  What better way to welcome guests at our door than by hanging a beautiful wreath.

Years ago before electricity people used candles in their Christmas trees and wreaths.  At the core of the Christmas season is the welcoming of the Christ child, Jesus: light coming into our dark world.  We light up trees and wreaths as a reminder that we too are to be bearers of light in this dark world.  Candles were also set in windows years ago indicating strangers were welcome there.  God welcomes all people equally into his Kingdom and gives all the opportunity to receive the gift of love, life and eternity.

There’s a beautiful wreath displayed in my dining room that was a gift.  It is evergreen with purple ribbon symbolizing royalty.   Nestled in the center of the circle is a small nativity scene.  This wreath reminds me not to lose sight of the deep spiritual meaning of Christmas.  The King has come and He will reign forevermore!  The King extends to us an invitation to be a part of His royal family forever and he will give those who serve Him the strength to endure!  All hail King Jesus!

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