For the Marys and Marthas: Jesus In Our Grief

By Kate Seat

On September 19, 2015, a dear colleague of mine passed away in a hiking accident. He was 23, newlywed, talented, and big-hearted. He’d just begun his second year of teaching high school English at the school where we both worked. Last year I wrote some thoughts to share with our students. Here they are, emended.

Everyone hurts at different speeds. In John’s Gospel, Mary and Martha had a brother, Lazarus, who died. Famously, Jesus raises Lazarus from the dead, but a subtler part of the story astounds me even more than the resurrection. It’s the intimate way Jesus meets the two sisters in their grief. He doesn’t come to them with one-size-fits-all platitudes: he tailors his compassion to each woman.

When Martha hears Jesus is coming, she immediately goes out of the house to meet him and basically says, Lord, if you had been here my brother would not have died. BUT I know you are in control, and I know everything will be okay on the day of the resurrection. Martha needs hope and a game plan and assurance of good things to come.

Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in me shall never die. Do you believe this?” She said to him, “Yes, Lord; I believe that you are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.” – John 11:25-27

Martha responds to death with hope, and Jesus gives her an even bigger, more attainable hope than the one she first had.

Mary, though, sits in the house when she hears Jesus is near. She doesn’t come out until Martha tells her that Jesus is asking for her. So already, we can see a difference. Martha runs to Jesus, but Mary has to be drawn out. When she does go to Jesus, she just falls at Jesus’ feet, crying, saying “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.” She’s not singing hymns or quoting Jeremiah 29:11 – she’s not ready for that. She’s just grieving. And I get that. I’m totally a Mary. There’s no way I’d spend my energy cleaning when I could be listening to Jesus, and I would not be ready for positive thinking four days after my brother’s death. Last week, I had to leave any conversation where the “Marthas” were talking, where anyone said anything along the lines of “everything happens for reason” or “God has a plan, His ways are not our ways”. When I was alone, I didn’t listen to praise songs – I listened to Aretha Franklin’s blues recordings, because I needed to feel sad. And it’s okay that I felt like that.

It’s tempting for the Martha types to tell the Marys to pull it together, and then it’s tempting for the Mary types to lash out against the Marthas. But Jesus greets Mary as perfectly as he greeted Martha. When she falls at his feet crying, Jesus doesn’t say anything to Mary. The Scripture says when he saw her weeping, he was deeply moved in his spirit and greatly troubled. Another translation says he was indignant in his spirit, instead of deeply moved. The verb in the Latin text means he growled. And then Jesus wept.

I am so grateful for this Jesus. The Jesus who’s mad about death. The Jesus who understands that everything is not okay. The Jesus who enters my pain before he redeems it.

God Still Does Miraculous Things

By Sue Jones

When I decided to move to Atlanta about 4 months ago, I was a little nervous because although I have several family members here, I didn’t have any friends, and knew I would need some. I didn’t want to be totally dependent on my family.

My first Sunday in town I decided to look for a new church online. I love Tim Keller’s sermons and books so wanted to try a PCA church. Well, St. Paul’s was the first one I saw that was relatively close to where I’d be living, so Sunday morning I drove there.

I arrived early, and saw a young woman sitting in a pew by herself.  I went over and sat one seat away from her. She immediately leaned over and said, “Hi! I’m Lynette, come sit by me.” Her name took me by surprise because I have a life-long friend named Lynette, and haven’t ever known another. We laughed about that, and started talking about my move to Atlanta. Lynette asked where I was going to be living and when I told her North Decatur, she said, “Oh, that’s where I live!” She then asked if I had a townhouse or a house, and I told her that I would be living in an apartment complex. Again she said, “Oh, I live in an apartment too.” Of course, she asked which apartment complex, and when I told her, she immediately started tearing up and said, “Oh my, that’s where I live, and I’ve been praying for a Christian friend to move into my complex!”

She then asked me to go to lunch and I looked up and said, “Okay God, I get it. This is where you want me to be!”

Other things almost as amazing have happened since I moved here, and my nervousness about adjusting to life in the big city is gone. St. Paul’s has welcomed me with open arms, and I already feel like it’s home. Thank you, Jesus, and thank you, St. Paul’s!

Thank you, God, for taking me right where I needed to be at just the right time!

 

Bring Depth to Your Prayer Life: Four Ways to Pray The Psalms

By Rebecca Duff

There are so many ways and methods in which to pray, but sometimes we can get in a rut. Do you ever find yourself getting a little tired of praying the ‘grocery list’ of needs?

Sometimes our hearts need a spiritual injection to add depth and richness to our prayers. One way to do this, is to turn a Psalm into a prayer. There is no situation or human emotion that hasn’t been experienced somewhere in the Psalms. You can immerse yourself in the Psalms, and turn them into rich prayers. The Psalms also lend themselves to teach our hearts how to pray in accordance with God’s character and will.

Do you realize that Jesus would have actually sung and prayed the Psalms through his entire life?

As you consider a particular psalm, imagine how he would have thought about it, knowing who he was and what he came to do.

Here are four easy ways to pray a Psalm:

  1. Verbatim: simply pray the words as they are. Psalm 90 works well as an example.
  2. Paraphrase: this involves rephrasing and personalizing a Psalm. You can change the meanings of some words to fit your life. For example: “Deliver me from my enemies” could be paraphrased as: deliver me from being impatient with my children (or any other area that you may be struggling with)
  3. Responsive praying: Take a look at some of the longer Psalms, where it is more a ‘teaching’ format. In this case, look for themes such as: adoration, confession or supplication, and then include that into your prayer. The theme will often lead your heart into deeper, sweeter time with God. 
  4. Messianic Psalms: There are a number of obvious Psalms that give a rich view of Christ. See which ones describe the Messiah, and contemplate the greatness and beauty of Jesus to adore and rest in Him.

I challenge you to include a Psalm into your prayer life once a week to start, see what riches it will unlock when you learn to pray the Psalms.

Videos From Deacon Training that Everyone Should See

By The Deacons of St. Paul’s

What is Poverty? (Click for video)

In this 3 minute video Brian Fikkert (author of When Helping Hurts) examines poverty as more than simply being materially poor. He presents poverty as fractured relationships with God, self, others, and Creation. Fikkert gives a beautiful picture of how we are all poor and in need of a Savior.

We’d love to start a dialogue with the church about this.

Church, what do you think?

What hit you most from this video?

How does this affect the way you think about poverty?

Relief in a World of Chaos

by Joseph Davis

“God is our refuge and strength, an ever-present help in trouble. Therefore we will not fear, though the earth give way and the mountains fall into the heart of the sea, though its waters roar and foam and the mountains quake with their surging. There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells. God is within her, she will not fall; God will help her at break of day. Nations are in uproar, kingdoms fall; he lifts his voice, the earth melts. The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress.”  – Psalm 46:1-7

Last week, in an unexpected and unprecedented political move, the United Kingdom became the first country to withdraw from the European Communion after being a member state for 43 years.  The shock waves of the national referendum were immediate as the uncertain future of Europe caused stock markets to fall sharply across the globe.  Experts speculate that this may lead to the withdrawal of Ireland and Scotland from the U.K. as well as threaten the existence of the European Union.  Whether you find yourself a supporter of Brexit, opposed to it, or generally indifferent, everyone can agree that this is another example of the fragility and uncertainty that seems so potent in our world today.

The Brexit vote only replaces the leading news of the worst mass shooting in American history leaving 50 dead in Orlando.  The current Presidential race in the U.S. reveals a country that is polarized and hurting.  Suicide bombings overseas are as common as the weather report.  Just a few days ago, a suicide bomber detonated himself in Somalia killing innocent bystanders.  Words like ISIS, racial division, and Zika dominate the news.  

When the Psalmist describes his own chaotic world as a mighty earthquake (“mountains quake with their surging”) we can relate to him.  It’s hard enough for us to keep our own personal lives from feeling like an earthquake, much less global events.

However, the Psalmist then contrasts this chaotic description with a peaceful scene, “There is a river whose streams make glad the city of God, the holy place where the Most High dwells.”  This is not just a description of a future reality – it’s a present reality where peace, trust, and confidence flourish – despite circumstances.  The Psalmist has come to understand that the life lived in the presence and protection of God leads to a stability and peace that overcome the anxieties that plague our world.  

In God’s family, living as part of His Kingdom, fear and anxiety do not have to be the obvious result of chaotic circumstances.  Because of the Holy Spirit at work in the hearts of His people, words like stable, confident, peaceful, and joyful can mark our lives.  After all, through Jesus, we have access to the presence of God Himself.  He is sovereign, faithful, and true.  No terrorist or suicide bomber can thwart his eternal plans.  

For Christians, he has promised to work everything for our good, even painful circumstances…no, especially painful circumstances.

They are God’s way to help us become more like Jesus. So, as the Apostle Paul writes, “We are always of good courage!”  Let us live in the middle of the chaos by the power of the Holy Spirit.  But let us also look forward to a Kingdom that will one day fully come, and a King who will wipe away all our tears.

 

Growth and the One Who Makes It Grow

By Pat Pickren

Spring is a normal time of year when we think of growth. In Atlanta that means the first azaleas and trees bloom  quickly followed by  the yellowish green haze of pollen on everything. Thankfully we’re moving past that phase and into summer. This year I’ve been even more focused on growth – or at least trying to make things grow or keep things growing – as my family has embarked on a landscape project. And there is a correlation of gardening and our own spiritual life. Scripture uses many illustrations of gardening, planting and harvesting to help us understand our spiritual life. Even in a non-agrarian based economy these analogies give us insight. So through our project at home and reflection on Scripture – John 15 – I’m reminded of three things true of both gardening or landscaping and our spiritual life:

1) the gardener has a plan

2) sometimes growth looks like cutting back and

3) we can’t make things grow on our own.

growth

Due to our lack of gardening skills, we knew that help with an overall plan was necessary to make good choices. We needed a holistic plan that accounted for not only what we think looks good but also what would look good together, what would work with the existing conditions (such as shady or sunny parts of the yard), and what kind of plants would do well in our weather. We needed someone that had a lot more experience. Through the help of a professional landscape architect, we found someone who  could guide us in  where we could re-use existing plants in the yard, what new plants to get, as well as where we had areas of problems or potential that we could focus. He listened to us to understand our desires but also helped us make sure that we didn’t go too far off track. He provided an overall plan that we’re now using as the map or guide.

Reflecting on our spiritual life, the Scriptures reference God as planting his people as a vine (Psalm 80, Jeremiah 2),  and Christ says that the Father is the gardener (John 15 vinedresser or farmer depending on your translation). This has many implications but among them is that God has intentional plans for us. We are not just tossed into the landscape. He considers not only what we need, but also how we fit into his overall landscape. And, similar to my need for gardening expertise, I also have a need for someone far wiser and knowledgeable than me related to my spiritual life. Just as a gardener cares for and nurtures plantings to thrive, God in his wisdom does the same for his people.

The Power of Pruning

What does thriving look like? Often in a garden it requires cutting back or pruning. In the landscape plan for our project, there were several notes and instructions from the landscape architect – please cut back these crepe myrtles by 5 feet or trim back this large azalea. It may seem a little counterintuitive to cut back shrubs so that they can grow, but that is the power of pruning. Several of the azaleas had grown spindly branches without leaves or flowers. But after cutting them back they are beginning  to produce new growth.

pruning

In John 15 speaking of the Father, Christ says “Every branch that bears fruit, he prunes, that it may bear more fruit.” God does the pruning process in our lives so that we are more fruitful. A few years ago when I went through some big changes in my role at work, it was hard to deal with the disappointment of not getting what I wanted. These changes felt like branches, which I wanted to grow,  were being cut back. After a few months and even years, I’ve seen how those changes in my work role have actually caused me to grow in new ways. As we face difficulties – challenges in a personal relationship, financial challenges, or even health issues –  we all need this reminder that God is graciously cutting back so that we can become more like Christ and bear fruit. While the carefully selected cutbacks may be difficult, the outcome of being more fruitful is worthwhile.

We Can Not Make it Grow

As we’ve moved some plants around the yard, planted new ones or wrestled overgrown shrubs into submission, we’ve done lots of work – digging, pulling, cutting, spreading, and watering. Yet, we can’t make any of these things grow. Of course we play a part, but we cannot will any of these to produce new leaves or flowers. If we cut any of these plants from their life source (water and good soil) then they quickly die. Looking again at John 15 (John 15:5), Christ says that he is the vine and that we are the branches, to remain in him to bear fruit, and apart from him we can do nothing. The source of our spiritual life is Christ – not in our performance.

We bear fruit when we are intimately connected with him, just as any branch of a tree or shrub only produces leaves, flowers or fruit when it is connected or attached to the main limb or trunk. And if we are not connected to him then our spiritual lives wither.

The landscape project is many months, well maybe years if I’m honest, from being completed. There is much more pruning and gardening that needs to be done, but we look forward to the result which is a yard that we and others can enjoy. I also want the same thing for my spiritual life – a fruitful life that enjoys God and that is shared with others.

I Can Do It Myself

by Jay Duff

We have all heard toddlers say that as they begin to discover they own capabilities.  As toddlers become teens, the words might change, but the desire to learn and accomplish larger things continues.  One of the most difficult lessons as the parent of teenagers is learning when to allow our teens to do it themselves – especially when you know they are going down the wrong road.

As I look back, these situations took many forms.  It might be their selection of friends, a date, even a career path.  Or it might be where they put their trust, or where they take risk or seek satisfaction.  The stakes grow dramatically through the years.  Of course you don’t want to see your kids get hurt, but it’s vital that you allow them to do it themselves and learn from the experience.

hands

Many times during our kids’ late teens, we wanted to take control to prevent a wrong decision, but the right decision was to allow them to proceed and support them if they asked for help.    Today as I smile considering their current accomplishments and growth, I see the importance and fruit of these experiences.  Experiencing the consequences of their own decisions taught them to take responsibility and move ahead with confidence.  Our kids have never said, “Gee Dad, I wish you would have prevented me from doing that. ”  But they do say, “Now I understand why you said that was so important.”

Do we ever stop saying, “I can do it myself”?  I haven’t.  Consider how loving our heavenly Father is towards us.  He grants us free will.  As our Father teaches us, he sanctifies us.  He is gracious and merciful when we stumble.  He protects us as a perfect, all-knowing, all-powerful, all-present Father.  I can set out with boldness knowing I am a child of the King.   It seems that each time I stumble, I can look back at His word and I am reminded – Now I understand why you said that was so important.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Seeing Things From a Different Perspective

Pictures and text by Troy Thomas
Psalm 96:11-12
“Let the heavens rejoice, and let the earth be glad;
Let the sea roar, and all its fullness;
Let the field be joyful, and all that is in it.
Then all the trees of the woods will rejoice before the Lord.”
 
troyocean

 

Anyone that knows me, knows that I love taking pictures. In photography the LORD has deposited in me a unique gift of seeing things from a different perspective. Without even trying I visually notice things, like how sunlight reflects across a hardwood floor, the gentle power in the curl of a wave, or how shadows dance across buildings in the late afternoon.  After six years at St. Paul’s, I still love watching the stained glass of our sanctuary come to life as the sun penetrates the century old glass.

 

Often as I take pictures of even simple flowers, I feel the presence of our LORD. Somehow I feel in touch with the glory of God as I notice His handiwork in the smallest and most delicate of designs. My Spirit tells me that all of creation is bowing down in constant worship to the One who created them and gives them life.

troyflowers2

I’m not sure when I first started noticing the evidence of God all around us. But I am sure, once I saw it, I couldn’t stop seeing it. His Glory is everywhere I go, everywhere I look, and it demands my attention. In and out of season, I can’t help but see how even the flowers respond to and obey their Creator.

troyflowers3
Psalm 95:6
“Come, let us bow down in worship,
let us kneel before the Lord our Maker.”
 
troyflowers5
troyflowers6
Romans 1:20

“For the invisible things of him since the creation of the world are clearly seen, being perceived through the things that are made, even his everlasting power and divinity; that they may be without excuse.