Ben White's Adventures with softened hearts

Month: March 2021

Luke Learns to Listen — A Bible Story

Luke Learns to Listen

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Acts 16:6-10 (The Message)
They went to Phrygia, and then on through the region of Galatia. Their plan was to turn west into Asia province, but the Holy Spirit blocked that route. So they went to Mysia and tried to go north to Bithynia, but the Spirit of Jesus wouldn’t let them go there either. Proceeding on through Mysia, they went down to the seaport Troas.

That night Paul had a dream: A Macedonian stood on the far shore and called across the sea, “Come over to Macedonia and help us!” The dream gave Paul his map. We went to work at once getting things ready to cross over to Macedonia. All the pieces had come together. We knew now for sure that God had called us to preach the good news to the Europeans.

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Paul stopped abruptly in the middle of the road. I was walking  a few paces ahead with Silas and didn’t realize it until Timothy called to us, “Wait, he’s doing it again!” 

We were headed north on the road to Bithynia. The hills around us were just greening with spring and the cyprus trees on the ridge we climbed were swaying in a stiff but pleasant breeze. It seemed to me a beautiful day to be walking through the countryside with such a purpose as ours. I had travelled a lot more than many men I knew but never with this pulsing sense of importance. Each step we took seemed like a dream. The days were long, and some of the hills quite steep, but my body flexed and stretched with joy to carry me and the hope I had in me to those who had never heard the name of Jesus. It felt good to be on the road with Paul and Silas, and now, with Timothy whom we had met in Derbe.

Timothy’s shout woke me from my pleasant body meditation. We turned around, walking some hundred paces back to where Paul was standing with his eyes closed as if carefully listening — straining to hear some delicate melody or whisper in the cyprus that meant something more than just the turn of the season.

We stood there in a small circle around him for a moment until Silas asked, “What is it Paul?”

“It’s not right,” he muttered. “This isn’t the way.”

I stifled the urge to say, “Of course it is, there is only one road to Bithynia.” I had learned from the last time he stopped in the road at the previous northward fork into the Province of Asia. He wasn’t listening to just any wind. 

“Come on, we’re going back. We have to keep heading East.” Paul said as he suddenly about-faced and trotted back down the hill.

“I guess we’re heading to Troas, then?” Silas yelled his honest question after him.

“Maybe,” Paul yelled without turning around. I could tell by the way he said it that he was smiling. We hurried after him. Timothy hoisted the pack and brought up the rear. The Spirit of Jesus was leading us somewhere, but I had no idea where.

It was good not to know for a while. I had spent so much of my life discovering, deducing and deciding, that this life of surprises was exhilarating. Having no idea was a new experience for me and it felt good. Like my muscles on the road, I was using parts of me I didn’t know existed until then.

“Seems right to me, too.” Silas said, clapping my back, “Eastward it is!”  

A couple weeks later we were in Troas where I had some decent connections to offer the party and the mission. I found us lodging and we set up for a few days in the atrium of the Neandria Gate. We had only just begun the work of spreading the Good News in the rich port city before it was time to leave again.

Paul came to us on our fourth morning in Troas advising us to pack our bags. “We have to go to Macedonia.” he said.

This time I didn’t stifle my objection, “But Paul, I’ve already paid our rent for the week. We still have three more days.”

“We’ll have to take the loss. I had a dream last night.”

Then he told us of the Macedonian man begging him to come across the sea to help them. It was further than I had expected to go, but something about the way he told the story of his dream compelled me to go along with them. It was so plain — matter of fact. The dream was not a fanciful fleeting thought of unconsciousness; it was a message. And Paul did not doubt it. So neither did we.

I actually managed to get a refund on the room and put the money towards our fare on a trade vessel slated to sail for Neapolis in Macedonia the very next morning. Timothy and Silas had never sailed before and I tried to settle their apprehension. Odd that none of us was afraid of following this almost wild man’s dreams and feelings on the road. We were growing accustomed to that, I guess.  

It was a scramble to get everything ready that day, but we managed it so easily. In less than 24 hours after Paul told us about his dream, we were on a ship crossing the Aegean. After the bustle of the harbor we turned north across the wide water. I went to the stern of the boat and breathed the salty breeze. Steadying myself as the boat bounded over the dancing sea, I began to dream of who we would meet in Macedonia and wondered if I too would hear from God as Paul had. Nothing seemed impossible. 

How Psalm 23 Came to Be — A Bible Story

How Psalm 23 Came to Be

An imagined moment with the poet king

The King sat on his throne, harp in hand, looking out the window from his palace on the hill called Zion. The hills around him were green with spring and across the valley a huge flock of his own sheep grazed happily, not a shepherd in sight. He imagined himself as their shepherd, though in his herding days he had never tended a flock so big. His chief husbandman employed dozens of men to care for the royal flock, but either because of the distance or because they happened to be on the other side of the hill at that moment he could see none of them. And though he could do nothing for them now, nor did they need anything from him or anyone else, he half started from his royal seat to strike out across the valley to go to them. But they wouldn’t know him and he thought better of it. 

All Israel was his flock now and the business of the city he had built and the empire he dreamed it to be had many more needs that only he could address. The tenuous peace he now enjoyed, after so many years of struggle could  only be maintained by great wisdom. The path forward was barely a sheep path of matted grass, and he must pay careful attention to move his people forward through the winding way they must go. Delicate diplomacy, shrewd action and just the right measure of force required constant consultation and discernment. From without and within, Jerusalem’s peace was threatened by many dangers. All this needed his attention. 

Though not just yet. He knew that he also needed the songs he wrote in the afternoons if he was going to keep up with the demands of his dreams. There was always too much to do, and though he loved the doing, he knew his afternoon solitude gave him more strength for more doing. Each afternoon he dismissed all his officials and picked up his harp to see if there were any tunes in his heart that needed to be born as songs for his people, and sometimes just for him.

His shepherd-self of so many years ago would have never recognized him now. As to the sheep across the valley on the hill, he would be a stranger. But though the shepherd boy never knew the king, the king still knew the boy, and his thumb struck a chord that the boy, too, had loved to hear. And up from the green hills of spring sprang a new song:

A Psalm of David

The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the Lord for ever.

Martha’s Mastery — A Bible Story

What if you were Martha? The Martha who chided Mary for sitting at the Master’s feet and got chided herself by Jesus. How did that feel? I put a story around that question. I hope it awakens the right kind of wonder and discomfort in you.

Martha’s Mastery

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At the Home of Martha and Mary 
As Jesus and his disciples were on their way, he came to a village where a woman named Martha opened her home to him. She had a sister called Mary, who sat at the Lord’s feet listening to what he said. But Martha was distracted by all the preparations that had to be made. She came to him and asked, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!” 

“Martha, Martha,” the Lord answered, “you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one.[f] Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.” – Luke 10:38-42

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Martha never lived down that moment. She had been called out. And who of all people had done the calling out? Jesus himself. How do you get beyond that? Now, she was a worrier. Now she was upset forever. And all this from the man who clearly told us not to worry. That was the hardest part for Martha. She was devoted to Jesus’ teaching more than her sometimes flighty younger sister. It was Martha who learned about Jesus first — the things he was saying — the sick people he was healing — the authority the people said he had. It was Martha who had been in the marketplace gathering news of the Nazarene prophet before Mary knew anything about him. Martha had memorized every half sentence she could collect before Mary even met Jesus. 

To be fair, it was Mary who received him to the house this time, but Martha had made the original introduction. The heat from political fires was too hot in Jerusalem and Jesus needed a place to dodge the authorities. The first time he came to the house it was at Martha’s invitation. She heard of his need for a place to stay near the city and through the contacts she had made in the movement she eagerly offered her home in Bethany as a retreat and safehouse. The first time Jesus stood in her house, smiling gratefully but visibly weary, Martha confirmed every exciting rumor she had heard about him without having to ask a single question. She knew by the look of him that the things people said about him were true and she immediately put her house and all her wealth at his disposal. She did not hesitate. There was not a shred of worry in her then, and what more could she offer? What more could she risk but everything she owned? 

She had restored the house to much of its original glory through her shrewd management of the family finances. Her baby brother Lazarus, might as well have been an actual baby when their father died and left the business to him. “Fourteen going on four,” they used to tease him. Lazarus was honest and diligent though. After a season of several years in which the business floundered and their mother  followed their father into death, Lazarus and Martha had turned things around. The business had completely recovered and in fact surpassed their father’s previous position. Increasing the stock and controlling prices on nard in all of Judea. Eventually it became clear who the brains of the operation was and local traders started coming directly to her to cut the biggest deals, knowing that speaking to Lazarus was at best, indirect and, at worst, a waste of time. She held the purse strings.

But she was frugal and refused to hire any servants for simple housework. She enjoyed the humble work and spent much of her chore filled hours in prayer. Perhaps the relative secrecy of their fortune and her ostensibly indirect control over it guarded her heart from being consumed by it. A man in her position would most likely turn his soul toward the fortune and away from God but this did not happen to Martha. She offered her house and money to Jesus and his movement without hesitation and no regret. 

“What else was the money for?” She thought. And how could she lose what she was so good at building? If they lost some money, she was sure there would be other opportunities to make it back. How could anything be so bad as after mother died and she had no idea what she was doing? No, that was long ago and she was confident, that even if the Romans seized the house, they would figure something out. But as for that, she doubted they would ever find Jesus there, or know anything of his presence. They had taken great precautions. Peter was amazing at devising a way in and out of anywhere.   

It was mostly a joke — that thing she said. Mary was so consumed with what Jesus was saying that she sat right down among the disciples instead of arranging for their comfort, as Martha was doing. It was supposed to be a gentle reminder to Mary that there was work to do and Martha needed her help. Martha could be angry at times, and most often with Mary for exactly this sort of behavior — her absent mindedness — but she wasn’t even mad this time. She was just excited to have Jesus in the house again. 

Carrying a basin of warm water in to set beside him, she said over Jesus’ shoulder as she caught Mary’s eye, “Lord, don’t you care that my sister has left me to do the work by myself? Tell her to help me!”

The conversation seemed to pause in perfect time around her half-jest and everyone in the room heard what was meant  for only his and Mary’s ears. 

Jesus turned to her and everyone else turned to her, and he said those words that left her feeling so pegged — the ones she never lived down “Martha, Martha, you are worried and upset about many things, but few things are needed—or indeed only one. Mary has chosen what is better, and it will not be taken away from her.”

 She was furious with him then “Mary has chosen better?! What?! How has she chosen any different than me?!” Martha thought. 

Her fists clenched and her teeth were set as she turned around without response. Embarrassed, she retreated to the other room where she sat down bewildered. But she couldn’t bear to direct her anger at that marvelous man, so all her fury slid off his shoulders and landed on her sister’s. Leaning back in her seat she could peer through the door and see Mary there gazing up at Jesus who had so easily moved on to another subject. 

“How dare she. Does she think she can be a disciple too? Does she not see that the room is full of men? All men! Except for her. There she is in the place of honor, at the master’s feet. What kind of Rabbi is he anyway — letting her do that?” 

Abruptly, she stood up, brushed off her apron and got back to work. Her hospitality would go on without her sisters help, it must. She busied herself with what needed doing. 

But later that night as she stared into the dying fire, embers chasing each other in a boundless race, she returned to nursing her wound. “Mary would never have even known about Jesus if it weren’t for me. We would have nothing to offer him if it weren’t for me. There would be no comfort, no food, no house!” She thought to herself.

But the attack on Mary didn’t work. Her thoughts returned to where they had been all evening as she washed Jesus and the disciples’ feet clean from the dusty road and fed them fresh baked bread.  Jesus was right. 

The reason it hurt so bad to hear him say those words was that they were true. She knew what needed to be done and that was the problem. How could she learn his new way if she was so good at her old way? Her mind was so full it was almost as if she could feel it bulge as she tried to fit the image of Mary sitting at his feet into it. Jesus thought Mary could do it. The answer to her indignant question from earlier that evening was “Yes!” Mary did think she could be a disciple, and Jesus agreed. Would Mary also be sent out like the 72 men who had recently gone out in Jesus’ name healing the sick and proclaiming the good news? It almost hurt to realize that it wasn’t impossible.

And creeping behind the possibility of Mary was the even more impossible thought that she too might be sent likewise. She dreaded the growing realization that, after making so much of herself despite the obvious disadvantages, she might have to master something else. 

But with the master sleeping in the next room the dread seemed not so dreadful. If she could corner the southern market on nard, why couldn’t she too cast out a demon? 

“Give me some time,” she said aloud to the fire, “Give me some time.”

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