The Best Me

My kids' story at the local Pressie church where I was on pulpit supply this week was probably aimed as much at the grownups as the kids (aren't all children's talks like that?). It was the story of The Littlest Star, a sweet tale about a little star who had great ambitions but was so bullied and battered in her search for greatness, that in the end she decided it was simpler just to be herself. The Star Keeper (her creator) told her that was exactly who he wanted her to be, and she grew up to have such a healthy glow she was given the job of guiding the Magi to the infant Jesus. Ooooooh.

The story by Mary McCormick is written in a pompous style with far too many attempts at lyrical language, but was easily abbreviated into one sentence per Powerpoint slide. (I also left out some of the more scary pictures of the celestial bullies). Its message of personal validation might seem a bit New Age, strong on self-esteem and weak on sin, but it's one that had been in my mind after reading an excerpt from The Heart of the Family, a compilation of Adrian Plass wisdom that I found in a Manna sale and gave myself for Christmas. (We once went to hear the very funny and acutely insightful Adrian Plass at a World Vision event at the Cathedral here in Auckland, but the sound was nonexistent in the first half, and so poor in the second half, that when he started in on the plug for child sponsors, we left and enjoyed a nice coffee in Parnell).

The excerpt I read was from Never Mind the Reversing Ducks (2002) and was a reflection on the experience of Simon Peter's mother in law, who was healed by Jesus and immediately got up to serve him. The incident is found in Mark 1: 29 - 31:
After Jesus left the synagogue with James and John, they went to Simon and Andrew’s home. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was sick in bed with a high fever. They told Jesus about her right away. So he went to her bedside, took her by the hand, and helped her sit up. Then the fever left her, and she prepared a meal for them.

This story and others set in Capernaum have been quite vividly illustrated in my imagination since I visited "the house of Peter" on the edge of Lake Galilee. It is right next to the site of an ancient synagogue, and is one of the "insula" houses common in that part of the world. An insula house was added on to over the years to provide space for a large extended family. It is thought that Jesus stayed there when in Capernaum. Although there is little archaeological evidence for this, scholars take the view that he must have stayed somewhere, and that the location of the house of Peter would have been known to the later Christian community. This, then, is where Jesus healed from a fever the mother of Peter's wife (Yes, Virginia, this means Peter was married and not celibate as Catholic tradition would suggest).

Adrian Plass notes that this incident is usually used by preachers to make a point about God's healing, saving work enabling us to better serve him. A perfectly valid point, of course, but in Plass' opinion overshooting a more basic truth that mum in law in all likelihood wanted to serve Jesus. He imagines a twinkle in the eye of Jesus as he takes the old lady's hand and helps her up from her sleeping mat. Like that of all the women of her day, her daily work was serving. "It was part of who she was. Being healed simply released her to be herself.....When God heals our bodies or our minds or our spirits, his aim is set us free to be ourselves in the best and most useful way possible." (p 172, Heart of the Family).

This is the same message as that discovered by the Littlest Star. We serve God best by being ourselves. Our true self as he designed us to be - and that may be somewhat different from the self we automatically want to be. That self will at times be deformed, tainted, marred, - whatever word you want to use to describe the ongoing effects of sin coming into the world - and will need the loving, guiding, shaping, and at times crushing and reshaping, touch of Jesus. But for me, vast hope is found in the notion that God's purpose in me and in each individual soul is one based on a unique design, on personality and temperament and natural talent and learned skill and family history and even experiences of wounding and brokenness. (more about that next week)

John Piper once said, in a sermon on Romans 12: 6 - 8, that harmony in the faith community requires each of us to use our spiritual gifts in "mercy-loving, Christ-treasuring humility." He gets to this by interpreting earlier verses (vv 1 - 3) as exhorting us to love mercy and treasure Christ, in a kind of self-forgetfulness that does not exalt or despise our unique self, but which gets the perspective right by loving Christ and serving others.His own paraphrase of the passage then comes out like this:
Having gifts that differ according to the grace given to us, let us use them humbly, if prophecy,
in proportion to our faith; if service, let us use it with mercy-dependent humility in our serving; ...... the one who contributes, let him contribute with mercy-dependent humility and thus with generosity; the one who leads, let him lead with mercy-dependent humility and thus with zeal; the one who does acts of mercy, let him show mercy with mercy-dependent humility and thus with cheerfulness.

(abridged, from )

The gospel alternative to pride, says Piper, is not selfcondemnation, but treasuring Christ and what he wants to do in you and me. That's what Jesus healed his friend's motherinlaw for, and its why he wants us to "be the best we can be" in this New Year, by his grace.

A New Year Prayer to Consider:
God of the ages, God our hope, may we look to the future in joy and hope, not trying to fit you into our plans, but allowing you to fit us into yours, plans for a future and a hope, a purpose of changing us and transforming our community, Amen.

When the song of the angels is stilled,
When the star in the sky is gone,
When the kings and princes are home,
When the shepherds are back with their flocks,
The work of Christmas begins:

To find the lost,
To heal the broken,
To feed the hungry,
To release the prisoner,
To rebuild the nations,
To bring peace among the people,
To make music in the heart.
© Howard Thurman.