Mandy Baker Johnson

Living without Shadows

Month: March 2013

My Big Brother

I had the perfect big brother. If I fell over and hurt my knee or if any of the neighbourhood kids picked on me, he was there, ready to give me a hug and dry my tears. He always knew what to do and I looked up to him no end. But he could be really annoying. He always did what mum and dad said. The rest of us (I have a big family) got into trouble and once I was grounded for two weeks. But never him. He was the good one. Dad had no trouble teaching him the family trade.

We got a shock when he was older because he gave up the family business to become an evangelist. I suppose, looking back, it shouldn’t have been such a big surprise because he always knew the answers in Sunday school, sometimes even surprising the church leaders with his insights into the scriptures.

He left town and made new friends who happily followed him around the country. It was like he was some kind of celebrity, with huge crowds following him everywhere. There were some spectacular rumours about healings and even demons being cast out of people. I wondered what on earth was happening. I mean, this was my big brother! And the demons were blurting out that he was God’s Son before he silenced them. It was all so confusing for us, his family. We met at mum’s house (dad had died) and had several family discussions. We agreed that the best thing was for us to travel to where he was staying and bring him home. We honestly thought he must be mentally ill, and wanted to protect him. When we got there, he was indoors teaching. The place was packed. People had travelled miles to hear him. Someone went inside and told him we were there. Everyone expected that he would come and greet us, but he didn’t – he said that anyone who did God’s will was his family. How offended and hurt we were!

He came home to Nazareth a couple of times. It was always great to see him, if rather awkward. You see, we knew some people thought he was an amazing miracle-worker but me and my other brothers and sisters didn’t think he was anything very special. He was just our deluded big brother. He did hardly any miracles in Nazareth; he said it was because people here didn’t believe in him. The neighbours were quite insulting actually. I heard them muttering together about him being ‘Mary’s son’, hurtfully resurrecting all those old rumours.

On the last occasion he visited, we all went to church together. He read a favourite passage from Isaiah about the Messiah coming and setting captives free and making blind people see, before electrifying us by announcing that this was being fulfilled right then. The worst bit was when he said that God’s Kingdom is not just for us Jews but for everyone in the world. People got really angry when they heard that, and dragged him outside and up to the cliff top so that they could throw him off. My heart was in my mouth as I ran after them, hoping and praying he’d be okay. Even if he did sound mad, he’s still my big brother! But he just calmly walked back through the crowd. It was as though they couldn’t get hold of him. He didn’t return again.

We continued to get news of him. I think the whole country was talking about him. The authorities were furious, and we were afraid for his life. But I remembered what had happened on the cliff top and told myself he would be safe.

Jerusalem

The family travelled up to Jerusalem for the Passover celebrations. There were worrying undercurrents in the air. We heard of emergency meetings of the religious leaders, and then the worst news of all: my big brother had been arrested. Mum’s face went white when we heard. And the look in her eyes! I put my arms around her. But what could I say? It was the longest night of my life. One of the Psalms says that joy comes in the morning. But it didn’t for us – as dawn broke we learned that he was sentenced to death by crucifixion.

Of all of his family, only mum and our aunt went to support him as he hung on that wooden cross outside the city. I couldn’t bear to think of it. He had brought shame and dishonour on us, being crucified like a common criminal. And I didn’t believe he had done anything to deserve it. He never did anything wrong! Not even when we were children. I kept thinking of all the miracles we’d heard about: calming the Sea of Galilee in the middle of a fierce storm, healings of all kinds, changing people’s lives, even bringing dead people back to life. None of the rest of us had that kind of power, so where did his come from? He was one of us, but he was also different. I gripped my hair, trying to puzzle it out. Who was he really?

Late in the afternoon his closest friend, John, brought mum back. I could see by the blank looks in their eyes that he was dead. We hugged and cried. How would we ever get through this? John said that Jesus had asked him to look after mum. Even on the brink of death, he was thinking about others.

That awful weekend slowly passed. To say we were in turmoil put it mildly. His disciples kept to themselves, hiding away somewhere. I don’t blame them for being afraid of the authorities. I jumped at every little sound myself. The mum of two of his friends and some other women prepared spices to lay out his body properly for burial. There hadn’t been time on Friday evening.

Sunday brought surprising news that circulated quickly through Jerusalem. He had come back to life! I heard the news and saw the joy on his friends’ faces, their words tumbling over one another in excitement. Suddenly I understood who He is. Jesus isn’t only my big brother, He is the Son of God! Mum and I began meeting with His other followers. Over the next few weeks we saw Him regularly. He was definitely alive and no ghost. One by one, my other brothers and sisters joined us. We all believed in Him now! We began to understand what His death was all about – He had sacrificed Himself once and for all to take God’s wrath for all the wrong things we do. God showed that He accepted His sacrifice by bringing Him back to life.

A short time after He had gone back to heaven (He just rose up straight into the clouds after blessing John and His other close followers and disappeared – amazing), we received the Holy Spirit He’d promised to send. There was a sound like wind rushing into the house and flames of fire appeared on each of our heads, showing that the Spirit had arrived. We spoke in strange languages and such joy filled us! It was fantastic. We just wanted to tell everyone about Jesus.

As I looked round at these dear friends who’d become like brothers and sisters, I finally understood what Jesus meant when He’d said that his family are the people who do God’s will. He wasn’t saying families aren’t important, nor did He mean it as an insult. He meant that the ties of being part of God’s Family – the Church – are even stronger than the blood ties of our own families.

Being Jesus’s blood relative could never make me good enough for God. Only by receiving His salvation through His death, resurrection and ascension could open the way for me to have a relationship with God and be a part of His Family. Jesus isn’t just my big brother – He’s my Saviour and Lord!

Growing Pains

Did you see Penguins – Spy in the Huddle on BBC1 recently?  For three consecutive Monday evenings, I was mesmerised by these entertaining creatures.  The documentary put spy cameras disguised as penguins into the middle of three colonies:  stately emporer penguins in Antarctica, funny rockhopper penguins in the Falkland Islands, and shy humboldt penguins in Peru.  I have to admit to a bias towards emporer penguins.

Both mum and dad are committed to hatching their precious chick.  Mum must pass the egg to dad before she can return to the sea to feed.  The parents practice this tricky maneouvre a few times so that the egg is not exposed to the freezing cold air for too long.  (It’s easy to tell the old hands from the new parents at this stage, and my heart was in my mouth while I watched.)  With egg safely tucked in dad’s pouch, it’s time for mum to return to the sea so she can feast on fish.  The dads stay behind, huddling together for warmth against the bitter Antarctic winds.  I mused on the fact that we can learn a lot from the animal kingdom at times.  No chance among penguins of the male getting the female pregnant and then disappearing without any sign of commitment….

Dad is in charge of hatching the chick, which he feeds from his own meagre resources.  He is literally starving by the time mum returns, looking plump and well-fed.  For all that he is desperate to get to the sea and a good feed himself, he is most reluctant to leave his chick.  In some cases, mum had to resort to pecking him to force him to go.  Such is the emporer dad’s commitment.  There I go again with that word ‘commitment’!

Mum cares for the chick, feeding it on regurgitated fish (yuck!) and endeavouring to shelter it from the ferocious storms for the next few weeks until dad returns from the sea to share the task of bringing up their little one.

The chicks in the colony become more and more independent as they grow bigger and stronger, until one day the majority of the parents leave for the sea for the last time.  After a while the chicks sense the call of the sea themselves, and start the long journey over the ice.

In the process, the chicks find areas where the ice has melted into piles of slush.  They have never before encountered a non-solid surface and falling into the icy water takes them by surprise.  They flap in a flustered sort of way, trying to get back onto solid snow.  It’s a shock to them, but it’s a good thing because it teaches them to swim so that when they finally reach the sea itself, they can confidently throw themselves into it.

Life is a bit like that.  When things are going well, we can feel all cosy and settled.  But then something happens that takes us by surprise, stretching us.  It can feel like we’ve just fallen into icy water sometimes and it’s not pleasant.  Like when Adrian was made redundant a few years ago.  I remember that cold feeling gripping my stomach as we sat in the lounge in complete silence, just looking at each other.  Or like when we were informed we could never – humanly-speaking – have children of our own, the day after my dad had died.  Or when my neighbour drives me mad with her loud television!  But these are vital growing times in our lives.   Without the tough episodes, we would end up pretty spineless and pathetic.  Redundancy taught us more than we’d ever known before of trusting God, comprehending a little more of His sovereignty, and experiencing His provision.  Losing my dad and being unable to have children has enabled me to experience at a deeper level God’s emotional healing and comfort – and now I can comfort others in the same position, understanding what they’re going through because I’ve been there.  And I’m painfully learning some patience through the trial of the television….

With God’s help, it’s possible to accept the trials (even though we don’t enjoy them at the time because they’re painful and hard) and to grow through the experience.  God is able to turn our sorrow into joy (Isaiah 61, Psalm 126, James 1, 2 Corinthians 1).

 

To Walk Or Stay

I commited to reading To Walk or Stay by Lara Williams because of signing up for a blog tour; it’s not necessarily the kind of book I would choose to read.  However, I found myself hooked from the very first words of the Introduction and struggled to put it down.  I forced myself to read it in two or three sittings, but I could have devoured it in one go.  Lara has such a readable writing style – you really do feel as if you’re sitting cosily with her, mug of tea in hand, chatting confidentially about stuff.  She has a real gift for drawing in her reader and keeping you turning the pages.

Although To Walk or Stay is about marriage, the lessons Lara shares from her story and experience are much broader than that.  In fact, I found I could relate well to much of what she wrote from the illness I had in 2010.  I liked the way the book is set out with each chapter covering an issue that Lara has had to face in her marriage:  her husband’s betrayal, her need to control, her right to be loved, to leave or not to leave, choosing forgiveness, prayer.  She discusses sensitively the choice between divorce and staying in a marriage, carefully considering what the Bible has to say.  I couldn’t detect any judgement or condemnation on her part, just a raw honesty of the way she chose to deal with these difficult, heart-breaking issues.  What did God want for her?  What was His best for her and her family?

At the end of each chapter is a short section of relevant questions along with some suggested Bible passages for use in small group discussion.  This is followed by a section called ‘Digging Deeper’ in which Lara unpacks some general spiritual and biblical truths that she learned through this rocky period of her marriage.

For wives or husbands struggling with the heartbreak of adultery and betrayal, I would strongly urge them to read this book.  God is able to do impossible things beyond anything we can imagine in the most unlikely of circumstances.  To Walk or Stay is a book that every Christian counsellor and church pastor/elder should read, especially when giving marriage advice and ministering to hurting couples.  There is much hope and strength to be drawn from someone’s personal experience coupled with biblical truths, as Lara demonstrates in her book.

In spite of feelings, and regardless of what may seem like a hopeless situation, the Lord may challenge you to stay committed in your heart, regardless of the unlove of your spouse.  He may dare you to stay because he may want to do something wildly miraculous in your home.

My thanks to Christian Focus for providing me with a complimentary copy of this book for the purpose of writing a review.  If you’d like to hear an interview with the author, click here.

John Piper on Infertility

I found this short interview clip with John Piper very helpful on the subject of infertility, including a precious promise that I’ve not come across before.  So, whether you are a couple or a single person struggling with infertility, here is the clip so that you can be comforted and strengthened too.

Let not the eunuch say, “Behold I am a dry tree.“‘
For thus says the Lord:
‘To the eunuchs who keep My Sabbaths,
who choose the things that please Me
and hold fast to My covenant,
I will give in My house and within My walls
a monument and a name better than sons and daughters;
I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off.’

 Isaiah 56:3-5 (ESV)

Psalm 139: My Version

Hello, Lord God.

You have taken a good long look at me, haven’t you?
You know me inside and out and back to front.
Whether I’m feet up with a glass of wine or reluctantly doing the vacuuming,
you know what I’m thinking.
You know when I’m off out for a coffee with a friend
and when I finally climb under the duvet;
Nothing gets past you.
Before I’ve even decided what I’m going to say,
you know what it’s going to be (even when I shouldn’t say anything at all).
You surround me on all sides.
You have touched me with mercy.
I can’t get my head around it;
It’s far too big for me.

There’s nowhere I can go that you aren’t already there.
How can I get away from you?
Why would I want to – and yet there are times when I do…
If I’m having a great day where everything goes my way –
If I can’t do anything right and I feel like giving up, you’re there too.
Even if I drag myself out of bed to see the sunrise.
Or if I fly to the other side of the world,
Wherever I go, you’ll show me the way.
If I say, ‘That’s it – it’s all gone wrong,
there’s no point in trying any more,’
you can bring hope in the darkest of days
and turn trouble into triumph.

Because you made the very heart of me;
You put me together just the way you wanted me.
Just look at me – I’m a masterpiece!
Yes, me, even me.
Even when I don’t feel like one, I know that you don’t make mistakes.
Your creation is flawless.
From before I was born you were watching me,
As I grew from the tiniest of cells, you took care of me.
From the earliest moments of my existence, you were full of love for me.
You had a plan for me from the very beginning;
You hold my life in the palm of your hand.

Oh, Father, if only I could grasp who you are;
you are so far beyond my imagination.
If I could get a glimpse of your glory
it would blow my mind.
Awake or asleep, you are right here next to me.

Lord, check out every last bit of me.
Look at my heart – at what I believe and what I feel,
and in my head, at what I think.
You know what I’m like.
If there is any part of me that you would change,
Show me and help me to put it right
so that I can be all I can be –
so that you can use me for all that you can –
so that I will be yours for eternity.

Amen.

That’s my Psalm 139, Father.  My Lord and my God.  Here I am.

Helen Murray 

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