Margin for a Martha

I’ve been thinking about margin this week. Initially, it was because my pastor preached this past Sunday on the importance of margin, but mainly, it’s due to the tension I feel between knowing the value of margin and yet continually living without it.

Margin has been defined as “the space between our load and our limits” (see Dr. Richard Swenson’s excellent book Margin). No margin, therefore, means no extra space–that our load exceeds our limits. Overload is the obvious–and inevitable–result.

I know the tremendous value of margin, both theoretically and experientially. (It’s a topic I’ve read about and taught repeatedly.) I long for margin, because I see the positive effects in my own life and relationships. I fear overload, because I see the negative effects in my life and relationships. Yet more often than not, I find myself in a place of overload rather than margin. Thus when I hear a sermon on the importance of margin or read an article on the dangers of overload, I feel drawn toward what I know to be true and valuable, yet at the same time I experience some pushback against what often feels like a simplistic solution to a complex concern.

The question I’m currently wrestling with is this: How does someone with a personality like Jesus’ hospitable friend Martha gain margin? In all that is written and preached about Mary and Martha (see Luke 10:38-42), usually Mary is the one held up as the shining example of devotion, and Martha is looked down on as the one who is too busy to spend time with Jesus. But let’s not be too quick to throw Martha under the bus and condemn her for her busyness and lack of margin.

Martha’s hospitality and devotion to serving Jesus is certainly laudable. Especially in the culture of her time, it would be unthinkable and shameful to not provide lavish hospitality to a guest coming into her home. That kind of hospitality requires work. Martha willingly gave of her time and energy to do the work of serving her guest appropriately. And in fact she was absolutely right that there was more work on her shoulders because of Mary’s choice to sit at Jesus’ feet. Therefore Martha’s lack of margin is not due to a selfish squandering of her time or a lazy disregard for proper self-care.

The solution usually offered, which makes perfect sense to everyone except Martha, is that she should simply stop her serving and join Mary in sitting at Jesus’ feet. But as I look at Jesus’ response in the passage, I’m not sure if that is what He is saying to her. Certainly there is no direct admonition to cease serving. Jesus’ gentle reprimand may simply be a response to Martha’s angry demand of help from Mary. He validates Mary’s choice, but does not give a reciprocal command that Martha follow suit.

In other passages in the Gospels, Jesus definitely places very high value on sacrifice and service (see John 13:14-15, Mark 10:45, and John 15:13, among others), setting Himself as the model for that kind of service. Prior to His death, He tells His disciples, “…let the greatest among you become as the youngest, and the leader as one who serves. For who is the greater, one who reclines at table or one who serves? Is it not the one who reclines at table? But I am among you as the one who serves.” (Luke 22:26-27, italics added) So in His reply to Martha, I’m wondering if Jesus is in some way also validating her heart of service, while at the same time helping her see the bigger perspective–that one day even her gracious gift of serving will come to an end.

It seems to me that the solution for Martha is not just that she stop serving and start listening to Jesus, but that she receives help in her serving in order to then carve out margin to listen to Jesus. How could the story have been different if Mary first helped her sister get the appropriate serving accomplished, so that both sisters could then sit at the feet of Jesus? Martha–and people with a similar personality today–need others to come alongside to help them carve out margin in ways that honor their God-given bent toward sacrificial serving. Margin for a Martha requires teamwork. Because God has gifted her with an eye that notices all that needs to be done to make others feel at home and a heart that finds joy in carrying those details out, she will find it almost impossible to simply stop serving and start listening to Jesus. Instead, she needs someone who knows her well to come alongside and work with her to accomplish what needs to be done so that both in turn can then turn their attention on the One who matters most.

Obviously, Martha does still need to learn to be satisfied with serving that falls short of her high standard of perfection, so she is still responsible for her choices that make margin difficult. However, I think we do a disservice to her (and to others who share that kind of personality) when we assume a simplistic solution that squelches a core expression of her devotion and love. Therefore, I believe teamwork is vital if Martha is going to have a chance at carving out margin in her life.

[to be continued…]



Salvation in the Present Tense

Psalm 118 has been a lifeline for my heart in the past few months–I keep coming back to it again and again, in the pain of loss, the exhaustion of caring for special needs, and the stress of ministry. Again and again God is showing Himself to be the anchor of my soul, and I can say with the psalmist: “The Lord is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation” (v. 14).

In Christian circles, when we speak of salvation, most of the time we are referring to an event in the past–either what Christ accomplished through His death and resurrection, or what has been granted once-and-for-all to those of us who have placed our trust in Him. Generally we think of salvation in the past tense.

But there is a such a thing as salvation in the present tense as well. It is present salvation that the psalmist is rejoicing in, not just something that took place in the distant past. God is answering him (v. 21) and helping him (v. 13) and setting him free (v. 5)–that is the present salvation he is celebrating. Deliverance in the midst of difficult circumstances is a significant way that God’s salvation for His beloved children continues in the present.

The hymn by Keith and Kristyn Getty called The Lord Is My Salvation also speaks of salvation in the present tense. Verse two expresses thoughts similar to Psalm 118:

I will not fear when darkness falls
His strength will help me scale these walls
I’ll see the dawn of the rising sun
The Lord is my salvation

When walls loom high and darkness threatens, we not only need to be reminded of the finished work of Christ on the cross that paid the great cost for our sin, but we also need to hold tight to the present reality of His strength and help. The Lord is our salvation. Present tense. Right now.

Again, in the fourth verse:

In times of waiting, times of need
When I know loss, when I am weak
I know His grace will renew these days
The Lord is my salvation

When the waiting for longed-for marriage never ends, we need a present salvation. When we cannot see how unexpected expenses will be met, we need a present salvation. When the loss of a parent (or a child) leaves a gaping hole, we need a present salvation. When temptation pulls our heart toward sin yet again, we need a present salvation.

In all of these present circumstances, and infinitely many more, the grace of Christ enters in with deliverance and hope, allowing us to confidently proclaim with the psalmist, “The Lord is my strength and my song; He has become my salvation.”

The High Cost of Honor

How do you show honor? That’s not meant to be a generic question but a personal one: how do you specifically express honor to someone? Different people may give honor in many different ways, but what is the unique way (or ways) that you grant value and esteem to another?

When my dad passed away a few weeks ago, one way that I sought to show honor to him was through using my creativity and skill in woodworking to fashion a casket for him.

I did not find out until only a few days before he died that he had not done any planning with my mom for funeral arrangements, thus there was no casket selected ahead of time. Therefore initially my decision to build the casket was an attempt to honor my dad’s frugality and simplicity. He would have been appalled at the thought of us spending thousands of dollars for a casket for him, but I knew I could build a simple one for considerably less than what we would have to spend if we purchased a pre-made one.

Frugality alone did not clinch the decision for me, but rather a deep desire to honor my father through the creativity and hard work and sacrifice I knew would be required of me in order to fashion a one-of-a-kind casket for him. I wanted to demonstrate how deeply I loved my father in a way that was uniquely me. I knew it would cost me–not in dollars, but in time and stress and lack of sleep–but it is that very cost, willingly paid, which expresses honor. So I got to work…

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The very short timeline was complicated by the fact that I had never built a casket before, and by the reality that whatever I built would have to fit in our Honda Pilot to be transported up to Portland. I couldn’t find any plans online that I liked, so I sketched out a basic idea, purchased lumber and hardware, and started building. My neighbors–and family–were gracious to not complain about the noisy power tools running late into the night from my garage workshop.

No woodworking project comes together without a hitch, and this one was no exception. But those bumps in the process are what test the creativity and determination of the woodworker, and usually the end result is better because of the things that didn’t work out exactly as imagined. On more than one occasion I was ready to throw the whole thing through the window and quit, but God was gracious to provide energy and solutions to keep me going, and after multiple late nights and a few new gray hairs in my head, it all came together.

We crammed the casket into the Pilot for its 1000-mile journey from Southern CaliforniaIMG_2247 to Portland, Oregon, then unloaded it on the living room floor of the home I grew up in. My sister beautifully lined the inside of the casket with a fabric totally fitting for our dad, then together we put the finishing touches on it just minutes before we had to deliver it to the funeral home. img_2249.jpgGod was merciful in so many ways throughout the whole process, and I was really pleased with how it turned out in the end.

By definition, honor is costly. In fact, trying to avoid the high cost ends up minimizing the honor shown. At the end of 2 Samuel, King David insisted on purchasing the threshing floor from one of his subjects who was willingly giving it to him, so that David could build an altar there. David honored his God in stating, “I will not offer to the Lord my God burnt sacrifices that cost me nothing.” (2 Samuel 24:24)img_2254-e1541018652459.jpg



Simplicity & Discipline

As I reflect on the legacy my father leaves behind and consider the ways he has influenced me, two words come to mind: simplicity and discipline.

My father was not a pretentious man. He lived–and loved–with simplicity. There was not much in his wardrobe that could be considered fashionable; functionality and thriftiness were primarily what dictated his purchases. In all his financial dealings, he never spent more than what he had available–what he spent, and what he saved, were always for the purpose of caring for the needs of his family. Even in his final days, he was constantly thinking of his wife’s needs above his own.

My father was an elementary school teacher for his whole career. Though I don’t think he ever knew the maxim “Do few things and do them well,” his life embodied that wisdom. He loved his students and excelled at all that he did in teaching them. He loved and served his family. And he loved his Lord and sought to make His name known and famous through whatever means he had available.

Not only was my father characterized with simplicity, he also was characterized by discipline. Despite the fact that his salary as a teacher was our family’s only income, he managed to save and invest significantly, so that my mom is now well-cared for after his death. Every morning during my growing up years, I could count on finding my father in his favorite recliner chair reading his Bible and praying before starting into his day. Sometimes I was sure that he was dozing more than praying, but he was there consistently, giving that time to nurturing his relationship with God.

Besides the many ways that my father himself embodied discipline, he also raised me and my siblings with the discipline that proved our status as his sons and daughters. His discipline for us was not merely punitive (though that was definitely a part of it, and we deserved it!), but more importantly it was instructive. He was just as much a teacher at home as he was at the school where he worked, and we quickly learned that if we didn’t know what a particular word meant, we would have to go look it up in the dictionary (he wouldn’t simply tell us). I learned good study habits from my father; and I also learned the value of respecting and submitting to my teachers even if I disagreed with them.

These characteristics of my father have shaped me as well. In some ways (such as having zero interest in fashion) I am just like him. In other ways, I aspire to live with the kind of simplicity he modeled, but struggle to make it a reality. Discipline in many areas comes naturally for me because of what I saw in my father, though I too sometimes doze off during my daily prayers.

I am thankful to have had a father who lived with such simplicity and discipline, and who raised me to do the same. May that legacy continue in the lives of my own children as I seek to model those same values to them.


What Do You See?

My oldest daughter is an excellent photographer (not that I’m biased or anything). She has received some valuable training from Biola University and has gained experience over time. But some aspects of photography do not come through training alone. To some extent, she simply has an eye for it. She is able to see the beauty in all that is around her. She is able to see beauty that others miss completely.

I’ve been slowly reading through the Gospels this year, and in Luke 7 we find the account of Jesus’ encounter with the widow from Nain. What is striking about this short account is not that Jesus raised the widow’s only son from the dead (though that is certainly significant), but that Jesus even noticed the grieving widow.

Jesus was with His disciples–and even that bunch of men could be a rather unruly lot sometimes–but in addition, there was a large crowd tagging along with them. So it’s not like Jesus was alone and quiet and undistracted as He entered this town. On top of that, verse 12 tells us that there was a “considerable crowd from the town” who were a part of the funeral procession accompanying this widow out of the town for the burial.

In the midst of the chaos of these two large crowds converging, “the Lord saw her” (verse 13). How amazing is that? Jesus’ eyes picked out one grieving, frightened, hopeless woman from the hundreds of people milling around. But He didn’t just see her. He didn’t merely acknowledge mentally the fact that this woman was present. He saw her. He looked intently and knew her pain and felt her loss. He saw her, and knew her need.

Jesus had an eye for people in need–He saw what many others would miss. His eye for people moved Him to compassion, and His compassion moved Him to act. The crowds who saw the widow’s son raised to life marveled at the miracle. I marvel at the look that preceded the miracle.


Glorious Substance

As a child, I didn’t think much of my father’s prayers. It was primarily mealtimes when I heard him pray, and I would either watch the clock to calculate how long his tedious prayer was taking or try to sneak peaks at my siblings to see if their eyes were open (classic “little kid logic”: tattling on you for opening your eyes during prayer justifies me opening my eyes in order to catch you).

As a teenager, and into my years in Bible college, I arrogantly looked down on my father’s prayers as simplistic or shallow compared to my growing theological sagacity. I had grand ambitions of how I would change the world for Christ, and surely that would involve lengthy, intelligent praying (perhaps a little like the Pharisees’ prayers?).

As an adult, especially after becoming a father myself, I grew to appreciate my father’s prayers. But by then I was a long way from home, so I knew he prayed for me and for my growing family, but I rarely had the opportunity to hear those prayers in person. They were prayers from a distance.

As a middle-aged adult son watching my father courageously walk through his final moments on this earth, I treasure the final two prayers I heard him pray. They were not from a distance–I was right there at his side to hear them clearly. They were not theologically shallow–they carried the weight of 60+ years of walking with God. And they were not tedious–rather than watching the clock, I was scrambling to record them so that I could recall every moment of how he prayed at the very end.

These two prayers came in that little window of full lucidity that God gifted us with a couple days before my father passed away. My fumbling fingers on my iPhone recorder missed the first part of both his prayers, but I’m sure he addressed God as he always did, as his dear Heavenly Father. And then he thanked God, as he usually did, but his expression of thanks this time included something I don’t ever remember him praying before. These are the words my recorder picked up, with labored pauses as his mind fought the fog of dementia to praise his King for…

the glorious substance of Your mighty powerful…mighty powerful…work that You’ve already provided for us, here and now and forevermore, Amen.

And then a couple hours later we offered to pray for him again, and he surprised us by again verbalizing a wavering prayer to his Heavenly Father…

that we might please You in everything we think and say and do. We love you Lord. Help us to be strong in Him. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Our Heavenly Father answered that prayer. He gave my father the strength he needed to walk through the shadow of death into the brightness of the weight of glory that awaited him. And now we who remain in the shadowlands hold tightly to the same Lord, who strengthens us through the glorious substance of His mighty work, the work that Christ completed on the cross, and which His Spirit carries forth in our lives forevermore.


Gifts in the Waiting

The past six days have been a whirlwind of waiting. The intensity and fluctuation of emotion has made my head spin, yet when I stop to think of how my time was spent, the majority of it was simply waiting.

My father’s health has been declining for many years, and he has had multiple stints in the hospital. So when my sister called me a couple weeks ago to say that our father was in the hospital again, on the day before his 87th birthday, I knew I needed to make a trip up to Oregon to see him. Nothing seemed too serious, though, so I started looking at plane flights in November, when things at work would slow down a bit.

Then on Thursday my sister called again and said, “You need to come now.” What started as high blood pressure and dehydration was ending up to be almost complete kidney failure. The whirlwind (and the waiting) had begun.

I booked a flight, packed a bag, waited through a long delay in Oakland, and finally arrived in Portland after midnight. The joyful reunion with my siblings was made sober by the reality of my father’s worsening condition. He had chosen not to undergo dialysis, so we knew his time was short. The waiting (and the whirlwind) began in earnest.

Waiting is hard. Especially when death is the anticipated outcome.

But there are good gifts in the waiting.

My father is always delighted when his children are all together, but it doesn’t happen very often now, since we are spread out between 3 states. But all four of us siblings made it to the hospital in time, and that lifted our father’s spirits tremendously (and ours as well). That was a gift in the waiting.

Dementia had stolen much of my father’s short-term memory, thus communication with him was sporadic and difficult. But God gave us a portion of a day where his mind was sharp and he was fully lucid in his interaction with us. We read Scripture together and he responded, we prayed together and he prayed for us, we blessed him and he returned a blessing. Oh, what a precious gift in the waiting!

Parenting is not easy, and my brother’s relationship with our dad has been particularly rocky at times. My brother was not present on that lucid morning when the rest of us received such clear expressions of love and blessing, so I was praying that God would give my brother an opportunity to receive a similar affirmation from our dad. God answered that prayer–when my brother was at the hospital again, there was another lucid moment and he heard clear words of love and appreciation spoken specifically for him. Another amazing gift in the waiting.

My father loved people as Christ loves us. And it was a blessing for me to meet for the first time (though unfortunately at the hospital) a handful of precious souls whom my dad had loved well. They came with gifts and stories and tearful hugs to bless a man who had given much to them in his quiet, simple ways. The man who had loved them was barely aware of their presence, but we who watched their love pour out were blessed beyond words. More gifts in the waiting.

Impending death opens doors of conversation like few other things do, and in the midst of the whirlwind of emotions, there was deep joy in sharing the good news of Christ with many who came through the door of Room 2R18. One conversation was especially meaningful to me, as my sister shared with a woman whom our dad had been sharing with for years, and the light went on in her eyes as she dialogued with us about what it means to be a citizen of heaven. “Oh, God, may she receive the greatest Gift in this waiting time.”

We spent a lot of hours in that wing of the hospital. One hospital bed and two hospital cots were all that would fit in the cramped room, but we watched and we waited around the clock, unrolling mats and sleeping bags in the waiting room to catch a few interrupted hours of sleep. Each night I kissed my father’s damp forehead and wondered if he would still be breathing in the morning. Each morning I held his limp hand and wondered if this would be his final day. Twice I rescheduled my flight home because I wanted to be present when God ushered him into His presence. I worried that I would have to return home before he passed away. As his breathing grew more labored and his occasional gaze more vacant, I prayed for God’s mercy to relieve his suffering and bring him to that Place where suffering will be no more. God answered that prayer too. There was one more gift in the waiting.

And now, the waiting is over. My father has fought the good fight. He has finished the race. He is home. That is the best gift.