Gennesaret

Midway through his Gospel, Matthew makes brief mention of a visit by Jesus and the disciples to the village of Gennesaret, a small village three miles west of Capernaum along the north shore of Lake Galilee. He mentions some odd behavior by the people of Gennesaret, something no other crowd is reported to have done.

Matthew 14: 34. When they had crossed over, they landed at Gennesaret.
35. And when the men of that place recognized Jesus, they sent word to all the surrounding country. People brought all their sick to him
36. and begged him to let the sick just touch the edge of his cloak, and all who touched him were healed. 

Earlier, in chapter 8, Matthew had recorded a number of miracles Jesus performed as he began his public ministry in Capernaum. It was there that he healed a leper. He healed a centurion’s servant. Later, Jesus healed a lame man lowered through the roof. He raised the daughter of Jairus back to life. He healed a woman who furtively reached out to touch the hem of his garment as he was going to the house of Jairus. He restored sight to two blind men. He cast out a demon and enabled a mute man to speak again.

Matthew mildly notes that “news of this spread through all that region.” (Matthew 9:26)

Evidence that the stories had indeed spread is in the chapter 14 verses. The behavior of the people in Gennesaret says something interesting about the witnessing we can do about Jesus coming into our lives.

We may not be able to explain what happened to us or answer a lot of questions about it. In his memorable story about the formerly blind man interrogated by the Sanhedrin, John quotes the man saying simply, “Whether he is a sinner or not, I don’t know. One thing I do know. I was blind but now I see!” (John 9:25)

The woman healed of the issue of blood was in the same boat. She had tried to hide what she was doing in touching Jesus’ garment. Even the disciples didn’t know what made Jesus suddenly stop until he described what he had sensed. Then everyone knew. At least, they knew about the hem-touching.

Jesus told the woman it was her faith that had healed her. But the story they had heard in Gennesaret was all about her grabbing for Jesus’ clothes. She no doubt told everyone that she had been healed. And everyone now knew what she had done. Those who heard the story wanted the same healing this daring woman had received. So they did what she had done, visibly at least.

Jesus was kind and merciful. All received their healing that day, even though I think they came close to misunderstanding the witness they had heard.

Receiving God’s grace and mercy does not depend on our fully understanding it to begin with. The Prodigal Son thought he knew the terms under which his father would take him back. And his father was glad to see him come back even though the son still didn’t see his father’s love clearly at first.

When I was preparing to join the Order  of St. Luke the Physician, one of the assignments was to study the 26 different scriptural accounts of Jesus healing people. No two of them are alike. This used to annoy me. How can we learn how to heal people today if Jesus didn’t give us a consistent, repeatable pattern to follow??

Looking at Matthew’s brief report about Gennesaret I begin to suspect an answer to that question. I’ll set it up by asking another question. Were the people of this village looking for Jesus — or just for his clothes?

Perhaps the reason Jesus healed people a bit differently each time was to make sure we didn’t start following some idol-in-a-pattern instead of him.

Jesus uses different methods, different approaches, with each of us. The point is he is the One we come to with our prayers.

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Bible walking

I read the Bible for years like I drove around in my car. If I knew where I wanted to go, I paid little attention to the passing scenery that I went through to get there. I often couldn’t even remember how I got there once I arrived at my destination.

A few years ago, I read something C.S. Lewis wrote about one of his favorite memories. Lewis and some friends spent a day walking several miles across fields and pastureland in the English countryside. They took along food to eat on the way. When they came upon a chapel they went inside for a quiet time of prayer. One of the friends read a Psalm from the lectern. Lewis wrote how he enjoyed the day, slowly making their way across the scenery. He expressed his dislike of modern transportation that caused one to miss so much beauty by being in a hurry.

I have read through the whole Bible several times. I settled into a discipline of reading for 30 minutes a day, choosing a different translation each time. I usually managed to cover half a dozen chapters or more each day. My sense of the “big picture” of scripture grew as I became more and more familiar with the text.

In more recent years, my scripture reading was guided by daily lectionaries and devotionals that concentrated on short excerpts of a few verses. From day to day the excerpts were often scattered and out of sequence with each other.

But I’ve been reading scripture in a different way the past few months and the experience has reminded me of Lewis and his day-long walks. I have been slowly reading the Gospels, thinking and writing my reflections a day at a time. I’ll read a short passage, hold it in my thoughts for a day, then write. Quite often, as I awaken two or three times in the night, I’ll reflect on the passage before the Lord, listening for any thoughts that might get whispered to me before I fall asleep again.

What has been happening is a recognition of patterns and sequences between incidents I had grown accustomed to thinking about as separate and isolated from each other. Day by day, slowing down to a walk has allowed me to reflect on the fabric of the whole rather than hurrying by in order to arrive at any particular piece of destination. I am beginning to think the Gospel writers were not just throwing together a grab bag of memories about Jesus. They had noticed how the scenery connected from moment to moment on those days they spent walking about with Jesus.

Jesus thanks his Heavenly Father for revealing the secrets of the Kingdom of Heaven to children (Matthew 11:25ff). In the very next chapter (12) there are a string of stories where Pharisees, the wise holy men of the day, criticize Jesus for ignoring Jewish Law and violating the Sabbath. They quickly decide Jesus is doing his miracles by the power of the devil. In the next chapter (13), Matthew records several parables that feature pointed contrasts between those who receive his teaching and those who do not. At the end of this teaching, Matthew reports even the people who watched Jesus grow up have become offended because he hasn’t turned out as they expected, like every other boy in the village.

Chapter 14 leads off with the account of John the Baptist’s death because he had annoyed the king’s wife. Matthew reports, with great restraint, “Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there…” (v. 13) It is getting too dangerous for him. He leaves for a wilderness area. But thousands of common folk follow him there. Concern for their well-being prompts the miraculous feeding of the 5,000.

The disciples have urged Jesus to send the people away to find food. His crazy-sounding response is, “You give them something to eat.” (14:16) And that’s exactly what they end up doing, with Jesus’ help.

The next story is when it dawned on me that this was all a continuation of the training Jesus was giving them for their eventual Great Commission. The first journey on the Lake of Galilee that Matthew reported was with Jesus, and they ran into a storm (Matthew 8:23ff). Now he sends them out on the lake again, this time alone, and straight into another storm.

They have seen the “storms” Jesus has been facing. He wants them to learn to hold steady in the storms they are going to face, even after seeing miracles that meet the needs of thousands.

The individual stories are powerful and amazing. Seen together, when I slow down to take them all in, they are more remarkable than ever.

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Parables

The day my mom died I had been looking at the account in Matthew where Jesus redefined who he considered to be his mother, brother or sister. The moment comes just before a string of parables Jesus tells.

Two years ago I wrote a book about the parables. Now I find I have some more to say.

For one thing, I’m noticing that the parables are more about relationships and decisions than they are about re-coded symbols. Jesus talks about pearls and weeds but that’s not what he is interested in.

When the Pharisees argue about Sabbath rules (Matthew 12:1 ff), Jesus tells a parable about seeds sown (Matthew 13:1 ff). But the lesson isn’t so much about the seed. It is a commentary on the different responses of the soil. The disciples can’t understand. They ask Jesus to interpret the seeds and so miss the point about the reception of the seeds. They exhibit the free will we were all given to define or misunderstand symbols when we don’t miss them altogether.

It is in the middle of all this that Jesus makes his comment about who his real family is (Matthew 12:46 ff). Reading the story as I lost my mother again, I was reminded of a thought that crossed my mind when my father died. I had a sense that Dad’s identity and relationship to me had now changed. His primary identity now, standing in front of his Savior and Master, was as God’s servant in God’s Kingdom. It was the identity and purpose God had intended for my dad from the beginning.

My mom had reached this graduation day stage, too.

Reading the story of the earthly family trying to get Jesus’ attention, I realized Matthew had placed the story where he did on purpose. It is an indirect criticism of the Pharisees who think they have perfectly understood God’s commandments and obeyed them. They think they have some right to command Jesus’ attention.

It is, in fact, another example of inattentional blindness

I am becoming aware that this blindness has kept me from understanding the parables fully. I have thought it was important to keep pearls safe. But before I try to rewrite my book and tell others what I think Jesus has said, I think I’ll do some more listening.

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Three years ago

Earlier this year I was writing a set of devotionals for publication. One dealt with Mary Magdalene weeping outside the now-opened tomb of Jesus. Each devotional was to end with a prayer. Thinking about Mary at that moment before she recognized Jesus, my heart was so heavy over the grief that we face from time to time in this life that I couldn’t find words. So I began searching Scripture. I found Psalm 13.

How long, LORD? Will you utterly forget me? How long will you hide your face from me? How long must I carry sorrow in my soul, grief in my heart day after day? How long will my enemy triumph over me? Look upon me, answer me, LORD, my God! Give light to my eyes lest I sleep in death, Lest my enemy say, `I have prevailed,’ lest my foes rejoice at my downfall. I trust in your faithfulness. Grant my heart joy in your help, That I may sing of the LORD, `How good our God has been to me!’

Three years ago I was on staff at my local church. I served as a deacon and wrote a blog on the church web page. I used to stack up short entries ahead of time so they would appear every few days.

On October 31st, 2014, I had a stroke. It would force my immediate retirement from… everything. The next day, the blog I had timed to appear on November 1, that I had set up weeks before, appeared. It still stuns me.

God places His saints where they will bring the most glory to Him, and we are totally incapable of judging where that may be. – Oswald Chambers

God sees where He is placing me, sending me. I will not be able to see this at first, but that’s when I must carefully obey, trusting that God DOES know what He is doing!

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Mom

Elva Johnson was a minister on the staff at the Assemblies of God Headquarters in Springfield, Missouri. When the Assemblies celebrated their centennial in 2014, she was named as one of the 100 most important figures in the history of the organization. Her final role there was as Director of Women’s Ministries, the highest ministry position for any woman in the denomination. She traveled around the world as a representative for the A/G, meeting with leaders of other denominations.

In 1962, when I first met her, I was eleven. My mother had died that year, leaving my dad to raise three young boys.

I learned much later that my mom had discussed with dad who might be able to take her place when she died. My mom gave my dad blessings to ask Elva out for a date when the time came.

Dad ended up proposing to Elva and their wedding date was set for dad’s birthday, 1963, a little over a year after my mom passed away. My new stepmom and dad were married 49 years when he passed in 2012.

Thank you, Lord Jesus, for that gift to all of us!

When they retired, they moved to Lakeland to be close to Melanie and me. Soon after dad passed, mom moved into the apartment adjacent to us. When I had a stroke, and mom got too weak to live safely alone, my brothers helped her move to assisted living. There she “resumed ministry” praying with everyone else on her floor! Last week she was taken to the hospital, feeling weak and asking for dad. Tonight, Jesus has welcomed her home to what I have no doubt is a great homecoming celebration. She’ll be absent from her 98th birthday party here which would have been next month.

Mom was a professional writer. She helped dad in editing the translation of the book by dad’s grandfather, Willis Hoover, in whose church the Pentecostal revival fell in the nation of Chile in 1909. She helped me edit my first book when I published it the year before my stroke. I dedicated it to her as a token of my gratitude and respect. Having a mom who knew all about how to write had always seemed like a tremendous extra blessing from God in my life!

Tonight, I find that copies of mom’s own book are still available. I remember she wrote there that she intended to keep raising her hands in praise to her Savior as long as she could because she knew, as our bodies get older and weaker, raising your arms gets less easy to do. She had to grip a walker to get around toward the end. But she never stopped praising the Lord, thanking him for his love and grace to her, and for the family and children He gave her.

I’m doing that tonight, myself. Thank you, Lord, for my second mom.

Mom, give Dad a hug for me. And my first mom, too. She — and Jesus — obviously loved all of us.

With Mom at Dad’s grave, Memorial Day 2013

 

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After you!

Alphonse and Gaston were a pair of newspaper comic strip characters drawn by Frederick Burr Opper beginning in 1901. The two Frenchmen were so excessively polite to one another that they never got anything done.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I thought of them as I reviewed the story of Abraham buying a burial tomb for his wife, Sarah (Genesis 23:3-16). Abraham politely haggles with Ephron, the Hittite, over purchasing the cave at Machpelah. Abraham says why he wants to buy it. Ephron generously refuses to take any money and announces he is giving Abraham the cave and surrounding field. Abraham says he wants to pay for it. Ephron names a price but insists it is too trifling a matter to make a difference between two such distinguished community leaders. He gives the cave to Abraham again. And Abraham counts out the full price Ephron named without further objection.

A similar exchange takes place years later between two of Abraham’s grandchildren. Jacob is returning home twenty years after he cheated his older brother out of their father’s blessing. Jacob is nervous about the meeting. He sends gifts ahead, hoping to buy his brother’s favor.

Esau finally meets Jacob and gives him a warm hug. Then he asks about all the gifts that have been arriving (Genesis 33:8-11). He tells Jacob he has plenty in his own flocks and herds and doesn’t need the additions Jacob has sent him. He tells Jacob to keep them. Jacob insists that Esau keep them. Finally, Esau does.

When God told King David to build Him an altar, David went immediately to the location of the threshing floor owned by Araunah the Jebusite. When Araunah learned why David had come, he gave it all to David on the spot. He included the wooden threshing sledges and the oxen pulling them to serve as the burnt offering (2 Samuel 24:21-24). David gave one of the memorable responses and rules of thumb concerning offerings to the Lord.

“I insist on paying you for it. I will not sacrifice to the LORD my God burnt offerings that cost me nothing.”

The Alphonse-and-Gaston routine seems like a waste of time. But it does, after all, bring something to light so that it may be seen. The generous protests of gift giving reveal the hearts of the participants. This kindness of heart is a priceless extra that elevates the commercial value of the exchanges between people. It is a testimony that the encounter is more than about the money changing hands. It strengthens the social bond of the whole community. Everyone feels more secure knowing these are the hearts of our neighbors.

But we have a problem when God is a party to the transaction. As David was gathering gifts for finally building God a proper temple, he voiced the dilemma we face trying to give God anything (I Chronicles 29:14, 16).

“Who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this? Everything comes from you, and we have given you only what comes from your hand…  O LORD our God, as for all this abundance that we have provided for building you a temple for your Holy Name, it comes from your hand, and all of it belongs to you.”

There is nothing we can give God that He doesn’t already own. He even knows what we are going to ask of Him before we say it (Isaiah 65:1, 24). He is already answering when we finally ask.

What is the point of the exercise? Jesus instructed us to keep on asking, seeking, and knocking on his door in prayer (Luke 11:9). Every Christian, sooner or later, has the experience of knocking on that door again and again, still waiting for an answer. Doesn’t God know it’s us? Does he not know what we need?

Or is He giving us the opportunity to show our love and trust in Him, a revelation of our heart before all the eyes and ears of every creature in His Kingdom? That is a gift He doesn’t have until we give it.

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Children

In a conversation with a friend, they mentioned in passing something one of their children had done that disappointed them. With my usual sardonic sense of humor I immediately responded, “That was your mistake — having children!” The fact that I have no children added edge to the outrageousness of the joke.

We both laughed. My friend sighed a bit.

In the middle of the night I woke up thinking about the statement in the Bible that comes within half a dozen chapters of the description of God creating mankind.

Genesis 6: 6. The LORD was grieved that he had made man on the earth, and his heart was filled with pain. 

God’s solution to His pain was to wipe out His work in man almost completely. He found one man to start over with. And that man, Noah, would still have trouble with children.

My thoughts went to a passage I had recently read that mentions children.

Matthew 11: 16. “To what can I compare this generation? They are like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling out to others:
17. “`We played the flute for you, and you did not dance; we sang a dirge, and you did not mourn.’ 

That’s the way children are, of course. They can’t be any other way, can they? They don’t know any better. They’re children.

The problem they have is the same one that took out Adam and Eve. They reach a conclusion based on what they see, what they can understand, as limited as the data is.

There is also the subtle distortion of expectation. They expect a certain result from playing a flute and that is all they look for. They (and we) dismiss anything else that may be happening. If it does not fit the template of our expectation or desire, it doesn’t matter.

In my book On Pelican Wings I wrote about an extraordinary demonstration of the phenomenon that became known as “inattentional blindness,” the failure to notice a fully-visible, but unexpected object because attention is engaged on another task, event, or object.

In the experiment, people were asked to watch a video where two teams of players passed and bounced a basketball around. Viewers were asked to count the number of times the white-shirt team passed the ball to another white-shirt player. Most viewers had no trouble keeping an accurate count over a couple of minutes watching the video clip.

What nobody noticed in the middle of the video was an additional person who walked onto the court between the other players. This person was fully dressed in a bear costume and stopped briefly in the middle of the court to turn and wave at the camera!

No one had been asked to watch for someone in a bear costume. Their attention was elsewhere, expectations were elsewhere. So they missed it.

Like children who don’t hear a parent calling them off a playground.

I noticed that Jesus doesn’t seem to be criticizing the children for what they are expecting. The trouble seems to be that they call out to others and want others to conform to their own stunted expectation. They distract others from seeing what is going on.

A few verses after citing this problem in children, Jesus changed direction and gave thanks for what children could see. God Himself was revealing things to them that were hidden from others who took pride in their own clarity of vision and insight.

Matthew 11: 25. At that time Jesus said, “I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and learned, and revealed them to little children.”

God takes joy in showing His work to those who will notice it, whether they understand it or not. Viewing God’s wonders should indeed fill us with wonder.

And, apparently, God has learned the safe way to  show us His work. That way was explained to Paul.

II Corinthians 12: 7. To keep me from becoming conceited because of these surpassingly great revelations, there was given me a thorn in my flesh, a messenger of Satan, to torment me.
8. Three times I pleaded with the Lord to take it away from me.
9. But he said to me, “My grace is sufficient for you, for my power is made perfect in weakness.”

Children are weak. But let me speak plainly. WE are weak. I am weak. I am prone to inattentional blindness because I am looking for something else, not what God is doing. Not what He is giving me: a gift of grace and a manifestation of perfect power.

I don’t notice because the thorns are distracting me.

Matthew 19: 14. Jesus said, “Let the little children come to me, and do not hinder them, for the kingdom of heaven belongs to such as these.”

I am noticing that the Jesus inviting me to come near is wearing a crown of thorns.

Say hello to the bear.

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