With us

Deuteronomy 31: 8.  The LORD himself goes before you and will be with you; he will never leave you nor forsake you. Do not be afraid; do not be discouraged.”

Hebrews 13: 5. God has said, “Never will I leave you; never will I forsake you.”

Matthew 26: 11.  The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.

Matthew 25: 37.  “Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?
 38.  When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you?
 39.  When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’  
 40.  “The King will reply, `I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.’

Can these verses possibly be connected?

I was at a prayer meeting. One of the folks admitted to being overwhelmed by hearing news day after day of suffering and sickness and deprivation around the world.

I spoke up. I suggested maybe we were looking at the wrong thing when we despaired at what seemed like a lack of progress or change in the number of people suffering various needs. Perhaps the needs of others were presented to us so God could see our response. Whatever we did for them, Jesus said we were doing it for him. And he was always going to be with us presenting us with that opportunity. The change to look for was not the elimination of needs in others, but a growth of character and obedience in our own hearts.

It wasn’t that God was being mean to poor people, ignoring their pain. He was giving us chances to show His love and provision, bearing witness to and showing His heart of love for all people on His behalf. When we do not have Jesus directly in front us, we nevertheless have him there indirectly. He watches to see what we’ll do.

One friend in the prayer circle had difficulty at the idea God might be ignoring one person’s suffering because it could benefit someone else at the moment.

On the other hand, why was Jesus feeling that His Father was not hearing His Son’s prayers that night in Gethsemane? Was it because the Father intended a blessing for His lost children, something that would only come through the sacrifice of Jesus? And are there answers to the cries for help by others that go unanswered until I respond?

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Same question, different answers

There are two Proverbs that have always puzzled me. Either one — alone — would be fine. But they come back to back in the midst of a string of pithy observations about fools. Nothing in the assorted zingers seems to explain this blunt contradiction. I am mildly surprised I’ve never seen them listed as proofs that “the Bible is full of contradictions.” Here they are:

 Proverbs 26:4.  Do not answer a fool according to his folly, or you will be like him yourself.
 5.  Answer a fool according to his folly, or he will be wise in his own eyes.

“Do not answer” and “answer.” Which is it?

One of the devotionals Melanie and I were reading over breakfast pointed to a similar moment in the New Testament that I hadn’t recognized before. It describes encounters Jesus had with Martha and Mary when he arrived after the death of Lazarus. Jesus has two different responses to the same reproach from each sister.

John 11: 21.  “Lord,” Martha said to Jesus, “if you had been here, my brother would not have died.
 22.  But I know that even now God will give you whatever you ask.”
 23.  Jesus said to her, “Your brother will rise again.”
 24.  Martha answered, “I know he will rise again in the resurrection at the last day.”
 25.  Jesus said to her, “I am the resurrection and the life. He who believes in me will live, even though he dies;  26.  and whoever lives and believes in me will never die. Do you believe this?”
 27.  “Yes, Lord,” she told him, “I believe that you are the Christ,  the Son of God, who was to come into the world.”
 32.  When Mary reached the place where Jesus was and saw him, she fell at his feet and said, “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died.”
 33.  When Jesus saw her weeping, and the Jews who had come along with her also weeping, he was deeply moved in spirit and troubled.
 34.  “Where have you laid him?” he asked.   “Come and see, Lord,” they replied.
 35.  Jesus wept. 

John notes that Mary “fell at his feet” but says nothing about Martha’s posture when she says the same words to him. Is that why Jesus responded differently to each of them? If so, it would at least suggest that, although their words were the same, Jesus saw some kind of difference in their hearts or attitudes. And so he wasn’t so much answering their words as he was their hearts.

It can be important to hear behind a person’s words, so you don’t misunderstand them.

I once was discussing the story of Job with another minister. I posed the question, “What did Job want?”

My friend immediately answered, “Healing.”

It suddenly flashed through my mind that this was not what Job had asked for. In fact, he never asks God for healing. He finally received a healing and restoration from God. But what Job asked for, over and over, was an explanation. Ultimately, he even withdraws that request and simply trusts the Lord, leaving it at that.

But what I’m thinking about now is that I, like my friend, had assumed for years that all Job really wanted was a return to good health and prosperity. By not hearing what he was  saying, and misunderstanding what I had heard, I stood with Job’s useless friends, full of useless answers and advice for him and anyone like him.

There comes a time when answering the words of a question still won’t answer the cry of a heart. My wife’s book series on the theme of listening for God’s voice is pertinent. Regardless of what people say, sometimes I need to wait to know what Jesus is saying in response, before I assume I already know what he wants me to say for him.

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J. R. Anderson was a motorcycle cop in Miami. His home there was destroyed by Hurricane Andrew. So he and his wife, Becky, returned to his hometown of Lakeland. I first got to know them when they took a hand in kitchen duties at the church, preparing Sunday breakfasts and other meals for special events.

I got one impression of J.R. when he spoke to a Discovery Weekend group I attended at All Saints’. I got another impression of him when I found a picture of him playing a game of horseshoes with a friend in his backyard. Instead of horseshoes, they were tossing big U-shaped toilet seats. His sense of humor and quick joking was always one of the first things people encountered when meeting J.R.

Another thing you would notice pretty quickly was that J.R. loved good food. I have happy memories of a big pizza party Becky invited dozens of their friends to for his birthday (or maybe it was their anniversary? I just remember the pizza was good.).

The other thing you would notice was that J.R. loved Jesus and took his faith seriously. I had a chance to see more of that side of him after I had the stroke that confined me to my house. J.R. decided he would come and visit with me once a week. This decision required an effort on his part since he was not in good health himself. He had gone through rounds of cancer treatment with the added challenge of internal bleeding that his doctors were struggling to locate and fix.

J.R. believed laughter was good medicine. During one of his earlier hospital stays I loaned him my DVD collection of Buster Keaton silent comedies to watch. But later, when J.R. visited me, we just talked, and we talked a lot about the Lord, and prayers for healing, and trusting God for the details of our lives.

Those weekly visits continued until September of 2015 when I had to return to the hospital for colon cancer surgery. When I got home again a month later, J.R.’s health had deteriorated into the series of on-again off-again hospital visits that made up the remaining months of his life. Melanie and I lifted up J.R. and Becky in our prayers but I never spoke with him or visited with him again.

Today we’ve heard that the Lord finally lifted up J.R. and took him home. His children had been able to come over Easter weekend and be close one more time. Now our own prayers will continue for Becky.

Say hi to all our friends at Home, J.R. And I’ll be expecting you in the welcoming party when I arrive.

Maybe we can get in a round of horseshoes.

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Weakness as a gift

 II Corinthians 12:9.  But he said to me, “… my power is made perfect in weakness.”

This word from God to Paul has been rattling around my head for several days. I had questions. Wasn’t God’s power already perfect? One commentary says Paul’s statement is better rendered “my power comes to full strength.” This helps. God’s power is seen perfectly and completely only when it’s necessary. If I’m handling everything to my own satisfaction, I probably wouldn’t be looking for or asking for God’s help.

My weakness could almost be seen as a gift to God, giving Him occasion to manifest his perfect power. When I looked at it that way — my weakness as a gift to God — I confess my first thought was that I would like to give God fewer gifts. This is not quite the way St. Paul looked at it.

12:9 …Therefore I will boast all the more gladly about my weaknesses, so that Christ’s power may rest on me.

And Paul had already recognized that his own weaknesses were, in a very real way, God’s gifts to him to keep him from being arrogant.

II Corinthians 12: 7.  To keep me from becoming conceited… there was given me a thorn in my flesh….

My first reaction is that I would still rather be in Philadelphia. But do I want that badly enough to be a thief, stealing glory — or occasions for glory — from God? What if God is actually so interested in having a close relationship with me that He has already made great sacrifices to reach me? He turned down His own Son, who asked for an alternative plan while praying in the Garden of Gethsemane. He’s probably ready to turn down some of my prayers, too, when He thinks He’s got a better plan. If I can just manage to knuckle under and let Him have the last word, not only does it give God a chance to shine, He might even be grateful I’ve let him. Paul seemed to think it would turn out all right for himself in the end.

II Corinthians 12:10.  That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, in insults, in hardships, in persecutions, in difficulties. For when I am weak, then I am strong.

My weakness as a gift for God: I’ve got a lot of those gifts to give Him.

Hey, brother Job? Show me how you slap your hand over your mouth again?

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The next-to-last supper

I grew up in church and was very aware of Easter celebrations of Christ’s resurrection. But the days leading up to this (except for Jesus dying on the cross on Good Friday) were more of an unsorted blur.

Last year The Journey published a series of daily devotions they asked me to write on the Gospel of Mark. From the experience of reading slowly and meditating on the text, I began to get a much clearer and fuller sense of what went on during the days of Holy Week, the week between his entry into Jerusalem on Palm Sunday and Easter Sunday. There is the cursing of the barren fig tree, the cleansing of the Temple, a series of confrontations and arguments with various power groups who opposed Jesus. There is the episode of seeing the widow put in her last two pennies to the Temple offering box. There is the mind-boggling conversation about the Last Days with Peter, James, John, and Andrew as they looked out over the city from the heights of the Mount of Olives.

There is, of course, the Last Supper with the disciples, including the foot-washing scene reported by John. There is the New Commandment given by Jesus. Then the difficult hours of prayer in the Garden of Gethsemane where Judas finds Jesus and betrays him. The frantic scrambling through the night where his enemies try to make a case to justify his execution.

Friday brings six hours of mockery, hanging on a cross between two thieves, followed by a quiet Saturday with the tomb under guard.

Then there’s the confusion caused by the discovery of the empty tomb early Sunday morning.

The Christian practice of Holy Communion comes, of course, from that Last Supper with the disciples. But do you recall what happened at the last supper before the Last Supper?

The moment is recorded in Matthew 26 and Mark 14, both of whom place the supper following Jesus’ conversation about Last Days, 24 hours before the Last Supper in the upper room. John (chapter 12) places this supper the night before the Palm Sunday entrance to Jerusalem. Luke places the incident much earlier (chapter 7) and identifies the host, Simon the Leper, as a Pharisee. Presumably, Simon was one of those who had been healed by Jesus since it would otherwise be unthinkable for people to gather in his house. If Jesus had healed him, this would also explain why a Pharisee, not usually fans of Jesus, would have invited Jesus over for dinner.

It was at this meal that a woman anointed Jesus with expensive perfume. John, writing years after the destruction of Jerusalem, when it would be safe to name names, says the woman was Mary, sister of Lazarus and Martha, who had also come to the dinner.

What has come to interest me about this episode is the way Jesus deals with Judas. As early as John 6:70, Jesus knows Judas for what he is. At this dinner in Bethany, Jesus rebukes Judas for complaining about the “waste” of the expensive perfume Mary has poured on him. Jesus says the story of what she has done will be told everywhere. And further, she has accomplished what women going to his tomb that weekend will be too late to do. Judas is ready to sell out Jesus for what amounts to four months’ wages, barely enough to buy a burial field. Mary has been willing to pour out ointment worth a year’s wages, and then wipe Jesus’ feet with her hair.

According to Luke, there followed a conversation with Simon and a parable question about those who are forgiven little and those who are forgiven much. It makes a difference in how each person goes on to show how much they love their benefactor. I can imagine Jesus finishing this conversation with Simon and then turning to look silently at Judas, as if to ask, Are you listening? I can see Jesus inviting Judas one more time to change his mind before it is too late.

The following night, Jesus himself washes Judas’  own feet. Matthew records a final warning that Jesus speaks before the assembled followers (Matthew 26:24 “Woe to that man who betrays the Son of Man! It would be better for him if he had not been born.”). Then, honoring the free will granted by God to all mankind at the Creation, Jesus releases Judas to carry out his plan.

Later that night, in the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus asks his Father to remove the cup he faces. Still, Jesus once again yields to the will of Another.

And shortly, Judas arrives to display one last deceit about how much he loved his master.

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I finished my assignment and sent in the files to Bible Reading Fellowship today. When I was archiving the new files on my computer, I saw the files I had sent in last year. I couldn’t remember what I had written, so I opened them up and reread them.

I found that I had deliberately started my devotionals back then with the same sentence three days in a row. The line was: If the sun rose this morning, you may be sure God has a plan for the day. 

I liked it so much I modified it slightly and made a poster out of it.

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Being in the dark

Hebrews 11:13  All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance.

Today I wrote a short devotional about this Bible verse for the Good News Daily published by the Bible Reading Fellowship. The devotional will not appear in print until after New Year’s Day of 2019.

(By the way, I recommend this little leaflet publication that fits inside a standard church bulletin. It provides a one-minute devotional for each day of the week along with the daily scripture references from the Revised Common Lectionary. It’s a great tool to share with your congregation each week.)

Right before I wrote out the devotional meditation to go with verse in Hebrews, I had posted an old blog entry on Facebook. It was one I had included in my collection published as On Pelican Wings:

In Gerald May’s book on the 16th century classic from St. John of the Cross, The Dark Night of the Soul, he points to one of John’s unexpected conclusions.

“Sometimes the only way we can enter the deeper dimensions of the journey is by being unable to see where we’re going.

“John says that in worldly matters it is good to have light so we know where to go without stumbling. But in spiritual matters it is precisely when we do think we know where to go that we are most likely to stumble. Thus, John says, God darkens our awareness in order to keep us safe. When we cannot chart our own course, we become vulnerable to God’s protection, and the darkness becomes a ‘guiding light,’ a ‘night more kindly than the dawn.’

“Let me say it again: whether we experience it as painful or pleasurable, the night is dark for our protection. We cannot liberate ourselves; our defenses and resistance will not permit it, and we can hurt ourselves in the attempt. To guide us toward the love that we most desire, we must be taken where we could not and would not go on our own. And lest we sabotage the journey, we must not know where we are going. Deep in the darkness, way beneath our senses, God is instilling ‘another, better love’ and ‘deeper, more urgent longings’ that empower our willingness for all the necessary relinquishments along the way.”

With the thought of God making things “dark” on my mind, I thought about how it would be 21 months before regular readers would see what I had put down for that day’s entry. I was living out the same experience described for those long-ago saints. I had made the effort but could not hope to see results any time soon.

A favorite line from Rick Warren’s book, The Purpose Driven Life, came to mind. Rick starts his first chapter with the aphorism, “It’s not about you.” I have quoted this line many times. But now a variation took shape in my thinking. I think the familiar phrase is a good way to summarize the principle of having a Christian servant-heart. God calls us to serve, not to be served.

But we can’t serve others at all if we are not there to begin with. People won’t be reading my little devotional entry for many months yet. But they can’t read it at all if I don’t get to work and write it now, long before it gets to their hands, and long before I have any way of knowing who they might be.

I adjusted the aphorism a bit. “It’s not JUST about you.” There’s a part for me to play, responding to the Lord’s direction. And he already knows who he intends to touch with the fruit of my labor. I don’t, and don’t need to know. I can do my part without knowing the rest of his plan.

Sometimes, lest we sabotage the journey, we must not know where we are going. It’s enough if God knows.


UPDATE: Melanie has also reflected on the Rick Warren quote at her blog.

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