Ebenezer means "stone of help," and was the name of a monument raised by the prophet Samuel, saying, "Thus far has the Lord helped us." (1 Sam. 7:12) The hymn Come, Thou Fount of Every Blessing includes the line, "Here I raise mine Ebenezer; hither by thy help I'm come." Through God's grace you and I have made it to today. Our job is to praise God for getting us here and trust him to bring us through tomorrow.

Monday, November 16, 2015

Take Up Your Cross

Matthew 16:24-25   Then Jesus told his disciples, “If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me. For whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it.

Every time I've heard this passage discussed, Jesus' words are taken to mean giving one's life to Christ, dying to self, accepting the burdens of discipleship and self-denial, etc.  Because of this, I was jarred to read the thoughts of the eminent Oxford scholar R.T. France on these words:
Christian use of the language of "self-denial" (and even of "cross-bearing") has blunted the force of Jesus' words.  They are about literal death, following the condemned man on his way to execution.  Discipleship is a life of at least potential martyrdom.  It may be legitimate to extrapolate from this principle to a more general demand for disciples to put loyalty to Jesus before their own interests and comfort, but that can be only a secondary application of the passage.  Jesus' words are not to be taken as merely metaphorical.  The "cross" and "losing life" which he speaks of are literal, and it seems clear from v. 28 that he did expect at least some of his disciples to be killed because of their loyalty to his cause (as indeed they were)."  [NICNT: Matthew, 2007, Eerdmans, page 636]
Read this way, Jesus' statement is even harder to accept.  Taking up one's cross sounds tough enough as metaphor.  Taken literally, it becomes a completely different challenge.

Dietrich Bonhoeffer famously said, "When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die."  Every American Christian who comes across this quote prefers to read it metaphorically - we "die to Christ," leaving our old life behind in favor of following Jesus.  And that is true, but it ignores the fact that Bonhoeffer, in stark contrast to American Christians, was dragged out into the early morning April air, stripped nude, and hanged to death in the Flossenburg concentration camp at age 39.

"If anyone would come after me, let him deny himself and take up his cross and follow me."

We can indeed extrapolate many lessons from these words, but I think Dr. France was right. The cross was very real in this sentence.  To first century Jews such as were following Jesus, the cross was not a piece of jewelry, or a symbol on the top of buildings, or a design for art - it was and had always only been an oppressor's device for brutally murdering the oppressed.  Jesus is talking about death.  Real death.  He knows he will die by means of a cross, as will some of his followers, and many more will die by some means or another at the hands of his enemies.  Jesus the Christ does not sugarcoat.

He does, however, go on to explain why following him, even to the death, is important.  "Whoever would save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for my sake will find it."  It is worth noting that the Greek word translated "life" here is not unfamiliar to us.  It is psychē (ψυχὴ), a word which English has since appropriated to mean the self or the soul.  It is, indeed, our all, and if we try to save our life, our psychē, for our own self, we will in fact lose it.  Only if we give up our life for the sake of Christ, whatever that might mean in our own circumstances, will be truly find life eternal.  The martyrs of the church are richer, in real terms, than any human who has ever lived.  Even every person who has ever died as a follower of Jesus enjoys a reward that makes all we could have on earth seem very small indeed.

A few days ago the world was rocked to hear news of terrorist attacks in Paris, France.  Soon after, some people began to point out, rightly, that recent attacks in Lebanon had received virtually no coverage, let alone popular attention.  No doubt one reason for this is the fact that an attack on Paris (like an attack on New York) is a signal to Western Christians that "Christendom" is no longer exempt from religious violence.  The lock that Christianity has had over the Western Hemisphere is slowly slipping away.  The dozens killed in Paris were not killed because they were Christian (indeed, their killings were random and anonymous), but they represented the Christian West  to the Islamic terrorists responsible.  

We in the West are only now beginning to recognize what our brothers and sisters outside of classical Christendom have known for centuries.  In Asia, in the Middle East, in Africa, in the former Soviet Union...Christians there have long understood the reality of persecution, and they have long understood the reality behind this passage in Matthew.

We don't know what is to come, but our world is changing.  As it changes, it is more important than ever for us to remember that following Christ means putting him first, above all, even if that decision means the loss of life itself.  Because a better life awaits.  Take up your cross, and follow me.

Saturday, October 31, 2015

No Ghost

"Look at my hands and my feet. It is I myself! Touch me and see; a ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have."   Luke 24:39

I simply have to admit, I don't understand our culture's fascination with the macabre and the paranormal.  Take the fixation this past decade on vampires and zombies. What's the point?  Where is the attraction?  And I wonder how many young people grow up these days thinking these characters of fiction are in fact real?

Still, when you stop and think about it, there is nothing new about this fascination and it is certainly something we see in the folklore of most cultures.  Jewish culture is no exception.  Take for instance the dybbuk, described in one source as "an evil spirit which enters into a living person, cleaves to his soul, causes mental illness, talks through his mouth, and represents a separate and alien personality." Jewish folklore is replete with stories of dybbuks.  The same applies to the golem, a creature made by someone expert in the mystical Jewish art of kabbalah.

If we turn to the Old Testament, we even find the story of a seance.  In 1 Samuel 28, King Saul asks a medium to bring the spirit of the Prophet Samuel back to give him advice.  Samuel's spirit appears -- unhappily -- and give Saul bad news ("...tomorrow you and your sons will be with me").  The story of Saul's downward spiral takes precedence, so we rarely notice this surprising foray into spiritualism, but there it is, in vivid detail.

So we should not be surprised if the disciples, upon seeing the risen Jesus, might first and foremost assume he is, indeed, a ghost.  If Jesus had been born in the 1980s and crucified this year, the main impediment to belief in his resurrection would have been the cult of science and of reason that dominates our culture.  But in the First Century, quite a different impediment existed.  People were so immersed in belief in the spiritual world that they would have sooner believed the risen Christ to be a specter than a real, risen body.

Realizing this, Jesus Christ does what he so often does: he accommodates the weakness of our understanding.

Imagine the scene: Jesus has appeared to his followers in a locked room.  To say this must have caused a
disturbance is quite an understatement.  If someone you knew to have been brutally murdered were to suddenly appear in your midst, just imagine your reaction.  As tame as Luke's description is, I would guess there were a few genuine screams!

So Jesus immediately tries to calm his followers by sharing the words of greeting still common today in Judaism: Shalom aleikhem, "Peace be upon you."  He then asks them, somewhat rhetorically, why they have fears and why they have doubts.  His point is that he has tried all along to make them understand what would happen, how he would conquer death and return, but only now can they begin to understand.  For proof, he offers up his own body as evidence that he is, indeed, real and material.  "A ghost does not have flesh and bones, as you see I have."  Going further, he shares a meal with them.  He wants there to be no mistake; he is no ghost.

The act of resurrection on its own does not prove the divinity of Christ, as other people in the Bible are resurrected.  What it does do is prove that Jesus' claim about himself is true.  God the Father, to show that this is indeed His son, raises him from the dead, proving that he is indeed who he has claimed to be all along.

We serve a risen savior.  He is not a ghost, and he is not merely an idea, either.  Modern secular society would have us believe that Jesus was a man, and Christ a myth.  But no, the Bible is not a fairy tale; it is a book of truth.  And among its truths is this: Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again.

Monday, September 21, 2015

A Wise Choice

2 Chronicles 1:7  That night God appeared to Solomon and said to him, “Ask for whatever you want me to give you.”

The story of Solomon is a familiar one. After ascending to David's throne over the nation of Israel, God speaks directly to him, with a seemingly unprecedented offer: "Ask for whatever you want me to give you."

We know his answer.  Solomon famously requests for wisdom so as to be able to properly lead his people.  And we know God's response.  Not only does he grant Solomon this wisdom, he makes him the wisest of all men.  Not stopping there, God gives him all the things he might have asked for instead:
God said to Solomon, “Since this is your heart’s desire and you have not asked for wealth, possessions or honor, nor for the death of your enemies, and since you have not asked for a long life but for wisdom and knowledge to govern my people over whom I have made you king, therefore wisdom and knowledge will be given you. And I will also give you wealth, possessions and honor, such as no king who was before you ever had and none after you will have.
We have, most likely, heard the story before.  But ask yourself, what would you say if God appeared in your dreams and said, "Ask for whatever you want me to give you?"  How would you respond?  I doubt many of us would answer with a materialistic desire, as we would realize the gravity of the moment and of the one asking the question.  We might avoid a foolish answer, but we may still not give the best answer.
Dream of Solomon by Luca Giordano, c. 1693

Solomon's response, however, was exactly what God was wanting to hear.  His answer was so perfect, in fact, that it opened the floodgates of God's blessings.  Normally, as we read this passage, it is easy to view Solomon as a pious young ruler whose request, made in holiness, impresses God.  I would argue, however, that Solomon made his request for wisdom not out of piety, but out of practicality.  I imagine him as a young ruler genuinely filled with trepidation at the responsibility placed upon him, and at the tasks ahead of him.

Furthermore, I would argue that Solomon asks for wisdom precisely because he already has it.  It would be foolish to think that Solomon had no real wisdom before this moment, and the text makes it clear that he was indeed wise.  He survives, first of all, in tumultuous times, to become the unlikely heir of his father, and then begins his reign with public pronouncements and appearances which demonstrate a certain level of aptitude.  Further, his very answer to God is a wise answer -- he does not ask for something frivolous.  In short, Solomon seizes upon a gift God has already granted him and asks God to strengthen it and increase it, for the good of others.  That, I believe, is what makes Solomon's response so special.

God's outpouring of grace then shows us what Solomon surely knew: God has all things at his disposal, and blessing us is of no difficulty to him whatsoever.  God proves in this story what Jesus would someday preach: "Seek first his kingdom and his righteousness, and all these things will be given to you as well." (Matthew 6:33)  In seeking first the wisdom to lead, God would prove to Solomon that he would never want for the material things of life either.

I would argue that God confronts us every day with the question, "Ask for whatever you want me to give you."  It is a life-changing question that we answer with a grunt every day, usually without a second thought.  And yet, we are invited to believe in the power of God to effect change in our lives day after day.

Imagine the power that could be unleashed if each of us thought of one gift God had already entrusted us with, and asked him to strengthen it even further, just as Solomon did.  For God, it is an easy task.  For us, it is an exercise in faith.

So how will you answer the ever-present question once put to King Solomon?  You may not ask for wisdom, but a wise choice can still be made.

Thursday, March 19, 2015


Mark 15:34  And at the ninth hour Jesus cried with a loud voice, “Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?” which means, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

"Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?" "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"  These powerful words open Psalm 22, a moving plea to God in which David says, "I am a worm and not a man, scorned by mankind and despised by the people.  All who see me mock me."

The passage from Mark (nearly duplicated in Matthew) is familiar to most Christians; but have you ever wondered why, of all the statements of Jesus quoted in the Bible, this one is left in the original language? 

Any observant Jew is familiar with Hebrew, and we can only speculate at how proficient Jesus himself must have been in the language of his holy texts.  His mastery of Hebrew would have been complete, and he may very well have been required to memorize the psalms in their entirety.  That he responds at this moment - a moment of greatest despair, deepest fear, and highest pain - with scripture, is no surprise.  As a man steeped in the Hebrew Bible his response would have been instinctive; as the Messiah himself, the response would have been inevitable.

But there's one issue here: these words are not Hebrew.

Instead, they are Aramaic.  When Jesus quotes Psalm 22 from the cross he does not do so using the Hebrew it was written in, but using the everyday language of Jews in first century Palestine.  This is why in most Bibles we read the words as a transliteration of Jesus' original statement: "Eloi, Eloi, lema sabachthani?"

Why would Jesus cry these words out in Aramaic instead of in Hebrew, which was surely the language in which he learned the Psalms?  Perhaps it was because, at this worst of moments, he cried out not to "the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob" [though He was the same God], but instead, he cried out to his own father.  His cry is an intimate one, to "Abba," to the one who always heard him.  And so he cries out in his day-to-day language, though in the words of his ancestor, the Psalmist.

Shortly thereafter, Jesus would breathe his last, but only after experiencing this final, terrible moment of abandonment. 

The saddest thing is that our society is filled with people who have no idea whatsoever what was done for them, what was sacrificed for their sake.  Even our churches in this modern day are populated by many people who think they are too smart to believe in an atoning Christ, and want to see him instead as a teacher of ethics or a leader of societal change.  These people simply don't comprehend the profound truth of this moment on the cross.  Jesus died in a state of abandonment, so that we would never have to experience that same state of abandonment.  It is that simple.  He accepted the burden of guilt for our sake. All we have to do in return is accept that truth.  So easy, and yet, for the broken human race, so very hard.

"I know that my redeemer lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth. And after my skin has been destroyed, yet in my flesh I will see God."  Job 19:25-26

Monday, March 2, 2015

Remember Me

Luke 23:42-43  Then he said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”  Jesus answered him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

I've been in many worship services which concluded with the hauntingly beautiful Taizé chant "Jesus, Remember Me."  Those famous words, uttered by a dying criminal on a cross near Jesus, have resonated with many over the centuries.  His reclamation in that lonely place is a source of hope and comfort for all of us.  What we rarely consider, however, is what brought him to that moment.

Luke paints a vivid picture for us of the crucifixion scene.  Two criminals were crucified along with Jesus, one on his right and one on his left.  His clothes were divided up like plunder. The leaders sneered at him; the soldiers mocked him.  A sign above him sarcastically declared him King of the Jews. 

And then we are told, "One of the criminals who hung there hurled insults at him."  The more you consider this fact the more absurd it becomes.  Here is a man -- a criminal -- condemned to die and, in fact, in the agonizing process of dying, and yet in his last hours his instinct is to follow the crowd and insult Jesus.  He is doing just as his own executioners are doing, by insulting Jesus.  This criminal simply doesn't think for himself. 

How many people have sinned their way to the grave by following the crowd?  We all know of someone who could have made the decision -- not to get into that car, not to take that drink, not to take that pill, not to commit that crime -- but instead went along with the crowd and paid for it with their very life.  Why is it so many people would rather die than think for themselves?  This criminal is no different; even in the throes of death all he can do is follow the crowd and mock an innocent man.

This is the marked difference between the two criminals.  The second criminal, in this most important moment of his life, does think for himself.  He turns away from his fellow criminal, turns away from the crowd, and turns toward the truth.  In three short sentences he rebukes the other criminal and in so doing, stands up for Jesus more than anyone else present.  Think of it, he defends Jesus more in this moment than the Apostles themselves managed to do.

“Don’t you fear God,” he said, “since you are under the same sentence? We are punished justly, for we are getting what our deeds deserve. But this man has done nothing wrong.”

I would venture to say that in most cases, the most important step needed for someone to find salvation is simply to think for themselves.  Once a person decides to turn their back upon a sin, a wrong teaching, a modern idolatry -- whatever it is that is holding them hostage -- they can then turn toward truth and find salvation there.  That is exactly what this criminal did, giving him the wisdom and the courage to say those simple words, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom."

We don't know what he understood about Jesus' identity or about the kingdom to which he alludes.  Commentators like to argue over that but it's simply not very important.  He knew he needed forgiveness, and he knew that Jesus was the one to give it.  And give it he did. “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.”

In the midst of Jesus' suffering, I like to think that this incident may have given him a brief, bright moment.  He knew, as he was dying, that in a matter of hours or less all would be justified, and he had brought one last sheep back to the fold with him.  What a beautiful lesson for us: Remember me, Lord Jesus, as you rule today within your Kingdom.

Friday, February 6, 2015

The Not-So-Doubting Thomas

John 20:29   Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.”

Some scientists are busy trying to prove that humans have a biological predisposition to faith.   The theory is that a "God gene" causes the human race to tend toward belief in the supernatural, explaining why religions of varying sorts have sprung up in every culture throughout human history.  Scientists see this as a result of (or contributor to) natural selection, and argue that it has helped humanity survive and thrive through ties of community based upon belief.

And yet, as we look around, it may seem just as likely to conclude that people are predisposed to doubt instead.  Indeed, everywhere we look, we meet those who doubt the existence of God, or the power of God, or the goodness of God.  If they think of God at all, they may see him as a distant being, perhaps a creator, or a judge, but not personally involved in our lives.  Some reject God's existence completely.  And even in our churches there are certainly many who have sat through hundreds of worship services without ever resolving inner doubts they dare not utter to family and friends.  Doubt, at every level, is all around us.

So how then can we blame the Apostle Thomas for stating his desire for proof of the resurrection?  Here's a quick review of how our culture came to have a "Doubting Thomas":

Now Thomas (also known as Didymus), one of the Twelve, was not with the disciples when Jesus came.  So the other disciples told him, “We have seen the Lord!”  But he said to them, “Unless I see the nail marks in his hands and put my finger where the nails were, and put my hand into his side, I will not believe.”  A week later his disciples were in the house again, and Thomas was with them. Though the doors were locked, Jesus came and stood among them and said, “Peace be with you!" Then he said to Thomas, “Put your finger here; see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Stop doubting and believe.” 
Thomas said to him, “My Lord and my God!”
Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:24-29)

Thomas has been known for centuries as the disciple who doubted; what a reputation to have!  Yet he is no worse than us, and no worse than his follow apostles.  All he wanted was proof, to experience what his fellow disciples had experienced, and in his hyperbole, he declared his need to touch the wounds of Jesus before he would believe the resurrection.  If anything, his response is human and understandable.  Given the circumstances, any saint-in-the-making would have said the same.

What does it mean to doubt?  We attach the word to Thomas but we do so too quickly.  Yes, the NIV (quoted above) has Jesus saying, "Stop doubting and believe," but that may not be the best translation of the Greek.  The ESV uses, "Do not disbelieve, but believe."  And the famed King James Version says, "Be not faithless, but believing."  Instead of actively doubting, it seems Jesus knew that Thomas was merely lacking in his faith.

Doubt is a very natural thing, and doubt can even be a healthy thing.  Doubt keeps us from eating food that doesn't smell quite right, or from opening up email messages from addresses we don't recognize.  We teach our children to doubt strangers in cars who pull up asking for directions, and we learn to doubt the promises of politicians at election time.  In our day-to-day world doubts are overcome by facts.  We come to believe in something by learning more about it.  When an advertisement for car insurance arrives in the mail, we start by doubting it almost in its entirety.  But if we're in the market for such a policy, we learn more about the offer, talk to people, and do research, until at least our doubts are resolved.

But when it comes to religion, the relationship with doubt is different.  Doubt is overcome not by facts, but by faith.  That is because the existence of God, and the attributes of God, cannot be proven by facts or by logic.  Such a being would not be God.  Despite the demands of many to prove the existence of God, who would want to believe in a God small enough to be provable?  In things of this world, the opposite of doubt is, I think we could say, knowledge.  But in terms of religion, the opposite of doubt is faith, because the very idea of God -- the all-encompassing God of Jewish and Christian tradition -- is above and beyond the bounds of human knowledge.  In the words of Augustine: "If we are speaking of God, why be surprised if you do not understand? If you could understand, it would not be God."

And so if faith comes not from facts, it must instead come from open heart, one that is willing to search for and accept that which is greater than the mere self.  And such was the case with Thomas.  Despite his statements, when he did come face-to-face with the risen Christ there is no indication that he bothered to touch his wounds -- the mere encounter was enough to  make him believe.  And more than just believe in him, Thomas went on to proclaim his deity.  By this late point in John's gospel it is easy to read Thomas's words without much reflection on their depth, but consider this -- in the entirety of John's gospel, only two people declare Jesus to be God.  First is the narrator himself (who we assume to be John).  The second is Thomas: "My Lord and my God!"

What irony!  In this gospel it is the one man most synonymous with doubt who gives the clearest declaration that Jesus is God.  That's what our Lord can do.  Any doubt we carry can be overcome.  The key is to stop wanting proof, and instead want truth.  If we ask for that, if we seek it, God will provide it.

Thursday, September 11, 2014

Companions for the Journey

Ecclesiastes 4:9-10   Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: if either of them falls down, one can help the other up.  But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.

One of the quotes by Henry David Thoreau that is etched in my mind [and there are a lot of them; I did my senior thesis on him] is, "My friend shall forever be my friend and reflect a ray of God toward me."  Poor HDT was always looking for the "perfect" in this world, and always being frustrated by the lack of it.  Friendship was no different - he wrote many pages on the idea of friendship but had few close friends, and drifted apart from most of those he did have in the course of his life.  Unlike the True Friend envisioned in his quote above, there was no one to always be his friend, or to direct a ray of God toward him.

The life lived in Christ, however, should embody that ideal.  If we are to be brothers and sisters to each other, we are certainly called to be friends to each other, and in our friendship we will shine the love of God upon each other.

The writer of Ecclesiastes can be dark and pessimistic in tone, but when he turns to friendship, he shares true and heartening insights:
Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their labor: if either of them falls down, one can help the other up.  But pity anyone who falls and has no one to help them up.   Also, if two lie down together, they will keep warm.  But how can one keep warm alone?  Though one may be overpowered, two can defend themselves.  A cord of three strands is not quickly broken.
Jesus puts this wisdom into direct action when he sends out the Apostles (Mark 6:7) and then the Seventy-Two (Luke 10:1) to minister, "two by two."   These early Christians could support, protect, and advise each other, just as we can today.

I have been superbly blessed over the years by a large number of friends.  I have drifted apart from some over time, as happens with anyone, though in other cases miles and years have not dampened our ties.  And as the years go by new friends emerge, unexpectedly.  Over time I am impressed more and more by how crucial we are to each other, and how God has literally designed friendship as a tool for surviving in a world frought with snares and pitfalls.  He gives us to each other, for a season or for a lifetime, but in all cases we are gifts of God, one to each other.

John, the friend of Christ, the wise sage who writes in old age to the church, declares, "This is the message you heard from the beginning: we should love one another." (1 John 3:11)  In so many cases it is as simple as that: love one another - "reflect a ray of God to me," to you.  But to underscore the point, John goes one step further: "Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth." (1 John 3:18)

Jesus is our friend; the old camp songs proclaim this.  But he also sends us friends, to lift us up, to keep us warm, to fight our battles.  Be grateful he does, and always be ready and waiting for the next friend sent to you - and to whom you are sent - and thank God for them.