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, January 31, 2011

Becoming Everything

1 Corinthians 9:22b  "I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some."

I remember in college watching the Christian cliques eating together at secluded tables, seemingly afraid of their non-Christian, or at least non-overtly Christian, classmates, and whatever worldliness might rub off from them.  Of course they would smile and welcome any passer-by, but they only roomed with each other, ate with each other, dated each other, and studied with each other.  What sticks out in my memory are those times in the dining hall when six or eight of these students would gather at a table and begin their meal with a very obvious prayer.  But the prayer itself, in such marked contrast to what was happening around them, further set them apart from their peers. It was a way of saying, "We're in, you're out.  You can come in if you want, but we're not going to go looking for you. And by the way, we're relatively sure you're going to hell.  Have a nice day."

To this day, I feel uncomfortable praying before meals in a restaurant.  Not because I feel embarrassed, but because I worry that I am sending a message that I am part of an exclusive club.

Abraham Lincoln supposedly said, “You can please some of the people all of the time, you can please all of the people some of the time, but you can’t please all of the people all of the time.”  Well, I think we can all understand his point, but I also think Saint Paul might have argued with him on it a bit.  But then again Paul was speaking from a spiritual, and not a political, point of view. 

Have you ever thought before of all the different people -- types of people -- that Paul must have encountered during his journeys?  All across the Roman Empire, he came into very personal contact with every conceivable type of person, ranging from illiterate to learned, devout Jew to pagan, poverty-stricken to dazzlingly wealthy.  In all cases, Paul had one goal: to convince each of these people of the truth of Christ.  To do this, we are told here, he tried his best to be with them; not necessarily to be like them, but to be present, as we might say today, for those he was hoping to reach.
Though I am free and belong to no one, I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible.  To the Jews I became like a Jew, to win the Jews. To those under the law I became like one under the law ... so as to win those under the law.  To those not having the law I became like one not having the law ... so as to win those not having the law.  To the weak I became weak, to win the weak. (1 Cor. 9: 19-22a)
As I imagine Paul's demeanor to these diverse people, I picture him as never arrogant, never condescending, never self-righteous.  Yet at the same time he never gave in.  Even when conversing with a king, Paul spoke with respect yet with confidence:  "Then Agrippa said to Paul, 'Do you think that in such a short time you can persuade me to be a Christian?'  Paul replied, 'Short time or long—I pray to God that not only you but all who are listening to me today may become what I am, except for these chains.'"  (Acts 26:28-29)  Note that Paul's goal is to make Agrippa what Paul himself is -- a follower of Christ.  Indeed, in becoming all things to all people, Paul wants them to become like him, and to him, in Christ, he was everything he needed to be.

Paul's approach was not a new one, but was simply a mirror of the more perfect approach taken by Jesus. Think about it, Christ becomes all things to all men in the incarnation.  In fact Christ is taking the approach to its extreme, by coming from glory to share in each of our lives as a brother, in a way Paul never could have done, but could only emulate. 

Our lesson from this is to accept Paul's challenge to act as Christ acted in knowing and understanding and caring for all people where they are at in life, even as we hope to bring them to where we are.  When I think back to the secluded Christians huddled together at lunch, I wonder if they were, sadly, more afraid of what their worldly peers could do to them than they were confident of how they could transform those same people through Jesus.  Prudence is one thing; timidity is another.  In Christ, Paul could relate to anyone.  Surely we are called -- and empowered -- to do the same.

Monday, January 24, 2011


Amos 8:11-12  "'Behold, the days are coming,' declares the Lord God, 'when I will send a famine on the land—not a famine of bread, nor a thirst for water, but of hearing the words of the Lord. They shall wander from sea to sea, and from north to east; they shall run to and fro, to seek the word of the Lord, but they shall not find it.'"

Like many of the Old Testament prophets, Amos does an effective job at creating a word picture of doom and gloom.  This same talent is perhaps also part of why a good number of Christians -- just like a good number of the prophets' contemporaries -- prefer to ignore these messages.  In this passage, directed originally at the Northern Kingdom of Israel, we are presented a vivid picture of a people wandering about in search not of food and drink, but of something even more necessary and elusive.  They are seeking God's own word.  My first thought is the Garden of Eden, where in losing innocence through disobedience, Adam and Eve are left in a situation worse than hunger or thirst.  They have lost the very companionship of God.  He is still there, he still communicates with them, but they have lost their intimacy with him.  The picture in my imagination is one of despair and anguish, a palpable, almost physical, pain.  Such is the pain the people of Israel are undergoing in this prophecy of Amos.

And just as in the Garden of Eden, it is a pain they could have avoided.  The irony is that the very words they are ignoring -- the words given to them by the prophet -- are the same kind of words they will yearn to hear when the word-famine begins.  Why?  It is easy to ignore God when he is present and speaking; it is hard to bear it when he instead turns his back on us.  When God's patience with Israel would run out, when he would allow it to be overrun by its enemies, then the people would indeed recognize that any word from God is better than silence.  They would run from north to east, from sea to sea, but they would no longer find it.  Because they have not looked for God's word in the one place it was most easily found -- their very own hearts.

Reading this portion from Amos brings to mind Jesus' encounter with a Samaritan woman at a well, as told in John 4.  Jesus asks the Samaritan woman to draw water for him, and she expresses surprise that he would even speak to her, considering their ethnic differences.  Jesus replies with, “If you knew the gift of God, and who it is that is saying to you, ‘Give me a drink,’ you would have asked him, and he would have given you living water.”  And then, “Everyone who drinks of this water will be thirsty again, but whoever drinks of the water that I will give him will never be thirsty again. The water that I will give him will become in him a spring of water welling up to eternal life.”  The woman, intrigued, rightly answers, “Sir, give me this water, so that I will not be thirsty or have to come here to draw water.”

What is the tie to Amos?  Think about it: who are the Samaritans?  They are the descendants of Israelites left after the Northern Kingdom was taken into captivity, along with gentiles who moved into the area.  The Samaritans, indeed, represent [I think] those who were left without God's word, going to and fro in search of God's word but instead suffering a long famine.  That is, until Jesus comes along and offers up living water, the living word, to end the famine and drought in the land for good.

Today, we still have a lesson to learn from this passage.  The New Interpreter's Bible puts it better than I could:
Does the church recognize that its health and vigor, its very life, depends on one thing only -- not on efficiency of organization, not on breadth of programs, not on attractiveness of sanctuaries, services, and clergy -- but solely on the clear and faithful preaching of the Word of God as found in Scripture?  If it does, there is abundant evidence the church as a whole is not doing enough about it. (Vol. VII, p. 419, Donald Gowan)
It is a simple fact: where scripture is read, preached, taught, and respected, the church is growing; where it is challenged, distorted, or simply ignored, the church is dying.  Twenty-seven centuries separate us from Amos, but the same truth holds true. Thankfully, we have access to living water; all we need to do is ask for it.

Monday, January 17, 2011

Prayer Nest

Matthew 14:13  "Now when Jesus heard this, he withdrew from there in a boat to a desolate place by himself. But when the crowds heard it, they followed him on foot from the towns."

I've never been very adept at following along with the chronology of the Gospels. In other words, I am rarely aware of where Jesus is headed and when; the action blends together in my mind. So it was a special moment for me when I last read through Matthew 14 and realized the flow of the story.  The chapter starts with the death of John the Baptist at the hands of Herod.  When Jesus hears the news, all he wants to do is get away and have time alone.  But it doesn't work out that way.  And that's when things get interesting.

The crowds follow along and catch up with Jesus, interrupting his quest for solitude.  But Jesus has compassion on them, teaching and healing the people.  By the end of the day the disciples were faced with a problem -- how to feed all these people.  Of course Jesus takes care of this need by feeding the five thousand [or more to the point, "five thousand men, besides women and children"] using only five loaves and two fish.  But the day isn't over yet.

Jesus "immediately" sends the disciples ahead of him in a boat while he climbs onto a mountainside to pray.  When he has finished he begins to catch up with his followers by walking out toward them on the water.  At first they think they are seeing a ghost, but then they realize it is Jesus.  Peter steps out onto the water also but his faith is not enough to keep him going, and Jesus must save him.  "O you of little faith, why did you doubt?"

So think about it, two of the most famous stories of Jesus' ministry -- the feeding of the five thousand and Jesus walking on the water -- happened just because Jesus was trying to find a little time alone.

A friend of mine recently asked how I find solitude for prayer, and I admitted that I hardly do.  It's not an easy thing to find solitude, between work and family and the busy-ness of life.  Jesus was not immune to this problem -- the crowds would follow him.  But even in the story told in Matthew 14, Jesus does eventually find his opportunity to be alone.  We each need to do the same in our own way.  If we don't, we won't have the chance to connect directly with God without distraction; we won't recharge our spiritual battery.

Some people have a "prayer closet," but I think of myself as having a "prayer nest."  I do my best praying right in my bed, nestled in the blankets and focused on God in the darkness of the late night or early morning.  A few years ago I read a book entitled An Infinity of Little Hours, exploring a monastic order, and though I was not drawn to the entire lifestyle, I was captivated by the thought of the cells, and especially, the description of the monks in their simple beds, alone and apart from all the world, aside from God.  I can lay there in my bed and picture myself in such an austere setting, huddled against the cold drafts of the stone walls, with nothing ahead of me besides the job and pleasure of talking to God.  I lose myself in the thought and let it take me closer to him. 

Similarly, I have been intrigued for quite some time with the idea of the ancient monastic structures found on Skellig Michael, a severe rock, basically, off of the west coast of Ireland.  There, hundreds of years ago, monks built sturdy beehive-shaped cells out of stone, overlooking the sea.  As hard as life in that setting must have been, I can romanticize the thought of laying in my stone structure at night, as the North Atlantic rages outside and the rain and sleet pour down, while I am secure and apart from all the world, with nothing left to concentrate on but God.  These are the sort of places I go while in my own "prayer nest," attempting to separate myself from the cares and concerns of the day, and merely focus on the direct connection between myself and God.

But unlike the monks, the day must begin again, and I must leave my nest and its comforts behind.  Again, however, the same thing happened to Jesus.  The crowds found him, and interrupted his time alone.  But that's alright.  If he could feed the masses through a miracle, maybe I can do something worthwhile, at least, as I wait for time alone again.

Thursday, January 13, 2011

Strengthen My Hands

Nehemiah 6:9  "They were all trying to frighten us, thinking, 'Their hands will get too weak for the work, and it will not be completed.'  But I prayed, 'Now strengthen my hands.'"

When I think of building -- or rebuilding, rather -- a wall (not that I think of it often), the first thing that comes to mind is Robert Frost's poem, "Mending Wall."  The poem is famous for the line, "Good fences make good neighbors," but read it again.  It is not Frost saying this, but instead, his neighbor.  Frost asks rather, why build a wall between two orchards?  Besides:
Before I built a wall I'd ask to know
What I was walling in or walling out,
And to whom I was like to give offence.
But Frost is thinking much more deeply about the wall than is his neighbor, who knows only the simple maxim, good fences make good neighbors.

Over 2,400 years ago another wall was rebuilt, again by a thoughtful man, but not a man with the leisure to wonder what he was walling in or walling out.  He knew too well.  Nehemiah came to a shattered Jerusalem with a mandate to rebuild its wall and thus re-fortify the city, which was under constant threat from a litany of bellicose neighbors.  Thirteen years earlier a priest named Ezra had returned to Jerusalem to be a spiritual leader to the Jews who had left their exile in the Babylonian empire and made their way back to their ancestral home.  But without fortifications to protect the city, Ezra's work was largely in vain.

Word of this predicament reached Nehemiah in Persia. Nehemiah was a "cupbearer" to King Artaxerxes, and whatever that position fully meant, he certainly had access to the king and a degree of familiarity.  Seeing his downcast face the King asked Nehemiah what was wrong, and emboldened by God Nehemiah asked the king for permission to oversee the rebuilding of Jerusalem's walls.  Permission was granted, and Nehemiah went away on his mission.

Nehemiah rallied the people and led them with great skill in rebuilding the wall.  Above all else he withstood the intrigue of enemies bent on breaking his resolve.  When an open letter arrived as a scare tactic, accusing him of preparing to lead a rebellion against the Persian king, Nehemiah responded as he always had -- with prayer: "But now, O God, strengthen my hands." (ESV)

The job was completed in a matter of 52 days.

I see this verse as a true gem of the Old Testament.  We find here a man involved in seemingly mundane labor -- extraordinary in its historical context, yes, but still, he is leading an urban building project -- and yet in the midst of his troubles and stress he manages to call upon God in a way that is both simple and poignant.  It is a cry for help that echoes throughout the ages.  In a spiritual sense it is echoed in the Gospel of Mark, when the father of a demon-possessed boy says to Jesus, "I believe; help my unbelief!" (Mark 9:24)

On a daily basis we are attacked by enemies.  Often these enemies are not attacking us directly but instead, like Nehemiah's enemies, they are using our fears and insecurities against us. You know who and what your enemies are, and how they most like to threaten you.  Each of us has our own enemies to deal with in our relationships, our finances, our workplace, our bodies.  Yet also on a daily basis we can go to God and say, "Strengthen my hands."

Monday, January 10, 2011

Life Verse

Proverbs 16:3  "Commit your work to the Lord, and your plans will be established."

I don't recall the first time that I heard or read this verse out of Proverbs, but it was almost certainly while I was still in high school and just starting my exploration of scripture.  From that early time, I remember thinking of this verse as a personal motto, or as something I could carry with me throughout my life.  It would be many more years before I would hear the term, "life verse," but when I heard the term I realized this is exactly what Proverbs 16:3 has been for me.

Of course, when I first encountered it, it was in the King James Version, and therefore what I memorized and think of today is, "Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established."  From the beginning I literally saw this as a direct command to me, personally, and nothing in the Bible, from Genesis through Revelation, has ever spoken to me with such clarity and relevance.  God decided long ago to make this the message I would most distinctly hear, for reasons that are His own.  My job for over twenty years has been to try, again and again, to internalize its wisdom.

I've been thinking a lot about scripture lately.  A few days ago I finally completed a Bible-in-a-year program which involved a steady, daily reading of three, four, or five chapters of scripture every day.  It wasn't easy, but it was fulfilling. I'd read the Bible through before, and I have reread portions of it time after time, but I had not read it in this manner until last year.  Doing so, I learned a great deal, not merely about the contents of the Bible, but also about what the book is -- what Christian scripture is.

I realized again the vibrancy and vitality of the Holy Book.  It is easy to flip open the Bible to some random page and think that it is impenetrable and even boring, but when seen as a whole, the Bible is an amazing document, spanning not only time, but also the depth of literature, from the wisdom of Ecclesiastes to the theological fullness of Romans, from the pain of Lamentations to the glory of Matthew, the Book has it all. 

Yet how few of us even attempt to truly live amongst its pages and live out its message?  Reading the Bible is a start, yes, but it is a work so vast and so rich that it takes more than reading it to absorb it.  We need to read it with an eye toward finding familiarity, while never losing the wonder of our first encounter with the Holy Word.  Entire churches, entire communities, have ignored the Bible, or read it from too mundane a perspective, and therefore, lost its meaning.  In the short story L'Ingenu, Voltaire presents a Huron Indian encountering European culture, and religion, it the late seventeenth century.  He reads the Bible, and is shocked by the discrepancy between the scripture itself and the religion which claims to represent it.  "I notice every day," he says, "that innumerable things go on here which are not in your Book, and that nobody follows what it says."  Indeed, are we better?  How many of us live out the message of the Bible?  How many of us sincerely begin to try?  I have a long way to go myself, I know.

But it is a book written for us, for each of us, as if each and every one of us happened to be the only intended audience.  When the Bible is read in sincerity, with openness of mind and soul, it speaks directly to us as individuals.  It provides us with that certain something -- variously called a roadmap, a guidebook, a compass -- that we need in order to live our lives with meaning and purpose.  The Bible itself does not provide the inspiration -- that is God's role -- but it is indeed our source of instruction. 

And so can any of us be surprised to find a special verse that speaks to us on a level that no other words of scripture do?  Surely not.   "Commit thy works unto the Lord, and thy thoughts shall be established."  If I had never read those words, or perhaps more to the point, if God had never written them within my heart, what would I be doing now?  Not writing these thoughts, that is certain.