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.

Thursday, March 24, 2011


Matthew 4:1  "Then Jesus was led by the Spirit into the desert to be tempted by the devil."

From Pasolini's "The Gospel According to
St. Matthew" - 1964
In a way it seems peculiar, even cruel.  As soon as Jesus is baptized, as soon as the Spirit descends and the voice of the Father proclaims his sonship, at the culmination of that high moment, Jesus is, in a way, cast out of Eden.  From the cleansing waters of John's baptismal Galilee, Jesus is led straight to the cleansing pain of a desert encounter.  There, fasting for 40 days, alone, Jesus meets the enemy -- his and ours.  It is an assignation as planned and as unavoidable as the crucifixion, and just as mysterious.  God in the flesh, lowering himself to the state of a starving man, meets evil incarnate in a lonely place.  If ever Jesus deigned to live a human life to know and feel what we know and feel, it was here, in the desert.

Temptation is everywhere.  It takes on countless forms and it meets us every hour. From the trivial to the momentous, it surrounds our lives. Even the non-believer must grapple with temptation, and every person must find their ethical balance on a daily basis. But for the believer there is a special strength that comes from knowing that even Christ himself was tempted, seriously so, and yet conquered.  If he can do it, then we can do it also.
In the fourth century a man we now know as Saint Antony went into the desert to find God, to find himself, and to find his strength in God.  We know about him because a great church leader, Athanasius of Alexandria, wrote the story of Antony's life.  Antony was basically the first monk.  But he was more than that.  He was a champion, of sorts, who went up against the devil in hand-to-hand combat. And he won.

During the lonely nights in the North African wilderness, demons tempted and terrorized Antony with impunity.  He lived out a horror movie in his daily life, beleaguered by apparitions, physically abused by the devil's minions.  Yet he found that his faith would always save him, and that the simple mention of Jesus' name was often enough to make these visions melt. But he knew that all of us, no matter our level of maturity and no matter our walk of life, encounter persecution and temptation, and this was his advice:
The demons, therefore, if they see all Christians, and monks especially, labouring cheerfully and advancing, first make an attack by temptation and place hindrances to hamper our way, to wit, evil thoughts. But we need not fear their suggestions, for by prayer, fasting, and faith in the Lord their attack immediately fails. But even when it does they cease not, but knavishly by subtlety come on again. For when they cannot deceive the heart openly with foul pleasures they approach in different guise, and thenceforth shaping displays they attempt to strike fear, changing their shapes, taking the forms of women, wild beasts, creeping things, gigantic bodies, and troops of soldiers. But not even then need ye fear their deceitful displays. For they are nothing and quickly disappear, especially if a man fortify himself beforehand with faith and the sign of the cross.
The temptation to sin, the temptation to fear, the temptation to doubt -- all of these are external forces caused by our enemy.  God does not tempt.  He allows temptation to occur, but He does not create it.  Instead, he carries us through it. 

God also knows that sometimes we lose sight of him and fail.  Sometimes we sink into the water; sometimes we forget that He is more powerful than our enemy.  When those moments come, when we fail to live up to the standard of Jesus in the desert, God is there to remind us that He still understands, and still forgives.

In Romans 7, Paul explains his struggle with temptation:
I do not understand what I do. For what I want to do I do not do, but what I hate I do. And if I do what I do not want to do, I agree that the law is good.  As it is, it is no longer I myself who do it, but it is sin living in me. For I know that good itself does not dwell in me, that is, in my sinful nature. For I have the desire to do what is good, but I cannot carry it out. For I do not do the good I want to do, but the evil I do not want to do—this I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want to do, it is no longer I who do it, but it is sin living in me that does it. So I find this law at work: Although I want to do good, evil is right there with me. For in my inner being I delight in God’s law; but I see another law at work in me, waging war against the law of my mind and making me a prisoner of the law of sin at work within me. What a wretched man I am! Who will rescue me from this body that is subject to death? Thanks be to God, who delivers me through Jesus Christ our Lord! (15-25a)
In the Nazarene church I have heard it argued that this portion of scripture applies to those who were living under the Law, not to Christians.  Yet others interpret it as a reflection of Paul's lifelong struggle with temptation, just as we all struggle with our earthly, imperfect bodies and minds in this world.  Either way, I remember my relief, and my hope, when I first encountered these words, and realized through them that even when we fall short of the mark, Jesus' grace is still sufficient to let us start again, to stand up with dignity and move ahead.  His grace blots out our sins and our mistakes.  We face temptation every day.  Sometimes, we stumble.  But He who did not stumble loves us anyway, and is there to set us right again, time after time.

Friday, March 18, 2011

Prayer is Faith

It's been a busy week and I haven't gotten to add anything here (though some ideas are in my head).  So, to keep the blog fresh, I am at least posting a selection from a manuscript I am working on (and have been working on, for a long time). I hope you'll enjoy it:

            Prayer is faith.  Prayer transcends mere words to embrace the unspoken communication between God and the believer.  It can take the form of words, but it is first and foremost an expression of faith. 
            The disciples were perplexed, and perhaps not a little bit frightened, when they failed to drive an evil spirit out of a young boy.  The spirit, according to the boy’s father, had afflicted him most of his life, robbing him of speech, and making him fall to the ground, foaming at the mouth.  Unlike other cases, the disciples seemed unable to cast the spirit out, and a crowd was forming around them, arguing.
            Jesus came upon this scene and asked what was happening.  The father explained the situation, and pleaded with Jesus, “If you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”  In answering, Jesus explained that “Anything is possible for him who believes.”
            The boy’s father replied with words which resound even now in our ears and our hearts.  “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief.”
            Jesus went on to cast the demon out of the boy.  When the disciples later asked him why they had been unable to drive it out, Jesus’ answer was both simple and cryptic: “This kind can come out only by prayer.”
            Nowhere in the account does Jesus pray; he simply commands.  But what Jesus does which the disciples did not do, and the father could not do, was to believe.  Jesus harbored no doubts, and even as faithful as the others in this story may have been, they did not have his level of faith.  Jesus prayed to the Father simply by believing, by being in constant communion with him.  When Jesus raised Lazarus from the dead, he prayed aloud, “Father, I thank you that you have heard me.  I knew that you always hear me, but I said this for the benefit of the people standing here, that they may believe that you sent me.”  Jesus and the Father were never distant; they could always hear one another.  And so when Jesus prayed, it was a prayer that transcended words, for the father already knew the prayer, and was already responding.  This is a prayer that comes only through faith, pure faith.  It is a prayer which is within our grasp, but to take hold of it, we must first let go of so much else.
            Once we give ourselves up to God, prayer becomes the root of our ministry.  Only through prayer can we maintain our strength and do anything constructive for others.  Prayer is not magical, but it is miraculous.  Prayer is not part of a cause and effect formula; it transcends such logic, because prayer is faith.  Prayer is an expression of love not between, but among – among the believer, God, and all others.  I do not need to pray to God to tell him my needs or the needs of others, as if he didn’t already know.  But when I pray I am adding my love and my faith to the great communion of which Christ is the head.  My prayer does not help something happen as if I were voting or adding a brick to a wall, but instead my prayer becomes a part of the miracle that God can and will cause to occur.  That the miracle rarely appears to be extraordinary does not make it less miraculous.  Even a smile is a miracle when God makes it happen.
            The first prayer in the Bible, or the first mention of a prayer, belongs to Abraham.  After having entered Gerar he feared for the safety of himself and his wife, Sarah, so he told the people there that she was his sister, not his wife.  The king, Abimelech, took Sarah as his own.  But before he could unknowingly commit adultery, God intervened and told him the truth.  God also demanded that he give Sarah back to Abraham, and have Abraham pray for him, so that no harm would befall him.  Having given Sarah back and having made every effort to make Abraham welcome, Abraham did indeed pray to God, and God healed Abimelech and his household. 
            Abraham’s prayer was not needed in a material way in order for God to save Abimelech.  In other words, God could do as he wished, and Abraham’s prayer would not in and of itself cause God to act (or not to act).  However, Abraham’s prayer, his expression of faith, was a necessary sign of forgiveness and communion between the two men, bonding them together and bonding them to God.   The most important lesson for us is that Abraham was empowered to pray despite being at fault himself.  Having told everyone that Sarah was his sister, Abraham had made an opportunity for Abimelech to unknowingly sin.  And yet Abraham’s prayer was still valid and, in fact, God ordained it.  Our own sinful nature and our own wrong actions do not preclude us from praying, either for others or for ourselves.  In a way, that fact is part of the miraculous nature of prayer.
In praying, in exercising our faith, we move closer into the embrace of God.  Without prayer we are susceptible to our spiritual enemies. With prayer we ward off temptations and doubts.  Paul tells us to put on the full armor of God.  He calls upon us to wear the belt of truth, the breastplate of righteousness, the shield of faith, the helmet of salvation, and to wield the sword of the Spirit.  But above all this, he tells us to “pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”  Only through prayer can we defend ourselves against the Evil One, and only through prayer can we become worthwhile ministers to the people of God.
            Prayer is the seminal tool which we can use to care for others, for when we pray we share our very love with others through the intercession of Christ.  The greatest mistake Job’s friends made when they came to comfort him was that they did not pray for Job.  Upon arriving they were amazed by his condition and his suffering, and they sat in apparent silence with him for seven days and nights.  But nowhere are we told that they prayed for him.  Their malicious comments to him, their certainty of his guilt, were not as malignant as the fact that they did not pray.  In prayer, they would have been together; without prayer, they remained apart.  At the end of Job’s story God renounces the three friends for speaking wrongly of the Lord, and he demands their contrition.  But just as with Abraham and Abimelech, God states that Job will pray for his friends, and the prayer will be accepted.  In the end, Job himself does the only true human ministry in this story, praying for those who did not know how to pray for him.
James explains to us the power of prayer:
Is any one of you in trouble? He should pray. Is anyone happy? Let him sing songs of praise.  Is any one of you sick? He should call the elders of the church to pray over him and anoint him with oil in the name of the Lord.  And the prayer offered in faith will make the sick person well; the Lord will raise him up.  If he has sinned, he will be forgiven.  Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed.  The prayer of a righteous man is powerful and effective.

This short exhortation tells us so much.  We are to pray at all times, for our needs as well as for our joys, and for the needs of others.  We must pray in righteousness and in faith, because prayer is faith.  And, we are told, prayer works.  But perhaps James would add that the power of prayer is simply a manifestation of God’s love for us, oftentimes reflected in our love for each other.
            Paul told the Thessalonians, “Pray continually,” and he backs up this command with his own practice, telling them also, “We constantly pray for you, that our God may count you worthy of his calling.”  But what does it mean to pray continuously?  Some have implemented this command in their lives by keeping a particular prayer always on their lips – The Jesus Prayer.  But perhaps Paul’s statement is about something deeper than mere words, or even mere thoughts.  If prayer is faith, then by being always faithful, we are always in prayer.  When we place our life and spirit into the hands of God, he will open us up as a living prayer, just as the sun opens a flower in the morning to release its beauty and its scent.  Spoken prayers may come of this submission, but a deeper prayer is always in our heart, one which words cannot express. 
            After Paul, or Saul, had been stricken blind on the road to Damascus, he prayed.  Simultaneously, the Lord called to a man named Ananias is a vision.  God’s command to Ananias is startling: “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.”  For he is praying.  In seeking guidance from God, God gives Saul guidance, and he does so through the instrument of another believer.  The fabric of faith is revealed in prayer.
            Our prayers and our faith are commingled and joined with the love of God.  Paul tells the Ephesians, “Pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the saints.”  Our prayers are to be universal, for all persons and all situations.  Our prayers are joined with those of other believers and are recognized in heaven.  John of Patmos in his vision encountered “golden bowls full of incense, which are the prayers of the saints,” and an angel with a golden censer, who was “given much incense to offer, with the prayers of all the saints, on the golden altar before the throne.”  To consider our prayers as incense before the throne of God is to put their importance and depth in an entirely new light.  They are more than messages to God, they are offerings to him.  Together, the combined prayers of all believers are the greatest, and perhaps the only, gift we are able to give to the Lord.  They represent the gifts of our love and faith, which are themselves first a gift to us from God.

Tuesday, March 8, 2011

Better Off Dead

Philippians 1: 21-24   "For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labor for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know! I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body."

I was reading tonight about Said Musa, an Afghan man who was arrested and faced with the death penalty for having converted to Christianity.  He has endured beatings, sexual abuse, sleep deprivation, and other horrors for the crime of choosing the Christian faith.  My understanding is that he was recently released, an outcome that was not expected.  Yet just as easily he may very well have been executed, and I am certain that his life is still in danger as it is.

At moments like this I have to contemplate just how utterly coddled I am, and most of the rest of us are, as Christians.  I hear a lot of talk about the "persecution" of Christians in America.  We have no right to use the word. 

Paul knew what it meant to be persecuted, and he knew what it meant to see beyond persecution to the promise of eternity with Christ.  He states here plainly that he yearns for the day when he can join Christ and abide in paradise, leaving the problems of this world behind.  Yet he also knows that for the fleeting moment of his life, he has a job to do, and so he grudgingly accepts his present work knowing that the future is not that far away.

How is it that a persecuted Christian, an embattled Christian, an imprisoned Christian, can stare death in the face and accept it with open arms while we, in the modern, safe, Western world, remain petrified of our end?  Why can't we grasp the fact that when we, as believers, come to the end of this life, eternity begins?  Too often we see our death as a thing to fear, when we should be seeing it as a tremendous gift.  The great Christian apologist Malcolm Muggeridge may have said it best: "I rejoice in it.  I love it.  If it weren't for death, life would be unbearable."

I would maintain that there is indeed a healthy form of Christian fatalism.  I say this because I also know the unhealthy form. It was a burden I carried for years, and I know I am not alone it that experience.  As a younger man I was steeped in depression, though I managed to function despite its effects.  In fact, I saw it as an inspiration, a form of impetus, and a companion of sorts.  It was that part of me that forced me to work harder and think harder in order to avoid the pain of meaningless despair.  It drove me toward a deeper spiritual journey as I sought out purpose, and it made me gain a sense of empathy for others as I felt a lingering pain in my heart almost all the time, and I therefore realized better the pain others feel. 

As I struggled with depression, I found myself realizing again and again how much I yearned for it to finally be over in a complete and permanent sense.  I found myself yearning for death, as it was in death that joy would finally enter my heart.  I was not suicidal, as I had no thoughts of taking matters into my own hands, but I was indeed guilty of what I have heard described as the worst of sins -- despair.

But then, out of the blue, God came to my aid.  In May 2005, I had an awakening that changed my life forever.  Here is how I described it in my journal:
I had a great epiphany last week, on the 12th I believe, while in the midst of one of my depressions.  I have long struggled with thoughts of and desires for death, and have wished many times for my death when in the midst of depression.  But after having heard the hymn "He Touched Me" on the radio, and somehow having been deeply moved, I realized that all along it had been an illusion -- it had been the devil who wanted me dead, not me.  All of this time, all of these years, my fatalism had simply been placed there in my mind by the enemy, and it was not natural to me.  I have been greatly strengthened by this realization.
I still remember standing there in my living room, awestruck, almost stricken, by this simple, seemingly obvious revelation.  But I had been blind, and then suddenly, I could see.

And what did that song say?
Shackled by a heavy burden
'Neath a load of guilt and shame
Then the hand of Jesus touched me
Now I am no longer the same.
He touched me, oh He touched me
And oh the joy that floods my soul
Something happened and now I know
He touched me and made me whole.
What I may have recalled as I listened to the radio was the fact that I had suggested this hymn for my grandmother's funeral service just a few months earlier.  After decades of bad health, she had been made whole at last.  And that was the lesson that stuck with me.  Death is not the panacea, but it is the reward.  For people of faith it is indeed to be hoped for, looked forward to, but it must never usurp the work of the present day.  It must never usurp the joy of the present day.  Paul knew this full well.  His rest would come in time; until then he had God's work to do.  And God would be with him on the journey.

The key to dealing with death is to see it for what it is, the final door to total life.  I truly pity those who have no belief in the afterlife and who fully assume that at the moment they die, everything is over.  What kind of terrifying prospect that has to be.  I am thankful to know, in the depths of my being, that when my last moment arrives, I will be welcomed into God's own realm.  I fear the process of dying, but I don't fear death.  I know full well not to fear it at all.  In fact, as the old man said, I rejoice in it.  I love it.  If it weren't for death, life would be unbearable.

Saturday, March 5, 2011

Wait For It

Habakkuk 2:3  "For still the vision awaits its appointed time; it hastens to the end—it will not lie.  If it seems slow, wait for it; it will surely come; it will not delay."

I received an e-mail from an acquaintance the other day and noticed she used this verse as her signature line.  It made me think.

The prophet Habakkuk explores a question that crosses all of our minds on occasion: why do the righteous suffer while evil-doers seem to prosper?  As he puts it in his petition to God, "Why do you idly look at traitors and remain silent when the wicked swallows up the man more righteous than he?"  Certainly, Habakkuk is far from alone in the history of the world in asking God such a question.

So God tells Habakkuk to write down the vision he is about to receive and to share it, and then God guarantees the validity of the vision.  God basically goes on to say that the proud and the evil will be laid low, but this one verse reminds us that it will all take place in God's time.

Habakkuk's theme is justice delayed.  There is something in human nature that yearns for fairness, for justice.  Even little children, almost instinctively, understand when they or others are not being treated fairly.  They can grasp the concept of injustice, even if they cannot place a name on it.  Adulthood does not change that; we want things to be right and fair, and when they aren't, something deep within us is stirred.  Being a Christian does not change this instinct.  Indeed, it may even heighten our desire for fairness and, more specifically, for justice.  Yet what is justice but the desire for vindication?  We want assurance that we are in the right, assurance that evil will not triumph, assurance that the scales aren't rigged. 

Job is an excellent example of the desire for justice.  Left in misery and disgrace for no apparent reason, Job cries out for God to set things right.  His friends insist he has surely sinned, for why else would he be suffering except as a result of God's justice?  Yet Job knows he is an innocent man, and he must rely on God to prove it.  "I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth." (19:25)  And in Revelation we see that even in the heavenly realms this yearning is not erased, and not even assuaged:
When he opened the fifth seal, I saw under the altar the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained. They called out in a loud voice, “How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?” Then each of them was given a white robe, and they were told to wait a little longer, until the number of their fellow servants and brothers who were to be killed as they had been was completed. (6: 9-11)
Like Job, like Habakkuk, like the martyrs, we call out to God for justice.  God's reaction to our need is twofold.  First, it is to reassure us that justice will come.  Second, it is to relieve us of the burden altogether.  "Vengeance is mine, I will repay," says Romans 12: 19.  Habakkuk comes to God with the question, when will you give the evil what they deserve?  God reassures him that the time is coming soon.  But further, the New Testament teaches us that we need not concern ourselves with the question of revenge.  It does not belong to us; it is not our job.  It is not our burden.

But there seems to be even more to this single verse as well, a larger, fuller promise. "The vision awaits its appointed time."  If this vision, given by God, is true and ensured, so too are all the visions given by God, to prophets, to patriarchs, and indeed to each of us.  Each time we feel the Spirit touch us with a promise, we can know with full confidence that God will act.  His promises never fail.  Remember this beautiful assurance from Joshua 21:45 -- "Not one word of all the good promises that the Lord had made to the house of Israel had failed; all came to pass."  Over the years I've had those moments when a fervent prayer was answered quietly with a promise, a promise that in the end it would be alright, that the answers would come, that God was moving.  These "visions" are as full of truth, as inviolable, as any vision given by God to a great Hebrew prophet.  You, I, Habakkuk, Job, Isaiah, Elijah, Daniel, Moses, Abraham...Peter, Paul, John...we all share the same perfect, omniscient, omnipresent, omnipotent God.  When God speaks, when the still, soft voice comes, no matter who we are, no matter what our place, no matter what our problem, the promise is the same -- God will fulfill his word, and the vision will hold true, in God's time.  Just wait for it.