Archive for the ‘Literature’ Category

“There’s a wideness in God’s mercy like the wideness of the sea;
There is kindness in His justice which is more than liberty.
There is welcome for the sinner, and more graces for the good;
There is mercy with the Saviour; there is healing in His blood.” – hymn by Frederick William Faber
O Lord inspire our hearts today to know you and to trust you more, to your honor and glory. AMEN.

Heads up: Today’s sermon is going to be a little dark.  It kind of fits the weather today. And besides, we’re only a few weeks away from Lent, and this sermon goes well with Lent.

We’ll be looking today mostly at the reading from Jeremiah (Jeremiah 17:5-10) which leads off with the words: “Thus says the Lord: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength…”

Jeremiah is speaking to the rulers of Israel, and through them to the people of Israel, during Israel’s darkest days: dark, because the nation was in complete and total rebellion against God.  Jeremiah’s task was to warn them that if they didn’t turn back to God, the kingdom would fall and the people would go into exile – which is exactly what happened not long afterwards.  Jeremiah’s listeners responded by making fun of him and persecuting him and saying “can’t you ever say anything positive???”

That’s the context of today’s reading. But today I don’t want to focus so much on ancient history as I want to talk about now, recent history, and present day, in a sermon called “Parched or Planted?”

Parched or Planted?

Jeremiah, sharing God’s word and God’s heart, tells the people ‘you have a choice.’ Your life can either be like a shriveled up little shrub trying to squeeze water out of what’s essentially a lava-field or desert sand, or your life can be like a tree planted near a fresh-water stream, never dry and always producing fruit.  And God says through Jeremiah what makes the difference between the two, is what direction the heart is pointed in: the dried-up shrub has a heart that is turned away from God; the fruitful tree has a heart that trusts God.

The President of Jewish Theological Seminary, Behar Behukkotai, recently pointed out that in the Hebrew language and in Jewish thought, God’s curses are related to drought and dryness and a failure of crops. He writes that the Law of Moses teaches us to live by faith in this regard.  The law says “Do not sow seed in the seventh year, as you do the other six.” Be confident that God will take care of your needs that year and the next. Buy and sell property knowing that, in the jubilee year, all property will revert to its original owners. Walk through the land… tak[ing] responsibility for its stewardship… follow[ing] God’s commands, and subordinat[ing] your will to God.”

Behukkotai sees a parallel between disobedience to these commands and idolatry.  And when he talks about “being confident that God will take care of our needs” in the sabbath year – this is the definition of what Jeremiah is talking about when he says “trust in the Lord”. This kind of trust is not just an intellectual thing; it means to rest in, to feel completely safe. And so the question comes to us today: are we trusting in human power, or are we trusting the Lord? Are we parched, or are we planted?

The answer to these questions may not be as easy as we think.  At the end of our passage in Jeremiah, God comments: “The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse – who can understand it?” This is not a change of subject; it’s a continuation of the earlier thoughts.  So in case we start thinking, “I know which direction my heart is pointed in,” God confronts us with the fact that we don’t even know our own hearts.

And this is where the message begins to get dark.

Even psychologists will tell us that we don’t really know ourselves; that all of us have at least some mild neuroses; and, as the saying goes, “‘Normal’ is only a setting on the dryer.”  In some ways we can only know ourselves by getting feedback from others, and that’s why intimate relationships and friendships with faithful people are so important. The apostle Paul tells us to “encourage one another and build up each other” (I Thess 5:11) and we can do this for each other because we are able to see things from different perspectives and help each other fill in some of the missing information.

But then we have to take into account that other people aren’t perfect either, and the fact is, we often hurt each other without meaning to. You may remember the old song “You Always Hurt the One You Love”. This is not some sado-masochistic theme song, it’s reality: only the people closest to us are in a position to hurt us deeply. And I know, for myself, my prayers of confession are incomplete; there are a lot of sins I’ve forgotten already, a lot of memories that have faded over the years, and a lot of things I’ve done that I can’t begin to explain. We really don’t know our own hearts.

By way of illustration: Over the past few months I’ve been reading a couple of books that bring the depth of our human lack of self-knowledge into brilliant focus. The first book was a best-seller back in the 1960s called Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer, who was one of Adolf Hitler’s closest friends.  The second book is written by prize-winning European journalist Gitta Sereny, called Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth.

I should explain I was drawn to these two books by many conversations I’ve had recently with people who are afraid that Nazi-ism is on the rise in America today, and in the world in general. I think there’s a great deal that 21st-century people can learn from these two books, and I recommend both.

Speer’s book

Speer’s book is a memoir: an inside view of Nazi Germany, which he wrote while serving 20 years in prison for war crimes.  He tries to be as detailed with his memories as he can be, and he brings to life all the major characters of the Nazi hierarchy. The first thing that struck me as I was reading this book was that he is talking about people.  Today we make Nazis into monsters, which is a natural thing to do knowing what they did, and remembering all millions who died; but putting a human face on the perpetrators is necessary if we are going to say “never again” and make it stick. Because if the Nazis were not human, then Nazi Germany was just a fluke, and it never will happen again.  But if these people were human then we must remember, and we must keep watch, and we must say “never again” and make it stick, because the possibility is always there.

Speer as Hitler’s Architect

So Speer’s book is the confessions of one man who realized what he’d fallen into – but too late. He had served Hitler first as an architect, and then as Minister of Armaments, he provided all the materials the army needed for the war. He was convicted of war crimes at Nuremburg because some of the factories he controlled made illegal use of prisoners of war and other forced labor.  But Speer is known to history as the only Nazi who ever said “I’m sorry.” Towards the end of the war, when they knew the war was lost, and Hitler was descending into suicidal madness and ordering a “scorched earth” policy for Germany, Speer traveled the country countermanding Hitler’s orders and telling the people “when the Allies get here, for God’s sake surrender. Don’t blow up the factories, don’t blow up the bridges, leave something standing for the next generation.”  And then… he risked his life to return to Berlin and tell Hitler what he’d done, and to say ‘goodbye’. There was something in Speer that could not let go of the charisma of this madman. And Speer can’t explain this; he finds that he doesn’t even understand himself.

Gitta Sereny’s book

So the second book I read is titled well: “Albert Speer: His Battle With Truth”. Gitta Sereny spent 12 years of her life researching this book, including three years of interviews with Speer himself in which she becomes the most brilliant psychologist I’ve ever read, holding her own self out of the picture, and asking him questions that slowly tease the truth out of his memories, for 700 pages.

Speer being interviewed by Sereny

If you want to know her conclusions you’ll have to read the book. Or you could save yourself some time and read Jeremiah.  “Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals…”  Nazi Germany was taken in by one particularly evil mortal, but any mortal will do to prove the truth of this verse. If our trust is in political leaders, economic leaders, even religious leaders, we’re going to find ourselves in some very parched places.

But! Blessed are those who trust in the Lord.  They shall not fear when drought comes; they will be like trees that stay green; they will not cease to bear fruit.

And Gitta Sereny’s book gives a brilliant example of this.

After spending 20 years in prison, from 1946 to 1966 – think about how much the world changed in those two decades – Speer was released and was faced with rebuilding his life. And one day he received a letter from a Jewish rabbi by the name of Aba Geis, a man who trusted in the Lord. He wrote:

Sehr geehrter Herr Speer,

In 1963 I read G.M. Gilbert’s Nuremburg Diary, and after that I thought of you time and again. You were different from the others accused at the Nuremburg trial and I found the sentence you were given too severe…

Not long ago I saw parts of two of your TV interviews and was again impressed by you. You will have to go on bearing your lot, as I and the survivors must bear ours. But I did want to tell you that even where I don’t understand you, I respect you.  But even more than that, as a devout Jew, I feel that there has to be forgiveness, and I am profoundly convinced that you are under the star of this forgiveness, for you are today an honest man.  I haven’t read your book yet, but… I didn’t want to delay until then sending you these few words.

With warm greetings, Raphael Geis

Speer commented to Sereny, “I think the day I received that letter was one of the most important days of my life.”  The two men became friends and remained friends until Geis’s death.

This letter contains the words of a man who is a tree planted by water; who knows the truth of human hearts, and who places his trust in the Lord. And with his trust in God, he turned the heart of a former Nazi.

Sereny quotes one other letter from Geis in her book that I think speaks very clearly to life in the 21st century, as well as illustrating the words of Jeremiah. Geis writes to Speer:

“When I was a young rabbi in Munich, at the beginning of the Third Reich, I couldn’t allow myself tears, because I had to be strong for the confused and frightened Jews in my care. That is how I survived Buchenwald… [and the passing of] my sister and her family at Auschwitz. Why do I write you this? Certainly not in order to open up a mercifully drawn curtain, but to tell you that my own fate in the Third Reich… taught me that one cannot categorize human beings. I knew, for instance, high-ranking Nazis whose helpfulness was exemplary, and I knew of Jews who denounced me to the Gestapo. I always understood about the quality of the world’s so-called compassion… Without the cowardly silence of the great powers, Hitler would never have become the awful reaper of death he became. And in the subsequent years? Vietnam, Greece, Spain, South America, South Africa… If one does not wish to despair and if one recognizes that the battle is on many fronts, then one knows that the first victory is to say time and time again “Yes” to individual human beings. I can look upon you as a comrade because I sense you to be true…”

This is a foretaste of life in God’s kingdom: this is a place where living waters flow; where there is nothing to fear, and nothing is lacking. As Jeremiah says, God searches human hearts: to understand, and to bring truth: but ‘searching’ a wound is also the beginning of healing. And so we see in Luke, Jesus comes as the great healer. Luke says: “Power came out from him and healed them all” – that is, all who were following Jesus. Jesus didn’t heal everybody in Israel that day, but he healed all who were there… everyone who put their trust in him.

BTW there’s a lovely postscript to the story these books tell: just last month, Albert Speer’s daughter received the Obermayer German Jewish History Award, presented on Holocaust Remembrance Day (2019), for work she has done creating a foundation to support Jewish women artists. And they remark that she also has welcomed refugees from Syria and Afghanistan to live her own home.

Parched or planted: the decision is ours.  We live in a world that is dying of thirst, and yet continues to put its faith in mere mortals; a world that trusts in human power, in spite of the fact that human power has led to tragedy over and over and over.

Will we live like dried-up shrubs in the desert? Or will we live like fruit trees planted by the stream? And the fruit we bear – what will it help others to become? As we turn our hearts to the Lord in trust – resting in God’s goodness and mercy – Jesus brings healing and the hope of rich blessings to come. In a world of uncertainty, this we can trust. AMEN.




Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, Pittsburgh 2/17/19


Jeremiah 17:5-10  Thus says the LORD: Cursed are those who trust in mere mortals and make mere flesh their strength, whose hearts turn away from the LORD.  6 They shall be like a shrub in the desert, and shall not see when relief comes. They shall live in the parched places of the wilderness, in an uninhabited salt land.  7 Blessed are those who trust in the LORD, whose trust is the LORD.  8 They shall be like a tree planted by water, sending out its roots by the stream. It shall not fear when heat comes, and its leaves shall stay green; in the year of drought it is not anxious, and it does not cease to bear fruit.  9 The heart is devious above all else; it is perverse– who can understand it?  10 I the LORD test the mind and search the heart, to give to all according to their ways, according to the fruit of their doings.

Luke 6:17-26   He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon.

 18 They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured.  19 And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them.

 20 Then he looked up at his disciples and said: “Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God.  21 “Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. “Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh.  22 “Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man.  23 Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets.

 24 “But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation.  25 “Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. “Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep.  26 “Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.”


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Specifically, “Are Nazis really on the rise again, here in America? And if so, what can people do to work against the trend?”

And another haunting question, perhaps seemingly unrelated at first: “Does the current worldwide refugee crisis — and our response to it — contain echoes of World War II that we ignore at our own spiritual peril?”

How does one begin to answer questions like this without falling into a quagmire of pop-culture politics, without being lost in the noise of morally bankrupt mantras of the major political parties and media pundits?

My instincts say: Seek out original sources contemporary to WWII.

A few months ago as I was mulling over these thoughts I discovered a book on my shelves I didn’t even know I owned: Inside the Third Reich by Albert Speer.

I’d never heard of the book, or of Speer, even though both were on the best-seller lists in the 1960’s. For those who are as in the dark as I was, Speer was an architect hired by Adolf Hitler to design many of the government buildings and civic projects that were built during the early (mostly pre-war) years of the Nazi regime.  When WWII got under way Hitler promoted Speer to Minister of Armaments, where he had responsibility to manufacture everything Germany needed for the war. Speer was also one of Hitler’s closest personal associates — personally overwhelmed by Hitler’s personal charisma and yet professionally with a mind sharp enough to navigate the bizarre political waters that were the upper echelons of the Nazi party.  When it became clear Germany was not going to win the war, and that Hitler was determined to take Germany down with him in his suicidal mania, the scales fell from Speer’s eyes, but it was essentially too late. Speer was convicted of war crimes at Nuremburg and spent 20 years in Spandau Prison, where he wrote these memoirs.

What better source to give insight into what the Nazis were really like behind the scenes, and to draw any parallels to 21st century life?

The book surprised me on many levels; probably the biggest surprise being how brilliant and engaging Speer’s mind was. Could a man like this really have been a cold-blooded Nazi? I discovered many people before me have asked the same question.

Speer’s text shed a great deal of light on both my questions. I recommend it highly to anyone who wants to give serious thought to our current political climate.

On the first question, “are the Nazis on the rise again?” — I discovered quite a few parallels between German politics of the 1930s and American politics of the 21st century.  The parallels seem to be just about evenly split between the two major parties at this point, but in the long run I’m not sure it makes much difference: a general atmosphere of prejudice, bullying, and scapegoating combined with unrelenting group-think never bodes well for a nation.

But as I read further in Speer’s book I began to doubt him a little: even in this tell-all book it felt like he wasn’t quite telling all. A quick Google search led me to another book called Albert Speer: His Battle with Truth by award-winning European journalist Gitta Sereny.

Mrs. Sereny spent 12 years combing through Speer’s documents, interviewing Speer himself and his family, co-workers and contemporaries. Her work is amazingly deep and rich, both historically and psychologically, not an easy read, but very worth the effort. She fills in the missing pieces and more, and I recommend it to anyone who reads Speer’s book, as a balance — it gives a far more complete picture, both of the man himself and of the inner workings of the Nazi party. What emerges from her pages is a portrait of a deeply and tragically flawed human being, about whom there is yet much to admire.

As to my second question: is there a connection between the refugee crisis of today and the millions of displaced persons during WWII?

To my great joy I discovered today: Speer’s daughter, Hilde Schramm, who has suffered much because of the things her father has done, considers this question a no-brainer.

She has hosted Syrian refugees in her own home.


PS – I would love to hear from others who have read one or both of these books. They’ve left quite an impression….






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[Scriptures for the day are quoted at the end of the post]
“I will not let you go.”  These words jump out at us from our passage in Genesis today. How many times in our lives have we said that to someone? Or thought it about someone?

When a parent takes their child to the big city for the first time, walking down the street, it’s “I’ve got you… don’t let go!”  Or when a child is learning how to swim: “Go ahead, try it… I won’t let you go.”

Lovers say it to each other, and love songs are full of the feeling. “Hold On” “I’ll Never Let You Go” “Stand By Me”  “I Won’t Last a Day Without You”

Sometimes love songs go a little too far, for example Sting:

“Every breath you take
Every move you make
Every bond you break
Every step you take
I’ll be watching you.”

(…which Sting calls his “Stalker Song”. Sting says he gets a bit worried when fans play this song at their weddings!)

This passionate sentiment of ‘not letting go’ is expressed in our readings from both Genesis and Romans today. In Genesis 32 a man says it to God, and in Romans 8 God says it to us.

Jacob Wrestles the Angel – Arthur Sussman
“Kick at the Darkness Until It Bleeds Daylight”

Let’s look at Genesis first.  In this passage we see the patriarch Jacob alone in the wilderness, wrestling with a stranger who turns out to be… sort of a human manifestation of God.  How Jacob came to be in this particular place on this particular night is a long story. So to make a long story short:

Jacob has been struggling and wrestling with God all his life. Even before Jacob was born, God told his mother Rebekah that her younger son (Jacob) would be blessed by God and would rule over her older son Esau.  As time went on, this started to become true, but for some reason Jacob and Rebekah felt a need to help God out a bit.  So first Jacob cheats his brother out of his birthright, and then he cheats him out of his father’s blessing.

At this point Esau is so angry he starts plotting to murder his brother Jacob.  So Rebekah sends Jacob about 500 miles away to stay with her brother Laban for safe-keeping.  On the way to Laban’s place, Jacob has his famous vision of the ladder, on which he sees angels going up and down into heaven, and hears God say:

“The land on which you lie I will give to you and to your offspring; and your offspring shall be like the dust of the earth… and all the families of the earth shall be blessed in you and in your offspring.  Know that I am with you and will keep you wherever you go, and will bring you back to this land; for I will not leave you until I have done what I have promised you.” (Genesis 28:13-15, edited)

Jacob is so amazed and moved by this meeting, he sets up a stone and calls the place Bethel which means “house of God.” Jacob has now heard, with his own ears, the same promise his father Isaac and his grandfather Abraham heard God speak.  And yet when he gets to Laban’s place, Jacob still takes matters into his own hands.

And now, twenty years later, he finds himself with two wives (only one of which he asked for), eleven sons and a daughter, and huge flocks of sheep and goats – most of which he has more-or-less cheated his father-in-law out of. So Jacob’s family is now quite rich, but Jacob himself is tired and discouraged, and has worn out his welcome with just about everybody, and is caught between an angry father-in-law and an estranged brother.

So now Jacob is on the way home. Afraid of what he might meet, Jacob sends his wives and kids and animals on ahead while he spends a night alone.  But suddenly he finds himself wrestling with a mysterious man.


As the night wears on, the wrestler puts Jacob’s hip out of joint, but still Jacob won’t let go.  Finally the sun begins to rise, and the wrestler says “let me go, for the day is breaking”. But Jacob answers, “I will not let you go unless you bless me.”

…as if Jacob would be able to prevent God’s departure!  You have to admire Jacob’s chutzpah. You also have to admire the rich grace of a God who is willing to spend a whole night wrestling with a mere mortal – just to teach him how to say “I will not let you go.”

So the wrestler, now revealed as God, blesses Jacob with the words:

“You shall no longer be called Jacob (which means ‘supplanter’ or ‘deceiver’) but [you shall be called] Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans and have prevailed.”

In the ancient world, names meant something, much more than they do in our culture. And the meaning of the name ‘Israel’ has been much debated.  I’ve often seen it translated as ‘he struggles with God’ or ‘he wrestles with God’.  But the Hebrew word, Isra-El, describes God, not Jacob. So a more accurate translation might be “God struggles” or “God wrestles”.

Of course it takes two to tango.  God has been wrestling with Jacob… and Jacob has been wrestling with God… all his life.  Now, finally, Jacob is at the point where he’s ready to put things in God’s hands.

For us, where we are today, if we find ourselves at the end of our ropes or at the end of our strength, if we’re hurting and ready to quit, if we feel like strangers in a strange land, will we look to God (as Jacob did) and say “I will not let you go unless you bless me”?  Will we hold on to God with all the passion of a romantic lover?

It’s a choice. Holding on to God is not so much rooted in feeling, as it is a decision.  It’s a persistence.

[As an aside – I think the ‘holding on’ and ‘not letting go’ that popular love songs sing about often has more in common with addiction than it does with faith. One of the things I discovered in my younger days is that it’s impossible to get ‘hooked on’ God.  A person can get addicted to religion or to church (or to church music) or to one kind of theology or another. But somehow God in His mercy has made it impossible to get hooked on Him.  For those of us with addictive streaks in our personalities, it would be easier to be a Christian if we could just get hooked on God because then we wouldn’t have to worry about letting go. We’d have to have God. There would be no choice in the matter.  But God has made human beings in such a way that our faithfulness and our tenacity has to be a choice, moment by moment, day by day.]

The fly in the ointment of course is that none of us is perfect, so none of us can hold on to God perfectly. And none of us is infinitely strong, so none of us can hold on forever. And that’s where our reading from Romans comes in. Romans assures us that when we come to the end of our strength, the end our abilities, God will not let go.  Jesus, who loved us even to death, is holding on to us and will not let go.

The apostle Paul says this is true in spite of any persecution or trouble we may face. It’s true no matter what. And then Paul lists a whole bunch of things that cannot separate us from God.  They include:

  • Death. Life. (That covers most of it, doesn’t it?)
  • Angels (fallen or otherwise)
  • At this point the Greek gets a little open to variation – most translations say ‘principalities’ (which is true enough – principalities can’t make God let go of us). But the word looks more like ‘the first things’ followed by ‘the present’ and then ‘the things that are to come’. In other words, past, present and future. Nothing in our past can make God let go of us. Nothing in our present can get in God’s way. And the future is nothing to fear when we’re in God’s hands.
  • Heights or depths (this can be interpreted either literally or figuratively. The highest high you’ve ever known can’t surpass God, and the deepest depression you’ve ever felt can’t overwhelm God.)
  • Nor anything else in all creation (Paul says) can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

God will never let us go.  Is this not good news?

And so as we move into this week and into our daily lives, think about how Jacob wrestled with God, and refused to let go.  Try approaching God in prayer with that kind of mindset and tenacity.

But also remember God is holding on to us, and God won’t let go, so we are secure no matter what happens, no matter what comes our way. We go out into the world in the confidence of God’s love that cannot be shaken.

God loves you – and will never let you go.  AMEN.



Preached at Fair Oaks Retirement Home and Incarnation Church (Anglican) in the Strip District, 8/6/17

Artwork: “Jacob Wrestles the Angel” by Arthur Sussman

“Kick at the Darkness” article by Victoria Emily Jones. Pull-quote:

“In the painting God’s various sets of hands are breaking Jacob down and holding him up. Some of his faces speak gentleness, some fierceness. Whatever mixture of approaches God may use on us, his goal is this: to bring us through our brokenness to a place of blessing and glory.”

With thanks to Fr. Paul Johnston for bringing these works into our worship today.



Genesis 32:22-31

“The same night [Jacob] got up and took his two wives, his two maids, and his eleven children, and crossed the ford of the Jabbok.  He took them and sent them across the stream, and likewise everything that he had.  Jacob was left alone; and a man wrestled with him until daybreak.  When the man saw that he did not prevail against Jacob, he struck him on the hip socket; and Jacob’s hip was put out of joint as he wrestled with him.  Then he said, “Let me go, for the day is breaking.” But Jacob said, “I will not let you go, unless you bless me.”  So he said to him, “What is your name?” And he said, “Jacob.”  Then the man said, “You shall no longer be called Jacob, but Israel, for you have striven with God and with humans, and have prevailed.”  Then Jacob asked him, “Please tell me your name.” But he said, “Why is it that you ask my name?” And there he blessed him.  So Jacob called the place Peniel, saying, “For I have seen God face to face, and yet my life is preserved.” The sun rose upon him as he passed Penuel, limping because of his hip.”


Romans 8:35-39

“Who will separate us from the love of Christ? Will hardship, or distress, or persecution, or famine, or nakedness, or peril, or sword?  As it is written, “For your sake we are being killed all day long; we are accounted as sheep to be slaughtered.”  No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us.  For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.


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Scripture reading: Genesis 24:34-38, 42-49, 58-67

This morning we continue our summer series in Genesis: today’s reading tells the story of the marriage of Isaac and Rebekah.  We met Isaac last week, the son of Abraham, the great patriarch of Israel. As our story opens today, Isaac is now 40 years old; his mother Sarah has recently passed away; and his father Abraham is old and doesn’t get around much any more.

And Isaac has not yet married – which is unusual for a man his age in that culture. And it’s becoming an issue in the family – because Abraham is a very wealthy man, with a very large household (practically the size of a small town), and God has promised his son Isaac will be the father of nations.  So Abraham needs an heir, and Isaac needs children. But first, Isaac needs a wife!

Some of us can remember a similar situation back in the 1970s, when Prince Charles of Great Britain was turning 30 and hadn’t married yet. It was a HUGE issue over in the UK! One of the Prince’s royal duties is to see to it that the dynasty continues. It’s interesting to note both Prince Charles and Abraham chose to do basically the same thing: they chose their most trusted servants and sent them out quietly to look for a bride worthy of their prince. (Charles of course dated his bride-to-be a few times – it wasn’t entirely an arranged marriage, as Isaac’s was. But in both cases servants took the lead in getting the relationships started.)

These servants would not have been typical house-servants. Think Mr. Carson on Downton Abbey: He would have been hired as a young man to be the personal servant of the man who would eventually inherit the estate. This kind of servant does far more than just manage other servants: he is a close friend and confidante… one of the few people his master can count on to be absolutely loyal and absolutely trustworthy.

In our story today, Abraham’s servant has worked for Abraham for at least 60 years. Interestingly his name – Eliezer – means “God is [my] help”.  And because he is such a remarkable servant, I’d like to tell Isaac’s story from Eliezer’s point of view, the way he might have told it. I imagine him saying something like this:


“A few days ago my master Abraham called me into his tent and gave me a very special assignment. He wants me to find a wife for his son Isaac.  My master is too old now for such a task, and I am honored that he asked me.  God has blessed my master richly: he lacks nothing, and his son Isaac is strong and handsome. But at the age of forty, Isaac needs an heir.  My master says God has promised that Isaac’s children will become nations of people… but before that happens he needs a wife!

“Of course the wife of a man like Isaac must be an exceptional woman. My master told me: ‘do not get a wife for Isaac from among the Canaanites. They don’t know God, and they would lead Isaac away from God. Go to my father’s house, to my family in Mesopotamia, and find a wife for Isaac there.’

“Of course I would do anything for Abraham… but what he asks is very difficult. Traditionally it is the father who arranges such a marriage, but Abraham is too old to travel, so I must take his part. The journey is around 500 miles, and once I get there I must find the family of Abraham’s father, and then find among them a worthy woman.  Assuming I am successful in this, I then need to negotiate a bride price, and give appropriate gifts to the bride and her family. And then the bride herself must agree to leave her home and her family and travel to a foreign land to marry a man she has never met.

“This mission may prove impossible. So I ask my master: what if the woman will not return with me? Shall I bring Isaac to her?  And my master answered ‘No. My son is NOT to go back. God took me from my father’s house and brought me here and promised this land to me and my descendants. Under no circumstances are you to take Isaac there. If the woman will not come with you, you are free of your oath.’  And my master made me swear, placing my hand under his thigh and swearing on God’s covenant, that I would be faithful to my task.

“And so we loaded up the camels with rich gifts for the bride, and gathered some men-servants to travel with me, and we set off. After a few weeks we arrived in the region where my master’s family was last known to live.  It was late in the day, and we stopped by a spring of water because my men and their camels are thirsty.

“And as we stopped, I prayed. I have often heard my master pray, and I know God talks to him, but God has never spoken to me. I don’t know if he will hear me, but I pray he will answer, not because of who I am, but because I am Abraham’s servant.

“So I pray: ‘O God of my master Abraham, please grant me success today and show steadfast love to my master Abraham.  I am standing here by the spring of water, and the daughters of the townspeople are coming out to draw water.  Let the girl to whom I shall say, ‘Please offer your jar that I may drink,’ and who shall say, ‘Drink, and I will water your camels’ – let her be the one whom you have appointed for your servant Isaac.’ (Genesis 24:12-14)


“Before I even finished my prayer, a beautiful young woman came up from the spring carrying a jug of water. And I ran to her and I said, ‘please let me have a sip of your water,’ and she answered, ‘drink, my lord, and I will water your camels also.’

“And I watched, astounded, as she ran with grace and strength to tend to my camels. The Lord answered my prayer so quickly – and with such a generous and kind young woman!  So I took out of my master’s treasures a gold nose-ring and two gold bracelets and presented them to her. And I asked her: ‘whose daughter are you? And is there room in your father’s house for my men and camels to stay the night?’

“She answered: ‘I am the daughter of Bethuel, the son of Nahor and Milcah.’ (Nahor by the way is my master Abraham’s brother!) ‘And yes,’ she says, ‘we have plenty of straw and fodder and a place to stay for the night.’ At which I bow my head and gave praise to God saying, ‘Blessed be the LORD, the God of my master Abraham, who has not forsaken his steadfast love and his faithfulness toward my master […] the LORD has led me on the way to the house of my master’s kin.’ (Genesis 24:27)

“The girl ran home to tell her family all of this, and they all ran out to meet me. Her brother Laban took care of our camels, and he prepared a rich feast for us. But I would not eat until I had told them my mission.  I said to her family, ‘I am Abraham’s servant. The LORD has greatly blessed my master, and he has become wealthy; he has given him flocks and herds, silver and gold, male and female slaves, camels and donkeys. And Sarah my master’s wife bore a son to my master when she was old; and he has given him all that he has. My master made me swear, saying, ‘You shall not take a wife for my son from the daughters of the Canaanites, […] but you shall go to my father’s house, to my kindred, and get a wife for my son.’ ’ (Gen 24:34-38)

“And I told them about my prayer, and about Rebekah being the answer to that prayer. And I said to them, ‘if you will deal faithfully with my master and me please say so, and if not please say so, so that I know what to do next.’

“Rebekah’s father and brother both said, ‘this comes from God! We can’t say otherwise. Let our sister be the wife of your master’s son.’

And at that word, Rebekah was legally married – so long as she approved. So I opened my master’s treasures and gave rich gifts to Rebekah and to her father and to her brother.  And then we sat down and had a feast!

“In the morning they called Rebekah in and asked her: ‘will you go with this man?’ and she said ‘yes’.  And she packed her things, and she and her maidservants came  home with us.  Rebekah rode on the camels alongside me most of the way, and I had the chance to get to know her. She is lively and good-natured and speaks with a twinkle in her eye.  I couldn’t wait to introduce her to Isaac.

“Before we even got home, Isaac and Rebekah saw each other from across a field, and Rebekah immediately got off the camel and wrapped her veils around her like a proper lady. And when they met, it was love at first sight. Isaac now had someone in his life to comfort him after the passing of his mother… someone who would be by his side for a lifetime.

“I give praise and glory to God for their happiness, and for God’s faithfulness to my master and to my master’s servant. That is my story.”


Taking back the mic now from Abraham’s servant Eliezer, just three things I’d like to say about his story:

  1. In this story – as in all of Genesis – Isaac can be understood as a type of Christ.
    In other words, the pattern of the events in Isaac’s life point to Jesus and create a kind of prophecy.Isaac, like Jesus, is the one and only heir of an extremely wealthy Father. Isaac waits for his bride in his Father’s house, preparing a place for her – just as Jesus does for us. And both Isaac and Jesus love their brides with all their hearts.
    The bride can be seen to represent us, God’s people.  Like Rebekah, Jesus’ bride is remarkable for her beauty, her generosity, and her willingness to tend to the needs of others. She is willing to leave behind her home and everything she knows in order to be with her husband.
    Jesus once said ‘anyone who loves father and mother more than me is not worthy of me’ – not because it’s wrong to love father and mother! – but because the bride’s heart is set on her husband. So in this love story we see a prophecy of the love story between Jesus and us.
  2. Love relationships never happen in a vacuum.
    Notice how many people were involved in bringing about this marriage!  There’s the groom, the groom’s father, the groom’s best servant, the groom’s household servants, the bride, the bride’s brother, the bride’s mother and father, the bride’s maidservants, and of course God. Love relationships involve the entire family and the entire community.
    These days it’s popular to say “relationships are just between two consenting adults”.  But the story of Isaac and Rebekah shows why this is complete nonsense. Love relationships never happen in a vacuum.  And because this is true, in the words of theologian Charles Simeon: “Let a concern for God’s honor regulate our conduct.” In other words, as we have seen in this story, whatever we do in our love relationships, let it bring honor to God.
  3. Abraham’s servant sets an example for all of us as we serve God.
    Look at how he goes about doing what Abraham has asked him to do:
  • Eliezer does not put himself forward. His goal is to bring attention to the Father and to the Son.
  • He does not travel alone; he goes with others. There is no such thing as a ‘lone ranger Christian’ – we are called to work and to serve together.
  • He has taken a vow and he works to fulfill it. We also have taken vows – either in baptism or in confirmation – and we work to fulfill those vows.
  • He is 100% loyal to his master, following his directions, listening to his concerns, and asking questions where needed.
  • He knows he can act with confidence because the mission and the resources are his Master’s. And each one of us – as God’s servants – can move with confidence because the gifts and the mission are God’s.
  • Like Abraham’s servant, we pray as we serve, seeking God’s direction as God’s plans unfold.

So Abraham’s servant gives us a model to follow as we serve.  But having said that, the closest parallel for us as the body of believers really is Rebekah.  We follow in her footsteps. We are the ones who hear the words of God’s servants, the prophets – words of love and commitment from our Lord. We are the ones who are asked: “will you go with this man, this Jesus?”

If we say ‘yes’, just as the servant clothed Rebekah and gave her rich gifts,  Jesus will clothe us with a robe of righteousness and jewels of spiritual gifts – and the Holy Spirit, which is God’s pledge, like an engagement ring. The question then is: are we willing to leave what we know, and go with him?

In Psalm 45, a song written for the wedding of a king, the psalmist says:

“Hear, O daughter, consider and incline your ear; forget your people and your father’s house… the king desires your beauty…” – Psalm 45:10-11

Today we stand where Rebekah stood. The King of Kings and the Lord of Lords desires our beauty, and asks if we will go with him. Will we say ‘yes’?


Preached at Fairhaven United Methodist Church, Spencer United Methodist Church, and Incarnation Church (Anglican), Pittsburgh – 7/9/17








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The next three items in my “blog-about-this” pile all have to do with the same thing: the abuse of power.  I only just noticed that this morning — what are the odds?

The first item on the stack is Kingdoms in Conflict by Chuck Colson.  (Yes, I’m only now getting around to reading it!)  The other two are Days of Fire and Glory by Julia Duin, and a book review in my undergrad alumni magazine entitled The Death of American Virtue: Clinton vs. Starr.

On the surface the three subject matters couldn’t be more different.  Colson’s book was written in the aftermath of Watergate and examines the tensions between spiritual life and political life.  Julia Duin’s book examines the rise and fall of an international ministry brought down by sexual and financial scandals.  (Nothing new there?  Consider that the movement was led by an Episcopal priest, was characterized by Charismatic worship and communal living, was a unique bridge between right and left, conservative and liberal, and the author was a member of the movement and so writes “from the inside”.)   And the book review, which is a bit thin on the book’s content, nonetheless implies that ‘virtue’ in the Clinton vs. Starr case was lacking on both sides.

On the surface, different… but underneath, all three tell of the abuse of power.

These writings are helpful.  They help pinpoint what it is that goes wrong.  The abuse of power is not like greed (the abuse of money) in that… well, money is something we’re all familiar with.  We know how to make it, save it, spend it, hoard it, waste it, share it, give it.   But power is a bit tougher to pin down.  Where does it come from? How does one increase it, use it, waste it, share it?  On the other hand we know what it is to suffer when someone else is abusing power.  Sadly we know that all too well.

Maybe the best I can do is to allow the authors to speak for themselves.

In the case of Julia Duin’s charismatic community, power was what brought it together in the first place: the power of the Holy Spirit.

“One of the men brought to a meeting some newspaper clippings about ‘baptism in the Holy Spirit’… They had just began to pray when [he] felt a sensation he had never felt before.  It was emotional and powerful.  He felt bathed and loved and cleansed…”

Shortly after that the pastor leading the group also received Holy Spirit baptism.  Healings began to happen as people came forward to receive communion.  Inspired by these miracles, people began to share their belongings, their homes, their lives… and a radical new form of Christian community life was born.  A community in which people owned only what was needed, shared most of what they had, and worked together to transform a violent neighborhood and a failing public school into a place where people wanted to live and raise children.

So what went wrong?  A psychologist might say that a number of people leading the group had not dealt with past hurts in their family backgrounds.  Or that things began to go wrong when what was once given freely to the church community began to be expected and then required — as grace morphed into law.  A visitor to the church a few years later noted that “people seemed overly preoccupied with submission, authority, and leadership… But what disturbed him was the lack of a servant mindset…”  At the same time there started to be subtle shifts away from Scriptural teaching that anyone trained in Scripture would immediately find alarming.

But I think the author finds a deeper answer than all that:

“…[the churches] had started out as charismatic.  Now their pastors were all concerned about control.  I could hardly blame some of them, because what got loosed during a spiritual outpouring was often way too powerful.  Any church that became in the least bit involved in the charismatic renewal soon found itself deep in battle against an entrenched principality that hates worship, priests, and marriages, and that delights in disobedience, deceit, and perverse sexuality.”

“It was community that made… powerful charismatic fellowships… what they were; it was community that allowed the Holy Spirit to move so quickly; it was community that birthed the music and the worship, that encouraged the spiritual gifts, that created an undefinable quality of love that drew thousands… People gave generously because they had been loved generously by God…”

Days of Fire and Glory ends on a cautiously upbeat note.  The author acknowledges the failures in the leadership, but notes that the most effective leaders were not those who kept strict rules or led with heavy-handed authority but rather those who stayed in the background, coaching and encouraging, stepping forward only when direction or instruction were needed.  Abuses of power can be avoided… and that’s good news.

Chuck Colson, in his book Kingdoms in Conflict, looks at the difference between the Kingdom of God and the kingdoms of humanity.  He writes:

“I had always read the term kingdom metaphorically. […]  But the Kingdom of God is a rule, not a realm.  It is a declaration of God’s absolute sovereignty…  That this Kingdom is not of this world, as Jesus later explained, and that it is spiritual rather than temporal makes it no less authoritative […]  Jesus was not working magic to gather crowds; nor was He showing His power to gain credibility.  He was demonstrating the reality of His rule […]  [People] missed Christ’s message because they, like many today, were conditioned to look for salvation in political solutions.”

Colson points out that talk of God’s Kingdom makes non-Christians nervous because they see it as an excuse Christians use to “cram absolute orders from their God down others’ throats.”  Although Colson does not say so directly, this is another example of abuse of power.  He goes on to say:

“When Christ commanded His followers to “seek first the kingdom of God,” He was exhorting them to seek to be ruled by God and gratefully acknowledge His power and authority over them.  That means the Christian’s goal is not to strive to rule, but to be ruled.”

(If anyone reading these words has ever been victimized by an overly zealous religious person trying to tell you how you should live your life, or if you ever overhear someone doing the same, please refer them to the above quote.)  He underlines this by going on to say:

“When Jesus announced the Kingdom, He did indeed set forth radical standards by which its citizens are to live. […] Christ was not suggesting, however, that the obedient Christian would be able to usher in the Kingdom of God on earth.  Only Christ Himself would do that when He returns.”

On the other hand, Colson also warns of the State over-reaching its power when it discourages religion:

“Religions had been assaulted before but always in the name of other religions.  With the French Revolution, Tocqueville noted, “Passionate and persistent efforts were made to wean men away from the faith of their fathers… Irreligion became an all-prevailing passion, fierce, intolerant, and predatory.”  The French Revolution was a conscious effort to replace the Kingdom of God with the kingdoms of man.  But the state must have some moral justification for its authority.  Thus France’s irreligion was soon replaced by a new faith — man’s worship of man.”

He continues:

“What might be considered the modern phase in church-state history has emerged in our century. […] The rise of totalitarian regimes has brought back the kind of persecution the church experienced in early Rome; like Herod, modern dictators tolerate no other kings.  [… …]  One of the most startling commentaries on this century is the fact that millions more have died at the hands of their own governments than in wars with other nations — all to preserve someone’s power.”

When human beings are seen as the only permissible objects of worship, ever-increasing abuse of power is inevitable.

Just a collection of thoughts on a problem that seems to be on the increase.  It doesn’t begin to touch on the abuses of power perpetrated daily in business and personal relationships — another post for another time, perhaps.  For now, enough to know there is an alternative.  Peace out.

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One of our regular readers keeps an eye on the Liberty University gang for me and sent a heads-up on the recent release of the latest book by popular author Tim LaHaye, The Edge of Apocalypse.  LaHaye is best known for his Left Behind series of books, fictional stories that promote a pre-tribulation-rapture interpretation of Revelation, a belief in global conspiracies, and anti-Roman-Catholicism.  His latest book continues to titillate readers and rake in more cash for Liberty U.

Popular because of their action-packed story lines, LaHaye’s books are essentially thinly disguised Bible lessons from a man who has made a fortune sensationalizing Scripture and whose religious beliefs are some of the most misguided and self-serving of our day.  (For a more level-headed look at end-times prophecy check out this thread.)

Quoting from Amazon.com describing LaHaye’s latest: “As world events begin setting the stage for the ‘end of days’ foretold in Revelation, Jordan [the hero] must weigh the personal price he must pay to save the nation he loves.  Edge of Apocalypse pulls you into an adrenaline-fueled political thriller laced with End Times prophecy.  […] With help from a group of powerfully connected Christian leaders known as The Patriots, Jordan works to save the nation from economic and moral collapse…”

This one paragraph sums up beautifully the problems with LaHaye’s writings: (1) the story is only “laced” with Biblical prophecy — a writer’s technique to add emotional weight — essentially using God’s word for the sake of one’s own thrills; (2) America is placed at the center of end-times prophecy as though it were God’s chosen nation; (3) the story has far more to do with adrenaline and politics than God; (4) the salvation of the nation is brought about not by the preaching of the Gospel but by political power grabbed by a conspiracy of “Patriots” who have all the answers to the nation’s political, economic AND moral woes; (5) with the heroes portrayed as morally upright “Patriots” anyone who disagrees with their opinions or methods must by definition be both anti-American and immoral; and (6) the hero risks his life, not for God, but for America — placing a higher value on the flag than on the cross.

Why is it so few Christians are troubled by this stuff?

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At the top of my list for this summer’s reading was John Stott: The Making of a Leader by Timothy Dudley-Smith.  Subtitled The Early Years, the over-400-page volume reads like a mini-history of Evangelical Anglicanism in England during the 1900s.  (I’ll be interested in reading Volume 2 one of these days!)

John Stott, now 88, was for many years the Rector of All Souls, Langham Place, London and authored many books which have become Christian classics.  He retired from public ministry two years ago at age 86.  He is one of the great Christian thinkers of our time and has been a great influence on my thinking and on the seminary I attend (he was one of the driving forces behind its founding).

I wanted to collect here, for my benefit as well as others’, some interesting bits and pieces from the book…


Stott speaks of the impact the life of Hudson Taylor (missionary to China) had on him.  He writes: “He taught me four important aspects of the faith.  First, faith rests in God’s faithfulness…  Secondly, faith is the trust of a child… Thirdly, faith is as necessary in the material realm as in the spiritual… One of Hudson Taylor’s best-known aphorisms was ‘God’s work done in God’s way will never lack supplies’… Fourthly, faith is not incompatible with the use of means.”  (The fourth item means, for example, using a life jacket on a boat is not an expression of a lack of faith in God.) (134)


Like so many creative people, especially those who make their living in the public eye, John Stott had a difficult childhood.  “There were tragic and painful difficulties in his early family life and upbringing which left their mark on him in a certain natural shyness and self-deprecating humour… ‘his conversion was for him a deliverance from what he experienced in the home of grief and pain.. the gripping power of evil and loss of control.’  From this strong sense of deliverance and freedom sprang his love for all kinds of people…” (210)


Answering critics of Billy Graham’s crusades (which had an enormous impact in the U.K. in the 1950s, and during which Billy and John Stott became lifelong friends) John wrote the following as part of a letter to the editor of The Times:  “All thoughtful Christians would agree with the Bishop of Durham… that God’s revelation is essentially reasonable, but would have to add that it is often in conflict with the unenlightened reason of sinful men.  The Bible itself is aware of this conflict.  ‘As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are My… thoughts than your thoughts’ (Is.55:9)… Our Lord himself gave thanks that the Father revealed his truth not to the ‘wise and prudent’ but ‘unto babes’ (Matt. 11:25).

“There is then in conversion not what the Bishop of Durham calls ‘the stifling of the mind’ but the humble (and intelligent) submission of the mind to a divine revelation.  The proud human intellect still needs to be abased — in England as in Corinth — and the only way to enter the Kingdom of God is still to become like a little child.” (347)


During the 1950s (and afterward as well) Billy Graham was often attacked by religious fundamentalists.  Billy wrote home to his wife Ruth: “Some of the things they say are pure fabrications… I do not intend to get down to their mud-slinging and get into endless arguments with them… We are too busy winning souls to Christ and helping build the church… If this extreme type of fundamentalism was of God, it would have brought revival long ago.  Instead, it has brought dissension, division, strife, and has produced dead and lifeless churches.” (354)


On the authority of Scripture, John Stott writes: “To accept the authority of the Bible is a Christian thing to do.  It is neither a religious eccentricity, nor a case of discreditable obscurantism, but the good sense of Christian faith and humility.  It is essentially ‘Christian’ because it is what Christ himself requires of us.  The traditional view of Scripture (that it is God’s word written) may be called the ‘Christian’ view precisely because it is Christ’s view.” (356)


In the fall of 1955 Billy Graham was invited to lead a mission to Cambridge University (England).  He was somewhat daunted by the intellectual atmosphere and expressed his concerns to John Stott.  John, himself a graduate of Cambridge, wrote the following to encourage his friend:

“…I can well understand your feelings of apprehension about Cambridge, but Billy do not worry.  God has opened up the way wonderfully and has called you to it and so all will be well.  If I may be bold enough to give one suggestion, I would say ‘keep to the simplicity of  your message’.  Do not regard these men as ‘intellectuals’.  Appeal to their conscience.  They are sinners, needing a Saviour.  Conviction of sin, not intellectual persuasion, is the need.  So many preachers fail at this point when they speak to university men.  So, Billy, keep to the wonderful clear simple message God has qualified you to preach and which He honoured wonderfully in London and Glasgow.” (360)

Evangelist David Watson, then an undergraduate at St. John’s College, Cambridge, remembers Graham’s mission: “In sweeping contrast to the dithering caution of most academic theologians, who were efficiently undermining the faith of some of my friends, Billy Graham led a mission to the university in November 1955.  Interestingly, when he tried, somewhat unsuccessfully, to be academic, his preaching lacked power.  But when he accepted the apparent foolishness of the message of ‘Christ crucified’ and preached it with simplicity and integrity, the power of God’s Spirit was manifestly at work, changing the lives of many undergraduates.  It was a lesson I have never forgotten.” (365)

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“Self-sufficiency is the diametric opposite of the prime quality needed for entrance to the kingdom of God – humble dependence on God in faith.”
— Christopher J.H. Wright, Knowing Jesus Through the Old Testament

Christopher Wright precedes his quote by saying that Jesus “was no ascetic” and enjoyed good food and drink as much as anyone, but that he “saw the insidious idolatry that wealth generates and warned against its utter incompatibility with serving God.”

What is the alternative?  Wright answers that Jesus adopted “on the one hand a carefree (though not careless) attitude to material things born of confidence in God’s provision… and on the other hand a radical generosity that cut right across expected norms of behaviour.”

This is Christian counterculturalism at its best.  Jesus’ perspective is totally opposite that of the lone rugged individualist icon we see so often in American film and literature.  It is a perspective of trust in God, and an other-centered rather than a self-centered focus.  It is one that builds rather than destroys community, one that encourages unity rather than division, one that sees life as joyful rather than rugged.

Anyone dare to follow?

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Posted by a friend on Facebook this morning:  the book When Helping Hurts: How to Alleviate Poverty Without Hurting the Poor and Yourself has just been published this month and he recommends it highly.  The premise of the book is that much done in the name of charity can be more harmful than it is helpful.

My friend noted that according to the book “there are three kinds of help: relief (immediately after disaster strikes), rehabilitation (getting back to where you were), and development (getting to where you should–or would like to–be). People often send “relief” help when rehab or development is called for, because relief is easiest: just throw money and resources...”

The challenge is this: “Instead of “needs” based ministry–what do you need (that we can give you)? — do assets-based ministry: what do you have that we can help you build upon?”

It makes a lot of sense to me that discernment and wisdom in giving are needed in order to be effective without being insulting or condescending… and that the best way to give, rather than giving a handout, is to empower people to be good stewards of the resources and talents they already have.

For more information on the book click here.

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Victor Hugo’s Les Miserables is a powerful juxtaposition of Grace and Law represented in the lives of two men.

Valjean represents a life lived by Grace: an ex-convict and parole breaker longing to be innocent, angry at a world where he can never get a fair shake.  He is shown kindness and mercy by a stranger who has “bought his soul for God”.  The circumstances in which this happens confront Valjean with his sin, and he chooses to die to his old self and begin a new life of faith.  From that point on he spends his life and fortune in helping the injured, the poor, the orphaned, the downtrodden of the world.

Javert represents a life lived by the Law: he is an officer of the law, and when Valjean breaks parole Javert makes it his life’s work to hunt down and capture a man he sees as a law-breaker and a thief.  He takes no notice of Valjean’s change of heart or his mercy and generosity to others.  Javert is right, but his righteousness is cold and hard and could never redeem anyone; in fact he’s not interested in redemption, he’s interested only in justice.  In their final confrontation Valjean says to him: “there’s nothing that I blame you for; you’ve done your duty, nothing more.”

In the musical version of Les Miserables, each man sings a song at THE pivotal point in his life.  Valjean’s song starts with the words “What have I done?” after which he begins a new life; Javert’s starts with  “Who is this man?” and ends in his suicide.

The fresh insight is this:  both songs are sung to the same music.  They are two verses of the same song… or more accurately, the two possible responses to Grace upon being confronted with one’s own sin.  Valjean responds with confession and faith; Javert also confesses but cannot bring himself to bend the Law and chooses suicide rather than a life in which there is something greater than the Law.

It’s the choice all of us need to make, sooner or later.  As Javert sings, “It’s either Valjean or Javert“.  It’s either Grace or Law.  The Law kills, but Grace redeems.  It’s either life or death.  God says: “come, let us reason together“.  Which would a reasonable person choose?

Here are the two songs side by side (WordPress permitting!).  Note the richness of the parallels and how often the two men sing the same or similar words, yet end in totally opposite places.


What have I done?
Sweet Jesus, what have I done?
Become a thief in the night,
Become a dog on the run
And have I fallen so far,
And is the hour so late
That nothing remains but the cry of my hate,
The cries in the dark that nobody hears,
Here where I stand at the turning of the years?

If there’s another way to go
I missed it twenty long years ago
My life was a war that could never be won
They gave me a number and
murdered Valjean
When they chained me and left me for dead
Just for stealing a mouthful of bread

Yet why did I allow that man
To touch my soul and teach me love?
He treated me like any other
He gave me his trust
He called me brother
My life he claims for God above
Can such things be?
For I had come to hate the world
This world that always hated me

Take an eye for an eye!
Turn your heart into stone!
This is all I have lived for!
This is all I have known!

One word from him and I’d be back
Beneath the lash, upon the rack
Instead he offers me my freedom
I feel my shame inside me like a knife
He told me that I have a soul,
How does he know?
What spirit comes to move my life?
Is there another way to go?

I am reaching, but I fall
And the night is closing in
And I stare into the void
To the whirlpool of my sin
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean
Jean Valjean is nothing now
Another story must begin!


Who is this man?
What sort of devil is he
To have me caught in a trap
And choose to let me go free?
It was his hour at last
To put a seal on my fate
Wipe out the past and wash me clean off the slate!
All it would take was a flick of his knife.
Vengeance was his and he gave me back my life!
Damned if I’ll live in the debt of a thief!
Damned if I’ll yield at the end of the chase.
I am the Law and the Law is not mocked
I’ll spit his pity right back in his face
There is nothing on earth that we share
It is either Valjean or Javert!

How can I now allow this man
To hold dominion over me?
This desperate man whom I have hunted
He gave me my life.
He gave me freedom.
I should have perished by his hand
It was his right.
It was my right to die as well
Instead I live… but live in hell.

And my thoughts fly apart
Can this man be believed?
Shall his sins be forgiven?
Shall his crimes be reprieved?

And must I now begin to doubt,
Who never doubted all these years?
My heart is stone and still it trembles
The world I have known is lost in shadow.
Is he from heaven or from hell?
And does he know
That granting me my life today
This man has killed me even so?

I am reaching, but I fall
And the stars are black and cold
As I stare into the void
Of a world that cannot hold
I’ll escape now from the world
From the world of Jean Valjean.
There is nowhere I can turn
There is no way to go on….

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In response to my previous post noting that the practice of binding parchment pages together to form books rather than scrolls began roughly 2000 years ago, my sister sent the following link.  It’s an oldie but goodie and appropriate to the discussion at hand.

Here’s what it might have been like 2000 years ago when the new technology was introduced.  Enjoy! 🙂

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“You know that place: where there is just you alone — and maybe God, if you believe in Him.  Of course, God might be there even if you don’t believe in Him.  That would be just like Him.”
The Shack, Foreword

This is how the author of The Shack describes the title structure.  It sets up the story to be an allegory of processes that happen within the human soul, and it sets the scene firmly within the soul.  The whole story takes place in the ultimate center of one human’s being, the part of the person that can only be known in silence and solitude: the true self, with all life’s titles and roles stripped away.

Many people can’t bear to spend time there, and will do anything to avoid it.  I think the reason many people keep a TV or radio turned on 24/7 is so they won’t ever have to be alone with themselves in the silence.  But this is where wisdom begins, because God speaks (as scripture says) in a still, small voice.  The noise clutter needs to be turned off in order to hear Him.

So I like this quotation.

I also like it because I’ve said similar things to people who aren’t sure about God, and it always takes them by surprise.  No, I’m not going to force my God on you… and I apologize for those who have tried to.   But understand: just because someone doesn’t believe in God doesn’t mean God doesn’t exist.  God exists whether I believe or not.  That’s just how He is.

Welcome to The Shack.

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Those of you who work in churches know the drill.  At least every two or three months a church member will come up and suggest a book you MUST read or a piece of music you MUST hear.  About 95% of the time either (a) you’ve read/heard it 20 years ago, or (b) the suggestion will be mentally dismissed 10 seconds later on the grounds that the Christian Bestseller’s list is to great spiritual truth what the “Left Behind” series is to Shakespearean literature.

In other words, I approached this book with little hope of liking it.  I’ve never been more pleased to be proven wrong.  I found it easy to read, and finished it in less than a day.  It got off to slow start, but once the story got rolling, it held my interest to the end.

I’ll be writing about some of the points the book raises over the next week or two, but for now I’d like to clear up what are sure to be some misunderstandings among readers and critics of The Shack.

What The Shack Isn’t

The Shack doesn’t pretend to be great literature (Eugene Peterson’s comparison to Pilgrim’s Progress notwithstanding).   It is not meant to be a theological treatise, although there’s some good solid theology here.  It is not primarily meant to be an evangelistic tool, though it could be used as such.

It isn’t something that will satisfy those who insist on seeing chapter-and-verse quotations.  And in spite of what many “discernment ministry” people say, it is most certainly not rooted in New Age, Emergent, or heretical teachings.  It does, however, pose some much-needed challenges to Fundamentalist and Reformed theologies.

What The Shack Is

The Shack is a a fictional story loosely based on the author’s life experiences and spiritual journey.  It could probably be best described as a fictionalized autobiography.

It is a book that deals with pain.  Why does God allow tragedy?  Why doesn’t He stop evil happening?   Does God care how we feel?  How can painful experiences be overcome?  These are the kinds of questions the book addresses, and I think it answers them very well.

It is also a book for people who are tired of religion, who sense that church should be a place of shelter from the storms of life and have found it to be anything but.  It’s for people who have been hurt by the world and need to experience Christ’s compassion.  The book takes aim at legalism and “church-ianity” — two of my favorite targets — and scores a number of points.

On the whole I think this book will mean the most to people who believe in God but who are on the fringes of (or outside of) organized religion — people healthy churches will want to reach out to and welcome.  It would be an easy book around which to plan church group discussions and/or community outreach ministries.  (note to self…)

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I’ve been reading John Stott’s Between Two Worlds for Homiletics class and the phrase “the recovery of the Christian mind” jumped out at me as I was reading.  Stott expresses the thought, and I agree, that the ability to think clearly from a Christian perspective has become a rare and much-needed thing in our world.  So very much of what the world — and the church — calls ‘knowledge’ these days is merely innuendo and rumor.

Stott writes that a Christian mind is “a mind which is thinking about everything, however apparently secular, and doing so ‘Christianly’ or within a Christian frame of reference.  It is not a mind stuffed full with pat answers to every question… it is rather a mind which has absorbed biblical truths… so thoroughly that it is able to view every issue from a Christian perspective.”

Stott goes on to list some of the basic convictions that form the foundation of Christian thinking:

  • The reality of a living God
  • The loving personality of God
  • The God-given dignity of human beings
  • The depravity that imperfect people are capable of
  • The pervasiveness of evil
  • The primacy of love
  • The victory and reign of Christ

…among a few others. (Stott p. 170)

It’s interesting that others have taken up the same theme recently in online blogs and posts.  Here’s one from an online friend: “Lord of the Rings: Good; Harry Potter, Bad; Really?

Another related post to come, if I have time before the election.  If not — pray our next President will be the man who loves God better.

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John 1:14 contains one of the most stunning statements ever written.

“The Word became flesh and made his dwelling among us.”

Churches and believers everywhere read this verse every year around Christmas-time. How often do we just breeze right past it in our haste to see a baby in a manger — or more likely, to see the presents under the tree? Time to stop and consider the meaning of these words.

Our Greek textbook highlights both the translation and meaning of the verse. In the original language the phrase o` lo,gos tou/ qeou/ — “the Word of God” — would have been immediately understood by John’s contemporaries as referring to “God’s transcendent rationality that gave the universe order and purpose. […] As such, o` lo,gos tou/ qeou/ was foreign to human ways, above us and distant from us, guiding us from afar.” (Basics of Biblical Greek, Mounce, 75)

The ancient Greek philosophers agreed with this definition and often constructed elaborate systems of thought and practice to attempt to reach the heights of heaven. Platonism — which emphasized denial of the flesh and the passions — is one famous example of this kind of thought. The philosophy is rooted in the belief that the things of the spirit and the things of the flesh are entirely different and in fact oppose each other. Therefore the flesh must be denied if the spirit is to thrive.

Yet the apostle John writes “the Word became flesh” — the word for “flesh” is sa,rx which is pronounced approx “sarke,” and makes up the first half of the English word “sarcophagus”. In other words, the Word of God became mortal. Became one of us.

This is no distant God whose superiority, utter perfection, and ultimate power keeps him apart from his creation and out of reach of his people. This is a God who is perfect spirit and is willing to commit the scandal of putting on flesh. And in doing so he overturns those who think they have all the answers, who think they have knowledge that will get them to God, or who think they honor God with better-than-thou lifestyles. He does all this just to rescue a soul that is lost. This is a God of love.

“This affirmation about lo,gos and sa,rx is the very heart of our faith. God has not abandoned us. No lowliness, no misery, no sinfulness is beyond God’s comprehension and reach. […] This is the mystery and the power of what God has done for us in Jesus Christ.” (ibid p. 75)

This is Truth. This is the Word of God.

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