Magic Beans


Most every child knows that once upon a time there was a poor widow, who had a son named Jack.  Jack was tasked with taking the family’s precious cow to market in the hope that a good price could be had, so the family could eat.  And what does Jack do?  He trades the cow for a handful of beans, which the peddler tells him are magic.

For those in the know, the story works out well in the end, but in reality such trades seldom work out well.  As a case in point, I was recently discussing the story of Jacob with one of my classes.  We soon came the the incident in Genesis 25: 27-34:

“Esau was a skillful hunter, a man of the field, while Jacob was a quiet man, dwelling in tents. Isaac loved Esau, because he ate of his game; but Rebekah loved Jacob. Once when Jacob was boiling pottage [soup or stew], Esau came in from the field, and he was famished. And Esau said to Jacob, “Let me eat some of that red pottage, for I am famished!” (Therefore his name was called Edom. Jacob said, “First sell me your birthright.” Esau said, “I am about to die; of what use is a birthright to me?” Jacob said, “Swear to me first.”So he swore to him, and sold his birthright to Jacob. Then Jacob gave Esau bread and pottage of lentils, and he ate and drank, and rose and went his way (RSV).”

Esau traded the family inheritance (sound familiar?) for beans (well lentils).  His birthright for an immediate fix.  And did he get a wonderful bean stock, and giant’s treasure in exchange for his instant gratification? No.  In fact he merely ended up “despising his birthright.”

My students were quick to announce “That’s stupid.” Yet, while they can see Esau’s folly, they fail to see that our own modern life-style is based on the same philosophy. Instant credit, get rich quick schemes, celebrity envy, and ever increasing  “shortcuts to the happier you,” are everywhere.  We are bombarded with messages that tell us we need only do X, Y, or Z, and our lives will be fulfilling, and happy ever after.  But these are so often just disguised consumerism.

People (collectively) shy away from the hard grind and delayed gratification, dismissing them as “Pie in the Sky,” and proclaiming that “jam tomorrow” is not for me.

We people of faith, however, know that present happiness and future reward are not mutually exclusive. Jesus said in John 10:10b: “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”  This is not pie in the sky, but joy now through love, fellowship and shared purpose with God and our brethren.  It also means a hope that is eternal,  John 14: 2 tells us there is is a place prepared for us; but the life there begins here below.

Forget the beans (and lentils), the family fortune is already ours.


The Fight


drawing by Harry W. Carpenter

In a story, nearly as much legend as history, the 42-gun Bonhomme Richard (a converted merchant vessel) engaged the 50-gun British frigate Serapis of the coast of Flamborough Head. During the battle of 23 September 1779, the colours of the Richard were shot away. On seeing the ship’s ensign (battle flag) missing the British commander called out: “Have you struck, Sir (a sign of surrender)?” The American commander John Paul Jones quickly responded: “Struck Sir, I have not begun to fight.”  This episode has gone done in the history of the US Navy as one of its great days, as the Richard went on to win the battle.

What a great contrast to the words of a different Paul.  On reflecting on his Christian walk Paul of Tarsus remarked: “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith (2 Timothy 4:7 KJV).” This reflection sums up: “Whatever anyone else dares to boast about – I am speaking as a fool – I also dare to boast about.  Are they Hebrews? So am I. Are they Israelites? So am I. Are they Abraham’s descendants? So am I.  Are they servants of Christ? (I am out of my mind to talk like this.) I am more. I have worked much harder, been in prison more frequently, been flogged more severely, and been exposed to death again and again.  Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one.  Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea,  I have been constantly on the move. I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. I have laboured and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked.  Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches (2 Corn 11:21-28 NIV).”

Paul of Tarsus in deed fought a good fight on behalf of the gospel. He did so with confidence, and through it all he kept his “eyes on the prize.”

The question for us today is which Paul are we like?




To Mount “the Stairs of God”


Genesis 11:1-9 (KJV) reads: “And the whole earth was of one language, and of one speech. And it came to pass, as they journeyed from the east, that they found a plain in the land of Shinar; and they dwelt there.  And they said one to another, Go to, let us make brick, and burn them thoroughly. And they had brick for stone, and slime had they for mortar. And they said, Go to, let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth. And the Lord came down to see the city and the tower, which the children of men builded. And the Lord said, Behold, the people is one, and they have all one language; and this they begin to do: and now nothing will be restrained from them, which they have imagined to do. Go to, let us go down, and there confound their language, that they may not understand one another’s speech.  So the Lord scattered them abroad from thence upon the face of all the earth: and they left off to build the city. Therefore is the name of it called Babel; because the Lord did there confound the language of all the earth: and from thence did the Lord scatter them abroad upon the face of all the earth.”

Many have made a great deal of what seems to be a brazen attempt by human-kind to climb to the heavens – to mount the figurative “stairs of God.”  While the attempted construction of the Babel tower does contain that element, it does not seem to be the issue.  Let’s face it, humans have reached far greater physical heights (even during long haul airline flights, much less space travel) than ancient people would ever have accomplished in brick and “slime.”

So what is the issue?  It is pride and disobedience!  Let’s look at the text. “Let us make us a name [let’s show off what we can do, let us have renown].” But, renown from whom? Themselves? Clearly not. Angels? Perhaps. God? Now that is pride and arrogance!

Furthermore it is disobedience. God had tasked Adam and Eve populate the earth. They were sent from a static place -Eden – to go into the world. Later, Noah and his sons are told: “Then God blessed Noah and his sons, saying to them, “Be fruitful and increase in number and fill the earth (Gen 9:1 NIV).” So the commands are clear, leave the stationary life and fill the earth.  What is the response in Genesis 11? “Let us build us a city and a tower, whose top may reach unto heaven; and let us make us a name, lest we be scattered abroad upon the face of the whole earth.” We will stay here, and we will show God what we can do.

The result is the confounding of languages.  Instant division, root of misunderstandings, and precursor to war and hatred.  And why?  Our disobedience and pride.  So much for mounting those stairs.

That is not the end of the story, however. God in His wisdom sent His Son once again to unit us.  But not in personal pride, but with a mission.  “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation (Mark 16:15).” Yes, once again a “fill the world” command.  And that’s not all, for in order to accomplish it Babel is undone!  Acts 2:4 reads “And they were all filled with the Holy Ghost, and began to speak with other tongues, as the Spirit gave them utterance.” And the passage continues:  “And how hear we every man in our own tongue, wherein we were born? Parthians, and Medes, and Elamites, and the dwellers in Mesopotamia, and in Judaea, and Cappadocia, in Pontus, and Asia,  Phrygia, and Pamphylia, in Egypt, and in the parts of Libya about Cyrene, and strangers of Rome, Jews and proselytes, Cretes and Arabians, we do hear them speak in our tongues the wonderful works of God.” 

We once again can mount the stairs of God.  Not with bricks and mortar, but via the blood and the Spirit. Let us mount those stairs and as we do – go fill the world.


The Tenth of Tevet


“Tears” by Hilly Wakeford, 2003

Today is the 10th of Tevet on the Hebrew/Jewish calendar.  It is marked in Israel as the General Day of Mourning.  Its roots are found in the Babylonian Siege of Jerusalem. Despite Jeremiah’s prophetic warnings to the rulers of Judah (as well as the people), they failed to repent:

“Perhaps when the people of Judah hear about every disaster I plan to inflict on them, they will each turn from their wicked ways; then I will forgive their wickedness and their sin. (Jeremiah 36:3 NIV).”

The result was that on the 10th of Tevet, 425 BCE the armies of the Babylonian emperor Nebuchadnezzar laid siege to Jerusalem. Thirty months later, the city walls were breached, and on the 9th of Av, the Temple was destroyed. This in turn led to a 70 year long exile of the Jewish people from Jerusalem.

This is a great and mournful event, and the sorrow should be shown not only for the suffering and loss of siege and exile, but mourning for the failure to turn to God as well.  In today’s memorial festival Jews around the world mark not just the Babylonian experience, but the struggles of subsequent sorrowful episodes (Roman siege, pogroms, etc) as well.  It is also a time to remember personal losses, and mourning.

On this day of remembrance, reflection, and mourning, let us show proper humility and where appropriate sorrow.  But let us also remember we are not with out hope. “Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.” For He [the Lord, our God] heals the brokenhearted and binds up their wounds (Psalm 147:3).


The Elah Valley Incident


In 1 Samuel 17 one of the most epic battles ever fought took place.  Yes, two great armies were amassed, but the battle itself was of single combat.  The fate of a nation rested on its outcome.  The combatants were David son of Jesse, and Goliath of Gath: an adolescent shepherd against the champion of the armies of the Philistines.

Goliath (a giant) had mocked the armies of Israel for days.  No one would risk taking him on.  Then this boy from Bethlehem arrives and marvels how this “uncircumcised Philistine” could dare to belittle God’s nation. He takes up the challenge. He does not seem fearful “Let no one lose heart on account of this Philistine; your servant will go and fight him (vs 32).”

He is at first armored in the king’s mail, but this was too cumbersome for him, and he sheds it.  He instead takes his shepherd’s sling, and picks five stones from the Elah stream.

So there he stands, a youth – ill equipped to do battle.  He is mocked by Goliath, but stands his ground.  “You come against me with sword and spear and javelin, but I come against you in the name of the Lord Almighty, the God of the armies of Israel, whom you have defied.  This day the Lord will deliver you into my hands, and I’ll strike you down and cut off your head. This very day I will give the carcasses of the Philistine army to the birds and the wild animals, and the whole world will know that there is a God in Israel (vs 45-46).”

He clearly trusts in God.  So why five stones?  Some say his faith was weak enough to need a fall back.  Others that God had not told him only one was needed.  Others that he was prepared to take on any who would come to aid the giant.  And yet others say it was a sign that by the end of David’s career, he and his associates would kill 5 giants in the defense of Israel.  All may well be true.  But ultimately God’s hand was in play.  It only took the one.

One smooth stone, not to the temple (as some suggest), but to the forehead.  A clear, accurate single shot that changed the world.  Belief triumphed over experience; faith over scorn; truth over falsehood. These are the lessons of the Elah Incident.

Do we have our polished stones ready today?  There are still giants to conquer.


God the Merciful


In Exodus 34:6-7 it reads: “And he passed in front of Moses, proclaiming, “The Lord, the Lord, the compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love and faithfulness, maintaining love to thousands, and forgiving wickedness, rebellion and sin. Yet he does not leave the guilty unpunished; he punishes the children and their children for the sin of the parents to the third and fourth generation (NIV).”

The passage follows one of the most unfortunate events of the Old Testament.  The Children of Israel had despite the miraculous rescues from slavery, and from the armies of Pharaoh via the Red Sea, turned their back on God, and created a golden calf to worship. To make matters worse Moses, in response to their sin, takes the tablets of the Law which God had just given him, and smashed them.  Sin, disloyalty, anger, and destruction all are at play here!  And how does HaShem respond?  He writes the commandments a second time for His people!

And in the process, He proclaims his own nature and mercy to Moses. Rabbinic literature suggests that the passage above presents 13 “attributes of mercy: “

1) The Lord! (Adonai)–God is merciful before a person sins! 2) The Lord! (Adonai)–God is merciful after the sinner has gone astray. 3) God (El)–a name indicating that God’s mercy sometimes surpasses even  . . . the degree indicated by this name. 4)Compassionate (rahum)–God is filled with loving sympathy for human frailty does not put people into situations of extreme temptation, and eases the punishment of the guilty. 5)Gracious (v’hanun)–God shows mercy even to those who do not deserve it consoling the afflicted and raising up the oppressed. 6)Slow to anger (ereh apayim)–God gives the sinner ample time to reflect, improve, and repent. 7) Abundant in Kindness (v’rav hesed)–God is kind toward those who lack personal merits, providing more gifts and blessings than they deserve; if one’s personal behavior is evenly balanced between virtue and sin, God tips the scales of justice toward the good. 8)Truth (v’emet)–God never reneges on His word to reward those who serve Him. 9)Preserver of kindness for thousands of generations (notzeir hesed la-alafim)–God remembers the deeds of the righteous for thebenefit of their less virtuous generations of offspring (thus we constantly invoke the merit of the Patriarchs). 10) Forgiver of iniquity (nosei avon)–God forgives intentional sin resulting from an evil disposition, as long as the sinner repents. 11) Forgiver of willful sin (pesha)–God allows even those who commit a sin with the malicious intent of rebelling against and angering Him the opportunity to repent. 12) Forgiver of error (v’hata’ah)–God forgives a sin committed out of carelessness, thoughtlessness, or apathy. 13)Who cleanses (v’nakeh)–God is merciful, gracious, and forgiving, wiping away the sins of those who truly repent; however, if one does not repent, God does not cleanse (see: The 13 Attributes of Mercy).

While I am no great Hebrew scholar, and therefore am not in a position to second guess the traditions of Talmud, I nonetheless see God’s self-description as comforting.  Even in its biblical form (and without rabbinical embellishment) the passage provides a wonderful image of “God the Merciful.”  He is compassionate (vs 6). He offers grace (vs 6). He is slow to anger (vs 6). He  abounds or overflows in love (vs 6). He abounds in His faithfulness (vs 6). He maintains love to thousands [multitudes] (vs 7).  He forgives wickedness (vs 7). He forgives rebellion (vs 7). He forgives sin (7). And yet He remains just (vs 7).  By my count that is 10 rather than 13 attributes [though I will not dogmatically question the rabbinical counting].  As an aside, however, isn’t it interesting, that the number of His attributes of mercy is the same as the number of commandments symbolically destroyed as a result of the golden calf incident?  

Lord, thank you for being a merciful God, for I am daily in need of it.  May you continue to shower your mercies on all your people.


Preparing the Field


Hosea 10:12 reads:  “Sow righteousness for yourselves, reap the fruit of unfailing love and break up your unploughed ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, until he comes and showers his righteousness on you (NIV).” My wife shared this passage with me, and in her study she had linked its theme to church growth, and to revival.  She saw the showering of righteousness as the blessings of such a revival.  This led to thinking about what might be the unploughed ground which would bring the fruit of unfailing love if it is first prepared properly.  If that unploughed land is the hearts of those presently unprepared, then the hard ground needs to be first softened or broken up, and the plough of such effort should be prayer.

When she shared this with me, it brought the parable of sower immediately to mind. “Then he told them many things in parables, saying: “A farmer went out to sow his seed. As he was scattering the seed, some fell along the path, and the birds came and ate it up. Some fell on rocky places, where it did not have much soil. It sprang up quickly, because the soil was shallow. But when the sun came up, the plants were scorched, and they withered because they had no root. Other seed fell among thorns, which grew up and choked the plants. Still other seed fell on good soil, where it produced a crop—a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown. Whoever has ears, let them hear (MT 13:3-9 NIV).”

This is one of the few stories Jesus goes on to explain. “Listen then to what the parable of the sower means: When anyone hears the message about the kingdom and does not understand it, the evil one comes and snatches away what was sown in their heart. This is the seed sown along the path. The seed falling on rocky ground refers to someone who hears the word and at once receives it with joy.  But since they have no root, they last only a short time. When trouble or persecution comes because of the word, they quickly fall away. The seed falling among the thorns refers to someone who hears the word, but the worries of this life and the deceitfulness of wealth choke the word, making it unfruitful.  But the seed falling on good soil refers to someone who hears the word and understands it. This is the one who produces a crop, yielding a hundred, sixty or thirty times what was sown (vs 18-23).”

The good soil is ready for growth!  It has been plowed, the stones cast aside, and the weeds removed.  It is ready for the seed.  By prayer (the plowing); and sincere, faithful example (the removal of stones and weeds) we can make our neighbourhoods (and churches) fertile fields for “the showers of righteousness” to come.

Jesus came to bring life, and before His advent a messenger came with prayer and righteous example ” A voice of one calling: “In the wilderness prepare the way for the Lordmake straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be raised up, every mountain and hill made low; the rough ground shall become level, the rugged places a plain (Isaiah 40:3-4 NIV).”  How’s that for preparing the soil?

Let us be such prayerful messengers!


Wisdom (Part 1)

Proverbs 8 presents the call of wisdom,

Does not wisdom call out? Does not understanding raise her voice? At the highest point along the way, where the paths meet, she takes her stand; beside the gate leading into the city, at the entrance, she cries aloud: “To you, O people, I call out; I raise my voice to all mankind. You who are simple, gain prudence; you who are foolish, set your hearts on it. Listen, for I have trustworthy things to say; I open my lips to speak what is right. My mouth speaks what is true, for my lips detest wickedness. All the words of my mouth are just; none of them is crooked or perverse. To the discerning all of them are right; they are upright to those who have found knowledge. Choose my instruction instead of silver, knowledge rather than choice gold, for wisdom is more precious than rubies, and nothing you desire can compare with her (vs 1-11 NIV).”

So what is wisdom?  In simplest form, wisdom is the application of knowledge. Knowledge is knowing or being aware of something; it can be learned.  You can know that a tomato is a fruit (yes, it is). Wisdom is applying the knowledge (or not – as appropriate).  As the saying goes, “knowledge says a tomato is a fruit, wisdom tells you not to put it in your fruit salad.” More importantly, it is knowledge to be aware that hitting someone in the nose is wrong, wisdom is applying the knowledge and being sure you don’t in fact punch.

This is the message of the first portion of Proverbs 8.  This is a precious treasure, of putting righteousness, prudence, and good behaviour into practice.  The “detesting of wickedness” and the speaking of right, are the first steps in answering wisdom’s call. Are we practicing what we preach?  Are we exercising our knowledge of the truth?

Hear wisdom’s call today!



“More or Less”

Sister Lisa shared Romans 15 during the prayer meeting last night, and reflected on the humility of Paul found within the letter. He starts in verse 2 by calling for us to lift others up. He proceeds to note that Christ was a servant and He is our model. Paul then speaking of his own ministry says: “Therefore I glory in Christ Jesus in my service to God. I will not venture to speak of anything except what Christ has accomplished through me in leading the Gentiles to obey God by what I have said and done (vs 17-18 NIV).”

He glories not in himself but in God.  As I was pondering this it came to me that Paul, the more he matured in the faith, the humbler he became. He went from “least of the apostles” in I Corinthians 15:9 to “chief of sinners” in I Timothy 1:15.

How better to put into practice Jesus’ reminder that “So the last will be first, and the first will be last (MT 20:16).”? 

Are we being lights to the world for ourselves or for God?  Let his glory shine in us today, beyond ego and beyond religiosity.





One of the most interesting exchanges in the New Testament is Jesus’ encounter with a Gentile woman near Tyre:

“And from there he arose and went away to the region of Tyre and Sidon. And he entered a house and did not want anyone to know, yet he could not be hidden. But immediately a woman whose little daughter had an unclean spirit heard of him and came and fell down at his feet. Now the woman was a Gentile, a Syrophoenician by birth. And she begged him to cast the demon out of her daughter. And he said to her, “Let the children be fed first, for it is not right to take the children’s bread and throw it to the dogs.” But she answered him, “Yes, Lord; yet even the dogs under the table eat the children’s crumbs.” And he said to her, “For this statement you may go your way; the demon has left your daughter.” And she went home and found the child lying in bed and the demon gone (Mark 7:24-30 ESV).”

Many modern and secular critics cite this exchange as “proof” of Jesus’ prejudice (and by implication sin), because refers to the Gentiles as “dogs.”  Some Christian apologists respond by using the defense that Jesus was using a verbal construction common to His culture and usage of His day.  A closer examination, however, will shed light that both views are incorrect.

First, the issue of dogs.  Dogs in ancient Israel were scavengers.  They were ritually unclean, and generally tolerated as part of the refuse system, as they ate the waste in the streets (see Exodus  22:3).  At best, they were semi-domesticated and generally not let into a house at all.

So these unclean, almost vermin creatures were looked down on by the Jews of Jesus’ day. So was He insulting her?  The short answer is no. While Jews did not keep dogs, many of their neighbours, especially those who were Hellenised, did.  Jesus’ actual word in the Greek is “little dogs,” meaning possibly “puppies,” but more probably implying “pet, or kept dog.”  While this would still be distasteful to Jews, it would have been an understandable term to His Syrophoenician supplicant.

Furthermore, while in the Old Testament “dog” is used as an insult or criticism ( II Samuel 16:9), it was only used as such in regards to Jews. In fact, most all references to dogs in the Old Testament are about the actual animals. Rabbinic literature similarly fails to show the term dog as a euphemism for Gentiles.  Every reference to dog and Gentile in Mishnah is written as an “either/or” not as a same. A paraphrase of one is “If meat is not Kosher you may sell it to a Gentile, or feed it to dogs (Nedarim, 3).” Therefore, Jesus does not seem to be “just using idiom” or insulting.

So what is he saying? Simply, His mission was to the Jews first. Jesus’ ministry was to the People of Promise, but then to the whole world.  It was in His plan all along, He taught Jews, He gathered Jewish disciples, He taught them then said to them: “But you will receive power when the Holy Spirit comes on you; and you will be my witnesses in Jerusalem, and in all Judea and Samaria, and to the ends of the earth (Acts 1:8).” Paul mirrors this in his own ministry as Christ’s apostle: “For I am not ashamed of the gospel, because it is the power of God that brings salvation to everyone who believes: first to the Jew, then to the Gentile (Romans 1:16 NIV).”

So why give this Gentile woman her request?  “Compassion?” Yes. “Recognition of her faith?” That too. “An early example to His disciples of their mission to come?” Perhaps. “If so, why the delay?” To make the point clear to the Jewish disciples!

Yes, they were crumbs for the Syrophoenician, but those crumbs (delivered before the full outpouring of the Spirit guiding mission to the world by the disciples) was a foretaste of a feast to come!

John writes: “The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world. He was in the world, and though the world was made through him, the world did not recognize him. He came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him.  Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God (John 1: 9-12).”  And children eat their bread from the table!