It’s the last word in the Bible. It’s normally the last word of our prayers. It is frequently used by the congregation during a particularly inspiring part of a sermon.
But what does it mean to say, “Amen!”? The original Hebrew word means, “so be it,” or “let it be so.” It is spoken to express confirmation, solemn ratification, or agreement. Saying, “Amen!” is saying that we agree with the words the pastor has spoken, or the words that someone else has just prayed. But, ultimately, it is confirmation that we agree with what God will choose to do, and how He will choose to answer the prayer or speak to us.
When we say, “Amen,” we are letting go of our will and trusting our prayers, our thoughts, our feelings, and our desires to God’s hands. God is sovereign. He can do anything He wants, regardless of our desires or plans; regardless of our feelings or our actions. He can thwart our plans, upset our circumstances, and set His face against us. But that’s not HIS desire. He wants our willing cooperation and approval. He doesn’t need it, but He desires it. He wants to hear us echo His heart, and respond to His loving care with a hearty “Amen!” Not because He needs it– but because WE need it. We need to rest in His sovereign power instead of trying to fight blindly against our circumstances. We need to wake up and act in accordance with His design, instead of wasting time in apathy and disdain.
But “Amen!,” like any other word, shouldn’t be used lightly. “Can I get an Amen?” “In Jesus’ name, Amen” These are solemn oaths. “Amen” isn’t just a word of cheer or enthusiasm. It is an acknowledgement of God’s right to rule our lives. Even when it brings testing; even when it involves struggle and pain. All the time, God is in charge, and His ways can be trusted. “AMEN!”
Maybe it’s just because I was hungry, but I started thinking about making a pizza from scratch, and how it can be like praying…I know it’s kind of a stretch, but stay with me..
Faith/Crust–every pizza has to have a solid crust–and making crust from scratch usually involves stretching and pulling, flattening and forming it to make a round(ish) base for the toppings. Prayers rely on a solid foundation of faith. Even if it is a “thin” crust, faith is what gives us the confidence to approach God with our thoughts and thanks, our confessions and our concerns. Our faith is often stretched and pounded by circumstances, and it gets strengthened in the fires as God refines us.
Salvation/Sauce– right there with the crust comes a sauce. It is usually red (tomato-based) or white (cream-based). I am reminded that our faith, and our ability to approach God freely is “covered” by the shed blood of Jesus Christ. Our sins, though scarlet, are made white as snow. Whatever weaknesses we have– even our small or weak faith, are “covered”– God pours and spreads His grace and salvation over us. Jesus advocates for us every time we pray.
Content of our Prayers/Toppings–pizzas come in all types of varieties. I’ve had pizzas with goat cheese, tomatoes, onions, shrimp, smoked sausage, carrots, blueberries, ham, scrambled eggs, spinach, olives, gravy, cornmeal, mushrooms, grilled chicken, dried beef, taco meat, cocktail sauce…just not all on the same pizza! My point is that our prayers are as unique and individual as we are. Some of us pray “single topping” prayers– raising a special concern that God has laid on our heart– all day long, or for days or years on end. Some of us pray “scattershot” prayers– a little of this and a little of that as things come to mind. Some of us pray “house favorite” prayers– we follow a formula or a pattern in many of our prayers. But each prayer gives off a delicious aroma– each one has a unique combination of flavors, textures, and pleasing smells as they are offered up to the Father. And we prepare our toppings/our individual prayers…our thoughts may be chopped up, diced, sliced, and spread around. They may get layered and mixed up and melded.
Meditation/Baking– I’ve had fruit and vegetable pizzas that are served “uncooked” (except usually the crust has been pre-baked), but most pizzas have to go in the oven before they can be eaten. Some prayers are spoken in public or “in the moment,” but God wants to spend some time alone with us– even if it is in a “hot” oven for just a few minutes! Taking time to immerse ourselves in God’s presence not only refreshes us, it gives us time and space and openness to hear God’s voice; to catch a glimpse of His vision for our day; to close our eyes and ears to distractions and false promises, guilt and self-justification.
Reading/Recipe–great pizzas don’t just happen by trial and error. Even though I love to experiment with different toppings and different seasonings–even different crust variations–if I don’t follow a recipe, I can ruin an otherwise great pizza. If we’re not reading the Bible regularly, we can begin to fall into bad prayer habits– selfish or prideful prayers, praying in the wrong spirit (bitterness or anger), even praying in ways that don’t recognize God for who He is.
Serving/Serving! Pizzas are not meant to be created and left to sit and grow cold or moldy. Prayers offered up without obedience and active service don’t nourish anyone. Prayer should nourish our souls– we should be strengthened, changed, and experience growth. And God is gracious. Even if our prayer life has grown “cold”– well, cold pizza is still really good!
So build a great pizza/prayer today (and throughout the day). “Taste and see that the Lord is Good” (Psalm 34:8)! Come back tomorrow and repeat!
8 In the sixth year, in the sixth month on the fifth day, while I was sitting in my house and the elders of Judah were sitting before me, the hand of the Sovereign Lord came on me there. 2 I looked, and I saw a figure like that of a man. From what appeared to be his waist down he was like fire, and from there up his appearance was as bright as glowing metal. 3 He stretched out what looked like a hand and took me by the hair of my head. The Spirit lifted me up between earth and heaven and in visions of God he took me to Jerusalem, to the entrance of the north gate of the inner court, where the idol that provokes to jealousy stood. 4 And there before me was the glory of the God of Israel, as in the vision I had seen in the plain. 5 Then he said to me, “Son of man, look toward the north.” So I looked, and in the entrance north of the gate of the altar I saw this idol of jealousy. 6 And he said to me, “Son of man, do you see what they are doing—the utterly detestable things the Israelites are doing here, things that will drive me far from my sanctuary? But you will see things that are even more detestable.” 7 Then he brought me to the entrance to the court. I looked, and I saw a hole in the wall. 8 He said to me, “Son of man, now dig into the wall.” So I dug into the wall and saw a doorway there.9 And he said to me, “Go in and see the wicked and detestable things they are doing here.” 10 So I went in and looked, and I saw portrayed all over the walls all kinds of crawling things and unclean animals and all the idols of Israel. 11 In front of them stood seventy elders of Israel, and Jaazaniah son of Shaphan was standing among them. Each had a censer in his hand, and a fragrant cloud of incense was rising. 12 He said to me, “Son of man, have you seen what the elders of Israel are doing in the darkness, each at the shrine of his own idol? They say, ‘The Lord does not see us; the Lord has forsaken the land.’” 13 Again, he said, “You will see them doing things that are even more detestable.” 14 Then he brought me to the entrance of the north gate of the house of the Lord, and I saw women sitting there, mourning the god Tammuz. 15 He said to me, “Do you see this, son of man? You will see things that are even more detestable than this.” 16 He then brought me into the inner court of the house of the Lord, and there at the entrance to the temple, between the portico and the altar, were about twenty-five men. With their backs toward the temple of the Lord and their faces toward the east, they were bowing down to the sun in the east. 17 He said to me, “Have you seen this, son of man? Is it a trivial matter for the people of Judah to do the detestable things they are doing here? Must they also fill the land with violence and continually arouse my anger? Look at them putting the branch to their nose! 18 Therefore I will deal with them in anger; I will not look on them with pity or spare them. Although they shout in my ears, I will not listen to them.”
Ezekiel 8 (NIV) via biblegateway.com
We make a big fuss in our culture about privacy. What I do in my own home, with my own life, in my own time, is private. And, for many of us, our privacy is sacred. We rage and fight and panic about who may be invading our privacy– listening in or watching us when we least expect it.
I must admit, I don’t like the idea of anyone spying on me or listening in on my private moments. I especially don’t like the thought of someone manipulating or using my private words, images, or ideas without my knowledge or consent.
But there is a danger in our quest for privacy– we are inclined to believe that anything we do in private CANNOT ever be discovered; that we are safe to do whatever we please, regardless of the consequences. The internet has made this idea even more dangerous–we can be private and anonymous behind the screen. We can say things we know we shouldn’t; we can view things we would be ashamed to acknowledge watching; we can explore fantasies, mask our inadequacies, pretend to be who and what we are not; all behind the “safety” of the screen.
And this is nothing new. In Ezekiel’s day, the moral, legal, political, and religious leaders of the day thought they were “safe” to indulge in idol worship behind closed doors. But more than that, they believed that God would never see as they practiced divination, witchcraft, ritual prostitution, violent orgies, even child sacrifice! They had built hidden rooms where they practiced vile rites and indulged in the very behaviors they taught others to avoid. Worse, they condemned and vilified others when they “got caught” doing the same things they practiced with impunity. And when prophets came to them with warnings–the very words of God– they had them ruined, imprisoned, tortured, and killed.
In the eighth chapter of Ezekiel, God shows his prophet a vision. He allows Ezekiel to “go behind closed doors” and see the priests and leaders at their worst–over and over again–secret rituals, detestable practices, flagrant disobedience, arrogant rebellion…And all of this was happening as the nations of Israel and Judah had collapsed, and many thousands had died from war, disease, and starvation. People had been sent into exile– defeated, starving, enslaved. Yet their leaders were keeping up an image of righteousness and proud endurance, instead of turning to God for help and hope.
God was very clear–Jerusalem WOULD be captured and destroyed. Babylon WOULD take God’s people captive and send most of them to the sword or to exile. Defiance and pride– especially relying on the great victories of the past– would not save them. Rebellion and violence would not hold back God’s judgment.
The same is true today. It is easy to write about praying and walking closely with God–I’m hidden behind a screen. I can sound righteous and Godly for a few minutes three times a week. And it is easy to point fingers and call out the bad behavior of others behind the anonymity of a computer screen. We need to speak up, speak out, and defend the cause of those who are oppressed, abused, enslaved, and silenced. But we also need to beware that we are not crying, “Shame on you!” from a locked closet, while waving banners or buying merchandise supporting the abusers.
And God sees all of it. What we may find shocking and reprehensible, God has already seen through to its conclusion! God WILL bring judgment and punishment for those who shed blood and bring violence and injustice. But God also sees what I do in the watches of the night; when I’m alone with my thoughts; when I’m not on my guard against what I view on Facebook or YouTube. God knows what celebrity gossip I crave, or what I’m “watching” on eBay. He knows if I am ignoring or justifying evil happening all around me. He watches over my shoulder when I’m reading that new novel, or I’m driving down the road (hopefully not at the same time!), or when I’m wallowing in self-pity or jealousy or anger.
When I read about Ezekiel weeping over the behavior of Israel’s leaders, I am convicted. How often do I weep and seek God’s mercy over the behavior of our leaders–all of them, and not just the ones I voted for? Or do I just fume and post about how awful “they” are (whoever “they” my be) and how “they” need to be punished? How often do I ignore my own bad behavior? I may not have a “hidden room” filled with detestable images and idols, but God is still watching how I react to challenging times. He knows if I am obeying His voice or merely pretending to follow Him while leaning on my own understanding or my own image of self-righteousness. He knows if I have made money, politics, status, safety, health, or even “religion” into idols, hoping that one or more of them will carry me through tough times. He knows if I am condemning others for their bad behavior, while hiding or justifying my own.
I want everyone to see me when I am noble and righteous–but I need to see myself as He sees me every day–His much-loved, and ever-needy, child.
Father, may I be quick to remember that You ALWAYS see me– and that You ALWAYS want me to see You as well. Help me to see You in the middle of challenging times. Help me to see You when I interact with others. Help me to obey You in the private moments when no one else is watching.
When I was just a girl, many of my cousins and playmates were fans of comic-book heroes: Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, X-Men, Spiderman, and many others. In fact, in second grade, we had a “superhero” club that met at recess and played out scenarios. Most of us got to be heroes; a few had to take turns being villains. We ran as fast as we could; we pretended to fly; we pretended to save the world!
Each super hero has a special super power (or several super powers), and each one has a “fatal flaw”– some weakness that could keep him (or her) from easy victory over a villain. Superman can fly; but he cannot overcome the effects of Krypton. Batman has a seemingly endless array of cool gadgets, but they are not always enough to counter the cool gadgets of his foes. Spider-man can spin webs, but being a superhero doesn’t pay his bills. Wonder Woman has a lasso of truth and an invisible airplane, but she must struggle between promoting peace and fighting to stop violence and war.
I was reminded recently that we often confuse Biblical characters with comic-book superheroes. Abraham had extraordinary faith. Moses had his staff. Samson had great strength. David wrote poetry and killed giants…and so on. And each “hero” of the faith seemed to have a “fatal flaw”– Abraham did not wait for God’s promise of Isaac. Moses had a temper. Samson was arrogant and forgot the source of his strength. David was tempted by lust, which led him to commit adultery and murder!
There is nothing wrong with honoring men and women of faith and courage and obedience. The entire eleventh chapter of Hebrews is devoted to “heroes” of the faith, and the faith of Godly heroes.
But we can turn heroes into idols, and that leads us to false thinking. We falsely believe that God only calls those who are already heroic and strong. We sometimes feel that God cannot use us unless we first show that we have some super power. We also carry a false guilt about our “fatal flaws,” feeling that we have somehow ruined God’s plans or let the enemy “win” whenever we stumble. Finally, we fail to see that our ordinary obedience–even our shaky and stumbling faith– IS heroic.
Superheroes are not Biblical, and Biblical characters were never “super” heroes. Most of them spent their lives doing mostly ordinary things– farming, fishing, carpentry, tax collecting, herding sheep! There is only one “superhero” in the Bible– God himself–and He has no fatal flaw. Instead, He chooses flawed and ordinary people to obey Him as HE does extraordinary things through them.
One consistent thing about the people we celebrate as “heroes” in the Bible– they all prayed! They all knew that real power (and wisdom and help) comes from God alone. Prayer and obedience are not guaranteed to make us famous or heroic. But God can use the simplest acts and the smallest measure of true faith to do great things in, and around, and through ordinary people just like us!
Sometimes, I am impulsive. I blurt out my thoughts and emotions; I end up buying a candy bar as I finish checking out my groceries; I decide to turn left at the intersection instead of going straight. Generally, impulsive actions are frowned upon. They can be foolish, wasteful, even dangerous. God does not call on us to be foolish or thoughtless, but there are times when He wants us to act on HIS impulse– to obey without stopping to weigh the pros and cons, without stopping to consider how we will appear to others or how obedience might “mess up” our carefully planned day.
Have you ever felt the “impulse” of God’s love moving you to an unexpected action? Maybe you had a sudden urge to speak to a stranger on a train, or get in touch with an old friend. Maybe you felt compelled to give a gift to someone or stop and offer to help carry a load for them. Maybe you saw a news story and it caused you to pray– and to remember someone’s need and pray some more!
Our own selfish impulses can get us into a lot of trouble. But God’s impulses can lead to blessing beyond our understanding. Just remember:
God’s impulses will never cause you to act contrary to His word. Buying things you know you can’t afford (especially for yourself!), or blurting out judgmental and hurtful comments– such impulses are NOT Godly. “Speaking the truth in Love” is not the same as spewing finger-pointing condemnation and self-righteous justification. Trusting that “God will provide” is not the same as assuming He wants you to have everything you desire.
Delayed obedience is the same as disobedience. God’s impulses are meant to be spontaneous moments of joyful service– not grudging acceptance of an imposition. That doesn’t mean that we can’t take a split second to discern God’s voice (see above) and respond appropriately. But God wants our “moments” as well as our “days”–He knows our plans. But He also knows His plans are better. If we are not willing for our plans to be redirected, then God is not really our Lord.
God’s impulses almost always involve others. God is LOVE. His impulses, therefore, are all about showing love–HIS LOVE–giving, serving, listening, helping, sharing, encouraging! God’s impulses will be directed outward, either toward others or toward God on the behalf of others. Amazingly, in God’s economy, we often reap a residual reward when we put aside our own plans. Sometimes the reward is not immediate or obvious–we may seem to meet with rejection, or even failure at first. Our actions may be misunderstood; our offers to help may fall flat; our prayers may seem to go unheard. But the love we show is not empty or worthless. We may never see the fruit of our actions or prayers, but we can still plant the seeds and water them!
God is a God of Grace and Mercy. Did you fail to act on a Godly impulse today? Stop. Take a moment to repent. Learn from today. Ask for wisdom to do better at the next opportunity!
I’m always amazed at the miraculous opportunities God has given me to bless others, and to learn more about His amazing Love. From unexpected encounters in faraway places, to reminders and prayer requests on Facebook or local news stories, to a sudden urge to do a random act of kindness– God’s impulses give us the opportunity to participate in His miracles!
I’ve learned a “lot” studying in Genesis, and looking at the character of Abraham’s nephew, Lot. Today, I want to summarize…
Our lives depend on choices, rather than chances…Lot experienced many opportunities and some tragedies beyond his control. But even when God gave Lot some amazing opportunities– even when He offered miraculous rescue–Lot continued to make bad decisions or no decision at all. When have I done the same? Do I wait for chance and circumstance to find me? Do I drift along without making wise choices, allowing life to carry me to my next destination? Or do I seek God–His wisdom, His Word, His provision–and choose to obey Him?
Not making a choice IS making a choice…Lot chose to live outside of Sodom– but he ended up in the city. Lot spent much of his time NOT making decisions or plans. He chose inactivity, chose to be vulnerable to attack, chose to live in a city so wicked it was doomed to destruction, chose to compromise and bargain with his wicked neighbors, chose to drag his feet (literally) about leaving, chose to let his daughters control his destiny and legacy. How often do I pray for God to direct my steps and guide my life, and then sit on the couch doing nothing? Lot’s story doesn’t include a single instance of Lot taking initiative. He simple reacts to, takes advantage of, or accepts whatever opportunities or misfortunes befall him. And he doesn’t see his inactivity as a sin or rebellion against God. But he never CHOOSES to follow God; to seek Him or obey him. He assumes that not choosing active rebellion and evil is enough. Have I done the same? Do I think that because I am not actively involved in wickedness that I am honoring God with my inaction and apathy?
You cannot live surrounded by evil and not be hurt by it. Ignoring the warning signs, tolerating evil because it becomes familiar, turning a blind eye to the ways others are being hurt–if we are not part of a solution, we are part of the problem. Lot had options– he could have moved away from Sodom; he could have stayed outside the city; he could have spoken up about the evil all around him–he did none of those things. He lived a compromised life; a life in denial. What have I done to flee evil? To speak out against injustice and oppression? To stand up for what is right? When have I winked at evil, or turned a blind eye to wickedness? How often have I sat in uncomfortable silence while someone else suffered? Because “it’s not my problem.” “One voice won’t make a difference.” “It’s just the way they are.” “I don’t want to offend anyone by getting involved. It’s none of my business, anyway.” Lot and his family suffered greatly, even as they tried to “coexist” with their wicked neighbors.
That’s a lot to consider in the life of one man. But more importantly, there are a “lot” of things to learn about the character of God in this story:
God sees us. God included Lot in the larger story of Abraham– He gave an orphaned boy a family, a fortune, and a future. Lot had done nothing to “earn” God’s protection or favor. He certainly did nothing to deserve being rescued– twice– and he did nothing to show gratitude for either rescue. But God didn’t make a mistake in showing Lot mercy. God wasn’t surprised by Lot’s life choices– He didn’t “fail” Lot, and He didn’t forget about Him– even after generations.
God is a judge. We like to concentrate on God’s mercy and blessings, but God’s goodness requires that sin, wickedness, and evil be punished. God doesn’t delight in punishment, but He will not forget the cries of the oppressed. Those who practice evil and seem to “get away with it” will face judgment. If they do not seek God’s forgiveness, they will be destroyed. The cities of Sodom and Gomorrah were destroyed by supernatural fire; Lot was destroyed by his own fears and compromises.
God is merciful. God destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah, but He was willing to save the cities for the sake of as few as ten “righteous” people. We know that “There is no one righteous, not even one..” (Romans 3:10), but God thoughtfully listened to Abraham, and promised to seek for anyone who could be considered worthy of saving. That He saved only Lot and his small family was for Abraham’s sake, not Lot’s– yet save them He did. God doesn’t save the “deserving”– He saves the lost!
God’s plans are perfect, detailed, and eternal. God saved the unworthy Lot, and even when his family repaid God’s mercy with incest, violence, and wickedness against Israel, God orchestrated the story of Ruth– a story of love, faithfulness, and redemption pulled from the ashes of this tragic story in Genesis. God has a plan for each of us– He already knows if we will participate eagerly in a story of beauty and blessing, or be dragged through a story of compromise and tragedy. But ultimately, our story will be woven into a tapestry of God’s faithfulness, righteousness, and restoration. How we respond will change our life, and potentially, the lives of generations to come. And God will give us opportunities to choose lives of obedience, wisdom, and faith. No matter if we live in Sodom, or wasted earlier chances, we can choose rescue and redemption because of God’s great love and mercy!
The Bible never records a prayer by Lot– whether he DID pray is a matter of speculation. But it seems clear that Lot did not seek God in any meaningful way– he didn’t obey God, he didn’t honor God, he didn’t walk with God as his uncle did. Abraham’s life wasn’t perfect– he lied about his wife, became impatient for God’s promised son and took matters into his own hands– but Abraham learned from his mistakes. He humbled himself, looked to God for wisdom, and trusted Him for the next step. He honored God, built altars, and called on the Name of the Lord. May we call out to the same God of Abraham for guidance and wisdom today.
Welcome to the year 2020! The next 366 days stretch before us– new, unknown, and ready to be discovered, experienced, LIVED!
It is tempting to make bold plans, resolutions, or vague wishes for all the days at once– trying to fold the entire year into a single goal or set of goals. But is this consistent with Biblical principles?
Today, I want to pray, as Jesus did, that God would “give us THIS DAY our daily bread”– that I would walk and talk with my Savior each day, each moment as it comes. That doesn’t mean that I make no plans or goals for the future; rather, I keep things in a proper perspective. God knows the future much better than I do. I know where I am and where I’ve been (hopefully!), but only God knows everything that lies ahead. My job is not to dream about the finish line, but to continue running the race– step by step and moving forward, my eyes fixed on Jesus:
Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a great cloud of witnesses, let us throw off everything that hinders and the sin that so easily entangles. And let us run with perseverance the race marked out for us, 2 fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God. 3 Consider him who endured such opposition from sinners, so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Life is like a long race; it’s also like a story. As we enter a new year, we can look around and see where the story has brought us. Some of us are in crisis. Some of us have just defeated a giant, or survived a trip down the raging rapids. Some of us are headed for disaster, or about to head into battle. Some of us are caught in a trap and we can’t see any hope of rescue.
I can’t change the race course I must face in the coming year. Nor can I change the story I’ve lived so far– I can’t change anyone else’s. But I know this– the next unwritten chapter is in God’s expert hands. God, the author of miracles and second chances. God, who turns shepherd boys into heroic kings; God, who transforms prostitutes into saints; God, who sends Himself naked and shivering into His rebellious creation knowing He will suffer and die at the hands of those He loved into being, and knowing that this death is not the end, but a glorious beginning! This God has a triumphant and joyous ending in store for me– for you!
God has given us the amazing story of our lives–and the next chapter is here. God also gives us the amazing opportunity to write the next chapter. He will guide us through the process– bring in new characters and plot twists, or send us to new places through unexpected channels–but we have the power to choose the next step. Today and every day.
My prayer for this new year is a prayer for this new day. Tomorrow, I get the gift of taking the next step; of writing the next sentence!
Years ago, our high school class read a classic short story by the American author, Herman Melville. Bartleby the Scrivener tells the story of an unusual clerk– one who begins as a good worker, efficient and conscientious, but ends up dying in prison, hopeless, ruined, and broken. His tragic downward spiral begins one day when the lawyer for whom he works asks him to examine a short document. This is a commonplace request, much like asking a writer to proofread her final draft before submitting it to the editor. However, Bartleby responds by saying “I would prefer not to.” The startled lawyer decides not to force the issue, and gives the task to someone else.
Bartleby’s refusal to do what is expected of him escalates until he no longer does ANY work. He refuses to work, refuses to leave the office, and refuses to eat. He isn’t angry or violent, but he remains defiant until the very end.
So it is with us when we are living in sin and rebellion against God. It may start out small– some little habit or attitude. We know it is wrong, but instead of obeying God’s word, we calmly say, “I would prefer not to…” not to tell the truth, not to turn away from porn, not to help my neighbor, not to agree with God about my behavior.
God is patient. He is gracious and kind. He does not treat us as our offenses deserve. He gives us the chance to repent. He offers forgiveness. And every time we say to God, “I would prefer not to,” we get a little more like Bartleby– isolating ourselves, wasting our potential to be all that God created us to be, growing more defiant and more rebellious, until we waste away into a prison of our own making, and, finally, death.
One of the things that makes Melville’s story so disturbing is that the narrator keeps trying to explain away Bartleby’s defiance–perhaps he is having trouble with his eyesight and doesn’t want to admit it; perhaps he was traumatized at a previous job; maybe there is a reason for his passive aggression. But in all of his attempts to understand, the narrator cannot save Bartleby from prison and death.
Understanding sin cannot change us. Excusing sin does nothing to stop its consequences (see Romans 6:23). No one killed Bartleby, yet he died because he “would prefer not to” do the things he needed to do to live. His small act of defiance, which seems to be singular and almost heroic (after all, who wouldn’t like to tell the boss, “I would prefer not to,” every once in awhile?), sounds innocuous. Such a little thing to refuse.
What am I refusing to do for God today? What am I refusing to give up? Refusing to admit? Refusing to listen to? Am I excusing myself? Do I tell myself I am not in rebellion because I have been polite in my refusal to obey?
10 If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. 11 These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full.12 “This is my commandment, that you love one another as I have loved you. 13 Greater love has no one than this, that someone lay down his life for his friends. 14 You are my friends if you do what I command you. 15 No longer do I call you servants, for the servant does not know what his master is doing; but I have called you friends, for all that I have heard from my Father I have made known to you.
John 15:10-15 ESV– taken from biblegateway.com
God has made it possible for us to be more than servants. Through Jesus, we are sons and daughters and friends! But some of us are still saying, “I would prefer not to.”
Genesis 22:10-14 Common English Bible (CEB) 10 Then Abraham stretched out his hand and took the knife to kill his son as a sacrifice. 11 But the Lord’s messenger called out to Abraham from heaven, “Abraham? Abraham?” Abraham said, “I’m here.” 12 The messenger said, “Don’t stretch out your hand against the young man, and don’t do anything to him. I now know that you revere God and didn’t hold back your son, your only son, from me.” 13 Abraham looked up and saw a single ram caught by its horns in the dense underbrush. Abraham went over, took the ram, and offered it as an entirely burned offering instead of his son. 14 Abraham named that place “the Lord sees.” That is the reason people today say, “On this mountain the Lord is seen.”
Where to we look when we’re in trouble or need answers? I worked for many years in libraries– we “looked up” all kinds of answers for people. We looked in dictionaries, thumbed through heavy reference books, and scrolled through many websites. But even though we called it “looking up”, we spent most of our time looking down!
Many people spend hours looking down at phone screens all day, or looking ahead as they drive down the road. Very few of us spend time looking up to see the clouds, the sunset, the towering buildings or trees on the horizon. And we spend too little time “looking up” to see how God is working in, around, or through our circumstances.
Abraham set off with his son, Isaac, to make a sacrifice. He had made provisions– he brought enough food for three days’ journey (and three days back!). He brought wood, and even fire. But God had asked him to “offer” Isaac as a sacrifice, so he took no ram–but he brought a knife. God’s instructions were ambiguous–He did not tell Abraham that he must kill his son, Isaac, only that he was to take him up the mountain and “offer” him.
The writer of the book of Hebrews references this event:
Hebrews 11:17-19 New International Version (NIV) 17 By faith Abraham, when God tested him, offered Isaac as a sacrifice. He who had embraced the promises was about to sacrifice his one and only son, 18 even though God had said to him, “It is through Isaac that your offspring will be reckoned.”[a]19 Abraham reasoned that God could even raise the dead, and so in a manner of speaking he did receive Isaac back from death. Footnotes: Hebrews 11:18 Gen. 21:12
Abraham had looked up at the mountain; he had “looked up” how many provisions to take along; but at the crucial moment, when he looked up, he finally saw God’s provision. It was never God’s intention that Abraham actually kill his beloved son. It was God’s intention that Abraham (and Isaac) listen and act in faith. And so they did. The ram was already there– waiting for Abraham to look up!
Later, when the Israelites (Abraham’s descendents!) were wandering in the wilderness, they were faced with many trials. God sent pillars of cloud and fire to lead the people as they “looked up” and followed them. When snakes came into the camp, God had Moses make a pole with a brass snake at the top. Anyone suffering from a snake bite could “look up” at the pole and be cured. Jesus referred to this story as an illustration of us own crucifixion–saying that in just the same way, he would be “lifted up.” Those who “look up” in faith to the crucified and resurrected Jesus can be cured of their sin, and given new life! https://www.christianity.com/jesus/is-jesus-god/old-testament-prophecies/jesus-is-like-the-bronze-serpent-moses-lifted-up.html
Let’s “look up” today in faith, knowing that God sees our circumstances; knowing that as we act in obedience, God will provide our every need.
3 Acknowledge that the Lord is God. He made us, and we are his— his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Psalm 23 New King James Version (NKJV) The Lord the Shepherd of His People A Psalm of David. 23 The Lord is my shepherd; I shall not [a]want. 2 He makes me to lie down in [b]green pastures; He leads me beside the [c]still waters. 3 He restores my soul; He leads me in the paths of righteousness For His name’s sake. 4 Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil; For You are with me; Your rod and Your staff, they comfort me. 5 You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies; You anoint my head with oil; My cup runs over. 6 Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me All the days of my life; And I will [d]dwell in the house of the Lord [e]Forever. Footnotes: Psalm 23:1lack Psalm 23:2 Lit. pastures of tender grass Psalm 23:2 Lit. waters of rest Psalm 23:6 So with LXX, Syr., Tg., Vg.; MT return Psalm 23:6 Or To the end of my days, lit. For length of days
The Bible is filled with imagery of sheep and shepherds. Growing up, I lived in the countryside, but we never raised sheep, and I had little experience with livestock of any kind. We had one neighbor who had sheep, however, and he shared a lot of insight into why we should pay attention to what sheep can teach us about ourselves, and our God.
Not only does God use the imagery of sheep and shepherds, He uses examples throughout the Bible of actual sheep and shepherds. Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, the sons of Jacob, David, and the prophet Amos– all were shepherds. When the Messiah was born, the first announcement went to shepherds in the fields, keeping night-watch over their flocks!
Jesus used stories of sheep and shepherds in his parables, as well. There is a lot to understand, and I am not qualified to teach anyone about shepherding, but there are several wonderful principles that don’t require a lot of in-depth knowledge:
Sheep NEED a shepherd. There are breeds of mountain sheep that live independently, but the Bible stories speak of domesticated sheep…they are “high maintenance” animals– they need food and water, shelter, protection, and a lot of guidance and supervision! We NEED God–He understands our situations, our weaknesses, and our strengths, far better than we do. He knows the future; He has a plan, and He provides all that we need. We may not see the road ahead–we may not see the green pasture or the still waters where He wants to lead us–but He IS the WAY, the truth, and the life (John 14:6), and we can trust Him to get us there.
Sheep need to be sheared. Left unsheared, the sheep’s wool will become matted, filthy, and a potential source of danger and disease. The sheep cannot get rid of its wool on its own. However, once the old wool is sheared off, the sheep is clean, and new wool can grow. Not only does God provide for our immediate needs, He provides for our renewal and growth–physical, emotional, and spiritual growth. Sometimes, that means we need to be “sheared” of habits, people, or situations that have become “matted”, and filthy. We haven’t even noticed the change, and we don’t see the danger. God wants to free us from the “baggage” we accumulate, and help us experience new growth.
Sheep depend on others to stay safe, healthy, and fed–there may be “lone wolves”, but there are no “lone sheep”. God will bring us into “flocks”. We learn to eat together, travel together, rest together, live together, and follow our shepherd’s voice together. Trying to be a “lone sheep” makes for a lot of trouble!
Shepherds make great sacrifices to care for their sheep– they provide, protect, rescue, heal, guide, and clean their sheep. A good shepherd is watchful, faithful, caring, and gentle, even as s/he must be strong, brave, and fiercely protective, risking their lives (or even giving their lives) for their flocks. Jesus, our Good Shepherd, knows each one of us intimately– He knows how to heal and guide us. He wants us to recognize His voice above all others, and to stay close to Him. He died to redeem you and me!
May we trust our Good Shepherd today, and every day. May we spend time acknowledging Him as our loving and faithful Shepherd, and call out to Him– in praise, in adoration, in supplication, and in loving gratitude.