“I Would Prefer Not To..”

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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.”

Look UP!

Psalm 121:1-2 Revised Standard Version (RSV)

121 I lift up my eyes to the hills.
From whence does my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Psalm+121%3A1-2&version=RSV
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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.”

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+22%3A10-14&version=CEB
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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!

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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

https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=hebrews+11%3A17-19&version=NIV
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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

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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.

The Lord is My Shepherd

Psalm 100:3 Christian Standard Bible (CSB):

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.
He makes me to lie down in [b]green pastures;
He leads me beside the [c]still waters.
He restores my soul;
He leads me in the paths of righteousness
For His name’s sake.
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.
You prepare a table before me in the presence of my enemies;
You anoint my head with oil;
My cup runs over.
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 23:1 lack
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

http://www.biblegateway.com

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.

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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.
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  • 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!
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  • 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!
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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.

Making God Look Good

A few years ago, I worked for a boss who told our staff that our number one job was to “make her look good”. This came as a shock to all of us. It was nowhere in our employee manual, this idea that her status was more important than our work ethic, or our customer service, or our ability to work together as a team. What I’m sure she meant to convey was that everything we did reflected on her, and, by extension, all of us, our library, and our community. It should have been our priority to work, look, speak, and interact with patrons in a way that brought honor and respect to everyone in the building–not just her–so that she could concentrate on making an already great library even better. But that’s not the way it was expressed or understood. And the results were unfortunate.

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It WAS our job to respect her leadership, and do our best work, allowing her to guide the direction of the library’s growth and service. I’m ashamed to say that I did not do this– I fought her leadership, complained about the way she treated staff and patrons, criticized her ideas and her management style, and finally quit my job there.

I start with this story as a contrast to the story of Daniel, as we’ve been following it the past couple of weeks. Daniel’s job was to make his bosses–kings and emperors who had conquered his nation, exiled and enslaved him, and destroyed his home and culture–“look good.” He was an adviser to kings who were powerful, ruthless, vicious, and often petty, vindictive, and even edging on madness. He did not have the freedom to “quit” or to harbor pride or criticism.

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Daniel’s ability to work under such circumstances sprang from his conviction that his number ONE priority was not to make his bosses look good, or to be the best administrator or adviser he could be. His number one priority was to seek and to serve Almighty God. All the rest would fall into place if only Daniel would keep the right priorities.

The truth is, we cannot make someone else “look good”. We can try– we can sing someone else’s praises, brag about them, work hard to gain their approval, promote them and honor them, even worship them. And, in a superficial way, these things can make the other person appear important, wise, popular, or even “good.” But it can’t make someone else BE good, or important, or wise. And, often, our efforts are not really about making the other person look good. Our efforts are about making ourselves look good in another person’s eyes

Throughout his life, Daniel made God look good. He made kings, from Nebuchadnezzar to Darius, acknowledge God’s power, His authority, His grace and mercy, and His goodness. But at the same time, Daniel could not “make” God look good– unless God was (and IS) all the things Daniel said He was. Daniel’s job was never to “make” God look good. His job was to point away from himself, and “let” God be God–awesome, mighty, loving, eternal, and Holy. In return, Daniel was used in amazing–even death-defying– ways that continue to astonish and teach us today.

My attitude toward my boss didn’t make her look good– or bad. It didn’t make me look good, either. It just made me look spiteful, arrogant, and uncooperative. Worse, it made my walk with Christ look bad. I wasn’t pointing people toward Him; I was pointing to the negative (and being negative) about a situation that was so much smaller than the God I serve. What a missed opportunity to demonstrate, as Daniel did, what obedience and faith look like. What a missed opportunity to make God look good!

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Today, as we pray to this same awesome, mighty, loving, eternal and Holy God, let us not waste time trying to “make God look good.” No amount of fancy rhetoric, holy elbow grease, finger-pointing, or pious posturing can make God better than He already is. Instead, let us come before Him humbly and with a contrite heart, ready to obey, honor, and worship Him with our whole being as Daniel did. Not in pride or arrogance, sounding like an advertisement for a new “super” product or exercise routine, or like an expert on spiritual living, but in awe that the God of Jacob, the God of Daniel, the God of the universe(!) wants to extend grace even to the least of us. God sees us in our troubles– exiled and oppressed, alone and in danger, surrounded by rivals, enemies, madmen, and beasts. God will provide; He will defend; He will bring justice; He will never leave us.

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Lions, Darius, and Prayers… Oh My!

The Biblical figure of Daniel is mostly remembered for being thrown into a den of lions as a punishment for praying to the God of Heaven in defiance of a new law (proposed by his enemies, who hoped to set him up). https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Daniel+6&version=NIV The story is a familiar one– so familiar that we sometimes pass over the context and details. I don’t want to retell the entire story, but I want to put it in context. There is a lot more than just a den of lions and a miraculous rescue.

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First, the Book of Daniel is filled with loosely tied stories in the life of Daniel, an Israelite captured by the Babylonians, and living in exile over the course of over seventy years. By the time we get to chapter six, Daniel is likely in his late eighties or early nineties! He has served under at least five monarchs in two empires, and has seen the utter collapse of two major capital cities (Jerusalem and Babylon). Because of the episodic nature of the first half of this book, we have very few details of Daniel’s everyday life– we never learn if he was married or had children; if he was ever allowed to return to the land of Judah; or if he was able to use his position and influence to help other Jewish families or speak out against the idol worship and human sacrifice practiced by his captors. In the story of Belshazzar, it seems that Daniel had been relegated to a lower position within the palace during the years after Nebuchadnezzar’s death– Belshazzar did not know of him; only because the Queen remembered his ability to interpret dreams was Daniel summoned and brought back to court. The events of chapter six are unique and shocking to us, but not in the context of Daniel’s life.

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There is a pattern that gets repeated throughout Daniel’s story– it is the confrontation of two great powers– Daniel’s faithful service to God puts him in opposition to the powers of his captors. He is a captive and a foreigner, but that is not what makes him (and his three friends) a target of powerful enemies. It is his prayer life and his obedient devotion to God that causes him to be singled out. In seven decades, that devotion has never wavered, and Daniel’s life of prayer has been consistent, both in private and in public. Daniel doesn’t have to argue, protest, or announce his devotion. When he is praised for his abilities, he quietly gives the glory and credit to God. When he is vilified and betrayed, he quietly waits for his vindication to come from the God he has trusted through the years.

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Darius, (like Nebuchadnezzar and Belshazzar and others before him) is impressed by Daniel– enough that he appoints Daniel to a position of great power and authority within the kingdom. Daniel, because of his humility and integrity, is not threat to the rule of Darius–but he does pose a threat to those under him who are hungry for power and prestige. There will always be people in this world who will try to destroy what they do not understand or respect. Darius is not the author of Daniel’s dilemma, but a tool in the hands of corrupt officials. Daniel could have been hurt, enraged, or defeated by this decree from Darius– but he recognized that the real enemy wasn’t Darius, or the crooked satraps who put him up to it (or the hungry lions he faced)– the real enemy was the opposition to Almighty God and the refusal to acknowledge His authority. Darius is quick to learn that God’s power is real and absolute, and that God is gracious in his power, and loving toward his servants. The wicked satraps did not learn this lesson, and they perished.

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Notice that, just as in the story of the fiery furnace, God did not remove the danger. Daniel’s friends had to go into the fiery furnace…Daniel had to go into the den of lions. And these were not just overgrown kittens. They would have been captive lions– just as Daniel was held in captivity! They were trapped in this den, unable to hunt for their food; dependent on the whims of their captors. They were kept in a state of uncertainty, fear, and hunger. They were desperate, and hurt, and angry. When Daniel is brought out of the den, and Darius orders the conspirators to be thrown in (with their families), the lions pounce with terrifying ferocity, not even letting the bodies hit the bottom of the den! God may allow us to face some terrifying “lions”– scoffers and rebels and desperate people who will try to take their anger and hurt out on us. Will we trust that God can stop their mouths while we wait for deliverance?

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Daniel’s calm response to this entrapment was not the result of Daniel being “holier” than someone else, or more clever; God did not send him a vision of assurance that he would live to see another day. Daniel must have been terrified of facing several starving lions! At his age, he would not have had the strength to fight them. But Daniel’s obedience and trust won the respect of yet another ruler from a very different culture. And God’s miraculous rescue won the awe of Darius– so much so that he issued a decree throughout his realm to all peoples of every language in the kingdom to fear and tremble before the God of Daniel! Faithfulness, humility, and obedience always open up opportunities for God to display His Glory.

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Just as Daniel was thrown alone into a lion’s den and sealed inside by a large stone, one day Jesus would be thrown into a tomb to face death and hell. He was sealed in with a large stone, but no one came to his rescue. He stood and faced our enemies– Sin and Death. His flesh was torn and crushed and His blood poured out, and He bore the wrath and punishment that we deserved, so that Sin and Death were defeated. And when He was finished, the stone was removed, and Jesus emerged victorious! His faithfulness, humility, and obedience let to Glory and Life. We may never face a literal den of lions– we may not be tested with persecution, but Jesus has already won the battle; He has permanently closed the mouth of our greatest enemy, and set us free!

Daniel’s prayer life is not marked by spectacular prayers of rhetorical magnificence. He isn’t known for fervent fasting and wailing prayers for the rescue of his nation (though he probably said many). Daniel is noted for his consistent practice of praying– good days, bad days; days of glory or ignominy; days of ease and days of uncertainty; days spent serving wise rulers, and days spent serving madmen and spoiled brats– Daniel quietly and faithfully went to God in prayer. He didn’t make a public spectacle, but he didn’t hide, either. Will we be faithful to seek God’s face throughout the day– in little matters and times of crisis; in praise and in pain; for our daily bread, our neighbor’s health, our nations’ revival, and our world’s salvation and healing?

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Daniel– A Life of Dangerous Prayer

When we hear about the Biblical story of Daniel, we usually hear only the small story of Daniel and the den of lions. Daniel was thrown into a den of lions for refusing to obey the king. God shut the mouths of the lions and Daniel was saved. It is an amazing, miraculous, even incredible story. But what makes Daniel’s story truly amazing is to see it in perspective. I’d like to spend a couple of days looking at the larger picture of Daniel’s life.

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Daniel, like Jacob or Hannah, was an ordinary person– yet he was different, too. Daniel was from the line of kings and the royal household of Israel. He was strong and intelligent, among the elite young men of the land. According to the Bible, he was also gifted with the ability to interpret dreams and visions– a gift of extraordinary importance that set him apart from others. In that sense, he is more of a “Bible Hero” than those we have looked at in the past few weeks.

But Daniel was also a slave– a captive who was ripped from his homeland and taken by force to serve in the court of the Babylonian king. He was a stranger in a strange land; he walked a very dangerous line of trying to keep the favor of the king while dealing with very powerful and resentful enemies among the king’s other courtiers. Daniel stood apart–there is little mention of a family in Daniel’s story– Daniel faced many of his trials alone (except for God). And, while Daniel survives many extraordinary trials, he never receives the kind of promise or fulfillment that we saw in the lives of Hannah or Jacob. Daniel spends most of his life as a captive. He never gets to go back to his homeland. He never gets to see the fulfillment of his great vision– in fact, he asks for clarification, and is simply told to go his way–he will understand at the end of time.

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But Daniel has a lot to teach us about prayer– it’s power, it’s peril, and it’s promise.

In the first chapter of the Book of Daniel, we are told a very little about Daniel’s background and how he ends up in the service of the king. https://biblia.com/bible/esv/Dan%201 One little detail that stands out today, in light of our recent study of Jacob, is that Daniel is given a new name– not by God, but by the Babylonian official who is his new “boss”. Daniel is to be known as Belteshazzar– “Protect the life of the King”. Daniel is used by God to protect, and even warn, the foreign kings who have taken him captive. Daniel faithfully serves his oppressors– he does not seek to betray them or plot revenge against them. But the new name doesn’t stick– just as we still know Jacob by his old name (and the nation he founded by his God-given name), we know Daniel by his original name–“God is my Judge.”

Daniel’s first trial comes when he and his friends are selected for potential service to Nebuchadnezzar. They are to be trained and fed at the king’s own palace. They are to be assimilated into Babylonian culture, history, laws, etc. But Daniel refuses to be “defiled” by the royal food and wine. Instead, he and his companions ask for a diet of plain vegetables and water. Much has been made of this– entire diets and healthy living books have been based on just this simple request. I think such plans miss the bigger picture. Daniel’s request wasn’t about veggies or “strength training.” It wasn’t about eating smarter or being stronger and healthier than the other captives. It was about obedience to God AND to the very authorities who were offering the food from the king’s table.

There was nothing nutritionally “wrong” with the king’s food or wine, nor any particular virtue in the vegetables Daniel requested. But there were at least three good, Biblical reasons why Daniel may have refused to eat the king’s food. First, the Babylonian customs called for sacrifice to their gods–even human sacrifice in some cases! But much of the meat, fruit, and grain offered at the king’s table may have come from the temples. Food that had been ritually “offered” to the gods would be fit for the table of the king. But Daniel would not want to eat the food offered to these other, false gods– it would suggest that Daniel agreed that these gods were worthy of the sacrifices that had been offered– including infants. Better to eat plain food of any type than food that had religious implications. Second, the food was likely to be non-Kosher. God’s people were to be distinct, including in their diet. There were several types of foods forbidden to the Jews that would likely be on the daily menu of the palace–not just the foods themselves, but the way they were prepared. It’s not that these foods were not edible or nutritious, but God wanted his people to demonstrate discipline and obedience. Daniel did not want to compromise or cause trouble on a daily basis rejecting first this dish, then questioning that one…easier by far to simply request what he knew was in line with God’s ways. Finally, Daniel was being offered rich and decadent food while many of his fellow Israelites were starving in their captivity. To stuff himself full of the best food in the land would not change their circumstances– but it would change Daniel’s heart. This was more important than any particular diet. Daniel did not claim that his requested diet of vegetables would make him stronger or wiser or healthier than the others– he trusted that God would sustain him to be at least as strong and healthy as anyone else. And God did more!

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It is important, also, to note that Daniel did not defy the king or demand special treatment. He won the respect of the official in whose charge he was being kept. He even helped the official overcome his fear of the king. Why is this important? Daniel was in a difficult and dangerous position. He was a captive– a slave in a strange land– with a golden opportunity. He was chosen to be in the elite group of young people who could serve with power and influence in the land of their oppressors. Daniel, in fear or seeking his own advancement, could have trusted to his own wits and the favor of the Babylonians. He could have abandoned his commitment to serve God in favor of serving the immediate whims of those around him. He could have determined that in his new situation, he should adapt to the new rules, even those that contradicted God’s word. Or, he could have been defiant and arrogant–demanding that the Babylonians recognize all the customs of his native land, including his Kosher diet. He could have encouraged his friends to lead a rebellion; he could have gone on a hunger strike to protest the king’s food. But the king had never commanded that the young people eat his food– he had merely offered it as an incentive. Daniel used wisdom and tact. He won the trust of the official by suggesting a trial period of ten days to see if the “alternative” food plan would prove acceptable. He didn’t place his trust in his own actions– he placed his trust in the true Judge, and offered faithful service– both to God and to Nebuchadnezzar.

No matter our circumstances today– whether we are in a palace or a prison; whether we are free or enslaved– God sees us. He will judge, not only the actions of our oppressors, but our response to oppression and hardship, and mistreatment (or our oppression and mistreatment of others). May we, like Daniel, turn to the true Judge, and walk worthy of His Name today.

Jacob Meets His Match–Part two

In the last post, we looked at how Jacob worked for 20 years for his corrupt father-in-law. Jacob has changed from the scheming young man who cheated his brother, lied to his father, and was sent away for his own safety. But that’s not the end of the story…

After 20 years of keeping Laban’s flocks, establishing his family, playing referee to his squabbling wives, and dealing with Laban’s greedy and capricious nature, Jacob is ready to leave. But we have a couple of curious incidents yet to explore in this relationship. In Genesis, chapter 30 https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+30%3A25-43&version=NIV we are given a detailed plan by Jacob to develop and increase his flocks. Jacob outlines part of his plan to Laban, and Laban agrees. Jacob’s flocks will be speckled and spotted, while Laban’s will be “pure.” On the surface, it looks like Laban is getting the better end of the bargain, and, as Jacob points out, there will be no way he can “cheat” by claiming Laban’s animals as his. But Jacob’s plan has a couple of twists and turns.

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As Jacob follows his plan, he ends up with the strongest and best of the flocks, while Laban’s flocks are weaker. Once again, Jacob uses a clever scheme to advance at the expense of someone close to him. At the beginning of chapter 31, we see the result– Laban and his sons are angry and resentful– they feel they have been cheated, and plan to retaliate. Jacob leaves in the middle of the night with his wives, children, and livestock, planning to return to his father in Canaan. Jacob explains to his wives that his “plan” was inspired by a dream in which God told him what to do to increase his flocks and then told him to return home. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+31%3A4-13&version=NIV

But is Jacob telling the truth? Has he really changed, or is this just another case of Jacob using his wits to get what he wants?

The Bible doesn’t give us direct confirmation, but indirectly, the story seems to back up Jacob’s statements. Though the Bible says that Jacob “deceived” his father-in-law by sneaking away in the night, and not telling him that he was going, it never says that he deceived Laban by separating the flock as he did, or by preparing to return to Canaan. Furthermore, when Laban pursues Jacob, God warns him in a dream to say nothing to Jacob (advice he quotes, but doesn’t actually take)! Laban also confessed (back in chapter 30) that, via divination, he has learned that he was blessed on account of Jacob.

Why am I taking time to dissect this relationship between Jacob and Laban a second time? What else can we learn from this story?

I think there is a great lesson about deception, and how it often backfires. But just as powerful, I think there is a lesson about how God looks beyond our actions to see our heart.

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Laban was not only Jacob’s father-in-law– he was also Jacob’s uncle. They shared similar character traits– both were ambitious, clever, and driven to take advantage of any “edge” that might be to their advantage. God did not “choose” Jacob because of any of this– but neither did he condemn him for any of it. Instead, God appeared to Jacob, and Jacob responded in awe, worship, and obedience. God didn’t change Jacob’s nature; his drive to succeed, his innovation, his ambition. But he did change Jacob’s heart–Jacob didn’t leave his uncle in ruins, in spite of the treatment he and his family (Laban’s own daughters and grandchildren!) had received. Jacob used his cleverness to build a strong flock, but he also used it to prove to his uncle that he was not the liar or thief he had been labeled back in Canaan. Jacob listened to God in formulating his plans– both his clever plan to build the flock, and the plan to return home.

Laban, on the other hand, had seen the hand of God at work blessing him on account of Jacob. Years before, he had seen the hand of God leading his sister, Rebekah to be Isaac’s wife. He had seen how God had blessed his daughters. He even saw that his ill-treatment of Jacob, Leah, and Rachel led to a loss of God’s blessing. But at no time is there any evidence that Laban ever acknowledged God, worshiped Him, thanked Him, or obeyed Him. https://www.biblegateway.com/passage/?search=Genesis+31%3A14-55&version=NIV

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In their final encounter, Laban accuses Jacob of theft and duplicity– Jacob confesses that he fears Laban, but then, he gives him a blistering rebuke. Laban’s response is a feeble argument that all Jacob has belongs (or should belong) to him– Laban! “All you see is MINE” (emphasis added). He also claims (even after God tells him to say nothing to Jacob) that he has the power to hurt Jacob. Laban is a controlling user– a bully and a manipulator. Laban is a powerful man who is ruthless in using that power to get what he wants. But all that power is not enough to challenge God– the same God who blessed Laban because of Jacob; the same God who warned him not to act against Jacob. The real power does not belong to Laban or to Jacob. Jacob has been learning this lesson–Laban never will. The most he learns is that Jacob will no longer be under his control and submit to his corrupt authority.

Perhaps you have been in a relationship with someone who is controlling and manipulative. Perhaps they have convinced you that they have all the power to keep you enslaved to their manipulation. There are two essential truths you need to remember:

  • God sees you. He sees the injustices done to you– and your response to them. He sees your heart– even when it is breaking under the weight of oppression. He asks that you trust HIS power and HIS timing as you are going through this deep valley. Abusers thrive on clever lies– that you can’t make it without them; that no one else will help you, love you, believe you…; that their actions are in your best interest…even going so far as saying that they are making sacrifices for you and that you “owe” them. Don’t let their lies overwhelm God’s truth–
  • God desires you to submit to HIM. Even when the road is tough and we don’t understand circumstances, God is making a way for you, just as He did for Jacob. God allowed Jacob to grow his flocks in spite of Laban’s crooked ways– He allowed Jacob to be both the agent of Laban’s success and the instrument of Laban’s downfall. Submission to God does NOT mean abject submission to an abuser or a manipulator. If God has shown you a way of escape (even running away without warning) or shown you a way to flourish under harsh circumstances– listen and obey!

And keep praying to the “God of Jacob!”

Bless the Lord, O My Soul


A Psalm of David.
103 Bless the Lord, O my soul;
And all that is within me, bless His holy name!
Bless the Lord, O my soul,
And forget not all His benefits:
Who forgives all your iniquities,
Who heals all your diseases,
Who redeems your life from destruction,
Who crowns you with lovingkindness and tender mercies,
Who satisfies your mouth with good things,
So that your youth is renewed like the eagle’s.
The Lord executes righteousness
And justice for all who are oppressed.
He made known His ways to Moses,
His acts to the children of Israel.
The Lord is merciful and gracious,
Slow to anger, and abounding in mercy.
He will not always strive with us,
Nor will He keep His anger forever.
10 He has not dealt with us according to our sins,
Nor punished us according to our iniquities.
11 For as the heavens are high above the earth,
So great is His mercy toward those who fear Him;
12 As far as the east is from the west,
So far has He removed our transgressions from us.
13 As a father pities his children,
So the Lord pities those who fear Him.
14 For He knows our frame;
He remembers that we are dust.
15 As for man, his days are like grass;
As a flower of the field, so he flourishes.
16 For the wind passes over it, and it is gone,
And its place remembers it no more.
17 But the mercy of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting
On those who fear Him,
And His righteousness to children’s children,
18 To such as keep His covenant,
And to those who remember His commandments to do them.
19 The Lord has established His throne in heaven,
And His kingdom rules over all.
20 Bless the Lord, you His angels,
Who excel in strength, who do His word,
Heeding the voice of His word.
21 Bless the Lord, all you His hosts,
You ministers of His, who do His pleasure.
22 Bless the Lord, all His works,
In all places of His dominion.
Bless the Lord, O my soul!

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Often in our churches, we focus on two factors of our relationship with Christ– worship and obedience.  Worship focuses on His majesty and worth.  Obedience focuses on His power and authority.  But when the Psalmist speaks here, he is actually focusing on another element.  Blessing isn’t so much about majesty or authority; it isn’t about obedience or worship.  It is about communion.  We bless and are blessed, not just by a word or deed, but by the speaker or doer–they bless us by what they say or do, but they ARE a blessing to us for who they are.

God is worthy of our worship and obedience, but he wants us to be a blessing– to come to him in Love and fellowship, and to be blessed by Who He Is as we meet with him.

Today, worship God.  Obey Him.  But let’s take time to bless Him and be blessed in return as we spend time with the Lover of Our Souls.

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Winkin’, Blinkin’, and Nod

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod

Wynken, Blynken, and Nod one night
   Sailed off in a wooden shoe,—
Sailed on a river of crystal light
   Into a sea of dew.
“Where are you going, and what do you wish?”
   The old moon asked the three.
“We have come to fish for the herring-fish
   That live in this beautiful sea;
   Nets of silver and gold have we,"
            Said Wynken,
            Blynken,
            And Nod.

The old moon laughed and sang a song,
   As they rocked in the wooden shoe;
And the wind that sped them all night long
   Ruffled the waves of dew;
The little stars were the herring-fish
   That lived in the beautiful sea.
“Now cast your nets wherever you wish,—
   Never afraid are we!”
   So cried the stars to the fishermen three,
            Wynken,
            Blynken,
            And Nod.

All night long their nets they threw
   To the stars in the twinkling foam,—
Then down from the skies came the wooden shoe,
   Bringing the fishermen home:
‘Twas all so pretty a sail, it seemed
   As if it could not be;
And some folk thought ‘twas a dream they’d dreamed
   Of sailing that beautiful sea;
   But I shall name you the fishermen three:
            Wynken,
            Blynken,
            And Nod.

Wynken and Blynken are two little eyes,
   And Nod is a little head,
And the wooden shoe that sailed the skies
   Is a wee one’s trundle-bed;
So shut your eyes while Mother sings
   Of wonderful sights that be,
And you shall see the beautiful things
   As you rock in the misty sea
   Where the old shoe rocked the fishermen three:—
            Wynken,
            Blynken,
            And Nod.


What does a child’s poem have to do with the Bible and prayer?

I’m not sure there is an exact answer to that..I was wistfully thinking of something to write about, and as I looked for a Bible verse for inspiration, I came upon an odd Proverb (which I’ll get to in a minute) about winking.  This set me to thinking about the old child’s poem and song– one of my favorites.  I wondered– if the Bible has something to say about winking, does it also address blinking and nodding?  And, if so, can we draw a connection between the three and then from all three to prayer?

I think we can… bear with me.  Since the poem has to do with sleeping as well, I want to start, (and come back in the end) with this passage from Mark, where Jesus is praying, and the disciples are nodding off.

Mark 14:32-42 English Standard Version (ESV)

Jesus Prays in Gethsemane

32 And they went to a place called Gethsemane. And he said to his disciples, “Sit here while I pray.” 33 And he took with him Peter and James and John, and began to be greatly distressed and troubled. 34 And he said to them, “My soul is very sorrowful, even to death. Remain here and watch.” 35 And going a little farther, he fell on the ground and prayed that, if it were possible, the hour might pass from him. 36 And he said, “Abba, Father, all things are possible for you. Remove this cup from me. Yet not what I will, but what you will.” 37 And he came and found them sleeping, and he said to Peter, “Simon, are you asleep? Could you not watch one hour? 38 Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation. The spirit indeed is willing, but the flesh is weak.”39 And again he went away and prayed, saying the same words. 40 And again he came and found them sleeping, for their eyes were very heavy, and they did not know what to answer him. 41 And he came the third time and said to them, “Are you still sleeping and taking your rest? It is enough; the hour has come. The Son of Man is betrayed into the hands of sinners. 42 Rise, let us be going; see, my betrayer is at hand.”

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How often have you prayed early in the morning or late in the evening, only to find yourself nodding off?  I’ve certainly done it– more embarrassingly, I’ve seen (or rather heard) it happening in a group setting!  It’s not a laughing matter at any time, but in this setting, Jesus is in anguish so powerful he was sweating out blood– he even describes it as being “sorrowful even to death”–yet his disciples failed to stay awake, keep watch, or help him pray.
Hold onto that image for a minute.

When I was first thinking about what to write, I didn’t start with nodding.  I found a verse about winking in Proverbs 10:10: “He who winks maliciously causes grief, and a chattering fool comes to ruin.”  (NIV)  There are other verses throughout scripture that talk about the danger of winking.

See verses about winking

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Winking isn’t exactly the same as nodding or sleeping, but it involves closing ones eyes (or eye) to evil– giving it a momentary pass.  Winking “maliciously” is not only turning a blind eye, but actually colluding with evil– giving it a figurative “nod” of approval.  We don’t often think of winking as a sin.  Winking is winsome, flirtatious perhaps, but it is passive.  How can it hurt to wink?  We don’t wink at war, or genocide, or injustice…do we?  How often do we excuse what is clearly bad behavior because we don’t want to offend someone else, or come across as “judgmental”?  How often do we fall into the false justification that “the ends justify the means”–that a small lie or bad habit can be ignored or overlooked in light of “the greater good” we expect will result from our overall actions?
God calls us to integrity– being honest with ourselves as well as with others.  When we wink at so-called small sins, we begin to close our eyes (or at least one eye) to the truth.  Sin disguises itself as winsome and flirtatious, but it is not passive– it eats away at truth, life, peace, and joy–it is corrosive, poisonous, and deadly.

time

1 Corinthians 15:52 New English Translation (NET Bible)

52 in a moment, in the blinking of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed.

2 Peter 3:8 New English Translation (NET Bible)

Now, dear friends, do not let this one thing escape your notice, that a single day is like a thousand years with the Lord and a thousand years are like a single day.

Commentary on 2 Peter 3:8

Winking at evil is especially dangerous if we lose sight of the urgency of these last days.  There is a tension in the Christian view of the future–on the one hand, we expect the “soon” return of Christ.  He will come in the “blink of an eye”; like a “thief in the night” with no warning, and with judgment.  On the other hand, he is patient, not wanting any to perish.  God is beyond and above Time– he is slow to anger, and slow to judgment–but he is also eternally aware and omnipresent.
We don’t choose to blink– and we do it often throughout the day.  In fact, it is good and necessary that we do so.  But, because blinking is an automatic function, we don’t think about it–even when we are tired and blinking turns into “nodding off.”  If we continue to look about, or try to read, or worse, drive in this condition, we will miss important information, and we risk making mistakes and getting into accidents.
The same can be true as we walk through our days waiting for the return of Christ.  Sometimes, instead of resting in Grace and looking to God for help, we get focused on all the distractions around us.  In our restlessness we put much of our focus on what will happen in the “blink of an eye” and less focus on the single day or even the thousand years that God has given us to bring in a harvest.

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And this leads me to the nodding…Jesus had something to say about this very tension of waiting and anticipating his return.  He gave several parables, but I want to focus on just one– the parable of the virgins in Matthew 25.

Full parable here…

Jesus pointed out that even if we are invited to have a role in the wedding feast, we need to be prepared.  The virgins in the story were not punished for having fallen asleep (as all of them might have been), but the five foolish virgins had no oil when the bridegroom finally came.  They didn’t just “nod off” waiting for the groom, they were winking at their own lack of preparation, blinking back their false expectation that what they had in their own lamps would be enough, and nodding off with no concern that they might be left out of the festivities.

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In the same way, we can be guilty of winking at our own lack of obedience and commitment, blinking in the flashy distractions of the world around us, and nodding off unprepared for the very event we claim to hope for most.  If we were with Jesus in the garden, would we be any more faithful or watchful than the disciples?  Are we sending up vague and half-hearted prayers as we get sucked into the distractions around us?  Are we so busy pointing fingers at others or excusing our own lack of diligence that we have nothing left to bring to God in earnest prayer?  Have we given up on prayer in favor of social media or social action to “let our light shine”?  Are we winkin’, blinkin’, and nodding off in our Christian walk?

Instead, Jesus asks us to “watch and pray” during these dark and dangerous times.

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Let’s take his warning to heart!

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