Reflections on spiritual themes (and a few other things).

Category: Biography

Many or Few

Some of the greatest Bible stories are war stories. One of my favorites is found in 1 Samuel 13-14, when the Israelites were at war with the Philistines. 

In chapter 13, the Israelites were initially successful against the Philistines (v. 2-4). But when the Philistines summoned a massive army, the Israelites were intimidated, and Saul became indecisive (v. 5-7). The situation was further aggravated by a lack of weaponry among the Israelites (v. 19-23). 

Enter Jonathan. 

Jonathan was already responsible for the earlier victory against the Philistines (13.2-4). Here in chapter 14, he again takes initiative by taking his armor-bearer with him and sneaking into the nearby Philistine outpost (v. 1-10). The Philistines assume they’re a pair of Israelite POWs and bring them into their garrison (v. 11-12). Jonathan and his armor-bearer kill 20 Philistines in hand-to-hand combat (v. 13-14). The Lord also brought a sudden earthquake (v. 15-16) which caused some of the Philistines to flee. Saul and the remaining Israelite forces soon join the fray, and the Israelites defeat the Philistines that day (v 23).

My favorite verse in this text is 1 Samuel 14.6, “Then Jonathan said to the young man who was carrying his armor, ‘Come and let us cross over to the garrison of these uncircumcised; perhaps the LORD will work for us, for the LORD is not restrained to save by many or by few.’”

This was Jonathan’s confession of faith in the LORD. He understood something about God that’s too easily forgotten. He knew that God is always the majority. Period. God doesn’t need numbers, or large armies, or massive military hardware to win his battles. He only wants a few dedicated people. 

Today, God doesn’t need large churches, or large budgets, or PowerPoint, or websites, or social media, or apps, or impressive programs to win the cause of his kingdom. He simply wants a few dedicated people. If he chooses to use large things, that’s his business. But the Lord frequently uses small things to remind us of his wisdom, power, and ways (1 Corinthians 1.26-29).

Indeed, “The Lord is not restrained to save by many or by few.” What matters for us is that we enter the fray.

Will you?

Perpetual Pain & Festering Wounds

American writer Flannery O’Connor had an aunt who thought the only good stories were ones that ended with someone getting shot or getting married. She liked tidy endings.

Unfortunately, real life is rarely tidy. For many people their dreams look more like nightmares. Even Christians may struggle for years with marital woes, illness, death, family feuds, financial problems, job frustrations, church problems, addictions, disappointments, and depression.

Chronic spiritual pain is nothing new. Six centuries before the time of Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah lamented, “Why has my pain been perpetual, and my wound incurable, refusing to be healed?” (Jeremiah 15.18) He was struggling with deep spiritual pain and saw no relief in sight. 

Jeremiah’s life was anything but charmed. God called him as a teenager (Jeremiah 1.1-19), and he resisted (verse 6) because God promised him a hard road (verses 7-10, 18-19). His hometown wanted him dead (11.21). Priests and prophets (26.1-9), officials (38.1-6), and kings (32.1-5) persecuted and abused him. Not only that but God forbade him to marry, to attend family funerals or feasts (16.1-9). He even forbade Jeremiah to pray for his own people (11.14-17). Jeremiah saw the nation of Judah collapse, and his beloved city of Jerusalem destroyed by the Babylonians. He chose to live in the city with the refugees after its destruction (40.1-6) but was taken to Egypt against his will (chapter 39), and legend has it that he was stoned to death. 

There’s nothing in Jeremiah’s life or ministry that we’d call neat or tidy or cheerful. Still, he was a faithful prophet of God for almost half a century. He was even once compared to Jesus (Matthew 16.14). How did he manage?

Twice in Jeremiah’s prayers, he says something that I think is the key. 

  • Jeremiah 15.15b-16: “…do not, in view of your patience, take me away; know that for your sake I endure reproach. Your words were found and I ate them, and your words became for me a joy and the delight of my heart; for I have been called by your name, O Lord God of hosts.”
  • Jeremiah 20.8b-9: “…because for me the word of the Lord has resulted in reproach and derision all day long. But if I say ‘I will not remember him or speak anymore in his name,’ then in my heart it becomes like a burning fire shut up in my bones; and I am weary of holding it in, and I cannot endure it.”

For Jeremiah the word of the Lord was the center point of his life with God. The word of the Lord, with its commands, promises, warnings, and assurances. And so it is with us. We may suffer disappointment and pain, but God’s word and promises will never fail. “I will be with you; I will never leave you nor forsake you” (Joshua 1.5b). In the midst of our pain we have God.

Doubting Teresa

She was known popularly as Mother Teresa. She died in 1997 at the age of 87. She spent 50 of those years in the streets of Calcutta, India, working among its poorest and sickest residents. 

After she died it was learned that she struggled for much of her adult life with nagging doubts about her faith and God. Whatever you think of her, I suspect the “Saint of the Gutters” has more sympathizers than detractors. Any Christian who’s struggled with doubt can sympathize. 

The most faithful of men and women struggle at times with doubt, or at least with what we know is God’s will for us.

  • Job declared, “Though He slay me, I will hope in Him” (Job 13.15). 
  • At times, Moses preferred death to leading the Israelites (Exodus 17.4; 32.32; 33.15). 
  • Jeremiah accused God of deception and coercion: “O Lord, You have deceived me and I was deceived; You have overcome me and prevailed” (Jeremiah 20.7). 
  • In the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus confessed, “My soul is deeply grieved, to the point of death… If it is possible, let this cup pass from me” (Matthew 26.38-39). 

Faith, struggle, and doubt often exist side-by-side. It’s not that faith is swallowed up by doubt, but that doubt is kept at bay by faith. Doubt forms as we try to reconcile the contradictions and conundrums of life. Faith is how we sort through these issues to find answers. 

I want to suggest two solutions. First, Teresa of Calcutta, despite her doubts, kept working. Paul said that what matters is, “faith working through love” (Galatians 5.6). He said, “do not lose heart in doing good” (6.9). Keep working.

Second, in one letter Teresa noted that, “I accept not in my feelings — but with my will, the Will of God — I accept His will.” That’s a crucial distinction. Doubt is sometimes fostered when we put feelings above facts. Frankly, there may be times when we don’t “feel like” being Christians, yet we keep doing what’s right. John said, “We will know by this that we are of the truth, and will assure our heart before Him in whatever our heart condemns us; for God is greater than our heart and knows all things” (1 John 3.19-20). Keep seeking God’s will.

Doubt is sometimes a necessary if unwelcome companion to faith. But the apostle Paul’s insight can help us keep doubt in its place: “But we have this treasure in earthen vessels, so that the surpassing greatness of the power will be of God and not from ourselves; we are afflicted in every way, but not crushed; perplexed, but not despairing; persecuted, but not forsaken; struck down, but not destroyed; always carrying about in the body the dying of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our body. For we who live are constantly being delivered over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that the life of Jesus also may be manifested in our mortal flesh. So death works in us, but life in you” (2 Corinthians 4.7-12).

Agurity

A-gur-i-ty (ah-GOOR-ih-tee) – noun: the quality or state of being like Agur. Who, then, is Agur, and why should you be like him?

Agur

Agur is the author of several wisdom sayings in Proverbs 30. He was the son of Jakeh (verse 1a) and offered divine wisdom to his friends Ithiel and Ucal (verse 1b). He apparently had a wide range of life experiences, and several of his proverbs deal with financial issues and attitudes, as illustrated by his prayer (verses 7-9).

Agur’s Prayer

In verses 7-9, Agur says,

Two things I asked of You,
Do not refuse me before I die:
Keep deception and lies far from me,
Give me neither poverty nor riches;
Feed me with the food that is my portion,
That I not be full and deny You and say, “Who is the Lord?”
Or that I not be in want and steal,
And profane the name of my God.

This is the only prayer in Proverbs, but it’s in the form of a numerical proverb. Agur likes numerical proverbs (see verses 15, 18, 21, 24 and 29), and begins his prayer in this way.

We don’t know Agur’s circumstances as he wrote this, but there’s urgency in his petitions. He first “asked” the Lord (verse 7a), but then insists that he “not refuse” him (verse 7b), and hopes these petitions are granted “before I die” (verse 7b). Perhaps he’s ill and close to death. Perhaps he’s recently suffered financial hardship. Regardless, he knows his only recourse is an appeal to God. 

Agur’s “two” things are actually three, although the second and third are complementary. First, he asks God to keep deception and lies away from him. Second, he asks God to plant him firmly in the middle. He doesn’t want wealth or poverty, but only enough food for the day. Both petitions – to avoid falsehood and to have the right mindset about wealth – are common themes in Proverbs. Here, they’re combined.

The appeal for truthfulness is stated negatively and seems out of place compared to the rest of the prayer. It may be that Agur isn’t asking for truthfulness generally, but for truthfulness in his finances. Perhaps some associates had stolen or squandered his wealth. Perhaps his wealth had been lost through poor decision-making or bad luck. What he needed now was a dose of truth about his resources and situation. Having more days than dollars at the end of a pay period will quickly get your attention. 

His petition for financial equilibrium is described in three ways: He doesn’t want to be wealthy; neither does he want to be poor; he wants only the day’s provision of food. He then explains the rationale behind his petition. He doesn’t want to forget God. 

Agur is afraid that if he accumulated wealth, he would give credit to himself, not God. This was one of Israel’s frequent problems (Deuteronomy 6.10-15; Joshua 24.13-15). While Proverbs teaches that wealth is the product of hard work (10.4), Agur reminds us that God is still the source of such blessings. 

There’s no virtue in wealth, but neither is there virtue in poverty, hence Agur’s aversion to it. Proverbs asserts that sometimes poverty is the deserved result of poor character and laziness (13.18; 14.23; 20.4). But the poor are often mistreated, exploited and humiliated by others, which may produce bitterness, frustration, and lack of faith (10.15; 14.20; 19.4, 7). 

Agur simply wants each day’s provisions: “Feed me with the food that is my portion.” Behind this petition is an astute faith. “Feed” (Heb., taraf) means to provide, which reinforces that this is a prayer: only the Lord can ensure it. He wants only the simplest of foods (Heb., lechem, bread), and of that, only his “portion” or allotment (Heb., choq). This is Agur’s prayer for daily bread (cf., Matthew 6.11). 

On Agur’s Middle Class-ness

This text is sometimes called, “The Prayer of the Middle Class.” It certainly does make an appeal to be in the middle of two financial extremes, but Agur’s idea of “middle class-ness” is quite different than ours, for at least three reasons.

First, our definitions are quite different. In America, the “middle class” is often defined by its values and aspirations (Middle Class in America, U. S. Department of Commerce, January 2010, 4-5), such as home ownership, cars, a college education, good health care and insurance, retirement, and family vacations. For Agur, being middle class simply meant he had enough food for each day. The apostle Paul said, “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6.8). In biblical thought, being middle class is simply being content.

Second, we’re woefully lacking financial self-awareness. Virtually everyone in America thinks they’re middle class. In a 2005 New York Times survey, 98% of all Americans describe themselves as being in the middle class (Middle Class in America, 1) Only 1% consider themselves as “upper class” and only 7% call themselves “lower class.” This jarring lack of objectivity suggests that many are too proud to call themselves poor, while others are too blind to call themselves rich. It’s as if we’re desperate to “keep up with the Joneses,” but once we catch them, we don’t want to admit it. Proverbs 27.23 says, “Know well the condition of your flocks, and pay attention to your herds.” There’s value in knowing exactly where you stand. 

Third, Americans are myopic about their finances in relation to the rest of the world. We have no idea how good we have it. Where does a typical American family of four stand? The following numbers are taken from www.givingwhatwecan.org; for convenience, they have been rounded. 

  • If your annual family income is $25,000, you earn more than 86% of the rest of the world. You earn almost six times the median income, and you make in about two months what someone earning the median income would make in a year.
  • If your annual family income is $50,000, you earn more than 92% of the rest of the world. You earn 11 times the median income, and you make in about one month what someone earning the median income would make in a year.
  • If your annual family income is $75,000, you earn more than 96% of the rest of the world. You earn 17 times the median income, and you make in three weeks what someone earning the median income would make in a year.
  • If your annual family income is $100,000, you earn more than 98% of the rest of the world. You earn 23 times the median income, and you make in about 16 days what someone earning the median income would make in a year.
  • If your annual family income is $200,000, you earn more than 99.8% of the rest of the world. You earn 41 times the median income, and you make in nine days what someone earning the median income would make in a year.

Brothers and sisters, we are materially wealthy. 

On Agurity

So, how do we become more Agur-like? How do we curb covetousness and cultivate contentment? How do we develop Agurity? 

First, make this prayer your own. Can you really pray that you don’t want to be rich? Paul warned, “But those who want to get rich fall into temptation and a snare and many foolish and harmful desires which plunge men into ruin and destruction. For the love of money is a root of all sorts of evil, and some by longing for it have wandered away from the faith and pierced themselves with many griefs” (1 Timothy 6.9-10). If you can’t pray this, you have a problem. 

Second, tell yourself the truth. Have you lied to yourself, your spouse, or your family about your finances? Do you have a realistic picture of your financial life? Do you struggle with covetousness? Are you afraid of being poor? Are you worried about your status? Until you tell yourself the truth and put aside the lies, you’ll never be free from the grip of financial fear and frustration (John 8.32; Ephesians 4.15, 25). 

Third, stop the madness. You don’t have to feed at the trough of materialism! You don’t have to be a slave to Black Friday, Cyber Monday, or The Sale to End All Sales. You don’t have to go broke at Christmas. You don’t need a bigger TV. You don’t need the latest, fastest, coolest, most tricked-out car. You don’t need more clothes (or books, or tools, or cookware, or stuff). More stuff requires more storage, and bigger closets don’t address the real problem (Luke 12.13-21).

Finally, use your finances for the sake of the kingdom. Agur’s real desire was to put everything in his life (even his wealth) under the Lord’s scrutiny. He wanted his attitudes and usage of wealth to be balanced. He knew that his attitude and actions ultimately reflected back on his relationship to the Lord.

How about you? What does your attitude about money and your usage of money say about you? About your character? About your priorities? 

May Agur’s prayer and character be yours in abundance. 

“Show Him Your Hands”

My mother was not a theologian. Nor would anyone confuse her for an intellectual. I never remember her reading much. She would read her Bible, and she always worked her Bible class lessons. She looked at various housekeeping and craft magazines. She worked her nightly word search puzzles. But, she was not bookish. 

Mom was a resourceful, talented, and meticulous woman. She took pride in her home, in maintaining and decorating it. She enjoyed gardening, and gave special attention to her rose bushes. She canned vegetables every summer for years. She was an accomplished seamstress and quilter who taught all her daughters (and one son) how to sew. She enjoyed entertaining people, and frequently had large groups of people into her home for meals.

Mom was always neat and well dressed. She kept the house in meticulous order. She had cabinets, closets and shelves in abundance. Every item in the house had its own place. The house was filled with knick-knacks, but there was a neatness and orderliness that was unmistakable. The woman even kept the original box for every small appliance she owned!

One thing I remember about both Mom and her mother, Grandma Carman, was that they were always busy. Neither of them was idle. Both worked hard and long each day of their lives. Even when they sat down, they were often busy with their hands — shelling peas, sewing a hem, or making a shopping list. I don’t know any women who worked harder, and who never complained about their work. Their work was part of their identity.

Shortly after Mom died, Dad related a story about her that greatly resonated with me. Once He and Mom were talking about spiritual matters (probably when all of us children were still young). They turned their attention to heaven, and, in a moment of self-doubt, she asked Dad, “When I meet Jesus, what will I give to him?” Dad’s gentle reply was, “Show him your hands.”

The sage said of the virtuous woman, “She looks for wool and flax, and works with her hands in delight… She girds herself with strength, and makes her arms strong… She stretches out her hands to the distaff, and her hands grasp the spindle… She extends her hand to the poor, and she stretches out her hands to the needy… She looks well to the ways of her household, and does not eat the bread of idleness… Give her the product of her hands, and let her works praise her in the gates” (Proverbs 31.13, 17, 19, 20, 27, 31).

The Lord has seen my mother’s hands.

Sub-stan-ti-al Food

When I was still at home, family travels were always a lengthy affair. We had exactly five destinations: (1) Grandma Carman in the St Louis area, a five hour drive, which also meant Mom’s side of the family and some of Dad’s. (2) My sister Linda and her husband Mac in Kansas City, about 10 or 11 hours away. (3) Granny Sutton in Flint, Michigan, light years away. (4) My brother Phil in Memphis, about an hour away. And, (5) my sister Deena and her husband Freddie in Forrest City, Arkansas, a 2-hour drive.

On trips #4 and #5, food was never an issue. We didn’t eat in the car and we didn’t stop to eat. I don’t recall being allowed to eat in the car, unless Mom packed a meal. We learned, on shorter trips, to swallow our spit.

On trips #1, #2, and #3, we stopped only when we had to fill up the gas tank. But ancient cars like our ‘70 Impala had 25-gallon tanks, which meant we never had to stop for gas (and thus for food).

But when we did finally stop for food, we would pass by McDonald’s, Wendy’s, Hardee’s, Burger King, Dairy Queen and at least 12 other perfectly good eateries in search of Dad’s ultimate culinary quest: “substantial food.” 

The kids would be begging: “Dad, there’s a restaurant!” “Dad, a McDonald’s!” “Look! A Wendy’s!” 

Swift came the reply: “I want a place that serves sub-stan-ti-al food,” he would say, carefully pronouncing the key word. 

Thus we would drive as far off the highway as we had been on it. We would meander through towns and suburbs, winding up in seedy places, dimly lit, in the far recesses of these villages, crowded with common folk like us. 

There were never any other children in sight. Apparently they had been offered in the pagan temples of “Substantial.” It didn’t matter to me. In my teen pride and rebellion, I always ordered a cheeseburger no matter where we went. 

Dad’s ultimate quest for substantial food reached its zenith 1985. He, Mom, and Linda all came to visit me in Kansas. While there, they took a day trip out to western Kansas. When they got back, Dad was positively radiant. Somewhere near Dodge City, he saw a billboard for a small local eatery that promised “Substantial Food.” 

As he described the glorious billboard, I thought I heard in the background faint echoes of smallish people singing, “Follow the yellow brick road.” For a few moments, Dad had found Oz.

Now Thank We All Our God

The “Thirty Years’ War” (1618-1648) was a devastating European conflict centered in what’s now Germany. It began as a power struggle between Protestant and Catholic forces within the Holy Roman Empire, but spread among various factions throughout Europe, eventually drawing in much of Central Europe, including Spanish, Swedish, French, Dutch, Croatian, Hungarian, Prussian and other forces. Entire regions were destroyed when marauding armies looted and plundered the villages they conquered, and in the process, consumed and destroyed land, crops and cattle. 

The human toll was staggering. It’s estimated that half the male population of Germany died, as well as 15-30% of the total population. Some areas lost between half and three-quarters of their populations. Thousands of castles and towns were destroyed, as well as tens of thousands of villages. Some towns took a century to recover from their losses; others disappeared forever. Disease aggravated all of this. Epidemics of bubonic plague, scurvy, dysentery, and typhus killed thousands, perhaps millions.

From this miasma of death, disease, and destruction emerged Martin Rinkart (1586-1649), a German clergyman. Rinkart spent most of his life in Eilenburg, Saxony (near modern Leipzig in eastern Germany). The son of a poor cooper, he attended the Latin School in Eilenburg. At 15, he became a scholar and chorister at St Thomas’ School in Leipzig, which enabled him to study theology at the University of Leipzig beginning in 1602. In 1610 he became master of the gymnasium in Eisleben and cantor of St Nicholas Church. In 1611 he became Deacon of St Anne’s Church where he remained for two years. From 1613-1617 he was pastor at Erdeborn and Lyttichendorf (Lütjendorf), near Eisleben, after which he moved to Eilenburg, where he remained until his death in 1649. 

He was appointed Archdeacon in 1617, and was one of four pastors in Eilenburg at the beginning of 1637. As a walled city, Eilenburg was frequently the destination for refugees in the region. It suffered greatly during the Thirty Years’ War, but, to make matters worse, the Plague swept through the region and city in 1637. One pastor, the superintendent, left for healthier climes. Rinkart officiated at the funerals of the other two. His wife died in May of that year. At times, 30-40 people could be seen in the streets of the city fighting over dead cats and crows in hopes of finding food. About 8,000 people died from the plague, mostly that year, and Rinkart officiated at the funerals of over 4,000 of them, sometimes for as many as 40-50 people per day. By the end of the year, they simply dug trenches and buried people en masse with no funeral services. 

In 1638, a wave of marriages swept over the town, as citizens attempted to rebuild their lives. Rinkart officiated most of these, and he himself remarried in June. Soon afterward, a severe drought struck the area, which strained Rinkart’s own resources. During this same time span, Rinkart was able to spare the city from attacks by Swiss forces in 1637 and again in 1639. Despite his extraordinary service, he was harassed in his final years by local officials who had little appreciation for all he had done. 

Rinkart was a prolific hymnist and around this time, probably in 1636, he wrote what became his most well-known hymn, “Now Thank We All Our God.” Regardless of when it was written, it dates to this general period of war and disease. Some think it began as a table prayer he used with his family at mealtime. The words are humble and thoughtful, especially in view of what we know of Rinkart and his times.

Now thank we all our God, with heart and hands and voices,
Who wondrous things has done, in Whom this world rejoices;
Who from our mothers’ arms has blessed us on our way
With countless gifts of love, and still is ours today.
O may this bounteous God through all our life be near us,
With ever joyful hearts and blessed peace to cheer us;
And keep us in His grace, and guide us when perplexed;
And free us from all ills, in this world and the next!
All praise and thanks to God the Father now be given;
The Son and Him Who reigns with Them in highest Heaven;
The one eternal God, whom earth and Heaven adore;
For thus it was, is now, and shall be evermore.

It’s difficult to imagine the level of hardship that a man such as Rinkart endured. It’s equally hard to read the lyrics of this simple hymn and fully grasp the contentment and gratitude it expresses. 

The truest measure of gratitude comes not when our pantries, plates, wallets, bank accounts, and garages are full, but when they’re empty. Can we be grateful and content when we lack these things? “If we have food and covering, with these we shall be content” (1 Timothy 6.8). I once heard a church member comment on this text saying, “Well, I just think it would be a whole lot easier to be content if a person was rich.” 

May God help me be less like that and more like Rinkart.