His Plan, or My Plan?





EPSON DSC picture
(September 2002)
The ironies:  who goes, who stays;
the golds and grays that laminate our days—
I give them now to you: you know the purpose in your ways.

I see you gathering tears into a jar,
squeezed out of losses and the griefs that are
our daily bread as we compute the damage, near and far.

And yet you bend your loving, listening ear
to neutralize the acid of ripe fear,
and hand out hope with glimpses of your presence here.

I see just tiny pieces of your plan:
the undeniable traces of your hand, 
applying pressure to our souls, reshaping as you can.

And there are proofs that, way beyond what’s known,
you’re still directing traffic from your throne,
so that what you allow is all that comes to us, your own.

The longed-for outcomes, dangled dreams,
the prayed-for transformation in what seems
right now to be all loss, I yield, relinquishing my schemes.

Twenty years ago yesterday, September 19, 2002, we were in Bouake, the big city in central Côte d’Ivoire, when gunfire began and kept on recurring. What was going on? Glenn and I had joined 15 other missionaries and seminar trainers to find out how to lead “Sharpening Your Interpersonal Skills” workshops. We had brought our 15-year-old son, Bryn, with us, along with his computer to continue his tenth-grade courses with NorthStar Academy, via Internet. This was supposed to be a peaceful and invigorating time away from home, for growth in leading others to develop interpersonal strengths.

Looking back, yes, we did grow in many unexpected ways. But that week-long lock-down, gunfire blasting as rebels attacked various parts of the city and government soldiers tried to hold them off, was grueling.  Our safety was a big concern. Twice we spent long hours lying down on the second-floor hallway of the SIL dorm-style guest house where we were lodged, the most protected space in that courtyard. Rebels were on one side of the courtyard, government troops on the other side, firing mortars at each other over the three-story building. I had never heard that kind of blasting before (and since then can hardly bear the sound of fireworks). There was real danger, and my son was there. Maternal instincts added to my angst. I lay across the hall from my dear friend Karen DeGraaf during those hours. We often held hands as we prayed.

And how did we pray? I know it did not occur to me at that time to pray the pattern given in our Lord’s model prayer:

–your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matt. 6:9 NIV)

I did cry out to my loving heavenly Father, begging for rescue, protection, and mercy. I pleaded the same for my friends left up north. We had no news, no way to contact them and know what threat they were under. My younger sister, Kayleen, and her family had just arrived 5 weeks before to begin ministry in Ferke. She had two toddlers—four kids altogether. How about our precious Nyarafolo friends? The other missionaries?

Desperation and lament are not new to God. He has heard them since the beginning of earth’s history. He is hearing them all over the world today. Wars are raging. Some places women are targeted, other places ethnic groups are searched out. Sometimes it is weather monsters tearing a country or state apart.

So why pray: “may your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven” ?

Looking at it from twenty years’ perspective, I can see that God did have a plan, hidden as it was from our eyes. His will was still being done through his servants as they continued to obey his specific direction for each one who was listening.

For example, on September 25th, we suddenly were confronted with a way to show his mercy. A crowd of Liberians (refugees from war over there) were at our courtyard gate, seeking refuge. Some people were evidently pointing fingers at them as responsible for some of the turmoil, and they were running in fear. Our group gave them the meeting room area to huddle in overnight.

The next day, September 26th, we got the long-hoped for word that foreigners with passports were going to be allowed to leave Bouake during a 24-hour ceasefire. The boarding school down the road, International Christian Academy, was evacuating about 200 people, missionary kids plus staff, via the backroads. We were going to drive south on the main road to Abidjan. What about the Liberians? They had no passports. And if they stayed in the courtyard, they could become targets. Glenn was given the heartbreaking task of guiding them out a side gate to escape into a bush area. We don’t know what happened to them.

We left, watching crowds of city residents lined up along the road eyeing the chain of cars that were allowed to drive out of town. It was so wrenching. And then we came to the barrier manned by government soldiers. Passengers were told to get out and show their papers to the soldier up ahead; Glenn had to drive the car around to a side station where it would be searched.

As we got out Bryn, our teen, remembered that his papers were in the backpack stowed in the back of the car. The soldier telling us to walk to the checkpoint was upset with Bryn and me opening the rear door, but as Bryn grabbed his bag I explained what we were doing. That backpack retrieval had made us the last ones in the line of our seminar participants who were now filing through the checkpoint. When we got up to the officer there we heard him viciously haranguing two of the Nigerian missionaries who had been passengers with us. It turned out that he suspected them to be some of those “northern rebels, Muslims”! The men had put on their dress outfits, long tunics, since they were planning to take a flight back to Nigeria that day, which made them look like they were in Muslim dress. Being Nigerian, they did not speak French so could not understand the accusations and questions the officer was shouting. I “just happened” to walk up to them at the right time to hear what was going on and explain to the officer that these men were our companions, Nigerian missionaries. The officer calmed down and let us all go on. God’s will was being done; he had ongoing plans for those servants. Later we heard  that people with last names that linked them to the north were herded off into another area. What happened to them? In the coming months news sources said there were reported cases in some areas of those from northern ethnic groups being hauled off and shot.

The whole story is too long to include here but let me just underline that there were many amazing things that God did in our own lives due to that unexpected ripping apart of our plans and placement. Here are some highlights.

During the following three years that we were evacuated out of the country, I was able to complete the training that I needed as an exegete in Greek and Hebrew for Nyarafolo translation: an M.Div. from Moody Theological Seminary. We needed a place to live, since we would not be allowed to return until Bryn was no longer a minor; the Lord made it clear that he was providing the house in Detroit where we have been based ever since, each time we returned from the field. It became a home for several people dear to us, and for our son Bryn (who still holds the fort here, in community with us and during our travels).

And back in Côte d’Ivoire, the hospital stayed open, the only one in that region for several years, with some missionaries returning after a few months to work with the national staff. So many patients received life-saving care!

And Koufouhoton, a young man from the village where we had been discipling believers, Tiepogovogo, had just finished his first year of pastoral training in Korhogo when the school had to close due to the war. He returned home and used his years of waiting for the school to reopen to share the Good News and his testimony with friends in surrounding villages. The group of believers meeting together in Tiepogovogo doubled, then tripled!

I was still in that stew of grief and uncertainty when I wrote the poem above:

  I see just tiny pieces of your plan:
  the undeniable traces of your hand, 
  applying pressure to our souls, reshaping as you can.

  And there are proofs that, way beyond what’s known,
  you’re still directing traffic from your throne,
  so that what you allow is all that comes to those you call your own.

Yes, the Father of the Universe was not only working out plans we knew nothing about, he was also teaching us essential lessons.  Being “reshaped” is not always comfortable. I like that illustration of the potter molding the clay. Pressure is applied, rough edges smoothed, new shapes created. And that is what was happening to us.

It is definitely worth it to realize that the King of Everything is our loving Father and is working out his plans—not always in the way we might expect, and sometimes through tragedy. In the end we will understand. Right now, we learn to trust him and follow him. He alone knows the path ahead.

May your kingdom among us come in all its fullness!

May your will be done in us and through us in this present time,

As we learn to relinquish our own plans and choose yours!

P.S.  I WILL BE ON A BRIEF SABBATICAL. LINNEA’S LINES SHOULD TAKE OFF AGAIN IN LATE OCTOBER.

God’s Kingdom, Come!

God, who fills the universe,
who made it all, the stars and space,
did choose to put mankind on earth
and focus on this tiny place.
	
The perfect world he made for us
was broken by our parents' sin,
and nothing we try is enough
to heal it, make it whole again.
	 
Our God, whose heart is endless love,
could never leave his children lost.
He left his palace up above
to be a man, at a huge cost.
	
Scrunched into human form, Jesus
would usher in God's Kingdom, come,
to put an end to what kills us,
for he would die, God's holy Son.
	
This baby was no accident,
born in a stable, far from home!
Messiah, chosen one, God-sent,
his death killed death, made us his own.

Alleluia! We sing God's praise!
He offers us his warm embrace,
If we accept, we have our place
In his Kingdom, come! Amazing grace!

When I wrote this poem, it was a Christmas song, a reminder that when Jesus came, God was initiating an important new phase in his rule. God has always been the King of Everything, right?  He is Creator, Lord of All! But the choice of his people to disobey their Master, to distrust him and bow to another Voice, opened the way for the Lord of Evil to exert ongoing influence over them and the world that God had made. What changed the saga is God’s amazing grace and love for broken humanity. He knew the foundational premises he had put in place, and came to earth himself to break the Enemy’s  supposed ongoing dominion over the planet and its inhabitants. He himself took all their griefs and broken actions on himself when he took the punishment they deserved, and he conquered death!

He also ushered in his Kingdom in a new way on the earth. When teaching his disciples on the Mount, Jesus said:

9 “This, then, is how you should pray: “‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, 10 your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. (Matt. 6:9-10 NIV)

“Your kingdom come” has always resonated with me as a statement of hope, that someday his kingdom would again reign completely on earth and all would be made new, healed. And that is a promise:

In the days of those kings the God of heaven will raise up an everlasting kingdom that will not be destroyed and a kingdom that will not be left to another people. It will break in pieces and bring about the demise of all these kingdoms. But it will stand forever. (Daniel 2:24 NET)

Jesus underlined the truth of this prophecy with more details about the events that will show that time has arrived:

So also you, when you see these things happening, know that the kingdom of God is near. (Luke 21:31 NET)

Then and in Luke 17:20-37, Jesus was referring to the fulfillment, the time when the universal Kingdom in all its power will be established.

So what did he mean when he sent out his disciples and told them:

Heal the sick in that town and say to them, ‘The kingdom of God has come upon you!’ (Luke 10:9 NET)

I chose the NET version because of their excellent explanation of this choice of words as more explanatory than what is often used. Let’s look at how other translations state it, again: the kingdom of God has come near to you. You could understand that it is nearby, just out of reach. But read this translation note:

tn Or “come near to you,” suggesting the approach (but not arrival) of the kingdom. But the combination of the perfect tense of ἐγγίζω (engizoÒ) with the preposition ἐπί (epi) most likely suggests that the sense is “has come upon” (see BDAG 270 s.v. ἐγγίζω 2; W. R. Hutton, “The Kingdom of God Has Come,” ExpTim 64 [Dec 1952]: 89-91; and D. L. Bock, Luke [BECNT], 2:1000; cf. also NAB “is at hand for you”). These passages argue that a key element of the kingdom is its ability to overcome the power of Satan and those elements in the creation that oppose humanity. Confirmation of this understanding comes in v. 18 and in Luke 11:14–23, especially the parable of vv. 21–23.”

When responding to accusations of using Satanic power to drive out demons, this is how Jesus answered:

NET Luke 11:20 But if I cast out demons by the finger of God, then the kingdom of God has already overtaken you. (Luke 11:20 NET)

Yes, the kingdom of God–which is also called the “kingdom of heaven” for Jewish audiences, to avoid pronouncing God’s name—was already there! It is the kingdom “come”, not just one we are still looking for.

It is the realm in which Jesus, the Messiah and Son of God, reigns. It is the “moral and spiritual kingdom which the God of grace is setting up in this fallen world,”[1] and anyone who is in subjection to him is a part of it.  Even John the Baptist was sent out to announce its arrival (Matthew 3:1). Jesus told the Pharisees not just to look forward to miraculous signs of the kingdom beginning, because “the kingdom of God is in your midst!” (Luke 17:21)

So when Jesus told us to pray, your kingdom come, we are expressing “the hope for the full manifestation of God’s promised rule” (note, Matthew 6:10 NET). The kingdom is here already, and those who belong to Jesus, who have come to receive him as Savior and King, belong to it. But the battle is still raging, with the Enemy doing his best to dissuade from entering it, even propagating the like that it doesn’t exist at all, that it is a fabrication of the imagination. It is only when at last he is  destroyed, along with death, that God’s kingdom will be the only one there is. That will be the end of all sorrow and the beginning of a whole new world!

Now I understand better that the kingdom of heaven, the kingdom of God, is here—or, as Dallas Willard puts it, it is “the kingdom now”.[2] And it is accessible to those who choose to enter through the door provided, the “new birth,” which “means to be interactively joined with a dynamic, unseen system of divine reality in the midst of which all of humanity moves about—whether it knows it or not . . .’The Kingdom Among Us.’ “[3]

This is headline news and needs to be shared! Once it has been spread all around, that complete and “full manifestation of God’s promised rule” will happen:

And the Good News about the Kingdom will be preached throughout the whole world, so that all nations will hear it; and then the end will come. (Matt. 24:14 NLT)

We long for that final day—no more tears, deception, political dissension, broken bodies, or murders!  For now, we kingdom citizens are still surrounded by these and much more, a list that could go on and on.

But since his kingdom is already among us, and accessible, we are to live according to its principles, demonstrating by our lives that we are set apart, consecrated to be perfect like our King (Matthew 5:48, James 1:4). That is how we can have true impact:

. . .that you may be blameless and pure, children of God without blemish though you live in a crooked and perverse society, in which you shine as lights in the world. (Phil. 2:15 NET)

This is our reality now as well as our future hope. God who inhabits all space is not distant; he is completely present and constantly reaching out in love.

I was blown away by how the realization of that truth brought my Nyarafolo translation coworker, Moïse, to tears. He was already a mature believer, and passionate about sharing the Good News with his people. It was when we were casting about for a way to translate God’s covenant with Abraham (Gen. 15:18) that God’s initiative in reaching out to humans became meaningful to him. We had tried many suggestions that the team offered for “covenant,” but when our draft was being checked by a consultant, he questioned the term we had chosen—it did not have legal ramifications, with blessings and consequences for breaking it, which a covenant had to have. We needed to search for a better word, he said. In the silence that ensued, I brought up a term that we had discussed but that had been discarded because it was a term for contracts made with local gods and spirits.

“Explain it,” said the consultant.

Moïse told the story of how his family had such a contract with the “god” of their farmland, and how they renewed it yearly through a sacrifice in order to have a good crop. One year the contract was rejected! The slaughtered chicken thrown into the river near their property landed the wrong way. And a crocodile came out of the river and dragged his grandfather, their representative, into the river. He got loose but limped the rest of his life. And the crops failed. Someone had disobeyed the contract’s terms.

“But you see,” Moïse said, “we had to reach out through that annual sacrifice to make this contract. But in Abraham’s case, it was God who reached out to him. . .” There was a pause. He choked up, and tears brimmed in his eyes. “Ah, I see now! That is what is key here!  God is the one who reaches out to make the contract with us!  We have to use this term! People need to know he is not disinterested and distant!”

So true! He is the God of love, reaching out to humanity. God sent Jesus to establish his kingdom in a way that is building towards forever. It is a kingdom of love, truth, and light, and we long for its full reign. But since it has already come among us, we are no longer in bondage to the kingdom of darkness. And we participate as citizens in bringing it to completion (we will be discussing that!).

For he has rescued us from the dominion of darkness and brought us into the kingdom of the Son he loves, (Col. 1:13 NIV)

To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, 6 and has made us to be a kingdom and priests to serve his God and Father– to him be glory and power for ever and ever! Amen. (Rev. 1:5b-6 NIV)


[1] Robert Jamieson, A. R. Fausset, and David Brown, Commentary Critical and Explanatory on the Whole Bible, vol. 2 (Oak Harbor, WA: Logos Research Systems, Inc., 1997), 26.

[2] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God. (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 105.

[3] Ibid., 68.

Yahweh, My God

I belong to Yahweh!
I am his, and he is mine.
He lives in me--astonishing, 
this truth I can’t absorb!
I live in him, in whom I have
my being, my true home,
my source of life and strength,
all my giftings and my soul,
the “who” I am, because of him.

“I AM,” he said to Moses
and he says it now to me:
the Alpha and Omega, 
the Truth from A to Z,
the One beginning and the end
but there’s no starting place,
no finish line that ties up time;
HE IS eternally. And
I am his, and he is mine!

The name of God in Hebrew is precious. Yet most of us don’t know it, at least not in its origin and depth.

Even the origin of the word “God” in English is so ancient that it predates Christianity, referring to deities who were invoked in the Germanic religion. When Christianity came to Europe, the neuter noun became masculine to refer to God, the Sovereign Father, as we know him.[1]

But when our Lord Jesus was teaching his disciples how to pray in the Sermon on the Mount, he says to “hallow” or revere the name of our heavenly Father:

So pray this way:12 Our Fatherin heaven, may your name be honored,14 (Matt. 6:9 NET)

Pray like this: Our Father in heaven, may your name be kept holy. (Matt. 6:9 NLT)

The Jews who were listening to Jesus recognized this phrase and knew it was essential:

“Hallowed be thy name; thy kingdom come,” [echos] the language of the Jewish prayer, the Kaddish. It begins: “Magnified and hallowed be his great name in the world . . .”[2]

They understood what name was being referred to! God’s name in Hebrew was (and is) YHWH. He made himself known to Moses using that name in Exodus 3:14, usually translated in English as “I AM WHO I AM .  . . I AM has sent you.” Because the Jews wanted to respect that name as holy, they substituted their word for “lord” in its place, not pronouncing YHWH. Eventually they inserted those vowels into the Hebrew script, and in the Middle Ages it became read by scholars coming from other languages as “Jehovah.” You can get a much more detailed history if you read the discussion at the site footnoted here:

Jehovah” is a spelling that developed from combining the consonants of the name with the vowels of a Hebrew word for “Lord” (Adonai).[3]

That is why many of us grew up hearing about Jehovah, and then wondering why newer translations left that out. They were reacting to that misreading, trying to be true to the original. What matters is that his name YHWH affirmed his eternal being, one who was and is and is to come.

In common English, we use “God” as our usual designation for him. Other languages use their term that designates the High Deity, One Above All, to be worshiped. In Nyarafolo the name is Kulocɛliɛ, the Most High Creator. They believe, as the Canaanites and ancient Germanic peoples did, that there were also many lower gods. Nyarafolo traditional religion focuses more on these lower gods, thinking that Kulocɛliɛ is distant, disinterested in humanity. The message that YHWH (pronounced Yewe in Nyarafolo, the verb “to be” with a noun suffix!) loves them and is longing for them to be his children is truly amazing Good News. Every people group needs to fill in their understanding of what their name for God actually connotes through his Word, not through their culture. However they address him, he hears. He understands and can speak every language on earth! And when a person’s name is used, it identifies that person and stands for who they are in their character and actions.

The Bible is clear that God’s name had to be honored, not used in “vain.” I believe that is one of the things least understood in American culture. Everywhere we go, and in movies and the Internet, we will hear “Oh my God!” uttered in surprise, distress or disgust—even in some kids’ videos. There is no  attempt to reach out to him, or even acknowledge his existence, when that is said. This expression is thoughtless; it is using God’s name in “vain.”

So how are we to treat his name as holy? How are we to use his name correctly?

The Greek verb used here, ἁγιάζω, means to set aside or dedicate for sacred purposes when it refers to things; when used of God as it is here in Matthew 6:9, it means to revere or “treat as holy” the very name of God.[4] When we were working on translating the books of Leviticus and Numbers into Nyarafolo I had to contemplate what it meant to treat something or someone as holy, to understand them as in a different category, the realm of what is sacred. God was hoping Israel would truly “get it” as they practiced not touching consecrated objects in the temple, when they themselves had not been consecrated to do it, for instance. One could actually die, as happened to the man who did it by mistake, with good intentions (2 Samuel 6).

In our day we have lost this respect for what is “holy.” When it comes to God’s name, especially, we need to get it back. If we do not respect it, we are actually showing contempt for who he is. And contempt is serious wrongdoing (Mat. 5:22).

The Old Testament Law was very clear about this:

You must not make use of the name of the LORD your God for worthless purposes,15 for the LORD will not exonerate anyone who abuses his name that way. (Deut. 5:11 NET)

One of my grandsons was recently listening to a Minecraft parody, and the man telling the story was constantly saying, “Oh my God! That is sick!” (That boy was told not to listen to that narrator again!) I had been contemplating the Lord’s prayer with you all, and I realized that I was hurt by this constant repetition of the name of the Holy One, someone who means so much to me, as though he does not exist and his name is just a common word, meaningless. It truly is contemptuous. It pushes God away as irrelevant.

When we reverence his name as unique and representing his perfection, it will show up in how we live. The Jews who used this phrase that referred to magnifying and hallowing God’s name knew that eventually the whole world would know how great he is, when his final kingdom would come, but they also knew that living according to his ways, living rightly, would show their respect for who he is, which is what his name represents.[5] And as Chamblin says, “He who prays this way commits himself to personal obedience (“let my conduct honor your name; your will be done, by me, now”), for the advance of God’s rule . . . in his own life and society.”[6]

May it be so! When we belong to him, the Eternal One lives in us. This is a precious bond with deep meaning. Let’s honor him with our words, our prayers, and how we live!


[1] https://www.etymonline.com

[2] James M. Freeman and Harold J. Chadwick, Manners & Customs of the Bible (North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1998), 414.

[3] https://www.thenivbible.com/blog/what-does-yahweh-mean-in-the-bible/

[4] Friberg, Analytical Greek Lexicon.

[5] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Mt 6:9–10.

[6] J. Knox Chamblin, “Matthew,” in Evangelical Commentary on the Bible, vol. 3, Baker Reference Library (Grand Rapids, MI: Baker Book House, 1995), 730.

Resting on Papa (The Throne of Grace)

EXIF_HDL_ID_1
Frazzled, fragile,
wondering how I dare,
I climb the stairs
to the Majesty
(high on his throne,
watching the world)
and crawl onto his knees
(astonishing audacity . . . )

He lays aside his scepter,
reaches for my arms,
pulls me to his lap,
whispers kindness
to my heart:
“Dear daughter, rest!
Lay your head here,
on my chest.”

He quiets me with love
while angels pause hosannas,
transpose into a melody 
of simple adoration,
love songs. I feel
tension leak away.

Abba is aware of
every challenge,
every muddle,
each leap ahead.

He knows my life
from inside out:
claps hands with me,
sings, exults,
grabs me when I fall
and wipes my knees
when gravel bites,
loves me “even when.”

Abba, Daddy, is the King.
His seat of power
the place where I
get all I need, and 
nothing I deserve –
just precious words
of empathy, wise counsel
to show me how to be,

kind gifts of toys,
delicious treats,
new tools 
so I can grow
and learn and laugh
and be his agent
in the field.

But just now
I keep my ear
close to his chest,
and rest.

Who would dare walk up to a King on his throne and climb onto his lap? Only his own kid!

And that is who I am, who you are, if you are a “child of the King,” a follower of Jesus and the Father, guided by the Spirit. I am not his only child! He has a huge family! But he pays attention to every single one of us when we come to him in prayer, not in rote repetition or “babbling” (Matthew 6:7) but meaning what we say.

He is our safe place, the person we run to when in need of comfort or help. In the featured photo, our family was climbing a rocky mountainside.  It was exciting, but the toddler Ariane was clinging to Daddy. A good father, someone you trust who has shown his love for you in many ways, is who you grab when you are in new or hazardous surroundings. Those who have not known a good father in their own experience would not choose him as protector. Anyone who thinks God is a tyrant, out to hurt them, will not run to him. It takes getting to know this ultimate Papa personally to rely on his goodness, proven in so many ways.

When Jesus taught us a basic framework for prayer (see Matthew 6:9-13), for talking with our God, he said to address him as “Our Father in heaven.” As John Stott explains, this links our intimacy with God as our Parent, who is lovingly concerned with the children he has brought into his Family, with his extraordinary power and sovereignty: “in heaven.” “The words ‘in the heavens’ denote not the place of his abode so much as the authority and power at his command as the creator and ruler of all things.”1  Another aspect of the concept "heaven" or "the heavens" here is “all spaces.” He is not confined, like we are, to a physical spot. Instead he reigns with power everywhere.

So, Jesus said, start your prayer with this declaration of your intimate relationship with God and with respect for who he is, King of Everything. He is following up on his command to not just recite a prayer perfunctorily. This is conversation with a real Person. Remembering this, and your status as his child, opens the way to prayer as a conversation about what matters in his Kingdom.

Thayer’s Greek Lexicon explains the meaning of the Greek word used for “father” here: πατήρ is “from the root, pa; literally, nourisher, protector, upholder”.  Since Jesus' discourse was most likely in Aramaic, Donald Hagner says that the word Jesus would have used was abba: “Underlying the simple πάτηρ (as in Luke) in the probable Aramaic original, is the word אַבָּא ʾabbā, a term of special affection and intimacy used by children in addressing their earthly fathers. Jesus’ use of ʾabbā is unique.”2  

And Craig Keener adds this information: “'Abba' is the *Aramaic word for 'Papa,' a term of great intimacy and affectionate respect. It was typically the first word a child would utter, but adults could use it for their fathers as well, and students sometimes used it of their teachers. Perhaps because it implied such intimacy, Jewish people never used it of God (though they did call him a heavenly father)."3   

Eleven years ago, when I wrote the poem “The Throne of Grace,” I was realizing how astonishing my Father’s invitation is, to come near to him and live “in” him, that he actually wants us to relate to him intimately and with full trust. One of the psalms that has carried me through many challenges is this one: 

My heart is not proud, LORD, my eyes are not haughty; I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me. 2 But I have calmed and quieted myself, I am like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child I am content. (Ps. 131:1-2 NIV)

When I was studying Hebrew poetry in seminary, there was a lively discussion in class about how to translate the Hebrew word for “weaned child” in this psalm, and it was suggested that all that mattered would be to say “child.” I suddenly realized, looking around, that no one else in the class would have had the experience of breast-feeding and weaning a baby. So I raised my hand to explain that I remembered how a nursing child, when held against me for comfort, would root for my breast. Once weaned, the child would rest quietly on my chest instead, no longer pushing and begging, maybe listening to my heart. The men were stunned. The Hebrew word in the text was actually intentional!

That is the picture of being content and at peace, held by the LORD, Yahweh. So when I come to him and contemplate who he is to me (Abba, Papa, Daddy and the one with all power), it changes how I pray. The rest of the “Lord’s Prayer,” which many suggest should be called the “Disciple’s Prayer,” will have more meaning as a structure to follow when viewed from that perspective.

Today, I just want to rest in his arms, against his chest, knowing that he already knows what I need (see verse 8, just before the prayer format is introduced). Communication will come next.


  1John R. W. Stott and John R. W. Stott, The Message of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5-7): Christian Counter-Culture, The Bible Speaks Today (Leicester; Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1985), 146–147.

  2Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 147–148.

  3Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament, Second Edition. (Downers Grove, IL: IVP Academic: An Imprint of InterVarsity Press, 2014), 167.

Prayer that is Conversation

I have read -- 
your words rang true
and I saw your hand at work:
your love in history,
your ancient mystery.

I lean back
onto your chest
to let you do what you will do:
talk to me, sing to me,
simply rock and hold me.

Abba God,
my ears feel plugged,
my inner eyes are restless!
I long to understand.
to feel your loving hand!

I now wait,
quieting the words,
settling my questing heart
in full submission:
contemplation.

“Tell me,” the inquirer said to Jesus, “what is the most important commandment?” And Jesus’ answer set everything in perspective. He cited Deuteronomy 6:4-5: to love God with all you heart, soul and might, and your neighbor as you love yourself. That covers it all, he said.

So how do we become the kind of person who actually accomplishes this?

I have been on a lifelong journey, very slow at times, in coming to understand some foundational practices that stimulate this kind of growth. And one of them is a transformational style of prayer.

Prayer can be an intimate conversation with God, not just recitation or laying out our usual requests. And when we really have deep conversations with someone, we get to know them. When we live with someone, sharing daily life, our conversations can deepen our relationship. If we don’t talk, don’t share, don’t listen to each other, instead we grow farther apart. We don’t really matter to each other.

In Matthew 6:1-4, the passage in the Sermon on the Mount that I’ve been contemplating these last few weeks, Jesus points out that prayer is to be private, not done in order to be seen by others. He is underlining the importance of the heart’s motivation. Is the prayer done in order to be seen as a good person, a practicing Christian? Or is praying a matter of the heart, a deep inner commitment of love and trust? If it is this, it would change who we are and how we live. All would be done for our good Father that we love.

As Donald Hagner pointed out, when Jesus introduced these four verses, he was most likely pairing the practice of prayer with loving God with all your heart, from the key verse in Deuteronomy 6:4-8.[1]  The Louw-Nida lexicon explains that the Greek word for “heart” that is used here, καρδία, is a figure of speech that refers to “the causative source of a person’s psychological life in its various aspects, but with special emphasis upon thoughts – ‘heart, inner self, mind.’ ”

So if we are to love Yahweh our God with all of our inner self – our mind, our thoughts, our view of the world – how do we learn to do that through prayer?

I’ve been mentored through the years by many authors (see a list at the end of this blog). What a treasure to have access to their teaching through their books! What truly changed my prayer life and deepened my relationship with my Lord was the recurring theme of learning to listen to God, not just blab to him. Maybe that is partly what Jesus was referring to when he said not to blabber on and on like the heathens do:

7 And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him. (Matt. 6:1 NIV).

He already knows what we are asking for and what is going on in our lives. So pure repetition is definitely unnecessary. So is the recitation of some formula, thinking that is sufficient.

How would you feel if someone you love were to call you on the phone, talk non-stop and ask you to do all sorts of errands for them, then hang up without giving you a chance to even respond? Brad Jersak asks this question in his book Can You Hear Me? Tuning in to the God Who Speaks. That illustration really convicted me. Yes, getting that kind of call (especially regularly) would hurt me. And yes, that was how I was always talking to my Father. I began to practice listening prayer, as it is called, finding other books on the topic and then taking their counsel. Listening prayer is about making it a conversation.

Over about three decades of practice, I changed a lot. I began to seek out moments of silence and solitude so that I could open the ears of my heart. Some of that journey (like the poem introducing this blog) is shared in the book of poetry that I published last year, When He Whispers: Learning to Listen on the Journey. I found that it took at least one hour of silence to “let the mud puddle settle”—the thoughts, concerns, linguistic challenges that kept swirling in my mind. Sitting under the golden rain trees at the side of our house in Ferke, which became my “sacred grove,” nature was around me, joining me in contemplation. My Bible and notepad were in a second chair beside me, reminding me of the Word who is always with us, and providing pen and paper for that moment when a certain thought would become significant. I would take up my pen and become a listening scribe. For me, the thoughts would begin to build into free verse poetry—a prayer, or a message from the Lord to me. A conversation! When the poem did not come, I expressed my yearnings and my trust, and learned to wait. Often, then, I would receive a strong impulse to do a certain act of service. Waiting was worth it!

After a while I even began to sense those nudges as I walked through daily life, and was amazed when I saw the outcome and realized the true source of the nudge.

I know that poetry is not usually the way most people access the message the Lord has for them. My closest friends, including my husband, have found that inner processing is enough, or journaling, or even walking and praying with space for an answer to come. You may be able to add to this list.

As we grow in intimacy with our Lord, delving into his Word, listening, loving him more and more, it does change how we live. We want to be like him. And then, as he promised, he reveals himself to us:

Whoever has my commands and keeps them is the one who loves me. The one who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I too will love them and show myself to them.” (Jn. 14:21 NIV)

My husband, my son and I try to have a devotional time together after the evening meal. Recently we read Renovated: God, Dallas Willard and the Church that Transforms, by Jim Wilder. Wilder dissects the final teachings of Dallas Willard at a conference before his death, adding his own experience in neuroscience and counselling to show how attachment to God impacts who we are (our hearts, our minds). He explains “mutual mind,” which is knowing someone so intimately that you intuitively sense what they are thinking or are going to do.

My husband and I laughed as we heard this. We certainly have developed mutual mind during our 49 years of marriage and ministry together. Sometimes I know exactly which pun he is going to make. Or someone will ask me for a certain favor that would also impact him, but I know that he would agree to do that, so I do it. And he has that same knowledge of me. Back in 2004, for instance, we were looking for a house to buy. Civil war in Côte d’Ivoire was keeping us out of the country for three years, and we needed a place to live. We had looked at several low-cost possibilities, but when we walked into the old house in Detroit that was just beginning to be renovated, still littered with some beer bottles left behind by vagrants, we both “knew” this was the place for us. And all these years later, we have increasing assurance that it was our mutual mind with God that also was involved.

Knowing what the Lord wants from us, knowing him intimately enough to be sure of what he values, is a wonderful spot to be in. It is a great life to live. And just as my husband, our son and I are growing in that mutual mind as we increase the depth of our sharing and we journal our listening prayer, spending time with our Lord that includes letting him speak to us will increase the quality of our mutual mind with him. This definitely builds that unity among us that he desires as well.

Are there dangers in learning to listen to the Lord? Yes, some people take their own thoughts and claim that God has said them. There are ways to test what we think we are hearing. Is it in line with Biblical teaching (not just a verse taken out of context)? Is it self-promoting, or promoting God’s purposes? Read and listen to the voices of trusted preachers and authors. Ask the Lord for his guidance.

I could go on and on. But I will just close with a list of some other resources that I recommend. May our God lead us all further in our prayer journey, and may we listen to what he says through his written Word and his promptings and messages!

Hearing God: Developing a Conversational Relationship with God, by Dallas Willard

Renovation of the Heart: Putting on the Character of Christ, by Dallas Willard

Joyful Journey\: Listening to Immanuel, by Jim Wilder (for group study in developing mutual mind)

Listening Prayer: Learning to Hear God’s Voice and Keep a Prayer Journal, by Leanne Payne

Hearing God’s Voice, by Henry Blackaby

Invitation to Solitude and Silence: Experiencing God’s Transforming Presence, by Ruth Haley Barton

Prayer and Listening, Jan Johnson (Life Guide Bible Series, IVP)

When He Whispers: Learning to Listen on the Journey, by Linnea Boese


[1] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 138.

All for the King

This I desire: integrity—
my heart and mind
undivided
unfragmented
undistracted
truly focused
deeply centered
all transparent
and devoted—
set apart
for only You.

Set apart with whole-hearted devotion to God—that is what would qualify us as “holy,” which is what Jesus had commanded right before beginning his message on how important it would then be to do what is right, but never to purposefully draw attention to oneself:

Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect. (Matt. 5:48 NIV)

Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. (Matt. 6:1 NIV)

I’ve been contemplating the meanings of “holy,” “perfect” and “godly” ever since we faced the challenge in translating them to Nyarafolo, working out how to accurately communicate the meaning of these key terms. It really impressed me, the way that “holy” means completely set aside for God, and requires perfection! So how can I ever achieve that? It is only through my relationship with God as he works in me. And the best translation we found for “godly” is one used in a current French translation: “attached to God.” It reminds me of being attached to the Vine, able to bear fruit due to that nourishing life-giving connection!

The way the chapter cut happens right after Matt. 5:48 divides the discourse and makes it easy to overlook the thought progression. Jesus says to be perfect, or holy, like our Father, then begins explaining what it means to be completely set apart for God, relinquishing all need for self aggrandizement. A disciple’s focus is to be totally reoriented, no longer concerned with their own honor but instead with showing people what their great God is like: loving, merciful, and attentive.

But hadn’t Jesus just said that they should let others see their good works?

In the same way, let your light shine before others, that they may see your good deeds and glorify your Father in heaven. (Matt. 5:16 NIV)

The key ingredient in determining whether a disciple’s actions are in line with Jesus’ teaching is the person’s motivation. Do they do what they do, even good acts, in order to be applauded by other humans, to get others to respect how great they are, or do they focus on respecting the goodness of their Father?

It is not wrong to be encouraged by others. We are commanded to encourage one another (1 Thess. 5:11), and when it comes unexpectedly it can truly be delightful to know that others in your cohort are supporting you. But if we are truly aligned with the Kingdom perspective, getting that applause is not why we do what we do. We are motivated by love for our King, and this love overflows to others.

Practicing righteousness had a particular meaning for the Jewish audience that Jesus was addressing:. The Louw-Nida Greek Lexicon gives this definition:

δικαιοσύνη, ης f: observances or practices required by one’s religion – ‘religious observances, religious requirements.’ . . . ‘be careful not to perform your religious observances in public’ Mt 6.1.

Understanding it that way shows that the verse functions as a heading for three sets of religious observances that Jesus will now address:

  1. Vv. 2-4: giving to the needy (called almsgiving then)
  2. Vv. 5-6: prayer
  3. Vv 16-18: fasting

The most enlightening explanation of why Jesus pinpointed these observances, for me, was what Donald Hagner points out (referencing Gerhardsson):

“The deeds may be thought of as the Christian’s self-offering in “spiritual service” and may correspond to the demand of the Shema (Deut 6:4–5) to love God with all your heart (prayer), soul (fasting), and might (almsgiving), with the order changed to move from the easier to the harder.”[1]

So then giving to the needy was seen as easier, fulfilling a religious requirement that showed off good character. With prayer the next hardest, one could make it a habit to recite memorized prayers at the assigned hours for prayer during the day, and also be seen doing that in public spaces. Then last in line would be fasting. This self-denial would take more strength of will and character. But if you could be admired for doing it, then that brought motivation.

In each case Jesus pointed out that when the practice is performed in order to be noticed and admired by others, it was not being done to honor God but oneself. Therefore it did not even count as something that God would reward; that idea of being “rewarded” had already been fulfilled.

How does this apply to us today?

As missionaries, known as representing the Jesus Road, we found that living it out put us in marked contrast to one of the major religions where we were working in Côte d’Ivoire, Islam. For one thing, the word was circulating that Christians were less prayerful than Muslims. It was said that Jesus-followers only pray three times a day, at meals, whereas Muslims are to pray (bowing, on a prayer mat) five times a day, much of the time in an open setting facing east. If we could engage someone in a discussion about this, we would try to point out that for us it was not about times of the day, but about “praying constantly” and most of the time in private when setting aside a regular habit of talking with our Lord. Yes, we were grateful for the Lord’s provision of food at meals, but we had other conversations with him that did not show up.

Giving to the needy also depended more on the particular need and the identity of the person needing help. We were viewed as wealthy, being educated professionals, and Americans who owned a car. That meant that we received many requests for help and needed much wisdom. But we did not walk by the mosque at times of prayer to give to the beggars regularly there, to be seen. (More on that in another discussion.)

Fasting was also assigned by them to designated months, and meant rigorous self-denial during the lengthy hot days, usually followed by hefty meals during the night hours. People even spit sidewise during the day so as not to be swallowing that liquid. But did Christians ever fast? I found it very difficult to fast without it getting noticed, at least by family and workers coming in and out. This actually discouraged me from attempting it, for years. But I eventually realized that the point was not just to find a way to do it in secret, but to be sure that I was not trying to get others to think I was more spiritual than “normal” people because I sometimes did need to deny myself in order to pray in a more focused way, especially during tough times.

How about our current question in the United States about whether a football coach should make it a habit (a ritual?) to pray on the field, kneeling, after a game? How about churches that maintain that clergy and truly devoted believers are to observe fixed prayer times, a liturgy of the hours? How about when those prayers are based on reciting formulas, particular forms of prayer?

I personally have found that having scheduled prayer times does promote a greater focus on conversing with my Lord. And during some seasons of life I have applied certain prayer outlines to intensify my learning curve. So I am not saying that such practices are all wrong.

And I don’t understand what Jesus said as completely negating those practices either.. But he was describing the essential ruler to apply to measure whether the religious observance is being done for personal aggrandizement or to honor the Father, eyes on him and what delights him.

An example that comes to mind is my own learning curve as a child with respect to household chores. At first I did them to be seen as a good kid, especially when I was at boarding school and would get “graded” on my bedroom’s cleanliness every day. It also took a lot of maturation before I would find myself leaping in to help mom with cleaning up or child care not in order to be applauded, but because I loved her and wanted to partner with her.

If all our good deeds and religious practices (even going to church!) are done under a sense of legalistic observances, to check off what is required and to be seen as a good Christian by others, we are falling into that muck of doing it for the wrong reasons. If instead we listen to the promptings of the Word, and of the Spirit working in us, to partner with the Father in our spiritual maturation and loving service, eyes on him and not on the applause of others, then we are on the right path.

That goes against the grain of our culture, where we are constantly pursuing better grades and recognition, popularity, or respect in the workplace. But that embrace and smile of approval from the Father is what matters more than anything!

God is love, and when we love him with all our heart, we are living in an atmosphere of overflowing love. His love in us motivates us to care for our “neighbors” who need help. He is our Father who delights in our conversations with him. That changes our perspective on prayer, which brings us into increasing intimacy with him and helps us to know him better. Fasting changes from something on a check-off list to get us better grades in “spirituality” to a practice that helps us to concentrate on strengthening that sweet relationship with our Beloved and to listen to him.

Living completely attached to God (a “godly” life) changes everything!


[1] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 138–139.

The Best Reward Ever

Her goal is invisible
on this long race,
but she keeps on running
because she knows
it is actually there,
just requiring effort
and long perseverance
to finally touch it.

But she knows Dad
is cheering her on,
providing water
and encouragement
as she keeps on running.
She knows that others
will get to the goal
long before he does.

But that is not the point.
What matters most
is making it all the way
to that finish line!
And when she gets there,
Dad will grab her up
hug her close, and
twirl her with joy.

That smile on Dad’s face
is worth more than anything,
more than a trophy
won in a tournament,
more than loud clapping
from the observers.
It is what she wants the most:
the best reward ever!

I’ve never run a marathon, but it is a great symbol of running for making the goal, not for winning. I’ve seen how moms and dads cheer their sons or daughters when they run, just thrilled when they make it to the goal set for them—even just 5 miles. And when someone makes it the whole way to the end, there is huge celebration. The goal is one you cannot see when you are on the way, always around another curve. But you know it is there.

When I think of running toward waiting arms, the months before my wedding come to mind. Glenn and I were on the same campus, at Michigan State University, but lived three miles apart. And our wedding was to take place on the day after final exams week, so that friends from out of state could delay going home and celebrate with us. So it felt like a marathon, finishing assignments and studying for exams, but always communicating with parents and friends about wedding preps. It would have been unthinkable to offend these loved ones we were depending on, and especially terrible for me to offend the groom that was so excited to soon welcome me into his forever embrace. At last the Big Day came, and I will never forget his glowing eyes as he watched me come down the aisle. He did put a beautiful gold ring on my finger, but what mattered most was the truth that now life together in its most complete sense was truly beginning.

Those pictures illustrate for me the emphasis on “reward” that Jesus included in his Sermon on the Mount. He kept saying that those who performed their rituals or righteous acts in order to get applause here on earth had already gotten their reward, ephemeral as it is. What kind of reward was he talking about when he kept underlining that a reward from the Father in heaven us what is essential?

Recently I saw a discussion online that put down Christians who are expecting some kind of reward after death, asserting that this is a kind of useless greed for something that doesn’t even exist. There may be some Christians who are doing good deeds based on that kind of selfishness, but I don’t know them. Many are instead living normal lives, hoping they are doing what is right but pretty much making decisions on their own. Others are arrogant, vaunting themselves and their lifestyle without paying attention to Jesus’ warnings. And there are those running toward the goal of being with him, running into his arms!

Children who truly love their father, and who know what will make him happy, try to do what pleases him. I remember scrubbing in surgery with my dad, the surgeon in Ferkessédougou, when I was a teen, trying to carefully carry out every little instruction he gave me. I wanted him to welcome me back many more times, and to be delighted with my learning curve. Every encouraging word was something I hung onto. At the time, I even wanted to be a doctor in order to please him and my mother! Later I realized that another purpose was out there for me.

But I hope that is an example of what it means to live in such a way that our Father in heaven is delighted with us. Someday we will be with him, and what would be the best reward ever would be his welcoming arms, his smile of approval, and those words: “Well done, good and faithful servant!” (Mat. 25.23). 

There is even more ahead for the child of God who serves well: they get to participate in service in the New World! I truly appreciated N.T. Wright’s deep dig into the truth of the Kingdom already here on earth through Jesus, and his death and resurrection. His Kingdom is come, and our acts of righteousness are not just about “being good kids” but about participation in preparing the Kingdom’s full completion, the new heaven and new earth. 

‘Every act of love, every deed done in Christ and by the Spirit … takes its place within a long history of things which implement Jesus’s own resurrection and anticipate the final new creation.’ (N.T. Wright, Surprised by Hope: Rethinking Heaven, the Resurrection, and the Mission of the Church)

Paul was truly excited about this hope: ”I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some. I do all this for the sake of the gospel, that I may share in its blessings.” (1 Cor. 9:22-23 NIV)

While writing the introduction above, I did not realize how much N.T. Wright’s book had transformed my understanding of those blessings, my future hope, and what it means to be with my Lord and Father forever. He wrote: 
“We have been taught that we are justified by faith, not works, and, somehow, the very idea of being a Christian for what we will get out of it is distasteful. But the image of reward in the New Testament doesn’t work like that. It isn’t a matter of calculation, of doing a difficult job in order to be paid a wage. It is much more like working at a friendship or a marriage in order to enjoy the other person’s company more fully. It is more like practicing golf in order that we can go out on the course and hit the ball in the right direction. It is more like learning German or Greek so that we can read some of the great poets and philosophers who wrote in those languages. The 'reward' is organically connected to the activity, not some kind of arbitrary pat on the back, otherwise unrelated to the work that was done. And it is always far in abundance beyond any sense of direct or equivalent payment.” 

Jesus was explicit about this in his Sermon on the Mount. He repeatedly pointed out that what matters is a person’s devotion to serving his Master with sincerity, in other words, his motivation. If any good acts are done only to get the approval of others, to be honored by them, then that honor is the only reward they will get (Matthew 6:2,5,16). Those acts are done with selfish purposes, for personal aggrandizement, a completely earthly aim. They are not aligned with living out love for God and love for others, the two greatest commandments, that englobe the entire law (Mat. 22:37-40).
 
On the other hand, what is done for our Father in heaven will come with great reward, with his pleasure in us and with participation in the great things he has planned in the new world. As Jesus said in his parable about the good servants,
 "His master replied, 'Well done, good and faithful servant! You have been faithful with a few things; I will put you in charge of many things. Come and share your master's happiness!" (Matt. 25:21 NIV)

This was how Jesus was explaining what the Kingdom of heaven (called “Kingdom of God” in the other gospels) would be like. We will not be sitting around on clouds with nothing to do. Given our God’s creativity, there will be joy to share and ongoing partnership in accomplishing his purposes!

Doing what is right has been made clear in the beatitudes, especially being someone who is merciful and a peacemaker, who hungers and thirsts for righteousness. Then there are those who so reflect the light of Jesus that they are persecuted because of him. Now in the section starting in Matthew 6, Jesus is addressing the particular works of “righteousness” that the religious leaders of the time touted as key, and performed in ways to bring honor to themselves so that they would stand out as truly good people. So they did all they could to advertise their good deeds, especially helping the needy, praying, and fasting. But Jesus called them to account: 

"Be careful not to practice your righteousness in front of others to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven.” (Matt. 6:1 NIV)

Jesus then assured his disciples that what is done for God’s purposes, with a heart aligned with his, will be seen by their Father and taken into account. He sees everything, even what is done in secret. And he knows the motivation of each heart. That motivation is what makes a difference. This is our prompt: to know our Father’s heart, to follow his commands with joy, and to participate in Kingdom activities with sincere confident hope, knowing that it is not done for “nothing.”

Let’s be like Moses, who “chose to suffer with the people of God rather than to enjoy the short-lived pleasure of sin. For he considered the reproach because of the Messiah to be greater wealth than the treasures of Egypt, since his attention was on the reward.” (Heb. 11:25,26 CSB)

What was that reward? It was the Promised Land. It took incredible trust in his Lord to persevere through all the challenges involved in herding his people to that goal. And what is our Promised Land? Think about it! Then persevere with hope, knowing that the God who is currently invisible to us is actually present with us, and knows everything that is done in public or in secret. His purposes are good and completely what we truly want, the full establishment of his Kingdom: a place where everything is done in love and perfect peace will reign forever. That goal is around the corner, still not visible to our eyes. But it is there!

Wow: every good deed that we do out of love for God and for people is building toward that world!


What? Be Perfect?

No one is like you, the Holy One,
perfect in all that you do,
perfect in who you are.
You are love.
You are good.
You are all-powerful,
majestic in awesome glory,
you, the Sovereign King of Everything.

And you call yourself my Father!
You healed me, rescued me,
brought me into your Family.
Abba, Daddy,
I’m in awe. And confused.
You tell me to be perfect
like you are perfect—can it be?
Only you can make that change in me!

It’s hard enough that Jesus told his disciples that they must love their enemies. He told them that living out that commandment is what proves that they are children of their Father in heaven (Mat. 5.44-45)! Yes, I am Jesus’ disciple, so I am a child of God. Good parents want their children to mature and do what is right. With God as my Father, the standards are extremely high! I have been working (along with him) on being transformed, to be able to show love to “enemies.” And loving my neighbor, the parallel command, I affirm that that is something that has become a joy to live out. It involves not doing good only to the people that I know, especially those who are good to me and love me. Favoritism and prejudice, prejudging, have to be thrown out.

But then, in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus added the command that wraps that section up: “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect” (Mat. 5:48).  What? Perfect”

I’ve confessed in previous blogs that I was born a perfectionist, convinced I was a complete failure at the hint of making a mistake, just tripping. When I was in first grade, attending Central Elementary School in Pontiac during my parents’ first furlough (from Congo), we had to spell the days of the week in the first spelling test I remember. I blew it! I wrote “Wednsday” – with no middle “e”. The teacher was shocked that I burst into tears when I got that red check mark.  It was just the beginning of my long journey in coming to accept my imperfections. And that is a necessary part of maturing.

So what does God expect from his children when he says they are to be perfect, like he is? Jesus was actually referring to what had already been said in the Law:

The LORD said to Moses,  “Speak to the entire assembly of Israel and say to them: ‘Be holy because I, the LORD your God, am holy.”  (Lev. 19:1 NIV)

When Moise and I were translating the Pentateuch, the book of Leviticus was a real challenge. But I became intrigued with its basic message: God’s people were to be different. They were to stand out among the nations through their love for God alone, no other gods, and also through their love for others. It is amazing now to see how Jesus picked up the themes of the climax of that book in his discourse, Leviticus 19, filling them in with deeper meaning just as he had said he would (Mat. 5:17). So now, when he is commanding sons and daughters to be “perfect,” it parallels the command to be holy, just as YHWH is holy.

Figuring out how to translate that word “holy” into Nyarafolo was one of our big challenges. What did it really mean? That research truly deepened my own understanding. We had long discussions after looking into all the Hebrew and Greek dictionaries and commentaries at our disposal. What could most closely express the complete, set-apart goodness of God, then that quality in his true followers? The closest term we could find was an expression meaning “without blemish,” in other words, perfect in every way.

In the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus aligns this perfection with God’s fair treatment of everyone, using the weather as an example. It is not only righteous people who benefit from rain and sunshine. We all share this world, the one he created. And when Jesus came, he said that he had come specifically to call sinners to repent and follow the truth.  All of us have fallen into sin’s trap, and he has brought rescue to anyone who will accept it. We are to be perfect like that as well, actively demonstrating our relationship to God by acting like he does, becoming like him. William Hagner explains how this ties in to all the teaching that just preceded this verse:

“The righteousness of the kingdom, which altogether exceeds that of the Pharisees, involves a call to be like the Father. τέλειος is the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word תָּמִים (tāmîm), used often in the OT to refer to perfection in the sense of ethical uprightness (e.g., Gen 6:9; 17:1; 2 Sam 22:24–27 . . .) For Matthew, to be τέλειος means to fulfill the law through the manifestation of an unrestricted love (including even enemies) that is the reflection of God’s love. This unrestricted love preeminently embodies ethical perfection. This perfection, and nothing less, is that to which Jesus calls his disciples.[1]

As Danker’s Greek New Testament Lexicon says, the word tέλειος means: “free from any deficiency, omission, or corruption’, complete, perfect . . . with God as a model.”

Can I be free from any deficiency, completely loving, ethically perfect? Only as I allow the Holy Spirit to change me! He has been sent to be my Counselor, my constant guide, living right in me. But am I listening to the promptings, the corrections, that are most certainly coming my way? That is my responsibility: admitting my failings, changing my responses so that they conform to Jesus’ teaching and the leading of the Spirit. Loving Abba (Daddy) that he is, he forgives, he holds my hand and leads me to into the paths where I do the right thing, and honor him.

He restores my strength. He leads me down the right paths for the sake of his reputation. (Ps. 23:3 NET)

So many times it is our lack of following his clear instructions that make him look bad in the eyes of those watching us. I hear it frequently these days as our country is filled with examples of hate speech and slander coming out of the mouths of Christians. People see us as a quarrelsome, divided family. And those who feel marginalized and dismissed as irrelevant are not experiencing Christlike compassion. It is interesting the way Luke expresses the same teaching of Jesus with slightly different words that underline the way that being “perfect” like our Father is shown through active love:

Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful. (Lk. 6:36 NIV)

Let’s walk down his right paths, and show others what he is like! He will pick us up when we fall, and show us the way to go. And as we get to know him more and more personally, we will realize what it means to be increasingly like him!


[1] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 135.

The Totally Unexpected Response

I’m cringing at this growing dump
of insults, hurled in public spaces
or in texts or face-to-face.
Grudges fondled and fermented
could ignite a searing blaze.

Our natural response is fear
and hatred of this “enemy”
whose words and push-back
feed distress, a tangled mess
that could lead to catastrophe.

But, Yahweh, You have told us:
“You can walk on waves so high
they crash with stormy fury
on the fearful passerby!”
If we have faith, our eyes on you.

Can we do this? You said that we
must shock a cruel enemy
by answering insults with love!
We need you in our hearts and minds,
empowering us to be this kind!
 
May eyes be opened, hearts swept clean
as Spirit-wind blows hate away,
and unexpected love reveals
a different world, a Kingdom come
where hatred has no sway!


Jesus turned the world upside down by saying, “You have assumed that if you love your neighbor, that is, someone like you, then it’s just fine to hate your enemy—but I say, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!” (Mat 5:43-44) 

Really? How can we love people who truly oppose us? And in what way are we supposed to pray for anyone who treats us badly because of our race, or political or religious beliefs? (That is the Oxford Languages definition of “persecution,” broader than what we usually think.)

It is easy to dismiss this radical teaching of Jesus as not applicable to us personally. After all, “enemy” designates someone dangerous who is really out to get me, right? Not a relative who is mistreating me. Not someone who thrashes me verbally because we differ in our understanding of history or social justice. Not someone who refuses to help me or puts me down because my skin is the wrong color.

But looking at the way Jesus lived out this commandment, we cannot miss the truth that those who were opposing him the most belonged to his own people – one of his disciples for instance, and the religious leaders of the Jewish faith. The attacks were verbal before they became physical. But he continued to teach them, to respond graciously with truth and love.

I’m sure we have all had experiences with opposition. Some have even suffered real abuse. Jesus spoke out against injustice, and we should not be doormats who just let evil hold sway. But when it comes down to personal insults or harsh opposition, we are first of all to respond with love. This kind of response is indeed unexpected, and it may even cool the heated atmosphere. It may be the soft answer that turns away anger (Prov 15:1). Or how about Proverbs 25:21–22, cited by Paul in Romans 12:20: “If your enemy is hungry, give him food to eat; if he is thirsty, give him water to drink. In doing this, you will heap burning coals on his head.”

What are those burning coals? Walter Kaiser says that they “may mean the sense of shame which will be produced in the enemy, leading to a change of heart on his side too. But first do him a good turn; the feelings can be left to their own good time.”1
Dallas Willard explains that Jesus is contrasting “the ordinary way human beings love, loving those who love them, with God’s agape love. This is a love that reaches everyone we deal with.”2  It is the kind of love God showed when he sent his Son to earth to provide the way to salvation for broken people (John 3:16). It includes love for those who oppose you. To be like their Father, his children need to have their natural character transformed so that they can love like he does.

Love for one’s neighbor was supported by the religious leaders of Jesus’ day; it was included in the Law, in Leviticus 19:18. But they defined “neighbor” as a fellow Jew. Gentiles were “enemies.” That is why Jesus’ parable of the good Samaritan was shocking: It was a stranger to Israel, an “enemy,” who helped the injured “neighbor” when the Jews passing by would not. The Samaritan’s love for someone not of his ethnic group was shown through what he did, his act of compassion.

Once again, Kaiser’s explanation is truly helpful:
 “The love of which the law and the gospel alike speak is a very practical attitude: ‘Let us not love with word or tongue [only] but with actions and in truth’ (1 Jn 3:18). Love to one’s neighbor is expressed in lending him a helping hand when that is what he needs: ‘Right,’ says Jesus, ‘lend your enemy a helping hand when that is what he needs. Your feelings toward him are not the important thing.’ But if we think we should develop more Christian feelings toward an enemy, Jesus points the way when he says, ‘Pray for those who persecute you’ (or, as it is rendered in Lk 6:28, ‘Pray for those who mistreat you’)."3
 
There have been several times in my life when I have been convicted of holding on to deep resentment of certain people whose words were hurting me. I knew that they were misjudging me, and my hyper-sensitivity would take it very seriously. When I finally began praying for each one, wanting the best for them, asking my Father to manage the situation and their perceptions, I would notice that the inner heat would begin to cool. I was learning, the hard way, how to stop focusing on my feelings and instead to care for their well-being.

This is the goal of agape, the Greek word used for love in these instances. This definition in Danker’s Greek NT Lexicon makes it clear (bold letters are my way of underlining):
 
"ἀγαπάω [etym. uncertain] – 1. of personal relationships, ‘have such an interest in another that one wishes to contribute to the other’s well-being’, have concern for, hold in esteem, love, of God’s affection for humanity J 3:16; Ro 8:37; hence in Jesus’ directive to his followers concerning enemies Mt 5:4"

God sends his blessing on those who are good and those who are bad, Jesus pointed out, using sunshine and rain as examples. We live together, all peoples, on this earth, and are kept alive by these necessities of life. Yes, the world is broken, and there are also torrential rains that produce floods, and phases of burning heat that harm people and produce drought. It will not be that way when we are in the new earth someday, when every aspect of the world is transformed and God alone has dominion. But we do see his kindness shown both to his children and to those who dismiss him as irrelevant, when we consider how much he is providing for humanity.

What can we do? We need to ask for this personal transformation in our own lives, learning through the empowerment of the Spirit how to answer insults with gentleness, and how to show love to those who disagree with us or are in totally “other” communities!  This is the Jesus Way, and we his followers do not want to stray from his path.

Footnotes

1 Walter C. Kaiser Jr. et al., Hard Sayings of the Bible (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity, 1996), 365.

2Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (Harper Collins Publishers: HarperSanFrancisco, 1997), 183.

3Kaiser, 364.

Lessons from the Golden Rain Tree

This is a barren stretch,
this rocky dry savanna:
land deprived of rain
for half a year, parched
now and waiting,
waiting for the skies
to fill with roiling water
and at last to crack
apart, thunderous, and
spill down blessing.

A golden fountain, meanwhile,
dribbles petals, lemon 
yellow, in soft carpet
all around.  Leaves have yet
to follow; blossoms
are the joyous waking
of the tree from the
bare fast of harmattan -- 
dry wind, no drink, heat
increasing daily.

What woke her? what
rich stores of energy
does she access for
bursting into bloom 
without a leaf in sight?
She hugs the packed
red ridge, tenacious,
roots tunneling wide
and shooting children
upwards to the air.

Together they become
a thick grove, thriving,
a blast of color shouting
silent courage in 
the face of drought.
And green will come,
before the rains,
hope predicting that
it’s time, fruitful in
the midst of famine.

We who travel far 
from irrigated lands
to live in stony soil
have just one source
of like resiliency:
our networked roots,
clinging hard to Rock,
soaking up live Water
and flowering before
the longed-for rains.

Today is a “Day of Remembrance” for me. I just crossed the threshold to a new decade of life, and that is not something to take for granted. It is a grace. And I am grateful!

During the 40+ years we were in Côte d’Ivoire, living in Ferkessédougou, the golden rain tree became a symbol of resilience and spiritual health. Having come this far, I can look back and see ways in which it informed me on the journey. Let me explain why:

In order to grow strong, the golden rain tree needs to be planted in unfertile, dry soil! My dad found this out when he tried repeatedly to plant golden rain tree seeds taken from the long seed pods dropped to the ground. None of them grew into trees, in spite of the rich fertile soil where he planted them, making sure to water them. He did some research and finally could explain why we would see lush rows of golden rain trees along the edges of gravel roads, often sprouting up from rocky red or gray soil. They were fruitful only in tough spaces!

My courtyard in town had one section with that kind of soil, the yard between my bedroom window and the wall separating us from the road beyond. Grass rarely grew there, even in rainy season, just hardy weeds. Year after year the golden rain tree grove there prospered, with new trees sprouting from roots creeping horizontally from the tree trunks. I found out that they are similar to ash trees, bearing their “children” from their roots. 

But they have other roots that go deep down through the dirt to where there are underground water sources. They do not have to be by a visible river or wetland, because their living water comes from where they are grounded.

Maybe you are already seeing the spiritual parallels. 

That grove became my place of refreshment on early Saturday mornings. I had been drawn to the practices of silence and solitude, which lead to listening to what the Lord may be saying, and I needed a private space in a community where privacy is rare. So I told my close friends, family, and the yard worker that if they saw me sitting under the golden rain trees in the morning, I was not to be disturbed unless it was urgent.

Mission life had many long dry seasons. In the early years, just figuring out the Nyarafolo language and increasing a little bit in fluency was a marathon run. Sometimes relationships were a challenge that made the environment feel ambushed by thorns or weeds. It took years of “planting seed” before we finally began to rejoice in harvest.

I would sit in the grove in the dry harmattan air in December through February, contemplating branches just as bare of foliage as trees in Detroit during winter months. But I knew that during the first weeks of March, before the rains began, suddenly there would be grape-like clusters of glorious gold flowers bursting into bloom on the trees. And eventually the petals would fall to the ground making a golden carpet as the green leaves took over above. The birds would be singing and I would be marveling at this beauty that had come out of the long dry season. And why could it come? Because the tree was deeply rooted in the source of its life water.

That was how I had to live to be fruitful and to be resilient after a dry stretch: rooted in my Living Water. Even though all around me there was drought, I was not thirsty. And when the timing was right, I would see the blossoms come.

The season of golden rain glory was like other seasons of mission life, such as when we saw real growth in brothers and sisters, and new siblings coming into the Family—or when working with my translation team, we delved into key terms or challenging passages and found wonderful solutions. Sometimes it was welcoming a pastor’s family into our home for a while, sharing life and growing close, loving on their children. There were also moments when conflicts were resolved, friendships renewed. Precious seasons.

Retirement is similar. I am like a long-lived golden rain tree now, with my children full grown and flourishing with children of their own or bringing beauty to the spaces where they’ve become rooted. There are times that seem like drought, like being on crutches with a broken ankle or homebound during the pandemic. But through it all, when Life is flowing through you, you keep on thriving. The Lord gives purpose wherever we are placed. And I am deeply grateful.

When we retired, the Nyarafolo team gave us a plaque with a verse inscribed on it (in Nyarafolo) that truly resonates with me:

They will still yield fruit in old age; They shall be full of sap and very green (Ps. 92:14 NAS)

(Okay, some of you may say they are “sappy” but you know what is meant: they will constantly have all the nourishment and water that they need flowing through them!)

And the next verse underlines the purpose of these old people:

To declare that the LORD is upright; He is my rock, and there is no unrighteousness in Him. (Ps. 92:15 NAS)

And that is what the Father keeps affirming for me: even in old age, I am a testimony to what he can do with an ordinary woman, and how he can continue to keep me growing and “green,” because I ma firmly rooted in him.

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