What Matters Most

Lord, I am your servant,
my body the vehicle
you sent here,
my health the strength
you provide
to do my service
for you and your Kingdom.

I am but a scribe,
my fingers the feather in your hand,
my eyes dependent
on the light 
that you shine
on truth and mistakes.

But I am also your child,
your daughter, chosen
to be adopted,
to be loved and treasured!
Abba, your arms
protect me, hold me tight.

Your purpose
is the beat of my heart
because I love you,
so I care about what matters
most to you. At least
that is what I want to do!

I hear you say,
“Yes, what matters most
is that you love me
and carry out my purposes,
letting my love be the seed
that brings in the harvest!”

I grew up a people-pleaser, longing for my mom and dad, in particular, to approve of me. That was basically the reason that I decided, while in high school, to go into medicine. I got good grades, and my life in a medical family had led me to believe that the best way to use a gift of “smarts” was to be a doctor. Mom even urged me to not consider nursing as a career; she often wished she were a doctor so could do more. So I helped Mom with newborn babies and scrubbed in surgery with Dad. At the Ferke hospital, those experiences were possible! Pleasing my parents was a normal step forward, as it is for most kids with great parents.

But while I was in college I realized that what I was really made for was in another dimension: words. I loved reading, writing and languages. The game-changer came the day that I realized that doing what my Father God wanted was exactly what I wanted to do, because he is good and his plans are best. The more that I grew in my attachment to him, the more he was able to show me how to follow his plans, step by step. My life story then became one of letting my Lord reveal the purposes that he had for me.

So let’s remember: what is the commandment that covers all the others?  Love the LORD your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.” (Deut. 6:5 NIV)

I discovered later that my earthly parents actually approved of my life path, because they saw that I had been made for it! They were people who loved God with all their heart and soul and strength. When we actually love God with all that is within us, not just “believing” but actually following him and growing in our devotion to him, we want to please him by carrying out his plan. We also long to be like him: loving, compassionate, full of grace and truth!

That is a theme in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount. He keeps saying that we must live to please the Father, who is carefully watching over us all the time, not to live with the aim of earning the approval of people. And he says that living our lives for the Father is the only way to get a true reward, one that lasts. So are we in some kind of contest, running a race to see how many awards we can get? No! But we are pressing ahead toward what will last forever, versus what is merely temporary:

“Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moths and vermin destroy, and where thieves break in and steal. But store up for yourselves treasures in heaven, where moths and vermin do not destroy, and where thieves do not break in and steal. For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also. (Matt. 6:19-21 NIV)

Ah! What is essential is that my heart be focused on the right values! The heart is the symbol of the inner person, the source of emotions and choices. If my heart is fixated on the importance of my status, the approval of others, entertainment or material wealth, or even my family above everything else, that will show up in how I spend my life. But if my first and foremost attachment is to God, those things will all be seen with a new perspective. That is why Jesus cited Deuteronomy 6:5 when asked what the greatest commandment really is (cf. Matt. 22:37 NIV)

He gave me my family, my beloved parents and husband and children. They are gifts from him and he has underlined the importance of honoring them, providing for them and loving them. The proper perspective is to let the Lord’s love rule in me and pour out to them, serving my Father in whatever way he has told me to. That has brought challenges for me, being a missionary and needing to be willing to let go of living near my children and grandchildren as much as possible, for instance.

My Father gave me this world to enjoy, and he saw that his creation was good. He longs for me to take good care of what he made, not to cause it harm. He made all the diverse peoples of the earth, too, and he loves them. That means I am to love them too.

He blesses me with food and possessions; it is not wrong to have them, but it is wrong to make increasing them the goal of my life. I am not to covet, not to want what others have in such a way that my heart gives in to greed or jealousy. Letting any of these temporary things become my priority in life means that I am living for them, not for my Father. It is a way of “putting other gods before him,” which I am commanded not to do (cf. Ex. 20:3).

So how can I prioritize what will last forever? Is it even possible to store up treasures in heaven while I am still on earth? Yes, because heaven is not just an afterlife. The Kingdom of Heaven is among us. We who belong to Jesus have entered it, and as we fulfill his purposes, we are doing what will last forever. This is how Paul put it:

Command those who are rich in this present world not to be arrogant nor to put their hope in wealth, which is so uncertain, but to put their hope in God, who richly provides us with everything for our enjoyment. 18 Command them to do good, to be rich in good deeds, and to be generous and willing to share. 19 In this way they will lay up treasure for themselves as a firm foundation for the coming age, so that they may take hold of the life that is truly life. (1 Tim. 6:17-19) NIV)

Jesus underlined the importance of generosity in the words that follow his command to store up treasures in heaven:

“The eye is the lamp of the body. If your eyes are healthy,your whole body will be full of light. But if your eyes are unhealthy,your whole body will be full of darkness. If then the light within you is darkness, how great is that darkness! (Matt. 6:22-23 NIV)

If we could understand this the way that Jesus’ audience would have heard it, it would take on deeper meaning. The eye allows a person to see, and then the body can move about in the environment as it should.[1] If the eye does not let in light, one does not have proper direction for action. One action we are told to take is doing what is good, which includes being “generous and willing to share” (cf.1 Tim. 6:17).

So it is very meaningful that the Greek word used for “healthy” here has the connotation of “generous,” and the word for “unhealthy” carries the meaning of “stingy.” The “evil eye” in the cultures of the Near East at that time was greedy, avaricious. As Hagner explains:

“The ἁπλοῦς eye, given the symmetrical structure of the passage, is probably the opposite of the evil eye, namely, a generous eye, as in the cognate adverb ἁπλῶς, “generously,” in Jas 1:5 (cf. Rom 12:8; 2 Cor 8:2; 9:11, 13)—an eye that is not attached to wealth but is ready to part with it.”[2]

So I propose that a dynamic translation of Matt. 6:22-23 might be like this:  The eye lets light into the body so that it can act wisely. If your eyes are open to the light of generosity, your body will know how to respond by sharing. But if your eyes are cracked shut so as not to acknowledge the needs of others or be willing to help them, you will not be walking in the light but in darkness.”

John Stott makes this very clear:

“The argument seems to go like this: just as our eye affects our whole body, so our ambition (where we fix our eyes and heart) affects our whole life. Just as a seeing eye gives light to the body, so a noble and singleminded ambition to serve God and man adds meaning to life and throws light on everything we do. Again, just as blindness leads to darkness, so an ignoble and selfish ambition (e.g. to lay up treasure for ourselves on earth) plunges us into moral darkness. It makes us intolerant, inhuman, ruthless and deprives life of all ultimate significance.[3]

So there is a way to do what contributes to the riches that are intended for us when we are children of God, citizens of the Kingdom Among Us. Even now we may see a “harvest” when we sow seeds of love that come out of our union with our God who is love. And the Word is clear that we are storing up treasure that lasts forever:

Whoever sows to please their flesh, from the flesh will reap destruction; whoever sows to please the Spirit, from the Spirit will reap eternal life. Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up. Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers. (Gal. 6:8-10)

When we give generously, we partner with our generous, gracious God who gives good gifts, and our Father is delighted. May we learn to love the way that we are loved–and make a difference!

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997) 206.

[2] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 158.

[3] John 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), 157.

Other Food

I find I’m not
at the mercy of my appetite –

You satisfy me
more than the richest of foods.

bread of heaven,
bread of life broken for me,

my flesh-bound soul
with words from the mouth of God –

His mouth
to my heart,
growth-food designed perfectly:

hot from the oven,
fresh with the taste of the Real.

Fasting did not attract me, for years. I had relegated it to ritual practices of other religions or denominations. Living among people who practiced Ramadan fasts, it seemed like an attempt to gain points in righteousness. Besides all that I was not jumping at a chance to ignore my hunger pangs.

And I knew that Jesus had said to do it in private. How could a mom do that? How on earth could I fast without my kids and my husband knowing about it? And when friends came over, how could I serve them but not eat with them? Jesus had warned:

When you fast, do not look sullen like the hypocrites, for they make their faces unattractive so that people will see them fasting. I tell you the truth,they have their reward. 17 When you fast, put oil on your head and wash your face, 18 so that it will not be obvious to others when you are fasting, but only to your Father who is in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. (Matt. 6:16-18 NET)

Then there came a time when Glenn and I were being faced with a major decision. He had been chosen by our field to take over the job of field treasurer, and the leadership assumed that it would mean moving from Ferkessédougou, where we lived, to Korhogo, where there was access to mission accounts at the banks as well as proximity to the other leaders. It had become like a “field headquarters.” I was stunned. Korhogo was not Nyarafolo territory! I was deeply involved in digging into that language, preparing for translation. Glenn and I were just starting to disciple a small group of Nyarafolo believers. How could we leave all this? Glenn was in a quandary. What should he do: obey the leaders, or refuse their direction?

I decided it was time to fast. I needed space to truly study the Word about discovering God’s will, and to pray. So I explained to my kids that they were not to worry about my avoiding meals, that I was going to spend mealtimes in prayer. I still put food on the table for the family, then retreated. They accepted it.

After a few days, I was increasingly convinced that we should not move. And Glenn found a solution: he offered to take that financial responsibility but said that he would need to stay in Ferke, making trips over to Korhogo as necessary. The leadership accepted his offer! The two of us breathed relief.

It was a learning curve for me in more ways than one. Yes, the hunger pangs were impossible to ignore, so they truly reminded me to keep praying and to seek my Father’s direction. And I began to understand that what Jesus was teaching was not that I had to find a way to fast without anyone knowing it, but that I should do it in such a way that it was not being advertised in order that others would be impressed with me. It also was not about trying to force God to give me what I was demanding, but rather should be a time to focus on truly searching for direction from him. I could share my concerns with him, and then see how he would respond. I can attest to the truth that, with practice, sweet moments of delight can come with it, when the presence of Jesus becomes very real, when his promises or his word of direction become clear.

Our reactions as evangelicals to the rituals of fasting have led many of us to erase that practice from our lives, just as I had been doing. But it is obvious here that Jesus assumed that his disciples would fast: “When you fast . . .” he said. He also explained that while he was physically on earth his disciples would not fast, since he (the “bridegroom”) was present, but “the days are coming when the bridegroom will be taken from them,37 and then they will fast. (Matt. 9:15 NET). 

And in the New Testament there are examples of fasting (Acts 13:2, 14:23). It was done to ask the Lord for discernment of his will, as well as to spend time in prayer for leaders they had just selected in the church.

The Hebrew word for fasting implies humbling oneself and repenting. I can attest that it is indeed humbling to fast from food or something else that I rely on for comfort: I discover how much those things control me. Yes, I know of one time in particular when I did something that was not only unwise but wrong, and it incited a period of repentance with fasting so that I could commit myself to prayer concerning the situation, and how I should proceed. It was worth it!

What is taught in the Sermon on the Mount is that fasting for Jesus-followers is not to be a religious rite that is done for the approval of others. Instead, it is a spiritual discipline, “an opportunity to lay down an appetite . . . This act of self-denial may not seem huge . . . but it brings us face to face with the hunger at the core of our being. . . .Through self-denial we begin to recognize what controls us . . . Fasting reminds us that we care about ‘soul’ things. We care about the church. We care about the world. We care about doing God’s will. Thus we willingly set aside a little comfort so we can listen and attend to the voice and nourishment of God alone.”[1]

Setting aside time to practice this does require solitude. It is a way to let go of our natural routine and focus on listening to the Father. No wonder this teaching follows the Lord’s Prayer, with its emphasis on private conversation:

But whenever you pray, go into your room, close the door, and pray to your Father in secret. And your Father, who sees in secret, will reward you. (Matt. 6:6 NET)

The secrecy is the performance of the practice in such a way that it is done for the Father alone, not for the approval of others. In fact, that teaching is applied to doing good works like giving to the poor, as well. And it is an application of the general command that begins this entire section:

“Be careful not to display your righteousness merely to be seen by people.Otherwise you have no reward with your Father in heaven. (Matt. 6:1 NET)

Jesus is talking about personal spiritual practices; he is not prohibiting community fasting. That was what God had prescribed for Israel, still practiced in the festivals of the Day of Atonement and New Year.[2] We, as his disciples, are also expected to practice fasting and to learn, in the process, how to spend time focusing more intently on our relationship with our Father, listening to him.

This is freedom! It is relishing the bread of life (cf John 6:35,48)!

God, you are my God! I long for you! My soul thirsts for you, my flesh yearns for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water. Yes, in the sanctuary I have seen you, and witnessed your power and splendor. Because experiencing your loyal love is better than life itself, my lips will praise you. For this reason I will praise you while I live; in your name I will lift up my hands. As if with choice meat you satisfy my soul. My mouth joyfully praises you, whenever I remember you on my bed, and think about you during the nighttime hours. For you are my deliverer; under your wings I rejoice. My soul pursues you; your right hand upholds me. (Ps. 63:2-8 NET)

[1] Adele Ahlberg Calhoun, Spiritual Disciplines Handbook: Practices that Transform Us. (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 2005), 220.

[2] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 153

This is What it Means

To acknowledge the wound
	and all its pain,
to turn and hand it over
	infection and all
to the pierced hands
	reaching out to me,
to let go, relinquish,
	give up all ownership
along with every need
	to even up the score,
this is what it means to forgive.

And if some fungal spore
	got left behind,
if I see new pustules
	welling up within,
if I find myself still fondling
	the old scars,
if my taste buds yearn to savor 
	secret bitterness,
I must yank it all out
	by the roots.
This is what it means to forgive.

So when I fail, and clutch
	some stack of grudges,
when I’m blind to residue
	of garbage,
when I lack the will
	to scrub it out
and leave it at the cross,
	leave it for good,
be my surgeon, Jesus!
	Come debride me!
Then I will be able to forgive.

When Jesus gave us a model for prayer, what we call the Lord’s Prayer, he included that essential element of asking for our Father in heaven’ forgiveness:

And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. (Matt. 6:12 NIV)

Those “debts” are our moral failures. We stumble and fall. So do those around us, and if we expect the Father to forgive us, we need to acknowledge our need to forgive others. But that is not at all easy! I think that is why Jesus chose to underline that one line in the verse that comes right after the prayer, by repeating how essential it is that we be practicing forgiveness of others:

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. (Matt. 6:14 NIV)

In other words, our request in the prayer actually includes an implicit petition for help from the Father in this area. We yearn for his forgiveness of our own failures to act rightly, and we know that we need to forgive those who hurt us by their words or actions. But this is not what we broken humans do naturally.

So how do we learn to forgive?

When I wrote the prayer-poem above, I was aware that my heart was full of hurt from things that had been done to me, and although I wanted to be free of the grudge that would pump its way forward when I thought about that person, it was like an abscess inside. My dad, doctor at the hospital in Ferke for so many years, would show pictures of huge abscesses that had developed from an infected wound. When he would make an incision, the pus would begin to ooze out, but it would also take some careful scraping to make sure all was removed. Then antibiotic was needed to kill the microbes that could make it all become infected again.

That was what I knew my heart needed. The festering anger, though not outwardly expressed, needed attention. But it was beyond me to get rid of the resentment, especially when the other person saw no need to be forgiven, unwilling to accept that what they had done was hurtful and wrong. I was desperate for the Surgeon to cleanse me! I needed to let go of it all, to no longer hang onto any desire for the other one to suffer for what had happened[1]. That did not mean that I would not pray for them, and ask the Father to bring them to a place of healing as well. But it would not be up to me to make them pay for it. Extend, I was to live out the unnatural Jesus-way of dealing with someone who opposes me:

But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you!!!! (Matt. 5:44 NIV)

That is what Jesus did on the cross, crying out: “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk. 23:34 NIV)

And I am supposed to grow to be like him—this is the goal of a true disciple. Peter, his disciple, learned that lesson and made it his purpose to pass it on. In his second epistle he wrote:

His divine power has given us everything we need for a godly life through our knowledge of him who called us by his own glory and goodness. 4 Through these he has given us his very great and precious promises, so that through them you may participate in the divine nature, having escaped the corruption in the world caused by evil desires. (2 Pet. 1:3 NIV)

A godly life is one that is like his. And he has given us the road map to achieve it: knowing him, learning his good character and his promises to hone us to be like him—to the point that we even “participate in the divine nature!”

This requires an intentional pursuit of intimacy with Jesus. The more that we understand how he would act, the more that we experience his compassion for us, the more we will be able to pass that on to others by forgiving even those who have not been willing to admit their wrong. The huge blessing for us is that the abscess is removed. We can move ahead, no longer weighed down by combatting that infection.

Appreciation of the grace of God’s offer of forgiveness to us enables us to take this step. Jesus emphasized the importance of this, underlining it with the explanation given after our petition for forgiveness in the model prayer. Louis A. Barbieri Jr. explains it this way: “Though God’s forgiveness of sin is not based on one’s forgiving others, a Christian’s forgiveness is based on realizing he has been forgiven (cf. Eph. 4:32). Personal fellowship with God is in view in these verses (not salvation from sin). One cannot walk in fellowship with God if he refuses to forgive others.”[2]

Be kind and compassionate to one another, forgiving each other, just as in Christ God forgave you. (Eph. 4:32 NIV)

Bear with each other and forgive one another if any of you has a grievance against someone. Forgive as the Lord forgave you. (Col. 3:1 NIV)

A forgiving spirit characterizes someone who is grateful to God for his forgiveness of his own sins, and longs to be like his Rescuer. Things may not be all worked out as was hoped, but that person is willing to “bear with” the offender, growing in their “participation in the divine nature.” (2 Peter 1:3)

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering our Hidden Life in God (HarperSanFrancisco, 1997)262.

[2] Louis A. Barbieri Jr., “Matthew,” in The Bible Knowledge Commentary: An Exposition of the Scriptures, ed. J. F. Walvoord and R. B. Zuck, vol. 2 (Wheaton, IL: Victor Books, 1985), 32.

Those Slippery Traps

The traps are there


smooth slippery sand

lurking in my stomping grounds


for that moment when

(tired, stressed, stumbling)

I forget to watch

and slide

down that slope

into disaster

 I let life take over


pushing hard to meet my goals

eyes distracted by the rocks

obstacles I could climb over

holding Your hand


 I lose my focus

stop listening to the Voice

step over the line

slip slam

my enemy just laughs

Those of us who grew up in dry, sandy territory know the ant lion (sometimes we called it a “doodlebug”) and its traps. In Côte d’Ivoire, as a child, when I would find some of these inverted cones sculpted into the dirt, I would crouch down and tickle the edges with a twig to see if there would be a response. Sure enough, as tiny ripples of sand slipped down toward the cone center, claws would reach out to grab the victim. Only there was none; this was a science experiment! But if I was lucky enough to catch a moment when some little black ant was wending its way across the area, looking for food, I would see it stumble at the fragile edge of the cone and slip sideways, just far enough for the claws to grab it. Now it was the food for the crafty ant lion.

Okay, so this creature doesn’t look like a lion! It is actually the larvae of an insect that looks like a dragonfly when full grown, but that spends the huge majority of its life in this little crablike form that feeds on passersby, usually ants. Ingenious traps! They are in full view from above but not to the little insect walking by:

“ . . . the ant lion larvae lies motionless at the bottom, waiting for its first victim. An ant or a small insect steps inside the rim of the pit and begins the fight for life. The steep sides make it hard to crawl out. The ant lion further confuses the process by flicking particles of sand or dirt onto the frantic insect, aiding its descent into the pit. At some point in the struggle, the insect falls into the bottom of the trap or is impaled by the ant lion’s piercing mandibles. The predator drags its prey deeper into the sand, where it sucks out its body fluids. The ant lion then calmly takes out the trash, flicking the carcass out of its pit, and awaits its next victim.”[1]

When I was sitting in my “sacred grove” under the golden rain trees in my yard as an adult, I could watch the same thing happening. It became a picture of the various slippery traps our Enemy puts along our path. He thinks he knows how to get us to step unknowingly onto some empty promise or on the edge of a delectable temptation that leads to a fall. It may seem like a shortcut, an easier way forward. Or maybe we just forget to watch out and make a false step. Oh-oh!

It is no wonder that Jesus told us to pray that we would not be victims of our Enemy’s schemes. This is the last petition in the Lord’s Prayer:

And lead us not into temptation,but deliver us from the evil one (Matt. 6:13 NIV)

This does not refer to the kind of testing that God uses to examine us and to hone us:

On the contrary, we speak as those approved by God to be entrusted with the gospel. We are not trying to please people but God, who tests our hearts. (1Thess 2:4 NIV)

For we speak as messengers approved by God to be entrusted with the Good News. Our purpose is to please God, not people. He alone examines the motives of our hearts. (1 Thess 2:4 NLT)

Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,whenever you face trials of many kinds, 3 because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. 4 Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything. (Jas. 1:2-4 NIV)

When he examines our motivations, and we listen to his findings, we can confess wrongdoing and stumbling and move on to greater maturity. And when we are walking with him, he uses rough paths to make us stronger. I see it like a kind of exercise program that makes us stronger and healthier.

In the Lord’s Prayer, the temptation referred to comes directly from the Evil One, our Enemy, Satan. The word used in the text can be translated either “evil” or “evil one,” but most commentators agree that it makes more sense to focus here on the Enemy who is contriving to undo us. This evil has the purpose of making us stumble off the path, and Satan will use whatever will distract us, attract us or get us to make a wrong choice so that he can keep us from lives that honor our Father, King of the Universe. His Kingdom is now among us, and we desperately want to stay on his good paths rather than slide into danger.

Since we cannot always trust our own discernment to recognize the traps set for us, we need to ask God to please rescue us before we get caught. The Good Shepherd will lead us to the right places for sustenance and for service, and will ward off the Enemy with his shepherding weapons (cf. Psalm 23). Dependence on him is our safeguard. I think of how we ask Google to warn us of traffic issues ahead as we drive, or of the way that navigators on the ocean depend on warnings of hazards. We know we cannot see everything with either our physical or spiritual eyes. We need help from the One who sees and knows everything, and loves us.

I love the way John Stott summarizes the three types of requests that Jesus included in this model prayer:

“Thus the three petitions which Jesus puts upon our lips are beautifully comprehensive. They cover, in principle, all our human need—material (daily bread), spiritual (forgiveness of sins) and moral (deliverance from evil). What we are doing whenever we pray this prayer is to express our dependence upon God in every area of our human life.”[2]

Following our Shepherd’s teaching, let’s consciously depend on him for guidance every single day. We need to have hearts ready to listen, and trust that what the Shepherd says is the best counsel ever, protecting us from slipping into the Enemy’s traps!

[1] Theresa Duncan, “Doodlebug Death Traps: A Closer Look At The Infamous Ant Lion.”  (Montana Public Radio, August 7, 2019). https://www.mtpr.org/arts-culture/2019-08-07/doodlebug-death-traps-a-closer-look-at-the-infamous-ant-lion

[2] John 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), 150–151

When the Heap is Swept Clean

[1] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 150.

[2] John 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), 149.

[3] Ibid., 149-150.

[4] Martin Lloyd-Jones, Studies on the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Company) 348.

Praying for Sustenance

When we reach out empty hands,
Fill them up with what’s needed, but
Not too much,
Not too heavy a daily ration
Or we may topple and fall.
You set the table in desert lands
And on mountains, wherever we are.
We need you!
So when distress strips away
Our access to food, we call!

When your loved ones are on tough trails
You run after us with mercy.
You find us,
And fill our cups to the brim
Just like you said you would.
We set our hope on your manna,
Sufficient each day for our meals.
And we pray
For our siblings around the world
Who are hungry for this day’s food.

(Matt. 6:11; Ps 23:5,6; Deut 8:3,16)

Why do we need “bread” every day, as requested in the Lord’s Prayer?

When we were translating the Scriptures into Nyarafolo, we found the word “bread” difficult. In the Bible, it connotes the basic food, not just a side dish or snack. Out in the villages there is not even any of the kind of bread one can buy in town, long French loaves that came in with the colonists. The traditional basic food is a large oval ball of mashed inyam or corn meal—whatever is in season. Sauce is whatever is added. So we used the word for “main food.” Then it was understood: it is what one needs every day, whereas “bread” is a side that you need money to buy.

For those of us who are more well-off, when we recite the Lord’s Prayer, the first petition, “Give us this day our daily bread” is not an urgent plea. We have our three meals, and snacks, and can go out to eat as well. But for many in the world it expresses their desperation.

I have a friend back in Ferkessédougou who tries hard to get enough cash daily to get some food. She and her elderly mother are immigrants with no support from family, and her mother is immobilized with cardiac and other issues. This young woman carries loaves of French baguettes around town in a basket on her head, trying to sell them; they rent a small cement two-room house and have no land to garden. They do live day-to-day. And of course there are others who have resources even scarcer than that.

The four little kids sharing one bowl in the photo above depict a norm in West Africa and elsewhere. They usually get what is left over, often just the basic starch with very little of the vegetable sauce, and usually share it. That often leads to malnutrition., especially in areas where the basic carbohydrate lacks protein. Daily nutritional sustenance is a true need.

James Montgomery Boice points out that this petition should be understood as prayer for “our daily ration of life’s necessities.” It thus refers not only to the food on the table, but other physical necessities as well, such as shelter, sleep, needs like clothing and medicine, etc.[1] It is an affirmation that our Father in the heavens actually cares about these things, since his Son told us to ask him to supply them. It is only right that we make it a habit to sincerely thank him daily for his provision, such as when we sit down to eat.

It is because we have a loving Father that our needs are supplied, and this is made clear in the next chapter of the Sermon on the Mount:

7Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. 8 For everyone who asks receives; the one who seeks finds; and to the one who knocks, the door will be opened. 9 Which of you, if your son asks for bread, will give him a stone? 10 Or if he asks for a fish, will give him a snake? 11 If you, then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good gifts to those who ask him!” (Matt. 7:7 NIV)

God wants his children to ask him for necessities and is pleased when they depend on him. He is not stingy, he is not distant and unconcerned,[2] He is not telling us to ask for riches, for superfluous abundance. This petition is not a foundation for prosperity gospel teaching! Sometimes, because he is gracious, he surprises his children with overflowing cups (Ps. 23:5). But as we know, there are true followers of Jesus who are experiencing extreme hardship.

While I was on that “sabbatical” in the Upper Peninsula earlier this month, I read In the Presence of My Enemies, by Gracia Burnham. She and her husband Martin, missionaries, were kidnapped by terrorists in the Philippines and held for over a year in rough conditions. As they were being rescued Martin was shot and killed by a stray bullet. I had not wanted to read such a story of suffering, but felt that this time I should. I was impressed by their journey of faith as they were taken through multiple long journeys in the wilderness, often with no food for days—but the Lord got them through. He did supply food, eventually, in unexpected ways. His purpose was something they could not understand, but he used the traumas to increase their faith! And their kindness even to their enemies could not go unnoticed. It reminded me of the sufferings of the early apostles, and of many other messengers and believers in the centuries since then. And the testimonies of those apostles who accepted death instead of renouncing Jesus proved the depth of their faith in him. They were not just fabricating some new religion; they knew the truth. God’s purposes are beyond our own.

The summer just after we graduated from university, the Father was training us to trust him to provide for us. Glenn was beginning his medical technology internship, and his stipend did not even pay the rent (although we had found the lowest-rental facility available to us in the city). I could not find a job for weeks, even with my journalism degree, but kept looking. One day when all we had left was a partly used jar of peanut butter and some bread, a friend from church who had been my mentor in my teens, Nancy Nast, brought by a huge bowl of tuna-macaroni salad. She said she was sorry that she had not been available to help us move in, so had brought this food. We ate it for days! Then, when again we had nothing left in our kitchen, we were at church one Sunday evening and friends of my parents, Ken and Mary Burgess, asked if we would like to come over for hot chocolate. Yes!! While we were enjoying that, they said that they needed to empty their freezer of frozen beef, because they were going to buy another half-a-cow of meat the following week and needed the space. We went home with T-bone and sirloin steaks!

This was the Lord’s hand, using his Family to supply us with our daily necessities. In truth, we are always dependent on him, even when we are unaware.

It all comes down to trust in his goodness and reliance on him. This does not mean that we are not to work to support ourselves and our families, calling down “bread from heaven.” It does mean gratitude to our loving Father for encouraging us to ask him to supply our needs, while we do our best to live our lives according to his principles, as his children should.

Martin Lloyd Jones explains it this way: “The earthly father is grievously wounded by the son who is content to enjoy the gift the father has given him but who never seeks his company again until he has exhausted his supplies and needs some more. No, the father likes the child to come and speak to him.”[3] Our Father in the heavens cares deeply for his children. “If only we could grasp this fact, that the almighty Lord of the universe is interested in every part and portion of us!”[4]

Even our stomachs! But we are not to be gluttonous.

Another point to keep in mind is that when Jesus said to pray this way, “Give us today our daily bread,” he told us to use plural pronouns.[5] This is not just about me and my food. I am to pray for my “neighbors,” those I love the way I love myself, if I am obeying Jesus. We are to pray collectively, for those in our communities as well as in our worldwide Family.

And he may use us to be his hands, to deliver the necessary food to someone.

May it be so!

[1] James Montgomery Boice, The Sermon on the Mount: Matthew 5-7. (Grand Rapids: Baker Books, 1972), 191.

[2] Ibid., 190.

[3] Martin Lloyd Jones, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount (Grand Rapids: Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1976), 345.

[4] Ibid., 344.

[5] Boice, 194.

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!


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)

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.

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