Like the Air that I Breathe

So much sharpness in the world today:
bare tree branches that pierce the sky
like forked lightning,
zebu horns poking the air
like staples,
headless palms erect as straight pins.
Hawk wings slice the atmosphere,
machetes crack through vines,
bike spokes whirr.
Even the blades of grass
have a cutting edge.

If air were solid it would be in rags—
knifed, torn, poked to bits.
Instead, intangible, it yields, evades,
readjusts, moves into new spaces,
stays whole.
Rigidity has its price.

Words cut, too:  sharp retorts, 
assumptions gouging holes
in my assurance.
Quills of self-defense and anger
hook deep into my heart.
All too solid, I bleed.

I must learn the art of 
reframing the jibe,
evading the rancor,
yielding the unessential point.
See the razor edge for what it is:
just one side,
and useful in its place.
Surround the perpetrator 
with empathy.
Move into spaces of emptiness
left in the wake of the thrust.

Do what is necessary
for life and healing,
like the air that I breathe—
like the One in whom
I live and move and have my being:
love my enemy.

Ever get an email or text message that reveals what someone really thinks about you, and cuts open your inner being so that it bleeds? Ever want to lash out at them in return with equally sharp accusations? Or maybe they are standing right in front of you, someone you love or a coworker with whom you have a long cordial history. The strike may come out of the blue, or it may have been fizzling for a while, heating up, then suddenly explodes.

I wrote the above poem over 20 years ago, and moving forward in learning to love those who oppose me is still my constant prayer. I keep finding new ways that I am being challenged to apply this essential command. Lord, help me!

Anger is our natural response to being threatened, put into our beings for good purpose: protection from danger. There are times when anger is justified, as when you see someone attacking another person, doing something truly wrong and harmful. We are told to defend those who are being oppressed. What matters, the Word teaches, is that we respond in ways that are aligned with his principles when anger rises.  We are told:

to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness. 25 Therefore each of you must put off falsehood and speak truthfully to your neighbor, for we are all members of one body. 26 “In your anger do not sin”: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold. (Eph. 4:1 NIV)

When we are angry at evil, we must not commit sin ourselves and “give the devil a foothold.”

When Jesus was preaching the Sermon on the Mount, he first underlined essential characteristics of those who are “blessed,” and went on to say that anyone truly belonging to the kingdom of heaven had to be more righteous than the religious leaders of that era. They were careful to obey the letter of the law, but not the spirit of the law. Jesus was challenging not just actions but what was taking place in the heart. True law-abiding citizens of his kingdom answer to a higher judge, a council that is not just the Sanhedrin when Jesus was speaking, but the heavenly kingdom’s judge.

21 “You have heard that it was said to an older generation,’Do not murder,’and ‘whoever murders will be subjected to judgment.’ 22 But I say to you that anyone who is angry with a brother will be subjected to judgment. And whoever insults a brother will be brought before the council,and whoever says ‘Fool’ will be sent to fiery hell. (Matt. 5:1 NET)

Jesus quoted the law, the added “but I say” . . . and each time he added the “but” what came next was Messiah filling in the meaning of the law. Anger will indeed be judged. Was my angry reaction caused by a real or imaginary wound to my self-righteousness or to my wishes? Maybe that person did intend to hurt me; malice is almost always contained in angry words or acts.[1] But then how about my response? Did it contain malice too? Did I want to hurt the person who just hurt me? That motivation and its consequence is what will be judged!

Jesus went on to give two examples of how sinful it is to show contempt, which purposefully degrades another person. It could start with an insult, it could move on to a cruel put-down (“You fool!”). Murder, then, is not just about the outright killing of another human being’s body. In God’s eyes, it includes cruelty, or intent to inflict damage, through words.

Is there any hope for us as humans? Our only hope is in Christ, and in the empowerment of the Spirit to help us become more and more like him. Nailed to the cross he asked the Father to forgive the criminal crowd. And how many of us angry humans has he forgiven since then, bringing us into his kingdom when we come to him with sincere hearts that long for transformation?

Outside the heavenly kingdom, his kingdom that is among his people right now, the horrible cycles of anger and contempt continue. Inside the kingdom, we are given instruction on how to live in a totally different way. As Dallas Willard puts it:

“But the answer is to right the wrong in persistent love, not to harbor anger, and thus to right it without adding further or imaginary wrongs. To retain anger and to cultivate it is, by contrast, ‘to give the devil a chance’ (Eph. 4:26-27) . . . The delicious morsel of self-righteousness that anger cultivated always contains comes at a high price in the self-righteous reaction of those we cherish anger toward. And the cycle is endless as long as anger has sway.”[2]

Ah, showing love. We can go round and round debating possible positive motivations, but in the kingdom it comes down to love. “Love your enemies, pray for those who persecute you,” Jesus will go on to say (Mat. 5:44), because then you will be acting like your Father’s children ought to act—like him! And when we think back to the beatitudes that formed the basis for this talk, the other time we will be “called children of God” is when we are peacemakers. Applications of that are in the rest of this section on living out the spirit of the command not to murder: reconciling with a brother or sister who has something against you, even attempting to reconcile with someone who is taking you to court.

Our Father is God, and God is love. He breathes life into our bodies, and his unending life and love into our souls. The more we get to know him, the more we can learn to be like him. He is not rigid, but responsive. His ultimate purpose is to bring unending life to human beings, and he showed the astonishing depth of his love for broken people by coming to earth to rescue us by giving himself up as the once-for-all sacrifice (John 3:16; Hebrews 10:10). We are to be like him, loving our enemies, and loving each other. We are to love our neighbor as we love ourselves (Lev. 19:18). We are also to love each other in the Family of God as he has loved us (John 15:12). In fact, all of the commands that God gave are summed up in this one command to live a life of love for those around us (Rom. 13.9; Gal. 5:14).

It is no small calling! It is the ultimate calling: live for the One who is love, and, therefore, love others.

[1] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life In God (New York: Harper Collins Publishers),148-149.

[2] Ibid. 151.

He Split the Confines of Their Box

His kindness overwhelmed them from the start:
the way he chose his students,
	hearts that yearned for meaning
	beyond fishing nets or taxes;
	welcoming the seventy,
	both genders, to his company—
the way he broke the rules that kept the stranger
	snubbed and minimized,
	and crushed the prejudice 
	that said a woman should not 
	learn, sitting at his feet—
the way he took a trip and waited by a well
	to meet an outcast woman
	to let her know that she could thrive
	by drinking living water,
	accepted and forgiven—
the way he fed the hungry lingering crowd,
	rewrote a young girl’s lifeline,
	let children climb into his lap
	and touched untouchables,
	his purity the remedy.
His goodness split the confines of their box.

And with his kindness came God’s truth:
the word that let the rich man know
	that following the rules
	would never bring him life,
	the only way to freely sail
	was to haul in his anchors—
the word that fired his makeshift whip
	to chase the rottenness
	of greed and selfishness
	out of the place reserved
	for penitence and praise—
the word that turned their eyes away
	from temporary gluttony,
	the food that spoils,
	the search for yet more 
	thrills instead of treasure—
the word that showed them who God is:
	forgiving Father,
	rescuing Son,
	Spirit bringing birth to spirit— 
	new creation, life begun!
His goodness split the confines of their box.

Lots of us have discovered a safe box to live in, one that convinces us we are living Christian life appropriately. We may go to church at least once a week, donate to the offering, stay out of bars, avoid X-rated movies, claim the identity “Christian.” Our clothing is modest, our Bible ready to pick up to take to church but rarely opened at home. We are doing fine, staying on the straight and narrow. We are good people, law-abiding citizens.

But we are not desperately thirsty for righteousness. We do not take time to self-examine and to mourn our spiritual condition, confessing the times we stray. When a neighbor needs help that we could give, we decide we are too busy to be merciful and instead spend the night watching television. When there is conflict, we practice avoidance or we insult the one who revolts us.

If we truly understood what Jesus was saying in his Sermon on the Mount, if he were to apply it to us, we would be astonished. If we were to see him living visibly in our times, we would be disturbed by his preference for spending time with prostitutes and swindlers, just like the “righteous” were disturbed during his ministry in Israel.

Jesus was indeed radical. He was doing miracles, yes, but the most troubling thing to the religious leaders was the way that he lived. He seemed to be breaking the rules that had been put in place to help the Jews put into practice the commands that God had given them. He let his disciples feed themselves by picking grain on the Day of Rest. He touched a man who was “unclean” due to his serious skin disease. Weren’t these actions (and many others) contrary to the meticulous laws put in place in the Old Testament?

Jesus had just turned their world upside down via his list of the kind of people who are truly blessed by God, people given true well-being because their hearts and actions line up with his heart. The qualities that he underlined were counter-cultural and seemed to strip away the value of the restrictions that were supposed to insure the keeping of rules.

And rule-keeping is the backbone of religious systems, right?

Recently a friend (not a believer) was asking me questions about why a Nyarafolo, a West African, would leave their traditional religion to become a Christian. So I described the requirements that their religion has on them, so many sacrifices needed to keep the gods happy or to reach out to ancestors for help. “When they come to Jesus,” I said, “they say that they have been freed from slavery, that their chains are gone.”

“Oh, well,” she commented. “They leave one list of rules and take on another one.”

I was silent for a moment. What could I say? Finally, I just underlined the new believers’ sense of freedom: “If you were there, that is what you would hear.”

Those converts know freedom in Jesus. Yes, there are new truths to learn, new ways to live in order to follow Jesus. But not frantic repeated sacrifices just to have a decent life. Not days lived in fear.

Often Christianity is perceived to be just legalistic, even by certain Christians. You need to fit in the box, live the acceptable life, and all will be fine. The Jewish leaders were teaching that approach and Jesus was ripping their box apart. So was he against the laws and traditions that had been handed down since Old Testament times? His conduct and teaching seemed to be in conflict with them.

Jesus was challenging their assumptions about what was sin and what was right conduct. He was ushering in a new kingdom, and this kingdom emphasized transformation. A true citizen of this kingdom of heaven would need to put into practice a much deeper understanding of God’s criteria for doing what is right than anyone had imagined. He said:

17Do not think that I have come to abolish the law or the prophets. I have not come to abolish these things but to fulfill them. 18 I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth pass away not the smallest letter or stroke of a letter will pass from the law until everything takes place. 19 So anyone who breaks one of the least of these commands and teaches others to do so will be called least in the kingdom of heaven, but whoever obeys them and teaches others to do so will be called great in the kingdom of heaven. 20 For I tell you, unless your righteousness goes beyond that of the experts in the law and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. (Matt. 5:17-20 NET)

How could this be? The people who were considered the best informed about the Law of God, those who copied it and studied it as their life’s work, as well as the Pharisees, who were passionate about observing the Law and every regulation that had its source there, both these groups were being rebuked by Jesus. They were meticulous about many details that were covering up the true force of God’s intentions, Jesus was saying. In fact, in the following part of his sermon he was going to make his accusations shockingly specific!

So what on earth did he mean when he said he was not tearing down the Law or the predictions of the prophets – the entire Old Testament – but was fulfilling it? He was referring here to his mission as the Messiah, the one who would bring in the kingdom of heaven and “fill in” the truths underlying the commandments they thought they were already following. Their approach was to make lists of rules. His teaching was to show that the heart had to be in line with God’s heart. As Donald Hagner says:

“Since in [Matthew] 5:21–48 Jesus defines righteousness by expounding the true meaning of the law as opposed to wrong or shallow understandings, it is best to understand πληρῶσαι here as “fulfill” in the sense of “bring to its intended meaning”—that is, to present a definitive interpretation of the law, something now possible because of the presence of the Messiah and his kingdom. Far from destroying the law, Jesus’ teachings—despite their occasionally strange sound—penetrate to the divinely intended (i.e., the teleological) meaning of the law. Because the law and the prophets pointed to him and he is their goal, he is able now to reveal their true meaning and so to bring them to “fulfillment.”[1]

Jesus was now going to take the boxes they had constructed as the only right way to live, and split them open. Outward appearance and list-observing was not what God was after. He wanted his people to understand that what happens within them, in their hearts and minds, is what really matters and has consequences in how they live. As Paul explained later,

“You were taught, with regard to your former way of life, to put off your old self, which is being corrupted by its deceitful desires; 23 to be made new in the attitude of your minds; 24 and to put on the new self, created to be like God in true righteousness and holiness.” (Eph. 4:22-24 NIV)

Jesus even emphasizes the ongoing validity of the Old Testament Law by saying that not even the tiniest letter or stroke of the pen will be lost until the consummation of all things. But his teaching explained the true meaning of the Mosaic law. As the final interpreter of that law, “the law as he teaches it is valid for all time, and thus in effect the law is upheld.”[2].

“Heaven and earth will pass away, but my words will never pass away.” (Matt. 24:35 NIV)

The word “Torah,” the Jews’ name for the books of the Law, means “revealed instruction.” The sacrifices outlined there each had meaning to those who did them. Then Jesus’ death was the “once for all” sacrifice (Heb. 9.12) that eliminated the need for all of those former ones. “They were but a ‘shadow’ of what was to come; the ‘substance’ belonged to Christ.”[3]

Citizens of this kingdom would no longer need to make sure to practice the fastidious details set in place by religious experts who had been interpreting the correct way to follow the Law. To be more righteous than them did not connote adding more laws, but to be personally changed, to take on the mindset of God himself. Jesus was fulfilling the prophecies about the coming kingdom.

“It was a new heart-righteousness which the prophets foresaw as one of the blessings of the Messianic age. ‘I will put my law within them, and I will write it upon their hearts,’ God promised through Jeremiah (31:33) . . . [and] Ezekiel: ‘I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes’ (36:27).[4]

This would be a righteous way of life beyond what the Pharisees and scribes could attain, something only God can produce in his true followers. For us, this requires not just living inside some proper “box” of rules for a Christian lifestyle, but letting our Lord actually change us.

“One must aim to become the kind of person from whom the deeds of the law naturally flow. The apple tree naturally and easily produces apples because of its inner nature. This is the most crucial thing to remember if we would understand Jesus’ picture of the kingdom heart given in the Sermon on the Mount.”[5]

Let us hunger and thirst for this kind of radical, God-sensitive and constantly increasing righteousness! Jesus promised that if we do this, we will indeed be filled (Mat. 5:6).

[1] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 105–106.

[2] Ibid., 108.

[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), 71–72.

[4] Ibid., 75.

[5] Dallas Willard, The Divine Conspiracy: Rediscovering Our Hidden Life in God (New York, NY: Harper Collins Publishers, 1997), 142-143.


Across the bristling grasses
and the breezy palm tree dance
lies a long lagoon, all liquid,
mirror for the sky’s expanse.

Underneath a white-hot sun
it becomes a brilliant blast
and my eyelids squint to slivers
letting just a glimmer past:

just the essence of the power,
just the outline of the heat,
just impressions of the splendor
and the tantalizing beat.

If, laid open to God’s shining,
I could be but half as bright, 
mirror molten by reflecting
glory of the Living Light,

fire ignited in the noon glow
as I’m changed beneath his rays,
eyes around would have to notice
my resemblance to his Blaze.

I was taking a day off to be quiet, apart with the Lord. A friend had told me about a space near a convent, beside a lagoon. It was perfect. As I sat there practicing silence, I could not miss the way the tropical sun was sharing its glory by lighting up the waters. It was peaceful and mesmerizing, even if it was too bright to really focus on. I couldn’t help but yearn to be able to reflect the divine light that way in my life.

In his Sermon the Mount, Jesus actually said that is just what we should do:

“You are the light of the world — like a city on a hilltop that cannot be hidden. 15 No one lights a lamp and then puts it under a basket. Instead, a lamp is placed on a stand, where it gives light to everyone in the house. 16 In the same way, let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father. (Matt. 5:14-16 NLT)

One thing is sure: this world is a dark place. Every day there are headlines about war, cruelty to innocent people, corruption, pandemics, famine, raging fires and destructive winds. Sometimes all the electricity in a city goes out and it is days until it is restored. Night is suddenly terrifying. People dig out lanterns, candles, whatever they have.

It was always an adventure for us to go spend a night in a remote village there in northern Côte d’Ivoire where we were serving. We had to give up the comforts of a house in town, where there were bathrooms, beds and lights. But when we would sit in a courtyard with friends around a fire in the evening, the dancing flames would light up the whole sitting area. And when we looked up at the night sky there seemed to be hundreds more bright stars than we had ever seen in town. You’ve heard the saying, “The darker the night, the brighter the stars” (Fyodor Dostoevsky). In fact, similar phrases show up around the world because it is so obviously true.

But I did make sure I had a little flashlight to light the way to a private spot in the bush or an outhouse near the courtyard, checking for scorpions or snakes on the path. All sorts of danger lurks in the dark. We need light.

God is light, and when he came to earth to save us, he came as light. Jesus said: “As long as I am in the world, I am the light of the world.” (John 9:5 NET) His light was so powerful that many people could not stand the glare, because it showed up what was hidden in all the dark corners of their lives. But others crowded to him like moths or termites swarming to a lamp. They could not resist the magnetic pull of health, hope and unexpected loving welcome.

Jesus gave these new disciples an enticing promise:  “I am the light of the world.The one who follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” (John 8:12 NET).

As the NET note says, this is “a description of his effect on the world, forcing everyone in the world to ‘choose up sides’ for or against him.” (cf. John 3:19–21). They could hang on to their shadowed life paths or come to him and be granted real life in the light.

So what did he mean when he told the disciples listening to him there on the mountain, You are the light of the world”? He was explaining that they would be visibly lit up, like a city on a hill that can be seen by everyone. His light would be burning in them, shining through them and illuminating others. Paul explained it this way:

For you were once darkness, but now you are light in the Lord. Walk as children of light — 9 for the fruit of the light results in all goodness, righteousness, and truth — 10 discerning what is pleasing to the Lord. 11 Don’t participate in the fruitless works of darkness, but instead expose them. (Ephesians 5:8-11)

The Lord’s light now shows up in a disciple the way that it does in his Master, who is light. It exposes nasty, dying stuff, so some people won’t like it. As Jesus had just explained in the previous verses, a true disciple would get pushback. On the other hand, they would be like their Father, “children of light.” They would look like him; the light would show up in their love of truth, their goodness, and their determination to do what is right.

This can attract seekers who wonder what makes these people different. I am reminded of an older man in that village where we often visited, who for years was determined to resist this new “Jesus Road,” as it was called. But the more he saw changes in people he knew, the more he saw love reaching out to all the villagers through certain Jesus followers, the more he began to wonder if this new way was really true. Like a moth drawn to a lantern, he was watching. One night he had a dream. He was in a totally dark place, very scary. He could hear voices around him but could not tell whose they were. Suddenly there was some light coming toward him, and he recognized my husband Glenn, holding a candle in his hand, surrounded by Jesus followers from the little village church. Then he woke up. What was all that about?

He went to the village pastor and asked him. The pastor, Fouhoton Pierre, told him, “The light is Jesus, and Glenn brought us the Good News about him.”

So the next time we came out to the village, he told Glenn about his dream and asked him what it meant. Glenn answered, “That light is Jesus!”  Yes, the Light was drawing him in, and he made his decision to follow that Light. He became, himself, a child of the light.

When we truly follow our Master, his light shines through us, or we could also understand this as reflecting him to others. If we don’t live out his truth and instead participate in what is going on in the dark, we are no longer lights in the world. In fact our dark ways may persuade others that there is no real light – that it is all just some story. That is like hiding a lamp under a basket. It does not light up the dark.

A truth that has wowed me these last few years is something Jesus’ disciple Peter shared:

“ . . . 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 Peter 1:4 NIV)

Participation in the very nature of God, his character, comes through intimate relationship. “In other words, it is this extraordinary teaching of the mystical union between the believer and his Lord.”[1] We actually become more like him as we walk with him, allowing him to change us. He is living in us, always at work. This will astound those who do not expect to see this. And some will be drawn to him.

That last part of this section in the Sermon on the Mount underlines this positive effect:

“Let your good deeds shine out for all to see, so that everyone will praise your heavenly Father.” (Matt. 5:16 NLT) 

This is not about showing off. It is not about us. It is all about our Father when we are true “children of the light.” We don’t hide our faith or the way that Jesus is at work in us, transforming us, leading us.

We do not have to be important people, full-time ministers, or celebrities. Who was Jesus talking to there on the mountain? They were the crowds! “These were the ordinary, unremarkable, some might say backward people of Galilee. Not the powerful Romans, the wise Athenians, or the religious scholars in Jerusalem . . . His listeners were no one special.”[2]

So every single one of us who is devoted to Jesus can sing:

         “This little light of mine,
	  I’m gonna let it shine,
	  this little light of mine,
	  I’m gonna let it shine,
	  let it shine, let it shine, let it shine.”

[1] Lloyd-Jones, Martyn, Studies in the Sermon on the Mount, (Eerdmans, 1976), 142.

[2] Jethani, Skye, What if Jesus Was Serious? (Moody Publishers, 2020), 42,43.

A New Normal

It’s not easy to stand out as different 
when I’m seen as being odd,  distasteful
to those who find me irritating—
rubbing them the wrong way 
because I don’t fit their parameters
of “normal.”

Not easy for me, not easy for them.
I’m being reshaped, remade
from the inside out, and my shape
no longer fits the stylish clothes
I used to wear to fit in with the crowd,
be “normal.”

This difference can sting like salt
on a finger cut. But to others
it tastes good like savory soup
or salty potato chips, teasing
the tongue with desire for more.
A new “normal.”

Being that disciple that is “blessed,” one who is living out the qualities Jesus listed in the beatitudes, means being radically different from the broken world that we live in. And it is not always easy or appreciated by others, which is why we can get insulted, persecuted or slandered. In fact, if we don’t sometimes rub others the wrong way by standing up for Jesus and living out his teaching, we should take a good look at whether we are just blending in or whether we are different because of him. He told us we would face opposition (Mat 5:10-12). Then he said that his followers are “salt”!

“You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot.”  (Matt. 5:1 NIV)

Being “salt” does not mean, of course, that we are free to speak without demonstrating the other blessed qualities—that every time we are criticized, we are innocent. Our fallen nature sometimes still takes the reins (Rom. 7:16-23). Instead of exhibiting strong self-control or mercy, we may react in a way that dishonors our Lord. Instead of loving our neighbor, we may show favoritism or be unkind. Instead of being pure in heart, we may be hypocrites, thinking we are hiding our impurity. We may conform to certain opinions in order to fit into our chosen community, rather than standing out as children of God who do not just “keep peace” but “make peace” in conformity to God’s truth. Those are examples of wandering off the path of true discipleship.

               And if we keep on acting and speaking in those ways, we are no longer good for anything!

Good salt is tasty, and many of us automatically think of it as what makes a difference in the flavor of food. Have you ever forgotten to put salt in your homemade stew? Have you ever tried to reduce your salt intake, and noticed how some foods become tasteless?

The emphasis in Matthew 5:13 does seem to be on the flavor of salt, described by Stott as the way our words and actions are drenched with the flavor or aroma that comes from knowing Christ:

But thanks be to God,who always puts us on display in Chris tand through us spreads the aroma of the knowledge of Him in every place. (2 Cor. 2:14 CSB)

How about that warning that if disciples are blah, basically tasteless (if salt loses its saltiness), they are useless? There is much discussion about whether salt can actually lose its flavor, since it is a chemical that retains its character. However, in those times salt was often harvested from the Dead Sea and left in piles. So Craig Keener explains:

“Although the salt recovered from impure salt substances taken from the Dead Sea could dissolve, leaving only the impurities behind” (and those tasteless white piles of dust could be mistaken for salt) “the point here is closer to that expressed by a rabbi at the end of the first century. When asked how one could make saltless salt salty again, he replied that one should salt it with the afterbirth of a mule. Being sterile, mules have no afterbirth, and he was saying that those who ask a stupid question receive a stupid answer. Real salt does not lose its saltiness; but if it did, what would you do to restore its salty flavor—salt it? Unsalty salt was worthless.”[1]

And the Greek expression for “become tasteless” can also mean “become foolish”, so this could be a play on words.

“The verb μωραίνειν means “to become or to make foolish” (e.g., Sir 23:14; Rom 1:22; 1 Cor 1:20). The unusual use of it here to describe what has lost its saltiness goes back to the underlying Hebrew root, תפל, tpl, a word that had both meanings (see Black, Aramaic Approach, 166–67). A Greek translator then chose the Greek word μωραίνειν because it applied more readily to the disciples. For the disciples, the salt of the earth, to lose their saltiness was equivalent to becoming foolish. It would in effect be to lose their identity.”[2]

That is the last thing we should want to do, to lose our identity as Christ’s disciples and to no longer reflect him. If this happens, we will not stand out from the corrupt world. We no longer have any value! We become like those food remnants thrown out of a car window onto a sidewalk, only to be walked on by every passerby (“trampled underfoot”).

But in biblical times salt also had many other uses, and considering them can broaden our understanding of its importance:

“Salt was used to season food (Job 6:6), and mixed with the fodder of cattle (Isaiah 30:24). All meat-offerings were seasoned with salt (Leviticus 2:13). To eat salt with someone was to partake of his or her hospitality, to derive subsistence from him; and hence he who did so was bound to look after his host’s interests. Ezra 4:14 reads: We have maintenance from the king’s palace (KJV), or We share the salt of the palace (NRSV). A ‘covenant of salt’ (Numbers 18:19; 2 Chronicles 13:5) was a covenant of perpetual obligation.[3]

Until doing research on salt for this blog, I didn’t know about the way salt symbolized a commitment to be loyal to the person who cares for you, or who makes a covenant (a binding contract) with you. No wonder those of us who are bound to God in the new covenant are “the salt of the earth”!

Salt is also commonly used to preserve food, like ham and bacon, and the bounty of our vegetable gardens. It naturally keeps them from being spoiled by fungi and bacteria.

When disciples are “salt,” one of their effects on their communities is to counteract the spread of evil in the same way that salt prevents microbes from spoiling food. John Stott points out:

“The doctrine of the gospel is as salt; it is penetrating, quick, and powerful (Heb. 4:12); it reaches the heart Acts 2:37. It is cleansing, it is relishing, and preserves from putrefaction. We read of the savour of the knowledge of Christ (2 Co. 2:14) . . . they are to be . . . seasoned with the gospel, with the salt of grace; thoughts and affections, words and actions, all seasoned with grace, Col. 4:6. Have salt in yourselves, else you cannot diffuse it among others, Mk. 9:50.”[4]

So being salt will not always be easy—salt stings when it comes into contact with a wound, and many people around us have been wounded by their choices or the choices of others. They may react negatively because what we say or do makes them feel uncomfortable.

But salt also tastes good when distributed appropriately, when we season our words and actions with the flavor that comes from the Good News and a Christ-honoring character. Let’s choose to pursue that! The more we get to know our Master and become like him, that should be our “new normal.” And it will be enticing to those who are hungry!

[1] Craig S. Keener, The IVP Bible Background Commentary: New Testament (Downers Grove, IL: InterVarsity Press, 1993), Mt 5:13.

[2] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 99.

[3] James M. Freeman and Harold J. Chadwick, Manners & Customs of the Bible (North Brunswick, NJ: Bridge-Logos Publishers, 1998), 409.

[4] 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), 59–60.

Under Attack!

The timing, the coincidence, enraged them!
How could those Jesus-people go ahead
and wreck the crucial hours with song?
How could it wreak such havoc
when they repeat that dread Name,
over and over in prayer and testimonies,
dancing in the dust with “Alleluias”?

Their rites were rendered useless, impotent,
there in the Sacred Forest where they pursued
their connection with their sponsor, the Dark One.
Easter vigil or whatever, those villagers would pay
for all their disrespect of the Ancient Ways.
And so the beating and the burning began.

Once again, these power-seekers could not accept
the sovereign power of Jesus’ name,
the name that called out Light and Hope,
drove darkness into hiding.
No, they claimed their rights to slavery,
rushed to crush those Christians’ freedom.
Blinders on, their anger ruled the day.

But Jesus won in the long run.
It had seemed impossible to make peace,
the politics and ruses insurmountable.
Then prayer and Family kindness rose,
poured Truth into the tangled web
woven by the Enemy, and shattered it.
Easter praise is now rising again!

That burnt church was in Pisankaha, attacked in 2015. Glenn recently returned from a work visit to the area and took a photo of the beautiful new church building. What had been deemed destroyed has been replaced by something that shows how the Lord can make things new and even better!

Pisankaha is the village where the very first Nyarafolos came to believe in Jesus, back in the early 1960’s. From the beginning they were viewed as a threat by the Sacred Forest, the secret society that oversees the initiation of young men into traditional customs that included occult rituals. The youth who were believers were no longer joining the initiation process.

The Sacred Forest members exert their authority in other events, too. Whenever there are funerals or other occasions when the Sacred Forest’s masked and costumed representatives of certain gods come out into a village, all women and children are obliged to hide. Uninitiated men must hide too, because anyone not in the cohort risks severe beating if they come into the presence of a “mask”. Whenever their power is threatened, there are repercussions.

Through the years the growing group of believers in Pisankaha has suffered multiple times for their faith. Young men were beaten. Threats were thrown at them. But the most violent attack came on Easter in 2015. The Sacred Forest had previously made it clear to the church that whenever the Sacred Forest was having a special gathering, there was to be no church gathering. Singing and prayer messed up their rites.

However they had not realized that they had scheduled one of their night-time meetings on the same calendar day that was the Saturday night before Easter that year. So they had not alerted the church.

They were furious at the disruption the church’s Easter vigil made in the spiritual world, and attacked the Christians twice. They chased believers to beat them. When women and children hid behind closed doors in their huts. they broke down the doors. Many believers ran into the sugar cane fields next to the village to hide. The attackers stole animals from villagers’ pens, burned the pastor’s house and some others. They then bashed in the doors and windows of the church and burned whatever was burnable. A young girl was at a well to draw water when a mask attacked her; a young man intervened and pushed the mask away. That was considered a major insult and for years afterwards the Sacred Forest demanded reparation in the form of an animal to sacrifice; the Christians would not participate in that.

The believers were left scared and destitute. Other churches in the area and missionaries (including us) contributed sacks of rice and other basics to them so that they would at least have food. Negotiations with the police and political authorities, the Sacred Forest leaders and the village chiefs, began. But arriving at enough reconciliation to permit the Christians to rebuild their church took about five years. Peacemaking was indeed a sensitive, difficult task.

Nevertheless after things seemed calmer, months after the attack, the believers began meeting under the trees in a leader’s courtyard. It was like going back to the church’s early years. They knew that they had been persecuted because of their faith in Jesus, not because of anything they had done to try to instigate hurt. It was true that they did not participate in occult practices, so their young men could not be initiated. And just worshiping in the name of Jesus was itself powerful enough to disrupt those practices!

I knew of another proof of that power of Jesus’ name. There was a young woman who lived in the town of Ferke, in the neighborhood behind our house, who had come to faith in Christ. She was married and had several children. Her husband was deeply involved in occult practices and had many idols and other objects linked to spiritual powers hanging around the house. This bothered her, but she tried to be submissive. But whenever she was praying, and he was at the same time trying to get some help from these gods and other powers, nothing would work for him. He threw her out, and she was left trying to find a home and take care of her kids. Believers gathered around to support her.

That is definitely persecution because of faith in Jesus. True followers of Jesus will imitate him, obey his teaching and become increasingly like him. They are then “righteous,” and this is counter cultural. They do not participate in practices of their community that go against Jesus’ teaching and the rest of the Word of God. That is threatening to those around them, who feel judged or who fear that their rights are being endangered. The repercussions, like those in Nyarafololand, here in the United States, and all around the world, can take many forms:

“Jesus’s words show that persecution is typically either verbal or violent. Verbal forms include insult and slander. The word persecute includes acts of physical violence like the slap of Mt 5:39. Jesus promised that the cost of discipleship will be offset by the enormity of the reward the disciple enjoys in heaven. Jewish leaders rejected and vehemently persecuted the OT prophets, and Jesus repeatedly denounced this persecution (21:34–36; 23:29–37). By treating Jesus’s followers in the same way they had treated the prophets, Jewish persecutors unwittingly bestowed on them a prophet’s honor.”[1]

So when a believer gets either verbal or violent persecution it is an honor! That is actually a hard one to swallow. It does not feel like a good thing when you are beaten, or your husband throws you out, or a brother insults you because of your belief. Why, then, is it a blessing?

Let’s look at this last beatitude closely. It not only follows the pattern of the preceding ones, but in verse 10 it has that “bookend” of repeating the reward that is in the first one – “theirs is the kingdom of heaven”:

Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven. 11 “Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven, for in the same way they persecuted the prophets who were before you. (Matt. 5:10-12 NIV)

The kingdom of heaven is ours now because it is the realm of Jesus, and he is with us. But someday we will know it and be citizens in it in its ultimate, complete form, when all will be made new. What a day that will be!

This beatitude is actually made more personal and explained in greater detail than the others – maybe because it is so shocking. At first the blessing is general, on those who are persecuted because they do what is right according to God’s Word. They are not self-promoting or in any way falling into the trap of self-pity or self-glorification; their eyes are on the gracious gift waiting for them when they meet their Master and are applauded for living out their faith in obedience. Then (see verse 11) Jesus used the pronoun “you” to let listeners know that this applies to them, not just to martyrs they’ve heard about –even to you and me when hurtful words are hurled at us, or about us, because we are Jesus-followers.

Next comes that jolt in verse 12. We are to be happy to suffer for this reason, being mistreated just like the prophets were: maligned, ostracized, rebuked for doing what the Lord told them to do or say. How can we be glad when this happens? I confess that joy is not at all my normal reaction. Luke’s version of this blessing is in some ways even more shocking:

Blessed are you when people hate you, when they exclude you and insult you and reject your name as evil, because of the Son of Man. 23 “Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, because great is your reward in heaven. For that is how their ancestors treated the prophets. (Lk. 6:22-23 NIV)

I love the following explanation of the deep meaning of this exultation:

“In the corresponding passage of Luke (Lu 6:22, 23), where every indignity trying to flesh and blood is held forth as the probable lot of such as were faithful to Him, the word is even stronger than here: ‘leap,’ as if He would have their inward transport to overpower and absorb the sense of all these affronts and sufferings; nor will anything else do it.[2]

To “overpower and absorb the sense of all these affronts and sufferings,” we need to see them all as natural reactions of a broken world to its shock at belief and action that contradict what it holds as precious. We can inwardly “leap” over them, relying on inner strength from the One who holds us.

All of the characteristics of the “blessed” ones in these beatitudes run counter to worldly values. John Stott does a meaningful summary of them all:

The beatitudes paint a comprehensive portrait of a Christian disciple. We see him first alone on his knees before God, acknowledging his spiritual poverty and mourning over it. This makes him meek or gentle in all his relationships, since honesty compels him to allow others to think of him what before God he confesses himself to be. Yet he is far from acquiescing in his sinfulness, for he hungers and thirsts after righteousness, longing to grow in grace and in goodness. We see him next with others, out in the human community. His relationship with God does not cause him to withdraw from society, nor is he insulated from the world’s pain. On the contrary, he is in the thick of it, showing mercy to those battered by adversity and sin. He is transparently sincere in all his dealings and seeks to play a constructive role as a peacemaker. Yet he is not thanked for his efforts, but rather opposed, slandered, insulted and persecuted on account of the righteousness for which he stands and the Christ with whom he is identified.[3]

It is a high calling to live in the thick of the world’s pain, not cowering but actively showing compassion and working for peace and reconciliation. By identifying with Jesus Christ, we can expect pushback. It might be like the violent battery and burning that was experienced in Pisankaha. Or it could just be dismissal or slander. Whatever it is, if it comes from being like Jesus — gentle but truthful and merciful and always doing what is right — then we can urge our hearts to leap for joy.

Here in the United States we may sometimes feel we are being persecuted, but it is rarely the violent kind that is going on in many parts of the world. We need to pray for those who even face torture or death because they love Jesus, and be grateful for the freedom that we do enjoy. When some kind of opposition hurts, we must check ourselves to be sure we are responding with the strong gentleness that our Lord desires, always looking for ways to be peacemakers in the true sense of that word, even when it also leads to a “slap” or insult.

We have a different perspective than the world does. We journey on, “fixing our eyes on Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of faith. For the joy set before him he endured the cross, scorning its shame, and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.” (Heb. 12:2 NIV) Someday we will be in there in pure joy!

[1] Robert H. Stein, “Differences in the Gospels,” in CSB Study Bible: Notes, ed. Edwin A. Blum and Trevin Wax (Nashville, TN: Holman Bible Publishers, 2017), 1506.

[2] 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), 19.

[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), 54.

The Peacemaker Challenge

When you’re insulted
respond with compassion,
listening first,
speaking with insight
into the roots 
of that person’s distress.
Not that it’s easy.
Not that it’s normal.

Take self off-center,
then humbly reach out
to crush the hard walls
that maintain division.
Be like your Savior, 
the great Prince of Peace:
who purchased our peace 
by giving himself on the cross!

Peacemaking is the last of the characteristics of a blessed follower of Christ to be listed in the beatitudes. That makes sense, because all the others build up to it. If the Jesus-follower has recognized their need for rescue, their imperfections and sins, and has hungered and thirsted for righteousness, then that person can mature to the point of being merciful, of having an undivided and pure heart, and of becoming increasingly like their Lord, the Prince of Peace. Now the focus is on finding a way to promote peace – not being an appeaser, but a peacemaker.

Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called children of God. (Matt. 5:9 NIV)

This not a picture of someone who is passive, reluctant to make any waves, just ready to do whatever it takes to live in a calm space.  That would be someone “milquetoast,” not someone who is gently self-controlled but strong (that was what we discovered is true about being “meek”). The hunger for what is right means that the peacemaker desires to see justice in a situation as well as accomplished in himself. To be like Jesus means to be a reconciler, willing to pay the cost of pursuing righteous peace. Because it does come with a price. Jesus “paid it all” to make it possible for us to be reconciled with God, in conformity with his plan:

. . . through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross. (Col. 1:20 NIV)

As we take up our cross, to follow him, we need to consider how what we do is our honoring to our Father, living life as much as possible like our “Older Brother,” the Lord Jesus. He desires to bring people into harmony with God, but also with each other.

Let’s consider the flow of teaching in these verses:

Turn from evil and do good; seek peace and pursue it. (Ps. 34:14 NIV)
Flee the evil desires of youth and pursue righteousness, faith, love and peace, along with those who call on the Lord out of a pure heart. (2 Tim. 2:22 NIV)

Righteousness, faith, love and peace are to be what we pursue. Finding the way to apply this in a real-life situation requires prayer, listening to the Guide, and courage.

There were several times when we had to figure out how to do this in a different culture, in northern Côte d’Ivoire. Their way of bringing about reconciliation taught us a lot. 

One time, when Glenn was a field leader, a missionary woman heard that a rumor was circulating that she was secretly practicing occult arts! As the story was traced to its source, Glenn applied what we had learned from trusted local sources about how to proceed. He brought the accusers together with the missionary, in the same room but on opposite sides of his chair. He asked the missionary to share her astonishment at the accusation, then asked the nationals to explain their point of view. They said that she was single, and spent too much time alone in her home; a solitary lifestyle like that pointed to sorcery. She explained her fatigue after the long hours she put into her professional work, always interacting with many people, and how much she then needed rest and time for refreshment. As each side talked, they looked at Glenn, answered his question and spoke to him. He encouraged more sharing from each side, and once things were clearer the emotional heat cooled down and they began to talk to each other directly. Reconciliation happened.

This is even harder to do when a person is your personal adversary, maybe even someone you have been close to, and you need to do what is possible to achieve peace with them. I confess that this takes much courage for me, my natural tendency being hyper-sensitivity. But as I’ve learned to reach out and ask for the opportunity to talk in a safe environment, I’ve seen the Lord work to bring harmony with deeper understanding of each other. Sometimes that safe environment includes other people we both trust. Sometimes it is just one-on-one. 

When it’s been attempted again and again but without progress, then we need to learn to look for ways to build mutual respect in other dimensions. When the adversary is a brother or sister in the believing community this is particularly necessary. Compare these two reports of Jesus’ teaching on being the “salt of the earth”:

"You are the salt of the earth. But if the salt loses its saltiness, how can it be made salty again? It is no longer good for anything, except to be thrown out and trampled underfoot. (Matt. 5:13 NIV)
   (The  NET note on “thrown away” says that it is a warning about a disciple who ceased to follow him!)
"Salt is good, but if it loses its saltiness, how can you make it salty again? Have salt among yourselves, and be at peace with each other." (Mk. 9:50 NIV)

Building peace with each other in the Beloved Community is one of the key challenges in this era of intensely emotional divisions here in the United States. Different interpretations of political and social justice issues are literally tearing church communities and even families apart. How can we obey our Lord and keep our “salty” flavor healthy, being at peace with each other?

We must be humble, and search our own hearts and minds for ways in which we are judging others without listening to them, and understanding what has brought them to this point. We also need to respond to criticism or insult as Jesus did, not responding with insult but with peaceful explanation. This is not appeasement, but “bearing with one another” with love while being truthful.

Jesus knew that his responses would not always be accepted. Instead, in his last months of ministry they resulted in the adversaries beginning to conspire to arrest him. But in spite of their hostility he answered honestly, using questions (Mat 21.24-27) or stories (Mat 21.28-41) to express his answer more powerfully. And in that same exchange, he finished by being very clear about the point he was making, using the Scriptures (Mat 21.42-45).

Speaking to Jews who wanted to kill him but were trying to hide their scheme and trip him up by asking him questions, Jesus answered truthfully, referring to the Scriptures and to his own determination to glorify God and not lie { John 8.46-58}. This confirms that when what the adversary is saying is against the truth and not in line with God’s teaching, it is right to state the truth and clarify one’s position. Nevertheless, Jesus did not hurl insults at them; he kept trying to help them understand who he was, and why he held the position that they resented.

Being a peacemaker requires being filled with the Spirit, letting him guide and produce his fruit in us. Because yes: peace is something that comes from the transformation that the Spirit accomplishes. Paul makes this clear:

The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; 20 idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions 21 and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God. But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, 23 gentleness and self-control. Against such things there is no law. (Gal. 5:19 NIV)

If we demonstrate those first acts that stem from broken humanity – yes, things like fomenting discord through anger and selfish ambition, etc. – we are not acting like citizens of the kingdom of God. The warning is severe for those whose behavior is like that: they will not inherit the kingdom of God.
When the Spirit is the one acting in and through us, the atmosphere is entirely different. With gentle kindness, demonstrating love and putting up with each other, we are actually showing that we are children of God, practicing what pleases our Older Brother and Master, the Prince of Peace. Let us each take note and pursue peace!

Crystal Clean

Sweeping and dusting will never be enough.
Redecorating schemes are all disasters:
mock renewals, clever coverups.
I need an undivided heart:
no padlocked chambers set aside
for resident anger,
no halls of hard-core selfishness,
no darkened corners for illicit pleasures.

Instead, give me one room, 
wide and filled with light,
walls scrubbed crystal clean,
wholly devoted to harboring love
and nurturing goodness,
teeming with reminders
of key events and precious people,
places we have been and revelations of truth.

Then, dear heart, open the sunroof 
and let the light pour in
to grow luxuriant hanging gardens.
Let the music of singing stars 
and healed cripples 
ripple the atmosphere as they dance 
with strong straight limbs
around the gifts of grace
and souvenirs of rescue.
Feel health pulse through the breeze 
the breath of God renewing my true self.
Smell the fragrant winsomeness
of fresh-baked bread:
bread of the Presence, sustenance.

Unlock the doors and let the music out,
share thick slices of warm bread
with every hungry passerby.
Leave tantalizing traces — 
the aroma of delights —
along each path I take.
Let love-lights leap from windows
into the shadowed world,
clear evidence of the radical new me.

Let’s dive into the beatitudes again. We are now on the sixth one, in verse 8:

Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. (Matt. 5:8 NET)

Having a pure heart is a prerequisite for seeing God! That makes it a key goal!

One of the challenges of being involved in Bible translation in a previously unwritten language was searching for words or expressions that would adequately communicate key Biblical terms. I remember when “hypocrisy” was the one in focus. After testing various suggestions, the true match (agreed on by all the Nyarafolo team) was an expression that would be, in literal English: “two stomachs.”  Startling? Well, “stomach” has a second meaning in this context, “interior,” and is actually the expression that means the same thing as “heart” in our English Bible translations. I began to understand both these symbolic organs as expressing a person’s true interior character. Each one is the seat of emotions, motivation, and conscience. And if you have two in your own inner space, you are only showing one to those around you, hiding the other one. Someone who is sincere has a “clear interior” in Nyarafolo. It is full of light. I found that translatable in my own understanding to the difference between having a divided heart, with hidden “rooms” or “closets,” versus having one perfectly clean and light-filled heart. It changes everything to be able to live out sincere moral purity and grace with the rest of that space swept clean and renewed.

The divided heart, with hidden closets, is what is exposed when Christian leaders are shown up to be involved in sexual sin, kept secret for years. Every time I see one of those headlines I mourn. If only each one had let Christ’s light shine into every space! And it reminds me to search my own heart. What am I hiding?

“I need an undivided heart . . . give me just one room . . .”  There comes a time in true spiritual growth when one can see more clearly than ever their own desperate need for complete renovation. Yes, they’ve been forgiven, given a new start. They have repented and turned from old ways, but as time goes on they find that there is lingering filth inside, or new slime that has crept in. As Paul said:

For I want to do the good, but I cannot do it. 19 For I do not do the good I want, but I do the very evil I do not want!  (Rom. 7:18b-19 NET)

The yearning for clear, pure inner space is another facet of that hunger and thirst for righteousness that is the quality in the fourth beatitude. And it is also fueled by that mourning over inner brokenness, that second step after recognizing one’s inner poverty. The beatitudes are building from our awareness of our great need, the focus of the first four, to the qualities that develop as a believer matures: mercy, inner purity, peacemaking, and the kind of righteousness that incites pushback/persecution.

Another way of describing this clear interior is “single-mindedness” (cf. Jas 4:8, where it is the “double-minded” who are exhorted to “purify [their] hearts”)[1]:

Come near to God and he will come near to you. Wash your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you double-minded. (Jas. 4:8 NIV)

Isn’t it interesting how “double-mindedness” parallels the Nyarafolo understanding of a double interior/stomach in a person?

When we approach God with sincerity, he welcomes us and comes even closer to us. He forgives and renews us. Then it is up to us to purify our hearts! I see this as our devoted participation in the process, living out what God has done for us by carefully following his commands. The disciple Peter had learned this by recognizing his own failings when he denied his Lord, then had that intimate conversation with him after the resurrection and was reminded to love his Lord and to show that love to others in the community, the Lord’s “sheep” (John 21:15-17). Later, he wrote to the diaspora of believers:

You have purified your souls by obeying the truth in order to show sincere mutual love.So love one another earnestly from a pure heart. (1 Pet. 1:22 NET)

We become purified through the process of active obedience to the true teaching of the Lord. And how does this show up? In being able to love one another, sincerely.

We all know how hard that commandment is, the one the Lord underlined so dramatically in his last words to his disciples before he was crucified:

“I give you a new commandment – to love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. (Jn. 13:34 NET)

In other words, pure hearts show up in radical obedience. Mercy, grace and love are extended to brothers and sisters, in spite of differences. There will always be differences. Not only are we still imperfect, we come from different backgrounds, cultures and circumstances; we have different personalities. But we can decide to:

"Unlock the doors and let the music out,
share thick slices of warm bread
to every hungry passerby.
Leave tantalizing traces —
the aroma of delights —
along each path I take.
Let love-lights leap from windows
into the shadowed world,
clear evidence of the radical new me."

And with purified hearts, we know that we will see God. Yes, that mostly refers to that day we look forward to with such anticipation, when we will see Jesus, when we will be in Glory with God himself. But just as many Old Testament people “saw” the Lord in some manifestation, we too can see his fingerprints on our lives, and in circumstances that we know cannot be mere coincidence. His Presence is real now, though we still see him with blurred vision:

For now we see in a mirror indirectly,but then we will see face to face. Now I know in part, but then I will know fully, just as I have been fully known. (1 Cor. 13:12 NET)

So let us practice what Jesus lived out: a life lived for God and overflowing with love for others. No hidden closets in our hearts, no double-mindedness! That is what it means to be pure in heart. And it comes with the promise of great blessing.

[1]  Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 94.

Worldwide Easter

Today they sing in Singapore
and raise their arms
to praise the Lord
in Tokyo and Mexico
and many many many more –

in Ethiopia they shout
and ululate in South Sudan;
in Michigan the lights come out
and colors play across the scene
to show what we’re so glad about –

the Nyarafolo celebrate
in rhythmic circles, clapping hands;
it’s quieter in dry Kuwait
and Syria and Timbuktu,
but all the saved participate – 
because we know that He’s not dead,
our Master, Brother, Rescuer!
The grave was empty, and instead
He met the women, then the men
and told them He must go ahead

to send His Spirit, help us through,
and He’d be with us every day,
then gave us all this work to do:
tell everyone about our King!
So sing in Paris and Peru!

What a massive celebration took place yesterday! There was an earth-shattering event long ago that changed the rules and opened the door to Life to all humans who choose to step through it, no matter their ethnic identity or geographic roots. God so loves the world that he came to earth in human form, Jesus, who made atonement for our sins through his death on the cross — but rose to life and is our Rescuer and Sovereign!

This Life-giver was the Creator of our universe, an amazing tribute to his ingenuity. Just think about the all the proofs that our Lord loves diversity. Think about the approximately 10,000 species of birds that have been identified so far here on earth! Scientist say that there are about 369,000 flowering plants, and roughly 73,300 tree species. Maybe you dog-lovers know that there are about 450 species of dogs known to exist. What an imagination our God has, and what artistry!

Then we come to human beings. I stand in a grocery store and watch the people bustling down the aisles, not a one of them exactly like another, even those who seem to have the same skin color. Noticing the shoes or clothing they are wearing gives a clue to their personal priorities and physical needs, their love of color or style preferences. God made us diverse and gave us creativity and imagination.

When we take time to think about all the different cultures in the world, we don’t come close to counting them all. Even within a North American neighborhood there may be families from Asian, Hispanic, Indigenous, Black or White cultures. And some of them may be mixed, like I am, having been raised as a missionary kid in Africa who had to learn what it meant to be an American in the United States. And those things morph as the decades pass.

God loves all this variety in people groups and cultures. Even music is radically different, as well as worship styles in churches. From classical or traditional hymns, to gospel, to popular contemporary Christian, to rap, to country style, there are so many ways to express praise and truth right here in the U.S. As different generations and communities bring in their preferences, things change.

Even in just one country, an ethnic group can be identified by their style of worship music. Take the percussive drums and balaphones in the video above, and the response of the women, men and children in the Easter service in this small group in northern Cote d’Iviore, the Nyarafolo. When they discovered that they could praise the Lord in their own rhythms with whole-body praise, the celebrations came alive.

I like to picture the way yesterday, Easter Sunday, there was so much exultation rising in song all around the world. The Lord has been accomplishing his purpose, calling all peoples to come into his welcoming arms to find rescue, hope and true life. Paul explained this to people in Athens, underlining the way the Creator, the Lord of heaven and earth, planned this diversity as part of his purpose for each people group to come to know him:

From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. 27 God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. (Acts 17:26-27 NIV)

He is not far from anyone, no matter where they are! When he finds a hungry heart, he knows just the right way to pull that unsuspecting person to himself. Christianity Today recently published the moving testimony of an Irish Protestant who went to prison because of his political violence, and to his own surprise was drawn to the Bible (which he had not ever read) and not only believed, but has done amazing evangelistic and pastoral work upon being released:

And I cannot help but think of how Jesus appeared one night to Lacina, a young man in Tiepogovogo, several years before we arrived in his village to learn Nyarafolo. Jesus told him that if he would follow him, many others there would follow him too. Lacina protested that he had no idea how to “know” him; he couldn’t read, for one thing. But the next day he told his best friend Sikatchi about the vision, and they began to search. It was hard to figure out what people were saying in other languages in area churches in the towns. Then we arrived, and the two young men waited for the right time to approach us and ask us to teach them. The Lord knew who to prompt, how to prepare the way for these Nyarafolo to find him!

What Jesus did for us at the cross, his perfect once-for-all sacrifice that opened the way for us to become part of his family, and his miraculous resurrection, this is what makes it possible for anyone to come to him for rescue. Probably everyone reading this belongs to one of those other nations or people groups that inhabit this huge earth, rather than to the Jews that were his chosen people. Through what he did in his historical work in and through them, we now are a part of his Kingdom. What grace!

He still has work for us to do; there are still peoples who do not know about him. As we go and share the Good News, that diversity in his Family increases yet more. It is just what he wants! I like to imagine the beautiful colors of people and the joyous sounds of different choirs or musical instruments that might be surrounding the Throne, thanking him for all he has done and who he is!

Praise the LORD.1 Praise God in his sanctuary; praise him in his mighty heavens.

 2 Praise him for his acts of power; praise him for his surpassing greatness.

3 Praise him with the sounding of the trumpet, praise him with the harp and lyre, 4 praise him with timbrel and dancing, praise him with the strings and pipe, 5 praise him with the clash of cymbals, praise him with resounding cymbals.

 6 Let everything that has breath praise the LORD. Praise the LORD. (Ps. 150 NIV)

Now Psalm 150 in Nyarafolo: Ŋúnugo 150

1 Ye‑ Yewe gbùʔɔrɔ wè !

Yeri Kulocɛliɛ gbùʔɔrɔ́ wi saawalidɛngɛgɛ nī gè !

Yeri wi gbùʔɔrɔ́ nyìʔɛnɛ nī lè, bàa wi ŋɔri ti tìi tìí dè.

2 Yeri wi gbùʔɔrɔ́ wi kakpoliyo kɛnmɛ nɛ̄ bè !

Yeri wi gbùʔɔrɔ́ wi kpuɔmɔ kɛnmɛ nɛ̄ bè bàa pi ‘kpúʔɔ nɛ̀ tóri bè !

3 Yeri wi gbùʔɔrɔ́ yeri sìnbanyɛgɛ wíi gè !

Yeri wi gbùʔɔrɔ́ nɛ́ màʔagɛlɛ bɔ̀licɛrigɛ ní gè, nɛ́ gɔri ní wè !

4 Yeri wi gbùʔɔrɔ́ nɛ́ pìnbile ní lè, nɛ́ yuɔrɔ ní dè !

Yeri wi gbùʔɔrɔ́ nɛ́ màʔagɛlɛ yakpuɔnrɔ ní dè, nɛ́ maana ní lè !

5 Yeri wi gbùʔɔrɔ́ nɛ́ kányiɛrɛ yakpuɔnrɔ ní dè dàa ti sɔ́migi nɛ tùngú dè !

Yeri wi gbùʔɔrɔ́ nɛ́ kányiɛrɛ yakpuɔnrɔ ní dè dáà ti cî nɛ tùngú kpuʔɔ dèb !

6 Yɛgɛ ó yɛgɛ ki ŋɔ́gi gè, kiri Yewe gbùʔɔrɔ́ wè !

Ye- Yewe gbùʔɔrɔ wè !

What He Wants!

every weakness
opportunities lost

hurts inflicted

oozing wounds

soul suffering

all fell on him
the crushing weight
of meanness

thank you
seems so small
to say
so minimal
against the mass
of grief

once again
I give you me
all I have
to offer
yet exactly
what you want

He knew what was going to happen. Sure, the people threw palm branches over the road before him as he rode into the city. They were singing hosannas, welcoming their king, they thought. But he knew better. He knew that in a few days it would be different crowd surrounding him, people calling for his death by crucifixion. And after that, the voices would be jeering him for sticking it out and taking the hits and long hours of hanging torture instead of demonstrating that divine status he had claimed.

He knew all of that, but he went forward into the suffering. His three years of ministry had been torn by accusations and disbelief by many anyway, and his pedestrian tours of the country had involved physical distress and homelessness. But he had pushed through. Why?

Because the essence of his character was love. He had come to give himself as the ultimate sacrifice, once for all, the sacrifice that would provide forgiveness to anyone who would choose to identify with it. He knew it was necessary to make a way for humans to obtain an unbelievable goal: union with the God who loved them so much that he would plunge himself into their kind of body, with all its weaknesses and limitations, and put himself on the altar of sacrifice that would offer repair for their brokenness. They had been made to walk in fellowship with their Creator; he had been there at creation, had been the Word that brought them into existence and talked with them in the perfect environment he had made for them. But they had pulled away, choosing to trust deception. Now, the crucial moment had come that would provide forgiveness and restoration. Reparation comes with a price, and reparation for all of them could only be paid by the Maker of the Universe himself.

So he came, well aware that he himself would be the one to pay that price once for all. He had prepared the way for the people to understand the requirement: he had instituted that kind of necessary sacrifice when he had given the commands to Moses concerning the day of atonement, with all the preparations required and the complicated rites concerning the sacrifices:

. . . because on this day atonement will be made for you, to cleanse you. Then, before the LORD, you will be clean from all your sins. (Lev. 16:30 NIV)

“This is to be a lasting ordinance for you: Atonement is to be made once a year for all the sins of the Israelites.” And it was done, as the LORD commanded Moses. (Lev. 16:34 NIV)

That had to be done every year, but with Jesus’ putting himself in the place of the sacrifice, it only had to be done once, in all of time:

And by [God’s] will, we have been made holy through the sacrifice of the body of Jesus Christ once for all. (Heb. 10:10 NIV)

Offering himself to provide reparation and purification for anyone who would take this at its value, he willingly underwent the years of insults and accusations, the sufferings of a normal human body in weather and fatigue, the cruel torture of whips and the pain of nails and death. He had decided to provide safe haven, forgiveness, and welcome into the Family of God to each person who would gratefully accept this gift. He gave himself, knowing he would come back to life to welcome them with open arms and joy.

Meditating on his life of suffering while he walked this earth, having left his throne to become an impoverished man, has been one way to put in perspective the suffering that we still face here on earth even though we have become united with him, joined together with him in a mysterious way that brings hope and joy. Sure, there is chaos all around: wars and terrorist attacks and famines and tornadoes and pandemics and hate speech and racist horrors and emotional abuse and slander and accusations and murders and . . . you know. The list is endless.

And not one of us is blameless. As it says in one of the prophetic passages about what Messiah would suffer:

All of us had wandered off like sheep; each of us had strayed off on his own path, but the LORD caused the sin of all of us to attack him. (Isa. 53:8 NET)     

Attack? The NET translation note carefully unpacks how the Hebrew words here usually refer to a hostile encounter or a military attack. Here, “the Lord makes ‘sin’ attack ‘him’ . , ,  In their sin the group was like sheep who had wandered from God’s path. They were vulnerable to attack; the guilt of their sin was ready to attack and destroy them. But then the servant stepped in and took the full force of the attack.”

In Isaiah 53 it is the “suffering servant” who is described as the one who would be unjustly abused and killed by the very wandering human beings he had come to rescue. They did not recognize who he was, or his purpose:

3 He was despised and rejected by people,one who experienced pain and was acquainted with illness; people hid their faces from him; he was despised, and we considered him insignificant. 4 But he lifted up our illnesses, he carried our pain; even though we thought he was being punished, attacked by God, and afflicted for something he had done. 5 He was wounded because of our rebellious deeds, crushed because of our sins; he endured punishment that made us well; because of his wounds we have been healed . . . and the LORD’s purpose will be accomplished through him. 11 Having suffered, he will reflect on his work, he will be satisfied when he understands what he has done. My servant will acquit many, for he carried their sins. (Isa. 53:3-5,10b,11 NET)

Wow! He identified with human pain – emotional, physical and social pain. And my own disobedience, my own choices that have hurt others, my own ways of dishonoring the King were all part of the weight he was carrying when he went through that crooked trial, was whipped, staggered under the heavy cross until he fell, and then was nailed to it. And felt not only the torture of crucifixion but the price of having those sins attack him and fall on him. He did it for me. And for you. And for the billions who have lived and are living on this earth.

So now the choice is before us. The judicial requirements for our pardon have been met. It is finished! Will we humbly accept this truth and move forward in freedom? Or will we choose our own way, that way we take when we do what sheep do and just keep forging ahead for our own pleasure, not noticing that we are no longer on the right path, in the company of the loving Good Shepherd?

I am so privileged to have been shown this truth early in life, and to have come into sweet fellowship with God himself because of this sacrifice. I am praying for the wanderers, that they will recognize the loving voice calling out to them, telling them that he has made a way through their wilderness, and it leads Home!

All they have to do is identify with his sacrifice and give him their very own selves! That is what he wants. That is why he did it!

Learning Mercy

God with us, full of grace,
full of truth,
you are who I long for!
I yearn to be like you
at long last.

You’re changing me,
curing me
of sin and selfishness.
You taught me service,
then sent me to
my sister’s side, 
to simply be there,
waiting to serve her
any way she needed
as she died.

Now I’m finding
is still a tough lesson.
Building on the service
that had flowed 
so gladly for
that one so dear, 
you call me on
to love some sisters
I don’t yet know:
needy, elderly, hopeless
in a careless world 
that passes by,

Face to face with
my own habit
of looking the other way,
fearing that their hands
might curl
into a beggar’s cup
and ask for more,
I am ashamed.
I see you watching me
and longing to mold me.

Please turn my fear
to mercy,
my reluctance 
to compassion!
I know practice 
will make perfect.
Perfect me please!

My Master had some key spiritual formation to accomplish in me, and it was not what I expected.

My sister, Kayleen, passed away in 2006 after two years of combating leukemia. She underwent months of treatments at Mayo Clinic, but in the end her time on earth was over. She had longed for someone to be at her side while hospitalized, and my family had graciously sent me to be her companion, sitting beside her as many hours as possible. She was nine years younger than I: adored, one of my best friends. I found it a great privilege to show her this loving compassion.

Soon after she died we returned to Ferkessédougou, Côte d’Ivoire, having spent three years in the U.S. while waiting for civil unrest to quiet down over there. The country was still divided when we returned, rebels ruling the northern half where we lived, but It was wonderful to be back, working again in Bible translation and catching up with Nyarafolo friends. As time went on I found myself being confronted with more needs of older women in the community than ever before. The years of distress had increased poverty all around us, and many widows were among those deeply sensing their need for Jesus and for supportive community.

A growing group of Nyarafolos was meeting Sunday afternoons in our back yard to worship together in their language, praying and creating songs in their traditional musical style. Those gatherings were one of my favorite activities. After the meeting a woman or two would stay to talk. And throughout the week, certain ones would come by to see if we could help with needs for food, medical treatment, or obtaining products to sell in the market.

I began to feel that this was a lot to bear. Then the Lord convicted me of my narrow vision and self-centeredness. What if I were in their “shoes” (most of them just wore old sandals!) — where was the heart of mercy that I thought I had? It had been easy to give my all to my sister Kayleen. In these new situations I needed the God of all mercies to put his heart in mine.

Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies and God of all comfort, 4 who comforts us in all our affliction, so that we may be able to comfort those who are in any affliction, with the comfort with which we ourselves are comforted by God. (2 Cor. 1:3-4 ESV)

I knew that, to be like my Father, to be like Jesus, I needed to be merciful. I did not feel that it was a spiritual gift of mine. I had seen that gifting in Glenn, a natural bent to help the needy in wise ways. My parents, Dwight and Barbara Slater, had shown that gift of mercy in their medical work and hospitality all throughout my growing-up years as an mk. Now I was finding it hard to keep showing mercy with kindness, day after day.

The Lord did grow my heart through practice. As I got to know these women more deeply I recognized the reality of their need. My life was a comfy paradise compared to theirs. And as we found ways for the widows to form a group and work together to grow a garden in our yard, and to make soap to sell, I began to see hope for them. I realized that much of my distress was just seeing the misery all around me and feeling helpless. But God was showing me that reaching out to help was actually increasing my own sense of wellbeing and inner peace. He knew my lack and was meeting my need.

I was experiencing growth, and his mercy, in what Jesus taught in the fifth beatitude:

Blessed are the merciful, for they shall receive mercy. (Mat 5:7 ESV)

Mercy (ἔλεος). The word emphasizes the misery with which grace deals; hence, particularly the acknowledgement of human wretchedness coupled with the impulse to relieve it, which issues in gracious ministry. Bengel remarks, “Grace takes away the fault, mercy the misery.”[1]

Understanding “mercy” as gracious ministry that reaches out to relieve the misery of someone who is suffering was not new. It just needed to be lived out more graciously in my life.

When we admit to our own brokenness, we are taking that first step toward becoming “meek,” acknowledging our imperfection and leaning on the Lord for appropriate reactions to others. When we are merciful, there may be some situations in which we are recognizing the imperfection of another person and reaching out to help them anyway, or to forgive them. That, after all, is what our Savior has done for us. And we know that when we meet him he will be showing us mercy all over again, welcoming us with loving arms when we do not deserve it.

The importance of showing mercy was underlined in the Old Testament as well. This beatitude is a strong echo of Prov 14:21b, which says ἐλεῶν δὲ πτωχοὺς μακαριστός, “blessed is the one who has mercy on the poor.”[2]

But most of the time it was God’s mercy to us, to humans, that was prayed for in desperation:

Hear my voice when I call, LORD; be merciful to me and answer me. (Ps. 27:7 NIV)

Many other English versions translate that same Hebrew word as “gracious” rather than “merciful”, probably because grace is favor we don’t deserve. When God responds to our cry for his help, we depend on his lovingkindness to reach out to us even though it would be an honor of which we are unworthy.

Following his example means showing kind mercy that meets a need, even to people we barely know but who are suffering. Maybe they haven’t earned our respect; maybe they truly are undeserving. maybe we just don’t know all that has brought them to this moment. Nevertheless, to be like our Master, we are to help them in whatever way we can, just to show mercy. This is a tall order, one that does indeed require discernment so that we don’t participate in lies.

One time a man came to our door in Ferke asking for help to get back to his homeland, Liberia. He said he was a refugee and had found some kids who also needed to get home. He showed Glenn a photo of several kids, saying that they were waiting for him in town. Transportation funds were desperately needed, he said. Glenn gave him money to buy everyone some lunch, then wisely asked to meet the kids before giving him the requested transportation funds. The man returned after several hours with a bunch of little boys. To see if they really were Liberian, Glenn greeted them in English, which is the national language there. No response. He then tried French. No response. So he tried the local language, Nyarafolo, and they all responded! Glenn asked the boys where their fathers were. Hmmm – their fathers were right there in Ferke! When the man realized his scam had been revealed, he had an attack of asthma. Glenn gave him an inhaler, but told him that was all he would do for him. That was mercy, with discernment.

May our Lord show us all how to be merciful, and wise. When we are confronted with needs, let’s rely on him for direction, and be ready to show the kindness that he would show.

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

[1] Marvin Richardson Vincent, Word Studies in the New Testament, vol. 1 (New York: Charles Scribner’s Sons, 1887), 263.

[2] Donald A. Hagner, Matthew 1–13, vol. 33A, Word Biblical Commentary (Dallas: Word, Incorporated, 1993), 93.

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