The Assembly

Hiding in plain site when we read the Bible devotionally are countless nuggets of truth that await that prayerful moment to be revealed.  Sometimes it’s a word; sometimes it is in the language.  And sometimes we might look at the punctuation.

Look at Hebrews 12:22-23:

But you have come to Mount Zion, …. You have come to thousands upon thousands of angels in joyful assembly….


In the original: assembly is a single word. The original word is not “assembly” but “joyous assembly.” The word speaks to a festive occasion, a celebration where there’s dancing and singing. The translators of the Old Testament into the Greek language used this word in Isaiah 66:10 to describe the Hebrew word “to dance and leap for joy.”

Isaiah descriptively adds: “rejoice greatly.”  The word “rejoice” in the Hebrew suggests a horselike “prancing,” an almost giddy, fidgeting where the participants are too overjoyed to stand still.  The praise of God is on their lips and in their feet!

This in not just an assembly; it is a festive one. It is heaven’s version of a New Year’s Eve at the start of all new beginnings in Christ, a celebration heightened by the appearance of Jesus and the saints of previous spiritual victories.  It undoubtedly highlights the songs of praise to God for Calvary.

Jesus spoke of this excitement among the angels over a single person coming to faith.

In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents – Luke 15:10

How much greater should we suppose their joyous celebration now that the innumerable company of the saints is assembled!  Oh, how we have longed for this moment!!


But who is in this “assembly”?  Are they just the angels?  Or does this assembly include the church? It is not clear who the “angels” are in verse 22.  In Matthew 11:10 John the Baptist is called an “angel” because the word means “messenger”.  If these are the “cloud of witnesses” in verse 1, the saints who have preceded us, dare we expand this group to include the entire (verse 23) “…church of the firstborn, whose names are written in heaven”?

It is in part a question of punctuation (punctuation is not inspired) whether our word “assembly” is the last word of verse 22 or the first word of verse 23.  If it belongs in verse 23, it is better understood to refer to the church.  If it is part of verse 22, it refers to the thousands of messengers (angels?) in attendance.

So, who exactly is celebrating God’s achievements among His people?


The entire twelfth  chapter is a caution to remain faithful, to be holy, to stay on the straight and narrow even if persecuted. Writing to the church, the  writer’s tone changes to that of a solemn warning when he reminds us of unfaithful Israel’s lost opportunity under Moses.

The writer of Hebrews (may I say, Paul?) rolls back the curtain. We have the privilege here to be in attendance at—from our present perspective—this unimaginable and glorious festivity on Mount Zion in contrast to Israel’s experience (in the Old Testament) at the foot of Mount Sinai on fire.  That scene was so terrifying that even Moses was “trembling with fear.” [verse 21] 


Paul, then, speaking to us,  adds:

 See to it that you do not refuse him who speaks.  … let us be thankful, and … worship God acceptably with reverence and awe, — verse 25, 28.

(We should put this verse on a  plaque hanging on our bedroom wall.)

Be thankful, and …
worship God acceptably
with reverence and awe.

The words reverence and awe take on a more somber tone.


There is no room here for the fear of persecution or shame from living outside a life of holiness.    This is a celebration of the grace of God!

… throw off … the sin that so easily entangles – verse 1


Worship includes service—an idea common in Paul’s writings.  This is not the church service but the church in service—non-compulsory service.  We serve Him because we love Him.


This is a pious fear of God.  Piety, yes!  But also a fear, a respect, a profound acknowledgment of His omnipotent love.  It is a devotion to God resolved to forevermore honor Him.


This word, scholarship says, describes a “repugnance” (a shame) to doing anything that might dishonor God. Our awe speaks to a lasting humility that must never lose sight of what God has done for us.

It behooves us, especially when our faith is most tested or the cross we carry feels heaviest, that we, as Paul began, “run with perseverance the race marked out for us.”

To those who overcome: There is a great victory celebration coming!

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Hosea

When my mom was living in a nursing home there was a certain amount of sorrow that came with each visit. She would beg me to take her out of there, something we all know I couldn’t do.  There were living with her persons she would never meet—dozens of forgotten souls lining hallways or abandoned out of sight and mind somewhere asleep.

I discovered that, as humans, we have a tolerance level for heartache.  When I could, I did visit, but I could understand why some people might depersonalize the elderly and tend to them like one might empty a cat pan. I won’t justify this level of indifference but I can understand how the human capacity to empathize with another’s pain has limits. We sometimes do what is required of us by ethical standards, as an expression of a tearless love, but the ability to ‘feel’ is severely restricted.

When someone’s spouse confessed unfaithfulness to me as a pastor I observed at times a level of suffering for which I was speechless.  One of them might have been called the victim but both were. The path to reconciliation, if one could be found, was probably a long, windy road through harsh feelings, unscheduled confrontations, and not a few sleepless, tearful nights. Adjusting or learning to accept or understand what had happened is a fragmented process, broken promises mingled in with the debris of accusations, fault finding, and ultimatums.  As a counselor I could not feel sympathy as they perhaps hoped I would.  My marriage was not hanging by an emotional thread over this abyss.

Now, this last example, for those astute enough to see it already:  I am talking about Hosea and Gomer in the Bible and they simply are a microcosm of God and the “Children of Israel.”  This was the pastor’s topic in church recently and I want to believe I would have presented the prophet’s thoughts the same as he did. Unfortunately, we anesthetize  the text before operating on it.  We send the Lord’s thoughts to the taxidermist.  Our remarks sound good but there is no life in them, no tears, no agony. Yet the text is overflowing with deep, churning feelings, God yelling out His pain.

As he [the Lord] says in Hosea: “I will call them ‘my people’ who are not my people; and I will call her ‘my loved one’ who is not my loved one,” – Romans 9:25

she is not my wife,     and I am not her husband. – Hosea 2:2

My heart is changed within me; all my compassion is aroused. They will follow the Lordhe will roar like a lion. – Hosea 11:8, 10

No congregation is prepared to ‘feel’ the hurt God must be exhibiting in the original language.  We are probably afraid to profile a prostitute, for one.  We are too ‘holy’ to even discuss such things.  The very nature of the subject is restricted and there are children seating in some of those chairs.

We have also done God an injustice here because a major subject in the entire Bible is the burden of this prophet, of which he now has a personal understanding.  We not only ignore the fact that a lack of faithfulness toward the God that loves us grieves Him, but when we sought a theological description of Him we invented names that fit our interests and desires and not His!  We call Him ‘Jehovah-Jireh’ which was the name Abraham gave to a place not God, while God’s name ‘Jealous’ never made the theology book.

Do not worship any other god, for the Lord, whose name is Jealous, is a jealous God. – Exodus 34:14

There is also a concern that any attempt at describing God’s heart on this subject of idolatry (in any form) has to be done in the spirit God Himself wrote it.  It does not necessarily serve inspiration’s cause when we yell from the pulpit. Volume without the correct passion would not honor the message we purport to herald.

When Israel melted down some jewelry and molded the liquid gold into a calf, idol worship was obvious, but we might have a few people trying to expunge from their daily routine some perfectly good activity.  Maybe some will feel guilty for no reason, which is never good. We have struck a rock we should have spoken to—if you know what I mean.

At least now you know why a forty minute sermon takes all week to prepare.  It has to be slow cooked in an atmosphere of prayer before some truth is tender enough to feed the soul.

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Hidden Treasures

I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Psalms 119:11

Many scholars maintain the author of the 119th Psalm is a youth, based on verses 99-100:

I have more insight than all my teachers, for I meditate on your statutes. I have more understanding than the elders, for I obey your precepts.

Beside the blatant disrespectful reference to his elders, the author shows a presumption of holiness that is more the thoughts of a first year bible student than an aged saint.

If a young man had said verse 11, it seems more likely that he expressed his heart’s desire than a principle his experience taught him. If this was David, as many want to believe, his commitment to Holiness—we should admit—was on sabbatical during his dalliance with Bathsheba.

I am not railing on the psalmist but my experience with temptation has taught me that my earlier resolve, as a lad, to live a holy life, to give myself wholly to the Lord’s service, would eventually find the devil challenging it. As a young adult, then a married man, then a father, then a pastor, I had no idea what life had in store for me. I need not confess: I wasn’t perfect in my commitment to sinlessness.

If David did write this psalm and if he wrote it after his affair (which is possible since parts of the psalm suggest later events in his life), if he had lived a while and had a time of introspection along with a little added instruction from Nathan, the prophet, then verse 11 becomes a serious lesson forged, so to speak, in the furnace of a self-imposed misery. Life taught him that saying it was far easier than living it!

But the bigger lesson, now having been there and regrettably done that (whatever “that” means for each of us), is that a commitment to holiness requires first a love for God’s Word. The psalmist thought he loved the Word because he enjoyed singing it and studying it, but he found that he needed to “hid it” in his heart—something an aged saint would have spoken with far more meaning and conviction that a young and arrogant theologian. We used to sing a song in church that began: “years I spent in vanity and pride” Even the children learned this hymn but, for obvious reasons, with far less meaning, far less heart.

We could dissect this verse, learn the meanings of the Hebrew words and study the historical and theological context, but do we really need to? I backed away from such a diagnosis of this verse, for starters, because I couldn’t be sure exactly what the psalmist meant by “your word.” To begin with he didn’t have my bible which includes Paul’s letters and the gospels. Even most of the prophets followed him and if he had the “law of Moses” most of this was ceremonial and probably more oral tradition than written down.

As a youth, if it’s David, he probably sat quietly on some hill side practicing the presence of God while his flock grazed peacefully nearby. His heart never stopped panting deer like after God-even though he lived through some very bad personal decisions.

But I will say that “hid” means to “treasure” because we tend to wisely hid things that we don’t want to flaunt. “Treasure,” though, is a better translation:  treasure and guard. Hiding God’s word means cherishing it.  We don’t hid God’s Word in the sense of not wanting to share or  declare it but in the sense of prizing it above all other possessions.  We also tend to guard what we treasure [same Hebrew word]. Job taught us that we cannot say we treasure or guard God’s Word unless we are also living it!

I have not departed from the commands of his lips; I have treasured the words of his mouth more than my daily bread. – Job 23:12

We are praying: Help me live this truth, Lord! Be my sponsor.  Intervene, intercede, interrupt, however and whatever, in my life that I might learn verse 11.  And now look out! A cry for holiness God takes very seriously!

And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one. Matthew 6:13.

We used to warn about praying for patience and then some humbling experience makes us want to die rather than face our public. And the assumption was that God was behind this embarrassing lesson in humility.

What might God do or allow if we pray for the hidden treasures of Psalm 119:11?  Lord, may I love and cherish all you say to me in your written Word and in life that I listen.  I cherish your Word and know that following you is my heart’s cry.  Help me live it out.  Amen.

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Prayer

A distraught and desperate father made his way through pressing crowds to bring his possessed son to Jesus’ disciples for deliverance. They seemed powerless to help.  They had yet to know that spiritual warfare requires a prayer life that knows how to fight.  Little then did they realize the importance of a prayer life that could meet this challenge.

Master, I have brought unto thee my son, which hath a dumb spirit Mark 9:17

When Jesus arrived on the scene, His instructed the helpless nine:

This kind can come out only by prayer Mark 9:29.

There are 8 different New Testament words for prayer and scholarship teaches us that these are all the same prayer, They have varied translation: request, petition, supplication, prayer, .. and even a vow. but

…on the distinction between these words…when all has been said, it will still to a great extent remain true that they will set forth, not different kinds of prayer, but prayer contemplated from different sides and under different aspects.⁠1

Our word here for prayer calls our attention to the spiritual warfare for the souls of men. Scholarship calls our word here: “a pious conversation⁠2with God.  And we are quick to add: in the New Testament is  found, too frequently to be ignored, the phrase:  in the Spirit.     Whether we are seeking God on our own behalf or that of another (after an Old Testament use.)⁠4   this aspect of our prayer life recognizes that prayer is not a matter of words nor is it simply an emotional outlet. Prayer is a spiritual reality we enter into because here we meet with God.

Our christian walk and our faith are the spiritual side of this life and we are not paranoid in knowing that there is armed against us a spiritual opposition.

For our struggle is not against flesh and blood, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the powers of this dark world and against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly realms. – Ephesians 6:12

And it is because the battle is spiritual, our prayer life must be spiritually empowered. Our prayer for one another is the primary weapon we wield against the foe, the devil.

And pray in the Spirit on all occasions with all kinds of prayers and requests. With this in mind, be alert and always keep on praying for all the Lord’s people. – Ephesians 6:18.

“Praying in the Spirit” is an oft used phrase in a number of epistles which indicates it was already theologically significant.⁠5

The injunction to pray in the Spirit, according to the Apostle Paul, follows on his description of the armor of a believer against assaults of evil.  Dr. J Vernon McGee referred to this as  “lay[ing] hold of God for spiritual resources.” Spiritual warfare requires spiritual praying to have an effective offensive strategy against all that challenges our faith. Paul recognized “the sufferings of this present time” [Romans 8:18] were not to be passed off as just  the price of discipleship.  Suffering impacts faith and it needs to share in our victory with faith.

I want to know Christ—yes, to know the power of his resurrection and participation in his sufferings – Philippians 3:10

Let us also glory in our sufferings, … because God’s love has been poured out into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, – Romans 5:3,5

The connection between suffering and empowered ministry is “laying hold of God” in prayer.

There are times perhaps prayer may begin as words we stumble over, burdens we cannot begin to carry.  We are hurting souls whose pain is beyond the reach of all that we think we knew about life. Life’s circumstances seem out of control—but not God’s.  Our  cry has no language.  In desperation we may collapse in tears.  The heart is overwhelmed.  We recognize that we need to meet with God. We need to talk to Him, We must pray in the Spirit.

In the same way, the Spirit helps us in our weakness. We do not know what we ought to pray for, but the Spirit himself intercedes [meets with God] for us through wordless groans. – Romans 8:26.

 

One more thing from the Beatitudes: Jesus’ instruction to his disciples in response to persecution on the day He gave them the secret to their happiness as believers.

“But I tell you, love your enemies and pray [meet with God] for [the benefit of or with regard to ] those who persecute you. –  Matthew 5:44.

This who persecute us are the same who verbally abuse us, ridicule and insult us.  It is not clear if Jesus enjoined us to prayer for them or simply because of them but does it matter?  We are meeting with God to revitalize our resolute commitment to follow Jesus.  And this, too, should be our prayer.

Now, Lord, consider their threats and enable your servants to speak your word with great boldness. – Acts 4:29

 


1 Richard C. Trench.Synonyms of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975) p 19
2 Gerhard Kittel. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1974). Vol II p 807.
The Hebrew Word for prayer [וָֽאֶתְפַּלֵּ֛ל] the the reflexive means intercessory prayer   Deuteronomy 9:20 And the LORD was angry enough with Aaron to destroy him, but at that time I prayed for Aaron too. Brothers and sisters, pray for us. – I Thessalonians 5:25.
Jude 1:20 praying in the Holy Spirit.  Pentecostals see this as a form of speaking in tongues but “wordless groans” is also a possible description.
I Corinthians 14:15 I will pray with my spirit, but I will also pray with my understanding; I will sing with my spirit, but I will also sing with my understanding.
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Supplications

The word “Supplications” (some translate “petitions”) is found only once in our New Testament but well worth the study. It was said of Jesus that

During the days … on earth, he offered up prayers and petitions [our word: supplications] with fervent cries and tears to the one who could save him from death, and he was heard because of his reverent submission.⁠1

Scholarship calls this word “the olive-branch bound round with white wool, held forth by the  supplicant.⁠2  “…suppliants approached the one whose aid they would implore holding an olive branch entwined with white wool and fillets, to signify that they came as suppliants.⁠3 The olive branch is used to denote a request for protection.⁠4 Another scholar adds, “…approaching the one whose aid they would implore.”⁠5  Supplication is, therefore, the defining moment when the supplicant surrenders unconditionally to one that is sought for their help.  The battle for them is over.  Their resources spent, their resolve to hold on in their own strength now past, they give themselves over to another for protection.

The context of the Savior’s prayer is not only necessary to understand its meaning   but to understand why it is never used in the New Testament in reference to our praying.

Reverend Chuck Smith calls Jesus’ prayer here  “a reference to Jesus’ experience in the Garden of Gethsemane when He wept before God.”⁠6 This is not meant to be a study of Jesus’ passion, but the more we understand His agony, the more we will understand his supplication.  It was as a supplicant He cried “Father, if it is possible, may this cup be taken from me.’⁠7 According to the Apostle John’s witness, His soul was “heavy.”⁠8  John Mark, who might have recorded the Apostle Peter’s recollection, recalled Jesus adding, “My soul is overwhelmed with sorrow to the point of death.”⁠9

Words fail us here.  The Apostle Matthew recalled that our Savior was in pain and distress.  Jesus’ reaction in that moment seemed desperate to find another way, a plan ‘B’ for our Salvation.  But there was none.  The Apostle John remembered Jesus remarking, “It was for this hour that I came into the world…..”⁠10

This word for “supplication” is not used to signify our prayer life because He suffered so we would never have to suffer for our sinfulness. Jesus came to the end of His resources so that our supply would be infinite and eternal.⁠11

(It is believed by some, including myself, that Jesus’ death was inevitable at this point.  His strength and endurance was spent. His heart physically ruptured on the cross.)  He now collapsed into the Father’s will for our Salvation. He came to the end of His road so that a road would be eternally laid before us to walk down.⁠12  Jesus, as we know, was providing for our redemption.

This does not mean we should not pray for God’s protection or that we should not surrender unconditionally to God’s grace.  We should.  But God’s protection for the believer is a given⁠13 because of Jesus’ death and resurrection.   If we feel that circumstances have made us a supplicant, God would understand that, too. As a supplicant we recognized that our own resources are depleted, our strength exhausted, and our tolerance to suffering exceeded and we now live or die on  an absolute dependence on God.  David adjured,

Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him [LXX 36:7: supplicate Him] ; do not fret when people … carry out their wicked schemes.⁠14


1 Hebrews 5:7.
2 Aeschylus, Eumen. 43, 44; compare Virgil, aen. viii. 116: ‘Paciferaeque manu ramum praetendit olivae;’  κλάδος ἀπὸ τῆς ἱερᾶς ἐλαίας ἐρίῳ λευκῷ κατεστεμμένος – holding an olive-branch entwined with white wool.
The only references in the Old Testament worth looking into do not draw out the meaning of this word as clearly and emphatically as does this reference in the Gospels.
And God speaking to Job scolded.
Job 41:3  (LXX 40:22) Will it [Leviathan]⁠ keep begging you for mercy [make supplication to you]?
Now just what the leviathan is, they’re not quite sure. Some think that it is perhaps a crocodile, some think that it’s perhaps even a dragon, while others think that it perhaps is a hippopotamus with a hefty hide. And so those are some of the opinions.
3 see https://www.blueletterbible.org/lang/lexicon/lexicon.cfm?Strongs=G2428&t=KJV
4 see Gerhard Kittel. Theological Dictionary of the New Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans Publ. Co., 1974). vol III.. p 297.
5 Joseph Thayers. Thayer’s Greek-English Lexicon. (Hendrickson Publishers, 1996) p 301.
6 Chuck Smith. https://www.blueletterbible.org/Comm/smith_chuck/c2000_Hbr/Hbr_005.cfm?a=1138007
7 Matthew 26:39.
8 John 12:27-28.
9 Mark 14:34.
10 John 12:27.
11 Ephesians 2:7 in order that in the coming ages he might show the incomparable riches of his grace, expressed in his kindness to us in Christ Jesus.
12 Isaiah 35:8 And a highway will be there; it will be called the Way of Holiness; it will be for those who walk on that Way. The unclean will not journey on it; wicked fools will not go about on it.
13 Psalms 91:1 Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
14 Psalms 37:7.
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The Tabernacle

I began my Bible training officially in 1965 to become a minister. I will always remember when our pastor’s wife and her friend drove me to the school and left me alone at the side of this country road where it met the lane leading onto campus somewhere in Eastern Pennsylvania, Montgomery County.  [The “lane” is shown above.] I stood there for a moment perhaps a bit apprehensive while trying to piece together the personal history that lead to here.  I began slowly to compose my thoughts sufficient to take one step closer to the campus.  I took another and began to walk cautiously into what was to become my future.

The evening I arrived at NBI the air was different—a precursor of exciting things to come—fresh and refreshing, unlike the diurnal metallic tasting smog of the city. I would soon discover the night sky. The city sky was a canopy of darkness denying the stars their admiring audience. The sky on campus, here in the country, was a universe of lights that always spoke to this Sunday school graduate of divine covenants. But, then, all this was frightening to me for I had only read about such things in books.

As I walked unto campus a soft breeze caressed my shoulders like an ordained comfort. I sauntered along making my way first to “The Tabernacle,” an open air sanctuary on the edge of this small plot of land where I would spend the next three years before marrying and spending my final year off campus. The Tabernacle was a sideless, wooden tent with rows of old unpainted benches—space enough to seat a thousand worshippers. But aside from God, I was alone. Silent tears watered my cheeks as I walked toward the platform. I longed for God to make sense of this.

Am I where He wanted me to be!? In my heart, I could have no future without Him; so, if this was a gross misstep, I was, indeed, in a difficult place.  I was already being eaten alive by nostalgia. I had never been away from the city for more than a week at a time and that only a few times in twenty years and now that thought was pushing its way to the front of the line to be heard: I might never go back!  From school, as it turned out, I would start ministry that would lead me farther away from the only home in the only culture in the only city I had ever known.

I strolled up and down among those empty benches, making my way behind the platform into a makeshift prayer room and back out again, talking to God, sharing my heart, my anxiety, my homesickness, and above all, my desire to follow Him.  It wasn’t a question of His forsaking me;  it was a question of my not forsaking Him.

An hour  [?]  went by when I finally continued my walk to the administration building.  I was on my way.

taken from Talking to God: How I Found Peace

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So Much Sorrow

Why is there so much sorrow in the world? This question has found its way to the center of the argument against a belief in the existence of a God of love and mercy.  If God loved His creation, could He condone so much suffering?  But God not only condones it, He participates in it according to some christian teaching. Professor Bart Erhman, who is a textual critic of bible scholarship fame, speaks for many why the Christian faith no longer fascinates them:

I left the faith for what I took to be (and still take to be) an unrelated reason: the problem of suffering in the world.”⁠1

Whether suffering was the last straw or the sole reason for the professor’s deconversion, I do not know.  But he raises an interesting point of which much has already been written.  If God were real and a God of love, why any suffering!?  This is a favorite bullet point for non-believers in debating the existence of God.  And it tipped the scales for more educated and smart people than just the professor for whom science now outweighs faith in importance.  They would rather rely upon their own wit in a dilemma than to talk to a God they no longer believe is there for them.  They would rather depend on themselves for the solutions to their problems than to trust in a God of Love to guide them.

This is where worldviews enter the discussion.  Christians have made room in their worldview for suffering claiming it was the result of sin and it can serve God as a discipline to bring us all closer to Him.  The professor’s worldview is more scientific depending on our own discovery and inventiveness to improve life.  Some are evolutionaries who belief in a sort of survival of the fittest that will eventually bring mankind into a utopia free from poverty and all forms of suffering.  Either way, science or evolution, suffering has no adequate explanation other than as a weakness that needs eradicating.

But is it possible that no one of these views by itself is adequate to explain suffering?  Is it possible that one view overlaps another?

For a christian believer who is in constant communication with God, The Lord’s love is very much a part of the explanation of all things—especially, their suffering—as something that brings them nearer God?  But it is equally true for the person with no prayer life that they are on their own in this life; so, the other worldviews make more sense to them!?

Is it possible also for those who do not pray and have no contact with God that they are left to navigate the rapids as best they can and if they flounder in the waves, best they know how to swim because, for them, there is no God to rescue.  Call it fate, but there is a sense in which for the non-believer—No!  For the person who has no communication line open with God; for the person who does not have a prayer life—suffering is an earthly experience with no higher purpose.  Life, for the person not used to going to God for help, is a coin toss and now and again they lose.  Understandably for these persons, suffering serves no lofty goal.  Evolution wants to filter it out.

For  the non-believer, the Apostle Paul talking about a creation that is groaning sounds like so much nonsense.  But it makes infinite sense to a believer who sees our sinfulness as a cause for much suffering in nature.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time.⁠2

The distinction, therefore, between those who have an acceptance of suffering in this life while they await a suffering free life to come and those who accuse our Creator of mismanaging His resources by allowing suffering to exist, is one of prayer. Talking to God makes that big a difference in our view of life.  Praying—not only a good theological explanation—helps us gain a more tolerable perspective on suffering.  Talking things over with God can help us to be more accepting of the less desirable experiences of life.

When the Apostle Paul was pursued by his opposition (this is the greek word for persecute, namely, to hunt down), he told one church, “I am exceeding joyful⁠3  When James, Jesus’ brother, felt the hunter’s arrow whiz by he happily accepted it as something he must endure, a small price for following His Savior.  He explained:

Consider it pure  joy⁠4
Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love  him.⁠5

Some of the church’s most inspiring hymns were born out of much sorrow.
And what should we say about illness and sickness? The Apostle John said it best:

Dear friend, I pray that you may enjoy good health.⁠6

The value of suffering is only realized by those who have first discovered the value of prayer.


1 Bart Ehrman. Jesus Interrupted (New York:Harper Collins Pulishers, 2009), 277.
2 Romans 8:22.
3 2 Corinthians 7:4.
4 James 1:2.
5 James 1:12.
6 3 John 1:2.
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I Don’t Need A Plumber – Creator

We sometimes forget in our desperation that God has designs upon our lives not always congruous with our own.  He wants to continue the process of molding us, working the clay of our personhood, into someone He can communicate His love and grace to more fully.  Is it possible that our despondency over foiled plans actually get a thumbs up from God?  We want things: blessings and all things easy.  This may become a problem when it comes to prayer.

When I read Father Donovan’s distinction between “a continuing creation” vs. “a closed or finished creation” I got so excited, I had to make a comment or two of my own.  It is not enough to pray to God because He once proved His awesomeness on creation week, but because He continues to prove it.   The Bible, again, is not the record of what God did but the revelation of what God does. Father Donovan is spot on::

We Christians profess to believe in a continuing creation. …The idea of a closed and finished creation, an idea based on the impossibility of God having any interest in the creation He set in inexorable motion … is a pagan idea…⁠1

Let me say it this way:  If you need a plumber, call a plumber; but if you need a creator, talk to God!

So what exactly does a Creator God do for a living? According to the word “create” used in the Bible, He can take a clump of clay or a dark barren landscape, or a life without meaning, and see something beautiful and meaningful that He can form it into.  And then He does just that!

Just the term, create, in the Hebrew dictionary is insightful: Creating includes: breaking, cutting, separating, carving, smoothing, polishing, fashioning, forming, producing,⁠2 among others.  Ouch!

If we want to clean up our act and live free from self-imposed guilt, call on the Creator, as David did in the Bible:

Create in me a pure heart, O God⁠3

If what we want to do is follow in Jesus’ footsteps—not literally, but in terms of our lifestyle, our moral perspective, our love of God, etc.—we need to talk to the Creator:

And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. …predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son….⁠4

After being diagnosed with an aggressive prostate cancer I underwent a bone scan to see if it entered my skeletal system, but—confession time—I didn’t ask God to heal me.  I left that to my christian friends whose prayers for me are always greatly appreciated.  When the scan came back negative, I thanked the Lord for this, but I knew that whichever way it went, I would still be grateful. He’s not my plumber; so I don’t always expect Him to fix my pipes.

He can fix pipes or He sometimes finds me a plumber.  I am grateful for a team of medical professionals and I credit their expertise and the love they have for their craft and their patients for all the help they give.

Yes, sometimes the Creator heals!  But He is my Creator first and His primary concern is working on my soul.

It is not that we expect too much of God when we pray for healing or any one of a number of other needs we are desperate to have met.  Actually, when we fail to understand His creative power in our lives, we expect too little!

You did awesome things that we did not expect,  You came down, and the mountains trembled before you. Since ancient times no one has heard, no ear has perceived, no eye has seen any God besides you, who acts on behalf of those who wait for him. – Isaiah 64:3-4.

no human mind has conceived the things God has prepared for those who love him – I Corinthians 2:9.


1 Father Vincent J. Donovon, Christianity Rediscovered: Twenty-Fifth Anniversary Edition (Maryknoll, NY: Orbis Books, 1978) p 100.
2 see William Gesenius, A Hebrew And English Lexicon of the Old Testament. Boston, MA: Houghton, Miffin and Company, 1882.
3 Psalms 51:10.
4 Romans 8:28-29.
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Learning to Pray – Thanksgiving

I urge, then, first of all, …  thanksgiving be made for all people – I Timothy 2:1

The word “Thanksgiving” needs no explanation.  When I pray, I must minimize the complaints. I, also, never want to accuse God of not caring.  If I do, I am immediately penitent because I recognize in that moment how the heart has changed and somehow the consolation and assurance prayer offers is missing.  An ungrateful heart or attitude is grossly inappropriate and unfair when we are meeting with the Lord.

Fourteen times in his letters the Apostle Paul underscores the importance of having a grateful heart, a hopeful perspective on our circumstances that is spontaneously recalling past blessings, a mindset that leaves bitterness outside the prayer chamber.⁠1 Thanksgiving is “the grateful acknowledgment of past mercies, as distinguished from the earnest seeking of future [ones].”⁠2


Not only, but prayer without thankfulness is disarmed against an assault by the worries of the day.  Paul reminds us to  “in every situation, by prayer” give God our list of concerns, “with thanksgiving⁠3  if we want to be at peace while we petition Him.

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be thankful.⁠4


Paul compared the value of Faith, Hope and Love in writing the church body at Corinth, calling Love the greatest.⁠5 We like to imagine that he was referencing the eternal quality of love whereas Faith and Hope serve us in this life alone.  The same can be said of prayer.  “There remains these six qualities of prayer: vowing, requesting, supplicating, petitioning, interceding, and giving of thanks. But the greatest of these is giving of thanks.

Amen!
Praise and glory
and wisdom and thanks and honor
and power and strength
be to our God for ever and ever
Amen!”⁠6


Some skeptics mock the believers’ imagination that heaven will be one eternal praise and worship service.  This sounds boring since in this life even christians are into more self-centered interests, personal moments, focused concerns and, yes, ..well, the occasional sin.  Life is more diverse than a single interest provides.  Our attention is frequently redirected—or interrupted, if you prefer—to many and various, more sparkling glitter.

But the skeptic has lost sight of the reality under the surface of this churning sea of desires, down where deeper waters run quietly and eternally.  If anything is temporary, it is harboring hateful thoughts and being self-absorped because the energy curve to maintain these is enormous.  People hide hateful feelings, greed, and a loveless pride.  We tend here to hypocritically carry false smiles about to keep them hidden, but this is emotionally strenuous and an impossibly heavy weight to carry for any length of time.  Living the lie about one’s true feelings costs more—far, far more—than learning to be thankful.

There are a few aspects of our humanity that seem to have an endless source of energy.  There are interests we can identify in our love of nature, of greenery and the colors of Spring, of fresh air and blue sky—to name a few—that never change, never wane, never fail to draw us to the beaches, to the mountains and to the fields of flowers growing wild that in some fashion remain always and ever hypnotic and addictive.  If these are unchanged in this life, what evidence might there be that these are still temporary sources of our happiness?

None.  Quite the opposite. What God has made will never cease to awe us and it is a grateful heart that knows this.  My imagination excites me to picture a praise service in the hereafter that is not just giving God a well deserved standing ovation but a praise service that is filled with the testimonies of the saints and of Jesus’ explanations that finally grout the loose bricks of past blessings with God’s work on our behalf—once unseen, but now, at last, made known and complete.⁠7


1 The Bible is serious about the benefit and importance of gratefulness even regarding our thoughts on those who do not call us friend.
I Peter 3:9 Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing.
Matthew 5:44 But I tell you, love your enemies and pray for those who persecute you,
2 Richard C. Trench.  Synonyms of the New   Testament. (Grand Rapids, MI: Wm. B Eerdmans Publishing Company, 1975) p 192
3 Philippians 4:6 Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition [δέησις], with thanksgiving, present your requests [αἴτημα] to God.
4 Colossians 3:15.
5 I Corinthians 13:13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.
6 Revelation 7:12
7 I Corinthians 13:12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.
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Learning to Pray: Vows

The word Vow is a biblical word for prayer that at first glance seems of little import; after all, it is used only once in the New Testament meaning “prayer” and even there scholarship offers little reason why it should replace the more general term for the same thing.

A vow is more than words promised but words spoken seriously and with a heart to please the one to whom the vow is given…  to God.  “It is a trap to dedicate something rashly and only later to consider one’s vows,”⁠1 Solomon warned. As another translation⁠2 reads, “Don’t trap yourself by making a rash promise to God and only later counting the cost.

I am reminded of Esther before her king. Though the word “vow” is not here, it is somehow understood in her words, “If it please the king”.  She is careful not to speak out of turn, to preface her request with “if you love me” or to seek only what pleases her and not him.  Her heart was in the right place. Esther appears as one who was committed to the king’s service as his wife.

When he saw Queen Esther standing in the court, he was pleased with her and held out to her the gold scepter that was in his hand. So Esther approached and touched the tip of the scepter. Then the king asked, “What is it, Queen Esther? What is your request? Even up to half the kingdom, it will be given you.”

If it pleases the king,” replied Esther, “let the king, together with Haman, come today to a banquet I have prepared for him.”⁠3

Talking to the Lord means we are in the presence of our Sovereign.  We have approached the Throne. We are inside the holy of holies and in the presence of His Holiness.  Commitments we make to Him are never to be made lightly.

What we say, and even how we say it, should honor Him.  Our thoughts in biblical parlance become acts of obeisance, a bowing low, humbly committing ourselves to His will and wisdom along with our requests.

In one Psalm,⁠4 perhaps written by Solomon, the Psalmist offers one of the few insights into this word for prayer.

LORD, remember David and all his self-denial. He swore an oath to the LORD, he made a vow to the Mighty One of Jacob:

The Greek translation reads, “Lord, remember David and all his meekness how he sware [swore] to the Lord and vowed to the God of Jacob.” The word “meekness” is in other translations “affliction” but it is a “self-imposed trouble” which David endured because he promised God a Temple:. “in order to procure a worthy abode for the sanctuary of Jahve [Jehovah]”⁠5  Although “meekness” may not be the favored translation,⁠6 an affliction endured with the desire to serve and please God is just that.

James, Jesus’ brother, spoke of a vow (in our sole New Testament reference) as a “prayer offered in faith.”⁠7  Most scholars gloss over this as just another word for prayer but, perhaps, it is better to understand our faith as a commitment to be faithful to God, thus seeing prayer time as a time of rededicating our lives to His service, avowing our desire to please Him in all things.  We bring to Him our needs and it would be presumptuous and an affront to His mercy to assume we should ask anything of Him without the accompanying desire to please Him in the asking.

Take delight in the LORD, and he will give you the desires of your heart.⁠8


1 Proverbs 20:25.
2 NLT New Living Translation.
3 Esther 5:2-4.
4 Psalms 132:1-2.
5 Keil-Delitzsch Commentary on the Old Testament (Errdmann Publishing: Grand Rapids, MI. 1980) vol V. p 310.
6 The Greek term has no exact Hebrew equivalent but the PUAL form used here represents self-imposed troubles.  The LXX translators have cause to use the word “meekness” here.
7 James 5:15.
8 Psalms 37:4.

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