Category Archives: Commentary

Missionary Construction

I’m not sure if missionary construction is more or less well known than missionary linguistics, but they are likely both a bit of a mashup for most people. I took this picture on my way home last week (stuck in holiday traffic, plenty of time to get the shot…) as one of a series of vehicular graveyards I’ve seen across the decades almost everywhere I go in Africa. Typically, it makes me think of how things fall apart here, and how little people probably expected this outcome to whatever they started out doing.

But today I’m reading one of my favorite missionary biographies, “To the Golden Shore”, by Courtney Anderson, on Adoniram Judson. I identify with him in a number of ways. The call to pioneer. Depression. Fruit and very painful circumstances almost constantly mixed. Bible translation.

It was this last that struck me today. This was the passage, presumably from one of his letters:

I sometimes feel alarmed [he reported] like a person who sees a mighty engine beginning to move, over which he knows he has no control. Our house is frequently crowded with company; but I am obliged to leave them to Moung En, one of the best of assistants, in order to get time for the translation. Is this right? Happy is the missionary who goes to a country where the Bible is translated to his hand. (pp398-9)

Perhaps the most important sentence in this section is “Is this right?” How can a missionary set aside talking to potential converts, to work on a book maybe no one will ever read? This must strike the conscience, and it must be dealt with.

The correct answer, I think, has to do with the relationships between longer term and shorter term strategic priorities. What can I do today that will make tomorrow better in some way? To just push off people is unconscionable, but so is continuing to labor day to day with no effort to get the scriptures to those who are (or even may be) converted.  So Adoniram made the tough (and I think open to criticism) choice of delegating daily evangelism for the sake of the future growth and health of the church.

For me, there are two problems with this. First of all, I’m working another step removed. I’m not working so that a single people group will have the scriptures some day. I’m working on systems, and training and raising up workers, so that all of central Africa will have scriptures that speak with power. So it’s an even longer term investment than daily translation for a single people group.

But the other problem is the message of the vehicular graveyards. Who ever built (or bought, shipped, maintained, etc) a car so it would decorate some corner of the forest as it decomposed? I even saw a rusting carcass of a printing press once. Certainly that was bought and shipped there with the idea that it would help the missionary enterprise, not that it would just take oxygen out of the air.

So what will become of my work? I know nothing lasts in this world, but as I consider longer term strategic priorities, I must consider the possibility that I shoot so far out, that nothing comes of it before it starts decomposing. My time in DRCongo felt a bit like this; I planned for ten years, and prepared and built tools with that horizon in mind, but they weren’t used very much when we left only four years later.

So I try to constantly mix planning horizons. I feel the pull Adoniram described, to work for future missionaries, so I must set aside time for that. Added to this is the repeated realization that I know no one with the vision or capability to do what I’m doing now (not bragging, just reality; this is a niche work).

But Kim and I also sing in the church choir most weeks, and I lead several of the men of the church in Bible study most Saturdays. These are each a different horizon (making worship happen this week and growing up future leaders), but they both address the question of the people right here in front of me.

Then there’s the team that’s actively translating the scriptures, without understanding the tone writing system developed for them some fifty years ago. Has the language’s tone system changed? Probably. Has tone and writing system theory changed in that time? Definitely. Can I help them get back on track? I hope so.

Then there are A→Z+T users, present and future. I’ve been doing a lot of prep work for a tone workshop in the spring, which involves getting people up to speed with A→Z+T and evaluating their trained for the workshop. During this time, I’ve gotten to interact (face to face, by email, and through zoom) with people at different levels of competence and preparation, so I’ve gotten a broader vision for what A→Z+T’s user base will most likely look like.

Sometimes the user question is addressing specific issues, other times it’s fixing things in a more principled way, to avoid future issues. But I’m also working on a workshop presentation and book chapter to help potential users get a vision for what is now possible.

So it feels like running a sprint, a 5k, and a marathon, all at the same time (not that I’ve ever run a marathon, but I imagine…)

But it gives me courage that I’m not the first one to confront these questions, even if some of the details are new. Adoniram didn’t have Python, Autosegmental theory, or object oriented programming (though he did have snakes, elephants and tigers), but he did know the difficult task of prioritizing the needs in front of him today, and what most be done (today) to prepare for tomorrow.

And when I think of Adoniram’s first ten years of missionary service, including a death prison, the loss of his first wife and several children, along with any hope that his translation work would be preserved through the Anglo-Burman war, I’m encouraged to know that God did preserve that translation work, though a series of improbable coincidences. And he ultimately built his church in Myanmar on it, with generations of Christians using that translation to great effect.

So apparently (he comes to realize, again) God does know what he’s doing, even if His planning horizons are even longer and more complex than we can imagine. So please join me in prayer, that the One worshipped by the magi would lend me some of His wisdom in these days, as I sort through what to do when, and prioritize appropriately long term strategies that will produce fruit that will last.

Ministry in a Time of COVID

On one of my trips out and about, posing with some local electrical wires

For I want you to know how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face, that their hearts may be encouraged, being knit together in love, to reach all the riches of full assurance of understanding and the knowledge of God’s mystery, which is Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments. For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ. (Col 2:1-5 ESV)

I heard a meditation this morning that included this passage, and it seemed to me very apropos for this time.

The point that shocked me the most (which really shouldn’t have but did) is that isolation ministry is by no means a new thing. Yes, we know that Paul spent a lot of time in prison, and that much of what we have in written from him in the New Testament is a consequence of that fact. Certainly Paul spent time with many people in face to face ministry, but for large chunks of his ministry, he simply couldn’t.  Hence we have

how great a struggle I have for you and for those at Laodicea and for all who have not seen me face to face

He has extreme concern for these people and for the fruit of the gospel in their lives, and he expresses it in useful and powerful ways in his writing, though they have not yet seen each other face to face.…

So I think the point here is to take this time of isolation as a time of enforced creativity. What can we do now, because we must? One scholar in my field wrote a book while laid up with a broken leg. Bad for him in isolation, but it brought great results for our field. I’ve gotten to know WhatsApp a lot better, as that is my only contact with our local church here. One of my colleagues is even getting new language data through WhatsApp. Not something to do if you have alternatives, but I was encouraged to see him forging a way forward given that he didn’t.

The systems I would normally use for online collaboration didn’t get set up (between me and any Cameroonian language groups) before isolation orders came down, so one strategic change this will make in my work is that collaboration (including online data backups) will be the first agenda item in any work that I do. And it really should have been all along, but it just seems like one of those things you can let slide (until you can’t, much like backups.…)

The other point in this passage relevant to our time is one of the why’s Paul states:

I say this in order that no one may delude you with plausible arguments.

I talk with my children about plausibility a lot, since it seems like an important concept in this phase of the information age. That is, in the time where what is actually true is less important than what sounds plausible. That is, if we hear something from a news source we trust (when did that become a thing?!?), if we can say “that sounds right”, then we believe it (or at least we’re more inclined to).

The result of this appears to be that the internet seems full of people saying all kinds of unproven (and at times unprovable) things, which align with one worldview/narrative enough that it can be accepted, because it “sounds right” from within that worldview. But is it actually true? We seem to have stopped even asking that question. So each one accepts only what sounded right based on assumptions and beliefs held before the information was ever heard. The consequence of this is the phenomena of echo chambers all around, with no one actually listening to opposing views, and no one (apparently) open to seeking or hearing the truth.

This is problematic for me, because I worship the Truth. He also called himself the Way, and the Life (John 14:6). What this means to me is that when I seek truth,  it is part of my worship of Jesus. And when I ignore (or don’t care about) the truth, I ignore (or don’t care about) Jesus. So it is important to me to help push people into caring about the actual facts of a matter, before casting judgement on the basis of what is plausible alone.

But the phrase translated “plausible arguments” in the ESV actually has a number of different renderings in different translations: “well-crafted arguments” (NLT), “fine-sounding arguments” (NIV), “smooth rhetoric” (BSB), “persuasive argument(s)” (NASB/HCSB), “persuasive words” (NKJV), “arguments that sound reasonable” (CSB/NET), “false arguments, no matter how good they seem to be” (GNT). So whether the idea of plausibility means much to you or not, I hope it is clear that arguements that sound right but are not (by whatever means) are not good. And Paul is explicitly fighting against these arguments, as part of his Gospel ministry. And he brings this back to the fact that he is not physically present with them:

For though I am absent in body, yet I am with you in spirit, rejoicing to see your good order and the firmness of your faith in Christ.

So perhaps what I’m saying is that I’d love the Christian church to be known, especially in this time, as people who take twitter and facebook (or whatever way we communicate other than face to face) as opportunities for ministry. That we would seek to make our communication based on reconciliation (between each other, and with God; 2Cor 5:20, Eph 2:14), and on truth –valuing it both in our own truthfulness, and in the reverence for the truth that we encourage in others. Because after all the online debates are done, after each viral video passes, the fundamental truth of our universe is that we should worship

Christ, in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge. (Col 2:2b-3 ESV)

Peninnah and Promises

I never met a woman named Peninnah until I lived in Africa. I recall first hearing this name, mostly because it was so strikingly novel that I assumed it was a mistake, and had to ask her name again. Even my spellchecker doesn’t recognize this name. But since that first one I met in the year 2000, I’ve known several —but all in Africa.

I found the above particularly interesting, given that it is a Biblical name. People like naming their kids after heroes of the Bible. So why are all the Peninnahs (that I’ve known) in Africa? Why don’t we name our daughters Peninnah in the US? A look at Peninnah’s story sheds light on this, and helps us know a bit more about Africa, and about the promises of God.

She is introduced at the beginning of 1 Samuel 1 (all ESV) :

[Elkanah] had two wives, one named Hannah and the other Peninnah. And Peninnah had children, but Hannah had none. (v1)

An exhaustive search of the Bible yields only four references to “Peninnah”, all in 1 Samuel 1:2-6. We know that she was loved and cared for by her husband:

And whenever the day came for Elkanah to present his sacrifice, he would give portions to his wife Peninnah and to all her sons and daughters. (v4)

But as might be expected in a polygamous household, there was not equal love and care for the two wives:

But to Hannah he would give a double portion, for he loved her even though the LORD had closed her womb. (v5)

So we see that Hannah has more love and care from her husband, but Peninnah has children. Naturally, these two wives of Elkana did not get along:

Because the LORD had closed Hannah’s womb, her rival [Peninnah] would provoke her and taunt her viciously. And this went on year after year. Whenever Hannah went up to the house of the LORD, her rival taunted her until she wept and would not eat. (vv6-7)

So one might say that Peninnah was not a particularly nice woman. This may have come in part from her husband loving his other wife more, but in any case, she made Hannah’s life miserable.

In terms of understanding the scriptures, Peninnah is perhaps most helpful to us as a contrast with Hannah, who later gives birth to Samuel. Interestingly enough, I can’t recall ever meeting an African Hannah. But 1 Samuel gives us a lot more information on Hannah. Her character is revealing in response to her co-wife’s taunting:

In her bitter distress, Hannah prayed to the LORD and wept with many tears. (v10)

Her prayers are so moving they are taken for drunkenness. But in the end, the priest of Shiloh looks favorably on her:

“Go in peace,” Eli replied, “and may the God of Israel grant the petition you have asked of Him.” (17)

Whatever might be said of the value of the priesthood of Eli and his sons (e.g., 1 Sam 2:12), Hannah’s worship seems sincere:

The next morning Elkanah and Hannah got up early to bow in worship before the LORD, and then returned home to Ramah. (v19a)

Curiously, Peninnah doesn’t seem to be there at this time. Did she no longer go to Shiloh to worship with her Husband each year? Or was she just written out of the story at this point, as unimportant? Either way, her importance to the story is at least minimized, and there is no Biblical evidence of faithful worship from her at this point (since v4), whereas the importance of Hannah’s faith is paramount:

And Elkanah had relations with his wife Hannah, and the LORD remembered her. So in the course of time, Hannah conceived and gave birth to a son. She named him Samuel, saying, “Because I have asked for him from the LORD.” (vv19b-20)

Hannah prayed for a son, and attributed giving birth to him to God. And in time, she fulfilled the vow she made in v11:

Once she had weaned him, Hannah took the boy with her, along with a three-year-old bull, an ephah of flour, and a skin of wine. Though the boy was still young, she brought him to the house of the LORD at Shiloh. And when they had slaughtered the bull, they brought the boy to Eli.

“Please, my lord,” said Hannah, “as surely as you live, my lord, I am the woman who stood here beside you praying to the LORD. I prayed for this boy, and since the LORD has granted me what I asked of Him, I now dedicate the boy to the LORD. For as long as he lives, he is dedicated to the LORD.”

So they worshiped the LORD there. (vv24-28)

And as if that were not enough, Hannah gives a magnificat-esque song of thanksgiving (in 1 Sam 2:1-10), prefiguring Mary’s song of praise after Jesus met John the Baptist, while each was still in the womb (in Luke 1:46-55).

So we see that Peninnah and Hannah provide an interstesting clash between what the scriptures elsewhere call children of the flesh and children of the promise.

In Galatians, this contrast is described in terms of law v promise:

For if the inheritance comes by the law, it no longer comes by promise; but God gave it to Abraham by a promise. (Gal 3:18)

This is an argument against trusting in the Law, but Paul continues to make explicit reference to children born, either as a result of the power of the flesh (the way children are normally born), or as a result of the promise of God.

For it is written that Abraham had two sons, one by a slave woman and one by a free woman. But the son of the slave was born according to the flesh, while the son of the free woman was born through promise. Now this may be interpreted allegorically: these women are two covenants. One is from Mount Sinai, bearing children for slavery; she is Hagar. Now Hagar is Mount Sinai in Arabia; she corresponds to the present Jerusalem, for she is in slavery with her children. But the Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.  (Gal 4:22-26)

So Paul says that the children born by the natural power of the flesh are born into slavery, whereas the children born by the supernatural power of the promise of God are born for freedom, for heaven. And just like with Peninnah and Hannah, the two kinds don’t get along:

Now you, brothers, like Isaac, are children of promise. But just as at that time he who was born according to the flesh persecuted him who was born according to the Spirit, so also it is now. But what does the Scripture say? “Cast out the slave woman and her son, for the son of the slave woman shall not inherit with the son of the free woman.” So, brothers, we are not children of the slave but of the free woman. (Gal 4:28-31)

Note that these references are made to the children of the two wives of Abraham (Sarah and Hagar), but the same applies to Peninnah and Hannah. The one bears children by her own strength, and the other, devoid of any such power of her own, bears children by the promise of God.

This principle is found throughout the new testament. The writer of Hebrews talks about the faith of Abraham as a confidence and trust in a specific promise of God:

For when God made a promise to Abraham, since he had no one greater by whom to swear, he swore by himself, saying, “Surely I will bless you and multiply you.” And thus Abraham, having patiently waited, obtained the promise.  (Heb 6:13-15)

And Paul in Romans contrasts again the inheritance according to the law, and the inheritance according to the promise.

For the promise to Abraham and his offspring that he would be heir of the world did not come through the law but through the righteousness of faith. For if it is the adherents of the law who are to be the heirs, faith is null and the promise is void.  (Rom 4:13-14)

I think of it this way. If your father (or someone else you trusted) promised to give you something of great value (house, boat, boathouse, etc), but it you were concerned that he might not follow through, would it make sense to take him to court over it? To go before a judge and insist that you have a legal right to have a personal promise fulfilled just doesn’t make sense. Rather, if a person has promised something, you can address the fulfillment of that promise on the basis of that personal relationship. Unless, of course, your objective is to ditch the relationship and wrangle what you can from the person by force. Good luck trying that with God….

As I think about the promise(s) of God, it helps me to ask what specific promise(s) we’re talking about. This is because I think people can get fuzzy in their thinking, and think of general “promises” without really having something in mind. Whereas I think God has made specific promises which I think are good for us to trust in, just as we commit specific sins of which it is good for us to repent. Romans 9 gives us a very important clarification of (at least one) promise to Abraham, with its relation to election and the salvation of a remnant, as opposed to the whole: 

But it is not as though the word of God has failed. For not all who are descended from Israel belong to Israel, and not all are children of Abraham because they are his offspring, but “Through Isaac shall your offspring be named.” This means that it is not the children of the flesh who are the children of God, but the children of the promise are counted as offspring. For this is what the promise said: “About this time next year I will return, and Sarah shall have a son.”  (Rom 9:6-9)

So the promise was the supernatural birth to Sarah, a 90+ year old woman. For this passage, it is importantly not the natural birth to Hagar, a much younger and more fertile woman. And these two births distinguish between two lines of descendants of Abraham. And So Romans 9 shows “the word of God has [NOT] failed”, because the promise of salvation never was to all Abraham’s descendants, but rather to his descendants by the promise to Sarah.

In the same way, as we look at “all Israel” later in history, we see that not all are saved. But the promise of God never was that each individual would be saved. Rather, those who are born of the promise will be saved, and those who are born of the flesh will not. Jesus says it this way:

Jesus answered him, “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless one is born again he cannot see the kingdom of God.… That which is born of the flesh is flesh, and that which is born of the Spirit is spirit.…” (John 3:3,6)

So those of us who are born again, who are born of the Spirit, according to the promise of God, will see the kingdom of God. Notably, those whose inheritance derives only from the law, or from their own strength, will not.

To me, this is a very sharp criticism of the “self made man.” American culture is full of the ideal of managing everything by our own strength, of never depending on anyone else. I think it is good to be responsible, and to attend to our daily needs without excessively burdening others. But the clear teaching of scripture is that it is the one who depends on the promise of God, not his own strength, who is approved by God.

A Tale of Two Prophets

The narrative found in 1 Kings 13 is very important to me, personally, because it played a key role in figuring out what to do in my life. How do we understand God’s call on an individual? But despite the very clear and very personal application illuminated to me at that time, I don’t think that message is central to the narrative; something much larger is. Reading through the Kings, one often finds an Israelite king evaluated on where he stands regarding “the sin of Jeroboam”. You find this everywhere. But what is this sin? This is the chapter that describes God’s careful, repeated pleas to Jeroboam, and his response. So this is, at least for me, another shining example of Grace in the old testament. This wicked king is not simply cast aside, but he is given repeated clear warnings, followed by repeated confirmations. God grant that we would fear this example, listen to God’s word, trust Him, and repent.

The story begins on the heels of the division of the nation in chapter 12 into the northern Israel, now lead by Jeroboam, and the southern Judah, still lead by Rehoboam the son of Solomon and grandson of David. Since long before the capital was decided, Moses made clear that national unity would be upheld in part by having a single altar on which to worship God –which is why  worshiping on other “high places” was a problem for many of the Israelite kings. In case you might doubt that Jeroboam had read his Moses, he makes his rationale for setting up new altars clear (all ESV):

26And Jeroboam said in his heart, “Now the kingdom will turn back to the house of David. 27If this people go up to offer sacrifices in the temple of the Lord at Jerusalem, then the heart of this people will turn again to their lord, to Rehoboam king of Judah, and they will kill me and return to Rehoboam king of Judah.” 28So the king took counsel and made two calves of gold. And he said to the people, “You have gone up to Jerusalem long enough. Behold your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt.” 29And he set one in Bethel, and the other he put in Dan.

So the point of these altars (at the southern and northern limits of his domain) was to give people some other place to worship, so they wouldn’t reunite the country under the worship prescribed by Moses and the line of David (and ultimately kill him, as well).

God’s assessment of this move is clear enough, calling the people religious tourists:

30Then this thing became a sin, for the people went as far as Dan to be before one. 31He also made temples on high places and appointed priests from among all the people, who were not of the Levites. 32And Jeroboam appointed a feast on the fifteenth day of the eighth month like the feast that was in Judah, and he offered sacrifices on the altar. So he did in Bethel, sacrificing to the calves that he made. And he placed in Bethel the priests of the high places that he had made. 33He went up to the altar that he had made in Bethel on the fifteenth day in the eighth month, in the month that he had devised from his own heart. And he instituted a feast for the people of Israel and went up to the altar to make offerings.

So Jeroboam made up his own gods/idols to worship, his own places to worship them, his own schedule for worshiping, and his own priests to run the whole thing. He basically reinvented everything God had handed down through Moses, to forge a new identity for the northern kingdom, to cement his rule, and save his life.

The question now is, given this full-frontal assault on the worship of God, what will God do about it? Chapter thirteen tells the story of a prophet God sent from the southern Kingdom:

1And behold, a man of God came out of Judah by the word of the Lord to Bethel. Jeroboam was standing by the altar to make offerings.

I think it is important that the setting is Jeroboam, in the middle of making his own offerings at this altar, since the prophecy has to do with both him and the altar. First, against the altar:

2And the man cried against the altar by the word of the Lord and said, “O altar, altar, thus says the Lord: ‘Behold, a son shall be born to the house of David, Josiah by name, and he shall sacrifice on you the priests of the high places who make offerings on you, and human bones shall be burned on you.’”

In light of what I wrote above, you could take this to mean that the Davidic line that you thought to overcome with this altar will ultimately overcome this altar, and you and your priests will be overcome as well. And to confirm this word, he gave a sign:

3And he gave a sign the same day, saying, “This is the sign that the Lord has spoken: ‘Behold, the altar shall be torn down, and the ashes that are on it shall be poured out.’”

But Jeroboam does not bend to this; rather, he attacks the prophet, and in response receives a sign in his own body:

4And when the king heard the saying of the man of God, which he cried against the altar at Bethel, Jeroboam stretched out his hand from the altar, saying, “Seize him.” And his hand, which he stretched out against him, dried up, so that he could not draw it back to himself.

Then the sign from v3 is fulfilled:

5The altar also was torn down, and the ashes poured out from the altar, according to the sign that the man of God had given by the word of the Lord.

What comes next is a dynamic that always intrigues me. What does God strike someone, only to then heal? He did the same thing with Moses and Pharoah, on multiple occasions. I think it is at least twofold. First, if there was any doubt why the sign occurred, that doubt is removed by the fact that the prophet has the ear of God to heal it:

6And the king said to the man of God, “Entreat now the favor of the Lord your God, and pray for me, that my hand may be restored to me.” And the man of God entreated the Lord, and the king’s hand was restored to him and became as it was before.

But the second reason God did this, I think, is a theme I see developing through this whole chapter: God is being merciful. It’s like God says, “Look, I could just cripple/kill you and be done with it, but I’m not going to. I don’t want you crippled/dead, I want you repentant.”

Jeroboam seems to get that mercy, and he wants to reward the prophet:

7And the king said to the man of God, “Come home with me, and refresh yourself, and I will give you a reward.”

The prophet refuses:

8And the man of God said to the king, “If you give me half your house, I will not go in with you. And I will not eat bread or drink water in this place,

And then he says why, revealing information that is key to the whole chapter:

9for so was it commanded me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘You shall neither eat bread nor drink water nor return by the way that you came.’”

That is, this prophet was not just given a word to speak against the altar, and against Jeroboam and his priests, but he was also himself given a command about how he was to act in doing so. Don’t accept their hospitality, and don’t take the same route home. Act as if you are in hostile territory, because you are. And he looks ready to obey this command:

10So he went another way and did not return by the way that he came to Bethel.

Having concluded the first act, we are now introduced to another prophet, who lives in the northern kingdom, and is informed of everything that happened at the altar:

11Now an old prophet lived in Bethel. And his sons came and told him all that the man of God had done that day in Bethel. They also told to their father the words that he had spoken to the king.

For whatever reason, this prophet chases down the other:

12And their father said to them, “Which way did he go?” And his sons showed him the way that the man of God who came from Judah had gone. 13And he said to his sons, “Saddle the donkey for me.” So they saddled the donkey for him and he mounted it.

And he finds him and confirms his identity:

14And he went after the man of God and found him sitting under an oak. And he said to him, “Are you the man of God who came from Judah?” And he said, “I am.”

And he also offers him hospitality:

15Then he said to him, “Come home with me and eat bread.”

Maybe this was just to be nice, but this prophet new he was asking the other to disobey the command God had given him. And again at first, the prophet refuses, in obedience to the Lord’s command:

16And he said, “I may not return with you, or go in with you, neither will I eat bread nor drink water with you in this place, 17for it was said to me by the word of the Lord, ‘You shall neither eat bread nor drink water there, nor return by the way that you came.’”

So far so good for the Judean prophet. But this is where things get sticky, as the Israelite prophet tests his resolve with a lie:

18And he said to him, “I also am a prophet as you are, and an angel spoke to me by the word of the Lord, saying, ‘Bring him back with you into your house that he may eat bread and drink water.’” But he lied to him.

It is important to understand (for what follows) that the lie doesn’t have to include everything that he said. He was a prophet: he is described as a prophet in v11, and gives true prophecy from the Lord in v21. He is certainly not “as you are” in all respects, but the clear lie is the word he claims to have received. In the face of the lie, the Judean prophet relents, and accepts his hospitality:

19So he went back with him and ate bread in his house and drank water.

Having now disobeyed the command he was given by God, God sends a word to the other prophet, declaring the Judean prophet’s doom:

20And as they sat at the table, the word of the Lord came to the prophet who had brought him back. 21And he cried to the man of God who came from Judah, “Thus says the Lord, ‘Because you have disobeyed the word of the Lord and have not kept the command that the Lord your God commanded you, 22but have come back and have eaten bread and drunk water in the place of which he said to you, “Eat no bread and drink no water,” your body shall not come to the tomb of your fathers.’”

In what seems highly ironic to me, he then continues to be hospitable to the prophet, and send him on his way. Hi could have forced the fulfillment of his prophecy by killing him there, but he didn’t:

23And after he had eaten bread and drunk, he saddled the donkey for the prophet whom he had brought back.

But the word of the Israelite prophet was fulfilled:

24And as he went away a lion met him on the road and killed him. And his body was thrown in the road, and the donkey stood beside it; the lion also stood beside the body.

The Israelite prophet hears what happened, and correctly interprets the news:

25And behold, men passed by and saw the body thrown in the road and the lion standing by the body. And they came and told it in the city where the old prophet lived. 26And when the prophet who had brought him back from the way heard of it, he said, “It is the man of God who disobeyed the word of the Lord; therefore the Lord has given him to the lion, which has torn him and killed him, according to the word that the Lord spoke to him.”

Not that the word that the Lord spoke to him was the word spoken by the Israelite prophet, over the forbidden meal. He goes to get the body, noting the remarkable circumstance that neither the man nor the donkey had been mauled:

27And he said to his sons, “Saddle the donkey for me.” And they saddled it. 28And he went and found his body thrown in the road, and the donkey and the lion standing beside the body. The lion had not eaten the body or torn the donkey.

so he took the body of the Judean prophet, brought him home, and mourned him:

29And the prophet took up the body of the man of God and laid it on the donkey and brought it back to the city to mourn and to bury him. 30And he laid the body in his own grave. And they mourned over him, saying, “Alas, my brother!” 31And after he had buried him, he said to his sons, “When I die, bury me in the grave in which the man of God is buried; lay my bones beside his bones.

This might seem too much irony, for the man who laid the trap that killed the Judean prophet, to mourn him so. But with the next line we understand that his action has been further confirmation of the word spoken to the Judean prophet:

32For the saying that he called out by the word of the Lord against the altar in Bethel and against all the houses of the high places that are in the cities of Samaria shall surely come to pass.”

That is, we have the initial sign of the altar being split (given in v3, accomplished in v5), the sign of Jeroboam’s paralysis (stricken in v4, healed in v6), but now also the confirmation that the third thing the prophet said was also God’s command: that he should not accept hospitality in Israel. This word is confirmed by the miraculous manner of his death, once he disobeyed that command. So that we know that this was a true prophet, and that they word that he declared against the altar would come to pass.

Unfortunately, given all these proofs, Jeroboam did not repent:

33After this thing Jeroboam did not turn from his evil way, but made priests for the high places again from among all the people. Any who would, he ordained to be priests of the high places. 34And this thing became sin to the house of Jeroboam, so as to cut it off and to destroy it from the face of the earth.

This sin ultimately leads to the removal of this kingdom from the land, as foretold in chapter 14:15-16, in response to Jeroboam’s wife’s covert inquiry about their sick son:

the Lord will strike Israel as a reed is shaken in the water, and root up Israel out of this good land that he gave to their fathers and scatter them beyond the Euphrates, because they have made their Asherim, provoking the Lord to anger. And he will give Israel up because of the sins of Jeroboam, which he sinned and made Israel to sin.

This is a stark contrast to the commendation of David in chapter 15:4-5, after the birth of Rehoboam’s son, sinful and faithless Abijam:

Nevertheless, for David’s sake the Lord his God gave him a lamp in Jerusalem, setting up his son after him, and establishing Jerusalem, because David did what was right in the eyes of the Lord and did not turn aside from anything that he commanded him all the days of his life, except in the matter of Uriah the Hittite.

It seems to me that there are so many things we can and will get wrong, but that isn’t God’s primary concern. Even David’s commendation includes the matter of Uriah the Hittite, a “small affair” of adultery, lying, and eventually murder. The difference I see is that David was repentant, asked for Grace, and received it. On the other hand, Jeroboam received multiple proofs that God was serious, but refused to bend, and ultimately led to the destruction of his nation.

There is another application that I take from this, for the Man of God. His real moment of failure was falling for the lie, in preference to the word given to himself. So, when faced with a word of God in apparent conflict with another word of God, take another look, and see the lie for what it is.



Slow to Speak

One of the most useful pair of verses I know, for both parenting and discipleship in general, is James 1:19-20:

19Know this, my beloved brothers: let every person be quick to hear, slow to speak, slow to anger; 20for the anger of man does not produce the righteousness of God. (this and ff: ESV)

One the other hand, the pair of verses I find personally the most terrifying are
Matthew 12:36-37:

36I tell you, on the day of judgment people will give account for every careless word they speak, 37for by your words you will be justified, and by your words you will be condemned.

I know that Jesus doesn’t necessarily mean the same thing as Paul does when he says “we have been justified by faith” (Rom 5:1). Still, there is enough in this statement of our Lord’s to terrify someone who has had as many “careless words” as I have.

Then I run across verses like Proverbs 26:4-5, as I’m trying to discuss with my sons how to address fools:

4Answer not a fool according to his folly,
lest you be like him yourself.
5Answer a fool according to his folly,
lest he be wise in his own eyes.

So are we to “Answer a fool according to his folly”, or not? Apparently, the juxtaposition of these two verses next to each other is intended to tell us: “It depends; sometimes yes, sometimes no”.

Then this morning, my daily Bible reading program led me to two different passages which speak about when to speak, and when not to. The first was in Proverbs 10:10-11:

10Whoever winks the eye causes trouble,
and a babbling fool will come to ruin.
11The mouth of the righteous is a fountain of life,
but the mouth of the wicked conceals violence.

Apparently the first verse addresses two ends of the spectrum. There is a note in my study Bible that there does not seem to be a correspondence in v10, either as a parallel or as a contrast, as might otherwise be expected in Hebrew poetry (and sometimes in Paul, e.g., as here). But I’m not sure what the basis for that not was; the burden of proof should lie on the one who says Hebrew poetry is not parallel in any way, as often as it is (in some way). Anyway, as I see it, the first line in v10 talks about hinting with non-verbals, presumably because what needs to be communicated must also be hidden, presumably because it is shameful. That is, there is a kind of not saying much that indicates that you are causing trouble, and you know it, so you hide your communication in non-verbal signals.

On the other hand, the second line of v10 addresses the one who says too much, ultimately causing his ruin. I assume this is because there is little sense or value in what he says, resulting in in more wasted time than productivity from his speech. Taken together, I see these verses saying “don’t hide your speech; be transparent, but don’t babble on and on about it.” Two different kinds of ruin, caused by two different extremes of speech quantity.

I think this interpretation is confirmed by v11, which addresses the content of speech. It isn’t just about how much you say; what you say either gives life, or hides violence. Again, when we speak violence, we know that it is shameful (or at least some of us do), so we hide it.

The other passage I ran across this morning was Psalms 39:

1I said, “I will guard my ways,
that I may not sin with my tongue;
I will guard my mouth with a muzzle,
so long as the wicked are in my presence.”

This is often where I start, at least more recently (I didn’t do this much in college…). I recognize that my mouth is a source of great folly, and that often the wisest thing to do is to shut it. Perhaps especially in the presence of the wicked (including social media trolls).

2I was mute and silent;
I held my peace to no avail,
and my distress grew worse.

But then sometimes that doesn’t work, or at least. Holding in what I think, especially when that goes along with watching the truth defamed, is hard to bear (for me, anyway :-)).

3My heart became hot within me.
As I mused, the fire burned;
then I spoke with my tongue:

With David, I also get to a boiling point, and eventually speak. But I find David’s words interesting. He cries out to God (I yell at other people), asking Him to remind him how short and ephemeral his life is (I yell how wrong they are):

4“O Lord, make me know my end
and what is the measure of my days;
let me know how fleeting I am!
5Behold, you have made my days a few handbreadths,
and my lifetime is as nothing before you.
Surely all mankind stands as a mere breath! Selah
6Surely a man goes about as a shadow!
Surely for nothing they are in turmoil;
man heaps up wealth and does not know who will gather!

David also well oriented to the source of any goodness in his life. If holding back my tongue is an attempt at patience, what am I waiting for?

7“And now, O Lord, for what do I wait?
My hope is in you.

David recognizes that his sins are an issue in his current dilemma; if they remain, he will get to watch fools laugh at him (among other things):

8Deliver me from all my transgressions.
Do not make me the scorn of the fool!

And he ultimately recognizes that he can’t complain, as his current situation, as bad as it feels, is from God:

9I am mute; I do not open my mouth,
for it is you who have done it.

Eventually, he appeals for Mercy, knowing that he will certainly not stand against God’s wrath:

10Remove your stroke from me;
I am spent by the hostility of your hand.
11When you discipline a man
with rebukes for sin,
you consume like a moth what is dear to him;
surely all mankind is a mere breath! Selah

Eventually, David turns to crying, and asking God to hear him before he dies:

12“Hear my prayer, O Lord,
and give ear to my cry;
hold not your peace at my tears!
For I am a sojourner with you,
a guest, like all my fathers.
13Look away from me, that I may smile again,
before I depart and am no more!”

So even when the taunts and falsehoods of the wicked surround us, we should trust in God, our only true hope, and ask for his mercy. We know that it is from him, that he knows our tears, and that He will not leave us forever in the pit of sin (ours and others’) that currently surrounds us.

And it was night

A friend pointed out this morning the structure of the disciples’ questions in John 13-14, and I thought it worth laying out here. It’s almost as if, after Jesus’ celebration of Passover with his disciples (John 13:1-30), some still have questions, so Jesus holds office hours at night:

31When [Judas Iscariot] had gone out, Jesus said, “Now is the Son of Man glorified, and God is glorified in him. 32If God is glorified in him, God will also glorify him in himself, and glorify him at once. 33Little children, yet a little while I am with you. You will seek me, and just as I said to the Jews, so now I also say to you, ‘Where I am going you cannot come.’ 34A new commandment I give to you, that you love one another: just as I have loved you, you also are to love one another. 35By this all people will know that you are my disciples, if you have love for one another.”

36Simon Peter said to him, “Lord, where are you going?”

Jesus answered him, “Where I am going you cannot follow me now, but you will follow afterward.”

37Peter said to him, “Lord, why can I not follow you now? I will lay down my life for you.”

38Jesus answered, “Will you lay down your life for me? Truly, truly, I say to you, the rooster will not crow till you have denied me three times.

Ch 4: 1“Let not your hearts be troubled. Believe in God; believe also in me. 2In my Father’s house are many rooms. If it were not so, would I have told you that I go to prepare a place for you? 3And if I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. 4And you know the way to where I am going.”

5Thomas said to him, “Lord, we do not know where you are going. How can we know the way?”

6Jesus said to him, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me. 7If you had known me, you would have known my Father also. From now on you do know him and have seen him.”

8Philip said to him, “Lord, show us the Father, and it is enough for us.”

9Jesus said to him, “Have I been with you so long, and you still do not know me, Philip? Whoever has seen me has seen the Father. How can you say, ‘Show us the Father’? 10Do you not believe that I am in the Father and the Father is in me? The words that I say to you I do not speak on my own authority, but the Father who dwells in me does his works. 11Believe me that I am in the Father and the Father is in me, or else believe on account of the works themselves.

12“Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever believes in me will also do the works that I do; and greater works than these will he do, because I am going to the Father. 13Whatever you ask in my name, this I will do, that the Father may be glorified in the Son. 14If you ask me anything in my name, I will do it.

15“If you love me, you will keep my commandments. 16And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Helper, to be with you forever, 17even the Spirit of truth, whom the world cannot receive, because it neither sees him nor knows him. You know him, for he dwells with you and will be in you.

18“I will not leave you as orphans; I will come to you. 19Yet a little while and the world will see me no more, but you will see me. Because I live, you also will live. 20In that day you will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. 21Whoever has my commandments and keeps them, he it is who loves me. And he who loves me will be loved by my Father, and I will love him and manifest myself to him.”

22Judas (not Iscariot) said to him, “Lord, how is it that you will manifest yourself to us, and not to the world?”

23Jesus answered him, “If anyone loves me, he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him. 24Whoever does not love me does not keep my words. And the word that you hear is not mine but the Father’s who sent me.

25“These things I have spoken to you while I am still with you. 26But the Helper, the Holy Spirit, whom the Father will send in my name, he will teach you all things and bring to your remembrance all that I have said to you. 27Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. Not as the world gives do I give to you. Let not your hearts be troubled, neither let them be afraid. 28You heard me say to you, ‘I am going away, and I will come to you.’ If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I am going to the Father, for the Father is greater than I. 29And now I have told you before it takes place, so that when it does take place you may believe. 30I will no longer talk much with you, for the ruler of this world is coming. He has no claim on me, 31but I do as the Father has commanded me, so that the world may know that I love the Father. Rise, let us go from here.

(annotation and re-paragraphing of John 13:30b-14:31 ESV)


Sunrise from our back yard
Sunrise from our back yard

In my all-too-brief(-so-far) lifetime, I have found much to complain about. It seems like everywhere I go, there’s something that isn’t the way I want it.

I was speaking with a colleague in our kitchen once, and asked how she got on, traveling more than we do. Her answer was short and simple: she has different things she enjoys in each place she goes, and she focuses on enjoying what is there, in whatever place she happens to be (trust me, her words were simpler than that, but this is me writing now… :-)).

So I was thinking about this this morning, as I looked out at the most amazing sunset I can recall (above). The fact that I noted it is itself notable; I’m sure it looks even better from non-colorblind eyes, but it was enough to impress me, in any case.

Having spent much of last week in the Pacific Northwest, walking in the rain through wet leaves that have been decomposing on the ground for weeks (at least), we returned to Texas to see most of the leaves blown off the trees in our area in a single gusty day —and continue to blow in the wind like driven snow.  But I think each has its beauty, if you look for it.  The PacNW soft earth that your feet sink into, reminiscent of a mud ball that just happens to have a thick head of green hair, is nothing like the dry clay of North Texas, which opens cracks greater than an inch, then fills up in a heavy rain until it floods again and again.…

Anyway, I thought I should stop my complaining (if only for a moment) and give God glory for the beauty he has brought into our lives.

And with that perspective, I recall that there is a much better reason to rejoice in all circumstances. Paul once wrote of his contentment in the face of financial need:

Not that I am speaking of being in need, for I have learned in whatever situation I am to be content. I know how to be brought low, and I know how to abound. In any and every circumstance, I have learned the secret of facing plenty and hunger, abundance and need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.
(Philippians 4:11-13 ESV)

Somewhat ironic to think of hunger, when my greater complaints are expensive avocados and mangos (which could also double as rocks, some times), or not being able to find meat that doesn’t have flies all over it in the market (I’ll let you guess which complaint belongs to which place).

As I think through this verse, I think what Paul is saying is that his contentment doesn’t come from having enough food, or the kinds of food he likes, nor even having beautiful sunsets in one place and beautiful local music in another. Paul’s contentment comes because Jesus is the source of his life and happiness, and Jesus never leaves us.

Think about it — if I’m not happy because I have food, clothing and shelter that I like, but rather because the Creator of the universe is on my side (or rather has made me on His side), then my happiness that cannot be taken from me, whatever my circumstance.

Do I really get, on a daily and momentary basis, that my sins (real as they are) have been washed clean, and that I have relationship with God, not because I earned it, but just because He is that good?

Jesus took the worst day in all human history, and made it *Good* Friday, because on that day He gave us the greatest good we will ever know. Then He proved it three days later, in case there was any question that our fight with sin and death was finished. How can we not want that to be the center of our life, love, and happiness?



Faithful and Just

You have probably heard someone quote 1 John 1:9, perhaps in its immediate context:

8If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. 9If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness. 10If we say we have not sinned, we make him a liar, and his word is not in us.
(1 John 1:8-10 ESV)

I’ve often thought of this as a “Jesus forgives” sandwich on “we sin” bread. That is, I saw verses 8 and 10 as saying basically the same thing, with the sole purpose of supporting v9. But I looked at it more closely recently, and I think John is saying something important here, that we don’t want to miss.

I think this point has to do with two basic human desires: to be right, and to be in relationship. Looking at verse 8, we might see the following structure:1John 1:8 mapThat is, we have a basic if/then structure (with an implied then). The if clause contains something we may say about ourselves: we have no sin. This is maybe not something we would say straight out like that, but I think a decent summary would be “I’m right”. Have you never said this? I have. “My condition/position does not contain flaws.” This is a statement about who I am, which is very important in these days of identity wars.

So what is the consequence of saying “I’m right”? In this verse they are twofold. First, we deceive ourselves. This is, I think, the most fundamental flaw with a worldview that states “I decide/declare who I am”; there is no way to handle self-deception (which is visible in the most basic understanding of human psychology).

The second consequence of saying “I’m right” is that the truth is not in us. Or, you could say we are wrong. In this way, a direct consequence of insisting I’m right is proving that I’m wrong. My insisting that my personal status is “correct” or “OK” makes my personal status “incorrect” and “Not OK”. So much for my desire to be right.

Verse 10, on the other hand, deals with actions and relationship:1John 1:10 mapAgain we have an if/then structure, and again the if clause has to do with something we say about ourselves. But this time the statement is not we have no sin, but we have not sinned (or perhaps “I have not done wrong”). While the difference may seem trivial, I think it interesting that the if clause in v10 is talking about what we say about our actions, whereas the if clause in v8 was talking about who we are, or our status. Yes, there is a sense in which if we do right/wrong, we are right/wrong, and vice versa, but they are not exactly the same thing.

So what are the consequences of saying ”I have not done wrong”? Again, they are twofold. First, we make him [out to be] a liar. (The words in brackets are present in other translations, and are correctly implied even in the ESV, I believe; the verse cannot mean we succeed in changing God’s status to “liar”.) Given that this verse is talking about our actions, what are the implications of this action? I cannot think of many people who would bear being called a liar when they are telling the truth. Claiming that you tell the truth, and that God lies, must have repercussions on your relationship with him.

The second consequence of saying “I have not done wrong” is that [God’s] word is not in us. That is, not only am I personally insulting my creator, but I’m also showing that I don’t speak for him when I speak —since his word contradicts mine. I think this point is aimed at people who want to be seen as doing right on their own terms, but also to identify with, speak for, or somehow represent God. But John says you cannot insult God and claim to speak for him in the same breath. When you say “I have not done wrong”, you represent yourself, not God.

So we have two kinds of misrepresentation here. The “I’m right” claim about my status, which shows that my status is in fact wrong, and the “I have not done wrong” claim about my relationship with God, which shows that I am in fact not representing God (but rather in rebellion to him and his word).

So how does John address these two misrepresentations? This is where we get to v9(a):1John 1:9a mapAgain we have an if/then clause, though here the then clause is not about ourselves, but about God. The if clause is we confess our sins, or we agree about our wrongs. This is incompatible with each of “I’m right” and “I have not done wrong”. What is interesting about confession/agreement here, is that God’s truthful position doesn’t change in these three verses. He knows and declares that we are sinners who sin. The only question is, will we agree with him, or will we insist on our own “truth”?

If we confess our sins, God is two things for us: faithful and just. These two attributes account for our failures as described in verses 8 and 10. That is, while v8 says our insistence on being right shows that we are wrong, God remains right/just. And while v10 says our insistence that we have not done wrong shows our rebellion against God, God remains faithful to us. So if we have two great desires, to be right and to be in relationship, we fail at each of them when we insist on our own terms. But agreeing with God about our sin results in God’s justice/rightness and faithfulness/relationship to be expressed to us.

So how is that justice and faithfulness expressed? Verse 9 continues:1John 1:9b mapThat is, God’s justice is not expressed only in his wrath against us (as Martin Luther thought before his conversion), and his faithfulness to us is not expressed in simply overlooking our sins (as many people seem to think today). The two things he does to express his justice and faithfulness in this verse are to forgive and to cleanse. Each of these is done to us. But again, we see the binary issue of status and relationship addressed. That is, God forgives our sins, addressing the things we have done. But he also cleanses us from all unrighteousness, addressing the question of our status.

So the justice and faithfulness of God come together to make us just and faithful to him, when we confess our sin. I think it is crucial in understanding this, that we accept the following:

  • Sin is real.
  • Sin is a problem.
  • Attaining a desire either to be right or to be in relationship requires solving that problem.
  • We cannot solve the problem by simply asserting that it is solved, nor by denying it.

The value of what God promises in v9, then, is that there is an answer to the problem of sin, which avoids denial and proclamation of self-godhood, and which provides for the desired rightness and relationship. That answer acknowledges sin, and it requires us to acknowledge sin, too (v9a: If we confess our sins). Furthermore, that answer addresses the problem of sin directly, by cleaning us from it, and by removing our “unrighteous” status.

So where do we go from here? Based on the above, the first step to fulfilling your desires is to confess your sin, and trust God to clean you off. See his promise of cleanliness as a good thing, and ask him to make you clean. Stop depending on your own efforts to feel good about yourself; admit your denial, self-worship, and rebellion, and ask God to make you right and in relationship with him, as only he can.

A bit of a post-script: as I think about this passage as applied to my life, I identify with the desire for right standing much more than with the desire for relationship. I find it natural and easy to sacrifice relationship in defense of a just standard. But I know many people who seem to most naturally operate in the opposite manner, sacrificing a just standard for relationship. You may be one of them. But the good news for each of us is that in Christ, we don’t have to pick either justice or relationship; we get both. I get the confidence that God cares about my natural bent, but also the correction that his will for me includes not just my natural bent, but much more.

But seek first the kingdom of God and his righteousness,
and all these things will be added to you.

(Matt 6:33 ESV)






Reading about Africa

There are lots of good books many of you have probably already read about this beloved continent, Out of Africa being one of them… (NO, the movie does not count!)

{Side Note: The first place Kent and I lived in Africa in 1999 was in Karen, about 1 mile from the historic home of Karen Blixen, incognito author of that book! Gorgeous place to fall in love with Africa, even if the encroaching capital city had changed the neighborhood a lot…}

Though you may not see them from your Starbucks table at the bookstore or on any billboards, there are two books on Africa definitely worth reading. Okay, I am a bit biased… They are written by two colleagues of mine and much of what they write gives insight into how our lives work day to day.

BOOK 1: (you know, Thing 1 and Thing 2? Maybe I read too much Dr. Seuss…)

Barbara and her husband precede us by a decade or two, so we have never met in person, but their stories give lots of humor and insight to the realities of working here. Of course our working strategies and details have changed a bit since then, but due to the history of this place there are things she was able to buy back then that we can no longer find here, like brown sugar. I have already read through it twice and still enjoy it. If you’re looking for a novel, this isn’t it, but it will give you a funny and clear picture of how things work here. She places the emphasis on “REAL” and I can vouch to you that it is just that!


(Yes, the two women are married to cousins.)

Linda is a dear friend of mine. When we first came to Africa 10 years ago she and her husband were working in the school administration where I was a volunteer teacher for missionary kids. We had great fun that year! One time I was trying to make an international phone call to interview for a teaching job back home the following year and Linda was sharing her office for this purpose. (All went well btw – call made, clear connection, questions answered and job taken…) As I turned to leave her office she was locking up behind me and we were chatting when my eyes caught something posted on the wall next to her desk. It looked like a cute stick drawing done by a young child. Slowly it dawned on me that I was not reading the child’s scrawl of a beloved student at the school… It said something like, “We miss you Nana.” With tears in my eyes I turned to Linda, “I thought it was excruciating to leave my friends and parents behind and come to Africa, but you left your grandchildren!” I can’t imagine how hard that must have been, but she did it for the Lord she loves. She did it with grace. And had fun too! Check out sweet Linda’s blog here: Quaint I Ain’t.