Thursday, January 19, 2023

All of us are 'homesick for Eden'

 I named this blog, “Homesick for Eden,’’ because of a song recorded by Paul Smith and written by Claire Cloninger. The song says, “All of us are homesick for Eden. We yearn to return to a place we’ve never known.” I think that captures, beautifully, that longing that I know I have always had and that I believe most, if not all, humans have for “a place that we know is home,” (also from the song); a part of a deep belief that we were created to live in a better world than the one in which we find ourselves.

As I read what we commonly refer to as “The Parable of the Prodigal Son,’’ it occurs to me that a great part of the history of the people in the Bible is one of being exiled, and longing to return to that idealized place where we feel we belong.

Go back to the Babylonian exile. Prophets wrote books about the children of Israel hoping to go back to Jerusalem, to rebuild the temple and re-establish life in the Promised Land. It was the dream of Daniel, Ezra, Nehemiah, and so many others who were forcibly removed from their land.

King David, before he was king, was driven into exile, even hiring himself and his army out to rival kings. He could have remained in these foreign lands and lived “like a king” in some places where he aligned himself. But he believed in the promise that one day he would indeed be king of his homeland, Israel, and always looked for the opportunity to return home.

Think of the exodus from Egypt. Joseph’s family went into exile in search of a better life during a time of extreme famine, but from the beginning there was the hope that one day they’d return. Jacob’s last wish was that his bones would not be buried in Egypt but kept until they could be returned to his homeland. And the Israelites spent 40 years wandering, when they could have undoubtedly settled down in any number of places along the way, fueled by this dream of a land they had never known but only heard about.

For that matter, Jacob tricked his father, cheated his brother, and went into exile until such a time as he was felt he had to return home, willing to face the wrath of his brother (fortunately for him, his older brother was much more forgiving than the one in our parable).

Shoot, go back to Adam and Eve. They were driven from the actual Garden of Eden, and in a sense, as you look at the history of the world, people have been trying to recreate Eden, dreaming of creating an ideal society of equality and prosperity, where all the women are strong, all the men are good-looking, and all the children are above average (as author and humorist Garrison Keillor describes the town of Lake Wobegon).

So while it is important that we read the Parable with the understanding of who Jesus’ intended audience was (the faithful Jews, Rabbis and Pharisees), it is also true that we can take secondary meanings from parts of the parable.

The younger brother believes he can go off and live life on his own terms (like Adam and Eve making the decision to eat of the forbidden fruit). The reality is that it doesn’t take long for his world to fall apart (as it did for Adam and Eve), and the longing set in to return to “home.”

It is a consistent theme of the Bible - humanity in exile, yearning to return to a place we feel like we belong, where things will be better than they were here, wherever ‘here’ is.

But all these returns described in the Bible failed to deliver the full promise of what the people longed for.

In the end, just like at the end of the Prodigal parable, there is a feast. The book of Revelation tells us there is a celebration, a great feast, the marriage supper of the Lamb. Death and decay are gone, and the New Jerusalem comes down and becomes the whole earth. “He will wipe away every tear. There will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things has passed away.” (Revelation 21:4).

Whenever I wonder if I will ever find my true ‘home,’ I’m reminded of the words of C.S. Lewis, who said, “If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

Or in the words of Homesick for Eden:

“In the back of our minds is a time before time, and a sad irreversible fact. We can't seem to think why left there, and we can't seem to find our way back. 

“Deep is the need to go back to the Garden, a yearning so strong, to a place we belong, a place that we know is home.”


Friday, January 13, 2023

The prodigal me

 Somewhere in some book I read some years ago, the statement was made, “Even if there was no promise of eternal life, of heaven, I would still follow the words of Jesus because they are true.”

It is an interesting question, I think. Would I continue to live in the way Jesus’ said to live, even if there was no promise of reward upon death?

My philosophical side said “yes,” without question, because it is the truth. I asked a friend the same question though and he said, “Absolutely not. Why would I, if there was no reward in the end?”

I thought of this while reading (rereading) what we call the “Parable of the Prodigal Son.” Pastor and author Timothy Keller refers to it as the “Parable of the Two Lost Sons” or even “The Prodigal God” (he has a book with that title).

Years ago, my brother Rick, the theologian, sent me some material he’d put together on the Parables of Jesus, in which he taught me that we have to look at the audience to really understand the meaning behind Jesus’ parable. The parable of the two sons is one of those that really requires understanding of who Jesus was directing his comments toward to get the real impact.

We in our Western culture like the story of the younger brother, who takes his inheritance, spends it selfishly (Prodigal is defined as “spending money or resources freely and recklessly; wastefully extravagant”), and then is not just accepted but celebrated upon his return to the family by the father. I think we like that story because we all desire to be accepted unconditionally, despite what we have done, and we tend to think of this story as being about non-believers coming to Jesus.

However, if you look at the chapter from which this story comes (Luke 15), you see the intended audience was made up of “older brothers,” the faithful Jews and religious class. They were the ones who would identify as the “older brother” who remained faithful, denied themselves the “riotous” living of the younger brother, stayed on the farm because that is what custom and culture expected.

Because it was the “right” thing to do.

And yet at the end of the story, while the celebration goes on for the younger brother who is undoubtedly overwhelmed at being restored to his place in the family, it’s the older brother who has gone his own way, staying outside and, essentially, taking his leave of the family.

Is what the older brother done, in intent, really any different than that of the younger?

While we’d look at the older brother and say his actions were correct, was he not expecting to one day inherit all that was left of his father’s wealth and legacy? When the father restored the younger brother, did that not threaten the inheritance of the older, because of the possibility the father would take care of the younger in some way, perhaps even restore him to a place of inheritance again?

So why do I do what I do? Do I follow Jesus because of the reward, because if I go to church and read my Bible and take care of the poor and help the suffering, down deep I expect the Father to look out for me?

When I was a kid, our church often had guest speakers come in and give their “testimony,’’ the story of how God had saved them. Often they were former gangsters who’d lived lives of crime, or musicians who had lived lives of wanton excess, or athletes or businessmen who’d made enormous amounts of money with lavish lifestyles. All of them had some encounter with God that made them realize the way they were living was wrong and they repented, turned their lives around to live more in line with how God intended.

And my friends and I longed to have such a testimony. Oh, to live the life of a successful gangster, musician, businessman and enjoy the apparent rewards of such a life, and then find Jesus and be celebrated in the church and admired by a whole new crowd of righteous-living people!

Oh, we said it would be so we could have a greater, more significant impact for Jesus. But down deep, wasn’t it because wanted the best of both worlds?

In essence, we were or are all “lost sons.” Too many of us don’t fully understand what it means to be accepted into Jesus’ family.

Do we ‘live for Jesus’ because it’s truth? Or because it offers us eternal reward (the old “fire escape from hell”)?

Elizabeth Elliot wrote her own parable, in which Jesus says to his disciples, “I’d like you to carry a stone for me.” There was no further explanation, so they all looked around for stones. Peter, being practical, found a small stone that was easy to carry since Jesus didn’t give any requirements for size or weight. Then Jesus said “follow me’’ and took off. At lunch time, they all stopped and Jesus did one of his Jesus-things and turned each stone into bread and said, “take, eat.” Peter’s meal didn’t last long, of course.

When lunch was done, Jesus said again, “I’d like you each carry a stone for me.” This time Peter says, “I understand it now!” and looked around for a stone of considerable size and weight. Jesus again said, “follow me’’ and they all start off again, Peter lagging behind because of the burden he was carrying. When night came, Jesus led them to the side of a river and said, “Now throw your stones into the water.” They did, and nothing happened. Jesus said again, “Follow me” and started off down the road.

Peter and the others looked at Jesus in disbelief, just standing there. Jesus sighed and said, “Don’t you remember what I asked you to do? Who were you carrying the stone for?”

Like the older brother, Peter in Elliot’s parable expected his sacrifice and actions to pay off in some way for his personal benefit. When it didn’t, he was confused and perhaps even outraged.

So again, I have to ask myself, why do I follow Jesus? Is it because of the promise of something better? Or because it’s the truth?

Is it wrong of me to follow Jesus to gain the reward of Heaven?

And when I see that both brothers in Jesus’ parable are lost, I wonder: Do I really understand Jesus’ message after all?

Monday, December 19, 2022

When was Jesus born?


I was asked that question once by an old and valued (and much missed) friend and teacher, Morrie Lord.

If I asked that today, since it's almost Christmas, it's easy to go with tradition and say December 25.

But anyone who has studied history knows that the historical Jesus was probably not born on that day we designate December 25, and probably not even in the year we designate as either 1 AD or 1 BC (most calendars do not have a year Zero).

So, when was Jesus born?

It’s one of those “trick” questions, isn’t it?

For example, I was once asked “How many stories are there in the Bible?” When I’ve asked that question, I usually get these looks from people who know there is some sort of trick answers, but can’t figure out what it might be. After all, there are 66 books that make up most of our Bibles.

But to say that means there are 66 stories discounts all the stories contained within those books. Somewhere along the way, monks or scribes or publishers decided the Bible could be more easily read if divided into chapters, and there are (by a quick search) 1,189 chapters in the Bible. Does that mean there are 1,189 stories? No, because some chapters are continuation of stories, particularly in the historical books.

Even to say each story – take the story of King David, for instance – is made up of individual stories: David as the shepherd boy; Davis slaying Goliath; David as the renegade running from King Saul; David as King …

But The answer – what might seem like the ‘trick’ answer – is that there is only one story in the Bible: the story of God. Christians believe the Bible is there to tell us about God and God’s relationship with mankind. If you should ever be asked “how many stories are there in the Bible,” you can smugly answer “One.”

That brings me back to the original question, “When was Jesus born?”

When asked, my mind went into historical overdrive. I knew the answer wasn’t December 25, 1 AD or 1 BC. That date was first made official by Pope Julius I in 350 AD, and codified, for lack of a better word, in 1582 by Pope Gregory XIII as a reform of the Julian calendar.

I had read, somewhere along the way, of historians analyzing references to known historical events mentioned in the nativity accounts in the Gospels of Luke and Matthew, and working backward from the estimation of the start of the ministry of Jesus; of studying astrological or astronomical alignments having to do with the “star” that the Gospels say led the Wise Men to see Jesus; or even using the idea of time of the year based on when shepherds might actually in the field “keeping watch over their flock by night.”

Historical accounts of the figures mentioned in the Gospels suggest the actual date might be been between what we now would call either 6-7 AD (based on the Census account, which the non-Biblical historian Josephus describes), or between 4-6 BC, which is when Herod – another prominent figure in the Biblical story – died.

There are other theories as well, based on other historical events.

As for the actual day, there is a lot of theorizing about December 25 based primarily on the winter solstice because of its symbolic theological significance. The theory is that because the solstice is when the “short” winter days (in terms of daylight) begin to lengthen with longer hours of sunlight, which represents the Light of Christ entering the world. (The Feast of St. John is June 24th, the point in which the length of daylight begins to lessen, a reference to John saying of the “Light of the World,” “I must decrease, that He may increase.” See the significance?)

Other scholars suggest September; still others – including the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints (Mormons) - say the birth took place in early to mid-April.

As I tried to come up with an answer to “When was Jesus born?”, my mind was racing with thoughts of AD and BC and December and September and April.

Yet the Apostle Paul, in the book of Galatians, gives this answer: “But when the fulness of the time was come, God sent forth his Son, made of a woman, made under the law …”

When was Jesus born? In the fullness of time.

It’s another of those “clever” answers that some of us might call a word game, like “how many stories are there in the Bible” and “who reigns in Hell?”

The "fullness of time" - when, according to His Sovereign plan, everything was in place for Jesus to become a babe, and set in motion the events that would change the world. 

But what struck me about the question was how often I, as a human of middling intelligence, so easily get caught up in minutia. Ask me a question, and I will analyze the answer to death, taking a very literal approach to every word of query.

Yet it occurs to me that God sees a bigger picture. We see the unfolding of history on a timeline, occurring sequentially because that’s how we live. God is timeless. Even the name He gives Himself to Moses, “I AM,” is present tense, suggesting to me that God has neither past nor future and all of eternity is one big “present tense” to Him. We humans measure time; to God, it simply “is.”

Which, as we approach another New Year, brings me to another phrase I find myself repeating more frequently in these days when things around us seem more disturbing, more disruptive to old-fashioned norms, more deadly even. You often hear people shake their heads and say, “The world is falling apart.”

To which I remind myself that, as a Christian, the Bible tells me the world is not falling apart; God’s plan is coming together.

When, you ask? 

In the fullness of time.

Monday, December 12, 2022


                 I was at the perfectly named “UBreakIFix” store, getting the screen on my cell phone repaired. They told me it would take a couple of hours, so I naturally asked, “Can you text me when it’s ready?”

                Uh, no. They were taking my cell phone.

                “Do you have another cell phone we can text?” I was asked.

                No. I used to have two – one for personal use, one for work – but since leaving that position, I no longer carried a second cell phone. I admit carrying two cell phones made me feel rather pretentious, but it was necessary.

                In the end, they said they’d email me when the phone was ready. The only problem with that, of course, was that I generally check my email on my phone. Checking it now would require being at home, on my laptop.

                No problem. As I walked out, I actually felt kind of free. No one could get in touch with me for the next few hours. Not only was I immune to phone calls, but no texts, either. If there was a disaster waiting to befall me, it would have to wait.

It felt good ... for a minute.

                Then I remembered I had no way to let my wife – the most important person to stay in touch with – know that I wouldn’t have my cell phone for a few hours. I should have texted her before I left, but didn’t think about it. Then I began to worry. What if she needed me? What if something happened and she couldn’t get me? Would she worry that something happened to me when I didn’t respond or answer her?

                It’s not exactly earth-shaking news to realize we’re so connected to those little "mini-me" computers we start to feel untethered from the real world without one.

There was a study done at Cal State Dominguez Hills in Carson, Ca. called “Out of sight is not out of mind: The impact of restricting wireless mobile device use on anxiety levels among low, moderate and high users” published in the academic journal Computers in Human Behavior.

Half the students’ cell phones were taken away. The other half could keep their phones, but had to turn them off and set them out of sight. Each group was told to sit quietly during the study.

                According to the study, college students grew more anxious during the 75-minute experiment, where they were forced to sit with no distractions, even when they knew the phones would be returned. The effect was stronger on heavy and moderate users, whether their phones were in their possession or not.

                Another similar study took college students and divided them three groups and given a test. One group had their phones screen-down on their desks; the second had their phones in their pockets; the third were not allowed to have their phones at all.

Although very few students said they were distracted by their phones, the test scores followed an inverse relationship to how close the phone were to each student: on average, the closer the phone, the lower the grade.

These are just two of many such studies that show how our cell phones affect us, not just by the way we use them but by their mere presence. Even when we’re not using them, they have an effect on us because, consciously or unconsciously, we know they are there. As one writer said, we’re pulled into the orbit of our cell phones even when we can’t see them, when they aren’t even in use.

I wrote previously about sitting in a doctors’ waiting room, and how instead of the old-fashioned magazines scattered about, the room was devoid of reading material because everyone was on their phone and probably would not have looked at a hard-copy magazine anyway.

There is a verse in Romans (12:2) that Christians like to quote: “Do not be conformed to this world, but be transformed by the renewal of your mind.” Generally, we use it to remind us not to be seduced by what we call “the world;” that is, not to get caught up in materialism or let our morality conform to what seems to be generally accepted or as an encouragement to “think” on “higher things,” the things of God.

And while true, I wonder if we shouldn’t apply it to the way we’re so addicted to our cell phones, too.

I am not a Luddite, a person opposed to new technology or ways of working. As I pointed out, I am as dependent on my cell phone as anyone. And cell phones are just tools; there is nothing inherently bad about them. Like so many other tools, they are only as good or evil as the intent – and perhaps frequency - with which we use them.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if we haven’t made the cell phone another appendage. When I see studies suggesting college students become anxious and can’t focus just because they don’t have their cell phones within easy reach, or when students actually concentrate better when the cell phone has been physically taken away from them, it makes me wonder how unwittingly our cell phones have become the controlling factor of our lives.

That’s not to say I’m suggesting we do away with our cell phones. They are wonderful tools, both for staying in touch, keeping track of family members, and finding out whatever happened to the cast of “Leave it to Beaver.” Look around your church and chances are you’ll see people reading their scripture from their cell phone rather than an old-fashioned book; you may even start your day with a devotional that comes via an app on your cell phone.

But maybe we should consider taking a cell phone Sabbath.

In the Old Testament, the command to ‘remember the Sabbath’ was not so much about going to church (they didn’t ‘go to church’ in those days) as, I believe, it was a way of God saying, “Take a day off. Trust me to take care of your field and flock for one day while you rest and recharge.” After all, even God worked six days and then, it says in Genesis, on the seventh day He rested.

When I worked for a daily newspaper, it was too easy to work every day – and I did, more than I’d like to admit. But I always tried to take a “Sabbath;” take one day and get away from work. It was never a Saturday because I was a sportswriter. Most often it was a Thursday. I know preachers who take their “day of rest” on Monday. Traditionally that day has always been what we call "Saturday," our seventh day of the week. Generally that’s still the case.

I could be wrong, but I don’t think the command is day specific, but rather about the intent – take a day and trust God to handle things while we relax and recharge or take care of other things. (After all, did the Israelites even have “Saturday”?)

Can we do that? Can I actually do that?

To be honest, probably not. But those few hours when my phone was in the shop, and I knew no one could contact me and I could not contact anyone, were like a mini-vacation.

In this technological age, I admit I’m an old man who doesn’t know how to take advantage of half (or more) of the technology readily available to me. I still have my music albums and CDs that I listen to rather than going to Spotify or downloading songs. I’m not against technological advances, but perhaps I’m the old dog who just isn't sure he wants to learn new tricks.

Still, I can’t help but wonder if by putting down my cell phone for a few hours (I don’t think I’m ready to leave it for a full day) I may not find myself, like the Israelites of old, trusting God to take care of everything and everyone else while maybe I focus more on Him.

And come to think of it, “UBreakIFix” might also be a good name for a church.

Monday, December 5, 2022

Going outside to play

 “I’m going outside to play.”

When I was a kid, that’s all we needed to say. Mom didn’t ask “where are you going” or “what are you going to do” or even “who are you going to play with.” We just said we were going “outside,” and she knew what that meant.

Essentially every day, we couldn’t wait to “go outside and play.” Sometimes we knew what we were going to do; generally, in my neighborhood, it meant we were going to play football or basketball or even some kind of baseball. Maybe we were going to play “army.”

Mostly we were just trying to get outside, away from the house, where we could be free for a few hours.

Our moms didn’t much care about the particulars. Oh, they did, but I think they knew we were only going to go so far, and generally we’d be with the same neighborhood kids every day, and above all they knew we’d “be back by dark” or “back by supper.” That’s how – especially in the summer – we kept track of time.

It was incredibly freeing.

And it taught us lessons that carried over for life.

For example, we learned how to play with others. A group of guys would gather to do whatever, and a set of unspoken boundaries were created around whatever we were playing. That road was the river of molten lava we could not cross; that tree was the giant we had to attack and bring down. Or we created variations of the games we knew, of football and baseball and basketball, that we could play in the limited space of a typical backyard or with tennis balls instead of basketballs or having “ghost runners” or calling right field “dead” – any hit to right field was an out, because we didn’t have enough guys to cover the entire outfield.

I can’t remember any prolonged discussion about these rules, they just seemed to happen and reach some level of consensus. And if you didn’t like a rule, you could argue, but eventually you either played by them or went home.

And nobody wanted to go home.

Guys would get hurt – fall out of a tree, or trip over rock or run into the garage door when driving to the basket that hung on the garage or take an especially vicious forearm by someone trying to be Jack Lambert in a backyard football game.

Did we cry and go home to mom? No.

First, we knew better than to let the other guys see us cry. And second, going home to mom meant we were no longer ‘outside;’ it was a loss of those few hours of freedom. Most of us would figure a way to keep playing with blood running down a shin or an arm we could barely lift over our shoulder rather than go home. Worst case, maybe you sat out a few minutes. But the site of the rest of the guys playing was usually enough to cause one to “rub some dirt on it” and get back to playing.

We would explore woods and hillsides and streams. We snuck around neighbors’ houses not to do anything other than simply see if we could indeed “sneak” without being caught. We were horses and wolves, we were major league pitchers and all-pro quarterbacks and big-game hunters tracking an elusive lion (who looked remarkably like the neighborhood stray cat).

And sometimes we just sat – on a wall, on a hill, on a rock, in a tree – and talked.

At home, inside, we were seven-year-old boys; outside, we were men. No – we were heroes. We won World Wars and made the West safe for settlers; we were Super Bowl and World Series' champions; we found treasures in streams and hid those treasures in the “forts” and treehouses that we built from scrap wood we picked up while roaming around.

It made us tough; it made us adaptable. We had to be brave when we didn't feel like it because the other kids didn't seem to be scared. And we learned to be resilient; if the neighbor told us to stay out of his yard, we changed the rules so that yard was no longer in play. It made us realize that sometimes you learn to get along with someone you don't like (later, we'd talk about those guys as "he's a friend of mine I didn't like very much") just to be able to keep doing what you really wanted to do. 

We learned delayed gratification. We usually had to build something - a tree house, a fort, a baseball field in the backyard - and that time spent building taught us to plan and work together, and that sense of accomplishment only made the game that much more fun for us all. 

We learned a little rain (sometimes a lot of rain) never hurt anybody, and never understood why any baseball game had to be called on account of weather. We found out drinking from a clear stream was better than from the kitchen sink and eating a little dirt didn't kill anybody (that we knew of). A can of Vienna sausage and some saltine crackers were as good a lunch as anything mom made, and we learned how to divide it up to share with the kids that didn't have any.

We also learned our limits. Some kids were just faster and stronger and the rest of us had to figure out ways to adapt and slow them down.   

We learned to weight options, the most basic of which was play or go home. 

I look around these days and sometimes wonder if we don't all need to remember how to "go outside and play."

Monday, November 28, 2022

'This time, he did not run away'

 I was listening to a great sermon by my pastor, Tim Kallem, from Acts chapter 11, where the church in Jerusalem hears of what is taking place in the city of Antioch and decides to send Barnabas, "a good man, full of the Holy Spirit and faith ..." Barnabas goes and sees that a great number of people are being brought to the Lord, so Barnabas goes to Tarsus "to look for Saul (Paul), and when he found him, he brought him to Antioch."

Barnabas and Saul (not yet Paul) preach and teach for a year, with a great number of people coming to faith in Christ.

Barnabas is also the man who stood up for Saul when Saul was first converted and went to Jerusalem to try to join the disciples. The disciples, aware of Saul's reputation and possibly even knowing of the events of the stoning of Stephen in which Saul participated, were afraid of Saul and did not believe he was really a disciple. In Acts 9:27 it says "But Barnabas took him (Saul) and brought him to the apostles. He told them how Saul on his journey had seen the Lord ..." It was Barnabas who apparently convinced the disciples that Saul's conversion was real, and that Saul should be allowed to join.

Here is what struck me: Barnabas was very encouraging and supportive of Saul. He stood up for him when the others were afraid. Barnabas repeatedly stuck his neck out for Saul, even to the point of recognizing that he, Barnabas, was probably not the man to lead the revival in Antioch and being humble enough to go get Saul, knowing this was Saul's gift.

A tremendous example of humility.

That leads me to John Mark.

John Mark is believed to be the author of the Gospel of Mark. Mark is believed to have assisted Peter, and his Gospel is based on the preaching of Peter as well as possibly Mark's own memory (more on that in a minute). I won't go into all the reasons for Mark's authorships - you can look it up - but Mark's story, while scattered through the New Testament, is remarkable in its own right and involves Barnabas.

Mark first appears, probably, at the end of the Gospel of Mark. There is a strange verse stuck in Mark 14, the recollection of Jesus' arrest in the garden. The soldiers come, Judas betrays him, and v. 51 says "A young man, wearing nothing but a linen garment, was following Jesus. When they seized him, he fled naked, leaving the garment behind."

This young man is believed to be Mark, because this is one of those details that is so odd and firsthand sounding and has no other significance. Certainly, I've never heard a sermon preached based on v. 51. 

We know Mark was from a family that was probably well off. In Acts 12:12 it talks of Mark's mother having a house in Jerusalem that served as a meeting place for believers. Some believe that the 'last supper' was in the upper room of Mark's family home, and that Mark was a young witness to much of Jesus' life and ministry, at least the last days.

In Acts 12:25 we see "When Barnabas and Saul had finished their mission, they returned from Jerusalem, taking with them John, also called Mark."

What we know next is in Acts 13:13, where Mark leaves Paul and Barnabas, a desertion that Paul takes very hard. Paul and Barnabas go on to finish their missionary journey, but then in Acts 15 Paul wants to go back to the towns they had preached in. Barnabas wants to take Mark, but Paul refused. 

We can take this as simply a "Paul says no" but the language suggests it's a very strong disagreement. Acts says "They had such a sharp disagreement that they parted company. Barnabas took Mark and sailed for Cyprus, but Paul chose Silas and left ..." to go to Syria and Cilicia.

Now get this: Here is Barnabas, whose name means "encouragement,'' who stood up for Paul and it could be argued made it possible for Paul to become the great missionary that he became, and yet whatever Mark did on that first trip is so angered Paul that he wanted nothing to do with Mark, to the point of splitting up the greatest missionary team of the early church.

This would likely have sent shock waves through the early church and made Mark something akin to Yoko Ono (the woman generally credited with breaking up the Beatles). Paul and Barnabas splitting up? It was like Tom Brady leaving the Patriots! 

And when Paul leaves with Silas, it is his journey that is "commended by the brothers'' (the other disciples), not Barnabas and Mark (who, by the way, were cousins).

Interesting that Paul would not listen to Barnabas in this matter, that whatever Mark did on that one journey so offended Paul that he would not give Mark a second chance, to the point of splitting up with a guy who had been so important to him and his ministry.

What happens to Mark? Somewhere along the way, obviously Mark and Paul make amends. Nearly 15 years later, in the letter to the Colossians, Paul writes, "My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas."

How did Mark get back in Paul's good graces? We don't know. We know Paul is writing from prison in Rome and Mark is with him. Paul even writes to the Colossians, "You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.'' (4:10).

Why would the church not welcome Mark? Maybe because he was branded as having been the disrupter of the early church, the kid who broke up the team of Paul and Barnabas. 

What we do know is that at some point Mark serves Peter, who writes in I Peter 5:13 of Mark as his "son." Scholars think Mark must have served with Peter for years, enough to absorb Peter's story enough to write one of the four Gospels. 

Yet toward the end of Paul's life, he writes in his second letter to Timothy, "Get Mark and bring him with you, because he is helpful to me in my ministry" (2 Timothy 4:11).

So Mark goes from fleeing the scene of Jesus' arrest (he wasn't the only one, of course) and being rejected so strongly by Paul that it causes a division between Paul and Barnabas, to Paul requesting Mark because Mark is "helpful." 

The early church historians say Mark eventually became bishop of Alexandria. He is credited with introducing Christianity to Africa. According to Coptic (Egyptian Christian) tradition, Mark in Alexandria annoyed the non-believers to the point they called him "the exterminator of the idols.We know that there was a wave of persecution that hit Alexandria, and Mark was killed. There is a tradition that people said of Mark upon his death, "This time he did not run away."

If that last statement is true, it likely means that Mark lived with the reputation of having run away - maybe from Jesus' arrest, but more likely from Paul and not being able to put up with the hardships of that first missionary journey, causing the split of Paul and Barnabas.

Mark went from being a spoiled baby who couldn't finish the trip with Paul and Barnabas to being a hero of the faith. Perhaps he was always remembered for his failure, but clearly, he overcame that and made something that lasted. After all, there are only four Gospels; Mark wrote one of them.

It may also speak volumes of Barnabas. We never hear about Barnabas again after that split in Acts, but if indeed Barnabas and Mark took a missionary journey, it's likely that Barnabas poured his life and wisdom into his young relative; mentored him. What an example for older men, to take younger men - particularly younger men who may have failed in some measure in their life - and encourage them, build them up, restore them.

Whatever we have done, whatever we have failed at, whatever we have run away from, we can look to Mark as an example that, as the saying goes, "if you're not dead, you're not done." God is not a God of second chances; he is a God of another chance. Not just second chances, but another and another and another ...

(Much of this comes from a man named Stephen Mansfield, who I had the chance to hear at a Man in the Mirror conference at Amelia Island and who talked passionately about Mark and 'second chances').

Tuesday, November 15, 2022

Outkicking your past

It’s a short passage in 1 Chronicles 4, and it became popular several years ago through a book called “The Prayer of Jabez.” The book comes across as awfully close to one of those “prosperity theology” prayers, the “name it and claim it” brand of religion - although I did read the book, and it has value if taken in the proper context.

But I was thinking more about this, trying to look beyond the verses the other day, and a couple things hit me.

Here is the passage: “Jabez was more honorable than his brothers. His mother had named him Jabez, saying, “I gave birth to him in pain.”  Jabez cried out to the God of Israel, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me and keep me from harm so that I will be free from pain.” And God granted his request.”

First, here is Jabez. We don’t know much about him, yet we do.

He was more honorable than his brothers. Why is this line in there? We don’t know the names of his brothers; they aren’t named. But there was something about Jabez that the writer of Chronicles felt was important enough to mention: he was more honorable than his brothers. When the writer of this genealogy came to the name of Jabez, he remembered him for being "more honorable."

We’ll get back to that.

Then, his name: Jabez. Names meant something specific in those days, much as they have in other cultures. Native American names often had something to do with what happened on the day of their birth. “Wolf ran” or “owl perches in tree” or “running deer’’ … you get the idea. The name has to do with something that was seen as significant on the day they were born. 

If you remember your Bible stories, Isaacs’s name means “He will laugh,” reflecting the disbelief, if not outright laughing, that occurred when old Sara and Abraham were told they would have a son.

Jabez’ name reflects the amount of pain his mother experienced in childbirth. Think about that. She didn’t pick a name that reflected some hope for his future, or something of significance to the family, or a name to honor some relative. No, Jabez has to live every day of his life knowing he caused his mother an incredible amount of pain. Every time his name was called in school (if they did that back then); every time he was called to dinner; every time his friends picked him for a game of cow-tipping, he was reminded that he was literally a “pain.”

That makes me think his mother was bitter. I can hear her use his name as a way to remind him of her own suffering, of maybe even her own disappointment and somehow making him the embodiment of that disappointment.

And Jabez could have grown up living “down” to his name, to that disappointment. He could have grown up knowing life is hard, full of pain, and it would always be that way. Maybe his brothers had better names, family names, names that they could live up to. For Jabez, the bar was set pretty low.

Yet Jabez doesn’t settle. He wants something more for himself. He wants to get beyond the low expectations, the misery of his everyday existence.

He asks, “Oh, that you would bless me and enlarge my territory! Let your hand be with me …” He wants more than what is expected of him and, judging by the fact that his brothers are not mentioned, I’d assume he wants something more than his brothers even dreamed of.

Jabez asks for blessing, but surely realizes with that “enlarging of territory” there comes more responsibility, more work.

He ends with “… free me from pain.”

He could have been asking to be free from physical pain, or he could be asking to be free from the curse of his name: “pain.” It’s almost as if he’s asking, “free me from the burden of my past, from the ways this family attempts to keep me down.”

Too many people who are raised in bitterness and being put down live with bitterness and a sense that the world is against them. Often, they live in an emotional cowering, waiting for the other shoe to drop, for the hammer to fall, for whatever disaster they know will befall them because that’s been their whole life. They can’t see that there is opportunity for something more.

Yet Jabez apparently does. Maybe he listens to the stories told around the campfires of the heroes of the nation of Israel, of Abraham and Moses and Joshua and Caleb; heroes that made him long for something better.

And God does it. Why? Apparently because Jabez was “more honorable than his brothers.” He realized, somehow, that he doesn’t have to live the way his brothers do, that he doesn’t have to be bound by the expectations others have for him, that he doesn’t have to be a source of pain.

Something in the stories he’d heard about, something that stirred within his heart made him cry out to God for something more, something greater, something beyond anything those around him could imagine. “Oh, that You would bless me…”

And he lived a life of honor that God blessed.

His brothers grew up in the same house, and no doubt heard the same stories. They had the same history, the same tribe, the same bloodline. Yet there is no record that they grabbed the vision and pursued something greater than what was expected of them.

I think we all have those things in our past that hold us back – the disappointments, the hurts, the failures. Maybe it’s not our fault; maybe we’re reminded by our families – as Jabez was – of those disappointments and low expectations.

But what we want is to rise up. To be better than our past. Or as Jabez might have said, “Bless me. Give me more responsibility. Free me from the curse of what is expected of me, the burden of the meaning of my name.”

Whatever situation we find ourselves in, we should live with honor, responding appropriately to the situations around us. We don’t wallow in self-pity or hide behind some disappointment from yesterday or from years ago.

Be more honorable than your brothers. Don’t be afraid to ask God for more, but remember to ask for the character to handle it, believe that God will give it to you despite the circumstances or situations you find yourself in.

That’s the lesson, to me, of Jabez.

Right in the middle of this passage of names and boring genealogy, it’s as if the writer came across the name “Jabez” and remembered there was something noteworthy about him, something unforgettable.

Be unforgettable.

Be honorable. 

(Much of what I do is read other people's work, then think about it and "riff" on what stuck with me. Much of this was a riff on a chapter in Stephen Mansfield's excellent book, "Mansfield's Book of Manly Men." I recommend it).