birth of Christ nativity with wise men & shepherds

Little Known Christmas Fun Facts / Spiritual Meditations

We’ve heard the Christmas story so many times that we can’t imagine there’s anything new to be added.  But my friend, Dr. Frank Leeds, has spent a lifetime doing Bible research and he has come up with some great facts and points of interest with which you can amaze your friends and relatives during the holidays. If they have heard of Jesus, they have probably heard of the “Manger Scene” and may have some ideas about who was there and what the events were that surrounded this cosmic event for Christians.

Setting the Scene

Since the beginning of time, ‘birth’ has taken place in fields, in tents, at home and in probably every conceivable location. The story of Jesus’ birth is reported to be in a humble place;  a lowly stable. In attendance were various characters. In addition to Mary the mother, there was Joseph the father and some unnamed persons. There were shepherds, and some wise men, referred to as “Magi” from the East. Who were they and why were they there?

Dr. Leeds writes:

What I often thought was obvious, turns out to be merely a ‘mind-set’ that I somehow either assumed, or perhaps was taught, or perhaps my mind just connected dots that should never have been connected. The Reformer John Calvin wrote about “total depravity”, explaining that none of us have minds that will ever understand it all, interpret all clearly, and have emotions that are in tune to the workings of the universe. So, I want to take a fresh look at Shepherds, at Magi, and the gifts [or gift] that they brought to the manger.

The Back Story about the Shepherds

What do you know about them? OK, they take care of sheep. But I assumed that being a shepherd was a dirty smelly job that was given to the youngest son in the family because sheep are a stupid animal and it does not take too much brain power to take care of them. Maybe I thought the youngest son filled this role because David was both the youngest son and the family shepherd before he was chosen to become King.

But imagine for a moment that you have sheep. The more sheep you have, the richer you are. Your wealth is in your sheep. Who would you choose to protect your family resources? If you operated a small business, I bet your shepherd would be a family member rather than a hired employee. Why? You would want someone who is as interested in the business as you are—for your family. Many times, families did not have a son to take care of the sheep and so they would hire ‘professional shepherds’.

Professionals are usually good at what they do, but if a bear is attacking a sheep, the shepherding owner, or family member would go after the bear. The professional would be more apt to say “I am not going to risk my life for $10.00 an hour. Let the bear have that one.” There is an understandable difference between a family owner and the professional. One is doing the job for the money, the other is doing it because the sheep are his.

The good shepherd is in ‘harmony’ with the job he is doing. He wants what is the very best for the sheep, because they are his sheep. That is why Jesus is described as “The Good Shepherd”.

Like all professionals, shepherds had varying skill levels. The very best worked for The Temple in Jerusalem which owned all the sheep given to them at Passover.  Their sheep were the first-born, spotless and without blemish; show dog quality sheep. These sheep were Holy-Sheep meaning they were set apart for a particular purpose in the temple.

The shepherds not only watched these sheep so that the large animals would not eat them but protected them from the smallest of animals that could get into their wool. No flies were allowed on these sheep. They were even wrapped in blanket material to protect them. Was it a ‘wool’ blanket?—I do not know.

The shepherds that took care of these sheep worked around the clock in teams. They even had a tall tower from which to watch over the large surroundings. The tower was called Migdal Eder. In non-Temple pastures the shepherd would corral the sheep at night and sleep at the gate of the coral to protect them. Not so with these sheep. There were different shepherds at different times of the day, so the shepherds of these sheep were never asleep at night. There were always shepherds on guard.

If you were asked to guess, just make a guess. Where do you think the Temple Sheep were kept? They could not do their grazing on the stone roads of Jerusalem. They went to the nearby grazing fields just south of Jerusalem. They were kept in the fields of Bethlehem!

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night.  (Luke 2:8)

As a side-note: Bethlehem is a combination of Hebrew words. “Beth” means “house”. “Le” means “of”. “Hem” means “bread”. Bethlehem means “The House of Bread”. The Messiah is The Bread of Life. It’s worth noting the connection.

The Back Story about the Wise Men and Their Gift(s)

Now, who were these unnamed fellows and where are they from? And, more importantly, why did they come? In truth, we do not know who they were nor where they were from. We do know, they came from the East, literally “from the direction of the rising sun”. They are referred to as Magi. For this reason, some scholars believe they were from Persia, which is present day Iran, where the term “Magi” is used.

However, some of the early Church Fathers, Chrysotom [circa 349-407, Archbishop of Constantinople] in particular, maintained they were from Yemen. What most people do not realize about Yemen, is that in years past, they had several Jewish Kings. It is believed that the Magi came from Yemen because they knew that the coming Messiah would be revealed via a different star in the sky. Aware of Jewish tradition, they were also aware that the gifts or gift that they brought was a part of Hebrew Temple worship….gold, frankincense and myrrh.

If I were to ask you how many wise men were there, you might say three because of the Christmas Hymn “We Three Kings”.  But scriptures never say how many.   It could have been two or it could have been 10 or more. The “Three Kings” assumption is based on their being “Three Gifts”.

Before getting into the three gifts, let me give you an illustration. I would often take Holy Communion to people who were home-bound or in nursing homes who could not get out to go to church. I have a kit for such a purpose. If I were to come to your home to give you Holy Communion, I would be bringing Bread, Wine, and Glasses. If you said I came with three gifts, you would be correct. If you said I came with one gift, a communion kit, you would be correct.

The wise men, or Magi, or Jewish Kings, came with Gold, Frankincense, and Myrrh. These are all very highly expensive items. Now I do not know anyone who believes that Baby Jesus was one of the richest babies in the middle east because of the extreme wealth that He was given by the Magi. What is translated as gift/gifts, ‘gorbana’ is translated as ‘gifts’ in most English Bibles but as a singular ‘gift’ or ‘offering’ in the Aramaic Bible. (Aramaic was the common language of Jesus and the people in his region.) 

This is what I believe. The wise men or Magi brought one gift. It was a gift of what was used only in the Holy of Holies in the Temple of Jerusalem. It was totally prohibited to ever be used elsewhere.

Here is how it worked. In the Holy of Holies, the High Priest would use a small gold plate and a small gold cup. Into the cup, the priest would pour a little Frankincense oil, and a little Myrrh. They would have included a small amount of spices. Flame was added to the little cup and the frankincense and myrrh would smoke. The rising smoke would let the high priest know that the Holy One was present. Those outside of the Holy of Holies would then smell the sweet fragrance of the burning spice. The sweet smell would also let them know that the Holy One of Israel was present within the Holy of Holies.

Without getting too sidetracked, what is this about ‘smoke’ and ‘fragrance’? Consider yourself for a moment. I could weigh you. I could take your measurements. I could test you mentally. I could test you physically. I could take your vital signs. But I could never objectify your personhood. Why? Your essence is spiritual. Throughout the centuries, the church has called this your ‘mind’, ‘spirit,’ ‘heart’, or ‘soul’. The you that is essentially you and you alone, is spirit. I could never hold it in the palm of my hand.

We are made in God’s image, and the idea behind the smoke is that it could be seen, to the extent that one could see smoke. As with the fragrance, one could know that it was present, but one could not grab hold of it. It was to let the high priest know that the Holy One of Israel was present and invite the high priest to “move his spirit closer” in order to experience the Presence of the Holy One.

The purpose of this in the temple was not to conjure up the presence of the Holy One in order to present your ‘wish list’ but rather to draw yourself closer to the Holy One in worship. Please keep in mind the difference between ‘magic’ and ‘worship’. Magic is the intent to get the Holy One to do what you want. Worship is to get yourself closer to the Holy One to do what the Lord wants. The Pharisees are frequently rebuked for confusing the two. Quoting from Isaiah, Jesus says “These people honor me with their lips but their hearts are far from me.” (Matt 15:8)

So that was the gift, the supreme offering that the Magi gave to the baby Jesus. But wait a second. You thought I said it could only be done in the Holy of Holies, in the presence of God with the smoke and the fragrance of God’s presence.

Exactly !!! That is the whole point!

The Magi knew they were in the presence of the Holy One and did what they did because of that. They did not come to make baby Jesus rich. They came for one reason and one reason only— “We saw his star in the east and we have come to worship him.” {Matt 2:2} Once they had worshipped the LAMB OF GOD, which was going to take away the sin of the world, they picked up their kit with the little gold plate and left. The frankincense and myrrh had been burnt. Their ‘offering’ had been made.

Note: The big trading center for frankincense and myrrh was located in Yemen.

Conclusion

I hope you enjoyed Dr. Leed’s research results found that as interesting as I did.  Temple sheep, the only flock that would have had shepherds awake at night, were kept around Bethlehem. These are likely the shepherds to whom the angels appeared, who went to see the baby Jesus and who spread the news of what they saw.

Contrary to the common belief created by the song ‘We Three Kings’, the number of Magi is unknown. They brought a gold cup, frankincense and myrrh to make an offering which was only used in the worship of God.  They knew who Jesus was.

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Relevant Scripture

Luke 2 In those days Caesar Augustus issued a decree that a census should be taken of the entire Roman world. (This was the first census that took place while Quirinius was governor of Syria.) And everyone went to their own town to register.

So Joseph also went up from the town of Nazareth in Galilee to Judea, to Bethlehem the town of David, because he belonged to the house and line of David. He went there to register with Mary, who was pledged to be married to him and was expecting a child. While they were there, the time came for the baby to be born, and she gave birth to her firstborn, a son. She wrapped him in cloths and placed him in a manger, because there was no guest room available for them.

And there were shepherds living out in the fields nearby, keeping watch over their flocks at night. An angel of the Lord appeared to them, and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were terrified. 10 But the angel said to them, “Do not be afraid. I bring you good news that will cause great joy for all the people. 11 Today in the town of David a Savior has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord. 12 This will be a sign to you: You will find a baby wrapped in cloths and lying in a manger.”

13 Suddenly a great company of the heavenly host appeared with the angel, praising God and saying,

14 “Glory to God in the highest heaven,
    and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.”

15 When the angels had left them and gone into heaven, the shepherds said to one another, “Let’s go to Bethlehem and see this thing that has happened, which the Lord has told us about.”

16 So they hurried off and found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger. 17 When they had seen him, they spread the word concerning what had been told them about this child, 18 and all who heard it were amazed at what the shepherds said to them. 19 But Mary treasured up all these things and pondered them in her heart. 20 The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told

Matthew 2 After Jesus was born in Bethlehem in Judea, during the time of King Herod, Magi from the east came to Jerusalem and asked, “Where is the one who has been born king of the Jews? We saw his star when it rose and have come to worship him.”

When King Herod heard this he was disturbed, and all Jerusalem with him. When he had called together all the people’s chief priests and teachers of the law, he asked them where the Messiah was to be born. “In Bethlehem in Judea,” they replied, “for this is what the prophet has written:

“‘But you, Bethlehem, in the land of Judah,
    are by no means least among the rulers of Judah;
for out of you will come a ruler
    who will shepherd my people Israel.”

Then Herod called the Magi secretly and found out from them the exact time the star had appeared. He sent them to Bethlehem and said, “Go and search carefully for the child. As soon as you find him, report to me, so that I too may go and worship him.”

After they had heard the king, they went on their way, and the star they had seen when it rose went ahead of them until it stopped over the place where the child was. 10 When they saw the star, they were overjoyed. 11 On coming to the house, they saw the child with his mother Mary, and they bowed down and worshiped him. Then they opened their treasures and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh. 12 And having been warned in a dream not to go back to Herod, they returned to their country by another route.

man holding crutches over head

Miracle Recipient Reveals God’s Memos /Spiritual Meditations

How many times have you watched the rising or setting sun over a beautiful landscape and appreciated the magnificence of God’s creation?  How many times has the Bible addressed  your need?  There are many ways in which God speaks to us, but I know one person to whom God has spoken loudly and he is going to tell us what he’s learned.

How God Speaks to Us

The pyramid below not only represents the ways in which God speaks to us, but also how frequently He does so. (Relevant Bible verses can be found at the end of this post for each level of the pyramid with links to example accounts)

ways God speaks to us pyramid

The top level of the pyramid falls into the realm of miracles; when God speaks to us directly through word or action.  This is what I want to explore today.

What are Miracles?

In its most basic sense, a miracle is an unusual, unexpected, observable event brought about by direct divine intervention. Because they are rare, I want to share with you the insights of my friend Rev. Dr. Timothy W. Ehrlich who has experienced 46 divine interventions. 

But let’s start with a Biblical example; notice that the lame man did not request a miracle.

One day Peter and John went to the Temple at three o’clock in the afternoon, the hour for prayer.  There at the Beautiful Gate, as it was called, was a man who had been lame all his life. Every day he was carried to the gate to beg for money from the people who were going into the Temple.  When he saw Peter and John going in, he begged them to give him something.  They looked straight at him, and Peter said, “Look at us!”  So he looked at them, expecting to get something from them. But Peter said to him, “I have no money at all, but I give you what I have: in the name of Jesus Christ of Nazareth I order you to get up and walk!”  Then he took him by his right hand and helped him up. At once the man’s feet and ankles became strong; he jumped up, stood on his feet, and started walking around. Then he went into the Temple with them, walking and jumping and praising God.  People there saw him walking and praising God, and when they recognized him as the beggar who had sat at the Beautiful Gate, they were all surprised and amazed at what had happened to him.(Acts 3:1-10 TEV)

Pastor Ehrlich sees a pattern in when and how God acts in our world.  The following are conclusions he has reached and outlined in his book The Long Road to Eternity available on Amazon.

Miracles range in intensity from low intensity things which could be considered fortuitous coincidences or God-incidences, to high intensity things or events which are undeniable manifestations of God’s power and/or presence, such as the healing described in the passage above.

The good news is that the miraculous power of God, that was clearly present in the miracles and resurrection of Jesus Christ, is still available to God’s people today. 

God’s Three General Rules for Miracles

God’s first rule is that God always uses the smallest amount of miraculous power, and on the fewest possible number of occasions, to accomplish His goals.

God limits the use of His power because He wants to preserve our free will and our ability to choose God freely. As we go through life, we unintentionally provide God many opportunities to save us or help us, or to comfort or encourage us. God responds to our needs in varied ways, but in general God’s response is always as limited and small scale as possible in order to bring about the needed result. This hiddenness or unprovability of God was a part of God’s plan because if we could prove God, it would take away our need to have faith, and it is important to God that we have faith.

Why does God want us to have faith? Faith is the overcoming of doubt, hopefully substantiated by reason. Faith, the Bible tells us, is the activating agent of worshipping in the Spirit (James 5:15). God is all around us all the time (Acts 17:28) in the form of the spiritual energy that holds us and all things together (Colossians 1:17), and faith is what opens the door to the Spirit to come into and intervene in the physical world. (Matthew 21:21-22). Because frequent, large, splashy displays of God’s power would take away our need for faith, God uses the least amount of His power and the smallest level of intervention to accomplish His purposes.

God’s second general rule of miracles is that miracles are always for the benefit of God’s people.

God reaches into the lives of those who trust in Him, those who earnestly seek Him, and those who love Him wholeheartedly, and generally, but not always, in response to our prayers.

Sometimes God uses a non-believer to bring about a miracle to save a believer; and God sometimes gives a miracle to a non-believer to reach that person or to reach others who witness the miracle to help them become believers or to comfort or encourage them in their faith.

God’s knowledge of each person is complete and entire, and His wisdom, power, knowledge, and abilities are without limit. God knows what is going on in each of our lives, minute by minute, and God really cares about what we are going through.

God’s third rule of miracles is that His miracles are a gift of his grace: we cannot earn them with good deeds or buy them with a donation to a ministry or other good cause.

Unfortunately, some preachers I have heard twist Paul’s statement that “a farmer who plants only a few seeds will get a small crop. But the one who plants generously will get a generous crop.” They say giving money to their ministry is just like planting a seed, that it will always produce an abundant plant of blessing – expect up to a one-hundred-fold return for every dollar you give.

Others who claim to be Christians try to convince people that X number of prayers for X number of days will get a guaranteed result. These beliefs trivialize God and would have you believe He behaves like a cosmic vending machine: put in the dollar and out pops your hundred. All we can do is ask God for a miracle or make ourselves available to be used by God.

What Inspires a Miracle?

Miracles come in two varieties;

  • the first type of miracle are those that occur as we reach up to God in prayer making a request and God responds.
  • The second type of miracle are those that occurs because God intervened without our asking; that is why I said miracles happen generally but not always in response to our prayers. [There are times, as you can see in the scripture regarding the lame man in Acts 3, where God knows what is needed and provides.  Though the man may have hopelessly wished for health he did not ask for or expect it.  In this case Peter and John were the conveyors of the miracle.]

Barriers to Miracles

Anyone can ask God for a miracle at any time, and God may grant one; but for a number of reasons that you and I may never understand, what we ask for may not be granted by God. Among the reasons we don’t receive the answers we are looking for are lack of faith, and improper motives. James writes: “You do not have what you want because you do not ask God for it. And when you ask, you do not receive it, because your motives are bad; you ask for things to use for your own pleasures” (James 4:2-3 TEV). Miracles are rare and hard to come by, that is why they are so special.

Miracles are More than Just the Miracle Itself

Miracles are just one of the ways that God speaks to us.  His love for the recipient of the miracle and those witnessing the miracle is introduced into our everyday life.  And these manifestations make a big impact on us internally, externally or both.

Miracles are a bit like fishing with dynamite – they blow you out of the water. They change lives, not just by physically rescuing a person, but by opening people’s eyes to the reality of God and to the nature of God, thus inspiring us to learn more about God and to obey God.

I spent many hours speaking with an atheist who was genuinely curious about what I believe and why. At the end of our talk I convinced him to at least keep an open mind to the reality of God. A few weeks later he told me that he had really been praying intently and God baptized him in the Holy Spirit. He said, “This changes everything!” He wanted to become a pastor and tell everyone what he had discovered.  When we are confronted with the reality of God that knowledge has the effect of causing us to reevaluate our priorities and behavior, and even, for some, to reevaluate our understanding of the universe.

Conclusion

To experience the miraculous, we cannot elicit it from God by using some magical incantation, neither is a life of study required. All that is required to move into miraculous levels of interaction with God is to have enough faith to seek God with all of your heart, and to have a willingness to love God with all of your heart, mind, soul and strength until you find that God is real and knows and cares about you.

You will find several accounts of miracles experienced by Pastor Ehrlich, myself and others in the ‘Spiritual Experiences’ category on the Navigation Menu.

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Relevant Scripture

God speaks to us:
Through Nature  


(Romans 1:20)  For ever since the world was created, people have seen the earth and sky. Through everything God made, they can clearly see his invisible qualities—his eternal power and divine nature. So they have no excuse for not knowing God.  

(Psalms 19:1 – 4)  The heavens proclaim the glory of God. The skies display his craftsmanship.  Day after day they continue to speak; night after night they make him known.  They speak without a sound or word; their voice is never heard.  Yet their message has gone throughout the earth and their words to all the world. God has made a home in the heavens for the sun.

Through Scripture
What to Know About the Bible

(2 Peter 1:20 – 21)  Above all, you must realize that “no prophecy in Scripture ever came from the prophet’s own understanding, or from human initiative. No, those prophets were moved by the Holy Spirit, and they spoke from God.”   

(Hebrews 4:12 NLT)  For the word of God is alive and powerful. It is sharper than the sharpest two-edged sword, cutting between soul and spirit, between joint and marrow. It exposes our innermost thoughts and desires.   

(2 Timothy 3:16-17)  All Scripture is inspired by God and is useful to teach us what is true and to make us realize what is wrong in our lives. It corrects us when we are wrong and teaches us to do what is right. God uses it to prepare and equip his people to do every good work.   

Through Signs

(Matthew 16:1 – 4 NLT)  One day the Pharisees and Sadducees came to test Jesus, demanding that he show them a miraculous sign from heaven to prove his authority. He replied, “You know the saying, ‘Red sky at night means fair weather tomorrow; red sky in the morning means foul weather all day.’ You know how to interpret the weather signs in the sky, but you don’t know how to interpret the signs of the times!  

Through Dreams and Visions
What No One Tells You About Your Dreams
Stunning Vision Reveals Heaven’s Lobby

(Job 33:14 – 16)   For God speaks again and again, though people do not recognize it. He speaks in dreams, in visions of the night, when deep sleep falls on people as they lie in their beds. He whispers in their ears and terrifies them with warnings.

Through Angels
Angels in Our Lives…Literally  

(Luke 1:26 – 27 NRSV)  In the sixth month the angel Gabriel was sent by God to a town in Galilee called Nazareth, to a virgin engaged to a man whose name was Joseph, of the house of David. The virgin’s name was Mary. 

Directly and through Jesus
God’s Faithfulness Changed My Life
An Astonishing & Undeniable Spiritual Healing 

(Hebrews 1:1 – 2 NLT) Long ago God spoke many times and in many ways to our ancestors through the prophets. And now in these final days, he has spoken to us through his Son.  

(Exodus 3:4-6) When the LORD saw Moses coming to take a closer look, God called to him from the middle of the bush, “Moses! Moses!” “Here I am!” Moses replied. “Do not come any closer,” the LORD warned. “Take off your sandals, for you are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your father—the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” When Moses heard this, he covered his face because he was afraid to look at God.   

fire imposed on top of key and handwritten pages

An Astonishing & Undeniable Spiritual Healing/Spiritual Meditations

We don’t often hear about spiritual healing experiences and when we do we are usually left wondering if there was a logical or scientific reason for what appeared to be a miraculous event.  After all, our bodies have an amazing ability to restore themselves and time can be a healer.  But in his book, “The Long Road to Eternity” (available on Amazon) my friend and pastor, Rev. Dr. Timothy W. Ehrlich, describes a life-threatening burn incident that was miraculously healed within one hour.

In January 1989, my second year as pastor at the Olivebridge church, I attended a seminar at a church in Kingston New York on healing through prayer and the laying on of hands. It was being put on by the International Order of Saint Luke, an interdenominational religious order dedicated to the Christian healing ministry. Part way through the afternoon session as I was sitting in a lecture, I heard the pay phone in the hallway ringing. Ordinarily I would not leave an educational seminar to answer in someone else’s church, but I had a strong feeling I should answer that call so I left the classroom and answered the phone.

I was amazed that the call was for me. I don’t know how they found me but it was a member of my Samsonville church calling to tell me there was a gas explosion in the church kitchen and Edith, one of my parishioners, was severely burned with third-degree burns over most of her body. The caller had been there and seen what happened: the oven had been turned on to preheat but no one realized the pilot light was not lit. Edith needed to use the oven and found it was still cold so she started to light the stove but it was filled with gas. It caused an explosion and a fire ball blew her backwards, set her hair on fire and burned all the clothes off the front of her body. An EMT who treated Edith before she was put into the ambulance told the woman who called me that Edith had third-degree burns over her whole body, and that it was not easy for a woman her age to survive something like that.

This was terrible news; it literally could not have happened to a nicer person. Edith was practically a living saint; she was filled with the fruits of the spirit, a dear sweet lady, humble, simple, generous, kind, patient and had a great sense of humor. She practically lived at church; when the church doors were open for anything she was there. Edith was in her 70s at that time. She had come over from England at the end of World War II as a war bride. She missed England but definitely had bloomed where she was planted.

I was told she was taken to a hospital in Kingston; it was not far from me. I got off the phone and interrupted the class to share the news and ask for prayer for Edith. The leader of the class who happened to be the president of the order of Saint Luke stopped the class. He said, “we need to pray.“ He took me out into the hallway, put his hands on my shoulders and I put my hands on his shoulders, and we bowed our heads and pray together for several minutes. It was a powerful prayer time and I felt like an electric current was going through us as we prayed. I immediately felt better.

When I took the call about Edith, he had been teaching that when you pray for healing, you need to have faith that you have received what you prayed for. He said, “you always need to end your prayers requesting healing by sincerely expressing your thanks to God in the confidence that God will grant your request.“ As we prayed, we thanked God for miraculously healing Edith but honestly, I wasn’t expecting a miracle. I thanked the teacher and drove as quickly as I could to the hospital.

It took less than an hour from the time I received the call until I walked into the intensive care unit. At that hospital the intensive care unit was one large room with beds separated by curtains. As I walked into the room I could hear Edith singing! Edith sat behind me singing in the choir every Sunday for the previous 18 months; I knew her voice very well and I was expecting to hear moans of pain, not singing! I found the curtain she was behind and stopped before stepping into her area. I knew that her clothes have been burn off and my earlier experience as a hospital chaplain taught me that third-degree burns victims are often left naked and I was hesitant to walk in on her. I called out “Edith, are you there? She said, “Oh Tim, it’s a miracle! Praise God!“

I said, “Are you decent?“ She said she was so I stepped behind the curtain and she was sitting on the edge of the bed in a hospital gown, her hair was singed and she was grinning widely. She broke into laughter as she told me the story. When she lit the match the explosion blew her across the room, it had blown off or burnt off all of her clothing and it was horrible. She said, “Tim I was in the worst pain of my life. The worst pain ever! And then about a half hour ago the pain just went away. The doctors don’t understand.  The doctor said to me, ‘you were brought in with third-degree burns but now they are first- degree and even less in some places. I can’t explain it’. He can’t explain it, but I can. It’s a miracle! Look at my skin, it is like a sunburn; I am just a little pink and it doesn’t even hurt! “

I have often heard God called the great physician, but it is really amazing to see God in action, to see a dramatic healing like that in response to prayer. The theological lesson here is don’t be afraid to pray for healing for yourself or someone else, and don’t forget to pray with enough faith that you can genuinely thank God for the healing in advance.

Yet we must ask, “Why isn’t everyone we pray for, healed?”  Pastor Tim explains:

God responds to the prayers of his people and He has the power to heal. There is a door between us and God. It is the barrier between the spiritual and physical. There is a lock on the door and our prayer is the key that opens the lock. To unlock the lock the key (our prayer) must hit all the tumblers and each bump on the key represents a different aspect of an effective prayer.

* One of the bumps on the key is that our prayer is for someone that God does want to see healed and healed at this time.

* Another bump: our prayer must be for what is best for the person or situation we are praying for or about.

* Another bump is that God must want the person who is praying to be the instrument of His grace.

* Another bump is that the person who is praying must have his or her heart right with God so that when he or she prays they can live into being what Paul called us: temples of the Holy Spirit.

In this case all the tumblers lined up, the lock turned and she was healed.

Your prayer life can be more effective by developing greater Spiritual Consciousness through the practices mentioned in the Biblical verses found in Key to Effective Prayer.  Miracles are rare but God is present and active in our lives.

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Relevant Scripture

Does God give you the Holy Spirit and work miracles among you because you obey the law? Of course not! It is because you believe the message you heard from Christ. (Galatians 3:5)

Reference

The Long Road to Eternity by Rev. Dr. Timothy W. Ehrlich

young girl leans head on hand staring into space, flowers window table

How Long Must I Wait, God?/Spiritual Meditations

Do you have a prayer that has been met with no response?  You may decide that this is a ‘no’ from God, but perhaps it’s a ‘not yet’.

Our perception of time differs from one moment to the next.  If we are bored or anxiously anticipating something pleasant, time drags.  If we are overwhelmed with things to do or enjoying a pleasant experience, time flies by.

Waiting for the Best Time

When we have a need, the resolution cannot come quickly enough.  When we have a need great enough to bring to God, we really are hoping He will resolve it now.  Or better yet, why didn’t He handle it before it even became an issue!

But God’s time is not the same as our time.  In fact, I’m thinking that cultural changes, events, acts, realizations, and our emotional, spiritual and mental developments are some of the things that God tracks (and sometimes orchestrates) instead of minutes and years.  Peter left us this logical conundrum – “…with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day” (2 Peter 3:8) which expresses this irrelevance of time.

But because God sees all the events of our lives and the thoughts of our minds, His timing is always perfect. His perfect time may be immediate as for the disciples when they healed people around Jerusalem (Acts 5:16). Or it may be a few years: God gave Joseph a dream that did not come to fruition for 13 years (Gen 37, 39-41): the Egyptian exiles wandered for 40 years before entering God’s promised land.  And the Messiah’s perfectly timed arrival was 4 centuries in the making as can be seen in Dr. Leed’s post entitled Eye-Opening Events Between the Testaments.

These huge events make our problems seem kind of small in comparison, yet God knows every hair on our heads.  He loves us,  knows what is best for us and knows when it I best for us.  I once waited for God’s response to my desperate prayers for several months.  But then WHAM His resolution came in one day. You can read about it here.

Waiting on God Changes Us in Important Ways.

It takes practice, but as we let God help us in each situation, we develop patience which is one of the most important Christian virtues. Patience is a fruit of the Spirit (see Galatians 5:22). It’s developed only under trial, so we must not run from difficult situations. But “let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything.” (James 1:4).

Trusting God often requires not knowing how He is going to accomplish what needs to be done and not knowing when He will do it. But as we see God’s faithfulness over and over, we rely less on ourselves, and gradually place our trust in Him.

When God directs our paths, He sometimes leads us in ways that don’t make sense to us.  But if we try to reason it out, rationalize His leading and don’t follow His path, we will only prolong our struggle.  Most of us have spent our lives trying to take care of ourselves, but when we accept Christ as our Savior, we must have faith that He will care for us.

Lean on, trust in, and be confident in the Lord with all your heart and mind and do not rely on your own insight or understanding. In all your ways know, recognize, and acknowledge Him, and He will direct and make straight and plain your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6 )

What to Do While Waiting on God

1) Prayer / Meditation

The priority for your wait time is prayer and meditation. Let it be your rock. 

  • Pour out your heart to God with all your concerns and doubts.
  • Pray for guidance, patience and strength through the waiting season.
  • Pray for God to reveal the next step in His path for you.
  • Pray for your heart to be open to the work God’s doing during the wait.
  • Pray for transformation and renewal.
  • Pray for peace of heart and trust.
  • Clear your mind and listen for God’s messages.

It’s not easy to go to prayer when you’re frustrated in the wait, but as you develop this habit of (and utter dependence on) prayer, you’ll find the waiting becomes easier.

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (Philippians 4:6-7 NIV)

2) Read Your Bible

Stay in scripture, especially in periods of waiting. Often what feels like waiting is really a time of preparation. It may be that our heart needs some work, or it may be that God is moving in other areas to prepare the way.

Study God’s Word, especially His promises. “He will never leave you, nor forsake you” (Deuteronomy 31:6b). He will be with you through the entire waiting process. Stay focused on Him and His Word and the reasons for your time of waiting will eventually be made clear.

Staying in scripture keeps you grounded in God’s plans and promises. When you’re in that period of waiting, daily reminders of God’s faithfulness will sustain you. Reading about God’s power and plans will fill your heart with hope. Studying biblical people who endured seasons of waiting reminds you that you’re not alone in this struggle.  The Bible may also be helpful in determining if your prayer request is being met with a ‘no’ or a ‘not yet’.

For whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, that through endurance and through the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. (Romans 15:4 NIV)

3) Surrender to the Process

Change is a process and can take time. When God is working a change in your life or carrying you through a challenge, it may take time to fully work through the process.

Surrender to God’s work in your heart. Submit to His timeline and process. Let go of your attempts to control and plan your way out and allow God to lead.

Entrust your ways to the Lord.
Trust him, and he will act on your behalf.
He will make your righteousness shine like a light,
your just cause like the noonday sun.

Surrender yourself to the Lord and wait patiently for him.
Do not be preoccupied with an evildoer who succeeds in his way
when he carries out his schemes.

Let go of anger and leave rage behind.
Do not be preoccupied.
It only leads to evil.
(Psalm 37:5-8 GOD’S WORD Translation)

4) Who is Waiting for Who?

Could it be that God is waiting on us?  To arrive at the perfect time for Him to act, perhaps we must first realize, develop or become involved in something.  If God answered right away, many of us would be ill-prepared to handle His solution. Our personal, national or international circumstances may need to change to make the most of His intervention.

Ask yourself: Is there a purpose in your waiting? Do you have some work to do to prepare for the next season? Is God working on your heart?  Is the motive for your prayer acceptable to God.

Consider the lessons and submit to God’s work in your life. If you need to deal with a sin, confess and turn away from old ways. If you need to forgive, do the hard work to let go and forgive. If you need to rid your heart of some stubborn habits or beliefs, dig deep and allow God to do his work.

Exodus 13:17-18 tells us that God led the Israelites the longer, harder way on their journey to the Promised Land because He knew they were not yet ready to go in. There had to be time for their training, and they had to go through some very trying situations.

Not only that, but we rejoice in our sufferings, knowing that suffering produces endurance, and endurance produces character, and character produces hope, and hope does not put us to shame, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit who has been given to us. (Romans 5:3-5 ESV)

5) Focus on the Blessings

Instead of focusing on where you’re going, look around you and find the blessings that already surround you. Even if your situation is dark and stormy, be especially vigilant about looking for blessings.

You could even create a blessing list by writing down everything good that God has blessed you with. Keep the list handy and read it whenever you are feeling low.

There’s nothing like helping others to get a better perspective on your own issues.  Where can you be a blessing to others at this time? Who has God placed you near that you can bless? Who can you pray for and encourage?

6) Worship

In all things, be full of praise and thanksgivings – even while waiting, even through the storm, even when you’re frustrated.  You may find that affirmation and song will lifts your spirits.

And now, dear brothers and sisters, one final thing. Fix your thoughts on what is true, and honorable, and right, and pure, and lovely, and admirable. Think about things that are excellent and worthy of praise. (Philippians 4:8)

Conclusion

Wait as long as it takes. He may not answer right away or even give us what we think we need, but God will provide what is best for us when it is best for us.

As much as we want to move forward NOW – sometimes we’re just not ready. We have more to learn, more to change, more to grow.  Sometimes the wait is for God to align other pieces of the plan. Sometimes the wait is for God to align the pieces of our own heart.

Always have an expectancy that He will provide.  There are times when we might give up if we knew how long it was going to take, but when we accept God’s timing, we can learn to live in hope and enjoy our lives while God is working on our problems.

Then be alert for His answer.

God is never accidental. Everything he does has a purpose. He is the expert…let Him handle it

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Relevant Scripture

 In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
    in the morning I lay my requests before you
    and wait expectantly. (Psalm 5:3)

I remain confident of this:
    I will see the goodness of the Lord
    in the land of the living.
Wait for the Lord;
    be strong and take heart
    and wait for the Lord. (Psalm 27:13-14)

My times are in Your hand;
    deliver me from the hand of my enemies,
    and from those who persecute me.” (Psalm 31:15)

We wait in hope for the Lord;
    he is our help and our shield.
In him our hearts rejoice,
    for we trust in his holy name.
May your unfailing love be with us, Lord,
    even as we put our hope in you. (Psalm 33:20-23)

I wait for the Lord, my whole being waits,
    and in his word I put my hope.
I wait for the Lord
    more than watchmen wait for the morning, (Psalm 130:5-6)

Lean on, trust in, and be confident in the Lord with all your heart and mind and do not rely on your own insight or understanding. In all your ways know, recognize, and acknowledge Him, and He will direct and make straight and plain your paths. (Proverbs 3:5-6)

But those who wait on the Lord shall renew their strength; they shall mount up with wings like eagles, they shall run and not be weary, they shall walk and not faint. (Isaiah 40: 31)

He has made everything beautiful in its time … God shall judge the righteous and the wicked, for there shall be a time there for every purpose and for every work.” (Ecclesiastes 3:11,17)

And He said to them, “It is not for you to know the times or seasons which the Father has put in His own authority.” (Acts 1:7)

But let endurance and steadfastness and patience have full play and do a thorough work, so that you may be [people] perfectly and fully developed [with no defects], lacking in nothing (James 1:4).

References

“What to Do When You’re Waiting on God” by Joyce Meyer

“Waiting on God: Why It is Important to Wait on God” by Amy Blossom

When God’s Timing Is Taking Too Long” by Joyce Meyer

stick figures

Reversing the Little Known Causes of Prejudice/Spiritual Meditations

“If he’s fat, he’s a glutton.” “Anyone with that accent is uneducated.” “As a woman, she’s a push over.” Prejudice can target anyone different than us and includes stereotypes of women, men, the rich, the poor, the LGBTQ community, ethnicity, bikers, conservatives, liberals and anyone that comes to mind when asked “who do you consider lesser, avoid or fear?” 

The Parable of the Pharisee and the Tax Collector

To some who were confident of their own righteousness and looked down on everyone else, Jesus told this parable: “Two men went up to the temple to pray, one a Pharisee and the other a tax collector.  The Pharisee stood by himself and prayed: ‘God, I thank you that I am not like other people—robbers, evildoers, adulterers—or even like this tax collector. I fast twice a week and give a tenth of all I get.’

“But the tax collector stood at a distance. He would not even look up to heaven, but beat his breast and said, ‘God, have mercy on me, a sinner.’

“I tell you that this man, rather than the other, went home justified before God. For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:9-14)

Why a tax collector? Because they were despised by the Jewish population, which was who Jesus was talking to.  Yet this man humbly recognized himself as a sinner and sought God’s mercy and Jesus declared him exalted and justified.

We don’t have to look far to find our “tax collectors” of today: people who are part of a group despised by someone, people who don’t get the credit they deserve.  We make assumptions about individuals without knowing their heart or mind or their situation.  Whereas Jesus may declare them justified before God.  How do we develop such strong feelings about people we don’t know?

The Development of Social Categories

All people have a need to make sense of the world and we do that from infancy and across our lifetimes by creating categories to help interpret our environment. We create constructs like “fruit” and “vegetable” to categorize types of food. We create constructs about gender, age and other attributes of people.

Most of our constructs are based upon our socialization and the concepts we learn from the people around us, as well as our exposure to books and media. No one is born prejudiced, but as we are exposed to others’ biases, inaccuracies, and stereotypes, we develop beliefs that are discriminatory. Let’s admit it – It is nearly impossible to grow up without some.

Confirmation of Our Biases

Once constructs have been formed, we have a natural tendency to selectively attend to information that agrees with or confirms our existing categorizations. So, biases such as Asian men are good at math and science, black men are good at basketball, or white men are entitled and insensitive to others are reinforced as we selectively attend to any information that reinforces our existing biases. We then have well-entrenched stereotypes that can guide our actions.

Implicit Bias

Once a stereotype is entrenched, it can become unconscious and automatic. We find ourselves just reacting without stopping to think. We may believe that we are truly not prejudiced or racist, while not consciously aware of our automatic thoughts and attitudes. There are generally two parts to this:

  • Conscious, deeply held thoughts and
  • Unconscious thoughts and beliefs that sometimes guide our behavior.

The Escalation of Prejudice

Initially, if a person feels insecure or lacking in identity, they may have a desire to affiliate themselves with a group in order to strengthen their sense of self and find a feeling of belonging.  Being part of something bigger than themselves and sharing a common cause with the other members of their group makes them feel more complete and significant.

There is nothing wrong with this in and of itself.  However, this group identity may lead to a second stage. In order to further strengthen their sense of significance, members of a group may develop hostile feelings toward other groups.  Here we begin to judge others whom we don’t even know.

The third aspect is when members of a group take the step of withdrawing empathy from members of other groups, limiting their concern and compassion to their fellows.  For example, as political tensions polarize us, we become unquestioningly zealous about our party affiliation and feel momentarily justified not empathizing with members of the opposing party – we dismiss them as other.

This is closely related to a fourth aspect, in which individuals belonging to other groups are no longer perceived in terms of their individual personalities or behavior, but in terms of generalized prejudices and assumptions about the group as a whole. 

And finally — moving into the most dangerous and destructive extreme of prejudice — people may project their own psychological flaws and their own personal failings onto another group, as a strategy of avoiding responsibility and blame. Other groups become scapegoats, and consequently can justifiably be attacked or murdered, in revenge for their alleged crimes. Individuals with strong narcissistic and paranoid personality traits are especially prone to this strategy, since they are unable to admit to any personal faults, and are especially likely to demonize others.

Changing Our Minds

Changing our individual unjust social concepts takes conscious effort and practice. Dr Sherry Benton has 3 suggestions on how to do this:

  1. We all have prejudicial beliefs and we need to begin by acknowledging them if we are going to grow.  If we tell ourselves, “I’m not prejudice,” we are likely burying and ignoring the truth.
  2. We need to actively seek out objective facts that do not support our beliefs. Easy enough to do with the internet.  Find those objective sources.
  3. We need to focus on making our stereotypical, deeply ingrained beliefs conscious and reflect on their impact on others. At this point we generally know the right thing to do and we can act without prejudice while recognizing that we do have prejudice.

The Good Samaritan parable is an excellent reminder of how we should act toward others. I you’re wondering who merits such compassion from us, you may find an answer in this article entitled “Who are Your Neighbors?

Conclusion

As social animals we require a healthy balance between a sense of individuality (our own and that of others) and a sense of belonging; prejudice is the loss of that healthy balance.

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Relevant Scripture

“Do not judge, and you will not be judged. Do not condemn, and you will not be condemned. Forgive, and you will be forgiven. (Luke 6:37)

Therefore, judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God. (1 Cor 4:5)

Then Peter began to speak: “I now realize how true it is that God does not show favoritism but accepts from every nation the one who fears him and does what is right. (Act 10:34-35)

My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism. (James 2:1)

References

The Psychology of Racism; Racism is a sign of a lack of psychological maturity and integration.” by Steve Taylor Ph.D.

A Surprising Cause of Prejudice; The real problem might be how we relate to people like us”  by Ron B. Aviram, Ph.D.

“Understanding Prejudice, Stereotypes, and Racism; Why we develop social constructs—and how we identify and change them. by Sherry Benton Ph.D.

fingers crossed anchor tatoo sun in background

The Key to Hope in a Hopeless World / Spiritual Meditations

Being a curious person with a strong desire for clarity, I was that classmate that always had a question.  With maturity, I still have lots of questions. Here’s another.

The phrase “faith, hope and love” is such a theme of our social fabric that we see it on jewelry and home décor. From a spiritual perspective: I understand faith,  I understand love.  But hope?  What exactly are we hoping for?

We don’t have to look far to find disturbing and frightening events happening on this earth.  Corruption, violence, disaster and disease exist everywhere and always have. Yet we, as a species, appear to find enough in life to make it worth living.  What in the world, or in our psyches, keeps us going?  Modern day psychologists and ancient Biblical writers tell us it’s hope.

Where Hope Springs Forth

Hope is an emotion that springs from the heart, not the brain. It lays dormant until it’s amazing strength is beckoned, supplying the sheer belief that you will overcome, you will persevere, and you will endure anything and everything that comes your way.

Hope is also a perception. Unlike most perceptions, however, it has the possibility of creating reality. It’s a perception of something that does not yet exist. It is not a passive exercise in wishing or pretending but a perception of what is possible.

Research shows that when people have hope, their goals are more likely to become reality; they’re more likely to develop a plan and take steps to make it happen. Hope involves taking an objective look at the way things are but being daring enough to believe that a better future is possible.  Some might call it foolhardy but many goals that some believed were impossible turned out to be possible.

Nehemiah wanted to rebuild Jerusalem from rubble and did it with the help of Jews who returned from exile in Babylon. In addition to their hope for protection from enemies, success in overpowering them and a redeemer; the great hope of the Israelites was for a homeland as is repeatedly expressed in the Old Testament.  Rebuilding Jerusalem was another step toward their hope.

This is what the Lord says: “When seventy years are completed for Babylon, I will come to you and fulfill my good promise to bring you back to this place. For I know the plans I have for you,” declares the Lord, “plans to prosper you and not to harm you, plans to give you hope and a future. Then you will call on me and come and pray to me, and I will listen to you. (Jeremiah 29:10-12) 

Are You a Hopeful Person?

The Israelites persisted for centuries, with fluctuation in success and borders, and again fulfilling their hope on May 14, 1948 when Israel became a nation.  This persistence is a supreme example of hope and is supported by research by psychologist C. R. Snyder, who found that hope is at the heart of our goal pursuits. Through interviewing large numbers of hopeful people, he discovered that most had three things in common: goals, strategies, and a belief in their capabilities. They were under no illusions that all (or even most) of their strategies would work, so they tended to try multiple pathways. They recognized that working toward their goals would be difficult yet believed that they might be capable of doing it if they kept trying. 

Benefits of Hope

Research indicates that hope can help us manage stress and anxiety and cope with adversity. It contributes to our well-being, happiness and resilience. Hope allow us to take a wider view and become more creative in our approach to problem solving. Hopeful people believe their efforts can have a positive impact.

Is there any better example of this than Paul when he was in prison? His letter to the Philippians begins with thanksgiving and joy, a remarkable response considering his lengthy imprisonment. His hopeful and eternal perspective were essential to Paul’s peace and joy.

Other positive emotions such as courage and confidence emerge from hope as was the case for two of the Egyptian exiles led by Moses.  Joshua and Caleb were two Israelite spies who brought back a good report and believed that God would help them obtain the land of milk and honey.

Then Caleb silenced the people before Moses and said, “We should go up and take possession of the land, for we can certainly do it.”

But the men who had gone up with him said, “We can’t attack those people; they are stronger than we are.”

Caleb said ”Only do not rebel against the Lord. And do not be afraid of the people of the land, because we will devour them. Their protection is gone, but the Lord is with us. Do not be afraid of them.”

As a result of their hope for a land of their own and faith in God’s promises, these two were the only men from their generation permitted to go into the Promised Land after their time of wandering

How to Attain Hope

Despite the Biblical and cultural emphasis on hope, we sometimes become overwhelmed with the pace of our life and the constant bad news we listen to.  Nonetheless, the situation is not hopeless.  Here are some tips on how to strengthen this virtue:

Faith is important. A belief that there is something bigger and more important than you, whether it’s God, a higher power, a child, a loved one, a mission or a cause, it is a reason to go on, and it has nothing to do with just you.

Gratitude is an easy virtue to practice.  Focus on what you have to be thankful for, not on what you don’t have or what you have lost or what you want. Remind yourself of this every day.  You will find that gratitude also goes a long way in building personal relationships as can be seen in this article.

Love is powerful. Think about the people in your life that you love and those that love you — family and friends. Make it a point to connect often with each one. This is best accomplished in person, but as we know that is not always possible. A phone call, text or a quick email will do.  This article tells us that there is more love in our lives than we may think.

Seek inspiration and awe. Research by psychologist Dacher Keltner, PhD., shows that when we are so moved by something that we can hardly find the words to talk about it we are experiencing awe and that creates meaning, and positive feeling which contributes to a sense of hopefulness that can keep us moving forward. Awe reminds us of something bigger and vast. Causes us to slow down, think about what’s important to us, and connect in a deeper way.

Re-identify your goals. Maintaining a clear vision about what’s important and what we want to contribute and achieve also contributes to hope. When you are reminded of your big goals, the things that drive you to get up in the morning, you reconnect with your deeper values. Then, you’re more likely to persist because the process—the lifestyle that comes from living close to your values—helps you prevail despite obstacles. If you’re feeling hopeless, ask yourself what goals in your own life are worth persistent action.

Appreciate the setbacks and move through them. Hope is strengthened exponentially when you hit a setback and you persist despite it.  Next time you run up against one, pay attention to what it offers you—a growth opportunity, a chance to learn something you need to know to accomplish your goals—then move through that challenge.

Now that we understand what hope is and how to attain it, I want to get back to my initial question; What is being hoped for, when the Bible speaks of it?  You may notice, as I did, that although some Biblical objects of hope can be obtained through our actions (as described above), there are others that rely on faith alone; we merely trust in the Trinity and wait for the gifts bestowed on Christians.  See if you can identify the ones below that can be advanced through activity: physical, mental or spiritual.

The Bible contains 180 (NIV) verses about hope.  The object of hope is sometimes repetitive, so I am only selecting one of each.

Old Testament Statements about Hope

Note the emphasis on physical needs.

But God will never forget the needy; the hope of the afflicted will never perish. (Psalm 9:18) 

If we refer back to Psalm 10:17 we find that what the needy are hoping for is  You, Lord, hear the desire of the afflicted; you encourage them, and you listen to their cry,

But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear him, on those whose hope is in his unfailing love, (Psalm 33:18)
We wait in hope for the Lord;  he is our help and our shield. (Psalm 33:20)
Remember your word to your servant,
    for you have given me hope.
My comfort in my suffering is this:
    Your promise preserves my life. (Psalm 119:49-50)

It is God’s word (the law) which gives guidance and instruction that preserves life for the Psalmist.

Israel, put your hope in the Lord, for with the Lord is unfailing love and with him is full redemption. (Psalm 130:7)
Then you will know that I am the Lord;
    those who hope in me will not be disappointed.” (Isaiah 49:23)

Isaiah refers to a land of Israel and its God being accepted by their overlords.

Do any of the worthless idols of the nations bring rain? Do the skies themselves send down showers? No, it is you, Lord our God. Therefore our hope is in you, for you are the one who does all this.  (Jeremiah 14:22)

New Testament Statements about Hope

The Jews were oppressed by Rome and unaware of when their dreams of a sovereign land or messiah would be fulfilled.  At this point, Jesus revealed more about the nature of God, his own role and further explained OT laws. By the time the New Testament writers sharpened their pens, Christianity had grown from a small sect around the Sea of Galilee to churches around the Mediterranean and beyond.

Note the greater variety in what is hoped for as the NT writers convey the Gospel and hope for the fulfillment of Christ’s words.  Although some verses may appear alike, there is a nuance of difference.

Therefore, my heart is glad, and my tongue rejoices;
    my body also will rest in hope,
because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead,
    you will not let your holy one see decay. (Acts 2:26-27)
Repent of this wickedness and pray to the Lord in the hope that he may forgive you for having such a thought in your heart. (Acts 8:22)
Then Paul, knowing that some of them were Sadducees and the other Pharisees, called out in the Sanhedrin, “My brothers, I am a Pharisee, descended from Pharisees. I stand on trial because of the hope of the resurrection of the dead.” (Acts 23:6)
and I have the same hope in God as these men themselves have, that there will be a resurrection of both the righteous and the wicked. (Acts 24:15)
“For this reason, I have asked to see you and talk with you. It is because of the hope of Israel that I am bound with this chain.” (Acts 28:20) 

Here Paul is referring to Israel’s hope for the messiah

Therefore, since we have been justified through faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have gained access by faith into this grace in which we now stand.  And we boast in the hope of the glory of God. (Rom 5:1-2)

This next one is one of my favorites as it emphasizes our close relationship with God:

For those who are led by the Spirit of God are the children of God. The Spirit you received does not make you slaves, so that you live in fear again; rather, the Spirit you received brought about your adoption to sonship.  And by him we cry, “Abba,  Father.” The Spirit himself testifies with our spirit that we are God’s children. Now if we are children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

We know that the whole creation has been groaning as in the pains of childbirth right up to the present time. Not only so, but we ourselves, who have the firstfruits of the Spirit, groan inwardly as we wait eagerly for our adoption to sonship, the redemption of our bodies. For in this hope we were saved.  But hope that is seen is no hope at all. Who hopes for what they already have?  But if we hope for what we do not yet have, we wait for it patiently (Rom 8:14-17, 22-25)

Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres. (1 Cor 13:6-7)
I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better.  I pray that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened in order that you may know the hope to which he has called you, the riches of his glorious inheritance in his holy people, and his incomparably great power for us who believe. That power is the same as the mighty strength he exerted when he raised Christ from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly realms, (Eph 1: 17-20)

Wow! That one is worth extra thought and meditation.  The ‘power’ referred to is the actual transformation of the whole person, accomplished as one is opened to receive the grace of God bestowed in Christ.

To them God has chosen to make known among the Gentiles the glorious riches of this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory. (Col 1:27)
For those who sleep, sleep at night, and those who get drunk, get drunk at night. But since we belong to the day, let us be sober, putting on faith and love as a breastplate, and the hope of salvation as a helmet. For God did not appoint us to suffer wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ. (1 Thess 5:7-9)
Paul, a servant of God and an apostle of Jesus Christ to further the faith of God’s elect and their knowledge of the truth that leads to godliness—in the hope of eternal life, which God, who does not lie, promised before the beginning of time, (Titus 1:1-3)
Therefore, with minds that are alert and fully sober, set your hope on the grace to be brought to you when Jesus Christ is revealed at his coming. (1 Peter 1:13)

18 The former regulation is set aside because it was weak and useless 19 (for the law made nothing perfect), and a better hope is introduced, by which we draw near to God.

20 And it was not without an oath! Others became priests without any oath, 21 but he became a priest with an oath when God said to him:

“The Lord has sworn
    and will not change his mind:
    ‘You are a priest forever.’”

22 Because of this oath, Jesus has become the guarantor of a better covenant.

23 Now there have been many of those priests, since death prevented them from continuing in office; 24 but because Jesus lives forever, he has a permanent priesthood. 25 Therefore he is able to save completely those who come to God through him, because he always lives to intercede for them.

26 Such a high priest truly meets our need—one who is holy, blameless, pure, set apart from sinners, exalted above the heavens. 27 Unlike the other high priests, he does not need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for the sins of the people. He sacrificed for their sins once for all when he offered himself. 28 For the law appoints as high priests, men in all their weakness; but the oath, which came after the law, appointed the Son, who has been made perfect forever. (Heb 7:18-28)

A statement of Christ’s amazing role in our present and future lives.

Dear friends, now we are children of God, and what we will be has not yet been made known. But we know that when Christ appears, we shall be like him, for we shall see him as he is.  All who have this hope in him purify themselves, just as he is pure. (1 John 3:2-3)

Conclusion

The object of Christian hope sometimes lacks clarity. But considering the verses in which the object of hope is clearly stated, along with my concordance’s explanations, I’ve found a better understanding of what NT writers were encouraging the churches to hope for, or indeed expect, as believers.

As psychologist Meg Van Deusen, author of Stressed in the U.S., wrote of hope, “When we have it we move and when we move we change things.” If you’re feeling hopeless, ask yourself what pathways you can walk right now—even with small steps—to help move toward greater faith, awe, love and goals you value.

If you found this article interesting, inspiring, informative or useful, please share it and follow us.  There are many articles that will feed your soul on the Navigation Menu.

References

“The Power of Hope” by Dale Archer M.D

Why Hope Matters” by Polly Campbell

Is It Still Possible to Hope?” by David B. Feldman PH.D.

holding scrabble tiles spelling encourage

Encouragement-So Little Yet So Much /Spiritual Meditations

Julie Exline recounts her experience of learning to surf.  Not an easy task for anyone, Julie had the extra difficulty of having to work around some physical limitations.   She, however, had an exceptional teacher who provided, not only technical training, but patient encouragement.

Given my limited upper body strength and a decided lack of flexibility in my neck and back, I found it very hard to maintain the surfer position required for paddling. When my instructor saw this obvious problem, she quietly offered me a gift of grace: She gently but firmly hooked her foot on my board and began to tow me out into the waves. 

OK, I’ll admit that this was humbling for me. It was so painfully apparent that I needed the help. I couldn’t do it on my own. I came so close to being overtaken by a dark storm cloud of shame, which would have tainted the whole experience. But instead, I was presented with a lifeline for my emotions, a balm that soothed me and my bruised ego: It was my instructor’s positive attitude.

Although she would have been perfectly justified in grumbling, rolling her eyes, or at least giving me a heavy sigh, she did none of these things. Instead, she presented the situation as though towing me around was just exactly what she wanted to do. Although I don’t remember her specific words, this is the message that she conveyed to me: “This is great! I need some more practice doing this. And I’ll get a good workout.”

Because of the grace that my instructor offered me, I didn’t have to struggle through the waves alone. I was able to put my head down periodically and rest. I didn’t have to hold my body up in an uncomfortable position for too long, and I didn’t have to waste precious time and energy with laborious, inefficient paddling.

My instructor’s consistent encouragement and support steadied me throughout my surfing adventure. When I missed a wave or wiped out, she was gentle and patient in response. She didn’t berate me for my errors, nor did she show a trace of frustration with me or my screw-ups. She would simply watch for the next decent wave, give my board a little push, and then coach me through the steps to stand up.

All that I had in my glass were a few drops of accomplishment. But she chose to focus on the sweetness of those drops, not on how comically small they were or how much of the glass remained empty. And because of her emphasis on what I had achieved, I was able to join her in celebrating my successes, modest as they were.”  

Julie J. Exline Ph.D.

The Purpose of Encouragement

As you can see encouragement can turn an embarrassing situation into a cause to celebrate. An expression of affirmation through language or other symbolic representations can give strength to another person who feels limited, justifiably or not. Courage reduces fear, perseverance combats a desire to give up, confidence addresses low self-efficacy, inspiration resolves a lack of motivation or creativity, and hope decreases pessimism about the future;  all goals that the Apostles would have been striving for with their letters and visits to the first Christian churches who often struggled with the rejection of their former synagogues, friends and business associates.  This article speculates on where the first disciples traveled to spread the Good News.

Alfred Adler (1956), arguably the first psychologist to theorize on encouragement, considered encouragement a core feature of human development.  A broad definition commonly cited by Adlerian scholars says, “encouragement is the process of facilitating the development of a persons’ inner resources and courage toward positive movement”. (Think spiritual faith and Holy Spirit as two of those inner resources.)

Dreikurs (1971) considered the ability to encourage others as the single most important attribute in getting along with other people.

Grounded in humanistic psychology, the purpose of encouragement embraced by Adlerian scholars was to enhance the core features of a fully functioning person: a positive view of oneself,  a positive view of others,  being open to experiences, and a sense of belonging to others.  A measure for children was also developed that focused on three areas of encouragement: a positive view of the self, a sense of belonging, and the courage to be imperfect.  Are these not characteristics strongly supported by Jesus’ words and actions?  Once again Christianity and science coincide. See (Cosmos + Life + Science) = God for other areas of commonality.

Also, useful, our encouragement to others can include a suggestion to replace negative self-talk (inner dialogue) with a positive focus on accomplishments.  In their book Words Can Change Your Life, Newberg and Waldman tell us that positive self-talk improves attentiveness, autonomy, confidence, and work performance.  On the other hand,  negative self-talk can stimulate eating disorders, passivity, insomnia, agoraphobia, compulsive gambling, sexual dysfunction, low self-esteem and depression.  It can make you quite your job in a self-destructive way, and it can drive you to treating your family with disdain.

The importance of our inner thoughts is significant.

The Greater Impact of Your Words

The Apostle Paul exhorts Christians to encourage one another, particularly those who are disheartened (1 Thessalonians 5:11-15). Encouragement is more beneficial and necessary for some people than for others.

There is some preliminary evidence suggesting that encouragement might be relatively more important to the success and well-being of women, minority groups, and some non-Western cultures. Women, racial minority and impoverished individuals who routinely face discrimination might rely more on positive social messages from significant others to build their self-confidence.

individuals from non-Western collectivistic cultures such as in Eastern Asia, might define themselves more strongly in terms of their relationships with others and may, therefore, be more open to the influence of encouragement provided from significant others.

Praise vs. Encouragement

Although encouragement can be expressed through praise and persuasion, it is not the same. Praise refers to communicating positive evaluations of another person’s characteristics, performance, or products.  Although, like encouragement, praise involves the expression of affirmation, praise may not necessarily be intended to instill courage, perseverance, confidence, inspiration, or hope in another person.

For example, praise that is only offered as a form of congratulations would not be considered encouragement. Moreover, praise can be offered merely as feedback for something done in the past (e.g., “Good job on the presentation!”), whereas encouragement always has a present or future orientation. Even when a statement of encouragement refers to a past achievement, the ultimate goal of encouragement is to serve as a stimulus that either strengthens or develops positive motivation, cognitions, emotions, or behavior.

To make it easy to remember, think of praise as for past actions and encouragement as for future actions.

Conclusion

We are to follow the examples of Christ and the apostles to encourage others, especially in their faith.  It costs us nothing to speak a few words of support and what an amazing gift it is. 

As Dr. Julie Exline tells us, “When we ‘en-courage,’ it’s as though we actually infuse courage into another person. It can provide people with strength to look ahead, move forward, and reach for the next goal. The whole emotional tone of a tough situation can be transformed through encouragement. Somehow things seem a little brighter.”

If you found this article interesting, inspiring, informative or helpful, please share it.

Relevant Scripture

So, when they were sent off, they came to Antioch. Having gathered the multitude together, they delivered the letter.When they had read it, they rejoiced over the encouragement. (Acts 15:30-31)

In the day that I called, you answered me. You encouraged me with strength in my soul. (Psalm 138:3)

Judas and Silas, also being prophets themselves, encouraged the brothers with many words and strengthened them. (Acts 15:32)

When he had gone through those parts, and had encouraged them with many words, he came into Greece. (Acts 20:2)

For whatever things were written before were written for our learning, that through perseverance and through encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope. Now the God of perseverance and of encouragement grant you to be of the same mind with one another according to Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one mouth glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. (Rom 15:4-6)

Then the church throughout Judea, Galilee and Samaria enjoyed a time of peace and was strengthened. Living in the fear of the Lord an  encouraged by the Holy Spirit, it increased in numbers. (Acts 9:31)  This is after Paul’s conversion

And we urge you, brothers and sisters, warn those who are idle and disruptive, encourage the disheartened, help the weak  be patient with everyone. (1 Thes 5:14)

References

Words can Change Your Brain by Andrew Newberg MD & Mark Robert Waldman – available for Kindle

“The Psychology of Encouragement: Theory, Research, and Applications”  by Y. Joel Wong1

“The Quiet Power of Encouragement” by Julie J. Exline Ph.D.

girl whispering into ear of another girl who has covered he mouth

Gossip Turned Upside Down / Spiritual Meditations

Avoiding gossip is one of those parental teachings that has stuck with me.  My father would say “If you don’t have something nice to say, don’t say anything at all” (sound familiar?). Prompted by a friend, I decided to see what the Bible says about this. 

Shocker #1

I found that there are surprisingly few occurrences of the word “gossip” in the Bible, but they all indicate a bad characteristic.  A search of the NIV resulted in only 8 instances!  Checking out a few other versions, I found the WEB has only 4 instances!

So now I’m wondering: Why this lifelong emphasis on the evils of gossip? and How did the WEB translation of the Hebrew/Greek result in only half the references?

A big clue to the difference:

29 They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit and malice. They are gossips, 30 slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; (Rom 1:29-30 NIV)
29 being filled with all unrighteousness, sexual immorality, wickedness, covetousness, malice; full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, evil habits, secret slanderers30 backbiters, hateful to God, insolent, arrogant, boastful, inventors of evil things, disobedient to parents, (Rom 1:29-30 WEB)

Now I understand the emphasis on the dark side of gossip.  But if it can be translated as “slander”, a very serious accusation, gossip seems kind of minor.

Shocker #2

The academic definition of gossip is simply that

“you’re talking about someone who isn’t present”.

 What?!  I do this all the time!  I thought gossip was supposed to be really bad!

Gossip Started with Our Ancient Ancestors

Social Psychologists tell us that when disparaging gossip, we overlook the fact that it’s an essential part of what makes the social world tick; the nasty side of gossip overshadows the more benign ways in which it functions.

In fact, gossip can actually be thought of not as a character flaw, but as a highly evolved social skill.

Evolutionary psychologists believe that our preoccupation with the lives of others is a byproduct of a prehistoric brain.  According to scientists, because our prehistoric ancestors lived in relatively small groups, they knew one another intimately. In order to ward off enemies and survive in their harsh natural environment, our ancestors needed to cooperate with in-group members. But they also recognized that these same in-group members were their main competitors for mates and limited resources.

Living under such conditions, they faced several adaptive social problems: Who’s reliable and trustworthy? Who’s a cheater? Who would make the best mate? How can friendships, alliances, and family obligations be balanced?  In this sort of environment, an intense interest in the private dealings of other people would have certainly been handy – and strongly favored by natural selection.

Recent Studies of Gossip

Only 15% of Gossip is Negative

New research published in the journal Social Psychology and Personality Science analyzed thousands of daily conversations to better understand the true nature of gossip. Contrary to conventional wisdom, gossip may not be as negative as we tend to think.

To arrive at their conclusion, researchers at the University of California Riverside analyzed daily conversations of 467 people over a multi-day period using an Electronically Activated Recorder (EAR, for short). EAR is a portable device that continuously samples sound from a wearer’s immediate environment. Participants were encouraged to wear the device all day during the test period. This allowed researchers to unobtrusively listen in on, and analyze, the contents of participants’ daily conversations.

Here’s what they found. First, the researchers reported that females gossiped significantly more than males (which is consistent with past research as well as general beliefs on gossip). They also found that extraverts and agreeable people tended to gossip more than others.

But it gets more interesting. The researchers separated gossip into three distinct categories:

  • positive/flattering gossip,
  • neutral gossip (i.e., observations about people that aren’t necessarily positive or negative),
  • and negative/malicious gossip.

Examining these three categories separately, they found that younger people tended to gossip more negatively than older people. They also found that people with higher incomes tended to gossip more neutrally than people with lower incomes.

Perhaps most interesting, however, is what the researchers didn’t find. For one, when it came to evaluative gossiping, (positive/flattering and negative/malicious gossip), they found no evidence of a gender difference. They write,

“Despite popular notions, the most reliable evidence for women gossiping more than men was for neutral, rather than evaluative, gossip.  The study revealed less consistent evidence for evaluative gossip and therefore did not support the notion that women evaluatively gossip more than men.” 

Women are no more “catty” than men.

They also dispelled another common misconception—that poorer, less educated people engage in gossip more than the affluent. If anything, the results suggest the opposite.

The researchers were also interested in understanding how people gossip. In other words, what are the common topics, times of day, and conversation characteristics that define gossip? To start, they report that just about everyone gossips. (Only 34 individuals out of the 467 did not gossip at all.) Specifically, they estimate that the average person spends 52 minutes per day gossiping.

However, they note that most gossip (75%, to be exact) is non-evaluative, or neutral, in nature. Fifteen percent of gossip is negative while the remaining 10% is positive or flattering. They also note that gossip tends to be about acquaintances more than celebrities, and typically involves an exchange of social information rather than thoughts about one’s physical appearance or achievements.

Gossip Creates Relationships

In studies reviewed by Ellwardt, Steglich & Wittech, harmless gossiping in the workplace was found to build group cohesiveness and boost morale among colleagues.

Gossip also helps to socialize newcomers into groups by making them privy to group norms and values. In other words, listening to the judgments that people make about the behavior of others helps the newbie figure out what’s acceptable and what isn’t.

What’s more, gossip also fosters trust and closeness among friends, and can provide moral guidelines for behavior. Those who can’t do it well often have difficulty maintaining relationships, and can find themselves on the outside looking in.

Among a group of friends or coworkers, the threat of becoming the target of gossip can be a positive force; it can deter “free-loaders” and cheaters who might be tempted to slack off or take advantage of others.

I Just Couldn’t Help Myself

 A 1993 observational study found that male participants spent 55% of conversation time and female participants spent 67% conversation time on “the discussion of socially relevant topics”.

They also found a physiological distinction to be drawn between active and passive participation in gossip. Matthew Feinberg, an Assistant Professor of Organizational Behavior at the University of Toronto’s and his colleagues explored this in a 2012 study.

When subjects heard about another person’s anti-social behavior or an injustice, their heart rates increased. When they were able to actively gossip about the person or the situation it soothed them and brought their heart rates down. The act of gossiping, Feinberg explains, “helps calm the body.”

So, it could be a struggle to stop gossiping, but if you wish to do so, Sarah DiGiulio has some suggestions.

Criteria for Useful Gossip

A good gossiper is someone who people trust with information and someone who uses that information in a responsible way. If you find out your friend has a crush on someone with a bad reputation for cheating, you let your friend know, not to hurt your friend, but as a warning. You may find out someone in your company is not a team player and you let other coworkers know so that they can try to avoid working with that colleague.

A bad gossiper, on the other hand, is someone who shares confidential information about others in order to get ahead, get an advantage for themselves or is just reckless. Negative gossip is frequently a means of making perpetrators feel better about themselves by putting another person down. People don’t tend to trust “bad” gossipers with private information. “If someone is speaking negatively about my friends to me, they are likely to be doing the same thing to me behind my back.”

Research has indeed shown that a lot of gossip has both positive effects and moral motivations, explains Robb Willer, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Polarization and Social Change Laboratory at Stanford University, who studies the social forces that bring us together and drive us against one another, including gossip.

Studies from his group have shown that the more generous and moral among us are most likely to pass along rumors about untrustworthy people, and they report doing so because they are concerned about helping others. They call this type of gossip “prosocial gossip” because it serves to warn others — which has the effect of lowering overall exploitation in groups, Willer says. “A lot of gossip is driven by concern for others and has positive, social effects.”

Here’s how to make sure you’re gossiping in a responsible, trustworthy way:

1. Think Twice Before You Do It

Whether you’re gossiping in a responsible way or not is all a matter of when you’re doing it and with whom you’re sharing the information.  Are you stabbing someone in the back by telling that story? Is that news going to stop something bad from happening?

2. Don’t Gossip for Personal Gain

If you’re doing it for your own personal gain, don’t; it’s probably not doing anyone any favors. “The form of gossip we’ve found beneficial is negative gossip about people who have behaved in an antisocial way,” Willer says.

3. Don’t Distort Information

Tell it like it is. Leave the exaggeration at the door, Willer says. “People often exaggerate what they pass on to make a better or more coherent story — or to justify why they are speaking about someone.”  That’s not a responsible way of sharing information. Gossip doesn’t do a lot of good if its informational content is unreliable.

Conclusion

Despite multiple studies that reveal an upside to gossip, negative opinions about gossip are resistant to change.

Whether it’s workplace chatter, the sharing of family news or group texts between friends, it’s inevitable that everyone who talks, talks about other people. And that’s OK if we first ask ourselves: Is it true? Is it good? Is it useful?

You may not be able to always answer “yes” to all 3 questions, but always do your best.  Some days are better than others.

To sum it up gossip is light talk about a person that may or may not be true but is often public knowledge, most often about family, friends and coworkers. Slander, on the other hand, are outright lies about a person’s actions or character and can seriously harm their reputation. It is good to remember that even though gossip is not illegal it can hurt a person’s feelings and reputation as well as damage relationships.

If you found this post to be interesting, inspiring, informative or helpful, please share it.

Relevant Scripture

… if you utter worthy, not worthless, words,
you will be my spokesman….(Jeremiah 15:19)

Do not let any unwholesome talk come out of your mouths, but only what is helpful for building others up according to their needs, that it may benefit those who listen. (Eph 4:29)

References

The Truth About Gossip” by Mark Travers Ph.D.

Gossip Is a Social Skill, Not a Character Flaw” by Frank T. McAndrew Ph.D.

Good News about Gossip” by Megan Robbins Ph.D.

The Science Behind Why People Gossip—and When It Can be a Good Thing” by Sophia Gottfried 

Psychologist Say Gossiping is a Social Skill.  Here’s How to Know if You are Doing It Right” By Sarah DiGiulio 

statue of Jesus blessing

Uncover Blessings Concealed in Beatitudes / Spiritual Meditations

Every day we hear someone say “I’m blessed” referring to just about anything.  It’s usually the receipt of something: a goal achieved, support or endorsement, a gift or acquisition, money.   Although the words “I’m blessed” imply that the receiver credits God for the gift, which may be legitimate, the type of blessings spoken of by Jesus, the apostle John and the Psalmists are quite different.

What we consider a blessing is often still the same as it was when Jesus walked the earth.  At the time he taught the Beatitudes, the “blessed” ones were considered to be those who lived on a higher plane than everyone else.  Either:

  • They were gods.
  • They were humans who had gone to the world of the gods.
  • They were the wealthy, upper crust. They were those with many possessions. The blessed were those people and beings who lived above the normal cares, problems, and worries of normal people.

Matthew (reflecting Jesus’ thoughts) uses the word  “blessed” in a totally different way. It is not the elite who are blessed. It is not the rich and powerful who are blessed. It is not the high and mighty who are blessed. It is not the people living in huge mansions or expensive penthouses who are blessed. Rather, Jesus turned it upside-down and pronounced God’s blessings on the lowly: the poor, the hungry, the thirsty, the meek, and the mourning.

So, when you read the Beatitudes do you see yourself in one or more of those blessed groups?  This is the way I always looked at them; as separate groups. That is until I started doing some research.  Then I had a real eye-opener.

With the help of my friend Rev. Nathan Carlson. I’ll tell you what I found.

Setting the Scene

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.  (Matt 5:1-2)

Matthew wrote his gospel many years after Jesus spoke on the mountainside. In his view, the ‘crowds’ included  the new groups of  Christians who would be reading his Gospel. His intention was for a closer look at this part of the teaching, targeted to disciples already living in a post Easter, post Ascension, post Pentecost times.  Therefore, although the ‘disciples’ who were mentioned may have included only Jesus’ current 4 disciples, it most likely referred to all those who were part of the crowd, or indeed, all readers of Matthew’s gospel, including you and me! 

Some have understood the beatitudes as teaching the true meaning of either Torah or prophetic pronouncements upon Israel. And the beatitudes borrow heavily from themes and phrases found in the Prophets and Psalms, which you can see by reading the Relevant Scriptures at the bottom of this article. Thus, Jesus could be viewed as explaining the meaning and fulfillment of texts well known to his Hebrew listeners who would have interpreted Jesus’ teaching as concerning the coming of the promised land of Israel. 

Therefore, note that there are multiple parallel thoughts running through the beatitudes: the Hebrews on the hillside were expecting the creation of the state of Israel, Christians (who existed at the time Matthew wrote his gospel) were expecting the Kingdom of Heaven on earth at Christ’s second coming, and  those who believe that the Kingdom of God is the individual’s inner relationship with God anticipates that relationship for each seeker of God.

The Beatitudes

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
10 Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

11 Blessed are you when people insult you, persecute you and falsely say all kinds of evil against you because of me. 12 Rejoice and be glad, because great is your reward in heaven,

The purpose then of these beatitudes is not to prescribe actions necessary to inherit the Kingdom of Heaven, but to describe the type of characteristics expected to be seen in those who are in the Kingdom of Heaven. The Kingdom of Heaven, here, refers specifically to God’s reign on earth.

Blessed are the Poor in Spirit for Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven

Whereas Luke (Luke 6:20-26) only mentioned the poor who are in a state of financial and physical need and excluded those who are wealthy, Matthew included the qualifier “in spirit”, opening the inclusion of everyone. Various meanings of the words “in spirit” have been suggested, however, Rev. Carlson believes the best use for them relates to those who are entirely dependent upon God’s grace, mercy, sovereignty, and care. There is supporting evidence throughout the Gospel of Matthew and it makes sense with what follows in these verses.  For the Jewish community, the poor are those missing a homeland – themselves.

Blessed are Those who Mourn for They will be Comforted

This should be understood as those who mourn the loss of the things of this world that reflect the will of God and the nature of the Kingdom of Heaven. They will be comforted by the restoration of the kingdom, whether it be land, the second coning or our inner connection with God.

Blessed are the Meek for They will Inherit the Earth

If you equate “meek” with “milk-toast”, you are not alone.  But my friend and Hebrew/Greek/English translator, Dr Frank Leeds, gives us a much more accurate way to visualize what the Greek speaking folks of the time understood ‘meek’ to mean.

Greek is loaded with ‘picture’ words and English simply does not have the language to fill in the difference.  Meek is a horse term which the New Testament is full of.  Here is the picture:  A horse is by its very nature, scared to death of fire.  It sees fire and it bolts away to save its life.  When the Romans used horses for military purposes, they often used them at night and soldiers at night needed torches to see properly. Light a torch and the rider had a crazy horse to deal with.  However, by training a horse, a torch could be passed in front of its eyes and it wouldn’t move.  Taking its cue front the calm of its rider rather than the fire of the torch, the horse was declared to be “MEEK”.  What was going on around the horse, no matter how frightening, the horse took its perspective of life from its rider not from its environment.  When Jesus says, “Blessed are the meek” he is saying, “Blessed is the man who does not get all bent out of shape and scared to death about what is going on around him, but is strong enough to take his cue from his master.  It is a description of the person who does not ‘fly off the handle” but remains perfectly in control. It is about a person who has reached beyond his or her nature.  It is a person who takes their cue from God.

So, the meek reflect the character of Jesus as the suffering servant. Those who have been used and abused by tyrannical political systems and have the strength to not fight back. Those who exhibit the peaceful nature of the Kingdom. Those who confront power not with power but with God’s love and promise as their fortifying backbone.

Can you now accept being called ‘meek’? I can.

Promised to the meek is “the earth”. In the prophet’s words in Isaiah, the same concept is used to signify the earth being not the globe but the promised land of Israel.  This is the long-awaited hope of the people of Israel; that that for which they mourned the loss, will be restored to them. Or It will be given to those who reflect the nature of Jesus with the coming of the Kingdom of God.

Blessed are Those who Hunger and Thirst for Righteousness for They will be Filled

Like Luke, Matthew raised up those who are hungry, but also those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.  The idea of hunger and thirst relating not just to the physical body, but also to the spiritual body, already existed in Psalms. What does it mean, however, to hunger and thirst for righteousness? This addition cuts several directions.

  • First, righteousness indicates a right relationship with God. This meaning absolutely applies to this verse.
  • The second meaning of the word in Greek means justice, specifically God’s justice. This then has something to do, potentially, with the judgment at the end of the time.
  • Considering the oppression of Israel’s people by the Romans, ‘justice’ also refers to the coming of God’s will to provide Israel with a homeland.

The fulfillment of these would be a right relationship with God and for the Kingdom of Heaven to be perfectly represented in the new ‘earth’ spoken of in the previous verses.

Blessed are the Merciful for They will be Shown Mercy

Mercy, the act of forgiveness even in the face of the unforgiveable (as Jesus demonstrated on the cross for his crucifiers and mockers) unveils the true nature of the Kingdom of God in the present kingdom.  This then is a mark of a right relationship with God which will be made apparent as those who are merciful have already received God’s mercy and at the final judgment will receive God’s mercy.

Blessed are the Pure in Heart for They will See God

This has often been mistreated as a matter of Christian thought and is worth exploring. Some recent and historical Christian teaching has suggested this to be a matter of moral or ethical purity: “I need to keep my mind pure; I need to keep my actions pure; I need to keep my mouth pure”. This value, while commendable, does not seem consistent with the original language. The original Greek used the term “katharoi” whose first meaning is “purified by fire”. One commentator suggests that a good translation would be “Whose heart is unalloyed”. The person whose heart is not a mixture of two things, but single minded, of single purpose, of single devotion; this is the one who Jesus speaks of here. Then we can see that those whose hearts are single-mindedly focused on God without including any other gods or devotion to anything else alongside God; those people will be the ones who see God.

Blessed are the Peacemakers for They will be Called Children of God

The focus here is on the Hebrew word “Shalom”. Shalom is not a passive peace but a peace forged out of the hard work of reconciliation between God and humanity and humanity and itself. Peacemaking in the sense of uniting individuals’ hearts with themselves, uniting conflicting people with one another, uniting people to God who have been estranged, and even uniting the vision of the Kingdom of Heaven with the current reality. These people are the peacemakers. The conclusion of this verse should be translated Sons of God. Sons of God is a phrase used early in scripture to denote the angels in heaven. Therefore, peacemakers on earth act as the angels in heaven bearing God’s message to all.

Blessed are Those who are Persecuted Because of Righteousness, for Theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.

This verse does not address all who are persecuted, but rather those who are persecuted for the sake of righteousness, which as we have seen is living a right relationship with God and their desire to see the justice of the Kingdom of God reflected in the world. This concludes the words spoken by Jesus on the hillside to the crowds. Notice that up to this point all the beatitudes begin with “blessed are those.” This will be important in a moment.

Bracketed by verse 3 and 10 in which the received blessing is the Kingdom of Heaven, Mathew may have, and likely did, include verse 4-9 as being the same blessing, while providing further augmentation of what characteristics would be found in those who reach the Kingdom of Heaven.

Blessed are You when People Revile You and Persecute You and Utter all Kinds of Evil Against You Falsely on My Account.   Rejoice and be Glad, Because Great is Your Reward in Heaven

Jesus in this moment inserts Himself into the equation in the same place as righteousness in the verse before. He becomes, for Matthew and us, the righteous one. This verse is seen by some as a Matthew insertion because it points to the time after Jesus was on earth in the flesh. Verse eleven makes little sense in a context in which many are following Jesus and during which there is little present threat to Him or His followers.

It speaks directly to Matthew’s community of Christian Jewish followers ostracized by both the synagogues and Rome.  The reward for faithfully following Jesus through all of this, for standing up for Him and claiming Him is that “your reward is great in heaven.”

Conclusion

We can clearly see that the nine beatitudes were written as much for those who were in the Christian church of Matthew’s day as well as spoken to the first disciples and the crowds.

Even amid persecution and separation from the synagogues and other Jewish groups, Matthew saw Jesus as still calling this community to peacemaking and reconciliation. They, and those who followed after them, would be persecuted for maintaining a right relationship with God – especially as found through Jesus – and their reward was the Kingdom of Heaven. We can also see how the beatitudes today relate, not how the church OUGHT to live, but how the true people of God WOULD live. It is less prescription and more description of the nature of the lives of disciples.

They were poor, potentially, for being disinherited from sacred Jewish spaces, mournful for their loss, meek in taking their cue from God to avoid conflict with oppressors, hungering and thirsting for right relationships with God and for justice, merciful in that they still desired to extend the Gospel to those around them and were quick to forgive those who had wronged them (think Saul/Paul), pure in heart as they believed in and sought God above all things including family and possessions, persecuted by the Roman authorities and those around them, and persecuted from within their own Jewish community and ostracized from it. This, then, for Matthew and his Jesus marked the traits of the authentic community of the people of God and identified the promises for which their hearts longed.

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Relevant Scripture

The meaning of the word ‘beatitudes’ (μακαριότητα in Greek) is ‘the joys of heaven’ or ‘a declaration of blessedness’.  As you will see here, they are not limited to only those in Matthew 5.

Blessed are all who take refuge in Him. (Psalms 2:12)

Blessed is the one whose sin the Lord does not count against them and in whose spirit is no deceit. (Psalms 32: 2)

Blessed is the one who trusts in the Lord, who does not look to the proud, to those who turn aside from false gods. (Psalms 40:4)

Blessed are those who have regard for the weak; the Lord delivers them in times of trouble. (Psalms 41:1)

Blessed are those who dwell in your house; they are ever praising you.  Blessed are those whose strength is in you, whose hearts are set on pilgrimage. (Psalms 84:4-5)

Blessed are those who act justly, who always do what is right. (Psalms 106:3)

Blessed are all who fear the Lord, who walk in obedience to him. (Psalms 128:1)

But blessed are your eyes because they see, and your ears because they hear. (Matthew 13:16)

Then Jesus told him, “Because you have seen me, you have believed; blessed are those who have not seen and yet have believed.” (John 20:29)

Then I heard a voice from heaven say, “Write this: Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on.”  “Yes,” says the Spirit, “they will rest from their labor, for their deeds will follow them.” (Rev 14:13)

Then the angel said to me, “Write this: Blessed are those who are invited to the wedding supper of the Lamb!” And he added, “These are the true words of God.” (Rev 19:9)

Blessed and holy are those who share in the first resurrection. The second death has no power over them, but they will be priests of God and of Christ and will reign with him for a thousand years. (Rev 20:6)

viewed from behind 6 people with arms across each others shoulders.

The Pandemic Interrupts My Hug-fest!! /Spiritual Meditations

If pre-pandemic you attended church most Sundays, you have probably been missing the hugs as much as I have.  This week I happened upon this writing by Dietrich Bonhoeffer which speaks so poignantly to our current pandemic restrictions that I felt it was handed to me by God for our benefit and gratitude.  Giving this to you is not meant to express any opinion on when churches should open or how to provide for the safety of their congregations.  I share this as a reminder of one of God’s gifts that many of us take for granted and our responsibility to extend this gift to others wherever needed, now and post-pandemic.

Community by Dietrich Bonhoeffer

“Behold, how good and how pleasant it is for brothers and sisters to dwell together in unity!” (Psalms 133:1 ). In the following we shall consider a number of directions and precepts that the Scriptures provide us for our life together under the Word.

It is not simply to be taken for granted that the Christian has the privilege of living among other Christians. Jesus Christ lived in the midst of his enemies. At the end, all his disciples deserted him. On the cross he was utterly alone, surrounded by evil doers and mockers. For this cause he had come, to bring peace to the enemies of God. So the Christians, too, belong not in the seclusion of a cloistered life but in the thick of foes. There is his commission, his work.

“The kingdom is to be in the midst of our enemies. And he who will not suffer this does not want to be of the kingdom of Christ; he wants to be among friends, to sit among roses and lilies, not with the bad people but the devout people. O you blasphemers and betrayers of Christ! If Christ had done what you are doing who would ever have been spared?” (Martin Luther)

So between the death of Christ and the last day it is only by a gracious anticipation of the last things that Christians are privileged to live in visible fellowship with other Christians. It is by the grace of God that a congregation is permitted to gather visibly in this world to share God‘s Word and sacrament. Not all Christians receive this blessing. The imprisoned, the sick, the scattered lonely, the proclaimers of the gospel in foreign lands stand alone. They know that visible fellowship is a blessing. They remember, as the Psalmist did, how they went “with the multitude… To the house of God, with the voice of joy and praise, with a multitude that kept holyday “ (Psalm 42:4).

But they remain alone in far countries, a scattered seed according to God’s will. Yet what is denied them is an actual experience they seized upon more fervently in faith. Thus, the exiled disciple of the Lord, John the Apocalyptist celebrates in the loneliness of Patmos the heavenly worship with his congregations “in the Spirit on the Lords day “ (Rev 1:10). He sees the seven candle sticks, his congregation, the seven stars, the angels of the congregation, and in the midst and above it all, the son of man, Jesus Christ, and all the splendor of the resurrection. He strengthens and fortified him by his word. This is the heavenly fellowship, shared by the exile on the day of his Lord’s resurrection.

The physical presence of other Christians is a source of incomparable joy and strength to the believer. Longingly, the imprisoned apostle Paul called his “dearly beloved son of the faith,” Timothy, to come to him in prison in the last days of his life; he would see him again and have him near. Paul has not forgotten the tears Timothy shed when last they parted (2 Timothy 1:4). Remembering the congregation in Thessalonica, Paul prays “night and day….exceedingly that we might see your face“ (1 Thes 3:10). The aged John knows that his joy will not be full until he can come to his own people and speak face-to-face instead of writing with ink (2 John 12).

The believer feels no shame, as though he or she were still living too much in the flash, when he or she yearns for the physical presence of other Christians. The human being was created a body, the son of God appeared on earth in the body, he was raised in the body, in the sacrament the believer receives the Lord Christ in the body, and the resurrection of the dead will bring about the perfected fellowship of Gods spiritual–physical creation.

The believer therefore lauds the Creator, the Redeemer, God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, for the bodily presence of a brother and sister. The prisoner, the sick person, the Christian and exile, sees in the companionship of a fellow Christian a physical sign of a gracious presence of the triune God. Visitor and visited in loneliness recognize in each other the Christ who is present in the body; they receive and meet each other as one meets the Lord in reverence, humility, and joy. They receive each other’s benedictions as the benediction of the Lord Jesus Christ. But there is so much blessing and joy even in a single encounter of brother with brother, how inexhaustible are the riches that open up for those who by God‘s will are privileged to live in the daily fellowship of life with other Christians!

It is true, of course, that what is an unspeakable gift of God for the lonely individual is easily disregarded and trodden underfoot by those who have the gift every day. It is easily forgotten that the fellowship of Christian brothers and sisters is a gift of grace, a gift of the Kingdom of God that any day may be taken from us, that the time that still separates us from utter loneliness may be brief indeed. Therefore, let them who until now have had the privilege of living a common Christian life with other Christians praise God‘s grace from the bottom of their hearts. Let them thank God on their knees and declare it is grace, nothing but grace, that we are allowed to live in community with Christian brothers and sisters.

The measure with which God bestows the gift of visible community is varied. The Christian in exile is comforted by a brief visit of a Christian brother or sister, a prayer, together and a brothers or sisters blessing; indeed, he or she is strengthened by a letter written by the hand of a Christian. The greetings in the letters written with Paul’s own hand were doubtless tokens of such community. Others are given the gift of common worship on Sundays. Still others have the privilege of living a Christian life in the fellowship of their families. Seminarians before their ordination receive the gift of common life with their brothers and sisters for a definite period. Among earnest Christians in the church today there is a growing desire to meet together with other Christians in the rest periods of their work for common life under the Word. Communal life is again being recognized by Christians today as the grace that it is, as the extraordinary, the “roses and lilies”, of the Christian life.

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Relevant Scripture

These things I remember
    as I pour out my soul:
how I used to go to the house of God
    under the protection of the Mighty One
with shouts of joy and praise
    among the festive throng. (Psalms 42:4)

On the Lord’s Day I was in the Spirit, and I heard behind me a loud voice like a trumpet, (Rev 1;10)

Recalling your tears, I long to see you, so that I may be filled with joy. (2 Timothy 1:4)

Reference:

A Testament to Freedom: The Essential Writings of Dietrich Bonhoeffer   edited by Kelly & Nelson

Dietrich Bonhoeffer (German:  4 February 1906 – 9 April 1945) was a Lutheran pastor, theologian, anti-Nazi dissident, and key founding member of the Confessing Church. His writings on Christianity’s role in the secular world have become widely influential, and his book The Cost of Discipleship has been described as a modern classic.

Apart from his theological writings, Bonhoeffer was known for his staunch resistance to the Nazi dictatorship, including vocal opposition to Hitler’s euthanasia program and genocidal persecution of the Jews. He was arrested in April 1943 by the Gestapo and imprisoned at Tegel prison for one and a half years. Later, he was transferred to Flossenbürg concentration camp.

After being accused of being associated with the 20 July plot to assassinate Adolf Hitler, he was quickly tried, along with other accused plotters, including former members of the Abwehr (the German Military Intelligence Office), and then hanged on 9 April 1945 as the Nazi regime was collapsing.