Then He said to me, “Son of man, eat what is in front of you. Eat this book, then go and speak to the people of Israel.” So I opened my mouth, and He fed me this book. And He said to me, “Son of man, eat this book that I give you and fill your stomach with it.” So I ate it, and it was as sweet as honey in my mouth. [Ezekiel 3:1-3 (NLV)]

strawberriesSince it was Easter, along with the oatmeal raisin cookies I made for Sunday treats, I brought a bowl of pastel-wrapped Hershey candy for the little ones. As I placed the candy on the hospitality table, I recalled the last time I had chocolates at church. It was several years ago at our Colorado mountain church. Even though it wasn’t Easter or Valentine’s Day, along with Bibles, the pew book racks were filled with chocolate kisses that morning.

When the pastor asked us to eat a candy, we all quickly and quite happily accommodated him. He then asked us to eat another one. That time, however, he instructed us to do everything deliberately and slowly. Rather than tearing off the wrapper, we were to look closely at it before pulling the plume and gradually unwrapping the candy. Instead of  immediately popping the kiss into our mouths, we were to examine it carefully before placing the chocolate gently on our tongues. Rather than a few quick bites, we were to savor the texture and flavor as it gradually melted in our mouths. Even though the second kiss was identical to the first, the experience of eating it was entirely different. Since this was church and not a chocolate tasting, our pastor went on to compare our two experiences with the way we can read the Bible. He suggested that we need to be as attentive in our Bible reading as we were in the second candy-eating experience.

Are we as unaffected by reading the Bible as we are by a quick bite of candy or do the words actually touch and change us? By pointing out that we can simply consume food and be done or dine and have an experience, the Slow Food movement tries to bring mindfulness to the table! Although both ways of eating will provide calories, only one will be a memorable and affecting experience. We need to bring that sort of presence and mindfulness to our Bible reading as well. We should savor God’s Word the way we would a Lindt bar of dark chocolate and caramel with sea salt, a full-bodied vintage Cabernet, a juicy ripe summer peach, or home-grown strawberries. God’s word should dissolve into our lives, fill us, and impact the way we live.

Lectio Divina (Latin for “divine reading”) is a fancy term for treating scripture not as a text but as the living word of God. An ancient exercise, it became a regular practice in monasteries by the 6th century. Not being Benedictine monks, we could think of it as the “Slow Bible Movement.” As with food, the quality of the Bible study is more important than the quantity consumed. A few verses read and reflected upon so that we respond to and rest in the message is far better than a whole chapter read and forgotten within a few hours. Unwrapping the meaning of a verse takes more time than tearing off a candy wrapper. Rather than quickly scarfing down verses, let’s slowly savor the words we read. We should reread them, ponder them, find something that speaks directly to us, and then respond to it. Our response then leads us to contemplation and prayer as the verses sink into us. In the Slow Bible Movement, we relish what we’ve read and allow it to refresh and renew us as we carry God’s word forward in our hearts.

In Ezekiel’s vision, God fed him a scroll filled with His message for the Israelites. Even though the scroll was filled with words of sadness, they were as sweet as honey to the prophet because they were God’s words. What food is to our bodies, God’s Word is to our souls and we can’t live well without either one. Moreover, like Ezekiel and Jeremiah, we’ll never be able to share the message of God’s Good News until we’ve consumed it and allowed it to change our lives. We can snack or dine, gulp or savor; the choice is ours.

Your words were found and I ate them. And Your words became a joy to me and the happiness of my heart. For I have been called by Your name, O Lord God of All. [Jeremiah 15:16 (NLV)]

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Praise the Lord! Yes, give praise, O servants of the Lord. Praise the name of the Lord! Blessed be the name of the Lord now and forever. Everywhere—from east to west—praise the name of the Lord. For the Lord is high above the nations; his glory is higher than the heavens. [Psalm 113:1-4 (NLT)]

The stone that the builders rejected has now become the cornerstone. This is the Lord’s doing, and it is wonderful to see. This is the day the Lord has made. We will rejoice and be glad in it. … Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. [Psalm 118:22-24,29 (NLT)

crucifixion - cathedral st. francis - santa feJesus knew that one would betray Him, another deny Him, and all desert Him. He knew the people He’d fed, healed, taught, and loved—the people who just a few days earlier had greeted him like a king with palm branches and shouts of “Hosanna”—soon would prefer a thief over Him. Because of His anguished prayers later that evening in Gethsemane, we know that He knew the suffering and torment that lay ahead for him. Nevertheless, he sang with the disciples during their Passover meal that last night and it wasn’t a sorrow-filled psalm of lament.

Because it was a Passover feast, at least twice during the evening they would have paused to sing the traditional Passover hymns commemorating Israel’s escape from slavery. Known as the “Egyptian Hallel” and consisting of Psalms 113 through 118, they are joyful hymns of praise and thanksgiving. Hallel literally means praise and the Hebrew phrase Hallelu Yah, meaning “praise the Lord,” is found frequently in these beautiful psalms. The sages understood that Psalm 118, the climax of the Hallel, was about the Messiah and that night in Jerusalem, nearly 2,000 years ago, the Messiah Himself sang those very words. As the disciples gathered in that upper room celebrating Israel’s release from bondage in Egypt, did they realize they really were celebrating man’s release from bondage to sin?

The following day, after three hours on the cross, Jesus cried out, “My God, my God, why have you abandoned me?” After the praise and thanks of the previous night, did He now doubt God? The question was rhetorical because Jesus knew exactly why He was suffering—He was bearing the weight of the sins of the world. What the gospels don’t include is the rest of Psalm 22, the psalm Jesus probably was reciting. Although the psalm begins with the complaint of unanswered prayers and abandonment by God, it is followed by a statement of confidence in Him. A complaint of being forsaken by men comes next but it also is followed by an expression of trust in the Lord.

Although the psalm was written by David, rather than reflecting his experiences, it prophetically presented the future suffering of the Messiah and the next several stanzas clearly depict the crucifixion of Jesus: people mocked and scorned Him, He was in pain, His strength ebbed, His mouth was dry, His hands and feet were pierced, He was dying, and His clothing was divided and lots cast for it. These lines are followed by a cry for deliverance.

By the psalm’s 22nd verse, however, its tone changes and the plaintive cries turn to praise and words of faithful confidence: “I will proclaim your name to my brothers and sisters. I will praise you among your assembled people. Praise the Lord, all you who fear him!” The praise and promises continue throughout the rest of the psalm. These are not the words of a defeated man but the words of the promised Messiah, the Anointed One, the one who fulfilled the promise made to Abraham in Genesis that, “through your descendants all the nations of the earth will be blessed.” Out of what seemed to be defeat came triumph.

The One who’d sung “Hallelu Yah,” the previous night with his disciples again praised the Lord with His last words as He hung on the cross. Hallelujah! Praise the Lord!

The cross was two pieces of dead wood; and a helpless, unresisting Man was nailed to it; yet it was mightier than the world, and triumphed, and will ever triumph over it. [Augustus William Hare]

I will praise you in the great assembly. I will fulfill my vows in the presence of those who worship you. The poor will eat and be satisfied. All who seek the Lord will praise him. Their hearts will rejoice with everlasting joy. The whole earth will acknowledge the Lord and return to him. All the families of the nations will bow down before him. For royal power belongs to the Lord. He rules all the nations. Let the rich of the earth feast and worship. Bow before him, all who are mortal, all whose lives will end as dust. Our children will also serve him. Future generations will hear about the wonders of the Lord. His righteous acts will be told to those not yet born. They will hear about everything he has done. [Psalm 22:25-31 (NLT)]

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HOW TO PRAY (Prayer – 2)

I desire then that in every place the men should pray, lifting holy hands without anger or quarreling. [1 Timothy 2:8 (ESV)]

We always knelt for prayer in the church I attended as a girl so I used to think the only way to pray was on my knees with head bowed and hands tightly clasped. While I now pray in a variety of postures, I wondered if Scripture tells us exactly how we should pray.

In Jesus’ day, both Jews and pagans usually raised their heads, stretched out their arms, and stood to pray. John tells us Jesus prayed with his head lifted before heading out to the Garden of Gethsemane but Matthew tells us He prayed prostrate on his face once he got there. When praying, Moses bowed his head before the Lord and the tax collector stood, bowed his head, and beat his breast. Solomon and Daniel both knelt in prayer, a leper knelt at Jesus’ feet when praying for healing, and the 2nd century church historian Hegesippus reported that James (the earthly brother of Jesus) spent so much time on his knees praying that “his knees became hard like those of a camel.”  Elijah climbed to the top of Mt. Caramel, bowed down, and put his face between his knees when he prayed but Israel’s army fasted, wept, and sat when they prayed at Bethel. People seemed to pray every which way.

Pictures in the Catacombs of Rome show early Christians praying with their arms extended out to the side but, at some point, arms were brought closer to the body. Perhaps it was to avoid the very thing Jesus warned about—praying in an affected or exaggerated manner to appear more pious. Then again, it simply may have been a practical matter of space when people gathered for worship.

Eventually, people started praying either with clasped hands or by crossing their arms and touching each shoulder with the opposite hand. Legend has it that monks would fold strips of leftover dough into the shape of crossed arms and, when children had memorized a prayer, they’d be rewarded with these treats called pretiola, Latin for “little reward” or preces, Latin for “prayers.” In Germany, however, the country known for pretzels, they’re called bretzels. The origin of bretzel, however, is brachium, Latin for “arms.” Whether the word initially meant reward, prayer, or arms and the validity of a monk inventing the knotted shape of the pretzel to symbolize arms crossed in prayer, we’ll never know. It does, however, make a nice story.

By the 9th century, Greek Christians claimed that the only way to pray was with the hands crossed over the breast but Pope Nicholas vehemently opposed it and defended the practice of folded hands during prayer. The Roman and Orthodox churches split in the 11th century and today it is considered proper etiquette in an Orthodox church to cross one’s arms when approaching the chalice during Communion. The Old Orthodox Prayer Book calls for the “brethren to stand with their arms folded over their breasts and their heads slightly bowed” during the reading of the Six Psalms. One source said such a stance symbolizes the folding of angels’ wings, standing before the throne of God.

Standing, sitting, kneeling, or prone? Hands clasped, arms raised, crossed, or at our sides? Eyes open or shut? While various denominations have their traditions or rules, the Bible gives no guidance as to our posture during prayer. While silent on the position of our bodies in prayer, Scripture isn’t when it comes to the position of our hearts! They should be bowed in submission to the Lord, free of anger and quarreling, and forgiving of others. Our prayers should come from an earnest, trusting, sincere, and thankful heart. We are to pray in truth and faith, in the power of the Spirit, and in Jesus’ name. How we do it, however, is up to us.

Perhaps there is no one special position for prayer because we are to pray without ceasing, meaning prayer isn’t limited to a specific time, place or situation—it is to be an essential ongoing part of our lives. Standing upright with head raised while on the battle field would be as problematic as kneeling in prayer (or closing your eyes) while driving, praying with arms crossed while serving food at the shelter, or lying face down on the floor of your workplace! As Reverend Billy Graham so aptly put it, “It is not the body’s posture, but the heart’s attitude that counts when we pray.”

A concentrated mind and a sitting body make for better prayer than a kneeling body and a mind half asleep. [C.S. Lewis]

Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you. [1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (ESV)]

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Tent Rock - New MexicoGo therefore and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, teaching them to observe all that I have commanded you. And behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age. [Matthew 28:19-20 (ESV)]

As Philip was walking down the road to Gaza, a chariot overtook him. Riding in it was the Ethiopian eunuch. Scripture tells us he’d been to Jerusalem to worship. Deuteronomy 23:1, however, stipulates that no emasculated male can be included within the Jewish religious community or allowed to enter the Temple area. Even though he’d been to Jerusalem to worship, possessed a costly sacred scroll, and hungered for God, this man who feared God and identified with Judaism wasn’t welcome. As a castrated man, he wasn’t a Jewish convert and never could hope to be.

The Spirit instructed Philip to walk beside the eunuch (who just happened to be reading aloud the words of Isaiah). While reading out loud seems strange to us, it was a common practice at the time. With no punctuation or space between the words, reading aloud aided in understanding the text. When Philip asked if the man understood what he was reading, the eunuch replied with a question of his own: “How can I, unless someone instructs me?” When Philip joined him in the chariot, the man wondered to whom Isaiah’s prophecy of the suffering servant applied. Was Isaiah speaking of himself or someone else? Beginning with Isaiah 53 and continuing on through the scroll, Philip told him all about Jesus.

When the eunuch saw water, rather than asking to be baptized, he asked why he couldn’t be baptized. As a Jewish sympathizer, he knew that a full immersion baptism, known the tevilah, was essential for conversion to Judaism but was prohibited to him. Perhaps he expected Philip to tell him that Jesus found him as unacceptable as did Jewish law. Philip didn’t; instead, the two men immediately stopped and Philip baptized the Ethiopian man!

What do you think are the are the odds of a Greek-speaking Nubian (Greek was the language of the royal courts), who’s a follower of Judaism, reading aloud from a Jewish scroll written in Greek (the Hebrew Scriptures had been translated into Greek in the 3rd century BC) that prophesized Jesus and, at that very moment, encountering a Jewish Greek-speaking follower of Jesus from Samaria on a 50-mile stretch of road between Jerusalem and Gaza? What are the odds of them coming upon water on a “desert road” exactly when the man wants to be baptized? What are the odds of a wealthy foreign official allowing a mere commoner (one who’d been walking for several days) into his chariot? For that matter, what are the odds of the man who ran the national treasury admitting he didn’t understand a simple scroll? This, however, was a divine appointment orchestrated by God!

God took Philip 50 to 100 miles out of his way to meet someone considered unacceptable and defective under the old law and bring him to Jesus under the new one! In that one encounter, by bringing the Good News to a foreign eunuch, Philip fulfilled a prophecy found in Isaiah 56! When circumstance align perfectly, as they do in this narrative, we often attribute them to coincidence. There are, however, no coincidences in God’s plan. Both the Ethiopian and Philip may have been surprised that day, but God certainly wasn’t! He never is!

Divine appointments await us all if we are obedient to God’s leading!

Let not the foreigner who has joined himself to the Lord say, “The Lord will surely separate me from his people”; and let not the eunuch say, “Behold, I am a dry tree.” For thus says the Lord: “To the eunuchs who keep my Sabbaths, who choose the things that please me and hold fast my covenant, I will give in my house and within my walls a monument and a name better than sons and daughters; I will give them an everlasting name that shall not be cut off. [Isaiah 56:3-5 (NLT)]

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PROPHET OR FRAUD? (Prophecy – 4)

Daniel replied, “There are no wise men, enchanters, magicians, or fortune-tellers who can reveal the king’s secret. But there is a God in heaven who reveals secrets, and he has shown King Nebuchadnezzar what will happen in the future. Now I will tell you your dream and the visions you saw as you lay on your bed.” [Daniel 2:27-28 (NLT)]

tri-colored heronThe book of Daniel begins with the arrival of the first set of Judean captives in 605 BC and the first six chapters describe the events occurring in Babylon until around 536 and the beginning of the Persian empire. In contrast, chapters seven through twelve are filled with visions and dreams. As part of the Jewish and Christian canon, the traditional view is that this book is a factual recounting of Daniel’s life and a record of supernatural predictions written during the late 6th century BC. Skeptics, however, call its author a fraud and the book fiction because of the mention of Belshazzar as the last king of Babylon, Darius the Mede as the one who took over Babylon, and the incredible accuracy of Daniel’s fulfilled prophecies. They claim that the book had to have been written (or amended) 400 years later in the 2nd century BC by someone claiming to be Daniel.

For centuries, ancient historians reported that Nabonidus (who Daniel never mentions) was the last king of Babylon. It was not until the late 19th century that a cuneiform text known as the Nabonidus Chronicle was discovered. Written in 539 BC, immediately after Babylon fell, it tells us that Babylon’s King Nabonidus was away from Babylon for ten years and was not in Babylon at the time it fell. In his absence, he “entrusted the kingship” to his son, the crown prince Belshazzar. The existence of a coregency helps explain Belshazzar offering the position of “third highest ruler in the kingdom” to Daniel; the other two would have been Nabonidus and Belshazzar. With Nabonidus’ absence the fateful night Babylon fell, it was Belshazzar who was seated on the throne, hosting a feast for 1000, and acting as king in his father’s absence. For all purposes, Belshazzar was Babylon’s last king!

Another point of contention among critics is Daniel’s mention of “Darius the Mede” taking over as king of Babylon. According to the Nabonidus Chronicle, Greek historian Xenophon (c. 430 to 354 BC), and Babylonian records, Cyrus appointed Gubaru, a Mede, to be ruler of Babylon. These ancient texts also tell us that Gubaru was born in 601 BC. which make him 62 when he took over Babylon in 539—exactly the same age Daniel said Darius was. Both nationality and age match but we still have the different name. Darius is a Persian word meaning “the Royal One” and, rather than his given name, Darius may have been an honorific title.

Seeing how the first six chapters of Daniel are supported by extra-biblical sources, the book’s author appears to have possessed first-hand knowledge of all that happened between 586 and 536 BC. Perhaps the real motive behind denying the book’s historicity is theological. To avoid concluding that Daniel’s predictive prophecies in the later chapters are the inspired word of God, critics hold that the impossibility of such accurate predictions means that someone added to his work after the events happened.

While skeptics say such accurate foretelling of the future is impossible, as believers, we know nothing is impossible with God! A God who can speak the entire universe into existence should be able to see into the future! A God who can’t show His prophet visions of the future certainly wouldn’t be able to generate a flood, create plagues, part the sea, send manna, make water spring from a rock, order a drought, deliver three men from a fiery furnace or an old man from a lion’s den. Foretelling the future would be child’s play compared to making water into wine, cleansing lepers, feeding a multitude with a boy’s lunch, giving sight to the blind, or raising the dead! When we start picking and choosing which prophecies and miracles we accept and which we don’t, it seems we’re left with only two choices: all or none!

Out of necessity, the skeptic must discredit both the Bible’s miracles and predictive prophecy since, if just one miracle or prophecy is allowed to stand, he must accept the existence of God and the divine origin of the Bible. Either Daniel was one of the greatest prophets of Judaism and Christianity or a scholar who was a fraud. You decide.

Praise the name of God forever and ever, for he has all wisdom and power. He controls the course of world events; he removes kings and sets up other kings. He gives wisdom to the wise and knowledge to the scholars. He reveals deep and mysterious things and knows what lies hidden in darkness, though he is surrounded by light. [Daniel 2:20-22 (NLT)]

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Bel and Nebo, the gods of Babylon, bow as they are lowered to the ground. They are being hauled away on ox carts. The poor beasts stagger under the weight. Both the idols and their owners are bowed down. The gods cannot protect the people, and the people cannot protect the gods. They go off into captivity together. [Isaiah 46:1-2 (NLT)]

The Israelites were surrounded by various pagan peoples who worshipped foreign deities. Baal ruled over Canaan and Phoenicia, Chemosh over Moab, and Marduk/Bel and Nebo over Babylonia. The Philistines’ had Dagon and the Ammonites worshipped Molech. These gods usually had a domain over which they ruled. For example, Baal’s domain was rain, storms, and the harvest. Moab’s Chemosh presided over war and mountains. As patron deity of Babylon, Marduk/Bel was supposed to protect the city and rule over storms while Nebo’s purview was wisdom and science. The Philistines’ chief god Dagon presided over death, the afterlife, war, and agriculture while Ammon’s Molech reigned over the underworld, which may explain his association with child sacrifice in the Old Testament.

In spite of their reputed special powers, those pagan gods were nothing more than powerless idols who had to be carried around on ox carts and would be taken captive along with their worshippers! Marduk/Bel couldn’t protect Babylon from Cyrus or Alexander the Great and Baal, the god of rain and storms, couldn’t even make it rain after Elijah called for a drought or muster up a bolt of lightning to ignite a fire! In contrast, upon Elijah’s prayer, the God of Israel immediately flashed down flames and turned water-soaked wood into an inferno.

Perhaps, the ultimate test of any god is prophecy because only a true God can know all that has gone before and all that is yet to come. In Isaiah 41, the Lord called out those false gods because they couldn’t prophesy when He, the God of Israel, could! It wasn’t just His prophet Isaiah who accurately forecast the future; many others did as well. For example, Jeremiah accurately foretold Jerusalem’s destruction, King Jehoiakim’s death and the end of his line, Babylon’s fall, the length of captivity, and the exiles’ return to Judah. When interpreting Nebuchadnezzar’s dream, Daniel accurately foretold the different empires in historical progression—from Babylonian to Medo-Persian to Grecian and then to Roman. In 536 BC, more than 213 years before it happened, he predicted the division of Alexander the Great’s kingdom into four weaker nations. In fact, the book of Daniel predicted political history for the next 370 years!

Since true prophecy is the living word of God, I suppose the historic accuracy of those fulfilled prophecies shouldn’t surprise us. Their accuracy tells us that God exists, that there are no other gods, and that, just as He controlled the past, He is in full control of the future. There are, however, several prophecies yet to come. For example, Daniel’s predictive prophecies didn’t stop at 166 BC with the Maccabees and Antiochus IV. He continued on with end-time predictions of the antichrist, the tribulation, and humanity’s resurrection. The accuracy of past predictive prophecy tells us that those prophecies not yet fulfilled will come to pass. Will you be ready when they do?

I’ve read the last page of the Bible. It’s all going to turn out all right. [Billy Graham]

“Present the case for your idols,” says the Lord. “Let them show what they can do,” says the King of Israel. “Let them try to tell us what happened long ago so that we may consider the evidence. Or let them tell us what the future holds, so we can know what’s going to happen. Yes, tell us what will occur in the days ahead. Then we will know you are gods. In fact, do anything—good or bad! Do something that will amaze and frighten us. But no! You are less than nothing and can do nothing at all. [Isaiah 41:21-24a (NLT)]

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