“Do You Trust Me?”

(Thanks to Max Lucado and His book God Came Near for helpful insight on this passage.)

All of us are faced every day with many questions – what to wear, what to eat, etc. But there are questions, and then there are questions. And in John 11, Jesus asks Martha a question that is definitely in that second category.

The chapter opens with Jesus learning that Lazarus, His friend, was sick – but mysteriously, Jesus does NOT immediately head for Bethany where Lazarus lives. Instead, Jesus delays for a couple of days before leaving. The disciples are just as puzzled as we are by His behavior.

Jesus arrives to find Lazarus has been dead for four days. Lazarus’ sister, Martha, goes out to meet Jesus on the road, and she immediately begins with the accusations. “If only you had been here, my brother would not have died!”

We have to understand some of the cultural forces at work here. With their brother dead, Martha and her sister Mary didn’t have a lot of economic options. It wasn’t like they were getting a big life insurance check when Lazarus died. And you certainly don’t get the impression that they were financially wealthy – after all, they lived in Bethany, which means, “House of the Poor.” You wouldn’t expect to find a lot of money in a place called “Poor-town.”

So Martha, ever the practical one, was probably looking past her grief, already wondering how she and Mary were going to get by. There weren’t very many jobs available for women.

“If only You’d been here, my brother would not have died.” It’s a sentiment that many of us have wanted to shout at God at one time or another. Where is God when a loved one is suffering from cancer, or our business goes under, or a child is killed in a car wreck? Where is God when it hurts?

So when Martha confronts Jesus for apparently being AWOL when He was needed most, Jesus doesn’t flinch. He says, somewhat cryptically, “Your brother will rise again.”

Martha thinks Jesus is talking about something off in the future and says, “Yes, I know he will rise again in the resurrection in the last day.” (As if to say, “That’s not going to be of much help now.”)

But Jesus stuns her (and us) when He says, “I AM the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in me will live, even though he dies. And whoever lives and believes in me will never die.” But then He asked her this question: “Do you trust me?”

Now, your Bible for that verse probably says something like, “Do you believe this?,” but I don’t think that does justice to what Jesus is really saying. You see, for many people, believing is a matter of intellectual agreement, something that takes place only in the mind. Yes, I believe I should watch my diet and exercise more. Yes, I believe that wearing seat belts is good. Yes, I believe that Jesus is the Son of God.

We say we believe those things, but we may or may not actually DO anything about them. That’s because in our language, BELIEVING something doesn’t necessarily mean ACTING on it.

But Jesus is not asking Martha if she understands His words intellectually. He’s asking, “Do you trust me?” And it’s the same question He asks us today. He wants to know, even when we don’t understand what is happening or why – do we still trust Him?

  • Do we trust Him in the hospital waiting room?
  • Do we trust Him in the police station and the courthouse?
  • Do we trust Him when our most cherished dreams come crashing down?
  • Do we trust Him at the cemetery?

The fact is, it’s easy to trust him when life is going well and everyone is healthy and there’s plenty of money in the bank. But what about when “things fall apart, and the center does not hold?” Do we still trust Him then?

Now of course, we know the end of this story. We know that Jesus went to the cemetery and called out Lazarus and there is a great happy ending. But Martha didn’t know that any of those things were about to happen. All she knew was that the brother that she loved was dead and her world was upside down. She had no idea what was coming in the future, but here stands Jesus in front of her, asking her to trust Him.

Martha gives the answer for eternity. “Yes, Lord. I believe that You are the Christ, the Son of God, who is coming into the world.”

Good words, but more than that. It’s the response of a broken but trusting heart.

It’s still the response He’s looking for today.

Reflections on the Fruit of the Spirit

One of my favorite things about summer is the amazing variety of sweet and delicious fruit that becomes readily available during these long hot days. Cantaloupes and watermelons, peaches, plums – even cherries and fresh summer apples – they’re so refreshing and delectable, and such a wonderful treat. A very special memory from when I was a child was stopping at a roadside fruit stand on a family vacation and eating a peach as big as a softball, with the wonderful, sweet, sticky juice running down my arm. What a delight!

With that in mind, it’s probably not surprising to learn that one of my favorite Bible passages is Galatians 5:22-23, where the Apostle Paul lists the nine qualities that he describes as the “Fruit of the Spirit.” Now, there is no shortage of devotional material on this text, but in my opinion, much of it misses the main point.

Throughout Galatians, Paul has been listing the large number of contrasts believers must face: works vs. faith; law vs. grace; children of Hagar vs. children of Sarah; human divisiveness vs. the oneness of God; slavery vs. freedom. The contrast he makes most frequently – and most eloquently – is flesh vs. Spirit. By the time he gets to chapter five, he is talking about the acts of the flesh – uncleanness of all sorts – versus the Fruit of the Spirit.

Specifically, he says, “The acts of the flesh are obvious: sexual immorality, impurity and debauchery; idolatry and witchcraft; hatred, discord, jealousy, fits of rage, selfish ambition, dissensions, factions and envy; drunkenness, orgies, and the like. I warn you, as I did before, that those who live like this will not inherit the kingdom of God.” (Gal. 5:19-21) Please read that list again. “Hatred – discord – jealousy – fits of rage – selfish ambition.” Sounds like it was taken from today’s national news.

But then please notice the organic nature of growing fruit contrasted against the ceaseless striving of works; the produce of God’s Spirit, vs. the products of our own efforts; the life-giving and life-affirming qualities that bless others, compared to the selfish and destructive practices of a me-centered existence.

“But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against such things there is no law.” (Gal. 5:22-23) The apostle makes it clear that if we are Jesus-followers, if God’s Holy Spirit is living and working within us, then these nine qualities will be evident in our lives. These must be the things that others see in us.

Note that it’s the WORKS – plural – of the flesh versus the FRUIT – singular – of the Spirit. There is only one fruit. We should not speak of the “fruits” of the Spirit. There is one fruit, and it manifests itself in various ways, depending on the specific needs and situation. Sometimes the Holy Spirit reveals Himself through patience, sometimes though kindness, always through love.

Another thing: This is not a buffet! We mustn’t think we can say, “Well, I’ll have some love and joy, but I don’t want any gentleness or self-control.” If the Spirit is present in our lives – if God is moving within us – then HE will be growing ALL these things within us at the same time. Certainly, our spirits can and should cooperate with His Spirit, and we must be intentional about looking for ways to demonstrate these characteristics, but we don’t become more loving, or more patient, or whatever, simply by trying to counterfeit that quality.

One last thing to notice is that every aspect of this fruit is seen in terms of our relationships with God and one another. It’s how we treat other people – our relationships with one another – that reveal the true nature of our relationship with God. Our faith is not lived out in a vacuum.

May the Spirit produce in us that which is pleasing in His sight.

Remembering Brother Ronnie

In my days at Dallas Christian College, back in the 1970s, I was blessed to have a number of excellent professors. Some were great thinkers. Some were excellent students of the word. But I never knew a better man of God than Ronnie Hanna.

Brother Ronnie, as we called him, served 18 years at DCC, sometimes as a professor, sometimes also as an administrator. But his real talent was as a man who loved people. He had one of the most amazing memories I have ever seen for remembering names and faces. On more than one occasion, I saw him – without any notes – go around a room of a hundred people or more, from all across Texas, and introduce every one of them, telling something interesting about each person. He genuinely loved people, and more than that, he genuinely loved the Lord’s church. In his time at DCC, he toured extensively throughout Texas and the Southwest on behalf of the college, and I think once he met someone, he never forgot.

And he told the corniest, goofiest dad jokes you have ever heard.

During my four years there, I was blessed to get to travel with him a lot, visiting different churches, so I heard all those jokes many, MANY times. Driving down the road, he would point to a field of fresh-cut grass and say, “Hay!” If there was a period of silence in the van, he would say, “Look! What’s that up there in the road — a head?” He would pull up to a railroad crossing and announce, “I believe a train was just by here.” When some gullible freshman would ask, “How can you tell?”, he would say, “It left behind its tracks.”

Ronnie & Janet Hanna

Sometimes he would say, “Don’t be bitter – reconsider!” I never knew exactly what that meant, but he said it a lot.

By his own admission, Ronnie was sometimes, shall we say, directionally challenged. He generally knew – approximately – in what part of town a given church building was located, and he would get in the right area, but then he’d have to drive around a while to find the exact location. Once we got there, he would just chuckle in his good-natured way, and say that he had known where he was all along, and that he was taking us to our destination via a “scenic tour.”

Brother Ronnie taught “Life of Christ,” which was a freshman-level class. One of the first things he covered was to define for us, exactly what Jesus was talking about when he described the Kingdom of Heaven / Kingdom of God – “The reign and rule of God in the hearts and lives of men and women.” To this day, I’ve never heard a better explanation, and I’ve used it, without exception, every time I have ever taught on the Kingdom. It’s not a place, it’s not just something in the future – God’s Kingdom is here and now, and it’s made up of all those who humble themselves before the living God to let Him rule in their hearts.

The other thing I remember about his Life of Christ class was that he had us read “The Cost of Discipleship” by Dietrich Bonhoeffer, with its famous quotation, “When Christ calls a man, he bids him come and die.” Great stuff, life-changing stuff.

I had Ronnie for other classes, and he taught me other things, but if for only those two things, I will always be grateful to have been his student.

After he left Dallas, Ronnie and his beloved wife Janet moved to Colorado, where he ministered for many years. They moved back to the Dallas-area after his retirement. He passed away about ten years ago. But I remember him with genuine fondness and respect. He was a decent, good and gentle man, who loved his God and loved his family. And he loved the Lord’s church and spent his life ministering before the Lord and training others who would do the same.

Thanks for everything, Brother Ronnie. It was an honor to know you. And I bet you didn’t take a “scenic tour” on your way to heaven!

Mr. Spafford’s Testimony

H.G. Spafford was a force in Chicago in the early 1870s. He was a wealthy, senior partner in a major law firm, a real estate developer, and a devout elder in his Presbyterian Church. He and his wife Anna loved to entertain guests in their comfortable home, and they became friends and supporters of the world-famous Chicago minister Dwight L. Moody. They were the parents of a son and four daughters.

Chicago lawyer and businessman Horatio G. Spafford. Spafford was a devout elder in the Presbyterian Church. In the 1870s, he and his wife Anna were the parents of five children.

In 1870, their four-year-old son, Horatio, Junior, died suddenly of scarlet fever. Then in October of 1871, a massive fire swept through downtown Chicago and the city’s north side, where Mr. Spafford was heavily invested in a real estate development. The immense blaze cost over 300 lives and left more than 100,000 Chicagoans homeless. Even though their entire investment was gone, and being close to ruin financially themselves, the Spaffords nevertheless continued to demonstrate Christian hospitality, showing the love of Jesus in the face of tragedy.

Two years later, in 1873, Horatio and his wife decided they would take their four daughters and go to Europe for a lengthy visit. Even though his business interests had been hit hard in the national Financial Panic of 1873, Horatio and Anna intended to help their friend, Evangelist D.L. Moody, who was then planning an extended evangelistic crusade in England. The family booked space on the steamship SS Ville du Havre, but last-minute business complications forced Horatio to remain in Chicago. The plan then was for Anna and the four daughters – 11-year-old Anna, 9-year-old Margaret Lee, 5-year-old Elizabeth, and 2-year-old Tanetta – to go on, and Mr. Spafford would join them as soon as he could.

On November 22, 1873, the Ville du Havre was struck by another ship, the freighter Loch Earn. The passenger ship sank in only 12 minutes, and 226 people died in the disaster – including all four of the Spafford daughters. Only 61 passengers and 26 crew members survived, but miraculously, one of those rescued was Anna Spafford. She was found unconscious, floating on a piece of timber. She would later tell a fellow survivor, “God gave me four daughters. Now they have been taken from me. Someday I will understand why.” When the rescued passengers reached Cardiff, Wales, Anna sent a telegram back to her husband that read, “Saved alone.”

Horatio booked passage to rejoin his devasted wife. A few days later, as they were on their way across the Atlantic, the captain of the vessel summoned Mr. Spafford to the bridge and told him, “We are now passing over the spot where the Ville du Havre went down.” Mr. Spafford went back to his cabin and began to think of his four young daughters, dying in those cold waters, three miles deep. And then he began to write,

When peace, like a river, attendeth my way,
   When sorrows, like sea billows roll,
Whatever my lot, Thou hast taught me to say,
   It is well, it is well, with my soul.

It is well (it is well) with my soul (with my soul),
   It is well, it is well, with my soul.

Later, when American hymnist Philip P. Bliss wrote a melody for Mr. Spafford’s words, he named the tune after the ill-fated liner, calling it “Ville du Havre.” It was first published in 1876. Personally, I particularly appreciate the verse that says –

My sin - oh the bliss of this glorious thought! -
   My sin - not in part, but the whole -
Is nailed to the cross, and I bear it no more:
   Praise the Lord, praise the Lord, O my soul!

The hymn, of course, is still sung to this day, and we continue to hear Mr. Spafford’s testimony through its message, so let me respectfully suggest something. The next time you sing this song, take a moment and reflect on Horatio and Anna Spafford. Remember the tragedy they suffered, then give thanks to God who has used their incredible faith in such a beautiful way over the years, to create a hymn that gives us such a powerful testimony. May we be encouraged, and may our faith be strengthened, so that we can join in and affirm with them, from our hearts: It is well with my soul.

Loving God with my Mind

Several years ago, a mainline American denomination put out a series of publicity posters that I liked very much. One said, “Just because you’ve been baptized doesn’t mean you’ve been brainwashed.” Another went, “The only problem with groups that have all the answers, is that they don’t allow any questions.”

My favorite was “Jesus came to take away your sins. Not your mind.”

Many Christians have seemed confused over the years as to the proper relationship between reason and faith. Are we supposed to check our brains at the door and “just believe”? Is science automatically and irreversibly opposed to faith? Can a thinking person hold on to his or her intellectual integrity AND be a person of faith at the same time?

This was always a topic of special, personal importance to me. Expressing emotion was difficult for me growing up, but logic – ah, now you’re speaking my language. As a fan of the original “Star Trek” (don’t you roll your eyes at me!), my favorite character was, of course, Mr. Spock, who was totally cool, totally in control, totally logical.

The problem came when I tried to reconcile my fascination with logic, with what I was learning at church. I had questions but I learned pretty quickly that there are some questions you’re not supposed to ask. Logically, I thought I should be able to ask a simple question, but it’s not as simple as that. So you learn to keep your questions to yourself.

(Typical exchange – Me: “How do we know we can trust the Bible? Is it reliable?” Answer: “Yes, because the Bible says so.” Not exactly helpful.)

Perhaps without meaning to, pastors have often made the situation worse. You may know that I served as a pastor for nearly 40 years, so trust me when I tell you that pastors have their own questions and doubts, which they keep buried deep. Whenever they hear or read some skeptic raise the same questions they have, they become even more defensive, and think the answer is to “just believe” more. As if you could put enough coats of paint on a broken fence to cover up the break.

Some Christians will hear an “expert” on the Discovery Channel or History Channel make unproven, unchallenged claims about the Bible, or the life of Jesus, or some other matter of faith, and a believer who doesn’t know any better will think that there isn’t an answer, because they’ve never heard their preacher talk about it. And they may think that the skeptics have “beaten” faith, or that Christianity must somehow go begging in the marketplace of ideas. But our God is not the Author of confusion. He is the Giver of Truth. ALL truth. There are answers to these questions, even the tough ones. (By the way – “Where did Cain get his wife?” is NOT one of the tough questions. Trust me.) God is bigger than our questions. And there is not one question you can come up with that will stump Him.

Rather than commanding us to reject reason, over and over the scripture makes it clear that God has established order and logical thinking, and that these bear witness to Him. The fact is, Jesus INVITES us to love God with our MINDS – look at Matthew 22:37. After the resurrection, He appeared to His followers and gave them “many convincing proofs” that He was alive – Acts 1:3. Peter instructs believers to “always be prepared to give the reason for the hope” that we have – 1 Peter 3:15.

As Paul says in 2 Corinthians 10:5, our purpose is to “demolish arguments” and to “take captive every thought” in order to bring it in submission to Christ. That DOESN’T mean faith is opposed to logic or reason. It means that our logic and reason have to be “transformed by the renewing of our MINDS” (Romans 12:2), and in this way, we worship God with our intellect, as surely as we also worship Him with our emotion and passion.

A Window into the Past

In 1947, a young Bedouin shepherd boy was in the Judean wilderness southeast of Jerusalem near the Dead Sea, taking care of some of his family’s flock of goats, when one of the goats wandered off. The limestone cliffs there are studded with dozens of small caves, and the boy didn’t feel like climbing up there to look in every cave, so he started throwing rocks into the caves, figuring he could hit the goat and drive it out. But he was startled when one of his throws brought a “crash” of breaking pottery.

He had just made the most important historical find of the 20th century: the Dead Sea Scrolls.

One of the caves at Qumran, near the Dead Sea, where the Dead Sea Scrolls were discovered.

The scrolls opened for us a window into the past, to a Jewish sect known as the Essenes, who lived in the desert community of Qumran, near the NW corner of the Dead Sea. Not as large as other, better-known groups from the time of Christ like the Pharisees or Sadducees, the Essenes believed in strict personal holiness, sexual purity, and rejected wealth and worldly pursuits. They practiced daily immersion as a symbol of purity, and lived as a separate community, calling themselves the “Sons of Light” and looking for the Messiah.

John the Baptist may well have been their most famous member.

They had a large collection of Biblical and non-Biblical scrolls, which they studied regularly. So, when they saw Jerusalem being destroyed in AD 70, they took their precious scrolls, put them in large clay jars, and hid them in the caves above their community. The Essenes were pretty much scattered by the Roman occupation, and so the scrolls sat in those jars, in that dry desert heat, for nearly 2000 years.

The scrolls are important for Biblical scholarship because before their discovery, the oldest Hebrew manuscripts only dated back to about AD 1000 – that’s over 1400 years since the last book of the Old Testament was written. That’s a long time, skeptics said – too long to have any faith that the Old Testament (or Tanakh, in Jewish terms) could be trusted to be reliable.

Most of the Qumran scrolls, with a few notable exceptions, had deteriorated to being no more than fragments, a few inches in size. But scholars were still able to read them, to piece them together, and to determine which OT books they represented. And they found parts of every book of the Hebrew scriptures except Esther. Carbon dating and other methods confirmed that some of the scrolls dated back to about 200 BC.

When they compared the text of the scrolls to that of known Hebrew manuscripts, they found, even after 1,200 years of hand-copying, there was over 95% agreement between the documents! And a majority of the differences represented only variations in spelling or other minor changes; none of the variations involved any texts with doctrinal significance.

This fragment from the book of Hosea is typical of a Dead Sea scroll manuscript.

I’ve been to the Museum of the Dead Sea Scrolls in Jerusalem, and I have to say how thrilling it is to actually see some of these ancient fragments of scripture. One of the most fascinating parts, to me at least, was to notice the wrinkling and cracking of the ancient leather parchment; it looked just like the wrinkling of an old leather glove.

One final thought: perhaps the single most important discovery of the DSS was a near-perfect copy of the complete book of Isaiah. So hear again the words of the ancient prophet, from Isaiah 40:8 – “The grass withers, the flowers fall, but the word of our God stands forever.”

Running into the Darkness

People run OUT of burning buildings. That’s simple human self-preservation, to get as far away from danger as possible. Yet we know there are those who run INTO burning buildings. We call them firefighters. We also call them heroes.

Normal human reaction is to get away from gunfire, especially if you’re unarmed. But soldiers and law enforcement officers routinely run TOWARDS gunfire, especially when a buddy is in trouble. And medics will do this, even though they are unarmed, to save a life. Heroes in action.

These are examples of physical courage in the face of danger. But there is another kind of courage, just as rare, and just as worthy of celebrating. It is the kind of moral courage that runs into the darkness where another person is trapped.

As humans, we were meant to live in relationship with others – family members, co-workers, neighbors. We were meant to live in community, to provide mutual support and encouragement. But relationships are messy. If we want to enjoy truly mutual relationships with others, that requires that we make ourselves vulnerable. It also requires that we allow others to be vulnerable to us.

And there’s the problem: most of us want to keep our emotional distance. Oh, we’re fine with relationships as long as they’re on the surface, or as long as it doesn’t require too much of a commitment from us. But when a neighbor or a co-worker needs someone who is willing to listen, to “weep with those who weep,” as the scripture says, to be willing to just make an investment of time – are we willing to be that person?

So I come back to our opening thoughts. We admire the courage, the loyalty, the selflessness of a firefighter who would charge into a burning building, or a medic who races into a combat situation, to save a life. Are we willing to do the same thing for someone who needs a friend?

The world is desperate to see the love of God. The world is aching to see Christians who will live out what they say they believe. Are you willing to be that person? Am I?

Are you willing to be the one who goes to the old man who lives down the street, and has no one to talk to? Would you spend an hour a week, just sitting with him and listening?

Or how about that single mom at work? Will you be the one who reaches out to her and offers to babysit for a little while, just so she can go buy groceries without the kids? Or maybe even, let her go get her hair done, without having to worry about the little ones?

When Jesus said He would build His church and the gates of hell would not “prevail” against it, what did He mean? That hell would attack the church, but that the church would never fall to those attacks? Well, that’s certainly true, but I think that interpretation misses the point.

I mean, think about it. Have you ever been attacked by a gate? No, gates are for DEFENSE! When Jesus said the “gates of hell” would not stop us, He is telling us that we need to break down those hellish gates and seek for those who are trapped inside, in their own private, spiritual hell. Storm the gates! Rescue the prisoners! Find those who sit in darkness and bring them out. As Isaiah 61:1-3 says,

The Spirit of the Sovereign LORD is on me, because the LORD has anointed me to proclaim good news to the poor. He has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor and the day of vengeance of our God, to comfort all who mourn, and provide for those who grieve in Zion. (emphasis added)

Somebody cared enough about you and me to go get us; now we need to go get someone else. This is what the Kingdom of God looks like. Each one matters. Each one is important. And no one gets left behind.

Be a friend to the friendless. Be a neighbor to the lonely. Be a brother or a sister to the one needing a family. Be the hands and feet of Christ, reaching out to care for the least of these.

“God Helps”

I have always enjoyed reading and studying the parables of Jesus – maybe it’s because there’s not much I like more than hearing a well-told story. One of the first definitions of a parable that I learned is still one of the best: an earthly story with a heavenly meaning. Jesus was a Master of taking common, ordinary elements from everyday life, and using them to make an application of a spiritual principle. One of the best is the story of Lazarus and the Rich Man, Luke 16:19-31. (Go ahead and get your Bible if you want to – I’ll wait.)

One of the first controversies people get bogged down in concerns whether this is a fictional parable, or a true story that Jesus somehow knew through His divine awareness. The argument has often been made that it must be about real people since Jesus calls “Lazarus” by name – something He does in no other parable.

I must respectfully disagree. “Lazarus” is a form of the Hebrew name, “Eleazar,” which means, “God helps.” It was a very common name and doesn’t have to mean anything other than Jesus, a good storyteller, is giving a fictional character a familiar name. In fact, its significance may be in its Hebrew meaning: the rich man had many resources on which he could rely, but this poor man’s only help was from God.

One thing that I’ve learned in my study of the parables – people use them to preach and teach all sorts of screwy things. Many interpreters seem to regard the words of Jesus as a blank screen onto which they can project whatever point of view they’re wishing to promote.

That’s especially true with this text. Many interpreters come up with some strange applications of this text, but in my opinion, they miss what Jesus is trying to teach. To understand His point, we have to back up a few verses in the chapter. Earlier in Luke 16, Jesus had been speaking about having the right priorities when it comes to money, and understanding that our money is an asset, a tool, that God has given us, and we must be wise and responsible in using that tool for God’s glory. In Luke 12:21, He talked about the foolishness of storing up wealth for oneself but failing to become “rich toward God.”

Meanwhile, the Pharisees, “who loved money” (Luke 16:14), were “sneering” at Jesus. They had totally bought into a version of what is today called the “prosperity gospel:” the idea that God rewards His followers materially, and that earthly riches are a sign of God’s favor. (There are plenty of TV preachers and others today who audaciously proclaim this same falsehood.) But it is in response to the cynical, sneering Pharisees that Jesus tells this story.

His point, in my opinion, was to teach that we have a responsibility to use our money, as well as our time, our talents, our possessions, and whatever else God may have given us, in such a way as to glorify Him. If we use our wealth only to make ourselves comfortable – as this rich man did – then we have failed to love God with “all our heart,” and we have certainly failed to “love our neighbor as ourselves.”

Lazarus, according to the story, hung out every day near the rich man’s garbage cans, hoping just to eat the scraps that were being thrown out. His only companions were the stray dogs that he competed against for dinner. Did the rich man know he was there? Did he even see him?

It’s easy to condemn the rich man for his failures, even as we let ourselves off the hook. But Jesus doesn’t let us off that easy. Many of us have become quite skilled at NOT seeing those around us. Who are the needy among us? Who are the friendless near us? Who is the neighbor or co-worker that just wants someone to talk to? We rationalize our failure to help; we excuse ourselves by thinking about the “wrong choices” that “the poor” have made, to put them where they are.

Do we know that? And even if we do, are we really that self-righteous and smug? Is that how God treated us? In another place, Jesus talked about the need to remove the plank in our own eye before we worry about the speck in our brother’s eye. Many of us are quick to give ourselves “grace” for the wrongs we have done; can we not find some grace to help others?

Ultimately, in the story, Lazarus was “helped” by God. May God “help” each of us to see and reach out to those around us.

For the Birds

As some of you may know, my dad passed away in 2018. Before he died, though, he took up a hobby that some might have considered very unusual for such a toughened, hard-working auto mechanic, a veteran of the Korean War era, a hunter and fisherman, a true outdoorsman and role-model to four boys about what a God-fearing, Christian man ought to be.

He became a birdwatcher.

My brothers and I were raised on forty acres in Southeast Texas – Orange County, to be precise. The whole time we were growing up, daddy always kept 20 or 30 head of cattle, some to produce beef for our family, and some, just because he liked being outside and taking care of the animals. As he got older, his mind stayed sharp, but his body betrayed him, and he became confined to a wheelchair for most of the last eight years of his life. But he got to where he enjoyed sitting on his back porch and watching the birds that came to visit and eat at the feeders he put out for them. Even with his diminished eyesight, he could still see the birds’ bright colors, and he could always hear their musical calls.

I’m discovering some of those same joys for myself. Our back porch is my favorite part of the house, I think, and I love sitting there, trying to identify as many different types and species of birds as possible. I’ve seen brilliant red male cardinals, along with the reddish-brown females, gorgeous blue jays, and the mockingbirds. I’ve identified everything from a red-headed finch to a tufted titmouse (and yes, that is really what it’s called!).

A bright red male cardinal and a reddish-brown female eating at one of my backyard feeders.

There are plenty of dove, of course, and red-winged blackbirds. An occasional robin or two, and once in a while, a red-tailed hawk might show up, high in the trees above. And lots and lots of sparrows all around.

We also see a lot of black grackles. I’m not a big fan of those critters – they tend to waste more bird seed than they eat, and they chase off other birds, but even on them, the iridescent purple, blue, and green feathers around their necks are pretty.  (There’s a lesson in there about learning to appreciate the best in others, even people who irritate you, but I digress…)

Watching the birds as they dive and soar, dart back and forth and chase each other around, and hearing all their varied calls and sounds always makes me happy. And it makes me appreciate the Heavenly Father Who created and cares for them.

Looking at the different types of sparrows reminds of Psalm 84:3, where the writer talks about the sparrows who live in the temple courtyard, expressing his envy that they get to be so close to the temple: “Even the sparrow has found a home, and the swallow a nest for herself, where she may have her young – a place near your altar, Lord Almighty, my King and my God.”

I also recall the words of Jesus from Matthew 10:29-31 – “Are not two sparrows sold for a penny? Yet not one of them will fall to the ground outside your Father’s care. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” It’s comforting to watch those sparrows and to reflect on the idea that the same God Who watches over them, is watching over and caring for you and me. As Jesus also said, “Therefore I tell you, do not worry about your life, what you will eat or drink; or about your body, what you will wear. Is not life more than food, and the body more than clothes? Look at the birds of the air; they do not sow or reap or store away in barns, and yet your heavenly Father feeds them. Are you not much more valuable than they?” (Matthew 6:25-26)

When I see all the different sizes, shapes and colors of the birds, it reminds me of how much God loves diversity. Think about it – just with sparrows, in North America alone, there are over 30 different species of those little birds! All the various types of animals, fish, and birds, all can teach us about the creativity, the power, and the provision of the Creator. As Job says, “But ask the animals, and they will teach you, or the birds in the sky, and they will tell you; or speak to the earth, and it will teach you, or let the fish in the sea inform you.” (Job 12:7-8)

So, I will continue with my bird watching, even if some might think it’s a little silly. It reminds me of my dad, and I like it. I will keep putting out feed for them and thinking about the Heavenly Father that cares for all of us.

And I will enjoy their bright colors, and I will hear their musical calls.

Skull Rock and the Garden Tomb

When I was a kid, a name like “Skull Rock” sounded spooky, a little creepy, very adventurous.

It was the sort of place where Peter Pan and the boys from Never, Never Land would hang out. It was a fun place to visit at Six Flags over Texas when I was younger, with its slightly scary green lighting and its fun, twisty slide to play on.

It never occurred to me that there might have been a real Skull Rock. And that it would be anything but fun to visit. At least, it never occurred to me, until I actually went there.

I have written before about my trip to Israel that I made a few years ago. During that trip, I learned that there are actually two different sites identified as the possible location where Jesus was crucified. Although they are both within the main environs of Jerusalem now, both would have been outside the city walls back in Jesus’ day. Both have elements to recommend them as the “real” location, and both have shallow caves nearby, where Jesus could have been buried, in keeping with the story as told in the Gospels.

One, of course, is the site contained within the Church of the Holy Sepulchre. This is the historically accepted spot, with visitors going back at least to the 300s. It’s there we find the oldest traditions about the rocky hill on which Jesus was crucified and the nearby, borrowed, tomb of Joseph of Arimathea where He was buried. The final few stations along the famous “Via Dolorosa” – the Way of Suffering – are located there.

But over the years, the old location has been gilded over and gold plated. It’s had shrines erected over and beside it, so much so that only with the greatest stretch of imagination can you picture in your mind what it must have been like 2,000 years ago, when Jesus was actually there. Metal shields have actually been installed in some parts, to prevent souvenir hunters from chipping off a chunk of rock to take home with them. The candles, the incense, the fabric draperies – it all seems more fake, more “Hollywood,” and less like a location where public executions took place.

At least, that’s the reaction that a lot of American visitors, especially Protestants, have. And so, while that location definitely has the better historical claim to being the actual site of the crucifixion, there is another spot that is more preferred by a lot of Christians who want to see the spot where Jesus died, was buried, and three days later, rose again.

Gordon’s Calvary is about a third of mile away. Charles Gordon was a British General and amateur archeologist who helped popularized the location, and so his name is associated with it. One of the things that is so special about it is a limestone cliff, jutting up from the ground. Two deep depressions in the side of the cliff remind visitors of a skull’s empty eye sockets – and so the cliff is known, unofficially, as “Skull Rock.” If this was the execution spot, it would have been an appropriate name – both for its appearance, and for the painful events that took place there.

So imagine, if you will, that you are a visitor to Jerusalem in those days, coming in from Jericho. As you enter the city, near the main gates, you see a large cliff, and there, in front of that cliff (and not on top of it), you see a number of crosses there, with the prisoners being executed. And a few dozen yards away, a number of shallow caves in the side of the cliff have been hollowed out to serve as graves.

This is the Garden Tomb. And those caves are empty.

Was this where Jesus was crucified? Honestly, we don’t know. As I said, both the tradition Golgotha and Gordon’s Calvary have their advocates. But wherever it was, I invite you to join with me this weekend as we remember those events. Let us give thanks that the tomb is empty!