Consecrating Our Work Unto the Lord

The following is the text of the sermon that I preached at Eternity Church in Richmond, VA on January 30, 2022:

Bezalel and Oholiab, Christoph Froschauer, d. 1564, printer

Consecrating Our Work Unto the Lord

Scripture

Genesis 2:15

15 The Lord God took the man and put him in the garden of Eden to work it and keep it.

Genesis 3:17-19a

17 And to Adam he said,…. cursed is the ground because of you;  in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;   and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face  you shall eat bread,

Exodus 35:30-33

30 Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; 31 and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, 32 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, 33 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft.

Exodus 37:1-2

37 Bezalel made the ark of acacia wood. Two cubits and a half was its length, a cubit and a half its breadth, and a cubit and a half its height. 2 And he overlaid it with pure gold inside and outside, and made a molding of gold around it.

Exodus 39:27-31

27 They also made the coats, woven of fine linen, for Aaron and his sons, 28 and the turban of fine linen, and the caps of fine linen, and the linen undergarments of fine twined linen, 29 and the sash of fine twined linen and of blue and purple and scarlet yarns, embroidered with needlework, as the Lord had commanded Moses.

30 They made the plate of the holy crown of pure gold, and wrote on it an inscription, like the engraving of a signet, “Holy to the Lord.” 31 And they tied to it a cord of blue to fasten it on the turban above, as the Lord had commanded Moses.

Romans 4:17

17 as it is written, “I have made you the father of many nations”—in the presence of the God in whom he believed, who gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist. 

Colossians 3:17

17 And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

1 Peter 4:10

10 As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: 11 whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

My First Job

            Do you remember your first job? My first job was working as a waiter and dishwasher at Gayton Terrace, an assisted living community in the far West End of Henrico County. I was in high school at the time, about to get my learner’s permit for driving, and my parents were not the type to pass out free cash to their kids. Not that they had much anyway. So the first few months on the job, my mother drove me to and from work.

On that first day, I showed up at the kitchen of this assisted living home of about a hundred residents. The dining hall manager handed me my nametag, a maroon apron, and taught me how to use a punch clock (“ka-chunk”). I was set to earn a cool $4.25 an hour – minimum wage in 1995. Once I set foot in the kitchen, the first task I was given was loading and running the dishwasher.

Now, I don’t know if anyone here has experience with washing dishes in a commercial kitchen, but it is not glamorous. You scrape other’s people food off plates, liquids are splashing everywhere, the massive dishwasher is loud and hot. I learned the ropes and they left me alone with the dishwasher for the rest of my three-hour shift (the maximum number of hours a minor could work on a school night).

I still remember that three-hour period fairly clearly to this day. The reason is because it was not at all what I expected work to feel like in this world. Sure, my parents raised me to work hard, do my chores, and find satisfaction in a job well done. But this felt different. Here in the Gayton Terrace kitchen I found myself cleaning other peoples’ dishes and submitting to orders from bosses that were not my parents. I felt a very palpable sense of despair during those three hours – because I reasoned that I was going to have to work for the rest of my life to provide for myself and make a living. And no matter the work I envisioned myself doing for the rest of my life, I figured it would be hard and toilsome, like scrubbing the dishes of strangers.

            In hindsight, I can guess that my despair stemmed from two sources: first is the fact that I am a human and work on this earth is hard and not always fun. Secondly (and related to the first), I was raised in the church, where more often than not the meaning and theology of work is cast in the light of Genesis chapter 3 rather than Genesis chapters 1 and 2.

Work in Genesis 1-3

            Let me explain. Have you ever seen a painting or depiction of Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden? If you do a quick survey of Adam and Eve in art history, there are generally two categories of paintings: before the Fall (when they sinned against God by partaking of the forbidden fruit) and after the Fall. The “before the Fall” paintings usually show Adam and Eve lounging (or maybe strolling) in the verdant paradise garden as if they’re on the promenade deck of a luxury cruise ship, surrounded by happy creatures and colorful foliage. The “after the Fall” paintings depict Adam and Eve in some state of shame, darkness, or performing grueling labor upon the land outside the boundaries of Eden. Now, the image of Adam and Eve toiling by the sweat of their brows is a Biblical one. After they sinned, the Lord did said to Adam: “…cursed is the ground because of you;  in pain you shall eat of it all the days of your life; 18 thorns and thistles it shall bring forth for you;   and you shall eat the plants of the field. 19 By the sweat of your face  you shall eat bread…”

            We often view the work of our hands – our Monday through Friday work in such a light. It is true that human work has been tainted and cursed by the fallenness of humanity. But work is not the result of fallenness. Let me say that a different way: while work and labor can be toilsome, difficult, and even exploitative when abused by bad actors, work itself is not inherently an evil thing. I want to make the case that work is inherently of God – that work is originally sacred – and that our vocational endeavors, from banking to preaching to grandparenting, can and should be redeemed by Christ, empowered by the Holy Spirit, and consecrated up unto God the Father as a holy sacrificial offering.

Here is how we know that work is originally good and of God. In Genesis chapter 1, God is the first one who works when he creates the universe. In Genesis 2, we know this creating is considered work because he rested “from all his work” on the seventh day (Gen 2:2). Even nature works: God mandated the land to “produce vegetation” (Gen 1:11) while he ordered the moon and sun to administer over the night and day (Gen 1:14-18). He also orders the humans to work. He called them to “rule” over the creatures (Gen 1:26), to “be fruitful and increase in number,” and to “subdue” the earth (Gen 1:28).

But in Genesis 2:15, we see a very telling verse that I believe that many of those artists of history missed out on when depicting Adam and Eve in the garden before the Fall. The text says in Genesis 2:15: “The Lord God took the man and put him in the Garden of Eden to work it and keep it.” You see, even before we sinned, we were called to steward God’s creation and to create within it. There is, therefore, such as thing as sanctified work. Yes, our sin came and messed up work. But God in his redemptive love through Jesus Christ has called us to work in our Father’s world in ways that bring heaven to earth. Where there is darkness in work, we can bring light. Where there is brokenness in the world of work, we can bring healing. Where there is chaos in the marketplace, we can bring order. Where there is division and injustice in the workplace, we can be the bearers of reconciliation and righteousness – infused with the resurrection power of God, who, according to Romans 4:17, “gives life to the dead and calls into existence the things that do not exist.”

Cobblers and Street Sweepers

I believe this redemptive approach to our working lives applies to all levels of work and most any type of work. The apostle Paul says in Colossians 3:17: “And whatever you do, in word or deed, do everything in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.” Martin Luther the Reformer said in the 1500s:

“Therefore, just as Those who are now called ‘spiritual’ – priests, bishops or popes – are neither different from other Christians nor superior to them….A cobbler, a smith, a farmer, each has the work and office of his trade, and yet they are all alike consecrated priests and bishops, and every one by means of his own work or office must benefit and serve every other, that in this way many kinds of work may be done for the bodily and spiritual welfare of the community, even as all the members of the body serve one another.”[i]

Several centuries later, another Martin Luther, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr, said something very similar: 

If it falls your lot to be a street sweeper, sweep streets like Michelangelo painted pictures, sweep streets like Beethoven composed music, sweep streets like Leontyne (leon-teen) Price sings before the Metropolitan Opera. Sweep streets like Shakespeare wrote poetry. Sweep streets so well that all the hosts of heaven and earth will have to pause and say: ‘Here lived a great street sweeper who swept his job well.’[ii]

Nestor

            One day I was mowing grass in my front yard and my postal worker came walking up the sidewalk to deliver our mail. I powered down the mower to greet him and we exchanged pleasantries. His name is Nestor, and he has always been a friendly, faithful, dedicated postal worker. He handed me some letters and turned around to head to the next house. As he walked away, I thanked him for his great work as a postal carrier. He responded, “I do it for the Lord!”

            I didn’t stop him to ask what he meant by that. He was on a delivery schedule after all. But as I turned my mower back on and zig-zagged through my yard I couldn’t help but ponder that one line from a postal service worker. I don’t even know if I needed to ask him what he meant, though, because he already exhibited what “doing it for the Lord” means in the way I have witnessed his work – cheerful, humble, dedicated, and service-minded. It also caused me to wonder about the inherent sacredness found in his work (and other kinds of work as well). Think about it – the role of his work is that of serving others by delivering messages from one person to another. In the redemptive imagination, his work is that of an angel. Angels deliver messages. That is important work. That is sacred work. I believe this exercise in imagination can apply to most jobs. Think about a certain job and you can see the shadow of heaven behind it. Doctors bring healing. Lawyers and judges seek justice. Financial advisors help people steward resources. Street sweepers provide sanitation, safety, and beauty. The list goes on. Of course, any of these jobs (yours and mine included) can be abused for evil. But as Christians I believe we are called to be the ambassadors of the redemptive work of heaven in whatever work we find ourselves on this earth.

1 Peter 4:10

            We have all been endowed with different gifts, talents, abilities, and resources in this world. Our calling is to steward those things to the ends of serving others and bringing glory to God, no matter the task. Listen to Peter’s first letter:

As each has received a gift, use it to serve one another, as good stewards of God’s varied grace: whoever speaks, as one who speaks oracles of God; whoever serves, as one who serves by the strength that God supplies—in order that in everything God may be glorified through Jesus Christ. To him belong glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen (1 Peter 4:10-11).

            Theologian Frederick Buechner said it this way: “The place God calls you to is the place where your deep gladness and the world’s deep hunger meet.”[iii] And you may recall the film Chariots of Fire, in which the Olympic runner and believer in Christ Eric Liddell said, “[God] made me fast and when I run I feel his pleasure.”[iv] He was speaking to his sister, who wanted him to become a missionary to China. He did eventually serve in China, but he wanted to make a point to his sister that for him, competitive running was just as sacred a calling as serving as a missionary in China. He ran unto the Lord

Bezalel Made the Ark

            What does that look like in your daily work, whatever it may be? How can you view your daily endeavors as unto the Lord? We find clues in our main passage today – the story of the artist Bezalel. Bezalel was the head artisan for the tabernacle – the mobile sanctuary used by Moses and the Hebrew people as they wandered through the desert. Bezalel and his team fashioned the curtains, the lampstand, the priestly garments, the altars and other creative details of the sanctuary. But his most well-known piece is arguably the ark of the covenant itself – the cherubim adorned golden chest that contained the ten commandments and other relics important to the spiritual life of Israel. Here is the passage from Exodus 35:

30 Then Moses said to the people of Israel, “See, the Lord has called by name Bezalel the son of Uri, son of Hur, of the tribe of Judah; 31 and he has filled him with the Spirit of God, with skill, with intelligence, with knowledge, and with all craftsmanship, 32 to devise artistic designs, to work in gold and silver and bronze, 33 in cutting stones for setting, and in carving wood, for work in every skilled craft (Ex 35:30-33). 

This is an example of God calling someone to specific work in the Old Testament. It displays that there are multiple meanings of calling in Scripture, depending on the context. For example, the primary calling of all believers is to, as Dietrich Bonhoeffer said, “belong wholly” to Jesus Christ.[v] In fact, when Paul opens his letter to the church in Rome, he plainly says, “And you also are among those who are called to belong to Jesus Christ” (Rom 1:6, NIV). But we also see God calling people to specific tasks and roles in Scripture, as exemplified here in the story of Bezalel. God called Bezalel to be an artist. God gifted him with the necessary talents and skills to fulfill his calling. And part of his calling as an artist was to fashion the ark of the covenant. 

This is also the first time in Scripture that someone is said to be filled with the Spirit of God, which I find very interesting.[vi] It is the first time the specific verb for “filled”[vii] appears in relation to the Spirit of God. After Bezalel and his colleagues crafted the artistic elements for the tabernacle, Moses hosted a bit of a grand opening service for this tent of meeting. When he did so, the text says, “Then the cloud covered the tent of meeting, and the glory of the Lord filled the tabernacle” (Ex 40:34). And that was the same Hebrew verb for “filled” as the one used for Bezalel’s filling of the Spirit.[viii]Thus, the work of the Spirit-filled artisan filled the sanctuary that would then be filled with the Spirit of God himself. God is at once the beginning, middle, and end of the work of our hands.

In fact, if you read all the way near the end of Exodus, you will find that Bezalel and his artist collective also made the garments for the priests (Aaron and his sons), including a golden crown for Aaron. Bezalel’s team etched an inscription in the crown: “Holy to the Lord.” What if we as Christians could follow in the example of Bezalel and metaphorically etch “Holy to the Lord” on everything that passes through our hands in our daily work?

The Ventriloquist

I asked a moment ago what this might look like for our working lives in the 21st Century. And when I say “working lives,” I’m not talking only about traditional nine-to-five work that involves a paycheck (though it includes that too). I’m also talking about raising children, caring for elderly parents, volunteerism, and pretty much any endeavor in life that involves creating things, serving others, or otherwise making order out of the chaos of life. How can we consecrate our work unto the Lord and let the Holy Spirit fill the work of our hands in all we do? Allow me an example from a ventriloquist friend of mine.

Yes, when you’re a juggler like me you have lots of weird friends, including ventriloquists. Oftentimes circus people like us feel inadequate or insignificant in the grand scheme of life. What do we really have to offer? Does our work matter? Is there anything remotely sacred about the absurd? We tend to think so. One day, my friend Gary did some visitation rounds at his local children’s hospital. He’s a believer, but he wasn’t preaching to or praying with patients in the traditional definition of those terms. He was simply going in and doing little puppet acts for the children to bring joy and laughter in an otherwise difficult situation for them and their families. Gary visited a quiet little boy named Tommy. Gary did a few banter jokes with his puppet: “…I can’t believe you would say something like that. If you were my child, I’d give you poison” to which the puppet replied, “If I was your child, I’d take the poison!” Tommy suddenly broke his silence and pointed at the puppet: “I really like him!”  Gary then recounted the powerful moment that followed, and I quote Gary here:

And then the room…something changes in the room. And somebody comes over and grabs my arm and says, ‘Keep him talking!’ So, I have the puppet say, ‘So what’s your name?’… ‘My name is Tommy,’ or whatever it was. So that turns out, the little boy had not said anything for months. So now the kid is talking to the ventriloquist puppet. So now the people are saying, like, whispering in my ear, ‘Ask him if it hurts.’ You know, [in puppet voice] ‘Does it hurt?’… [Tommy replies], ‘Yes.’ [end quote]

Gary said they then did this whole back-and-forth conversation between the doctor and Tommy with Gary and his puppet as the intermediaries. Gary and his God-given talent built a bridge that no one else could. Where doctors, nurses, and who knows how many other people were unable to get through to this suffering child, the puppet could. God had gifted Gary with skills that the world may view as childish in order to facilitate giving voice to a voiceless child. That is what I view as a sacred calling. That is a believer who does their work unto the Lord – faithfully administering the gifts he’s been given to serve others and ultimately to bring glory to God. And you never know when in your steadfast faithfulness to the call, God will do something miraculous right before your eyes.[ix]

Bethlehem

When I was in college, I had the privilege of spending a semester studying abroad in Jerusalem. While there, I found opportunities to perform my juggling show at various venues. One was for a Palestinian elementary school in Bethlehem. The night before my show, I could hear gun and tank fire volleying between Jerusalem and Bethlehem – very close to where I was. It was the year 2000, and what came to be known as “The Second Intifada” was raging between the Israelis and the Palestinians. In the morning, the headmaster of the school came and picked me up at my school. On the way to the show, he drove me through a town that had suffered a lot of the destruction I had heard the night before. It was very sad – a big hole in a building from a rocket, people sweeping up glass in the street. We then went to the nearby school for my show. There was nothing extraordinary about my show. I performed some tricks and told some jokes. The children laughed and expressed joy. After the show, the headmaster thanked me for bringing a smile to their faces that day. He said, “They really needed that, because during recess, they play funeral.” Death was their day-to-day experience in the real world. My show was a brief interruption to their darkness and brought a glimmer of light to their day. You see, you never know when the work of your hands, no matter how insignificant it feels (I mean, how many things are more insignificant than juggling?), will touch other people in a way that brings a little bit of heaven to earth for them.

Every Square Inch 

In closing, I want to invite you to think about your own daily work, whatever it may be. You may or may not see your daily work as your vocational calling. Maybe you’re still searching for what that is in your life. No matter where you are on that journey, I still believe we can consecrate our daily work unto the Lord as an offering of praise unto Him. We can ask for the Holy Spirit to fill us and fill our work with the light and life of God – so that others in the world may be served by our giftings, our talents, our skills, and our work. I wish I could have told my 15-year-old self that even in washing dishes for assisted living folks can I be the hands of Jesus….scrubbing, cleaning, praying, and worshipping through each load of the dishwasher. There was a 17th century monk known as Brother Lawrence. When he served in the kitchen as cook and dishwasher, he didn’t like it at first either. But he learned to enjoy the work when he saw it through the lens of doing “everything for the love of God, asking as often as possible for grace to do [the] work.”[x] We can, like Nestor the mailman, “do it all for Jesus.” Abraham Kuyper, who eventually became the Prime Minister of the Netherlands, said in a speech in 1880, “there is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is sovereign over all, does not cry: ‘Mine!’”[xi] Yes, Jesus is over every work, including the washing of dishes in a steaming kitchen at a retirement home when I was fifteen years old.

As Christians, we lay hands on missionaries and ministers as they go out into the fields of their vocational ministry, and we should. But what if we extended that prayer support into all fields of work? Below is a prayer I wrote as a corporate prayer of the people of God offering their daily work unto the Lord. I provide it here as one way in which the local church can offer commissioning prayers for people in all kinds of work:

Heavenly Father,

We offer unto you our daily work.

Fill us with your Spirit.

Sanctify the work of our hands,

That our roles, positions, vocations, and labors,

Would be done for your glory.

May our endeavors serve the needs of those around us

And fill your earth with healing, justice, reconciliation, and love.

Help us to steward our callings,

That they may be an acceptable offering of praise back unto you.

Amen.


[i] Martin Luther, “An Open Letter to The Christian Nobility of the German Nation Concerning the Reform of the Christian Estate.” First published 1520. Introduction and Translation by C. M. Jacobs. Works of Martin Luther: With Introductions and Notes. Volume II (Philadelphia, PA: A. J. Holman Company, 1915). Accessed Feb 27, 2020. http://www.iclnet.org/pub/resources/text/wittenberg/luther/web/nblty-03.html

[ii] This quote comes from a speech by Dr. King to students at Barratt Junior High School in Philadelphia, PA in 1967. See https://youtu.be/kmsAxX84cjQ (quote starts at time-stamp 10:50) for the speech.

[iii] Buechner, Fredrick. 1993. Wishful Thinking: A Seekers ABC. Revised and Expanded. New York, NY: Harper Collins, p. 199.

[iv] The scriptwriter for Chariots of Fire, Colin Welland, should technically be credited with the quote. There is no source of Eric Liddell saying or writing this quote in real life. Welland said in a letter to an inquiry about the quote that he came up with it for the film. But he believed that it reflected how Eric Liddell felt. See https://www.veritesport.org/?page=welland for the source of this information, including a link to an image of Welland’s signed statement about the quote (Hugh Hudson, director. Chariots of Fire. Original screenplay by Colin Welland, 20th Century Fox, 1981).

[v] Dietrich Bonhoeffer. Ethics (New York, NY: Touchstone, 1995), p. 253.

[vi] Technically, the first time is the parallel passage to this one found in Exodus 31:1-11. The Hebrew term for “filled” in these passages is male (Strong’s 4390 and Goodrick-Kholenberger number 4848).

[vii] Hebrew male or mala (Strong’s 4390).

[viii] Ibid.

[ix] Jesse Joyner, “Holy Fools” (PhD Dissertation, Trinity International University, 2021), pp. 150-151. https://www.proquest.com/docview/2622316783/74D2F35035A24815PQ/1

[x] This quote comes from Brother Lawrence’s friend, Joseph de Beaufort, in his description of Brother Lawrence (Brother Lawrence. The Practice of the Presence of God. Springdale, PA: Whitaker House, 1992, p. 12).

[xi] James D. Bratt, ed. Abraham Kuyper: A Centennial Reader (Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans, 1998), pp. 13, 461, 488. 

Did God the Father Abandon Jesus on the Cross?

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

guest post by Russell Joyner

Why would Jesus say something that sounds so discouraging? In Jewish tradition, in a moment of great distress, one should pray.  When all looks hopeless, pray. When you can’t think of what to pray, then recite one of the pre-approved inspired prayers.

In first century Israel, In the middle of the afternoon, around three PM, Jews would stop for prayer.  Somebody was supposed to call together at least ten Jewish men (constituting a minyun / quorum), then lead out in a Hebrew prayer, preferably one memorized from Scripture.  Those who knew the prayer were supposed to corporately join in out loud.

Matthew 27:46 tells us “At about the ninth hour, Jesus cried out in a loud voice…” The ninth hour after sunrise is the time to offer the afternoon prayer.  Nobody else took the leadership to select one of the psalms to pray. So Jesus took the lead, and started the prayer. When 1st century Hebrews started reciting Scripture, they did not use the number references like we do (chapter and verse numbers).  The opening phrase also served as the title of the prayer. Jesus was inviting those standing around the foot of the cross to join him in one of the most dynamic petitions for deliverance ever written, very likely penned by King David himself.

Psalm 22 is a classic example of a “Prayer of Lament” (along with about two dozen in the Book of Psalms).  The Biblical lament expresses a desperate situation, but the whole point is to confess that the situation can be changed by the LORD.  The lament psalms raise a cry out of the depths, fully believing that God has the power to lift a person up, around or through the pit & to set the believer’s feet firmly upon the rock.  Therefore, these Biblical laments are ultimately expressions of praise; admitting circumstances are at their worst, yet praising God for his faithful presence & deliverance. Things may look bad, but my God is sufficient for me. In each case, the complaining lament is shown to be invalid as a truth statement within the prayer itself.  

Psalm 13:1   How long, O LORD? Will you forget me forever? How long will you hide your face from me?

Psalm 13:5-6   But I trust in your unfailing love; my heart rejoices in your salvation.  I will sing to the LORD, for he has been good to me.

Psalm 74:1   Why have you rejected us forever, O God? Why does your anger smolder against the sheep of your pasture?

Psalm 74:12   But you, O God, are my king from of old; you bring salvation upon the earth.

While the complaint truly springs from genuine human anguish, once the individual looks at the lamentable circumstances through God’s eyes, the logical fallacy becomes clear.

Psalm 22 opens up with this address & complaint: “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from me, so far from the words of my groaning? O my God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, & am not silent.”

Some have taken that statement at face value, to conclude that God the Father did in fact forsake Jesus.  I must go wherever the evidence leads me, and the evidence leads me to say “NO”!

The evidence:

  1. The ultimate message of Psalm 22 was trust in Yahweh’s covenant faithfulness: God will deliver.
  2. The way God has revealed himself consistently throughout Scripture:
    • Immanuel literally means, “God With Us”
    • The name Yahweh can be translated, “I Am Faithfully Present”
    • Deuteronomy 31:6 – “I will never leave you nor forsake you.”
    • Psalm 94:14 – “I will not forsake my inheritance.”
  3. The opening lines of psalms were used as titles, therefore, mention of title invokes the whole prayer.
  4. Psalm 22:24 itself tells us  “For He has not despised or disdained the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him, but has listened to his cry for help.”   The initial complaint is corrected by the forthtelling prophecy.
  5. New Testament confirmation:
    • Matthew 27 quotes four times from Psalm 22; Matthew understood the whole represented by the part.
    • “When he offered up prayers & petitions w/loud cries & tears to the one who could save him, He was heard” (Hebrews 5:7).

Jesus gave his life willingly.  He knew the ultimate message of Psalm 22 was trust in Yahweh’s faithfulness.  He also recognized the lament psalm for what it was: a prayer of praise in the midst of lamentable circumstances.  Not a hopeless lamentation.

The evidence & example of Christ leads us to be more willing to express ourselves to God openly without white-washing our problems.  The prayer closet is the place to freely and firmly make your complaint and appeal. When we are at our wit’s end, Psalm 22 can guide us in taking our problems to the LORD.  Don’t despair!

APPLICATION: Do not build your view of God on your feelings, but upon the WORD of God….The BIBLE.  The true & living God has revealed himself to us in the Scripture, that we might know him & obey him.

A Taste of Heaven

A few miles north of Waco, Texas, just off of Interstate 35, sits a Shell gas station and convenience store that looks like any other gas station except for one thing: the line for the convenience store bakery is almost always fifty people deep.

That’s because the bakery, called the Czech Stop, specializes in a little piece of heaven called the kolache.

One summer a few years ago, I was speaking at a Christian camp nearby. Someone from the camp staff declared they were making a “kolache run” and wanted everybody’s order. I had no clue what they were talking about.

“You definitely have to try a kolache, Jesse. It will change your life,” they insisted.

Change my life? The word itself sounded so foreign to me that I didn’t even know what to expect. Was it a donut? Was it some type of specialty drink? Regardless, I told them to surprise me and get whatever everyone else was getting.

Thirty minutes later they returned. The staff member handed me something warm wrapped in wax paper about the size of a softball.

I opened the edible gift and took my first bite.

Yes, it was heavenly.

Inside the soft sweet doughy bread roll was buried a savory chunk of homemade sausage infused with jalapeno bits. I couldn’t believe my mouth.

I was tasting something I had never tasted before. It was a wonderful, mouth-watering experience – something I had never experienced before but now I knew I could have it all over again in the days ahead. It was even large enough to enjoy over half a dozen slow and thoughtful bites.

I was ruined. Now, every time I pass through the Waco area, I have to stop and get me one (or two or three) kolaches. They even come in all sorts of different flavors and fillings. Furthermore, I have become a kolache evangelist, much like the staff member who introduced me to them. Sometimes I come across other kolache lovers and we have a good chat about one of our shared favorite foods.

You know who is better than kolaches? Even infinity times better?

God.

King David challenges us in Psalm 34 to “taste and see that the LORD is good” (Psalm 34:8). I love how David mixes two of our five senses (taste and sight) in his song. It’s as if David is saying that experiencing God goes beyond our physical senses and into our spiritual senses – because God is Spirit (John 4:24).

David is like my friend in Texas who told me about a food I had never heard of, knowing that it would change my life if I would just taste it.

When we step out in faith and know God, taste His goodness, experience Him personally, trust Him with our whole selves, we will never be let down. We will see that the LORD is good every single time. This is a promise of God’s Word.

My wife and I struggled with infertility for the first seven years of our marriage. It was hard. We cried a lot – especially when others would tell us that we would make good parents and ask us when we were going to have children. We held the pain inside for many years, not sharing our struggle or pain with anyone but one another.

Then finally one day, we released our pain to God. We shared our infertility story with our close family and friends and asked for their prayers. We had been holding on to our pain without handing it over to God as a prayer request.

You know what happened? About two weeks later, we got pregnant with our first of two miracle daughters, Keziah Grace.

For many years, we were not tasting the goodness of the Lord in that area of our lives. We failed to hand the pain over to Him. When we did, he answered our prayers and delivered a miracle.

I understand that is not the case and story for everyone who struggles with infertility. Every couples’ story and journey is different. There is no perfect formula that says “prayer = miracle baby.” That is simply our story and how God answered our prayers when we finally lifted them up to Him.

But I do believe that whatever the particular story or journey God leads us on, the promise of God is “taste and see = the goodness of the Lord.” Taste and see that God is good. Trust Him with the things in your life that you have never given to him. Trust Him with the things you are holding back. And watch His goodness happen in the creative way that He does in your story.

 

Where’s Haggai?: How to Help Kids Navigate the Bible

It’s on page 1,195 of course!

So yeah, even most adults need the table of contents if the pastor says, “Turn to the second chapter of Haggai as we look at what this prophet says to Zerubbabel.”

And if you work with kids in a church or ministry setting, you know the challenge of trying to help them find their way through their Bibles.

Let’s face it: the Bible can appear daunting. To kids, a standard Bible is a super long book with tiny font and very few pictures. You may have a wide range of ages in the same room. In addition, there is often a wide range of familiarity and unfamiliarity with the Bible within a group of children. This is also known as the levels “Bible literacy.”

Furthermore, many of the children in our ministry settings have electronic devices and are reading physical books less and less and therefore bringing their physical Bibles less often to church and ministry settings.

Today the Bible is readily available as an app on devices. I’ve used it that way many times. But I have found that method to be lacking, in my opinion. First of all, some apps may have distracting “reading plans” or “devotionals” written by popular authors shouting for my attention on the app when I just want to read the Sermon on the Mount. Those might be great devotionals, but sometimes I just want the raw Scripture. I have also found myself distracted by other things on my device once I’ve opened it up, even if I went there to read the Bible in the first place.

So, call me old fashioned, but I like holding the physical book in my hand and flipping through the actual pages of God’s Word. That’s how believers have been reading the Bible for centuries.

When I teach children about the Bible, I encourage them to use a hard-copy Bible, not a Bible on an app. Adults can make up their own minds about app Bible verses physical Bible, but I really do think that children between the ages of zero and pre-teen need to be spared the distraction and given the opportunity by leaders to use real physical Bibles. Most of them have plenty of screen time in their lives already. Let’s use Bible time as an opportunity to turn the screens off and read God’s Word the way its been read for thousands of years.

Ok, moving on from that highly opinionated rant…

I want to share some ideas and resources with you that might help you help kids navigate their physical Bibles.

Types of Bibles

First of all, there are many English versions of the Bible – the NIV, the ESV, the NLT, the KJV, The Message, and more. Some are more literal to the original Greek, Hebrew, and Aramaic words and others are more paraphrastic. Then there are others in the middle of the literal-paraphrase spectrum. It all depends on the translation teams. Work with your fellow church leaders to find a translation that is readable and works for your denomination. I think it is helpful to be consistent within your own local church, camp, or ministry setting and use the same translation (unless there is a good reason to use another translation for a particular context). It helps everyone to be “on the same page!” Let the church know which one you use and why.

Secondly, there are many Bibles written specifically for children. Some of these are picture Bibles or a collection of paraphrased Bible stories. In other posts, I have recommended some of these Bibles for various age ranges:

Early Childhoodhttp://jessejoyner.com/faith-development-resources-early-childhood/

Preschoolhttp://jessejoyner.com/faith-development-resources-preschool/

Early Elementaryhttp://jessejoyner.com/faith-development-resources-early-elementary/

Pre-Teen – http://jessejoyner.com/faith-development-resources-pre-teen/

Finding Something in the Bible

When you ask kids to look up a Bible verse, clearly say the reference and put only the reference (not the verse itself) it up on a projection screen if you have one. If you do not have a projection screen, then write the reference on a board or poster. There are other times to show entire verses on a screen, but if your goal is to help them navigate the Bible, do not put the whole verse on the screen. The reason is obvious. They will figure, “Why do I have to look it up if I can just read it on the screen?” If you just give the reference, they will have to look it up to read it.

I make everyone wait for everyone else. That means the kids who find the verse first need to learn a little patience and wait for their friends. In fact, this is a good opportunity for the kids to help one another. The ones who already found their place in the Bible can help the ones who are still searching.

Start with the table of contents: Once you have read out the reference, encourage the kids to use the table of contents to find the book of the Bible (most every Bible has one). The book titles are all listed, sometimes twice (once in Biblical order and a second time in alphabetical order). If they’re lucky, their Bible may even have the little tabs on the sides of the pages that list each of the sixty six books of the Bible.

Big Number, Little Number: I explain to the kids that Matthew 5:14 means…

The Book of Matthew.

Big number 5 (the chapter).

Little number 14 (the verse, which is sometimes a tiny number).

“Sword Drills”

This is a popular game/activity in many children’s church services and Sunday Schools and it has been around for a while. I do not know who came up with them. Personally, I’m NOT a fan, and I’ll share why after I explain what they are:

Sword drills are where you as the leader read out a Bible reference and then the kids race to find it first in their Bible. The first kid to find the verse usually then stands up or raises their “sword” (Bible in hand) and reads it out loud. Repeat.

The reason I do not like this activity is because I feel like it favors a particular learning style – and it rewards that behaviour in a confusingly spiritual way. The children who are fast at computing numbers and flipping pages and memorizing lists are rewarded with attention, praise, and even the public reading of God’s Word. We risk excluding children who are wired more for patient contemplation or who are simply more new to the skills of navigating their Bibles. There is absolutely no spiritual gain in finding a Bible verse a millisecond faster than your neighbor but we have somehow turned it into a game where we risk sending that message to our children.

Some kids take more time to find a Scripture passage than others, and they shouldn’t lose a game because of that.

Memorizing the Books of the Bible

This is one of the most effective practical skills we can give kids in terms of navigating their Bibles. There are a lot of books in the Bible (sixty six, to be exact). But there are some surprisingly very catchy ways to memorize the list in order so that when you are looking for a book of the Bible, you can simply hum your tune and find your way there.

Here are some of the songs and tunes that I would recommend. These really do work!

North Point Kids Rap Version (I like how they also mention the genres of literature)

JumpStart3 Books of the Bible (I like Jeff’s music here, very hip)

Brent Weber’s Old Testament and New Testament songs are on this CD

This one from Rachel Neuman is set to some catchy tunes

Here’s another rap version

Some Other Random Tricks

General Electric Power Company – this helps me remember four of the most commonly cited Pauline letters: “Galatians, Ephesians, Philippians, Colossians.”

Psalms is usually in the dead middle of the Bible. Just hold the Bible with the pages facing you and open right in the middle of all the pages.

The New Testament (starting with Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John) is in the wayyyy back of the Bible. It is usually about 75%-80% of the way through the pages. So if you’re headed for a book in the New Testament, turn to the very back of the Bible. The opposite is true for the Old Testament, which makes up the majority of the Bible and is found first.

The prophets (both major and minor) are found after Psalms and before the New Testament. So if you hear an obscure Hebrew name (like Zephaniah), then find the Psalms in the middle and start moving further back in the Bible, but not too far. If you hit the Gospels (like Matthew), then you’ve gone too far. Remember, Malachi is the last book of the Old Testament.

Help them Discover the Wonder

Kids will work hard at figuring out on their own how to navigate things with which they are fascinated. The greatest gift we can give these kids in Bible navigation skills is a love for and curiosity with God’s Word. They can memorize the list of Bible books all day long, but if there is no interest to find out what’s in those books, they’re not going to care to look. As teachers, leaders, and pastors, we need to be excited about the Bible ourselves and show the kids why we love the contents and the stories. A fun exercise is to share about some of the lesser-known but incredibly dramatic stories of the Bible, like Jael nailing a tent peg into the temple of a sleeping Sisera (Judges 5:24-26)!

I also believe that the Bible is God’s living Word, which means it is not just a historical account of events. There is a great deal of history in the Bible, but it is first and foremost HIS story – the story of God for the past, present, and future. That means that it affects my daily life and that God’s Spirit speaks to me through this Word when I read it and meditate on it. As leaders, we can tell the kids stories about how God has changed our lives and shaped our understanding of Him through the message of His Word.

What Cain and Jesus Share

Stained-Glass-Panel-the-Birth-of-Cain-and-Abel
A stained glass depiction of the births of Cain and Abel. Germany, late 14th Century.

What?! You’re comparing Cain, the first murderer, to Jesus? How dare you!

Follow me here. I was writing a paper about ministry with children and I suddenly discovered in the Cain and Abel story something I had never seen before…

You probably already knew that Cain was the first child to be born (remember, Adam and Eve were created). But what Eve said upon his birth is pretty remarkable. She said something that leads us to conclude that Cain and Jesus were both gifts of God’s grace, each in a unique way.

Here’s the excerpt from my paper….

When we look at Scripture, the first children in the Bible were Cain and Abel. Their parents, Adam and Eve, had already been banished from the Garden of Eden due to their disobedience and sin towards God (Gen 3:16-24). In this new reality of paradise lost, Adam and Eve conceived their first child, Cain. Despite having a broken relationship with God, Eve proclaims, “With the help of the LORD I have brought forth a man” (Gen 4:1; italics mine). These are the first post-Edenic words spoken in Scripture, which I believe speaks to the significance of ministry with children. In this newly fallen world, our predecessor Eve viewed children as a gift from God. Even Cain’s name in Hebrew is a wordplay intended to sound like the word for “to bring forth” (Coppes 1980, 797-798). This means that God’s first gift of grace following our sin was a child. We turned from God, and the way he extended an offer of grace was through a baby.

Does that sound familiar? Thousands of years later, despite our sin, God gifted us all with the baby Jesus Christ as the ultimate gift of His grace.

This establishes the point that children are both a gift from God as well a means of God’s grace to adults (and other children, for that matter). Most adults in this world and in the church community understand that children are a gift, but how often do we view them as channels through which God extends His grace? When we view children in this way, we realize that as adults, we need children as much as they need us.

Citation:

Coppes, Leonard J. “Cain.” Theological wordbook of the old testament. Vol 2. R. Laird Harris, Gleason L. Archer Jr., and Bruce K. Waltke eds. Chicago: Moody Press, 1980.

Cardboard Craft: Noah’s Ark

My daughter was making a zoo with blocks and her little plastic animals. I figured, “Why don’t we just make a Noah’s Ark since we have all these animals?” I’m not the most crafty person in the world, but I know how to cut cardboard boxes. So I started cutting up an Amazon shipping box. Her imagination did the rest! She proudly drew the windows. She loves it!

The great thing about crafts with kids is that it doesn’t have to be a masterpiece! It’s clearly a rectangular box and is not the stylish boat shape you see in great art. But five year olds don’t care! They just want to play with friends and family and use their God-given imaginations. We adults could learn a thing or two from that.

Cost: Nothing.

Payoff: Fun, stimulated imaginations, opportunity to share a faith story and its meaning with my daughter.

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Godly Play: A Model for Ministry with Children

Godly Play is a teaching system used by many churches around the world to educate children about God, the Bible, and also invite them into the Christian narrative. Jerome Berryman developed the curriculum and he was influenced by the educational theories of Maria Montessori.

I observed Godly Play in action once when I was in seminary. My professor, Dr. Catherine Stonehouse, ministered with children at her church in Wilmore, KY using Godly Play. As a class, we watched as she sat down at the level of the children and told them the story of Abraham and Sarah using small generic wooden figures and a pile of sand for the Middle Eastern desert. It was very quiet and the children were mesmerized. The whole feel of Godly Play is quite the opposite of many Children’s Ministries, which are full of electronic screens, loud rock band music, video games, and resemble the “Let’s Make a Deal” show.

Godly Play uses symbols, rituals, manipulatives, and storytelling to join children in the spiritual pilgrimage of knowing God. Children are not just receptors of information, but rather natural learners as well as teachers themselves. It is all done with an attitude of holy-awe and unplugged simplicity.

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Here are some resources that explain more about Godly Play. Check them out and let me know what you think!

  1. Godly Play Foundation
  2. Jerome W. Berryman. Godly Play. San Francisco: Harper, 1991.
  3. Jerome W. Berryman. The Complete Guide to Godly Play, Vols 1-8. New York: Church Publishing Incorporated, 2002-2012.
  4. Video Introducing Godly Play:
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