Beans, ping-pong balls, and Jesus

esus at prayer in the desert

Christ in the desert / Ivan Kramskoi (1871)

Perhaps you have seen this object lesson: Before starting his sermon, a preacher asked for a volunteer from the congregation. He had a jar of beans and three ping-pong balls, and asked the volunteer to put the ping-pong balls into the jar. He couldn’t do it.

The preacher emptied the beans into a pitcher. The balls easily fit into the jar. Then the preacher asked the volunteer to see how many of the beans he could get into the jar. They all fit with some room to spare.

The ping-pong balls represented time with God.… Read the rest

Jesus’ humility, Satan’s pride: whom do we follow?

Jesus' humility

Ecce Homo (Behold! The Man) / Antonio Ciseri, 1871. “The humble king they named a fraud, and sacrificed the Lamb of God.”

God is all-powerful, but when he chose to use his power to become a man, he also chose not to use power like other men. It is Satan who turns power into something coercive and egocentric.

It would be nice if we could say that Christians understand the situation and exercise power as Jesus did. Unfortunately, we can truthfully say no more than that some do, and they successfully imitate Christ maybe only some of the time.

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The consequences of sin and repentance

Joshua and Israelites

Joshua and the Israelite People / Korolingischer Buchmaler, ca. 840

“Joshua fit the battle of Jericho and the walls come a-tumblin’ down.” Then he and his people sinned. The next part of the story didn’t go as well for them. Joshua decided to attack the small town of Ai next. They chased his warriors out of town and killed some of them. What happened?

Most obviously, someone named Achan took some of the spoils and hid them in his tent. God didn’t appear to Joshua and tell him what had happened and what he thought about it. He hardly ever does.… Read the rest

False religion and the God-shaped vacuum

God shaped vacuum“There is a God shaped vacuum in the heart of every man, which cannot be filled by any created thing, but only by God, the creator, made known through Jesus Christ.”

That familiar quotation is falsely attributed to Blaise Pascal, but it’s a reasonable paraphrase of what he actually wrote.

It’s true, no matter who put it in those words.  Trouble is, sinful man has tried to fill it with something else—anything else—besides God since time immemorial.

What “spiritual” atheists think about God

I recently came across an article that talks about a remarkably high percentage of atheists who nonetheless consider themselves somehow “religious” or “spiritual.”

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Joshua and the secret of answered prayer

Joshua and Israelites

Joshua and the Israelite People / Korolingischer Buchmaler, ca. 840

Jesus said, “Ask and it will be given to you.” He did not say, “Ask and it will be given to you immediately.” He also did not say, “Ask and it will be given you exactly as you envision it.” When we ask and seem not to receive, it’s easy to fall into some kind of crisis of faith.

Ordinarily, Bible teachers deal with the questions of unanswered prayer by looking at the text in detail in order to point out conditions or the various ways we sabotage our own faith.… Read the rest

The priority of prayer in worship

Worship servicePaul warned Timothy that some in the church had rejected faith and conscience. He specifically named Hymenaeus and Alexander. The chapter numbers and headings in our Bibles aren’t original, of course, but 1 Timothy 2 begins immediately after that warning, and “Instructions about Worship” is a typical heading.

“First of all,” says Paul, “I urge prayer.” He goes on to point out that God wants all to be saved. There are certainly people in churches to this day who reject faith.

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Praying the Lord’s Prayer with Daniel

Wait a minute! Daniel was in the Old Testament and Jesus gave us the Lord’s Prayer in the New Testament? What does Daniel have to do with that?

In many churches, maybe most churches, the congregation recites every Sunday. Everyone has it memorized from the familiar King James translation. It is one of the few parts of today’s services where the language hasn’t been updated. It takes less than a minute. How many people actually pray it? Daniel did, as recorded in Daniel 9.

Praying the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew

Lord's Prayer, chant notation

The Lord's Prayer, in Gregorian chant notation

Jesus gave the church a model prayer, not merely to be words to memorize.… Read the rest

Lent and the spiritual wilderness experience

Death Valley

Death Valley, California

The season of Lent recalls Jesus’ 40-day temptation in the wilderness. All Christians sooner or later go through their own spiritual wilderness. And so, in the Old Testament, did one of the Sons of Korah, who left behind Psalms 42 and 43to instruct and comfort us in our own struggles with wilderness experience.

These two psalms appear to have been originally one song of three verses with refrain: “Why, my soul, are you downcast? Why so disturbed within me? Put your hope in God, for I will yet praise him, my Savior and my God.” (I use “verse” in the sense of familiar songs or hymns, not in the sense of a verse of scripture.)

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Prayer is like a barbed wire fence



Somewhere, I read about a barbed wire fence as a model of a good prayer life. The wooden fence posts represent regular public worship on Sundays. The wire between the posts represents two aspects of a Christian’s private prayer life. There is a stiff, heavy barbed wire at the top and bottom of the fence. It’s primary purpose is to discourage the cattle from leaning on it and breaking the fence. The top wire works on larger animals like cows and horses, and the bottom one on smaller animals like sheep and pigs. The same barbs that hurt the cattle if they lean against the fence also inflict pain on people, thus discouraging potential intruders.… Read the rest

Rejoice? Always?

“Rejoice always; pray constantly; give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you.” 1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 (RSV)

Does it sometimes look like the writers of the Bible just didn’t get it? Perhaps people living when it was written just didn’t face the troubles we do. After all, who can rejoice always with all we have to live through?

For the last couple of years, our economy has been rocked by very tough conditions: high unemployment, long term unemployment, lots of foreclosures on peoples’ houses.

We just had a particularly nasty election, with no limits on how much anonymous corporate entities could spend on vicious attack ads.… Read the rest