WEEK 30 — July 29, 2015

MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS:
BROTHERS

 

week 30

 

Ishmael, the Older Brother

 

She [Sarah] said to Abraham, “Get rid of that slave woman and her son; for that slave woman’s son will never share the inheritance with my son Isaac.” . . . God heard the boy crying, and the angel of God called to Hagar from heaven . . . . God was with the boy as he grew up. He lived in the desert and became an archer. . . . The angel of the Lord also said . . . : “He will live in hostility toward all his brothers.”
Genesis 21:10, 17a, 20; 16:11a, 12c

Followers of the Muslim religion — at least those of Arab extraction — believe that they are descended from Ishmael, son of Abraham the patriarch. Islamic tradition even teaches that Ishmael, not Isaac, was the son whom Abraham nearly sacrificed on the mountaintop.

It is easy to see how such ideas could arise. The Jewish people, both those of Bible times and those living today, have undeniable ethnic ties with many speakers of Arabic in the Middle East. Both groups are correctly referred to as Semitic peoples. (An interesting aside: When someone expresses negative feelings toward Arabs, should this be labeled as anti-Semitism?)

Furthermore, those who follow the Jewish faith and those who follow the Islamic faith are both equally strong in stating their belief that there is only one God.

Given these reasons for closeness, then, does it not seem strange that Jews and Arabs have seemingly been at dagger points as long as anyone can remember? In our own time we hear about conflicts between Israelis and Palestinians, but that is only a modern manifestation of an age-old enmity.

According to the Bible, this sharp dissension between similar peoples goes all the way back to Father Abraham. In his yearning to have an heir, Abraham had a son with his wife’s maidservant, Hagar. Then at last the divine promise was fulfilled, and Abraham’s wife Sarah also had a son.

One day when Isaac was still a child and Ishmael the older brother was but a youth, something happened between the two of them. Differing translations of the Scriptures suggest that Ishmael may have been mocking Isaac, or making fun of him, or perhaps merely playing with him.

Whatever it was, Sarah would have none of it. Ishmael and his mother must be sent off at once into the desert. There they might have died of thirst, had not God heard Ishmael’s cry.

This Bible-based poetic meditation offers an imaginative insight into how Ishmael himself might have viewed his life — past, present, and future.

I never meant to hurt my little brother.
I only teased him, as a boy will do.
But jealousy seized hold of my stepmother.
She said, “One son’s enough; no room for two!”

I think my father loved me, yet he spurned me;
he sent me from the home I’d always known.
The searing sunlight of the desert burned me;
by sharp and sand-filled winds my hair was blown.

I’d never had to face such harsh conditions;
my life had been an easy one till then.
In trackless sand, you always face decisions:
this way, or that, or turning back again.

My strength gave out — no water left for drinking.
I stumbled toward a bush that offered shade.
My hopes for sheer survival started shrinking;
my dreams of better days began to fade.

And then somehow . . . I seemed to hear my father:
He’d built an altar, calling on the Name.
I cried out, sobbing, “Lord God of my father,
O give me water in this desert flame!”

The Lord God of my father heard me crying;
He showed the way to find a desert well.
The place I’d thought would be a place of dying
turned out to be a home and not a hell.

The burning desert, far from any other —
that’s where I hunt, that’s where I live, you see.
I’d like to be more friendly with my brother, . . .
but that, it seems, can never come to be.

O Father-God of us all, send peace and true brotherhood upon Your troubled earth! Amen.

Copyright © 2015 by Perry Thomas

WEEK 29 — July 22, 2015

MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS:
BROTHERS

 

week 29

 

Three Brothers

 

Lamech had two wives, Adah and Zillah. Adah gave birth to Jabal, who was the ancestor of those who raise livestock and live in tents. His brother was Jubal, the ancestor of all musicians who play the harp and the flute. Zillah gave birth to Tubal Cain, who made all kinds of tools out of bronze and iron.
Genesis 4:19-22, GNT

Fifty years ago, one of the key concepts most often impressed upon teachers-in-training and those who prepared educational materials for the young was, “individual differences.” Here’s what we used to hear:

“In olden times children were considered to be generally all the same. The same books could be read by all of them. The same lessons should be taught to all of them. But that doesn’t apply any more. Today we must respect individual differences. We must find out how each child learns best, and then we must help him or her to learn in that way.”

Sounds good, doesn’t it?

Yet in recent years it seems that some of us still haven’t internalized that basic truth. “Teaching to the test” makes little allowance for variation. Perhaps one reason why so many more children are being taught at home these days is, because methods and materials used in schools may sometimes include the unspoken expectation that every child will come up to the same standard.

God knows all about individual differences. A beautiful old saying puts it this way: “God has His own secret stairway into every heart” [Source unknown; as quoted by William Barclay in The Daily Study Bible, The Letter to the Hebrews; Philadelphia: The Westminster Press, 1955, 1957 p. xiii].

Very early in the written Word of God, in the fourth chapter of the first book in the Bible, there is a brief genealogy; it’s quoted above. Notice how this ancient family tree clearly sets forth individual differences. It tells about three people who – although they were brothers (or half-brothers) – yet they clearly couldn’t be crammed into the same mold.

As you read the Bible-based poetic meditation that follows, you may feel that you aren’t like any one of those three long-ago brothers. Don’t worry about that: You can be sure that God knows exactly what you are like.

God takes full account of individual differences. God knows how to fit the measure of His great love into the life of every one of us who is willing to receive it. Meditate on that marvelous fact as you read this rather lighthearted poetic commentary on the Scripture verses quoted above.

Long years ago there lived three brothers:
Jubal, Jabal, Tubal Cain.
Each was different from the others —
Jubal, Jabal, Tubal Cain.

Jabal was a livestock farmer;
Tubal Cain, a metalworker.

Jubal’s work was not like theirs —
never herded ewes or mares,
never forged a plow or knife.
What, then, was his way of life?

Musical instruments he made.
Musical instruments he played.

All of us who love a song,
Jubal’s tribe’s where we belong.

Long years ago there lived three brothers:
Jubal, Jabal, Tubal Cain.
Are you more like one than the others —
Jubal, Jabal, Tubal Cain?

Lord of all differences, thank You for not making us all alike. Teach me to love and respect those who are different from myself. Amen.

Copyright © 2015 by Perry Thomas

WEEK 28 — July 15, 2015

MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS:
FAMILY and FRIENDS

 

week 28

 

“Have We Not All One Father?” :  Malachi the Prophet

 

Have we not all one Father? Did not one God create us? Why do we profane the covenant of our fathers by breaking faith with one another?
Malachi 2:10

I briefly considered a much jazzier title for this devotional thought: “Malachi, God’s Go-to Guy.” When a struggling football team needs a hard-driving fullback or a sure-handed pass receiver to turn the game around, sportscasters call such a player “the go-to guy.” That’s not a bad name for Malachi the Prophet. When God needed someone to tell it like it is, to mince no words, to come down hard with the truth, he turned to Malachi.

The Hebrew word Malachi itself may be a name, or may instead be a title. It means “My Messenger.” And what a string of messages Malachi delivered for the Lord God Almighty!

Perhaps it would be more accurate to refer to the contents of the Book of Malachi as a string of questions rather than a string of messages. No other part of the Bible lists so many blunt queries. One commentary [Charles F. Pfeiffer and Everett F. Harrison, eds., The Wycliffe Bible Commentary; Chicago: Moody Press, 1962; p. 914] even refers to Malachi’s four brief chapters as “Questions for Which God Has Good Answers.”

Why do Malachi’s words come across as sounding so harshly uncomfortable — even now, two and a half millennia after they were first spoken?

Because they go against the conventional wisdom. Because they offend the overly tolerant spirit of our age.
• “‘I hate divorce,’ says the Lord God” (Malachi 2:10a). How’s that for starters?
• “‘You rob me . . . in tithes and offerings’” (Malachi 3:8b, 8d). No timidity here about sermons on stewardship!
• “‘Try offering [less-than-worthy gifts] to your governor! Would he be pleased with you? Would he accept you?’ says the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 1:8cde).
• “‘Cursed is the cheat . . . . For I am a great king,’ says the Lord Almighty” (Malachi 1:14a, 14d).
• In Malachi 2:3 the prophet even gets down and dirty, as he blurts out a coarsely-worded warning to those who merely go through the motions of religious ceremonies.

One of the strongest themes running through this last book of Old Testament prophecy is the importance of faithfulness in family relationships. Because of that fact, I have included Malachi here under the general heading “Family and Friends.”

Malachi is written in a uniquely argumentative style; it almost reads like the transcript of an edgy-tempered debate in a tense courtroom. Because of that fact, in the Bible-based meditation that follows I have deliberately adopted a rather rough-hewn in-your-face style, without being overly concerned about rhyme, meter, or euphony:

Have we not all one Father?
Did not one God create us?
Why do we break God’s own covenant,
breaking faith with one another?

GOD ASKS:
“Will a man rob God?” There’s a question for you!
Answer quickly, or you may be asked a harder riddle,
one with neither end nor middle.

GOD ASKS:
“If I am a father, where’s the honor due me?
If I am a master, who pays tribute to me?”
Do you dare deny Him?
Do your gifts belie Him?
All your cheating conduct lacks is,
counterfeit to pay your taxes!

GOD SAYS:
“I have loved you.” Can you doubt it?
“I do not change.” How about it?
“Return to me.” Will you do it?
“I’ll return to you.” He’ll see to it!

Have we not all one Father?
Did not one God create us?
Why do we break God’s own covenant,
breaking faith with one another?

O Father-God of us all, help us to keep faith — with You and with one another. Amen.

Copyright © 2015 by Perry Thomas

 

WEEK 27 — July 8, 2015

MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS:
FAMILY and FRIENDS

 

week 27

 

“The Lion Has Roared” : Amos the Prophet

 

The words of  Amos, one of the sheep farmers from Tekoa . . . . He said, “The Lord roars from Zion . . . . The lion has roared. Who isn’t afraid? The Almighty Lord has spoken. Who can keep from prophesying?”
Amos 1:1a, 2a; 3:8, CEV

Perhaps no greater contrast between two Bible characters may be found anywhere in Scripture than in the dramatic encounter between Amaziah and Amos as recorded in Amos 7:10-17. Consider a few of the many differences between the two:
• Amaziah was a city-dweller; Amos was a farmer.
• Amaziah lived in Israel, the Northern Kingdom; Amos lived in Judah, the Southern Kingdom.
• Amaziah was a representative of the ruling class; Amos was a representative of the peasantry.
• Amaziah was more than likely rather rich; Amos was more than likely rather poor.
• Amaziah was a priest; Amos was a prophet . . . even though he disclaimed that honored designation for himself: “I’m not a prophet, and I’m not a disciple of the prophets,” he said (Amos 7:14, CEV).

It may have been a wool-selling expedition that first caused Amos to leave his farm in Judah and travel northward to the priestly city of Bethel. There he saw stately houses built with greedy gain (Amos 3:13; 6:4). He saw rampant dishonesty in the marketplace (Amos 8:4-5). He saw children being sold into slavery for as little as the price of a pair of sandals (Amos 2:6; 8:6). He saw those who were guilty of such abuses pretending that they were the most pious people on earth (Amos 4:4-5).

When Amaziah the king’s priest confronted Amos and tried to send him back home again, the shepherd-prophet launched a blistering verbal attack against Amaziah himself and against all the rest of those who “stomp the heads of the poor into the dust” (Amos 2:7, CEV). Imitating the Lord who had called him, this rustic spokesman for God began to roar like a lion!

Why has Amos, the lion-like man from the backwoods, been included in a devotional series about “Family and Friends”? The Bible tells us nothing whatever about the family or friends of Amos the Prophet.

Yet Amos has been included here as a representative of all those — long ago and now — who recognize suffering people as their brothers and sisters and children, even when they have no ties of kinship.

Abraham Lincoln has been credited with a certain forceful saying that seems to be one of the many apocryphal quotations he probably never really spoke; yet this one is worth repeating all the same: “I am sorry for the man who cannot feel the sting of the lash when it is applied to the other fellow’s back.”

Amos could. Can you?

Can you see your sisters and brothers, your daughters and sons in those all around you who are downtrodden, miserable, homeless, poor?

Read prayerfully the following poetic meditation, placed by imagination into the mouth of Amos:

Me a prophet? No, not I, sir, nor a prophet’s son.
Herding sheep and picking fruit, that’s all I’ve ever done.

But the Lord roared like a lion:  “Amos, use your eyes!”
Then I saw them cheat the poor man every time he buys.

Grains of dust with grains of barley mixed and sold too high:
That’s the way the market goes in Bethel, when folks buy.

Still the Lord roared like a lion:  Amos, use your ears!”
Then I heard the needy crying, heard a mother’s fears:

“O, they’re selling him for shoes, that boy I love so well!”
That’s the way the market goes in Bethel, when folks sell.

Ah! The Lord God roared yet louder:  “Amos, use your mouth!”
Up to Bethel then I tramped, from Judah in the south.

They tried to send me back, away from Bethel’s holy sod.
I stood my ground and roared at them:  “Prepare to meet your God!”

I know, Father, that being a prophet, especially a prophet of social justice, is always hard; it was hard long ago and it’s still hard today. Yet if it is Your will that I should speak a prophetic word, O give me the courage to speak it! Amen.

Copyright © 2015 by Perry Thomas

WEEK 26 — July 1, 2015

MIDWEEK MEDITATIONS:
FATHERS

 

week 26

 

The Jailer of Philippi

 

The jailer called for lights, rushed in and fell trembling before Paul and Silas. He then brought them out and asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” They replied, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved – you and your household.” Then they spoke the word of the Lord to him and to all the others in his house. At that hour of the night the jailer took them and washed their wounds; then immediately he and all his family were baptized. The jailer brought them into his house and set a meal before them; he was filled with joy because he had come to believe in God — he and his whole family. Acts 16:29-34

The verses quoted above give the climax to a dramatic story; re-read chapter 16 in the Acts of the Apostles, if you’ve forgotten the rest of it.

What do you suppose life was like for the jailer of Philippi before Paul and Silas came to town?

Probably not very pretty. The jailer must have been a rough and ready sort of man: Who else would take such a job? He knew he had to perform his duties faithfully, or stern Roman law would cost him his life.

For two hot summers in my youth I traveled throughout Kentucky, helping church folks hold week-long camps for children. Once I sat down to a very simple supper at the jail in a county-seat town — not in the jail itself, but in the jailer’s home, which was part of the same building. I wondered then (as I wonder now) what it would be like to grow up in such close proximity to those whom most of us would consider the dregs of society.

Despite his sordid surroundings, the jailer of Philippi seems to have been a family man. Read this imaginative reconstruction of his thoughts, deliberately worded in somewhat less than traditionally-poetic language:

A jail’s a place that’s pretty tough
to rear a family.
My children see and hear some stuff
they shouldn’t hear or see.

But where else could I keep my kin?
My pay is very small,
and living quarters are thrown in,
just past the prison wall.

A father wants to keep his kids
away from all that’s naught.
Too soon this world will slip the skids
from under what they’re taught.

That’s why I wouldn’t let them watch
those strangers being whipped.
The blood left many a crimson splotch
on clothing torn and ripped.

I couldn’t keep my children, though,
from all that happened next.
We heard the singing down below —
some Psalm, or holy text.

And then — an earthquake rocked the jail!
I checked: My kids weren’t hurt.
I hurried down; I must not fail
to watch, to stay alert.

Disaster! Doors and stocks had split!
I drew my sword to die.
Then one cried, “Jailer, don’t do it!
They’re all here; so am I.”

I trembled as I called for light.
I fell down, all agape.
“What must I do?” I cried in fright.
“How shall we all escape?”

“Believe in Jesus!” then they said.
“You will be saved. What’s more,
the family of which you’re head
will be changed to the core!”

They spoke the truth. We washed their backs.
We shared our simple meal.
I tell you nothing but the facts:
Our hearts began to heal.

The strangers then baptized us all —
a sign that Christ is Lord.
The shorter one, the man called Paul,
explained to us God’s Word.

And that was how I came to see:
A jail is not so bad
a place to rear a family.
That night we all were glad!

Look down in Your mercy, Lord, on all the fathers of the world who yearn to give their children a better start in life. Amen.

Copyright © 2015 by Perry Thomas