Saturday, May 31, 2008

Whose eye sees clearly (part two)

by John D Ramsey

From Kingdom in Context[1] Click here for part one of two.

Balaam was never honest with Balak, the king of Moab. God had told Balaam that Israel was blessed, and not to curse them. However, Balaam tells Balak, “The word that God puts in my mouth, that I shall speak.”[2] Balaam did not inform Balak that God had already revealed his will regarding Israel.

Balaam directed Balak to build seven altars and to sacrifice a bull and a ram on each altar. This is unusual for a prophet of God because in the Old Testament, God prescribed sacrifices for atonement for sin, fellowship, dedication, and freewill. There was no sacrifice by which to receive an omen. Nevertheless, this was a common pagan practice. Balaam had Balak offer sacrifices on the high places, as if he could bribe God. God certainly did not order sacrifices from Balaam or Balak. After the sacrifices, Balaam went off alone. We learn from Numbers 24:1 that Balaam went away by himself to obtain omens or oracles. Scripture does not tell us the particulars of Balaam’s ritual; whatever it was, it was not a God-ordained.

When God appeared to him, Balaam told him, “I have prepared seven altars, and on each altar I have offered a bull and a ram.”[3] Did Balaam think that God would not have known what he had done? God never acknowledged the sacrifices, but he told Balaam to return to Balak and speak the words that God put into Balaam’s mouth.

When he returned to Balak, Balaam began to prophesy. He blessed Israel. Balak was alarmed. He had asked for a curse but instead Balaam delivered a blessing. Twice more Balak takes Balaam to high places where Balaam can see Israel. Twice more Balaam directs Balak to offer sacrifices. Only once more does Balaam seek an omen, the third time Balaam understood that God would bless Israel. The spirit of God came upon him and Balaam prophesied a kingdom for Israel. He did this without practicing his ritual because Balaam realized that his efforts were not affecting God’s will.

When Balak realized that Balaam could not curse Israel, he told Balaam to flee to his home. Balak said to Balaam, “I said I would reward you handsomely, but the LORD has kept you from being rewarded.”[4] Balaam argued with Balak reminding him of the indemnification agreement: Balaam could only speak what God put into his mouth. When it was clear that Balak would not pay him, Balaam took the moral high ground, saying, “What the LORD speaks, that I will speak.”[5]

Balaam then prophesied twice more. He blessed Israel proclaiming that a star would rise from Jacob and a scepter from Israel. He cursed Moab and Edom and Israel’s other enemies. Balaam, speaking by the Holy Spirit, blessed Israel and cursed nearly all the nations he could see from the mountaintop except for Midian.

This omission is particularly interesting because Midian was party to Balak’s original plan to curse Israel. Moab is cursed, but Balaam’s prophesies never mention Midian. Balaam then went home, and Balak went to back to his business of being king. At some time, it occurred to Balaam how to turn God’s anger toward Israel. Balaam returned to Midian. Balaam probably considered it a safe haven for him to launch his scheme because of all the area nations, it was not cursed.

According to Balaam’s plan, the women of Moab and Midian would seduce the men of Israel into worship of the Baal of Peor, the god to whom they sacrificed on the mountain of Peor. Their worship included ritualistic immoral behavior. The bargain was essentially sacrifice for sex. Balaam knew that if God would not permit him to curse whom God had blessed, he also would not tolerate unfaithfulness in those whom he had chosen for his own people.

The seduction of Israel worked as planned; Moab seduced many from Israel. God in his anger sent a plague against his people. God commanded Moses to make an example of all the leaders of the people. English translations are unclear in this context. They say that God told Moses to kill all the leaders of the people. Then they say that Moses told the heads of each household to kill those in his family who had joined themselves to Baal-Peor. The Septuagint is clearer. It says that God commanded Moses to make examples of the leaders by having them kill those of their family who had joined themselves to Baal-Peor. The patriarchs would have to purge their own families of this sin.

Even while people were weeping at the door of the tabernacle, a man led a woman from Midian right passed them. Israelites were dying from a plague because of the sin they had committed with the women of Moab. Now a man named Zimre brings a woman from Midian named Cozbi into the camp. Some people are crying, others are dying, and Zimre prioritizes his own sexual lust over the good of the nation. What was he thinking?

Moses’ first wife was a Midianite. Jethro, Moses’ father-law-law was a priest to God in Midian. Perhaps Zimri saw a distinction between Midian and Moab. Phinehas, the son of the high priest, Eliazar, saw no distinction. He took a spear, followed the Zimri and the Cozbi into the tent, and killed them both. God stopped the plague against Israel. Zimri serves as an example that we avoid the error of self-justification.

Both Moab and Midian were involved in the seduction of Baal-Peor, but God spoke to Moses and said,

Be hostile to the Midianites and strike them, for they have been hostile to you with their tricks, with which they deceived you in the affair of Peor and the affair of Cozbi, the daughter of the leader of Midian, their sister who was slain on the day of the plague because of Peor.[6]

Later in Numbers 31, the day of reckoning comes for Midian. Twelve thousand soldiers from Israel annihilated all the men of Midian. They killed the five kings of Midian, and they killed Balaam. As they were killing Balaam with a sword, perhaps he was remembering the angel standing before him with a drawn sword. Perhaps he finally understood that God could not be gamed. Balaam’s oracles had not cursed Midian. Perhaps this led him to feel safe among the Midianites. Perhaps God concealed the destruction of Midian as a trap for Balaam. Balaam, “who [heard] the words of God, who [had] knowledge from the Most High, who [saw] a vision from the Almighty,” was unaware that he had brought destruction upon himself and upon Midian until it was too late. Ironically, Moab escaped immediate judgment despite their complicity with Baal-Peor. Moab lived at peace with Israel for 300 years.

When Jesus talked with the Samaritan woman at the well, she asked him, “Sir, I can see that you are a prophet. Our fathers worshiped on this mountain, but you Jews claim that the place where we must worship is in Jerusalem.”[7] The mountain where the Samaritans worshipped was a high place. We know from Josephus that the temple the Samaritans built to Almighty God, they rededicated the “Temple of Jupiter Hellenius”.[8] They did this voluntarily because Antiochus Epiphane was persecuting Jews in Jerusalem. The Samaritan’s approach to worship was pagan; they worshipped whatever name was convenient. They worshipped on terms that they dictated. They decided how they would define God. They were Universalists of their era, thinking that every name of every God was equivalent. Jesus told the woman at the well,

Believe me, woman, a time is coming when you will worship the Father neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem. You Samaritans worship what you do not know; we worship what we do know, for salvation is from the Jews. Yet a time is coming and has now come when the true worshipers will worship the Father in spirit and truth, for they are the kind of worshipers the Father seeks. God is spirit, and his worshipers must worship in spirit and in truth.[9]

To the Samaritans, if worshipping Almighty God led to persecution by Antiochus, they would simply worship another god-name that did not offend Antiochus. Their name for God notwithstanding, their worship was always pagan. Even when they sacrificed to Almighty God, they did so as pagans. They were pagan because it focused upon giving to get. God was a means to an end. Personal peace and prosperity was valued above all. They would not suffer for the name of God.

Likewise, Balaam’s practices were pagan. He offered sacrifices to God with the expectation that he would benefit. God’s will meant nothing to Balaam unless it aligned with Balaam’s will. Balaam sacrificed burnt offerings to bribe God. He did not honestly seek God’s will; rather he tried to change God’s mind.

The sacrifices of the patriarchs of Israel were different. Abraham ordered his servant to kill a fatted calf because the Lord appeared to Abraham at Mamre. Abraham did not to conjure an appearance of God. God appeared to Abraham because he had chosen Abraham. Abraham tithed to Melchizedek because God had prospered Abraham in battle. Abraham did not visit Melchizedek to seek an omen before pursing the kings of Shinar; he praised God with Melchizedek afterwards. Likewise, Gideon sacrificed a kid goat because the Lord appeared to him Ophrah. Elisha sacrificed his oxen after Elijah called him to follow as his servant. Great examples of faith from the Old Testament responded to what God had said or done. Nowhere in the Old Testament Law does it prescribe an offering for conjuring a spirit or seeking an omen. Nevertheless, that is exactly what Balaam did.

Balaam trivialized God even though he “[heard] the words of God . . . [had] knowledge from the Most High, [and saw] a vision from the Almighty.” He thought that God could be out-maneuvered. He gave to God to get from God. When God did not provide what Balaam sought, Balaam contrived a solution, a work-around. Balaam prioritized his own wealth over God’s purpose. He used Moab and Midian to deceive Israel to abandon God in favor of a give-to-get paganism. By serving their innate sensuality in pagan ritual, Israel actually served demons (Deuteronomy 32:17, 1 Corinthians 10:20). Balaam was a pagan evangelist.

Although Balaam was a prophet with knowledge of God, his approach to God was still pagan. Balaam thereby serves as a warning to us. Paganism gives to get. It labors for love. It fondles for favor. It assumes that deity can be cajoled or manipulated. The object of pagan worship is usually a false god, but it might also be a false understanding of God. It does not matter that we get God's name right, if we attribute to him qualities that are false.

In Acts 17, Paul realized that the Athenians worshipped Almighty God in a pagan way. They erected a monument to the “UNKNOWN GOD”. Paul told them not to worship God in that manner. He said, “[God] is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything, because he himself gives all men life and breath and everything else.”[10] Paul preached the truth to the Athenians regarding the God they worshipped in ignorance.

Paul also warned the Galatian believers who were being tempted by a ritualistic approach to God, saying, “Do not be deceived, God is not mocked; for whatever a man sows, this he will also reap.”[11] We cannot approach God on our terms. We cannot worship God as we want him to be. Our worship cannot gratify our flesh. We must worship God in spirit and in truth.

Even though God used Balaam to pronounce blessings on Israel, God did not bless Balaam. Though Balaam knew God, Balaam was faithless. Though Balaam’s eye saw clearly that which God revealed to him, he failed to see the character of God. Balaam was pagan even though he was a prophet of Almighty God. Moreover, Balaam “loved the wages of wickedness” and God destroyed him by the hand of those whom Balaam had tried to destroy.

Looking at Balaam, we should examine our approach to God. Do we give to get? Do we think that we can manipulate God with our piety and for our benefit? Do we presume that God needs us? Do we worship God for what we want him to be instead of who he says he is? These attitudes indicate a pagan approach to God. Let us instead worship God in spirit and in truth. We worship in spirit by laying aside the trappings of religion which are material and ritualistic, and we worship in truth by learning who God really is and acknowledging what he has done. Worshipping in spirit and truth means living in the relationship that we have with God through Christ.

If our confidence is in what we do, or in what we have done, then we are no better off than the Samaritans who worshipped in the high places. They sometimes worshipped the right God-name, but they always worshipped the wrong way. They did not care whether their worship was acceptable to God Almighty, but only whether it was acceptable to men. If we think that our prayers and actions will convince the Almighty to do our bidding, then are we not acting as Balaam did? Is this not putting our confidence in ourselves? If we have confidence in our ability to please God through our efforts, then we are pagans, and our confidence is in vain.

If, on the other hand, our confidence rests wholy upon what God has done for us, if we respond to him because he has already lavished his love upon us, then how can we be shaken? If we love him because he first loved us, then we are blessed.

[1] This discussion is taken from Kingdom in Context, a little weekly Bible study in which I take part.
[2] Numbers 21:38 (NASB)
[3] Numbers 23:4 (NIV)
[4] Numbers 24:10 (NIV)
[5] Numbers 24:13 (NASB)
[6] Numbers 25:17-18 (NASB)
[7] John 4:19, 20 (NIV)
[8] Antiquities of the Jews, Flavius Josephus, Book VII, Chapter 5
[9] John 4:21-24 (NIV)
[10] Acts 17:25 (NIV)
[11] Galatians 6:7 (NASB)

Thursday, May 29, 2008

Whose eye sees clearly (part one)

by John D Ramsey

From Kingdom in Context [1] Click here for part two of two

If you could hear the words of God, if you had knowledge of God and his purposes, and if you could see God, how differently would you live? Numbers 22 introduces us to one of the most bizarre characters of the Old Testament. Balaam was a prophet, “who [heard] the words of God, who [had] knowledge from the Most High, who [saw] a vision from the Almighty[2] Nevertheless, Balaam died and ignoble death because as Peter says, he “loved the wages of wickedness.”[3]

Before Israel entered into the Promised Land, they lingered near the land of Moab northwest of the Dead Sea along the Jordan River. This area at one time had belonged to Moab, but the Amorites had wrested control of it. When Israel approached this area, they had sent messengers to Sihon, the king of the Amorites asking permission to pass through his land. He denied them. Previously when Israel had been denied permission to pass through a land, they walked the long way around. Sihon not only denied them access, he sent his army out to destroy them. Israel fought back, defeated the Amorites, and took possession of their land.

In Numbers 21:29, Israel chided Moab, because the land north of the Arnon, which Moab lost to the Amorites, Israel had captured easily. If Moab was too weak to defend themselves against the Amorites, then they were no match for Israel. Og, the king of Bashon, also sent his army against Israel. His kingdom was not in Israel’s path, but he fought against them and they destroyed him and took possession of his land, as well.

Israel had already passed by Moab, but Balak the king of Moab was afraid. He sent for Balaam who lived far north of Moab on the Euphrates River in what is now Syria. Balaam was a prophet of God. Although Moab worshipped a deity they called Chemosh, Balak sent for Balaam because whom Balaam blessed was blessed, and whom Balaam cursed was cursed. God’s reputation through Balaam was powerful; consequently, Balak overlooked the local deities. In Israel’s chide against Moab, they also ridiculed the god Chemosh, saying, “He has given his sons as fugitives and his daughters into captivity.”[4] Balak knew his gods were powerless against Israel so he sought aid from the Almighty.

When Balak first sent representatives to Balaam, Balaam told them a partial truth. God had told Balaam two things: “Do not go with them” and “you shall not curse the people, for they are blessed.” Balaam told Balaks representatives, “Go back to your land, for the LORD has refused to let me go with you.”[5] This was true, but Balaam withheld the most important piece of information: Israel was blessed.

When Balak persisted in his request, Balaam inquired of God again, and God let Balaam go with the men. God warned Balaam that he must speak only the words God gave to him. God permitted Balaam to go, but he was angry with Balaam for asking. God sent his angel to stand in the path. Balaam's donkey balked, and Balaam abused her. Balaam was more stubborn than the beast. Balaam was in such a rage that when the donkey began speaking to him, he argued back. Finally, when God opened Balaam’s eyes and he saw the angel with a sword ready to strike him dead, Balaam confessed that he had sinned. Balaam still sought permission to continue on his journey and God let him go, warning him to speak only the words that God would give him.

Why would God be angry with Balaam? Balaam had sought the Lord’s permission before starting his journey. While Balaam knew that he could do only what God permitted, Balaam did not want what God wanted. Balaam wanted to please the princes of Moab for his own gain. Balaam represented God for profit. Later in 2 Kings 5, when Elisha’s servant, Gehazi, tried to profit from God's miracle, he was stricken with leprosy. Balaam was no Elisha. Elisha was concerned with God’s reputation. Balaam was concerned only with himself.

Why would God let Balaam proceed after blocking his way using an angel with a drawn sword? God was making it clear to him that Balaam was serving his own interests and not God’s. Balaam failed to want what God wanted; instead, he persisted in using his knowledge of God for his personal gain. Although the angel did not strike Balaam with the sword, Balaam eventually died by the sword. In Balaam's third oracle he describes himself as one "whose eye sees clearly" yet Balaam failed to see the long-term consequences of his actions.

Balaam had a distinct advantage over most men in history. God met with Balaam in visions. Balaam knew the power of God referring to him as the “Almighty”, yet Balaam loved the wages of wickedness and betrayal. How do we handle our knowledge of God? Believing that God exists is not enough. James tells us, “You believe that there is one God. Good! Even the demons believe that—and shudder.”[6]

Balaam’s first oracle regarding Israel ends saying, “Let me die the death of the upright, and let my end be like his!”[7] Balaam’s own words prophesied the gift of God, yet he chose the wages of sin rather than the gift of eternal life. Balaam had knowledge, but he lacked faith. Jesus said, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”[8] Balaam knew God, and although he prophesied the words of God, he did not do the will of God. When we read about Balaam, we should examine our own relationship with the Almighty. Do we serve as Elisha did, or do we seek to be served as did Balaam.

[1] This discussion is taken from Kingdom in Context, a little weekly Bible study in which I take part.
[2] Numbers 24:16 (NIV)
[3] 2 Peter 2:15 (NIV)
[4] Numbers 21:29 (NIV)
[5] Numbers 22:12-13 (NASB)
[6] James 2:19 (NIV)
[7] Numbers 23:10 (NASB)
[8] Matthew 7:21 (NIV)

Tuesday, May 27, 2008

KJOS video

KJOS Video, that is King James or Shakespeare.

Watch the following clips and see if you know which quotations are taken from the Bible (King James Version) and which were penned by William Shakespeare:

"Lord, how mine eyes throw gazes to the east,
my heart doth charge the watch, the morning rise."

"Stay me with flagons,
comfort me with apples,
for I am sick of love."

"A naughty person, a wicked man,
walketh with a froward mouth.
He winketh with his eyes;
he speaketh with his feet;
he teacheth with his fingers."

"Well, God give them wisdom that have it,
and those who are fools,
let them use their talents."

Sunday, May 25, 2008


by John D Ramsey

When I send my love to Cara, I send her mother.

When Cara went away to college in Chestertown, Maryland, all six of us took her. Since then, she has come home over summer vacations, Christmas holidays, and some spring breaks, but Lisa has made most of the trips away from home to see Cara. Together they conquered Annapolis, Baltimore, and New York. One year Lisa even flew to San Francisco to meet Cara at a conference where Cara was presenting. They have great stories of their time together, which I cannot retell. Suffice to say, when Cara needed comfort or support from home, I sent Lisa.

I had my opportunities to be with Cara. I flew out one year, helped Cara store her things at a friend’s house, and drove her home. We watched a thunderstorm pass by from a mountaintop in West Virginia. I drove her out the following August and flew home. Once we arrived in Chestertown, Cara was busy with her friends. I watched the tide roll in along the Chester River. The conflicting currents actually formed a wall of water until the tide won out.

When Cara finished a summer internship in Galveston, Claire and I flew to Dallas where Cara met us. Claire and I toured the Dallas World Aquarium while we waited for Cara to arrive. I then drove Cara’s Saturn back to Kansas City. Both girls slept most of the way home.

On balance, I would say that I made the utilitarian trips while Lisa made the fun and poignant trips. Lisa can reverse Cara’s stress within minutes of landing. No one pretends that I reduce Cara's stress.

Cara is now living in Galveston and working as a researcher in Houston, Texas. A couple weeks ago Lisa, the little girls, and Lisa’s parents went to see Cara for an extended weekend. I stayed at home partly because of work and partly because of seating capacity in the Toyota versus the cost premium driving the Explorer. The original idea was for Lisa to fly to Texas. On the same budget, Lisa, her parents, and the little girls could drive. Cara and Lisa both needed that trip. It was mine to give, but not mine to have. While they were there, they toured the aquarium at Moody Gardens. Cara made sure that Gabby got a close up look at her beloved penguins. They built memories that they can share all their lives.

Cara and Lisa have shared memories of Annapolis, Baltimore, New York, San Francisco, and now Galveston that I do not have. I have memories with Cara that I hold precious. On Cara’s nineteenth birthday, I took her to see Madame Butterfly at the State Theater in Minneapolis. It had been years since I had been to an opera. It was Cara’s first opera. We both cried.

Then there were simple pleasures. Cara attended Metro State in St. Paul for a semester before transferring to Washington College in Maryland. We carpooled. She spent her mornings and afternoons in the library, and I spent my evenings at the office working late until she finished classes. We had many little conversations along the way. I suggested that she would learn her biology vocabulary better if she studied the etymology of each word. She told me that my suggestion helped. I would like to think that she enjoyed our time in the car; I know I did.

During Cara’s first semester in Washington College, she called me with a crisis. "How do you make nostoc float?" Dr. Ford had assigned an experiment promising an A to the first student who solved the problem. Nostoc (cyanobacteria), commonly called blue-green algae, apparently floats in the wild, but sinks in Dr. Ford’s lab. Dr. Ford wanted to know how to make it float. I googled “nostoc”. I learned that researchers had observed the cyanobacteria floating in ice ponds during Antarctic summers. I told Cara to freeze the nostoc in water until the ice felt dry. When the water thaws, I told her, the nostoc will float. I figured that as the water froze, the air dissolved in it would turn into tiny bubbles. The fibrous slime of the nostoc would trap the air bubbles when the water thawed; the trapped air would float the nostoc. Cara froze it. She thawed it. It floated. Dr. Ford gave her the A. I felt so smart.

Thereafter Cara’s coursework became too difficult for me to be of help to her until she was finishing her senior capstone thesis project. After hundreds of hours of observation and data collection, she had more data points than she could import into Excel. She tried to work with the raw data row by row, but that was daunting. After she called me with her problem, I spent a couple hours writing a little c-sharp application that imported her data into a SQLExpress database. It aggregated the results based upon her analytical requirements, and exported them into Excel where Cara could work with them further.

Cara titled her thesis, Effects of Juvenile Cognitive Training on Adult Behavioral Patterns in Repeated Variable Prenatal Stress Rat Model of Schizophrenia (at least that is the working title of the draft I have). Her work won the Senior Capstone Experience Award from the psychology department, and the following autumn she presented it at Society for Neuroscience (SfN) in San Diego. She wrote in her acknowledgments, “I would like to thank . . . John Ramsey & Amy Linthicum for their help with statistical analysis.” I am sure that Amy did more to help than I did, but Cara was gracious to let her dad feel smart once again.

Some dads may send their daughters cards and flowers. I send Cara articles related to neuroscience just to let her know that I think about her and that I support her interests. Recently I sent Cara a link to an article in the Wall Street Journal titled, “The Neuroscience of Retailing, Research Shows Shopping Can Make People Euphoric.” Two days later Cara went shopping. Lisa tells me that she bought two outfits and a pair of shoes. I was glad that Cara took my subtle advice to relax a bit from her stresses. She is frugal, too.

Since Cara moved away, what she has needed from me I have been able to provide largely via email, text-message, or voice. When she has needed a hug or just a friend with whom to discover a new city, I have sent Lisa. Nevertheless, there was one moment a year ago in Chestertown that Lisa did not see, but that I will remember forever.

After Cara’s graduation, we all helped empty her room. Cara said extended goodbyes to her friends, and then we drove to the Chester River. Lisa, Daniel, the little girls, and Lisa’s parents left to buy gas across the bridge, but Cara and I remained on the bank for a few minutes. Cara stood with her chin up and her eyes absorbing the view. She smelled the air. There were tears in her eyes. She panned the scenery from the bridge, to the houses on the far bank, to the boats and crab nets on the water. She had battled four years to leave this place on her terms, and she had won. It was time to go. Now, though she knew she would return, she also knew that it would never be the same. She stood still, taking a moment to memorize Chestertown. Everyone else had gone ahead; just the two of us remained.

I could hear cellos. Their long slow strings sang:

The water is wide I can’t cross over.
Nor do I have wings to fly.
Build me a boat that can carry two,
And both shall row, my love and I.

The soundtrack faded. Cara again took a deep breath, turned to me, and said, “Okay, let’s go.”

Cara has been an adult for a number of years, probably since she was fourteen or fifteen. For a father, it is sometimes difficult to know what his first baby girl needs. Gabby needs a hug and kiss before I leave for work in the morning. She runs to see me when she hears the garage door open or the Explorer start. Claire needs a kind conversation when I get home. She sometimes waits for me in the hallway to be the first one to see me. Both little girls need my time. They need my praise. They need me to be part of their daily lives.

Cara needs to know that I am just close enough, but not too close. She needs to know that she can call me, text me, or email me. I cannot be a wellspring of knowledge for her anymore. She surpasses me there, nostoc notwithstanding. Though my knowledge depreciates, I hope that I cans still provide her with the treasure of wisdom and the comfort of love.

Cara does not talk to me as often as I wish. Nor does she text message me, or email me as frequently as I like. Nonetheless, Cara knows that she holds her father’s very heart each time she has her mother's ear. Age and distance will not change that.

Friday, May 23, 2008

Ora et labora

by John D Ramsey

A couple years ago, after I had begun writing For Your Names’ Sake, I was explaining to Claire the meaning of her name. Claire means “bright” or “shining one”. Maddison means “warrior”. Claire paused to absorb that for a minute and then asked, “What does Ramsey mean?” I explained to her that Ramsey was a surname. She asked again, “But what does it mean?” I told her that the Ramseys originally had come from Scotland, but that our family had been in the United States for a long time. She was not satisfied, “What does it mean?”

The only Ramseys I know hail from Jamesport, Missouri. I am told that we came by way of Virginia sometime in the nineteenth century. Whatever our connection to the Isle, it was lost to the wind many years ago. We are not much of a clan. In six generations there has been only one male heir in this branch of the Ramseys. Half of those are still living: my father, my son, and me. We are not many, nor are we very Scottish. We do not wear kilts, drink Scotch whiskey, or play bagpipes. I do remember walking across the Capitol Mall in St. Paul while the pipers were practicing. It was a wonderful sound. Still, the sound of bagpipes does not awaken any ancient memory within my soul.

Scotland casts an invisible shadow upon me now. I do not see the influence of my Norman or Celtic ancestors in my daily life. I am who I am without pride or shame of whence I have come, but my contentment did not extinguish Claire's curiosity.

We sat down with Google to learn the history of the Ramseys. As we read about the clan, so removed from us by space and time, suddenly something looked familiar, Ora et Labora. I double-checked with an online Latin to English translator, and immediately I realized: I know what “Ramsey” means. Ora et Labora describes my father perfectly. Three thousand words could not describe him better than this simple Latin phrase which means “Pray and work.” English translations of Ora et Labora might read, “work and pray”. They do this because it sounds better to end a phrase with an open-mouth vowel than to end it with a guttural consonant; nevertheless, “pray and work” best describes my dad.

I showed Claire the Ramsey crest and told her, “Ramsey means ‘pray and work.’”

With or without the Latin, my dad prays and works. He is retired now. He has been retired for over a decade, but he is not idle. Retirement means that Social Security pays Dad a little bit to do the work he would be doing anyway. He preaches every Sunday morning at Mount Pleasant Baptist Church between Trenton and Bethany, Missouri. On Sunday evening, he teaches at Olive Baptist Church down the road from Mom and Dad's house. On Monday morning, he meets with area pastors for a prayer breakfast. They pray together and then he teaches them. On Wednesday evening, Mom and Dad are back at Olive for prayer meeting.

Dad does not wait for meetings to pray. He maintains a list of prayer requests on his laptop and synchronizes it to his Palm TX. He carries the Palm with him nearly everywhere. His Palm has Bible software installed, too. When Dad is not praying, or studying, or teaching, he is mowing, cooking, or cleaning. Dad has also recently begun shuttling his Amish neighbors on trips too distant for horse and buggy. They repay him generously in a neighborly fashion. When Dad is waiting for his neighbor at the doctor’s office or chiropractic clinic, he takes out his Palm TX and opens his prayer request list. He prays for people in the local churches in which he serves. He prays for his children and his grandchildren. If he finishes praying, he reads the Bible until it occurs to him to pray again.

When the Ramseys from several hundred years ago encapsulated their most valued character qualities into the simple phrase, Ora et Labora, they must have been thinking forward to my Dad. Surely, even if they were not thinking of Dad, they still wanted future generations to know what it meant to be a Ramsey. Their world became a better place when they did two things: pray and work. Ora et Labora was a blessing they handed down through the generations. Among my clan it resonates louder than bagpipes.

Claire Maddison Ramsey, take a moment to reflect upon the blessing of your name. You are a bright and shining warrior in prayer and work.

Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Spring up, o well

by John D Ramsey

Kingdom in Context:[1]

When God led Israel out of Egypt, he did not take them immediately to the Promised Land. He led them into Sinai, a desert place, to sanctify them to be his own people. Nevertheless, Israel failed because of unbelief, and they wandered another forty years until every adult who had come out of Egypt had died. That is, every adult except Joshua and Caleb. Joshua and Caleb stood firm in faith when the evil congregation doubted God. For their belief, God gave them inheritance in the land of promise; nevertheless, all other adults having come out of Egypt, died in the desert.

Moses and Aaron also died in Sinai because of unbelief. God told them, “Because you have not believed Me, to treat Me as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel, therefore you shall not bring this assembly into the land which I have given them.” (Numbers 20:12 NASB) Neither Moses nor Aaron were guilty of outright disbelief in God. God met with them at the doorway of the Tabernacle. They could not ignore his existence, yet they failed to trust God. Consequently, God prevented them from entering the land of promise. Numbers 20 records their sin:

There was no water for the congregation, and they assembled themselves against Moses and Aaron. The people thus contended with Moses and spoke, saying, “If only we had perished when our brothers perished before the LORD! “Why then have you brought the LORD'S assembly into this wilderness, for us and our beasts to die here? “Why have you made us come up from Egypt, to bring us in to this wretched place? It is not a place of grain or figs or vines or pomegranates, nor is there water to drink.”

Then Moses and Aaron came in from the presence of the assembly to the doorway of the tent of meeting and fell on their faces. Then the glory of the LORD appeared to them; and the LORD spoke to Moses, saying,

“Take the rod; and you and your brother Aaron assemble the congregation and speak to the rock before their eyes, that it may yield its water. You shall thus bring forth water for them out of the rock and let the congregation and their beasts drink.”

So Moses took the rod from before the LORD, just as He had commanded him; and Moses and Aaron gathered the assembly before the rock. And he said to them, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” Then Moses lifted up his hand and struck the rock twice with his rod; and water came forth abundantly, and the congregation and their beasts drank.
Numbers 20:2-11 (NASB)

If you are not familiar with this story, you might read Numbers 20 without seeing Moses’ sin; nevertheless, God told Moses to speak to the rock, but Moses struck it with his staff. This may seem to be a trivial infraction for which to lose the land of promise. Surely, there was nothing immoral about striking a rock with a staff. In Exodus 17, God provided water for Israel by commanding Moses to strike the rock. Yet when we look at Moses’ words we realize that Moses and Aaron were taking credit for God’s power, “Listen now, you rebels; shall we bring forth water for you out of this rock?” Moses believes that water will come out of the rock; nevertheless, the context indicates that Moses and Aaron thought that they were necessary to the process. Moses thought that he controlled God's power. By failing to fully acknowledge God and instead usurping his credit for his power, Moses and Aaron lost the Promised Land.

Israel wandered over forty years in the wilderness of Sinai, yet Scripture tells us of only five instances where God provided them water. Surely, God in his providence supplied them water on a daily basis, or they and their flocks would have never survived. Yet Scripture records five specific instances of God’s provision. Once God provided by sweetening the bitter waters of Marah. Twice God provided water flowing from a rock or geological formation. Twice God provided water by seemingly natural means. Exodus 15:27 records the first of these, and Numbers 21:16-18 records the second.

When we come to Numbers 21, Aaron has died. God directed Moses and Aaron’s son Eleazar to lead Aaron up onto Mount Hor. They climbed the mountain so that all of Israel could see. On the mountain, Moses strips Aaron of his priestly garments and transfers them to Eleazar; then Aaron dies. Aaron, as high priest, had stepped behind the veil and sprinkled the blood of the atoning sacrifice upon the Mercy Seat in the presence of God in his Holy Tabernacle. Yet Aaron dies for his unbelief within the sight of the entire nation, “Because [he did] not believe [God], to treat [him] as holy in the sight of the sons of Israel.”

Moses, who for nearly forty years had watched men of his generation pass away, now watches his brother die for a sin in which Moses shared. Perhaps Moses and Aaron usurped God's authority because they thought that Israel would show them a little respect. Although Israel now reveres Moses, they did not respect him in Sinai. Israel abused Moses when Arad attacked them and captured hostages. Moses still led the people to victory.

Israel complained about the lack of food and water, yet Moses interceded for them before God when they repented. Moses fashioned a bronze serpent upon which Israel had to gaze to receive healing for snakebites. God healed all those afflicted who looked upon the symbol of judgment. Moses led Israel from place to place despite their grumblings. When they came to a place called "The Well", God said, “Assemble the people, that I may give them water.” (Numbers 21:16 NASB) How did Israel respond? They sang a song:

Spring up, O well!
Sing to it!
The well, which the leaders sank,
Which the nobles of the people dug,
With the scepter and with their staffs.
Numbers 21:17, 18 (NASB)

Various translations treat this song differently. The Septuagint (LXX), which is an ancient Greek translation from the Hebrew, says roughly,

Take the lead to him, O Well;
Rulers dug it
Kings of nations quarried it;
In their kingdoms, in their dominating.

The LXX translators appear to disregard the figurative language in favor of the interpretive meaning. Nevertheless, most modern English translations attempt to preserve the imagery of the Hebrew. We reconcile the differences when we realize that the scepter represents a kingdom and the staffs represent authority or dominance. The LXX translators want us to know that the people were not singing to Moses. Moses was not a king; he did not have a kingdom. Israel was singing to a people and nation that had at one time dug a well in the desert.

Regardless of translation, we can look at this passage and ask, “Who gave Israel water?” Answer: God told Moses to assemble the people so that God could give them water. When God gave them water, whom did Israel praise? Answer: They praised the leaders, nobles, and kings of the people who had commanded workers to dig the well.

Israel did not see the hand of God in their provision. They saw ancient kings whose authority and command had ordered the well dug. In Israel’s mind, God was a last resort. They turned to God when there was no other hope, but they disregarded him when events were favorable, as if God had nothing to do with it.

Nevertheless, there is more than ignorance of God in their words. Moses had recently buried his brother Aaron because together they struck the rock with the staff instead of speaking to the rock as God commanded. Although Moses and Aaron disobeyed, water flowed from the rock. From Israel’s perspective, Moses and Aaron had provided the water at Meribah. They saw Moses strike the rock with his powerful staff.

Yet Israel was calloused to miraculous provision. They sang praises to a king of another nation who had provided water by a civil engineering project. They preferred engineering to the miraculous intervention of God. In their minds, civil engineering was easier to trust. Israel’s song appears to disparage Moses’ staff. Moses used his staff to strike a rock. The king used his staff to dig a well. Praise the king who planned ahead! Praise civil authority. Praise civil engineering! With the authority of a king commanding civil projects, God or Moses would not hold Israel hostage to faithfulness. With the right leadership, Israel could take care of itself. Israel seemed to be enthralled with the well, which the rulers dug, without wondering how it supplies water for millions of people and their livestock.

We learn two lessons from this story. The first is that we cannot usurp God’s glory. Isaiah 43:7 reminds us that God created us for his glory. Nevertheless, Romans 8:17 says that “we share in [Christ’s] sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.” Peter was confident that he would “share in the glory to be revealed” (1 Peter 5:1), yet Peter knew by which death he would die (John 21:18, 19). Christ will share his glory with his saints. That is a wonderful promise he has given to us, but it is nothing that we can usurp.

We learn also from this account that God is intimately involved in our daily lives whether or not we acknowledge him. The water Israel drank in the wilderness came from the hand of God whether he provided it miraculously or through natural means. Our blessings and trials both come from God’s hand. Had Israel seen God’s hand at work at the well, they would have sung a different song. They would have praised God their provider.

How do we view ourselves before God? Do we see ourselves as essential? Do we believe that God’s power is ours to control? If we think so, God will humble us as he did Moses and Aaron.

How do we see God’s hand in our daily lives? Is God our last resort? Do we run to God for triage when we get hurt, and then expect to continue in self-reliance once our situation is patched up? Do we expect that we live our lives outside God’s interest or intervention? If so, we need to look more closely at how God works. He works both through natural and supernatural means. We need not worry about giving God undue credit. All credit belongs to God; that is why Paul wrote to the church in Thessalonica saying, “In everything give thanks; for this is God's will for you in Christ Jesus.” Paul saw what Israel did not. Paul saw everything in his life as coming from the providence of God. So should we.

[1] This discussion is taken from Kingdom in Context, a little weekly Bible study in which I take part.

Monday, May 19, 2008

Is it tomorrow, yet?

This post excerpted from For Your Names' Sake,
Chapter 7 - Today:

by John D Ramsey

Claire is home-schooled, and the question about socializing with peers arises occasionally. I do not reply with a schedule of Claire’s social activities; regardless of how much time she spends with kids, she spends more time with adults. My answer to people is simply this; we spend most of our lives relating to adults (because we all grow up). What is more important, learning to relate to your childhood peers or learning to relate to adults? Likewise, our eternity will be infinitely longer than our lives on earth. Upon what should we be focusing? Where would we prefer to be comfortable, here or there?

When Daniel was a little guy, he was always fascinated by what was happening tomorrow. Consequently, he would always be asking, “Is it tomorrow, yet?” It puzzled him that the answer was always, “No, not yet.” Time still confuses us, but eventually we will not worry about time.

Hebrews 4 explains that God appointed a holy day for the children of Israel, the Sabbath day. It was a day during which they were to acknowledge their Creator. For us there is also an appointed day during which we, too, acknowledge our Creator. If we think that day is Sunday, then our odds of being correct are 14.29%. The writer of Hebrews says, “Therefore God again set a certain day, calling it Today, when a long time later he spoke through David, as was said before: ‘Today, if you hear his voice, do not harden your hearts.’”[1]

The writer of Hebrews also says, “Encourage one another daily, as long as it is called Today, so that none of you may be hardened by sin’s deceitfulness.”[2] No, Daniel, it is not tomorrow yet. Today is the day we have. Today is the day that God has appointed to us. Today matters. We look forward to Jesus return when we will enter eternity where there is no longer a today or tomorrow as we measure time; but Today is when we must respond.

Claire, when worrying about what might happen on Valentine’s Day, declared so very wisely, “Valentine’s is a day for giving something other than beef.” No one is sure what she meant, but her conviction was genuine. Likewise, Today is a day for living for something other than our selfish desires. Today is the day to acknowledge our Creator and Redeemer. Today is the day we die to self and live for him. Today is the day we encourage one another in him. Just as God commanded Israel to remember their Creator each Sabbath, so we, too, remember him Today.

[1] Hebrews 4:7 (NIV)
[2] Hebrews 3:13 (NIV)

Thursday, May 15, 2008

Tomtom, turn left

by John D Ramsey

When Cara and Daniel were little, I taught them to vector. By vector, I mean that when you have a general idea of where you are, and you have a good idea where you want to be, you then follow roads that appear to connect here with there. You do not wander aimlessly, but rather maintain the chosen course unless and until correction is required. We would drive out into the country and then I would follow the kids' directions home. This little game never got us too lost, but served as educational entertainment on weekend afternoons. If you try this with your children make certain you have a full tank of gas. Today as adult drivers, Cara and Daniel are proficient navigators. They might even out-vector me. I win by taking credit for their proficiency.

This skill is old school now, however. Recently we bought a Tomtom One 3rd Edition. Tomtom is a GPS navigation device that is smaller than a PDA. When I worked on GPS projects in the 1990’s, devices were big black boxes that needed to connect to computers and antennas were the size of softballs. It took two antennas to know where you were because GPS had Selective Availability (SA). The satellite signal that the device translated into location drifted in and out for national security reasons. For precision, you needed a reference to a Coast Guard beacon to know where you were. Coast Guard beacons made SA irrelevant over much of the US, and former President Clinton put SA to rest in year 2000. Now GPS devices do quite well tracking locations without the complexity.

As GPS devices go, Tomtom is a humble entry, but it is utilitarian. Lisa has played with the Tomtom more than I have. She programmed in our home address, my work address, the church address, and a bunch of other places to where we already know how to navigate.

Lisa explained to me that just because she knows where something is located does not mean that she always knows the shortest route. She does not always begin a trip from home, and Tomtom is a navigation helper. When a destination is set, Tomtom dutifully will tell us in an audible voice each turn to take. Consequently, I turn the sound off, and usually just glance at the screen for information. Nevertheless, I have used Tomtom a little bit just to see if it can be trusted.

Tomtom has its quirks, some of which I find intriguing. For instance, when I am driving to the office, Tomtom wants me to turn right when I actually need to turn left. Tomtom, the company, is located in Amsterdam, Netherlands. I understand that Europeans have an aversion to work. Perhaps engineers train Tomtom to assume that Americans on their way to the office would also rather turn right than left. Once I turn left, however, Tomtom adapts and guides me to the office, even though we argue again about what exit to take. Still I wonder why Tomtom tells me to turn right instead of left on my way to church. I am certain that Europeans do not have an aversion to church considering all the religious holidays they celebrate by taking days off work.

Last Saturday we put Tomtom to the test, or vice versa. Claire wants to go to summer camp this year. Lisa feels trepidation about sending Claire to a camp with strangers. Lisa and her family have old friends, Bill and Carol, who operate Life Change Camp and Retreat Center about an hour and a half from our house. I have met Bill and Carol before, but it has been several years since either Lisa or I have seen them. Carol remembers seeing Claire as a toddler, but neither Bill nor Carol had ever met Gabby. We arranged to drive down on Saturday to see the camp first person, and reacquaint with Bill and Carol. What I remember hearing about Bill and Carol over several years is that they wanted to start a camping ministry. I do not recall for how long I had known of their dream, but I know it was many years in coming. I was glad for them and eager to see the camp.

Lisa programmed the camp’s address into Tomtom and brought printed directions, too. Lisa and I had a lot to talk about on the way down, so after a brief disagreement with Tomtom, I relented and decided to let Tomtom navigate. I did not pay attention to where I was, or how long I had been on a highway, or what landmarks appeared to be important. I would just glance occasionally at Tomtom to see that I was heading in the right direction. Lisa and I visited about important things from the week before and important things in the weeks ahead. It was a lovely beginning of a road trip.

Tomtom told me to take the first exit near our destination. I did. Tomtom took us down a highway for several miles. I did not even think about it. Tomtom told me to turn on a gravel road, and I realized that I had missed the turn that Tomtom had preferred. I turned on gravel and Tomtom navigated me back to blacktop. Lisa reached up and turned the sound back on.

Tomtom told me to follow the blacktop and I did. The blacktop ended and Tomtom told me to forge ahead. I checked Tomtom’s screen a little more carefully. It said that we had just a few miles to our destination. I drove on. Tomtom told me, “At the end of the road, turn left, then right.” I turned left, then right.

The road became narrower and the trees alongside the road became thicker. The tree branches hung down lower, but Tomtom kept pointing straight ahead. We were in a tunnel of tree branches on a narrow roadbed, and I began to wonder if buses ever came to Life Change Camp. Finally, there was a clearing in the trees and it revealed the truth. A sign read, “Road Closed, Flood Area.” Ahead of us was an old iron bridge. The road leading to the bridge looked muddy but passable. I glanced at Tomtom and saw that we were about two miles from Bill and Carol’s.

I drove slowly toward the bridge, paying close attention to the firmness of the road. It had been recently flooded, but it seemed firm. On the edges of the road, I could see tire tracks where adventurers had become stuck, so I stayed to the middle. I was watching the roadbed so intently that I had nearly come to the bridge before I noticed the concrete barricade. There was no passing this way. A closer look revealed a full creek barely below flood stage. This was no place to be driving.

I asked Tomtom to set a roadblock and Tomtom refused me. I turned around carefully making a three-point turn into five or six to keep my tires on dry ground. I began driving back the way I came and Tomtom kept telling me to make a U-turn when possible. No thanks, Tomtom.

It was time to vector. I came to an intersection where a right turn looked promising. I turned and immediately Tomtom was happy. We drove along following Tomtom’s advice until I realized that Tomtom was vectoring me back to the barricaded iron bridge. Sneaky Tomtom! I turned around and Tomtom immediately began to complain again.

We navigated back to the highway, and drove into town and filled the tank with gas. From the convenience store, Tomtom was confident it knew how to get to Life Change Camp. Tomtom’s optimism correlated with Lisa’s written instructions, so we decided to give Tomtom one more chance. As we were driving down the highway Tomtom announced, “In 700 yards, turn left.” I looked for an intersection but did not see one until Tomtom spoke again, “Turn left.” I braked hard and turned onto a gravel lane. Tomtom was happy directing us onward. I slowed down so that Claire could see a snapping turtle trying to cross the road.

As we drove the road narrowed. I told Lisa, “This doesn’t look very promising.” She asked for the name of the street. Of course, I did not know. I turned because Tomtom told me to. As the road deteriorated, I saw a culvert in front of us. I could tell that the road dropped off sharply on the other side and I slowed down to avoid becoming airborne.

As we drove over the hump, the nose of the Explorer pitched down and the girls in their seats bounced up. They cackled; what a thrill! We drove on until the road narrowed again. We could see in front of us that the road was flooded. There were no barricades at the end of this lane; just lots of water. We turned around again, and Tomtom objected. Now we approached the culvert from the opposite direction. It was like climbing a wall. I had to accelerate to make it over. The nose of the Explorer lifted skyward and then fell earthward again. The little girls howled with pleasure. As we approached the highway, we slowed down so that Claire could check the snapping turtle’s progress crossing the road. He had managed to move about 3 yards since we had passed the first time. Why was he crossing the road? I do not think he had much of a reason. The water was at the end of the lane.

We drove back to the highway, and Lisa now held the driving instructions in her hand. When I turned left, Tomtom recalculated the route, and this time (in response to competition) provided accurate directions to the camp. The roads leading to the camp were gravel, but well traveled. Little signs at each intersection signified the appropriate turns. Finally, we saw the large wooden sign by a gravel lane. Tomtom said, “Turn left.” We turned left. Tomtom said, “After 300 yards you have reached your destination.”

Tomtom was right. We had.

Life Change Camp was a lovely place. We walked from the lodge to the cabins and back again before thunderstorms pushed through. We sat with Bill and Carol on a screened in porch while the rain poured down. Gabby cozied to Carol on a swing. Her mom’s friend is her friend. Hummingbirds darted in and out of the rain to feed under the eaves.

Carol told Lisa that she and Bill do not take a salary from the camp. They have what they need living and working on site, but all the gifts that the camp receives goes into the essentials of building and maintaining the camp and ministering to people. Bill talked about how several churches came together to build the cabins over a weekend. He shared how they had started with practically nothing five years ago, but now they had a beautiful facility that can house 96 campers plus staff in the summer. They will build new cabins and a lodge sometime in the future. Lisa asked Bill what the theme the children’s camp would be. He answered, “Salvation by grace.” There is nothing else as important. Nothing else signals life change so strongly. Lisa asked Bill what they needed most from other people. Bill could have recited a laundry list of chores and projects that were waiting for drier weather, but he answered, “Prayer.”

I remembered that Bill and Carol’s life together has always illustrated two principles: faith and service. They trust God for their provision, and they use the blessings he pours out to pour out blessings to others.

In a sense, Bill and Carol navigate their lives by vectoring. They have a good idea where they are, and they have a firm knowledge of where they are going. They do not always know what lies between. Prayerfully they move on. Faith and sacrifice guide their choices because other routes lead to dead ends. It occurs to me that God calls us all to do the same: trust him, and share his love with others. Bill and Carol exhibit this lifestyle with kindness and commitment.

Lisa will take Claire to camp at Life Change for a week sometime this summer. They will not need Tomtom to guide them there. Nevertheless, I anticipate that Bill and Carol’s example of Christian faith and service will serve as a beacon to Claire, as it should to all of us.

Tuesday, May 13, 2008

They saw us waving

by John D Ramsey

Last summer the International Space Station (ISS) flew over our house with Space Shuttle Atlantis following close behind. Atlantis had undocked and was preparing for return to earth within a day or two. It was evening after sunset, but the western sky was not dark. The ISS appeared north-northwest from Raymore as if it were coming from Kansas City, Missouri. It was on time and it appeared exactly where NASA said that it would. I had herded the girls into the front yard. Cara was living at home for a few weeks after graduating from college. She did not know what to expect except that the neighbors would think we were crazy. Nevertheless, Lisa and Cara indulged me out of kindness, but the little girls seemed to be genuinely interested in seeing spaceships.

The reflected light from the ISS moved directly toward us for several seconds before the light from Atlantis also became visible. The two spacecraft moved silently through the sky growing gradually larger, brighter, and faster as they approached. The girls watched intently as the ISS and shuttle drew near. Gabby and Claire began to wave energetically at the light in the sky, but Cara began to chuckle at Gabby and Claire. As the ISS flew directly overhead, it caught a ray of sunshine and flashed brilliance against the darkening sky. Gabby exclaimed, “They saw us waving, and they turned their lights on!” The two craft flew around the ash tree by the driveway and over the garage roof. The little girls dashed into the backyard to watch the ISS and the Atlantis disappear into the night.

I am impressed with rocket scientists and especially their project managers. It is amazing that they can build, launch, and retrieve spacecraft and preserve the life onboard. I was enthralled with the spectacular view of the ISS from my front yard. I am glad that the dazzling lights captivated Gabby’s imagination. Nevertheless, neither the ISS nor the Space Shuttle is the most spectacular object in the summer-night sky. In fact, the ISS is amazing to me primarily because it is manmade.

The moon orbits the earth every 29½ days. It rotates as it revolves keeping its dark side hidden from Earth’s view. It reflects the sunlight in a cycle that signals to some the arrival of seasons. As it orbits the earth, it pulls the ocean tides in concert with the sun. The gravitational attractions of earth, moon, and sun comprise a machine that helps keep the ocean currents flowing. Along with the sun’s heat, the ocean currents also influence the earth’s winds bringing both rain and clear skies in season.

While we are enthralled on summer nights by manmade satellites sailing silently in space, they are less amazing than the moon which is visible nearly every day. The ISS will help men learn about the earth it floats above, but life on earth is not directly dependent upon its orbiting on a schedule. Nevertheless, the sky follows an intricate if unfathomable schedule that directly contributes to life on earth.

When Daniel was a little guy, we camped near a pond along with my brother-in-law, Steve. Mars hung out over the water low on the horizon. It appeared to be so close that you could almost see its spherical shape with the naked eye. The next time Mars and Earth were in perihelic opposition was the week that we took Cara to college. Lisa and I walked the beach on Assateague Island and saw Mars hanging in the Atlantic mist. It appeared to be not too far out nor too high up, but rather just beyond breaking waves and over the open water. When I saw Mars at its brightest from the beach at Assateague, I remembered that sixteen years had passed since I had seen it with Daniel as it hovered over Uncle Paul’s pond. Gabby will be a teenager before we see Mars nearly so close again. Earth has never observed a closer approach to Mars as in 2003. It was sublime and it was fleeting, none of us will see it quite the same way in our lifetimes.

While the earth repeats a daily pattern of night and day, and the moon repeats its cycle from new to full, the planets and other celestial objects follow their choreography in such a way that no night sky is exactly like another. We might confuse the heavens’ complexity with randomness, yet each object follows its course with precision. In each day’s concert, together they play subtle variations of their repertoire.

The sky is an orchestration of infinite design and complexity in which man, by virtue of rocket science, now plays a cowbell. When we glimpse spacecraft sailing above the margin of night and day we exult, “Look, there is the Space Shuttle!” or “Wow, see the ISS?” In comparison with the beauty of space, it is like saying, “More cowbell!” We want more cowbell because men like us play cowbells. We cannot understand, let alone control, all the physics of the sun, moon, planets, and stars; however, some brilliant among us can play cowbell: “More cowbell!” That is all right; it takes a lot of human skill and effort to play cowbell in the symphony of the sky.

Man’s conquest of space declares his glory, but Psalm 19 begins by saying,

The heavens declare the glory of God;
the skies proclaim the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour forth speech;
night after night they display knowledge.
There is no speech or language
where their voice is not heard.
Their voice goes out into all the earth,
their words to the ends of the world.
Psalm 19:1-4a (NIV)

Man pushes into space in pursuit of scientific knowledge, preferably useful information; yet Psalm 19 says that the purpose of the heavens is to reveal the magnificence of God. Observing the heavens without acknowledging God is like attending a symphony and ignoring the music but rather concentrating merely on the shape of the instruments. Likewise, when we observe man’s creations we should exult not only in man, but also in the God who made us all in his image. When we view the heavens, we should hear the symphony that proclaims to us the glory of God, and we should respond. Psalm 19 concludes,

May the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
my Rock and my Redeemer.
Psalm 19:14 (NIV)

The God who created the heavens and choreographed the celestial courses is also aware of the words of our mouths and the meditations of our hearts. Either they please him, or they do not.

When Gabby saw the ISS move from partial shadow into the full illumination of the sun, she said, “They saw us waving, and they turned their lights on!” I did not tell Gabby that she imagined fiction. Nevertheless, all the lights of the heavens shine for our benefit. They were not turned on in response to our waving, but rather so that we could see the magnificent glory of the Creator. Man is not waiting on God to reveal himself; the heavens declare his glory and “the skies proclaim the work of his hands . . . There is no speech or language where their voice is not heard.” Will we thus acknowledge him?

More important than merely acknowledging God, is our relationship to him. David addresses him, “O LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer.” When we acknowledge God, we should ask him, “Are you my LORD? Are you my Rock? Are you my Redeemer?” Then we should say, “Be my LORD. Be my Rock. Be my Redeemer.” God illuminated the host of heaven to draw our attention to him. God is now watching from heaven awaiting our response. He turned his lights on; will he now see us waving?

Sunday, May 11, 2008

Granny's song

by John D Ramsey

Today is the second anniversary of Granny Annie’s death. She was old. She had Alzheimer’s disease. She was tired. She died on Mother’s Day.

Anna Edwards was born in 1910 in a log cabin in the Ozarks. When she was about three-years old, she traveled with her family to Orrick, Missouri by covered wagon. These were the years before World War I, before automobiles were necessities. They were not exactly Pony Express days, but for folks in poverty they might as well have been.

Anna married young and lived with her husband, Jess Colley, and his orphaned brothers on an apple orchard. Her story was not quite like Wendy among the Lost Boys. No, she did not civilize them; instead, Jess gave her a rifle for her birthday and she learned to shoot, skin, clean, and cook things that I would only shoot. Anna was a good shot, although not always a successful huntress. Family legend has it that soon after receiving the rifle she saw a critter skulking around by the outhouse. She killed it with a single shot; only then did Anna discover that the critter was the family's cat.

Anna and Jess raised three children, and Anna buried Jess when he was 45. She married Reuben McKim a few years later and buried him in 1980. Soon after, she moved to North Dakota to be near her youngest grandchildren. The complaint I heard was that she could not buy grits in North Dakota, so I sent her some. Granny liked grits for breakfast, but she was a completely capable cook nonetheless. Everyone who knew Granny had special memories from her kitchen. I remember her gingersnap cookies.

Granny lived many places in her latter years. She always lived with or near one of her children. Near the end of her life, she lived with my parents. Alzheimer’s disease made that arrangement impossible, and Granny moved into a nursing home.

A couple years before Granny died, I woke up in the middle of the night thinking about my daughter, Claire. Lisa had just begun to home-school Claire and I woke up wondering how to teach Claire history. Seems strange for a middle of the night awakening, but it seemed urgent at the time.

To me, history is delicious except when over-baked. I imagined that a literary approach to history might interest Claire. It occurred to me that telling a family history might enlighten an entire era. My mind wandered to the story of Granny Annie as a three-year old riding in a covered wagon from the hills of Camden County to the silted earth of Orrick, Missouri. I imagined my girls in a similar situation. If I could convey Granny's story in an interesting fashion, perhaps I would capture their imaginations. I began to write:

My Anna

My Anna, are you hiding in the damp springhouse?
Do you sip cold milk with kittens from the barn?
Time is short, my Anna, don’t dilly-dally long.
We’re moving to a large and friendly farm.

My Anna, are you hiding in the corner of the cabin?
I can see you in the chinking between the logs.
Time is short, my Anna, the wagon’s loaded now.
We’ll set out by the early morning fog.

My Anna, are you hiding behind the dogwood trees?
We can’t stay here in the mountains anymore.
I know you’ll miss your springhouse, your corner, and your blossoms.
Our hearts cling to earth in ways we can’t ignore.

My Anna, are you crying, underneath the darkened sky?
I see your teardrops sparkle like the stars.
While the embers glow and crackle, rest calmly in their warmth.
Leaving home and coming home, my Anna--my home is where you are.

My Anna, are you hiding among the daffodils?
I see you’re almost smiling back at me.
We’re close to home, my Anna; we’re coming up the road.
Come sit on top my shoulders and you’ll see.

My Anna, are you nesting in your freshened feather bed?
I can see no sadness on your face.
Sleep tonight, my Anna. Hear heaven singing praise.
By grace we’re home, my Anna . . . by His grace.

When I had finished writing, I realized the poem was not about history, but rather about the future.

My mom read this poem to Granny several times when her mind was strong. There were good days and bad. Nevertheless, when I saw Granny again, she did not recognize me. She recognized Claire and Gabby because she kept their photographs on her night table. When she saw Lisa, she asked her, “Now, who are you?” Lisa explained, “I’m Lisa, John’s wife.” Granny exclaimed, “Oh, I know you!” She then turned to me and asked bluntly, “And who are you?”

Granny told my little girls that day, “I just thank God that I've lived to be over 100, and I can still get around.” Granny was 95, and she could only take a few steps using a walker or cane. I am certain that Granny was thankful for something; she just could not remember for what.

I saw Granny Annie again on the day she died. I was in the process of finding a job in Kansas City and moving from Minnesota. Lisa had taken Claire back to the northland to clean and pack, while I waited with Gabby in Kansas City for a recruiter to call. The call was scheduled for Monday morning, but I had become anxious. I decided to stage my retreat to Minnesota from my parent’s home. If the call came, I was only two hours from a face-to-face interview. If the call did not come, then I was two hours closer to Minnesota.

Gabby, who was three-and-a-half at the time, came with me to the farm on Sunday after church. We settled in Granny's old room. After dinner, my mother asked us to take her to see Granny at the nursing home. It was Mother’s Day. When we arrived, Granny was resting uncomfortably. Her room was hot. My mom adjusted the temperature and gave Granny a drink of water. Granny seemed unaware of me, but she acquiesced to Mom’s care. We did not stay long, but we would have stayed longer had we known.

As we were leaving, Gabby walked up to Granny’s bedside just inches from her face. Granny opened and fixed her eyes on Gabby. Gabby said, “We love you, Granny Annie.” Granny mumbled a response, and drifted to sleep. Those were the last earthly words Granny heard. My cousin, Steve, called from the funeral home early Monday morning to say that Granny had passed.

At Granny’s funeral, my little sister, Marilyn, read My Anna for Granny's friends and family. It was interesting to hear it in a female voice. Suddenly, I pictured my poem as a mother speaking comfort to her daughter. It was as if I had never known it before.

This Mothers Day I remember Granny Annie, I know that she is missed by many people. To Mom, to all those who miss Granny, and to all those who feel lonely for someone today,

[May] our Lord Jesus Christ himself,
and God our Father,
who loved us
and gave us eternal comfort
and good hope through grace,
comfort your hearts . . .

2 Thessalonians 2:16, 17 (WEB)

Happy Mothers Day

Friday, May 9, 2008

Bicycle baby

by John D Ramsey

Claire is the best thing ever to come out of Iowa. That is what I tell her and that is what I believe. Claire does not remember Iowa because we moved to Minnesota when she was 18 months old. I remember moving day. I had been living in an empty house in Hastings. On the day before moving day, I went to the florist a couple blocks way and bought flowers for Lisa and Cara and I bought a stuffed animal for Claire. I had picked up a CD for Daniel. As it turns out, the CD played the wrong Morrison. When the family arrived at the house, Claire entered the kitchen through the mudroom and hugged the stuffed puppy. She was the first of us to feel at home in Minnesota.

A few months into the new job, I splurged on a bicycle, a Giant Farrago DS. It was black and heavy, but its complex suspension system was easy on my tailbone. Before long, I cobbled it up with a bicycle seat for Claire. Claire and I rode everywhere in Hastings. We rode to Vermillion Falls. We rode to the Mississippi. We rode downtown by trails and backstreets. I remember watching kayaks from the footbridge high above the Vermillion River. They would fight their way upstream on the short rapids beneath the falls and then float down into a clear wide basin on the other side of the bridge. It was a workout for them, but it was joy for Claire and me. In Minnesota, it is seldom warm, especially in the mornings and evenings when we would ride. Claire learned that she could warm her hands by wedging them between my bicycle’s gel seat and my rump. When I objected she would remove her hands . . . for a minute.

That arrangement lasted two summers. When Claire was three, we bought a used trailer bike. It was black and matched my Giant. Claire took to it naturally and she pedaled as we rode. We sailed down the bicycle trail on the bluff above Silver Lake and across the levy to Lock and Dam No. 2. We watched barges pass through the lock. We even rode with the trailer bike together downhill from Cannon Falls to Welch Springs. Claire was my bicycle baby.

When Claire was six, I had a whim. Lisa acted upon my whim, and Claire began horseback-riding lessons. She began first on Pony Boy. Her instructor, Margy, noticed that Claire guided Pony Boy by gently leaning where she wanted him to go. Claire was a natural, Margy said. Perhaps she learned this from the sensation of movement while riding the trailer bike. This was fascinating to me until it was time for Claire to learn to ride a bicycle by herself. She tried to lean the bicycle as if it was a pony. She could not quite get the hang of it. Still one of my most pleasant memories of Minnesota was watching Claire on her mount loping along the horizon back toward the arena. Claire was riding a real horse by then; it was spectacular.

Nevertheless, Claire was too big for the trailer bike, so I had to ride the trails of Hastings by myself. All the sites were the same, but the experience was less.

When Gabby was born, I realized that I had gained enough weight that I could barely manage to pull myself up hills. Gabby was not my bicycle baby. Gabby loved to swing in the shade of a box elder tree, but that is another story.

Cara was never my bicycle baby, either. She was my football baby because when she was born I could carry her on my forearm with her head cradled in my palm as if I was a running back and she was the ball. Daniel was 10 ½ pounds when he was born and was too big to be a football baby. Gabby is my football baby now because last fall she watched the Chiefs with me (until they started losing every game and then no one watched them).

When we moved home to Kansas City two years ago, Claire’s horseback-riding instruction stopped. It was not our intent for it to stop. We just never found a new instructor, and the budget just did not allow for riding lessons. The good news is that over the winter, Claire taught herself to ride a bicycle. I am now teaching her the rules of the road. We look forward to a summer of riding. Claire is no longer my bicycle baby. I think she is becoming my bicycle buddy, and I am blessed. Maybe when I am an old man, Claire will ride a tandem with me. Perhaps she will pedal hard enough for the both of us. I will not make her ride up the Mississippi bluffs, but perhaps we will sail down them just once for memories.

Monday, May 5, 2008

Eagle, eagle, eagle

by John D Ramsey

When Daniel was a boy, he loved things that could fly. When he was born, we moved to Westwood, Kansas. It is a little city in the northeast corner of Johnson County. Kansas City, Kansas shares its northern border and Kansas City, Missouri shares its eastern line. It was close to the Country Club Plaza, and we would often drive that direction. When we drove down Ward Parkway approaching 67th Street, Daniel was predictable. He would always shout, “Eagle, eagle, eagle!” He was always surprised to see the sculpture, and his response was often the highlight of our day. If we were feeling stressed, we could strap Daniel in his car seat and drive south. “Eagle, eagle, eagle!” and Lisa and I would feel happy again.

There was much stress in those days. When circumstances settled down, Daniel was in first grade and we moved to Stilwell, Kansas. In Stilwell, the A-10 Warthogs from Richards-Gebaur AFB would fly low directly over our yard. Daniel would run out into the yard waving his ball cap, and the lead pilot of the squadron would tip his wing.

The Marines flew Chinooks in and out of Richards Gebaur, too. When Daniel heard the rotors in the distance, he would position himself in the open field. When the helicopters appeared, Daniel would wave. Each time he did, the pilots would flash their landing lights (Semper Fi). Not every youngster has an opportunity to command the sky, but Daniel did several times, if only for an instant.

When Daniel was ten, we bought him an Estes rocket kit for his birthday. It was just a cardboard tube with fins and cone, but he assembled it carefully and painted it black. When it was finished, we drove to his grandparents’ house on the other side of Stilwell because they had more space for launch and retrieval. Daniel assembled the launcher behind a hedgerow. His head was down he was attentive to every detail of the launch. The countdown came: five, four, three, two, one. The rocket motor spit and hissed. The rocket flew, but Daniel soared. All the eagle-eagle-eagles rolled into one five-second flight. It was exhilarating.

Daniel’s favorite holiday was always the Fourth of July. He loved fireworks. When we moved to Minnesota, we discovered that fireworks were illegal. We would try to return to a free state (Missouri) to celebrate the holiday. Some fireworks are legal in Minnesota now thanks to former governor, Jesse Ventura.

For a few years, around Christmas we would smuggle mortars from one of the permanent fireworks stands along I-35 in Missouri, through Iowa, back into Minnesota. On New Years Eve, I would synchronize my watch with the USNO master clock and Daniel or I would light the fuse 10 seconds to midnight. Happy New Year! BOOM! I am not sure who enjoyed that more, but Daniel did not complain.

I remember one Fourth of July, when Daniel and I could not stay in Missouri for fireworks. I have forgotten why we could not stay. We drove to Minnesota leaving Kansas City in the afternoon. It was a silent ride. We were both traveling away from where we wanted to be. We arrived at Albert Lea Lake just as they were setting off fireworks in town. I stopped the car on the shoulder of I-35 and we watched the display mirrored in the lake. The sound effects rumbled across the water. It was like a private celebration for just the two of us, but it was not the same as being with everyone.

The joy of childhood is a fragile thing, and it is hard to see when it is fading. We can only retrospectively see that it has passed. When Daniel was in high school, the joy had faded. High school was an artificial place with arbitrary rules favoring some and dismissing others. Daniel grew his hair long; I think it was a way of showing his disapproval with the system that disapproved of him.

When Daniel was a senior, he took action. Without talking to Lisa or to me, he approached the guidance counselor, and said, “Transfer me to the ALC.” The guidance counselor responded that he could not because the ALC was for kids at risk. Daniel asked, “What do I have to do to be at risk?” They transferred him, and Daniel finished graduation requirements in three weeks. He has worked fulltime since, even while attending the Institute of Production and Recording. He is doing well. I am just sorry that we are in Kansas City and he is in Minnesota.

The year after Daniel’s high school graduation, I was reflecting upon his experiences. It was the middle of the night and I remembered his love for flying things and discovery and his antipathy toward school. They took a bright, sensitive young man and suffocated his imagination with their inanity. I began to write. Before reading, you should understand that sarcasm is one of my finer faults.

usd 2oo

dummy down danny
don’t you know it’s time for school
there is no god of rocketry
there’s only you, you see
ambition is a lonely flight so mediocrity
is what you’ll want to learn
so put creation out of mind and be
a normal boy of sports and toys and free
of all allegiances
for heroes there’s no need
dummy down danny
we don’t want you to succeed

Daniel survived high school by escaping high school. I am proud of him for that. Sometimes, he tells me stories from his work, and I know that he has compassion for the downtrodden. I know he has a good sense of fairness. He has some business sense, too. He is a wonderful big brother to Claire and Gabby. He is a wonderful little brother to Cara. The girls love him dearly. His mother’s heart aches when he does not call at least once a week.

Daniel still has a Minnesota accent while the rest of us have recovered our natural twangs. We all feel his absence more than he knows. Daniel has a girlfriend, I hear. There is energy in his voice again. We recently sent him a fishing pole for his 23rd birthday. The little girls baked treats and sent them along with some tackle. He got the treats and tackle first and figured that the pole must be coming. I missed his call on his birthday. He sent me a text message, “Thanks. It’s been the best birthday in years! Miss you.” He sent the same note to his mother. He was planning to come home for Mother’s Day, but in Minnesota, it is fishing opener. Actually, I think he will be working so that others may fish. He is unselfish, too.

When I do see him again in a few weeks, I know my heart will cry, “Eagle, eagle, eagle!” and I will be happy again.

Saturday, May 3, 2008

Short grass

by John D Ramsey

I am resolved to let my grass grow taller this spring. I started this year’s mowing season by de-thatching my lawn. It was still technically winter when I de-thatched, but the neighbors had green lawns by Easter while mine looked like dirt and stubble. When my father-in-law arrived for Easter dinner, he shook his head and said, “You really scalped it this time.” It was not the first time he has told me that, but this time his words were irrefutable. I thought that it would grow back without the nasty brown patches that it held until late June last year, but it did not grow back before Easter. The outcome of my de-thatching is mixed. Last year’s brown patches are green, but dandelions have found a home. In retrospect, I have to admit that this winter is not the first time that I have scalped my lawn. Moreover, I have discovered that my problem with short grass is simply this: short grass can still look un-mowed.

Human legalism is like short grass. No matter how restrictive legalism becomes, a close look reveals something in need of attention, something out of order. Legalism responds to disorder with vigorous enforcement of the rules. Legalism scalps the short grass until it looks like death. Galatians 3:21 tells us, “If a law had been given which was able to impart life, then righteousness would indeed have been based on law.” (NASB) 1Corinthians 15:56 says, “The sting of death is sin, and the power of sin is the law; but thanks be to God who gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.”

In Christ, we are not looking at a set of rules to follow. Rules do not bring life because we break rules, and earn guilt as a result. Rules cannot make us righteous; they can only make us aware of our sin. Nevertheless, in Christ we do not live in lawlessness either, rather we live in a relationship of faith. Faith does not discount sin by dismissing all laws. Rather, Paul says in Romans 14:23, “whatever is not from faith is sin.” It does not matter how short our grass is, if our actions do not flow from our faith, then they are sin. That is a higher standard than a set of rules because it addresses our heart instead of our actions. Righteous actions will flow from a righteous heart, but no set of actions can make a heart righteous. Paul summarizes this to the Galatians saying:

You were called to freedom, brethren;
only do not turn your freedom
into an opportunity for the flesh,
but through love serve one another.
For the whole Law is fulfilled in one word,
in the statement,
Galatians 5:13 (NASB)

The last three chapters of 1 Peter give us what appear to be rules for Christian living, but actually, they illustrate the behaviors that will flow from our relationship to Christ. Before Peter describes Christian behavior, he tells us:

As you come to him, the living Stone –
rejected by men but chosen by God and precious to him –
you also, like living stones,
are being built into a spiritual house
to be a holy priesthood,
offering spiritual sacrifices
acceptable to God through Jesus Christ.
1 Peter 2:4-5 (NIV)

If our actions toward others do not flow from our relationship to Jesus Christ, then it does not matter what they appear to be (“whatever is not from faith is sin”). If our service to others does flow from our relationship with Jesus Christ then our actions are “spiritual sacrifices acceptable to God.”

If we do things because we have to follow the rules, then eventually the rules will leave us bare and lifeless like a scalped lawn. Our lives will be open to criticism from all sides. Moreover, our lives will become vulnerable to sin just as a bare lawn becomes susceptible to dandelions. If, on the other hand, our actions flow from our relationship to the Life-Giver, then our lives will be vibrant and we will be blessed by serving others. As we grow in him, our lives will resemble a healthy lawn that leaves no room for the weeds to take root.

The key to avoiding legalism is not in refining what we allow and disallow. That is merely changing one rule set for another. Avoiding legalism is simply nurturing our relationship of faith in Christ, and letting his life flow through us. Peter and Paul tell us what this will look like: we will serve others in love.

I resolve to let my lawn grow taller this year. I will prioritize its health over orderliness. At the same time, I anticipate that I will grow in grace. I will grow in grace, not because of my redoubled efforts, but because Christ is in me; he is working through me; and he will accomplish his will for me as he teaches me to draw my life from his.

Friday, May 2, 2008


by John D Ramsey

Gabby, at five, is learning to read. She does very well identifying words and reading simple sentences, but she still relies on Lisa to interpret her environment. Still Gabby is astute at identifying personally relevant information. The other day Gabby came to Lisa asking, “What is all this candy doing in the Wall Street Journal?” With five years experience in my house, Gabby has learned that the WSJ heralds change. Lisa explained that Mars, Inc. was buying Wm. Wrigley, Jr. Co., and the two companies would now operate as one. Gabby immediately expressed concern. She asked Lisa whether Mars would now change Starbursts.

Mr. Buffet and Mars executives, if you are reading this, congratulations on the deal with Wrigley; however, please do not change Starbursts. Gabby likes them as they are.

Gabby amuses me. I am gratified that my youngest would see her world reflected in the Wall Street Journal even if her analysis was narrowly focused and self-interested. Nevertheless, I think that Gabby’s response is typical. She imagined how the change, which she could not control, might affect her life. The most alarming thing that she could think of regarding Mars and Wrigley was that Starbursts would transform into something unfamiliar. I could have assured Gabby that the merger between Mars and Wrigley would not affect her favorite candy, but my assurances would be based upon my own assumption and analysis, not upon substance.

After this incident, I began to reflect upon that of which I am certain. It is cliché to speak of the certainty of death and taxes. Nevertheless, I can say that I am certain that the sun will rise in the morning, but I cannot say with certainty that I will be here to see it. I am not wallowing in morbid speculation; rather I am saying that certainty is a high standard. Certainty cannot involve speculation.

Our degree of confidence or assurance is usually about probability. On local television last night, weather forecasters preempted scheduled programming to show video of tornados. The tornados, however, were invisible on screen and could only be seen by spotters with cell phones. Whether the callers were credible, the television meteorologist welcomed their belated reports with obvious relief. There was a probability of tornados, but there was also a lesser probability that a television broadcast could make weather more interesting than it is. A phone report of a funnel on the ground vindicated the fuss and expense of the prime-time preemption. The catastrophe was real enough to warrant aggressive reaction. Whew!

Responding to probabilities, television stations preempted primetime for boredom last night. It rained; it hailed. It is springtime in Kansas City. Yawn. The slight probability of a tornado might cause me to move the little girls to the basement. Last night, the probability of a tornado made the girls content to watch a droning John Wayne movie on ION instead of droning weather personalities on the other channels. Before too long, however, the girls just pleaded to be released to their bedrooms. Many of our choices, including what we choose to fear, are based upon possibilities and probabilities but not upon certainties. We cannot fear what is certain. It is the veil of uncertainty that torments us.

Mars, Inc.’s merger with Wm Wrigley Jr. Co. makes Gabby uncertain regarding the future of Starbursts. Probability says that it is unlikely that they will make changes to the candy. Probability, however, leaves room for a five-year old imagination to dwell upon possibility and uncertainty. Which brings me back to the question, of what am I certain?

Everything of which I can be certain begins and ends with God.

The eleventh chapter of Hebrews is the New Testament primer on faith. “Faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” (Hebrews 11:1 KJV) Faith does not dwell in the realm of possibility or probability. Faith is either substantial and evident, or it is not faith. Faith is certain.

Hebrews 11:6 says, “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]; for he that comes to God must believe that he is, and that he is a rewarder of them that diligently seek him.” Our faith is rooted in the knowledge that God exists. This is certainty, not probability. We do not suspect that God exists, we are confident that he does. Moreover, our faith is rooted in the knowledge that God is not passive or distant. He rewards those who seek him. Reward is a verb. It implies action. Hebrews teaches us that God is personally involved with those who seek him.

Reading Hebrews 11, we learn that faith is trusting God regardless of circumstance and outcome. Faith is not pixie dust that we sprinkle on our wishes to watch them come true. A couple months ago, we took the little girls to a citywide “Christian” activity for children. There we heard a moronic proposition that faith was like magic. Praying to Jesus to make a stuffed rabbit come out of a hat is blasphemous. Nevertheless, faith is often taught in similar contexts, as a means to obtain a probability. The lower the probability, the greater the faith that is required: pixie dust.

A closer look at Scripture defines praying in faith as praying for that which God wants (1John 5:14). Praying in faith is not praying according to our will. Praying in faith begins with our wanting what God wants, not with our demanding that God want what we want. When we want what God wants, we can then be confident that he will do what he wills to do. This may not make us filthy rich, but it includes us in what God is accomplishing upon this earth.

When we look at the patriarchs of faith in Hebrews, we must acknowledge one thing common to them all: “And all these, having gained approval through their faith [their confidence in God], did not receive what was promised, because God had provided something better for us, so that apart from us they would not be made perfect.” (Heb 11:39, 40 NASB) Faith does not require substantiation. Faith is substance. Faith was substance enough for Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, Moses, Joshua, Gideon, David, Samuel and all the Old Testament faithful. They all held to faith even as they died before obtaining what God had promised.

Therefore, since we are surrounded by such a
great cloud of witnesses,
let us throw off everything that hinders
and the sin that so easily entangles,
and let us run with perseverance
the race marked out for us.
Let us fix our eyes on Jesus,
the author and perfecter of our faith
who for the joy set before him
endured the cross,
scorning its shame,
and sat down at the right hand of the throne of God.
Consider him who endured such opposition from sinful men,
so that you will not grow weary and lose heart.
Hebrews 12:1-3 (NIV)

Everything of which I am certain begins and ends with God. I believe that God rewards those who seek him. Knowing that God is in control, I can face uncertainty. I know that, like the great patriarchs of faith, my ultimate reward will come upon seeing Jesus face-to-face. What comes and goes in this life (including Starbursts) is temporal and uncertain, but I am certain of eternity.