For God’s Sake, Pray.

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Daniel was a spoil of war. Captured in his youth and likely orphaned by the conflict, he had spent his entire adult life interned in the royal court of Babylon, fifteen hundred kilometres from his Jerusalem home. Daniel had every reason to become bitter, desperate, and selfish in his prayers to a God who seemed not to hear.

It was 539 B.C. and Darius the Mede led the conquering Medo-Persians to overtake the Babylonian empire. Daniel would was now in his seventies or eighties and likely felt as hopeful for the new government as many present-day Syrians feel about ISIS’ attempts to overthrow dictator Bashar al-Assad. It seemed like a no-win situation.

But listen to Daniel’s prayer, recorded in the biblical book by his name.

“Now, our God,” he implores, “hear the prayers and petitions of your servant. For your sake, O Lord, look with favor… For your sake, O my God, do not delay, because your … people bear your name” (Dan. 9:17-19).

It’s an interesting and important observation to make of Daniel’s prayer. He’s not pleading with God to do something for him because he wants an easier life. It’s not a whim or even a well-thought out petition for blessing that causes Daniel to pray. It’s not a request for Daniel himself, for his friends or family, or even for God to dispose of Daniel’s captors. Daniel is praying for God’s own sake.

If you’re like me, that’s a hard notion to wrap one’s head around—prayer as petition for God to do what’s good for God. Stop and think about that for a minute. Let’s not personify God as if He would act like we do when we are looking out for ourselves. Selfishness in us is ugly; it motivates us to do all sorts of harmful and foolish things, because we are limited in goodness and wisdom, so we don’t always desire good and wise outcomes.

But God is infinitely good and wise. So when He takes action to accomplish His own purposes, to act for His own sake, He is creating infinitely good and wise situations. He is following through on His ultimate plan to express His glory in an unlimited way among His creatures. What’s good for God, then, is good for us.

Bernard of Clairvaux, who lived in France from 1090-1153, thought deeply about this idea. He was thinking of it in terms of love. He described four ‘degrees of love’, calling one of the degrees ‘love of God for God’s sake’. He was contrasting the mature God-oriented love that is the goal for God-followers, with our earlier juvenile love, which was more focused on what He could do for us. See the difference? The good Saint Bernard saw a deeper motivation for loving God than just the selfish one. He saw a love where we long for God to have His way in His created world and in His purposes because He deserves it. God ought, by all views of morality, to have His will be done because that is the fulfillment of all ultimate good.

“We have obtained this degree,” observes Bernard, “when we can say, “Give praise to the Lord for he is good, not because he is good to me, but because he is good.” Thus we truly love God for God’s sake and not for our own. The third degree of love is the love by which God is now loved for his very self.”

Praying upon God to act in our lives and in our world for His own sake is the heart attitude and verbalization of loving God for his very self. I’m not sure we accomplish it overly well in this life. We’re on a journey of learning to love God and communicate better with Him little by little, day by day, more and more. But it’s a step worth taking for those of us who, as Daniel said, “bear (God’s) name” and those who long to bear it well. Let’s begin to pray by saying, “For your sake, O Lord…”

 

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What’s to be Thankful For? Conclusion

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The Path of Life:

Our canoes lay submerged, wedged beneath the swirling currents of the Jordan River. Several tonnes of fallen trees had made a sure trap at a bend in the river, and to attempt to rescue the boats from the surging spring floodwaters would be shear lunacy. Wet and bedraggled, the four of us clammoured ashore and thanked God none had been sucked beneath the merciless tangle of debris. Hiking back to our cars should be easy. We would return another day with equipment to rescue our canoes.

But hiking through an undisturbed west coast rainforest without a trail can be like trying to push a softball through a chain link fence. After eight hours of struggling to return to our campsite only to find ourselves traveling in circles, we finally admitted our lost condition. It was a long cold night spent huddled in the wet forest awaiting daylight and rescue.

Life is like that. It is often not until we have lost our way that we realize the crucial importance of the path.

David, the writer of Psalm 16, concludes his eleven-verse psalm by contemplating what he calls “the path of life.”

“You have made known to me the path of life,” contemplates the thoughtful psalmist; “you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”

Notice he doesn’t describe ‘one of many paths of life’. There is only one path. There is just one clearing made through the tangled thorny underbrush of life if we want to reach our soul’s home. Everything else is a tripping, entangling struggle, thinking we know where we’re going but finding ourselves cold, wet and bedraggled, going in great miserable circles.

The psalmist also implies that it is not we who make the path. The “You”, “your presence” and “your right hand” of his psalm refers to God. God is the creator, sustainer and rescuer of all, but specifically of His highest creation, humankind. It is God who has made the path. Only He could blaze a trail through the spiked and barbed tangle of life in which we find ourselves. And only He could keep that path cleared and trustworthy to take us on our life’s true journey. But the path is not merely a route and a direction. It is a Person.

Jesus once explained, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

Jesus calls Himself the way because it is only relationship with Him that puts us on the Path that is authentic and flourishing and satisfying in life. All other routes are dead ends and entangling scrublands.

It is Jesus living within us that enables us to fully experience and increasingly express love and joy, peace and patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. That, says Jesus, is the only true path worth the life He’s given each of us. He is the inner compass that gives us purpose and direction—not wealth, not fame, and not success in careers, relationships or other self-motivated passions. He is “the rising sun (who has) come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:78,79).

Those who accept this path and continue to stay on it in spite of many temptations to leave it will be filled, as the psalmist observes, “with joy in (Jesus’) presence, with eternal pleasures at (His) right hand.” There is nothing more valuable than the Path, and nothing greater to be thankful for.

“This is what the LORD says; ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls’(Jer. 6:16).”

What’s to be Thankful For? Part 10

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Steadfastness:

Most of us love stories of uncommon loyalty, and the tale of Bamse is no different. Enrolled as a crew member on the Thorodd, a Norwegian coastal patrol vessel in the Second World War, Bamse was a unique morale-booster among the ship’s crew. All who knew him would agree, he was anything but an ordinary sailor—because Bamse was a dog.

He once saved the life of a young lieutenant commander by knocking his knife-wielding assailant into the sea. On other occasions he was known to have dragged drowning sailors from deep waters to shore and safety. He learned to ride the bus route from the ship’s dock in Scotland to Dundee where he rounded up and escorted crew back to the ship by curfew. And he regularly broke up bar fights among his crewmates by rising on hind legs and putting his great paws on their chests as if to say, “Calm down, mate. Time to head back aboard ship.” Bamse loved his crewmates with a proactive and steadfast loyalty. In return, the Royal Norwegian Navy honoured Bamse upon his death, by giving him a burial with full military honours.

Bamse’s story is a heartwarming one; we resonate with his constant allegiance and doggy dependability. But he only scratched the surface of loyalty. There is one who acts with even greater steadfastness and commitment toward those on whom his favour rests.

“(Y)ou will not abandon me to the grave,” marvels the writer of Psalm 16, “nor will you let your Holy One see decay.”

Who is the “you” David mentions? He’s referring to God and he’s making an extremely bold statement, even for a psalmist. David is in wonder and awe as he pens words of which he himself hardly understands the meaning. He knows people die. He comprehends the reality of death in the life cycle of all living things. So what could he possibly be saying to connect God’s steadfast loyalty with David’s and our own sure and imminent death?

David is uttering the mystery of the ages; he’s revealing God’s intentions for solving the dilemma of death. Created beings designed for immortality, such as we, feel cheated by death. We feel uneasy thinking of life simply ceasing to exist when our fragile bodies stop living. And so we ought to feel, because it is not natural. We were made in the image of the eternal God, created to live forever with Him. But the fiasco of rebellion in the Garden so long ago ruined it for us all (we would have done the rebellious deed ourselves had not Adam and Eve done it first).

But now David is looking ahead a millennium to a second Adam, our species’ second chance to be represented by a son of God – a unique Son who would succeed in living a perfectly obedient life and follow it by dying a death worth more than the deaths of every rebellious person on this planet. David is seeing Jesus. He is seeing God’s allegiance to His image-bearing creatures.

And Jesus is the epitome of steadfast loyalty. His purpose and resolve is to ensure that every one of us who comes to Him will not be abandoned to the grave. He is the “Holy One” who did not “see decay” – His death was a beginning, not an ending, and He rose from His grave victorious over death’s decay.

What does that mean for us today? It means today is just bursting with hope. Regardless of the chaos and destruction going on about us, we can take refuge in the steadfast dependability of a God who will not abandon us. Our thankfulness to Him for His work on our behalf is the beginning of our worship of Him. It also puts life in perspective. Everything is different because we are not abandoned. He is steadfast.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons [[File:… Landseer – a collection of fifteen pictures and a portrait of the painter (1901) (14579686117).jpg|thumb|… Landseer – a collection of fifteen pictures and a portrait of the painter (1901) (14579686117)]])

What’s to be Thankful For?

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Part 9: Gladness

We cannot hear the word ‘glad’ without thinking ‘Pollyanna’—that is, if we’re into watching old films, reading novels from the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, or studying psychology. Pollyanna is the main character in a story of an orphan girl who chooses to play the ‘glad game’ with situations in her often-difficult life. Prior to his death, the child’s father teaches Pollyanna to find “something glad” in every situation life brings. The story describes Pollyanna’s influence for good not only in her own optimistic attitude but also in encouraging the lives of the people around her.

Pollyanna makes her way into psychological research too. The ‘Pollyanna Principle’ studied by researchers Matlin and Stang, states that “people (other than those suffering from depression or anxiety) process pleasant information more accurately and efficiently than less pleasant information.” In other words, we are wired to observe and remember the positive aspects of experiences over the negative aspects. We are designed to be resilient even in difficulty, and we all have the potential to be influenced by simple gladness.

But life isn’t always simple. It isn’t always easy to be glad in some of the situations we find ourselves. We struggle with degrees of anxiety and depression. Is it relevant or even reasonable for the writer of Psalm 16 to even suggest that gladness is germane to our situation?

“Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;” David observes.

He seems authentic; it’s not just a mask of cheeriness hiding sorrow or anger or frustration underneath. He says the gladness is heartfelt. It’s deep inside him and finding its way out in his speech and maybe even in song. that’s something we all could use. Our society is dying to know where that comes from, and how to access it. Look at the facts.

The Mood Disorders Society of Canada explains, “Mental health (or well being) is an ideal we all strive for.” It goes on to say that the chances of having a mental illness in our lifetime in Canada are one in five. By that they mean depression, anxiety, eating disorders and other more complex disturbances that affect day-to-day functioning. One in five sounds unnerving. It could mean you or me. They go on to say that mental health is about “learning the coping skills to deal with life’s ups and downs.” This is the relevant connection to the psalmist’s phrase in Psalm 16. The psalmist is actually showing us coping skills the Spirit of God has helped him discern.

Here is what David observes: he is finding that his gladness is an effect brought about by a series of earlier events in his life. We know this because he begins his observation by saying, “Therefore.” Have you heard that whenever we see the term therefore, we need to look to see what it is there for? The term therefore means, ‘for that reason’, ‘consequently’, or ‘as a result,’ so we need to go back a step and find out what it is that precedes and initiates the psalmist’s gladness. He’s human. He needs as much reason to be glad as the next person.

So we go back a verse to remind ourselves what we discovered in ‘Part 8: Dependable Presence.’ Psalm 16:8 reads, “I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” Remember? When we choose a mindset of focusing on God’s dependable presence with us, we are strengthened. Mentally. Emotionally. Morally. And more than that, we are gladdened.

It’s all about God’s presence. Accepting it, welcoming it, depending upon it for every breath we take, every decision we make and every challenge we face is the path to gladness. And gladness is not intended to be an addendum to life. It is designed to be at its core. It is the atmosphere in which God intended we live when he first placed us here on this planet, and it is the promise He will ultimately fulfill in our lives when we leave this life and move into eternity with Him.

We cannot access this gladness on our own. We’ve all tried. We’ve grasped moments of it, to be sure, but we’ve all felt it slip away like water between fingers. We can’t have sunlight without the sun itself. We can’t have true gladness without God, because God is Gladness itself.

So take a step toward God. We all need to. As we open our minds to think on His presence today, this minute and the next throughout our day, see if a deep gladness of heart doesn’t begin to bubble to the surface. It’s not dependent on our situation but entirely on His awesome, overwhelming, loving presence. Thank you, Father, for your gift of gladness.

What’s to be Thankful For? Part 8

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Dependable Presence.

In ‘Part 7: Counsel’ we asked the question, “How does God counsel us day and night?” As if the lyricist of Psalm 16 anticipates our question, he pens in verse eight: “I have set the LORD always before me. Because he is at my right hand, I will not be shaken.” How is this an answer to our question?

Let’s begin with the great truth of God’s omnipresence. What omnipresence means is that God is everywhere present. It must be so, both because He claims to be, and also because the definition of God is One who is restrained by no limits other than to act consistently with His character. God inhabits a dimension that goes infinitely beyond the three-dimensional existence we experience, and nothing less than to be everywhere present and all-knowing is what we ought to expect from the unique and Sovereign Being we call God.

So if God is everywhere present, why do so many people on this planet fail to sense, appreciate, and benefit from His presence? This is the point from which the psalmist launches his testimony: “I have set the LORD always before me,” he explains. He places forefront in his consciousness the mindset of God’s presence with him. His resolve is to see, hear, smell, taste and feel nothing without it passing through the filter of the truth of God’s presence.

The use of mindset to accomplish a determined purpose is not unique. Elite athletes use mindset; they think about their sport day and night, viewing it from different angles, imagining and envisioning themselves meeting the various challenges that are common to their sport and gaining victory over them.

Storywriters and songwriters use mindset; their minds are constantly and even unconsciously mulling over their objective of communicating story through wordsmithy and tune mastery. It is not uncommon for great writers to awaken in the night with an idea, a word, a phrase or a tune that solves their creative dilemma.

So why not our grasp of God? When true seekers of God set their minds on things eternal, the Eternal One reveals Himself and His presence in the everyday ordinary things of life. The sixth sense that He is at our right hand guiding us, providing the support we need when our world shakes, is real. It is more vigorous and robust than the flimsy crutch God-followers have been accused of relying upon.

The awareness that God is here now, beside us, before us and within us is what the psalmist is describing when he explains that God “is at my right hand”; and because of this conviction that God is closer to us than our skin, the psalmist comes to the reasonable conclusion that “I will not be shaken.”

The clearer the understanding and acceptance we have of God’s presence, the more firm, secure and safe we will feel. This is why the young Hebrew prisoner Daniel, when thrown to the lions for his refusal to bow to his Medo-Persian captor, could face his situation with composure. He refused to allow the glaring, slavering appearance of peril to hinder his view of God’s presence.

This is also how many Christ-followers face their persecutors in countries where torture and death are the penalty for their faith. They set the LORD always before their eyes. They know He is at their right hand. And while terribly mistreated, their faith is not shaken.

God is no less present for you and me than He was for Daniel and is for the countless thousands who suffer for their faith. He is relevant here and now in your life and mine. The question is: Will we choose to have a mind set on Him? It is not easy. It will take everything we are and have to make good our resolve and not be swayed by the flagrant distractions of our eyes and ears. But the reward is rich. We will know irrefutably God’s dependable presence. We will benefit from His ever-present counsel. That’s something to be thankful for.

(Photo Credit: “Lion Yawning” by John Storr – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Lion_Yawning.jpg#/media/File:Lion_Yawning.jpg)