Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 21

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‘Qoph’

Distraught. That’s how the psalmist sounds as he pens ‘Qoph’, this fourth-to-last stanza in his epic 119th psalm. Anxious. Something is deeply troubling him. Further along he gives a few more details of his dilemma, but he avoids the kind of details that might tempt us to discount his anxiety as an obsolete cultural anomaly. Perhaps he knows how endemic anxiety is in many a culture, in every era, in most people. Perhaps he is giving us clues to lead us to find the kind of relief he has found. Listen to how he puts it.

“I call with all my heart; answer me, O LORD, and I will obey your decrees. / I call out to you; save me and I will keep your statutes. / I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word. / My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises. / Hear my voice in accordance with your love; preserve my life, O LORD, according to your laws. / Those who devise wicked schemes are near, but they are far from your law. / Yet you are near, O LORD, and all your commands are true. / Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever.”

It doesn’t take much for us to see that, according to the psalmist, relief from anxiety comes from the LORD. Let’s explore that a little. Who is the LORD, what do we know about Him, and how can He help—not only with anxiety, but also with every dilemma that we face?

‘LORD’ is the English term for the Hebrew name Yahweh by which God refers to Himself. The psalmist understands a few things about Yahweh—the LORD—that come into play as he composes this psalm-prayer. Rather than an impersonal cosmic force, the psalmist understands that the LORD is a personal, relational Being whose essence is expressed to humankind in the form of His Word. His Word is not only Scripture—a body of writings including the Law, poetry, historical records, promises, prophecies, and later the Gospels, epistles, and more prophetic writings—but most succinctly in the form of Jesus, who is called “the Word”.

The LORD loves people and He engages in meaningful dialogue with people because it brings Him joy. Through His Word He expresses His eternal views and expectations as far as we are concerned, because they are for our good. He hears and answers those who cry out to Him. He even holds Himself accountable to making and keeping promises with people because He wants to give us hope and a meaningful future. He is not far off (as those who don’t know Him imagine), but is near—nearer than our worst dilemmas, our most overwhelming anxieties, or our most daunting enemies.

And as the psalmist comes to this point—the nearness of the LORD—we can almost hear the soul-deep sigh of relief the psalmist breathes. This is it: the nearness of the LORD is what God’s Word is ultimately about. The psalmist only grasps a small piece of it, but he knows that God’s nearness—His presence—is the key to human flourishing. He is also aware that God’s nearness is on a very different plane from the nearness he experiences from “those who devise wicked schemes.” The nearness of human dilemma, of anxiety and trouble is trifling compared to the great nearness of God to those who call on Him with all their heart.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” asks the Apostle Paul a millennium and a half after the psalmist’s time. “Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” Then he answers, “No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8:35-39).

The love of God that is expressed Christ Jesus—also known as ‘God-with-us’—is the prescription for our greatest anxieties. The nearer we draw to Jesus through prayer, through exploration of the Scriptures, and through a determination to obey His commands of love, the more we will sense His great nearness. It may mean “ris(ing) before dawn” and even staying awake “through the watches of the night (to) meditate on (God’s) promises” rather than yielding to anxiety, but it will be worth it.

Let’s do as the psalmist does. Let’s call on the LORD with all our heart today. Let’s read His written Word, obey His commands, meditate on His promises, and enjoy the communion we have with Him who is so closely present here with us. “You are near, O LORD.”

OPENING THE DOOR TO PSALM 119, Part 2

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‘Aleph’ (vs.1-8).

“Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD. Blessed are they who keep his statutes, and seek him with all their heart. They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways. You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands. I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.”

Not many of us know Hebrew. Many Bibles, though, have labeled the stanzas of Psalm 119 in that ancient language. The first stanza is labeled ‘Aleph.’ Does it sound familiar? Think of our word alphabet. The Hebrew Aleph is our ‘A’ and Bet is our ‘B’. Alphabet is simply ‘The A’s and B’s of a language.’

It’s an interesting device the psalmist uses. It’s as if he is saying, ‘These are the a b c’s of living in close communion with God; this is the language we must learn if we want to be part of God’s original intention for creating us.’ But just read through those verses again. It doesn’t take a Hebrew scholar to see the incongruity and conflict that has escaped from the psalmist’s pen.

“Blessed are they whose ways are blameless…Oh, that my ways were steadfast…!” he bemoans. The psalm-writer has begun to examine his own life and beliefs about God and with a shudder realizes he has fallen short of the glorious God-centred life he thought he could live. Perhaps he suddenly recognizes the two-edged sword of human free will: God has revealed His moral nature, but He gives humans the choice to discount Creator-dependent living in favour of their own freedom-seeking trial-and-error methods. To do so comes naturally to us, but also comes with a price. We bypass the blessing and success God designed our lives to produce.

We hear in the psalmist’s words his anxiety and apprehension. His best attempts to be true to God, to be morally consistent and steadfast in obedience have failed. He is a sinner with a sense of morality that won’t go away. He tries to reverse the negative influence of his choices by looking up at the moral benchmark where he sees hope shining. He sees blessing and an upright heart and an overall goodness of living that he wants. What he also discovers is an intersection of two distinct and diverging paths, a crossroads he faces every day. He seems to describe the paths as the Way of Blessing and the Path of Shame, roads he, like every human, consciously or unconsciously walks upon as a result of choices made. He hasn’t got the full picture, but he knows his own anxiety because his walk is inconsistent.

Centuries later, Jesus elaborated on the picture the psalmist was beginning to sketch. He described those paths and the dilemma of our struggling moral nature. “Enter through the narrow gate,” He advised, “for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13,14). Jesus clarified the psalmist’s and our dilemma by revealing that the situation is both worse and better than the psalmist had imagined.

Jesus expands the psalmist’s word shame into total destruction. A gram of rebellion against the Creator becomes a mushrooming cancer of self-destruction in the eternal realm Jesus foresaw. Yet Jesus also expands on the psalmist’s term blessing; he calls it life, an expansive, God-infused, flourishing and eternal life to which He will refer on many other occasions. He shows us something we know deep inside. The stakes are high; the rumours are true: the decisions we make in this life matter for eternity. Our moral nature intimates and necessitates it. We are more than tissue and bone; the One who made us calls us to prepare ourselves for our unseen future while we are still bound by that tissue and bone.

The trouble is that inhabiting bodies as we do, we are the most natural materialists and sensualists. We are drawn toward things that satisfy our senses—things we can see, touch, hear, taste and smell. Many of those hankerings are good and are essential for our survival: food, clothing, shelter, loving relationships, and meaningful work are the basics of life. But some of those appetites damage us: harmful addictions, injurious relationships, and unethical work. We can make our own lists of those ones.

But the real danger is when we allow our senses (empiricism) to block our perception of God communicating to us through our spirit. Because we fail to literally see the two paths, our tendency, in practice, is to deny or at least ignore that they exist. Yet, recognizing this, there seems to be nothing more we can do than to cry out as the psalmist does, “Oh, that my ways were steadfast…!” Or is there?

(To be continued)

Who Are You, Really? Part 4

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Royal Priests.

Identity is a precarious and complicated thing. One moment we think of ourselves as capable of accomplishing anything we set our minds to, and the next moment we are in turmoil over our tendency to trip up and fall flat on our faces. The person we believed we were fails us. This, in its various forms and expressions, is the anxiety of our fallen human condition. While we secretly know something deep within us is wrong, we don’t want to believe it. We have a God-given urge to think better of ourselves than experience has shown us to be. We want an identity that is internally consistent—that relieves us of our angst.

God, who is the author of our lives, knows this. He knows it and He has the solution to our identity quest. The solution is tied up in God’s Son, Jesus, and our response to Him.

When we allow Jesus to step into our lives, He begins the process of turning everything right side up. Coming to Him and giving up the struggle of trying to be who we are not, causes something deep within us to change. We think of ourselves differently. We become part of a process of transformation from the inside out. Façades drop. The reality of who we really are comes upon us like a light. Our true identity emerges.

We’ve explored this in the first four parts of asking “Who Are You, Really?”: We discover we are children of a loving Heavenly Father, citizens of another place, and living stones. What else are we?

“You,” explains Jesus’ disciple the Apostle Peter, “are a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God, that you may declare the praises of him who called you out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

That’s an earful. Peter employs a Hebrew idiosyncrasy in his writing here. He is saying the same thing four different ways—a chosen people, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people belonging to God—they all mean “a specially God-focused group.” Let’s use the term ‘royal priests’ simply because it is so unique. Not many of us would have called ourselves that naturally. Does that mean we need to change our vocation and start wearing the robes and vestments of the clergy in order to identify with our new office?

Let’s look at what Peter says. He explains that this new identity and purpose as priests is to enable us to “declare the praises of him.”—that is, of God. Why? Because he “called (us) out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

We each have a story. We each have our own anecdote of darkness we’ve experienced. When we take God’s hand, He moves us out of that darkness and into the wonderful and awe-inspiring light of His presence with us. That’s a story of God’s amazing grace in our lives.

The chief privilege of a priest,” explain the footnotes in the NIV Bible for this Scripture passage in I Peter, “is access to God.” Believer-priests are those for whom God removes the barriers between Himself and them. He reveals Himself, His character and His great truths to His priests. He hears their prayers. He makes His presence known to them in innumerable, meaningful ways throughout their day. That is the privilege given to each person who comes to Christ, entrusts him/herself to Christ’s salvation, and chooses daily obedience to His teachings found in His Word, the Bible.

Not only that. Christ Himself is the great High Priest, the One who has intimately known the presence of God by virtue of being one part of the Trinity of God. So He becomes our identity-model, the same way He does with the other identities we’ve observed: the only begotten Son models our filial relationship with the Father, the Firstborn of Heaven models our new connection with God’s kingdom, and the great Cornerstone enables us to be living stones in an eternal home with God. Jesus, the High Priest, qualifies us to be priests, and teaches us how to offer up the sacrifice of praise to God by our daily lives.

The office and position of royal priests is not exclusive, but it is conditional. It is open to every one of us who surrender our lives to Jesus. It means giving up our false identities that in any way exclude Jesus as primary identifier. That’s the part about being “called…out of darkness into his wonderful light.”

We were created to be like Jesus—nothing less. “Come to me,” He invites us each day, “all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your soul. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:28-29).

(Photo Credit: NormanB [[File:Rome – St.Peter’s Basilica – Small Dome 0461.jpg|thumb|Rome – St.Peter’s Basilica – Small Dome 0461]])

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.

ESCAPE AND STAND

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          The most thrilling adventure stories always seem to include two key elements: an exciting escape and a bold stand. Louie Zamperini’s life is no exception. Unbroken, the story of his life and the movie soon to be released, tells the tale of repeated escapes and stands. We thrill to those kinds of stories. We are excited, intoxicated and exhilarated by them, because they tell us a core truth about this life. We are in a battle for survival – every one of us.

“Be careful,” Jesus warns, “or your hearts will be weighted down…”

That’s true, we agree. Life should be fun, shouldn’t it?

“Be careful or your hearts will be weighted down with dissipation, drunkenness and the anxieties of life, and that day will close on you unexpectedly like a trap.” He’s talking about the end of life.

“For it will come upon all those who live on the face of the whole earth,” He adds. He’s very inclusive. No one escapes his own mortality. No one is immune to facing her own precarious adventure story.

“Be always on the watch, and pray that you may be able to escape all that is about to happen, and that you may be able to stand before the Son of Man” (Luke 21:34-36). There it is: escape and stand.

The way He talks, our triumph is not certain. There are dangers about that can inundate us, weigh us down, engulf, besiege and overwhelm us. He even cites for us the three areas that are sure traps to our ultimate goal of survival.

One trap is ‘dissipation’. Let’s use the word decadence instead. Jesus is talking about our fascination with self and the trinkets we use to prop up that self. We overeat, over-primp, over-earn and overspend. Our obsession with making ourselves feel good and look good is actually at the expense of our real selves.

“Set your hearts on things above where Christ is seated at the right hand of God,” the Apostle Paul counsels us. Hearts set on things below eventually become weighted down. Jesus wants more for us — much more. We know the phrase, ‘reach for the stars’; Jesus is saying, ‘reach for me’. The heart that reaches for Him is on the right path.

Another trap is ‘drunkenness’. Let’s use the word desensitization. Jesus is talking about our tendency to use various means to dull our sensitivity to His voice. Drunkenness pictures for us the use of alcohol to block out the sensations of real life – but we have other ways of doing that too. We become preoccupied with the loud to block out the quiet. Loud boasting, loud music, loud schedules – they all desensitize us to the still soft voice of God who wants to speak to our hearts.

The third trap is ‘anxiety’. Lets keep the word anxiety because we know it fits us like a glove, a grasping, squeezing iron glove that crushes our inner peace and steals our joy. The tensions, worries and fears of this life are not peripheral concerns. Jesus says they are powerful enough to rob us of our ability to escape and stand up to our life’s quest.

There is a solution to anxiety, drunkenness and dissipation. It’s faith — not faith in the ethereal notion of faith, but faith in Jesus as the sole means to our successful escape from what He calls perishing. Faith in Jesus is also the only means of our being able to stand before Him some day, beyond this life and world, in confidence of His love and acceptance.

So, watch and pray, He ends up saying. Be alert. Keep lines of communication open with Him. Avoid the traps this world holds for those who are careless. He wants every one of us to have stories to tell some day of our escape and our stand.

(Photo Credit: “A321 sunspots 09.26.2014 (15359237736)” by sebastien lebrigand from crépy en valois, FRANCE – A321 sunspots 09.26.2014. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:A321_sunspots_09.26.2014_(15359237736).jpg#/media/File:A321_sunspots_09.26.2014_(15359237736).jpg)