Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 10

Hinds-Feet-on-High-Places-by-Daniel-Gerhartz.jpg

‘Heth’

People and their perspectives change. Our favourite story characters are those whose names begin as synonyms of fear, or sorrow, or selfishness, but are transformed to become heartwarmingly brave, or joyful, or generous. Much Afraid, the main character in the somewhat obscure allegorical novel ‘Hind’s Feet on High Places’ embodies this type of character. She must travel with her unchosen companions Sorrow and Suffering, rejecting the insinuations of her daunting enemy Craven Fear, as she follows the call of the Shepherd. Eventually she receives her new name, Grace and Glory as do her companions, now renamed Joy and Peace. These are no euphemisms. Each transformation of character represents a complete shift in perspective. Each person becomes as unlike his or her earlier self as an awakening is from a dream.

In Heth, the eighth stanza of Psalm 119, something similar, perhaps even grander is happening. Centred in the middle of the stanza, the phrase “Though the wicked bind me with ropes…” gives us a picture of our natural lives. Conflict, tension, fear, perhaps even hatred and revenge are our natural reactions when we have any sense of bondage in life. This is why as children we each learned to use the word “No!” so powerfully. But the psalmist sees something astounding happening in his life when he invites God into it: everything becomes grace and glory.

“You are my portion, O LORD; I have promised to obey your words. / I have sought your face with all my heart; be gracious to me according to your promise. / I have considered my ways and have turned my steps to your statutes. / I will hasten and not delay to obey your commands. / Though the wicked bind me with ropes, I will not forget your law. / At midnight I rise to give you thanks for your righteous laws. / I am a friend to all who fear you, to all who follow your precepts. / The earth is filled with your love, O LORD; teach me your decrees” (Psalm 119:57-64).

Questions help us get to the heart of any exploration of God’s Word—help us focus on discovering what is going on. Three questions arise after reading this section of the psalm, questions about the psalmist, about God, and about us: What is happening here to the psalmist, in what way is God central to what is happening, and why is it relevant to us?

Firstly, we see the psalmist is speaking directly to God. It’s a prayer of sorts, a prayer in which the psalmist is reiterating a covenant in which he and God are involved. He reminds God of His promise (“to be gracious to me”), and he pairs it with his own promise back to God (“to obey your words…(to) consider my ways and (to) tur(n) my steps….(to) not forget your law”). We notice that the psalmist is not being mercenary here; he’s not saying, ‘Look here, God, I’ll obey your rules but in return you have to give me something.’ No, it’s very different than that. The psalmist is observing that God is the initiator of a relationship described by love: “The earth is filled with your love, O LORD;” the psalmist is doing nothing more nor less than responding to that love. It’s not the psalmist saying, ‘I’ve worked for you all these years, now I want my pay, my inheritance.’ Rather, he is affirming—as loving relationships do—‘It’s you that I love; not what you can do for me, just you.’ We hear that in the very first verse (“You are my portion, O LORD”).

Secondly, we see Jesus mirrored—or better yet hologrammed—into the psalm as the Great Psalmist Himself. Who more than Jesus considers the Father His portion, who commits Himself to obeying the Father’s will with such complete success? Who alone can truly say, “I have sought (the Father’s) face with all my heart”? And who is the greatest “friend to all who fear (God)”? Which leads us to our third consideration.

How is this all relevant to us? The psalmist has tried his best, but really, he couldn’t obey God as fully as he wanted to. The old sin nature was too ingrained in him to be as perfect a promise-keeper as he would have hoped. But Jesus is the perfect promise-keeper; He is the truly wholehearted One; He is the friend of sinners; His perfect sacrifice made the way to deal with our sin nature in a way that frees us to truly turn our hearts and steps toward following God’s heart and will and covenant with us. As Timothy Keller says, in Jesus we go from “fighting a war we cannot win to fighting a war we cannot lose.”

Only through Jesus can we find the transformation of our lives that renames us from Much Afraid (or Much Unreliable, or Much Hurt, or whatever other identity with which we have struggled) to Grace and Glory. God’s grace and glory works itself into and out through our lives in a way the psalmist could only imagine. Thank God we are on this side of Christ’s great redeeming work.

(Illustration Credit: Painting by Daniel Gerhartz)

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #24

Prayer Acknowledging God’s Character-building Work in my Life

(Paraphrase of Psalm 138)

You are worthy of praise, God. In Your love and faithfulness You are changing me for good; You are reforming my heart from the cold, hard, fractured thing it was into a steady, focused core of purpose that moves my life. Instead of chasing every zephyr of this world’s fleeting promises, I’m becoming wholehearted in singing Your praise. The more I acknowledge Your greatness, the more I find You making me strong from the inside out.

In moments of despair or discouragement I call to You for help. You answer me by assuring me You are near and by making me stouthearted and peaceful within. I am beginning to see that You want me to look at troubles differently than as distressing inconveniences; when my focus is on You, LORD, troubles are reminders of Your steady intention to remake me.

I wish we all would turn to You, God. I wish we would turn off the blaring cacophony of this world’s propaganda and listen instead to the life-transforming words You speak. Rather than building a flimsy scaffolding of self-esteem through proud monologues, we would join with the throng of the faithful, singing Your praises. Bowing to Your claim on our lives, we would find You endowing us with strength to stand.

As I walk in the midst of trouble, preserve the inner core of my being, LORD. Make it impervious to my foes. Cause fear and doubt to flee. Replace reckless abandon and selfish striving with self-control and kindness.

I see that with one hand You protect me from my old enemies, and with the other You create in me character. In speechless wonder I know You have envisioned good things for me. You will be faithful to complete and fulfill Your purposes for me, developing in me the character of Your own precious Son, Jesus.

Your workmanship, LORD, is good. Continue Your creative work in me until I am everything You want me to be. Your love, O LORD, endures forever.

(Photo Credits: By NN – Töpfer woodcut from year 1641, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=29708898;

By Milartino – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=20677304;

By Mcnultyc1 – Own work, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=6749541)

 

 

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #14

IMGP2149.JPG

Prayer of Blessing (Paraphrasing Psalm 128)

The only blessing worth having comes from You, Lord-from fearing You, from holding You in highest esteem, and from living the nitty-gritty of our lives by Your principles and power.

For one thing, our labour, when it is focused on Your kingdom, results in a grand spiritual harvest; we benefit both now and for eternity. We become more Christ-like and we see others join in on the journey toward holiness.

For another thing, our families produce a social harvest of loving relationships, husbands, wives, sons and daughters complementing and caring for one another with uncommon compassion. It’s like a feast at a dinner table, abundant, nourishing and comforting.

We truly reap what we sow. Fear of You, Lord, produces all this blessing and more. I want this blessing for others too, Lord. I want to say to them:

‘May the Lord bless you with His presence all the days of your life; may you have eyes to see His kingdom come in your life now and for eternity; may you find that life with God is life to the fullest; and may you bless future generations by passing on to them the great inheritance of the gift of Jesus.’

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #3

Praising the Unseen God (A Paraphrase of Psalm 115)

Taking my eyes off myself, God, and looking to You alone is where my hope is secure. Why? Because of Your love and faithfulness toward those who fear and honour You.

How strange that we doubt Your existence because You are unseen. What should we expect? That You would submit to our demands, You who rule the universe and beyond?

When we have a perspective of doubt, we show that we prefer a god we make ourselves—one that justifies the way we want to live, that condones our grasping, grabbing, selfish lifestyles. That perspective is just a façade for empty, impotent and temporal intentions. People who create gods for themselves end up becoming like them: deaf, blind, mute and paralyzed to attaining what You, God, designed them to experience.

Help those who honour and fear You, God, to continue to entrust themselves to Your help and protection. You know each of us inside out. You remember our frailties and will bless us with the kind of blessings we each need most. You bless those who fear You, whether we are young or old, obscure or well-known—all alike are blessed.

One way You bless us is by making Your family increase: we increase in love for You, faith in You, fear of You; we increase in character traits like Christ and in power to accomplish Your will; we increase in compassion for others—something often beyond us.

Continue to bless us, Lord–Maker of heaven and earth–so that we are enabled to realize Your great plans for us. We inhabit the earth but You invite us to share the heavens with You.

So the contrast becomes quite clear, God, between those who reject You and those who honour and fear You. The former gradually shrink and fade away like a dead leaf, fallen and blown away. But those who extol Your wonders expand for eternity in worshipful awe.

(Photo Credits: By Uroš Novina from Semič, Slovenia – Maple leaf in summer, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=50029518;  [[File:Fern Unfurling – geograph.org.uk – 160963.jpg|thumb|Fern Unfurling – geograph.org.uk – 160963]];  By Karlostachys – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=31299697)

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 10

TwoSparrows.jpg

Fearless

Ever been faced with a threat to your health or life? Ever barely missed being hit by an oncoming vehicle, a falling tree limb, a vicious dog or other serious threat? You know the feeling; a rush of adrenaline courses through your body, you involuntarily take in a gasping lungful of air and you react with the old ‘Fight or Flight’ response.

Fear is a powerful motivator. It can make us do things we never thought possible, or prevent us from doing things we assumed were inevitable. But sometimes fear takes on proportions it was never meant to have in our lives. It weakens us by limiting the opportunities we are willing to step into that would benefit our lives or others’.

Jesus tackles the concept of fear in this ‘Day 10’ of our exploration of Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Chapter ten lets us eavesdrop in on Jesus and His twelve closest friends as He appoints and authorizes them for a task. He is engaging the disciples in a sort of commissioning—preparing His apprentices for their first outreach project into the Jewish communities in their area. While the appointment is specific to the disciples, Jesus’ teaching regarding fear is very relevant to each of our lives and worth considering.

Jesus is preparing the Twelve to accomplish the double task of going to Jewish communities in the vicinity and healing every disease and sickness—physical, mental or spiritual—while teaching the message, “The kingdom of heaven is near.” He doesn’t want them to go into the task thinking all will be rosy. There will be barriers. Those who perceive their own power might be usurped by this ‘heavenly kingdom’ will not take kindly to the message. They never do. In fact Jesus warns His followers, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves” and “Be on your guard.” Followers of Jesus need to be wise in their exercise of the task Jesus gives them.

So Jesus comes right out and voices what they have all been wondering, saying, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” He is preparing them for a worst-case scenario. Most of those first disciples would face martyrs’ deaths—the Roman Empire of the day was free to inflict the death penalty where it perceived a threat—but the disciples didn’t know that yet. None of us know how we will meet our earthly end. And Jesus wants to discuss the issue of fear, because many situations are possible in our lives. We may face any number of worst-case scenarios; any one of an array of fear-inducing developments may arise to threaten our health, our welfare, or our lives. Jesus wants to prepare all of His followers to meet and defeat this great inner enemy each of us have known at some time or another. How does He do it? What deep metaphysical and rational reason does Jesus provide to enable His followers to combat and conquer fear? He tells them to consider the wild birds of nature.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Jesus muses. “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” I imagine Jesus makes this last comment with a smile. He can be the master of understatement when He wants to be. He is asking, ‘Do you even begin to know the great worth the Heavenly Father places on each of you?’

Jesus is revealing the depth of personal interest God the Father takes in each individual. Can anything truly disastrous happen in the life of a person who has entrusted himself or herself to God’s care? The answer to that rhetorical question is no! We must gather that thought and frame it; we need to place it forefront in our minds, understanding it as perhaps the single most important truth for understanding how to live our lives in this often dangerous and daunting world. God is with us; what need we fear?

David begins a psalm with that thought. “The LORD is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?” he asks himself. “The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” Again the answer is implied: an emphatic ‘no one!’

The secret to thwarting fear is to focus on the Father. Keeping in mind His great love for each of us makes the fearsome threats of life pale in comparison. We are of great value and worth to the God of the universe. Would He let anything hinder His plans for us? Absolutely not! Believe it—and watch those fears disappear.

(Photo Credit: [[File:TwoSparrows.jpg|thumb|TwoSparrows]])

WHAT TO EXPECT IF YOU MEET JESUS TODAY

IMG_9480

Part 1: The Offer

Simon was at the end of a long, fruitless shift. He and his buddies had forfeited a night’s sleep to go fishing, but the tilapia weren’t biting. The final clean up and sluice down of their gear was almost complete. Most of the nets were hanging out on their frames to dry. Shafts of sunlight were slipping over the crags of the lake’s eastern hills warming the fishermen’s backs. Simon was thinking only of bed when he heard the bustle of shopkeepers and their morning patrons moving toward the shore. One voice stood out among the rest and Simon looked up to see whose it was. He knew everyone in these parts, and he’d never seen this tall stranger who seemed to draw such a crowd.

What…?” Simon stifled a surprised grunt as the stranger, still talking, moved toward the two scows resting onshore. He boosted himself onto the gunwales of one of them, swung his legs over the side and sat down on, continuing to speak. It was Simon’s boat.

Simon took a step closer, not only in defense of his property, but to hear what this man was saying. As he did, the man’s gaze fell directly on Simon.

“Put out into deep water,” he directed Simon, “and let down the nets for a catch.”

Really?” thought Simon. “He doesn’t know we’ve been fishing all night with no success. We’re tired. The good nets are clean and drying; only the old ragtag nets are left in the transom. There isn’t a breath of wind so it will mean rowing. Doesn’t he know we’re done fishing for the day?” Simon was not in the mood to be told what to do.

But Simon and his buddies found themselves agreeing, and rowed out to the deep parts, leaving the crowds on the shore. And there, in the middle of the lake Jesus gave them a taste of what meeting Him means. Ragtag nets were barely tossed to sink below the surface when they were full of writhing, thrashing, flippers and fins. Hundreds of them.

The men’s reaction must have been awestruck, open-mouthed fear because Jesus told them, ”Don’t be afraid.”

He also told them, in a way, that they were done fishing – not just for the day, but forever. He had a higher calling for them. Those fish could go to the people onshore, but from then on, Simon and his buddies would be fishers of men and women, if they agreed.

What did that mean to Simon and Andrew, James and John, the first disciples that met Jesus? Maybe more relevantly, what does it mean to us, to you and me who live here and now, two thousand years later? Do we meet Jesus too?

I believe the answer is yes. The theme of everything we read in the Bible points to this one truth: Jesus is a man for all people and all times. He meets every one of us. Every person gets at least one chance to hear His offer and respond. You do and I do. It may not be at a Middle East lakeside setting, but He will come into your world, call you away and make you an offer. Then it’s up to you to decide: stay with the status quo, do your own thing and forever wonder what it would have been like to follow Him, or say with some fear, ‘yes’.

Jesus, meet us today. Help us put aside our fear long enough to hear your offer and recognize it as our hearts’ true longing. Boats, nets and fish aside, help us follow You.

OUSTING LESS FROM HOPELESS

IMG_0022

Euthanasia was the solution for our family dog yesterday. She had been getting steadily worse over the past three weeks and there was no improvement even with antibiotics. The vet phoned to prod us to action; the situation was hopeless, and Lassie was beginning to suffer.

The current rise in interest and political lobbying for human euthanasia may have some core similarity to our dog’s situation. I don’t mean about the suffering, because that’s a given. I’m wondering, rather, about that daunting word ‘hopeless’ that has such a dark and hollow ring to it. Is it more an issue of hopeless suffering that begs a solution than just the suffering alone?

We’ve all suffered to some extent. There have been the scrapes and bruises of life, the physical as well as the mental and emotional; there are the deeper injuries of broken relationships and interpersonal conflict. The cancers and dementias and chronic deteriorations take their toll and reveal how frail we really are for a species who thinks we have so much in our power. But is it the pain itself that defines the worst of suffering, or is it the hopelessness we fear?

Could it be that when we can envision no good purpose to our pain that our suffering becomes insufferable?

Read that again. Let that thought mull in the mind for a moment. The bottomless shaft of pain is not really the worst of the suffering, is it? It is the failure of the situation to embody any sort of good purpose. We want to know we are intrinsically bound to a higher purpose, a good that transcends the pain we are feeling now.

And if we can’t find that higher purpose, we’ll do all sorts of things to move that thought out of our consciousness: we’ll destroy ourselves if we have to, but we cannot endure the thought of hopelessness.

So when God, in His Word, the Bible, communicates the main theme of hope, it seems like that is about the most relevant piece of information our species could be given, doesn’t it? Listen:

Ephesians 2:12 “Remember… you were without hope and without God in the world.”

Colossians 1:27 “God has chosen to make known…this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Hebrews 6:13-19 “God made his promise…’I will surely bless you’… (and) we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”

Yes, there is and always will be on this aching old planet more suffering than we can see a purpose for. (Some people will use this as their main rationale to discount God’s existence). But in the midst of it all, God has made a promise to bless us. ‘Surely’, He says. ‘I will surely bless you.’ In other words, the pain may be chronic and far-reaching in this life, but this life is not all there is. There is a life fuller, more expansive, eternal and good for every person on this planet, just waiting to be grasped. There is even a good purpose to our suffering which, while we may not see or realize it in the here and now, will be revealed in that eternal life. That’s what generations of people who have opted for faith in Christ have chosen to believe.

It’s a narrow doorway to hope – we can only access it by entrusting ourselves to Jesus’ work on the cross for us. But it’s the most spacious and expansive place awaiting us on the other side. That’s what hope from hopelessness is all about.