Learning to Love (I Corinthians 13), Part 2

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Love is Patient.

We’re asking, “How do we love the culture around us—co-workers, neighbours, friends, family, those who offend us, those who reject us, those who may even be changing our culture for the worse—how do we love them in a way that pleases God?”

We’ve seen what love is not. It is not big talk, brassy proofs, or bold campaigns—not that big, bold productions are necessarily bad. Look at God’s intrepid exhibition in creating the universe: stars, planets and moons flung into vast, meteoric order so that one small planet could sustain life. That’s mettle with infinite love at its core. But we’ve observed that when we humans try to replicate the show, it comes from a heart of fear: fear of being found out as frauds, fear of failing, fear of missing out, fear of not realizing our unique selves.

We are infatuated with the idea of love; we think expressions of passion and stagings of happy-ever-after romantic matches are love. We think love is something we fall into, something of which we are passive recipients, something we must release with open hands when we no longer feel its fire. We use the idea of love to justify actions that promote our own satisfaction regardless of the long-term consequences.

In what colours does the ‘Love Chapter ‘of the Bible paint love? If we still expect a pyrotechnic revelation of love, we’re in for a shock. Rather than love as the roar of a waterfall, we’re shown it as the whisper of a hummingbird’s wings. “Love is patient,” the Apostle Paul begins. The words painstakingly inked onto the original papyrus would have taken no small amount of determination to inscribe. The grain of the stripped, flattened and glued papyrus leaf would have tended to draw the ink in strange directions like bicycle wheels caught in a rut, careening off their intended path. It took resolution to write those words. It took patience.

But patient writing with ancient inscribing materials is nothing compared to patient loving. Patient loving, explains the Apostle, must persevere against the grain of our natural earth-bound inclinations. What is patience? How do we begin to grasp the facets of this complex and difficult-to-practice aspect of love?

Patience begins with looking at God, with recognizing the vast eternality of His existence. “Be still and know that I am God,” He commands through one of the psalmists. To be patient is to be stilled and silenced in awe of the One who is Supreme. He is. Inhale the thought of Him.

Next, patience grows through learning about the patience of God Himself—the perfect, ultimate form of patience. “The LORD is compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in love” explains another psalmist. One of the breathtaking results of reading through Scripture is seeing examples of God’s great patience in the lives of ordinary folk—people like you and me. You and I are the Adams and Eves, the Abrahams, Sarahs, Rebeccas and John Marks of this century. Like them, we stumble along making messes that God patiently works through to align history with His great plan to bless this world. God never tires of taking us back into His arms after each of our breakaway attempts to do things our way. He patiently heals the wounds with which we’ve pierced ourselves, helping us understand the beauty of soul He desires to create in us.

And finally, perhaps most, difficult, patience matures when we step into the lives of others, when we treat them with the sort of patience God has shown us. Practicing patience means no one is beneath us because we recognize how far God has reached down to us time and time again to lift us up. Practicing patience is seeing all people as inherently valuable—nothing they say or do can change our mind that they are made in God’s image. No wound they inflict is unforgiveable. Practicing patience is…practicing. It is a trial-and-error sort of loving, recognizing we ourselves are imperfect, and that while our attempts to love are imperfect, we will keep on trying. For those who have submitted themselves to the Lordship of Jesus, there is the inside help of His Holy Spirit, counseling us, awakening our consciences, moving us into situations where patience is required. For those who have not His Spirit, patience is a much more difficult virtue to practice.

If we want to love we must grow patient. We must look at God and His great patience with us; we must turn outward to express that patience to those who need love: our families, friends, peers and co-workers, drivers on the roads of life, people online and off the political centre—none are immune to the loving effects of patience. God be with you.

(Photo Credit: By “Mike” Michael L. Baird, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3593420)

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Learning to Love (I Corinthians 13), Part 1

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What Love is Not.

A plethora of ethical and moral causes pulls at our hearts and consciences. Social media is full of it. Attempts to rescue endangered species, stop pipeline expansions, damn intolerances, tax polluters, and challenge our passive disinterest inundate the news. How do we determine which petitions and persuasions should take hold of us and move us to act? Some sound far-fetched but many sound so good. There is something within us that wants to be part of goodness winning over vice, of justice prevailing, of culture being reinvigorated or reinvented. We may even feel deep inside that our justification for living will never be truly realized until we have impacted our culture in a noteworthy way.

It is here that the Apostle Paul speaks across two millennia to address this contemporary issue: How do we love the culture around us—amid its myriad of issues—in a way that pleases God?

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels,” begins Paul in his well-known chapter on love, “but have not love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Why does this very famous ‘Love Chapter’ start with what love is not? Maybe because it is written specifically to Christians(!). Perhaps it is because one very subtle inclination is to make a spectacle of our love—an external statement for everyone around us to see. A motive of wanting to control others or be acclaimed by them replaces the motive of love. But the Apostle Paul is saying that these displays of ‘love’ are not really love. In fact, they are nothing more than a grating, irritating cacophony in God’s ears. God sees our hearts and He sees what’s going on deep inside. He recognizes that our sharp and loud voices, some of our bold projects, and many of our religious programmes have more to do with the opposite of love.

What is the opposite of love? Read it between the lines of the first three verses of I Corinthians 13. The opposite of love is fear—fear that moves us to try to control people and manipulate situations, our own selves, and sometimes even God. We can try to control others by speaking eloquently, by spouting all the most recent scientific, psychological, or social information on a subject. We can try to control others by launching campaigns, or by parading in front of others how compassionate we are. We can try to control ourselves by hiding the fear we have deep inside that we might not be of any worth. We can even try to control God with our good works, by thinking we can put Him in debt to us—to cause Him to do for us what we demand of Him. But it is all about fear.

One option is to demolish what many feel is the source of fear. Slogans like ‘No Fear’ champion the supremacy of human ability and achievement. The problem with this method of dealing with our innate fear is that in order to claim human supremacy, we must, by necessity, reject the supremacy of God. There is something connecting our fears with our ideas of a God who demands certain things. The basis for our morality then shifts from “God says…” to “I say…” in order to dismantle fear this way. But is this way of thinking consistent and livable?

The other option is to accept God for who He is and watch that create a change within us from the inside out. “God is love,” explains the Apostle John. “Whoever lives in love, lives in God, and God in him… There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love” (I John 4:16-18).

When we accept the truth that our innate fear is based on our intuitive knowledge of having sinned against God, we begin to step out of the shadow of fear; and when we remember Jesus’ debt-paying death on our behalf, we move from fear into the light of God’s expansive love. This is the necessary preamble to loving others. We must first accept God’s love for us God’s way: Jesus’ personal goodness projected onto us is the sole basis for God’s loving acceptance of us. Returning to this truth again and again is what drives fear away from its hold on our hearts. It is what restrains us from our gong-sounding, cymbal-clanging tendencies to be in control.

So when the tendency to be ruled by fear returns, when we are tempted to silence it by taking control of the situation and of others, let’s choose to rest in God instead. Kay Bruner, counselor and author, savors: “Fear says, ‘Don’t do it! You’ll be powerless!’ Love says, ‘You’re Beloved.’

 

 

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 10

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‘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

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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

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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]])