Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 8

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‘Waw’

You don’t need to speak a word of Hebrew to recognize the out-and-back symmetry of the Hebrew letter ‘Waw.’ Forward or backward, it is read the same way. Like the words ‘mum’, ‘racecar’ and even the sentence ‘Madam, I’m Adam’ the phenomenon is intriguing. Linguists call it a palindrome (from the Greek, meaning ‘running back again)’. Palindromes can even occur in the sequencing of our DNA when a region of nucleotides is inversely identical with a complementary strand (Go ask your nearby biochemist for a better explanation). As we look at the ‘Waw’ section of our Psalm, we see it has a sort of palindromic rhythm to it too.

“May your unfailing love come to me, O LORD, your salvation according to your promise; / then I will answer the one who taunts me, for I trust in your word. / Do not snatch the word of truth from my mouth, for I have put my hope in your laws. / I will always obey your law, for ever and ever. / I will walk about in freedom, for I have sought out your precepts. / I will speak of your statues before kings and will not be put to shame, / for I delight in your commands because I love them. / I lift up my hands to your commands, which I love, and I meditate on your decrees” Psalm 119:41-48

It begins with ‘love’; it rises to ‘for ever and ever…freedom’; and it ends with ‘love’. The hippie culture of the sixties ran with a similar version of that theme—love and freedom—albeit distorted by an anti-establishment ideology. But the psalmist’s theme is different, worlds different. Running like a golden chain through the beads of this necklace is the psalmist’s respect for God’s authority—not just His authority over the macro-world, the physical universe, but also on a micro-scale, over the minute details of each person’s life. That does not sound hippyish at all. The freedom-loving flower-wearing beatniks claimed freedom would be found in rebelling against laws, any laws, not submitting to them. “Don’t let the man keep you down!’ they insisted.

“Freedom itself,” explains N.T. Wright, “must be generated, protected, and celebrated. But thinkers from St. Paul in the middle of the first century to Bob Dylan in the middle of the twentieth, and beyond, are still asking what “freedom” actually means. In a Christian sense it clearly doesn’t mean the random whizzing about of the subatomic particle, however much some eager political or psychological rhetoric may go on about the total removal of constraints.”

The psalmist recognizes that freedom is ultimately about being free to be genuinely human. This foundational freedom is found only in God who sets the necessary constraints that create the framework for freedom and then communicates those conditions to us through His Word. They come in the form of directions, promises, warnings, and ultimately in the person of His Son, Jesus Christ. God’s intentions for us are essential for freedom because only God knows what is truly best for us and has taken action to ensure our freedom.

But the psalmist back then didn’t know Jesus in person. He was positioned in history a millennium before Christ’s advent, yet he had a hope, a notion breathed into his writings by God Himself that true freedom would be coming in the shape of One who would embody God’s Word. Notice how he phrases his hope in the ongoing past tense “I have put my hope in your laws,” and how he envisions that hope to affect his life in the future tense, “I will walk about in freedom.” Accepting this concept, trusting its value, and regulating his life by it gives the psalmist something every person on this planet needs. Hope. His hope was not unreasonable. It was not a flippant ‘I hope God comes through for me’ sort of whimsy. It was based on the bedrock knowledge of God’s trustworthiness.

Trust,” explains apologist Ravi Zacharias, “is not antithetical to reason.” It is supported by reason, by considering a body of empirical evidence and concluding it is reliably worthy of trust. The psalmist had found God to be faithful to past promises, and experiencing that faithfulness led naturally to his trust and hope in God to be a Man of His Word. The hope of God’s loving and ultimate plan to provide freedom for people is a theme that runs throughout Scripture.

Jesus Himself read from the scroll of Isaiah, claiming to be the fulfillment of the passage, “The Spirit of the LORD is on me, because He has anointed me to preach good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim freedom for the prisoners and recovery of sight for the blind, to release the oppressed, to proclaim the year of the LORD’s favor.” The Apostles John and Paul follow that same theme saying, “(Y)ou will know the truth, and the truth will set you free“ (John 8:32); “Now the Lord is the Spirit, and where the Spirit of the Lord is, there is freedom” (II Corinthians 3:17); and “It is for freedom that Christ has set us free” (Galatians 5:1).

The psalmist got us started by speaking of love and freedom and trust, but he must pass the baton on to Christ who is love and freedom and hope embodied in the perfect human. Because of Christ, we have not only a hope of freedom but more, an ever-present friend who Himself is freedom and gave up His freedom to purchase ours. That’s love, freedom, and more love.

Opening the Door to Psalm 119; Part 6

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‘Daleth.’

“I am laid low in the dust,” begins the psalmist in ‘Daleth’, the fourth segment of Psalm 119. What a start. There’s nothing proud or glorious here. There’s no false gaiety or bravado insulating how he feels. There is no glossy cover hiding the despair and disappointment. But remember, he’s not speaking to us here; he’s pouring out his heart to God.

I am laid low in the dust; preserve my life according to your word.” The psalmist has bottomed out. It’s not just his feet that are dusty—he is flat out ‘laid low in the dust.’ He’s prostrate in it. The arid silt is gritty between his teeth, it’s stinging his eyes, it’s caked in his ears and it’s filling his nostrils. He’s not denying it. It’s threatening to swallow him into obscurity.

Perhaps he’s remembering the Genesis narrative in which the serpent was relegated to “eat dust” after tempting first-woman and first-man to rebel against God. Then first-man and his progeny were abandoned to return “to dust,” an incredible aftermath for creatures made in God’s image who had until then been feeding on the tree of life! For centuries the psalmist’s people had expressed their deepest sorrows with dust, covering their heads with its colourless, lifeless litter, remembering the curse.

But the psalmist doesn’t stop at the dust. He remembers something deeper and truer than his failings. He remembers God’s WORD. God, who “formed the man from the dust of the ground and breathed into his nostrils the breath of life” with a word (Genesis 2:7), who created the heavens and the earth with a word, “…and it was so.” To this the psalmist appeals.

In other words, ‘God, Your word is the only thing that can save me now. Speak it over me.’ And like a springtime downpour, God’s life-giving word rains down upon the thirsty souls not only of the psalmist but also of all who call on Him, souls willing to hear the word, take it to heart, and let it transform them from the inside out.

I recounted my ways and you answered me; teach me your decrees./ Let me understand the teaching of your precepts; then I will meditate on your wonders./ My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word./ Keep me from deceitful ways; be gracious to me through your law./ I have chosen the way of truth; I have set my heart on your laws./ I hold fast to your statutes, O LORD; do not let me be put to shame./ I run in the path of your commands, for you have set my heart free.”

The psalmist’s prayer is an agreement with God that he cannot sustain his own life, only God can. And the life that God gives him is the source of understanding and wonder, of strength and truth, of determination and faithfulness—virtues by which the psalmist recognizes God’s life takes hold of human life.

And as the psalmist grasps at the last straw it turns into a living proclamation by which the blight against his life is reversed and through whom the bondage of rebellion is undone. The proclamation is Jesus, anointed “to preach good news to the poor…to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim freedom for the captives and release from darkness for the prisoners…to comfort all who mourn…to bestow on them a crown of beauty instead of ashes” (portions of Isaiah 61:1-3). Beauty instead of ashes. Rich soil instead of dust. A heart set free.

God’s Word—Jesus—is unparalleled in effectiveness.

As the rain and the snow come down from heaven,” declares the LORD, “and do not return to it without watering the earth and making it bud and flourish, so that it yields seed for the sower and bread for the eater, so is my word that goes out from my mouth: It will not return to me empty, but will accomplish what I desire and achieve the purpose for which I sent it”(Isaiah 55:10,11).

As we hold fast to Jesus, God’s Word in the flesh and our hope for life, we begin a race where running is not wearisome, where dust is kicked off at every leaping stride, and where our hearts are finally free to climb up on high places to rejoice in our God.

(Photo Credit: MeghanBustardPhotography)

 

 

Why Celebrate Christmas?

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           Is Christmas really Christian, or are we merely Christianizing a holiday on which other traditions had first dibs? Wasn’t December 25th originally a pagan festival? Perhaps Xmas is the appropriate term for the holiday and our forbearers have been rash to put ‘Christ’ into Christmas…What if Jesus wasn’t even born on the eve of December twenty-fifth?—Isn’t it ridiculous to celebrate an event, the date of which we are uncertain?

We’ve entered the bustling final month of the year. Holiday cheer is rising in intensity; lights be-daub residential rooflines and commercial checkouts. Evergreens make their way into our living rooms, while merchants gleefully enjoy a month of unmatched consumer appetite.

For those who wonder whether we can merely make Christmas a celebration of lights and family and friendship, letting Christ be celebrated elsewhere in our hearts—as He ought to be all days of the year—perhaps there is more to consider. What do we know of Christ’s entry onto the human stage one undated night in history?

Jesus’ historical birth happened one starry night—perhaps between 6 and 4 B.C.—during a Roman Empire census-taking in Palestine. Traveller accommodations were scarce. His young parents did the best they could, securing shelter in a non-descript stable, perhaps a cavern in the rock behind an inn-transformed habitation.

Some unusual events preceded and attended His birth: a virginal conception, an angelic announcement alerting shepherds in nearby fields with the news and an unusual sign (a baby wrapped in swaddling cloths and lying in a manger). A unique star would direct a group of eastern mystics to the residence of the infant to pay tribute appropriate for a child-king; the Magi would inadvertently provoke the wrath of a murderous Herod-the-Great upon all infant Jewish boys causing an infanticide reminiscent of that in Egypt some centuries earlier.

Then this unique child, Jesus, would mature to become a man who was faultless, worked stunning miracles among the empire-oppressed people, claiming to be the Son of God, light of the world, long-awaited Messiah and Savior of all people. He would be executed at the prime of His life by the Roman Empire at the insistence of the Jewish ruling class, and reappear in resurrected form some days later. After appearing to hundreds of witnesses, He disappeared, promising to return to rule a remade heaven and earth in magnificent glory.

Not only does His advent into human history begin some two thousand years ago and move to embrace humanity’s corporate future. Prophecies recorded in the ancient writings of Old Testament authors encompass the entirety of our corporate past. He fulfills the particular roles of “offspring (of Eve who) will crush (the) head (of Satan)”—Genesis 3:15, written around 1450 B.C., referencing the early era of Adam and Eve’s expulsion from Eden; He is also “A great light (who) has dawned…To us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace. Of the increase of his government and peace there will be no end”—Isaiah 9:2, 6-7, written in the 8th century, B.C.; and One “out of (Bethlehem who) will come for (God), one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times”—Micah 5:2, also from the 8th century B.C.

The point to grasp is that the birth of Jesus Christ is a momentous occasion in human history. It marks the plan of God from eternity past through eternity future. His purpose is to beget Himself in human genes and divine intention in order to rescue for Himself people who are finally free—free to turn from sin’s destructive deathward spiral, and free to choose eternal life by Christ’s redeeming work.

Why not celebrate the miracle of Jesus’ birth? Why not choose one day of the year to remember an act of God that forever changes both the history and future of the inhabitants of this planet? Why not use lights and family and friendship to be the theme of this celebration? God brings light and love to this dark, hopeless world!

Father God, Incarnate Son, Spirit indwelling Your people; Accept our meager gift of celebrating Christmas, of focusing our thoughts on Your advent. We don’t know the actual night You entered this world as a fragile baby. You have chosen not to have had it recorded. We want to participate in this season, recalling the advent of Your arrival in order to honour You. We want to fill our minds with remembrances of that holy, silent night. We want to anchor our lives in the peace and joy of the freedom You give us from ultimate death because of Your own birth, death and resurrection. Lord, accept our worship of You. Bring others into Your great family whose hearts are softened by Your Spirit; as the simple shepherds worshiped You that starry, nameless night, may You draw many to worship Your majesty even this Christmas.

(Painting Credit; By http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/obf_images/7f/b6/5da112e3f84e5dc0025025fdca03.jpgGallery: http://wellcomeimages.org/indexplus/image/V0034617.html, CC BY 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36615546)

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #30

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Paradox Prayer (Paraphrase of Psalm 146)

Father God, I feel so glad when I think of You. My heart warms, my soul awakens, and my lips want to find a way to express my thankfulness to You. The best use for my life is to seize every opportunity to praise You.

There’s no point in praising princes, applauding the rich and famous, or flattering those who hint they have the power to do something for me. They’re just mortal like I am. Their glory passes, their lives end, and the memory of them eventually evaporates.

But You, Maker of all, You are Someone worth praising! In You we can put our trust and know it is well-placed. Not only is our unadorned simpleness not scorned by You, but You are the God of and for the weak. It’s a holy paradox.

You uphold the cause of the oppressed. You ensure that ultimate justice will be served one day, that the oppressed will be raised in glorious honour.

You give food to the hungry—not sparingly, but with prodigal generosity at the Great Banquet You are preparing even now.

You set prisoners free. Redemption frees those of us who have been in the worst kind of bondage, imprisoned in our senseless sin. Since Christ has taken the punishment that was our lot, we walk away from those chains free.

You give sight to the blind. We had not seen that the paths we had chosen would lead us into destruction. But as we admit our blindness, Spirit of Truth, You open our eyes to see there is more to life than the visible here and now.

You lift up those who are bowed down. We are all wounded in some way. Life leaves scars and weights that seem too heavy to bear. But You, LORD, are the Great Healer and Comforter. You lift us up in Your great arms of love and carry us to our journey’s end—the new beginning.

You love the righteous. The only truly Righteous One is Your Son, Jesus, whom You love with an infinite, inexhaustible and joyful love. Yet somehow, as we accept Christ’s gift of forgiveness, His righteousness covers our nakedness like a magnificent royal garment. Dressed this way, we enter Your presence in complete confidence that we are loved and accepted by You.

You watch over the alien. Those who have become refugees from society’s godless norms, who have faced its rejection, find refuge in You. You welcome us with open arms and give us citizenship in Your eternal Kingdom.

You sustain the fatherless and the widow. Great Father and Husband of our souls, we who have felt lost and alone find You to be all and more. You provide for our every need, Bread of Life and Living Water. We thrive under Your sustaining care.

Upholding, giving, freeing, revealing, lifting, loving, watching, and sustaining—LORD God You reign forever and for all generations. We praise You!

(Photo Credit: By JFXie (Flickr: O Praise Him) [CC BY 2.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

Culture of Life

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We’ve been dabbling in death for too long. From the French Revolution’s lethal guillotines through the atrocities of Jihadist terrorism and the convenience of ‘therapeutic’ abortions there runs a culture of death as swift and overpowering as a mighty current. The Western World’s recent ‘advances’ in assisted suicide provide a solution no less diabolical than Hitler’s death camps. Who can offer us something more than the hopelessness and emptiness of death?

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” answers the first century fisherman Peter. “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (I Peter 1:3).

Peter’s epistle of praise to God reflects upon and savours Christ’s offer of assisted procreation: the gift of “new birth.” It is more than a dry theological premise. Much more. The concept of Christian new birth is the key to living an extravagantly deep and meaningful life. But where did Peter come up with this concept of new birth?

The teaching originates with Jesus, who Himself explained, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” This new birth forms the foundation of the experience called the Christian faith. We all know what Christianity is, don’t we? But let’s look a little closer at what new birth really means.

Jesus explained, “Spirit gives birth to spirit,” and “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” He is saying that the Spirit of God regenerates that part of us that is designed to commune with Him and ultimately live forever within that primary relationship. The depth of this birth means that it is invisible to the human eye. It is the unseen core that now pulses within the believer. The Apostle Paul explains that we “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.” All fine and well, but how do we actually do this?

Peter anticipates our question by calling believers “newborn babies”, “obedient children”, “chosen people” and “a people belonging to God.” As God offers new birth to believers our first job is to embark on a new way of thinking about ourselves—that is, to understand our new identity. Every thought, every word, every intention and action we will go on to initiate arises from this mindset of our new identity.

Since we each come out of old, distorted identities prior to our new birth of spirit, we need to be intentional about settling this issue in our minds. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is now our God and Father. We are His children; we are no longer bound to be rebellious but are free to obey Him out of love for Him.

The third level of our new birth involves our behaviours. “Just as he who called you is holy,” Peter counsels, “so be holy in all you do”; “love one another deeply, from the heart” and “rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” Like the old saying, “Beauty is as beauty does,” our behaviours are the evidence of our spirit and our identity.

We have no small task ahead of us. Holiness is otherness; it is living other than the way our old bent to selfishness and lies used to cause us to live. God, though—great joyful mystery!—is on our side. Just as He launches our new birth through His Spirit giving life to ours and as He helps us understand our new identity, He also assists us in developing the new behaviours we need in order to be authentic. His Son Jesus is the model for the new character into which we will mature and His Spirit is the impetus within us to help us reflect our model.

So those who accept Jesus’ offer of living hope through His resurrection have moved. We have moved from a culture defined primarily by death, to one defined by life—eternal, Spirit of God-filled, ever-expanding life. It’s a new birth and a new identity, which leads us to new behaviours. How will this change the way you live today?