The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 3

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Love.

We left the rich young man after hearing Jesus give him the terrible diagnosis of his life: in order to follow Jesus he must discard his competing loyalties. In his case it was wealth. In our case it can be any one (or more) of a vast number of things: anything that puts something else before our loyalty to Christ.

But let’s go back one step in this story. The young man has just claimed he is living what he considers to be a good enough life; he maintains he has kept all the requirements of the Jewish Law. He wants confirmation from this rabbi that he can claim eternal life as his just deserts.

How does Jesus respond? Here in Mark 10:21, Mark describes Jesus’ reaction from a point of view that invites us right into Jesus’ heart. It is a moment that deserves our full attention, because it is the story of humanity in a nutshell. We, too, each live our lives by an ethical scale of sorts; we have either transposed it from the principles that our families, our traditions or our society have established, or we have created it from an eclectic collection of any of the above. We may even claim we reject any concept of right and wrong, but honestly, we don’t live that way do we? We all live by some internal classification system of right and wrong.

So here is Jesus, God in the flesh, the One whose character is the basis for all moral excellence —listening to this young man’s proud assertions that he has followed moral law to the letter. How will He respond? –By congratulating the young man? –By slamming him for his pride? –By laughing at him?

We’re told, “Jesus looked at him and loved him.”

This is how Jesus looks at each of us. We may prattle on about how good we are, or we may keep silent about our personal convictions. We may regularly leave hints for others to observe and come to the conclusion that we are pretty good people. Or we may march in parades proudly displaying our ideologies and daring others to contradict us. It doesn’t matter. Jesus still looks at each of us and loves us. Does that mean He condones our self-made rules for living? No.

Jesus knew that not many days after this meeting with the rich young ruler He would be walking the path from Jerusalem’s Praetorium, his back in bleeding shreds from a scourging, his scalp dripping from the piercing, humiliating crown of thorns. He would be walking toward the most egregious form of execution the Roman Empire could devise, and He would be taking the punishment the totality of humanity deserves for the crux of our moral flaw—our hatred of God and His sovereignty. He would be buying our freedom from an eternity of self-destruction each of us face upon our own deaths. And it was in this knowledge that Jesus looked at the rich, self-satisfied young man and loved him.

What do we do with this? How do you and I respond to this same Jesus who even now looks at you and me, and loves, loves, LOVES us? This is the quintessential issue of life. Nothing else matters but this. Jesus knows about our foolish attempts at morality (mostly used by us to earn a sense of self-esteem). He knows only His ransom-paying death and death-defying resurrection can supply us with the eternal life we all ultimately long for. And He longs to love us into His kingdom of eternity.

But it comes down to this: Do we look at Him and love Him in return?

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Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 22

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‘Resh.’

If there is one thing God has communicated to us humans, it is that we matter. The most relevant piece of information we will ever be able to grasp is that you and I are immeasurably loved and valued by Him.

“(Our) shared core hunger,” writes Tony Schwartz in an article for the New York Times, “is for value…We each want desperately to matter, to feel a sense of worthiness.” It’s what he calls ‘The enduring hunt for personal value’. James Gilligan, who authored “Violence: Reflections on a National Epidemic” after studying human violence for over 40 years, began to observe “the frequency with which I received the same answer when I asked prisoners…why they assaulted…someone. Time after time they would reply, ‘Because he disrespected me’.”

As the psalmist moves into the third-to-last stanza of the interminable one hundred and nineteenth psalm, his singular petition is that God—who has embedded an element of His own worth into each person—will express the ultimate act of valuing human life: to preserve it indefinitely.

“…Preserve my life according to your promise,” the psalmist appeals. “…Preserve my life according to your laws,” he adds, and “…Preserve my life, O LORD, according to your love.” What does he mean by promise, laws, and love as the mechanisms of preserving life—the psalmist’s life, or yours and mine for that matter?

Firstly, the promise the psalmist references goes back ages to the time of Abraham. Abraham was God’s handpicked individual to begin a nation and race of people to whom and through whom God would speak. At God’s chosen time some 1500 years later, when strange prophecies like a virgin birth came together with others in fulfillment, Jesus was born from that race. The promise made to Abraham was, in short, “You will be a blessing…and all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.” The promise of blessing was fulfilled not at Jesus’ birth, but at His death and resurrection, because with that moral ransom paid, Jesus made the eternal preservation of human life available to every person on this planet. That was the promise. That is what is available to each of us who have accepted Jesus as our ‘ransom-payer’; we will find eternal life with Jesus on the other side of this life. That is how the promise preserves lives.

Secondly, the laws the psalmist references go back fewer ages to the time of Moses. Moses was God’s handpicked individual to lead the nation that Abraham had fathered into the Promised Land. On that journey, Moses was also given the daunting task of teaching the nation that God is a God of integrity, and that He can only be in relationship with people who respect God’s authority to require that integrity to be developed in them. The laws were commands God clarified through Moses, commands like: “I am the LORD your God; you shall have no other gods before me” and “You shall not covet.” Those two commands alone were enough to make it pretty clear that every human on planet earth was incapable of obeying God completely. That was fine because it turns out that “through the law we become conscious of sin” (Romans 3:20). Consciousness of sin leads us to do one of two things: rebel further against God and make a grab for complete freedom from God’s presence, or submit to God in humble repentance, accepting God’s gift of forgiveness through Jesus, and access to His presence for eternity. That is how the laws both condemn and preserve lives.

And finally, the psalmist references the LORD’s love which covers both the span of eternity and of creation, of which this planet is a mere blip in time. God, who is three persons in one—Father, Spirit, and Son—exists in a unity described by perfect love. He is completely fulfilled in the expressions of love that bind the Trinity unsparingly, perfectly, and completely together. Yet somehow—in the greatest mystery of the ages—as God created the universe, He made humankind the pinnacle of His loving creative expression. To be in loving relationship with Him was the purpose God embedded into every man, woman and child. We are created in such a way that our greatest joy and fulfillment comes only through loving Him in return.

The psalmist was right. The promise, the laws, and God’s love, are the essential components of God’s great gift to us: the preservation of our lives for eternity. He values us immeasurably. He wants us to be in continuing existence with Him—in future bodies created to last forever—long after these present shadows of bodies have ceased to be preserved. So dig out a Bible. Begin again to pour through its pages and find out how God valuing our person is tied to His intention to preserve us for eternity. Come to this sanctuary of preservation.

 

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 18

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‘Ayin’

The most awful realization is that one can never be good enough for God. It is also the most wonderful. No accumulation of good deeds could ever outweigh the sins we’ve committed or earn us eternal life, but then again, it doesn’t need to.

“The gospel,” explains theologian Tim Keller, “is, you’re more sinful than you ever dared believe, but you’re more loved and accepted in Christ than you ever dared hope.”

So in ‘Ayin’—the sixteenth stanza of Psalm 119—as the psalmist opens with the apparent corollary: “I have done what is righteous and just; do not leave me to my oppressors”, we must be careful not to make a faulty assumption. The psalmist is not saying that he has an inherent goodness, which has put God in debt to him to make his life easy. Rather, the psalmist knows of an ancient pronouncement made by God regarding humanity—a presage that hinted of a distant future: In order for anyone to truly flourish in full and joyful relationship with God, a certain Someone must and would come to “crush the head” of evil. Only then would the proper relationship between God and people be restored, would rebellion and its consequences be vanquished, and would love overrule law. Not surprisingly, the psalmist builds the remainder of his stanza around the theme of the loving Master-servant relationship. Listen.

“I have done what is righteous and just; do not leave me to my oppressors. / Ensure your servant’s well-being; let not the arrogant oppress me. / My eyes fail, looking for your salvation, looking for your righteous promise. / Deal with your servant according to your love and teach me your decrees. / I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes. / It is time for you to act, O LORD; your law is being broken. / Because I love your commands more than gold, more than pure gold, and because I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path.”

We need to consider our reaction to the psalmist’s three-fold use of the term “servant”. Virtually every human based master-servant relationship to ever have occurred in history has been painfully flawed: masters have abused their power causing much suffering; servants have resented their masters’ power, secretly trying to undermine it. It has been a lose-lose situation.

But imagine a Master whose character is noble and perfectly good, who is loving and generous and just. Imagine a Master whose goal is to empower His servants to steward tremendous resources put into their care. Imagine a Master who shares with His servants the fruit of all His labours and who helps them find greater freedom within their servanthood than they could ever experience in their rebellion. Imagine a Master who became human to “ma(k)e himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…and who…humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:7,8). This is the Master-servant relationship the psalmist catches a glimpse of in his psalm.

The psalmist hints at this relationship because he–writer in the second millenium B.C.– occupies a place in history well before the arrival of Jesus, the Master-incarnated-as-servant. He is yet “looking for (the One who would be his) salvation.” But leaf forward through the pages of Scripture to the Gospel of John, and we hear Jesus speaking to His disciples on the night before His crucifixion.

“You call me Teacher and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:13,14).

Jesus claims to be the Lord God, the eternal Master of humanity, calling loving hearts to be His servants, recipients of His love, to even become transformed individuals. And how must they demonstrate this new role? Like their Master, they must serve others with humility and love; they must demonstrate their new life to the Master who took the sting out of death by bearing the spiritual death penalty Himself in His crucifixion. They must fix their hope on the eternity their Master Jesus has prepared for them—an eternity of productive, fulfilling, beloved servanthood.

So while it is natural to call upon God to interrupt the oppression and injustice we suffer at times, it is important we recognize God’s greatest act of justice in the history of humankind—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His death has made impotent the power of evil. His resurrection has given His followers new lives that will eventually be characterized perfectly by Christ’s own character.

Let’s join the psalmist in looking to God’s salvation, His righteous promise: Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, whose perfect goodness is credited to our account as we entrust ourselves to Him.

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 16

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‘Nun’

Taking the ‘path of least resistance’—also known as the principle of least effort—is the brain’s natural impulse to choose the easiest route. Art Markman, cognitive scientist at the University of Texas, suggests that the path of least resistance is also a dead end to finding solutions to difficult problems. “Our memory drives us back to things tried and true” says Markman, even if those solutions no longer work for today’s problems. For instance, the ‘white lie’, used in the past to escape interpersonal consequences for seemingly ‘unimportant’ issues, becomes a major dead end to developing a long-term relationship like marriage. Markman suggests three solutions to combatting the principle of least effort: “expand the information you have in memory, re-frame the creative problem, and change your collaborators.”

The psalmist pens a lyrical yet strangely parallel message in ‘Nun’, his fourteenth stanza of Psalm 119.

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. / I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws. / I have suffered much; preserve my life, O LORD, according to your word. / Accept, O LORD, the willing praise of my mouth, and teach me your laws. / Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law. / The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts. / Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. / My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end” (Psalm 119:105-112).

The psalmist seems to apply Markman’s three points to the ancient yet common human dilemma of breaking out of the rut of life. Look carefully and we see the psalmist’s formula: Scripture as a directive resource, eternity-informed living, and God as collaborator.

Step One. The truest way to break out of our comfort zone and see the world and ourselves in a new way is to take God’s Word seriously. The psalmist recognizes God’s Word as the only light to truly reveal wise living, and he takes an oath to bind himself to it; he is fully cognizant of the restraint this will put on his future decisions, but he understands the principle of freedom-producing restrictions. A mindset of keeping God’s decrees—summed up by Jesus as firstly loving God wholeheartedly and secondly loving our fellow human beings as creations of God—expands the information in our memory as to be a powerful decision-making resource.

Step Two. Eternity-informed living is the most radical way to re-frame our problem. Earth as the stage wherein we access God’s mercy through Jesus’ sin-paying ransom for us is the most profound and far-reaching innovative thought to ever hit our species. The hope offered us not only sets our sights on a glorious afterlife, it gives us strengthening support in our present hardships.

Step Three. Make God our number one collaborator. God’s approach to human living is radically different than our natural bent. Read the gospels and see if the way Jesus lived and taught wasn’t counter-cultural to the nth degree. A commitment to listening to the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture and through the life of Jesus will force us to consider things from a completely new perspective. Yet the psalmist recognizes God is not only the perfect collaborator; He is ultimately Master and Lord. Our autonomy must bow to His authority. Then and only then will we experience the strange oxymoron that dying to self produces full, flourishing life.

Bowing to the deep innate drive to satisfy self is nothing more than the path of least resistance, the principle of least effort. Bowing to the Almighty Creator resists that path. Obeying God’s Word, accepting Jesus’ authority, and inviting His Spirit to indwell us is the beautifully releasing restraint that guides us to be truly human for eternity. It’s a choice—a challenging, breath-taking, leap-of-faith choice—but it’s infinitely more satisfying than the old life. Come; join the resistance.

Photo Credit: Mr. Arif Solak [[File:Caglayan Waterfalls Honaz Denizli Turkey.jpg|thumb|Caglayan Waterfalls Honaz Denizli Turkey]]

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 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)

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #28

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Island of God’s Goodness (Paraphrase of Psalm 142)

Help me, Father, by Your great mercy; attend to my call. I appeal to You because You are good, and because I know only You can help me. When my spirit grows faint within me and all my other supports fall away, then I begin to realize that only You understand what I am experiencing and are able to turn it into good for me.

You see the snares hidden in my path—traps waiting to trip me up, sea storms threatening to capsize, capture and destroy me. Some appear at first glance to hold fortunes, illicit treasures mine for the taking, yet they will be nothing but trouble if I turn toward them. They are all opiates, tranquilizers that remove me from the reality of Your goodness. The evil one is willing to destroy my faith by overt attacks or by subtle temptations—whatever means are within his control to imprison me.

But with You, Father, I have discovered a true path, a refuge and a rescue, freedom for my soul. With You I am freed from the prison of fears and inconsistencies, rebellions and selfishness, these dreadful enemies of mine.

Your connection with me fulfills my deepest yearning—my need for an island of goodness. It’s an oasis of love and compassion where You offer me the deepest of relationships for my good.

So here I come again, desperately in need of Your protection. Give me safe passage to Your Island of Goodness where all that pursues me is blocked from entering. Here I am safe. I am freed to praise Your Name.

I praise You, God of goodness, who does good to me and to all that come willingly to Your island. You surround us with Your faithfulness and grace for eternity.

(Photo Credit: By en:User:Mwanner – en:Image:Small Island in Lower Saranac Lake.jpg (photographer: en:User:Mwanner), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4703476)