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 11

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‘Teth’

“Do good to (me)…” begins the psalmist in this ninth segment of Psalm 119. Those four words in themselves are enough fodder for a lifetime of thought: God. Good. To. Me. But there’s more. In and around and throughout the references to goodness, there are also references to evil (in the form of affliction, reputation-smearing, and callous hearts). This is interesting and worth exploring. How do good and evil correlate?

Do good to your servant according to your word, O LORD. / Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I believe in your commands. / Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. / You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees. / Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies, I keep your precepts with all my heart. / Their hearts are callous and unfeeling, but I delight in your law. / It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. / The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.

The psalmist has an idea that is nine-tenths formed. He is beginning to observe a principle and he wants to run it by God in the form of this prayer-song. We might call it ‘The Suffering Principle’. He sees that there is suffering in this world; there is evil in many forms and he has personally experienced it in the form of callous, reputation-smearing affliction-causing individuals. We know there are many other forms of evil too: illness, injustice, natural and social disasters, death. The list goes on. But there is also goodness; God’s goodness—of being and of doing—as well as a learned goodness the psalmist desires to be part of his own character. Somehow God’s Word is involved in this contest between the two opposing influences, resulting in some majestic phenomenon greater than all the silver and gold in the world.

The psalmist’s principle is this: (my) SUFFERING + (God’s) GOODNESS/POWER = GLORY.

Let that principle sink in for a minute. The psalmist is saying that when we experience evil in this life God is able (that’s the ‘power’ part) to use some divine alchemy to apply His goodness (powers of magnitude greater than any evil in existence) to bring about a process of transforming, mind-blowing, magnificence (what we’ll call ‘glory’).

The one-tenth part of the principle that the psalmist was just a millennium too early to know yet, is Jesus. Not one-tenth, really, but ten tenths, because He is the living Word, He is goodness incarnate, He is humankind’s glorious solution to the trouble we have experienced from the moment we arrived on the scene.

But how does Jesus bring goodness into our lives? Does He arrive like a superhero dressed for action pitting His power of goodness against the powers of evil? No and yes. No, He doesn’t eradicate present evil and suffering by imposing His goodwill upon unwilling earth and its inhabitants. But, yes, He does overcome evil by submitting Himself to the destructive powers of death itself, and, after paying the ransom evil holds over this earth, rises triumphant. He then invites each of us to be the throne on which He rules. In this way, Jesus offers goodness in the form of Himself to each of us. Good comes to us not externally but internally through Christ indwelling any and all who accept Him. Listen to how He explains it to an outcast woman who happened upon Him alone at a well late one day.

“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water’” (John 4:7-10).

Jesus initiates the conversation by drawing her to see that the good she can give is but a drop in the bucket of the eternal Good He can give her through His Spirit. As she begins to grasp this offer by degrees, her own suffering as a social outcast becomes the platform through which she invites others to experience the goodness of God too. We do not hear each of their stories, but as a community we hear them rejoicing, “…this man really is the Savior of the world(!)” (John 4:42).

The glory the Spirit of the living Christ living in our lives is beyond our greatest expectations. Jesus, the man of sorrows who took our suffering upon Himself to the point of death, does not stand at a distance offering glib condolences to our sorrows. He, the precious Word of God, actually enters into us, girding us up from within, filling us with His own goodness so that our suffering is used for good—has a purpose that transcends the transience of this earth. The result is and will be the greatest glory: the glory of God transforming lives, the glory of good completely obliterating evil, the glory of God and His people someday entirely outside of the influence of suffering.

So let’s come to Jesus for the drink He offers us. Take a long deep draught of it and be refreshed. It is good.

(Photo Credit: By Themenzentriert – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11362535)

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 5

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‘Gimel.’

Two forlorn characters shambled down the road leading away from the city. They were still disheveled from the events of the weekend. It had started as a party, but had ended in a lynching—and they were lucky, they figured, to have escaped. As they walked, they talked through the problem. And as they talked, a stranger came up and began to walk with them.

“What’s this you are discussing?” the stranger asked.

And they told him. They told how their hope had died with the man they thought was the long-promised ruler who would free them from their nation’s political bondage. That man had been lynched by a mob and now these two were confused. Their culture’s holy writ had disappointed them.

With that, the stranger began to explain to them what the Scriptures were really saying concerning the Man in whom they had hoped. The message flowing through every verse—he explained— was about Him. As the stranger opened their minds to this realization, their hearts began to burn within them with the truth they were hearing—the surprising story-within-a-story contained within their Law.

Suddenly they recognized the stranger. It was Him—Jesus—the one they had seen cut down, strung up, and tortured to death! He—more alive than ever— was speaking about Himself, the fulfillment of every hope, the message behind every word of Scripture, the life of that hope, not the death of it! (Luke 24:13-32, paraphrased)

But we’re here to look at ‘Gimel’ the third stanza of Psalm 119 aren’t we? Our first impression as we see numerous references to the personal pronoun I, me, and my, is that the message is personally relevant to someone. Then we notice each verse makes reference to the Word (also called law, commands, statutes and decrees) as if it is a key to something incredibly important for life. And a third layer shows us it is not merely a what but actually a who impacting human life—the creator and owner of the Word, unnamed here.

“Do good to your servant, and I will live; I will obey your word. / Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law. / I am a stranger on earth; do not hide your commands from me. / My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times. / You rebuke the arrogant, who are cursed and who stray from your commands. / Remove from me scorn and contempt, for I keep your statutes. / Though rulers sit together and slander me, your servant will meditate on your decrees. / Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors” (Psalm 119:17-24).

This is where the event recorded in Luke comes in. How would Jesus have explained this passage, actually “opened the Scriptures”, as Luke puts it, so that His listeners’ hearts were burning? Where is He Himself mentioned? In these eight prayer-like verses we see the fingerprint of life-giving work that characterizes not only Himself, but each person of the triune God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit.

Do good …” the psalmist begins, “and I will live.” Goodness, true goodness, is a characteristic of God the Father working on behalf of the world He created. “And it was good,” is the repeated refrain we hear in the Genesis account of creation. Later, the Apostle James explains, “Every good and perfect gift is from above, coming down from the Father…” Goodness epitomizes the Father. The very core of Scripture is the Father’s purpose to bring goodness to people like you and me. The goodness of the Word is God the Father Himself.

This passage is also about the Holy Spirit of God. While the first verse references God the Father through goodness, the last verse references God the Spirit through the word “counselors.” In Jesus’ final hours with His disciples He revealed to them the plan that His physical presence with His followers would henceforward be replaced by His spiritual presence through the Holy Spirit. “And I will ask the Father, and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16). The counseling aspect of the Word is God the Spirit Himself.

And finally, this passage is about Jesus. “Wonderful things in your law” is a veiled reference to the Messiah whom the prophet Isaiah explained would be called “Wonderful” (Isaiah 9:6). The plan of God to enter into His own creation as a human being to rescue a self-destructing world is nothing less than wonderful. The wonder of the Word is God the Son, Jesus Himself.

And so ‘Gimel’, meaning three or third-letter, gives us the message that God’s Word is really His threefold self, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit communicating with us so we may live. Really live. Try reading the passage again, replacing the phrases like “your word” with “You, Father”, “You, Jesus”, and “You, Holy Spirit.” Then let Him set your heart on fire.

(Photo Credit: By Dwight Sipler – After the rain, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=54734606)

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)

CROSSROADS, Part 10

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Smoke or Sunlight.

Satellite photos don’t lie. Draped like a thick brown blanket over the land and seascape of the coast, smoke has invaded my town this week. Phrases like ‘air quality’ and ‘wildfire’ circulate through news stories and are the subject of everyone’s table talk. We think there is still blue sky and sunshine above it all, but we have little evidence from the ground to prove it.

The crossroads explained in Romans chapter Ten describes something similar to the strange phenomenon of smoke in the air we’ve just observed. The apostle Paul (58 A.D.) quotes Moses (c.1400 B.C.) as saying that there are two ways of organizing our lives. One way is to try to live by a set of rules (even if those rules include one that says, “There are no rules”). This way causes people to be caught up in a perpetual search for meaning to life. Some try to “ascend into heaven” – looking to things like astrophysical explorations, astrological predictions and ozone depletion solutions for meaning. Some try to “descend into the deep” – thinking that finding answers to earth’s carbon fuel shortages or marine pollution problems will provide meaning to life. We can each fill in the blanks of ways in which we have observed ourselves or others have tried to explore the reaches of human possibilities to make life meaningful. It’s all a smokescreen though. It’s a smoggy tabagie of ideas that distract us from seeing, smelling, and tasting life the way God intends us to live.

God’s way is to live by one word. That word is not some distant intelligence from outer space or inner earth. Paul says, “The word is near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart.” He’s talking about our attachment to Jesus as our one and only hope. Of course, as the Son of God, Jesus is vast. He is transcendent – beyond what we will ever be able to fully fathom. He is higher than the highest sky and deeper than the deepest sea. But He is also imminent – He is ‘God with us’, content with nothing less than His Spirit living within us. His purpose is to fill us completely with love and joy, peace and patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. “Against such things,” says Paul in another letter, “there is no law” (Galatians 5:22,23).

It is ironic that those who choose not to follow Jesus use, as their reason and defense, the rationale that ‘following God is just a bunch of rules.’ Jesus says differently.

“My command is this,” says Jesus, “Love each other as I have loved you. Greater love has no one than this, that he lay down his life for his friends. You are my friends if you do what I command” (John 15:12-14).

This way is no smokescreen. It’s as clear as a blue summer sky, minus the pall of this world’s confusing vernacular. We are to love God first. Then we are to love others truly – not pandering to their self-destructive demands, but laying down our lives for them in so many practical ways each day. We are to model joy by finding satisfaction in the presence of God even in the midst of our suffering. We are to experience peace, even when life takes away everything this world says counts. We are to express patience by giving others the space to grow even when it looks like they are making a mess of their lives and ours. We are to be kind, even when we think others don’t deserve it. We are to be good – something that only comes by spending much time with God. We are to be faithful to God, rock-solid followers in spite of our human inconsistencies. We are to be gentle – soft-spoken, tenderhearted toward others. And we are to practice self-control – doing as we ought, not as we sometimes feel like.

I’m not saying that science, environmentalism or any other intellectual pursuit in itself is wrong or futile. God made matter, so it’s all His and it’s all good. But it can be abused. It can be smoke and mirrors if we depend upon it for our ultimate meaning in life. The juncture we see in this chapter of Romans is a division between the smokescreen of a human-initiated search for life’s purpose, and the clear light of Jesus’ presence when we confess with our mouth “Jesus is Lord”. That’s the difference. That’s the crossroads. When we’re in the midst of the smoke we don’t always know it, but when we take the bold step to move out of the smoggy atmosphere of faithlessness, the view is stunning. The air is clean and clear, and we can see for miles.

I want the fresh air of life with Jesus. I want whatever comes with it, even if it means having to live a life of real, sacrificial love instead of a ‘self-realizing’, self-identifying, and self-serving existence. I want to believe in my heart, live out with my life, and confess with my mouth that Jesus is Lord every moment from here on. Are you with me?

(Photo Credit:  By Wing-Chi Poon [CC BY-SA 2.5 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/2.5)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons)

PSALM 106: WHOLENESS

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Part 1: Goodness and Love (Psalm 106:1)

“Praise the LORD. Give thanks to the LORD, for He is good; His love endures forever.”

Two attributes of God are relevant to every aspect of our lives: that He is good, and that He is loving. His goodness is bent on making the form and function of His creatures whole, while His love impels Him to give of Himself to benefit those creatures.

God’s goodness means that He is poised, positioned and disposed to bring wholeness toward every person here on planet earth. He made us not only for His own good pleasure (neither masochistic nor neglectful), but also for our pleasure; He wants our lives to bring joy to both ourselves and Himself – not egocentric, self-gratifying amusement, but deep, wholesome forever-enduring pleasure. He will do everything divinely possible to bring us out of this present dominion of self-destruction into the kingdom of renewal and re-creation. God’s goodness empowers people who are willing to become new from the inside out. Our awareness and appreciation of God’s goodness will lead us to praise Him in worship of His being, and to thank Him for the transforming experiences we face in this life. This mindset, where people praise and thank God for His goodness, is a mindset of spiritual health, wellness and wholeness. All else is cheap and disappointing imitation.

God’s forever-enduring love intentionally leads us toward something called the ‘kingdom of heaven’. His love guides us to the gate between here and there, between the tangible and the intangible, the seen and the unseen. His love carries us across the lintel, over the doorstep and into an eternal, limitless expanse where love is the rule of order – not selfish, grasping love, but life-giving, spirit-growing love. We begin to be touched by this love when we allow His Spirit to help us grasp “how wide and long and high and deep is the love of Christ, and to know this love that surpasses knowledge – that (we) may be filled to the measure of all the fullness of God (Ephesians 3:18,19).

There is a catch. In order to be recipients of God’s goodness and love we must humble ourselves before Him – the most difficult endeavor our free-willing selves will ever undertake. We are told we must kneel before the Father, accept strength from His Spirit, and have faith in Jesus the Son. That is a tall order. Those actions describe submission to One by whom we are willing to be mastered, and then praise and thank Him for every event He allows in our lives.

We all know how some events feel like anything but expressions of God’s goodness and love. That is where faith comes in. Like submitting ourselves to a trying therapy we know will bring us eventual healing, we must trust God’s goodness and love. This is the only way to wholeness. In the quietness of our inner soul, we must rest in the firm belief that God is equal to the task of ultimately proving His faithfulness to be both loving and good.

O good and ever-loving Father; help me see that your goodness to me is not about ease or selfish gain, but about full and complete wholeness as You designed me to be. I accept Your goodness, regardless of how it feels to me today. Satisfy my craving for Your love, so wide and long and high and deep it is beyond comprehending. That You, Jesus my Redeemer, should pay my moral debt, I am eternally thankful. And that this love goes on into eternity’s future leaves me breathless and wondering. To be so loved is beyond my greatest hope and wildest dream. Thank You.