The (Almost) Impossible Paradigm: Following Jesus, Part 2

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Identities.

“Good teacher,” asked a young man one day, running up to Jesus and falling on his knees before him, “what must I do to inherit eternal life?”

At first glance, we seem to be observing an individual who is a genuine seeker. His posture has communicated keen interest and even submission; his face has likely transmitted eagerness and enthusiasm; his words have articulated respect and resolve. What more could Jesus want in a seeker? Yet Jesus begins His response with a challenge.

“Why do you call me good?” Jesus answered. “No one is good—except God alone.”

Strange. The man has merely used a respectful form of address, and yet Jesus confronts the very first word that has come out of the man’s mouth. Why?

From our records of Jesus’ three years of ministry, His death and resurrection, Jesus does not routinely correct people’s usage of language, so why now? Why this word? The answer lies in Jesus’ correction of the mindset behind the man’s use of the word ‘good’.

Jesus already knows something about this young man that the young man himself does not know—that he is motivated by false identities and false loyalties. He sees Jesus as a teacher—a good one, yes, but just a teacher. This is one of the easiest identities for us to apply to Jesus. It allows us to show him respect as one who authentically tried to add his voice to help a hurting humanity; it allows us to learn from his compassionate disposition; it allows us to appear to be reasonable, inclusive and tolerant of him, as one of many good moral teachers this world has produced. But it also allows us to distance ourselves from real core life change—from a relationship with the Son of God. Teachers are significant and memorable, but they’re neither perfect nor eternal. They’re not God. But Jesus claims to be God.

Secondly, the young man sees himself as good—a good obedient son and a good obedient member of the Jewish religion. He hears the list of commandments Jesus recites, and checks them all off as done.

“You know the commandments:” reminds Jesus, “Do not murder, do not commit adultery, do not steal, do not give false testimony, do not defraud, honor your father and mother.”

“Teacher,” he declared (notice the young man has withdrawn the word good as he addresses Jesus this time), “all these I have kept since I was a boy.” Wait. Has he really kept all the commands? Flawlessly? This young man has a self-identity issue happening here. He has defined goodness as something he has attained. He has already forgotten Jesus’ intelligence that “no one is good—except God alone.” Not only that, but he has failed to notice that within the list of the commandments to be followed Jesus has deliberately omitted the prime commandment contained in the Mosaic Law: “I am the LORD your God…You shall have no other gods before me”(Deut.5:7).

This is no coincidence. Jesus has been testing the young man. He has been trying to help the young man discern the state of his inner being, of his soul, of his relationship with the LORD his God. But the young man comes up empty. He completely forgets why the commandments exist. And the reason the young man has become distracted from the prime calling and purpose of human life is because he has found a replacement for God. He has found wealth.

Money, material possessions, and the power and social status that accompany the acquisition of wealth have bumped God into second place in the rich young man’s life. Perhaps it has happened so gradually he has not even been aware of it. He has conferred a false identity upon both wealth and God that inverses their true value and sovereignty.

Jesus has diagnosed the foolish rich young man’s heart condition from the moment the young man had come to Him. And now, Jesus offers the one prescription that will reverse the prognosis of spiritual decline into which the young man has fallen: dispose of the intruding god; jettison the cargo that is causing his ship to sink; eradicate the disease that is killing him. Give away his wealth.

Ah, say we. I’m not that wealthy. This doesn’t apply to me. But take a good hard look at how we identify ourselves. What two or three things are we most likely to want to communicate to others about ourselves overtly or covertly? Is it about our social position, our trendiness, our gender, our education or career, maybe even our identity as a victim of something? Anything with which we identify ourselves above our identity as worshipers of God the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit is a false identity, and Jesus says ‘Get rid of it! It’s destroying you and it’s destroying your relationship with God.

If this stirs our hearts, if it shakes anything within the core of our souls let’s do the impossible; let’s put God back into first position in our lives. It might hurt. It will mean a change of identities. But there is one thing we can know for absolute certain: it is good.

(Photo Credit: By Daderot (Own work) [CC0], File: False Identity Cards; via Wikimedia Commons)

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 7

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‘He’

Eight verses; nine requests. A flood of appeals leaps off the page as the psalmist makes his entreaty to God. For what does the ancient writer ask? Is he pleading for fertility for his land, his people, and his own posterity—like the Greeks would assign to their gods Aphaea and Demeter? Does he want power over invading armies—like the Assyrians’ pleas to Ashur and Ishtar? Is he demanding protection from environmental disasters—like the Incas did through their child sacrifices to the sun god Inti? Is he exploiting the powers of a deity of the dead—like the Egyptian demands of the embalming afterworld gods, Anubis and Ra? No. Rather, the fifth stanza of Psalm 119—petition to the One known as LORD—is a prayer for authentic, holistic, whole-life relationship with God.

Teach me, O LORD, to follow your decrees; then I will keep them to the end./ Give me understanding, and I will keep your law and obey it with all my heart./ Direct me in the path of your commands, for there I find delight./ Turn my heart toward your statutes and not toward selfish gain./ Turn my eyes away from worthless things; preserve my life according to your word./ Fulfill your promise to your servant, so that you may be feared. / Take away the disgrace I dread, for your laws are good. / How I long for your precepts! Preserve my life in your righteousness”. (Psalm 119:33-40).

The psalmist has come to the Great One Himself to ask to be part of God’s plan for humanity. He wants to become what God envisions for him, and is willing to undergo whatever the process requires. Did you see that as you read his request?

He asks for a transformed mind (”Teach me…Give me understanding”)—he recognizes that his natural mind is prone to misunderstandings, assumptions, even ignorance. He wants to know God’s commands so that his rational, logical mind can be engaged in the process of obeying God.

He also asks for a transformed heart (“Turn my heart…”)—he acknowledges his usual set-point is one of selfishness, and this self-centredness has distorted his humanity. To get to the root of the problem, the psalmist knows, to be truly authentic his heart must be God-centred. He must love God, but he needs God’s help to do it.

He then asks for clarified goals (“Turn my eyes…”)—he identifies the fickleness of his own desires, the tendency for his sensual nature to override his mind and his heart. To become constant, committed and unswerving, the psalmist asks God for blinders. He wants to repulse the flare and dazzle of temptation so as to be sensible to the radiance and glow of true (hu)manliness. But he needs God’s help if he’s ever going to conquer this powerful adversary.

But the high point of the psalmist’s appeals comes after the requests for his mind, heart, and senses. The zenith of his petition points to a promise. The psalmist has read God’s word and has discovered a treaty, a promise made by God and confirmed by a covenant. It was a promise to bless all peoples (Genesis 12:3) through a ‘seed’ (Genesis 3:15). The psalmist recognizes that a promise made by God is as good as a promise gets, and he wants to benefit from it. What the psalmists doesn’t yet fully understand is how the promise will be fulfilled—that the promise is not a what but a who.

Centuries later who would come onto earth’s scene but a baby, a descendant of the woman of Genesis 3 and of the man of Genesis 12. He was Jesus, the Promised One who alone could assure the transformation the psalmist desired in himself.

For the Son of God, Jesus Christ,” explains a later writer, “…was not “Yes” and “No,” but in him it has always been “Yes,” For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ…Now it is God who makes both us and you stand firm in Christ. He anointed us, set his seal of ownership on us, and put his Spirit in our hearts as a deposit, guaranteeing what is to come” (I Corinthians 1:19-22).

So we see it is He, Jesus, who answers and completes the psalmist’s petition. He transforms hearts, minds and goals. He takes away the disgrace the psalmist dreads of being less human than his Creator intended; He is the source of the precepts of Scripture; He is the Righteous One whose ransoming death and resurrection preserves the lives of those who submit to Him. He is the source of relationship with God. He is the answer to every prayer.

(Photo Credit: By Alex Sancliment – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=33675549)

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)

 

 

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)

OPENING THE DOOR TO PSALM 119, Part 4

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‘Beth’.

“Sam”, the so-named petrified remains of an ages-old Tyrannosaurus Rex, towers over the other displays of natural history at Vancouver’s Science World. Jaws gaping, one huge hind leg stretching metres beyond the other, tiny forelimbs posed to attack; this is not T-Rex as he was in life. The description posted near his claw-like feet explains this is not a bony skeleton on display. When this dinosaur had perished in a streambed somewhere in what is now called South Dakota, his body had eventually been entombed under layers of silt and other debris washed downstream or settled after a flood event. Over time, minerals like quartz and iron carbonate within the groundwater slowly seeped over and into old Sam’s bones making a tremendous change in Sam. Dissolving the matrix of bone tissue, and replacing it drop by drop with its own rocky characteristics, the minerals remade Sam—or at least remade his bones. The deep mottled browns of Sam’s new skeleton attest to its altered composition.

Dinosaur bones aren’t the only framework changed by the environment in which they immerse themselves. The poet responsible for penning Psalm 119 moves into the segment labeled Beth, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, emphasizing the influence of God’s Word upon the human heart.

“How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Praise be to you, O LORD; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word” (Psalm 119:9-16).

What does the psalmist mean by heart? We know he doesn’t mean the organic muscular organ responsible for pumping blood through the human pulmonary system. He’s no cardiologist. He is using heart as a metaphor for the deepest seat of value a person possesses. Heart—as he and we often use it—is the core of an individual’s value system; it is the abstract place within each of us where we assign worth to the things we appreciate. Perhaps the psalmist pairs the thoracic heart with the metaphysical heart as a result of the physical sensations our cardiac organ creates: the pounding when fear, excitement or a burst of action have occurred, the pain when something obstructs its oxygen supply, the weight and tension when the cardiac muscle is compromised. The metaphor helps us assign concrete words to the abstract reality of our metaphysical heart.

So when the psalmist asks the question, “How can a young (person) keep his way (integrated and authentic)?” he answers it by saying that an integrated life comes only by absorbing oneself in the value system God exudes—and which He has communicated to humans through His Word. This is what he means by explaining, “I have hidden your word in my heart.” Through painstaking persistence in immersing himself in God’s Word, God’s moral absolutes become the psalmist’s moral fiber. God’s holy character traits become his fortifying nature. God’s transforming love becomes his source of compassion.

As N.T. Wright puts it in After You Believe (2010), “…these are not…”Rules for the New Life,” but habits of heart and mind, ways of learning how to think Christianly about the ultimate future and about the pathway toward it—the pathway which is, as it were, a daily resurrection.”

Which brings us back to the petrification process Sam the T-Rex and other ancient artifacts have experienced. It might be helpful if we think of immersing ourselves in God’s ways (His Word, His values, His instructions for human living) as a sort of moral version of the petrification process. (Note, we don’t need to be sunk under silt for eons in order for this to happen!). As we consistently make choices based on God’s revealed ways (defined above), His moral fiber begins to replace our weak, capricious, unprincipled tendencies with true human maturity and dignity. Rather than decaying, we experience resurrection, not only for eternity but daily and even hourly as we submit to God and rely on His powerful reconstruction process in and for our lives.

(Photo Credit: Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3492758)

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #27

Prayer of Refuge (Paraphrase of Psalm 141)

Great Father hidden from our eyes but not from our hearts, our prayer is a cry to You: reveal Your presence here with us. We need You now more than ever. With uncommon speed come into our conscious awareness and fill it with Your trueness and love.

Like fragrant incense bringing You a pleasing aroma, may our prayers proclaim our worship of You, God above all. May our hands lifted to You in praise fulfill our greatest purpose—accepting who we are today by admitting who You are in infinity.

We need divine help if we are ever to gain victory over our own mouths, LORD. We find ourselves saying false and hurtful words that cause conflict and injury when our words ought to bring life and light and hope. Be the guard over our mouths that we need, LORD. Keep the door of our lips under lock and key when in our passion the barbed remarks threaten to erupt.

Our words reflect our hearts, LORD, so we need Your discipline there too. Protect our hearts from being drawn to evil. Keep us true to You, to Your love and light that motivate godly living. Guide our eyes and ears, our hands and feet by hearts obedient to You, Holy One.

May we accept correction and rebuke from Your Word and from each other as a precious gift. May Your discipline fill our hearts and flood every aspect of our being so we are truly ruled by You and for You. We’ve seen the results of lives that reject You—bones scattered around open graves.

So we fix our eyes on You, O Sovereign LORD; we take refuge in You. Only You can spare us that end, You Who give life beyond earthly struggles and beyond the grave. Our lives are in Your good and faithful hands.

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)