Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 12

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‘Yodh’

Is there a difference between optimism and hope? “Both optimism and hope,’ explains Miroslav Volf (Against the Tide), “entail positive expectations with regard to the future. But…they are radically different stances toward reality.” Optimism is looking at past or current conditions and mapping out likely positive future occurrences based on those experiences. It is based on circumstances and situations. Hope, in contrast, explains Volf, “is grounded in the faithfulness of God and therefore on the effectiveness of God’s promise.” Yodh, the tenth stanza of Psalm 119, illustrates for us what hope—not optimism—looks like.

Your hands made me and formed me; give me understanding to learn your commands. / May those who fear you rejoice when they see me, for I have put my hope in your word. / I know, O LORD, that your laws are righteous, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me. / May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant./ Let your compassion come to me that I may live, for your law is my delight. / May the arrogant be put to shame for wronging me without cause; but I will meditate on your precepts. / May those who fear you turn to me, those who understand your statutes. / May my heart be blameless toward your decrees, that I may not be put to shame” (Psalm 119:73-80).

The psalmist has had, or is currently experiencing, troubles of some sort. He’s suffering. He’s been “wrong(ed) without cause” and “afflicted.” He’s a rational person and there is no good reason to be optimistic based on his situation. He cannot extrapolate any realistically good outcome from his current experience with any sense of reliability. Optimism has failed him.

But listen to the hope infusing this segment of the psalm—words like “rejoic(ing)”, and “delight” explode the myth that pain removes dignity from life. Rather, in the midst of his pain, the psalmist looks to his Maker, the LORD God, to be faithful to His promise to be loving and compassionate to him. He is comforted by this relationship of love that God has initiated; he rests heavily on the faithfulness that defines God.

Circumstances have no power over the lives of those who entrust themselves to God. This is the most freeing truth the Biblical text communicates. While optimism can too easily shift to become despair, anchoring our hope in a loving God brings lasting peace and a solution to the dilemma ‘How do I live victoriously in the midst of suffering?’

It all comes back to promise. The faithfulness of God is always expressed and communicated to us in the form of promise. The psalmist recognizes this and reminds himself and God with the phrase “according to your promise.” And what is this promise? It is the theme that runs throughout the Bible from start to finish, spoken and respoken in many ways. An earlier psalm phrases it this way: “All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed” (Psalm 72:17b). The promise is Jesus whose purpose was and is to bless all peoples through His work on the cross—the unthinkable death of the Author of life bringing unimaginable life to those who were enslaved by death. He is Promise and He is Hope.

The result of living life with hope is a greater awareness of God’s thoroughgoing involvement in our daily lives. We become more aware that He made us with all our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social complexities. We become more resolved to submit to God’s ways (vs.73), more sensitive to encouraging others (vs.74), more open to God’s faithfulness, compassion and love in the midst of suffering (vs.75-77), more faithful in obeying God’s precepts (vs. 78), more connected to others who also fear God (vs.79), and more wholehearted in relationship with God (vs.80). Hope restores our humanity to us through the perfect humanity of Christ.

God never gives us second best. That is why hope beats optimism every time. Promise gives a preview of how life not only ought to be, but will someday truly be. Hope in the Promised One will take even the worst of our suffering and transform us into people with the character of the perfect God-man, Jesus.

CROSSROADS, Part 1

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Exploring Romans 1

“Two roads diverged in a yellow wood,” begins Robert Frost in his famous poem, The Road Not Taken, “And sorry I could not travel both / And be one traveler, long I stood / And looked down one as far as I could / To where it bent in the undergrowth; / Then took the other…”

He is describing a crossroads of sorts. It’s a place in his life where he must choose one of two ways to go. To be ‘one traveler’, one unsplittable person, means that he cannot choose both of the two diverging paths, though each look inviting. Both call to him with possibilities.

He ends the poem by reflecting, “I took the one less traveled by, / And that has made all the difference.” The crossroads was, indeed, a significant place for him. His life took a completely different track and course because of that choice.

Crossroads and diverging paths are like that. Every decision, small or large, moves us inexorably away from where we are, into new territory, into a future than would not be reality for us had we chosen otherwise. It can be daunting to think of that, but it’s true.

The ancient writer and apostle Paul describes the same phenomenon in the introduction of his letter to a ragtag group of people living in the hub of the Roman Empire mid first century A.D. These people had made a dangerous choice in that era. They had committed themselves to believe that a man they’d never met, who had been executed by the Roman Empire some twenty-five years earlier, was their best hope in life. They were entrusting themselves to this Jesus Christ, believing that He was no ordinary man, but actually the Son of God, now risen from death and living by His Spirit within them.

It was a crossroads for them, because they would now be hunted down by the Roman regime. Family and friends, coworkers and compatriots would begin to turn against them. The Emperor of Rome himself would, within a decade, use them as a scapegoat to take blame for starting the great fire of Rome, and literally feed them to lions to appease the angry Roman citizens. It was important for this tiny group of believers to understand just what this crossroads comprised.

The common path of humanity, explains Paul, diverges at the historical point of Jesus Christ’s resurrection. Here, at a place he calls the gospel, “a righteousness from God is revealed, a righteousness that is by faith from first to last, just as it is written: ‘The righteous will live by faith.’” This is one road.

The only other road is described in negative terms as “those who knew God (but) neither glorified him as God nor gave thanks to him”. Paul describes the future outcome of this path. He says it leads to futile thinking and darkened hearts, where the honouring of the glory of the immortal God is exchanged for man and animal worship. Unfortunately, that route leads to ultimate self-destruction, says Paul. It is the literal dead end for humanity – but darkened hearts can’t easily see that.

These are the only two alternatives we have. This is where two roads diverge for every one of us. We either humble ourselves to accept that God designed our ideal destiny to be accessed by faith in His Son Jesus, or, we end up chasing an elusive and dying pipedream of self-worship, earth-worship, or some other philosophy of worship.

Entrusting ourselves to God’s provision of Jesus is the road less traveled by that will make all the difference for us. It looks weak on the outside but it opens up for us a future of God-endorsed adventure and fulfillment.

So today, if we want to choose to follow that road less traveled by, we can begin by giving glory to God. We can thank Him for Jesus and His work of forgiveness, and we can move into His path for us by following in the direction of Jesus. Today’s crossroads holds great hope for those who are willing to walk the faith path. Are you on it?

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons; Carsten Tolkmit)

NEW WAY OF SEEING

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With a sinking feeling I eased the car into the left turn lane and slowed down to a stop, waiting for the advanced left turn light to go green. I saw the man pacing on the cement meridian dividing the lane from oncoming traffic, and grimaced – it was a panhandler. It’s not uncommon to see the homeless in the big city, but in our rural town it used to be a rarity. Yet, as our town has grown, so have the number of homeless.

I wince internally when I have to wait in a left turn lane while a panhandler paces by my window. It brings up so many questions. Do I make eye contact or not? Do I nod my head or shake it? Do I dig into my purse or keep a tight grip on the steering wheel praying for the light to turn green?

“What,” I wonder “is the right thing to do?”

Ever felt that way?

Jesus has a similar encounter (Luke 18:35-43). He is traveling south from Galilee on foot. He has been on the road for several days, and has attracted a crowd, as usual. He is heading for Jerusalem to keep a very important appointment. The Passover is imminent and He knows it will be His last; He knows His time has come to do for the world what He has ultimately come to do. He is a man on a mission, focused and single-minded in getting to Jerusalem to accomplish His task.

But just outside of Jerusalem, on the outskirts of the sleepy little town of Jericho, He has to pull into a left-turn lane of sorts. And there sitting by the roadside is a blind man begging. Neither Jesus nor the blind man can see each other because crowds of people are flanking Jesus as He walks along. But the blind man senses the commotion. He hears the crowd jostling by him and he asks the crowd what is happening.

“Jesus of Nazareth is passing by,” someone answers.

It is one of those moments in life when everything slows down as the mind races through every option and comes up with one imperative: Act now or forever regret the lost opportunity.

“Jesus, Son of David,” the blind man suddenly calls from the roadside. “Have mercy on me!” Will Jesus hear him or will his voice be drowned in the sea of travellers who surround Him? Will Jesus turn to him or move away avoiding eye contact with the beggar on the fringes?

“Jesus, Son of David,” he repeats, shouting desperately now.

Jesus stops. He scans the roadside looking for that one voice. He sets aside His Jerusalem-bound agenda, for a social nobody, and in that moment communicates something very important for every follower of His: nobody is a nobody; everyone has intrinsic value – everyone is worth stopping for and inquiring into. Every life is precious.

“What do you want me to do for you?” Jesus kindly asks the man who is brought to Him. This question reveals Jesus’ deep respect for the blind man’s humanity. He wants to know what this man values. He invites the man to verbalize what is it that he believes Jesus alone can do for him.

“I want to see,” he replies. It’s plain. It’s simple. It’s everything to the blind man.

“Receive your sight,” Jesus responds, and in a flash the man sees.

Looking deep into the man’s now-seeing eyes, Jesus commends him, “Your faith has healed you.” You and I did this together, Jesus is saying. I have the power and you have the faith. Faith pleases God immensely, and you have displayed this beautifully. It’s scandalous, but it’s true.

I’m not sure I know the solution to the panhandler on the meridian in my town. But now I know what Jesus thinks of him; He loves him, values him immensely, and wants to express that through me. That’s the framework for my new way of seeing the man on the fringes of my town. I have my list of things to do, all very important. But nothing is more important in Jesus’ eyes than pleasing the Father – and acts of faith do that. Instead of seeing an obstacle, I think I see an opportunity.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons; Alex Proimos)

JUST HUMAN

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Joaquín ‘El Chapo’ Guzmán was finally caught on Saturday. Captured in his high-rise condo in Mazatlán, the world’s most powerful drug lord must now face Mexico’s justice system. Years of profiting off of the illegal trade of cocaine, methamphetamine, and heroine around the world must be accounted for. But will the courts succeed in bringing justice?  Will corruption enable the powerful captive to continue his trade behind the walls of his prison? Or will he escape again like he did in 2001?

Thinking about this case leaves me feeling a little surprised. I wonder how one man can have become so immune to the damage he has inflicted on countless lives, and not feel remorse. He seems to have become dehumanized by the very business of which he is ‘lord’. Yet, as one article describes it, “the cartel has transcended the man” (Thompson, G. & Archibold, R.C. (Feb.25, 2012) El Chapo’s arrest unlikely to break Mexican cartel,  www.nytimes.com). His business will carry on with or without him.

Think about that word ‘dehumanize’. It’s a worrisome word. Not that the drug world is the only environment in which the corruption occurs. The word conjures up visions of the worst of humanity’s crimes—Nazi concentration camps, wars, slavery, sweatshops. Perhaps thinking of its antithesis is a better place to start. What does it mean to be truly human?

Let’s look back into the Genesis record of God creating the first humans. Do you remember how it’s put?

“Then God said, “Let us make man in our image, in our likeness, and let them rule over the fish of the sea and the birds of the air, over the livestock, over all the earth, and over all the creatures that move along the ground…God saw all that he had made, and it was very good.” That’s in the very first chapter. There’s much to be gleaned from observing beginnings. God’s impression of the unique creature we call Homo sapiens was that ‘it was very good’. So what is it that was good? What is it that makes us fully, uniquely and by God’s design human? And sadly, what is it that weakens, damages and even dehumanizes that design?

Something about God’s image, imparted to us humans at our creation, defines the core of our God-imparted humanity. It’s something central to our being that can flourish or be diminished as a result of choices we make. Something that describes us as fully human, or else be described as inhuman, dehumanized, inhumane.

We are charged with the enterprise of ruling the earth. God, Ruler of the Universe, makes earth a domain where His highest creature, man, will rule much like his Maker. So how does God rule?  With indifference, impotence or noninterference? Or with benevolence, wisdom and power? Those with a correct understanding of how God describes Himself in His Word observe that His attributes detail the perfect ruler—all-knowing, all-loving, all-wise and all-powerful. He rules with complete justice.

I submit that we, as image-bearers of God, are called to implement our humanity primarily by the practice of justice. Within every relational ecosystem we best express our humanity by being just. A just human is truly human. And a just human reflects the image of God.

So how do we practice justice? By ensuring that drug lords like El Chapo go to prison? I don’t know about you, but I’m not in that line of work. However, does this release me from the responsibility of practicing justice?

Isaiah 1:17 says, “Learn to do right; seek justice. Defend the oppressed. Take up the cause of the fatherless; plead the case of the widow.”  While the practice of justice is integral to real humanity, it’s a skill many of us have failed to develop. We need to relearn it. We need to seek it. It means looking out for the needs of the poor, the disenfranchised, the lonely and the socially outcast. It means putting ourselves into situations of discomfort for the sake of those who are hurting. We may have to delve deeper than we’re used to in order to find someone in need of justice. This is what it means to “love your neighbour as yourself”. There is nothing passive about it. But then again, there was nothing passive about God creating us “in his image”, was there?

So we have a task today, do we not? We must begin to learn what it means to be just. It’s not an academic subject, though; so don’t spend too much time in the books over it. It’s exceedingly practical. It might mean listening to your neighbour’s complaints, shoring up your side of the fence that’s causing them some grief. Or it might mean sponsoring a child through Compassion Canada. It might mean stepping back from your enjoyment of buying inexpensive clothes made in China, or chocolate harvested by child-prisoners in Uganda. It might mean voting to allow a recovery house to be built in your neighbourhood, or being honest on your tax return. You get the idea, and so do I. Now it’s time to get on with it. It’s a high calling, but we were created for it: get out there and be just, human.

(Photo credit: Eduardo Verdugo (AP)