Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 19

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‘Pe’

There is a mantra, a cliché, a rumbling reaction whenever an ideological conflict arises between members of society. The most vocal insist their rivals are motivated by nothing less than ignorance and hatred along with a good dose of hypocrisy. Any expression in opposition to their voice is routinely termed harassment and is dealt with sternly. These are the current buzzwords. They are emotionally charged words intended to hijack and shut down all dialogue through the shaming of any dissenters. This is twenty-first century western society, and if you don’t agree, you must be one of the ignorant, hateful bullies out there.

It was not much different three millennia ago. The psalmist who wrote ‘Pe’, the seventeenth stanza of the longest Psalm, felt it. He understood that following the precepts of the eternal God—principles and standards for human flourishing—was not politically correct. He felt the oppression both from external sources and from his own internal bent toward selfish autonomy. But was he a perpetrator of ignorance, hatred, and harassment?

“Your statues are wonderful;” the psalmist begins, “therefore I obey them. / The unfolding of your words gives light; it gives understanding to the simple. / I open my mouth and pant, longing for your commands. / Turn to me and have mercy on me, as you always do to those who love your name. / Direct my footsteps according to your word; let no sin rule over me. / Redeem me from the oppression of men, that I may obey your precepts. / Make your face shine upon your servant and teach me your decrees. / Streams of tears flow from my eyes, for your law is not obeyed.”

Firstly, the psalmist recognizes that his faith is based on understanding—on reasoning and on thinking rightly about God, himself and the world around him. “The Bible,” explains theologian Timothy Keller, “teaches that faith is not only compatible with reason, but that it consists of, requires, and even stimulates profound thinking, reasoning, and rationality.” Christians are deeply committed to truth. So while Christians may need to discern the nuances and applications of truth in difficult areas, they are more likely to be committed to embracing truth than to hide in ignorance. All truth is God’s truth, and “exists,” explains John Piper, “to display more of God and awaken more love for God.”

This brings us to the second challenge. Are Christians defined by hatred? The psalmist describes people of faith as “those who love (Yahweh’s) name.” Jesus expands on that by summarizing God’s Law as “Love the LORD your God…and love your neighbour as yourself.” And the evening before His death Jesus reiterated His foundational command to His followers to “Love each other.” So, just as with ignorance, the accusation of hatred is neither founded nor representative of people who live by faith. A Christ-follower’s life and beliefs may be different from and unpopular with that of the culture around her, but it is not a result of hatred.

And thirdly, how does the psalmist address the accusation of hypocrisy? “Direct my footsteps,” submits the psalmist, “according to your word; let no sin rule over me.” The psalmist recognizes that integrity occurs when understanding and love inform action. Authentic living is the result of ceding God’s authority over our lives and then making choices that are in alignment with His sovereignty over us. Hypocrisy is either the result of saying ‘God is in charge’—but then living as if we are, or else of saying ‘There is no God and no basis for morality’—but then expecting others to abide by our subjective beliefs about ‘rights’. Both worldviews are foreign to Christianity.

The psalmist verbalizes for us that faith is the kingpin for right living. By faith we are given understanding, by faith we are enabled to truly love, and by faith we walk according to the light. These are not in, or by, or of ourselves, but as a result of the indwelling Spirit of Jesus who epitomizes truth, love, and authenticity. The more seriously we embrace faith, the less prone we will be to engage in ignorance or hatred or hypocrisy.

Photo Credit: MeghanBustardphotography

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Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 15

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Nature or Nurture?

There is a debate within psychology concerning you and me. Are we the product of our genetic/biological pre-wiring, some ask, or do our behaviours stem from external influences in our environment? Is it nature or nurture that makes us do what we do? Francis Galton (a contemporary and cousin of Charles Darwin) was convinced it was all nature, suggesting society could be improved by “better breeding.” Studies such as Bandura’s ‘Bobo Doll Experiment’ of the mid-twentieth century supported the theory that social behaviour is learned entirely through observation and imitation. Current thought is that neither heredity nor the environment act alone to make us behave the way we do—but rather they interact in a complex manner not yet fully understood.

In the fifteenth chapter of the gospel of Matthew, Jesus faced a similar controversy. With clarity that was both unorthodox and unflinching, He challenged the Jewish teachers of the day who had come to Him with acrid criticism.

“Why do your disciples break the tradition of the elders?” demanded the Pharisees. “They don’t wash their hands before they eat!”

This may sound anything but significant to us, but to theses Jews tradition was everything (Remember Tevye in ‘The Fiddler on the Roof’?). Jewish life was orchestrated around a complex regimen of rituals known as the kashrut or kosher law, including symbolic washing of hands before eating. The Jewish teachers were censuring Jesus for allowing—perhaps even leading—His followers to violate what was most sacred to them: tradition.

“And why do you break the command of God,” countered Jesus, “for the sake of your tradition?”

Jesus went on to give them an example of their hypocrisy and injustice. He quoted the fifth commandment given to the people by God—“honour your father and mother,” a clear, straightforward command. Yet, he observed, you ‘teachers of the law’ have twisted your expectations of the people so that they must support you financially rather than supporting their aged and needy parents. What kind of tradition is that?

But He was not done with them yet. He wanted to help them escape from the corruption and delusion to which their external traditions had bound them. Without internal transformation tradition was only lip service.

“Listen and understand,” Jesus articulated carefully. “What goes into a man’s mouth does not make him ‘unclean,’ but what comes out of his mouth, that is what makes him ‘unclean’.”

We may not understand at first how shocking and offensive this comment would have been to the Jews—to any Jew. He was saying that all the Jewish traditions that require cleanliness—the kosher and traditional cleansing rituals—are misused and misunderstood if people think by observing them they become ‘righteous.’ The core problem of humanity is not dirty hands or germs ingested when eating pork. It is a foundational problem of the heart.

“Don’t you see,” added Jesus, “that whatever enters the mouth goes into the stomach and then out of the body? But the things that come out of the mouth come from the heart, and these make a man ‘unclean.’ For out of the heart come evil thoughts, murder, adultery, sexual immorality, theft, false testimony, slander.”

Jesus is making a very clear statement about humanity’s condition in relationship to God. He’s saying that the nature of each of us is to reject God’s authority over our lives. All of us have deep within us a core of rebellion against God. Do you see that in your heart? I see it in mine. God is more concerned with that inner bent of heart than clean or dirty hands, good or evil deeds. The only solution—if we want to have that core problem corrected—is what Jesus offers. He offers the great exchange: we give up our autonomy, and He takes the rap for our sin. The kind of freedom we need comes at a cost.

But lives lived by that reality do begin to notice something: autonomy becomes increasing dependence upon God; selfishness gradually gives way to compassion for others; emotional chaos and confusion are more and more replaced by peace that passes understanding; internal commitment becomes authentic outward expressions of truth and goodness.

So we’re left with a choice. We can ride with the easy idea that if we do a few good deeds we can be ‘good enough’ for God. Or we can admit and accept what Jesus offers: a new heart. What do we want—external or internal?

(Photo credit: By T.K. Naliaka – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=36622513)

CROSSROADS, Part 2

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Exploring Romans 2

Having chosen to step into the good path is only the beginning. The crossroads is not the finish line. The road less traveled by of Romans chapter One is not the journey’s end. Nor is it an easy path, a moving sidewalk of precast and predetermined progress. Stepping into this path does not guarantee we will never diverge from it again.

The early religious community to whom God’s tutoring was primarily directed had made that mistake at times. God had clearly communicated that He was pleased with people whose hearts, souls and minds were wholly set on Him; their hands and feet would then follow that inner lead. Somehow, though, they had gotten it backwards. They had chosen to make the external signs of their creed more important than the internal ones. The practice of circumcision, rather than reminding them of their high calling to live lives reflective of their inner purity, became a badge of deceptive pride to them. It was their membership card into the Old Boys’ Club of religiosity. Exclusivity was only a step away from smug self-righteousness.

We are not much different. There is something in each of us that tempts us to return to the self-confident swagger of badge-wearing externalism. Old habits die hard, and this one is particularly persistent.

The temptation to divorce external acts from their internal meanings is a real danger. We don’t approve of it in others – we call it hypocrisy – yet we may ignore it in ourselves. In his letter to the Corinthian believers written about the same time as the letter to the Romans, Paul gives an example that Greeks could understand. They were mostly non-Jews, so the circumcision example would not be relevant. But they must have been a vibrant and charismatic group whose pattern of expressing their faith was extraordinary. They spoke flamboyantly, they discoursed theologically, and they were willing to sacrifice their wealth for the cause; but even they were on the precipice of divorcing the true driving force of their actions from the actions themselves.

“If I speak in the tongues of men and of angels, but have not love,” suggests Paul, “I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but have not love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and surrender my body to the flames, but have not love, I gain nothing.”

Whether it is the symbolic badge of traditional spirituality that the Jews were prone to rely upon, or the charisma of knowledge and humanitarian effort that the Greeks practiced, the path Christ calls people to follow is first, last and always founded on God’s love.

Each day, almost every moment of each day, we come to a crossroads of decision regarding God’s love. We must choose to accept God’s indwelling Spirit of love and follow His direction in expressing that love, or choose to ignore that call. Behaving as we choose and then labeling it ‘love’ won’t work. Leaving the straight and narrow road and renaming the diverging path by some euphemism will not change its ultimate destination.

Yes, we are to express external signs of our commitment to Christ. Those signs, though, must represent a vibrant, living relationship with the Spirit of God who is in the process of transforming us from the inside out. Every step we take with our hearts attuned to His still soft voice is a crossroads, calling us to be genuine. A heart on the right path is a life on the right path.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons; Bob Embleton)

THE D.C., GOD, AND YOU, Part 4

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Where is Your God?

Adrianne Haslet-Davis knows what it’s like to have her support knocked out from beneath her. Surviving the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing incident, the dance instructor woke up after surgery minus her left foot. The sensation of numbness was piercing; how does a dancer dance on one foot?

The besieged King Hezekiah of ancient Judah knows that feeling too. The mighty empire of Assyriah has surrounded his city. The threat is very real. The field commander’s words are designed to undermine the foundations of his confidence. The enemy’s voice drips with sarcasm as he addresses Hezekiah.

“…You say to me, ‘We are depending on the LORD our God’ – (but) isn’t he the one whose high places and altars (you) Hezekiah removed…?” In other words, your fanatic worldview has left you void of resources. You haven’t a leg to stand on. You have no access to God. In fact, you have no God.

Haven’t we sometimes heard that same challenge? Hasn’t strafe from cultural censure attempted to damage our faith? Karl Marx shoots his dart – “Religion is the opiate of the masses” –  and Robert Heinlein aims his – “Religion is a crutch for weak-minded people”. Atheist Richard Dawkins and former Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura have repeated fire using that latter quote. We may even rephrase those questions ourselves at times of difficulty, asking ourselves, ‘Does God even hear me? Where is He now?” The dominant culture (D.C.) around us sets its point of equilibrium excluding God. It communicates that the concept of God puts the teeter-totter of our lives out of balance – tips us too far one way or the other. It recites failures and excesses of those for whom religion has justified terrible acts upon humanity. We are tempted to believe them, to keep our faith hidden, silent, and ineffectual fearing their challenge might be true.

How does Hezekiah respond to the bombardment of Assyriah’s verbal assault on his foundation of faith? He runs. Not literally, but he sends a message to his spiritual guide and it sounds like he’s been hit in the foot by shrapnel. Listen.

“It may be that the LORD your God will hear all the words of the field commander, whom his master, the king of Assyria, has sent to ridicule the living God, and that he will rebuke him for the words the LORD your God has heard. Therefore, pray for the remnant that still survives” (II Kings 19:4).

Hezekiah understands he needs help. He needs support from someone of like faith who can help him deal with the challenge, ‘Where is your God?” He echoes the enemy’s question by asking his guide to appeal to “your God”. The challenger knows Hezekiah has torn down high places and altars; their charred remains litter the surrounding hills.  He suggests Hezekiah has destroyed his own access to God. The Assyrian commander’s provoking interrogation leaves Hezekiah wondering.

The D.C. of today can cause us similar dismay. It is the first to point out the failures of organized religion, the weaknesses and hypocrisy. We extrapolate that to mean our own faith is an ineffectual prop, not worthy of broad universal application.

What Hezekiah needs help noticing is the error in his aggressor’s assertion: the fallen ‘high places and altars’ were never designated by God as His places of worship. In fact, he had forbidden their construction and usage. They were a form of god-manipulation without His endorsement. Hezekiah needs to see that rather than proving his God is absent, it illustrates God’s justice: no artificial worship succeeds for long.

Let’s take comfort from that thought. The trappings of idolatry, like the hypocrisies within religion will all fail. We are not religion loyalists – we are sons and daughters of Almighty God. Where is God? He is within us. He is behind, before, beside and beyond us. Never let the D.C. confuse us into thinking otherwise.