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 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

Twenty-eight Days with Jesus; Day 3

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INTEGRITY

First impressions stay with us. They persist as a sort of foundation for everything else we come to know about a person, a place or a thing. They become the backdrop and milieu upon which we build all new information we learn.

When the author of the gospel of Matthew describes the first scenario involving Jesus as an adult, quoting the first of Jesus’ words he chose to record of Him, it makes an impression. It should. Here in the third chapter of Matthew—our Day 3 of twenty-eight days exploring the life of Jesus—we learn something foundational about Jesus. A character trait emerges that means everything to our understanding of this unique man.

We are also introduced to the religious leaders of the day. We first see them arriving at a remote desert location to ferret out the source of a grassroots movement. They are concerned an ascetic in the desert might dilute their power over the local people. There, on the banks of the Jordan River where it snakes its way through dry and dusty hills, they find an earthy hermit-like character called John. He’s performing a ritual of cleansing that had started a millennium and a half earlier as a result of an understanding of God’s great holiness.

“You brood of vipers!” challenges the baptizer, honing in on the Jewish leaders with his piercing eyes and voice as they descend the hill. “Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce fruit in keeping with repentance.” He turns his back on them in blatant disgust. The crowds that had come to the waters in humbleness look on in disbelief.

“I baptize you with water for repentance,” explains the camel-hair-robed sage, turning to those who had come with sincerity to the water’s edge. “But after me will come one who is more powerful than I, whose sandals I am not fit to carry.”

Perhaps this very day, or at the least not too many days later—we’re not told which—Jesus arrives at John’s river-baptismal. Perhaps he takes his place in the queue or maybe he is there earlier than any of the others at dawn’s break, the desert night’s chill still on the sand.

John tries to deter him, saying, “I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?” Why should the sinless Son of God submit Himself to a rite of cleansing?

Jesus answers, “Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.” So, we’re told, John consented. He baptized the Holy One and was one of those who heard a Voice from heaven thunder, “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.”

There is a theme in this chapter that runs like a golden thread through the characters to whom we are introduced. It’s about integrity. The unorthodox John who understands his role as one who would “in the desert prepare the way for the LORD”—we see his integrity in his humble admission of need for purity in contrast to Jesus at the river’s edge; the proud Pharisees and Sadducees, arriving to quash this upstart revival of people tired of living meaningless lives—we see the leaders’ lack of integrity in their deficiency of what John calls ‘fruit’, evidence of humility toward God, compassion and mercy toward their followers; the crowds, ‘sheep without a shepherd’, people like you and me who realize that God is holy and we are not—people who are willing to open their hearts to be changed so that their outward lives will be transformed; and we see Jesus—the One whose primary goal was to “fulfill all righteousness”, to live a perfect, sinless, obedient to-the-Father life of integrity in the keeping of a promise made millennia earlier. That promise was to be the seed that would develop fruit to bless all people everywhere.

The perfectly complete integrity of Jesus is the only hope for humankind. By it we may accept God’s forgiveness. By it we may enter into a new life and hope. And by it we may resource integrity growing from the inside out of our own lives day by day.

This ‘Day 3’ message calls out to us from Matthew’s gospel with piercing clarity and truth. We know deep inside we fail miserably every day in our attempts to live with integrity, when we try it on our own. Yet, as Matthew tells us, there is One who is for us, will live in us and through us if we are willing. Let’s come to Jesus, the completely righteous Son who longs to live His integrity through us with only a word from us—yes.

(Photo Credit: “ArugotRiver” by Maglanist at en.wikipedia. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:ArugotRiver.jpg#/media/File:ArugotRiver.jpg)

DANIEL: PATTERN FOR PRAYER #6

  STEADFASTNESS

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Fast forward to the past’s future. Now in his seventies, Daniel has spent his life serving in the Babylonian palace. Many of his contemporaries have gone, and Daniel is living in relative obscurity. Nebuchadnezzar is dead.  The king’s grandson, Belshazzar, has been slain in a military coup by the Medes and Persians, and Cyrus has placed Darius king over Babylon. It hasn’t taken Darius long to observe Daniel’s exceptional qualities of integrity, courage and reliability. The king plans to promote Daniel to CEO status, but envious administrators scheme a plot to discredit the Jewish exile. Daniel, aged man of prayer, is about to face his darkest night at the hands of the enemy of his soul. His adversaries will stop at nothing to destroy his influence.

Perhaps you can relate. Maybe not the empire, the coup and the plot, but maybe you have felt like you are living in obscurity. Maybe you’ve tried to live a life of integrity, but your colleagues haven’t appreciated the contrast to their own work ethic. Maybe you can’t put your finger on the cause, but you sense you are in your own ‘dark night of the soul’.

Daniel has been modeling for us what a life of earnest, resolute prayer looks like. There is no room here for whimsy. The man or woman who chooses to live out prayer has determined to be characterized by RESOLVE, AWE, ACKNOWLEDGEMENT, TRUST and HUMILITY. We now observe Daniel adding STEADFASTNESS to the formidable list.

Daniel is steadfast in maintaining a routine that puts God first. This routine puts Daniel on his knees praying to God three set times each day. His knees have become calloused, maybe even arthritic, but that doesn’t stop him. His window opens south toward distant Jerusalem, beloved city he will never again see, yet somehow his prayers include thanksgiving to God. He perseveres even when he knows his kneeling posture will earn him the death penalty.

Ironically it is king Darius who is unnerved. It is he who is distressed with the unalterable edict, he who spends a sleepless night fretting over his impotency to save Daniel. Daniel remains steadfast. He is snatched from his knees by delighted adversaries, and thrown into a pit from which none have ever escaped. Those knees have served him well in the past, and no doubt he lands in the dark pit in prayer-ready posture.

Do we? When we are thrown into life’s upsetting pitfalls do we land on our knees? Is our first reaction to bow before the One who holds our lives in His hands, and pray? Are our eyes open to the Eternal Father’s presence when the night is long and dark and cold?

We are told little of Daniel’s dark night other than that he survived. The presence of God was palpable to Daniel, and his leonine adversaries could not touch him. Not this time. Other God-followers would someday fall to the death-grip of ferocious beasts, but that would be their story. Their steadfastness would protect them in other, equally meaningful ways. So it is with us. We are given the opportunity to choose to add steadfastness to our soul’s development. It might start today. Have we knees upon which to bow today, and commit to do so until our final day?

 

PRAYING THE BEATITUDES, PART 5

PRAYING THE BEATITUDES, PART 5

Matthew 5:6

“Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness.”

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English writer Samuel Johnson once observed, “A man seldom thinks with more earnestness of anything than he does of his dinner.”  We might add to that breakfast and lunch! When Jesus describes spiritual earnestness in the allegorical terms of hunger and thirst, He successfully captures our attention. We know what it is to hunger and thirst in the physical sense. We have spent years developing the feeding of that life-sustaining habit. In His classic understated style, Jesus uses this fourth axiom to portray another aspect of kingdom living.  He emphasizes here righteousness. Righteousness is God’s character trait that demands He maintain absolute integrity to goodness and justice. It is moral perfection. God is eternally consistent in maintaining His own righteousness. Not only that, but He has big plans for us too. Jesus Himself came to earth to catalyze the plan in His atonement-by-sacrifice endeavor. The result?  We earthly offspring of God may be considered as having the same righteousness as His one and only heavenly Son, Jesus, if we accept the offer. But we must seize the opportunity. No dilly-dallying passivity will suffice. While we cannot earn this estate, we must demonstrate our desire for it.

Not surprisingly, prayer comes into the process again. Jesus advises us to pray, “Give us today our daily bread” (Matthew 6:11). Maybe He means breakfast, lunch and dinner, but I have a hunch it’s more than that. I think He’s pointing us to this hunger and thirst for righteousness. He’s reminding us that we not only find our physical needs supplied by our Maker, but more importantly, our spiritual needs. Not only that, but our spiritual sensitivity can be honed by the very act of petitioning God.

Saint Augustine observed the connection between spiritual earnestness and prayer, advising, “Pray as though everything depended on God. Work as though everything depended on you.” Scripture repeatedly points to spiritual earnestness, a hunger and thirst for relationship with God, as the crucial mindset of a true follower of Christ.

The author of Hebrews observes that God ‘rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb.11:6). Like the previous three axioms, number four has its reward too: “They will be filled”. The hungry will be satisfied. The thirsty will find their dryness quenched. We are enabled to “participate in the divine nature and escape corruption” (II Pet.1:4). As if that were not enough, the promise is that we will be filled with the Spirit of Christ Himself. Jesus lives in us, through us, with us and for us.

We need to take a deep breath and ponder this. It feels like we’ve just feasted on an amazing banquet of truths. Our full, thankful, restful spirits absorb the nutrients that will sustain our souls. Jesus’ beatitudes are everything and more. We are blessed.

Psalm 15:5b Be and Do

Verse 5b  “He who does these things will never be shaken”.

We’ve come to the conclusion of the Psalm, the prayer.  It’s a call to action.  It’s a promise.  It’s a challenge.  The prayer has been a fathoming of the Sovereign, holy God whose core descriptor is His absolute existence. He is; and we have become aware of it.  A high view and fear of Him is the fitting response.  We have benefited from His attributes: become blameless by Christ’s Blamelessness, are enabled to speak truth and love others by His Truth and Love, embrace integrity through His Wholeness.  Now it is time to “go and do likewise”.  Enough root-bound pondering; it is time to move into action or “be shaken”.

Soren Kierkegaard observes, “Christianity understands what it is to act and what it is to keep love incessantly occupied in action”.  It takes faith to act, to be motivated by our beliefs to behave on the basis of those beliefs.  Everything we understand God to be, we must be and do to others.  He is Love – we must love others.  He is Just – we must be just to others.  He forgives – we must forgive others.  He is not asking us to be automatons:  every day, every moment, we have the choice to be and do as He is and does.  But that choice is the fulcrum on which our faith rests.  The only alternative is to “be shaken”.

Shakenness is the condition of grave danger to the soul.  It is quicksand.  It is being “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6).  It is a building whose foundation is sand when a great wind arises.  This is not a threat by some great cosmic dictator.  This is the reality of the universe of cause and effect; if we know a thing needs doing, we must do it.

“God”, said Pascal, “instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.”  This causality is seen in our inward prayer, and it is seen in our outward life of action.  This is Psalm 15.  Our communion with God is the energy behind our life of love, truth and integrity.  Let us embrace this causality with everything we are and have.  Let us be and do.

LORD, your holy hill is both far away and very near.
Yet, it is not the hill I want and need, after all, but only You.
High and lofty One, fill me with Your Spirit.
Help me see you in and behind everything I am and do.
Dwell with me that I may dwell with You.
 

Psalm 15: 4b, 5a Integrity

Psalm 15:4b,5a  “…who keeps his oath even when it hurts, who lends his money without usury and does not accept a bribe against the innocent.””.

 

Title page of the irst edition of the Bay Psal...

Title page of the irst edition of the Bay Psalm Book (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

 

This phrase is about integrity.  My dictionary says that integrity is “the quality of being honest and having strong moral principles” and/or “the state of being whole and undivided”.  The former are the daily battles, the latter is the war.  I see them as battles and a war because I know myself so well. My natural bent is so self-focused.  It’s a real battle some days to be whole and principled. Each example, (oath-keeping, money-lending, and bribe-resisting) describes moral principles that are put to the test, usually when I am at my weakest.  I’m fine keeping my promises when the sun is shining.  But what about the “even when it hurts” times?  Can I still love and forgive when that person hurt me so badly? Am I so willing to lend my resources when there is nothing in it for me, not even a little publicity?  Do I resist the temptation to treat certain others with a little more equality than everyone else because it benefits me in some way?

 

Integrity really only describes God, the completely whole one.  Yet, unless I am described by this trait, says the Psalmist, I cannot hope to dwell in the LORD’s sanctuary, to live on His holy hill. It’s an unhappy quandary.  Unlike many, I just cannot see myself as good enough to meet this high standard.  Do you? Have we really the integrity to keep every promise, lend every last penny, and refuse every temptation to favouritism?

 

Once again, we must rely on the Source of all good to transpose into our souls the resources needed to meet God’s standards.  He who makes us blameless by His Blamelessness, enables us to speak truth because He is Truth and enables us to love our neighbours because He is Love, does something about our need for integrity.

 

In another Psalm, David asks (on behalf of us), “give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name”  (Psalm 86:11).  God’s answer?  He says, “I will give them an undivided heart and put a new spirit in them; I will remove from them their heart of stone…” (Ezekiel 11:19).  There it is: Integrity for the asking.  It’s not for the faint of heart, but it will put wholeness back into a heart fractured and hardened by selfishness.  God ‘s soft-heartedness (often referred to as ‘compassion’) is transposed into our hearts as we allow Him to work His great task of re-creation.

 

LORD, great:
Oath-keeper,
Resource-lender,
Lover of all.
None of these am I, and so,
In desperate sense of need I come
To Your great throne, true sanctuary, holy hill
On bended knees.
Restore my heart, soul, mind and strength
To wholly be as Yours,
My fractured, stoney, hardened heart
Made new.
So off and out I go, now whole,
To keep my oaths,
Lend what I have,
Love everyone
Through You.