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.

OPENING THE DOOR TO PSALM 119, Part 3

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‘Aleph’ cont’d.

How can we move ourselves onto the path of life and blessing when our natural tendencies draw us toward things that damage and destroy that option? This is the question the psalmist explores in this first stanza of his psalm. In his deepest, truest self he wants to be “steadfast in obeying (God’s) decrees” but knows from experience he is incapable. There is always that part of him that messes up, that unpredictably thinks, speaks and acts in defiance of God’s ways.

Here, in Aleph, the psalmist begins to answer this question in a theme that will fill 176 verses—an answer that for himself and his listeners becomes the seed of the greatest answer available to humanity. The key to the door of blessing, to the path of not only a flourishing life but one that fulfills everything God created it to entail, is immersing oneself in God.

Seeking and immersing ourselves in a god…isn’t this a bit too reminiscent of the religions of the world, the attempts of humans to seek something greater than themselves, and by focused desiring attempt to find meaning in life? Is it, then, all about our efforts, regardless of the specific god we have in mind?

No. The psalmist is very clear to highlight Whom he means. He shows the “LORD”—Yahweh, the Great ‘I AM’—is the locus of it all. People, he says, who “seek him with all their heart” are those who will find life and blessing. What the psalmist doesn’t fully know yet is that God is a greater seeker than we are. God originated the seeking by creating a world that, though it would go afoul of His moral laws by the abuse of its freedoms, would also be the womb out of which a rescuer would come.

Words like the “law of the LORD”, “his ways…decrees (and)…commands” referenced in the psalm are principally and at their core, descriptors of the One who embodies that moral law, the fully God and fully human solution to our problem, the eternally existent One born into humanity: Jesus Christ.

“In the beginning was the Word,” explains the Apostle John in the opening lines of his gospel account of the life of Jesus, “and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of men. The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it” (John 1:1-5).

There it is. “In him was life.” John will also later quote Jesus as calling Himself not only “the life” but also “the way”, “the truth”, “”the door”, “the vine” and many other metaphors to help us see that it is He of whom the psalmist speaks as the source of blessing.

So God first seeks, but then we seek too. This is the foundation of the solution to the problem the psalmist mulls over. A blessed life is one wrapped in relationship with God. Knowing the Father as our loving provider, Jesus as our redeemer and friend, and His Spirit as our internally-abiding comforter and confidante is the beginning and end of what the psalmist is trying to convey. God does, but we also do. God provides moral strength, but we must avail ourselves of it. God reveals His will for our thoughts, speech and behaviour, but we must obey it. God expresses His majesty in His creation but we must choose to recognize it and worship Him within it.

It’s a learning process. We don’s always respond as we should, even if we have surrendered ourselves to Jesus. The psalmist admits it is a process of “learn(ing) your righteous laws.” But God is patient, and everything in Him is encouraging us to learn and to seek Him, because when it comes to God, “everyone…who seeks finds” (Matthew 7:8).

OPENING THE DOOR TO PSALM 119, Part 2

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‘Aleph’ (vs.1-8).

“Blessed are they whose ways are blameless, who walk according to the law of the LORD. Blessed are they who keep his statutes, and seek him with all their heart. They do nothing wrong; they walk in his ways. You have laid down precepts that are to be fully obeyed. Oh, that my ways were steadfast in obeying your decrees! Then I would not be put to shame when I consider all your commands. I will praise you with an upright heart as I learn your righteous laws. I will obey your decrees; do not utterly forsake me.”

Not many of us know Hebrew. Many Bibles, though, have labeled the stanzas of Psalm 119 in that ancient language. The first stanza is labeled ‘Aleph.’ Does it sound familiar? Think of our word alphabet. The Hebrew Aleph is our ‘A’ and Bet is our ‘B’. Alphabet is simply ‘The A’s and B’s of a language.’

It’s an interesting device the psalmist uses. It’s as if he is saying, ‘These are the a b c’s of living in close communion with God; this is the language we must learn if we want to be part of God’s original intention for creating us.’ But just read through those verses again. It doesn’t take a Hebrew scholar to see the incongruity and conflict that has escaped from the psalmist’s pen.

“Blessed are they whose ways are blameless…Oh, that my ways were steadfast…!” he bemoans. The psalm-writer has begun to examine his own life and beliefs about God and with a shudder realizes he has fallen short of the glorious God-centred life he thought he could live. Perhaps he suddenly recognizes the two-edged sword of human free will: God has revealed His moral nature, but He gives humans the choice to discount Creator-dependent living in favour of their own freedom-seeking trial-and-error methods. To do so comes naturally to us, but also comes with a price. We bypass the blessing and success God designed our lives to produce.

We hear in the psalmist’s words his anxiety and apprehension. His best attempts to be true to God, to be morally consistent and steadfast in obedience have failed. He is a sinner with a sense of morality that won’t go away. He tries to reverse the negative influence of his choices by looking up at the moral benchmark where he sees hope shining. He sees blessing and an upright heart and an overall goodness of living that he wants. What he also discovers is an intersection of two distinct and diverging paths, a crossroads he faces every day. He seems to describe the paths as the Way of Blessing and the Path of Shame, roads he, like every human, consciously or unconsciously walks upon as a result of choices made. He hasn’t got the full picture, but he knows his own anxiety because his walk is inconsistent.

Centuries later, Jesus elaborated on the picture the psalmist was beginning to sketch. He described those paths and the dilemma of our struggling moral nature. “Enter through the narrow gate,” He advised, “for wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life and only a few find it” (Matthew 7:13,14). Jesus clarified the psalmist’s and our dilemma by revealing that the situation is both worse and better than the psalmist had imagined.

Jesus expands the psalmist’s word shame into total destruction. A gram of rebellion against the Creator becomes a mushrooming cancer of self-destruction in the eternal realm Jesus foresaw. Yet Jesus also expands on the psalmist’s term blessing; he calls it life, an expansive, God-infused, flourishing and eternal life to which He will refer on many other occasions. He shows us something we know deep inside. The stakes are high; the rumours are true: the decisions we make in this life matter for eternity. Our moral nature intimates and necessitates it. We are more than tissue and bone; the One who made us calls us to prepare ourselves for our unseen future while we are still bound by that tissue and bone.

The trouble is that inhabiting bodies as we do, we are the most natural materialists and sensualists. We are drawn toward things that satisfy our senses—things we can see, touch, hear, taste and smell. Many of those hankerings are good and are essential for our survival: food, clothing, shelter, loving relationships, and meaningful work are the basics of life. But some of those appetites damage us: harmful addictions, injurious relationships, and unethical work. We can make our own lists of those ones.

But the real danger is when we allow our senses (empiricism) to block our perception of God communicating to us through our spirit. Because we fail to literally see the two paths, our tendency, in practice, is to deny or at least ignore that they exist. Yet, recognizing this, there seems to be nothing more we can do than to cry out as the psalmist does, “Oh, that my ways were steadfast…!” Or is there?

(To be continued)

Christmas Wish List

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Remember Christmases when you were a child? Remember the weeks or days leading up to the grand moment and all the anticipation that swelled in your childish heart—anticipation of presents galore? A lot of it had to do with the pictures planted into our minds by the T.V. commercials of the day.

My anticipation always grew to staggering proportions every December. One year my wish list contained the most realistic newborn-sized doll on the market. I wanted that toy badly. I wrote to ‘Santa’—a jolly man with a perfectly white beard who appeared on a seasonal show and answered letters written to the address he’d provided. One of the dozens of letters Santa selected was mine. He read my childish scrawl, assured his watchers that Santa always gives good children what they want, and sure enough my doll appeared in the mail some days later.

I loved that doll for months—until the next round of commercials drew my attention to the newest toys on the market. And so the cycle continued. I always knew I wanted something, but each year’s pick provided fleeting satisfaction. Perhaps you have your own stories of wish lists from Christmases past. Perhaps your longings were for other things: for daddy to come home and live with the family again, or for the bullies at school to leave you alone. Many wish list items remained just unfulfilled dreams.

The Old Testament book of Isaiah speaks of a dream God has had for each of us—God’s wish list published to whet our appetite for the gift to end all gifts. “Ask the LORD your God for a sign, whether in the deepest depths or in the highest heights,” Isaiah quotes God as saying. He was offering the current king of Judah to ask for a sign that would prove God’s interest in people’s lives. The weak-kneed fearful regent refused the offer, believing that nothing could save him from his current problem, the besieging armies that stood on the doorstep of his poorly protected city Jerusalem.

“Listen up, you lily-livered leader!” replied the incensed prophet. “It’s not enough you try the patience of your subjects with your spineless superintendence of the country. Will you also try the patience of God? God has a sign for you, whether you are aware of your need for one or not!” (Isaiah 7:13, paraphrased).

Isaiah moved back into quoting God, “The virgin will be with child, and will give birth to a son, and will call him Immanuel” (Isaiah 7:14, NIV). With these words, God gives a clue to the greatest item ever to grace Christmas wish lists, fill stockings or adorn trees. It was a promise and a riddle wrapped in a ribbon that would take eight centuries to unravel. God was speaking not only to the inept ruler Ahaz. He was speaking to you and to me too.

He was explaining that of all the hopes, wishes and solutions to problems that promise to satisfy our yearnings, only one would truly fill the gap. Only Immanuel—God with us could be the wish list item to end all wish lists. Immanuel would describe the one unique baby who would enter this world’s landscape, who would be God Himself living among us. Neither time nor death would keep Him from accomplishing His purpose—to be forever with us.

The first Christmas morning would begin centuries of generations reflecting on God’s great gift of Jesus—of God intimately with us for eternity. All wish lists pale in comparison to the gift of relationship Christ offers those who want Him to be Lord of their lives. The life that flows through Him becomes an eternal life, which He offers to those—to you and to me—who embrace His presence.

Immanuel. Immanuel. Wonderful Counselor! Lord of Life, Lord of all! He is the Prince of Peace, Mighty God, Holy One. Immanuel. Immanuel!

 

(Photo Credit: By Genealogyphotos on Flickr – Flickr, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=8803906)

Culture of Life

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We’ve been dabbling in death for too long. From the French Revolution’s lethal guillotines through the atrocities of Jihadist terrorism and the convenience of ‘therapeutic’ abortions there runs a culture of death as swift and overpowering as a mighty current. The Western World’s recent ‘advances’ in assisted suicide provide a solution no less diabolical than Hitler’s death camps. Who can offer us something more than the hopelessness and emptiness of death?

“Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ!” answers the first century fisherman Peter. “In his great mercy he has given us new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (I Peter 1:3).

Peter’s epistle of praise to God reflects upon and savours Christ’s offer of assisted procreation: the gift of “new birth.” It is more than a dry theological premise. Much more. The concept of Christian new birth is the key to living an extravagantly deep and meaningful life. But where did Peter come up with this concept of new birth?

The teaching originates with Jesus, who Himself explained, “No one can see the kingdom of God unless he is born again.” This new birth forms the foundation of the experience called the Christian faith. We all know what Christianity is, don’t we? But let’s look a little closer at what new birth really means.

Jesus explained, “Spirit gives birth to spirit,” and “So it is with everyone born of the Spirit.” He is saying that the Spirit of God regenerates that part of us that is designed to commune with Him and ultimately live forever within that primary relationship. The depth of this birth means that it is invisible to the human eye. It is the unseen core that now pulses within the believer. The Apostle Paul explains that we “fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen.” All fine and well, but how do we actually do this?

Peter anticipates our question by calling believers “newborn babies”, “obedient children”, “chosen people” and “a people belonging to God.” As God offers new birth to believers our first job is to embark on a new way of thinking about ourselves—that is, to understand our new identity. Every thought, every word, every intention and action we will go on to initiate arises from this mindset of our new identity.

Since we each come out of old, distorted identities prior to our new birth of spirit, we need to be intentional about settling this issue in our minds. The God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ is now our God and Father. We are His children; we are no longer bound to be rebellious but are free to obey Him out of love for Him.

The third level of our new birth involves our behaviours. “Just as he who called you is holy,” Peter counsels, “so be holy in all you do”; “love one another deeply, from the heart” and “rid yourselves of all malice and all deceit, hypocrisy, envy, and slander of every kind.” Like the old saying, “Beauty is as beauty does,” our behaviours are the evidence of our spirit and our identity.

We have no small task ahead of us. Holiness is otherness; it is living other than the way our old bent to selfishness and lies used to cause us to live. God, though—great joyful mystery!—is on our side. Just as He launches our new birth through His Spirit giving life to ours and as He helps us understand our new identity, He also assists us in developing the new behaviours we need in order to be authentic. His Son Jesus is the model for the new character into which we will mature and His Spirit is the impetus within us to help us reflect our model.

So those who accept Jesus’ offer of living hope through His resurrection have moved. We have moved from a culture defined primarily by death, to one defined by life—eternal, Spirit of God-filled, ever-expanding life. It’s a new birth and a new identity, which leads us to new behaviours. How will this change the way you live today?

 

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 16

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Disintegrating the Big Lie

Adolf Hitler and his Reich Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels are credited with exploring and defining the “Big Lie”—a propaganda tool for harnessing public support of Nazi Germany’s war effort. The Big Lie said, “Make the lie big, make it simple, keep saying it, and eventually they will believe it.” By the time World War II ended sixty million people—3% of the 1940 world population—had died as a direct result of that tool. But don’t be deceived into thinking that was the first or even the last time the Big Lie has been used.

“Be careful,” Jesus warned His disciples. “Be on your guard against the yeast of the Pharisees and Sadducees” (Matthew 16:6). This wasn’t about bread. It wasn’t about diet, culture or even religion. It was a warning about deceptive power; it was a caution about a sham, a strategy as old as earth itself of misleading hapless individuals into bondage. Jesus used the term yeast as a metaphor for the Big Lie, to help people like us understand what we are up against—something that spreads insidiously and overtakes everything it touches.

The Pharisees and Sadducees were Jewish sects that sought to rule the people through a well-developed religion-masked dictatorship. They used their form of the Big Lie to build lives of power for themselves at the expense of others.

There are other forms of the Lie: life is a Clockwork Universe set in motion by a benevolent force (Deism); life is defined by the visible and the reasonable (Naturalism); life is realizing oneself as the centre of the universe (New Age spirituality); and life is not about truth but about finding meaning (Postmodernism).

The Big Lie is what destroys the paradise of communion between each of us and our Creator by telling us we can be fulfilled without Him. The Big Lie is what keeps each of us in a bondage that wrecks our relationships, hinders our peace of mind, corrupts good intentions, and cripples our ability to be in right relationship with God.

But Jesus had come to earth for one express purpose: to disintegrate the Big Lie. Taking His disciples aside Jesus asked them two questions: “Who do people say the Son of Man is?” and “Who do you say I am?” To the first question they gave a list of responses they had heard people surmising Jesus’ identity to be—essentially a good man, even a prophet, a charismatic leader with a charismatic message. To the second question came one bold response from the plucky but sometimes impetuous disciple Peter: “You are the Christ, the Son of the living God.” In other words, You are God in the flesh; You are the One promised who would destroy the Big Lie and its attending curse upon humanity.

“Blessed are you (!)” Jesus rejoices upon hearing Peter’s answer. The timeless truth of Peter’s confession—a truth more solid than any weapon—sent a fatal blow to the foundations of the Big Lie. “(T)his was not revealed to you by man, but by my Father in heaven” explained Jesus “…and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of Hades will not overcome it” (Matthew 16:17,18).

Truth—solid, unflinching, rational, God-indwelling truth—is the ultimate victor. The Big Lie is on the way out. Its days are numbered. It has been measured by the One who knows the beginning from the end, and it has been found wanting. Jesus, God incarnate, the way, the truth and the life created us for so much more than lies.

“The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy”—this is what the Big Lie does to us; let’s not be deceived. Lies can mask themselves to appear as we want them to, but they ultimately only destroy us. “I have come,” continues Jesus, “that they may have life, and have it to the full” (John 10:10). That is the purpose of truth, to give us more life than we could conceivably imagine.

Today, we are faced with this day’s challenge: to remain under the deadly influence of the Big Lie in all its chameleon-like expressions, or to listen to God revealing the rock of Truth to us through His Word, the Bible, and through the invincible life of Jesus Christ. To experience truth’s life-transforming power is to be changed by it.

…or is it just easier to believe the Big Lie?…

 

What’s to be Thankful For? Conclusion

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The Path of Life:

Our canoes lay submerged, wedged beneath the swirling currents of the Jordan River. Several tonnes of fallen trees had made a sure trap at a bend in the river, and to attempt to rescue the boats from the surging spring floodwaters would be shear lunacy. Wet and bedraggled, the four of us clammoured ashore and thanked God none had been sucked beneath the merciless tangle of debris. Hiking back to our cars should be easy. We would return another day with equipment to rescue our canoes.

But hiking through an undisturbed west coast rainforest without a trail can be like trying to push a softball through a chain link fence. After eight hours of struggling to return to our campsite only to find ourselves traveling in circles, we finally admitted our lost condition. It was a long cold night spent huddled in the wet forest awaiting daylight and rescue.

Life is like that. It is often not until we have lost our way that we realize the crucial importance of the path.

David, the writer of Psalm 16, concludes his eleven-verse psalm by contemplating what he calls “the path of life.”

“You have made known to me the path of life,” contemplates the thoughtful psalmist; “you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”

Notice he doesn’t describe ‘one of many paths of life’. There is only one path. There is just one clearing made through the tangled thorny underbrush of life if we want to reach our soul’s home. Everything else is a tripping, entangling struggle, thinking we know where we’re going but finding ourselves cold, wet and bedraggled, going in great miserable circles.

The psalmist also implies that it is not we who make the path. The “You”, “your presence” and “your right hand” of his psalm refers to God. God is the creator, sustainer and rescuer of all, but specifically of His highest creation, humankind. It is God who has made the path. Only He could blaze a trail through the spiked and barbed tangle of life in which we find ourselves. And only He could keep that path cleared and trustworthy to take us on our life’s true journey. But the path is not merely a route and a direction. It is a Person.

Jesus once explained, “I am the way, the truth and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6)?

Jesus calls Himself the way because it is only relationship with Him that puts us on the Path that is authentic and flourishing and satisfying in life. All other routes are dead ends and entangling scrublands.

It is Jesus living within us that enables us to fully experience and increasingly express love and joy, peace and patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. That, says Jesus, is the only true path worth the life He’s given each of us. He is the inner compass that gives us purpose and direction—not wealth, not fame, and not success in careers, relationships or other self-motivated passions. He is “the rising sun (who has) come to us from heaven to shine on those living in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the path of peace” (Luke 1:78,79).

Those who accept this path and continue to stay on it in spite of many temptations to leave it will be filled, as the psalmist observes, “with joy in (Jesus’) presence, with eternal pleasures at (His) right hand.” There is nothing more valuable than the Path, and nothing greater to be thankful for.

“This is what the LORD says; ‘Stand at the crossroads and look; ask for the ancient paths, ask where the good way is, and walk in it, and you will find rest for your souls’(Jer. 6:16).”