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 13

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‘Kaph’

Hunger, yearning, longing, desire: these are all concepts God endorses. In contrast to Eastern religions, Christianity boldly advocates—even insists upon—desire. We’re not talking about desire as an end in itself, though; that would be discontent. Nor are we talking about desire for anything that attracts us; that would be greed. And we’re definitely not talking about desire for things that could in any way harm us or harm anyone or anything around us; that would be destruction. What Christianity embodies is a desiring for what God specifically promises us in His Word. We’re talking about desiring God. Some of His promises are accessible right now, but some of them are for the future, a distant but very real future. This is what the psalmist speaks of in the stanza labeled ‘Kaph’.

“My soul faints with longing for your salvation, but I have put my hope in your word. / My eyes fail, looking for your promise; I say, ‘When will you comfort me?’ / Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke, I do not forget your decrees. / How long must your servant wait? When will you punish my persecutors? / The arrogant dig pitfalls for me, contrary to your law. / All your commands are trustworthy; help me, for men persecute me without cause. / They almost wiped me from the earth, but I have not forsaken your precepts. / Preserve my life according to your love, and I will obey the statutes of your mouth”(Psalm 119:81-88).

The psalmist is fairly bursting with desire. His soul faints with longing for God’s salvation. His eyes fail for looking for God’s promise. He bemoans how long he is being required to wait for comfort, for relief, for rescue. He desires these things so fully that it occupies his heart, his mind and his senses. This desire is essentially for God to make good on a promise He made centuries earlier. It was a promise initially wreathed in mystery with revelations by increments made through an array of God’s prophets. Yet as little as the psalmist knows of the promise’s vast extent, he is entirely consumed by hoping for it, because he knows it embodies God’s love for him. So the promise itself has been the cause of the desire that fills the psalmist.

Since Jesus incarnated as a man and accomplished His redeeming work on the cross a millennium after the psalmist lived, the bulk of the promise has been fulfilled. But rather than dulling the desire of the promise, He magnifies it. His vast expansive eternal being enlarges and expands our appetite for Him so we desire Him not less than the psalmist but more. It seems to be true that ‘the more you have the more you want’. Jesus’ unbounded, immeasurable, limitless love makes us hunger more for Him with each successive taste of Him we swallow.

Not only is Christ the source of “the mystery of God…in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3), but He is “this mystery…Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Christ living in the lives of those who invite Him within is both the source of and solution to our deepest desiring. ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’ was Bach’s name for Him. All other desires are cheap imitations of Him our true desire.

“Come, all you who are thirsty,” invites Jesus through the prophet Isaiah, “come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!…Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?…Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David” (Isaiah 55:1-3). If we want our desiring satisfied, it’s Jesus to whom we must come.

(Photo Credit: By Deepak Vallamsetti – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52197985)

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #2

Praising God’s Sovereignty (A Paraphrase of Jeremiah 32:17-27)

Sovereign God, all-powerful Ruler of the universe and beyond, Your fingerprint is on everything, seen and unseen alike. From the tiniest atom to the furthest solar system, Your signature mystery and beauty, order and surprise is stamped on all Your handiwork. Everything was made by You and is sustained by You; nothing is too hard for You to accomplish.

You understand the heart of every person who every walked this earth and breathed its God-rich air. Nothing escapes Your notice. You are incredibly fair: to those who bow before Your Sovereign authority You show Yourself to be a loving, compassionate Father and friend; to others who, in foolish rebellion, twist and pry themselves away from Your loving hand, You are as unbending as steel and as fearful as gravity.

O magnificent and might One, whose name is LORD Almighty, Your purposes and plans are matched only by Your power to accomplish everything You intend. You see every one of us, giving each of us unique opportunities to make our choices clear: we may honour, love and obey Your or ignore Your sovereignty and go our own way. You allow us the dignity of that choice, while cautioning us that each way comes with its own eternal consequences.

God of all mankind, in the midst of my daily living, help me consistently and clearly choose You. Help me obey Your commands even when they look strange by this world’s norms. Help me become the person You want me to be. Nothing is too hard for You!

ROMANS 16

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Foolish or Wise?

Remember the story of ‘The Emperor’s New Clothes’? It’s a tale we delight in because honest simplicity rules the day. It is the story of an emperor duped by swindlers who deceive him into thinking they are making clothes of the finest magical fabric. “To fools the fabric will appear transparent,” say the would-be tailors, “while to the wise the richly brocaded fabric will attract veneration.” Not wanting to appear a fool and feeling flattered by the praise of the tailors, the emperor pretends to see the imaginary fabric. He orders a new suit to be made of the remarkable cloth, paying a high price for it. Parading himself through the town in his ‘new clothes’, the emperor comes to believe he is wearing a unique and handsome suit. None of the townsfolk dare to argue with him.

Finally, a small child with innocent wisdom pipes up, “But the emperor is wearing no clothes!” The deception is unveiled, the swindling tailors make good their escape, and the emperor is revealed (pun intended) for the fool he is.

As we come to the conclusion of the letter to the Romans, we find a final description of the crossroads the letter has mapped out for those who care to take notice. The previous fifteen chapters have described the two divergent paths of life: One path is marked by broken promises, faithless and fruitless endeavors, stumbling blocks and smokescreens, Paradise lost and deathly outcomes; the other path comprises a guaranteed promise, faithfulness and fruitfulness, a solid Cornerstone, truth, Paradise restored and the gift of eternal life.

In the final chapter the Apostle Paul presents us with a grand finale of path-diverging descriptions.

“Watch out for those who cause divisions and put obstacles in your way…” says Paul, “for such people are not serving our Lord Christ, but their own appetites. By smooth talk and flattery they deceive the minds of naïve people.” It sounds like a replay of the false tailors deceiving the emperor into parading his foolishness for all to see. There is no small amount of that sort of thing happening in our culture these days. Smooth talk and flattery promote selfish agendas. Unethical policies serve godless appetites at the expense of their foolish followers; fine-sounding arguments deceive naïve minds. But honest confrontation is overruled, overrun, and overwhelmed by the rising tide of deceived public opinion. The simple voice is not often heard.

“I want you,” contrasts Paul, “to be wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.” Why? Because the ‘clothes’ of deception are flimsy substitutes for the real thing.

Listen to the other path’s description: “The grace of our Lord Jesus be with you…”speaks Paul in benediction over those who choose this path. “Now to him who is able to establish you by my gospel and the proclamation of Jesus Christ, according to the revelation of the mystery hidden for long ages past but now revealed and made known … so that all nations might believe and obey him – to the only wise God be glory forever through Jesus Christ! Amen.”

Here, rather than naked foolishness being exposed, a mystery is revealed – the mystery that God loves and invites all people to humble themselves and accept with simple honesty that Jesus alone makes life worth living. The parade of fools cannot prevent even the smallest child from stepping into the way of wisdom. Those who choose this path will find God faithful in ensuring they are firmly established in His ways. No more duping deceptions; no more manipulated naïveté. We become wise about what is good, and innocent about what is evil.

That’s the news of the crossroads. The essence of every choice we make moves us into either one path or the other. As C.S. Lewis describes it, “[E]very time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different than it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing into a heavenly creature or a hellish creature: either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other.”

We either serve our own appetites or we serve Jesus Christ. Those are the only two choices and that’s the message of the two thousand year old letter called ‘Romans’. Remember, it is good news. That is what the word ‘gospel’ means, and that is what we will experience when we choose the path of the wise over the path of fools.

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A SEEKER’S STORY: Conclusion (John 3:1-21)

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The night was over. The first rays of the morning sun were sending shafts of sunlight in through the windows. The flickering light of the lamp had gone out, and Jesus and Nicodemus rose from the table and stretched. Their discussion had required all those hours of exploration—Israel’s teacher had needed time to ask the Master questions a thinking person wrestles with. Jesus’ words were rich with truth and understanding, concepts Nicodemus would need to mull over on his own.

But it was clear to Nicodemus that this talk had been a study in contrasts. Jesus had shown Nicodemus the dividing line that separates inclusion in the kingdom of God from exclusion from it; spiritual birth from physical birth; eternal life from mortal life; and living in truth and light from living in evil and darkness.

Jesus doesn’t offer any neutral zone – Nicodemus understood that. I wouldn’t be surprised if there were many more topics they discussed, but poor old John the disciple could only transcribe for us these twenty-one verses from the conversation. Perhaps he even nodded off sometime after midnight and missed the last few hours of talk. It wouldn’t be the last time that would happen to him.

Regardless, we can be confident that the extent of the conversation John did transcribe was precisely the part God intends for us to hear. There’s probably more in these verses than a person could grasp in a lifetime, and they are as pivotal to us as they were to Nicodemus two millennia ago.

It really all boils down to what and whom we choose to believe, says Jesus. He repeats this concept some six or seven times to emphasize it. To believe in the redeeming work of Jesus as the sole means of restoring our right relationship with God is not random; it is not haphazard, wishy-washy, or ignorant. It is the informed conviction that Jesus not only has the answer to life’s biggest questions, but He is the answer. To entrust our one and only chance at life to the One and Only Son of God is the most rational response any person can have. It is also the most difficult, because it involves admitting that His ideas, His ways and means are better than ours. And sometimes His ways are going to feel a bit uncomfortable.

We’re going to have to live day-in, day-out lives following a God who prefers us to be humble rather than proud, relational rather than detached, honest rather than superficial, and searching rather than apathetic.

It sounds a little daunting, doesn’t it? Again, Jesus draws a clear line for His followers and seems to expect more of us than is humanly possible.

Exactly the point. Jesus’ final words recorded for us of His conversation with Nicodemus explain that those who choose to live in His light are not independently capable of living that way. He says that the kind of life a Jesus-follower lives “has been done through God.”

That’s the amazing mystery. It’s the promise He makes and never withdraws: His Spirit will literally live in us and strengthen us for the challenge and adventure of eternal life. It’s the only way we can live that kind of life. That is the gospel according to Jesus.

Go dig out a Bible and pour over the gospel of John for yourself; see if it’s true. Mull over the life and words of this amazing God-man Jesus and see if He doesn’t turn your life upside down, like He has done for countless others. No one remains in the neutral zone when it comes to Him.

WHO NEEDS CHURCH? Conclusion

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Serve It

 At the beginning of this little series of ramblings we began to explore the phrase, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” We’ve been delving into its premise to see if it is reliable because people who claim to be Christians also have a high ethic for living purposeful, truth-integrated lives.

Our habit of abbreviating concepts has led to calling the building Christians meet in as ‘the church’, and the worship services we organize as simply ‘church’. So the proposition that Christians don’t need to ‘go to church’ suggests that we don’t need to worship together — that it’s a dispensable, nonessential optional activity.

But as we’ve begun to discover that the Church is a living thriving organism made up of every Christ-follower on earth, we’re learning that each of us has an essential role in the Church. We are members of a Body where each supporting ligament, every organ and limb, is necessary to the Body. We must love each other, bring spiritual food to each other, help each other dress in garments of virtue, and assist each other in keeping a healthy work-rest rhythm.

The final argument in favour of the Christian’s innate connection to the Church is the call to serve it. It’s hard to serve a Body you never meet with, interact with or identify with.

The Apostle Paul describes it this way: “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness – the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints…this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:24-27)

Now that is saying a lot. Let’s dissect it a little and see if it reinforces what we’ve been saying about the Church.

The Church is a unit, known since His resurrection as Christ’s Body on earth. There is implied here a connection between those who belong to Christ. The spiritual health of one is dependent upon the spiritual health of all.

The servant-nature of Christ toward the Church involved Him suffering the greatest affliction possible – perfect Man dying for imperfect mankind. As imitators of Christ, we are called to serve one another, which at times will entail an element of suffering.

Serving one another results in embracing the amazing mystery God designed for needy people like us: Christ, the soul of the Body, actually lives within each member.

Service to the Body was not intended to be the sole job of pastors. Pastoring is one role; others are encouraging, teaching, maintaining peace, wrestling in prayer, showing hospitality, practical helps and a host of other roles. There is room for everyone in the Body to serve. In fact, when even one Christian fails to serve, the Body lacks.

The amazing thing is that when it is running as it should, there is nothing on this earth that reminds us more of Christ than His Body of believers, the Church. So the question is not, ‘Why do I need to go to church?’ but rather ‘Where would I rather be than fully integrated in the Body of Christ?’ There is always room for one more.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Biswarup Ganguly)

PROSPECTUS FOR THE PRAYING PERSON, PART 6: John 14:8-26; Holy Community

Vs. 20 “On that day you will realize that I am in my Father, and you are in me, and I am in you.”

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re·al·ize transitive verb \ˈrē-ə-ˌlīz\ become fully aware of (something) as a fact; understand clearly.

Have you ever woken from a dream only to gradually realize your dream was not real? What had seemed so vivid and logical now no longer makes sense? You might even laugh at the crazy incongruity of the events of the dream as you begin to compare them to your waking reality.

Little episodes like that remind us that while we are truly amazing creations, we humans are also rather frail in many ways, such as in discerning reality.  I think most of us would say, however, that we want to be aware of reality; we don’t like the idea of being self-deceived.

Jesus talks about a reality that is revealed to those who honestly seek relationship with Him. He has revealed truths of limitless power, indwelling counsel, spiritual vision, and eternal life (see previous four blog posts). Now He introduces a reality new to our experience, but not new to Him. He says we will realize that there is a holy community within the Godhead, between the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit; but more than that, He says we believers, disciples, praying people, are invited into that community.  He will later go on to describe it in terms of a body.  It’s like He is the head and we are all the parts (different forms, different functions) of His body. It’s an analogy to try to help us realize the kind of diverse oneness in which we were designed to partake with God.

It’s baffling really; it’s a mystery beyond comprehending. I don’t pretend to understand it. But I believe it’s true. I believe He is Truth and I’m just waking up to the reality of this truth. A wise follower of Jesus once put it very succinctly, ”Christ in you, the hope of glory”.  Christ in me?  I am awestruck.  This is hope and glory. This is the thrilling reality our culture tries to replicate with all its extreme endeavors, but cannot even remotely approach.

We previously talked about the Holy Spirit’s indwelling counsel, now we have the Father and the Son in whom we live and who live in us. This reality can get confusing if we are still thinking in terms of this material world. But it’s time to wake up. Get out of the bed of our superficial, here-and-now thinking. Shake off the mist of our sleepy, temporal mindset.  Yes, the movements of our daily living must happen: we wake to alarms, dress for our tasks, earn our living and try to live meaningful lives.  But let’s not be deceived into thinking that leaving the world a better place is all there is to life. Our purpose for living is in entering into this amazing holy community of God’s existence.

Let’s get on our knees and open ourselves to God living in us. Let’s get real.