Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 16

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‘Nun’

Taking the ‘path of least resistance’—also known as the principle of least effort—is the brain’s natural impulse to choose the easiest route. Art Markman, cognitive scientist at the University of Texas, suggests that the path of least resistance is also a dead end to finding solutions to difficult problems. “Our memory drives us back to things tried and true” says Markman, even if those solutions no longer work for today’s problems. For instance, the ‘white lie’, used in the past to escape interpersonal consequences for seemingly ‘unimportant’ issues, becomes a major dead end to developing a long-term relationship like marriage. Markman suggests three solutions to combatting the principle of least effort: “expand the information you have in memory, re-frame the creative problem, and change your collaborators.”

The psalmist pens a lyrical yet strangely parallel message in ‘Nun’, his fourteenth stanza of Psalm 119.

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light for my path. / I have taken an oath and confirmed it, that I will follow your righteous laws. / I have suffered much; preserve my life, O LORD, according to your word. / Accept, O LORD, the willing praise of my mouth, and teach me your laws. / Though I constantly take my life in my hands, I will not forget your law. / The wicked have set a snare for me, but I have not strayed from your precepts. / Your statutes are my heritage forever; they are the joy of my heart. / My heart is set on keeping your decrees to the very end” (Psalm 119:105-112).

The psalmist seems to apply Markman’s three points to the ancient yet common human dilemma of breaking out of the rut of life. Look carefully and we see the psalmist’s formula: Scripture as a directive resource, eternity-informed living, and God as collaborator.

Step One. The truest way to break out of our comfort zone and see the world and ourselves in a new way is to take God’s Word seriously. The psalmist recognizes God’s Word as the only light to truly reveal wise living, and he takes an oath to bind himself to it; he is fully cognizant of the restraint this will put on his future decisions, but he understands the principle of freedom-producing restrictions. A mindset of keeping God’s decrees—summed up by Jesus as firstly loving God wholeheartedly and secondly loving our fellow human beings as creations of God—expands the information in our memory as to be a powerful decision-making resource.

Step Two. Eternity-informed living is the most radical way to re-frame our problem. Earth as the stage wherein we access God’s mercy through Jesus’ sin-paying ransom for us is the most profound and far-reaching innovative thought to ever hit our species. The hope offered us not only sets our sights on a glorious afterlife, it gives us strengthening support in our present hardships.

Step Three. Make God our number one collaborator. God’s approach to human living is radically different than our natural bent. Read the gospels and see if the way Jesus lived and taught wasn’t counter-cultural to the nth degree. A commitment to listening to the Holy Spirit speaking through Scripture and through the life of Jesus will force us to consider things from a completely new perspective. Yet the psalmist recognizes God is not only the perfect collaborator; He is ultimately Master and Lord. Our autonomy must bow to His authority. Then and only then will we experience the strange oxymoron that dying to self produces full, flourishing life.

Bowing to the deep innate drive to satisfy self is nothing more than the path of least resistance, the principle of least effort. Bowing to the Almighty Creator resists that path. Obeying God’s Word, accepting Jesus’ authority, and inviting His Spirit to indwell us is the beautifully releasing restraint that guides us to be truly human for eternity. It’s a choice—a challenging, breath-taking, leap-of-faith choice—but it’s infinitely more satisfying than the old life. Come; join the resistance.

Photo Credit: Mr. Arif Solak [[File:Caglayan Waterfalls Honaz Denizli Turkey.jpg|thumb|Caglayan Waterfalls Honaz Denizli Turkey]]

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).

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).”

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.

(Image Credit:[File:Page 44 illustration in fairy tales of Andersen (Stratton).png|thumb|Page 44 illustration in fairy tales of Andersen (Stratton)])

ROMANS 15

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Insults vs. Blessing:

Floggings received: Five times the forty-lashes-minus-one the culture of the day allowed. Beatings: three with rods; stoned: once. Shipwrecks experienced: one, including a day and night in the open sea. Dangers faced: rivers, bandits, countrymen, foreigners, urban settings, rural settings, false friends, sleepless nights, hunger, thirst, lack of shelter and lack of clothing. The list goes on. These are the difficulties described by a follower of Christ who wrote extensively to other followers in the early years of the fledgling church. And it is the same person who writes of the crossroads of insult versus blessing.

Is the emphasis on all the insults believers can expect to suffer for following Jesus as Lord of their lives? There have been plenty of insults. There will be more. Many will lose their livelihoods, their liberties and their lives for the sake of Christ. But instead, the chapter is chalk full of expressions of blessing.

“May the God who gives endurance and encouragement give you a spirit of unity among yourselves as you follow Christ Jesus,” Paul blesses, “so that with one heart and mouth you may glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ.”

God gives. He gives endurance and encouragement through difficult times. He does not leave us lost and alone as we face the challenges that come our way in life through following Him.

He gives a spirit of unity among His people so that we have a family of supportive brothers and sisters, unified in purpose and devoted to love and acceptance of one another.

And He gives us the ability to live in a way that glorifies Him – He empowers us to rise above the hopelessness and failings of our lives that characterized us before we met Him.

May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace as you trust in him,” the Apostle Paul continues, “so that you may overflow with hope by the power of the Holy Spirit.”

God gives joy; as we choose to follow His principles of selfless obedience to Him we find the strivings of our old ways empty and hollow shadows in comparison with His joy.

God gives peace; we still experience challenges in this life, but there is a difference now. We have the overwhelming sense of God working all things out for the good for those who love Him. We know the difficulties in life are being used by God to make us more like Jesus. Our lives are not in danger of being wasted, but in the process of being recreated.

And God gives hope, overflowing hope welling up within us by the presence of His Spirit and pouring out to those around us.

“The God of peace be with you all,” he finishes.

God gives Himself. He promises to never leave nor forsake those who turn their lives over to Him. He is ever-present, closer than a brother, deeper than our hearts or minds can imagine, and fuller than we can contain. He is with us.

While God is busy giving into our lives, we are not merely passive bystanders. Look back at both verses of blessing. God blesses as we do something. What is it?

“…as you follow Christ” and “…as you trust in him.”

Those who long to be borne on the path of blessing must recognize that there is a crossroads of decision to be made. We must decide to follow Christ. We must choose to trust in Him every step of the way. There will still be difficulties in life – in fact, we may become the brunt of insults heaped upon us by a world that hates Jesus Christ. But as we follow Him and entrust ourselves to His infinite care, we will be blessed by enough endurance, encouragement, unity, joy, peace, and hope to carry the day. His presence with us ensures that.

That’s the path of blessing. Are you on it?

CROSSROADS, Part 8

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Inseparable Belonging.

Imagine being lost on a mountain. You had been on a path but somewhere you lost it. The undergrowth had thinned as you entered a section of towering trees whose thick upper canopy had obscured the sun; little grew on the forest floor there so the path had lost its boundaries. It seemed as if you could take any route you liked through those majestic Cedars and Douglas Firs. Soon the trees thinned, though, and the slope began to steepen. You were forced to descend now through a thicket of thorny nettles before you finally realized this was not the route you planned. You had lost your path, the sun was setting, and you were footsore and weary.

Imagine, through the gloom, suddenly catching sight of a path marker. How would that feel? What if that marker led you a little bit uphill where you came to a crossing of trails? At this crossroads you feel rather than see a powerful mountaineering Father and his Son each reaching out a strong hand to draw you up the steep rock to where they stand. They welcome you, seat you on a mossy outcropping where the setting sun is still sending shafts of its light to the earth, and they serve you a delicious meal cooked over a crackling fire. After dinner they settle you in a hammock with a feather-light blanket and keep watch over you through the night while you sleep off your weary fatigue.

Chapter Eight of the book of Romans speaks of a scenario like this. It speaks of God not in terms of wrathful Sovereign but as a welcoming Father. Those who accept His hand become His children and discover what it means to have a Real Father. No inconsistencies. No failures to show up. No breaking of relationships. With this Father, there is inseparable belonging.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” ponders the writer of Romans, “Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? … No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.”

This Father never leaves those of us who enter into relationship with Him as His children. He is both willing and able to take us through the remainder of our trek here in this life and bring us to our final destination. There will be challenges. He never promises the path will be easy. But He is always there leading, guiding, giving vision, purpose, rest, and especially a sense of inseparable belonging.

The only other option is stubborn refusal to accept Him. It means remaining lost on the pathless mountainside of this life. It means never really, inseparably belonging to one Who offers inextinguishable love. The choice is ours.

Abba Father, thank you for your never-failing love and compassion for me. You found me when I was lost and you will never leave me. I am blessed by the inseparable belonging You have gifted me with as a child of Yours. Jesus, as I take Your nail-scarred hand, lead me on the path that leads to our eternal home.

(Photo Credit: meghanbustardphotography.com)

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)