OPENING THE DOOR TO PSALM 119, Part 4

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‘Beth’.

“Sam”, the so-named petrified remains of an ages-old Tyrannosaurus Rex, towers over the other displays of natural history at Vancouver’s Science World. Jaws gaping, one huge hind leg stretching metres beyond the other, tiny forelimbs posed to attack; this is not T-Rex as he was in life. The description posted near his claw-like feet explains this is not a bony skeleton on display. When this dinosaur had perished in a streambed somewhere in what is now called South Dakota, his body had eventually been entombed under layers of silt and other debris washed downstream or settled after a flood event. Over time, minerals like quartz and iron carbonate within the groundwater slowly seeped over and into old Sam’s bones making a tremendous change in Sam. Dissolving the matrix of bone tissue, and replacing it drop by drop with its own rocky characteristics, the minerals remade Sam—or at least remade his bones. The deep mottled browns of Sam’s new skeleton attest to its altered composition.

Dinosaur bones aren’t the only framework changed by the environment in which they immerse themselves. The poet responsible for penning Psalm 119 moves into the segment labeled Beth, the second letter of the Hebrew alphabet, emphasizing the influence of God’s Word upon the human heart.

“How can a young man keep his way pure? By living according to your word. I seek you with all my heart; do not let me stray from your commands. I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you. Praise be to you, O LORD; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches. I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. I delight in your decrees; I will not neglect your word” (Psalm 119:9-16).

What does the psalmist mean by heart? We know he doesn’t mean the organic muscular organ responsible for pumping blood through the human pulmonary system. He’s no cardiologist. He is using heart as a metaphor for the deepest seat of value a person possesses. Heart—as he and we often use it—is the core of an individual’s value system; it is the abstract place within each of us where we assign worth to the things we appreciate. Perhaps the psalmist pairs the thoracic heart with the metaphysical heart as a result of the physical sensations our cardiac organ creates: the pounding when fear, excitement or a burst of action have occurred, the pain when something obstructs its oxygen supply, the weight and tension when the cardiac muscle is compromised. The metaphor helps us assign concrete words to the abstract reality of our metaphysical heart.

So when the psalmist asks the question, “How can a young (person) keep his way (integrated and authentic)?” he answers it by saying that an integrated life comes only by absorbing oneself in the value system God exudes—and which He has communicated to humans through His Word. This is what he means by explaining, “I have hidden your word in my heart.” Through painstaking persistence in immersing himself in God’s Word, God’s moral absolutes become the psalmist’s moral fiber. God’s holy character traits become his fortifying nature. God’s transforming love becomes his source of compassion.

As N.T. Wright puts it in After You Believe (2010), “…these are not…”Rules for the New Life,” but habits of heart and mind, ways of learning how to think Christianly about the ultimate future and about the pathway toward it—the pathway which is, as it were, a daily resurrection.”

Which brings us back to the petrification process Sam the T-Rex and other ancient artifacts have experienced. It might be helpful if we think of immersing ourselves in God’s ways (His Word, His values, His instructions for human living) as a sort of moral version of the petrification process. (Note, we don’t need to be sunk under silt for eons in order for this to happen!). As we consistently make choices based on God’s revealed ways (defined above), His moral fiber begins to replace our weak, capricious, unprincipled tendencies with true human maturity and dignity. Rather than decaying, we experience resurrection, not only for eternity but daily and even hourly as we submit to God and rely on His powerful reconstruction process in and for our lives.

(Photo Credit: Copyrighted free use, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=3492758)

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A SEEKER’S STORY, Part 4

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 The Verdict

“This is the verdict,” pronounces Jesus at the end of the midnight discussion with his questioning visitor. He’s speaking like a judge, an investigator, a philosopher and a physician all in one. He wants to explain abstract ideas in a way we can understand, because He, like no other person on earth, has a unique perspective—an otherworldly view–on life. He has the whole story, the big picture, the last word. Hearing this verdict of His will separate the ‘men from the boys’. It will determine who goes on to flourish in the fullest sense of human existence, and who will refuse, preferring the slow petrification of soul and spirit.

His verdict starts with a metaphor, saying, “Light has come into the world”. It reminds us of the morning sun that greets us as we wake to each new day. But this light is more significant than our earth’s sun; this light is the source and sustenance of real, complete, and eternal existence. It is the light of God’s presence, truth and unending life embodied in His one and only Son, Jesus. Do we greet this light with joy and acceptance, or do we roll over and hide our heads under the cover of our nighttime existence?

The continuation of the verdict tells us that “(people) loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.” This, He says, is the problem: We choose actions contrary to God’s desire for us, thinking we are expressing our right to freedom, but in so doing we find ourselves ruled by those dark deeds. Even our highest emotions can be in bondage to actions that are godless at the core.

There is no divine balance on which God weighs the evil and the good we do, granting us divine immunity if the good outweighs the bad. The verdict is worse and better than that.

“Everyone who does evil hates the light,” He continues, “and will not come into the light for fear that his deeds will be exposed.” That’s a grim prognosis, isn’t it? Is he right? Have we ever experienced that phenomenon where we find ourselves hiding something we’ve done or thought? Why would we hide it if there was not a vestige of our conscience that was pronouncing its own verdict of searing light on our choice?

But He doesn’t stop there. There is also good news. He goes on to say, “But whoever lives by the truth comes into the light so that it may be seen plainly that what he has done has been done through God.” Stepping willingly and humbly into the limelight of God’s complete knowledge of us is transforming. Admitting our faults as darkness, and accepting His ways as light is a daily necessity for us. It’s a journey. The experience of being ‘born again’ into new spiritual life does not make pious oblates of us. It simply means we now can see our own faults more clearly and are willing participants in a divine therapy of de-petrification. Hard hearts are made soft and pliable. Blind eyes are daily given more and more clarity.

Jesus’ verdict leaves Nicodemus and us with a choice: we may stay in the dark about our real state of affairs, or step into the light. And make no mistake about it – if we choose light rather than darkness, the journey of partnership with God will not always be easy. There is an old poem that says, “God has not promised skies always blue…” But the path of believing Jesus will be true and right and good. We can take His word for it.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons; juliusturm – last steps to the lightTill Krech from Berlin, Germany)