Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 23

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‘Sin and Shin’

The Vulcan hand salute is well known by Star Trek lovers. What few might know, though, is that Leonard Nimoy (a.k.a. Mr. Spock) borrowed the hand gesture from a Jewish priestly blessing, a blessing he had seen as a child performed in an orthodox synagogue. The blessing shapes both hands to represent the Hebrew letter Sin/Shin representing the initiating letter of God’s name, El Shaddai—Almighty God. It recognizes God’s omnipresence and His genius for affecting the lives of people.

“Always, everywhere, God is present,” observes A.W. Tozer, “and always He seeks to discover Himself to each one.” How does El Shaddai, the Almighty God, affect people’s lives—your life and mine? How does He discover Himself to each one? These are the questions the psalmist explores as he pens the stanza he entitles with the Hebrew letter ‘Sin and Shin’,

“Rulers persecute me without cause, but my heart trembles at your word. / I rejoice in your promise like one who finds great spoil. / I hate and abhor falsehood but I love your law. / Seven times a day I praise you for your righteous laws. / Great peace have they who love your law, and nothing can make them stumble. / I wait for your salvation, O LORD, and I follow your commands. / I obey your statutes, for I love them greatly. / I obey your precepts and your statutes, for all my ways are known to you”(Psalm 119:161-168).

Worldly regimes, observes the psalmist, tend to be fundamentally opposed to faith. Eventually, all ideologies—even those founded on rights and freedoms—degenerate into special, privileged interest groups using government power for opportunistic reasons. The God-centred worldview and practice of believers becomes abhorrent to worldly regimes, whose laws, bemoans the psalmist, “persecute me without cause.”

Yet something unexpected occurs within the man or woman of faith, something that has happened throughout history, regardless of the believer’s age, race, sex, or socioeconomic status when faced with persecution for their faith. They stand and rejoice in the Promise of God.

For one thing, God’s intentions for people are not to persecute them but to bring them good. God doesn’t rule by external pressure but by internally transforming people who joyfully submit to Him. His plans are to give us hope and an eternal future. This, says the psalmist, is the source of the believer’s joy. Persecution takes on as much importance as a tiresome insect.

For another thing, a relationship with God is based on reality, on deep, enduring truths, rather than on the falsehood, corruption, folly and situational ethics to which earthly rulers fall prey. God is the author of truly righteous laws because He made us and understands the core of our being.

More than that, God’s law is a law that produces in its adherents a deep, penetrating peace because it brings people into alignment with God’s ways—that which C.S. Lewis terms, ‘the grain of the universe.’ “Nothing,” insists the psalmist, “can make th(ose who love God’s law) stumble.” “Nothing,” concurs the Apostle Paul, “shall separate us from the love of God.”

How does a person access this uncommon relationship with God? By pursuing human law, by depending on personal rights, freedoms and identity? No. The psalmist says he waits; he follows, he obeys, and he loves everything about God. His confidence is not in his own devotion; it is in God’s devotion to him. God creates, God initiates the human-divine relationship, God loves, and God provides the salvation believers all come to recognize we need.

Which brings us always back to Jesus Christ, God-fully-contained-in-a-man, the One who personifies the “law” about which the psalmist cannot stop praising. Hearts that tremble before Jesus, who rejoice in Him, who love the core truth of Him and take Him as their sure salvation are hearts fully at peace. Come to Him and find the peace that breathes, “…all my ways are known to you.”

 

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Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 18

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‘Ayin’

The most awful realization is that one can never be good enough for God. It is also the most wonderful. No accumulation of good deeds could ever outweigh the sins we’ve committed or earn us eternal life, but then again, it doesn’t need to.

“The gospel,” explains theologian Tim Keller, “is, you’re more sinful than you ever dared believe, but you’re more loved and accepted in Christ than you ever dared hope.”

So in ‘Ayin’—the sixteenth stanza of Psalm 119—as the psalmist opens with the apparent corollary: “I have done what is righteous and just; do not leave me to my oppressors”, we must be careful not to make a faulty assumption. The psalmist is not saying that he has an inherent goodness, which has put God in debt to him to make his life easy. Rather, the psalmist knows of an ancient pronouncement made by God regarding humanity—a presage that hinted of a distant future: In order for anyone to truly flourish in full and joyful relationship with God, a certain Someone must and would come to “crush the head” of evil. Only then would the proper relationship between God and people be restored, would rebellion and its consequences be vanquished, and would love overrule law. Not surprisingly, the psalmist builds the remainder of his stanza around the theme of the loving Master-servant relationship. Listen.

“I have done what is righteous and just; do not leave me to my oppressors. / Ensure your servant’s well-being; let not the arrogant oppress me. / My eyes fail, looking for your salvation, looking for your righteous promise. / Deal with your servant according to your love and teach me your decrees. / I am your servant; give me discernment that I may understand your statutes. / It is time for you to act, O LORD; your law is being broken. / Because I love your commands more than gold, more than pure gold, and because I consider all your precepts right, I hate every wrong path.”

We need to consider our reaction to the psalmist’s three-fold use of the term “servant”. Virtually every human based master-servant relationship to ever have occurred in history has been painfully flawed: masters have abused their power causing much suffering; servants have resented their masters’ power, secretly trying to undermine it. It has been a lose-lose situation.

But imagine a Master whose character is noble and perfectly good, who is loving and generous and just. Imagine a Master whose goal is to empower His servants to steward tremendous resources put into their care. Imagine a Master who shares with His servants the fruit of all His labours and who helps them find greater freedom within their servanthood than they could ever experience in their rebellion. Imagine a Master who became human to “ma(k)e himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant…and who…humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross!” (Philippians 2:7,8). This is the Master-servant relationship the psalmist catches a glimpse of in his psalm.

The psalmist hints at this relationship because he–writer in the second millenium B.C.– occupies a place in history well before the arrival of Jesus, the Master-incarnated-as-servant. He is yet “looking for (the One who would be his) salvation.” But leaf forward through the pages of Scripture to the Gospel of John, and we hear Jesus speaking to His disciples on the night before His crucifixion.

“You call me Teacher and ‘Lord’, and rightly so, for that is what I am. Now that I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also should wash one another’s feet” (John 13:13,14).

Jesus claims to be the Lord God, the eternal Master of humanity, calling loving hearts to be His servants, recipients of His love, to even become transformed individuals. And how must they demonstrate this new role? Like their Master, they must serve others with humility and love; they must demonstrate their new life to the Master who took the sting out of death by bearing the spiritual death penalty Himself in His crucifixion. They must fix their hope on the eternity their Master Jesus has prepared for them—an eternity of productive, fulfilling, beloved servanthood.

So while it is natural to call upon God to interrupt the oppression and injustice we suffer at times, it is important we recognize God’s greatest act of justice in the history of humankind—the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ. His death has made impotent the power of evil. His resurrection has given His followers new lives that will eventually be characterized perfectly by Christ’s own character.

Let’s join the psalmist in looking to God’s salvation, His righteous promise: Jesus, the author and perfector of our faith, whose perfect goodness is credited to our account as we entrust ourselves to Him.

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #17

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Prayer of Simple Trust (A Paraphrase of Psalm 131)

My prayer today, Lord, is a simple one. I just want to tell You that I’m trusting You. I’m turning my thoughts away from myself—those foolishly high and lofty wonderings of my mind. So much focus on self has got to go. I’m putting away those imaginings that I can impact the world with my beauty, brains, and brawn. Others seem to inhabit that realm where power and prestige are Goal One, but I’ve left all that.

What is in my power is only this: I settle my soul in Your love and faithfulness. In those rare, quiet moments when I’m really honest with myself—when all those false grand notions of my identity and importance are put away—I feel a stillness and quietness knowing You are here with me. Never leave me!

When I realize that everything I am and have and do is bound up with You I feel a deep, comforting peace. I’m like a weaned child with her mother. I do not demand to accomplish great things, go far places, or experience all that this world advertises. Just being with You exceeds all that.

Your presence fills and satisfies me like nothing else. I know all who put their hope in You find the same sense of rest. Help me remember, Lord, that this is the goal of faith: simple, soul-deep trust in You.

(Illustration Credit: [[File:Léon Perrault, 1894 – Mother with Child.jpg|thumb|Léon Perrault, 1894 – Mother with Child]])

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers #16

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Prayer of Confession (A Paraphrase of Psalm 130)

I’m calling to You, LORD, from a place lower than I’ve been before. I’ve fallen into a pit I’ve dug myself; I’ve sinned. I’m asking for mercy, Father, because I don’t deserve even to be heard by You.

Yet, You are a forgiving Father. Everyone who stands in Your presence is only there because You keep no record of our sins. I am completely in awe and fear of Your power and kindness and faithfulness to fully forgive. I realize my ultimate survival depends upon it.

So You have my full loyalty, LORD. I trust You and Your promises implicitly. The depth of my being waits for You to help me yet again, to lift me out of the quagmire of my sin, to enable me to sense Your presence with me once again, to live in victory.

I’m waiting for this dark night to become a distant memory, for Your glory to burst into my existence like the dawn of a new day. You promise You will do this for me if my heart is humble and contrite before You.

I want to share with others my firm conviction that hope placed in You is a secure thing: “for with the LORD is unfailing love, and with Him is full redemption.”

Jesus, Your act of redemption means everything to me—to all who are becoming Your children—because You have dealt thoroughly and completely with our sins. We are eternally indebted to You. Thank you.

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 20

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First and Last.

“Grant,” requested the woman kneeling before Jesus, “that one of these two sons of mine may sit at your right and the other at your left in your kingdom.” It was a bold request. Since the favour was not for herself surely she was justified in making her request known. Her sons, James and John, were two of Jesus’ closest companions. It was only reasonable they should reign with Jesus when He came into His glorious rule as Messiah. A mother knows best.

When the other ten disciples got wind of the discussion, we’re told, “they were indignant.” Why? Did they think it was an impertinent and audacious request to make of the Master? Or were they perturbed because they hadn’t thought to ask first? If roles of power were being handed out, perhaps, they worried, they were at the back of the line.

“You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them,” explained Jesus in a tone that immediately caught His followers’ attention. They had begun to bicker in twos and threes over who had the best leadership potential. “Their high officials,” He continued, “exercise authority over them. Not so with you. Instead, whoever wants to become great among you must be your servant, and whoever wants to be first must be your slave—just as the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”

The murmuring group became silent. Second to Jesus’ own prophesied death, this may have been the worst news the disciples had heard from this enigmatic man. Whoever wants to become great must be a servant, even a slave? This was not what they wanted to hear. What about power? What about being on the winning team? Let’s face it: we all want to make the most of the opportunity of our lives. What Jesus was suggesting sounded ludicrous then, and continues to irk us now, if we are honest enough to admit it. We don’t want to be anyone’s servant.

Jesus was describing a character trait that God not only values but also is mandatory in His economy. Jesus was modeling it, and every serious follower of His must accept and embrace it if we want to get on with Him. We must develop a heart and hands that serve others. Somehow it is easier to serve God than to serve other people. He deserves it, we reason, but other people do not. It’s an oxymoron; rather than focusing on achieving our own goals, we are called to assist others in theirs. We are being asked to set aside our own hopes and dreams to lift up others at our expense. It’s unthinkable!

Yet according to Jesus, servanthood is the key character trait for true greatness. God knows it takes this mindset and application to make us truly human. In lifting up others we somehow participate in fulfilling our God-given destiny. By giving up earthly power we position ourselves for eternal significance. .

It’s a hard lesson for those of us who think we deserve better. It is for me. There is something in each of us that wants the kind of greatness that rules, that has autonomy over oneself at least and perhaps some authority over others. That was what Friedrich Nietzsche envisioned in his Ubermuensch philosophy. The online Urban Dictionary states, “The Ubermuensch is an independent individual who has the power to banish herd instincts from his mind….The Ubermuensch is the opposite of Jesus Christ.” How true.

In Matthew 20, just before describing the servanthood of His followers, Jesus prophesied his own imminent path to greatness.

“We are going up to Jerusalem,” He explained, “and the Son of Man will be betrayed to the chief priests and the teachers of the law. They will condemn him to death and will turn him over to the Gentiles to be mocked and flogged and crucified. On the third day he will be raised to life!” This was the calling by which Jesus was living, by which He would die, and by which He would be raised to His right place of eternal greatness.

While we are not called to die for the ransom of humanity nor to rise to Christ’s seat of honour, our calling is not dissimilar. Jesus explains we must, in a way, die each day of our lives: We must die to selfishness; we must reject “lording it” over anyone in a way that grasps power; we must find the joy in being last in line rather than in grasping for first and let God take care of the eternal rewards. This is true greatness. Ready to begin?

(Photo Credit: [[File:Feet washing, India, 1963 (16379126443).jpg|thumb|Feet washing, India, 1963 (16379126443)]]Mennonite Board of Missions Photographs, 1898-1967. IV-10-007.2 Box 4 Folder 14. Mennonite Church USA Archives – Goshen. Goshen, Indiana.)

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 18

On Becoming Great.

“Unless you change…” began the speaker in ‘TEDx’ style, “you will never enter…” He had caught his listeners’ attention. The murmuring had stopped and mouths had gone dry. The group had been discussing strategies for becoming uniquely, individually great. How could they achieve not only their personal best, they debated, but actually rise to the top, stand on the pinnacle of the new dominion, become the greatest?

“Unless you change and become like little children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven,” Jesus bluntly pointed out, as recorded in Matthew chapter 18. In other words, continue clawing and grasping for power and you won’t even be a part of My kingdom, never mind great in it. His followers’ position in the kingdom of heaven was not at stake—their entrance was.

Looking into the stunned faces of His followers, I’m sure Jesus felt compassion for them in their stumbling progress; it was only human nature for them to follow the promptings of pride, the psyche of superiority, the inclination to put oneself first. They really had no idea what He meant by saying they must become like little children. He would have to spell it out more clearly.

“Whoever humbles himself like this child,” He explained, drawing a toddler toward Him, “is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”

Humbles himself. It wasn’t a new idea. His followers had been versed in the Law and the Prophets since their own childhood. They had memorized the prophet Micah’s instruction to, “act justly and to love mercy, and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 6:8). Surely the prophet had not meant the humiliation of childishness, though, had he?

“And whoever welcomes a little child like this in my name welcomes me,” Jesus continued. “But if anyone causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a large millstone hung around his neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”

It was going from bad to worse. First, they would have no part in His kingdom. Now, they were good for nothing but Davey Jones’ locker. What did it all mean?

Jesus was saying that simple faith in God is not just best practice; it is only practice in God’s kingdom. Unless a person humbles and entrusts herself or himself unreservedly to God’s plans, as a child would her father, there is no spiritual heart beating beneath the physical exterior.

“BETTER DROWNED THAN DUFFERS:” begins a telegram sent to the Walker children by their father in the 1930s fictional series, Swallows and Amazons. “IF NOT DUFFERS WON”T DROWN.” In other words, if you act with pride and its consequent foolishness, you really deserve the consequences of which you find yourself victim.

Pride says, “I’m in charge of me”, “it’s my life; I’ll do with it as I please”, and makes other similar claims. In contrast, childlike humility toward God says, “You are in charge of me”, “I will follow Your lead”, and the person lives by that premise. The two attitudes are worlds apart. In fact, Jesus is saying that we all have a natural bent toward the former attitude: we don’t want to be like children, having to trust another for the good times we envision our lives ought to contain. When we come of age, our tendency is to slough off the mantle of childlike faith we once had that believed in a good and loving Creator. Remember those days?

Jesus is giving a warning: Eternity with God, believe it or not, is real. Take it or leave it, but we had better not imagine we can make up the rules. We cannot experience true greatness without first submitting ourselves to the process that changes great duffers into child-hearted believers. It is a process. Child-hearts occasionally revert to duffer-blundering galoots. The great thing is to say to Jesus, “I’m sorry”, and “make me like You.”—true, noble, right, pure, lovely, admirable, excellent, praiseworthy. That is Christ-like greatness.

And the great thing is that God is a Father unlike any other. He enfolds past-duffers into His great family in an embrace that turns them into children that reflect their Father’s greatness more than ever before. Let’s leave the life of a duffer behind. Together let’s become children on the journey that takes us great places.

(Photo Credit: By USAID – USAID, Public Domain, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=10485032; CC BY-SA 3.0; 862878;By en:User:Steevven1 – URL: http://www.keysphotography.com/photopages/2007-03-04.php, CC BY 2.5, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=1746173)

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 10

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Fearless

Ever been faced with a threat to your health or life? Ever barely missed being hit by an oncoming vehicle, a falling tree limb, a vicious dog or other serious threat? You know the feeling; a rush of adrenaline courses through your body, you involuntarily take in a gasping lungful of air and you react with the old ‘Fight or Flight’ response.

Fear is a powerful motivator. It can make us do things we never thought possible, or prevent us from doing things we assumed were inevitable. But sometimes fear takes on proportions it was never meant to have in our lives. It weakens us by limiting the opportunities we are willing to step into that would benefit our lives or others’.

Jesus tackles the concept of fear in this ‘Day 10’ of our exploration of Jesus’ life as recorded in the Gospel of Matthew. Chapter ten lets us eavesdrop in on Jesus and His twelve closest friends as He appoints and authorizes them for a task. He is engaging the disciples in a sort of commissioning—preparing His apprentices for their first outreach project into the Jewish communities in their area. While the appointment is specific to the disciples, Jesus’ teaching regarding fear is very relevant to each of our lives and worth considering.

Jesus is preparing the Twelve to accomplish the double task of going to Jewish communities in the vicinity and healing every disease and sickness—physical, mental or spiritual—while teaching the message, “The kingdom of heaven is near.” He doesn’t want them to go into the task thinking all will be rosy. There will be barriers. Those who perceive their own power might be usurped by this ‘heavenly kingdom’ will not take kindly to the message. They never do. In fact Jesus warns His followers, “I am sending you out like sheep among wolves” and “Be on your guard.” Followers of Jesus need to be wise in their exercise of the task Jesus gives them.

So Jesus comes right out and voices what they have all been wondering, saying, “Do not be afraid of those who kill the body but cannot kill the soul.” He is preparing them for a worst-case scenario. Most of those first disciples would face martyrs’ deaths—the Roman Empire of the day was free to inflict the death penalty where it perceived a threat—but the disciples didn’t know that yet. None of us know how we will meet our earthly end. And Jesus wants to discuss the issue of fear, because many situations are possible in our lives. We may face any number of worst-case scenarios; any one of an array of fear-inducing developments may arise to threaten our health, our welfare, or our lives. Jesus wants to prepare all of His followers to meet and defeat this great inner enemy each of us have known at some time or another. How does He do it? What deep metaphysical and rational reason does Jesus provide to enable His followers to combat and conquer fear? He tells them to consider the wild birds of nature.

“Are not two sparrows sold for a penny?” Jesus muses. “Yet not one of them will fall to the ground apart from the will of your Father. And even the very hairs of your head are all numbered. So don’t be afraid; you are worth more than many sparrows.” I imagine Jesus makes this last comment with a smile. He can be the master of understatement when He wants to be. He is asking, ‘Do you even begin to know the great worth the Heavenly Father places on each of you?’

Jesus is revealing the depth of personal interest God the Father takes in each individual. Can anything truly disastrous happen in the life of a person who has entrusted himself or herself to God’s care? The answer to that rhetorical question is no! We must gather that thought and frame it; we need to place it forefront in our minds, understanding it as perhaps the single most important truth for understanding how to live our lives in this often dangerous and daunting world. God is with us; what need we fear?

David begins a psalm with that thought. “The LORD is my light and my salvation—whom shall I fear?” he asks himself. “The LORD is the stronghold of my life—of whom shall I be afraid?” Again the answer is implied: an emphatic ‘no one!’

The secret to thwarting fear is to focus on the Father. Keeping in mind His great love for each of us makes the fearsome threats of life pale in comparison. We are of great value and worth to the God of the universe. Would He let anything hinder His plans for us? Absolutely not! Believe it—and watch those fears disappear.

(Photo Credit: [[File:TwoSparrows.jpg|thumb|TwoSparrows]])