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 21

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‘Qoph’

Distraught. That’s how the psalmist sounds as he pens ‘Qoph’, this fourth-to-last stanza in his epic 119th psalm. Anxious. Something is deeply troubling him. Further along he gives a few more details of his dilemma, but he avoids the kind of details that might tempt us to discount his anxiety as an obsolete cultural anomaly. Perhaps he knows how endemic anxiety is in many a culture, in every era, in most people. Perhaps he is giving us clues to lead us to find the kind of relief he has found. Listen to how he puts it.

“I call with all my heart; answer me, O LORD, and I will obey your decrees. / I call out to you; save me and I will keep your statutes. / I rise before dawn and cry for help; I have put my hope in your word. / My eyes stay open through the watches of the night, that I may meditate on your promises. / Hear my voice in accordance with your love; preserve my life, O LORD, according to your laws. / Those who devise wicked schemes are near, but they are far from your law. / Yet you are near, O LORD, and all your commands are true. / Long ago I learned from your statutes that you established them to last forever.”

It doesn’t take much for us to see that, according to the psalmist, relief from anxiety comes from the LORD. Let’s explore that a little. Who is the LORD, what do we know about Him, and how can He help—not only with anxiety, but also with every dilemma that we face?

‘LORD’ is the English term for the Hebrew name Yahweh by which God refers to Himself. The psalmist understands a few things about Yahweh—the LORD—that come into play as he composes this psalm-prayer. Rather than an impersonal cosmic force, the psalmist understands that the LORD is a personal, relational Being whose essence is expressed to humankind in the form of His Word. His Word is not only Scripture—a body of writings including the Law, poetry, historical records, promises, prophecies, and later the Gospels, epistles, and more prophetic writings—but most succinctly in the form of Jesus, who is called “the Word”.

The LORD loves people and He engages in meaningful dialogue with people because it brings Him joy. Through His Word He expresses His eternal views and expectations as far as we are concerned, because they are for our good. He hears and answers those who cry out to Him. He even holds Himself accountable to making and keeping promises with people because He wants to give us hope and a meaningful future. He is not far off (as those who don’t know Him imagine), but is near—nearer than our worst dilemmas, our most overwhelming anxieties, or our most daunting enemies.

And as the psalmist comes to this point—the nearness of the LORD—we can almost hear the soul-deep sigh of relief the psalmist breathes. This is it: the nearness of the LORD is what God’s Word is ultimately about. The psalmist only grasps a small piece of it, but he knows that God’s nearness—His presence—is the key to human flourishing. He is also aware that God’s nearness is on a very different plane from the nearness he experiences from “those who devise wicked schemes.” The nearness of human dilemma, of anxiety and trouble is trifling compared to the great nearness of God to those who call on Him with all their heart.

“Who shall separate us from the love of Christ?” asks the Apostle Paul a millennium and a half after the psalmist’s time. “Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword?” Then he answers, “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” (Romans 8:35-39).

The love of God that is expressed Christ Jesus—also known as ‘God-with-us’—is the prescription for our greatest anxieties. The nearer we draw to Jesus through prayer, through exploration of the Scriptures, and through a determination to obey His commands of love, the more we will sense His great nearness. It may mean “ris(ing) before dawn” and even staying awake “through the watches of the night (to) meditate on (God’s) promises” rather than yielding to anxiety, but it will be worth it.

Let’s do as the psalmist does. Let’s call on the LORD with all our heart today. Let’s read His written Word, obey His commands, meditate on His promises, and enjoy the communion we have with Him who is so closely present here with us. “You are near, O LORD.”

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]]

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus; Day 6

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For once the hecklers were absent. The air was clear and those seated on the slope of the mountain could see the Jordan River winding through the valley below. Dusty tracks between villages were nothing more than threads on the draping fabric of the faraway land.

“Be careful,” began Jesus as He turned His attention to a topic that was of great importance to His listeners. Perhaps He paused there to draw their attention from the distant view back to His words—words of deep importance. Perhaps the disciples began to anticipate His next words: Be careful… of the precipitous drop-offs here on the mountainside? Be careful… of thieves hidden among the clefts of the paths in solitary places? Be careful… of the Roman soldiers who might demand you carry their gear on their journey to the next town?

“Be careful not to do your ‘acts of righteousness’ before men, to be seen by them. If you do, you will have no reward from your Father in heaven” (Matt. 6:1). So begins a chapter whose theme must have kept every eye and ear glued to the speaker. In teaching His followers how to live authentic, relevant lives that please God, Jesus uses a term for God that would have been unusual, maybe even unthinkable in those days. He calls God “your Father.”

We noticed he used this term in the previous chapter—He had said “Be perfect, therefore, as your heavenly Father is perfect.” He had also taught His astonished followers to “Love your enemies…that you may be sons of your Father in heaven.”

Had they heard Him right? Did Jesus call God their heavenly Father? This kind of informal, unceremonious terminology was not commonly used of God. Yet the earth had not opened up and swallowed the man who used it. In fact, it somehow brought God closer, hearing Him referred to as heavenly Father. Some remembered the one hundred and third psalm saying, “As a father has compassion on his children, so the LORD has compassion on those who fear him.”

Now Jesus continues using the term Father and its pronouns twenty times in the next thirty-four verses (You really ought to read Matthew chapter six to get the full impact of it). He is warming to his subject and the ears and hearts of His listeners are burning. Jesus is teaching them that life is about pursuing a close relationship with the unseen Father; it’s not about external show. It’s not about the power that comes through prestige, wealth, or fashion. It’s about the interior life that God designed to be eternally expanding with the sort of rewards only an all-knowing compassionate heavenly Father can give. Jesus explains the family rules:

Stop trumpeting your charitable giving—the world needs public praise because they haven’t a heavenly Father to reward them like you do. The Father sees the good you do in secret. Trust Him to settle accounts in His time.

Stop trying to look holier-than-thou in front of others; a humble attitude of seeking forgiveness from others and from your Father will get you more in the long run.

Stop surrounding yourselves with the treasures of this world—property that will ultimately be taken from you. The Father is your greatest treasure—valuing Him above all else will keep your heart safe.

Stop fretting about your lot in life. Instead, set your vision on your Father’s plans for you to be people of good character. Your hope ought to be trained on the heavenly home the Father is making available for you.

Jesus’ focus on the Father is a message for each of us, every day—including today. He even sketches out a prayer for us to incorporate into our daily routines. It starts, “Our Father in heaven…” Remember it? The point is, we must think on the Father. Bringing Him into our thoughts will change our outlook on life.

Do we really want to take advantage of God’s fatherhood in our lives? We need to spend some time, as Jesus calls it “in secret” with the Father. Voice a prayer. Read a Psalm. Think about how He wants us to respond to life’s challenges. Ask Him to make Himself present in our lives. When we contemplate, ruminate and meditate on our heavenly Father, we are living in the present as God designed us to. Isn’t that right, Father?

 (Photo Credit: “Gorakh hill lonely tree” by Shahrukhphotoart – Own work. Licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0 via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gorakh_hill_lonely_tree.JPG#/media/File:Gorakh_hill_lonely_tree.JPG)

PRAYER IN THE NIGHT

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Richard Turere used to be plagued by lions. Living in the savanna of Kenya, the thirteen year old has been responsible for the safety of his father’s cattle for more than half his young life. And lions were causing him grief. The Maasai boy knew he had to do something, if he wanted peace. Through a series of trial and error experiments Turere discovered something: small solar-powered electric lights, set up in series to flash separately, simulating movement, fool lions into thinking an armed man is guarding the cattle all night. The lions got the message; they no longer bother Turere or his father’s cattle. Even his neighbours recognize a good idea when they see one, and have asked him to set up lights like he has.

Turere has something to teach us. Not about lions and flashing lights, but about the enemy in our lives. Our enemy is subtler than the great Kenyan cats, but we are losing sleep over issues in our lives too. We are feeling overwhelmed and anxious about a variety of stressors in our lives.

We cannot do it all. We cannot protect ourselves from every danger in this life. Perhaps we have tried other options available. We’ve tried independence – doing it our way – but we’ve suffered the trial and error casualties that come with it. We’ve tried making our own gods – education, wealth, fitness, prestige – somehow life’s dangers are no respecters of these. We’ve tried using our own strength, but we are like children in the dark African night, and we know the odds aren’t good.

The best thing we can do is a sort of non-action. It is giving up all the striving and manipulating efforts that have gotten us nowhere and tapping into the Light of the World. It is admitting that He, God, is the only one who can watch over us day and night. We can’t do it ourselves. We only wear ourselves out trying. So instead, we pray through our fears and troubles, our worries that the enemy will take something precious from us. Calling out to God, our prayers are like beacons linked in series, flashing a message through the night: God is greater than our enemy, and the enemy knows it. Listen to what some of the psalmists had to say about night prayer:

“Blessed is the man…(whose) delight is in the law of the LORD, and on His law he meditates day and night” (Psalm 1:1,2).

“By day the LORD directs His love. At night His song is with me – a prayer to the God of my life” (Psalm 42:8.)

“On my bed I remember You; I think of You through the watches of the night” (Psalm 63:6).

“When I was in distress, I sought the Lord; at night I stretched out untiring hands…” (Psalm 77:2).

Et cetera. I could go on. You see the connection. The point is that prayer is strategic communication. It harnesses the power of the Almighty to guard our souls, and it is the only thing that will do it. So, meditate on His Words, sing to Him, remember His presence with you, seek Him and stretch out untiring hands to Him. It’s all prayer. And it’s the only way to get a good night’s rest, because it’s a jungle out there.

 

SINGLE-MINDEDNESS

SINGLE-MINDEDNESS

“One thing I ask of the LORD, this is what I seek: that I may dwell in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to gaze upon the beauty of the LORD and to seek him in his temple.” Psalm 27:4

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To live in our twenty-first century Western society requires one main skill: multitasking. Schedules rule. Our minds spin with things to do, things to remember, people to see, places to go. Even our leisure times are fraught with scheduling activities reflecting each family member’s varying interests. Our lives resemble a one-man band busking on a crowded city street.

In contrast, I love the Psalmist’s single-minded focus expressed in this verse. His focus is on “one thing”. Not, ‘the first thing’ or ‘one of many things’; just one thing. He asks just one thing of the LORD. Only one thing will meet his deepest yearning need. He has pared away all superficial wants and mined to the core of his human condition. He has one driving ambition.

He describes this one thing with three verbs. He wants to dwell, to gaze and to seek. He wants to participate fully in absorbing himself with his Creator. He wants to live with Him, look unflinchingly at Him, and worship Him.

How does the Psalmist envision this dwelling, gazing, seeking activity to occur? Prayer. The Psalmist instinctively knows that prayer is his avenue to participating in the God-life, to relating ‘face to face’ in the spiritual sense with his Lord.

He prays, “Hear my voice when I call, O LORD…My heart says of you, “Seek his face!” Your face, LORD, I will seek.”

What a call to action this is for us who say we love God, or, for that matter, for us who say we want to live life to the fullest. This is the greatest frontier we can ever explore, to probe the infinite reaches of the person of God. I’m thinking this is why we have been given the opportunity of everlasting life. The task will take an eternity and longer. It also demands the full extent of our focus and energy, to earnestly seek Him. Anything less than single-minded undivided attention will ultimately disappoint both God and us. There is no multitasking when it comes to worshiping the King of Kings and Lord of Lords.

Let’s put into perspective our purpose here on planet earth. Everything is about one thing. Our attention must be focused, our loyalty unalloyed, our heart undivided. It’s all about God, and we’re invited to be part of the experience. So let’s give a try today at focusing on God. Let’s think about Him throughout the day, talk to Him as often as we think of Him, and when we find ourselves distracted, shake off the inclination to multitask.  Let’s incorporate prayer INTO today’s events rather than segregating prayer from them. This is single-mindedness. This is wholeness.

 

Psalm 15:5b Be and Do

Verse 5b  “He who does these things will never be shaken”.

We’ve come to the conclusion of the Psalm, the prayer.  It’s a call to action.  It’s a promise.  It’s a challenge.  The prayer has been a fathoming of the Sovereign, holy God whose core descriptor is His absolute existence. He is; and we have become aware of it.  A high view and fear of Him is the fitting response.  We have benefited from His attributes: become blameless by Christ’s Blamelessness, are enabled to speak truth and love others by His Truth and Love, embrace integrity through His Wholeness.  Now it is time to “go and do likewise”.  Enough root-bound pondering; it is time to move into action or “be shaken”.

Soren Kierkegaard observes, “Christianity understands what it is to act and what it is to keep love incessantly occupied in action”.  It takes faith to act, to be motivated by our beliefs to behave on the basis of those beliefs.  Everything we understand God to be, we must be and do to others.  He is Love – we must love others.  He is Just – we must be just to others.  He forgives – we must forgive others.  He is not asking us to be automatons:  every day, every moment, we have the choice to be and do as He is and does.  But that choice is the fulcrum on which our faith rests.  The only alternative is to “be shaken”.

Shakenness is the condition of grave danger to the soul.  It is quicksand.  It is being “like a wave of the sea, blown and tossed by the wind” (James 1:6).  It is a building whose foundation is sand when a great wind arises.  This is not a threat by some great cosmic dictator.  This is the reality of the universe of cause and effect; if we know a thing needs doing, we must do it.

“God”, said Pascal, “instituted prayer in order to lend to His creatures the dignity of causality.”  This causality is seen in our inward prayer, and it is seen in our outward life of action.  This is Psalm 15.  Our communion with God is the energy behind our life of love, truth and integrity.  Let us embrace this causality with everything we are and have.  Let us be and do.

LORD, your holy hill is both far away and very near.
Yet, it is not the hill I want and need, after all, but only You.
High and lofty One, fill me with Your Spirit.
Help me see you in and behind everything I am and do.
Dwell with me that I may dwell with You.