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).

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WHO IS JESUS? #11

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Knower of the Father.

Some things can be separated and still maintain their unique characteristics: a deflated balloon is still a balloon—even without air in it; separate bees from flowers and they will still be bees and flowers, although eventually both will die without the other. But some things cannot be separated and maintain their coherence: split the nucleus of an atom and see what happens.

In a similar way, everything Jesus claims about Himself is inextricably tied to God the Father. Jesus’ glory is tied to the Father’s glory; Jesus’ honouring of the Father is in balance with the Father’s honouring of Jesus; even the sovereignty of Jesus is inseparable from the sovereignty of the Father. So it’s no surprise that in this passage of John’s gospel (8:12-59) Jesus references the Father twenty-eight times. In a word, He is obsessed with Him. The centrality of the importance of the Father to the Son’s identity is summed up in the phrase Jesus now proclaims, “I know him.”

On the surface, to say we know someone is simple enough. We use it quite commonly in day-to-day life referring to family members, friends and even acquaintances. At some point, though, we recognize we can’t honestly apply the phrase to a relationship unless there is a certain level of mutual knowing involved. We may know about our country’s Prime Minister, or its President, or about other famous and infamous people, but we can’t sincerely say we know them unless we have connected at some level of intimacy.

Jesus makes this distinction in His discussion with the sanctimonious Jewish ruling class that have been challenging Him. He highlights the uniqueness of His claim to know the Father against the sham of their claims.

“Though you do not know him, I know him,” Jesus asserts. “If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and keep his word.” Sharp contrast. Jesus does not mince His words when He wants to make an important point. He is saying, ‘you lie when you say you know the Father; I would be lying if I said I didn’t.’

The more we think about that claim, the more fantastic we realize it to be. Who can truly know God? Eight centuries earlier, Isaiah, God’s hand-picked prophet, had quoted God saying, “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways, and my thoughts than your thoughts” (Isaiah 55:9); and a little later a prophet named Jeremiah quoted God as saying He is not impressed by human power, “but let him who boasts boast about this: that he understands and knows me…” (Jeremiah 9:24a). The implication is that this lofty goal of knowing God can never be fully achieved by created beings.

So a claim to know—to fully and completely know— the Father is a claim of something at the level of equality with Him. It is a claim of cognitive intimacy that puts Jesus in a unique relationship and on par with the Father. But then Jesus is not a created being as we are; He is the “only begotten”, the “one and only” Son of the Father (John 3:16). His essence is eternally and inextricably bound up in the essence of the Father. We cannot fully know what that means—we have nothing in our experience that corresponds to that kind of knowing of God. At least, not yet.

Fortunately for those who choose to follow Jesus, to accept His offer of relationship, something amazing happens; we are brought into an intimacy with God that is foundationally one of mutual knowing. Jesus explains to His disciples (and by implication, to all throughout history who have looked to Him), “If you really knew me, you would know my Father as well. From now on, you do know him and have seen him” (John 14:7). So the Apostle Paul extrapolates this idea by saying, “I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord” (Philippians 3:8). The author of Hebrews explains that this new thing—this new kind of knowing of God—was in the mind of God to produce in humanity when He conceived of us. It takes time, and it takes the unsurpassed power of God to create the right conditions for it to happen, but without a doubt it is happening.

“I will put my laws in their minds and write them on their hearts,” Jeremiah quotes God saying. “I will be their God, and they will be my people. No longer will a man teach his neighbour, or a man his brother, saying, ‘Know the Lord,’ because they will all know me, from the least of them to the greatest. For I will forgive their wickedness and will remember their sins no more” (Hebrews 8:10-12).

Amazing news. Our best response to this news is to commit every day to spending increasing time with Jesus; we can read His Word, incorporating what we learn about Him into our lives; we can commit portions of that Word to memory, recalling them in times of need; and we can converse with Him—a process we call prayer. That is our part now in the glorious adventure we will spend eternity exploring—that of knowing God. There will be more when we finally see Him face to face. For now, know and be known.

(Photo Credit: [[File:NNSA-NSO-504.jpg|NNSA-NSO-504]]

What’s to be Thankful For? Part 7

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Counsel.

Supply must meet demand. The universities across Canada and the United States that have responded to the demand are simply humming. They are busily producing graduates of Counseling Psychology programmes because of a growing need out here among us Western ‘grab the world by the tail’ people. What is the need? What is the demand that is causing such feverish activity and producing so many jobs?

We need counsel. More than that, we need counseling. Whether it is our fast-paced culture, the loss of a supportive community, or unknown influences upon our mental health, the insecurity of life as we know it is getting to us. We’ve lost our identity and our sanity feels not far behind. We need someone to help us find our way, someone to give us hope that life can be joyful, occasionally happy, or at least bearable.

Living three millennia ago, the psalmist David manages to pen words contemporary to our situation. His concern is not that he grapple with the high-speed changes of technology and culture. He has other worries on his mind, primarily invading armies from without, and insurrection from within. Yet David knows the human condition. He experiences the mental upheaval of wrestling with life’s dilemmas, and he points us in the direction of their resolution.

“I will praise the LORD who counsels me,” he declares; “even at night my heart instructs me” (Psalm 16:7).

God counsels, day and night. That piques our interest. Your first question, if you are like me, is to ask, “How does He do that?” We don’t hear His voice; we don’t sit in an overstuffed chair in an office with “God, Registered Clinical Counselor (RCC)” on the door, describing to Him the stressors in our life and our feelings regarding them, while he takes notes.

Isaiah, God’s mouthpiece in the eighth century B.C. prophesied, “For to us a child is born, to us a son is given, and the government will be on his shoulders. And he will be called Wonderful Counselor…” (Isaiah 9:6). Those words speak of Jesus, the promised redeemer of everyone who looks to Him for recovered relationship with God. And Jesus has a wealth of information to tell His followers about the counseling role not only He, but also the Father and the Holy Spirit perform. Pour over the gospel of John, chapters fourteen through sixteen to hear many references to the counseling work of God.

“And I will ask the Father,” explains Jesus to the twelve disciples who would watch His crucifixion hours later, “and he will give you another Counselor to be with you forever—the Spirit of truth” (John 14:16).

“He lives with you and will be in you,” Jesus continues, opening His disciples’ minds to this means of counsel they had never before experienced; the Holy Spirit would indwell the core of each of their beings–and not only theirs. He is ever-present today in those who allow themselves to be indwelt by Him. He is endlessly and unfailingly urging and encouraging right thoughts, right responses, and right actions in us.

Not to belittle the important job RCCs accomplish in providing a listening ear and sounding box for us to get some traction on problem solving techniques. But God goes deeper. He has access into our heart and soul and is able to lead us from despair to hope. “Search me, O God,” adds David in another psalm (139:23,24), “and know my heart; test me and know my anxious thoughts. See if there is any offensive way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.” I need that good counsel and I’m thankful for it. How about you?

(Photo Credit: “Harpers ferry by moonlight” by Robert Hinshelwood – This image is available from the United States Library of Congress’s Prints and Photographs division under the digital ID cph.3a51235.This tag does not indicate the copyright status of the attached work. A normal copyright tag is still required. See Commons:Licensing for more information. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Harpers_ferry_by_moonlight.jpg#/media/File:Harpers_ferry_by_moonlight.jpg)

EASTER LOVE-WORK, Conclusion

Behind the Scenes

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Nothing is as simple as it appears. To most things in life there is a behind-the-scenes complexity that is known only to those intimately involved. For instance, we’ve heard that 90% of the iceberg lies submerged below the sea. A two-hour movie takes hundreds of hours to film, multiple costumes for each character, and sometimes years of legal wrangling to obtain filming rights. Or think about our bodies. What has been happening in our brains to enable us to read, decipher and understand the squiggles on this page is staggering. Reality is just that way; there is always more than meets the eye.

When the lifeless body of Jesus was lowered to the ground from the bloodied cross, hastily wrapped up and tucked into a nearby burial tomb, it seemed like the end of a dream. The sun set on that day. The Sabbath day came and went. Then early on the first day of the new week some women went to that tomb. They had spices. They wanted to do for their dead lord what there had been no time for on His dying day. Tradition demanded they pay Him this final honour.

But something had been happening behind the scenes in places much vaster than the confines of that dark tomb. Jesus, Son of God, the fullness and the exact representation of God was at work. We’re told He was “disarm(ing) (evil) powers and authorities, mak(ing) a public spectacle of them, triumphing over them by the cross”. He was “cancel(ling) the written code, with its regulations that was against us and that stood opposed to us.” He was “reconcil(ing) to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven”; He was “making peace through his blood, shed on the cross” (Colossians 1:19,20; 2:14,15).

That is definitely more than meets the eye. Its complexity fits, though, doesn’t it? Real things, things that take honest effort are like that, aren’t they? How much more must things involving God be full of behind-the-scenes action. So, how is this relevant to us, to our lives here and now?

I think that word ‘reconciling’ is the key for us. It speaks of relationship. It describes a broken relationship made right, a separation ended, an estranged alliance recovered. That is the way God sees it. He was heartbroken by the rebellion every one of us would defend as our personal right. He knows what that would actually mean for us beyond this world’s brief existence – absence from Him is only eternal darkness and terror, hatred and loneliness. But because we haven’t any way of seeing behind the scenes, we have to trust Him on this. He wants so much more for us. He knows that His presence alone is what gives us light and love, hope and meaning. So He came to earth for the express purpose of doing what it would take, playing by His rules of justice, to reconcile us.

That is what Easter is. That is what was happening those silent days between Jesus’ death and that first Easter morning. And that is why the resurrection is so relevant for you and me. Without it, we could not have the relationship with Him we were designed to have. Without it, we would be eternally lost, alone and afraid.

It makes perfect sense when we see what lies behind Easter. But we need to do more than admit that it’s reasonable. We need to be willing to accept the reconciliation He offers. It will mean life change—relationship always does. What Easter means is that now the behind-the-scenes work can be happening in us. God’s Spirit has a world of good to do in us to enable us to know Him in deeper ways, to transform our character, and to love others by His power.

As the singer/songwriter Don Francisco reminds us, “He’s alive! He’s alive and I’m forgiven, heaven’s gates are open wide!”

(Photo Credit: Andrew Kudin, Wikimedia Commons)

JESUS THE GATE, Part 3

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Full Life (John 10:7-10)

The poor bloke in the jump suit ahead was hanging from the airplane’s wing strut some fifteen hundred feet above ground. He had taken the ground school. He had learned how to land with a roll, parachute trailing behind him. He had even learned how to step out of the safety of the plane’s mid-air fuselage, one foot on the landing gear, hands on the cold wing strut and push off for the static line jump. But when the time came to obey the jump instructor’s command, his feet obeyed but his fingers would not let go. So there he hung mid-air, dangling.

Some choices in life are like that. We call them benign, a word which is sometimes good, but not always. When we think about life experiences, though, some choices leave us hanging between doing nothing, and experiencing real significant purpose.

Some choices in life seem, on the surface to be benign, yet go on to be revealed as causing great loss. Do you remember the philosopher Nietzsche a hundred or more years ago who had some interesting thoughts on ideals for humanity? He said, God doesn’t exist, so let’s design the perfect man and leave objective values out of it. Seems benign enough. But when Adolph Hitler grasped those thoughts and chose to put them into practice, institutionalized eugenics ravaged Europe annihilating some millions of people. That choice was significant for many.

Jesus says, “I am the gate; whoever enters through me will be saved. He will come in and go out, and find pasture. The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy; I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

The enemy of mankind is a thief. He wants to take away the full, abundant life God designed for every one of us. Let’s face it. He wants to steal hope. He wants to kill any possibility of us having a relationship with Jesus; he wants to destroy life and love, freedom and joy. We can fairly safely call that malevolence. He likes tempting us to make choices that seem benign.

But in the metaphor of the shepherd, sheep, and thief, there is only one gate. There is only one authentic access point for full, abundant life. The thief is a liar, and speaks with a glittering forked tongue. He wants to make sheep believe the shepherd’s pasture either doesn’t exist, or is extremely bland, mundane, and irksome. He uses every trick in the book to keep the sheep from even approaching the gate. He says there is no Shepherd. He says the pasture is his way, the exciting back way out and over the wall. He dulls the sound of the pasture’s quiet waters with his raucous laughter.

But the thief’s manipulations do not change the gate or the pasture. They are truer than any reality the sheep will ever know. Those sheep that have chosen to go the gate way have found the pasture more satisfying than the thief’s paltry offerings. The pasture is life-giving, and the Shepherd’s presence gives a peace that is beyond comparison.

Of course we are more than sheep. We have minds that can wrestle with deep issues, solve extensive problems, and imagine great wonders. How do we take this analogy and really live in it? How do we enter the pasture? How do we come and go from sheep pen to pasture and back?

Start with a prayer. Address Jesus. Speak to Him your questions; open your heart to Him. Ask Him to lead you every step of the way. Ask Him to protect you from the lies of the thief. Voice to Him your commitment to avoid the thief’s lures, and be willing to take the gateway, narrow as it may seem. Read the Bible like it is your only hope for finding pasture. Then find others on the same path with Jesus and live life in community with them. Commit to living life this way every day, and see if the metaphor is true.

A NEW CREATION, Part 4

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New Covenant

The eerie honking of wild geese grew louder and more distinct that early morning. The sea’s still surface merged seamlessly into pale sky. Standing on the dock at Crescent Beach we felt surrounded by the vast spaces above and below us. The honking increased causing us to turn toward the sound. Like deer caught in the grip of car headlights we froze as dozens of geese in one perfect v-formation surged toward us, flying only meters above our heads. Their passing left us breathless. The honking faded and then subsided as the body moved along on its essential autumn journey. We felt like we had witnessed a covenant between God and His creatures in that aerial display.

Like that instinctive law of nature that directs geese on their seasonal journeys, God has laws to which we are bound. Beyond external laws of nature we find ourselves also responsible for moral laws—we must live in society with others, respecting them as we respect ourselves. Deeper still, are God’s laws of relationship with Him. Ancient Hebrew culture was founded on the law of Moses. Yet, even those laws were somehow external to the people. Generations had to be constantly reminded to do this or that, and to refrain from other things in order to fulfill God’s standards for right and wrong. It was an impossible task. No one can keep up a façade of obeying laws that are external to their natural bent. There needs to be a reconstruction of the human psyche, a transplant of sorts, a creation of instinct that gives people an internal compass.

Behold the new covenant. No more guilt-laden do’s and don’ts. No more ritual this or lip service that. Jesus says his life sacrifice is the ink in which this new covenant is written. It’s both costly and free. It’s not a contract of convenience, but a covenant of love—God loving us from the inside out.

“This is the covenant I will make with them after that time, says the Lord. I will put my laws in their hearts, and I will write them on their minds” (Hebrews 10:16). Do we understand what this means? It means we are given a sort of instinct implant, a graft of God’s love onto our hearts and minds. . It’s not a contract of convenience, but a covenant of love—God loving us and us loving Him in return. It means we can finally be the authentic people God designed every one of us to be.

We’ve come about it the long way around. We’ve each of us rebelled against God’s rule, we’ve habitually fallen short of the mark and we’ve brought more suffering on ourselves than was necessary. We’ve injured our consciences, hardened our hearts, and forgotten how we were created to fly.

Now there is a tender covenant in which we are invited to partake. It only requires us saying yes to the new and no to the old. He knows what we need and He is waiting almost breathlessly for the nod from us to proceed. His love covenant will fill our hearts and minds, and lift us up off the ground.

“…Those who hope in the LORD will renew their strength. They will soar on wings like eagles; they will run and not grow weary, they will walk and not be faint” (Isaiah 40:21).

So let’s embrace the new covenant. The old one was weary of trying to teach us to fly. We need hearts touched by the Father’s grace of forgiveness, the Son’s sacrifice and the Spirit’s loving presence to inspire us. Only then will we rise like wild geese and soar on wings like eagles. You are invited into the covenant. Are you ready to fly?