Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 13

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‘Kaph’

Hunger, yearning, longing, desire: these are all concepts God endorses. In contrast to Eastern religions, Christianity boldly advocates—even insists upon—desire. We’re not talking about desire as an end in itself, though; that would be discontent. Nor are we talking about desire for anything that attracts us; that would be greed. And we’re definitely not talking about desire for things that could in any way harm us or harm anyone or anything around us; that would be destruction. What Christianity embodies is a desiring for what God specifically promises us in His Word. We’re talking about desiring God. Some of His promises are accessible right now, but some of them are for the future, a distant but very real future. This is what the psalmist speaks of in the stanza labeled ‘Kaph’.

“My soul faints with longing for your salvation, but I have put my hope in your word. / My eyes fail, looking for your promise; I say, ‘When will you comfort me?’ / Though I am like a wineskin in the smoke, I do not forget your decrees. / How long must your servant wait? When will you punish my persecutors? / The arrogant dig pitfalls for me, contrary to your law. / All your commands are trustworthy; help me, for men persecute me without cause. / They almost wiped me from the earth, but I have not forsaken your precepts. / Preserve my life according to your love, and I will obey the statutes of your mouth”(Psalm 119:81-88).

The psalmist is fairly bursting with desire. His soul faints with longing for God’s salvation. His eyes fail for looking for God’s promise. He bemoans how long he is being required to wait for comfort, for relief, for rescue. He desires these things so fully that it occupies his heart, his mind and his senses. This desire is essentially for God to make good on a promise He made centuries earlier. It was a promise initially wreathed in mystery with revelations by increments made through an array of God’s prophets. Yet as little as the psalmist knows of the promise’s vast extent, he is entirely consumed by hoping for it, because he knows it embodies God’s love for him. So the promise itself has been the cause of the desire that fills the psalmist.

Since Jesus incarnated as a man and accomplished His redeeming work on the cross a millennium after the psalmist lived, the bulk of the promise has been fulfilled. But rather than dulling the desire of the promise, He magnifies it. His vast expansive eternal being enlarges and expands our appetite for Him so we desire Him not less than the psalmist but more. It seems to be true that ‘the more you have the more you want’. Jesus’ unbounded, immeasurable, limitless love makes us hunger more for Him with each successive taste of Him we swallow.

Not only is Christ the source of “the mystery of God…in whom are hidden all the treasures of wisdom and knowledge” (Colossians 2:3), but He is “this mystery…Christ in you, the hope of glory” (Colossians 1:27). Christ living in the lives of those who invite Him within is both the source of and solution to our deepest desiring. ‘Jesu, joy of man’s desiring’ was Bach’s name for Him. All other desires are cheap imitations of Him our true desire.

“Come, all you who are thirsty,” invites Jesus through the prophet Isaiah, “come to the waters; and you who have no money, come, buy and eat!…Why spend money on what is not bread, and your labor on what does not satisfy?…Give ear and come to me; hear me, that your soul may live. I will make an everlasting covenant with you, my faithful love promised to David” (Isaiah 55:1-3). If we want our desiring satisfied, it’s Jesus to whom we must come.

(Photo Credit: By Deepak Vallamsetti – Own work, CC BY-SA 4.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=52197985)

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #28

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Island of God’s Goodness (Paraphrase of Psalm 142)

Help me, Father, by Your great mercy; attend to my call. I appeal to You because You are good, and because I know only You can help me. When my spirit grows faint within me and all my other supports fall away, then I begin to realize that only You understand what I am experiencing and are able to turn it into good for me.

You see the snares hidden in my path—traps waiting to trip me up, sea storms threatening to capsize, capture and destroy me. Some appear at first glance to hold fortunes, illicit treasures mine for the taking, yet they will be nothing but trouble if I turn toward them. They are all opiates, tranquilizers that remove me from the reality of Your goodness. The evil one is willing to destroy my faith by overt attacks or by subtle temptations—whatever means are within his control to imprison me.

But with You, Father, I have discovered a true path, a refuge and a rescue, freedom for my soul. With You I am freed from the prison of fears and inconsistencies, rebellions and selfishness, these dreadful enemies of mine.

Your connection with me fulfills my deepest yearning—my need for an island of goodness. It’s an oasis of love and compassion where You offer me the deepest of relationships for my good.

So here I come again, desperately in need of Your protection. Give me safe passage to Your Island of Goodness where all that pursues me is blocked from entering. Here I am safe. I am freed to praise Your Name.

I praise You, God of goodness, who does good to me and to all that come willingly to Your island. You surround us with Your faithfulness and grace for eternity.

(Photo Credit: By en:User:Mwanner – en:Image:Small Island in Lower Saranac Lake.jpg (photographer: en:User:Mwanner), CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=4703476)

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #4

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Goodness Prayer (A Paraphrase of Psalm 116)

God, You are so good. Imprisoned by trouble I would never have escaped, I discovered You coming to my rescue; You heard my cry and came in answer to it in a way that perfectly balanced grace—Your free gift, and righteousness—what justice required, and compassion—love for the unlovely. That is so good.

What it takes from me is an admission of my own need, my own lack of goodness. I must reject the pride that is my inborn habit, coming to You in faith—simple-hearted, open-faced and unadorned trust in You. My soul finds rest, time and time again, when I admit that You are good for me.

You deliver me from the dark influence of evil so that I may walk with You; this is Paradise found in the truest sense. And my role? You ask me to trust You, to believe in what I cannot see, to admit that You are completely good and all-powerful, and that I am anything but that. That is the covenant You call salvation and offer me—a cup of wine deep and fragrant and sparkling.

This imagery, of course, reminds me of You, Jesus, body broken for me, blood spilled for my eternal good. Because of You the death of every one of us who trust in You will be the precious reuniting of children with good Father, servants with good Master and the rescued with good Redeemer.

So I rejoice in being Your servant. I will take every opportunity to thank You for Your goodness and love, to praise Your name before others, and to live my life as a thank offering to You.

Twenty-eight Days with Jesus, Day 4

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OBEDIENT.

“Then Jesus was led by the Spirit,” documents Matthew in his fourth chapter of the gospel named after him. We’ve encountered Jesus a chapter earlier explaining His life purpose to the sage, John, that He must “fulfill all righteousness.” There He was active and intentional. The integrity that would come to characterize everything we know about this amazing Man was first revealed there.

But now we see Jesus allowing Himself to be led. This is an important concept, and Matthew does not flinch from recording it. To be led is to follow the direction and orders of another. It is to deliberately put oneself at the mercy of another’s plans, to fulfill their purposes for you. This is what Jesus did.

Now, we ought to take note that His obedience was not a weak passivity that allowed Himself to be used by any and all. His obedience was focused wholly on the Father’s will as communicated to Him by the Holy Spirit. He was purposing to accomplish the task that He, as one of the three members of the triune God, had determined before time needed to be accomplished.

But His role of Immanuel, God with us in the flesh, meant that this determination to fulfill what He intended would come crashing head first against a barrier. He would need to personally experience the daunting interference of the devil—fallen angel, disobedient messenger and tempter of humans.

The ‘temptation of Jesus’, as recorded here in Matthew’s account is famous. We know the devil presents to Jesus three opportunities for a quick fix for Jesus’ situation as earthbound God-man: the tempter points out that stones could become warm bread at a word from the fasting Jesus—why should the Son of God (said with a sneer) be hungry? He then challenges Jesus to fling Himself off the peak of the temple of Jerusalem whereupon obedient angels would surely rescue Him—why should His minions not serve the Son of God? Satan’s grand finale is to offer Jesus the wealth and splendor of the world’s kingdoms if only Jesus would worship him for a moment—why should the creator of all not enjoy the wealth of His creation?

Yet Jesus is not daunted. He walks through barriers with an ease that belies the strength it takes to remain obedient to a true cause when every voice seems to point the other way. His answers to the tempter reflect His commitment to obey His Father, Truth itself. He points back to the Word of God, truths and commands recorded in Scriptures. And with that, the devil sullenly leaves Him.

C.S. Lewis offers us a useful thought on what this temptation would have meant for Jesus: “A silly idea is current that good people do not know what temptation means. This is an obvious lie. Only those who try to resist temptation know how strong it is. After all, you find out the strength of the German army by fighting against it, not by giving in. You find out the strength of a wind by trying to walk against it, not by lying down. A man who gives in to temptation after five minutes simply does not know what it would have been like an hour later. That is why bad people, in one sense, know very little about badness — they have lived a sheltered life by always giving in. We never find out the strength of the evil impulse inside us until we try to fight it: and Christ, because He was the only man who never yielded to temptation, is also the only man who knows to the full what temptation means — the only complete realist.”

So as we observe Jesus in this record of the devil’s attempt to tempt Him, we may recognize the epiphany we’ve been given. It’s a two-fold revelation. It’s an epiphany in terms of it revealing a moment when ‘you suddenly feel you understand or become conscious of something that is very important to you’ (credit to Cambridge Dictionaries Online for this definition). We realize that even when we are weakened by the strongest reasons tempting us to disown Him, the strength to remain true to God is accessible to us through Jesus’ own strength living in us. There is no temptation that is beyond Christ’s ability to help us spurn. Because of His obedience, we can be obedient too.

And secondly, it’s an epiphany in the more literal sense: a manifestation of the divine nature of Christ there in the dust and dirt of life on troubled planet earth. It wasn’t the end of the story, though. The writer of another segment of Scripture tells us about the attitude of Jesus, “Who, being in very nature God, did not consider equality with God something to be grasped, but made himself nothing, taking the very nature of a servant, being made in human likeness. And being found in appearance as a man, he humbled himself and became obedient to death—even death on a cross! Therefore God exalted him to the highest place and gave him the name that is above every name, that at the name of Jesus every knee should bow, in heaven and on earth and under the earth, and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father.

That is what obedience results in when rightly placed. This is Jesus. And this is what God wants for us.

(Photo Credit: “Jules Guérin. The Wilderness of Judea . 1910” by Jules Guérin (1866-1946)Book author: Robert Smythe Hichens – Robert Smythe Hichens, The Holy Land, 1910 p.175. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Jules_Gu%C3%A9rin._The_Wilderness_of_Judea_._1910.jpg#/media/File:Jules_Gu%C3%A9rin._The_Wilderness_of_Judea_._1910.jpg)

News That Moves Us

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Terrorist attacks on Paris. Syrian refugees. Lufthansa pilot-forced airliner crash. The top news stories of 2015 have been about tragedies. When we hear about calamities and catastrophes, we are shocked; we are shaken out of our own comfortable routines and forced to pay attention to the hardships and extremities of others. The response of many countries to help resettle Syrian refugees forced from their own war-torn country shows that some news moves us enough to cause us to act.

It’s worth taking a look at this phenomenon—not necessarily of the refugee situation, or of attacks of some people against others—but of news that moves us. What is it about certain news that causes us to be willing to change our routines, our norms, and even our foundational goals for the sake of others? What is it that causes us to make a paradigm shift in our thinking and behaviour as a result of some news?

I believe news only changes us when we see its relevance to our own lives. When we see or hear news that rings true and that strikes a resonating chord with us, we are changed. Our thinking changes, our emotions often express that change, and our behaviours change.

The Bible talks about this same phenomenon.

God made a promise thousands of years ago to the human race. It was spoken specifically to Abraham but it referred to every one of us who would ever live. That promise was the epitome of news. The bottom line of what God said to Abraham was, “all peoples on earth will be blessed through you.”

This wasn’t a vague blessing bestowed by a benevolent but somewhat passive divine being upon His vast creation. It was news that God had begun a series of intricately timed occurrences that would culminate in an outrageous event: His own incarnation as one of us—for the express purpose of rescue. Why rescue? Think hard and deep.

Think about life. Think about the times you’ve messed up—we all have. Think about what it could be like if it was perfect. God designed life to be perfect for us, but we are a rebellious lot, to be truthful. We need someone to rescue us from ourselves, and Jesus is that Someone.

If that news strikes home, if it pierces to your very soul and is more relevant to you than anything else on this planet, then you’ve heard news that will move you. It will move you to entrust the remainder of your days and your eternity to Him. It will move you admit daily that you fall short of His hopes for you, but it will allow you to submit yourself to His gracious work changing your character to become like His—true and honest and good. It will move you to love God and love your neighbour in ever-expanding ways.

Sadly, not every one of us will benefit from this news. Like the many who ignore the plight of Syrian refugees, turn a blind eye to the hurting in the world, or give nothing more than a passing glance at the real cause of this world’s turmoil, the good news of Jesus will not take root in everyone’s lives. God gives us a choice. He presents it as news in the best way each of us can understand and leaves the response to us.

Honestly, our worst response is to reject the offer, to ignore it, to try some other means of finding relief from our troubles or to hide them altogether. But our best response is just to simply trust Him—to say it, to think on it and to act on it. That’s when God’s good news moves us the way it was intended to.

“For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life.” That’s amazing news.

(Photo Credit: “International newspaper, Rome May 2005”. Licensed under Attribution via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:International_newspaper,_Rome_May_2005.jpg#/media/File:International_newspaper,_Rome_May_2005.jpg)

ROMANS 13

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What’s Natural

Ever played the game Tribond? Given three words one must guess the bond between those seemingly unconnected words, like: What do a car, an elephant, and a tree have in common? Pause and think. They all have trunks. That was easy. Now here’s a harder one: What do beauty, disasters and resources have in common?

Natural. All three can be described by the adjective ‘natural’. Natural is a catchword that invokes something primeval; it describes what occurs without human intention or interference. The environment is natural when we have neither removed anything from it (like old growth forests) nor added to it (like fish ladders or high-rises).

We find the concept discussed in the thirteenth chapter of Romans, an epistle in which the Apostle Paul exposes the central truths of Christianity. But here, ‘natural’ refers to human nature.

“The hour has come,” alerts Paul, “for you to wake up from your slumber, because we are nearer now than when we first believed.”

He’s speaking to Christians, the early believers who were still trying to discover how their faith would affect their lives, and how a right view of God would transform their minds. But anyone who is willing to learn can glean from what he says.

“The night is nearly over; the day is almost here. So let us put aside the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light. Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature” (Romans 13:11-14).

Paul is bringing us to a crossroads of the natural. He’s exposing the false assumption that whatever is natural must be good for us. Remember the poison dart frogs of South America? The Golden Poison Frog (P. terribilis) contains enough toxin to kill ten to twenty people. That’s natural.

He shows us that we, in fact, have access to two streams or paths of human nature. One, described by darkness, is the natural bent we were born with, and bent truly describes this nature. It’s a contortion or deformation of what we were designed to be by nature. It consists of a destructive tendency to abuse our consciousness – the ability to be aware of truth; to abuse our reproductivity – a gift given us by God, the sustainability of our species; and to abuse interpersonal relationships – healthy social interactions. It is characterized by self-absorption and oblivion to the above abuses.

The other nature is … well … supernatural; it is the truly human nature modeled by Jesus Christ and made available only when we invite His Spirit into our lives. This nature is described by light, decency and daytime. It is clothed and in its right mind. This nature is available by the superhuman determination of God to rescue us from our self-destructive tendencies.

Yes, both paths are natural. The desires of the sinful nature are most easily accessible, but they are gratified at the expense of our true humanity. Ask anyone who has helplessly observed a family member self-destruct under the influence of drugs, alcohol, the sexual revolution, the gender revolution, eating disorders, materialism or other natural choices. It’s staggering.

The work of the Spirit of God in our lives, on the other hand, means that God takes His own nature and makes it second-nature to us. It happens by degrees, don’t get Paul wrong. Those who open themselves to this path of the crossroad don’t become perfect immediately. We obey and grow, and then we stumble and fall back into the old ways. But Jesus helps us up. He forgives us and gives us the strength to try again. It’s sometimes two steps forward and one step back, but the trend is forward.

“Not that I have already obtained all this, or have already been made perfect,” says Paul in his letter to the Philippians, “but I press on to take hold of that for which Christ Jesus took hold of me. Brothers (and sisters), I do not consider myself yet to have taken hold of it. But one thing I do: Forgetting what is behind and straining toward what is ahead, I press on toward the goal to win the prize for which God has called me heavenward in Christ Jesus.”

That is how we change from being controlled by our flesh-nature, to being natural-born children of God. Which path does it move you toward?

(Photo Credit: “DendrobatidFrog,Peru,02-02” by Tim Ross – Own work. Licensed under Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons – https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:DendrobatidFrog,Peru,02-02.jpg#/media/File:DendrobatidFrog,Peru,02-02.jpg)

CROSSROADS, Part 3

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“Are you dying for him?” she whispered.

“And his wife and child. Hush! Yes.”

At the climax of Charles Dickens’ classic A Tale of Two Cities, an exchange occurs; an unexpected substitution extricates the story’s protagonist from his imminent appointment with death. An eleventh-hour switch happens and a ransom results.

While in this story the anti-hero who orchestrates the exchange is by no means faultless, his act is reminiscent of the greatest ransom and rescue ever performed, not in literature, but in real life, by a man who proved Himself to be God’s Son. It is this great rescue to which the apostle Paul refers in this third chapter of the letter to the Romans.

This concept of rescue is not as easy to accept at it would appear. Sometimes we even abhor the idea; the offer of a remedy we fail to see we need strikes us as intrusive advertising. At other times, we catch a glimpse of our desperate situation, but then do not believe the rescue will accomplish what we want; we’ve become skeptical in our old age and new morality, unable to believe there is a solution to our problem. Sometimes we philosophize there are no problems – only appearances. We just need to look at life from a new angle and all will fall into place, we think.

Who wants a rescuer?

Only children do, really. Yet, only when we see ourselves as children do can we admit that a rescuer is necessary. Romans 3 looks at this crossroads because it’s the place where we choose the direction our thinking will follow.

“But now a righteousness from God, apart from law, has been made known, to which the Law and the Prophets testify. This righteousness from God comes through faith in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” Paul is saying it’s a crossroads everyone entertains. In earlier verses he divides people into ‘Jews’ and ‘Gentiles’, divisions that described the religious milieu of the day. He is saying we all come from one perspective or another that has its own road: the narrow law-keeping road, or the broader naturalist road. Those traveling each road consider themselves on the right road. Do you see yourself on either of these?

Yet, says Paul, the historical death of Jesus changes everything. It creates an intersection out of which two new paths issue. One path he calls faith – not faith in general, but specifically faith in the death-defying ransom paid by Jesus. The only other path is the absence of faith, in all its various expressions. Our daily lives are marked by our passage on one of these two roads. The former is easy to stray from, because we are, as one songwriter so aptly put it, “prone to wander”. The other path is so much easier to traverse but its ending, by small degrees and ultimately, destroys us.

As we make choices that will define our steps today, we do well to keep in mind a clear picture of that ransoming crossroad. It will be our best guide and strongest motivation to keep pace on the faith road and stay the course.

“Did You die for all humanity?” we ask Jesus.

“And for you. Hush! Yes.”

(Photo Credit: “La route qui mène vers le coté obscur”. Licensed under CC BY-SA 2.5 via Wikimedia Commons – http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:La_route_qui_m%C3%A8ne_vers_le_cot%C3%A9_obscur.jpg#/media/File:La_route_qui_m%C3%A8ne_vers_le_cot%C3%A9_obscur.jpg)