Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 12

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‘Yodh’

Is there a difference between optimism and hope? “Both optimism and hope,’ explains Miroslav Volf (Against the Tide), “entail positive expectations with regard to the future. But…they are radically different stances toward reality.” Optimism is looking at past or current conditions and mapping out likely positive future occurrences based on those experiences. It is based on circumstances and situations. Hope, in contrast, explains Volf, “is grounded in the faithfulness of God and therefore on the effectiveness of God’s promise.” Yodh, the tenth stanza of Psalm 119, illustrates for us what hope—not optimism—looks like.

Your hands made me and formed me; give me understanding to learn your commands. / May those who fear you rejoice when they see me, for I have put my hope in your word. / I know, O LORD, that your laws are righteous, and in faithfulness you have afflicted me. / May your unfailing love be my comfort, according to your promise to your servant./ Let your compassion come to me that I may live, for your law is my delight. / May the arrogant be put to shame for wronging me without cause; but I will meditate on your precepts. / May those who fear you turn to me, those who understand your statutes. / May my heart be blameless toward your decrees, that I may not be put to shame” (Psalm 119:73-80).

The psalmist has had, or is currently experiencing, troubles of some sort. He’s suffering. He’s been “wrong(ed) without cause” and “afflicted.” He’s a rational person and there is no good reason to be optimistic based on his situation. He cannot extrapolate any realistically good outcome from his current experience with any sense of reliability. Optimism has failed him.

But listen to the hope infusing this segment of the psalm—words like “rejoic(ing)”, and “delight” explode the myth that pain removes dignity from life. Rather, in the midst of his pain, the psalmist looks to his Maker, the LORD God, to be faithful to His promise to be loving and compassionate to him. He is comforted by this relationship of love that God has initiated; he rests heavily on the faithfulness that defines God.

Circumstances have no power over the lives of those who entrust themselves to God. This is the most freeing truth the Biblical text communicates. While optimism can too easily shift to become despair, anchoring our hope in a loving God brings lasting peace and a solution to the dilemma ‘How do I live victoriously in the midst of suffering?’

It all comes back to promise. The faithfulness of God is always expressed and communicated to us in the form of promise. The psalmist recognizes this and reminds himself and God with the phrase “according to your promise.” And what is this promise? It is the theme that runs throughout the Bible from start to finish, spoken and respoken in many ways. An earlier psalm phrases it this way: “All nations will be blessed through him, and they will call him blessed” (Psalm 72:17b). The promise is Jesus whose purpose was and is to bless all peoples through His work on the cross—the unthinkable death of the Author of life bringing unimaginable life to those who were enslaved by death. He is Promise and He is Hope.

The result of living life with hope is a greater awareness of God’s thoroughgoing involvement in our daily lives. We become more aware that He made us with all our physical, mental, emotional, spiritual and social complexities. We become more resolved to submit to God’s ways (vs.73), more sensitive to encouraging others (vs.74), more open to God’s faithfulness, compassion and love in the midst of suffering (vs.75-77), more faithful in obeying God’s precepts (vs. 78), more connected to others who also fear God (vs.79), and more wholehearted in relationship with God (vs.80). Hope restores our humanity to us through the perfect humanity of Christ.

God never gives us second best. That is why hope beats optimism every time. Promise gives a preview of how life not only ought to be, but will someday truly be. Hope in the Promised One will take even the worst of our suffering and transform us into people with the character of the perfect God-man, Jesus.

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Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 11

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‘Teth’

“Do good to (me)…” begins the psalmist in this ninth segment of Psalm 119. Those four words in themselves are enough fodder for a lifetime of thought: God. Good. To. Me. But there’s more. In and around and throughout the references to goodness, there are also references to evil (in the form of affliction, reputation-smearing, and callous hearts). This is interesting and worth exploring. How do good and evil correlate?

Do good to your servant according to your word, O LORD. / Teach me knowledge and good judgment, for I believe in your commands. / Before I was afflicted I went astray, but now I obey your word. / You are good, and what you do is good; teach me your decrees. / Though the arrogant have smeared me with lies, I keep your precepts with all my heart. / Their hearts are callous and unfeeling, but I delight in your law. / It was good for me to be afflicted so that I might learn your decrees. / The law from your mouth is more precious to me than thousands of pieces of silver and gold.

The psalmist has an idea that is nine-tenths formed. He is beginning to observe a principle and he wants to run it by God in the form of this prayer-song. We might call it ‘The Suffering Principle’. He sees that there is suffering in this world; there is evil in many forms and he has personally experienced it in the form of callous, reputation-smearing affliction-causing individuals. We know there are many other forms of evil too: illness, injustice, natural and social disasters, death. The list goes on. But there is also goodness; God’s goodness—of being and of doing—as well as a learned goodness the psalmist desires to be part of his own character. Somehow God’s Word is involved in this contest between the two opposing influences, resulting in some majestic phenomenon greater than all the silver and gold in the world.

The psalmist’s principle is this: (my) SUFFERING + (God’s) GOODNESS/POWER = GLORY.

Let that principle sink in for a minute. The psalmist is saying that when we experience evil in this life God is able (that’s the ‘power’ part) to use some divine alchemy to apply His goodness (powers of magnitude greater than any evil in existence) to bring about a process of transforming, mind-blowing, magnificence (what we’ll call ‘glory’).

The one-tenth part of the principle that the psalmist was just a millennium too early to know yet, is Jesus. Not one-tenth, really, but ten tenths, because He is the living Word, He is goodness incarnate, He is humankind’s glorious solution to the trouble we have experienced from the moment we arrived on the scene.

But how does Jesus bring goodness into our lives? Does He arrive like a superhero dressed for action pitting His power of goodness against the powers of evil? No and yes. No, He doesn’t eradicate present evil and suffering by imposing His goodwill upon unwilling earth and its inhabitants. But, yes, He does overcome evil by submitting Himself to the destructive powers of death itself, and, after paying the ransom evil holds over this earth, rises triumphant. He then invites each of us to be the throne on which He rules. In this way, Jesus offers goodness in the form of Himself to each of us. Good comes to us not externally but internally through Christ indwelling any and all who accept Him. Listen to how He explains it to an outcast woman who happened upon Him alone at a well late one day.

“When a Samaritan woman came to draw water, Jesus said to her, ‘Will you give me a drink?’ (His disciples had gone into the town to buy food.) The Samaritan woman said to him, ‘You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink?’ (For Jews do not associate with Samaritans.) Jesus answered her, ‘If you knew the gift of God and who it is that asks you for a drink, you would have asked him and he would have given you living water’” (John 4:7-10).

Jesus initiates the conversation by drawing her to see that the good she can give is but a drop in the bucket of the eternal Good He can give her through His Spirit. As she begins to grasp this offer by degrees, her own suffering as a social outcast becomes the platform through which she invites others to experience the goodness of God too. We do not hear each of their stories, but as a community we hear them rejoicing, “…this man really is the Savior of the world(!)” (John 4:42).

The glory the Spirit of the living Christ living in our lives is beyond our greatest expectations. Jesus, the man of sorrows who took our suffering upon Himself to the point of death, does not stand at a distance offering glib condolences to our sorrows. He, the precious Word of God, actually enters into us, girding us up from within, filling us with His own goodness so that our suffering is used for good—has a purpose that transcends the transience of this earth. The result is and will be the greatest glory: the glory of God transforming lives, the glory of good completely obliterating evil, the glory of God and His people someday entirely outside of the influence of suffering.

So let’s come to Jesus for the drink He offers us. Take a long deep draught of it and be refreshed. It is good.

(Photo Credit: By Themenzentriert – Own work, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11362535)

Opening the Door to Psalm 119, Part 9

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Part 9: ‘Zayin’

“Endurance,” explains Glaswegian minister William Barclay, “is not just the ability to bear a hard thing, but to turn it into glory.” Perhaps this thought is what lies at the foundation of the psalmist’s next stanza of Psalm 119. ‘Zayin’—or seventh Hebrew letter—is the ‘z’-sounding letter that is also a word meaning weapon or sword and food/nourishment. The psalmist seems to have used this letter to explore suffering as a theme for these eight zayin-headed verses. It’s a stanza of the paradoxical, though. In the face of suffering, of enduring mockery, of indignation against the apparent mastery of evil over good we hear of hope, of comfort and even of a song.

Remember your word to your servant, for you have given me hope. / My comfort in my suffering is this: Your promise preserves my life. / The arrogant mock me without restraint, but I do not turn from your law. / I remember your ancient laws, O LORD, and I find comfort in them. / Indignation grips me because of the wicked, who have forsaken your law. / Your decrees are the theme of my song wherever I lodge. / In the night I remember your name, O LORD, and I will keep your law. / This has been my practice: I obey your precepts” (verses 49-56).

Suffering becoming glory. It’s an enigma, a puzzle, and a conundrum. It goes against our intuition. We want to avoid pain and heartbreak, not endure through it to reach some distant joy. Yet there it is, both the sword and nourishment contained in Zayin, are laid out for us to help us triumph over our common dilemma. How can the psalmist—not to mention we—access this great paradoxical prescription so that he and we can weather the deepest difficulties of life with the confidence that God will preserve us?

The key is Jesus. “He was despised and rejected by men, a man of sorrows and familiar with suffering…Surely he took up our infirmities and carried our sorrows…he was pierced for our transgressions, he was crushed for our iniquities; the punishment that brought us peace was upon him, and by his wounds we are healed…and though the LORD makes his life a guilt offering, he will see his offspring and prolong his days, and the will of the LORD will prosper in his hand” (sections of Isaiah 53).

Jesus stepped into the deepest crevasse of suffering known to humankind—the chaos of bearing God’s just wrath against humanity’s rebellion. We want a just God. Here He is, and here Jesus is made to die an exponential death for your rebellion and mine, times the billions who have and ever will live on this planet. But Jesus is God in flesh and so the sword, though it caused untold suffering for Him, could not extinguish His being.

That is the message of Easter. “He is risen. He is risen indeed!” Jesus’ body broken like crisp bread, and His blood draining from His wounds like spilled wine, become for us the nourishment after the suffering. Trusting in the work of Jesus to solve our troublesome dilemma is what the Spirit of God infused into the psalmist’s pen so many years ago.

Jesus Himself, after His resurrection, helped two of His distraught and discouraged followers see that all of Scripture is about this amazing plan of rescue God devised for humanity. “He said to them, “How foolish you are, and how slow of heart to believe all that the prophets have spoken! Did not the Christ have to suffer these things and then enter his glory?” And beginning with Moses and all the Prophets, he explained to them what was said in all the Scriptures concerning himself” (Luke 24:25-27).

There it is again: suffering then glory. Jesus, in His larger than life way, takes the greatest suffering so that we may be infused with His life and become able to bear our portion of this earth’s trouble. But the suffering is only a bothersome interlude—it has no lasting grip on us just as it had no ultimate hold on Christ. The hope of glory to come that God has promised was on the tip of the psalmist’s pen and is ours for the asking too.

The Apostle Paul wrote, sensing the end of his life was at hand, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race. Now there is in store for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous Judge, will award to me on that day—and not only to me, but also to all who have longed for his appearing” (II Timothy 4:7,8).

Suffering’s grip is weak compared to the comfort of the Father’s hand. Let’s step into that great loving hand today, and as the lyrics of a current song say, “Just be held.”

(Photo Credit: By James Emery from Douglasville, United States – Bread and Wine (Cracker and Juice)_2048, CC BY 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=35135837)

Thirty-one Ordinary Prayers, #15

Prayer of Perseverance (A Paraphrase of Psalm 129)

From its infancy, Jesus, the body of Your believers has faced opposition. From the first to the twenty-first century—for two thousand long years—we have known the antipathy of Satan’s power deceiving the cultures around us, but Your people have persevered.

The regimes of Iran and Iraq, Ukraine and Uzbekistan, North Korea, South Asia, and even North America have sought to destroy Your people, Lord. But the LORD works righteousness and justice for all the oppressed: You have not allowed our suffering to gain any ultimate victory over us.

In Your justice You have freed every one of us from the various grasps oppression attempts. Some of us You miraculously remove from difficulty—responding to the prayers of Your people and rescuing by Your mighty hand.

To some of us You give the grace of endurance; lessons learned in captivity or under the tyranny of the faithless have been the testing-ground for developing Christ-like character.

And some of Your beloved ones You allow to experience death at the hands of ruthless persecutors. Yet we all know Your presence more powerfully than fear. Your faithfulness shines brightest in our darkest moments.

Your blessing is for those who persevere. Lord, help me honour Your greatness by joining the throng of the faithful, of whom it will be said, “The blessing of the LORD be upon you; we bless you in the name of the LORD.”

[Photo Credits: By Brocken Inaglory (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0) or GFDL (http://www.gnu.org/copyleft/fdl.html)%5D, via Wikimedia Commons

Typhoon in Hong Kong. Mcyjerry~commonswiki assumed (based on copyright claims). – No machine-readable source provided. Own work assumed (based on copyright claims)., CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=267320

By NASA/Tim Kopra [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons]

Twenty-eight Days With Jesus, Day 17

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The Great Truth

“You are the Christ,” the Apostle Peter exclaims in Matthew chapter 16, “the Son of the living God.” This declaration stands as a pinnacle in the narrative of Jesus’ ministry on earth. Jesus—living God, the fulfillment of the ancient promise to mend the brokenness of our lives—was everything the Christ must be to heal this aching world. The truth of it had seared through the heavy mantle of human ignorance and the disciples would now be responsible to carry this torch far and wide.

But the orientation was not over yet. Truth has a way of taking us from one peak to another, and in Matthew chapter 17 we see Jesus take Peter and two other close companions up a high mountain by themselves. They would be privy to a pre-taste of the fulfillment of a prophecy spoken only six days earlier: “I tell you the truth,” Jesus had promised His close group of friends, “some who are standing here will not taste death before they see the Son of Man coming in his kingdom.”

And there on a high mountain the glory of God the Son flared for a literal moment. We’re told Jesus’ “face shone like the sun, and his clothes became as white as the light…a bright cloud enveloped them, and a voice from the cloud said, ‘This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased. Listen to him!”

The bombardment upon the disciples’ senses knocked them face-first to the ground, terrified. Pure truth, like piercing light, is more than we can sometimes bear in these earth-bound bodies of ours. The three disciples had seen a glimpse of Jesus as He would appear far, far into earth’s future, “coming in his kingdom”—and His glory left them gasping for breath.

There’s some wisdom for us in the recollection of that moment. Truth is more magnificent than we often give it credit for. It is not some tidy little prescription that we can package in a pillbox and dispense as needed. We cannot wrap it around our little fingers and make it do for us as we please. Truth is as searing as a laser beam; it pierces, ignites, seals and reveals whatever it is aimed toward. It is faultless in reaching its target. Truth is God’s domain.

But truth is not only apparent on mountaintops. It extends into the valleys too. And so, Jesus reached down and touched His three companions, giving them courage, lifting them up, and explaining that they needed to walk alongside him through a deep valley. Before reclaiming the glory of being the Son of God, Jesus needed to complete the task given Him as the Son of Man: He must first suffer a humiliating death at the hands of darkness-driven men and take upon Himself the penalty each human owes the God of Truth and Justice.

This truth was harder for the disciples to accept than the bright-and-shining-revelation-of-Christ truth they had just witnessed. It always is. We much prefer the glory of triumph to the prospect of dogged perseverance. As humans we seem to have a particular aversion to suffering. We will do much to avoid it. Yet Christ was tenacious in his resolve to move forward in the Father’s plan for Him to suffer. Why? Because the great truth is that He had to suffer, to die an agonizing death in order to confront the laws of the moral universe that demanded a settlement for our human rebellion—for every time we’ve said, “It’s my life!”

We’re told, “the disciples were filled with grief.” They were torn by Christ’s news that He would be betrayed, killed and on the third day raised to life. It was natural to grieve. They didn’t want Jesus to suffer and they certainly didn’t want to share in the suffering by losing their Lord and Mentor. It was truth’s deep valley. But did you notice what they had failed to hear? The suffering would lead to glorious, triumphant Life. The truth of the valley would give way to the truth of the most magnificent peak—life unending. The Christ, the Son of the living God does the impossible to give you and me a second chance for the kind of life He designed us to have.

Why?—Simply because Jesus loves us. His love is deeper than the deepest valley, fiercer than hell’s scorching inferno, brighter than sun’s piercing rays, and higher than the highest heaven. He loved us through His own death and resurrection to save us from a suffering we know nothing about, and instead give us an eternity of love.

“For I am convinced,” pondered the Apostle Paul in a letter to later Christ-followers, “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.” That is a Great Truth.

(Photo Credit: By Sander van der Wel from Netherlands – Into the sun, CC BY-SA 2.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=34928418)

WHO NEEDS CHURCH? Conclusion

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Serve It

 At the beginning of this little series of ramblings we began to explore the phrase, “You don’t have to go to church to be a Christian.” We’ve been delving into its premise to see if it is reliable because people who claim to be Christians also have a high ethic for living purposeful, truth-integrated lives.

Our habit of abbreviating concepts has led to calling the building Christians meet in as ‘the church’, and the worship services we organize as simply ‘church’. So the proposition that Christians don’t need to ‘go to church’ suggests that we don’t need to worship together — that it’s a dispensable, nonessential optional activity.

But as we’ve begun to discover that the Church is a living thriving organism made up of every Christ-follower on earth, we’re learning that each of us has an essential role in the Church. We are members of a Body where each supporting ligament, every organ and limb, is necessary to the Body. We must love each other, bring spiritual food to each other, help each other dress in garments of virtue, and assist each other in keeping a healthy work-rest rhythm.

The final argument in favour of the Christian’s innate connection to the Church is the call to serve it. It’s hard to serve a Body you never meet with, interact with or identify with.

The Apostle Paul describes it this way: “Now I rejoice in what was suffered for you, and I fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ’s afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church. I have become its servant by the commission God gave me to present to you the word of God in its fullness – the mystery that has been kept hidden for ages and generations, but is now disclosed to the saints…this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.” (Colossians 1:24-27)

Now that is saying a lot. Let’s dissect it a little and see if it reinforces what we’ve been saying about the Church.

The Church is a unit, known since His resurrection as Christ’s Body on earth. There is implied here a connection between those who belong to Christ. The spiritual health of one is dependent upon the spiritual health of all.

The servant-nature of Christ toward the Church involved Him suffering the greatest affliction possible – perfect Man dying for imperfect mankind. As imitators of Christ, we are called to serve one another, which at times will entail an element of suffering.

Serving one another results in embracing the amazing mystery God designed for needy people like us: Christ, the soul of the Body, actually lives within each member.

Service to the Body was not intended to be the sole job of pastors. Pastoring is one role; others are encouraging, teaching, maintaining peace, wrestling in prayer, showing hospitality, practical helps and a host of other roles. There is room for everyone in the Body to serve. In fact, when even one Christian fails to serve, the Body lacks.

The amazing thing is that when it is running as it should, there is nothing on this earth that reminds us more of Christ than His Body of believers, the Church. So the question is not, ‘Why do I need to go to church?’ but rather ‘Where would I rather be than fully integrated in the Body of Christ?’ There is always room for one more.

(Photo Credit: Wikimedia Commons, Biswarup Ganguly)

OUSTING LESS FROM HOPELESS

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Euthanasia was the solution for our family dog yesterday. She had been getting steadily worse over the past three weeks and there was no improvement even with antibiotics. The vet phoned to prod us to action; the situation was hopeless, and Lassie was beginning to suffer.

The current rise in interest and political lobbying for human euthanasia may have some core similarity to our dog’s situation. I don’t mean about the suffering, because that’s a given. I’m wondering, rather, about that daunting word ‘hopeless’ that has such a dark and hollow ring to it. Is it more an issue of hopeless suffering that begs a solution than just the suffering alone?

We’ve all suffered to some extent. There have been the scrapes and bruises of life, the physical as well as the mental and emotional; there are the deeper injuries of broken relationships and interpersonal conflict. The cancers and dementias and chronic deteriorations take their toll and reveal how frail we really are for a species who thinks we have so much in our power. But is it the pain itself that defines the worst of suffering, or is it the hopelessness we fear?

Could it be that when we can envision no good purpose to our pain that our suffering becomes insufferable?

Read that again. Let that thought mull in the mind for a moment. The bottomless shaft of pain is not really the worst of the suffering, is it? It is the failure of the situation to embody any sort of good purpose. We want to know we are intrinsically bound to a higher purpose, a good that transcends the pain we are feeling now.

And if we can’t find that higher purpose, we’ll do all sorts of things to move that thought out of our consciousness: we’ll destroy ourselves if we have to, but we cannot endure the thought of hopelessness.

So when God, in His Word, the Bible, communicates the main theme of hope, it seems like that is about the most relevant piece of information our species could be given, doesn’t it? Listen:

Ephesians 2:12 “Remember… you were without hope and without God in the world.”

Colossians 1:27 “God has chosen to make known…this mystery, which is Christ in you, the hope of glory.”

Hebrews 6:13-19 “God made his promise…’I will surely bless you’… (and) we who have fled to take hold of the hope offered to us may be greatly encouraged We have this hope as an anchor for the soul, firm and secure.”

Yes, there is and always will be on this aching old planet more suffering than we can see a purpose for. (Some people will use this as their main rationale to discount God’s existence). But in the midst of it all, God has made a promise to bless us. ‘Surely’, He says. ‘I will surely bless you.’ In other words, the pain may be chronic and far-reaching in this life, but this life is not all there is. There is a life fuller, more expansive, eternal and good for every person on this planet, just waiting to be grasped. There is even a good purpose to our suffering which, while we may not see or realize it in the here and now, will be revealed in that eternal life. That’s what generations of people who have opted for faith in Christ have chosen to believe.

It’s a narrow doorway to hope – we can only access it by entrusting ourselves to Jesus’ work on the cross for us. But it’s the most spacious and expansive place awaiting us on the other side. That’s what hope from hopelessness is all about.