Battling Discouragement with the Word of God (Psalm 77)

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“Dis-couragement” means -I guess- that somehow courage has been taken away. Maybe it seeped out slowly, like air out of a tyre. One darn thing after another went slightly wrong, leaving you deflated.

And you know that if you keep on running on that tyre, it will quickly go bald and lose its grip.

There’s two moments in Psalm 77 that speak to that condition. The first is in vv7-10, which perfectly describes the writer’s mood of self-absorbed misery:

“Will the Lord reject forever? And will He never be favourable again?

Has His lovingkindness ceased forever?

Has His promise come to an end forever?

Has God forgotten to be gracious, or has He in anger withdrawn His compassion?

Then I said, “It is my grief, That the right hand of the Most High has changed.”

This is a pretty good analysis of what it feels like to be discouraged. It feels that God is not favourable; that his lovingkindness has ceased; that his promise is not reliable; that his compassion has been withdrawn; that he is fickle and has changed.

You noticed that word “feels”?

It’s a “slough of despond” in which most of us get bogged down once in a while. It has the advantage of forcing you to think things over, to search your heart; but be cautious, says Jerry Bridges:

“We must be careful to let the Holy Spirit do this searching. If we try to search our own hearts, we are apt to fall into one or both of two traps. The first is the trap of morbid introspection. Introspection can easily become the tool of Satan, who is called the “accuser” (Revelation 12:10). One of his chief weapons is discouragement. He knows that if he can make us discouraged and dispirited, we will not fight the battle for holiness. The second trap is that of missing the real issues in our lives.”

In my experience, the two traps are connected. Once we get caught up in “morbid introspection” and all the attendant feelings that go with it, then it’s almost impossible to see the real issues any longer.

So what do you do? What does the writer do in his time of darkness and discouragement? What is his plan? How does he get through it? How should we? The answer is in verses 11-12. But first, look at verses 13-20 so that you can see the effect of this strategy.

 “Your way, O God, is holy; What god is great like our God?

You are the God who works wonders;

You have made known Your strength among the peoples.

You have by Your power redeemed Your people, The sons of Jacob and Joseph.

The waters saw You, O God; The waters saw You, they were in anguish;

The deeps also trembled. The clouds poured out water;

The skies gave forth a sound; Your arrows flashed here and there.

The sound of Your thunder was in the whirlwind;

The lightnings lit up the world;

The earth trembled and shook.

Your way was in the sea and Your paths in the mighty waters,

And Your footprints may not be known.

You led Your people like a flock by the hand of Moses and Aaron.”

 So these are the two moments: they are like “before and after” snapshots. The first describes the discouragement of the writer and the second describes his absolute confidence in God’s leadership.

The question is: what made the difference? It’s in vv11-12:

 “I shall remember the deeds of the LORD;

Surely I will remember Your wonders of old.

 I will meditate on all Your work and muse on Your deeds.”

 He remembers, he meditates, he muses… The three Hebrew words indicate an intentionality of purpose. If you want to battle discouragement, then you have to find a clear place to stand outside yourself. Psalm 40 describes the difference between the “miry clay” in which the writer was boggedd own, and “the rock” on to which he was lifted. His strategy is remembering, meditating, and musing on the deeds and wonders of God in history.  And when we read the Bible, that’s precisely what we’re doing: we remember and we meditate and we muse on the Word of God. It’s a basic tool for coming out of the self-centred confusion of feelings and doubt. “I shall remember . . . Surely I will remember” (verse 11); “I will meditate . . . and [I will] muse” (verse 12). These are conscious acts that he chooses to do. It’s the very opposite of passivity.

It’s not simply a matter of learning facts and figures about Scripture, or rote memorization (though none of that hurts; in fact, it helps in the long run!), but of allowing that knowledge to make its way from head to heart.

Suppose -for example- you feel very little about yourself. I heard an odd snippet of conversation, “You can’t threaten me with insults when I think all of those things about myself already.” I was torn between admiring the resilience and deploring the low self-esteem! But when we feel unmotivated and unworthy then those feelings have to submit to the facts of Scripture. I am not how I feel. I am who the Bible says I am.

God created humans to have unique characteristics and purpose. However, he designed us also to have a commonality of contentment with our lives through His will. We discover our true identity the more closely we are drawn to Him. Don’t lose sight of who you are destined to be.

John 1:12: “Yet to all who did receive him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God.”

Ephesians 1:5: “He predestined us for adoption to sonship through Jesus Christ, in accordance with his pleasure and will.”

Colossians 2:9-10: “For in Christ all the fullness of the Deity lives in bodily form, 10 and in Christ you have been brought to fullness. He is the head over every power and authority.”

A child, an heir… brought to fullness in Him.

Genesis 1:27: “So God created mankind in his own image, in the image of God he created them; male and female he created them.” 

Jeremiah 1:5 “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, before you were born I set you apart; I appointed you as a prophet to the nations.”

You might say, “Yes, I know these things theoretically, in my head, but it isn’t having any effect on my feelings.”

This is the point where you have to battle discouragement with the Word of God. In effect, you have to say:  “I will call to mind that I am created, known, named, and chosen for a purpose. I will meditate on God’s choosing. I will remember the story of my life and how it fits into what these Scriptures declare about me. And I will pause and muse on this story a long time. I will not hurry off somewhere to say that such knowledge has no effect on my emotions.  This is a wonder. God chose, God called, God promised and God kept His promise. He is the A to Z, the first and the last, and “He who begun a good work in me” will see it through to the very end.

You need not worry that all the stuff of life depends on you keeping all the plates spinning. God has it in hand.

“Your way, O God, is holy; What god is great like our God?

You are the God who works wonders” (Psalm 77:13).

This is the way that we fight for the joy of our faith, maybe every day. It is life in the Word.

So that’s why it’s urgently necessary to plan a place, plan a time, and plan a way to read the Bible every day. This is the foundation of remembering and meditating and musing. If you don’t make a plan, it won’t happen. So here’s three simple questions in closing:

  1. When will I fit the reading of God’s Word into my day? What can I change to make it fit?
  2. Where at home or work will I read and begin my meditations and prayers? Where can I make some quiet and solitude?
  3. How will I read my Bible this year? Will I read a chapter a day? Will I journal? Will I use a commentary or a devotional help?

This is the way God sustains and grows the faith and fruit of his people. It’s not a marginal issue. The one who makes it out of a constant cycle of discouragement is the one who has really understood Psalm 1:2, and found: “His delight is in the Law of the Lord and on his law he meditates day and night.”

And remember:

“He is your Father, and His role is to protect you; He will comfort you and guide you. He will feed you; He will carry you when you are weak. He will seek you out when you go astray; He will help you in times of trouble. He will not let your enemies go unpunished; He will cherish you like a father cherishes his daughter. When you fall, He will pick you up; when you don’t understand, He will always understand.

When you feel like life is weighing you down, He will lift you up. When you feel like giving up, He will encourage you to keep going. When you are sad, He will lighten your spirits. When you need advice, His line is open 24-7. When you feel unsafe, He will be your safety; when you are worried, He will be an ear to your concerns. When you feel burdened, offer your burden to Him and He will take it. Where you have been burnt, He will make you beautiful; where you hurt, He will heal. Whenever you feel lonely, He will always be with you.

Where others have not supported you, He will support you. When you feel discouraged, He will be your encouragement. Where you don’t know, He will tell you when the time is right. When you feel unloved, remember that He has always loved you.

You see limitations; God sees opportunities. You see faults; God sees growth. You see problems; God sees solutions. You see limitations; God sees possibilities. You see life; God sees eternity.”  ― Corallie Buchanan

 

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An Orchestra of Possibilities (Psalm 150)

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“Hallelujah!
Praise God in his holy house of worship,
    praise him under the open skies;
Praise him for his acts of power,
    praise him for his magnificent greatness;
Praise with a blast on the trumpet,
    praise by strumming soft strings;
Praise him with castanets and dance,
    praise him with banjo and flute;
Praise him with cymbals and a big bass drum,
    praise him with fiddles and mandolin.
Let every living, breathing creature praise God!
    Hallelujah!”

The Book of Psalms finishes with a flourish that fairly leaps from the page. It’s a comprehensive call to praise whoever you are, whenever and wherever you can, with whatever you can get hold of!

So we praise both “in his holy house of worship” AND “under the open skies.” Some would make a false distinction, over-emphasising the one in comparison to the other, but it cannot be so. If God is God, then the whole earth is His,and there can be no split between what we decide is “sacred” and what is “secular.” If everything is truly His, then praise is appropriate everywhere.

For “the heavens declare the glory of God” (Psalm 19). No wonder we praise Him under the open skies! Phil Wickham wrote:

 “I see Your face in every sunrise
The colors of the morning are inside Your eyes
The world awakens in the light of the day
I look up to the sky and say
You’re beautiful.”

And these are “acts of power” and demonstrations of Hismagnificent greatness.” Everywhere I look, I see reasons to shake my head in wonder at the God of creation. We live overlooking a lovely river, and right now I’m sitting quietly here in the night, with no sound but the ticking of a clock, and the rushing gurgle of a river in flood. It’s glorious. And the truth is, that every part and prospect of God’s created order is exquisite.

So how do we respond? The psalm gives us an orchestra of possibilities, because the range of responses is as manifold as the range of “acts of power” and demonstrations of magnificent greatness” to which we are responding!  So we sometimes need “a blast on the trumpet,”  a strong declarative statement, like that chorus declaring “How great is our God!” And other times, we “praise by strumming soft strings.”  God sometimes speaks in a “still, small voice” only when all the drama and frenzy is done,  doesn’t He? 

There is a time for declaration and a time for meditation too.

And what about other expressions of praise?

“Praise him with… 
    praise him with…
Praise him with…
    praise him with… “

Perhaps the writer is saying: “The possibilities are endless! Use your imagination!” Our praise can be narrative, interpretive, physical, performance-art (“castanets and dance“).  It can be comedic or mellow (“banjo and flute“); dramatic and rhythmic (“cymbals and a big bass drum”). And “fiddles and mandolin”? It can even be a céilidh! Praise the Lord!

Think of all those musical terms (which I have, handily, in a book right here) which govern the mode in which the music is presented. And think of this river too, as a metaphor for the endless varieties of the way we praise…

“Always…the river itself, always flowing but always different, like the water flowing in the river, sometimes walking steadily along andante, sometimes surging over rapids furioso, sometimes meandering with hardly any visible movement tranquilo, lento, pianissimo, sometimes gurgling giacoso with pleasure, sometimes sparkling brillante in the sun, sometimes lacrimoso, sometimes appassionato, sometimes misterioso, sometimes pesante, sometimes legato, sometimes staccato, sometimes sospirando, sometimes vivace, and always, I hope, amoroso…”

That’s Aidan Chambers, in his book This is All. It’s a powerful expression of the orchestra of possibilities available when we answer the summons to praise God.

And who answers the summons? “Let every living, breathing creature praise God!”  Maybe the psalmist didn’t know about whalesong, but he would have known as well as we of the instinctive urge of God’s creatures to sing their hearts out. Listen to Colin Thieles, describing the humble magpie: “A magpie can be happy or sad: sometimes so happy that he sits on a high, high gum tree and rolls the sunrise around in his throat like beads of pink sunlight; and sometimes so sad that you would expect the tears to drip off his beak.”

As Cole Porter put it (in a somewhat different context): “Birds do it, bees do it. Even educated fleas do it. Let’s do it…”

“Let every thing that hath breath praise the Lord. Praise ye the Lord!”

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“Let the Word Dwell in you Richly…” (On reading the psalms)

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Whenever I read from the book of Psalms I’m struck afresh with the realization that this was the prayer-book of Jesus. The early church read the psalms that way too, seeing Christ in every line, and seeing their own experiences in the struggles and triumphs of the ancient writers.

They read it as the word of Christ. And so Paul instructed them, Let the word of Christ dwell in you richly in all wisdom; teaching and admonishing one another in psalms and hymns and spiritual songs, singing with grace in your hearts to the Lord.” (Col 2:16)

That’s where we are too, isn’t it? The psalms take us higher, to new levels of praise, and deeper, into the experience of Jesus himself. They inspire our worship,  but also comfort us in times of discouragement and doubt.

And this is a strategy for living. Christian Living Means Living on the Word of God. ” It has been written, Man shall not live and be upheld and sustained by bread alone, but by every word that comes forth from the mouth of God.” (Matthew 4:4 AMP)

Day by day, the written Word of God in the Bible is the means of our relation to Christ. We fellowship with Christ by knowing him in the written Word. We talk to him on the basis of what we know of him from the written Word. We hear him speak to us through what he has shown us of his character and purpose in the written Word. Moment by moment, our walk with Jesus is sustained and shaped by the Word of God.

That’s why it’s so helpful to memorize whole chunks of it.

When I was still quite little, Bible memorization was a big part of the regular Sunday School lesson-plan. Do you remember the rather quaintly named “Sword-Drill”? We raced each other to find verses in the Bible and then read them out in unison. I learnt the “Roman Way of Salvation,” which was a way of showing someone the Gospel of Christ by leading them through memorized verses in the book of Romans.

I recall attending the Church of the Nazarene in Leeds UK where, though the pastor was blind, he would preach from memory, effortlessly recalling whole chapters at one go. It was very impressive.

But the point of all this -as that pastor knew very well- is not to amaze your friends with a clever feat of memory but to allow the word of God to stabilise you, to shape your mind and emotions, to “dwell in you richly,” so that you become like a strong tree planted by streams of water that brings forth fruit. Your leaf won’t wither in the drought and you will be productive in your life for Christ. The alternative is to be fragile and easily deceived and easily paralyzed by trouble and stuck in many mediocre ruts. As Psalm 1 puts it: Our delight is in the Word of the Lord, and on this Word we meditate day and night.

The psalms form a case in point. They are prayers, and are to be read as such, in the presence of God, quietly and thoughtfully, in a God-ward direction.

But there’s something more: there’s a  powerful moment in Jeremiah 1. The young would-be prophet is being led into his life-calling through dramatic encounters with his God. God gives him a mental picture then asks him what he sees. He’s being trained in obedience and insight. But in verse 12, God commends Jeremiah’s reply, saying, “You have seen well, for I am alert and active, watching over My word to perform it.”

He’s watching this whole activity, ready to join in!

We read and pray, and look and listen. We read the psalms as praise to him or confessions to him or questions to him or pleas to him. God is always listening to his own Word in our mouths or in our minds and watching what we do with it. He cares what we do with it because he actively watches over it to bring it to pass.

Even our daily Bible reading has a prophetic edge!

It’s the adventure of living day by day with God. As John Osteen used to say: “This is my Bible: I am what it says I am; I have what it says I have; I can do what it says I can do…”

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The Adjusted Birth Certificate (Psalm 87:6)

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There’s an amazing line in Psalm 87.  After noting the foreign nations who acknowledge the God of Israel, the Psalmist adds “The Lord will write in the register of the peoples: ‘This one was born in Zion.It’s the grace of the adjusted birth certificate. Here’s the psalm:

“He has founded his city on the holy mountain.
The Lord loves the gates of Zion
    more than all the other dwellings of Jacob.

Glorious things are said of you,
    city of God:
‘I will record Rahab and Babylon
    among those who acknowledge me –
Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush–
    and will say, “This one was born in Zion.”’
Indeed, of Zion it will be said,
    ‘This one and that one were born in her,
    and the Most High himself will establish her.’
The Lord will write in the register of the peoples:
    ‘This one was born in Zion.’

As they make music they will sing,
    ‘All my fountains are in you.’”

The idea of “Zion” was a key idea for the people of the Hebrew Bible. It was the shape and promise of something ideal, something wonderful.

The earliest mention comes in 2 Samuel 5:7 in a military report.” The king and his men went to Jerusalem against the Jebusites …[and] David took the stronghold of Zion, that is, the city of David.” So from the time of David, Zion was synonymous with the city of David.

Immediately after that (In 2 Sam 6:12), David brought the ark of the covenant into this stronghold of Zion. The ark of the covenant was the sacred seat of the holy of holies where God met his people in the tabernacle. So Zion became the centre of worship and of God’s presence.

And for most of the hundred and fifty plus usages in the Old Testament, “Zion” refers to the city of Jerusalem, not just as another name, but because it is the city of God’s presence and the city of great hope for God’s people. But that’s not all. It follows that Zion became the place from which the people expected help. Zion became the source of deliverance and salvation. “And out of Zion’s hill salvation comes! “

But sin made judgement inevitable, even for Zion (Lamentations 2:15), and so Zion became a pointer to an as-yet-unrealized-future .If imperfect Zion is the place of God’s presence on the earth, then there must be a perfect Zion where God dwells in heaven (cf. Acts 7:48f).

And if imperfect Zion is the place of God’s presence on the earth now, then all the promises of complete and perfect reign on the earth must mean that there will some day be a new and ideal Zion on the earth where God rules over all the nations. In other words, the old Jerusalem points upward to a heavenly Zion, and forward to a future Zion.

And so we read passages such as Isaiah 2:2f:

“It shall come to pass in the latter days that the mountain of the house of the Lord shall be established as the highest of the mountains . . . and all the nations shall flow to it . . . For out of Zion shall go forth the law, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem. He shall judge between nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks.”

So the old Jerusalem points forward to a glorious future Zion from which God will reign on earth.But there’s more: it also points to a heavenly Zion where God already reigns now.

And so we arrive at Psalm 87. It starts with a statement of God’s choice and favour: “He has founded his city on the holy mountain. The Lord loves the gates of Zion more than all the other dwellings of Jacob.”

And then the Lord speaks: “‘I will record Rahab and Babylon among those who acknowledge me – Philistia too, and Tyre, along with Cush–  and will say, “This one was born in Zion.”’
He foretells the day when these pagan nations will turn and know God. And then he describes them as natural born citizens of Zion —”This one was born there.”

If Zion is the place of God’s presence, if Zion is the place of God’s power and blessing and protection, if Zion is the hope of God’s future rule over the earth, then what is the hope of us Gentile outsiders? We may never have seen Jerusalem, let alone become a citizen! What about us whom Paul says are “separated from the commonwealth of Israel” (Ephesians 2:12)?

Simply this: The Lord declares over us: “This One Was Born in Zion.”

God is populating Zion with outsiders from every corner of the globe.

Galatians 4:26 says something amazingly similar: “The Jerusalem above is free, and she is our mother.” We have been conceived and born in the heavenly Jerusalem. In other words, we have all been born once in some earthly city, but we have to have a second, spiritual birth. We have to have our citizenship in heaven (Philippians 3:20) and in the Jerusalem above. Our second birth certificate has to say, “This one was born in Zion.” “Truly, truly I say to you, unless a person is born from above he cannot see the kingdom of God” (John 3:3).

Hebrews 12:22 says to Christians, to those who trust Christ, “You have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering and to the assembly of the first born, who are enrolled in heaven.”

You’ve already come! If you trust Christ, you are already a permanent citizen of the heavenly Jerusalem. And when this new Jerusalem appears, you will be there too in glory.

And this is the note on which the whole Bible ends. The last two chapters describe the New Jerusalem, coming down from heaven at the end of the age. It’s for those with adjusted birth certificates. Here is our Zion:

Adorned like a bride for her husband.

And every tear is wiped away, with no more death, or crying or pain.

Its radiance is like a rare jewel, like a jasper, clear as crystal.

And there’s no temple in the city for the temple is the Lord God  Almighty

and Jesus Christ the Lamb.

And there’s no sun or moon to shine, for the glory of God himself is its light

 and the lamp is the Lamb.

And at the centre of the city is the throne of God and flowing out

from the throne is a river of the water of life.

And on either side of the river is the tree of life that bears fruit forever.

And behold the dwelling of God is with men. He will dwell with them and they shall be his people and he will be their God and their light and their joy, and they shall reign forever and ever.

And “The Spirit and the Bride say, ‘Come.’ 

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It all comes down to “JUST TRUST” (Psalm 25)

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“If I keep my eyes on God,
I won’t trip over my own feet.

Look at me and help me!
I’m all alone and in big trouble.”

When I was a young man (which feels like about twenty minutes ago), I was in constant need of support. I often stayed over at my brother’s house on a sofa, and for a long while he patiently stored a load of my stuff whilst I  er..sorted myself out. And a variety of friends and family members did the same.

And if you’re in that select company, all I can say is thanks and sorry for breaking the vase.

The situation in Psalm 25 is roughly similar. It’s a cry for help from someone who not only needs an immediate hand-out, but who knows that it’s all his own fault.

I’m not coming out in a good light here, am I?

But that was my story.  Have you ever been in a difficult spot and you knew that you were in it because of your own foolishness? Maybe you knew that you should cry out to God for help, but you were afraid to do precisely because of what you had done.  Or, maybe your problems were not due to deliberate sin, but rather because of immaturity or stupid decisions. What should you do at such times?

It’s strange to say that sometimes the very situations that cut us off from God and from the fellowship of God’s people are the times we need Him (and them) the most. So the Psalm says this: Seek God in the hard times, no matter for what reason we are in those hard times. It reminds me of James 1: “But if any of you lacks wisdom, let him ask of God, who gives to all generously and without reproach, and it will be given to him. But he must ask in faith without any doubting, for the one who doubts is like the surf of the sea, driven and tossed by the wind.”

Now is the time for faith-filled help-seeking.

The phrase “faith-filled” is important. It simply means knowing that the one you have turned to will come through. That’s why, when I read the Psalm this morning, I immediately thought of my brother. When I turned up, again, I knew he would sigh, roll his eyes a bit, and then put some extra bacon on.

And that – though I’m probably flattering him a wee bit- is what God is like.

This psalm is an acrostic, where each verse begins with a successive letter of the Hebrew alphabet, which they sometimes did to help people memorize the words. Also,  there’s a strong theme of learning or instruction, which fits with the alphabetical arrangement.  So perhaps it’s a kind of school-book lesson on how to live so as to please God and be blessed by him when things go wrong.

Because the truth it, even in the smoothest of life’s operators, things often go wrong. Here it seems to have edged towards the frightening. He has treacherous enemies that are seeking to exult in his demise (vv. 2-3). These foes are many in number and they hate him with violence (v. 19). They have gained the advantage, because he describes his feet as already caught in their net (v.15). He feels lonely and afflicted, and his troubles are growing worse, not better (vv. 16-17). And, his repeated requests for God to teach him (vv. 4-5, 8-9, 12, 14) imply that he is confused in the midst of this mess.

And no one is exempt. No one can say ,“I’ve been following the Lord and seeking to be obedient. Why am I experiencing all of these trials?” Do you think that if you obey God, He gives you a free pass from trials? Think again.

Don’t be surprised at the fiery ordeal… 1 Peter 4:12)! Or perhaps you’re not surprised at all. Because you know that it’s your own fault!

That’s the gist of Psalm 25. The writer’s guilt runs through it like an ugly rash. In verse 7 he prays, “Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions.” Perhaps his troubles later in life dredged up the sins that he had committed in earlier years. In verse 8, he refers to himself as a sinner. In verse 11, he again cries out, “For Your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity, for it is great.” In verse 18, he again asks the Lord, “forgive all my sins.”

Here’s Steven Cole, reflecting on the classic line “Remember not the sins of my youth”:“The older I get, the more I relate to the prayer that God would not remember the sins of my youth. The closer you draw near to the Lord, the more hideous the sins that you committed when you were younger appear to be. Some of the sins from my youth keep coming back to haunt me. I think, “How could I have done those things? What was I thinking?” Answer: “I wasn’t thinking! I was pretty much running on hormones! Only God’s grace kept me from doing some things that could have had far more serious consequences!

I try not to dwell on those sins, because they are now under the blood of Christ. But when they come to mind, they remind me of how corrupt my heart not only was, but still is (because I am still susceptible to the same sins). And, I thank God for His great love that sent His Son to bear my penalty for those sins. And I realize both my own enormous need for grace and my need patiently to extend God’s grace to others, as He has done to me.”

If you conclude that your trial is directly related to your sin or to your stupidity, what should you do? The tendency is to try to cover it up and bluff your way through. But that’s a wrong approach. There is a better way:

In whatever trials we find ourselves, seek the Lord and His wisdom for what to do.

One of God’s main reasons for allowing such trials into our lives is to get us to seek Him as we recognize in a new way how dependent on Him we really are. And, if our trial is due to some sin that was previously a blind spot, He wants us to confess it and turn from it.  Calvin makes the same point ”We must know, that as often as God withdraws his blessing from his own people, it is for the purpose of awakening them to a sense of their condition, and discovering to them how far removed they still are from the perfect fear of God.”

So, how do we seek the Lord in our hard times? Anne Lamott once said that there are really only three essential prayers: Help, Thanks and Wow. This is definitely a Help prayer.

First, to seek the Lord, be open about what’s gone wrong, and say sorry.

The writer is only too aware of his shortcomings, not only in the current situation, but going back to his youth. He doesn’t just shrug off his sins by thinking, “What do you expect? I was only 22!” He doesn’t compare himself to his enemies and say, “I may have my faults, but these guys are evil!”

He simply says: “For Your name’s sake, O Lord, pardon my iniquity, for it is great.” God’s name refers to His character, and how He reveals Himself.  Moses “called on the name of the Lord” ( Exodus 34:5). Then we read (Exodus 34: 6-7), “Then the Lord passed by in front of him and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord God, compassionate and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in lovingkindness and truth; who keeps lovingkindness for thousands, who forgives iniquity, transgression, and sin; yet He will by no means leave the guilty unpunished, visiting the iniquity of fathers on the children and on the grandchildren to the third and fourth generations.’”

Maybe this is all in mind when the Psalmist asks God to remember His compassion and lovingkindnesses (v. 6).

This is all of grace, and don’t forget it!

Throughout the psalm, David asks God to teach him His ways or paths (vv. 4, 5, 8-10, 12, 14). The Hebrew word for “paths” refers to ruts made by wagon wheels passing over the same ground often. God is consistent in His paths or ways, which stem from His holy nature. It’s silly to ask God to teach us His ways or paths if we were not seeking to walk in them. But, thankfully, God instructs sinners in His way (v. 8)! So we qualify!

To walk in God’s ways includes several things according to this psalm. It includes prayer (the entire psalm is a prayer). It means to wait on the Lord (vv. 3, 5, 21), because His timing is not always our timing. It means being teachable to grow in understanding God’s truth. It includes humility (v. 9), because God gives grace to the humble, not to the proud. To walk in God’s ways means to obey Him (v. 10). It means to fear Him (vv. 12, 14). It means to look to the Lord continually (v. 15). It requires walking with integrity and uprightness (v. 21).

In short, the writer is saying “JUST TRUST”. It all boils down to that.

If the Lord lets him down and those enemies triumph, not only his own honour, but also the Lord’s honour, is at stake. Here is a man who trusted in the Lord and just knew that the Lord would turn out trustworthy.

So, no matter how difficult our trials,  I trust that the Lord is able to deliver us from them, for His glory and our good.

Our task is to affirm by faith, as the writer does here, that the Lord is always good, loving, and compassionate (no matter how things look). He is fully able to deliver us from our trials, (no matter how things turn out) even when we were the cause of them because of our sin or stupidity.  Let’s pray the words of the Psalm in closing (from Peterson’s paraphrase in The Message):

 “Show me how you work, God;
School me in your ways.

Take me by the hand;
Lead me down the path of truth.

God is fair and just;
He corrects the misdirected,
Sends them in the right direction.

He gives the rejects his hand,
And leads them step-by-step.

From now on every road you travel
Will take you to God.”

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Baggage Reclaim (and how to avoid it)

 

 

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“Baggage is a funny thing. The more you have of it, the heavier it becomes and the longer it takes to get there…” (An Overheard Statement of the Obvious at Glasgow Airport)

The truth is: it’s a dreary thing, lugging all that stuff around.

The meaning of the word “stuff” is up to you. It could mean material possessions, and if you’ve moved house a few times, you realise what a burden that “stuff” can be. Stuff that you’ve never seen or used for ten years gets boxed up and moved to a new storage facility deep in the recesses of your new home.

George Carlin said “A house is just a place to keep your stuff while you go out and get more stuff.”

By contrast, Jesus told those he was sending on mission (in Matthew 10:5-15),
“Do not take gold, or silver, or copper in your belts, no bag for your journey, nor two tunics, nor sandals, nor a staff, for the laborer deserves his food.” 

Clearly, Jesus was the ultimate light packer.  Didyou seethe packing instructions?:  Don’t take any money, or a change of clothes.  In fact, leave your suitcase home.  Don’t take anything but the shirt on your back.

Perhaps Jesus gives this advice so his disciples will learn trust.  It is Jesus’ way of encouraging them to engage with the people they meet.  After all, when you don’t have enough to go on, you have to turn to those around you.

But there is another possible explanation.  The items Jesus tells his disciples to leave behind are just the kinds of things that worshipers were told to leave outside the temple before they entered.  People were to divest themselves of these things before stepping on holy ground.

So when Jesus tells his disciples to travel light, he is encouraging them to approach the whole world as if it is holy ground, a place where you can expect to encounter God.

What would it mean for you to enter your day in this way?

The worst kind of baggage, however, is not physical but emotional.

Psalm 32 expresses the profound relief that you experience when at last you are able to lay that emotional baggage to one side.

“Count yourself lucky, how happy you must be—
you get a fresh start,
your slate’s wiped clean.

Count yourself lucky—
God holds nothing against you
and you’re holding nothing back from him.”

You’re holding nothing! Imagine that. You’re free to work, to move, to dance, to give… because there is nothing holding you back.

What kind of stuff is this? What does “emotional baggage” mean?

It’s the sort of thing that wakes you up in the middle of the night making you cringe because of something you’ve done or said (or not done or said). It’s every lie you’ve told, or piece of gossip you’ve passed on, or every hurt you’ve caused (whether or not you meant to do it).

Some of these are no doubt quite trivial things that you should just shrug off and forget. Some may be more serious.You may have been cruel, or selfish. You may have committed crimes which were never found out. You may even bear on your conscience the memory of an act of adultery that devastated whole families and destroyed lives.

I’m not passing moral judgement here. As a sinner myself, I simply don’t have the right, and for every finger that I point at you there are three and a thumb pointing back at me, as they say.

So I’m not talking about the specific things that you have done. I’m talking about the sheer relief of having the burden of their memory taken from you.

Maybe right now, you are tormented by the guilt of things done. Perhaps no one else knows about it, and although you are trying to put up a good front, deep down inside you are troubled. Don’t shrug it off or explain it away. Let the force of it take you to God who waits to deal with it forever, and to take the burden from your back. The Living Bible puts it well:

“What happiness for those whose guilt has been forgiven! What joys when sins are covered over! What relief for those who have confessed their sins and God has cleared their record.”

In the opening verses, the writer uses a variety of words to describe  the condition of someone carrying that extra baggage.

The first comes from a root meaning “rebellious,” someone too proud to submit to God’s authority in their lives. The second stems from a word meaning “inadequate,” someone who misses the mark of what God intends. The third means “crooked or bent,” someone who has twisted (or perverted) that which was formerly straight and clean. It’s an unpleasant collage of ideas, suggesting soemone who has painted themselves into a corner by their own folly and is now stuck. Hopelessly stuck.

It’s the prison of the addict, loudly proclaiming that he can shake the habit any tim ehe chooses and yet, like a drowning man, pulling others down with him into the oblivion of his own selfish choices. Sin is never less than terrible.

But how do we experience those blessings of His forgiveness?

First, you have to come clean. The turning point in this psalm is verse 5, where David confesses his sin, and verse 6 where he exhorts his readers to pray to God while He may be found. This implies that there is a window of opportunity.

And it’s open now.

So first you come clean, and then you open up to the reality of what you’ve done. We have to call sin “sin.” We don’t explain it away as “faulty coping techniques due to a dysfunctional family background.” We don’t excuse it “weakness” or “just human nature.” We say, “Lord, I messed up.” We see sin as serious. Sin always erects barriers between us and God, and between fellow human beings. Thus we must take sin seriously. Confession can’t be flippant!

But there’s another vital point: We see confessed sin as forgiven.  No sin is too great to be forgiven.

Corrie ten Boom, in her book Tramp for the Lord had these words to say regarding forgiveness: It was 1947–. I had come from Holland to defeated Germany with the message that God forgives. It was the truth they needed most to hear in that bitter, bombed-out land, and I gave them my favorite mental picture. Maybe because the sea is never far from a Hollander’s mind, I like to think that that’s where forgiven sins are thrown. “When we confess our sins,” I said, “God casts them into the deepest ocean, gone forever–. Then God places a sign out there that says ‘No Fishing Allowed.’”

No visits to the Baggage Reclaim. Gone is gone.

There is no greater blessing than that of having your transgressions forgiven, your sins covered, and your iniquities not counted against you by the Lord. That blessing is available to you right now if you will confess your sins.

The Psalm continues in a great gout of joy. I want to make it my prayer for today:

“When I kept it all inside,
my bones turned to powder,
my words became daylong groans.

The pressure never let up;
all the juices of my life dried up.

Then I let it all out;
I said, “I’ll make a clean breast of my failures to God.”

Suddenly the pressure was gone—
my guilt dissolved,
my sin disappeared.

These things add up. Every one of us needs to pray;
when all hell breaks loose and the dam bursts
we’ll be on high ground, untouched.

God’s my island hideaway,
keeps danger far from the shore,
throws garlands of hosannas around my neck.

Let me give you some good advice;
I’m looking you in the eye
and giving it to you straight:

“Don’t be ornery like a horse or mule
that needs bit and bridle
to stay on track.”

God-defiers are always in trouble;
God-affirmers find themselves loved
every time they turn around.

Celebrate God.
Sing together—everyone!
All you honest hearts, raise the roof!”

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When worship “works”… (Psalm 149)

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“If there is no laughter, Jesus has gone somewhere else. If there is no joy and freedom, it is not a church: it is simply a crowd of melancholy people basking in a religious neurosis. If there is no celebration, there is no real worship.”

That’s a favourite quote of mine from Steve Brown’s book, Approaching God: Accepting the Invitation to Stand in the Presence of God. It asks and partially answers the key question of Psalm 149: “What is real worship?” Here’s the Psalm:

“Praise the Lord.

Sing to the Lord a new song,
his praise in the assembly of his faithful people.

  Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with tambourine and harp.
For the Lord takes delight in his people;
he crowns the humble with victory.
Let his faithful people rejoice in this honour
and sing for joy on their beds.

  May the praise of God be in their mouths
and a double-edged sword in their hands,
to inflict vengeance on the nations
and punishment on the peoples,
to bind their kings with fetters,
their nobles with shackles of iron,
to carry out the sentence written against them –
this is the glory of all his faithful people.

Praise the Lord.”

So how do you worship? There’s a myriad of ways, according to this psalm, but Psalm 149 has four distinctives that need to be honoured if worship is to work.

First, worship “works” when it is fresh.

It must have in it a spontaneity, an immediacy, something now, something human, something fresh. “Sing unto the Lord a new song…” I don’t think the Psalmist is telling us we can’t sing our old favourites. Nor is he is urging us to only pick the latest celebrity specials. No, he’s just saying “Stay fresh!” Be personal, spontaneous, be natural! Don’t allow yourselves to get trapped in something hackneyed and clichéd, which sounds a little like Steve Brown’s description of “a crowd of melancholy people basking in a religious neurosis”!

Ultimately, it’s not a question of style or volume or genre; it’s whether we bring a fresh expectation to worship; it is whether we are going to open up and let our passion rip. The Psalmist throws out a few hints:  

“Let Israel rejoice in their Maker;
let the people of Zion be glad in their King.
Let them praise his name with dancing
and make music to him with tambourine and harp.”

We are celebrating God’s creativity (our “Maker”) so our own creativity is bang on target. We are celebrating God’s choosing (“Zion’s King”) so our gratitude is appropriate. We are rejoicing through “dancing” so physical expression and movement is entirely natural! And we are “making music with tambourine and harp” so our own creativity (“making”) is pulled in to the mix, in terms of rhythm (tambourine) and melody (harp).

And it is “we” that do all this, creating a human orchestra of worship, producing harmony (and not monotone monotony). That means that, second, worship “works” when it is in community.  Worship happens primarily (but not solely) in gathered fellowship. It is not just individual performance, it is not just personal feelings, it is not simply private experience… for worship to “work,” it needs to be corporate, social, and in community.

And, as someone put it, “We is more than a whole bunch of little I’s.” When we come together to worship, we find that God’s spirit does something in the whole of us that is greater than what He does in each one of us personally. God has a way of working through a gathered people. Worship requires our presence, before God and before one another. Worship requires that we belong to one another. Worship is not just private enjoyment. The shared experience would be compromised. That terrible, wonderful, exciting, frightening expectation that God Himself might be in our midst, that would be lost. To the Psalmist, worship has to be in community, it must be in fellowship.

Next, third, worship works when it has joy as its bottom line. “If there is no laughter, Jesus has gone somewhere else. If there is no joy and freedom, it is not a church.” Worship is more than passing out information or a sort of sung statement of faith; it is celebrating release, it is finding hope and strength and freedom. Worship is joy. “For the Lord takes pleasure in his people; he adorns the humble with victory. Let the faithful exult in glory; let then sing for joy on their beds.”

Joy is the “without which, nothing” of worship. Sure, there are times when the mood of worship is sombre and subdued; there is a time to mourn, a time for quiet. Even so, and especially at the darkest point, the bottom line is joy. There is one non-negotiable, and that is that God loves us. That God cares for us.

The most real thing about you is not that you are broken, but that you are loved.

And the Psalmist says, “The Lord takes pleasure in his people.” He has joy in us! He rejoices over us with singing. He lifts us up out of the “miry clay” and sets our feet upon a rock, and that is why we experience joy. “He adorns the humble with victory.” Whether worship is appropriate with a full-throated shout or with a tiny whisper, it is always rooted down deep into joy. Jesus went to the darkest place, to the cross itself “for the joy that was set before him.” It is not denial to rejoice in the middle of grief and anxiety; it is the truest thing of all.

And finally, don’t miss this one. How do we worship? How does worship “work”? We worship with a fresh approach, we worship in community, we worship in joy; and, finally, when “church” is over, then our worship spills out into the streets and is not confined to the building. Because here we have been empowered by His spirit, we are able to do bold things, big things, justice and righteousness things. That too is the “how” of worship. That is how worship works.

So the last bit of the psalm is not an additional idea but a conclusion… it’s the point towards which worship drives:

“Let the high praises of God be in their throats

and two-edged swords in their hands,

to execute vengeance on the nations and punishment on the peoples,

to bind their kings with fetters and their nobles with chains or iron,

to execute on them the judgment decreed.

This is glory for all his faithful ones.”

It can be so nice in here! Sweet and protected. Safe. And out there is conflict and danger. In here, perhaps we may contain the mess, but out there, there may be the language of hatred,  prejudice, filth and fear.

But this –this!– is the most significant “how” of all. How do we worship? With mission in mind. With a militant heart and a desire to do God’s will, out there where it counts. How do we worship? With a song on our lips, a prayer in our hearts, of course, but with “out there” on our minds. With a willing spirit, to be empowered for justice and a witness. With a consciousness turned toward the power of Christ, so that the fight against evil becomes bearable and the struggle against oppression becomes winnable. The most significant “how” in our worship has nothing to do with what music we use, with how loud things are, with how long the service lasts. It has everything to do with how we go to the streets, how we go to the world out there, and what our worship empowers us to do. For worship calls us, empowers us to claim the kingdoms of this world for our Lord and His Christ.

Because this stuff -this Sunday morning stuff- is not it. Not even remotely. This place is just a giant phone-charger, so that you can continue to communicate properly once you leave. You meet God with your family here, and then God sends you on mission. It’s a mission to Supavalu, to Lidl car park, to the mean streets of South Main, or Innishannon or Enniskeane. It’s wherever you live and whatever you do. You worship and then live out love in your homes, or find strength to teach tricky kids, or design aeroplanes, construct land-drains, farm chickens, enforce the law, practice medicine, buy and sell goods, work the phones, fix the computer. You worship here and then leave to tackle just one more impossible family situation. And in our worship we find glory! Strength and honour and power and glory! Just as the Psalm says, “This is glory for all his faithful ones.”

Fifty years ago in an American city a man stood before a large crowd and led them in worship. They did all the usual things. They prayed, they sang, they heard the Scripture. And then he preached. In his message he said:

“I don’t know what will happen now. We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it really doesn’t matter to me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop, I won’t mind. Like anyone else, I would like to live a long life. … But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And he’s allowed me to up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over, and I’ve seen the Promised Land. So I’m happy tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.“

And when, a few hours later, gunshots rang out at the Lorraine Motel, Martin Luther King, Jr. died, but he died knowing that his worship had gone to the streets. And the Psalmist says, “This is glory for all his faithful ones.”

Lord, fill us with laughter and joy in the sheer pleasure of being with you. And let the music touch our toes and send us out into the streets where you would have us go, salt and light, into the hopes and fears of everyone we meet. Let our worship work.

For God’s sake.

Amen

 

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