Tuesday, September 16, 2014

PSALM 138 - The Birthday Spanking

I give You thanks, O Lord, with my whole heart; before the angels I sing Your praise. I bow down toward Your holy temple and give thanks to Your name for Your steadfast love and faithfulness, for You have exalted above all things Your Name and Your Word.
(Verses 1-2)

In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. John 1

(May) the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of Him, having the eyes of your hearts enlightened, that you may know what is the hope to which He has called you, what are the riches of His glorious inheritance in the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of His power toward us who believe, according to the work of His great might that He worked in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at the right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age, but in the age to come.   Ephesians 1   italics, mine

I was taught from a very early age that when someone does something nice for you, you say, "Thank you." The lesson was really brought home on my sixth birthday. I still do this: get something in my mind that I'd like to have and tend to obsess about it. But not so much as when I was six. My "wanter" is much less significant for me in these years of my life. Back then, I wanted a watch. I really, really, really wanted a watch for my birthday. My parents had a big party for me. I couldn't sleep the night before for thinking about the watch that somebody would surely give me. Man! I wanted to wind it and set it and show it off. Forget the birthday cake and the candles and let me at those presents! My first disappointment came when my cousin, an adult male who lived in our house, gave me a picture he'd drawn. Really? I'm six! What am I gonna do with that? Then came a stream of games and stuff that made me even more anxious to open the watch I was sure was beneath somebody's nicely wrapped gift. One after another. No watch. Just other stuff. Late to the party came my Sunday school teacher carrying a beautifully wrapped gift that I now know would've been way too big to be a watch. But ever optimistic and a bit greedy, I tore into the package thinking, This is it! It was doll furniture. Plastic doll furniture. Cute. But, hey, not a watch. So, I looked at her in all sincerity and said the thing that was on my mind (rarely a good thing). "It's nice, but Í wanted a watch."  The unfortunate thing about this scenario was that Mother was standing there. I got smarter as I got older in this regard. At least wait until your mom is out of earshot to be an entitled little brat. As you can imagine, my mother excused herself and me. I'm glad she spanked me on my sixth birthday. Told me to be thankful. Withheld giving me a watch until Christmas that year...that was another whole four months. An ungrateful heart is an ugly thing.

Can you even imagine how God must feel when we withhold a thankful heart from Him? The gift from Him? Christ, of course. The Word Who called everything into being came down to those He created on the earth He'd set in motion to look at the stars He calls by name in order to make us God's inheritance. We are the ones Jesus came to claim as His precious endowment. Bought us out of the slavery in which we languished with no hope in sight and called us Beloved. Along with our salvation we receive the benefits of a Father Whose power is beyond comprehension. And God uses that power on our behalf, just like He did with Jesus when He raised Him from the dead! That's power! The everlasting love of a Father like that is a gift--outright undeserved by us. We are ungrateful, whining children most of the time. Wanting more, more, more!

Remember the ten lepers? They were standing outside a village, ostracized and hated because of their disfiguring disease. The lepers didn't approach Jesus, but yelled at Him, "Jesus, Master, have mercy on us!" Jesus didn't touch them. Didn't demand anything from them. Didn't forgive them of sin. Didn't ask them to confess or plead or have great faith. "Go and show yourselves to the priest." That's it. The problem was, the priest wouldn't get anywhere near ten unclean lepers. So, they had to be healed on the way to the temple. Had to be cleansed in the process of their faith. It took guts to even walk in that direction. But they were healed. A gift. Unspeakable. Unbelievable. Life-changing. Men who'd been freed to go back to families and jobs and life because Jesus spoke. The Word said so. And they all came running back to thank Him!!! Oops. No. Only one. One. And this one guy, when he realized on his way to town that all his leprous sores were gone, that the word was true and right, just started shouting. Praising God with his screaming! Ran back. Fell at the feet of Jesus. "Thank you! Thank you, Master! Thank you!" Jesus wanted to know, "Where are the other nine?" Don't know. Entitled somehow to think Jesus owed them a healing. And they missed the greater miracle. This Samaritan man, a foreigner, outcast, never had to go all the way to the temple. Jesus declared him clean because he was so thankful. Ah, the beauty of a grateful heart. The Samaritan had the joy of seeing pure Joy get happy with him. Bathed in the radiance of the face of Jesus Who honored the leper for his acknowledgment and unabashed thankfulness!

I have a heart full of thankfulness today! None of that would be possible without the preeminence of the Name and the Word. Jesus is the reason for my living. I dance because I am His inheritance. Treasured and kept because I am so precious. Life has its ups and downs, but the constant is the One Whose Name and Word sustain all things. There in the valleys to hold me; there on the mountain top to sing with me. Every other gift this Earth can bestow will go away someday. Watches included. Jesus remains. Forever. The angels praise Him day and night. It is my incomprehensible right to join in the chorus.


Monday, September 15, 2014

PSALM 137 - Two Sides to Every Story

Remember, O Lord, against the Edomites the day of Jerusalem, how they said, "Lay it bare, lay it bare, down to the foundations!" O daughter of Babylon, doomed to be destroyed, blessed shall he be who repays you with what you have done to us! Blessed shall he be who takes your little ones and dashes them against the rock!   (Verses 7-9)  italics, mine

All right, all right. I know what you're thinking because that's what I thought at first when I read the last verse of this psalm. Who prays to have someone's kid dashed against a rock? There is a backstory here that is brutal, though.

Edomites.  The descendants of Esau, Jacob's twin brother. The Kings Highway ran through their land and they had denied the refugees of Jacob's line passage through Edom as they escaped Egypt. Years later, when Ahaz was king of Judah, Edomites utterly destroyed Jerusalem in a violent takeover. As the kin of Jacob, with the blood of Abraham in their veins, they should have protected Israel, not cast lots for "who got what loot" as the holy city was being crushed. Obadiah tells it this way: On that day you stood aloof, on that day strangers carried off his wealth and foreigners entered his gates and cast lots for Jerusalem, you were like one of them. They were acting just like the enemy! Obadiah was prophesying in the moment. When the Edomites still had time to repent. The prophet warned them not to gloat, not to loot, not to stand at the crossroads and cut off the fugitives, turning them, for ransom, over to the enemy; don't rejoice over your brother's misfortune or enter the city for treacherous purposes. All of which they were in the process of doing when Obadiah warned them. It did no good. Ravaged by their own family, Israel lay in ruins. The final warning to the line of Esau was this: For the day of the Lord is near upon all the nations. As you have done, it shall be done to you; your deeds shall return on your own head. But the punishment wasn't as swift as the nation of Israel wanted. They waited upon a patient God who gave the Edomites another chance.

Babylon. They had carried out excessive violence against the helpless in Jerusalem. There are epic stories of beheadings and mass murders, of grabbing children and dashing them against the desert rocks, raping women, and ripping open the bodies of pregnant women to take the child and kill the mother.

So, would we have our God stand by? Would that be just? I think about the beheadings of the two journalists gone viral on YouTube recently. Using a small knife, not the quick blade of a shiny, honed sword. No. The deaths were especially brutal. What would we do with those men? The haters who would kill innocent reporters for no reason except renown? It sickens our God even more than it sickens us. Any injustice against His Beloved is an injustice against Him. He takes it personally. Not just wars and things. Your personal life as a child of God is His to protect, defend and avenge. I believe in our struggles against those who try to break us, kill us, there is a time when God stands up, heart pounding and fists pumping, and says, "Enough!" Be assured, He's given your opponent plenty of opportunity to repent. But God won't let evil win against us forever. As you have done to a child of God in unrepentant gloating, that will be done to you. My Father has a big heart, a just mind and an unrelenting desire to protect those who belong to Him.

Feel better now?

Thursday, September 11, 2014

PSALM 137 - We Shall Never Forget...

How shall we sing the Lord's song in a foreign land? If I forget you, O Jerusalem, let my right hand forget its skill! Let my tongue stick to the roof of my mouth if I do not remember you, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy!  (Verses 4-6)

Babylon was full of wonders. It was situated in southern Mesopotamia along the Euphrates River approximately fifty miles south of modern day Baghdad. Until the nineteenth century, it was considered to be a mythical place conjured by the writers of the Bible. Archaeological digs, however, revealed not only its existence, but corroborated the historical accounts of its greatness. The Hanging Gardens there were one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Culturally and politically, it was ahead of its time, commercially opulent and intellectually proud. It was a place to pique the senses. To challenge humility. To fall in step with the hedonism that seeped into every corner of its existence. It might be hard to keep the Old Covenant in a foreign land so overflowing with opportunity to indulge one's every desire. To forget Jewish-ness. To trade gods.

This is an interesting place to light today--September 11, 2014--thirteen years after our own wealthy and somewhat complacent country was invaded by terrorists who blew us up. We were glib before then...and some of us, not that long afterward. America doesn't get hit that way...or so we thought. But we live in a volatile world. Bombs can now be half-expected when we run a marathon or shop in downtown New York City. If we don't forget that day in 2001 when airplanes ripped apart the Twin Towers and sent over 3000 people to their deaths, some flying out of windows, some trapped in stairwells, some burnt up from the initial explosion and those running, hearts beating, into the building to save whoever they could, it will impact how we live even now. But some memories are short.

I read in the paper today about a man who missed the flight from Boston that morning. The one that exploded only minutes later in New York. He and a guy in an airport fast food place joked about the fact it could have been him. Briefly it made the young man think about his own mortality, but when asked by the reporter if the experience of being saved because of a late taxi and two elderly people had changed his life in any way, the answer was, "No. No it hasn't changed me." I think he forgot how thankful he was that day. How close the enemy came to taking his life at the young age of twenty-seven. Then there was the doubt the act of war created. How can the whole world be in the hands of God and this kind of thing happen? And in the rubble, standing with the smoke of the fire still rising in vapors from its crossbeam was a cross. A reminder? Maybe. That men cause wars. That hate kills. That God hates it and will one day judge it done. That is what I think. But it made us all look to what we really believe about faith and God. About good things happening to bad people. Toward the thousands who grieved the thousands dead. How could we ever forget such a nightmare?
How in the rubble of the present do we sing songs to the God we knew before it all changed?

If circumstances, even ones so devastating as this one, on a personal or political level tempt us to wrench ourselves from our faith, we must also remember Who God is. A group of Islamic terrorists bombed New York City that day. God did not. Hitler, Stalin and Hirohito succumbed to the enemy, sold their souls for power, believing a lie. Likewise, Osama Bin Laden and the jihadists who loved him made the choice to do us in. They didn't succeed. But there was residual damage to our nation and to our hearts. We must continue to sing our songs to our God, lest they dry up in our mouths and our fingers forget how to strum our praise on guitar and harp. We must trust Him that as the Righteous Judge, all will one day be made right. Our own lives cannot be our highest joy lest we wither from hopelessness. May we never forget the loss. May we never forget our own vulnerability. May we never forget September 11, 2001.

Wednesday, September 10, 2014

PSALM 137 - On The Eve of 9/11

By the waters of Babylon, there we sat down and wept, when we remembered Zion. On the willows there, we hung our lyres. For there our captors required of us songs, and our tormentors, mirth, saying, "Sing us one of the songs of Zion!" (Verses 1-3)

Trapped by the enemy in foreign territory. No way out. The love and comfort of home seems years past. Except for the memory of its safety and warmth, the former joys are but a thing of the past. Hardly hoped for any more. The song was literal for the Jewish congregation who sang this song. Captured by the Babylonians, the Israelites had suffered great loss, most notably the murders of their babies. Ripped from the arms of their mothers and dashed against rocks in a bloody display of hatred for the Jews. Gut-wrenching infanticide that Israel never forgot. Stripped of their possessions and made to live once again as slaves to the Babylonians, whose nation was built upon nihilistic pleasure and festered in its prosperity, the Jewish people were at the mercy of those in whose land they now found themselves.

The captivity covered them in shame. Well, slavery always does. Whatever we find ourselves bound by will rule us. As refugees, the Jews streamed into the streets of the opulent Babylon carrying only what could be taken in their hands or in the packs on their backs. So in the hands of some there were lyres and small harps. A song in the wilderness, perhaps. Played on blood-splattered instruments in the hope of hearing strains of hymns once sung in peace time. Closing their eyes as they strummed in order to recapture Zion.

It all seemed far away and unreal for me at first blush when I read this psalm this morning, sitting at my table looking out at the patio where palm trees move lightly in the breeze and hummingbirds flit around the flowers. But for most of the world, life is much like Babylonian captivity. ISIS posts videos of captives being beheaded in bloody wrath. Syrians die from chemical weapons, children writhing in the streets, eyes rolled back. Hamas and Israel fight it out over Palestinian territory, while Iran tortures Christian missionaries in its prisons. I'm sure all of them long for home. For what it was like before all the bloodshed and chaos. And, we approach 9/11 tomorrow. The reminder that our enemies are out there, too. Waiting, plotting, perhaps, to take away our freedoms and throw the chains of bondage around our wrists.

For Christians, the world is pretty much a foreign land. All around us there are people trapped in shame or driven by hubris. We are called to humility and love; counter intuitive to the hedonism that drives our meth-driven, alcohol fueled, power hungry, self-satisfied, lustful, joyless society. A place where abortion is lauded as a good thing, the smashing of our children fresh from the womb. And we don't even know we are at war. So trapped are those around us that the enemy is unrecognizable as infanticide (and soon euthanasia) become the accepted method controlling the population and increasing our disposable income. Oh, we are imprisoned. By our own self-centeredness. Our nation is Babylon. And that didn't end well.

How do I live in Babylon? I have xenophobia sometimes. Sometimes I feel the pull toward all the stuff that distracts and enslaves. Babylon says, according to Isaiah 47: "I am and there is no one besides me; I shall not sit as a widow or know the loss of children." Self-sufficient and rich, they don't need God. Those of us who know Him wince at the hubris. Our God is patient. Waits. For a turn of heart. A shift of priorities. An acknowledgment that it is He Who alone is I AM. To the Babylonians, God had this to say as a warning: "Now, therefore, you lovers of pleasures, who sit securely, who say in your heart, 'I am, and there is no one beside me..': These two things shall come upon you in a moment, in a day; the loss of children and widowhood shall come upon you in full measure, in spite of your many sorceries and the great power of your enchantments." Oh, Babylon, listen. We can still be saved! God said: "If My people who are called by my name will humble themselves and pray and seek My face and turn from their wicked ways, then I will hear from heaven and will forgive their sin and will heal their land (2 Chronicles 7:14)." On the eve of 9/11, may we pray like never before, for America and for our tumultuous, war-ravaged world.


Tuesday, September 9, 2014

PSALM 136 - Can You Blame Him?

It is He Who remembered us in our low estate, for His steadfast love endures forever; and rescued us from our foes, for His steadfast love endures forever; He Who gives food to all flesh, for His steadfast love endures forever. Give thanks to the God of heaven, for His steadfast love endures forever.   (Verses 23-26)

God told Moses He wasn't going to go into the promised land with the rebellious children He'd led through the wilderness. To Moses, God said: "Depart! Go up from here, you and your people you have brought up out of the land of Egypt to the land which I swore to Abraham, Isaac and Jacob...I will send a angel before you...go up to the land flowing with milk and honey; but I will not go up among you lest I consume you on the way, for you are a stiff-necked and stubborn people (Exodus 33)!" Yikes! An exasperated God, unwilling to live any more with a people who fashioned a gold calf out of the spoils of their slavery then bowed down to worship it instead of the miracle-working God Who'd proved His love for them over and over again in the wilderness. Can you blame Him?

The original commandments, etched by God's own finger into tablets of stone, now lay shattered in chalky shards on the desert floor. It broke God's heart, so He didn't want to travel with the "children" any longer. All it would take to get the refugees to the land of promise was one angel. Really? So His Presence was always an unnecessary bonus. A proof of His great stubborn love. God moved along with His people because He wanted to be with them.

Of course, Moses, the great smasher of stone tablets, can't fathom being left alone with the rebellious and untamed lot from Egypt, so he pleads with God to change His mind. Precisely because the people are stubborn and rebellious.

The next morning, after His conversation with Moses, God meets the prophet on the top of Mount Sinai. In his grip, Moses carries two new tablets, freshly hewn, per God's instructions. They are a blank page for God to write, a second time, His commandments for His people. I can't even properly imagine what happens next. God comes fully upon the mountain summit, covering it in a thick cloud of Presence...and stands there with the man. The two of them. Not speaking, yet. Moses adjusting himself to the overwhelming aura of God's glory; God adjusting to the smallness of the confines of a mountain top on Earth. Then God walks in front of Moses as the mountain quakes with the power of a heavenly visitation and the unrestrained authority of the Voice which spoke all things into being speaking to a prophet. There God declares His character: "The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love for thousands, forgiving iniquity, transgression and sin, but Who will by no means clear the guilty." There. He declared it. The very reason He will go with Moses and the people. His character.

Thrown face-down by God's words, Moses worships Him in the vaporous cloud that's included him in glory. "If I've found favor with you, please go with us into the land Your promised. We are stiff-necked and stubborn and we need Your love and forgiveness. Please take us for Your inheritance!"

If I were God, the argument would've been puny. Go with us for precisely the reason that we are vain and mutinous. I mean, how can a people with such flaws ever by anything without their God Who provides even their daily bread? Even with God, in their very midst, the people weren't capable of walking faithfully with Him for very long. But God, ever faithful, ever loving, redoes the commandments. Etching once more, in miraculous splendor, the rules that quite literally never should have been broken the first time! Then He promises more marvels! "It is an awesome thing that I will do with you (Exodus 34)."

"Greater love has no man than this, that he lay down his life for his friends," said Jesus in the moments before His death (John 15). Hours later, on another mountain top, the Voice of God cried out, "It is finished." The character of God meeting head-on the selfish, arrogant, rebellious heart of mankind. Defeating it because He is "the Lord, the Lord, a God gracious and merciful, abounding in steadfast love." How should we live then? Based upon such unrelenting, all-encompassing and prodigious love? If our own ridiculous lawlessness in the face of His omnipotence can be overcome by God's great love for us--by its steadfast, never-changing, eternal, ironic, inexplicable love--then we must be a people characterized by hearts so thankful that God is grateful not that we grovel at His feet, but that we get His heart.

Monday, September 8, 2014

PSALM 136 - Moving On Down the Road

(Give thanks to) Him Who struck down great kings, for His steadfast love endures forever;
and killed mighty kings, for His steadfast love endures forever; Sihon, king of the Amorites, for  His steadfast love endures forever; and Og, king of Bashan, for His steadfast love endures forever; and gave their land as a heritage, for His steadfast love endures forever.
(Verses 17-21)

When I was a kid, my father used to mow the lawn on Saturday evenings. Usually, he'd waited until it grew up pretty high, so maybe not every weekend found him out in the yard. Because I thought it was fun to run around in the swaths Daddy cut through the yard, he'd mow the grass in crazy patterns that I'd have to follow. I'd run behind the mower then all over the yard in the labyrinth my dad created. I'm sure the yard wasn't very pretty when we finished because not only were the swaths in silly patterns, but the newly cut grass was mushed down by my constant running over it. But I was happy, green stained feet and all.

Sometimes that's the way I feel about following my heavenly Father. Like He's cutting swaths in random paths that I follow until my feet turn green. Unlike my daddy, though, this Father has a plan. The journey isn't all fun and frolic. My path is leading somewhere, and He will make sure I get there. No matter what it takes. On an earthly plane, it means I was created with purpose, here, on this planet. Eternally, I'm assured the road cut out of the dust on which I walk will lead to home with Him. It is His covenant promise to me that He'll get me there. As Paul said in Philippians 1:6: And I am sure of this, that He Who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.

Sihon and Og were evil kings bent on the destruction of God's people. They'd won their land through the bloodiest of regimes. In order for the children of God to get to the land He'd promised them--the life He'd covenanted with them they'd possess--they had to go through Amorite country and face the armies of Bashan who denied them access. It was a war too big for the desert weary people of God to conquer alone. God had to be present in the fight to get His children where He wanted them to go. Their battle was His battle. God knew where to cut the swath and Og and Sihon were obstinately in the way and violently opposed to the invasion of their country by Egyptian refugees. Sounds rather modern day, doesn't it?

What God wants for His people, He gets. One way or the other. Nations, circumstances and powers can bow to that or be decimated in the process. I know to some that sounds cruel of God, but before we blame Him for His steadfast love for those who love Him, we might want to pause. Og and Sihon made choices. Decided to push against the national will of God. What might have happened if they'd given some of their land to the refugees or given them safe passage through. Sounding, once again, modern day?

God sees our individual destinies and the fate of the world as an accomplished thing. He's not waiting with bated breath to see how things will turn out. However, within God's sovereignty we have choices to make. There is personal freedom to choose right in the greater scheme of how it all will eventually come down for mankind. While His eye is on the nations of the world, it's also looking lovingly on His own. From God's viewpoint, there is a swath measured out for mankind, for sure. But our lives, tiny and insignificant in comparison, are no less described and protected by our God. Just as He orders the universe to expand, the rain to fall, and the sun to shine, God also orders the events of His kids in a swath that finally leads us home. So when my little green feet stop at the crossroads and my heart beats hard from running down the path, I must wait to see where my Father next cuts the row. It's up to Him to lead me on down the road. And He will...whatever it takes.

Thursday, September 4, 2014

PSALM 136 - Munch On Manna For A While

(Give thanks) To Him Who struck down the firstborn of Egypt, for His steadfast loves endures forever; and brought Israel out from among them, for His steadfast love endures forever; with a strong hand and an outstretched arm, for His steadfast love endures forever; to Him Who divided the Red Sea in two, for His steadfast love endures forever; and made Israel pass through the midst of it, for His steadfast love endures forever; but overthrew Pharaoh and his host in the Red Sea, for His steadfast love endures forever; to Him Who led His people through the wilderness, for His steadfast love endures forever.   (Verses 10-16)

First the miracles and then the wilderness. Of course, the miraculous rescue of Israel from its slavery in Egypt was out of the box! Signs and wonders now epic. The stuff of movie after movie. God gave Moses a stick, ordinary except for its use as a sort of wand that changed things when anointed by God to do so. Put it into the Nile and blood runs there instead of water. Place it at the edge of the Red Sea and water parts, walled up on either side of a nation which then passes through on dry land to the other side. Over a million people hurried across with livestock and possessions before the Egyptian army caught up. They had second thoughts about letting Israel leave after all. The army plunged into the miracle sea only to have it swallow them up, chariots and all. God will do whatever it takes to get His children out of bondage. Even now.

However, there is still the job of getting bondage out of us. And so God led His people into and out of the wilderness. What was there? Not leeks and onions. They were fed, all right, but with this white stuff that fell from the sky that Israel called manna - what is it? Every day "what is it" covered the ground. "Don't take more than you need for this day." They learned quickly that if they stored up God's provision for another day, it rotted. No shopping malls. They lived in the shoes they left with for forty years. No meat. Complain and grumble against God. Sick of manna. Where's the beef? Angry, God pours birds from the sky...too many, and some get sick from gorging. Thirst was there, too. We have to look at our need in the wilderness. To understand our inability to provide for ourselves. Moses raised the stick and out of a rock gushed enough water for a nation where there was not oasis. Most importantly, though, God was there. At night His Presence was a pillar of fire. By day God led His children by a cloud. When God moved, the people moved. When He was still, they must be still. His provision didn't even make sense sometimes. Out of nothing God gave them all they needed...just not all they wanted. The promise of a land flowing with milk and honey was ahead. But they couldn't take Egypt with them in their hearts.

In the wilderness? I've been there more than once. I needed my hard drive erased. Brought down to the simplicity of following God when He takes away the thing that medicates--whatever we go to instead of cloud and fire--and makes us look at our need. Wildernesses show us we are hungry and thirsty and we've been trusting in something else to nourish our needs. In the arid atmosphere, there is only us and God. If He doesn't provide, we will die there. And we can't usually see how in the world He can get us through. Manna isn't steak, and we want Him to give us filet mignon. But our stomachs are greedy and we've forgotten how to let God take care of us. Out of nothing, He does. He will. Because the point of the wilderness is to reconnect to God, to yearn for only Him. To obey again. If you have been delivered from bondage, it was a miracle! And you know it! The therapy of the desert is necessary because God wants you to go into the new season of joy and power without the trappings of your former idol. Drink from the Rock and munch on the manna. Our God is all we need.