Friday, September 22, 2017

Psalm 119: Pure Devotion

At the age of 82, my father died, and my mother, bound to a wheelchair, was left on her own.

Plenty of people had ideas about how should take care of my mother. Send her off to a nursing home, move her in with my wife and I, and so on.

Instead, I ignored all those people and left Mom to live on her own in her mobile home. Some people whispered that I was neglecting her.

This lasted about a year and a half, until her health took a turn for the worse and she wound up in the hospital and then a nursing home.

During that time i heard more grumblings that I was neglecting my mother. I didn't visit often enough. I didn't give her everything she wanted.

Most of those people who thought of me as neglectful had no idea what I was or wasn't doing, and certainly not what I was thinking. Few asked me why I made the choices I did.

If they had, I would have told them that every choice I made was for her well-being, even when she didn't agree with me. The fact that she died within weeks of entering the nursing home was vindication to me that I'd made the right choice to put that off as long as possible. (I've written more about the decisions my mother and I made during that time HERE.)

Neglect, to my understanding, is to abandon focusing on the person or object and leave them untended, un-cared for. Sometimes all the proper focus in the world can still end up looking like neglect, simply because things go wrong.

I delight in your decrees STATUTES; I will not neglect your word. 
Psalm 119:16
Pure devotion doesn't always mean perfection. We are fallible people, living in a fallen world.

Pure devotion means maintaining a pure focus on not only the words of the Word, but on the over-arching purpose and mission God reveals to us.

I used to think godly purity meant that I'm pure (and so are my people), while those other people aren't pure. Purity was a way of defining ourselves as the ones who aren't like the impure people of the world.

There is some truth to this. We're told to be careful to remain unstained by the world. We're supposed to set ourselves apart as a holy nation.

But that "setting apart" is not only for the purpose of personal purity, but to set ourselves apart as the people who will pursue the purposes of God. And those purposes, the pure mission of God, is to reach out to the people of the world, the ones who don't know God's sanctifying and purifying blessings.

When I was younger, neglecting the Word was when someone refused to live according to the pure morals and doctrines as we interpreted them from the scriptures.

I see now that neglecting the Word is when we neglect God's mission as described in the Word.

Pure devotion sometimes might look to others like we're neglecting certain parts of morality or "right thinking" as we're trying to become all things to all people.

Focus on the 1 road God has laid out before us, not on all the people who are trying to tell us where we should be making our stand.

Tuesday, September 19, 2017

Psalm 119: Pure Training

I picked up a guitar at the age of 15 because I was frustrated.

I only ever took one formal guitar lesson.

I taught guitar lessons for a few months at a music store in Moberly, Missouri. The one requirement the store manager set down was that I had to use the guitar lessons books that they sold, thus forcing my students to buy from them. The book was terrible, I hated teaching lessons that way, and I've never taught regular guitar lessons since..

When my foster son Cooter was a young teen, he wanted to learn to play guitar like the country music stars he listened to. I sat with him for about an hour one afternoon and taught him about the chord chart, about how to play in the proper rhythm, and a handful of other basic things. And then I left him to find his own way, occasionally answering a question now and then. Because that's how I learned.

And, of course, today he's a better guitar player than I am.

The actual true truth, though, is that I've had countless guitar lessons over the years since I first picked up that cheap K-Mart guitar.

I learned rapid chord changes from Jim Croce, or at least from listening to his greatest hits album over and over again, with a dog-eared chord book of all his songs in front of me.

I learned how to play along with other guitar players from David and Jane Schwartz, college students who were part of an eclectic small group my family stumbled into when I was in high school. I've since lost the ability to play well with others, due to decades of solo playing and fine tuning my unique style of haphazard strumming.

I learned a bio-mechanical trick to reset my inner metronome in mid-song from Steve Henness, in my fourth decade of rhythmically challenged guitar playing.

And from Cooter I rediscovered the sheer joy of playing guitar and helping people worship God. Just by watching his face up on the stage Rocky Fork Fellowship.

Some Christians seem to think they can take formal training to learn a catechism or a system of theology and they'll know how to be a good Christian. But, just like learning to play guitar, formal training can only go so far.

Formal study produces people educated in the religion they've studied. Knowing God requires something entirely different.
I meditate on your precepts and consider your ways. 

Psalm 119:5
The Psalmist says he not only meditated on God's precepts, but did so for the purpose of considering God's ways.

Considering God's ways requires a lifetime of pure focus on the God who has been practicing His ways for eternity.

Consider the way God thinks. How does His mind work? Is He focused or frivolous? Is He reliable or reckless?

Consider the way He makes decisions. Is He driven by the feelings of the moment or by the strength of His character and convictions? What directions does He choose and which options does he decline?

What does God love? What does He hate?

One of the reason God sent His Son to walk this earth as a man was so we could consider the ways of God as lived out in a human lifetime. God’s ways are Jesus’ ways.

That's why there are four books telling the story of his life, so we can get the nuances to His ways as we consider them. The gospel writers act s four teachers, showing us the ways of Jesus from their individual perspectives.

From Matthew I've learned that God's way is to take the long view rather than the short-sighted way of most of the people I know. Matthew presents Jesus' mission as the culmination of plans that were worked out for several thousand years. The Jesus I see in the first gospel is knee deep in history, carrying the weight of God's covenants upon His shoulders.

From Mark I've learned that God's way is that of a skilled storyteller. Jesus spends 90% of His life on earth in almost complete obscurity. Even when He begins his active three year ministry, we see Him continually telling His disciples and the people He heals to not go running around telling everyone about Him. He knows the value of not rushing the climax of the story, because He has much He wants to accomplish before the final, sacrificial event. All of this is because His way is to stay focused on His purpose.

From Luke I've learned to see God's empathy for the downtrodden, the suffering, the oppressed. Luke shows us the Jesus who publicly lays claim to the prophecy about Messiah early on in His home town, but does so by quoting the one Messianic prophecy that most closely describes His mission as focusing on the poor, the prisoners, the blind, and the poor. God's way is to defy expectations. Instead of strutting around like a king who deserves all the kingly perks and adulation, He eagerly becomes messily involved in the messy lives of messy people.

From John I learned that God's way is to pull off the amazing trick of being both the King of Kings as well as a loyal friend and servant. Jesus repeatedly describes Himself as "I AM" during His teachings and His debates with the Jewish leaders, laying claim to the highest title possible as the King of Kings. And yet John also shows Jesus willing to sit by a well to carry on a conversation with a Samaritan woman. We see Jesus "eager" to share the family-centric Passover meal with His closest friends and followers, while also taking on the role of foot-washing servant for those same people.

Knowing God requires considering His ways more than simply studying doctrines. Study to know Him.

Saturday, September 16, 2017

Meditation Metaphor: Slow Burn

The unseasonably cool weather in early August made me ready for Fall days and weinie roasts over a campfire. I can almost smell the woodsmoke.

Campfires remind me of Christian camp in the summers when I was a kid. Every day would end with everyone around a campfire, while we supposedly listened to a campfire talk from one of the staff.

I don't remember anything they ever said.  I was always transfixed by the fire. Given the emotionally charged atmosphere that builds up during a typical week of Bible camp, it's not too surprising that when I looked into that campfire, I saw the face of the devil staring at me from the fires of hell.

My mind would always find the glowing embers deep in the fire that looked like a pair of eyes. There might even be a mouth, as well. It would be either whispering to me or laughing at me.

I know. It's creepy stuff. But that's the kind of thing that percolates in the mind of a kid at camp. The whole experience feeds the mood swings of a growing boy.

By the end of a typical camp day, I'd been warned about the fires of hell and exhorted to get on fire for Jesus. To top it off, the day would always [always] conclude with me once again being depressed because I didn't have a campfire date.

A universal truth about a campfire, though, is that if you stare at specific embers (or satanic eyes) in the middle of a fire long enough, they will slowly be devoured by the flames until they become more pure flame than burning ember.

That's the nature of a campfire. At first, the heat from the kindling dries out and warms up the logs and sticks. The chemicals within the wood begin to burn and produce gasses. The burning gasses produce the active tongues of flame that characterize the campfire at its peak.

While the gasses burn, the cellulose fibers in the wood begin to break down in the heat. Even after the gasses have mostly burnt off and the flames are no longer high, the broken-down fibers continue to burn. This is the process we're watching when we see embers that are constantly changing. They grow in size and intensity as the fire finds fresh cellulose to ignite, then they shrink down and wink out as the fuel is consumed.

Is not my word like fire, declares the Lord... (Jeremiah 23:29)
When I meditate on the Word it both ignites my spirit in sudden flame and also begins a slow and steady chain reaction of transformation deep in my heart.

It's tempting to put the greatest value in the "soul on fire" excitement that reading the Word sometimes gives me. Some verse or story I've read many times before suddenly sparks something in me and sends me charging into the world like a fox with a firebrand tied to its tail. It's a giddy feeling and one to be cherished and turned into productive work for God.

I've learned, though, it's the slow embers that sustain me. If I feed the fire with a daily infusion of fuel from the Word, my heart is constantly being changed. The slow burn provides the energy I need to continue the long walk and work of faith.

Friday, September 15, 2017

Psalm 119: Pure Obedience Produces Pure Joy

Right actions produce right feelings.
That's a quote from . . . well, several of my mentors have said the same thing in slightly different versions. I heard both Wayne Kessler and Roy Weece repeat it frequently.

Jay Adams said something similar in his 1970 book, Competent to Counsel:
One very important passage is found in Genesis 4:3-7. When God rejected Cain's offering . . . Cain became angry and upset "and his face fell" (vs. 5). God then rhetorically asked Cain, "Why are you depressed?" and pointed the way toward overcoming it: "If you do right, will it [your face] not be lifted up?" Here, God sets forth the important principle that behavior determines feelings. 
There are other scriptures that teach the same idea, including Psalm 34:12-13 and I Peter 3:10-11.

I can remember the first time I heard this biblical principle in a counseling class taught by Mr. Kessler at Central Christian College of the Bible. It rocked me back on my heels. Blew my mind. Opened my eyes. Filled me with metaphors.

Ever since then, I've been doing my best to put this statute of God into practice.

It tells me what to do when I'm depressed or down-hearted. Get busy doing what God wants me to do!

It instructs me in counseling others who come to me brimming over with their negative emotions. Don't get the cart before the horse: Focus on their actions rather than on the feelings.

It gives me a swift kick in the gumption whenever I just don't "feel like" doing what I ought to be doing. Do it anyway! God doesn't tell us to feel like obeying, he just tells us to obey.

This one teaching of God has transformed my life. It has blessed me over and over again through the years.

David spoke of this same idea in Psalm 119:4.
I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches.
Follow the statutes and joy will be the result. Obedience first, then the feelings.

I chuckled when I realized the one act of obedience to a statute that has brought me the greatest joy is the very statute that promises I'll rejoice as a result of obeying God's statutes.

Give it a try. You'll be amazed at the number of concrete ways this simple statute applies to your life.

“Life is one big road with lots of signs. So when you riding through the ruts, don't complicate your mind. Flee from hate, mischief and jealousy. Don't bury your thoughts, put your vision to reality. Wake Up and Live!”

― Bob Marley

Tuesday, September 12, 2017

Psalm 119: Pure Speech

At least 80% of a typical crowd of women in the Monday evening prison chapel service are incarcerated because of some form of addiction.

For some, the addiction was a direct cause. They were charged and convicted of possession or dealing of marijuana, meth, cocaine, opiods, or other controlled substances. Others are there because they committed a crime either while they were under the influence of their drug of choice (often alcohol) or they broke the law in order to obtain drugs or the money to buy them.

By the time they're in our chapel service, however, they've been forcibly separated from the supply of their addictive substance of choice.

And yet they still struggle with other impure habits.

For many, it's their addiction to nicotine. In the absence of their preferred drug, it's hard to resist the lure of the cigarette. Or of food, another frequent struggle in prison.

Over and over again, though, when we ask the ladies in the chapel what impure habit they're battling most, they curse their addiction to foul language.

For a large number of prisoners, swearing is the only form of communication they've ever known. Since birth they've heard profanity from their parents, expletives from their grandparents, cussing from their siblings, and blasphemy in the streets. The walls of their community are covered with dirty words. They're inundated with conversations laced with lewdness and crudeness.

For the women who want to sanctify their thoughts and words, the task is daunting. In prison there's no place to hide, no way to block out the onslaught of unwholesome speech.

They've encountered the God of holiness in the most unholy of places, and their newly cleansed hearts are beaten down by unwashed filth. The onslaught weighs heavily on them, not only because the words are constantly entering their minds, but because of the continual reminder of their own continued impurity of thought and speech.

Isaiah felt much the same when he "saw the Lord, high and lifted up." The seraphim cried out, "“Holy, holy, holy is the Lord Almighty; the whole earth is full of his glory.”

In the face of such holiness, Isaiah's tender heart was wounded, consumed by his own purity.
“Woe to me!” I cried. “I am ruined! For I am a man of unclean lips, and I live among a people of unclean lips, and my eyes have seen the King, the Lord Almighty.” (Isaiah 6:5)
The Lord's response to Isaiah's impurity of speech is a prescription for those who would clean up their own unhealthy habits of speech.
Then one of the seraphim flew to me with a live coal in his hand, which he had taken with tongs from the altar. With it he touched my mouth and said, “See, this has touched your lips; your guilt is taken away and your sin atoned for.” (Isaiah 6:6-8)
Is it your tongue that drags you into impurity? Burn it out!!
How can a young person stay on the path of purity? By living according to your word. . .
. . . With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. 

Psalm 119:9 & 13
When you meditate on the Word it will ignite your spirit in flame and begin a slow and steady chain reaction of transformation deep in my heart. A daily habit of time in the Word will feed a slow burn that purifies your heart, your thoughts, and, inevitably, your words.

It's not enough to get rid of the impure cuss words, rude words, and harsh words. When you allow God's Word to transform your heart, your speech will develop a purity of focus, creating a habit of seasoning your conversation with the salt of God's laws and God's ways.

Friday, September 8, 2017

Psalm 119: God in the Grooves

When I'm on the Mizzou campus I see legions of collegians walking to and from class, listening to the music coming from their electronic appendages. Their heads bob and their stride synchronizes with the digitized rhythms.

In the "old days", when I was considerably younger, we would have called this "grooving" to the music. I suspect that may have been partly because we weren't listening to data bits but to the sound of actual grooves, cut into a vinyl (later a polycarbonate) disc.

Don't expect me to explain how a tiny spiral pathway of cut grooves and pits produces music. The science of such things has always been beyond my grasp.

What I do know is that the grooves and pits do not actually produce music. Musicians make music, with their voices, hands, and other instruments. The record or disc delivers a representation of how the sound waves from the original performance engraved physical grooves into a physical format.

That's why thousands of music-lovers will pay exorbitant prices to attend live concerts, when they can buy the record albums for considerably less. With one format, they're experiencing the actual performance, with countless variations, both rehearsed and impromptu. With the other, they're experiencing a static representation of a past performance.

The Hebrew word hok or hukka originally meant to engrave, to inscribe, to hew, to cut in. The ancient Hebrews, of course, weren't engraving vinyl or polycarbonate, but stone.

Those words then came to also be used for a statute or decree,  no doubt because of the physical cutting required to record those decrees. The word occurs 22 times in Psalm 119.
Praise be to you, Lord; teach me your decrees. With my lips I recount all the laws that come from your mouth. I rejoice in following your statutes as one rejoices in great riches.

Psalm 119:12-14
Few people today will ever read the Lord's statutes in an actual engraved form, except for archaeologists or antiquities scholars. Most will read those decrees as written in ink on paper, or digitized as part of a website or app.

Whatever the format, the image of words on a page are not actually the decrees of the Lord.

God makes decrees. He establishes statutes, the verbalized expressions of His divine nature and His intentions for the people he created.

To focus on the written Bible as the statues and decrees of God is to miss out on the incredible blessings of using the written scriptures as a pathway to knowing the Lord Himself.

You may think I'm parsing these ideas too finely, drawing semantic distinctions that are meaningless in real life.

Consider the vinyl record album again. If you're old enough - or enough of an audioophile - to have experience listening to vinyl records, you know they are not perfect. There are pops and clicks among the reproduced music, caused by tiny imperfections in the cut grooves and by dust. All those carefully engraved grooves are no longer conveying the pure sounds of the original performance.

For those of you who have never heard the pops and clicks of a vinyl phonograph record, check out Vinyl Crackle FX on YouTube (you'll want to turn up the volume) or Scratched Vinyl Before & After Restoration. There are people who greatly prefer vinyl records to more modern

Now consider again the written Bible. It can also develop pops and clicks that alter the original intent of the Lord's decrees and statutes.

Some of those clicks come when good-hearted people become too focused on organizing the words and verses into a framework of teachings and doctrines to suit their own way of thinking. The result is similar to what happens when a hip-hop DJ moves a vinyl record quickly back and forth to produce rhythmic sound effects. This scratching and sampling can sound fantastic when done by a skilled DJ, but the resulting music only vaguely resembles the original performance.

Other pops and clicks occur when we study the Bible if we're not diligent to keep our minds clear of the dust of the ideas and philosophies of the world we live in. It's easy for our hearts to become so clogged with extraneous bits of post-modern culture that our spiritual ears can no longer hear the clear voice of God as represented by the words on the page.

The best reproduction of the Lord's decrees and statutes happens when we open our minds to allow Him to teach us, allow him to engrave those decrees and statutes on our hearts, and then become - through our own words and deeds - the best representation of His character.

Like the vinyl records, like the printed page, we will bear a flawed version of his statutes. We travel the 1 road of life from dust to dust, accumulating pops and static, quirks and defects. But if we focus on His perfection, our imperfect lives will glorify Him.

Tuesday, September 5, 2017

Psalm 119: Hiding the Word

I have hidden your word in my heart
that I might not sin against you.

Psalm 119:11
Over a year ago one of my foster sons, now an adult with a family of his own, sent me this text, unexpectedly:
Thank you mom and dad for what you gave us, so long ago. Though I was lost for awhile, because of you both, my faith in God feels stronger now than ever (and growing), and I want my family to have the same relationship that you worked so hard to instill in us. We are so blessed to still have you all in our lives, and thank you. Love you both so much! 
I not only haven't deleted that text, but I've copied it into one of my Google Docs, where I keep all sorts of things I don't want to forget.

If this had been even a decade ago, the note would probably have been on paper, written in his hand. And that paper would be filed away somewhere special, perhaps between the pages of my Bible. More than once I've looked through the bible of a loved one who passed away and always discover treasured memories tucked in among the treasured scriptures.

When David says I have hidden your word in my heart, he uses a term for a treasure that is hidden away.

David didn't say, I have filed away your word in my brain, so that I might an encyclopedic knowledge of your Word. There's a place for studying for theology or studying for outlines. But the Word is meant to transform your heart, not just educate your mind.

He also didn't say, I've hidden your word away so I don't have to share it with anyone else or let them know how much I treasure it. The Word isn't meant to only be kept in a place of reverence, rarely opened and seldom shared. The large family bible on the coffee table or bookshelf may be beautiful with it s plush cover and gilded pages, but it's just another stack of flattened wood pulp if it's never used or shared.

The best purpose for treasuring the word in your heart is that I might not sin against you. That requires more than just storage.

Memorization is the topic usually associated with this verse, but it goes beyond that. It's not just recommending the filing words and phrases away as though your brain were a filing cabinet, but memorizing the meaning and intent of the words as well – Memorization with Meditation.

Studying and meditating on the Word is about absorbing the words, pondering their intent and implications, and actively allowing them to transform your heart.

With the Word of God in your heart, your path will be straight, your focus pure.