Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Psalm 119:31-32 Get Up and Run!

I hold fast to your statutes, LORD; do not let me be put to shame. I run in the path of your commands, for you have broadened my understanding.

Psalm 119:31-32
My wife wants to run a marathon. She probably never will.

I say that not to discourage her, but the fact is that she is 60 years old and her thyroid messes with her body chemistry from day to day in unpredictable ways. She sometimes goes days or even weeks with barely enough energy to walk around doing housework, let alone go for a walk or a run in the neighborhood.

When her body allows her to do it, she does walk. She does run. And she always has in mind that quarter-marathon, half-marathon, or the whole 26.219 miles.

She steadfastly refuses to see herself as someone who is too old, too ill, too imperfect to run.

She takes the same approach to her walk with God.

There are two ways to read the Word and two ways to walk the 1 road of life.

It's all too easy to get stuck in the habit of reading the Bible only when you feel like it, either because you happen to be exceptionally motivated that day or because you're exceptionally racked with sorrow or guilt and go to the scriptures for relief.

When you approach the Word that way, you'll probably only find something to match your mood. It'll be a snippet of happy thoughts when you're feeling good. But the Word is just as likely to deliver you the very statutes that confirm your guilty feelings.

Instead, choose to approach the Word - and life - like a marathon runner. Spend time in the scriptures every day, regardless of your mood. Make your time in the Bible a habit and also develop the habit of stretching yourself to read deeper and longer.

Ask God to broaden your understanding of the scriptures as a way to hydrate yourself for whatever adventure God has in store for you in the days and weeks and years to come.

Some translations replace the phrase "broaden my understanding" with "enlarge my heart." That's exactly what the habit of Holy Bible hydration will do for you. It's the best sort of cardio exercise for the soul.

Friday, November 17, 2017

Psalm 119:30 Course Corrected

Just do what the Voice tells you, even if you think she's wrong. Her ways are mysterious, but the Voice has a higher plan for you.

- Richard Powers, Orfeo, describing a GPS
Before the advent of GPS technology, we used road maps, printed on paper, folded accordion style. Whoever was in the passenger seat would open the unwieldy thing, turning it around in search of the part they needed, rattling it to get the creases out, refolding it to suit their purpose, desperately into submission.

This frantic activity usually took place while the driver was trying to steer the vehicle in what he hoped was the right direction.

I’m not sure whether being distracted by the GPS on my phone is any better or worse than the old way.

I could purchase a dedicated GPS device, like a Garmin, attached to the top of the dashboard or on the windshield by the rear view mirror. Or I could buy a newer car with one already built in, or with a cell phone holder on the dash.

Then the map and directions would poised in front of me in a more convenient, less distracting way.

But I have neither of those, so I tend to set my smart phone in the cup holder or on the little shelf in front of the speedometer, neither of which is conducive to distraction-free driving.

Maybe someday technology will advance to where the directions and map are implanted in our brains.
I have chosen the way of faithfulness; I have set my heart on your laws.

Psalm 119:30
Many people travel the 1 road of life while using their Bible in a less than efficient manner. They rely on whatever snippets of scripture they get from their preacher on Sunday or from the occasional input of a daily devotional.

When a decision arises, they may turn to the Bible, hoping the relevant advice will magically appear before them. Meanwhile, they're careening on through life, distracted and uncertain which way to go.

David mentions two things in this verse that he does to keep himself on track.

First, he has chosen the way of faithfulness. This is certainly much better than choosing on the spur of the moment whether to be guided by faithfulness to God or faithfulness to the desires and whims of the moment. You've got to make that choice from the beginning and make it once again every morning as you begin your day. Set your sights on the goal of faithfulness or you'll surely fail.

David, doesn't, though, begin every day with a renewed gumption to try to be faithful. That's a recipe for failure.

Instead, to translate verse 30 literally, he says, "your judgments I poised."

Through regular, habitual devotion to reading and meditating on God's Word, David had absorbed the Word into his heart. As a result, when situations arise in his daily life, the judgments and advice of God were right there in the forefront of his mind and his heart was already trained to lean toward those judgments rather than toward the selfish choice.

Like a GPS implanted in his brain, the Word guides him down the 1 road of life.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Psalm 119:29 Teach, Rebuke, Correct, & Train

Keep me from deceitful ways; be gracious to me and teach me your law.

Psalm 119:29
Even when you're tempted, God will be gracious and protect you by teaching you from His Word.

Paul outlines this graciousness of God in II Timothy 3:16-17.
All Scripture is God-breathed and is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting and training in righteousness, so that the servant of God may be thoroughly equipped for every good work.
Do you see Paul's outline? It couldn't be any more clear, and yet I  missed it until Wayne Kessler spelled it out for me.

The God-breathed Word is useful for Teaching: I've been reading the Bible for most of my 60 years and it continues to teach me new things about the way to travel the 1 road.

The God-breathed Word is useful for Rebuking. I've been reading the Bible for most of my 60 years and trust me, it has rebuked me many times and in many ways, pointing out just how far I've stupidly wandered from His way.

The God-breathed Word is useful for Correcting, thank God. I've been reading the Bible for most of my 60 years and He has been gracious to me over and over, providing me with detailed instructions on how to climb out of the ditch and get back on track.

The God-breathed Word is useful for Training in righteousness. For all of my 60 years I'm been trying to stay focused on God's Way, I've been trying to be the man He created me to be. Trying hard has generally resulted in failing hard. But I've been reading the Bible for most of my 60 years and through it He continues to train me to be and do and follow His Way. Training is so much better, and more effective, than trying.

The God-breathed Word is useful for teaching, rebuking, correcting, and for training in righteousness, all for the purpose of thoroughly equipping me - and you - to be a servant, doing His work. Without verse 17, without the focus on servanthood and doing the work, it's all too easy to approach the Word as a tool to teach me to be self-fulfilled, to rebuke me so I can help myself do better, to correct me so I can be right, and to train me in self-righteousness.

The God-breathed Word  is useful for God's purposes, not for whatever purpose I decide to use it for.

Friday, November 10, 2017

Psalm 119:28 Correcting Your Stride

My soul is weary with sorrow; strengthen me according to your word

Psalm 119:28
If your soul is weary from walking the 1 road of life, it could be you're doing it wrong.

No, I don't mean you're walking in the opposite direction from God's way. I'm talking about how sometimes you're trying so hard to follow God's way that it's wearing you out. Because you're doing it wrong.

I have a degenerative cartilage problem in my right knee. Sometimes the pain in my knee changes teh way I walk. My wife is usually the first to notice I'm walking different. But by the time she mentions it, the rest of the my body is noticing the change in my stride as well, because it's throwing everything out of whack.

So, if your soul is out of whack from trying to live according to God's way, how do you get back on the right path? By correcting your stride.

Maybe you're the type who, when you're soul weary, turns to the Bible to find a verse that will pick you up, that will give you an upbeat religious motto to get you through the days.

You're doing it wrong.
Like one who takes away a garment on a cold day, or like vinegar poured on a wound, is one who sings songs to a heavy heart.

Proverbs 25:20
What you need is not a pick-me-up verse but to go deeper into the ways of God. To learn anew how to walk on the 1 road rather than trying to driving along it with a heavy foot on the pedal.
  • Read the Bible's stories of people who dealt with life altering affliction. Mentally step into the story alongside them and experience life with them. You'll learn what they learned, that there are no pat answers, no easy fixes. There's only picking yourself out of the mud yet again and taking the next right step for God.

  • Use your imagination to walk the roads of Palestine alongside Jesus and his disciples while reading the Gospels. Learn to match the stride of the Man of Sorrows as he keeps moving forward through the sorrow and pain, driven by the relentless pursuit of the mission the Father gave him.

  • Read Paul's second letter of the Corinthians, where he pours out his heart about the practical ways he chose to find purpose in the pain.

  • Read the books of Poetry and walk around for a while to the beat of a different drummer. From Job, absorb a view of affliction that start and ends with a big picture of God. From Psalms, learn to talk to a God who is not made in your own image, but who wants to know you and be known by you. From Proverbs, learn to see God's way and his wisdom as it's worked out in every little part of life. In Ecclesiastes, learn to see life from God's "above the sun" point of view, and to take off the rose-colored glasses and acknowledge the very real struggles of living in the cursed world. Then step into Song of Solomon and bathe in a poetic love song three millennia old and discover not just a pick-me-up verse but a renewed love affair with the God who loves you and wants you to walk through every part of life with him.

“...I fear their false urgency, their call to speed, their insistence that travel is less important than arrival...”

― Rebecca Solnit, Wanderlust: A History of Walking

Tuesday, November 7, 2017

Psalm 119:27 Learning God's Way

Want to learn to play the piano?

There's an app for that. And videos. And websites.

Just like learning to replace a toilet flapper, merge two columns on Excel, or roast a turkey, modern technology can indeed help you learn to play the piano.

Or you can take piano lessons from a piano teacher.

My wife is a piano teacher. Her students learn to match up the notes on a scale with their letters (A through G, plus sharps and flats), just like they could on an app. They watch a professional pianist (my wife) play the notes on an actual keyboard, much like they could on YouTube. They also receive instruction on a wide variety of musical theory and other piano-playing topics, much like they could on a website.

In fact, several of her students do make use of technology to supplement their weekly lessons with Karen.

What they don't get from the technology though, is learning Karen's way of playing the piano.

By spending half an hour at the piano with Karen every week, they learn to love playing piano because her love for the piano - and for her students - is captivating.

From Karen they also learn the reasons behind all the different rules of playing piano. Why do you place your hands and fingers just so? What's the reason behind the preferred way of sometimes crossing one hand over the other - and sometimes not. Why is it important to know those note-letters, to understand the meanings of terms like arpeggio and adagio? Why does correct posture matter?

Karen teaches them the joy of writing their own songs, even if their songs aren't very good. She teaches them how to play along with an audience singing. She instills in them the discipline of practice.

In other words, they learn not just how to play the piano, they learn Karen's way of playing a piano.
Cause me to understand the way of your precepts, that I may meditate on your wonderful deeds.

Psalm 119:27
Many people approach the Bible like its a textbook of doctrines, rules, and precepts. If you want to know what opinion to have about predestination, there's a verse (or several) for that. If you need to know the qualifications for elders, there are chapters that will list them all out for you.

It's true the Bible has a verse or passage for just about every topic you want to study. So why isn't the Bible organized that way?

Instead, the Bible is organized like a history book. Even the poetry and prophecy and epistle sections are grounded in an historical place and time.

That's because the precepts of God and the deeds of God are inextricably connected.

As David says, it's not enough to simply read the precepts, memorizing them and sorting them into categories. They're not meant to be cataloged.

The precepts, the laws, the commands, and the rules aren't organized not by topic. Instead they're presented as they relate to the stories of God's deeds (and Jesus' deeds).

There were reasons behind the things God did, grounded in his character. He does what he does because he loves what he loves. And his precepts grow out of that same love.

Don't approach the Word like someone trying to learn plumbing from a video.

Meditate on the Word alongside the One who wrote the words and did the deeds. Understand his deeds within the context of his teachings, and dive into the depths of his teachings by understanding the way of his works in the world. Meditate on how you can pattern your own words and deeds after the words and deeds of the master.
God does not leave it up to mankind to figure out what his mighty acts mean, but God follows up on his mighty acts with words that tell mankind what his acts mean and how we are to live in light of them.

~ Matthew Barrett, God's Word Alone

Friday, November 3, 2017

Psalm 119:26 Spiritual Adulting

Earlier this year I had to fill out a lease application. Our potential landlord wanted a detailed accounting of our income, our debts, our accounting history. He wanted a copy of our most recent tax return. He wanted a list of all of our previous rental addresses over the past 10 years. I had to sign to authorize him to check our credit score.

It's kind of unnerving, especially if financial history is less than ideal. If the accounting come sup short, then no lease.

Most of us have been through something similar. It's part of "adulting". Lease applications, loan applications, insurance applications. We're continually required to give an accounting of ourselves.

But what if you're a total mess? What if your credit history is disastrous? What if you really are terrible at it all? What if you know you don't measure up? What's the point of adding up all the numbers and reliving all your history of failure one more time, just to risk certain rejection?

I gave an account of my ways and you answered me; teach me your decrees

Psalm 119:26
So how are you at spiritual adulting?

Have you found yourself face down in the dust after yet another embarrassing pratfall? Is your character history lacking?

I don't have to ask. I know your palms and your knees are dusty from stumbling into the dust over and over again. I know this because we're all on the same road together. We're like a choreographed flash mob, all falling down and pulling ourselves back up in full view of the public.

You can drown in your shame and depression. But spiritual adulting means giving an account of your ways.

Add up the victories and the failures, write them all down. Keeping a record of your accounting is essential to discerning the patterns.

Give an account to yourself, but also to God.

The first step of the spiritual discipline of confession is self-examination. Until you stop ignoring the details of your failures, you'll never bring yourself to be honest with God in confession.

He will listen when you confess. He'll look over the details of your accounting and respond to them, helping you to see where you've undersold yourself and where you're still fooling yourself.

And He'll guide you into His Word, those decrees that He intended to be an accounting tool for our spiritual lives.

God is willing and eager to use His decrees to teach you if you're willing to be taught. Set your personal account of your ways up against His account of His ways, and allow Him to offer both grace and transformation.

Monday, October 30, 2017

Psalm 119:25 Dusty Roads

I am laid low in the dust; preserve my life according to your word.

Psalm 119:25
We are all on the same road, from birth to death. From dust to dust.

It should be no surprise, then, that we all at some point (or at many points) find ourselves laid low in the dust. It's only that God-breathed soul within us that enables us to rise out of the dust, to keep moving on.

David's literal words in this verse are "My soul clings to the dust." True words those.

On a daily basis my soul is nearly choked out by the physical, dust-made part of who I am. My body hungers for the physical in this world, the things that appeal to my dusty self.

At the same time, the dust of the dying world (and of my own inevitable death) also clings to my soul. Everything in this world is winding down, wearing out, turning to dust. It's so easy to become soul weary through the constant battle to choose a life that's more than just marking off the days until death.

The first step to climbing out of the dust is to admit your predicament to yourself. If you continue to pretend you've got it all together, you'll never find the way out of the dust.

Like David, admit your soul is covered with dust and that it hungers for the soul-scrubbing bubbles of God's Word.

Lord, teach me the discipline of refreshing my soul in your Word with the same eagerness as I refresh my body of dust with pure, clean water.

Friday, October 27, 2017

Psalm 119:25-32 Daleth

In the majority of Psalm 119's acrostic octets, he chooses from among a wide variety of possible words beginning with the chosen letter of the Hebrew alphabet, so that the defining letter doesn't greatly drive the topic at hand, but is just a poetic feature.

But occasionally, the chosen letter dictates the chosen topic.  Bear with me as I take a little journey through the details of how David constructed Daleth, the fourth octet of Psalm 119.

In Daleth, David begins 5 of the 8 verses with the very same word, derek. 

According to the concordance, that word is translated as "way" 590 times, "toward" 31, and "journey" 23 (plus 53 other miscellaneous translations).

It's used 45 times in Psalms.

It's used in the 40th chapter of Ezekiel a dozen times, always as "toward", repeatedly using it to describe the layout of temple, as in "there was a gate to the inner court toward the south: and he measured from gate to gate toward the south a hundred cubits." (v. 27)

In those 5 verses of Psalm 119:25-32, David references the way or the direction of himself (v. 26), the way of God's precepts (v. 27), his own way of falsehood or deceit (v. 29), his own way of faithfulness (v. 30), and the direction of God's commands (v. 32).

Two of the remaining verses begin with a description of what his soul is doing.

His soul clings to the dust (v. 25) and is weary (v.28). In the remaining verse he asks the Lord that he not be put to shame (v. 31)

It's not too difficult then, to get the drift of what David is talking about in this octet of verses. He's taking measurements,  comparing his own ways to God's way, and his soul is coming out on the short end of the deal.

Isn't that how life often goes? Our choices of how we live our daily lives can come down to a simple matter of choosing the right direction - leading to good results - or choosing the wrong way, which generally doesn't end well for us.

It's no different than if you're trying to tighten or loosen a screw and you expend your time and energy and elbow grease into rotating the screwdriver in the wrong direction, you'll not only fail in your task, put you're liable to strip out the head of the screw.

It's important to pause in your life occasionally and check to make sure you're putting your effort toward the right things and the right direction. As David discovered, you might feel better for it, deep down in your soul.
I am laid low in the dust;
   preserve my life according to your word.
I gave an account of my ways and you answered me;
   teach me your decrees.
Cause me to understand the way of your precepts,
   that I may meditate on your wonderful deeds.
My soul is weary with sorrow;
   strengthen me according to your word.
Keep me from deceitful ways;
   be gracious to me and teach me your law.
I have chosen the way of faithfulness;
   I have set my heart on your laws.
I hold fast to your statutes, Lord;
   do not let me be put to shame.
I run in the path of your commands,
   for you have broadened my understanding.

Psalm 119:25-32

Tuesday, October 24, 2017

Psalm 119:24 Who Are Your Counselors?

My day job involves a lot of customer service. I receive dozens of e-mails every day, asking me to fix this or answer that or help with something else.

I also get these kind of questions every day:
"Can you change the name of who is required for approval of my requisitions?"
No, you need to contact Accounting for that.
"I need to buy something from a new vendor. Can you build that vendor in the system?"
No, you need to contact the Finance Support Center for that.
"I need to know when I'm going to get my weekly warehouse order. "
You need to contact the Warehouse for that.
"Can you tell me who I should order these Wangenstein devices from?"
No, you need to call your buyer in Purchasing for that.
"What's the lunch special today?"
I'm sorry but this isn't Ernie's Diner.

I actually did used to get that last call somewhat frequently. The diner's phone number was very similar to my office number. One time I rattled off a detailed description of a sumptuous diner-style meal and then said, "and it's only $4!"
"I'll be right over!"
I'm guessing they were disappointed when they arrived for lunch.

Your statutes are my delight; they are my counselors.

Psalm 119:24
When you need help with life, who do you go to for counsel?

A self-help book? Facebook? Your co-workers? Or maybe it's your preacher. Or some other wise Christian. That's certainly a better choice.

But there's a better choice yet: The statutes of the Lord.

Many people don't choose the Bible as their first source of counsel because they aren't using the scriptures properly.

They'd go to the bible more often, perhaps, if it were organized more topically.
Problems with your kids? 
There's a chapter for that!
Need to know how to effectively share the gospel at work? 
There's  chapter for that!
Trying to quit smoking? 
There's a chapter for that, too!

No, it doesn't work that way, does it?

For the Word of God to really be an effective counselor, you've got to delight in it, as David says. That means you're eager for the time you get to spend each day reading the Word. Instead of looking forward to your favorite TV show or whatever else you're currently delighting in, how about delighting in the Word?

It takes practice. Your TV watching habits or other habits were developed over years. It will take time and diligent practice for the Word to be what you automatically turn to in your free time.

The rewards will be fantastic. The scriptures still won't be organized by topic, but the more you delight in them, the answers will be written on your heart, accessible when you need them.

Try it out. You'll discover that treating yourself to the Word as often as possible is a true delight.

Thursday, October 19, 2017

Psalm 119:23 Active Meditation

Though rulers sit together and slander me, your servant will meditate on your decrees.

Psalm 119:23

If you're a Republican, you likely thought the eight years of the Obama administration was an endless onslaught against Christians. I lost track of how many times I was told by otherwise loving and patient fellow believers that President Obama had not earned the right for them to speak respectfully of him, because he had not treated Christians with respect.

If you're a Democrat, you likely think Donald Trump is a blowhard, a liar, and a slanderer of anyone who disagrees with him, including any Christians who fail to fall in line with his overwhelming support among Evangelicals. And you may be appalled at that overwhelming support.

Or, if you're like me, you probably think both of these generalizations have a lot of truth to them, and that's generally what people in power do. They spin the truth (aka lies and slander) about anyone or anything that doesn't fit tidily into their agenda.

It's hard to keep a civil tongue, let alone a kind and enemy-loving tongue, in the face of slanderous leaders. Read through the entirety of the Psalms and you'll see David struggling mightily - and frequently failing - to deal with his enemies appropriately.

So what does David say here in Psalm 119:23 about how to respond to conniving and slanderous leaders?


Pause for a moment and think about that. Meditate on it, if you will.

Breathe in David's counter-intuitive approach. Let it fill your soul and push out the knee-jerk reactions that have been clogging up your spirit.

David shares more of his thoughts on how to respond to bad people in Psalm 37.
Do not fret because of those who are evil or be envious of those who do wrong; for like the grass they will soon wither, like green plants they will soon die away.

Psalm 37:1-4
First, he says to just chill. The bad guys in your life are only temporary.

I wish more Christians could just chill when it comes to politics in America.

Don't fret because the wrong people get into office. Don't be envious of the voting bloc that won that election. For like the grass they will soon get blown in a different direction depending on the whims of public opinion, and their power will soon wither and die away and another election cycle will come.

The only way you can develop that sort of attitude toward politics and toward political movements and leaders is to take David's advice. When you see things happening that frustrate you and make you angry, don't fret. Meditate.

Meditating on the Word is the only way you'll train your heart to trust in God and let him take care of such things.

Habitual and prolonged meditation is what led David to say, in Psalm 37:3-8, that instead of fretting we should follow this maddeningly non-reactionary 10-point plan:
  1. Trust in the Lord and do good
  2. Dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture
  3. Take delight in the Lord, and he will give you the desires of your heart
  4. Commit your way to the Lord
  5. Trust in him and he will do this: He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn, your vindication like the noonday sun.
  6. Be still before the Lord
  7. Wait patiently for him
  8. Do not fret when people succeed in their ways, when they carry out their wicked scheme
  9. Refrain from anger and turn from wrath
  10. Do not fret—it leads only to evil
He has a lot more advice on the matter. You should turn to Psalm 37 and read the whole thing. Meditate on it. Let it dwell in you richly and change your heart.

One last thing. Lest you look at David's plan and dismiss it as much too passive, look again. Meditate a bit longer on Psalm 37.

Every one of those points begins with an action. Actively trust in the Lord. Actively dwell in His land. Actively choose to delight in the Lord. Actively do the hard work of committing your way to the Lord. Actively return continually to trust as the thing to do. Actively choose stillness and waiting.
Intentionally choose to not fret and get all worked up about things. Intentionally refrain from anger, and actively turn away from wrath to something better. Again, actively find something productive and missional to do besides sitting and fretting about things.

It's difficult to do. It only comes as a result of meditation.

Tuesday, October 17, 2017

Psalm 119:22 Guilty of Contempt

Remove from me their scorn and contempt, for I keep your statutes.

Psalm 119:22
Scorn and contempt are contagious.

If you doubt me, take a few moments to read through the trending topics on Twitter right now. I don't even know what the Top 10 trending topics will be when you read this, but I can guarantee that at least a few of them will consist of people tweeting back and forth to another with scorn and contempt for each others' opinions.

The same is true of any controversial topic on Facebook, or the comments section on any online newspaper article about any topic even remotely controversial. In 21st century America, scorn & contempt is the universal language.

As a Christian, how do you respond when people oppose you with scorn and contempt, whether in person or online?

Remember. And beware. Scorn and contempt are contagious. The very scorn and contempt you find so distasteful in those who oppose God can easily rub off on you, in your distaste for their ways and their words.

From what I've observed, there are few believers who can honestly say they've never succumbed to the temptation to respond to anti-Christian rhetoric by answering sarcasm for sarcasm. Or returning stereotypes for stereotypes. Applying labels for labels. Tossing out dismissive generalizations for dismissive generalizations. Anger for anger. Scorn and contempt for scorn and contempt.

 In Psalm 79, David comes perilously close to adopting the attitudes of the enemies of God in his expression of anger toward them.

O God, the nations have invaded your inheritance; they have defiled your holy temple, they have reduced Jerusalem to rubble. They have left the dead bodies of your servants as food for the birds of the sky, the flesh of your own people for the animals of the wild. They have poured out blood like water all around Jerusalem, and there is no one to bury the dead. We are objects of contempt to our neighbors, of scorn and derision to those around us.>

Psalm 79:1-4
In the end, though, he understands that all their scorn and contempt, while it appears it's directed toward God's people, it's actually directed toward God himself.

And God is one who will answer them.
Pay back into the laps of our neighbors seven times the contempt they have hurled at you, Lord.

Psalm 79:12
When we give in to expressing our scorn and contempt for the enemies of God, that's when we should realize we're no longer keeping his statutes.

There is nothing the world can throw at us that will ever justify our defending God and his statutes in a way that goes against his statutes.

Friday, October 13, 2017

Psalm 119:21 Stray Cats

You rebuke the arrogant, who are accursed, those who stray from your commands.

Psalm 119:21
It may seem, if you've been reading my blog posts thus far, that I tend to ignore the laws of God against sinners, against people who aren't following God at all. In my rush to pick on my fellow believers, it can seem like I'm ignoring the sins of the world.

Quite to the contrary, I'm quite aware of the large number of people in our culture who are wantonly trampling on the laws of God. In verse 21, David triples down on the people who are worthy of God's rebuke.

The arrogant:  As Paul describes in Romans 1, there are many people who, even though the evidence of God is clear, are too proud to submit to Him. Instead they worship themselves and everything they can do or possess.

The arrogant unbelievers are a tough nut to crack, because they're going to have to come to a point of doubting their own self-sufficiency before they will even consider acknowledging a Lord outside of themselves. Times of crisis can present the best possibility of a turning point for them.

The accursed: Throughout the Old and New Testaments, the accursed are those who have violated the laws of God to such a degree that both God and His people consider them to be "cast out" from their presence. Jesus makes clear that in His church this is to be done only after an earnest attempt has been made to redeem them, to bring them back into a reconciled relationship with God and with the community of believers (Matthew 18:15-20)

Paul takes that principle a step further and makes it clear that the purpose of banishing someone to the outside of God's community is to bring them to their senses. The hope is that they will return repentant and both God and the church will then forgive. (II Corinthians 2:1-11)

The strays. Did you know there's a difference between a stray cat and a feral cat

"A stray cat is a cat who has been socialized to people at some point in her life, but has left or lost her domestic home, as well as most human contact and dependence. Over time, a stray cat can become feral as her contact with humans dwindles. Under the right circumstances, however, a stray cat can also become a pet cat once again."

"A feral cat is a cat who has either never had any contact with humans or her contact with humans has diminished over time. She is fearful of people and survives on her own outdoors. A feral cat is not likely to ever become a lap cat or enjoy living indoors." (alleycat.org)

The spiritual parallels are clear. For those who are wandering far from God, understanding whether they are a stray believer or a feral unbeliever is crucial. People are not cats, and both can be redeemed by the grace of God and the love of God's people. But a different approach is required for stray vs. feral wanderers.

As Christians, we need to see the arrogant, the accursed, and the strays (and ferals) the same way God sees them.

It is true, though, that I tend to not write as much about how horrible such people are. I tend to take that for granted. We're all horrible people. We all lean toward arrogance, are deserving of being accursed, and prone toward straying from the loving arms of God.

What I see, though, is that among believers there is a terrible tendency to point the fingers of rebuke at other people who are arrogant, accursed, and straying. We're much more interested in rebuking the wrong we see outside our Christian community than we are in responding the way God intends. 

In our religous arrogance, we take it upon ourelves to rebuke others, rather than trusting God to rebuke them.

We tend to talk about "those sinners" with sanctified curses, wrapped in religious language, rather than allowing God to be the one who rebukes.

We tend to treat the church's strays the same as we treat the feral sinners of the world, without carefully considering the best way to help each individual. Instead we rebuke them all as members of "not us".

David doesn't say, "I rebuke the arrogant." Nor is he commanding or recommending God rebuke the accursed. He is humbly deferring to the Lord, who alone has the right and the wisdom to rebuke the strays. 

By all means, we need to recognize the arrogant, the accursed, and the strays for what they are. And then let God decide when and how to do the rebuking, while we go about doing the job He gave us, which is to draw them toward Him.

Tuesday, October 10, 2017

Psalm 119:20 At All Times

My soul is consumed with longing for your laws at all times. 

Psalm 119:20
At all times?

Are you sure you're consumed with longing for God's laws at all times? For all of God's laws?

Are you consumed with longing for His laws when someone has disrespected you, robbed you, or abused their authority over you? No, I don't mean the obvious laws against disrespect, robbery, and abuse of authority. How about this law:
“You have heard that it was said, ‘Eye for eye, and tooth for tooth.’ But I tell you, do not resist an evil person. If anyone slaps you on the right cheek, turn to them the other cheek also. And if anyone wants to sue you and take your shirt, hand over your coat as well. If anyone forces you to go one mile, go with them two miles. Give to the one who asks you, and do not turn away from the one who wants to borrow from you.

Matthew 5:38-42
Are you consumed with longing for His laws when non-believers treat you poorly and make it difficult for Christians to practice their faith freely? Again, I'm not talking about the laws condemning persecution of God's people. Those are too obvious. How about these principles:
Consider it pure joy, my brothers and sisters,[a] whenever you face trials of many kinds, because you know that the testing of your faith produces perseverance. Let perseverance finish its work so that you may be mature and complete, not lacking anything
. . . Blessed is the one who perseveres under trial because, having stood the test, that person will receive the crown of life that the Lord has promised to those who love him.

James 1:2-4,12
Are you consumed with longing for His laws when you're deeply troubled by the actions and words of the president (either the current president or previous ones)? I besides the laws against whatever ungodly policies or behaviors are troubling you most. Instead, check yourself to see if you long for these laws:
I urge, then, first of all, that petitions, prayers, intercession and thanksgiving be made for all people— 2 for kings and all those in authority, that we may live peaceful and quiet lives in all godliness and holiness. 3 This is good, and pleases God our Savior, 4 who wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.

I Timothy 2:1-4
Submit yourselves for the Lord’s sake to every human authority: whether to the emperor, as the supreme authority, 14 or to governors, who are sent by him to punish those who do wrong and to commend those who do right. 15 For it is God’s will that by doing good you should silence the ignorant talk of foolish people. 16 Live as free people, but do not use your freedom as a cover-up for evil; live as God’s slaves. 17 Show proper respect to everyone, love the family of believers, fear God, honor the emperor.

I Peter 2:13-17

Are you consumed with longing for the laws of God when you see people who are enemies of God and all righteousness being praised and granted special rights and privileges? No, I'm not talking about the obvious laws against their unrighteousness. I'm talking about the laws spelling out the righteous response you should have toward them:
But love your enemies, do good to them, and lend to them without expecting to get anything back. Then your reward will be great, and you will be children of the Most High, because he is kind to the ungrateful and wicked.

Luke 6:35
Do not repay evil with evil or insult with insult. On the contrary, repay evil with blessing, because to this you were called so that you may inherit a blessing

I Peter 3:9

Dear Lord, plant in our hearts a deep longing for all of your laws, at all times, especially when we'd rather pick and choose which laws to follow.

Friday, October 6, 2017

Psalm 119:19 Stranger for God

I am a stranger on earth; do not hide your commands from me.

Psalm 119:19
Some days I feel more like a stranger on this earth than on other days.

The one day of the week I generally don't feel like a complete stranger on earth is Monday. That's the day Karen and I get to go to a women's prison and share worship, teaching, discussion, and counselling with a chapel full of convicted criminals.

Karen gleefully calls it her "happy place," a statement that causes the prisoners to just shake their heads. Some of them roll their eyes.

Oh sure, we hear some stories there that shock us, make us shudder, and even cause us to weep.

But it really is our happy place, and the one place all week where we feel like we fit in.

Don't you dare roll your eyes at me. It's true.

That prison chapel is the one place I can always count on people to not be deluding themselves about how good they are. In that place, we're all sinners, all bowing at the feet of the God of holiness, crying out for mercy. We cling to the commands of God as lifebuoys and boundary markers, rescuing us and protecting us from our worst selves.

Monday evenings in prison help me deal with the almost overwhelming feeling of being a stranger during the rest of the week out in the "free" world.

When I encounter co-workers, friends, and total strangers whose daily lives are filled with chasing after shockingly unwholesome desires, my temptation is to lead with "wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it" (Matthew 7:13).

But, as true as that verse is, my Mondays have taught me to lead with the equally true "there is no one righteous, not even one; there is no one who understands; there is no one who seeks God. All have turned away, they have together become worthless; there is no one who does good, not even one.” (Romans 3:10-12)

That's right. We're all on that same broad road, and we're all in need of mercy. Perhaps the people in my life need me to interact with them as someone who shares our predicament and our common need for grace.

Dear Lord, this world is strange. Help me to see all your commandments, and to not ignore the ones that bring us together as fellow sojourners and seekers.

Wednesday, October 4, 2017

The Church That Does the Recovery Program: Writer's Notebook

A few of the FCC-Belle Celebrate Recovery peeps
The story behind The Church That Does the Recovery Program, my current article in the October issue of Christian Standard magazine, begins nearly two years ago when I was doing research for a different story for Lookout magazine. My Lookout editor, Kelly Carr, wanted a listicle about rural and/or small churches reaching out to help their communities (Small Churches -- Big Impact, 2/12/17).

I sent out private Facebook messages to several preachers I know from our days together at Central Christian College. I wrote several more blind private messages and e-mails to churches in rural Missouri that I found in the Directory of the Ministry.

 I also reached out to David Fincher, President of Central Christian College, to ask if he knew of any such community outreach programs among CCCB's supporting churches. I've gotten some of my best story ideas from David, and he didn't let me down this time. He sent me a short note in response:
"You should talk to Mitchell Seaton at First Christian Church in Belle, Missouri. They have had a great outreach to many of the hurting people in their community."
So I wrote an e-mail to Seaton and received back an 800-word detailed description of First Christian Church's experience with Celebrate Recovery (CR), a very small part of which was included in that article.

I knew, though, that the time would come when I would tell that story in more detail.

A Sunday morning drive through the hills and hollers of the Ozarks followed. Mitch invited Karen and I to "interview" the members of one of the Sunday School classes. There wasn't much interviewing required, as this crowd of friends, all involved in one way or another in the Celebrate Recovery program, led me through a wild and crazy hour of stories and confessions and tears and laughter.

My editor, Michael Mack, after reading the finished manuscript, told me "Dude, love the quotes. Very compelling and I laughed out loud several times."

There were plenty more quotes that didn't make it into the 1,500 word article.  So here's your chance to hear more from the people at First Christian Church in Belle, MO. You will laugh out loud, you will be challenged, and you might even cry.

Tim Long 3, on what happened after he got arrested in the parking lot of the church after a Sunday morning service:
“I came back the following Sunday to church. I couldn’t take it no more. June 14, 2014, was my first day clean and sober. It was Father’s Day. I went to church because my daughters had asked me. 
I said, I’m done. I was done with it at that point. 12 days later they start the recovery program and I’m in jail again. I had warrants that I was still cleaning up. It took a while to clean the mess up that I had created behind me. . .  I felt God’s hand on me when I was in jail, I said we’ll work this out. I’ll sit here, I’m good. I’ve run out of options. 
The following week I came to the recovery program. I was at the ground level. The second week of the program they handed me a book and said, here, why don’t you do the lesson. I kind of giggled a little bit. “You know who you’re handing this off to?” 
I’m in a position now as ministry leader of CR, and I get to watch what guys like Kevin, Tony, and Mitchell got to watch through me, those aha moments. I get to watch them through guys like Todd and Pete, not just their recovery from drug addiction, but their recovery from life, moving forward, being the men and women god has intended them to be. When you’re going through it yourself, you don’t see it, but people like Kevin can tell me about the progression he sees people go through. 
The church people have been 100% supportive, and they’re not afraid to let you know where you’ve fallen short, or what you need to work on or give you the praises that keep you pushing forward."
Anna Long:
"I told him (Tim 3, her husband), he said he was coming to church, and I said, if you have a warrant, Tony will arrest you. I warned him and he said, I don’t but if I do I’ll deal with it. 
I came in a year before the recovery program started. I came here as a child, and then came back. I came in because I was at a low point in my marriage and everything else and needed to be around people. There was a lot more space in the pews. This Sunday School class at the time, there was like five of us. The stories that people were willing to share helped so much. 
CR has opened things up. We’re a little louder, so it opens it up to talk to everybody. We’re kind of loud and crazy but we love Jesus.
A lot of times people will come to CR first and then everyone tells them, come to our church. It doesn’t matter if you’ve tried church before, try our church. And then a lot of times then, again, Mitchell’s sermons are very relatable and they feel welcome and accepted when they come in the door."
Tim Long 2 (Tim 3's dad):
"Yesterday is 21 months clean and sober. I spent over 40 years out on the dark side, doing my will only. When i was a kid I used to spend my collection money by skipping church and going to the bowling alley. 
First time I came in here I heard Mitchell speak and he was right in my head talking to me. I even asked him, what did they teach you at that college, mind reading? You need to stay outta there! 
I came to CR to see about getting rid of my addiction, and I was in it for a while and then I asked Jesus Christ to take my addiction and he did. It’s now not about the addiction anymore, it’s about the recovery to change my life and living my life the way Christ wants me to live. 
That’s why I’m here. All these people here, the whole church they work with you, they help you, they lead you. The whole church is my accountability partner now. 
When some of us started coming, we asked Mitchell, are you going to be able to keep your job with all these rough people coming in? He said ‘This is a hospital for sinners, not a house for saints.”
Celebrate Recovery members playing with kids at FCC-Belle VBS
Denene Gehlert:
“When I came to CR, I’d been an addict my whole life. It was OK to come. I felt like everybody from all walks of life are being real here. 
It’s OK for me to come in and talk to others. They’ll help you through it and carry it. 
The realness of other people helps because people come in and think that can’t tell their story because their problem is so dark CR has made it OK for people from all walks of life to come in and be accepted. These are good Christian people who will take you as you are and say, we’ll help you with this. We all have problems and everyone can see. 
Tony Baritech:
It’s OK if you’ve got a problem. This is where you should be if you’ve got a problem. Romans 3:23. I’m one of those people. We’re family here. We walk through it all together.
Mitchell Seaton:
The impact and scope of CR:  “It's been an adjustment for sure. And we're still adjusting. But they're still coming, and they're lives are being changed by the power of Christ. This has brought on all kinds of changes to our approach. it's not just addiction. But really any of life's "hurts, habits, and hang-ups" (which is a Celebrate Recovery line). Depression. Anger. Sexual Addiction. Codependency. 
Church discipline: "Though we are patient to allow God's Spirit to convict, we also know we must play a role in that, too."
Clayton Johnson:
"Before I started coming to CR I was an atheist. I didn’t believe in Christ. The only time I went to church was for a wedding or a funeral, and I thought I was going to get struck by lightning for walking through the doors. 
I had multiple people tell me to come to CR and through CR I found Christ, I started coming to church, I’ve been baptized, I’ve been redeemed. 
Becoming one of the leaders for CR, as encouragement leader, has been wonderful. I believe last year we had more CR baptisms than we had baptism out of the regular church program. It’ changing lives. It changed mine. I went from a non-believer to a faithful, grateful believer, and I tell everybody now.".
Sundi JoGraham, on the close-knit community of CR and FCC-Bel:
"A friend said, the other day, I feel like the Sunday School class is the church. The people in this room, we do life together. 
We go to Carrie and Kevin’s to play whiffle ball. I remember going to my first whiffle ball game and seeing all this diverse group of people from all walks of life. You’ve got ex-convicts and ex drug dealers and a cop, you’ve got all these people. We were all playing whiffle ball together and eating hot dogs together. That’s the body of Christ, is doing life together. We have cried in this room together, we’ve been real and raw. It’s been amazing to watch. 
Margie Baretich:
"When I came there was maybe 50 or 60 people. Now we have probably as many children here as we did adults back then. 
The CR program here, I can’t even express the amount of hope that it gives me. 
We have a boy that’s in prison. Watching the transformations that I’ve been to see, gives me hope that’s still possible for my son. 
It has given me a different perspective in my work as well. I’m a paramedic, 28 years, and I go get the same people time after time after time for the same abuses, the same drugs, or for the same beatings from the same person and I have been jaded in the past. Here we go again. 
Now I understand addiction so much better and the life struggles than I did before. Now I have a diff perspective in my work. I can say with all honesty now, when I’m picking up somebody for the 43rd time, there really is hope. I know it’s there. 
Contact CR in your areas and give it a chance, you’ve got everything to gain."

An exchange during the group decision that highlights the unexpected and extraordinary relationships developing at FCC-Belle:

Tim Long 2: We tried to get Tony to come work for us, but he wouldn’t. 
Tony Baretich (police officer): No joke, I was offered a large monthly stipend to look the other way, but no. 
Tim Long 2: And now we got motorcycles and Tony don’t. 
Tim Long 3: I’m very happy that you didn’t take that offer.
Tim Long 2:
Broken Chains is part of CR, a Christian biker program. It brought me in to where I could have a bike again. I got rid of my bike and wasn’t going to get another one because of the lifestyle, but it’s allowed me to do other ministry work. 
That’s one of the things that is really amazing me is doing ministry work. When I was new, Mitchell would talk about ministry work. The other day I was standing around talking to guys about Jesus and a few months before I would have rather hit you than to talk about Jesus. I came on kind of fast. 
It’s crazy, the transformation is totally amazing. The acceptance and guidance they give is great. I’ve never met people like that my whole life.

Kevin Brown:
We came to FCC 5 or 6 years ago. Tony invited Morgan (his daughter) to come. I wasn’t sure how we would be accepted, because I had been divorced, twice. At that point there was 70ish attendance, probably. 
I’m thrilled we started at that point. I believe we were put here at that certain time. I didn’t even know Mitchell, but we hit it off immediately and became really good friends after some earnest conversation. It was good. 
So we were able to see the beginning and to see the wave start to swell. It was phenomenal. 
Everything they’re saying is 100% true. There was hardly nobody in this classroom. 
If you can help one person, and I believe there’s been more than one person that’s been helped, that gives me hope. 
Yes, we have people out for whiffle ball because God has blessed us to have a place where we can do that, and we absolutely love it. It’s not the whiffle ball, it’s the talks after whiffle ball. That’s the cool part. 
I was on vacation and met someone from Redding, CA. They’re from a Christian church out there, and they’re going to start a CR program. I said, that’s fine, but get ready to get your heart to broken. It’s been a huge blessing and it’s been quite the ride.

Margie Baretich:
When our boy was arrested, if that would have happened when I was in that plastic church we used to go to, I would not have had this acceptance, this love, this encouragement. I would have had to hide that, to put on a brave face or go elsewhere. But here, we’re not looked down upon because of what our child did, we’re love and accepted and carried through.
Tony Baretich:
The day before he left to go to prison, 30 some odd people from this church showed up. Mitchell got permission from the county sheriff and everybody got to say their piece and I love you’s and the body of Christ was alive and active. It wasn’t just words, they showed up.
 Tim Long 3:
Everybody’s situation, everything that has happened, is a chaotic mess of just beautiful. 
I couldn’t be where I’m at today without Tony and Marge’s struggles. It brought a whole new light. 
I always frowned upon . . the way I grew up there was only one way to handle that kind of situation, what he did. But what he did is a sin, but it wasn’t any difference than me being a drug dealer, spreading poison on the street. God used that to open my eyes. I’m on the register to go and see him. 
Each person’s struggle is unique, but if you can look at it and put it into perspective of what you’ve done, and the forgiveness you’ve accepted and offered, there’s nothing out of God’s grasp.
Clayton Johnson:
A sin is a sin is a sin. God still loves you, god works with sinners. There’s an acceptance for the many different walks of life that everyone has come from. I’ve buried two daughters, I’ve buried my parents. I’ve lost a whole lot in my life. Whenever I was going through all of that, I stayed so far gone, I didn’t know who I was. I literally did not recognize myself looking in a mirror.
Sundi Jo Graham:
People don’t let you stay stuck where you are. I was going through a bad time a few months ago. I teach people how to have healthy coping mechanisms and how to talk about their problems. But Tony and Mitch showed up to ask what was going on, to tell me I couldn’t lock myself off like that. If you hurt I’m going to hurt with you. If you celebrate I’m going to celebrate with you. 

Tony Baretich:
I love Mitchell so much; I’d bury a body for him. There have been leadership issues, but the one constant is their obedience. Mitchell doesn’t take the easy way out. If I’ve learned one thing, it’s how to have healthy confrontations with people.

If you would like to learn more about the Celebrate Recovery program, go to http://www.celebraterecovery.com/

Tuesday, October 3, 2017

Psalm 119:18 Seeing Wonderful Things

Open my eyes that I may see wonderful things in your law.  

Psalm 119:18
In my experience, God often uses the people and circumstances I encounter to open my eyes to see wonderful things in His law.

It works the other way around also. My time in His Word opens my eyes to see the wonderful things He is doing in the people and circumstances I encounter.

One without the other produces either nearsighted or farsighted faith.

Nearsighted faith interprets scriptures entirely through the spiritual lens of my own narrowly personal impressions of the Word, isolated from what's going on in the larger world. Bias, legalism, and self-focused faith are the chief symptoms.

Farsighted faith interprets scriptures entirely through the lens of my experiences in the wider world. Relativism, post-modern uncertainty, and and a diminished attitude toward the authority of the Bible are the chief symptoms.

When I began in the prison ministry 14 years ago, my immediate reaction was the same as nearly everyone else I've ever taken inside with me for the first time. The women who came to the prison chapel were clearly "criminals." They were dressed in identical prison clothes. But nearly all of them looked like they could have been someone I might meet in my home church, on campus, or at the grocery store.

Following quickly after the realization that they were all just regular people like me, my eyes were opened to see a wonderful thing in God's Word. If "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God" (Romans 3:23), then the sins of these prisoners are no worse or better in God's eyes than my own worst sins. Certainly, the State of Missouri has a different opinion, but to God, we are all just people who have fallen short of His glory.

This led to facing a challenging question on Q&A night at the prison:
"I'm a lesbian. It's just who I am, I didn't choose it. Is that a sin?"
Many Christians, once they actually get to know people who are homosexual, begin to view the scripture's teachings on the topic differently. The weight of their experience and relationships out in the wider world begins to apply pressure on their ability to accept what the scriptures appear to be clearly teaching.

My response is to I answer that question with, "Leviticus 20:13 is pretty clear about homosexuality." I then add, "...but you should also notice that chapters 19 & 20 of Leviticus are also quite clearly opposed to adultery and tattoos and several other things."

Trust me, there are a lot more adulterers and tattooed women in that prison chapel than there are homosexuals. Just as there are in the average congregation outside of prison.

The Christian who is slipping into farsightedness begins to slip here, thinking that perhaps homosexuality is no worse than getting a tattoo, and there are plenty of people in churches on Sunday mornings with tattoos these days. They might then tell the young lady who asked the question that it's OK to continue what she's doing.

The Christian who is leaning toward nearsightedness would probably say, "Yes! All of these things are sins! You are a sinner!" At which point this young woman, a prisoner who was seeking God enough to show up to a chapel service, likely shakes her head and decides to stop seeking.

Those are both obviously over-simplifications of the two different ways of integrating scriptures with experience. But there is a third way: to let experience train my spiritual eyes to see beyond a simple YES or NO, in order to discover the heart of God as revealed in His Word for the sake of this seeker.

Yes, I tell them, Leviticus does say all these things are sins. And so is my own gluttony and my laziness.

Then I point them to Romans 1, which also clearly categorizes homosexuality as a sin. Much like Leviticus, Paul includes it among a list of other sins - including being disobedient to parents, which we've all done at some point.

The Romans passage, though is calling everyone's sin a sin, as the opening argument in a lengthy discussion of sin that drives its point home in Romans 3:23 with, "all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God," and then finishes that sentence with verse 24: "and all are justified freely by his grace through the redemption that came through Christ Jesus."

This then opened my eyes to a better understanding of Paul's teachings in Romans 7 and Galatians 3 about the purpose of the Law.

Thank you, Lord, for using both your scriptures and your work in the prison to open my eyes to see the reason for trusting firmly in what your Law says about sin. The point is not to build a wall between myself and "those sinners", but to paint a clear picture of the stark and beautiful contrast between "all have sinned" and "all are justified freely."

I would never have clearly seen that wonderful truth in His law if I hadn't kept my eyes open to both His revealed Word and to the people and circumstances I encounter while trying to live according to that Word.

Friday, September 29, 2017

Psalm 119:17 Living for God

Twitter is like a window into the soul of millions of people in the world. They tweet things they wouldn't tell anyone in person. People who don't interact with others at all find their outlet online.

That's why I go to Twitter when I want to know what people are thinking about a particular topic.

Today i searched Twitter for the phrase "reason for living"
mibil doesn't actually go on to say what her reason for living is. She just wanted to let the world know she found it. For most thinking people, it's a big deal to discover your reson for living.

The vast majority of tweets were like this next one. It's not a big surprise that a majority of people find their reason for living in their relationships.
But what happens when the relationship ends? A frequently tweeted quote has the answer to that:
There are others on Twitter who, seriously or not, find their reason for living in trivial things:

And then there are the philosophical tweets:

The following series of tweets struck me, as J. Bocanegra contemplates the reason for living:

I certainly understand his conclusion. Writing is one of the primary things that gets me excited about life. I do indeed thank God I can write.

But writing cannot be my reason for living.

David was never on Twitter (although both he and Solomon would have rocked Twitter), but he did share his thoughts on the reason for living.
Be good to your servant so that I might live, that I may obey your word.

Psalm 119:17  
The first half of the verse is a prayer that is common to all people who have faith in God. It's similar to "give us this day our daily bread" in Jesus' model prayer. It expresses our most basic desire, that God will give us the good things we need in life. Indeed, as David puts it, the good things we need in order to live.

It's way to get sidetracked in our prayers, asking God for all kinds of things that will bless us beyond mere sustenance of life.

We want good weather. We want the car to keep going for another year. We want our kids to be happy. We want more mail or more cats.

But at the root of faith is reliance upon God's goodness to sustain life itself.

And, according to David in this verse, at the root of God's continued blessing of life itself is God's purpose for our continued life on earth.

That I may obey your word.

Try that on for size.

God does indeed bless us with loved ones who make our lives fuller and vocations that give us joy and with cats and mail and other simple pleasures.

But among all the blessings, the greatest thing He gives us is the opportunity to obey His Word.

Not the obligation to obey His Word or the necessity of obeying His Word but the opportunity.

Living a life focused on living according to His character, as reflected in His Word, is the best reason for living. And for dying.

Tuesday, September 26, 2017

Psalm 119:17-24 Being Me, For You

The day after the total eclipse in August 2017, everyone was talking about the experience. They talked about the corona, the darkness, the temperature change. But the one thing that surprised nearly everyone the most was the insects.

As darkness fell, the crickets and cicadas and other bugs did what bugs do at dusk: they chirped and squeaked and clicked and sang..

And people did what people do in such a situation.

They tried to make money off it, selling eclipse t-shirts, eclipse party and picnic paraphernalia, eclipse glasses (some of them cheap and dangerous rip-offs).

Others tried to control the eclipse and the way people experienced it. I'm still trying to understand why my local city organizations thought it made sense that everyone would think it necessary to battle traffic in order to congregate at a local park just to watch an event that was visible just by looking up from wherever you were.

Other people panicked, just like people panicked millenia ago when an eclipse was an unexpected and unexplained phenomenon. Except 21st century people panicked because they thought the crowd thronging to the area of totality would overwhelm the public infrastructure and cause the collapse of government and civilization as we know it.

As for me, I did the sort of thing that is typical for me. I tried to turn the experience into a reproduction of something I had read, to replicate experience of someone else.

Years ago I read Annie Dillard's essay, Total Eclipse. Because of that story, I knew I wanted to be somewhere that was wide open, so I could see everything that happened as the moment of totality approached.

The experience failed to be exactly like Dillard's, which should have been no surprise to me.

What I should have done was to be me. To do what I would do in such a situation.

I should have just sat in the front  yard with my wife and watched the eclipse. We live in a neighborhood nestled among a heavily wooded area. I wish now that I had been there to hear our own insects sing, to see if the owl that hangs out somewhere near our house would wake up and join the chorus.

I should have integrated the eclipse experience into the life I live for God every day.

I live in this world for God, not for myself, not to fit in with the flow of culture, not to pronounce my opinions about the way the world conducts itself, not to try to fit my experience into that of anyone else.

I am like the crickets, who were created to be crickets. A cricket praises God most when it does what God designed it to do.

Annie Dillard has another essay that says much the same about weasels and eagles.

I think it would be well, and proper, and obedient, and pure, to grasp your one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes you. Then even death, where you're going no matter how you live, cannot you part. Seize it and let it seize you up aloft even, till your eyes burn out and drop; let your musky flesh fall off in shreds, and let your very bones unhinge and scatter, loosened over fields, over fields and woods, lightly, thoughtless, from any height at all, from as high as eagles.

Living Like Weasels, Annie Dillard
Annie Dillard spent her eclipse day doing just that. She experienced the wonders of God's creation with her whole being. And then she did what a writer does, she wrote about it. It took her nearly two years to get it onto paper and publish those thoughts. That's what writers do..

God created me for a purpose, to grasp my one necessity and not let it go, to dangle from it limp wherever it takes me. .

I declare the glory of God; I am his handiworkDay after day I pour forth words that will either glorify or horrify my God; night after night He gives me opportunities to share with others the knowledge he has given me. 

ג Gimel
 17 Be good to your servant while I live,
that I may obey your word.
18 Open my eyes that I may seewonderful things in your law.
19 I am a stranger on earth;do not hide your commands from me.
20 My soul is consumed with longing
for your laws at all times.
21 You rebuke the arrogant, who are accursed,
those who stray from your commands.
22 Remove from me their scorn and contempt,
for I keep your statutes.
23 Though rulers sit together and slander me,
your servant will meditate on your decrees.
24 Your statutes are my delight;
they are my counselors.

Psalm 119:17-24

Friday, September 22, 2017

Psalm 119:16 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 119:15 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 119:15
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.