Psalm 28 – To Be, or Not to Be

David pelted with stones
David being pelted with stones, by unknown Slovakian artist, 1937

I cry out to you, Lord.
You are my rock; don’t refuse to hear me.
If you won’t talk to me,
I’ll be just like those going down to the pit.
Listen to my request for mercy when I cry out to you,
when I lift up my hands to your holy inner sanctuary.
Don’t drag me off with the wicked and those who do evil;
the type who talk nice to their friends
while evil thoughts are in their hearts!
Pay them back for what they’ve done!
Pay them back for their evil deeds!
Pay them back for their handiwork!
Give back to them exactly what they deserve!
Because they have no regard for what the Lord has done,
no regard for his handiwork,
God will tear them down and never rebuild!

Bless the Lord
because he has listened to my request for mercy!
The Lord is my strength and my shield.
My heart trusts him.
I was helped, my heart rejoiced,
and I thank him with my song.
The Lord is his people’s strength;
he is a fortress of protection for his anointed one.
Save your people, God!
Bless your possession!
Shepherd them and carry them for all time! (CEB)

The biblical character David, in frustration and agony, cried out for help, for God to hear his prayers. And, when his prayer was heard, David gave exuberant praise to the Lord for listening to him. We are not told specifically of how that prayer was answered and what happened between the request and the response. It seems the juicy details are left out on purpose, so that maybe we would not get lost in the retribution but stick with the fact that there was a desperate need and the Lord stepped in and did something about it.

As I pondered this psalm and its lack of life-detail, I wondered about David’s situation: Could it be that David gave God praise just for being heard by him?  Was David cured in some way, or was he healed from the need to be healed?  Was there even any actual deliverance that occurred?  Did David come to praise God despite a lack of deliverance?  Was David’s joy in his relationship with God conditional, or unconditional?

Hamlet
Hamlet, played by actor Matt Amendt in the Pittsburgh Public Theater, 2018

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c.1601 C.E.) put the question this way: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Hamlet’s soliloquy went on to say:

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance, to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin (knitting needle)?”

Hamlet, much like David of old, was miserable and burdened with a profound lack of power to change his circumstances. So, he reflects on life and death in a morbid and melancholy way. It is not that Hamlet was contemplating suicide as much as he meditated on what life truly is and finding some meaning within it. Unlike David, Hamlet cannot find the courage to deal with his frustration and feels stymied with fear of the unknown.

If we are blatantly honest with ourselves, we must admit that far too often we have a particular outcome in mind for God to do.  Our hopes and expectations are tethered to God doing something extremely specific so that, if it does not come to pass (or does not come quickly!) we become discouraged and disillusioned. Like Hamlet, we become lost in the shadows of our thinking and ponder some sort of escape.

So, here is another set of questions I am asking myself: If my adverse circumstances do not change, can I praise God anyway?  Can I, like David, take joy in simply being heard?  Can I find gratitude in all situations?  Do I only express thanks and praise to God when things are going my way?  Am I open to whatever God wants to do in my life, even if it is not what I would choose?  Do I feel that I am above having to put up with the wickedness of this world?  Am I expecting heaven on earth, or am I willing to suffer as Jesus did?

I honestly believe the answers to those questions will determine the trajectory of our Christian experience. For the identity and meaning of all persons is found in the divine.

I praise you, O God, in the good and the bad, the easy and the difficult, the failures and the victories.  You are Lord over all things.  You are my strength and shield in every circumstance.  When I am weak, I am strong. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  Amen.

Matthew 14:22-33 – Walking on Water?

Welcome, friends! Click the video below and let’s have a time together around God’s Word.

You may also view this video at TimEhrhardtYouTube

For a classic hymn on God’s peace, click Like a River Glorious by Stonebriar Music.

For a contemporary song based on today’s story, click Walking on Water by the group NeedToBreathe.

May Christ dwell in your heart through faith, now and always. Amen.

Walking on Water?

The Sinking of the Apostle Peter by Julia Stankova
The Sinking of the Apostle Peter by Julia Stankova, 2006

The New Testament Gospels of Matthew, Mark, Luke, and John allow us to see Jesus for who he really is: The Son of God, the true King of the universe who seeks to reconcile people to God through his life, miracles, and teaching.  The Gospels also allow us to see the disciples of Jesus for who they really are: A rag-tag bunch who express both belief and doubt, and experience both faith and failure.

The reality of the Christian life is that it is often a herky-jerky three-steps-forward and two-steps-backward kind of experience. An expectation that we will “succeed” and have everything go well every time we try something by stepping out in faith is way out of step with how things work in both this world and in the kingdom of God. It would be a bit like a basketball player expecting to make every free throw attempt – and if they cannot do it, they refuse to even try.

Doubt and failure are important experiences for the believer in Jesus Christ.  Without failure, there is no Christian life. Never failing means we have not tried – we are still in the boat, having never left the safety of established routines and responded to God’s command to come, leave your comfort zone, and enter the scary world of kingdom living.

Our failures may sometimes, like the disciple Peter, be colossal belly-flops. Yet, the story of Peter getting out of the boat and walking on the water and becoming overcome with the waves is just as much or more about Jesus (Matthew 14:22-33).  Christ extended grace to Peter and helped him, even in his failure of faith.  Therefore, our failures do not need to define us.  Jesus is Lord over the water, the storms, and of everything – including our own hardship and trouble.

Yes, there are a lot of scary things in life.  Learning to ride a bike is scary.  Driving for the first time on an icy road is scary.  Getting married and having kids is scary.  Admitting an addiction or unethical behavior is scary.  Sharing the innermost thoughts with a friend is scary.  It is scary just to be in this world.  It can even be scary to be at church!  It is all scary because we might fail, and the failure, we reason and worry about, might crush us.

However, the fear of failure need not control our lives because grace overcomes everything.  We all find ourselves, at times, caught midway between faith and doubt. Yet, to know this situation is to experience grace.  If the worst scenario you worry about in your head would actually come to pass, it will still never change the reality that God loves you!  And it will not stop Jesus from extending his hand to you in a life-saving grip of grace.

Jesus Saving Peter by Bertram Poole
Jesus Saving Peter by Bertram Poole, 2012

Fear only melts away when we keep our eyes on Jesus. Christ is the polestar whom we must center our lives, instead of focusing on the waves around us. The truth sets us free, so, take note of the following truths about Jesus that will help us overcome the fear of failure and embrace a life of faith.

Jesus is a person of prayer (Matthew 14:22-24).

Jesus, the Son of God, was deeply dependent on his heavenly Father.  His life exhibited the necessities of simple prayer and obedience.  If Jesus found the need for solitude and prayer in his life and ministry, how much more to we need it!?

Jesus made the disciples get into the boat and go out on the lake.  As Lord of the elements, he knew very well they were about to face a storm.  Sure enough, the storm clouds gathered, and the boat got thrown around by the waves.  Even though the disciples were doing God’s will by going out on the lake, they were not spared from the adversity.  In fact, Jesus wanted them to experience the storm because it is through the storm that we really learn faith.

Faith is a muscle which requires continual use. Through stressful and vigorous exercise, there is a breaking down of muscle tissue and tearing of muscle fibers which leaves the body in need of rest and recuperation. It is through this process of healing that the muscles grow and are strengthened. Muscles which do not experience this type of stress become useless and eventually atrophy.  Show me a person of great faith, and I’ll show you a person who has gone through a boat load of adversity and hurt, having allowed Jesus to grace them with healing.

There is no shame in either being hurt and/or admitting failure. Where there is shame, our instinct is to run away much like our ancestors Adam and Eve. We can try and hide from the shame, but we will end up hiding ourselves from the grace that could be ours through the Body of Christ.  Grace is free, not cheap – it is accessed by the humility of confession.

Jesus is present with us, bringing an end to fear (Matthew 14:25-27).

Although on the middle of a lake during a storm, Jesus was still present with the disciples. Adverse weather was no problem for Jesus – he just walked on the water to be with them.  Even though the disciples had just seen and participated in the miracle of Jesus feeding the five thousand, they were not looking for another miracle. Maybe that is why they did not recognize Jesus and were afraid when they saw him.

The disciples’ expectations of Jesus were far too low! Sometimes when we are afraid, we fail to see Jesus, even when he is right in front of our faces. We just do not expect him to be there. When the disciples cried out in fear, Jesus responded. I used to work at a factory where I trained people in their jobs. When the training was finished, I had the trainees evaluate our time together. The top response I received from most of them is that it was my presence that helped them to learn their job – the ability to fail time and time again. And having me there to rescue them when things got overwhelming eventually built faith that they could do it on their own.

Jesus wants those who follow him to imitate him (Matthew 14:28-31).

Jesus walked on water.  Jesus invited Peter to walk on water.  We are to do what Jesus did.  Notice that Peter is not chided by Jesus for getting out of the boat but for doubting that he could continue in the miracle that was happening.  Jesus wants more than a regurgitation or parroting of his teaching; he wants us to exercise that learning through actual deeds of faith.  Once the command of Jesus was given to “come” then walking on water became nothing more than a matter of trust. Christianity is more than a set of doctrines to believe; it is a powerful reality to be live into.

“Christianity has not been tried and found wanting. It has been found difficult and left untried.” –G.K. Chesterton

We understandably get nervous when a crazy Jesus and an unpredictable Holy Spirit call us to get out of the friendly confines of the boat.  After all, we might fail.  However, it is in such times we bank on the Word of God and the promises of God.

The Apostle James said that if we find ourselves lacking wisdom to deal with the unpredictable and unknowable that we are to ask God who gives generously to all without finding fault and will be given to them (James 1:5).

Peter responded to his sinking situation by crying out to Jesus, “Lord, save me!”  Jesus immediately reached out and saved Peter from his own doubt and lack of faith.  Jesus called Peter a “little-faith.” Many people have lived too long with the notion that God is some stern angry deity who is constantly displeased with his sinful people, and that only through perfection will he ever be happy with us.  The truth is that Jesus wants us to imitate him; and, when we fail, he is there to pick us up.

Jesus has the authority to settle the storm when he is good and ready to do it (Matthew 14:32).

Jesus is the King of the universe and the Sovereign of the world.  He will bring the crisis to an end according to his own good pleasure and in his own good timing.  Rather than spending all our emotional capital by worrying or conniving to get out of a situation, we need to trust God and keep our eyes on Jesus. Our job is trust; God’s job is everything else.

Jesus’ power led the disciples to acknowledge who he is (Matthew 14:33).

Worship happens when we see Jesus as he really is, the Son of God.  Flat, dull, boring worship comes from flat, dull, boring Christians who are unable to see the power of Jesus in their lives. And the way we know the power of God is when we are in a situation which requires God’s strength to deliver us. Grasping Jesus as the Son of God is more than a verbal confession of faith; it is being able to trust him, like getting out of a boat in the middle of a lake.

We are to live by faith in the Son of God who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:20). It does not require much faith to pray that Aunt Mable’s bunions will feel better. It only requires a little faith to give a dollar when you have ten dollars. It takes no faith to discuss the weather and steer clear of hard conversations.

However, it does require faith to pray for a miraculous healing every day without giving up for a little boy who is racked by epilepsy, and trust God to spare his life. It does require faith to write a check for $100 to someone in need when you have exactly $100 in your checking account, and you must trust God to provide for you own necessities.  It does require faith to deviate from the routine schedule to have a difficult discussion about race. It does require faith to act on Christ’s teachings.  It does require faith to live as though the mission of God in this world is the most important thing we could ever do.

It would be nice for me say that if you live by faith in the Son of God that you will never fail, but that would be lying.  The only way of not failing is not living life, and not exercising faith.  It would be great if we could pray and act without ever doubting, yet the only way to avoid doubt is to not believe.

So, may we embrace the life that is truly life by stepping out of the boat.  May Jesus define our lives instead of letting failure define us.  May we accept the grace that is ours in Jesus Christ our Lord.

Matthew 16:1-4 – Interpreting Jesus

Christ the Ruler 400 C.E.
Christ the Ruler, from the Santa Pundenziana Basillica in Rome, c.400 C.E.

The Pharisees and Sadducees came to Jesus and tested him by asking him to show them a sign from heaven.

He replied, “When evening comes, you say, ‘It will be fair weather, for the sky is red,’ and in the morning, ‘Today it will be stormy, for the sky is red and overcast.’ You know how to interpret the appearance of the sky, but you cannot interpret the signs of the times. A wicked and adulterous generation looks for a sign, but none will be given it except the sign of Jonah.” Jesus then left them and went away. (NIV)

It is a mystery that two persons who come from the same family, have the same training and experiences, can take such different perspectives on God, and go in completely different directions in their lives. Maybe it is not so much about shared events and circumstances as it is about how those experiences are interpreted by each person.  One gives herself to God, the other doesn’t. I believe the fulcrum of history rests on the person and work of Jesus Christ. In saying that, I just offered an interpretation of Christ which many people do not share.

We all have our slant and analysis of Jesus and his ministry in some way. Everyone has epistemic assumptions and metaphysical presuppositions which inform the way they look at the world, and how they discern Jesus.

The Jewish sects of the Pharisees and Sadducees in the ancient world took a different metaphysical spin on Christ’s ministry than did his disciples. The two groups were skeptical and wanted incontrovertible evidence of Messiah credentials from Jesus in the form of a sign.

It is important to note about the Pharisees and the Sadducees that they came from opposite ends of the political and theological spectrum.  The Pharisees were the Jewish conservatives, greatly concerned for Scripture and tradition. The Sadducees, on the other hand, were the liberals of their day, much more concerned with the Temple sacrifices and controlling all aspects of Jewish worship.  Most of the priests in the first century were Sadducees, whereas most of the scribes (who copied the Scriptures) were Pharisees.  They did not see eye to eye on much of anything, except Jesus.

To them Jesus was an untrained, sinner-loving, non-Temple endorsed teacher from lowly Nazareth who could not possibly be the Messiah.  The Pharisees did not like how Jesus handled the Torah; and, the Sadducees didn’t like all the nonsense Jesus was spouting about identifying himself as the true Temple.  In short, Jesus was a threat to the status quo.

So, they “tested” him, that is, they tried to tempt and trap Jesus into giving them a sign – they wanted him to do something dramatic to prove his credentials as Messiah. Just as Satan tempted Jesus to jump from the Temple and demonstrate he is Super Messiah, so the Pharisees and Sadducees asked for something that Jesus would not give them.

Instead, Jesus let them know they completely misinterpreted who he is and what he is doing. In fact, Jesus said they have all the evidence they need with the prophet Jonah.  Just as Jonah was three days and three nights in the belly of the great fish, so Jesus would be three days and three nights in the belly of the earth.  Just as Jonah would rise from certain death, so Jesus would rise again.

Jesus insisted they needed to rightly decipher and act on the evidence they already had – which raises (pun intended) some critical questions for us, as well: Are we searching for something more than Christ’s resurrection?  Are we looking for some sign or some more information before we will act?  Do we think we need a class on spiritual gifts before we can serve?  Are we obsessed with how to do any kind of ministry or mission, instead of satisfaction with knowing what it is we are to do?

No further sign is given because we already have the redemption of Jesus, the Holy Spirit, and the Word of God.  We have everything we need to do the will of God.  So, we must discern our situation appropriately and cease believing we need all the answers to God, Jesus, the Bible, and Christian ministry.

It is imperative we go out and be missional people with an action/reflection model of obeying what we already know and then reflecting on it so we can go back out and do it again better. For the best interpretations come from a lived experience of putting our metaphysical notions into practice and trying them on for size – and finding that Jesus is enough.

Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Spirit, as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, world without end. Amen.