Psalm 14 – On the Significance of God

Statue of George Washington, outside the National Gallery, Washington D.C.

Godless fools say in their hearts,
“There is no God.”
They are corrupt.
They do disgusting things.
There is no one who does good things.
The Lord looks down from heaven on Adam’s descendants
to see if there is anyone who acts wisely,
if there is anyone who seeks help from God.
Everyone has turned away.
Together they have become rotten to the core.
No one, not even one person, does good things.
Are all those troublemakers,
those who devour my people as if they were devouring food,
so ignorant that they do not call on the Lord?
There they are—panic-stricken
because God is with the person who is righteous.
They put the advice of oppressed people to shame
because the Lord is their refuge.

If only salvation for Israel would come from Zion!
When the Lord restores the fortunes of his people,
Jacob will rejoice.
Israel will be glad
. (God’s Word Translation)

George Washington, first President of the United States, in his farewell address to the nation in 1796, constructed his encouragements to the American people on the basis of virtue. 

Only a virtuous people, Washington believed, could cause the American experiment to succeed among the family of nations. Virtue, for Washington, could only occur through the twin pillars of religion and morality. He stated:

“Observe good faith and justice towards all nations; cultivate peace and harmony with all. Religion and morality enjoin this conduct; and can it be, that good policy does not equally enjoin it – It will be worthy of a free, enlightened, and at no distant period, a great nation, to give to mankind the magnanimous and too novel example of a people always guided by an exalted justice and benevolence. Who can doubt that, in the course of time and things, the fruits of such a plan would richly repay any temporary advantages which might be lost by a steady adherence to it? Can it be that Providence has not connected the permanent felicity of a nation with its virtue? The experiment, at least, is recommended by every sentiment which ennobles human nature. Alas! is it rendered impossible by its vices?”

George Washington, Farewell Address, 1796

Washington was no fool. He understood that the guiding hand of Providence [God] was necessary to the flourishing of a free and happy people. 

Indeed, the ancient psalmist would agree. When humanity is untethered from their own deep spirituality, they become worthless, heartless, cruel and can rarely do right by others. 

Whatever Washington’s true personal sensibilities were about theology, he most certainly was convinced that belief in God along with the Scripture’s moral guidance were needed for a fledgling nation. The people’s ability to recognize and engraft religion into their lives would be a must for America.

Unmooring ourselves from the moral compass within us and forsaking the Creator leads to vice – whereas enjoining God and paying attention to the divine leads to virtue. 

It is not wise to ignore the God of all creation. From the psalmist’s perspective, through daily attentiveness and devotion to the Lord, moral and ethical ways can take root and produce justice, reconciliation, and peace.

Sovereign God, you rule the nations through your wise and benevolent reign. Help me to participate with you in your grand kingdom enterprise so that I can make decisions consistent with true morality, for the sake of Jesus, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

John 4:31-38 – Real Food

Meanwhile his disciples urged him, “Rabbi, eat something.”

But he said to them, “I have food to eat that you know nothing about.”

Then his disciples said to each other, “Could someone have brought him food?”

“My food,” said Jesus, “is to do the will of him who sent me and to finish his work. Don’t you have a saying, ‘It’s still four months until harvest’? I tell you, open your eyes and look at the fields! They are ripe for harvest. Even now the one who reaps draws a wage and harvests a crop for eternal life, so that the sower and the reaper may be glad together. Thus, the saying ‘One sows, and another reaps’ is true. I sent you to reap what you have not worked for. Others have done the hard work, and you have reaped the benefits of their labor.” (New International Version)

Today’s Gospel narrative reads something like the stereotypical mother concerned for her son saying, “Sit down and eat some of Mama’s pasta. You need some food!” As if preparing and serving a meal will make everything better.

Food has both the power to bring us together, as well as separate us. A meal can create the conditions for fellowship, acceptance, and enjoyment. Eating can bond people together through hospitable love. On the other hand, sitting down to eat can also be a way to avoid painful emotions. In this manner, eating becomes an obstacle to giving and receiving love.

It seems Christ’s disciples were doing the latter. They were uncomfortable and perhaps a bit stressed. Looking to fill up with food instead of with God, the disciples’ sense of unfulfillment was coming out sideways by opening the refrigerator, poking through the meager leftovers, and putting the emphasis on feeling better.

I know we can be hard on the disciples in the Gospels. Their ups and downs from faith to fear and back to faith again can be weird. Yet, through it all, I believe their hearts (excepting Judas Iscariot) were in the right place.

Jesus could see through the entire scenario and put the focus off eating. He addressed the disciples’ soul hunger through putting the spotlight on doing the will of God. Deep within they were hungering and thirsting for righteousness.

Paying attention to our vocation and discovering our humble work in the service of God, rather than a vacation to the pantry to cover our unwanted feelings, is the essence of Christ’s interaction with his disciples.

People are much more ready for the gospel of Jesus than we think. There are times we can become so insular, and lost within our own heads, that we are then unable to see the world as ripe for a harvest of people who are actually eager to be gathered into the community of the redeemed.

Jesus just had a significant interaction with the Samaritan woman. Back in that day, you just didn’t have dialogues with half-breed Samaritans – an unholy mix of Jewish and hated ancient Assyrian Gentile blood – let alone a man talking with a woman of disrepute who experienced several failed marriages.

Christ had a way of doing the will of God, despite conventional thinking of the time. And a lot of people got their undies in a bundle from it. The disciples, having a front seat to most of Christ’s shenanigans, did a few too many palms to the forehead, believing their Rabbi’s un-orthopraxis was going to make him unpopular. They feared no one would follow him.

Looks like the disciples didn’t quite get that one right.

The Samaritan woman received Jesus as Living Water, having her ultimate needs met by the penultimate Lord of all. The disciples hadn’t quite caught up to this, so fell back on their old ways of physical food and drink to assuage the weirdness happening inside them.

The woman was gushing over with Living Water, becoming a wellspring of good news to her community. Whereas the disciples (eventually becoming an incredible fountain of the gospel after Christ’s death and resurrection) are here nothing but an annoying drip from the kitchen faucet.

A non-descript ethnically suspect woman of dubious character coming to faith was meant by Jesus to open the disciples’ eyes to a new reality: The good news of Christ is meant for the world, not just Jewish men.

The disciples were given the opportunity to participate in the world’s takeover – a mission of bringing the love of God where love wasn’t present, of helping all kinds of people awaken to the deep spirituality within them, of lifting their downcast faces of guilt and shame to see the Living God wanting to bless the world with the body and blood of Jesus.

For this is real food and real drink.

Many believers in Jesus today think they are working hard for the Lord by seeking people for their churches. Yet, the real work is being done by the triune God – the heavenly Father who scans the world and seeks spiritual misfits to bless; the gracious and truthful Son who put hands and feet to that blessing; and the wild Holy Spirit who moves in unpredictable ways – are working infinitely harder for our churches, our families, our neighborhoods, and our world.

All of our work, no matter how big or small, is made possible by the pre-work of the Holy Trinity. The great Three-in-One has done all the preparations of chopping the onions, mincing the garlic, slicing the carrots, and peeling the potatoes so that we, his followers, can make a savory stew of diverse people sharing a common pot of God’s love and hospitality.

This is the food we know nothing about, and that God knows intimately.

O God, you made us in your own image, and you have redeemed us through your Son Jesus Christ: Look with compassion on the whole human family; take away the arrogance and hatred which infect our hearts; break down the walls that separate us; unite us in bonds of love; and work through our struggle and confusion to accomplish your purposes on earth; that, in your good time, all nations and races may serve you in harmony around your heavenly throne; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

*Above painting: Ethiopian Orthodox Church depiction of the Last Supper

Psalm 68:24-35 – A Mighty God Who Rides the Skies

O God, your march of triumph is seen by all,
    the procession of God, my king, into his sanctuary.
The singers are in front, the musicians are behind,
    in between are the young women beating the tambourines.
“Praise God in the meeting of his people;
    praise the Lord, all you descendants of Jacob!”
First comes Benjamin, the smallest tribe,
    then the leaders of Judah with their group,
    followed by the leaders of Zebulun and Naphtali.

Show your power, O God,
    the power you have used on our behalf
    from your Temple in Jerusalem,
    where kings bring gifts to you.
Rebuke Egypt, that wild animal in the reeds;
    rebuke the nations, that herd of bulls with their calves,
    until they all bow down and offer you their silver.
Scatter those people who love to make war!
Ambassadors will come from Egypt;
    the Ethiopians will raise their hands in prayer to God.

Sing to God, kingdoms of the world,
    sing praise to the Lord,
    to him who rides in the sky,
    the ancient sky.
Listen to him shout with a mighty roar.
Proclaim God’s power;
    his majesty is over Israel,
    his might is in the skies.
How awesome is God as he comes from his sanctuary—
    the God of Israel!
He gives strength and power to his people.

Praise God! (Good News Translation)

The biblical psalms are uniform in praising God for God’s inherent character and for how that character acts in the world.

Since God is an infinitely immense Being, our human language cannot begin to adequately contain or describe such divinity. Yet, words are what we have for trying to communicate the attributes of such an incredible and awesome God.

This is why the use of metaphors is significant. Whenever we can picture something we are familiar with, then imaginatively place God alongside it, it helps give us at least a rudimentary idea and feeling of who this God is, what this God is all about.

To gain a glimpse of God’s majesty and sovereignty over the universe, we are invited to see with our spiritual eyes, God riding the sky; to hear with our spiritual ears the thunderous shout which roars and reverberates throughout the cosmos.

We are also invited to respond to what we see and hear by using our power of words and speech to proclaim God’s power. And that power is well beyond our ability to describe. With all of the powerful forces in this world, they are but a mere puff of breath to the God who reigns supreme over all powers, both in heaven and on earth. God’s power is a thunderous beauty. God’s splendor and strength rise larger than thunderheads.

Having grown up in Midwest America, I’ve seen my share of large thunderheads (massive cumulus clouds which form just before a storm), thunderstorms replete with bright lightning and noise so awesome it shakes the farmhouse, and tornados with such force that they rip the roof off a barn as if it were a Lego building.

And God is bigger than that – stronger, louder, and brighter.

The appropriate response to such a God is to make music for the one who strides the ancient skies in a heavenly chariot yet stoops to listen and care about puny humans.

The reasonable response to such a God is to listen to the divine voice thundering in the world and submit to the sound which seems like it might split the heavens open.

To gain a mere glimpse of God’s strength and power will inevitably result in a response of giving up our all to the Lord of the universe, everything we have, and all that we are.

To know, even a tiny smidgeon, of such a God will bring our own loud shouts of proclaiming God’s goodness, grace, and generosity to anyone who will listen to us.

To glimpse what the psalmist sees will consume us with awe, as we intuitively connect with the glory which is constantly streaming from heaven.

God shares divine strength with people. God doesn’t have to do that. The Lord has no obligation to do so. Yet, it happens, despite our fickle praise and inconsistent devotion.

So, let’s give our highest praise to the God of the psalms. Let’s imbibe of God’s thunderous presence among us.

Then, we will likely be happier than a gopher in soft dirt; or a butcher’s dog; or a unicorn eating cake on a rainbow.

Eternal Trinity – blessed Father, Son, and Spirit – the awesome God whom I serve: The more I enter you, the more I discover, and the more I discover, the more I seek you. A massive thunderhead is but a small cloud next to you, the Godhead, the incredible Three-in-One.

Through you, almighty Lord, I shall come to know myself and my world. And that knowledge is a mighty love for humanity which spans longer and higher than the universe itself. May the love, unity, harmony, community, goodness, and power which is always present within yourself, mighty God, be present with me, your servant.

For just a molecule of You is enough to power me for eternity. Amen.

*Above photo by Moritz Bu00f6ing on Pexels.com

Colossians 4:2-18 – The Christian Life as Its Meant To Be Lived

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful. And pray for us, too, that God may open a door for our message, so that we may proclaim the mystery of Christ, for which I am in chains. Pray that I may proclaim it clearly, as I should. Be wise in the way you act toward outsiders; make the most of every opportunity. Let your conversation be always full of grace, seasoned with salt, so that you may know how to answer everyone.

Tychicus will tell you all the news about me. He is a dear brother, a faithful minister and fellow servant in the Lord. I am sending him to you for the express purpose that you may know about our circumstances and that he may encourage your hearts. He is coming with Onesimus, our faithful and dear brother, who is one of you. They will tell you everything that is happening here.

My fellow prisoner Aristarchus sends you his greetings, as does Mark, the cousin of Barnabas. (You have received instructions about him; if he comes to you, welcome him.) Jesus, who is called Justus, also sends greetings. These are the only Jews among my co-workers for the kingdom of God, and they have proved a comfort to me. Epaphras, who is one of you and a servant of Christ Jesus, sends greetings. He is always wrestling in prayer for you, that you may stand firm in all the will of God, mature and fully assured. I vouch for him that he is working hard for you and for those at Laodicea and Hierapolis. Our dear friend Luke, the doctor, and Demas send greetings. Give my greetings to the brothers and sisters at Laodicea, and to Nympha and the church in her house.

After this letter has been read to you, see that it is also read in the church of the Laodiceans and that you in turn read the letter from Laodicea.

Tell Archippus: “See to it that you complete the ministry you have received in the Lord.”

I, Paul, write this greeting in my own hand. Remember my chains. Grace be with you. (New International Version)

Every church has its problems. Much like individual believers, each faith community has its own character and personality – which makes their particular issues unique to them.

The Apostle Paul wrote his letter to the church in the ancient city of Colossae to address an issue which was weighing on his heart.

Broadly speaking, the problem of the church was legalism. That is, boiling down and condensing the Christian life into spiritual rules to live by. Although, on the surface, that may not sound so terrible, for Paul it was damaging to Christianity.

Whenever anyone or any group of people systematize Christianity into a list, it is a fool’s errand. Let’s face it: the worship of God, and thus the Christian life, is, for the most part, ethereal and mysterious. Throughout church history there have been legions of folks who have attempted to nail down Christianity into laws we can clearly see and hold people accountable to.

Whether it is making human contrived lists of sins to avoid and codifying them as something like the Terrible Ten or the Nasty Nine; or whether it is trying to humanly comprehend salvation in a tidy Five Spiritual Laws or Basic Principles for Life – all this predilection for list-making does nothing but discourage the Christian heart and divide one another about things that just don’t matter.

Paul wanted all his churches to be encouraged and united in the love of God in Christ through the enablement of the Holy Spirit. This requires prayer – lots of it! Because we must live by faith, trusting God for each step to take in the Christian life, rather than relying on the list to tell me what to do.

So, that’s why Paul ended his letter to the church on a note exhorting the people to never give up praying.

“Prayer enlarges the heart until it is capable of Containing God’s gift of himself.”

Mother Teresa (1910-1997)

Devoting ourselves to prayer means that we will need to quit devoting ourselves to something else – namely, the nice, neat, packaged formula of do’s and don’ts on the list. Paul didn’t just want the people to adopt a different list; he wanted all the lists tossed into hell!

Instead of always trying to control outcomes, Paul wanted perseverance in prayer without knowing what the result and outcome would be. His deep desire was that believers would rely on God and the mystery of Christ. He longed for the church to pray with all their doubts and uncertainties – not believing they always needed sure answers for everything.

The Christian life cannot be made into some geeky algorithm so that we can avoid suffering, know all the right things to say in a conversation, and always keep God happy. God is not some algebra equation to figure out. He is not a gumball machine to put a quarter in and get what you want. He is not Santa God. 

Christianity requires living in the tension of not knowing everything and yet having cogent answers for others who inquire about our faith.  It is a dynamic relationship in which we must continually interact in prayer to God as we largely improvise our lives, spontaneously applying what understanding we have for each situation we face.

“The whole reason why we pray is to be united into the vision and contemplation of God to whom we pray.”

Julian of Norwich (1342-c.1416)

Christians need an ongoing dialogue with the God who answers in his own good time, according to his own good will. We are to make good use of the time God has given through choosing our words with others wisely as we simultaneously carry on a silent prayer conversation with God. This is a Christianity that’s far above rules and laws and checklists. It is Christianity as it’s meant to be lived, depending on Jesus, and relaxed in the Spirit.

This takes practice, practice, practice. Failure is both inevitable and expected. And that’s okay. We’re not living by lists and human contrived rules. We’re living a new life in the power of Christ’s resurrection.

God of Mystery, the One who conceals and reveals, forgive me for my attempts at reducing faith to a few spiritual rules to keep. Help me to speak in ways which are gracious, loving, and redemptive. May the person and work of Jesus come tumbling out of my mouth while I inhale the breath of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

*Above paintings of prayer by African artist Angu Walters