Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord, the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.
The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees all humankind. From where he sits enthroned he watches all the inhabitants of the earth— he who fashions the hearts of them all, and observes all their deeds. A king is not saved by his great army; a warrior is not delivered by his great strength. The war horse is a vain hope for victory, and by its great might it cannot save.
Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him, on those who hope in his steadfast love, to deliver their soul from death, and to keep them alive in famine.
Our soul waits for the Lord; he is our help and shield. Our heart is glad in him, because we trust in his holy name. Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us, even as we hope in you. (NRSV)
God is in control of the world, and I am not. Although the myth of self-sufficiency and self-reliance thoroughly permeates individualist societies, this in no way lessens the transcendence of a big God. In today’s psalm, the scene of God looking down from heaven portrays him as above all, firmly in control, yet, attentive to all that is happening on the earth. Individual human creatures subscribing to a narrative of personal independence will inevitably run into the Creator God.
Our success may give us the illusion that our own strength, intelligence, and/or ingenuity has brought us the good things we possess – not God. “I worked hard for my money and I will do whatever I want with it,” and the even more crass, “It wasn’t God who put food on my table,” are just a few of the power delusions I have heard from others, as if personal accomplishments are unconnected to any other force in the universe.
In addition, our lack of success may also cause us to pause and wonder if God is really observing all our deeds, or not. Perhaps he is reclining in his La-z-God chair and watching old baseball game replays of the Angels. More likely, we have become so expectant of satisfactory service and immediate results as consumers in a capitalist culture that we fail to discern the virtue of patience – that God is not slow in keeping his promises as some would understand it.
The bald fact of the matter is that we need God. What’s more, God feels no compulsion from us to be hurried along in his purposes for humanity. Since God is the divine gravity in this world, the only way of realizing the good life is to conform ourselves to him, and not the other way around.
When we learn to exercise the inherent gifts of hope and patience which a gracious God has fashioned in our hearts, then we begin to discover persevering trust, enduring happiness, a settled sense of gladness, and steadfast love. We awaken to the true passion of God for us. Rather than a capricious or indifferent deity, the Lord God looks upon us with endearing faithfulness. In short, God’s heart is forever drawn to us. Therefore, we need not attempt to take all matters into our own hands, as if we are alone in the world. If we can see a vision of God high and lifted-up, observing us with a gaze of delight, then our spirits open to mercy and we find grace to help us in our time of need. The prophet Zephaniah allows us a glimpse into God’s feelings for us:
The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory.He will create calm with his love;he will rejoice over you with singing.(Zephaniah 3:17, CEB)
God labors on our behalf. God has our backs. God establishes a safe environment for us. And, we must never forget: God delights in you so much that – this very minute – he is singing songs of joy over you. For trust and hope cannot be coerced by another or willed into being by the mind; it can only be generated through the deep conviction of God’s broad love for you and me.
The best self-help program I know of is not self-help at all – it is the self-care of opening to a loving God and allowing God’s joy and delight to fill us. God is watching us, and it is the gaze of adoration, not condemnation.
Dear God, the One who watches all, love comes from you. Anyone who loves is your child and knows you. And anyone who does not love does not know you, for God is love. Thank you for showing me love by sending your one and only Son into the world so that I might have eternal life through him. Dear God, since you loved me that much, I surely ought to love others. May you live in me and may the love of Jesus be brought to full expression in me through the power of the Spirit. Amen.
You were dead through the trespasses and sinsin which you once lived, following the course of this world, following the ruler of the power of the air, the spirit that is now at work among those who are disobedient. All of us once lived among them in the passions of our flesh, following the desires of flesh and senses, and we were by nature children of wrath, like everyone else. But God, who is rich in mercy, out of the great love with which he loved us even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ—by grace you have been saved— and raised us up with him and seated us with him in the heavenly places in Christ Jesus, so that in the ages to come he might show the immeasurable riches of his grace in kindness toward us in Christ Jesus. (NRSV)
In the wake of recognizing and remembering Ascension Day, Christ’s ascension to heaven, we must linger a bit with the implications of that great redemptive event for us. Today’s New Testament lesson from the letter to the Ephesians is a wondrous place to do some holy loitering.
The Apostle Paul wrote to the Ephesian church and gave them a theological explanation of their true position as Christians. They were once located in the realm darkness, the place of disobedience and selfishness. Now, however, as believers in Jesus Christ, they have been relocated to the realm of light, the place of love and kindness. This major relocation project is the direct effort of God’s merciful initiative. Jesus descended in his incarnation and lived at the garbage dump with us. Christ’s life and death delivered us from that putrid existence. Jesus ascended to heaven. He did not leave us in the dump.
The rich theology which Paul expresses to the Ephesians is so robust that he makes up new words just to try and communicate it. Through God’s gracious action he “made us alive together with Christ,” “raised us up with him,” and “seated us with him in the heavenly places.” Paul took words and smashed them together to create new compound words to try and communicate the amazing reality of the Christian’s position in Jesus Christ. In English, we need to use several words to translate Paul’s original compound words.
Paul used new words because he was expressing a new reality. Ascension is more than Christ’s own – he, spiritually, takes us with him. We belong with him. Our union, our intimacy, with Jesus is so vitally connected that what happens with Jesus happens with us. With Jesus as the Head of the Church, and we as the Body of Christ, there is absolutely no separation between the two.
The implications of this understanding are tectonic:
Since God’s action was done out of love, our spiritual DNA has love written all over it. We no longer feel as if we must manipulate, cajole, or twist arms to be noticed and have our needs met.
Since God is rich in mercy, we have a new place to live – with Christ – and no longer hang out in the shame lounge drinking cheap wine and smoking nasty cigars.
Since God has given us new life in Christ, we are aware of our position and now can deliberately choose to participate with him in a mind-blowing, gut-busting, heart-exploding divine/human adventure beyond what we could ever have imagined. We no longer are in the position to create selfish agendas and ignore the common good of all humanity.
Since God has picked us up, cleaned us up, and sat us down next to Jesus, we have a front row seat to the triune God showing kindness to us and so many others. We no longer have a truncated worldview which sees only pain and heartbreak.
Since God has orchestrated deliverance from the old life; since Christ has achieved that deliverance for us; and, since the Spirit has awakened us – we now have a new life thoroughly imbibed with the medicine of faith, the healing power of hope, and the elixir of love. With grace binding our lives together with God, no more judging, blaming, shaming, nor hating need occur anymore.
Since we belong to God, we enjoy all the love of the Father, the mercy of the Son, and the vigor of the Holy Spirit. We have risen above all the terrible muck of sin and given a new place to live. Since Jesus ascended, we ascend with him. Praise be to God!
As people, we live into who we believe we are. We are the precious children of God, redeemed and adopted into a divine family. May we live up to our position in Jesus Christ.
Almighty and merciful God, in your goodness keep me, I pray, from returning to the pig pen of an old life. May I be ready in both body and soul to freely choose things which belong to your purposes of love; through Jesus Christ my Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
“If you love me, you will obey what I command,” (John 14:15)
my thoughts kept coming back to a dear friend of mine. In the Fall of 1992, Wesley was on his deathbed in an Iowa hospital. At the time, I was pastoring a small Michigan congregation and was able to take some time off to go and be with him. I was there for a week, spending my days at the hospital and only leaving his room to sleep for the night. It was my habit to rise about 5:00am and make my way to Wesley’s room where we would spend some quiet unhindered time with each other for a few hours before family members arrived. Wesley was deathly ill and could barely communicate anything above a whisper. Yet, those hours with him were incredible times of spiritual bonding and true Christian friendship.
You see, what was so amazing about my relationship with Wesley is that only a year before, he and I had a strained, difficult, and awkward relationship as he was about as far from God as anyone could be and did not want much to do with a Pastor. Yet, in a matter of a few months, we had become devoted to one another as brothers. Through a series of circumstances that I ascribe as God’s gracious hand, Wesley embraced a spiritual life that was as rich and full as I have ever seen (that is a story for another time). Now, as I sat with him six months later, Wesley was at the edge of his life.
During that week, I watched in the background as day after day, friend after friend, and relative after relative came into Wesley’s room to visit him for the last time. The majority were much like Wesley before he wholeheartedly followed the love of Christ – having made a profession of faith as children, they had long since outgrew their Sunday School belief. With each person, as frail as Wesley was, barely able to lift an arm more than a few inches, he would grab a hold, pull them close and say into their ear: “Look at me! I am dying. Is this how you want to end up?” And then he said to every one of them: “If you are really a Christian and love Jesus, obey him and live your life for him.”
Love and obedience – they go together in Scripture like a hand in a glove. The words of Jesus to love through obedience are part of what we call the Upper Room Discourse, or Farewell Speech. They are the Lord’s final words to his followers before his crucifixion – quite literally being Jesus’ deathbed message to those he loved. These are the words Jesus did not want his followers to forget. The disciples were distressed and troubled over the prospect that Jesus would not be with them, and they needed some focused words to live effectively with encouragement in the days and years ahead.
There are a two truths Jesus said to his disciples (and saying to us) as he was grabbing them and holding them close before his death:
Love is practiced through obedience to Christ’s commands.
Love through obedience is accomplished through the Holy Spirit’s help.
If we are to love Jesus, we will obey him – which begs the question: What are his commands? There are three summaries of Christ’s teaching and commands in the Gospels that encompass loving him through obedience: The Great Commission; The Great Commandment; and, The Beatitudes.
When Jesus first began his teaching and healing ministry, he sat all the people down who were following him and gave them a summary of the Old Testament understanding of God’s righteousness. These are the things, Jesus explained, that characterize a person who loves God:
Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers, for they will be called sons of God.
Blessed are they who are persecuted for righteousness, for theirs is the kingdom of God (Matthew 5:12-17, NIV).
Genuine lovers of Jesus are characterized by their: authentic humility; deep concern to the point of tears over sin; gentle and meek spirit toward others; intense desire for personal righteousness and corporate justice; daily life of mercy, purity, and peacemaking; and, willingness to accept adversity for the sake of Jesus. Yes, lovers of Jesus are distinctly and profoundly characterized by grace. To act justly, to love mercy, and to walk humbly with their God is the normal everyday default life-setting for lovers of Jesus Christ.
When Jesus wanted to put all the Law and the Prophets (The Old Testament of the Bible) into a summary that would be easy to remember and understand he said:
“Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind. This is the first and greatest commandment. And the second is like it: Love your neighbor as yourself.”(Matthew 22:36-40, NIV)
What Jesus requires is an holistic love for God. Humanity is meant for wholeness, integration, and alignment between head, heart, and gut – with the glue of love. We are designed to have all of life in parity and balance – work, play, family, and church – because Jesus is Lord over it all, not just the church part. In the totality of our lives, in every relationship, and in every activity, Jesus invites us to grab hold of the kind of love that seeks a righteous agenda based in grace and mercy.
What is more, Jesus gave clear instructions of how to occupy our time on this earth while he is away preparing a place for us so that he can take us to be with him. The gracious and pure living of the Beatitudes and the love of the Great Commandment are to be fully utilized with the Great Commission. Jesus stated:
“All authority in heaven and earth has been given to me. Therefore, go and make disciples of all nations, baptizing them in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit, and teaching them to obey everything I have commanded you. And surely I am with you always to the very end of the age.” (Matthew 28:18-20, NIV)
Making disciples is at the heart of Christ’s commands. Every Christian is to be Christ’s apprentice learning the ways of Jesus in all of life, being spiritually developed so that we can be characterized by the Beatitudes and the Great Commandment. Jesus wants lifelong students in the faith, continually learning to love God through integrated and aligned selves in the church and in the world.
This is a big job. In fact, the task is so huge that Jesus left us with the means of accomplishing it – he has given us another “Counselor” to be with us forever (John 14:16). “Counselor” (NIV) is translated in various ways in versions of the New Testament because the Greek term “Paraclete” is a rich word that is hard to encompass with a single English word. Other translations include: “Advocate,” “Comforter,” and “Helper.” They are all accurate words to describe the Holy Spirit. I think the best term to portray who the Holy Spirit is for God’s people is “True Friend.”
A true friend is the kind of person who you can call in the middle of the night and they will answer and listen; will drop everything to come and be with you in a time of need; will say hard things to you in love so that you can be a better person and have a better relationship with them; and, maintains a committed and consistent relationship with you. A true friend is simply a person you enjoy and are deeply thankful for having them in your life.
That is what the Holy Spirit is – the Spirit helps us when we need help; encourages us when we are down; comes immediately to our side when we are in need; and, gives us a good loving kick in the backside when appropriate. The Holy Spirit is our True Friend in the world. The Spirit continually speaks truth to us and leads us into truth. The Spirit will come alongside and apprentice us in the faith and guide us in grateful obedience to Jesus.
Because of God the Father’s love in sending the Son; the Son’s sacrificial love through the cross; the Spirit’s consistent loving presence; and, the triune God’s insistence on living a life of love, Christianity is both duty and delight – and they go together in perfect harmony.
Wesley miraculously lived through his deathbed experience. God was not quite finished with him yet. Wesley’s Christian life displayed that loving assurance and trust in Jesus leads to a no-holds-barred obedience which is grateful and joyous despite the most awful of circumstances.
In the summer of 1993, at 29 years of age, Wesley went to be with his Lord. Not in my lifetime have I personally seen such a complete turn-around of a person so far away from God to a person whose every thought and word reflected the Beatitudes, the Great Commandment, and the Great Commission. And I enjoyed a relationship that was totally changed from one of animosity to one that could be characterized as “true friend.” Because of his love for God, Wesley now sees Jesus.
There is only one level of commitment to Christ – the high charge and privilege of duty and delight. A true disciple, a genuine follower of Jesus, loves him and lives an obedient life to the Lord in the strength of the Holy Spirit. Sometimes we have our lives so planned and pre-determined that when the Holy Spirit shows up to take us to a place of obedience to Jesus, we struggle to realize what’s happening. And we miss what God is doing in this world. At other times we observe the commands of Scripture and feel the gentle nudging of God’s Spirit, yet we either cannot or will not respond out of fear, busyness, or even grief. And then there are times when we are attentive to God’s Word and God’s Spirit and seek to obey Jesus – only to mess up so that we are left wondering if God could ever really do anything in us.
The truth is this: Love conquers all. Grace overcomes everything. Mercy never fails. We are here on this earth because of our True Friend. Even though we walk with Jesus in a three-steps-forward-two-steps-backward kind of way, the Spirit accommodates to our weakness. To be a disciple, an apprentice, means we keep learning the ways of Jesus under the tutelage of God’s Spirit who patiently and powerfully works within us so that God’s kingdom breaks into this world and his will is done on earth as it is in heaven.
In you, O Lord, I seek refuge;
do not let me ever be put to shame;
in your righteousness deliver me.
Incline your ear to me;
rescue me speedily.
Be a rock of refuge for me,
a strong fortress to save me.
You are indeed my rock and my fortress;
for your name’s sake lead me and guide me,
take me out of the net that is hidden for me,
for you are my refuge.
Into your hand I commit my spirit;
you have redeemed me, O Lord, faithful God….
My times are in your hand;
deliver me from the hand of my enemies and persecutors.
Let your face shine upon your servant;
save me in your steadfast love. (NRSV)
Shame is powerful. It keeps a person locked within themselves with their secrets hidden far from others. Far too often we try and cope with our shameful words or actions through promising to work harder, pledging to have more willpower, and/or plain old complaining that life is unfair. None of this gets to the root of our shame. Unlike guilt, which our conscience identifies as specific behaviors to repent of, shame is the message of our inner critic who obnoxiously decries that we are somehow flawed, not enough, and inherently lacking intelligence.
Shame is the insidious mechanism which interprets bad events as we ourselves being bad. Shame lives in the shadows and feeds on secrets – which is why the posture of shame is to hide our face in our hands. If shame persists, we withdraw from others and experience grinding loneliness. Therefore, the path out of shame is to openly name our stigma and tell our stories. In other words, throwing a bucket of vulnerability on shame causes it melt, like the Wicked Witch of the West.
In contrast to the unhealthy hiding of ourselves within prison walls of shame is seeking refuge and hiding ourselves in God. Even a cursory look at today’s psalm evidences an open and vulnerable person who wants nothing to do with shame. The psalmist unabashedly and without shame is quite forward in presenting his wants to God.
The psalms are meant for repeated use, to be voiced aloud again and again. In doing this simple activity, we shame-proof our lives. God’s face shines upon us and takes away the shadows of shame. It is no coincidence that Jesus forsook the shame of the cross through publicly uttering the words of this psalm: “Into your hands I commit my spirit.” (Luke 23:46)
Unchecked verbal violence will eventually lead to physical violence. If wordy persecution comes from others, the primary tactic will most likely be shaming the people such persons want to control. Abusive people will frame a justification for violence because the people for whom they are leveling shame are “bad,” even “monsters.” If the verbal persecution comes from within, the shame can reach a critical mass of suicidal ideation and perhaps outright attempts at ending one’s life.
There is no living with shame. The good news is that we don’t have to. Instead, we can live in the strong fortress and the rock of refuge which is God. The Lord traffics in redeeming mercy and steadfast love, not in the demeaning judgment of shame. We can flee to God and find grace to help us in our time of need. There is no shame in reaching out for help. We all need deliverance from something. Its a matter of whether we are open to ask for it, or not.
Father God, into your hands I commit my spirit – everything I am and all that I hope to be – so that Jesus Christ might be exalted in me through the power of your Holy Spirit. I choose to leave shame where it belongs – nailed to the cross. With your divine enabling, I shall walk in newness of life through expressing my needs and wants with courage, confidence, and candor. May it be so according to your steadfast love. Amen.
Click You Are My Refuge sung by Shannon Wexelberg and Matthew Ward and allow your spirit to open.
Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness;
come before him with joyful songs.
Know that the Lord is God.
It is he who made us, and we are his;
we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving
and his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and praise his name.
For the Lord is good and his love endures forever;
his faithfulness continues through all generations. (NIV)
The original use of this psalm was for the ancient Israelites approaching the temple to worship God. Before worshipers ever came into the presence of the Lord, they were preparing themselves to encounter God through giving him thanks, using this very psalm.
When David and other Hebrew writers penned their poetic songs, they would center what they most wanted to draw attention to in the middle, so that what came before it and after it pointed to that central message. The center of Psalm 100 is verse 3: Know that the LORD is God.
There are three imperatives (commands) that come before this phrase; and, three imperatives that come after it. All six imperatives are meant to help us know God better. “Shout” for joy to the LORD. “Worship” the LORD with gladness. “Come” before him with joyful songs are the three that lead us up to knowing the LORD. “Enter” his gates with thanksgiving; “give thanks” to him; and, “praise” his name all come after the central command to “know that the LORD is God.” We belong to God. As God’s people we celebrate this tremendous knowledge with actions meant to impress God’s gracious inclusiveness firmly into us.
There perhaps is no better biblical way to experience God than through these six words: shout; worship; come; enter; give thanks; and praise. Declaring loudly of God’s character and works; kneeling and prostrating before God; approaching God’s throne with boldness; immersing oneself into the presence of God; voicing aloud gratitude to God; and, praising God’s holy name are all heartfelt actions of the faithful. These pious activities are to happen here on earth as they are always done in heaven. It’s what folks with a settled sense of belonging do.
To “know” God is to experience him through close relationship. It means we have a place and a purpose. It is a knowing and belonging which exists deep down in our gut. We get to know God by how he has worked in people’s lives, as well as our own. So, gatherings of believers (whether physical or virtual) are an opportunity to engage in the six imperatives of today’s psalm. Faithful worshipers deeply desire to focus on who God is and what he has done, remembering and rehearsing his qualities and deeds. Through this activity, we help one another know the Lord. And knowing God is what real life is all about. He is worthy of all the praise, adoration, and worship we can give to him. So, let us praise God with heartfelt thanksgiving.
One of my favorite verses in the Bible has to do with knowing God. The Apostle Paul said, “I want to know (to experience with his entire being and not just with his mind) Christ and the power of his resurrection and the fellowship of sharing in his sufferings, becoming like him in his death.” (Philippians 3:10, NIV)
Everything in our lives, whether good or bad, is designed to help us know God better. Shared experiences with each other encourage us to keep living for Jesus. So, let us express gratitude today for all the gracious ways God has revealed himself and reached out to save such ones as us.
Almighty God, who works on my behalf, give me grace to put away the rootless existence of one who has no place; and, help me to experience and know your radical acceptance and inclusion into the dance of the Trinity – Father, Son, and Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
my Lord, listen to my voice! Let your ears pay close attention to my request for mercy! If you kept track of sins, Lord— my Lord, who would stand a chance? But forgiveness is with you— that’s why you are honored.
I hope, Lord. My whole being hopes, and I wait for God’s promise. My whole being waits for my Lord— more than the night watch waits for morning; yes, more than the night watch waits for morning!
Israel, wait for the Lord! Because faithful love is with the Lord; because great redemption is with our God! He is the one who will redeem Israel from all its sin. (CEB)
Throughout church history, the book of Psalms has been used and understood as the Church’s prayer book. Indeed, the psalms are much more than a collection of beautiful poems, words of assurance, and songs of praise – they are designed for regular and ongoing use as prayers. And I’m not just talking about the psalms being somebody else’s prayers; they are my prayers and your prayers.
There are times when words fail us – where we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place and want to pray. Yet, our stress and/or anxiety is so high that we can neither think straight nor form anything coherent with our mouths. It is in such times that the psalms present themselves to us as the path forward.
What’s more, psalms are meant to be spoken out loud and more than once. And I’m not talking about saying them with a quiet mumble or a flat monotone. No! These precious prayers of Holy Scripture are meant to be declared with full voice and a large amount of flavor! They are to repeatedly roll off our lips with all the emotional and spiritual gusto which resides within us! Tears and yelling are both appropriate and encouraged. For we do not possess merely a heady faith of thoughts and ideas; we possess a faith that is robustly heartfelt, and dwells down deep in the gut where our bowels of compassion have their abode.
Even with a cursory reading of today’s psalm, we easily observe that there’s more going on here than cognitive beliefs of faith, hope, and love. The psalmist is expressive, clinging to faith with a patient longing for God to make good on his promises. It is chocked full of emotion, a prayer coming from the depths of the gut. The whole being is involved, and rightly so, because our faith affects the entirety of a person and everyone in the community of the redeemed.
If this psalm resonates with you in any way, let your proclamation of it be with the expanse of feeling inside you. After all, as people created in the image of God, we share God’s own deep sense of love – and love is truly love when it is outwardly expressed with a sacred combination of words, actions, and feelings.
Click Psalm 130 and enjoy the psalm set to song by Keith and Kristyn Getty.