Proverbs 30:1-10 – Live Wisely and without Envy

These are the solemn words of Agur son of Jakeh:

    “God is not with me, God is not with me,
    and I am helpless.
I am more like an animal than a human being;
    I do not have the sense we humans should have.
I have never learned any wisdom,
    and I know nothing at all about God.
Have any ever mastered heavenly knowledge?
    Have any ever caught the wind in their hands?
    Or wrapped up water in a piece of cloth?
    Or fixed the boundaries of the earth?
Who are they, if you know? Who are their children?

“God keeps every promise he makes. He is like a shield for all who seek his protection. If you claim that he said something that he never said, he will reprimand you and show that you are a liar.”

I ask you, God, to let me have two things before I die: keep me from lying and let me be neither rich nor poor. So, give me only as much food as I need. If I have more, I might say that I do not need you. But if I am poor, I might steal and bring disgrace on my God.

Never criticize servants to their master. You will be cursed and suffer for it. (Good News Translation)

These are the raw expressions of a man who has awareness of his own envious nature. He realizes his profound lack of wisdom. The man, Agur, discerns how helpless and pathetic he really is, apart from wise living.

The wise person knows that a heart at peace gives life to the body, but envy rots the bones. Possessing too much or too little tends to awaken the eye of envy within us. Agur wants to avoid thinking that people, even God, owes him. He is concerned he might slip into the disposition of what the Lord and others can do for him, rather than vice versa.

“The secret of success is that it is not the absence of failure, but the absence of envy.”

Herodotus

Today, envy manifests itself in moving-on to another church, or friendship, or marriage, or job when perceived needs and wants are not met. Certainly, ties need to be severed in the case of abusive treatment. Yet, when we simply do not like something, and aspire to more and more hoarding of emotional and spiritual resources, there is little to no awareness of the shadowy places in our hearts.

Perhaps, through the difficulty, the Lord was attempting to reveal something important to us or working to bring about positive transformation. However, we bailed from the situation too quickly, not wanting to deal with the pain or inconvenience of it all. And, all the while, our real motivations remain hidden and unaddressed.

It is necessary to see envy for what it is – not just a common predilection everyone has – but a malady of believing I deserve things no one is giving me. It’s the age old endemic problem, much like Adam and Eve’s original sin, of grabbing a forbidden fruit in the belief G-d is not providing everything I need. And we then cannot, or will not, see all the vast resources and blessings already possessed.

Gratitude is a spiritual practice, when engrafted into a daily spiritual walk, provides a strong antidote to keeping envy at bay. Instead of wondering why G-d is not blessing my life and work in ways I think it should happen, perhaps we ought to identify and count the blessings we already possess and enjoy. 

Some of the greatest joys around us are the simple pleasures of everyday life – holding and sipping a hot cup of coffee; a quick kiss good-bye to my spouse on the way out the door; the opportunity to curl up with a good book on a rainy day; these and many more are blessings given to us by a heavenly Father who cares for us deeply.

“Gratitude turns what we have into enough.”

Aesop

It might be a good thing to spend some intentional time saying and/or writing out many of the blessings currently existing in your life. 

For example, rather than wishing a loved one would not have to endure disease or surgery and envying healthy people, rejoice that he/she is with you, that you enjoy one another’s love and companionship, whether it is in times of health or in seasons of illness.

And instead of envying the rich or worrying about becoming poor, give thanks for this current place in your life. Simple thanksgiving to G-d for every meal, each possession obtained, and even all things lost forever, fortifies the spirit for resilience over the long haul of life.

Much of our life on this earth comes down to mystery. We simply do not know, and are not privy, to the myriad ways G-d is working in the world. We may never know why we must face and deal with our particular and personal pains, disappointments, and sorrows.

So, when we pray, much like Agur, it might be wise to ask for continual help with never-ending problems, rather than constantly praying for deliverance from unwanted situations. It is best we pray as Jesus taught us saying, “Give us this day our daily bread.” (Matthew 6:11)

“I’ve learned by now to be quite content whatever my circumstances. I’m just as happy with little as with much, with much as with little. I’ve found the recipe for being happy whether full or hungry, hands full or hands empty. Whatever I have, wherever I am, I can make it through anything in the One who makes me who I am.”

The Apostle Paul (Philippians 4:11-13, MSG)

Wise persons know the frailty of their own hearts. Prayer, for them, is an organic practice arising from vulnerable and forthright discussions with G-d about doubt and disbelief. Indeed, people come to know the Lord not through speculating or imposing their own personality on G-d but by daily calling upon the Divine Being for practical help at the neediest points of life.

Blessed Lord, take me to the place where I am saved from my pride and arrogance and humility takes center stage, where I’m lifting up clean hands and a pure heart to you. Take me to the place where I’m no longer looking at the mountains I face but looking down upon them, where I can clearly see, and my decisions are flooded with your light, truth and justice. I bend my knee and receive your truth. I open my ears to receive your counsel. I open my heart to receive your eternal wisdom. Amen.

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 – Gratitude Changes Us

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever….”

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
    O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
    We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
    and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
    up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
    you are my God, I will extol you.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever. (NRSV)

Show me a spiritual sourpuss, and I’ll show you a person who lives without daily gratitude toward God and others. But show me a gracious person who liberally gives thanks, and I will show you a person profoundly in touch with God’s steadfast love.

The psalmist chose to give thanks for God’s goodness and faithful love. I wonder how much different each day would be if we began it with the psalmist’s great call to worship: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” 

There is a misguided notion that only certain people have the attitude of gratitude – that some folks are just naturally ornery, and some are just born happy. But the truth is that gratitude and giving thanks is a practice which needs to be carefully cultivated. As it grows and develops, gratitude bears the fruit of joy. 

Thankfulness is a daily decision of faith to have the kind of attitude which pleases God and blesses others.

We now know so much more about the human brain. Research has discovered that the brain is made up of an estimated 100 billion neurons making a total of 100 trillion neural connections. That’s a lot of neural power! Most of those neural pathways are good and healthy. For example, I didn’t have to think about how to tie my shoes this morning because I have a well-developed neural pathway that automatically makes the connection to do it.

However, some of those neural pathways are not good, even unhealthy. There might be connections in our heads which lead to substance abuse when under stress, or to violently lash out when afraid or hurt, or things like plain old procrastination. If you have ever had the experience of telling yourself that you’re not going to respond a particular way, then end up doing it anyway, it is likely you have a well-worn neural pathway which connects certain events to a set of focused actions.

What this all means is that willpower won’t do the trick in changing behavior. That’s because our brains don’t work that way. The good news is that all those neural connections and pathways, like ruts in a gravel road, can fade away and new ones can be developed. Scientists call this “neural plasticity.”

There are practices which can help unhealthy neural connections go away and create new healthy pathways.

One of those practices is gratitude. Giving thanks changes our brain chemistry! Yet, it doesn’t happen overnight. But if we identify three persons or possessions which we are grateful for and say them out loud at least three times a day over the next three months, then we have developed a new neural pathway in our brain.

So, in the future, when we face a stressful event – whereas in the past we might deal with it in an unhealthy way – now our brains reflexively go to a different place and see the situation in a different way than before. And we choose different actions and behaviors.

Readers of this blog know that I continually encourage reading the psalms out loud as prayers to God. If we make this a practice, it will not only change our brains – it will create new spiritual pathways in our souls which fortify us for those times in life when things are tough and hard.

Spiritual practices have a purpose. And when we use those disciplines, we end up developing connections with the Lord which support us and sustain us for a lifetime – not to mention that we become a delight for others to be around instead of being a tedious fart.

Loving God, this is the day you have made; I rejoice in it and am glad that your steadfast love covers all things. Help me to connect every good thing with your gracious hand upon me so that I will not look and act like I was baptized in pickle juice.  To the glory of Jesus Christ, I pray.  Amen.

Psalm 84 – The Joy of Worship

Every now and then I like taking a psalm and doing my own loose contemporary translation of the text (just so you know, I’ve had training in the Hebrew language, so this isn’t weird for me, or for you!). I find this exercise to be exhilarating and helpful for my own soul. I hope you find this to be useful for you, as well. 

Today’s psalm talks about the temple. I have contemporized it for the Christian who enjoys fellowship with God in the many places where the Lord can be found. I encourage you to read it over once, then carefully read it again, prayerfully. Do it both times out loud. The psalms are meant to be prayed, and they are meant to be said aloud with flavor!

How lovely are all the places where you dwell,
    powerful and mighty God of the numerous heavenly forces!

The depths of my soul long, even yearn,
    for the intimate backyard gatherings where Yahweh dwells.
My heart and my body, my whole self
    shout out loud for joy to the living God!

Yes, the lowly insignificant mother sparrow has also found a home with God;
    the swallow has, too, found herself a homey nest
    where she can lay her young beside your divine activity.
    Immense Lord of the numerous heavenly forces, my king, my God,

    You are so big that the lowliest of creatures find shelter in you!
Those who live within your sacred space are genuinely happy;
    they can’t stop praising you constantly and incessantly!

Those who put their energy in you are truly content;
    a one-way road to you is in their hearts.
As they walk through all kinds of dry hard circumstances
    they end up making them like a spring of living water.
    Yes, even problems become like a gentle rain of blessing.
The biggest of dilemmas become manageable,
    as they see the supremacy of God in it all.
Mighty Lord God of the numerous heavenly forces,
    hear my prayer to you;
    listen closely, O ancient God of my spiritual ancestors!

You are our great protective shield, God;
    pay close attention to your chosen one!

Better is one single solitary day in your backyard gathering
    than a billion days anywhere else!
I would prefer to park cars out in the front yard of God’s house
    than live comfortably in the palatial hangouts of the ungodly!
The Lord is like the brightness of a warm summer day,

and even the suntan lotion protecting me; God is all that!
    God is full of crazy grace and unspeakable glory.
The Lord gives— and doesn’t withhold — good things
    to those who walk with integrity of heart beside him.
Powerful Lord of the numerous heavenly forces,
    those who trust in you are truly giddy with joy!

Divine presence makes all the difference in the world. To be with God, to sense the Lord’s company, and to enjoy Divine favor brings deep satisfaction and contentment within a world of great dissatisfaction and discontent.

True beauty is found with the Author of the beautiful. Love motivates the pilgrimage toward God. The non-judgmental presence of the Lord provides us with a place of security, peace, and rest. Indeed, the nearness of God changes everything. It transforms our present circumstances from drudgery and despondency to opportunities for God to show up and show off divine power.

God, the heavenly king, and commander of heavenly forces chooses to dwell among us. The Lord’s ear is attentive to each person. The connection between God and God’s people is inseparable. This, then, is the very place where trust is engendered. Placing faith in a God who cares, listens, and acts blesses everyone.

Today, God abides with us because of the indwelling Spirit of Jesus. God’s presence has the effect of bringing people together and calming all fears. God’s eye is on the sparrow, which means the Lord is always watching with care and concern for all creation, especially humanity.

Almighty God, merciful heavenly Father, we give you humble thanks for all your goodness, kindness, and steadfast love to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. Above all, we are grateful for your immeasurable love shown through the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. Give us such an awareness of your divine presence, that with truly thankful hearts our lives might be an offering of praise in both speech and action. We trust you, gracious God, and give ourselves to your service. We choose to walk with you in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen.

His Eye Is On the Sparrow, sung by Selah

1 Timothy 1:12-20 – Grateful for Grace

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength because he considered me faithful. So, he appointed me to ministry even though I used to speak against him, attack his people, and I was proud. But I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and without faith. Our Lord’s favor poured all over me along with the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the biggest sinner of all. But that is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show his endless patience to me, first. So, I am an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life. Now to the king of the ages, to the immortal, invisible, and only God, may honor and glory be given to him forever and always! Amen.

Timothy, my child, I am giving you these instructions based on the prophecies that were once made about you. So, if you follow them, you can wage a good war because you have faith and a good conscience. Some people have ruined their faith because they refused to listen to their conscience, such as Hymenaeus and Alexander. I have handed them over to Satan so that they can be taught not to speak against God. (CEB)

Toward the end of his life, the Apostle Paul reflected upon the grace given to him by God. In writing to Timothy, his protégé, Paul distilled his reflections into one short succinct phrase: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. 

Before Christ got a hold of his life, Paul actively opposed Christians as much as he could. He had the persecution of Christ’s followers down to a science. But God had mercy on Paul and delivered him from his misguided and tortuous ways.

Paul was forever grateful for the grace of God. He well knew that he deserved no good thing from God. Paul knew firsthand the words of the Lord Jesus:

“I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17, CEB)

Once one’s heart has been captivated by God’s mercy, that person is never the same. Grace results in a new and wondrous perspective. The soul is filled with love. The mind is changed and charged with the realization that God is not only good but has given you a status as his beloved – a privilege and a position which you neither earned nor deserve. Gratitude erupts from your lips: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, to save me, the chief of sinners!”

We need not have a past like Paul’s to know God’s grace. Whether you are now a follower of Jesus after having lived a life far from God; or, you cannot remember a time when you didn’t know God; or, you grew-up in faith, walked away from it all, then were captured by grace and came back to Christ – from whatever backgrounds we all come from, it is the saving grace, the delivering mercy, the infinite love, the abiding compassion, and the undeserved kindness of Jesus Christ which makes your world spin the opposite direction on its axis. 

Take time throughout today to utter that simple phrase over and over: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. What does this mean for the world as it is right now? What does it mean for you?

Loving Lord Jesus, there are not words to express my gratitude for your salvation given to me. I was once lost, but now am found by the boundless mercy of God. May sinners be saved, as was your servant Paul, so that the world will be undone and changed forever by grace. Amen.