Monday, November 17, 2014

My Brother, the Sparrow

How lovely is Your tabernacle,
    O LORD of hosts!
My soul longs, yes, even faints
    For the courts of the Lord;
    My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.
Even the sparrow has found a home,
    And the swallow a nest for herself,
Where she may lay her young —
    Even Your altars, O LORD of hosts,
    My King and my God.
Blessed are those who dwell in Your house;
    They will still be praising You. Selah
(Psalm 84:1-4)
For many years, my habit has been to pray through the book of Psalms each month. There are 150 psalms and 30 days (more or less) in a month, so it works out to through five psalms a day. On the first day of the month, I pray through Psalms 1-5, on the second day, I pray through 6-10 and so on. So, on the 17th of each month, I know I will be praying through Psalm 84. Today is November 17, which is my birthday.

My brother Gary was also born on November 17. See, I was born on his fourth birthday, which I’m sure is not quite what he was expecting as a present that year. It may seem little more than a curiosity that we were born on the same day four years apart, but for me it was always a special bond we shared, a way I saw myself in relation to him. I did not realize just how much I identified with that, however, until last November 17, which turned out to be our last birthday together.

“Did you know that today is our birthday?” I asked the nurse in the ICU, while Gary lay in a coma following a failed brain surgery to remove an aneurysm, and I explained that I was born on his fourth birthday. Although he was unconscious, Gary and I spent our last birthday together.

I’ve explained the connection I feel between the 17th of each month and Psalm 84, and the one I have with my brother and November 17. But now let me say something about the special connection between my brother Gary and Psalm 84, because that is where I look for him now.

Although I am not sure how, Psalm 84 became very significant for Gary in his later life. He identified particularly with the line that says, “Even the sparrow has found a home … even Your altars, O LORD of Hosts.” He wrote a song about this psalm and called it “I Will Be a Sparrow.” Psalm 84 was part of his wedding service when he married his sweetheart, Jan, just a few years ago. And it was, very appropriately, part of his memorial service last December.

From now on, whenever I pray this psalm, I am reminded of my brother Gary, because that is where I know I can find him now. He is in the line about the sparrow, and he has finally found his home. And I find him where it says, “Blessed are those who dwell in Your house; they will still be praising You. Selah” (v. 4). Gary is experiencing the splendor of the Lord in ways I cannot imagine, and he is ever praising God.

I also find myself in this psalm, in relation to Gary. He is with those who have arrived; I am on the road, still on the journey, and experiencing my pilgrimage (and on some days I feel it more than on others). So there is a section in this psalm for me, too.
Blessed is the man whose strength is in You,
    Whose heart is set on pilgrimage
As they pass through the Valley of Baca,
    They make it a spring;
    The rain also covers it with pools.
They go from strength to strength;
    Each one appears before God in Zion.
(Psalm 84:5-7)
Yes, there is a valley of “weeping” (which is what Baca most likely means), and I have shed my tears. But it is a valley we pass through, not one in which we remain, and the tears somehow become a “wellspring” (one of my brother’s significant words) that yields a blessing

On this pilgrimage to God, we go from strength to strength, although sometimes it may feel like anything but strength. So each one on this journey shall appear before God in Zion. And there I will find my brother, the sparrow.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

The Assurance of “These Things”

These things I have written to you who believe in the name of the Son of God, that you may know that you have eternal life, and that you may continue to believe in the name of the Son of God. (1 John 5:13)
We must take good account of “these things,” the two words with which 1 John 5:13 begins because it is by means of them that John seeks to offer assurance about eternal life to those who believe on the Lord Jesus Christ. There is a context that precedes, and “these things” connects us to that. The phrase, “that you may know,” is a purpose clause that connects us back to “these things,” which in turn connects us back to the preceding context.

What, then, are the “these things” of which John is speaking? They are the things John has written about in his letter up to this point — from 1 John 1:1 all the way up to 5:12. What are the things he wrote about? For one thing, he wrote about light, and walking in the light: “If we say that we have fellowship with Him, and walk in darkness, we lie and do not practice the truth. But if we walk in the light as He is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus Christ His Son cleanses us from all sin” (1 John 1:6-7).

He wrote about not loving the world: “Do not love the world or the things in the world. If anyone loves the world, the love of the Father is not in him. For all that is in the world — the lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes, and the pride of life — is not of the Father but is of the world” (1 John 2:15-16).

He wrote about a lifestyle of righteousness: “In this the children of God and the children of the devil are manifest: Whoever does not practice righteousness is not of God …” (1 John 3:10). Along with that, he wrote about the imperative of loving one another, not only in word but also in deed: “... nor is he who does not love his brother. For this is the message that you heard from the beginning, that we should love one another” (1 John 3:10-11). He continues on this theme of love quite extensively:
Whoever hates his brother is a murderer, and you know that no murderer has eternal life abiding in him. By this we know love, because He laid down His life for us. And we also ought to lay down our lives for the brethren. But whoever has this world’s goods, and sees his brother in need, and shuts up his heart from him, how does the love of God abide in him?

My little children, let us not love in word or in tongue, but in deed and in truth. And by this we know that we are of the truth, and shall assure our hearts before Him. For if our heart condemns us, God is greater than our heart, and knows all things.

Beloved, if our heart does not condemn us, we have confidence toward God. And whatever we ask we receive from Him, because we keep His commandments and do those things that are pleasing in His sight. And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment. Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us (1 John 3:15-24)

“Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love” (1 John 4:7-8).
He also writes about faith in Christ — it is one of the two commandments John says that God has given us:
And this is His commandment: that we should believe on the name of His Son Jesus Christ and love one another, as He gave us commandment. Now he who keeps His commandments abides in Him, and He in him. And by this we know that He abides in us, by the Spirit whom He has given us. (1 John 3:23-24)
Notice that it is not just in keeping the commandment to believe in Christ that we know that God abides in us, but it is also in keeping the commandment of loving one another that we have the assurance of God abiding in us.

First John 5:13 was not written in a vacuum but in a context — “these things” — and the context is about walking in light, living in righteousness and loving one another. These offer assurance that our faith in Christ is real and that eternal life — the divine life of God — really is at work in us.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Random Thoughts

Some thoughts culled from my random file. About faith, love, life and relationship with God. Some have occurred to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Some are aphoristic and avuncular. Many have been tweets on Twitter and updates on Facebook. For your understanding and edification — or your money cheerfully refunded.
  • The gospel is, first, the public announcement that the kingdom of God has come into the world — and that Jesus, whom God raised from the dead, is God’s Anointed King. Then it is the personal call to participate in that kingdom through faith in King Jesus.
  • The gospel in five seconds: The kingdom of God has come into the world and Jesus Christ is King over all. Come trust Him with your life and follow Him.
  • When you are able to let something go, it has become your servant, not your master.
  • With regard to man in relationship with God, repentance means to turn to God, or return to God.
  • Justification, in the context of biblical covenant, means that one is counted as fit for fellowship; in regard to man in relation to God, it is the verdict of righteousness — i.e., that one is right with God, in right relationship with Him.
  • Love is giving yourself to another without reserve.
  • The Christian faith is not about a God who created the world out of loneliness. It is about Three Persons who created the world out of the overflow of love they have for each other — and they desire to catch us up into their fellowship.
  • An assumption is something that can be made without thinking. Some assumptions may be reasonable. Others are not. Assumptions often function as faith for some people. Some aspects of faith may be based on reason, but the Christian faith is ultimately based on revelation, and everything must be rethought in light of it. And that takes a lifetime.
  • I trust God to be continually at work in me, so how l “measure up” is now His problem.
  • Faith pleases God and love fulfills the commandments. So whatever is of faith and expresses love is good ... and will measure up.
  • Christ is not only the light we see, but the light by which we can see everything else properly. So our lives as Christians cannot be compartmentalized. We cannot speak of the Christian life as if we also have some other life we can live in addition to or instead of our life in Christ.
  • We want to be faithful, but I think we can get too focused on our own faithfulness — as if it were indeed our own and not the faithfulness of God at work in us — and then we get discouraged. But if we focus on the faithfulness of God, we become like what we behold ... and there is no discouragement in that.
  • The apostle Paul said, “When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.” In the meantime, His glory starts poking through in our lives.
  • Quit trying to justify your existence. It is God who created and loves us, Jesus the Messiah who redeems us and the Holy Spirit who transforms us.
  • There is a difference between becoming a Christian and becoming Christian. One may take a moment, the other takes a lifetime.
More random thoughts …

Monday, November 10, 2014

Not in the Strength of the Horse

His pleasure is not in the strength of the horse,
    nor his delight in the legs of the warrior;
The LORD delights in those who fear him,
    who put their hope in his unfailing love.
(Psalm 147:10-11 NIV)
God is not impressed with our strength. He is not wowed by our wit, not captivated by our wisdom, not enthralled by our abilities. Don’t put your hope in them, for God finds nothing satisfying in our dependence upon them. He shows no favor for that but for something much different.

In this psalm, the writer celebrates the fact that God has gathered the exiles back from captivity and has rebuilt Jerusalem.
The LORD builds up Jerusalem;
    He gathers together the outcasts of Israel.
He heals the brokenhearted
    And binds up their wounds.
(vv. 2-3)
But how is it that they were led off into captivity and exile in this first place? It was because they had turned away from the Lord by turning to the gods of the surrounding nations. And when the Assyrians became a threat to the Northern Kingdom of Israel, instead of turning back to the Lord and putting their hope in Him, they made alliances with the Syrians and Egyptians. They looked to the “strength of the horse” and the “legs of the warrior” to deliver them. But it was in vain, for they were carried off into captivity anyway.

A little over a century later, the Southern Kingdom of Judah likewise looked to an alliance with Egypt against Babylon. They, too, were carried off into captivity and the city of Jerusalem, including the Jewish temple, was destroyed. They were completely helpless.

But now God was rebuilding the temple, rebuilding the city, rebuilding the people. In the next verses, the psalm writer further exalts the Lord for this and then draws an important contrast between those whom He helps and those He does not.
Great is our Lord, and mighty in power;
    His understanding is infinite.
The LORD lifts up the humble;
    He casts the wicked down to the ground.
(vv. 5-6)
The humble are the poor, the afflicted, the weak — the helpless. They must depend on someone else, they must depend on God. Those are the ones God lifts up. In another psalm, “He raises the poor out of the dust, and lifts the needy out of the ash heap, that He may seat him with princes — with the princes of His people” (Psalm 113:7-8).

The wicked are those who do what is evil. They do not trust in God but help themselves to whatever they want. They are proud, arrogant and boastful. These are the ones God casts down, and it happens before they know it. Between the humble and the wicked, God leaves no middle ground.
More praises follow in verses 7-9, and then the writer comes to the center point of the psalm: God has no pleasure in the “strength of the horse,” He takes no delight in the “legs of the warrior.” What is it that pleases Him then?
The LORD delights in those who fear him,
    Who put their hope in his unfailing love.
This is about those who are oriented toward the Lord. They live in the “fear of the LORD,” which is not dread or terror — at least not for those who are in proper alignment with Him — but is a relationship of love, trust and obedience to Him (see What is the Fear of the LORD?). In the Hebrew parallelism that structures this verse, fearing the Lord is seen as putting one’s hope in His unfailing love.

The Hebrew word for “unfailing love” is chesed, which is the faithful love and mercy God has promised to show to His people. The word for “hope” is about waiting in expectation. Putting your hope in the love of God is living in anticipation of it. To put a sharper point on it, to hope in the steadfast love of the Lord is to put your trust Him. Together with the fear of the Lord, what that psalm writer describes here is all about faith in the Lord. This faith is never merely a mental assent to propositions by or about Him but it entails a personal engagement with Him in mutual relationship. To fear the Lord and trust in His love means that He is our God and we are His people, that we are on His side, and He is on ours.

This relationship of faith and trust gets God’s attention. He delights in those who look to Him and will show Himself strong on their behalf. Look not to the “strength of the horse” or the “legs of the warrior” — whatever those may represent in your life — but live in awe of the Lord and set your hope on His love for you.

Saturday, November 8, 2014

I Don’t Know Anything

This week I have been thinking about the 1951 Alistair Sim classic version of Dickens’, A Christmas Carol. In particular, I have thought about the scene where Scrooge makes it to Christmas morning, having encountered the three Christmas spirits in the night. He is giddy and sing-songy, and in his elation he confesses to his housekeeper, Mrs. Dilber, this newly realized truth: “I don't know anything. I never did know anything; but now I know that I don't know anything.”

As I approach my 59th birthday (November 17), I am understanding that sentiment more and more each day. How very little I know. I don't know anything! And what a terrible burden is lifted off with that confession — the burden of thinking that I actually know anything (or that I even have to know anything).

The gospel does speak of a certain kind of knowledge. Not the knowledge of facts and figures or concepts or principles, but the knowledge of God the Father through Jesus the Son. It is the intimate knowing of someone else that comes through relationship with that person. It is the deepest, most intense kind of knowledge. And ultimately, it is the only knowledge that matters. “This is eternal life,” Jesus prayed in the Garden of Gethsemane, “that they may know You, the only true God, and Jesus Christ whom You have sent” (John 17:3). Knowing Christ is knowing life itself.

In his wonderful pastoral prayer in Ephesians 1, Paul prays for those who believe in Jesus, that the Father would give us wisdom and revelation so that we may know Him — essentially that we may know Him more and more. Truth is personal, which is to say, it is a Person. Jesus said, “I am … the Truth” (John 14:6). To know Him is to know all that is needed.

So, here I stand now, not knowing anything, before the God who knows everything. He cares not that I know nothing but He bathes me in His love. And now I am free to learn everything. What a wonderful relief as I journey into the next seasons of my life.

Friday, October 31, 2014

Send Forth Your Lightning, LORD

From the deadly sword deliver me;
    rescue me from the hands of foreigners
    whose mouths are full of lies,
    whose right hands are deceitful.
(Psalm 144:10-11 NIV)
Psalm 144 seems a very fitting prayer for these times, especially in regard to ISIS in the Middle East and jihad terrorists popping up in our own lands. They are the wicked “foreigners” (enemy) we face, whose mouths are full of deceit and whose hands are full of violence.
From their deadly sword, O Lord, deliver us.
My prayer is that God will dismantle them, undermine them and destroy their organization. My preference is that God would do it by giving them dreams and visions of the Lord Jesus Christ, so that they might come and find hope and peace in Him, as so many other Muslims have done in recent days.
Lord, show them the Lord Jesus Christ, how wonderful He is, that they might come to repentance and faith in Him.
But if the wicked will not come to repentance, my prayer is that God would bring them quickly to judgment, that the innocent and the just no longer be afflicted by their cruelties.
Part your heavens, LORD, and come down;
    touch the mountains, so that they smoke.
Send forth lightning and scatter the enemy;
    shoot your arrows and rout them.
(Psalm 144:5-6 NIV)
The desire is not for revenge but for deliverance. The psalm writer does not pray that the enemy — the people themselves — be destroyed but that, as an army, they would be routed and scattered. Vengeance is for the Lord to deal with however He sees fit. But what the psalm writer is looking for instead is this:
Then our sons in their youth
    will be like well-nurtured plants,
    and our daughters will be like pillars
    carved to adorn a palace.
Our barns will be filled
    with every kind of provision.
Our sheep will increase by thousands,
    by tens of thousands in our fields;
    our oxen will draw heavy loads.
There will be no breaching of walls,
    no going into captivity,
    no cry of distress in our streets.
(Psalm 144:12-14 NIV)
It is for the peace of his people and the security of his nation that he prays. Not just for his own generation but for the generations to come — the sons and daughters. It is for the prosperity and fruitfulness for all. That is what I, too, pray for in these times, not just for my family but also for my country. Yes, I am well aware that we have great need of repentance in our own nation, and I pray for that, too, that we may together be a people whose God is Yahweh (the LORD). For the psalm writer concludes:
Blessed is the people of whom this is true;
    blessed is the people whose God is the LORD”
(Psalm 144:15 NIV)

Monday, October 20, 2014

Random Thoughts

Some thoughts culled from my random file. About faith, love, life and relationship with God. Some have occurred to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Some are aphoristic and avuncular. Many have been tweets on Twitter and updates on Facebook. For your edification, inspiration and/or motivation — or your money cheerfully refunded.
  • Nobody deserves grace. Nobody. That’s why it is called grace. And that sets us free to throw ourselves into God!
  • Nobody needs grace more than I do. And that’s why nobody needs Christ more than I do. Nobody.
  • Grace is confusing to people who are trying to relate to God through rules and regulations.
  • Each new day is a good day to repent, to turn to God anew and in ways we never have before. And grace is always there to meet us.
  • Justice is not something we get, it is something we do. Sure, we all want to be treated justly ourselves. But it is more important that we treat others justly, even when we are not.
  • Jesus calls us to seek, above all else, the kingdom of God and His way of living. It is a risky business. But there is even greater risk in not seeking it.
  • Confusion is what happens when you begin heading into the dark. It is also what happens when you begin heading into the light. The difference is that it eventually clears up in the light.
  • Enoch walked with God (Genesis 5:22). Noah did, too (Genesis 6:9). This is what faith is — walking with God.
  • Jesus is the Way — follow Him. He is the Truth — trust Him. He is the Life — live Him.
  • To know God in every moment, waking or sleeping, in every situation, in every encounter — each moment becomes a divine moment, each situation becomes a divine situation, each encounter becomes a divine encounter. Paul’s prayer in Ephesians 1 is that God would give us wisdom and revelation by the Holy Spirit so that we may know God more. Fully, experientially, intimately. Not just in theory.
  • God’s plan is that everything comes together in Christ. This is the fullness of the gospel.
  • If one is going to be deconstructionist, then even his deconstructionism needs to be deconstructed. Arm-chair deconstructionists are usually not willing to go that far. Like skeptics who are skeptical of everything — except their own skepticism.
  • Some people like stereotypes. They think it saves time and that the odds are with them. Perhaps. But it is not worth the damage that so often follows.
  • I think I’ve just about figured out how much I don't now. But, of course, I could be wrong about that.
  • Vulnerability is a venture, a risk we take. Safety is an environment we offer.
  • Worship does not fulfill some need in God. He has no need. But it sure does meet a need in us.
  • If you’re miserable living for Jesus, then you’re doing it wrong.

Wednesday, September 3, 2014

Random Thoughts

Some thoughts culled from my random file. About faith, love, life and relationship with God. Some have occurred to me in moments of quiet reflection, some in interaction with others. Some are aphoristic and avuncular. Many have been tweets on Twitter and updates on Facebook. For your edification, inspiration and/or motivation — or your money cheerfully refunded.
  • Faith is not a static moment of belief but an ongoing conversation with God. What is God saying to you? What are you saying to God?
  • God can handle our honesty. Even our anger and doubt. But He cannot do anything with our deceptions.
  • Faith is not so much about what you believe as about Who you trust.
  • God’s word causes things to be. It does not just describe reality, it creates it.
  • Faith flows with the love of God because faith is relationship with God, who is love.
  • I am, at any given time, a mixture of motives. Some noble, some not so much. I have my hands full minding my own heart.
  • Jesus calls us to make disciples, not clones — He’s going to look different on you than on me.
  • I would rather have one Christian who lives the faith well but cannot argue it than ten who can argue the faith well but do not live it.
  • Faith in Christ is more than a doctrinal point concerning soteriology, it is a lived-out daily reality.
  • Faith is trusting Christ with your life.
  • What if everywhere we went, we prayed, “Kingdom of God, come into this place. Will of God, be done here in this place, just as in heaven”?
  • You can find a lot of gory images on the internet — even on Facebook! — and it can easily overwhelm. Too much of it can even lead to despair. But there is one gory image that gives hope, and that is the image of Christ on the cross.
  • In the end, heaven and earth must be joined together, because Jesus is truly God and truly man, and cannot be split in two.
  • My eschatology is simple: The gospel will prevail and all the nations of the world will be discipled to become followers of King Jesus the Messiah.
  • Pharaoh needed to let the children of Israel go, but the children of Israel also needed to let Egypt go.
  • God has no self-appointed, self-anointed gatekeepers.
  • A person’s socio-economic situation can color how he or she perceives Scripture. Someone on the bottom rungs of society might read certain passages differently than someone who is well-heeled. If we are going to take Scripture seriously, then, we must allow it to challenge our own socio-economic conditioning.
  • This day, I expect to know God more.
  • Isn’t it marvelous that, though God gives us all of Himself, we do not lose our own identity — we remain ourselves. You remain you and I remain me, but now the God-filled versions of you and me.
  • The grace of God, through His power at work in me, is able to do far beyond all I can ask or think — and I’m not done asking and thinking.
More random thoughts …