Musings from Psalm 139

Where can I go from your Spirit?
Where can I flee from your presence?
If I go up to the heavens, you are there;
if I make my bed in the depths, you are there.
If I rise on the wings of the dawn,
if I settle on the far side of the sea,
even there your hand will guide me,
your right hand will hold me fast.
(Psalm 139:7-10 NIV)

I’m memorizing Scripture again; this time Psalm 139. It’s always been one of my favorites. It has a wonderful cadence or rhythm. It seems as though it were, at some point, set to music… maybe ancient music. Of course, that’s what the psalms are: songs and prayers. Some pleasant. Some, not so much; but all are poignant.

Although it was one of my favorites, I used to interpret it in a negative way. I used to think upon the verses above in a way that was not very positive, reassuring, or encouraging. Possibly that’s because I viewed God in a similar way. Let me explain.

When I read the verses above, I used to think that God was relentlessly eyeing me, evaluating everything I did. I believed He was up there, hammer in hand (or worse yet, a lightning bolt), ready to punish me for a bout of selfish anger or some stray word or thought. I believed He was a strict task-master, ready to rap my knuckles with His divine ruler. In fact, I can remember a time 30 years ago when I was caught out in the middle of a golf course in a lightning storm. I ditched my clubs under a bush and ran for the clubhouse. As thunder and lightning were crashing overhead, seemingly closer each time, I can still recall the scene: running for shelter, all the while thinking that God was about to punish me for the life I was leading at the time (which was not a pretty picture 30 years ago). Even then, I viewed God as the Divine Disciplinarian, and I was “going” from His Spirit. I was “fleeing” from His presence. He was chasing me, in hot, angry pursuit.

Today, as I read this psalm and memorize its verses, I am overwhelmed, instead, with the love of God.

As I read verse 5 which says:

“You hem me in, behind and before,
And you lay your hand upon me,”

I can actually feel God’s gentle, loving, nurturing hand on my shoulder. And when I read the verses mentioned above, I am not reminded of running for my life from an angry, vengeful god, but instead, am overwhelmed by His relentless, unending, unconditional love.

I know now that I can’t go anyplace where I’m not overshadowed by the umbrella of his great love. As Pastor Shane Lilly says, “God loves you and there’s nuthin’ you can do about it!” I can rest in the thought that God loves me regardless of what I say or do, and His Presence is always with me.

I can say, as the psalmist David did in verse 6:

“Such knowledge is too wonderful for me,
too lofty for me to attain!”

A simple hug…

I had a very moving experience Friday as part of a Love INC delivery to one of our neighbors in need. It was a small delivery — paper products, hygiene items, and a footstool. A footstool? Yes.

Our neighbor was a below-the-knee amputee who had diabetes, fibromyalgia, neuropathy, and had a heart valve replaced, too. She was younger than me. She seemed in surprisingly good health — physically. She requested a footstool to keep her leg propped up.

Before we leave, we always pray for our neighbors, so I asked her how I could pray for her. With her head bowed, she said that she couldn’t possibly ask for prayers for herself. I just let that hang in the air. Then I got down on a knee to her level in her wheelchair, and with the gentleman who helped me, we held hands and formed a small circle of prayer.

As I prayed for wholeness for this neighbor, I heard a sniffle, and when I said, “Amen,” she was sobbing. I asked her about it and she replied that she had worked hard for her family for years and years, but now at she needed help, they weren’t helping her. It was heartbreaking. I hugged her, and… she seemingly wouldn’t let go. She was still sobbing. I imagine it was the first hug she had received in months!

She said that she couldn’t pray for herself because she was supposed to be strong, right?!? I said, “No. We aren’t supposed to be strong. In fact, none of us are. We are supposed to be weak in order that God can be strong.” I told her that my New Year’s Resolution this year was to be weaker and dumber than ever. After a laugh, I told her why.

“I want to be weak, so that God can work more and more in me, and more and more through me. And I want to be dumber, so that I can be filled with His wisdom. That way, He gets all the glory.”

We hugged again, and again, she wouldn’t let go.

I don’t think I was hugging her.

I think Jesus was.

The Greatest Donor

This past week I had the opportunity to meet a man who recently had a liver transplant. He was recovering nicely and was in improving health. However, he is also on dialysis and once he reaches an acceptable level of health, will need a kidney transplant as well.

“What would it be like to be a donor?”, I wondered to myself. My mind spun in possibilities.

I know a husband who gave one of his kidneys to his wife who needed a transplant. It took him longer to recuperate than her, but they’re both doing wonderfully. What a sacrifice! What love!

Last night, I watched the 1993 movie, “In the Line of Fire,” the Clint Eastwood movie in which he plays an aged Secret Service agent. In the story line, 30 years earlier he had been assigned to the motorcade when President John F. Kennedy had been assassinated. The memory still haunts him. Fast-forward to today: In the course of a routine investigation, he discovers a plot to assassinate the modern-day president. Throughout the movie, he battles the memory of his failure to protect Kennedy and wonders if he really had the courage to take a bullet for the president. In the climactic scene, he does, indeed, take a bullet for the president. He’s wearing a bullet-proof vest and survives, but proves he is willing to do his duty and lay down his life for the President of the United States.

In Scripture, Jesus tells us, “Greater love has no one than this: to lay down one’s life for one’s friends.” (John 15:13, NIV)

Our military heroes are in the line of fire for one another all the time. They show us what sacrifice means. While we might donate a kidney for a loved one or friend, another thought came to me: Would I donate a kidney or organ to someone I didn’t know, or worse yet, someone I knew was living a selfish life, a life lived only to please themselves?

I am an organ donor. Once my life is over, my organs – if usable – may be able to save or improve the life of another. But what if, in my opinion, they don’t deserve it?!? Thankfully, I don’t get to make that decision.

However, I know someone who did. There was One who laid down His life for others, even when they didn’t deserve it. He showed us not the “greater love” that He spoke of above — laying down a life for friends, but the GREATEST love. Paul tells us:

You see, at just the right time, when we were still powerless, Christ died for the ungodly. Very rarely will anyone die for a righteous person, though for a good person someone might possibly dare to die. But God demonstrates his own love for us in this: While we were still sinners, Christ died for us. (Romans 5:6-8 NIV)

God knew that some would waste their life on selfish living. He knew some wouldn’t be worthy of a kidney donation, let alone a life laid down in sacrifice. He knew that we weren’t righteous – none of us – and yet, in His astounding, extravagant love, sent His Son to die for us.

That is love. Not “Oh, I’m in love with you, baby.” Not even the wonderful, selfless, sacrificial human love of a husband for a wife who needs a kidney. This is a love that trumps all. Dying for the selfish. Dying for the ungodly. Dying for me. Dying for you. That is the GREATEST love. That is God’s love.

I don’t know about you, but that changes me.

For God so loved the world that He gave His one and only only Son, that whoever would believe in Him would not perish but have eternal life. (John 3:16)

Revolution, Not Resolution

It’s coming you know.

Yep. New Year’s Day. A new beginning. A fresh start. Time to turn over a new leaf and begin anew. It’s time for a New Year’s Resolution.

Phooey.

I wonder how many folks follow through on their New Year’s Resolution. Wait… let me look it up… (Google is a wonderful thing) … Care to hazard a guess? 40%? 30%? 15%? What do you think?

I hate to be the bearer of bad news but the fail rate of New Year’s Resolutions is about 92%. Whether it’s a diet or exercise program, chances are that 9 out of 10 will not follow through. If you’re reading this, you may not be climbing the mountain of endless exercise or eating rice cakes, but you may be thinking of starting a Bible reading plan or beginning a new devotional. I’m afraid the same statistics apply to you as well. However, it doesn’t have to be this way.

Most of our New Year’s Resolutions are done in our own strength. We exert our willpower to overcome the obstacles. We try harder. We begin again. We love do-overs. A fresh start. A chance to wipe the slate clean. And most of the time we fail because we do so in our own strength.

What if I told you that you needed NO strength whatsoever?!? What if I told you that the spiritual transformation would come with no effort at all? What if I said that, as a Christ follower, the good work He began in you would be finished eventually — by Him… by God?!? (See Philippians 1:6)

The only work required is to receive. No re-doubling your efforts. No more vows to God to read the entire Bible in one year. No more beating yourself up because you don’t pray an hour every morning. Let me explain.

When you truly receive the love of God into your life and understand — really understand — what it means, you are freed from having to worry about yourself. You can now focus on God and others, which are the only commandments to follow now. (Matthew 22:37-40, Galatians 6:2) When you know that your fate is now secure and that no one or nothing can snatch you away from God (see John 10:28), a burden has been lifted and you can walk in love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, gentleness, and self-control. It becomes (more) automatic. The more you understand your identity in Christ, the more automatic it becomes. The freedom will spread to every area of your life, and as it does, you’ll avail yourself more and more to God. You can abandon yourself to God completely without fear, because His love and unconditional acceptance eliminates the fear. (See 1 John 4:18)

Will you fail and fall? Of course. From time to time (edit: every day), it’ll happen. But as you understand God’s love, you’ll come running back to His arms, not fleeing in guilt and shame. You understand that nothing can separate you from the love of God. You understand that your obedience doesn’t make God love you more. You understand that everyone is disobedient. Everyone is unrighteous.

Correction: There is One who was (and is) obedient. There was One who was, and is, righteous; and because of Him – Jesus – all our spiritual resolutions are unnecessary. The focus isn’t on what you and I do; it’s on what Jesus has done.

The work’s been done. It is finished.

No more resolutions. It’s time for a revolution. Receive the Good News.

(By the way, Bible reading plans are wonderful. Beginning a new devotional on January 1st is a great idea [Here’s a good one]. Just cut yourself some slack. Quit measuring your progress and growth. Remember, it’s not about you.)

Three Minutes…

Take three minutes to read this before going to church. Then worship the One who gives this amazing gift…

From One Way Love by Tullian Tchividjian:

“Jesus came to liberate us from the weight of having to make it on our own, from the demand to measure up. He came to emancipate us from the burden to get it all right, from the obligation to fix ourselves, find ourselves, and free ourselves. Jesus came to release us from the slavish need to be right, rewarded, regarded, and respected. Because Jesus came to set the captives free, life does not have to be a tireless effort to establish ourselves, justify ourselves, and validate ourselves.

“The Gospel of Jesus Christ announces that because Jesus was strong for you, you’re free to be weak. Because Jesus won for you, you’re free to lose. Because Jesus was Someone, you’re free to be no one. Because Jesus was extraordinary, you’re free to be ordinary. Because Jesus succeeded for you, you’re free to fail. One way to summarize God’s message to the worn out and weary is like this— God’s demand: “be righteous”; God’s diagnosis: “no one is righteous”; God’s deliverance: “Jesus is our righteousness.” Once this good news grips your heart, it changes everything. It frees you from having to be perfect. It frees you from having to hold it all together. In the place of exhaustion, you might even find energy.

“No, the Gospel of grace is not too good to be true. It is true! It’s the truest truth in the entire universe. God loves us independently of what we may or may not bring to the table. There are no strings attached! No ifs, ands, or buts. No qualifiers or conditions. No need for balance. Grace is the most dangerous, expectation-wrecking, smile-creating, counterintuitive reality there is.

“Grace is a bit like a roller coaster; it makes us scream in terror and laugh uncontrollably at the same time. But there aren’t any harnesses on this ride. We are not in the driver’s seat, and we did not design the twists and turns. We just get on board. We laugh as the binding law of gravity is suspended, and we scream because it looks like we’re going to hurtle off into space. Grace brings us back into contact with the children we once were (and still are)— children who loved to ride roller coasters, to smile and yell and throw our hands up in the air. Grace, in other words, is terrifyingly fun, and like any ride worth standing in line for, it is worth coming back to again and again. In fact, God’s one-way love may be the only ride that never gets old, the only ride we thankfully never outgrow. A source of inexhaustible hope and joy for an exhausted world.”

———

Christ has set us free to live a free life. So take your stand! Never again let anyone put a harness of slavery on you.

I am emphatic about this. The moment any one of you submits to circumcision or any other rule-keeping system, at that same moment Christ’s hard-won gift of freedom is squandered. I repeat my warning: The person who accepts the ways of circumcision trades all the advantages of the free life in Christ for the obligations of the slave life of the law.

I suspect you would never intend this, but this is what happens. When you attempt to live by your own religious plans and projects, you are cut off from Christ, you fall out of grace. Meanwhile we expectantly wait for a satisfying relationship with the Spirit. For in Christ, neither our most conscientious religion nor disregard of religion amounts to anything. What matters is something far more interior: faith expressed in love. (Galatians 5:1-6, The Message)

He’s The One…

I was prompted to read 2 Kings 6:8-22 yesterday morning. It’s the story of Elisha the prophet predicting the attacks that were happening to the army of Israel. Because of Elisha’s predictions, the Israelites had the upper hand. The enemy was so incensed by this that he sent an army of assassins to kill Elisha. If Elisha was dead, the enemy’s superior forces would then be able to overrun the Israelites.

The enemy found where Elisha was staying, surrounded the city at night, and when Elisha’s servant saw what the predicament was, he panicked. But the man of God, Elisha, told his servant to look to the hills, where, after Elisha prayed, he saw the “hills full of horses and chariots of fire.” Elisha says, “Don’t worry. The army that fights for us is greater than the one against us.” (v.16)

Of course, that brings great comfort when we couple it with New Testament passages like Romans 8:31:

“If God is for us then who can be against us?”

and 1 John 4:4 which says,

“Greater is the one in you than the one who is in the world.”

God fights for us. He’s been fighting for us since the beginning of time and has gone to incredible lengths (understatement!) to fight for us and redeem us.

I was then somehow reminded of the song borne out of the Brownsville Revival of the last 1990s, “Enemy’s Camp.” We used to sing it with great enthusiasm. It was a fun song to sing. It went like this:

Well, I went to the enemy’s camp and
I took back what he stole from me (x3)
I went to the enemy’s camp and
I took back what he stole from me

You know
He’s under my feet (x6)
Satan is under my feet.

However, in thinking about those lyrics, I’m not the one who went to the enemy’s camp. Jesus did. He took back what the enemy, Satan, stole. He’s the One who is the victor! He is the One who has Satan under His feet, foretold in the first prophesy in the Bible, as God curses the serpent in the Garden after the Fall:

So the Lord God said to the serpent, “Because you have done this,
“Cursed are you above all livestock and all wild animals!
You will crawl on your belly and you will eat dust all the days of your life.
And I will put enmity between you and the woman,
and between your offspring and hers;
he will crush your head,
and you will strike his heel.”
(Genesis 3:14-15)

I am saved… I am protected… I am redeemed… I am comforted… by the Victor — Jesus — and His army.

Reason to Shout!

But now he has reconciled you by Christ’s physical body through death to present you holy in his sight, without blemish and free from accusation— if you continue in your faith, established and firm, and do not move from the hope held out in the gospel. This is the gospel that you heard and that has been proclaimed to every creature under heaven, and of which I, Paul, have become a servant.

(Colossians 1:22-23)

The Scripture above makes it clear that:

1) As believers, you and I are holy. You may not feel like it. I certainly don’t. But faith isn’t always about feelings. In fact, it’s rarely about feelings. Faith is being “sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.” (Hebrews 11:1) Faith is about trusting and walking in it. In this case, it’s knowing beyond a shadow of a doubt that you are holy. And you didn’t have anything to do with it! It’s only by the blood of the Lamb of God, Jesus. You are free! You are declared NOT GUILTY in the Highest Court of All. And it’s all because of Jesus and His death on the Cross.

2) Secondly, the only thing we have to do is continue to walk by faith in this Good News: by faith alone in the work done by Christ alone, it is finished! This is your hope. This is my hope.

It is the Good News that brings freedom. It’s not a freedom to just accept the gift of God’s grace, and then go on with the rest of our lives as if nothing has happened. No. Once you understand what has been done for you and me, it changes you. It changes everything! As a captive set free, you can walk… no, run, with hands lifted high to the One who loves you and accepts you.

This is Good News that sets us free from having to work for God’s favor. It sets us free from trying to remain in God’s good graces, as the saying goes. We are loved and accepted! It is this firm hope that brings liberty and joy.

It gives us the freedom to shout with joy of the coming of our King this Chistmas.

He truly is the (only) Hope for all the world.

 

Desperate… Still Desperate

Do you miss them? Have you even noticed that they’re not there? If you attend a church in Augusta County, then I know you’ve noticed that they are not at the first corner you come to as you exit church.

Yes, I miss the panhandlers.

And, yes, I know that they made more money on their corner than many of us make in a year. Yes, I know that they may have financed their drug trade by panhandling. I realize that. Yet I still miss them, but not in the way you think.

Panhandlers, for me, helped keep my social conscience in check. They were a constant wake-up call to the desperate plight of society. More than anything, they reminded me of my own desperation. Without them – to some extent – I grow numb to my desperate need for God’s grace. I believe that I’m doing just fine, thank you very much. I’m reading my Bible, memorizing my Scripture, being obedient, doing my good deeds, and filling my mornings with “quiet time.”

Yet, I’m reminded that all this self-sufficient, self-righteousness is like filthy rags… like menstrual cloths, as the Hebrew actually translates it. (Isaiah 64:6) When I remember that my supposed “righteous” acts don’t get me any closer to God, I echo the cry of the disciples, “Who, then, can be saved?!?” (Matthew 19:26)

No one. That’s the answer. No one. No one can be saved outside of God’s amazing grace. No matter how well you’re doing on this journey called faith, your goodness doesn’t get you in. Your obedience doesn’t get you in. (Read Matthew 19: “All these I have done since I was a child”) Your presence in your pew on Sunday or your prayer closet on Monday doesn’t get you in.

Likewise, no matter how poorly you’re doing on this journey of faith, your failures, doubts, and questions don’t keep you out of the Kingdom. That’s right. Because in the eyes of our holy God, we ALL are doing poorly at being perfectly holy… which is what He requires. We ALL have sinned and fallen short. (Romans 3:23) We keep falling short!

Praise be to God, He has given us this wonderful, astounding, radical gift of grace through the death and resurrection of Jesus. Jesus is the only One who can save us, if we’re desperate enough to realize it.

His grace is sufficient for a panhandler like me.

Now, that’s Good News!

God’s Not Fair

God is not fair. Did you know that?

Wait. What? Surely God is fair! Above all things, God is fair.

Not really. God is just. That is for certain. He is a God of justice. You can bank on that. Everyone will get what they deserve. Well… sort of.

But God is not fair. Jesus tells a parable to illustrate and, you can find it in Matthew 20:1-16.

You may already know it…

A wealthy landowner needs workers and he goes to the marketplace to find some. He hires a group in the morning and puts them to work, hiring them at a standard wage. He evidently discovers he needs more workers, and so he goes back to the marketplace and hires some more at midday. He even goes back near the end of the day and hires more workers. As the day ends and it’s time for everyone to be paid, the landowner pays everyone the same amount. Those hired at the emd of the day get paid the same amount as those hired when the day began. Of course the workers hired at the beginning of the day cry bloody murder at the owner’s unfair treatment. They thought they worked more and should be paid more. Sounds fair, right?

Jesus says this is how the Kingdom of God is! Grace is above all things, unfair. It is radical. It is offensive. It makes people angry.

I remember a friend of mine talking about her alcoholic father who mistreated her mother and was a horrible, absentee dad. She had a deep-seeded, seething anger that worked its way into other aspects of her life. She told me one day that she hoped her dad never got saved. She said it just wouldn’t be fair after all he did to her mom, her brother, and herself. He deserved Hell.

She’s right. He does. We all do.

Thank God we serve a God who is not fair.

“All the persons of faith I know are sinners, doubters, uneven performers. We are secure not because we are sure of ourselves but because we trust that God is sure of us.” — Eugene Peterson

Christians Need Good News, Too

Brennan Manning says in The Ragamuffin Gospel…

“The saved sinner is prostrate in adoration, lost in wonder and praise. He knows repentance is not what we do in order to earn forgiveness; it is what we do because we have been forgiven. It serves as an expression of gratitude rather than an effort to earn forgiveness. Thus the sequence of forgiveness and then repentance, rather than repentance and then forgiveness, is crucial for understanding the gospel of grace.”

This really resonates within me. Maybe that’s because I don’t think we – as Christ-followers – truly understand that. I don’t think we’re taught that. I don’t think we’re shown that.

Instead, we are taught or shown the steps to Christian growth. We are given the different stages of Christ-likeness. We are told that we aren’t sinners any longer. We are encouraged to do… to try… to strive… toward acting like Jesus. We even have worn bracelets, reminding us What Would Jesus Do as we go about our day… all in an effort for us to produce something or someone that looks like Jesus.

In the process, we inevitably fail. We don’t live up to the standard that is set before us. We, exhausted with broken hearts and crushed spirits, find we can’t live up to that standard.

Thankfully, that is where a sinner like me finds God with open arms.

Understanding the Gospel of grace helps me to grow in grace. When I truly grasp what has been done for me and understand the Good News that God loves and accepts me, it sets me free from the unspoken requirement by the those around me to get better. As Manning says above, repentance is a natural byproduct of a sinner who truly grasps God’s love for him or her. As Romans 2:4 says, it is His kindness that leads to repentance.

We say that we know that God is love. We’ve read that in the Bible. (1 John 4:8) What I don’t think we truly grasp is that God loves and accepts each of us in such an unconditional, unchanging, and unrelenting way. As Pastor Shane Lilly says, “God loves you and there’s nothin’ you can do about it!”

Truly understanding that love and acceptance has the power to set the captive free, even if the captive is a Christian like me caught up in a world – even a Christian world – of performancism.

Out of a grateful heart pours the Spirit of Jesus into a world straining to find meaning, purpose, and peace.

And that Spirit is love and grace.