A Law Worthy of Song. A closer look at Psalm 119.

The ordinances of the LORD are sure and altogether righteous …they are sweeter than honey, than honey from the comb. (Psalm 19:9-10)

Psalm 119 is one long and strange poem dedicated to the beauty of God’s law and one man’s struggle to keep it.  We can understand poems dedicated to a lover, a sunset, or a work of art, but to a set of laws? I have a hard time imagining even lawyers composing such poetry, unless “if the glove does not fit, you must acquit,” qualifies as a poem.  But I wonder if our own myopic view of God’s law is to blame because we have come to see it only as set of restrictions and punishments. But that’s not how God sees it.  For him, it is a way of life, a kingdom whose subjects live in right relationship with God, their neighbor and with creation.  The DNA of this way of life is contained in two  simple commands:

Deuteronomy 6:4-5 Hear, O Israel: The Lord your God, the Lord is one.  Love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your strength.

Leviticus 19:18 Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against one of your people, but love your neighbor as yourself.

Jesus was asked what he thought was the greatest commandment and in his answer he brought these two together:

Matthew 22:37-38 Jesus replied: “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.’ All the Law and the Prophets hang on these two commandments.”

This is the way of life Jesus taught.   This is the way he lived.  It is the way he expects us to follow.

God’s law, as only a set of rules, will never inspire a poet.  But the law as a new way of living, where the harmony of creation is restored as humanity is brought back into right relationship with God, neighbor, and all creation, has the power to move this poet.  The struggle to have that dream realized in our lives. The fight to love God, when we are wired to love ourselves.  The challenge to love our neighbor as ourselves, including our enemies, even when we care barely love our families. The discovery that Jesus stepped out of heaven and fulfilled this law for us, died for our failures, rose from the dead so that this vision might be realized in our lives, and poured out his Spirit that this way of life might spread virus-like though our world. That’s the stuff of epic poems.

Oh, how I love your law! I meditate on it all day long. (Psalm 119:97)

How sweet are your words to my taste, sweeter than honey to my mouth. (Psalm 119:103)

May your hand be ready to help me, for I have chosen your precepts.  I long for your salvation, O Lord, and your law is my delight. Let me live that I might praise you, and may your laws sustain me.  I have strayed like a lost sheep. Seek your servant, for I have not forgotten your commands. (Psalm 119:173-176)

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Bold, Desperate and Shameless Prayer. Why praying for the Holy Spirit matters.

The Holy Spirit comes with tongues fire and a rushing wind on the church at Pentecost. (Jean Restout)

Fear rushed upon the poor man as he frenetically searched his cupboards for bread to serve his unexpected guest. It was midnight and not a morsel of food could be found.  Driven by the impending shame,  he slips quietly out the back door, rushes to his neighbor’s house and frantically bangs on the front door.

“Go away.  We are already asleep and the doors are locked!” an angry groggy voice sounds from inside the house. The man continues to pound and when the door opens he brazenly asks his irate neighbor for a loaf of bread. The desperate man does not return home empty handed.

This is what prayer should look like. Desperate.  Bold. Shameless.

Jesus goes on to say in Luke 11.

So I say to you: Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you. For everyone who asks receives; he who seeks finds; and to him who knocks, the door will be opened. (Luke 11:9-10)

But this begs the question.  Just what are we desperate for? We can remember times when we were driven to the point of desperation and we pounded on the doors of heaven.  There was an illness, an accident or an exam that caused us to drop all inhibitions and lift up bold, shameless prayers.  But for most of us these moments are too few because we are too wealthy. We have too many options.  Credit cards if the money runs low.  Medications if I am feverish, anxious or nauseous. These can all be blessings from God, but they can dangerously mask the deep dependence we fear. There is a deeper need beyond health, economic security and family peace. The question is whether we have the sensitivity to perceive it.

So we return to the question: What are we desperate for?  Look closely at what Jesus points to.

Which of you fathers, if your son asks for a fish, will give him a snake instead? Or if he asks for an egg, will give him a scorpion?  If you then, though you are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give the Holy Spirit to those who ask him! (Luke 11:11-13)

We are desperate for the Holy Spirit, but we don’t know it.  I didn’t. That is until God began to maneuver me into places of powerlessness. I became a husband and without the Spirit of God I will continue to be the selfish, self-centered, arrogant 20 something  I was when I got married. I am a father to a son and four daughters.  I can’t make them follow Jesus, let alone model Jesus to them. Only the Spirit will kindle their faith as he did mine. I am a pastor and have found that all the preparation and planning means absolutely nothing unless he shows up. I cannot heal, open minds, convince someone to believe the gospel or make someone change.

Slowly, God has exposed my weakness while revealing the superior power of His Spirit. Gradually, my desperation has grown and with it prayers for the Holy Spirit. He is the breath animating our dusty bodies. He is the rain craved by drought stricken cornfields. He is the heat that ignites the flame. The truth is inescapable: we need him and we need to ask for him boldly, desperately and shamelessly.

The other day I shared my desire to pray consistently for the Holy Spirit with my friend John Tully. He graciously handed me a copy of a prayer adapted (to fit our evangelical tradition) from the “Act of Consecration to the Holy Spirit” which he prays every morning. Think about using it your times of daily prayer.

O Holy Spirit, divine Spirit of light and love, I consecrate to Thee my understanding, my heart and my will, my whole being for time and for eternity.  May my understanding be always submissive to Thy heavenly inspirations; may my heart be ever inflamed with love of God and of my neighbor; may my will be ever conformed to the divine will, and may my whole life be a faithful imitation of the life and virtues of Our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ, to whom with the Father and Thee be honor and glory forever.  Amen.

Finding the Center

You have made us for yourself, O Lord, and our hearts are restless until they rest in you. (Augustine’s Confessions)

We have been conditioned to believe that prayer is about bringing our needs to God. Don’t get me wrong, there is some truth here. The Psalms do invite us to “call upon me [God] in the day of trouble; I will deliver you, and I will deliver you.”  Jesus himself affirms this in the Lord’s prayer where he invites us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread.” We are to bring our needs to God.

The problem comes when we equate prayer requests with prayer itself; when prayer is only a means to change the mind of God.  What happens when God doesn’t bend his will to our own? Will our faith survive when he decides to take our lives in a direction not of our choosing? Will we be forced to conclude that prayer lacks the power to impact our worlds? Or do we understand prayer at all?

I was struck by what CS Lewis had to say about prayer:

I pray because I can’t help myself. I pray because I’m helpless. I pray because the need flows out of me all the time- waking and sleeping. It doesn’t change God- it changes me. (from the movie “Shadowlands”)

No one can deny that needs drive us to pray. Recently a five year old boy in our church was diagnosed with lymphoma and I have never seen my church so galvanized to pray.  In this case God answered and the boy’s health was restored. But I don’t believe we convinced God to heal this boy. It was us, not God, that was changed by the experience. We emerged as a people with a deeper appreciation of what it means for God to be the healer.

But what if our problems go deeper than facing unemployment, children who are struggling, friends who are sick and a marriage that is failing? The problem with reducing prayer to a laundry list of requests is that we truly don’t know what we need. It assumes that the things we long for are the things that will make us whole. The truth is that our souls are bent, our hearts misshapen and our desires lack a true center.

The prayer masters who wrote the psalms understood that our hearts needed to be re-centered before we brought our desires to God. It is we that need to be changed, not God. I noticed this the other day as I was studying Psalm 84. Needs are addressed in this psalm, but that doesn’t come until verse 8. The first  seven verses are about placing God at the center of his heart, soul and body. That is our deepest need. To have our desires, motivations and bodies orbiting God, the true source of life and wholeness.

What good would it be for us to have all our dreams fulfilled and our needs met if those needs and desires are warped? The psalmist, recognizing this danger, begins his prayer by recentering his heart:

Psalm 84:2 My soul yearns, even faints for the courts of the LORD; my heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.

Underneath our need for love, security, meaning, adventure and fulfillment is a craving for God who alone can satisfy them. Prayer gets warped when we believe that the need for love will only be met with a satisfying marriage, security comes only from  a good job with great benefits, meaning is only found in a successful career, adventure emerges with the next experience and fulfillment comes with achievement. God may choose to give us these things, but our real need is not for the gifts, but for the giver himself.

Psalm 34:7 calls us to “delight yourself in the LORD and he will give you the desires of your heart” because when you delight yourself in the LORD you will discover that he is the desires of your heart.  We all die, economies fail, relationships disappoint and work will never define us, but God will always remain. Our true need can only be met when we allow God to wrap our desires around himself and his dream for the world.

How Psalm 5 taught me to pray

Psalm 5 - A prayer for the morning

… in the morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation … Psalm 5:3

When I go to prayer I need all the help I can get. Several years ago Nathan Hall had suggested praying the Psalms as a means of achieving worshipful prayer. For me, prayer can become routine, done perfunctorily and, of course, dull. Not The Sweet Hour of Prayer I would like it to be. I am jealous to have an emotional high each time I pray, but, alas, that seldom happens. I pray for several reasons: I should pray; I think God thinks I’m a better person if I pray; I want to curry God’s favor. Well, actually, praying with those incentives, is not praying at all. If praying were “easy” I doubt Jesus’ disciples would have asked him how it were to be done.

This Psalm is uniquely suited for morning worship – a glance at verse three shows why. I pray this psalm after I have made my petitions – i.e., prayed for all those people and things I am burdened with. I have just listed all my requests to the Lord and the opening line to this psalm is: “Give ear to my words, O LORD, consider my sighing.” How fitting. Let’s go on.

“Listen to my cry for help, my King and my God, for to you I pray.” In typical Hebrew fashion, verse two is a retelling of the opening line of the psalm. I know I need usually to be told more than once to do something. While the same can’t be said of God, still, it addresses a need in me to say again that I need the Lord’s help.

Verse three: “Morning by morning, O LORD, you hear my voice; morning by morning I lay my requests before you and wait in expectation.” This verse I have designated as the “refrain” and I repeat it after the sixth verse, the ninth verse and the twelfth verse. Well, the “morning by morning…” seems to imply that I would be doing this praying thing every day. I repeat this verse because it emphasizes my own need and my expectation. I actually “expect” the Lord to do something with my requests… and he does. Unfortunately most of us don’t “expect” an answer (or at least the one we’re looking for) and when we get the answer (the one we want) we tend to be surprised; or worse we forget that we had asked. Perhaps we shouldn’t be. “You do not have, because you do not ask God. When you ask, you do not receive, because you ask with wrong motives, that you may spend what you get on your pleasures.” (James 4:2b-3 NIV) I get it. We are supposed to ask more for others than for ourselves!

I suppose if I believed in “Give us this day our daily bread…” I might just be satisfied with what the Lord provides. The fact is that the Lord wants to hear about our troubles and fears and wants. Certainly he does not want us not to ask anything of him. I try to pray with reckless abandon to see what happens. I think it is important to remember who we are because of Christ. Because of Christ we are sons (read sons and daughters) of God – well, that puts us in a very special place. We should be able to ask anything. As for the right motives, I think that as we grow in Christ, he changes our hearts in such a way as we begin to desire what he wants for us.

Verses 4-6 look at how the Lord will deal with the unrighteous. We need to know that the Lord is concerned about injustice: “with you the wicked cannot dwell”. Next follows a short list of who these wicked are: the arrogant (v. 5), wrong-doers (v. 5); liars/deceitful men (v. 6); and, of course, the bloodthirsty (v. 6). Here again, I say verse 3 “Morning by morning …”

Verses 7 & 8 help us to become worshipful: “But I, by your great mercy, will come into your house; in reverence will I bow down toward your holy temple.” I don’t think we appreciate how awesome it is that we can even approach the presence of God – consider what it took to come to God in the Old Testament. Some people in the time before Christ were struck dead because they came too near to God. So as verse 7 indicates: “by your great mercy…” That mercy came at an enormous price – the very death of Jesus. When he died the veil in the temple (which separated everyone from the presence of God – except the high priest but one day a year) was rent in two from top to bottom (see Matthew 27:51). That “rending” gave access to all; the veil being torn from top to bottom, I think is simply from heavenward to earth. So to approach God as matter-of-factly as we tend to is truly less than he deserves. So there is great reverence shown.

Verse 8 (“Lead me, O LORD, in your righteousness because of my enemies – make straight your way before me.”) is very much like the line in the Lord’s Prayer “Lead us not into temptation.” It is also a cry to know God’s will.

Verse 9 revisits the wicked: this time with respect to how they use their tongues. The Epistle of James has much to say about the tongue. While he is addressing the faithful, his words apply to everyone. “The tongue also is a fire, a world of evil among the parts of the body. It corrupts the whole person, sets the whole course of his life on fire, and is itself set on fire by hell.” (James 3:6 NIV) Evidently the wicked can’t be trusted in anything.

Repeat verse 3 “Morning by morning…”

Verse 10 is seeking justice for the world because of the evil of the wicked. The psalmist is asking God to declare them guilty. They should be declared guilty – they are guilty. And so were we. But we have been declared not guilty. “When you were dead in your sins and in the uncircumcision of your sinful nature, God made you alive with Christ. He forgave us all our sins, having canceled the written code, with its regulations, that was against us and that stood opposed to us; he took it away, nailing it to the cross.” (Colossians 2:13-14 NIV) So these wicked are guilty both with their tongues and in their actions. While it might grant us a measure of satisfaction to say, “Declare them guilty; banish them for their many sins…” we must also remember that it was the forbearance, patience and grace of God which was extended to us. “The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. He is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance.” (2 Peter 3:9 NIV)

Verse 11 and 12 encourage us to “take refuge in you [God]”. We sing for joy in this security. I don’t think we can help but sing for joy. For me, this is a picture of what life is like after Jesus has restored the earth to what God had intended all along. I think we can live victoriously because of what Jesus has done for us. And is there any one of us who does not think he is blessed in Christ?

Again verse 3: “Morning by morning etc. …” By way of closing the psalm I say the “Glory be to the Father…” the Church’s traditional ending for all the psalms. “… and wait in expectation.”

(by John Tully)

Lead us not into temptation

The Temptation of Adam

The Temptation of Adam  – Jacobo Tintoretto

James the brother of Jesus writes this concerning temptations that we face.

James 1:13-14 When tempted, no one should say, “God is tempting me.” For God cannot be tempted by evil, nor does he tempt anyone; but each one is tempted when, by his own evil desire, he is dragged away and enticed.

God never tempts us, nor is he ever the one who drags us into sin. It’s our own evil desires that do that. So why would Jesus ask us to pray, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil?” Isn’t that the one thing God wouldn’t do anyway?

I believe that the key to unlocking this mystery lies in the stories of Jesus. Jesus loved to tell farming stories to describe how the kingdom of God grows within us. In one of these stories recorded in Matthew 13:1-8, a farmer goes out and sows seed on the ground. Some of the seeds fall on the path, some on rocky soil, others fall among thorns, but the final group of seeds falls in good soil. The seeds that fall on the path are snatched away by the birds and never germinate. The seeds that fall in the rocky soil spring up quickly, but because the soil is too shallow, the plant lacks the roots to survive the summer sun. The seeds among the thorns also sprout, but the thorns quickly choke the life out of the young plant. Only the seeds planted in good soil grow to maturity and produce a hundred fold harvest.

Later in Matthew 13, Jesus explains this parable when he is alone with his disciples. The seeds snatched by the birds are those who hear the gospel but never respond. Their faith never takes root because it is stolen by Satan. The next two obstacles, the rocks and the thorns, are of particular interest to us because they represent the two great temptations that followers of Christ will face throughout their lives.

The rocks represent hard times; persecution and trouble. If our roots are too shallow, the heartbreaks of life will be sufficient to undo our faith. The thorns are the opposite. They represent the dangers lurking in the good times. We all know what comes with great wealth and possessions. We worry about losing them. They consume our time maintaining and enjoying them. They dominate our lives choking out thoughts of the eternal. They own us as we depend on them for our security and if we are not careful, they will destroy our faith and kill the gospel seedling that was planted in our hearts.

In other words, Jesus sees two great threats to the Christian soul. Heartache and success. Great wealth and excessive poverty. Too much and too little. These are the rocks and thorns, the two great temptations, which seek to destroy our faith in God.  The book of Proverbs captures this idea with this simple prayer:

Proverbs 30:8-9 … Give me poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you and say, “who is the Lord?” Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God.

Interesting. Isn’t this what Christ asked us to pray two lines earlier in the Lord’s Prayer? Avoiding the two great temptations, riches and poverty, is linked to the request “give us this day our daily bread. “Lead us not into temptation” complements “give us this day our daily bread.” They are two sides of the same coin. By asking God for “our daily bread”, we are also pleading with him to “lead us not into temptation.” If he were to give us more than our daily bread, if he were to drown us in wealth, the conditions would be right for our hearts to be led into the sins of pride and self-reliance. If God were to give us less than our daily bread, we would be brought to the brink of starvation and tempted to steal.

This is not to minimize the threats that we face from outside ourselves. We do live in a world with real enemies, real spiritual forces and terrorists. We are to pray, “deliver us from evil.” With that said, James reminds us that our own evil desires pose an even greater threat. It is our evil desires that drag us into sin and if we are not careful will “give birth to death.” (James 1:15) Enemies may kill our bodies, but lurking within our own hearts are threats with the power to destroy our own souls.

In this life we walk a narrow ridge line between the chasms of pride on the one hand and despair on the other. It is our task to plead with God to steer our lives between them, to clear the rocks and thorns  and allow the gospel to grow to full maturity in the fertile soil of our hearts. May we never stop praying for ourselves and each other, “lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from evil.”

Forgive us our debts

Victims of the Nazi terror bombing campaign in London. “Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive.” CS Lewis

England was not in a forgiving mood as German bombs indiscriminately rained down on the terrified residents of London. It was in this atmosphere of fear and anger that CS Lewis was asked by the BBC to give a series of talks on what he called “Mere Christianity”. One of his most poignant talks dealt with forgiveness.

Every one says forgiveness is a lovely idea, until they have something to forgive, as we had during the war. And then, to mention the subject at all is to be greeted with howls of anger. It is not that people think this too high and difficult a virtue: it is that they think it hateful and contemptible. ‘That sort of talk makes them sick,’ they say. And half of you already want to ask me, ‘I wonder how you’d feel about forgiving the Gestapo if you were a Pole or a Jew?’

So do I. I wonder very much. Just as when Christianity tells me that I must not deny my religion even to save myself from death by torture, I wonder very much what I should do when it came to the point. I am not trying to tell you in this book what I could do — I can do precious little — I am telling you Christianity is. I did not invent it. And there, right in the middle of it, I find ‘Forgive us our sins as we forgive those that sin against us.’ There is no slightest suggestion that we are offered forgiveness on any other terms. It is made perfectly clear that if we do not forgive we shall not be forgiven. There are no two ways about it. What are we to do? (CS Lewis, Mere Christianity)

It is impossible to receive God’s forgiveness without forgiving our neighbor, but those who understand the true cost of forgiveness understand that is impossible. So what do we do?

Jesus tells a story of a servant who is forgiven a debt of an astronomical amount of money by a kindhearted king (Matthew 18:21-35). The king cancels the 10,000 talent bill because he was  moved by man’s desperate pleas to  save him and his family from a life of debt slavery. Despite having been forgiven, the servant begins choking a man who owed him a much smaller sum, demanding that he pay his debt.

I hated this unmerciful servant until I understood the size of debt he was owed. A denarii was what a worker could expect to be paid for a day’s labor. Therefore 100 denarii was roughly equivalent to a third of his annual salary. If you are living paycheck to paycheck, could you imagine taking a financial hit of that magnitude? Would you be able to absorb the loss of income? It may be the difference between eating and not eating.

And yet we despise this unmerciful servant Why? Because as significant as the debt that was owed him, it was dwarfed by the debt he owed the king. That’s why we believe the king is well within his rights to imprison this servant and hand him over to be tortured. He deserves it. Do you see now how Jesus set us up?

God is the kindhearted king, we are the unmerciful servants. This warning is for us:

Matthew 18:35 This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you [prison and torture] unless you forgive your brother from your heart.

So what do we do when God demands the impossible of us?

We remember that our God has forgiven us at the cost of the crucifixion of his Son.

We allow the enormity of the debt we owed God, that is all the ways we have failed to love him and our neighbor, to humble us and build  compassion for the one who has harmed us. The one thing we have in common with our enemies is that we both owe God a debt that we are incapable of paying.

Finally, we cry out to God. A third of an annual salary is too much harm to let go. Only he can lift this burden and wrest my fingers from the debt that is owed. We can’t do this by our own strength. We need to pray, “forgive us our debts as we forgive our debtors.” May God give us the grace to believe that God has forgiven the unforgivable in us and will give us the power to do the same for others.

Give US this day OUR daily bread

The ‘us’ in ‘give us this day our daily bread’ includes this child who lives and works at a dump in Honduras.

I never realized how self-centered my prayers were until the pronouns in the Lord’s Prayer were pointed out to me by the author Scott McKnight. The Lord’s Prayer never says ‘I’ or ‘me’ or ‘my’. It is always ‘we’ and ‘us’ and ‘our’. My version of the Lord’s Prayer is quite jarring in its selfishness if you think about it.

[My] Father in heaven, hallowed be your name,

your kingdom come, you will be done on earth as it is in heaven.

Give [me] today [my] daily bread.

Forgive [me] my debts, as [I] also have forgiven my debtors.

And lead [me] not into temptation,

but deliver [me] from the evil one.

When you pray the Lord’s Prayer my way, you wind up trying to manipulate God in order to get what you want. God, I’ll worship you and I’ll even pray that your will is followed on earth as it is in heaven, but this is only a warm up for what I really want to say, “give me this day my daily bread.” I will give you yours, if you will give me mine. That unfortunately is the definition of a pagan prayer, an orphan trying to manipulate a day’s survival out of a powerful authority figure.

But Scot McKnight’s book, The Jesus Creed, played a pivotal role in reshaping my understanding of prayer. The Lord’s Prayer is the way we live out the Great Commandment, love God and love others, in our prayer lives. We love God by worshiping him and by wanting what he wants for the world. We love our neighbor by caring as much about their needs as we care about our own. That is why Jesus commanded us to pray, “give us this day our daily bread.”

We are encouraged to bring our needs before God, but we never do it apart from the needs of our brothers and sisters around the world. When we pray, we ask God to protect our children, but we also ask that he might protect the innocents caught in the Syrian civil war. When we ask God to meet our financial needs, we are also praying for the victims of the Haitian earthquake. When we ask God for comfort, we also pray for the family down the street that is losing their father to cancer. We cannot ask for my daily bread, without asking God to provide for my neighbor. Why? Because the Lord’s Prayer is the way we love our neighbor through prayer.

“But who is my neighbor?” We are not the first ones to ask this question. A rich young man posed this question to Jesus two thousand years ago. Jesus’ answer startled the young man and, if we are honest, it rattles us today (see Luke 10:25-37). Jesus’ story of the Good Samaritan teaches us that our neighbor includes all of humanity even the immoral, even the wicked and especially our enemies. To pray “give us this day our daily bread” with integrity means that we pray that God will provide the daily needs for even a member of Al Qaeda and his family while praying for our own. You cannot love your neighbor without loving your enemy. You cannot pray “give us this day our daily bread” without praying that God will bless our enemies.

How can we pray in this way? Only when we realize, as Tim Keller once pointed out, that we were the enemy once, and Jesus loved us and prayed on our behalf even when our sins had nailed him to the cross.

Luke 23:34 Jesus said, ‘Father,  forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing.’

Romans 12:14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse.