learning the language and heart of contrite brokenness

Have mercy on me, O God,
    according to your unfailing love;
according to your great compassion
    blot out my transgressions.
Wash away all my iniquity
    and cleanse me from my sin.

Psalm 51:1-2

Psalm 51 is the great penitential psalm, attributed to David in the aftermath of his terrible sin in committing adultery with Bathsheba, and being complicit in her husband Uriah’s death. We know the story from scripture, and the fallout which followed. Once when I was going over the psalm and rather overcome by its magnificence, I made the statement that it arguably never would have been written apart from David’s sin, but sin is never ever worth whatever good might come out of it. Yet God is the redemptive God, in the work of redeeming sinners, and even bringing good out of what forever remains evil.

There is what’s called soaking in God’s presence. I think it’s good to soak in scripture, as well, to soak in God’s presence in scripture. And in this passage, which can help us learn both the language and heart of a contrite brokenness. Contrite in the sense of being sorry, but not sorry just over the consequences of sin, but over the sin itself, especially in the sense of being against God, and then from that, grieving over its hurt and loss it has inflicted on others. Not to suggest that we don’t find salvation even in the midst of this, as is quite evident in the psalm itself.

I am in this psalm right now, working on memorizing it to begin with, and then in prayer, offering it to God. So that it must become not only the psalmist’s prayer, but my prayer as well.

A new thought did dawn on me, something that had never occurred to me, or hit me in the same way, something I want to pray through, and perhaps somehow act on. Whatever my own thoughts and wishes, my intention is not to be in a hurry, but let this language become my own, so that the heart from that language might be my own heart, too. In and through Jesus.

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keep on forgiving

Forgive us our sins,
    for we also forgive everyone who sins against us.

Luke 11:4a

Forgiveness is not something we withhold from others. We at least need to forgive everyone for whatever wrong they’ve done to us from our hearts. But there’s what I have called a functional forgiveness as well. Meaning that we forgive them only when they acknowledge their fault to us, being sorry that they did it. That kind of forgiveness is for their good. For some things, and especially concerning those in the church, people need to be held to a certain standard. And our Lord teaches us to do that (Luke 17:3-4; Matthew 18:15-20). But forgiving others from the heart includes both the functional forgiveness we extend, as well as forgiveness for all the other wrongs done to us, even by our enemies who might want to harm us all the more.

We might say that the functional forgiveness is primarily for the good of the other, the one who has sinned against us, while forgiving from the heart is not just for their good, but primarily for the good of the one who forgives. It’s a heart matter.

And being a heart matter to me suggests that it is more than functional, which we automatically do when someone acknowledges repentance to us. It is something we may well have to work through, in a heart by God’s grace of love, yes, forgiving them. But the wrong done to us may have been so bad, and perhaps the perpetrator is not even sorry they did it, that such forgiveness we may have to struggle through, and do again and again. God does this for us, and we need to do it for others.

We need to remember the example of our Lord on the cross when he prayed for his enemies, even for those who put him there, “Father, forgive them, for they do not know what they are doing” (Luke 23:34). But we also need to be honest to ourselves and to God, that there will be times when we are once again struggling to forgive someone for the wrongs they have done, either real or imagined by us. Once again, it’s a heart matter. Psalm 51 is a great passage to read about heart change. We often sin, and actually probably always do, when others sin against us. So that confession to God will be necessary, and perhaps to the person who sinned against us, if we responded in kind against them, returning evil for evil. If we just harbored it in our hearts we need to confess such to God, and work through it. We do this on the basis both of God’s mercy to sinners (Luke 6), and because of the cross where we find that God reconciled the world to himself in Christ, not counting people’s sins against them (2 Corinthians 5).

And we may have to keep forgiving someone again and again. If we’re repentant ourselves over our struggle to forgive, God’s grace will be present, as it actually already is, to help us so repent. God will help us, and if need be again and again, to forgive the wrongdoer. It will probably take us awhile, and maybe will be something we keep doing the rest of our lives. Even if reconciliation with them is not possible. We forgive them, and release them into God’s hands, praying for their salvation, and for God’s good will to be accomplished even in the midst of evil, or what is not good. All of this in and through Jesus.

the breath of the Christian: prayer

Devote yourselves to prayer, being watchful and thankful.

Colossians 4:2

Not to be confused with the Christian spiritual practice of breath prayer, which I personally have nothing against from what I understand of it, we as Christians, believers and followers of Jesus, need to make prayer a vital part of our lives throughout the day. When I say prayer, I’m thinking primarily of petitions to God for others, and also for one’s self, but it certainly ought to include worship and praise of God, as well as confession of sin, and as we’re told in the great passage on spiritual warfare in Ephesians 6, we’re to “pray in the Spirit with all kinds of prayers and petitions.” It’s good to utter the Lord’s/Our Father’s prayer regularly, daily, and that helps keep us on track in what and how we should pray.

Charles Spurgeon, the pastor and great preacher in London used to be known as being a busy man in pastoring the church, and in teaching at the school his church had for pastors. It didn’t seem like he would have much time for prayer, but he said that there was always a prayer under his breath. And it’s interesting that it seems like he had a gift of the Spirit of faith for those who were ill, maybe a gift also of healing. It was said that there were more people healed through his prayers than through all the medical doctors in London. And he was a Baptist, and therefore not given to any special emphasis in that direction. It was just a gift he had.

Let me also note that kindness and generosity toward others, even when it would be easy to do otherwise, ought to mark our speech, beginning with our thoughts of others. We also need to remember that we all need mercy and grace. Instead of criticizing someone who may even well deserve it, we need to bite our tongues and pray for them. We need to be in prayer left and right for everyone and everything.

Note too that prayer is not some great way of praying on our part, so that God accepts it. No, no, no. It is just a simple prayer to God in all of our weakness, perhaps pain, and even sin. We just pray to God with simple prayers in all our own weakness and brokenness. Maybe having a hard time sometimes even uttering a word, or thinking it matters, but just doing it, and doing it again and again, so that hopefully it becomes a habit of life.

I like to be in the word all day, both reading it, and especially throughout the day going on to the next phrase in another kind of Bible reading. Ironically, I shouldn’t let even that get in the way of praying. With the kind of job I have, I can sometimes easily take the next phrase and shove my small Bible back into my pocket. But other times I’m so busy, I can’t do that. Those can be times where I can practice prayer all the more. However it works out for us, what we need to do is pray, pray, and pray some more. And never stop praying. An important exercise of our faith, and for helping us live in God’s will with others in and through Jesus.

the love that overcomes (in anticipation of Martin Luther King Jr. Day)

13 If I speak in the tongues“[a] of men or of angels, but do not have love, I am only a resounding gong or a clanging cymbal. If I have the gift of prophecy and can fathom all mysteries and all knowledge, and if I have a faith that can move mountains, but do not have love, I am nothing. If I give all I possess to the poor and give over my body to hardship that I may boast,b]”>[b] but do not have love, I gain nothing.

Love is patient, love is kind. It does not envy, it does not boast, it is not proud. It does not dishonor others, it is not self-seeking, it is not easily angered, it keeps no record of wrongs. Love does not delight in evil but rejoices with the truth. It always protects, always trusts, always hopes, always perseveres.

Love never fails. But where there are prophecies, they will cease; where there are tongues, they will be stilled; where there is knowledge, it will pass away. For we know in partand we prophesy in part, 10 but when completeness comes,what is in part disappears. 11 When I was a child, I talked like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child. When I became a man, I put the ways of childhood behind me. 12 For now we see only a reflection as in a mirror; then we shall see face to face. Now I know in part; then I shall know fully, even as I am fully known.

13 And now these three remain: faith, hope and love. But the greatest of these is love.

1 Corinthians 13

Martin Luther King Jr. Day is just around the corner (Monday), so I’ve been been listening to his speeches, and remarks from witnesses of his time from Martin Luther King: The Essential Box Set: The Landmark Speeches and Sermons of Martin Luther King, Jr.. This morning I listened to his message, Paul’s Letter to American Christians.  And from that comes this.

We look back on him and what he did, and we see him as a kind of prophet from God for his time. Although true prophets are for every time, which is no less the case with him. But what marked him above all, and gave power to his prophetic words was the love which marked all of those words and actions which followed.

People nowadays say (and it’s on car bumper stickers), “Love Wins,” but it’s the love of Jesus Christ found in the gospel that wins, period. Other love might win in some ways, but only the love of God in Jesus is victorious against all the hate and wrong in the world.

We get on our bandwagons, and we might give lip service to certain causes, one quite noble cause being the integration of all peoples, so that no one ethnic group or category is marginalized. But is there heart and hand service to go along with that? It is noteworthy how some of us can be so zealous for political positions, but our personal lives calling into question our professed allegiance to such causes.

But this is where the church through the gospel of Christ is to make the needed difference, or more precisely, to show the difference that the power of God for salvation is to make in the world. 1 Corinthians 13 quoted above is in the context of church relations, so that it is not really about this love in the world, but in the church. Only in and through Jesus can God’s love be manifested in the way described by Paul. Paul is pointing out that all of the spiritual gifts spoken of in 1 Corinthians 12 and 14 are empty and mean nothing apart from this all pervasive love. And he even suggests when you consider the end of 1 Corinthians 12, that love is a way that is superior to the gifts. I don’t think in the end he’s making the case for either or, but again that love is to pervade all that is done in the church. How we love each other demonstrates to us and to the world the power of the gospel.

Racism is a grave and serious sin. It is to have no part in our hearts, and particularly in our churches. But we need to begin with the truth that we are all prejudice in that we all hold to certain myths which affect our view of others (listen to the January Series talk by David R. Williams, “Unnatural Causes: Is Inequality Making Us Sick?”). Myth used here in the sense of ideas which may or may not hold some water generally speaking, but fail at a most basic, needed level. Racism is especially bad because it flies in the face of love; it denies love, and in fact stands in opposition against it. And most often it is not blatant, but subtle. And it’s evident in our neighborhoods, and even in our churches– sad to say.

The love of Jesus Christ through the good news, the gospel in him is the only hope to heal all of the wounds, and help us begin to live well together. All barriers are broken down by that gospel, so that we can learn to love and listen, listen and love. And that should begin in our neighborhoods, and at our workplaces, so that the power of that gospel can have its full effect and be seen in our churches. Different cultures brought together in ways which impact us all for good. In this way we are more human, since inherent to our humanity are relationships marked by love which sees us through the thick and thin; the good, the bad, the beautiful, and the ugly. So that we’re committed to each other, and to the gospel for all peoples in a humility marked by this love.

We are all surely on a learning curve, some of us on a steeper one than others. So we have to pray and think, and work at this. We don’t bale out when we fail or see just how far we miss the mark. Instead we use that as a means of seeing God’s salvation through our commitment to ongoing confession of our own sin and change through repentance into a new way of thinking and living. No less than in the way of love in and through Jesus.

anger and grace don’t mix

26 “In your anger do not sin”[a]: Do not let the sun go down while you are still angry, 27 and do not give the devil a foothold.

Ephesians 4

Literally, it’s “Be angry,” but the NIV probably captures the meaning well, since it likely is not an actual command to be angry, but rather an accommodation. In fact it is not saying that anger in itself is sin, but suggesting that it can lead to, or become sin.

Ephesians quotes from Psalm 4 (see other translations from the link below, and notice the context):

Don’t sin by letting anger control you.
    Think about it overnight and remain silent. Interlude

Psalm 4:4: NLT

It might be okay to be angry. Anger is dangerous, and best avoided. But sometimes anger is not only acceptable and justified, but it might even be right. Of course the Lord’s anger is always right, what is called righteous anger. And given the evil in the world, it can surely sometimes be quite wrong not to be angry.

But justifiable anger needs to be given over to the Lord in prayer. We most likely will have to confess what is sin in our anger to God. We have to let it go, or at least give it to God as best we can. And we have to counter it with mercy extended to the one who might be in the wrong. Or dealing with the issue of just why we’re angry. Of course the Psalm 4 passage is good on this. Silence is most often wise, especially in the face of what is angering us, or most likely to. We dare not forget the deadly demonic force the tongue can be (James 3).

Anger and grace don’t mix. Do we want to endeavor to walk with God, and hear from God through his word? Then we dare not harbor anger. That opens the door to the devil, and to all the deception that comes with that. It is more than not worth it. It is bad in and of itself.

So no matter what the case, let’s deal with what is provoking or troubling us as best we can: in prayer, silence, pondering, more prayer, and definitely as well endeavoring to listen to God through God’s word. In and through Jesus.

God’s vindication

Vindicate me, Lord,
    for I have led a blameless life;
I have trusted in the Lord
    and have not faltered.
Test me, Lord, and try me,
    examine my heart and my mind;
for I have always been mindful of your unfailing love
    and have lived in reliance on your faithfulness.

Psalm 26

To vindicate means to declare someone innocent (NLT). In fact, read the NLT rendering of the psalm found in the link above.

We are not talking about sinless perfection, because if we were, God could vindicate no one, except of course, Jesus. And we’re not talking about a person who has no room for growth, perhaps especially in certain areas. If Paul didn’t think he had arrived at the goal to which God had called him heavenward in Christ Jesus (Philippians 3), how much less, we?

We are referring to a life of integrity, which actually would necessarily include making things right when one does wrong. A life devoted to God, growing in and through Christ. While we initially need to confine ourselves to the words of this psalm, we shouldn’t stop there. We also need to consider all of scripture, and particularly in the light of the revelation of Christ and the gospel.

Only God can vindicate. Self-vindication is not what we’re after. Although there are times quite trying, when we do speak in defense of ourselves and our lives and conduct, which is certainly the case of the psalmist here. Even though he is asking God for God’s vindication of his life, he is laying out his best case in defense of himself, even while asking God to probe his heart, and test whether or not these things are true.

Jesus is the one God vindicated, ultimately through his resurrection from the dead. And we are in Jesus, so that God’s vindication on us is through him. But within that declaration of innocence or righteousness, which begins by faith in this life, is a life of not only dependence on God, but devotion to him and his will in Jesus. Certainly a life in which ongoing confession of sin will be necessary, both to God and to others we have hurt.

God is the one who will vindicate us, our lives, our sincerity, and the reality of our walk in him in and through Jesus.

God is delighted in change

The Lord told him, “Go to the house of Judas on Straight Street and ask for a man from Tarsus named Saul, for he is praying.

Acts 9

I think it’s both interesting, and actually not authentic, as in corresponding to the truth, and not real when someone seems to think or act as if they have it all together. Change is something which is to occur not only at the outset of our journey of faith, but ongoing, throughout that journey. Scripture bears witness to that again and again, both in precept and in story. We as evangelicals emphasize conversion as being at the point of salvation, and there’s plenty of truth in that. But actually, I think it’s a process which extends from before salvation, and continues on afterward to the very end of one’s life, if I read the pages of scripture correctly.

I believe from scripture and from what I see and experience that God in his grace through Jesus delights in the smallest, real change in us for good in making us more like himself, more like his Son, Jesus. And I’m thinking of change in just any one area, when plenty of other areas in our lives may and will still need some serious work, God’s working of course, along with our active compliance. It’s not like God shakes his head and says something like, “Well, that’s good, but he/she still has a long ways to go.” No. I believe without a doubt in the God who delights in any change in his children, which brings them somehow closer to him, and to his family likeness.

And just as much as that, I also believe that it comes primarily through us praying. Paul’s case (then called Saul), quoted above, is interesting, as he was in the midst of an epic, earthquake-like life changing experience, and in the midst of it, he is praying. I think without a doubt that if we take what is wrong in our lives seriously, and quit excusing it, we will start by confessing it as an actual sin to God, and then begin to pray, seeking him for the needed change, however that should be played out. Certainly a change of heart to begin with, and a change in our lives.

We can’t do this on our own, and we won’t, even if we think somehow that we are. We should take heart that God is bringing us along, and wants our communion with him through prayer, as he continues to make us like his Son, and brings the one family in him more and more into the light of his love and life. In and through Jesus.