blessedly slowing down to gather one’s thoughts (and more)

The end of the matter; all has been heard. Fear God, and keep his commandments; for that is the whole duty of everyone. For God will bring every deed into judgment, including every secret thing, whether good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

Ecclesiastes is one of those books of Scripture which has always fascinated me, but also on which I struggle to get a handle on. The writer, mostly “the Teacher”- Qoheleth, takes us through a whirlwind of life experiences “under the sun,” with the conclusion that in the end none of it really satisfies. The book makes it clear that we should give ourselves fully to whatever our lot is, and enjoy the simple gifts of God. With the conclusion in the end that when all has been considered we’re to fear God and keep God’s commandments, with the realization that we will be held accountable for the choices we make.

All of us live in experience, even when we’re trying to understand Scripture texts. If we approach that correctly, it seems to me that it all has to do with life, yes life “under the sun” as we read in Ecclesiastes, as well as life in the context of God’s kingdom come in Jesus, present now, and to be consummated into its fullness on the renewed heaven and earth in the life to come. To want to escape from experience is not a good place to be. Instead we need by God’s grace to begin to get a grip on reality, on the true basics, we might even say basic basics. And set ourselves to live in that.

Fearing God is perhaps the most basic starting point of all. It’s simply the realization that God is the “Source of All Being,” the “Eternal Word,” and “Holy Spirit.”* We owe our existence and everything else that is good to God. And with that privilege to us humans indeed comes responsibility.

Jesus fulfills what none of us can accomplish ourselves, so that we can slow down, and blessedly let God catch up with our feverish, often misdirected steps. So that we might gather our thoughts so that we can begin to settle down on what is most important and what will bring us life. Out of the whirlwinds of the world and of our own making. Into the grace and peace of God. In and through Jesus.

*From morning and evening offices in Voices Together hymnal. 

the love which drives out fear

God is love, and those who abide in love abide in God, and God abides in them. Love has been perfected among us in this: that we may have boldness on the day of judgment, because as he is, so are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear; for fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not reached perfection in love. We love because he first loved us. Those who say, “I love God,” and hate their brothers or sisters, are liars; for those who do not love a brother or sister whom they have seen, cannot love God whom they have not seen. The commandment we have from him is this: those who love God must love their brothers and sisters also.

1 John 4:16b-21

There are all sorts of reasons we humans are sometimes afraid in this life. And some fears are actually helpful, like the fear of making bad decisions or even honest mistakes which can be consequential. How we navigate such makes all the difference, so that hopefully we’re not lost in the grip and paralysis of fear.

What is referred to in this passage of Scripture is the fear of God’s judgment and possibly connected to that, the fear of death itself (click link for Eugene Peterson’s rendering in The Message). These can go hand in hand, though we humans are usually occupied with one concern at a time.

The John writing this is bringing God’s great love, in essence God God’s Self into the picture. That love, the love God is, is made known to us by the Spirit through Christ, something we especially experience as God’s children together, but also in our individual lives as we go about our days. 

This love casts out fear no less, the fear which can dominate and actually displace this sense of love from God, the love of God in Christ Jesus. So it’s either this unhealthy, paralyzing fear which can grip us, or the love of God poured into our hearts, one or the other. Though often we can go in and out between. But make no mistake, God’s love wins out in the end even in all things, including death itself.

What John tells us here is that we who know God’s love in Christ and therefore love God, are to love our brothers and sisters in Christ, as well. I’m not sure we’ll ever reach “perfection in love” in this life, though I’m sure we can experience something of that in its fullness at times. But even keeping that in our memory, say from an experience, or experiences along the way, we should proceed accordingly. Refusing to allow our thoughts, actions, and words be dictated by fear, but rather by this love of God for us and for the world. In and through Jesus.

 

 

the black sheep along with the black or “every human” Christ (Messiah)

Since, therefore, the children share flesh and blood, he himself likewise shared the same things, so that through death he might destroy the one who has the power of death, that is, the devil, and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by the fear of death. For it is clear that he did not come to help angels, but the descendants of Abraham. Therefore he had to become like his brothers and sisters in every respect, so that he might be a merciful and faithful high priest in the service of God, to make a sacrifice of atonement for the sins of the people. Because he himself was tested by what he suffered, he is able to help those who are being tested.

Hebrews 2:14-18

Since, then, we have a great high priest who has passed through the heavens, Jesus, the Son of God, let us hold fast to our confession. For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested[a] as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.

Hebrews 4:14-16

I love depictions of images of Christ on stained glass windows, perhaps as the good shepherd carrying a little lamb with sheep trustingly following, or as Christ knocking on a door, along with other pictures. Usually what is depicted is a white Caucasian with mostly medieval or late medieval, a later culture imagery. That may have served in some ways well for its time, and to some extent even today. But it leaves behind so much of Scripture which Jesus is said to fulfill. Add to that, it also leaves behind many of us along with many of our struggles which simply are not taken into account within what we might call the privileged experience of so many of the rest of us.

This is not to attack those of us who love or have loved such pictures, probably having old Bible story books for children filled with such. But intended rather to give us a head’s up to more, what is beyond that, all that’s included in the great salvation Jesus brings.

We read in the above passages that Jesus went through all of the testing and temptations which befall all of us as a human family, being fully human himself. He knew what it was like to be marginalized as a Jew from Nazareth with Galilean, Gentile influence, as one of those who was not considered a fully pure descendant of Abraham. To live on the edges where he was not seen as legitimate since many did not understand his birth. Likely he lived with his needs met most of the time, but he did not live in the lap of luxury. And the way he taught us to pray: “Give us this day our daily bread,” suggests a daily dependence on God, rather than having all of that more than taken care of by one’s own efforts.

Jesus and the good news he brought has more than resonated not only to all in the slavery of sin, but to all who are in any kind of bondage imposed at all. The salvation the Lord brings won’t be complete and final in human experience until he returns, but it includes now care for the human experience in it entirety. Not just thinking one cares about them if they can get them to have assurance of eternal life for after this life. But caring for them in every way just as Jesus does. Being in this together as Christ’s body so that we care for each other in practical, down to earth ways, as well as through prayer. And to everyone else in the world, including our enemies. With a particular eye out for those marginalized, looked down and often falsely frowned upon. Realizing too that really we’re all in need of God’s mercy and grace. Remembering too that what we might often take for granted is something others can’t imagine.

So we need new images of Jesus given to us by the Spirit for the real world. Yes in painting but especially in lives, lives together in this world. The Jesus who wants to live that both for us, and in and through us individually, and especially as his body. In large part why we’re here. In and through Jesus.

learning to rest in God

You who live in the shelter of the Most High,
who abide in the shadow of the Almighty,
will say to the Lord, “My refuge and my fortress;
my God, in whom I trust.”

Psalm 91:1-2

Yes, Christians in too many places in the world are being persecuted. And people of other faiths, also. For us followers of Christ, the enemy which we struggle against is spiritual (Ephesians 6:10-20). We love all human enemies, while seeking to live in wisdom both for them and for ourselves.

Much of our struggle is tied both to our own weaknesses as humans and to the cosmic, spiritual conflict that is waging. So we need to see our troubled thoughts and troubles in that context. And we need to learn to rest in God. God is the One to whom we need to run and hide. God’s provision is in God’s Presence and with that comes our protection. I’m not referring to experience, that we have to feel that. Those feelings thankfully do come, but they also go. And sometimes they’re hard to come by at all because of our fears. This is simply something by faith which we do. Something we want to learn to be accustomed to doing. Where we want to live.

Notice the rest of the psalm (click link above). What we see is that God takes care of it. We’re still present, our faith active in complete dependence on God. The promise is that God will see us through trouble.

In the meantime I want to learn to rest more in God. And in that to truly learn to be at rest. In and through Jesus.

the most basic truth for us: God loves us

God is love. When we take up permanent residence in a life of love, we live in God and God lives in us. This way, love has the run of the house, becomes at home and mature in us, so that we’re free of worry on Judgment Day—our standing in the world is identical with Christ’s. There is no room in love for fear. Well-formed love banishes fear. Since fear is crippling, a fearful life—fear of death, fear of judgment—is one not yet fully formed in love.

We, though, are going to love—love and be loved. First we were loved, now we love. He loved us first.

1 John 4:17-19; MSG

There is nothing more basically important to us than the fact that we’re loved, and loved by God no less. We really have to hold on to that and not let go of it. God loves us, each and everyone God has created. God wants relationship with us, even longs for us. And God wants us to live in loving relationship with each other.

We humans are easily given to fear. We’re afraid of this and that, and for understandable, good reasons. But what is more important than that is God’s love. No matter what we face, no matter what happens or might happen, God is love and loves us. And we know because of that, God will take care of everything, that ultimately all will be well. So that even in the midst of the troubles of this life, we live in God’s love. And continue on knowing we’re loved both in our mind and experience.

And out of that love we seek to love others in practical, down to earth ways. In so doing extending God’s love to them in a way in which they’ll hopefully find that same love which exists for themselves.

The God who is love really wants the entire human race to live in that love. And out of that love in love with each other. Even now. In and through Jesus.

learning to feel good when feeling bad

Because of the extravagance of those revelations, and so I wouldn’t get a big head, I was given the gift of a handicap to keep me in constant touch with my limitations. Satan’s angel did his best to get me down; what he in fact did was push me to my knees. No danger then of walking around high and mighty! At first I didn’t think of it as a gift, and begged God to remove it. Three times I did that, and then he told me,

My grace is enough; it’s all you need.
My strength comes into its own in your weakness.

Once I heard that, I was glad to let it happen. I quit focusing on the handicap and began appreciating the gift. It was a case of Christ’s strength moving in on my weakness. Now I take limitations in stride, and with good cheer, these limitations that cut me down to size—abuse, accidents, opposition, bad breaks. I just let Christ take over! And so the weaker I get, the stronger I become.

2 Corinthians 12:7-10; MSG

Yesterday I quipped to someone that I was learning to feel good feeling bad. And though I look up to him, he said he does the same. For me the dam broke then, and a peace eventually flooded my heart, taking away the angst and deadness which had me down for a couple of days. But getting home, something came to my mind, another problem, and by and by I was submerged in something of the same fear.

I turn back to the same passage, which has become go-to for me. And the part when Paul accepts the Lord’s word to accept his weaknesses, even that “thorn in the flesh, a messenger of Satan.”

I like the way Paul sums it up. As The Message puts it, taking limitations in stride, letting Christ take over. The first part might be easier than the second, but it seems a prerequisite, meaning necessary for it. We learn to live well with our weakness, in Paul’s case it seems both exterior and interior. Paul’s list would include all the above.

Naturally we humans resist any of that. How easily we drift when all is going well inward and out. We want to avoid problems. But life is lived in the midst of problems, including weaknesses and limitations. It’s how we deal with that which is important. Where is our faith? Do we trust God to see us through? To work in those things for good, even for our good? To deepen us and help us grow in ways we haven’t and actually can’t imagine?

We need the Lord’s help for sure. We want that sense of the Lord’s strength in the midst of our weakness. His grace is indeed enough for us. We keep doing what God has called us to do as we read in Scripture, “in Christ Jesus.” Knowing God will help us in ways that only God can do. In and through Jesus.

why is it so hard to follow?

“Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy and my burden is light.”

Matthew 11:28-30

Rich Mullins wrote a couple of interesting songs which speak of the challenge of following Jesus, just how difficult it can be for us: Hard and Hard to Get. I really enjoy what seems like and surely is the all too short seasons of feeling close to God when each step seems natural and unforced. All too often I’ve lived in the space where nothing comes easy and I just don’t get it, where I often feel a crushing weight inside. Usually I live somewhere in between, having some buoyancy coming from grace, but still more weighted down than I want.

I’m not sure why it’s so hard to follow, or why it often seems that the Lord is so hard to get. Such thoughts and experience seem to fly in the face of what Jesus tells us about his yoke and the rest he gives. That seems to force the question back on us. Are we really coming to him, taking his yoke upon us, walking alongside with him as he carries the burden? I’m not sure. A prerequisite so it seems for this coming is that we be weary and burdened. That surely includes all of us somewhere along the way.

I would like to enter into this yoke, or as Eugene Peterson puts it in The Message, “the unforced rhythms of grace,” and just stay there. It really does seem like I’m such a slow learner. I actually do think I’ve come a long way over the years, but I still easily disappear into the space where God’s grace seems all but absent, where life is drudgery, everything forced. Not as often as in the past, but too often. Maybe a kin to “the dark night of the soul?” I don’t know.

The invitation is present. We must simply respond in faith regardless of what we’re experiencing. Come to the Lord. See what God might teach us or be teaching us in everything, hopefully deepening us. We hold on in faith to the one we trust has hold of us and keep going. In and through Jesus.

nothing at all can separate us from God’s deep, unchanging love

What, then, shall we say in response to these things? If God is for us, who can be against us? He who did not spare his own Son, but gave him up for us all—how will he not also, along with him, graciously give us all things? Who will bring any charge against those whom God has chosen? It is God who justifies. Who then is the one who condemns? No one. Christ Jesus who died—more than that, who was raised to life—is at the right hand of God and is also interceding for us. Who shall separate us from the love of Christ? Shall trouble or hardship or persecution or famine or nakedness or danger or sword? As it is written:

“For your sake we face death all day long;
we are considered as sheep to be slaughtered.”

No, in all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am convinced that neither death nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future, nor any powers, neither height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God that is in Christ Jesus our Lord.

Romans 8:31-39

1 We are often tossed and driv’n
on the restless sea of time,
somber skies and howling tempest
oft succeed a bright sunshine;
in that land of perfect day,
when the mists have rolled away,
we will understand it better by and by.

Refrain:
By and by, when the morning comes,
when the saints of God are gathered home,
we’ll tell the story,
how we’ve overcome,
for we’ll understand it better by and by.

2 We are often destitute
of the things that life demands,
want of food and want of shelter,
thirsty hills and barren lands;
we are trusting in the Lord,
and according to the Word,
we will understand it better by and by. [Refrain]

3 Temptations, hidden snares,
often take us unawares,
and our hearts are made to bleed for
any thoughtless word or deed;
and we wonder why the test
when we try to do our best,
but we’ll understand it better by and by. [Refrain]

Voices Together, 311

Also from Voices Together, 656God Weeps with Us. Cannot share lyrics due to copyright laws. A portrait of the song from another hymnbook here.

I’m not much into the idea of understanding it better by and by, in the life to come. I’m kind of the persuasion that I won’t care about trying to understand, being bathed in the love of God. Though that thought might come from living such a privileged life compared to so many others in our world. I think now of specific situations and sometimes we have to lament in horror, and then I soon forget about it, though hopefully it leaves an indelible mark on us so that we’re changed over time. And pray and do our part to alleviate human suffering.

Both of the hymns mentioned above spoke powerfully to me recently of how much God loves us no matter what happens, no matter what we’re up against. God’s love is always present and can become palpable, felt, if only we will learn to more and more trust God.

This is needed encouragement for me day after day when facing new difficulties, and considering the hard times so many are going through. God’s love is with us through everything. We need to count on it, so that no matter what we’re facing or how we’re feeling, we won’t accept the lie that somehow we are separated from God and God’s love. The words above say it better than I can. And note the second hymn as well. Given and present for us in and through Jesus.

the dangers and possibilities of each new day

Listen to my words, Lord,
consider my lament.
Hear my cry for help,
my King and my God,
for to you I pray.

In the morning, Lord, you hear my voice;
in the morning I lay my requests before you
and wait expectantly.

Psalm 5:1-3

Listen, God! Please, pay attention!
Can you make sense of these ramblings,
my groans and cries?
King-God, I need your help.
Every morning
you’ll hear me at it again.
Every morning
I lay out the pieces of my life
on your altar
and watch for fire to descend.

Psalm 5:1-3; MSG

We as humans are very experiential creatures. And the psalms are lock stocked with the language and sentiment of experience. We often go from lows to highs and then back to lows. Some of us experience this quite pronounced, others of us not that much variation, and probably most of the rest of us somewhere in between.

Psalm 5 is a good passage to remind us how to start each day. I think both the evening before we go to sleep, and the morning when we arise are important in how we do this. To read Scripture, maybe a liturgical prayer book for night (Compline) is good. To arise and be in Scripture and prayer, morning prayer and reading is good. We can’t take for granted that a good day at least in how it worked out will carry over into the next day.

It’s not about us having a good time, and that’s it. Instead it’s about living in God’s grace and all that means in terms of forgiveness of sins and new life, and having the vision to see what God might have us do, or be pleased to help us do in the new day. And even if it’s just filled with the routines of what we have to do, to do that in the breath and love of God.

At any rate, for some of us this is a matter almost of survival, at least of experiencing and living out this salvation from God well. Growing in that. So we have to take this seriously. Every day is God’s and for us that’s a good and ultimately happy prospect. We bring ourselves to God each new day, and look to God for his answer and help to us. In and through Jesus.

growing in the grace and knowledge (understanding) of our Lord

Therefore, dear friends, since you have been forewarned, be on your guard so that you may not be carried away by the error of the lawless and fall from your secure position. But grow in the grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. To him be glory both now and forever! Amen.

2 Peter 3:17-18

But you, friends, are well-warned. Be on guard lest you lose your footing and get swept off your feet by these lawless and loose-talking teachers. Grow in grace and understanding of our Master and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Glory to the Master, now and forever! Yes!

2 Peter 3:17-18; MSG

The letter of 2 Peter lays the foundation of God’s grace in Jesus, and our hard effort from that. Then warns us against false teachers, those who are religious, even Christian. With more. Then ends on the above note.

The grace and knowledge of our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ is like a spectacular, breathtaking scene in which we’re delighted yet terrified at the same time. We’re not acclimated to it. We’re so used to living in our own make do, get by world. Even trying to do our religion there. Finding it a constant struggle to even keep on going, much less doing it.

Truth is, we just can’t. Not the real thing anyhow. Instead we’re called to live in God’s idyllic world, even here and now in and through the grace of Christ. We just can’t believe it’s that easy or simple. 2 Peter begins and ends making that point. Without it, there’s nothing in between. We might have some little spurts of grace now and then. But God wants us to have so much more.

So, as we’re told at the end of this letter, we’re to grow in the grace and knowledge or understanding of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Grow in it. To grow in it, we must live in it. It’s like either the light is on or off.  No matter what we’re experiencing, God wants us to live in that. And grow in it. Becoming more and more acclimated to the new. Living there. The only place we really can live, live this new life. In and through Jesus.