intimacy with God in a brutal world

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the Lord, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”

Surely he will save you
from the fowler’s snare
and from the deadly pestilence.
He will cover you with his feathers,
and under his wings you will find refuge;
his faithfulness will be your shield and rampart.

Psalm 91:1-4

If you read Psalm 91 in its entirety, you can’t avoid the reality it’s describing: a brutal world. There’s no two ways of getting around it.

But even in the midst of that God not only wants to protect us, but be intimately close to us. God will take care of us, and help us flourish, even through the worst this life can bring.

But we have to hold on to this promise, and act on it. In spite of ourselves, sometimes God will break through in love. But this needs to be an ongoing daily practice, so that we experience more and more God’s protection and intimacy in a brutal world. In and through Jesus.

the abundant life the Lord speaks of

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.

John 10:10

A post on a recent book led me to think of our Lord’s description of why he came. Jesus speaks of himself as the good shepherd who ultimately lays down his life for his sheep. God is likened to a shepherd to his people in the Old Testament, perhaps the ultimate, certainly must endearing passage being the beloved Psalm 23:

The Lord is my shepherd, I lack nothing.
He makes me lie down in green pastures,
he leads me beside quiet waters,
he refreshes my soul.
He guides me along the right paths
for his name’s sake.
Even though I walk
through the darkest valley,
I will fear no evil,
for you are with me;
your rod and your staff,
they comfort me.

You prepare a table before me
in the presence of my enemies.
You anoint my head with oil;
my cup overflows.
Surely your goodness and love will follow me
all the days of my life,
and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
forever.

David who according to the superscription either wrote the psalm, or it somehow is tied to him, knew firsthand what a good shepherd was like since he tended sheep as a boy, having some significant experience in doing so.

Scripture does liken people to sheep, an analogy which was meaningful to many people during Biblical times. Sheep are dependent, and given to self-destructive behavior, in short: rather dumb. They really need a shepherd, and when having a good one, they end up flourishing, taking for granted safety from would be predators, and enjoying green pastures.

While Psalm 23 adeptly focuses on the individual, which is of basic importance, passages in Jeremiah and Ezekiel and our Lord’s words in John 10 focus on the flock. Humans are meant to flourish together. And as we especially see in the passages quoted above, it’s from the Lord that such abundant living takes place.

In this world there’s no way that life always seems good. There is many a pitfall, and sin diminishes the good that is to come out of a love that is meant to be for all. So Jesus’s words about laying down his life for the sheep figure in there. That ends up being necessary for the good of humanity and the world. And while such flourishing begins in this life, its complete fulfillment awaits the next life when heaven and earth become one at Christ’s return in the new creation

But make no mistake, Jesus’s promise of life to the full begins in the here and now. And that beginning is in itself both an indication as well as guarantee of what’s to come. Lived in all its variety of gifts from God in God’s love. In and through Jesus.

the rest we need

“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

There is no question that the world is either restless or in a rest that isn’t necessarily good or not good at all. The Bible speaks of this time and again, Ecclesiastes being one book starkly depicting it. We seem hardwired against entering into the one rest that brings the true flourishing which we may have once had an inkling of and longing for. We can take care of it ourselves, whatever we’re running after and restless for until we collapse before we go for it some more.

But Jesus invites us into a rest with him, away from the clamor and emptiness of the world’s headlong rush. Yet while apart from that very world, present in it. While there are regular times alone with God, and periodic get aways, this rest is largely lived in the midst and mess of every day normal life. That is what Jesus modeled for us as we see in the gospel accounts, and what the church is called to as we’re told in the rest of the New Testament.

The difference is that we are in and about the Lord’s work, in the way of the Lord no less. But one can well say prior to that in fellowship, indeed close communion with him. I have experienced that at times, though often my experience has been hard, dark and difficult. Which makes me long all the more to learn to enter, remain and live in this yoke of rest with our gentle, humble, living and loving Lord.

 

 

no paradise here

But in keeping with his promise we are looking forward to a new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness dwells.

2 Peter 3:13

Utopianism is the push to find, or more precisely, create the perfect place for people to live. It is an ideal striving in that direction to minimize risk and maximize safety and well being. The goal of a flourishing human community is good of course, and actually biblical in the vision from the prophets carried over into the New Testament of a promise of a new world to come, a new creation in which the old is made new.

We might as well face it: we live in a fallen world. The story in Genesis 1 through 3, then beyond, makes that clear. And it’s right in our faces day after day, week after week, year after year. There’s no escape. Money and the best that is known may help alleviate some of it for a time, but even that’s not foolproof. Life is good, and we should thank God for all the good we experience in it. But it’s uncertain. Actually, given all the problems, it’s remarkable it’s as stable as it is. I guess that depends on where one lives. Some areas are not as stable.

So we do well just to get on with it, and deal with the problems we face, hopefully one at a time, and learn to enjoy life in a world in which so much is not ideal. We learn to breathe the air of the new creation, which we look forward to in its completion. When all will be well. But until then we wait, and live in a world that is broken, our own brokenness included. And make the most of it, as we seek to live in God’s will in and through Jesus.

dependence on God and the peace that follows

You will keep in perfect peace
    those whose minds are steadfast,
    because they trust in you.
Trust in the LORD forever,
    for the LORD, the LORD himself, is the Rock eternal.

Isaiah 26:3; NIV

You will keep the mind that is dependent on you
in perfect peace,
for it is trusting in you.
Trust in the LORD forever,
because in the LORD, the LORD himself, is an everlasting rock!

Isaiah 26:3; CSB

You keep completely safe the people who maintain their faith,
for they trust in you.
Trust in the LORD from this time forward,
even in Yah, the LORD, an enduring protector!

Isaiah 26:3; NET Bible

The NET Bible note on one key difference in the translation we’re focusing on here (see the entire note for explanation of why the nation is in view rather than individuals):

In this context שָׁלוֹם (shalom, “peace”), which is repeated for emphasis, likely refers to national security, not emotional or psychological composure (see vv. 1-2).

We are blessed today with reasonably priced Bible tools on line. My guess is that the Logos Bible software is as good as they come, but I haven’t looked into it. Yet it’s amazing what we have at our fingertips that is completely free (the first level of Logos is free as well). I use Bible Gateway, and sometimes the NET Bible with its substantial extensive notes.

Putting all of this together on this well known verse of scripture, it seems that what is probably spoken of here is the shalom which includes all human flourishing. Yes, safety from enemies, in the note above, “national security,” but contrary to that note, “emotional” and “psychological composure,” as well. The Hebrew Bible context of shalom is a fulfillment of what a people, including individuals were created to be: blessed to be a blessing. So that actually both the NET Bible rendering, along with the more traditional understanding of that passage are likely apt together. Although the same word can have different meaning depending on its context.

A key help for me is from the CSB rendering which brings out the need for dependence on God. Add to that this insight from John N. Oswalt in the first volume of his outstanding Isaiah commentary:

To experience the security of God’s city one thing is required: a fixed disposition of trust. This is the opposite of James’s “double-minded man” (Jas. 1:6-8) or Jesus’ servant of two masters (Matt. 6:24). This person has cast himself upon God without any reservation. To trust one’s ability partly and God partly is the surest prescription for insecurity and anxiety (8:11-22; 57:19-21). That person will never know the wholeness (shalom) which having all his or her commitments in one place may mean. This is not to say that we denigrate or deny God-given abilities. But it is to say that we refuse to believe the lie that we are independent and have in ourselves the keys to ultimate success in life. The person who…steadfastly looks to God can know an inner oneness which makes possible a confident outlook on the darkest scene. For our mortality, short-sightedness, and weakness, we receive in exchange God’s immortality, omniscience, and omnipotence. That is security.

So the crux of the matter of entering into and holding on to a faith which lives in this peace is a complete dependence on God. Of course not denying our own abilities, but not depending on them, either. Our very thoughts as well as actions are to be dependent on God, and not on ourselves, or anyone else. That’s of course not to say that God won’t use other’s thoughts, maybe even our own seemingly, to direct us. The point that must not be lost by us is that we need to commit ourselves to a dependence on God which is fixed, regardless of how we feel and the circumstances we are going through. It involves a commitment which is to help us to a fixed disposition in which we live.

One of my go to passages again comes to mind:

Do not be anxious about anything, but in every situation, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, present your requests to God. And the peace of God, which transcends all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Philippians 4:6-7

That is one concrete way we can deal with the inevitable problems and troubling thoughts that will come our way. And we’re to cast what burdens we have on the Lord.

For me, again, the bottom line is dependence. If I depend on God, I won’t be depending at all on myself. If there’s even a little dependence on me, then my dependence on God for all intents and purposes is null and void, empty.  And in all of this as God’s people, when we consider the Isaiah 26 passage along with the rest of the Bible, we’re all in this together, so that somehow there is an interdependency among us all. One indication in Galatians 6 where we’re told to carry each other’s burdens, and so fulfill the law of Christ.

And so if I am troubled over something, that’s a sure sign that I need to hand what troubles me over to God, to relinquish any thought that I might somehow be able to figure out and fix the problem. Of course, I may factor into God’s answer. But my part and set disposition should be to trust it entirely into God’s hands and therefore to simply do nothing, to let it go. Until I get a sense of what God might want me to do.

Something I continue to aspire to and work on so as to confirm and grow in the change into which I’ve recently entered. In and through Jesus.

the seeming uneven hand of God

There is no way you can live very long and thoughtfully, and not find the unevenness of life perplexing, even troubling. Why does life happen the way it does? In terms of circumstances, as well as in one’s lot. There are the crack cocaine babies, those born in places that have never heard the gospel, others having to flee their homes in war zones, not to mention atrocities from which people can never fully recover. That’s only the beginning of what we could say. I’m sure the list could go on and on.

Although we can’t say God caused these things—of course some would question whether God caused anything—the Hebrew Bible, First Testament attributes to God everything, since nothing can happen outside of his will. God could stop or prevent anything from happening. We could live in a different world. Everything would make sense to us in that world. No one would tell lies and mislead people. No one would harm people for their own self-interest, or who knows what for?

I have experienced plenty of blessing in my life, but like everyone else, I live under the curse (Genesis 3). The world is far from an agreeable place to live if one is going to take out the fairness, justice card. This is much more the case for some people other than myself, people whose progeny have suffered injustice over generations, and who still do to this day. And the syndrome that comes with that; there are some things most people never gets over at least in the way of shaping them, sometimes actually in good ways.

Turning to scripture can help us here. I think particularly of the story of Job. It is a great help in looking straight in the face the unevenness of the world, and the seeming unevenness of God. Life is messy at best, and traumatic or even catastrophic at worst.

This is where faith comes in. Do I believe in God, even in a good God in spite of the fallout of life? Do I hold on to that belief for dear life, in spite of my numbness, and even anger, in spite of unresolved questions and the reality which flies in the face of easy answers, and wooden empty platitudes? Yes, in the midst of it all, someone can say Romans 8:28 instead of simply being present with us and praying. A handy out for them, it would seem, even if they are completely sincere and only want to help.

But looking at life as it is, we do need to get back to the bedrock of our faith. We need to look both at the details of scripture, and to the gospel, the good news in Jesus. God’s ultimate answer is Jesus, and the cross. How everything shakes out in the end is with reference to that, and how God is at work in the present, as well. We do well to lay hold of the promises of God, like in Proverbs 3:5-6 with that in mind. And as Job would remind us, mystery is a major player, as well. Who can understand what only God can fully understand, if the God of the Bible exists?

Life is uneven now, but there is God in Jesus. We need to stop there, no matter what. That is where we need to take the broken, shattered pieces of our lives, our own brokenness, indeed, ourselves. And in prayer, others, as well.

We look toward an end when all will be grace, flourishing, shalom. When the end will make good sense, even if we never do understand fully what preceded that. All of this always in and through Jesus.

the promise of the restoration of the years the locusts have eaten

“I will repay you for the years the locusts have eaten—
    the great locust and the young locust,
    the other locusts and the locust swarm[f]
my great army that I sent among you.
You will have plenty to eat, until you are full,
    and you will praise the name of the Lord your God,
    who has worked wonders for you;
never again will my people be shamed.
Then you will know that I am in Israel,
    that I am the Lord your God,
    and that there is no other;
never again will my people be shamed.

Joel 2:25-27

One needs to read the entire (short) book of Joel to really appreciate what is said here (above link includes entire book). God’s judgment had been on his people, there was a call to repent, and then God is moved to make this promise. After that there is the well known promise Peter echoed on the day of Pentecost (Acts 2) of God’s outpouring of the Spirit. And then the final judgment to come when a good God roots out evil.

The promise of restoration and somehow being paid back for all that has been lost due to sin is certainly great. It is given not to an individual, but to the people of God as a whole. It certainly touches individual lives, but is corporate. We have to see that somehow we are part of the sin of our group, but upon repentance how we are part of God’s blessing given to his people, as well. We can be complicit in the sins of others, by ignoring or somehow even excusing it. Or we might participate to some extent in it ourselves perhaps without even realizing it.

We are in this together, and even the remnant which may have done better ends up suffering due to the unfaithfulness of the people. But I think we have to be careful lest we kid ourselves and think we are so far removed from the sin of our people. For most of us that probably won’t be a problem; we know all too well our sin, what we have done, or perhaps even what we’re doing. Even the faithful Daniel included himself in his petition to God of repentance in anticipation of Israel’s restoration to the promised land in keeping with Jeremiah’s prophecy (Daniel 9).

And then the promise. Overwhelming to be sure, but God wants his people, and really all of humankind to flourish. God is the God of blessing. Judgment is God’s “strange work,” but God’s goal and the end is always about blessing. And God blesses his people that they might be a blessing. Israel was to be a light to the nations, that being ultimately fulfilled by and now in Jesus himself.

And so even if it’s the eleventh hour for us, we need to take full stock, and in spite of everything find God’s blessing with his people in and through Jesus. To ask God to search us and know us so that come what may, together we might be led in the way everlasting.

 

when all seems lost (in this world)

All these people were still living by faith when they died. They did not receive the things promised; they only saw them and welcomed them from a distance, admitting that they were foreigners and strangers on earth. People who say such things show that they are looking for a country of their own. If they had been thinking of the country they had left, they would have had opportunity to return. Instead, they were longing for a better country—a heavenly one. Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God, for he has prepared a city for them.

Hebrews 11

It is hard to put one’s finger on exactly what is going on in the world, the trajectory and back and forth, ebb and flow of it all. A well written history is indeed fascinating. I remember early on finding that especially so with American history, and especially that of the United States. We really can’t be sure where that is going all the time, and it seems like inevitably a mixed bag of good and bad. There is no doubt that we hope and pray for the good of peoples and nations, naturally first of all, our own nation, but not excluding any peoples, or nations.

So it’s not like we don’t care what is happening in the world. It’s more about expectations. We as Christians believe that God is indeed Sovereign over the nations, that somehow “God is working his purpose out, as year succeeds to year.” And that Jesus is seated at the right hand of God in the place of ultimate rule and authority, somehow that rule flowing in and through the church as his Body in the world, through the gospel, from the Father by the Spirit. But what we see is at best incomplete, and at worst seems incoherent and subject to forces which begin to make all too much sense in terms which are not helpful, and even evil. As in all of life in this world, it’s not simply a matter of good and evil, since there seems to be an admixture of both as people like Abraham Lincoln knew all too well.

The answer that we in Jesus need to dwell on, which is not just for us, but for the world, has already been mentioned in this post. It is the rule of King Jesus through his body the church, a rule which is solely through the gospel, the good news in and of him. Again, there is much good that can happen since humankind is made in the image of God, albeit with undercurrents and waves of evil present. But the only sure-fire hope for the world is in Jesus through the gospel. And that gospel certainly pertains to the present life, but is also about the life to come. In fact, strangely enough, it brings something of the life to come into the present through the new creation in Jesus.

For us who believe in that hope in Jesus, which by the way means nothing less than a faith which simply anticipates and waits for the completion of God fulfilling his promises, that means we don’t settle into even the best this world has to offer. We are in a sense strangers and foreigners here, because we point to the only salvation in Jesus alone. A salvation not just in terms of the individual, though certainly about that as well, but for the entire world, and every aspect of it. A hope that seems planted in human hearts until all of that seems more or less lost. The hope for what the Bible calls shalom, which not only means justice, but goodness manifested in human flourishing along with the flourishing of all creation.

We pray for good, and against evil in the world, in the nations and governments. But our hope and expectation is in none of that. It is only in the Lord Jesus through the gospel, the good news in and about him. That is the one political reality and salvation we hold on to, both for the present world, as well as that to come. And in which we in Jesus have begun to live even now. Meant not only for us, but for the world in and through Jesus.

the need for memory, unity, and the urge for nationalism

Brexit may end up being the first stage of what could become the eventual breakup of the European Union. What the UK and other nations within that union should do, in my opinion is not leave, but stay and work at making a better union.

Even a well learned Christian in a popular publication for some, advocated for Brexit, essentially arguing that nationalism and tradition can help a nation through storms which he said the kind of unification in place would not. There are a number of questions I have for that thought, but the concern I want to press here is the need for memory. Treaties and alliances are important, and they can be particularly good among states which have been at war with each other in decades past. And the thought that states would lose their identity, and in the melting pot lose their heart ignores both the change which continues to take place in nation states, as well as the differences which will likely remain, a good example of that being the at least alleged nine nations within the United States of America.

The pros for Brexit are possibly a throwback to the days when the globe was much larger. We live now in an era when it is much smaller, and the dangers are not far from our doorstep. We can’t go back to the past, nor is it desirable to do so. So Brexit is a most unfortunate reaction to probably a weakness in both the leadership of the European Union and the United Kingdom itself.

The need for nation states to work hard at unification for human flourishing (see Miroslav Volf on this subject; my words here will not necessarily be in line with his much better, well thought out take on the subject) of course does not mean that there aren’t problems with the project. Give me one example of any nation state whose foundation is built not partially on sand. But the alternative isn’t good, either. Nation states which are weaker need to be included in the mix and helped in times of trouble when need be. And debtor nations without the means to pay off their debt, and therefore in abject poverty with all the dangers that come with that, need help as well, debt forgiveness for a start. No nation is an island to itself. The room is much smaller. And nations need to think more and more in terms of being their brother’s keeper, which actually always was important. As well as looking after their own.

We of the church are to model to the world what the ultimate unity in truth and love looks like, that reality present from God in Jesus by the Spirit. Even as we in Jesus look forward to the day of Shalom (Peace, Justice, Flourishing) when all the nations will be under his rule and reign in the new earth to come.

what unites us

“The God who made the world and everything in it is the Lord of heaven and earth and does not live in temples built by human hands. And he is not served by human hands, as if he needed anything. Rather, he himself gives everyone life and breath and everything else. From one man he made all the nations, that they should inhabit the whole earth; and he marked out their appointed times in history and the boundaries of their lands. God did this so that they would seek him and perhaps reach out for him and find him, though he is not far from any one of us. ‘For in him we live and move and have our being.’ As some of your own poets have said, ‘We are his offspring.’

Acts 17

There is no question that humankind everywhere has serious differences over important matters. I am thinking particularly about religious as well as political differences, not to mention the ethnic, cultural mix.

Paul in Athens (the link gives the entire passage) was distressed over all the idols he saw, and wanted to appeal to them in proclaiming the one God and the gospel in Jesus’ death and resurrection. Paul’s appeal was made with an emphasis on what united him and the people there.

Specifically in what is quoted above, we can see a reasonable basis for accepting the landscape of the nations, even when sea-changes are occuring. What is going on surely includes God’s working, usually over time. America itself is essentially an immigrant nation, and that continues to this day. In fact one might argue that the way that is true, the basis of that is what has made the United States of America unique, while at the same time I disagree with the doctrine of American exceptionalism which many accept as fact.

But like Paul, for us in Jesus, what is at stake here is the gospel. And that included, Miroslav Volf has pointed toward a vision of human flourishing which seeks to live well with all of the differences of humanity in the world. The emphasis I’m sure needs to be on what unites us, and how even much in our differences can contribute well to the common good.

In order for us to begin to get this, we need to learn to listen, listen some more, and then be quiet, rather than always having an answer and the final word. When we may have something to say, it will then come as a part of a conversation, and people will likely be more open to what we’re saying. A case of less being more. And it will also likely be more valuable.

During this presidential election season, and at this time in America, there seems to be dangerous division over important differences. And most all of those differences will be present even in the church. What is needed is an emphasis on where we agree, trying to find such even within our disagreements as in shared values. And what unites us in Jesus first and foremost is the gospel, the good news of God in Jesus for us and for the world.

Disagreement in this world and life is inevitable. “We see through a glass darkly” and “we know in part.” We should accept that, living within those tensions, and doing so with an emphasis on what we do agree on. And with the goal of being a witness by our lives, and with our words of the good news by and for which we live in and for Jesus. Everything else is important in its place, but is also secondary to us in Jesus in comparison to that. The good news that in the end will unite us with all the distinctions and different gifts we bring into that unity, in and through Jesus.