perhaps the most basic gift God has given us

Then Jesus said to his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me. For whoever wants to save their life will lose it, but whoever loses their life for me will find it. What good will it be for someone to gain the whole world, yet forfeit their soul? Or what can anyone give in exchange for their soul? For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father’s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.

Matthew 16:21-28

There is surely nothing more basic God has given to us than our very selves, our existence. It includes everything about us, both our physical selves (which when you think about it, really includes all we are) and our inward selves, that which in a sense transcends the physical. Yet beyond the Greek duality, the Hebrew thought from Scripture is that our true selves includes our bodies, the physical, really every part of us. The NIV words “life” and “soul” are translations of the same Greek word, ψυχή, reflecting the different meanings possible within that one word.

Jesus is telling us something paradoxical here. If we are willing to give up our lives for him, then we’ll keep our lives. But if we’re trying to save our lives, then we’ll lose them (a helpful NET footnote). Because of this most basic gift from God, we can enjoy the creation and new creation with the Triune God at the center, loving God and loving our neighbor. We are given a special gift, ourselves. We’re paradoxically not to save that gift for ourselves, but spend it for others. We can do that in the way God intends only in the same way Jesus did it. With the help of the Spirit of God, we live that way. When we do that we find what not only will last beyond this life, but will fit well in the present, even if we’re misfits to many in doing so. In and through Jesus.

needed rest

A David Psalm

God, my shepherd!
I don’t need a thing.
You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.
True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.

Even when the way goes through
Death Valley,
I’m not afraid
when you walk at my side.
Your trusty shepherd’s crook
makes me feel secure.

You serve me a six-course dinner
right in front of my enemies.
You revive my drooping head;
my cup brims with blessing.

Your beauty and love chase after me
every day of my life.
I’m back home in the house of God
for the rest of my life.

Psalm 23; MSG

This well known, treasured psalm refers to the gamut of life, all of it. I would like to consider one part of it: Our need for rest.

You have bedded me down in lush meadows,
you find me quiet pools to drink from.

Away from the pressures of all the responsibilities of life, not to mention all the drama and trauma which inevitably impacts our world along with the world at large, we need those escapes, even getaways, but I’m especially thinking of simple rest in whatever form that takes for us. We need it daily, but it’s good to have a special time of rest set apart once a week, as in the Sabbath Day of old. And it’s good to have seasons and times when we simply rest.

The portrayal of the Lord’s shepherding of us here includes this so that we can say it’s a necessary element of life. All too often we continue on day after day, and even through weekends in a more or less frazzled state, not catching our breath, but rather gasping for breath. That is not the life God intends for us.

Instead we need to accept the good shepherd’s shepherding of us, his sheep. Together as his flock, as well as what that means for us as his individual sheep. After that we’ll be ready for what lies ahead until the next needed rest comes.

True to your word,
you let me catch my breath
and send me in the right direction.

In and through Jesus.

an important part of the story: we’re mortal

A PSALM OF THE SONS OF KORAH

Listen, everyone, listen—
earth-dwellers, don’t miss this.
All you haves
and have-nots,
All together now: listen.

I set plainspoken wisdom before you,
my heart-seasoned understandings of life.
I fine-tuned my ear to the sayings of the wise,
I solve life’s riddle with the help of a harp.

So why should I fear in bad times,
hemmed in by enemy malice,
Shoved around by bullies,
demeaned by the arrogant rich?

Really! There’s no such thing as self-rescue,
pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.
The cost of rescue is beyond our means,
and even then it doesn’t guarantee
Life forever, or insurance
against the Black Hole.

Anyone can see that the brightest and best die,
wiped out right along with fools and idiots.
They leave all their prowess behind,
move into their new home, The Coffin,
The cemetery their permanent address.
And to think they named counties after themselves!

We aren’t immortal. We don’t last long.
Like our dogs, we age and weaken. And die.

This is what happens to those who live for the moment,
who only look out for themselves:
Death herds them like sheep straight to darkness;
they disappear down the gullet of the grave;
They waste away to nothing—
nothing left but a marker in a cemetery.
But me? God snatches me from the clutch of death,
he reaches down and grabs me.

So don’t be impressed with those who get rich
and pile up fame and fortune.
They can’t take it with them;
fame and fortune all get left behind.
Just when they think they’ve arrived
and folks praise them because they’ve made good,
They enter the family burial plot
where they’ll never see sunshine again.

We aren’t immortal. We don’t last long.
Like our dogs, we age and weaken. And die.

Psalm 49; MSG

We need to let this sink in, and sink in further. We’re mortal. We’re going to die. Period. This isn’t the entire story from the Bible, but it’s an important part of it.

There are small hints in the Old/First Testament that there may be something beyond death. Some would say large hints, but I think if you read the Hebrew and consider carefully interpretation from that, you would lean more on the barely present side. Not until the intertestamental period (between the Old/First and New/Final Testament) are books written which bring out the hope of the resurrection. And of course that’s the faith of the New Testament in the good news of Jesus.

But we need to let the realization that we’re mortal soak in. I think we can say that God created us to live forever, but best to say, with that potential. We are made from the earth, clay, and back to the earth we will go. We have hope beyond that in Jesus, for sure. But we need to let this soak in well first. And no better way than to read and ponder Psalm 49, The Message a nice, interesting rendering of it.

off the thrill ride

What do people gain from all their labors
at which they toil under the sun?
Generations come and generations go,
but the earth remains forever.
The sun rises and the sun sets,
and hurries back to where it rises.
The wind blows to the south
and turns to the north;
round and round it goes,
ever returning on its course.
All streams flow into the sea,
yet the sea is never full.
To the place the streams come from,
there they return again.
All things are wearisome,
more than one can say.
The eye never has enough of seeing,
nor the ear its fill of hearing.
What has been will be again,
what has been done will be done again;
there is nothing new under the sun.
Is there anything of which one can say,
“Look! This is something new”?
It was here already, long ago;
it was here before our time.
No one remembers the former generations,
and even those yet to come
will not be remembered
by those who follow them.

Ecclesiastes 1:3-11

Now all has been heard;
here is the conclusion of the matter:
Fear God and keep his commandments,
for this is the duty of all humankind.
For God will bring every deed into judgment,
including every hidden thing,
whether it is good or evil.

Ecclesiastes 12:13-14

We live in a precarious time. There is no end to the easy, frankly Gnostic-like answers out there, swallowed hook, line and sinker by too many Christians. The deception is great, and given all the factors involved, there’s no easy way out.

Again and again we have to return to the basics. Nothing titillating, or ground shaking. After the book of Ecclesiastes takes us through the long litany of empty human endeavor and pretensions, it lands where we need to all land and stop. In the simple fear of God and keeping of God’s commandments. Nothing more, nothing less.

Only then will the true sky open up in God’s time. Not something of either our own, or some diabolical invention. In and through Jesus.

addendum to “off the thrill ride” which hopefully gives some needed balance, as well as makes it clear that the title meant no disrespect.

the problem in having “a way with words”

Don’t be in any rush to become a teacher, my friends. Teaching is highly responsible work. Teachers are held to the strictest standards. And none of us is perfectly qualified. We get it wrong nearly every time we open our mouths. If you could find someone whose speech was perfectly true, you’d have a perfect person, in perfect control of life.

A bit in the mouth of a horse controls the whole horse. A small rudder on a huge ship in the hands of a skilled captain sets a course in the face of the strongest winds. A word out of your mouth may seem of no account, but it can accomplish nearly anything—or destroy it!

It only takes a spark, remember, to set off a forest fire. A careless or wrongly placed word out of your mouth can do that. By our speech we can ruin the world, turn harmony to chaos, throw mud on a reputation, send the whole world up in smoke and go up in smoke with it, smoke right from the pit of hell.

This is scary: You can tame a tiger, but you can’t tame a tongue—it’s never been done. The tongue runs wild, a wanton killer. With our tongues we bless God our Father; with the same tongues we curse the very men and women he made in his image. Curses and blessings out of the same mouth!

My friends, this can’t go on. A spring doesn’t gush fresh water one day and brackish the next, does it? Apple trees don’t bear strawberries, do they? Raspberry bushes don’t bear apples, do they? You’re not going to dip into a polluted mud hole and get a cup of clear, cool water, are you?

Do you want to be counted wise, to build a reputation for wisdom? Here’s what you do: Live well, live wisely, live humbly. It’s the way you live, not the way you talk, that counts. Mean-spirited ambition isn’t wisdom. Boasting that you are wise isn’t wisdom. Twisting the truth to make yourselves sound wise isn’t wisdom. It’s the furthest thing from wisdom—it’s animal cunning, devilish conniving. Whenever you’re trying to look better than others or get the better of others, things fall apart and everyone ends up at the others’ throats.

Real wisdom, God’s wisdom, begins with a holy life and is characterized by getting along with others. It is gentle and reasonable, overflowing with mercy and blessings, not hot one day and cold the next, not two-faced. You can develop a healthy, robust community that lives right with God and enjoy its results only if you do the hard work of getting along with each other, treating each other with dignity and honor.

James 3; MSG

Some of us have no trouble talking. I listened to the NIV being read for many years, anywhere from a time and a half to maybe three or four times a year. That translation comes across basically clearly while maintaining accuracy. That’s been my passion for a long time, to communicate. I’m willing to understate and oversimplify things to an extent, just to try to get the main message across.

That’s carried over to maybe some good, but also some things that may not be quite as good, or perhaps not good at all. What I mean is that when we open our mouths, whether literally, or with words online, we need to be careful to take care with reference to the impact that might be made. It’s not like no feathers can be ruffled. Look at the entire book of James itself. James certainly wasn’t afraid to speak hard truth, but he was a pastor, in fact the lead pastor of the early church in Jerusalem. He had authority from God to do so. But even he acknowledges here that he is not infallible or above criticism over what he says. This letter would definitely be an exception since it’s a part of Scripture. And part of the point here is to be wary of our own words, watch our step, and be willing to backtrack and take back some of them when need be. Of course better not to go there in the first place. This is a quandary and a conundrum, or to put it in a way that I prefer, just plain hard, when you think you see danger and want to warn others who think quite the opposite.

All of James’ words so aptly rendered here by Eugene Peterson need to be carefully read, weighed, and taken to heart. What comes across for me during this time is the importance of making sure our lives are in line with what we profess, that we are in no way part of the problem. But according to James, if we say much at all, we’ll inevitably have to remove some part of our foot from our mouths, because we simply won’t, indeed can’t get it all right. That should make us reticent to say much at all, and when we do speak, carefully weigh every word. If what we say isn’t animated by love, and specifically God’s love in Christ, and in harmony with Scripture, especially the main point of Scripture, the gospel, then it is best for us to remain silent, and just pray. Prayer should mark our lives anyhow, just as was the case with James himself, who was called “camel knees” due to his known practice of prolonged prayer. And to work through the hard matters so as to preserve relationships. That comes across to me in these words, though everyone of them matters. Are we caught up in the fire of hell, or are we intent in remaining in the light and love of heaven, even in a world that might reject that? Oh for the wisdom James talks about in this letter, and in this passage. Sorely needed today, beginning with me. In and through Jesus.

through the shock and storm

His wife said to him, “Are you still maintaining your integrity? Curse God and die!”

He replied, “You are talking like a foolish[e] woman. Shall we accept good from God, and not trouble?”

In all this, Job did not sin in what he said.

Job 2:9-10

Job is an amazing book, chalk full of wisdom, but in a way, not one of my favorite stories in Scripture, not that that really matters. But for God to take up a wager with Satan over one of God’s servants, just seems to me to be strange at best, and then to let Satan do what he did, just a mystery. Well, if it’s truly a story which actually happened, then yes, I’ll just let it remain in mystery, a category that is becoming increasingly meaningful to me over time. But actually I hold it to be a wisdom story, telling a tale which actually did not happen. Where is the land of Uz? A story well worth going over again and again for the wisdom one can glean. Indeed part of the wisdom literature in Scripture.

What Job went through as indeed shock and awe, more like awful, one might say the shock and storm which followed. Although Job maintained his integrity and held on to faith in God, it was not without severely questioning God to the max. His three friends did well initially, just being with him in silence for seven days. But when they opened their mouths, their help became a hindrance. Or one can say, something Job had to work through as well, not just his own protests, maybe one might say doubts and surely wonderment before God, but also what surely sounded like pious platitudes in his ears, eloquently expressed by his three friends, with a young man adding some on at the end, although the latter might have been getting a little warmer to the truth in what he said.

Job is a case in point of what we need to do when we face hard times, hardship in whatever way it might come, difficulty, and even rejection from our friends and yes, companions in the faith. Job’s friends were each men of faith from different perspectives, maybe different traditions of practice of it. Well meaning to be sure, and sincere to the nth degree. In the end Job had to pray for them, which in itself is instructive to us, but God somehow required that for their forgiveness, which again is a word to us to try to avoid their error.

Through the shock and the storm we must hang in their and remain in faith, in the faith. It doesn’t mean we don’t have to go through it, though faith surely will lessen if not the difficulty, at least the harm done to us, and should hopefully mitigate or diminish, indeed negate any harm to our souls.

Surely Job was never the same afterwards. He had known of God he said, but through the experience he had come to see God. And he lost his first seven sons and three daughters forever in this life. But God brought him through. A lot of this a mystery to me, but maybe part of the brutal necessity of this life, living in this broken world. God will see us through to the other side as long as we hold on in faith, come what may. In and through Jesus.

pay close attention

My son, keep my words
and store up my commands within you.
Keep my commands and you will live;
guard my teachings as the apple of your eye.
Bind them on your fingers;
write them on the tablet of your heart.
Say to wisdom, “You are my sister,”
and to insight, “You are my relative.”
They will keep you from the adulterous woman,
from the wayward woman with her seductive words.

Proverbs 7:1-5

If there’s anything we need to hear and hear clearly, I was going to say especially during formative times, but really during any time, we need to pay close attention to what God might be saying to us, to our lives, to what Scripture says in all of this. And we need to see that in terms of its fulfillment in Jesus.

Experience plays into all of this. We don’t draw directly from experience for our answers, but experience confirms whether or not we’re on the right path, and that, over time. And yet is never the basis.

God is telling us in this passage in the Proverbs that if you go a certain route, you’ll indeed be burned. We do have to see the passage in terms of its meaning today since it is no longer Israel of old in a completely different culture. In what we now call the old covenant since we are part of the new.

Even so, we need to let these words into our hearts, our beings, and our lives. Pay close attention to the details, and quit thinking that somehow we might be above that, that they don’t really apply to us. Indeed, they do. God will give us discernment as we seek to hear and heed that we might be obedient children in and through Jesus.

At the window of my house
I looked down through the lattice.
I saw among the simple,
I noticed among the young men,
a youth who had no sense.
He was going down the street near her corner,
walking along in the direction of her house
at twilight, as the day was fading,
as the dark of night set in.

Then out came a woman to meet him,
dressed like a prostitute and with crafty intent.
(She is unruly and defiant,
her feet never stay at home;
now in the street, now in the squares,
at every corner she lurks.)
She took hold of him and kissed him
and with a brazen face she said:

“Today I fulfilled my vows,
and I have food from my fellowship offering at home.
So I came out to meet you;
I looked for you and have found you!
I have covered my bed
with colored linens from Egypt.
I have perfumed my bed
with myrrh, aloes and cinnamon.
Come, let’s drink deeply of love till morning;
let’s enjoy ourselves with love!
My husband is not at home;
he has gone on a long journey.
He took his purse filled with money
and will not be home till full moon.”

With persuasive words she led him astray;
she seduced him with her smooth talk.
All at once he followed her
like an ox going to the slaughter,
like a deer stepping into a noose
till an arrow pierces his liver,
like a bird darting into a snare,
little knowing it will cost him his life.

Now then, my sons, listen to me;
pay attention to what I say.
Do not let your heart turn to her ways
or stray into her paths.
Many are the victims she has brought down;
her slain are a mighty throng.
Her house is a highway to the grave,
leading down to the chambers of death.

looking back on life and God’s hand in it

A person’s steps are directed by the Lord.
How then can anyone understand their own way?

Proverbs 20:24

When one looks over their life, if there’s faith, they can see God’s hand in it. Things working out certain ways, maybe in spite of themselves, or even with questionable or bad choices in the mix.

I look back over a life that is now more than half way done. You do that as you get older, reminisce on old friends, choices made, what has come of it. And as I look back, I can see God’s hand in it.

Of course I was fallible all along, and made plenty of mistakes, even a fatal turn which mercifully God stopped. But God was infallible along the way, at work in it all for good, to bring good out of everything, even what was not good. God somehow was working out his purpose, yes, quite often, too often in spite of ourselves.

Many are the plans in a person’s heart,
but it is the Lord’s purpose that prevails.

Proverbs 19:21

Yes, God is at work. If we would just accept that, how much better off we would be. We would give up our struggle and empty ways. Life would be better for us and others.

But make no mistake, God’s will and purpose will succeed. And yes, in the way of, and in and through Jesus.

“listen to your life”

Frederick Buechner is a writer of a number of books, whose favorite phrase may be “listen to your life.” There’s surely an ample amount of wisdom in that thought. 

As followers of Jesus, we need to be in Scripture, all of it, and especially the gospel accounts and what follows in the New Testament. We need to have our ears turned there, seeking to hear what God might be saying to us.

And we also need to be simply listening to our lives, what is happening, what we’re facing, paying attention to ourselves, how well we’re doing, even just how well we are.  We need to try to hear God’s voice, or just get a sense of God in that, also.

Direction from God is always related to life. Life in the big scheme of things, and our part in that. And life in general. So we want to be listening. Just that very attitude and act will help us with the potential to help us immensely. In and through Jesus.

we are mortal

One of my favorite songs from a classical rock band is Kansas’s Dust in the Wind. We are more than dust in the wind, but the song still makes a salient point. We are mortal; we will die unless the Lord returns before that. The writer of Ecclesiastes, or Qoheleth, “the Teacher” puts it this way:

Remember him—before the silver cord is severed,     and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring,     and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from,     and the spirit returns to God who gave it.

“Meaningless! Meaningless!” says the Teacher.     “Everything is meaningless!”

Ecclesiastes 12:6-8

He is referring to “your Creator,” God. We are mortal, dust. Our time here in this life is brief, even if we live toward a normal lifespan, the decades go fast, time flies and all the more it seems as we get older. God. God. God. That’s who we need to be centered on, above anything else. The God made known to us in Jesus.