seeing the big picture (not losing focus, taking our eyes off that)

For I am about to create new heavens
and a new earth;
the former things shall not be remembered
or come to mind.

Isaiah 65:17

A probably vast majority of my posts are on issues which hit close to home, and concern details of life, mostly in personal, isolated matters. While Scripture doesn’t address all specifics, it certainly gives us direction in how we face and work through everything. And all of that is important. As we’re told in Scripture, the very hairs of our head our numbered, so that every detail of our lives is important to God. And our well being, also.

Scripture is probably much more communal than the way we read it, for instance often the “you” in our translations is plural but lost on us, even though that always has individual application. But a communal aspect is often found in those passages which we normally all but miss. Even so we must not lose sight of the fact that God does want to relate to us on a personal level right where we live down to every detail, helping us to live responsibly under God’s guidance and care.

That said, we do well to try to see the big picture found in Scripture, and keep that in our sights and focus, even when we’re considering details along the way. That is challenging, and partly so because our spiritual enemy wants us to be preoccupied with minute details, lose focus, and be brought into a kind of tunnel vision in which we lose sight of what God wants us focused on, on the big picture.

This does seem counterintuitive when we have something difficult, seemingly impossible, and easily taking our peace away, even causing some panic. This does remind me of Job. The excruciating details the Job of that story goes through, we can well relate to, though certainly for most of us, never the scope and intensity of what Job experienced. Interestingly God never answered Job’s specific questions, but instead took Job’s sights away from his situation and troubles to see a much larger picture, something of the mystery of God’s work and power over creation. The point here, a bigger picture.

When we read the Bible from cover to cover, and do so trying to see the big picture, we begin to understand the true context in which we live, in which our struggles take place. That doesn’t mean for a second that the details spelled out in Scripture should get lost on us. No. But at the same time, this larger focus can help us see what God wants us to see, including how God wants us to see the matters which are troubling us.

As God’s people, we need to keep stepping back to see the big picture, work on keeping our focus on that, and not take our eyes off of it. Yes, even in the midst of the details of our lives that we have to consider and work through. If we have the proper focus, and don’t lose sight of the big picture, that can help us in each part. And most importantly, we can find our place in God’s Story playing out before us day after day. Every part of our lives, how we work though the difficulties of our lives, included. In and through Jesus.

prayer makes the needed difference, because the Lord makes that difference

Therefore confess your sins to each other and pray for each other so that you may be healed. The prayer of a righteous person is powerful and effective.

Elijah was a human being, even as we are. He prayed earnestly that it would not rain, and it did not rain on the land for three and a half years. Again he prayed, and the heavens gave rain, and the earth produced its crops.

James 5:16-18

I suppose many think Christian prayer is basically psychological. We pray to our imagined deity, and then we feel better because of all kinds of human dynamics involved in that, one simply being that we’re no longer focused on a problem as if it all depends on us. While what we call psychological factors may well be in play, Christians know by experience I say, that there’s much much more. Yes, we have tried this, and we have seen the difference it makes.

The difference for us is no less than personal. In prayer we’re interacting with a personal being. And that difference we witness and desire is not just for our own well being, but for the good of others, even including our enemies. And we especially see it at work both for ourselves and those we pray for.

Prayer makes a difference because the Lord is the one who makes that difference. Of course we have to pray. We have to bring our petitions to God and keep doing so. We can rest assured that as we do, in time, yes in the Lord’s time the answer will come. At least God’s peace, that God will take care of it, even if we don’t get the answer we wanted.

But yes, this is not mere psychological experience. Much much more. We have experienced that over and over again. In and through Jesus.

Jesus’s teaching is personal, private, public, and political

From that time on Jesus began to preach, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.”

Matthew 4:17

Now when Jesus saw the crowds, he went up on a mountainside and sat down. His disciples came to him, and he began to teach them.

He said:

“Blessed are the poor in spirit,
for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.

Matthew 5:1-3

Under the influence of Enlightenment Modernism, which definitely has impacted us all, Christianity, the dominant religion in such places took on a personal, private emphasis. Faith became something that was for you, and impacted anything else indirectly through the impact it made on you. An emphasis was on the personal and private. God’s kingdom through Jesus was inside of you, in your heart, hopefully transforming your life, but more or less only indirectly influencing anything else. I’m sure there are many exceptions to this, and variations, but I think it’s safe to say that this was the general rule.

The separation of church and state fitted comfortably into that, but with the reality that while the church helped the state through its religion, the religion itself became more or less a civil religion, no longer tethered to the teaching of Jesus, adrift from that, at least in Jesus’s intentions.

Yes, Jesus’s teaching is personal and private, but it’s also public and political. And what’s political will be in stark difference to the politics of this world, even if on occasion it might influence the politics of the world for good.

There’s no escape from politics. Some might do so for awhile, but when they return, it is again in their face, a factor and fact of life. It can be certainly overblown for sure. But those who might see Jesus’s teaching as essentially personal and private, except perhaps to spread that teaching to others, will nearly invariably be involved in politics.

The missing element is the simple teaching of Jesus, which is again- personal, private, but also public and political. Public through repentance and baptism. Political in that it is steeped in God’s kingdom present here and now in Jesus, and lived out in communities of faith, in the church. Supporting each other. Loving enemies, doing good to others, especially the poor, oppressed and disenfranchised.

All of this is part of Jesus’s teaching and what follows in the New Testament. Our way is different than anything of this world. Down to earth, meant for the world, but counter to it. God’s kingdom now present in and through Jesus.

 

learning to depend on God when anxious

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

I certainly have had other problems, but I think my longest, persistent problem has been anxiety. Sometimes in the past, smothered in it for days at a time. Better in recent years, but still not that good.

More recently, I’ve begun to experience what I think is something of a breakthrough for me. The passage above has been my main go to thoughts in trying to deal with this, and still is. The difference I think somehow might lie in the depth in which I’m pursuing this. But it’s probably more simple than that.

I tend to be a person of words, connecting with words, thinking through things with words, processing life largely that way, not enough with God’s beauty and in other ways. And I likely did that with this passage, thinking as long as I do such and such, then God will respond, but maybe more like on a conceptual level, than personally.

Maybe not that much difference, but now I realize it all depends on God, quite personal. It is kind of a mystical approach, but quite real for us Christians. I realize that when I’m concerned about something, whether as a possibility or a reality I’m having to deal with, that I can’t get rid of the anxious feelings which arise and often the numbness that follows. I can only bring my concerns to God, just as the passage tells us above. And wait for him.

Invariably, God comes through. That takes away panic, gives me perspective, and brings needed peace of heart and mind. Only from God in answer to prayer right in the midst of the struggle. In and through Jesus.

is God my shepherd?

A psalm of David.

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,[a]
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.

Psalm 23

“Lord” in “the Lord is my shepherd” is an English translation capitalized in most English versions when it translates “Yahweh,” the personal Hebrew name for God. Of course in the New Testament Jesus is revealed as the human who not only enacts this, but does so because he in fact is the God-human. So what is meant in Psalm 23 is God, and later that is fulfilled in Jesus, certainly true of the Triune God.

We are called sheep in Scripture, and for good reason. We go astray, are easily lost, and are quite dependent. To understand sheep better would be a good study in itself, but we need to be careful not to press those analogies from Scripture too far. We need to consider them in their contexts in Scripture. No question that sheep in Scripture are said to go astray, to be vulnerable against attackers such as wolves, helpless and harassed in need of a shepherd. And interestingly, sheep know the voice of their shepherd, each of them having their own name so that they’re known individually by their shepherd.

I am glad that this psalm is attributed to David. David was a shepherd early on which prepared him to be king over God’s people. Kings in the best sense of what they were to fulfill were to be shepherds. David was certainly no perfect shepherd, especially evident from his horrific sin involving Bathsheba and her husband Uriah. He had other faults as well. Yet he was a man after God’s own heart, having a heart for the people.

As I recently picked up from Dallas Willard, Psalm 23 is a prime passage to memorize so that one can meditate, reflect and pray through it. I think one can do well to say it again and again, and talk to God about it. Asking God if God really is our shepherd.

Jesus calls himself “the good shepherd” in the classic passage in John 10. He calls his sheep by name and leads them out to find good pasture, even life to the full. And he lays down his life for the sheep.

The psalm is quite personal. God is “my” shepherd. Oftentimes to push against the individualistic emphasis in our culture in which little else matters except for “me and mine,” we neglect the reality that our faith is personal and that God really does care about and for us individually. Each sheep he knows by name. Yes, each of us are dear to the Lord. He knows us through and through, and really does love and care for us.

I don’t like a lot of things about myself, and have struggled to like myself at all. I often just put up with myself. But that’s not what God wants. The Lord wants us to accept the truth that he made each one of us, and that redemption and reconciliation is for each one of us in and through Jesus. In Jesus the shepherd analogy of Scripture fits to a tee. Do we see Jesus and God in Jesus that way?

We must not let go of this. Everything in Psalm 23 is meant for us, yes each one of us, individually. And we need to see it for others as individuals, as well. Each and every line. Here it is again, to be read and pondered and prayed over until it becomes more and more our own in and through Jesus.

A psalm of David.

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,[a]
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.

 

God wants to be known

This is what the Lord says:

“Let not the wise boast of their wisdom
or the strong boast of their strength
or the rich boast of their riches,
but let the one who boasts boast about this:
that they have the understanding to know me,
that I am the Lord, who exercises kindness,
justice and righteousness on earth,
for in these I delight,”
declares the Lord.

Jeremiah 9:23-24

God. Yes, outrageous isn’t it? God, no less. And of all things, God wants to be known. Hard to understand, much less try to explain any of it.

People are meant to be in relationship with each other, but also with God. To really get to know each other. Yes, even to get to know God. Astounding for sure.

This hasn’t been a forte in my life. I can’t say I’ve excelled in really knowing people, and being known. You would like to think that’s so with immediate family, with loved ones. But even there I haven’t done as well as I would have liked, looking back on it. But that’s a big part of life, what life is all about.

I’m beginning to understand this much better toward the end of my life. And this all actually begins with God, in whose image we humans are made, and who started all of this in the first place.

But in the midst of all the maelstrom of life, with the questions and perplexities it brings, not to mention the trauma and tragedy, all of that can get lost. Lost even in the easy shuffle of what we humans have made life to be.

But God wants to be known. Yet God won’t push himself on us. By what God has made, God’s divine nature and power are clearly on display. But God wants it to be personal with each and every human. God made it personal, certainly doing so when God sent his Son to become one of us, God no less becoming flesh in Jesus. Then dying on the cross for our sins to reconcile us to himself. Do we dare doubt that God loves us, and wants to know us?

But given our struggle and weakness as humans, we will doubt. Nevertheless, it’s true. Truth doesn’t change. God wants to be known through all the experience of life, in spite of much of it. Are we open to that? All of this available as a gift in and through Jesus.

“more joy/less anxiety”

Rejoice in the Lord always. I will say it again: Rejoice! Let your gentleness be evident to all. The Lord is near. 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.

Finally, brothers and sisters, whatever is true, whatever is noble, whatever is right, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is admirable—if anything is excellent or praiseworthy—think about such things. Whatever you have learned or received or heard from me, or seen in me—put it into practice. And the God of peace will be with you.

Philippians 4:4-9

I thought I pretty much had the beast of anxiety under control, not that I had arrived on that score. That has been the sin of default to which I can always fall into at any time, but which I think I am handling better even when it comes and takes over. But better yet is to somehow not let it get into the doorway or entry point of one’s heart and life in the first place. But that thought has seemed to me more fantasy and fiction than anything else. It just doesn’t seem to work in the real world. And yet I know better, both in terms of scripture, and even with reference to science in how the brain works, specifically neuroscience. But especially because I believe there is a God who has quite specific promises in this direction, the most direct on this issue in the passage quoted above.

Back to the first point: So I had worked three 13 hour days and was naturally tired, more drowsy than I imagined, and of course I wasn’t all that concerned about a message on anxiety, though I was definitely interested. Naturally according to script, I dozed off, and in this case probably missed almost half the message, more or less. So as I do if I doze off at all, I’ll watch the message later.

Yesterday while doing some work around the house, a thought hit me over a matter I thought was resolved, and I couldn’t shake it and anxiety was taking over. I knew that later when I would have the time to watch it, I would be completely all ears when listening to this message on anxiety. And I’m thankful that there will be a series on anxiety after Thanksgiving. It came across to me as the best message I’ve heard on the subject. I would highly recommend this message from Pastor Jeff Manion of Ada Bible Church, the one in the series on Philippians: Choosing Joy Under Pressure, week 9: more joy/less anxiety.

The message in a nutshell: see the text above, and consider your view of God and your focus on God’s generosity (or failure to see well, and do this), how that affects your demeanor and conduct, how we’re to simply pray so that we’ll receive God’s peace, what our thought life is to be like with reference to what we take in during the course of a day. And how we’re to follow Paul’s example in all of this, Paul who was incarcerated at the time, awaiting trial before an unpredictable emperor, Nero, so that depending on how the emperor was doing he might be released or executed. And yet knew joy, as this letter makes clear, helping a struggling church. That summarizes the message, but misses so much.

So this is something I will continue to work on. I’m in process, but looking forward to a growth which takes on more and more joy, and less and less anxiety in and through Jesus.

why I remain an evangelical (a personal relationship with Christ)

Now this is eternal life: that they know you, the only true God, and Jesus Christ, whom you have sent.

Though I like much within these traditions, there are a number of reasons I am neither Roman Catholic, Eastern Orthodox or somewhere within the Great Tradition. And I am one who willingly affirms the faith of those within that, knowing friends and people who have a living faith and are part of one of those churches. And maybe I’m missing the boat on my next point. If you think I am let me know and why.

Somewhere recently (I can’t find the link) I read the main point of why not to become a Roman Catholic, I think it was. The point made was that while those who become Roman Catholic might well have a living, personal faith it is nearly inevitable that somewhere generations following some of the progeny will often at best in the liturgical, sacramental setting, have a faith that is only religious in orientation and not personal. I remain an evangelical because of the need to emphasize the necessity of having a personal relationship with Christ.

I am one who loves liturgy and tradition, I think saying the creeds is good. And I’m becoming more open to more of a sacramental understanding. But there’s one nonnegotiable in which I think evangelical churches have a leg up on their more traditional counterparts: the necessity of a personal relationship with Christ.

Notice I’m not saying an individual relationship with Christ, though I do mean for each of us as individuals. When we become members of Christ through conversion, we are also members of his body, the church. We aren’t just connected to the head when we’re joined to Christ, but to his body as well. The emphasis of the Roman Catholics and the Eastern Orthodox on the church is much better than what I’ve found in evangelical circles where too oftentimes people think lightly of church.

And it’s not like being in an evangelical church tradition means that children and progeny will follow with a living, personal relationship with Christ themselves. Every person and each generation has to find that for themselves. But it is important to be part of a church or tradition which does stress the need for a personal relationship with Christ. Too often in churches of the Great Tradition it seems that baptism, confirmation and engaging in liturgical, sacramental practice is enough. These are all important and means of grace. But again, one must come to a personal relationship with Jesus themselves.

So although I appreciate much within the Great Tradition, and I think we can and should learn from them- apart from some major doctrinal differences I have, the main reason I do not believe I’ll ever become Roman Catholic or Eastern Orthodox is the concern I would have for those who would follow. I am an evangelical. And I appreciate the evangelical tradition in part because of its emphasis on having a personal relationship with God through Jesus Christ.

Luke Timothy Johnson on the nature of God’s kingdom come in Jesus

Luke-Acts offers a vision of God’s rule that cuts across all these options and provides the contemporary church a basis for renewal in its thinking on the subject. First, Luke clearly thinks in terms of an already and not yet of the kingdom. In successive sentences, Luke has Jesus tell his disciples, “seek his kingdom and these other things will be given you besides,” and “do not be afraid any longer, little flock, for your father is pleased to give you the kingdom” (Luke 12:31-32). The rule of God, furthermore, is both intensely personal and political, for it demands of every individual a conversion to the prophetic message and a maturing in faith through perseverance, and at the same time places this personal commitment within the context of a people shaped by shared convictions and practices. It is precisely this combination which classically constitutes the nature of the church, but because being church in this full communitarian sense is a demanding and difficult thing, Christians have found it all too easy to slip toward a private piety or a public politics as options.

Luke Timothy Johnson, Prophetic Jesus, Prophetic Church: The Challenge of Luke-Acts to Contemporary Christians, 90-91.

words are overrated

The very fact that I share this with words would seem to give the lie to this post. Yes, words have their place, and without question they are part of the whole, and an important part. But they are not the whole, although in a very true sense words can convey something of the whole. As Jesus said, “Out of the heart the mouth speaks.”

There is something else which needs to be present for our words to really matter. Jesus said that the first and greatest commandment is to love the Lord our God with all our heart, soul, strength and mind, and the second commandment like it is to love our neighbor as ourselves (or as one who is like ourselves). This love we are to live out through the God who is love, is tied to faith and hope through Jesus. This love and its exercise must be present for our words to have value.

While words are overrated, silence is underrated. It is often wiser to remain silent, than to attempt to say anything. We can think oftentimes that we need to come to the rescue with words, or provide correction. Job’s friends readily come to mind. When more often than not it would be wisest not to say anything. Just to be present as a friend.

We are told there is a time to be silent and a time to speak (yes, in that order, in Ecclesiastes 3). Of course wisdom is needed to know the difference, and hopefully wisdom from God for the specific occasion. A word aptly spoken is like apples of gold in settings of silver, the proverb says. But words have power through the person and the life that person lives. For the Christian the Spirit is involved in all of that.

And so words indeed do have their place, even of crucial importance, yes, a matter of life and death. In that sense words can’t be overrated. We may stammer now, even as we see through a glass darkly. But we need to seek to speak God’s wisdom to ourselves and to others. Prior to that, in order and sequence having a listening ear to God and to others. “Quick to listen, slow to speak.”

We do well to give words their proper place. Certainly making listening to God and others first in priority. And then perhaps offering a word if it might be helpful. Always looking to the Word himself, Jesus to communicate himself in whatever fellowship or conversation we may be having. Wanting God to have his say above all else. Together in Jesus for each other, for others, and for the world.