Nice Psalms

If you’ve never gotten beyond “The Lord is my shepherd” in the Psalms, then you haven’t really lived. A number of the entries, including a fair number that Penny and I have been reading as we go to bed, are anything but nice Sunday-School fare. Last night, Psalm 55 came up. The section heading in the CSB gets us in the right mood: “Betrayal by a Friend.”

And what kind, soothing words does David have for this treacherous friend? Try these on:

My friend acts violently
against those at peace with him;
he violates his covenant.
His buttery words are smooth,
but war is in his heart.
His words are softer than oil,
but they are drawn swords.

We might think that buttery words sound delicious, but they’re not. They hurt!

The outcome that David prays for in this situation is pretty intense as well.

Let death take them by surprise;
let them go down to Sheol alive,
because evil is in their homes and within them.

Essentially, that is David asking for his enemy, who jumped from singular to plural without warning, to be sent to hell while still alive. There’s no “turn the other cheek” stuff going on here. Do you like to pray through Psalms? Good luck on this one!

So what is going on in a Psalm like this? What can we learn from it? I think we can learn that David (or whoever wrote any particular Psalm) was a human being. He had strong feelings of anger and betrayal. As much as we might like to cover up our emotions, as much as we might try to look like pious bits of perfection fit for a spot near the manger in a nativity scene, we aren’t. We have these feelings. We want revenge or justice or something along those lines.

Do we allow those feelings to show in our prayers in front of our friends? Probably not, but we can, as these Psalms demonstrate, let them show to our one perfect Friend. And in the process of allowing those feelings to show, we can allow God’s Spirit to work on us and to change our heart. We can be taken from profound fear and anger to a spirit of calm and worship, as in Psalm 55:22:

Cast your burden on the Lord,
and he will sustain you;
he will never allow the righteous to be shaken.

Granted, the next verse takes us back to some fairly angry-sounding material, but we do get the sense that the Psalmist is moving himself back into a balanced place. It doesn’t come all at once, but he was, after all, a human being.

Are You Passing This Class?

Acts 2:42

Commit yourself to good teaching.

A recent administration of the CLA+ (College Learning Assessment Plus) test, which attempts to determine how much college students developed their critical thinking skills over four years, provided, as usual, fairly discouraging results. Without sharing actual numbers, let’s just say that there are not very many schools who will be putting their results in any alumni brag magazines or recruitment materials.

I would expect that someone in those critical years, 18 to 22, working at Starbucks would make some significant gains in their ability to think and solve problems. How can college fail to accomplish that?

Before you start feeling all superior, here’s a parallel thought. How much spiritually “smarter” are you than four years ago? If you’ve been sitting under solid teaching for four years, shouldn’t you be developing your Christian IQ?

Unfortunately, many believers attend most every Sunday, but they do not actually commit themselves to solid Bible teaching. They don’t really pay attention to sermons and lessons, instead thinking about where to go out to lunch when the final space is filled in on the outline. And once they hit the parking lot, the materials have fled from their mind.

I know this to be true, because I’ve been that person. But I’ve also dedicated myself to Bible reading and study. The difference in results is amazing. When we commit ourselves to God’s Word, God uses that Word to make positive changes in our lives.

  • What grade would you give yourself on your commitment to good teaching?
  • What was the last Bible truth that you discovered and applied to your life?
  • Ask God to help you remain constant in your dedication to solid teaching from whatever source.

The Coffee Clutch

Acts 2:42

Commit yourself to fellowship.

Some people find this hard to believe, but I am not the most social person on this planet. Hanging out with my buds just doesn’t come naturally to me. I like people, but I have to make an effort to be normally social.

About a year ago, a couple of friends invited me to join them every Thursday morning at 6:30 at Benetti’s Coffee Experience in bustling downtown Raytown. Let me review the obstacles to this idea. First, in order to attend, I had to get up at 6:00 a.m. on a summer day when I didn’t really need to roll out of bed before noon. Second, it took me out of my comfort zone as an anti-social sort. Third, I don’t like coffee, and the idea of paying better than $3 for a cup of tea seems silly. Still I went, and today I wouldn’t miss it.

There are currently four of us. Sometimes only three make it. Sometimes someone else joins us. We’ll spend an hour to ninety minutes talking over matters. Some weeks are heavily spiritual, while others are much less so. We do not solve the world’s problems or actually accomplish anything tangible.

But here’s the thing. We know that we’re each trying to live Godly lives in a sinful flesh. As different as we are, we are in the same situation. And I’m convinced that any of these men would try to help me whenever I am in need, just as I would try to help them.

Even for an anti-social guy like me, Christianity is not an individual sport.

  • Are you naturally social or naturally unsocial? Does your inclination help or hinder your spiritual walk?
  • Who are the Christians with whom you spend your life beyond the boundaries of the church building?
  • Pray that God will help you to find or strengthen bonds of fellowship at every stage in your life.

Changing the Unchanging

1 John 5:14-15

Pray in God’s will.

Just between you and me, when I read the scripture for today, there’s a part of me that thinks that God sounds like a bit of a con man. It’s sort of like when you walk onto a car lot that brags that they let you “Name your own price.” That’s right, you can name any price you like, but only if it is a price that they like will it do you any good.

God will give you anything you ask as long as you ask Him for what He wants to give you. Isn’t He trying to have it both ways?

That’s a natural human way of looking at things. God will, I hope, forgive us for letting our minds drift in this direction, but it is not at all the whole story.

Prayer will not–in fact it cannot–change God. If God needed changing, that would be a problem, but God doesn’t need to change. Sometimes we’d like to bring Him around to our way of thinking, but in reality we don’t want that. If I could change God through my prayers, then He wouldn’t be much of a God.

Prayer will, however, change the world within the parameters of God’s will. And perhaps more importantly, prayer will change us. Genuine prayer–prayer in God’s will–brings us more firmly into that will. Regardless of other outcomes, being in God’s will is its own reward.

  • Do you have tendencies to pray for things that are clearly not in God’s will? What are they?
  • Have you experienced a correction to your prayers, making them conform with the will of God?
  • Ask God, as in Romans 12:2, to transform your mind to know His will perfectly.

The Cars on a Thousand Hills

Matthew 7:8-11

Ask of God as of a loving father.

Please don’t share this with my son, but I have been forming a plan for him. You see, Thomas is getting married in October. I’m very pleased. He’s pleased. She’s pleased. It’s all good.

Weddings, as you’re probably aware, can be really expensive; however, as the parents of the groom, we’re not finding it too burdensome, which is good because of a desire I have.

Thomas is driving a cast-off minivan with all manner of problems. One of those problems is that left sliding door is held closed by a strap. My desire is to sell the old clunker (which is still in my name) and buy the new couple a better car. Would I buy them a brand new, fancy-schmanzy car? No, but I’d love to put them behind the wheel of a more reliable, newer vehicle.

The problem is that I’m not sure my bank account can make this happen. The van won’t bring a huge sum, and our savings account has other demands on it. Still, I’d really love to make this happen.

My intentions are not as pure as God’s. There’s a part of me that looks at that money selfishly. My abilities are nowhere near as great as God’s. He can provide anything He wants.

If this sinful, limited father can have such positive intentions toward his son, what generous intentions will our sinless, unlimited Father have toward us. We just need to ask.

  • What results have you experienced when you ask God for worthwhile things?
  • Are there important matters in your life in which you don’t ask for God’s assistance?
  • Think of something important that you should ask of God. Then ask of it all this week. See where that goes.

Relative Stranger

John 15:7

Abide in God’s presence and His Word.

Perhaps you’ve heard of the scammers who call senior citizens. Apparently, the conversation goes something like this:

“Grandma?”

“Lester? Is that you?”

“Yes. I’m in trouble in Nairobi. I need $1,000 to get out of jail.”

“Oh dear! Did you call your father?”

“I can’t get him on the phone and I need it within the hour. Could you wire it to me?”

You can guess how the rest of this goes. Obviously this sort of ruse isn’t always going to work. Maybe Grandma doesn’t have any male grandchildren. Maybe she knows that Lester is actually in his apartment across town. The whole scam depends on grandparents not being well enough aware of their grandchildren’s lives to spot the deception.

Of course, for the con-man, it’s a numbers game. You make perhaps 100 calls a day, reaching maybe ten realistic targets. Of those, you get one who doesn’t see through the game and you’re suddenly $1000 richer.

I have four grandchildren. None of them is old enough to be traveling to Kenya independently (although a couple of them could conceivably run afoul of the law). Regardless, I would like to think that I know them all well enough that I’d recognize a voice not belonging to any of them. Hopefully I’ll always maintain that sort of relationship.

God will not be fooled when we come to Him asking for favors and trying to convince Him that we’re His best buds when in fact we’re rarely in contact. If we want results from God, we need to maintain our relationship carefully.

  • How much time to do you spend abiding with God through prayer and meditation? Is it a sufficient amount?
  • How regularly and meaningfully are you invested in the Word?
  • Pray that God will draw you closer to Him over the coming days.

Keep Calm and Grandparent On!

Matthew 6:10

Place God’s will first.

Help! I have been abandoned by my wife and invaded by grandchildren. Bo, my poodle, has wisely retreated to the safety of his kennel, leaving me to face the onslaught of these kids by myself. So far I have endured the ordeal. Fifteen minutes down and about eight hours remain to go.

Let’s be clear. I love my kids and grandkids. I enjoy their company–at least in the right situations. But having several of them, of different interests, genders, and ages, simply sharing the house with me for a day is not something that I do easily or naturally. Let me take them on a hike or to the museum or camping or something, but don’t make me just hang out in the land of TV’s, tablets, and computers.

It’s not my desire to spend my day overseeing these kids, but then I have to remember that my desires are not the ruling force here. Is it my desire that these four stay cooped up in their mom’s apartment unsupervised all day? It sure isn’t God’s will.

Do I trust God? Do you? We hopefully say that we do, but do we really trust Him? If I trust God, then I’ll trust that putting His will before mine will work out for the best and my actions will prove that trust. Today that act of putting His will first involves keeping a good attitude during the occupation.

  • In what situations do you find it hardest to put God’s will ahead of your own?
  • Do you ever struggle to distinguish God’s will from your own will? How do you manage?
  • Pray, just like Jesus instructed, that God’s will be done in and through your life.

 

Budge the Grudge

Matthew 6:12

Square your accounts with God and man.

Why does Jesus seem so intent on getting us to forgive each other? I thought the most important thing for Christians to do was to pray and listen to K-Love. Instead, rather than dwelling on the really important stuff, like my sins being forgiven, Jesus is muddying the waters here by telling me that I have to forgive others.

Forgive us our debts–yay!–as we forgive our debtors. Why did He have to throw that in? Then, should we decide that that whole “as we forgive” was just a meaningless addition, He tags on with verses 14 and 15, making it abundantly clear that forgiveness is not optional.

I’m typically not a grudgy sort of person, but I do have a couple of people who have–in my humble opinion–wronged me in the past.  Two of these were definitely Christians, people who should have known better than to deal with me so poorly. Why did they do it? I’m not sure.

What I am fairly sure of, several years down the road from both of these conflicts, is that I’m not really a blip on these people’s radar. Do they remember this event? Probably not. So why do I? Is it doing me any good? Does it advance God’s kingdom or make me happier? No and no.

Forgiveness is hard, but it is essential. It’s essential to be forgiven by God and it’s essential that we forgive others.

  • Who do you find it difficult to forgive from your past? Are you justified in feeling badly used by that person?
  • Does God give any indication of caring about the righteousness of your grudge?
  • Pray that God will expose the grudges that you hold and help you deal in forgiveness going forward.

Welcome to Economic Armageddon

Matthew 6:11

Depend on God for everything.

Several friends and I used to play Monopoly when I lived in Oxford, England. These weren’t your old-school, four-hour Monopoly endurance spectacles. We played fast and furious, everyone paying attention, moving the little thimble or iron as soon as the dice settled, and calling out the rent as quickly as possible. Player one would be settling up accounts on buying Illinois Avenue as player two was moving to the Reading Railroad. We called it Economic Armageddon.

One of the keys to keeping these games moving quickly was not getting bogged down in change-making. When the rent was $22, we’d toss $25 or $20 across the board, making mental note that this person owed or was owed a small sum. We knew that, even if we forgot them, these small amounts wouldn’t change the outcome of the game. On the other, when somebody landed on North Carolina Avenue (complete with four houses), we gleefully collected everything that was owed.

Monopoly is all about driving the other players to ruin. It’s all about getting every bit of the limited resources that exist in the game’s universe, taking them from the people around you. Sometimes we look at life as if it were a game of Monopoly, with our goal being to grab as much of the world’s limited resources as possible. That’s not what God has called us to do.

Instead of depending on our wiles and the luck of a dice roll, God wants us to depend on Him and know that He has limitless resources at his disposal. Economic Armageddon can be fun when played on a game board, but it’s pointless in real life.

  • In what areas of your life do you find it difficult to trust in God’s provision?
  • Can you name a time in which God has seemed to provide for you in a manner that defies rational explanation?
  • Pray that above all else, God will make you trust in his willingness to care for your needs.

A Two-Way Street

1 Kings 19:12

Pray by listening as well as speaking.

When I call my employer’s computer help desk, I am not calling for a stupid reason. They don’t need to ask me if the computer is plugged in or if I’m trying to read email with a spreadsheet program. By the time I call, I’ve usually done a pretty thorough job of trying to diagnose the problem and ensuring that I can’t fix it myself.

One of my greatest aggravations then is when, as I detail what the computer is doing and what steps did not solve the problem, I have some tech on the phone ask, “Are you sure you used the right password?”

“Yes!” I want to scream. “I couldn’t have done what I’ve just described without the password!” I don’t scream, but I do grow annoyed when they don’t listen. How much more quickly could they close a ticket if they listened?

Even more foolish than those occasional non-listening help desk workers am I when I pray to God and then don’t bother listening for his response. That response might come in a still small voice, a coincidentally helpful scripture reading, a friend’s random words, or something else. But if I’m not listening, then I’m wasting a great opportunity.

  • What was the last time that you experienced a response to a prayer? What form did that response take?
  • How many different ways have you experienced God replying to your prayers or those of others?
  • Dedicate yourself not just to the sending of messages through prayer but to the receiving of whatever response God has to offer.