It’s a Sad, Sad Situation

At a wedding recently, I saw the groom standing with the most funereal look on his face. “Happiest day of his life,” I whispered to the person next to me. More than likely, this guy was just trying to keep it all together, but his expression said, “I’d rather be getting a root canal right now.”

For many humans, our natural expression, our natural emotion is not happiness. Why else would people who are taking our pictures have to so constantly remind us to “smile.” This is why I invested a dozen or so entries in taking apart Psalm 118:24 recently.

This is the day the Lord has made;
let us rejoice and be glad in it.

I wrote about the verbs and the nouns and the pronouns. I camped out on that verse for hours over the last couple of weeks. And here’s the weird thing: as I wrote about the necessity of rejoicing and being glad, I found myself bouncing along on the pot-hole-strewn road of depression.

What was wrong? What, as my father used to ask, “did I have to be depressed about?” In reality, I had nothing particular to fuel my depression. During those weeks, spring erupted in Kansas City. A new grandchild arrived in our life. My job is steady; my bank account healthy. My relationships have been stable, and nothing unusual has come my way to throw a monkey wrench into my mood. So what was wrong?

Let’s be clear. We’re not talking about go-to-the-doctor-and-start-Prozac depression. It hasn’t been friends-hide-all-the-knives depression. I’ve seen that in people, and I don’t trivialize it. No, this was just a general down season, perhaps what Jimmy Carter referred to as a “malaise.”

How could I remain down, not only knowing that “This is the day the Lord has made” but dwelling on that verse as a whole and in its parts nearly every day for two weeks? It doesn’t make sense, but then this is the human mind we’re discussing.

In trying to understand my feelings, I’ve had Psalm 119:14 pop into my head:

May the words of my mouth
and the meditation of my heart
be acceptable to you,
Lord, my rock and my Redeemer.

Over these weeks, I do believe that the words of my mouth (and my keyboard) have been acceptable to God, but I don’t know that I can say the same for the meditation of my heart. Yes, my head ran over Psalm 118:24, analyzing it to within an inch of its life, but for all that analysis, did I do the thing that I had hoped this entire project would accomplish? Did I implant not just its words but its meaning, its profundity into my heart?

Although I thought I was done with that verse, I believe I might camp out on it for a couple more days. Hopefully, as I fully process its depths, I can chase the blues from my life.

Pre-positioned Miracles

Bo the poodle and I went for our customary morning Diet Dr. Pepper run this morning, heading to the QuikTrip nearest our house. As we drove–I drove, Bo was in the back–I found myself irritated by the yellow circle of the sun, just above the horizon, blasting into my eyes. There sat the sun, almost perfectly in front of me as I tried to see the road before me. Then I thought about the matter a bit.

Thirty-ninth Street in my hometown runs down the middle of section 22 in the 19th-century division of lands: township, range, and section. Two streets, 35th and 43rd, mark the north and south boundaries of that section (and all of the mile-square, 640-acre sections) in the area. All of these numbered streets run, for all practical purposes, perfectly east and west. Therefore, as I drove on 39th Street this morning at about 7:30 a.m., four days before the vernal equinox, I drove straight east. Looking more carefully, I realized that the sun was actually just a tiny bit to the left of straight ahead and just a hair above the horizon. In other words, I expect, on Wednesday, the so-called “first day of spring,” the rising sun will be perfectly above 39th Street should I drive at that hour.

Anyone who understands some basic astronomy will read these words and look unbelieving at me. It’s as if I breathlessly announced that a pot of water, left on the stove indefinitely, would eventually turn into a gas we call steam. Certainly I cannot call the mechanical operations of the solar system a miracle, can I?

The beginning of Psalm 19 suggests that, if not a miracle, that orderly operation of the heavens, the predictability of sun, moon, and seasons does proclaim the presence and greatness of God:

The heavens declare the glory of God,
and the expanse proclaims the work of his hands.
Day after day they pour out speech;
night after night they communicate knowledge.
There is no speech; there are no words;
their voice is not heard.
Their message has gone out to the whole earth,
and their words to the ends of the world.

Far from being annoying, the sun in my eyes this morning declares the glory of God and proclaims the work of his hands. Isaac Newton’s second law of thermodynamics tells us that the natural way of systems is that they move from order to entropy, from design to chaos. If that held true here, then we might never know when or where to expect sunrise.

But God has pre-positioned miracles in our midst. These miracles hold the universe together. They allow creatures to pass genetic information from one generation to the next. They provide for human respiration and plant photosynthesis.

“Praise God from whom all blessings flow,” the traditional “Doxology,” sings. Sometimes those blessings pop up in the form of a healing or a fortuitous discovery, but most of the time they have been placed into the world from the foundation of the earth. That’s some praiseworthy foresight!

To Be Acceptable (Psalm 19:14)

May these words of my mouth
and this meditation of my heart
be pleasing in your sight,
LORD, my Rock and my Redeemer. (Psalm 19:14)

We have come to the end of Psalm 19, time to look back for a moment over the preceding verses and consider what we might learn from them.

At first glance, verse 14 seems to be an add-on, the sort of thing you throw in at the close of prayer when you have no idea of how to get out of the thing gracefully: “And bless all the missionaries. In Jesus’ name, Amen.” I’d like to suggest, however, that this isn’t the case with the end of Psalm 19.

Let’s remember that the Psalm began with the image of the largest, the most distant element of Creation praising God. It ends in this verse, after a prayer to be kept from sins, intended and unintended, with a humble contemplation of the smallest and nearest element of creation, the Psalmist himself.

The heavens, being unfallen, have no problem singing God’s praise and declaring His glory. The individual, on the other hand, a fallen creature living in a fallen world, can only sing and declare these things with great effort and difficulty. How natural is it, then, that he concludes this hymn and request with the prayer that his words and thoughts will be pleasing to the God for whom they were intended.

How opposite is this prayer from the way that people too often approach the presence of God. You’ve seen them on Sunday at church. Perhaps you’ve even been one of them now and again. They come into the building with the air that they’ve done God some great favor by showing up. They sit smugly through worship, confident that God truly appreciates them for blessing the other benighted souls in the room with their presence.

And lest you think this is a caricature that couldn’t possibly apply to somebody as spiritual as you or me, let me point out that David himself felt the need to close his Psalm with this prayer of humility. David knew to do this because of his closeness to God and because he began his contemplation by noting the glorious heavens proclaiming the grandeur of the Lord. Can we do less?

Truly, may the words of our lips and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in God’s eyes.

The Great Heist (Psalm 19:13)

Keep your servant also from willful sins;
may they not rule over me.
Then I will be blameless,
innocent of great transgression. (Psalm 19:13)

I’d like to make a confession. I thoroughly enjoy what Hollywood refers to as “caper movies,” movies like Ocean’s Eleven. (I think they’re up to about Ocean’s Twenty-Four now, aren’t they?) There’s something that fascinates me about watching these clever crooks plan the perfect crime. They go through all sorts of con games, technological hacks, and bits of perfect timing to steal the diamonds or the gold or the money or whatever. Give me a good caper movie, and I’ll be happy.

You might wonder why I consider that last paragraph as a confession. In a way, enjoying a movie about well considered crime is a bit like enjoying a movie about genocide or carefully planned murder, isn’t it?

By the grace of God, I have never been a drug addict, desperate for my next dose of heroin. Imagination does allow me to comprehend the compulsion that would cause such an addict to smash the windows of a pawn shop, grabbing enough swag to pay the dealer. I don’t condone that action, but I understand how a fierce hunger could put a person into such a place. That’s not the way with the carefully planned crime, is it? The caper movie does not reflect the crime of desperation. With the time and energy that this careful criminal devotes to preparation, he could probably start a new business.

Yesterday, the Hebrew word translated as “hidden faults” referred to unknown or unintentional sins. Today, though, the emphasis is on the intentional, the sort of sin that Danny Ocean commits. The sort of sin that you and I commit when we understand in our hearts that a certain thing is wrong and then charge at full speed into that thing.

How can God forgive us when, equipped with the Holy Spirit and aware of the price Christ paid on the cross for our sins, we look at an action, deem it sinful, and then aim the torpedo of our lives at it? I don’t know how He can do that, but I am confident that He does.

David, here, seems to suggest that the only way to avoid that manner of sin is to lay it at God’s feet. Look at that verse again. “Keep your servant from willful sin.” Isn’t that sort of like asking someone to keep you from willfully eating? That’s exactly what it is. David acknowledges himself not to be the master of his own will. We should do the same, acknowledging our inability not to try to plan the great heist of sin.

In Search of Hidden Faults (Psalm 19:12)

But who can discern their own errors?
Forgive my hidden faults. (Psalm 19:12)

Don’t you just hate those people who stand up in church and declare themselves as the chief of all sinners. I mean, really, does anybody believe either the Apostle Paul or John Bunyan when they call themselves “the chief of all sinners?” I find myself, when listening to such people, rolling my eyes and thinking, “Okay, if you are the chief of all sinners, what does that make me?”

Seriously, I don’t do that, because I understand the process that leads somebody to say such a thing. The more closely I look at myself, the more clearly I can see my sins. At about the time that I seem to have some big sin under control, I become aware of five other ones, equally nauseating by God’s standards, that still lurk beneath the surface. I set to work on those sins, only to uncover still further ones. When I lie upon my deathbed, I’m convinced that I’ll leave certain sins, certain hidden faults, unseen, unacknowledged, and untreated.

As David comes toward his close in this magnificent psalm, he moves from the entire cosmos at the outset to the individual at the end. The heavens declare God’s majesty. God’s law is magnificent and all-revealing. The manifestations of God’s power are awesome, but what hope is there for me in my own power?

The answer, of course, is “none.” That person who irritates me by proclaiming himself the chief of all sinners, knows this, assuming he is not merely aping Paul’s words, because he has held his own life up to comparison with the majesty of God as demonstrated in Creation and with the holiness of God as expressed in the Word. I’m reminded here of Isaiah’s “I am ruined” in Isaiah 6:5.

When we consider the enormity of the heavens and the power of the Word, is there any room for pride? Is there any sensible response other than worship and obedience of Him who created both? I think not.

Fair Warning (Psalm 19:11)

By them your servant is warned;
in keeping them there is great reward. (Psalm 19:11)

I’ve been thinking lately about the ability to go back in time. Wouldn’t it be cool to go back and warn our younger selves about some of the dumb things that we’ve done over the years? Personally, I would probably start by trying to get my newly saved self to avoid wasting fifteen years in a stagnant church. That would be good. I’d warn myself not to invest in Enron, not to neglect changing my insurance over when I bought a new van, not to crack up my bicycle a few summers back, and not to allow myself to be talked into being a district training chairman for Boy Scouts. All of these warnings could have saved me a good bit of pain and suffering.

Only in the movies do characters get to go back and relive their past lives in order to fix mistakes. To the best of my knowledge nobody has done it for real, although I don’t suppose they’d admit it if they did.

Our warnings, then, have to come from those who have gone before, those who have better knowledge. Driving down the road, we might see any number of warning signs, placed there by the people who built the road. Examine commercial packaging and you’ll likely see such amazing warnings as “Caution: contents may be hot after heating.” Radio personalities such as Dave Ramsey will warn you not to invest your money in lottery tickets and pumpkin futures. If only the world provided warnings for all eventualities.

Among the other things that God’s Word does is to provide us with warnings, warning that lead to rewards. In order to make use of those warnings, of course, we have to expose ourselves to them. Just as not reading safety instructions on a new chainsaw will not get me warned, not reading the Bible will not result in warnings. I’ve tried putting it under my pillow, but it doesn’t work.

Not only do I have to avail myself of the warnings, but I have to heed them. Today, Penny and I were reading in Ephesians, hearing warnings about all manner of problems. If I find myself warned off greed, for example, and then go buy my lottery tickets, I have not heeded the warning. I will not reap the reward.

Although I can’t go back in time to warn myself about things, I can go back in time, to the foundation of time, and hear the warnings set down by the one who created everything. Consider yourself warned!

 

 

Precious Things (Psalm 19:10)

They are more precious than gold,
than much pure gold;
they are sweeter than honey,
than honey from the honeycomb. (Psalm 19:10)

Imagine one of those exercises where you try to decide what ten objects you would have with you if stranded on a desert island. I’d want water–or better yet a filter to desalinate sea water. Rope would be useful. Something to eat could come in handy. I’d throw a knife and a first aid kit and some sort of shelter into my supplies. What I would decidedly NOT choose is gold or its modern-day equivalent, money.

If the legendary hijacker, D.B. Cooper, did manage to parachute to safety in the trackless forests of the Pacific Northwest, what did he do with all of that money he took along? Assuming he never made it to civilization, he might have made a bed for himself out of the cash. It might have provided tinder for fires. Beyond that, money in the forest is pretty useless. Gold on a desert island is only good as a weight.

Why do we put such value into things that won’t last any length of time? A couple of weeks ago, thousands of people lined up to buy the second generation iPads on the day they first came out. Why? Why did I make sure that I made it in front of a TV by 1:20 on Sunday so that I could watch my KU Jayhawks lose in the NCAA Tournament? Why do we get attached to cars that will wear out in a few years, houses that require constant maintenance to keep from falling around our heads, and all manner of entertainments that cease us pleasure very quickly.

Do we really believe what David says in this Psalm? Do we really value God’s Word as the most precious, the most delicious thing in our lives? I can’t say that I do on a regular basis. I pay lip service to the idea, but little more.

What do we do then? When I realize I’m not valuing my wife sufficiently, I spend time with her. Perhaps the same will work with scripture. We have nothing to lose in the attempt.

Nothing but Fear Itself? (Psalm 19:9)

The fear of the LORD is pure,
enduring forever.
The decrees of the LORD are firm,
and all of them are righteous. (Psalm 19:9)

Franklin Roosevelt famously warned America that “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself.” Spoken during the worst of the Great Depression, these words, uttered by a powerful politician, were amazingly silly. Did the people of Oklahoma not have to fear all of their topsoil blowing away to the east? Did people not have fear crime? Was starvation not a genuine object of fear? While Roosevelt’s line might have sounded good coming through the radio, it really didn’t have much substance to it, at least not as he intended it.

Fearer of Fear?What student of the Bible has not encountered Proverbs 9:10, which admonishes us that “The fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom.” Apparently, FDR never read that. Let’s consider the fear of fear versus the fear of God for a moment.

That long-ago president urged us to essentially fear nothing. We didn’t need to fear death, disease, war, starvation, crime, poverty, ignorance, violence, racism, unemployment, or any of a hundred other significant things. Proverbs tells us essentially the same thing, except that we are to fear God.

FDR replaced the fear of fear with a can-do attitude and clever government programs. Proverbs replaces the fear of God with nothing. Nothing can replace it. FDR sought to banish fear; Proverbs seeks to embrace a particular fear.

The fear of the Lord endures forever, our verse today asserts. What other fear lasts forever? Pain is temporary. Unemployment ends. The Great Depression and the Dustbowl ended. World War II, not even on Roosevelt’s radar at this point, ended. Even death, through our hope in Christ, ends. Of all the objects of fear, only God remains as such forever.

The only thing we have to fear is God Himself. What if Roosevelt had spoken those words? What difference would it have made? A proper fear of God looks to God for all of its answers, all of its protection and provision. The absurd fear of fear looks to human efforts for all of its answers.

Those other fears, temporary as they are, can be considered impure, while the fear of God is pure. We don’t have fear fear itself. We should fear the lack of fear in the God who created us.

Light for the Path (Psalm 19:8)

The precepts of the LORD are right,
giving joy to the heart.
The commands of the LORD are radiant,
giving light to the eyes. (Psalm 19:8)

I’ve been reading a little bit of the English biologist and writer T.H. Huxley, a man known as “Darwin’s Bulldog” and the grandfather of Aldous Huxley, the author of Brave New World. When he wasn’t championing Darwinian evolution in England and abroad, Huxley also promoted broader education, claiming that “artificial education” (or school) helped prepare people for the “natural education” of life. That makes a certain amount of sense to me.

When I look about me, I see a number of people who stumble along life’s ways for want of the various sorts of education that I was blessed to receive. Having been raised by astute and moral parents, I learned beforehand  to avoid a good number of the obstacles that life (nature in Huxley’s formula) would have placed in my path, leaving me a bloodied lip and little if any explanation.

To make my way down this twisty track we call life, some light in the form of instruction is helpful. The problem, however, is that all light is not created equal. I think of the “light” that Pinocchio received on his way to school. I think of the “light” given to young people today equating easy sexuality with happiness. That sort of light seems to show the way but leaves dangerous tangles unrevealed.

The commands of God, however, are radiant. They give us true and revealing light. Where Huxley trusted in the partial light provided by science, we must trust in the full light of God’s counsel.

 

By the Right Bread Alone (Psalm 19:7)

The law of the LORD is perfect,
refreshing the soul.
The statutes of the LORD are trustworthy,
making wise the simple. (Psalm 19:7)

Today, I took my family to lunch at Panera, feeding nine in the bargain. First of all, the price tag hit me a little harder than I thought it would. Then, Olivia appeared beside me as the cashier swiped my card. Apparently she hadn’t ordered. Then, when Penny received her food, macaroni and cheese, it was cold. The crew didn’t seem terribly bothered and took an inordinate time heating or replacing or whatever the bowl. Frankly, I was ticked off. I considered a snarky attack on the people preparing the food. Then I decided to hunt for bigger fish.

Walking toward the manager, a couple of verses popped into my head. First, that whole annoying “Do unto others” thing crossed my mind. Then James 1:20 crossed my mind: “human anger does not produce God’s righteousness.”

With my best calm face on, I explained our problem, the cold mac and cheese, to the manager. He apologized and wound up giving my grandkids free cookies, a good deal all the way around.

The core of this matter, however, does not lie in delicious and free cookies. It lies in how good I felt when I flushed my anger away and calmly explained my problem to the manager. In this case, the law (or word) of the Lord refreshed my soul.

How often do we allow ourselves, caught up in our problems, our frustrations, and our worries, to let the soul go stale. Relying on our own wisdom, we look simple and foolish. We’re tied up in knots over a bowl of cold macaroni and cheese. But then, when we turn from ourselves, from our own wisdom, from our own strength, we find in God’s Word a refreshing sustenance.

In John’s gospel, we read of the Word that was in the beginning. That Word, we discover, became flesh. Eventually, we discover that Jesus is that Word. Later in the gospel, He explains that He is the bread of life (John 6:35). That bread, that Word, will sustain me in times of trouble. Why do I ever place my trust elsewhere?