Observations from Psalms

A couple of separate observations from my daily time in Psalms…

The Last Meal of a Condemned Man

People who don’t care about God seem to have an easy life. They don’t get up early on Sunday mornings (unless it’s to play golf). They take shortcuts to prosperity and seem unfazed by it. They focus on themselves and what they can see. Pride is so much easier than humility.

I get it. I think that way sometimes, too. So did David. Continue reading

On Worship

A lifestyle of worship has been on my mind for awhile. It arises partly out of my study in Psalms and partly out of…well, a bunch of stuff. Anyway, I am glad to share some thoughts on worship this week with my blogging friend, Vanessa. Read the first bit here or click straight over to her blog and start from the beginning there.

As much as I am tempted to sleep in on Sunday mornings, I love worship time with my church. You see, we lived in a place without churches or church services for more than six years. Our corporate worship time involved gathering in the living room with some praise choruses pulled up on a computer screen. I think God was honored in those moments, but it was nothing like adding your voice to a few dozen (or a few hundred) other believers, singing out in praise and accompanied by talented musicians. Corporate worship and preaching fuel me for the week ahead.

But Sunday mornings are not the only time I worship.

I have learned that worship shouldn’t be a noun. It’s not a person, place, or thing; it’s an action. Sometimes it’s an active verb, like on Sunday mornings when we worship together. And sometimes it’s more like a state-of-being verb, a mindset that pervades everything else.

Dig into God’s call to worship–including some gleanings from Romans–at Vanessa’s blog. Otherwise, what do you think of as worship and when does it occur? Share your thoughts there or in the comments below.

Math, Psalms, and Real Righteousness

real-righteousnessMost of you don’t know this, but I love math—especially geometry. I love the organization of it, the logic, the confidence in repeatable results. I think math is beautiful. I haven’t persuaded my eleven-year-old of this perspective yet, but I’m working on him.

In math, order usually matters. 5 -3 ≠ 3 – 5. There’s an order in which to write the equation and there’s an order to the procedures used in solving it.

Boring!! Okay, I’ve already lost some of you. Here’s the point:

In the Christ-life, order also matters. But we don’t like the specified order. Just like a couple of Algebra I kids who think they can get creative with solving quadratic equations, we think we know better, easier ways to live out our lives.

Psalm 15.

In this psalm, David begins by asking God who can get close to Him. He says it much more poetically: Lord, who may dwell in your sacred tent? Who may live on your holy mountain? (Psalm 15:1). This is a recurring theme with David. He asks essentially the same question in Psalm 24:3. This time, David must have been thinking about Moses, whose face glowed after time spent with God in the tent of meeting or on Mount Sinai (Exodus 34:29-35).

Then David answers himself, running down a list of honorable actions (Psalm 15:2-5). It’s not the Ten Commandments but more a list of things to which a basically good person should pay attention. Here’s what’s interesting (well, one of the things): None of these things are about proscribed rituals. They are all about relationships!

Not Ritual but Righteousness

Rituals do not
produce righteousness.

Here’s David, who once sacrificed a bull and a calf every six steps when they were moving the ark to Jerusalem (2 Samuel 6:13). This guy knew how to “do” sacrifices! Yet when he considered what it takes to be close to God, it wasn’t about rituals. It was about relationships—specifically, relationships with other people. Long before Amos chastised the “cows” who paraded into religious ceremonies even while thinking up new ways to cheat each other (e.g. Amos 4:4-5), David knew our actions toward each other revealed far more about the condition of our hearts than any number of religious rituals. Wouldn’t Jesus say the same thing to the Pharisees, who tithed their herbs and spices while turning a blind eye to justice and mercy (Matthew 23:23)?

Not Regulation but Relationship

We need to be careful here, though. It would be easy to take this list of actions, hang it on the wall, and think we could be close to God by, for example, never slandering, never doing wrong to a neighbor, and never casting slurs (all from verse 3), along with the rest of the list.

What’s wrong with that? Well…

  1. It’s straight-up legalism.
  2. It’s impossible to do for a day, much less a lifetime, and even trying would be exceedingly stressful!
  3. It misses the whole point.

The actions listed here by David and lived out in relationships, all reflect a certain condition of the heart. They demonstrate kindness, peace, patience, self-control, etc. Wait. That sounds a lot like the Fruit of the Spirit (Galatians 5:22-23), doesn’t it? Ah ha! The heart condition must come before the demonstrations.

When my relationship with God is good and right, my relationships with others reveal it. This is the definition of righteousness.

Obviously, we no longer offer animal sacrifices. And thank goodness! Think how hard it would be to clean the church every Sunday if we had animals and blood all over the place. But we do try to regulate our Christianity.

We want to make righteousness (remember, that just means a right relationship with God) about what we do and don’t do: church attendance, tithing, not watching R-rated movies, schooling choices for our children, boycotting company X, etc.

We want to make
righteousness about what
we do and don’t do.

Let’s stop for a second here. Why is this? Why do we lean toward the regulations? I think it’s because they are easier and less messy that David’s list in Psalm 15. Honestly, I’d rather skip R-rated movies than try to always speak the truth from my heart (15:2). Such truth-telling might offend someone or it might compel me to do something inconvenient or difficult. A personal, intimate rightness with God (that definition of real righteousness again) will require me to confront my own moral failings, and well, that’s just more than I can handle. Know what I mean?

God has always said it’s our relationships with others that reveal our rightness with Him.

Does the Lord delight in burnt offerings and sacrifices as much as in obeying the Lord? To obey is better than sacrifice, and to heed is better than the fat of rams. -1 Samuel 15:22

He has shown you, O mortal, what is good. And what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God. -Micah 6:8

And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward. -Matthew 10:42

Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world. -James 1:27

As you can see, in all three sections of the Old Testament (histories, wisdom literature, and prophets) and in both parts of the New Testament (gospels and letters), it’s our actions in relationships that confirm our connection with God. Never our rituals or regulations. And here’s the good news: We have the Holy Spirit, with His Fruit to both confirm our relationship with God the Father and empower us to live according to His standards. So I don’t worry about the list. I just focus on keeping my relationship with God in good condition.

Later in James,

You see that a person is considered righteous by what they do and not by faith alone. -James 2:24

Perhaps this verse is the best to set alongside Psalm 15. The actions David describes are the tangible result of a righteous life, not the prescription for it. This is where the Christ-Life is like math. Order is important. The right relationship with God yields healthy, God-centered relationships with other people, never the other way around.

right relationship with God ⇒ right actions toward others

When your righteousness is revealed through your relationships, you will never be shaken (Psalm 15:5b). Just like my geometry proofs.

Get your relationship with God right, and it’ll show in relationships with others. (click to tweet)

Whew! I hope this made some sense. I feel like I just blurted a bunch of stuff onto the page. Let me know what struck you as significant and/or where I missed it. I always appreciate your comments.

Bible Study: Making the Familiar Fresh

I’ve been in church my entire life—since before my 0th birthday, which means even in the womb, I heard Scripture, singing, and prayers. As of this week, that means I’ve been going to church for more than 44 years. (Yes, it’s my birthday week. Woohoo!) As pre-teens/teenagers, my sister and I read the Bible through annually for several years in a row. As an adult, I’ve spent time in the Word almost every day for the last twelve years (at least). I’ve done dozens of Bible studies and heard innumerable sermons.

So there are certain parts of the Bible that are as familiar to me as the back of my hand. My memorization may be a bit messed up from switching translations over the years, but I know these passages. When I contemplated spending this year in Psalms, I knew such familiarity would confront me in certain well-known chapters. Why do I say “confront”? Because that extreme familiarity makes it difficult to see/hear anything fresh from the words on the page.

The Holy Spirit stirs our
ever-changing experiences in
with His never-changing Word.

I believe, however, God always has something fresh to say through the Scriptures as the Holy Spirit stirs our ever-changing experiences in with His never-changing Word. That’s why people say, “It’s like I never read that verse before!” He applies His Word to our life in new ways because we are always in a new place. In other words, it’s our experiences that change the relevance of Scripture, not the Scripture itself that changes. Isn’t it remarkable how the Bible can do that?

sheep-psalm-23
sheep on a rocky hillside in Lesotho (c) Carole Sparks

So there I sat for my quiet time on January 23rd, looking at Psalm 23. What can I do? How can I read it? What could I possibly add to the books and sermons I’ve read/heard from these six verses?

At the Spirit’s prompting, I began to re-write each verse in my own words, based on my own life right now. I didn’t even realize I was doing it at first. The result was something very personal and very fresh, a reflection of what I know about Jesus, the Shepherd-King.

As I share my…paraphrase (using the word very loosely), I encourage you to try this next time you come upon an all-too-familiar Bible passage. And just so you know, I had to go in afterward and look up the references to other verses; I don’t just have those things in my head.

Psalm 23

according to Carole, near her 44th birthday

Because God is in charge of my life, nothing I need is missing.

He shows me good times to rest and good places to be nourished,

both of which restore me at the soul level. He leads the way along the life progression that’s right for me so I and those around me cannot help but praise Him.

When I feel like things couldn’t get any worse, like I’m about to die, and like I’m all alone, I don’t have to be afraid. Even at those times, He is near though I can’t see His light. His correction actually comforts me because it shows that He loves me (Proverbs 3:11-12/Hebrews 12:5-6).

He spoils me right in front of people who hate me. He blesses me, calls me out, and sets me apart for His purposes (Ephesians 2:10). He is wastefully, extravagantly generous toward me.

I am confident of His never-ending love for the rest of my life and of my spot in Heaven thereafter.

Have you ever tried rewriting Scripture like this? It’s not inspired or anything, but it can be a special moment. Let me know what you think in the comments below.

Bible Study: the Holy Spirit stirs our ever-changing experiences in with God’s never-changing Word! (click to tweet)

Check out this fun, faith-filled alliterative approach (see what I did there?) to Psalm 23 from April Yamasaki and Mel Sawatzky!

If the Mouse Was King of the Jungle

06-24-dhow-from-serena
Indian Ocean  (c) Carole Sparks

The earth itself testifies
to our insignificance.

Nothing makes a person feel small like standing beside the ocean or looking up into a big Texas night sky full of stars (especially if there’s a meteor shower, which we saw once—amazing!) or peering over the edge of the Grand Canyon. The earth itself testifies to our insignificance.

And yet…

God chose us to govern His magnificent creation. Why?

I’m spending this year in Psalms. It’s something to which God called me several months ago, and I expect to read through the entire book twice before the end of 2017. (I’m also reading books about the Psalms, so feel free to share any good suggestions.) This means you can expect many blog posts out of the Psalms this year, of which this is the first.

Psalm 8.

04-26 Ngorongoro Crater (144).JPG
lion resting (c) Carole Sparks

The Psalmist says to God, “You made [people] rulers over the works of your hands; you put everything under their feet” (8:6), then he lists many of the things over which we “rule”: domesticated animals, wild animals, birds, and fish. We don’t rule for any of the reasons other animals rule their domains. Sure, we have the biggest brains, but weaponless, we would lose a fight with a gorilla or a lion or a crocodile or an elephant or a poisonous snake or any number of other animals.

We rule because God gave us the task of ruling way back in Genesis 1. The only reason we (puny, almost-hairless beings) are at the top of the food chain is because He put us there. Why would He do that? For the same reason He selected the tiny Hebrew people group to be His “Chosen People.”

To the Lord your God belong the heavens, even the highest heavens, the earth and everything in it. Yet the Lord set his affection on your ancestors and loved them, and he chose you, their descendants, above all the nations—as it is today.  -Deuteronomy 10:14-15

For the same reason Jesus was born in the insignificant backwater town of Bethlehem.

But you, Bethlehem Ephrathah, though you are small among the clans of Judah, out of you will come for me one who will be ruler over Israel, whose origins are from of old, from ancient times.  -Micah 5:2

The less we are,
the more He is.

Because the less we are, the more He is. We know, if we stop to think about it, that we really shouldn’t be the ones in charge.

Which brings me to the mouse in the jungle…

There’s a really fantastic children’s book called The Gruffalo. It was a favorite in our house for years, and I always did all the voices! In the second half of the book (spoiler alert!), the mouse encounters many of his natural enemies, but they are all afraid of him because a very large, very scary monster is following him through the woods. The mouse doesn’t know the monster is behind him. He thinks the animals are actually afraid of him.

This mouse is not a good role model. He’s deceitful and prideful and foolish, unlike us. Oh wait.

We can still make a good point here. The animals fear the one behind the mouse. They see the gigantic monster because the tiny mouse stops to talk to them. In a sense, the monster gives the mouse dominion over the animals. Obviously, God is not a monster, but do you see the connection? God appoints us to rule the world because our weakness and insignificance leaves the most room for His dominance.

Paul got it (and you’ve probably already thought of this verse). He said, “That is why, for Christ’s sake, I delight in weaknesses, [etc.]. For when I am weak, then I am strong” (2 Corinthians 12:10).

If He is really the one in control, then what is left for us? First, our assignment remains from Adam: “Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground” (Genesis 1:28b). Like the sovereign of a nation or the father of a home, “to rule” means to be the caretaker, the leader, the responsible one as much as (or more than) it means to make rules and determine futures.

Deflect the
credit to Him.

Secondly, it remains for us to glorify Him. Unlike the mouse in The Gruffalo, we must turn around and point out the One who is truly in charge. We must never think it’s our own power or intellect or influence that deserves respect. We must deflect the credit to Him and acknowledge His power far above our own.

The Psalmist knew this, too, and this is the verse that really struck me as I read Psalm 8. It’s one of those verses stuck between familiar songs so it’s easy to overlook. Think about this one for a minute:

Through the praise of children and infants you have established a stronghold against your enemies…  -Psalm 8:2

Through something as weak as children and infants, using something as ephemeral as praise, the God of Creation has made a stronghold, which is neither weak nor ephemeral. It’s as if He built an impregnable fortress out of clouds. And there’s plenty of room inside for all of us mice.

We are the mice God has put in charge of the whole jungle! (click to tweet)

So, how do you think about our assignment to rule over (or take care of) the world? How does it affect your daily life? Feel welcome to share in the comments below!