Archive for the 'Psalms' Category

Sandbars

We love to kick at the shallow waves while walking among smooth sands on a lovely beach. Sometimes, though, God calls us go deep into the water.

I can’t let go of our recent walk on a beach on Sanibel Island, Florida, with my brother-in-law, Barry, and his wife Karen. They are dear, dear relatives and sojourners as we follow Christ. Karen is adventurous. While the other adult-minded, mature, and sensible adults walked on the beach and looked for shells (smile), Karen walked into the Gulf of Mexico to tempt sharks and boats as she ventured into deeper water and walked to a sandbar offshore. I invite you to join Karen and to step into deeper waters.

Psalm 115:3 brashly proclaims “But our God is in the heavens; he does whatever He pleases.” There are comfortable, stroll-on-the-perfect-beach words here—and there is a let’s-walk-into-the-deep-ocean opportunity, too. One writer ventured this prayer about this verse, “that we may be prevented from forming unworthy conceptions of the glory of God.”

First, the psalm reminds us of the Lord’s Prayer, where we pray as Jesus instructed us, “Our Father, who art in heaven.” How stunning it is that beyond the multitude of universes science has wonderfully unveiled to us (yes, universes), God rules everything and everyone. This is of tremendous comfort. While the world appears to be spinning out of control God is in charge. He has written the last chapter (s) of this world and our lives, and while “The mind of man plans his way,” it is joyfully true, “the LORD directs his steps” (Proverbs 16:9). Keeping in step with the Spirit of God is our daily pursuit and joy (Galatians 5). How is that going for you?

Second, there is the challenging second half to verse three, “He does whatever He pleases.” We’re in deep water now. And while there are unanswerable, sometimes troubling questions that ooze from this verse, consider with me one of many things God has been pleased to do.
God is pleased to love us. And, He loves us in the most sacrificial, costly way—He gave His only Son to die for our sins. We should recite the gospel in one of its many Scriptural forms to ourselves every day: “God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son.” Or, “Christ died for our sins…and rose on the third day.” Or, “While we were yet sinners, Christ died for us.”

May we never tire of the essential, fundamental, comfort-giving, life-shaping, endlessly captivating, daily sustenance, and deep ocean of the love of God. It interests me that in Psalm 115 the wonder and works of God are contrasted with idols which are ineffective, hopeless, and futile, i.e., loveless. What are yours?

I regret not going out to the sandbar and deeper water with Karen. Next time, I will.

They See

Ryan and Leah see things most of us can’t or won’t. They remind me of so much that is biblical and central to pleasing Christ.

Ryan, Leah, and their young child are on their way to a mission field that is difficult and, at times, hostile to the good news of salvation from sin and everlasting life through trust in Jesus Christ alone. It is a message that is increasingly, contentiously rejected in our own culture and which is sometimes met with persecution in Ryan and Leah’s new destination. They have been tested in a state-side, difficult mission field for five years. In visiting other mission fields they each have developed some health issues, so I wonder about their physical strength. I am their adoring, proud, humbled uncle, and someone who has experienced the joy of Ryan’s growing, passionate faith in Christ all his life and the riches of Leah’s heart in recent days. I want them to do everything to avoid danger and protect their health. In my mind, I have a better plan…
But is safety and comfort the way and will of God for them or for us?
They have the unclouded vision of Hebrews 10-11. They see needy souls and have accepted the cost to reach them (10:32-34). They see the futility of accumulation and the joyful life of sacrifice to others (10:34). They have seen the joy of heavenly reward in living for the will of God (10:35-36; 11:8). They have seen God’s preservation of their souls (10:39). They see the ultimate value in living lives to please God and not themselves (11:5). They see the call to a city that is better than any place on earth (11:13-16). They have seen the joy, struggle, value, and call of surrendered hearts as opposed to controlled, subdued ones that keep the heart of God at a distance (chapters 10-11).

“Therefore God is not ashamed to be called their God; for He has prepared a city for them” (11:16).

Sending them—releasing them to go—is so hard. Thankfully, they don’t go alone. Jesus Himself promised to be with them wherever they go (Matthew 28:19-20). Angels accompany them (Psalm 91:11-12). Followers of Christ are praying for and supporting them. They will have some assistance from their parent missionary organization. There are some believers where they are going. Truly, God has ordained both the means to do His work and the ends for His glory and their good.

Their call is ours. We live out our salvation right where we live, work, and play every day. Hebrews 10-11 shows up (or is absent), e.g., in the way we spend money, in our pursuits and passions, in the way we use media instead of it using us, in who we go to for joy, in what we feed our minds and souls with. Time will tell. Time tells.

Whew! With a trembling, immeasurably jubilant, nervous heart my spirit flies out with them on October 25th.

Father, help me to see what Ryan and Leah see.

Flame

Cheryl and I are back from Alaska. Yes, Alaska! Have you seen it or imagined what that would be like?

Our souls still leap when we remember the beauty of what we saw and experienced. May that sense of awe never be cheapened or go away.

The glory of God in Creation, of course, shines all around us. It’s hard to beat where we live right here in East Tennessee. But oh how I love the Pacific Northwest, Puget Sound, and the Inland Passage of Alaska.

Language is a feeble friend to describe the immensity of brooding mountains, deep blue waters, the majesty of powerful whales, graceful eagles, and the delicate blues of glacier chunks.

I am using enormous words to attempt to paint a picture of Creation’s splendor: glory, awe, and majesty. Glory is the essence of God. Creation’s portrayal in Alaska and everywhere is but a small glimpse of His glory—His light, majesty, beauty, weightiness. Awe, our response to the glory of God, is what we are captured by. What startles your spirit—what grips you, amazes you, or seizes your heart and senses when you see our nearby fog-shrouded mountain, the rays and colors of sunrises or sunsets, the flight of an osprey, the dance of a deer, the never-ending variety of green colors in our trees, or the limitless shapes of leaves?

Psalm 29:1-4 and 9, note they all cry glory.

Ascribe to the Lord, O heavenly beings,
ascribe to the Lord glory and strength.
Ascribe to the Lord the glory due his name;
worship the Lord in the splendor of holiness.
The voice of the Lord is over the waters;
the God of glory thunders,
the Lord, over many waters.
The voice of the Lord is powerful;
the voice of the Lord is full of majesty.
The voice of the Lord makes the deer give birth
and strips the forests bare,
and in his temple all cry, “Glory!”

Some see the “temple” and “cry” as the language of worship, and Creation’s particulars as motivation for worship. Certainly! Creation is a start, calling us to bow before its Maker and to see—really see—some of who God is. I also note Scripture’s continual portrayal of God’s glory in creation’s elements themselves. Praying through Job 36-39; Romans 1; and Psalms 19, 33, 104, 148 bring together the sovereign act of Creation and the glory of God in and through its particulars, and will bow our hearts in reverence and joy all at once. Awe won’t be enough.

One such experience on our trip came to me through Flame. She is a humpback whale who spends summers around Juneau, Alaska. Identified by the unique identifying underside of her tail, she performed one dance after another as we shadowed her around area waters by boat—while she consumed some of her one ton of food a day. Power, beauty, grace, majesty—glory—abounded.

In the small and great things we see may we continually shout out to God, “Glory!”

-john

Rhea Herald News, July 25, 2018

 

Stars and Hair

New Day, December 8, 2015

“He determines the number of the stars; he gives to all of them their names” Psalm 147:4

This morning’s astronomical center stage before the sunrise was a crisp, smiling, crescent moon brilliant co-star, Venus, both accompanied by a cast of luminaries quietly standing nearby. It was as though I could take a giant step and be on stage with them.

And yet they are so far away. Psalm 8 came to mind, “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars, which you have set in place, what is man that you are mindful of him, and the son of man that you care for him?” (3-4).

The holy distance and closeness of God stops us in our tracks. Theologians call this His transcendence and immanence. All at once He is immeasurable, inscrutable, and uncontainable, and still He cares about the number of hairs on our heads.

We long for and rejoice in and live for both.

Turkey Wisdom

“Come into his presence with thanksgiving” Psalm 95:2

Our affection for Thanksgiving is real. Lovingly called “Turkey Day,” we call each other “turkey” and make fun of one of the strangest animal faces God created. Imagine a close-up of an ugly turkey face and extra-long neck, and chuckle at the caption: “No matter what happens this month, at least you aren’t a turkey.”

Getting our perspective right is important especially if you are you are going through some troubled times and hope is in short supply. Picture a cartoon with a sad Mr. Turkey. He is asked, “What are you thankful for?” Answer: “Vegetarians.” No matter what anyone says you aren’t a turkey without a future if you are a follower of Jesus Christ.

Join me in some “Turkey Wisdom”—a small list of hugely important thanksgiving biblical theology.

First, there is the obvious but ever-important need for thanksgiving to God. Thanksgiving is a response to God for His goodness to us. The Psalmists talk a lot about God’s works on our behalf. For instance, “It is good to give thanks to the LORD…For you, O LORD, have made me glad by your work” (Psalm 92:4). Trace thanks and thanksgiving through the Psalms and hear God’s story of deliverances, rescues, gifts, joys, and provisions just like yours. “Praise,” someone said, “is the occupation of the soul with God’s blessings.” Chew on that long and slow before the start of family, fun, and football on Thanksgiving. You’ll have a wonderful time of worship.

Second, and even deeper, thanksgiving recalls the nature-character-essence of God Himself. “Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving…For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods” (Psalm 95:2-3).  An entire life of study could not exhaust the depth of who God is (Psalm 139:17-18). Yet to do so is our privilege, joy, and call. When your mind is most clear, I recommend Psalm 111. Circle the many descriptions of God.

Third, a lifestyle of thanksgiving is protection from idolatry. Yikes! I know you didn’t expect that so catch Paul in 1 Corinthians 10. Using Israel’s Old Testament history as a negative example for us, he says: “Now these things took place as examples for us, that we might not desire evil as they did…Do not be idolaters as some of them were…We must not put Christ to the test…nor grumble, as some of them did and were destroyed by the Destroyer…Therefore let anyone who thinks that he stands take heed lest he fall.” In the middle is grumbling, and grumbling is a spiritual big deal. It isn’t our human nature to do so; it is our sin nature in rebellion, worshipping the idol of self. Thanksgiving guards our hearts. The Father said, “The one who offers thanksgiving as his sacrifice glorifies me” Psalm 50:23).

Christmas is pushing its way in prematurely, so this Thanksgiving won’t you open the door to thanksgiving with a full heart before you fill your empty stomach?

The Rhea Herald-News, Thanksgiving 2015

Goodbye Jericho

“Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who have pleasure in them” Psalm 111:2

This column is dedicated to all who love animals but love Christ more.

Jericho died last week. Darn. The majority of his life he lived with our daughter but he made a deep imprint on all our family. In his memory, I am submitting the following column (revised) I wrote years ago.

He’s only been in trouble once. That was the time he devoured my wife’s holiday slippers. Turned into a slobbery colander, those warm respites from winter’s cold no longer supported vegetables or feet.

Jericho is our first dog, and was a present for our daughter’s nineteenth birthday. We are a little slow at our house. Do consider getting a dog if you don’t have one—and don’t worry too much about the carpet or slippers.

Jericho has smitten all our in-house and extended family. One excursion into the den of iniquity hasn’t diminished his acceptance. Systematically, one after another, we have embraced our canine kin. Even the owner of the slippers has been caught slipping food to him at inappropriate times…

His black, wet nose presses into our lap and begs for affection (and treats). He snuggles with us on the floor. Like helicopter blades at full throttle, Jericho dangerously wags his tail when we come home as if we’ve returned from war. He scores high as the companion dogs are supposed to be.

Of course, loyalty is supposed to be a gift from man’s best friend but this may be in question, since Jericho seems to gravitate to the one who fed him last. The fact that he listens well and never talks back helps our family to overlook this one character flaw.

I am enamored with a dog and can’t imagine my world without him. Is our dog an appropriate delight? What does God think about animals?

Many animals serve creation’s purposes as we appropriately use them and have dominion over them. Animals often illustrate powerful truths, e.g., sheep (salvation) and goats (judgment). Interestingly, Jesus elevates them in importance, saying they remind us of God’s care (“Look at the birds of the air…”). And we dare not forget that Jesus Himself is the “Lion of Judah” and “Lamb of God.” Remember the household dog in Mark 7:27-28? Here the canine family companion is used illustratively in the healing of a daughter and the mother’s faith journey.

Of course, animals aren’t nearly as valuable as God’s highest creation—you—me! Here’s what strikes me the most: In light of these positive biblical purposes, animals are extraordinary gifts and reminders of the one Lamb of God! “All creation is made by Him and is for Him,” notes Colossians, and “Great are the works of the LORD, studied by all who have pleasure in them.” Wonderfully, all creation and creatures point us to Jesus Christ our Creator and Savior.

These days, the slobbery slippers and vet bills are worth it!

The Herald-News, October 21, 2015

Ever Full of Sap and Green

Rhea Herald-News, September 2, 1015

They are ever full of sap and green.” Psalm 92:14

Have you wondered what you would actually say in the presence of royalty? Visit with me with Philip Newell. If the Father allows me to get old (er), I want to be like him.

Mr. Newell was ninety-six years old when he last closed his eyes on earth. The public knew him as a writer and the son of a famous Christian writer, William Newell. To our church family, we remember him shuffling down the center aisle at church to the first or second row where he could hear and see everything on Sunday mornings. Sundays—worship—mattered to him.

Privately, I went to visit him regularly at his assisted living residence. With a Bible in his lap, he received me as if I were a long-lost relative. He tired easily so our times together weren’t long. He often shared what he had been reading and I always asked if I could pray for him before leaving. But always—memorably and wonderfully—Mr. Newell, nearly breathless, always jumped in when I said “Amen” and prayed, quoting Scripture, and summoning God to watch over me and my family.

When he died, I was asked to speak at his funeral. My heart full, I could hardly speak.

I want you to remember Mr. Newell’s witness to the importance and joy of public and private worship. He was Psalm 92 personified, “It is good to give thanks to the LORD…How great are your works, O LORD…They are planted in the house of the LORD; they flourish in the courts of our God…they are ever full of sap and green.”

Psalm 92 portrays the public side of worship—its glorious and life-giving benefits. It is the only psalm designated for the Sabbath. Since resurrection Sunday, the majority of followers of Christ recognize the first day of the week as the time for gathered worship. Worship was vitally important to the Jewish community and it is to Christ’s followers today. In the psalm, singing, thanksgiving, praising, music, gladness, and declaring the steadfast love of our Most High God are soul-nourishing experiences meant to be shared together each week before we scatter into the world.

Psalm 92 presents four privileges cultivated on Sunday that strengthen us for Mondays. Like breakfast, these are essential for spiritual health. The first is the vital meal of spiritual maturity. We “flourish…and grow like a cedar in Lebanon” (v.12). Our life goal is to increasingly be like Christ. Like breakfast, Sundays are irreplaceable for maturity.

The other three honors seem obvious but are joyful parts of Sunday’s banquet. Faithfulness (v.13), commitment to service (v.14), and verbal declaration of the God’s righteousness and faithfulness (v.15) complete our feast. Slowly chew on these with Psalm 92 in your hands. Will you pray them for your church, pastor (s), and yourself?

Then we, too, can be like Philip Newell: “Ever full of sap and green.”

Show Stoppers

New Day, August 31, 2015

“Give thanks to the Lord of lords, for his steadfast love endures forever…to him who made…the moon and stars to rule over the night.”

Psalm 136:3, 7, 9

There were two show stoppers this morning while the sun yawned to wake up.

First, there was the nearly full, waning gibbous moon, high in the western sky, encircled by a thin, transparent collage of clouds. Radiant and quiet, it would have been such a loss to miss it if I only focused on the eastern sky while I waited for sunrise.

In the full range of the visible heavens there was a second joy. Just above the waking sun in the east there was Venus, the main morning star and the brightest of planets. In September, Venus and Mars appear before dawn with bright Jupiter appearing in mid-month below Venus and Mars. Jupiter will shine more brilliantly than any star. It’s the second-brightest planet after Venus.

I am curious: Did the Psalmist differentiate between stars and planets?

Did you know the “morning star” is used of both Satan and Christ? Satan was once the most stunning of angels until his fall (Isaiah 14). Christ is THE “bright morning star” (Revelation 22:16). In the New Jerusalem, capital city of our final eternal home (the new heavens and earth), “They will need no light or lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light…” (Revelation 22:5).

What an stupendous morning to give thanks for the gifts of God in the sky, His steadfast love, and the Christ who is the greatest of all lights!

Dead or Alive

“Give me life, O LORD, according to your word!” Psalm 119:107

 There is a lot to be said about what we have now when compared to where we have been.

I am slow-walking through Psalm 119 this month. With a cup of coffee in hand, one morning this week I waited for enough light to read and, instead, prayed the psalmist’s heart: “I love your word, O LORD” (v. 97). Father, may my heart have the joy of the psalmist for the Word of God—even more than a stunning early morning sunrise (v. 111).

Sunrises change each day; the Word of God stands forever. Life circumstances can change every hour; God’s Word and His steadfast love speak—sing—everlasting life every minute (v. 88). The psalmist asks for life “according to your word.” Here are some thrilling, thanks-inviting, worship-compelling words God has said about life in the Word of God.

  • Jesus Christ is the only true way to eternal life. Jesus declared, “I am the way, and the truth, and the life. No one comes to the Father except through me” (John 14:6-7).
  •  We are now dead to self—crucified with Christ—and can really live because Christ is in us—now. “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me. And the life I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20).
  •  We are no longer chained by hopeless death but have begun eternal life—now: “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life” (John 5:24).
  •  Christ is everything. Life is Christ-centered and to die right now is to our advantage: “For to me to live is Christ, and to die is gain” (Philippians 1:21).
  •  Jesus is an available safe, comforting, guiding, protecting shepherd for we who are His sheep—now and forever. “The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came that they may have life and have it abundantly” (John 10:10).
  • God’s love is all around, in, and through life: “In your steadfast love give me life” (Psalm 199:88).

Certainly, there are passages that speak to the tough, sacrificial side of life with Christ. And daily, a gray day has serious temptations to a unscriptural thought, e.g., “Just pull the blanket over my head and go back to sleep.” Yet, God’s Word invites me: Get up for “This is the day [life] the Lord has made, let us rejoice and be glad in it” (Psalm 118:24).

Father and Giver of life, there are many competitors to the life You offer through Your Son, Jesus Christ. Please help me to single-mindedly chase after Him with a heart for the One who is our life.

NOW

New Day, August 14, 2015

“…give me life, O LORD, according to your word!” Psalm 119:107

I am slow-walking through Psalm 119 this month. While sitting in the dark with a cup of coffee, waiting for enough light to read I prayed the Psalmist’s heart: “I love your word, O LORD” (v. 97). The early morning joy of a sunrise is only exceeded by the anticipation of the Word of God (v. 111).

Sunrises change each day; the Word of God, teaching us and guiding us each day does not. Life circumstances are altered sometimes every hour; God and His steadfast love undergird every minute.

The Psalmist asks for life “according to your word.” My databank quickly thanked Yahweh for “life” thoughts:

  1. Jesus Christ is the only way to life and the only true life (John 14:6);
  2. We are now dead to self—crucified with Christ—and can continue to and really live because Christ is in us—now (Galatians 2:20);
  3. Once dead and bound to sin’s penalty and power and presence, in Christ we are no longer chained by its hopeless death but have begun eternal life—now (John 5:24);
  4. Christ is everything. Life is Christ and to die right now is to our advantage (Philippians 1:21);
  5. Jesus is an available safe, comforting, guiding, protecting shepherd for we who are His sheep—now and forever (John 10:9-10).

Today’s gray sunrise does not diminish the smallest bit of reality and certainty of life today and, soon, in Christ’s presence!



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