Friday, September 17, 2010

Easier, Closer Than We Think

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven… Nor is it beyond the sea… No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it. (Deuteronomy 30.11-14)

Moses: The Movie

Moses, as rendered by Charlton Heston in The Ten Commandments, is a movie icon on par with Vivien Leigh’s Scarlett O’Hara and Henry Fonda’s Tom Joad. After seeing the film version, reading (or re-reading) the original is slanted by the portrayal. In Heston’s case, Moses becomes a handsome athlete with chiseled features who matures into a white-haired patriarch with flowing beard and vigor to spare—an American idol. Recently revisiting Deuteronomy inspires me to imagine another movie. In my mind, Moses: The Movie isn’t half as grandiose as Cecil B. DeMille’s 1956 Technicolor extravaganza. It’s like the sterling, black-and-white literary adaptations MGM produced in the 1930’s: a tightly focused account of small lives swept up by history, graced by the irony of its improbable hero and heavily laced with sentimentality. The cast is peopled with top-notch character actors who orbit an insecure fugitive pitted against a God Who curiously selects him to lead a slave rebellion that turns into a freedom march lasting four decades. Both protagonists are prickly types with mercurial tempers and stubborn wills. Yet common love for the masses dependent on them welds God and Moses together despite their mutual frustrations and quarrels.

My movie opens in Deuteronomy and flashes back to the Exodus episodes. Moses is a smallish man, rail-thin, with a hollowed-out face and leathery skin cured dark brown by the desert sun—more Gandhi than Heston. His two aides, Caleb and Joshua, brace him while he preaches to the vast crowd assembled for his last sermon. A string-heavy score slowly mounts. Traces of a childhood stammer remain in carefully articulated sentences punctuated by long pauses so those in earshot can relay his words to listeners out of range. Although many miss the conviction in his voice, his message strikes home. With the Land of Promise just over the horizon, Moses reminds them how far they’ve come and encourages them to move ahead. Still, his theme surprises them. He’s explaining the interplay between trusting God’s promises and obeying His commands. Nobody understands this better than he. Impulsive disobedience stole his opportunity to see God’s promise realized. Moses makes his life a cautionary fable. Its moral: “Do as I say, not as I’ve done.” Having ended his bittersweet recollection, the movie closes on an uplifting note. The music soars. Crowd shots reveal confident reactions to Moses’s climactic speech:

Now what I am commanding you today is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach. It is not up in heaven, so that you have to ask, “Who will ascend into heaven to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” Nor is it beyond the sea, so that you have to ask, “Who will cross the sea to get it and proclaim it to us so we may obey it?” No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and your heart so you may obey it. (Deuteronomy 30.11-14)

Dispersed and Banished

Opinions on Deuteronomy’s origins vary. Some scholars hold it’s a fairly accurate transcription of Moses’s words recorded during his lifetime or shortly thereafter. Based on style and content, some date it centuries later, during Israel’s exile in Babylon. Still others believe it may have been written in Moses’s time and then heavily revised to resonate with exiled readers. In any case, it’s fascinating how often Moses glimpses beyond Israel’s imminent triumph to foresee its future as an uprooted nation. The passage above specifically applies to this fate. Chapter 30 begins with Moses urging the people to take his directives “to heart wherever the LORD your God disperses you among the nations.” Verse four elaborates, “Even if you have been banished to the most distant land under the heavens, from there the LORD your God will gather you and bring you back.” This context adds important meaning to verses 11-14, when Moses says his instruction “is not too difficult for you or beyond your reach.”

Naturally, once Israel settles in its new country, obeying Moses’s commands will pose few problems. In all likelihood, they’ll be adopted as the law of the land. But Moses is determined to make Israel understand what he tells it to do aren’t manmade rules the nation must conform to. They’re divine principles the people must obey in good times and bad, when they’re safe inside their borders and when they’re blown in every direction like seeds in the wind. “Regardless how hard life gets, obedience is not too hard,” he tells them. “No matter how far from home you’re forced to go, God’s principles are never beyond reach. There’s no need to wait for messages from on high, no cause to look for exotic messengers who sail the seas to teach you. Even though you’re dispersed and banished—one among many who don’t share your beliefs, cast out of the place you love—the word is very near you. It’s in your mouth and heart so you may obey it.”

Making Easy Hard

This passage was very famous among ancient Jews and Christians, so much so Paul uses it to launch his now-famous salvation formula: “If you confess with your mouth, ‘Jesus is Lord,’ and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” (Romans 10.9) But Moses’s original gets very little play these days, raising suspicions it’s overlooked by not jibing with our modern aptitude for making easy hard. If it’s not overly abstract and complex, we write it off. That’s why so many of us misconstrue trust and obedience to be absurdly daunting and elusive, even irrelevant, in our convoluted world. Yet that’s Moses’s point. The power to believe—to govern our lives by belief—is easier, closer than we think. We can’t help talking about it. Our conversations overflow with questions about justice and compassion. We can’t stop searching for right answers. Trusting God’s wisdom comes so naturally to us we have to unlearn it first and then relearn it. No epiphanies are required. Whatever our challenges, wherever life takes us, God’s principles are never too difficult or beyond our reach. If we pay attention to what we instinctively say and believe—instead of what we think we know or what others profess to know—we’ll discover it’s as simple as Moses taught. We need only obey.

We make trust and obedience harder than they really are.

Thursday, September 16, 2010

Sized to Fit

Great is the LORD, and greatly to be praised in the city of our God, in the mountain of his holiness… God is known in her palaces for a refuge. (Psalm 48.1,3; KJV)

Among Giants

This week I walked among giants: cancer specialists, researchers, social workers, clinicians, and survivors. At first glance, it looked like a commercial venture. And it was that—the annual sales and marketing meeting of the nation’s top provider of biologic cancer therapies. But the spirit of the thing surpassed sales goals and marketing objectives to celebrate the determination of patients, compassion of caregivers, and commitment of scientists to defy the death and destruction of nefarious disease. My work in pharmaceutical marketing routinely places me in gatherings where breakthrough therapies are extolled for their life-giving powers, where patient successes are recounted to inspire those tasked with purveying these products to the clinical community. Yet very rarely is the environment as saturated with unity of purpose as the one I just left. While it’s always been true with this particular group, I felt more keenly attuned to the fervor coursing through this week’s program.

Flying home yesterday, I turned on my iPod, letting it randomly select from a gospel playlist. The second number was Andraé Crouch’s “Bless the Lord,” a simple song that says, “He has done great things; bless His holy name.” The song is so old I was marginally surprised when the progressive congregation I visited on Sunday opened worship with it. The leader segued into a newer chorus: “How great is our God! How great, how great is our God!” It seemed as though every believer there reclined into God’s greatness as his/her refuge. Then they reached way back to a hymn I learned at my grandmother’s knee—a majestic anthem that nearly raised the roof: “Then sings my soul, my Savior God to Thee: How great Thou art!” As my reflection on the service and the meeting coalesced, it made perfect sense. This meeting was different because I’d come to it from a markedly differently place. Submersion in God’s greatness opened my eyes. Consciously or not, the giants I walked among witnessed it. The line between His work and their mission vanished. Every testimonial, progress report, and projection sang, “How great is our God!” When I put it together, I reached a thrilling realization. Our greatness resides entirely in His greatness. The more we’re aware of how great He is, the greater we become. Praise sized to fit His greatness is how that awareness increases.

High and Low

Psalm 48 strikes this note straightaway, saying, “Great is the LORD and greatly to be praised.” Yes, of course. No power or presence in heaven and earth is greater than He. He obviously deserves the greatest praise—no revelation there. Still, praise we ascribe to God is revelatory. Though it proves nothing new about Him, it reveals much about our concept and understanding of Him. Limited praise expresses limitations in how we view and relate to Him. Perfunctory praise exposes the confinement of our relationship with God to polite obligation. In contrast, expansive praise—hungry praise, lavish praise, enraptured praise—conveys unbridled awe at how great He is. It tears down barricades of doubt and unhinges gates of logic that try to contain Him. The Lord is great and greatly to be praised. Confidence in this compels us to remove all hindrances to our adoration and recognition of Who He is, what He does, and the infinite reach of His love and power. Great praise is faith praise.

The psalmist says the Lord is to be greatly praised “in the city of our God, in the mountain of His holiness.” He expounds on his geographic allusions in verse 2: “Beautiful for situation, the joy of the whole earth, is mount Zion, on the sides of the north, the city of the great King.” This isn’t poetry for poetry’s sake, lovely though it may be. At the time of Psalm 48’s writing, the Hebrews were more or less divided into two groups: townspeople and hill people. While city life was notably more prosperous and sophisticated than mountain life, those who lived in towns were also far more vulnerable to surprise attacks and sudden losses. On the other hand, hilltop dwellers led a far more arduous existence at the mercy of seasonal changes and natural disaster. “High and low, up and down,” the psalmist says, our great God is worthy of great praise. Our worship removes us from our weaknesses. It displaces concerns about victimization and situations beyond our control. It turns our thoughts from our fragility and tenuous existence to His supremacy. Unleashing great praise befitting our great God enlarges us. We become giants in environments plagued by hostility and uncertainty. What appears too great for us would be, were it not for the increase we experience when we increase our praise to accommodate all that God is. Great praise lifts our eyes to see cities of depression and vulnerability as “the city of the great King;” we view mountains of deprivation and misfortune as “the mountain of His holiness.” Where we are is not where we live, because we live where He lives.

A Refuge

“God is known in her palaces for a refuge,” verse 3 tells us. If praise reveals our concept of God—and if increased praise increases our faith—then praise indeed will determine how thoroughly and intimately we know Him as a refuge. When trouble comes to our “city”—when forces intent on stealing our joy and jeopardizing our security besiege us—praise transports us to the mountain of His holiness. When unforeseen disasters befall us in the mountains, praise becomes our passport to the city of our God. Unlike thanksgiving, which conveys gratitude for specific blessings and interventions, praise remains constant and needs no reason other than ravishing God with exultation in the wonder of Him. It’s impervious to circumstances, complications, and timelines. It focuses exclusively on God’s greatness, which cannot be denied or diminished by any force, scheme, or coincidence. Praise is a refuge that cannot be penetrated, a safe place that will not fail. How great is your God? Size your praise to fit His greatness. Then watch the size of His greatness explode. The Lord is great and greatly to be praised.

The expansiveness of our praise reveals how great our God is.

Postscript: How Great Is Our God

The full song, “How Great is Our God” by Chris Tomlin.