Saturday, June 23, 2012

Lives of Bright Promise

We finish our month-long contemplation of Psalm 139 with its closing verse, 24:

See if there is any wicked way in me, and lead me in the way everlasting.

With artful elegance, the poet leaves his prayer open-ended. He began by saying, “O LORD, You have searched me and known me,” after which he marveled at God’s vast understanding of him and pervasive presence in his life. God’s detailed involvement in his making has overwhelmed him. After grieving the evils that surround him, he’s come full circle, inviting God, once again, to search his heart and know his thoughts. And now, fully aware he has more to do, he asks God to lead him. There two paths here: the wicked way and the everlasting way—our way or God’s way. Our way exposes us to harm and sorrow. God’s way—the everlasting way—lifts us above doubt and fear. The poet’s word for “everlasting” means “enduring.” In the Hebrew Bible, it’s most often associated with God’s promises, implying faith in God’s pledges to love, welcome, care, and provide for us. And so the psalm ends confidently, knowing God remains steadfastly beside us. The prayer resolves to be led away from uncertainty and discouragement... to walk in God’s way… to confide our trust in our enduring, all-knowing, and ever-present Maker… to depart from harmful habits and attitudes, and live lives of bright promise. Whether our prayer is answered largely depends on how we choose to live.

Friday, June 22, 2012


Today we sit with Psalm 139.23:

Search me, O God, and know my heart; test me and know my thoughts.

After reviling wickedness that engulfs him, the psalmist does something very few of us have the courage to do at the end of our rants and pity parties. He opens himself to God. It’s as if he catches himself and confesses, “My heart is no purer, my thoughts no nobler, than those who vex me.” And we must come to grips with this reality. At our best, we’re no better than those we decry. We open our hearts and minds to God, inviting our Creator to look into us, to know us, to test us. Asking God to come in and take a look at us—the real us—insists we take responsibility for unhealthiness we hide. Should we expect God to abide our nonsense? When we open ourselves to our Maker, we bring ourselves to two realizations: we have it in us to be as sinful as any hater and it’s time we did something about that. Search us, O God. Know our hearts. Test us. Know our thoughts.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

Drawing the Line

Today we contemplate Psalm 139.21-22:

Do I not hate those who hate You, O LORD? And do I not loathe those who rise up against You? I hate them with perfect hatred; I count them my enemies.

And now the psalmist steers us into very tricky—yet very familiar—territory. His honesty confronts us with similar emotions we often wrestle with regarding evildoers and the unrighteous. Hate is a word that all followers of Christ hate, as we are commanded to love without condition. So we question the validity of the hatred the psalmist expresses here. We need to do a little digging to ascertain exactly what he means. Here, he couples two words: hate and loathe. He uses “hate” to indicate he detests the attitudes of those who disregard God’s ways, while his loathing confesses grief summoned by their behaviors. He draws a clean line between his adversaries and their actions, reserving his hatred for what they do, while resisting every urge to hate them for who they are. “I hate them with perfect hatred,” he says, confining his hatred within the boundaries of despicable sorrows they cause. His is a tightly controlled anguish akin to Christ’s prayer on the cross: “Forgive them for they know not what they do.” (Luke 23.34) Drawing the line between hateful actions and those who commit them is never easy; the boundaries are seldom clear. Yet we must make that distinction if we are to love our neighbors without reservation while also despising ungodliness we encounter. Remember: acceptance is not to be mistaken for indulgence, nor should tolerance be misconstrued as permission. And in the end, as Jesus showed us, our disgust with unrighteousness should trigger a spirit of compassion and forgiveness no matter what.

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Bad Company

Our contemplation of Psalm 139 continues with verses 19-20:

O that You would kill the wicked, O God, and that the bloodthirsty would depart from me—those who speak of You maliciously, and lift themselves up against You for evil!

The psalmist takes a radical—truly unsettling—turn as he begins his poem’s closing stanza. After extolling God’s infinite wisdom and the specificity of his own making, the poet looks around and sees people who honor neither God nor their making. He wishes they would go away and leave him to worship and serve his God without interference. But that’s not going to happen. Despite their waywardness, they too are fearfully, wonderfully made. God also has a plan for them. God’s beauty also resides in them. So the psalmist must learn to detach himself from the bad company that surrounds him. He confides his grief to God. He puts his adversaries in God’s hands, releasing them and the anxieties they cause to God’s care.

Tuesday, June 19, 2012

We Have No Idea

Today we ponder Psalm 139.17-18:

How weighty to me are Your thoughts, O God! I try to count them—they are more than the sand; I come to the end—I am still with You.

Throughout Scripture we encounter passages like Isaiah 55.9: “My ways are higher than your ways and My thoughts than your thoughts.” And we tend to read them as reminders that God always has a better idea and better way. But Psalm 139’s poet would challenge us to reconsider. He would suggest that God’s thoughts and ways are so completely different from ours that we have no idea what God is thinking and doing in our lives. God’s thoughts are too weighty—too rare—for us; God’s ways are limitless. And though the breadth of God’s creativity is too great for us, the disparity between our imaginations and what God has in mind cannot separate us from God. We run out of ideas, but God is still with us. So we silence human opinion—be that what we think or what others say—and trust God’s infinite wisdom and power. God knows. We trust.

Monday, June 18, 2012

All of Our Days

We begin our final week of sitting with Psalm 139 by contemplating verse 16:

Your eyes beheld my unformed substance. In Your book were written all the days that were formed for me when none of them as yet existed.

Can it really be true that God has a plan for every life? The psalmist is convinced that all of our days are known to our Maker long before our physical beings take shape. What's required of us to accept that? First, we must dismiss every doubt that it's possible. Our faith in God’s power to part time’s curtain and observe the particulars of our daily lives must be secure. But perhaps the bigger faith-leap comes when we confess that God is able to know our past, present, and future, and yet summon the restraint to allow us to live as we will. What we’re given—our making, history, circumstances, talents, and so on—is by design. What we do with our gifts (even those we don’t perceive as gifts) is up to us. God endows each of us with innumerable choices. God knows how we’ll respond to our gifts, whether we’ll embrace and cherish our making or despise and reject it. The gifts and choices specific to each of us are laid out before us. They’re in God’s book. Deciding to use them as God desires, to honor our Creator in all that we are and everything we do, rests entirely with us. There is a plan. Accepting and following God's plan will lead us to life.

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Let It Happen

He also said, “The kingdom of God is as if someone would scatter seed on the ground, and would sleep and rise night and day, and the seed would sprout and grow, he does not know how.” (Mark 4.26-27)

The Whole Plant Thing

I’m highly amused by Miracle-Gro’s spring advertising campaign. If you’ve not seen the spots, they feature folks who’d love nothing better than being surrounded by thriving plants and flowers but have no gift for making that happen. As they confess their foibles, I laugh out loud, because all of them are me.

The commercials bring back so many failures: the gladiolas I planted along a row and then burned to a crisp by tying them to an iron fence; the lilac I set in the far corner of our backyard to obscure trash cans on the alley, only to love it to death; dozens of ferns I’ve drowned and who knows how many “hardy” houseplants I’ve killed. I can’t really say what I’m doing wrong when it comes to gardening. Is it too much, or not enough? Am I trying too hard, or should I try harder? At times I’ve been too obsessive and not given the plants a chance to make it on their own. But there have been other times when I’ve backed down and not done enough to keep them alive. The whole plant thing is a mystery to me. Which is why Sunday’s Gospel (Mark 4.26-34) gives me great consolation. There, Jesus talks about someone who scatters seed, watches it grow, but has no idea how it works. I have to laugh. This person is just like me!

That Extra Little Something

Of course, Jesus isn’t giving a horticulture lecture. Like so many of His lessons, this one begins with, “The kingdom of God is…” It’s another of Jesus’s attempts to penetrate the minds of His followers, to bring about their understanding of His message and mission. Across-the-board in the four gospels, Jesus is all about the kingdom of God (or, in Matthew, the kingdom of heaven). In Mark 1.15, He launches His ministry by proclaiming, “The time has come. The kingdom of God is near. Repent, and believe the good news.” He then spends much of His time explaining what the kingdom of God is. Actually, He keeps clarifying His meaning by suggesting what the kingdom of God is like. It’s like a mustard seed, a child, yeast, hidden treasure, a great net, a merchant searching for fine pearls, and so on. In every scenario, Jesus presents or implies someone whose aspirations exceed his/her abilities. In order to grow seed or find treasure, something ephemeral must occur—that extra little something that entails trust and patience. At a point in the story, the hero has to let go and let whatever he or she hopes to accomplish happen. If the person believes it’s possible, then what she/he envisions will come about. That’s the good news. That’s the kingdom of God.

Jesus makes it sound easy, when He and we know it’s not. He likens God’s kingdom to a planter who scatters seed, goes to bed and wakes up day after day and watches the seed sprout and grow all by itself. Obviously, some tending is required. The ground has to be broken up to receive the seeds. Some watering and weeding will be needed. The planter has to be mindful that birds might gobble up the seed and pests might devour the seedlings, harsh weather might uproot them and poisons might filter into the soil. The key to the parable emerges in the planter’s acknowledgment he really doesn’t know how plants grow. He just lets it happen. And even though he knows what must be done to promote his plants’ growth, he really has no way of predicting what they’ll be. Some may flourish while others fade. They may yield a record crop; they may yield little. All of that is beyond his control. His task is nurturing their growth—not engineering it. To underscore this point, Jesus compares God’s kingdom to a mustard seed, “the smallest of all the seeds on earth.” (v31) Yet, seemingly against all odds, this tiny seed “grows up and becomes the greatest of all shrubs, and puts forth large branches, so that the birds of the air can make nests in its shade.” (v32) How that happens is anyone’s guess.

Kingdom Seeds

Mark goes on to tell us, “With many such parables He spoke the word to them, as they were able to hear it; He did not speak to them except in parables, but He explained everything in private to His disciples.” (v33-34) Oh to be a fly on the wall when Jesus spelled things out! One imagines it going something like this. A disciple—Thomas, perhaps, as he’s usually the guy with the questions—says, “Okay. So we get the point about the planter and the mustard seed. What this has to do with God’s kingdom is where everything falls apart.” To which Jesus replies, “Once God’s kingdom is planted inside you, it takes on a life of its own. You don’t need to figure out the hows, whys, and wherefores. Just let it happen. If you do that, you’ll be amazed at what comes of your trust and patience.”

Heeding Christ’s words and following Christ’s example hands us kingdom seeds that we scatter across our lives. While we take care that they’re well nurtured and protected, we leave the mechanics of their growth alone. We don’t know how God’s kingdom takes root and sprouts within us, or how its tiny seeds fulminate into great shrubs. The mystery of this will never be revealed to us. All we need to know is it will happen. And all we need to do is let it happen. Miracle Grow is what God’s kingdom is all about.

We don’t have to figure out the mechanics for God’s kingdom to grow in us. We just have to let it happen.