Sunday, February 28, 2010

Psalm 121

I lift up my eyes to the hills - where does my help come from?
My help comes from the Lord, the Maker of heaven and earth.
He will not let your foot slip - He who watches over you will not slumber;
indeed, He who watches over Israel will neither slumber nor sleep.
The Lord watches over you - the Lord is your shade at your right hand;
The sun will not harm you by day, nor the moon by night.
The Lord will keep you from all harm - He will watch over your life;
The Lord will watch over your coming and going both now and forevermore.

What a beautiful pilgrimage Psalm. I can't imagine a better prayer over a traveler - especially one who would be camping outside and traveling over deserts and facing enemies of both the animal and human kind.

It's important to remember that these Psalms of Ascent were not "chapters" but were just a collection of songs that, among other uses, travelers would sing on the way to Jerusalem for the feasts. So as I have reflected and focused on memorizing this Psalm this week I can't help connecting it to Psalm 120 - which would be what they sang immediately prior to this one. In Psalm 120 the Psalmist honestly cries out to God about the problems of living among those who hate peace. He is among deception and violence on an ongoing basis. In that context, Psalm 121 sounds like a declaration of faith: Yes, here is what is bad - but guess what ... my help comes from God.

That is exactly what we need to hear right now. When you memorized or reflected on Psalm 120, what realities did you cry out to God? He wants us to do that - but equally He wants us to follow that cry with a declaration of faith. Our help comes from God - the creator of heaven and earth. I think that is very intentional terminology used by the Psalmist ... He links the Lord, Yahweh, to creation. The God is Israel isn't just a territorial God, He is the God who created the earth. When we need help, we need someone who can handle a big job. I would say creating from nothing is a big job!

Verses 3-8 move into the arena of protection. We often spiritualize these verses, and they have a definite spiritual application. But as I picture a traveler singing this on a pilgrimage, I can't help but think how literal these travelers would have taken these verses. If I'm on a journey, I want to know God has my back! Asking God for safe travels is Biblical - but in a context.

Remember Ezra leading the travelers back to Jerusalem? In Ezra 8:21-23 prior to leading the Israelites back to Jerusalem from captivity (another time when the Psalms of Ascent were sung), Ezra declared a fast and prayed for a safe journey. His reason is significant: "I was ashamed to ask the king for soldiers and horsemen to protect us from enemies on the road, because we had told the king, 'The gracious hand of our God is on everyone who looks to Him, but His great anger is against all who forsake Him.'"

God's glory was at stake in the protection of His people on a journey! That is pretty amazing. The reality is that Ezra's journey as well as the journey up to the feasts are God-honoring, God-glorifying journeys, kingdom-centered journeys. When we are on a kingdom-centered journey, God is with us. And when we are on that kind of journey, I think we do have permission to pray this Psalm literally as well as spiritually.

In the other window on my computer is an amazing message by Christine Caine from Hillsong Australia. She's talking about purpose, about mission - she said that we are called to take risks for God. We're not called to be tame but to make a difference. She compared our choice to animals living in their natural environment (risky) versus living in a zoo (safe). If we live life in the wild, then we need God's protection. We need His help to keep from slipping and protection from the sun and watching over our every step. She recounted 3 times when she barely missed terrorist attacks. Risky? Sure. But God was with her.

That doesn't mean we'll never have tragedies or trials. But that will happen for God's glory too. He'll still watch over us in the midst of it. However, the important thing for our part is to remain on mission with God. If we do that, we can pray that as we are about God's business taking light into the darkness instead of storing up more light for ourselves, we will find Him with us in a special way.

Saturday, February 20, 2010

Psalm 120

I am currently working on memorizing the Psalms of Ascent (Psalm 120-134) with a group of women. I thought I'd cross-post my devotionals on each Psalm here.

I call on the Lord in my distress, and He answers me.
Save me, O Lord, from lying lips and from deceitful tongues.
What will He do to you, and what more besides, o deceitful tongue?
He will punish you with a warrior's sharp arrows, with burning coals of the broom tree.
Woe to me, that I dwell in Meshech, that I live among the tents of Kedar.
Too long have I lived among those who hate peace.
I am a man of peace; but when I speak, they are for war.

Psalm 120 is a beautiful reminder that not all our prayers find immediate resolution. Sometimes, the point of prayer is just to be heard by God.

To grasp the depth of the psalmist's cry, let's look at the full context of this Psalm. The Psalmist was embroiled in some sort of situation where he longed for peace but others wanted war. In the midst of a conflict we never wanted, Paul's command to live peaceably "as much as it depends on you" can feel insufficient. When we desperately want peace, our hearts wish that Paul had given us a promise instead of a command. Like a child, we just want God to fix it.

The first of our Psalms brings to mind occurrences in all of our lives when we found ourselves desperately wanting peace, but embroiled instead in conflict. Maybe it was a relationship, or a work situation, or even a church setting where we discovered that everyone else wasn't as eager for peace as we were. I've been there, and so have you. I've cried out to God to just make the conflict go away, to make things right again. As I worked on this Psalm, I could identify with the depth of the psalmist's cry in verse 1.

The word used for "distress" in verse 1 is very interesting. It means "anxiety, trouble" as you might imagine, but it is the exact word used in 1 Samuel 1:6 to identify Hannah's husband's second wife, translated in some cases as "rival wife". Imagine the pain of a rival wife. Imagine the distress Hannah felt as this other women kept provoking her over her childlessness. Hannah wanted a peaceful life, but someone in her life kept stirring up conflict ... someone close enough to make it hurt very badly. That's the type of distress the psalmist experienced. And it drove him to God.

Verse 1 recounts that the psalmist called on the Lord and God answered him. We don't see an immediate resolution in the psalm, but we do see an assurance of judgment. The psalmist cried out for God to save him and God's answer wasn't necessarily immediate. Instead, he received the assurance he needed to write that God would definitely punish the deceiver. In our own trials and pain, delayed justice can be hard to swallow. Yet it was just this type of delayed justice that Paul wrote about to the church at Thessalonica:

"God is just. He will pay back trouble to those who trouble you, and give relief to you who are troubled, and to us as well. This will happen when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven in blazing fire with His powerful angels." (2 Thess. 1:6-7)

God will fix it alright - when Jesus comes. Don't get me wrong - this doesn't excuse us from the responsibility to do all we can to seek justice now, to bring glimpses of His kingdom to earth, for His will to be done on earth as it is in heaven. We can and should fight injustice and work for righteousness to prevail ... as much as it depends on us. The psalmist testified in verse 7 that he spoke up. He tried. But at the end of the day, when we've done our best and "they" are still for war - when the conflicts in our family and church remain, when the wrong law is upheld in court, when the nice guy finishes last ... we have an assurance of a perfect justice yet to come.

We won't always live in Meshech and dwell in Kedar. As long as we do, we have a lot of work ahead of us. But we can throw our hearts into that work knowing how things turn out in the end!

Tuesday, February 09, 2010

"Watch Over Your Heart"

Above all else, guard your heart, for it is the wellspring of life. (Proverbs 4:23)

"Guard your heart." That's advice that I've heard ever since I became a Christian and frankly, I never really knew what it meant.

Since I come from a background where I lived by my feelings for years - with horrible results - I really related to  Jeremiah 17:9: "The heart is deceitful above all things and beyond cure. Who can understand it?" The first time I read that verse, I was stunned. I'd been told all my life to follow my heart. I had never considered that it could lead me astray.

So, I carried my understanding of Jeremiah 17:9 into my interpretation of Proverbs 4:23. I had to guard my heart, I thought, because otherwise it would deceive me. I had to protect me from my heart.

This interpretation was made easier to accept by a heavy dose of guilt. A friend who has lived abroad told me once that the U.S. is a guilt/fear culture. Basically that means guilt and fear influence more of our worldview than we realize. I also happened to grow up in small, fundamentalist churches that communicated an unhealthy degree of guilt and shame. For whatever reason, I was hardwired to translate "guarding my heart" as "waiting for my heart to try to attack me."

So last night as I was working through a couple of verses in Proverbs (part of my bedtime routine this year), I came across Proverbs 4:23. I saw right away that the speaker - communicating as a parent to a child - exhorts the listener to pay close attention to his words which will result in life and health. Then the speaker gives the first specific advice of the section: "Above all else, guard your heart". More than anything else - the top of the list - for life and health, guard our hearts. Why? "For it is the wellspring of life." I decided to dig deeper.

What I found has been nothing short of profound for me. I've been eager all day to share this new understanding. Let me unfold it with a couple of definitions:

"Guard" (or "keep" in some translations) is a word meaning guard, protect, maintain, watch, inspect. It's a word used in the context of guarding or maintaining a vineyard or a fortification as part of the city wall.

"Heart" is the "totality of man's immaterial nature" (Zodhiates), or the "middle of something". Think of the phrase, "the heart of the matter", for understanding.

"Diligence" is really another form of "keep" - it really means "above all keeping". 
So here is where I began to see the pieces fall into place. I summarized these definitions in the following paraphrase of the verse:

"Vigilantly watch over your inner being - inspecting it, protecting it, maintaining it preventively - because it is the source of life itself. (my paraphrase)

How do I "vigilantly watch"? Not in the sense of a prison guard, watching so the prisoner doesn't escape. Instead, I "vigilantly watch" as a vineyard keeper or watchman would - watching for cracks in the wall, blight on the plant; protecting by warding off attackers and providing nourishment; maintaining by daily attention to detail. Here's the key to my new look at this verse: You don't look for your wall or vineyard to do something wrong ... you take care of them.

Guarding my heart is a lot more about protecting it from attack than protecting me from my heart. As Jeremiah 17:9 notes, the heart is deceitful -- the old heart. Ezekiel 36:26 tells us that God gives us a new heart in the New Covenant: "I will give you a new heart and put a new spirit in you; I will remove from you your heart of stone and give you a heart of flesh." (Ezekiel 36:26, NIV). My new heart is a wellspring of LIFE. In the Septuagint (the Greek translation of the Old Testament, used by Jesus and the early church and the source of over half of our New Testament quotes of the Old Testament), the word "life" in Proverbs 4:23 is translated "zoe" - the life of the spirit or soul. It's the same word used for our new life in Christ. When God gave me a new heart, He didn't give me a deceitful one. He gave me one filled with life. With Him.

Can my flesh still deceive me? Absolutely. Do I need to make sure that I'm not being deceived and guard myself from walking in the flesh. Of course. Walking in the Spirit will always be a choice I have to make, a choice empowered by the Holy Spirit and the freedom He gives. However, this new insight has given me a new appreciation for God's transformative work in my life. My heart has been under attack lately, and I had wrongly thought that my heart was attacking me. Yet God showed me this new angle, this new prism for Proverbs 4:23 and I realized that I have a new heart, which I am to guard and protect. It won't attack me (though the old one might) - but it can be attacked.

1 John 3:19-20 says that God is greater than our heart. Whenever our heart condemns us, we can set it to rest in His presence by knowing we are of the truth as we see evidence of love in our actions and in our truth. So when the accuser comes in like a flood with thoughts that attack my life-filled heart, I have to protect it. I have to raise up the only banner that works - the cross of Christ - and quiet my heart in His presence with the truth of who He's made me to be, evidenced by the life He lives through me, flowing out of that new heart.

I've learned to see guarding my heart from multiple angles now. Sure, I don't want to be deceived. But I also don't want to sit in fear of my heart when God has so thoroughly redeemed and transformed it. I'm learning to see guarding my heart as watching over something valuable. We guard what we treasure. We protect it. We don't wait for it to attack us. We just make sure nothing attacks it.

Maybe you haven't had the struggle with interpreting this verse that I have. And I'm sure that I'll be learning more about this for the rest of my life. But I'm rejoicing tonight in a freedom, a lifting of a condemnation. I'm singing one of my favorite Keith Green songs - "River of Life". Share it with me as part of this worship medley below. And enjoy the life flowing from your new heart.