Tag Archives: principles

In our lockdown anxiety: Get a new narrative from Psalm 91

The well known Psalm 91 seems to be placed in the Old Testament Book of Psalms to answer the last question of Psalm 90: “How long?” We all have that question these days, especially here in the beautiful Delaware River Watershed where the stay-at-home order is already getting to feel like a long time.

shelter narrative

Psalm 91 can be a great comfort if you read it with a Jesus lens. But if you are reading it like every line of the Bible is a principle from the textbook of God, it could trip you up. With a Jesus lens, the psalm reminds us that our afflictions are temporary and every light in the darkness illumines our everlasting life. But read as a set of principles, it could be very discouraging, since most of the promises it lists are not likely to be specifically fulfilled for you and your loved ones any time soon in any verifiable way. Taking the theme of the poem seriously, the psalm reveals God, the Father of Jesus and the parent of us all, to be good, attentive and active on our behalf. As a result, we have something on which to build an anxiety-unraveling narrative.

The Jesus lens

Here is a summary of what Psalm 91 leads us to believe.

It starts and ends with truths that lead us into fullness. The thematic word is “shelter.” As you shelter-in-place, God is your shelter — that sums it up for now. God is your shadow in the desert. God is your hiding place from what attacks you. God is your fortress in the battle, and more. If you can’t do the poetry, now would be a good time to learn.

Whatever happens, nothing shall hurt you. Even though trouble and affliction come upon you, those bad things shall come to good. There may be grief right now as far as the quarantine goes, but there is joy in the eternal now of our heart-to-heart relationship with God. These are all the longed-for and debated promises Jesus-followers spend a lifetime grasping and grappling. In 1 Corinthians 10 Paul teaches that the experiences of Israel with God “happened to them as an example,” and the stories about them “were written for our instruction, upon whom the ends of the ages have come.” The risen Jesus told his disciples, “Everything written about me in the Law of Moses and the Prophets and the Psalms must be fulfilled” (Luke 24:44). Jesus considered the book of Psalms to be ultimately about him.

Those who rightly know God, will set their love on him. In hope, they will call on her. In response, God’s promise is to deliver his loved ones out of trouble, and in the meantime be with them in trouble. We move through life in partnership with God for our given time. A person may die young, yet be satisfied with living. A wicked person will not be satisfied even with long life. In due time our conflict ends and we are done forever with trouble, sin, and temptation.

the inner narrative

Under the thumb of principles

The problem with this psalm, especially for anxious people who are looking for that out-of-reach security they crave, is piled up in the middle. In that part the poet gives an extravagant description of what God will do for us in hard times – like when the nation is stricken with a virus.

It says she will do things like give us courage when “pestilence…stalks the darkness or destruction lays waste at noon.” It says “A thousand may fall at your side”…but no “plague” will “come near your tent.” Like the devil quoted to Jesus, it says angels will bear you up so you won’t even stub your toe.

I think most people know these are not verifiable principles to apply to the present plague. Even the good doctors are dying! So many say God is a fraud when Christians claim such statements are inerrant – and often pretend they are completely true, even when they are sick!

On the one hand, no one knows just how much God is personally sustaining us or angels are caring for us. I can’t measure God’s care but I shamelessly rely on it. All my hope is built on the love and truth demonstrated in Jesus.

On the other hand, like Jesus told the devil, we must not test God to see if we are being cared for according to our standards, tempt God to see if she fails us, prove God as if he were a theorem. The devil went for the obvious proof, “Show that you are loved by God by demonstrating God’s care as you throw yourself off this pinnacle.” How many of us dive off our mountain of anxiety, daily, and are daily disappointed at God’s lack of response! Jesus comes back with the deeper scripture, the more-personal and less-principle Deuteronomy 6:16. That verse recalls the Israelites arguing with Moses about water, as if the Lord had not provided for them every step of the way. Don’t keep testing God as if water couldn’t come out of a rock any moment, as if you weren’t thankful for the gift of life — and an eternal one, at that!

We might not be able to fix it

Anxious, controlling people want facts they can rely on, since they feel stuck in the middle of a mess they are consigned to fix. Americans, especially, might be effectively chastened, for once, by the present crisis and decide they aren’t the light of the world after all. We don’t live in the shelter of what we build for ourselves — at least not for long.

Psalm 91 shines a light on God, our shelter, from beginning to end. It starts

Whoever dwells in the shelter of the Most High
will rest in the shadow of the Almighty.
I will say of the LORD, “He is my refuge and my fortress,
my God, in whom I trust.”

In Robert Alter’s more literal and immediate translation:

He who dwells in the Most High’s shelter
…..in the shadow of Shaddai lies at night. –
I say of the Lord, “My refuge and bastion,
…..my God in whom I trust.”

It is a basic anxiety-reliever to adopt a preferred narrative and keep rehearsing it until one’s mind can conform to it. This post is like exposure therapy for people locked in principles that damn them or deprive them of a faith they can’t live up to or believe in.

This small part of Ps. 91 could be a new mantra to replace the rehearsal of fears that dominates one’s inner dialogue. In these verses, the names of God could provide a budding reassurance that might flower in the midst of trouble.

Where do I live? In the shelter of the Most High. The Hebrew word Elyon suggests a supreme monarch, one who is elevated above all things. It is first used in Genesis 14:18, describing Abraham’s encounter with the priest/king Melchizedek, “He was priest of God Most High.” Melchizedek gives us a picture of Christ in several ways (Heb. 7), Jesus the king and priest who did not fit the principles. Our shelter is greater than the umbrellas of our understanding.

How are my needs met? By the Almighty. The Hebrew word Shaddai primarily suggests a  powerful God who is strong beyond our imagination and is more than capable to supply our every need. This is the God who parted the sea and moves in all creation. In the all-sufficient name of Shaddai, there is no need that cannot be met, and no circumstance that won’t, ultimately, be overcome. My physical needs lead me to spiritual needs which, when addressed, help me sort out my physical needs.

Who knows me and still loves me? It is the LORD. This personal name for God was considered so sacred in Judaism the original pronunciation is uncertain, only that it contained the letters YHWH (JHVH in Latin).  It has been translated as Yahweh, Jehovah, and more often as the LORD (in all caps). This represents a relatable God who calls Moses from the burning bush and wants all of us to know her love. Every joy and fear in our hearts is important to the Lord. In Jesus, we see just what a friend we have. God calls my name and it is joy to respond. It is good to have the hairs of one’s head numbered, even if I feel my scalp itching.

Who can I trust? My God. The Hebrew word Elohim appears at the very beginning of the Bible, “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” It is technically a plural word. The creator is one, yet plural (Father, Son, Spirit). The God we trust is the same God who creates all things, the first and the last, the God who is forever faithful to his creation. The creation is infected, but it is good. My first reaction may not always be trust, but I can get to a deeper place where I meet the author and protector of my faith.

God’s ways are higher than our ways, yet we can love her as a friend. God is unsearchable yet so very near to us. In His shelter, we find strength, comfort, and rest for our souls. If you are anxious, that assurance might seem like nice poetry meant for someone else. I hope this little piece shows ways to deconstruct such an unhelpful narrative in your inner dialogue and strengthens a new narrative informed and empowered by God’s Spirit, alive in you in perilous times.

Faith in the Land of Food Glut

This past week I heard an interesting juxtaposition of comments (maybe veiled criticisms) that made me think that I just might understand Jesus better than I used to.

One person said, “Our church is really good at Lent. But we aren’t that great at joy.” I think they meant that we can relate to being morose and remorseful, we can do pensive and self-critical, but we have a tough time letting loose and being happy. Maybe.

Another person was pondering out loud and said, “Having a pile of goodies as part of worship is a new twist. Gluttony as praise.” He was referring to our weekly invitation to get our taste buds involved in receiving the sweetness of resurrection. One week we had a pile of strawberries littered with chocolates. But he must have been there the week we had a big pile of homemade cookies. Were we encouraging the behavior that makes many of us so food-obsessed and fat? Maybe.

Isn’t it great that people are thinking deep thoughts and not all watching Iron Man 3?

Can one feast or fast in a food glut?

Their comments reminded me of what people said to Jesus. On the one hand, his disciples were aghast at what he said to the rich young man he sent away. When Jesus told them it was hard for a rich man to enter the kingdom they wondered “Then who can be saved?” (Mark 10). Jesus seemed extremely serious and downright austere. The kingdom is a perpetual fast?

One the other hand, people thought John the Baptist was tough, but they thought Jesus was a party boy, in comparison. John seemed like perpetual Lent and Jesus looked like a glutton and a drunkard, eating and drinking with tax collectors and other people on the outs (Luke 7). Jesus seemed committed to joy and freedom and on the edge of being immoral with the immoral. The kingdom is a perpetual feast?

fat-cow-loginFeasting is such a problem for us Americans. We live in a food glut, so we never kill the fatted calf, we decide upon which fatted calf we will eat today.* The vast majority of us have never been hungry and don’t know anyone who has been hungry, ever (even though they are still out there, people: in Philadelphia and in the world). I think many of my plump friends looked at a plate of cookies on the “altar” and it looked like it was mocking them. They’ve eaten so many cookies, they stopped tasting their sweetness ages ago. Food is like a burden they carry. They are always loaded with it, trying in vain to get rid of what’s hanging on them. They can’t feast, just feed at the immense trough.

But fasting is such a problem, too. We live in such a food glut that we are always eating the fatted calf, we have cow factories devoted to providing them at low cost. When we fast we tend to give up the cherry on our perpetual sundae, or go on a brief diet. We can’t get away from excess even if we try. Yesterday, I went to a breakfast meeting, a potluck for Cinco de Mayo (with excellent chips), and two further meetings laden with surfeit snacks! If we endure a season of Lent we think our morose behavior is extraordinary and we long to get back to our sunny diversions — the ones that make Jesus look like such a downer.

Life beyond the perpetual questions

Since we are on the subject. Just sayin'
Since we are on the subject. Just sayin’

I think most of us have been well-trained to live in the quandary I just set up. The people who supplied my original motivation were doing the same thing. There are always the opposing thoughts in any argument or situation and we think our job is to live in the compromised middle of them. We tend to be afraid to move this way or that because there is always that other argument. Does Jesus call us rich people to give it all up, or is he feasting with us sinners and freeing us from condemnation? And there we go again in some endless dialectic.

It seems to me that if all we are talking about are the applied definitions of “fast” and “feast” we are liable to sit around feeling critical of strange things that happen in worship meetings. But strangely hidden in the scriptures that seem so opposite is another approach to listening to God that is not about applying static principles.** Just like the Christian year moves from fasting to feasting along with the seasons of creation, understanding the revelation in Jesus is a journey, a trusting movement through time.

In the Mark 10 passage where the disciples are amazed at how hard Jesus seems to be on the rich man, Jesus is just suggesting a journey. The man needs to move through the “eye of the needle.” Likewise, the disciples need to leave and move with Jesus into eternal life.In the Luke 7 passage where Jesus is accused of being a glutton, it is all about people going out to see John and coming to Jesus, and Jesus going into the marketplace and making relationships. I think both passages are happening along the journey, during which there are days of fasting and suffering and there are days of feasting and joy. It all works out in the purpose of God and in the love we are sharing, not in the appropriate application of good theology, alone.

Faith is a daily matter of trusting God along the journey. Sometimes we can’t make perfect sense of it all. For instance, I went out to dinner twice this weekend. On Friday I went to Harvest at 40th and Walnut, where I had a delicious pork chop and plate with just enough calories on it. The next night I was hungry again and ended up at Tandoor where I had two heaping plates of my favorite dishes from the buffet. I felt a bit guilty after I ate all that food at the wanton Tandoor, like I had betrayed the morality of the austere Harvest. Today I have convinced myself that it is all part of the journey in the land of food glut. I was criticizing myself like people criticized Jesus – and I was, indeed, better at that. But I also really enjoyed all that saag paneer and the pakora, too – and I am letting myself experience that sweetness.

* More on simplicity skills here: link.
**More about not just applying the principles here: link

No incarnation, no justice

justice conf logoYou may experience the same theological divide I felt at the Justice Conference last week. Whenever one is listening to a parade of speakers there is not a lot to do but compare and contrast. So I did. And I felt an interesting contest going on. It was a fascinating smorgasbord of evangelical do-gooders and I enjoyed snacking on various goodies.

Strangely enough, I think my most long-lasting good impression has less to do the the speakers and more to do with the wonderful notebook the organizers made for each participant. Across from a nice bio of each speaker they had a page for “notes,” the “key quote” and the “key take away.” I am so unused to going to conferences that I forgot that we are often encouraged to get a takeaway from a speech. We are not supposed to immerse ourselves, relate, understand or resonate, necessarily; we are to sift the data for something that moves us, or is useful to us.

Well, I think I learned to do that a bit.

Evangelical justice

We were talking about justice at the conference and one of the scriptures used was I John 4. One interpretation dissected my understanding of that chapter more clearly than I can remember. I had forgotten how it could be divided up.

In his letter, John is defending the incarnation. Most commentators think he has some opponents in his congregations that are tilting the gospel toward Greek, “gnostic” thoughts that would not tolerate a God in the flesh or tolerate relating to God in a personal way. So it was surprising to see that even while thinking about John’s letter it is possible to divide up John’s thoughts in such a way that one can strain out the personal and end up with principles. One of the speakers seemed so steeped in his principles and committed to a sovereign God who was so “other,” that he had a difficult time figuring out how to argue for doing justice, which is so incarnational.

But he gave it a noble try. This Bible study is my takeaway.

1 John 4:9-11 — This is how God showed his love among us: He sent his one and only Son into the world that we might live through him.  This is love: not that we loved God, but that he loved us and sent his Son as an atoning sacrifice for our sins. Dear friends, since God so loved us, we also ought to love one another.

Why do justice? Here is what I stereotype as an Evangelical way to look at it, according to the passage above.

  • You should do justice by applying the principle: God loved us so we should love others.
  • Then, moving along with what John says, you could add the principle that: Our love means nothing; it’s all God’s love that changes the world.
  • If you are really going for it you could add: We should show love like God showed it in Jesus by being sent into the world so others might live through Jesus.

I don’t think those thoughts are all wrong. But I don’t think it is all John is trying to say, or that he would ever say it. Especially since he immediately says.

1 John 4:12 — No one has ever seen God; but if we love one another, God lives in us and his love is made complete in us.

John is not merely applying principles, he is explaining the reality of God’s love living in him and God’s love being made complete in the body of Christ as they love one another and show his love to the world.

The incarnation of justice

I never would have become a Christian in the first place, had I just been signing up for the impossible task of applying biblical principles. I had enough guilt motivating me already. To be honest, the arguments that well-meaning Christians presented to me were not that convincing until I met God personally, which happened in spite of their arguments.

They were doing things like making principles out of the following nuggets from 1 John.

1 John 4: 16-17 — God is love. Whoever lives in love lives in God, and God in them. This is how love is made complete among us so that we will have confidence on the day of judgment: In this world we are like Jesus.

One could read 1 John 4 like it was a very good argument for what a Christian ought to do. One can take the sentences above and focus on the last clause: “In this world we are like Jesus.” The principle could be:

  • Jesus cares about people so you should care.
  • Jesus desires justice, so do it.
  • Obeying the principles is the only way to have confidence on the day of judgment because you can demonstrate that you actually followed the commands of your teacher.
  • Doing what is written is the way that love can be complete and not flawed under God’s scrupulous eye.
  • God is love. If you say you are saved, you’d better be loving.

I don’t think those ideas are all wrong, but they might be missing the main thing John is talking about.

1 John 4:18 — There is no fear in love. But perfect love drives out fear, because fear has to do with punishment. The one who fears is not made perfect in love.

It is only the love of Jesus at work in our hearts that can transform us into lovers. No amount of proper principle-applying will do it – especially when we apply the principles because we are afraid we will be disobedient and possibly judged if we don’t! Doing the work of justice no longer has to do with punishment, either; it is mainly about fearless lovers bringing the presence of Jesus with them as they dive into tangled-up humanity.

Nevertheless, one could reduce 1 John 4 down to one verse:

1 John 4:19 — We love because he first loved us.

That was a key verse the Baptists gave to me as a child. It was so short almost anyone could memorize it and get a prize! And even a child can get the point:

  • Jesus loves me.
  • And because Jesus loves me, I should love.

Only that is not all that John is saying. I’d say that sentence does not mean that at all, all due respect to Mrs. Roadhouse, my second grade Sunday school teacher. He means: Our capacity to love is set on fire by God’s love for us. We are rebooted for love by his love alive in us. Without God in us, we won’t be loving like God. John is experiencing an ongoing incarnation and he does not want it stolen by people who do not have God in the world, just a set of religious principles. I think he, again, quickly says just that:

1 John 4:20 — Whoever claims to love God yet hates a brother or sister is a liar. For whoever does not love their brother and sister, whom they have seen, cannot love God, whom they have not seen.

It is not so much what you say, it is whether the love of the living God is in you.

It’s not that John is not making an argument. It’s that he is making an argument for incarnation. His God is not “up there” and we worship this remote God by effecting empathy — like Jesus demonstrated, and like he left us word about in the Bible before he returned “up there.” To the contrary, John’s God has entered into our experience and into our lives. We enter into the difficult tasks of love, like loving people we can actually see today, because the Spirit has entered into us and Jesus is entering into our situation with us.

What should be your takeaway from my Bible study? I don’t know. Did Jesus tell you anything? Did God’s love move you? If nothing personal happened between you and God, then there wasn’t much point in writing anyway. Especially when it comes to making an impact for justice in the name of Jesus, we’ll just be arguing if Jesus is not in us causing love to break out.

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Principle Christianity Is Too Easy to Choke On

But the seed on good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop. Luke 8:15

The Lord’s parable of the sower is a hopeful story. But no more hopeful than creation itself, in which a single seed actually does result in many more seeds, even hundreds of seeds.

But the parable is also a starkly truthful story, and that can feel very discouraging. Because some seeds don’t take root, some are eaten by birds, and some, even when they take root, can die from lack of water or by being choked out by weeds.

I’m thinking about seeds that are getting nowhere this morning. I’m the kind of farmer to whom every seed counts.

People in the weeds

A matter of principle?
Parable of the Sower
Lisa Snow Lady Acrylic on canvas 2010

I am especially thinking of the much-loved friends I have who have been effectively choked out by weeds, or, by now, have faith that has been so ill-watered for so long that it is about dried up. Even more specifically, I am thinking about my friends who have what I call a “principle faith”. They received “the seed” of the word of the kingdom of God as a set of thoughts, a system of belief, even as oral tradition from their parents. When they took their faith on the road, when it encountered a world hungry for their allegiance, when it was surrounded by the jungle of desire and demand, it did not have the stuff to withstand the weeds of opposition.

A faith based on principle alone has a hard time standing up against other forces demanding allegiance on a more visceral level. But many people were persuaded to rely on principles at an early age. I’m not sure why Christian parents and teachers did this, but they sat their children in classes to get their training for a life of faith. I know, I went through some of these. Among the first things a child learns from such classes is that Christianity is about learning things in a class! In our classes, we were taught stories from the Bible which all had morals — sometimes more like Aesop’s fables than the Bible. We learned principles of faith, which were extracted from scripture. For instance, from the parable of the sower the following principle might be derived, “It is God’s will that I should be good, productive soil and bear a very fruitful crop for the storehouses of the kingdom.”  Advanced students might argue that they had a more accurate principle to propose. And so it started. Every paragraph, even every clause, in the Bible had a secret meaning that correlated with all the other meanings in a rather intricate system of right thinking that one needed to master to be a good Christian.

Do we really need to be better students?

As most children in school do, a lot of the students of Christianity didn’t listen too well. They were like most of the of the students of 11th grade math who never mastered higher math skills and certainly never used them after 11th grade! Hopefully, they aren’t all like me, but I became much more adept at cheating than at higher math skills as a result of trigonometry. If the principles of math are hard to convey, the “principles” of life in Christ are much harder! Math can be reduced to some principles, perhaps. But life in Christ needs to grow among weeds. The inorganic approach to teaching about Jesus needs a classroom to live in, not real life. So there are many problems with the teaching that a lot of my friends received. They ended up with a smattering of good thinking (or disputable theology) and that’s about all they have of the word when they are facing the weighty issues of their lives.

Does everything happen for a reason?

The friends I am praying for this morning have a “principle faith” that took them quite a distance on the pilgrimage of faith, but eventually it got them lost. For instance, a couple of these friends had very disheartening break-ups with people with whom they had been having sex for a year or so (and so the break-up was a no-marriage divorce and felt like one). The only faith they could apply to the situation was the common, unshakeable assurance a mother or teacher had taught them that, “Everything happens for a reason,“ which is an application of a faulty principle based on an interpretation of Romans 8:28 among other things. It wasn’t enough. Their faith started to wither.

People are more compelling than principles

Another main thing that I’ve seen choking out the weak little seedlings of principle faith in many people is the demand for allegiance from an unbelieving mate (usually one they are prospectively marrying). That demand is a virulent weed. Once you have sex with someone, it is hard to have what is always an intimate discussion about faith based merely on a set of morals or principles and not on a relationship with God that is as intimate as a sexual one with your lover. But in the cases of the dear people I am remembering, their relationship with God never got that intimate — it was all on paper, it was all in their head, it was all a theory they were applying and not a life growing in their redeemed heart.

They were never good soil. “Good soil stands for those with a noble and good heart, who hear the word, retain it, and by persevering produce a crop.” One can’t hear the word of Jesus like it is more classroom material to be boiled down to the couple of things one can remember — not if it is supposed to withstand robust competition. Noble hearts hear the word from the Word in an ongoing, well-developed, Spirit to spirit relationship that is rooted in eternity — deeper than any human relationship. One has to retain the word of the kingdom of God like good soil retains water – much more than one strains to maintain a relationship with a mate, even. One must hear the word like a call from a master to direct one’s energy to the task of the day – it can’t be the background philosophy that lightly colors what one is really doing.

What does God think?

My friends did not have the faith they needed to stand up to their circumstances. They still have the same thoughts their mother or a well-meaning teacher taught them, but whatever they needed to hear in their heart got choked out by whoever they finally hooked up with. That connection was probably the noblest aim they could come up with, since their faith was merely theoretical and their love/sex relationship quite real. If they were married to the job, instead, as so many are, the job likely parched their scrawny thoughts about God, and the world at large rewarded them with something tangible for that. They may end up great parents and co-workers. But they are not going to be Jesus-followers unless something drastically changes.

Well, they may think they are Jesus followers. But if they don’t open their heart to hear with their heart, if they don’t retain what the Spirit of God implants, and if they don’t doggedly produce the crop of faith, hope and love that their master bought the farm to produce, will God think they are Jesus followers? What would make Jesus think that?