Renewal in Failure

MayEight

Psalm 54.6-7
With a freewill offering I will sacrifice to you; I will give thanks to your name, O Lord, for it is good. For he has delivered me from every trouble. 

“Principles are like prayers,” Maggie Smith’s character Lady Grantham explains on Downton Abbey; “noble, of course, but awkward at a party.” The Dowager Countess is right in many respects, principles are awkward — cumbersome and even forced — but that’s just at first. After a principle gains steam it’s called character. Actions which initially require deep intentionality grow natural and become the bedrock on which reputation is built.

Likewise, “the words of psalms in worship helps us to ‘grow into’ beliefs and attitudes about God, note C. Richard Wells and Ray Van Neste in their book Forgotten Songs: Reclaiming The Psalms for Christian Worship. “Therefore, worship is not just expressive, it is formative.”

“The feelings the psalmists express are ones we need to ‘own’ for ourselves…the psalms give us forms for our feelings. Thus, the sentiments and feelings the psalmist expresses become normative for us.”

Growing character through determination and discipline is not distinctively Christian. In many respects the ability to do so is a reflection of the potential and strength woven into beings created in God’s image.

What is distinctly Christian — the linchpin of the whole growth process — is how a person responds to failure along the way. David’s life is an exemplar, even on the extreme end, of what ought to happen after a lifetime of reputation and character collapses in an instant. 

It would have been easier for David’s relationship with God to become transactional — sacrifices made in order to earn God’s benefaction. Instead, after repentance, David rejoices and offers freewill offerings. The Jewish Publication Society’s Torah Commentary observes, “The freewill offering was one which the worshiper—usually with no prior obligation or commitment—promised to give as an expression of devotion or gratitude.”

David knew he could neither deserve nor earn the forgiveness or favor of God. He lived his life in joyful response to the grace he was so generously given. Perhaps this is why C.S. Lewis reflected, “The most valuable thing the Psalms do for me is to express the same delight in God which made David dance.” 

Prayer
Father God, your grace is our life. Your love nourishes our souls and brings strength to our minds. Restore to us the joy of your salvation.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 16 (Listen – 6:59)
Psalms 52-54 (Listen – 2:26)

Finding Our Way
Part 5 of 5, read more on TheParkForum.org

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This Weekend’s Readings
Saturday: Numbers 17-18 (Listen – 5:58); Psalm 55 (Listen – 2:43)
Sunday: Numbers 19 (Listen – 3:39); Psalms 56-57 (Listen – 3:11)

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TBT: Repentance in Light of Forgiveness

MaySeven

Psalm 51.9-10
Hide your face from my sins, and blot out all my iniquities. Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me. 

TBT: Repentance in Light of Forgiveness | by John Calvin 

But here it may be asked why David needed to pray so earnestly for the joy of remission, when he had already received assurance from the lips of Nathan that his sin was pardoned? Why did he not embrace this absolution?

David might be much relieved by the announcement of the prophet, and yet be visited occasionally with fresh convictions, influencing him to have recourse to the throne of grace. However rich and liberal the offers of mercy may be which God extends to us, it is highly proper on our part that we should reflect upon the grievous dishonor which we have done to his name, and be filled with due sorrow on account of it.

The truth is, that we cannot properly pray for the pardon of sin until we have come to a persuasion that God will be reconciled to us. Who can venture to open his mouth in God’s presence unless he be assured of his fatherly favor?

In proof of this, I might refer to the Lord’s Prayer, in which we are taught to begin by addressing God as our Father, and yet afterwards to pray for the remission of our sins. God’s pardon is full and complete; but our faith cannot take in his overflowing goodness, and it is necessary that it should distill to us drop by drop.

The mention which is here made of purging with hyssop, and of washing or sprinkling, teaches us, in all our prayers for the pardon of sin, to have our thoughts directed to the great sacrifice by which Christ has reconciled us to God. “Without shedding of blood,” says Paul, “is no remissions” and this, which was intimated by God to the ancient Church under figures, has been fully made known by the coming of Christ. 

Prayers from the Past
I am spent, O my Christ, Breath of my life.
Perpetual stress and surge, in league together,
make long, O long, this life, this business of living.
Grappling with foes within and foes without,
my soul hast lost its beauty, blurred your image.

— A prayer of confession from Gregory of Nazianzus, 383 C.E.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 15 (Listen – 5:09)
Psalm 51 (Listen – 2:19)

Finding Our Way
Part 4 of 5, read more on TheParkForum.org

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Desiring the Inner Ring

MaySix

Numbers 14.10
Then all the congregation said to stone them with stones. But the glory of the Lord appeared at the tent of meeting to all the people of Israel. 

In 1944, C.S. Lewis spoke of our dangerous desire for exclusivity: “In all men’s lives… one of the most dominant elements is the desire to be inside the local Ring and the terror of being left outside.”

“Men tell themselves that it is a hardship to stay late at the office on some bit of important extra work. But it is not quite true. It is a terrible bore when old Fatty Smithson draws you aside and whispers, ‘Charles and I saw at once that you’ve got to be on this committee.’ A terrible bore… but how much more terrible if you were left out! It is tiring and unhealthy to lose your Saturday afternoons; but to have them free because you don’t matter, that is much worse.”

Throughout his life, Moses was in the inner ring of fellowship with God. He led God’s people out of Egypt and through the Red Sea. On Mount Sinai, the Lord would speak to Moses “face to face, as one speaks to a friend.” When God was angry with the grumbling Israelites, he almost started over with Moses only: “How long will these people treat me with contempt? … I will destroy them, but I will make you into a nation greater.”

When Moses did not trust in God enough to honor him as holy in the sight of the Israelites, however, God denied his entry into Canaan and replaced him with Joshua: “After you have seen [Canaan from afar], you too will be gathered to your people … [for] you disobeyed my command to honor me as holy … Give [Joshua] some of your authority so the whole Israelite community will obey him.” Thus, God declared that no one—not even Moses—was immune from his justice, for his salvation was received by grace alone.

Prayer
Lord, Thousands of years after Moses, Jesus left the inner ring of fellowship with the Father to redeem us. He laid down his life and was killed outside the camp. If we are in him, we receive your unmerited grace to enter the only inner ring that matters. Forgive us for prizing others’ opinions more than yours. Work in us to crave being in your inner ring so that we will receive your grace to enter the Promised Land. Amen.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 14 (Listen – 6:15)
Psalm 50 (Listen – 2:26)

Finding Our Way
Part 3 of 5, read more on TheParkForum.org

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On the Subtle Message of the City

MayFive

Psalm 49.16-19
Be not afraid when a man becomes rich, when the glory of his house increases. For when he dies he will carry nothing away; his glory will not go down after him. For though, while he lives, he counts himself blessed — and though you get praise when you do well for yourself — his soul will go to the generation of his fathers, who will never again see light. 

“In a hundred subtle ways,” writes Paul Graham, “the city sends you a message: you could do more; you should try harder … New York tells you, above all: you should make more money.”

“There are other messages too, of course. You should be hipper. You should be better looking. But the clearest message is that you should be richer … Power matters in New York too of course, but New York is pretty impressed by a billion dollars even if you merely inherited it.”

In 2011 an anonymous Twitter account was opened by a Texas man posing as a Goldman Sachs banker. The account chronicled alleged snippets from the firm’s elevator banks. His tweets were not all explicit, but their message was clear: 

“If riding the bus doesn’t incentivize you to improve your station in life, nothing will.” 

“If there’s a hot chick behind me at the ATM, I’ll always leave my receipt in the machine so she can see my balance.” 

“I never give money to homeless people. I can’t reward failure in good conscience.”

Since the city speaks to us subtly by window displays and overheard conversations, it is hard to believe the Psalmist in such a way that our lives and choices are changed. Therefore, we must be on guard, reminding ourselves daily that Jesus is infinitely valuable because he did the impossible – he ransomed his life for us: 

“Truly no man can ransom another, or give to God the price of his life, for the ransom of their life is costly and can never suffice, that he should live on forever.” — Psalm 49.7-9

Prayer
Lord, Do we believe this – that Jesus ransomed his life for us – in such a way that we do not seek after the riches of this world and, instead, lay up treasures in heaven? Search our hearts and show us where the love of money has taken root. Forgive us and make us generous and cheerful givers, testifying that we cherish you above all else. Amen.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 12-13 (Listen – 5:53)
Psalm 49 (Listen – 2:10)

Finding Our Way
Part 2 of 5, read more on TheParkForum.org

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The Problem of the Psalms

MayFour

Psalm 48.9-10
We have thought on your steadfast love, O God, in the midst of your temple. As your name, O God, so your praise reaches to the ends of the earth. Your right hand is filled with righteousness. 

As a general rule the psalms take more time to access than other sections of scripture, like the pastoral epistles. Take the excerpt above as an example. Each sentence holds a sermon’s worth of theology.

The psalmist opens by saying, “We have thought on your steadfast love.” When was the last time we thought on God’s unrelenting love in community? Or when have we confessed our sins to one another and celebrated God’s grace together — so that in the revelation of our brokenness and God’s faithfulness we discover a vivid and glorious image of God’s love? 

It is rare in modern Christianity to hear the psalms used in corporate prayer, worship, or teaching. This could be due in part to modern individualism’s befuddlement with public lament, corporate rejoicing, and communal singing. It may also be due to changes in the written word, as C. Richard Wells and Ray Van Neste explore in their book Forgotten Songs: Reclaiming The Psalms for Christian Worship.

“There are special reasons for neglect of the psalms,” they explain. “The language of poetry doesn’t easily connect in a sound-byte culture. The psalms call for time, not tweets — time to read, ponder, pray, digest. It’s easy to be too busy for the psalms.”

Perhaps the real reason doesn’t have as much to do with fads in technology as it does with the realities of sin in our hearts. The primary reason the psalms have fallen out of preaching, prayer, and singing, Wells and Van Neste conclude, is that, “We are fascinated with ourselves; the psalms are fascinated with God.”

The answer to this problem isn’t self-loathing — which is another form of self-obsession — but to use the psalms as a guidebook for our prayers, songs, and understanding of God. When we think on God’s steadfast love together we rediscover our lives in light of the glorious grace of our Savior.

Prayer
Father, you are beautiful. Shine your light on our lives, that we might see you more clearly. Kindle our hearts, that we may experience you more deeply. Renew us you through your word. Guide and encourage us through your church.

Today’s Readings
Numbers 11 (Listen – 5:22)
Psalm 48 (Listen – 1:28)

Finding Our Way
Part 1 of 5, read more on TheParkForum.org

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