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The two Christmas gifts the world still needs

When the angel army sang to those shepherds in the field that Christmas night, their song was of two things most needed in the world:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)

Glory and peace.

Giving God glory means recognizing him for who he really is. It means the end of ignoring him, the end of rebelling against him. It means considering him in the small and the large details of our lives. It means obeying his call for justice in the world, so that it will be the good creation he intended in the first place. It means the end of bowing our knees to false gods and pretenders who in their broken humanity attempt to ascend to the place of God. It means the end of fear as we fear/reverence the Lord.

And peace on earth means the end of warring against God, the end of warring against each other. It means the end of bickering spouses, the end of arguing siblings. It means wholeness and wellness. It means healed relationships, healed bodies, healed minds, healed souls. It means purposeful work. It means food on every table and a roof over every head. It means the absence of fear and the presence of laughter. It means a song in the heart and a dance in the step.

Glory and peace. They are the gifts God longs for us to unwrap. They are the essence of the kingdom of heaven come among us. They have already come to us in Jesus but will be fully among us only when the fullness of his kingdom arrives with his return.

They are what we long for. They are what we pray for.

Maranatha! Our Lord, come!

Bring peace. Be glorified.

These are tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy!

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A prayer for when I’m tempted to hedge my bets with God

Growing up as the youngest kid in a game-playing family, I had to learn to be strategic from a very early age just to survive. I learned well.

img_3372-v2bThe tile-based game Carcassonne is one of my family’s favorites and the app version of it is surprisingly great, too. So, a friend of mine who lives in Colorado plays with me online every now and then. Unfortunately for him, he wasn’t raised in the same crucible of game playing I was. I’ll just leave it at that.

The key to winning at games is to create lots of options for yourself so that no matter what happens, you’ve got something to work with. Fewer options leads to fewer successes. And I’ve discovered that I’m a master of keeping my options open.

While keeping options open is great for game playing, it’s terrible for prayer. Faith is an all-or-nothing venture, not a hedging of the bets game.

In Psalm 16, David throws his lot in completely with Yahweh, the God of the Scriptures, while watching others hedge their bets.

The psalm starts with David in an unsettled situation but going all-in with God.

Keep me safe, my God,
    for in you I take refuge.

This is all-in language. No bets are hedged. God is “my God.” He has but one and they’re tied together. But that’s the case with those around him.

Now, I rarely take exception with the major Bible translations, since they have incredible teams of scholars working on them — people who know the biblical text far better than I do. But in the case of Ps. 16:2-3, the major translators actually take the minority view among scholars. Rather than “I say” as the first words in both verse 2 and verse 3, our best Hebrew texts have “you said.” In other words, David isn’t quoting himself. Rather, he’s quoting what he’s heard from others.

So, here’s how the text ought to read:

You said to the Lord, “You are my Lord;
    apart from you I have no good thing.”
You said of the holy people who are in the land,
    “They are the noble ones in whom is all my delight.”

These people David is quoting have expressed basic biblical faith. They’ve expressed a loving trust in God and they’ve expressed a joyful participation in the people of God. In other words, they’re good, solid church-going types of people. You’d trust them as elders, Sunday school teachers, and worship leaders.

But they hedge their bets as seen by how David describes himself in contrast to them in the next verse:

Those who run after other gods will suffer more and more.
    I will not pour out libations of blood to such gods
    or take up their names on my lips.

These Sunday Christians, if you will, do what David won’t do. They run after other gods. They sacrifice to them. They speak their names in prayer.

They’re hedging their bets. They’re keeping their options open. If the God of Israel won’t come through, then maybe one of these others ones will. This is an excellent strategy, but it’s terrible faith.

Now, you and I don’t sacrifice to other gods or whisper their names in prayer. But that doesn’t mean we don’t hedge our bets as well. You see, we still bow to the same exact gods as those David finds himself in contrast with. We just refuse to name our gods.

Back then, they named their gods of health, fertility, business success, family, security, etc. We still bend the knee to them. But we’re just dishonest, refusing to name them as gods. Because by not naming them, we don’t feel the slightest pang of guilt when we keep our options open.

In verses 5-6, David gives an example of how he’s thrown his lot in completely with Yahweh. He takes the language of inheritance, which would be tied to the land (portion, lot, boundary lines, inheritance), and turns it into metaphor. No longer do these words refer to the source of food and finances and family that the literal land was to an Israelite, the words here refer to God as David’s inheritance. In other words, he’s giving up on any claim to the land and its ability to sustain his life through farming and is claiming God alone as his inheritance and the source of what he needs to live.

Lord, you alone are my portion and my cup;
    you make my lot secure.

He finds himself in a dark time, but

I will praise the Lord, who counsels me;
    even at night my heart instructs me.

The night is the time of fear and confusion. We can’t see (especially in a pre-electric light era). We don’t know what’s going on.

But even here in the dark, David is settled. Even here, he listens for the voice of God and his heart is instructed.

Others look here and there for other options, but

I keep my eyes always on the Lord.
    With him at my right hand, I will not be shaken.

It doesn’t take a lot to shake most of us. A plan goes awry. The weather isn’t what we hoped for. The government is in the wrong hands. Our sports team loses. The doctor gives unhappy news. A co-worker says something unkind. There’s no coffee in the morning. We are easily shaken.

The problem with options is that we count on them. We expect them to come through for us. We hope in them. But when they fail to give us what we need, we panic.

Options have a tendency to seem equal. So, when God is just one of many options, we’re shaken if the other options don’t pan out. But when he’s our only option, we’re just fine with other things don’t work out. We weren’t counting on them anyway.

This is where we discover the beautiful life. The Hebrew word shalom describes the whole life, the put-together life, the life where all the pieces fit together — life as a peaceful unity. And that’s what we see in the life that hedges no bets but trusts fully in God. It’s a whole, united life.

Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices;
    my body also will rest secure

Heart. Tongue. Body. They’re all in harmony.

Or at least, they’re moving toward harmony. The heart and the tongue are there already, with the body soon to follow.

This is the place of trust. David’s body isn’t safe — not yet. He can’t rest secure — not yet. But because he knows and trusts his Lord, his heart is already glad and his tongue is already rejoicing. And eventually, his body will be in a secure place where it can rest and all of who he is finally will be at peace.

Life, not death, is the destiny of the faithful. Life both in the near future and in the final future.

You make known to me the path of life;
    you will fill me with joy in your presence,
    with eternal pleasures at your right hand.

There is no strategy to faith. Options that work with game-playing only become a muddled maze where we get lost and confused. Instead of a single solid rock to be built on, keeping our options open leaves us on shifting sands where we are easily shaken.

We’re dealing with God here, not a game. Though the night is dark and confusing, he is here and he is faithful.

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Peace by piece

This is a busted up world filled with partial people, including me. It’s telling that the words heal, health, and whole all derive from the same root. To be truly healthy humans, we need to be healed, to be put back together, to become whole.

In a world of subtraction and division, we need to move from fractious fractions to integers of integrity.

The Hebrew word shalom has the sense of wholeness, of put-togetheredness, of soundness, of completeness, of unstriving restfulness, of peace.

This isn’t just inner peace. This is whole-life wholeness. This is the parts of our world coming back together. Explosion in reverse.

I can’t achieve this by myself or by turning inward on myself. Meditation has its place. But the chaos that threatens me internally is the same chaos that threatens the world outside of me. Solitude and stillness and reflection on the good Word, the wholly holy and whole-making Voice, is the first piece in coming to peace with ourselves, with God, with the world.

But, again, this isn’t enough. It’s may be central to the puzzle of our lives, but it isn’t the whole picture. Perhaps it’s the puzzle’s border which contains and gives shape to everything else. But who stops with just the edge pieces?

At the same time, who expects a puzzle to all come together at once. No. It comes together one piece at a time. Each finding its place as the busted apart picture regains its integrity — its peace — with each piece restored to the whole.

This is the biblical vision for the world and for our lives: Unity. Wholeness. Peace.

We don’t stop with our own inner peace. And we don’t give up when we see the pile of unconnected pieces which look like a riot of chaos and not the as-yet-unassembled parts of a unified whole. No. We look for and find the right piece and slowly but surely work to put back together God’s exploded world, knowing this is what he, too, is working at.

To put it in another way:

With all wisdom and understanding, he made known to us the mystery of his will according to his good pleasure, which he purposed in Christ, to be put into effect when the times reach their fulfillment — to bring unity to all things in heaven and on earth under Christ. (Eph. 1:8-10)

Piece by piece, Christ is making peace. It’s good work. Let’s not be discouraged by the pile we see the world heaped in, but let’s join him in that good work.

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The sanity of Sabbath-keeping

One of the most life-changing books that I’ve ever read is Marva Dawn’s Keeping the Sabbath Wholly: Ceasing, Resting, Embracing, Feasting. In it, she explains how Sabbath-keeping isn’t so much a matter of obligation, but of invitation. It’s an invitation into a grace-shaped life, a life free of obligations, a life restored to relationships and play and prayer.

Sabbath is time to cease.

We say a firm No! to all obligations for one day a week (generally Sunday). No chores. No running to the store for one last thing. No homework. No bill-paying. None of the items on the to-do list. God saves his people from slavery and never wants us to return to it. “Remember that you were slaves in Egypt and that the LORD your God brought you out of there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm. Therefore the LORD your God has commanded you to observe the Sabbath day” (Deut. 5:15).

Sabbath is a time to rest.

God’s rest on the seventh day of creation (Gen. 2:1-3) is an invitation to us to join in that rest (Ex. 20:8-11). God didn’t rest because he was tired. He rested because he wanted to set apart a time for us to join him in resting — a time to pray and to play.

Think about that: God wants you to play, to be leisurely, to rest. We do not worship a task-master.

And when Christians gather each Sunday, he wants our worshiping/praying together to come out of this restfulness, this playfulness. That means the way we approach Sunday mornings is so important. We can turn it into work, spending time and energy herding kids, getting, dressed, and acting our best, but what fun is that?

Our Lord wants our worship to arise from a restful, playful, joyful exuberance.

Sabbath is a time to embracing.

Not only do we say No to some things, we say Yes to other things, especially people. The purpose for the No is to get to this Yes to relationships. If we’re constantly running around, we don’t have time for others — too many unimportant Yeses keep us from our most important Yeses.

The same goes with our minds. If we are thinking about our obligations, our bodies may be in the same room with others, but our minds are somewhere far away. This is why many of us say No to our screens on Sundays in an effort to preserve a window in time that is relationally rich if technologically poor.

We need this Sabbath time to embrace. There can be no rush to our laughing, our game playing, our immersion in the great outdoors, our lovemaking, our soaking in excellent books. The best things in life take time, take an embrace.

Sabbath is a time to feast.

In our culture, we grab a soda here and a sweet there, but we rarely do our eating of pleasure foods right. Poor but Sabbath-keeping Jews, on the other hand, will eat meager meals all week with joy, knowing that on Sabbath they will have great food served on china, with silver, candles, wine, and laughter. (The preparation done the day before and the clean-up saved for later.)

We can go without a lot if we know we will get to something great like a feast in the near future. This is the essence of hope. At the same time, the delayed gratification this teaches is so important to learn in our consumerist culture of indulgence and debt. Not only that, it trains us as Christians to look hopefully toward the future for not just our weekly Sabbath, but for the Great Sabbath to come when Jesus returns (see Heb. 4:1-11, especially v. 9).

Along with weekly Sabbath-keeping, one of the things the Law of Moses spoke of is sabbatical years. A time of rest for fields and farmers after six years of hard work. I find it interesting that 2 Chronicles 36:21 tells us that part of the reason for the Jewish exile to Babylon was that the land hadn’t been given its mandated Sabbaths. God gave the land the Sabbaths that had been withheld.

One way or another, we will get our Sabbaths. May we take them as God intended — joyfully, leisurely, playfully, prayerfully — and not because our relationships, our jobs, our emotions, our minds, our souls have been broken down by the incessant go-go-go of our culture’s self-important pace.

The goal of Sabbath-keeping is wholeness, health, the put-together life of shalom. Unforced and unrushed. Holy and whole.