Between Two Emotions-The Lord Reigns

images-1I spent some time pouring over the newspaper during the past few days. War continues to rage in Syria, Gaza, and Afghanistan. The protests are getting more heated in Cairo. The economic crisis in Europe is deepening. We are worried in the U.S. about the “fiscal cliff.” Most Americans are not more hopeful that the next generation will have it better than the current one. Fear and anxiety seem to rule the day.

There are two Psalms in the Bible that begin in identical ways, but with different proposed responses. They both begin with a stated fact. They both command a certain response that is both troubling and encouraging. Psalm 97:1 says, “The Lord reigns, let the earth rejoice; let the many coastlands be glad.” The Hebrew word for “reign” signifies that God is acting as a king. The psalmist is telling us that God rules, He acts as sovereign king over creation. The “earth”and “coastlands” serve as symbols for the inhabitants of those geographical descriptors. The proper response that is commanded as a consequence of this ruling is joy and gladness. This can be true because of what we learn in v.2, that God is a perfectly righteous and just ruler. The notion of joy here is to be an intense joy, experienced both individually and corporately as a community of believers. This joy is not simply emotion, but a quality grounded in God Himself and extended to us. To be “glad” is very similar to the idea of joy. This word serves to intensify this quality of what is to be experienced and expressed. We can experience and express joy exactly because God perfectly rules over all of creation. The knowledge of His righteous and just kingship should provide us with a sure foundation for walking through whatever we encounter.

Psalm 99:1 says, “The Lord reigns, let the peoples tremble!” Again, we have the same statement of fact that God rules as King from a righteous and just foundation. But this time the commanded response is to tremble. To “tremble” can mean to be shaken, to be disturbed, to be in dread. It can also have the connotation of being excited. If we were to read down in verse 3 we would see this time that the response is rooted in God’s holiness. The picture here is of a high, exalted, and lofty God that is over any mere man. Therefore, we are to tremble at His kingship. This kind of dread is not out of fear because of a tyrannical ruler. This reverence is because He is perfectly holy and we are not. Whenever you see a human being who comes in contact with the living God in the Bible they immediately fall prostrate before Him. That is a natural response of sinfulness and brokeness before holiness.

I believe both responses are proper. As we see chaos all around us on the world stage and in our personal lives, we must focus on the sure knowledge that God reigns. That knowledge, based upon God’s righteousness, justice, and holiness, should elicit both great joy and great fear. We can be confident that nothing surprises God. Nothing catches Him off guard. He is not wringing His hands over the state of the world. He reigns! He is in control! Therefore, you and I can exhibit intense joy and intense reverence simultaneously. We would be wise and right to do so.

With that understanding I can read the newspaper of the world and the newspaper of my life differently.

A Leader’s Prayer-Psalm 5

medium_1795109345King David in the Bible faced many leadership challenges. Some were outside his control and some were a direct result of his personal sin. We do not know the exact circumstances that surround Psalm 5, but it is clear that David feels some anguish and senses his need for divine help.

Give ear to my words, O Lord;
    consider my groaning.
Give attention to the sound of my cry,
    my King and my God,
    for to you do I pray.

David is expressing an attitude of heart as well as a petition. He groans and he cries out. Notice that David calls the Lord “my King and my God.” David rightfully acknowledges his own dependence and submission as he calls upon Yahweh. Certainly David is facing threats from those who are less than reputable. He speaks of these opponents as “bloodthirsty and deceitful men.” What is the essence of David’s prayer?  We find it in verse eight.

Lead me, O Lord, in your righteousness
    because of my enemies;
     make your way straight before me.

David the leader prays to be led. He prays for God’s righteousness to prevail and for straight paths. David is crying our for clarity and for vindication. He looks not to his own resources but to God alone.

When we as leaders are faced with half-truths and deceptive practices we must also rely upon the One who controls it all.

When we may be tempted to grab control and retaliate we must lean on the One who deeply understands and is able to act on our behalf.  

David concludes this Psalm by pointing to God’s protection and blessing. David the king places his trust in the King of Kings. This is a leader’s prayer.

Can we do any less?

(photo credit)

Leading in Remembrance

medium_4002722952We recently had over a 1000 photographs digitized so as to ensure their longevity. The other night we were looking at most of the images on our computer and reminiscing about the different stages we have been through as a family. It was a lot of fun to stop and take note of the growth, the changes, and the memories. In many ways it was a form of celebration.

Sometimes leaders are so focused on the future that they rarely stop and take time to look back to celebrate. Yet, followers need times like this, and so do the leaders.

In chapter four of the book of Joshua in the Bible, Joshua is commanded by God to gather twelve stones. Each stone was to represent one of the tribes of Israel. It was to stand as a memorial marking the crossing of the Jordan River by the Israelites as they entered the promised land.

And he said to the people of Israel, “When your children as their fathers in times to come, ‘What do these stones mean?’ then you shall let your children know, ‘Israel passed over this Jordan on dry ground.’ For the Lord your God dried up the waters of the Jordan for you until you passed over, as the Lord your God did to the Red Sea, which he dried up for us until we passed over, so that all the peoples of the earth may know that the hand of the Lord is mighty, that you may fear the Lord your God forever.” Joshua 4:21-24

The first point was to create a memorial for future generations of Israelites to remind them of God’s actions on their behalf in delivering them out of Egypt. The second point was to be a witness to the rest of the world about the power and might of God. Notice that the honoree was God and not Joshua. I think this was a reminder to Joshua, as well as the people, that God uses leaders to accomplish his purposes and to honor himself. This was to stand as a testament to the grace of God and his use of a leader.

As spiritual leaders we must be cognizant of the same thing. God appoints leaders to use leaders, but the glory and honor are his. It behooves us to establish God memorials too. We need clear markers and reminders, that when asked how such a great accomplishment was achieved, we can clearly point back to the grace of God and recount the story. It provides the opportunity to celebrate God’s grace and God’s goodness.

How will you lead in remembrance? There are many creative ways you can point yourself, your family, and your followers back to the grace of God in your lives. Pictures, a journal, literal stones–or even a blog–can be used as memorials of God’s grace in the life of a leader and a people. Out of our brokenness we are forgetful people. We need visual reminders of God’s greatness and our need for him.

Are you leading in remembrance? Create a memorial today.  Go and collect some “stones” and tell their story. Lead well!

(photo credit)

Our Hearts & Our Love For The Things of The World

I recently bought a little book entitled Stop Loving The World.  It is by William Greenhill and is in the Puritan Treasuries For Today series by Reformation Heritage Books.  The Puritans often take a beating in our current culture-but the Puritans were astute thinkers and understood well what it meant to cultivate a true love for God.  I want to highlight a few critical points on “Examining Our Hearts.”  Let this be a part of your preparation for Easter.

1 John 2:15 states, “Love not the world, neither the things that are in the world.”  Consider these questions:

1. Am I more concerned about the things in the world than I am for heaven and spiritual things?

2. Does the world push aside and cut out the things that are of God? Do the things of the world jostle the wall of the things of God?

3. Am I content with a little when it comes to matters of the soul?

4. In what then do I find most sweetness and contentment?

5. Do I use questionable or unlawful means to get to the world? Do I neglect lawful and unquestionable means that would get me heaven and spiritual things?

6. Do I love ideas, learning, wisdom of words, talents, gifts, and things of this nature?

7. Am I more grieved over the loss of outward, worldly things than I am for the loss of spiritual things?

Greenhill ends with this thought: “Honestly answering these several questions should help you know whether you love the world or not.  And if you find that your heart is set on this world, you are worthy of great blame.”

Recalibrating Hope & Glory

Two weeks ago I took a three day retreat to get away and rest.  I try and do this on a regular basis-at least yearly.  I think this is useful for any of us, regardless of our role.  But I think this is especially important in the life of a leader.  Leaders live busy lives and are in constant danger of either believing their own press toward their successes or being completely overwhelmed by their problems.  For the leader leading in God’s kingdom there is always the problem of burnout-usually some combination of being under “relationshiped” and over taxed.  The subtle contributing causes and/or consequences are wrongly placed hope and misdirected glory.

In Psalm 3, David, the great King of Israel, is describing through song the flight of his life.  More disconcerting, he is fleeing from his son Absalom.  This takes us back to 2 Samuel 15 where we recount the narrative that drives this Psalm.  David has made his great error of having an adulterous relationship with Bathsheba and directing the murder of Bathsheba’s husband, Uriah.  Even though David repents of his sin, the consequences of his selfish actions continue.  The kingdom is beginning to unravel and his son seeks to usurp the throne.  Absalom is certainly one of David’s favorite sons.  The glory of any king is the love of his family and the love and honor of the people of his kingdom.  David had tasted all that and more prior to committing his sin with Bathsheba.  Now he was running for his life and the disparaging comments of others.  At some point prior to chasing after Bathsheba, David had traded kingdoms.  He had decided to put more stock in his own estimation of life and pleasure and pursue his own glory over and above Yahweh’s.  But in verses 3-8 we see David recalibrating his hope and glory.  He declares God to be “my glory, and the lifter of my head.”  He cries out to God.  He rests.  The Lord sustains him, and his courage and vigor return.  He ends the Psalm by rightly declaring that it is Yahweh who is his salvation and that the people are Yahweh’s people.  David regains perspective.

That is what slowing down and retreating will do for you.  I find it takes a whole day just for the noise of everyday living and leading to go away.  Then in the next couple of days I can begin to see where I have misplaced my hope and tarnished His glory.  Finally, by His grace, I can recalibrate.  I can freshly surrender.  I can place my full hope back in Him.  I can reorient my life and leadership towards His glory over mine.  This takes time.  This takes solitude. This takes crying out to God for His presence.  This takes thoughtful reflection.  This takes the generous ministry of the Holy Spirit to saddle up beside you to prod, pull, nudge, tug, convict, renew, and restore.  The personal retreat in the life of a leader becomes a re-starting point-a recalibrating point-so that he or she can return to the battle with fresh energy and a renewed sense of the greatness of God.  Every leader who  leads in God’s kingdom needs periodic recalibration so he or she can lead with rightly placed hope and for God’s glory.

As you begin 2012 plan your personal retreat right now!

Reflections on Easter

I have taken time each day this past week to read and reflect on the passion week narratives in the Bible.  What has captured my attention in a fresh way this time has been the metaphor of the cup recorded in Matthew 26.  While in the Garden of Gethsemane Jesus prays three times to the Father “if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.”  He affirms that what is tantamount is the will of the Father.

The cup-what is Jesus referring to?  The cup is a metaphor that almost always stands for judgment in the Bible.  Earlier in Matthew 20, at the hands of a request by James and John for privileged positions in the coming kingdom, Jesus asks them if they are “able to drink the cup.”  The kingdom of God is not without controversy and to lead in God’s kingdom requires the cup of judgment.    Jesus knew that the cross was right before Him.  He knew what His purpose in life was.  He knew that He was about to take on the sins of the world-and incur the judgment and wrath of the Father on behalf of you and me.  But there were other aspects of the cup that Jesus experienced that are instructive for us.

1. Jesus experienced the complete abandonment of His closest followers.  After the time of prayer in the garden Jesus betrayer shows up with a band of accusers to arrest Him.  The disciples put of a small show of allegiance and defense-then Matthew 26:56 says, Then all the disciples left Him and fled.  We often hear about Peter’s thrice denial-but we forget that ultimately all twelve (and probably others) abandon Him at the hour of His greatest need.

2. Jesus experienced the humiliation of His own creation abusing Him.  During the first phase of a trumped up trial Jewish leaders tried to find consistent testimony that would condemn Jesus.  They could not find anything of credibility.  Finally they challenge Jesus with the one thing he could not deny nor remain silent.  They asked Him a question regarding His very identity.  “. . . tell us if you are the Christ, the Son of God.”  Jesus reply’s, “You said so . . .”  He goes on to make an clear allusion to Daniel 7:13 with the language of the Son of Man which was a clear reference to Messiah.  Upon the Jewish leaders condemning Jesus to death they spit in His face, struck Him and slapped Him.  Have you ever considered that the very ones whom Jesus created abuse Him with this kind of behavior?

3. Jesus experienced the obscene pain of the cross.  This is the aspect that we know best.  But do we?  The experience of the cross is more than just the instrument of death.  It is the whole process of shame, mocking at the hands of Roman soldiers, a crown of thorns, scourging with a cat of nine tails, the journey to Golgotha-and being nailed to a cross.  Execution on the Roman cross was known to be one of the most painful deaths possible.  This was part and parcel of the cup.  What we truly deserved Jesus truly suffered.

4. Jesus experienced the loss of fellowship with the Father.  Finally, as Jesus was about to expire, still hanging on the cross, He exclaims in Matthew 27:46, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?”  What Jesus had always known, perfect fellowship with the Father, was suddenly absent.  As Jesus took upon Himself all the sins of the world, the Father had to rightfully look away.

Could there be any greater pain than the physical abuse of the cross, the communal abandonment of the twelve, suffering abuse at the hands of His own creation, and the emotional loss of the fellowship of the Father?  It was all for us! Reflect and worship.  The reality of what tomorrow represents changes everything.

A Few Underpinnings for Theological Discussion

I have to admit, I am bothered by some of the theological discussions that are being played out today in books and blogs. There is a need for truth. There is a need for charity. There is also a need for some underpinnings to provide a foundation.

I currently live in a country (for five years I lived in Italy) that has the trappings of religion all around it but little in the way of true, vibrant spiritual life. Hardly anyone here would deny there is a god, but few honor Christ as king and see Him as beautiful. My city is renowned for its Renaissance art, most of which depicts biblical scenes, especially Jesus. I have wondered many times what happened. Where did the spiritual life go? How did the God of the universe become a byword? What is to prevent another generation from doing the same thing? I have my opinions and theories. Here are a few personal spiritual affirmations that might help. In my current cultural setting the church and its people got some of the things below confused. At times, I wonder if we, the modern evangelical church, are in danger of doing the same? I offer these humbly for your consideration.

Be sure that the Word of God always stands over you and your church, not the other way around.
Don’t amplify one of God’s attributes over the others, worship Him in His totality.
We are all prone to let our life experiences altar and effect our view of God. Allow God and His character to interpret your life experiences.
Don’t let logic be your ruling guide for understanding everything in the Bible. You are not that smart and He is not that simple.
Don’t let understanding be your only quest in studying the Bible. If you could fully and completely understand God you don’t need Him.
Stand on the shoulders of historical exegesis. You are probably not the first to think of your “new idea” about God.
We can and should allow our current cultural context to influence how we share the gospel, but don’t change its message.  You will only mute the gospel.
Stand in awe of the Creator in all of His mystery and beauty. Don’t put Him on the operating table.
Be respectful of those that are older than you and have walked with God longer than you. Time and life experience have a way of maturing your “sure” knowledge of God and His ways.
Give thanks for every gift and ability you have and for everything you don’t.  This will help to keep you humble, and humility may be your greatest theological trait.

Why a Society Falls-The True Sins of Sodom

What causes a people or society to fall?

There has been speculation for ages. Historians, philosophers, and sociologists have all weighed in on some of the world’s great dynasties and postured varying reasons for their ultimate demise.  But maybe one of our greatest hints is found in the Bible.

Consider Sodom and Gomorrah.  While they may not represent great political empires, the names of these two cities have become synonymous with corrupt behavior.   Anyone who knows the biblical story knows that these cities were destroyed by God because of their unrighteousness.  Sodom is first mentioned in Genesis 10, but most prominently shows up in Genesis 13.  In v.13 the writer says, “Now the men of Sodom were wicked, great sinners against the Lord.”  In Genesis 18 Abraham tries to intercede on behalf of the people of Sodom. God tells Abraham that if he can find even ten righteous men then He will spare the city from destruction.  But there are not even ten.  In judgment God rains down sulphur and fire on these two cities and all of their inhabitants.  It is often noted that the primary sin of this city was homosexuality, or at least blatant sexual immorality.  But was that truly what was at the foundation of God’s wrath towards this city?  We have to look elsewhere in the Bible to find the answer.

We have to turn to the prophets to ascertain a better answer.  In Ezekiel 16 we find the foundational elements that led to the demise of Sodom.  In Ezekiel 16:49 we read this, “Behold, this was the guilt of your sister Sodom: she and her daughters had pride, excess of food, and prosperous ease, but did not aid the poor and needy.”  Notice the progression: pride, excess, and ease.  A whole people were labeled with these characteristics.

Pride is thinking too highly of yourself.
Excess is holding on to too much of yourself.
And ease is freeing yourself from all constraint, such as labor or pain.
This led to thinking too little about the less fortunate among them.

And it led to what we read in Genesis 18-19.  This sinful cocktail led to total debauchery expressed through sexual immorality, and to God’s righteous judgment.

There has to be some careful consideration here, both personally and as a people.

How do I rank in light of these foundational sins?

What is my opinion of myself?

Am I a hoarder or a giver?

Do I worship at the table of comfort and ease?

What is my attitude towards the poor and needy?

Do my lusts act as a mirror regarding these things?

What about us as a nation?  Or any nation?  What is our corporate attitude in these areas?

Are you and I in danger of a great fall?  Is our country? Let us run to the grace of the gospel.

A Psalm for the Nearly Insane

I  love the Psalms in the Bible.  They are experiential and they are real.  They engage me at a heart level.  I especially find it intriguing when the circumstances behind a certain psalm are known.  This is the case with Psalm 34.  The backdrop for Psalm 34 is 1 Samuel 21:10-15.  In 1 Samuel 21 King David is on the run.  He was anointed as the 2nd king of Israel back in chapter 16-but Saul, the 1st king of Israel, refuses to give up the throne.  More to the point Saul is seeking to kill David.  The desperation level grows so high that David even turns to the common enemy of Israel, the Philistines, for protection.  But even the Philistines recognize that this is the same David who has been victorious over them in battle several times-now might be their time for revenge.  So David does something even more extreme-he feigns insanity to repulse the Philistines and get them to banish him from their camp.  The ploy works-except now David ends up hiding in a cave-from both Saul and the Philistines.  So how does a beautiful psalm of worship fit into this bizarre scenario?

First, let me make a couple of other observations.  The greatest enemy of faith is fear.  Why?  Because fear amplifies our circumstances and it leads to condemnation.  Either we will condemn ourselves or we will condemn what or who we consider to be the source of our trials.  Fear can either paralyze us or tend us toward trying to take total control of a situation.  We know David was experiencing some fear over this situation because he brings up the word twice in this little psalm.  But he contrasts circumstantial fear with the fear of the Lord.  I believe that David is preaching to himself through this psalm.  He needs to realign his focus to confront his fears.

I believe that Psalm 34 divides neatly into two sections.  The first section encompasses verses 1-10 and focuses on praise.  The second section includes verses 11-22 and draws our attention to the need for wisdom.  The praise section draws out God’s unique character as a deliverer, a savior, a protector, a place of refuge and a provider.  But how does praise help someone in time of trial and danger?  Praise automatically takes our attention off of ourselves and puts it on God and His character.  We begin to see that God is greater than our circumstances and able to deliver us from our fears.

Wisdom helps us to know how to rightly and practically navigate through our circumstances.  If we will keep our language away from speaking evil, turn ourselves away from evil and seek peace-we can see a good result.  The psalm tells us that the Lord is favorable to the righteous but against those who do evil.  The Lord is near to the brokenhearted and saves those who are crushed in spirit.  The Lord is able to redeem the situation and us.  To be redeemed means that we can be set free from the slavery of our situation.  Ultimately we have a great redeemer in the person of Jesus Christ.  Two passages from the New Testament bear this out and relate to the essential points of this psalm.  Romans 8:1-2 says, “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. For the law of the Spirit of life has set you free in Christ Jesus from the law of sin and death.”  1 John 4:18-19 states, “There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us.”

It seems over the past two years I have struggled with many fears-some founded-most not.  I need the experiential instruction of Psalm 34.  What circumstances are you facing today that are about to drive you crazy?  That are causing you to live in fear?  That are taking your eyes off of God?  Cozy up to Psalm 34 and spend some time in verbal praise to God for who he is.  Ask him for the wisdom you need to navigate your circumstances, recognizing that your Redeemer lives!

Untying the Knots

I woke up again this morning with a pit in my stomach. This has been a recurring feature over the past couple of years living in Italy. It has baffled me at times because I could not get to the source of it. I would not wake up with anything in particular on my mind. Just a general sense of dread and stress. But today I knew why.

Last night the son of our Italian landlord called to inform us that his father had passed away a couple of weeks ago from a heart attack. Our landlord had been a very easy person to work with. We were renting a family home of his-some 800 years old. And at times it has acted its age. Living in Italy has been stressful for us as a family. I have often said that living here is like getting kidney punched all day long. It’s such a beautiful country and the people so very warm and genuine that you sometimes don’t notice the cultural stresses that are assailing you.  The daily punches can eat up your margin.

What if our landlord’s son wants to sell the house immediately? What if he wants to raise the rent significantly? What if he doesn’t like us?  What if, what if, what if? This morning I finally committed the situation to prayer. I had an assurance that God could handle the outcome whatever it may be.  The landlord’s son came over with his wife and was here maybe for 20 minutes. He was very nice. We gave him a copy of our contract. He merely stated that there was a new bank account number for the electronic rent transfers-and we were done. Nothing more to it than that. Both my wife and I were relieved.  Why had I fretted?  Why had I lost sleep over this?  Why did I have the stomach pit?  I know it has much to do with how I view God, how I view my salvation, and how I think about prayer.  I desperately need to live more as a loved child than an orphaned slave.  I struggle often with rightly seeing God as a loving heavenly father rather than a distant task master.  I think the pits are from not believing that God cares deeply for me and has my best interest at heart.  And at times my prayer life is a clear reflection of that belief.

This afternoon I read an essay on John Calvin and prayer.  You don’t often hear the reformers name tied to prayer-but that is our fault, not his.  Calvin had a lot to say about prayer and what I read was thought provoking and profound.  Here are a couple of quotes:

“Prayer is a communication between God and us whereby we expound to him our desires, our joys, our sighs, in a word, all the thoughts of our hearts.”

In prayer we are “permitted to pour into God’s bosom the difficulties which torment us, in order that he may loosen the knots which we cannot untie.”

For the one who truly knows Christ as their Savior Calvin deeply understood that prayer is primarily an intimate conversation between Father and child.  It is a conversation that the Father longs to listen to, acknowledge, and honor with His divine wisdom and action on our behalf.  Here’s to untying more knots!