Father, You have given us so much beauty. It isn’t always time for beauty, there is suffering also, but now is a season of beauty. Each beautiful sight, sound, word, feeling reminds me of Your rest. Beauty transports me to Your rest just like struggle takes me there too. The planets and stars and the universes, the skies and oceans, the forests and deserts, the animals and humans, everything You created has so much beauty that we’re still discovering it. You even allow us to create beautiful things and feel and think beautiful feelings and thoughts. And through living for You, surrendering to You, we even get to be beautiful. Father, in the midst of confusing questions with contradicting answers, there is hope for the answer You will provide. And the answer will be beautiful for its ability to go beyond binary options and instead provide a pursuit worthy of eternity. Thank You. All in Your will. In Jesus’ name, Amen.
What do I hold true
that is a mere assumption
Reading this psalm, I immediately remembered a time when I thought that I was so far from God, I didn’t know if He would ever take me back. Actually at the time, I thought God had left me, just like the psalmist states in vs. 7-9.
I eventually realized God had not left, and I hadn’t really left either. God was re-centering my faith and changing everything I thought I knew. It’s not that my faith before was wrong, it was very devoted and well-intentioned. But it was based on what I did, on checking off boxes that I thought God wanted me to check off. Over a few years, God showed me (and is still showing me) the difference between self-reliance and a faith that feels deeper, a faith which depends on Him by waking up each morning to His new mercies and realizing that He is always faithful, He is always near. The difference between the two perspectives for me was like the difference between standing on my feet with little struggle to balance and doing a handstand that requires constant attention and adjustment to stay balanced. Letting go of my check boxes was painful because I no longer had any answers, I needed to constantly pay attention to God and make adjustments in my heart to figure out what to do. For a time, I thought I was being a bad Christian. I knew many people I loved would consider me a bad Christian or not a Christian at all if I let go of those check boxes. I respect these people for their dedication and zeal to their beliefs. But my conscience would not let me follow the boxes anymore. I felt a need to repent from the black and white rules. Not because I decided to rebel, but because I kept having life experiences that did not fit inside the black and white lines. I slowly realized God was leading me out of the place where I stand on my own feet and into one that feels deeper for me. Maybe this place isn’t for everyone, but it is what I need and where I will stay, at least until God leads me to the next place.
While vs. 7-9 vividly bring back the pain in that experience, the rest of the psalm reminds me of the comfort God provided during that time and ever since. Starting in verse 10, “Then I thought, “To this I will appeal: the years of the right hand of the Most High.” I will remember the deeds of the Lord; yes, I will remember your miracles of long ago. I will meditate on all your works and consider all your mighty deeds…” No matter what place we’re in, we can always remember God’s works, whether it’s those recorded in the Bible or those from our own lives or the lives of others. We don’t need to have debates, try to sway people to our beliefs or try to get all the answers because God is mighty, faithful, just, loving and always here for us.
There once was a girl who sought the meaning of life. She found someone to love and loved them unconditionally. She thought she had found her purpose. But then her loved one went away. So she found someone that she could help. And another, and another. She helped lots of people and thought she had found her purpose. But her health failed and she could no longer help. She could do nothing but lie in bed. So she listened. She listened to the rain falling on the car port, to the breeze blowing the leaves and to the silence of snow falling on snow. She listened so carefully she could hear the stars singing their nightly hymns of praise. She joined the praise. She felt the grace falling on her like the rain, she felt love in the breeze and peace in the silence. She sought the Creator of these physical and spiritual blessings. She studied His word and prayed for hours on end. In time, she prayed every moment of every day. She found her purpose.
Gradually, her health improved and she began to do chores around the house, still praying every moment. She found herself putting love into her cooking and patience into her cleaning. When she could leave the house, she noticed humility in her interactions with co-workers and grace in her shopping, buying a little extra to give to those in need. And she kept praying, every moment of every day. She kept listening, and this time she heard opportunities calling her name to love and help. But loving and helping others was different than before. Now, when the ones she loved went away, she still had her purpose. When she could do nothing to help, she still had her prayers. She always remembered the days when all of her control was stripped from her. The days when she learned her purpose was not to depend on her own abilities, but on her Creator, who cared for her always.
“And this I pray, that your love may abound still more and more in knowledge and all discernment…” (vs. 9).
A similar form of the word discernment is used in Hebrews 5:14 “But solid food belongs to those who are of full age, that is, those who by reason of use have their senses exercised to discern both good and evil.”. It is also used in Luke 9:45. Jesus predicts his death in vs. 44 and then Luke states, “But they [the disciples] did not understand this saying, and it was hidden from them so that they did not perceive it; and they were afraid to ask Him about this saying.”. The verse in Hebrews and verses 10-11 of Philippians 1 point to the interpretation of discernment as conscience. The verse in Luke points to discernment as not deciding between right and wrong (like a conscience does) but as perception or understanding. I Googled the definition of discernment and found a specific definition for Christian contexts, which is “perception in the absence of judgement with a view to obtain spiritual direction and understanding”. That definition joins together the two meanings of conscience, “spiritual direction”, (Philippians 1 and Hebrews 5) and perception, “understanding” (Luke 9).
Still fascinated by this word, I looked into online commentaries from BibleHub.com and found commentators that described this discernment as a sense of moral feeling. Paul wants the Philippians to have both knowledge in Christ, as in a cognitive understanding, but also a mature conscience in which the knowledge of good and evil is felt. Deciding right and wrong by our feeling, our conscience, seems dicey. What if our conscience is different from someone else’s? Wouldn’t that make unity quite difficult? But Paul doesn’t encourage the development of conscience so that the Philippians can argue over right and wrong and who’s conscience is purer. He prays that they “may approve the things that are excellent, that you may be sincere and without offense till the day of Christ, being filled with the fruits of righteousness which are by Jesus Christ, to the glory and praise of God.” Later in the letter he will admonish the Philippians to fill their minds with things that are excellent, true, noble, wise, lovely, just, pure and praiseworthy. It is important to discern and meditate on what is right, not so much so that we can condemn what is wrong, but so that we can gain a deeper understanding of what is right and be able to better choose right from wrong. This will lead to the fruits of righteousness that glorify and praise God (vs. 11).
We can gain discernment through love and knowledge, which form a chain reaction in every direction. Love for God invokes curiousness to learn more about Him and closer intimacy with Him helps make our feelings and perceptions align with His. Likewise, knowledge and understanding invoke more love for God. This is one of many instances where different aspects of Christianity are connected so that they lead to a continuous cycle of growing infinitely closer to God. These patterns shut off my analytical mind and make me pause in awe and worship of the perfect completeness God as Father, Son and Spirit have provided us.
God speaks to those coming to worship him (v.2). He lays out how they can reenter covenant with him (v.3-8) . He illustrates the irrationality of letting them continue how they are and not having any terms of the covenant (8-11). He states that he will use destruction and punishment because they do not follow him. V.19 shows it is ultimately to their own shame. V.28 shows discipline is meant to be accepted by the people to turn them back to God. V.12-15 reinforces this idea, as God cites the destruction of another place to try to motivate his people to turn to him. He reminds them of the covenant he made with their fathers and how it involved both religious practices (sacrifices, burnt offerings, etc.) and spiritual devotion (following God in all ways) (v.22-23). What was the demise of these people? Simply that they did not listen or pay attention to God (v.24-26). This is a violation of the spiritual side of the covenant. They then (Or maybe before? Or at the same time? We don’t really know I guess but it doesn’t really matter, we need both.) violated the religious side (v.17-19, v.21, v.30-31).
The idea that these people are beyond the help of prayer (v.16) is also illustrated in Ch.8. They are totally rejecting grace so that it is no longer possible to offer it to them (7:27-29).
The crime of not listening to or paying attention to God is frightening to me. I can easily forget or ignore just about anything and there are several things I don’t pay attention to. This can be a good thing at times, but also very dangerous. I must make God a priority and completely immerse myself in him if I want to remember, learn and pay him the attention of which he is so greatly worthy.
Chapters 7 & 8 alternate stories about the Pharisees and disciples’ misunderstandings with stories about Jesus’ miracles. It’s a pretty big contrast to see the Pharisees and disciples (and even ourselves) be worried about very small things while Jesus is feeding four thousand people, making the blind see, the deaf hear and casting out demons. Jesus’ words to Peter in 8:33 (“For you are not setting your mind on the things of God, but on the things of man.”) summarize the primary difference between the Pharisees and the true followers of Jesus. Jesus warns his disciples in v. 14-21 to watch out for the teaching/perspective of the Pharisees and of Herod, but they are too caught up in worldly worries to understand his point. He then tells his disciples what it looks like to have their mind on the things of God- it looks like sacrificing your entire life to pursue God.
This passage reminds me of Romans 8:5 “For those who are according to the flesh set their minds on the things of the flesh, but those who are according to the Spirit, the things of the Spirit.” And Philippians 4:8 that gives us even more help in knowing what to think about. As someone who struggles to turn my brain off, focusing my thoughts on God has a significant impact on my spiritual growth and other areas of my life.
Grace is no longer offered when the people refuse to turn back to God. I imagine this as if the only way to get you to take grace is to force you into it and violate your free will, then it will no longer be offered to you. The characteristics of the country of Judah in this state are: they did not turn to God (v.4-6), they did not feel guilt or question their ways (v. 6,12), they did not seek God’s ways (v. 7-8), even the religious leaders are focused on worldly gain (v.10) and make God’s gracious gifts superficial (v.11), and they did not use God’s gifts to produce fruit (v.13). Jeremiah is crushed by this (v. 18-22). Not even the best medicinal healing of the day can heal this wound. V.19 is interesting, it could be read as the Lord speaking in the latter part, saying, “Am I not still here?” in answer to Jeremiah’s reasoning that if the Lord is destroying them, then he must not be with them. It’s as if God is saying that this destructive justice is part of his nature too. Alternatively, v. 19 could be read as the people saying something like, “What can happen to us? God is with us, we are his people!” This reading is similar to the idea of sinning so that grace may abound. But that’s not how it works. Ch. 7 explains why grace doesn’t work that way and why God can be both gracious and destructive.
This passage strongly motivates me to seek to understand God’s ways and follow them, not to save myself, but to stay in covenant with him. I will still need grace when I fail, but I also need to be able to recognize when I fail so that I can seek grace. This requires me to 1. know what God’s ways are and 2. examine myself. For this, I need both religion (studying what God’s ways are) and spirituality (self-reflection and reflection on God’s ways).
In this chapter, the Lord dictates to Moses new rituals– a feast, sacrificing first born animals and redeeming first born sons. I’ve often questioned why God gave instructions for so many rituals in the Old Testament. I’ve also wondered if it is cultural differences that explain the need for them at that time and reducing their prominence in today’s time. I know that the Lord’s Supper is meant to be a reminder of Jesus’ sacrifice and a reminder to self-evaluate, but I’ve had trouble understanding other rituals in the Bible and rituals practiced by religious groups that I am unfamiliar with.
It is clear in this chapter that the rituals are meant to remind the people and their children of God’s salvation for them, just like the Lord’s Supper. It is so easy for me to forget what God has done for me. This chapter helped me better understand the importance of incorporating reminders, both in my daily life and in weekly worship. After reading about different religious groups that regularly practice fasting and have ritualistic worship, I can understand why those practices could be very helpful to spiritual growth. Rituals can help teach, refocus and while they might not inspire passion every time, they do have the ability reignite passion when practiced with a willing heart.
Through various metaphors and symbols throughout Ezekiel, God expresses how He feels about Israel’s sins. While there are some details that mention what the sins are, I think the main focus is how God feels about sin and what He’s going to do about it. After reading how God feels when His people are sinning, the opportunities for redemption (see chapters 16, 18 and 20 for examples) seem even more incredible.
The multiple opportunities for repentance and renewal that Israel received in the past are spelled out in chapter 20. The repeated phrase throughout this chapter says of God’s commands and judgements, “if a man does [them], he shall live by them” (NKJV). This seemed odd to me at first. But in vs. 37, God is laying out his promise for restoration and says “…I will bring you into the bond of the covenant…” which seems to me like the covenant is a kind of protection. Protection from what? This question brought me back to the repeated phrase, “if a man does [them], he shall live by them”. A fulfilling life can be found in God’s commands and judgements. God’s covenant protects us from the emptiness of an unfulfilling life. Throughout Ezekiel, we can see how desperately God wants His people to realize that He is God and life at it’s best is only found in Him.
In my Family Studies classes in college, we talked about how the most basic emotional need of every human being is to be accepted. We do lots of crazy things to try to be accepted by other people. But this need is perfectly filled through God’s grace, which accepts and loves us exactly how we are. With this need met, we are free to live a life that is actually meaningful to us. And we can find this meaning in God’s covenant, because it is the source of the power that accepted us and loved us in the first place. We don’t have to read the Bible as a list of do’s and do not’s. We can read the Bible as a way to learn more about God and to discover the covenant He offers to us. The outcome of both of these perspectives isn’t all that different- both would lead to someone who is trying to follow God. However, the inner experience is vastly different. A list of do’s and do not’s creates anxiety, fear and complete despair when we fail, which may lead to harsh judgments of others in efforts to make us feel less bad. But reading to learn more about God creates a joyful discovery that is focused on growth, including failure as part of the process.