The Joy of the Lord

“The joy of the Lord is your strength.” We’ve all seen this many times laid over a beautiful image. What is the context?
The whole sentence: “Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
The whole verse: “Nehemiah said, ‘Go and enjoy choice food and sweet drinks, and send some to those who have nothing prepared. This day is holy to our Lord. Do not grieve, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.”

What was the situation? Nehemiah had come to Jerusalem, and inspired the people to start rebuilding the wall. They had begun, Nehemiah called the people to persist despite the opposition. The work was not yet finished, but well under way. The people all gathered in Jerusalem and urged Ezra the priest to read the Law to them. Ezra and several Levites read and explained the Law to the people. And the people wept. Nehemiah, Ezra and the Levites said this was a holy day, they should not weep but celebrate. Verse 10 is the key of Nehemiah’s exhortation — don’t mourn, celebrate.
Why did the people mourn? I’m sure they must have listened to the Law and thought of all the times they had not obeyed. They were reminded this is why their ancestors were sent into exile, failure to keep the Law. They heard “Do these things and you will live,” and thought “We have not done these things. We are doomed.”

But Nehemiah and the other leaders insisted they should not mourn but celebrate. And we in the New Covenant should rejoice even more.  Even the old covenant had grace, the message that God wanted to make a people for himself and would be with them. And the new covenant makes this clearer. God will do these things in our hearts so we will live. Don’t perceive the commands of God as things to do to be saved, but as the promises of God, what God will do in us because he longs to save.

Are we each alone?

“Each heart knows its own bitterness,
    and no one else can share its joy.”

There’s a lonely thought. What sad-hearted cynic penned this? Actually it comes from the Bible. Proverbs 14:10.

What is it saying? Are we each indeed alone? In human terms, we may well be. If we are each unique, if the modern proverb is right (and I believe it is) that there will never be another you, then it is inevitable that we will never know anyone exactly like ourselves. If this is what true companionship depends upon, we are indeed each alone. We are each unique in our experiences of sorrow and joy, the things that encourage and the things that perturb. Whose heart knows exactly the same notes of tragedy or of triumph? No one.

Some years back I attended a large family reunion. Early morning before it started I roamed our motel parking lot wondering whether I really looked forward to this event. I wasn’t typical, I was different. But then I thought how everyone probably had their own list why they are different, the things that other people don’t just get. I summed it up with the ironic thought, “We are each alone.” No one exactly like me. But I'm not the only one alone, we all are.

We can extend grace to one another, remembering to be kind when we do not understand. It is not easy to be misunderstood, we all know that. But can we ever really, fully understand? So let us strive to be kind when we do not understand, remembering when we were not understood. And let us turn our hearts, and encourage one another to turn our hearts towards God, the one who does know and does understand.

Our covenant making and keeping God

The maker and keeper of covenants, the one determined to redeem his people even though they don’t deserve it. Remember, the one who promised a new Covenant when his people broke the earlier Covenant (Jer 31:31,32). The one who promised to return all Israel, the northern kingdom as well as  Judah from captivity. (Ezekiel 37:19-22). So let us remember God as the keeper of covenants.

Life is difficult

“Life is difficult.” This first sentence of M. Scott Peck’s book The Road Less Traveled is startling. Peck goes on to say that this truth, once grasped makes life simple. Probably an exaggeration to make a point, but the point makes sense. If you start out thinking life should be easy, you are disturbed and upset when it is not. If you start out thinking life is difficult, the difficulty can become easier to bear. Yes, this thing, this event in my life is awkward, annoying, gruesome, horrifying. But it’s not like I was singled out to be made miserable when almost everyone else has it easy. I can see embracing this truth could make you more inclined to gratitude, to appreciate what is good rather than angrily critique what is not perfect.

I am not totally shocked by the concept that life starts out difficult. But I have often felt the expectation that it should become easy. Such is the notion of progress we’ve all grown up with. Technology is getting better and better, so life should be getting easier and easier. A new software comes along, we’re excited. Wow, in just a few clicks we can get something that took hours by typing before. But when something comes up that is still complicated? They didn’t think through this part. I hope the next version makes this part easy.

In the spiritual life, there is a similar view. God has saved us, brought us into his kingdom; if we really understood the Gospel, if we just have enough faith, if we learn to pray correctly, read Scripture correctly, do something else correctly, all should be well. No major difficulties left in life since God is with us.

But in the implications of the Gospel, in the calling of Jesus to die to ourselves, take up the cross daily as we follow, there is a clear reminder that life with God still remains difficult, even despite all the ways he has blessed us. He blesses in part, and leaves us to wait, to follow through awkwardness and pain, to come to him with our heart agonies that may still remain agonies after we pray, the answer “not yet, not yet. My grace is sufficient for you.”

Cursing Gravity

“Cursing gravity
You can disdain gravity all you want, call out its unfairness, seek to have it banned.
But that's not going to help you build an airplane.”  Seth Godin.

It does seem what God often chooses to do is to leave a limitation in place, to permit and require us to learn to cope, endure, even thrive in its presence.

The limits of anger

My dear brothers and sisters, take note of this: Everyone should be quick to listen, slow to speak and slow to become angry, because human anger does not produce the righteousness that God desires. (James 1:19-20)
A word many in our time need to hear, I think. Contemporary politics, both right and left wing, seem shaped by the belief that pure and uncompromising anger against wrongdoers on the other side is what is most needed.

A similar perspective from Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn
“Gradually it was disclosed to me that the line separating good and evil passes not through states, nor between classes, nor between political parties either -- but right through every human heart -- and through all human hearts. This line shifts. Inside us, it oscillates with the years. And even within hearts overwhelmed by evil, one small bridgehead of good is retained. And even in the best of all hearts, there remains ... an unuprooted small corner of evil. 

Since then I have come to understand the truth of all the religions of the world: They struggle with the evil inside a human being (inside every human being). It is impossible to expel evil from the world in its entirety, but it is possible to constrict it within each person.” 
God's truth will illumine many falsehoods, the ones inside us and the ones inside others. Let us oppose falsehood, seeking God's grace to constrict it within us; praying for our opponents that God would enlighten them.

A dialog with and about God

Lord, I believe you love me beyond my wildest dreams. Why then do you not give me what I want? Not because you don’t care. I know you are capable, you who speak the word and the thing exists. It must be that you deny what I want because you know that won’t satisfy, that won’t be the best for me. I know too how often choosing the distractions I want produces boredom, not joy. Help me really get that today.

Lament and Hope

Lament and hope seem opposite but actually fit together. To lament, to say I am disappointed how things are, comes from my hope they will be better. To conclude that life is a mess and never getting better is not the spirit of lament, but of cynical despair. I wouldn’t lament if everything had gone wrong and I had no hope, I’d seek comfort in distraction.

Apathy

Some days the desire to not care is strong. The principles of faith seem old and tedious. Yes, I know all that, nothing new there.

Now and then I wonder. I've learned that God has given us this life as something like a training exercise, to learn that in the stresses and shocks of things we cannot control, we can learn he is with us. And in the future, we shall see him face to face and know like we are known.

This life is short and temporary when viewed from an eternal perspective. But in the here and now perspective (the one I consistently experience) it seems long and dull. I attempted to pray yesterday, with a little success. What difference, I wonder, does one day's success or failure at prayer, at walking with God make? If it is the height of faith to continue in the belief that God is with me even when I don't feel it, is it possible for me to assert that I am with God even when I don't feel it? God's word is true whether I feel it or not. And God's word for me is I was chosen to be holy and blameless in his sight.

I can't think of a Psalm that echoes this emotion. Psalm 43:5 says "Why, my soul, are you so downcast?", but I'm not aware of one that says "Why, my soul, do you care so little?'

Another new Psalm

Oh God, you see my troubles. How small they are.
How small they are when I think of my brother, my sister held captive.
Yet those troubles too are small compared to You.

How easy for you Lord, to say one word and set the captive free.
Somehow the time for that word is not yet.
This moment, you choose to show your power
By secretly sustaining their soul in outward weakness.

So many things I’d like.
Yet how little really is missing from my life, when I have you.
Only for a short time your great overflowing abundance is hidden.
Open my eyes, my heart to know it’s really there.
What do I really want? You. Help me see that.
Help me take your words to heart.