Your Family is More Important Than Your Furniture – Psalms of Ascent #4

A prominent feature of the culture I live in is the demand that everyone must respect the “individualism” of everyone else.  Pressure to affirm whatever anyone else wants affirmed about them has ballooned all over the news, social media, corporate policy, and even in churches.  There’s an assumption built into this, which is that the sincere ability to love someone can be the result of someone else threatening us to do it.  Exert enough legal, social, cultural, or even physical pressure and someone’s fundamental nature can be changed by coercion.  The coal turns into a diamond.

Tomorrow is Sunday, so today we return to the Psalms of Ascent, a liturgy used in ancient Israel to prepare for worship at the annual festivals in Jerusalem.  What does this have to do with the last paragraph?  In Psalm 120, the first Psalm of Ascent, we read (post here) that no matter where we live, or where we come from, no matter our genealogy, we live among people with “lying lips” who can’t get along with each other.  In Psalm 121, we are encouraged to find the answer outside of our current place:

A Song of Ascents.

I lift up my eyes to the hills.
            From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
            who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
            he who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, he who keeps Israel
            will neither slumber nor sleep.

The LORD is your keeper;
            the LORD is your shade on your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
            nor the moon by night.

The LORD will keep you from all evil;
            he will keep your life.
The LORD will keep
            your going out and your coming in
            from this time forth and forevermore.

The Psalm asks us to take our eyes off of the world around us and look upward for our hope.  Not just talk about the idea of it, but to actually do it.  To turn off the outside world and its circumstances and seek God’s help.  It takes effort because the idea that we can solve our own problems is so powerful.  The fall of Adam and Eve was driven by a curiosity that there may be a better system than the one they already had.  In a literally perfect society, they wanted something else.  If we aren’t intentional about avoiding this trap, it’s easy to not realize we are in it.

We’re All Messed Up
I’ve written much about Tyler Joseph, the songwriter of the band twenty øne piløts, and his campaign to create music and stories that help people deal with mental illness.  In an interview years ago, the interviewer criticized Tyler for calling himself “messed up.”  Was Tyler being too hard on himself?  This was Tyler’s response:

“I know I’m messed up. I think to myself I should be able to control myself.  I look at a lamp and I decide that I’m going to stand up and not hit that lamp. Why can’t I make decisions like that about everything in life. I’m not going to get angry at my brother. I want to be the best brother. Why can’t I do what I want to do? That’s messed up. Something is broken in the way we live. It’s proof that something is not right.”

Tyler is explaining Romans 7:13-21, especially verses 15 and 21, but in a way that’s as plain as day to anyone being honest with themselves.  Romans 7:15 and 21 say: “For I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate.”  And “So I find it to be a law that when I want to do right, evil lies close at hand.”

What if the problem with every person individually is that they are unable, no matter how much external pressure is put on them, to treat other individuals the way they should be treated? If true, it puts the first paragraph into an entirely different light.

In this exact moment as I write this, I’m being very careful not to spill my drink on my laptop.  I have no desire to do anything violent to the couch I’m sitting on but just to enjoy having a place to sit.  If I stop writing to check something on my phone, I make sure I put it down gently in a spot where it won’t fall off and hit the floor.  But at the same time, I know I don’t always treat people with the same respect.  I know if I’m interrupted in the middle of what I think is a great thought or phrase I could get irritated and rude.  Not always, but I could.  I know I could be a better son, husband, father, employee, and friend.  So why don’t I?

Why do we treat our furniture better than our family, even in a culture that increasingly demands with all its strength that we prioritize every individual?  Because we are broken in a way that no political or economic system, no culture or tradition, can fix.  One may be better or worse than another, but none of them has the power to solve the real problem that we can’t consistently love people more than we love our furniture.  We have to go somewhere else to find the answer.

“I lift up my eyes to the hills.
            From where does my help come?
My help comes from the LORD,
            who made heaven and earth.”

As pilgrims traveling to Jerusalem, the Israelites were telling a story by making the effort to move.  A story that the towns they leave behind – no matter where they are coming from – don’t have the answer to their most important problems.  On the long journey, they travelled in large groups and slowly, sometimes by foot.  They probably had constant reminders of their own inability to treat the family they traveled with better than whatever furniture or baggage they brought along for the trip. While togetherness is sometimes uncomfortable, together we must lift up our eyes and look for the answer outside of everything we know.

We’re broken and can’t fix ourselves, but “The LORD will keep you from all evil; He will keep your life.”  Take some time out of your week and each day to look up to the hills and seek Him.  To set aside everything else.  To focus on the LORD, because He alone loves us in the way we need to be loved and can help us love others the way they need to be loved.  He won’t seek to break you to make you do it, but He Himself was broken to provide us a way.

This post continues a series on the Psalms of Ascent. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

There’s a Place for Us – Psalms of Ascent #3

Fellow travelers,

Today we come back to a weekly series on the Psalms of Ascent, a group of 15 Psalms used as a liturgy for Jews in ancient Israel traveling to Jerusalem for feasts.  Last week I wrote: “To today’s Christian, the Psalms of Ascent remind us not only of our need for salvation apart from law, but they prepare us to regularly contemplate His provision to accomplish that salvation.”  Psalm 119 praises God’s law, but the following Psalms let us know that the law cannot deliver salvation.

The first Psalm of Ascent, Psalm 120, picks up from verse 136 of Psalm 119: “My eyes shed streams of tears, because people do not keep your law,” but it also starts where the pilgrimage starts geographically.  The full Psalm 120 is:

“A Song of Ascents.

In my distress I called to the LORD,
            and he answered me.
Deliver me, O LORD,
            from lying lips,
            from a deceitful tongue.

What shall be given to you,
            and what more shall be done to you,
            you deceitful tongue?
A warrior’s sharp arrows,
            with glowing coals of the broom tree!

Woe to me, that I sojourn in Meshech,
            that I dwell among the tents of Kedar!
Too long have I had my dwelling
            among those who hate peace.
I am for peace,
            but when I speak, they are for war!”

Each person traveling to Jerusalem came from a different place.  Meshech was in the far north; Kedar in the far southeast.  The Psalmist does not live in both places, but picture is that the same problems exist everywhere.  Everyone lives among people with lying lips, a deceitful tongue, and who hate peace.  Each of us in our own way are such people.  In verse 3 the Psalmist is frustrated about what to do about this: “what more shall be done to you, you deceitful tongue?”  The next verse says that force or coercion won’t solve the problem.  It must be solved internally because mankind is fundamentally broken.  Society isn’t the cause of the problem, but an outcome of the problem, and we are frustrated with it.

However, those following the familiar liturgy of these Psalms would know that this frustration is only the beginning of their preparation to worship in Jerusalem.  The place we all live – this entire creation – is groaning for a solution, a way out, and struggling to find it.  All of mankind is in this boat together, but we’re “gonna need a bigger boat.”  The pilgrimage begins with knowing we have a need that we can’t satisfy ourselves.

On their days- or weeks-long journeys to Jerusalem these pilgrims had to bring the baggage from their home lives with them – literally and figuratively.  They certainly lied to and fought with each other on the way.  The trip lasted too long for them to pretend.  Their baggage was visible to all, and they couldn’t make the trip without it.  But they went.  In today’s church, do we go to a place that is full of “good” people, however we define that?  No, we go to a place with people just like us.  We begin as sinners among sinners, from Meshech to Kedar, but we long for a better place.

If you are in distress, call out to the LORD for a place of peace, not just for eternity but for your journey to it.  The church is “called out” to both places.  The journey is worth it.

The title of this post, if you haven’t already guessed, comes from the musical West Side Story.  The song is about the love between Tony and Maria, members of rival ethnic groups that insist on fighting even though they aren’t sure why.  Therefore, Tony and Maria long for a place where the world’s hate doesn’t tear them apart.

In more ways than one, the sentiments of the song echo the last verses of today’s Psalm:

“Too long have I had my dwelling among those who hate peace.
I am for peace, but when I speak, they are for war!”

Here is the song from the 1961 West Side Story film:

This post continues a series on the Psalms of Ascent. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here.

Jesus is Indignant – Those Who Mourn #3

Today is part 3 of a series on the second Beatitude from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” – Matthew 5:4.  The first two are here and here. We begin with story of the resurrection of Lazarus by Jesus:

“Jesus said, ‘Take away the stone.’ Martha, the sister of the dead man, said to him, ‘Lord, by this time there will be an odor, for he has been dead four days.” – John 11:39

Before this dead man Lazarus died, Jesus got a message that he was ill.  Lazarus was in Bethany, near Jerusalem, and Jesus was about a day’s journey away avoiding the Jewish leaders who sought to stone Him to death for claiming to be God (Jn 11:30 and elsewhere).  After saying “this illness does not lead to death[1], Jesus stayed away for two more days and after the time it took to travel to Bethany, He found Lazarus already “dead four days.”

Martha and Mary, sisters of Lazarus, were deep in mourning, along with many others who had come to mourn with them.  Then “Jesus wept” (John 11:35).  Reading this we might assume Jesus’ reason for weeping was the same as everyone else’s.  However, pastor and author Tim Keller notes that: “Both verses 33 and 38 say that while He was weeping with grief He was also snorting with anger.  Jesus could not have been weeping for Lazarus because He knew he was about to raise him from the dead.  What, then, was He so grieved and angry about?  He was furious at the sin and death that had ruined the creation and people He loved.”[2]

Jesus knows that “sin came into the world through one man, and death through sin, and so death spread to all men because all sinned” (Romans 5:12).  Since Adam and Eve, mankind has been facing, and mourning, the consequences.  From the repetition of “and he died” in the genealogy of Genesis 5 on, we are reminded of the result of missing the mark of God’s righteousness.  Nobody is more aware of this than Jesus.  As God, He understands our loss more deeply than we do, and He is indignant, consumed with righteous anger.

When Jesus got the message Lazarus was ill, He could have healed Him on the spot from a distance as He did the official’s son in John 4:46-54.  Instead, Jesus delayed in coming to raise Lazarus “so that the Son of God may be glorified through it” (John 11:4b).  The miracle convinced many, but not everyone: “the chief priests made plans to put Lazarus to death as well[3] because so many were later believing in Jesus that they plotted to bury the evidence[4].

However, Jesus used the miracle to increase His disciples (and our) faith, particularly in times of loss and mourning.  Jesus taught Mary to replace her “if” statement “Lord, if you had been here, my brother would not have died[5] with His statement “I am the resurrection and the life.”[6]  As man, He feels as we do, and in compassion for us He weeps.  He steps right into our suffering with us – the odor of death does not deter Him.  He knew He would have to die to save us from our suffering, and He willingly took it on.  “For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but one who in every respect has been tempted as we are, yet without sin.” – Hebrews 4:15

Just as He could have healed Lazarus before he died, Jesus could return right now and take us to heaven, but He waits until His purpose (not ours) is fulfilled so that He may be glorified.  For now, we can know as Mary did that He is “the resurrection and the life,” rather than wonder “if” He could have come sooner.  Therefore, “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” – Matthew 5:4.  In time, Jesus will fix it all.

With the next post in the series, we move to the next Beatitude in Matthew 5:5 – “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” – and we begin with that odor.

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

[1] John 11:4
[2] Keller, Timothy.  Making Sense of God (2016).  P. 164-5.
[3] John 12:10
[4] See also this earlier post
[5] John 11:32
[6] John 11:25

Mourning Has Value – Those Who Mourn #2

Today is part 2 of a series on the second Beatitude from Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount: “Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” – Matthew 5:4. In the first post, I wrote about how mourning logically follows our awareness of needing Jesus because we are poor in Spirit.  When we mourn this way as Christians, we deeply acknowledge that we aren’t happy with the consequences of having sought our own way.

Many religions and philosophies see no value in sorrow.  Ancient Greek and Roman philosophers hated it and strived to avoid it.  Eastern religions sometimes deny its reality and seek to live above it.  On the other hand, in Christianity and Judaism stories like those of Job are highly valued, and verses like these from Ecclesiastes 7:2-4 are common –

“It is better to go to the house of mourning
      than to go to the house of feasting,
for this is the end of all mankind,
       and the living will lay it to heart.
Sorrow is better than laughter,
       for by sadness of face the heart is made glad.
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning,
       but the heart of fools is in the house of mirth.”

In Christianity, mourning can have value, helping sanctify us, making us more like Christ.  Mourning can be a form of confession – a way of saying the same thing about sin that God does.  When we mourn doing wrong things or neglecting things that should have been done, we agree with God on what is “wrong” and what “should” be done.  It is not the same as repentance but is often a preceding part of it.

The framework of the series of posts on Matthew 5:3 – “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven” – shows many ways living outside the kingdom of heaven fails us and others:

  • Times we were too proud or ashamed to act (Post 1)
  • Times we thought earning God’s favor was more important than loving Him and our neighbor (Post 2)
  • Times we thought our own sins were ok because we thought they weren’t as bad as someone else’s (Post 3)
  • Times we failed privately because we couldn’t see the consequences or the point in trying (Post 4)
  • Times we didn’t love someone because they weren’t like us (Post 5)

Therefore, we should mourn!  Emotionally reacting to these things means that knowing we are “poor in spirit” is more than just an intellectual or logical idea.  Sin needs to mean something to us, deeply.  However, this mourning is not the same as despair, depression, or meaninglessness.  In the words of J.R.R. Tolkien, spoken through the wizard Gandalf in the Lord of the Rings: “Despair is only for those who see the end beyond all doubt.”  Only God can see the end, and there is more to come!  In Christianity it is but part of a journey, or in the case of the Sermon on the Mount, part of a sequence of Beatitudes.

“Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted” – Matthew 5:4

In the next post of the series, I plan to talk about Jesus’ reaction to death and the consequences of sin, focusing on John 11: 33 and 11:38.  He knows more about it than we ever will, and He cares deeply.

This post continues a series on the Beatitudes. To start at the beginning, click here, and for the next post click here

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