Archive for the ‘Meditations’ Category


I’ve been reading the book of Judges lately, and just started reading the story of Gideon (Judges 6:11-24).  Mostly what I’ve always thought and been taught about Gideon is how he was a coward and fixated on his own lack of significance; there’s always been a sense about it of “Gideon was kind of a loser, but God used him anyway.”

Well, duh.  The more I read the bible, the more I see that the story is always “Fill-in-the-blank person is kind of a loser, but God used him or her anyway.”  I can say unequivocally the same thing about myself:  Cris has kind of acted like a loser a lot of the time, but God is her friend anyway and is helping her to be less and less of a loser the more she hangs out with him.

So I’m reading Gideon’s story from this perspective now, a more compassionate and humble view, and I see so much more than I used to.  I’m starting to see what Gideon did right, and how those actions were signs of why God chose Gideon to defend Israel.

When the angel of the Lord appeared to Gideon, he said, “The Lord is with you, mighty warrior.”

“But sir,” Gideon replied, “if the Lord is with us, why has all this happened to us?  Where are all his wonders that our fathers told us about when they said, ‘Did not the Lord bring us up out of Egypt?'”  (Judges 6:12-13)

There's this thing people do: when something is on your mind and you've been mulling it over a lot, whatever else people around you say or do, you tend to latch on to the parts that are related to what you've been thinking about.  You might even misinterpret things that sort of sound like the thing you've been thinking about, even if they actually weren't intended that way.  It's just how our brains work.  Whatever we soak our brains in is what tends to come back out.

When the angel greets Gideon, notice what he immediately says back.  He skips over the "mighty warrior" part and right away says "If the Lord is with us, where are his wonders?”  This is the response of a man who has been preoccupied with this question — if the Lord really is with us, why are we in deep trouble?  We have the stories about how the Lord supposedly helped our fathers, and supposedly promised to always help his people … so where is he?

Gideon isn’t only thinking about God’s presence, he’s thinking about God’s wonders.  He has listened to the stories of his people and knows that God often acts in impossible, miraculous ways.  He is wondering why God hasn’t worked the impossible to save them from Midian — and that’s exactly what God is about to do, via Gideon himself.  Gideon had a mindset that was in line with what God wanted to do.

The Lord turned to him and said, “Go in the strength you have and save Israel out of Midian’s hand.  Am I not sending you?”

“But Lord,” Gideon asked, “how can I save Israel?  My clan is the weakest in Manasseh, and I am the least in my family.”  (Judges 6:14-15)

Here’s one of the parts where I think Gideon is often scoffed at (and mostly, I’m guessing, by people who have never been in Gideon’s position).  God has just told him directly to go save his whole people from an enemy with impossibly superior numbers.  It was not unreasonable that Gideon experienced a moment of flabbergasted disbelief.

He did the right thing, though, by laying out his reaction in straightforward honesty before God.  The angel told him to go “in the strength you have” and save Israel, and he was saying, but I don’t have any strength.  I am a man of no standing in a family of little standing; there’s no reason for me to believe I can raise an army big enough to challenge the Midianites.

He is effectively saying, I don’t know how to do this.  It looks like you’re asking me to do the impossible, and I don’t know how to do that.  I don’t even know how to start.  That’s a valid question and a valid emotional response, and Gideon did the right thing by owning it.  He didn’t try to pretend he was something he wasn’t.  Gideon didn’t say “oh sure, God, piece of cake” when inside he was freaking out.  He was honest about the difficulties and God responded by honest reassurance — not telling him the whole plan, but reminding him of the most important part.  God was going to be with Gideon every step of the way, the God who worked wonders.  The Lord had done the impossible before, and through Gideon, he was about to do it again.

Gideon replied, “If now I have found favor in your eyes, give me a sign that it is really you talking to me.  Please do not go away until I come back and bring an offering and set it before you.”

Here’s another point where we get impatient with Gideon, when he asks for signs from God to confirm what God wants him to do.  We may be dismissive of him, but God knew full well who he was asking to save Israel.  He knew Gideon was going to ask for reassurance and confirmation of God’s will at the beginning.  We may see Gideon as faithless or doubting with his need for signs, but God knew him better than us.  God is more loving and patient than us, and more in touch with reality.

I don’t even think it really was faithless of Gideon to ask God for a sign. Asking for confirmation from God of his intentions and commands isn’t necessarily a sign of faithlessness or untrust.  It can also be driven by a desire to please God — to make sure our own intentions and desires aren’t in the way, clouding up our hearing.  It can be a real, sincere act of faith to ask God for guidance and confirmation, in full belief that God is able to make his will known.

For Gideon, I don’t know what his full intentions were, but I have a feeling they were mixed — part fear, part desire to be sure it was God asking him to do this impossible thing.  So he asks God for a sign.  He continues to be honest and straightforward with God in the asking, and perhaps most important, he does it by means of making an offering.  Gideon doesn’t stand there and demand answers from God before he puts anything on the line; he puts something of his own on the line first.  No matter which way the answer went, Gideon willingly gave up something of his own to find out.  God honors him by receiving his offering, and gives Gideon something amazing back:  Gideon experiences a miracle, one of the wonders of God.  God draws fire from a rock to consume his offering, and Gideon is launched on his career as a warrior and leader of Israel.


What Wisdom Requires: Meditation on Proverbs 1 and 2

Yesterday morning the lead pastor of my church challenged us to read Proverbs over the next month, one chapter a day. We’re in the middle of a series about how to discover God’s will, and the key point from yesterday is to look for principles in the Bible, not just promises. (Audio from yesterday’s sermon is available here, for more context — great teaching in there.) Proverbs is a natural place to start, when looking for general principles in God’s word; it’s almost too easy, they’re everywhere. That’s what Proverbs is about — distilled wisdom for living well.

So I read Proverbs 1 last night, and Proverbs 2 this morning, and then Proverbs 1 again, because I’m compelled by the last section of chapter 1, verses 20-33. Wisdom is here personified as a woman, walking through the city and shouting out against people who have rejected her teaching. She is blunt; she is not kind. She tells the people who don’t care about her that they have made their own beds, and they will most assuredly lie in them, and then she will laugh at them — she will mock them in the midst of their disasters, because they didn’t ask her for help when they could have. On the contrary, they scorned her.

Yeowch. And yet, Wisdom is not laughing at people who have never heard of her. She isn’t withholding her knowledge from people and then kicking them when they’re down. Wisdom speaks in the open, she’s in the city streets where everyone can hear her. She tried to reach the foolish; she told them they were on a bad course, and they were the ones who didn’t listen.

Wisdom is shown as a stern teacher, but not an uncaring one. She has much to give, but she refuses to coddle. She is in no way co-dependent. She doesn’t chase people who are not paying attention to her. She will gladly teach you, but you have to want her teaching. You have to pay attention to her. You have to seek Wisdom, or she won’t seek you.

In short, Wisdom requires you to grow up. She makes you take responsibility for your own life. She will generously teach you everything she knows, if you want her and you seek her.

Proverbs 2 continues the same idea, this time in the guise of a father or teacher speaking to his son or student. Verses 2-4 instruct the son in how to gain wisdom — turn your ear to it and apply your heart, cry out for understanding, seek it with as much diligence and passion as though you were hunting for treasure. In other words, care about this deeply and seek it energetically. Understand that wisdom is greatly valuable, and treat it that way. The son is urged to care about wisdom and pursue it, and the rest of the chapter is about the great rewards and benefits of doing so.

The larger principle I see here is that whatever you want in life, you need to set your heart on gaining it, take responsibility for seeking it, point your own intentions and efforts toward it. God can help you gain any good thing, anything which helps you and brings honor to him, but you have to want it. You have to be intentional about it. Jesus said it like this: “Ask and it will be given to you; seek and you will find; knock and the door will be opened to you.” (Matthew 7:7; Luke 11:9) You ask, you seek, you knock. Great things are promised, but we have to make the start. Seek God, set your heart on something good, and start pursuing it.

The Story of Ruth: Bitter Choices

Ruth 1:12b-13:

“Even if I thought there was still hope for me — even if I had a husband tonight and then gave birth to sons — would you wait until they grew up? Would you remain unmarried for them? No, my daughters. It is more bitter for me than for you, because the Lord’s hand has gone out against me!”

Naomi hears that the Lord has provided for his people: there is food again in Israel. With little to keep her in Moab, she prepares to return home. Her two daughters-in-law prepare also and set out on the road with her. Before long, though, Naomi tells them to stop. She blesses the young women and bids them to leave her, to go back to their own mothers and start over.

The women are distraught, and Orpah and Ruth protest, offering to stay with Naomi and go with her to her own people. But Naomi rebuffs them forcefully, insisting they leave. What they need, she says, is husbands — the particular thing that brought them into Naomi’s life in the first place, and the thing which she can’t provide them with again. Naomi believes that cutting her personal ties to Orpah and Ruth is the only thing she can do to provide them with good lives. They are all that’s left of her family, and for their sakes she is trying to make them leave her too.

Naomi is despondent and bitter in spirit, and that colors her actions. Bitterness and depression cloud the mind and narrow the vision, making it hard to see any way out of difficulties. Naomi sees very little hope for herself, and the only hope she sees for her daughters-in-law is the obvious path, the path they have already walked with her — find husbands and start new families. Naomi says the Lord’s hand has gone out against her, but she does not here remember the Lord’s love and constant faithfulness. Her view of the world is very stark.

I’m not about to blame Naomi for her hopelessness, though. She has suffered great blows, emotional, social, and economic. She has lost people she loved, and who she also depended on to live, as families needed to work together in order to make a living. It’s possible she was leaving for home because the loss of her sons had left her homeless; maybe the property they had lived on was inherited by other male members of their families, and Naomi was left with nothing. She may not have had anywhere left to go. Naomi has experienced truly great tragedy, and she is not wrong to express the pain and loss of it.

The story here shows us two things that Naomi still had, though, which ultimately lifted her out of despondence. First, God is still with her, and she still acknowledges him. Even in her grief and loss, she blesses her daughters-in-law in the name of the Lord; when she speaks of her lost family, she says it’s the Lord’s hand which has gone against her. Naomi still speaks as though she is in the presence of the Lord, and God is still present in her story. He doesn’t explain why he lets hardships in, but he is constantly faithful to us, even in the midst of terrible times.

Second, Naomi isn’t left alone. We need other people to remind us about hope when we are in despair, or sometimes we need other people to hold on to hope for us, when we simply can’t. Sometimes the worst thing you can do for a person who is hurting is to tell them “it’s all right, there’s hope, it’ll all turn out okay.” To that aching soul, encouraging them to feel hope instead of pain can seem like a negation of their experience; pain is real and has to be felt before it will ever really leave. Sometimes what a person in pain needs is for other people to step in and stand with them, sit with them, listen to them, take care of their needs, and stick with them through whatever they are feeling. A person in despair needs someone to actively love them.

Naomi intended to walk home alone, but she needed company. She needed the Lord who she feared had turned against her, and she needed someone close to her to share the journey and the hardships. The Lord refused to abandon her, and so did the young woman named Ruth.

No vile thing

Meditation on Psalm 101:2-3

Yesterday morning, in my daily reading of some portion of the Psalms, I landed on Psalm 101. This is one of David’s psalms, and in this prayer he speaks at length about the ways in which he guards his life from evil influences. Verses 2 and 3 read in part like this:

I will walk in my house
with blameless heart.
I will set before my eyes
no vile thing.

David is wise to guard his eyes, as vision is the most powerful of the senses to most humans. He is determined to live before God in righteousness in every part of his life — not just in public where his people were watching, but everywhere, including the privacy of his most personal space.

I spent a chunk of my morning thinking about this psalm, praying for insight and asking specifically if there was anything I put before my eyes that is unhealthy to me or offensive to God. Afterward I pursued my normal routines, cleaning up in the kitchen, making tea, eating breakfast. I opened up my computer to check my email and get to work.

And proceeded to spend the next several hours wasting time by looking at the internet.

I’m not going to confess some unexpected, lurid and tantalizing secret sin here, because there isn’t any to confess. I didn’t spend all day looking at stuff that was blatantly, unquestionably vile. Mostly I read my primary social outlets: Ravelry, Facebook, a couple of blogs I follow, and email. I was reading and responding to things posted by my friends, and none of them are vile either. Lovely, smart, funny people, all of them. I didn’t search out a single thing that I would even think of naming “vile.” And yet, the sum total of my time and effort for most of my day was to have looked at a lot of trivia and ephemeral things that aren’t making any strong difference in my life, while neglecting several important things that could have made that kind of difference, for me or other people.

Is a picture of a cute kitten vile, or a joke from a friend, or an interesting conversation that happens to be online? No, certainly not. When a deluge of such things takes over an entire day though, when the sum effect of all of those innocent bits and pieces is to steal my time and therefore my life, what do I call that? When I perpetuate this waste upon myself, neglecting things that really are important and would benefit my life and other people’s lives, what do I call that? Is “vile” too strong? Is it strong enough?

I haven’t decided that yet for myself, and I seriously hesitate to apply such a strong word, but it is providing serious food for thought. I can say two things for certain; first, I am absolutely not calling the internet as a whole or any large social site like Facebook or Twitter categorically wrong, or “vile.” All of those things are a mixed bag, with stellar parts and abominable parts and every sort of in-between part. It’s up to the individual to pursue what they find good, and avoid what isn’t.

Second, David was wise to protect himself by guarding his eyes. He was wise in knowing that we humans are easily distractable and tempted away from our best intentions. I am not going to cut online interactions completely out of my life, but I am thinking about how I may need to start protecting myself from indulging in them to excess, in order to pursue more worthy goals and purposes.

The Story of Ruth: Plans and Provisions

Ruth 1:2:

The man’s name was Elimelech, his wife’s name Naomi, and the names of his two sons were Mahlon and Kilion.  They were Ephrathites from Bethlehem in Judah.  And they went to Moab and lived there.

The beginning of the book of Ruth tells us about an Israelite family’s sojourn to another country, leaving their homeland to escape conditions of famine and going to live among a neighboring people who were not allies of Israel.  There is some tempting symbolism here regarding living inside and outside of God’s plan and blessing, tempting but dangerous.

Taking the basic facts at face value, Elimelech leaves the land of his own people and goes to live among foreigners who do not worship God Almighty.  He forsakes his own people in a time of hardship and goes where he thinks conditions are better.  There’s a temptation to say he was wrong, that he should have stayed in God’s land among God’s people and stuck it out with them, waiting for God’s provision.  It’s tempting to see the basic events and interpret them in this very simple, thoroughly condemning way — a way that is only one step away from interpreting Elimelech’s death as punishment for straying from God’s plan.

Sound familiar?  This kind of story plays out all too often in modern media, where religious leaders interpret world events and natural disasters as God’s judgement on “those people” and “their wrongdoing.”  The people and behavior in question are condemned, and the only correct response presented for them is to follow what the religious leader says is the right way, regardless of any kind of upheaval it would cause in their lives and situations, regardless if they had any choice in the creation of those situations.  No room is granted for any other interpretation of the facts, no grace allowed for people’s struggles and hardships, no acknowledgement that the world is complicated and people have the right to form their own opinions and make their own choices, based on their own lives and experience.

Let’s go back to what the book of Ruth says and doesn’t say about Elimelech’s situation and decisions.  All the story tells us plainly is that Elimelech’s family went to Moab to live.  Not a word is said about whether God intended them to go or not; we simply can’t say.  It is possible that God prompted Elimelech to move away, either directly or via the guidance of circumstances; it is possible that God warned him not to, likewise; it is possible that God didn’t specifically say anything, either way.  Yes, God does have plans for us and guide our lives, but he doesn’t give us specific outlines to follow — we do get a say, we do get to make our own choices sometimes, among a range of possible good options, and God works with us in the midst of those choices.  One of the most incredible things about God is his ability to work with any plan we create; we are never left on our own to figure things out, because we chose something that God doesn’t know what to do with.

The very same thing is true in this story.  Whether or not Elimelech’s family was moving with or against God’s will, God was still with them.  No matter whether they lived in Israel or Moab, they were still in God’s presence — God who created the whole planet and the entirety of the reality it exists within.  Every corner of the world belongs to God, he was in Moab before Elimelech’s family ever arrived. Regardless what he thought of their choice in moving there, he still provided for them.  When Elimelech died, God enabled his sons to find wives.  The family survived and made a living there for ten years.  And when the sons died, God was still present with the widow Naomi.  She suffered terrible losses, but she never suffered the loss of God’s presence and provision.  She may or may not have agreed with her husband’s choice to move to Moab, she may or may not have had a say, but God didn’t abandon her in a foreign land on her own.  God had a plan to bring her back to a place of safety and abundance — and it didn’t have to have been in Israel.  He chose to bring her back to Bethlehem, but he could have provided for her in Moab.  He could have provided for her on the moon, if he wanted to.

There are two powerful reminders for me here.  One is that other people’s lives and stories are more complex than it sometimes appears on the surface, and that there’s always more to them than I will ever know — but God knows it all.  When I am tempted to condemn someone’s behavior or choices, I may not be seeing the whole picture that God sees.  It’s my job to love people and listen to them, not to judge.

The second reminder is that when I feel like I’m lost and unblessed, God is still present, and his presence is blessing — I am never unblessed, as long as God claims me for his own.  I am never forgotten about, no matter if my choices are good or bad.  I am never unprovided for, whether or not I can see the means of provision in the passing moment.  I can mess up my life, but I can’t mess up God’s plans.  He’s the one in charge, and he will always take care of me.

The Story of Ruth: Unexpected Things

Ruth 1:1:

In the days when the judges ruled, there was a famine in the land, and a man from Bethlehem in Judah, together with his wife and two sons, went to live for a while in the country of Moab.

The story of Ruth begins with something unpredictable, famine in the land of Israel.  A man named Elimelech responds by moving his family to the neighboring country of Moab, intending to stay “for a while.”

We must assume that conditions were better in Moab than in Israel, or at least that Elimelech thought they were, and so he was trying to take care of his family by doing so.  Instead, something even more unexpected happens:  Elimelech dies.  His wife, Naomi, and their two sons are stranded in a foreign land, with the head of their immediate family gone and no extended family to rely on, no solid connections to the community in which they find themselves.

The sons, Mahlon and Kilion, respond to their family’s need by taking Moabite wives, giving them needed connections to the people among whom they are living, so that they can provide for themselves and their widowed mother.  Having taken on marriage ties into the Moabite community, the family settles more permanently; the story says they stay for ten years, and perhaps they intended to stay for good.  But one last unexpected blow lands.  Mahlon and Kilion also die, and Naomi is left alone.

So much tragedy in the beginning of this story, so many things that could be neither predicted nor controlled.  Elimelech and his family try to make the best of their circumstances, it seems they even attain some level of security, but when the next bombshell hits they are bowled over again.

There’s a hard piece of truth here, one that most of us try to keep far away:  we aren’t really in control of our lives.  We maintain an illusion that life is stable and secure; a lot of the time, the things we expect are the things that actually happen, and so we keep on expecting them … until the day when something unexpected happens instead, and we are surprised and shaken.  If on any given day we may be taken by surprise, if something unexpected can land smack in the middle of our comfortable, “predictable” lives, then we are not in control — not ever fully in control.  Otherwise we would never be surprised.  We would be able to sidestep unexpected, unwanted tragedy.

It’s no wonder we keep this truth at arm’s length.  The world is a scary place, seen in light of it.  The only way I can really face up to this difficult truth is to hold another piece of truth beside it:  I am not in control, but God is.  I am surprised sometimes, but God is never surprised.  Everything unexpected that happens to me has already been incorporated into his plans, so that I may feel shaken, but can never be ruined.

It’s hard to keep hold of this truth, knowing that hardship and loss happen, and God lets it — God who can prevent anything, chooses not to prevent everything difficult.  I have to say, a good percentage of me wishes he would.  I wish that I didn’t have to live through hard times, and that my family and friends didn’t have to either.  Nonetheless, I’m not the one who gets to decide that, because I’m not in control.  God is, and he chooses what happens, and sometimes those events are brutal to experience.  I don’t have to like that in order for it to be true.

I have to remind myself very strongly that God is not careless, nor uncaring.  If he allows something painful to happen, he has a very good reason for it, a good enough reason to justify the pain, just like a doctor or physical therapist will allow pain, even inflict pain, for the sake of greater health.  The surgeon cuts, in order to remove the tumor.  God has very good reasons for what he chooses to let into our lives, always.

The other thing that helps me with these hard truths is to remember that God plans for our needs, including what we need to weather the hardships he gives us.  He isn’t surprised by our tragedies, in fact he knows the day and the hour of their arrival far in advance, and so he is ready with what we need in order to get through.  Naomi didn’t know she would lose her husband and sons, she could not have guessed that she would be abandoned in a foreign land with little means of support, but God knew.  He knew, and he seeded into her life far ahead of time the means of her eventual salvation:  the woman named Ruth.

The Story of Ruth: Ordinary Grace

Among all the stories told in the Old Testament, the story of Ruth is fairly unique in that God doesn’t directly speak or act in anything that happens. His presence is assumed rather than explicit. I really appreciate this, because it makes this story feel so much like real life, the kind of life where people just muddle through and make decisions and take action, and things either happen or fail to happen, and then the next decision has to be made in light of that. That’s what my life feels like, most of the time. I have never experienced the blessing (or terror) of having God open the heavens and speak to me audibly, giving me explicit instructions about what to do. But many, many times I have experienced things by apparent chance, and only when I look backwards over them can I see how everything fit together for my good.

So much of Ruth and Naomi’s story is like that. They make decisions in response to serious hardships in their lives, and their path is shaped by those choices, bit by bit. There are great acts of heroism and kindness, but not in any flashy superhero kind of way. Ruth takes a lot of risks, but not for the sake of adventure. She does it because she has to, because it’s how her life is shaped, because it’s who she is. That’s how real heroism works. That’s how the world is really shaped, day by day.

Ruth’s story gives me a lot of encouragement for my own day-by-day life and the ordinary choices that I make inside it. Some of those choices are actually big, hairy decisions, but they’re the kind of big, hairy decisions everyone has to wrestle with: how to make a living, how to meet your needs, how to take care of the people who are important to you. Most of the story is about how two women are set adrift from what enables them to do that, and how they have to find a new way to a place of provision and security.

It’s also about the quieter, more subtle and ongoing work of God — not the epic moments when he sends angels with thundering messages of doom and glory, but the ways in which he constantly nudges very ordinary things into place. Ruth’s story reminds me that God is here, whether or not he’s visible, whether or not he speaks out loud. He’s here in the words I’m writing, the thoughts I’m thinking, in both the little choices and the big hairy decisions I need to make next. God is right here, quietly shaping everything for good.

Meditation on John 1:29-33

My church is starting a collective bible-study of the book of John this month via the discussion section of our Facebook page, reading one chapter every day and commenting on any verse or section that catches our attention using the acronym SOAP — Scripture, Observation, Application, Prayer. I think it’s a nifty idea.

However, when I sat down and started writing, my intended forum post quickly grew into a 1,000-word treatise. (People who know me well are possibly not very surprised by that.) I think that was not really the idea, so … I’ll take up my own space and post my ideas here.

I’m looking at John 1:29-33, primarily because it gave me a serious “buh-whuh??” moment when I read it and what some others commented on it. John says in vv 32-33:

“I saw the Spirit come down from heaven as a dove and remain on him. I would not have known him, except that the one who sent me to baptize with water told me, ‘The man on whom you see the Spirit come down and remain is he who will baptize with the Holy Spirit.'”

The thing that brought me up short was remembering that John said to Jesus when he came to be baptized, “wait, isn’t this backwards? I’m the one who needs baptizing here.” I had to look up the reference, it’s in Matthew 3:13-15:

“Then Jesus came from Galilee to the Jordan to be baptized by John. But John tried to deter him, saying, ‘I need to be baptized by you, and do you come to me?’

“Jesus replied, ‘Let it be so now; it is proper for us to do this to fulfill all righteousness.’ Then John consented.”

So the apparent sequence of events is that Jesus comes to be baptized; John protests at first, then agrees; Jesus is baptized; then the Spirit comes down to him in the form of a dove; later, John says that he didn’t know who Jesus was until he saw the Spirit come and remain on him. The apparent contradiction in all of this is, why did John protest that Jesus ought to baptize him, unless he knew who Jesus was? If he didn’t really know who Jesus was until the Spirit came down upon him after his baptism, why would he have hesitated when Jesus first came? And especially, why would he have said “no no, I really need to be baptized by you?”

I’m not sure how to crack this one. I can think of some possibilities; we aren’t told the full story here by one person in one narrative, so maybe some of the details have gotten muddled. Maybe the Spirit gave John some kind of advance warning, a premonitory nudge about Jesus’ real identity, but not full-blown knowledge until the baptism happened. Maybe he just respected Jesus as another teacher and preacher, someone who he thought would be better and greater than himself, but not THE GUY, the Messiah. I don’t really get that vibe from the story, though.

The thing that feels the most true to me today, the thing that I really need to absorb for myself, is that there’s a difference between head-knowledge and experiential-knowledge, between knowing a thing is true and actually having it happen to you. Whether or not John knew Jesus personally, he had to have heard the stories of his own birth and Jesus’ birth; his parents believed that Jesus would be the Messiah, so I think he had to have at least head-knowledge of who Jesus was supposed to be. When the man himself came to him, in the flesh, asking to be baptized, I think his head-knowledge would have been enough to prompt his hesitation, to say “wait, no, why are you coming to me for this?” But that’s a very different thing from walking with Jesus into the water and laying him under the surface, from seeing the living Spirit of God fly down out of Heaven and alight on him, from hearing God’s own voice speak His acknowledgement and blessing: “This is my Son, whom I love; with him I am well pleased.” In living through those moments, John had the chance to learn what he “knew” in an entirely different way, more vivid and real and present than was ever possible before. God in the flesh, right here. Standing in John’s own patch of river, soaked to the skin, with the Father’s voice speaking benediction over him that John was privileged to hear.

The same is true for all of us. It’s important to have head-knowledge in order to know how to respond to God and to events in our lives, but by walking through those events enables us to experience the truth of what we “know” in a much more deep, vivid, present way, a way that can really change what we believe and how we live. That’s what really transforms us, experiencing the truth that we know. And too often, I have to admit I don’t want to do it. I don’t want to experience the things that will transform me, because I know it means facing the hard stuff, the painful things that will provide the deepest lessons and the biggest opportunities for growth. But God knows that; he knows my hesitations and my sometimes-cowardice, better than I do, and he still helps me experience what I need to learn. Sometimes He helps me to be brave; sometimes he just doesn’t give me a choice but to go through what has to happen, brave or not. But he’s always present with whatever help I need in order to get through and learn what I need, and later on I can appreciate what I’ve gained.

Today I’m thinking hard about my own nature and hesitations, and I’m really grateful for being known and understood, down to the bottom, by a living God who wants the absolute best for me, who is always working to make that come about. I’m grateful for the experiential-knowledge I’ve been given so far, and the head-knowledge that helps me to know and trust my Lord, who knows and loves me.

Meditation on Psalm 62:8

Today I’m pondering Psalm 62:8, which reads:

Trust in him at all times, O people;
pour out your hearts to him,
for God is our refuge.

To me, this verse really needs some pondering.  The verses before this are full of imagery and metaphor about solid things, rocks and fortresses, and then we get this sudden switch to saying “trust in God and pour out your hearts to him.”  You don’t (usually) talk to a rock, and wouldn’t (rationally) pour out your heart to a castle; those things may be trusted in for physical security, but you’re not gonna expect emotional reassurance from them.  So what kind of refuge are we talking about here?  Why do we have this apparent right-angle turn from physical metaphor to emotional urging?

Partly I think it’s a reminder that ultimate security is not physical, at least not yet.  In the most stark terms, everyone dies, even the faithful, and all the tragedy that can befall humankind strikes everyone impartially.  God does give us physical protection, he is always perfectly able to do so, but he also chooses sometimes to let hardships and hard blows fall into our lives.  He doesn’t give us a literal, physical fortress.

There are other kinds of security than physical security, though.  This verse talks explicitly about emotional security, for one; “pour out your hearts to him.”  Not to a stone in a fortress, but to a person, to one who cares infinitely and promises to listen and provide help.  A divine sounding-board and counselor and shoulder to cry on.  This verse reminds us that our refuge is not impersonal, not stone.  It comes by knowing a personal, living God who listens and guides and always, always stands with us, no matter what.

And further, the psalm says over and over that God is our salvation, along with being our rock, refuge, and fortress.  Read from a Christian frame of understanding, this has to remind us of our source of salvation, the Son of God who took our place to be punished for our rebellion.  The refuge given us is that of shelter from condemnation, permanent removal of our guilty record.  Complete healing and security is not promised to happen in this world, but it is promised.  Not by huddling inside strong walls or on top of sheer rock.  By trusting the Person whose promises are never broken and whose power to create and restore is endless.

Meditation on Psalm 62:3

Another section of Psalm 62 today, verse 3:

How long will you assault a man?
Would all of you throw him down–
this leaning wall, this tottering fence?

Not too inspirational on the face of it, huh? Actually, not really inspirational under the face of it either. Not the whole way down to the bottom, as far as I’m concerned. This is a verse that makes me think about the hard realities of life rather than the inspirations that help us overcome hard reality. Not pleasant, but necessary to come to grips with.

The literal words of the psalm sound like they are referring to a specific situation, a real moment in time — someone is in a tricky position, and others are waiting to take advantage by underhanded means. The next verse reads “they fully intend to topple him from his lofty place; they take delight in lies. With their mouths they bless, but in their hearts they curse.” So dangerous times are at hand, and the speaker of the psalm is facing enemies who want to ruin him in some way, and do it when he is already weakened. The writer knows his situation is precarious, he feels it sharply, and his words toward those who leap to take advantage are scathing.

On the surface, probably not something a lot of people reading my words here can directly relate to, in the moment when they are reading it — and if anyone can, then all blessings and strength to you, my friend! And for the rest of us, where’s the relevance?

Part of human experience that is hard to face, that we don’t want to recognize, is that all of us are leaning walls, all of us are tottering fences. We don’t like it and we don’t want to be, so we find ways to prop ourselves up and feel secure. Which is understandable, and I think admirable — we need to feel secure in order to live and to be any use in the world. That’s how we’re made, and so we find ways to do it. But none of our props go far enough to make us really stable and strong. Not in a world that’s too unstable, not in bodies that sicken and break and fail, not in relationships that none of us get right all the time. We can prop ourselves up, for a while. But then time moves on and the props kick out from under us, and we stagger.

Anyone who has watched a newscast over the past month has seen conflict and dramatic change sweep across the Middle East; anyone who’s watched the news in the last couple of days has seen the horrible effects of an earthquake in Christchurch, New Zealand. They are the most recent entries in the long ledger of human conflicts and natural disasters that have wrecked lives and destroyed homes and livelihoods across the world. Who feels really stable in the face of such things? Can they absolutely never, ever happen in the place where you live, my kind reader? Are you sure?

We don’t even need large-scale, dramatic disasters to feel our totteriness. Conflict rages in the midst of familes, fierce and bitter wars are fought there. Disease and weakness attack our bodies. People live alone and afraid. Much of the world we’ve constructed is impersonal and faceless, made out of screens and clicks and press-1-to-send-us-your-firstborn phone menus. We prop ourselves up as well as we can, and then reality rumbles through and knocks us down regardless. This is a reality of human existence, and it’s hard. I would say it’s a big part of what’s wrong with the world.

So why am I going on about it? I’m making it all sound pretty hopeless, which is not true and which is not my point. The rest of Psalm 62, much of the rest of the Bible, and a lot of other great human writings and work attest to the fact that it’s not all hopeless. But without coming to grips with the reality of my leaning-wall nature, I can’t deeply understand the hope and grace of the rest of Psalm 62. Without feeling how shaky I am when I stand on my own, I can’t totally appreciate God’s promise that I will never be shaken. If I don’t accept that sometimes I get knocked down, it makes it harder to get back up, and to let God and others help me up. Knowing how tottery we all are, it makes me want to work harder at helping other people find the security they need. The best possible props are leaning on other people. And the absolute best, the source of real and complete security, is to lean on God.