A bulwark through the bleakness (Psalm 8)

Psalm 8 is a hymn I regularly turn to stabilize my internal disruption.

In prayerful adoration the psalmist both begins and concludes the hymn “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”

These words are the bookends for the psalmist’s contemplation of how God’s majesty encompasses the whole of this world. Between those bookends are natural expressions by which we perceive and experience God’s otherwise immeasurable majesty.

Firstly, he says “You have set your glory above the heavens”. It is a statement we readily relate to considering how frequently we, like the psalmist, “look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established”, and praise God for his cosmic creation. Our imagination has always been captivated by the faraway glories of stars and sunsets, our eyes and minds dancing to the beauty and elegance of their movements.

Our thoughts cannot long linger here because the psalmist immediately turns our attention away from the skyward splendor to a more average scene down on earth where another majesty resides. Across the luscious landscape, human beings dot the terrain. Though they be frail, they are formidable. The psalmist is astounded that of all God’s creation, he is most mindful of humankind (vv3-4). The psalmist also acknowledges and appreciates that, having been made a little lower than the angels, God has given humankind dominion over his creation (vv5-6). They are a marvelous majesty.

But the psalmist is also aware there is ugliness. That this sacred dominion has been beaten into weapons we frequently wield against one another. It is into this ugly array the psalmist names a much more intimate expression of this majesty: “Out of the mouths of babes and infants you have founded a bulwark because of your foes, to silence the enemy and the avenger.”

A bulwark was a piece of a wall or tower that extended outward to provide a greater measure of security to the city’s defenses. Standing tall, it raised the city’s occupants and defenders above the noise and threats of the enemy. But how can the voices of the young offer such forbearance?

In Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird, Tom Robinson is in jail awaiting trial when a mob of men arrive one night to lynch him. Tom’s lawyer, Atticus, is also there to dissuade them. They’re facing off when Atticus’ children suddenly run up to the jail porch. Despite Atticus demanding they leave, they stay. The situation is at an impasse when Atticus’ young daughter Scout sees Mr. Cunningham, the father of a school boy she once bullied, then befriended. She begins talking to him about his own young son as if nothing is going on around them. Mr. Cunningham’s head is bowed, and the other men feel awkward as well. Suspecting she’s crossed some line, Scout stops and apologizes, at which point Mr. Cunningham comes to his senses, speaks to her courteously like a gentleman, then goes home, telling the other men to do the same. Life was right in front of them, but their single-minded rage could only envision death. It took a young girl’s innocence to restore them to a sense of dignity and decency.

While our violence, smugness, and exploitation cloud our view to the majesties God has instilled all around us in the form of creation and each other, suddenly, from out of the prattling, atheistic noise, the psalmist points the eyes and ears of our hearts to the innocence of the young breaking through the bleakness like a bulwark emerging in the morning fog. We who are made a “little lower” than the angels, but often elevate ourselves as gods, need these lowest versions of ourselves to remind us of the simple majesty our existence already satisfactorily expresses.

As you hear these innocent infants or babbling babes bellow out what Jesus himself would later refer to as praise God has prepared for himself, receive it as sacred majesty meant to “silence the enemy”, as well as our own nitpickings, and restore us to worshipful awareness of GOD at work in this world.

And if any words must be spoken, let them echo the psalmist by praying “O LORD, our Sovereign, how majestic is your name in all the earth!”


Why the Church needs to elaborate on love

By the time Jesus arrived on the scene, the Jewish people’s relationship to the Law had grown complicated. Since they returned to their land from exile, they made such a concerted effort to avoid the lawlessness that had led to exile that they not only pledged to keep the Mosaic law, but they also erected additional traditions as a fence around the Law. As dedicated an effort it was intended to be, it ultimately resulted in a congestion that not only wound tightly around the neck of the people’s life of worship but also undermined it with hypocrisy. There was no clear line of sight into the heart of God.

So when he was eventually and, appropriately, asked by a lawyer which commandment of the law was the greatest, Jesus’ reply provided welcomed clarity. He answered “‘You shall love the Lord your God with all your heart, and with all your soul, and with all your mind.’ This is the greatest and first commandment. And a second is like it: ‘You shall love your neighbor as yourself.’ On these two commandments hang all the law and the prophets” (Mt22:37-40).

So impactful was Jesus’ statement here that Paul echoed it in his own writings (Rom13:8-10, Gal5:14,). Jesus and Paul were both comfortable summarizing the Law as love because they knew their audience possessed an abundance of detailed knowledge of the Law; so much, in fact, that a summary was necessary. To this day, Jesus’ love summarization is one we have rightly come to rely on in our attempt to understand God’s demand on our lives.

A summary is only useful, however, as long as knowledge of what is being summarized is retained and appreciated. When the summarization becomes so constantly used that the specific details being summarized are no longer remembered or esteemed, it has become a generalization. Such is the situation I believe may be facing the Church today.

Many churches and ministers are so grateful for whatever attention span their congregations give that instead of spending it fixating on complex topics requiring explanation and nuance, they opt for simplicity, hence the appeal of the love summarization. Similarly, as Scripture’s complexities raise issues of holiness, communal obligations, or dealing with political ideologies and allegiances, the love summarization quickly provides much less tension and divide. Therefore, the desire of simplicity and the summarization of love are understandable avenues for maximizing one’s message in a short amount of time. Having said that, however, an over-reliance on the love summarization can inevitably lead to liabilities.

One, as Bible reading and literacy decreases, so does knowledge and understanding of its vast but critical narratives and theologies. Like a high-schooler’s preference for Wikipedia entries instead of reading the original material, the summarization of love becomes preferred to the appreciation of God’s Scriptural revelation.

Second, the love summarization, in and of its abstract self, carries no explicit moral impetus. During my freshmen year at a Christian college, I went to a store with another ministry student. He stole an item in front of me. When I objected, his response was that I needed to be more loving because God is love. When the concept of love becomes an enabler of lawlessness, what harmony or good does it or can it claim to represent or promote?

Finally, “Love” in its popular usage doesn’t necessarily require an acknowledging of the person and priorities of King Jesus. Consider the COEXIST bumper sticker; while every group featured there would uphold or celebrate “Love”, they are philosophically indifferent or opposed to King Jesus and what he demands. So, while in the Church “Jesus=Love” (maybe), outside of the Church, “Love” doesn’t carry the same gospel distinction, and is, therefore, insufficient as a tool in conveying the comprehensive reality of Jesus.

The summarization Jesus and Paul employed to demonstrate how love is the sum of the Law was a helpful and necessary one at the time. It provided much needed clarity into the heart of God. But if the Church’s use of that summarization begins to nurture an ignorance of Scriptural reality, or an indifference to its demands on our lives or to King Jesus himself, that summarization then requires a thorough unpacking. Churches and Christians would thus benefit greatly from education of a more developed quality. A kind that moves away from the inspirational pop theology characterizing many pulpits today, and instead digs into the texts, examines and discusses the hard topics, expanding upon the simplicities and the love summarizations to allow for an appreciation of the inherent details, complexities, and nuance to take root and flourish. Jesus and Paul’s love summary was a gift; it only remains a gift when there is an appreciation and allegiance to what it was summarizing.

“With those who…”: A Post of Joy and Sorrow

A few weeks ago our congregation was able to participate in a joyous occasion. The Hmong ministry that holds their afternoon services in our building was having ten (!) baptisms, and they wanted to do it with us during our morning service. Both congregations watched, clapped, laughed, and rejoiced as one by one each new believer entered the water and was baptized into Jesus the Messiah, assisted by our minister, Pastor Charles Robinson, the Hmong minister, Pastor Don Vang, and myself. It was a wonderful time, full of joy and thankfulness.

Then this past Saturday afternoon the news came that Pastor Don Vang had suddenly passed away of an illness. We were all shocked and speechless, and saddened for his family. He leaves behind a delightful, hardworking wife, sons who are also ministers, and a very sweet and encouraging daughter in high school. Because of timing and clarity, his wife wanted the news broken to their congregation all at once at their service the next day. She asked my father, Pastor Robinson, if he would break the news and deliver a brief message to the group.

Running a church errand, I arrived minutes after the service had started. The scene was heavy. Pastor Vang’s teenage daughter has been acting as their ministry’s worship leader and there she was, leading the team and congregation in worship, barely a day after her father’s passing. She wept as she struggled to sing; my mother went up, stood behind her, and held her as they all continued to sing. Her mother was standing near me, also crying and singing; I hugged her and together everyone cried and sang.

After my Dad’s words, there was more crying and hugging; but there was also prayer and encouragement. Pastor Vang’s wife went around to everyone, embracing them and telling them “he loved you very much”. His daughter knelt down by the smaller children, explaining what was happening and that “we will see him again”. I got to speak and pray with a woman Pastor Vang baptized twenty years ago who said she wasn’t “ready to let go of him yet”.

These moments felt like a complete contrast to the joy and celebration of the baptisms weeks earlier; yet they also felt quite connected, as if the other side of the same coin. The Bible verse that kept running through my mind was one of Paul’s instructions he gave for how to be the Church Body: “Rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep” (Romans12:15).

Paul’s emphasis on this “with-ness” promotes a love that does for each other what Christ did in being “God with us”. The test of a congregation’s genuine love for each other is their willingness to dive with each other into the deep—the deep joy and the deep sorrow. Being willing to enter into someone else’s joy and sorrow demonstrates that the love we always talk about is genuinely there. When the darkness overwhelms, it’s another’s love that brings the light. There’s always someone in your Church community who needs it; I encourage you to be the one who brings it.

Old Hope in the New Year

The ball has dropped, the fireworks have burst, the toasts were raised, and it is now Day One of a New Year.

I don’t know about you, but 2016 has been a year I am happy to move on from.  Almost from the beginning, it seemed to be shaping into a year of pain.  Sometimes we saw that in the loss of beloved individuals in the entertainment industry.  Sometimes we saw it around the world in the sufferings caused by terrorism or the panic of families fleeing their homes.  In our own country we saw it in one shooting after another that broke or embittered the hearts of everyone.  My home congregation recently experienced it in the loss of two precious members.  So the heaviness of last year was a load I was happy to leave behind at last night’s last hour.

But even with the sense and desire of a fresh start, there is no guarantee that the New Year will be a great year.  More than optimism and resolutions are required.  So as Christians looking to put our best foot forward in the New Year, our faith must look backwards to a very old hope.

There’s a phrase in the Bible I want to familiarize you with; that phrase is “Ancient of Days”.  It’s a phrase that references the LORD God’s eternal existence and sovereign lordship.  It occurs only three times in the Bible and all three of those occurrences are in Daniel 7.  This is significant because at this moment, the prophet Daniel, along with his people, had been exiled to a foreign empire in the faraway land of Babylon, which itself would soon fall to the rising Persian Empire.  As both an exile and a favored court advisor, Daniel had a front-row seat to the crossroads of history and changing civilizations.  It was in this period that God gave Daniel a vision of the future where a Son of Man would appear before the Ancient of Days to receive a Kingdom that would never pass away and that would come to hold good dominion over all peoples and rulers of the Earth.

We believe the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus is the cornerstone upon which God’s Kingdom is being built; but I also want to draw your attention to the One from whom the Son receives the Kingdom—the Ancient of Days.  The LORD God, who has existed from before Day One, has lordship over all things throughout all time unto Day None.  God possesses lordship over history.  Every good and redemptive thing Christ affects through his Kingdom rule has its origin in the Father who holds all history in His good and holy hands.

Our hope for the New Year is a very old one.  Because God is Lord over history, the hope that holds our hearts transcends history.  In knowing that and entrusting ourselves to God, we are able to put our best foot forward in such a way that gives witness to the One who is not only shaping a New Year, but a future of newness that revolves around the King who sits upon his throne saying “Behold, I am making all things new”.

Advent III: The Substance of God’s Salvation Hope

angel3Coming. That is what Advent means. More specifically it means Someone is coming. And He’s bringing Something with Him. The angel Gabriel has already conveyed rumors concerning the nature of this coming when telling Zacharias his son will be “a forerunner” to the Messiah. It is now time to confirm the rumors of hope with reports of good news. To an ordinary girl in an ordinary town, Gabriel now proclaims something extraordinary.

In the town of Nazareth, as a young Mary enters a room, Gabriel appears and says “Greetings, favored one! The Lord is with you.” Perplexed, Mary can only ponder what will come next. Then Gabriel announces good news of salvation: “Do not be afraid, Mary; for you have found favor with God. And behold, you will conceive in your womb and bear a son, and you shall name Him Jesus. He will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High; and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His father David; and He will reign over the house of Jacob forever, and His kingdom will have no end.”

Thus far in these reflections upon the season of Advent and its story of hope, we’ve examined the settings into which God’s salvation will be placed, but now we turn our attention to the substance of God’s salvation and it is defined here both in the sense of Someone who is coming, and Something that is coming with Him. The substance of God’s salvation is a King and His Kingdom.

After God delivered Israel from Egypt, He revealed who and what they were to be: “you shall be to Me a kingdom of priests and a holy nation.”

By giving Israel laws for righteous living, God’s desire for every Israelite was to cultivate a righteous character so as to create a culture of holiness, a people whose entire lives bear witness to a historical and communal reality being born in the delightful submission to sovereign LORD. This is the holy, royal reality God has always pursued for His people. But generations later, this is not what they resembled. Determined to be “like all the other nations”, Israel ambitiously asked for a king. God gave them one, a tragic trial run. Then David came to the throne. Though quite imperfect, David was a man after God’s heart. Ultimately God made David a promise that “someone will always sit on David’s throne”. Sadly none of the subsequent kings came close to pursuing God’s heart as David had. Israel gradually and fractionally faded into shadows.

But Gabriel’s words to Mary reveal God is still authoring His salvation story. The reality of God’s redemptive reign was still coming and its initial advent would be witnessed in the birth of its king. The good news of God’s kingdom is so much more than just a solution to sin or an eternal destination; it’s a redemptive reality encompassing the whole of humanity, redefining history, people, purposes, values, culture, and mission in the holistic submissiveness to its King. When this frames our understanding of God’s salvation, we begin to see we are not just saved from something, but we are also saved for something. This is the substance of our salvation hope.

But knowing the natural order of things, Mary asks how this can be, considering she’s a virgin; Gabriel replies “The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; and for that reason the holy Child shall be called the Son of God.”

Come upon. Overshadow. In order for Advent to reveal God’s salvation story to the people and places of Earth, the salvation hope being brought must come from beyond. That is the whole supernatural nature of this Coming, that Earth is encountering Someone it has never seen before in a way it does not understand and cannot control. God lets us manage many things, but He will not permit it with salvation. God alone works salvation so God alone is on display and worshipped. We stand powerless before this salvation work in history as the mysterious supernatural God infuses the natural with all of His glory, majesty, and wonder, conceiving and cloaking Himself with a human form that is nevertheless divine. He would appear to all as just another son of man, yet be indeed the Son of God. God implants Himself into the natural order here so we can understand salvation rightly—the infinite incarnate.

To reassure Mary, Gabriel adds that Elizabeth, her elderly and barren relative, is sixth months pregnant with a son, to which he concludes “For nothing will be impossible with God.” Her humble response is exemplary: “Behold, the bondslave of the Lord; may it be done to me according to your word.”

This supernatural salvation puts us in our place; we add nothing to it and can take nothing from it. As Mary, we can only receive it and respond as willing participants in it as God powerfully performs it. In this Advent season, prayerfully ponder the coming of your King; may the hope it sets in your heart shape an awareness of how the redemptive reality of His Kingdom is good news for all the world. Peace of Christ to you.