Monday, June 20, 2016

The Voice of God

Last night a thunderstorm rumbled through West St. Paul.  About 11:00 PM I went outside to check it out (as I am want to do, much to my wife's chagrin).  All of the typical storm elements were present: loud thunder, crashing lightning, and torrential rain.  As usual, watching this storm was an awesome experience, as you can only sit back and marvel at the power you're witnessing. And now, as I write this post the morning after the storm, I do so on my laptop because our computer and phone systems at the church were all knocked out by the storm's power.  

Have you ever been in a violent thunderstorm?  If so, you know that there's nothing you can do about it: the thunderstorm is in charge, and your only choice is to bend to its will.  The storm makes the decisions, you don't.  This is why, when there is severe weather, most of us retreat to our basements, as it is the most solid and safe part of your home during violent storms.  But when you realize the sovereign power of violent weather, you can't help but feel small and helpless, and even hopeless, because you know that the storm is strong and you are not.  The storm is in control - not you.  

That feeling of helplessness in the midst of a violent storm is the kind of feeling that Psalm 29 wants to elicit from you.  It wants you to see the immensity of God's power; it wants you to feel helpless in his presence; it wants you to know that you bend your will to God's, and it is never the opposite; it wants you to know that he makes the decisions - not you. 

In Psalm 29 David describes God's power by talking about his voice.  In fact, seven times throughout Psalm 29 David references "the voice of the Lord."  But he's not talking about an audible, vocal utterance.  Rather, David uses the idea of the voice of God to demonstrate the extent of his power (see also: Genesis 1.3).  And the closest event that David can think of to illustrate the untamable, awesome power of God is the untamable, awesome power of a violent storm.  As the storm goes where it pleases and does what it pleases, so does God.  And so, in verses 3-9, David describes the utter devastation that a storm can bring, and likens it to the power and judgment of God.  "This," David seems to be saying, "is the God with whom you must settle accounts: the One who rips trees out by their roots and shakes the mountains."

Like Isaiah, when he was filled with dread at the sight of the Lord in Isaiah 6 because of his knowledge that his own sinfulness and God's holiness could not intermingle, Psalm 29 is a warning to those who would heed it, by showing the devastating activity of which God is capable.  And the question is this: how will you  make yourself right before this God?  Because he will judge sin.  How will you do on that day?  

David seems to recognize that he and his people will not be able to stand against this God on their own account.  He's too powerful; he's too holy; they won't survive an encounter with him.  After all, Psalm 29 describes how God "breaks the cedars" and "strips the forests bare" and "flashes forth flames of fire" and makes the mountains shake.  What chance do you stand?  I mean, really, what chance do you stand before the holy and righteous judge of all the universe?  David recognizes this reality, so he begs God in the last verse of the psalm: "May the Lord give strength to his people!  May the Lord bless his people with peace!"

God heard and answered David's plea for peace.  The all-powerful God described in Psalm 29 emptied himself by taking the form of a servant, being born in the likeness of men.  And being found in human form, he humbled himself by becoming obedient to the point of death, even death on a cross.  The Son of God - the one who breaks the cedars and strips the forests bare - allowed himself to be nailed to a rugged tree.  And in so doing, he took the rebellion and sin of all who would believe upon himself and he paid the debt of judgment that you owe to this God who demands holiness and righteousness because he himself is holy and righteous.  And because of his sacrifice, there is peace between God and those who will trust in his sacrifice.  We no longer need to fear this God who makes mountains move and the earth quake, and who tears trees out of the ground by their roots.  In our sin, we are enemies of that God.  When we put our faith in Christ, we become the children of that God - the friends of that God.  

Several years ago, in my last year of seminary, I completed an extra credit project for one of my systematic theology classes.  For the project we were to create a piece of art or music that represented a passage of scripture.  Considering my musical background, I chose to write a song based on Psalm 29 and recorded it on my computer, playing all the instruments and vocal parts.  The lyrics and the link to the song are below.  

There is power that tells me of your glory
There is fire that shows me you are holy
There's a sound that shakes the earth in wonder
As I look into the eye of the storm, I hear the voice of God

There is a flood that tells me of your justice
There is life that tells me of your goodness
There is peace that tells me of your kindness
As I look into the eye of the storm, I hear the voice of God

All the angels give him glory, the people in the temple give him praise
All the angels give him glory, the people in the temple praise his name
As they look into the eye of the storm, and hear the voice of God

There is a throne of majesty and power
There is a Lord that sits enthroned forever
There is a King who lives alone in splendor
As I look into the eye of the storm, I hear the voice of God

Monday, June 13, 2016

Orlando and Psalm 28

This past Sunday I woke up, got dressed, and went to church.  I don’t usually engage in social or news media on Sunday mornings because time is short, and I’m usually focused on the tasks at hand for the upcoming Sunday School hour and worship service.  Therefore, it wasn’t until I sat down for lunch on Sunday afternoon that I first learned about the deplorable and wicked mass murder that took place in Orlando, Florida.  I am devastated by the loss of life, and my prayers and sympathy go out to the victims and their families. 

The text for our service yesterday was Psalm 28.  Had I known about the shooting prior to the sermon, I probably would have adapted it to address the situation, as Psalm 28 has much to say about tragedies and acts of violence and injustice, and how we as Christians should respond to such events.  In the coming days (and indeed, already), the world will banter about political and social talking points.  Individuals and groups of people will be blamed.  Policy will be debated.  And armchair social commentators will plaster social media sites with one-liner memes in attempts to explain the who, what, when, where, and why of this horrible event.   The fact is, however, that we simply live in a fallen world populated by sinners where bad things happen, sometimes by intent, and sometimes just naturally.  Thankfully, the Bible helps us to make sense of these times.  What follows is a brief reflection at how Psalm 28 can direct our thinking about the mass murder in Orlando.

1. We are all sinners. 
The world is full of sinful people: you, me, your neighbor, your pastor, your grandma.  We are all born into sin, and as a result, we do wicked things, and we are effected by people who do wicked things.  This was true of David in Psalm 28: people were threatening him to the extent that his very life was in danger (Ps. 28.1).  Wicked people do wicked things, and this effects all of us.  This was true for David, and it is true for us.  This was true of the man who killed 50 people in Orlando and injured dozens more.  He did what he did because he is a sinner.  And lest we think ourselves any better than he, even David, the author of Psalm 28 knew that he deserved to be “dragged off with the wicked” (Ps. 28.3). 

“None is righteous, no, not one; no one understands; no one seeks for God.  All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.  Their throat is an open grave; they use their tongues to deceive.  The venom of asps is under their lips.  Their mouth is full of curses and bitterness.  Their feet are swift to shed blood; in their paths are ruin and misery, and the way of peace they have not known.  There is no fear of God before their eyes.”  Romans 3.10-18

This is the boat we are all in: sin and depravity.  And because we all suffer from this disease, our world is a dangerous place where violent things happen and people do despicable things to one another.

2. Judgment is coming. 
Psalm 28 also tells us that because we are sinful, judgment is coming: “Give to them according to their work and according to the evil of their deeds; give to them according to the work of their hands; render them their due reward” (Ps. 28.4). 

There is a judgment coming in which God will give all people the reward of their deeds.  Those of us who have never committed a mass murder tend to look upon those who have with scorn and contempt, being swift to call down judgment upon them, as well we should.  But this attitude is shortsighted in that it forgets that we also are guilty of sin.  Although you may have never killed anyone physically, you have committed murder of the mind.  Jesus said, “You have heard that it was said to those of old, ‘You shall not murder; and whoever murders will be liable to judgment.’  But I say to you that everyone who is angry with his brother will be liable to judgment; whoever insults his brother will be liable to the council; and whoever says, ‘You fool!’ will be liable to the hell of fire.”  While you may have never physically “pulled the trigger” against another human being out of hatred, the landscape of your mind is littered with bodies.  For these sins, judgment in coming, in which God will “give to them according to the work of their hands [and minds];” and he will “render them their due reward” (verse 4). 

As my friend and colleague David Wick has said regarding the Orlando shooting, “I…have to answer to Him, and that is my legitimate concern – my accountability to Him.  And may God have mercy on my soul.”  We are all in the same boat: sinners who live in a sinful world, and judgment is coming. 

3. God will hear the voice of our pleas for mercy.
In spite of the fact that we have all transgressed and committed horrible acts of treachery and sin in our lives (again, if not physically, then mentally), Psalm 28 tells us of a wonderful miracle: God will hear the voice of our pleas for mercy.  “Blessed be the Lord!  For he has heard the voice of my pleas for mercy” (verse 6).

Why is it such a miracle that God hears our prayers and cries for mercy?  Precisely because of what I’ve already described in points 1 and 2: we are sinners who deserve judgment.  But instead of giving us the judgment we so richly deserve for our sin, God has chosen to offer us atonement and full forgiveness for our sin.  He sent Jesus Christ into the world to live perfectly and then die on the cross, taking the full weight of the sin of all those who would trust in him.  So then, instead of us receiving judgment for our sin, he receives in on our behalf.  He pays the penalty for our sins; he receives the punishment, so now those who are trusting in Christ stand before God as innocent.  They no longer have to fear judgment, because judgment has already been given to Christ.  And now, instead of God being our judge, jury, and executioner, “The Lord is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts, and I am helped…”  Now God is “my rock” and he will “be not deaf to me” (verse 1). 

The fact that God hears the voice of the pleas for mercy of people who are utterly lost in sin and wickedness is nothing short of a cosmic miracle.  It is in this sense that in the wake of immense tragedy that we can thank God for having mercy on sinners and hearing their pleas for mercy. 

4. We can, and should, pray for peace.  Psalm 28.9 says: “Oh, save your people and bless your heritage!  Be their shepherd and carry them forever.”  Because of what Jesus has done on behalf of all those who would trust in him, peace with God is now possible.  No longer do we have to worry about impending judgment for our sin; no longer must we feel anxious about the effects of living in a fallen world populated by sinners.  Instead, we have confidence that God will “hear the voice of my pleas for mercy” and that he has responded to my pleas, and he will continue to do so for all eternity.

It is in this sense that this reality should cause us to pray for the victims of the senseless killing that took place in Orlando.  We should pray for their peace: physical and emotional peace in the wake of tragedy, and for their spiritual peace with God.  We should pray that they come to know him and that he will hear their own pleas for mercy.  God has promised that he will do so.
Additionally, this should also be our prayer for our enemies – those who have perpetrated these horrible acts of violence and those like them – and for those who will do likewise in the future.  Our desire is for all people to know the peace that Christ brings – peace with God, which leads to peace among men. 

May our prayer for the city of Orlando be that they would come to see the hopelessness of sin and the greatness of the Savior; may they call upon the Lord with pleas of mercy, for he will hear; may God become their strength and saving refuge. 

Precious Sister Pat

In most people's lives, a person can probably count on one hand the people who have had an indelible influence on his life.  I have had those people involved in my life, and I am thankful for them.  Unfortunately, this past week, I have one less.  My childhood music and violin teacher, Sister Pat Binko, passed away last week.

When I was about 6 years old, I began taking piano lessons from a nun who was, shall we say, less than happy to be working with children.  I recall getting my hands slapped on the keyboard several times when I made mistakes, and just a general attitude of disgust toward me when I didn't excel as quickly as she had hoped.  Granted, I'm sure my remembrance of these times is a bit overblown due to my tender age and immaturity at the time, but even in my memories, it was a significantly negative experience.  As a result, I convinced my mom that I should not play piano, but should instead follow in the footsteps of my older sister and take up violin.  Soon thereafter, at the age of 8, I began taking violin lessons from another nun - Sister Pat.  Little did I know that I would remain under her instruction for the next 10 years, and that those 10 years would have a lasting impact on my life.

Each week (September through May) I went to Sister Pat's school of music for an hour-long lesson in the Suzuki method of violin.  Each lesson consisted of playing through the prescribed songs, working on music theory, and just general life-encouragement from Sister Pat.  Weekly lessons were complimented by monthly "Play-Ins" where all of Sister Pat's students would get together to perform an informal concert of sorts - mostly just for parents.  Students were sectioned out by their level in the Suzuki method and played songs from the book they were in.  Additionally, from time to time, Sister Pat scheduled other informal concerts at local nursing homes.  When you factored in at-home practice times (which, to be honest, there should have been more of), my life was full of violin and music.

As time went on, I began to realize that I had something of a natural talent for musical things.  In high school I went on to also play the string bass in the school orchestra, in the Greater Twin Cities Youth Symphony, and bass guitar in school productions, talent shows, and garage bands.  I also played first chair violin in the school orchestra, played with a touring high school musical group called "Fiddles & Friends" (along with all the cool kids) and took elective musical theory classes in my later high school years.  At church, I joined the worship team and played bass guitar.  In my freshman year of college I declared a minor in music, but later dropped out when I discovered the immense workload.  However, I also joined the college worship team, and played regularly there.  It was also in college that I took up guitar, teaching myself based on the musical knowledge I had gained throughout y childhood.  Guitar led to banjo, which led to the tin whistle, the harmonica, drums, and so on and so forth, which led to songwriting, arranging, playing in semi-serious bands, etc., etc.  Put simply, music had become perhaps the biggest thing in my life.

By this time, my regular violin playing diminished significantly.  I had completed the Suzuki method (all 10 books!) before graduating high school, and was no longer taking lessons from Sister Pat.  I still played violin at church once in a while, but not too often.  My musical studies began to move more toward sacred music and music for worship, and worship theory.  Most, if not all of this study was independent, but I have learned a ton since having graduated high school.

As I reflect on my musical growth and experiences throughout my life, it is crystal clear to me that the foundation for everything that I have done or accomplished, musically speaking, was the teaching I received at the hand of Sister Pat.  She saw my natural ability and nurtured it through the violin and through theory in ways that no public school teacher would have been able to.  Sister Pat had a no-nonsense approach to learning and practicing violin, but was also easy-going enough to teach her students that the main purpose of creating music was fun and joy and using the gifts that God has given us for good things.  She also emphasized the spiritual component of creating music, which was something unique about her, although now that I'm an adult I would probably differ from her teachings in a few ways.  Sister Pat also emphasized the "why" of music.  In other words, she knew that teaching theory was just as important as teaching technique.  From what I know of most music teachers today, this distinction no longer exists, which I think is a shame.

After graduating from high school, I mostly lost contact with Sister Pat.  I would see her once every few years, just coincidentally.  She always stayed in contact with our family however, through Christmas cards and whatnot.  A few years ago I was at Menards buying something - I can't recall what - when I heard a familiar voice behind me, and it was none other than Sister Pat.  We made small talk, but I was able to thank her one last time for the monumental influence she had in my life over the majority of my childhood.  That was the last time I saw her in person.  Although we lost touch pretty much after I graduated from high school, the impact she had on my life cannot be overstated.  I am grateful to God for how he used her to influence me.

Sister Pat also had several mannerisms that set her apart.  She was always upbeat and outgoing, and always seemed to be genuinely concerned about what was going on in our lives.  One of her catch phrases was to say, "Well isn't that precious!"  It was more of an exclamation than a question.  She would say that whenever she heard or saw something funny or unique.

Her frequent use of the word "precious," and her recent passing, makes me think of Psalm 116.15: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints."  From her obituary, I learned that Sister Pat became a nun at the age of 18.  We never got into any significantly deep theological conversations during my relationship with her (and at the time, I was neither knowledgeable nor mature enough to have one), so I'm not sure of her spiritual state.  She certainly professed faith within the Roman Catholic tradition, but I don't know what her personal spiritual beliefs were.  It is my hope that it can be truly said of her: "Precious in the sight of the Lord is the death of his saints."  I hope that she is in heaven at this moment, doing what she loved before the Lord Jesus.  That would be precious.

Monday, June 6, 2016

How to Wait for the Lord

Each Christmas one of my sisters prepares an Advent calendar for my kids.  The calendar is a grouping of 25 separate compartments – one for each day of Advent – and each compartment contains a small treat like a piece of candy or a sticker or something similar.  My kids love following the calendar during the Christmas season, mostly because they know they get a small treat each day.  But mixed in with their love for doing the calendar is a small twinge of disappointment, because as they mark off each day they’re reminded about how many days are left before Christmas comes.  In other words, each day they mark off, they’re reminded about how long they have to wait for Christmas!

Waiting is hard to do, and not just for kids – adults have a hard time waiting as well.  And waiting becomes even more difficult when the stakes are high or when our waiting involves pain.  Have you ever had a toothache and made an appointment with the dentist to have it resolved, only to find out that his earliest opening is next Thursday?  The days leading up to the appointment are excruciating.  Or, maybe you’ve had to wait for test results to come back, maybe you’ve had to wait for a debilitating illness to run its course, or maybe you’ve had to wait for a loved one to return home for a relationship to be restored.  Whatever the case may be, waiting is no fun, and it’s especially not fun when the stakes are high, or when waiting involves pain. 

David talks about the waiting in Psalm 27.  In it, he’s waiting for God to answer his prayer.  David was in some pretty rough circumstances, and he dutifully brought them before the Lord in prayer.  But, as David finds out, God’s response is not always immediate.  So then what are we to do in the mean time?  Wait.  Psalm 27 gives us five things we can and should do while we are waiting on the Lord to answer our requests.

1. Remember that God is mighty to save.  In the opening verses of Psalm 27 David reminds himself that God is bigger and stronger than anything that might be threatening him or causing him pain.  No matter what he’s facing, David gains confidence during his time of waiting by remembering that God can deliver him no matter the circumstances (verse 3).  When we find ourselves waiting for God to respond to our pain, we should also be quick to remember that God can is powerful enough to deliver us from whatever we’re facing.

2. Remember why God saves.  The reason David asks God to deliver his is for God’s glory.  In verses 4-6 David reveals that the reason he wants God to rescue him is so that he will be able to live to praise God some more.  He wants to go to God’s sanctuary and worship him; he wants all people to know that God is mighty to save, and he will use his testimony of deliverance for pointing other people to God.  When we have to wait for God to respond to our prayers, it is helpful to go back and refocus ourselves on the glory of God – if and when God delivers, it will be so that we can worship him and point others to his deliverance.

3. Seek his face.  God tells David to “Seek my face” while he’s waiting for God to answer his prayers (verse 8).  In other words, God is telling David to seek out his presence.  This would require David to go through ritual cleansing, offer sacrifices, and give offerings in order to be able to approach God.  The point that God is making to David is that there is value in being intentional about worship and devotion while we wait for God to act.  For you and me, this might mean being intentional about prayer while we wait – either personal prayer or with others.  It might mean spending some time fasting, or intentionally reading and memorizing scripture.  There is value to disciplining ourselves to seeking God’s face while we wait.

4. Learn his ways.  We are at our most spiritually vulnerable when we are suffering and going through hard times.  The same was true for David, so he asks God to “Teach me your way, O Lord” during his time of waiting (verse 11).  David says that he is tempted to leave the “level path” of the ways of God because of his enemies.  In other words, David is tempted to sin and respond badly to his enemies – he’s tempted to leave God’s way and go his own way.  Therefore, David desires to learn God’s ways while he is in his time of suffering and waiting.  Like David, we are most likely to leave God’s ways when life gets hard.  So when life does get hard, we need to be intentional about learning God’s ways.

5. Wait some more, and trust.  In verse 13 David says, “I believe that I shall look upon the goodness of the Lord in the land of the living!”  For whatever reason, David was confident that what he was going through would not lead to his death.  He was certain that God would deliver him and preserve his life.  The tricky thing is, he didn’t know when that would happen.  Until it did, it was incumbent upon him to wait, and to continue to trust that “The Lord is my light and my salvation…The Lord is the stronghold of my life.”  It could have been that God wouldn’t rescue David from his circumstances for days, months, or even years.  So what should David do in the meantime?  Wait, and trust.  The same is true for us: we may see God’s deliverance “in the land of the living,” or we may see it in the next life.  Either way, our job is to wait…and trust.