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In Whom Do We Trust?

daily reading plan

June 25, 2020 by Tim O’Connor

It seems that the reservoir of trust in our society is quickly drying up. Name an institution (the Church included), and one of the interminable polls we are bombarded with will tell you that the percentage of people having confidence in it has dropped to low numbers. We are also atomized (frayed and broken families; lessened communal involvements) and politically and culturally polarized. Add in all the upheavals of recent months against the backdrop of serious looming collective challenges just over the horizon, and the result is widespread anxiety, tending for some into desperation and for others into paranoia. It’s quite a mess!

Oddly enough, history suggests that the biggest danger in a moment such as ours is…a breakout of collective trust! God made us to be relational, highly interdependent creatures, so trust is a necessary feature of the human condition. It can erode, but where it has done so across a whole society, the hunger for its restoration remains. Given a simple message seemingly fitted to the times, and a stirring of highly committed people typically headed by one or more highly charismatic individuals, a sizeable segment of formerly cynical people will rally around surprisingly quickly. In best case scenarios, the result is needed reform and renewal, and strengthened communal bonds. In worst-case scenarios, it leads to violence against perceived enemies of the cause, ending in totalitarian nightmares of one flavor or another. What makes for the difference?

That question is not easily answered, but for the people of God these words from Psalm 118 are pertinent:

It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to trust in man.
It is better to take refuge in the Lord
    than to trust in princes.

The psalmist neatly distills a message running through the Old and New Testaments: there is no person or cause arising from the ‘crooked timber of humanity’ that we can lean upon, fully trusting in the purity of their righteousness. Quite the reverse: we should expect to see brokenness on closer scrutiny. And whether we see it or not, all our interactions should be informed by the knowledge that it ever lives there, in and among us, whether the ‘us’ be the society at large, a political party or movement, our family, or even the church.

This unsentimental message avoids cynicism through its second part: take refuge in the LORD. Placing unreserved trust and confident hope in Him alone, we are protected from fevered idealism, which always lead to crushing disillusion, and are freed to accept the inevitable failings of ourselves and those we band together with. We can insist upon robust accountability – from our most inspiring leaders, our close friends, and ourselves– to curb the damage from those anticipated failings. We become patient, accepting that even the best of undertakings consist in two steps forward, one step back. And we avoid despair, knowing that every good thing that has been attained thus far was imbued with the grace of God, and that grace will lead us home.

Songs of the Heart

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June 22, 2020 by Bob Whitaker

Music enters the soul in a way that nothing else can.  As the melody rises, the lyrics emerge from our memory almost effortlessly.  We sing the words over and over again, letting them become part of our thinking, emotions, and even our daily lives.  Of course, in their earliest form, the Psalms were a lot like contemporary music.  Imagine a young man tending sheep on a Judean hillside: he plays his harp, hums a tune, composes words, and a song is born.  The song that emerges from that lonely hillside becomes a favorite–a hit, if you will–that catches on among the people who hear it for the first time.  It floats effortlessly through the air and embeds itself in the hearts and minds of the listeners. The name is David; the name of his song is “The Lord is My Shepherd.”  Yes, this story is historical fiction because the details of its composition and its popular reception are unknown, but it might have happened like that.  The music has been lost but the psalm remains.  Music and poetry are special ways of communicating truth to the heart.  They are much different than logical discourse.  When you enter the world of music or poetry, it’s like visiting a new landscape.

The Lord Will Be Your Help

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June 18, 2020 by Steven Lulich

If the Lord had not been my help,
My soul would soon have lived in the land of silence.
Psalm 94:17

Sometimes silence is golden.  At the end of a long day, when the kids have been at each other’s throats and I’m at the end of my rope, when they finally fall asleep….  The silence is golden.  When the barrage of sounds and noises in town and at work has worn me to a frazzle and I can’t think straight, when I finally get to sit on my deck in the early morning and just listen to the birds and the wind in the trees….  Yes, I know that’s not totally silent, but it’s peaceful, and it’s golden.  When someone is irritating me and I want to cut them down with a biting remark, when I keep my mouth shut…. My silence is golden.

Sacramental Living

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June 16, 2020 by Bob Whitaker

In all four Gospels we read the story of Jesus multiplying five loaves and two fish for a crowd of 5,000. The story is personalized in John’s gospel by including a young boy who provided elements for the miracle. This is a story of sacramental living. There are a variety of opinions about the word sacrament, especially when it relates to baptism and the Lord’s Supper – Baptists typically use the word ordinance while Catholics and others in the Protestant tradition use the word sacrament. No matter your tradition, there is richness in the word sacrament. So, what exactly does the word sacrament mean? Here is a simple definition: “A sacrament is a common physical element that represents a sacred reality.” Think of the ordinary elements of water in baptism or bread at communion.

For His Name’s Sake

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June 4, 2020 by Steven Lulich

He leads me in paths of righteousness

For his name’s sake

Psalm 23:3

Psalm 23 is perhaps the best-known and best-loved of all the Psalms. Any why not?  It is a tremendous comfort to know that God is my Shepherd – He leads me beside still waters, He makes me lie down in green pastures (what a lovely, picturesque perspective!), He restores my soul, He prepares a table for me and anoints my head with oil. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever!”  It all sounds so wonderfully peaceful, doesn’t it?

The Pledge of Allegiance

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May 29, 2020 by Steven Lulich

Set a guard, O Lord, over my mouth;
Keep watch over the door of my lips!
Psalm 141:3

As someone whose day job revolves around the world of speech and language, I am automatically drawn to passages that refer to the mouth, the lips, the tongue, the voice.  My first inclination is to interpret Psalm 141:3 as a plea for protection against uttering hurtful, foolish, or wicked words. Indeed, this would be a worthy petition! But closer examination of the context suggests that this passage is not referring to what comes out of my mouth; rather, it is referring to what goes into my mouth.

I Will Not Rest Until I Find a Place for the Lord

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May 28, 2020 by Steven Lulich

I will not enter my house or get into my bed,
I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids,
Until I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.
Psalm 132:3-5

I have a friend who grew up in a powerful Muslim family in the Middle East and came to Christ in college.  We lived just a few doors apart in our small residence hall, and I had a front-row seat for all of the events that led to her conversion, as well as the dramatic aftermath. I don’t recall how it was that she first came to be such good friends with so many Christians – maybe it was just because she was very outgoing, and, frankly, was friends with everyone.  In any event, there came a time when she suddenly needed to come to terms with the competing claims of Islam and Christianity.  It was a very intense time for her, and for those of us who formed her closest circle of friends.  She started asking a lot of questions, reading the Bible, comparing it with the Koran, asking more questions.  She had grabbed hold of something (she didn’t know what) and wasn’t about to let go until she had put the matter to rest.

In this way, my friend was like King David, who, according to the Psalmist, “swore to the Lord and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob, I will not enter my house or get into my bed, I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob” (Ps. 132:2-5).  In its immediate context, David was speaking of the temple, which he wanted to build for God in Jerusalem.  But God “does not live in temples made by man” (Acts 17:24); rather, “If anyone loves me [Jesus], he will keep my word, and my Father will love him, and we will come to him and make our home with him” (John 14:23).  At its root, David’s vow is about giving place to Jesus Christ within our hearts.

I will not rest until…  My friend didn’t realize at the time that the end of this sentence for her would be until I find a place for the Lord.  She couldn’t know the outcome ahead of time, she only knew the feeling of urgency, and the need to resolve her inner conflict.  And so she kept at it, just as David vowed to do.  Ironically, God told David “It is not you who will build me a house to dwell in” (1 Chr. 17:4).  In fact, God told David that “the Lord will build you a house” – a complete inversion!

As a matter of fact, it was not simply my friend who had grabbed hold of something (she knew not what), but it was God Himself who had taken hold of her (compare Paul’s comments in Philippians 3:8-12, especially v. 12).  We, her close Christian friends, saw where her seeking was leading, and we hoped and prayed.  My friend’s experience was like the Psalmist’s (with minor edits): “Behold, we heard of [Jesus Christ] in [our homeland], we found [Him] in the fields of [college]. Let us go to his dwelling place; let us worship at his footstool!” (Ps. 132:6-7).  Our experience as her friends was similar: “Arise, O Lord, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might.  Let [our friend] be clothed with righteousness, and let [us] shout for joy!” (Ps. 132:8-9).  We were not disappointed, and this friend has been a beloved sister in Christ for 20 years now!

Have you ever found yourself in a similar state of urgency?  Maybe that was the day when you yourself came to Christ.  Or maybe you decided you were too busy to deal with it at that time.  Let that time be now!  Or, perhaps you are the friend of someone who is experiencing this urgency.  Enter into that urgency with them!  Whether for yourself or for your friend, vow with David, “I will not enter my house or get into my bed, I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids, until I find a place for the Lord, a dwelling place for the Mighty One of Jacob.” And remember this hope:  “He who calls you is faithful; He will surely do it” (1 Thess. 5:24).

The House of the Lord

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May 27, 2020 by Tim O’Connor

“I was glad when they said to me, ‘Let us go to the house of the LORD!'” (Psa 122:1)

Do you yearn to re-join your brothers and sisters in communal worship of our Lord? The writer of Psalm 122 did, and he rejoiced when the opportunity came. For the people of Israel, worship had a physical focal point, the temple in Jerusalem. It was where its several “tribes go up…to praise the name of the LORD.” But that was a temporary symbol of the fullness to come. Jesus told the woman at the well of the fast-approaching hour “when neither on this mountain nor in Jerusalem will you worship the Father” (John 4:21). As Hebrews 12:22-24 later explained, Christians everywhere “have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem.” There is no longer a physical focal point or even geographical boundary to the proper worship of God. God’s people cover much of the planet, and it is not possible for us to physically join together even in one very large city!

Christ has dispersed us, in order that we might “make disciples of all nations” (Mt 28:19). But he does not send us out alone, as solitary witnesses. We are called to live together in small ecclesia, small-scale replica of the dispersed body of Christ, and our life together still is anchored (though not exhausted!) by our communal worship. And so the pandemic has been a confusing disruption of – in some ways an exile from – our communal Christian form of life. Hopefully, we will learn lessons from it, but we dare not get used to it (Heb 10:25). Like the psalmist, we should rejoice at the prospect of re-united worship. But what does our life together require now?

The psalmist exclaims, “Pray for the peace of Jerusalem!…For my brothers and companions’ sake I will say ‘Peace be within you!'” Sadly, the nation of Israel failed at this, leading Jesus to weep over the city, and did not know “the things that make for peace” (Luke 19:42). Over two millennia, the body of Christ as a whole or in its local ecclesia have often fallen into division. The present pandemic has not been equally endured, and so has the potential to divide us at ECC. Physical suffering has been mostly experienced by the elderly or infirm; psychological suffering by the extroverted and those who live alone; economic suffering by those whose jobs can’t be performed remotely, and who generally have less income and savings than those who can continue to work. We also differ, it turns out, quite a bit in our attitudes toward risk and physical safety, and this threatens to divide us over the very act of publicly worshipping together. Let us heed the psalmist’s call to pray for peace among us.

The psalm ends with “For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good.” The writer of Hebrews, having explained that worshippers everywhere are mystically united in a heavenly Jerusalem, goes on in Ch.13 to explain some of what seeking one another’s good (what he terms ‘brotherly love’) involves: practicing hospitality to strangers and remembering those of the faithful who are in prison or mistreated, “since you also are in the body.” And finally, to remember our leaders by imitating their faith and obeying and submitting to them. Let’s especially remember this last admonition. We are not a mere collection of individuals. We’re a body. Bodies are not shapeless blobs; they have ordered structure. Our pastors and elders have been keenly considering the needs of those entrusted to their care in a time of real challenge, knowing that they will have to give an account. (Heb 13:17). As they reflect and pray together and then make difficult decisions about the best path forward for us, given all the particulars of our situation, let our response be to pray for them in turn and to offer words of kindness and encouragement. As a descendant of Irish and Bohemian firebrands, that little word ‘obey’ does not easily pass my lips. God loves me, but He is not impressed. He calls me (and you) to humbly honor the role He has appointed ECC’s leaders to, despite his not having promised to give them infallible insight. If we do so out of reverence for Jesus, the great shepherd of us all, we may be confident that “the God of peace…will equip [us] with everything good that [we] may do his will” (13:20-21).

Divine Light

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May 26, 2020 by Bob Whitaker

“Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path.”  I will never forget the first time I experienced complete darkness.  As young boy my family took us to Mammoth Cave National Park.  We were guided through the cave by a seasoned ranger who at a particular spot announced to the group that the lights in the cave would be turned off.  He said to us, “”You may not have experienced darkness quite like this before.  When the lights go off, place your hand right up to your nose and try to see it.  Don’t worry we will turn the lights back on shortly but in the meantime do not move for any reason because you might stumble without the light.”  I don’t remember my age but I do remember my amazement.  Even in the middle of the night in my bedroom there was still a glow that allowed me to see things.  Yet the darkness deep inside Mammoth Cave created fear in my young heart – without light inside the cave we were all paralyzed.  Only a fool would have ignored the ranger’s advice and confidently walked ahead.

I suppose the ancients were more aware of deep darkness than we are today.  Bright street lamps, headlights and powerful flashlights were not part of their world.  Yet even in our experience we know the uncertainty of darkness without the light.  It would be silly and dangerous for any of us to make a trip without headlights.  Few of us would refuse a light to shine on our pathway at night.  The reason we appreciate the light is because we have understanding of the darkness.  We know the importance of light because we realize the danger of darkness.  We ask for a light because we recognize our inability to see clearly, and in this analogy we discover the spiritual truth of the Psalm.

It is only a person who realizes he is walking in darkness who asks for a light, and sometimes our enlightenment leads us to believe that we are not walking in darkness.  We feel no need for the light when seeing clearly, nor can we see clearly unless we have light.  The one who is convinced of his or her own wisdom is not likely to acknowledge a need for divine light.  Our human capacity to see and understand so much has fooled us into believing that we can see clearly without the aid of divine light.  The visible is compelling, the invisible is questionable.  The physical is obvious, the spiritual is mysterious.  Science seems infallible but spirituality is dubious. The only way to experience the light of divine wisdom is to admit that human wisdom is insufficient.  If we’re ever able to trust God it is only because we have realized that we can’t trust ourselves.  The pathway to divine wisdom passes through the cave of human darkness.  Lord, help us to acknowledge the limits of our human understanding, the darkness of our own sin so that we may experience the light of God.

How Firm a Foundation

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May 25, 2020 by Dan Waugh

Psalm 119:89, Your word, Lord, is eternal; it stands firm in the heavens.

Recently a friend from church asked me to read a book with him because it made him so angry. It’s a bad book, so bad that I have unfriended the person who asked me to read it. Friends don’t do that to one another!  

At one point, the author claims, “The Bible is not perfect. Parts of it are now obsolete. Surely you admit this.” No, I do not, and don’t call me Shirley. And, the Psalmist seems to take an entirely different view – “Your word, Lord, is eternal.”

All of God’s revelation indeed culminates in Jesus, the Word incarnate. While the author of Psalms had God’s commands and the written word in mind when he penned Psalm 119, it is true that God’s Word, Jesus, is the ultimate expression of the truths he is proclaiming.

It is not true, however, that since Jesus’ advent, the older parts of the Bible are obsolete. They lead us to Jesus, and they have done so. But we do not, should not at least, cut out the Old Testament now that Jesus has come. Doing so would be like saying we don’t need arithmetic now because we’re in Calculus 101. See how calculus works for you without arithmetic; see how well Jesus makes sense without the Old Testament. He isn’t just a miracle-working religious teacher; he is the fulfillment of promises God made to our first parents in the Garden, to Abraham as the Father of all who have faith, to Moses, to David, to Israel, and to us. We read the Old Testament in light of Jesus and the New, as well we should. But, we also read the New Testament and Jesus in light of the Old Testament,

Of course, some will say that we don’t apply the Old Testament to ourselves anymore. Now that Jesus has come, it is irrelevant. I’m afraid I have to disagree. In fact, I’ve preached sermons from Genesis, Exodus, Number, Deuteronomy, Psalms, the historical books, wisdom lit, and prophets, and I always have a section called “application.” True, we apply it to ourselves differently than the original people in the text did, but that is because we have changed (our context), not because God’s word has changed. For example, I buckle up when I’m driving because it’s the law. When I’m in the back seat of a car, I do not usually – the law doesn’t mandate that I do. The law didn’t change; my position did. 

Throughout the Bible, God progressively reveals himself to his people. We know more about God, shockingly, than Abraham or Moses did. In that way, our relationship with God is like any other relationship. I didn’t learn all about my wife on our first date. Certain truths wouldn’t have made sense if they hadn’t followed others. I learned that Lynn had two sisters, Lisa and LuAnn, before I learned about their husbands/boyfriends. The fact that I now know about George and Mont doesn’t negate the truth that Lynn has two sisters. Likewise, God didn’t reveal to Abraham or the people of Israel all the truths about him at once, but progressively through time, culminating in Jesus. Jesus’ arrival, however, does not make earlier revealed truths less true, only less ultimate. 

God’s word stands as a firm foundation. We can trust it; we can build our lives and venture our eternities on it. As the prophet Isaiah declares, “The grass withers and the flowers fall, but the word of our God endures forever.”