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3 Helpful Doors into the 91st Psalm

A “fowler” trapped birds.

The 91st Psalm was our family’s go-to prayer during emergencies –like when a tornado funnel whirled dangerously close to our living room window in Oklahoma.  It’s one of the three Psalms my Mom had us memorize and pray before going to sleep—something I was incredibly grateful for as the years went by and new emergencies arose.

In World War I, many of the troopers recited Ps. 91 daily, earning its moniker as “The Soldier’s Psalm”.  Some claim the Commander of the Army’s 91st Brigade even had the Psalm printed on a small card for his men, asking them to pray with it daily.   They must have felt particularly close to it given the name of their Division.

Here are three ‘doors’ for understanding it more, which I hope you also find helpful:

1–Context. One of the most valuable lessons I’ve learned studying different Biblical texts is to look at their context:  what precedes and follows them.  It turns out that Ps. 90-92 are a unit, all written while Israel was in Exile, yearning for their homeland, embedded with a foreign culture, language, and religion.

Psalm 90 is the opening of Book IV of the Psalter (which has five books total) and includes Psalms 90 – 106.  While the previous Book III is full of laments over Jerusalem’s fall and the Exile, Book IV’s tone changes significantly.  It takes us back to the time of Moses since Ps. 90 is the only Psalm attributed to the great Hebrew lawgiver.  We’re reminded of the Wilderness period before there was a Temple, land or king.  It was just the people and their God, which reminds us that even in the most desolate, abandoned situation, God is in charge and reigns.  What hope this must have given the Children of Israel.

While it’s not possible that Moses actually wrote this Psalm (formed after the Exodus period), the anonymous author clearly wants to remind us that in God we find our home.  Its opening declares unequivocally:  ‘Lord, you have been our dwelling place in all generations.” (Ps 90:1).  How life-saving must have been their growing realization that home wasn’t a physical place but the presence and power of the eternal God.

The English hymn writer, Isaac Watts (1674-1748) captured this in his loved Christian hymn (of the 750 he wrote!):

“O God, our help in ages past,

Our hope for years to come,

Our shelter from the stormy blast,

And our eternal home.”  (emphasis added)

2 – Response.  And that brings us to Psalm 91 which is a response to the petitions of Psalm 90.   Three examples:

  • 90:14 petitions: “Satisfy us in the morning with your steadfast love”

Ps. 91:5 answers: “You shall not be afraid of the terror by night nor of the arrow that flies by day.”

  • 90:16 invokes: “Let your work be manifest to your servants.”

Ps. 91:14 replies: “Because he has set his love upon Me, therefore I will deliver him.”

  • 90:17 entreats: “Let the favor of the Lord our God be upon us.”

Ps. 91:3 responds: “Surely He shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler…”.

I love that these two Psalms have this meaningful ‘conversation’ of entreaty and response because it mirrors our own prayers when in need.  Petition, then declaration.  This one-two divine punch destroys fear and lifts us to the astounding reality that God is right here, present, loving us.   Wow.

3- Structure.  It’s also helpful to know what the author intended by seeing how a text naturally divides.  Psalm 91 separates into three sections:

  • Verses 1 – 2 are addressed to a believer who already understands the security the Lord provides.
  • Verses 3 – 13 is the body of the Psalm offering instruction about the Lord and describing how free and secure life is when we know God. A fowler was one who trapped birds ( 124:7) and can be easily understood as a metaphor whenever we feel trapped by something or someone. The Psalm promises:  “Surely he shall deliver you from the snare of the fowler” (Ps. 91:7)
  • Verses 14 – 16 are the triumphant climax when God speaks directly. And surely it is the benediction to our lives.

“Those who love me, I will deliver;
I will protect those who know my name.
     When they call to me, I will answer them;
I will be with them in trouble,
I will rescue them and honor them.
    With long life I will satisfy them,
and show them my salvation.

Please share your experiences with this Psalm of Psalms!

 

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“Want ad for an Apostle…” 

The Apostle Paul, from a 4th-century cave painting in Ephesus, Turkey.

If God ever wrote a want ad, looking for an apostle, maybe it would include some of the qualifications below.  That may seem like a silly idea, but it was a way to begin to appreciate the remarkable career of someone who changed the course of Christianity forever.  I hope you enjoy reading this as much as I enjoyed writing it years ago when I began to realize just what one person had accomplished and the extraordinary qualifications he brought to the work.   Many have requested this after hearing it in talks, so I hope you enjoy.    “The harvest is plentiful, but the laborers are few…” (Matt. 9: 37).  Indeed!

  • Must have a practical trade whereby he can support himself and not be obligated to those he serves.
  • Must be able to relate to and interact with all classes and types of people, from philosophers (Mars Hill) to tradesmen (Ephesus silversmiths and tentmakers), to politicians, government officials, women, wealthy, poor and slaves.
  • Must have an ability and willingness for public speaking (including to crowds who don’t like the message) in an articulate, thoughtful, persuasive and heartfelt way.
  • Must have a working knowledge of Hebrew and know the Scriptures about Me collected by my people, Israel, as well as understand the culture of the Temple and synagogue in which they worship.
  • Must be able to speak and write Greek, the language that the educated Gentile world uses and understands.
  • Must have demonstrated the ability to work in My vineyard, study My Law, be obedient to My teachings as best they understand them.
  • Must be freeborn and have a passport, i.e. Roman citizenship, in order to move freely throughout My world,
  • Must have significant spiritual receptivity, conviction, courage, and trust in Me, not himself or his own intellect or willpower.
  • Must have enormous nurturing abilities to express patience, tenderness, and care for those who don’t always get it, who backslide, who need course correcting.
  • Must have enough life experience that he isn’t fooled by the ways of the tempter, and is able to discern between My voice and that of the carnal mind
  • Must have the faith and courage to hear My voice in the darkest hours, such as in prison, and to consistently stand against envy, ignorance, greed, and hatred.
  • Must be on fire with the clarity and truth of the message I will provide along with indefatigable energy to walk, sail, or ride thousands of miles over three decades.

In short,  ‘I’m looking for Saul of Tarsus who I will transform into Paul.’

 

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Six Reasons to Celebrate Jesus’ Birth

While answers to this question might appear so obvious that it doesn’t bear asking, I invite you to pause this Christmas Eve and actually write down your own answers.  They probably won’t match anyone else’s list and that’s just fine.  What this simple exercise does is bring the life of Jesus of Nazareth, whose birth over 3 billion people celebrate this Christmas season, into our hearts a bit more.

So as we close another year, it is a joy to share with you, my much-appreciated BibleRoads friends, some of my reasons and hope you will share yours in the comments section below.

  • First, I celebrate that God loved His/Her creation enough to send the son who would not be fooled by what his senses told him was ‘real’ – leprosy, deafness, blindness, etc. His example in busting through compelling physical evidence remains an astonishing example to follow.  And where would we be without it?

 

  • Next, I celebrate Joseph, who had the humility to stay on the marriage track with Mary, since he was legally within his rights to have her stoned for a pregnancy that could only be explained through the ‘overshadowing’ of the Holy Ghost.

 

  • Mary is almost beyond comprehension as a teen whose spiritual-mindedness was so developed that she was receptive to the angel’s extraordinary message. She is a model of listening on tiptoe and then being obedient, regardless of how much the message stretches us or goes against popular custom and others’ opinions.

 

Far left end, lower register of the Dogmatic Sarcophagus (before mid-4th cent.): The Adoration of the Magi

  • The Wise Men are particularly appreciated this season since they symbolize the universal appeal of Christ, the divinity of Jesus’ nature. With today’s technology, we increasingly learn just how interconnected our little global village actually is.  I appreciate these insights from a sermon given around 440 CE:

How did it come to be that these men, who left their home country without having seen Jesus, and had not noticed anything in his appearance to enforce such  systematic adoration, offered these particular gifts?  It  was the  star that attracted their eyes, but the rays of truth also penetrated their hearts, so that before they  started on their toilsome journey, they first understood that the One who was promised was owed gold as royalty,  incense as divinity, and myrrh as mortal…and so it was of great advantage to us future people that this infant should be witnessed by these wise men.1

  • The Shepherds are a lesson in preparation. The qualities their profession demanded – to see that those in their care found enough food and water, that they were well-guarded from wolves or thieves who would carry them off, that the animals wouldn’t be overdriven, that the young ones sometimes needed to be carried, not pushed, counting each animal at night as they passed under their hand – were the very attributes they would eventually recognize in the leadership of Jesus over Israel, willing to die for those in his ‘flock’.

 

  • And finally, the foiling of Herod the Great’s scheme to kill off the Christ child before his life’s purpose could be fulfilled. I sometimes forget that the Wise Men journeyed first to Jerusalem and there had that encounter with Herod who thought to use them for his own malevolent purposes. As someone threatened by anything or anyone that would encroach on his power, upend his authority, overturn his sense of reality, Herod is a reverse model for all that we want to rule out of our lives and actions:  jealousy, scheming, deception, and the draining ambition of personal power.  The Magi’s ‘wisdom’ was never more in evidence than when they wisely did not inform Herod of the child’s location and instead returned to their homes, content to have seen him.

This list is far from complete.  Please share what makes you pause this Christmas season in gratitude for all that the Master Christian’s birth means to you.

[1]Sermon by Pope Leo, quoted in “The Magi in Literature”, Robin Jensen, Bible Review, Dec. 2001, Vol. 17, #06.

 

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What Mark’s Gospel Can Teach Us – Announcing new in-depth Study Opportunity!

Saint Mark the Evangelist, Guido Reni (1575-1642)

While national characteristics can be exaggerated (i.e. ‘all Italians talk with their hands’), the description of Americans as a people of action is born out in hundreds of examples.  And that’s one reason why the Gospel of Mark might have special appeal to anyone with a proclivity toward action.

Mark is the Gospel that most depicts Jesus on the move–‘immediately’ on the other side of the lake, ‘immediately’ discerning his critics’ innermost thoughts, ‘immediately’ healing a fever.  It also depicts a relentless progression of narrative and events that climax in the Master Christian’s crucifixion and resurrection.

With its lack of an infancy story, and compression of Jesus’ ministry into a single year, Marks gospel  is the shortest of the Canon’s four (including Matthew, Luke and John).   Yet scholars think it is chock full of eyewitness accounts, conveyed from Peter to his traveling companion, John Mark, who most consider its author.  Mark’s focus on Jesus’ identity, explored through numerous characters, makes us ask if we understand his identity as well–who he is in relation to the cross, to the Messiahship, to his ultimate role as the mediator between God and humankind (I Tim. 2:5).   The Gospel has much to say about discipleship and one’s faith, causing the reader to ask tough and candid questions about one’s own followership.

These are a few of the many reasons we have chosen it for our annual in-depth study at Cedars’ Camps, October 11-15th, 2018.  Enrollment has recently opened and we hope you’ll consider giving yourself the luxury of four days to go deeply into one of the New Testament’s most descriptive books about Christ Jesus.   Please don’t wait too long as this program sells out.

Join us to explore more deeply Jesus’ ministry and how each chapter of Mark’s Gospel builds on the last.  A workbook with questions per chapter will be available to participants and afterwards through BibleRoads.   All of this study is approached not simply as an academic exploration, but a way to mine new depths of the Gospel’s message to your daily life today.  We hope you can join us in this beautiful Fall location in the Ozark’s.

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Revelation’s Other View of Christ: Incompatible or Inclusive?

From pastoral shepherd caring for his flock to mighty warrior bent on destruction — here are two New Testament views of Christ so opposite that, on first glance, they seem incompatible.  The Gospels and the book of Revelation give both.  Why?

Jesus as both Good Shepherd and the Lamb of God.

One of the favorite tourist treasures from a trip to Jerusalem is visiting a shop where wood carvers create all size figurines of Jesus with a lamb over his shoulder.  Carved from local cedar, it epitomizes the Jesus we come to know as children first exposed to the Gospel story.  Here is the ‘good shepherd’, one of the ‘seven ‘I AM’ statements of powerful self-identification in John’s Gospel.  “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11).  And here also is the symbol of Jesus as the Lamb of God, evident throughout the Scriptures.

The good Shepherd portrays the pastoring care-giver that loves little children; heals the leper, the deaf and the blind; patiently nurtures his disciples’ faith and understanding; calmly masters storms; teaches unadorned parables that convey profound lessons; defuses angry crowds by raising their self-awareness, staving off a stoning of an adulterous woman—all through his spiritual equanimity and poise.  Each of the four Gospels provide varying stories of these events, reinforcing an image of Christ Jesus that comforts and nurtures our own spiritual growth today.

And then there is Revelation.  This last book of the New Testament has confounded readers for centuries, providing the greatest variety of interpretations, frightening some and for others, providing justification for coming Armageddon’s.  But what is consistent throughout is a view of Christ as warrior that can provide significant insight.

To get to this view, Revelation first shows it is the critical second part of the Bible’s Alpha and Omega of books.  Just as Genesis is the ‘alpha’ and  introduces a spiritual view of man in Chapter 1 (“And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness” (Gen. 1:26), so Revelation is the ‘omega’ story of the need to defend that understanding.  What a perfect way to end the New Testament record, based on Christ Jesus’ numerous proofs of man in God’s image.

Crypt of the Romanesque 10th century chapel, Gargilesse, France.

So where does the warrior image of Christ come in?  After the Lamb is initially introduced, in John’s first vision when taken to heaven.  Here we learn that this Lamb figure is the crucified and resurrected Christ, alone worthy to open the seven-sealed scroll that will reveal the machinations of evil.   “Do not weep. See, the Lion of the tribe of Judah, the Root of David, has conquered, so that he can open the scroll and its seven seals”  (Rev. 5:5).     

Here is our first hint of the conquering Christ who prevails throughout the rest of the book, destroying all the ways that evil tries to deceive, terrorize and undermine humanity.

One of the joys of researching and sharing Biblical books like Revelation is seeing the varied styles of art through centuries that capture the ideas Revelation conveys.  One example is this depiction from the 10th century Crypt of the Romanesque chapel, Gargilesse, in one of France’s most beautiful villages in the Loire Valley.  Christians cared enough about this image of Christ, destroying evil’s obnoxious efforts to undermine, to create this fresco and worship here through the centuries.

(In addition to the crypt, artists depicted other treasures of Revelation, such as Capitals of the twenty-four elders of the Apocalypse—so meaningful was this final Biblical book to their own spiritual journey.)

Christ as warrior with the sword in his mouth is an image throughout Revelation, from the first chapter to almost the last.  “In his right hand he held seven stars, and from his mouth came a sharp, two-edged sword, and his face was like the sun shining with full force (Rev. 1:16).

And “…The rest were killed by the sword of the rider on the horse, the sword that came from his mouth…” (Rev. 19:21), with the ‘rider’ again being the Christ figure.

What a lesson to Christians today, to express both the pastoring and warrior qualities of Christ.   Here is the demand to both love and patiently nurture ourselves and others, as well as be ever-vigilant to fight and destroy evil’s aggressive efforts to make one forget who he or she really is, as Genesis and Revelation remind us in their Alpha and Omega roles.

 

 

 

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