A Wineskin in the Smoke

Psalm 119: 81-88wineskin

Came across an interesting verse in my daily Scripture readings yesterday.  Psalm 119:83 – “Though I have become like a wineskin in the smoke,  I do not forget Your statutes.”  Not sure why I have never seen this verse before.  It is probably because it is buried among 176 similar sounding verses within the longest chapter in the Bible.

What did this expression mean and why did I feel like it describes me right now?  The surrounding context is a Psalmist that is facing hardship.  His soul is languishing for deliverance (v.81) and He asks God:  “When will you comfort me?” (v.82)  He then says he feels like a wineskin in the smoke.  Now in the culture of the day, wine was stored in animal skins.  These skins if stored indoors with a fire present would become dry, then blackened and eventually would crack and become useless.  Good word picture, huh?

In the midst of feeling as used up and worthless as a discarded beverage container, he adds:  “I do not forget Your statutes.”   God’s word alone is the balm he needs for his wounds.  He might feel forsaken by man, but the Word says God has not forsaken him… and he is banking his life on it.

Sometimes, a word of Scripture can help when nothing else will do.  N. T. Wright remarks:

“Some parts of the Bible are best drunk like a large glass of water on a hot day—in other words, large quantities at a time—while others, such as many parts of the letters, are best sipped and savored, drop by drop… (always remembering that, especially in a letter, every verse means what it means in relation to the whole thing, not on its own.  But the point is that reading the Bible is habit-forming:  not just in the sense that the more you do it the more likely to want to do it, but also in the sense that the more you do it the more it will form habits of mind and heart, of soul and body, which will slowly but surely form your character into the likeness of Jesus Christ.”  (After You Believe, p. 262.)

Barely holding it together?  Too weary, you think, to turn to the Bible?  His Word is a lamp (v.105) and it can provide you the light of hope you need… even in the midst of the smoke.

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Hold That Note!

Hit That High Note1 Peter 4: 10-11

As each one has received a special gift, employ it in serving one another as good stewards of the manifold grace of God. Whoever speaks, is to do so as one who is speaking the utterances of God; whoever serves is to do so as one who is serving by the strength which God supplies; so that in all things God may be glorified through Jesus Christ, to whom belongs the glory and dominion forever and ever. Amen.

I don’t believe I’ve ever shared this on my blog, but I love Oldies.  I listen to the 60’s on 6 more than any other channel on Sirius/XM and have over a thousand songs on my Ipod from the 60’s and 70’s.  (I’m listening to Fats Domino‘s “I Want to Walk You Home” as I type this.)  Many of my friends also know that my specialty is quirky stories about these songs.  I hope some day to start a blog called NOTABLES to feature some of these stories.

Here is one today from Tom Jones‘ Discography.  In 1965 Tom Jones began his career with his first big hit, “it’s Not Unusual.”  It went to #1 in England and reached #10 here in the U.S.  He was new and successful so he was asked to sing for the new James Bond movie, Thunderball.  He sang the title cut.  The end of the song features a note that is very high and sustained.  He delivered it all right, but passed out in the recording booth afterward.  Asked about that monster note in a later interview he said:  “I closed my eyes and I held the note for so long when I opened my eyes the room was spinning.”

That is dedication!  To hit and sustain the notes God is calling us to sing in the chorus of life also requires such dedication.  Peter says that we have each been given a gift.  We are to be good stewards of that gift.  In my analogy, we have all been given a voice and we are each called to keep that voice in tip top shape.  Then Peter reminds those that have speaking gifts to speak as though they were speaking “the utterances of God.”  Sloppy or ill prepared oratory isn’t going to cut it.  Peter then reminds those that have serving gifts, to serve as though God were powering their efforts.  A half-hearted sense of duty will not sustain you.  Why not just go ahead and hit that (grace) note of yours and then sustain it!  Put everything into it.  Give it your all!

Maybe you have be doing your particular ministry in your church for a while now.  Maybe you have it down cold.  You don’t have to put as much effort into it as you did when you started.  It practically runs like it’s on autopilot.  Do some evaluation this year.  It might not be on autopilot… it could be on life support!  Stretch yourself and your faith.  Go for that note!  Sing it with all the strength that God supplies you.

Enough said…. I Gotta go…. The Classics IV are now singing “Traces.”  Love that song!

Here Comes the Nominating Committee… Everybody Run!

people running away1 Corinthians 12:4-7

It’s that time of year again for most churches.  The fine members of the local church Nominating Committee are making their rounds.  They are phoning folks, flagging members down in the church parking lot, sending out letters to inform the church about open positions, and are trying to catch your eye across the crowded worship center on Sunday morning.  They have a huge task before them:  to answer the question… “Who is going to serve this church in 2014?”

For those not skilled in the art of nominating committee dodging, (you have to be a Christian a while to get really good at it) you have to come up with a suitable answer when asked… an answer that doesn’t use the word “no” but communicates it just the same.  A favorite answer is:  “I will pray about it.”

Now,  I wonder what it is they are praying about.  If it is for them to make an informed decision about where to serve…  to teach a class or become a youth sponsor or serve as an usher,… then that is fine.  What I hope they don’t mean is whether or not they should serve at all.

The Bible is already clear on this:  Every member is to be a minister.  Paul writes to the Corinthians:  Now there are varieties of gifts, but the same Spirit.  And there are varieties of ministries, and the same Lord. There are varieties of effects, but the same God who works all things in all persons.  But to each one is given the manifestation of the Spirit for the common good.”

Paul is saying, “Sure we aren’t all gifted in the same way, sure not every ministry is going to be our cup of tea, and yes, some ministries have greater impact than others… I will give you all of that.  But EACH ONE of you have been given a gift!  And note that the gift is for the “common good.”

The “common good” requires everyone to contribute.  If we don’t all chip in for the pizza… somebody will be left holding a hefty bill.  (This has happened to me… I have been a youth minister.)  If we don’t all bring our instruments to the recital… Beethoven‘s 5th is going to sound pretty awful instead of pretty awesome.    If we don’t all bring something to the potluck… not everybody is going to get fed!

I had a lady in a former church that came to the pot luck without a covered dish.  Nobody was going to say anything to her, but she offered this excuse anyway:  “I was going to make a fruit salad, but God told me not to.”  Really?  God wanted there to be less food at the fellowship meal?  The logic here escapes me.  But this is the same logic for believers that won’t minister because they need to “pray about it.”  Whatever your reason for a ministry vacation (time off for yourself… the desire to draw closer to family… to spend more time with God… etc.), know that the Bible is clear… the common good outweighs the good of the individual.  God has called you to a family!

Do something for me this Sunday.  When you see that Nominating Committee member in the Sanctuary… approach them and ask:  “Where can I best serve in 2014?”  You just might be the fruit salad they are looking for.

Did I Forget to Pay?

guest checkRomans 13:8

Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another…”

In my minds eye I picture a grand luncheon.  Not a modest meal but one that is three courses long and definitely not fast food.  The meal was impeccable, the waitress polite, my company delightful… I leave the restaurant with a spring in my step.  “Thank you God for good times with great friends,” I utter.  I am still paying homage in my mind to the cherry cheesecake and the french amaretto coffee as I head down the interstate to get back to my job site.  And then it hits me… “Did I forget to pay?”  I try to keep one hand on the wheel as I check my wallet.  I groan as I look inside to see the $50 I left the house with still in my billfold.

I imagine for a moment the restaurant manager reading the glowing compliments I paid him and his establishment on the comment card I had filled out.  He is probably not at all interested in my praise.  I may have offered superb lip service… I just didn’t pay my bill!

I wonder how many times in life that I have left a personal encounter with someone and not paid them my debt.  What debt?  The debt of love I owe them through Jesus Christ   Paul wrote:  “Owe nothing to anyone except to love one another…”

The context of this verse, strangely enough, is paying taxes.  Paul says in the verse just before it:  “Render to all what is due them: tax to whom tax is due; custom to whom custom; fear to whom fear; honor to whom honor.” (Romans 13:7) Paul means:  “If somebody is due something, pay up!  But remember, that when it comes to love, we are ALL debtors.

There was a concept popular a few years ago, that you still hear now and again, called:   “paying it forward.”  Someone does an act of goodness to you and instead of “paying them back” you offer the same gift of love to the next person you encounter.

This is a Biblical concept.  Ephesians 5:1-2 says:  “Be imitators of God, therefore, as dearly loved children and live a life of love, just as Christ loved us and gave himself up for us as a fragrant offering and sacrifice to God.”  We are God’s children and enjoy everyday His joy, presence and love.  To go through life at break neck speed, never looking out for our neighbor… never sharing freely the love of God we freely received, is the worst kind of ingratitude.  You are forever indebted to Jesus.  He wants you to pay this debt forward by loving those around you.  Just don’t forget to pay!

Mike Mason once wrote:  “… we are pinched and stingy with our love.  We treat love like money, as if there’s never enough to go around, and so we draw our heartstrings tighter than our purse strings.  How can we grasp that we are dealing with an inexhaustible currency?” (Practicing the Presence of People, p.58.)

Start small.  Smile at the waitress.  Discretely buy a serviceman’s meal.  Strike up a conversation with that frazzled mom or dad in the check out line. And know that life is more than accomplishing goals, accumulating things and enjoying ourselves.  It is also about paying the debt of love we owe to our fellow human beings.  Pay up!  And remember God in Christ has already picked up your tab!

Clinging to God

small-hand-in-large-handPsalm 63: 6-11

“On my bed I remember you;  I think of you through the watches of the night.  Because you are my help, I sing in the shadow of your wings.  My soul clings to you;  your right hand upholds me.” (63: 6-8, emphasis mine)

Have you noticed how everything seems worse at night?  You might have bobbed above an ocean of despair all day long, only to drown in it when you head hits the pillow that night.  David had a lot to think about when he laid down to sleep.  Absalom… his own son… was also his enemy.  He was seeking to kill him.  That should be enough to keep anyone up all night.   But it doesn’t require physical threat to rob us of our ZZZ’s.   Our emotional pain and our other problems as well flare up at night like a spiking fever.

And yet, I have found comfort in David’s words here.  He concludes this Psalm with faithful trust in a loving God.  You see, David took advantage of these nighttime moments to focus on God.
“I meditate on Thee in the night watch.”  The term meditate here means to “muse or ponder.”   What do we usually meditate on in the night?  We usually wear out our minds chasing down the day’s injustices, like:   “How could they have said that about me?”  “How could life be so unfair?.” and  “How will my family survive my layoff?”  Fair questions… but the lack of attainable answers (you’re in bed remember?) will leave your mind racing all night.

For David, God was all he desired and all that would satisfy Him (v.5).  That is why He gave his all to God even in the night.  When God is all that you desire, you let Him sort things out. (vv. 9-11)

Remember these thoughts from saints of yesteryear:

“I cannot read; I cannot think; I cannot even pray; but I can trust.”  –  J. Hudson Taylor suffering mental and physical breakdown upon hearing that 58 of his missionaries and 21 children in China were massacred.  (Pray Magazine, Mar/Apr 2008, p. 22.)

When you can’t trace His hand you can trust His heart.  –   Charles Spurgeon  (Quoted by Robert J. Morgan in The Promise, p. 53.

I know it is hard.  I’ve had those nights… still having them.  But in the battle surrender to trust.  CLING TO GOD as though He were your only protection.  In the end… He is indeed all we need.

A Feast in the Wilderness

Psalm 63:2-5feast

Thus I have seen You in the sanctuary,
To see Your power and Your glory.
Because Your lovingkindness is better than life,
My lips will praise You.
So I will bless You as long as I live;
I will lift up my hands in Your name.
My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness,
And my mouth offers praises with joyful lips.

I listened to pastor Tommy Nelson recently tell about one of his favorite baptism.  He was baptizing a man who came up out of the water sputtering and spitting out water.  When he asked him what happened the man responded:  “I wanted to all of me to be baptized, so I thought I should make sure you got my tongue as well.”

In the portion of Psalm 63 today, David gets his whole body in the act.  He wants his eyes to see God.  He wants his lips to praise God.  He wants his hands to lift in prayer.  He wants his teeth to sink into God and find his soul satisfied.

Think about the last GREAT meal you have had.  One that lives in my memory was from a church member in Cloverdale, CA.  Gloria Owen prepared for us one evening: Blue Cheese Ravioli’s, Nut Encrusted Goat Cheese on a bed of Romaine Lettuce and Blue Cheese Dressing.  Chicken breast stuffed with Roasted Red Peppers… with Scallops.  Chocolate Souffle with a truffle inside topped with Homemade Carmel Sauce.  (I can only say with Grandpa Jones of yesteryear:  Yum!  Yum!)

What is the mark of a good meal?  Satisfaction!  David says in 63:5 – “My soul is satisfied as with marrow and fatness.”  The NIV translates that last part… “with the richest of foods.”  That is a health conscious translation to say the least.  Marrow and fatness… the good stuff… that is what communion with God is like.

The question, though, is not whether or not God will satisfy our souls.  The question is how engaged we are in pursuing him.  Do we, like David, get our whole body into the act.  Do we seek him in our place of worship? (v. 2)  Do we praise him throughout the day with our lips, even when we are in the desert?  (v. 3)

A. W. TozerA. W. Tozer once wrote:

“I want deliberately to encourage this mighty longing after God. The lack of it has brought us to our present low estate. The stiff and wooden quality about our religious lives is a result of our lack of holy desire. Complacency is a deadly foe of all spiritual growth. Acute desire must be present or there will be no manifestation of Christ to His people. He waits to be wanted. Too bad that with many of us He waits so long, so very long in vain.”

When your soul is dry and you are in a weary land.  It is then that we learn to desire God all the more (v. 1).  And when we seek God will all our hearts… it is there that God provides a feast.  Remember the words of Jesus:  “God is spirit and those who worship Him must worship in spirit and truth.”

Throw yourself into a little worship today!  Let that Ipod blare some Chris Tomlin!  Sing at the top of your lungs to some old hymns!  Ashamedly worship in prayer and with tears and joy… alone or in the sanctuary.  Want Him with all of your being.  Pursue Him with all that you are!  There is a feast waiting… enjoy your God!

Desperate for God

desertPsalm 63:1

A psalm of David, When he was in the desert of Judah.

“You, God, are my God, earnestly I seek you; I thirst for you, my whole being longs for you, in a dry and parched land where there is no water.”

It is 2 a.m. and you are awakened by your cellphone, dancing and playing its merry little tune on your nightstand.  Sleepy eyed you reach over.  It is not like you were sleeping well anyway.

Answering it you hear the frantic plea of a dear friend:  “Get up and get out immediately!  Your son is on the way and he’s bringing his gang banger friends with him.  He’s going to kill you!  That kid of yours has murder in his eyes!”

His words startle you awake.  You jump up and grab your car keys.  You tear out of your drive way in your Lexus with just the clothes on your back.  2 hours later you pull into a freeway rest stop… and attempt to collect yourself.  At a lonely picnic table, you ask yourself:  “How did it all come to this?”

You knew your son was capable… he had already murdered his half-brother.  He killed him to avenge the rape of his sister.  It was such a difficult and twisted time.  You haven’t spoken to that blood thirsty kid since.  But your silence has done nothing but fuel your son’s animosity.  Now he is after your head!

“How did things come to this?”  you utter again holding your head in your hands… and then… you remember… it was you.  It was you that started this whole drama in your family… when you had that affair 2 years ago.  You began a slide in morality that is now an avalanche of sorrow.  Where do you go from here?  Where can you turn for help and relief?

(this intro is based on an introduction from A. T. Stewart in his sermon, “Finding God in Your Devastation” on sermoncentral.com)

What I just shared with you is not an episode of “Without a Trace” or “Law and Order,”  but is a day in the life of King David which is the background of Psalm 63.   This Psalm has a title:  A Psalm of David when he was in the Desert of Judah.

The son in question is Absalom, who had killed his half-brother, and then wooed the hearts of the nation of Israel before taking David’s throne in a coup.  Now he was seeking David’s head on a platter.  This is why David in the wilderness.

It is from this desert setting that David cries out:

O God, you are my God,

earnestly I seek you;

my soul thirsts for you,

my body longs for you,

in a dry and weary land

where there is no water.

This reminds me of a hiking trip I took with the men of our church at Lake Sonoma.  It was the first overnight journey I had ever under taken and I wasn’t prepared for how hungry and thirsty I would be.  I was so thirsty.  I never had to rely so much on a water bottle before.  And I couldn’t even imagine hiking like that in the summer heat without streams to keep my bottle filled.  The amount of water you would have to carry for such a journey without the possibility of refilling would have been far too heavy a burden.

Well David didn’t get to choose his hike.  He was forced out into the wilderness.  A stream for him would have been a life saving find.

So he says:  In a dry and weary land where there is no water, I thirst for….  GOD(?)  One would think that David would say… well, water!  But during a time of trial, the thing we think we need the most… a healing, a check in the mail, a restored relationship… often takes a back seat… to a swelling need within our hearts… for God Himself.

David longs for God just as his flesh longs for water.

Often we wonder why we don’t find more satisfaction in our religious activities.  Howard Hendricks once wrote:  “Much of our religious activity today is nothing more than a cheap anesthetic to deaden the pain of an empty life!”

We aren’t satisfied because often we are terrified of the desert.  And the desert is where we feel our need for God the most.

When things come our way that we don’t understand we have more than a curiosity about God.  We have more than a desire to go to church to see our friends.  Bible reading becomes more than just a duty… it becomes a life line.

WE WANT GOD!   Nothing else will quench our thirst.

Hear the words of C. S. Lewis:   “God designed the human machine to run on Himself. He Himself is the fuel our spirits were designed to burn, or the food our spirits were designed to feed on. There is no other. That is why it is just no good asking God to make us happy in our own way without bothering about religion. God cannot give us a happiness and peace apart from Himself, because it is not there. There is no such thing.” (Mere Christianity)

Are you in the desert?  Through your own doing or the perhaps the sin of another?  Seek God as you would seek water!  He alone can sustain you there.

[more on Psalm 63 in blogs to follow]