Songs of Gratitude

 Gratitude

Let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, since as members of one body you were called to peace. And be
thankful.  Let the message of Christ dwell among you richly as you teach and admonish one another with all wisdom
through psalms, hymns, and songs from the Spirit, singing to God with gratitude in your hearts.   And whatever you
do, whether in word or deed, do it all in the name of the Lord Jesus, giving thanks to God the Father through him.

Colossians 3:15-17

I struggle with my thoughts. I have all my life.   Sometimes, the obsessive and repetitive nature of them torment me.   This week I’m fighting for peace.

I think the apostle Paul was on to something, when he prescribed songs of gratitude as a pathway to peace. The tunes and words for songs occupy a different neural pathway in the brain; they form a loop stronger than thoughts alone. For me, music also gives voice to the deepest recesses of the heart.   A song of thanksgiving can quite literally turn my thoughts around, and usher in the calming presence of God that dwells deep within me.  His grace is always sufficient.

Before we consider the heavy subject matter of Matthew 18 next week, may we allow this week to be one of gratitude.   Let’s flood our brain with the synaptic connections of thankfulness.   As we approach a set aside day of Thanksgiving, may we let the peace of Christ rule in our hearts! We can make the choice to let his message dwell among us, as we encourage one another with song. Here’s one of my favorites…

A Pause to Lament

lament

I attended a grief seminar this weekend.  Sounds fun, right?  Actually it was and it wasn’t.  It brought to the surface a loss in my life.  It gave me permission to grieve that loss in a corporate setting. It affirmed a basic need, as individuals and as the church, to lament.  God used the speaker to challenge myths in my thinking and to address the regrets and the resentments that have weighed me down for a very long time.   Ultimately it put me on a path to hope.

Thinking on the senseless loss of life this weekend in Paris and Beruit, I think we could use some hope!  Jesus knows how we feel.  He too was killed by “terrorists,” people enslaved by their “religion”, anxious to kill the one who “threatened” their God.  Even though he had come to this earth to endure such a sacrifice, to lay down his life for our sakes, he still felt the senseless injustice, the shock of betrayal and loss, the agony of pain, and the great spiritual anguish of separation from his Father. 

Jesus gave us a wonderful example to follow, crying out to the Father from two different lament songs of the Jews.  They came from the Jewish hymn book, the book of Psalms, words set to tunes, implanted in the memory banks of the brain, as a means to worship and appeal to a faithful God.  I imagine that in his greatest suffering, unable to put many coherent thoughts together, Jesus recalled the words of these songs, giving voice to his deepest emotions.

Consider some of the words from Psalm 22:

1My God, my God, why have you forsaken me? Why are you so far from saving me, so far from my cries of anguish?
2 My God, I cry out by day, but you do not answer, by night, but I find no rest.[b]…
6 But I am a worm and not a man, scorned by everyone, despised by the people.  7 All who see me mock me; they hurl insults, shaking their heads.
8 “He trusts in the Lord,” they say, “let the Lord rescue him…
15 My mouth[d] is dried up like a potsherd, and my tongue sticks to the roof of my mouth; you lay me in the dust of death.
16 Dogs surround me, a pack of villains encircles methey pierce[e] my hands and my feet.
17 All my bones are on display; people stare and gloat over me.  18 They divide my clothes among them and cast lots for my garment.
19 But you, Lord, do not be far from me.  You are my strength; come quickly to help me.  20 Deliver me from the sword, my precious life from the power of the dogs.

Matthew captured and transmitted all these emotions to his readers when he recalled Jesus’ words on the cross in Matthew 27:46…

46 About three in the afternoon Jesus cried out in a loud voice, “Eli, Eli, lema sabachthani?” (which means “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”).

Again, consider some of the words of the lament in Psalm 31:

3 Since you are my rock and my fortress, for the sake of your name lead and guide me.
4 Keep me free from the trap that is set for me, for you are my refuge.
5 Into your hands I commit my spiritdeliver me, Lord, my faithful God…
11 Because of all my enemies, I am the utter contempt of my neighbor and an object of dread to my closest friends—those who see me on the street flee from me.
12 I am forgotten as though I were dead; I have become like broken pottery.
13 For I hear many whispering, “Terror on every side!”  They conspire against me and plot to take my life.
14 But I trust in you, Lord; I say, “You are my God.”  15 My times are in your hands; deliver me from the hands of my enemies, from those who pursue me.
16 Let your face shine on your servant; save me in your unfailing love.

Thought to be a common bedtime song for young Jewish boys, this song may have been a source of comfort and a means to praise in Jesus’ deepest agony.  Luke captured this sentiment and the depth of the entire lament, when he recorded Jesus’ last words before his death in Luke 23:46…

Jesus called out with a loud voice, “Father, into your hands I commit my spirit.” When he had said this, he breathed his last.

What if, in our times of deepest loss and overwhelming sorrow, when nothing makes sense and God seems indifferent, we took our cue from Jesus and cried out in lament?  Would it convince us that we have a good dad who is present and longs for us to cry on his shoulder?  What if the words of songs like these were so ingrained in the conscious memory of the church, that they flowed forth between the sobs and the pain?

All psalms of lament (and there are A LOT of them) include four elements:  an address, a complaint, a request, and an expression of trust, though not always in that order.  By quoting two of them, I think Jesus gives us precedent and permission to:

1.  Address God.  Even in a very loud voice, cry out to God in the midst of pain!  He listens with great empathy and compassion.

2.  Complain.  (I don’t like this.  This is horrific. This doesn’t make sense.  Why?  When will it ever stop?)  He has demonstrated in Scripture, an infinite tolerance for complaining.

3.  Request.  (Lord, do not be far from me.  Let your face shine upon your servant.  Save me in your unfailing love.)  His promise is that He will never leave us, that he quiets us with His singing, and that He is, by his very nature, love that never fails.  He may carry us through death, but He will carry us nonetheless.

4.  Express trust.  The psalter helps us do this.  Just repeat the conclusion of Psalm 22:22,24 and Psalm 31:24, all together now…

For he has not despised or scorned the suffering of the afflicted one; he has not hidden his face from him but has listened to his cry for help… Be strong and take heart, all you who hope in the Lord.”

Stick Together

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Whoever receives one such child in my name receives me, 6 but whoever causes one of these little ones who believe in me to sin, it would be better for him to have a great millstone fastened around his neck and to be drowned in the depth of the sea. 7 “Woe to the world for temptations to sin! For it is necessary that temptations come, but woe to the one by whom the temptation comes! 8 And if your hand or your foot causes you to sin, cut it off and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life crippled or lame than with two hands or two feet to be thrown into the eternal fire. 9 And if your eye causes you to sin, tear it out and throw it away. It is better for you to enter life with one eye than with two eyes to be thrown into the hell of fire. 10 “See that you do not despise one of these little ones. For I tell you that in heaven their angels always see the face of my Father who is in heaven.12 What do you think? If a man has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13 And if he finds it, truly, I say to you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14 So it is not the will of my Father who is in heaven that one of these little ones should perish.
Matthew 18:5-14

How is this for advertising?

IT’S BETTER FOR YOU….
to tie a giant, heavy circular stone around your neck and jump into the ocean!
to cut off your hand or your foot and throw it away, and enter life crippled or lame!
to tear your eye out and throw it away and enter life with one eye!

“Better than what?” you might ask! Exactly.

Those things sound awful: Sure death. Dismemberment. Eye balls popping out. But ALL of them are better than the effects of SIN, for yourself and for others.

Jesus is laying the foundation, one layer at a time, for life in the kingdom of God. It starts with all believers as “little ones”, totally dependent on their Father, God. Think of yourself less; trust your daddy.

Only from that perspective can each member of the community turn their focus to the other. Value them. Don’t harm their conscience (a more accurate translation of the Greek.) Don’t despise them; despise sin! Sin destroys people and communities!

In community life, it’s unifying to have a common enemy. Satan is that enemy and temptation to sin is his weapon of choice. Resist him together. Seek righteousness and holiness together. Don’t lose anyone; stick together. Look for the lost ones and bring them back into the community. This is a good way to live, friends. It minimizes conflict. It enables people, made in the image of a relational 3 in 1 God, to know and be known, to belong, and to have common purpose.

John said, “If you don’t love your brother whom you have seen, you cannot love God whom you haven’t seen.” (I John 4:20) Community life is part of loving God. You can’t have one without the other. It’s hard, but it’s beautiful God’s way.

Let’s flip the advertisement:

IT’S BETTER FOR YOU…
to belong to one another, like sheep hanging out on a beautiful hillside with their good shepherd.
to trust the shepherd (Jesus) to fight the bad guy out to kill and harm and destroy you.
to help each other resist sin because it’s harmful, and celebrate how good it is to live life God’s way!

Period.

Dependence

baby-reaching-for-mom (2)

“At that time the disciples came to Jesus, saying, “Who is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven?” 2 And calling to him a child, he put him in the midst of them 3 and said, “Truly, I say to you, unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven. 4 Whoever humbles himself like this child is the greatest in the kingdom of heaven.”
Matthew 18:1-4

“Humility is not thinking less of yourself, but thinking of yourself less.”
C.S. Lewis

In the upside down kingdom of heaven, humility is key. God, infinitely powerful and mighty, assumes the lowly form of a helpless babe, born to marginalized teenagers, grows up in obscurity, and then announces his kingdom as a demure carpenter amongst very ordinary lay-people. Meek and unassuming, Jesus ushers in a completely radical way of living, one where greatness is found in service, where the last are first, and where the trusting, humble nature of a child is valued above all.

Matthew 18 marks Jesus’ fourth major collection of teachings in this gospel narrative. In each of the previous discourses, the Sermon on the Mount (5-7), the apostolic send-off (10-11), and the seaside kingdom parables (13), Jesus has been expounding on the nature and implications of kingdom of God, present in heaven and now on earth. As his students are starting to “get it” on some level, they naturally start to feel pretty good about themselves, maybe even a bit proud of their inheritance as royal children of the King! It makes sense that they would want to know who is greatest, especially when the world and even the religious leaders didn’t think of them as anything special!

Jesus, ironically calls a child to them. If the disciples didn’t get a lot of esteem as fishermen, tax collectors, women or blue collar laborers, children got less in first century Palestine. Jesus certainly gives great value to the child, but his point is that would-be disciples, in his economy, must equally share the lowly status of children, a mutual condition of utter dependence on God.

Jesus is about to expound on the implications for the disciples as community. The groundwork for community life, Jesus says, is a shared understanding that no one is more important than anyone else. All are as helpless and reliant as a child in family life. Only God can be in charge. Even Jesus didn’t consider equality with God a reason to think highly of himself! (Philippians 2:6) Jesus, perfect as he was, said he could do nothing on his own accord, but only what he saw the Father doing. (John 5:27) He exemplified humility even as he demanded it.

A child, in a loving home, doesn’t question her status or her value. She doesn’t question where her next meal will come from or what she will wear. She simply cries out in need and trusts that the need will be met. She loves as she is loved. So it is in the kingdom of heaven. We cry out to a really good dad, who loved us enough to make a way to himself. He runs to us and loves to meet our needs. When we cry out together, from a shared posture of total reliance, we become the family of God.  And that is a really good way to live!