Wednesday, July 18, 2007

Psalm 51: Broken Bones

I must admit it, I have a low tolerance for difficulty. I am a project-oriented person, so I tend to have an agenda for every day. I know exactly what I want to accomplish and what a successful day will look like. I don't want to have to deal with interruptions or obstructions. I want the situations, locations, and people around me to willingly participate in my plan. All of this means that it's counter-intuitive for me to view difficulty as something beneficial. I've little time and tolerance for "broken bones."

My problem is that my Redeemer is the redeemer of broken bones. Maybe you're thinking, "Paul, what in the world are you talking about?" "Broken bones" is a physical metaphor for the pain of redemption. In case you've not noticed, God's work of delivering you from your addiction to self and sin and molding you into his image, isn't always a comfortable process. Sometimes, to make our crooked hearts straight, God has to break some bones. I gotta confess, I don't like broken bones.

I love the way the prophet Amos talks about this in Amos 4. It's a bit of a disconcerting passage until you wrap you brain around what the prophet is saying about why God is doing what he's doing. Listen to the "broken bones" phraseology of this passage.

"I gave you cleanness of teeth in all your cities,
and lack of bread in all your places."

"I also withheld rain from you
when there were yet three months to harvest;
I would send rain to one city
one field would have rain,
and the field on which it did not rain would wither;
so two or three cities would wander to another city
to drink water and would not be satisfied."

"I struck you with blight and mildew;
your many gardens and your vineyards,
your fig trees and your olive trees the locust devoured."

"I sent among you a pestilence after the manner of Egypt;
I killed your young men with the sword,
and carried away your horses,
and I made the stench of your camp
go up into your nostrils."

"I overthrew some of you,
as when God overthrew Sodom and Gomorrah,
and you were as a branch plucked out of the burning."

Now, you have to ask, "Why would a God of love do this to the people he says he loves?" Well, there's a phrase that's repeated after every stanza of this scary poem that's the answer to this question. Pay attention to these words, "yet you did not return to me." These acts that seem like the product of vengeful anger are actually acts of redemptive love. You see, in doing these things God is actually fulfilling his covenantal commitment to satisfy the deepest needs of his people. And what is it that they need most? The answer is simple and clear throughout all of Scripture; more than anything else they need him!

But this is exactly where the rub comes in. Although our greatest personal need is to live in a life-shaping relationship with the Lord, as sinners we have hearts that are prone to wander. We very quickly forget him and begin to put some aspect of the creation in his place. We very soon forget that he's to be the center of everything we do, and we put ourselves in the center of our universe. We easily lose sight of the fact that our hearts were made for him, and also that deep sense of well-being that all of us seek can only be found in him. We rapidly forget the powerfully addicting dangers of sin and think we can step over God's boundaries without moral cost. So, God in the beauty of his redeeming love will "break our bones." He'll bring us through difficulty, want, suffering, sadness, loss, and grief in order to ensure that we are living in pursuit of the one thing that we desperately need, him.

It's time for us to embrace, teach, and encourage others with the theology of uncomfortable grace. As long as sin still lives inside of us, producing in each of us a propensity to forget and wander, God's grace will come to us in uncomfortable forms. You may be wondering where the grace of God is in your life, when actually you're getting it. But it's not the grace of release or relief, no, you're getting the uncomfortable grace of rescue, relationship, and refinement.

So, if you are God's child, resist the temptation to doubt his goodness in the middle of your stress. It's time for us to stop thinking that our difficulty is a sign of his unfaithfulness and inattention. If you are God's child and you still recognize the battle of sin within, then those difficulties are sure signs of rescuing redemptive love. God isn't withholding his grace from you. No, you're experiencing uncomfortable grace; grace that's willing to break bones in order for your heart to be true. This grace is unwilling to give up. This grace won't turn it's back. This grace won't accept the status quo. This grace won' compromise or grow cynical. God hasn't forgotten you. He's loving you with real love and he's giving you real grace. And he'll continue to do so until you're finally free of your propensity to wander away. Now that's real love!

Monday, July 16, 2007

Psalm 51: Celebrating Redemption

We should be the most celebratory community on earth. There should be a deep and abiding joy that's the back-beat of everything we do. Each of us should carry around with us a deep sense of privilege for who we've become and what we've been given in Christ. We'll spend eternity celebrating redemption, but there's something wrong if the rehearsal for destiny's celebration isn't beginning now.

It should be in our minds, it should flood our hearts, it should be constantly on our lips; we have been redeemed! Chosen out of the mass of humanity, forgiven by the sacrifice of Jesus, accepted into God's family, the Holy Spirit now living inside of us, God working to empower us against and to deliver us from sin, the great paradigmatic truths of the biblical narrative now open to us, the mutual-ministry fellowship of the body of Christ our regular experience, and a guaranteed future in God's presence and free from sin and struggle. We've been redeemed! The scope and breadth of it boggles the mind. It's almost too much for our hearts to take in. Given what we couldn't deserve, love in the middle of our rebellion, and given acceptance we could never earn. We've been redeemed! We've been redeemed! We've been redeemed!

Unlike the rest of creation, human beings are good at celebration. Last night I sat looking out an eight-floor window over the Philadelphia Art Museum and watched the annual 4th of July fireworks display. It was a fittingly celebratory end to a two week celebration of our nation's birth that Philadelphia calls, "Welcome America." Welcome indeed! Welcome to remember the beginnings of the freedoms you now enjoy. Welcome to remember the patriots who gave their hearts, minds, and lives to secure this freedom. Welcome to walk the streets and enter the buildings where American freedom took it's shape. And welcome to days of celebration with others who're reflecting, remembering, and recognizing the freedom that now shapes their daily lives. National freedom is a thing worth celebrating, as is another year of life, or the end of the harvest season, or twenty-five years of successful work. But all of these appropriate celebrations pale in comparison to the meaning and majesty of the reality of redemption that should flood the mind of every believer every day.

Hymn writers get it right as they employ the full elasticity of human language to pen songs of celebration. How about this old gospel hymn?

Redeemed, how I love to proclaim it!
Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb;
Redeemed through His infinite mercy,
His child and forever I am.


Redeemed, redeemed,
Redeemed by the blood of the Lamb;
Redeemed, redeemed,
His child and forever I am.

Redeemed, and so happy in Jesus,
No language my rapture can tell;
I know that the light of His presence
With me doth continually dwell.

I think of my blessèd Redeemer,
I think of Him all the day long:
I sing, for I cannot be silent;
His love is the theme of my song.

I know there’s a crown that is waiting,
In yonder bright mansion for me,
And soon, with the spirits made perfect,
At home with the Lord I shall be.

Or what Christian does not know these celebratory words?

O for a thousand tongues to sing
my dear Redeemer's praise,
the glories of my God and King,
the triumphs of his grace!

My gracious Master and my God,
assist me to proclaim
and spread through all the earth abroad
the honors of thy Name.

Jesus! the Name that charms our fears
and bids our sorrows cease;
'tis music in the sinner's ears,
'tis life and health and peace.

He speaks, and listening to his voice,
new life the dead receive;
the mournful broken hearts rejoice,
the humble poor believe.

Hear him, ye deaf; his praise, ye dumb,
your loosened tongues employ;
ye blind, behold, your Savior comes;
and leap, ye lame, for joy!

Glory to God and praise and love
be now and ever given
by saints below and saints above
the Church in earth and heaven.

Or what about this contemporary song of celebration?

Oh, to see the dawn
Of the darkest day:
Christ on the road to Calvary.
Tried by sinful men,
Torn and beaten, then
Nailed to a cross of wood.

This, the pow'r of the cross:
Christ became sin for us;
Took the blame, bore the wrath—
We stand forgiven at the cross.

Oh, to see the pain
Written on Your face,
Bearing the awesome weight of sin.
Ev'ry bitter thought,
Ev'ry evil deed
Crowning Your bloodstained brow.

Now the daylight flees;
Now the ground beneath
Quakes as its Maker bows His head.
Curtain torn in two,
Dead are raised to life;
"Finished!" the vict'ry cry.

Oh, to see my name
Written in the wounds,
For through Your suffering I am free.
Death is crushed to death;
Life is mine to live,
Won through Your selfless love.

This, the pow'r of the cross:
Son of God - slain for us.
What a love! What a cost!
We stand forgiven at the cross.

What will you celebrate today? That raise you've been working toward? That new car you've dreamed of for two years? The local team that finally won a championship? An anniversary? A birthday? The first steps of that toddler? The lack of traffic on the way to work? The deli sandwich that was better than ever? The new shoes that you thought you'd never find? Your new iphone? If you're a human being, you're a celebrator. The question is, in all of your celebrations, do you turn again and again to celebrated the most amazing, the most magnificent, the most mind-bending thing that a human being could be chosen to experience; redemption?

You have been redeemed! You have been redeemed! You have been redeemed! Now, go out and celebrate!

"O lord, open my lips, and my mouth will declare your praise." (Psalm 51:`5)