"The fool says in his heart, 'There is no God.' They are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity; there is none who does good." -Psalm 53:1 (ESV)
There is jesting that makes us jolly and jovial and there is truth that makes us joyful. It cannot be assumed that they are the same. Joy is grounded in something beyond the tangible and tangential. Joy is rooted in eternal truth. That demarks and differentiates the territory between felicity and foolishness.
This verse is not really or primarily about atheism, because it is not about an intellectual conviction or doubt. It is an assessment of a heart inclination that knows one thing and behaves in an oppositional manner toward truth.
There are many theists who have said in their hearts that there is no God. To know one thing and act as if what we know is not true or irrelevant to our lives is foolish.
Neither is it about intellectual deficiency. The biblical context for use of the word, "fool" is almost always the absence of wisdom and moral discretion. In fact, it self-defines in this verse as, "they are corrupt, doing abominable iniquity."
In other words, "You act as if there were no governing truth or Governor of truth in the universe. You live your life in contempt of God."
I used to call this "practical atheism."
Some of my friends would argue that morality and theology have no correlation and I would remind them that I am preaching to the choir who feels that because their theology is sort of OK, that they are OK.
But then, it gets more inclusive than that. Do you like inclusiveness? Try this: "There is none who does good."
Is it "psalmistic" hyperbole, the exasperation of a godly soul who is fed up with all the ungodliness or is it the reality of human depravity and universal susceptibility?
Does he include himself?
I do not know, but I count me among those who have worn the jester's hat and played the fool.
Every time I forget my Center, I am among the company of spiritual, oral, and ethical idiots who are saying in their hearts (mission control of the decision-making process) that there is no God.
"Oh, that salvation for Israel would come out of Zion! When God restores the fortunes of his people, let Jacob rejoice, let Israel be glad." -Psalm 53:6 (ESV)
So, after the initial exasperation of verse one, where the fool says in his heart that there is no God, the psalmist processes things and processes them some more and lands on hope and redemption.
God is in the restoration business.
The opposite of unbelief is, among other things, real rejoicing.
Now during those days he went out to the mountain to pray; and he spent the night in prayer to God. And when day came, he called his disciples and chose twelve of them, whom he also named apostles: Simon, whom he named Peter, and his brother Andrew, and James, and John, and Philip, and Bartholomew, and Matthew, and Thomas, and James son of Alphaeus, and Simon, who was called the Zealot, and Judas son of James, and Judas Iscariot, who became a traitor. He came down with them and stood on a level place, with a great crowd of his disciples and a great multitude of people from all Judea, Jerusalem, and the coast of Tyre and Sidon. They had come to hear him and to be healed of their diseases; and those who were troubled with unclean spirits were cured. And all in the crowd were trying to touch him, for power came out from him and healed all of them. Then he looked up at his disciples and said: "Blessed are you who are poor, for yours is the kingdom of God. "Blessed are you who are hungry now, for you will be filled. "Blessed are you who weep now, for you will laugh. "Blessed are you when people hate you, and when they exclude you, revile you, and defame you on account of the Son of Man. Rejoice in that day and leap for joy, for surely your reward is great in heaven; for that is what their ancestors did to the prophets. "But woe to you who are rich, for you have received your consolation. "Woe to you who are full now, for you will be hungry. "Woe to you who are laughing now, for you will mourn and weep. "Woe to you when all speak well of you, for that is what their ancestors did to the false prophets.
The psalmist either had a short sighted view of God, an over-inflated sense of his and his people's own righteousness, a limited perspective, all of the above, some of the above mixed together, or an insight into how things are in the real world -- that both the righteous and the unrighteous suffer.
Some suffering comes inevitably as a natural consequence of making poor choices.
Some suffering comes because we make right choices. MLK called that redemptive.
Some suffering comes because we all breath common air or because other people make poor choices in a world where we breath common air, or because we wore purple on Friday or for some other random or intentional purpose.
Some suffering comes to shape, better, or enrich us.
In any event, we all suffer and no one theological, philosophical, biblical, moral, or scientific explanation can account for all of it.
" All this has come upon us, though we have not forgotten you, and we have not been false to your covenant. Our heart has not turned back, nor have our steps departed from your way; yet you have broken us in the place of jackals and covered us with the shadow of death. If we had forgotten the name of our God or spread out our hands to a foreign god, would not God discover this? For he knows the secrets of the heart. Yet for your sake we are killed all the day long; we are regarded as sheep to be slaughtered."
When we act out of gut reactions, we often say and do things we either regret or should regret. Acting on instinct does not say much about setting us apart from other mammalian creatures. Instincts are useful, but are not dominant for us as human beings. The psalmist gives us three ideas that can help us and protect us from stupid, rash behaviors.
1. Know who you are - You are a person set apart for a higher purpose and a Higher Person. "But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself;" This is one you can consult about the matter as well: "the LORD hears when I call to him."
2. Know what you feel. Go ahead and be angry, but divorce that anger from your next decision. By acknowledging your anger, you dis-empower it from control. "Be angry, and do not sin ..."
3. Know what you know - To use a biblical term: Ponder on your bed. That means, from a place of rest and removal from the world, consider your options, commitments, and the implications of your actions. When you that the time to "ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent," you gain perspective.
4. For ultimate perspective, give the matter to God completely and wholly. "Offer right sacrifices, and put your trust in the LORD."
Take these steps and you will be far less likely to fly off the handle and act or speak rashly or make truly stupid, angry choices.
" But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself;
the LORD hears when I call to him."
"Be angry, and do not sin;
ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah
Offer right sacrifices,
and put your trust in the LORD." -Psalm 4:3-5 (ESV)
Words matter because, in some mysterious way, they are alive.
"Logos," is defined most often as "word," but it is also "principle," "idea," "truth," or "the things spoken of." It is also the act of speaking.
It is both in-transient and dynamic.
You speak a word, with or without intent, and the DNA of that word plants itself in the soul of the hearer. There, it is influenced by biases and that soul's own hunger. It takes root and bears fruit.
We ought to choose our words so that they are clear, compelling, compassionate, and consistent with what we truly want them to convey and accomplish.
We ought to choose them before we speak them. Choose them with intent and purpose. Choose them, knowing that after we release them, we will no longer have control over how they are received or what they will do in the lives of others.
We need to remember that words matter and that they can build up or tear down.
Let us speak to edify.
"A word fitly spoken is like apples of gold in pictures of silver." - Proverbs 25:11
We are designed for community. The resurrection of Jesus from the dead brings us life in so many ways. It restores our fellowship with the Father and it creates a deep and enduring fellowship among us as brothers and sisters with a common peace and a common purpose. Today's scriptures highlight that truth.
The psalms teach us to pray deeply and honestly without pretense or presumption. They just let it out and then let God sort it all out.
What if we did not judge or measure our prayers before we prayed them? What if we just let all of our negative junk out and laid it on the table before One who is wise, good, patient, loving, holy, and true and then .... well, then, we let that One deal with it.
"This stays; this goes; deal with this; I can handle this; don't worry about this; you might want to rethink this; I hear you. I understand I love you."
That is how the psalms sound to me. All the vengeful, angry feelings are brought before God before anyone else. All of the despondency we experience is brought to the front so that it can be addressed. All of our hopelessness and fear is exposed and God meets us where we are.
We see all of those heavy bricks of guilt and bitterness hanging on a cross and being demolished.
He knows we harbor hate in our hearts that is weighing us down. He knows that we struggle with temptation. He knows that we feel persecuted and alone. He knows and wants us to bring it to Him.
When we do, we are transformed as we are released from the power of those feelings. They only rule us when we cherish them in our hearts and guard them with all our might.
We may be afraid for people to know we are human, but it is useless to try and hide that reality from God. He knows.
"Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am in distress; my eye is wasted from grief; my soul and my body also. For my life is spent with sorrow, and my years with sighing; my strength fails because of my iniquity, and my bones waste away." -Psalm 31:9-10 (ESV)
Now Is the Time! Recession Is No Excuse for Recess!
Have you had a personal recession during this season of pandemic?
Contrary to the human tendency toward flight in times of danger, these are days for entrepreneurs to venture forth into the unknown and strut their creative stuff. The time is right for new ideas, for niche thinking, and for bold initiatives by men and women who will not be ruled by fear or passing circumstance.
The very limitations, restrictions, and scarcity of our times that cause some to retreat will prompt others to think more creatively and move aggressively into the arena of invention and innovation.
In the midst of recession when the tides of prosperity appear to be receding, there sounds no recess bell. Class is still in session. The need for vision and visionaries is profound. Life goes on. There is a sea change of thinking, a correction in our collective greed for consumption, and a reevaluation of our definitions of success. But people still require basic services and great ideas still have landing places among receptive minds.
We cannot retreat from entrepreneurship, Rather, we must embrace it at a new level. Our communities need out-of-the-box thinkers and risk takers. Our nation and world need people who are willing to move forward to build great business, social, and spiritual initiatives on a shoestring.
Recession is no excuse for recess.
Margins Too Wide and Too Narrow
I'm working on margins.
I come to this challenge from time to time and I find it to be a balancing act between making them too wide and too narrow.
If they are so wide that you could drive a truck through them, there is the danger of wasting time between events and responsibilities. That is, unless you carry around a sack of contingency tasks.
Even if you do, you have to take a moment to decide which one fits best with the geography and time allotted - as well as the time of day.
If they are too narrow, you may find that there is not enough time for the most important tasks you'd like to "fit in."
Either way, you have to use your head and that can be painful.
A more important lesson to learn is that no matter how detailed and well considered our plans, there are people and circumstances beyond our control that can alter our plans. If we become to rigid about them, we will crack.
The mighty redwoods are tall, strong, and deeply rooted ... but they are also quite flexible.
Maybe I will use a margin to go stare at one and get back with you.
How about this? A little formula for saying what you want to say: S.A.Y.- I.T.
Search your own heart and mind for what you really want to convey.
Assess your audience so that you can access their attention.
Yell softly. Choose high impact words. Notice how the room gets quiet to hear a whisper.
Involve multiple senses and receptors.
Terminate before you lose attention. It is better to stop short and leave the door open for future interaction.
Here is more:
Saying More With Fewer Words
"When words are many, sin is not absent, but he who holds his tongue is wise." - Proverbs 10:19 (NIV)
I am working on using fewer words to say more.
At the very least, there is a hopeful suspicion that more might be read, understood, retained, and activated in choices.
Add the decreased possibilities of slipping into one of many snares of life that are labeled with my name (or so it seems).
There is much more that I could say, but there is wisdom in not saying too much.
That is our working assumption after all.
Now, let's take one more step:
Being Still and Knowing
"Be still and know that I am God..."
This is a verse I memorized decades ago. It has been with me since I was a child, inscribed upon my heart and mulled over again and again with ever deepening understanding. However, I suspect that I have not begun to truly internalize the depth of its implications in my life either in the mandate toward stillness or the call to knowing.
On this truth I will meditate this week after Holy Week.
Holy Saturday is a tough challenge for a homiletician. It is a dark day on the Christian calendar. In some church traditions, there is no music and there are no flowers or colors to ameliorate the experience of death and despair as the Body of Christ meditates upon the experience of the church on that day 2000 plus years ago --- and the experience of Jesus in Sheol.
Can We Live Again?
Is that the question we ask this day on the church's calendar when we consider the time of Jesus in the tomb?
Is that the question we ask in our own darkest moments?
“If a man die, shall he live again?” (from Job 14:14)
The age-old cry of humankind is for eternal meaning. Is there anything beyond this world of pain and tears that brings meaning to these moments while transcending them? Is there a life beyond the grave or is all futile?
Perhaps Job did not really know the answer, but he did have a glimpse. We do know that, unlike most men and women, Job was willing to serve God for nothing. He was willing to worship the Lord with or without reward or promise of life.
Job's God was not running for office. His status did not depend upon human referendum. He was God and that was that. Because He was God, He deserved praise. Job would come into a deeper understanding of God's Sovereignty, but the seeds were present even before his testing.
As is true of Job's pressing questions, the answers come fully in Jesus Christ. The resurrection is the final statement of death's final defeat. For the one who follows Jesus, there is hope beyond death. John said that he was writing his gospel so that we might know we had eternal life.
There are countless men and women in our communities yearning for answers to the ultimate questions of life. God sets Job up as the ultimate example of an earnest seeker. He records Job's search so that we might identify and be led toward a relationship with Jesus Christ.
Job's story is our story. His yearning is our yearning. His needs are our needs - not to be free of pain and discomfort, but to see God face to face and find our answers in Him.
" For we know that if our earthly house of this tabernacle were dissolved, we have a building of God, an house not made with hands, eternal in the heavens. For in this we groan, earnestly desiring to be clothed upon with our house which is from heaven …” - II Corinthians 5:1-2
"A mortal, born of woman, few of days and full of trouble, comes up like a flower and withers, flees like a shadow and does not last. Do you fix your eyes on such a one? Do you bring me into judgment with you? Who can bring a clean thing out of an unclean? No one can. Since their days are determined, and the number of their months is known to you, and you have appointed the bounds that they cannot pass, look away from them, and desist, that they may enjoy, like laborers, their days. "For there is hope for a tree, if it is cut down, that it will sprout again, and that its shoots will not cease. Though its root grows old in the earth, and its stump dies in the ground, yet at the scent of water it will bud and put forth branches like a young plant. But mortals die, and are laid low; humans expire, and where are they? As waters fail from a lake, and a river wastes away and dries up, so mortals lie down and do not rise again; until the heavens are no more, they will not awake or be roused out of their sleep. Oh that you would hide me in Sheol, that you would conceal me until your wrath is past, that you would appoint me a set time, and remember me! If mortals die, will they live again? All the days of my service I would wait until my release should come."
There was a certain rich man, which was clothed in purple … - Luke 16:19
Then came Jesus forth, wearing the crown of thorns, and the purple robe. And Pilate saith unto them, Behold the man! – John 19:5
When I see purple I think of Lydia who, in the book of Acts, was known as the dealer of purple.
Purple was a precious commodity, the garment of royalty, the symbol of wealth.
Purple is a featured color in the Lenten season as we meditate on the road to the cross that Jesus trod.
It is also an element of two of Jesus’ teachings, one that he spoke and another that he lived. One was a parable and the other was a reality.
Jesus spoke of a rich man, clothed in purple, who died and discovered that all he had valued and cherished in life was worthless in light of a Godless eternity. This man begged for a drop of water and someone to warn his brothers. He was simply called, “a certain rich man.”
Later, Jesus would also ask for a sip of water, from the cross. Just prior to that pivotal event in salvation history, Jesus was paraded before Pilate clothed in purple. The soldiers were mocking His message of a spiritual kingdom that transcended all human kingdoms.
Jesus wore the purple unwillingly on His willing path to bear the shame of the world for our salvation. The rich man wore it with a prideful heart proclaiming his superiority and gaining nothing. One exalted himself and was humbled. Jesus humbled Himself and was exalted.
Meme theology calls this "National Atheists Day," but it misses the point.
"The fool denies God IN HIS HEART and acts corruptly." - Psalm 14:1
The psalmist was not talking about doubters, debaters, or seekers, but about those who know and ignore.
"For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God." - I Corinthians 1:18
Spiritual foolishness is about the heart, not the intellect.
Jeremiah describes the fool that says in his heart there is no God, not as a person who has trouble believing, but as one who knows there is a God, but ignores that fact. That is also what the psalmist described - one who makes no room in his or her heart for God, for righteousness, for justice, or for truth.
In other words, stubborn and self-centered.
Spiritual foolishness is about the heart, not the intellect.
And when you tell this people all these words, and they say to you ...
"Why has the LORD pronounced all this great evil against us?"
"What is our iniquity?"
"What is the sin that we have committed against the LORD our God?"
... then you shall say to them:
It is because your ancestors have forsaken me, says the LORD, and have gone after other gods and have served and worshiped them, and have forsaken me and have not kept my law; and because you have behaved worse than your ancestors, for here you are, every one of you, following your stubborn evil will, refusing to listen to me.
Therefore I will hurl you out of this land into a land that neither you nor your ancestors have known, and there you shall serve other gods day and night, for I will show you no favor.
Therefore, the days are surely coming, says the LORD, when it shall no longer be said, "As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of Egypt," but "As the LORD lives who brought the people of Israel up out of the land of the north and out of all the lands where he had driven them."
For I will bring them back to their own land that I gave to their ancestors.
I am now sending for many fishermen, says the LORD, and they shall catch them; and afterward I will send for many hunters, and they shall hunt them from every mountain and every hill, and out of the clefts of the rocks.
For my eyes are on all their ways; they are not hidden from my presence, nor is their iniquity concealed from my sight.
And I will doubly repay their iniquity and their sin, because they have polluted my land with the carcasses of their detestable idols, and have filled my inheritance with their abominations.
O LORD, my strength and my stronghold, my refuge in the day of trouble, to you shall the nations come from the ends of the earth and say: Our ancestors have inherited nothing but lies, worthless things in which there is no profit.
Can mortals make for themselves gods?
Such are no gods!
"Therefore I am surely going to teach them, this time I am going to teach them my power and my might, and they shall know that my name is the LORD."