ASSERT ONLY LOVE

And further, submit to one another out of reverence for Christ. [Ephesians 5:21 (NLT)]

 

While being in lockdown for months may have given some couples a chance to reconnect, that connection wasn’t welcomed by all. Once their mandatory 10-week lockdown was lifted, Italian lawyers reported a 30% surge in couples starting divorce proceedings and both China and Saudi Arabia showed a similar rise when couples emerged from quarantine. For some couples, 24/7 togetherness for weeks on end exacerbated typical martial issues like money, housework, drinking, child care, screen and phone time, and dirty dishes in the sink. With the additional stressors of homeschooling, job loss or working at home, apprehension about the future, and trying to navigate safely in a COVID-19 world, even the best marriages have been tested.

We may have married our spouses for better and worse, in sickness and health, but none of us expected this much togetherness for such an extended time. Before we complain, let’s remember our friends who live alone. With the exception of the pizza delivery man or the cashier behind a plastic shield at Walgreen’s, their contact with the outside world has been from a 6-foot distance. FaceTime or Zoom replaced visits from friends and family and it’s been months since they’ve gotten hugs from anyone. Their isolation puts our petty spousal complaints in perspective!

There always will be disputes in any relationship but, in a good relationship, both parties understand the importance of negotiation and concession. Unfortunately, we live in an increasingly polarized society and the world’s divisiveness seems to have crept into our homes. Lines get drawn in indelible marker (or even cement) and people often think of compromise, trade-offs, finding the middle ground and deference as signs of weakness.

Today, my husband and I celebrate our anniversary. Rather than the traditional romantic dinner, weekend getaway, or family party, we’ll celebrate with a Chicago-style pizza our children sent us and a feel good movie on Netflix. The one tradition we’ll keep, however, is reading 1 Corinthians 13: the same words that were read at our wedding 53 years ago. Paul wasn’t writing about romantic or eros love. As delightful as romantic love is, that’s not what gets people through cancer, job loss, financial worry, Parkinson’s, a disabled spouse, an addicted child, or months of sheltering in place. Paul was writing of agape love—sacrificial unconditional love: the kind of love that carries people through pandemics (and decades of marriage)!

We’re often told to assert ourselves. What if, instead of asserting ourselves, we asserted our love? What if we remembered (and followed) Paul’s words: “love does not demand its own way.” Our love for one another is far more important than almost anything about which we disagree. When faced with disputes, let’s allow love and God to be our guides.

 What counts in making a happy marriage is not so much how compatible you are, but how you deal with incompatibility. [Leo Tolstoy]

Love is patient and kind. Love is not jealous or boastful or proud or rude. It does not demand its own way. It is not irritable, and it keeps no record of being wronged. It does not rejoice about injustice but rejoices whenever the truth wins out. Love never gives up, never loses faith, is always hopeful, and endures through every circumstance. [1 Corinthians 13:4-5 (NLT)]

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SAVORING THE PSALMS

Your eternal word, O Lord, stands firm in heaven. Your faithfulness extends to every generation, as enduring as the earth you created. Your regulations remain true to this day, for everything serves your plans. [Psalm 119:89-91 (NLT)]

spreading dogbane

Because she enjoyed saying the psalms in unison during church, my friend wanted to read the entire book of Psalms. Viewing it as a project, she read at least five psalms a day. But, rather than savoring them individually as she might a Mother’s Day card from her son, she sped through them as she would a novel and what should have been a pleasure was a disappointment.

The unique beauty of a diamond ring isn’t discernible until it’s taken out of the display case, placed on black velvet, and viewed from all angles through a jeweler’s loupe. To truly appreciate the gem, however, it helps to know something about diamonds; it’s the same with the Psalms. Because they’re poetry, they’re best viewed and appreciated one at a time. While we don’t need to know the 4 C’s of gemology, knowing something about the psalms’ poetic structure helps us understand and appreciate these ancient songs of worship.

Written and collected from the time of Moses (1440 BC) to the Israelites’ return from their Babylonian captivity in 450 BC, the psalms express the full range of human emotion from the greatest joy to the deepest despair. Their passion goes from brutal and graphic appeals for an enemy’s destruction to jubilant cries of praise and thanksgiving (sometimes in the same psalm). Like all poetry, the psalms employ a number of literary devices to pack the biggest amount of thought into as few words as possible. Their use of meter, acrostics, metaphor and simile, hyperbole, emotional rather than logical connections, and something called parallelism mean that the reader has to read them thoughtfully to unpack their complete meaning.

To stay true to their original content, poetic aspects like compression and meter are lost in translation. For example, Psalm 23’s “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want,” is only four words in Hebrew and “He makes me lie down in green pastures,” is only three! Also lost in translation is the beauty of the acrostic psalms in which the initial letter of each line or phrase was in alphabetic order. Psalm 119, for example, is made up of 22 sections, starting with aleph and ending with tav, with the rest of the Hebrew alphabet in-between. The acrostic may have signified that the subject had been covered completely (“from A to Z”) or could have served as a mnemonic device for memorizing the psalm.

One thing we don’t lose in translation is rhyme; even in Hebrew, the psalms never rhymed. Rather than rhyme, they used something called parallelism. Rather than words sounding alike, two or more thoughts sounded alike as the psalmist repeated the same thought or phrase one or more times. In many cases, the identical thought was clearly repeated, as in Psalm 18:4: “The ropes of death entangled me; the floods of destruction swept over me.” Sometimes, the parallel lines contrasted with or opposed one another, as in Psalm 18:27: “You rescue the humble, but you humiliate the proud.” Successive lines often built on and developed the first line, as in Psalm 1:1: “Oh the joys of those who do not follow the advice of the wicked, or stand around with sinners, or join with mockers.” Unlike rhyme or meter, parallelism translates into any language which makes the beauty of the psalms universal. I don’t think that happened by accident. Regardless of who penned them, like the rest of Scripture, the Psalms clearly were God-breathed and meant for all people in all times.

The psalms are more than poetry; they are beautifully written prayers and should be read slowly and reverently. I’ve suggested that my friend start over by reading only one psalm each day and thinking of Psalms as she might a box of deliciously rich gourmet chocolate. Psalm 34:8 says, “Taste and see that the Lord is good.” By consuming just one psalm (or one chocolate) at a time, the whole complexity and richness of each one will get the attention it deserves.

How sweet your words taste to me; they are sweeter than honey. [Psalm 119:103 (NLT)]

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HAVING A KING

In those days Israel had no king; all the people did whatever seemed right in their own eyes. [Judges 17:6 (NLT)]

great blue heronAlthough God passed along some very detailed commands, the people of Israel frequently refused to obey them and, in Judges 17-18, we see what happens when people do whatever seems right in their own eyes. After stealing 1,100 pieces of silver from his mother, Micah hears her curse the thief. Fearful of her curse, he confesses and returns the money. After blessing Micah to remove the curse, his mother dedicates the money to the Lord. In honor of her thieving son, however, she gives 200 of those coins to a silversmith for the fashioning of an image (a figure carved from wood overlaid with silver) and an idol (a figure cast from molten silver). Micah then sets up a shrine for the prohibited items, adds some household idols of his own, makes an ephod (a priestly garment), and installs his son as his own personal priest. This was wrong in so many ways: not only were people expressly forbidden from making either carved images or molten idols but only a Levite could serve as a priest!

A Levite who seems to have no better grasp of God’s instructions than Micah stops at his house. Thinking the Levite’s presence will bring him prosperity and give legitimacy to his shrine, Micah buys the Levite’s services as his own personal priest. Wrong again! A Levite was to serve God only in the tabernacle but the man accepts and serves Micah in an idolatrous shrine.

The story continues with the arrival of five scouts from the tribe of Dan. Unable to conquer the land originally given to them, the Danite scouts are in search of easier pickings in Israel’s northern frontier. Finding the unprotected town of Laish, they return with 600 warriors. After stopping at Micah’s, where they steal his shine, ephod, image and idols, they offer the Levite a position as priest to their entire tribe and he accepts their offer. Although Micah protests the theft of idols and priest, he’s outnumbered, admits defeat, and returns home empty-handed while lamenting that he has nothing left.

The Danites easily defeat the town of Laish and rename it Dan. Micah’s pagan shrine is worshiped there for another 200 years. When the Kingdom divides, Jeroboam places a golden calf there for Israel’s worship while the Levite’s family continues to serve Dan until Israel’s exile.

Not once did any of these people consider God in their actions. Saying she dedicated the money to the Lord, Micah’s mother didn’t use it to honor Him. She used it to honor her larcenous son and what began with a son stealing from his mother evolved into idolatry. Micah wanted to worship the god he created rather than worship the God who created him. God made man while Micah’s gods were made by man. God is truth and righteousness but Micah’s gods came from deception and deceit. The tribe of Dan was too strong for Micah and his gods but nothing and no one is too strong for God. Unlike Micah’s gods, God can’t be stolen from us.

Without a king, the people did whatever seemed right to them but, sadly, as seen in Kings and Chronicles, they did little better with an earthly king. An earthly king may prevent social anarchy but only a Heavenly King can prevent spiritual anarchy. Without God as their King, people do only what is right in their own eyes. We have a King in Jesus; may we always do what is right in His eyes!

And this is what I’m praying: that your love may overflow still more and more, in knowledge and in all astute wisdom. Then you will be able to tell the difference between good and evil, and be sincere and faultless on the day of the Messiah, filled to overflowing with the fruit of right living, fruit that comes through King Jesus to God’s glory and praise. [Philippians 1:9-11 (NTE)]

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THE LAW – WHAT ABOUT THE TEN?

I tell you the truth, until heaven and earth disappear, not even the smallest detail of God’s law will disappear until its purpose is achieved. So if you ignore the least commandment and teach others to do the same, you will be called the least in the Kingdom of Heaven. But anyone who obeys God’s laws and teaches them will be called great in the Kingdom of Heaven. [Matthew 5:18-19 (NLT)]

Moses Fountain - Bern, SwitzerlandUnlike some laws, the Ten Commandments actually were set in stone; nevertheless, in a 2010 article in Vanity Fair, Christopher Hitchens posited that they were just a work in progress and badly needed a rewrite. Hitchens, who called himself an anti-theist rather than an atheist, had no use for the first three commandments. Getting out his hammer and chisel, he proposed getting rid of them altogether, revising others and adding a few more. While I didn’t agree with Hitchens’ misleading arguments, they caused me to consider the relevance of these laws that were given to an ancient nomadic tribe some 3,500 years ago.

That we seem to live in what often appears to be a godless society doesn’t mean we should throw out the first commandment. Granted, most of us don’t worship Baal, erect Ashtoreth poles or sacrifice children to Molech, but we do seem to worship the false gods of fame, wealth, beauty and self. As for the second, while we’re probably not creating graven images to worship, we do imbue inanimate objects like crystals, good luck charms, fancy cars, mega-mansions, and big bankrolls with divine power. As for taking the Lord’s name in vain—just because profanity and blasphemy have become commonplace in movies, television, and the music industry doesn’t mean it’s time to dispense with that commandment. God’s last name is not Dammit!

Hitchens had no complaint about having a day free from work but the atheist wasn’t about to dedicate it to the Lord. Even believers have difficulty with that one; if we truly kept the Sabbath holy, we’d have to reserve seats at our churches instead of tee times at the golf course. As for the fifth commandment, disrespect for one’s parents and elders seems to be increasing while the authority parents have over their children is decreasing. Unwritten but understood is that parents should be worthy of that respect. Sadly, some parents seem quite willing to abandon or abuse their responsibilities altogether.

When it comes to murder, the nightly news makes it clear that killing others has become the way many settle scores, win arguments, prove manhood, or retaliate for being cut off in traffic. Between the body count and the words and actions of contempt, malice and hatred expressed daily, it appears we desperately need that commandment. As for bearing false witness, just hearing a few political ads tells me that certainly hasn’t gone out of style over the centuries. Nor, it seems, has adultery! The tabloids keep us up to date on all of the adulterous adventures of the rich and famous and I wonder how many young people could define words like virtue, monogamy, or chastity.

As for stealing—that continues to be done both overtly and covertly. People are mugged, banks robbed, and identities stolen; there’s insider trading, currency manipulation, bribery and corporate espionage. We steal when people are paid “under the table,” disability is collected by an able-bodied person or income taxes are evaded. As for coveting, one look at the amount of credit card debt in this nation tells me we’re filled with desire for what isn’t ours. Consumerism and conspicuous consumption are just newer words for that old offense of covetousness. While we may not covet our neighbor’s donkey, ox or spouse, we seem to want everything else he has! It’s not the Ten Commandments that need to be re-chiseled—it’s us!

Granted, Hitchens did suggest adding a commandment about turning off your cell phone, which probably is a good idea but, by the end of his article, I only felt sorry for this godless man. Rather than rewrite the Ten Commandments into something a little more like The Ten Suggestions for a Satisfactory and Rewarding Life, we might want to re-read the original ones and evaluate our lives in their light. Granted, Jesus summarized the original ten into two simple rules, but those ten commands remain excellent and relevant guidelines for Christian behavior today.

Applying those ancient laws in the 21st century may require a broader interpretation but I seriously doubt they need rewriting or deletion. That many people deliberately misinterpret or ignore them is no reason to abandon them either. That drivers frequently disobey red lights, coast through stop signs, or exceed the speed limit doesn’t mean we should dispense with traffic laws. The problem isn’t with the law; it’s with the people!

If you love me, obey my commandments. [John 14:15 (NLT)]

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THE LAW – JUST TWO (Part 2)

And you must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your strength. [Deuteronomy 6:5 (NLT)]

Do not seek revenge or bear a grudge against a fellow Israelite, but love your neighbor as yourself. I am the Lord. [Leviticus 19:18 (NLT)]

New England asterYesterday I told about a friend who was reading her Bible in a coffee shop when a young Jewish man belittled her belief in God. Admitting that he once believed, he explained he no longer did because the Torah had too many laws. My friend was pleased when the Holy Spirit provided her with this simple response: “Try the New Testament; there are only two laws in it!”

As Christians, we adhere to some laws found in the Old Testament but not all. For example, while abiding by the commandments regarding adultery and idolatry, we ignore the ones requiring ritual baths or prohibiting pork and shellfish. Because of this, non-believers sometimes accuse us of being inconsistent or hypocritical. The law God gave in the Old Testament was given specifically to the nation of Israel. Setting them apart from the pagan nations surrounding them, the covenant He made was with them and not anyone else.

God gave the new nation of Israel a set of civil laws dealing with such things as their relationship with one another, conducting business, and settling disputes. He gave them ceremonial laws dealing with things like worship, temple practices, sacrifice, ritual cleanliness, and priestly duties and attire. God also gave Israel moral laws: laws telling them what was right and wrong, like those found in the Ten Commandments. Because Israel’s nationality and religion were one in the same, their civil, ceremonial, and moral laws often were interconnected.

The civil laws governing the nation of Israel don’t apply to us any more than Colorado’s laws regarding ski resorts apply to Florida’s beaches or New Jersey’s speed limit of 65 applies to a driver going 80 down a rural freeway in Texas. Like the civil laws, Israel’s ritual laws also were specific for them. Jesus finished the work of their priests and no more sacrifices or days of atonement are necessary.

What then of the moral laws? Based on the character of God, they transcend Mosaic Law and the principles behind them remain valid. With the exception of keeping holy the Sabbath day, the Ten Commandments are repeated throughout the New Testament. Sometimes, they are repeated in much stronger terms, as when Jesus equated anger with murder and lust with adultery! [Mathew 5:21-23,28]

Under the Old Covenant, the Israelites were given a choice: obey and reap God’s blessings or disobey and reap His curses. Having to justify themselves, Israel struggled and failed time and time again. The New Covenant, however, is based on grace rather than obedience—Jesus did for us what we couldn’t do for ourselves. With the New Covenant, God’s grace wasn’t limited to one nation but was made available to all people and for all time.

So what laws are we Christians to obey? Jesus made it simple with just two laws: wholly love God and love others as ourselves. Those two simple laws cover every conceivable situation far better than splitting hairs over who qualifies as a neighbor or how many times we are to forgive. We don’t need specific laws telling us to pay wages in a timely manner, use honest weights and measures, be charitable, honor our promises, do no wrong in buying or selling, and not to afflict widows and orphans. Found in both the Old and New Testaments, we have two all-purpose laws that cover all of those situations and much more. If we can fulfill these two, we’ve fulfilled them all!

Jesus replied, “‘You must love the Lord your God with all your heart, all your soul, and all your mind.’ This is the first and greatest commandment. A second is equally important: ‘Love your neighbor as yourself.’ The entire law and all the demands of the prophets are based on these two commandments.” [Matthew 22:37-40 (NLT)]

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THE LAW – MORE THAN 613  (Part 1 of 2)

Adonai said to Moshe, “Come up to me on the mountain, and stay there. I will give you the stone tablets with the Torah and the mitzvot I have written on them, so that you can teach them.” [Exodus 24:12 (CJB)]

black-eyed susansA friend told of reading her Bible in a coffee shop when a stranger came up and made a disparaging comment about her belief in God and Scripture. Identifying himself as Jewish, he said he no longer believed the Bible, adding “There are just too many laws in the Torah.” Observant Jews have even more than the 613 laws found in Scripture. The words of Exodus 24:12 were construed to mean that, along with the written commands in Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy, God gave Moses additional explanations and examples that he was to teach. Believing these oral explanations were passed from Moses to Joshua and on down to the following generations, Deuteronomy 17:8-11 was understood to mean that, along with declaring verdicts in disputes, the priests or sages could further clarify and interpret the law.

The sages often used this oral tradition to “put a fence around the Torah” and prevent transgressions. For example, beginning at midday on the 14th day of Nissan, leaven was prohibited during Passover. If clouds covered the sun, the sages were concerned that leaven might accidentally be eaten so they extended the law by two hours. While Scripture alluded to prohibited labor on the Sabbath, such as kindling a fire or doing business, it never listed every prohibited act. In great detail, the oral tradition specified kinds of work and explicitly prohibited anything even resembling labor such as braiding hair (weaving) or applying makeup (dyeing).

The work of compiling these oral traditions began around 200 BC and continued until what’s known as the Mishnah was completed around 220 AD. Divided into six sections, it deals with agricultural laws, prayers, festivals and fasts, family life, both civil and criminal jurisprudence, and the regulations defining what is “clean” and “unclean.” Since some earlier oral material had not been included in it, rabbis continued to interpret and clarify the law and their findings were gathered into the Gemara. Around 540, the Gemara and Mishnah were collected into the Talmud. Consisting of 63 tractates (treatises) divided into 523 chapters, the Talmud represents the labor of many generations over a period of approximately 800 years. Today, the Torah consists both of the written law, Torah Shebichtav, found in the first five books of the Old Testament, and the oral law, Torah Sheba’al Peh, found in the Talmud.

While the law was God’s gift to His people and a guide to life in Israel’s new land, human traditions ended up supplanting and complicating God’s word. With all of the Torah’s rules, regulations, and interpretations, it’s easy to see why the young man became discouraged. It’s not that the Torah is bad, it’s that his religion had become more about rules and obedience than relationship and faith.

Only take great care to obey the mitzvah and the Torah which Moshe the servant of Adonai gave you — to love Adonai your God, follow all his ways, observe his mitzvot, cling to him, and serve him with all your heart and being.” [Joshua 22:5 (CJB)]

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