OUR KEEPER (Psalms of Ascent – Part 1)

I lift up my eyes to the hills. From whence does my help come? My help comes from the Lord, who made heaven and earth. He will not let your foot be moved, he who keeps you will not slumber. Behold, he who keeps Israel will neither slumber nor sleep. [Psalm 121:1-4 (RSV)]

zion - court of the patriarchsPsalms 120 through 134 have the superscription A Song of Ascents. What that means exactly, no one really knows. The original word translated as ascent was “stair” or “step” and some scholars believe the title refers to the temple’s fifteen steps leading from the Court of the Women into the Court of the Sons of Israel. Jewish tradition holds that Levites sang a different one of these psalms as they climbed the steps to the temple. Other scholars posit that the title of the psalms has to do either with the rising moods or thoughts in the psalms’ words or their rising pitch as they were sung.

Written by several different authors and ranging from the time of David to post exile, these fifteen beautiful psalms were at one point a separate temple songbook that later was incorporated into the Psaltery. Some scholars attribute the collection to King Hezekiah who, when laying on his deathbed, was granted another 15 years of life. He supposedly compiled these 15 psalms to represent those additional years. Psalm 126, with its reference to returning from exile, disproves that theory since it had to have been composed after Hezekiah’s death.

Because Jerusalem was on a hill, all roads leading to it went uphill and some scholars believe these psalms were sung during the journey back from Babylon as the exiles ascended the hill to Jerusalem. Another commonly held belief is that these psalms were brought together to be sung by Jews returning to Jerusalem to celebrate the pilgrimage festivals of Passover, Pentecost, and Tabernacles.

One of my favorite psalms, Psalm 121, is in this collection. Perhaps giving credence to the theory of pilgrims walking up to Jerusalem’s gates, the psalmist looks to the hills and asks from where his help comes. When he asked that, was he looking at the hillside with its threats from wild animals, pagan enemies, and bands of robbers? Or, was he confidently looking up toward Mt. Moriah and the temple? With his answer of, “My help comes from the Lord,” I think he was looking beyond the mountains to the God who made them. The psalmist is so confident in the Lord, the one who “keeps” Israel, that he doesn’t even mention what is troubling him!

In this eight verse psalm, the Hebrew word shamar is used six times. Usually translated as keep or preserve, it meant to have charge of, protect and guard as would a watchman. For many pilgrims, the trip to Jerusalem was an arduous one taking several days. With its promise that the one who watched over them never slumbered, this psalm would have been reassuring to the pilgrims as they made camp in the wilderness each night.

We’re not Levites ascending the temple’s stairs nor are we pilgrims journeying up to Jerusalem and we’ll never know why these psalms are songs of ascents. Nevertheless, we’re all on a journey that often seems like an uphill climb. The psalmist’s faith and strong conviction that God will come to his aid certainly makes my spirit ascend. Let us take comfort in knowing the Lord is our keeper, watchman, and protector; He is the God who never sleeps!

The Lord is your keeper; the Lord is your shade on your right hand. The sun shall not smite you by day, nor the moon by night. The Lord will keep you from all evil; he will keep your life. The Lord will keep your going out and your coming in from this time forth and for evermore. [Psalm 121:5-8 (RSV)]

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SEEING THE WHOLE THING

Every Scripture passage is inspired by God. All of them are useful for teaching, pointing out errors, correcting people, and training them for a life that has God’s approval. [2 Timothy 3:16 (GW)]

ELEPHANT - SERENGETIThe story is told of four blind men who, while walking together, collided with an elephant. The one who bumped into the elephant’s trunk concluded they’d run into a giant hose. The second man, feeling the elephant’s huge ear, disagreed and said it was an enormous fan. As he pulled on the tail, the third man assumed that it was a heavy rope. The fourth blind man, feeling the thick leg, pronounced them all to be wrong and declared they’d encountered a tree. Because none of them felt the entire animal, all of them were incorrect.

Jesus doesn‘t want His followers groping in the dark; He wants followers who can recognize Him. He doesn’t want faith that can’t see; he wants faith that comes from seeing the truth. Blind faith can’t answer the question, “Why do you believe?” nor can it stand firm when challenged. It can’t explain, “How do you know Jesus is the Son of God?” or “What makes you think the Bible is true?” Uninformed faith certainly can’t respond to difficult questions about evil, condemnation, redemption, and salvation. Blind faith can’t answer, “What would Jesus do?” if it doesn’t know what He said or did. It certainly can’t share the Gospel if it doesn’t know what the good news really says! Undiscerning faith can’t stand strong when Satan instills doubts nor can it recognize false teachings. Faith requires trust but how can we trust when we’re unsure of what and why we believe? Reason and intellect are not abandoned when we accept Christ; reason and intellect are what show us the truth of God’s way.

Without reading the Bible, we are like the blind men with the elephant. Depending entirely on what they felt at the time, they drew incorrect conclusions and missed the enormity of what was right in front of them. Let us never forget that the entire Bible is “God breathed” and not just our favorite verses. Without reading the whole thing, however, it’s easy to misunderstand what is right in front of us or to focus only on the concepts we like, such as love, mercy and God’s forgiveness, instead of other more demanding concepts, like sacrifice, humility, self-denial and obedience.

It has often been said that, “Knowledge is power.” Indeed, Biblical knowledge is powerful, but not because it gives us brute force. Biblical knowledge gives us the power to understand our lives as they relate to God’s plan, to discriminate between right and wrong, to resist evil and make the correct choices. It gives us the power to know our Lord, to share God’s word and, most of all, to stand strong in our faith.

Father, open our eyes and minds so that we grow in our knowledge of you. Let your truth grip our hearts and strengthen our faith.

We must not select a few favorite Bible passages to the exclusion of others. Nothing less than a whole Bible can make a whole Christian. [A.W. Tozer]

So Jesus said to those Jews who believed in him, “If you live by what I say, you are truly my disciples. You will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” [John 8:31-32 (GW)]

But dedicate your lives to Christ as Lord. Always be ready to defend your confidence in God when anyone asks you to explain it. However, make your defense with gentleness and respect. [1 Peter 3:15 (GW)]

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STORIES

Just make sure you stay alert. Keep close watch over yourselves. Don’t forget anything of what you’ve seen. Don’t let your heart wander off. Stay vigilant as long as you live. Teach what you’ve seen and heard to your children and grandchildren. [Deuteronomy 4:9 (MSG)]

Generation after generation stands in awe of your work; each one tells stories of your mighty acts. [Psalm 145:4 (MSG)]

Hedge bindweedStories—everyone loves a good one and we all have stories to tell. My children loved hearing their Grandpa tell stories of boyish pranks like stealing watermelons and tipping over outhouses but it wasn’t just his tales of mischief they enjoyed. They relished hearing about him working on the farm, playing basketball and wrestling, working his way through college, having a victory garden, and starting a business. The stories we never heard, however, are the ones I wish he had shared: the stories of his faith journey. He was a Christian, yet I don’t know how he came to be such a man of faith. I know he met his wife at a church social and they both attended the Lutheran church in our town, but that doesn’t tell me when and how the Holy Spirit truly entered his life. It doesn’t tell me about the times he might have doubted or been afraid or the times he knew without question that God was holding his hand or had answered his prayers.

Accounts of faith journeys are some of the best stories we’ll ever hear. It’s not just from pulpits or lecterns that I’ve heard people chronicle their faith journeys. These stories came from people just like you and me: people who openly shared their wounds and scars and the way God changed their lives. They spoke of mental illness, alcoholism or physical abuse or told of losing a loved one, their health or even their faith. I’ve heard a Gideon tell how the Bible guided him to Jesus, an addict tell how a 12-step program brought him to Jesus, and a minister tell about his time in prison. I’ve heard people tell of reaching the depths of despair when they thought life was impossible and others tell of miraculous healing. These stories had little or nothing to do with what church they attended; they had everything to do with what God did with, for and to them. They were the testimonies that came from their tests and the messages that came from their messes and I am thankful to those who shared their lives so openly.

After ridding him of demons in Gerasenes, Jesus told the once possessed man to return home and tell his story. Can you imagine what it was like to hear his testimony or the testimony of Paul when he told of meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus? Can you picture what it was it like to hear Peter speak of walking on water or Bartimaeus tell of regaining his sight? The woman caught in adultery would have had a powerful testimony to the forgiveness of Jesus and Mary Magdalene to His resurrection. Granted, not all of us have stories as remarkable as theirs, but we all have stories about the way Jesus has touched our lives and we don’t have to be missionaries, ministers, or Biblical scholars to share them. We are, after all, disciples of Christ!

What’s your story? Who should you tell?

I love to tell the story of unseen things above,
Of Jesus and His glory, of Jesus and His love. …
I love to tell the story, ’twill be my theme in glory,
To tell the old, old story of Jesus and His love.
[A. Katherine Hankey]

As Jesus was getting into the boat, the demon-delivered man begged to go along, but he wouldn’t let him. Jesus said, “Go home to your own people. Tell them your story—what the Master did, how he had mercy on you.” The man went back and began to preach in the Ten Towns area about what Jesus had done for him. He was the talk of the town. [Mark 5:18-20 (MSG)]

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WE’RE LIMITED; HE’S NOT

Bow Lake - Alberta CanadaDo you think you can explain the mystery of God? Do you think you can diagram God Almighty? God is far higher than you can imagine, far deeper than you can comprehend, Stretching farther than earth’s horizons, far wider than the endless ocean. [Job 11:7-9 (MSG)]

God is above us, below us, within us and all around us. Although he is indescribable, we need words when we speak of Him. Having only human language to use, we say God does the same things that we do: creates, moves, blesses, feeds, walks, talks, hears, sees, sends, tests, and judges. None of these words, however, can capture the true essence of a being who always has been and forever will be—a being capable of fashioning something from absolutely nothing and seeing into men’s hearts.

God is unlimited; we, however, are not. There are certain things we can’t create, places we can’t walk, and things we can’t see. Some of the vocabulary we use when speaking of God implies that He has limitations, too. God is indomitable and yet he “rested” on the seventh day; does God get tired? God sees everything but “asks” Adam where he is; is there a limit to His sight? Noah is given the rainbow so God will “remember” their covenant; does that mean God forgets? God gets “angry;” does that mean he holds grudges or throws dishes? The Bible says he “regretted” making Saul king; does that mean he makes mistakes? When Scripture refers to God’s body—His face, hands, eyes, arms and even feet—does that mean He needs nourishment, clothing or baths?

Having no other vocabulary, we use human terms regarding God’s actions, emotions, and appearance. There is no danger in giving human characteristics to God; it truly is the only way we can visualize Him. There is, however, danger if we let our limited vision and inadequate vocabulary constrain our concept of God. If we want human explanations for a being far beyond human, it isn’t going to happen. There are questions that can’t be answered and answers that are beyond our understanding. God is an incomprehensible, infinite and immense being; He is our audacious, amazing, invincible and almighty God. We must never let our ineptitude at fathoming His power keep us from believing in it and we must never let our inability to comprehend His omnipotence cause us to have weak faith and timid prayers. Nothing, absolutely, nothing is impossible for God.

Trying to analyze His [God’s] omnipotence is like an amoeba attempting to comprehend the behavior of man. [Dr. James Dobson]

I am the Lord, the God of all the peoples of the world. Is anything too hard for me? [Jeremiah 32:27 (NLT)]

Jesus looked at them intently and said, “Humanly speaking, it is impossible. But not with God. Everything is possible with God.” [Mark 10:27 (NLT)]

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IMPEDIMENTS OR AMBASSADORS?

Celebrate your hope; be patient in suffering; give constant energy to prayer; contribute to the needs of God’s people; make sure you are hospitable to strangers. [Romans 12:12-13 (NTE)]

Don’t forget to be hospitable; by that means, some people have entertained angels without realizing it. [Hebrews 13: 2 (NTE)]

blanket flowerThe story was told of a devout Christian woman who, after moving to a new town, visited the local church: the Church of Holier than Thou. When the children’s choir sang the prelude, she was so happy to hear their angelic voices that she applauded at the end of their song. An usher came up and whispered in her ear, “Ma’am, we don’t applaud in this church.” She apologized for the disturbance and the service continued. When the pastor gave his sermon, she was so moved by his words that she shouted out an “Amen!” in response. The usher returned to her side and again sternly instructed her, “You’ll have to restrain yourself here in the Church of Holier than Thou.” Chagrined, the woman promised to behave and the service continued. The choir rose and sang a beautiful medley that included God of our Fathers and How Great Thou Art. Overcome by the words of praise, the woman shouted out “Hallelujah” and “Praise God!” at the song’s conclusion. The usher strode up to her and said, “Lady, you’re causing a disturbance. You’ll have to leave!” The poor woman responded, “I just couldn’t help myself; I was overcome by the joy of the Lord!” In a huff, the usher responded, ‘Well, you sure didn’t get it here!”

A good friend preached several times at our Colorado church and even served briefly as a pastor for a local parish when they were without an ordained minister. This man, filled with joy in the Lord, is a mature and knowledgeable Christian, but that wasn’t always the case. When he became a Christian many years ago, he was totally unfamiliar with the Bible and didn’t even know there were several different translations and publications of this one book. He couldn’t understand why chapter and verse had to be mentioned when just a page number should do. What would have happened to him if he’d attended the Church of Holier than Thou (or others like it)? I think God might have lost a child to disillusionment and doubt.

One friend told of an experience while searching for a church. She’d just settled into the pew when an irate couple told her she had to move because she was in their pew! When we first moved here and were “church shopping,” we attended a madrigal dinner at a local church in hope of meeting members of the congregation. In spite of getting there early and the large number of empty chairs, we had trouble finding a seat because everyone seemed to saving those chairs for the people they already knew. Sadly, I’ve seen the same thing at Tuesday Bible study when a newcomer has difficulty finding a place to sit among all the empty (but saved) chairs! Although the church is supposed to be a place of welcome, it frequently isn’t.

It has been said that there are two reasons people don’t become Christians. First, they haven’t met one. The second reason, of course, is that they have! What kind of Christians are we? Are we impediments or ambassadors? Are we filled with the joy of the Lord or are we holier than thou? Do we welcome others to worship and study with us? Are willing to enlarge our circle to receive someone new? If Jesus stopped by, would He have trouble finding a place to sit?

To all my nonbelieving, sort-of-believing, and used-to-be-believing friends: I feel like I should begin with a confession. I am sorry that so often the biggest obstacle to God has been Christians. [Shane Claiborne]

Welcome one another, therefore, as the Messiah has welcomed you, to God’s glory. [Romans 15:7 (NTE)]

So we are Christ’s ambassadors; God is making his appeal through us. We speak for Christ when we plead, “Come back to God!” [2 Corinthians 12:20 (NTE)]

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KEEP CALM AND PRAY ON

Naples FL sunsetDon’t panic. I’m with you. There’s no need to fear for I’m your God. I’ll give you strength. I’ll help you. I’ll hold you steady, keep a firm grip on you. [Isaiah 41:10 (MSG)]

The minute I said, “I’m slipping, I’m falling,” your love, God, took hold and held me fast. When I was upset and beside myself, you calmed me down and cheered me up. [Psalm 94:18-19 (MSG)]

In 1939, on the eve of World War II, the British government produced three posters to be used in the event of war. Printed with the goal of reassuring the public of the nation’s ultimate victory, the posters featured a plain background, a small crown logo on top, and simple block lettering. The two posters that were distributed said, “Freedom is in peril, defend it with all your might” and “Your courage, Your cheerfulness, Your resolution will bring us victory.” The third poster, with its message to “Keep calm and carry on” was only to be issued in the event of a German invasion. Fortunately, it never was needed. In 1945, most of the “Keep calm” posters were destroyed and forgotten until some were discovered and popularized sixty years later. In spite of the unsettled political climate in our nation, freedom doesn’t seem to be in peril but, if there ever were a time we need, pluck, optimism, determination, and composure, it is now!

Since we’ve been invaded by COVID, I’ve seen several memes with variations on the “Keep calm” posters. They suggest everything from keeping calm and washing our hands, quarantining on, masking up, and staying home, to drinking wine, baking brownies, eating chocolate, blaming someone else, and calling Batman. One simply said “Now panic and freak out!” When faced with a disaster, misfortune, or major mess up, I admit to having done nearly all of those things (except call Batman) but none did much to calm my troubled soul. Perhaps the Christian’s versions of the original poster would have a cross on the top and include suggestions to keep calm and pray on, remember God loves us, or trust in the Lord and His plan. At least, those suggestions would work!

Let’s remember: Jesus stilled the water and waves on the Sea of Galilee with just a word! If He can do that, He is more than capable of calming our troubled hearts and quieting every storm in our lives, even a global pandemic! In the face of life’s predicaments, troubles, uncertainties, and calamities, let us choose to carry on with courage, cheerfulness, and resolution by keeping calm and praying on!

When we fight our battles on our knees, we win every time. [Charles F. Stanley]

You can do more than pray after you have prayed, but you cannot do more than pray until you have prayed. Pray often, for prayer is a shield to the soul, a sacrifice to God, and a scourge to Satan. [John Bunyan]

Be cheerful no matter what; pray all the time; thank God no matter what happens. This is the way God wants you who belong to Christ Jesus to live. [1 Thessalonians 5:18 (MSG)]

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