Free in Limits

limits

 

‘Tis within limits that the master shows.”  Johann Wolfgang von Goethe (1749 – 1832)

 

Goethe wrote that line to illustrate how strict forms of writing poetry, like the sonnet, helped show who were the real gifted poets. Basically being to Germans what Shakespeare is to the English speaking world, he should know. Being confined within the parameters forced them to refine, distill, and perfect their poetic intentions. It was in the limitations that they find their strength. American poet and artist Julia Cameron expresses the same, updated for the twentieth century: “in limits there is freedom. Creativity thrives within structure.”

This may grate against us at first. How can being confined be a freeing thing? Aren’t all limits restrictive? The fact that the idea grates is evidence at just how counter-cultural it is in a world where any restraint upon us is felt to be an injustice. But only within restraint can we be truly free.

But having rules on the field which restrict play free everyone enjoy the game.

A society which has no laws, customs, or social virtues may permit one to do whatever they want to anyone else. But would such freedom really feel like freedom if you were living in it?

Staying faithful in marriage limits intimacy to one partner. But it also frees us to enjoy the extended, long-term, committed love that only such an exclusive relationship can bring.

With God, it is the same. As as a well-known worship song says it’s only in Your will that I am free.  And that idea does not come from nowhere. It comes from God, who desires us to be more free than we would even choose to be on our own.

The Psalmist in Psalm 119, that massive meditation on God’s word, says: I will run in the way of your commandments, when you enlarge my heart… (v 32). The image is one of running free yet while being held within God’s desires for us expressed in His word. A heart set truly free is one within limits.

 

 

Be Still

Be Still

Be still, and know that I am God.  Psalm 46:10

Praying my way through the Psalms I came across this well-known verse.  It’s often viewed as an encouragement to inner serenity.  Or it is a spiritual posture to take in the Presence of God.  If applications are made along those lines I certainly don’t wan to take that away from anyone.  To seek God’s peace, to balance one’s inner storm before Him as we spend time in His Presence is a wonderful thing.  In fact, one of the main objectives in prayer may well be to do just that.  And yet, while Psalm 46 doesn’t say less than that, it also says more.

Be still and know that I am God serves as a conclusion to the entire Psalm.  The lead up tells us a lot about.  God is a present help in trouble verse 1 tells us.  The earth will feel like it’s giving way (v 2), the sea is stormy and the mountains are trembling (v 2-3).  Nations are raging and kingdoms are in tumult (v 6).  The world seems as though it is chaotic and the circumstances of God’s People, from their perspective, don’t look cheery.  It is into this reality that the command to be still comes.

Why this matters is that it is saying something much larger than finding inner peace in prayer time.  It is that in times of great upheaval, we must never forget that God is God, and we are not to be moved.  God’s People (both Old Testament Jews and New Testament Christians) have faced the tumult of their times.  As Christians today, we face shifts in the our culture and troubles in the world.

When we read the news from North America we’re told from many sources:

That our culture is getting less faithful all the time.  (this is very Western centric but I’ll let that slide for now).

That our children won’t follow in our faith once they hit university.

That the world is getting worse and worse.

That Christianity is going to die unless it changes certain moral beliefs or gets “relevant”.

And so on…

But it is in face of all that, that God’s People are told to be still.  Be still and stay put, stay faithful to God’s great work no matter what this decade brings, or that century.  “The  Church must learn to think in centuries” it has been said, and that is a good maxim.  God is a in control over all history and not on e of His promises will fail.  That’s what is meant by the command to know that I am God.

To be still is to not be moved from the faith once delivered to the saints.  Decades come and decades go, centuries also come and go.  Public opinion goes this way, public opinion goes that way.  It may seem to the faithful that the world is shaking and rocking but we’re told to be still and know that I am God.  To stay where we are in terms of faithful witness and not forget that God is in control.

 

Why are all my streams in Him?

Babylon, the city of captivity.

Babylon, the city of captivity.

1  On the holy mount stands the city he founded;
2  the Lord loves the gates of Zion
more than all the dwelling places of Jacob.
3  Glorious things of you are spoken,
O city of God. Selah

4  Among those who know me I mention Rahab and Babylon;
behold, Philistia and Tyre, with Cush —
“This one was born there,” they say.

5  And of Zion it shall be said,
“This one and that one were born in her”;
for the Most High himself will establish her.
6  The Lord records as he registers the peoples,
“This one was born there.” Selah

7  Singers and dancers alike say,
“All my springs are in you.”  Psalm 87 ESV

All my springs are in you.  That’s a go-to verse for worship leaders and creative types everywhere.  And so it should be.  It means that all our expression of praise comes from God Himself.  He is the inspirer, the fountainhead, the source.  But why does our praise come forth?

Psalm 87 tells us.  It is because we are God’s people in the midst of of a mixed up world.  There is a people that God Himself has made; a city He founded (vs 1 ).  This city of God is His called out people, that He loves (vs 2) and makes glorious (vs 3).  They live in a mixed up world, in the midst of those who don’t believe.  They may even be a minority among those who do not know God, Rahab (Egypt) and Babylon (vs 4)  It is alright to be an exiled people, strangers in a strange land.  It is part of God’s plan.  God knows who are His.  Some are born of different nations, some of born of Zion.  But God always knows who are His.  He looks down and says this one was born in Zion (vs 5).

God creates, establishes, loves, and counts His people (vs 6).  Even if things look confused down here, He knows what’s going on from up there.  It was difficult to be God’s people in Egypt and Babylon.  It seems difficult sometimes today.  There is lots to be discouraged about.  But He is in control.  He has always been in control.  He knows who His people are and He writes their story.  Everything is all right.  It is because of that fact that all creative praise erupts to give Him glory.  All my springs are in you (vs 7).  

This is an actual stream from Zion.  Zion National Park in Utah that is!

This is an actual stream from Zion. Zion National Park in Utah that is!

 

On the Psalms…

The Psalms were/are the prayerbook of Israel and were/are the prayerbook of Christ’s Church.  I believe they should be in the daily lives and spoken from the mouths of God’s People.  Why?  Because they were so for Jesus.  They are His prayers and because we are His people, we can get His words into our mouths.

One of the most transformational disciplines I have ever experienced was daily praying Psalms.  That doesn’t mean I give up on my extemporaneous praying – prayers that spring up from my own heart.  Far from it.  In fact, praying prayers that aren’t “mine” (the Psalms) actually helps to make me a better pray-er without them.

I really advocate daily praying (not just reading) of the Psalms.  This was almost certainly Christ’s practice.   The Psalms are all about Jesus!  And He was/is all about the Psalms!  Here’s some quotes by others to back that up:

Jesus himself quoted and referenced the Psalms in the manner of someone who had been accustomed to praying a pondering them from his earliest days.   N T Wright, The Case for the Psalms, page 14.

Jesus was an only son,*
In the hills of Nazareth,
As he lay reading the Psalms of David,
At his mother’s feet.    
Bruce Springsteen, Jesus Was An Only Son

The prayers of David were prayed also by Christ.  Or better, Christ himself prayed them through his forerunner David…  To be sure, the one who prays his Psalms remains himself.  But in him and through him it is Christ who prays.  Dietrich Bonhoeffer, Psalms:  The Prayer Book of the Bible, page 9.

 

*  As a Protestant I am under no obligation to believe Jesus didn’t have younger half-siblings (like the Scriptures state) but this is neither the time nor the place to argue with the Boss!

Through Fire and Water – feeling God in our tough times

fire waterBless our God, O peoples;
    let the sound of his praise be heard,
 who has kept our soul among the living
    and has not let our feet slip.
 For you, O God, have tested us;
    you have tried us as silver is tried.
 You brought us into the net;
    you laid a crushing burden on our backs;
 you let men ride over our heads;
    we went through fire and through water;
yet you have brought us out to a place of abundance.  Psalm 66:8-12

Hard seasons are normal.  My prayer life operates somewhat according to the principle “a psalm a day keeps the depression away”.  The 66th reveals some great truth today.  It describes a difficult time had by God’s people.  The section above is especially moving – and not only because “through fire and water” is how Gandalf describes his great trial in LOTR.  “Through fire and water” is shorthand for the Exodus, where God led His people out of bondage into promise.  But for awhile it seemed for them like it was getting worse before it was getting better.  We ought not to be surprised by difficult seasons that come in our lives.

It’s hard but not wrong.  Many times we react to difficult circumstances as though there is something wrong.  If we were successfully following God then things would be easy, right?  Wrong.  Difficult seasons of life are normal for everyone, not just Christians.  But many people view difficulty as an interruption to how life should be going.  God stops us when we begin to think this way.  Difficulty is not an interruption on the road to blessing.  It is often the road itself.  If we go through difficulty, there’s nothing wrong going on.

God’s hand is in it.  To those who will follow Him through hard times, God makes promises.  First, He promises that He will not allow them to be moved (vs 9).  Then He promises that in some way He is authoring these difficulties (vs 11-12).  This is not a discouragement because if God is in it, then He is working it for our good.  Thirdly, He promises that there is an end in His sight.  Through fire and through water, but You brought us out to rich fulfillment.  That means there is incredible abundance – and much more of the Lord – on the other side.  We are heading through something to something.  God is changing us for it.