Starry Night

So it’s 3:00 AM.  A noisy truck went by outside the window and I thought it was the trash truck doing its rounds.  It wasn’t, but we are overloaded with trash from Christmas and I realized I hadn’t put it out to the curb, so I had to get up and do that.  It’s a beautiful night, crispy cold and a bit hazy but with bright stars twinkling in the sky.  It reminded me that I had not posted the “next” part of my reminiscing.

* * *

In 1960, my family moved to Hutchinson, Minnesota, because 3M had transferred my Dad there to a new magnetic tape factory.  We moved before I started third grade that fall.  My parents had lived in the city of St. Paul their entire lives, but now we lived out in the country, albeit in town, not on a farm.  However, at the end of our street there was a big cornfield and there were a lot of woods to explore.  I specifically remember that in the spring there were enough frogs around that we could fill jars with them.  Little boys, what are you gonna do!

Anyway, at about this time of the year, probably in the early part of 1961 after Christmas break, my teacher finally figured out that I couldn’t see the blackboard and she told my parents.  So I got my first pair of glasses.  I was amazed at what the word looked like and how much there was to see!  I remember one cold night I was walking back home from my friend’s house across the street, and I looked up into the moonless sky.  I mentioned earlier that tonight there are some bright stars in the sky which are very pretty, but this is, after all, New Jersey, and there are only a few and with the air being what it is and the ambient light in these parts, you really can’t see too many.  But in Hutchinson, Minnesota, in the winter of 1961 you can see them all!  Here there are trees all around, but not so in the Midwestern plains.  There were stars right down to the ground!

I had never seen anything like it.  I had only recently turned eight years old, but I was profoundly affected.  Ever since I could remember I had been told about God and how He had made everything, and now I understood what that meant.  I knew then that He was real, and that He had made each one of those stars, and that He was amazing!  Later I learned the words from Psalm 8:

When I consider thy heavens, the work of thy fingers, the moon and the stars, which thou hast ordained; What is man, that thou art mindful of him? and the son of man, that thou visitest him?

That was my reaction.  This might seem like a lot for an eight-year-old to take in, but I believe that this was God’s intention all along.  In Romans 1:20 we read:

For the invisible things of him from the creation of the world are clearly seen, being understood by the things that are made, [even] his eternal power and Godhead; so that they are without excuse:

Part of the reason for the work of creation is to reveal the nature of God to us.  And from that day on I don’t think I ever doubted that there was a God in Heaven and that He had created everything we see.  I didn’t know much about Him, but that would come later.

In a previous post I quoted the first verse of the hymn “How Great Thou Art” in reference to thunderstorms.  But it also mentions the stars:

O Lord my God, When I in awesome wonder,
Consider all the worlds Thy Hands have made;
I see the stars, I hear the rolling thunder,
Thy power throughout the universe displayed.

I love this hymn because it represents the simplicity of my youth, and it shows to me that God has made things so that even little children can begin to understand the majesty of God and all that He has done.  The last two verses are:

And when I think that God, His Son not sparing;
Sent Him to die, I scarce can take it in;
That on the Cross, my burden gladly bearing,
He bled and died to take away my sin.

When Christ shall come, with shout of acclamation,
To take me home, what joy shall fill my heart.
Then I shall bow, in humble adoration,
And there proclaim: “My God, how great Thou art!”

Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art.
Then sings my soul, My Saviour God, to Thee,
How great Thou art, How great Thou art!

A Matter of Degrees

It’s coming up on Sunday and time to go to church meeting. But you’re not feeling very motivated to go. Mostly it’s because of some of the people there. You know how it can be, the bossy sister who always has unsolicited advice, the brother who seems to only see people’s faults (especially “the young people”). Maybe it’s just you, or maybe just your congregation. What to do?

Back in the days of Moses, God set up his seven feasts in Jerusalem. In particular he said, “Three times in the year all thy males shall appear before the Lord GOD (Ex 23:7)”. Everyone had to leave home and go to Jerusalem to keep the feasts. Psalm 120 through Psalm 134 are each denoted as “A Song of Degrees,” and it has been suggested that these psalms were sung by the children of Israel as they went up to Jerusalem and then up to the temple. The first one doesn’t sound very promising:

Psalm 120 [A Song of degrees.]
In my distress I cried unto the LORD, and he heard me.
Deliver my soul, O LORD, from lying lips, [and] from a deceitful tongue.
What shall be given unto thee? or what shall be done unto thee, thou false tongue?
Sharp arrows of the mighty, with coals of juniper.
Woe is me, that I sojourn in Mesech, [that] I dwell in the tents of Kedar!
My soul hath long dwelt with him that hateth peace.
I [am for] peace: but when I speak, they [are] for war.

“I’m OK, it’s all those other people!” You can hear the conversations: “Those men from Gad think they’re really something. And don’t get me started on the Judeans. They act like they’re the only ones who know what God wants. Boy, it’s going to be long trip.” Sounds familiar, doesn’t it? After being away from God’s people for any length of time, even a week, we can begin to dwell on a lot of negative aspects of our experiences with them.

But we can turn our eyes to the Lord as the next Psalm reminds us:

Psalm 121 [A Song of degrees.]
I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.
My help [cometh] from the LORD, which made heaven and earth.

You get to the church/chapel and you head inside and you see your brethren and sisters and think about why you’re there. The next psalm takes a different tone:

Psalm 122 [A Song of degrees of David.]
I was glad when they said unto me, Let us go into the house of the LORD.
Our feet shall stand within thy gates, O Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is builded as a city that is compact together:
Whither the tribes go up, the tribes of the LORD, unto the testimony of Israel, to give thanks unto the name of the LORD.
For there are set thrones of judgment, the thrones of the house of David.
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: they shall prosper that love thee.
Peace be within thy walls, [and] prosperity within thy palaces.
For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace [be] within thee.
Because of the house of the LORD our God I will seek thy good.

Why are you there? For “the testimony,” “to give thanks unto the Lord.” In spite of any misgivings, you can take up the attitude in the last two verses, “For my brethren and companions’ sakes, I will now say, Peace [be] within thee. Because of the house of the LORD our God I will seek thy good.” After all, it’s not “my” church or even “our” church, it is “the house of the Lord.” It’s what Paul wrote to remind Timothy, “But if I tarry long, that thou mayest know how thou oughtest to behave thyself in the house of God, which is the church of the living God, the pillar and ground of the truth. (1 Tim 3:15)”

The next one takes it a bit further. Psalm 123:3 says, “Have mercy upon us, O LORD, have mercy upon us: for we are exceedingly filled with contempt.” Turn your critical eye upon yourself, and you will see again that we need the Lord’s mercy because of our OWN shortcomings. Jeremiah wrote, “[It is of] the LORD’S mercies that we are not consumed, because his compassions fail not. [They are] new every morning: great [is] thy faithfulness. (Lam 3:22-23)” Even as believers we must depend on God’s mercy to keep our heart right.

Psalm 124 ends with, “Our help [is] in the name of the LORD, who made heaven and earth.” Three psalms back it was MY help that came from the Lord; now it is OUR help. Psalm 126:3 says, “The LORD hath done great things for us; [whereof] we are glad.” What an improvement! Instead of “I am this” and “they are that,” it is all of us together, recipients of God’s goodness and grace, and together we are glad. When we get to Psalm 133, look how different things are:

Psalm 133 [A Song of degrees of David.]
Behold, how good and how pleasant [it is] for brethren to dwell together in unity!
[It is] like the precious ointment upon the head, that ran down upon the beard, [even] Aaron’s beard: that went down to the skirts of his garments;
As the dew of Hermon, [and as the dew] that descended upon the mountains of Zion: for there the LORD commanded the blessing, [even] life for evermore.

Now we remember why we’re here! To give thanks to the Lord for what he has done for us, and to enjoy the fellowship of the saints. It’s good, it’s pleasant, it is precious! We can turn our eyes away from ourselves to the one who alone is worthy. So we can end with the last psalm in the group:

Psalm 134 [A Song of degrees.]
Behold, bless ye the LORD, all [ye] servants of the LORD, which by night stand in the house of the LORD.
Lift up your hands [in] the sanctuary, and bless the LORD.
The LORD that made heaven and earth bless thee out of Zion.

I’ll bet by then you can hardly wait to come back next week!

Life is hard…

You’ve all heard this expression in one form or another: “Life is hard, and then you die.” I would like to point out a different perspective from a familiar Bible passage.

Psalm 23
[A Psalm of David.]
The LORD [is] my shepherd; I shall not want.
He maketh me to lie down in green pastures: he leadeth me beside the still waters.
He restoreth my soul: he leadeth me in the paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.
Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil: for thou [art] with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me.
Thou preparest a table before me in the presence of mine enemies: thou anointest my head with oil; my cup runneth over.
Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life: and I will dwell in the house of the LORD for ever.

Note the last verse and contrast it with the our current saying:

“Life is hard.”
“Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life.”

“Then you die.”
“And I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

David had a view different from that which is common in our cynical world today. Because he had a divine shepherd he knew that his experience would be one of goodness and mercy. If you read about David’s life in Samuel and Kings and Chronicles, you’ll see that his life wasn’t always rosy. He had to hide in caves from King Saul who was trying to kill him, his own son Absalom rebelled against him and tried to steal his kingdom, and because of David’s own sin his little baby boy died. Even in all this he knew that the Lord his shepherd was guiding everything in goodness and mercy. And where was it all leading? David knew his own death would only bring him to an even better place, to be right at home in the house of the Lord, forever. It seems to me that what David had is much better than anything contemporary society has to offer.

But here’s a detail that is not readily apparent. (This is the Bible geek part.) The form of these two phrases includes a construction that is no longer in general use. Remember your grammar lessons? “I am; we are; you are; he, she, or it is; they are.” “I shall; we shall; you will; he, she, or it will; they will.” The second conjugation is the way to express an event or action that is going to take place in the future without any emphasis, though we seldom use the word “shall” any more. However, if you want to emphasize that the event will certainly take place by deliberate action, you reverse the conjugation: “I will; we will; you shall; he, she, or it shall; they shall.”

To illustrate the difference, here’s a (perhaps a bit grisly) example. Imagine two people on the edge of a bridge. One is hanging on, about to fall off, and the other is a BASE jumper with a parachute. The first person would say, “I shall fall, no one will save me!” It is a description of what is about to happen as a matter of course. The BASE jumper would say, “I will jump, no one shall stop me.” This is a statement of intention, of the certainty that he will make the event come to pass.

David doesn’t say that goodness and mercy WILL follow him, he says that they SHALL follow him, without any doubt. In the same way he is certain about what comes after this life is over. He doesn’t say “I SHALL” dwell in the house of the Lord, he says “I WILL” dwell in the house of the Lord forever. How does he know this? Because (see verse 1 in the psalm) he has the Lord as his shepherd.

I have come to understand David’s view of life and eternity. God wants everyone to be certain of eternal life like David was. “[God] will have all men to be saved, and to come unto the knowledge of the truth. For [there is] one God, and one mediator between God and men, the man Christ Jesus; Who gave himself a ransom for all, to be testified in due time. (1 Tim 2:4-6)” Each of us has the opportunity to choose between the two sayings. Jesus Christ died on the cross and was raised from the dead and is now seated in Heaven. Anyone can accept him and the work that he has done and be delivered from the literal “dead end” of their own sin and from the indifference of the world around us, and instead “dwell in the house of the Lord forever.”

I have a Shepherd, one I love so well.
How He has blessed me tongue can never tell.
On the cross He suffered, shed His blood and died,
That I might ever in His love abide.

Following Jesus ever day by day.
Nothing can harm me when He leads the way.
Darkness or sunshine, whate’er befall,
Jesus the Shepherd is my all-in-all!