Psalm 18 – Delight

By Aaron Elder

It would turn the world upside down if we let it. How do I know? Because it did for the apostles. Perhaps the greatest obstacle we face as humans is fear. We fight against it individually and we experience it as the primary motivator from leaders – government, schools, churches, employers. John writes that perfect love casts out fear. But honestly, the word “love” in Christianese has become tainted for me. It has been reduced to a description of actions that are “in the person’s best interest.” It has been virtually divorced from delight.

Maybe I’m just jaded, but for all of the sermons and talk about love, it is still undergirded by fear – the titanic is sinking, don’t be left behind, the devil is always after you, have you done everything you need to do (to gain favor by faith and not by works)? Judgment.

If you’ve ever experienced genuine love, it always comes with delight. The type of love and delight is either disarming or disorienting depending on your life experiences.

When God came to dwell among us, it was a cause for rejoicing. Why? In a world of mythology, it was not good when the gods came to earth. When this God came to earth, he came because of love, to show favor, to show delight.

Jesus delighted in his disciples. Jesus delighted in the outcasts. I would even venture to say that despite frustrations, he delighted in the religious leaders. The fact that Jesus delights in me is hard for me to embrace. Some of this is personality, some is upbringing, some is a product of the national and ecclesial cultures in which I exist. I expect that I’m not the only one for whom this is hard.

I think it is so hard because so few of us have experienced true delight ourselves. While we bear the scars, God wants us to intimately know his delight. His delight is for us and it goes beyond us. He is delighted in this world that he created. He is delighted in both the ins and the outs in equal measure.

Jesus brought with him a new kingdom. Not a kingdom formed out of fear, but one of delight. This is the kingdom we’re invited into and to participate in.

Psalm 17 – Tickets

By Aaron Elder

In her poem “Promised Town,” Jessica Greenbaum writes, “You hoped your string of tickets would last all day, or someone’s parent, protectively wandering the Fund Fair, would buy you more because as it worked out, they cared for you. Those were the two hopes.”

We all live life like we have tickets at a fair. But we have options in how we use those tickets. Some are convinced it is only a matter of time until the rides falter. Lest they experience some tragedy, they look longingly but never ride. Some are concerned that others will steal their tickets. They protect them diligently, and even in the rides they choose their joy will be stunted, overshadowed by concern for thieves. For some it will become a competition to see who can obtain the most tickets. The comparison will consume them and they will experience nothing of the fair itself.

Friends, the infinite God created a world of beauty and adventure – he even became a man to ride the rides with us and rose from the dead to renew the fair he made. My observation is that I’m often so wrapped up in the tickets that I never ride! I figure that the more tickets I have, the more control I have over the fair’s economy. The more tickets I have, the more influence I have over which rides are good and bad and who gets to ride. And while everybody else is angry at my stingy selfishness, I’m congratulating myself on being a good steward.

Jesus came to blow the doors off the fair. He doled out tickets to those who couldn’t afford even one. He knew that no matter how many tickets those 5,000 took (and used), that he had a parent waiting at the Fund Fair to give him more.

What about me? Perhaps I’ve forgotten who built the fair in the first place. Perhaps instead of hoarding or gloating there is another way. Perhaps I can freely give my tickets away because the ticketmaster does likewise. And perhaps instead of simply being words on a page, I’d get to experience the reality that… as it works out, my father cares for me.

Psalm 16 – Feelings

By Aaron Elder

I know y’all couldn’t wait for a post about feelings. I just give the people what they want. Perhaps you’re familiar with the illustration of a train. The train consists of three cars that function in this order: fact (engine), faith, feelings (caboose). The idea being that if my facts are right and I believe those facts, the feelings (love, joy, peace (not feelings, but I digress..)) fall into place. There is a flaw in this system, however. What if I believe the same things I did six months ago, but I’m having a very different (negative) emotional experience? I’m left to conclude that my facts or my faith are broken. Since facts are facts, I must conclude that my faith is broken (cue unending cycle of shame).

Though sometimes directly, but more often indirectly, we’ve been told that the healthy Christian has no room for feelings – and certainly not negative ones. We’re left without any mechanism to process emotions, which is a big deal. Here’s why: Dr. David Eckman once said, “Feelings don’t authenticate truth, they authenticate our understanding of truth.” Translated: Feelings don’t make something true. Feelings reflect what I believe to be true. We’ve all seen this play out right? Man is yelling and the woman says, “Honey, calm down.” The man replies (screaming) “I AM CALM!” Bro, remove the tape from the dashboard lights and pop the hood.

Let’s try this out – I’ll even give you a softball. I’m going to give a phrase and I want you to listen to your body’s reaction… ready? God. Is. Good. Sorry… I lied – I used to think this was a softball, not any more! If you felt nothing, slow it down. It could be that what you’re “supposed” to believe short circuited your emotional system. Some of you are really struggling with this. You know intimately the tension between what you feel and what you’re supposed to believe. This is good. Resist the urge to reinforce the engine.

Here’s a starting point: whether you had a positive or negative bodily reaction, explore this question: why do I feel _____ when I hear “God is good?” Let it run as far as it needs to. Because we’ve been taught to “fix” our emotions with truth, this will be a challenging exercise. 

In verse 9 of this Psalm, David expounds on what he has experienced from God by describing what is happening in his body. This is exceedingly common in the Psalms. God gave us these bodies to do more than house a spirit (we need to leave the dualism of Plato behind). Begin listening to your body and become curious about your emotions. I don’t know where it will take you, but it will probably derail your train. You’re welcome.

Psalm 15 – Shaken or Stirred

By Aaron Elder

How would you like your Christianity? Shaken or stirred? Let’s be clear, I know almost nothing about mixed drinks. Here’s what I do know – in order for a mixed drink to taste good, you have to do one or the other. I’ve been a Christian for nearly 18 years. I’ve spent the bulk of those years searching for the right recipe. You know, the Holy Spirit recipe with all the right fruit.

Psalm 15 is one such recipe card. It is so very clear. It reads like this: Verse 2 + Verse 3 + Verse 4 + Verse 5a = Verse 5b. It even says, “whoever does these things will not be shaken.” The troubling realization I’ve been coming to is that all along I’ve been searching for a what (Christianity to make my life work) and not a who (Jesus).

If I’m perfectly honest, the equation of Psalm 15 hasn’t worked. Actually… let me rephrase that. My version of Christianity that has an equation for everything has been exposed for what it is – fraudulent. I read this Psalm and I think “if I put in the right inputs, the output is…I’ll never be shaken.” I’ve also come to a conclusion about what “never shaken” means. No job failure. No family tragedy. No wayward child. No marital trials. No crisis of faith. In fact, to experience these would be a flashing red light that my inputs are off – I’m doing it wrong. I turned Jesus into an equation and asked him to play along. Maybe this is why traditional prayer is hard for me these days.

Here’s what I know now: Jesus has taken my Christianity and shaken it – somewhat vigorously. Wait, doesn’t the Psalm say, “you won’t be shaken?” Yes. But, shaken from what? Exactly. Shaken from what. In order to find who. Who? Yes. Exactly.

So what will it be? Will you take your Christianity shaken or stirred? I’ll take either – as long as it’s served on the Rock.

Psalm 14 – Faith Statement

By Aaron Elder
Both are likely appropriate translations, I mean it isn’t uncommon for a Biblical passage to be saying one thing and winking at a second meaning. Here, let me pose the question: in verse one, is it that when a person says in their heart, “there is no God” they become a fool? Or is it that foolish behavior communicates to the outside world, “there is no God?” There’s no question which interpretation clearly draws the dividing lines – that’s familiar and certainly certain territory I’ve lived in.

I wasn’t really sure what to write so I went to one of my resources, chabad.org, to see what they had to say. Let’s just say it muddied the waters. According to some Jewish tradition, this Psalm was written about Israel’s lack of faithfulness when Babylon descended on Jerusalem to sack the city.

Why does that matter? Well, first of all, I always thought this Psalm was about those non-Christians over there (cue annoying buzzer). Wrong!

Second, if the above is true, the first view can’t be the primary one, can it? Somebody try to convince me that you would have found even one Jew who would say, “there is no God.” In fact, you would have been hard-pressed to find ANYBODY at this time in history who would say, “there is no God.” Now, one could argue that many didn’t believe in the true God. Granted. What are you going to do with the Jews? The sign on this road reads, “Warning: Hermeneutical Gymnastics Ahead.”

Back to the point. The old saying goes, “Actions speak louder than words.” What if it goes deeper than that? What if how we live our lives is our personal faith statement? Not what I say I believe, but what I actually do. What if what I do communicates to the world around me what I actually believe God is like? Here’s the humbling part – lest I think “what I do” means the activities I choose to engage in or not (i.e. go to church, don’t go to the bookstore owned by a democrat, etc.) – it’s primarily the actions I do when I’m not paying attention. While not exhaustive, this would include what we refer to as “character traits.”

[Sorry *rummaging* – quick break – just trying to collect the pieces of my shattered ego *rummaging*…]

In this short Psalm, I’m emotionally exhausted by the time I get to verse 7. But with gritted teeth, bearing the weight on my feeble legs, I beat my chest and yell, “Oh, that salvation would come out of Zion! When the Lord restores his people, let Jacob rejoice and Israel be glad!” Indeed salvation has come. May my faith statement act more and more like Jesus.

Psalm 13 – Invitation

By Aaron Elder

Let’s just say things went far differently than I had imagined. Joanna and I had agreed to move to South Korea to teach English shortly after college graduation and our wedding. I imagined an enjoyable, adventurous year – teaching, yes – but a year exploring life in Korea together. For two days, what I imagined was reality. It was hot and humid, but the air-conditioned hotel room provided relief and we observed the cute kids we’d be teaching and located a comfortable coffee shop.
I don’t remember the exact moment my dreams were shattered – was it being on the 10th floor of a 10 floor apartment complex in the sweltering heat with no air conditioner? Or was it the realization that first Monday morning I was doing a job I didn’t know how to do? Whatever it was, I had just begun the most trying year of my life to that point – by a long shot.
Of course, the bastion of spiritual strength that I was (former president of the university’s most well-attended Christian ministry), I knew how to handle such hard times. I read the bible and I pray and I experience complete and utter peace and joy – it fixes everything. Well it fixes everything until it doesn’t. What do you do when what has always worked suddenly doesn’t? I knew – you do the same thing just more and harder….
What the psalmist expressed in Psalm 13 became my plea. God, I’m doing all the right things; how long until you rescue me? How long until the anxiety lifts? How long…?
I’ve listened to a good number of sermons in my day, and while God uses them all, there aren’t many that specifically stay with me. One day, I happened upon a sermon by a good friend – Dave Gibson. He was doing a series on walking through the wilderness. Perfect, I thought, he’ll help me figure out what I need to do to get out of the wilderness. He told a story of hunting with his dad when he was a boy when he became lost in the middle of the woods. As he reflected on that time, he articulated that what would have been most utilitarian in that moment (a map), wasn’t at all what he wanted (or needed). He simply wanted to be with his dad. Even in the middle of the woods, if he could be with his dad, he would have everything he needed.
I had been looking for a way out of the wilderness for months on end. And here was God, in the midst of great inner turmoil, inviting me to simply be with him. To be perfectly honest, things didn’t immediately “get fixed.” In many ways, 14 years later, I still find myself in the wilderness – for what seems like very different reasons. And yet, I find it’s just another invitation to be with dad.

Psalm 12 – Why?

By Aaron Elder

Because I want to. Depending on the company, I might actually admit as much, but whether or not I would, that first statement is a primary reason why I do what I do. Which makes me curious… If this is a primary reason, how have I managed to have a family and not trade them in for anything and everything related to baseball? There are actually multiple reasons from biological to spiritual, but ultimately what I want to do has changed. This shouldn’t be surprising. If you’re a human, this has happened to you somewhere along the line.
Why do I bring this up? Whether it is just for my own sake or for whoever is reading these, why am I writing these seemingly random entries about the Psalms? Not all of them relate precisely to the circumstances of a man’s life. So, why? One of the things I’ve observed in my own life is that how I interact with God shapes every relationship in my life. I’ve experienced God’s closeness at various times in my life, but my primary mode of operation has been to interact with God as though he has equations for living a good life and the ultimate goal of relationship with him is to make life work well.
As a result, my evaluation of my life is based on how well I’m executing the equations (prayer+bible+etc.=…). The other thing that happens is that my relationships follow suit. If other “like-minded” folks fit neatly in my worldview, relationships work very well. If they aren’t so “like-minded” they get trampled or excluded (or both). If God is an equation or a set of beliefs, then the people in my life will be assigned a value based on their adherence to my systematic theology.
What the psalmist is addressing is the nature of relationship as wholly dependent on how we relate to God.
Will I be faithful? (v.1)
Will I speak honestly with love and respect? (v.2)
Will I flatter and boast for my gain? (v.3)
Will I submit myself to others with mutual love and respect? (v.4)
Will I take advantage of other people? (v. 5)
Will I honor wickedness? (v.8)
God created men with strength to be exercised, but to what end? God desires for our strength to be exercised to bolster relationships – both with God and man. We have a responsibility to steward strength well. It starts with relating to God as a person and not as a puzzle to be solved. As I do that, God will transform my desires and my relationships with the people in my life.

Psalm 11 – [Emphasis Added]

By Aaron Elder

Two bracketed words make the difference between a well written article and a fraudulent one. A writer will add this to a quotation after drawing attention to the particular part of a statement made by someone else – whether or not the original author intended the emphasis to be placed there. 

As I was reading Psalm 11, this thought came to mind and it made me curious. Every verse is communicating something to us about the nature of God and his world. To make an example, verses 6 and 7 communicate ideas that stand opposed to one another – one verse about the wicked and one verse about the upright. To which of these is my emphasis added? For that matter, when I read any part of the Bible, where is my emphasis added?

We need to zoom out so we can see the whole landscape a bit more clearly. There are many systematic theologies with a few garnering most of the attention. While these systematic theologies have much to offer, they necessarily add emphasis in some areas where other systematics add emphasis elsewhere. While this can be problematic, it doesn’t have to be. 

We all read things through a lens that has been developed through our upbringing, our education, and our relationships. Having a lens is part of being human. Recognizing I have a lens allows me to become curious. Where am I adding emphasis? Should I add it there? Is there a different way to understand what I’m reading? If I’m reading the Bible and everything lines up perfectly with how I think, I’m in desperate need of asking better questions [emphasis added].

Psalm 10 – Flexing

By Aaron Elder

“Ariana Grande Just Released ‘7 Rings’ And It’s All About Being Rich As Hell.” That is the title of a piece written for Elle magazine regarding the release of a (then) new song by Grande. In the article, she is quoted as saying, “Seven rings is jus like…a flex.” I came across this song listening to Spotify and it was very puzzling. Is this song for real or is it a parody? Well, despite my hope for the latter, the article mentioned above gave me my answer.
This song, as Grande mentioned, is all about flexing (see slang: flaunting wealth) which is afforded her largely on the backs of young girls. At the same time I first heard this song, I was reading and pondering Psalm 10. In many ways, ‘7 Rings’ would be an anthem of the wicked lamented and described by the psalmist. As you’re probably used to me doing, rather than pointing the finger at “them,” I want to turn it upside down and shake it and see where I have the opportunity to grow and mature.
As a Christian living in a world of ‘flexing,’ I’m often tempted to think I need to flex back – and harder. Except that the currency I’m flexing isn’t cash – it’s ‘truth.’ To be clear, this is little ‘t’ truth, not the absolute capital ‘T’ truth of Jesus Christ and his gospel. In the same way that cash creates identity and status, so too does ‘truth.’
It is the ‘truth’ of topics like predestination, social justice, politics, eschatology (to name but a few) and my certainty about such that create a sense of identity and status. I will flex on my topic de jour even if it hinders my relationships. The reason I do so is the same reason Grande (presumably) does – I want to be seen in a certain way to fit in with a certain group. To be alienated from that group would be my ruin… or would it?
We take our cues from Jesus who elevated people above the ‘truths’ of his day. He was absolutely irritating to the religious leaders, not because of his theology, but because he refused to flex the way they did. He was willing to be misunderstood in order to include those with nothing to flex. His alienation ruined him – he died on a cross. It was a death surely needed for resurrection.
So what about me? Is it ok to hold positions on these ‘truths’? Certainly. It is important (and necessary) for people to hold positions on matters of truth, but as a good friend commented, posture also matters. As someone who has had his mind changed on virtually every ‘truth’ topic (some more than once!), I’ll save my flexing… say, which way to the gun show?

Psalm 9 – Maybe

By Aaron Elder

I lied to him. As I filled my car with gas, a man approached me as he had the others at the pump. Respectfully he asked, “You got any spare change for a cup of coffee?” His clothes, his unshaven face and his two visible teeth suggested he was homeless. I said to him, “No, I’m sorry man,” trying to convey as much compassion as one can muster while lying to a man’s face about not having one dollar.

As the man picked up his backpack and walked away, I began to justify myself, “he’s creating a nuisance for the business owner anyway” and “there’s plenty of resources available to him.” I finished filling my car and I drove to work, wrestling with what I had just done to my fellow man. I have been praying for God to change my disposition toward those different from me, and opportunity showed me I still have far to go. 

For much of the day, I wondered about this man and his story. Did he really need (or want) that cup of coffee? Maybe. Maybe what he really wanted was someone to care. Maybe some faith in humanity could be restored. Maybe God is real. Maybe it is true that God hasn’t forgotten me. Maybe I can continue to hope for a better future.

Likely, I will forget this man as I go about my life. I know when I read verse 18 that at the end of all things God really will remember the needy and afflicted and I know that the saints will give thanks with all their hearts and tell of his wondrous deeds. I do know that God will set all things right. But is it enough for me to praise God for what will be and not act today? Maybe not. What if the way in which God desires to show his faithfulness and love to the needy is through his body – the church? It just may be.