The Fear of Being Without

By Rand Kreycik

I’m kind of freaked out right now.  Not supremely, but kind of.

It’s the empty shelves.  Having never lived in a communist country – having always had enough … this is freaky and a bit scary for me.

Okay, I’m one of those people who is OCD about toilet paper.  Always have been.  My family has always made fun of me, and it’s been an inside joke for years in our home.

And now the shelves are empty.  Always!  Oh, there are signs on them that say things like, “We are getting new deliveries of paper goods every Tuesday and Thursday.”  I haven’t seen them.  Sometime between delivery and when I can make it to the store, the locusts descend … and the shelves are ALWAYS empty.

My fear is, of course laughable.  Unless.  Unless the supply chains are disrupted and toilet paper stops coming!  If all the production workers are being told to stay home, who’s going to make stuff for us?  Who’s going to package it?  Who’s going to deliver it?

Apocalypse!

No, it’s not.  It’s still a First World Problem.  Stop, think about what people used to do.  We can still dig an outhouse.  We can still use the Sears catalog (wait, do they make those anymore??).  The point is, we are spoiled.  The rest of the world finds a way to survive, every day, without even one-tenth of the conveniences we deem vital.

And what does this say about my faith?  What about Philippians 4:6-7, which we’ve all memorized?

do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (ESV)

Are these nice, comforting platitudes, or is God’s Word real, active, sharp? (Hebrews 4:12)

And what about Luke 12?

22 And he said to his disciples, “Therefore I tell you, do not be anxious about your life, what you will eat, nor about your body, what you will put on. 23 For life is more than food, and the body more than clothing. 24 Consider the ravens: they neither sow nor reap, they have neither storehouse nor barn, and yet God feeds them. Of how much more value are you than the birds! 25 And which of you by being anxious can add a single hour to his span of life? 26 If then you are not able to do as small a thing as that, why are you anxious about the rest? 27 Consider the lilies, how they grow: they neither toil nor spin, yet I tell you, even Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these. 28 But if God so clothes the grass, which is alive in the field today, and tomorrow is thrown into the oven, how much more will he clothe you, O you of little faith! 29 And do not seek what you are to eat and what you are to drink, nor be worried. 30 For all the nations of the world seek after these things, and your Father knows that you need them. 31 Instead, seek his kingdom, and these things will be added to you. (ESV)

Do I believe it?  Will I ever truly be without the things I really need?  Jesus makes the answer pretty clear.

Will I rest and trust in Him alone?  That’s the question.  Good question.

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.

Psalm 8 – Funny Business

By Aaron Elder

Funny Business. There are three main ways I use this phrase and as I read this Psalm, all of them strike a chord with me. Mostly it is in relation to verse 2 of the Psalm because it is so powerful yet seems so out of place.

With someone I don’t trust much, but I’m relying on them to be truthful, we might make an agreement that will be finalized with this saying, “And no funny business.” As I observe the comedy in my world through my kids and otherwise, with a generous laugh I say, “that’s some funny business!” Or In the midst of my work when things don’t go quite as planned on a particular day, I might say, with a shoulder shrug, “it’s a funny business.” 

Call me crazy, but in the context of Psalm 8, all of these come to mind when I think that through the praise of children and infants God has established a stronghold against his enemies.

I picture God joyfully sitting on his throne delighting in what he has made. And from the story of Job, I picture Satan as a curmudgeon coming to God as foe and adversary. I picture Satan, irritated as ever because of God’s joy, declaring his plans for evil. And knowing God’s pension for turning evil on its head, Satan leaves saying, “and no funny business.” The ultimate “funny business” took place at the cross and resurrection of Jesus when God took even the great trump card of death and turned it into the coronation ceremony of the Lord Jesus.

When God declares that it is the praises of children and infants that become his weapon against his enemy, I can’t help but think about my kids. I think about my 2 year-old who pronounces the word “raisin” as “sheh-vay” (what?). I think about my 4 year-old giggling uncontrollably as we wrestle in the living room and I think about my 7 year-old building a penguin instead of a snowman in the front yard complete with pine needles protruding from the top of its head because, “you know, some of them have hair sticking up.” I just chuckle and say, “that’s some funny business!”

As I read the bible and observe life – with all of its twists and turns, with its hurts and searing pain, with its celebrations and deep joys, with its observations of grandeur and the awkwardness of humanity stumbling through life – I’m humbled by the way God joyfully interacts with us. And seeing these miniature humans wrapped up in pure joy, it is their giggles and playfulness that become the powerful weapons that God uses to pierce evil and turn corrupt power on its head. And I can’t help but shrug my shoulders and say, “this life… it’s a funny business.”

Psalm 7 – Heritage

By Aaron Elder

I have missed out. I feel like we (the western church) have been missing out on a great treasure. What is that treasure? Jewish thought on the scriptures. The rhetoric goes like this: Jews don’t believe that Jesus was the Messiah, therefore their lens is broken and little can be gained, if anything, from their comments on the scriptures. I certainly held to this view personally. 

Friends, this is deeply unfortunate. It feels a bit like saying, “since none of my family members are Christian, I’m not going to engage deeply in a relationship with them.” Christian or not, we are who we are at this moment because of everything that has come in the past. This is certainly so when it comes to the church and God’s word. Especially when we realize that nearly everything Jesus said is a direct reference to Old Testament Scripture. Even Acts and the Epistles are dripping with Jewish thought and hermeneutic. 

In my English Bible, for example, I’m not alerted to the fact that Psalm 7 is always read during Purim. If you’re not familiar with Purim, not a worry, neither was I one year ago. It does make sense in the fact that I, an American Christian, don’t celebrate this two-day holiday. This holiday celebrates God’s rescuing of Israel from Haman’s schemes as described in the book of Esther. It doesn’t appear that this Psalm was written for that occasion, but it overlays the story of Esther perfectly. 

This is but a small taste of the treasure buried within the pages of our bibles. There are a multitude of resources out there to do some digging, and there have been a handful that have been particularly helpful for me.

If you’re a podcast listener, I recommend BEMA podcast (start at the beginning) and The Bible Project podcast (also check out the Bible Project videos on YouTube). A source I’ve sampled but not purchased is the DVD series, “That The World May Know” by Ray Vander Laan. And a website resource that has been insightful is Chabad.org. 

You will likely not agree with absolutely everything you hear or read, but there is much treasure to be gained. Here’s what these resources will not do: they will not give you all the answers. They will encourage you to wrestle with the text. And in the midst of that wrestling we will know ourselves and our God more.

Psalm 6 – Foes

By Aaron Elder

Reading this psalm and a variety of thoughts of others on it, I was confronted with an unfamiliar and uncomfortable question. The first part of this psalm has David apparently repenting for some sin committed. The second part seems to be David praying for deliverance from his foes. The psalm, while powerful, can seem a bit disjointed. The question that confronted me was this: What if it was my sin that created my foes?

I had a taste of this idea two months into my new job. I spoke with a somewhat demanding and particular client who requested some information related to a sales opportunity. Because of my fears and insecurities, I did things the way the client requested rather than how I was instructed and I failed to include my boss on the call. It was not until after the phone call and a conversation with my colleague that I realized the error I had made. Even with that, I wrestled with what to do. Do I confess it to my boss or will it just pass? My boss wasn’t in the office, and I had other work to do, and as Friday drew to a close, I headed home to enjoy the weekend. 

When I woke up Saturday morning, the weight of what I had done hit me like a ton of bricks. What ensued was a war of emotions. On the one hand, I was grieved at what I had done and wishing I had done things differently. On the other, I was turning my boss into a hardened, unforgiving foe and being angry with him. 

What an odd emotional space to be in. I was simultaneously penitent on the one hand and vilifying my foe on the other… the irony being that it was my sin that created the foe!

So what to do? On Monday morning I went to my boss and I told him what happened. Any guesses of what I found? Here, a demanding, non-Christian boss with high expectations… extended grace, mercy, and forgiveness in abundance. 

Often as I read the psalms and come across foes and enemies, I tend to place myself as the innocent. Sometimes that’s true. More often, though, I create my own foes. God would you deal with my foes justly and show me where my own repentance and restitution is needed? May I be willing to be the first to step into the “firing line” to orchestrate reconciliation.

Psalm 5 – Wickedness

By Aaron Elder

Verse 4a of this psalm reads “For you are not a God who is pleased with wickedness… .” The word “wicked” or “wickedness” is a weighty word. When I read it in the Bible, I tend to swap it out in my mind for the word “evil” or “bad.” But as with any word, it can start to take on meanings that were handed to me from other sources. I think this word is incredibly important and deserves some unpacking.

Most English definitions will revolve around verbiage like “morally bad or evil.” To me that isn’t entirely helpful. How do you define what is evil? Because I’m a Westerner, my default is to find the list of items that make someone wicked. How about the Law of God in the Old Testament? God gave it so that settles it right? Well…

Jesus harshly rebuked the Pharisees for tithing all the way down to their spices and yet neglecting care for their parents. Clearly it can’t be simply failure of a moral code. In Hebrew writing, often the first usage of a word will under-gird its use in future passages. The first use of the word “wicked” occurs in the story of Sodom and Gomorrah. We’ve come to think that the great wickedness of these cities was their sexuality. Not so. The wickedness of the people of Sodom was that they used other people for their own pleasure or gain. They pushed down the weak to elevate the strong.

This is the great wickedness of Egypt. Egyptian thirst for empire crushed the dignity of those individuals who made the engine run. This is exemplified when Pharoah orders the Hebrews to increase their brick quota without providing straw. Sadly, this too becomes the great wickedness of Israel as written about throughout the prophets.  

Wickedness is, at its root, a disposition to get what I want at the expense of another person. Further, it is action with the intent to dehumanize or rob the dignity of another person or group of people. What we read, then, in this psalm is not a broken moral code, but the variety of expressions of the dehumanization of other people. When David says, “Not a word from their mouth can be trusted,” he means, “How can I trust someone whose intent is to dehumanize another person?”

“Lead me, Lord, in your righteousness,” David says in verse 8. “Lord, make me the kind of person who lifts up the vulnerable, the weak and the oppressed.” What we find in Jesus is a man whose ministry was defined by this kind of righteousness. This is the kind of righteousness that has now been handed to us. We do battle against wickedness, not by sword and shield, but by restoring dignity where it has been stripped.

Psalm 4 – Forks

By Aaron Elder

What does trust look like? Until recently, trust, to me, meant having an intellectual Bible answer for everything in my life. I knew the equations that make life work well. However, failure at something significant in your life has a way of making you go back to double-check your answers. For the previous five years, I worked as a financial advisor. I suspect that the duration is of no consequence to you – but for me, five years was supposed to be something of a magic milestone. The failure rate as a financial advisor during years 0 – 5 is close to 90%. Once somebody reaches five years, the rate flips. The rate of success jumps to well over 90%.

Just over a year ago, I found myself in the unenviable position of confessing to my wife that we were accumulating debt because there wasn’t enough money to pay for the business and our household expenses. What was supposed to bring unlimited opportunity to our family, brought the opportunity to fail in a way that was a statistical anomaly. Somebody get me a medal.

I was at a proverbial fork in the road. What I didn’t know at the time, was that my vocational fork in the road was masking a reality – this was much more about a spiritual fork. I am deeply grateful to friends and family who helped me work through the ways God has gifted me. And I had a choice to make. Accept a similar role to what I had been doing with more financial potential and in the place I was familiar with, or a role that appeared to be a better fit for me (no promises!) in a location where I knew just 1 family. 

Spiritually, I had a similar choice to make. Dig my heels into the comfortable equations I trusted in or let them go and…??

Under the hood, I see this spiritual fork presented to me in Psalm 4. It is delusional to think that having all of the right answers is what God is calling me to – it would amount to trusting a false god (v.2). The invitation is to put the equations on the shelf and know Jesus more (vv. 4-5). To trust him so much that I stop asking, “Where will my prosperity come from?” but rather experience his delight no matter who prospers (or doesn’t) around me (vv. 6-7). It is in that place of trust that I can lie down, sleep, and weather any storm knowing that I dwell securely in the love of Jesus (v.8).

Psalm 3 – Enemies

By Aaron Elder

I thought enemies were simple. I’m good, they’re bad. They’re wrong, I’m right. And so I pray, “Lord, break the teeth of the wicked.” I’m learning that enemies are far more complicated. I love that one, but you hate him. You love this one, but I hate him. Less than a month ago, the U.S. bombed Iran and killed General Qassem Soleimani. Because of his ties to terrorism in the Middle East, much of the western world rejoiced. But Gen. Soleimani wasn’t just a robot pushing buttons. He was a man with family and friends just like you and I. He thought that what he was doing was right. He was defending his people and his religion, and in his home country and in various parts of the world he was beloved.

I don’t have any personal ties to Gen. Soleimani, and my point isn’t to defend or accuse – I had no idea who he was until this bombing occurred. My point of emphasis is that Psalm 3 forces me to think differently about enemies. 

If you’re like me, you may have missed who the characters are as this Psalm was penned. Take a minute to reread the introduction to the Psalm and let it sink in. The first character appears frequently in the Psalms, that’s King David. The second character we know a bit more abstractly as a wicked guy, that’s Absalom. David is fleeing Absalom. David is running from his own son.

Here is a challenging exercise. If you have a son (I do), take a few minutes to pull up some of your favorite memories – my son is 4 years old and he loves wrestling, snuggling, giggling and just being with his daddy. While those memories are fresh, read the Psalm again as though crying out to God against that very son. 

I’m struggling to do this exercise myself.

What I see is a man, David, deeply grieved with a shattered heart. Absalom was once 4 years old, wrestling, laughing and playing with his daddy. How did we get here? Why is this happening? I picture David’s mind flooded with memories of his son. I don’t picture a man defiant, but prostrate on the ground sobbing as he prays, “Lord, break the teeth of the wicked.”

 Jesus calls me to be committed to justice. To defend the helpless against the wicked. This Psalm is one I can and should pray in a world where all has not yet been made right. But Jesus also calls me to love my enemies. I will fail to love them well if I fail to remember that my enemies are men like me.

Die the Good Death

By Rand Kreycik

I am a latecomer to the Harry Potter stories, by J. K. Rowling. In my early days as a parent, I legalistically banned them from my children’s reading list, concerned about the magic, wizardry, and witchcraft depicted.

After watching through the movie series with my family in recent weeks, I am struck by the consistent theme of self-sacrifice Rowling has infused her stories with.  This focus has overcome the obvious theological problems in the series, in my mind.  The stories portray good things to live for … and die for.

In one of the most powerful scenes of the movies, Professor Dumbledore greets Harry after he has made the difficult choice to give his life for his friends, to defeat the enemy of all good, Lord Voldemort.  “Harry, you wonderful boy.  You brave, brave man!”

That puts me in mind of the greeting all true believers in Jesus hope to hear at the end of their race:  “Well done, good and faithful servant.” (Matthew 25:23)  With the Apostle Paul, we all hope to be able to say, at our life’s waning, “I have fought the good fight, I have finished the race.” (2 Timothy 4:7)

Truth be told, I like the sound of “fight the good fight” because perhaps it means I can retain my pride and do it in my own strength.  “Look at me, Lord!  Haven’t I finished well?”  Finishing well, however, is clearly represented throughout Scripture as dying well.  “Dying the good death,” we might say.  Just as Harry Potter did, receiving the commendation of his master.  And on a far higher plane, the only way any of us will receive our Heavenly Master’s approval.

I’m coming to understand that living faithfully and loving fiercely actually involves dying, daily … and ultimately … for those we love.  That’s our calling, and that’s how each of us will finish well.  All in our Savior’s love and grace and power.  He who died the best death, crying, “It is finished!” (John 19:30)