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Tag: psalms

Give Thanks on Solid Ground

by Mike McKinniss

What do you believe about God today that you did not believe previously? What do you no longer believe about God that you once did?

It’s an intriguing thought. It shouldn’t take very long before we realize that there’s something we once thought of God that we no longer do. And that, at the very least, ought to make us pause the next time we dig in our heals and sharpen our claws in preparation for a red-hot theological row. But that’s for another time.

Rather, I asked myself these questions recently. One of the places my mind has changed the most regarding the Lord fell in the area of God’s will, his goodness and my role in whatever the Lord may actually do on the earth.

You see, I thought at one time that God’s desire to heal sickness and disease today was essentially his sole prerogative. He might choose to heal; he might not. Neither I nor anyone else had much to do with it. Bottom line, I didn’t get what prayer was all about or how it might influence the Lord or events in “real life.” I was thinking like a fatalist, which is no fun, neither for the fatalist nor anyone else around him.

The broader question—”What was the Lord’s will?”—is a common puzzle for a lot of believers. Personally, since I didn’t know and believed I couldn’t affect it, I’d assume generally that whatever actually happened must have been God’s will by default. It was a natural outflow of a pair of theological tenets most of us never question: God is all powerful and God is all knowing. If these are true, then the Lord’s will is what is.

This is all well and good when the question at hand is whether we’ll get the promotion we’re aiming for or whether our offer on a house will be accepted. If it doesn’t come to pass, then the Lord must have some good reason for it. Que será será.

But when darker issues arise—like personal tragedy or global conflict—this line of thinking becomes extremely problematic. The omnipotent God crashes headlong into another theological tenet: the omnibenevolent God. The result for many is some kind of divine monster who would will—let alone allow—something like the Montecito mudslides. No decent human being shrugs her shoulders and says of the Holocaust, “It must have been God’s will.”

Set with such a dilemma, it’s not hard to see that one thought or another about God has got to change if we’re to keep from closing down our faith altogether.

So here’s a token of advice, if you’ll have it. When you find yourself in an impossible theological position, find one piece of solid ground to stand on. Make it your center, and allow everything else to be refashioned around it.

Here’s one of mine: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his love endures forever.”

It’s the most repeated refrain in the Psalms—perhaps even in all of the Old Testament. These were, I believe, the last words to leave Jesus’ lips before heading to his arrest, trial and crucifixion (see Mark 14:26, which may be a reference to Psalm 118, the last of the Hallel psalms traditionally recited at Passover). You’d be hard pressed to find more solid bedrock in the scriptures than this brief, easily remembered chorus.

Whatever else may be going on in life, however stressful your circumstances, however tragic your hardship, stand on this: God is good and his faithful commitments to his people and his creation will never be overcome. It worked for Jesus.

Does this mean God is not all powerful? Does this mean the Lord is not all knowing? Not necessarily. Though the theological and philosophical arguments there are too lengthy for now, the point is simply that there may be more going on in reality than we know (always a good lesson to keep in mind), but you can at least stand on one assurance, repeated again and again in Scripture: God is eternally good.

For that it’s worth giving thanks.

Who do we think we are?

by Mike McKinniss

It has been a common theme among scientifically minded secularists to point to our ever-expanding awareness of our ever-expanding universe and come to the rather small conclusion that we are but specs of accidental cosmic dust in the midst of a vast unimaginable cosmos.

David, without the benefit of telescope or satellite, posed much the same question 3,000 years ago: “When I look at your heavens, the work of your fingers, the moon and the stars that you have established; what are human beings that you are mindful of them, mortals that you care for them” (Ps 8:3, NRSV)?

It’s a humbling thought, and its weight only increases the more we learn of our universe—a fifteen-year-old estimate on the number of stars in the universe put the expanse at 70,000,000,000,000,000,000,000.

Who are we, against so vast a creation? Of what significance could humankind really be?

Read the rest of this entry »

What To Do in the Face of Tragedy

by Mike McKinniss

 

Forgive me, but I’ve been thinking about tragedy lately.

In the early morning hours of Wednesday, January 10, a torrential rainstorm dumped several inches of precipitation onto Santa Barbara, CA, in a matter of minutes. Normally, such a violent shower would have done little more than force the shedding of some old palm fronds from their trunks. But this storm came immediately on the heels of California’s largest recorded wildfire, which burned a vast area nearby, including the hills just above the tiny town of Montecito. Denuded of the vegetation upslope, the massive amount of rain in so short a time triggered powerful mudslides, which bulldozed through portions of the village.

Dozens of homes and places of business were destroyed in a moment. At writing, 21 people are counted among the dead and two remain missing in the aftermath.

The torrent of rain and the flash flood is only the beginning of the anguish for people in this seaside community, for a similar torrent of fearful and desperate questions follow. These will likely linger for a long time—probably long after the clean up and reconstruction is completed.

Where was God when this violent storm struck this peaceful community? Where is God now that the event has wreaked its havoc? How could God have allowed such destruction? Could God have not stopped such a tragedy? And what do we do now?

Read the rest of this entry »

Why I Don’t Get Tattoos or Have a Life Verse

by Mike McKinniss

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Bad Tattoo” by Matt Niemi under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

I don’t get tattoos. I mean that both in the practical and cognitive sense.

People who do get tattoos—people I admire and respect—have told me they’re a way of memorializing a time or event in their life. If it was especially meaningful, they say, why not get it permanently written on your body so it goes with you everywhere?

There’s a certain logic to that, but I’m not going there. And here’s why: I can’t think of any one thing I’d want to have written on my body both now and—God willing—when I’m 94.

These days, I’m really into this one pizza joint in town and I’m telling everyone around they’ve just got to go. But by the time I walk out of the tattoo parlor with the restaurant’s name and logo emblazoned on my chest, I’ll probably be hungry for the Thai place across the street because: drunken noodles.

This is likely the same reason I don’t have a life verse. Read the rest of this entry »

First Things First; or, Why I Drink Coffee in the Morning

by Mike McKinniss

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Anytime” by Shereen M used under license CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

The day doesn’t begin without coffee. Maybe it does for other people. I’ve heard rumors about such a race of men, though I imagine they must live in a land far from here—Mars, perhaps.

Morning coffee is no mere conveyance for caffeine, mind you. Sure, the miracle drug graciously plays its role, but it’s more than that. It’s the warm mug in your cupped palms, assuring you the world is a safe place. It’s the steam whispering up like a siren song, beckoning you, not toward rocky shoals, but toward a calm haven. It’s the aroma of your childhood home. It’s the deep rich color calling you toward the depth of character you desire. It’s the subtle intermingling of sweetness and bitterness—a complexity with which you identify.

For these reasons, and a thousand others, the day does not begin without coffee. Read the rest of this entry »

The Path to Victory

by Mike McKinniss

When Mark gives the record of Jesus’ last supper, he provides us a curious detail at the conclusion to the disciples’ time in that upper room. He writes, “After singing psalms, they went out to the Mount of Olives” (Mk 14:26).

Those familiar with the story know, of course, that it’s at the Mount of Olives that Jesus is soon betrayed by Judas and arrested, ushered to his midnight trial and the next day executed on the cross. Harrowing events face Jesus in this final night, and Mark tells us that Jesus and his disciples do a bit of singing before the plot races toward its conclusion.

What in the world could they have sung?

Traditionally, there are a short set of Psalms that the Jews sing or recite as part of their Passover observances. Psalms 113-118 are known as the Hillel Psalms and largely reflect on God’s covenant faithfulness toward his people, both in the past and in their hopes for the future. They reassure the faithful people of God that, just as the Lord had rescued his people from the hands of the Egyptians at the time of Moses, so too would he again one day save them and decisively.

It is altogether likely that Jesus and his disciples were singing these Psalms before departing the dining room for the Mount of Olives and the Garden of Gethsemane.

And it is quite an expression of Jesus’ faith, knowing what he was in for over the next several hours.

Psalm 118, the last Jesus likely sang, opens with a traditional refrain of God’s faithfulness: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his faithful love endures forever” (Ps 118:1). It is a recitation of God’s unfailing commitment to his people. Surely, the Lord will be good to Israel in the end.

As the Psalm proceeds, the dramatic irony for Jesus ratchets up. “The Lord is for me; I will not be afraid. What can man do to me” (v. 6)? What could man do to Jesus? We are about to find out. He can betray him. He can put him on trial. He can level false accusations. He can beat him, humiliate him and force him to carry his own instrument of death and hang him on it. But, declares Jesus, “the Lord is for me.”

Now Jesus moves toward a declaration of God’s impending victory over the wicked nations. “All the nations surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I destroyed them. They surrounded me, yes, they surrounded me; in the name of the Lord I destroyed them” (vv. 10-11). For a Jew in the first century, it is altogether likely his mind would have turned to the Roman legions that occupied Jerusalem. For Jesus, it likely was not lost on him that these Roman authorities would be the very ones executing him.

And most Jews likely would have nodded along or even exclaimed at this point: “I destroyed them!” Surely Jesus knew he would be leveling a certain kind of destruction on the enemy of God’s people, but it would not appear the way so many hoped or expected, neither in the means nor the target. No, Jesus’ path to victory was not lined with soldiers, chariots, swords and shields. Rather, his path marched through the cross and into the grave. And, further, the Romans were not his enemy, but another force far more vile.

And yet, somehow, Jesus is then able to utter this poignant line: “I will not die, but I will live and proclaim what the Lord has done” (v. 17). What confidence the Christ must have had in his God! How can he express such faith? How can he be so certain, knowing what he is about to face?

Yet Jesus is sure that he will walk faithfully through this impending horror, to be welcomed by the Lord on the other side. “Open the gates of righteousness for me; I will enter through them and give thanks to the Lord” (v. 19).

And did Jesus know he was speaking of himself a few lines later? “Bind the festival sacrifice with cords to the horns of the altar” (v. 27b). He had to, and yet he gives his full-throated suport just the same.

How can he do this? How can Jesus hold his head so high in the face of the dire path he’s about to take? He does so by reciting again Israel’s refrain of confidence in their God: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his faithful love endures forever” (v. 29). And then he walks out along the path toward Gethsemane and Golgotha, the path to the cross and his own death, the path to victory.

Faith’s Vindication

by Mike McKinniss

emptytomb[1]Let those who desire my vindication shout for joy and be glad, and say evermore, “Great is the Lord, who delights in the welfare of his servant” (Psalm 35:27, NRSV).

There are probably a few crazies out there, who, like me, fixate on words.  My more outgoing friends are fascinated by the interrelations between other people–how one personality interacts with another and another and another, creating intricate webs of fluid society.

Interesting, no doubt.  My excitement, however, is aroused at the conversations between words on a page.  I find inexplicable pleasure from a well crafted sentence.  (It took me days to get over Steinbeck’s opening sentence in Travels with Charley: “When I was very young and the urge to be someplace else was on me, I was assured by mature people that maturity would cure this itch.”)

Although a word, like a person, is most fully a word in community, it needn’t be in relationship to be admired.  Ogle supermodels, if you like; I have been caught obsessing over a single word striking a pose on a plain white sheet: the balance or imbalance of the ascenders and descenders (the upward climb of the d and the downward fall of the p), the feel of the word in my mouth, its etymological back story, and most of all the latent range of meanings and the infinite conceptual possibilities they present.

The current case study in my psychosis is vindication.  The word has occupied my brain and infiltrated my regular vocabulary for the better part of half a decade now.  What is it?  Put simply, vindication is the state of having been proven correct.  It is the rightful overturning of a guilty verdict.  Some confuse vindication with victory against long odds.  True vindication requires, actually, failure.  And then it requires a third party to elevate the defeated to triumph.  In short, vindication is resurrection.

The summation of Jesus’ life and message may be found in Mark 1:15.  “The time is fulfilled, and the kingdom of God is at hand; repent and believe the good news!”  Everything Jesus said and did every day was intended to demonstrate, to prove, the truth of this proclamation.  The glorious kingdom of God, in which the entirety of creation would be reconciled and restored to its hijacked glory, was taking shape right before the throngs who came to hear and see what this Galilean was doing.  The Creator was making all things new, and it was all happening, according to Jesus’ declarations, in and through himself.

Others had made similar declarations around the same time that Jesus had.  In each of the generations preceding and following Jesus, men had risen to announce that the Lord was working through them to restore the people of God.  Yet each of their lives ended violently as tragic proof that they were not, in fact, God’s chosen vessels of restoration.  Everyone knew: The Lord’s agents of redemption do not die in the attempt.

So it was, it seemed, at Jesus’ crucifixion.  It did not have to be written.  An interpreter did not have to stand at the foot of the cross to inform the people.  The Jews of Jerusalem knew what Jesus’ death meant.  However wonderful his words, however miraculous his deeds, however the extent of his compassion, the crucifixion announced the failure of Jesus’ proposed program for redeeming creation.

Indeed, this would have been the lesson to learn from the life of Jesus for all time had the Creator not intervened, for the resurrection is God’s final stamp of approval on all that Jesus had said and done.  The empty tomb is the Lord’s affirmation of Jesus’ project.  This is God saying to all the world, “This is precisely how the world is remade.  This is exactly how I have intended to make all things right.”  Moreover, the resurrection is the vindication of Jesus’ faith in his Father.

It’s a beautiful word, vindication.  This Easter, I am happy it is a vital part of God’s vocabulary, as the Lord’s vocal response to a life of faith.  And if the printed word is unbalanced, with no descenders, it is altogether proper, since vindication always concludes with elevation and since vindication, by definition, is always the last word.

(To learn more about Mike, please visit our Contributors page).

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