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"...my heart was hot within me."
I remember being struck by how accurate this description was. So many times I'd felt that hotness burning inside, the anger or bitterness threatening to spill out in a flood, feeling yourself almost trembling with the effort to be stronger than it. An almost physical sensation; as if it were something you could spit out.
"I said, I will guard my ways, that I might not sin with my tongue..."
David's response goes further than simply trying to keep it in check, out of a vague sense that it was the right thing to do. His clarity of mind even at such an emotional moment shows his maturity and experience in suffering, in understanding the weaknesses of the human heart, and its tendency to sinful coping mechanisms and reactions. David was keenly aware of the temptation to vent emotions in words--whether spoken ones or thoughts in our hearts and minds--which very easily could lead to sin. His response is to keep a strict check on himself, almost an external action-- "I will restrain myself with a muzzle."
However, David does acknowledge that the mere act of restraining ourselves from verbalizing or expressing our emotions is not a healthy coping mechanism, as it is not an end in itself: "I was mute with silence, I held my peace even from good; And my sorrow was stirred up. My heart was hot within me; While I was musing, the fire burned."
It doesn't resolve our emotional turmoil, even if it does keep us from sinning. It's not the answer, and we would be foolish to think that that external action of controlling ourselves alone is all that God cares about or wants from us. Having kept ourselves from "sinning with our tongue," what we need to do is to open our hearts--raw and surging with the morass of emotions--to God. For a real resolution.
"Then I spoke with my tongue:
Lord, make me know my end,
And what is the measure of my days. That I may know how frail I am...
And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You.
Deliver me from all my transgressions."
David's life was so full of trials, dangers, and uncertainty--he had plenty of opportunities to test and apply what it meant to trust in a God, especially an omnipotent and omniscient God. What it meant, in the midst of trials, to apply humility, perspective, and trust. To reconcile your current emotional state with your belief and knowledge of the person of God, and His attributes.
Instead of lapsing into bitterness, reproaches, or anger when he starts to talk to God, David humbly and simply acknowledges his lack of understanding, his inability to accept God's providence. He confesses his sense of helplessness and frailty, his inability to cope or understand. And he asks for wisdom and humility to do so, affirming his need for God's deliverance.
“And now, Lord, what do I wait for?
My hope is in You..."
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1. It helps you stay awake during the sermon. Embarrassing as it is to have this as the first reason, it's nevertheless the most obvious one. Let's not get defensive on this. Even if you managed to go to bed before midnight on Saturday night, chances are your body is still going to think it's naptime as you sit there in that too-comfortable chair, in air-conditioned surroundings, the peaceful atmosphere only broken by the preacher's murmuring voice...aaaaand the next thing you know you're struggling to just keep your eyelids open. Sure, have your coffee, but try taking notes.
2. You're able to see and piece together the sermon's content progression--how this point ties in to one made at the beginning, how all the points work together to address the different issues presented at the beginning...
If you're just listening to it as it comes, you tend to forget what came before--you don't realize how important it is that this point was covered, perhaps, or what's the significance that it gives to the main theme. Passively absorbing in our default Sunday-morning-sponge style might allow you to gain a few insights on good days, but it seldom enables you to grasp and appreciate the sermon as a whole, as a carefully structured argument/discussion; to see those insights and points not only individually, but in context to the rest of the sermon.
3. You can look back and have a fresh experience of benefiting from that same sermon, even years later; in summarized form--handily rephrased in the way most suitable to your own learning/reading style! Talk about getting the most out of it. I have a box of old sermon note books under my window, which still benefit me when rereading them. Also providing concrete proof that my handwriting, bad as it seems now, used to be worse.
4. It challenges you to listen attentively (this is, by the way, a whole different thing from simply staying awake as in point 1) and trains you to actively process what you hear, since you're not simply transcribing verbatim what the preacher says. You have to pick out the main meaning of the sentence, determine whether it's the next point or a supporting point, and where it belongs on the page.
5. You learn to better appreciate the work and dedication that goes into preparing a sermon. We tend to take it for granted, don't we? Turn up at church every week and plop down, ostensibly to listen--in reality, try not to fall asleep--criticize the random fragments we remember hearing, because they don't make sense, they sound disjointed, you know I think I could do better than that if I tried... And we walk out feeling vaguely dissatisfied, as if the sermon vending machine didn't give us a run for our money. As a pastor's daughter I've observed how much effort and labour goes into that one hour plus sermon which we take for granted, every Sunday for years and years. Seemingly so simple, yet so unquantifiable the way other kinds of work is. Preparing a sermon is most definitely a creative process, though that's not often what we tend to think of it as. (From my own, if comparatively insignificant, experience of running this blog I know how baffling it can feel to sit down, facing a weekly deadline, and a desire to write something fresh, relevant, helpful, insightful, and yet at the same time have your brain completely blank. It's demoralizing and frustrating. Sometimes you spend hours working away at an idea, only to eventually realize it has to be scrapped. There goes all your work and time, and you're still no closer to finishing. And that's just the logistical side of the actual writing process. The spiritual aspect can be just as big of a barrier as well. You've been feeling low and disappointed in yourself recently; you question whether you've grown spiritually at all, whether you're still qualified to try and edify others after lapsing into sin or falling back into unhelpful habits...)
Let's not take every sermon for granted.
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2 with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love; 3 giving diligence to keep the unity of the Spirit in the bond of peace.
"...forbearing one another in love."
Everyday, opportunities for forbearance abound. Whether it's a difficult person, a sinkful of dirty dishes, or that person walking maddeningly slowly in front of you, those moments when you draw a deep breath and feel your jaw muscles tighten are everywhere.
Forbearing is something that hopefully we each strive to do each day. In our families. In our churches. With our Christian or non-Christian friends. With that cranky bus driver who pretends not to see you waving your arms wildly, and drives off. To be patient, to be long-suffering, to keep our temper. To keep silent, when bitterness is strong within us. We learn to control ourselves, to count ten, to endure, reinforcing what we learned since childhood and which seems to be such a big part of adulthood, in order to cope at work, with our families--with people in general. It's nothing new, after all.
But Paul raises this commonplace standard of simply forbearing by the second half of his sentence. "...in love."
Love! Possibly the last thing on our minds when we're struggling not to throw punches!
It was a sobering realization that simply keeping quiet, simply controlling myself from not demonstrating outward signs of anger, is not the ultimate purpose, is not the point of being longsuffering, of forbearing in a Biblical definition. We're just doing a better job at hiding the bitterness and anger--burning inside us, damaging us. And thinking that we're doing well because we didn't break any dishes or noses simply feeds our pride and makes it worse. We feel good for not having demonstrated any of the bad feelings inside; and it makes us feel justified in entertaining them further. I've experienced it myself; you are tempted to brood over it, nurse your grudge for longer, because you feel entitled to it since you didn't vent it. That's unhealthy, even from a secular point of view. From a spiritual point of view--we've missed the whole point. This is the same Bible that tells us God judges hatred within the heart as well as the external action of murder.
Paul says: "forbearing one another in love." Those two words at the end change everything. We forbear, we endure, because we love them, because we are willing to for their sake. Like a longsuffering parent cleaning up vomit for their cranky toddler. We bear with them, out of love. Out of wanting their good. Out of being able to see beyond their weaknesses, to have sympathy and patience. Out of having Christ, and the truth, free us from the parallel yet opposite extremes of people-pleasing and self-centredness.
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"I therefore, the prisoner in the Lord, beseech you to walk worthily of the calling wherewith ye were called, 2 with all lowliness and meekness, with longsuffering, forbearing one another in love..."
A thought-provoking sermon was preached on this verse, which challenged me to examine the qualities listed here.
Lowliness and meekness. These two words have almost vanished from our vocabulary today, yet they describe different aspects of humility which would do us good to think more on. The preacher emphasized that meekness does not equate with weakness, an important point given the popularizing nowadays of what I call an aggressive-defensive attitude. We're told to stand up for ourselves and not to take sh*t from anyone, that haters are going to hate, not to let anyone put us down... Which has more than a grain of truth in it, yet is imbalanced and incomplete as a mindset in itself, from a Christian perspective.
Biblical meekness as modelled by Moses--whom the Bible called the meekest man on the face on the earth--and of course, the Lord Jesus Christ, requires spiritual and moral strength.
Remember Moses' life work. Resisting Pharaoh and bringing the Israelites out of slavery to freedom. Leading and judging them through wars, food/water shortages, plagues, rebellions, etc. It takes a lot of moral and spiritual strength to stand up to a king, and confidently perform supernatural miracles--just as much as the less glamourous, but just as difficult job of dealing with the endless complaints, criticisms, and fears of the Israelites during their 40 year journey.
Far from being a weakness, Moses' meekness was what enabled him to stay stable (and sane, because I would have lost my wits) because he did not treat his role and his work (and the inevitable criticisms and challenges) as the basis for his identity and self-worth. His meekness and lowliness kept him grounded, kept him from self-pity, from entitlement, from greed and abuse of power, from many of the temptations that leaders face.
Likewise, Jesus demonstrated the same stability and strength in how He ministered, healed, taught thousands of people; dealt with threats and hostility from the established community leaders; patiently mentored His disciples; and endured the suffering and humiliation of the cross. This lowliness and meekness enabled Him--the Son of God--to love and relate to the social outcasts, the weak, the sinful:
"...for I am meek and lowly in heart, and you shall find rest for your souls." Why we can come to Him without hesitation or fears.
Both Jesus and Moses were the Bible's standards of God-honouring meekness and lowliness--men who did not seek their own honour and power, did not covet people's admiration and approval, who simply did what pleased God and served others, without wanting credit for it or seeing it as a way of establishing their identity.
And neither of them were anything close to pushovers, or doormats--what we tend to think of as the inevitable consequence of meekness and lowliness.
That's food for thought for us!
Lowliness and meekness as demonstrated by Moses and Jesus reflect how one's priorities, above all, are not on secular things. I've been studying Jesus' Sermon on the Mount in the book of Matthew, and I find myself understanding the "treasure in heaven" theme in terms of priorities. God's will, or ours? God's commands to live a holy life, or the desire to live out a sinful idea of pleasure? Spiritual values of righteousness, mercy, humility, or earthly values of wealth, possessions, power, affirmation, comfort?
Lowliness and meekness are only possible when our actions and mindset are directed by a different set of priorities.
to be continued in part 2
a small voice
Ci thinks some of God's greatest blessings to mankind are
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