Thursday, March 23, 2017

"I Will Lift Up Mine Eyes unto the Hills"

For the longest time, I looked at Psalm 121 in the wrong way.

“I will lift up mine eyes unto the hills, from whence cometh my help.”

I usually pictured looking up at a mountain in the near distance, with the sun rising above it, and everything colored brightly. Then, in verse two, the author says that, despite how nice the mountain looks, his help comes from God.

Part of this confusion probably stemmed from the fact that the King James Version does not phrase the second half of the verse as a question, when it in fact is asking from whence comes our help.

The cultural context of Psalm 121 is crucial to its interpretation. The psalm is one of the 15 “Ascension Psalms”. These were sung by pilgrims as they made their three annual trips to Jerusalem for feasts. Despite the joyous occasion, the psalms are realistic about difficulties encountered along the way.

Here’s what I discovered: these pilgrims weren’t looking at the mountains with awe. They were looking at them with dread. The most dangerous part of journeys back then (and maybe even now) were the mountains. The catalyst to the story of “The Good Samaritan” parable was a man being attacked by robbers on a mountain road. Pilgrims faced hazards from the landscape, attackers that hid behind rocks, and wild animals. They rightfully asked, “From whence comes my help?”

A couple of translations completely miss this point and destroy the proper context of the chapter. The New Living Translation states:

“I look up to the mountains—does my help come from there?”

The pilgrims weren’t asking if their help comes from the mountains. They were asking where their help comes from because of the mountains.

And, shockingly, The Message also misses the point:

“I look up to the mountains; does my strength come from mountains?”

For KING & COUNTRY, unfortunately, uses this quote at the beginning of their otherwise-good song, “Shoulders”.

When viewed in the appropriate cultural context, a lot of other phrases in Psalm 121 make sense:

“He will not suffer thy foot to be moved,” because the terrain is treacherous.

“(T)he Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand. The sun shall not smite thee by day, nor the moon by night.” The pilgrims are exposed to the elements.

“The Lord shall preserve thee from all evil: he shall preserve thy soul.” Their lives are in danger from robbers and wild animals.

“The Lord shall preserve thy going out and thy coming in,” since they are headed to a feast and then back home.

I want to call special attention to verse five, which says that “the Lord is thy shade upon thy right hand.” I had to cross-reference with a couple of other verses, as it initially didn’t make total sense.
Isaiah says this of God in Isaiah 25:4:

“For thou hast been a strength to the poor, a strength to the needy in his distress, a refuge from the storm, a shadow from the heat, when the blast of the terrible ones is as a storm against the wall.”

Regarding the right hand, Psalm 16:8:

“I have set the Lord always before me: because he is at my right hand, I shall not be moved.”

The sun will not beat down on us in the day because God shadows us from it. We don’t have to worry because he is always at our right hand. Always with us.

This is a way of saying that throughout the entire journey, God is with the pilgrims.

So when they looked up to the mountains and felt fear, the pilgrims were comforted with the fact that God was with them throughout the journey and would protect them from the dangers the mountains presented.

This referred to the physical dangers of the pilgrims, but it certainly is applicable to all the trials we face today. When we look ahead at a tough circumstance, we should recognize that God will protect us every step of the journey.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Beach Reach 2017: God's Providence, Our Obedience

I decided to study through Esther while at Beach Reach this year. For some reason, I thought it would be helpful for the ministry there. It was.

Esther is the textbook look at God’s Providence. I discovered this more and more as I went through the book. The ultimate goal was the salvation of the Jews. It starts with Xerxes I getting drunk and wanting his queen, Vashti, to expose herself to his guests. Vashti refuses, and Xerxes takes away her position. Meanwhile, Mordecai, Esther’s uncle and guardian, saves the king’s life from two of his subordinates; this later puts him in favor with Xerxes and allows Mordecai to pass a law that allowed the Jews to defend themselves. Xerxes brings in virgins from all over his kingdom to select a new queen, and he loves Esther above all the rest. Now with Esther as queen, this gives the Jews a chance when Haman puts through a law to destroy them.

God set up events and circumstances in people’s lives in preparation for our ministry at Beach Reach. He prepared each one of the people from our ministry. For me, it was the closer walk with God I experienced during the selection of the BCM’s leadership next year. God also prepared the hearts of those who came to Panama City Beach to party. Behind the exteriors were some people who were truly hurting, or questioning. Our crossing paths with them was also no coincidence. God ordered every bit of the week.

But there is another part to this story. Esther knew her purpose was to orchestrate the salvation of her people. But God’s Providence had to be brought to fruition. Esther had to obey. She obeyed when she took the step into Xerxes’s throne room, risking death. She was obedient in alerting the king to the plans of Haman, in front of Haman, no less. If Esther didn’t risk her life, she would not have fulfilled the plans which God had set up. If she was timid and didn’t say anything at the banquet, she would not have fulfilled her purpose.

That was where I found myself last year. Timidity prevented me from fulfilling much of the purpose God had set for me because I feared man over God.

This year, God set up the appointments, and our group obeyed. I was able to fully explain the gospel to more people than I could count on both hands. We as a whole saw a number of salvations and rededications to Christ. And Providence set us up with the people we needed to meet.

Two former Catholics with us met several Catholics. Those who struggled with depression met others who were. The teams I had during our night ministry are certainly testament to Providential appointments.

I wouldn’t be so prideful as to call any of my teams a “dream team”, but we worked together very well. I worked with a couple people who used to be suicidal, and they were able to use their testimonies to proclaim God’s grace. Another had homosexual tendencies, and could speak to God’s love for everyone, including homosexuals. I found Christ through a pursuit of the truth, and I met several people who think in a similar way in which I do.

One such thinker was Troy, who my group the first night talked to for over an hour-and-a-half. We never even got to the gospel because of how many barriers he had, but we were able to (1) change his perception of Christians and (2) force him to think through some of his beliefs, with the encouragement to continue doing so.

Other encounters left me saying, “I see you, God.” I ran into a group of football players that play with a guy with whom I went to high school. Another group came from Western Carolina University, which I have only heard of because my sports business capstone group runs social media for a website co-authored by a professor from that university.

One night in the vans, two girls got in and one, with no prompting, said, “The Holy Spirit has been convicting me that what I’ve been doing down here is wrong.” No transition needed. They sat by me in the back, and I told them, “I’ve done a lot of screwing up in my life. God always takes you back.”

On that same night, Derrick got in our van with two other people, and each one of us in the back got to have a one-on-one conversation. Derrick had been denied into Club La Vela, and was going back to his hotel early. As I learned in our 20-minute ride, he was a young, born-again Christian. God had him denied into a club so he could sit in the back of a van and hear the testimony of another Christian; by the end of the ride, he decided to find a campus ministry on his own campus, and desires to come to Panama City Beach on Beach Reach next year.

The brokenness was not limited to the party-going spring breakers. Throughout the week, I was amazed by the amount of hurt within our own group. There are people in our ministry with terminally-ill parents, anxiety, friends with addictions, friends who had just died, strained relationships, and so on. It was an awesome group, and it was a beautiful thing to see everyone support each other.

This happened during the worship time as well. The worship leading was fantastic all around. The songs were theologically rich and called attention to the work of God in our lives. (They included “Grace Alone”, “Jesus Paid It All”, “Look What God Has Done”, “New Again”, “Be Thou My Vision”, “O Praise the Name”, “In Christ Alone”, and “Only King Forever”.) I want to especially thank Seanna and Brooke from our group for their help for me. On Wednesday night, I noticed a guy from our group breaking down during the worship time, who I was able to embrace and be there for in that moment. Well, on Thursday, it was my turn, due to a mix of a couple problems in my life and awe over redemption through Christ. It was Seanna who offered comfort to me.

I was able to have multiple conversations with Brooke regarding those issues in my life, and she was gracious to hear me out. It was freeing to have her there to listen, encourage, and empathize. These were things that could have distracted and sometimes did distract me from the ministry we were doing, so I’m so grateful for her.

I also want to offer my thanks to Ann from my home church, who helped cover costs for the trip, as well as my parents and grandparents who did the same.

This Beach Reach was different from the last in that what I did flowed more naturally, and it did not require as much psyching myself up. It feels much more sustainable, and I am praying that the attitude of looking for opportunities to share the gospel with strangers and friends alike will continue. People are often more willing to talk than we might imagine, and there are times that conversation can be simply transitioned to the gospel.

Unlike a number of others, I didn’t directly lead anyone to Christ or see them rededicate their lives. It was a little frustrating at times. But Esther had no idea whether she would live or die when she went before the king. But that didn’t matter to her. “If I perish, I perish,” she said (4:16). God is the One who is left with the outcomes. He may use the conversations of last week to bring those individuals to Him later, or maybe it was even later in the week. God creates the outcomes He wants. We have control over our own obedience. God does what He wants with that. His definition of success is not in outcomes, but in our faithfulness in the opportunities He presents.

God’s Providence provides those opportunities, but we must be obedient with them.