"Stilling the Soul to Encounter God"
Sept.6, 2009 Psalm 131
FRAZZLED - FOR WHAT?
Hasn't it been a welcome break to have some time off over the summer? There's only one problem with holidays - there's never enough of them! For a short while we may have been relaxing at the cottage, travelling, enjoying peace and the cry of seagulls at the beach - no phone calls, no meetings - then suddenly September comes along and bang! We're right back into the thick of busyness: shipping kids off to school, moving them across the continent to a new college; returning to work and discovering you have over 300 new emails to catch up on. Not to mention people to call, programs to get up and running - all at once you realize you're back on the treadmill and can't keep up.
Feeling overwhelmed by work and information pressures is a common sentiment today. Baha and Margaret Habashy are Christians who run Integrity Plus Consulting in Markham ON. Recently they surveyed clients asking if they observed the following symptoms in their life or workplace. Here are the factors and percentage who said they felt them:
*Feeling overwhelmed 63%
*Recurring ill health and stress induced symptoms (headache, muscular pain, colds and low grade infections…) 44%
*Irritability and feeling "edgy" 56%
*Resentment of voice mail, e-mail, and meetings 56%
*Chronically talking about not keeping up or always saying, "I am very busy." 69%
*Feeling guilty over being behind 73%
*Compromised social and family life 59%
Obviously, being overwhelmed and too busy is taking a huge toll on people's health and family relationships. Our modern pace of life and the flood of information flow burdens us with stress, irritation, and guilt. If that's all there is to life - without a supernatural pressure-relief valve, who could stand it?
God tells us in Scripture there's more to life than just being overloaded. The Bible reminds us that Christianity is different from other religions: in those that suppose religion is about man earning acceptability to God, the operative word is 'DO'; but because of Jesus accomplished for us at the cross, paying for our sins to make us acceptable to God, the word in Christianity is 'DONE'. Psalm 131 gives believers permission to step off the treadmill so we can keep in touch with what's most important in life - knowing our Lord.
LEARN YOUR LIMITS
Psalm 131 is very short - just 3 simple verses - so we can be gleaning meaning right from the introduction. The ascription says "A song of ascents", or in Hebrew, steps. This whole group of Psalms from 120-134 share this ascription and formed part of the "Great Hallel" used in the temple liturgy; possibly sung while ascending the Temple steps, or further afield during the annual pilgrimages to Jerusalem. In any case, the direction is that of approaching God, getting oneself ready, preparing to meet with the Lord. How do we, the creature, ready ourselves to encounter the infinite personal Creator? (Just the possibility of that is so awesome!)
V1, "My heart is not proud, O Lord, my eyes are not haughty..." To be proud and haughty is like being arrogant, patronizing, enjoying being top dog, needing to call the shots, as opposed to having a humble servant attitude. Paul advises the church in Romans 12:16, "Live in harmony with one another. Do not be proud, but be willing to associate with people of low position. Do not be conceited."
During our time in England we had opportunity to visit Buckingham Palace, home of the Queen and Prince Philip. The State Rooms were open to the public so we got to tour right inside. There were great riches - famous paintings covered the walls; the tables carried golden vessels of various kinds - as if silver would have been cheap or common. I found myself marveling at how hard it must be to have so much wealth yet not become proud; yet the Queen has always seemed gracious any time I've seen her on TV. We were told she always finds a place for items given to her on her travels - as we exited, an Inuit sculpture reminded us of Canada and made us feel at home.
Sometimes you can sense a person's true character because it rubs off on their staff. In this case, although the staff were in charge of one of the most important places in the country, we found them to be extremely helpful and patient: obtaining a wheelchair, taking us up in the lift, waiting for us to finish after other tourists had gone. They could have been chomping at the bit to shoo us out when visiting hours were over! When I apologized for taking so long they said there was no rush, they 'weren't going until the last guest leaves'. How's that attitude compare with closing time at your local discount store? Real patient servanthood.
V1 continues, "I do not concern myself with great matters or things too wonderful for me," NLT matters 'too awesome for me to grasp'. In other words, I've learned my limits; I don't bite off too much too chew.
As Christians, God holds us accountable to use and develop our gifts, but not to try to be Superman or Wonder Woman. Every need is not a call: perhaps God's lining up a sister or brother in Christ to do that particular task. Good works are not a condition of salvation, as if we need to anxiously keep doing more and more just to be sure, but good deeds flow with gratitude from being saved, believing in Jesus. Care is needed to discern God's true leading for us individually. "Driven" or legalistic churches may feel they have to do everything, at the risk of becoming over-programmed, wearing volunteers out; families may start to suffer as children wonder why their parent is always running off to some church meeting. A healthy church finds the right balance of activity, and trims programs that may no longer be needed.
So as you start marking down events in your fall schedule, don't overcrowd your calendar to the point you have no 'margins' in life. Be a humble servant with right priorities, not feeling you have to say 'yes' to everything. At the busy train and underground stations in London England, there were always attendants nearby who were very helpful, whether putting a ramp down for a wheelchair or answering questions about which platform was needed. The attendants never seemed to be in a hurry; a big part of their helpfulness was their availability - not being overcommitted.
STILLING THE SOUL TO KNOW GOD
V2 begins, "But I have stilled and quieted my soul..." This too is part of the preparation for meeting with God. Ps 46:10 commands, "Be still and know that I am God..." That sort of implies you can't truly discover God without calming and quieting the inner person. Ps 37:7, "Be still before the LORD and wait patiently for him; do not fret when men succeed in their ways..." Stilling our soul, waiting on God helps us not fret, not be edgy about what may happen next. In our 'instant' culture, we may find it difficult to wait; we get impatient - that's an indicator of hidden pride or desire for control. "Road rage" would be an example; think of that next time you come to one of those road-improvement flagmen / stoplights! Meditate - 'Be still and know that I am God...'
The great heroes of the Bible deliberately took time out to meet with God. Moses no sooner brought millions of people out of Egypt than he took off to the mountain-top to hang out with God for 40 days and nights. Think of it - just left those people waiting there while he took time for the Lord! (Ex 24:14,18)
After Paul met Jesus on the road to Damascus and was dramatically converted, did he jump into ministry right away? No, he went off by himself to Arabia then Damascus; it wasn't until 3 years later that he went to Jerusalem and became acquainted with the other apostles (Gal 1:17). That time spent waiting on God, reviewing the Old Testament, soaking in Scripture and becoming familiar with how Jesus fulfilled prophecy, stood him in good stead in all the preaching and challenges he was about to undertake.
Our Lord Jesus also modeled making time to be with the Father. He went away by Himself before choosing the disciples; when he was popular, villages clamouring for him, he drew aside and got direction to spread the message to other villages (Lk 6:12; Mk 1:35). After feeding the 5000, when people were about to make Him king by force, He withdrew; at Gethsemane at his final crisis when some would have been running, Jesus made time to pray (Jn 6:15; Mk 14:32,34). He told the disciples, "Watch and pray SO THAT you will not fall into temptation" - see what He's driving at? Being still before the Father in prayer actually strengthens us to do what's right, it protects us from making wrong wasteful moves. Be still and find strength. As Isaiah 30:15 puts it, "This is what the Sovereign LORD, the Holy One of Israel, says: 'In repentance and rest is your salvation, in quietness and trust is your strength...'"
In August we had a week at a cottage in Gatineau on Green Lake. One time when we were canoeing, the water was smooth as glass: you could see small ripples on the water further out, but closer to the shore where the surrounding hill provided shelter from the wind, everything was still. A picture of the tranquility God has for our inner being when we're sheltering in Him.
One day we went an hour away to a conservation area where there was a larger lake, 5 km long, Echo Lake. The wind was up and came along the length of the lake causing 1-foot waves: not very good canoeing, rather rocky! As soon as Keith and I could, we headed for a little channel that connected with another smaller lake. In the channel paddling was fun because the water was still, protected by the reeds; it was easy to make progress.
Now, being still for a Christian is quite different from eastern religions such as transcendental meditation. In TM people are taught to repeat a one-syllable word continually, focussing on it to eliminate all other thoughts; then they repeat it silently; then finally they eliminate thinking even of that syllable, supposedly erasing their consciousness. That's a very negative stillness. The Bible has in view a positive stillness, meditating on God, focusing on His word, becoming centred in Him through His truth. Learning to savour God through Scripture.
George Mueller is known for his life of prayer, trusting in God to feed 2000 orphans without making appeals for money. But his main purpose was not caring for orphans per se, but demonstrating that God can be trusted to keep His word, caring for those who obey and rely on Him. Did you know George Mueller read through the Bible over 200 times over the course of his life before dying in his nineties? He discovered the avenue to fellowship was God was through His word. A stillness saturated with Scripture.
WEANED OF DESIRES, TO HOPE IN GOD
Psalm 131 offers an unusual image to picture a trusting soul's relationship with our Sovereign God: second half of v2, "Like a weaned child with its mother, like a weaned child is my soul within me." We think of weaning young, but commentaries say this could be 'a child of four or five who walks trustingly beside his mother'. The Hebrew word can refer to almonds that have ripened, so perhaps a child that's approaching maturity.
At the cottage we had quite a bit of exposure to our grandchildren, aged 5 months and 2 years. Lucia is the baby girl; I feared she might be colicky and cry a lot, but most of the time when she was awake she was very content lying on the floor or sitting up in her cushion 'donut' just absorbing everything that was going on (with her fingers in her mouth). Eyes wide open, just taking it all in. She was cutting her first two teeth while we were there. One afternoon when she was a bit fussy and the young adults were keen to play a board game, I took her for a walk in her stroller. There was a fairly smooth untravelled gravel road that ran along in front of the cottage we'd rented and finished in a dead end a quarter-mile further along. I took a book and walked along, pulling the stroller by its roof rim, so Lucy could watch the scenery but also see me out the other side. She was chatty at first, then made some higher-pitched noises, but never actually cried. Finally tiredness crept up on her and she just sat quietly, sucking her fingers, content to be pulled along at a snail's pace while I read my book.
Are we content as a little child savouring a stroller ride? Can we let God be in charge, steering our path at His pace? Will we fuss and complain, or trust He knows the way that's best for us?
The Psalm ends, "O Israel, put your hope in the LORD both now and forevermore." Hope in God. Not, hope in the stock market - it will fluctuate; or hope in your friends - they will let you down and be imperfect; not hope in your property - when your life one day ends it will be no more use to you. Hope in God, now and forevermore: He is the only One who can truly satisfy our soul.
Saint Augustine was restless until he discovered Jesus was the missing piece in his life that could offset all his yearnings and fleshly appetites. Augustine's besetting sin was lust; he had one concubine, then his mother tried to arrange a marriage for him to a suited to his class, then Augustine got a second concubine. He couldn't seem to overcome the pull of immorality. But his mother'd been praying for him, and he sensed in the local bishop's preaching God calling him to something better than sin. On the day of his conversion, he was outdoors and seemed to hear a child's voice saying, "Take it and read." He decided this must mean he was to take a Bible and read the first passage he came to! His eyes lit upon Romans 13:13-14, "Let us behave decently, as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and debauchery, not in dissension and jealousy. Rather, clothe yourselves with the Lord Jesus Christ, and do not think about how to gratify the desires of the sinful nature." So began a life of holy hedonism for Augustine, being satisfied by God's sovereign joy in his soul, rather than struggling and being pulled down by the desires of the flesh. Later he wrote in the Confessions, "How sweet all at once it was for me to be rid of those fruitless joys which I had once feared to lose..! You drove them from me, you who are the true, the sovereign joy...You drove them from me and took their place, you who are sweeter than all pleasure, though not to flesh and blood, you who outshine all light, yet are hidden deeper than any secret in our hearts, you who surpass all honour, though not in the eyes of men who see all honour in themselves. . . . O Lord my God, my Light, my Wealth, and my Salvation." Being clothed with Christ provided Augustine with eternal pleasures better than what the crowd runs after.
"I have stilled and quieted my soul...O Israel, put your hope in the Lord, now and always." Let's pray.