Grace Words

A Daily Bible Reader's Blog

Presented by Mike Tune, Pulpit Minister for the Church of Christ in Falls Church and Amazing Grace International

Bible Reading

“You are my refuge and my shield; I have put my hope in your word” (Psalm 119:114).

Psalm 119 is the longest of the Psalms. It may well be the most artistic.

There are twenty-two letters in the Hebrew alphabet. This psalm has twenty-two sections, each named for a succeeding letter. So, in your Bible, the first section of Psalm 119 is headed “aleph,” the second “beth,” the third “gimel” and so on to the end of the alphabet.

Each section has eight verses, and each one of those verses begins with a word corresponding to that section’s alphabet letter. Thus the first section has eight verses, each verse beginning with a word starting with an aleph (or “A”). The second eight verses each begin with a beth (or “B”). On it goes, changing letters every eight verses. If you don’t think that’s tough, try writing your own poem that way!

So why the artistry?

The more complicated the structure, the more valuable the subject. And so, the writer does it this way, giving the poem great length and complicated presentation to underscore the importance and value of his subject, the word of God.

But I want to focus on one little phrase: “according to your word.” It occurs five times in the poem and on all five occasions, the writer refers to something God has promised: hope in desperate times (vs. 25), strength in days of sorrow (vs. 28), knowledge and good judgment for day to day living (vs. 65), relief in times of suffering (vs. 107), and understanding in times of confusion (vs. 169). Interestingly, the author knows these are the promises of God because he has read them in God’s word.

Like the Psalmist, make God your refuge and shield in 2020 by trusting in his promises – promises you will find in a daily reading of God’s word. You can’t know about them if you don’t read about them.

Making Disciples

In her recent book, Confronting Christianity, Rebecca McLaughlin writes:

In 2015 I met an Iranian science professor from a world-class university. I asked him how he came to be a Christian. He replied, “Through the ministry of J.S. Bach!” My new friend had been raised in a Muslim family. But when the Islamic revolution swept through Iran in 1980, he abandoned his familial faith. Alongside his scientific studies, my friend was a semiprofessional flutist. Classical music was banned by the new government, so music lovers crowded into private houses to savor illicit sonatas. Before one secret concert, my friend rehearsed a Bach flute sonata with his musical mentor but was stopped a few bars in: “I cannot hear the cross of Christ in what you are playing,” his mentor complained. My friend was bewildered: with little knowledge of Christianity, he had no idea what his mentor meant. But the challenge stuck with him. Gradually, he began to apprehend the profoundly Christian fabric of Bach’s works; and when he first walked into a church a few years later, he sensed the same reality.

Reading those words I was reminded of these very important truths: while there is only one road to Christ, no one knows it on their own. Everyone must be shown the way. The way can only be shown by Christ followers, but it is revealed in ways that are as varied as the lives we live and the experiences we share.

It may not be Bach, but you have something in common with a friend, an acquaintance, a co-worker, a relative who needs to know the way to Jesus. Use that commonality to point them to Christ that they too might become a disciple.

The Heart Enshrined Word

My son, if sinners entice you, do not consent . . . 16 for their feet run to evil, and they make haste to shed blood (Proverbs 1:10-16).

Barry Black grew up on the streets of Baltimore, the son of a devoutly religious mother. She paid her children a nickel a verse for every passage of scripture they committed to memory and Barry quickly learned to game the system. He began looking for the shortest verses in the Bible (“low hanging fruit” he calls them). There was “Jesus Wept” (John 11:35). Then “Rejoice evermore” (1 Thessalonians 5:16). Then “Remember Lot’s Wife” (Luke 17:32) and “Pray without ceasing” (1 Thessalonians 5:17).

Barry found two for one specials. “Do not kill” was Exodus 20:13, but so was Deuteronomy 5:17. Learn it once, get paid twice. Barry’s mother knew what he was doing, but she also knew what she was doing. In order to find those verses, Barry had to make his way through the Bible. Eventually, his mother capped what she would pay to a quarter a week (five verses), and eventually, Barry found greater value than a nickel a verse.

One afternoon in his 13th year, young Barry was invited by some friends to join them in taking revenge on a common nemesis. Barry remembered Proverbs 1:10-16 and refused, choosing to stay far away from those “friends.” The revenge went horribly wrong, and a boy died. The others were charged and convicted of murder. “That would have been me” Barry says, “had I not remembered the proverb” and taken it to heart.

Today Barry is the Chaplain of the United States Senate and as I listened to him a few days ago (his speech peppered with scripture) I thought: That’s what David meant when he wrote: “I have hidden your word in my heart that I might not sin against you” (Ps. 119:11).

His Eye is on the Sparrow

Have you ever noticed how often birds appear in the Bible? Owls of all types, eagles, ospreys, hawks, sea gulls and more all figure into God’s story. Noah sent out a raven and then a dove. Elijah was fed by ravens. In Psalm 84 the writer says of heaven: “How lovely is your dwelling place O Lord of hosts!” and then goes on to remark that the sparrow finds a home in the court of the living God and the swallow builds a nest at the altar of the Lord of Hosts.

Jesus however noted that sparrows were cheap. You could buy ten for a penny. But God loves them so much that not a one can fall to the earth without God noticing. To God, we are worth much more than many sparrows (Matthew 10:31), and the Lord is watching after us with even greater care.

Civilla Martin was traveling with her preacher husband in 1905 when they stopped for a visit with their close friends, the Doolittles. Mrs. Doolittle had been bedfast for twenty years. Her husband was wheel-chair bound. Yet, their attitudes were inspirational and encouraging. “How could they always be so . . . up?” Civilla asked. Mr. Doolittle replied with a grin: “His eye is on the sparrow, and I know he watches me.”
Later that evening Civilla wrote these words that became a gospel hymn:

Why should I feel discouraged?
Why should shadows come?
Why should my heart be lonely
and long for heaven and home
when Jesus is my portion?
My constant friend is he!
His eye is on the sparrow,
and I know he watches me.

The song isn’t in our congregation’s hymnal, but another of Civilla’s is:

Be not dismayed whate’re betide
God will take care of you.

Hold To God’s Unchanging Hand

Time is filled with swift transition.
Naught of earth unmoved can stand.
Build your hopes on things eternal.
Hold to God’s unchanging hand.

Before taking us to Asia as missionaries in 1961, my father traveled all over the United States raising money for the effort. He was often told: “Don’t forget the folks back home,” and to be sure he didn’t, churches would make tapes of congregational singing and give them to him. On one of those tapes, from a church in Florida, was this hymn. It’s where I learned it. Dad loved it and we’d often sing it as a family.

Churches don’t sing it much anymore and so it remained but a memory until 2010 and the remake of the movie “True Grit.” As I listened to the sound track (music only), I recognized the tune and the words came back in a flood of memories. I used that sound track at my father’s funeral.

Though the words were written by Jennie Wilson (1856-1913), the music that made it popular was composed by F.L. Eiland (1860-1909) who wrote some 300 hymns himself during his short life. Eiland, a member of the Church of Christ, lived in Texas and established a singing school in Waco, attended by (among others) Tillit S. Teddlie (who wrote “Heaven Holds All to Me” and many others).

Chances are, some of you know the Ray Charles song “You Don’t Know Me” (also covered by Meryl Streep) or the Dean Martin song “In the Misty Moonlight” or Roy Orbison’s “Dream Baby.” All these and more were written by Cindy Walker – who was F.L. Eiland’s grandaughter.
Eiland also wrote “Look Away From The Cross” but my favorite remains “Hold to God’s Unchanging Hand.”

Trust in Him who will not leave you
Whatsoever years may bring.
Fair and bright the home in glory
Your enraptured soul will view.

Our Bible Heritage

The Old Testament was originally written in Hebrew (with small parts in Aramaic), and the New Testament in Greek. The earliest translation of the whole Bible into English was in the 14th century, but by that time, the Latin translation dominated and that English Bible was translated from Latin.

Two views existed regarding translation: The dominant one held that having a Bible the common man could read would just cause problems and confusion. The other was that people needed access to God’s word in a way they could understand.

William Tyndale was born in England about 1494. He went to Oxford University in 1509 where he studied languages. His goal was to study theology but discovered to his surprise that scripture was not in the Oxford syllabus, so he transferred to Cambridge. Determining to create an English New Testament from the Greek text, he found no support in England so he traveled to Germany where the project was completed in 2 years (1526).

Tyndale’s New Testament was not warmly received in England. The English church determined to buy up as many copies as possible and burn them. Tyndale had printed them on a shoestring budget, but the purchase of them in large quantities by his enemies made it possible for Tyndale to bring out another, better, edition. Because Tyndale dared to rebel against ecclesiastical authority, he was branded a heretic (one who causes division) and arrested. Found guilty, he was tied to a stake and strangled to death. His body was then burned. The date was October 6, 1536 – 483 years ago.

But the die had been cast and there would be no turning back. New English Bibles appeared in rapid succession and today, at least in our nation, they are cheap, readable and plentiful. Our blessing cost more than one man his life. I hope you are taking advantage of Tyndale’s sacrifice and daily reading your Bible.

Living By Faith

And I will make of you a great nation, and I will bless you and make your name great, so that . . . in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed (Genesis 12:2-3).

The promise, that through Abraham all nations of the earth would be blessed, did not apply to all of Abraham’s descendants. It left out Ishmael and his six step-brothers. It would later leave out Esau. Jacob, Abraham’s grandson, had twelve sons, but the means of blessing the world would come through only one of them – Judah.

Reuben’s lifestyle issues excluded him from the blessing. Simeon and Levi were guilty of acts of violence and that excluded them (see Genesis 49). And that, of course, left Judah – through whom Jesus came.

We could leave it at that, but we would overlook another contender: Joseph. Why not make Joseph the tribe of the blessing? After all, Joseph himself was a man of faith and absolute devotion to God. His descendants (through his sons Manasseh and Ephraim) would constitute the largest tribe in Israel – so prominent that “Ephraim” would become the other name for ten of Israel’s tribes. Why wouldn’t the blessing come through Joseph and Ephraim? In fact, according to 1 Chronicles 5:1-2, this was a distinct possibility.

Psalm 78 provides an answer. “they [Ephraim] did not believe in God and did not trust his saving power . . . despite his wonders, they did not believe” (vss. 22,32). And so, God “rejected” the tribe of Joseph (or the rest of Israel) in favor of Judah (vss. 67-68).

The thrust of Psalm 78 is to emphasize the importance of a right response to God’s blessings (of which all Israel were recipients), and therein is the lesson for us. The proper response to God’s grace is to trust His way, seek His guidance and follow it, believing that God’s way is the best way, and the only way into His presence.

It’s called “living by faith.”

Be An Encourager!

We have different gifts, according to the grace given to each of us. If your gift is . . . serving, then serve; . . . 8 if it is to encourage, then give encouragement . . .(Romans 12:6-8).

Charles Swindoll tells the story of a mother who took her young son to hear a famous pianist. She hoped it might spur the boy to take an interest in music.

Before the concert started, the mother, busy chatting with friends, became oblivious to the fact her son had left his seat. Drawn to the stage, the boy made his way down to inspect the gleaming black Steinway. He ran his fingers lightly over the shiny white keys. No one noticed until he sat down and began to play (you guessed it) “chopsticks.”

The mother was horrified, the crowd became loudly indignant. But the pianist, hearing the boy and the noise of the audience quickly surmised what had happened and, grabbing his coat, ran on stage to the child. Reaching around the boy he began to improvise a tune to accompany “chopsticks,” all the while whispering in the child’s ear: “Don’t stop. Keep on going. You’re doing fine. Don’t ever give up.”

How often have you failed to achieve something wonderful because you fell under the weight of insurmountable criticism? Worse, how often have you been the deciding factor in someone else’s failure because you were a griper or complainer rather than an encourager?

The Bible teaches that the ability to encourage is a gift from God. Indeed, Luke says it is a work of God Himself (Acts 9:31 NIV). Let’s join in the work of God and be encouragers! And when we need it ourselves, let us look to the Lord from whom all blessings flow!

There Is A Sea

The Jordan River originates with the melting snows of Mt. Hermon, nine thousand feet high.  Four streams flow forty miles and merge into the Sea of Galilee. The rabbis used to say: “Jehovah has made seven seas, but the Sea of Galilee is his delight.”

It was beside the Galilee that commerce flourished in Jesus’ day. It was there people found mineral springs to sooth the discomforts of the sick.  And it was there that Jesus performed most of his miracles and preached his great sermons.

The first verse of “There is a Sea” E.L. Jorgenson refers to this Sea of Galilee.
There is a sea which, day by day, receives the rippling rills
and streams that spring from wells of God, or fall from cedared hills.
But what it thus receives, it gives, with a glad unsparing hand.
The result is a stream more wide, with deeper tide, which flows on to a lower land.

From the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan drops another 700 feet over 65 miles to the Dead Sea (1275 ft. below sea level).  When the beautiful water from Mt. Hermon arrives here, it stays here.  There is no outlet.  Locked in by mountains, the sea is one giant evaporating pan.  Only 2-4 inches of rain fall here each year.  The temperature varies from 77 to 124 degrees.  The water evaporates leaving only minerals.  A third of the lake is salt. Nothing lives there, and anything living in the Jordan dies when it arrives in the Dead Sea.  In the second verse of the song, the Dead Sea is described.
There is a sea which day by day receives this fuller tide.
But all its store it keeps, nor gives to shore nor sea beside.
Its Jordan stream, now turned to brine, lies heavy as molten lead.
And its dreadful name (Dead Sea) does forever proclaim that sea is waste and dead.

The third verse is the challenge verse for Christians.  Which sea do you want to be?
Which shall it be for you and me who God’s good gifts obtain?
Shall we accept for self alone, or take to give again?
For he (Jesus) who once was rich indeed, laid all his glory down
That by his grace, our ransomed race should share his wealth and crown.

Christians who receive the gifts of God become more beautiful when they pass them along to others.  Those who keep them only for themselves, spiritually die.

LeAnn Rimes, truth, and “how does that make you feel”?

Country singer Leann Rimes has a new tattoo.  This one, in small letters on the underside of her forearm, says (in cursive) “god’s work.”

Tattoos aren’t exactly newsworthy.  The folderol is about the design: “God” is supposed to begin with a capital letter.  That’s what some of her fans are upset about, and their angst is the news.

What caught my attention was the reply of one of her defenders.  It went like this: “Some are pointing out to LeAnn that God is spelled with a capital G, not a small g. Although there is one Truth, remember everyone’s interpretation of the truth is different. In everyone’s mind theirs is the real truth. That’s how the brain works.  We connect to information that makes us feel good, and it is assimilated into our belief system.”

I’m not concerned about Leann’s tattoo, its existence, size or case (do keep in mind that such conventions as “case” did not exist in Jesus’ day).  I am concerned that while some folks are willing to acknowledge “one Truth,” they believe that whatever one thinks about that truth is equally “truth” simply because they “think it” — and it makes them “feel good.”

If you acknowledge a truth, but believe it to be false because your interpretation contradicts it, or because it makes you feel bad, it’s still truth!  And what you believe is false.

First John was written to Christians whose long held beliefs were being challenged by a new teaching, supposedly led by the Holy Spirit.  John counters it, denies it is of the Spirit and writes, in essence, ‘if you believe this new stuff, and follow it, you are believing a lie, walking in the dark, and you’ve left the fellowship of God and his people.”  John didn’t mince words.

Truth exists, and we need to be on the right side of it.  Anything to the contrary, John writes, is really idolatry.