Forget Not All His Benefits

I had the privilege this week of giving a funeral homily for my Grandmother, who lived to the ripe age of 100 years. I am happy to share it with you.

Lucille Antoinette (Bailly) Cranston, 1914-2015, pictured with me.

Lucille Antoinette (Bailly) Cranston, 1914-2015, pictured with me.

Reading: Psalm 103

The Benefits of God
Today is a day of remembering, and so our text is a Psalm of remembrance. The author of these sublime words, King David, knows how easy it is to forget the most important things. He knows this so well he preaches to himself; he exhorts his very own innermost being: “Praise the Lord, O my soul.” This is very unusual: he is not primarily writing these words for you and me; he writes them to his own soul. He knows it is easy for us to look backward; many people yearn for yesteryear. It is easy to focus outward; many are consumed by their present circumstances. It is easy to turn inward; self-centeredness is our default setting. It is easy to gaze forward; many of us suffer anxiety about the future. It is easy to cast our eyes downward, standing hopelessly at a graveside. 

No, most difficult of all is looking upward. David forces the eyes of his soul—and ours—vertically to offer praise to the Lord and, above all, to remember: “Forget not all his benefits.” 

David lists many of God’s “benefits,” his blessings and gifts. He speaks of having one’s youth renewed like an eagle; surely that must apply to a woman one hundred years of age! He speaks of being “redeemed from the pit,” which can refer to being rescued from a variety of hopeless or difficult circumstances, such as David himself often faced. There is little doubt Lucille saw many such times over the course of her century.

One particular benefit especially resonates with me today: “The Lord’s love is with those who fear him, and his righteousness with their children’s children—with those who keep his covenant and obey his precepts.” Are you here today as a child of Lucille? Susan and Pat, these promises and gifts are for you. Are you here as one of her children’s children, like me? James, Penny, Melodee, as well as me, these promises and gifts are for us. Some of you are her children’s children’s children; Olivia Faith, Bailey Lucille, and Mary Margaret, these promises and gifts are for you as well. Indeed, the Lord shows mercy to a thousand generations of those who love him and obey his commands.

And what promises they are! One captivates David above all: The forgiveness of sins. It is not only the very first benefit that comes to his mind in verse three, but it is the central benefit of the entire Psalm. Verses 8-12 expand on the theme: 

8 “The Lord is compassionate and gracious, 
slow to anger, abounding in love. 
9    He will not always accuse, 
nor will he harbor his anger forever; 
10    he does not treat us as our sins deserve 
or repay us according to our iniquities. 
11    For as high as the heavens are above the earth, 
so great is his love for those who fear him; 
12    as far as the east is from the west, 
so far has he removed our transgressions from us.” 

This was the great theme of David’s life. In another place he wrote, “Blessed is he whose transgressions are forgiven, whose sins are covered. Blessed is the man whose sin the Lord does not count against him and in whose spirit is no deceit” (Ps.32:1-2). David was called “a man after God’s own heart.” He knew that the heart of God is full of love and compassion. That is who God revealed himself to be in ancient times when he spoke to Moses, and David knew the words by heart—he recites them anew here: “Compassionate and gracious God, slow to anger, abounding in love.” 

Everlasting Promises For Creatures of Dust
But these benefits might seem to us empty—a case of mere fantasy or wishful thinking. Are these just sentimental words, psychological crutches, or coping mechanisms? For what good is having one’s diseases healed or youth repeatedly renewed when eventually it is destined to waste away? What good is being rescued from the pit of life’s difficulties when in the end, like Lucille, we will all be lowered into a pit that is all too real? David is not blithely unaware of his—or our—mortality:

13 “As a father has compassion on his children, 
so the Lord has compassion on those who fear him; 
14    for he knows how we are formed, 
he remembers that we are dust. 
15    As for man, his days are like grass, 
he flourishes like a flower of the field; 
16    the wind blows over it and it is gone, 
and its place remembers it no more.” 

This sober expression of the fleetingness of life—even a life of a hundred years—is followed by something astounding: “But from everlasting to everlasting the Lord’s love is with those who fear him.” This is David’s great hope: since God’s love is everlasting, it must be that those who are the objects of his love must be everlasting. He himself was counting on it, as the closing words of his most famous Psalm remind us: “Surely goodness and mercy will follow me all the days of my life, and I will dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps.23).

Being redeemed from the pit is not just a metaphor for difficult circumstances; David believed it meant impossible circumstances, the literal kind of pit, the one we are all face-to-face with today: the grave.

Creaturely Dust on the Heavenly Throne
We all perish. The grave engulfs us. How, then, are we to be beneficiaries of his many benefits? What good are these promises? 

David says something in the next verse that seems strange: “The Lord has established his throne in heaven and his kingdom rules over all.” Is he changing the subject? No. He feels instinctively that the answer to all our questions is found in the Throne room of God, and he centers his undivided attention on the very seat from which God rules. He not only bids his own soul to behold the throne and offer praise, he now summons praise from the angels, those “holy ones who do his bidding;” the heavenly hosts, “servants who do his will;” and from “all his works everywhere in his dominion.” That means you and me, too. And it means Lucille, too, at this very moment.

Who is seated there? Who is on the throne?

David knew because God had told him: “When your days are over and you rest with your fathers, I will raise up your offspring to succeed you, who will come from your own body, and I will establish his kingdom. He is the one who will build a house for my Name, and I will establish the throne of his kingdom forever. I will be his father, and he will be my son” (2 Sam. 7:12-14). 

He who sits on the throne is none other than the exalted son of David and the son of God, Jesus of Nazareth. The very Word of God who became flesh and made his dwelling among us. 

How can fleeting creatures of dust behold the glory of God? The eternal one who sits on the throne became dust himself. 

How can sinners be forgiven and have their transgressions removed? He who sits on the throne is the Lamb who shed his blood. 

How can one destined for the grave yet dwell in the House of the Lord forever? He who sits on the throne has burst the bonds of the tomb; it could not hold him. 

He is the champion and pioneer—he is Lucille’s champion and pioneer—who conquered death and in his resurrection transformed perishing flesh into imperishable glory. And this is the promise that David cherished, and Lucille cherished, and what you and I are called to cherish: Just as surely as Jesus was raised from the dead, so also will those who belong to him be raised!

Lucille dwells now in the House of the Lord not for a hundred years, but forever. The road to that house runs through the valley of the shadow of death. But he who sits on the throne, the Lord Jesus Christ, has walked through that valley and vanquished all its sting. He has now beckoned Lucille with familiar words, and they are words he continues to direct to all of us even now: “Come, follow me!”

In another Psalm David writes:
“You have made known to me the path of life; 
you will fill me with joy in your presence, 
with eternal pleasures at your right hand.” (Psalm 16:11)

Benefits worth remembering, indeed. Amen.

 

N.D. Wilson on Villains

I love DRTV's interview with juvenile fiction writer N.D. Wilson. (You can watch it below.) He has so many stellar observations and insights into what ought to characterize children's literature that you'll want to watch it multiple times. This isn't just food for thought. It is Julia Child's The Art of French Cooking for thought.

So that brings me to some things he said about heroes and villains and how he hates the stock characters in the genre today. 

1. He hates it when villains are "jokes," or easily defeated. 

2. The evilness of the evil is what highlights the degree of goodness, righteousness, and justice.

3. Evil should not be a shallow moralism, but instead be an act of wrestling authority from its proper place and disfiguring the image of God.

4. Heroes should not stand and fight because they have a chance of winning. They should stand and fight because this is the right time and place to stand, come what may.

This all has it exactly correct. The only problem is his chosen example.

Harry Potter.

I admit to being more than a little baffled. When I interview guests I generally try to make it about the guest, not me. (That's why you won't often find me arguing with a guest. I'm there to draw out what they think about things.) So I'll just have to respectfully submit my rejoinder in a blog post.

1. Voldemort, the guy who establishes a fascist regime of power, murder, and fear, and casts the whole world (Magical and Muggle alike) into darkness and chaos, is not a joke. If anyone thinks The Deathly Hallows portrays a villain easily defeated, he hasn't read it. Throughout most of the book the reader is made to... well, despair. And, it should be noted, Harry doesn't defeat Voldemort by himself. It takes the entire cadre of faithful, steadfast friends who likewise have little hope of winning.

2. Voldemort's thirst for immortality comes by destroying others by way of murder; the contrast presented explicitly throughout the series is self-seeking hatred of others/self-sacrificing love for others. If there is a contrast any greater, it is not suggesting itself to me. Dark magic isn't "dark" because it's a different degree from "good" magic; it is fundamentally a different kind, a kind not animated by love.

3. In his quest for immortality, Voldemort disfigures his own person almost beyond recognition, and murders others in order to do it. I fail to see this as anything but point (3) above.

4. If I didn't know any better, I would have thought Wilson was talking about Harry Potter. Harry does not walk into the Forbidden Forest to meet his enemy because he has delusions of "winning." If that chapter doesn't fit Wilson's description of heroism, there is nothing in the history of children's fiction that does.

Again, I LOVE his insights and his points. I'd just modestly suggest he take the time to read the Harry Potter series all the way through. I have a suspicion it might just be the first time.