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Thirsty prayer

O God, you are my God;
earnestly I seek you;

    my soul thirsts for you;
my flesh faints for you,
    as in a dry and weary land where there is no water (Ps. 63:1).

Those words have echoed inside me from the first time I read them.

Although I was raised in a home that highly valued the Scriptures, I didn’t read them regularly myself till I was a young adult. And when I came across this first verse of Psalm 63, I found in it the most accurate description of myself I’d ever come across.

The one thing I need is the one thing I don’t have. I’m as thirsty as a drought-ridden land. My soul is so parched, my body is about to give way.

I’m empty, but I know it.

I know it’s not water I need. I’m thirsty for God. It’s not a leisurely life of sex and food and other entertainments I long for. It’s not a solution for the struggle of the day I need. It’s a God-flavor I crave.

I’m thirsty and I haven’t gotten what I need.

The psalm’s superscription calls it “A psalm of David. When he was in the Desert of Judah.” I like that. He looked around and what he saw around him reflected what was in him. He was in a desert and he felt like a desert.

There’s wisdom in his looking around and using his context outside of himself as a window into the context inside of himself. He doesn’t force the metaphor. In fact, he moves on from it after the first verse. But it launches the prayer.

It makes me ask myself: How can I become a keen observer of the world around me and also a keen observer of the world within me, using one to see the other?

I haven’t always appreciated this. In fact, it’s my lack of appreciating context which caused me to quite dislike part of Psalm 63. While I loved the first eight verses for their passionate desire for God, I often skipped the last three verses. They ruined it for me. There’s an abrupt shift in the psalm after verse 8 and if I’d been the editor of Psalm 63, I’d have lopped them off.

But the last three verses are the true context of the psalm. The desert is the environmental context, but relational chaos is the life-encompassing context of the psalm. Without the last three verses, Psalm 63 would never have been written, never have been prayed.

There is no context-less spirituality. Biblical faith is always grounded in an ugly reality, messy details of messy lives. Prayers that depart too far from our earthly realities and try to dwell in the heavenlies may seem angelic, but they’re cheats and frauds. If God meets us anywhere, it’s here in the mess.

Worshiping the Creator, the one who made our messy context should have taught us that. Worshiping the Savior, the one who entered into our messy context in flesh and blood Incarnation should have taught us that. But we love clean ideas over dirty realities. And the last three verses of Psalm 63 bring our disembodied spiritualities crashing back to earth.

Even though he doesn’t mention his relational context till the end of the psalm, it’s fully in mind for David throughout. It has established a pressing need which has driven him to prayer. He is thirsty for God.

But instead of bringing up in his memory of a time when God dealt with other foes, as he does in other psalms, David turns his memory elsewhere: to worship.

I have seen you in the sanctuary
    and beheld your power and your glory (Ps. 63:2).

Faced with a battlefield, David doesn’t remember a previous battlefield. He remembers the sanctuary. It’s in worship, not in war, that he’s seen God’s power and glory most clearly. It’s in worship that all the details of life came together and made sense. It’s there that he felt full. And feeling empty right now, that’s where he wanted to be most of all, savoring the God-flavors he’s tasted before.

Past worship has him longing for future worship.

Because your love is better than life,
    my lips will glorify you.
I will praise you as long as I live,
    and in your name I will lift up my hands.
I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods;
    with singing lips my mouth will praise you (Ps. 63:3-5).

Where his soul is thirsty in a waterless place now, he envisions a time when “I will be fully satisfied as with the richest of foods.” He’ll go from the parched desert to the Thanksgiving dinner table.

Worship is where the pieces of life fit together. I am there, fully present — body, mind, soul attuned to myself and to God. God is there. And God’s people are there, praying with one heart, singing with one voice, listening to God’s Word with one mind.

In a fractured world, I experience a moment of unity. In an empty world running on its hamster wheel in pursuit of an elusive happiness, I experience fullness. In a hostile world, I experience peace.

But David’s not there yet. He knows that’s what he needs. But for now, he’s tossing and turning on his bed, sleepless.

On my bed I remember you;
    I think of you through the watches of the night (Ps. 63:6).

I have a love-hate relationship with that verse. There have been so many nights where I’ve been sleepless like David — my body tense from caffeine, my mind awhirl with plans and details, or my heart clenched with fear — and these David words will come to mind. And I’ll think, “God, I just want to sleep right now. I don’t want to think of you through the watches of the night!”

But the words will call me to prayer and eventually I’ll give in, grudgingly offering what is disturbing me to the great Listener.

Sometimes, as part of that self-offering, I’ll get up and write out a list of everything bouncing around inside of me and I’ll have written 30 different things by the time I’m done. And I’ll say, “Lord have mercy! Take this chaos. It’s too much for me.”

And there, in the shadow of the night, David finds himself in the shadow of God’s wings. The afflicting darkness with its fears has become the comforting darkness under the fold of God’s protecting wings.

Because you are my help,
    I sing in the shadow of your wings.
I cling to you;
    your right hand upholds me (Ps. 63:7-8).

As in Ps. 149:5, the bed becomes a mini sanctuary and David finds himself singing. I admit I’ve never burst into song in bed during the night. I’m not sure how pleased my wife would be if I did. But clinging to God, now that I have done.

When there’s emptiness inside and chaos outside, there’s one thing I know to do: “I cling to you.”

My fears and my preoccupations drop me in the desert and dry me out. They’re like salt on the tongue. But seeking their solutions won’t quench the thirst they make. It’s God I’m thirsty for.

Dry soul, turn to God and drink.

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Where the soul finds rest

She had seemed so nice. She was always so warm and friendly and she asked such great questions, drawing out unguarded thoughts. But as I watched her turn on her mother and then family and then husband, I knew it was only a matter of time before she turned on me, her pastor.

And then it happened. Secret conversations. Accusations. She gathered allies against me, just as she had against each of her previous targets.

It didn’t last terribly long — people always caught on to her manipulations eventually — but it was painful while it lasted, just as it had been to each person before me (and presumably for each person targeted after me). And prayer became the doorway into the refuge that is our God.

There always have been and always will be people who define their lives by their tragedies or their enemies. They exteriorize the turmoil inside themselves, preferring to place the blame for what’s wrong with their lives on exterior causes instead of their rotten hearts.

They’re living Taylor Swift songs. “Look what you made me do.” All finger-pointing and no self-reflective responsibility.

David and other psalmists deal with their ilk throughout the Psalter. Their weapon of choice is generally word-based, masked by smiles and twisted by lies.

they take delight in lies.
With their mouths they bless,
    but in their hearts they curse (Ps. 62:4).

They are relentless, attacking their targets with verbal battering rams until they teeter, totter, and topple.

How long will you assault me?
    Would all of you throw me down —
    this leaning wall, this tottering fence?
Surely they intend to topple me
    from my lofty place (Ps. 62:3-4).

Self-defense is our basic response to such attacks. If they’ve rallied allies against us, we’ll rally our own. If they’ve attacked with words, we’ll defend and counter-attack with words of our own. Eye for eye. Tooth for tooth. Slander for slander. Manipulation for manipulation. It’s typical. But it doesn’t work. It merely escalates.

Psalm 62 is David’s prayed response, a response that turns his words toward God instead of toward his poison-tongued attackers.

David begins the psalm with a chorus which he repeats in verses 5-6 with minor variation:

Truly my soul finds rest in God;
    my salvation comes from him.
Truly he is my rock and my salvation;
    he is my fortress, I will never be shaken (Ps. 62:1-2).

Those beautiful first words alone — “Truly my soul finds rest in God” — help me slow my breath down and unclench my teeth. My shoulders loosen and I sigh. God is here. I can rest.

There is no rest in strategizing my response to attackers. In God, though, there is real rest, true rest.

Unlike my leaning wall, tottering fence self, God is a mighty rock. Where I break and give way under enemy battering rams, the ram itself is broken when banging against God’s solid granite refuge.

Self-protection is no protection. God’s protection is rest-inducing in its true security.

David looks around him and he sees that everyone else is in the same boat as he is. Those who are poor and powerless know that there’s not much to them. And those who posture and preen pretend there’s something to them, but it’s just a fancy lie. Working the system to gain wealth or power or celebrity ends up just as empty as anything else. We humans simply have no substance when stood next to God.

Surely the lowborn are but a breath,
    the highborn are but a lie.
If weighed on a balance, they are nothing;
    together they are only a breath.
Do not trust in extortion
    or put vain hope in stolen goods;
though your riches increase,
    do not set your heart on them (Ps. 62:9-10).

This is significant for me. Because I keep letting myself be bullied by posers. I keep thinking they’re something when they’re not. They’re campfire smoke that makes me choke and cough for a moment but is blown away on the breeze soon after.

That was the case of my tormentor. She banged a lot of pots together, making a lot of noise. But I haven’t heard that din for years now.

So, David hones in on two lasting things we know about God which determine everything.

One thing God has spoken,
    two things I have heard:
“Power belongs to you, God,
    and with you, LORD, is unfailing love”;
and, “You reward everyone
    according to what they have done” (Ps. 62:11-12).

This first has to do with God saving us. God (elohim, the generic word for God, generally associated with his power as the Creator) is powerful. The LORD (Yahweh, the covenant name for the God of Israel, generally associated with his love and loyalty toward his people) is unfailing in his love. The powerful God “up there” in the heavens is the same loving God “down here” in our situations on earth. He isn’t powerful while not being tied to us in love, which would make him a divine tyrant. And he isn’t nice and loving but powerless to do anything like a divine teddy bear. His power is controlled by his love and therefore set to help us, not harm us. And his love is fortified by his power, actually able to do the loving things he longs to do for us. All that to say, he’s trustworthy. That is why, earlier in the psalm, David makes this general call:

Trust in him at all times, you people;
    pour out your hearts to him,
    for God is our refuge (Ps. 62:8).

We can pour out our hearts to him, because he loves us. We can find refuge in him, because he’s powerful. We can trust him at all times, because his love makes him willing and his power makes him able to help us.

The second thing David has heard from God doesn’t have to do with us so much as it has to do with those who do evil in the world, those who batter against us tottering fences: God will deal with them justly.

The power and love of God for us gets the first word. The justice of God gets the last word.

Those who do evil will be stopped in their tracks and will be prevented from ever doing it again. This promise of God is repeated throughout the Scriptures, from beginning to end. How will he do it? That’s almost never the point. The point is this: By giving evildoers what they’ve got coming, God is creating space for the abused to live whole and happy lives, free from abuse.

This is how the soul finds rest: By trusting in God — not in self or in those posing as powerful — to act lovingly and powerfully on our behalf while dealing definitively with those who deal abuse on us.

God is on our side. Rescue is on its way. The villains will be dealt with. That promised better day is almost here. Wait and trust a bit longer. Slow your breath down. Rest.

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When I feel far from God

There are times when God seems just about as far away as possible. I feel alone and even with crowds around me, the world feels empty.

There are times when God feels as close as my skin, where I can feel the weight of the Presence. All the world is filled with meaning and possibility because God is with me.

But most of the time, I live between these two poles, present and distant at the same time. This is the way of long relationships, old friendships and old marriages. There’s something good and settled-in with these relationships, but also something routine and stale.

Psalm 61 prays from a distance and is an excellent companion for when we find ourselves distant as well.

Hear my cry, O God;
    listen to my prayer.
From the ends of the earth I call to you,
    I call as my heart grows faint;
    lead me to the rock that is higher than I (Ps. 61:1-2).

In the Hebrew mind, Jerusalem is the center of the earth. It’s where the temple was located. And before that, it’s where the ark of the covenant was located in the tabernacle, after David had it brought to his new capitol city.

Worship provides the center of the earth. Everything else gathers around God and goes out from God. Without worship, we are center-less.

Growing up, my parents’ house was the center of my world. But once I hit college that changed. Lakeside Bible Camp became my new center. I called it my Mediterranean, my “middle of the earth.” It was there that I had deep, life-changing encounters with God. It was there that everything about me — my faith, my personality, my hopes and dreams, me relationships — were challenged and grew. Lakeside made all of life worship. Every moment became pregnant with possibilities and heavy with God.

But here’s David, praying at a distance. Is he physically distant from Jerusalem and feeling dis-located? Or is he personally distant and feeling dislocated in heart, soul, and mind? Both are possibilities not just with him, but with us. Place matters. Heart matters.

Regardless, like us, he longs for the distance to disappear. He longs for closeness.

I long to dwell in your tent forever
    and take refuge in the shelter of your wings (Ps. 61:4).

In verses 2 and 3, David has referred to God as a massive rock and a strong tower, very tangible, physical expressions of strength and security. But here he shifts to a tent and wings.

There are two vastly different possibilities for what he’s getting at here.

The first draws from the nomadic roots of the Hebrew people. From Abraham through the desert wanderings, the people lived in tents (some still do to this day). And though people didn’t raise chickens back then, along with the birds residing in Israel, vast numbers of birds have always migrated between Europe and Africa through the land. Because of this, the image of a mother bird protecting the eggs or young in her nest grew deep in a biblical imagination of how God hovers over us, protecting us with his presence.

David wants that nestled protection for himself. He wants to live in God’s tent all the time. Wherever God goes, he’ll go too. No matter what kind of wandering path his life takes, he knows God won’t ever be far from him.

The other possibility is the tent refers to the tabernacle, the place of worship and meeting with God. And the wings refer to the two sets of cherubim wings on the ark of the covenant. This is a real possibility, because of David’s devotion to the ark and the belief that the ark was the throne of Yahweh, who “dwelt” between the cherubim wings. All of this is contained in 2 Samuel 6.

He and all his men went to Baalah in Judah to bring up from there the ark of God, which is called by the Name, the name of the LORD Almighty, who is enthroned between the cherubim on the ark. … Wearing a linen ephod, David was dancing before the LORD with all his might, while he and all Israel were bringing up the ark of the LORD with shouts and the sound of trumpets. … They brought the ark of the LORD and set it in its place inside the tent that David had pitched for it, and David sacrificed burnt offerings and fellowship offerings before the LORD (2 Sam. 6:2, 14, 15, 17).

Feeling far from God, David wants to restore worship as the center of his life. He doesn’t want to be an occasional worshiper, a Sunday Christian. He is insatiable. He wants God all the time. He wants to dance daily.

Our classic expression of this is Brother Lawrence’s The Practicing of the Presence of God. As a Carmelite lay brother, he learned the ability to live in the Presence not just during the hours of monastic worship, but even while he was washing bottles or repairing sandals.

The psalm then takes what at first seems like an abrupt shift. It moves from first-person prayer to third-person praying for the king. This isn’t a prayer for the king as a different person, however, but rather a step back from his feelings and praying for himself objectively as if he were another person.

Increase the days of the king’s life,
    his years for many generations.
May he be enthroned in God’s presence forever;
    appoint your love and faithfulness to protect him (Ps. 61:6-7).

This sounds like a “may he live forever” blessing of the king. But it’s more about his kingship than his individual life. He’s praying about not just himself, but for the descendants of his who will sit on his throne in years to come. It’s as if all his future descendants are alive in him right now. And when they take the throne, it’s his kingship which will be extended to future generations. All of this is in line with God’s promise to David (2 Sam. 7:16; see the whole chapter).

There’s something helpful in praying for ourselves in the third person. When we pray “me” and “my” prayers, we tend to pray skewed prayers from our skewed perspectives. And that’s an OK place to start. But as we continue in prayer, the mature person steps back a bit and seeks a more objective perspective, praying not just with the heart, but with the mind as well.

And what do we see? David prays for the same thing when praying objectively as he did when praying personally.

He wants protection and he wants Presence.

Protect my descendants by protecting me now. Let them be enthroned in your Presence forever by letting me never leave your tent now.

In anticipation of this, he finishes his prayer by saying in effect, “I will have your song always in my heart and on my lips. And I will live each day faithful to the covenant you have established between us.”

Then I will ever sing in praise of your name
    and fulfill my vows day after day (Ps. 61:8).

All of a sudden, we discover that David is no longer far away. Instead, he is singing to God and living out the daily commitments of covenant loyalty to God.

And there we have the key to living fully in the Presence: A worshipful and obedient heart.

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The lie behind my “yeah, but” spirituality

What attitude do I bring to the Scriptures when I read them? Is there an attentiveness to what is written? Is there an expectation to hear from God? Is there a readiness to obey?

Obedience is at the heart of faithfulness. If God is King and I’m not, then how can I do other than obey him?

not_so_sure_about_that.jpgBut I see in myself and hear from others a “yeah, but” spirituality, where we agree with God to a point but then put the brakes on our obedience.

I don’t mean that we should read a story like that of Jephthah (Judges 11, particularly 11:29-40) and make rash vows to God that cost the lives of our children. Rather, we ought to read stories like that and make well-considered vows to God that we follow through on as tenaciously as he did. The story is painful as a cautionary tale in its reminder of how good people can make stupid choices. But it is also a reminder of how seriously those who came before us have taken the kingship of God.

Each day, I need to hear the Scriptures and ask questions that lead to obedience.

For instance:

What does it look like for me to honor my father and mother (Ex. 20:12) without qualifying it with a “yeah, but” that keeps me from doing it?

What does it look like for me to love my wife the way Christ loved the church and give myself up for her to make her holy (Eph. 5:25-28) with no “yeah, but she said this and didn’t do that.”

What does it look like for me to hear Col. 3:23-24 as I do my job? “Whatever you do, work at it with all your heart, as working for the Lord, not for human masters, since you know that you will receive an inheritance from the Lord as a reward. It is the Lord Christ you are serving.”

What does it look like for me to “Rejoice always, pray continually, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (1 Then. 5:16-18)? And how do I do this in a culture that teaches me to complain, to reject suffering, to spend time on my iPhone instead of praying, and to always want more for myself? How do I “do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others” (Phil. 2:3-4)? I really want to say, “Yeah, but they’re not looking out for my interests!”

I am full of yeah-buts. They take the substance out of my Bible reading and my obedience to Christ. But what’s even worse is I project a “yeah, but” hesitancy on God as well.

Even though the heart of the Gospel is Jesus in the Garden telling his Father, “Not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 2:42), before obediently going to the cross, I have to admit that I often treat God as if he’s holding back, as if he’s holding out on me. Even though the Scriptures are together the story of God’s full attention on redeeming humanity, I treat God as if he’s not generous, not faithful, not intent on blessing me.

Even though “anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him” (Heb. 11:6), I expect of God: “I would reward him, but …”

I don’t actually say these things to God. But the way I live betrays a belief that God is holding out on me, that each “yeah, but” to him from me is matched my a “yeah, but” from him to me.

I need to live 2 Cor. 1:20 —

For no matter how many promises God has made, they are “Yes” in Christ. And so through him the “Amen” is spoken by us to the glory of God.

I need to hear God’s overwhelming YES in Jesus and respond with a full-bodied YES of my own.

When I do so, my obedience will be that of a dearly loved child to his open-hearted Father. It will be the obedience of richly rewarded servant to his generous Master. It will be the obedience of well-taught disciple to his wise Teacher.

There is no hesitancy in God toward me. May there be none in me toward him either.

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The self-offering of worship & the importance of giving our money away

In an effort to communicate to visitors that they aren’t trying to get their money, many churches have given up the practice of taking an offering during Sunday worship. I get the intention behind the change, but it’s yet another mistake brought about by a desire to not ask too much of people and to appear relevant.

One of the key movements in worship is sell-offering, a giving over of self to God. Without this, I don’t believe anything else we do in our worship gatherings is actually worship.

The great issue in most of our lives is kingship. Who is King here? Is it me or is it God? When Adam and Eve took and ate the forbidden fruit in the Garden in an attempt to be like gods, they usurped God’s throne. They claimed kingship over their own lives, denying God’s kingship.

So, what was the central message Jesus proclaimed when he began to preach? The kingdom of God. God is King. We aren’t. Caesar isn’t. Building our own personal and political kingdoms is doomed even before they are begun. The only way to effect real and lasting change in our lives and in this world is to lay down our crowns before the throne of our God.

And what do you know? That is the very image the Scriptures give us of creation put right. God as King on his throne and us as not-kings tossing our crowns at his feet (see Rev. 4, especially verse 10, as an image of what heavenly worship looks like). Our worship should be modeled after that.

Now, we do this in bits and pieces.

Singing can be a means of emotional sell-offering.

Simply showing up for worship is a physical means of sell-offering. As Romans 12:1 urges, we offer our bodies to God in worship when we bring those bodies to worship.

But giving our money to God is worship at another level.

Giving our money to God in a regular, conscious, active way dethrones the god Mammon and our desires to rule our own lives. Money is means. It opens up possibilities. It gives us the illusion of control over our lives by giving us a bit of real control. Giving that over to God is a massive act of submission and obedience unlike almost anything else we do.

Bringing our sacrifices to God and laying them before him is one of our greatest acts of sell-offering.

About a dozen years ago, I brought a bunch of kids up front during worship and talked about this stuff. I said one of the things about sacrifices is that what you offer gets burned up. It’s just gone. No one gets to control it.

So, I pulled out a $100 bill and showed it to them. One of the kids took it to his mom, who confirmed the Benjamin was legit.

Then I pulled out a lighter and caught the bill in my hand on fire. There was a gasp in the sanctuary as legal tender money for burned up into nothingness.

“Bye, bye, hundred dollars!” said one of the kids.

Now, I had actually swapped a Washington for the Benjamin, so had only burned one dollar. But the point was made.

When I offer my money to God, it’s gone. It’s not mine anymore. It’s fragrance in God’s nostrils, not power in my pocket.

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Telling meaningful stories

We all tell a lot of stories and listen to a lot of stories. It’s one of the main ways we humans communicate and make connections with one another, pulling past experiences into the present moment and creating meaning by them.

But not everyone is a good storyteller. In fact, we all regularly encounter people who either bore or bully us with their bad storytelling.

There are times when someone will tell story after meaningless story without pausing for breath in between, and I can feel the life draining from my body. And I wonder, “Can’t this person see what she’s doing to me? And how is it that she’s lived as long as she has without learning how to tell a good story?”

So, what is it that makes for a good story? And by good, I don’t mean entertaining. There are people who are excellent entertainers, who can keep us engaged with their stories.

What I getting at here is this: What makes for a meaningful story, a story that adds to the life of both the teller and the listener?

According to communication expert John Savage in his book Listening & Caring Skills, there are four levels to story telling. Here’s my own take on his thoughts.

Level 1: Information back then.

The most basic level of story-telling is a simple relating of information that happened previously. We do this numerous times every day in conversations, in emails, on social media, and in the news we consume.

“I took my family to the U2 concert in Oakland, California, in 2011” is an informational story about something that took place a few years ago. If there are details the listeners find interesting, it can even be an engaging story. But it has no real meaning. Not yet. (Note: The further in the past the story is, the less emotionally engaging it is, since there’s more distance between who you are now and who you were then. That is, unless you get to level 2 ….)

Level 2: Emotions back then.

A story gains depth when we begin to move from the purely informational to the emotional.

“As we stood and sang along with our favorite U2 songs, I felt a deep bond with my family. There I was, with my favorite people, standing ten feet away from my favorite band. It felt like heaven.”

When I engage my feelings about an event that happened in the past, I’m no longer talking in sterile information language. I’m emotionally engaged and, most likely, so too is my listener. But if the emotions stay “back then,” there is less engagement than if I express current feelings about the experience.

Level 3: Emotions now.

The best stories don’t stay in the past. They live in the present, interacting with our lives today.

“When I think about that concert, I feel nostalgic. I realize what a snapshot in time it was for our family. And now that the kids are older and heading off to college, I wonder if we’ll have many more times like that. You ever feel that way?”

Once I have a sense of how the story connects with my current feelings, I begin to understand why I told the story in the first place.

Level 4: Self-understanding.

We don’t just tell stories. When we draw memories from the past, we do so because of current realities. There’s a reason I’m telling this story and not a different one. There’s a connection between what happened before and what’s going on now. And so, when we listen to others as storytellers and to ourselves as storytellers, we can come to a moment of insight.

“Remembering that concert makes me realize how afraid I am of having my kids drift away as they grow older. It makes me determined to let them have their own lives and experiences with their own families while also making sure that we have more experiences together like that concert. If U2 is still around then, I want to take my grandkids!”

I’ve seen this kind of self-understanding happen as people tell good stories. And I’ve listened to someone tell a powerful story that could have led to such self-understanding, but she blitzed on to the next story and the one after that, while I sat there thinking, “What a profound thing she just said. I wish I could get a word in to articulate what I just heard her say.” I kick myself for not speaking up in those situations.

There’s so much more to our story-telling and story-listening than we generally experience. May we all become better tellers and better listeners, not afraid of emotion and moving toward self-understanding.

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Breath prayers

I was asked for a prayer to help someone focus himself, to center himself as he faces death from numerous physical failings. And so I gave him five “breath prayers” pulled from the Scriptures.

Here I am.

Speak, Lord, your servant is listening.

When I am afraid, I will trust in you.

Not my will, but your will be done.

Come, Lord Jesus.

The idea of breath prayers comes from an ancient Christian tradition reaching back to the Desert Fathers. It has become associated with what is referred to as the Jesus Prayer:

Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, have mercy on me, the sinner.

With breath prayers, the basic desire is to take 1 Thes. 5:17 seriously, with its call to “pray without ceasing.” And so, the person in prayer uses the basic rhythm of breathing as a means of praying. As you inhale, you mentally say the first half of the prayer; as you exhale, you say the second half.

[Inhale]: When I am afraid …

[Exhale]: I will trust in you.

Or

[Inhale]: Here I am.

[Exhale]: (silent listening)

As these prayers are repeated breath after breath, they stop being conscious repetition and become a posture of openness to God, stilling the soul in the process.

Because of this breath prayers are foundational to what is referred to as hesychasm, which means to keep stillness, silence, rest, quiet.

I listed the Jesus Prayer above, along with five other passages commonly used as breath prayers. The beauty of it this is that almost any passage or phrase can be fashioned into a breath prayer to fit the circumstance you find yourself in. Some people make it a practice of their daily Bible reading to find a phrase which will become their breath prayer for the day.

[Inhale]: Speak, Lord …

[Exhale]: Your servant is listening.

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The two Christmas gifts the world still needs

When the angel army sang to those shepherds in the field that Christmas night, their song was of two things most needed in the world:

“Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favor rests.” (Luke 2:14)

Glory and peace.

Giving God glory means recognizing him for who he really is. It means the end of ignoring him, the end of rebelling against him. It means considering him in the small and the large details of our lives. It means obeying his call for justice in the world, so that it will be the good creation he intended in the first place. It means the end of bowing our knees to false gods and pretenders who in their broken humanity attempt to ascend to the place of God. It means the end of fear as we fear/reverence the Lord.

And peace on earth means the end of warring against God, the end of warring against each other. It means the end of bickering spouses, the end of arguing siblings. It means wholeness and wellness. It means healed relationships, healed bodies, healed minds, healed souls. It means purposeful work. It means food on every table and a roof over every head. It means the absence of fear and the presence of laughter. It means a song in the heart and a dance in the step.

Glory and peace. They are the gifts God longs for us to unwrap. They are the essence of the kingdom of heaven come among us. They have already come to us in Jesus but will be fully among us only when the fullness of his kingdom arrives with his return.

They are what we long for. They are what we pray for.

Maranatha! Our Lord, come!

Bring peace. Be glorified.

These are tidings of comfort and joy, comfort and joy!

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The problem of perspective

Living behind my eyes and ears, I am stuck with seeing and hearing the world from my limited perspective. Sometimes, I’m able to add my perspective and help others see things more clearly. But too often, my skewed and limited perspective makes more problems than solutions.

I can’t count how many times I’ve misunderstood people because I didn’t hear them correctly. I’ve gladly forgotten the mistakes I’ve made as a volleyball referee who didn’t see clearly what was happening on the court. I lacked the necessary perspective.

Psalm 52 struggles with a problem of perspective. The superscription gives us the setting behind it: “When Doeg the Edomite had gone to Saul and told him: ‘David has gone to the house of Ahimelek.'”

Think about this for a bit. Both David and Doeg were important officials in the government of Saul, king of Israel. David was suspected of wanting to take over the kingdom for himself and Doeg gave simple but necessary information to the king about this possible insurgent.

That suspicion was true, by the way. From the day he was anointed, David had his eye on the throne. The reason he fought Goliath was to earn the prize of marriage to the king’s daughter (1 Sam. 17:25-27)  — a means of entering the king’s household and making his way onto the throne. A simple rereading of 1 Samuel with David’s kingly ambitions in view is enlightening. Robert Alter does a masterly job of this in his book/commentary The David Story.

From Saul’s perspective, Doeg was a faithful, loyal servant and David a deceitful “mighty hero.” In fact, this psalm could easily be turned around completely. Try reading it as Doeg’s psalm about tricksy David. Amazingly, it works! Doeg never plotted to gain the throne and certainly never raised an army of good-for-nothings, using it to effectively take over a part of the kingdom while the established king still ruled.

Throughout the Psalms, we encounter problematic perspectives. Psalm 137 ends with a willingness to bless baby killers. Psalm 88 is an accusation against God, blaming him for taking away all friends so that darkness is the only remaining friend. Psalm 109 is brutal with its litany of evil poured out on its enemy, wishing that the enemy will be falsely accused in court, lose the legal battle, die, and leave his children as homeless orphans.

These are problems.

Some have tried to come up with clever, pious readings which make these psalms sound palatable. But they just don’t work. In each of these psalms and others like them, the writer is just plain in the wrong.

We should have no trouble with this, since the Scriptures declare that none of us is righteous and that all have sinned, falling short of God’s glory. We have the adultery of David, the murder of Moses, and the denial of Peter among the many egregious transgressions of our biblical “heroes.” And yet, we balk at reading a psalm as if it were written from a wrong perspective?

The Psalms are our companions in praying. As such, they teach us to pray in any and every situation we find ourselves in. And that includes times when we pray out of wrong perspectives.

Everyone one of us has been so completely wrong at times, we simply couldn’t see things as they really were. And yet, we still needed to pray. And so, our prayers came out all cockeyed and backward. But still we pray. We can’t wait to correct our perspectives first.

Pray first. Correct perspectives later.

When David writes the following words in his poem, none of them actually describes Doeg as we see him in 1 Samuel. Every bit of this is David’s projection onto Doeg. It all arises from  deep-seated bitterness, not pious faith. And that’s OK.

Why do you boast of evil, you mighty hero?
    Why do you boast all day long,
    you who are a disgrace in the eyes of God?
You who practice deceit,
    your tongue plots destruction;
    it is like a sharpened razor.
You love evil rather than good,
    falsehood rather than speaking the truth.
You love every harmful word,
    you deceitful tongue! (Ps. 52:1-4)

David even engages in a sulky imagination, dreaming of Doeg’s downfall and how people will mock him. It’s just plain ugly. But it’s also truly human. I know I’ve been here before myself.

Surely God will bring you down to everlasting ruin:
    He will snatch you up and pluck you from your tent;
    he will uproot you from the land of the living.
The righteous will see and fear;
    they will laugh at you, saying,
“Here now is the man
    who did not make God his stronghold
but trusted in his great wealth
    and grew strong by destroying others!” (Ps. 52:5-7)

And to make things worse, it’s contrasted by a bit of self-righteousness. So, we end up with a “You suck! But I’m great!” pity party.

It’s childish. And it’s so like me. The mirror this puts in front of me is sadly revealing.

But I am like an olive tree
    flourishing in the house of God;
I trust in God’s unfailing love
    for ever and ever. (Ps. 52:8)

And then finally, after eight verses of whining, we get to the one verse of prayer in the entire psalm. Yep, this nine-verse psalm has only one verse of prayer in it. It’s been seven verses of angry poetry about Doeg and one verse of self-righteous poetry about David. And then the one-verse prayer.

Pre-prayer is just as important as the praying itself. All of the thinking and fuming and reading and talking that goes on but is not directed toward God finds its way into our praying. And so we pay attention to our rants, our pacing back and forth, our sleepless nights, our anxious text messages. And we bring them all and lay them before God as we finally turn our voice to him.

And what we discover in this mess of a psalm is that David has finally found the voice of faith he’s been struggling to find. And as he prays, he articulates a necessary hope in an insecure time.

Though unfair in his characterization, David has used Doeg as a reminder of what not to do, of how not to live, of where not to look for hope. And having considered these negations, David steps into the real thing.

For what you have done I will always praise you
    in the presence of your faithful people.
And I will hope in your name,
    for your name is good. (Ps. 52:9)

Even though the name Yahweh isn’t used in Psalm 52, David references it. The name personalizes the relationship, grounding the hope and grounding David at the same time.

It’s such a simple prayer after such an intense wave of emotion. And maybe it wasn’t enough to balance out David’s perspective. But even so, David is no longer obsessed with Doeg, for he is no longer looking at his enemy. He’s looking at God.

And even if looking toward doesn’t change my perspective, it does change me.

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Some things are better broken

venus-de-milo-louvre

Some things are better broken. It’s being broken that makes some things what they are, and I’m not just talking about the eggs in an omelet.

The armless Venus de Milo is one of the great classic sculptures.

The Liberty Bell would be ho-hum and less symbolic without its crack.

The Leaning Tower of Pisa would draw few tourists if it weren’t askew.

No, Napoleon’s soldiers didn’t shoot off the Sphinx’s nose with a cannonball, but that missing protuberance is legendary.

Each of these misshapen items is a cultural treasure in large part because of its brokenness. If they were whole, they’d lack much of their significance.

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The same is true of us.

My 12-year-old son had turned to my wife and said, “Mama, is Papa going to be OK?”

I had come home from the hospital exhausted after a long couple days that had included caring for the family of a boy my son’s age who’d been killed in a car accident.

I turned to him and smiled. “There’s two kinds of broken,” I said. “There’s a bad kind and a good kind. My job is breaking me right now, but I think it’s in a good way. Bad breaks make you harder and colder and more bitter. But I think this break is making me softer and warmer and sweeter. Just let me know if you see me breaking the wrong way, OK?”

A mosaic is a beautiful thing made up of broken things. In a world of bad breaks — broken promises, broken hearts, broken bodies, broken homes — God has the uncanny ability of making good things out of ragged pieces.

It’s my goal in life to be a mosaic, broken and remade so that each crack and shard reflects the glories of my Maker that much more.

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Detail of “In the beginning”
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How long, God? The waiting is killing me!

how long?Pain can feel eternal. Suffering slows the clock to a crawl.

In the hospital where I work, I see people in deep pain on a regular basis. Physical pain that so fills the senses it’s hard for the patient to think about anything else. Emotional pain as a loved one lays in bed, unresponsive, with tubes and monitors all over the place, and going downhill on a slow but definite angle.

We humans know suffering of unlimited shapes and sizes. To have a body is to be vulnerable to pain. To have relationships is to potentially have your heart ripped out. And it happens to all us eventually. In fact, I read somewhere that at any given time 80% of the people you know are in the middle of some kind of relational pain. I don’t know how true that statistic is, but I’m guessing that if any of us would take stock of our lives, we’d find something significantly broken.

Sometimes, the pain just won’t quit. Sometimes, there’s a waiting that goes beyond normal waiting. It undermines our sense of justice in the world. It wracks our bodies. It sends earthquakes through our relationships. It undermines our faith.

There are times when we’ve hung on for so long, we’re on the verge of giving up and letting go.

“How long?” is a cry of desperation. It’d beyond a cry for help. It’s a cry that follows many, many cries for help. It’s a final cry.

Psalm 13 is one of our “How long?” psalms. It begins with four salvos of “How long” questions.

How long, LORD? Will you forget me forever?
    How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I wrestle with my thoughts
    and day after day have sorrow in my heart?
    How long will my enemy triumph over me?

As a kid, I waited for my Mom a lot. She was always busy, running from here to there. And there were so many times I was left alone and waiting that we came up with a deal. For every five minutes she was late, she’d owe me a pack of Star Wars collector’s cards. The original Star Wars movie had come out recently and I ended up with the biggest collection of all my friends. Hundreds of cards, thanks to my forgetful mother.

But she didn’t forget me forever. She always showed up. Eventually. There were times, though, when I would get so mad at her for it, feeling so abandoned the Star Wars cards didn’t make up for the hurt I felt. It’s the same way my kids have felt when I’ve forgotten them, too.

To be forgotten is to feel worthless. I’m not even worth a thought. I’m so insignificant, I don’t even register.

Paired with this feeling of being forgotten by God is feeling as if he’s hidden his face. This doesn’t refer to our inability to see God. Rather, it’s a feeling as if God has turned his back on me, that he’s intentionally looking the other way in order to avoid me.

Where being forgotten is to unintentionally turn me into a nothing, to have God hide his face from me is to intentionally turn me into a nothing. A less than nothing. An anti-something.

After the initial questions aimed at God, David the psalm writer, turns a question toward himself and another toward his antagonist. And there we have the three sources of suffering: God, ourselves, and others who are out to get us. I find David a keen observer of his own soul by including his own wresting with his thoughts and his sorrows as a source of suffering.

But once he’s asked his questions, David states his demands to God. He lays down two imperatives.

Look on me and answer, LORD my God.
    Give light to my eyes, or I will sleep in death,
and my enemy will say, “I have overcome him,”
    and my foes will rejoice when I fall.

If God’s face is turned away, he’d better turn it around and look at me. If he’s giving me the silent treatment, he’d better cut it out and start talking. I need a new spark or else I’m dead. Not only will God’s silence kill me, it’ll give my enemies something to cheer about. Injustice will be complete.

Then comes the Gospel word: But.

The word “but” is one of my favorite words. It speaks a new story into one that’s gone spinning out of control. It’s speaks the possibility of something other than my pain.

But I trust in your unfailing love;
    my heart rejoices in your salvation.
I will sing the LORD’s praise,
    for he has been good to me.

The “but” is a present hope for a future outcome, based on a past experience.

In the middle of pain and a feeling of abandonment by God, David remembers what God has done for him in the past (“for his has been good to me”).

Memory of past goodness is essential to a hopeful imagination. It pulls the mind out of its present pain and its cramped imagination that has shrunken down to the size of its suffering. I’m reminded that the bad I’m currently experiencing isn’t the only thing I’ve ever experienced. I’ve known God’s goodness in the past. And if I’ve known it before, I can know it again.

David turns his memory into trust and that trust into rejoicing. This isn’t a snap-of-the-fingers thing, but the psalm’s brevity contracts time to show us it’s possible.

God’s love has never failed and will never fail. And even though it feels like it’s failing now, I will trust in it anyway. And this trust leads to a rejoicing in a salvation that hasn’t yet happened.

This is Paul and Silas singing in their jail cell. This is the blind, mostly deaf, and seriously ill man I met in the hospital who longed to go to church, “So I can say thank you to God.”

This is down-payment praise. Salvation hasn’t yet taken place. Pain is still keen. But even so, I start to rejoice with faltering lips and a weak heart, knowing the day is coming when I will be able to let loose with power and passion.

In six short verses, David has mined the depths of his pain, not minimalizing or marginalizing it with a brave face and an “I can handle this” through gritted teeth. No. He faces God, himself, and his antagonists head-on but refuses to get stuck in his suffering. Instead, with intense resolve, he stirs up his memory, which fortifies his weary heart.

This is a psalm to keep in a back pocket for easy and frequent access, because pain is never far away.

Questions for consideration

Where are you waiting for God?

What hurts most: God’s silence? Active hurt caused by others? Constantly reviewing the pain in your mind?

Prayer

Lord, come quickly! Delay no longer. Break your silence and turn your face toward me. Ease my pain. Straighten out the path in front of me. End the opposition I face. And turn my mind away from withering replayings of past hurts and toward memories of your good and loving presence. I want to replace my sorrows with songs of joy. I want to live resurrection. Amen.

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Let it be

Let it beWhen Paul McCartney wrote The Beatles’ song “Let It Be,” he may have been thinking of his own mother Mary who died when he was 14 and not the the mother of Jesus, but he nailed the biblical Mary’s spirituality in the song’s title and key phrase: Let it be.

The very last thing said in Mary’s conversation with the angel Gabriel are these words:

“Behold, I am the servant of the Lord; let it be to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38, ESV).

We’re told the angel left upon hearing them, meaning Gabriel took that statement as both agreement and permission for the pregnancy and birth of Jesus to take place. As such, it is both the most humble and the most audacious thing a person can say to God’s messenger.

First, there’s the humility.

The two-word Latin prayer Fiat mihi comes directly from this verse. Translated as “Let it be to me,” it is the ultimate voicing of submission. It offers no resistance. It sets no conditions. It merely receives. It takes what’s coming.

I wonder how many times the boy Jesus heard his mother tell the story of that angelic encounter and her final response to the astounding request? Because I hear an echo of it in Jesus’ prayer in Gethsemane:

“Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me; yet not my will, but yours be done” (Luke 22:42).

The words are different, but the attitude is the same. They both have a posture of openness. They both say, “Yes,” to God.

Mary’s Fiat mihi becomes our most basic prayer as we respond to God. We humbly do what he tells us to do, go where he sends us. As we pray it, like Mary, we define ourselves as the Lord’s servants, not as those who follow our own dreams, not as those who serve our feelings and desires.

Mary’s YES to God isn’t vague. It comes in response to a specific request.

Different translations render Mary’s statement differently, but I prefer the ESV as it follows the KJV here. “Let it be to me according to your word.” As such, it becomes an opening prayer when we read the Scriptures.

Uttering that as a simple prayer before even opening the pages of our Bibles establishes a posture of attentiveness and obedience before the reading begins. “Let it be to me according to your Word.” Let these Scriptures speak to me and let me obey them.

It’s a gutsy, dangerous prayer, setting us in motion before we even know where we’re heading. It’s a trusting, beautiful prayer, setting our hearts at rest in the unfailing love of our God, knowing he is always good, always faithful.

187558_the-annunciation-gabriel-appears_lg.gifBeyond their humility, these same words of Mary are also bold words of permission. In their YES, they express an ability to say NO.

The angel leaves after Mary speaks these words. He’s dismissed by them. Before hearing them, he hasn’t received the permission necessary for the conception of Jesus to take place. Theologians have suggested that Mary became pregnant the moment she uttered her Fiat mihi.

It boggles the mind to think that Mary could have derailed the Incarnation by her refusal. But this we know about our God: He is a gentleman. He doesn’t force himself on anyone.

God rapes no one. Mary gets pregnant with Jesus only by giving her consent.

This is a great mystery that we all take part in. The great God of the universe allows each one of us to accept or reject him. And Mary shows the best way to respond.

Fiat mihi.

(In the painting accompanying this post — L’ Annonciation painted in 1644 by Philippe de Champaigne — Mary has a book in front of her, already showing her willingness to hear and obey God through the Scriptures.)