Posted on

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.

Posted on

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.

Posted on

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.

Posted on

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.

Posted on

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.

Posted on

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.

Posted on

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.)

Posted on

Sleeping in the face of fear

GLOBAL BIZ SUMMIT-2Life is hard enough with all of its pressures and demands from outside of our homes, but when the dividing lines which fracture our lives run through our families, the stress can break us.

The Bible does nothing to hide this from us. If anything, it puts family brokenness up front and center. Genesis 3 has husband and wife accusing each other. Genesis 4 has brother killing brother. And it keeps going from there. You can’t read the book of Genesis without thinking, “Wow! These people are a mess,” all the while knowing these are the people God will be using to bless the whole earth.

The longest continuous narrative in the Scriptures centers around the life of David, the second king of Israel. Raised as the forgotten son of Jesse and semi-adopted into the family of unstable King Saul, David was on track for poor parenting of his own, considering how he’d been parented himself.  And he didn’t disappoint. He provided us with considerable familial fireworks all the way through to his deathbed, where he ordered hits like a mafia don.

So, when we come to Psalm 3, its meaning takes on significantly different nuances if the reader notices the superscription. There are lots of theories about the superscriptions in the Psalter, but the reality is this: We don’t know who wrote them or when. We have no idea if they’re accurate at all, since they seem to have been added at a later date (probably during the final collecting and editing of the 150 into a single book). And yet, this is how the text comes to us. We have them and therefore we take them seriously. Regardless of which human hand wrote them, we believe the Holy Spirit is equally their author — similar to the Incarnation, the Scriptures are fully human and fully divine in authorship.

And Psalm 3 offers us a doozy of a superscription: “A psalm of David. When he fled from his son Absalom.”

How much tragedy can be wrapped up in so few words! David is running for his life from his son. You can’t break apart a family much more than that.

Both the names Absolom and Solomon have the Hebrew word shalom at their root. Solomon simply means “peace” and Absolom ratchets it up a bit more, meaning “father of peace.”

David knew so little of peace in his lifetime that naming not just one, but two, of his sons as shalom kids shows just how much he longed for it. He wanted to gift his boys with the peace he lacked by writing it into their names. Sadly, it didn’t take.

In 2 Samuel 13, we read the grievous story of Absalom’s sister Tamar being raped by their half-brother Amnon and of Absalom’s subsequent murder of Amnon. Both the rape and the murder take place in what should be the safest of places, while food is being served. The law of hospitality in the ancient Near East required safety for every person hosted at your table. Guards were down and the opposite of hospitality ensued.

After a temporary banishment from Jerusalem because of the murder, Absalom sets out on an effective campaign to ingratiate himself with the people of Israel, paving the way to replace his father David as king. Next, Absalom rebels, takes over Jerusalem, sleeps with his father’s concubines on the roof so all will know what he’s done, and makes some tactical mistakes, resulting in the crushing of his revolt and his own death (2 Sam. 15-18). In the midst of this, David is on the run and from that we get Psalm 3.

But there is no hint of family drama in the brief eight verses of the psalm. If anything, it’s the “many” referred to in the psalm whom David objects to, not his son. This is no surprise, considering his propensity to let Absalom off the hook.

Not only are an uncounted “many” actively standing against David, but there seem to be another “many” who are standing on the sidelines, passively standing against him, using their tongues to fight him.

LORD, how many are my foes!
    How many rise up against me!
Many are saying of me,
    “God will not deliver him.”

“But” is a gospel words. And we discover things are not as people say they are. God is a shield. He will deliver. David even calls God “my glory” — my reputation, my authority, my purpose. David glories in him and he in turn lifts David’s head high above the “many.”

But you, LORD, are a shield around me,
    my glory, the One who lifts my head high.

Because of this, David calls out to the Lord and gets an answer. (The holy mountain refers to Mt. Zion, the location of the temple that would be built later on by Solomon. The reference causes some to question David’s authorship of the psalm.)

I call out to the LORD,
    and he answers me from his holy mountain.

Receiving an answer is a huge relief. It’s enough to enable him to lie down in the midst of the “many” and sleep. Praying and sleeping are the turning point in the psalm.

Sleep is essential to biblical spirituality. Stopping to sleep in the middle of an urgent situation, when nothing is figured out and everything looks like it’ll fall apart tomorrow is contrary to the control freak American culture. Instead, we exhibit the confidence of a child, a willingness to be vulnerable, to stop working, to stop trying to control the situation, to trust, to let go for the moment.

Done godlessly, this is foolhardy. But what happens? Does it all fall apart while sleeping? No! God sustains and David wakes up. Even with a ridiculously large army arrayed against him, he rejects fear. Even with them attacking from every side, he doesn’t slide in apprehension.

I lie down and sleep;
    I wake again, because the LORD sustains me.
I will not fear though tens of thousands
    assail me on every side.

David’s four actions in the psalm — calling, sleeping, rising, not fearing — are matched by four actions from God — arising, delivering, striking, and breaking.

Arise, LORD!
    Deliver me, my God!
Strike all my enemies on the jaw;
    break the teeth of the wicked.

The violence of the “many” rebounds on them, a theme seen throughout the Psalms.

They bad-mouthed David and God by saying God wouldn’t deliver and yet here’s the reality. God has in fact delivered. The truth about David and God has been verified as David has been vindicated.

The mouths that spoke falsely have been defanged. They have no teeth, no bite. Their words have become toothless gums.

From the LORD comes deliverance.
    May your blessing be on your people.

Our God is in fact a God of deliverance. He blesses his people, regardless of what onlookers say or how we feel in the midst of things.

In the midst of our get-busy, never-stopping culture, we discover in David’s most anxious trauma of his life the simplest recipe for spirituality: praying and sleeping. Only by sinking ourselves into them do we get up the next day to fearlessly join God in what he’s doing in the world, something he’s been at work on while we lay there curled up snug in our beds.

Questions for consideration

Where is family drama unsettling you? 

What threatens your sleep? 

Prayer

With you, Lord, there is rest. Rest from my worries. Rest from my mistakes. Rest from drama. Rest from myself. I offer over my problems to you, each one, and rest in the knowledge of your loving care and deliverance.

Posted on

The psalm that saved us on 9/11

It was September 11, 2001.

We’d been woken up by a phone call and a crying voice on the other end, telling us a plane had flown into a building in New York City. And then another building. And then those two buildings had collapsed. And another plane had flown into the Pentagon. We didn’t have a TV and iPhones hadn’t been invented yet, so we weren’t inundated by video. But we felt as if the world had shifted forever.

But that day was also the fifth birthday of my oldest son. And we started getting phone calls from the parents of kids we’d invited to the party: “Is it still on?”

“Yes,” we said. “The party is still on. Today is a celebration day.”

And celebrate we did, even with the heaviness of the death and destruction arising from malice toward our country.

The troop of five-year-old boys who came to the party were sent on a quest. They were completing the five tasks required to become a knight in days gone by, tasks we’d tailored to five-year-old boys. And they took to them with gusto.

One of the tasks had to do with an expression of devotion to God. (Yep. Knights of old were supposed to be holy warriors.) So, we had the boys memorize a verse from the Bible. I had made plywood shields for each boy and had written the to-be-memorized words along the perimeter of each shield. The words came from Psalm 33:20

We wait in hope for the LORD;
      he is our help and our shield.

The night before, as I was writing those words the shields, they seemed appropriate, since they ended with the word “shield.” But as we parents memorized the verse along with our boys, with the background of 9/11 squeezing our hearts with fear, the words became both our prayer and our statement of faith.

Central to Psalm 33 is this theme: God created the world, so he is in charge. If he’s in charge, the nations plot in vain. It was the very message we needed to hear on 9/11.

The first three verses are a call to worship, beginning and ending with a sense of joy. The singing, music, and shouting make it sound more like a party than a pew-bound Sunday service.

Sing joyfully to the LORD, you righteous;
    it is fitting for the upright to praise him.
Praise the LORD with the harp;
    make music to him on the ten-stringed lyre.
Sing to him a new song;
    play skillfully, and shout for joy.

Since the world was made by his word, God’s character is woven into the very fabric of creation. His righteousness and justice and unfailing love are the foundations the world is built on.

For the word of the LORD is right and true;
    he is faithful in all he does.
The LORD loves righteousness and justice;
    the earth is full of his unfailing love.
By the word of the LORD the heavens were made,
    their starry host by the breath of his mouth.

Thankfully, with the right and true word of our God as the foundation of the world, chaos (represented by the waters of the seas) can be allowed a place within creation, but only a bottled-up, limited place.

He gathers the waters of the sea into jars;
    he puts the deep into storehouses.

In the Flood story of Genesis 6-8, these boundaries are temporarily eliminated. But that story ends with a promise that those chaotic elements will never be allowed free rein over the world ever again. God’s love prevails.

It only makes sense then that since every part of the world was made by God, every person in the world ought to honor him. He made it, he established it, he sustains it. It’s his and that includes you and me both.

Let all the earth fear the LORD;
    let all the people of the world revere him.
For he spoke, and it came to be;
    he commanded, and it stood firm.

If God’s words, commands, plans are the foundation of creation, they will stand the test of time. Despite seeming setbacks, God’s plans will always succeed. But every contrary plan and cross purpose will be foiled and fail.

The LORD foils the plans of the nations;
    he thwarts the purposes of the peoples.
But the plans of the LORD stand firm forever,
    the purposes of his heart through all generations.

Because God’s plans stand firm forever, to align with him is to live the blessed life, both personally and as a people.

Blessed is the nation whose God is the LORD,
    the people he chose for his inheritance.

Not only do God’s words undergird everything, God sees everything, even the things we try to hide in our hearts, for he made those too. He’s never surprised by us. He sees. He knows.

From heaven the LORD looks down
    and sees all mankind;
from his dwelling place he watches
    all who live on earth —
he who forms the hearts of all,
    who considers everything they do.

Our strength doesn’t help us. Our tech doesn’t help us. Every attempt at control comes up empty. Only as we keep our eyes on the God who keeps his eyes on us do we find real help, for he alone is our help and our shield.

No king is saved by the size of his army;
     no warrior escapes by his great strength.
A horse is a vain hope for deliverance;
     despite all its great strength it cannot save.
But the eyes of the LORD are on those who fear him,
     on those whose hope is in his unfailing love,
to deliver them from death
     and keep them alive in famine.
We wait in hope for the LORD;
     he is our help and our shield.

The psalm circles back to rejoicing, because this creation-making God is none other than the covenant-keeping God of Israel. This emphasis on “his holy name” (the name Yahweh, rendered as LORD, shows up 13 times throughout the psalm) is an emphasis on our God’s character — he is loyal, faithful, true. Because he is trustworthy, we trust in him.

In him our hearts rejoice,
    for we trust in his holy name.

Three times in the last few verses (vs. 18, 20, 22), the word hope emerges. And so in this world of competing kingdoms and chaotic waters, we retain a solid hope because of our Lord’s unfailing love. If his word is responsible for this solid creation under our feet, then his love can match it in solidity and trustworthiness.

May your unfailing love be with us, LORD,
    even as we put our hope in you.

This creation-strong word that we stand on isn’t hit-or-miss like our words and our plans.  It isn’t pretentious like the posturing of world leaders with their bombs and guns. It doesn’t change like the words of our generation which are blown about on every new gust of wind.

Osama bin Laden, the architect of 9/11, and his minions have come and gone. Saddam Hussein and George W. Bush and the other world leaders who responded to 9/11 have come and gone. And the fear we felt that day, it’s done and gone as well.

What remains is our Lord and his creation-strong word. He was then and is now to this day my help and my shield. I trust in him alone.

Questions for consideration

Where does the world around me feel like it is going off the rails? What voices are urging me toward anxiety?

How do God’s creation-strong words and all-seeing eyes lead me to trusting hope today, despite my tendency toward fear?

Prayer

In this world of weak words shouted at full volume, help me to hear your quieter, stronger Word, speaking your unfailing love and justice. Then may I live full-heartedly in the midst of current chaos, knowing you are my help and my shield, worthy of my trust. Amen.

Posted on

40: More than just a U2 psalm

I was a sophomore in high school when I started listening to U2, with the release of their War album. As has been their pattern, the band ends the album with a hymn of sorts. On War, it’s the song “40” — a yearning rendition of Psalm 40:1-3. For many years, the song closed U2’s concerts, with fans singing along, “How long to sing this song?”

MI0000045802.jpgBecause of this, Psalm 40 has always been the U2 Psalm in my imagination. And because of my love for the Psalms and for U2, I’ve used it as a worship song in the churches I’ve pastored. And that’s been great, except for one thing: It left out verses 4-17. And boy did that leave out far too much.

The psalm begins with gratitude for what God has done in the recent past. And we see right away that the rescued, reordered life requires very little on our part and a lot on God’s part.

The person in prayer does just one thing: Wait. But this can be a long waiting, soul-straining in its required patience.

I waited patiently for the LORD …

God’s response to this waiting in prayer is multifaceted. The verbs pile up:

    he turned to me and heard my cry.
He lifted me out of the slimy pit,
    out of the mud and mire;
he set my feet on a rock
    and gave me a firm place to stand.
He put a new song in my mouth,
    a hymn of praise to our God.

God pays attention, turning toward us and hearing us. He gets busy on our behalf, lifting us out of stinking, sinking situations and giving us something solid to stand on. And then he puts a brand new song in our mouths.

That last action seems off at first. The song comes from God rather than from us. He puts it in our mouths rather than it rising spontaneously from us. On first reading, I don’t like this. It feels dictated, forced. But upon subsequent readings, I realize what David is getting at: God’s salvation has been so life-altering, he can’t help but sing. The words aren’t forced, but they are irresistible. And I’m reminded of another U2 song, Magnificent:

I was born to sing for you
I didn’t have a choice but to lift you up
And sing whatever song you wanted me to
I give you back my voice
From the womb my first cry, it was a joyful noise

Again, there’s compulsion without dictation. The saved find ourselves responding irresistibly and yet with our own voices.

Because of this, the result of salvation extends beyond the saved. Others see and begin to take God seriously themselves.

Many will see and fear the LORD
    and put their trust in him.

The psalm concludes its first section with a statement of what David has learned through his experience: The blessed life comes from trusting our God, not from trusting ourselves or the nothing gods others lean on. (As he generally does, David refers to God by his personal, covenantal name Yahweh — rendered as LORD — which always highlights our God’s loyalty and faithfulness.)

Blessed is the one
    who trusts in the LORD,
who does not look to the proud,
    to those who turn aside to false gods.

With verse 5, the psalm abruptly shifts from talking about God to talking to him in prayer: What you’ve done in the past and what you’re planning to do, God, leave me in awe.

Many, LORD my God,
    are the wonders you have done,
    the things you planned for us.
None can compare with you;
    were I to speak and tell of your deeds,
    they would be too many to declare.

In response to these wonders, God wants one thing. And to highlight it, it is sandwiched between two negatives, which is really just the same thing repeated twice. This Hebrew poetic device underlines the negative — which is particularly surprising given David’s desire to build a temple for Yahweh — while making the one thing in the middle pop out by comparison.

Sacrifice and offering you did not desire —
    but my ears you have opened 
    burnt offerings and sin offerings you did not require.

The ritual of worship has its place, but it’s not what God really wants. He wants listening ears. He wants ears that have been drilled out so nothing can get in the way of our hearing him.

And then comes one of the great gems of the psalm, a verse that every Bible reader ought to memorize.

Then I said, “Here I am, I have come —
    it is written about me in the scroll. (Ps. 40:7)

“Here I am” is our most basic prayer. In it, we offer ourselves to God. Fully present. Fully attentive. No running away. No hiding. All of me present to all of God.

When we are present to God, we find him present to us and we find ourselves in the Scriptures. These ancient words come alive and we discover that “it is written about me” in them.

When this is the case, our hearts align with God’s heart. His will becomes our will.

I desire to do your will, my God;
    your law is within my heart.”

And having heard God speak his Word to us, we begin to speak ourselves. We’re unable to remain silent about what God has done for us. We don’t just mull over in our minds what he has done for us as if they were private things. We don’t hide the faithfulness of God as if were something to be ashamed of. No! We speak it out.

True spirituality is never private. True spirituality always spills out of our mouths, not in pious posturing, but in uncontainable worship and witness.

I proclaim your saving acts in the great assembly;
    I do not seal my lips, LORD,
    as you know.
I do not hide your righteousness in my heart;
    I speak of your faithfulness and your saving help.
I do not conceal your love and your faithfulness
    from the great assembly.

But now that David has committed himself to speaking on God’s behalf, he asks God to be committed on his behalf as well: “I’m not holding back my words, please don’t hold back your mercy!”

Do not withhold your mercy from me, LORD;
    may your love and faithfulness always protect me.

This isn’t a casual request. It’s a real need.

Where David began the psalm looking back on a time when God acted on his behalf, now he’s asking for it to happen again.

For troubles without number surround me;
    my sins have overtaken me, and I cannot see.
They are more than the hairs of my head,
    and my heart fails within me.
Be pleased to save me, LORD;
    come quickly, LORD, to help me.

Trouble presses on him from outside and sins press on him from inside. They occupy his attention so thoroughly he says, “I cannot see.”

What an honest statement of situational spiritual blindness. “I’m so full of myself and my circumstances, God, I can’t see you at all. This myopia is causing my heart to fail me, too. Betrayed by the eyes of my heart and flailing about, I don’t need you sometime in the future, I need you now! Come quickly!”

Be pleased to save me …

What a beautiful request. “I want you to want me.” Because there are those who are pleased with my sinking circumstance, be pleased to save me. The shaming and disgracing that they plan for me: Rebound it back on them.

May all who want to take my life
    be put to shame and confusion;
may all who desire my ruin
    be turned back in disgrace.
May those who say to me, “Aha! Aha!”
    be appalled at their own shame.

In contrast to the haters, may those who seek you find you, God. It will lead to more songs of rejoicing in you.

But may all who seek you
    rejoice and be glad in you;
may those who long for your saving help always say,
    “The Lord is great!”

What I need most in my poverty is for God to think of me. If he does, if he pays attention and sees what’s going on, I know he will help and deliver me. That’s what he does, because that’s who he is. That’s at the very heart of the character of Yahweh.

But as for me, I am poor and needy;
    may the Lord think of me.
You are my help and my deliverer;
    you are my God, do not delay.

This need for God to step in without delay has me singing with the masses, “How long to sing this song? How long? How long? How long? How long to sing this song?” With U2’s Bono, I may even pop the cork from a bottle of champaign to celebrate his answer.

Posted on

An integrated life in a disintegrating world

How I live and how I worship need to be the same. I need to be the same me when I’m praying as when I’m playing. If there are two Petes, I’m in trouble.

But we humans are good at what’s called compartmentalization. It’s when we divide up our lives and put each part in its own box, only opening it in certain circumstances. Now, there’s something emotionally necessary about this — I can’t let the deaths and traumas I face during my shifts at the hospital take over the rest of my life, so I need to be able to box up the associated emotions and deal with them appropriately — but we become too accomplished at it and end up making disastrous divisions in our souls, in our lives.

Too often we create a God Box and compartmentalize our worship so that it stays in our church buildings, nicely squared away on Sunday mornings. Or we might have a larger box that includes our devotional times or listening to praise music in the car.

There’s a place for boxes in our lives, but not when it comes to God. If anything, God is the context in which our lives take place, not a condiment added to our lives to spice them up.

The best life is an integrated life. God interwoven, not sidelined.

Easily our best tool for integrating our lives is prayer. Praying brings God into all of our lives, brings all of our lives into the Presence of God. Prayer busts the boundaries or at least pokes holes in them.

And our best tool for learning to live this prayerful, boundary busted life is the Psalms. In the Psalms we come across prayers the yearn for this integrated life: “Give me an undivided heart that I may fear your name” (Ps. 86:11). Among these psalms is Psalm 34 which moves from worship to wisdom, forging an essential connection between the two, establishing a natural progression from our praise to the details of our ordinary lives.

The context for Psalm 34, according to the superscription, is this: “Of David. When he pretended to be insane before Abimelek, who drove him away, and he left.”

The insane life is a divided, disconnected life. It’s a life where reality itself gets put in a box and a person’s perceptions replace reality. But those David wasn’t actually insane at the time, his years of living among the Philistines after being on the run from Saul exposed a hole in his lived theology. Like most of those living around him, David had been viewing Yahweh as a regional deity, limited to a particular plot of soil, and not as God of all creation. He tips his hand on this in a conversation with Saul as he prepares to leave the land of Israel, saying that leaving the land would be to exit Yahweh’s presence and require him to worship other gods (see 1 Samuel 26:19-20). While this is different from our typical theological mistakes, it exhibits a similar boxing up of God into one place and not another.

A divided life is a life divided among competing gods, even if we wouldn’t name these competing gods as David and his contemporaries did.

While the Scriptures do not say so explicitly, my reading makes me believe that David’s experience among the Philistines broadened and deepened this theology, because he experienced the presence of the Lord even there. Though he expected to depart from the Presence, I believe he continued to find his prayers answered and his soul engaged by his God. I believe this is the origin of his declarations in numerous psalms of Yahweh being the God of all nations. He had experienced this box-breaking reality first hand.

Psalm 34 continues the box breaking.

It starts out with two verses of personal praise and adds a third verse calling others to join him in worship.

I will extol the LORD at all times;
    his praise will always be on my lips.
I will glory in the LORD;
    let the afflicted hear and rejoice.
Glorify the LORD with me;
    let us exalt his name together.

The next four verses pick up on that me-us progression by two times making reference to a personal bad situation and God’s salvation from it followed by a generalization of God’s saving abilities.

I sought the LORD, and he answered me;
    he delivered me from all my fears.
Those who look to him are radiant;
    their faces are never covered with shame.
This poor man called, and the LORD heard him;
    he saved him out of all his troubles.
The angel of the LORD encamps around those who fear him,
    and he delivers them.

Then comes the key central verse of the psalm. It engages two senses — tasting and seeing — that aren’t expected when dealing with an invisible God. But the point is that the goodness of God extends to the everyday details of our lives, the things we can taste and see.

Even our everyday, animal senses have something to do with God.

Taste and see that the LORD is good;
    blessed is the one who takes refuge in him.

This launches the rest of the psalm which has now moved from worship to wisdom, from prayer to practice.

The God we sing to is the God who infiltrates every aspect of our lives and changes them by changing us in the midst of them.

The term fear of the LORD dominates this transition from worship to wisdom and we’re reminded of the Proverbs assertion that “the fear of the LORD is the beginning of wisdom” (Prov. 1:7; 9:10; Ps. 111:10).

Fear the LORD, you his holy people,
    for those who fear him lack nothing.
The lions may grow weak and hungry,
    but those who seek the LORD lack no good thing.
Come, my children, listen to me;
    I will teach you the fear of the LORD.

The fear of the LORD isn’t being afraid of God. As the matched phrases of the psalm suggest, fearing God is seeking him. It’s looking for him in the details of our lives. It’s searching after him and his ways. It’s considering him in every circumstance. It’s opening up the boxes of our lives so that God may mess with whatever is inside of them, no matter what it is.

The fear of the Lord describes the integrated life, the fully integrated life. No part of our lives left out. No part of God left out. All of God and all of us fully engaged.

David emphasizes how engaged God is by focusing on his attentiveness, both to the righteous and those who do evil. The bodiless God is pictured as having eyes, ears, and face trained on humanity, paying attention to us.

The eyes of the LORD are on the righteous,
    and his ears are attentive to their cry;
but the face of the LORD is against those who do evil,
    to blot out their name from the earth.

David then lists a series of things God does on our behalf. He is attentive. He hears. He delivers. He is close. He saves. He protects. Yes, God is fully engaged with those who are engaged with him. On the other hand, he doesn’t have to do a lot with those who live as if he doesn’t exist, since “Evil will slay the wicked” (v. 21).

What’s interesting about the psalm, too, is that along with a few others, it is an acrostic poem. The Hebrew alphabet has 22 letters and each of the 22 verses starts with a different letter, beginning with aleph and ending with taw. This makes for a fairly rigid structure in poetry, but it gives a sense of completeness. Nothing is left out. Every single letter is accounted for. All the parts of our life are included.

The all-inclusive nature of this psalm helps ensure that all of me is included, too. The worshiping me and the everyday life me — it’s all there. There aren’t two Petes. Just one. Just me before God in this world. With God, worship and wisdom come together to shape a whole life.

Posted on

The heart of Thanksgiving

I love eating and Thanksgiving is easily the best eating day of the year as far as I’m concerned. And with its leftovers that stretch over the following week, my joy is good food is well satisfied.

And tying all of this feasting with expressions of gratitude is a master stroke. We take in and we give out. It’s a model of how life ought to be lived on a regular basis.

Psalm 100 is designated as our thanksgiving psalm by its superscription and has become a regular go-to on Thanksgiving for me.

It begins with a bang and an exuberant flash. Passion is unleashed with shouts of joy.

Shout for joy to the LORD, all the earth.
     Worship the LORD with gladness;
    come before him with joyful songs.

Pretty much the only time I shout for joy is when my sports teams do something unexpectedly great. A long touchdown pass, an off-balance three-point shot, a brilliant shot on goal, a stunning defensive play. But the psalmist calls for this kind of expression of unbridled emotion in worship.

But what’s surprising in Psalm 100 is who is called to this over the top expression of joy. It’s the whole earth. And who the whole earth is called to shout for is Yahweh, the covenant God of Israel. Four times in the five-verse psalm, the name Yahweh is used and “praise his name” (v. 4) references it a fifth time. Whenever we come across the all caps LORD in the Old Testament, it’s actually the name Yahweh. And we’re meant to consider his intimate and passionately loyal relationship with his people. The final verse of the psalm pulls this relationship of love and faithfulness into focus.

For the LORD is good and his love endures forever;
    his faithfulness continues through all generations.

But it’s not just Israel, the covenant people of Yahweh, who are called on to shout. It’s the whole earth.

There’s something about worship that leads to mission. In worship, we encounter the vast greatness of our God and long for all peoples in every place to know him as we do. In worship, we experience the love of our God and long for it to spill over and drench all people. Our covenant God yearns for the same kind of relationship he has with us to extend to all people.

Know that the Lord is God.
    It is he who made us, and we are his;
    we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.

As our Maker, we belong to God. As his sheep, we are in relationship with him.

Yahweh is the big God of the entire world and he’s the “small” personally loyal God of Israel at the same time. He’s the Jesus who saves the world from their sins and he’s my Jesus who hears my prayers and answers them.

Sheep imagery in the Psalms is only ever applied to Israel, according to Jeffrey Grogan. But here it is stretched to all the earth. The joy of worship draws in far-flung peoples into the intimacy of a tender relationship with out God.

We are to know that he is God. The God. The one and only. The God who hears us. The God who extends himself toward us. The God who saves us. The God who heals us. The God who is always and ever for us. We are to know this with our minds, with our hearts, with our everything.

And so we enter into worship. Our joy turns into thanksgiving and our thanksgiving turns into praise.

And that’s better than any turkey and stuffing I’ve ever tasted.