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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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“How dare you judge me!”

“Who do you think you are to judge me like that?”

We hate to be judged by other people. We hate being looked down on by self-righteous prigs.

But sometimes the things others say to us are correct. We’re in the wrong. And to reject their words as being judgmental is to miss out on the grace of being corrected and saved from our foolishness.

There are times when others are being judgmental of us out of their arrogance. And there are times when they’re being helpful, pointing out our errors. The problem is a lack of humility on our part will lead to a defensiveness that keeps us from holding on to the true while rejecting the false.

In Psalm 26, David is facing accusing words from others. But even though he feels like the accusations are unjustified, he doesn’t dismiss them out of hand. Instead, he calls on a higher judge to test the merits of his life and of the accusations. He calls on God.

Vindicate me, Lord ….
Test me, Lord, and try me,
    examine my heart and my mind (Ps. 26:1,3)

The word translated as “vindicate” is more literally “judge.” David actually wants to be judged. He wants to be tested, tried, and examined. He wants God to put his life under the microscope. He wants to be cross-examined on the witness stand. He wants the Judge himself to ask the prying questions. The reason that word is rightly translated as “vindicate” is because David expects God’s judgment to prove his innocence.

What he doesn’t do that I so often do is reject judgment itself out of hand. Rather, he calls for a deeper judgment, believing the words of accusation miss out on the reality of his life.

Many years ago, during a summer of service at Lakeside Bible Camp, someone in authority pulled me aside with another friend and accused us of a number of things, none of which were correct. I pleaded innocence, but that only made him think I was that much more guilty. And so I sulked. For a full two years, I was angry every time I thought of that leader.

I justified myself rather than laying my case before God and asking him to judge me, asking him to justify me.

Instead of rejecting judgment, we need to embrace it. We need to call on God as our Judge, knowing he alone will judge truly.

Similar to the beginning of Psalm 1, Psalm 26 considers the company we keep as judgment is passed.

I do not sit with the deceitful,
    nor do I associate with hypocrites.
I abhor the assembly of evildoers
    and refuse to sit with the wicked. (Ps. 26:4-5)

Who we sit with, who we hang out with, says a lot about who we are.

Who are the people I’m drawn to? Who are the people who are drawn to me? What kinds of conversations do I have? What are the themes that run through all of my relationships? Do they bring me down or do they lift me up? What are the kinds of things we laugh about? Do I have a sense of the Presence of God when I’m with them?

Instead of bad company, David keeps company with God himself.

Lord, I love the house where you live,
    the place where your glory dwells. (v.8)

He doesn’t hang out with the wicked, hanging out with God instead. He doesn’t fill his mouth with their deceitful words, proclaiming God’s praise and wonderful deeds instead (vs. 4-7). Because of these things, he doesn’t want to be lumped together with sinners and doesn’t want his end to be the same as theirs (vs. 9-10).

He claims a blameless life.

Vindicate me, Lord,
    for I have led a blameless life (v. 1)

I lead a blameless life;
    deliver me and be merciful to me. (v. 11)

A blameless life isn’t a sinless life. The psalm just before Psalm 26 is a confession psalm. David had no over-inflated sense of himself and his moral purity. He was quite aware of how flawed he was.

A blameless life isn’t a life without falls and failings. It’s a life that has a moral consistency to it. The sins of the blameless are the exceptions not the rule. Those sins come from the sinfulness in all of us, not a lifestyle of sin that comes with dwelling among those who also lead a lifestyle of sin.

Is scheming and underhanded dealings with money a theme for my life? Or is gathering in the great congregation of God’s praising people a theme for my life?

Who is my tribe? What are the qualities of the people I sit at table with?

My friends are the measure of my life. There are many things I will be judged on. But perhaps the most telling of all, I will be judged by the company I keep.