Psalm 143

persons raising hands
Photo by Luis Dalvan on Pexels.com

The Old Testament Psalms are the Church’s prayer book.  For this reason, the Revised Common Lectionary includes a psalm for each daily reading.  What’s more, the lectionary typically repeats the psalm for three consecutive days.  This is to emphasize both the need to internalize biblical prayers as well as to allow us to linger with the problems, feelings, grief, praise, and situation within the psalm.  This allows us to not jump to hasty solutions and to act with careful and deliberate spiritual resolve.

Psalm 143 was crafted by David during a difficult time in his life.  David never was one to shy away from giving vent to God about his complaint; and, in equal measure, his confidence in God to handle the situation.

Since psalms are meant to be slowly imbibed, I began a practice several years ago of translating many of them for my own devotional purposes.*  For today’s translation, I am taking a few liberties with the text by deliberately changing the pronouns from singular to plural; and, naming the mentioned enemy specifically as COVID-19 so that this becomes a communal prayer for a specific circumstance:

Listen to our prayer, Lord!
Because of your faithfulness, bend your gracious ear to our requests for mercy!
Out of the vast storehouse of your righteousness, answer us!
Please don’t bring your people to judgment,
because, compared to you, not one person on the face of the earth is righteous before you.

You full well know that COVID-19 is hunting us down,
crushing life in the dirt,
forcing us to live sequestered
as if we are already in the grave.
Our spirits are growing weary—
our minds are a desert.

We remember the days when we were free of this scourge;
we chatted You up to others about all your awesome deeds;
we would talk about Your divine action in the world.
We did not hesitate to lift holy hands in prayer;
we were like dry earth, soaking up Your presence.

Answer us, Lord—and make it quick! Our fortitude needs to get bolstered.
Don’t hide your face from us
or that will be the end of us, for sure! We’ll die of the virus!

When we wake up in the morning, assure us of Your faithful love

because we’ve pinned our full trust on You.
Show us the next steps we need to take,
because we are looking up to You.
Deliver us from COVID-19, Lord!
We seek protection from you.
Teach us what we’re supposed to learn, what pleases you,
because you are our God.
Guide us by your good spirit
into good green pastures.
Give us life, Lord, for Your name’s sake.
Bring us out of this intense stress because of Your righteousness.
Wipe out COVID-19 because of your faithful love.
Destroy every germ which attacks us,
because we are Your people.

Amen.

We are truly in this together.  Click “Oh My Soul” by Casting Crowns to be reminded that we are not alone; and, that there is a God who listens.

 

*The translation of the psalm is based on an understanding of the Hebrew text and not a transliteration from English.

Ezekiel 37:1-14 – “Speaking to Dry Bones”

Welcome, friends!  May you discover fresh hope and encouragement today.  Click the video below as we meet virtually and in spirit with one another.

I pray that your experience of God will become full, sustained, and fresh through this dry season of Lent and of the world’s predicament.  Click “Come Alive” (Dry Bones) sung by Lauren Daigle and speak to the dry bones in your valley.  Grace to you now and always.  Amen.

Speaking to Dry Bones

I saw a great many bones on the floor of the valley, bones that were very dry.  He [God] asked me, “Son of man, can these bones live?”  –Ezekiel 37:2-3

Ezekiel dry bones
Ezekiel and the Valley of Dry Bones by Richard McBee

Folks around the world are quickly developing a new common language, becoming familiar with and using terms like social distancing, quarantine, shelter at home, and abundance of caution.  Our collective situation may easily create anxiety, and, so, parch our souls and leave our spirits dry.

There is, however, a God who can breathe new life into us and move us to renewed ways of thought and emotion.  The Old Testament prophet Ezekiel’s vision is a promise and a hope of resurrection, of revival.  No matter what our situation or who we are, we are all a displaced people – cast out of Eden and in need of restoration.  We, along with the ancient Israelites for whom he addressed, are in exile and long to return to our true home with God.  Along with St. Augustine we declare:

St Augustine quote

There are dry bones lying around – parched places in need of being reinvigorated.  Maybe you are experiencing the dry bones of hopelessness and despondency.  Maybe you are in a dark night of the soul where all of life seems like one shadowy oblivious hole.  Maybe you are wondering if God is really listening or is there at all because of the dry bones around you.  One thing for sure: Everything is upside-down right now; it is different.  At the first of the year, we didn’t see these current circumstances happening to us.  And, yet, these difficult times have much to teach us.

Let me share with you a “dry bones” experience from my own life.  Fifteen years-ago me and my family were in a car accident.  I was traveling on a highway in rural Iowa, and a small car on a gravel road blew through the stop sign without even slowing down.  There was nothing I could do.  I plowed into the rear quarter panel of the oncoming car, and it literally spun like a top off the highway and came to a stop.  Both the driver and his passenger were not injured.

Two of my three daughters were in the very back seat of our minivan (which I had just bought only a month before) with my wife and dog as front seat passengers.  The minivan was totaled.  My girls were not harmed.  However, my wife tore her shoulder’s rotator cuff protecting the dog and had an agonizing surgery to repair it.  My lower back was injured, yet, not in a way which surgery could repair it.  To this day I live with a kind of constant low-level aggravation of my spine.  Most days it’s not bad, maybe one or two on the pain scale.  On a bad day, I can barely walk across the room and need a cane to get around.

I have played the scene of the accident in my mind hundreds of times.  I have thought time and again about what I could have done to prevent it.  Honestly, there was no way to avoid it.  I thought about the fact that if we just would have left a minute earlier or a minute later from my parents’ house from where we were visiting, all would be fine.  Yet, I know that kind of thinking is a fool’s errand.  I have pondered every possible scenario in my head and have gotten nowhere.

It also took me awhile to forgive the young man who was driving the other car.  He changed my life, and not in a good way.  Although his insurance took care of everything and he was sorrowful about the incident, I was understandably angry for a long time.  I did, over time, come to the point of forgiving him.

Through the years I have learned to live with the limitations imposed on me.  I have now accepted the low-level aggravation of my back as part of my life.  On occasion, I sometimes can’t help but think of how my life would be today if I hadn’t been in that stupid accident.

About five years ago I was doing my usual routine morning prayers.  And God brought the accident to my mind.  I said to God, “Lord, we’ve been through this accident hundreds of times together.  I don’t want to think about it anymore.  Why are you bringing this up now?”

I’m not sure I really wanted an answer, but God brought it up because he knew I was finally ready to get his perspective on the accident.  Out of the hundreds of times I went over that accident in my mind, the one perspective I never took was that of the young man – the other driver.  God invited me to take a distinct viewpoint from the other driver.  So, I did.  I know that intersection like the back of my hand, so it wasn’t a hard exercise.

I imagined putting myself in the driver’s seat of his car.  I’m driving down the gravel road not paying attention to the fact that a stop sign is coming up.  I blow through the sign onto the highway and right in front of a minivan who slams on the brakes just enough to crush the rear quarter panel.  I spin out like a top and come to rest only a few feet from a huge Iowa grain elevator….

grain elevator

For the first time in my life I finally understood from a very different perspective.  God had a divine appointment for me that day.  You see, if I had not come along just when I did, that young man and his girlfriend would have blown through the stop sign and struck the grain elevator.  The impact would have killed them both instantly.

Suddenly, my attitude changed 180 degrees.  Previously, I had always thought about myself and my family.  I always considered my hardship and my change of life.  Now, I saw that God sent his servant to save two lives that day.  Had I not struck the young man’s car, causing him to spin and come to a rest unharmed, two people would have died.

From that time forward, every time my back acts up and effects how my life is lived, I’m reminded that it is a very small price to pay for the lives of two human beings.  God had me speak to the dry bones; and, the result was a revival of new thoughts and emotions.  This was such a dramatic change of thought and heart for me that it felt like a resurrection.

The biblical meaning of “repentance” is literally to have a change of mind – to see a different perspective.  The Bible invites us to view our lives with new lenses.  Our hurts and our pains, our sorrows and our sufferings, our changes and our limitations, are all part of something much bigger that God is doing in the world.  We are not always privy to his plans and purposes.  And, yet, God’s Word challenges us to take a perspective of the world, of humanity, and of ourselves that is counter to how we often think and feel.

It is a very small thing, right now in the admonitions to stay at home, to remain where we are.  Taking a mere one-sided view from my own perspective will bring frustration.  To see it from another angle as a temporary inconvenience, even with some permanent effects, which will save lives is a divine viewpoint.  To put it another way: We are speaking to dry bones.

Stay Home Save Lives

We might think and feel that we will be able to pursue God better without danger or hardship – that somehow difficulty is not to be part of the Christian life.  The dry bones exist, however, as an opportunity for God to give life.  That’s why Alexander Solzhenitsyn’s reaction to his exile in a Soviet labor camp in Siberia was to bless it, because it was there that, he said:

“I discovered that the meaning of earthly existence lies not, as we have grown used to thinking, in prospering, but in the development of the soul.”

God not only gives life; he restores life.  And this is an important truth to know and remember in the inevitable dry times of our lives.  God is not only a helper; he reanimates us from spiritual rigor mortis to lively resurrection through breathing on us.  And he does this for a reason.  Jesus came to his disciples after his resurrection and said, ‘“Peace be with you!  As the Father has sent me, I am sending you.’  And with that he breathed on them and said, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit’” (John 20:20-21).  In other words, God resuscitates us for a purpose, so that we might be a blessing to the world.  Faith is not only a possession to keep, but a gift to give.  We glorify God in loving one another and loving the world as Jesus did.  God could have resurrected the bones without Ezekiel’s being a part of it.  Instead, the LORD used Ezekiel and had him participate in the revival by speaking to the bones.

Such a challenge to speak to the dry bones may seem overwhelming to us.  What do you do when your life is upended, even shattered – when such a profound change comes to you that it is impossible for your life to be as it was?  The questions and commands of God seemed totally absurd to Ezekiel, speaking to dead dry bones.  Maybe we ought to operate more in the realm of the absurd than in the realm of the safe routine.  Maybe we ought to expect our faith to be exercised and look for God to breathe new life into the dead and decaying.  To believe that something, someone, or even myself can change is to have internalized this amazing story of dry bones living again.

Our self-imposed graves cannot hold us because God is among us.  What we need more than anything in this world and in the church is a genuine heaven-sent, Spirit-breathed, glorious reanimation in which God sends his grace and raises the dead.

Revelation 11:15-19 – It Will Not Always Be This Way

The World
“There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!” –Abraham Kuyper

At the sound of the seventh trumpet, loud voices were heard in heaven. They said,

“Now the kingdom
of this world
belongs to our Lord
and to his Chosen One!
And he will rule
forever and ever!”

Then the twenty-four elders, who were seated on thrones in God’s presence, knelt down and worshiped him.  They said,

“Lord God All-Powerful,
you are and you were,
and we thank you.
You used your great power
and started ruling.
When the nations got angry,
you became angry too!
Now the time has come
for the dead
to be judged.
It is time for you to reward
your servants the prophets
and all of your people
who honor your name,
no matter who they are.
It is time to destroy everyone
who has destroyed
the earth.”

The door to God’s temple in heaven was then opened, and the sacred chest could be seen inside the temple. I saw lightning and heard roars of thunder. The earth trembled and huge hailstones fell to the ground. (CEV)

The book of the Revelation was a vision given to the Apostle John late in his life.  At the turn of the first century, Christ’s Church was facing a great deal of difficulty and hardship.  Christians were in the minority; looked at with suspect; misunderstood; often persecuted because of false information.  In short, all the kinds of things that Jewish people currently face and have faced for millennia were true of the early believers in Jesus.

Therefore, the purpose of the vision to John was not to give slick preachers a reason to craft elaborate prophecy charts about what’s going to happen in the future.  Instead, God was concerned for the welfare of his people.  The vision was meant to bring  encouragement that this present hard situation will not always be this way.  The danger and adversity will not last forever.  There is a day coming when God’s judgment and benevolent rule will reign in its fullness.  In other words, our prayers will be answered that have been offered for centuries: “Your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.” (Matthew 6:10)

God did not want his beloved children to succumb to discouragement and lose heart.  So, the vision from John assured them that all will be made right.  Jesus is Lord, and his good rule will have the day.  Yes, we currently live in a world profoundly touched by sin and death.  And because of that we feel pain and must endure the hardships of things like COVID-19 and economic woes. It is possible to observe it all and experience its effects and fall into despair, and, so, give-in to unhealthy ways of coping with the circumstances around us.

We graciously have been given a glimpse into how all of history will shake-out in the end.  That peek into what’s coming ahead is meant to bring us needed encouragement, steadfast hope, and patient endurance.  There is coming a day when our own personal and local expressions of grief and lament will give way to praise and gratitude to God.  And that incredible praise will explode with all believers, past and present, along with all creation, proclaiming together: “Lord God All-Powerful, you are and you were, and we thank you.  Now the kingdom of this world belongs to our Lord and to his Chosen One!  And he will rule forever and ever!”  Amen, and amen.

Click Hope in God to gain some encouragement from singer and songwriter Ken Medema.

Psalm 130

landscape photography of green mountains
Photo by Gareth Davies on Pexels.com

I cry out to you from the depths, Lord—

my Lord, listen to my voice!
    Let your ears pay close attention to my request for mercy!
If you kept track of sins, Lord—
    my Lord, who would stand a chance?
But forgiveness is with you—
    that’s why you are honored.

I hope, Lord.
My whole being hopes,
    and I wait for God’s promise.
My whole being waits for my Lord—
    more than the night watch waits for morning;
    yes, more than the night watch waits for morning!

Israel, wait for the Lord!
    Because faithful love is with the Lord;
    because great redemption is with our God!
He is the one who will redeem Israel
    from all its sin. (CEB)

Throughout church history, the book of Psalms has been used and understood as the Church’s prayer book.  Indeed, the psalms are much more than a collection of beautiful poems, words of assurance, and songs of praise – they are designed for regular and ongoing use as prayers.  And I’m not just talking about the psalms being somebody else’s prayers; they are my prayers and your prayers.

There are times when words fail us – where we find ourselves between a rock and a hard place and want to pray.  Yet, our stress and/or anxiety is so high that we can neither think straight nor form anything coherent with our mouths.  It is in such times that the psalms present themselves to us as the path forward.

What’s more, psalms are meant to be spoken out loud and more than once.  And I’m not talking about saying them with a quiet mumble or a flat monotone.  No! These precious prayers of Holy Scripture are meant to be declared with full voice and a large amount of flavor!  They are to repeatedly roll off our lips with all the emotional and spiritual gusto which resides within us!  Tears and yelling are both appropriate and encouraged.  For we do not possess merely a heady faith of thoughts and ideas; we possess a faith that is robustly heartfelt, and dwells down deep in the gut where our bowels of compassion have their abode.

Even with a cursory reading of today’s psalm, we easily observe that there’s more going on here than cognitive beliefs of faith, hope, and love.  The psalmist is expressive, clinging to faith with a patient longing for God to make good on his promises.  It is chocked full of emotion, a prayer coming from the depths of the gut.  The whole being is involved, and rightly so, because our faith affects the entirety of a person and everyone in the community of the redeemed.

If this psalm resonates with you in any way, let your proclamation of it be with the expanse of feeling inside you.  After all, as people created in the image of God, we share God’s own deep sense of love – and love is truly love when it is outwardly expressed with a sacred combination of words, actions, and feelings.

Click Psalm 130 and enjoy the psalm set to song by Keith and Kristyn Getty.

May the Lord be with you, my friends.

Matthew 9:18-34 – Faith

Jesus healing the blind
Jesus Healing the Blind by Johann Heinrich Stöver, 1861

As Jesus went on from there, two blind men followed him, crying loudly, “Have mercy on us, Son of David!” When he entered the house, the blind men came to him; and Jesus said to them, “Do you believe that I am able to do this?” They said to him, “Yes, Lord.” Then he touched their eyes and said, “According to your faith let it be done to you.” And their eyes were opened. Then Jesus sternly ordered them, “See that no one knows of this.” But they went away and spread the news about him throughout that district.

After they had gone away, a demoniac who was mute was brought to him. And when the demon had been cast out, the one who had been mute spoke; and the crowds were amazed and said, “Never has anything like this been seen in Israel.” But the Pharisees said, “By the ruler of the demons he casts out the demons.” (NRSV)

In these days of staring into the face of pandemic, I often find myself uttering the ancient prayer of the Church: “Lord have mercy.  Christ have mercy.  Lord have mercy and grant us your peace.”  For me, the COVID-19 virus is getting real, real fast.  I feel the heaviness of hospital staff, and of families experiencing the weight of concern for loved ones with the virus.

It is in such topsy-turvy times as these that I come back again and again to deep spiritual convictions which inform what I do each day.  One of those underlying creeds is this:

Jesus is trustworthy, no matter whether my faith or the faith of others is small or great.

In our Gospel lesson for today, two blind men were healed according to their faith in Jesus.  The diverse healing accounts of Jesus in the New Testament, whether the faith was large or small in those healed, leads me to the conclusion that:

It isn’t faith itself that heals, saves, or transforms – it is Jesus.

What the healing accounts have in common in the Gospels is that they are directed to Jesus as the object of faith.  It isn’t about the level of faith, but about where the faith is placed.  For the Christian, faith itself doesn’t mean much if it isn’t in Jesus.  If I place a large and sincere faith in an inanimate object such as money; in a position of power; or, even in my own independence, my faith isn’t worth much.  If I have a huge faith in a doctor or a psychiatrist to heal my body or my mind, I will quickly discover there are limits to their abilities.  If I have a confident faith that my family will meet all my needs, my faith will eventually run into failure when they let me down.  That’s because the ultimate object of my faith is Jesus.  If all my faith eggs are in the church basket, my faith will eventually face a crisis because it is a misplaced faith.  Furthermore, the answer I provide for others is not simply getting them to attend church or to adopt my moral code. I believe Jesus heals, transforms, and delivers people from sickness, sin, trouble, and overwhelming circumstances in his own good time.

Jesus is the same yesterday, today, and forever.  (Hebrews 13:8)

We know with certainty that circumstances change, as everyday seems to bring new levels and permutations of unprecedented alterations to our lives – and through it all, Jesus remains as the ever-present Savior, seated at the right hand of God ceaselessly interceding on behalf of those who offer even the slightest mustard seed of faith.

Almighty God, you know that we have no power in ourselves to help ourselves: Keep me both outwardly in my body and inwardly in my soul, that I may be defended from all adversities which may happen to the body, and from all evil thoughts which may assault and hurt the soul; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever.  Amen.

Colossians 1:9-14 – Developing the Skill of Wisdom

wisdom quote

Be assured that from the first day we heard of you, we haven’t stopped praying for you, asking God to give you wise minds and spirits attuned to his will, and so acquire a thorough understanding of the ways in which God works.

 We pray that you’ll live well for the Master, making him proud of you as you work hard in his orchard. As you learn more and more how God works, you will learn how to do your work.

 We pray that you’ll have the strength to stick it out over the long haul—not the grim strength of gritting your teeth but the glory-strength God gives. It is strength that endures the unendurable and spills over into joy, thanking the Father who makes us strong enough to take part in everything bright and beautiful that he has for us.

 God rescued us from dead-end alleys and dark dungeons. He’s set us up in the kingdom of the Son he loves so much, the Son who got us out of the pit we were in, got rid of the sins we were doomed to keep repeating. (The Message)

 When I was younger, I played a lot of ping-pong.  I got good at it.  In fact, during a several months stretch back-in-the-day I had a record of 156-2.  Not bad, Tim.  That kind of record was only possible because of the two reasons that make any skill an accomplishment: knowledge and experience.  I learned the game of ping-pong and eventually knew it inside and out; and, I had hundreds (if not thousands) of hours playing and developing my technique.

When it comes to prayer, there isn’t a need to invent a new game; we just need to learn the one we’ve got.  Today’s New Testament reading is a prayer from the Apostle Paul to the Colossian Church.  His prayer for them was singular: To have wise minds and spirits, that is, to have knowledge of God – an understanding of his ways and how he operates.

Paul prayed this for a reason: so that we might live our lives in a way which pleases God and enables us to sustain a lifetime of spiritual growth.  As people created in God’s image and likeness, we are hard-wired with a spirit which needs strengthening and exercise.  That happens as we put in the constant repetitions of connecting with the divine and putting in the time on our knees – praying daily for ourselves and others to mature in faith so that we might all together act wisely and justly in this world, for the life of the world.

A good place to start is to use Paul’s prayer as our own.  Never has there been such a need than now for us to know how to apply wisdom in places and circumstances we’ve never been before.  For wisdom to happen, we must grow in our knowledge and put in the hours of prayer.  The skill of wisdom doesn’t magically happen; it is the culmination of acquired understanding and much practice putting knowledge into loving use.

Direct me, O Lord, in all my doings with your most gracious will and wisdom.  Further in me your continual help – that in all my work and in all I do and say, I may glorify your holy name; and, by your mercy, obtain the life that is truly life; through Jesus Christ, my Lord.  Amen.