Psalm 139:1-6, 13-18 – Specially Crafted by the Divine

Psalm 139 stained glass by Dutch artist Ted Felen (1931-2016)

Lord, you have examined me.
    You know me.
You know when I sit down and when I stand up.
    Even from far away, you comprehend my plans.
You study my traveling and resting.
    You are thoroughly familiar with all my ways.
There isn’t a word on my tongue, Lord,
    that you don’t already know completely.
You surround me—front and back.
    You put your hand on me.
That kind of knowledge is too much for me;
    it’s so high above me that I can’t reach it….

You are the one who created my innermost parts;
    you knit me together while I was still in my mother’s womb.
I give thanks to you that I was marvelously set apart.
    Your works are wonderful—I know that very well.
My bones weren’t hidden from you
    when I was being put together in a secret place,
    when I was being woven together in the deep parts of the earth.
Your eyes saw my embryo,
    and on your scroll every day was written that was being formed for me,
    before any one of them had yet happened.
God, your plans are incomprehensible to me!
    Their total number is countless!
If I tried to count them—they outnumber grains of sand!
    If I came to the very end—I’d still be with you. (CEB)

It is no wonder so many people struggle with their self-image. Beautiful people reign in television and movies; the rich and powerful are highlighted in the media; and people with perfect teeth and immaculate attire are splashed in front of us in the daily barrage of advertisements. Meanwhile, the rest of us 99% of the population quickly notice we do not measure up to such a standard. You don’t have to be a people watcher to know that less than perfect bodies are the norm and that most folks do not have a budget to live like the other 1% humanity.

If we make comparisons with others too much and for too long, it gets downright depressing. Yet, into this dark abyss of one’s self-image enters the biblical truth that each one of us, no matter our station in life, was personally hand-crafted by a heavenly Being who loves us dearly. We are indeed fearfully and wonderfully made.

The Creator God took great care to make us and form us just so. The psalmist, David, praised God for the way we were created. The real standard from which we ought to judge ourselves is this: God knows us intimately, inside-and-out, and neither condemns us nor shames us but loves us wholly.

Psalm 139 by Dutch painter Ellen Van Randeraat, 2013

So then, rather than wasting our emotional energy and mental faculties on wishing we looked different or were more like so-and-so who seems to always have it all together, try practicing what David did: Praise God. 

Whenever we have the notion that we do not measure up to our imposed arbitrary standard, keep in mind that the only real measurement is grace. No matter who we are, the entire race of humanity has been created in the image of God, and, on that basis alone, we have inherent value, worth, and majesty. Let us, then, treat ourselves and others with the yardstick of grace.

The inner critic, that is, the inner judgmental dialogue we have with ourselves, needs to be replaced with the truth of Psalm 139. Although we might be rather hard on ourselves and say things in the reclusive parts of our minds and hearts that we would never say to others, nor tolerate others saying about someone else – God speaks to us with tender words of grace. Perhaps you think that only you know the depth of your own sorrows, hurts, fears, insecurities, and worries.  Except….

God. The Lord knows it all intimately – and is not one bit repulsed. You see, God knows that the answer to all the self-doubts is Divine care and protection. You and I have the freedom to plumb the recesses of our hearts and souls – to bring out all that is inside the cluttered closet of our minds and lay it all on the table without fear of God calling you what you call yourself.

Therefore, please do not quickly pass over the inspired words from Holy Scripture contained in today’s psalm. Take the time to carefully digest each phrase slowly so that the message becomes internalized and believed in real-time experience.

One of the theories of human psychology is that people are driven by two primary needs: 

  1. To intimately know another person.
  2. To be intimately known by another person. 

God knows us even better than we know ourselves – and still loves us! There is nothing we learn about ourselves that God does not already know. No human relationship can even come close to the level of knowing that God has for us and about us.

To know God is perhaps the greatest and highest pursuit we could ever enjoy. God is so immense and infinite that we will spend an eternity getting to know the Lord and will never get to the end of it. That is the kind of God we serve. Be encouraged today and always with the reality that you are known and can know God – and even more, loved deeply as a specially fashioned creature.

O God, thank you that I am wonderfully made in your likeness.  I praise you that I am fully accepted, even when I do not accept myself.  In Jesus Christ you have demonstrated the height of your love and mercy.  May this grace be with me every day so that I will conduct myself in a manner worthy of being part of the human family.  Amen.

Isaiah 41:14-20 – For Such a Worm as I

Do not fear, you worm Jacob,
    you insect Israel!
I will help you, says the Lord;
    your Redeemer is the Holy One of Israel.
Now, I will make of you a threshing sledge,
    sharp, new, and having teeth;
you shall thresh the mountains and crush them,
    and you shall make the hills like chaff.
You shall winnow them and the wind shall carry them away,
    and the tempest shall scatter them.
Then you shall rejoice in the Lord;
    in the Holy One of Israel you shall glory.

When the poor and needy seek water,
    and there is none,
    and their tongue is parched with thirst,
I the Lord will answer them,
    I the God of Israel will not forsake them.
I will open rivers on the bare heights,
    and fountains in the midst of the valleys;
I will make the wilderness a pool of water,
    and the dry land springs of water.
I will put in the wilderness the cedar,
    the acacia, the myrtle, and the olive;
I will set in the desert the cypress,
    the plane and the pine together,
so that all may see and know,
    all may consider and understand,
that the hand of the Lord has done this,
    the Holy One of Israel has created it. (NRSV)

Each morning I rise and read God’s Holy Word. It is a discipline I have been doing for over forty years. In the past few years, I have begun reading more slowly and with greater contemplation – because the goal is not to check off having read some verses on a Bible reading plan. The aim is to connect meaningfully with God. The desired result is to hear the voice of the Lord, and to let the Scriptures do their incredible work in our hearts.

One of the ways I connect with Scripture, after having read the verses for the day several times, is to write it in my own words…

“My dear servant, there is no need whatsoever to worry yourself,

though others say about you,

            ‘That guy is nothing, only a wormy maggot!’

I am your holy God,

            who saves and protects you.

I’ll let you be like a big ol’ log

            covered with sharp spikes.

You will grind and crush

every mountain and hill in front of you

            until they turn to dust.

A strong wind will scatter the dust of unholy jerks

            in all directions.

Then you will celebrate

and praise me, your Lord,

            the holy God who watches your life.

When your financial budget no longer budges

and your bank accounts lie empty

            and you have no idea where to turn,

I, your Lord, and your God

will come to your rescue.

            I will not forget you.

I will make rivers of abundance flow

            on the desolate mountain peaks of your life.

I will send streams of life

to fill your empty valley of life’s tribulations.

Dry and barren places in your life

will flow with springs

            and become a lake of grace and goodness.

I will fill the parched desert areas of your needy life

            with all kinds of fruitful trees –

apple trees, olive trees, fig trees,

oak and walnut, elm and maple, fir, and pine,

like in the original garden,

all your needs will be met in and through me, your God.

Everyone will see this

            and know that I,

the holy Yahweh God whom you love and serve,

            created every bit of it.”

Whichever way we choose to view ourselves, as worm and insect, or as majestic person in the image of God, the spiritual reality continually before us is that the Lord will provide, bless, and care for us. We are the recipients of God’s gracious salvation. Although many modern hymnals do not include Isaac Watt’s, At the Cross, and if they do, the original words have been changed – it matters little. Because the action of deliverance belongs to God, and neither to you nor me. And even though we seem but lowly worms next to God, the Lord chooses to treat us with deference, accommodation, and care. Any low view of self is quickly eradicated in the face of such divine love.

Stanza 1:

Alas! and did my Savior bleed?

And did my Sov’reign die?

Would He devote that sacred head

For such a worm as I? 

Chorus:

At the cross, at the cross,

Where I first saw the light,

And the burden of my heart rolled away –

It was there by faith I received my sight,

And now I am happy all the day. 

By Isaac Watts (1674-1748) and published in 1707.

Acts 22:2-16 – You Have a Story to Tell

The Journey of the Apostle Paul by Russian artist Romanov Vladimir, 2014

When the crowd heard Paul speak to them in Aramaic, they became even quieter. Then Paul said:

I am a Jew, born and raised in the city of Tarsus in Cilicia. I was a student of Gamaliel and was taught to follow every single law of our ancestors. In fact, I was just as eager to obey God as any of you are today.

I made trouble for everyone who followed the Lord’s Way, and I even had some of them killed. I had others arrested and put in jail. I did not care if they were men or women. The high priest and all the council members can tell you that this is true. They even gave me letters to the Jewish leaders in Damascus, so that I could arrest people there and bring them to Jerusalem to be punished.

One day about noon I was getting close to Damascus, when a bright light from heaven suddenly flashed around me. I fell to the ground and heard a voice asking, “Saul, Saul, why are you so cruel to me?”

“Who are you?” I answered.

The Lord replied, “I am Jesus from Nazareth! I am the one you are so cruel to.” The men who were traveling with me saw the light but did not hear the voice.

I asked, “Lord, what do you want me to do?”

Then he told me, “Get up and go to Damascus. When you get there, you will be told what to do.” The light had been so bright that I could not see. And the other men had to lead me by the hand to Damascus.

In that city there was a man named Ananias, who faithfully obeyed the Law of Moses and was well liked by all the Jewish people living there. He came to me and said, “Saul, my friend, you can now see again!”

At once I could see. Then Ananias told me, “The God that our ancestors worshiped has chosen you to know what he wants done. He has chosen you to see the One Who Obeys God and to hear his voice. You must tell everyone what you have seen and heard. What are you waiting for? Get up! Be baptized and wash away your sins by praying to the Lord.” (CEV)

You have a story to tell. We all do. Your story is as special, powerful, and unique as anybody’s. Every person’s story is interesting, compelling, and needs to be told.

In today’s New Testament lesson, the Apostle Paul, considered the greatest follower of Christ of all time, tells his story. Paul was a Jew, an upwardly mobile mover-and-shaker within his world. He despised Christians and saw them as an aberration to the true worship of God. 

But Paul had an unexpected life-changing encounter with Jesus. It slammed him upside the head like a divine baseball bat. Whereas Paul really believed he was serving God by persecuting Christians, now he came face-to-face with the true reality that he was doing just the opposite – persecuting God!

As a result, Paul did a complete turn-around and experienced a powerful new life. He became a faithful Christian and took the good news of Jesus Christ to the known world. Paul knew something of forgiveness and never got over the grace shown to him.

This chapter of Holy Scripture is a good template for you to tell your own story. As you read Paul’s story, notice that he talked of life before being a Christian; the circumstances that happened for him to believe in Jesus Christ; and, explained what his life after becoming a Christian was all about.

A good, profitable, and healthy practice is to sit down and jot some thoughts down about your life before Christ, how you came to Christ, and what your life after becoming a Christian is like. Let your life-changing Christian event shape the story – whether it was like Paul’s, or a baptism, a church service experience, a family crisis, or whatever it was – the act of writing will help you make sense of your unique and special narrative.

Just as important, tell your story to others. There are people in your sphere of influence that need to hear what God has done in your life. They are in your life by God’s gracious design. You have a story to tell.  Let it out, my friend.

God of new life and new beginnings, I give you thanks for the person you have made me, where you have placed me, and the people you have surrounded me with. Help me learn to soak in your steadfast love and mercies each day. Let me imitate Christ’s humility and practice sacrificial love today, considering others before myself so as to bring you glory. Let me be someone who brings the fragrant aroma of Christ to those who do not yet know you. Let me not limit what you may do through me because of unbelief or fear. Thank you, Jesus, that you even promised that I may do greater works than you because your Holy Spirit lives in me. Trusting in your grace and not my abilities, I will tell my God story to all you send my way to listen. Amen.

Psalm 69:1-5, 30-36 – The Praise of Suffering

Psalm 69 by Japanese painter Makoto Fujimura

Save me, God,
    because the waters have reached my neck!
I have sunk into deep mud.
    My feet cannot touch the bottom!
I have entered deep water;
    the flood has swept me up.
I am tired of crying.
    My throat is hoarse.
    My eyes are exhausted with waiting for my God.

More numerous than the hairs on my head
    are those who hate me for no reason.
My treacherous enemies,
    those who would destroy me, are countless.
    Must I now give back
    what I did not steal in the first place?
God, you know my foolishness;
    my wrongdoings are not hidden from you….

I will praise God’s name with song;
    I will magnify him with thanks
    because that is more pleasing to the Lord than an ox,
    more pleasing than a young bull with full horns and hooves.
Let the afflicted see it and be glad!
    You who seek God—
    let your hearts beat strong again
    because the Lord listens to the needy
        and does not despise his captives.

Let heaven and earth praise God,
    the oceans too, and all that moves within them!
God will most certainly save Zion
    and will rebuild Judah’s cities
    so that God’s servants can live there and possess it.
The offspring of God’s servants will inherit Zion,
    and those who love God’s name will dwell there. (CEB)

As the Church’s and the Christian’s prayer book, the psalms offer a way to come to God when our feelings and emotions have us not knowing how to pray, at all.  If you are depressed because of people who would like to see you fail or are out to get you, then this is the psalm for you to pray!

When you are voiceless, the psalter can voice it for you. When you are unable to put your thoughts into words, the Scripture can word it for you. Two of the great attributes of God are divine power and love, which means that the Lord is more than able to do something about your situation, and it will always be done in a loving way.  Know today that God hears you and is working on a response to your lament – even if it is not in your own words but the words of Holy Scripture.

Psalm 69 by Austrian artist Ernst Fuchs, 1960

God will come through in God’s own good time. However, you can still praise the Lord right now, smack in the middle of your dilemma. David, the author of today’s psalm, chose to praise God, even though he did not get an immediate answer to his prayers. Perhaps God is more concerned to change us before changing our circumstances.

We need a solid theology of suffering. And that biblical psalms give it to us. I know of no one who wakes in the morning, sits on the edge of their bed, and says, “Gee, I want to suffer today and feel lots of emotional and spiritual pain.” No, we want happiness and joy, not agony and hardship. Yet suffering has much to teach us and the Lord is rarely quick to snatch us from its lessons. The hardship of personal suffering teaches us faith and dependence upon God, as well as leading us to ask for help from others so that we are lovingly supported.

“The way you look at things is the most powerful force in shaping your life.”

john o’donohue

Tribulations in life are common to all people without exception. The issue is whether we will submit to its hard-knock education, or not – whether we will become better people, or bitter. The Irish teacher and poet, John O’Donohue, penned a poem entitled, “For Suffering,” concerning the blessing of hard things:

May you be blessed in the holy names of those

Who, without knowing it,

Help to carry and lighten your pain.

May you know serenity

When you are called

To enter the house of suffering.

May a window of light always surprise you.

May you be granted the wisdom

To avoid false resistance;

When suffering knocks on the door of your life,

May you glimpse its eventual gifts.

May you be able to receive the fruits of suffering.

May memory bless and protect you

With the hard-earned light of past travail;

To remind you that you have survived before

And though the darkness is now deep,

You will soon see approaching light.

May the grace of time heal your wounds.

May you know that though the storm may rage,

Not a hair of your head will be harmed.

To Bless the Space Between Us: A Book of Blesings (Doubleday, 2008)

We have all likely at times felt the anguish of the psalmist – being so overwhelmed that it feels like we are drowning. The feeling is compounded exponentially when behind the sense of trying to keep our heads above water there are people who do not like us – maybe even hate us, to the point of undermining our work every chance they get.  It is in such circumstances we might experience sleepless nights hoping that somehow and someway God will show up.

The typical modus operandi for some within adverse situations is the age-old route of complaining and wishing things were different. Yet neither griping about our problems nor dishing out slander and gossip toward others is a healthy way of dealing with adversity. Just the opposite response is the proper path to the bone-crushing feeling of opposition: to praise God’s name with a song and magnify the Lord with thanksgiving. 

The reason the believer can engage in adoring God during trouble is not some Jedi-type mind trick to make us think more positively. Instead, the basis for praise is in knowing God. It is God who ultimately will deal with the wicked; it is the Lord who will bend to listen to our lament when times are hard. 

Thanking God for answers to prayer in advance of them being answered is a biblical thing to do. Having a faith robust enough to see ahead toward hope can bring love to a loveless situation, and usher in praise before the divine deed of deliverance is even accomplished.

Saving God, thank you for your deliverance!  I give you praise for loving me through sending your Son, the Lord Jesus, to this earthly realm so that I might experience salvation from sin, death, and hell. By Christ’s authority, in the power of the Holy Spirit given to me, I resist the enemy’s attempts to seize control of my life.  I belong to you, holy God. Amen.