Psalm 143

persons raising hands
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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.

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

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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.

I Have Everything I Need

“The Lord is my shepherd.  I have all that I need.” –Psalm 23:1 (NLT)

back view photo of shepherd walking his flock of sheep in grass field
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I once had a neighbor named Art.  Art was a shepherd.  He spent a good chunk of his day, every day, leading his sheep around his five acres of property across the road from me.  On occasion, Art would politely ask if some of his sheep could come to my backyard and feed on some of the wild plants that were in abundance.  I was amazed how “artfully” he cared for his sheep.

It seems to me that sheep get a bad rap.  I typically hear them referred to as stupid.  Having grown up in rural Iowa, I realize there are animals that are not so bright.  Sheep aren’t one of them.  Cows, however, are.  I think when God created cows the raccoons came along and stole some of their brains.  There’s a reason sheep possess the reputation of lacking smarts – sheep are prone to being afraid.  They get spooked easily.  And, when they get skittish and scared, they tend to panic.  More than once I’ve seen a flock of sheep run full-steam head-first into a stone wall.  If you don’t know much about sheep and come along and see this, they most certainly appear to be downright stupid.  Yet, sheep are really, quite intelligent.  It’s just when fear overcomes them, they can do some nonsensical things.

The presence of a faithful shepherd makes all the difference.  Sheep become familiar with their shepherd and learn to depend on them.  There were times that Art had to leave the sheep alone and I would do a sort of babysit with them.  Around me the sheep were cautious and had their guard up.  The presence of anxiety was clear.  When Art showed up, he didn’t have to say a word.  I could feel and observe the flock collectively relaxing.

God is the ultimate shepherd of the sheep.  Jesus is the Good Shepherd.  When we sense the presence of God’s Spirit, there is faith, trust, and confidence which brings to us a settled conviction of calm and comfort.  When that sense is not there, we do things like buy two pallets of toilet paper and try to bring it home in a compact car.  It’s non-sense.

Psalm 23 is a beloved portion of Scripture for a reason; it helps us as sheep to settle down and trust, even in the middle of uncertainty and anxiety.  God’s presence + God’s provision + God’s protection = God’s providential care.

God’s presence is constant, not sporadic; his provision is enough, not stingy; and, his protection is total, not partial. 

Experiencing that God is present, that he watches over us and gives generously to us is the balm we need.  It melts our fear in the face of pandemics and poverty; helps us relax in a deteriorating economic climate; and, inoculates us from believing the sky is falling.  Our courage and confidence cannot be ginned-up through sheer willpower; it comes as we get to know the great shepherd of the sheep standing there watching over us.

God Provides

“The LORD is my shepherd; I shall not want.”  God is personal, not generic.  God is the great “I AM,” the God who is.  The Lord is my shepherd, not was, or will be – is.  God is not just somebody else’s God and shepherd, but my shepherd.  Shepherd is an apt term because a shepherd cares for the sheep – watches over them, is present with them, protects them, and provides whatever they need to both survive and thrive.

“He makes me lie down in green pastures, he leads me beside quiet waters, he restores my soul.  He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake.”  God benevolently leads us; and, does not act outside of his character and attributes.  If we believe this about the great “I AM,” then worry and anxiety begins to diminish.  Too many of us suffer from the heebie-jeebies because we don’t see the shepherd standing in the field watching over us.  The answer to our worry is not to keep telling ourselves to stop being anxious.  With God on the job as shepherd I shall not be in want: period.  We are presently in troubled times.  Fear can grab hold and prevent us from living with settled and reasonable intention with a plan toward the future.  Every day we see folks running headlong into a stone wall.  It’s okay to be afraid; it is not okay to let fear rule our lives.  The solution is to speak, despite your fear; to act, despite your worry; to live, knowing God has your back.

This present situation of many people spending time at home and away from others is a kind of forced monastic life.  It is an opportunity to let our souls be restored.  In this season of Lent, people in the Christian tradition focus on the spiritual disciplines of solitude, silence, fasting, prayer, and spiritual reading.  The world is getting the chance to discover the spirituality that has always been within them.  Perhaps, by the grace of a good God, there will be a great personal and systemic spiritual healing within the lives of millions – as our normal routines are upended and changed.

God Is Present

Within much of Hebrew poetry, the focus of the writing is found smack in the middle.  Everything before it builds toward it; everything after it point back.  And what is in the middle of Psalm 23 is that God is with us.  Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, even though it may seem that everything is bleak and that all things are against me – God is with me, which is why I do not succumb to fear.  We walk through the valley, not around it.  That is, God is with us right smack in the middle of our trouble.  God does not cause us to avoid unpleasant circumstances.  Instead, God promises to be with us through them.  The way to deliverance is to confront our fears and walk with God, rather than expecting God to take away everything unpleasant that we don’t like.

“Your rod and your staff, they comfort me.”  My neighbor Art had a shepherd’s crook.  He mostly used it as a walking stick.  Yet, I did see times when he fended-off predators seeking to get to the sheep.  More often, Art used his shepherd’s crook as a way of guiding the sheep where they could feed and be protected.  The discovery of God’s guidance comes from movement and creativity.  We experience the leading we want through embracing the uncomfortable in the confidence that God provides and protects through the trouble, and not apart from it.

God Protects

“You prepare a table for me in the presence of my enemies.”  Even with the enemy of disease, death, and disorder surrounding us, God’s presence is such that his protection and provision are providentially working to create blessing in the middle of trouble.  Whereas fear and panic believe in a culture of scarcity, a culture of abundance discerns that there is plenty for all and will thus work toward equitable distribution and fostering an egalitarian spirit.

“You anoint my head with oil.”  This is an act of refreshment, and of encouragement.  It is necessary for me to be at least somewhat out and about these days because of what I do.  I have witnessed many instances of basic human kindness and thoughtfulness – deeds done with the other in mind.

“My cup overflows.”  This is the reality that the blessings are abundant – even within troubled times.  God’s provision is right here, amidst the worst of circumstances.  We don’t have to pick a fight with someone in the Costco parking lot who has what I want to get the things we need.

“Surely goodness and love will follow me all the days of my life.”  It is easy to believe that God’s goodness and love will follow me when my health is good, my income is solid, and I have plenty of friends around me.  It is another thing to have an awareness of that goodness in dark days.  Yet, God’s love and goodness hasn’t sequestered itself.  God providentially uses each life situation and bends it to redemptive purposes.

Experiencing God’s presence, provision, and protection brings contentment and confidence.  The radical nature of Psalm 23 is that peace is realized while chaos and uncertainty is all around us. Establishing spiritual practices that reinforce our sense of security can aid us through difficulty and hardship.  With the settled conviction that God indeed has our backs and stands as the divine sentinel watching over the beloved sheep, we find the ability to relax and trust that all is well with my soul.

Lord, help me to relax.

Take from me the tension
that makes peace impossible.
Take from me the fears
that do not allow me to venture.
Take from me the worries
that blind my sight.
Take from me the distress
that hides your joy.

Help me to know
that I am with you,
that I am in your care,
that I am in your love,
that you and I are one,

Through the mighty name of Jesus,

In the power of the Holy Spirit. 

Amen.

Luke 1:46-54

 

           
 
            Faith that is faith in itself is not faith at all.  But a deep and personal faith arises from a healthy and robust theology.  Today, let the words of Mary’s Magnificat (Song of Praise) communicate to you a God who is aware, hears, and responds with power and grace.  Read it slowly several times and allow your own praise to arise in cognizance of what God has done and will do for you:

 

46 Mary said:

 

With all my heart
I praise the Lord,
47 and I am glad
because of God my Savior.
48 He cares for me,
his humble servant.
From now on,
all people will say
God has blessed me.
49 God All-Powerful has done
great things for me,
and his name is holy.
50 He always shows mercy
to everyone
who worships him.
51 The Lord has used
his powerful arm
to scatter those
who are proud.
52 He drags strong rulers
from their thrones
and puts humble people
in places of power.
53 God gives the hungry
good things to eat,
and sends the rich away
with nothing.
54 He helps his servant Israel
and is always merciful
to his people. (CEV)

 

Amen.

 

Matthew 1:1-17

            If you looked up these verses, you might wonder if you’ve got the right text.  Is there really a genealogy in the lectionary?  Am I really going to get something out of this?  Yep, you are.  All of God’s Holy Scripture drips with grace, and the opening genealogy in Matthew is no exception.  At the heart of Matthew’s gospel is a presentation of Jesus and his teaching that centers on the kingdom of God with Jesus as King, the one whom is the fulfillment of all the Old Testament promises.  So, then, the genealogy is not just a chronicle of Christ’s lineage, but is a theological statement made by Matthew that Jesus is the promised Messiah.
 
            The genealogy includes four women in the lineage of Jesus:  Tamar, Rahab, Ruth, and Bathsheba.  Just so you know, women are central to the kingdom of God.  They may not have been important to ancient kings, but to King Jesus they play a significant role.  All four of these women were Gentiles.  King Jesus operates differently.  No matter your gender, your race, or your past (all four had a dubious sexual history), the kingdom of God is for everyone, and is not an exclusive club.  If God can use scandalous Gentile women to accomplish his purposes, who are you or I to tell God whom he can use and whom he can’t use?
 
            God acted in history by sending Jesus, the rightful king of the universe.  He is the Anointed One, sent to restore people to God.  He himself is our peace and our hope.  The kingdom of God operates on grace, and not in typical power position fashion of imposing self-serving agendas.  No matter our past or station in life, grace trumps it all.  Jesus is the One whom makes all the difference.  He is the rightful king.  And he uses his power to save and deliver people from sin, death, and hell.
 

 

            Merciful God, thank you for sending your Son, the Lord Jesus, to save, redeem, and love humanity, including myself.  Help me to walk in his steps of grace every day, in the power of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.