Get Me Out of This Scary Dungeon Cave! (Psalm 142)

I pray to you, Lord.
    I beg for mercy.
I tell you all my worries
    and my troubles,
and whenever I feel low,
    you are there to guide me.

A trap has been hidden
    along my pathway.
Even if you look,
    you won’t see anyone
who cares enough
    to walk beside me.
There is no place to hide,
    and no one who really cares.

I pray to you, Lord!
    You are my place of safety,
and you are my choice
    in the land of the living.
Please answer my prayer.
    I am completely helpless.

Help! They are chasing me,
    and they are too strong.
Rescue me from this prison,
    so I can praise your name.
And when your people notice
your wonderful kindness to me,
    they will rush to my side. (Contemporary English Version)

The modern holiday of Halloween is kitschy with a funny sort of scary. But there’s nothing funny about being truly frightened and feeling helpless. Its anything but a holiday.

The psalmist, David, was in both a literal and a metaphorical cave. Before he ever became king of Israel and Judah, David was on the run from King Saul. He hid in a cave. He had more suspense and was on the edge of his seat much more than any horror slasher film could portray.

David was hiding and just trying to stay alive. There was nothing in his life which deserved such maltreatment. It was sheer jealousy on Saul’s end of things that caused him to give his soul over to oppressive pride. And David was the brunt of that oppression.

As biblical readers, we know the end of the story. Saul is eventually killed in battle and David is exalted as the new king. Yet, here, in today’s psalm, we have the genuine cry of a desperate man who longed for the justice of God – not knowing what the end of it all would be.

One of the reasons David was a person after God’s own heart is that he was humble and remained connected to God without succumbing to the bitterness of his situation. I strongly suggest that David was able to keep his life free from pride because he regularly liberated his spirit through real and raw expressions of his emotions and experiences to God.

Spiritual confidence cannot be ginned-up through pretending that all is well, and everything is okay. Rather, spiritual courage is forged in the most awful of circumstances through loud cries of emotional pain to the God who truly hears it all.

Anyone who tells you different is flimsily trying to maintain their puny sense of delusional power. God sees you in the dark place and he hears your cry for mercy. He knows your dark cave better than you know it yourself.

One of the reasons I love the psalms so dearly is that they know the human condition. There is no pretense with the psalmist, David. He opens his mind and heart. He lets the genuine feelings of his life pour out in an offering to the God who pays attention to the humble and contrite.

The proud and arrogant will forever be flummoxed by the psalms, not understanding why they are even in the canon of Holy Scripture.

Yet, here they are, for all to examine and experience. Whereas the piously insincere are continually putting up a false front of godliness and keeping up appearances of superior spirituality, here we have authentic religion smack in front of our faces.

For me, the psalms liberate us from the shackles of trying to be someone I am not and enable us to connect with a God who encourages us in our strange wonderings, our emotional pain, and our sometimes horrific situations.

The Lord is perfectly at home with hearing loud cries, agonizing shouts, and desperate prayers directed to heaven.

Those who oppress others, I believe, are easy to spot because they:

  • Ask rhetorical questions to make a point.
  • Assume their thoughts and ways are always best.
  • Accuse without evidence based on their faulty assumptions.
  • Seek to harm and destroy.
  • Enjoy chaos and thrive on taking advantage of others’ misfortune.
  • Refuse to listen and learn from others.
  • Suppress all competing voices contrary to their own.

Autocrats are too smug and too far into their delusions of power, authority, and self-righteousness to be able to hear any voice other than their own.

A self-absorbed despot in power feels like being in a dingy dank prison cave with no ability to leverage a release.

A self-abnegated deliverer in authority feels like being in a wide open field with freedom to help others in bondage.

God hears when others don’t. The Lord advocates on behalf of those caught in the crosshairs of tyrannical injustice and maltreatment. Divine benevolence is always on the lookout for those being oppressed.

The Almighty uses power to listen and respond when distressed persons are scared silly with maltreatment. Voices raised to heaven shall never go unheard.

Since God listens to those in need of mercy, this is precisely the disposition we are to adopt, as well.

The proud, convinced of their superiority, either cannot or will not see those languishing underneath unjust power structures. There is no space within arrogant hearts to accommodate the cries for justice from people beneath them.

Therefore, recourse for the oppressed comes from God – because God acts with equity, integrity, and justice.

It is not the oppressed who need our pity; it is the ungodly, because they don’t know anything about pity, or empathy, or mercy. Oppressors have no stomach for any of that. So, they keep people locked in systems of oppression. They maintain relational distance and turn a blind eye to the genuine frightened screams of those under their boot.

The weak, the distressed, and the spiritually tired in this corrupt world, however, have the chance for appeal. They can call out to the God who knows them and their situations.

Although cries for deliverance may not happen immediately, we can be assured that divine help is forthcoming. And that is scary good stuff.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you made my earthly pain sacred and gave me the example of humility. Be near to me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace so that my strength and courage may not fail. Heal me according to your will. Loving Jesus, as you cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in my desperation. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief and preserve me in your perfect peace. Amen.

Comfort For Those with Troubles (2 Corinthians 1:1-11)

St. Paul, by Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1657

Paul, an apostle of Christ Jesus by the will of God, and Timothy our brother,

To the church of God in Corinth, together with all his holy people throughout Achaia:

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.

Praise be to the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of compassion and the God of all comfort, who comforts us in all our troubles, so that we can comfort those in any trouble with the comfort we ourselves receive from God. 

For just as we share abundantly in the sufferings of Christ, so also our comfort abounds through Christ. If we are distressed, it is for your comfort and salvation; if we are comforted, it is for your comfort, which produces in you patient endurance of the same sufferings we suffer. And our hope for you is firm because we know that just as you share in our sufferings, so also you share in our comfort.

We do not want you to be uninformed, brothers and sisters, about the troubles we experienced in the province of Asia. We were under great pressure, far beyond our ability to endure, so that we despaired of life itself. Indeed, we felt we had received the sentence of death.

But this happened that we might not rely on ourselves but on God, who raises the dead. He has delivered us from such a deadly peril, and he will deliver us again. On him we have set our hope that he will continue to deliver us, as you help us by your prayers. Then many will give thanks on our behalf for the gracious favor granted us in answer to the prayers of many. (New International Version)

You probably didn’t sign-up for trouble.

Although varying from person to person and from group to group, all of us experience trouble in this world.

The Apostle Paul experienced a lot of trouble throughout his Christian life:

Five times I received from the Jews the forty lashes minus one. 

Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was pelted with stones, three times I was shipwrecked, I spent a night and a day in the open sea, I have been constantly on the move.

I have been in danger from rivers, in danger from bandits, in danger from my fellow Jews, in danger from Gentiles; in danger in the city, in danger in the country, in danger at sea; and in danger from false believers. 

I have labored and toiled and have often gone without sleep; I have known hunger and thirst and have often gone without food; I have been cold and naked. Besides everything else, I face daily the pressure of my concern for all the churches. (2 Corinthians 11:24-28, NIV)

Why didn’t Paul get cynical or jaded by his awful troubles?

What was the secret to Paul’s incredible resilience in the face of such trouble?

How did Paul get through all of that nasty trouble?

Paul, in my opinion, was the consummate Christian. He is the model missionary, mentor, pastor, and caregiver. Yet, it wasn’t his superior giftedness or dogged personality which got him through the tough times.

The Apostle persevered through trouble without succumbing to despondency by receiving help.

Let’s be honest: Most people would rather give than receive – and that is a good thing. Yet, what isn’t a good thing is continual caregiving without yourself receiving care.

We cannot expect to help others without accepting it ourselves. 

The caregiving Christian needs to be vigilant about practicing selfcare and understanding their limitations. One must not pretend to be super-spiritual, with unlimited super-strength and super-compassion, extended to others 24/7 with super-skill. It’s neither realistic, nor smart. 

Caregivers, and not only care recipients, need to accept comfort from both God and others.

“We must accept our vulnerability and limitations in regard to others.  We cannot expect to help others without accepting it ourselves.”

Mother Teresa

The word dominating today’s New Testament lesson is “comfort.” It’s used by Paul ten times in these verses. Comfort involves both speech and action, words and deeds. For comfort to happen, someone comes alongside another and helps them with both loving actions and encouraging words.

We can only give what we have – which means that if we want to continue helping and caring for others, there will need to be continual healthy rhythms of receiving comfort yourself. We provide for others from the largess of grace given to us by the God of abundance.

Sometimes people get stuck in their grief. The troubles have caused such a change and loss that they need help getting out. And the way people get unstuck and resolve their troubles, is through telling their story – which requires someone else to listen. 

St. Paul, by Rembrandt, 1630

Through my own experience of trouble, as well as helping others through their trouble (and sometimes being a troublemaker!) I have developed a checklist of things to do, to allow, and to keep in mind as a caregiver:

  • Live a balanced life. Live in the tension between caring for others and caring for self – without assigning any judgment, shame, or guilt to any of it.
  • Learn to trust other people. You aren’t the only person on earth who can care for the people you care for. Let them contribute so that you can take have a respite.
  • Make a list of needs and concerns. Do this both for yourself and those you care for. Delete those needs that you personally cannot meet. Of the remaining needs, determine the ones for which you are primarily responsible, then, decide which ones are the most important.
  • Contact your Pastor. That’s what he/she is there for. Reach out. You aren’t in a John Wayne movie or an episode of the Lone Ranger. By the way, you know they’re fictional characters, right?
  • Carry your own backpack. Other people have their own backpacks to carry filled with troubles and responsibilities. Although you can help shoulder their load, taking the weight completely off is Christ’s job, not yours. What’s more, don’t fill your own backpack with rocks that leave you with a crushing weight. Be realistic and confident in what you can and ought to do, as well as what you cannot and should not do.
  • Listen to others. Trusted family members and friends usually see the signs of stress in your life before you do. When they speak up, give them your attention. They know what they’re talking about.
  • Accept help. The fast track to bitterness and burnout is refusing the assistance of others who can give you a break in your constant caregiving.
  • Involve others. There are individuals willing and ready to participate if you would just inform them as to what would be helpful.
  • Talk to a therapist. We all get overwhelmed in particular seasons of life. If caregiving has become a compulsion, then take one hour per week to meet with a good therapist or counselor to talk through things in your life.
  • Delegate. Delegate. Delegate. Then, delegate some more.
  • Recharge your soul. Find personal time for yourself daily. Engage in things that feed your spirit and energize your inner person.
  • Don’t waste your time and energy. Some people aren’t going to understand what you’re doing and why you’re doing it; and they don’t really want to understand. And it is not our job to make them understand.
  • Don’t manipulate others. A common temptation is to try and force family, friends, and faith communities to do what we want them to do, whenever we are heavy into ministry. Instead, focus on your own responsibilities and don’t worry about everybody else’s.

God always has a listening ear. The Lord knows grief better than all of us. Jesus understands trouble. In Christ, hope is kindled, care is received, and comfort abounds.

May you, by faith, enter into abundant life – despite the circumstances – so that your overwhelming trouble is transformed into overflowing comfort. Amen.

Psalm 119:17-32 – Examine the Wonders of God’s Instructions

Psalm 119:17-24, Common English Bible

ג Gimel

Be good to your servant while I live,
    that I may obey your word.
Open my eyes that I may see
    wonderful things in your law.
I am a stranger on earth;
    do not hide your commands from me.
My soul is consumed with longing
    for your laws at all times.
You rebuke the arrogant, who are accursed,
    those who stray from your commands.
Remove from me their scorn and contempt,
    for I keep your statutes.
Though rulers sit together and slander me,
    your servant will meditate on your decrees.
Your statutes are my delight;
    they are my counselors.

ד Daleth

I am laid low in the dust;
    preserve my life according to your word.
I gave an account of my ways and you answered me;
    teach me your decrees.
Cause me to understand the way of your precepts,
    that I may meditate on your wonderful deeds.
My soul is weary with sorrow;
    strengthen me according to your word.
Keep me from deceitful ways;
    be gracious to me and teach me your law.
I have chosen the way of faithfulness;
    I have set my heart on your laws.
I hold fast to your statutes, Lord;
    do not let me be put to shame.
I run in the path of your commands,
    for you have broadened my understanding. (New International Version)

The biblical psalms are one of my favorite places in the whole of Holy Scripture. I especially like Psalm 119 because it reminds me that I am not only saved from something, but I am also saved to something.

Genuine and real deliverance comes so that we can be free to love and serve God with our whole being. And Psalm 119 is there to help us know how to do just that.

Psalm 119 stretches for 176 verses as an acrostic to the Hebrew alphabet. Each Hebrew letter has its own 8 verse stanza, with each of those verses beginning with that letter. Unfortunately, of course, we lose this insight through translation.

One of the reasons the psalm was organized this way is because it was meant to be learned and memorized. In fact, the entire psalter was meant for public consumption – to be engrafted into the soul and hidden in the heart.

The wonders of Psalm 119 are, overall, a paeon of reverence and praise of God’s law. That’s because the Lord’s commands and instructions are an extension of the divine character. Laws of mercy and holiness are given to the people because God is merciful and holy.

Grace and law are not antithetical. They go together like a hand in a glove and rely upon each other. The hand of grace is what fills the glove of the law, and together, they extend divine help and direction to people in this fallen world of ours.

The heartfelt prayer of the psalmist is that the Lord would open his eyes so that he could see the wonders contained within God’s divine instructions for humanity.

“Open my eyes so I can truly see
the marvelous things in your law.”

Psalm 119:18, NET

This is a prayer for us, as well. Those who desire to please the Lord and walk in the way of God are continually seeking awareness of the divine all around them, insight into others, and understanding of self.

It is one thing to read the Bible, but it’s another thing altogether to understand it. The psalmist is asking for God to intervene on his behalf and remove anything and everything that would inhibit his ability to understand and discern God’s words and actions.

Insight, understanding, and application to life comes from dwelling in the Word. It is a process. A daily crumb will neither do to satiate our physical hunger nor our spiritual appetite.

Going days, even weeks, without ingesting God’s instructions will only lead to spiritual emaciation. It harms us and helps no one. Instead, we need to feed on Holy Scripture and savor every bite. Like the cow, we need to slowly chew and ruminate on Scripture so that it can be fully digested and become part of us.

I have memorized large chunks of the Bible over the years. The main reason my memory can call up so much Scripture is that I have read it, and continue to read it, over and over again. Even though I’ve read the Old Testament about one-hundred times and the New Testament in the neighborhood of three-hundred times, I still gain insight and understanding, seeing new and wondrous things.

I truly believe the Bible is an inexhaustible source of sage instruction and a continual fountain of wisdom. I’ll spend an eternity in heaven examining God’s Word and will never reach the height, depth, length, and breadth of it’s incredible, massive, and glorious precepts.

I am a strong advocate of straightforward readings of Scripture, over and over again. Although I encourage looking at devotionals, commentaries, and reflections (like this blog!) to help and encourage us, nothing can replace our constant and continual reading of the Bible.

The biblical Book of Psalms is the Church’s prayerbook. All 150 of them are meant to be used for every sort of life circumstance. Whether discouraged or anxious, joyful or confident, the psalms encompass the full range of the human condition – and Psalm 119 lets us know how central God’s instructions are to the life of God’s people.

So, read today’s psalm… several times. Let Scripture do it’s marvelous and wondrous work within you.

Blessed Lord, you caused all Holy Scriptures to be written for our learning. Help us so to wisely hear, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them so that by our patient reading of your holy Word, we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life, which you have given us in our Savior Jesus Christ.

Psalm 121 – The Divine Helper

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
    from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
    he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
    he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time on and forevermore. (New Revised Standard Version)

Not a one of us gets off this planet without needing help – a lot of help! Even people who are in helping professions or who identify themselves primarily as helpers need help themselves.

There is no such thing as complete, total, and irrevocable independence. We as humans are hard-wired by our Creator for community. We only find our greatest fulfillment within interdependent relationships, and only discover our highest happiness in a dependent relationship to God.

To need others, and especially God, is not a weakness. It’s a sign of sage awareness and confident strength whenever we assess that help is needed. Only the fool goes it alone, believing they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. “God helps those who help themselves,” was originated by Ben Franklin, not Holy Scripture.

So, the real question is: To whom and to where do we go for help? Who do we consult? With whom do we collaborate?

The most important step any of us can make is to realize that our own personal resources are inadequate, and that we admit, “I need help with this.” The next most important step is to go to the right source for that help.

The psalmist insists that the Lord is our helper, our keeper. Keeping is a large part of helping. God as our Divine Keeper means that the Lord watches over us, guards our lives, and seeks to preserve us from harm, wrongdoing, injustice, and oppression.

The very identity of God is wrapped up in being a Protector, Guard, and Watchkeeper. The Lord shields and shelters us, much like a mother hen over her chicks. God watches over us, just as a watchman keeps guard over a city at night when the residents are sleeping. And since the Lord is everywhere present, there is a continual divine presence in all of our life journeys. The dangers of both the day and the night are no match for the God who is our Keeper.

The promises of safety in today’s psalm are not meant to suggest that those who walk in the shelter of God will never endure harm or that nothing ill will ever befall them. The Psalter knows all too well that the wicked are everywhere and that they thrive unjustly.

Rather, these divine promises are general promises—they are blessings God does for those who rely on the Lord, call upon God’s name, and seek divine help. We are to have a continual awareness of God’s presence in this world. Although we are not inoculated from pain, God is always with us in our hurt and bewilderment.

It can be hard to ask for help. Our pride, stubbornness, and independence might cause us to experience harm rather than seek assistance.

Be specific about the help needed. The following are some “helpful” ways of approaching God by answering some basic newsgathering type questions. The goal isn’t to convince the Lord to help us, but rather to enable us in connecting with what we truly need and being specific about God’s assistance for us or for others:

Who? 

Who needs help? Clarify if the help is for yourself, another, or a group of people.

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. (Matthew 8:5-8, NIV)

How? 

How will God’s action help? God is an expert listener. Tell the story of what you have tried already and where you fall short.

Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:21-24, NIV)

Why? 

Why are you soliciting God’s help? Explain what’s going on and the reasons why you believe the Lord is the One to help. Mention the divine attributes and actions of God, as well as your own personal connection.

Then Asa called to the Lord his God and said, “Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. Lord, you are our God; do not let mere mortals prevail against you.” (2 Chronicles 14:11, NIV)

Where? 

Where is the help needed? Is it a geographical location, a specific spot in the human body, or a place such as a building or home?

Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her. So, he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them. (Luke 4:37-39, NIV)

When? 

When do you need help? Immediately? Tomorrow? At a specific time?

O Lord, God of my salvation,
    when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
    incline your ear to my cry.

For my soul is full of troubles,
    and my life draws near to Sheol. (Psalm 88:1-3, NRSV)

What? 

What, exactly, is the need? Spell out what you want in detail, holding nothing back. Don’t be concerned about the words or saying it right. Speak in your own plain language.

Help, O Lord, for the godly are fast disappearing!
    The faithful have vanished from the earth!
Neighbors lie to each other,
    speaking with flattering lips and deceitful hearts.
May the Lord cut off their flattering lips
    and silence their boastful tongues. (Psalm 12:1-3, NLT)

May you find the help you need today and every day, in Jesus’ name. Amen.