Psalm 70 – Wednesday of Holy Week

Christ in the Garden of Olives by French artist Paul Gauguin (1848-1903)

God! Please hurry to my rescue!
    God, come quickly to my side!
Those who are out to get me—
    let them fall all over themselves.
Those who relish my downfall—
    send them down a blind alley.
Give them a taste of their own medicine,
    those gossips off clucking their tongues.

Let those on the hunt for you
    sing and celebrate.
Let all who love your saving way
    say over and over, “God is mighty!”

But I’ve lost it. I’m wasted.
    God—quickly, quickly!
Quick to my side, quick to my rescue!
    God, don’t lose a minute. (MSG)

It doesn’t take a rocket scientist to know that today’s psalm is a plea from a desperate person in a desperate situation of life and death. Help is needed, not in some future time, but immediately!

I don’t know if you have ever been in such a stressful and dangerous situation in which all you could say is “Help! Help me!” The abject feeling of helplessness is palpable and just plain awful. The sense there is nothing you can do to improve your circumstance other than some sort of merciful divine intervention is more than unnerving. Its downright hard to breathe, let alone trying to cry out for rescue.

It seems the psalmist was in a position where there were people getting a twisted sense of joy over the misfortune of others. Its as if they were delighting in the confusion and vulnerability of those unable to stop what is happening.

In the throes of such stress and danger the psalmist wants the evil turned back on the wicked. He wants such persons off his back – to have God hunt them like they are hunting the poor and needy who have no ability to resist.

It makes sense this psalm is short, just a few verses. Long prayers aren’t necessarily better. Prayers can be short, especially when it is a frantic cry for God’s help. There is nothing in Holy Scripture that dictates how long or short prayer ought to be. “Help!” just might be one of the best prayers we can pray. One little word. That’s all it takes.

It also makes sense to me that this is an honest prayer. When in the throes of some horrible situation, all pretension goes out the window. Honest heartfelt prayers are the best kind of prayer. If we are hurting badly enough, boldness comes quickly to the tip of our tongues. I once had a kidney stone (which was extremely painful!). I walked in a bent over position into the Emergency Department of a hospital and yelled at the first staff person I saw, saying, “I want help, NOW!

To confess our great need to a God who listens might just be the best kind of theology we could ever express. In such a terrible place as the psalmist was, there is no thought to keeping up appearances. There is only an unfiltered expression of need. Our prayers can be earnest and urgent.

Prayer can be short, honest, and urgent because emergent situations require it. So, what do you do when you feel desperate? How do you handle your emotions? Where do you go for help?

In this Holy Week we are reminded that Jesus looked to the Father for help. In the worst of circumstances – facing ridicule, torture, and a horrible death – the Lord Jesus let the psalms shape his own prayers of desperation while under severe stress and duress:

“The one who ate my bread has lifted his heel against me.” (John 13:18; Psalm 41:9)

“They hated me without a cause.” (John 15:24; Psalm 69:4)

“I am deeply grieved, even to death; remain here, and stay awake with me.” (Matthew 26:38; Psalm 42:5-6)

“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Matthew 27:46; Psalm 22:1)

Then Jesus, crying with a loud voice, said, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” Having said this, he breathed his last. (Luke 23:46; Psalm 31:16)

There is a God who understands our plight. Jesus, the pioneer of our salvation, has gone before us in the way of suffering and knows what it is like to experience the agony and anguish of evil’s weight. He is our great high priest, the one who can intercede effectively and compassionately for us in our great times of need:

 Now that we know what we have—Jesus, this great High Priest with ready access to God—let’s not let it slip through our fingers. We don’t have a priest who is out of touch with our reality. He’s been through weakness and testing, experienced it all—all but the sin. So, let’s walk right up to him and get what he is so ready to give. Take the mercy, accept the help. (Hebrews 4:14-16, MSG)

May you find in Jesus the help you so desperately need. Amen.

Psalm 71:1-14 – Tuesday of Holy Week

O Lord, I have come to you for protection;
    don’t let me be disgraced.
Save me and rescue me,
    for you do what is right.
Turn your ear to listen to me,
    and set me free.
Be my rock of safety
    where I can always hide.
Give the order to save me,
    for you are my rock and my fortress.
My God, rescue me from the power of the wicked,
    from the clutches of cruel oppressors.
O Lord, you alone are my hope.
    I’ve trusted you, O Lord, from childhood.
Yes, you have been with me from birth;
    from my mother’s womb you have cared for me.
    No wonder I am always praising you!

My life is an example to many,
    because you have been my strength and protection.
That is why I can never stop praising you;
    I declare your glory all day long.
And now, in my old age, don’t set me aside.
    Don’t abandon me when my strength is failing.
For my enemies are whispering against me.
    They are plotting together to kill me.
They say, “God has abandoned him.
    Let’s go and get him,
    for no one will help him now.”

O God don’t stay away.
    My God, please hurry to help me.
Bring disgrace and destruction on my accusers.
    Humiliate and shame those who want to harm me.
But I will keep on hoping for your help;
    I will praise you more and more. (NLT)

Today’s psalm is a lament. It is included in Holy Week because the Christian can imagine Jesus saying these very words in the last days of his earthly life and ministry.

Lament is both important and necessary. Without lament our grief comes out sideways, inevitably harming others with our snarky vitriol. Lament gives expression to our deep grief. It enables us to come to grips with what has happened or is happening to us and within us.

  • A lament is an expression of personal grief to any significant change or loss; it is the normal emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational reaction to that loss.
  • Lamenting is an intentional process of letting go of relationships and dreams and living into a new identity after the loss or change.
  • Expressing grief through lament is personal; there is no one-size-fits-all.

Psalms of lament have a typical structure to them, including:

  • Addressing God: Crying out for help. Some psalms of lament expand to include a statement of praise or a recollection of God’s intervention in the past. (Psalm 71:1-3)
  • Complaint: Telling God (said with some flavor!) about our problem or experience through a range and depth of emotional, relational, and spiritual reactions to the change or loss. (Psalm 71:4)
  • Confession of Trust: Remaining confident in God despite the circumstances. Beginning to see problems differently. (Psalm 71:5-8)
  • Petition: Proclaiming confidence in God. Appealing to God for deliverance and intervention. Keep in mind that petitioning is not bargaining with God or a refusal to accept loss. Rather, it is a legitimate seeking of help. (Psalm 71:9-13)
  • Words of Assurance: Expressing certainty that the petition will be heard by God. (Psalm 71:14a)
  • Vow of Praise: Vowing to testify in the future to what God will do with praise. (Psalm 71:14b-24)

I urge you to do the following spiritual practice this Holy Week – set aside some time and craft your own psalm of lament. Choose an event from your past which created grief for you. It can be recent or from years ago. Using the structure of lament psalms, thoughtfully write out each element as I have outlined it. Then, read it aloud to God. Perhaps even take another step by reading your lament aloud to a trusted family member, friend, or Pastor.

Our grief needs the outlet of lament. Grief which is not expressed only sits in the soul and eventually, over time, can easily become putrid and rancid, poisoning our spirit, and compromising our faith. Sharing your story through lament is biblical, practical, and I will insist, necessary. Let me know how it goes…

Psalm 46 – Divine Help

Psalm 46:1 by Connie Van Huss

God is our refuge and strength,
    a help always near in times of great trouble.
That’s why we won’t be afraid when the world falls apart,
    when the mountains crumble into the center of the sea,
    when its waters roar and rage,
    when the mountains shake because of its surging waves.

There is a river whose streams gladden God’s city,
    the holiest dwelling of the Most High.
God is in that city. It will never crumble.
    God will help it when morning dawns.
Nations roar; kingdoms crumble.
    God utters his voice; the earth melts.
The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!
    The God of Jacob is our place of safety. 

Come, see the Lord’s deeds,
    what devastation he has imposed on the earth—
    bringing wars to an end in every corner of the world,
    breaking the bow and shattering the spear,
        burning chariots with fire.

“That’s enough! Now know that I am God!
    I am exalted among all nations; I am exalted throughout the world!”

The Lord of heavenly forces is with us!
    The God of Jacob is our place of safety. (CEB)

We possess the unconditional presence of God. Yes indeed, the Lord of all creation is always with us. What a wonderful and radical thought!  But that is not all. What is more, God helps us. The Lord does not stand by idly to watch us squirm in tough situations. Because God is present with you and I, there is divine assistance which can help us in troubling times.

Something we can all seem to agree on is that we are in times of trouble and hardship. Everyone is collectively experiencing adversity. COVID-19 has punched us in our worldly gut and caused us to bend over, writhing in pain. We need the Lord. We require Divine help.

The psalms, as Hebrew poetry, were designed with a certain structure. Unlike the way we arrange things with a thesis statement said right up front, Hebrew poetry has the most important statement smack in the middle of the psalm. What comes before that statement is a growing crescendo meant to highlight the central idea. Everything that comes after is the decrescendo pointing back to the main idea.

What we have in the middle of today’s magnificent psalm is the important truth that the Lord of heavenly forces is with us. This reality is meant to drop its weight on us so that we will feel the impact of God’s presence and power. Consider some of English translations of the Hebrew statement:

The Lord All-Powerful is with us. The God of Jacob is our fortress. (CEV)

The Lord of Armies is with us. The God of Jacob is our stronghold. (GW)

Jacob-wrestling God fights for us, God-of-Angel-Armies protects us. (MSG)

The Lord Almighty is with us; the God of Jacob is our fortress. (NIV)

The Lord of Heaven’s Armies is here among us; the God of Israel is our fortress. (NLT)

Yahweh of Armies is with us. Jacob’s God is a turret for us. (FT)

Today (and everyday) is a good day to use the statement, “The Lord of heavenly forces is with us,” as a point of thought, contemplation, and deep consideration. God has the back of those who do right and seek to be just in all things. Whenever you are waiting, driving in the car, in-between scheduled stuff, or just sitting at home, repeat this biblical statement many times to yourself and to the Lord. Then, allow God’s Spirit to bring the truth of it home to the depths of your soul. There is no better security, no better hope than to know God is with us.

God Almighty, great upheaval in this world does not make you nervous because you are above it all.  Thank you that you are with me in all the great churnings of my life, as well as all the small things of trouble.  Even if all around me changes, you do not; through Christ my Savior, I pray. Amen.

Genesis 16:1-14 – The God Who Sees

Hagar and Ishmael by John Shayn (1901-1977)

Now Sarai, Abram’s wife, had borne him no children. But she had an Egyptian slave named Hagar; so, she said to Abram, “The Lord has kept me from having children. Go, sleep with my slave; perhaps I can build a family through her.”

Abram agreed to what Sarai said. So, after Abram had been living in Canaan ten years, Sarai his wife took her Egyptian slave Hagar and gave her to her husband to be his wife. He slept with Hagar, and she conceived.

When she knew she was pregnant, she began to despise her mistress. Then Sarai said to Abram, “You are responsible for the wrong I am suffering. I put my slave in your arms, and now that she knows she is pregnant, she despises me. May the Lord judge between you and me.”

“Your slave is in your hands,” Abram said. “Do with her whatever you think best.” Then Sarai mistreated Hagar; so, she fled from her.

The angel of the Lord found Hagar near a spring in the desert; it was the spring that is beside the road to Shur. And he said, “Hagar, slave of Sarai, where have you come from, and where are you going?”

“I’m running away from my mistress Sarai,” she answered.

Then the angel of the Lord told her, “Go back to your mistress and submit to her.” The angel added, “I will increase your descendants so much that they will be too numerous to count.”

The angel of the Lord also said to her:

“You are now pregnant
    and you will give birth to a son.
You shall name him Ishmael,
    for the Lord has heard of your misery.
He will be a wild donkey of a man;
    his hand will be against everyone
    and everyone’s hand against him,
and he will live in hostility
    toward all his brothers.”

She gave this name to the Lord who spoke to her: “You are the God who sees me,” for she said, “I have now seen the One who sees me.” That is why the well was called Beer Lahai Roi; it is still there, between Kadesh and Bered. (NIV)

A wood cut of Hagar and Ishmael by Jakob Steinhardt (1887-1968)

I am blind as a bat without my glasses. They are the first thing I put on when waking in the morning, and the last thing I take off before retiring at night.  Without them I cannot distinguish anything well and everything is a blur. Apart from corrective lenses, I can only see who is talking to me when they are inches from my face.

As bad as it would be without my glasses, it would be even worse if you or I were not seen by anyone.  I believe one of the great tragedies of modern Western civilization is that we can live among so many other people, yet not be seen by so many of them. The loneliness of being overlooked and unnoticed is a terrible situation.

The ancient woman, Hagar, certainly felt that way. Even more, she felt a worse circumstance: Hagar neither believed that anyone saw her and cared, nor that God saw her at all. It was as if God lost his glasses somewhere. 

In a convoluted series of decisions, mostly outside of her control, Hagar became pregnant with Abraham’s son.  Then, Sarah, Abraham’s “real” wife got pregnant with another son.  It got really complicated, real fast. Relational dysfunction abounded, leaving Hagar and her unborn son, Ishmael, with no one to help. Hagar was so distraught that she simply expected to die alone.

We can feel Hagar’s despair and desperation.  She saw no hope, and nobody saw her… but there was someone watching: God. The Lord saw everything that happened to her – all the craziness, all the mistreatment – and stepped-in to act on behalf of Hagar.

As a result, Hagar began to call God, “The God Who Sees Me.” She never again had to wonder or doubt whether she was seen. 

You might feel today that God is overlooking you and not seeing your pain – that somehow the Divine is aloof and distant from your hurt, and blind to your deep wounds. Oh, but the Lord sees it all, everything. God may not be working on the same timetable as you and me, but nevertheless sees you like no one else can. You and I never have to wonder about it. “See” for yourself the God who lovingly observes and knows us:

The Lord’s eyes scan the whole world to find those whose hearts are committed to him, to strengthen them. (2 Chronicles 16:9, GW)

God sees the ends of the earth, sees everything under the sky. (Job 28:24, GNT)

The Lord looks down from heaven; he sees every human being… Look here: The Lord’s eyes watch all who honor him, all who wait for his faithful love. (Psalm 33:13, 18, CEB)

You, Lord, know me inside and out,
    you know every bone in my body;
You know exactly how I was made, bit by bit,
    how I was sculpted from nothing into something.
Like an open book, you watched me grow from conception to birth;
    all the stages of my life were spread out before you.

Psalm 139:15-16, MSG

The eyes of the Lord are in every place, keeping watch on the evil and the good. (Proverbs 15:3, NRSV)

May you be encouraged to know and believe that the God who formed billions of people, sees you and loves you, just as you are.

God of Hagar, just as you saw her in the desert and the desperate position she was in, so I ask that you see me and act according to your great mercy, through Jesus Christ, my Savior, with the Holy Spirit.  Amen.