Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 – Gratitude Changes Us

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever….”

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
    O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
    We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
    and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
    up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
    you are my God, I will extol you.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever. (NRSV)

Show me a spiritual sourpuss, and I’ll show you a person who lives without daily gratitude toward God and others. But show me a gracious person who liberally gives thanks, and I will show you a person profoundly in touch with God’s steadfast love.

The psalmist chose to give thanks for God’s goodness and faithful love. I wonder how much different each day would be if we began it with the psalmist’s great call to worship: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” 

There is a misguided notion that only certain people have the attitude of gratitude – that some folks are just naturally ornery, and some are just born happy. But the truth is that gratitude and giving thanks is a practice which needs to be carefully cultivated. As it grows and develops, gratitude bears the fruit of joy. 

Thankfulness is a daily decision of faith to have the kind of attitude which pleases God and blesses others.

We now know so much more about the human brain. Research has discovered that the brain is made up of an estimated 100 billion neurons making a total of 100 trillion neural connections. That’s a lot of neural power! Most of those neural pathways are good and healthy. For example, I didn’t have to think about how to tie my shoes this morning because I have a well-developed neural pathway that automatically makes the connection to do it.

However, some of those neural pathways are not good, even unhealthy. There might be connections in our heads which lead to substance abuse when under stress, or to violently lash out when afraid or hurt, or things like plain old procrastination. If you have ever had the experience of telling yourself that you’re not going to respond a particular way, then end up doing it anyway, it is likely you have a well-worn neural pathway which connects certain events to a set of focused actions.

What this all means is that willpower won’t do the trick in changing behavior. That’s because our brains don’t work that way. The good news is that all those neural connections and pathways, like ruts in a gravel road, can fade away and new ones can be developed. Scientists call this “neural plasticity.”

There are practices which can help unhealthy neural connections go away and create new healthy pathways.

One of those practices is gratitude. Giving thanks changes our brain chemistry! Yet, it doesn’t happen overnight. But if we identify three persons or possessions which we are grateful for and say them out loud at least three times a day over the next three months, then we have developed a new neural pathway in our brain.

So, in the future, when we face a stressful event – whereas in the past we might deal with it in an unhealthy way – now our brains reflexively go to a different place and see the situation in a different way than before. And we choose different actions and behaviors.

Readers of this blog know that I continually encourage reading the psalms out loud as prayers to God. If we make this a practice, it will not only change our brains – it will create new spiritual pathways in our souls which fortify us for those times in life when things are tough and hard.

Spiritual practices have a purpose. And when we use those disciplines, we end up developing connections with the Lord which support us and sustain us for a lifetime – not to mention that we become a delight for others to be around instead of being a tedious fart.

Loving God, this is the day you have made; I rejoice in it and am glad that your steadfast love covers all things. Help me to connect every good thing with your gracious hand upon me so that I will not look and act like I was baptized in pickle juice.  To the glory of Jesus Christ, I pray.  Amen.

Psalm 107:1-16 – The Necessity of Telling Our Secrets

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O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
    those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
    from the east and from the west,
    from the north and from the south.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
    finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty,
    their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a straight way,
    until they reached an inhabited town.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wonderful works to humankind.
For he satisfies the thirsty,
    and the hungry he fills with good things.

Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
    prisoners in misery and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
    and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor;
    they fell down, with no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he saved them from their distress;
he brought them out of darkness and gloom,
    and broke their bonds asunder.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wonderful works to humankind.
For he shatters the doors of bronze,
    and cuts in two the bars of iron. (NRSV)

The psalmist calls upon others to give thanks to the good Lord who shows enduring love to people. The psalmist furthermore exhorts those who have been redeemed to say so, to declare God’s praises for delivering them from trouble. 

Whatever the circumstances and however difficult the experiences may have been, the believer is not to remain in silence but is to publicly thank God.

Speaking our spiritual stories to others is important for those who share them, and for those who listen, so that the community of the redeemed will be strengthened in their faith and emboldened to share with others. Far too many Christians are reticent to talk about what God has done or is doing in their lives. Shame, embarrassment, or a host of other reasons might prevent us from being vulnerable enough to let others in on God’s deep work within us. But the psalmist does not let us off the hook, even if we feel we are not articulate or are too afraid to speak.

We all likely have had the privilege of hearing another person share their heart and experience of hardship and God’s deliverance. It was uplifting, encouraging, and helpful. So, let’s not keep our stories to ourselves. Stories are meant to be told, not hidden. 

Bringing to light our faith journey is healing for all, as well as declaring the light of Jesus to the world.

Author Frederick Buechner wrote a book several years ago entitled, “Telling Secrets.” Buechner tells of his own experience of keeping some stories inside and never letting them see the light of day. One of those stories was growing up with an alcoholic father and all the other stories that went along with that singular story. It was only in finally telling the family secret of alcoholism that he discovered a better path forward to healing and blessing. He writes:

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets, too, because it makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own.”

“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it, the chances are you will recognize that, in many ways, it is also your story. It is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”

Shame is like a vampire. It lives in the shadows, thirsting for and feeding upon secrets.

But when our stories are told and see the light of day, the vampire of shame is destroyed by the bright rays of truth and vulnerability. We then become open to genuine relationships without propping up a false self to pose for others. We place ourselves in a position to receive and give love. In short, we can meaningfully connect with both God and others because we found our voice and told our story.

Great God of deliverance, I praise you that I have a story to tell of your grace and faithfulness. Help me to tell of your mercy in my life so that the name of Jesus will be exalted, and that your people might be built up in the faith.  Amen.

Psalm 84 – The Joy of Worship

Every now and then I like taking a psalm and doing my own loose contemporary translation of the text (just so you know, I’ve had training in the Hebrew language, so this isn’t weird for me, or for you!). I find this exercise to be exhilarating and helpful for my own soul. I hope you find this to be useful for you, as well. 

Today’s psalm talks about the temple. I have contemporized it for the Christian who enjoys fellowship with God in the many places where the Lord can be found. I encourage you to read it over once, then carefully read it again, prayerfully. Do it both times out loud. The psalms are meant to be prayed, and they are meant to be said aloud with flavor!

How lovely are all the places where you dwell,
    powerful and mighty God of the numerous heavenly forces!

The depths of my soul long, even yearn,
    for the intimate backyard gatherings where Yahweh dwells.
My heart and my body, my whole self
    shout out loud for joy to the living God!

Yes, the lowly insignificant mother sparrow has also found a home with God;
    the swallow has, too, found herself a homey nest
    where she can lay her young beside your divine activity.
    Immense Lord of the numerous heavenly forces, my king, my God,

    You are so big that the lowliest of creatures find shelter in you!
Those who live within your sacred space are genuinely happy;
    they can’t stop praising you constantly and incessantly!

Those who put their energy in you are truly content;
    a one-way road to you is in their hearts.
As they walk through all kinds of dry hard circumstances
    they end up making them like a spring of living water.
    Yes, even problems become like a gentle rain of blessing.
The biggest of dilemmas become manageable,
    as they see the supremacy of God in it all.
Mighty Lord God of the numerous heavenly forces,
    hear my prayer to you;
    listen closely, O ancient God of my spiritual ancestors!

You are our great protective shield, God;
    pay close attention to your chosen one!

Better is one single solitary day in your backyard gathering
    than a billion days anywhere else!
I would prefer to park cars out in the front yard of God’s house
    than live comfortably in the palatial hangouts of the ungodly!
The Lord is like the brightness of a warm summer day,

and even the suntan lotion protecting me; God is all that!
    God is full of crazy grace and unspeakable glory.
The Lord gives— and doesn’t withhold — good things
    to those who walk with integrity of heart beside him.
Powerful Lord of the numerous heavenly forces,
    those who trust in you are truly giddy with joy!

Divine presence makes all the difference in the world. To be with God, to sense the Lord’s company, and to enjoy Divine favor brings deep satisfaction and contentment within a world of great dissatisfaction and discontent.

True beauty is found with the Author of the beautiful. Love motivates the pilgrimage toward God. The non-judgmental presence of the Lord provides us with a place of security, peace, and rest. Indeed, the nearness of God changes everything. It transforms our present circumstances from drudgery and despondency to opportunities for God to show up and show off divine power.

God, the heavenly king, and commander of heavenly forces chooses to dwell among us. The Lord’s ear is attentive to each person. The connection between God and God’s people is inseparable. This, then, is the very place where trust is engendered. Placing faith in a God who cares, listens, and acts blesses everyone.

Today, God abides with us because of the indwelling Spirit of Jesus. God’s presence has the effect of bringing people together and calming all fears. God’s eye is on the sparrow, which means the Lord is always watching with care and concern for all creation, especially humanity.

Almighty God, merciful heavenly Father, we give you humble thanks for all your goodness, kindness, and steadfast love to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life. Above all, we are grateful for your immeasurable love shown through the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ. Give us such an awareness of your divine presence, that with truly thankful hearts our lives might be an offering of praise in both speech and action. We trust you, gracious God, and give ourselves to your service. We choose to walk with you in holiness and righteousness all the days of our lives, through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory forever. Amen.

His Eye Is On the Sparrow, sung by Selah

1 Timothy 1:12-20 – Grateful for Grace

I thank Christ Jesus our Lord, who has given me strength because he considered me faithful. So, he appointed me to ministry even though I used to speak against him, attack his people, and I was proud. But I was shown mercy because I acted in ignorance and without faith. Our Lord’s favor poured all over me along with the faithfulness and love that are in Christ Jesus. This saying is reliable and deserves full acceptance: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners”—and I am the biggest sinner of all. But that is why I was shown mercy, so that Christ Jesus could show his endless patience to me, first. So, I am an example for those who are going to believe in him for eternal life. Now to the king of the ages, to the immortal, invisible, and only God, may honor and glory be given to him forever and always! Amen.

Timothy, my child, I am giving you these instructions based on the prophecies that were once made about you. So, if you follow them, you can wage a good war because you have faith and a good conscience. Some people have ruined their faith because they refused to listen to their conscience, such as Hymenaeus and Alexander. I have handed them over to Satan so that they can be taught not to speak against God. (CEB)

Toward the end of his life, the Apostle Paul reflected upon the grace given to him by God. In writing to Timothy, his protégé, Paul distilled his reflections into one short succinct phrase: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. 

Before Christ got a hold of his life, Paul actively opposed Christians as much as he could. He had the persecution of Christ’s followers down to a science. But God had mercy on Paul and delivered him from his misguided and tortuous ways.

Paul was forever grateful for the grace of God. He well knew that he deserved no good thing from God. Paul knew firsthand the words of the Lord Jesus:

“I didn’t come to call righteous people, but sinners.” (Mark 2:17, CEB)

Once one’s heart has been captivated by God’s mercy, that person is never the same. Grace results in a new and wondrous perspective. The soul is filled with love. The mind is changed and charged with the realization that God is not only good but has given you a status as his beloved – a privilege and a position which you neither earned nor deserve. Gratitude erupts from your lips: “Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, to save me, the chief of sinners!”

We need not have a past like Paul’s to know God’s grace. Whether you are now a follower of Jesus after having lived a life far from God; or, you cannot remember a time when you didn’t know God; or, you grew-up in faith, walked away from it all, then were captured by grace and came back to Christ – from whatever backgrounds we all come from, it is the saving grace, the delivering mercy, the infinite love, the abiding compassion, and the undeserved kindness of Jesus Christ which makes your world spin the opposite direction on its axis. 

Take time throughout today to utter that simple phrase over and over: Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners. What does this mean for the world as it is right now? What does it mean for you?

Loving Lord Jesus, there are not words to express my gratitude for your salvation given to me. I was once lost, but now am found by the boundless mercy of God. May sinners be saved, as was your servant Paul, so that the world will be undone and changed forever by grace. Amen.