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 22:23-31 – Full of Suffering

Psalm 22 by Mike Moyers, 2016

All of you who revere the Lord—praise him!
    All of you who are Jacob’s descendants—honor him!
    All of you who are all Israel’s offspring—
        stand in awe of him!
Because he didn’t despise or detest
    the suffering of the one who suffered—
    he didn’t hide his face from me.
    No, he listened when I cried out to him for help.

I offer praise in the great congregation
    because of you;
    I will fulfill my promises
    in the presence of those who honor God.
Let all those who are suffering eat and be full!
    Let all who seek the Lord praise him!
        I pray your hearts live forever!
Every part of the earth
    will remember and come back to the Lord;
    every family among all the nations will worship you.
Because the right to rule belongs to the Lord,
    he rules all nations.
Indeed, all the earth’s powerful
    will worship him;
    all who are descending to the dust
    will kneel before him;
    my being also lives for him.
Future descendants will serve him;
    generations to come will be told about my Lord.
They will proclaim God’s righteousness
        to those not yet born,
        telling them what God has done. (CEB)

“Faith must be tested, because it can only become your intimate possession through conflict.”

oswald chambers

“Suffering” is a word we would like to avoid. Simply saying or reading the word might make us cringe. Suffering? No thanks. I think I’ll pass on that. Yet, something inside of us instinctively knows we cannot get around it. Everyone suffers in some way. It is endemic to the human condition that at times we will suffer physically, financially, mentally, emotionally, and spiritually. 

That’s why I believe there is so much talk within some Christian circles about miracles. It’s more than understandable. A chronic pain sufferer wants relief; she prays for a miracle of health. A small business owner is bleeding financially; he looks to God for an immediate miracle of wealthy clients. A beloved senior saint knows she is afflicted with Alzheimer’s; she prays for the miracle of deliverance, even to be taken home to be with the Lord. A young adult finds himself in the throes of depression and has tried everything to cope and get out of it; he petitions God for a miracle out of the deep black hole. The believer in Jesus keeps experiencing a besetting sin and cannot get over it; she looks to God for the miracle of not struggling any more with it.

These scenarios and a thousand other maladies afflict people everywhere. There are a multitude of stories out there. Folks who have experienced a miracle tell of their wonderful deliverance. But what about the rest? Those without the miracle? Do they have a lack of faith? Has God forgotten them?

Oh, my, no! God sees, and God knows. God is acquainted with suffering. Jesus knows it first-hand. Remember, it was Jesus who said, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”  Even Jesus cried out in his suffering.  But there was no deliverance coming for him.  There was, instead, deliverance coming for us.

Sometimes the greatest miracle and deliverance of all is to be freed from the need for a miracle. The reason God doesn’t just offer immediate relief from everyone’s suffering and bring a miracle is that he is doing something else: Walking with us through our suffering. God oftentimes has plans and purposes for us well beyond our understanding.  We simply are not privy to everything in God’s mind.

We may not get the miracle we desire. However, what we will get without fail is God’s provision and steadfast love all the way through the suffering. Where is God in your suffering? Jesus is suffering with you. You are not crying alone; Christ weeps with you.

Let, then, those who suffer, eat and be full. Let them be satisfied with the portion God has given them. What’s more, let them offer praise to the God who is squarely beside them in every affliction and each trouble.

God Almighty, you are the One who knows suffering and affliction better than anyone. I admit I don’t often understand what in the world you are doing or not doing in my life and in the lives of those I love. Yet, I admit that I have found in you the comfort, encouragement, and strength to live another day in my trouble. For this, I praise you, in the Name of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Job 6:1-13 – A Response to Suffering

Job by French painter Léon Bonnat, 1880

Oh, that my grief was weighed,
    all of it were lifted in scales;
    for now it is heavier than the sands of the sea;
        therefore, my words are rash.
The Almighty’s arrows are in me;
    my spirit drinks their poison,
    and God’s terrors are arrayed against me.
Does a donkey bray over grass
    or an ox bellow over its fodder?
Is tasteless food eaten without salt,
    or does egg white have taste?
I refuse to touch them;
    they resemble food for the sick.

Oh, that what I’ve requested would come
        and God grant my hope;
    that God be willing to crush me,
    release his hand and cut me off.
I’d still take comfort,
    relieved even though in persistent pain;
        for I’ve not denied the words of the holy one.
What is my strength, that I should hope;
    my end, that my life should drag on?
Is my strength that of rocks,
    my flesh bronze?
I don’t have a helper for myself;
    success has been taken from me. (CEB)

The Old Testament character of Job is famous as the poster boy for suffering, grief, and sorrow. A divine and devilish drama was taking place behind the curtain of this world, of which Job had absolutely no clue about.  All he knew was that he lost everything – his family, his wealth, and his standing before others.  The only thing left was his own life – and he was in such physical pain and emotional agony that he was ready to die.

Yet, the greatest pain of all seems to be the silence of God. Job has no idea, nothing to grab ahold of no earthly sense of why he was going through such intense and terrible suffering. His cries, tears, pleas, and expressions of deep hurt seemingly go un-noticed. Job felt truly alone in his horrible pain of body and spirit.

“We must learn to regard people less in the light of what they do or omit to do, and more in the light of what they suffer.”

Dietrich Bonhoeffer

Job’s story is as old as time – probably having taken place 4,000 years ago. And here we are, all these millennia later, knowing the story of why Job suffered, as well as the end of the story. But Job himself never knew why he suffered, even when God spoke and restored his health and wealth.

It is so extremely easy and normal to ask the question, “Why!?”  When we are in the throes of emotional pain and our prayers seem to bounce off the ceiling, there is only trust left for us. We do what is unthinkable to others who have never known God – place our complete reliance and hope on the God for whom we know is not really sleeping or off on a vacation. We believe, even know, God is there. For whatever reasons which we might never know this side of heaven, God chooses to remain silent.

The genuineness of faith is not determined by giving the right answers to a theology questionnaire. Genuine faith is made strong through the trials, sufferings, pain, and lack of understanding in this life. We all suffer in some way. How we choose to respond to that suffering, either by cursing God and becoming bitter, or holding to God even tighter and becoming better, is totally up to you and me.

God of all creation, you see and survey all your creatures here on this earth. Sometimes I just do not understand what in the world you are doing or not doing. Yet today I choose to put my faith, hope, and love in you.  I may not know what the heck I am doing, but you always work to accomplish your good purposes, through Jesus Christ, my Savior, along with the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

Philippians 3:7-11 – The Ultimate Value

A mosaic of the Apostle Paul in St Isaac’s Cathedral, St. Petersburg, Russia

Christ has shown me that what I once thought was valuable is worthless. Nothing is as wonderful as knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. I have given up everything else and count it all as garbage. All I want is Christ and to know that I belong to him. I could not make myself acceptable to God by obeying the Law of Moses. God accepted me simply because of my faith in Christ. All I want is to know Christ and the power that raised him to life. I want to suffer and die as he did, so that somehow, I also may be raised to life. (CEV)

As I looked at today’s date, I realized that it was on this day thirty-six years ago that my now dear wife told me, “I love you.” Two months previous, I had told her, “I love you.” She did not reciprocate. Instead, this lovely girl whom I had come to love (it was not love at first sight for either of us, which is a much longer story for another time) flat out retorted back to me, “Well, I don’t love you. Listen, Mr., I’ve heard every line in the book. What’s your angle? What do you want from me?”

For me, I knew I what I had was genuine love and not infatuation because I found myself responding matter-of-factly, “There’s no angle. I love you. If you choose not to love me back, I’ll just keep loving you.” This threw her into a two-month long sort of existential angst in which she explored the depths of her own spirit to see if her best friend was her love, as well.

So, when the love of my life said to me on that day, “I love you,” I knew it came from a place of soul-searching, prayer, trepidation, deliberate resolve, and genuine sincerity. For my wife, to say those words meant she was committed to me. They were not said lightly. It took a lot for those words to be formed.

On that day thirty-six years ago, the both of us had amazing clarity about the direction of our lives. We were going to be together, and no other person would ever have the primary place we each now enjoyed with one another. To me, every other girl seemed like nothing compared to my beloved. And, I will still admit, my feelings have not changed one iota.

I picture the Apostle Paul going through a similar struggle and process of coming to Christ. And once he did commit, no one was ever going to usurp the place of Jesus in his life.

I honestly believe that the primary reason my dear wife and I have been together all this time and still love each other as if it were December 10, 1984 is because of our shared commitment and ultimate value of knowing Christ. For each of us, Jesus is everything. Our lives center around him. The grace of God in Christ shapes all our worldview and animates every action we take.

Together with the Apostle Paul, we want to know Christ and we will take whatever situation is necessary to realize a continual growth in grace with Jesus at our side. Just as the adversity, hardship, and difficulties we have faced together over the decades has caused to bring us even closer together, so facing all of it with Christ in the middle of it has brought us closer to God.

Although it may seem counter-intuitive, power and suffering go together. For example, weightlifting causes fibers of the muscles to sustain injury. So, the body repairs those damaged fibers by fusing them, which then increases the mass and size of the muscles. It is through suffering, even trauma, that muscles grow bigger and stronger.

Spiritual power results from undergoing suffering. Through hard circumstances, our spirits experience hurt. Yet, through the process of healing we become stronger, more resilient, and our faith grows. A deeper experience of Christ and a greater intimacy with Jesus results from identifying with him in his suffering. Show me a person with vigorous faith and I will show you a person who has been strengthened through suffering.

When Jesus Christ is our surpassing value, everything else is viewed differently – the past, present, and future take on new meaning. We tell ourselves an alternate story, based in the person and work of Christ. In this Christian season of Advent, we look back to the first advent of Christ’s incarnation; look forward to the second advent of Christ coming again; and, this shapes how we live in the present between the two advents accepting suffering as a gift and embracing fresh power as a means to serve others.

Yes, this is a special day for me. Yet, everyday is a special day when I can enjoy fellowship with my Lord together with my wife.

Almighty and eternal God, so draw my heart to Christ, so guide my mind, so fill my imagination, so control my will, that I may be wholly yours, utterly dedicated to you; and then use me, I pray you, as you will, and always to your glory and the welfare of your people; through the sufferings of my Lord and Savior Jesus Christ and in the his great resurrection power I pray. Amen.