Psalm 13 – How Long, O Lord?

The Scream by Edvard Munch
“The Scream” by Edvard Munch, 1893.

How long, O Lord? Will you forget me forever?
How long will you hide your face from me?
How long must I make decisions alone
with sorrow in my heart day after day?
How long will my enemy triumph over me?

Look at me! Answer me, O Lord my God!
Light up my eyes,
or else I will die
and my enemy will say, “I have overpowered him.”
My opponents will rejoice because I have been shaken.

But I trust your mercy.
My heart finds joy in your salvation.
I will sing to the Lord because he has been good to me. (GW)

Faith is more than the mind’s affirmation of theological beliefs. Faith is also visceral, an expression from deep in the gut about what is going on around us. For faith to be truly faith it needs to hold the whole person, not merely the brain.

Today’s psalm is the reaction of a person of faith to God when the world as they knew it was crumbling and broken. This is a psalm of lament which moves and deepens the faith of the worshiper.

When the world around us changes and all seems horribly awry, we understandably become disoriented – we lose our normal bearings and feel confused and lost.

One of the simplest observations we can make about this psalm, along with all psalms of lament, is that, whether the content is ethically pure or not, the words of the psalmist directed toward God reflect the pain and agony of  people in the middle of world-shattering circumstances. In such dire situations, there are no simplistic answers or easy diagnoses of problems. Complicated layers of grief exist, and mere cerebral responses will always fall short of adequately being in the present moment, sitting with emotions, and getting in touch with the gut.

I am leery of folks who quickly affirm trust in God when a terrible event has just occurred. Bypassing the gut and the heart cannot bring a whole person response to that event and will inevitably result in a cheap faith which cannot support the immensity of the situation. Even worse, it leads to a bootstrap theology where people are expected to pull themselves up in a free-willpower way that is impossible to even do. Sometimes failure of faith comes not because of a person’s weakness but because the faith being espoused is not faith, at all.

Biblical faith expresses weakness, need, help, curiosity, and doubt with a healthy dose of emotional flavor and visceral reaction.

If we had just one psalm of lament as an example, that would be enough. In fact, we have dozens of them, with more sprinkled throughout Holy Scripture. We even have an entire book of the Bible, Lamentations, a deep reflection of the prophet Jeremiah’s grief.

So, let us now be honest with ourselves and each other. All of us, at one time or another, have given a cry of “How long, O Lord!” There are times when our prayers seem unheard and unnoticed, as if they only bounce off the ceiling and fall flat. There are hard circumstances which continue to move along unabated with evil seeming to mock us. We long for divine intervention, we long for deliverance, we long for healing – and when it does not come our disappointment and frustration boils over into an unmitigated cry of wondering where God is in all the damned thick crud.

When a person and/or a group of people are traumatized not once but over-and-over again, how can we not cry aloud, “How long, O Lord!?” When despair settles in the spirit, disappointment seeps in the soul, and depression becomes our daily bread, how can we not muster up the voice that yells, “How long, O Lord!?” When powerful people cause the lives of others to be downtrodden and despised, how can we not scream, “How long, O Lord!?” When the covert actions of others demean and denigrate, leaving us with private pain which no one sees, how can we not bring forth the words, “How long, O Lord!?” If you have never uttered this kind of wondering about God, then perhaps a profound disconnect with your own spirit exists.

A full orb faith names the awful events and sits with the feelings surrounding those events with God.

Psalm 13 is important because it gives us words when the bottom falls out of our lives and everything is upside-down. This psalm helps us admit that life is not as well-ordered as a simple Sunday School faith may pretend. The psalm acknowledges that life is terribly messy, and the psalmist protests to heaven that this quagmire of injustice is plain unfair. What is more, this psalm helps move the sufferer to a new place.

God is big enough to handle everything we throw at him — our pain, our anger, our questions, our doubts. Genuine biblical faith is comfortable challenging God. And God is there, listening, even if we cannot perceive it. Just because we might need to endure adversity does not mean there is something wrong with us, or God.

We likely will not get an answer to our “how long?” We will get something else: mercy. Mercy is compassion shown to another when it is within one’s power to punish. If we widen our horizon a bit, we will observe a God who cares:

“The Lord isn’t slow to keep his promise, as some think of slowness, but he is patient toward you, not wanting anyone to perish but all to change their hearts and lives.” (2 Peter 3:9, CEB)

The only thing better than the joy of personal salvation is the joy of many people’s deliverance and collective emancipation. Patience, perseverance, and endurance through hardship will require expressions of faith with words of affirmation, along with words of agony. The psalms help us with both.

Lord God Almighty, I pray for the forgotten and the unseen – the stranger, the outcast, the poor and homeless – may they be remembered and seen by you.

Merciful God, I pray for those who struggle with mental illness, anxiety, depression, and suicidal ideation – may there be resources to help, enough staff employed, and finances given, toward mental health services. May there be basic human kindness available for the hurting.

Compassionate God, I pray for those who wrestle with sorrow – may they know your comfort within the dark thoughts which currently seem to triumph.

Attentive Lord, I pray for the crestfallen and the ones considered fallen by those around them – may they receive your restoration and reconciling grace. Protect them from judgment and shield them with your mercy.

Lord of all creation, I trust in your steadfast love and rely upon your infinite grace. May our tears turn to songs of joy, to the glory of Jesus Christ. Amen.

Revelation 2:8-11 – Persevering to the End

perseverance

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:

“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death. (NRSV)

What is unique about chapters two and three of Revelation is that Jesus himself is the speaker to seven different churches. Today’s New Testament lesson is addressed to the church at Smyrna, which was a large and beautiful port city in the ancient world. Jesus was letting the believers in Smyrna know they were about to experience severe persecution. However, they need not be fearful and can remain faithful because their Lord knows all about suffering. The church’s perseverance under such trouble would result in the crown of life, given to them by Jesus himself.  This was surely an encouragement to the believers as they underwent difficulty.

The congregation at Smyrna was facing imprisonment and, for some, even death for their faith. The heart of the message by Jesus is to remain faithful.  There will always be cowards and those with weak faith who will fold when the going gets tough. Yet, persecution and hardship have a way of purging the soul as well as the church of its dross.

Suffering is inevitable; how we handle adversity when it comes is completely under our own control.

Few of us reading this will ever likely face a hardship that could result in martyrdom. Knowing there are brothers and sisters in the faith throughout the world who do face daily hardship for their devotion and beliefs puts our own troubles in a different light. The daily irritations and trials God puts in our way to refine us and shape our faith certainly seem small compared to imprisonment and martyrdom. Yet, no matter who we are and where we are located on this earth, whether facing uncommon hardship or banal difficulty, the afflictions of both body and soul come to us as opportunities to lean into faith and love Jesus to the end.

Our Lord is not looking for perfect people, just faithful followers willing to endure suffering with the truth that our Lord stands with us. 

Whatever our current circumstances may be, Jesus offers us his perspective on it. He knows precisely what is going on and understands the spiritual resources you and I possess for each adverse situation we encounter. In fact, few of us really discern the largess of internal resources are within us because of Christ’s redemptive work and the Spirit’s abiding presence – not to mention the very personality God graciously gave us in the womb before we were even born. Even though it seems, at times, we lack strength, wisdom, and courage for what is ahead – Jesus has supreme confidence in us to maintain faith and endure through our afflictions.

Life is not a sprint. Life is a marathon.

To finish the race we need to be in good spiritual health. The perseverance of the saints will happen as we run step after step with boldness despite fear of the unknown future around the bend. This requires the equipment of risk, vulnerability, accountability, and steadfast love which is both received and given. Perhaps most of all it requires keeping our heads up and running toward the promise of reward at the finish. The crown of life is an image of both congratulation and celebration of a race well-run and the enjoyment of unending fellowship with our Lord for whom we have endured so much.

When all is said and done, and the end of the age has occurred, we will be able to look back in hindsight and see that it was really Jesus who all along was fortifying us to keep standing and keep going. Christ is so vested in us that he continually ensures our ultimate victory through a constant presence of help and encouragement. The heritage of both Reformation and Holy Scripture testify to this truth:

“All our progress and perseverance are from God.” –John Calvin

“I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6, CEB)

May the grace of Jesus sustain you; the love of God surround you; and, the encouragement of the Spirit surprise you, today and every day. Amen.

Grant, O God, That we may never lose the way through our self-will, and so end up in the far countries of the soul; that we may never abandon the struggle, but that we may endure to the end, and so be saved; that we may never drop out of the race, but that we may ever press forward to the goal of our high calling; that we may never choose the cheap and passing things, and let go the precious things that last forever; that we may never take the easy way, and so leave the right way; that we may never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown.

So keep us and strengthen us by your grace that no disobedience and no weakness and no failure may stop us from entering into the blessedness which awaits those who are faithful in all the changes and chances of life down even to the gates of death; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

William Barclay, Prayers for the Christian Year

Job 38:12-21 – So You Think You Know?

storm

“Have you commanded the morning since your days began, 
    and caused the dawn to know its place, 
so that it might take hold of the skirts of the earth, 
    and the wicked be shaken out of it? 
It is changed like clay under the seal, 
    and it is dyed like a garment. 
Light is withheld from the wicked, 
    and their uplifted arm is broken. 

“Have you entered into the springs of the sea, 
    or walked in the recesses of the deep? 
Have the gates of death been revealed to you, 
    or have you seen the gates of deep darkness? 
Have you comprehended the expanse of the earth? 
    Declare, if you know all this. 

“Where is the way to the dwelling of light, 
    and where is the place of darkness, 
that you may take it to its territory 
    and that you may discern the paths to its home? 
Surely you know, for you were born then, 
    and the number of your days is great! (NRSV) 

The older I get, and the more understanding I gain, the more I realize how little knowledge I truly possess. When I was eighteen years old, I thought I had the world pretty much figured out. Since then, it has all been downhill. With each passing year, my ignorance seems to grow exponentially. I suppose this all really makes some sense when talking about God’s upside-down kingdom. So much more of life is a mystery to us than we realize. 

The more discernment I get, the less, I discover, I know. 

Seems like the biblical character of Job found this out the hard way. If there is any person in Holy Scripture that would be wise and understanding, its him. God speaks highly of Job in the Bible. Regarding the upcoming destruction of Jerusalem, God said, even if these three men—Noah, Daniel and Job—were in it, they could save only themselves by their righteousness, declares the Sovereign Lord” (Ezekiel 14:14). Job is held up as the model of patience under suffering: “As you know, we count as blessed those who have persevered. You have heard of Job’s perseverance and have seen what the Lord finally brought about. The Lord is full of compassion and mercy” (James 5:11).  

Yet, with all of Job’s integrity, patience, and righteousness his understanding can barely get a movement on the Richter Scale of God’s expansive knowledge. We likely are somewhat familiar with the story of Job. Being a conscientious follower of God, Job is careful to live uprightly. He acknowledges God in all things and worships him alone. Yet, suffering befell him – for no other reason than that God allowed it. Job knew fully well that there was no personal sin behind his awful ordeal of grief and grinding pain. 

So, Job contended with God. For an agonizing thirty-five chapters (Job 3:1-37:24) Job questions God and respectfully takes him to task – as Job’s supposed friends questioned him and assume his guilt. Through it all God is there silent… saying nothing. Then, just when we think God is paying no attention, he suddenly speaks. What is so remarkable about God’s speech is that for the next four chapters (Job 38:1-41:34) he gives no answers. It is all questions. God said,

“Brace yourself like a man; I will question you and you shall answer me” (Job 38:3). 

God Questions Job
God questions Job. From a 12th century Byzantine text.

It becomes abundantly clear after just a few questions that it would be impossible for any human being to even come close to having the understanding to answer anything God asks. And that was the whole point. God is God, and we are not. Our questions, however legitimate, real, and raw they are, come from a very puny perspective. In other words, we just don’t know as much as we think we do. 

To Job’s great credit, he keeps his mouth shut and listens. At the end of the questioning, Job responds in the only wise way one could after such an encounter:

“Surely I spoke of things I did not understand, things too wonderful for me to know” (Job 42:3). 

None of this means that, for us, we need to face our hardships and our sufferings with a stoic keep-a-stiff-upper-lip approach. Trapped grief will inevitably come out sideways and only cause more hurt. I believe God allowed Job to express his terrible physical, emotional, and spiritual pain for chapter after chapter because he needed to. Only when God sensed it was the proper timing did he jump in and bring the perspective Job then needed. And even after being challenged by God about his vantage point, Job still did not receive answers as to why he had to endure the awfulness of loss beyond what most of us could comprehend. 

Maybe we lack being able to understand even if God directly answered all our questions. Most likely, God protects us from knowing things that might bring irreparable damage to our human psyches. Again, this is all pure conjecture. Which leaves us with perhaps one of our greatest challenges as human beings: We must eventually come to the place of being comfortable with mystery – and even embracing it.

We simply will not have all things revealed to us that we want to know. And that’s okay.  

There is yet one more comment to observe about God’s questioning of Job. God is sarcastic. Sarcasm often gets a bad rap, much like anger does, because it is so often associated with unacknowledged emotions and/or expressing our feelings in an unhelpful way. Yet, there the sarcasm is, with the God of the universe. I must admit, I take some odd comfort in knowing that God can be snarky at times – in a good way. Anytime we try to pin God down to nice neat understandable categories, he typically colors outside our human contrived lines and demonstrates to us that he cannot be contained in our ramshackle box. I like it that God is playful, wild, and free to be himself – even if there are times it may bug me. 

God is unbound by any human knowledge, understanding, ideas, or plans. God will do what God will do. God will be who he will be. “I AM who I AM,” he once said. Now that’s a God I can put my trust in. 

O Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me. 

O Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, have mercy upon me. 

O Lamb of God that takes away the sins of the world, grant me your peace. Amen. 

Exodus 13:17-22 – The Presence of God

Pillar of Cloud and Fire

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” So, God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.” They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (NRSV)

From a human perspective, God makes a lot of nonsensical decisions in the Bible. Telling Noah to build a big boat in a place with no water; Abraham to leave everything, and later, to sacrifice his son; Moses to stroll into Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let the people go; and, the people to walk through a body of water without getting wet. Indeed, its as if God has an odd predilection for making weird requests of people.

Although today’s Old Testament story gives us a glimpse into God’s thinking, the people were not privy to that information. Yes, God’s people were experiencing an unbelievable exodus out of Egypt. Their wildest dreams could not have imagined such a reality as strolling out of slavery having seen not one but a string of miraculous wonders. Yet, God was not done with the miracle thing.

Although many people would really like to see a miracle happen in their lives, rarely do we think about the circumstances we might need face for that miracle to occur. God typically asks folks to do some outrageous-sounding things to set up the miracle.

An entire nation left Egypt with celebration only to be told to go in a misdirection toward the Promised Land, as if God were somehow geographically challenged. I can imagine that decision had Moses raising a Spock-like eyebrow and the Israelites wondering if God was off his celestial rocker. There is, however, a reason why folks like Noah, Abraham, and Moses obeyed instructions that didn’t make sense to them at the time: The Presence of God.

It is the personal Presence and power of God which makes all the difference.

For God has not promised to create an existence with a zero factor of hardship. God, instead, has created a world that is full, vibrant, and alive with Presence – and a zero tolerance for bullies like Egypt. The uncertainty, doubt, and mystery of the future is thoroughly mitigated with the effusive Presence.

When sitting with patients in the hospital who struggle with the unknown of why they are there and what will become of them (and their families) the last thing I do is try to fabricate reasons so that it makes sense. It doesn’t, and I’m not going pretend that it does. Rather, I remind them of what I do know: The Presence of God is here. God does not go out of his way to give us an easy life. God does, however, go far out his way to communicate his glorious Presence with us.

Pillar of Cloud and Fire 2

God kept constant vigil over the ancient Israelites, powerfully seen with the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. Nothing was going to happen to the Jewish people without first passing through the mighty hands of God. Not only do I know God is with us, I also know he neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121). When God keeps vigil, God keeps vigil! No smoke or bathroom breaks with God. God’s vigilance is relentless and wondrous, giving assurance to the godly and terrifying the ungodly.

Once we are out in the wilderness of uncertainty, there is no turning back.

That’s okay. The Presence of God patrols the area and divinely guards our every move. For the Christian, the Presence has found its fulfillment in the person of Jesus. Although Christians everywhere serve a risen and ascended Christ, the Divine Presence remains with glorious constancy through the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the One who is consistently alongside us, empowering us and advocating on our behalf. The beautiful theological truth here is that God is both transcendent (far above us) and immanent (intimately close to us) at the same time, all the time.

Armed with such a robust theological understanding, trust and confidence come to us without having to resort to ginning up positive thoughts. Instructions and commands which seem like nonsense? No problem. The Transcendent and Immanent One has the Presence all over it. In between a rock-and-hard-place (or an Egyptian army and a Red Sea)? Not an issue. I willingly place myself there knowing that with the Presence, the miraculous is about to happen. We need not buck the difficult circumstances. The Presence has got this.

So, then, let us pray for the Church and for the world, and let us thank God for the great Presence: In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, we pray to you, Almighty God, and Father. From the rising of the sun to its setting, we pray to you, ever-vigilant Lord, on behalf of those in despair and darkness, that they may find the hope and light of Christ; those in fear of death, that they may find faith through the resurrection of Jesus; prisoners and captives, widows and orphans, and all those who today need a blessed assurance of the Presence; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

Click God With Us written and sung by Terrian Woods as we contemplate The Presence among us.