Psalm 79 – Facing Trauma

Raise Up by Hank Willis Johnson in the Nova Southeastern University Art Museum, Fort Lauderdale, Florida

Our God, foreign nations
    have taken your land,
    disgraced your temple,
    and left Jerusalem in ruins.
They have fed the bodies
of your servants
    to flesh-eating birds;
    your loyal people are food
    for savage animals.
All Jerusalem is covered
    with their blood,
    and there is no one left
    to bury them.
Every nation around us
    sneers and makes fun.

Our Lord, will you keep on
    being angry?
    Will your angry feelings
    keep flaming up like fire?
Get angry with those nations
that don’t know you
    and won’t worship you!
They have gobbled down
Jacob’s descendants
    and left the land in ruins.

Don’t make us pay for the sins
    of our ancestors.
    Have pity and come quickly!
    We are completely helpless.
Our God, you keep us safe.
    Now help us! Rescue us.
    Forgive our sins
    and bring honor to yourself.

Why should nations ask us,
    “Where is your God?”
Let us and the other nations
    see you take revenge
    for your servants who died
    a violent death.

Listen to the prisoners groan!
Let your mighty power save all
    who are sentenced to die.
    Each of those nations sneered
    at you, our Lord.
Now let others sneer at them,
    seven times as much.
    Then we, your people,
    will always thank you.
We are like sheep
    with you as our shepherd,
    and all generations
    will hear us praise you. (CEV)

Yes, you are in the right place. No, this is not yesterday’s post. The Revised Common Lectionary Daily Scripture readings include a psalm reading every day. What is more, the same psalm is read three days in a row. This is because psalms are designed to be repeatedly used. So, today, I continue reflecting on this psalm….

The psalmist was full of emotion as he crafted his words. Reflecting on the tragic and horrific takeover of Jerusalem and its destruction, he cried out in spiritual and emotional pain concerning the trashing of God’s temple and Name, and the physical and verbal violence executed on the people. The psalmist wanted the victimization to stop and the victimizers to feel God’s wrath.

This psalm is raw and real, an expression of the true self. Here there is no pie-in-the-sky positive thinking with singing about always looking on the bright side of life. It is agonizing grief in all its misery and disgrace. Thus, therein lies the path to healing: To connect with the true self, refusing the pretensions of the false self, expressing the real lived feelings and thoughts of honest wounds.

Illumination by American sculptor Paige Bradley

The alternative only presses further pain into the soul. The false self, seeking to takeover and make one feel better, engages in a devil’s pact by ignoring the aching spiritual doubt and emotional injury within to have temporary reprieve from the troubled spirit. The road to renewed and lasting happiness comes not through the false self but the true self’s recognition of the event(s) in all their foulness and degradation. It is a hard road to walk, yet we must travel it if we are to live in the light of truth, joy, and peace.

You and I will not find God in the false self. One of the great tragedies of the human condition is that, when having experienced trauma, we hustle to obtain something we already possess. We might believe God is not there, or simply does not care. As one becomes alienated from the Lord, there increasingly becomes self-distancing. Disconnected from life-giving divinity, self-loathing gradually replaces self-awareness, and thus, self-compassion.

If at any point, we begin to associate and then fuse self with our traumatic experience(s) then the inner person weakens and becomes detached from the spiritual resources needed to heal. We are not our events. We are people created in God’s image and inherently worthy of love, compassion, kindness, goodness, and healing. We were not made for death and destruction but for life and connection.

The demonic termites of contempt might eat away at our humanity, yet there is always a way to exterminate them – through telling our story, as the psalmist did, with emotional flavor and full honesty. The true self is there; we just might need to dig a little deeper to find her.

So, if you notice that you tend to avoid planning for self-care; engage regularly in self-pity; or, swear at yourself under your breath with self-hatred; then it is high time for the false self to quit calling the shots and to bring up the true self. Internal conflict is not resolved through avoidance; it comes through external voicing of one’s story to another who listens with care.

The psalmist spoke to both God and God’s people. His story came from the gut, the place where both deep loathing and deep compassion come from. If one has already been tortured by a traumatic experience, the torture will continue from the false self unless the true self asserts herself and seeks awareness, mercy, and healing.

Stories are meant to be told. And they need to be uttered when the storyteller is ready and not when the listener is. Through the voicing of their ordeal, victims of human-inflicted suffering need to hear that God is just and will right the wrong things in this world. They need some hope of healing and some assurance that their injury will not go unanswered.

This can be tricky business because the act of proclaiming one’s story and the reception of that message by another might easily become a vengeful justification for intolerance and malicious retribution. Therefore, the psalmist appealed to God, not fellow humans, for justice. We are to leave room for God’s wrath without taking matters into our own hands. (Romans 12:17-21)

So, avoid isolation from God, others, even yourself. Seek help, both divine and human. Tell your story when you are ready. Face the terrible pain. These are the things the psalmist did to deal with his own trauma. The true self acknowledges this and, with full awareness, steps into the future with faith.

Lord Christ, you came into the world as one of us, and suffered as we do. As I go through the trials of life, help me to realize that you are with me at all times and in all things; that I have no secrets from you; and that your loving grace enfolds me for eternity. In the security of your embrace I pray. Amen.

Psalm 79 – Unbearable Pain

The nations have come into your inheritance, God!
    They’ve defiled your holy temple.
    They’ve made Jerusalem a bunch of ruins.
They’ve left your servants’ bodies
    as food for the birds;
    they’ve left the flesh of your faithful
    to the wild animals of the earth.
They’ve poured out the blood of the faithful
    like water all around Jerusalem,
    and there’s no one left to bury them.
We’ve become a joke to our neighbors,
    nothing but objects of ridicule
    and disapproval to those around us.

How long will you rage, Lord? Forever?
    How long will your anger burn like fire?
Pour out your wrath on the nations
        who don’t know you,
    on the kingdoms
        that haven’t called on your name.
They’ve devoured Jacob
    and demolished his pasture.
Don’t remember the iniquities of past generations;
    let your compassion hurry to meet us
    because we’ve been brought so low.
God of our salvation, help us
    for the glory of your name!
Deliver us and cover our sins
    for the sake of your name!
Why should the nations say,
    “Where’s their God now?”
Let vengeance for the spilled blood of your servants
    be known among the nations before our very eyes!
    Let the prisoners’ groaning reach you.
With your powerful arm
    spare those who are destined to die.
Pay back our neighbors seven times over,
    right where it hurts,
    for the insults they used on you, Lord.
We are, after all, your people
    and the sheep of your very own pasture.
We will give you thanks forever;
    we will proclaim your praises
    from one generation to the next. (CEB)

The setting behind today’s Psalm is the destruction of the temple and a conquering army who proudly gloats over their victory. This is a prayer, an angry cry for God to step in and act on behalf of the humiliated people. The psalm is more than a simple plea for help; it is a deeply passionate appeal. As a child of the 1960’s, my phrase for the psalmist’s entreaty is, “God, stick it to the man!”

There is no polite knock at the side door of God’s house in the face of such evil. This is a pounding on the front door with the demand for God to do something about this terrible trouble. For the psalmist, the incongruence between who God is and what has happened to God’s people is inconceivable and unacceptable. To profane God’s temple is to profane God; and to kill and maim God’s people is to flip the middle finger at God. The psalmist is beside himself and overwhelmed with emotion.

There is something very instructive here that we ought not miss. When we have been brutalized, victimized, and/or demoralized, we just want someone, especially the Lord we serve, to take notice and feel what we are feeling. Never underestimate the power of empathy and solidarity. To feel alone and bereft of help is an awful feeling.

Perhaps the psalmist’s prayer offends some sensibilities. I wonder, for those who find the language difficult, have ever had a daughter raped or a house destroyed by fire or seen a person killed without mercy in front of their own eyes. Methinks they have not. The feelings of helpless despair and sheer anger defy human words. These are not casual affronts but malicious destructions of property and people.

We need someone to affirm the raw ruthlessness of it all, to have some understanding of the impossible place we are in with such wanton cruelty. When our very support is ripped from our lives, the madness within is too much to bear. Who will rescue us from this body of death?

God is big enough to handle our rage and our hurt. The Lord is available and hears our desperate voice of prayer. Yet, God is not always going to directly and immediately answer on the terms we stipulate. God acts out of God’s own providence and justice, and not from our expectations. And that is a good thing, not a bad thing.

God sees, knows, and feels with us. The realization of this enables us to recenter and reorient ourselves around faith, hope, and love. New life is never a gift in a vacuum; it comes out of agonizing struggle in reckoning with the existing evil.

So, when someone goes through a hellish experience, we are to exercise our capacity to listen and witness the horrible spiritual pain of the person. Healing hurts: it is not a pleasant affair. We are to hang in there and walk alongside another in their hour of need, even when their vitriol seems over the top to us. For only in telling our story to another will any of us find relief and renewed hope.

The psalms permit us to use language appropriate to what has happened to us. They also allow us to move beyond the venom to the God who restores broken lives.

Lord Jesus Christ, by your patience in suffering you hallowed earthly pain and gave us the example of obedience to your Father’ will: Be near me in my time of weakness and pain; sustain me by your grace, that my strength and courage may not fail; heal me according to you will; and help me always to believe that what happens to me here is of little account if you hold me in eternal life, my Lord and my God. As the Lord Jesus cried out on the cross, I cry out to you in pain, O God my Creator. Do not forsake me. Grant me relief from this suffering and preserve me in peace, through Jesus Christ my Savior, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Luke 17:11-19 – Give Thanks

Ten Lepers Healed by American artist Brian Kershisnik

Now on his way to Jerusalem, Jesus traveled along the border between Samaria and Galilee. As he was going into a village, ten men who had leprosy met him. They stood at a distance and called out in a loud voice, “Jesus, Master, have pity on us!”

When he saw them, he said, “Go, show yourselves to the priests.” And as they went, they were cleansed.

One of them, when he saw he was healed, came back, praising God in a loud voice. He threw himself at Jesus’ feet and thanked him—and he was a Samaritan.

Jesus asked, “Were not all ten cleansed? Where are the other nine? Has no one returned to give praise to God except this foreigner?” Then he said to him, “Rise and go; your faith has made you well.” (NIV)

Today’s Gospel story is both joyous and sad. The healing of ten lepers is astonishing and elicits thanks – yet from only one. Perhaps this is because they stood at a distance. After all, it is connection which causes gratitude to arise within us. So, maybe we ought to consider what the nature of our connections are, especially on this Thanksgiving Day. 

Food, football, and family have become the annual trifecta of the American Thanksgiving Day. I confess that I liberally indulge in all three. I am not here to bash on the fact that Thanksgiving has become almost a day of secular worship around an unholy trinity. That is because I believe underneath all the gravy, naps at halftime, and the occasional obnoxious relative that we know why we are celebrating the day: To give thanks for our abundant blessings. It seems even those who do not readily acknowledge the Divine intuitively know there is a power and source of blessing well beyond themselves which makes all good things occur.

Celebrations are a spiritual activity. God invented parties. When Israel was preparing for a new national life in the Promised Land, God told them to celebrate the Feast of Harvest with the first fruits of the crops (Exodus 23:16).  The Levitical law prescribed how to go about giving thanksgiving offerings. Gratitude was commanded, expected, and was an important dimension of Old Testament worship:

Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! (Psalm 95:2, NRSV)

Be thankful and praise the Lord as you enter his temple. The Lord is good! His love and faithfulness will last forever. (Psalm 100:4-5, CEV)

Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good! His faithful love endures forever. (Psalm 118:1, NLT)

It ought to have been reflexive for all ten lepers healed by Jesus to offer thanksgiving. A Samaritan, considered by many of the time as the lowliest of the low, a “half-breed,” was the lone person who came and fell at Christ’s feet with intense gratitude.  While the other nine went about their lives free from disease and glad for it, only one guy took the time to thank Jesus. 

Indeed, sometimes we must be reminded to give thanks and show gratitude for the ways God has provided for us. It is often the homeless, the sick, the lowly, and the outsiders who lead the way and demonstrate for us what genuine thanksgiving looks like.

The people of God are to always remember what they possess in Christ:

So, live in Christ Jesus the Lord in the same way as you received him. Be rooted and built up in him, be established in faith, and overflow with thanksgiving just as you were taught. (Colossians 2:6-7, CEB)

Never stop praying. Be ready for anything by praying and being thankful. (Colossians 4:2, ERV)

Everything God made is good, and nothing should be refused if it is accepted with thanks. (1 Timothy 4:4, NCV)

God and giving thanks are to go together like mashed potatoes and gravy. Since God created everything, and since Jesus has brought healing to us through the cross, every juicy morsel of goodness we have is to be received with the full cognizance that God is behind it all.

Our lives need to be punctuated with times of celebration, praise, giving thanks, and even (virtual) blowout parties. Otherwise, we become dull, boring, lifeless, and bereft of Christ’s lifeblood coursing through our spiritual veins. Conversely, a joyous and raucous group of healed believers chatting incessantly with thanksgiving of God’s goodness are winsome and peculiar (in a good way and not in the strange way of your weird uncle who wants the turkey neck to gnaw on).

It seems to me that Christians really ought to be at the forefront of having maximum fun because they have been forgiven; know the presence of God; are provided for; are confident in the fact they are protected; and, experience the power of the Spirit and the shepherding ministry of Jesus.

Yes, eat to your heart’s content and have a belly full of cornbread stuffing. But remember to give thanks – out loud and with others – for the God who stands behind every good gift of creation.  Let thanksgiving (not complaint) shape you and I. Be the person who comes back to Jesus and offers praise, worship, and gratitude – and see how such gratefulness can change the world.

Almighty God, Father of all mercies, we your unworthy servants give you humble thanks for all your goodness and loving-kindness to us and to all whom you have made. We bless you for our creation, preservation, and all the blessings of this life; but above all for your immeasurable love in the redemption of the world by our Lord Jesus Christ; for the means of grace, and for the hope of glory. And, we pray, give us such an awareness of your mercies, that with truly thankful hearts we may show forth your praise, not only with our lips, but in our lives, by giving up ourselves to your service, and by walking before you in holiness and righteousness all our days; Through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be honor and glory throughout all ages. Amen.

Matthew 8:14-17 – A Changed Life

Jesus Heals Peters Mother In Law
A mosaic of Jesus healing Peter’s mother-in-law, from a Byzantine Church, c.1100 C.E.

When Jesus came into Peter’s house, he saw Peter’s mother-in-law lying in bed with a fever. He touched her hand and the fever left her, and she got up and began to wait on him.

When evening came, many who were demon-possessed were brought to him, and he drove out the spirits with a word and healed all the sick. This was to fulfill what was spoken through the prophet Isaiah:

“He took up our infirmities
    and bore our diseases.” (NIV)

One of the great realities we run headlong into with the New Testament Gospels is that Jesus has the authority to heal and transform the world… and me. Forty-one years ago, today, I experienced the reviving and revolutionizing work of Jesus Christ. I realize not everyone has a specific time they can point to when God does something miraculous, and I also do not expect that everyone’s experience of the divine must conform or be like my own. No, my encounter with God was just that, mine alone. Yet, I hope you find some encouragement and solace in my brief story.

I was probably the least likely person to become a follower of Jesus, let alone to have shown any promise toward the pastoral and religious life. I had serious reservations about the veracity of faith, the relevance of church, and the importance of religion. Although, outwardly, my family made attending our local church mandatory, inwardly, I felt the entire Christianity thing to be boring, irrelevant, and contrived. I was much more likely to behave passive-aggressively than piously.

But I began to rethink and revisit my doubts and epistemic assumptions about all things God and Christianity. The love of Christians around me stirred the internal upheaval. I had come to view the world as a cruel place and saw other people through jaded lenses. Relationships were for me a necessary evil. So, when love and grace entered my orbit, it threw me into sort of an existential angst. Having come to settled-thinking in my understanding of a dark world and having learned to navigate it with the tools of sarcasm and skepticism, genuineness and authenticity were a complete monkey wrench in my cosmology.

To put the whole matter succinctly, Jesus touched me. My small sin-sick heart was healed and enlarged. I walked away completely changed. I cannot accurately say what happened any more than I could tell you how a transplant doctor puts a new heart into the chest of a person. I can only speak to the results: newfound joy instead of nihilism; new desires to bless others and the world instead of looking for ways to disengage from people; new speech and wanting to edify and encourage people instead of sly words of putting others down; and, perhaps most surprising of all (to me) a thoroughly new desire to glorify God and enjoy him forever.

Pastor Tim

The love of God in Christ made all the difference for me – and still does, all these years later. I stand in a long Christian tradition of outsiders and misfits entering the kingdom of God through spiritual metamorphosis – going all the way back to today’s story of Jesus healing and transforming.

In the first century, Jewish women were not allowed as far inside the temple as Jewish men.  Lepers could not go in, at all.  Centurions and Gentiles could only get into the outer court, emphasizing that they were outsiders.  In the synagogue service, women sat in the back, under the balcony. There were pious men who would pray, not in a spirit of humility, but thanking God they were not women.  In this healing account of a woman, no one asks Jesus for healing; he just walks into a house and heals Peter’s mother-in-law just because he wants to!

Christ’s authority, concern, and healing power even extended to the demonic realm. It perhaps goes without saying that most people would not want to hang-out with demonized people who carry a load of problems and sickness with them; they are yet another example of the classic outsiders.  If we take seriously that Jesus is our model for ministry, then we need to take passages like this seriously and connect with outsiders and bring them to Jesus.

The Old Testament quote comes from Isaiah 53:4. Sickness relates to sin – not always personal sin, but from living in a fallen and fundamentally broken world.  In other words, when the biblical text says that Jesus took up our infirmities and carried our diseases, it is saying that Christ takes our sin upon himself. His healing acts are tied to the cross.  There is new life and spiritual health in the cross of Jesus Christ.  We come to the foot of the cross as spiritual beggars, looking for grace and mercy in our time of need because Jesus has the authority to extend healing and deliverance from every sin and every sickness and every problem known to people.

Through Jesus Christ there is and can be healing for damaged emotions, broken hearts, pain-ridden bodies, and sin-sick souls. There shall be joy through mourning. There is life through death. A new day will dawn, carrying fresh grace and unique mercies for the journey ahead. Behind it all is the God who is still in the business of renewing minds and hearts, and reforming attitudes and actions through extravagant and inexhaustible love.

God of all creation forgive my foolish thoughts and errant ways; clothe me in my right mind; and, calm my troubled heart. My soul is off, and I cannot seem to find my balance, so I stumble and worry constantly. Give me the strength and clarity of mind to find my purpose and walk the path you have laid out for me. I trust your love, God, and know that you will heal this stress, and mend my spirit. Just as the sun rises each day against the dark of night, bring me clarity with the light of God, through Jesus Christ, Savior and Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.