1 Samuel 2:1-10 – A Hope Fulfilled

Then Hannah prayed:

“My heart rejoices in the Lord!
    The Lord has made me strong.
Now I have an answer for my enemies;
    I rejoice because you rescued me.
No one is holy like the Lord!
    There is no one besides you;
    there is no Rock like our God.

“Stop acting so proud and haughty!
    Don’t speak with such arrogance!
For the Lord is a God who knows what you have done;
    he will judge your actions.
The bow of the mighty is now broken,
    and those who stumbled are now strong.
Those who were well fed are now starving,
    and those who were starving are now full.
The childless woman now has seven children,
    and the woman with many children wastes away.
The Lord gives both death and life;
    he brings some down to the grave but raises others up.
The Lord makes some poor and others rich;
    he brings some down and lifts others up.
He lifts the poor from the dust
    and the needy from the garbage dump.
He sets them among princes,
    placing them in seats of honor.
For all the earth is the Lord’s,
    and he has set the world in order.

“He will protect his faithful ones,
    but the wicked will disappear in darkness.
No one will succeed by strength alone.
    Those who fight against the Lord will be shattered.
He thunders against them from heaven;
    the Lord judges throughout the earth.
He gives power to his king;
    he increases the strength of his anointed one.” (New Living Translation)

This is the song of Hannah, a woman unable to conceive children. She offered a heartfelt petition to God for a child. Hannah’s prayer was answered. A thousand years later, Mary, the mother of Jesus, took this same song, reworked it, and personalized it, to voice and sing her own praise to God. (Luke 1:46-55)

Hannah dared to hope. It might seem from the perspective of one who has never struggled with being childless that offering a prayer for children is easy. However, when hope has been dashed and all seems impossible, putting oneself out there to ask, even to beg, is downright hard. In the fear of having what little hope remains be crushed, it is far easier to stay away from God and keep the prayers to oneself.

Hannah actively sought divine help and risked praying and emoting. The Lord heard. Hannah’s weeping turned to singing. And, like Mary’s Magnificat, Hannah quickly moved from her own experience to the experiences of people everywhere. Hannah focused on the God of the impossible and the divine accessibility which exists when we become vulnerable and put ourselves out there in risky hope.

“Hope is to our spirits what oxygen is to our lungs. Lose hope and you die. They may not bury you for awhile, but without hope you are dead inside. The only way to face the future is to fly straight into it on the wings of hope….hope is the energy of the soul. Hope is the power of tomorrow.”

Lewis Smedes (1921-2002)

The great reversal of Hannah’s condition from barren to fertile gives hope for the weak to become strong, the hungry to be filled, and the lost person to be found. In a world where God is the Sovereign, nothing needs to stay the same – nothing is carved in stone. Since no part of our existence as humans is outside the purview of God, there is always the possibility of change, of a reversal of fortunes.

The underdog has a champion with God. The misfits, the exploited, and the downtrodden – those who cannot lift themselves or pull themselves up by their bootstraps – are precisely the persons whom the Lord raises up. God’s providential care shall oversee them, and justice will be dispensed with perfect equity.

It is one thing to hope; it is another thing altogether in daring to hope against all odds and while others poo-poo your dreams. Godly hope is not wishful thinking; it is a confident expectation that God will show up and be gracious, merciful, and kind.

The place of crying and weeping is important because it is our tears which find a better way.

Anyone can offer cheap praise. Yet, the person who sits with their sadness and feels the heart-wrenching agony of a hope unfulfilled is the one who is able to give genuine praise and to sing with authenticity. Since their hope was planted and watered with tears, their joy in the harvest is abundant and plenteous.

As Christians anticipate the season of Advent, allow the daring hope of Mary and Hannah to conceive a fresh hope in your own life so that you will give birth to new life.

God of hope, in these times of change, helplessness, and uncertainty give us courage to overcome our fears, and help us to build a future in which all may prosper and share together, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 113 – Shout Praises

“From Sunrise to Sunset Praise God” by Muha Rukab

Shout praises to the Lord!
Everyone who serves him,
    come and praise his name.

Let the name of the Lord
    be praised now and forever.
From dawn until sunset
    the name of the Lord
    deserves to be praised.
The Lord is far above
    all of the nations;
    he is more glorious
    than the heavens.

No one can compare
    with the Lord our God.
His throne is high above,
    and he looks down to see
    the heavens and the earth.
God lifts the poor and needy
    from dust and ashes,
    and he lets them take part
    in ruling his people.
When a wife has no children,
    he blesses her with some,
and she is happy.
    Shout praises to the Lord! (Contemporary English Version)

When my firstborn daughter was an infant, I was a busy seminarian as well as working a job. I had very little discretionary time on my hands. Yet, I could stand over the crib of my beautiful little bundle of a girl for long stretches of time without ever thinking about all my responsibilities. Whenever she awoke I spoke to her in that kind of baby talk that only a doting father can do. 

I imagine God looks at us in much the same way, as well as speaking and acting toward us in ways we can understand. Just as parents (hopefully) communicate on a level their kids can understand, so G-d condescends and stoops to our level in order to help us. 

The Lord is seated on high, looking down on the heavens and the earth. G-d looks at us with lovingkindness and seeks our best interests. The Lord notices the poor and acts justly on their behalf. G-d observes the needy and lifts them from their want to a place where they can thrive. The divine condescension of God is a beautiful thing because without it we would be like a helpless baby.

G-d, while being unknowable and unreachable in so many ways, has nevertheless communicated with humanity in a way people can understand and to which they can respond. The Lord has accommodated, or made allowance for, our language and general level of understanding.

The Lord, sovereign and high above us all, has chosen to stoop and coo over us here on earth. G-d’s love affectionately delights in us. The psalmist’s portrayal of G-d is not of some aloof Being who is bothered with humanity’s pestering. Rather, G-d sees, notices, and cares. We don’t need to do some sort of spiritual back flips to gain G-d’s attention. We already have it.

This psalm of praise to G-d celebrates how the Sovereign of the universe notices and acts. We are meant to remember the great deeds of G-d – both those things done in history, and the things done for us, personally. 

“Despite our earnest efforts, we couldn’t climb all the way up to God. So what did God do? In an amazing act of condescension, God climbed down to us and became one with us.”

Will Willimon

In Christianity, the concept of divine condescension and accommodation is given its supreme form in the person and work of Jesus Christ. By becoming human, Jesus accommodates himself to the human condition. Through his life, teaching, and ministry, Christ speaks as G-d, communicating sufficiently and effectively to humanity.

The redemptive events of Christ – his incarnation, holy life, death, resurrection, ascension, and glorification – are divine acts of grace, mercy, and love to all humanity. Praise and thanksgiving are the appropriate responses to such events done on our behalf.

This is one reason why the spiritual practice of journaling is such a good personal discipline because we then have a record of the ways in which G-d has acted on our behalf. When we look back and remember, we can praise the Lord all over again for lifting us from the ash heap. And this will fortify our spiritual mettle for the times when we need encouragement.

Keeping a gratitude journal and writing each day about at least one way the Lord has acted on your behalf, can bring encouragement, transformation, and joy to your life. I suggest you write for your own eyes only. This is between you and G-d. Therefore, you need not be concerned for correct spelling and grammar. It doesn’t even need to be legible, as long as you can read your own writing!

“Praise is the rehearsal of our eternal song. By grace we learn to sing, and in glory we continue to sing. What will some of you do when you get to heaven, if you go on grumbling all the way? Do not hope to get to heaven in that style. But now begin to bless the name of the Lord.”

Charles Spurgeon

What’s more, shouting our praises is not only appropriate but encouraged – even commanded. Shouting is both cathartic and fun. It builds emotional resilience and spiritual strength. Coupled with writing, shouting our praises has the effect of bringing spiritual growth and maturity to our lives.

We, of course, want to avoid shouting at others. Yet, we can take advantage of shouting while driving alone, out in the woods by ourselves, or even into a pillow. This isn’t weird. Shouting goes appropriately with praise and celebration.

In fact, it would be weird if there were no shouting. Try telling a sports fan watching their favorite team that they aren’t supposed to shout. Or just see what happens when a woman longing for children becomes pregnant for the first time.

Emotional expressions are expected whenever G-d shows up and accomplishes great deeds for us. To not do so is a sign of having spiders in your heart and garlic in your soul. It’s not right.

What are you thankful for today? Is there something in this day for which to praise the Lord, whether big or small? Will you give yourself permission to shout?

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, the beauty of this world, the wonder of life, and the mystery of love. We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and the loving care which surrounds us on every side. We thank you for setting us at tasks which demand our best efforts and leading us to accomplishments which satisfy and delight us. We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on your mercy and grace.

Above all, we thank you for your Son, our Lord, Jesus Christ, the truth of his Word, the example of his life; his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; his dying, through which he overcame death; and his rising to life again, in which we are raised to new life. Grant us the gift of your Spirit so that we may know Christ and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, we may give thanks to you in and for all things. Amen.

Psalm 18:20-30 – Vault the Highest Fence

God made my life complete
    when I placed all the pieces before him.
When I got my act together,
    he gave me a fresh start.
Now I’m alert to God’s ways;
    I don’t take God for granted.
Every day I review the ways he works;
    I try not to miss a trick.
I feel put back together,
    and I’m watching my step.
God rewrote the text of my life
    when I opened the book of my heart to his eyes.

The good people taste your goodness,
The whole people taste your health,
The true people taste your truth,
The bad ones can’t figure you out.
You take the side of the down-and-out,
But the stuck-up you take down a notch.

Suddenly, God, you floodlight my life;
    I’m blazing with glory, God’s glory!
I smash the bands of marauders,
    I vault the highest fences.

What a God! His road
    stretches straight and smooth.
Every God-direction is road-tested.
    Everyone who runs toward him
Makes it. (The Message)

I confess I’m tired a lot. Maybe it’s the rigors of pastoral ministry and hospital chaplaincy. It might be from the daily grind of household chores and family responsibilities. It could be because my mind is always a beehive of activity and doesn’t shut down easily at night. Perhaps it’s due to not enough self-care. More than likely, it is a bit of all that. 

I perked up, though, when I read today’s psalm and heard David say that by means of God he can vault the highest fences. Back in the day, I certainly did my share of hopping over high fences. But it’s been a long while since I’ve leapt over a fence. I’m old enough to know better than try something like leaping over anything. I can clearly imagine pulled hamstrings and a messed-up back doing a feat like that.

David was really no spring chicken himself when he wrote this. Psalm 18 is a psalm of praise to God for rescuing David from Saul and all his enemies. This deliverance did not happen overnight; it came over years of David running from the king and being pursued by others. Yet the day finally came, and David was not shy in proclaiming his praise to God.

If God’s deliverance from earthly enemies can energize David so much, how much more can I be invigorated by the reality that I’m delivered from sin, death, and hell through the blood of Jesus Christ? 

Maybe you, like me sometimes, think too much about adverse circumstances and ornery people – which makes the biblical Psalms a great place to go when fixating on personal injustice. They help give voice to our contemporary situations. 

So, today, I’m taking my own advice by reading and meditating on this psalm and getting a leg up on letting gratitude set the tone for my life and ministry. I probably won’t go out and vault myself over a fence, but I suspect my soul will be renewed and energized by contemplating the goodness and guidance of a loving God who always has my back.

Accept, O Lord, our thanks and praise for all that you have done for us. We thank you for the splendor of the whole creation, for the beauty of this world, for the wonder of life, and for the mystery of love. We thank you for the blessing of family and friends, and for the loving care which surrounds us on every side. We thank you for setting us at tasks that demand our best efforts, and for leading us to accomplishments that satisfy and delight us. We thank you also for those disappointments and failures that lead us to acknowledge our dependence on you alone.

Above all, we thank you for your Son Jesus Christ; for the truth of his Word and the example of his life; for his steadfast obedience, by which he overcame temptation; for his dying, through which he conquered death; and for his rising to life again, in which we are raised to the life of your kingdom. Grant us the gift of your Spirit, that we may know Christ and make him known; and through him, at all times and in all places, may give thanks to you in all things. Amen.

Psalm 146 – Underdog

Praise the Lord!

Let all that I am praise the Lord.
    I will praise the Lord as long as I live.
    I will sing praises to my God with my dying breath.

Don’t put your confidence in powerful people;
    there is no help for you there.
When they breathe their last, they return to the earth,
    and all their plans die with them.
But joyful are those who have the God of Israelas their helper,
    whose hope is in the Lord their God.
He made heaven and earth,
    the sea, and everything in them.
    He keeps every promise forever.
He gives justice to the oppressed
    and food to the hungry.
The Lord frees the prisoners.
    The Lord opens the eyes of the blind.
The Lord lifts up those who are weighed down.
    The Lord loves the godly.
The Lord protects the foreigners among us.
    He cares for the orphans and widows,
    but he frustrates the plans of the wicked.

The Lord will reign forever.
    He will be your God, O Jerusalem, throughout the generations.

Praise the Lord! (New Living Translation)

I confess to being a classic cartoon connoisseur. Adults told me when I was a kid that I would outgrow watching them. Well, I’m still waiting for that day. 

One of the cartoons I enjoyed (and still do!) watching is “Underdog” (1964-1973). There is something deep within the human psyche that cheers for the underdog. Wally Cox was the perfect voice for the mild-mannered shoe-shine boy to take his underdog super energy pill and fly through the sky to rescue Sweet Polly Purebread.

That “something” inside us which identifies with the underdog is the justice of G-d. 

It’s important to understand that when the term “justice” is used, it isn’t meant primarily in punitive terms, as we might typically think of it. Rather, justice is providing people with what they need to survive, thrive, and flourish in life. Conversely, withholding needs from individuals or groups of people in this world is “injustice.” 

Today’s Psalm lets us know G-d cares about the underdog – the one who lacks basic material and spiritual provisions for living. 

G-d is deeply concerned for those who are powerless, defenseless, and on the margins of society. The psalmist identifies such persons: the hungry; prisoners; the blind; those bowed down; the orphan; and the widow. All these people represent individuals without ability to be movers and shakers in society. In short, they need G-d and deserve justice.

The Lord delights to use divine power in championing the underdog and lifting them up. What’s more, truth be told, it turns out that all of us are underdogs. Everyone needs G-d. 

We are meant to both receive and provide justice without prejudice or discrimination. Every action and decision we make is really G-d’s grace and enablement to do it. Thus, the logical and reasonable response to such a G-d is praise – to declare our hallelujahs to the One who reigns forever and will always see humanity’s great need. 

So, how will you acknowledge and praise G-d today for divine attributes and actions? Let such praise shape your soul and lift your spirit as you intentionally connect with the gracious G-d who gives us what we need so that we can say, “There’s no need to fear. Underdog is here!”

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. Amen.