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.

Psalm 86:1-10 – Call and Response

storm clouds and person

Incline your ear, O Lord, and answer me,
for I am poor and needy.
Preserve my life, for I am devoted to you;
save your servant who trusts in you.
You are my God; be gracious to me, O Lord,
for to you do I cry all day long.
Gladden the soul of your servant,
for to you, O Lord, I lift up my soul.
For you, O Lord, are good and forgiving,
abounding in steadfast love to all who call on you.
Give ear, O Lord, to my prayer;
listen to my cry of supplication.
In the day of my trouble I call on you,
for you will answer me.

There is none like you among the gods, O Lord,
nor are there any works like yours.
All the nations you have made shall come
and bow down before you, O Lord,
and shall glorify your name.
For you are great and do wondrous things;
you alone are God. (NRSV)

What is your view of God?  For some, God is up there, somewhere, like some white-bearded old guy who is aloof to what is going on down here – there is neither anything personal nor personable about him, at all.  For others, God is a force which binds all things together; he is there, but you’re never quite sure how to get in touch with him – it’s like a crap shoot trying to connect with him. For yet others, God is perpetually perturbed about something; he’s got a bee in his bonnet and it’s our job to figure out what he’s sullen and upset about all the time so that we might appease him in some way.

The psalmist, David, sees God in wholly other ways than all the aforementioned. For David, God is personal, knowable, and very reachable. Reading this psalm tells us a great deal of how David thought about God. Notice what we learn about God from the way David describes him: good and forgiving; abounding in steadfast love; listens and answers; and, does great and wondrous things.

Now this is a God you can sink your teeth into. He is attentive, engaged, and is anything but upset all the time.  This is the reason why David has no problem asking God to listen and answer his prayer. David put his trust in God to save him and make his heart glad. With this kind of God, David can willingly affirm his devotion.

If your view of God cannot support and bear the weight of your life’s hardest circumstances, then you need a different view of God! I invite you to see the God of David. This God has the ability within himself to satisfy your life’s greatest needs. We call out in our misery. God responds in his love and mercy. With God, we can move from trouble to confidence.

Great God of David, you are above all things and beside all things and with all things. You are uniquely positioned and powerful to walk with me through all the situations of my life. Thank you for sending the Son of David to make real your promises to me.  Amen.

Nehemiah 9:1-8 – A Prayer of Confession

The Prayer by Constantin Brancusi 1907
“The Prayer,” by Constantin Brancusi, 1907

The Israelites gathered for a day of fasting. They wore sackcloth and put ashes on their heads to show they were sad and upset. Those people who were true Israelites separated themselves from foreigners. The Israelites stood and confessed their sins and the sins of their ancestors. They stood there for about three hours, and the people read the Book of the Law of the Lord their God. Then for three more hours they confessed their sins and bowed down to worship the Lord their God…. 

They said, “Stand up and praise the Lord your God! God has always lived and will live forever.

People should praise your glorious name.
May your name be lifted above all blessing and praise.
You are God.
Lord, only you are God.
You made the sky and the highest heavens
and everything in them.
You made the earth
and everything on it.
You made the seas
and everything in them.
You give life to everything.
All the heavenly angels bow down and worship you.
You are the Lord,
the God who chose Abram.
You led him from Ur in Babylonia.
You changed his name to Abraham.
You saw he was true and loyal to you,
and you made an agreement with him.
You promised to give him the land
of the Canaanites, Hittites, Amorites, Perizzites, Jebusites, and Girgashites.
But you promised to give that land to Abraham’s descendants.
And you kept your promise because you are good.” (ERV)
 

We have many examples in Holy Scripture of people coming together for corporate prayers to confess sin. Today’s Old Testament lesson is a representation of such a confession. I understand that many churches, especially in the western world, jettisoned prayers of confession in their corporate worship services long ago. Eschewing rituals, such gatherings of believers have the inclination to be neither liturgical nor focus on such a negative subject as extended focus on sin through confessing prayer.

Yet, here we are, in the Bible, with a prayer of confession before us. There’s no getting around it: without prayers of confession, we are left in the realm of human pride and hubris – believing we can tackle whatever is in front of us with a solid dose of Protestant work ethic and robust free will. I hate to burst your bubble (no, I confess I really like bursting bubbles!) where there is no confession of sin, both personal and corporate, there is no righteousness and no eternal life.

“If only it were all so simple! If only there were evil people somewhere insidiously committing evil deeds, and it were necessary only to separate them from the rest of us and destroy them. But the line dividing good and evil cuts through the heart of every human being. And who is willing to destroy a piece of their own heart?”—Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn

Prayers of confession invite us to voice what is in the darkest places of our hearts. – to be raw and real about our own sin, as well as the sins of the world. Speaking aloud such words do not come naturally, which is why we need to graft these types of prayers into our life and worship. Naming with honesty and sincerity our personal and collective sins becomes liberating when we sense the immensity of God’s grace. Whereas in most situations, we do not feel safe to name our sins, in the presence of God we are empowered by his love to call forth and bring to light the deepest and darkest shadows of our personal lives and of our society.

A full-frontal prayer of confession acknowledges that our sin is more than a random example of bad judgment. We are sinful people, living in a sinful world, and we absolutely need a Savior! Our confessions of sin also acknowledge and bring to light that sin is a power that resides not only within individual persons but also has infected every society, institution, structure, and even church. An authentic confession of sin admits complicit participation in the structures of evil which exist everywhere.

What is more, a simple observation of the Israelites’ prayer notices that they were not only repenting of their own sin; they freely recognized and professed their ancestor’s sins, as well. Sin never simply dies with the person – it infects and influences the next generation. And unless we come to grips with this terrible reality, we will keep perpetuating the sins of our ancestors.

Which is why it is so vitally important that right now the people of God admit and confess the sins of their slaveholder ancestors, as well as affirm our implicit bias against people different than us and our complicity in perpetuating racism through our silence, unquestioning allegiance to particular political parties, and assuming we should always be in power because we are the best persons to do it. So, then, here is a prayer of confession concerning our present situation of racism:

Merciful God, we confess that we have sinned against you in thought, word, and deed, by what we and our ancestors have done in the past, and by what we have left undone in the present through: allowing racism to continue and evolve in our social systems of economics and education; not reforming criminal justice; discriminating in housing and practicing gentrification; and, suppressing voting rights. In our racial geography and, painfully, in the continuing segregation of our churches, we have been complicit in racism through the betrayal of silence.

Holy God, we have not loved people of color as ourselves. We confess we have let ourselves off the hook by viewing racism as mere individual behavior, language, and overt hostility; and, have failed to see racism as systemic and structural, harming people of color in very specific, measurable, and tangible ways.

God Almighty, in your mercy forgive us for being racist, help us amend what we are, and direct what we shall be so that we, along with all people, may delight in your will and walk in your ways to the glory of Jesus Christ in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

The Compassion of Jesus

Jesus healing - 13th century
Jesus and his ministry of healing, from a 13th century church mosaic.

Compassion is a concern for the well-being of others. It is the basis for altruism and the most virtuous motive one can possess. Compassion is activated within the human heart when witnessing another person’s suffering. Compassion spurs us to help. It is through compassion that people feel seen and known. Compassion brings care, empathy, and sympathy together as a bridge to connect with another person or group of people in need. Without compassion, there is no life.

While on this earth, I believe Jesus was the very embodiment of compassion. To reflect on Christ’s compassion helps us to raise our own compassion quotient and avoid succumbing to the whims of indifference to human need.

When Jesus saw the crowds, he had compassion on them, because they were harassed and helpless, like sheep without a shepherd. (Matthew 9:36)

The compassion of Jesus responds to human need. In his earthly ministry of preaching, teaching, and healing, Jesus went through all the towns and villages. He neither waited for people to come to him nor wanted anyone to fall through the cracks. During this work, Jesus was moved by the depth of people’s needs. The word for “compassion” in the Bible means “to be moved in the pit of your gut.” It is to be filled with pity and heart-broken over the unmet needs of people.

What moves and stirs compassion deep down in your gut? Jesus went about the towns and was brokenhearted over people who were harassed and helpless, locked into patterns of life that were harmful and damaging.  Jesus came to this earth to seek and save people, offering forgiveness of sins and a new life. Jesus willingly offered compassion – his motivation was neither from duty nor guilt. Compassion is the proper motivation for all things.

Jesus went out and ministered, then was moved by what he saw.  Compassion comes upon us as we go out and enter people’s lives, seeing first-hand the depth of need represented.  Show me a person with compassion, and I will show you a person who takes the time and effort to know another.

“Pray earnestly to the Lord of the harvest to send out laborers into his harvest,” implored Jesus. (Matthew 9:38)

The compassion of Jesus issues in a call to pray. Christ saw the masses of people and told his disciples to ask God to send workers because the harvest is plentiful.  Jesus knows there are large numbers of people waiting to hear the good news of the kingdom of God. So, he said to pray earnestly and compassionately.

Compassion is the motive which brings us to prayer. Compassion impels us to pray that workers be sent to people who are ripe for hearing good news. We must not listen to the hellish lie: That certain people don’t really want the good news of the kingdom of God; that my neighbor, or co-worker, or family member is not spiritual and doesn’t care about forgiveness of sins, or grace – that there is nothing within them to respond to compassion. The devil does not want us to have merciful compassion for them, to be moved to intercede for them in prayer, nor to become a harvester in the field of people.  Jesus said the harvest is plentiful, and it is through compassionate prayer that the work will be done.

Jesus called his twelve followers together and gave them authority to drive out evil spirits and to heal every kind of disease and sickness. (Matthew 10:1)

Ethiopian Jesus the Healer
Ethiopian Orthodox depiction of Jesus the Healer

The compassion of Jesus caused him to send out his disciples. The call to prayer is central; it is also not everything. As faith without works is dead, so prayer without mission is empty. The people Jesus authorized for ministry were the twelve, and they were a motley crew, indeed!  For example, having Matthew the tax collector and Simon the Zealot on the same team together would be like sending Joe Biden and Donald Trump as a pair out for ministry. Yet, the compassion of Jesus changes lives and brings people together from diverse backgrounds and viewpoints.

The disciples were told, in their initial mission as followers of Jesus, to go only to the house of Israel – Israel’s house needed to be put in order first before they could ever think of going to Gentiles. There were Jews all around them, and Jesus goes after them first.  Remember Christ’s final instructions: You will be my witnesses first in Jerusalem, then Judea, and Samaria, and the rest of the world (Acts 1:8). We begin by reaching out to people in our own backyard.

Jesus told the disciples to do exactly what he had been doing: preaching and healing, proclaiming the message that “the kingdom of God is near.”  The kingdom is not only something in the future; the kingdom of God has already broken into the present time, and the evidence of it is the transformation of people’s lives now. The blessings and promises of kingdom life are presently available.

Jesus sent the disciples out and told them not to take anything with them.  They were to leave all their baggage behind. The disciples were to be stripped of everything so that they had the ability to see people and their needs and be moved with compassion as Jesus was. The kingdom of God was near to them, so they did not need to add anything for the mission (Matthew 10:1-15). Jesus did not want his disciples assuming they already knew what people needed. Instead, they must be present to people and discover their needs without bias. As compassion is freely received, it is to be freely given.

Compassion is the appropriate response to human need.  Yet, we do not always react with compassion. The following are a few approaches which prevent us from becoming compassionate, and some ways of cultivating a compassionate life:

  1. A defeating and discouraging environment. Contempt breeds contempt. Anger produces more anger. Hatred feeds hatred. Abuse drives out compassion. The environment around us makes a difference. If we find we must check our hearts at the door and avoid compassion to just make it, then we need a change of environment. Life is too short and the world too compassion-starved to maintain a situation that drags us down and hinders the kingdom of God within us.
  2. An unhealthy pace of life. A person cannot have a compassionate heart if they are running too fast to see other people’s needs. When spare moments are used to try and figure out how to keep all the balls in the air and all the plates spinning, there is no way to dole out compassion to others. Slow down. No one comes to the end of life and wishes they had logged more hours of work at their job. Develop a plan on how to slow down enough to tune into the needs of others and have emotional energy for them.
  3. Excessive caregiving. Compassion fatigue is a real thing. Resentment can build toward the very people we care for because of constant giving without receiving. When the emotional gas tank is empty, it is possible to become cold-hearted. Yet, some keep going anyway – and ruin their engine. Caring for others must be meticulously balanced with caring for self. There is a time for everything, including rest and recuperation.  Jesus regularly practiced the disciplines of solitude and silence. If he needed those restorative practices, so do we.
  4. Objectifying people. Whenever we put adjectives in front of people, it is a clue that compassion is lacking. Referring to “those” people; “lesbian” neighbors; “black” folks at work; my “obnoxious” relative; or, the “poor” family down the street; are all examples of objectifying people and putting them at a distance from ourselves. Your neighbors are your neighbors, your family is your family, and the people in your life are just people, period. Compassion arises as we look for what is common among us, not different. Compassion brings solidarity with others, not separation and division.

May you allow God the time to form a compassionate heart within through being with Jesus. May compassion toward others be the defining characteristic of your life.