Psalm 42 – Sadness and Hope

As a deer gets thirsty 
    for streams of water, 
    I truly am thirsty 
    for you, my God. 
In my heart, I am thirsty 
for you, the living God. 
    When will I see your face? 
Day and night my tears 
    are my only food, 
    as everyone keeps asking, 
    “Where is your God?” 

Sorrow floods my heart, 
    when I remember 
leading the worshipers 
    to your house.  
    I can still hear them shout 
    their joyful praises. 
Why am I discouraged? 
Why am I restless? 
    I trust you! 
And I will praise you again 
    because you help me, 
    and you are my God. 

I am deeply discouraged 
    as I think about you 
from where the Jordan begins 
at Mount Hermon 
    and from Mount Mizar.  
Your vicious waves 
    have swept over me 
    like an angry ocean 
    or a roaring waterfall. 

Every day, you are kind, 
    and at night 
you give me a song 
    as my prayer to you, 
    the living Lord God. 

You are my mighty rock.  
    Why have you forgotten me? 
    Why must enemies mistreat me 
    and make me sad? 
Even my bones are in pain, 
    while all day long 
my enemies sneer and ask, 
    “Where is your God?” 

Why am I discouraged? 
Why am I restless? 
    I trust you! 
And I will praise you again 
    because you help me, 
    and you are my God. (CEV) 

Sadness. Every human on planet earth knows the feeling. Since we are emotional creatures, profound sadness even to the point of depression and/or despondency will happen. Yet, despite the universal nature of discouragement and tears, many Christians buck the sadness.

Far too many believers focus so exclusively on victory in Jesus through his resurrection, ascension, and glorification that they use religion as their denial when unwanted emotions like sadness come banging at the doorstep of their soul. 

So, I most emphatically say: Depression is not sin. To be discouraged is not the Enemy. Experiencing sadness is neither wrong nor selfish. Quite the opposite, in fact. It is necessary to sit with our emotions and feel the breadth and depth of them. Both our spiritual and emotional health come through an awareness and robust engagement with our feelings. To refuse to feel is to put the stiff arm to God.  

The psalmist does anything but deny his feelings. He brings them before the Lord and spreads them out before the Divine. Why am I discouraged? Why am I restless? Why the sadness? Could it be that God has forgotten me? Where is the Lord? Is God angry with me? Are my troubles the result of divine wrath? 

To blandly say we have never uttered or thought such questions is a telltale sign of denial. The bottom line for many folks is that they do not want to feel because such emotions complicate their lives. Besides, discouragement and sadness hurt. “Why feel,” we reason, “when it only brings pain?” 

Ah, yes, the avoidance of pain. And there is no pain quite like emotional and spiritual pain. Much like an open wound which needs a liberal application of painful peroxide, so our spiritual wounds must sting with the salve of emotional feeling. Healing is neither cheap, easy, nor painless. It typically hurts like hell. 

The psalmist’s own pain revolved around feelings of alienation from God, being cut off from fellow worshipers, and harassed by others around him. Understandably, he experienced despondency and loneliness. The psalmist wondered if anyone, including God, even cared what he was going through. In other words, he is desperate for God to show up. 

I am going to make a simple observation about this psalm: The psalmist did not get any answers to the several questions he posed. He even repeated them, to no avail. The only form of comfort the psalmist received was to remember what God had done in the past. Somehow, someway, this will help with the difficulties of the present. 

There are times in life when we must recall what we know about God, ourselves, and others. If the Lord has delivered in the past, God can do it again. If others helped before, perhaps they will be present in the here and now. And just maybe, even likely, you and I will discover a resilient spirit within. We already possess everything we need to not only survive but to grow and thrive in life. 

Hope arises from holding the big picture of the past, present, and future together at the same time. When present circumstances are difficult, and it appears we are about to swallowed up into the now, we must hold the past and future along with it, in careful tension. Then, we shall find the ennoblement to keep going. 

Trust in the future, a confident expectation of hope, is born from the trustworthiness of the past. A prayerful song in our heart will carry us through till our hope is realized. 

Philippians 1:3-14 – Unity Through Shared Purpose

I thank my God every time I remember you. In all my prayers for all of you, I always pray with joy because of your partnership in the gospel from the first day until now, being confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.

It is right for me to feel this way about all of you, since I have you in my heart and, whether I am in chains or defending and confirming the gospel, all of you share in God’s grace with me. God can testify how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.

And this is my prayer: that your love may abound more and more in knowledge and depth of insight, so that you may be able to discern what is best and may be pure and blameless for the day of Christ,filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ—to the glory and praise of God.

Now I want you to know, brothers and sisters, that what has happened to me has served to advance the gospel. As a result, it has become clear throughout the whole palace guard and to everyone else that I am in chains for Christ. And because of my chains, most of the brothers and sisters have become confident in the Lord and dare even more to proclaim the gospel without fear. (NIV)

Physical health does not just happen. Care of the body is necessary through eating well, exercising, and coping adequately with stress. In the same way, spiritual health and care for the Body of Christ occurs when we put every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace (Ephesians 4:3).

When spiritual health breaks down in the Body of Christ there are divided loyalties, unhappiness, and disunity. And this is precisely what happened in the ancient Philippian Church. They were spiritually sick and relationally fragmented through inattention to one another.

Unity is much more than the absence of division. It is a common community, sharing life together, working on supporting one another and reaching out to others. In our New Testament lesson for today, the Apostle Paul begins his letter with emphasizing that the Body of Christ realizes unity through a shared purpose of embracing the good news of Jesus Christ and proclaiming it to others.

Every pronoun, each “you” used in these verses is not singular but plural. We are meant to establish our common life together around a shared mission of gospel proclamation: The kingdom of God is near. Through repentance and faith in the person and work of Jesus there is forgiveness of sins, new life, and participation in the life of God. The mission is not for larger church attendance, although that is nice and may happen; it isn’t to do more, or to get other people to stop swearing or avoid tattoos.

The Apostle Paul knew that without a focus on mission, on sharing the good news with each other and proclaiming the gospel to others, that the lack of purpose would create spiritual sickness. Apart from a deliberate focus on centering life and mission around the person and work of Christ, a group of people just nit-pick one another to death with all their various opinions and wants.

Wherever there is an absence of shared purpose, there you will find constant complaining, endless arguing, and a bunch of crotchety curmudgeons who nobody wants to be around.

Conversely, with a polestar on mission, the community of the redeemed work together in close fellowship with the result being joy. Happy people are a breath of fresh air to be around. A good healthy spirit is a delight to others. In fact, folks will find hope and healing through a common purpose of life together which imbibes liberally from the redemptive events of Jesus.

Good news is fun to share. It is joyful. The gospel of Jesus Christ is wonderful news, worthy of exuberant celebration. The Apostle Paul had fond memories of his partnership in the gospel with the Philippian believers. Although he had been jailed and beaten, Paul joyously sang in the prison – to the point where the jailer took notice and listened to the good news of new life in Christ. The jailer and his entire family became followers of Jesus. (Acts 16:16-34)

The Philippians were Paul’s spiritual children. They had sacrificed with Paul toward the shared vision of proclaiming good news. So, Paul wanted them to remember their own significant events of coming to faith, enjoying fellowship together, and working toward common objectives. In reminding the Philippian believers, Paul hoped to help get their heads screwed on straight again. He was confident this would happen, having an unshakable belief that God would continue the good work started within them.

This confidence was the basis of Paul’s prayers for the church. He beseeched God to unleash the Philippians’ collective love in a grand experiential knowledge of the divine so that they might discern well, making solid decisions which place the gospel as central to all of life.

There is an incredible depth to human need – a deep spiritual longing for what is good and beautiful. Relational unity brings out the beauty and majesty of humanity. Sometimes we just need to recall past days when this was true of us when we are facing animosity and acrimony.

In times of frustration, anger, demonstrations, riots, violence (both physical and verbal) and injustice, we desperately need a vision of humanity which locks arms in unity without vilifying one another.

When we place priority on the good news, I believe we will again discover the joy of life, of knowing Christ. Perhaps, with a watching world observing basic human kindness and joyful relations, we will find ways of being better together and working toward the common good of all persons. And methinks, Jesus wants to help with this, if we will only let him.

May the risen and ascended Lord strengthen our efforts to mend the ruptures of the past and to meet the challenges of the present with hope in the future. May we embrace the grace which a sovereign God holds out to us and to our world. Amen.

Nehemiah 9:9-15 – Memory and Confession

“You saw the suffering of our ancestors in Egypt; you heard their cry at the Red Sea. You sent signs and wonders against Pharaoh, against all his officials and all the people of his land, for you knew how arrogantly the Egyptians treated them. You made a name for yourself, which remains to this day. You divided the sea before them, so that they passed through it on dry ground, but you hurled their pursuers into the depths, like a stone into mighty waters. By day you led them with a pillar of cloud, and by night with a pillar of fire to give them light on the way they were to take.

“You came down on Mount Sinai; you spoke to them from heaven. You gave them regulations and laws that are just and right, and decrees and commands that are good. You made known to them your holy Sabbath and gave them commands, decrees, and laws through your servant Moses. In their hunger you gave them bread from heaven and in their thirst you brought them water from the rock; you told them to go in and take possession of the land you had sworn with uplifted hand to give them. (NIV)

Memory is precious and valuable. Having once worked as a chaplain in a memory care unit, I can testify that Alzheimer’s and dementia are tragic. The residents and patients for whom I interacted with were wonderful people. They just did not remember much – even their own names, sometimes. It is especially hard for family members. Spouses, children, grandchildren, and friends still remember – and, at times, not being remembered by this person they love is a deep sadness.

I wonder if this is the same kind of sadness which God felt. Having delivered his people from Egyptian bondage and sending them to the Promised Land, over the generations the people of God eventually forgot. With their memories far from them, the people lapsed into living as if they no longer knew who they were anymore.

To make a long biblical story short, God’s people were taken from their homes and exiled to Babylon. Yet, God still remembered them even though many of them forgot him. God sent Ezra the teacher and Nehemiah the leader to remind the people and help make the memories stick.

In today’s Old Testament lesson, we pick up Ezra and Nehemiah’s teaching and leading of the people in a collective and prayerful confession of their sins. At the heart of it all was a failed memory of God’s deliverance. Unlike Alzheimer’s and dementia folks who do not choose their condition, and who experience memory issues through no fault of their own, God’s people allowed themselves to forget.

The people needed to come back to remembrance and recall the mighty acts of God on their behalf in history. Those memories were meant to serve the people well, to enable them to always live by faith and trust in a benevolent God’s all-seeing care.

The path to renewal always begins with awareness and memory.

So, then, that is why Jews remember the Sabbath and the Passover. That is why Christians memorialize the death of Jesus through Holy Communion. We are to always remember the redemptive events of God in bringing us from bondage to liberation.

We can only know where we are going if we are served with full cognitive abilities of memory and history. For the Christian, a failure to remember inevitably leads to a failure of faith. And an ignorance of history will only lead us to an exile of the soul, putting us at risk of listening to hucksters who claim knowledge, but who themselves suffer from major memory issues.

Memory and remembrance are beautiful things, that is, when we have wonderful things to remember. Even traumatic events need to be remembered – not for experiencing re-traumatization – but to unburden the spirit of its heavy weight, and to bring a loving God’s healing power to bear on those memories.

Confessional prayer helps us to do just that: Acknowledge the past, receive grace in the present, and have direction and hope for the future. God still desires to take us from cruel bondage and bring us to a land flowing with milk and honey.

Recollection brings awareness; and awareness allows us the power to make choices of faith, hope, and love.

Blessed heavenly Father, we come to you in remembrance that our Lord Jesus Christ was sent from you into the world to assume our flesh and blood and to fulfill for us all obedience to the divine law, even to the bitter and shameful death of the cross. By Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension he established a new and eternal covenant of grace and reconciliation that we might be accepted and never forsaken nor forgotten by you. Most righteous God, we remember the perfect sacrifice offered once on the cross by our Lord Jesus for the sin of the whole world. In the joy of his resurrection and in expectation of his coming again, we offer ourselves to you as holy and living sacrifices. Amen.

Matthew 6:7-15 – The Lord’s Prayer

The Lord's Prayer

And when you pray, do not keep on babbling like pagans, for they think they will be heard because of their many words. Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

This, then, is how you should pray:

“Our Father in heaven,
hallowed be your name,
your kingdom come,
your will be done,
    on earth as it is in heaven.
Give us today our daily bread.
And forgive us our debts,
    as we also have forgiven our debtors.
And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one.”

For if you forgive other people when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins. (NIV)

God knows what we need before we even ask him, which means that the Creator of the universe has his ear inclined to listen to us. The Lord desires, even longs for us to pray to him. Since this is God’s disposition every day, Jesus communicated to us a model way of prayer. This prayer exemplifies the values of Christ’s Beatitudes and reflects the priorities of God’s kingdom. The Lord’s Prayer is meant to be prayed often, mindfully, and with flavor.

Jesus gave us six petitions to guide us in our prayers: The first three petitions are priorities of God that set the tone for the next three petitions, which are centered in our problems of living in this fallen world.

Addressing God

Jesus gave us instruction of how to address God: “Our Father in heaven.” All the pronouns in the Lord’s Prayer are plural, not singular. We are to be concerned for both our own individual issues, and for the needs of the community, of the problems and situations of the world.

“Father” is an endearing and relational word. “In heaven” balances the closeness and nearness of our heavenly Father with his sovereign and transcendent nature. Our God is both near and far – a close friend as well as a holy king.  So, we address him with a proper understanding of who he is.

Three Priorities

  1. First Petition: “Hallowed be your name.”

“Hallow” comes from the root word for holiness; it is to sanctify, to set apart. God is concerned that his creatures revere him and treat him as the Holy One.

Notice the use of the verb: not hallowed “is” your name, but hallowed, or holy “be” your name. That is, Jesus guides us to pray that God’s name would be shown as holy through us by the way we live. The world sees a holy God when his people walk in holiness, reflecting his benevolent nature.

After Christ’s resurrection and ascension, the Apostle Peter encouraged a struggling band of young Christians:

So, you must live as God’s obedient children. Don’t slip back into your old ways of living to satisfy your own desires. You didn’t know any better back then. But now you must be holy in everything you do, just as God who chose you is holy. For the Scriptures say, “You must be holy because I am holy.” And remember that the heavenly Father to whom you pray has no favorites. He will judge or reward you according to what you do. So, you must live in reverence of him during your time here as “temporary residents.” (1 Peter 1:14-17, NLT)

  1. Second Petition: “Your kingdom come.”

We live in a fallen world that has come under the domain of dark forces. The unfolding drama of Holy Scripture is that God himself is on a mission to restore his creation to a benevolent rule and gracious reign. Jesus is the King, we are the subjects, and God’s realm exists wherever his subjects go.  And where his subjects go, they are to pierce the darkness by embodying the good news that King Jesus has overcome the demonic realm and brought us into God’s kingdom. The prayer and proclamation of this good news is of utmost priority to God.

  1. Third Petition: “Your will be done on earth as it is in heaven.”

God’s ethical will has been revealed to us by Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount with the Beatitudes as the cornerstone of his teaching (Matthew 5-7). God’s will is that Christ’s followers be humble; grieve over personal and communal sin in the world; act with gentleness instead of prideful condescension toward others; hunger after true righteousness instead of legalistic self-righteousness; show mercy; be pure in heart; pursue peace; and, rejoice when persecuted. All of this results in being salt and light in this dark world.

Furthermore, we are to reconcile with others instead of hold grudges; deal with our lust through accountability instead of making excuses for our mental adultery; cherish our spouse instead of taking the easy way out when problems arise in marriage; tell the truth at all times instead of shading it; and, love, not retaliate when personally hurt or insulted. This is God’s will, and if it seems an impossible task, that is because we need divine resources to live our Christian ethic. In other words, we need to pray!

These three petitions are priorities for God. They are three ways of essentially asking the same thing – that the full manifestation of God’s reign on earth be realized.  Thus, our prayers are not primarily to receive goods and services from God, but for us to render service to God. The priority of prayer given by Jesus centers in the advancement of God’s merciful rule, and the doing of God’s will.  These prioritized prayers are a burning desire to see God honored on earth as he is already honored in heaven.

The Lord's Prayer 2

Three Problems

  1. Fourth Petition: “Give us today our daily bread.”

It is our bodies that enable us to do God’s will, and so we must be concerned for them. We must have the necessities of life and daily sustenance to carry out God’s priorities for the church and the world. This is not a prayer for long-term luxuries, but daily needs.

In the ancient world, people were paid at the end of each day. Folks also shopped every day at the marketplace for their food (no fridge!). When there was a flood or a drought, it did not just mean high grocery prices; people faced starvation and death. They needed to trust God for today, and not worry about tomorrow.  Even though we do not always readily perceive our great dependence on God, we still are in divine hands and need faith.

  1. Fifth Petition: “Forgive our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.”

Sin is pictured as a debt. If someone has sinned (trespassed) against us, we must forgive them, thus releasing them from their debt.  To forgive does not mean to forget. Rather, we are not to hold the debt or the sin over someone’s head for the rest of their life.

The simple truth is that the person who is forgiven by God is a forgiving person. Our own forgiveness implies that we have done the hard work of repentance through identifying our sin and renouncing it. So, if we fail to forgive, it demonstrates a lack of change on our part. We cannot, then, be forgiven if we are avail ourselves of the grace which is freely offered.

The practice of forgiveness is of utmost importance to Jesus. Living the Beatitudes of Jesus and being a peacemaker means we are to squarely face our bitterness. Simply sweeping our hurt under the rug and not extending forgiveness only gives the demonic realm a foothold into our lives – which is why we are to pray the final petition….

  1. Sixth Petition: “And lead us not into temptation but deliver us from the evil one.”

Just as we have real physical necessities we must trust God for, we also have genuine spiritual needs which hinge on the issue of forgiveness – our forgiveness from God through Christ, and the forgiveness we extend to others who have hurt or offended us.

An unforgiving heart is the primary reason for the temptation to hate, seek revenge, and retaliate. If we have spent days, weeks, months, years, or even decades harboring an unforgiving spirit through anger, bitterness, and avoidance of facing our past trauma, we have embraced the dark side and need deliverance from evil.

The path to deliverance is through acknowledging the offense, receiving grace and forgiveness from God, and passing that same forgiveness and grace to those who hurt us. This is not about whether they deserve it or not; it is a matter of what I need to do.

Conclusion

A desire to see God’s agenda accomplished through the first three petitions leads us to seek grace and forgiveness, not giving ground to the devil. The truth sets us free; telling our secrets brings freedom. Apart from naming our shame, we will remain bound and in need of liberation. Tell your secrets to God in the prayer closet, and then tell them to a trusted friend(s). We pray, and we act on what God tells us in prayer.

The Lord’s Prayer is a model prayer. That means we use the six petitions of Jesus to frame our prayers in our own words, as well as say the words in our favorite translation of the Bible.

We are to pray this prayer continually, for in doing so it will shape our everyday lives, serve as a guide for how to live, and provide discernment in making life’s many decisions.  To be the church is to pray. To be a Christian is to pray. So, let us daily and in every way make use of our Lord’s Prayer.

Our Father in heaven,

            The One who is both near and far,

May your Name be shown as holy,

            through us, your people.

May others submit to your lordship,

            and become holy, too.

Help us to know your will,

            and to do it.

We need you God,

           so, provide our necessities for today.

Forgive us of our great and many sins,

            just as we forgive those

            who have sinned egregiously against us.

Lead us in paths of righteousness,

            which will shoo the devil away.

For you are the Ruler,

the Mighty One,

full of glory and grace.

Amen!