Persevere Through Adversity (Psalm 129)

Painting of Jerusalem by Alex Levin

From my earliest youth my enemies have persecuted me.
    Let all Israel repeat this:
From my earliest youth my enemies have persecuted me,
    but they have never defeated me.
My back is covered with cuts,
    as if a farmer had plowed long furrows.
But the Lord is good;
    he has cut me free from the ropes of the ungodly.

May all who hate Jerusalem
    be turned back in shameful defeat.
May they be as useless as grass on a rooftop,
    turning yellow when only half grown,
ignored by the harvester,
    despised by the binder.
And may those who pass by
    refuse to give them this blessing:
“The Lord bless you;
    we bless you in the Lord’s name.” (New Living Translation)

The Jewish people know a thing or two about perseverance through suffering; they’ve been enduring it for millennia. If we let them, they can show us a better way of facing adversity.

It seems to me that we modern Gentiles could learn from our Jewish brothers and sisters. We Westerners tend toward burying the past, putting things behind us, and forgetting all the bad things which occurred back there. But the Psalms, a wonderful depository of Jewish thought and practice, will have none of that approach.

Today’s Psalm comes from a group known as the “Psalms of Ascent.” (Psalms 120-134) These were sung by ancient Jewish worshipers as they made the journey up to Jerusalem for the Feast of Tabernacles.

As the pilgrims walked together on their ascent to the great city, the experience of collectively singing and worshiping made the people feel united in joy, purpose, and sorrow. Remembering was central to that sense of solidarity.

The Jewish people have been attacked by countless enemies, not only throughout the Old Testament, but also throughout their long history. Empires tend to not like Jews because Jews hold to their own set of laws and worship practices – which seem to always come into conflict with what some Emperor, Dictator, or Tyrant wants. So, they try to be rid of Jews, like plowing a field to break up the stubborn hard ground of Yahweh worship. The Jewish people end up being treated, literally, like dirt.

“The attempt to eliminate the people of God was an attempt to eradicate the presence of God from the human situation. The fact that after Auschwitz the Jewish people still lives and can still affirm its faith is the most powerful testimony that God still lives.”

Rabbi Jonathan Sacks, Crisis and Covenant

God will deliver… eventually. Whether Jew or Christian, there will always be enemies to the faith. And sadly, the history of Christianity includes their own brand of persecuting Jews. *Sigh*

Haters, the Psalm hopes, will be like grass in shallow soil: They may sprout quickly, but will also wither quickly and blow away to be gone forever.

The evil of this fallen world is terrible and ugly; but it isn’t permanent. Therefore, we need patience and perseverance through the suffering and adversity to realize the deliverance.

And as much as aggressive bullies try to wipe out those not conforming to their ways, the Lord simply brings in a harvest of righteousness, despite it all.

Even though the Psalms of Ascent were written long ago by people living in a time and place very different from ours, yet they express the emotions we all feel, which makes them helpful for our journey through life, as well.

Although none of us delights in persecution, pain, and struggle, we can take the stance of embracing our hard circumstances because suffering produces perseverance; perseverance, character; and character, hope. And hope does not put us to shame, since love is the force that binds the world together. (Romans 5:3-8)

“When two friends climb a hill, the hill seems less steep than if they climbed it alone.”

Sherri Mandell

Oftentimes, it is inside the pain that we begin to become one with our own vulnerable humanity. And that humble humanity is where great courage, great creativity, and great work germinates within our spirits and cultivates the ground of this world, growing to produce faith, hope, and love.

Everyone facing adversity knows how hard it is to keep going without seeing the goal. Like the farmer, we must expectantly wait till the harvest. There is nothing we can do to speed up the process and go straight from planting to harvest. It takes time and plenty of patience. Grumbling and complaining about how long it is taking will not make it go any faster.

Perseverance in the face of hardship is a major pathway to realizing a holy life. Consider the ancient prophets:

  • Jeremiah was faithful to proclaim God’s message yet was thrown into a cistern and left for dead. Yet, he was delivered from it. (Jeremiah 38:1-28)
  • Micaiah was faithful to declare truth to King Zedekiah, who then promptly imprisoned him, even though the king asked for God’s message. (1 Kings 22:24-27)
  • Daniel was faithful to pray consistently to the one true God and was thrown into the lion’s den to be killed. But the Lord saved him. (Daniel 6:1-28)

The prophets all suffered for doing the right thing and did not waver in their commitment to the Lord. Through their troubles they learned to trust God and draw near to the Lord. The adversity strengthened, not weakened, their faith.

What’s more, consider the Old Testament character of Job, who is Exhibit A of perseverance through grinding hardship. Job had it all; and he lost it all… except his faith. Job tenaciously held onto righteousness, despite his awful physical, mental, emotional, and spiritual pain. And he eventually came through it, restored and whole.

We are to keep going in our faith and not give up – and the Psalms of Ascent can help us in our endurance.

The soul would have no rainbow if the eyes had no tears. We live in a time when we will either sink or swim – there is no in-between. God’s celestial shore is within sight; don’t miss it by getting discouraged by all the fog. 

Hang in there, my friend. There is good reason to do so.

Psalm 133 – The Blessing of Unity and Harmony

How wonderful it is, how pleasant,
    for God’s people to live together in harmony!
It is like the precious anointing oil
    running down from Aaron’s head and beard,
    down to the collar of his robes.
It is like the dew on Mount Hermon,
    falling on the hills of Zion.
That is where the Lord has promised his blessing—
    life that never ends. (Good News Translation)

Unity, solidarity, and harmony are beautiful blessings. Disunity, division, and fragmentation are ugly curses.

Within every family, faith community, neighborhood, organization, and workplace are a diverse bunch of people – which brings the potential of both wonderful fellowship and disagreeing fights.

Today’s reading is a psalm of ascent. It is one of a group of psalms the Israelites would say and sing together as they made their pilgrimage to Jerusalem, ascending the temple mount to worship the Lord. Their common purpose and shared experience led to a blessed unity among all the worshipers.

The metaphors the psalm uses are meant to convey the feeling and impact of a unified people’s blessing as one harmonious bunch. The reference to oil communicates abundance and extravagant blessing beyond expectation. The dew pictures a giving of life to a dry landscape. The psalm is a celebration of life’s simple pleasures, enjoyed with friends and family.

People created in the image of God are hard-wired for community. Rather than existing in isolation, doing our own thing, and keeping to ourselves, the Lord’s intention for humans is to be close enough to one another to rejoice with those experiencing joy and to weep with those mourning a loss.

True community requires unity and harmony.

To live in harmony with one another means we regard everyone the same way by not playing favorites, being condescending, or giving more weight to one group more than another. It is a willingness to interact, work, and play with all kinds of people – not just those whom we like or help us get ahead in life.

We are designed by our Creator to live and work together in common purposes. And that takes a great deal of effort.

Be completely humble and gentle; be patient, bearing with one another in love.  Make every effort to keep the unity of the Spirit through the bond of peace.

Ephesians 4:2-3, NIV

If you’ve gotten anything at all out of following Christ, if his love has made any difference in your life, if being in a community of the Spirit means anything to you, if you have a heart, if you care—then do me a favor: Agree with each other, love each other, be deep-spirited friends. Don’t push your way to the front; don’t sweet-talk your way to the top. Put yourself aside, and help others get ahead. Don’t be obsessed with getting your own advantage. Forget yourselves long enough to lend a helping hand. (Philippians 2:1-4, MSG)

If we long to enjoy blessed relationships, then we will engage in genuine conversation, focused listening, and fair dialogue; simply stating opinions at each other will not do the trick.

Unity and harmony take work because it is easy to have a nasty tendency to think better of oneself than what is true, and of others what is not so good. We might inflate our positive qualities and abilities, especially in comparison to other people. 

Numerous research studies have revealed the propensity to overestimate ourselves. For example, when one research study asked a million high school students how well they got along with their peers, none of the students rated themselves below average. Interestingly, 60% of students believed they were in the top 10%; and 25% rated themselves in the top 1%.

College professors were just as biased about their abilities. When they were asked how well they got along with others, only 2% of professors rated themselves below average; 10% were average and 63% were above average, while 25% rated themselves as truly exceptional in getting along with their peers. Of course, this is statistically impossible.

One researcher summarized the data this way: “It’s the great contradiction: the average person believes he is a better person than the average person.”

Christian psychologist Mark McMinn contends that this study reveals our pride. He says, “One of the clearest conclusions of social science research is that we are proud. We think better of ourselves than we really are, we see our faults in faint black and white rather than in vivid color, and we assume the worst in others while assuming the best in ourselves.”

Where sinful pride rules, disharmony runs amok within a community. The acid test of harmonious love is how we treat the lowly.

“If a poor man comes into your church, behave like him, and do not put on airs because of your riches. In Christ there is no rich or poor. Do not be ashamed of him because of his outward dress but receive him because of his inward faith. If you see him in sorrow, do not hesitate to comfort him, and if he is prospering, do not feel shy about sharing in his pleasure. If you think you are a great person, then think others are also. If you think they are humble and lowly, then think the same of yourself.”

St. John Chrysostom, Bishop of Constantinople, 4th Century

We cannot function apart from harmony.

A tuning fork delivers a true pitch by two tines vibrating together. Muffle either side, even a little, and the note disappears. Neither tine individually produces the pure note. Only when both tines vibrate is the correct pitch heard. 

Harmony is not a matter of give-and-take and compromise to make each other happy or satisfied. Harmony comes through a common mission and purpose which engages in the shared experiences of loving and caring for others.

My Christian convictions and tradition tell me that the Word of God is applied by the Spirit of God through the people of God.

We are to embrace community.

We are to do life together.

We are to view everyone as our brother or sister.

After all, we are our brother’s and sister’s keeper.

So, let us ascend the hill of the Lord together. Let us worship God together with glad and sincere hearts. Let us be mindful of all our brothers and sisters, no matter who they are.

Lord Jesus, who prayed that we might all be one, we pray to you for the unity of Christians, according to your will, according to your means. May your Spirit enable us to experience the suffering caused by division, to see our sin, and to hope beyond all hope. Amen.

Psalm 121 – The Divine Helper

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
    from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
    he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
    will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
    the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
    nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
    he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
    your going out and your coming in
    from this time on and forevermore. (New Revised Standard Version)

Not a one of us gets off this planet without needing help – a lot of help! Even people who are in helping professions or who identify themselves primarily as helpers need help themselves.

There is no such thing as complete, total, and irrevocable independence. We as humans are hard-wired by our Creator for community. We only find our greatest fulfillment within interdependent relationships, and only discover our highest happiness in a dependent relationship to God.

To need others, and especially God, is not a weakness. It’s a sign of sage awareness and confident strength whenever we assess that help is needed. Only the fool goes it alone, believing they can pull themselves up by their bootstraps. “God helps those who help themselves,” was originated by Ben Franklin, not Holy Scripture.

So, the real question is: To whom and to where do we go for help? Who do we consult? With whom do we collaborate?

The most important step any of us can make is to realize that our own personal resources are inadequate, and that we admit, “I need help with this.” The next most important step is to go to the right source for that help.

The psalmist insists that the Lord is our helper, our keeper. Keeping is a large part of helping. God as our Divine Keeper means that the Lord watches over us, guards our lives, and seeks to preserve us from harm, wrongdoing, injustice, and oppression.

The very identity of God is wrapped up in being a Protector, Guard, and Watchkeeper. The Lord shields and shelters us, much like a mother hen over her chicks. God watches over us, just as a watchman keeps guard over a city at night when the residents are sleeping. And since the Lord is everywhere present, there is a continual divine presence in all of our life journeys. The dangers of both the day and the night are no match for the God who is our Keeper.

The promises of safety in today’s psalm are not meant to suggest that those who walk in the shelter of God will never endure harm or that nothing ill will ever befall them. The Psalter knows all too well that the wicked are everywhere and that they thrive unjustly.

Rather, these divine promises are general promises—they are blessings God does for those who rely on the Lord, call upon God’s name, and seek divine help. We are to have a continual awareness of God’s presence in this world. Although we are not inoculated from pain, God is always with us in our hurt and bewilderment.

It can be hard to ask for help. Our pride, stubbornness, and independence might cause us to experience harm rather than seek assistance.

Be specific about the help needed. The following are some “helpful” ways of approaching God by answering some basic newsgathering type questions. The goal isn’t to convince the Lord to help us, but rather to enable us in connecting with what we truly need and being specific about God’s assistance for us or for others:

Who? 

Who needs help? Clarify if the help is for yourself, another, or a group of people.

When Jesus had entered Capernaum, a centurion came to him, asking for help. “Lord,” he said, “my servant lies at home paralyzed, suffering terribly.”

Jesus said to him, “Shall I come and heal him?”

The centurion replied, “Lord, I do not deserve to have you come under my roof. But just say the word, and my servant will be healed. (Matthew 8:5-8, NIV)

How? 

How will God’s action help? God is an expert listener. Tell the story of what you have tried already and where you fall short.

Jesus asked the boy’s father, “How long has he been like this?”

“From childhood,” he answered. “It has often thrown him into fire or water to kill him. But if you can do anything, take pity on us and help us.”

“‘If you can’?” said Jesus. “Everything is possible for one who believes.”

Immediately the boy’s father exclaimed, “I do believe; help me overcome my unbelief!” (Mark 9:21-24, NIV)

Why? 

Why are you soliciting God’s help? Explain what’s going on and the reasons why you believe the Lord is the One to help. Mention the divine attributes and actions of God, as well as your own personal connection.

Then Asa called to the Lord his God and said, “Lord, there is no one like you to help the powerless against the mighty. Help us, Lord our God, for we rely on you, and in your name we have come against this vast army. Lord, you are our God; do not let mere mortals prevail against you.” (2 Chronicles 14:11, NIV)

Where? 

Where is the help needed? Is it a geographical location, a specific spot in the human body, or a place such as a building or home?

Jesus left the synagogue and went to the home of Simon. Now Simon’s mother-in-law was suffering from a high fever, and they asked Jesus to help her. So, he bent over her and rebuked the fever, and it left her. She got up at once and began to wait on them. (Luke 4:37-39, NIV)

When? 

When do you need help? Immediately? Tomorrow? At a specific time?

O Lord, God of my salvation,
    when, at night, I cry out in your presence,
let my prayer come before you;
    incline your ear to my cry.

For my soul is full of troubles,
    and my life draws near to Sheol. (Psalm 88:1-3, NRSV)

What? 

What, exactly, is the need? Spell out what you want in detail, holding nothing back. Don’t be concerned about the words or saying it right. Speak in your own plain language.

Help, O Lord, for the godly are fast disappearing!
    The faithful have vanished from the earth!
Neighbors lie to each other,
    speaking with flattering lips and deceitful hearts.
May the Lord cut off their flattering lips
    and silence their boastful tongues. (Psalm 12:1-3, NLT)

May you find the help you need today and every day, in Jesus’ name. Amen.

Psalm 122 – A Spiritual Journey

I was glad when they said to me,
“Let’s go to the house of the Lord.”
Our feet are standing inside your gates, Jerusalem.
Jerusalem is built to be a city
where the people are united.
All of the Lord’s tribes go to that city
because it is a law in Israel
to give thanks to the name of the Lord.
The court of justice sits there.
It consists of princes who are
David’s descendants.

Pray for the peace of Jerusalem:
“May those who love you prosper.
May there be peace inside your walls
and prosperity in your palaces.”
For the sake of my relatives and friends, let me say,
“May it go well for you!”
For the sake of the house of the Lord our God,
I will seek what is good for you. (God’s Word Translation)

The spiritual life is a pilgrimage—a journey of constant growth, sacrifice, and faith in what we cannot see. As both pilgrims and disciples, we continually move and learn.

The biblical psalms of ascent (Psalms 120-134) were sung by worshipers as they made the journey to Jerusalem for the annual feasts, and up the temple mount to unite together in worship.

Many pilgrims spent hours and/or days walking to the holy city. In the great anticipation of collective worship, the people quoted and sang the several psalms of ascent together. They enjoyed the journey.

I once spent some time reading the journals of several medieval Christian pilgrims who went to various holy sites in Europe, and some who even made the trek all the way to Jerusalem – on foot. Early in their journals, they mostly wrote about the anticipation of reaching their destination. These pilgrims went into great detail about the hospitality they encountered, and friends made along the way.

I was struck, however, with the profound lack of space and detail devoted to visiting the actual holy site – especially when they returned home and reflected on their experiences. The vast majority of pilgrims had the journey itself as their most memorable time.

Of course, we all can worship individually and personally anywhere and anyplace. Yet, if we want to have worship experiences which truly shape our spiritual lives, then we will need to have plenty of corporate encounters with fellow pilgrims on the same path as us.

Within today’s psalm, we are told that part of Israel’s decree in approaching the Lord is to give thanks. The Jewish pilgrims were to have an attitude of gratitude when they came to Jerusalem and the house of God. Each pilgrimage to Jerusalem was to have a marked expression of thanksgiving to God for giving them a place to worship and a land to dwell within.

I cannot help but wonder if attending church services would be much more appreciated and impactful if we took the mental and emotional posture of gratitude when approaching worship. 

Within some church buildings and sacred spaces there is a flight of stairs that one must ascend to reach the sanctuary. Slowly going up the stairs, we can give thanks for one thing in each step. Even if you attend a church with a zero entry, you can still give thanks to God while walking from the parking lot to the building. 

The point is that the worship of God needs some thought and intent behind it. Simply showing up and flopping down in a seat – almost daring the worship leaders and/or pastor to bless them – is far from the imagination the psalmist had for approaching a sovereign God.

Pilgrimage is about more than a long walk. It’s about the soul in community with others and God.

One way of being a pilgrim close to home is through walking a Labyrinth – an ancient practice of the Church meant for spiritual centering, contemplation, and prayer.

Entering the serpentine path of a Labyrinth, one walks slowly while quieting the mind and focusing on a spiritual question or prayer. A Labyrinth is not a maze. It has only one winding path to the center and back out. 

The wisdom of the Labyrinth is that it reflects the way life actually is – that our lives are not about the destination but about the long circuitous journey. The Christian life is consistently described in the New Testament as a road or a way. We walk with Jesus.

Labyrinths can be found within some church buildings, on church grounds, in hospitals, or park spaces. There are also “finger” Labyrinths. Rather than physically walking, the pilgrim can slowly trace the path on a paper or small Labyrinth object with a finger. 

You might also get creative and make your own homemade Labyrinth within a space of your home or out in the yard. labyrinthsociety.org has free printable Labyrinths, as well as a virtual Labyrinth walk.

The Labyrinth is not meant to be a race to the center; it only “works” if we move at a pace which enables us to meditatively pray, paying attention to what God is doing within us. Generally, there are four stages to the walk:

  • Releasing on the way toward the center – letting go of all that weighs us down in the Christian life.  “Let’s throw off any extra baggage, get rid of the sin that trips us up, and fix our eyes on Jesus, faith’s pioneer and perfecter.” (Hebrews 12:1-2, CEB)
  • Receiving in the center – accepting the love God has for you. Jesus said, “Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.” (John 16:24, NRSV)
  • Returning through following the path back out – integrating what you have received for the life of the world. “I will give them a heart to know me, God. They will be my people and I will be their God, for they will have returned to me with all their hearts.” (Jeremiah 24:7, MSG)
  • Responding to the love of God through gratitude – thus finding joy, even in the most troubling of circumstances. “O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good; his steadfast love endures forever!” (Psalm 118:1, NRSV)

The penitent heart will resonate deeply with the psalms as worship liturgy. This is because liturgical practices impress the spirit and bring spiritual freedom.

Walking together in a common spiritual journey is like going through a gate into a new reality and rejoicing with all the other redeemed pilgrims who are walking the road to Jerusalem.

Lord Jesus Christ, you call me to follow you, and I choose to walk with you. Open the eyes of my heart to see my life in a new way. With each step I take, help me to be open to change. As I walk this pilgrimage, give me the grace to journey deliberately and patiently. Amen.