Psalms 42 & 43 – Longing for Another World

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 should trust you, Lord.
I will praise you again
because you help me,
    and you are my God.

I am deeply discouraged,
    and so I think about you
here where the Jordan begins
at Mount Hermon
    and at 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 God of my life.

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, Lord!
And I will praise you again
because you help me,
    and you are my God…

Show that I am right, God!
Defend me against everyone
    who doesn’t know you;
rescue me from each
    of those deceitful liars.
I run to you for protection.
Why do you turn me away?
Why must enemies mistreat me
    and make me sad?

Send your light and your truth
    to guide me.
Let them lead me to your house
    on your sacred mountain.
Then I will worship
at your altar because you
    make me joyful.
You are my God,
    and I will praise you.
Yes, I will praise you
    as I play my harp.

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

Longing is a universal human experience. It is also an integral part of the human condition.

“If we find ourselves with a desire that nothing in this world can satisfy, the most probable explanation is that we were made for another world.”

C.S. Lewis

Before that statement, Lewis spoke of the nature of longing – how all that we experience in this life is not the ultimate object of our desire, of our longing. The beauty and satisfaction we seek:

“was not in them, it only came through them, and what came through them was longing. These things—the beauty, the memory of our own past—are good images of what we really desire; but if they are mistaken for the thing itself they turn into dumb idols, breaking the hearts of their worshipers. For they are not the thing itself; they are only the scent of a flower we have not found, the echo of a tune we have not heard, news from a country we have never yet visited.”

C.S. Lewis, The Weight of Glory

If we follow the path of any pain, any psychological or emotional wounding, it will lead us to this one primal pain: the pain of separation.

That’s because, having been born into this world, we are banished from Paradise and carry the scars of our Edenic estrangement – the separation from God.

Although it may sound counter-intuitive, if we will but embrace this suffering, if we allow it to lead us deep within ourselves, it will take us deeper than any healing this world can offer.

In other words, longing is itself the cure. It is when our hearts break that they become open for the love to come pouring out of it.

The grief we acknowledge and express draws us toward intimacy with the Divine and with others. It brings union, not separation. The problem itself becomes the cure.

“Do not seek for water. Be thirsty.”

Jalāl al-Dīn Muḥammad Rūmī (1207-1273)

The longing for love, belonging, and connection needs to be deeply felt, because it is really the only way of actually loving another. It is in hungering and thirsting – that is, in longing – which leads us to pray and seek to end our separation.

Prayer is the voice we give to our longings.

Naming our sadness for what it is, even our depression, is most necessary. 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, tears, and the longing for better and beauty, many Christians buck the feelings. 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 come banging at the doorstep of their soul.

Depression is not sin. To be discouraged is not the Enemy. And our longings are the evidence that this is so. We must 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. Refusing to feel is, in reality, putting 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 denying our deep longings. The bottom line for many folks is that they do not want to feel discouraged or cry any tears because it complicates their lives. Besides, it hurts!. “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 of separation and longing for things to be different.

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. So, he prayed as if his life depended on it.

The psalmist did not get answers to his questions. But that was never the point of the asking.

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.

While we desperately search for a cure, none will be found in this life – at least not in full. We are occasionally and surprisingly graced with glimpses of our deepest longings whenever we experience the kindness of a stranger, an answer to a prayer we uttered years ago, or the peace of an unexpected rest.

Then, our trust reawakens, and we are encouraged to take another step in the long walk of life – a walk in which God is beside us, even if we cannot discern it.

Gracious God, help us to know wonder in our waiting, patience in our wonderings, and a vision of how life is supposed to be lived. May our deepest longing find its satisfaction in you and in the many ways you mercifully hold the world together, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 17 – Prayer in Anxious Times

Listen to what’s right, Lord;
    pay attention to my cry!
Listen closely to my prayer;
    it’s spoken by lips that don’t lie!
My justice comes from you;
    let your eyes see what is right!
You have examined my heart,
    testing me at night.
You’ve looked me over closely,
    but haven’t found anything wrong.
    My mouth doesn’t sin.
But these other people’s deeds?
    I have avoided such violent ways
    by the command from your lips.
My steps are set firmly on your paths;
    my feet haven’t slipped.

I cry out to you because you answer me.
    So tilt your ears toward me now—
    listen to what I’m saying!
Manifest your faithful love in amazing ways
    because you are the one
    who saves those who take refuge in you,
    saving them from their attackers
    by your strong hand.
Watch me with the very pupil of your eye!
    Hide me in the protection of your wings,
        away from the wicked
            who are out to get me,
        away from my deadly enemies
            who are all around me!
They have no pity;
    their mouths speak arrogantly.
They track me down—
    suddenly, they surround me!
    They make their plans to put me in the dirt.
They are like a lion eager to rip its prey;
    they are like a strong young lion lying in wait.

Get up, Lord!
    Confront them!
    Bring them down!
Rescue my life from the wicked—
    use your sword!
Rescue me from these people—
    use your own hands, Lord!
Rescue me from these people
    whose only possession is their fleeting life.
But fill the stomachs of your cherished ones;
    let their children be filled full
    so that they have leftovers enough for their babies.

But me? I will see your face in righteousness;
    when I awake, I will be filled full by seeing your image. (Common English Bible)

This is one of David’s personal psalms of lament. It’s a prayer forged smack in the middle of adversity with unjust adversaries seeking to take his life. 

The psalm is a visceral plea for God to vindicate David and subdue those who wanted to harm him. Today’s psalm is also a heartfelt lament that wickedness exists and often gets its way; it is an expression of grief about the constant threats swirling around David.

There was so much mean and arrogant violence that David prayed God would keep him as the apple of his eye and hide him in the shadow of his wings. 

Indeed, perhaps no better prayer could be said in times when there are people who make untrue accusations and only wish harm to be done to you, that the Lord will keep a continual watchful, focused, and vigilant gaze upon us.

In times when angry simpletons spew their worst and misguided miscreants seek us harm, we need to confidently know: God watches over us with affection and cares for us as a mother hen protects her chicks.

Even before we make the request, neither our predicament nor our hearts are strangers to the Lord. Our human ingenuity and stamina is not enough to overcome intense hardship and adversity. The Lord must be there to help us and to guide our hearts toward the good. Even when the way is painful, later it will bear the fruit of righteousness.

You and I are precious to God. We can run to the Lord when there is trouble. There truly is a benevolent God showing firm commitment to those who seek truth, loving actions, and merciful words. 

When going through a difficult season, in which another or others accuse you of wrongdoing and you know you are innocent, the proper prescription is to pray this very psalm repeatedly at night before bed. For we all know that sleep can be elusive and hard to come by in such difficult circumstances. The palpable stress can make it impossible to tone down the racing thoughts.

Trying to fall asleep through sheer willpower is totally ineffective. Instead, try to stay awake by praying. While it may sound counterintuitive, trying to stay awake through prayer lessens the anxiety around trying to fall asleep. Since falling asleep is an involuntary process, taking our minds off of the task at hand gives the brain the break it needs, and the heart the comfort it needs. 

Perhaps, along with David, you will be able to say that your prayers are answered – that you beheld the face of righteousness and had good sleep. And in the morning, when you awake, you will feel satisfied with having seen the likeness of a God who hears and cares.

Gracious and merciful Lord, you are the holy One who has pity for all our weakness. Put away from us worry and every anxious fear so that at the end of a hard day – in which you saw all of our labor and all our adversities – your compassionate eye will watch over us and your loving hand will hold us as we lay down for rest. And when the night has come, may we receive from you your priceless gift of sleep, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

Psalm 51:1-17 – Ash Wednesday

Have mercy on me, God, according to your faithful love!
    Wipe away my wrongdoings according to your great compassion!
Wash me completely clean of my guilt;
    purify me from my sin!
Because I know my wrongdoings,
    my sin is always right in front of me.
I’ve sinned against you—you alone.
    I’ve committed evil in your sight.
That’s why you are justified when you render your verdict,
    completely correct when you issue your judgment.
Yes, I was born in guilt, in sin,
    from the moment my mother conceived me.
And yes, you want truth in the most hidden places;
    you teach me wisdom in the most secret space.

Purify me with hyssop and I will be clean;
    wash me and I will be whiter than snow.
Let me hear joy and celebration again;
    let the bones you crushed rejoice once more.
Hide your face from my sins;
    wipe away all my guilty deeds!
Create a clean heart for me, God;
    put a new, faithful spirit deep inside me!
Please don’t throw me out of your presence;
    please don’t take your holy spirit away from me.
Return the joy of your salvation to me
    and sustain me with a willing spirit.
Then I will teach wrongdoers your ways,
    and sinners will come back to you.

Deliver me from violence, God, God of my salvation,
    so that my tongue can sing of your righteousness.
Lord, open my lips,
    and my mouth shall proclaim your praise.
You don’t want sacrifices.
    If I gave an entirely burned offering,
    you wouldn’t be pleased.
A broken spirit is my sacrifice, God.
    You won’t despise a heart, God, that is broken and crushed. (Common English Bible)

Ash Wednesday is an ancient holy day on the Church Calendar. It marks the beginning of the season of Lent—a time of penitence, discipline, and renewal.

We are reminded of our mortality, we confess our sins, and we experience forgiveness through Christ’s death and resurrection. The “imposition of ashes” is a central part of Ash Wednesday observances, whereby the penitent worshiper receives ashes on the forehead in the sign of the cross.

In Holy Scripture, ashes serve both as a symbol of mortality and as a sign of mourning and repentance. But neither sin nor death is the final word. So, we also have confidence and gratitude that Christ has conquered death, and nothing can separate us from the love of God, which is in Jesus, our Lord.

Today, on this Ash Wednesday, the appropriate posture of the devout Christian is prayer. Specifically, prayers of confession of our great and many sins, shortcomings, and moral failures. 

This might sound negative and a major downer. Yet, to not look evil square in the face and call it out for what it is, is at best denial, and at the worst allowing a bitter seed of unforgiveness to gestate in the depths of your soul. 

It seems to me there is no better way to confront the darkness within than with using the ancient prayer book of the Old Testament Psalms. I encourage you to pray Psalm 51 out loud and slowly, with a generous amount of emotional flavor – even, and especially, if you don’t feel like it. 

Pray the ancient psalm over more than once, and perhaps several times punctuated throughout the day today. In doing so, you will be joining the faithful across this entire big world who today offer to God a prayer of subversion against the blackness on this earth.

Holy God, as the season now turns to Lent, we pray that you will guide us in the days ahead.  As we journey with Jesus, give us an abiding sense of your presence, an unguarded sense of ourselves, and an awareness of the needs of this world.

Loving God, as we are marked with the ashes of earth, we bring before you the frailty of our very human lives:  our fragile health; the uncertainty of our plans; the changing nature of our relationships. Grant us patience in suffering and healing from our ills. Give us, in equal measure, humility and hope in our pursuits. Bind us in love that is constant, yet able to change according to the needs and circumstances before us.

Just God, you call us to action; to bring freedom to the oppressed; to care for those in need; to lift the burdens of others. We ask you to increase our courage and our will to work for the peace you envision and desire. We pray for an end to warfare and conflict, accepting our call to be peacemakers. We pray for an end to hunger and homelessness, knowing we are called to share with others and show hospitality. We pray for an end to false righteousness, evil speech, and shallow faith in our lives, in the church, in our public life, and among all the nations.

Eternal God, we pray your kingdom will come in fullness; that what is perishable will be raised imperishable; that death itself will be swallowed up in victory; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

Psalm 71:1-6 – How to Cope with Change and Loss

I run to you, Lord,
for protection.
    Don’t disappoint me.
You do what is right,
    so come to my rescue.
    Listen to my prayer
    and keep me safe.
Be my mighty rock,
    the place
where I can always run
    for protection.
Save me by your command!
    You are my mighty rock
    and my fortress.

Come and save me, Lord God,
    from vicious and cruel
    and brutal enemies!
I depend on you,
    and I have trusted you
    since I was young.
I have relied on you
    from the day I was born.
You brought me safely
through birth,
    and I always praise you. (Contemporary English Version)

No one gets off this planet without experiencing several events of change and loss, resulting in grief and the need to lament. Because of this reality, you would think we all acknowledge this great need of lamenting our significant losses. Yet, we don’t.

Many Christians avoid grief work. The following are just a few of the statements I’ve heard over the decades from parishioners when they experience loss:

  • “Christ is resurrected and alive. There’s victory in Jesus. No need to grieve like unbelievers.”
  • “My loved one is in heaven. No more suffering or pain. It would be selfish of me to be sad.”
  • “It’s a sin to be depressed.”
  • “I can’t let myself cry and fall apart. I need to be strong for my family.”

Those statements are very far from what we find in the biblical psalms and throughout the entirety of Holy Scripture. Consider these realities in the Bible:

  • 62 out of the 150 Psalms in the Old Testament are laments; some are communal, many are individual expressions of grief.
  • God laments. And God grieves with us. (Genesis 6:5-6; Isaiah 53:4; John 11:1-44)
  • An extended time and process of grieving was practiced by biblical characters when loss occurred. It was a normal emotional, spiritual, physical, and relational reaction to that loss. (e.g., Genesis 50:1-3)
  • Lament is an intentional process of letting go of relationships and dreams and discovering how to live into a new identity after the loss or change. There’s even an entire book of the Bible given to lamenting: Lamentations.
  • Everyone’s grief is personal; there is no one size fits all.
  • Avoiding grief, mourning, lament, and loss is totally foreign to the Bible.

Psalms of lament have a characteristic structure, distinct from psalms of praise, trust, or wisdom, like today’s psalm:

  1. Address to God: The address is usually a brief cry for help; and is occasionally expanded to include a statement of praise or a recollection of God’s intervention in the past (Psalm 71:1-3).
  2. Complaint: God is informed about the problem or experience through a range and depth of emotional, relational, and spiritual reactions to change (Psalm 71:4).
  3. Confession of Trust: The psalmist remains confident in God despite the circumstances and begins to see his or her problems differently (Psalm 71:5-8).
  4. Petition: Filled with confidence in God, the psalmist appeals to God for deliverance and intervention.  Petitioning is not bargaining with God or a refusal to accept loss; it is a legitimate seeking of help (Psalm 71:9-13).
  5. Words of Assurance: The psalmist expresses certainty that the petition will be heard by God (Psalm 71:14a).
  6. Vow of Praise: The lament concludes with the psalmist’s vow to testify to what God will do or has done through praise (Psalm 71:14b-24).

The biblical psalms do two wonderful services for us as God’s people: First, a constant stream of reading, quoting, memorizing, and meditating on them actually shapes our faith into a full-orbed, mature, and robust belief. Second, the psalms provide us with a healthy means of expressing the complete range of our human experience. 

So, then, the psalms both reflect our feelings, and, at the same time, form those feelings to know God better, cope with situations, and relate appropriately with others. 

The fourth-century Bishop of Alexandria, Athanasius, had it right about the psalms when he said: 

“Whatever your particular need or trouble, from this same book [the Psalms] you can select a form of words to fit it, so that you not merely hear and pass on, but learn the way to remedy your ill.”

St. Athanasius (297-373 C.E.), Bishop of Alexandria

Today’s psalm of lament is the expression of a person getting along in years and discovering all the limitations and weaknesses that go along with aging. It is a plea for help. Whereas in younger days the psalmist had the vigor to engage problems and enemies, now he has the realization that he must increasingly depend upon God (and others).  

Far too many people hitting the aging process do not deal with it well. The change to their bodies, even their minds, is so unwelcome that they do not cope quickly, or, sometimes, at all. They believe it silly to lament such a natural occurrence, even though those physical changes dog them day after day.

Based upon the psalms, I insist that lament is a powerful and necessary form of coming to grips with change. God has not promised us life-long health and constant energy. Rather, the Lord has promised to be with us as our refuge and help through all the vicissitudes of changing health and altered situations. 

Let praying the psalms, then, be a regimen as familiar and daily as your using your pill planner and taking your meds.

Ever-watchful God, you are a rock of refuge, a never changing reality in a world of constant change. You are my hope, Lord, and my faith has been in you all my life. I lament all the difficult changes I encounter. I can never go back to the way things were. So, please open to me a new reality where fresh hope and life can be found, through Jesus Christ my Savior. Amen.