Psalm 18:20-30 – Vault the Highest Fence

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Psalm 34:1-8 – Deliverance from Trouble

I will praise the Lord at all times.
    I will constantly speak his praises.
I will boast only in the Lord;
    let all who are helpless take heart.
Come, let us tell of the Lord’s greatness;
    let us exalt his name together.

I prayed to the Lord, and he answered me.
    He freed me from all my fears.
Those who look to him for help will be radiant with joy;
    no shadow of shame will darken their faces.
In my desperation I prayed, and the Lord listened;
    he saved me from all my troubles.
For the angel of the Lord is a guard;
    he surrounds and defends all who fear him.

Taste and see that the Lord is good.
    Oh, the joys of those who take refuge in him! (New Living Translation)

Gratitude and praise are more than a nice thing. They have the power to spiritually form us, emotionally buoy us, and mentally change our brain chemistry for the better – not to mention connecting us with divine help.

Today’s psalm is a song of thanksgiving. The psalmist intentionally recalls being delivered by G-d from trouble and hardship. And he invites us to experience G-d’s salvation, as well.

Desperate people who are between a rock and a hard place need divine help. The Lord is able to intervene in both small and large ways. David, the psalmist, crafted this psalm in a time when he had no resources available to him. He was alone with nothing but the Lord. And that was plenty. Even a little bit of G-d is enough to thoroughly rescue.

Take note of the verbs used to describe G-d’s activity in helping David: “answered” “freed” “listened” “saved” “surrounds” and “defends.” These multiple actions of the Lord were all activated through David’s initiative with one single verb of his own: “prayed.”

It is one thing to pray because of expectation or routine. It is altogether a different thing to pray out of desperation from the depths of your gut.

So, when David encourages us to taste and see that the Lord is good and to take refuge in G-d, he is calling us to pray – to know something of God’s promises, presence, provision, and power and to actively ask, seek, and knock for help.

David, the psalmist, really wants us to experience prayer. He desires us to cry out on behalf of ourselves, as well as lifting up others to G-d. Yet, truth be told, helping those with afflictions and sickness through prayer is something we don’t always handle well.

We might too quickly and reflexively dispense our homespun opinions and ideas, as if we are experts on another’s situation, rather than hurrying to G-d in prayer. In our pride, we believe that if folks will just follow our recommendations that all will be well.

And then there are the silly and even hurtful things we say to others in their distress, rather than interceding for them before G-d. We may toss out a flippant and simplistic statement like, “God will heal — just pray.” Then, we leave them to do that alone. And sometimes, even after prayer, medicine, and doing the right thing, change doesn’t happen, and nobody knows quite what to do.

We can also be guilty of reducing trouble to only the physical when the trouble might be emotional, mental, relational, or any combination thereof. These are the hurts and troubles plaguing us all, because we live in a broken world where everyone needs redemption.

Many times, we have no problem believing G-d will work on behalf of others. We trust the Lord for deliverance and the miraculous for them. Yet, when it comes to us, we harbor serious doubts of whether G-d will rescue us, or even wants to.

There are a lot of things we just don’t know. However, what we do know is that the God of David promises help in Psalm 34, and to redeem lives from desperate situations. And this is why David could boldly invite us to tell of the Lord’s greatness, and call us to praise G-d’s name together.

May the risen and ascended Christ, mightier than the hordes of hell, more glorious than the heavenly hosts, be with you in all your ways. 

May the cross of the Son of God protect you by day and by night, at morning and at evening, at all times and in all places. 

May Christ Jesus guard and deliver you from the snares of the devil, from the assaults of evil spirits, from the wrath of the wicked, from all base passions and from the fear of the known and unknown.

May the blessing of God almighty – Father, Son, and Spirit – be upon you and remain with you always. Amen. 

Psalm 118:1-2, 19-29 – Gratitude Changes Us

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    his steadfast love endures forever!

Let Israel say,
    “His steadfast love endures forever….”

Open to me the gates of righteousness,
    that I may enter through them
    and give thanks to the Lord.

This is the gate of the Lord;
    the righteous shall enter through it.

I thank you that you have answered me
    and have become my salvation.
The stone that the builders rejected
    has become the chief cornerstone.
This is the Lord’s doing;
    it is marvelous in our eyes.
This is the day that the Lord has made;
    let us rejoice and be glad in it.
Save us, we beseech you, O Lord!
    O Lord, we beseech you, give us success!

Blessed is the one who comes in the name of the Lord.
    We bless you from the house of the Lord.
The Lord is God,
    and he has given us light.
Bind the festal procession with branches,
    up to the horns of the altar.

You are my God, and I will give thanks to you;
    you are my God, I will extol you.

O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good,
    for his steadfast love endures forever. (NRSV)

Show me a spiritual sourpuss, and I’ll show you a person who lives without daily gratitude toward God and others. But show me a gracious person who liberally gives thanks, and I will show you a person profoundly in touch with God’s steadfast love.

The psalmist chose to give thanks for God’s goodness and faithful love. I wonder how much different each day would be if we began it with the psalmist’s great call to worship: “This is the day the Lord has made; let us rejoice and be glad in it.” 

There is a misguided notion that only certain people have the attitude of gratitude – that some folks are just naturally ornery, and some are just born happy. But the truth is that gratitude and giving thanks is a practice which needs to be carefully cultivated. As it grows and develops, gratitude bears the fruit of joy. 

Thankfulness is a daily decision of faith to have the kind of attitude which pleases God and blesses others.

We now know so much more about the human brain. Research has discovered that the brain is made up of an estimated 100 billion neurons making a total of 100 trillion neural connections. That’s a lot of neural power! Most of those neural pathways are good and healthy. For example, I didn’t have to think about how to tie my shoes this morning because I have a well-developed neural pathway that automatically makes the connection to do it.

However, some of those neural pathways are not good, even unhealthy. There might be connections in our heads which lead to substance abuse when under stress, or to violently lash out when afraid or hurt, or things like plain old procrastination. If you have ever had the experience of telling yourself that you’re not going to respond a particular way, then end up doing it anyway, it is likely you have a well-worn neural pathway which connects certain events to a set of focused actions.

What this all means is that willpower won’t do the trick in changing behavior. That’s because our brains don’t work that way. The good news is that all those neural connections and pathways, like ruts in a gravel road, can fade away and new ones can be developed. Scientists call this “neural plasticity.”

There are practices which can help unhealthy neural connections go away and create new healthy pathways.

One of those practices is gratitude. Giving thanks changes our brain chemistry! Yet, it doesn’t happen overnight. But if we identify three persons or possessions which we are grateful for and say them out loud at least three times a day over the next three months, then we have developed a new neural pathway in our brain.

So, in the future, when we face a stressful event – whereas in the past we might deal with it in an unhealthy way – now our brains reflexively go to a different place and see the situation in a different way than before. And we choose different actions and behaviors.

Readers of this blog know that I continually encourage reading the psalms out loud as prayers to God. If we make this a practice, it will not only change our brains – it will create new spiritual pathways in our souls which fortify us for those times in life when things are tough and hard.

Spiritual practices have a purpose. And when we use those disciplines, we end up developing connections with the Lord which support us and sustain us for a lifetime – not to mention that we become a delight for others to be around instead of being a tedious fart.

Loving God, this is the day you have made; I rejoice in it and am glad that your steadfast love covers all things. Help me to connect every good thing with your gracious hand upon me so that I will not look and act like I was baptized in pickle juice.  To the glory of Jesus Christ, I pray.  Amen.

Psalm 107:1-16 – The Necessity of Telling Our Secrets

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O give thanks to the Lord, for he is good;
    for his steadfast love endures forever.
Let the redeemed of the Lord say so,
    those he redeemed from trouble
and gathered in from the lands,
    from the east and from the west,
    from the north and from the south.

Some wandered in desert wastes,
    finding no way to an inhabited town;
hungry and thirsty,
    their soul fainted within them.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he delivered them from their distress;
he led them by a straight way,
    until they reached an inhabited town.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wonderful works to humankind.
For he satisfies the thirsty,
    and the hungry he fills with good things.

Some sat in darkness and in gloom,
    prisoners in misery and in irons,
for they had rebelled against the words of God,
    and spurned the counsel of the Most High.
Their hearts were bowed down with hard labor;
    they fell down, with no one to help.
Then they cried to the Lord in their trouble,
    and he saved them from their distress;
he brought them out of darkness and gloom,
    and broke their bonds asunder.
Let them thank the Lord for his steadfast love,
    for his wonderful works to humankind.
For he shatters the doors of bronze,
    and cuts in two the bars of iron. (NRSV)

The psalmist calls upon others to give thanks to the good Lord who shows enduring love to people. The psalmist furthermore exhorts those who have been redeemed to say so, to declare God’s praises for delivering them from trouble. 

Whatever the circumstances and however difficult the experiences may have been, the believer is not to remain in silence but is to publicly thank God.

Speaking our spiritual stories to others is important for those who share them, and for those who listen, so that the community of the redeemed will be strengthened in their faith and emboldened to share with others. Far too many Christians are reticent to talk about what God has done or is doing in their lives. Shame, embarrassment, or a host of other reasons might prevent us from being vulnerable enough to let others in on God’s deep work within us. But the psalmist does not let us off the hook, even if we feel we are not articulate or are too afraid to speak.

We all likely have had the privilege of hearing another person share their heart and experience of hardship and God’s deliverance. It was uplifting, encouraging, and helpful. So, let’s not keep our stories to ourselves. Stories are meant to be told, not hidden. 

Bringing to light our faith journey is healing for all, as well as declaring the light of Jesus to the world.

Author Frederick Buechner wrote a book several years ago entitled, “Telling Secrets.” Buechner tells of his own experience of keeping some stories inside and never letting them see the light of day. One of those stories was growing up with an alcoholic father and all the other stories that went along with that singular story. It was only in finally telling the family secret of alcoholism that he discovered a better path forward to healing and blessing. He writes:

“What we hunger for perhaps more than anything else is to be known in our full humanness, and yet that is often just what we also fear more than anything else. It is important to tell at least from time to time the secret of who we truly and fully are because otherwise we run the risk of losing track of who we truly and fully are and little by little come to accept instead the highly edited version which we put forth in hope that the world will find it more acceptable than the real thing. It is important to tell our secrets, too, because it makes it easier for other people to tell us a secret or two of their own.”

“My story is important not because it is mine, God knows, but because if I tell it, the chances are you will recognize that, in many ways, it is also your story. It is precisely through these stories in all their particularity, as I have long believed and often said, that God makes himself known to each of us more powerfully and personally. If this is true, it means that to lose track of our stories is to be profoundly impoverished not only humanly but also spiritually.”

Shame is like a vampire. It lives in the shadows, thirsting for and feeding upon secrets.

But when our stories are told and see the light of day, the vampire of shame is destroyed by the bright rays of truth and vulnerability. We then become open to genuine relationships without propping up a false self to pose for others. We place ourselves in a position to receive and give love. In short, we can meaningfully connect with both God and others because we found our voice and told our story.

Great God of deliverance, I praise you that I have a story to tell of your grace and faithfulness. Help me to tell of your mercy in my life so that the name of Jesus will be exalted, and that your people might be built up in the faith.  Amen.