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.

Psalm 126 – Spiritual Farming

farming

When the Lord restored the fortunes of Zion,
we were like those who dreamed.
Our mouths were filled with laughter,
our tongues with songs of joy.
Then it was said among the nations,
“The Lord has done great things for them.”
The Lord has done great things for us,
and we are filled with joy.

Restore our fortunes, Lord,
like streams in the Negev.
Those who sow with tears
will reap with songs of joy.
Those who go out weeping,
carrying seed to sow,
will return with songs of joy,
carrying sheaves with them. (NIV)

A biblical phrase many people are familiar with is, “You reap what you sow.” Although the saying is typically referred to in the context of avoiding poor decisions (Galatians 6:7) the principle is woven throughout Holy Scripture in other scenarios, as well, as it is here in today’s psalm.

Sowing and reaping are, of course, agricultural terms. Farmers and gardeners tend to the soil through tilling, planting, cultivating, weeding, and eventually harvesting. The images of farming and the growth of plants serve as fitting metaphors for the spiritual life. Growth does not occur quickly. Instead, constant and vigilant attention to spirituality eventually brings a harvest of good works and godly attitudes.

Jesus said, “My food is to do what the one who sent me wants me to do. My food is to finish the work that he gave me to do.” (John 4:34, ERV)

In our Western society of wanting everything immediately, this is a difficult principle to grasp. We may think that when we sin, and lightning does not strike us right away, that what we did must not have been so bad. However, eventually our implanted seeds will sprout and become visible to all.  Conversely, we might believe that when we dedicate ourselves to service and see no immediate results that we must be doing something wrong. So, we easily become discouraged and give up.

Sow for yourselves righteousness; reap steadfast love. Break up your fallow ground; for it is time to seek the Lord, that he may come and rain righteousness upon you. (Hosea 10:12, NRSV)

Yet, the psalmist reminds us of the necessity of patience.  Just as it takes continual watering to reap a harvest in the field, so the Christian’s life of weeping and tears, of tilling deeply into the things of God, is necessary to spot a sprout, see growth, and finally bear fruit.  Thus, the tedious cultivating and weeding of our souls is the task before us. If we are patient and consistent, we will realize a harvest of righteousness.

Jesus taught his Beatitudes to help us understand that righteousness, peace, and joy come through being in touch with our poverty of spirit; mourning over personal and corporate sin; becoming humble and meek; hungering and thirsting after righteousness. Only through the blood, sweat, and tears of spiritual agony will we come through to the deep happiness of seeing the Lord accomplish great things in our lives.  In other words, joy is neither cheap nor easy.  It is the fruit of many tears.

Spiritual farming involves sound practices of sowing and reaping. There is suffering before glory, tears before joy, lament before healing. Just as a farmer cannot take short-cuts in the planting and cultivating process if he wants to have a bounteous and delicious harvest, so there is no getting around the painful work of grieving our changes and losses. Avoiding the hard work of spiritual farming leads to a bogus harvest where we bite into a fresh ear of sweet corn only to discover a mouthful of worms.

Remember this: The person who plants a little will have a small harvest, but the person who plants a lot will have a big harvest. (2 Corinthians 9:6, NCV)

The bulk of our lives are played out in the space between sowing and reaping. Just as the farmer plants and waits, attentive to the land and the weather until the time of harvest, so we exist mostly in a time of patience. So, we pray, recalling past harvests and anticipating that with God’s good help we will enjoy abundance. This in-between time is often characterized by tears.

As she stood behind him at his feet weeping, she began to wet his feet with her tears. Then she wiped them with her hair, kissed them and poured perfume on them. (Luke 7:38, NIV)

I grew up on an Iowa farm. I only saw my father cry twice in my life. The first time, I was just a boy, two days after my eighth birthday – a devastating hailstorm destroyed the crops that had been planted just six weeks before. Despite farm equipment and technological savvy, the farmer is still at the mercy of the weather.

And we will always be at the mercy of God. Because he is good, just, and fair, the Lord does great and benevolent things. To be blessed, we need to embrace the dog days of summer in all its banality and its tears until we reach the time of reaping. There is joy, and it is coming, if we do the work of spiritual farming and wait patiently.

Blessed are you, Lord God, King of the universe. Your word brings on the dusk of evening. Your wisdom creates both night and day. You determine the cycles of time. You arrange the succession of seasons and establish the stars in their heavenly courses. Living and eternal God, rule over us always by your mercy and grace. As the source of all goodness and growth, pour your blessing upon all things created, and upon you his children, that we may use all you have given us for the welfare of all people. God of the harvest, plant yourself so firmly in my soul that life and joy will result. Let my mouth be filled with laughter. I shout aloud the deep satisfaction that comes from having great things in my life, through Jesus my Lord. Amen.

Psalm 116:1-2, 12-19 – A Testimony of Deliverance

psalm 116.1-2 pic

I love the Lord because he hears
my requests for mercy.
I’ll call out to him as long as I live,
because he listens closely to me….

What can I give back to the Lord
for all the good things he has done for me?
I’ll lift up the cup of salvation.
I’ll call on the Lord’s name.
I’ll keep the promises I made to the Lord
in the presence of all God’s people.
The death of the Lord’s faithful
is a costly loss in his eyes.

Oh yes, Lord, I am definitely your servant!
I am your servant and the son of your female servant—
you’ve freed me from my chains.
So I’ll offer a sacrifice of thanksgiving to you,
and I’ll call on the Lord’s name.
I’ll keep the promises I made to the Lord
in the presence of all God’s people,
     in the courtyards of the Lord’s house,
which is in the center of Jerusalem.

Praise the Lord! (CEB)

As the Church’s Prayer Book, the Psalms were originally crafted for public as well as personal use. The Psalter is meant to be prayed, sung, and spoken out loud. The Psalms address the human condition and encompass the full range of human emotion. There are times when we are so distressed that we are unable to form words – and the psalms help us say what is in our heart. There are also times when we are so elated that we have no words to express our joy. The psalms assist us with this, as well. Today’s psalm is such a response.

The psalmist is beside himself with appreciation and praise because of answered prayer. Although the he does not provide what that answer was, this psalm is a staple for the Jewish people at Passover to specifically thank the Lord for the deliverance from Egyptian slavery. The event appears less important than the reality that God listens.

The Lord hears the cry of the oppressed and bends his ear to catch our prayers.

Because of such mercy, the psalmist pledges fealty to the Lord and commits to following through with promises to God. “I love the Lord,” is the cry of his thankful heart. The psalmist gave public testimony that prayer does indeed change things. At times when our own prayers seem to just bounce off the ceiling, it is good to hear from another that the Lord still answers prayer – that life can be different than its present confusion.

When my dear wife had a spine surgery six years ago and awoke from it unable to move her legs, I prayed. I asked for mercy. I pleaded for grace. And I did it for hours at the foot of her hospital bed. I remember that I stubbornly would not accept the fact that she could not move her lower body.  And I decided to stand there and pray until I got an answer from God.

Eventually, I prayed myself asleep. My wife woke me up sometime in the early morning the next day. She told me to pull back the covers and look at her right big toe…. She could give it an ever-small twitch. We called the nurse, who was so excited that she called everyone she could get a hold of. With a dozen hospital staff huddled around the hospital bed, my wife proceeded to give that big toe a hearty move. The staff erupted with clapping, and I am not kidding when I say that we had a party with noise and shouts in a hospital room at 4am. Nobody cared we were going nuts. I certainly did not.

Yes, God is still in the business of answering prayer.

Through the hard times, the good times, and the confusing times, the Lord is our constant ballast for all seasons of life, whether good or bad. And I love God for that abiding presence. I can also give testimony that through all of the adverse situations my wife and I have faced, we have learned to stop, be still, and find that all we ever wanted we already have, even when everything changes.

Perhaps you are reading this today and feel some desperation, maybe some wondering, if God pays any attention to your plight. Yes, the Lord does. You are not alone. We all have times of needing freedom from whatever chains are keeping us in bondage. So, I offer this prayer for you….

O God, who in Jesus Christ called us out of the darkness and into your marvelous light; enable us always to declare your wonderful deeds, offer thanksgiving for your steadfast love, and eternally praise you with heart, soul, mind, and strength.

Eternal God, for the sake of Jesus, send your Holy Spirit to the person(s) praying along with me now who need healing of body and soul, or who seek deliverance from a difficult and debilitating situation. Be gracious to drive away all that is unjust and crippling and mercifully make whole that which is broken. Grant deliverance from the power of evil and provide true faith in Jesus Christ our Lord, who suffered on our behalf and rose from death so that we too can live with joy and peace in the Holy Spirit.

Merciful God, you are the source of all healing and wholeness. We give thanks to you for your love. As we wait in expectation for the coming of the day when Jesus shall return, when suffering and pain shall be no more, please reassure us by your Spirit of your mighty power and help us to trust in your great love.

May your unending compassion be poured out to these your people who long for your hope to explode within them – to the glory of Jesus Christ, your Son, our Savior, who with you and the Holy Spirit live and reign together, one God, now and forever. Amen.