Psalm 108 – My Heart Is Unwavering

My heart is unwavering, God.
    I will sing and make music—
    yes, with my whole being!
Wake up, harp and lyre!
    I will wake the dawn itself!
I will give thanks to you, Lord, among all the peoples;
    I will make music to you among the nations,
    because your faithful love is higher than heaven;
    your faithfulness reaches the clouds.
Exalt yourself, God, higher than heaven!
    Let your glory be over all the earth!
    Save me by your power and answer me
    so that the people you love might be rescued.

God has spoken in his sanctuary:
“I will celebrate as I divide up Shechem
    and portion out the Succoth Valley.
Gilead is mine, Manasseh is mine;
    Ephraim is my helmet, Judah is my scepter.
But Moab is my washbowl;
    I’ll throw my shoe at Edom.
    I shout in triumph over Philistia!
I wish someone would bring me to a fortified city!
    I wish someone would lead me to Edom!”

But you have rejected us, God, haven’t you?
    You, God, no longer accompany our armies.
Give us help against the enemy—
    human help is worthless.
With God we will triumph:
    God is the one who will trample our adversaries.
(Common English Bible)

“Our faith is not meant to get us out of a hard place or change our painful condition. Rather, it is meant to reveal God’s faithfulness to us in the midst of our dire situation.”

David Wilkerson

Little did my wife and I know when we were married decades ago that our vows to one another would be put to the test time and time again over the years: a commitment to be with each for better or for worse; to hang in there whether rich or poor; to persevere in sickness or in health till the very end. Through all the ups and the downs, I am tremendously thankful that we are close and together. We have truly taken the stance that, no matter the circumstance, we will face it together.

Just as in a marriage, where there are times that stretch the relationship and the couple must make choices for the benefit of each other, so the follower of God will face difficulty as a believer and must decide to remain faithful. 

The psalmist decided on a steadfast heart toward, a committed and faithful stance which would stick to the Lord, no matter the circumstances. The psalmist also recognized God is forever faithful, that steadfast love would continually mark the relationship toward humanity.

If we lived by the whims of our feelings, many of us would never get out of bed in the morning, and not even bother to put on pants when we do. Yet, many believers take such an approach in their relationship with God: praying whenever it might fancy them to do so; and praising the Lord only when things are going their way. 

Yet, the psalmist chose to give thanks because of who God is. David, the psalmist, made the daily decision of being faithful by choosing to look at the faithfulness of God. The truth is that God is with us, and the Lord longs for us to recognize and enjoy it because that is the nature of a committed relationship.

It makes sense to tether oneself wholly and completely to a God who is consistently faithful and loving. The vicissitudes of life are unrelenting, having us ride waves of ups and downs. No one living in 2019 saw a pandemic coming in 2020 with all the changes associated with it. And who knows what the rest of this year will be like? Or next year?

There are a great many things we do not know. Yet, there are two unchangeable truths for which we can anchor our souls: God loves us; and God is with us. When all else is going to hell around us, the rock of the Lord’s presence and mercy is unfazed and endures.

So, in those times, when we feel like giving up or giving in, we can come back to a psalm like today’s, and choose to give thanks, sing, pray, and affirm our vows to God.

Remember your baptism. Remember to whom you belong. Remember the steadfast love of God and allow such love to shape your life – even when every circumstance around you is off and awry. Our relationship with the Lord will be tested time and time again, yet God is steadfast and will not let go.

For you Jesus Christ came into the world; for you he died and for you he conquered death. All this he did for you. We love because God first loved us.

Gracious God, bless and strengthen your people daily with the gift of your Holy Spirit; unfold to us the riches of your love, deepen our faith, keep us from the power of evil and enable us to live a holy and blameless life until your kingdom comes. Amen.

Psalm 33:12-22 – God Is Watching Over Us with Steadfast Love

Happy is the nation whose God is the Lord,
    the people whom he has chosen as his heritage.

The Lord looks down from heaven;
    he sees all humankind.
From where he sits enthroned, he watches
    all the inhabitants of the earth—
he who fashions the hearts of them all,
    and observes all their deeds.
A king is not saved by his great army;
    a warrior is not delivered by his great strength.
The war horse is a vain hope for victory,
    and by its great might, it cannot save.

Truly the eye of the Lord is on those who fear him,
    on those who hope in his steadfast love,
to deliver their soul from death,
    and to keep them alive in famine.

Our soul waits for the Lord;
    he is our help and shield.
Our heart is glad in him,
    because we trust in his holy name.
Let your steadfast love, O Lord, be upon us,
    even as we hope in you.
(New Revised Standard Version)

“The light of God surrounds us. The love of God enfolds us. The power of God protects us. And the presence of God watches over us. Wherever we are, God is, and all is well.”

Dwan Abrams

God is in control of the world. I am not. Neither are you. Although the myth of self-sufficiency and self-reliance completely permeates individualist societies, this in no way lessens the immense transcendence and sovereignty of a hugely big God.

In today’s psalm, the scene of God looking down from heaven portrays the Lord as above all, firmly in control, clearly seeing the big picture of the entire world. And yet, attentive to all that is happening on the earth. Individual human creatures subscribing to a narrative of personal independence will inevitably run into the Creator God with a story as big as history itself.

Success may give us the illusion that our own strength, intelligence, and/or ingenuity has brought us the good things we possess – not God. “I worked hard for my money and I will do whatever I want with it!” and the even more crass, “It wasn’t God who put food on my table!” are just a few of the power delusions I have heard from others, as if personal accomplishments are unconnected to any other force in the universe.

What’s more, looking at individualism from the converse angle, our lack of success may cause us to pause and wonder if God is really observing all our deeds, or not. Perhaps the Lord is reclining in his La-z-God chair and watching old baseball game replays of the Angels. More likely, we have become so expectant of satisfactory service and immediate results as consumers in a capitalist culture that we fail to discern the virtue of patience – that God is not slow in keeping his promises as some would understand it.

The sheer fact of the matter is that we need God. And God feels no compulsion from us to be hurried along with divine purposes for humanity. Since God is the ever-present gravity in this world, the way of realizing the good life on this earth is to conform ourselves to the Lord’s purposes, and not the other way around.

When we learn to exercise the inherent gifts of hope and patience which a gracious God has fashioned in our hearts, then we begin to discover persevering trust, enduring happiness, a settled sense of gladness, and steadfast love. We awaken to the true passion of God for us. Rather than a capricious or indifferent deity, the Lord God looks upon us with endearing faithfulness.

God’s heart is forever drawn to us. Therefore, we need not attempt to take all matters into our own hands, as if we are alone in the world. If we can see a vision of God high and lifted-up, observing us with a gaze of delight, then our spirits open to mercy and we find grace to help us in our time of need. The prophet Zephaniah allows us a glimpse into God’s feelings for us:

The Lord your God is in your midst—a warrior bringing victory. He will create calm with his love; he will rejoice over you with singing.

Zephaniah 3:17

God labors on our behalf. God has our back. God establishes a safe environment for us. And we must never forget: God delights in you so much that – this very minute – the Lord is singing songs of joy over you. For trust and hope cannot be coerced by another or willed into being by the mind; it can only be generated through the deep conviction of God’s broad love for you and me.

The best self-help program I know of is not self-help at all – it is the self-care of opening to a loving God and allowing God’s joy and delight to fill us. God is watching us, and it is the gaze of adoration, not condemnation.

Dear God, the One who watches all, love comes from you. Anyone who loves is your child and knows you. And anyone who does not love does not know you, for God is love. Thank you for showing me love by sending your one and only Son into the world so that I might have eternal life through him. Dear God, since you loved me that much, I surely ought to love others. May you live in me and may the love of Jesus be brought to full expression in me through the power of the Spirit. Amen.

Psalm 36:5-11 – Monday of Holy Week

Crucifixion by Graham Sutherland, 1947

Your steadfast love, O Lord, extends to the heavens,
    your faithfulness to the clouds.
Your righteousness is like the mighty mountains,
    your judgments are like the great deep;
    you save humans and animals alike, O Lord.

How precious is your steadfast love, O God!
    All people may take refuge in the shadow of your wings.
They feast on the abundance of your house,
    and you give them drink from the river of your delights.
For with you is the fountain of life;
    in your light we see light.

O continue your steadfast love to those who know you,
    and your salvation to the upright of heart!
Do not let the foot of the arrogant tread on me,
    or the hand of the wicked drive me away. (NRSV)

We have a Holy Week because of love. There is a journey along the Via Dolorosa (traveling through a place in route to a destination) because of God’s steadfast love.

Love suffers. Every parent knows this. Because of a parent’s committed and faithful love toward a child, they feel not only the joys but also the sorrows and pain of their children. I can say that this feeling does not go away, even with adult children. And it is compounded with grandchildren. Just as our love is big enough to hold multiple children and grandchildren, so our capacity for experiencing deep emotion for their welfare is equally large.

Holy Week reminds us that God’s committed parental love suffers. It is because of God’s immense and steadfast love that there was a road to the cross and a tortured death for Jesus. The cost of our salvation involved a very bloody affair. Deliverance came at the price of horrible violence. Jesus Christ lived and died for us, because of love. He suffered much because he loved much.

God’s people, walking in the way of love, quickly discover that it is simultaneously walking in the way of suffering. From Old Testament times through the New Testament and into the present day, the faithful have always experienced suffering as a central part of their piety and devotion in showing steadfast love. 

The medieval mystics of the Church understood well the connection between suffering and love. They could not imagine a Christian life without hardship, difficulty, and persecution. Thomas à Kempis, a sort of pastor to pastors, wrote in the fifteenth century these words:

“Sometimes it is to our advantage to endure misfortunes and adversities, for they make us enter into our inner selves and acknowledge that we are in a place of exile and that we ought not to rely on anything in this world. And sometimes it is good for us to suffer contradictions and know that there are those who think ill and badly of us, even though we do our best and act with every good intention…. When men ridicule and belittle us, we should turn to God, who sees our innermost thoughts, and seek His judgment…. It is when a man of good will is distressed, or tempted, or afflicted with evil that he best understands the overwhelming need he has for God, without whom he can do nothing…. It is in such times of trial that he realizes that perfect security and full peace are not to be found in this world.”

And yet, it is because of love that suffering is transformed and endured as something wholly other than sheer pain or hurt. Thomas à Kempis went on to say:

“Love is a mighty power, a great and complete good; Love alone lightens every burden and makes the rough places smooth. It bears every hardship as though it were nothing and renders all bitterness sweet and acceptable. The love of Jesus is noble and inspires us to great deeds; it moves us always to desire perfection. Love aspires to high things and is held back by nothing base. Love longs to be free, a stranger to every worldly desire, lest its inner vision become dimmed, and lest worldly self-interest hinder it, or ill-fortune cast it down…. Love knows no limits, but ardently transcends all bounds. Love feels no burden, takes no account of toil, attempts things beyond its strength; love sees nothing as impossible, for it feels able to achieve all things. Love therefore does great things; it is strange and effective; while he who lacks love faints and fails.”

Holy Week’s message is certainly one of suffering love. Jesus went to the greatest lengths possible to give Divine steadfast love to humanity. So, let us not run away from the cross, but journey with Jesus to Golgotha, embracing the love of God for us. In so doing, we will find the inner resources needed to love the world, even in all its unloveliness.

Grant, we pray, almighty God, that, though in our weakness we fail, we may be revived through the Passion of your Only Begotten Son, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

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.