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.

Revelation 2:8-11 – Persevering to the End

perseverance

“And to the angel of the church in Smyrna write: These are the words of the first and the last, who was dead and came to life:

“I know your affliction and your poverty, even though you are rich. I know the slander on the part of those who say that they are Jews and are not but are a synagogue of Satan. Do not fear what you are about to suffer. Beware, the devil is about to throw some of you into prison so that you may be tested, and for ten days you will have affliction. Be faithful until death, and I will give you the crown of life. Let anyone who has an ear listen to what the Spirit is saying to the churches. Whoever conquers will not be harmed by the second death. (NRSV)

What is unique about chapters two and three of Revelation is that Jesus himself is the speaker to seven different churches. Today’s New Testament lesson is addressed to the church at Smyrna, which was a large and beautiful port city in the ancient world. Jesus was letting the believers in Smyrna know they were about to experience severe persecution. However, they need not be fearful and can remain faithful because their Lord knows all about suffering. The church’s perseverance under such trouble would result in the crown of life, given to them by Jesus himself.  This was surely an encouragement to the believers as they underwent difficulty.

The congregation at Smyrna was facing imprisonment and, for some, even death for their faith. The heart of the message by Jesus is to remain faithful.  There will always be cowards and those with weak faith who will fold when the going gets tough. Yet, persecution and hardship have a way of purging the soul as well as the church of its dross.

Suffering is inevitable; how we handle adversity when it comes is completely under our own control.

Few of us reading this will ever likely face a hardship that could result in martyrdom. Knowing there are brothers and sisters in the faith throughout the world who do face daily hardship for their devotion and beliefs puts our own troubles in a different light. The daily irritations and trials God puts in our way to refine us and shape our faith certainly seem small compared to imprisonment and martyrdom. Yet, no matter who we are and where we are located on this earth, whether facing uncommon hardship or banal difficulty, the afflictions of both body and soul come to us as opportunities to lean into faith and love Jesus to the end.

Our Lord is not looking for perfect people, just faithful followers willing to endure suffering with the truth that our Lord stands with us. 

Whatever our current circumstances may be, Jesus offers us his perspective on it. He knows precisely what is going on and understands the spiritual resources you and I possess for each adverse situation we encounter. In fact, few of us really discern the largess of internal resources are within us because of Christ’s redemptive work and the Spirit’s abiding presence – not to mention the very personality God graciously gave us in the womb before we were even born. Even though it seems, at times, we lack strength, wisdom, and courage for what is ahead – Jesus has supreme confidence in us to maintain faith and endure through our afflictions.

Life is not a sprint. Life is a marathon.

To finish the race we need to be in good spiritual health. The perseverance of the saints will happen as we run step after step with boldness despite fear of the unknown future around the bend. This requires the equipment of risk, vulnerability, accountability, and steadfast love which is both received and given. Perhaps most of all it requires keeping our heads up and running toward the promise of reward at the finish. The crown of life is an image of both congratulation and celebration of a race well-run and the enjoyment of unending fellowship with our Lord for whom we have endured so much.

When all is said and done, and the end of the age has occurred, we will be able to look back in hindsight and see that it was really Jesus who all along was fortifying us to keep standing and keep going. Christ is so vested in us that he continually ensures our ultimate victory through a constant presence of help and encouragement. The heritage of both Reformation and Holy Scripture testify to this truth:

“All our progress and perseverance are from God.” –John Calvin

“I’m sure about this: the one who started a good work in you will stay with you to complete the job by the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1:6, CEB)

May the grace of Jesus sustain you; the love of God surround you; and, the encouragement of the Spirit surprise you, today and every day. Amen.

Grant, O God, That we may never lose the way through our self-will, and so end up in the far countries of the soul; that we may never abandon the struggle, but that we may endure to the end, and so be saved; that we may never drop out of the race, but that we may ever press forward to the goal of our high calling; that we may never choose the cheap and passing things, and let go the precious things that last forever; that we may never take the easy way, and so leave the right way; that we may never forget that sweat is the price of all things, and that without the cross, there cannot be the crown.

So keep us and strengthen us by your grace that no disobedience and no weakness and no failure may stop us from entering into the blessedness which awaits those who are faithful in all the changes and chances of life down even to the gates of death; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen

William Barclay, Prayers for the Christian Year

Hebrews 2:5-9 – For Everyone

Holy Hill Jesus
Jesus carrying his cross, from the Stations of the Cross at Holy Hill in Hubertus, Wisconsin.

It is not to angels that he [God] has subjected the world to come, about which we are speaking. But there is a place where someone has testified:

“What is mankind that you are mindful of them,
a son of man that you care for him?
 You made them a little lower than the angels;
you crowned them with glory and honor
     and put everything under their feet.”

In putting everything under them, God left nothing that is not subject to them. Yet at present we do not see everything subject to them. But we do see Jesus, who was made lower than the angels for a little while, now crowned with glory and honor because he suffered death, so that by the grace of God he might taste death for everyone. (NIV)

By Christmas eve of 1914, World War I had come to the point of trench warfare. On one point along the miles of trenches, there were the allied troops of French and Scots, and on the other side, the Germans. That night one Frenchman began singing Nuit Silencieuse (Silent Night). Eventually his comrades joined in. Much to their surprise, the Germans on the other side of the trench, recognizing the familiar tune, began singing in their native tongue, Stille Nacht, along with them. The Scots then joined in with their bagpipes. After the song, heads began to stick out from the trenches as both sides realized they had a common celebration in song.  This led to the white flags going up on both sides, and then the unthinkable happened. Both trenches, allied and axis powers, enemies of one another, left their holes in the ground and met in the middle, exchanging pictures, and communicating with each other.  The evening was capped off with the Scottish chaplain leading all the men together in a celebration of communion. The 2006 movie, Joyeux Noel, recounts the actual events.

Whenever we come together, expressed most highly for the Christian through the sacrament of communion, it puts our differences in their proper perspective – we all come together as one, not seeing each other as rich or poor, black or white, American or Asian, or anything else. The events of that Christmas eve in 1914, however, did not have a happy ending. The two sides found that, once the holiday had passed, they did not have the will to fight their new brothers. The top brass on each side were very upset and sent the Germans to the Russian front (and certain death); and, the Scottish chaplain was defrocked for his actions and sent home never to pastor again, letting us see in dramatic fashion that unity has a price.

Joyeux Noel
Scene from Joyeux Noel, 2006. A Scot, German, and Frenchman together on Christmas Eve on the western front of World War I.

The book of Hebrews was originally written (or preached) to encourage and exhort struggling Jewish Christians. The way the author of Hebrews did that was to point them squarely at Jesus. They were in danger of forgetting what the pioneer and champion of their salvation had done for them, and, what is more, they were in danger of reneging on their commitment to Christ. So, the entire book is dedicated to demonstrating and reminding discouraged believers that Jesus Christ is superior to everything, both in heaven and on earth.  Because of that truth, Jesus is worthy of our eternal devotion and remembrance.

Jesus is qualified to be our Savior and Lord. Every day and each minute of our lives are an opportunity for a fresh commitment to Jesus. The regular practice of Christian communion and consistent spiritual practices are meant to lead us into celebrating our Savior’s work. The worldwide communion of saints is celebrating with us in remembering and committing ourselves afresh to the lordship of Jesus Christ. A great victory has been won, not just in the trenches of human wars, but on the cross of Christ. This singular death on our behalf qualified Jesus to be our Savior from sin, once and for all.

Christ’s suffering qualified him to be our Savior.

Jesus suffered an inglorious and ignominious death. Yet, paradoxically, glory came through suffering. Jesus did not only suffer at his crucifixion; he experienced the full range of human suffering throughout his life.  He knew what it was like to face adversity and hardship. It is Christ’s suffering that helps us make sense of our own suffering. We can only truly be free from all that binds us by embracing that which makes us suffer. And because we live in a fallen world, we all personally suffer in some way. In addition, entire groups of people suffer – whether it is religious persecution, racial profiling, class warfare, or government oppression. This suffering is very much real, damaging, and dehumanizing which results in terrible living conditions and even death.

Maybe because of this reality, some tend to minimize their own suffering. After all, what is a harshly worded e-mail, trying to lose a few extra pounds, or an unexpected car repair compared to families devastated by COVID-19 and entire black neighborhoods in deathly peril?  It is all suffering none-the-less. It is good to keep our life situations in proper perspective; and, we must be careful to not tell God what he should and shouldn’t care about in this world.  If the only things that matter and qualify as hardship and difficulty is human trafficking, the terrors of war, or grinding poverty, then you will soon find yourself plastering a smile on your face and nodding over-enthusiastically whenever someone asks you how you are doing. Happy with-it Christians are insufferable, (pun intended).

Christ Carrying the Cross
Christ Carrying the Cross by Elijah Pierce, 1892-1984.

It is our task to find commonality and solidarity with Jesus in our own personal and corporate suffering. An admission of weakness, trouble, hardship, or suffering is neither a lack of faith nor the unpardonable sin. We know there must be a Good Friday before there is an Easter. Identifying with the adversity of our brothers and sisters in Christ throughout this nation and the world can be transformed into suffering that has meaning and significance. Our temporary sufferings now will someday result in the glory of being with Christ forever.

Christ’s suffering qualified him to be our compassionate helper.

Through the death of Jesus on the cross we have victory over Satan and all his wicked spirits. I have heard more than one motivational speaker say: “If you could do one thing in your life and not be able to fail, what would it be?” The truth is, because of Christ’s atoning sacrifice, we have victory and can live our lives in confidence and commitment to Jesus. What is more, we know that temporary failures and failings are not the end of the story. We possess a union with Christ because of the cross. Jesus is our champion. He stands with us in our suffering and temptations.

Christian speaker, author, and professor emeritus, Tony Campolo, told a story about observing communion when he was a child: “Sitting with my parents at a Communion service when I was very young, perhaps six or seven years old, I became aware of a young woman in the pew in front of us who was sobbing and shaking. The minister had just finished reading the passage of Scripture written by Paul that says, ‘Whosoever shall eat the bread and drink the cup of the Lord unworthily, shall be guilty of the body and blood of the Lord’ (1 Corinthians 11:27). As the Communion plate with its small pieces of bread was passed to the crying woman before me, she waved it away and then lowered her head in despair. It was then that my Sicilian father leaned over her shoulder and, in his broken English, said sternly, ‘Take it, girl! It was meant for you. Do you hear me?’ She raised her head and nodded—and then she took the bread and ate it. I knew that at that moment a heavy burden was lifted from her heart and mind. Since then, I have always known that a church that could offer communion to hurting people was a special gift from God.”

In solidarity with all who suffer, along with your brothers and sisters who agonize throughout the world, we have the blessed opportunity of bringing our troubles to a gracious God – thus finding forgiveness and hope.  May your burdens be lifted, and may you know Christ, and him crucified, died, buried, risen, ascended, and coming again. For, precious one, he knows you because he tasted death for you – for everyone.

Merciful Lord help me to remember in these troubled times the cross you carried for my sake so that I may better carry mine and help others do the same. Since you tasted death that I might taste life, I forever belong to you and offer up all that I am and all I hope to be to the glory of Jesus Christ through the power of the Holy Spirit. 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.