Psalm 121 – My Help

Mountain landscape

I lift up my eyes to the hills—
    from where will my help come?
My help comes from the Lord,
    who made heaven and earth.

He will not let your foot be moved;
he who keeps you will not slumber.
He who keeps Israel
will neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
the Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
nor the moon by night.

The Lord will keep you from all evil;
he will keep your life.
The Lord will keep
your going out and your coming in
from this time on and forevermore. (NRSV)

This is my favorite psalm.  I have read and mulled it over so many times that it is almost second nature for me to draw from its rich theological statement about God when times are difficult.  This is a psalm designed for worship – to be used by God’s people through song and prayer.  A community without Psalm 121 near to its heart is a group of people in danger. Yet, with it, there is a continual sense of security, confidence, and hope.

Psalms are meant to be spoken aloud and repeated. So, here is another version:

I look to the hills!
Where will I find help?
It will come from the Lord,
who created the heavens
and the earth.

The Lord is your protector,
and he won’t go to sleep
or let you stumble.
The protector of Israel
doesn’t doze
or ever get drowsy.

The Lord is your protector,
there at your right side
to shade you from the sun.
You won’t be harmed
by the sun during the day
or by the moon at night.

The Lord will protect you
and keep you safe
from all dangers.
The Lord will protect you
now and always
wherever you go. (CEV)

This beautiful majestic psalm can be used for any and every occasion.  So, I often use it within hospital visits, counseling in a wide array of situations, and for my own personal edification.  It seems to me that one cannot possibly overuse this psalm.  The psalm was originally used for ascending the hill into Jerusalem, anticipating meeting with God.  Just like a lover who looks forward to meeting his beloved and thinking about how wonderful she is, so the psalmist looks with adoring affection on the God he is about to encounter.

I Lift My Eyes to the Hills

Here is yet another version of this wonderful psalm:

I look up to the mountains—
does my help come from there?
My help comes from the Lord,
who made heaven and earth!

He will not let you stumble;
the one who watches over you will not slumber.
Indeed, he who watches over Israel
never slumbers or sleeps.

The Lord himself watches over you!
The Lord stands beside you as your protective shade.
The sun will not harm you by day,
nor the moon at night.

The Lord keeps you from all harm
and watches over your life.
The Lord keeps watch over you as you come and go,
both now and forever. (NLT)

The psalm is rich with a theology of grace, watch care, and loving attention.  This is a God who is powerful and merciful, a God able to help and desiring to do so.  In a world which seems so often distant and unaffected by the divine, this is a psalm to utter repeatedly in every situation of life so that the truth of the Lord is grafted deep into the soul.  In each unwanted circumstance the psalm can be spontaneously used as an immediate prayer, and with every anticipated event it can provide the words to address the most pressing of needs.  Let the words resonate within you as people created in the image of God, connecting with him on both the cerebral and visceral levels of your life in this last version:

I will lift up my eyes to the hills—
From whence comes my help?
My help comes from the Lord,
Who made heaven and earth.

He will not allow your foot to be moved;
He who keeps you will not slumber.
Behold, He who keeps Israel
Shall neither slumber nor sleep.

The Lord is your keeper;
The Lord is your shade at your right hand.
The sun shall not strike you by day,
Nor the moon by night.

The Lord shall preserve you from all evil;
He shall preserve your soul.
The Lord shall preserve your going out and your coming in
From this time forth, and even forevermore. (NKJV)

 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 99 – The Holy Helper

holy mountain
“Extol the Lord our God, and worship at his holy mountain; for the Lord our God is holy.” (Psalm 99:9, NRSV)

Our ideas of God take shape in the many ways in we live our lives.  A God who is always right, fair, just, and loving in everything he says and does is a God we can place our complete trust.  A cranky god who is aloof and indifferent does not help anyone.  Yet, with the true God of all creation we can be assured of a strong spiritual support for any and every situation.  When we have as our ally a robust theology which informs how we think and gives shape to how we act, then we can step forward with confidence knowing that God has our backs.

Sound theology needs to be identified, nurtured, and expressed in daily life.  Remember, the Old Testament psalms are the church’s prayer book.  Each individual psalm is meant to be an inspiration to prayer, as well as serving as the actual prayers themselves which we can utter to God.  To use the psalms as boots-on-the-ground prayer is essential to providing a firm foundation from which to know and serve God.

I have provided my own translation of today’s psalm which captures the spirit of the text.  I encourage you to pray it over slowly, several times, and with appropriate emotional flavor behind the words:

The LORD rules everything; let all people everywhere who live unjustly, shake in their boots!

            God sits enthroned above all creation; let the earth rumble on its foundation!

The LORD is great among his people.

            In fact, He is far above all people.

Let everyone, no matter who they are or where they are from, praise Your great and awesome name.

            He is holy!

Mighty Ruler, the lover of everything that is just and right,

            You are the One who established what is fair and equitable.

You labored behind the scenes for causes which are just and right,

            and brought harmonious relations to folks at odds with each other.

Magnify the LORD, our God!

            Approach Him with great and mindful humility!

            He is holy!

Godly people of old such as Moses and Aaron were among his devout followers.

            Those like Samuel were among the humble who called on His Name.

People from times long ago have cried out to the LORD, and He has answered them.

            He spoke to the ancient Israelites in a great pillar of cloud.

They sought to keep and entrust His gracious rules given to them.

O LORD our God, you answered them.

            You were a forgiving God to them,

            yet, you also were the One who held them accountable when they slid off the rails.

Magnify the LORD our God!

            Humble yourselves and worship at His holy mountain,

            because no one is like the LORD our God, a holy Helper!

Amen.

Exodus 13:17-22 – The Presence of God

Pillar of Cloud and Fire

When Pharaoh let the people go, God did not lead them by way of the land of the Philistines, although that was nearer; for God thought, “If the people face war, they may change their minds and return to Egypt.” So, God led the people by the roundabout way of the wilderness toward the Red Sea. The Israelites went up out of the land of Egypt prepared for battle. And Moses took with him the bones of Joseph who had required a solemn oath of the Israelites, saying, “God will surely take notice of you, and then you must carry my bones with you from here.” They set out from Succoth, and camped at Etham, on the edge of the wilderness. The Lord went in front of them in a pillar of cloud by day, to lead them along the way, and in a pillar of fire by night, to give them light, so that they might travel by day and by night. Neither the pillar of cloud by day nor the pillar of fire by night left its place in front of the people. (NRSV)

From a human perspective, God makes a lot of nonsensical decisions in the Bible. Telling Noah to build a big boat in a place with no water; Abraham to leave everything, and later, to sacrifice his son; Moses to stroll into Egypt and tell Pharaoh to let the people go; and, the people to walk through a body of water without getting wet. Indeed, its as if God has an odd predilection for making weird requests of people.

Although today’s Old Testament story gives us a glimpse into God’s thinking, the people were not privy to that information. Yes, God’s people were experiencing an unbelievable exodus out of Egypt. Their wildest dreams could not have imagined such a reality as strolling out of slavery having seen not one but a string of miraculous wonders. Yet, God was not done with the miracle thing.

Although many people would really like to see a miracle happen in their lives, rarely do we think about the circumstances we might need face for that miracle to occur. God typically asks folks to do some outrageous-sounding things to set up the miracle.

An entire nation left Egypt with celebration only to be told to go in a misdirection toward the Promised Land, as if God were somehow geographically challenged. I can imagine that decision had Moses raising a Spock-like eyebrow and the Israelites wondering if God was off his celestial rocker. There is, however, a reason why folks like Noah, Abraham, and Moses obeyed instructions that didn’t make sense to them at the time: The Presence of God.

It is the personal Presence and power of God which makes all the difference.

For God has not promised to create an existence with a zero factor of hardship. God, instead, has created a world that is full, vibrant, and alive with Presence – and a zero tolerance for bullies like Egypt. The uncertainty, doubt, and mystery of the future is thoroughly mitigated with the effusive Presence.

When sitting with patients in the hospital who struggle with the unknown of why they are there and what will become of them (and their families) the last thing I do is try to fabricate reasons so that it makes sense. It doesn’t, and I’m not going pretend that it does. Rather, I remind them of what I do know: The Presence of God is here. God does not go out of his way to give us an easy life. God does, however, go far out his way to communicate his glorious Presence with us.

Pillar of Cloud and Fire 2

God kept constant vigil over the ancient Israelites, powerfully seen with the pillar of cloud by day and pillar of fire by night. Nothing was going to happen to the Jewish people without first passing through the mighty hands of God. Not only do I know God is with us, I also know he neither slumbers nor sleeps (Psalm 121). When God keeps vigil, God keeps vigil! No smoke or bathroom breaks with God. God’s vigilance is relentless and wondrous, giving assurance to the godly and terrifying the ungodly.

Once we are out in the wilderness of uncertainty, there is no turning back.

That’s okay. The Presence of God patrols the area and divinely guards our every move. For the Christian, the Presence has found its fulfillment in the person of Jesus. Although Christians everywhere serve a risen and ascended Christ, the Divine Presence remains with glorious constancy through the Holy Spirit, the Paraclete, the One who is consistently alongside us, empowering us and advocating on our behalf. The beautiful theological truth here is that God is both transcendent (far above us) and immanent (intimately close to us) at the same time, all the time.

Armed with such a robust theological understanding, trust and confidence come to us without having to resort to ginning up positive thoughts. Instructions and commands which seem like nonsense? No problem. The Transcendent and Immanent One has the Presence all over it. In between a rock-and-hard-place (or an Egyptian army and a Red Sea)? Not an issue. I willingly place myself there knowing that with the Presence, the miraculous is about to happen. We need not buck the difficult circumstances. The Presence has got this.

So, then, let us pray for the Church and for the world, and let us thank God for the great Presence: In the power of the Spirit and in union with Christ, we pray to you, Almighty God, and Father. From the rising of the sun to its setting, we pray to you, ever-vigilant Lord, on behalf of those in despair and darkness, that they may find the hope and light of Christ; those in fear of death, that they may find faith through the resurrection of Jesus; prisoners and captives, widows and orphans, and all those who today need a blessed assurance of the Presence; through Jesus Christ, your Son, our Lord, who with you and the Holy Spirit are one God, now and forever. Amen.

Click God With Us written and sung by Terrian Woods as we contemplate The Presence among us.