Psalm 28 – To Be, or Not to Be

David pelted with stones
David being pelted with stones, by unknown Slovakian artist, 1937

I cry out to you, Lord.
You are my rock; don’t refuse to hear me.
If you won’t talk to me,
I’ll be just like those going down to the pit.
Listen to my request for mercy when I cry out to you,
when I lift up my hands to your holy inner sanctuary.
Don’t drag me off with the wicked and those who do evil;
the type who talk nice to their friends
while evil thoughts are in their hearts!
Pay them back for what they’ve done!
Pay them back for their evil deeds!
Pay them back for their handiwork!
Give back to them exactly what they deserve!
Because they have no regard for what the Lord has done,
no regard for his handiwork,
God will tear them down and never rebuild!

Bless the Lord
because he has listened to my request for mercy!
The Lord is my strength and my shield.
My heart trusts him.
I was helped, my heart rejoiced,
and I thank him with my song.
The Lord is his people’s strength;
he is a fortress of protection for his anointed one.
Save your people, God!
Bless your possession!
Shepherd them and carry them for all time! (CEB)

The biblical character David, in frustration and agony, cried out for help, for God to hear his prayers. And, when his prayer was heard, David gave exuberant praise to the Lord for listening to him. We are not told specifically of how that prayer was answered and what happened between the request and the response. It seems the juicy details are left out on purpose, so that maybe we would not get lost in the retribution but stick with the fact that there was a desperate need and the Lord stepped in and did something about it.

As I pondered this psalm and its lack of life-detail, I wondered about David’s situation: Could it be that David gave God praise just for being heard by him?  Was David cured in some way, or was he healed from the need to be healed?  Was there even any actual deliverance that occurred?  Did David come to praise God despite a lack of deliverance?  Was David’s joy in his relationship with God conditional, or unconditional?

Hamlet
Hamlet, played by actor Matt Amendt in the Pittsburgh Public Theater, 2018

William Shakespeare’s Hamlet (c.1601 C.E.) put the question this way: “To be, or not to be, that is the question.” Hamlet’s soliloquy went on to say:

“Whether ’tis nobler in the mind to suffer
The slings and arrows of outrageous fortune,
Or to take arms against a sea of troubles,
And by opposing end them? To die: to sleep;
No more; and by a sleep to say we end
The heartache and the thousand natural shocks
That flesh is heir to, ’tis a consummation
Devoutly to be wish’d. To die, to sleep;
To sleep: perchance, to dream: ay, there’s the rub;
For in that sleep of death what dreams may come
When we have shuffled off this mortal coil,
Must give us pause: there’s the respect
That makes calamity of so long life;
For who would bear the whips and scorns of time,
The oppressor’s wrong, the proud man’s contumely,
The pangs of despised love, the law’s delay,
The insolence of office and the spurns
That patient merit of the unworthy takes,
When he himself might his quietus make
With a bare bodkin (knitting needle)?”

Hamlet, much like David of old, was miserable and burdened with a profound lack of power to change his circumstances. So, he reflects on life and death in a morbid and melancholy way. It is not that Hamlet was contemplating suicide as much as he meditated on what life truly is and finding some meaning within it. Unlike David, Hamlet cannot find the courage to deal with his frustration and feels stymied with fear of the unknown.

If we are blatantly honest with ourselves, we must admit that far too often we have a particular outcome in mind for God to do.  Our hopes and expectations are tethered to God doing something extremely specific so that, if it does not come to pass (or does not come quickly!) we become discouraged and disillusioned. Like Hamlet, we become lost in the shadows of our thinking and ponder some sort of escape.

So, here is another set of questions I am asking myself: If my adverse circumstances do not change, can I praise God anyway?  Can I, like David, take joy in simply being heard?  Can I find gratitude in all situations?  Do I only express thanks and praise to God when things are going my way?  Am I open to whatever God wants to do in my life, even if it is not what I would choose?  Do I feel that I am above having to put up with the wickedness of this world?  Am I expecting heaven on earth, or am I willing to suffer as Jesus did?

I honestly believe the answers to those questions will determine the trajectory of our Christian experience. For the identity and meaning of all persons is found in the divine.

I praise you, O God, in the good and the bad, the easy and the difficult, the failures and the victories.  You are Lord over all things.  You are my strength and shield in every circumstance.  When I am weak, I am strong. I can do all things through Christ who strengthens me.  Amen.

Genesis 33:1-17 – Brothers Reconciled

Jacob and Esau by Willow Winston
Jacob and Esau by British artist Willow Winston

Jacob looked up and saw Esau coming with his four hundred men. He divided the children between Leah and Rachel and the two maidservants. He put the maidservants out in front, Leah, and her children next, and Rachel and Joseph last. He led the way and, as he approached his brother, bowed seven times, honoring his brother. But Esau ran up and embraced him, held him tight and kissed him. And they both wept. 

Then Esau looked around and saw the women and children: “And who are these with you?” 

Jacob said, “The children that God saw fit to bless me with.” 

Then the maidservants came up with their children and bowed; then Leah and her children, also bowing; and finally, Joseph and Rachel came up and bowed to Esau. 

Esau then asked, “And what was the meaning of all those herds that I met?” 

“I was hoping that they would pave the way for my master to welcome me.” 

Esau said, “Oh, brother. I have plenty of everything—keep what is yours for yourself.” 

Jacob said, “Please. If you can find it in your heart to welcome me, accept these gifts. When I saw your face, it was as the face of God smiling on me. Accept the gifts I have brought for you. God has been good to me and I have more than enough.” Jacob urged the gifts on him, and Esau accepted. 

Then Esau said, “Let’s start out on our way; I’ll take the lead.” 

But Jacob said, “My master can see that the children are frail. And the flocks and herds are nursing, making for slow going. If I push them too hard, even for a day, I’d lose them all. So, master, you go on ahead of your servant, while I take it easy at the pace of my flocks and children. I’ll catch up with you in Seir.” 

Esau said, “Let me at least lend you some of my men.” 

“There’s no need,” said Jacob. “Your generous welcome is all I need or want.” 

So, Esau set out that day and made his way back to Seir. 

And Jacob left for Succoth. He built a shelter for himself and sheds for his livestock. That’s how the place came to be called Succoth (Sheds). (MSG) 

Repentance includes more than saying sorry. It also involves admitting wrong and making things right. This, then, lays the groundwork for an earnest attempt at reconciliation.  For example, the Christian does more than a simple acceptance and acquiescence of Jesus, if merely adding a bit of Christ to life will dash it up a bit and make it better. Rather, we are invited into the very life of Christ. This life turns us upside-down and inside-out in a new and radical allegiance.

Repentance and reconciliation are a way of life, as well as a necessary skill requiring development through continual practice and use. Broken relationships are the stuff of life, and we need gracious approaches to deal with them so that bitterness does not take root in our souls. Connection and peace between two people are a beautiful thing; it brings emotional health, spiritual wholeness, and life enrichment.

From the get-go, twin brothers Jacob and Esau in the Old Testament book of Genesis had a contentious relationship. At one point their relations were so bad that Esau was having some homicidal ideation toward his brother. Neither Esau nor Jacob handled things well between each other with Jacob leaving, finding a wife, and growing a family, and becoming wealthy. Twenty years passed before they came together again.

Jacob wrestling with God
Jacob Wrestling with the Angel of God by Jack Baumgartner, 2009

Jacob, knowing he was about to meet his brother, had an encounter with God that changed his identity from the old deceiver to the new Israel (Genesis 32:22-31).  In a demonstration of his new identity as Israel, Jacob worked at making amends for his old cheating ways by turning around the blessing he had stolen from his brother and then giving one back to him.

Jacob understandably had some dread in meeting Esau, considering what he had done to his brother in deceitfully taking both his birthright and blessing. Fresh from wrestling with God, Jacob demonstrated a newfound courage and humility through respect, gift-giving, and showing honor – reversing his past pattern of disrespect, stealing, and dishonor.

True turning away from what we have done wrong is by making things right. Merely having the feeling of being sorry is not repentance. Genuine repentance involves true sorrow; an earnestness to make restitution and reconciliation; an indignation over what happened; and, perhaps most importantly, a deep concern for the person(s) harmed by our wrongdoing (2 Corinthians 7:8-11).

The reconciliation between the brothers was a surprise because Jacob was not expecting Esau’s response. It seems Jacob was bracing for the worse, which would explain his high anxiety before the encounter. Esau’s gracious response was an answer to Jacob’s prayer.  For Jacob, seeing Esau’s face was like seeing the face of God – in fact, he saw both faces and lived!  Jacob likely would not have seen his brother’s face until he had first seen God’s. His divine experience prepared the way for the human encounter.

We all experience times when relationships unravel and need to be mended. Jacob procrastinated for twenty years before working at reconciliation with his brother. What made the difference for Jacob was trusting God, who always works out his promises, despite our human foibles.

May you know and experience the God who reconciles and restores, and in so doing extend that same earnestness to others.

Merciful God, I confess that I have sinned against you and against others through my own fault by thought, word and deed in things done and left undone. Especially I confess that I have _____.  therefore repent; for these and all my sins I am terribly sorry and pray for forgiveness. I firmly intend to make amends and seek for help. I ask for strength to serve you in newness of life through Jesus Christ, my Lord, in the power of your Holy Spirit. Amen.

Genesis 22:15-18 – Faith, Obedience, and Blessing

Blessing to Abraham

The angel of the Lord called to Abraham from heaven a second time and said, “I swear by myself, declares the Lord, that because you have done this and have not withheld your son, your only son, I will surely bless you and make your descendants as numerous as the stars in the sky and as the sand on the seashore. Your descendants will take possession of the cities of their enemies, and through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed, because you have obeyed me.” (NIV)

The biblical character of Abraham is synonymous with faith. And for good reason. God had told Abraham that he would have a son with his wife Sarah. This was especially unusual because the couple were well advanced in age, and Sarah was incapable of having children. Infertility is not just a modern problem; it has always existed.  Yet, despite all the contrary evidence of age and ability, Abraham believed God. Years later and with a mix of patience and impatience from the would-be parents, the promise from God was realized.  Abraham and Sarah had a son, Isaac.

“The child of the promise.” This was Isaac’s moniker – which made the command from God so perplexing: “Take your son, your only son, whom you love—Isaac—and go to the region of Moriah. Sacrifice him there as a burnt offering on a mountain I will show you.” (Genesis 22:2). Huh? I can easily imagine Abraham saying to himself, perhaps not out loud, “What the [insert favorite expletive]!”  But it only seems strange and super-weird to us. We get no reaction from Abraham, no questioning, no talk back.  He just goes about the business of saddling up the donkey, chopping some wood for the sacrifice, and takes his only son with him on the journey to the mountain.

While you and I might try and figure out if we really heard God or not, Abraham had a history of talking with God. He knew God’s voice as well as he knew his own. Abraham was well down the road of relationship with the God he served. We get an insight from the author of Hebrews into Abraham’s thought process, a line of thinking that is consistent with a person who has a regular habit of talking with God:

“Abraham had been promised that Isaac, his only son, would continue his family. But when Abraham was tested, he had faith and was willing to sacrifice Isaac, because he was sure that God could raise people to life. This was just like getting Isaac back from death.” (Hebrews 11:17-18, CEV)

Abraham did not try and figure out God’s mind. He picked no fights and chose not to debate with God about the contradiction of ethics he was being asked to do.

Abraham simply obeyed.

He reasoned that it did not matter if Isaac were killed because God could raise him from death. This, of course, is not what happened. It was all a test of faith. Abraham knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that God is the Lord who provides. After God stepped in and provided a ram for the sacrifice instead of Isaac, Abraham named that place “The Lord Will Provide.” (Genesis 22:14)

You and I most certainly do not always know why we are facing the circumstances we must endure. We very much are rarely privy to know what in the world God is thinking. Yet, like Abraham, if we have a spiritual history of walking with God and hearing his voice, there is no hesitation to respond with obedience. We are convinced that God will provide. Obedience for the follower of Christ is not a burden; it is a privilege, even when we are being tested beyond our seeming emotional ability to do it.

Blessings come through obedience. They are not willy-nilly thrown into a crowd like some cheap stadium trinket between innings of a baseball game. When the Israelites were about to enter the Promised Land, this very connection between obedience and blessing was re-emphasized:

If you fully obey the Lord your God and carefully follow all his commands I give you today, the Lord your God will set you high above all the nations on earth. All these blessings will come on you and accompany you if you obey the Lord your God…. The Lord will establish you as his holy people, as he promised you on oath, if you keep the commands of the Lord your God and walk in obedience to him. (Deuteronomy 28:1-2, 9, NIV)

A simple observation about the blessing of Abraham: It took nearly five-hundred years before that blessing was realized. Furthermore, in the Christian tradition, it then took another fifteen-hundred years before the blessing was fulfilled in the person of Jesus. And, I might add, all the promises of God to his people will be fully consummated at the end of the age when Christ returns. For a contemporary society which prides itself on timeliness and efficiency, taking the much broader scope of all history might seem unacceptable.

So, we come back around again to trust. Just as Abraham trusted God, even when it seemed like nonsense fraught with major moral implications, so we are to exhibit patient and persevering faith. Although the scope of history is massively large, the only moment we have is the now. It is now, today, in which we put one foot in front of the other and toddle forward into the next moment – by faith.

We simply obey.

Then, we obey again… and, again. It is in such continual small steps of faith and obedience that we will discover the blessings of God in the middle of our path.

Sovereign Lord, your ways are sometimes strange.  Yet, I know that everything you do is always right, just, and good.  It is to your gracious and merciful character that I know you will guide and provide. My allegiance is to you as I anticipate your divine blessings in my life through the Name of Jesus Christ, in the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.