Tag Archives: Prayer

Video Reflection 4: On Prayer during this time of Social Distancing

Psalm 5: 1-3, 11-12
Give ear to my words, O LORD; give heed to my sighing.
2 Listen to the sound of my cry, my King and my God, for to you I pray.
3 O LORD, in the morning you hear my voice; in the morning I plead my case to you, and watch.

11 But let all who take refuge in you rejoice; let them ever sing for joy. Spread your protection over them, so that those who love your name may exult in you.
12 For you bless the righteous, O LORD; you cover them with favor as with a shield.

Matthew 6: 6-13
6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you. 7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.
9 “Pray then in this way: Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name. 10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. 11 Give us this day our daily bread. 12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. 13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

Romans 8: 26-27
26 Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. 27 And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.

Reflection
Today I want to give you some resources for prayer. There is not an incorrect way to pray, God knows the needs of our hearts before we voice them, but sometimes it helps to have some resources to give words to our prayers. Sometimes there are portions of scriptures like the Psalms, or the Lord’s Prayer that can help us. But here are some other prayers for this time:
The first one come from our hymnal, Evangelical Lutheran Worship on p. 76

O God, where hearts are fearful and constricted, grant courage and hope. Where anxiety is infectious and widening, grant peace and reassurance. Where impossibilities close every door and window, grant imagination and resistance. Where distrust twists our thinking, grant healing and illumination. Where spirits are daunted and weakened, grant soaring wings and strengthened dreams. All these things we ask in the name of Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord. Amen.

These next prayers come from a little resource that many pastors have that is a supplement to the hymnal called Pastoral Care which has resources and prayers for various situations. While I normally will pray without referencing this, sometimes it is helpful to have prayers for various situations. Here are a few:
Prayer to be recited with a child who is anxious:

Gentle Jesus, stay beside me through this day (night). Take away my pain. Keep me safe. Help me when I’m afraid. Make my body strong again and my heart glad. Thank you for your love that surrounds me.

Another couple prayers which are written for morning but can be adapted for any time of day:

O God, you have called your servants to ventures of which we cannot see the ending, paths as yet untrodden, through perils unknown. Give us faith to go out with good courage, not knowing where to go, but only that your hand is leading us and your love supporting us, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.

We give you thanks to you, heavenly Father, through Jesus Christ your dear Son, that you have protected us through the night from all harm and danger. We ask that you would also protect us today from sin and all evil, so that our life and actions may please you. Into your hands we commend ourselves: our bodies, our souls, and all that is ours. Let your holy angels be with us, so that the wicked for may have no power over us.

Praying for those who are caregivers in this time:

Holy and compassionate God, you send to us in our need those who care for us and look out for our lives. Bless them in their love for us. Bless the hands of those who work for our health. Bless the minds of those who search for our healing. Bless the feet of those who come to us in our need. Bless the eyes of those who look after us. Bless the hearts of all who serve; fill them with compassion and patience; and work through all of them for the betterment and well-being of all your children, through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Merciful God, your healing power is everywhere about us. Strengthen those who work among the sick; give them courage and confidence in all they do. Encourage them when they are overwhelmed with many pressing needs or when their efforts seem futile. Increase their trust in your power to bring life and wholeness even in the midst of death and pain and crying. May they be thankful for every sign of health you give, and humble before the mystery of your healing grace; through Jesus Christ our Lord.

Matthew 7: 7-12 Seeking God and Right Relationships

James Tissot, The Lord’s Prayer (1896-1894)

Matthew 7: 7-12

Parallels Luke 11: 9-13, Luke 6: 31

7 “Ask, and it will be given you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. 8 For everyone who asks receives, and everyone who searches finds, and for everyone who knocks, the door will be opened. 9 Is there anyone among you who, if your child asks for bread, will give a stone? 10 Or if the child asks for a fish, will give a snake? 11 If you then, who are evil, know how to give good gifts to your children, how much more will your Father in heaven give good things to those who ask him!

12 “In everything do to others as you would have them do to you; for this is the law and the prophets.

The vision of the Sermon on the Mount relies upon the fundamental assumption that God is trustworthy. Asking God for what the petitioner needs assumes that God is trustworthy in providing daily bread and all the petitioner needs. The rhythm of ask, seek, knock each followed by a positive answer to the action and then the second restating of everyone who asks, searches and knocks receiving, finding and having the door opened reinforces this view of God’s trustworthiness. The Father that Jesus has encouraged his disciples to pray to will give what is needed to those who ask of him.

Throughout the Hebrew Scriptures there are continual calls for the people of Israel to ask or seek the LORD their God, and the God we meet in the scriptures desires for God’s people to ask and seek. Sometimes this is stated in terms of promise, for example:

Ask of me and I will make the nations your heritage, and the ends of the earth your possession Psalm 2:8

Other times, it indicates an openness to repentance, that even once the relationship seems broken that God is open to reforming the covenant if they people if they will seek God.

From there (the places where you are scattered) you will seek the LORD your God, and you will find him if you search after him with all your heart and soul. Deuteronomy 4: 29

Ultimately the way of wisdom is to continue to be in a relationship with God and to continue to ask, seek and knock, as in 1 Chronicles

Seek the LORD and his strength, seek his presence continually. 1 Chronicles 16: 11 (this is also Psalm 105:4)

Yet, the strongest resonance with Matthew 7 comes from Isaiah where God desires to be sought and asked but the people do not seek or ask

I was ready to be sought out by those who did not ask, to be found by those who did not seek me. I said, “Here I am, here I am,” I held out my hands all day long to a rebellious people, who walk in a way that is not good, following their own devices. Isaiah 65:1-2

The Sermon on the Mount is continuing to restate important themes in different ways to attempt to communicate what righteousness looks like in practice. Followers of Jesus in Matthew 6: 5-15 are instructed in what asking God looks like in the context of prayer. Seeking first the kingdom of God[1] and God’s righteousness are now reinforced as things that the seeking one will find. God knows what the asking one needs, desires to be sought by those who are willing to ask and seek, to open the door for those who are willing to knock, to give good gifts to God’s children like earthly parents who love their children do for their own.

A right relationship with God is tied with a right relationship with others. As in Matthew 22: 37-38 where the two greatest commandments are loving God with all one’s heart, mind, soul and strength and the neighbor as oneself, so here asking and seeking God is tied to the golden rule in relation to one’s neighbor. The law and the prophets are summed up here by Jesus as doing to others as you would have them do to you. Some form of the golden rule occurs in most religious traditions including Judaism, Islam, Hinduism, Buddhism, Sikhism and Confucianism.  Most religious traditions have realized the wisdom of this practice of treating others as one would like to be treated. This way of living in relation to others is not dependent on how others act towards you, but instead the follower of Jesus is to act towards the other in a way that models the righteousness they would desire to receive.

[1] Even though the NRSV in Matthew 6:33 begins “But strive first for the kingdom of God” the word translated strive in Matthew 6 is translated by the NRSV as seek here obscuring the parallel language and themes in Matthew 7:7-8

Matthew 6: 5-15 Exploring Prayer, Forgiveness and Righteousness

James Tissot, The Lord’s Prayer (1896-1894)

Matthew 6: 5-15

Parallels : Mark 11: 25-26, Luke 11: 1-4

5 “And whenever you pray, do not be like the hypocrites; for they love to stand and pray in the synagogues and at the street corners, so that they may be seen by others. Truly I tell you, they have received their reward. 6 But whenever you pray, go into your room and shut the door and pray to your Father who is in secret; and your Father who sees in secret will reward you.

7 “When you are praying, do not heap up empty phrases as the Gentiles do; for they think that they will be heard because of their many words. 8 Do not be like them, for your Father knows what you need before you ask him.

9 “Pray then in this way:
Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name.
10 Your kingdom come. Your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.
11 Give us this day our daily bread.
12 And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors.
13 And do not bring us to the time of trial, but rescue us from the evil one.

14 For if you forgive others their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you; 15 but if you do not forgive others, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses. 

This second practice of righteousness is prayer, but the prayer is between the disciple and their heavenly Father and is not done to either impress the surrounding community or God with their piety or eloquence. As mentioned above, the righteousness that we are encountering in Matthew has little to do with the way we often think of religious piety. Instead it is based upon the security of the individual and the community in their covenant with their heavenly Father. The disciple’s actions may be done in secret, but the community who trusts in God’s provision and attention will be visible.

Jesus, like the law, the prophets and psalmists, viewed the relationship between the people and God as founded on their righteousness as practiced in mercy toward their neighbors and prayer is an important part of maintaining that relationship. As Samuel Ballentine when writing about prayer in the Hebrew Scriptures can state:

prayer is a principal means of keeping the community bound to God in an ongoing dialogue of faith. I suggest that the church is summoned to a ministry that both promotes and enables this dialogue. (Ballentine, 1993, p. 275)

Prayer is, in Ballentine’s language, “a service of the heart” which breaks into the mundane reality of daily life with the presence of the sacred. (Ballentine, 1993, p. 274) Prayer can happen in the public places, the synagogue and the street corners for example, and prayer led in the community has a long-standing place within the community’s worship. Yet, the community is made up of disciples who can also have the private and unseen places interrupted as the language of the heart encounters the heavenly Father who knows the needs of the heart.

Instead of prayer being fashioned around rubrics and phrases that are piled one upon another, prayer for the followers of Jesus is simple because it lifts up to God what God already knows. One is not in prayer to appease a god with one’s eloquence or to impress the divine with one’s piety, for with the heavenly Father one’s righteousness is already seen. It is not for public display and recognition, but this wise prayer recognizes and honors the already existing relationship between the disciple and their God who sees.

The Lord’s Prayer, as given in the gospels, is slightly different than most Protestant Christians learned through worship. The most notable difference is the deletion of the final phrases about “the kingdom and the power and the glory” being God’s. Ultimately this change comes from the tools available to scholars and translators that were not available when the influential King James Version, and other early English translations were produced. The King James version of the Bible used a simple majority of early texts to determine what was translated, while later translations (like the NRSV which I’m using as a basis for this reading) are able to use technologies like carbon dating to determine the age of a manuscript and privilege the oldest manuscripts. It appears that the addition of the phrases attributing glory to God appear later and are then incorporated into later copies of the gospels, perhaps reflecting an already existing practice in the early church.

The language of this prayer is familiar to most Christians, addressing God as the heavenly Father and asking God to make holy the name of God. From a scriptural perspective there is the commandment that the people of God are not to profane the name of God, but the relationship also allows the one praying or in dialogue with God to declare than an action by God would bring God’s name dishonor. For example, during the dialogue between God and Moses after the construction of the golden calf by Israel, Moses’ appeal to God not to destroy the people hangs upon this understanding:

Moses appeals to God’s own character by reminding God that God has already taken an oath (v. 13: nisba’ta lahem bak, “You have sworn to them by your own self”), the violation of which would jeopardize trust in the divine character. (Ballentine, 1993, p. 138)

The book of Psalms and Jeremiah also frequently uses this tactic in appealing to God to act in accordance with maintaining the sanctity of God’s name and honor.

The prayer continues with the prayer for the coming of the kingdom of heaven where God’s will is done on earth as well. The community and the disciple trust in God for the provision of the things they need. Like the people of Israel in the wilderness, where God provided mana, now the followers of Jesus can trust that God will provide the bread they need, even when their physical ability to provide resources is unable to sustain the crowds that gather around Jesus (see for example Matthew 14: 13-21 and Matthew 15: 32-39).

Forgiveness is lifted up within the prayer and immediately following the prayer and in both occurrences divine forgiveness and the practice of forgiving others is linked.  The link with the Apocryphal book of Sirach (sometimes called the Wisdom of Sirach or Ecclesiasticus) is often noted:

Forgive your neighbor the wrong he has done, and then your sins will be pardoned when you pray. (Sirach 28:2)

While Jesus and Matthew may or may not have been familiar with the book of Sirach, both are pulling on a long tradition of wisdom literature interpreting both law and righteousness to the hearer, and here the wise and righteous one forgives the neighbor in the context of prayer and in their actions. The practice of forgiving debts goes back to the practice of remitting debts every seventh year (see Deuteronomy 15: 1-18). Additionally, it is important to note that in Matthew both the practice of forgiving economic debts (see also Matthew 18: 23-35) and trespasses (wrongdoing or sin, see also Matthew 18: 21-22 where a question about forgiving sin is answered with a parable about economic justice). Both cases, economic and trespasses link the disciple’s forgiveness with their reception of divine forgiveness. This is a community where justice is practiced, but the merciful receive mercy (Matthew 5:7). Ultimately a community where reconciliation is practiced, and anger is addressed will need to be a community of forgiving disciples.

Finally, the prayer concludes with a prayer not to be brought to the time of testing and deliverance from the evil one. The disciple’s life rests in their heavenly Father’s hands and it is God who can deliver them in the times when their trust in God is tested. Following Jesus may involve suffering, but that does not mean that one prays for that suffering to enter one’s life. The presence of the evil one is assumed throughout Matthew. The devil and those who are actively or passively working for him will resist the approach of the kingdom of their heavenly Father.  Ultimately God is the one who can deliver from both temptation and the evil one.

Prayer and forgiveness, along with acts of mercy (almsgiving) are all ways in which righteousness is practiced for the individual within the community of the faithful. It is a community where thoughts and prayers are also surrounded by actions of justice and personal piety involves commitment to the good of the neighbors in the community. It is a place where the kingdom of heaven approaches the community of the faithful and God’s will is done in these places where earth and heaven meet. Prayer and forgiveness are practiced as a part of the relationship between the God of the disciples and the community they share. Everything is done in the confidence of God’s provision for the needs of the community as a whole and the disciples as individuals. The heavenly Father is the one they trust to rescue them from the temptation and persecution they will encounter.

Psalm 40 Experienced Faithfulness and the Hope of Deliverance

Extract of Herbert Boeckl’s fresco “Saint Peter’s rescue from the Lake Galilee” inside the cathedral of Maria Sall, Carinthia, Austria

Psalm 40

<To the leader. Of David. A Psalm.>
1 I waited patiently for the LORD; he inclined to me and heard my cry.
2 He drew me up from the desolate pit, out of the miry bog, and set my feet upon a rock, making my steps secure.
3 He put a new song in my mouth, a song of praise to our God. Many will see and fear, and put their trust in the LORD.
4 Happy are those who make the LORD their trust, who do not turn to the proud, to those who go astray after false gods.
5 You have multiplied, O LORD my God, your wondrous deeds and your thoughts toward us; none can compare with you. Were I to proclaim and tell of them, they would be more than can be counted.
6 Sacrifice and offering you do not desire, but you have given me an open ear. Burnt offering and sin offering you have not required.
7 Then I said, “Here I am; in the scroll of the book it is written of me.
8 I delight to do your will, O my God; your law is within my heart.”
9 I have told the glad news of deliverance in the great congregation; see, I have not restrained my lips, as you know, O LORD.
10 I have not hidden your saving help within my heart, I have spoken of your faithfulness and your salvation; I have not concealed your steadfast love and your faithfulness from the great congregation.
11 Do not, O LORD, withhold your mercy from me; let your steadfast love and your faithfulness keep me safe forever.
12 For evils have encompassed me without number; my iniquities have overtaken me, until I cannot see; they are more than the hairs of my head, and my heart fails me.
13 Be pleased, O LORD, to deliver me; O LORD, make haste to help me.
14 Let all those be put to shame and confusion who seek to snatch away my life; let those be turned back and brought to dishonor who desire my hurt.
15 Let those be appalled because of their shame who say to me, “Aha, Aha!”
16 But may all who seek you rejoice and be glad in you; may those who love your salvation say continually, “Great is the LORD!”
17 As for me, I am poor and needy, but the Lord takes thought for me. You are my help and my deliverer; do not delay, O my God.

Any deliverance we may experience during our life is provisional. That doesn’t mean that the deliverance is insignificant or unimportant, merely that there will be future crises that we encounter in our lives. The experience of God’s faithfulness and the answer to one’s prayer does not grant us a life exempt from future struggles or conflict. Yet, these experiences of God’s faithfulness can give shape to the prayers that we state when we encounter a new crisis. Our history with God’s actions on our behalf teach us to trust that God does hear our prayer and respond and gives us a hope for deliverance in the future as we endure what hardships may come.

Psalm 40 moves from praise for a past time of salvation into a prayer in a moment of crisis. Some people have broken the psalm into two pieces and dealt with it as two distinct psalms, especially since verses 13-17 comprise the entirety of Psalm 70. Yet, here they are joined into one psalm and there is wisdom in the way Psalm 40 flows. The movement from the experience of faithfulness to praise to finding oneself needing to callon God’s deliverance is a movement that is frequent in the life of faith.

The psalm begins with recollection. The petitioner remembers a time when they waited on the LORD’s deliverance and their waiting was recognized. They were drawn out of a metaphorical pit and miry bog and placed in a secure place. God was their rock and a foundation which proved trustworthy to rely upon and to build their life around. Their response to this deliverance was one of praise, of singing and or testifying to others in the community what they LORD had done for them.

As the praise of the psalmist continues they can proclaim that ‘happy’ or ‘blessed’ is the one who makes the LORD their trust. Earlier the path of happiness was for those who do not follow the wicked and delight in the law of God (Psalm 1) or for those whose sin has been forgiven (Psalm 32) and now the path of happiness is for those who trust in the LORD instead of any other object of faith. Instead of trusting in their own strength or turning aside to follow other gods the faithful one finds peace and happiness in relying on their God. Their trust has been rewarded by seeing the wondrous deeds towards the faithful community in the past and they remind themselves of the blessings they have received. The path of the ‘happy’ one is a path of gratitude for the continued provision of God throughout their life and in the life of their community.

What the psalmist believes their LORD desires is a life that is lived according to the covenant rather than sacrifice and offering. Like the prophets (see for example 1 Samuel 15: 22; Isaiah 1: 12-17; Hosea 6:6 and Amos 5: 21-24), here the psalmist recounts that the LORD desires more than merely right worship. The God of the psalms is not swayed by lavish sacrifices or offerings or worship. No sacrifice meets what God truly wants for God’s people. Instead it is a life lived in trust, praise and obedience that is desired by God. While worship, sacrifice and offering are all a part of this life they are not sufficient.

Interpretations vary on the ‘scroll of the book of the law’ in verse seven. I read this as a way of talking about a life that conforms to God’s law. Perhaps the person brings in a scroll of either a narrative of the way in which God rescued them, or the psalm itself becomes the offering, or the scroll is an accounting of how the individual has lived in accordance with God’s will. As Rolf Jacobson can state

“the psalmist delights in doing what God truly does find acceptable. And what God delights in is a life that conforms itself to God’s teaching (tôr; see comment on Ps. 1:2)—a life so conformed to God’s teaching that the torah is alive deep (betôk mēāy) a person.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 379)

Like Jeremiah 31: 31-34 and Ezekiel 36: 26-28 we have within this psalm a heart that has the covenant imprinted on it.  Their experience of living the law, of trusting in the LORD, and knowing the benefit of the LORD’s protection and provision form the content of their witness to the community of faith. Their life and their song become tied together into a public act of worship the God who has heard them.

Yet, the faithful life is not exempted from strife and trials and within this psalm the texture changes as the psalmist is again in a place where they need to call upon the LORD’s salvation. In the past they have called, and God has answered and here again they lift their cry for God’s mercy, steadfast love and faithfulness. Evils and iniquities have somehow occluded the psalmist’s ability to see God’s action on their behalf. Those who desire their hurt may be those actively working against them or seeking to profit from their misfortune or they may simply be those who take pleasure in another person’s suffering. But the psalmist prays out of the position of trusting in God’s deliverance, a trust that has been validated in the past. They are poor and needy, they are vulnerable and yet they trust that God sees their turmoil and hears their cry. They recounted waiting patiently in the past for the LORD’s deliverance and now they are in the space of waiting again. They ask for God to act quickly to restore them to the place where once again they can testify to God’s deliverance and how God has again set their feet upon the rock instead of being caught in the pit or the miry bog.

 

Psalm 28- Can You Hear Me Lord?

Can You Hear Me by jinzilla@deviantart.com

Can You Hear Me by jinzilla@deviantart.com

Psalm 28

<Of David.>
 1 To you, O LORD, I call; my rock, do not refuse to hear me, for if you are silent to me, I shall be like those who go down to the Pit.
 2 Hear the voice of my supplication, as I cry to you for help, as I lift up my hands toward your most holy sanctuary.
 3 Do not drag me away with the wicked, with those who are workers of evil, who speak peace with their neighbors, while mischief is in their hearts.
 4 Repay them according to their work, and according to the evil of their deeds; repay them according to the work of their hands; render them their due reward.
 5 Because they do not regard the works of the LORD, or the work of his hands, he will break them down and build them up no more.
 6 Blessed be the LORD, for he has heard the sound of my pleadings.
 7 The LORD is my strength and my shield; in him my heart trusts; so I am helped, and my heart exults, and with my song I give thanks to him.
 8 The LORD is the strength of his people; he is the saving refuge of his anointed.
 9 O save your people, and bless your heritage; be their shepherd, and carry them forever.
 
There is an intensity and beauty to this Psalm in its movement from crying to be heard to blessing the LORD who has heard. We can never enter the original Psalmist’s world and know who their enemies are or what is the crisis they are experiencing or how long they cry before they know that the LORD hears and responds, and yet we have their words which can echo our own crises and cries. The life of faith can inhabit this wide space between the desperate cry and the confident trust of one who has been answered. Faith does not exempt the faithful one from these times of crisis, but it does give the faithful petitioner a Faithful One who they trust will hear and answer their calls.

The intensity of the petitioner’s prayer is carried by the verbs focused on hearing: “I call, do not refuse to hear (literally do not be deaf), if you are silent” and the additional contrast between the LORD’s role as the petitioner’s rock and their destination if their rock proves untrustworthy, the pit. The psalmist cries out to the LORD, their rock, because the LORD is the only one who can deliver them. This cry is both an individual cry for help but also has the connotation of worship with lifting up hands toward the sanctuary. The Psalm doesn’t bargain with God but instead attempts to lift up the desperate reality that the Psalmist finds themselves within. If God does not rescue them from the wicked their life will end. The words of the Psalm 28 point to a life or death reality and wait upon the LORD for deliverance.

In contrast to the words of the Psalmist are the words of the wicked who speak peace while plotting mischief. The wicked often masquerade as the righteous and yet the Psalmist can point to the “fundamental disjunction between words, intentions and deeds.” (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 276) The wicked here are portrayed as those who do not ‘regard the work of the LORD,’ who seem to easily inhabit that space of God’s perceived silence with their own certainty that their words will go unpunished. They fill the pause in God’s perceived works with their own evil works and while the Psalmist wants the LORD to repay the evildoers for their works he also wants to ensure that he is not swept away along with them. Do not mistake my words for those of the evildoers who oppress me, do not mistake my work for their work or my deeds for their deeds. The work of the wicked is contrasted with the work of the LORD and the trust is that their disregard for the LORD’s working will result in their own destruction.

The space between verse five and six, the space between the LORD will break them down and blessed be the LORD who has heard is unknown. During that time the one praying holds onto the promise of the LORD’s hearing and the remembrance of the way the LORD has acted for the faithful ones in the past. Yet, the Psalm takes us across the unknown span of time to the resolution where God has acted, where the Psalmist can rest because God has provided them safety and strength, God did hear and act and save. It is this space where the Psalmist can utter the words of praise for the LORD who is faithful to the promises that were made. Now the Psalm moves beyond the individual to the community that calls upon God for their inheritance as well as guidance. The LORD is called upon to be their shepherd (which also has royal/kingly connotations in the Hebrew Bible) and to watch over and lead them forever. Perhaps, like in Psalm 23, the people will again find themselves in the darkest valley needing to cry out for the LORD to hear and rescue them again and then once again the intensity of the beginning of this Psalm may be a part of the movement again to that time when the LORD has heard and acted.

Psalm 27- Faith in an Age of Anxiety

The Temple by Radojavor@deviantart.com

The Temple by Radojavor@deviantart.com

Psalm 27
<Of David.>
 1 The LORD is my light and my salvation; whom shall I fear? The LORD is the stronghold of my life; of whom shall I be afraid?
 2 When evildoers assail me to devour my flesh– my adversaries and foes– they shall stumble and fall.
 3 Though an army encamp against me, my heart shall not fear; though war rise up against me, yet I will be confident.
 4 One thing I asked of the LORD, that will I seek after: to live in the house of the LORD all the days of my life, to behold the beauty of the LORD, and to inquire in his temple.
 5 For he will hide me in his shelter in the day of trouble; he will conceal me under the cover of his tent; he will set me high on a rock.
 6 Now my head is lifted up above my enemies all around me, and I will offer in his tent sacrifices with shouts of joy; I will sing and make melody to the LORD.
 7 Hear, O LORD, when I cry aloud, be gracious to me and answer me!
 8 “Come,” my heart says, “seek his face!” Your face, LORD, do I seek.
 9 Do not hide your face from me. Do not turn your servant away in anger, you who have been my help. Do not cast me off, do not forsake me, O God of my salvation!
 10 If my father and mother forsake me, the LORD will take me up.
 11 Teach me your way, O LORD, and lead me on a level path because of my enemies.
 12 Do not give me up to the will of my adversaries, for false witnesses have risen against me, and they are breathing out violence.
 13 I believe that I shall see the goodness of the LORD in the land of the living.
 14 Wait for the LORD; be strong, and let your heart take courage; wait for the LORD!

The fear of the LORD is the antidote to the fear of the things that produce anxiety in the world around the Psalmist. One of the most common commands when there is a divine revelation through a dream, an angel or a prophecy is “Do not be afraid.” Often these words come in situations that would produce fear and yet the one who calls the Psalmist, the prophets and poets, the kings and the shepherds, the young women like Mary and old men like Zechariah becomes their light and salvation throughout their life and journey. As the apostle Paul can write to the church in Rome, “What then are we to say about these things? If God is for us, who is against us?” Or as Martin Luther could explain when talking about what it means to follow the first commandment of having no other Gods, “We are to fear, love and trust God above all things.” The Psalmists faith in God becomes such a central part of their life that they can enter into the darkest valleys without being paralyzed by fear because their LORD is indeed guiding them through those places and times.

The fear of the LORD is not an immunization against bad things happening to the faithful one, the Psalms and even the theology of books like Deuteronomy are not some simple prosperity gospel where trust in the LORD guarantees a return on investment in wealth, happiness, children, flocks and fields. There is a sense in which that trust is rewarded and validated but the Psalmist and those throughout scripture who are lifted up as models of faith often live challenging lives. Job, for example, would continue to believe that he would be vindicated by the LORD even when his household and health were all destroyed and yet, defiantly, Job would trust that God would answer his plea. The martial imagery of enemies that attack in cannibalistic fashion or an army that encamps around the faithful one may be metaphors for the great struggles or, if the Psalm refers backwards into David’s experience, it may reflect the reality of being one who is hunted for. Faith doesn’t make life easy but it may make the incredible struggle that one goes through bearable because faith becomes the antidote to the overwhelming fear and anxiety that may be present otherwise in the Psalmist’s life.

Worship becomes a foundational piece of the faithful life. The desire of the Psalmist is to live their life in the house of the LORD. The temple or tabernacle becomes a place to seek God’s presence, God’s voice and guidance, to reaffirm one’s trust in their God and a place where prayers can go forth. It is a place where defiant shouts of joy and joyous songs and praises can be offered. It becomes a continual reminder that the Psalmist does not journey alone, but that the LORD their God and other faithful ones, perhaps many other faithful ones also join in these defiant shouts and songs. Faith is strengthened in the continual dwelling in the house of the LORD.

Their God to the faithful one becomes shelter, the one who conceals them under the cover of the tent and the one who sets them upon a rock. Shelter, while used only here in the Psalms, reflects a common idea of the LORD sheltering the people of Israel and is the word behind the Feast of Sukkoth (Festival of Booths) remembering how the LORD cared for the people during their Exodus journey. The LORD has been the rock and foundation before, as in Psalm 18, but now the LORD places the Psalmist upon a rock where they are safe and sheltered from their enemies. As Rolf Jacobson can point out the tent can be a reference to the tabernacle or temple but it also has the element of being God’s protective presence. (Nancy deClaisse-Walford, 2014, p. 269) Within the hospitality culture of the ancient world being concealed under the cover of the tent may also allude to the expectation of protection provided for the guest that has been welcomed into one’s home and there are numerous stories throughout the bible, probably the most famous being that of Lot and the two angels that he shields within his house in Genesis 19 (a text often misinterpreted). In the ancient world if someone comes to your house and you extend them hospitality then their lives are entrusted to your care.

Yet, even the faith that knows that the LORD is their light and salvation may have to convince itself to trust in the midst of the challenges of life. For me verses eight through fourteen may be this type of internal dialogue of faithfulness in the midst of challenge. There is the plea to be heard and the reminder spoken to oneself to seek the face of the Lord and a reaffirmation of this seeking followed by a plea not to hide or turn away, a plea not to cast one off or forsake. There is the continual struggle to remember the character of God and yet the falling back into the language of commitment, deeper commitment to the faithful one than even a parental bond may yield. This Psalm has been a Psalm of commitment and trust and the Psalmist calls upon God in the midst of their struggles to uphold that trust: not to give them up to their adversaries and to lead them on the level paths. The Psalm ends on that note of trust as the wait for the LORD and the belief that in the midst of their time of trial the LORD will somehow deliver them or give them the strength and courage to endure.

Psalm 25: The Struggle of Faith From Aleph to Tav

The Hebrew Alphabet. Hebrew reads right to left so it begins with Aleph and ends with Tet

The Hebrew Alphabet. Hebrew reads right to left so it begins with Aleph and ends with Tav

Psalm 25

<Of David.>
1 To you, O LORD, I lift up my soul.
 2 O my God, in you I trust; do not let me be put to shame; do not let my enemies exult over me.
 3 Do not let those who wait for you be put to shame; let them be ashamed who are wantonly treacherous.
 4 Make me to know your ways, O LORD; teach me your paths.
 5 Lead me in your truth, and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation; for you I wait all day long.
 6 Be mindful of your mercy, O LORD, and of your steadfast love, for they have been from of old.
 7 Do not remember the sins of my youth or my transgressions; according to your steadfast love remember me, for your goodness’ sake, O LORD!
 8 Good and upright is the LORD; therefore he instructs sinners in the way.
 9 He leads the humble in what is right, and teaches the humble his way.
 10 All the paths of the LORD are steadfast love and faithfulness, for those who keep his covenant and his decrees.
 11 For your name’s sake, O LORD, pardon my guilt, for it is great.
 12 Who are they that fear the LORD? He will teach them the way that they should choose.
 13 They will abide in prosperity, and their children shall possess the land.
 14 The friendship of the LORD is for those who fear him, and he makes his covenant known to them.
 15 My eyes are ever toward the LORD, for he will pluck my feet out of the net.
 16 Turn to me and be gracious to me, for I am lonely and afflicted.
 17 Relieve the troubles of my heart, and bring me out of my distress.
 18 Consider my affliction and my trouble, and forgive all my sins.
 19 Consider how many are my foes, and with what violent hatred they hate me.
 20 O guard my life, and deliver me; do not let me be put to shame, for I take refuge in you.
 21 May integrity and uprightness preserve me, for I wait for you.
 22 Redeem Israel, O God, out of all its troubles.

The Psalms are poetry and many types of poetry rely upon certain forms. One of the forms that Hebrew Poetry seems drawn to is the acrostic, where the poem divides by line or verse by descending letters of the alphabet. Psalms 9 and 10  together form an acrostic poem as do several other Psalms, yet it is a form that lies unseen in the English translations of this Psalm. One of the reasons for using an acrostic is to express a complete thought from A to Z (or from Aleph to Tav in Hebrew).

Many commentators remark upon the disjointed structure of the petitions in this prayer and conclude that the disjointedness comes from the form of the poem (having to start a petition with the next consonant in the alphabet) and divide the Psalm up into distinct units that share themes. Yet, spending some time with Psalm 25, I think the form, content and vocabulary of the Psalm point to a larger picture of the struggle of faith in the space of the ambiguity of life. The Psalm wrestles with the difference between the experience of the faithful one who is praying and their own experience of being put to shame, seeing others who are treacherous succeeding, and wondering about the promises of God’s steadfast love in the concrete experiences of life where that love may seem distant. It is a conversation of faith, not a cheap faith which sprouts up quickly when everything is going right, but the more complex examined faith that still continues to call out to God in the experiences of struggle, guilt and shame.

The petitions begin with the cry out to God and the perceived distance between the life the Psalmist is living and their expectation of what the covenant life would bring. It is a psalm of waiting for the LORD to act and experiencing a time where the Psalmist feels they are, at least for the time, on their own. Their place within the community is threatened by their enemies and their honor and standing is threatened by shame. They have trusted in the LORD and the treacherous ones seem to be prospering. The long struggle of how bad things can happen to good people and the wicked can prosper continues to play out in this Psalm and it is a question of fairness and justice that the scriptures never settle. Yet, the scriptures allow a place for this struggle and for the protest against reality as they are experiencing it.

The petitions in verse four begin to take a new direction within this struggle of reality. The Psalmist cries for God to show them the path they are to walk. They come from the perspective of not understanding the way the world is unfolding before them so they turn their questions back to God, “make me know your ways, teach me your paths, lead me in truth.” The petitioner now moves to being the one requesting guidance, like a student or disciple seeking their master’s wisdom. There is a more introspective tone that emerges as the sins of the past are brought to the seekers mind and they are now the sinner seeking guidance. The petitioner brings to voice their own failings and sins and once again it is to the LORD that they turn, this time for forgiveness. The Psalmist captures the paradox that encompasses life, where in Luther’s famous terms we can at the same time be the sinner and the righteous one calling out for help. So often in the Psalms the life of the poet encompasses the paradoxical reality of being a steadfast one seeking the LORD’s path, the shamed one seeking the LORD’s vindication, the forgiven one who wrestles with guilt and the one who can trust in the LORD’s covenant love even when the treacherous are prospering and causing trouble for the righteous.

In verse twelve the petitions go back to the promises: that God will teach, that God will grant not only prosperity but friendship and will deliver those in trouble from the troubles of the heart and their physical distress. It lifts up before the LORD the promises that have been made and calls upon God to act upon those promises. It presents the difference from the covenant promised and the covenant experienced and asks for God’s intervention to guard and deliver the faithful ones from their foes. The foes may be the foes of the individual petitioner or the foes of the people of God, and yet the trust is that God can and will deliver the faithful ones in their time of need, that the covenant promised will someday become the covenant experienced, and that ultimately the treacherous will not prosper forever. The life of the Psalmist is a life of prayerfully and honestly struggling with the world as they experience it, with their own shortcomings, with their confusion about what God asks of them in their life, with the promises of God and yet holds fast to the trust that God hears and acts. The Psalms allow a space to wrestle with the entire messy reality of life with all of its paradoxes from A to Z (or Aleph to Tav).

Psalm 6- How Long, O LORD

Paris Psalter, folio 136v  'Reproched de Nathan a David, David penitent

Paris Psalter, folio 136v ‘Reproched de Nathan a David, David penitent

  Psalm 6

<To the leader: with stringed instruments; according to The Sheminith. A Psalm of David.>
O LORD, do not rebuke me in your anger, or discipline me in your wrath.
 2 Be gracious to me, O LORD, for I am languishing;
O LORD, heal me, for my bones are shaking with terror.
 3 My soul also is struck with terror, while you, O LORD– how long?
 4 Turn, O LORD, save my life; deliver me for the sake of your steadfast love.
 5 For in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?
 6 I am weary with my moaning; every night I flood my bed with tears;
 I drench my couch with my weeping.
 7 My eyes waste away because of grief; they grow weak because of all my foes.
 8 Depart from me, all you workers of evil, for the LORD has heard the sound of my weeping.
 9 The LORD has heard my supplication; the LORD accepts my prayer.
 10 All my enemies shall be ashamed and struck with terror;
they shall turn back, and in a moment be put to shame.
 

We will never know the situation that any particular Psalm is spoken originally from, except perhaps in cases where the Psalm itself gives us clues. Psalm 6 cries out in terms that reflect in turn a sense of alienation from God’s steadfast love, physical ailment or illness, anxiety and depression, and persecution by enemies and it is possible that all of these were afflicting the Psalmist at one particular moment or that the Psalmist may have used language and memory of these experiences to speak to the distress they feel in the moment as they cry out to the LORD. The Psalmist views their life as resting in the LORD’s hands and begins the appeal directly to God, crying out the name of the LORD. The Psalmist appeals for God’s graciousness not for the Psalmists own merit or worthiness but out of God’s hesed (steadfast love). In language that appears frequently through the psalter, the Psalmist speaks of their anguish and asks for God to end it. God’s anger may not be the only struggle of the Psalmist but it is the decisive one, for God’s anger is what the Psalmist is crying out for God to set aside so that they may be healed and their enemies may be put to shame.

The Psalmist cries out ‘how long’ and pleads for God to turn and relieve the poet’s suffering. Whether the poet is literally suffering in their bones (vs. 2) soul (vs. 3) and eyes (vs.7) there is a connection between external stresses and physical symptoms. As Rolf Jacobson aptly states, “anguish can dehumanize a sufferer, so that one’s sense of self is reduced to pain in one’s bones, body skin.” (Nancy de Clarisse-Walford, 2014, p. 105) Crying out how long while a traditional cry of lament also may indicate that the “pain described is no longer bearable and the speaker is at the breaking point. The intent of the phrase is to mobilize YHWH in a moment of desperate need.” (Brueggemann, 2014, p. 48) And perhaps if the question how long can be answered the Psalmist can endure until the LORD’s anger has passed.

This is one of the first Psalms we deal with the anger of God in relation to the faithful one, the Psalmist who cries out in lament. God’s anger is a necessary corollary of God’s love or as Jim Nieman, my preaching instructor years ago put it, “God’s anger is not the opposite of God’s love, God’s indifference would be the opposite of God’s love.” God’s love is not a sweet sentimentality to the Psalmist or throughout the Bible. God may care for and love me, but God also loves my neighbor and when my actions result in suffering or death to my neighbor then God’s anger arises from that love. Yet God’s steadfast love is always stronger than God’s anger and God’s anger is always connected to that love. (Nancy de Clarisse-Walford, 2014, p. 107)

The Psalmist trusts that in going to the LORD in lament that the Psalmist words are heard. Faith is far more than an optimistic state of mind for the Hebrew people, it is an active calling upon God to act according to God’s steadfast love precisely from the position of suffering. Even though God’s ways may be unknowable at times and mysterious there is still potent power in crying out to the LORD and that God actively hears and intervenes in their lives and in their world. And from my own experience it is often these times of questioning and suffering and anguish where later we can see the faith of the one who endures and cries out deepened. It is a fuller faith that trusts in a God who is present in the midst of the times of joy and the times of tears. A life which can endure the times where our bed is flooded with tears because we know in God’s mysterious time that God’s steadfast love will show itself and that God’s steadfast love will last longer than the suffering or the anger.  That eventually the LORD does hear the sound of the Psalmist, ancient and contemporary, weeping and that the LORD does act upon these pleading words.

One final note on the Psalm in verse 5 where it mentions “for in death there is no remembrance of you; in Sheol who can give you praise?” In ancient Israel there is not yet a hope for a resurrection of the dead or anything more than a shadowy existence in the afterlife. Thinking about the resurrection is something that emerges much later and is up for debate at the time of Jesus. In the New Testament this will be a part of the disagreement between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. At the time the Psalms are written they are written with a very earthly understanding of God’s blessings and God’s anger. God’s steadfast love was a worldly reality that unfolded in the ways God took care of God’s people (or disciplined God’s people) and this may be hard for us to approach in the same way today in a secular world where we no longer think of unseen forces moving on our world but part of the Christian and Jewish understanding of reality is that God does act upon our world. For Christians it becomes a part of the Lord’s Prayer when we pray, ‘thy will be done on earth as it is in heaven.’

Living a Godly Life: Prayer

jesus praying

I listen to a lot of different types of music, and each type of music has its own set of emotions that they play to. For example, one of the emotions that rock and metal wrestle with is despair and depression, , rap tends to play towards defiance, popular music towards desire, and country, one of its many emotions is regret. It isn’t hard to come up with song after song in country that deals with regret, in fact there is a long standing joke about what happens when you play a country song backwards, that you get your wife back, your family back, your home back, etc…and often the regret is due to putting efforts into the wrong things, for a brief sampling this is one of George Strait’s older songs King of the Mountain:

I gave her that diamond she dreamed of

And I bought her a home with a view

I took her to the end of the rainbow

But all I left her was blue


Seems I never had time to love her

And now it seems time just stands still

I thought I was king of the mountain

But I was only a fool on a hill

Now I start out this way because one of the reasons we struggle with prayer is we tend to treat God like the fool in the song, if our prayers are mainly asking for things we are setting ourselves up for a relationship of regret. Sometimes I think we treat God in our prayers like Santa Claus, and Santa Claus is great for a lot of things: Dear Santa for Christmas I would like: a new computer, a PS4, Gift Cards to my favorite restaurants and shops so I can get something for me, these books, these CDs, these movies, an even bigger flatscreen TV…OK you get the picture, but let me let you in on a little secret, we don’t love Santa. Oh he’s cool, but we don’t love him and we’re never satisfied with what he brings, there’s no real relationship there-he grants my wishes and as soon as I am done opening gifts I may find myself thinking “what’s next?” George Schwanenburg was the pastor of the church I grew up in, and he used to call the prayers that many people would say, “Gimme” prayers, and by extension the people who prayed them were “Gimme pigs.” God gimme this, God gimme that-and while there is nothing wrong with asking God for what we want and need, prayer is much more than that. Other times the only prayers people send up are the “Help” prayers. God, OK I’ve really made a mess of this and if you bail me out now, well….”

So what is this prayer thing all about, and how does it really help be draw closer to God? How does it help me love God? You see God doesn’t seek a relationship with us that is just based on giving and receiving, but on being present and spending time listening. In the midst of a noisy and busy world, prayer is the time we set aside to listen. There is a story told of Mother Teresa, who would spend hours in prayer each day, when she was interviewed once by a reporter, who asked her, “What do you say to God in all the time you spend in prayer?” and she replied, “Mostly I just listen.” Perplexed the journalist went on to ask her, “So what does God say in all that time” to which she replied, “Mostly God just listens too.”

I love the image from Psalm 141, which I would sing several times a week in seminary:
let my prayers rise up as incense before you, the lifting up of my hands as an offering to you.

It is my offering from my busyness back to God some of my time to be there and listen. It’s not about me, certainly I benefit from the time probably far more than God does, but it is one of the gifts I try to give to the relationship. It’s not that we have to worry too much as Lutherans of people being impressed or dazzled by our prayers, but ultimately it is not about us. And yet I do have to admit I am often skeptical of overtly public forms of prayer that call more attention to the individual than God, particularly with athletes it is pretty easy to wonder are they doing this to call attention to themselves or God. Prayer doesn’t have to be poetic or artistic or beautiful, and yet I sometimes thing we place that expectations on ourselves. For example when I ask in a group for someone to pray, often the response I get is everyone looking down at their toes, thinking, “if I just don’t make eye contact he won’t pick me.”Or the often unspoken feeling that somehow Erik and I are somehow closer to God and God pays more attention to our prayers than the prayers of anyone else.

Maybe from the Lord’s prayer we can learn something of what prayer is all about, and we begin with the relationship, Our Father…to which Luther states, God wants us to come to him boldly and in complete confidence as loving children come to a loving father.  Prayer and all communication takes place in the context of a relationship and God desires to have that close relationship with us. The prayer begins and ends with the desire that God may be praised and honored, and the prayer is offered in a sense of gratitude. One of my practices I have begun is the practice of writing thank you notes, now there are many reasons for me not to write a thank you note: I have horrible penmanship, there will always be things trying to fill my time and well they may even be important things, but I’ve learned that learning to say thank you is important to both my own well being (it puts me in a far better emotional state) and to the valuation of the relationship.

We pray for God’s kingdom to come, and as Luther says, “God’s kingdom comes on its own without our prayer, but we ask in this prayer that it may also come to us.” It is taking the time to ask God, what are your hopes and dreams for the world, what do you desire of me, what do you love? It goes back to learning more and more about the beloved and we ask that God’s will may be done on earth, which is a dangerous prayer for we may find ourselves being drawn into doing God’s will as we are drawn closer to God. Yes, we do ask for what we need, we do ask for forgiveness and we desire to become more like God an become forgiving people

There is no one right way to pray, nor is there one right way to be in love-but it takes time to get to know the beloved and no amount of presents can make up for absence. Without setting aside the time to talk and listen with God we may look back on regret on the relationship we longed for being reduced to wish lists and panic moments when it can be so much more.

purple rose 01 by picsofflowers.blogspot.com