God Has Given Us a Heritage

Songs encourage us with inspiring lyrics. Among my favorite hymns as a young man were songs that pointed me “to a rock that that is higher than I” and that reminded me that God is our refuge and an ever present help in times of trouble. Recently I read Psalm 61. It contains these themes. The psalm also reminds that I do not pray alone. If I pray as one of God’s people, he has given me the “heritage of those who fear [his] name” (Psalm 61:5). Hebrews 12 speaks a similar message as it reminds us that we are surrounded by a great cloud of witnesses, heroes of faith who have served God before us. Their example gives us the boldness to stay focused on Christ when temptation arises or when trials multiply. We share a heritage with those heroes of faith. They feared God; they gave him the reverence he deserves. They remained faithful in times of testing, even when threatened with death. When we pray, or we sing, of God’s power to save, we remember those whom he has redeemed, and marvel that their number includes us. Yes, God has given us the heritage of those who fear his name. He is our Rock; he is our Refuge. May we live with such conviction that future generations will rejoice that they share our heritage, the heritage of the forgiven who seek to help others find the path we have found, the road to salvation.

Hear our cry, O God who calls us to mission. You have given us a heritage, a lineage of holy men and women whose example shows us how to persevere in the darkest times and how to excel in the brightest times. Help us to be worthy of that heritage. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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We Pray for Hope

We pray, closing eyes, bowing head.
We cry, wringing hands, clutching side,
Illness strikes, suicide shocks, hope dies,
Promise fades, friends vanish, only lies.

Hurting eyes begin to glisten,
Surely God will pause to listen,
Will apply salve to this hurt,
Showing no fear of oozing wart.

Increasing pain tears starved souls apart,
Searing stab wounds pierce each heart,
Spiritual wounds, but still great pain;
We cry to God, “Don’t prayer disdain.”

We pray, closing eyes, bowing head;
We listen; we wait with great dread.
Morals rotting, guns flashing – such hate!
Choices fewer; is prayer too late?

Flowers blossom, bees visit, life renew;
Sun rises; light gives brighter hue,
Dispels the darkness, revives hope.
We pray, closing eyes; we can cope.

O God who created the light, who calls us out from darkness, we falter when we see scenes of destruction, we question when terrorists slay children and call it your will. Illness, violence, darkness of the soul distort the beauty of this world you created. Remind us where beauty lies. Help us to see the good; teach us how to overcome, how to hope, and how to cope once again. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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A Prayer of Despair

We express diverse emotions in our prayers. We thank God joyfully for unexpected gifts. We request urgently items or services that we or loved ones need. We sob prayers of grief, and argue angrily when we struggle to understand why certain events have occurred.

Several biblical prayers fall into the last category mentioned above. Often, as in Psalms 6 and 10, the Psalmist first expresses deep despair, then. If only in anticipation, thanks God for hearing his prayer. Psalm 88 is not such a prayer. Its writer begins by begging God (whom he identifies as the One who saves) for his attention. He describes his despair and longs for God to hear him:

“O LORD. The God who saves me, day and night I cry out before you, turn your ear to my cry. For my soul is full of trouble and my life draws near my grave” (Psalm 88:1-3).

He has lost hope; he fears that God has forgotten him, as if he were a lifeless corpse in a grave. He feels very strongly that God is acting in wrath against him (See verses 4-7). In the next verses, he sounds much like Job, alienated from his friends, he asks God for the opportunity to present his case, but suspects that God will not hear him:

“You have taken from me my closest friends and have made me repulsive to him, I am confined and cannot escape; my eyes are dim with grief. I call to you, O LORD, every day; I spread out my hands to you” (verses 8-9).

His sense of being ignored by God reveals itself as he compares his state to that of the dead, to whom God does not listen. He believes, so he continues to pray, but despair has destroyed his trust:

“Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me. You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; the darkness is my closest friend (verses 14-18).

The Psalmist understands the concept of hurt so deeply felt that words cannot express it well. He feels hopeless. I write these words as I absorb that Robin Williams, who brought much laughter to our world, apparently has killed himself. Suicide usually requires a loss of hope, a sense that no options remain. The Psalmist almost seems to be there, but he is not. He still cries out to God; he still prays. He has lost friends; his life has no apparent meaning, but this man of prayer still presents his case to God. Sometimes suicide is a cry for help that has gone awry. When all seems lost, like the Psalmist, we still must speak and tell others our hurt. While we pray for an answer, we still cling to life with hope. Psalm 88 seems to be a prayer of a man that has no hope, and indeed it has no words of gratitude or praise for God’s having heard the prayer. Yet, this prayer of lament reveals in its beginning, in the greeting given to God, that this troubled man still believed and still hoped, even when darkness had become his closest friend. Remember that the prayer begins, “O LORD, the God who saves me…” Let us continue to remember, even as we grieve or hurt, that God can save, and remembering to believe, keep on praying that God will preserve our hope.

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Preparing to Pray As a Follower of God

How do we prepare to pray to God? An obvious answer emerges from the request that the disciples of Jesus made: “Lord, teach us to pray…” (Luke 11:1). We may learn from reading the words of the prayer Jesus taught them on that occasion, or its close parallel that is recorded as part of the Sermon on the Mount in Matthew chapter 6. That prayer, which people call the Lord’s Prayer, or the Model Prayer, or the Our Father, praises God, recognizes his authority, confesses sin, asks for forgiveness, and requests provision of daily survival needs. Jesus, and later several biblical writers, gave instruction on how to pray.

Various biblical passages suggest that organizing praise and petitions is only part of preparing to pray. They suggest that before we pray, we must reform our lives if we expect God to receive our prayer and our praise. An analogy: A group of Soldiers surrounded by attacking enemies, broadcasts a plea for help on a radio frequency that is not the one they have been instructed to use to contact their higher headquarters. They call for fire, but friendly forces do not hear their call.

Isaiah’s prophecy in the biblical book that bears his name begins with a message from God: God’s people do not know him; they do not understand what he wants (See Isaiah 1:1-4). God states that their many sacrifices fail to impress him; their offerings are futile; “incense is an abomination” to him (verses 10-13). He refuses to hear their prayers:

“When you stretch out your hands, I will hide my eyes from you; even though you make many prayers, I will not listen; your hands are full of blood. Wash yourselves; make yourselves clean; remove the evil of your doings from before my eyes; cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan plead for the widow” (Isaiah 1:15-17).

They have used the wrong signals when communicating with God. Soldiers may wear their uniforms precisely, clean their weapons and equipment well, but if they fail to follow instructions on how to communicate in times of crisis, those disciplined preparations will fail if they are attacked by an overwhelming force.
Echoes of God’s warning to Israel resound through the teachings of Jesus and other passages in the New Testament in admonitions to disciples of Christ:

“Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord’ will enter the kingdom of heaven but only the one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?’ Then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers” (Jesus speaking in Matthew 7:21-23).

“If any think they are religious, and do not bridle their tongues but deceive their hearts, their religion is worthless. Religion that is pure and undefiled before God is this: to care for orphans and widows in their distress, and to keep oneself unstained by the world” (James 1:26-27).

Praise, precise formal worship, and even prayer mean nothing if they do not flow from a heart that is tuned to the will of God, that is motivated by love for Him and for other people. God calls through Isaiah for his people to purify their hearts. These verse in Isaiah are addressed to Israel as God’s own people; they are not spoken to pagans. He calls on them to wash themselves and make themselves clean, not in a ritual cleansing but in the redirection of their hearts to his priorities and to the care of the helpless. To be sure, God still wanted these members of his covenant community to observe the cleansings and to offer sacrifices, but those acts meant nothing if worshipers then conducted dishonest business practices, refused to help the poor, and questioned the authority of God’s word.

David’s prayer in Psalm 51 includes a section that illustrates the kind of worship and prayer longed for by God in Isaiah 1:

“Create in me a clean heart, O God, and put a new and right spirit within me. Do not cast me away from your presence, and do not take your holy spirit from me. Restore to me the joy of your salvation, and sustain in me a willing spirit” (Psalm 51:10-12).

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Reflection on Prayer and Current Events

As I traveled to various ministry locations during the past two weeks, several events occurred that reinforced my awareness of the importance of calling for fire when encountering significant life events. During a worship service at Oliver Creek Church of Christ, we prayed for a young family whose baby had been born prematurely. A soldier stopped me in an armory hallway to thank me for pulling him aside for prayer regarding a major life event that created great uncertainty for him; he told me that the difficult situation had reversed. Before a military chapel service at which a new senior chaplain would be installed, I prayed first with the chapel staff, and then with the new senior chaplain for the service alone. The first prayer focused largely on praise for God and gratitude for chaplains’ leadership. The second prayer addressed fear and nervousness in assuming a new role.

While I traveled and met with both ministry leaders (civilian and military) and military personnel, people in countries like Israel, the Ukraine, and the Netherlands faced threatening circumstances. Israel and Palestinian Gaza exchanged military fire. Ukraine’s civil war was exacerbated when an airliner carrying civilians (including a number of medical researchers traveling to an AIDS conference) was shot down over Ukraine. Prayers ascended across the nations for those hurt by these events.
We serve a God whose power and love transcend our ability to understand. So, as we witness or experience personal or national changes, sometimes our faith founders as we struggle to reconcile the sequence of events with our own worldview. We search for stability and for hope. We forget, at least for a moment, that God stands ready to receive our cry for help, our call for fire. A prayer from Psalm 135 reminds us:

“Your name, O LORD, endures forever, your renown, O LORD through all generations. For the LORD will vindicate his people and have compassion on his servants” (Psalm 135:13,14).

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A Prayer of Praise and Petition for Peace

Prayers of praise recognize the power of the Creator God. In these prayers we confess his control. We admire the beauty of his work. We describe the beauty in our world; we marvel at the intricacy of design in our university.

The writer of Psalm 29 describes powerful forces in the natural world with colorful imagery. The voice of God calls these forces into existence:

“The voice of the LORD breaks the cedars; the LORD breaks the cedars of Lebanon. He makes Lebanon skip like a calf, and Sirion like a young wild ox. The voice of the LORD flashes forth flames of fire. The voice of the LORD shakes the wilderness; the LORD shakes the wilderness of Kadesh. The voice of the LORD cause the oaks to whirl, and strips the forest bare; and in his temple all say, ‘Glory’”(Psalm 29:5-9 NRSV).

The writer states that God controls our world: “The voice of the LORD is over the waters, the God of glory thunders, the LORD, over mighty waters. The voice of the LORD is powerful; the voice of the LORD is full of majesty” (Psalm 29:3-4). God’s majesty provokes praise and worship; the Psalmist already has urged that those who speak this Psalm “worship the LORD in holy splendor” (verse 2).

God is ruler of nature, the king of all we survey. Our adoration, our confession of his power, calls forth prayers for strength and peace. Some people, in contrast, view our world with jaded eyes. They see only flaws – disease, famine, destruction caused by tornadoes, earthquakes, and hurricanes. They decry humanity’s inhumanity, condemn rightly the cruelty which people often inflict on one another. They ignore the beauty of waterfalls, the majesty of the mountains, the lush grandeur of forests and fields of grain. Perhaps they live where human produced squalor and crime obscure this beauty. They have not seen it, so they deny that it exists. Recently, I drove through seemingly endless fields of corn, wheat, and soybeans in Iowa, Minnesota, Wisconsin, and Illinois. The expanse of vividly green fields punctuated by stands of majestic trees reminded me of the reality described in this psalm. We live in an amazing world. To be sure, there are ruptures in the masterpiece. I have seen decaying buildings in urban centers and polluted rivers. I have witnessed abject poverty in both Afghanistan and parts of Appalachia. I have seen the destruction that years of war exact on landscapes and people’s minds. Still, even in these most desolate places, children smile and, even where volcanoes have incinerated acres of trees, new growth emerges, restoring the desecrated beauty.

God, our Creator and Father, your power both amazes and frightens us. The majesty and beauty of your world inspires us. When we contemplate the complexity of this sphere, we marvel at how it could have come to pass. Rebellion against you, a struggle for our own primacy, blinds us to your glory. Strip away the veil. Help all to see fully the beauty of your love. Grant us the security of peace. Thank you, God, for all you have given. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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A Summons to Respond to God

God summons his people to court and accuses them of hypocrisy. That is the message of Psalm 50. God’s people brought animals to sacrifice to him, but they failed to obey his commands, and when they did obey, their heart was not in it. In this Psalm. God accuses his worshipers of joining forces with thieves. He rebukes them for slandering their brothers, and using their speech to deceive. Their actions do not reflect knowledge of the word; God in fact questions their right to recite his law.

The words of Psalm 50 indict many of us who profess to worship the God of the Bible through his Messiah and Son, Jesus. We may worship and study, but do we treat others justly? We may read the Bible, but also curse those who work with us or serve us at businesses. We may profess to honor him, but treat civil authorities with disrespect. Like the initial readers of Psalm 50, we too must pause to reflect on our actions and to examine our attitudes. God wants cohesion in thought and action from us; his two greatest commands, according to Jesus, are to love God and to love others as we love ourselves (a command that assumes that we love ourselves). With these thoughts in mind, I offer a prayer that responds to Psalm 50’s message:

O God, our Lord, you are the Mighty One. You speak and the earth must respond. You will not be silent; fire devours before you and a storm rages around you. You have issued a summons; judgment will begin with the people of God. Your creation testifies on your behalf, as do a host of witnesses, faithful worshipers who preceded us. You see within our intention, and expose our hypocrisy. You want us to learn from your word and to apply those lessons to our lives. May we love others as you love us. May we remember you and honor you with our actions. Forgive us and strengthen us. May our lips continually offer you a sacrifice of praise that is reflected also in the way we treat others. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

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