My Lord and My God

What does one pray when he or she discovers faith and realizes that personal failure or sin has been exposed? The apostle Thomas had scoffed a week earlier at the suggestion that his teacher, Jesus, had arisen from the dead. Thomas had said that he would believe this incredible claim only if he physically could see and touch the wounds Jesus had received. Now, face to face with Jesus, clearly alive once more, he realized he did not need to touch the wounds in order to believe. Seeing and hearing the teacher’s voice humbled him, and as if ripping off a scab, unveiled the shame of his doubt. “My Lord and my God,” he breathed, an exclamation of faith, but a prayer for forgiveness and acceptance.
Moments of darkness and failure challenge our beliefs. The unexpected shakes our worldview. Then insight shines light on the obscure. In that moment when all becomes clear, we, like Thomas, can only whisper in awe,

“My Lord and my God!”

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A Prayer for Focus

The prayer of the first stanza or strophe of Psalm 119 begins with beatitudes that echo Psalm 1: “Blessed are those who way is blameless, who walk in the way of the LORD!” These blessings introduce us to the intense prayers of a Yahweh-worshiper who reveres the LORD and his revealed word, or law. God’s name, Yahweh, which appears in English translations as LORD, Lord, or Jehovah, appears through all of Psalm 119. The Psalmist uses the Name exclusively, never referring to the object of his worship as God. He aspires to obey the LORD faithfully. He prays that he may reliably obey the statutes of the LORD (verse 5) by remaining focused on his commandments (verse 6). The psalmist promises that he will praise the Lord. His praise will emanate from an “upright heart;” he is no legalist seeking to earn God’s favor with precision obedience. He promises, however, that he will keep the LORD’s statutes. He will obey the LORD because he loves him and his word. The prayer foreshadows the statement of Jesus, “If you love me, you will keep my commandments” (John 14:15).
Psalm 119 is a highly structured psalm of 176 verses divided into twenty-two sections of eight verses each. Beginning with the first section, where each line begins with the first letter of the Hebrew alphabet in the original language, each section’s lines begin with the next letter of the twenty-two letter Hebrew alphabet. The psalmist also uses eight synonyms for “law” liberally throughout the psalm. In the English Standard Version, the synonyms used in the first section appear as “law,” “testimonies,” “precepts,” “statutes,” “commandments,” and “rules.”
I just finished teaching a twenty-three-lesson course on Psalm 119. I began each session by reading aloud the section twice. In the first reading I emphasized the synonyms for “law.” In the second reading, I emphasized key emphases unique to that session. In the first eight verses, I stressed words like blameless, walk, keep, seek, ways, steadfast, shame, fixed, upright, and learn. The group and I then read the section for that session aloud together from a more idiomatic translation.

Psalm 119 is a prayer, and each section within it may be read as a component of the larger prayer or as an independent prayer in its own right. As we read these words of prayer, we gain insight into the discipline and the fervent faith of a life lived in prayer and study of the word of God. The psalmist teaches us to pray when we recognize his desires, his fears, and his hopes as our own. We learn how to pray a prayer of praise. We learn how to pray that we may obey the LORD in a way that will please him. We learn that when we pray, we realize our need for God and his presence. We pray that we will be faithful, that we will not embarrass God or ourselves with our failures. We pray for focus. We pray with the psalmist, “I will keep your statutes; do not utterly forsake me!” (verse 8).

O Lord our God, we seek your blessing. You are our strength, our refuge, our Rock. As we live, we navigate paths of worry and doubt. We stumble into ravines of illness and despair. We meet opponents who challenge our commitment and mock our faith. We meet friends who encourage us and walk with us. We pray as we walk that we will keep our eyes focused on your Son and your word. Strengthen us, that we may not do wrong. Walk with us and protect us. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Prayer about a Father’s Hope

I preached about “A Father’s Hope” this past Sunday. Drawing from Isaiah chapters 7-9, I discussed how Isaiah’s sons participated in his ministry and became part of his message. As Isaiah proclaimed his message, he noted that he and his sons were signs from the Lord to a nation where “the heart of the people shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind” (Isaiah 7:2). Fear permeated his society and his peers were prone to believe conspiracy theories. As they sought to untangle these theories and find the truth, they reached out to mediums, fortune tellers, and foreign religious ideologies for answers to their questions. Isaiah asks in horror, “Should not a nation enquire of their God?” He warned earlier,

“Do not call conspiracy all that this people calls conspiracy, and do not fear what they fear, nor be in dread, but the Lord of hosts, him you shall honor as holy. Let him be your fear, and let him be your dread” (Isaiah 8:13-14).

He specifically had warned King Ahaz, “Be firm in faith, or you will not be firm at all” (Isaiah 7:9). He directed his people to listen to the teaching and to the testimony – the oral and written message of God-when they seek for answers rather than trusting in political ideologies or fortune tellers.
Isaiah confirmed one fear: There will be consequences for past sin. However, he assures them that a faithful remnant will survive and that “God is with us.” He proclaimed these messages through boys’ names; at least two of the boys are Isaiah’s sons. Isaiah’s hope is in the Lord; his sons’ names testify to that hope and will remind them that God provides.
Like Isaiah and his contemporaries, we live in tumultuous times. We need to hear Isaiah’s warning to flee from conspiracy theories and to enquire of the Lord, while grounding our hope in his word. We need to pray for our children even as we equip them with values and faith that will sustain them and an example that will inspire them in the worst of times. We need to pray, but we need to trust as we cry for help that God is with us and he will provide.

God, we profess faith that you love us. We want to believe that you are our friend. Sometimes we want to domesticate you, to believe that you will do as we wish and tolerate all that we desire. We put you in a metaphorical box where we can deceive ourselves into believing that we control you. We forget the awe of being in your presence, the dread of being in the hands of the living God. Various ideologies tempt us with an appeal to our lusts or our hatreds. We want to define our faith and sense of reality within their definitions, rather than building our sense of right and wrong on what you have revealed. Help us to remember that despite your dreadfulness, you are for us and are with us. Give us discernment so that we are not deceived by the Sirens of our society or frightened by false stories. Renew our hope in this time when the hearts of people shake as trees in the wind. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Prayer for Spiritual Survival

 

  Years ago, I lived in a steel-mill town.  On the south side of the town was a large metal hill that we called Slag Mountain.  It was the dumping site for impurities that had been discarded in the making of the steel. This massive pile of unwanted metal and rock grew larger and larger. In Psalm 119:113-120, a psalmist prays for spiritual survival. He lives in a pluralistic culture. Opponents lure him towards disobedience to God.  The prophet Elijah had chided the people of Israel for “limping between two different opinions” as they tried to worship both Baal and Yahweh, the God of Israel (1 Kings 18:21). The psalmist uses a similar word when he cries to God,

 

“I hate the double-minded, but I love your law” (verse 113).

 

 The prayer of this section begins and ends with his love for God’s word and fear for God as he grapples with the threat from the double-minded to his own obedience to the Lord.  In the middle of the prayer, he prays for God to uphold him:

 

“Uphold me according to your promise, that I may live, and let me not be put to shame in my hope! Hold me up, that I may be safe and have regard for your statutes continually” (verses 116-117) .

 

 His prayer, grounded in Scripture, is that the Lord will support him so that

 

          He may survive

 

          He may hope without shame

 

          He may be secure

 

          He may trust God’s commands

 

 He prays that he may overcome the evil-doers who threaten his obedience of God’s law.  His prayer may be ours as we encounter calls to compromise values and to change behaviors to fit the mold of a secular society. Like him, we may long to obey the Lord because of our love for his message, but we may also fear being cast onto a spiritual “Slag Mountain”: “All the wicked of the earth you discard like dross, therefore I love your testimonies” (verse 119).  We too pray for survival of faith, for hope without shame, for security in following the Lord, and for the ability to trust God’s promises.

 

God of refuge, our shield who protects us in life’s darkest days, help us to define and recognize truth when others laugh at the very idea and scoff at us for seeking confirmation.  Bolster our hope; help us to obey your will with courage and confidence.  Grant us safety.  As we navigate through relationships, work responsibilities, and moral choices, we feel as if we are walking across a tightrope over a fear-inspiring chasm. We want to trust and to obey.  Strengthen us and mold us into the spiritual steel that remains when the dross has been removed. In Jesus’ name, amen.

 

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Prayer About Meditation on God’s Word

Prayer and meditation on God’s message in the Bible builds spiritual strength.  Psalm 119:97-104 describes the equipping power of the Word of God as a psalmist prays to the Lord.  He begins, “O how I love your law! It is my meditation all the day.”  He describes a passion for doing the will of the Lord that drives him to study the instruction revealed within the pages of the Bible (although for him it was more likely a scroll). He is a person of prayer, but his prayer is grounded in written revelation of God and his desire to comply to God’s will rather than his own desires.  Although many prayers in our time center around petition, asking God to grant our wishes and supply our needs, this prayer includes no request. He recounts his love for the law of the Lord, and how God’s instructions have benefited him. He identifies three groups with whom his relationship has been altered because of his meditation on the Word:  his enemies, his teachers, and the elders of his people. He is wiser and has more understanding than the members of those group.  His prayer and meditation on the law of God has equipped him to overcome the attacks from his enemies and to advise those who previously have taught or led him. That wisdom does not flow from superior intellect or formal instruction; it derives from his continuous reading and meditation upon the Scriptures.  Biblical meditation is not repetition of nonsense syllables or focused silent reflection on one’s inner self, although silence can focus our awareness of God’s world around us.  In a class I am teaching about Psalm 119, we begin each session by reading the eight verse section we are studying three times. I read the verses twice, emphasizing different key words each time. Then we read the passage aloud together from a different translation.  We meditate on the prayer even as we pray it afresh.  The psalmist has gained wisdom because he loves God’s law, he meditates upon it regularly, and he practices what he learns. He obeys the law of the Lord. His love blossoms into action. He has also learned restraint: “I hold back my feet from every evil way, in order to keep your word. I do not turn aside from your rules, for you have taught me” (verses 101-102).  Reading the Bible and meditating on its words has positive, practical results when we act out the good that we learn. As we meditate and pray about God’s will, we grow to be the people he wants us to be. We realize the power of his instructions to change us and our world.

O Lord, Reflection on your word reminds me of how you have demonstrated his power and your love. I remember also, as I read and meditate upon your scriptures, what my responsibilities are in regard to other people and this world you created. The Bible inspires as I read about your relationship with often rebellious people and groups.  Your patience and love give me hope. Meditation on your word makes me wiser and equips me to teach and to counsel others.  My memory of your message gives me resolve when I experience disappointment or encounter temptation. I have strength to overcome in moments of doubt or attack. I can turn away from the path that leads to destruction. Thank you, Lord, for your grace and for the love you have shown in revealing your will to us through the written word and in the person of your Son, the Word of God. In Jesus’ name, amen.

 

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A Prayer of Gratitude for My Father

Today would have been my Dad’s birthday. He would have been 86 years old. I always believed firmly that he would live at least into his nineties, so on this date each year I feel as if someone and something special were stolen from my brothers and me. We each missed out on wise counsel that might have spared us pain, but even more so I have missed his presence in moments of pain and doubt. He was our father, and mentor. I miss him. He taught me faithfulness, enthusiasm, and love. He died thirteen years ago, from the horror known as pancreatic cancer. Dad, six inches taller than me, had seemed so healthy and strong. He lost eighty pounds in seven months of wonder. Those months we’re terrible, yet they were amazing. Cards written with love and gratitude flowed on daily from across the nation. A steady stream of visitors stopped by to wish him well, to pray, to ask for guidance one more time. Dad got to say goodbye, and we learned how his life had helped others. Dad had been a grocery cashier, a soldier, a high school teacher. For forty-eight years, he had preached about Jesus and for more than fifty years he had been married to our mother. Before I was born, they grieved together when my older brother died two days after he was born. Dad gave me glimpses of his grief at that loss, glimpses that helped me persevere when my older son died. Dad wanted his sons to believe as he did, but he did not want us to believe just because he did. He and I disagreed from time to time, but he lived, loved, taught, and mentored in a way that laid a foundation for faith that could endure if I built upon it. And when he spoke his last words to me two days before he died, he said with a sly grin, “See you later, son.” I miss him, but I look forward to that reunion.

God, thank you for the years of guidance and leadership you gave me through my father. In times of pain and loss, his faith and example motivated me to persevere. He served with an exuberance that I struggle to match, yet I hope that when my life ends, I will meet it with the confidence he did. He ran his race in a way that inspired me to follow him as he followed Christ. Thank you again, Lord. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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A Prayer for God’s Steadfast Love

“Let your steadfast love come to me, O LORD, your salvation according to your promise, then shall I have an answer for him who taunts me, for I trust in your word” (Psalm 119:41 ESV).

The twenty-two sections of the Bible’s longest prayer, Psalm 119, each may function as prayers independently. Since the beginning of the year, I have meditated on this majestic prayer and have taught to the church where I preach how the psalmist’s words may inspire us to pray with greater faith. The sixth section begins with the words above. The psalmist prays that he will experience God’s steadfast love, or mercy, that he will know salvation.  His prayer begins with an affirmation that rests on the assurance that God is true to his word, and that God cares. His assurance may rest in a revelation by God of his own character to Moses founded in Exodus 34:6-7. God’s words there echo throughout the pages of the Old Testament, appearing in prayers like this one, in protests by Jonah, who wishes God wasn’t so predictable in his mercy to people the prophet doesn’t want to forgive, and in calls for repentance by God through the prophet Joel. God describes himself to Moses in this way,

“The LORD, the LORD, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness, keeping steadfast love  for thousands, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, but who will by no means clear the guilty, visiting the iniquity of the fathers on the children and children’s children, to the third and the fourth generation” (Exodus 34:6-7 ESV).

The psalmist knows the law of the Lord, and persistently seeks to obey them.  He finds delight in and loves God’s commandments (verse 47). He confesses as he prays that his obedience will blossom into courage with the arrival of God’s steadfast love and the experience of God’s power to save and to forgive.  This courage will enable him to speak confidently before kings without fear of being put to shame. When I read this prayer, I think of God’s mission for Saul (AKA Paul) to speak before kings.  Saul, even when a persecutor of the church prior to his conversion, had been, like the psalmist, confident in his obedience to God’s commands. The revelation of God’s saving love through Jesus empowered Paul to preach confidently to kings.

The psalmist prays for confidence in God’s love and saving power. He grounds his prayer in obedience to God’s commands (verse 43).  He trusts God’s word (verse 42). His prayer demonstrates a believer’s appreciation of his active, obedient response being critical to full understanding of God’s power to forgive. He meditates on God’s statutes, and he prays with awareness that God’s commands themselves reflect God’s perseverance in loving his people. His prayer reveals how God’s revelation of himself in his word inspires us to faithful obedience as we realize how much we need his grace.

O God, you are merciful and gracious. You abound in mercy and faithfulness.  Your grace amazes us and inspires us to sing.  Lord, we pray that we may know your love even as we remember your justice.  May our meditation on your word and your will revealed within it ignite our faith and generate courage that will draw others to faith in you.  In Jesus’ name, amen.

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