Praying in Dark Times

“Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I will fear no evil, for you are with me; your rod and your staff, they comfort me” (Psalm 23:4 ESV).

winter sunset 2020
David’s prayer in Psalm 23 took on greater meaning for me this past week. As I walked for exercise one day this past week, I happened upon a domestic violence incident in progress. Another onlooker called emergency services while I asked if the apparent victim needed help. Before the incident ended, one of the individuals pulled out a weapon. I filed a report with the policemen who showed up of what I had seen before I left the scene.
As our families and communities adapt to new restrictions during the COVID-19 pandemic, individuals and families alike feel increased fear and tension. Interruption of customary routines, restricted travel, and loss of income potentially increase episodes of depression that contribute to family violence or suicidal ideation. Regular exercise by walking is one of my coping methods, along with prayer and reading, during this time. I have become more aware of  “social distancing” during recent weeks, and took a cloth mask with me on my most recent walk.
David refers to the “valley of the shadow of death” or “the darkest valley” in Psalm 23. Our time is a dark valley for many people. We unexpectedly have found ourselves walking in the valley of the shadow of death, as I did during my walk that afternoon. Let’s take care of ourselves during this time by washing our hands thoroughly, following guidelines on social distancing, eating well, sleeping enough, and exercising. Critical parts of our self-care include maintaining our relationships with God, our family, and friends. We may not be able to visit those friends and family that we yearn to see right now. We can check on one another by phone calls, emails, and messaging. We can pray and keep working on our relationship with God through Bible study and singing of spiritual songs during this time.
As we walk together through this time, let’s be alert to what our family, neighbors, and friends may need. Let’s be aware of our own needs, too. In the United States, the national suicide prevention hotline is 800-273-8255. If you’re overwhelmed, ask for help before you hurt yourself or someone else. If you’re being abused, seek safety.
This is a time to “call for fire,” to pray urgently for God to act quickly with grace and healing. It’s a time where loving others as we love ourselves is urgent. Consideration for others may just save their lives, and maybe even our own. Pray hard, my friends.

O God, our shepherd, guide us carefully through these treacherous times. Threats to our health and our security emerge without warning. Fear and panic threaten to cripple us. Suspicion and cynicism threaten our unity. I pray that we will walk with you now instead of running away in fear. Help us to discern truth and to choose wisely where we go and what we do. May these experiences increase faith in you and awareness of your love. Thank you for keeping us safe thus far. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Poetic Prayer in Spring

concrete path2

I wander down a tree-lined path
While pandemic rages, sign of God’s wrath?
Branches begin to bud, verdant green;
Daffodils revive; their blossoms’ sheen
Renews hope in the midst of despair,
Encourages gulping in of fresh air.

Emerging signs of life in nature remind
To open our eyes, that we be not blind.

God, your love still stuns
Even when a skeptic runs
Ands shuts eyes, closes ears,
Ignores the evidence of years
Of your creativity, provision
As we battle doubt and indecision.
I wonder as I walk, and watch,
How many marvel at a swatch
Of green grass, a bed of sunflowers,
Four deer bounding across the path,
Not thinking to calculate the math,
Not reasoning how unlikely the chance
That this intricacy is happenstance.

This renewal of life recounts your vision.

Your creative symphony inspires frisson;

Chills run down my back.
Your love leaves nothing that I lack.
May the suffering from global disease
Engender acts of love that everyone sees
While we wander a path through a grove
That reminds us, O God, of your love.

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Praying During a Pandemic

As news about the COVID-19 virus grew ever more ominous, I went out for my customary walk the other day. As I began my walk, a song being played on a neighbor’s device caught my attention. It was a song by the rock group, Kansas, one with which I was quite familiar. In the context of the virus, and the uncertainty about its continued spread and how to treat it, the lyrics sent a pungent reminder:

“Now, don’t hang on, nothing lasts forever but the earth and sky
It slips away
And all your money won’t another minute buy
Dust in the wind
All we are is dust in the wind.”

Having heard those words, and more, I experienced the phenomenon of hearing them over and over again as I continued my stroll. It was as if my mind was on a constantly repeating loop. It was not the message I wanted as I walked to clear my mind, but it was a useful message: Our life is transient. We cannot predict what our future will be with absolute certainty. Earlier in the day, I had read a poem by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow, “God’s Acre.” The phrase that forms the title is an idiom for a cemetery. The last three stanzas of the poem say,

“Into its furrows shall we all be cast,
In the sure faith, that we shall rise again
At the great harvest, when the archangel’s blast
Shall winnow, like a fan, the chaff and grain.

Then shall the good stand in immortal bloom,
In the fair gardens of that second birth;
And each bright blossom mingle its perfume
With that of flowers, which never bloomed on earth.

With thy rude ploughshare, Death, turn up the sod,
And spread the furrow for the seed we sow;
This is the field and Acre of our God,
This is the place where human harvests grow!”

Although, like the song by Kansas, the poem has a somber tinge, Longfellow strikes a different theme: When we die, we live again. This experience is not our end. When we die, we then will reap the fruit of the choices we have made. Longfellow perceives a brighter future where the beauty of wise decisions and faithful living shines more brightly and smells much better.
Much remains unknown in our current circumstances. We don’t know how long this pandemic will last, how many will be infected (or right now, how many are infected), how many will die, or how profoundly it will change our world. We know that humanity has suffered through similar, arguably much worse, scourges and many survived. The oldest among us remember rationing during World War 2. They and my own generation remember widespread outbreaks of measles, mumps, and the initial outbreak of HIV. Influenza remains a threat, but vaccines and other treatments have mitigated its impact even though many still die from it. So far, we have no vaccine nor effective treatment for this new virus. That is why we try enhanced hygiene and increase social distancing to try to contain it.
While I was hearing the song and contemplating the poem, I also was meditating on words I had just read from Jeremiah 3. God calls to his people three times through the prophet in that chapter to renounce unfaithfulness and to restore themselves to a healthy relationship with God. Earlier in the chapter, God had reminded them,

“Have you not just called to me: ‘My Father, my friend from my youth, will you always be angry? Will your wrath continue forever?’ This is how you talk, but you do all the evil you can” (Jeremiah 3:4-5).

God then begins the call to return. He calls them away from loyalties and behaviors that distract: Even the Ark of the Covenant had become an idol of sorts. He calls them to more accurate vision of their relationship with him and describes how they will have “shepherds after my own heart, who will lead you with knowledge and understanding” (verses 15). As we experience the spread of this current virus, we need leaders who speak truth to us and who understand both our plight and the potential consequences of their own actions. We too need shepherds who will act with integrity and with faithfulness. We and they need to grow more conscious of our values, our ethical decisions, and the focus of our faith. God called his people to remember that they were in a spiritual sense married to him. He was not a pawn to be manipulated or abused, but their provider and sustainer.
In Jeremiah, the people respond with a prayer, “Yes, we will come to you, for you are the LORD our God” (Jeremiah 3:22b). As we contemplate our dilemma during this pandemic, may we respond in faith, accurately evaluating our relationship with God and our responsibilities to our God as well as to the rest of humanity. We’re tempted to live in denial; some initially tried to pass off the virus as a hoax perpetrated by a political party and national leaders from multiple countries have attempted to blame other nations for a disease. We don’t want to give up our habitual lifestyle. We seize hold of potential good news – supposedly my blood type renders me less susceptible, but back away from negatives – my age and other factors put me more at risk.
As we face uncertain futures, let us do so together with faith in a loving, just Creator God who calls us to speak truth and to love one another. Let us put aside our own idols and trust in God, whatever tomorrow may bring. We are not just dust in the wind, although life is like a mist or vapor (James 4:14). Let us live with hope and with love as we pray during the pandemic.
• Bible quotations are from the New International Version 2011.

 

O God, our Creator, Sustainer, and Lord, We have so much confidence in our own ingenuity and strength. When something like the COVID-19 virus catches us unaware and unprepared, we gasp and panic follows. Breath calm into our hearts. May we regain healthy perspective. May we act with integrity and with loving regard for the needs of others around us. This virus challenges us because responding to it disrupts our expectations of how we will order our lives. We fear that we may be overestimating its danger and that we may under estimate its lethality. These contradicting fears cloud our judgment and fuel our cynicism. Increase our faith. Restore us to yourself. May we know more fully a sense of your love and protection. In Jesus’ name we pray, amen.

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Praying with Self Awareness

Prayers are rare in the book of Proverbs. Several pithy statements about prayer appear, but developed conversation with God appears only in Poverbs chapter 30, among the sayings of Agur, a king unidentified elsewhere in the Bible. I’m going to concentrate on verses seven through nine, but the first six verses reveal their writer as a humble man who respects the power, integrity, and wisdom of God. Verse 5 praises the reliability of God: His word, depending on the English translation you read is pure (KJV), pure (NRSV, ESV), or flawless (NIV). He is the creator of all whose knowledge exceeds ours.
Agur has two requests that he brings to God in his prayer. Those requests stem from his humility and self-awareness. He knows his weaknesses and what temptations might distract him. He fears God and wants to honor him. He prays:

“Two things I ask of you, LORD; do not refuse me before I die: Keep falsehood and lies far from me; give me neither poverty nor riches, but give me only my daily bread. Otherwise, I may have too much and disown you, and say, ‘Who is the LORD?’ Or I may become poor and steal, and so dishonor the name of my God” (Proverbs 30:7-9).

Agur fears that he would respond in desperation to poverty by stealing. He suspects that he would become arrogant if wealthy. He prays then that God will give him what he needs,, not more nor less. He wants to be faithful in his confession of God and so to live in a manner that glorifies God.

 
His prayer resembles the Preacher of Ecclesiastes’ exhortation to in chapter 9, verses 7-10, of that book to enjoy what God has given you and do what you do with all your might. He foreshadows the Model Prayer that Jesus taught to his disciples,

“This, then, is how you should pray: ‘Our Father in heaven, hallowed be your name, your kingdom come, your will be done, on earth as it is in heaven. Give us today our daily bread. And forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors. And lead us not into temptation, but deliver us from the evil one'” (Matthew 6:9-13).

Agur’s prayer speaks to people tempted by luxury and wealth; it also sounds a note of caution that our ethics should not change in times of desperation. Most importantly, in my opinion, this prayer challenges us to know what tempts us and to address that temptation in our prayers by seeking ways to escape rather than opportunities to engage our sin. Prayer should consider whether we control our possessions or whether they possess us. Reflection on how our desires confess our faith in God and how acting on them brings honor (or shame) to God should be a vital part of our preparation for prayer.

  • Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011

O God who sees, Give us brutally clear vision of our strengths and our weaknesses. Help us to know what tempts us and to recognize when you provide a way of escape from temptation. Give us the courage to confess you and to live with integrity. You are the LORD who provides. May you be praised and glorified because of the choices we make. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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A Prayer to the God of My Life

“By day the LORD directs his love, at night his song is with me – a prayer to the God of my life” (Psalm 43:8).

In the 2006 movie Last Holiday, the lead character Georgia, played by the singer/actress Queen Latifah, is a frugal cooking demonstrator at a department store in Louisiana. After a fall at work, she is told that she has a rare brain disease that will kill her within only a few weeks. She cashes in her retirement funds, quits her job, and takes a luxury vacation to a European hotel where one of her favorite celebrity chefs plies his craft. But first, she goes to church. Georgia sings in the choir, and as the group begins to sing, she suddenly shouts out, “Why?!!?“ The cry is her prayer, her call for fire, now captured in the context of a choir’s spiritual. The choir responds to her cry by repeating it as she expands upon it. The whole church is caught up in the rapturous chorus even as Georgia, weighed down by her plaintive prayer, suddenly stops singing and walks out. A second prayer follows, and then a third as the movie nears its end at the resort in Europe.

Georgia, imagined by all to be a wealthy entrepreneur, has become quite popular at the resort because of her wise, witty, humbly but firmly dispensed wisdom. A corrupt retail magnate, seeking to curry favor with two congressmen from Georgia’s own district, discovers that the popular woman actually is a former minor employee at one of his stores. He reveals her identity before the chef and the congressmen, only to have her quietly reply with her truth. His hopes dashed, he takes refuge on a ledge outside a window on an upper floor of the hotel. Georgia and others see him from the parking lot, then she makes her way to the ledge to talk him out his plan to jump to his death. As she sits beside him, she persuades him, and while she is doing so, a fax is rushed to her, telling her that her terminal diagnosis had been in error. As they leave the ledge, she looks up to the heaven and cries out, “You’re so funny. You had me going for a moment there. You’re so wrong.” A mystified onlooker asks, “Who are you talking to?” Her reply is, “God!”

 
Three prayers give structure to the movie. One opens it with lament. The third concludes it with acknowledgement of God’s grace and a suggestion that God may have a sense of irony and humor as he makes his will known. I thought of the verse with which this post began as I reflected on the movie after my wife and I watched it. In the darkest night of the main character’s life, God’s song was with her – “a prayer to the God of [her] life.” Even as she grieved what she believed to be her imminent death God was showing his love. The character learned from her apparent disaster, and in the end rejoiced in the finding of love and the fulfillment of a long-held dream.

 
Faith and prayer sustain us in soul-wrenching times. Our prayer need not be formal nor long. Nehemiah prayed a brief silent prayer before answering an emperor’s question. We may question in anger as we seek to understand. I have endured times of testing, and am in the midst of one that has lasted far longer than I expected even now. When such times have ended in the past, a sense of exhilaration and relief has filled me. At times, I too have wanted to laugh at what seemed to be God’s sense of humor. I was impressed while watching the movie how the character communicated her faith naturally and emotionally. She talked with God and wanted to hear his response. In my own experience, it has seemed that the answer to my prayers came at the moment when I had begun to doubt that it ever would.

 
When we question God’s love, we must keep praying, keep talking to him, as we seek to reconcile our will to his. Are you suffering? Are you doubting? Keep praying, and remember to tell God your grief, how you hurt, and what you believe that he can do. Listen for his song as you lift your prayer to the God of your life.

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Prayer in the Shadow of the Holocaust

Reading Khaled Hosseini’s The Kite Runner awakened memories of my time in Afghanistan. I read a history of Afghanistan while I was deployed there that quoted a British Army officer who visited Kabul. He described it as a garden city whose gardens were more like those of British villages than any other place he had visited in Asia. It was not so when I visited it after forty years of war. The novel encompasses that time of terrifying transformation for Afghanistan. Gender, ethnic, social, and religious prejudices and abuses appear alongside a compelling narrative about how love, faith, and resilience helped some to survive.

 

Within the story too is the main character’s grappling with issues of integrity and character as he seeks his agnostic father’s approval while he studies the Koran and learns Muslim prayers in school. He fails crucial tests of character. He struggles to redeem and forgive himself. In adulthood, as he comes face to face with gripping reminders of his moral failures, he falls to his knees as he remembers how to pray.

 

He prays for forgiveness. He seeks hope for himself and a young boy that he seeks to rescue from sexual abuse. He prays to survive attacks from enemies. He is frustrated by corrupt religious leaders and complicated immigration laws that threaten his rescue attempt. His fears, his struggle with himself and enemies, and his return to a praying faith reminded me of Old Testament psalms of prayer that cry out to God for respite from enemies or confess sin that threatens relationship with God:

 

“My eyes fail, looking for your promise; I say, ‘When will you comfort me?’ … How long must your servant wait? When will you punish my persecutors. The arrogant dig pits to trap me, contrary to your law … They almost wiped me from the earth, but I have not forsaken your precepts” (Psalm 119:82,84-85).

“Restore us, O God; make your face shine on us, that we may be saved. How long, LORD God Almighty, will your anger smolder against the prayers of your people? You have fed them with the bread of tears; you have made them drink tears by the bowlful” (Psalm 80:4-5).

 

As we seek to please God, as we learn to pray from those who have gone before us, we realize, like Amir in The Kite Runner, our sin and our desperate need for God to act on our behalf.  Each of us goes to him in prayer, but like the Psalmist, we pray as individuals within the context of a community of faith. The challenges that I face and the ones that the fictional Amir faced may not be yours, but each of us encounters crises that we cannot solve alone. Many of us do not agree on matters of doctrine, but as we humble ourselves and bow before God in prayer, we submit to His will, even when we protest the situation in which we find ourselves.  Many of the characters in The Kite Runner, including Amir, are Muslim.  His skeptic father fears religious clerics coming to political power. His fears proved to be justified. The horrors and injustices that follow drive Amir to pray to the only God he knows for relief. He seeks and submits as all who seek God must. That submission means that we will pray for others who also need God’s love, especially those who seek him.

 

The author of The Kite Runner unveils injustices that were (and are) reality, that reveal how even “good” people do horrible things, and how some managed to survive, to recover, and to mature in such circumstances. Sexual abuse, ethnic discrimination, corrupt politicians, and bullying all appear. The story at times is quite graphic and horrifying, but such horror has been reality for too many, whether in Afghanistan since the 1970’s, in Germany in the 1930’s and 1940’s, or even in the United States. The Kite Runner somehow still is a story of hope as well as a cry for honesty and compassion.

 

In my own life, I, like many of you, have fought doubts and struggled through desperate situations. We pray, although we may have to battle through our own skepticism to do so.  God calls us, despite our fears, to trust and to obey. He calls us to love and to help others who need him as much as we do. Today is International Holocaust Remembrance Day. Millions suffered died horribly in concentration camps because of their ethnic identity. You and I do not live under threat of incarceration in a Nazi concentration camp, but you may be threatened by persecution and evil where you are. Your life may be at risk. Lets pray together for justice, for hope, and for love to prevail and for the our world to reconcile to a God who so loved the world that he acted to save it through Jesus. Let’s pray that we will be agents for reconciliation, not agents for prejudice and oppression. Let’s pray that we will find unity through our faith in the God who hears.

 

  • Quotations from the Bible are from the New International Version 2011.
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Praying when Doors Close

What do we pray when our spirits are crushed, when circumstances force us to change direction and formulate new plans? Five years ago on January 21st, my day began with a phone call that informed me that my older son had died a few months short of his twenty-eighth birthday. We had had no knowledge of the health problem that caused his sudden death, and still have no reason to believe that he knew. I wrote about my grief then and again last year.

 
David, the great king of Israel, grieved the deaths of several of his sons. He expressed his grief in prayers and songs to the Lord God. David had known great success as a military commander and a king. He united a divided people with his visionary leadership. He led with courage, with love, and with deep religious faith. David brought the Ark of the Covenant to Jerusalem, where he dreamed of building a temple where his people could worship their God. When he told his plans to the prophet Nathan, the prophet initially encouraged him, but then returned to tell him that God did want David, a man of war, to build the temple. Solomon, David’s heir, would build his father’s dream.
David was disappointed. He did not lose hope, in part because Nathan’s message from God promised the continuity of David’s lineage as rulers. He continued to plan the temple and to acquire materials needed for its construction. He organized roles for leaders of worship from among the Levites, who assisted the priests in Israel’s worship assemblies. 1 Chronicles 17 records the prayer he offered after he learned he would not build the temple. David thanked God for honoring him and blessing him. He had risen from humble beginnings to become king. David said,

Who am I, LORD God, and what is my family that you have brought me this far…You, LORD God have looked on me as thou I were the most exalted of men” (1 Chronicles 17:16,17).

David praised God,

 

“There is no one like you, LORD, and there is no God but you, as we have heard with our own ears” (1 Chronicles 17:20).

God’s promises and his blessings in the past gave David courage to pray praises and gratitude at a moment in which he could have raged in frustration. He realized that although a dream would not reach fulfillment as he had imagined, he would not see that dream become a reality, that God would continue to bless him and his family as they humbly sought his will.

 
In times of grief and frustration, anger may blind us to new paths and open doors to replace the cherished goals and plans now denied to us. When we acknowledge who we are in the presence of God, when we continue to thank and praise him for what he has given, we discover that hope remains, that God still has work he has planned for us to do, even if that work is not what we had envisioned. David’s psalms reveal that he prayed at times with desperation and in bewilderment. His laments comfort us because they remind us that God will listen to our sorrow and our anger when we pray in faith, even when loss has damaged and threatened that faith. Like David, I have known grief. I have had to change course as doors closed and detour signs appeared on the road of my life. God’s promises give me courage, as they did David, to keep praying, to keep planning, to keep believing, to keep living. May they do the same for you.

 
• Bible quotations are from the New International Version, 2011.

 

O Lord, our God, in my sorrow and my frustration I cry out to you when it seems that another loved one has departed too soon, when doors for ministry slam in my face. You have shown me great patience and love. You have given me a life filled with adventure, love, and accomplishment. There have been times when I faltered, times when I failed, times when I grieved. In those times, as is the case now, your promises console me. Your past blessings give me hope. Grant that I always be able to hear your voice, to sense the opportunities that you give, to have courage to pray and to walk in the path where Jesus leads. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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