A Prayer for Evening Worshippers

The first time I led singing at church was on a Sunday evening. My father, who was the preacher, and several other men were out of town. A few minutes before the service was to begin, one of the elders tapped me on the shoulder and said, “Mike, you’re the only male member of the church here tonight who can carry a tune. We need you to lead singing. Pick out some songs. Just start them, and the ladies will take it from there.” I was ten years old, and began my public ministry that night.

Thirty years later, I was leading singing again on a Sunday night. However, now I was a U. S. Army Chaplain leading worship at a contemporary worship service, the only Sunday evening chapel service at that post. As I had prepared for that evening, the words of a Psalm I had never noticed made an impact on me:

“Come, bless the LORD, all you servants of the LORD, who stand by night in the house of the LORD! Lift up your hands to the holy place and bless the LORD!” (Psalm 134:1-2).

I used Psalm 134 as the “Call to Worship” reading that evening. Here was a Psalm written for those who serve God in worship settings in evening assemblies. Years have passed since that evening. Even as evening assemblies have waned in attendance and have been phased out in many places, I still enjoy “standing by night in the house of the LORD.”

Recently I finished teaching a group of men on Wednesday nights about how to study the Gospel of Mark inductively. As we learned that we need not be afraid because Christ has risen, we also discussed the urgency of the mission of Jesus. That urgency has dissipated in the hearts of many Christians. We surrender to many distractions. Other activities clamor for our attention and the limited spaces on our calendars. We have difficulty finding time to “lift up {our} hands…and bless the LORD.” Psalm 134 calls us to worship as it did pilgrims to festivals in Jerusalem centuries ago. The words of a distant lyricist call us to stand by night in the assembly of those who worship God, lifting our hands in prayer and our voices in song to our Savior and our God. That’s not all. As the song calls us to sing and to pray, its writer also prays for those who worship the Lord together at night,

“May the LORD bless you from Zion, he who made heaven and earth! (Psalm 134:3).

* Quotations from the Bible are from the English Standard Version.

Lord God, who created heaven and earth, we lift our hands to you in prayer and thank for the privilege to enjoy what you have made. We lift our voices and sing of your majesty; we extol your gracious sacrifice on our behalf – sending your Son to die so that we may live and love. Stimuli bombard us each minute, distracting us from meditation on your goodness. We pray that we may remember the blessing of this psalm, and carve out time to focus entirely on you, even in the evening when it seems there is so much to do. You bless us so richly when we pause and take time to listen to your voice. Thank you for your gracious care and loving redemption. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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A Prayer for Dwelling in Unity

Passion for unity flows throughout biblical narratives and prayers. We may overlook the friction that threatened the confederacy of tribes united around worship of one God and awareness of a common ancestry. The book of Judges records a tragic incident that sparked a civil war that almost annihilated one of the tribes. After the death of King Solomon, the united tribes divide into two nations. Still, the quest for unity remains. As Jesus prayed shortly before the arrest that led to his execution, he prayed that his disciples would be one.

 
Psalm 133 celebrates unity as people of God come together to worship. The festivals of Israel brought together the people and reminded them of what united them. The palms may have been written by King David, or written much later to celebrate his vision for worship. The worshippers sang:

 
1 Behold, how good and pleasant it is
when brothers dwell in unity!
2 It is like the precious oil on the head,
running down on the beard,
on the beard of Aaron,
running down on the collar of his robes!
3 It is like the dew of Hermon,
which falls on the mountains of Zion!
For there the LORD has commanded the blessing,
life forevermore.

Three times the psalm rejoices in anointing as a metaphor for unity: the anointing oil runs down the beard of Aaron the priest, it runs down the collar of his robes, just as the dew of majestic Mount Hermon in northern Israel is said to fall also on the location of the temple, Mount Zion. The Lord blesses, and creates the conditions for, the unity of his worshipers. The unity begins with dwelling together, with community, as we praise our Creator and God. Sadly, we relish discriminating among ourselves and seeking what differentiates rather than what unites us. Rather than seek division, or avoid reconciliation if division already exists, lets meditate on these words, “How good and pleasant it is when brothers dwell in unity.”

Father, help us to understand how we may overcome the pride and envy that divide us. Help us to navigate the difficult paths through controversy to reconciliation and unity. May we discern the ties that bind and seek to repair relationships that have frayed. May we learn again how to pray and to sing together so that we may enjoy your blessing, life evermore. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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A Prayer that We Will Shout for Joy

King David served God with passion. He badly wanted to build a place for worshipping God that would honor his Lord appropriately. David did not get to see his dream come to fruition. Nathan the prophet conveyed to him a message from God that the Lord had not asked for such an edifice, and that David’s hands were too covered with blood to build it. David’s son would build the temple, but David spared no expense to make sure that all the materials were obtained, the plans made, and the roles for temple servants arranged. Psalm 132, sung by worshippers preparing to worship at or traveling to the temple, is a prayer that calls on God to remember David’s fervent desire to build a dwelling place for the Lord. The psalm calls on God to honor his promises to David and to bless those who serve or worship in that place:

“Remember, O LORD, in David’s favor, the hardships he endured, how he swore to the LORD, and vowed to the Mighty One of Jacob, ‘I will not enter my house or get into my bed; I will not give sleep to my eyes or slumber to my eyelids until I find a place for the LORD, a dwelling place for t he Mighty One of Jacob’” (Psalm 132:1-5).

The news resounded throughout the land, and so they, the worshippers and singers, went to worship the Lord in Jerusalem, saying, “Let us go to his dwelling place let us worship at his footstool.” The passages that describe the dedication of the temple make it clear that God is not confined to it. His name dwells there. He shows his glory there. Specifically, his presence is associated with the ark of the covenant, above which he dwells. Verses 8-10 are almost identical to the last verses of 2 Chronicles 6. They seem to describe what was sung as the Levites took ark of the covenant into the temple at its dedication:

“Arise, O LORD, and go to your resting place, you and the ark of your might. Let your priests be clothed with righteousness, and let your saints shout for joy. For the sake of your servant David, do not turn away the face of your anointed one” (Psalm 132:8-10).

A prayer for the entry of God’s presence into the house of worship segues into a petition on behalf of his priests and his holy ones or saints. The worshippers pray for the priests, those serving in the temple. This part of the psalm gets more involved for Christians. In 1 Peter 2:9, the apostle informs Christians, “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, a people for his own possession, that you may proclaim the excellencies of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light.” As Christians read, pray, or sing this psalm today, the words become a request that God will clothe us with righteousness, and let us shout for joy as his people. Psalm 132 reminds also that God had promised that David’s lineage will reign forever. The New Testament picks up this promise by linking it to a descendant of David, Jesus, who also in a spiritual sense is a king like David. Psalm 132 ends with a response from the Lord that affirms that the prayer of the worshippers has been heard. God will grant their (and our) request:

“This is my resting place forever; here I will dwell, for I have desired it. I will abundantly bless her provisions; I will satisfy her poor with bread. Here priests I will clothe with salvation, and here saints will shout for joy. There I will make a horn to sprout for David; I have prepared a lamp for my anointed” (Psalm 132:14-17).

God has prepared for his anointed (Christ means “anointed”). He clothes his priests (Christians) with salvation and his saints shout for joy.. Psalm 132 reminds the worshipper of God’s presence and care. Its words affirm that God keeps his promises. They celebrate salvation and joy. The psalm, however, begins with a prayer that God will remember David’s hardships. We may pray, too, that he will acknowledge our own work and sacrifice on his behalf. Nehemiah also asked the Lord to remember what he had done for God’s people Israel (Nehemiah 5:19). Psalm 132 anticipates the victory of God’s anointed, his Christ, his Messiah. When we read this psalm, we remember that being a priest or servant for God requires living up to high standards of righteousness and holiness.

  • Bible Quotations are from the English Standard Version

O Lord, remember our service on your behalf and the sacrifices we have made. Remember losses we have suffered and pain we have incurred. Remind us that you have healed our hurts and have commissioned us to be your priests and holy ones. Increase our joy as we meditate on our forgiveness and the reality of our salvation. Suffering and temptation distract us. They sadden us and we forget your love; we begin to doubt. We pray that we will shout for joy when we remember what you have done for us. Thank you for Jesus, your Messiah, descendant of David, but even more your Son. In his name we pray, amen.

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Like a Child with Its Mother

A sense of entitlement can mar our prayers as we worship God. If I believe I deserve more, that I have earned more than I have received, I will approach life and prayer with anger. On the other hand, I may pray as if there is no need to do so, because I can claim what I want through my own initiative and hard work. The early chapters of Genesis describe the first humans eating forbidden fruit because they wanted to be like God and building a tower to heaven because they wanted to be equal to God. In our postmodern times, we may focus so much on achieving goals, playing games, or building wealth that we neglect to think about God, much less pray to or worship him. We trust ourselves (and perhaps no one else). In our desire for privacy we lock others out, including our Savior. Psalm 131, sung by pilgrims on their way to the temple in Jerusalem, describes the proper frame of mind for entering worship:

“O LORD, my heart is not lifted up; my eyes are not raised too high; I do not occupy myself with things too great and too marvelous for me. But I have calmed and quieted my soul, like a weaned child with its mother; like a weaned child is my soul within me. O Israel, hope in the LORD from this time forth and forevermore” (Psalm 131:1-3 ESV).

I reflected yesterday on conversations I had had with my mother. She loved to learn, and confessed to me once that that what she loved most about talking to me once I had reached adulthood was that she always learned something. Perhaps she did, but what I enjoyed about those conversations was the knowledge that my mother wanted to know what interested me and cared deeply about the condition of my soul. We had calm conversations, even when we disagreed, which I usually could sense even if she did not express her dissent verbally. Those conversations with my mother inform my perspective on this psalm. When I pray or when I preach, awareness of my need for God will calm my anger and soothe my soul. There have been times when I prepared to preach that I was quite agitated about obstacles I was confronting in my life. Anger mingled sometimes with arrogance and distracted me from my mission of showing people the way to Jesus. On good days, I caught myself, and engaged in intense, even if short and private, prayer to God to have mercy on my and to heal my pain, to calm my soul so that I could communicate his love and reveal a reason to hope in him now and forevermore.
• Quotations from the Bible are from the English Standard Version.

O Lord, the challenges and disappointments that crowd into our days sometimes push aside our focus on you and your Son. Anger and our yearning for more cause us to trip, to stumble in our following of you. Help us to control our passion and to use it for the purposes you desire. May we have the confidence when we worship that a young child has as he or she walks alongside a loving parent. May we know your purpose for us and discern the work you have planned for us to do. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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When We Hesitate to Pray

“Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances, for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18 ESV)

When we encounter obstacles in life, we may hesitate to pray. I remember a time in my life when I was angry at God and frankly did not want to talk to him, although I was willing to listen and read my Bible daily during that dismal period in my life. Do we fail to pray because we believe the help will not come in time? Do we fail to pray because we believe God is not able to help? Do we fail to pray merely because we are so very angry? I encourage you to ask yourself these questions, and to resume praying with increased conviction that God is able to help, and will provide help in time. As a nineteenth century preacher in Indiana observed when President Grant declared a national day of prayer during a cholera epidemic, Christians don’t need a “national day of prayer” to pray; we already pray without ceasing.

O Lord, our God, in the midst of trials it seems difficult to rejoice. Only when we realize that this moment of darkness precedes the dawning of new opportunities and greater challenges do we know that we can pray confidently and anticipate with eager joy what you will reveal to us. Thank you for sustaining us in bleak circumstances. Thank you for equipping us to overcome and to move forward, difficult though that may seem. In Jesus’ name, amen

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Praying on the National Day of Prayer

I attended a National Day of Prayer event at Fort Leavenworth, Kansas, today.  It was an inspiring event. From the singing of the National Anthem to the prayers to Chaplain (Colonel-Retired) Scott McChrystal’s well-spoken remarks to the concluding chorus of God Bless America, it was an uplifting experience. I appreciated a First Infantry Division Band quintet playing “Salvation Is Created,” a work composed by Pavel Tchesnokov, a Russian composer.  In 1976, I sang that song with the Freed-Hardeman College (now University) A Cappella Singers. Its haunting musical movement still reinforces in my mind the mystery and glory of God’s intervening in human affairs to effect spiritual and social transformation through Christ. Today, we concluded the event with a prayer we sang together, “God, Bless America.”  That writer of that hymn of prayer intended no ill towards other nations. Its lyrics are a prayer that people pray for this one particular nation.  Several soldiers led prayers.  Among those prayers was a prayer specifically for the nation at this point in its history.

In his remarks, Scott McChrystal reflected on how a military chaplain’s prayer for a young ailing soldier many decades ago had benefited him.  As the chaplain prayed for this young man that he believed was dying, he prayed for his healing and his readiness to meet God.  The soldier told the chaplain to go away; he wasn’t about to die that day. The soldier was Chaplain McChrystal’s father, who went on to a long, distinguished military career before dying at age 89. Chaplain McChrystal reflected on the benefit of that earlier chaplain’s prayer, and of subsequent prayers in time of family crisis, as being indication of why we should pray.  He asserted that God hears and answers prayer.  Then he asked,

“If God hears and answers prayer, why do we not pray more?”

He challenged us to ask ourselves that question and to identify that for which we would pray if we prayed more. From my perspective, sometimes we act like soldiers who are surrounded by the enemy but refuse to communicate with headquarters and ask for reinforcements or covering fire.  We don’t call for fire, and so, often, rescue does not come.

Today is a National Day of Prayer in the United States. Even if you did not attend a prayer event today, I encourage you to pause and pray now for yourself, for your family and friends, for our nation, and for God’s message of reconciliation to spread in our world. If you are not an American, please pray for our nation, and pray for God to bless yours as well. Live with love. Seek peace. Obey God. Pray hard, my friends.

O God who creates and renews, look upon our nation and refresh our love for peace and for life. Help us to cherish conversation that challenges each of us to grow in developing moral values and fortitude that will build cohesion in an age of controversy and lies. Sharpen our minds so that we will seek knowledge of your will, so that we will remember to pray. When we pray, give us wisdom so that we may choose our words carefully as we approach you, our Creator and Sustainer. In Jesus’ name, amen.

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Praying with Desperate Repentance

“Out of the depths I cry to you, O LORD! O Lord, hear my voice! Let your ears be attentive to the voice of my pleas for mercy!” (Psalm 130:1-2)

That prayer of desperation begins a song sung by pilgrims on their way to Jerusalem’s temple. Psalm 130 is a remarkable prayer, one easily prayed or sung by either an individual, a congregation, or a nation. Some prayers that cry out with desperation are based in a sense of abandonment, an awareness that God does not seem to be listening that is accompanied by fear because the psalmist does not understand why God does not hear.
This psalm confesses the sins of God’s people and acknowledges that if God were to hold transgressors fully accountable, no one would have hope of forgiveness. Some depict the God of the first testament as an angry judge, but this prayerful psalm addresses a deity of grace and love who redeems his people:

“If you, O LORD, should mark iniquities, O Lord, who could stand? But with you there is forgiveness, that you may be feared…O Israel, hope in the LORD! For with the LORD there is steadfast love, and with him is plentiful redemption. And he will redeem Israel from all his iniquities” (Psalm 130:3-4, 7-8).

God’s capacity for love and forgiveness can overwhelm. When we expect rejection and judgment, acquittal moves us to tears of joy and even denial. Like the prodigal son of Jesus’s parable, the spiritual rebel may expect to be treated like a second-class citizen or a slave. This prayer anticipates the fulfillment of the promise made to Abraham that through him all nations would be blessed and remembers the revelation of God’s character to Moses that God is “a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness”(Exodus 34:6). God’s amazing grace provokes reverential fear, for we cannot fully understand it.

“I wait for the Lord, my soul waits, and in his word I hope: my soul waits for the Lord more than watchmen for the morning, more than watchmen for the morning” (Psalm 130:5-6).

The prayer of this psalm confesses God’s love and trusts that God will keep the promises that he has made to his people through his word. The gospel proclaims that God hears our cries for rescue and that he has acted in love through Jesus to save. This prayer  anticipates that act of love. We still cry out of the depths to the Lord, whether from fear of drowning when overwhelmed by life, or from confession of the darkness of our rebellion. John Donne, English preacher and poet, in his own masterful poem of prayer, “A Hymn to God the Father,” concludes by confessing, like Psalm 130, both fear and hope in the presence of sin:

I have a sin of fear, that when I’ve spun
My last thread, I shall perish on the shore;
But swear by Thyself that at my death Thy Son
Shall shine as He shines now and heretofore;
And having done that, Thou has done;
I fear no more.

God hears. Let us trust and obey.
• Bible quotations are from the English Standard Version

 

O Lord, in darkness and shadows where we have walked in rebellion, your light blinded us with its brilliance. We shrink sometimes still, hesitating to believe your pursuing love and willingness to renew what we consider unrepairable. The Law, the prophets, the gospels, and the apostles reveal you to us, a judge who loves and forgives. We pray, and wait in fear and reverence. We worship you and pray in the name of your Son and our Savior, Jesus, amen.

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